It’s considered an urban myth now, but the story goes something like this:
One afternoon in 1961, Marvel Comics publisher Martin Goodman was playing golf with a DC executive, either Jack Liebowitz or Irwin Donenfeld. Liebowitz or Donenfeld was bragging about the success of DC’s new title Justice League of America, a book about a team of super-heroes. As soon as he got back to the office, Goodman ordered his editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to come up with a super-team for Marvel. That led to the creation of the Fantastic Four.
More likely, Goodman was studying sales figures or had an informant among the distributors, but the part that is true is that the success of the Justice League begat the Fantastic Four. However, except in the broadest sense of being a team of super-powered heroes, the Fantastic Four was nothing like the Justice League.
The Fantastic Four consisted of four inter-related characters, all created for the sake of the title, who acquire super-powers from a mutual event; from then on, being part of the team is the principal existence of each of the characters. The Justice League of America was formed from heroes already existing in the DC universe; hence, they have separate lives, separate origins, and separate series from the team title, and band together when the need arises.
But it wasn’t really Stan Lee’s fault. The problem with fulfilling Goodman’s order in 1961 was Marvel just didn’t have enough individual super-heroes to band together. Lee was forced to weave a super-team out of whole cloth, and Lee being Lee, he couldn’t do it in the conventional manner. At the same time, he set to work creating one new super-hero after another. No doubt Martin Goodman was tapping his foot the whole time, waiting for Lee to finally give Marvel its own Justice League.
Finally, in 1963, Marvel had enough heroes with varying degrees of success in their own series for Lee to put together a true analogue to the JLA. From Tales of Suspense came Iron Man; from Journey Into Mystery, the mighty Thor; and Ant-Man and the Wasp were plucked from Tales to Astonish. The fifth and final member was a character who had survived for only six issues in his own title---it had been cancelled early in ’63---but, I suspect, Lee had seen a potential for more inter-team drama in the Marvel Manner: the Hulk.
Even in those days, when the Hulk was more of a thug and his I.Q. was closer to three digits, I’ve always believed that Stan Lee knew that the Emerald Behemoth would never fit onto a super-hero team. The team’s origin was shown in The Avengers # 1 (Sep., 1963), and it probably wasn’t a last-minute inspiration when the Hulk quit the team at the end of the next issue. In The Avengers # 3 (Jan., 1964), the heroes went in search of the Green Goliath, looking to bring him back into the fold. That was a sub-plot that popped up in a few early issues of The Avengers, and quite possibly, the Hulk might have returned to the fold. If it hadn’t been for Captain America.
After a test run of sorts, in Strange Tales # 114 (Nov., 1963), Marvel’s old World War II character, Captain America, returned to the Marvel universe for real in The Avengers # 4 (Mar., 1964). Once Cap joined the group, the Hulk went his own way and never looked back.
For most Avengers fans, this line-up---Iron Man, Thor, Giant-Man (the former Ant-Man), the Wasp, and Captain America---represents the “classic” team.
For the next year, the Avengers was as much like DC’s JLA as Marvel would allow. With the rebellious Hulk out and staunch team-player Cap in, the Avengers became a harmonious group. Oh, there was occasionally some internal dissention, but it never lasted past whatever crisis was occupying the team for that issue, and in the end, all was always forgiven.
The members operated smoothly together and a premium was placed on teamwork. They were a bit stodgier than the smiles-all-around JLAers, but overall, the classic Avengers were a pretty happy bunch.
The group even had its own version of Snapper Carr---Rick Jones. Jones had winnowed his way into the Avengers’ company thanks to his relationship with the Hulk and got to hang around after old Jade-Jaws quit because of his resemblance to Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s dead wartime sidekick. Poor Rick never seemed to get the respect that the Snapster did from his JLA pals. Snapper was officially pronounced an honorary member in the first Justice League story and his name usually appeared in the splash-page roll calls. He got to carry a signal device and the heroes even modified his jalopy so he could attend meetings, where he got to sit right there at the grown-ups’ table.
Rick, on the other hand, was depicted as little more than a camp follower. It wasn’t until Tales to Astonish # 64 (Feb., 1965), when Rick flashed his Avengers I.D. card to gain access to the Oval Office, that the fans even knew for sure that he had any official status with the group.
To all accounting, Martin Goodman’s order for a Marvel JLA had paid off. The Avengers comic was selling well and the readers were happy with the current line-up. Most editors would have left well enough alone. But not Stan Lee. Come The Avengers # 16 (May, 1965), almost everything was tossed into the dumpster.
“The Old Order Changeth!” spent the first few pages clearing out old business---the Avengers’ battle against the Masters of Evil and the aftermath of Captain America’s defeat of Baron Zemo---then the real story took over. While Cap is still working his way home from South America and Thor is out of touch, undergoing the Trial of the Gods over in his own series, the three remaining Avengers confer at their mansion. The Wasp complains that she’s tired of the whole costumed-hero schtick and wants a leave-of-absence. Giant-Man and Iron Man admit to the same thing, and Shellhead suggests disbanding the Avengers.
Before they can go any further with that idea, old Iron Man foe Hawkeye the Marksman announces his presence with a smoke arrow. Before the trio of Avengers can whup up on him, Hawkeye explains that he never intended to be a villain in the first place (which, in fact, was true, according to the archer’s origin in Tales of Suspense # 57). He wants to join the Avengers. And the Assemblers realise that they don’t have to disband, just find replacements.
Pretty much only on the basis of the sincere look his face and a trick shot involving Jarvis the butler, the Avengers make Hawkeye a member.
Since they can’t leave on their vacations until they find a couple more fools candidates to take their places, Iron Man and Giant-Man and the Wasp start beating the bushes for potential members. A newspaper announcement of their replacement search attracts the attention of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, another pair of “misunderstood” villains looking to rehabilitate their public images.
The mutant siblings had even less trouble getting into the Avengers than Hawkeye did. Pietro and Wanda’s membership audition consisted of posing for press photos and schmoozing with Tony Stark. (No wonder one panel showed Rick Jones whining about being turned down as a member yet again.)
Captain America finally arrives at the Avengers Mansion, just as the three rookies are taking the club pledge, and discovers that all of the original Avengers are taking leaves-of-absence. There is a look of pure anguish on Cap’s face when he learns that he is now in charge of a motley crew of three former super-villains. And Rick Jones is on the verge of throwing a hissy fit at being passed over once again.
It was the kind of thing that one would never see happening with the Justice League over at DC. This wasn’t a member leaving the team, or one or two joining. This was an almost complete housecleaning. Sure, Marvel was going to pick up a few points from the surprise value, but why tamper with a format that was already popular?
Stan Lee, who not only edited, but wrote most of the super-hero line, has gone on record as admitting that he had created such an intertwined Marvel universe that even he could no longer keep things straight. It was growing too difficult, Lee said, to keep what was happening to the heroes in The Avengers from contradicting events happening to them in their own series. If Thor was engaged in a war between Asgard and Jotunheim over in Journey Into Mystery, how could he be in this month’s Avengers story, readers would ask. Lee’s tightness of continuity---something which had been a big treat for the fans; it was fun to see Spider-Man interact with Iron Man for a few panels in a story---was turning into a noose.
By turning The Avengers over to characters who, except for Captain America, had no other homes, Lee was able to avoid such conflicts, or so he insisted.
To-day, that kind of cross-title continuity is commonplace at all comics companies, so many fans accept Lee’s proffered reason. I’m not so sure I do. At least, not as the only reason, or even the main one.
After all, Gardner Fox had faced the same problem with his Justice League stories. At that time, every JLA member had his own series or title, and---more complicated than Lee’s situation---spread across three editors. Fox did the best he could. Occasionally, he would account for a JLAer’s absence in a particular adventure by relating it to what was going on in that member’s parent title. But usually he just ignored what was going on in the other comics. When readers wrote in, asking how Superman could participate in the latest JLA story when he was in the middle of a three-part adventure on a red-sun planet in Action Comics, editor Julius Schwartz would explain that the JLA story had taken place just before (or after) the Man of Steel’s current situation in Action.
It was an easy fix, so I don’t see inter-title conflicts as being that big a deal. I think the main reason why Stan brought in a new group of Avengers was to open up the writing possibilities.
For most of you, I’m preaching to the choir. It’s a fact of writing super-team books that has been waxed by others, including Andrew “Captain Comics” Smith. (In fact, it was from him that I first heard that observation.)
You see, if you’re a writer on a team book, and your team’s membership is populated by characters who have their own series in other comics, there’s not a whole lot you can do with them to generate fresh directions. You’re locked in by what is established in the heroes’ parent titles. That’s where their attitudes, personalities, and relationships are set. In other words, you are simply borrowing the characters for your team comic and you have to put them back the way you found them. You can’t have the Flash falling in love with Wonder Woman or put Thor in a new costume.
But, if your team members are heroes with no other home, there are no format toes to step on. You can create whatever group dynamics you want. Have them fall in love or turn rogue; acquire new powers, outfits, or personalities; or kill them off. It’s sub-plot heaven.
In the Silver Age, Marvel’s stories were heavier on characterisation than DC’s, but with the classic Avengers in place, Stan Lee didn’t have much leeway to insert it. Granted, he could have worked around it, since he was writing the scripts for virtually every Marvel super-hero title. But it was easier just to bring in free agents. New dramatic possibilities had occurred to Stan even as he wrote The Avengers # 16, and he dropped hints like breadcrumbs.
The Avengers were about to take on a whole new personality, one that was a far cry from the ever-smiling Justice League of America.