Hercules Saves The Avengers! (For Me)

We are going down the Katers’ rabbit hole. It is time for an old comics discussion. Many of you kids out there are probably tuning out. That is fine. I am going to give you time to vacate the article before I continue.

Out. Go.

Now that we are finally alone I can speak freely. One of the true joys of reading old comics is watching bad comics progress into great comics. I know that I have often evangelized on behalf of old comics. It can seem like I am saying that everything in the past was awesome and everything now is kind of boring. It is a black and white world out there! I can’t go out there and say it is fun to read old, bad comics. The kids will just see the word bad and turn their noses up.

It is a special kind of bad and it requires a special type of reader to appreciate it. It is a bad that comes from great creators working on book where the ingredients aren’t quite working. The reader needs to be someone who can spot the moment that key ingredient is added. For those who want to really hone their reviewing skills this is they type of exercise that allows you to put words to those gut reactions you have.

A perfect example of this type of book would be the Essential Avengers Vol. 2.  I am not a huge Avengers fan. Since it is a much beloved team, I have always assumed there was a run that I would love. I am still working towards that task. A listener of my Tom vs. The Flash podcast has heard me wax on and on about my missed connection with the Avengers. He was kind enough to send along a couple volumes of the Essential Avengers. (Thanks Alan Moore!) ((Actual thanks to Steve))

I dug into the books and I have to say that the title was a bit of mess for about three years. There is some terrific fun at the beginning of the series. You have an interesting mix of The Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, and the Wasp. The Hulk being a founder then becoming a foe. Kirby’s art was electric. Captain America joins up. Then things start to fall apart. Everyone quits but Cap. Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Hawkeye join up. Ant-Man becomes Goliath…and is still annoying. Stan Lee and Don Heck seem to lose control of the book.

At this point it truly was the polar opposite of the Justice League of America written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Mike Sekowsky. Fox’s JLA was light on character. Any dialogue could belong to any character. The story was all about solving the puzzle of the story. It was about the visual thrill of seeing The Flash and Batman together…or maybe Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. The characters didn’t change. That leads these stories to seem slight in our modern viewpoint. I love old comics and I find these hard to read.

Lee and Heck were going in the opposite direction. It wasn’t necessarily a good thing. In particular I am thinking about The Avengers #30 to #38. The issues were bogged down with thick and repetitive characterization. Hawkeye was always angry because he couldn’t be with Black Widow. Quicksilver was always angry because he couldn’t be with Scarlet Witch. Scarlet Witch was always angry cause her powers were giving out. Goliath (sigh) was angry because he was stuck being ten feet tall, and he didn’t like Hawkeye, and Wasp wouldn’t leave him alone while he was in his lab. 

It was miserable character after miserable character. There was no sense of fun in any of the characters.The only bright spot was Cap and he was gone for a few issues. Every other page was Hawkeye and Goliath ALMOST getting into a fight. You can only work up to ALMOST a couple times before it loses it’s magic. To be honest…it was as boring as the Fox JLA. The art was boring because the stories were boring. It was just a mess.

Roy Thomas would take the writing of the book in issue #35 and within a few issues you could see the series start to take shape. There is one particular element that is added that finally brings the entire book together. He would introduce Hercules to the team in issue #38 and suddenly the series takes off. The other characters are less annoying. The stories seemed to fly along a bit quicker.

His inclusion with the team added a sense of levity that the book desperately needed. While we would be treated to scenes of Goliath bitching at Hawkeye, they could be interspersed with Hercules dealing with the mortal world. Hercules going to a bar and serenading waitresses or dealing with the mailman. It was the other half of the Marvel universe that the book had been missing. We could see the flawed heroes portion but not the free wheeling irreverent side. Hercules mirrored Thor in that he was exiled from home but he carried the pain differently. He was quicker to anger and quicker to laughter. It was a perfect addition.

I could finally see what people loved about the Avengers. It was a great big mixed up pile of characters whose interactions could sparkle. A pissed off former criminal mixing it up with an exiled Greek god. Anger…Laughter…fights…hugs. The whole range of feeling all jumbled together.

As a reader and a developing critic it was electrifying to see such a pivotal moment in a comic. I knew that Roy Thomas was a good writer. I don’t love Don Heck but I knew he could do solid work. It was a dud of a book with great creators on it, and it was fascinating. I knew at some point they would figure the problem out. If you were to ask me what was missing I don’t know if I could have identified it out of the blue, but once it was added it seemed obvious.

That is the part of the fun of old comics. You know how things end up eventually. It gives you a perspective that can allow you to have patience. I knew eventually that The Avengers would get better and I was going to see it.  I also have a lot of free time….


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  1. "Quicksilver was always angry because he couldn’t be with Scarlet Witch."

    haha, so very true. 

  2. "He [Hercules] was quicker to anger and quicker to laughter."

    Perfect encapsilation of the character.

    Great article.

  3. Tom, any stories where a character was added and you said good-bye to a title?

    PS great article!

  4. Yeah Hercules is one of my favorite characters. I really hope when he inevitably comes back, that he joins the Avengers once again.

  5. Great insight. This is something you can probably only see in comics, and long-running comics at that. It’s pretty neat actually. It’s not just the writers getting better at their craft, but just figuring out the right combinations to make a team work. For a team book it’s all about chemistry. 

  6. Yeah personalities of the Avengers are much more hostile and agressive than the JLA where they all seem to trust everyone.  Granted DCU has Museums and parades to celebrate their heroes where Marvel U tends to get annoyed at their heroes because they break stuff all the time.  Goes back to my theory that Superman has the entire planet hypnotized into to loving the JLA except for Lex, Grundy and Grodd

  7. I’ve always sort of liked the Avengers dynamic for that JLA because of that. I reread some of the essential Avengers volumes today and holy shit. I can’t believe I never noticed that every issue was seriously Hank Pym and Hawkeye arguing.

  8. @TomK, Yeaaaaaaaah!!!! Now do FF! Now do FF! I’ll send you the first 3 Essentials vols, and you tear them apart! Deal? Yippeee!

  9. Ah, thanks for bringing back memories, Tom. I’ve not read those stories since I was a kiddywinky in the Seventies – I think I’ll be going back to those Essentials tonight. The start of the  Roy run – fun.

    And I’ll be thinking about which characters being added made a team click for me (as the addition of Wolverine and Spidey made the Avenger de-click).