Released in 1998, only a few years after Marvel had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and a movie was outright unthinkable, Essential Avengers advertises that it, “Contains over 20 issues of continuity!” What tomfoolery.
Continuity wasn’t so much of an issue back during the bold and colourful days of the Marvel bullpen. It was a time when Captain America could be rescued from a fate-worse-than-Han by the Avengers despite the House of Ideas having continued to publish his adventures into the 1950s.
For anyone interested in a head count though, the issues here run up to Avengers #24. You’d expect that to mean two years’ worth, but the collected tales here were spread between 1963 and 1966.
Essential Avengers is printed in stark – pun intended – black-and-white, as with other books in the format. While that could deter some readers, it’s worth persisting as the lack of colour can’t overshadow the fact this is Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers and Don Heck in their prime.
Youngsters inspired to delve into superhero comics by the Avengers of the movie should take note. The art’s not what you’d expect from modern comics, but that’s no bad thing as it’s enthused with a sense of motion and dynamism that so many current books lack.
Inks are provided from greats in their own right like John Romita Sr. and Wally Wood. There are even retro-flavoured front and back colour covers by New Avengers‘ Stuart Immonen and Wade Von Grawbadger. Yes, that is his real name.
Lee’s writing bristles with pizazz too, so much so that it’s difficult to see why so many writers frown on thought bubbles and captions these days. Each issue is dramatic, and the collection feels far longer than a mere 24.
Essential Avengers was designed to be inexpensive. The purpose of a trade collection like this is to bring the stories in sequence to new and old readers alike, providing cheap and always cheerful access to Silver Age classics. Dare we say it – for the younger Avengers converts the Essential volumes can even function as handily in-continuity colouring books.
As in the 2012 movie the fun begins with a plot by Thor’s brother Loki, Asgardian god of mischief and general do-bad-ery. You’ll notice there are important little characters like Ant-Man and Wasp who haven’t made it to the big screen yet, and it’s striking that Cap, Black Widow and Hawkeye aren’t part of the team when it forms to thwart Loki.
Yup, the Avengers are certainly a’thwartin’ some superb villains in this volume: from the pimp-clad Nazi Baron Zemo and the effete Count Nefaria, to the ionic übermensch Wonder Man and Hawkeye’s rival the Swordsman, to the futuristic Kang the Conqueror and his surprising rival Immortus, and even the goofy Space Phantom. There’s also the inevitable departure of the temperamental Hulk.
Part of the series’ greatness is its changing roster of heroes, mismatched personalities and evolving costumes. There’s the overprotective closeness of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, stuffed-shirt scientists like Hank Pym mixing with mythological misanthropes like Thor, rough’n’tumble Hawkeye and prissy Captain America’s frequent standoffs, and the debonair Wasp and Iron Man’s constant tailoring alterations. Even in these early issues it’s obvious why Avengers was a revolutionary comic.
Without a company-wide crossover in sight, lucky readers are also treated to guest appearances from Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four too – Avengers vs. X-Men eat your heart out! These issues were put together back in a period when team-ups and event comics weren’t taken for granted.
If you haven’t read these stories then pick up Essential Avengers toot sweet and save the more recent storylines like Avengers: Disassembled, Secret Invasion or Siege for dessert, mon capitaine! Back at the very beginning is the best place to start, and this is the perfect time.