If there’s a single comic book that best exemplifies the potential of the all-new, 48-page format which Marvel Comics rolled out to great fanfare in August, 1971 (or, as we’ve christened it on this blog, Giant-Size Marvel Month), it surely must be the subject of today’s post: Avengers #93, featuring the 34-page story “This Beachhead Earth” — which, in addition to being the mid-point of the extended storyline known as the Kree-Skrull War, was also the first installment of a short but superlative run on the series by the creative team of scripter Roy Thomas, penciller Neal Adams, and inker Tom Palmer.
And if any set of classic comics exemplifies just how contentious two talented creators can become over the issue of who deserves the credit for which aspects of their storied collaboration, it’s the same short Avengers run by Thomas, Adams, and Palmer.
Over the five decades since they produced this small but seminal body of work, Roy Thomas and Neal Adams have both presented their individual perspectives in a variety of interviews, articles, prefaces, and afterwords. Those perspectives seem to have been at odds with each other (at least somewhat) almost from the get-go, but have become especially contradictory in recent years. As of this writing, the latest (and most rancorous) version of this “he said/he said” occurred in late 2018, in the run-up to the 2019 release of Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel film (which drew on the Kree-Skrull War for some elements of its plot). Conducted as a series of posts and comments on the BleedingCool.com web site, the exchange can be most easily read in sequence here.
As you might imagine, your humble blogger has his own opinions about the two creators’ competing claims. But he has no claims to greater knowledge of what actually happened fifty years ago than does anyone else — at least, anyone who’s not Neal Adams or Roy Thomas. For that reason — and because I have considerable respect for both creators’ work — we’ll be following a few basic ground rules in discussing this and subsequent chapters of the Kree-Skrull War saga.
Both creators agree that Adams contributed substantially to the plotting of these issues. Thus, we’ll be giving authorial credit for most story elements to “Thomas and Adams” jointly, save in those cases where both men are on record as attributing a given element to one or the other of them individually. By and large, we’re going to try to avoid getting into the specifics of the disagreements between Adams and Thomas — except when it’s necessary to do so to address some important behind the scenes questions (e.g., why did John Buscema draw the final issue of the storyline, Avengers #97, rather than Adams?).
All clear? Let’s hope so — because, without further ado, we’re about to dive right in to the story Neal Adams wanted to call “Three Cows Shot Me Down!”:
The actual name of this story was derived from the title of a science-fiction novel, as would also be the case with all of the saga’s succeeding installments (and even the individual chapter titles within each installment). This particular allusion — to Raymond F. Jones’ 1952 novel This Island Earth (which was adapted into a film of the same title in 1955) — was probably the most appropriate of them all, as Jones’ story of an intergalactic war between two alien races, for whom Earth is merely a strategic pawn, deals with themes similar to those of the Kree-Skrull War story arc.
As for what Adams was on about with his “Three Cows” title idea? We’ll get into that a little later on.
Readers of Avengers #92 — or of our blog post about same — might well feel a little lost at this point. At the end of that issue, we’d seen Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor disband the Avengers forever, effectively booting those members currently residing in Avengers Mansion — including the Vision — from the premises. So not only do we have to wonder what calamity has befallen the Vision since the last time we saw him — we’re also likely to be curious about what the Avengers’ “Big Three” are even doing back at Tony Stark’s townhouse, given the apparent finality of their actions in #92.
Our storytellers will be answering those questions — although they’re going to make their readers wait some fifteen pages before they begin to do so. Somehow, I doubt many readers over the decades have minded the wait very much, given what those fifteen pages include — specifically, a bravura performance in graphic storytelling by Neal Adams, ably abetted by Tom Palmer (who contributed colors as well as inks) that stands as one of the most visually stunning flights of imagination ever to appear in superhero comics. In any case, I’m sure that my fourteen-year-old self didn’t mind at all, back in 1971.
Henry Pym goes on to remind his colleagues how his own creation, Ultron, had evolved himself into a more humanoid form, then gone on to create his own artificial offspring, the Vision — just as we’d all learned together, Avengers and readers alike, back in Avengers #58 (Nov., 1968). So he’s the Vision’s creator-once-removed, at best. “Still, if anybody here is gonna take a stab at finding out what ails him,” says Hank, “I’ve gotta admit I’m your best bet!” As Iron Man and Thor proceed to lay their android associate out on an examining table, the miniature hero adds, “Maybe we’ll soon get all the answers, Avengers — straight from the horse’s mouth.”
The idea to bring back Hank Pym as Ant-Man and send him on trip inside the Vision’s body originated with Adams. Thomas might well have balked at the notion, considering that he had in fact had Pym (as Yellowjacket) resign from the Avengers just two issues earlier (as alluded to in the dialogue on page 4 above); besides which, as the writer noted years later in Alter Ego v.2, #4 (Spring, 1999), “Neal’s idea had nothing whatever to do with the [Kree-Skrull] war…” Nevertheless, in Thomas’ words: “…it sounded like fun, and 34 pages was a lot of space to fill. I told him to go for it.”
Adams himself recalled in a 1998 interview with Arlen Schumer for Comic Book Artist: “…I thought, well, let’s start off small—we started off incredibly small, inside the Vision’s body—and grow out from there. What a nice thing to do, to go all the way down, and start to move outward and outward into the universe.”
The chapter’s title is derived from one of the foundational classic works of what we now call the science fiction genre — Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864)– though the inspiration for what happens in it clearly has more to do with the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage — a film Adams hadn’t yet seen when he drew Avengers #93, though, as he told Schumer, “I knew what it was about.”
Ant-Man’s references to germs and microbes are right in line with Fantastic Voyage, where a submarine and its crew are shrunk to microscopic size before being injected into a human body. We should note, however, that nothing in in the comic’s art or script indicates that Hank and his crew of ants ever shrink down any smaller than, well, ant-size — pretty well short of microbe territory. So, we might deduce that Adams and Thomas are playing fast and loose with scale here. Or, if we’d rather, we can imagine that Hank actually does shrink himself and his “ant brigade” down to actual microscopic size, only it happens “off panel”. Or, hell, maybe things are just really, really weird inside the Vision, him being an android and all, and his body’s defenses react to ants (and ant-sized humans) just like they were germs. Your choice, faithful reader.
In his 1999 Alter Ego piece, Thomas wrote:
I had recently read an article on experiments which indicated that ants did indeed “scream,” if you had the apparatus to hear them, and that the sound disturbingly resembled that of a human infant. To a guy who chummed around with ants, I felt such a cry might be extremely discomfiting.
(Raquel Welch was one of the stars of Fantastic Voyage, just in case you didn’t know.)
I doubt that any other comics writer has ever dropped as many cultural references as Roy Thomas was wont to do, back in the day (in this particular period, the only Thomas-scripted title that was mostly clear of them was Conan the Barbarian, for obvious reasons) — and he really went for broke in Avengers #93, especially in this chapter. Perhaps, cognizant not only of Adams’ having conceived the whole inside-the-Vision sequence all on his own, but also of the artist’s having laid down the lion’s share of the storytelling in his pencilled artwork prior to Thomas’ own fingers ever meeting his typewriter’s keys, the writer felt compelled to contribute something of his own to the enterprise. I realize that it’s all a bit much for some readers — even Thomas, in his 2010 introduction to Marvel Masterworks — The Avengers, Vol. 10, referred to “all the obscure, even self-indulgent stuff I was tossing in” — but it’s never really bothered me. As a young reader at the time, a number of the references definitely eluded my complete comprehension — but if I recall correctly, I found that more intriguing than irritating.
Anyway — having already tipped his hat to classic science fiction and contemporary rock music (not to mention Raquel Welch), in the last panel of page 10 Thomas unloads a full trifecta of allusions, invoking Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, DC Comics’ Superman, and the official EC Comics fan club of the 1950s, one right after the other. Of the three, the only one I can be sure today that my younger self got at the time was (naturally) “Clark Kent”.
When first introduced, the Vision had been referred to regularly as a “synthozoid”, and there was a clear implication that he was anatomically very much like we ordinary human beings, inside as well as out. Clearly, however, Neal Adams had a different vision (no pun intended). Again, here’s Roy Thomas in 1999:
When I’d conceived him [the Vision] in 1968, I hadn’t envisioned him as having robotic insides; I’d seen him as more organic, with synthetic flesh and blood and bone. But I’d given Neal something resembling carte blanche on this sequence, and didn’t want to quibble.
This is just one fan’s opinion — but I’d say you made the right call there, Mr. Thomas.
The compound pop-culture references continue on page 12, panel 1. I probably don’t need to explain that they all ultimately point back to the 1938 film Gone with the Wind, and the classic exit line spoken by star Clark Gable’s character, Rhett Butler: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”. (Though I just did anyway. Oops.) My fourteen-year-old self would have understood that much of what Thomas was up to here, even if I hadn’t yet seen GWTW (come to think of it, I still haven’t seen it, at least not all the way through; go figure) — and I would also have recognized the name of Al Feldstein, which I was accustomed to seeing adorn the masthead of every issue of Mad magazine, he being the editor of that august publication. From that knowledge, I would likely have inferred that Hank Pym’s “hydroelectric dam” variant of the movie quote came from a Mad parody — and I would have been dam close (sorry), if not quite 100% on the money. In fact, the quote in question came from the eighth issue of Panic — which was, as Roy Thomas put it, “EC’s answer to its own color Mad comics” — and doesn’t appear to have written by Feldstein, though it was edited by him.
Thomas likely couldn’t have known who actually wrote the line, since “Gone with the Widow” carried no credits; but according to the Grand Comics Database, the strip was scripted by Jack Mendelsohn (and drawn by Wally Wood, just so’s you know).
An obscure reference for Ant-Man to make? Maybe — but then, as established back on page 10, Hank Pym is “an old E.C. Fan-Addict“.
The “mystery within an enigma” discovered by Hank at the bottom of page 15 was another idea originating with Neal Adams — that the Vision’s android body had not been built from scratch by Ultron, but rather had once belonged to the original, Golden Age Human Torch. Thomas obviously did not reject this idea out-of-hand, but he may have felt some ambivalence about it — in any event, he left himself some wiggle room with his “one of which our readers may learn one day” phrasing. As things worked out, it would be up to his successor as Avengers scripter, Steve Englehart, to follow through on Adams’ notion by telling the full story of the Vision’s “secret origin” — and since that story will be coming up on its 50th anniversary in 2025, we’ll defer discussion of its details — as well as the details of how this new origin was later retconned away, and then how that retcon was itself retconned, and so on — until then.
Wait — was Captain America really taking a power nap just now, at a time when he knew Ant-Man might be fighting for his and the Vision’s lives? Hard to imagine, but it sure looks that way to me.
Hank Pym’s absence from the team this time would last a bit longer than the previous one — it would be a whole seven issues before his next appearance, rather than just two — although, in Thomas’ defense, he might not yet have had the idea of bringing together every hero who’d ever been an Avenger for the celebratory 100th issue when he wrote the above dialogue.
Interestingly, although Hank’s resumption of his Ant-Man identity for the present story seems to have been based simply on Adams’ desire to draw that iteration of the character this one time, the sometime-superhero would actually stick with it for a while, rather than go back right away to being Yellowjacket. While this was likely only a matter of certain creators having a fondness for the Ant-Man persona, it was also the sort of thing that would later inspire the widespread idea among creators and fans that “Hank Pym can’t hold down a heroic identity”, and would ultimately feed into a narrative, developed by Jim Shooter and other writers, of the character having chronic mental health issues.
For the record, Hank would return to active duty with the Avengers in issue #137, alongside his wife Jan (aka the Wasp) — though only after putting in a short stint with the Defenders. (As one often did, if one were a Marvel superhero back in the 1970s.)
But enough about Defenders and Yellowjackets and Ant-Men and even Original Human Torches. I believe we’ve still got a little matter of a Kree-Skrull War still to deal with in this issue, and we’ve only got… let’s see… oh. Seventeen pages left to do it in. Well, considering that that happens to be the exact same page-count as a complete, “full-length” Marvel Comics story circa 1976-1980, I guess we’ll probably be OK.
That much of the story we all saw unfold already, of course, in the pages of Avengers #92. But the Vision now goes on to relate events we readers haven’t seen before, as he describes how he, Goliath, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch all took a drive upstate, hoping to rendezvous with their ally Captain Marvel and his friend, Cape Canaveral security chief Carol Danvers…
Vizh and Wanda had had a “moment” back in issue #91, while both heroes were captives of Ronan the Accuser (the current ruler-by-coup of the Kree). Things have been strained between them since then, however — and Pietro’s characteristically overprotective attitude towards his sister certainly hasn’t been helping things.
Remember how Neal Adams wanted to call this story “Three Cows Shot Me Down”? Now we all get it.
Considering how greatly I admire the artistic skills of Neal Adams and Tom Palmer — individually as well as as a team — it’s always been curious to me how unconvincing their rendition of “the Thing” is in this issue. Their illustrative style, which in your humble blogger’s opinion works just fine for most other Marvel characters originally designed by Jack Kirby, just can’t seem to get a good grip on Ben Grimm’s uniquely geometric surface texture.
And that, of course, is where we came in on page 1. The Vision concludes his tale by proclaiming his intention to return to the farm immediately — and his three fellow Avengers assure him he won’t be alone when he does so. “For, this night have we a wrong to redress,” declares Thor, “a name to avenge!”
Finally, the Skrulls show their green, wrinkly faces. Save for a single panel in Avengers #91, it’s the first time they’ve done so since the extended “Kree-Skrull War” storyline first kicked off back in issue #89.
Meanwhile, Roy Thomas has moved a bit past Jules Verne, chronologically speaking — though only a bit — with the third and final chapter title for this issue, which references H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898).
We’d last seen sidekick-to-the-stars Rick Jones in the latter pages of Avengers #92, when, having had a sudden premonition that his pal Mar-Vell was in danger, he went bolting from the courtroom where the Alien Activities Commission hearings were being held. Though Thomas’ script doesn’t spell it out, we may safely presume that he got himself upstate to the present locale sometime before the Avengers’ own arrival.
Both Thomas’ script and Adams’ art are simplifying the events of Fantastic Four #2 (Jan., 1962) somewhat; there were in fact four Skrulls who served as the vanguard of their people’s planned invasion of Earth in that story, and who, after impersonating the real Fantastic Four, were captured by the real deal. Nevertheless, Adams and Thomas are correct in reporting that only three captive Skrulls were hypnotized by Reed Richards into believing themselves cows at the conclusion of that tale.
I bring this up because the mysterious fate of the fourth Skrull will turn out to be highly significant in a later chapter of our saga; but since it doesn’t have any real impact on the events of the present installment, we’ll defer further explication of the matter to a future post.
Mar-Vell wants to go to the aid of the Avengers; but, prompted by a query from Carol Danvers, he realizes that his own people, the Kree, are likely not yet aware of the Skrulls’ presence on Earth. And that means he, despite being a renegade and exile, has a duty to do something else, first…
This is purely speculative on my part — but, knowing that Roy Thomas was a fan of This Island Earth, I wonder if the “Omni-Wave Projector” — a device that can be used not only for instantaneous faster-than-light communication, but also has a highly destructive weapon — could have been inspired by the “interocitor” — a device central to the plot of that novel (and film) that possesses similar functionality.
Evidently, the Carol Danvers that crashed her helicopter onto the roof of Avengers Mansion back in issue #92 was the Super-Skrull all along…
The preceding five pages represent another bravura performance, with our storytellers utilizing the comics form to carry forward two narrative threads simultaneously in a way difficult to imagine being achieved successfully in any other medium.
I get why the Avengers are down. Really, I do. Especially Goliath, whose having forgotten “for days” to take a dose of the growth serum that makes him Goliath seems especially boneheaded, even for Clint Barton. I mean, sure, I’ve failed to take a pill according to schedule more than a few times over the decades — but c’mon, Clint, you’re an Avenger. What the hell were you thinking?
Nevertheless, as a reader, it’s hard to feel down after the 34-page thrill ride Thomas, Adams, and Palmer have just taken us all on. And just imagine — in thirty days we get to do it all over again!
Well, not quite all of it, of course. As things turned out, back in 1971, the dream of getting an all-new 34-page Avengers story every month — let alone one by this particular creative team — would prove to be a fleeting one. Nevertheless, there would still be plenty of comic-book goodness to enjoy with the release of Avengers #94 — as we’ll hopefully all find out together, come September.
We’ll end this post by returning briefly to Neal Adams’ dream title for Avengers #93’s story, “Three Cows Shot Me Down!”, just long enough to relate how the artist finally saw his dream come true — well, almost — close to thirty years later.
In 2000, Marvel published a new trade collection of the complete saga under the title Avengers: The Kree-Skrull War. Asked to provide a new cover for the volume, Adams opted to illustrate the moment just before the first page of “This Beachhead Earth!” — Avengers #93, page zero, if you will.
Here is that illustration, sans titles, credits, and other trade dress:
No, a series of word balloons on a cover isn’t the same thing as a title. But it’s close, right?
Which leaves us with the question Adams himself posed at the end of his foreword to this volume: “Are we looking at the Vision through the door and it’s a reflection of the rest… or are we looking at the Avengers through the door and a reflection of the vision?”
The answer, obviously, is: Yes.