With this weekend’s highly anticipated release of Marvel’s “The Avengers,” audiences might be tempted to delve into the complicated and convoluted history of Earth’s mightiest heroes. Like all long-running comic series, though, this can prove to be a daunting task, thanks to all the confusing instances of “retroactive continuity,” clones, alternate realities and countless spinoff series.
In order to help get you started on your Avengers history, here is a brief introduction to the Avengers comics and some of the important changes that have taken place in the team over the past 50 years.
The Avengers were first assembled late in 1963. In the previous two decades, superhero comics had fallen out of favor with audiences, being replaced instead by Westerns, horror, sci-fi and World War II series (including one of particular significance to the Avengers titled “Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos”).
In 1960, though, rival publisher DC had found huge success with an all-star superhero group called “Justice League of America” — a book that featured the combined selling power of pre-World War II icons Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. The Fantastic Four and the Avengers were created as Marvel’s responses to DC’s superhero revival.
The original lineup of the Avengers, though, was a hodgepodge of recent characters co-created by the legendary duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and in some cases, Lee’s brother, Larry Lieber).
Issue No. 1 might sound a little familiar to anyone who has seen the new movie. The disenfranchised Loki plots revenge on his brother Thor, but this time by tricking the hammer-wielding demigod into battling the Hulk. Thanks to the fortuitous appearances of Iron Man, Wasp and Ant-Man, Loki is defeated, and after the dust settles, the five heroes decide to band together and call themselves, at Wasp’s suggestion, “something colorful and dramatic, like the Avengers!”
Notably absent in all of this, however, is the star-spangled super soldier himself. Although Captain America has become the heart and soul of the Avengers more than any other character, he didn’t actually make an appearance until issue No. 4, when the existing team (minus the Hulk, who had already left for PR reasons) found him trapped in a layer of ice.
Another Kirby creation (together with Joe Simon), Captain America’s origins date back to 1941 and the pre-Marvel days of Timely Comics. It’s hard to not see the symbolic significance of thawing out a relic of America’s more patriotic past (both Kirby and Lee were war veterans) so that he could lead Earth’s mightiest heroes at the height of the Cold War.
From the beginning, though, the Avengers team has been characterized by its rotating roster of heroes. In 1965, the original members were disbanded, leaving Captain America to start a new team with one particularly important new recruit: Clint Barton (aka “Hawkeye”).
In the years following, literally dozens of characters have cycled through the Avengers and its spinoff teams (including the West Coast Avengers and the Great Lakes Avengers). Everyone from Spider-Man and Spider-Woman to Wolverine and about seven different versions of the Hulk (including “Nerd Hulk”) have all at one time or another been major players in loosely related super groups.
Teams have been disbanded, killed off, sent to other dimensions and reassembled countless times.
One of the only heroes to ever turn down the offer of membership in the Avengers, in fact, is the man without fear himself, Daredevil.
If you’re looking for a decent place to hop onboard the speeding locomotive that is the Avengers, don’t worry. In the early 2000s, Marvel launched the Ultimate line of comics, which was intended to restart all of the major titles from scratch to attract new readership. The Utlimate comics also significantly alter many of the origin stories and characters to make them feel more modern.
One of the most successful updates has actually been to the character of Nick Fury. In an odd bit of life imitating art, the Ultimate version was actually modeled on Samuel L. Jackson before the actor was ever cast in any of the movies.
For those interested, many of the current movies, including “The Avengers,” are based to some extent on the Ultimate comics. Specifically, Joss Whedon’s film bears a noticeable resemblance to the first volume of the Ultimate version of the Avengers (simply called “The Ultimates”). Although its main story (in an homage to the original 1963 comic) involves a team brought together by Nick Fury to fight a rampaging Hulk, the heroes also encounter a race of shape-shifting aliens known as the Chitauri. If that doesn’t mean much now, it probably will after the movie.
More can be found at the Marvel wiki page.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.