The first Marvel comic book I ever bought was Avengers #45, back in August, 1967, but even though I enjoyed that issue, I wouldn’t get around to trying another Avengers comic for another eight months. By April, 1968, however, I’d begun buying both Amazing Spider-Man and Daredevil regularly, and I was ready to expand my Marvel-reading horizons a little further. Avengers was already a known quantity, obviously, and issue #53 clearly had something else going for it, as well — the appearance of a whole other super-group, the X-Men.
I’m honestly not 100% certain that I even knew whether the X-Men were supposed to be heroes or villains at this point, though it seems likely I would have noticed their book on the stands at some time in the last few years. Assuming I did know that the X-Men were good guys, that would have been another strong selling point, as my younger self appears to have loved the idea of getting double the heroes (in this case, two hero teams) for the price of one — as attested to by the fact that in my first couple of years of comic book consumption, the only title I bought almost as regularly as Justice League of America was The Brave and the Bold, (which, of course, featured DC’s heroes teaming up with one another). And the fact that the cover heralded a “vs.” situation wouldn’t have thrown me, either — even as a mostly-DC reader up to 1968, I knew that heroes fought each other sometimes. After all, I was the proud owner of JLA #56, which featured what’s probably the first instance of the battle-lines-of-heroes-charging-each-other motif that informs Avengers #53’s cover (as it would many another cover through the years).
Of course, I could also tell from the cover that the Avengers had undergone some changes since the last time I’d seen them. The changes in Goliath’s costume — trading a blue-and yellow color scheme for a (mostly) red-and-blue one, with the two stripes on his cowl having been transformed into “antennae” — were the least of these. I probably didn’t make too much of the fact that four of the characters who’d been regular members as of issue #45 — Captain America, Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, and Hercules — were nowhere to be seen, since I was used to Justice League of America not featuring the same lineup of heroes in every issue (though the actual membership roster remained the same). But I’m sure that I wondered about this new guy fighting on the side of the Avengers, as shown in the cover’s lower left-hand corner — the first black superhero that I had ever seen (or that anybody had ever seen, for that matter — since the Black Panther, though introduced almost two years previously in Fantastic Four #52, was still the only such character appearing in mainstream American comics).
I’m not sure if I took the time to read through the book’s opening splash page word-for word as I stood there at the spinner rack…
… but I suspect not. Mainly because, if I had, I think I would have immediately scoured said spinner rack to find a copy of X-Men #45, from which this story was directly continued — and which the Library of Congress’s records (via Mike’s Amazing World) indicate was published on the exact same date as Avengers #53: April 9, 1968.
But I didn’t do that, evidently — and so, when I sat down to read “In Battle Joined”, I found myself thrown very much into the deep end, more so than in any other Marvel comic I’d read to date. The first caption on that splash page caption helped, but only a little. Who was Magneto? If Cyclops was a good guy, why was he fighting Quicksilver, who’d been an Avenger the last time I’d checked? And who the heck was this black guy in the cat costume?
Well, by the end of page 2, I at least knew that the black cat-guy’s superhero name was “Panther”. (And yes, T’Challa was going by that one-word sobriquet at this point in his career, without the word “Black” as a modifier — a short-lived state of affairs that coincided with his use of the half-face mask seen here.*)
Actually, any Avengers reader who’d missed the last couple of issues might have been almost as lost as I was, considering that the Panther had made his debut in the book as recently as issue #51, in which Captain America — in whose Tales of Suspense feature the Wakandan ruler had lately been guest-starring — recommended him as his own replacement on the Avengers roster (Cap himself having left the team in Avengers #47). T’Challa then showed up at Avengers Mansion in issue #52, just in time to be framed for the (apparent) murder of the team’s remaining members. It took the rest of the issue to get that business sorted out, so that the Panther wasn’t officially accepted as a new Avenger until the final page. Avengers #53, then, was his first full adventure with his new teammates.
And, returning to that adventure… we see Cyclops make a hasty retreat, still uncertain whether he’s been fighting the real Avengers or some minions of Magneto’s, but unable to think of any reason why the bona fide heroes would attack him. To answer that question, then, storytellers Roy Thomas (scripter) and John Buscema (penciler) turn the clock back an hour, to show us how Cyclops’ fellow X-Man the Angel showed up at Avengers Mansion, looking for their help in rescuing his teammates from Magneto — and setting off their alarms in the process:
The Avengers release the Angel, though not without Goliath making a remark about how maybe he should have knocked on the front door if he didn’t want them thinking he was trying to sneak up on them — leading Angel to grouse, in turn, “Always — everywhere the X-Men go — the same maddening distrust of mutants!” Still, once they’ve heard the X-Man’s story, the Avengers are eager to help — especially when they learn that Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are also with Magneto in his island fortress, and that Quicksilver, at least, has (in Angel’s words) “signed back up” with the villain (which would at least explain why Cyclops had been fighting with him just before the beginning of the story).
This was a startling revelation for my ten-year-old self. The growing alienation of Pietro Maximoff (aka Quicksilver) from non-mutant humanity had been touched on in issue #45, the one and only Avengers comic I’d read prior to this one — but the idea that a superhero could, and would, actually switch sides and become a bad guy was an entirely new one in my heretofore dominated-by-DC comics-reading experience.
The five heroes head out in the Avengers’ “aero-car” and, through the Angel’s guidance, arrive at Magneto’s island about half an hour later. But when they decide to scan for “any radio signals he might be sending to other evil mutants” before setting down, they discover that something on their aircraft is ialready sending out signals — and then…
Well, that team-up went south pretty fast. Maybe Angel was on to something with that “maddening distrust of mutants” stuff…
A-ha! That arrow in X-Men #45, explained at last! Um, explained, that is, for anyone who’d already read that book — which didn’t (yet) include my ten-year-old self.
This is probably a good time to note that when I first read this comic in March, 1968, I had as yet no clue (despite Goliath referring to Angel as “son” in one panel) that the X-Men were supposed to be considerably younger than any of the Avengers — that they were, in fact, teenagers. And I think that my cluelessness was mostly due to how John Buscema drew almost every costumed male character in the book as though they were a bodybuilder — an inclination especially evident in the panel depicting the bound Angel, shown above, where the poor guy looks like he’d topple over from the weight of his huge pecs and deltoids if his wings weren’t propping him up.
Roy Thomas wrote about this tendency of the veteran artist — who’d only been back working at Marvel since 1966 (following an eight-year sojourn in the advertising field), and had been the regular penciler on Avengers only since #41 — in his introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Avengers, Vol. 5, where he stated that both he and editor Stan Lee were originally concerned that “some of John’s male figures seemed almost too muscular”, though, of course, “at 1960s Marvel, better too muscular than too thin!” It’s a tendency that I think most longtime fans would agree that ‘Big John” soon learned to moderate, though he obviously remained quite comfortable drawing built-up guys.
Finally, my ten-year-old self got his first look at one of Marvel’s oldest and most memorable villains (or antiheroes, if you prefer. I have to confess I’m not too well-versed in current X-continuity — which side is ol’ Maggy batting for these days, anyway?). And the Toad, too, of course. As an aside — the Toad must surely be one of the most appropriately named villains in comics history, and that’s even before taking his mutant super-hopping powers into consideration. (Though the literary moniker Magneto uses as an insult in the second panel above is a pretty good name, too — so good, in fact, that it was later used for another Marvel mutant. But, I digress.)
At last, the Scarlet Witch, Wanda Maximoff, enters our narrative. From the panel above, and other ones later in the story, my ten-year-old self was eventually able to deduce that there was something not quite right with Wanda’s noggin at this particular point in time. It probably wasn’t until some years later, however, that I learned the whole story of how, in Avengers #49, the Scarlet Witch had been shot by a United Nations security officer — although, as shown in the panels to the right, it was really caused by Magneto, who used the incident to motivate her brother Quicksilver to take that last fateful step back to the Dark Side. When we see her in #53, Wanda is still suffering from cognitive problems caused by her injury, though Magneto keeps promising Pietro that he’s working on a cure. Suurre he is.
Immediately ollowing the Scalet Witch’s entrance upon the scene, Magneto berates and knocks the Toad around for a couple of panels, telling his obsequious servitor that he literally keeps him around just for laughs:
Jeez, first the falling out with Angel, then the skirmish with Cyclops, and now the Avengers are fighting among themselves? It was all almost too much for my ten-year-old self to deal with, accustomed as I was to the unfailing bonhomie and camaraderie regularly displayed by DC’s superheroes. Sure, DC’s good guys fought each other on occasion (see the aforementioned Justice League of America #56 for an example), but in almost every instance of such, one or more of the combatants was under the evil influence of some sort of weird science or black magic.
The Avengers’ brouhaha continues for a whole other page; meanwhile, Magneto is secretly monitoring them, and he is, of course, delighted to see them at odds with each other. Once he’s again alone with the Toad (Wanda having wandered off to look for Pietro), the Master of Magnetism tells his abject underling that the Avengers’ internecine conflict will make it all the more easy to destroy them — and he plans to use their fellow heroes, the X-Men, to do the job:
The battle continues for about another page, providing a good showcase for the various heroes’ powers and abilities, as well as (to a somewhat lesser extent, considering the X-Men’s compromised circumstances) their personalities.
Goliath seems somewhat outclassed by Cyclops’ eye-beams, until he hits on the gambit of seizing the X-Man’s visor in his giant-sized grip:
The Panther realizes that he and the other Avengers have been pulling their punches, “subconsciously thinking of the X-Men as heroes — not as enemies!” Once they take the offensive — with the Panther using the Beast’s own mass against him. Goliath squeezing Cyclops’ cranium until the latter passes out, and Hawkeye using a gummy arrow (?) to tangle up Iceman — they’re able to overcome their younger foes. Of course, that doesn’t answer two questions given voice by Hawkeye — why did the X-Men turn against them in the first place, and where’s Magneto?
Ah, so all that earlier inter-hero conflict — even the bit with tying up Angel — was a ruse! That certainly came as a relief to my ten-year-old self. And the Angel’s role as a “wild card” in the scenario helped explain his having been treated differently on the comic’s cover, where penciler Buscema and inker George Tuska had drawn him appearing in a kind of “crystal ball” set between the two opposing hero-teams, something that had confounded me on my first viewing of the cover. (Was the winged guy an Avenger? An X-Man? Neither?)
Magneto dumps a pile of metal on the assembled heroes, expecting that’ll give him enough time to blow up the portion of his fortress where they’re trapped — but when he orders the Toad to throw the switch, he receives an unpleasant surprise:
As I’ve already noted, this was the first time I’d ever read about the Toad, and this interpretation of the character is the one that would stick with me through the decades, no matter how many other stories I’d later read where he’d do awful things — a rather sympathetic, not-so-bad guy, able to care about others besides himself.
At the same time, of course, the unrelenting nastiness of Magneto in this story meant that later writers, such as Chris Claremont, would have their work cut out for them when they tried to sell me on a more sympathetic portrayal of the prototypical Evil Mutant…
The story comes to a solid and satisfying (if slightly abrupt) conclusion, though even at age ten, I’d already read way too many comic books for me to believe that an empty helmet floating on the water (I suppose we’ll have to assume the headgear was made of “non-metals”, like its owner’s airship) meant that Magneto was dead and gone, never to be seen again. Pull the other one, fellas!
But never mind about the ending — my ten-year-old self wanted to know more about the beginning of the story. How did Cyclops manage to escape while his fellow X-Men, save for Angel, remained prisoners? What were he and Quicksilver talking about, and how did the conversation end with Cyke standing over Pietro’s body?
Would I be able to find a copy of X-Men #45 still on sale upon my next visit to a Tote-Sum, Short Stop, or other comics-carrying retail outlet, so that I could find out?
For the answers to all those burning questions, check back here next week.
I wrote earlier about how this issue of Avengers threw me into the deep end story-wise, and that’s true. But I did have one thing that helped me orient myself at least somewhat, both to this and to the other Marvel comics I was beginning to buy — and that, of course, was the books’ letters pages.
For example, from the fan letters (and editorial responses) that ran in the back of Avengers #53, I was able to get a glimmer, if nothing else, of what Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch had been going through since #45, and to glean some idea as to why Hercules wasn’t with the group anymore.
And from more general exchanges — like the letter below from one Tony Isabella of Cleveland, OH, and its accompanying reply — I could gain insight into the direction that Marvel had in mind for the series, at least in the short term. (For example, the hint that a fifth member might be added soon would prove quite accurate, just a few issues later.)
Tony isabella, huh? Gee, I wonder whatever happened to him?
*CBR has a good summary of the early history of the Black Panther’s mask, and the changes it went through, here.