NOTE: This post was originally published on 9 October 2009
With all due respect to David Letterman and all of the other Top 10ers out there, we're going to start with the #1 Avengers story of the Silver/Bronze Ages and move down the list from there. The method to the madness of this more conventional reveal is to show how each story led to the next, or at least how the stories (although all are outstanding) somewhat declined in importance as each order on the rank is discussed.
You might assume that the first issue of the magazine would be the most important. While I would not argue that it has a revered place in Avengers history, it doesn't crack my Top 10, giving way instead to stories that have played specific influence on the mythos. The most important story in all of Avengerdom is Avengers #4, and that is due to Captain America being the single most important member of all who have worn the mantle "Avenger". While not a founder (although later to have that status conferred upon him) of the team, Cap nonetheless soon became the face of the team, the glue that held it together, and its undisputed "go to" leader. And from the depths of the ocean to the bitter cold of the Antarctic, with his Golden Age comrade the Sub-Mariner playing a key role in his revival (as a new Human Torch had played a role in the revival of the Sub-Mariner), Stan Lee and Jack Kirby crafted a tale that would go on to influence the team over the next 45+ years.
If Cap is the face of the team, then the Vision is the body -- it was the Vision who graced the famous corner box for almost eight years (issues 93-184). While I don't have such a statistic handy, I would argue that the Vision has made more appearances in the Avengers than any other team member besides perhaps Captain America. His first appearance and original origin story, crafted by the classic Silver Age team of scribe Roy Thomas and artist extraordinaire John Buscema, stand as a classic and set up numerous plotlines that would be dealt with for years to come -- the relationship between the Pyms and Ultron, the relationship between Wonder Man and the Vision, the introduction later of the Grim Reaper, the ongoing struggle for humanity that would lead to the Vision becoming a father, his ascension to the chairmanship and proposed takeover of the world's computers, and of course his love for and eventual marriage to the Scarlet Witch. His quiet nobility and incomparable range of powers prove him the most dangerous of team members in combat.
There was nothing more exciting than those times when the Avengers formally assembled to draft a new roster. Despite ongoing tweaks in the membership with a member coming or going here or there, it was the wholesale changes that defined the team as a book set apart from other team books. Issue #16 is significant for tying up the Captain America/Baron Zemo conflict that had raged over the previous year, and showed that although members of a team, individuals would still be free to tend to individual business. But the dynamics of this new roster -- of bringing in three virtually unheard of characters, all three of whom had been criminals and all three of whom had certainly been untested in an arena as large as any the Avengers usually clashed in -- would shape the book for the remainder of the Silver Age. Scaling down the roster from five heavy hitters to four less-powered characters helped to focus on characterization, which was necessary to bring along the development of Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch. In spite of Quicksilver's on-again, off-again tenure, Hawkeye and Wanda are in that next level of importance to the team directly below Cap and the Vision.
Hank Pym holds down the 4th spot on the list, and not for any of the right reasons. I am a big Hank-booster, and it has pained me to no end to continue to read the raw deal the man has received since the infamous wife-slap panel that occurred early in the 1980's. But prior to that the mental health ball got rolling early, even earlier than Avengers #'s 59-60. Almost from the beginning Hank had feelings of inferiority when in the presence of Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk; later, he marvelled at the leadership of Captain America. Shortly after, he found himself stuck at a height of 10-feet. All of these things began to put pressure on him, culminating in his breakdown in Avengers #59 when he took on the identity of Yellowjacket. In my opinion, to make matters worse, Janet agreed to marry Hank while he was unbalanced -- cementing the notion that while "normal", he was unfit to be her husband. But with his new powers and (temporary) personality he became someone whom she could spend her life with. Of course, Hank's downfalls would become a regular theme in the book, and we'll get to another one shortly.
We conclude our look at the individuals who have shaped the book over its long and (mostly) glorious history with a discussion of their most dangerous adversary -- the adamantium-armored robot Ultron. A construct of Hank Pym, Ultron has grown in the annals of Avengers history to be severely entwined in the team's legacy in a sort of perverse family relationship. From his "father" and "mother" Hank and Janet Pym, to his "son" the Vision, to his "wife" Jocasta, Ultron has left his mark time and again against virtually all team line-ups. His indestructibility, his lethal encephalo beams, and his computer mind make him not only the team's most dangerous adversary physically, but perhaps its most dangerous emotionally as well.
This story celebrates the brilliance of author Jim Shooter and penciller George Perez, and delves further into the fragile psyche of Henry Pym. Appearing in Avengers #161 in his Ant-Man garb and possessing memories dating to the time in between the first and second issues of the title, Pym attacks the Avengers while in the employ of his creation Ultron. The Oedipus complex of Ultron is heightened by the fact that he wants to imbue his self-created wife Jocasta with the life essence of his "mother" the Wasp. My only argument with the execution of the story is the fact that in the intervening issues, there is no mention of Hank's collapse into the Ant-Man era. It was a great plot device, yet dropped seemingly immediately.
Roy Thomas. Neal Adams. John Buscema. Sal Buscema. The Inhumans. The Kree. The Skrulls. Heroes from Timely Comics. The fate of the universe at stake. At the time this was written it was perhaps the longest story in comics history, at seven issues. Epic is the only appropriate adjective. A timeless tale that spanned galaxies and included an Avengers line-up without peer. Don't miss the wonderful scene where Ant-Man has to enter the body of the Vision.
If the above is Avengers Epic #1, then this would be Epic #1A. We've not discussed Kang the Conqueror yet, who most Avengers fans would place either in front of or behind Ultron for the Avengers vilest villain. This is Kang's (and author Steve Englehart's) magnum opus. Focusing on Mantis and her potential to birth the child who will rule the universe, the tale takes the Avengers across time and around the world. Kang's multiple identities as Rama-tut and Immortus are dealt with. Several dead characters are resurrected, including Wonder Man (in a try-out for his future return to the book?), an assemblage of Silver Age baddies including the Crimson Dynamo, the Titanium Man, and the Radioactive Man attack the team in Saigon, the Swordsman meets his fate, and the marriage of the Vision and the Scarlet Witch is witnessed. There isn't much time to catch one's breath. Oh, and did I mention that the true origin of the Vision (bah! to John Byrne) is revealed?
Oh, you want epics? Yeah, all of the above factors of greatness, with the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Collector, and an old minor Thor villain who becomes a god thrown in. My only quibble with this story is that George Perez did not illustrate the entire run. But that's pretty small, as the plot and writing carry it through. Many have commented that the cover of #177 was one of the most impactful images of their young Avenger-reading.
In some regards, this arc is the sequel to the Celestial Madonna storyline in that Kang is heavily featured in issues 142-144. As a kid I found the subplot with the team journeying to the Old West and interacting with the Two-Gun Kid, Kid Colt, the Rawhide Kid, and the Night Rider just a blast! The Squadron Supreme appears throughout in the main plot, which involves the Avengers attempting to wrest the Serpent Crown from the control of the alternate-reality president, Nelson Rockefeller. Silver Age ditz Patsy Walker becomes the Hellcat, Captain America returns to the team after the Nomad saga in his own book, and a young fellow named George Perez takes over the artistic chores. Not bad...
Now, if I were to name one other story, sort of a best-of-the-rest, it would definitely be Avengers #56, "Death Be Not Proud". To start, it has a powerful cover drawn by John Buscema. A very memorable image of Cap and the fallen Bucky, surrounded by that Avengers famous cover device, the floating heads. The story is incredibly emotional, and fleshes out the true end of Bucky's life in a time-travel tale that actually spills over into Avengers Annual #2. A classic, classic tale.
So, where did I err?