I hadn’t really thought about it this way before, but as things turned out, I wound up getting both the beginning and the end of the initial Masters of Evil cycle in my Windfall Comics purchase of 1988. For, like AVENGERS #6, this issue also features Zemo and the Masters, and begins to bring their presence within the series to a close. It was clear that, as with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants over in X-MEN, having the same villainous group battle the heroes in every single issue wasn’t the most viable idea long-term. So this is the point where editor Stan Lee and his team of creators begin to retool the series, to bring it more in line with the manner in which the overall nascent Marvel Universe is developing. So on that level, it’s a strong payoff issue to the running problem that the Avengers have had for many months now.
It must be said that the previous few issues of AVENGERS were relatively weak stuff–in particular the one just before this one, #14, which clearly was one of those disaster comics that comes up every once ina while (and about which I will no doubt write before too long.) Having turned the bulk of the plotting over to stalwart artist Don Heck, Lee was uncomfortable with the results. And so, in his desire to right the ship and to set up a transformation on the title, he brought Kirby back in to do layouts–which translates to having him do the plotting at a cut-rate price. Kirby’s hand is detectible in the artwork from place to place, but largely he’s invisible–it’s his story sense and dramatics that Lee needed here.
Lee and Kirby were also just on the cusp of launching the Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. series in STRANGE TALES, and so here Kirby sets up a plot thread that will continue on for several months. Having heard that Fury, whom he’d met during the war, was still alive and back in the espionage business, Steve Rogers sends him a letter volunteering his services. Captain America was looking to build some sort of a life for himself in the present day, and this seemed like a good connection point for him. Unfortunately for Steve, the letter would be waylaid by Hydra in an issue or two, and Fury would never receive it. The pair would ultimately get together again in a Cap story in his series in TALES OF SUSPENSE, but by that point Cap had become too central to the new Avengers line-up, and had to refuse Fury’s offer of a steady gig. Still, in this way, with plot threads that wended through various titles, Lee and Kirby and co. created the sense that everything at Marvel was connected, that everything mattered.
Another way they did that was through the house ads and text pages that would run in the books, such as this one. It was the standard format by this point to show off four upcoming covers rather than the three that had been featured for a long while–the line had simply grown that much in the interim. And there really was no better hook for a Marvel reader then gazing upon one of these covers and becoming excited about the wonders to be found inside the book.
Anyway, in terms of the story, Zemo has determined that it’s time to stop pussyfooting around with the Avengers and to finish them off once and for all, in particular his WWII nemesis Captain America. To that end, he assembles the Masters of Evil once more–this time, including the Black Knight and the Melter, who had been part of the initial group but who had both been captured and thus stricken from the roster. For some reason, the Radioactive Man didn’t get the call-back, possibly because Zemo thought he was dead, possibly because Kirby simply forgot about him. In any event, this is now the largest crew of Masters there has been, and they’re ready to strike. Zemo’s first gambit is to capture Rick Jones, who has aspirations of becoming the new Bucky, Cap’s partner. Because Zemo was responsible for Bucky’s death, Cap flies into a rage when Rick is similarly imperiled, and Iron Man requisitions him a jet so that he can follow Zemo’s escaping craft back to South America for a fight-to-the-finish.
But the Masters are ready for pursuit, and they attack the Avengers’ jet, drawing the other Avengers away one by one and leaving Captain America to make the rescue attempt by himself. The rest of the team has to battle not just the Melter and the Black Knight, but also the Asgardian Enchantress and the Executioner. This is a Marvel book, and Kirby is directing teh action as opposed to Heck, so as you’d expect, there’s plenty of colorful fighting involved as the assorted heroes and villains unleash their strange powers upon one another in a round-robin orgy of bloodless destruction. Lee, for his part, makes sure that all of the action is clear while also insuring that each character has a distinctive voice and characterization. Not to mention as many corny funny lines as he can come up with. It was this mix of adventure and humor, pathos and punchline, that was one of the real secrets of these early Marvel efforts. They were straight up entertaining to read.
The battle see-saws one way and another, and Captain America is forgotten in the melee. Eventually, the two teams regroup, and the Masters of Evil issue an ultimatum to their foes: if the Avengers don’t surrender, the Masters will turn their powers upon not only the heroes but the surrounding city as well. The loss of life will be catastrophic. With the Avengers weighing their next move, their particular portion of this storyline comes to a momentary ending, to be resolved next issue. Because in the meantime, Captain America has reached Zemo’s stronghold in South America, and is tearing his way through the villain’s guardsmen.
As cap battles to save Rick Jones, he succeeds in cutting off Zemo from the rest of his men. But Zemo is still packing his disintegrator ray, and he fires at Cap point blank. Or he doesn’t–Lee scripts these panels away from what the art shows, and likely has Panel 5 redrawn so as to put the onus of Zemo’s coming death more squarely upon the villain’s shoulders. But in the art, Zemo fires his ray at Cap, who deftly blocks it with his shield, causing it to ricochet into the surrounding rocks, which collapse upon Zemo, killing him. In Lee’s adjustment, Cap momentarily blinds Zemo with light reflected off of his shield, and Zemo fires the gun wildly into teh rocks himself. So Cap’s hands are almost completely clean. Either way, it was a rare thing for Marvel to kill off a villain so completely–and a rarer thing for such a villain to thereafter remain dead. Of course, there would be later Zemo impostors, and his son would eventually take up his mantle. But even today, this issue represents the genuine demise of Heinrich Zemo.
The Marvel titles were really rolling at this moment, and so next comes a pair of ads for even more books in the line–first one of the standard three-for ads and then a special spotlight on DAREDEVIL #7 with its Sub-Mariner guest appearance and new look for the title character. There’s also a solicitation for readers to join the Merry Marvel Marching Society, Marvel’s in-house promotional club, through which Lee did even more to further brand loyalty.
But really, nothing truly embodied the essence of the Marvel recruitment manner more than a book’s letters page, and here’s the one for this issue. Lee hasn’t yet inaugurated the Bullpen Bulletins page, so a portion of it is taken up with the Mighty Marvel Checklist, which describes several of the issues that readers got to see the covers to a couple of pages earlier. There was also a great, fun sense of personal interplay between Lee, answering letters, and the letter-writers, many of whom had read enough of these pages by this point to understand how to pitch their correspondence in order to have the best chance of getting printed. These were still days before message boards or direct e-mail communications, so sending a tangible letter or postcard to Marvel was the only way to make one’s feelings known. And for any letter that was slated to see print, Marvel (in teh person of Flo Steinberg usually) would dash back a postcard informing the reader of that fact.