These four issues finish Roy Thomas’s legendary run on Avengers—with a help from a special guest in issue #101—and sets the stage for Steve Englehart to take over with issue #105 in November (after he starts writing Captain America in September with issue #153).
The special guest writer for issue #101 I alluded to above is none other than Harlan Ellison, whose 1964 Twilight Zone-ish tale Thomas adapts into an Avengers story. Although it’s quite a clever story, it doesn’t leave much room for meaningful characterization (aside from an oddly activist Watcher).
We begin with the Avengers overseeing an exhibition chess match between an Eastern European chess master and the supercomputer Nimrod (a name with no apparent connection to the Biblical figure or the X-Men villain named after him, much less the contemporary use of an insult for the dimwitted). When the human player collapses, the Avengers spring into action, with Cap easily adopting the role of leader.
Hawkeye, man, you really need some pants.
Later, we’re introduced to Leonard Tippit, our normal schmoe thrust into extraordinary circumstances—in this case, becoming possessed of extraordinary power that enables him to defeat the Vision, but apparently not enough to take on his idol, Captain America.
Soon, in the strangest part of our tale, the Avengers are shown a vision (lowercase ‘v’) in which Uatu the Watcher—who normally only watches but never acts—does act to give Tippit unspeakable power and tells him to kill five innocent people whose descendants will lead to nuclear armageddon, one of them being the chess master from the beginning of our story.
(If you’re going to take the training wheels, Uatu, maybe start a little slower?)
So now the Avengers face a moral dilemma: Do they save the other four innocent targets from Tippit, even though that might doom the world to destruction? (Fans of thought experiments will recognize this as the biggest trolley problem ever.)
They choose to try to save the four targets, but Tippit manages to kill each one, the last one in front of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who then manage to defeat him. When they take Tippit back to Avengers Mansion and secure him, the Watcher appears and reveals the truth behind the ruse.
Again, this is very strange behavior on the part of Uatu, who rarely says anything, much less touches anything (as he says he dared not to in this instance—”just this once, I promise, pinky swear”).
But just as the Avengers assemble to protect Tippit, the five-time killer becomes the hero himself.
Yes, Clint, we’ve all had that dream where we realize we don’t have any pants on.
Cap doesn’t show up in issue #102 until page 16, after the Grim Reaper confronts the Vision about having the brain patterns of his dead brother, Simon Williams a.k.a. Wonder Man, after which Vision arrives back at Avengers Mansion just in time to see Hawkeye kiss Wanda, but leaves before he can hear Wanda confess her love for him to Clint—after which Wanda leaves, only to confront a Sentinel, mutant-hunting scourge of the X-Men. (All of this would take at least three issues in today’s age of decompressed storytelling.)
No wonder Cap’s clueless when he’s–
It’s been building for a while, but here Cap encounters for the first time Pietro’s growing rage against humanity (enhanced by his discomfort at his sister’s impending romance with the Vision).
Much of the beginning of issue #103 is taken up by Quicksilver’s search for his sister and the Vision’s mulling over the Grim Reaper’s offer to make him a real boy by transplanting his brain patterns back into Simon Williams’ preserved body. (Did I leave out that tiny detail?) Meanwhile, the other Avengers are dealing with a mysterious beam from Earth causing a solar flare-up, and Cap finds himself back in the role of having to tell Rick Jones he can’t tag along on Avengers missions.
When the Avengers arrive at the source of the beam, Cap gets in a jab both at Hawkeye and his own age… two for the price of one!
And even a version of “did I stutter?” to Clint, who gets to make the call…
In issue #104, after a lot of story dealing with Pietro, Wanda, and the Sentinels, the Avengers finally come face-to-face with the mutant-hunting robots, and Cap unleashes the ultimate weapon: trash-talk.
But it turns out the Avengers don’t have to do anything, because Sentinel Number Two has a secret. (“Who is number one?” “You are number six.” “I AM NOT A”—sorry, got carried away.) By the way, the fella in the shorts is Larry Trask, son of Bolivar Trask, the man who designed the Sentinels to hunt mutants.
In the end, they are just big walking dominoes.
Cap gets the final word on mankind’s endless drive toward self-destruction (and a chance to speechify as only Cap can).
Avengers (vol. 1) #101, July 1972: Harlan Ellison and Roy Thomas (writers), Rich Buckler (pencils), Dan Adkins (inks), ??? (colors), Jon Costa (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Avengers (vol. 1) #102, August 1972: Roy Thomas (writer), Chris Claremont (plot assistance), Rich Buckler (pencils), Joe Sinnott (inks), ??? (colors), Sam Rosen (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Avengers (vol. 1) #103, September 1972: Roy Thomas (writer), Rich Buckler (pencils), Joe Sinnott (inks), ??? (colors), Sam Rosen (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Avengers (vol. 1) #104, October 1972: Roy Thomas (writer), Rich Buckler (pencils), Joe Sinnott (inks), ??? (colors), John Costanza (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
All collected in: Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers Volume Eleven
PREVIOUS ISSUES: Avengers #98-100 (April-June 1972)
ALSO THESE MONTHS: Captain America #151-152 (July-August 1972), Captain America #153 (September 1972), and Captain America #154 (October 1972)
NEXT ISSUES: Avengers #106-108 (December 1972-February 1973)
The issue that was plotted by Harlan Ellison is certainly odd, probably because he originally conceived it as Hawkman story for DC Comics. Obviously the Watcher wasn’t in Ellison’s original plot. It was going to be some other cosmic entity.
Anyway, these three other issues, the Sentinels storyline by Roy Thomas, Rich Buckler & Joe Sinnott, are classics. Avengers #103 is one of my favorite covers from that series. Buckler gets a fair amount of criticism ( perhaps deserved) for swiping Kirby, but his pencils on these issues are really good. Joe Sinnott’s inking is impressive, as always.
I didn’t know that about the Ellison story — thanks!