The TOP 13 Roy Thomas AVENGERS Stories – RANKED

One of comics’ greatest writers turns 80!

Roy Thomas is easily one of the most influential figures ever in comics, whether a fan or pro, writer or editor, at Marvel or DC, or as editor of TwoMorrows’ Alter Ego — which is the modern version of Thomas’ ’60s fanzine.

Thomas — born Nov. 22, 1940 — turns 80 and we’ve turned to comics writer/13th Dimension contributor Fred Van Lente for THE TOP 13 ROY THOMAS AVENGERS STORIES — RANKED.

You’ll agree with some choices, disagree with others — and be entertained by all.

By FRED VAN LENTE

Hi, my name is Fred Van Lente, and I read old comics so you don’t have to. Or, more accurately, I read a metric crap-ton of old comics, and then I come and tell you which 13 of those you should read, somewhat arbitrarily ranked in order of preference.

Happy birthday to Roy Thomas, one of the most historically significant comics creators of his day, as he was the first true fan turned pro: a prolific fanzine- and letter-writer before going to the Big City to work at DC, only to jump ship when Stan Lee offered him a job as his second across town. (Wouldn’t you?) I was introduced to his work, as I was with most of the 1960s Marvel guys, in paperback reprints—in this case a black-and-white paperback that inspired me to get almost a complete run of the title when I was younger.

Roy Thomas was always postulating the Great Unifying Geek Theory that would tie all strains of geekdom together under a single tradition. This, after all, is the run where the Justice League of America becomes canon in the Marvel Universe in the form of the Squadron Sinister-slash-Supreme, we begin getting legacy heroes in the form of the Dane Whitman Black Knight (the third Marvel character with that name by this point if you can believe it), and modern heroes even return to the Golden Age when Cap uses Dr. Doom’s time machine to try and save Bucky.

The Avengers #93. Pencils by Neal Adams. Inks by Tom Palmer.

Though would-be wags always complain “Convoluted Continuity Is Killing Comics,” I’ve never bought it. Have you ever tried picking up a 5 million-copy-selling manga series at Volume 12? I dare you to try and follow it. And that hasn’t hurt sales of One Piece. I’d argue Thomas’ innovation, to make readers think they are part of an on-going mythology that began before them and will continue beyond their time, actually sustained superhero comics when all other American funnybooks succumbed to TV and video games.

So here are my favorite groundbreaking issues from his run on The Avengers: He truly is One Nerd to Rule us All!

13. The Avengers #82: Hostage! I don’t have a lot of profound things to say about this issue, it’s just a great done-in-one superhero adventure story by John Buscema and Thomas, in which Zodiac pulls an Under the Dome on Manhattan, trapping all the Avengers in the process, leaving Just! Two! Heroes! Free! That pair, Daredevil and Black Panther, have to save the team before they’re executed. I will admit I may be slightly biased here because this story is the lead-in to the Avengers Maze in Mighty Marvel Mazes. Anyone else here have Mighty Marvel Mazes? Good times.

12. The Avengers #59: The Name Is…Yellowjacket! Back when I reviewed Roger Stern’s Avengers run I talked about poor, pitiable Hank Pym, the least-interesting scientist, blonde and shrinking person on his own superhero team. That long, sad road begins with this issue, in which he develops a completely different personality and superhero persona, and claims to have murdered himself. The cause of this nervous breakdown? He was resisting marrying the Wasp so hard he broke his brain. So the first thing Yellowjacket does, of course, is ask the Wasp to marry him. PYM, YOU MAGNIFICENT BASTARD. Wasp agrees, which was deeply weird even back then (it freaks her teammates out), until next issue, when we find out she knew it was really Hank the whole time. Frankly, it’s a bit of a letdown.

11. The Avengers #76: The Blaze of Battle… the Flames of Love! Thomas and Buscema seem to be doing a dry run for their (mostly separate) runs on Conan the Barbarian with Arkon, a Cimmerian ripoff from another dimension who, like Yellowjacket, has consent issues. One of the best parts of this issue is that when he snatched Scarlet Witch to marry him, Arkon scooped up the Toad in the process, and it’s always fun to see Magneto’s erstwhile sidekick suck up to a completely different megalomaniac. Anyway, this cover is awesome and the showdown between the Avengers and Arkon’s forces is spectacularly done.

10. The Avengers #100: Whatever Gods There Be! Did I say “Dry-Run for Conan?” Well, here is Barry Windsor-Smith, shrugging off the bad Kirby imitation he had done in previous issues of Thomas’ run, to begin to perfect his own trademark style in an anniversary issue that features every past Avenger (including sometimes-foes Hulk and Swordsman) mystically brought together to rescue the gods of Olympus. Thomas’ skill at playing all these various characters’ personalities off each other is the highlight here.

9. The Avengers #58: Even an Android Can Cry. I loved this comic as a kid, but boy, reading it as a grown-ass man, all I can think is that the Vision’s origin is spectacularly dumb. Ultron creates an unstoppable android to defeat the Avengers and gives him… Simon Williams’ brain patterns? What? Why? And then he’s surprised when the android immediately joins his greatest enemies and destroys him? Even by usual supervillain-plan standards, Ultron’s scheme makes no goddamn sense. That said, Ultron’s origin is also in this issue, and it is super-creepy and effective, as he rapidly evolves from a goo-goo and gaga-ing vacuum cleaner into a scowling Oedipal murder bot.

8. The Avengers #79: Lo! The Lethal Legion! Thomas created the Vision, who has Simon Williams’ brainwaves (because sure, that’s a thing), and Grim Reaper, who is Simon Williams’ crazy brother. Will Thomas’ nerd urges ensure they’re gonna fight at some point? You bet your sweet bippy. And here it is, along with a bunch of other villains whose claim to fame is — unlike the Masters of Evil, who were all enemies of the Avengers who had first appeared in their solo titles — they are all bad guys who originally appeared in The Avengers. Noticing things like this warms the cockles of my geek heart. Also, a lot of panels from this issue appear later in How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, which I copied out of until I decided, around 12, I should devote my efforts to writing. Looking at this comic triggers a lot of endorphins for me, is what I’m saying.

7. The Avengers #96: The Andromeda Swarm! This issue came out February 1972, same as me! Not that that really matters, just pointing it out. (Actually, that’s the pub date, but we’ll give it to Fred. – Dan) The second-to-best installment of the Kree/Skrull War features a space battle between the Avengers and the Skrulls stunningly rendered by Neal Adams. Much of the rest of the issue is taken over with the Kree Supreme Intelligence torturing Rick Jones, who next issue goes Full Roy Thomas and summons all the Golden Age Timely heroes no one remembers (including the OG Vision) to end the war by a Deus Ex Nerd that did not age as well as I did (RIMSHOT).

6. The Mighty* Avengers #62: The Monarch and the Man-Ape! Part of the reason I love Thomas’ run so much is that it heavily features two of my all-time favorite superheroes, the Vision and Black Panther. As the rest of the world has figured out, the coolest thing about the Panther is his homeland, the Afro-Futurist Techno-Topia that is Wakanda, and Buscema does an even-better-than-Kirby (high praise from me) job of depicting it here. The Avengers visit for a pleasant stay in Wakanda only to be drugged by M’Baku, introduced here so he can beat up T’Challa and steal his throne. M’Baku’s outfit is deeply silly in that it looks like an albino gorilla is trying to puke him out face-first, but hey, it gave Winston Duke a star-making turn, so it’s all good in my book.

* Mysteriously, just as they did in Roger Stern’s day, the Avengers stole Thor’s adjective for no reason and became Mighty with this issue and then un-mightied just as mysteriously in #70.

5. The Avengers #74: Pursue the Panther! Boy, this is a comic book that, as well executed as it is, has not aged well. I imagine Thomas had either read Denny O’Neil and his past X-Men/future Avengers collaborator Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrow run or knew it was coming, because in 1970 he (Thomas) began producing a number of Avengers stories with similar ripped-from-the-headlines premises. This issue’s issue (see what I did there) is racism, couched in the proud superhero tradition of solving all societal ills by punching them in the face (see: Shuster and Siegel Superman). The Sons of the Serpent has a Black Panther impersonator commit a bunch of crimes to rile up America. The Avengers rescue the Panther and unmask the leaders of the Sons of the Serpent to discover… they are one white guy and one Black guy, pitting the races against each other to hype the ratings on their TV talk show. Yikes. Talk about Both-Siderism at its worst. If you can set that aside, though, this a terrifically paced adventure story from Thomas and Buscema; the sequence where the Avengers try to capture the fake Panther is one of the best bits of action in the run.

4. The Avengers #57: Behold…the Vision! Hey, I really like the Vision, and this story still holds up. Thomas’ continuity-addict contribution here is the Vision himself, who is the retread of a Golden Age Simon and Kirby backbencher. The Thomas and Buscema version is vastly superior, of course, and the addition of an emotions-struggling Mr. Spock ripoff into a superhero team worked out spectacularly well. Also, the end of this issue has the second-most-famous use of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” in superhero comics history. By the way, a copy of Avengers #57 just went for $26,000 at auction.

3. The Avengers #52: Death Calls for the Arch-Heroes! Thomas started writing this series in #35 with (HEAVY SIGH) Don Heck, and Buscema joined in #44, but here is where they really started hitting their stride. Both creators are coming into their own and not just trying to be (respectively) Lee and Kirby clones. Thomas uses his continuity nerdery to good effect, introducing the evil brother of Simon Williams, whom he blames for Williams’ extremely temporary comic-book death 40 issues earlier. Despite the fact that Grim Reaper’s first costume is so awful it looks like Daredevil designed it, this is a great story in which T’Challa joins the Avengers. (He’s just called “the Panther” here but his chin is exposed so we all know he’s Black; fortunately Marvel wised up in a few months and went back to the much cooler original version.) He arrives at the mansion to discover the whole team has been murdered, and is immediately blamed for it by SHIELD, so he has to expose the Grim Reaper on his own. Rarely has a superhero’s intro to a pre-existing team resulted in a such a stellar tale.

2. The Avengers #83: Come On In… the Revolution’s Fine! Y’know, when I first started writing comics, reviewers would comment that compared to the era’s “decompression” I crammed a lot of stuff into my issues. It should have occurred to me to wave this comic under people’s noses in response, because in one issue we get A.) a completely new supervillain (Valkyrie, well, actually Enchantress in disguise); B.) a new superhero team (the all-female) [HEAVY SIGH] Liberators; C.) an attack by the Masters of Evil on D.) the Rutland, Vermont, Halloween parade also featured in what our own Dan Greenfield called the Greatest Halloween Comic Book Ever; e.) at which Roy Thomas himself appears. Decompress that, baby!

1. The Avengers #93: This Beachhead Earth. I mean, Dan is going to ban me from this site after I say this, but as much as I love his Batman, Neal Adams’ best work is his best issues of The Avengers. The most awesome thing about this doubled-size issue isn’t even on the cover, which is Ant (Henry Pym) Man’s descent into the interior of the Vision to reactivate him so he can tell the Big Three Avengers (Cap, Shellhead, Thor) what the hell is going on with the Kree/Skrull War. Then the Big Three go fight (CONTINUITY ALERT) the Three Skrulls Who Got Turned Into Cows in FF #2 But Are Now Pretending To Be the FF. Adams crushes this sequence with a suspenseful split-page multi-track, alternating between that battle and Captain Mar-Vell trying to escape the Super-Skrull. I might put this on my Top 13 comics of all time.

Fred Van Lente has a new comic coming out in December with frequent collaborator Ryan Dunlavey — The Comic Book History of Animation, from IDW. Miss. It. Not.

MORE by FRED VAN LENTE

— The TOP 13 ROGER STERN AVENGERS Stories — RANKED. Click here.

— DR. J, RICK BARRY and the Greatest Basketball Comic Ever. Click here.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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5 Comments

  1. Wow, these are some great selections! Thanks so much for posting them. They are fantastic stories indeed and Neal Adams’ work on Avengers and X-Men at this time was definitely phenomenal. Its hard to say what property was best , but i do have to agree that his Marvel work i think has an edfe over his Batman work.

    Thanks for sharing this.

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  2. John Buscema, Neal Adams, and Barry Smith. Oh…and Roy Thomas to be sure.

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  3. Great list, Fred, though I must respectfully take issue with your characterization of Thomas and Buscema’s runs on Conan as “mostly separate”. They collaborated on the character for seven straight years, from 1973 to 1980, including a nigh-unbroken 90-issue run of “Conan the Barbarian”, plus numerous stories for “Savage Sword of Conan”, “King Conan”, etc., during the same period. They then resumed their collaboration when Thomas returned to Marvel in the ’90s. I haven’t actually counted, but I’m pretty certain they each did more Conan stories with each other than either did with anyone else.

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  4. I sorta liked Heck’s run. It had it’s own charm. I was in grade school but I knew it was better than someone like Werner Roth.

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  5. Nice selection – As someone who discovered The Avengers and MARVEL with Avengers #76 there’s plenty of special memories there for me. #89 might have been another issue I’d have included … “They write songs about the moon over Miami…” my first experience of Captain Marvel … but then what would I leave out?

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