The inception of the Avengers is not one of those original, creative moments. DC Comics had been having success for over three years with its band of heroes – the Justice League of America – and so it made good business sense for Marvel to come up with its own version. The characters selected for this had all appeared in earlier stories. As of issue one of The Avengers, published in September of 1963, they were Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Ant-Man and the Wasp. Having come together in rather accidental fashion to fight Thor’s nefarious brother Loki,
the group resolved to form a permanent alliance in time for the last panel.
The plot of that inaugural issue bears a very vague resemblance to that of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers – in that it also involves Loki, and an attempt to turn the Hulk against the rest of the team – but notice, more importantly, how the meta-reference to the Marvel Galaxy of Heroes in the epilogue matches the careful inter-weaving of the Marvel Studios films, which set the expectations of what’s to come in the next instalment as well as making explicit the relationship of the individual films to the larger narrative.
Thus the current wave of films inspired by the Marvel superheroes is faithful, and deftly so, to the overt commercial drive of the original series, the explicit calls to read the next issue or witness the birth of a new hero or villain. However the key concept is the Marvel universe, that is to say the idea of a unified, coherent set of stories with its own aesthetic and narrative tropes.
This universe was still more or less recognisable when I started reading superhero comics, in the mid- to late Seventies. It had also matured from the era of that original Avengers story, for the peculiarity of these titles is that they developed along with their readership, becoming progressively more sophisticated and grown-up. Reading those early stories now, it’s hard not to be struck by how infantile they are, how naïve and exclusively pitched at pre-teen males. The Marvel Universe had very few women in those days and they were heavily stereotyped, like the insufferable Wasp, a character whose powers were becoming quite small, having the hots for Thor and adhering to a ten year old boy’s ideas of what a grown woman who wasn’t his mother might be like.
|From issue #4|
|The Avengers #9|
|The Avengers #2|
|A unique and exciting literary device: the collective action monologue (#8)|
|The Avengers #4|
You couldn’t accuse Stan Lee of this. Of being boring, or lifeless. His genius perhaps was to live at a time when the cultural conditions were in place for him to invent a super-hero universe. He wasn’t a pioneer in this respect either, but he applied himself, he made full use of the creative freedom that is afforded most easily within the confines of genre. A boy is bitten by a radioactive spider and acquires the proportionate strength and dexterity of an arachnid. Four astronauts return from space with four different sets of powers as a result of being bombarded with gamma rays. An evil robot creates another robot that can fly and walk through walls but then he – the creature – develops a conscience and renounces evil.
|The Avengers #57|
|The Avengers #58|
|The Avengers #176|
This is partly to say that it wasn’t cinema that invented the remake and constant recycling of these characters and stories. They happened in the native medium first, with each major franchise going through at least one radical reinvention and several minor ones. Just today I took a peak issue #528.1 of The Avengers. I’m not even sure what the .1 in the numbering means. We’re using decimals now? The premise in this one is that Vision, who was killed years ago, has been repaired and brought back ‘to a brand-new world’. The group includes familiar characters alongside two who are overtly derivative of classic ones (Spider-Woman and the Red Hulk). Meanwhile Captain America, even discounting the fifteen years he spent frozen in a block of arctic ice, must be well over 80 years old. But I’m sure there’s an explanation for that as well. The artwork is so much more contemporary, darker, sometimes slipping in an almost tortured realism. Look at us. See how we have grown.
And yet the time for invention is over. It’s not that Stan Lee was a visionary, it’s that he lived at a time when you were allowed to make up stories – stories that would later be recycled into modern myths to be sold not to children but to life-long adolescents, that is to say the public for top-end global entertainment that cinema has cultivated so successfully since at least the time of Star Wars. They – we – are only too happy to trade in these myths, in spite of the fact that we would likely deride the originals if they were served to us instead. Yet those stories form the necessary background, allowing us to create endless variation on a theme that is already familiar.
The first incarnation of the Avengers lasted a little over a year. Kirby stopped drawing the stories after issue #8, Thor started chasing other adventures and a peculiar ennui took over the rest of the original cast, who finally decided to leave in issue #16.
That’s how little it took for the formula, for the characters themselves to become tired, and for a sense of weariness to creep into Stan Lee’s writing. It was less than four years since the creation of Spider-Man, less than five since Lee had taken over the lead writer role at Marvel. Golden ages are never as long as you remember them.