Getting Macho with The Avengers

Before abandoning the Lee-Heck run on Avengers, it’s worth taking a hint from Jeffrey Brown’s 2001 thoughts on Comic Book Masculinity Brown applies his study on Milestone comic books, a company set up with the explicit intention of foregrounding African-America characters, and his conclusions consider how the company challenged the stereotypical representations of black men in the media. For Brown, the importance of Milestone comes from their desire to offer positive role-models to young men and while the Marvel of the 1960s might be less self-conscious it undeniably offers a selection of male characters who offer idealised notions of masculine identity.

The male villains are shoved into a fairly generic set of traits: arrogance and deception dictate their behaviour, with a side-order of lust whenever an attractive woman turns up. The Enchantress, for example, manages to convince Power Man and the Executioner to carry out her plans because of her sexual allure, while the Living Laser is motivated by her desire for the Wasp. More commonly, however, the villains are driven by a lust for power. Communist commissars and madcap inventors alike seem to want to display their strength, either as an end in itself or to consolidate existing power. Even the racist Sons of the Serpent are led by an ‘oriental’ leader who is trying to undermine North American hegemony and maintain control over his own nation. Kang’s efforts to conquer are encouraged by his love for a princess, who rejects him until he discovers a more merciful attitude.

So much for the villains, who are rarely the most interesting part of the series. In the kooky quartet Avengers’ line-up, three male characters are given plenty of attention: Captain America, Quicksilver and Hawkeye. They are given some context by the Scarlet Witch, who yearns for Cap, is protected by her brother and is the object of some fairly mild romantic interest from Hawkeye. She takes her turn in being captured and offering heroic fire-power – significantly, she is not reduced to the ‘captured princess’ and Cap and Hawkeye also get their moments of ‘bondage with peril’, but she does fade into the background as the men get to strut their personalities.

Captain America is, predictably, the alpha-male. Unlike in the first iteration of the Avengers, which rotated leadership duties, he is clearly the leader. This encourages both Hawkeye and Quicksilver to be disloyal and complain at his power, yet the good Captain demonstrates strong leadership qualities (at least in the context of the comic book: letting subordinates fight to get their emotions ‘out of their system’ might not be a chapter in most CEO’s guide to management bestseller). There are repeated reminders that Cap is not super-powered, but has to train to maintain his abilities. The Scarlet Witch fancies him, a sure sign in 1960s’ Marvel that he is a boss (compare how Jean Grey loves Scott Summers in the X-Men, or Sue Storm adores Mr Fantastic in FF). And despite Hawkeye’s goading of ‘the old man’ as a ‘square’, he ultimately respects Cap’s role.

It is loyalty and determination, ultimately, that defines all three men and makes them heroes: their abilities are not, in themselves enough. That Lee and Heck allowed for a little anti-establishment aggressive int two of them, only to confirm that they are, in the final instance, loyal and good, gives the team a Silver Age edge, but the classic virtues of Cap emphasise that the Golden Age brand of heroism remains dominant. Yet the tension between Hawkeye and Cap at least proves that the talk of ‘freedom’ in Cap’s speeches is reflected in the team’s interactions.

When Alan Moore reimagined Supreme in the 1990s, he suggested that a comic book hero could operate as a moral exemplum to young men: Supreme’s chaste romances, his attitudes towards racism and his enemies, the compassion and bravery he would show even in the most serious conflicts. Certainly, the Lee-Heck Avengers speaks to this ideal, with Cap promoting a healthy life-style, Hawkeye adding some spice and Quicksilver following a path of redemption (formerly, he had been a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants). There are a few questions about Quicksilver’s protectiveness towards his sister – a less innocent version would tip this over into explicit sexual desire in The Ultimates in the twenty-first century – but the pattern of each adventure resolves into displays of loyalty and determination.

But unlike Supreme, which majored in what Brown calls a ‘model of hypermasculinity’, especially in the physique, none of the Avengers have excessive powers and Heck avoids the overloaded musculature that would later become a joke, and a signature of Image comic books. The Avengers are, relatively, ‘normal’ and human.

 

They don’t have secret identities either. Not really…

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