In one of my first Deck Log Entries, ‘way back when, I took a look at The Avengers King-Size Special # 1 (Sep., 1967), featuring the story “The Monstrous Master Plan of the Mandarin.” The story was notable for its resemblance to the style in which Gardner Fox wrote the early Justice League of America tales. The author of the Avengers story, Roy Thomas, spent his boyhood devouring issues of All-Star Comics, DC’s Golden-Age title starring the Justice Society of America. And when DC introduced its Silver-Age version, the Justice League, in 1960, the eager Thomas bombarded writer Fox and editor Julius Schwartz with intelligent and constructive fan letters.
That was how he got his foot in the door, leading to his own career in the comics industry. Roy Thomas was one of the earliest examples of a fan turned pro. But the thing you need to most keep in mind, at least as far as this Deck Log Entry is concerned, is that Roy Thomas was a huge Justice League fan.
Over the past couple of weeks on this site, Philip Portelli has been treating us to reviews of Gardner Fox’s Justice League/Justice Society team-ups, the annual event brought about by Fox’s creation of the parallel-Earth concept. In JLA # 21-2 (Aug. and Sep., 1963), the Justice League discovered that there was another Earth, almost identical to their own, except for some minor differences. Such as, on that Earth, the Justice Society of America was still going strong.
It was one of the most thrilling revelations of the Silver Age. The congratulatory fan letters stacked up on Julius Schwartz’s desk, and every summer thereafter, the Justice League and the Justice Society would cross Earths to tackle another world-shaking menace.
So it was probably inevitable that, over at Marvel, Roy Thomas would take his own shot at writing a “parallel-Earth” Crisis.
The Avengers was Marvel Comics’ answer to the Justice League of America, and by the beginning of 1967, Roy Thomas was writing the title. The Assemblers might have been Marvel’s JLA in concept, but in tone and style, it was something different. The Avengers emphasized characterisation over plot, and Thomas delivered it. Cleaving to the Marvel style, he was responsible for some of the most dramatic and memorable developments in the series.
I’m guessing, though, that deep down inside, Roy Thomas was still that comics fan who used to get all “gosh-wow!” over each new issue of Justice League of America. His script for that first Avengers King-Size Special was clearly an homage, sticking to the Fox Formula so closely that an Avengers fan had to check the cover, to make sure that he hadn’t picked up an issue of JLA by mistake.
Roy wasn’t so obvious about it the next time, but he gave Gardner Fox and the JLA another tip of his hat when he wrote The Avengers King-Size Special # 2 (Sep., 1968). At least, “. . . and Time, the Rushing River” sure seems like Thomas’ salute to those summertime JLA/JSA team-ups. Done Marvel style, of course.
Though it could stand alone as a done-in-one, the story “Death Be Not Proud”, from The Avengers # 56 (Sep., 1968), also served as a prequel to the events of “. . . and Time, the Rushing River.” Here, the then-current roster of active Avengers---Hawkeye, the Black Panther, Goliath, and the Wasp---are summoned to Doctor Doom’s abandoned castle in upstate New York by Captain America.
Of late, Cap tells them, he has been questioning the fate of his young wartime partner, Bucky Barnes. Despite witnessing the fearsome explosion which killed the boy, Cap has been having second thoughts. “If I somehow survived it . . . couldn’t he have, too?”
The Star-Spangled Avenger proposes using Dr. Doom’s time-platform, long stored away in the castle, to go back to that fateful day and learn what happened to Bucky. He asks for the Avengers’ help to operate the time-machine; instead, they insist on accompanying Cap back to World War II. Only the Wasp remains behind in the present to work the controls.
Taking a page from Mort Weisinger over at DC, when the quartet of Avengers arrive in 1945, they are invisible phantoms. “Otherwise,” explains Cap, “we’d invite disaster by existing in two places at the same time!”
Despite the caution, the fellows wind up courting catastrophe, after all. The phantom Avengers watch the WWII-era Captain America and Bucky fall while trying to prevent the Nazi Baron Zemo from stealing the Allies’ experimental drone plane. Meanwhile, the Wasp, back in 1968, fights an inexplicable attack of drowsiness and unknowingly mishandles the controls. This causes her four time-traveling teammates to materialise in the past.
The Avengers do their damndest to stop Baron Zemo, but when it gets to the clinch, the heroes abruptly revert to their phantom state. History will not be thwarted, but it’s kind of pushed along a bit. In the final seconds before he completely fades away, the 1968 Cap is able to free his 1945 self and Bucky from their bonds.
But from then on, the Avengers are helpless to do anything but witness the final fate of Bucky Barnes play out, as it was first presented ‘way back in The Avengers # 4. Cap and the others return to 1968, sadly convinced of Bucky’s death.
The Avengers King-Size Annual # 2 hit the stands the same month, and it opens with the five Avengers returning to a New York that is not quite the city they left. At least, not to them.
Little things don’t fit. On the street, the usually jaded Manhattanites stare at them in curiosity. The Avengers Mansion isn’t quite right, either. They notice furniture that was discarded years ago and they are attacked by a defensive system that they don’t remember installing. But those are just the preliminaries; the big shock awaits.
No doubt with the theme song to The Twilight Zone do-do-do-ing in their heads, the five heroes head for the meeting room, only to find seated around the council table . . . the original Avengers! Iron Man. The Mighty Thor. Giant-Man. The Wasp. And the Hulk!
The two groups stare at each other and try to make sense of the other’s presence. Except for Goliath. Sure, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk might be the genuine articles, but Giant-Man must be an impostor. Because Goliath used to be Giant-Man. He reaches out and rips the mask off the other twelve-foot giant in the room, only to come face to face---with himself!
Cue the standard Marvel hero-versus-hero fight. With the overwhelming might of Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man on their side, the original Assemblers give the modern team a good thumping. Cap and the others barely manage to escape under the cover of a couple of Hawkeye’s smog arrows.
Taking refuge in one of those abandoned subway tunnels that are so prevalent in comic-book cities, the modern-day Avengers try to figure out what just happened. It’s Captain America who finally puts the pieces together. The reason why everything is the same-but-not-quite is because they are no longer on their own Earth. They are on an alternate Earth, almost identical to their own, but with some minor differences. And one difference not so minor: the original five members are still the Avengers on this Earth---and they don’t know Hawkeye or the Black Panther or Captain America.
And Cap hasn’t even gotten to the really bad part, yet. He theorises that this alternate Earth was created during their trip to the past, when he and Goliath, Hawkeye, and the Panther materialised in 1945. Their violation of physical law jolted all subsequent events off the track that their 1968 history had recorded. The reason why the Avengers of this alternate Earth didn’t recognise Cap or Hawkeye or the Panther might very well be that those three heroes, in the altered history, don’t exist.
And as far as getting home, they might not have an Earth to go back to.
Hoo boy! Roy Thomas took the idea of one team of super-heroes meeting its equivalent from another Earth and gave it a hard twist. It sure wasn’t the Gardner Fox approach, with the counterparts shaking hands and grinning and comparing costumes, like two chapters of the Shriners meeting for the first time.
Instead, the Avengers were met with open hostility by that Earth’s mightiest heroes; forced to run and hide, unable to seek help from a world that didn’t recognise them. Barry Allen thought it was the neatest thing ever to discover a parallel Earth where he didn’t exist, but the heroes he’d read about in comics as a boy did. Roy Thomas showed us how it could go horribly wrong.
And there was a whole ‘nother fistful of trouble waiting to hit Our Heroes, but they didn’t know it, yet.
Captain America decides their next move should be to learn how the alternate Earth’s history deviated from their own world’s. To do that, Goliath suggests they make use of the herodotron, a computer programmed with all historical data and capable of relaying it to a human subject by means of narrative feedback. That is, if this Earth has one.
Fortunately, it does, and the Avengers secure it for their use. When they do, they discover that, at a critical juncture before the Hulk could quit the team, this Earth’s Assemblers threw in with a cosmic entity called the Scarlet Centurion. The Centurion proposed that those Avengers neutralise all other super-beings, hero and villain, on Earth. In exchange, he would eliminate famine, pestilence, and all of the other ills that plagued mankind.
Now, only Cap and the others stand between the original Avengers and a golden age for man. This gives the other Avengers pause, out of concern that the Scarlet Centurion is on the level. But Captain America gives one of his patented “Tyranny is bad!” speeches, and his buds are back on the bandwagon.
The displaced Avengers figure that their best chance of putting things right and getting home is the same thing which created this mess in the first place---Dr. Doom’s time-platform! Thanks to the herodotron, Cap has a line on that, too. The original Avengers disassembled Doom’s time-machine and secreted the parts in three locations. The heroes split up into three sub-teams to retrieve them.
Since we are only halfway through the story, you can count on things not going all that smoothly for the 1968 Avengers. The Scarlet Centurion tumbles to their plan and dispatches the five original Avengers to stop them.
That treats us to some sensational battles royale. Hawkeye and the Black Panther confront Iron Man and the Hulk. Captain America tackles Thor. And Goliath and the Wasp square off against their earlier selves. Thanks to skill, teamwork, and a heaping helping of luck, the modern-day Assemblers triumph over the more-powerful original team.
Which was just fine by the Scarlet Centurion. As the 1968 Avengers assemble the time machine and activate it, the red-robed villain appears before them and reveals his secret agenda. It was the Centurion who created the time-anomaly that resulted in this alternate Earth---first, by seeding Captain America’s thoughts with doubts about Bucky Barnes’s death and then by causing the accident which resulted in the Avengers materializing in 1945.
This disruption in the fabric of time enabled the Centurion to alter history, by preventing the break-up of the original Avengers. Then the villain manipulated them into defeating every other super-being in existence, thus paving the way for his own conquest of Earth. That the modern-day Avengers were able to defeat the alternate-Earth team worked in the Centurion’s favour.
The Centurion knew that, before conquering Earth, he would have to beat the last remaining super-heroes---the Avengers. And he would much rather fight Avengers composed of lightweights like Captain America and Hawkeye and the Panther than Avengers with heavy-hitters, like Thor and the Hulk.
I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read the story, yet. But it’s safe to say that the Scarlet Centurion discovers that the Avengers---no matter which ones---aren’t that easy to kill. It’s a real squeaker, though. The Centurion is ahead on points through most of it. But Cap and crew finally manage to send the villain packing and restore history to its original course, putting them back on the Earth they left.
Even as late as 1968, the concept of parallel Earths inhabited by different super-hero teams was still so closely associated with DC that Roy Thomas was forced to find another way to get the Avengers on a world not quite like their own. Instead of a parallel Earth, Roy thrust the Assemblers on an alternate one, created by taking another step away from DC convention.
In the DC universe, history was immutable; a time-traveler was helpless to change the past. Thomas took another route: under the right circumstances, history could be changed, but the time-traveler would return to find a world significantly changed from the one he had left. Eventually, Marvel would embrace this notion as scientific law in its mythos. Changing the past would cause the time stream to diverge, creating an alternate branch, with an alternate history, from the original time-line.
DC created a parallel Earth to revive the Justice Society of America, the Golden-Age prototype for the Justice League. But Marvel had no Golden-Age super-team to resurrect. (The idea of the Invaders didn’t come along until the ‘70’s.) Yet, Thomas was still able to tap into the nostalgia factor by restoring the original Avengers. Fans have always held a curious fascination for the original line-up. It had the briefest of existences; the Hulk abandoned the group at the end of The Avengers # 2 (Nov., 1963), after only one adventure as an official team.
So it was an unexpected treat to see the charter Avengers in action. And by pitting them against the significantly weaker modern-day Avengers, Roy was able to indulge the fanboy desire to see “who can beat who?”
And as for the Scarlet Centurion, a villain never seen before, Thomas tied him to a past Avengers foe in a last-page coda provided by the Watcher.
This would be the last giant-sized Avengers story seen for some time. For the next several years, the Avengers King-Size Special title would carry reprinted material. And by the time it got around to publishing new Avengers epics again, in 1976, Roy Thomas had moved on to other things.
But he certainly left a high benchmark for the writers of those later Avengers King-Size tales to reach.