Avengers at 50: How Stan Lee, Jack Kirby took on the Justice League
In 1961, Stan Lee was overseeing a middling line of titles for Timely Comics while across town, longtime industry titan DC was experiencing a huge bump in sales. DC’s success had a lot to do with “Justice League of America,” a book that combined all of the company’s biggest heroes — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Flash, among others — into one super-crime-fighting team. Lee wanted to compete with DC, but Timely had no superheroes to speak of, and no characters as well-loved and recognizable as Superman.
So Lee and his top artist, Jack Kirby, created their own super-team: the Fantastic Four. What they came up with wasn’t anything like the JLA. Lee and Kirby took an aloof genius, the genius’ timid girlfriend, the girlfriend’s cocky teenage brother and a gruff, street-smart test pilot and bound them together by the strange circumstances that gave them their powers — as well as by their family ties. The FF bickered, they made mistakes … and they became a huge hit.
Once sales of “The Fantastic Four” took off, the newly renamed Marvel Comics started churning out superheroes that have gone on to be among the most famous characters in the world. Lee and Kirby borrowed the thunder god Thor from Norse mythology and trapped him in the body of a frail New York doctor. They pelted a meek scientist with gamma rays and turned him into a rampaging creature called the Hulk. A playboy industrialist with a failing heart built himself life-saving armor and became Iron Man. The company just kept dealing aces.
Inevitably, Marvel decided to put its assortment of solo heroes together in one book, Justice League-style. “The Avengers” launched as its own title in an issue cover-dated September 1963. Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk were quickly joined by Giant-Man (formerly Ant-Man), the Wasp, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch and — most significantly — Captain America, a hero Jack Kirby had created with writer Joe Simon in 1940 for an earlier iteration of Marvel Comics.
The addition of Captain America to the Avengers gave Marvel something that DC already had: a sense of history. As exciting as Marvel’s new creations were, they lacked the immediate gravitas of a Batman, who’d been punching out bad guys for more than 20 years by that time. Captain America — who’d fought the Nazis! — made the Avengers feel like more than just an opportunistic cross-promotional exercise. He linked the team to a larger tradition and a larger mythology.
Ultimately, the Avengers became more vital more quickly than the Justice League of America. Even the team’s name was more awesome. It didn’t make sense — just what were they avenging? — but compared with the square, juvenile-sounding “Justice League,” the Avengers had a mystique.
That carried over to their adventures. DC Comics in the early ‘60s were fairly charming, with their simple scientific explanations, whimsical villains and unambiguous morality. But the Marvel books back then had scope, and with the Avengers, Lee and Kirby (and the writers and artists who followed them) took the endearingly clubby qualities of the JLA and worked them into sprawling stories involving intergalactic wars and genuinely threatening would-be world conquerors.
It’s remarkable how rapidly Marvel was able to assemble and establish enough characters to make the Avengers, fulfilling a mission that Lee and Kirby had set for themselves just two years earlier. In the movie version of the Marvel Universe, the Avengers took shape gradually and purposefully, with the company introducing one character at a time until they had enough public awareness to put them all together. The comic book wasn’t that calculated.
Iron Man was created to be Iron Man. Thor, Thor. And they didn’t necessarily make sense as a team, the way that the Fantastic Four or the X-Men did. In fact, the Hulk was booted from the Avengers fairly early in the series because his raging nature threw off the whole balance of the group.
But it’s a testament to what Marvel had accomplished in its first two years that something like “character chemistry” was even a factor. In the early 1960s at least, the major DC heroes all seemed to belong together, like dolls in a play set. This changed, post-Marvel, but throughout the first decade of the JLA, staple DC heroes like Green Arrow didn’t have enough personality to clash with the Flash.
The Avengers were different. When Quicksilver was in Avengers Mansion, he had a presence that Hawkeye had to react to, and vice versa.
In scrambling to compete with characters from another publisher, Lee and Kirby (and the rest of the Marvel crew) created characters so alive and outsized that they practically burst off the page.
– Noel Murray
Noel Murray is an Eisner-nominated critic who writes about comics and television for the A.V. Club and film for the Dissolve. He also covers home video for the Los Angeles Times.
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