Continuing the read-through of as many Avengers and Fantastic Four–related Marvel comics as possible!
Tales of Suspense (starring Iron Man and Captain America) #92-99; Captain America #100-105; Iron Man and Sub-Mariner (just the Iron Man story) #1; Iron Man #1-4; Avengers #51-56, Annual #2; Marvel Superheroes (Captain Marvel) #12-13, (Medusa of the Inhumans) #15; Captain Marvel #1-5; Fantastic Four #74-79; Incredible Hulk #103; Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD #1-3; years spanned: 1967-68.
Captain America can’t return to the team quite yet, but he invites the Black Panther to join in his place. And when the first black Avenger shows up at the mansion, the police promptly arrest him for the murder of the Avengers. It’s all very awkward. But he saves the Avengers from new villain the Grim Reaper (brother of the late Wonder Man and bent on vengeance), and all is well. That leaves us with a lineup of Hawkeye, Goliath, Wasp, and the Black Panther – a formidable but still low-powered bunch.
That Didn’t Take Long – Tales of Suspense #96 (Captain America)
Remember how Captain America quit last time? Made a big fuss, revealed his secret identity to the world and everything? Yeah, well, Cap decides never mind…all in the span of ten pages, because some imposter Caps get themselves in trouble and he has to leap into action to bail them out.
As I said last time, 60s comics burn through plot fast.
“You can’t give up bein’ Captain America…’cause you are Captain America. It’d be easier to turn yer back on Steve Rogers!” –Nick Fury
“I…think you’re…right…Fury! I realize now…a man can’t ever stop being…something that he was born to be!” –Steve Rogers (channeling William Shatner, apparently)
Captain America teams up with the Black Panther and Agent Thirteen to save the world from the malevolent space death ray of Baron Zemo, apparently back from the dead (or is he…?)
This storyline is no work of art, but it’s great fun. And it’s notable for being perhaps the most diverse team-up to date – one white male, one black male, and one white female. And they all act as equal partners, each employing his or her skills to contribute to their victory. Agent Thirteen is no damsel in distress, and the Black Panther is a king, an actual monarch subordinate to no one. This is a pretty big deal for 1968.
Though I honestly can’t decide if the Scooby-Doo ending detracts from the story or adds to its charm.
Also no work of art, but also great fun. The aforementioned Avengers lineup, plus the visiting Captain America because he can’t stay away but so long, returns from a time-traveling adventure into a present that’s very different from what they remember. The original Avengers (Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Giant-Man, and Wasp) have taken over the world!
Semi-new villain the Scarlet Centurion (a later incarnation of Rama-Tut and earlier incarnation of Kang – such is time-travel) confronts the original Avengers, inserting himself at the end of their second issue right before the Hulk quit, and he tricks the team into defeating and imprisoning all other superheroes and then all the super-villains. They achieve supreme power, and of course it corrupts them.
So what we get is the “new” Avengers versus the old, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance (and Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne get to fight evil versions of themselves since they’re on both teams). Classic old-school comic book stuff right here. Its biggest flaw is that everyone forgets the whole thing in the end, which renders the story inconsequential.
But it’s a heck of a fun roller coaster before it’s nullified, and we get this perceptive quote from good ol’ Cap: “Thru countless ages, mankind has often tried to escape from freedom…into the open arms of tyranny!”
Viewers of Agent Carter recently met a character named Whitney Frost who’s clearly up to something. And at this point in Iron Man’s stories, we also meet a character named Whitney Frost who’s clearly up to something.
The comic book character is a socialite who has an interest in getting close to Tony Stark, but she winds up befriending SHIELD Agent Jasper Sitwell, who has been tasked with protecting Stark. Poor Sitwell doesn’t yet realize that she’s secretly the head of the criminal organization known as the Maggia. More on her later!
Sitwell is another character who has appeared in the MCU, but only the name and SHIELD affiliation remain the same. MCU Sitwell is older, balder, and a lot less loyal. Comic book Sitwell has more in common with Phil Coulson in the first Iron Man movie than his own namesake (they’re not twins by any stretch, though).
And remember Mickey Rourke’s character from Iron Man 2? His comic book inspiration, Whiplash, first appears at the end of Stan Lee’s run on Iron Man in Tales of Suspense. Again, the similarities between the comic book and movie character are nearly zero, other than the use of whips that can cut through pretty much anything.
Oh, and another MCU fella makes his debut…
Ultron, the titular villain of the second Avengers movie, has arrived. But we don’t know much about his origins at this point. In his first story, the robotic villain assembles a new Masters of Evil group to infiltrate Avengers Mansion, where they succeed in defeating the Avengers, all four of them, at least until guest star the Black Knight turns the tides back in the good guys’ favor in part two.
The bulk of this story is the Avengers versus the Masters of Evil. Ultron himself is merely the enigmatic mastermind pulling the strings (but no Pinocchio references, sadly), and he participates in very little of the action outside of punching the butler Jarvis.
This first Ultron story is also the first story in which Jarvis is a major player. The butler betrays the Avengers by revealing the mansion’s secrets. He does so for money, so he can afford treatments for his sick mother. He attempts to redeem himself in the end, and the Avengers forgive him instantly. Specifically, Goliath is the first to act like this betrayal is no big deal. Pretty soon, when we learn who inadvertently created Ultron, Hank Pym’s forgiving nature might make more sense in a self-serving way.
Jarvis actually has two MCU versions – Tony Stark’s AI software and Howard Stark’s butler who assists Peggy Carter in the 1940s. The latter is already a more dynamic character than the comic version, whose defining characteristic is loyalty to the Avengers…well, starting after the major lapse in this story.
And now we meet the original Captain Marvel—that’s Marvel Captain Marvel, not the Shazam Captain Marvel. His introduction spins out of the events of Fantastic Four #64-65, when the FF defeated a Kree sentry and Ronan the Accuser. Captain Mar-Vell has been sent on a mission to study Earth and determine whether his people, the advanced alien race known as the Kree, should let it live…or die.
Mar-Vell’s colonel is a jealous man who has decided that the captain, at least, should definitely die. An innocent Earthman gets caught in some crossfire, but rather than mourn the innocent’s passing, Mar-Vell finds the death convenient, because he can steal the man’s identity to gain access to a missile base. Some superhero.
I’m including this version of Captain Marvel for one reason—his series introduces Carol Danvers, who will later become the Avenger known as Ms. Marvel. In today’s comics, she’s at the peak of her popularity and has assumed the Captain Marvel identity herself, and a movie is slated as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe…eventually.
When we—and Captain Mar-Vell—first meet Carol, she’s the head of security at the base Mar-Vell is infiltrating, and she quickly becomes suspicious of him. And yeah, I guess she’d have reason for that, wouldn’t she? Marvel Comics’ future greatest heroine shows stellar instincts right off the bat.
But then she’s relegated to damsel-in-distress status the next issue.
“Perhaps it’s only the security officer in me—but I wish I knew more about the helmeted stranger who rescued me! But, somehow, I feel certain that we’ll meet again!” she says in #1.
Don’t worry, Carol. Your day will come.
On the whole, though, there’s an interesting concept behind this Captain Marvel—a superhero whose first loyalty is not to Earth, and he may even be forced to turn against it, if ordered.
The true star of this book is Jim Steranko’s art, especially the way he lays out his sequences. The man was far ahead of his time. While most Marvel books were being overly verbose, writer/artist Steranko opens this series with three wordless pages that allow the pictures to tell the story, and his inventiveness continues throughout. (Of course, Steranko could get verbose, too, but he at least knew to take a break once in a while.)
The story, however, is disjointed, with seemingly unrelated elements coming together in the end. The ending is darker than the standard 60s Marvel fares—a down-on-his-luck comedian experiences a brief moment of hope…and then gets blown up by the source of that hope. Not something you’d see in Captain America or Iron Man. Otherwise, little stands out story-wise. Nick Fury and company battle a generic villain named Scorpio for forgettable reasons. But the art is fantastic.
Marvel Unlimited only has the first three of issues of this series available to read, so we’ll have to take a nice long SHIELD break…though not really, as Fury and company are practically regulars in Captain America at this point. This wasn’t a long-lived series anyway. Plus, Steranko left after two more issues, and he’s a tough act to follow.
–In Captain America #101-102, Nick Fury tells Agent Thirteen that Captain America died in a battle with the Red Skull so she wouldn’t try to join him on a dangerous mission. Both men think this is a good idea, but she doesn’t fall for it. In hindsight, knowing some of the plot points that will arise in future years, this almost counts as a foreshadowing…purely by accident, I’m sure.
–Agent Thirteen gets a name—Sharon Carter. Related to Peggy? Perhaps!
–“Forgive me for…being a woman, Mr. Sitwell…” –Natasha, the former Black Widow, sincerely and unironically in Avengers #52. Oy vey.
–Time moves slowly in the comic book universe…except when it comes to pregnancies. Though the Fantastic Four have barely aged from 1961-68, the Invisible Girl’s pregnancy swiftly progresses from “just announced” (FF annual #5/FF #65) to “she’s almost due” (FF #75) in a span closer to real-world time than Marvel time. And she doesn’t even look the least bit pregnant. Invisibility powers do come in handy, don’t they? This is one of the earliest comic book pregnancies (quite possibly the first with two super-parents), and it introduces the trope of problematic super-pregnancies…a trope that actually makes a lot of sense when one or both parents have been exposed to DNA-altering levels of radiation.
–“That’s the one thing wrong with demanding complete obedience! My men become human robots—unable to think for themselves!” –Red Skull, Captain America #103, the same issue in which Cap and the Skull have a rousing conversation about equality and tyranny while in a fistfight—which as we all know is the perfect time for philosophical discourse.
–Medusa (of the Inhumans and formerly of the Frightful Four) stars in Marvel Superheroes #15, making her quite possibly the first female character since World War II to headline a Marvel superhero book, even if it is just for one issue. Naturally, her primary motivation is to help her man, Black Bolt, overcome his inability to speak without destroying everything around him. For the era, it’s still good progress.
–“Indirectly, I’m responsible for her father’s death! If only there were some way to make it up to her!” –Tony Stark, genius, Iron Man #3
–Turns out Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan got married off-screen (unless I just missed or forgot). So that ends that romantic interest for Tony Stark.
To Be Continued…
Well, we’ve met Ultron, so that must mean the Vision is right around the corner!