If you were a costumed do-gooder in the Silver Age and you wanted to join an elite team of super-heroes, you stood a much better chance in the Marvel universe than in DC land.
As I talked about last time out, DC’s premier Silver-Age super-team, the Justice League of America, was a pretty snobby bunch. It elected only one new member a year, and to even be considered, you had to have a proven track record as a super-hero. There was no nepotism, no legacies, no special considerations for being a buddy of one of the current JLAers. If you don’t believe me, just ask Hawkgirl.
And you had to have the real-world fortune of having your magazine be a top seller, because JLA editor Julius Schwartz only chose DC’s most popular heroes for inclusion in the League, on the theory that fan-favourites would draw the most new readers to JLA.
That was initially Stan Lee’s thinking too, when he put together Marvel’s analogue to the Justice League---the Avengers. As I discussed back in Deck Log Entry # 85, Lee selected his most popular characters as the charter members for the Avengers. Well, almost. Spider-Man was Marvel’s biggest single-hero hit series, but Stan was canny enough to realise that Web-head wasn’t a team player. One of the essential elements that made Spidey so popular with his fans was his sense of disenfranchisement. Putting him in the Avengers would undermine that image.
The heroes that Stan did select for his new team were the most popular almost by default, since he didn’t have that many super-heroes in his stable to begin with. Iron Man and Thor, no problem. Their sales were strong enough. But with Spider-Man out of consideration, along with Doctor Strange (for pretty much the same reason; he worked best as a loner, too), Lee had to drop down to the “B” list for Ant-Man and the Wasp. They weren’t setting any sales records, but there just weren’t that many costumed characters left to choose from.
The last original member of the Avengers, the Hulk, was the wild card. His title had recently been cancelled, so you couldn’t make any kind of argument for fan popularity, but Stan had a soft spot for the ol’ Green Goliath. He was sure that the Hulk just hadn’t found his audience, yet. Or, perhaps more accurately, his audience hadn’t found him, yet. Besides, as with all of his other creations, Stan wasn’t looking to make a carbon copy of DC’s offerings; he was looking to make the Avengers different, distinctive. And Jade-Jaw’s surly attitude and hot temper would add an atmosphere of contention to the Avengers, as opposed to the ever-convivial Justice League membership.
Not surprisingly, the Hulk didn’t find the association an uplifting one and he quit the team at the end of the second issue. That kicked off a sub-plot that ran across a number of Marvel titles, as the remaining Avengers tried to locate the Hulk and make nice. The Emerald Behemoth wanted none of it. In the meantime, there was an empty chair at the Avengers’ meeting table.
Not that the Assemblers felt any real need to fill the opening. When your ranks include three of the mightiest people on the face of the planet (by this time, Hank Pym had adopted “Giant-Man” as his primary costumed identity), taking on new members is almost an after-thought. The only reason the Avengers kept trying to bring the Hulk back into the fold was so they could keep a watch over his tendency to go on city-destroying rampages every now and then.
The landmark Avengers # 4 (Mar., 1964) saw the return of the Golden-Age hero Captain America to the Marvel universe. As the story depicted, the Avengers plucked Cap’s frozen-in-suspended-animation body out of the ocean and thawed him out. That was lucky for the Assemblers, because it meant that the star-spangled hero was there to save the day when they were turned to stone by an alien’s mysterious ray. After a brief concluding battle with the Sub-Mariner and a gaggle of common, home-grown gangsters, the Avengers offer Cap a place on the team.
That was it. No voting, no deliberation, just “Thanks for helping us out, pal. You wanna join our club?”
Sure, one could make the argument that Captain America’s legendary reputation precluded any kind of formality. But still, it was pretty casual for a group that prided itself on its attention to protocol and by-laws. In those days, Avengers meetings had a rotating chairman, but no matter who had the job on a particular day, he always seemed to do it with a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order in front of him.
Sure, over at DC, the Justice League also utilised a rotating chair, but it was largely a functionary sort of thing. The JLA chairman got to sit at the head of the council table, bang the meeting to order with the gavel, and, if there was an immediate menace to deal with, hand out the sub-team assignments. Other than that, League meetings were a pretty laid-back sort of thing, with all kinds of cross-discussion.
But that sort of thing was ‘way too ad Librium for the Avengers. They took their meetings seriously, boy. Minutes were read and the chair had to recognise speakers, who were always motioning this or that, or seconding those motions. And the Avengers chairman job carried a lot more authority than that namby-pamby JLA chairman. The chairman of the Avengers also gave orders in the field, and his word was pretty much law.
For all that dedication to parliamentary procedure, the Avengers took the matter of new members rather casually (as opposed to the JLA, for which new inductions were the only time it did seem to pay attention to by-laws). In fact, only once during the Silver Age did the Assemblers actually hold a meeting specifically to discuss taking on a new member.
In “. . . to Become an Avenger!”, from The Amazing Spider-Man King-Size Special # 3 (Nov., 1966), the Assemblers hold a special session to determine the Web-Slinger’s potential for membership. Avengers fans had never seen this happen before, and it was clear that it wasn’t something the heroes themselves were used to, either. Spider-Man is the only candidate proposed; yet, after some heated debate, they realise that they didn’t know much about what Spidey can do.
Nor are they too sure about his integrity. They call in Daredevil, the Man Without Fear, for a character reference. (In other words, the Avengers ask one masked hero about whom they know next to nothing to vouch for another masked hero about whom they know next to nothing.) After DD assures them that Spidey is a swell guy, the Avengers seek out the Web-Slinger and offer him a spot on the team. After some soul-searching, Spider-Man decides that the prestige of being an Avenger would pretty much mute all those hostile Daily Bugle editorials and improve his stock with the citizens of New York.
Loyal readers knew there were a lot more dividends to being an Avenger than just public admiration. Tony Stark paid a monthly stipend to all members. Though many Avengers refused it, it was there for the taking, and while the amount was meagre by Stark’s standards, it was a pretty healthy chunk of change to us ordinary joes. Also, a member, if he chose to do so, could live rent-free at the Avengers Mansion, in one of the sumptuous guest rooms, and get daily tending by Jarvis, the Avengers’ butler.
The biggest bennie was undoubtedly getting issued an Avengers I.D. card. It opened a lot of doors shut tight to anyone else. The bearer of an Avengers I.D. was awarded a stratospherically high government security classification and gave him direct access to the President, jumping ahead of members of Congress and Cabinet secretaries, if need be.
Spider-Man shows up at the mansion and accepts their offer of Avenger-hood. Not so fast, Webhead, the Assemblers tell him. First, there is a little matter of an initiation. Nothing too formidable, they explain---“just” capture the Hulk. Before he has a chance to come to his senses, Spider-Man accepts the task.
In one of those comic-book coïncidences designed to keep the plot within page count, the Hulk happens to arrive in Manhattan and Spider-Man tracks him down. The Web-Slinger pretty much gets pounded into dog meat for his effort, but, incredibly, he comes within a hair’s breadth of actually defeating the Hulk. This is the first time, though, that Spider-Man has met the Green Goliath up close and personal, and he discovers what a tortured, lonely soul the behemoth really is. Spidey can’t bring himself to polish him off and kisses off his chance to become an Avenger.
If the Avengers had little experience at a formalised membership process, it was because they had never done such a thing before. Shortly after Captain America joined the team, they voted in the brand-new super-hero, Wonder Man, in The Avengers # 9 (Oct., 1964), for helping them out on a case. (Big mistake!) But that was practically a White House vetting process compared to how they picked up the next bunch of new Avengers.
In The Avengers # 16 (May, 1965), Thor, Iron Man, Giant-Man, and the Wasp have finally gotten tired of all the motioning and seconding and running off at a moment’s notice to battle the Masters of Evil for the umpteenth time. They decide to take on a bunch of replacements and put Captain America in charge of teaching the newbies how to be Avengers. Everybody thinks this is a pretty good idea (Cap is conveniently out of town at the time) and they kick off the membership drive.
The first new member accepted is Hawkeye the Marksman, who breaks into the mansion and ties up Jarvis the butler to apply for the job. They point out, not unreasonably, that Hawkeye was a villain who had tried to kill Iron Man a couple of times. The archer replies, “Uh, yeah, sorry about that.” Good enough, decide the others, you’re in!
The next two enlistees added to the roster of Marvel’s elite super-group were the mutant siblings Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. For the first few years of their four-colour existence, they had been members of the super-villain Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, spending their time trying to enslave us mere Homo sapiens. We were, um, misunderstood, Pietro and Wanda explain. That, and posing for a few press photographs, is enough to convince Iron Man and his pals that the pair have the stuff to be Avengers.
When Captain America gets back from South America, he’s dismayed to discover that the Avengers have been turned into a refuge for reformed super-villains. He sees a serious problem with being left in charge of three former criminals who haven’t even proven what they can do, yet. “Really? Well, good luck with that,” say the outgoing Avengers, eager to start their vacations.
Actually, Cap did have good luck with that. Better than one would expect, anyway. The Star-Spangled Avenger had a hell of a time whipping the three self-centered prima donnas into hero material. (See my Deck Log entries # 85-7 for those details.) But at least none of them tried to stick a knife in his ribs while he slept.
The same couldn’t be said for the Swordsman, another super-villain who wanted to join the Avengers in issue # 19 (Aug., 1965). At this point, Captain America must have been tired of fighting the tide; as soon as Iron Man appears to vouch for the Swordsman, Cap simply admits him to the team. It didn’t work out and Swordy was gone by the next issue, after the other Avengers discovered him planting bombs in the mansion, intending to blow them all to smithereens.
At this point, the Avengers’ standards for new members resembled a spiel from Johnny Carson’s old Art Fern character:
“Got no powers? We don’t care.
“Got a prison record? We don’t care.
“Try to kill us when we’re not looking? Then we care!”
Before the end of the Silver Age, two more heroes entered the ranks of the Avengers---Hercules, in issue # 45 (Oct., 1967); and the Black Panther, in issue # 52 (May, 1968). Herc was admitted after assisting the Avengers on, admittedly, a lot of missions, and the Panther was let in on the strength of Captain America’s recommendation. But at least both of these inductees had proven records of good-deed-doing.
Like I said at the start, if you were a Silver-Age hero looking to join the best super-group around, your chances were much better in the Marvel universe. Over at DC, you had to wait for the Justice League to come to you.
But with the Avengers, it seemed like all you had to do was walk in the door and say, “I’m a super-hero, honest!”
Unless you were Spider-Man.