The Avengers: The Comic Book Juggernaut that Almost Wasn’t

Avengers #1 (September 1963) was actually a fill-in title developed because Daredevil #1 wouldn’t be ready in time. The 12-cent comic sold for a record $250,000 in 2011.

In the summer of 1963, Marvel Comics published a comic book that few at the time imagined would still be making waves in American pop culture 50 years later.

The Avengers #1, which came out in July 1963—with a September cover date—was not expected to be a huge hit. In fact, the comic was actually a last minute fill-in because the book Marvel really wanted to publish that summer wasn’t ready.

Now, of course, it’s hard to imagine the movers and shakers at Marvel wouldn’t have known that putting Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk and the Mighty Thor in one comic penciled by Jack “King” Kirby wouldn’t be an instant classic. Or that they believed a blind lawyer with radioactively enhanced super senses and a billy club would be a more popular character.

That summer of ’63, I was an 8-year-old living in Wichita, Kansas, and still in the early stages of my love affair with comic books. Very few of my original comics survived from that period and those that did were probably DC titles. One of my early favorites was Adventure Comics, starring those super teens from the future, the Legion of Super-Heroes.

I wasn’t a Marvel Comics fan back in ’63. Marvel’s superhero line was still in its infancy. Its only “team” comic was the Fantastic Four. Its other superhero books included the Amazing Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor (who appeared in Journey Into Mystery), Iron Man (Tales of Suspense), Ant-Man (Tales to Astonish) and Doctor Strange (Stange Tales), all former anthology mystery/sci-fi/giant monster books.

Looking back, it’s a little hard to understand why I wasn’t a Marvel fan. For me, comics have always been about the artwork and Marvel’s stable of artists, including Kirby (the FF, Hulk, Thor) and Steve Ditko (Spider-Man, Doctor Strange) was head-and-shoulders above almost every other comic book publisher, including DC. But at the time, I didn’t know it. It would be three years before I read my first Marvel comic, but after that, I was hooked.

Actually, in 1968, I came into possession of Avengers #1, now considered one of the most valuable comics of all time. My ownership, however was fleeting and not … exactly … legal … More on that later.

The Most Famous Fill-in Comic Book

As the story goes, back in 1963, Marvel Publisher Martin Goodman was looking for another home run. The company’s flagship titles—the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man—were selling well and Goodman tasked editor Stan Lee with finding another hit formula. Lee, who had been writing and editing comic books since the 1940s, thought of the old Lev Gleason/Charles Biro character, Daredevil, which had fallen out of trademark, making the name available at no cost.

Rather than use the original character, a mute who wore a distinctive two-tone costume and carried a boomerang, Lee decided to use the name only and come up with an entirely new superhero. After Ditko turned down the job of penciling the book, Lee recruited Golden Age artist Bill Everett, who created the Sub-Mariner for Timely Comics (the predecessor of Marvel) back in the ’40s.

When Marvel Publisher Martin Goodman told Stan Lee to come up with another successful superhero title in 1963, Lee thought of the original Daredevil character from the 1940s, which had fallen out of trademark.

The new Daredevil, drawn by artist Bill Everett, was a blind attorney by day and a masked vigilante with hyper senses during his off hours. Daredevil #1, slated for release in the summer of 1963, was plagued by delays and wasn’t actually published until the spring of 1964.

Lee and Everett, with help from Jack Kirby, brainstormed the character and eventually came up with Matt Murdock, blinded in a radioactive accident, but endowed with hyper senses that allow him to become Daredevil, “the Man Without Fear.” Able to “see” with his radar sense, Murdock is a lawyer by day and a crime-fighting vigilante in his off hours. The original Daredevil’s boomerang was changed to a billy club with a weighted line, which he uses to swing around the city.

The plan was to publish Daredevil #1 in the summer of ’63. However, Everett, who was trying to hold down a day job, fell behind schedule. Lee was forced to come up with an emergency replacement title.

Lee’s solution was to use the company’s existing heroes and pit them against an existing villain. That way, there would be no need for a complicated plot or character development, just straight ahead action. Artistic chores were given to Lee’s favorite collaborator, Jack Kirby. Together they came up with the action plot.

It’s a familiar story to comic book fans: Loki, the Norse god of mischief, tricks the misunderstood Hulk into being the fall guy for a train disaster in an effort to enact revenge on his brother, Thor. When Hulk’s pal, Rick Jones, radios the Fantastic Four for help in clearing the Hulk’s name, Loki diverts the signal to Thor to set up a battle between the two.

However, Iron Man also receives the message, as does scientist Henry Pym and his girlfriend, heiress Janet Van Dyne, better known as Ant-Man and the Wasp. Suffice to say, “Earth’s Mightiest Super-Heroes” eventually figure out that Loki is behind the plot and band together to defeat him. Afterwards, the heroes decide that teaming up is a good thing and dub themselves the Avengers.

Refitting the Earth’s Mightiest Super-heroes

From the beginning, the Avengers were a mismatched lot. The Huk was a brutish time bomb who could go off at any time. Thor was the God of Thunder, for Pete’s sake, and had a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Tony “Iron Man” Stark was a millionaire industrialist whose golden robotic suit kept his injured heart beating. Compared to the others, Ant-Man and the Wasp must have felt some serious super-hero envy.

Apparently Lee felt it as well. By the time Avengers #2 hits the stands in September (cover date November), Ant-Man has added super growth to his powers and now calls himself Giant-Man. At the end of the story, the unpredictable Hulk quits the team.

Writer/editor Stan Lee decided the Avengers needed some beefing up, so he gave Ant-Man, the star of Tales To Astonish, the power to become a 12-foot giant—a.k.a. Giant-Man—in time for the second issue of the Avengers.

The Avengers has always been about changes, from its earliest issues to today. In Avengers #2 (November 1963), the team’s strongest member, the Hulk, quits.

In Avengers #3 (cover date January 1964), Iron Man has donned a new streamlined red and yellow armor (courtesy of Iron Man fill-in artist Steve Ditko) to help Thor and Giant-Man battle the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner. In Avengers #4, Stan Lee makes history by resurrecting 1940s icon Captain America.

I became an Avengers fan relatively late in the game. After my family moved to Bloomington (a suburb of Minneapolis), Minn., in the summer of 1967, I began riding my bike to a local drugstore to check out the monthly comics. My first Avengers comic was #49, which came out in January 1968. By then the penciler was John Buscema, who remains my favorite Avengers artist. At that time the Avengers line-up included Goliath (the former Giant-Man/Ant-Man), the Wasp, Hercules, Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye.

In Bloomington, we lived next door to the Armstrongs. Their oldest son, Jim, was a year older than me and a casual comic book reader/collector. We weren’t really friends. For some reason the one-year age difference was insurmountable. He treated me like a little kid, so we were never close. But he did have something I yearned for: Avengers #1.

By Avengers #3 (January 1964), Iron Man had given up his bulky, robotic suit for a streamlined red and yellow armor.

In Avengers #4 (March 1964), Golden Age hero Captain America, with some help from an irritable Sub-Mariner, made his first Silver Age appearance and became the Avengers newest member. The 12-cent comic sold for a record $91,500 in 2011.

As I recall it was in pretty good condition despite being read and handled. Remember, this was long before Mylar bags and acid-free backing boards. Knowing I was into comic books, he invited me over one day and showed me his copy of Avengers #1. He even let me read it. Having only recently become interested in the Avengers, I asked him if he would be interested in selling it. He said no. Periodically I would ask him if he would sell it to me. His answer was always the same.

By the summer of ’68, my dad, who was an investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration, was being transferred again, this time to the Kansas City area. One late summer morning, our car was packed and we were ready to leave for Kansas City. As I walked past the car, I noticed something on the seat. It was Avengers #1.

My first thought was, “My God, Jim’s not the jerk I thought he was. He’s actually giving me Avengers #1 as a going away present!”

By Avengers No. 49 (February 1968) the team line-up had changed dramatically. The comic, written by Roy Thomas and drawn John Buscema, now featured superheros like Goliath (the former Giant-Man), Hercules, the Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye.

Of course, the reality was a little different. As I picked up the book, I noticed my big brother was standing nearby, grinning sheepishly. He knew how much I wanted the book and had gone into the Armstrong’s house and stolen it for me.

I couldn’t get mad at him. His fierce family loyalty sometimes got in the way of his common sense. But I also couldn’t keep the book. Sadly, I walked to the Armstrongs and gave Jim back Avengers #1. Typically, he didn’t act very appreciative of my honesty.

Jerk.

Now, 45 years later, I know I’ll never come that close to owning Avengers #1 again, but that’s OK. Frankly, owning a comic book worth a quarter of a million dollars would make me more than a little nervous. Plus, I’ve had plenty of reasons to have sold a particularly valuable comic over the last couple decades, so the chances that I would still own Avengers #1 seem pretty remote.

Fifty years and the Avengers are still going strong. Last summer’s movie made buckets of money for Marvel and the hype for the next movie starring the villain Thanos, slated for 2015, is already insane.

All in all, not bad for a fill-in comic book.


Ken Hatfield, a former newspaper journalist for more than 20 years with a lifelong interest in military history, is the author of “Heartland Heroes: Remembering WWII,”published by the University of Missouri Press in 2003. He has worked for Manion’s International Auction House for nine years, specializing in American Militaria.

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