From the Archives: Deck Log Entry # 8 "JLA": Justice League of---Avengers?

Suppose we were sitting around talking about comics, and I brought up a certain issue of a Silver-Age comic about a team of super-heroes. And in describing what happened in the story, I mentioned . . . .

. . . That the story opened up with one member of the team discovering a menace too great to handle alone, so he activates his emergency signal.

. . . That all of the other members respond, gathering at the team’s headquarters.

. . . The menace presents itself in three different global locations.

. . . So the current chairman of the team makes assignments, and the members separate into three sub-teams to tackle each component threat, except for two heroes who are sidelined from the main action.

. . . Each sub-team of heroes succeeds in its assignment and collects a key bit of information about the main villain’s master plan.

. . . And, ultimately, the entire team regroups to confront the main villain, and after a pitched battle, prove victorious.

Ring any bells? Oh, come on, I’m not fooling anybody, and especially not you Silver-Age fans out there. I’ve just described the basic plot of Gardner Fox’s early Justice League of America stories.

Well, actually, I was fooling you. (Well, maybe not those of you who were too savvy to think I would make it so easy.) You see, I’ve just discussed the basic plot of an issue of Marvel Comics. An issue of The Avengers, no less.

Specifically, I just described the plot of The Avengers King-Size Special # 1 (Sep., 1967).

“The Monstrous Master Plan of the Mandarin”, written by Roy Thomas, relates the efforts of arch-Iron Man foe, the Mandarin, to conquer the world (what else?), assisted by five long-time Avengers super-villains. Iron Man tumbles to the scheme when he is present, as Tony Stark, when one of the foes, the Living Laser, makes a successful, Mandarin-assisted prison break. Realising that there is something more afoot than the simple escape of a super-villain, the Golden Avenger alerts the Avengers over their emergency “special frequency”. Once assembled at their mansion headquarters, the Avengers collect information and discover that they are facing a menace on three fronts. Captain America, as chairman, divides the heroes into teams, and the story is off and running.

It’s not exactly a state secret that Roy Thomas has always been a huge enthusiast of both the Justice League of America and its Golden-Age predecessor, the Justice Society of America (also created by Gardner Fox). Before breaking into the field of comics, Thomas was a steady contributor to Alter Ego, the early fanzine founded by Doctor Jerry Bails. Many of Thomas’ submissions were parodies and pastiches of the Justice League and Justice Society. Even more prolific than his Alter Ego submissions were his letters to Gardner Fox and Julius Schwartz, leading to on-going correspondences with both DC professionals.

Roy Thomas’ entry into professional comics was as assistant editor to Superman editor Mort Weisinger. His career at National Periodical Publications (as DC was known then) lasted a total of eight days in 1965, before being driven over to Marvel by Weisinger’s legendary brutal and humiliating management style. After making his bones on such Marvel titles as Millie the Model, Strange Tales, and Sgt. Fury, Thomas finally got his shot at writing super-team titles; he assumed the writing chores on The Uncanny X-Men and The Avengers in 1966.

The Avengers, of course, was Marvel’s counterpart to the Justice League of America, and Thomas took over writing the title with issue # 35 (Dec., 1966). As tempting as it must have been to shape The Avengers in the mould created by Gardner Fox, a writer he clearly respected, Thomas found his own voice, bringing strict continuity and a wide range of storylines---from intimate personal tales to vast cosmic epics---to the title.

It’s obvious, though, that when it came time to write The Avengers King-Size Special # 1, Roy gave in to temptation. Not only did he write “The Monstrous Master Plan of the Mandarin” in the same structure as Fox’s classic JLA tales, the story was marked with trademark Fox-JLA touches. The story was divided into five chapters, just as Fox had divided his Justice League adventures. The splash page carried an insert of the roll call of members for that issue, and there was a panel depicting vignettes of the individual Avengers receiving the emergency signal and responding, familiar sights in the Silver-Age JLA issues. The action sequences emphasised teamwork between the Avengers and made references to developments in the individual heroes’ parent series---both characteristic of Fox’s JLA, as well.

Since, by this point, Thomas was too competent a writer to have to duplicate Gardner Fox’s style, I’ve always suspected that he wrote this story as a deliberate homage to Fox.

Even so, Roy couldn’t get away from some standard Marvel trademarks. Early on, there was the obligatory “heroes fight” scene, when Avengers-guest Hercules mistakes Iron Man for an intruder. And there was a larger version in the final chapter, when the Avengers turn on each other, due to the influence of the Mandarin’s “hate-ray”.

Also, Thomas infused characterisation into the Avengers story; typical of the Marvel style but not the norm for Fox’s Justice League. To say that Fox used no characterisation at all would be inaccurate, but it was minimal, mostly applied in Superman’s attitude---and recognised by the rest of the JLA membership---as the Big Kahuna of the group. Otherwise, Fox gave all the Justice League members the same sterile, professional demeanour, sort of like a super-powered IMF.

However, it is worth noting that, in “Master Plan”, while Thomas limned his Avengers with distinct personalities, they were not contentious personalities. They all got along just fine. This was a little unusual for Marvel, which had been putting heroes at odds with each other in their team books since Fantastic Four # 1.

By and large, though, Thomas followed the basic schematic---“heroes gather/divide into sub-teams to fight component threats/rejoin to fight major menace”---to the letter. This was the Basic Fox Formula for the Justice League: no frills, no twists, no deviations. When the Justice League debuted in 1960, the Basic Fox Formula was sufficient---there had been no super-team titles since 1952, and the concept was a fresh thing to the generation of fans that had come up since then. Just the notion of their favourite heroes teaming up in the same story was enough to grab the readers.

But by 1967, the Silver-Age generation was no longer captivated by the simple novelty of a team of super-heroes, and JLA fans had found the Basic Fox Formula too simplistic and too repetitive. For that matter, Fox had, too, and by ’67, he had already discarded his original structure in exchange for more creative approaches. Thus, “The Monstrous Master Plan of the Mandarin” was a throwback to a plotting format which had already lost favour with fans. That might have been the kiss of death for the story, had not Roy masked the old-style plot structure with those distinctive Marvel touches.

The familiar Avenger familiarities and trappings, no doubt, lulled the Marvel fan and kept him from realising that he was actually reading a Justice League story. And an old Justice League story, at that. Also helping was a number of “gosh-wow!” items presented in The Avengers King-Size Special # 1. At forty-nine pages, this was the longest single-issue Avengers story to date, and the first one to feature every Avenger, past and present, (with the exception of the Hulk) in action. The back of the book included various pin-ups, including a two-page cutaway of the Avengers Mansion.

In 1967, DC was trying to figure out what made Marvel so popular and copy it. But here was a rare case of Marvel copying DC.

Views: 652

Comment by Patrick Curley on April 20, 2010 at 11:27am
Good catch, CB! I assume you're aware of the homage by Fox to Thomas and Bails in JLA #16?
Comment by Commander Benson on April 20, 2010 at 11:40am
Ah, "The Cavern of Deadly Spheres", written by JLA fan "Jerry Thomas". That was one of Gardner Fox's more unusual deviations from formula. I discussed it a couple of years back in a Deck Log entry on what I call "semi-imaginary stories". One of the better examples of the reader having the rug pulled out from under him.
Comment by Philip Portelli on April 20, 2010 at 6:44pm
I pulled out "Essential Avengers" Volume 2 and reread this story. You are right with the JLA parallel. Too bad Roy couldn't have fit Rick Jones into it with some *hip* patter! He could have had Iron Man get rusted or magnetized to mimic GL's yellow weakness EVERY issue!

Funny, when you think how the Swordsman, the Executioner, Power Man (as Atlas) and even in some ways, the Enchantress all redeemed themselves heroically.

I also wonder if Thor actually said that he was leaving the Avengers in #16 or did the others merely assume so?

You get the feeling Roy enjoyed using Thor and Iron Man. It gave him bigger villains so he could amp up the danger and the excitement. Stan wanted Thor, Iron Man and Captain America out of the Avengers and I think Roy was showing him how important they were!
Comment by Commander Benson on April 20, 2010 at 8:06pm
"I also wonder if Thor actually said that he was leaving the Avengers in #16 or did the others merely assume so?"

In the story proper from The Avengers # 16, Thor is in Asgard, participating in the Trial of the Gods. Thus, he is not present when Iron Man and Giant-Man and the Wasp decide to go on hiatus. (Presumably, when the Thunder God got back to merry old Midgard and found out what had happened with the Avengers during his absence, he figured "Thank Odin that's over!" since he stayed as retired from Avenging as Shellhead and Hank and Jan.)

When I discuss that membership change at length, I point out Thor's absence, but when I go over it in passing, as I did in "So, You Want to Join the Avengers . . . .", I don't mention it, to keep from veering too much off point.

My guess is Roy Thomas didn't include Rick Jones in "The Monstrous Master Plan . . . " as a stand-in for Snapper Carr because Roy didn't care for Snapper as a character. Like you, I think it's too bad that he didn't---especially because the old Snapster was always my favourite JLA member.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on April 20, 2010 at 8:48pm
Thor learned about the change in the Avengers's roster in Journey into Mystery #120. Having discovered that Jane is missing, he goes to Avengers Mansion to get help from the Avengers, and finds the new Avengers there minus Captain America. He finds them young and brash, and leaves without asking for help.
Comment by Commander Benson on April 20, 2010 at 8:57pm
Thanks, Luke! I should have guessed that Stan would close that loop somewhere. (I've been meaning to get at least the first couple of volumes of The Essential Thor, but I haven't come across the first volume in my casual bookstore-visiting and it hasn't been that important for me to actually order on line.)

Much obliged for the info; I'll be able to use it in future discussions of The Avengers # 16.
Comment by Philip Portelli on April 20, 2010 at 10:47pm
I have "Essential Thor" volume 2 and, sure enough, "JIM" #120 (S'65), 5 months after "Avengers" #16 (My'65) has Thor meet the new Avengers. He had no idea that Iron Man, Giant-Man and the Wasp left the team or that the latter two retired. Of course, it's Hawkeye that makes the *good* first impression. Ironic when you think he and Thor are paired in "The Avengers King-Size Special"!

Now if Thor didn't really leave the Avengers, why did Iron Man advise the new team to seek out the Hulk? If he wanted them to have a more powerful member, why not tell them to try to find Thor? Did he doubt that Thor would return from Asgard, a place Iron Man wasn't even sure existed? The Hulk was becoming less and less intelligent by then and was hunted by the army. Surely Thor would have been a more realistic option unless Iron Man was hoping that Rick Jones could control him.

Snapper was more useful to the JLA than Rick to the Avengers. At least Snapper didn't create a monster; he only murdered the English language.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on April 21, 2010 at 5:48am
Actually, it was just how Snapper had been raised to speak. A story in the 1969 Justice League of America Annual revealed Happy Harbor was really a lost community of hipsters. They emigrated there to preserve their values after the popularisation of rock and roll in the 50s. In the tale, "I can't go home again!", the post-revamp Green Arrow wakes up in the town after crashing his Arrowplane just outside it on his way to a JLA meeting. Freaked out by their speech and mores, he believes he's fallen through a space/time warp and despairs of getting back to his own dimension and time.*

*I should point out, in case someone takes it seriously, that this post is a joke.
Comment by Commander Benson on April 21, 2010 at 5:58am
"*I should point out, in case someone takes it seriously, that this post is a joke."

I got to admit, until you added that coda, I took it seriously. I just assumed your reference to a 1969 JLA Annual was a typo, and that you really meant a 1989 or 1999 annual. That just goes to show how out of touch I am with the DC universe post-1985.

In all fairness, though, it would be just like the post-1985 attitudes for a writer to feel he had to somehow account for something---for example, Snapper's lingo---that really didn't need explanation.

But, yeah, you hooked me, friend. lol
Comment by Martin Gray on April 23, 2010 at 8:49am
Too right, that's the sort of thinking that leads to the likes of Geoff Johns giving us the Secret Origin of Barry Allen's Bow Tie, as if 'it was the Fifties' wasn't reason enough.

Excellent piece, Commander, top hole!


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