Back at the drugstore, I pulled this book out of my usual haunt: their large bin of comics that had been reported destroyed, but which instead had been sold off the back of the truck. As I’ve talked about many times here, that bin was a welcome source of comics that I had missed for several months until it eventually went away. I still wasn’t reading AVENGERS but I had begun to pick up MARVEL TRIPLE ACTION–what can I say, I’ve always liked 60s comics more than their 70s counterparts. This reprinted cover corrects a mistake on the original, showing the Black Widow among the Avengers fighting the Sons of the Serpent. The original cover mistakenly depicted the Scarlet Witch, who was not in the issue, having left the Avengers with her brother Quicksilver just before. It’s a smooth correction, too–if you didn’t know it had been done, you couldn’t tell anything had been tampered with.
I have a vague recollection of having leafed through this comic on at least one prior trip to the drugstore before buying it. The state of my own personal finances in those days was haphazard, so I was often limited in what i could buy and when, and I think on that previous trip, some other book won out. This is one of the rare issues of AVENGERS that Don Heck not only penciled but inked as well. Heck had developed a bit of a bad reputation among the fans of the 1970s–he was a journeyman whose work could be found every month, but there was something a bit stiff and lifeless to it a lot of the time. He wasn’t truly cut out to draw super heroes for all that he wound up doing a lot of them. But at the time this story was done, working on twice-up boards rather than the smaller original art style that came in later, and inking his own work, Heck looked pretty good. Also, i think Stan Lee’s style of melodrama meshed well with Heck’s visuals–Heck was often not quite as involving with other writers.
This particular story was the second part of the first appearance of the Sons of the Serpent, Marvel’s equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan. It was a pretty courageous story to do in 1966 when it was first released, though it’s a bit cartoonish in its politics and its grasp of the nuances of racism. But no other comic book company was dealing with subjects such as this at all, so it was a welcome expansion of the sophistication of comics. This two-parter also introduced Bill Foster, a scientist and lab partner to Goliath who was African-American. The Marvel titles of this era made a slow but concerted effort to feature characters of color–though again, in retrospect, you wish they had done more, gone further. Bill would eventually become Black Goliath himself and headline a short-lived series in the 1970s. Here, he’s sporting the strange almost-purple skin tone that was being used for black characters like Gabe Jones a lot of the time.
So what’s the story? Well, the white supremacist Sons of the Serpent have been stirring up trouble right when the United Nations is being visited by General Chen, the leader of “a hostile oriental nation” that we’ll assume is Communist China. The discord that the Sons are creating is setting the stage for Chen to win a propaganda victory when he addresses the U.N. Council. What’s more, the Avengers are powerless to do anything about it, because last issue the Serpents captured Captain America, and now they’re using him as a hostage. What’s more, they insist that the Avengers come to their big rally, proclaim them true patriots and support their hateful cause. While Goliath and the Wasp go in order to stall the head Serpent, Hawkeye attempts a rescue mission to free Cap on his own–but he runs into severe opposition.
But Goliath can only stall things for so long, and so he’s forced to take the stage. All around the country, wherever the rally is being broadcast, people respond positively to Goliath’s appearance–the Avengers’ seeming endorsement makes people think that the Serpents have the right idea. But Goliath immediately goes off-script, denouncing the Serpents and practically daring them to attack him and pull him away from the cameras. As large and as powerful as he is, nobody dares to interrupt him–until Captain America appears! But surprisingly, Cap accuses Goliath of being a traitor, and he rallies the crowd to swarm the oversized Avenger.
Remember when I said that Hawkeye was undertaking his rescue mission alone? Well, I kind of fibbed. because what he’s really doing is fighting a diversionary action, so that his then-girlfriend the Black Widow can use her stealthy spy skills to infiltrate the base. She does so, returning with a blond figure, and the trip heads for where the broadcast is being shot. The blond guy jumps into the fray (I can recall seeing this panel during my earlier flip-through and thinking that the blond guy was Quicksilver), revealing himself to be Steve Rogers, the true Captain America. The Serpents have kitted out one of their own members in Cap’s gear to fool the public and rally the mob to their support against the Avengers. But even without his costume and shield, Cap is more than a match for the impostor, and the tide turns against the Serpents now that the Avengers are reunited once again.
The Avengers quickly put the Serpents to rout and capture the Serpent Supreme–who turns out to be our old pal General Chen in disguise, fomenting race hatred so that he could score his big propaganda win. The crowd expresses disbelief at how easily they were misled by Chen in Serpent robes, and the Avengers lay out the moral of the story quite clearly. It’s a moral that would be just as applicable today as it was 54 years ago when it was first published. Bigotry is wrong–unless it’s against the Reds, those commie bastards are all monsters! Regardless, this simple yet effective plea for brotherhood was part of the way in which Stan Lee in particular was trying to expand the reach and the appeal of the comic book stories he was producing to an older and more sophisticated audience.