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.