Avengers #56 (September, 1968)

By July, 1968, my eleven-year-old self had decided he liked the Avengers, but, apparently, not quite enough yet to commit to buying their book every single month.  I’d bought my first Avengers comic (which also happened to be my very first Marvel comic), issue #45, almost a whole year previously, but had then waited until the following April to pick up my second, #53 (which also featured the X-Men, making it a bargain from a “more heroes for the money” perspective).  But even though I was already a regular buyer of two other Marvel comics (Amazing Spider-Man and Daredevil) by that time, I continued to hedge my bets on Avengers, for whatever reason.

Probably, it’s because neither of those Avengers issues had featured a story that continued into the following issue, as both Amazing Spider-Man #59 and Daredevil #39 — my first issues of those two series — had done.  By the time those two latter titles had each wrapped up three-issue story arcs in their respective issues #61 and #41, I was hooked enough on the main characters, and the subplots involving them and their supporting casts, to want to see what happened in their next issues.  In contrast, neither of the Avengers comics I’d bought thus far, as enjoyable as they’d been, had provided a compelling hook to bring me back for the next one.  It’s possible, of course, that I simply never saw copies of Avengers #54 or #555 for sale — as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I didn’t necessarily get to the Tote-Sum, or one of my other comics outlets, every single week — but since I was managing to score my copies of Spidey’s and DD’s books every month, it seems more likely that I did see ’em, and simply opted to pass. 

In retrospect, of course, that wasn’t exactly the smartest decision I ever made.  I missed a two-part story that featured the debut of the “New” Masters of Evil (not that I knew anything yet about the old ones, of course) — plus the second appearance of the new, heroic iteration of the Black Knightplus the very first appearance of someone who’d turn out to be one of the most important and durable villains in the Marvel Universe, namely Ultron.

But what’s past is past, right?  (And it’s not like I couldn’t pick up those comics later as back issues — which, indeed, I eventually did.)  At least I had the sense to buy issue #56 when I had the chance.

And what convinced me to buy this issue, when I’d ignored the last two?  I’m almost certain it was the simple but dramatic cover by John Buscema, and its focus on the figures of Captain America and Bucky Barnes.

Cap had been a member of the Avengers when I’d bought issue #45, but he’d left the team by my next issue, #53.  Just within the previous month, however, I’d purchased my first issue of the Star-Spangled Avenger’s own series, which had included a fabulous (if brief) World War II flashback sequence featuring Cap and his youthful partner in action.  That issue had also made reference to Bucky’s wartime demise, though without giving any details.  The cover of Avengers #56 promised not just Cap’s return to the pages of his old team’s book, but perhaps the return of Bucky, himself, from the Great Beyond — or, if not quite that, at least some more information about what had happened to the guy twenty-plus years before.  How could I pass that up?

The credits on the comic’s first page told me that the story had been produced by the same writer and penciler who’d done those jobs on my last Avengers issue, namely Roy Thomas and John Buscema.  The inker’s name, George Klein, was unfamiliar to me, though I was already quite familiar with his work; he’d been the inker for virtually every Curt Swan-penciled story in DC Comics’ “Superman family” line of comics that I’d ever read, including one in my very first comic book, way back in August, 1965.  But since the editor of those Superman comics, Mort Weisinger, never included creator credits, I didn’t actually know his name.  Thus, I wouldn’t learn until years later that this unknown artist who was one of my favorite inkers at DC was one and the same as Klein, who’d soon be one of my favorite inkers at Marvel as well.  And I wouldn’t learn until many years after that — not until relatively recently, in fact — that the main reason Klein was now working at Marvel was that DC’s new editorial director, Carmine Infantino, had eased him (and a number of other freelancers) out, in hopes of developing a “new look” for the Superman line.  Unfortunately, Klein wouldn’t have the opportunity to produce nearly as much great work for Marvel going forward as he had for DC over the last decade; sadly, the veteran artist would die from cirrhosis of the liver in 1969, just six months after getting married.

Between them, Buscema and Klein produced a strikingly moody splash page, whose effectiveness is enhanced by the incorporation of the story’s title into the artwork — an old artistic device for comics, but one which Marvel used very sparingly in those days.  (For the record, Roy Thomas takes credit not only for the idea, but also for actually hand-lettering the title onto the bridge, per his introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Avengers, Vol. 6.)  The title itself refers to a famous sonnet by the English poet John Donne, of course (and, perhaps, to John Gunther’s 1949 memoir of the same name, as well) — just the sort of literary allusion that would prove to be a hallmark of Thomas’ work over the next few decades.

The current line-up of the Avengers — Goliath, the Wasp, Hawkeye, and the Black Panther — hadn’t changed since the last time I’d seen them.  Of course, with only four members, the team could hardly afford to get any smaller.  (Though that does beg the question of why John Buscema couldn’t manage to work the Wasp into the set of head-shots that represent the team on this issue’s cover, doesn’t it?  I mean, she’s small — she’d fit!  As it is, however, her absence is a reminder of just how much of a boys’ club superhero comics used [?] to be.)

“Voices can be imitated,” Goliath smugly tells his bow-slinging teammate, “…and codes can be cracked!”  (Hank Pym can be such a know-it-all, sometimes.)  Then he picks up T’Challa, the Black Panther, and hurls him over the castle walls, so that the then-newest member of the Avengers can lower the drawbridge and let ’em all in.

This is probably as good a time as any to acknowledge that there had been one minor change in the Avengers since issue #53 that I haven’t yet mentioned — namely, an alteration to the Panther’s costume.  Having experimented with the coloring of T’Challa’s catsuit in that issue (rendering the highlights in white rather than dark blue), writer/associate editor Roy Thomas had decided to revert not only to the previous color scheme, but had also opted to ditch the half-face mask in favor of a cowl that covered the Wakandan monarch’s whole head.  (The latter change was, of course, a return to Jack Kirby’s original costume design from 1966 — but since I’d never seen the character prior to reading Avengers #53, that detail was lost on me.)  Of course, the Panther’s head-to-toe covering effectively hid the fact that he was black — something which Marvel, having introduced the first black costumed superhero, was actually pretty eager to share.  The following panel — where T’Challa’s blank eye slits are colored brown, rather than the usual white — indicates how Thomas and company were still experimenting with the hero’s “look”:

Eschewing Hawkeye’s offer, the Panther hurls himself right at the tapestry, taking it and the figure behind it to the floor — but then is immediately hurled backwards.  Next, Goliath steps up to enter the fray, and…

When Goliath asks, quite reasonably, why Cap was playing hide-and-seek in the first place, Cap explains that he wasn’t, really — he was just lost in thought about his old partner, Bucky Barnes.  When Goliath then responds by making the uncontroversial observation that Bucky is, er, dead, Cap bursts out with: “Is he, Hank?  Is he??

As you can see from the first panel above, the colorist was still having some trouble remembering that the Panther’s mask was supposed to cover his whole face, now.

As one of those ‘Marvelites-come-lately” referenced in editor Stan Lee’s footnote, I did appreciate the reference to the first appearance of Dr. Doom‘s castle — and his time machine — in 1962’s Fantastic Four #5.  By this time, my eleven-year-old self was happily hoovering up all the Marvel lore I could accumulate; and while I’d yet to read about the diabolical “Doc” Doom in a comic book, I’d seen him in episodes of the Fantastic Four TV cartoon then airing every week on Saturday mornings.  Heck, I’d even seen his castle and time machine, thanks to an episode of that series in which the FF commandeered the device to travel back to ancient Egypt.  (That episode was itself an adaptation of FF #19, by the way; but since the series hadn’t adapted FF #5, viewers had to accept on face value the heroes’ explanation that the villain had left the castle and its contents behind after being defeated by them in some adventure or another.)

Baron Heinrich Zemo, as I would eventually come to learn, was a World War II-era villain, but not a Golden Age one.  He was a “continuity implant” of sorts, having been invented by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the context of their 1964 revival of Captain America in Avengers #4, expressly for the purpose of being the bad guy who was responsible for the death of Bucky Barnes — as shown in this flashback scene from that classic issue:

As you’ll have noticed, the Nazi villain in that scene isn’t named, nor is his visage shown.  Lee and Kirby would take care of that a few months later, in Avengers #6, in which said villain was revealed to have survived “the Big One” and gone into hiding in South America.  The issue also told how Zemo’s mask had become permanently bonded to his face during a battle with Captain America in the Forties, as the unintended result of an action taken by Cap — an event which had driven Zemo insane, and made him an implacable enemy of the Sentinel of Liberty.

Learning in issue #6 that Cap, whom he’d believed long dead, had just been discovered frozen in ice and subsequently revived, Zemo returned to active villainy, forming a alliance with several other villains who were already enemies of the individual Avengers — those selfsame original Masters of Evil that I mentioned a while back.

With both Cap and Zemo having very personal reasons for their enmity, it was a classic set-up for a long-term rivalry; somewhat surprisingly, however (at least in retrospect), Lee and Kirby wrapped things up just nine issues later, in issue #15, having the Baron meet his demise by being killed in an avalanche.  Remarkably, Zemo has remained dead over the following five decades — though he’s made an impressive number of appearances in that time nevertheless, via flashbacks, alternate realities, and, of course, time travel stories like the one currently under our review.  (He was also eventually revealed to have a son, Helmut, who ultimately took up the title and role of Baron Zemo in Captain America #275 [Nov., 1982] and has kept the villainous franchise going as a contemporary concern ever since.)

Of course, my eleven-year-old self didn’t know a bit of that history in July, 1968.  But neither did I realize that many of the details of the episode that the “modern” Cap, Goliath, Hawkeye, and Panther were invisibly observing — such as the Baron’s deployment of a giant android — were brand new to veteran Marvel readers as well:

After all, Cap’s one-page account of this scene back in Avengers #4 had begun with he and Bucky arriving at the drone plane’s location by motorcycle — and wearing ordinary U.S. Army uniforms.  So, what gives, here?

As the battle continues, Zemo fires a shot at Cap.  It harmlessly bounces off his shield, leading the hero to make a crack about his foe having forgotten just how hard that shield is…

At this point, “our” Cap — the one from the present day — is wondering why the hell he ever wanted to relive this event.  (No, of course he doesn’t use the word “hell”.  Language!)

Zemo’s rationale for dressing the unconscious Cap and Bucky in “coarser, common clothes” is pretty thin from my perspective as a sixty-year-old reader, though I’m pretty sure my eleven-year-old self had no problem with it.  Obviously, the real reason he does it is because this brand-new story material will eventually have to dovetail with the beginning of the flashback scene from issue #4, already established as canon.

On the very next page, however, Zemo has his android tie his captives to the drone plane itself — so we’re still some ways from the scenario of the duo racing towards the aircraft on a motorcycle.

Even as a Marvel newbie, my younger self was pretty sure that this wasn’t how things had played out before.

Complications ensue as Zemo activates — and enlarges — a second android he was carrying around in his metal box.  Meanwhile, the noise of battle has attracted the attention of the army base’s sentries, who arrive by jeep just as Goliath sends one of the artificial giants crashing through the hangar’s steel wall:

While these three heroes continue to battle their foes inside the hangar, on the outside Goliath keeps up his solo fight against the second android:

And now, the “new” finally joins up with the “old”, so that events will play out as they must (or, to put it another way, as they did in Avengers #4) — though with the ironic revelation that it’s the action of the time-displaced present-day Cap that, in freeing his past self and Bucky from their bonds, allows history to run its course.

It’s a melancholy ending — though one which a contemporary comics reader can’t help but see as unintentionally ironic, since the absolute certainty of Bucky’s death that Cap achieves in this story would turn out to be completely unfounded in thirty-seven years’ time, when we’d learn that Bucky had survived that explosion, somehow, and had then been transformed into the Winter Soldier.

But way, way before that — back in July, 1968 — we had another mystery to worry about.  What had caused the Wasp to fall asleep at the switch, thus causing her fellow Avengers to take material form in 1945?  And would there be any other repercussions from their apparently inconsequential time-travel mishap?

As the “Special Bulletin!” caption at the bottom of the final panel indicated, those answers would be forthcoming in the Avengers’ “1968 Special”, aka Avengers Annual #2 — “now on sale!”  I’ll be exploring that very issue in this space, in just one short week.  Hope you’ll join me then.

 

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