1974: By this point in the Marvel comic book title The Avengers, we now have four of my favorite b-list and c-list characters interacting with one another, with fairly interesting depictions of the core favorites, Captain America, Iron Man, and the Mighty Thor.
With this chapter to kick us off, I plan to cast about for six b and c list characters (really there will be four Western characters in our study, but we learn the most about a single one). Avengers readers of the early 1970's, if you were to talk to one, would have pretty strong opinions about these characters, who were never the main sort of super heroes who inspired (bad) movies and cartoons, but were part of the mental diet of the very different sort of Marvel Comics reader growing up in the Baby Boom, fans who often read other science fiction and literature and came to appreciate the sort of characters one would never find in comics before.
1. the synthentic android who ponders the existence of his soul, the Vision
(and the 1971 era Kree-Skrull War issues, where he falls in love with...)
2. the mutant mistress of chance, the mysterious outcast Scarlet Witch
(and the 1972 era stories where they declare their love, mutant and synthenzoid, to both prejudice and support)who has the hairy eyeball out for
3. the kung fu mistress Mantis, (here and in Origins, 1974) a physically attuned and controversial addition who becomes seriously attracted to the Vision, even though she comes to the Avengers with
4. the Swordsman, a swashbuckler turned petty smuggler, a dashing figure for another era who feels z-list obsolete beside the fantastically powerful Avengers, with more pluck than luck (as we'll see in his appearances from Avengers #114-128 in 1973)
5. the Two Gun Kid, a lawyer with a secret quick-draw identity, a c-list holdover from the days of Marvel Westerns, way over his head against the implacable Time Lord known as Kang, the Conqueror---who has his own rich tale interweaving a year's worth of Avengers, culminating in Avengers #142-143 from 1975
6. the Hellcat, who enters stage left a Marvel character from the days of girls' comics, Patsy Walker resurrected as a super-heroine in a light-hearted fashion. She's brought along by the Beast, who has risen in my estimation as a super-hero and seems, after appearing through some rather odd special effects in the summer classic X-men: First Class, so I'll deal with them together, as he is a b-list hero and she, really, a c-lister, who goes on to my favorite b-list and c-list team ever , the Defenders.
Writer Steve Englehart's in charge of a very inventive Captain America run at the same time he is writing the Avengers. Essentially---he turns Captain America into a b character identity, which is to say, his fundamental nature is explored, while he takes on a new crime fighting identity to reflect his disillusionment with what passes now for political America of his times (1974). In particular, in this chapter we get an absurd and epic storyline---the beginning of exploring the identity of a b character created just for this strip, made for the times: a Vietnamese character who goes by the name of Mantis.
This is a time of very stylized dialogue. As a result, you could identify each character by what they say, how they say it. This contrivance works because a reader of any age can follow each of many characters.
Speaking of contrivances, this is a fun appearance of a super-villain team a kid could come up with, the Zodiac criminal cartel, each dressed colorfully as the symbol of the horoscope they represent. The development of Gemini and Libra, c-list characters at best, are intriguing. Englehart loves to bring on these unknown quantities and write engrossing tales with them---which keeps him from having to develop characters like Iron Man and Thor, who have their own books, and so they stay in a recognizable, consistent form.
You can feel the editorial wheels come off in 1976, but through then we get a calvacade of characters that represents Steve's attempt to create the second generation of Marvel Comics after Stan Lee and company. Shang-Chi and Captain Marvel, both of which brushed with the talented Englehart pen, were two non-Avengers heroes of that era who still probably have a great movie or three in them, too---they just aren't the first guys off the bench. But then, Iron Man managed to find his way out of, frankly, the b-list, with movies you may have seen. What made him cool came of age in the cinema. Most of all you have good writing and tight editorial coordination, for the sake of a much larger story.
So, when we come back: a cross-section story arc from the middle of the Englehart run (he had many artists), as he really gets warm and has learned a refreshing array of story-crafting skills. From there, we will jump off into the stories of the Vision, Scarlet Witch, Mantis, and the Swordsman, during the tight second phase of his run of comics stories, and then pick up with his refugees from the Westerns and Girl comics, which deserve their own discussions. Meanwhile, I got one of my collaborators back, and as I write these to warm up for some fiction, I'll be busy soon writing for my collection with T.J. This, and my brief visit with Conan the Barbarian, will conclude my summer of comics, and then we're onto to some very interesting literature of a philosophical bent...which, I think we'll see, is exactly what makes these comic books herein discussed worth talking about, long after most copies have become land-filler!
Have a good day, Lue Lyron
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