Fifty-five years ago this month, a book hit shelves that would grow to define an entire generation of superheroes to their fans. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee didn’t invent the idea of the cape-and-cowl team-up with Avengers #1 back in 1963, but they certainly changed it forever — all without knowing that they were planting the seeds for what would eventually blossom into one of the biggest multimedia franchises on earth decades later.
The question is, of course: Does that first issue still hold up even after all these years? It may be historically important, but is Avengers #1 actually a good comic?
It’s safe to say just about everyone has at least some grasp on how the Avengers were formed care of the MCU. The concept itself isn’t complicated: A group of independent superheroes coming together for the first time, forming a team they’d maintain even once the initial threat had been dealt with. In the movie, that instigating threat is an imminent alien invasion helmed by Loki, acting as an emissary for Thanos. In Avengers #1? Things were ... a bit less cosmic, to say the least.
Loki, after being thoroughly owned and imprisoned away from Earth by his rival-slash-brother Thor, decides he wants to get some good old-fashioned revenge. However, because he can’t actually go to Earth, he has to rely on his powerful magic to do the work for him — in this case, represented by him astral projecting a pair of giant disembodied eyes to spy on Thor’s human alter-ego, Don Blake, and plan his attack.
Out of context, these panels look pretty ridiculous — hell, they’re pretty ridiculous in context — but this is where an artist as skilled as Kirby really gets a chance to shine. By all accounts, it should be tricky to convey any real emotion beyond absurdity with a giant set of eyes without a face, but it’s really impossible to read these pages without hearing the pompous, sneering Loki voice Tom Hiddleston has perfected over the years in each line of narration.
Things continue as Loki decides that scoring a sick revenge dunk on Thor while he’s a weak human wouldn’t be cool or profound enough, so he goes to hunt for more spectacular prey and eventually lands on the Hulk. You can sort of see the very beginnings of some of the more iconic MCU moments starting to build here (“puny god”) as Loki magically manipulates Hulk into getting himself in trouble and causing a scene.
The hypnotic moment prompts a response from the Teen Brigade (no, really, that’s their name) a group of, uh, teen ham radio enthusiasts, who pal around with the Hulk under the leadership of Bruce Banner’s erstwhile sidekick Rick Jones. The radio-loving teens send out an SOS to any superhero in the area explaining that Hulk needs help (or, failing that, to be stopped, which is pretty bleak) and get a huge response — everyone from Ant-Man and Wasp to the Fantastic Four, and of course, Thor, who was Loki’s target all along.
Stripped of the extremely ’60s camp, it’s all pretty ingenious. Historically speaking, the Silver Age was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of superhero comics really figuring out how to handle the whole “shared universe” thing, and it was very much a game of trial and error. Continuity as we know and understand it today was only starting to really solidify — and most of the time, when it did, it was in a complicated network of alternate realities and dreamscapes that allowed for as much wiggle room as possible. Seeing Lee and Kirby make the conscious effort here to emphasize that every Marvel hero was not only in the same geological area, they were all just a ham radio signal away from one another, still feels cool even now.
Of course, Loki’s tricks and manipulation of Hulk culminate in no shortage of chaos, including Hulk being brainwashed and turned into a circus clown for a hot second. Remember as you read this comic and these pages that this was a book done in “the Marvel method,” meaning that Kirby handed Lee pages and pages of art with no dialogue — so Lee had to make up context for Hulk to be a sideshow attraction out of the blue. Even with Loki involved, that probably wasn’t easy, so shout out to Lee for handling those curveballs like a champ.
Eventually, Thor has to go track down Loki by way of Asgard while the soon-to-be-named Avengers work together to handle the Hulk’s whole situation. Once revealed, Loki turns himself radioactive (read: he starts glowing silver) but, before he can really accomplish anything, Ant-Man and Wasp use their ant friends to haul a confused God of Mischief into a lead lined chamber and seal him away. Lead, it would seem, is the one surefire way to deal with ... immortal Asgardian gods. You know how it goes.
As the dust settles, Hank Pym officially pitches the idea of a team. “Each of us has a different power, if we combined forces we could be almost unbeatable!” No one — not even Hulk — needs much more in the way of convincing. So it’s settled. Unceremonious as it may be, they’re a team (though as Iron Man explains they’ll “fight together or separately if need be,” so the whole team thing is still a bit loose.) They’ll call themselves the Avengers. The rest is history.
But is Avengers #1 a good comic? Honestly, not really. At least not by modern standards —but at the end of the day, that hardly matters. For all Avengers #1 is emblematic of an era of comics that reads as irreconcilably campy and deeply overwrought, it’s not without its inherent value. There’s a reason we still celebrate the contributions of Lee and Kirby to the genre. There’s a certain bombast here, a totally un-self-conscious showmanship that can still be felt all these decades later, that has filtered through the years and made a home on the big screen. It’s the spirit of the thing, more than the practice. Because let’s face it: The practice is really, really goofy.
Meg Downey is a freelance pop culture journalist based out of Los Angeles who specializes in comics history and superheroes. You can find her on twitter @rustypolished, where’s she’s probably having a very public meltdown about something extremely embarrassing.