WC: AVENGERS #6

Here is yet another early and key Marvel book that I wound up with a copy of thanks to my Windfall deal. It was 1988, and I paid 33 cents for a copy of AVENGERS #6. I believe that by this point I had previously read the story contained herein in its reprint in AVENGERS ANNUAL #4, which I had bought as a back issue some time in the intervening years. But this was the genuine article, the actual thing. There is something about these books as objects as well as containers for the stories therein that holds a fascination for me. My crowd growing up eschewed reprints as not being “worth” anything (though if the reprint book was itself old enough, that mitigated matters somewhat.) But if you wanted to read those earlier stories, the Marvel reprint line was a godsend in terms of being able to do so affordably, even if the experience wasn’t quite so cool as reading them as originally issued. But here, I got to do just that.

It’s worth pointing out that Lee and Kirby were still working out the kinks in their new title at this point, in particular the newly-resurrected Captain America. I know that it’s difficult to realize this so many years after the fact, but at this point in the character’s development, Cap’s shield was simply a steel disk, nothing special. In fact, a few early stories even had it destroyed and replaced by another just like it. And so here, this issue begins with Iron Man having modified and upgraded Cap’s shield by installing transistor-powered apparatus inside of it (Giant-Man opens it in a page like a gigantic watch-fob) that allow him to control its flight through powerful magnets within his glove. This wound up being a blind alley, and the magnets and Cap’s remote control over his shield were discarded by the time that Cap got his own solo series in TALES OF SUSPENSE. But it’s a good example of the kind of trial-and-error that was involved in developing all of these now-world-known properties.

This is also the story that introduces Dr. Zemo (not yet christened Baron Zemo) and introduces the legend that he was the one responsible for the death of Cap’s sidekick Bucky and inadvertently for Cap himself having been frozen in ice for two decades. Zemo was rolled out in two books that shipped at about the same time–this issue and the 8th of SGT FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS. While I haven’t studied the situation closely enough, it’s always been my suspicion that the decision to call the Nazi scientist in SGT FURY Dr. Zemo was made in the game rather late, after the story had been drawn–just one more small way that editor Lee was attempting to create a cohesiveness to this new fictional universe he was shepherding. Anyway, Zemo is still alive all these years later–and still living with the misfortune of having his all-concealing hood permanently affixed to his face following Cap having dumped a whole batch of Zemo’s miracle “Adhesive X” on top of him. That’s such a weird choice, a weird motivation for a villain–but I suppose in an era where Luthor was driven by Superman having made him bald, this isn’t as far out as it seems. Anyway, Zemo learns that Cap is alive in the South American jungles where he’s been hiding out since the war, and he figures that he’d better get the Star-Spangled Avenger before Cap gets him.

Speaking of crafting a cohesive line, we get this full page ad around this point in the book, one touting the logos of all of the books Marvel was publishing at this point (including the westerns and the girl romance titles.) This has the feel of a last minute bit of filler, the replacement for a cover that wasn’t completed in time or some such thing. But it was another way that Lee was trying to create brand loyalty in his young readership.

Realizing that in order to eliminate Captain America he’s going to be coming up against the Captain’s teammates in the Avengers as well, Zemo goes on an off-camera recruiting spree, bringing on board a trio of villains each of whom had escaped being captured at the end of their earlier encounters with the individual Avengers heroes. This crew is christened the Masters of Evil. And so it is that the Black Knight, the Melter and the Radioactive Man stage attacks on New York City. They deploy tanks filled with Adhesive X in order to bring the city to a halt. Captain America and Giant-Man wind up stuck to a bit of pavement. But in another random bit of continuity, the Wasp calls over to the prison where the Human Torch’s foe Paste Pot Pete is being detained, and offers him amnesty in exchange for his help getting Cap and Giant-Man unstuck. Here, Kirby makes a bit of an error and draws not Paste Pot Pete but rather his teammate from the last story he had been in, the Wizard. Lee, whether he realized the mistake or not, simply scripts this sequence as though this is Pete, so it doesn’t wind up changing the trajectory of the story at all.

With the help of Rick Jones and his Teen Brigade, the Avengers are able to swap the Masters of Evil’s tanks of Adhesive X with Paste Pot Pete’s solvent, causing the trio of villains to undo all of the work that they had accomplished earlier as they continue to buzz the city. But then the fight is on, and Kirby rather cannily has the Avengers switch targets as they engage. Thus, Thor contends with the Black Knight, Iron Man and Giant-Man make a meal of the Radioactive Man (wrapping him up head to toe in a lead-based tape-spool Tony Stark provided) and then Iron man is also able to take down the Melter by causing him to disintegrate a fire hydrant that knocks him on his backside with a spray of water. Captain America, meanwhile, has headed to the heart of the conflict, to confront his old foe Zemo and to get some payback for Bucky’s death.

The action stops here momentarily for a single page letters page. These typically ran at the end of an issue once the story was over, but for some reason, this one falls into the midst of the book. Lee had begun to expand letters pages from solely FANTASTIC FOUR and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN to all of the other books in the line, which may be why this one is only a single page long rather than the standard two. The first letter is from Buddy Saunders, who would go on to become a comic book retailer and distributor in the Direct Sales market in years to come, and who was a well-known fan even then. Curiously, Stan starts off the Special Announcements Section this time with a self-deprecating joke at the expense of his own baldness. Hard to imagine him doing this just a year or two later. Stan also has only the broadest idea of what will be in the next issue of AVENGERS–he and Kirby have clearly discussed doing more with Zemo and the Masters of Evil in the next issue, but he also seems to believe that the Hulk will be involved. In actuality, the Green Goliath will be absent these pages until the line-up shift that takes place a year or so later.

This is the first true even-odds battle that Kirby and Lee have had an opportunity to put captain America into since bringing him back into the fold, and you can see the both of them working out and refining their approach to the character here. This is a typical multi-panel Kirby brawl–I can remember the second panel in that first tier disturbing me a little bit when I first read it thanks to Cap’s fearful expression and the uncharacteristic wrinkle-lines on his close-up cowl. But it’s really Lee who cracks things here, giving Cap the first of what would become many inspiring rhetorical speeches in the midst of combat with a foe. It was this combination of cap as just a human fighter, albeit a supremely skilled one, combined with his never-say-die attitude and his tendency to espouse the qualities of American ism that almost any reader could embrace that made him such an exciting character at this time. Even the fact that Cap here refers to himself once in the third person is somehow forgivable.

In the end, Zemo is saved when his pilot takes a shot at Cap, and he’s able to escape. But in this last page, Cap somewhat uncharacteristically gloats that while Zemo believed that he had gotten away with a canister of paste Pot Pete’s super-solvent, which might at last allow him to remove his hated hood, what he really got was a tank of tear gas, which will disable him and allow the police to capture him when his ship falls to Earth. This strikes me as a sop to the Comics Code, whose strictures didn’t allow for an evildoer to get away with his misdeeds. Given that Zemo will again threaten the Avengers in the very next issue, Cap’s confidence here seems to have been misplaced.

5 thoughts on “WC: AVENGERS #6

  1. Given Zemo’s obsession with removing his mask, it’s long struck me as odd that he never attempted to gain Pete’s dissolving treatment again. It wouldn’t have worked with the story, but it would fit the character.

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  2. Note, the Luthor origin involved much more than just being made bald:

    “The blast of air knocks an acid bottle into the bottle containing the life-form, destroying it and creating a gas which causes all of Lex’s hair to fall out. Enraged at the loss of the life-form, the irreplacable formulae for its creation, and his hair, Luthor vows vengeance against Superboy.”

    The destruction of the life-form and its formulae has mostly gotten lost from awareness. But that part of the story itself has more emotional impact than the caricature version. You can really feel for the guy at that moment, probably having been awake for who knows how long in a frenzy of work, and seeing it all get destroyed, while the last straw is his hair falling out. It fundamentally works on a human level.

    By contrast, Zeno here just sounds ridiculous. Invent a super-adhesive, but no way to undo it? Ever heard of accidents? There’s a whole bunch of real medical cases of people who have superglued things to their faces or gotten their fingers superglued to something. And in 20 years, nobody can figure out a way to undo it? I could see Zemo having a grudge if the whole thing left his face badly scarred (having the hood attached for any long time can’t be good for his skin). And that can’t be too gruesome for the Comics Code since a scarred face is part of Dr. Doom’s origin. But having a supervillain motivation of “I walk around with a hood superglued to my head, and can’t do anything about it” is not something easy for which to suspend disbelief.

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    1. The difference between Zemo and Luthor is that Luthor’s inciting event is what turned him into a villain. It’s more than the hair, yeah, but it’s also the foundation for a life of crime.

      Zemo’s mask was more a point of distinction, He was already a bad guy and he’d have kept doing bad things the rest of his life. The mask just makes him memorable — he’s the mad scientist with the mask stuck to his head! — and gives him a reason to be extra-annoyed at Cap, who gave him a major blow to his dignity. And Prussian-elitist Zemo is all about his dignity.

      The mask is secondary motivation for Zemo; his primary motivation is that he’s a brilliant elitist stinker who thinks the world should bow to him.

      With Doom, the scarring is similar, but a little stronger — Doom’s an arrogant bastard in the first place, and his face is really a symbol of That Time Someone Was Smarter Than Him, which he cannot accept.

      Whereas with Luthor, the hair (and the creature) are really a symbol of Superboy’s Greatest Mistake. Superboy wasn’t perfect, and now his friend is a bitter foe, and Superboy/man will live the rest of his life looking for a way to turn Luthor back on the path he might have been on in the first place.

      All in all, Luthor and Doom’s origins are much richer incidents than Zemo’s — but then, again, Zemo got killed off in under a year; he’s a “major villain” in retrospect, mostly because he’s the guy that got Bucky killed for a very long time.

      When I wrote Helmut Zemo, his son, we had to do a little fancy dancing to get beyond “I’m mad at Cap because Cap made me and my dad both wreck our faces” and firmly into “Cap is secondary; I should rule the world because I’m smart and of noble blood,” and make that feel like a strong, driving motivation that makes the character rich and distinctive.

      Because “you messed up my face/scalp” isn’t that strong a driving force unless it’s a symbol for something deeper and more powerful.

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