Avengers #63 (April, 1969)

For younger readers of current comics, accustomed to publishers trumpeting every single guest appearance or “event” tie-in months in advance, the notion of a “stealth crossover” may seem all but incomprehensible.  Yet, that’s exactly what Marvel Comics did in the first quarter of 1969, as they carried over a plotline from the January-shipping issue of Captain Marvel into February’s Avengers (the subject of today’s post) without even so much as an editorial footnote in the first book to let fans know it was happening.  What the heck were they thinking fifty years ago, there at the “House of Ideas”?

But before we get into all that, we need to acknowledge the other two significant events happening in Avengers this month, one “in-story”, and the other behind the scenes, though both were heralded by the cover: the first, a major change concerning the superhero code-named Goliath; the second, the advent of a new regular artist — for after drawing Avengers for most of the last two years, John Buscema was being pulled off of the title to do layouts for Amazing Spider-Man, while Gene Colan was giving up Daredevil to take on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

Colan didn’t sign that cover, however, and I’m not sure that my eleven-year-old self immediately registered that there’d even been a change.  Nor did I immediately grasp what was going on with Goliath, besides the obvious — i.e., the new costume (which had in fact been designed by John Buscema before his leaving the book, according to Roy Thomas’ 2007 introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Avengers, Vol. 7).  Though I probably could have figured out that last bit, if I’d looked carefully at who was featured on the cover in addition to the colossus at its center — and just as importantly, who wasn’t featured.  (Incidentally, the cover could be considered something of a cheat for its inclusion of the “Big Three” — Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America — who appear nowhere inside, not even in a flashback or dream sequence.  But at this late date, I suppose we can allow Colan, as well as inker George Klein, their artistic license.)

Of course, once I hit the opening splash page, there was no longer any doubt that the series had a new artist — and I dunno, I think I might have been able to figure that out just from looking at this image, even before I read the credits:

The story opens with the Blank Panther, the Vision, and Hawkeve — the team’s entire currently-active roster, since the departure of Hank and Janet Pym (aka Goliath and the Wasp) for their honeymoon, following their wedding in issue #60 — unexpectedly finding themselves facing catastrophe, just when they’ve almost made it home from their adventure in Wakanda. (That adventure, featuring the first appearance of the Panther’s adversary M’baku the Man-Ape, had of course been chronicled in the now-classic Avengers #62 — an issue I’d either sadly missed seeing on the racks, or — less sadly, and more stupidly — saw, and opted not to purchase.  Sigh.)

Hawkeye figures that he can save the day by firing a magnetic arrow, with a cable attached, to anchor their airship to Avengers Mansion’s roof — but, when he draws back on his bow…

Crap.  Does this kind of thing ever happen to Green Arrow?

This is an exciting way to open the issue (and fill five pages), no question, even though it doesn’t have a lot to do with the main story (the malfunction of the Wakandan airship is, to the best of my knowledge, never explained) — except, as we’ll soon see, for the bit involving Hawkeye’s failure, and the funk that said failure subsequently drives him into:

As it happens, this wasn’t the first time in recent memory that events had conspired to make Hawkeye feel ineffectual, and even a bit of a joke; back in #60, he’d spent a good hunk of the issue trussed up and hanging on a hook in the mansion’s kitchen next to the Avengers’ butler Jarvis, while the rest of the team was throwing down against the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime.  Writer Roy Thomas was already laying the groundwork for the bowman’s big decision in this issue, so that it wouldn’t come completely out of the blue — at least not for regular (and attentive) readers.

Hank figures he’s got this whole “schizo” thing sorted out now — but alas, the poor guy’s problems are just beginning at this point, as most of you longtime Marvel readers out there well know.

The upgrades to Yellowjacket’s powers make sense, and the costume adjustments (i.e., the addition of the goggles from Hank’s Goliath outfit) provide a sense of continuity between this heroic identity of Dr. Pym’s (his fourth, if you’re counting) and the previous one.  And, of course, it rather necessitates the need for changes to the existing Goliath outfit, so that it doesn’t look too much like YJ’s.  Or, rather, it would, if there still was a Goliath… which there’s not, except, um, in the title of the story, and, oh, yeah, on the cover.  Hmm… I wonder where this is going?

And here’s where our story gets a little crazy.  Nick Fury’s information regarding the Black Widow’s secret mission in the Caribbean, and her failure to report in, might be brand new intel for the Avengers, but it wasn’t for this comic’s readers — at least, not if they’d also read Captain Marvel #12, published the month before.  Which, as it so happens, my eleven-year-old self had.*

As you may recall from my blog post on that very issue, writer Arnold Drake and artists Dick Ayers and Syd Shores had therein detailed how the Black Widow, on orders from S.H.I.E.L.D., had infiltrated a secret base in the Caribbean.  There, she’d uncovered a plot by a mysterious maker of plastic androids to sabotage a moon rocket at a U.S. missile base in south Florida, “the Cape” (Canaveral, by any other name):

Despite Natasha’s bravado, she was quickly overcome by the android-maker’s plastic minions, and unable to halt the attack on the Cape by his super-powered android — the “Man-Slayer” — before it started.  Luckily, however, the base already had a super-powered defender on the premises — the renegade Kree captain named Mar-Vell, aka “Captain Marvel”.  And while Captain Marvel leapt into action, stymieing the Man-Sayer’s depredations, the Widow proved she wasn’t to be counted out just yet:

And that’s the last we saw of Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, in Captain Marvel, until… well, we never saw her again in that book, actually.  Captain Marvel never knew why the Man-Slayer suddenly shut down, and never got around to investigating the matter.  And so, if you’d only read Captain Marvel, and didn’t read Avengers, you might never have learned what had ever happened to the former Soviet spy turned S.H.I.E.L.D. operative (especially since there was never any footnote, letters column reference, or anything else cluing you in to check out that other Marvel title).  Luckily for me, however, I was reading both books.

“…to take orders from the acting chairman…!”  Ultimately, Hawkeye acquiesces — rules is rules — and by the time his teammates take off in their quinjet (fortunately, they have another ship besides that wonky Wakandan number available), he’s about convinced himself that they’ll be better off without a useless schmuck like him around to foul things up, anyway.  Mope, mope, mope…

It’s interesting to compare Gene Colan’s approach to page design in this issue with the wildly innovative layouts he was contemporaneously doing on Doctor Strange — or even the less inventive, but still varied ones he’d been using in Daredevil. Whether because he was being cautious with this new assignment, or was simply trying to emulate the “look” that John Buscema had established for the book, Colan rarely deviated from straightforward grids of rectangular panels in this story.  About the only exception comes on the following page, where the artist takes advantage of the “border” opportunities presented by a couple of unrelated pictorial elements — the shape of the viewscreen on which Natasha appears, the wispy vapor rising from the vial of grwth serum — to cut loose just a little bit:

Hawkeye’s comment above regarding the new Goliath outfit — “these threads won’t win any prizes” — seems a little odd, when you think about it.  Is this Roy Thomas somewhat sneakily expressing dissatisfaction with John Buscema’s costume design, in a manner and venue he figures the departed artist won’t notice?  Or is it more a bit of subtle characterization on the writer’s part, with Hawkeye obliquely expressing some masculine discomfort with all the torso skin he’s now baring?

It’s a little disconcerting that the Superhero Until Very Recently Known as Hawkeye appears to start growing immediately, as soon as he gulps down Dr. Pym’s concoction.  That seems pretty dangerous — on the other hand, it does make for a great visual.

And now, at last, it’s time to resolve the mystery of who captured the Black Widow back in Captain Marvel #12 (sort of, anyway).

As you can see, we’ve got not one, not two, but three super-villains who are presently responsible for Natasha’s predicament — all veteran baddies who’d already established impressive reputations for scientific criminality by 1969.

First up is Egghead, aka Elihas Starr — a creation of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby who was introduced as a villain for Hank Pym in his original Ant-Man identity, way back in Tales to Astonish #38 (Dec., 1962).  Egghead was basically an all-purpose evil genius, though he seemed to have a particular penchant for communications systems and high-tech weaponry.  Prior to this story, he’d only featured in Marvel’s comics as a foe of Hank and Jan.

Next, we have Phillip Masters, the Puppet Master — a Lee-Kirby creation who first appeared in Fantastic Four #8 (Nov., 1962).  The stepfather of the Thing’s girlfriend, Alicia Masters, the Puppet Master was firmly established as an adversary for the FF, though he’d branched out in recent years to also bedevil the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk (one instance of which was parodied in Not Brand Echh #9, which I’d bought and read, so I was already sort of familiar with the character — though only as the “Puppet Mister“, of course).  Unlike Egghead, he was very much a specialist, whose whole shtick was that he could mentally control any person of whom he’d constructed a puppet made out of radioactive clay.  Interestingly, though the Puppet Master had originally rather resembled a puppet, over the years Kirby’s original design had been modified, so that by 1969 he’d become more “normal” looking — though still not exactly what most people would call handsome.  (His original look would return, however, some years later.)

The last of the triumvirate, the Mad Thinker (who’d been given no other name as yet) was another old Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four villain, who’d made his debut in issue #15 (June, 1963) of that team’s series.  The Thinker, like Egghead, was an all-around genius; but, even though he wasn’t a one-trick pony like Puppet Master, he definitely could be said to have a specialty, and that specialty was androids.  He’d previously teamed up twice with the Puppet Master against the Fantastic Four (or members thereof), and unlike his two partners in crime, had actually battled the Avengers before, back in issue #39 (April, 1967).

So which of these three was the nameless, faceless master of the Man-Slayer from Captain Marvel #12?  While the present story never explicitly says so, it seems pretty clear that the Mad Thinker must be the guy  — based simply on the fact that he’s the only one among these three whose “thing” is androids.

(But hey, which of these three brainiacs do you suppose thought it was a good idea to untie the Black Widow and then leave her alone long enough for her to grab and use a communicator to call her superheroic boyfriend?  Hmm?  Oh, never mind…)

Egghead’s understandable mis-identification of the giant-sized threat heading towards him and his confederates as his arch-foe Hank Pym doesn’t really matter one way or the other in the present situation, but will prove quite significant a couple of chapters further on.

Considering the monumental size of the two adversaries in this scene, it seems natural for Colan to rely on single and double-panel page layouts to depict their battle:

The giant android lands a good one on Goliath, and it seems our hero is on the ropes — and then, his opponent suddenly turns away:

The notion that the new Goliath would find it hard to lift his giant-sized fists with his also giant-sized arms may be a matter of scripter Thomas not thinking things quite all the way through — or, he may have intended this bit to suggest that our hero was having difficulty adjusting to the drastic changes in his body.  (Though, as far as I can recall, this wasn’t picked up on in any later stories.)

“Next: The Man from Hawkeye’s Past!”  Um, shouldn’t that be Goliath’s past?  There’s no longer a “Hawkeye”, after all, and… jeez, this is confusing.  Wouldn’t things be a lot easier if the guy had, y’know, a real name?

Hold that thought, boys and girls.  Just until next month, though, I promise.

 

 

*Readers of the previous month’s Avengers had in fact received a tip to check out the then-current issue of Captain Marvel (see below) — but since I hadn’t bought Avengers #62, that was no help to me.  Considering that I’d never read Captain Marvel before, my picking up issue #12 truly was just a random bit of luck.

 

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