With four of its eight(ish) members embroiled in more exciting and definitive stories within their own books, The Avengers of 1973 were looking outward more than in.
The Marvel Universe was getting progressively stranger—post-Code horror comics seemed to outnumber superhero books in ’73 and ’74, and while the world around the Avengers grew darker and more frightening, books like Warlock and Captain Marvel were expanding into realms of cosmic abstraction. The congenial, zany Silver Age of comics was ending, and the Bronze Age—with its rash of character deaths and social justice concerns (and, some have said, mind-altering substances)—was fast approaching.
The Avengers, almost static in its unwillingness to adapt, began to lean heavily on other, more daring books.
Billed as Marvel Comics’ very first “crossover” or “event”, The Avengers/Defenders War ran between seven issues—three issues of Defenders and four issues of Avengers. That’s meager beginnings for a concept that, nearly fifty years later, has sprung up into an annual practice of crossovers hitting every major Marvel title, touching 60 to 200 issues. In 1973, however, the idea was so novel that Marvel editorial felt they needed to provide the reader directions on how one might even read a crossover. Issues ended with panels pointing readers to the next issue they needed to fully understand the story.
The thing is, of course, that it’s not a particularly hard story to understand, nor is it really the first “crossover”; Marvel characters had been ‘crossing over’ since the original Human Torch and Namor were suggested as being in the same universe in 1940’s Marvel Mystery Comics #7. Hell, The Avengers debuted ten full years before their war with The Defenders, and that itself was a crossover.
Still, Avengers/Defenders War sets a precedent—not just for Marvel Comics as a whole, but for this volume of Avengers Epic Collection alone. By the end of its bulk, the Avengers crossover three more times. Included are the final two issues of the much more important Thanos War, which lays roots for the major cosmic influence of Jim Starlin’s future work (work that still affects the MU today); in Giant-Size Avengers #1, we’re entreated to a return (of sorts) of lost Golden Age team The All-Winners Squad; finally, the Avengers are whisked away to an Inhuman wedding, spilling over into the pages of Fantastic Four.
All of this illustrates a sort of stagnation in The Avengers. While Captain America suffered through the first Secret Empire storyline in Captain America and the Falcon and Black Panther battled white supremacists in Jungle Action, the team had to deal with the tedium of toxic romantic relationships and short-sighted costumed supervillain leagues. The world was fast-changing—including the one in the pages of Defenders, Captain Marvel, and Fantastic Four—but The Avengers didn’t seem able.
The Avengers Epic Collection: The Avengers/Defenders War perfectly illustrates the crossing from one era to another, and the growing pains inherent in any such paradigm shift. You can almost feel the comic reaching out, trying to climb its way out of the cartoon physics and two-dimensional world it had spent ten years living in, using the other books as handholds to a future that, ultimately, wasn’t so far removed.
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