Fifty years ago, the decision to spend twenty-five cents on the comic book that’s the subject of today’s post was pretty much a no-brainer for my eleven-year-old self. I had already bought and read that month’s regular monthly issue of Avengers, which I had enjoyed a great deal — and while that issue’s main plotline was mostly resolved by the story’s last page, there were some tantalizing loose ends left hanging, that a caption in the last panel assured readers would be tied up in the title’s “1968 Special — now on sale!”
But even if that hadn’t been the case, I expect I would have snatched up Avengers Annual #2 simply based on its spectacular John Buscema – Frank Giacoia cover. “The New Avengers vs. the Old Avengers!” Two superhero teams for the price of one (even if it did look like a couple of the heroes were doing double duty on both teams). How could I pass up a deal like that?
The cover is, of course, one of the earliest examples of what would, in a relatively short time, a staple of super-team comic book covers — the depiction of two parallel line-ups of heroes squaring off against each other. The template for all such covers had been established a mere year before, with the classic Carmine Infantino – Murphy Anderson cover for Justice League of America #56.; and it had been used for another Avengers cover, also by John Buscema, just three months previously. And, like both of those covers, as well as virtually all the similar ones that would follow, it raised the single burning question: Did the one-on-one hero match-ups work, in terms of providing a “fair” contest of powers and/or abilities?
Admittedly, I was at something of a disadvantage “calling” the fairness of the match-ups on both of the Avengers covers, at least as compared to the JLA cover, since, in 1968, I was still a fairly newly-minted Marvelite, and as such had a relatively limited familiarity with the characters. In regards to Avengers #53, I’m not even sure I knew whether the X-Men were heroes or villains — but irrespective of that fact, I had no idea what any of them could do. Could the Wasp take the redheaded woman in the green and yellow costume? I had no idea, and didn’t attempt to speculate.
The Avengers Annual #2 cover was a slightly different story, however. While I had yet to purchase an issue of Thor, Hulk, or Iron Man — and had seen Thor and Iron Man in action only very briefly in my very first Marvel comic, Avengers #45, and the Hulk not at all (unless you counted the parody version, “The Inedible Bulk”, in Not Brand Echh #9) — I thought I had at least an inkling of their powers, and power levels, based on what I’d been able to glean from Marvel’s text pages — the individual books’ letters columns, as well as the Mighty Marvel Checklist and Marvel Bullpen Bulletins that appeared in each month’s issues. And based just on that piddling amount of knowledge, the “new” Avengers looked to be more than a mite overmatched by the “old” team. I knew, for example, that Thor could fly and was super-strong — so how could Captain America, a highly skilled but non–super-powered hero (a la DC’s Batman) prevail? The same logic held for the Hawkeye-vs.-Iron Man and Black Panther-vs.-Hulk match-ups — a couple of guys with no (or, at best, rather modest) powers going up against other guys with considerable powers seemed to have no chance of winning in a fair fight. Given that Goliath and Wasp were matched against what seemed to be earlier versions of themselves, and thus each pair should more or less cancel the other one out, it didn’t look very good for the home team. But I was still eager to see what would happen. Like I said — it was a great cover.
My first (and greatest) disappointment with the comic thus came pretty much as soon as I’d cracked open the cover, and taken a good look at the first page:
John Buscema — the artist who’d penciled the “lead-in” tale in Avengers #56, as well as Annual #2’s cover — was, alas, nowhere to be found. Instead, we had Don Heck and Werner Roth, both credited simply as “artists” — though Roy Thomas’ introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Avengers, Vol. 6 indicates that the division of labor between them was the same as it had been on X-Men #45, the first half of the two-part crossover story that had concluded in Avengers #53 — i.e., Heck had provided layouts, while Roth was responsible for the finished pencils. And here, just as with that earlier X-Men crossover, I found the work of Heck and Roth on the second half of a continued story considerably less appealing than Buscema’s on the first half. (The inking of Vince Colletta, which seemed to smooth out some of Heck’s angularity in the first comic drawn by him that I’d read, Avengers #45, didn’t seem to help much this time around.) Frankly, my critical assessment hasn’t changed much in the last fifty years; as I noted in my post about X-Men #45 a couple of months back, Don Heck and Werner Roth might have been gangbusters drawing other kinds of comics, such as Westerns or romance stories, but I don’t think they weren’t especially well suited to follow in the footsteps of Jack Kirby on the likes of Avengers and X-Men.
All that aside, however, in July, 1968 my eleven-year-old self was still quite eager to read this story. I was drawn in right away by the unsettling situation confronting our heroes in its first couple of pages:
As you can see from the first panel shown just above, at this time Marvel was still experimenting with ways to let readers know that the newest Avenger, the Black Panther, was, well, black. Having briefly tried outfitting him with a half-face cowl, they’d restored his mask’s original full-face design, but were now attempting to convey his skin color via the cowl’s eye-slits. This issue’s attempt was at least an improvement over that in issue #56, where the eye-slits had been drawn as “blank”, and then colored brown instead of white.
Also worth noting in the same panel is Captain America’s casual reference to “our HQ”. If this happened to be your first issue of Avengers, it’s doubtful you would guess that Cap had recently quit the team, back in issue #47. Indeed, from comments like that one — not to mention the way he’s shown literally fronting the team on these first couple of pages — you might assume that he not only belongs with the Avengers, but that he’s their natural leader. (And that was in truth the case, at least as far as Roy Thomas was concerned. Editor Stan Lee might have decreed that Cap could no longer appear regularly with the Avengers, but it seems that Thomas was determined to get around that dictum whenever, and however, he could.)
But, to move on ahead with our story… Arriving at Avengers Mansion, the team is at first surprised when they’re not greeted by their faithful butler Jarvis, and then are even more surprised when the Mansion’s automated defenses start firing on them. Quickly overcoming the latter, they hurry on through the building towards their meeting room…
Goliath quickly steps forward to unmask the “impostor” Giant-Man — and, wouldn’t you know…
Yes, of course the heroes are going to fight. For one thing, the cover promised they would — and besides, this is a 1960s Marvel comic. What else would they do?
And, it’s worth noting, they square off in the exact same pairings as shown on the cover — and those match-ups prove to be just as lopsided as my eleven-year-old self figured they would be… at least in this round:
It’s a good thing for “our” Avengers that Hawkeye is a sneaky sonuvagun who knows a thing or two about going up against more powerful foes.
But while our team begins to work out a strategy for putting things back the way they’re supposed to be, their OG counterparts back in the Mansion’s meeting room are busy summoning a mysterious ally whom they believe will be able to tell them, in Giant-Man’s words, “who those characters were… and how to find them!”:
Jeez. My eleven-year-old self didn’t know a lot about these old-school Avengers, but I understood the superhero drill well enough to know that something was “off” here, and it wasn’t just a “changed timeline” thing. Thor and the others are just too obsequious towards the mysterious Scarlet Centurion in this scene — not to mention too willing to entertain the idea of killing folks.
And, just in case you’re wondering, the Centurion was as new a character to longtime Marvel readers as he was to me — or, at least, the name and costume were new. But hey, let’s not get ahead of our story…
The Herodotron — aptly named for the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, the “Father of History” — sounds like it would have been a very useful-sounding computer for a superhero team to have on hand in the late Sixties — though, as far as I know, it never made another appearance after this story. (In modern times, of course, our heroes could just use Google.)
The super-computer is presently housed in a university building in Long Island, under armed guard. The new Avengers head straight there, and, after quickly (and gently) overpowering the guards, locate the massive device. Goliath then programs the Herodotron to show Captain America how the world got into its current state:
This scene is a pretty faithful recreation of the final panels of Avengers #2, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby — or, rather, it is until we turn to the top of the next page, and see the timeline trail go off the rails.
(And I’m using the phrase “pretty faithful” instead of “100% faithful” just because of the minor but still noticeable modifications Thomas makes to Lee’s original dialogue for Thor and Hulk in the last two panels of the Annual‘s page 15.)
Cap next sees a scene set a short time after, as the original Avengers discuss whether or not to cooperate with the Centurion up (Thor and Giant-Man are in favor, while Hulk’s skeptical)…
And now we (with Cap) are off to the races, with a front row seat to watch the Original Avengers Beat Up the Marvel Universe — well before Squirrel Girl, Deadpool, Punisher, or even Fred Hembeck ever considered attempting such a thing:
Despite Mister Fantastic’s bravado, the Fantastic Four — blindsided by the sudden surprise attack from folks they thought were their pals — soon fall. And, over the next several pages, so does the rest of the superhero community:
Once the heroes are all down for the count, it’s time to take on the bad guys:
As they stand, these fight scenes are enjoyable — but it’s hard not to think about how much more enjoyable they’d be if they’d been drawn by John Buscema, or, say (since we’re fantasizing, anyway), Jack Kirby, rather than by Heck and Roth. Ah, well.
“The Avengers… acting as virtual dictators!” Thomas’ story has now become a relatively early entry in the “what if superheroes took over the world to solve all its problems?” subgenre, the best-known examples of which are still probably Alan Moore’s Miracleman (or Marvelman, if you prefer), and Mark Gruenwald‘s Squadron Supreme, both of which were published in the 1980s.
Back in the present, Cap comes to the end of his Herodoton History Tour. After filling in his fellow new Avengers on everything he’s seen and heard, he tells them that he believes they may be able to put things back the way they were by using the same device that got them into this mess in the first place — namely, Dr. Doom’s time machine. Unfortunately, said machine has been broken up into pieces and moved to three separate locations — so our heroes will have to break into three teams (of course) to recover them.
Naturally, someone has to ask whether putting things back as they were is, in fact, the right thing to do — because someone always asks that question in this kind of story. This time, it’s the Black Panther and the Wasp who give to voice to everyone’s concerns; in the latter’s words, “If we were guilty of robbing the earth of a virtual golden age — !”
Of course, it’s Captain America who provides the answer — and it’s essentially the same answer that is almost always offered in such stories (Miracleman being the notable exception): Any Utopia that requires the surrender of our personal freedoms isn’t worth the cost.
Like virtually all the other double-length stories that appeared in Marvel’s annual of the Sixties, “…And Time, the Rushing River…” is divided into parts.
Moving along, the second part opens with a full-page splash which also bears its own title blurb:
According to Roy Thomas’ Marvel Masterworks introduction, he asked Don Heck to draw this splash specifically as an homage to Irwin Hasen‘s cover to All-Star Comics #35 (Jun.-Jul., 1947), featuring the Justice Society of America squaring off against the time-traveling villain Per Degaton. That seems particularly appropriate, and not simply because of the time-travel angle, as Thomas states in the same introduction that the whole premise of his Avengers Annual #2 story was conceived as a tribute to the “Earth-Two” stories of DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz, especially those in which DC’s “modern” premier super-team, the Justice League of America, teamed up with their 1940s-era counterparts in the Justice Society.
I don’t doubt for a minute that Thomas was inspired in the way that he states — it makes all the sense in the world that the editor of the fanzine Alter Ego and future creator of the All-Star Squadron would have come up with this storyline in just such a fashion — but I have to say that I have no recollection of my eleven-year-old self making any mental connection between this story and DC’s annual summertime JLA-JSA extravaganzas whatsoever. This was a time-travel story, as far as I was concerned, and the aberrant alternate timeline of the “old” Avengers was a far cry from the JSA’s parallel world of Earth-Two, which, after all, DC had always presented as having as much right to exist as the JLA’s Earth-One. Of course, my being unaware of Thomas’ intent didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the story at all (and for what it’s worth. when the writer tipped his hat to DC’s heroes in a rather more obvious fashion in another issue of Avengers, about a year later, I got it right away).
The first bona fide story page of Part 2 begins with some expository dialogue that helps clarify the current situation somewhat, along with bringing any reader who may have missed Avengers #56 up to date:
“As seen in the current Avengers #56!“, indeed — since the art in the next-to-last panel above appears to be a direct photostat of the John Buscema-George Klein art from the corresponding panel in that book.
As we’re informed in the next panel that follows, one of the three components of Dr. Doom’s time machine is supposedly buried underneath this construction site. “Our” Avengers have split up into three teams to recover the components — and their adversaries have done the same, to counter them. (Gee, this is beginning to sound like an old Silver Age Justice League story, isn’t it?) Thus, Hawkeye and the Black Panther find themselves going up against Iron Man and the Hulk — continuing the (seemingly) way-lopsided one-on-one match-ups introduced on the book’s cover:
OK, so Hawkeye did get his start going up against Iron Man back in the day (though usually in tandem with the Black Widow), so it’s not completely implausible that he manages to take down the Armored Avenger in a page or two — especially since, as he puts it, “I know more about this Iron Man than he does about me” — but it rather strains the bounds of reader credulity for he and the Panther to take down the Incredible Hulk so quickly, “dumb luck” notwithstanding.
But let’s set that aside for now, so we can move on to the second “new” Avengers “team” — a team of one, as it turns out:
Sure, Cap is hopelessly outmatched — I mean, this is as ridiculous a squaring off as, say, Batman versus Superman! The thing is, however, back in the Sixties (and Seventies, and even the early Eighties), the Mighty Thor had his own form of kryptonite:
… which came in the form of the Thunder God’s alter ego, Dr. Donald Blake. The Asgardian Avenger might have been unstoppable by any other Marvel hero (with the possible exception of the Hulk), but if you could keep him away from his hammer for a mere sixty seconds, you’d have only a lame mortal physician to contend with. (And for the record, Doc Blake did not generally dress in bi-colored suits. Fifty years after the fact, I’ve still got no idea what was up with that.)
Next up is our third and final bout, where the “real” Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne have to go up against their other selves to retrieve the third and final time machine component from a ship docked in the harbor. As noted earlier, these should be more or less equal match-ups, with the main distinction between the teams being that “alt” Hank and Jan are completely ruthless, and intent on murdering their counterparts:
Goliath ultimately gets the better of Giant-Man by duping the latter into thinking he, Goliath, is weakening, then suddenly dragging his foe into the drink:
And so, with all our heroes triumphant, it’s time for them to rendezvous back where this whole mess started in Avengers #56 — namely, Doctor Doom’s castle:
After stashing their unconscious captives in a corner, our team proceeds to re-assemble the time machine, while fretting about how their victories came all too easily, and hey, why didn’t the Centurion have “his” Avengers simply destroy the time machine, rather than merely disassemble it?
How about that last panel, huh? If anyone out there has concerns about how Cap’s sudden, intense doubt about Bucky Barnes’ fate seems to have come out of nowhere in Avengers #56, Roy Thomas has you covered.
Thomas also tidily explains (via the Centurion’s information-rich gloating) why the “old” Avengers went all dictatorial and bloodthirsty, and how the villain has used Doc Doom’s time machine components to bait a trap for our heroes.
Things are starting to look pretty darn grim — but then sneaky ol’ Hawkeye pulls another fast one, firing an arrow at the Centurion that “misses” him, but surreptitiously deposits Hank Pym, in Ant-Man mode, at the controls of the time machine:
Gee, that Doctor Doom guy really gets around, doesn’t he? In July, 1968, I had yet to read a comic book where he was the main villain, but I’d already seen him turn up in flashbacks or cameos in several stories, each of which had whetted my appetite to see more of the Latverian monarch.
Doom or no Doom, however, the “wow” factor of the Watcher’s revelations in the story’s final pages might well have been largely lost on me, Marvel novice that I yet was; luckily, though, I was already familiar with Pharaoh Rama-Tut via an appearance on the Fantastic Four television cartoon, so the big reveal of the Scarlet Centurion’s true identity was meaningful even to me. It’s even possible that I realized that the FF had traveled to Rama-Tut’s ancient Egypt by means of the very time machine on which our current story centers — an incidental detail as far as this story is concerned (Thomas’ script doesn’t even bother to mention it, though I’m certain that the continuity-minded writer was well aware of the association), but one that nevertheless helps reinforce the addictive interconnectedness of the Marvel Universe.
On the other hand, the very next panel, in which the Watcher exits while referencing the villain’s eventual return as “Kang the Conqueror!” was essentially meaningless to me — except, of course, as yet another tantalizing tidbit of the historical Marvel lore I was ever more eager to learn more about. I’d have to wait about another year, until Avengers #69, before I’d get a look at this primo Marvel villain in his most familiar guise.
And with that final, ironic line of Captain America, our story is done. We never do see what becomes of the unconscious, defeated “old” Avengers — but since their whole misbegotten timeline has supposedly been wiped out of existence, it hardly matters. Of course, in later years, the “rules” of time travel in the Marvel Universe would be modified and standardized, so that any tampering with the past (or future) would be henceforth understood as irrevocably creating a new, divergent reality. The reality created by the events of this story would itself be eventually be cataloged and labeled as (for whatever reason) Earth-689. But since no one was thinking in those terms in 1968, it’s probably best to forget all about it.
I recall being slightly disappointed with one aspect of the story’s conclusion, fifty years ago — specifically, the notion that neither the Avengers nor the Scarlet Centurion would remember any bit of what had transpired. At the time, I had the vague feeling that this development rendered the story less “real” somehow — placing it just this side of being a dream, a hoax, or an imaginary story, in fact.
Maybe it’s because, a half-century later, I’ve read, or seen, so many stories using the same device, including some really good ones (Crisis on Infinite Earths, “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, etc.) that I’ve become inured to it — but it doesn’t bother me any longer. But even back when it did, I still enjoyed this story a whole lot; today, it remains one of my favorite Avengers tales of the Silver Age.
I still wish John Buscema could have drawn it, though. Hey, maybe on Earth-689…
On the other hand, “Big John” did draw this annual’s iteration of one of the staples of Marvel’s summertime “King-Size Specials” of the Sixties — namely, a pin-up:
As the caption indicates, this double-page spread — probably inked by Bill Everett — features “every single superhero who has ever been a full-fledged Avenger!” (And if you’re anything like me, you’re probably thinking, “Jeez — there were so few of them back then!”) Although, technically, they really should have included the Swordsman (who joined under false pretenses and then was expelled, all in issue #20), or at least explained his absence with a footnote.
Buscema also drew the second, back-up feature in Avengers Annual #2 — a little gem showing off a rarely-seen comic (as in funny) side of the artist, “Avenjerks Assemble!”.
All of Marvel’s 1968 annuals shared a common theme, with each featuring a short, humorous take on how the book’s lead story had been created. This one — written, naturally enough, by Roy Thomas — focused on the simultaneous creation of Avengers #56 as well as Annual #2, which made it as reasonable for Buscema to handle the art as it would have been for Don Heck. Heck does put in an appearance, of course — just as a character in the piece, rather than as one of its creators.
This story, written and drawn in a style I was already familiar with from my perusal of the ninth issue of Marvel’s parody title, Not Brand Echh, gave me what I’m pretty sure was my first glimpse at what any of the Marvel creators actually (well, sort of) looked like. To this day, I can’t help but associate Roy Thomas with love beads, Nehru jackets, and goatees. (Sorry, Mr. Thomas.) And while I don’t think I ever believed Don Heck dressed up like a cowboy in real life, in retrospect it’s fitting to see him introduced in such a costume in this issue, since his talents were probably better utilized on Westerns than on superhero stories.
As the story progresses, we follow Thomas as he ping-pongs between his two co-creators, Heck and Buscema, along the way giving us a humorously exaggerated (but probably not entirely inaccurate) look at the “Marvel method” of producing comic books:
The finale, with both artists rushing to turn their penciled pages in by the deadline, provides a brief look at yet another Marvel Comics maker…
… the head honcho himself — Stan “the Man” Lee! Now that I’d seen Buscema’s caricature, I finally knew what Marvel’s omnipresent “Smilin’ One” looked like.
In truth, however, in just a few weeks I’d have to amend that impression — at least a little — thanks to another version of Lee, as presented in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5. But that, of course, is a post for another day.
NOTE: This post originally stated that both Hawkeye and the Black Panther had “no powers”. Of course, even in 1968, the king of Wakanda possessed the “Panther powers” of enhanced senses, reflexes, speed, and (probably) strength. Many thanks to my old and dear friend Don Goodrum, whose comment, below, raised this issue. The post has since been edited to correct the error.