Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The More Things Change...: Cap's Kooky Quartet, Part Four

Avengers 24 Cap's Kooky Quartet
Avengers #24 (1966)

Avengers 24 (January 1966)
“From the Ashes of Defeat”
Stan Lee – writer, Don Heck – penciller, Dick Ayers – inker

Karen: We’ve reached the fourth and final part of our look at Cap’s Kooky Quartet with this issue of Avengers. I’m not going to give everyone a blow by blow – basically, Kang’s men turn on him and he and the Avengers actually team up to save Princess Ravonna and her people. Yet another Stan Lee twist! But despite the initial head-shaking, it actually works well, with Cap demonstrating the fighting spirit that we’ve come to expect from him. His leadership seems to blossom in this issue – perhaps because the Avengers are actually in a war? – and he inspires the team, and Ravonna’s people, to fight.

Doug: I did like the bit from Kang’s warlords about Ravonna’s required death – that all conquered monarchs must be put to death to impede the prospects of any potential future rebellions. That was a great vehicle to deliver the main thrust of the plot.

Sharon: Wanda and Pietro sure seem completely content to follow Cap’s lead, almost mindlessly so. But I guess that’s what they were used to back then: following someone else’s orders, first Magneto, now Cap. At least Hawkeye—while acknowledging Cap’s gifts-- shows some spirit and independence. He’s starting to respect Cap but he doesn’t get all mushy over it.

Doug: I thought Wanda was the queen-waffler when she changed positions from “it’s hopeless” on the splash page to “Captain America’s words make me proud to be an Avenger” only a scene later. In regard to Stan finding people’s “voices”, did you think it was appropriate that Cap called Ravonna’s general “Bush Head”?

Karen: Cap peppers his speech with much more slang than we expect from him. Again, it’s not quite the Cap we all know. However, he does come across as a soldier, which works with the story. You can definitely feel the Cold War influence here, with Cap and others talking about showing Kang’s men “how free men fight”! For even more politically incorrect fun, one of Kang’s treacherous generals looks a lot like Ming the Merciless, with Asian features and a long drooping mustache! Ah the 60’s…the Commies were everywhere, even the far future!

Doug: Kang’s warlords looked to be dressed as traditional Japanese shoguns – Heck probably used some type of photo reference for inspiration. Funny what passed for political correctness in days gone by – and this was all still serious stuff. Showing this kind of thing wouldn’t become satirical until Archie Bunker rolled in quite a few years later.

Doug: What was the deal with Wanda not using her “hex power” (this is becoming more maddening the longer we discuss it) in the first fracas? She said she was saving it up for the next time?? I’m sorry, but things were getting a little tenuous at that point. You know, maybe Stan envisioned her as REALLY powerful and was afraid to end any battle too soon. I don’t know…

Sharon: We three agreed in our last post that, back then, Marvel usually wrote their energy-wielding characters as exhausting their powers, so it stands to reason there was a need to conserve their energies. Wanda keeping her hex power in reserve is in keeping with that reading.

Karen: It is sort of maddening; if nothing else, it gives one the impression that Wanda’s power is unreliable – which would make it pretty hard for Cap to try to integrate it into a fight.

Sharon: Yes. But later on (when Roy’s the writer) you get dialogue like Cap telling Wanda (in #44) “Wanda, it’s time you used your hex power.” And she obliges with no problem. Plus in #45 she tells Jan she’s spent “hours perfecting her spells” (ugh! You know how I feel about her power being characterized as “spells”…). So I guess the idea is that she was continuously working on her own to obtain a better level of control.

Karen: On another note though, in contrast with the incredibly over-powered heroes at DC at the time, it makes the characters seem more human, and perhaps more relatable. In fact, this whole group of characters would probably be the equivalent (or perhaps even the inferiors) of DC’s Teen Titans, power-wise! Cap is like Robin, Hawkeye like Speedy, Quicksilver like Kid Flash, and Wanda is “the girl” just as Wonder Girl was! So Marvel’s A-team at the time was on par with the kiddie team at DC!

Sharon: That particular quartet of the Titans appeared in 1969 when Speedy officially joined replacing Namor Jr.—I mean, Aqualad …by which time the Avengers’ Kooky Quartet had long ceased to exist. (Prior to his joining Speedy had only made a few sporadic appearances with Titans since 1966). Geez, you’d think if DC were trying to ape Marvel and create their own Kooky Quartet in the Avengers mold, DC could have been more, er, timely… (And of course I’m referring to how events played out back in the ‘60s and not to the retcons that have since established that Speedy was an original member of the Titans).

Sharon: But it’s a very good point, Karen, about the similarities with the two teams, though I don’t think Marvel considered the Avengers their A-team at that time (I think that title was held by the FF at the time…). And the Wanda/Wonder Girl comparison is apt: in both quartets, “the girl” was the most powerful member of the teams (even if in Wanda’s case her power’s potential was unexplored then because the Marvel writers seemingly didn’t know how to write Wanda’s powers).

Doug: Yes, great observations. And probably the only direct correlation one could draw, as I don’t recall the JLA ever being as depowered as this version of the Avengers. I guess to attempt to parallel the adults, we’d be talking Batman, Green Arrow, Flash, and Zatanna (yes, Sharon, I know you hate the comparison. J), huh? Certainly a strange combination of DC heroes, isn’t it? Which is funny, because I don’t have a problem seeing the meshing of either this group of Avengers or the Teen Titans line-up mentioned above.

Karen: Dick Ayers is the third inker in these four issues, and I would say I probably like his style least of all. There’s nothing terrible about it, but it just doesn’t excite me. It does seem like there’s more of Don Heck’s style coming through with Ayers than with either Wood or Romita.

Sharon: After seeing how Romita drew the women’s faces last issue, the difference in their appearance here is jarring—at least in the black and white Essentials I’m reading. Here, Wanda and Ravonna’s faces are rendered with very simple strokes. This issue contained a lot of battle scenes, though, and Dick (“Sgt. Fury”) Ayers is certainly up to the task of embellishing those!

Doug: I would concur with the above comments – Ayers is serviceable. Not bad, but certainly not memorable. His Cap seems somewhat pale to me – lots of blue without much texture.

Karen: What did you think of the sub-plot with Quicksilver, where he is rescued by a woman and hidden from Kang’s troops? It brought to mind years later, when again a weakened Pietro would be rescued by another woman – Crystal of the Inhumans! However, this sub-plot didn’t seem to go far - definitely not as far as Quicksilver would go with Crystal!

Sharon: Yes, it seemed like an intrusive development, as there was no payoff to this subplot—why was it Pietro, and not, say, Hawkeye, here? Just so we’d get some dialogue of Wanda worrying about her brother?

Karen: Exactly, there’s just no pay-off.

Doug: You know, in addition to your reference to the Johnny/Crystal/Quicksilver love triangle, I also thought this was reminiscent of Johnny Storm’s excursions to the Fifth Dimension (Strange Tales #103, FF #158-59) where he met up with a very Kang-like Xemu after falling for the beautiful Valeria. But you’re both right – this was somewhat out of place in the story, and perhaps served to remove Quicksilver from the battle? And another thing! After all of the future-dudes rip on the “primitives”, is Stan seriously going to ask me to believe that Pietro was healed by an “herb”??

Karen: I thought Ravonna falling for Kang was a bit much, even in a comic. Kang to me has just never seemed especially noble, particularly not after reading Kurt Busiek’s Kang saga in the third volume of Avengers.

Sharon: I know we’re supposed to feel that Kang is a “good guy” when he allies himself with the Avengers, but let’s face it—he does so for a purely selfish reason: his carnal love for one person, Ravonna. Is that supposed to be admirable?

Doug: Karen, Kang has never seemed as ruthless as Victor von Doom. Even though he’s supposed to be a conqueror par excellence, it has always seemed that the subjugation of the nation/world/time period was the goal, and not necessarily the holding of it. On the other hand, one need only look at Doom’s Latverian subjects and how they cow to him.

Karen: I don’t know Doug, I think Kang has always seemed, as Sharon says, selfish: his goal of conquering others seems more about vanity and ego than attaining power for any constructive purpose. And he always seemed every bit as ruthless as Doom – particularly in the afore-mentioned Busiek saga. Prior to that nonsense about Doom skinning his old flame and wearing her skin as armor (yes, I’m not making that up), I always felt Doom was portrayed as having a certain degree of honor and nobility. I think there was a feeling that if things had played out differently, Doom could have been a great man. I don’t get that feeling with Kang.

Doug: I don’t know that I implied that Kang wasn’t selfish. My main point was that I don’t feel he’s interested in any sort of permanent administration of conquered territories. It’s almost as if he’s similar to the Collector in that possession is the goal – what to do with it later is secondary. At this point in Marvel history Stan was exploring time and space travel and had begun to explore the multiple personas of Kang; how Kang established and maintained his various empires would be discussed later under other authors’ watches.

Doug: But you wanna know what else I wanna know? Is Kang’s skin blue or peach-colored? I guess I’ve always assumed that the glass on his helmet (do you notice how he refers to his “armor”, when his clothes are just that -- cloth?) is clear, so his skin is blue. But there’s a panel in this story that shows peach-colored skin around his eyes.

Karen: Oh yeah, the blue part is definitely his helmet. How it sticks to his face and moves is another question. I guess that’s 40th century technology for you. Hey, maybe that’s what Cap used for his mask in the previous issue!

Sharon: See, this is a drawback of reading the Essentials.

Karen: So the Avengers are re-united by the end of the story, but in the issues to follow, Cap would still have doubts about staying with the team, Hawkeye would still mouth off constantly, Wanda would still pine over Cap - we’re back to the status quo! I guess those couple of issues where the team was split was some of Stan’s well-known “illusion of change”, huh?

Sharon: And speaking of Smilin’ Stan: the in-team squabbling, Wanda mooning over Cap and Hawkeye’s witty repartee--these elements were seen as innovative for superhero comics, but when you look closely the bulk of Marvel’s Silver Age character “development” could really be seen as an extension of Stan’s writing from his 1940s/50s romance or humor or Millie the Model comics.

Karen: I’ll admit I haven’t read Stan’s prior work. So Sharon, are you saying that Stan was already writing in “Marvel style” before Fantastic Four #1? Stan always talks about the writing of that issue as if he decided to go in a radically different direction than anything he’d done before. Would you say that’s not exactly true?

Sharon: Ah, Karen, I’m so very glad you asked! The way I see it, an ingredient of Stan’s innovation was to bring certain elements from his romance/humor/teen comics, chiefly the “hip” character-based dialogue (and situations like love triangles) to his new line of superhero comics. Stan didn’t do this in the ‘50s when Timely/Atlas attempted to revive their superheroes…but as he’s said in many interviews, by 1961 he had nothing to lose so he probably felt freer to write the dialogue more to his liking, meaning in a breezier fashion akin to what he was already doing in the romance/humor/teen books. And this use of “hip” dialogue and romantic situations starting in the early 60s was in part what made Marvel’s superheroes seem so fresh and different from DC’s back then.

Doug: I’d argue that it’s difficult to give a summation of these character’s personalities after reading these four issues. Sure, you can ascertain that Hawkeye’s a loudmouth, but beyond that what do we see? Cap’s full of self-doubt, then portrayed as one of the finest leaders – so strong in fact that an army from the future defers to him immediately. Wanda is full of doubt herself, and frets/fawns over Quicksilver relentlessly. And Pietro? Hothead to goofball – how about the line near the end of the story where he utters, “It’s just that little ol’ fleet-footed fun boy – me!” Not exactly what I “hear” when I’m reading Quicksilver. None of these characterizations is how I think of these people. So maybe what we have, then, is a genesis of personalities from the pen of Mr. Lee, as he himself struggled to find a group dynamic.

Karen: Agreed, all of the characters are still in the process of becoming the personalities we recall. There are a number of instances where we get incongruous lines, such as the quote you gave from Pietro. That one is just jarring! But the foundations for the characters are there.

Sharon: Yes; Cap using the term “Bush-Head” that Doug mentioned earlier, Pietro’s way-too-casual speech here…I see these lapses as a by product of Stan stretching himself too thin, what with being the chief writer (dialoguer) for several comics.

Karen: As I mentioned in a previous post, this group of Avengers has not fared particularly well. Steve Rogers is (supposedly) dead and has been for nearly two years, Wanda went mad in Avengers Disassembled and caused the deaths of numerous Avengers, including Hawkeye, who’s now back and strangely saddled with the identity of Ronin, and Pietro has had many difficulties, to the point where he has become almost a villain. I’m not sure whose fate bothers me the most! I miss Cap terribly – I think (at least before the Civil War) he was the Marvel Universe’s moral center. Although I’ve enjoyed most of what Ed Brubaker has done with Bucky over in Captain America, I would prefer to see Steve back.

Sharon: I like Pietro’s complexity: he’s not charismatic (which is refreshing) but he’s fascinating because he’s neither completely good nor evil. I’ve always found him to be interesting; except perhaps during his first stint with the Avengers (yes, here!) when he was pretty one-dimensional (he’d had more of a spark earlier when he was in the X-Men comic). As for Wanda, I’ve always considered her to be mentally fragile. She seemed very immature in the early Avengers days and then in Avengers #49 and #53, and the related X-Men #43-45, she just seemed so lost. Her history of breakdowns doesn’t surprise me in the least. Naturally I didn’t expect (or want) the Avengers we know and love to be dissolved in Disassembled, but her actions there were in keeping with her character as I’ve seen it over the years. The Ronin issue doesn’t bother me either because Hawkeye has always had a penchant for changing identities, powers, and costumes--maybe not as much as Hank Pym, but it’s part of who Clint is: always trying to better himself. Now, as for Steve Rogers: I think it’s pretty ballsy of Marvel to have killed him off (though I have no doubt he’ll be back one day). But his absence is a story element in itself, and I think that’s one of the points.

Karen: I hated Disassembled and having Wanda go completely insane – we’ve already seen her have breakdowns or be twisted by evil entities, but this was too much. Perhaps the worst part was that it seemed to be done primarily so a new title could be launched. Hawkeye’s death was meaningless, and to have him running around now with ninja weapons makes absolutely no sense! Quicksilver was already a jerk before Brian Bendis got to him, so I guess his situation bothers me least.

Doug: I’m sure I’ve stated before that I no longer buy too many new comics, and I’ll be quite blunt – it’s largely (way largely) due to the very events you two have just discussed. I find it depressing that writers today cannot think of stories that exist within the parameters that have been set over the course of a 40-year history, but instead find it necessary to turn everything upside down. Not change with logic, but destroy. Clint Barton from Hawkeye to Goliath was fine in the face of Hank Pym’s metamorphosis to Yellowjacket; Clint Barton to ninja – uh, no.

Karen: Probably the only other Avenger to suffer as much as these four would be Hank Pym…and he would be returning to the team shortly after this series of issues we’ve just read!

Avengers 16 Cap Kooky Quartet
Avengers #16 (1965) 

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