Writing about Avengers #100 back in March of this year, I referred to the four issues that immediately followed that milestone as a “victory lap” for Roy Thomas, whose nearly-six-year tenure as the title’s writer was about to come to an end. In characterizing Avengers #101-104 in such a fashion, I don’t mean to denigrate them; they’re not bad comics, by any means. But coming directly upon the heels of the three-part “Olympus Trilogy” crafted by Thomas with Barry Windsor-Smith — and, right before that, the “Kree-Skrull War” epic by Thomas, Neal Adams, and Sal and John Buscema — these comics can’t help but seem somewhat anticlimactic by comparison. I suppose there’s always been a part of me that kind of wishes that Thomas had just quit while he was ahead.
That’s probably especially true in regards to issue #101 — a follow-up of sorts to Thomas’ crossover story between Avengers #88 and Hulk #140, which had been published in the previous year, 1971. Like that two-parter, this tale was scripted by Thomas based on a plot synopsis by the science-fiction author Harlan Ellison; though, unlike it, this one had actually begun its life as a prospective plot not for Marvel Comics, but for their primary rivals, DC — specifically, as a Hawkman adventure that had been rejected by editor Julius Schwartz, circa 1968.* Perhaps owing in part to its more complicated genesis, this Ellison-Thomas collaboration was rather less satisfying than their previous effort, feeling overstuffed both with superheroes and with plot details for the single-issue one-off it was. One bright spot, however, was the debut on the book of Rich Buckler, a young artist who’d broken into the business a couple of years before, but was just getting started at Marvel. At this point in his career, Buckler was working in a style which evoked that of Neal Adams without slavishly imitating it; that approach made for some good-looking comics art, even if it inevitably paled somewhat in comparison to that produced directly by Adams himself that had graced Avengers‘ pages less than six months earlier.
Buckler continued on as the book’s penciller as Thomas followed up #101 with his last multi-issue Avengers storyline. Running from issue #102 through #104, this three-parter was primarily a direct sequel to one of Thomas’ greatest hits of the past, though one that itself hadn’t appeared in Avengers; rather, it was the Sentinels saga he’d done with Neal Adams for X-Men in 1969. But you wouldn’t know that from #102’s cover, which focused instead on an all-but-unrelated nine-page prologue to the main action, concerning an attempt by the supervillain known as the Grim Reaper to seduce the Vision into betraying his teammates. The Reaper, aka Eric Williams, offered the android Avenger the chance to become a real human being by having his mind transferred into the deceased but preserved body of Eric’s brother Simon, aka Wonder Man; since Vizh’s own consciousness had been based on Simon’s brainwave patterns, the Reaper saw this as the equivalent of bringing his sibling back to life. Having recently come to realize that he’d fallen in love with the Scarlet Witch, the Vision appeared to be tempted by the possibility; and though he ultimately rejected the Reaper’s bargain, he did accept the gift of an amulet that he could use to communicate with the villain, should he change his mind.
As for the main, Sentinels-centric plotline — which, interestingly, was based by Thomas on an idea contributed by a young fellow named Chris Claremont, who’d later go on to write more than a few stories of his own featuring the mutant-hunting robots — it involved a scheme by the latter to use solar radiation to end the supposed scourge of human mutation. In the story’s first chapter, a Sentinel successfully abducted the Scarlet Witch, Wanda Maximoff, despite the best efforts of the Avengers — spearheaded by Wanda’s brother, Pietro (aka Quicksilver), and would-be boyfriend, the Vision — to prevent it. As shown in the panels from #102 shown at left (pencils by Bucker, inks by Joe Sinnott), the sequence included a rather curious comment from the Sentinel regarding the Vision’s android body being of “three decades vintage” — which didn’t make a lot of sense given what we readers had been told concerning Vizh’s origin, which was that he’d been created by the evil robot Ultron no earlier than 1968. Of course, this wasn’t a mistake on Roy Thomas’ part; rather, the writer was dropping another hint regarding an idea that Neal Adams had initially come up with while drawing (and co-plotting) Avengers #93 — namely, that the Vision’s body had been refurbished by Ultron from the remains of the original Human Torch, who’d first appeared in 1939. Remarkably, the full story behind all this wouldn’t come out until issue #134, published in 1975; and when it did, it would be up to Thomas’ successor as Avengers scribe, Steve Englehart, to tell it, rather than Thomas himself. But more about that guy in a bit…
Issue #102 ended with the assembled Avengers vowing to rescue Wanda, though Quicksilver — frustrated, it seemed, not only by the team’s failure to prevent her abduction in the first place, but by the ongoing general antipathy towards he and his fellow mutants from a good chunk of humanity — opted to go off on his own. In #103, his search for his sister led him to the son of the Sentinels’ creator, Larry Trask — the man who’d been behind their most recent rampage, until he himself was outed as a mutant in the climax of X-Men #59. Working with Trask, Pietro eventually tracked the Sentinels down to their base in Australia — but his own battle against them came to an abrupt close when he was badly injured in issue #104. Sending Trask on ahead without him, Pietro was startled by the sudden appearance of… well, that was the question, wasn’t it?
Meanwhile, Pietro’s erstwhile teammates had, via their own separate investigation, tracked the Sentinels to their hideout down under as well — and they were ultimately able to defeat the metal menaces, freeing the Scarlet Witch in the process (though Larry Trask died in the course of the battle). Roy Thomas thus ended his seventy-two issue run (that’s counting a couple of annuals as well as every regular issue from #35 on) with Pietro’s unknown fate as the only loose end left dangling. Well, that and the Grim Reaper business introduced in the first half of #102. Oh, and also that bit about Vizh being thirty-some-odd years old. Hey, he wouldn’t have wanted to leave this new guy Englehart without anything to build off of, right?
Issue #104’s letters column included the following valediction from Thomas to the series’ readers:
As things turned out, #104 wouldn’t be the very last issue of Avengers Roy Thomas would write (assuming you’re not excruciatingly technical about how you define “issue of Avengers“, not to mention “write”). Indeed, he’d be back as soon as 1974 to perform his old authorial duties for Giant-Size Avengers #1, following that soon afterwards by scripting Avengers #132 and Giant-Size Avengers #3 over the plots of his successor, Steve Englehart. Then, after a long hiatus, he’d return in 1990 for a nearly-unbroken forty issue run on Avengers West Coast (which is nothing to sneeze at, in my opinion, even if it doesn’t approach the magnitude of his original seventy-two issue Avengers run) — and would also toss off a few Avengers Annual and Avengers Spotlight stories over the next few years, while he was at it. So, no — Roy Thomas wasn’t quite as done with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes as he might have thought he was, in the summer of 1972.
Nevertheless, Avengers #104 did legitimately represent the end of an era, just as the following issue would signify the beginning of a new one. Which brings us at last to August, 1972, and to the ostensible topic of today’s post, Avengers #105 — in which our brand-spanking-new scribe Englehart is joined by old artistic hands John Buscema and Jim Mooney for his first outing.
The opening splash page of Englehart’s premiere story spotlights a character who (according to the writer’s 2011 introduction to Marvel Masterworks — The Avengers, Vol. 11) “someone along the way” had told him “was supposed to be a weaker character than the other Avengers — [I had been told] that she should do her hex and then drop back, exhausted. But as I looked at this group… I thought, ‘How can you be an Avenger and not pull your weight?’ So my very first thought was to put Wanda front and center…”
Englehart went on to add:
As it turned out, the bulk of my time on Avengers was driven by Wanda and her main squeeze, the Vision. There are logical reasons; primarily, these two didn’t have their own books and so gave me more freedom of movement. But there are also the vagaries of chance: Wanda’s story is what I chose to start with, and many things just followed from that… I had no idea where I was going with her, but I knew there was somewhere to go.
Of course, a certain type of reader might not initially appreciate what the Avengers’ new chronicler was up to here in regards to Wanda Maximoff, simply because they were too distracted by the coloring of the character. While it’s true that Wanda’s hair color had veered back and forth between auburn and black over the years since her debut in X-Men #4 (Mar., 1964), Marvel seemed to have pretty well settled on the reddish-brown look as the norm — at least until #104, which had switched her back to basic black (i.e., black with blue highlights). But even that issue hadn’t made the mess this one does of the Scarlet Witch’s costume, as our (mercifully) uncredited colorist has dropped the light red tinting on Wanda’s arms, legs, shoulders, and upper chest that usually signifies she’s wearing an all-over body stocking of some kind — and thereby made it look like she’s baring a lot more skin than she actually is. (Maybe it’s a good thing the overprotective Pietro is missing, as he’d likely be scandalized by such attire.)
Oh, well… not much we can do about any of this a half century after the fact, is there? So, we’ll move on…
Back in the early years of the “Marvel Age of Comics” — let’s say 1962 to around 1966 — when the company was producing only about a dozen monthly superhero features, and Stan Lee was scripting virtually all of them — it was common to see cross-references between the various strips regarding events going on concurrently in them. Perhaps originally intended merely as a way of promoting the whole Marvel line by having the different books plug one another, the ultimate effect was to build a stronger sense of a shared universe than anyone else in comics was offering at the time (which of course in itself also ended up indirectly helping to promote the whole line, simply through encouraging a greater degree of reader investment and engagement).
But as the number of features grew, and Lee increasingly delegated their writing to new arrivals such as Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich, Archie Goodwin, and others, that sort of casual-but-consistent inter-title continuity had largely fallen by the wayside. By 1972, even a continuity maven like Thomas had given up making more than a token effort in trying to explain when and how a given character’s appearances in one title “fit” with those in another; typically, a footnote would say something along the lines of, “Thor’s adventures in this month’s Avengers take place before the multi-issue epic currently going on in his own mag! Or maybe after!” — assuming that any footnote appeared at all.
All of which goes to make the level of interconnectedness Englehart enthusiastically embraces in his first Avengers story, and particularly in its first few pages, pretty remarkable. Let’s start with those “Asgardian houseguests” in the next to last panel above, who’ve come to take up residence in Avengers Mansion since the events of Thor #203 — which, as regular readers of this blog may recall, ended with the God of Thunder giving his dad Odin a piece of his mind regarding the All-Father’s recent manipulation of events. That critique promptly got both Thor and his allies exiled to Earth in Thor #204, which did indeed feature a scene of the group getting settled in with the Avengers for the foreseeable future.
So, from left to right, we’ve got Hildegarde (whose hair should actually be colored blond), Fandral the Dashing (of the Warriors Three), the Rigellian Colonizer named Tana Nile (currently in human guise), Hogun the Grim (also of the Warriors Three), Silas Grant (lone survivor of the alien planet Blackworld), and Balder the Brave (whose hair should be colored brown… sigh). (Conspicuous by his absence is the third member of the Warriors Three, Volstagg the Voluminous, probably because this scene is supposed to take place during a period when he’d been separated from his comrades [as shown in Thor #203 and #204]… although I suppose it’s also possible that John Buscema just couldn’t figure out how to fit his great girth into the panel.)
Moving on to the next panel, we have the Black Panther, who hasn’t appeared in these pages since #100. Since that time, he’s resumed his kingly duties in the nation of Wakanda, along the way temporarily changing his name to the Black Leopard (more on that a little later) as well as getting into a jam in the neighboring, apartheid-enforcing country of “Rudyarda” (as seen in Fantastic Four #119). More recently, he’d made a trip back to the U.S. — specifically, to San Francisco — to help out his old friend Daredevil with a secret-identity problem (as seen in DD #92). Got all that?
Um, yeah… I guess it could be, though it seems like a really long shot, to my mind. Still, somebody ought to try to rescue those poor kidnapped scientists, right?
Captain America’s “urgent personal matter” may have to do with his battle against his insane 1950s replacement, which was going on at this time in his own comic (also written by Steve Englehart, incidentally). Or it may not, seeing as how Cap had left New York for a Bahamas vacation with Sharon Carter near the beginning of that storyline, before being waylaid on the beach by Fifties-Cap. (On the other hand, maybe Cap told Thor that his vacay was an urgent personal matter.)
As for the Vision, just like the footnote says, he had indeed just co-starred with Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up #5 (that comic actually arrived on stands one week after Avengers #105, but why quibble) — an adventure that provided the android Avenger his first opportunity to shine without his teammates around, if I’m not mistaken. (But why are we only now getting footnotes now, you wonder, when we didn’t before? I have no idea, I’m afraid.)
Iron Man’s callback to his latest solo exploit wraps up the cross-references to other current or recent Marvel comics (well, at least until we’re much closer to the end of the issue). It also happens to be the only one that didn’t mean much to my fifteen-year-old self in August, 1972, as I’d dropped Iron Man a few months prior to this. (Sorry, Shellhead.)
As I mentioned earlier, the Black Panther had briefly changed his name to the Black Leopard, as was revealed in Fantastic Four #119. In that issue, T’Challa had told the Thing and the Torch that he was concerned about his original moniker’s “political connotations” in America, going on to explain, “I neither condemn nor condone those that have taken up the name (i.e., the members of the Black Panther Party) — but T’Challa is a law unto himself.”
FF #119 had been scripted by Roy Thomas as a one-off, some months before he officially took over the title from Stan Lee — but according to the former’s 2009 introduction to Marvel Masterworks — The Fantastic Four, Vol. 12, the decision to rename T’Challa the Black Leopard was all Lee’s. Thomas himself doesn’t seem to have had any enthusiasm for the idea, and downplayed it as much as possible; in T’Challa’s next two appearances (in Avengers #99-100), which Thomas of course wrote, the hero was referred to only by that name, and by the time he turned up in Daredevil #92 (written by Gerry Conway, but edited by Thomas), he was calling himself the Black Panther once more. Did Thomas convince Lee to reverse his former decision, or did he just quietly roll things back on his own? I doubt we’ll ever know for sure.
Barbarus and Lupo are, of course, two of the small band of Savage Land “mutates” engineered by Magneto, as seen in Roy Thomas and Neal Adams’ X-Men #62-63 back in 1969. Unfortunately, your humble blogger had missed those comics when they first came out, and they were still a decade away from their first American reprinting; thus, I was left in the dark here (just as I had been by the appearance of Barbarus and a few of his other compatriots on this issue’s cover).
It’s cool that Sif got to participate in this adventure, but y’know what would have been even cooler? Steve Englehart choosing not to follow the lead of Thor‘s current writer, Gerry Conway, in presenting this warrior goddess as being largely ineffectual in combat.
Having repelled the swamp-men’s attack, the Avengers proceed on through the jungle, led by the Black Panther. How does T’Challa have any idea which way to go to look for the kidnapped scientists (and maybe Pietro), never having visited the Savage Land before now? “Ka-Zar is a friend to Daredevil — just as the man without fear is my friend,” the king of Wakanda explains to his teammates. “What the jungle lord knows from his battle alongside the X-Men, against the Beast-Brood [in the aforementioned X-Men #62-63] has been passed along to me.” Geez, these guys take their shop talk seriously, don’t they?
But all they find in the ruined village is some busted-up machinery, and an abandoned costume of the Angel’s (it’s a long story, but suffice it to say that Neal Adams wanted to give him a new one):
Iron Man attempts to resist Equilibrius’ power by shutting his eyes — unfortunately, as the mutate informs him, “My power compels you to look at me!” Bummer.
OK, Sif at least gets to help this time, holding Barbarus in place so her boyfriend can smack him down. That’s better… if only by a little.
I have to say that while Englehart nails just about every other Avenger’s voice right out of the gate, his early take on T’Challa is just a shade too informal, at least to my ears.
Vision may have missed his chance to come to the aid of the Scarlet Witch, but he soon has his own enemy to face…
…not that it’s much of a contest.
That seems to have taken care of the whole “Beast-Brood” — but as Iron Man and Black Panther dig Hawkeye out from the rubble Brainchild buried him under, they don’t notice Equilibrius slinking off… or hear him musing aloud about the mystery of how he and his cohorts have once again become mutates, after their reversion back to swamp-men following Magneto’s apparent demise at the end of X-Men #63. If they’ve returned, does that mean that Magneto has, too?
Alas, hair color proves once more to be the bane of Avengers #105’s unknown colorist, as the long, lustrous locks of Lorelei — which had been rendered blond in the character’s first appearance (as they also are on this issue’s cover, thankfully) — are presented here as tomato-red in hue. I have to think that our anonymous craftsperson took a quick look at Ms. L.’s sinuously swirling tresses, and was confused into believing she was Medusa, queen of Marvel’s Inhumans.
“Anticlimax“, indeed. In the end, the Avengers’ rescue of the three captive scientists (who never show up even once on panel) is such an utter MacGuffin that our storytellers barely manage to cover it in a caption.
On to our “Epilogue“, then… Upon the heroes’ arrival back at Avengers Mansion, their butler Jarvis informs Wanda of an interesting story he caught on the previous evening’s early TV news; luckily, Tony Stark has equipped the joint with fancy video recording equipment, so Jarv was able to tape the report when it ran again at 11:00…
Yep, we’re back to cross-referencing other current/recent Marvel comics, if only briefly. There actually was a scene in the past month’s Thor (#204) in which Dr. Don Blake made an appointment with his landlord, Karl Sarron. (Although I don’t think we ever saw that meeting actually occur, and Sarron was soon thereafter revealed to be a space villain named Mercurio the 4-D Man, so…)
Looking at Steve Englehart’s first Avengers story as a single work in and of itself, one has to admit that there’s not really all that much to it. The pretext for getting the team down to the Savage Land in the first place is pretty flimsy, and their fight with the clearly overmatched Beast-Brood is just that — a fight, with no deeper significance or any notable repercussions, save for the modestly intriguing “unanswered questions about Magneto and the X-Men left lingering” at the tale’s end. Still, you’ve got to start somewhere, and as a sort of shakedown cruise for the fledgling writer (not to mention as a showcase for John Buscema and Jim Mooney’s reliably enjoyable artwork), Avengers #105 gets the job done. Plus, if your humble blogger is going to be honest, the near-giddiness with which Englehart indulges his newfound opportunity to play in the larger Marvel Universe sandbox goes a long way to earning my thumbs-up, probably as much or more now as it did then.
In later years, Englehart has himself expressed some dissatisfaction with his earliest efforts on the Avengers title, noting that he started off trying to maintain what he considered to be a high standard of excellence by writing “Roy Thomas stories” rather than “Steve Englehart stories”. By his own estimation, it took him eight or nine issues to really hit his stride, making much of his first year on the book an apprenticeship of sorts.
In fairness to the writer, however, we should note that Thomas did leave him with a number of loose ends he was required to deal with before he could give much thought to setting his own direction for the book — not least of which was that whole “Last Temptation of Vision” storyline that Marvel’s new editor-in-chief had set up in the first half of issue #102 (yes, that’s the amulet given Vizh by his would-be “brother”, the Grim Reaper, that our android hero is fingering in the last panel of #105). That storyline formed most of the basis of the next three issues — although it had to share the focus with an unused Captain America story from Marvel’s inventory, evidently produced by Stan Lee and George Tuska in 1969 as a direct sequel to Lee and Jim Steranko’s Captain America #113 (it continues Cap and Rick Jones’ battle against Hydra from Steranko’s brief run), but then unceremoniously shelved for reasons lost to time. Told to do something with the material either in Captain America or Avengers, Englehart chose the latter, incorporating it in flashback sequences alongside the present-day Grim Reaper-Vision plotline — which also ended up bringing in the Space Phantom, who hadn’t been seen since Avengers #2 (and who himself was revealed as the person responsible for the mysterious disappearances that Wanda and co. were heading off to investigate at the end of #105 — another dead end in the search for Pietro, in case you were wondering). That angle also allowed Englehart to tidy up a bit of messy continuity involving Cap’s secret identity as Steve Rogers (which may or may not have been part of the point in Thomas handing him that Lee-Tuska inventory tale in the first place). Oh, and if all that’s not enough, another Captain — Mar-Vell of the Kree, who had appeared to “die” in Avengers #97, but had since returned hale and hearty — showed up before the end, as well.
Sounds like a mess? Well, it kind of was — especially visually, as the three-issue arc ended up featuring the work not only of a (briefly) returning Rich Buckler, as well as George Tuska (via the inventory material), but also added Dave Cockrum, Jim Starlin, and Don Heck into the bargain — making for a set of artists who, regardless of their individual merits, didn’t mesh terribly well. Even so, Englehart and co. managed to make Avengers #106-108 an enjoyable ride; and by the time it was over, the decks were cleared for the writer to begin picking up on his own dangling plot threads related to the whereabouts of Magneto, as well as the X-Men. Not only that, but he’d allowed the romance of the Scarlet Witch and the Vision (who was no longer worried about whether or not he was a Real Boy) to progress to the next level.
The first issue of Englehart’s first all-new continued storyline, #109, even provided an explanation why Lorelei’s inability to affect Vizh emotionally in the climax of #105 was no longer a deal breaker in terms of his considering himself to be a true human being (albeit one made of synthetic materials):
The one major loose end from Roy Thomas’ Avengers run that Englehart ended up not dealing with (at least not directly) was the disappearance of Quicksilver — mainly because Thomas ended up dealing with that one himself, in the pages of the book where he’d begun to get his “group-comix jollies” since leaving the Assemblers — i.e., Fantastic Four. But, naturally, further discussion of that topic will have to wait for another post, another time…
*See “Ellison Marvel-land”, Alter Ego #31 (Dec., 2003), p. 35.