Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Marvels: Avengers #4

"Captain America Joins... The Avengers!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & George Roussos
(March 1964)

This is a momentous issue, as issue of The Avengers should be, so I'm going to go straight through this one.

Our story picks up right where Avengers #3 left off, with Sub-Mariner and Hulk's defeat at Gibraltar. Sub-Mariner, having escaped defeat at the hands of the Avengers, swims off, still searching for his people, who abandoned him after the events of Fantastic Four Annual #1. Angry and brooding, Namor laments his fate, then resurfaces to walk across the ice. He comes across an Eskimo tribe kneeling before a figure frozen in the ice. They think it's an idol, and their superstition irritates Namor, who menaces the Eskimos (they know who he is) and throws their "idol" into the sea. Namor's just so angry that he's lashing out. The "idol" drifts into warmer waters, where the ice surrounding this mystery person begins to melt...

The Avengers are making their way back to America in the submarine they took to Gibraltar, and Thor spots the floating figure. Giant-Man pulls him in, they lay him out, and...

And he's still breathing! He suddenly leaps to life, screaming for Bucky, before suddenly remembering: Bucky's dead. Iron Man asks the man in the costume to identify himself:

And once again, Captain America lives. And now, a relic of the past, he's a vibrant part of the new Marvel Universe.

But how can Captain America, hero of World War II, stand before the Avengers so young 20 years later? Can this be some sort of trick? As a test, Cap tumbles with the others. He can nimbly dodge Thor's hammer. He can shove Iron Man aside and flip Giant-Man over. In typical, eye-rolling Stan Lee fashion, Cap stops when the Wasp springs to full size in front of him, and he's confused at the idea of fighting a girl. Jeez, Stan.

That one really bugs me. Maybe I'm making too much of it, but given the track record with the Wasp so far, I don't really know. He couldn't have just been surprised that she appeared seemingly out of nowhere? I don't blame Kirby for this one. The way the Marvel Method works is that Stan provides an outline (if that), Kirby draws the issue, and then Stan scripts it based on the art. I wonder if Kirby would've thrown in "A girl!" or not, particularly after having read his run on Mister Miracle, which takes a lot of shots at sexism.

So then we get to retconning. Captain America's appearances after World War II (including a very brief revival in the 1950s) are wiped out of continuity, and this is the new official version: 20 years ago, Captain America and his young sidekick, Bucky, tried to stop an explosives-filled drone plane from taking off at a base in the European Theater of Operations. Bucky reached the plane in time, but Cap couldn't hold on; when the plane exploded, Cap fell into the sea where he was knocked unconscious and frozen. Bucky died in the explosion. And a shadowy villain gloated over his victory... more on him in a future issue. Ever since, Cap has been frozen in ice, in a state of suspended animation.

Upon returning to the New York City harbor, the Avengers are greeted by the press, who know the Avengers went out after the Hulk and want the story. But as one flash-bulb goes off, Iron Man, Giant-Man, the Wasp and Thor are suddenly turned to stone. When the smoke clears and four stone statues are standing there, the press chalk it up to some kind of prank or trick by the Avengers to avoid interviews. Eh, it's better than the "this joint's haunted!" thing that Stan goes to way too often.

When Captain America comes out of the sub, he sees an empty harbor and four statues. He assumes that they must be statues in honor of the Avengers and walks around for awhile, looking at a world that has advanced 20 years without him. There's an especially evocative moment where he looks at the United Nations building and wonders what it could be.

Everyone who encounters Cap is moved by his reappearance, particularly a police officer who saw Cap once as a child. He directs Captain America to a hotel, where Cap is particularly amazed by television. And then he drifts off to sleep, before being awakened to see... Bucky?

No, it's Rick Jones, who is apparently very reminiscent of Bucky; "You're like his twin brother! Your voice--your face--everything! You could be Bucky's double!"

Rick has followed Captain America's trail, because he was the last one to see the Avengers and now no one can find them. Rick needs to talk with them about what happened during their encounter with the Hulk; Rick is still trying to track down the man who he feels he owes his life to. (Honestly, I am glad that storyline has carried over into Avengers, because I just want to know what happens to Bruce Banner. I don't want this comic to always be about fighting the Hulk--and this is actually the first issue of the comic in which the Hulk hasn't appeared--but I do like that we haven't just abandoned the Hulk to history.)

Captain America offers to help Rick find the Avengers, After analyzing some of the photos taken at the harbor, Cap notices one man who is holding some sort of strange gun. Rick sets the Teen Brigade to action trying to track down the man in the photo.

When they do find him, the man is in an apartment building with a number of gunmen. It's not really clear why the guy has gunmen, but it's really just an excuse to watch Captain America spring into action like he hasn't missed a day. I like how Cap's power isn't all in his upper body and delivering punches; he's quite acrobatic and has powerful legs, leaping onto his enemies and knocking them to the ground. We also get our first shield throw.

It's especially exciting because the art is by Jack Kirby, Captain America's original artist and co-creator. I'm sure I'm reading into this, but it almost feels like he's excited about drawing the character again; the art in this issue is so vibrant and iconic that Cap feels like he could just leap off the page.

When Cap finally confronts the man in the photograph, he finds an alien!

An alien from a far galaxy who has been on Earth for centuries. His ship crashed here, embedding itself deep into the sea floor. He's wandered the planet, trying to find someone to help him pull his ship out so he can go home, only to be met with fear and hatred that has made him paranoid and suspicious. In self-defense, he uses his ray gun which turns people into stone for a hundred years. We see that he crashed here around the time of the Ancient Greeks, and Cap posits that he must be the truth behind the legend of Medusa.

Why did the alien turn the Avengers to stone? At the behest of the Sub-Mariner, who recently told the alien he would pull his spaceship out of the ocean in exchange for getting rid of the Avengers. Instead, Cap offers the help of the Avengers; if the alien reverses the effects of the ray and restores his fellow heroes, the Avengers will get the alien's ship back.

Now, Captain America and the Sub-Mariner used to fight side-by-side against the Nazis and the Japanese Empire in World War II, alongside the original Human Torch. So it's interesting that Captain America hears the name Sub-Mariner and only says "I seem to remember that name from the dim past!" And when Namor's plans are foiled, he's angry at "the one who calls himself Captain America." You'd expect them to remember each other, so I wonder what the explanation is for that. I'm sure they'll touch on some official explanation, it's just interesting to speculate, since these two are definitely the same characters as the Golden Age Cap and Namor. If I had to guess, the most obvious explanation is probably that Namor had amnesia all that time before Johnny Storm found him in Fantastic Four #4, and after the trauma of the explosion and his time frozen in the ice, Captain America's memories are probably a little messed up, too.

But for now, back to angry Sub-Mariner, robbed of his victory over the Avengers. At that moment, he runs into a contingent of his Atlantean royal guard, who have remained loyal and have been searching for Prince Namor. And now, armed with troops, revenge is at hand...

And it's another rocky island that we go to, where the Avengers are doing what they can to free the alien spaceship from the sea floor. Thor is the one who manages to do it, using the magnetic forces generated by his enchanted hammer. I wonder if the hammer's still at half-strength? If so, that's pretty damn impressive. It's hard to tell with the order, since this issue starts with the Avengers on their way home from the previous issue, two months ago, and there's already a story that's happened in Journey Into Mystery where we've seen the Avengers without Captain America. This is the problem with establishing continuity in a shared universe, really. It doesn't break the reality, but it does raise these questions.

Anyway, Namor and his men attack! The battle between Iron Man and Sub-Mariner goes pretty much the same way it did before. Never forget that the Sub-Mariner is more powerful than Iron Man's armor; that just makes Sub-Mariner that much more impressive. And hey, the Wasp actually gets to do something in a battle! She shrinks down and flies around Namor's head, temporarily blinding him, and probably saving Tony Stark's life. (Unfortunately, then she's basically tired out, and like the last time they fought Sub-Mariner, she just hides for the rest of the battle.)

Thor is quickly making short work of the royal guard, however, swinging his hammer and toppling them. The Atlanteans can't stand up to it, so Namor goes in with brute force, grappling with the Asgardian. Meanwhile, Giant-Man has been pulled underwater and netted, and the Atlanteans are literally just waiting for him to drown. He shrinks to ant-size, narrowly escapes a hungry fish, and then goes back to giant-size before stepping back into the battle. Giant-Man, Thor and Iron Man all attack Namor himself, and it sort of turns into a repeat of the previous issue, with no one really gaining the upper hand.

Captain America, meanwhile, is watching the battle, trying to get a sense of this modern world and it's strange characters. Even Namor impresses him as a foe, thinking to himself "If there had been such men in my day, what epic battles we might have fought!" See my earlier comments about whether both men's time as amnesiacs and trauma victims have done a number on their memories. You guys used to be allies, Cap!

After Namor tries and fails to lift Thor's hammer, he reveals his ace in the hole: the Atlanteans have Rick Jones prisoner. Cap won't tolerate that, and leaps into the battle. Namor is easily stronger than Captain America--Cap makes note of that--but Captain America seems more agile. For now, though, it's a moot point, as there's a sudden earthquake and the Atlanteans retreat, expecting the earthquake to finish off the Avengers for them.

But it's not an earthquake at all; it's the launching of the alien spaceship. Captain America has kept his word, and the alien is finally free to return to his home. With the danger passed, the Avengers offer Captain America a place on the team, which he wholeheartedly accepts.

Rick, however, is troubled. Already, he admires Captain America more than anyone he's ever met. But he's torn by his loyalty to the Hulk. And so, for some reason, Stan decides to end this issue with the set-up that one day Captain America and the Hulk will have to face off against each other for the friendship of a 16 year-old boy.

So... okay.

Stray observations:

:: Captain America's return had, of course, been tested in Strange Tales #114, where the Human Torch fought the Acrobat in disguise as Captain America. I touched on the publishing fate of Captain America in that entry, too.

:: Everyone's seen the iconic cover, but I feel like this entry would be incomplete without including it.

This one's been quoted over and over, and it's easy to see why. A momentous cover for a momentous issue. Clearly, Stan Lee knew this one was going to be a big deal collector's item, and even warns the reader on the splash page "We sincerely suggest you save this issue! We feel you will treasure it in time to come!" And that's under the large lettering that says "A TALE DESTINED TO BECOME A MAGNIFICENT MILESTONE IN THE MARVEL AGE OF COMICS! BRINGING YOU THE GREAT SUPERHERO WHICH YOUR WONDERFUL AVALANCHE OF FAN-MAIL DEMANDED!"

Most of the stray observations I would've made were in the run-through of the issue itself. There are some lingering plot threads here--what of the Hulk? and the shadowy villain who witnessed the "death" of Captain America 20 years ago?--that come into play soon enough. But this was truly an epic, one of, as promised, the milestones of the Marvel Age. With the addition of Captain America, this title adds an essential component that I think was missing from the first three issues (as titanic as they were), and the team really feels whole. I can't wait for whatever comes next.

But for now, in the next Marvels, another strange alien harries the Fantastic Four.


bliss_infinte said...

One of the World's Greatest Comics without a doubt and one that evolved Marvel. I love that it takes place in one of the first major crossover events that started with FF annual 1 and will continue through a number of FF issues and finally in Avengers 5. The other thing that I love about this issue and many of the comics around this period is how much actually happens in it. It is an epic story in 32 pages. You can't beat that for 12 cents and you sadly don't see that in today's comics at all.

SamuraiFrog said...

In today's comics, the story of this issue alone probably would have been its own four-issue miniseries. Comic book storytelling is so decompressed now that there's virtually no tension anymore.