By August, 1967, I’d been buying and reading comic books for two years — and the books that I had bought were almost exclusively those published by DC Comics, with an occasional Gold Key issue for variety. But in that month, as the Summer of Love (or the Long Hot Summer, take your pick) wound down — I finally broke down and bought my first Marvel Comics Group comic book.
So what the hell took me so long?
It’s entirely possible that I just didn’t see that many Marvel comics on the spinner racks in those first two years of comic-book buying. Prior to 1968, the publisher’s newsstand distribution was controlled by Independent News (a company owned by National Periodical Publications, aka DC Comics — and no, that doesn’t sound like an ideal competitive situation, does it?), which restricted the number of titles that Marvel could release per month. That restriction would be all but completely lifted by early 1968, but in the summer of 1967, it was still in place.
But it’s just as possible, and perhaps more likely, that the Marvel comics that I saw on the stands blended together with all the other books that weren’t DCs (or Gold Keys) — the Archies, the Charltons, the Dells, the Harveys, the Towers, and so on. Check out “The Newsstand” for August, 1967 at Mike’s Amazing World of Comics, and you’ll see that 166 different comic titles shipped to newsstand that month. That’s a lot of comics to sort through, and my younger self tended to look to the validation provided by other media as a guide to what titles might be worth my money and time. The DC superheroes — Superman, Batman, and their pals — were on television, the entertainment medium that everyone that I knew, whatever their age, consumed and enjoyed. Similarly, the only Gold Key titles that I was interested in were the ones based on my favorite TV shows — Daniel Boone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and The Wild Wild West. (Yes, that’s right — I paid no attention whatsoever to the publisher’s original properties, like Magnus, Robot Fighter, and Turok, Son of Stone. My loss, I know.) Beyond the TV-sanctioned output of those two companies, everything else was — well, everything else.
“But wait!” I can hear some of you saying. “Weren’t Marvel characters on TV as early as the fall of 1966?” They were, indeed, with Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man, the Sub-Mariner, and Thor all being featured in solo adventures under the umbrella title of The Marvel Super-Heroes — a program best remembered today for its extremely limited animation, largely based on artwork lifted straight from the comics themselves. Not remembered by me, though, because I never saw the show — at least, not during its original run. The Grantray-Lawrence Animation production was a syndicated series, rather than a network one, and my hometown of Jackson, MS only had two television stations at the time. I’m about as sure as I can be, without actually poring over old local TV listings, that the show didn’t air at all in my market.
But even without television exposure, there were other ways I encountered the Marvel brand beyond simply seeing their books on my local spinner racks. There were ads in DC’s own comics, such as those for the Captain Action action figure (whose alternate identities included Captain America and Sgt. Fury as well as Superman, Batman, and Aquaman), and for Aurora plastic model kits, which featured the Hulk and “Spiderman” as well as Wonder Woman and Superboy.
And there were also the “Marvel Mini-Comics”, tiny little black-and-white booklets (not really comics, honestly) that one could acquire by dropping a few coins in a gumball machine (ubiquitous in the grocery stores, five-and-dimes, drugstores, barber shops, etc. of that era) I’m pretty sure I picked up the Hulk one, and maybe others, some time before I ever bought a “real” Marvel comic.
And then, finally, there were paperback books. I loved browsing the paperback racks at Miller’s Department Store, and I did it every chance I got, even if practically all I ever actually bought were reprints of comics — such as the black-and-white Batman reprints from Signet that I’ve discussed in an earlier post, or spinoffs from Mad magazine like Don Martin’s The Adventures of Captain Klutz, or the collections of Peanuts comic strips published by Fawcett. And so it was that I eventually came across the Marvel Comics reprint books that Lancer brought out in 1966 and 1967, featuring the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and others — and even if I wasn’t quite ready to gamble 50 cents on any of those characters yet, the simple fact that the books looked so much like those Signet Batman books served as an indication to me that the Marvel super-heroes were moving up in the world.
And then, sometime in the summer of 1967, I caught sight of the paperback book whose cover you see to the left: The Avengers Battle the Earth-Wrecker, written by veteran comics scripter Otto Binder. This was the first prose novel featuring Marvel characters ever published, and thus, of necessity, the first such I’d ever seen (although I was already familiar with the concept of comic-book-hero prose fiction, having read and enjoyed 1966’s Batman vs. 3 Villains of Doom). I can recall being impressed by the cover’s painted art and the typography, both of which were reminiscent of the covers of the Doc Savage paperbacks that the Avengers novel’s publisher, Bantam Books, was bringing out at the same time — though, just as with Lancer Books’ Marvel comics reprints, I wasn’t quite so impressed as to pony up 50 cents for the book. (I would eventually buy it several years later, after it had gone out of print, by which time it would cost me significantly more than 50 cents.)
The Avengers Battle the Earth-Wrecker was published in June, 1967 — and, just a month later, was followed into print by the comic book you see to the right. I can remember my attention being arrested by the sight of this book on the spinner rack, probably more so than any Marvel comic that had preceded it — which leads me to believe that I’d already seen and admired the cover of Earth-Wrecker when I first saw Avengers Annual #1. The group of heroes portrayed on this cover had a lot of overlap with the ones on that one, obviously, but there were additional heroes shown here, including a couple — Thor and Iron Man, whom, like Captain America, I’d also seen on the covers of other, non-Avengers comics — which probably helped me conceive the not-entirely-inaccurate notion that the Avengers were kinds sorta Marvel’s version of the Justice League of America.
The cover copy was intriguing as well, with the phrase “The original Avengers join today’s Avengers” promising a glimpse into a mysterious, heretofore unimagined comic-book history that appealed to me in the same way that DC’s callbacks to the Golden Age of Comics in their “Earth-Two” stories did. And the “King-Size Special!“, “biggest“, “Bonus!” blurbs didn’t exactly leave me cold, either. Still… twenty-five cents for a book full of characters I didn’t know? As with the Earth-Wrecker novel, I ultimately decided to give the Annual a pass (though, as with the Earth-Wrecker novel, in later years it would be mine.)
But then, mere weeks later, there appeared yet another Avengers publication. And this one cost only twelve cents. The cover featured all the heroes who’d appeared on the Earth-Wrecker cover, and most of those on Avengers Annual #1. And while I don’t remember this for certain, I suspect that, still undecided, I picked the book up off the rack, opened it to the first page…
… and, seeing still more of the Avengers who’d been on the annual’s cover, was sold.
But, however it came to pass, it was on that day — “a day unlike any other”, for sure — that I laid a dime and two pennies down on the convenience store counter, and, for the very first time… Made Mine Marvel.
Looking back at Avengers #45 from the perspective of fifty years later, one can see many ways in which it’s a typical Avengers comic book of its era — and, more broadly, a typical Marvel comic. And you can pick up some of that just by examining the splash page reproduced above.
For example, as its breezily written credits box indicates, “Blitzkrieg in Central Park!” was written by Roy Thomas, one of the first writers to succeed editor Stan Lee on a feature the latter had helped create. Thomas had begun his soon-to-be-classic run with issue #35, in 1966, and he would continue on as scripter through #104, in 1972. The issue’s pencils, meanwhile, were by Don Heck, whose history on Avengers went back even further than Thomas’ — all the way back to 1964’s issue #9, in fact. Inks were by Vince Colletta, who’d been working for Marvel since the mid-Fifties (when it was Atlas Comics). And Sam Rosen, a Marvel mainstay since at least 1962, did the lettering.
The lettering? I’d never seen a credit for lettering in a comic book before this one, and I’m not sure I’d ever even given any thought as to how a writer’s words actually got onto the drawn pages of a comic. Within the next year or so, however, I would come to have a favorite letterer — and, as it turns out, it would be Sam Rosen, himself — “fumbling fingers” or no. (Sorry, Artie Simek fans.)
And another thing that I would soon come to learn was typical, not only of Avengers, but of all Marvel’s superhero comics — as the story’s title’s reference to Central Park signaled, this tale wouldn’t take place in some fictional city, the way that DC’s comics were set in Metropolis, Gotham City, Central City, and the like — its action, like that of the majority of tales in the Marvel Universe, would play out in the real-life urban setting of New York City.
In other ways, however, this was an atypical issue of Avengers (if not of Marvel Comics more generally) and some of those ways are also evident from the splash — or would have been, at least, for the book’s regular readers back in 1967. For one thing, none of the three characters featured soaring through the skies of Manhattan — Thor, Iron Man, and Hercules — was an officially serving member of the group at the time. For another — although Don Heck had enjoyed a long tenure as the book’s regular penciller, he’d actually stepped away from that role with issue #40, to be succeeded by John Buscema (who had in fact drawn this very issue’s cover). Heck had returned just long enough to illustrate the first annual, as well as this follow-up issue, and though he’d return again a year later to help pencil the second annual, he wouldn’t begin another multi-issue stint until #108, in 1973.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that in August, 1967. Nothing was typical, because everything — and everybody — was new to me. Like the two characters I met on the next page following the splash:
In my post about Flash #173 a few weeks ago, I mentioned that the villain of that issue, Golden Man, was probably the first so-called “mutant” I ever encountered in comics. But here was the real deal — not just one, but two examples of Marvel mutantkind: Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, better known as the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.* In a couple of panels, writer Thomas not only introduced me to two members of the Avengers team, but also gave me a quick lesson in Marvel’s take on the mutant concept, including the theme of anti-mutant prejudice that would prove to be central to the long-term success of X-Men and its related titles.
From here, the story follows Wanda and Pietro as they leave Avengers Mansion and fly by snazzy “aero-car” to Central Park, where the Avengers are to be officially honored for saving the world in Avengers Annual #1. There, they meet up with two more members of the team — Hawkeye and Goliath — as well as with the three heroes we’ve already seen on the splash page; we even get a brief reference to the unseen Black Widow, before the tale moves on to the introduction of its villain:
The following panels provide some background for the Super-Adaptoid, explaining via flashback how this artificial being, imbued by the sinister scientific organization A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics) with the ability to absorb and deploy the powers of any superhero he gets close to, had attempted to kill the Star-Spangled Avenger in Tales of Suspense #84. Having only recently learned that Cap survived that attempt, the android is now back to finish the job.
But before that action can start, the remaining Avengers have to arrive; and while we wait, we’ll spend some more quality time with our heroes, in a series of scenes that aren’t really about anything but characterization (the kind of scenes that, while commonplace in the Marvel comics of 1967, were virtually unknown to me as a DC reader):
Hawkeye’s comment about Thor — “a bundle of laughs, ol’ Goldilocks ain’t!” — might come as a surprise to modern fans of the Thunder God who didn’t start reading about him until, say, Matt Fraction’s Thor run, or whose conception of the hero has been mostly formed by Chris (“He’s a friend from work!”) Hemsworth’s cinematic portrayal. But the Sixties version of the Mighty Thor, though allowed the occasional riotous celebration in Asgard (especially in the “Tales of Asgard” back-up feature by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), was a pretty sober fellow most of the time. Lee seems to have taken the Shakespearean speech patterns he’d given the character as inspiration to provide Thor with dialogue espousing the loftiest of virtues and the noblest of sentiments — indeed, when it came to purity of heart, Lee’s Thor gave even the Silver Surfer a run for his money (the devilish Mephisto, as you may recall, wanted both heroes’ souls).
In our current tale, Thor is starting to feel a little grumpy because it’s taking so long to get this show on the road, and he has important godly business to which he must needs attend, dontcha know. About this time, however, one of the remaining two Avengers finally makes her appearance:
This scene introducing Janet van Dyne, the original Wasp, not only told my ten-year-old self what her powers were (well, one of them, anyway), but also let me know that she was newly rich — and that she was the girlfriend of Hank Pym, aka Goliath. All good info for a new reader to have.
The middle panel above offered something else I wasn’t used to as a DC reader — an in-story plug for another comic book then on sale. For, while DC regularly promoted its other current offerings in any given book’s house ads, and “editor’s note” captions within a tale that referred to previous stories were pretty common, the company’s comics hardly (if ever) combined the two concepts. It may seem like a small thing today, but in the Silver Age of Comics it was a significant means by which Lee and the other creators at Marvel helped build the idea of a coherent, inter-connected universe.
And that’s it for Goldilocks and Shellhead. I guess editor Lee was being honest in not featuring them on the cover.
Was my ten-year-old self disappointed by their abrupt departure? Probably not. I understood that they were “stars” in a way that Hawleye and Hercules and the others weren’t — but all the characters were new to me. I knew not a thing about any of the Avengers, be they old or new, headliner or second-stringer — including the guy who finally shows up in the next panels:
(You’ll note that Lee and Thomas manage to sneak yet another plug into the story as Captain America joins his teammates — this one for Tales of Suspense #95. “Sly ol’ Stan”, indeed.)
Hercules’ induction into full Avengers membership is an unexpected development in the story — or at least it was for me, and my DC-shaped comics reading sensibilities, back in 1967. After all, when the Justice League brought somebody new on board, they heralded the news on the cover! (Heck, they did that even when a prospective new member turned them down.)
Finally! All that characterization stuff is fine, but after 8 pages, it’s time for some action, y’know?
… although the first panel of the long-delayed (if inevitable) fight scene falls a little flat, to be honest, with the figure of the Super-Adaptoid crammed into a small area of the drawing as he goes into action for the first time — a demonstration of the veteran penciller Heck’s limitations as a superhero comics illustrator, I fear.
Next up in our story — seeing his deployment of Iron Man’s repulsor rays countered, the Super-Adaptoid changes tack and shoots up to giant-size. This leads into a couple of pages’ worth of colossal battle (pun intended) as Goliath leaps to the defense of his teammates, as well as the fleeing crowds of innocent bystanders. Unfortunately for Hank Pym, however, his android foe is perfectly capable of using more than one hero’s powers at a time:
Whoa! Never having met Goliath before, my ten-year-old self had no idea that Hank Pym was also Ant-Man.
The next couple of pages provide one of the more unusual sequences I’d yet seen in a comic, as Hank and the Super-Adaptoid (soon joined by the Wasp) battle, mostly off-panel, at a size too small for either we readers or the Avengers themselves to see — leading the team to stand around stock-still for fear of crushing one of their comrades underfoot.
That is, until Janet van Dyne proves she’s not quite as flighty as the scene introducing her might have led you to believe (though she flies very well, thank you), by cleverly grabbing hold of the Super-Adaptoid and then, before he has a chance to react, resuming her normal size:
A smart gambit, even if it didn’t pan out.
Next up is Hawkeye — whose blast arrows prove predictably less than efficacious against a foe as strong as Thor and Hercules, who also happens to be armored as well as Iron Man — and then, after him, Captain America:
As Hawkeye had made a remark on the preceding page about Steve Rogers’ lack of “any real super-powers“, my ten-year-old self already knew that Cap was seriously outmatched by his foe — but I was still pretty impressed by how he handled himself, and that shield.
Using the Scarlet Witch’s hex power to keep Cap’s teammates at bay, the Super-Adaptoid hammers away at his foe. It’s starting to look pretty bad for Cap, but then a voice calls out: “Hold, thou basest of villains!” (Three guesses who.)
The preceding sequence allowed my ten-year-old self a glimpse of what the Scarlet Witch’s mysterious hex power was all about, leaving her brother Quicksilver as the only Avenger left whose powers I’d not yet seen in action — though that, of course, was about to change:
As I’d surmised from the cover, Quicksilver is not only a speedster, but can also fly. Gee whiz, the Flash can’t even do that!
But, as becomes clear, Pietro has a plan beyond using his own powers — one which involves all the Avengers attacking the Super-Adaptoid at once, which momentarily overwhelms him:
(Yeah, what’s up with the attitude, Pietro? We’re all on the same side here, bro. Um, aren’t we?)
And that’s that, boys and girls. The Super-Adaptoid goes down in defeat, never to rise to threaten our heroes again (yeah, right). All that’s left to do is to get back to the joyous “Avengers Day” celebration that our bad guy so rudely interrupted:
The story’s last caption/next-issue blurb points out one last aspect of “Blitzkrieg in Central Park!” that’s atypical for 1967, not only for the Avengers title, but for Marvel as a whole — namely, that despite picking up right after Avengers Annual #1, it’s essentially a done-in-one story. There’s no cliffhanger, or other narrative hook to compel the reader to buy the next issue to find out what happens next.
Which, perhaps, is one good reason why I didn’t get around to sampling Avengers again until April, 1968. I think that my ten-year-old self enjoyed issue #45 just fine, but the few subplots that surfaced in the course of the story — the Black Widow’s hospitalization and (planned) retirement, the hint of a possible romantic triangle involving Goliath, the Wasp, and Hercules, and (most ominously) Quicksilver’s mounting bitterness over anti-mutant prejudice — weren’t, on their own, enough to bring me back the following month — either to Avengers, or to Marvel.
There might be a crack in the wall of my resistance, now, but I was still pretty solidly a DC guy at heart as the summer of ’67 wound down. But fall was on its way, which meant a whole new slew of television cartoons were soon to begin airing on Saturday mornings… like the ABC shows promoted in the advertisement below, printed as a double-page spread in the center of Avengers #45:
I might have missed out on 1966’s Marvel Super-Heroes syndicated series, but come September, I would be seeing Marvel characters on TV. And when I finally got around to buying my second Marvel comic book, a few months hence, it would, unsurprisingly, feature a certain friendly neighborhood arachnid.
But, that’s a post for another day. For now — ’nuff said.
*Yes, friends, I am aware that in today’s comics, Wanda and Pietro are no longer mutants. Don’t get me started.