This was the second of two successive AVENGERS ANNUALS that my father brought home for me one night from the Heroes World outlet in the Nassau Mall in Levittown, where he worked. He was very proud of the fact that he’d gotten such early issues based on the numbers, and I never did explain to him what Annuals were in the context of comics. Because why would I? It was a generous gesture on his part, and these two Annuals were great! Unlike the previous one, this one was comprised entirely of reprints, but they were strong reprints that I enjoyed as much as I would have any new story (and possibly more–my predilections tended to lean in favor of the 1960s-era Marvel even at this time.) To start with, that’s a great, dramatic John Buscema cover, making the prototypic Avengers look just as dynamic as any modern super hero.
The opening story in this Annual reprinted a key adventure in Marvel history, the story in which the Avengers, in pursuit of the Sub-Mariner whom they had battled an issue earlier, come across the frozen figure of Captain America and are able to successfully dethaw him, bringing him back to life. Creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby make a key decision here to decide that Cap vanished before the end of World War II–nobody yet cared about squaring the circle of his later published adventures in the late 1940s and 1950s. It had been a decade since Cap had appeared in a comic book, so for most readers of the Silver Age, this was their introduction to him (apart from one earlier Human Torch story in which the Acrobat had posed as him to rob the Torch’s hometown of Glenville, a story we covered here:)
There had to be some genuine satisfaction felt by Jack Kirby, who had co-created Captain America twenty-plus years earlier alongside Joe Simon, to be able to return to the character and to approach him in a more mature, modern style. The battle sequences in this issue as Cap attempts to track down the being who has transformed the Avengers into stone are about as kinetic and visceral as anything Kirby would produce later. The inking was provided, uncredited, by George Roussos, who seemed to be inspired as well, as he did a might tighter job than was his norm over Kirby at this time. By the end of the story, the Avengers have been revived and have beaten the Sub-Mariner, the alien that petrified them has returned to his home in the stars (to await death at the hands of Dark Phoenix, no doubt) and Captain America had taken his rightful place as a member of the team. This story is a classic for a reason, it packs in a ton of incident, has unrelenting energy, every character in the group gets to contribute some action along the way, and there’s a feeling of importance, of ceremony to the whole thing. Even for fans who had no idea who Captain America was before this, the story makes you understand that his return is a big deal.
The back half of the issue reprinted a trio of Captain America stories from the back pages of TALES OF SUSPENSE, where Cap had earned his own strip after being successfully revived. In order to keep the continuity from becoming too difficult to manage, Lee and Kirby decided after a short period to tell adventures of Captain America back during the war, so no coordination with AVENGERS would be necessary. This started with Kirby straight up adapting stories he’d originally worked on two decades prior, but swiftly gave way to new adventures, including this one that reveals the origin of Cap’s greatest foe, the just-reintroduced Red Skull. The issue prior to this one, Lee and Kirby had re-envisioned the first Skull story, in which he was a murderous airplane magnate, George Maxon. But one or both of them decided that this was too mundane a role for the Skull, and so they immediately disavowed Maxon as an impostor an issue later. Kirby takes great pains in this story to conceal the Skull’s true features, even before he dons his skulllike mask. He is the Red Skull through and through, any human identity is incidental.
The story opens with Cap having been captured by the Red Skull, a Red Skull far more formidable than the one he’d faced the month prior. The Skull confirms that the earlier man had been simply a stand-in, then for his own amusement he reveals the secrets of his own creation. He was a poor, downtrodden kid with no money and no future, beaten by larger kids and living hand to mouth in the gutter. But Hitler took an interest in him and personally supervised the training that channeled his hatred of others due to his mistreatment into a living embodiment of Nazi ideals–the Red Skull. On this page, Lee scripts to avoid a Comics Code problem–while the art clearly shows the Skull gunning down the aide who had been supervising him, Lee’s copy makes it so he’s simply shot all of the buttons off his jacket, so that he will live in fear as another lackey for Hitler.
By the end of that first chapter, we discover that the reason the Red Skull has been so long-winded is to give the hypnotic agent he’s subjected Cap to time to do its work, and by the end of the installment, Cap is a mesmerized puppet swearing loyalty to the Red Skull and the Nazi cause. As the second chapter opens, the Nazis are training their captive to assassinate the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, the mission they intend him to undertake. We switch back to Bucky for a few pages (who was absent for the entire opening chapter) who is also a prisoner in a POW camp. But the kid is wily, and he leads his fellow POWs in a frantic escape attempt, intending to come to Cap’s assistance. He’s able to slug a similarly-framed Nazi soldier and steal his uniform, smuggling himself aboard the plane taking Cap to where he’ll do the deed. But when the moment comes, Bucky is overwhelmed by the Nazi soldiers and cannot prevent the bad guys from setting Cap up to do the deed.
As chapter three opens, it turns out that Cap is so intrinsically patriotic that even under hypnosis, he won’t shoot the General, and he snaps out of the mind control, taking apart the Nazi escort sent to convey him to the site. Thereafter, the story takes a sharp left turn, with a Nazi infiltrator stealing the secret American super-weapon from Project: Vanish, a laser gun. Steve Rogers’ regiment is in the area, and comes under fire from the unstoppable weapon, but Steve and Bucky don their costumes and take out the enemy sniper in just a couple of pages, all without their true identities being discovered. And that’s the ballgame–the story never gets back to the Red Skull, who remains at liberty, which nobody seems especially concerned about. That said, it’s another electrifying outing visually, with Kirby clearly relishing the opportunity to revisit the war years through his surrogate, Captain America.
5 thoughts on “BHOC: AVENGERS ANNUAL #3”
I wonder why they published this as an Avengers Annual rather than a Captain America Annual. Think it might have been because they expected being titled as Avengers would make for better sales than being titled Captain America?
I would guess that it was added to the schedule as an AVENGERS Annual before anybody had worked out what would go into it.
2 “legacies” come to mind. Steve Rude’s countless homage renditions of Kiby’s version of Cap. And Frank Miller’s posthumous tribute to Jack in one of his “Give Me Liberty” installments. Martha Washington is sent to retrieve a blood sample from the last surviving superhero, Captain Kurtz. I figured the name was nod to both Marlon Brando’s character in “Apocalypse Now” (Colonel Kurtz), and to Kirby’s original last name, Kurtzberg. Captain Kurtz was the ultimate Marvel Silver Ager. As a one-up on Cap, Kurtz invented his super soldier serum himself.
Marha finds Kurts in Philly, defending the Liberty Bell from a swarm of neo-Nazis. He gladly takes a break to fill a syringe with his blood, to follow HQ’s orders, then convinces Martha to leave him to his final fight. She does, afterwards destroying the vile of his blood, giving him final rest, and suggesting he’d shed enough of his blood for his country, already. I’m not doing it justice, but the moment in the story felt poignant, reading it.
“He was a poor, downtrodden kid with no money and no future, beaten by larger kids and living hand to mouth in the gutter.”
It wasn’t something that I initially noticed, but with this story Kirby and/or Lee consciously chose to make the Red Skull a literal mirror image of Steve Rogers / Captain America. Their early years are remarkably similar, but Cap made the decision to embrace the best of humanity, while the Skull actively wallows in the worst of it.
Thanks for confirming that Lee’s dialogue reveals a different fate for the Skull’s former trainer than Kirby’s art intended. This wasn’t the last time this would happen, as in FF Annual #5, Psycho-Man terrifies one of his subordinates to the point where the man jumps out of the window to his (supposed) death. Instead, Lee’s dialogue in the next panel says that the man landed on a nearby ledge and did not die. This happened a lot in Marvel’s early days, when death was a really big deal… I’ve lost count of all of the “abandoned” warehouses and buildings that were trashed during super hero-super villain battles.