Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Breaking Up is Hard To Do: Cap's Kooky Quartet

Avengers 21 Power Man Enchantress
Avengers #21 (1965) Introducing Power Man--no, not that Powe Man. 

Avengers #21 (October 1965)
“The Bitter Taste of Defeat”
Stan Lee (writer), Don Heck (penciller), Wally Wood (inker)

Karen: This post kicks off a four-issue review of Avengers, at a most auspicious time for the team. It was 1965; mere months before, The Avengers were inarguably a team of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. But with the departure of Thor, Iron Man, Giant-Man, and the Wasp, we were left with a team of Captain America and … well, a bunch of misfits, if not outright criminals! While Cap stayed on (and where would he go? In those days he was really a man without a home other than the Avengers) to lead this group, the three newest members of the team were hardly respected heroes. The mutant siblings Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch had formerly been members of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, if somewhat reluctantly so. Hawkeye had been mistaken for a bad guy by Iron Man, and then been caught up in the Black Widow’s web of espionage. But the one thing all three had in common was a need to redeem themselves. So with Cap’s guidance, they took up the mantle of the Avengers.

Karen: But it wasn’t easy. The team lacked the sheer raw power of the founding members. They had to make up for that with teamwork. After a very rocky start, they would coalesce into a superb fighting force, even capable of facing Kang (as we’ll soon see)! We’ll be looking at a group of issues that show us how that transition occurred.

Doug: I thought the team’s lack of power was really on display in the scene in the middle of this issue when the subway train was bearing down on the unconscious Quicksilver. In the past, the reader might have envisioned Thor, Iron Man, or even Giant-Man leaping in front of the charging juggernaut and putting a shoulder to it – with this group, that simply wasn’t an option! They had to rely on stealth, brains, and teamwork.

Karen: Issue 21 opens up with a squabble between Hawkeye and Captain America. This wasn’t uncommon back then; Hawkeye was young and cocky and took every opportunity he got to try to put Cap down. In return, Cap is more than willing to put Clint in his place. As a long-time Avengers fan, I can say that seeing the character growth of Hawkeye as it played out over the years, as well as the development of his friendship with Cap, was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the title. At the stage we’re discussing here, Hawkeye is all bluster. He wants to lead the team, be the hero – he’s full of himself, and yet there’s also the sense that he feels inadequate, particularly when compared to the living legend of World War 2. In this issue he does not have literally a single non-insulting comment to Cap! Cracks about his age, his abilities, his leadership skills – I don’t know how Cap restrained himself from beating the living daylights out of Hawkeye!

Sharon: So Stan, who was writing this banter, would have been roughly the same age as old man “Methuselah” Cap here—early forties.

Doug: Having read these issues several times, I do think that Stan’s insistence on highlighting the tension between these characters could become grating on the nerves at times. Even though, as you said, most of Hawkeye’s shtick was all bluster, it is hard to believe that nary a civil word seemed to ever have been spoken! You know, I was thinking about who might have played Hawkeye on the big screen, and the very first actor who came to mind was the dashing young Harrison Ford as playing Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope way back in 1977! He was good looking, brash, sarcastic – just generally obnoxious!
Karen: While Hawkeye makes no bones about wanting to lead the team, Quicksilver says nothing, but Wanda suggests her brother would make a good leader. Always sticking together, those two. And her thoughts indicate some romantic interest in Cap –“His touch! So strong, and yet, so gentle!” – but he is seemingly oblivious. I wonder if Stan ever thought to put those two together?

Sharon: Oh, absolutely! I have no doubt that a Cap-Wanda romance was the original plan. I believe Stan wanted to replicate his successful Fantastic Four formula with the Avengers, so in Avengers #16 he installed a quartet of characters who didn’t exist outside the Avengers comic (at the time, Cap’s feature in Suspense was set in World War II). Notice, too, that that Cap hanger-on Rick Jones (a mainstay in the Avengers comic since issue #1) was gone with issue #17, so Stan was obviously aiming to move Cap in a new direction. So…now you had a pair of siblings, Pietro and Wanda (à la Johnny And Sue); a quarrelsome, irreverent loudmouth, Hawkeye (à la Ben); and with Cap-Wanda-Hawkeye, an incipient love triangle (not exactly the same, but potentially similar enough to what had gone on with Reed-Sue-Namor). But then with Tales of Suspense #72 (contemporaneous with Avengers #22), Cap’s Suspense adventures suddenly shifted back to the present (due to fans’ demands?) and any Cap-Wanda involvement just petered out. And Sharon Carter’s introduction a few months later in Suspense was the nail on the coffin, at least back then; not to mention the Black Widow’s appearance a few months later (in Avengers #29). With both Cap and Hawkeye otherwise occupied, Wanda was no longer needed as the romantic prize of the Avengers.

Karen: Not only would it have been a triangle, with both Cap and Hawkeye romantically interested in Wanda, but it could almost be a square(!), since Pietro was extremely watchful and protective of his sister. I could see him causing all sorts of trouble for Wanda’s paramours.

Sharon: I mentioned Reed-Sue-Namor as a possible early prototype, but I wonder-- had it been allowed to develop--if the Cap-Wanda-Hawkeye angle would have morphed into something closer to the (then-contemporary) Tony Stark-Pepper Potts-Happy Hogan soap opera…you know, rough-at-the-edges “ordinary joe” wants beautiful girl who wants handsome leader-type who doesn’t dare return her affections for reasons of his own.

Doug: I have to ask you two ladies (and perhaps you’ve voiced your opinions before…): Wanda with black hair or red? I must say that the black hair seems to date her in the 1960’s, as I believe by the time we get to the Englehart era, she is a redhead. But Karen, you are right – Wanda and Pietro seemed inseparable in these days – outcasts together, even though they were full-fledged Avengers.

Sharon: To me, comic book redheads are “tomato heads” Jean Grey, Mary Jane Watson and Medusa; and also orangey “pumpkin heads” like Crystal and Jimmy Olsen. Now, in terms of Wanda’s hair color, here’s the chronology: in her first Marvel appearances as an X-Men antagonist, her hair was consistently red-brown or, as Marvel often categorized that color, “auburn.” In X-Men #11, when Wanda and Pietro finally left the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, her hair was still auburn. But that same month, when she appeared in Avengers #16, all of a sudden her hair was black (or what passes for black in comics--meaning gray or blue colored hair with a lot of black shading). In fact, in #16 she was even specifically referred to (in a caption) as a “black-haired beauty.” Her hair remained black throughout her entire first tenure with the Avenger, through issue #53.

Sharon: Then, a couple of years later when she returned in Avengers #75, all of a sudden her hair was—you guessed it-- auburn again! Why the switch? Well, shortly after #75, I recall a reader wrote in and complained that then-inker “Tom Palmer had “inked Wanda’s hair the wrong color”; that it was supposed to be black, not auburn. After politely correcting the letter-writer regarding the difference between an inker and a colorist (though coincidentally Palmer just happened to have colored the issues circa #75 too), Marvel responded that Roy had recently discovered the early X-Men issues in which Wanda’s hair was auburn and he preferred the auburn to the black; so it’s been auburn more or less ever since (though at times it has been miscolored black, such as in Avengers #105-106). As for me, I prefer the black hair; I think it’s more harmonious with the fuchsia of her usual attire (for the same reason I like the standard color schemes of Sif and Star Sapphire; black and fuchsia is a color combo that appeals to me).

Karen: When I first saw Wanda, her hair was auburn, so I suppose it’s how I generally think of her. But I agree with Sharon, the black hair is more striking! I wouldn’t mind seeing her return to that color.

Sharon: And just to throw some more Lady Clairol into the mix: wasn’t Wanda’s hair a Jean Grey red color for a while in the 1990s? Not Wanda’s best look, in my opinion.

Karen: Beyond all the internal bickering, there’s actually a plot to this issue! One of Baron Zemo’s mercenaries discovers his hidden lab, where Wonder Man was created. With the help of the Enchantress (who has ditched the Executioner), small time crook Erik Josten becomes Power Man! The two of them then conspire to make it appears as if the Avengers are causing all sorts of problems in the city, thereby turning the citizens and mayor against them, even calling for their disbanding!

Doug: I don’t recall seeing this before – am I correct that Erik Josten is not an American? He remarked that he was wanted by Interpol for smuggling in Europe, and shortly after said something about “a foolish American science fiction movie”.

Sharon: I guess that’s why Stan gave him a name like Erik Josten –and not something All-American like, say, “Simon Williams.”

Karen: With the Germanic name, and having worked for Zemo, I’m getting a definite neo-nazi vibe, although that doesn’t come into play in the story. But heck, the Nazis were always the best villains. So easy to hate.

Karen: Doug, I know you mentioned before that you thought Wonder Man’s original outfit was pretty bad, but what about Power Man’s? Not only does it have the unappealing brown and red color scheme, but the guy has puffy sleeves! Puffy sleeves on a bruiser…I don’t get it. They look like they’d be more at home on Barbara Eden from “I Dream of Jeannie”!!

Doug: Barbara looked infinitely better in her outfit than Erik Josten could ever hope to look in his…

Sharon: Well, the costume was “created” by the Enchantress…perhaps puffy sleeves were all the rage in Asgard at the time…

Karen: Overall I thought the art in this issue was pretty good. But I have to admit, I’m more excited about the upcoming Heck-Romita team than I am Heck-Wood. Another costume comment: why is Quicksilver wearing winged booties???

Sharon: A holdover from Pietro’s X-Men look (designed by Kirby); a nod to Hermes/Mercury’s winged feet—or the Flash’s boots! It wasn’t until Avengers #36 that both Pietro and Wanda’s costumes were streamlined by Heck; Pietro lost the winged booties and Wanda lost the clunky headpiece (and the huge sash/belt she sometimes wore that—when miscolored pink instead of fuchsia--gave her costume the look of a two-piece bathing suit…as on the cover of Avengers #21!). And years later, in #75, the siblings’ costumes were tweaked again, by John Buscema.

Karen: I kind of liked Wanda’s ringed boots here. The boots she later wore were rather bland.

Sharon: I agree; when Buscema redid her costume in #75, he dispensed with the unique boots and the opera-length gloves and her attire became much more superhero-generic. Buscema also discarded the straps from the top part of her costume, but I guess she had enough to hold it up anyway (like Rita Hayworth in Gilda wearing that strapless gown…)

Doug: I just didn’t think Wood did much to enhance Heck’s stiff pencils. I’ve seen Wood’s pencils, and he was very good. We’ve all remarked that Heck became stiffer and stiffer as his work moved into the ‘70’s – at times I can see the foundation of that transition.

Sharon: I love Heck’s work here; as has often been stated, his work is very much in the Caniff tradition: lean, angular. Like Caniff, Heck manages to convey characters’ expression with an economy of line. I’ve read that Heck said he had a hard time adjusting to the “Marvel Method: (no full scripts for the artists) but you could have fooled me--his storytelling here is superb…there’s never an ambiguous panel, the story moves! And as a bonus, Wally Wood gives Heck’s pencils an unaccustomed lushness and depth. The characters all have more dimension, more heft than is commonly found in Heck’s renderings. Wanda looks very much like a 1950s version of Elizabeth Taylor—very velvety. One of my favorite Wanda pics of all time is the first panel of page 11. The Enchantress also looks especially beautiful, but in a different way. Heck and Wood…a most felicitous pairing of talents!

Doug: As long as we’re on the subject of costumes, a couple of comments – one, how the heck does (and more so – why the heck does - ) Pietro get the front of his hair to look like horns? When I was a kid, I just couldn’t figure out what was going on there, and to be honest, I still can’t.

Sharon: The wayward tufts of hair were meant to convey “windswept” hair—you know, running so fast his hair would not stay in place and would go “backwards” (away from his face). Again, you have to remember it was the fanciful Kirby who created Pietro’s (improbable) visuals.

Doug: Two, no one has drawn Cap’s costume better than John Cassaday. He really accentuated the chain mail around Cap’s chest and shoulders. As a child, I always thought Cap looked like he was molting! But in a few panels of his fight with Power Man we see what must be chain mail on the back of Cap’s head! Strange – don’t know if that was Heck or Wood doing that.

Sharon: Most likely Heck, as it’s present on his Cap here and there during that time, with other inkers.

Doug: We’ve talked about Wanda in the past – hex power, magic, chaos magic, etc. Here it didn’t seem that she was able to alter probability, but instead had the power to “cause a calamity” as she does when she topples the brick building. I don’t understand why there was such an evolution (read: indecision) of her powers over the years.

Sharon: Wanda’s original powers were thought to cause calamities, as you state, Doug; that’s very clear from her first appearance (X-Men #4), in which Pietro warns her not to gesture because doing so “always causes a disaster to happen!” Her so-called hex power seemed to make people trip over themselves, or caused levers to jam, or ceilings to crumble and fall, etc…she seemed to provoke “accidents.” Then soon after she joined the Avengers, a reader wrote in and theorized that, based on such examples, her power caused changes in molecular structures, which could result in pipes rusting and bursting, or a person’s nervous system having “crossed wires”, etc. (Avengers #23 letter column). The bottom line is that her hex caused some sort of entropy in the target. This made a lot of sense to me.

Sharon: Then another reader wrote in and hypothesized that, because her power usually manifested itself in “accidents” for the target, Wanda could influence probability and that she was a sort of “probability nexus” (Avengers #29 letter column). Yes, this was posited waaaay back in the mid-1960s and I believe someone at Marvel must have been paying attention, as years later, lo and behold—Wanda could all of a sudden “officially” alter probability. I will say I prefer these sorts of powers for her; I always detested her learning magic. As I’ve said many times, in my view Wanda was never meant to be a Zatanna or Enchantress or Dr. Strange. Her original power was unique.

Karen: It’s interesting to see the evolution of explanations for Wanda’s power. I’m sure that when Stan first devised it, it was little more than a ‘jinx’ ability – how it worked was left unsaid!

Karen: At the end of this issue, with the city demanding that the team disband, Cap feels terrible. “When I took command, the Avengers were at the height of their power, their prestige, their fame! And now- look what I’ve done!” Hawkeye responds, “Still tryin’ to hog all the credit, huh? Well, it won’t work! We’re all to blame! Maybe we just weren’t cut out to be - Avengers!” Dramatic, no?

Doug: Dramatic – yes! And maybe one of the reasons they weren’t cut out is that none of them remarked, not once, that their powers were not up to par when battling Power Man. The Enchantress, in each case, claimed to have depowered the Avengers. I would have thought that Quicksilver more than any of the others would have noticed. Too, I thought that Amora channeled Loki in many ways with her broad display of powers.

Sharon: Dramatic--yes! I think this would have been an exciting book to read back then. I know this ending would have had me counting the days until the next issue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There were several hints of a possible romance between Cap and Wanda, and a love triangle with Hawkeye, during the Kooky Quartet era. It was never fully developed, and it seemed to be forgotten by the end of the Silver Age. Well, maybe DC remembered it. There was a Batman-Black Canary-Green Arrow triangle that seemed to be building up in Justice League in the late sixties or early seventies. As with Marvel's version, it wasn't really resolved, just dropped and forgotten.

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