50 Years Ago, Marvel’s Avengers Comic Book Promised Adventure
Fifty years ago this month, I bought my first Marvel comic book. It turned out to be a life-changing decision, not that it was clear at the time. After all, I was 8 years old. What did I know of turns?
The comic was The Avengers, issue 101, cover dated July 1972 but on sale in April, as was industry practice. It was my first superhero comic. So far the only comics I’ve owned were three issues of The Land of the Giants, a Scooby Doo, and a Bugs Bunny.
In my mind, I was ready for something more adventurous. After all, I was in second grade. These comics were kid stuff.
On a grocery trip with my mother to Big John Market, which had a large fiberglass figure in front of a smiling man holding two bags of groceries, I sat on the floor in front of the magazine rack, examining carefully the current comics.
I don’t know what made me choose The Avengers. Possibly several heroes – as the cover said: “Thor! Captain America! Iron Man!” – was a selling point, or the fact that the story was complete in one issue rather than continuing to the next.
Anyway, I paid 20 cents on my allowance, took the comic home, and read it.
It was, embarrassingly, over my head.
Let me come back to that. You may be wondering: Why am I telling you all this?
As I write this, I’m home with a sore throat and not ready to write anything ambitious. Might as well throw a column on comics than not produce any at all.
On the other hand, thanks to first movie “Avengers” – released in May 2012, 10 years ago this month – few people reading this won’t have at least a general idea of who the Avengers are. Some of you will even have deep and rich opinions about the characters. Marvel comics are no longer obscure but part of the cultural conversation.
It remains mind-boggling to anyone, like me, who grew up reading comic books in the 20th century. Hardly any adult knew of a superhero character other than Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and possibly Spider-Man.
“Five Dooms to Save Tomorrow!” was the title of issue 101. The story was, luckily, an attempt at sophistication. The plot begins with a chess match between a supercomputer and an Eastern European grandmaster, for which the Avengers serve as security in the event of an international incident.
The arrogant grandmaster responds to a knock from the computer by touching his pawn. Suddenly he collapses. Welp, there’s your international incident right there. He rushed to the hospital with only a chance of survival, no thanks to corrupt capitalist superheroes.
The Vision, one of the Avengers, understands this thanks to his android brain and his love of chess. The computer had deliberately used a “discredited move against Fischer in Curaçao, 1962”, the Vision says as it confronts the man who programmed the computer and put poison on the pawn.
Meanwhile, me, 8 years old, alternately thought “That’s so smart and adult” and “What exactly is going on?”
The story only gets more complicated from there, involving a man with god-like powers who is ordered to kill five seemingly harmless people across the world to ward off “nuclear armageddon”.
Except it was all a set up, you see, because the man already had godlike powers and didn’t know it. He might have unknowingly unleashed Armageddon himself if a trick hadn’t been found to send him teleporting around the globe on a wild goose chase to expend his powers.
The issue was written by Marvel stalwart Roy Thomas, Stan Lee’s right-hand man, and based on a concept by sci-fi author Harlan Ellison, who had pitched it to DC Comics as a Hawkman issue. An editor there said the story was too sophisticated and rejected it. He was sort of right.
Every once in a while, I’d pull this comic out of my cedar chest and re-read it. It’s not just the story that eluded me. Trying to keep track of all seven characters was confusing.
They all had their public names, but some were also referred to by their real names or by pleasant nicknames, in slang Marvel fashion.
Iron Man was at one time called “Shellhead”. Hawkeye was called “Avenger”, “archer”, and “bowman”. Quicksilver was also “Pietro” and “speed freak”. It didn’t help that Hawkeye and Quicksilver looked a lot alike in their pale blue suits and light hair.
Stop this comic, I want to get off!
I had to sadly realize that I wasn’t, in fact, ready for The Avengers in particular or Marvel Comics in general. In an admission of defeat, the next comic I bought was a throwback to kids’ stuff: The Pink Panther. My God, that was funny!
So how did The Avengers #101 change lives? If I had never bought another, it would have been just a blip in my life, like collecting pennies or building models or buying baseball cards, all my hobbies that were abandoned in primary school.
But two years later, summer vacation was starting and I dreamed of how I wanted to spend my time. What if I try to read comics again? The next day I was at the newsstand, carefully turning the wheeled racks before choosing two Marvel comics, which were now 25 cents.
I liked them both. I became an instant fan. And all these years later, I still read and love comics, with Marvel being my favorite company. I grew up, naturally, but in some ways not that much.
I still have my copy of Avengers #101, the one that started it all for me. Sunday, I read it again. It’s always hard to follow. I take to heart that when letters were published about this, readers were also lukewarm.
“I don’t think I liked number 101, and yet I’m not entirely sure,” one letter began. “Even so, if I had to answer yes or no, I would have to say no.”
I should say no, me too. But I cherish this comic anyway. Despite himself, he launched me into the adventure of a lifetime.
David Allen writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, three misadventures. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.