Kooky Comics

There is a spectre haunting Marvel’s Avengers (issues 16 to 30), and it is Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four. Having developed Fantastic Four as a response to the success of DC’s Justice Society, Lee and Kirby moved on to create the Avengers, a team which reflected more closely the composition of the JSA by featuring the company’s heavy-hitters and offering a less idiosyncratic team structure. While Lee and Kirby would work together until issue 102 of Fantastic Four a run which has been called the ‘first graphic novel’ due to its impact on the evolution of the Silver Age comic book and the consistency of the narrative and themes – Kirby was rapidly replaced by Don Heck (issue 9), and the tone of the comic book shifted from its initial emphasis on over-powered characters (Iron Man, Hulk and Thor offered raw strength and god-like abilities) towards a more street-powered team that would draw on the Fantastic Four’s family soap opera style.

Ikooky5n 1961, The Fantastic Four represent one of the most important moments in the shift from the Golden Age to the Silver Age of comics. The Silver Age is often conflated with ‘The Marvel Age’, a term used by Stan Lee to describe the medium’s maturing from the simplistic heroism and stories of the 1940s and 1950s to the more complicated, serialised and naturalistic adventures of the 1960s. Unlike its inspiration, the JSA, the FF were a literal nuclear family, with Reed Richards as the pater familias, his girlfriend and later wife and her brother (Susan and Johnny Storm) and the vaguely attached ‘uncle’ (Ben Grimm, the Thing). Their dynamic expressed the squabbles and loyalties of the family, between battling super-villains or having amazing adventures, and ushered in a pantheon of characters, including the Hulk and Spider-Man, who combined familiar anxieties and phenomenal abilities.

The Avengers, at least in its first eight issues when Kirby still provided the art, felt like an afterthought. The temper of the Hulk might have introduced the naturalism of the FF, and Thor’s arrogance shaded a character who might otherwise have been a one-dimensional riff on Norse mythology, but the presence of Iron Man and Captain America harked back to the Golden Age. While elements of Captain America’s later preoccupation with being a man out of time were present, he appealed to his earlier incarnation and even made a special journey to South America to battle a Nazi. The Wasp is a generic female character, most important as a motivation for Hank Pym/Giant Man to have performance anxiety or panic when she is wounded, who constantly comments on the physical beauty of Thor and is more interested in fashion and flirting. While the story-telling is solid enough, with a balance of violent threat, soap opera and dramatic tension, there is little to suggest that The Avengers would become a mainstay of the Marvel Universe.

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Around the same time, Kirby and Lee drew another blank with a new team, The Uncanny X-Men. Although this series would scramble into the 1970s, on the back of reprints, it is worth remembering that, until they were rebooted in the 1970s, the X-Men lacked a strong identity and struggled to capitalise on either their ‘otherness’ or the novel approach of a school for superheroes.

Lee and Heck made a radical change to the ensemble of the Avengers in issue 14: Captain America would remain, as leader, but three villains would fill out the rest of the team. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch were imported from the X-Men, where they had been a rare example of sympathetic villains in Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (Magneto was still a stereotypical melodramatic bad-guy at this time: his later origin as a holocaust survivor and complicated activist did not arrive until the 1970s, with Chris Claremont’s extended run as writer); Hawkeye had been wandering around as a foil to Iron Man. This ‘kooky quartet’ didn’t just imitate the number of the FF: in Cap, they had the pater familias (struggling to control his charges), they had the siblings in Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch and the curmudgeonly uncle in Hawkeye.

Quicksilver would replicate the short temper of Johnny Storm (for the Human Torch, being hot-headed was both personality trait and power-set; Quicksilver was both swift of foot and temper).  The Scarlet Witch took the dull, generic and gendered characteristic of the Invisible Woman: Susan Storm pined for the emotionally distant Reed Richards, Wanda Maximoff crushed on Captain America. Mr Fantastic was a braniac, and Captain America, Steve Rodgers, was a master tactician, establishing their status as leaders through brain, not brawn. And if the Thing’s ill-temper came from his mutated physicality, Hawkeye at least had a human-sized inferiority complex that made his relationship with authority difficult.

What follows is an eleven issue run – the kooky quartet dissolves in issue 27 when the Wasp returns, and by issue 30, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch have nipped back to their homeland to top up their apparently waning powers – that majors on bickering and desperate acts of heroism. As if to make the connection to the Fantastic Four explicit, Lee and Heck use several of their villains: Kang, Dr Doom, Moleman threaten the team, and the Sub-Mariner’s nemesis, Attuma, gets involved in a plot that mirrors the kind of aquatic antics that Namor would frequently bring to the FF, or to the USA during his Golden Age adventures. Communists turn up as enemies – much like in the FF, they are motivated by vague anti-capitalist feelings and use physical force or brainwashing to control their citizens.

Comparing the Fantastic Four, the kooky quartet and the X-Men, however, does expose some of Lee’s less progressive philosophies. Retrospectively, Lee would claim that Marvel always advocated an enlightenment liberalism, even defending the creation of Kamala Khan (Ms Marvel) in the twenty-first century as an articulation of the underlying inclusive values of the company’s creative ethos. However, it is clear that women are secondary characters, providing through their love evidence of a hero’s virility and leadership skills (Reed Richards, Steve Rodgers and, in the X-Men, Scott Summers are all leaders who have the devotion of the team’s token woman). While the Fantastic Four would demonstrate a surprisingly progressive attitude in the arrival of the Black Panther and Wakanda, the rest of the world in the Avengers is clearly inferior: when Giant Man visits South America, it is a primitive vision of society that dominates, without the wit and technological sophistication Kirby and Lee gave to Wakanda; Russians are all snarling villains, Germans are Nazis.

That isn’t to say The Avengers doesn’t offer good stories: Heck is workmanlike and the expected heroism has that distinctive Marvel mix of humour and threat, and the longer adventures provide cliff-hanging thrills and delightful banter between heroes and villains alike. Hawkeye’s frustration at Captain America is the rage of youth against experience – he frequently calls him out for being ‘a square’, ‘corny’ or a teacher and drill-sergeant. Lee doesn’t rely on the action, and even adds a delicious irony, as his characters frequently call out the obvious influences on Heck’s art-work or Lee’s plotting.

However, what is lacking in these adventures is Kirby’s attention to detail. When the Fantastic Four encounter a new civilisation – be it the Inhumans or Wakanda – his consummate attention to detail ensured that these locations and characters would become part of the expanded Marvel Universe, lovingly revisited and developed. Wakanda is a prime example: unlike the South America of the Avengers, it is given a unique personality and when the heroes comment on the stereotypes it invokes, it is playful and conversational. The Avengers, on the other hand, make a joke of the stereotype and Heck’s art comes across as a limited imitation of Kirby’s ‘cosmic Aztec’ style.

At the same time, the imagination that would give the FF a supporting cast is missing. Apart from the Collector, most of the villains are stop-gaps, ‘villains of the week’, borrowed from elsewhere or trite expressions of anti-communist propaganda. Kang, who is the most complex antagonist, comes from the FF, and the constant recycling of earlier antagonists (Power Man, the Enchantress (from Thor’s Asgard)) suggests a comic book that has not found its identity. It remains in the shadow of the Fantastic Four, even as it is providing solid adventures that are slowly developing into the comprehensive world of the twenty-first century’s most popular superteam.

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