Stan Lee didn’t hang around for long after the dissolution of the kooky quartet: half-way through the saga of The Living Laser(another ‘villain of the week’ who somehow gets two issues to demonstrate how his love for The Wasp leads to an attempted coup in a generic South American nation), he hands over to Roy Thomas. It is easy to point out the flaws of his run: only Kang becomes a fixture in the annals of the World’s Mightiest Team, while recycled plots – Hulk gets chased very briefly, Fantastic Four villains roll up to be knocked back – prevent the comic book from attaining the same sense of excitement and innovation that marks the FF and Spider-Man during this period.
There are plenty of generic tropes, and Heck isn’t the artist to lift them above their obvious influences. When one of the characters comments on the corniness of either Captain America’s speeches or the latest scenario, it is as if Lee is mocking Heck’s lack of imagination, or his own tendency to revert to Golden Age idealism. The female characters remain foils and the vision of 1960s’ USA is generally white, male and predictable. The crowd scenes operate like a chorus, commenting on the action but rarely adding any action.
But as the quartet breaks up, Lee and Heck are introducing an expanded cast, and this is the innovation that is going to dictate the shape of The Avengers for the future. Heroes drop in and out – there are still only four at any one time, and it appears that it is beyond Lee and Heck to develop more than one female at a time – and the dynamic within the group is constantly shifting. Hank Pym gets some love – not least from the Wasp – and has trouble with his powers, and Lee consistently explores the nature of love through multiple relationships. At various points, love becomes the reason for a villain’s activities (Kang and the Living Laser are showing off to their beloveds, Giant Man becomes a proactive hero because of his love for the Wasp, the Black Widow overcomes communist brainwashing because she fancies Hawkeye).
Romantic love is not always a force for good. In the Living Laser, it becomes an expression of mental illness: when he is defeated, the Avengers recommend psychiatric help to the courts over imprisonment, even though he recently staged a coup, robbed a bank, abducted the Wasp and tried to kill Cap and Hawkeye. For Kang, it both inspired a wave of invasion and general naughtiness, before offering some degree of redemption. Hawkeye’s love for the Black Widow is more yearning than consummation, and Hank Pym/Giant Man is inspired to violence by his concern for the Wasp. Of course, he is a designated hero, but his antics have little over his rival, the Laser, in terms of social activism.
The other big positive is the introduction of the first Afro-American – Bill Foster, a scientist in a bow-tie – and the extended battle with the Sons of the Serpent, a bunch of racists. Lee and Heck come good on Marvel’s liberal progressive politics here, although the reveal that the leader of the Serpents is a communist warlord is both as trite as Scooby Doo and a disappointing failure to consider how racism is a North American problem. Still, it is a start and is pretty explicit in its anti-bigotry agenda.
Avengers 35 marks the start of Roy Thomas’ run as writer. He takes up Stan’s Living Laser tale and follows respectfully in the Lee-Heck tradition. Too much fighting and declamation, with a side-order of love and character development, and touches of a self-aware irony.