Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers Vol. 1

Written by Stan Lee
Penciled by Jack Kirby and Don Heck
Inked by Dick Ayres, Paul Reinman, George Roussos, and Chic Stone
248 pages, color
Published by Marvel Comics

This may shock some of you, but until earlier this year I had never read an issue of The Avengers prior to the 1980s. It’s been on the list of things to try for ages, but it wasn’t until a recent purchase of the softcover Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers Vol. 1 that I finally decided to fix that problem. Now that I’ve finally experienced it? It’s not at all what I was expecting, a book that was simultaneously more intriguing and disappointing than I’d expected.

I already knew going into Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers some basic facts about the early issues of the comic. I knew the initial line-up, that the Hulk quit almost immediately, and that Captain America finally firmed up the "classic" line-up in the fourth issue. I suspect that almost anyone who reads super-hero comics knows all that information, regardless of how many or little Avengers comics they’ve read themselves. Beyond that, though, there were some surprises almost right away. I certainly hadn’t expected that after the Hulk quits in the second issue, for example, that he still shows up in the next three issues as an enemy. The Avengers is like reading a soap opera back in those early issues, with the same villains showing up several months in a row trying their latest scheme. It’s both a plus and a minus in this case. The Hulk showing up as a nemesis for issues #3-5 is a neat touch, with the way the Avengers having treated one of their own team members coming back to haunt them. On the other hand, though, by the end of the first volume I found myself begging for Baron Zemo, the Enchantress, and the Executioner to please stop showing up. Knowing that there are so many classic Avengers villains in the wings, it’s disappointing to see the same couple of characters month after month (or rather, issue after issue) instead of Stan Lee and company creating someone new.

Another thing that stood out for me was how much of a "boy’s club" the original Avengers is; not so much in the line-up, but rather in the treatment of the Wasp as the lone female character. She’s continually sidelined and forgotten as the book progresses, and when she does get something to do it’s either to get captured or to moon after one of the male characters. Lee seems to have thought back in the ’60s that all women did was sigh over hot men. Wasp actually comes across in a bad way when you read the story; at one point Giant-Man is annoyed enough to say, "Haven’t you anything else on your mind??" It’s hard to not agree with him. Then again, even bit characters who are female aren’t much better; when Thor is disguised as Dr. Blake, his nurse thinks to herself that it’s too bad he isn’t a little more rugged. It’s hard to recognize the original version of the Wasp to the more self-assured character that she would eventually become. This is cringe worthy, to the point that the Wasp getting left out of large chunks of a story is actually a good thing.

Still, there is a lot to enjoy in Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers Vol. 1. Captain America’s addition to the team works so well it’s hard to believe it wasn’t planned from the very beginning, and you can see Lee already tinkering with the line-up as he has Dr. Pym change his powers and identity from Ant-Man to Giant-Man so that there’s more to differentiate him and the Wasp from one another. Rick Jones’s interactions with Captain America make me want to pick up some collections of old Captain America comics, and having Thor’s villains start invading the book wasn’t something I was expecting at all. Jack Kirby’s pencils are unsurprisingly nice here, no matter who inks them. His eight issues provide a strong cohesiveness to the title that helps define the basic look and structure of the comic. I know that Don Heck, who takes over with #9, ended up with a long run on the title and that this was the first time someone inked his pages at Marvel. His first two issues, though, feel like he’s still trying to figure things out. His characters are a little rough, and there are moments in The Avengers #9 where if the dialogue hadn’t told us that Wonder Man was visibly growing stronger from the rays I’d never have guessed it. This could be something as simple as not quite clicking with inker Dick Ayres, and I’m curious to read more to see how latest collaborations work out. On the plus side, though, Heck has a nice energy to his pages when it comes to the fights, and I love the green and red look of Wonder Man’s original costume. He looks like a real bruiser with the goggles and helmet, and it surprised me how effective it looks here.

Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers Vol. 1 was a fun trip into Marvel’s past; it’s not the most exciting reprint project I’ve seen, but it’s solid enough that I’d want to read more. (Especially knowing that Vol. 2 will be where the line-up completely changes into "Cap’s Kooky Quartet.") The soap opera element of The Avengers is fun, but hopefully later issues started adding in some more villains and also give the Wasp a little more personality. For now, though, I feel like I got enough bang for my buck.

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