In October, 1970, I returned to Marvel Comics’ Avengers after a hiatus of one full year, during which time I hadn’t bought or read the title at all. Avengers had been one of my most reliable Marvel purchases for a year or so prior to that break, but, for reasons lost to time, I was a little tentative about committing to the series again; and after buying (and, as I recall, enjoying) both #83 and #84, I sat out the next three months, not picking up another adventure of the Assemblers until #88, in March. That one seemed to do the trick, however, because from that point on I wouldn’t miss another issue. (Well, not until 1980 or thereabouts, anyway — but that’s another story.)
Or maybe it wasn’t #88 that sealed the deal — that Harlan Ellison-plotted issue, enjoyable as it was, essentially functioned as a lead-in to the same month’s issue of Hulk, and didn’t spend much energy encouraging readers to come back for the next month’s Avengers. Avengers #89, on the other hand, kicked off a multi-issue storyline that just kept building and building, never offering anything like a reasonable jumping-off point. By the time that storyline — the Kree-Skrull War, as we’d all quickly come to call it — came to an end with #97, it was December, and buying Avengers had become an ingrained habit for your humble blogger.
Of course, before all that could happen, I had to decide to buy Avengers #89 in the first place. Assuming that I still needed just a spot of convincing to pluck the book up out of the spinner rack on that day a half-century ago, I figure that the prominent placement on the Sal Buscema-drawn cover of the issue’s “co-star”, Captain Marvel, probably clinched the sale — in spite of the fact that I hadn’t actually bought an issue of that hero’s own title since #17, in July, 1969. Not so coincidentally, that issue had launched a new direction for the series, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane, that was at least partially inspired by the original Captain Marvel, published by Fawcett Comics from 1939 to 1953. As I wrote back in July, 2019, my general lack of interest in that direction was likely a combination of factors, none of which had anything to do with the talents of the new creative team. Among these were my personal preference for the title’s recent, now-abandoned quasi-cosmic direction; my near-total lack of familiarity with the Fawcett tropes that Thomas and Kane were riffing on; and finally, my disappointment with the abrupt way Rick Jones’ brief stint as Captain America’s sidekick had been terminated, with Rick hastily transitioned from being one Captain’s “new Bucky” to becoming another’s “new Billy Batson”.
My decision to forego following Captain Marvel coincided with a growing disaffection with comic books in general as the year 1969 wound down (hence my one-year hiatus from Avengers, as well as several other Marvel titles). For that reason, I’m not sure that I was even aware that the series had been cancelled with issue #19 (Dec., 1969), only to be resuscitated six months later, then cancelled again after just two more bi-monthly issues. Nevertheless, I knew that Captain Marvel wasn’t currently being published (I read the Mighty Marvel Checklist every month, after all), and that if I wanted to see what was up with the guy, this guest shot was the place to do it. And I was curious, I think, even if only because, by this point, I was once again so very much invested the Marvel Universe, and wanted to know what was going on with everybody.
Of course, when I finally got Avengers #89 home and turned to the first page, I had to wonder if I’d somehow missed something — not only with Mar-Vell, but also with the Avengers themselves — since this opening scene certainly made it look like I was coming in late:
As would soon become evident, however, the regular Avengers creative team of Thomas and Buscema (joined by Sam Grainger on inks) were simply utilizing the venerable storytelling device of beginning their narrative in medias res, with a flashback to the events leading up to the present situation coming up within the next few pages. (This was something I should have been used to seeing in Avengers by now, frankly, considering that the last two issues I’d read, #84 and #88, had both been similarly structured.)
Quicksilver’s resorting “at once to force” doesn’t actually do him any good, as Captain Marvel takes him down with a single punch. Next up is the Vision, who ultimately fares no better (though Mar-Vell does at least have to try a little harder):
The Uni-Beam? Whassat? Actually, readers who’d followed the Captain Marvel series from the beginning would recognize this handy thingamabob as Mar-Vell’s weapon of choice from the earliest issues, when he’d been an ordinary Kree military officer, largely dependent on his alien civilization’s advanced technology. But I had come in with CM #12, in which the guy had been granted an impressive set of bona fide super-powers by a supposed cosmic entity named Zo. (Zo had turned out to be a fraud, but the powers were real.) He’d been deprived of those in issue #17, but only because they were replaced by a new, almost as impressive set, courtesy of a couple of wrist ornaments called Nega-Bands. If Mar-Vell had reverted to using a Uni-Beam, that was a strong signal that his status quo had radically changed — but due to my lack of familiarity with the device, I’m pretty sure the clue was lost on me.
(Before continuing with the analysis, I have to ask — did anyone else have a certain Beatles song start to run through their mind as soon as they read that line about zapping Captain Marvel? No? Just me? Okay.)
The revelation that the person who’s brought Mar-Vell down is none other than Rick Jones was an indicator of a changed status quo that even my thirteen-year-old self couldn’t miss. When had the two of them managed to extricate themselves from the situation that required one of them to chill in the Negative Zone whenever the other one was out and about on our world? Of course, as it turned out, no other reader, however well-informed, could have answered that question any better than I in April, 1971 — because that tale hadn’t been told prior to this very issue.
At this time, Roy Thomas was leaning heavily into broodiness in his characterization of the Vision. As many of this blog’s readers will already know, he was slowly building to something big; but in the months leading up to that development, the Vision often came across as so miserable as to verge on suicidal.
Regarding the Avengers’ destination: in the early issues of Captain Marvel’s series, his stomping ground had been “the Cape” — obviously intended to represent Cape Kennedy/Canaveral, though Marvel was cagey about making that identification explicit, for whatever reason. (A parody called “Captain Marvin”, produced by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan and published in Not Brand Echh #9 [Aug., 1968], even got a joke out of it; see right.) Going by the final panel on page 4, however, no one much cared anymore as of 1971.
When I’d last seen Marv and Rick, at the end of Captain Marvel #17, it had been at the very beginning of their new “partnership”. As best as my younger self could tell from the opening panels of this flashback sequence, all that had really changed in the interim is that the two guys now knew each other a lot better — and didn’t get along all that well.
Here, at least, I didn’t need any help catching up, as I’d read the recent issues of Fantastic Four whose events are referenced here. And since I wrote a rather lengthy post about those issues back in December, I’m going to zip through to the end of Mar-Vell’s recap: After telling Rick how, while floating in the void of the Negative Zone, he had to watch, unseen and unable to help, as Reed Richards faced death at the hands of the Zone’s evil lord, Annihilus, Marv then goes on to explain how the FF’s leader was able, at the very last moment, to slip through a small portal — “a pinprick of light and energy which lasted but long enough fpr Richards to pass thru it” before it closed shut again.
I can recall my younger self being pleased by this turn of events when I first read this story, as it addressed something which had been bugging me ever since Mar-Vell had been trapped in the Negative Zone at the end of Captain Marvel #16: Since the Fantastic Four had the technology to enter the Zone and return again (though obviously not without danger), with no requirement for anyone to “switch atoms”, it should have been possible for the heroes of the Marvel Universe to mount a rescue,
Of course, I’d imagined this working more along the lines of Rick Jones asking his friends in the Avengers to ask their colleagues in the FF for help, rather than doing what he does… which is to stroll immediately to the Baxter Building and change places with Mar-Vell, who then unceremoniously invades the Fantastic Four’s headquarters, flying up to and climbing through a 35th floor window before proceeding to demolish a rather expensive-looking three-inch-thick steel door…
In his 2010 introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Avengers, Vol. 10, Roy Thomas recalls how he came up with the plot point on which the Avengers’ entire involvement in this story ultimately hangs:
The episode… gave me a chance to postulate that, when the F.F. left town, they asked the Avengers to keep an eye on their HQ, and vice versa. Seemed like a logical arrangement to me, and still another minor way of tying the various Marvel features together.
The three Avengers we see in the triptych of panels above — Vision, Quicksilver, and Scarlet Witch — are in fact the only members of the team we’ll see in this entire issue, which I imagine gives Avengers #89 the record (or at least ties it) for the minimum number of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes on hand for a particular adventure, through the end of the Bronze Age if not further (though I should probably stipulate that I haven’t actually checked). Since the return of the Black Panther to Wakanda following the events of issue #87, they’re also the only Avengers currently living at Avengers Mansion — with the exception of Goliath, who’s with the group concurrently adventuring in the South Pacific (as told in #88).
Re-reading this sequence in 2021, it strikes me as highly unlikely that both Pietro Maximoff and his sister Wanda would choose to keep their costumes on while enjoying a relaxing evening in their own respective rooms. But this detail probably didn’t faze me at all in 1971.
This is the second time since they switched atoms earlier that Rick’s told Mar-Vell that he feels he’s being watched; narrative conventions being what they are, it’s a good bet that our distressed but determined duo are going to encounter some difficulties before completing their objective that have nothing at all to do with the just-now-arriving Avengers…
We readers hardly have time to register the significance of what’s just occurred in terms of Captain Marvel’s superheroic status quo — presumably, he’s lost his Nega-Band-bestowed super-powers at the same time that he and Rick have gained their freedom (which of course explains Marv’s reliance on his old Uni-Beam doohickey, back on page 3) — before those “difficulties” I mentioned above rear their ugly green head:
It’s not necessarily unreasonable that our heroes manage to thwart Annihilus so quickly and (relatively) easily. In April, 1971, this was only the third storyline the villain had appeared in; the only Marvel heroes he’d thus far encountered were the Fantastic Four, so he could hardly be expected to anticipate the Vision’s maneuver. Nevertheless, the sequence can’t help but seem a bit rushed and perfunctory, especially if you’re aware that, thirty-five years down the line, Annihilus will be deemed a formidable enough Big Bad to carry his own multi-title crossover event.
Is the Vision’s supposition that whatever mysterious, might-be-fatal radiation Mar-Vell has picked up in the Negative Zone “might build into an eventual chain reaction — which might destroy all the world” — not to mention that the clock might well already be ticking towards such an apocalyptic cataclysm — an obvious plot contrivance, introduced simply to generate suspense? Sure, it is; I mean, that’s an awful lot of “mights”. On the other hand, the android Avenger might be right, so let’s just roll with it for these last five pages.
Mar-Vell’s plan is to fly his boosted quinjet all the way to the Cape, then commandeer a rocket which he can modify to fly him home to the Kree Galaxy. Unfortunately, the craft begins to run out of fuel, requiring Marv to ditch it in a swamp and proceed on foot to his destination; along the way, he retrieves a Uni-Beam device he’d hidden nearby months ago for some undisclosed reason.
That pretty much brings us to where we, and the Avengers, found Captain Marvel at the beginning of the book — and thus, to the conclusion of our flashback…
Captain Marvel and the Vision are both left unconscious by the process; but they’re breathing, and Doc Donaldson announces that he believes they’ll pull through. Pietro then delivers a line about how Dr. Henry Pym (Yellowjacket) had talked to the Avengers on some earlier occasion about his trusted scientific colleague Donaldson — which is about as close as we ever get to an explanation of how our heroes knew that this guy even existed, let alone that he kept a lab at an “understaffed hospital” on Cape Kennedy that could have just the ticket to cure what was ailing Mar-Vell (and thereby endangering the world). I mean, that was really convenient, wasn’t it?
But, when you get right down to it, everything that we’ve read up to this point is preamble to the main event; indeed, beyond the two salient facts that 1) Captain Marvel has been freed from the Negative Zone, and 2) a similarly liberated Rick Jones has once more come into the Avengers’ orbit, you can pretty much forget everything you’ve read up to the final panel of page 18, for all the bearing it’ll have on what’s to come.
Both the Supreme Intelligence (or, as Thomas liked to style the name, the “Intelligence Supreme”) and Ronan the Accuser were creations of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, each having made their debuts in Fantastic Four #65 (Aug., 1967), the second half of the two-parter that introduced the Kree to the Marvel Universe. In that story, they’d been on the same side; but Captain Marvel #16 had revealed that Ronan was one of the leaders of a conspiracy plotting to usurp power from the Supremor, whom the conspirators considered to be too liberal on the issue of racial purity. Captain Marvel had been instrumental in foiling the scheme, and as a result had found a benefactor of sorts in the Supreme Intelligence — though not one who had much regard or concern for the welfare of the people of Earth.
The Sentry — or Sentry-459, to be more precise — went back even further in Marvel lore than even Ronan and the Supremor (if only by one month), as he’d first appeared in Fantastic Four #64 (Jul., 1967).
And there you have it, faithful readers: the beginning of that famed Marvel epic, the Kree-Skrull War — despite the fact that there are as yet no Skrulls in sight, let alone any hint of an armed conflict happening between the two mighty galactic empires.
In the Marvel Masterworks intro quoted earlier, Roy Thomas indicates that the entire saga had its genesis in an idea he had in late 1970 to have the Kree and the Skrulls — the two most prominent alien races invented by the Lee-Kirby team as they built out the Marvel Universe in the Sixties — go to war, with the Earth as one of their battlefields. But he also acknowledges that when he sat down to plot issue #89, he had no “grandiose plan” of how the whole thing was going to turn out: “I was basically winging it.”
That sense of figuring-it-out-as-you-go storytelling is quite evident in Avengers #89, as indeed it is for the next couple of installments to follow; so much so that, if Thomas hadn’t told us otherwise, I’d be inclined to question whether he really did know at the outset that the Skrulls were going to come into the story, or if he got that idea only after he’d already gotten the ball rolling with Mar-Vell, Ronan, and the other Kree.
But it probably doesn’t matter all that much, in the long run. Fifty years ago, the readers of Avengers had just embarked on what would prove to be a very memorable journey; by the time it was over, few of us would care whether or not our guide had known at the beginning precisely what our final destination was, or the exact route he’d use to get us there. In any event, it’s definitely a journey I’m looking forward to taking again this year, with the blog making multiple scenic stops along the way; I hope that I’ll see you at the next one, coming up in July.