If you’re a regular reader, you may recall that at the conclusion of last month’s post concerning Avengers #69, your humble blogger unburdened himself of a shameful, half-century-old secret — namely, that upon his first encounter with the brand-new supervillain group the Squadron Sinister way back in August, 1969, he had not the faintest clue that they were intended as parodies of the Justice League of America — who were, of course, the Avengers’ counterparts over at Marvel Comics’ Distinguished Competition, not to mention a team that he’d been reading about regularly for almost four years.
Imagine my gratified surprise when, subsequent to that post going up, I heard from a number of fellow old fans that they, too, had failed to get writer Roy Thomas’ joke back in the day. I’m honestly not sure whether that means that my twelve-year-old self wasn’t all that dumb after all, or simply that a lot of us were that dumb, but either way, I’ll take it as a win.
Presumably, we were all still just as obtuse when we got our next glimpse of the S.S. on the cover of Avengers #70. This fine effort by Sal Buscema (penciller) and Sam Grainger (inker) was another variation on the by-now-familiar motif of “two rows of costumed characters charging at each other”, sterling earlier examples of which had been provided by Sal’s big brother John on the covers of Avengers #53 and Avengers Annual #2. It’s a great cover, though I can recall being a little irritated when, after I finished reading this issue, I realized that Buscema and Grainger had gotten the cover’s tableau “wrong” by pitting Goliath against Hyperion and Thor against the Whizzer, instead of the other way around, as it was in the story; I believe I may have even mentally “fixed” this “error” by squinting at the cover until I imagined that Goliath was really looking down at Whizzer, and Thor was looking up at Hyperion. Did any of my fellow old fans out there do this also? No? It was just me? OK.
The reason that the Avengers are being pitted against the Squadron in the first place is, of course, that they’ve been drafted into participating as game-pieces in a contest between the well-established time-traveling villain Kang the Conqueror, and the enigmatic, just-introduced-last-issue cosmic entity calling himself the Grandmaster — a “sporting” contest with unusually high stakes, as begins to be explained via the next page’s expository dialogue:
As the Grandmaster explains, all the time he’s been silently standing there in Kang’s citadel, he’s also been mentally accessing the resources of his own home base, “a planet of living computers“, to create his own “chessmen” — i.e., the Squadron Sinister.
The reason Iron Man wasn’t already with this group of Avengers had to do with his alter ego Tony Stark’s having just recently been at death’s door, due to injuries received over in his own title — part of an ultimately rather confusing sequence of events we’ll have more to say about in just a bit.
The Whizzer’s bare-bones account of the Squadron’s origins will get fleshed out a bit more (and in one case, contradicted) as the issue progresses — and there will be still more details added in later appearances of the characters — but the gist of Thomas’ clever conceit comes through quite clearly on this page; namely, that since we’re dealing with super-powerful masters of time and space here, it’s possible for the Grandmaster to “instantly” invent antagonists for the Avengers who actually have origin stories extending back years. (Also, although it’s not expressly stated, the fact that the blue-skinned gamester whips up villains with powers that are “at least equal” to those of the four heroes, rather than ones that flat-out outclass them, suggests that he has a basic sense of “fair play” — otherwise, why go to such effort just to create an [apparently] non-powered costumed athlete like Nighthawk?)
As alluded to earlier — and as also discussed in more detail in last month’s Avengers #69 post — there had been a sort of mini-crossover going on between Iron Man and Avengers over the past couple of months. Tony Stark had been seriously injured in Iron Man #18, at the end of which the Avengers had come to the billionaire inventor’s aid. That tale had led directly into Avengers #69, where the team tried — and failed — to prevent Kang’s android underling, the Growing Man, from abducting the unconscious Tony from a hospital and taking him back to the future. Since, however, the whole point of Kang’s gambit was to lure the Assemblers to the 41st century, once the heroes were in his grasp, the Conqueror had no more use for Iron Man’s alter ego, and returned him to where he’d found him. A caption promised us readers that Tony’s fate would be revealed in Iron Man #19, out the same month.
And in that issue (written by Archie Goodwin, with art by George Tuska and Johnny Craig), Dr. Jose Santini is indeed able to save Tony by using synthetic tissue to repair his heart. But then a continuity problem rears its head, because the story shows the news of the operation’s success, and Tony’s expected recovery, being announced to the waiting world by… Captain America. At this point, Tony is still in the hospital — and then, right after he gets out, he’s heading off on his own to wrap up an ongoing plotline involving the villains Midas and Madame Masque. Meanwhile, over in Avengers, Cap is super-busy dealing with Kang, the Grandmaster, et al.. If the scene in Iron Man #19 is therefore supposed to take place after the current Avengers storyline reaches its conclusion, how the heck can Iron Man show up in Avengers #70? Shouldn’t he still be in the hospital?
A few months later, the letters column of issue #74 ran a missive from fan Harold Colwes that questioned this discrepancy, while also offering one possible answer — that the “Cap” who appeared in Iron Man #19 was actually some sort of Kang-created simulacrum. The anonymous editorial respondent — presumably Roy Thomas — answered thusly:
Hmmm… OK, I’ll give ’em points for trying, but the problem remains: If Cap made the announcement “after all was done and our awesome assemblers had returned to the present”, then it seems like we would have been left with an extra Iron Man/Tony Stark on hand — after all, there’d have been one still recovering in the hospital, as well as another one who’d just “returned” with the other Avengers. And if Tony is still supposed to still be in the hospital while the time-traveling adventure is transpiring, where (or should that be when) is Iron Man flying in from on page 4 of issue #70? Should this be considered one of these “various time paradoxes” mentioned in the lettercol response? I dunno about you, but this is starting to make my head hurt. Maybe this is one of those times when a continuity error just needs to be owned up to as an error, and we all let it go at that — though, again, kudos to Mr. Thomas (or whomever) for making the effort.
But getting back to our story… while Iron Man flies off to the Taj Mahal in India on his own, Thor uses his hammer’s power to whip up a cyclone that instantly transports him and the other two remaining Avengers to their respective “fields of battle“…
Interestingly, Nighthawk is the only member of the Squadron Sinister who gets a civilian name or identity in this first appearance of the group. Indeed, Kyle Richmond even goes to the trouble of informing Cap (and us) that before he became a super-villain, he was “a bored and boring tycoon!” — which, along with the Nighthawk-Rope and Nighthawk-Plane and whatnot really should have given away the game, shouldn’t it? Maybe if Thomas had named him “Wayce Brune”, or something like that, I’d have caught on. Or maybe not.
For Nighthawk’s second appearance, in Daredevil #62 (March, 1970; illustrated by Gene Colan and Syd Shores), Thomas would flesh out Nighthawk’s origins a bit more, explaining that Richmond had found an alchemical formula in an old book in his library, which, when ingested, had doubled his natural abilities — though only at night. (The book had of course been planted in the library by that sneaky ol’ Grandmaster.) This story established, a bit more clearly than Avengers #70’s vague reference to “night-spawned prowess” had, that Nighthawk did in fact have something going for him that his Caped Crusading inspiration didn’t — i.e., actual super powers (if modest ones).
Back on board the Nighthawk-Plane (or whatever it’s actually called), our newly-debuted bad guy is prepared to press the button on his hand-held detonator and blow up Lady Liberty, but Cap hurls his shield and smashes the device. Nighthawk isn’t beaten yet, however, and he quickly scoots out a hatch in the floor of his craft, with Cap close behind:
With Nighthawk’s defeat, the score stands at Kang 1, Grandmaster 0. But, of course, there’re still three bouts left to go on this card — and frankly, our storytellers had best get on with it, since we’re already halfway through this 20-page story.
Next up is Iron Man, versus Doctor Spectrum and his amazing (not to mention acerbic) Power Prism:
The notion of a hand-held light-emitting weapon that talks to its wielder is something that Doctor Spectrum’s set-up shares with Green Lantern’s — though, again, Thomas distinguishes his derivative character from the original by having the Power Prism be not only sentient, but also pretty damn obnoxious, as it demonstrates by constantly haranguing its supposed “master”.
As noted earlier, Doctor Spectrum doesn’t get another name in this story, any more than Hyperion or the Whizzer do — though, unlike them, we never see any part of his face, either. This would allow the creators of the next storyline in which the character appeared (i.e., Mike Friedrich, George Tuska, and Mike Esposito, in Iron Man #63 – 66, Oct., 1973 – Feb., 1974) to reveal that he was actually Dr. Kinji Obatu, the finance minister of an African nation — a fact which retroactively made this iteration of Dr. Spectrum one of Marvel’s earliest black super-villains (although by the time this revelation came to light in 1973, he had quite a bit of company). For its part, the Power Prism was revealed to be a Skrull named Krimonn, who’d been punished for trying to overthrow his government by being forcibly (and permanently) transformed into a hunk of living crystal. (No wonder the thing’s got such a lousy attitude.) Shot into space for what was supposed to be eternal exile, Krimonn the Prism was instead intercepted by the Grandmaster, souped up with energy powers, and then sent on to Earth, where he/it was discovered by the ambitious and unscrupulous Dr. Obatu. The “team” of Obatu and Krimonn had then willingly signed on with the Grandmaster’s scheme.
Yeah, the guy tries to clobber Iron Man with a thought-construct made out of light — which even has a greenish tinge to it. My twelve-year-old self just couldn’t catch a clue to save his life, apparently.
The use of ultraviolet light — which lies outside the visible spectrum (yes, that beam from Shellhead’s chestplate seems pretty visible to me, too, but I won’t tell Thomas and Buscema if you won’t) — as the Power Prism’s weakness is a clever nod to the vulnerability of Green Lantern’s Power Ring to the color yellow, as well as a logical extrapolation from what’s been established about Dr. Spectrum’s light-based powers.
For those of you keeping score at home, it’s now Kang 2, Grandmaster 0.
In his introduction to the 2008 Marvel Masterworks volume reprinting this story, Roy Thomas compliments Sal Buscema for “the way he choreographed Hyperion’s moves to suggest those of Wayne Boring‘s iconic 1950s version of the Man of Steel”. About a decade later, in Thor #280 (Feb., 1979), Boring would get his own chance to draw Hyperion, in a clever tale scripted by Thomas from a plot by Don and Maggie Thompson (and inked by Tom Palmer). This story found the Squadron Sinister’s Hyperion mixing it up not only with the God of Thunder, but also with his superheroic doppelganger on an alternate Earth — the Hyperion of the Squadron Supreme — and briefly teaming up with the other Hyperion’s equivalent of Lex Luthor, Emil Burbank.
OK, so it seems that Hyperion comes from an exploded world, just like Superman. But Krypton was a faraway planet, while Hyperion’s unnamed world was a teeny-tiny atom. That’s completely different, right? No way my younger self could have been expected to make that connection. (That’s my story, anyway, and I’m stickin’ to it.)
I mentioned earlier that one of the “expanded” origins of the Squadron Sinister would contradict the overview offered by the Whizzer on page 5, and this is the one, for the obvious reason that the Whizzer therein described all of the Squadron members as being “fellow Earthmen” to the Avengers — a designation which clearly doesn’t apply to the atomic world-native Hyperion (who, incidentally, would eventually pick up the vaguely Kryptonian-sounding civilian name of Zhib-Ran), unless you figure that since his world was an atom on Earth, he and everyone else who lived there were “Earthmen” in a sense. That seems a bit of a stretch to me, though your mileage may vary.
Atomic vision! That’s nothing at all like heat vision, y’hear me?
Interestingly, a retcon offered in later years would reveal that the “atomic” backstory of the “Sinister” Hyperion was a sham; the Grandmaster had actually created him from pseudo-organic matter as a duplicate of the heroic, “Supreme” Hyperion, whose own powers were the result of his being an Eternal. (Confusingly, however, there later turned out to be a real Zhib-Ran, whose Microversal world really was destroyed, and who eventually replaced the original bad-guy Hyperion in a newly-reformed Squadron Sinister in New Thunderbolts #16 [Feb., 2006]. Whew!)
How in the heck does the Thunder God’s mighty mallet manage to both shrink Hyperion and imprison him inside a “glazed sand” (i.e., glass) bubble? Short answer: It’s magic! Slightly longer answer: This was an era when Marvel’s writers tended to handle Mjolnir as though it could do essentially anything that a story might require.
We’re now at Kang 3, Grandmaster 0, with one more match to go (and only 3 and 2/3 pages left to fit it into).
My twelve-year-old self knew the Black Knight from his last guest shot in Avengers, back in issue #61. I had liked him then, finding the shtick with the sword and flying horse and all pretty cool, and I was pleased to see him return, though I still knew next to nothing of his backstory (mostly because I hadn’t sprung for the Marvel Super-Heroes issue mentioned in the footnote of the last panel above).
As he alludes to in his dialogue in the third panel above, the Whizzer bears the distinction among his fellow members of the Squadron Sinister of having a second direct antecedent in addition to his primary, JLA-based inspiration. The original Whizzer had been a heroic super-speedster whose adventures had been published by Marvel (or, if you prefer, Timely) back in the Golden Age of Comics. Created in 1941 by artist Al Avison and an unknown writer, this Whizzer had appeared regularly in his own feature in USA Comics, and had also eventually teamed up with Captain America and other heroes in the All-Winners Squad, an early precursor of the Avengers that ran for the last two issues of All Winners Comics in 1946.
Roy Thomas would actually bring the heroic Golden Age Whizzer back in Giant-Size Avengers #1 (Aug., 1974), just a few years after introducing his villainous Silver Age successor. In 1969, however, the company formerly known as Timely Comics was still being cagey in regards to how much of its material published in past decades should be considered canon in its modern, post-Fantastic Four #1 Marvel Universe — which accounts for the new Whizzer’s reference to the 1940s model as “an old comic book hero”.
As regards the villain’s origin, we don’t really learn anything more here than he’d already told us back on page 5 (i.e., he takes a pill). Readers would actually have to wait until Amazing Spider-Man #222 (Nov., 1981) to learn the additional detail (courtesy of writer Bill Mantlo, penciller Bob Hall, and inker Jim Mooney), that the renegade speedster, aka James Sanders, had started out as a scientist who was aided by the Grandmaster in the creation of his “super-speed chemical”. By this time, the Whizzer had begun calling himself Speed Demon — a move probably occasioned by someone at Marvel realizing, somewhat belatedly, that the modern slang meaning of the word “whiz” had rendered the character’s previous moniker unintentionally humorous. (Similarly, most later versions of the Whizzer’s heroic counterpart in the Squadron Supreme now go by the codename the Blur.)
But, I think that’s enough background for now, don’t you? Let’s get back to the bout itself, to see how Clint Barton, still relatively new to his size-changing powers, fares against the super-speed powers of his opponent:
Wait, what? The fight was just getting started, and that’s it?!
If you’re crying foul, don’t worry; you’re not the only one:
To be honest, I don’t recall feeling “cheated” in any way by the abrupt truncation of the Goliath-Whizzer battle, back in ’69. Rather, the unexpected interference of the Black Knight — which, though well-meaning, could prove disastrous for Planet Earth — and his subsequent shouldering of the responsibility for setting things right, made for an especially compelling and dramatic cliffhanger. My twelve-year-old self couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.
The story’s last panel depicts the disembodied heads of the Squadron Sinister as well as those of the Grandmaster, Kang, and the four Avengers who were featured in the issue. To my mind, this symbolic tableau suggests that all of these characters still have parts to play in the story — in fact, however, the Squadron won’t show up in #71 at all, outside of a single-panel flashback montage. Possibly, Thomas and/or Buscema weren’t certain at this point whether or not the villainous quartet would figure into their storyline’s third and final chapter; but I’m more inclined to believe that it was an intentional bit of misdirection, meant to help deflect speculation about who “the most shocking surprise guests of all” promised in the “Next” blurb might turn out to be.
In any case, readers wouldn’t learn the fate of any member of the Sinister gang until the aforementioned reappearance of Nighthawk in Daredevil #62, just four months later. After that, however, it would be more than three years before another member, Dr. Spectrum, resurfaced in Iron Man #63; meanwhile, Hyperion and the Whizzer would remain in limbo until the whole Squadron came together once more to take on the Defenders in the13th issue (May, 1974) of that “non-team”‘s titular series. In the course of that story, Kyle Richmond decided to go straight, and ultimately joined the Defenders — an event which essentially marked the end of the Squadron Sinister, at least in their original incarnation.
Of course, well before then, Roy Thomas had gone back to his original “Justice League parody” idea and given it a new twist, introducing an alternate-Earth heroic version of the team (as well as expanding its membership) in Avengers #85 (Feb., 1971). As it turned out, this Squadron Supreme would prove to be only the first of many alternate takes on the team that Marvel would introduce over the decades — a process that continues to this very day.
Earlier in this post we discussed how this Avengers storyline crossed over with concurrent issues of Iron Man. But there was another, “secret” crossover involving Avengers #70, as well — although “crossover” may not really be the best way to describe the relationship between this comic and Justice League of America #75, which came out from DC in the same month. “Shared in-joke” probably comes closer to the truth of the matter.
This particular issue of DC’s top team book is probably best remembered today for being the one in which the Earth-Two expatriate (and former member of the Justice Society of America) Black Canary joins the Justice League (and also picks up a new super-power, her “canary cry”), as well as for its significance in the history of the Canary’s soon-to-be-beau, Green Arrow — to wit, it’s the first issue of JLA in which GA sports his new, Neal Adams-designed look, as well as the one in which his alter ego Oliver Queen loses his fortune, positioning the Emerald Archer to henceforth be a left-leaning Man of the Common People. For all those reasons (and at least one other), I’m inclined to argue for JLA #75 being considered the first Bronze Age issue of the series.
None of that has anything to do with how the issue ties into Avengers #70, however.
In an interview conducted by Michael Eury for The Justice League Companion (TwoMorrows, 2005), Roy Thomas told the story this way:
We had a party at my and my first wife, Jean’s, apartment, and Denny O’Neil and Mike Friedrich were there, and a number of other people. It was a fairly large party in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Denny was now writing Justice League and I’d been writing Avengers for a fairly long time, and Mike gets this idea — he says, “Why don’t you do some kind of crossover?” I don’t know if we decided we wouldn’t tell our editors about it, but Mike proposed this and we thought it was a great idea. Of course, we’d had a couple of drinks. (laughs)
I didn’t have any great problem [executing the crossover] as long as I took care of the legalities, because I was my own de facto editor, but Denny wasn’t. He was working for Julie [Schwartz], and I suspect, but I couldn’t swear to it, that he just never really found the right words or time to suggest this idea to Julie. And without doing that it was a little hard to work it into a story. He did a story that came out within a few weeks, one way or the other…
It was just the vaguest kind of hint of a “crossover.” (laughs) I don’t blame Denny. Maybe if I’d been working for Julie, I’d have trouble doing it, too… So, as a result, not many people realized that these two stories had been planned as equivalents of each other…
Well, I can definitely attest to the fact that this fan didn’t realize it. In my defense, however, I should note that I didn’t buy JLA #75 off the stands when it was new; years later, when I finally did read the story, I didn’t realize that it had been published the same month as Avengers #70, and so had no reason to think of it in that context. On the other hand, considering that twelve-year-old me couldn’t even recognize the Squadron Sinister as parodies of Superman, Batman, Flash, and Green Lantern, I have to admit that it’s pretty unlikely that I would have caught on to JLA #75’s much more subtle references to a handful of Avengers, even if I’d read the two stories back-to-back in September, 1969.
The plot of “In Each Man There Is a Demon!” (written by Denny O’Neil and illustrated by Dick Dillin and Joe Giella) involves the Leaguers all being confronted by dark reflections of their own psyches, which have been given form and substance as a result of the members’ exposure to the magical energies of a sentient star, Aquarius, in the previous issue. It’s in their individual duels against these evil doppelgängers (who call themselves “the Destructors”) that O’Neil makes his nods to the JLA’s counterparts over at Marvel.
There are actually six Leaguers involved in this adventure, but only four whose battles track as parallel to those in Avengers #70. The first of these bouts involves Superman*:
Did you get that? The faux Superman describes himself as being both “mighty” and “as powerful… as Thor!” This fight is intended to echo Hyperion’s tussle with Thor over in Avengers — though, since this is the DC version, it’s “Hyperion” who wins.
The second fight is less of a direct parallel, since Green Lantern doesn’t appear in this story; instead, it’s Hawkman whose opposite number is “strong as iron“, and “modern as a transistor” — he’s “Iron Man”, in other words.
Yeah, I think I agree with Batman here — “Captain America” having to resort to throwing a trash-can lid in lieu of a shield does seem like a joke, if not a very good one. But at least Batman is an appropriate stand-in for “Nighthawk”. The same can’t really be said for the fourth and last of the parallel match-ups, which ropes in the Atom to sub for the Flash (or “Whizzer”) against “Goliath”:
Obviously, it would have been a lot harder for O’Neil to drop “Goliath” references into a battle between two versions of the Flash — but the end result here, as with the Hawkman sequence, makes for a pretty weak parallel to this bout’s supposed equivalent in Avengers #70.
Asked in 2005 for his own recollections regarding this “crossover” for Eury’s Justice League Companion, O’Neil confessed that he recalled few of the actual particulars, but noted:
I do remember thinking that my end of the stunt didn’t come off very well, which was probably my fault. I may have hesitated to make the Avengers parallels too obvious lest I incur somebody’s wrath. Or it may have simply been a failure of craft.
While I appreciate the humble attitude of O’Neil’s response, I also figure that after all these years, the writer can cut himself a break. Whatever the reasons for the weak execution of the stunt (to use O’Neil’s word) on the DC side may have been, it was still an interesting idea at the time, and one which today makes for an amusing little bit of historical comics trivia.
And believe it or not, this wasn’t even the last time that Avengers and Justice League of America would play this game. A little more than a year later, Roy Thomas would be at it again — though this time Marvel’s JLA corollaries would be the Squadron Supreme, rather than Sinister, and the player on the DC side would be Mike Friedrich, who’d succeeded Denny O’Neil as JLA scripter by this time (and, not coincidentally, had been the person who suggested the original Avengers-JLA tie-in in the first place, according to Thomas). This time around, we’d even get legitimate DC pastiches of the Avengers… but, y’know, that’s actually a discussion for another post, some fifteen months from now. Before we can get around to covering that business, we’ll first need to see if Earth’s Mightiest Heroes can possibly win through and save the world from the Grandmaster, even with the aid of the Black Knight. And what about those “shocking” guest stars promised for issue #71?
So, be sure to come back here next month, when we’ll rejoin the Avengers for… “Endgame!” (Gee, I wonder why that sounds so familiar…)
*For the record, Supes, having been left unaffected by the battle against Aquarius, actually battles one of his own Superman robots as a ruse to inspire his teammates.