Avengers #71 (December, 1969)

At the conclusion of Avengers #70, published fifty years and one month ago, readers were promised that the next issue would feature “the most shocking surprise guests of all!!”  A month later, those fans who picked #71 up off the spinner rack wouldn’t have to look any further than the dynamic Sal Buscema-Sam Grainger cover to learn the identity of those guest stars — though it’s likely that a lot of them had already gotten the news courtesy of the Mighty Marvel Checklist entry for the book that ran in that month’s Marvel comics’ Bullpen Bulletins text page: “The battle that time forgot!  The Avengers take on Cap, the Torch, and Namor in wartime Paris!  Don’t miss “Endgame!”

In October, 1969, my twelve-year-old self had yet to read a single Golden Age Marvel (or Timely, if you prefer) comic book story.  And while I’d gleaned enough information in my few years of reading current Marvel comics to know that Captain America, the original Human Torch, and the Sub-Mariner had all been around in the 1940s, I’m not sure if I knew whether or not they’d ever appeared in the same story together before.  I certainly didn’t know about the Invaders — and neither did anyone else, including their creator Roy Thomas (also the scribe of our current tale), since they wouldn’t actually exist for another six years.  So to see these three characters in World War II-era action was a whole new thing for me (and probably for a lot of other readers as well).

Of course, something else had happened at the end of the previous issue, too — namely, the abrupt termination of the high-stakes contest between the Avengers and the Squadron Sinister due to the actions of Dane Whitman, the Black Knight, whose well-meaning interference in Goliath’s battle against the Whizzer had prevented the heroes from achieving “a clearcut victory!”   Or so at least claimed the cosmic games-player who called himself the Grandmaster, who’d appeared long enough to the confused Knight to tersely inform him that in so doing, he had also “perhaps destroyed a world” before gathering up both his and his opposing player’s “chessmen” — i.e., the Avengers and the Squadron — and carrying them back to the future.  The issue concluded with the dismayed but determined Whitman vowing to follow them all into the future so that he could set things right — and with at least one young reader (i.e., me) wondering just how the heck a guy with a magic sword and a flying horse was going to manage that.

But though I had to wonder about that for a month, once I’d finally bought issue #71 and taken it home, I didn’t have to wait past the first page for Thomas, Buscema, and Grainger to begin to give me the answer:

All of this business with Garrett Castle and with the current Black Knight’s heroic forebear was new to me, as I hadn’t bought or read Marvel Super-Heroes #17, published the year before.  In that comic, Dane Whitman’s creator Roy Thomas had revealed the connection between Whitman, his uncle Nathan Garrett (who’d been a Black Knight before Dane, though one of villainous bent), and their common ancestor Sir Percy of Scandia, an Arthurian knight who’d had his own Marvel (or Atlas, if you prefer) title in the 1950s.

As I noted in my Avengers #70 post last month, #71’s page 3 flashback montage would be the only appearance of the Squadron Sinister in this issue; the villains’ immediate fates in the aftermath of their failure to win the Game of the Galaxies for the Grandmaster wouldn’t be revealed until the publication of several later stories.

Looking into the mystic brazier fires as he’s been bid, the Black Knight watches as Kang the Conqueror visits the room where his beloved Ravonna rests in suspended animation — “…not dead — yet strangely not alive!”  The scene serves to bring Dane (and any readers just now joining the storyline) up to speed on exactly why the time-traveling despot accepted the Grandmaster’s challenge in the first place — he’s playing for the power to bring Ravonna back to life.

Okay, Axis — here we come!!”  Quite the rousing battle cry, right?  So much so that, in 1969, I was convinced that it must have appeared as regularly in Marvel’s Forties comics as, well, “Avengers assemble!” appeared in Avengers.  I wouldn’t learn until years later that the phrase had never appeared in an actual comic book story before now — that Roy Thomas had in fact lifted it from the title of a 1961 fanzine article by Don Thompson (later reprinted in the seminal hardcover anthology All in Color for a Dime), while Thompson, in his turn, had taken the phrase from a print ad in a 1940s Timely comic.  Of course, once the Invaders became a going concern on their own in the mid-Seventies, Thomas would indeed use the phrase as the the group’s regular battle cry, just as he’d once used “Avengers assemble!” in his earlier team book.

Also in regards to these “proto-Invaders”, Thomas was determined here to make the Forties versions of Captain America and the Sub-Mariner visually distinct from their modern-day selves.  Thus, he had Buscema draw Cap carrying the triangular shield he’d actually only ever wielded in the first issue of Captain America Comics (March, 1941) and never since, while Namor rocked the plain black trunks* he’d sported in the Golden Age, rather than the scaly green ones that contemporary Marvelites were accustomed to.  Both of these creative decisions would cause some problems for the writer another eight years down the road… but we’ll get to that in just a bit.  For now, let’s return to Garrett Castle, where the Black Knight’s brazier-fueled visions have at last come to an end…

Making short work of both guards, Dane Whitman moves on to drop a couple of names likely to be more familiar to older and more experienced aficionados of what we now call “geek culture” than I was at age 12:

That’s “Conan” as in the Robert E. Howard sword-and-sorcery character, and “John Carter” as in the Edgar Rice Burroughs science-fantasy character — both of whom would be featured in official new comic book adaptations within the next few years, with one ultimately becoming strongly associated with Roy Thomas himself (Conan, obviously).

The Wasp, aka Janet Van Dyne, aka the only Avenger who doesn’t get to participate at all in the Game of the Galaxies — a storytelling choice that badly dates this comic when read today — is finally convinced that the Black Knight is who he appears to be.  She asks him to free her four captive comrades, so tha they can at least have a fighting chance; Dane answers that he’ll do his best — though from what he’s seen, even if he’s successful, “a fighting chance is all we’ve got –”

As modern readers, it’s ironic to see the Vision and the original Human Torch matched against one another, since we’re aware of something that neither this comic’s original readers, nor even its creators, could have known in 1969 — namely, that, according to later stories, the Torch’s android body would, long after World War II’s end, be resurrected as the Vision’s (well, in one timeline, anyway).

Elsewhere, the Panther continues to trade leaps as well as punches with Cap, while Namor rids himself of Yellowjacket’s pesky friends by means of a quick dip in the River Seine.  The tide seems to have turned against the Avengers, however, as T’Challa and YJ begin to beat a hasty retreat — at least, that’s what it looks like to their opponents:

The three Avengers have indeed won, and — despite the Vision’s expression of concern — have done so without killing (or even seriously harming) their opponents.  But that last bit is something that we readers of this story in 1969 had to assume for ourselves, as Thomas’ script never actually says so.  Like the Squadron Sinister in issue #70, the three proto-Invaders vanish from the story immediately following their defeat; they’re not even mentioned again after page 14.

But there actually was a bit more interaction between the two superheroic trios back in “1941” (those quotation marks are intentional, as I’ll explain in a moment), though readers would have to wait another eight years to become privy to it.

By 1977, the Invaders title had been around for a couple of years, and writer-editor Thomas wanted to do something special for the book’s first annual.  He opted for a “Golden Age”-style team-book format, in which the whole team appeared only in the opening and closing chapters, while the intervening episodes featured the individual members in solo action — a format which had been followed by Thomas’ beloved All-Star Comics (featuring DC Comics’ Justice Society of America) as well as All Winners Comics (featuring Timely/Marvel’s All-Winners Squad).  In keeping with that format, the regular Invaders art team of Frank Robbins and Frank Springer handled only the opening and closing “team” segments, while the intervening “solo” chapters were illustrated by artists who’d worked on the characters in earlier decades — including Alex Schomburg, who handled the Human Torch chapter along with drawing the cover (shown at right).  And to make things even more extra-special, Thomas determined that the closing chapter would incorporate the sequence from Avengers #71 in which Cap, Torch, and Subby had fought the Avengers — only this time, the tale would be told from the former team’s point of view.

But to pull off that last bit, Thomas faced some challenges.  In establishing the Invaders as a bona fide Marvel super-team of the 1940s, he’d had them come together following America’s formal entry into the Second World War in December, 1941.  By then, Captain America was already using his familiar round shield.  The series also depicted the Sub-Mariner wearing his scaly, bright green trunks from the get-go, despite the fact that he’d been shown wearing black ones all through the Golden Age.  Thus, for the material in Invaders Annual #1 to properly dovetail with what we’d seen in Avengers #71, Thomas had to cobble together in-story reasons for Cap to have his round shield temporarily replaced by its triangular predecessor, as well for Namor to change his trunks**.  The time-frame for the Avengers-Invaders clash was also moved up to 1942, with the pegging of 1941 as their chrono-location now being relegated to a error on T’Challa’s part, his having deduced the wrong date from the presence of Cap’s original shield.

The whole thing made for some decidedly awkward storytelling; still, the continuity retrofit basically held together, even if the seams were obvious, which is more than you can claim for some of Thomas’ later attempts along the same line (e.g. the “Black Canary Is Her Own Daughter” mess from Justice League of America #220).

And now that you’ve got all the background, here’s the expanded and ever-so-slightly revised version of what happened at the end of the Invaders-Avengers battle, per Invaders Annual #1 (1977):

Won…?  What the devil… are you… talking about, bug-man?”  It seems pretty clear that when the time came to recreate this scene in 1977, Roy Thomas just couldn’t bear to show the Avengers trouncing the Invaders quite as soundly as they’d appeared to back in 1969.  And who can blame him?  The Invaders were his team, after all, in a way the Lee-and-Kirby-created Avengers never could have been.  And this was their annual, besides!  So, far from being all but slain by the Vision’s gambit, the Forties heroes are only “staggered“.  Also, as you may have noticed, Vizh’s original dialogue has been altered so that he no longer frets aloud about maybe having killed one or more of the historical heroes — rather, he simply notes that he could never have pulled off the move “if they had known as much about the Avengers as we know about the fabled Invaders!

In answer to Cap’s demand, Hank Pym offers a quick explanation about how he and his comrades are heroes from a few decades in the future, sent to fight the Invaders as part of “a cosmic chess game“.  The Invaders then call on him and the other Avengers to prove it by telling them about their own futures (which really doesn’t make much sense if you think about it for more than a couple of seconds) — but before things can go any further, the Avengers do a fade-out, as Kang pulls them back to the 41st century.  The still-confused Invaders are then attacked by the same Nazi troops who were mixing it up with the Avengers before the Invaders arrived in Paris:

The Grandmaster sends the Invaders back to their proper place and time, where (and when) they can finish their business with their Nazi enemies — which, of course, includes their retrieving Cap’s newer shield and Namor’s preferred scaly swim togs.  And perhaps we’ll have more to say about that episode, and Invaders Annual #1 in general, if this blog (and blogger) makes it as far as 2027 — but for now, let’s return to Avengers #71, and the moment immediately following Yellowjacket’s exultant “We’ve won!!”  (OK, technically it’s not so much “immediately” as it is “twenty-one centuries later”, but you know what I mean.)

Yeah, you just knew Kang was going to make the wrong call, didn’t you?  Surely it would have made more sense for him to revivify Ravonna first, and then use his own considerable might to try to squelch the Avengers, who are still stranded in the 41st century, after all.  But it’s a fatal flaw in Kang’s character that he can’t pass up a “sure thing” when it comes to destroying his enemies — or, to put it another way, that he’s ultimately motivated more by hate than he is by love.

Cap and T’Challa hurl themselves at Kang, and are immediately repelled — not much of a surprise there.  But the Avengers’ heaviest hitter, the mighty Thor, fares no better — when he throws his hammer at the Conqueror, Mjolnir sails right through the villain, doing no harm whatsoever.

Yep, it’s looking pretty bad, folks…

It was a trick, all right — but really, what else should you expect from a cosmic entity whose whole existence revolves around games?

That final full-page splash by Buscema and Grainger is great, isn’t it?  Definitely pin-up worthy — which is why my own personal copy of Avengers #71 has been missing page 20 for the past half-century.  (A fact I’d actually all but forgotten, until I pulled the book from its box and checked it, just a few minutes ago.  Arrgghh.)

My twelve-year-old self loved this page — and this Avengers line-up, and this three-part storyline — so much so, that it’s hard for me today to fathom why, one month later, I didn’t buy Avengers #72.  Nor did I buy #73 the next month, nor #74 the month after that.  In fact, I didn’t buy another issue of Avengers until #83, one full year later.  After having followed the title pretty faithfully ever since #56 (Sept., 1968), picking up every succeeding issue with the exceptions of #57 and #62 (which I may never have seen, the vagaries of late-’60s distribution being what they were), I dropped Avengers cold.  How come?

As I’ve related in previous posts, I can’t really account for the general disaffection with comic books that seems to have begun growing in my younger self around this time fifty years ago, and which definitely peaked in the spring of 1970 — at least, not completely.  As I’ve also written, one factor was almost certainly Marvel’s line-wide move away from continued stories, as announced by editor-in-chief Stan Lee back in July, 1969, in his “Stan’s Soapbox” column.  And speaking of that particular column… in the installment that ran in Marvel’s books shipping in October, 1969 (including Avengers #71, naturally), Lee responded for the first time to the reactions Marvel had received to the new policy since its announcement three months earlier:

Perhaps my memory deceives me, but I seem to recall being only slightly (if at all) mollified by “Smilin'” Stan’s earnest assurances that just because Marvel was dropping continued storylines, that didn’t mean they were also eliminating their “never-ending sub-plots.”  Mainly because it had never occurred to me that the company would do such a thing.  After all, what would The Amazing Spider-Man be without Peter Parker’s ongoing romantic problems with Gwen Stacy, just to name one example?  Sub-plots weren’t really the issue, so far as I was concerned.  Still, I may have taken some small encouragement from the fact that Lee had felt compelled to respond as he had, since it implied that most if not all of the fan reaction to the new policy had been negative thus far — and this was in spite of the fact that a number of Marvel titles, Avengers included, hadn’t even made the transition to single-issue stories yet.  And also, though I probably didn’t think it through to this extent, if I had managed to work out that Lee must almost certainly have written this “Soapbox” column in August, just one month after his initial policy announcement had reached readers, I likely would have been heartened still further.

It would be another full year before Lee officially threw in the towel, announcing in the “Soapbox” column that ran in Marvel comics cover-dated January, 1971 that the “no continued stories” policy had been rescinded.  By that time, most of Marvel’s titles had already transitioned back to the company’s former storytelling norms (as Lee somewhat ruefully noted in that column), and your humble blogger was fully back on board again with the comic book medium.

But well before then, back in October, 1969, my interest was slowly but steadily ebbing.  It would certainly seem to be an unlikely time for me to suddenly start sampling the wares of a comics company I’d never given a shot to before then.  Still, that’s exactly what happened when, late in the month, I bought my very first comic book published by… Archie Comics???

More next time!

 

*In the interest of total accuracy, I should note that as printed, the trunks are colored with green highlights which suggests they’re actually supposed to be dark green rather than pure black — though that was probably not Thomas’ original intention.

**Or, more precisely, to have his trunks changed for him by the villainous Shark whilst Subby was unconscious — a scene that we were spared from actually having to witness, thank Neptune.

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