In November, 1971, the cover of Avengers #96 heralded a new era for the title, as a streamlined new logo created by Gaspar Saladino replaced the one that had graced almost every issue of the Marvel Comics series since its launch back in 1963. A previous attempt to replace the original logo in 1969 had lasted a mere eight issues; this latter effort obviously proved a great deal more durable, as Saladino’s design, while undergoing multiple modifications over the years, has survived in recognizable form down to the present day.
Another significant change to the book’s trade dress was the addition of a certain three Avengers’ names above the new logo. This wouldn’t be nearly as lasting an innovation as the logo itself — indeed, the names would be replaced with the more generic (though ultimately iconic, even so) phrase “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes!” within seven issues — but it lasted long enough to do its job. And that job, of course, was to let readers know that Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man — all three of whom had been held at arms’ length within the series for years, due to an edict of editor Stan Lee that no superhero with their own solo feature could be a full-time active Avenger — were back to stay. This had in fact been effectively true for some time; but up until this point, there’d remained a tiny bit of daylight between the status of the Big Three and that of the “regular” Avengers (currently Goliath, Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, and the Vision) who didn’t have their own titles. From now on, that would no longer be the case.
Still and all — as notable as those new design elements were, I doubt they had any greater impact on the readers of 1971 — including my fourteen-year-old self, of course — than did the actual cover image: Neal Adams’ powerful illustration of the allegedly “emotionless” android Avenger, Vision, brutally beating an alien warrior, while his three “star” teammates rush to try to stop him. As dire as the Avengers’ situation (and the Earth’s) had seemed at the conclusion of issue #95, things had obviously escalated since then. And I couldn’t wait to find out how.
In case you’re wondering, this is the very first appearance of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Space Station, for all the narration’s implying that it’s been around for a while (“to it have come dictators and dignitaries”, etc.). (Evidently, it would also be virtually the station’s last appearance, at least under the auspices of S.H.I.E.L.D., due to its finding running dry in a few years. Talk about your boondoggles…)
Writer Roy Thomas’ practice of referencing well-known works of science fiction in his titles for the individual episodes of the Kree-Skrull War storyline continues with “The Andromeda Swarm!” — a riff on the name of Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, as well as its 1971 film adaptation. Compared to the other “classic” SF works Thomas had alluded to so far, this one was of very recent origin; still, as the author put it in his 2010 introduction to Marvel Masterworks — The Avengers, Vol. 10, “…how could I have resisted naming one chapter… after the galaxy in which the Skrulls originated?”
Also worth noting on this page is the credits box, which lets us know that customary inker Tom Palmer was assisted on this issue by the book’s penciller, Neal Adams, as well as by another artist, Alan Weiss, who had made his Marvel pencilling debut the previous month in Daredevil #83. (Incidentally, in that same month of October, 1971, Weiss had also appeared as a character in the lead story in DC Comics’ Batman #237, a tale which just so happened to be drawn by Adams.)
That last bit about “…all at speeds beyond speed — into space which is not space…” seems to be Thomas’ way of informing us (without getting into any specifics, of course) that the Avengers’ S.H.I.E.L.D.-loaned spaceship is equipped with some sort of faster-than-light hyper-drive — which would seem quite necessary indeed, considering that it would take 2.5 million years traveling at the speed of light to get from Earth to the Andromeda Galaxy. (Gee, I wonder how much that tech cost the U.S. taxpayers of Earth-616?)
I figure that comics writer Grant Morrison probably had this page in mind when they referred to “hovering armadas made of a thousand space warships” in the midst of waxing rhapsodically about the Kree Skrull War as a whole in their 2011 book Supergods. No, Adams didn’t actually draw a thousand ships, here or anywhere else, but he certainly managed to give the impression of a vast armada in what he did draw — an effort that was enhanced, I believe, by his decision not to draw any two ships alike (at least, not at this range).
As they see the Skrull flagship heading for them, the Avengers realize their gambit of disguising their single ship as an entire fleet (presumably by some sort of illusion-projecting tech; it’s not really explained) has failed; there’s nothing for it, then, but to fight, and to hope that if they best this batch of Skrulls, the others will back off.
Thomas and his artistic collaborators may have made us wait for seven issues (counting from the beginning of the storyline in Avengers #89) to get to the full-on outer-space action — but now that we’re finally here, we should find the payoff well worth the wait.
While this was hardly the first time comic-book readers had seen superheroes fighting aliens in space, never before Avengers #96 had such a battle seemed so vividly real. This sequence captured the sensibility of a widescreen blockbuster science fiction action movie before there were any widescreen blockbuster science fiction action movies, setting the standard for all the superheroes-in-space fight scenes that would follow in its wake.
It’s a triumph for all of the storytellers involved, though most especially for Adams.
Outside the flagship, Iron Man decides it’s time for him to join the fray within, leaving Goliath to keep an eye out for any more Skrull vessels — as well as to mope about how “playin’ watchdog” is just about all he’s good for now. ( Hey, Clint — it was your idea to ditch Hank Pym’s growth serum, so stop complaining already.)
Maybe it’s just me, but something about the Skrulls seems to bring out Adams’ sense of humor…
Before the Avengers can stop him, Commandant Kalxor relays the Emperor’s directive to an unseen subordinate, using his spacesuit’s internal communications system…
So now it’s up to a powerless, weaponless Clint Barton to save the entire Earth from nuclear Armageddon all by himself. I know we’re supposed to admire his bravery as he goes charging into this dire situation — but when I first read this story fifty years ago, I couldn’t get past my irritation with him for (1) forgetting to take his growth serum in the first place, and then (2) deciding to give it up altogether, at the worst possible time. And I still feel that way, so there.
Someone seems to have forgotten to slip the colorist (probably Tom Palmer) the memo about Ronan the Accuser being a blue-skinned Kree (and proud of it!), rather than a lowly “pink”…
Ronan recognizes Rick Jones as being among those who messed up his plans to devolve every living thing on Earth back in issue #91. But he’s impressed with the young man’s “rudimentary courage” after Rick grabs the staff from one of his guards and (uselessly) assaults Ronan with it. He decides to make Rick his “body-slave” — but before Rick can begin his new duties, Ronan needs to make sure he understands how insignificant and backwards humanity is in the universal scheme of things…
So the Supreme Intelligence is responsible for H. Warren Craddock’s anti-alien/anti-Avengers crusade? Hmm, I’m not sure that tracks all that well with what we’ll learn about Craddock in the very next issue. But so as not to spoil that particular reveal for anyone out there who might not know the details of how this story ends, we’ll table that concern for the nonce.
Jeez. Rick Jones and Captain Marvel took turns hanging out in the Negative Zone for more than a year without Annihilus showing up once, and now you can’t even turn around once in the place before bumping into the guy. But for more on this matter, as on the mystery of H. Warren Craddock, we’ll have to wait until next month — when we’ll come at last to the conclusion of the Kree-Skrull War.
It’s just too bad Neal Adams won’t be able to join us.
More abut that, too, come December…