Friday, March 29, 2013

Doug's First Comic Book: Avengers 19

Avengers #19 (August 1965)
"The Coming of... The Swordsman!"
Stan Lee-Don Heck/Dick Ayers

Doug:  Today I'm going to let you in on a bit of history -- this is the first comic book I remember getting.  I received it as a gift.  My memory is really murky -- I cannot recall who gave it to me or where I was.  I know my family was visiting another family, and they had a daughter who was maybe a year or so older than me; she gave me the book -- ask me to tell you her name and we'll both be disappointed.  This must have been in 1971 or 1972, as I know it was before my family moved to Milwaukee in the summer between my 1st and 2nd grade years.  So I suppose that's not very good history after all, is it(?), especially since the copy I own is not the one I was given over 40 years ago!  But I hope that sort of introspection will inspire our readers to not only comment on today's story, but to share similar remembrances of first comics past.  The cover image above is from my copy, which is certainly not my original -- this is an upgraded replacement.  The back cover is a light tan instead of bright white, but you can see that the front is really nice.  All corners are sharp and the spine is pretty tight -- too tight, to be honest.  Can you make out that it's stapled off-center?  See the staple running through the Pop Art box, rather than lined up on the spine as a saddle-stitched magazine should be?  Oh, and yes -- it does have that lovely smell of almost-50-year old newsprint.  Man, I took a big sniff when I removed the book from its protective sleeve!

Doug:   We open with the Swordsman swinging by a rope affixed to his waist, sword extended.  He thinks to himself that with an Avengers ID card, he can do anything!  On the very next page, Wanda sits in repose while Pietro fidgets, wanting action.  As if on cue, the intruder alarm sounds, and Pietro jets away to investigate.  Finding the Swordsman in one of the Mansion's control rooms, Pietro attacks.  He finds that the Swordsman is no slouch, and that his blade is especially dangerous -- and as seemingly versatile as Captain America's shield.  Wanda enters and launches one of her mysterious hexes -- unfortunately, while it throws the Swordsman off-balance, it also causes Quicksilver to trip and stumble into some of the computer banks.  The Swordsman, sensing that Pietro is about to launch some defensive device, hurls his sword into the equipment, where it sticks.  Pietro then launches a flurry of punches, but the Swordsman falls and feigns defeat.  He tells the young mutants that he wants to join them.  As Wanda and her brother stand with mouths agape, the Swordsman maneuvers himself over to his blade, where he withdraws it from the wall and smites Pietro with the flat side.  Felled, his sister comes to his aid with a hex that pulls chunks of metal from the wall and knocks the Swordsman unconscious.  At that point, Captain America enters to see what all the ruckus is about.  As Wanda relates the events of the fracas, Cap runs the Swordsman's name through their security computers.  They find that he is one of the most notorious rogues in Europe.

Doug:  Upon Cap's revelation, we see a sword flash, and the lights go out.  Coming right up on the back-up generators, the Swordsman is nowhere to be found.  Wanda and Pietro say they could capture him in a flash; Cap tells them to go ahead, that they've been craving action.  I thought this was a little strange, as my view of Cap in these days was as a protective father figure, even in spite of all the hassle he always got from Pietro and Hawkeye.  But he tells them to go, and then heads back to the gym.  While putting himself through a rigorous work-out, he thinks to himself that he's agitated with Nick Fury for not answering his letter of request to join SHIELD.  Just then, Hawkeye enters the gym and makes his typical smart aleck greeting.  Cap tells him that he'd missed some excitement, from a guy named the Swordsman.  Hawkeye recoils, telling Cap that's the one guy he used to fear!  At Cap's urging, Hawkeye then narrates what would be his origin for years to come -- and since Stan Lee is the scripter of this tale, you just know it involves a circus!  A teenaged Hawkeye was an apprentice to the circus's main attraction -- the Swordsman!  However, the Swordsman was crooked, and when Hawkeye caught his mentor stealing the gate receipts, their falling-out was immediate.  Seeking to run away, the Swordsman instead trailed his protege and cornered him on the high wire.  Hawkeye turned to fight, but the Swordsman was too talented, and ruthless.  He slashed the tightrope with his blade, and for his purposes Hawkeye had died that day.  But the rope had somehow broken his fall, and the Swordsman had no idea that the Hawkeye in the Avengers had been his former partner.

Doug:  We switch to an office window in Washington, DC, where a couple of Hydra agents spy on the office of Col. Nick Fury.  They see an envelope on Fury's desk, with a return address that says only "The Avengers".  Using a ray gun, the baddies zap the envelope, causing it to disappear.  However, it magically reappears across the street, right in their yellow-gloved hands!  They open it, and see that it's Cap's request to join SHIELD!  Actually disappointed in what they've found, they angrily crumple it and chuck it out the window.  It lands at the feet of a passerby, who picks it up (raise your hand if you pick up papers that mysteriously drop from above and land at your feet).  We then scene-switch to a "sleazy section of the sprawling city", and here's where Stan loses me geographically.  The Hydra guys were in DC when they tossed the letter, yet the goons assembled when the letter comes up again are in NYC -- now we aren't told that the letter's holder (who looks an awful lot like Daily Bugle columnist Jacob Conover) was ever in DC, so the time and space issue is vexing.  Anyway, the letter holder arranges a meeting with the Swordsman, who agrees to pay for the letter after he's trapped Captain America.

Doug:  At the Mansion, Cap literally jumps for joy when he reads the "reply" from Nick Fury he's waited so long for.  But his fellows aren't so giddy.  In fact, Cap is immediately questioned by Quicksilver and Hawkeye as to his commitment to the Avengers.  They argue, but the two youngsters quickly back down, each fancying himself as the team's next leader.  Wanda picks up on this, and is wary.  Later that night, Hawkeye's out on patrol and comes across a couple of punks up to know good.  Hawkeye engages them and makes short work of their operation.  But, one of the punks gets nervous and starts to talk -- knowing Hawkeye is an Avenger, he confesses to selling the Swordsman the letter, which in turn brought about the bogus letter sent to Cap!  Hawkeye wraps up the operation with the cops, and then heads back to the Mansion.  He actually gives some thought to not helping Winghead, but then thinks a little more valiantly about his status as an Avenger and hightails it back to Wanda and Pietro.  Trouble is, Cap had left some time ago, and since the air had been a bit frosty between everyone, he'd not said where he was heading.

Doug:  Cap enters a large warehouse and thinks that Fury must be crazy for using such a place as his office.  Suddenly the Swordsman appears above him and goads Cap into a fight.  Feeling like a fool for believing the phony letter, Cap launches his shield, which the Swordsman is able to parry and capture.  Now "helpless", Cap takes to the shadows.  Circling the Swordsman, Cap topples a bunch of empty cartons onto his enemy.  Having created the diversion, Cap then swoops down to ground level and recovers his shield.  The Swordsman attacks without mercy, stunned at how good Cap is.  Back at the Mansion, Cap's teammates try frantically to reach him via different transmitter frequencies.  Hawkeye and Quicksilver begin to get stressed at each other, when they remember to check the tracing beam that would signal to Cap's belt buckle.  Connecting with the signal, the three hop in a car (Wha?  No quinjet?  Nope -- not yet!) and head across town.  

Doug:  Back at the warehouse, the battle continues.  The Swordsman commandeers a forklift and begins to push all sort of crates and debris after Cap.  Cap's able to evade most of the attacks, and even maneuvers himself to the cab of the vehicle.  As he leans in for a couple of solid punches, the Swordsman sends the forklift careening into a large stack of crates, which fall onto Cap -- knocking him down, and out.  Gloating, the Swordsman picks up his fallen adversary and enters an elevator.  At that same time, the rest of the Avengers arrive at the building across the street.  Pietro runs a reconnaissance while Hawkeye and Wanda make their way to the roof.  Suddenly they see, across the street, that the Swordsman has a bound Captain America on a plank.  With his sword in Cap's back, the Swordsman tells the team they have ten seconds to name the Swordsman their new leader -- or Cap gets it in the back, where the subsequent fall will most certainly kill him.  As Cap shouts to his teammates to never surrender, Hawkeye actually says out loud that even though he wanted to be rid of Cap he never imagined it would be like this!  Pietro says they have no choice but to take the Swordsman's deal; and then Cap falls off the plank!  Or, does he jump?  The three youngsters realize that he did it for them -- never surrender!

Doug:  What a way to enter the world of comic books!  At around this same time I also had a JLA-JSA crossover and a Disney digest full of comics and Disneyland photos.  But this one stood out, and it still does.  It was about two years later that I discovered the Marvel Super-Heroes cartoon in reruns, and was able to relive this story in "action" -- I fell in love all over again.  And hey -- what's not to like?  These characters seemed like real people, the danger true, the emotions raw.  There's action, intrigue, and human relationships aplenty.  And a huge shout-out to the art team of Don Heck and Dick Ayers, both of whom I've maligned at times on this blog and our former Two Girls... blog.  We've discussed around here whose art we see when thinking of our favorite heroes.  Don Heck's Captain America is what comes to my mind first.  I just love the way he draws the chain mail (although as a 6-year old I mistook those lines for feathers!) and I additionally really like the lighter blue of Cap's uniform.  The cover is great as well, with the powerful Kirby-drawn Swordsman juxtaposed with the Heck-drawn floating heads.  This is a very comfortable story for me.   I don't know what ever happened to the first copy of Avengers #19 that I'd been given, but I always knew that I'd replace it some day with a nice copy -- and this is it.


bmcmolo said...

Not a bad entrypoint indeed.

Although my intro to Cap came about ten years later, I had the same reaction re: the chain mail/ feathers. I remember doodling pics of Cap in my notebook and my brother asking me why I kept drawing feathers on him.

My appreciation of Heck has really grown since I first discovered his stuff.

Fun stuff!

david_b said...

It's been mentioned many times before, but this is easily Heck's best work. I totally agree with Doug as to Don's masterful drawing of Cap as leader, great stances, facial gestures, you name it.

In reverse of Doug, I'm certain I watched this particular story back in '67 or '68 on the cartoon, then it became quite familiar when I read the Triple Action reprints in '73.

It's just one of those really well-done stories, simple yet excellent cover, interesting splash page, great build, nice character interaction, you name it. Not on a scale like the Galactus Trilogy or some classic Thor story arc, but yet another of the more solid story-telling chapters in Marvel's history.

Being an early Hawkeye fan (from the Avengers/Defenders Clash), it was great to read reprint tales with him early on. Except for MTU 22 and Defenders 9, I had no current stories featuring him, since he rejoined the Avengers about the time I started whittling down my collecting.

I bought this original a few years back, which reminds me I've got to pick up a nice copy of ish 20 some day soon. Although as mentioned here in the past, some Bronze reprint title covers have actually improved on the original covers.

Matt Celis said...

Great comic, this is the kind of stuff I love. No pretension, no attempts to be "realistic," just a fun story about colorful super-adventures.

I can suspend my disbelief...sure, Swordsman can defeat Quicksilver...and Captain America!

Anonymous said...

Like david_b, I remember this one from Triple Action. And I believe the reprint issue ran pretty close to the same time as Swordsman returned to the Avengers with Mantis which made for a neat tie-in between the Silver and Bronze ages.

As to "first' comics, I don't remember my true first comic - it was probably something like Richie Rich or Archie. But the first comic that actually got me hooked on Marvel superheroes was Iron Man #60. Not a great story but it was CONTINUED (gasp). I had to have that next issue!!!


Inkstained Wretch said...

I am pretty sure I have this one a Marvel Triple Action reprint. This was indeed the beginning of Don Heck's best period. He'd do his sharpest work ever for the Avengers over the next two or so years. There's an image in Essentials Vol. 2 of Goliath bursting through a door that is as exciting as comics get.

Whatever edge Heck had, he lost in the ensuing years though. Pity.

My thoughts on this issue though are... well, the Swordsman is kind of a lame character. There, I said it.

david_b said...

Ink, agreed with both you and Matt: Swordy does come off pretty weak both here and in later issues, and yes, it's VERY hard to imagine he could take on Quicksilver, much less Cap.

The level of disbelief required here nearly matches Daredevil's Silver Rogue Gallery (Stiltman, Matadore and all the rest..), but it still made for great suspense as only Marvel can produce..

I liked Swordy far more under Steve Englehart's tenure on Avengers. Steve brought in more a sense of believability, nobility and even personality, perhaps a bit more charitable towards his limited powers as well. Hence, Avengers ish's 114-129 (along with GS 2 and the various Mar-Vell appearances..) will ALWAYS remain my personal favorite Avengers lineup and stories.

Matt Celis said...

I'm having a hard time thinking of ANY heroes I think Swordsman would defeat except via writer fiat. Even Daredevil would probably just turn out the lights and then punch out his lights!

Not to say you have to be tough to be a good character, although I never cared for Swordsman once Mantis came into things.

Doug said...

I'm currently reading Lee and Kirby: The Wonder Years (The Jack Kirby Collector #58) and have been planning to review it; look for a post in the next few weeks. In the text, the author really breaks down the various evolutionary periods of the Fantastic Four. The discussion brewing in the last few comments sort of fits into Stan's development as a writer in his very own Marvel Age of Comics.


Humanbelly said...

Very much agreed on the high quality of Heck's art during this period. I'd kind of forgotten about it, and was pleasantly surprised upon seeing it again. There's so much to like about this issue-- not the least of which is the "Marvel POP-ART Productions" label proudly displayed in the corner-box!
Swordy's never likable nor really impressive, as his main advantage seems to be the fact that he'll stoop to ridiculously under-handed tactics time after time in order to beat a foe who behaves w/ integrity. How many times does he fake being beaten or knocked-out, only to prevail w/ a sucker-punch attack?? One actually has to fault the Avengers as a whole for falling for that sort of thing multiple times and not taking any measures at all to safeguard against it.

The BIGGEST burden of suspension of disbelief, however, is at the very end, and then going right into the first pages of issue #20 (the cover of which is pretty much the same panel--- Cap falling to his death). Cap's about, what, 6 or 8 stories up? By the time the dialog in the last frame had been said, he would have hit the ground. BUT, IIRC (and it's been years since I've read the book, so do cut a little slack), we have several ensuing panels of the 3 youngsters on the ground coming up w/ a plan to save Cap, starting w/ Hawkeye notching an arrow and shooting it. MUCH conversation happening throughout 3- maybe 4- seconds that Cap had to fall the entire way. I remember it being breathless & rip-snortin' dialog and all that--- just 'waaaaaay too much of it.

'Course, that could have been some other time when Hawkeye fired a well-timed arrow to save someone from a fall. Seems to come w/ the cliche', as it were.

Solid first issue memory, though, Doug. Very enjoyable trip back.


Matt Celis said...

It's not always understood, but people in comics move at a rate about 1/100th that of people in life, including falling times but not their mouths/lips/tongues, which is why they can give speeches while throwing punches and such. That's just basic science!

Anonymous said...

Happy Good Friday to all the BABers out there!

Not a bad introduction to the wonderful world of Marvel comics Doug! Heck's work does look good here, although as a character I must agree with Inkstained wrench when he says the Swordsman is a lame character. Yes, Matt Celis, I had to suspend my belief too when he held his own against both Quicksilver and Captain America. Hard to imagine a circus performer defeating America's foremost Super-Soldier!

- Mike 'Howard the Duck shoulda punched out the Swordsman's lights' from Trinidad & Tobago!

Matt Celis said...

Did Cap ever face the Circus of Crime? Man, if one circus guy (or is he a carnie?) can take out Cap, imagine what they could do!

Doug said...

Funny you should mention that, Matt! Just yesterday I wrote a review of Captain America vs. the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime! Be looking for it in May.


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