By Austin Gorton
On the surface, Avengers #197 isn’t a terribly notable issue. Written by David Michelinie, penciled by Carmine Infantino and inked by a cadre of inkers credited as “Jack’s Little Helpers” (filling in for a missing Jack Abel), it’s a transition issue between the story which concluded in issue #196 and the beginning of another in issue #198. It also begins building up to the series’ big two-hundredth issue. With Infantino filling in for Avengers’ legend George Perez, and Michelinie’s tenure on the title falling squarely in the middle of the list of Avengers runs – it’s generally regarded as being “not terrible”, but few hold it up as an all-time great creative effort – well, in short, Avengers #197 is seemingly a perfectly forgettable issue rendered by a more-than-capable but largely unexciting creative team. It’s just one of tens of dozens of similar issues put out by the publisher over its many years of publication.
Yet look closer, and Avengers #197 becomes emblematic of both the best and worst of the Avengers in the Bronze Age of comics; that period after the creative onslaught of the Silver Age and the excess and darkness of the 1990s. It features some plot devices and character beats that are considered favorites by fans of this era of the Avengers while, at the same time, laying down the track for one of the worst Avengers stories of all time.
Avengers #197 begins with the Avengers, returning from a mission against the villainous Taskmaster, being trapped in the elevator of Avengers Mansion, one of those “powerful heroes undone by something mundane” sequences the series occasionally featured – see also, the Avengers riding a bus to stop the cosmically-powered god-like Korvac. After the combined engineering expertise of Iron Man and Ant-Man frees the team, everyone goes their separate ways. As teased by the cover, the issue then settles in for a series of subplot development and character vignettes.
The “day in the life” issue is a staple of superhero Bronze Age storytelling, and Avengers #197 is a worthy example of the form. Vision broods, Iron Man and Captain America discuss leadership of the team, Scarlet Witch gets advice from Captain Marvel about a major life decision, and a supervillain begins plotting their next attack. But even beyond the structure of the issue, several of the vignettes represent much-loved bits of Avengers lore from this era.
For example, upon escaping from the elevator, Beast quickly drags Wonder Man out on a double date. The friendship between the gregarious Beast (who over the preceding forty odd issues had transformed himself from the X-Men’s polysyllabic smart guy to the Avengers resident goofball and lover-of-life) and the taciturn Wonder Man (who, after a long period of time in an inanimate state similar to death, often struggled with his own mortality and lack of confidence in his superhero abilities) is one of the defining and most-beloved elements of the Bronze Age Avengers for a certain generation of fans. The presentation here is emblematic of why it became so popular.
Additionally, Avengers #197 is a showcase for one of the things which sets the Avengers apart from most other superhero teams: their strict adherence to Parliamentary procedure and Robert’s Rules of Order when it comes to things like the team’s roster and leadership positions. This penchant for organizational bureaucracy is on full display in Avengers #197. First, there’s talk of the different “levels” of Avengers membership (at this point in time, you’re not just on the team or not, there are different hierarchical tiers of membership) as Jocasta, the sentient robot lady created by Ultron who turned on him to help the Avengers and then hung around in the book for awhile, is offered *full* membership on the team, something which brings her much joy (technically, she is told she will be nominated for full status; the Avengers still need to vote!)
Later, after Iron Man informs Captain America he’s stepping down as chairman of the Avengers, their nominal leadership position, Cap promises to schedule the necessary leadership election to fill Iron Man’s position as soon as possible. During a subsequent official team meeting in which Captain America leads a debrief of their recently-completed mission, he even promises to send out a memo about that election meeting soon. All this talk of meetings and elections and memos is both banal and beautiful.
Yet for all the beloved hallmarks of the Bronze Age Avengers to be found in Avengers #197, there are also elements of some of the series’ worst attributes on display. The Scarlet Witch/Ms. Marvel scenes involve Scarlet Witch trying to decide whether or not she wants to start a family with Vision, or continue living the life of a superhero. Ms. Marvel, via dialogue intended to set up an upcoming plotline involving the character, vehemently pushes back on the notion of motherhood, insisting Scarlet Witch can do much more good as a superhero than a mother, an argument Scarlet Witch ultimately accepts…for now.
Similarly, when Wonder Man meets his blind date, he discovers she’s a single mother who’s had to bring her son along on their date, something to which Wonder Man reacts with near-revulsion. It’s used, essentially, as a punchline, another example of that wacky Beast leaving Wonder Man in the lurch, as if having to date a woman with a kid is the worst possible outcome to a blind date. Taken together, the two beats present a problematic perspective on women and motherhood, even for 1980. However it read at the time, coming on the cusp of the Reagan revolution (this comic hit stands a little less than a year before Ronald Reagan would be sworn in for his first presidential term), reading it now, it comes across as a somewhat conservative take on the subject.
To be clear, both Ms. Marvel and Wonder Man are entitled to their positions; there is nothing inherently wrong with Ms. Marvel deciding for herself that she doesn’t want children, nor in trying to share her perspective with her teammate and friend. There is also nothing inherently wrong with Wonder Man deciding he doesn’t really want the responsibility that comes with dating a mother with a young child, especially one he’s meeting blind. The problem is neither beat is presented as a well-reasoned expression of their respective characters: the former is a clumsy effort to set up the issue’s cliffhanger ending, the latter a rimshot, essentially, to a hacky joke.
But it is that cliffhanger ending which really showcases the bad side of this issue. In it Ms. Marvel, who had collapsed earlier during her anti-motherhood conversation with Scarlet Witch, is revealed to be three months pregnant.
This is the beginning of a plotline which will culminate in Avengers #200, a narrative which is largely considered one of the worst Avengers stories of all time. Over the next two issues Ms. Marvel’s pregnancy will advance quickly, culminating in the birth of a son in Avengers #200. That son will then quickly grow to adulthood and reveal himself to be an incarnation of Immortus, the villainous ruler of the timeless realm of Limbo, who essentially kidnapped and raped (using advanced technology) Ms. Marvel in order to impregnate her with…himself, so he could be born on Earth and escape Limbo. With his presence on Earth threatening time itself, he ultimately decides to go back to Limbo, and Ms. Marvel, feeling some measure of affection for her lover/son, goes with him, leaving the team.
Throughout the entire narrative the Avengers behave like buffoons, congratulating Ms. Marvel on her pregnancy despite her clearly being upset about it, treating the birth of her son like a joyous event despite the odd circumstances of its birth. Even after Immortus reveals the methods he used to impregnate Ms. Marvel, they simply stand by and wish her luck as she goes off to live with the man who brainwashed her into loving him. As with the handling of Wonder Man and Ms. Marvel in Avengers #197, we’re seeing those traditional “family values” being presented as both unquestionably right and thoroughly expected. Needless to say, it is not a good look for the team.
In recent years, David Michelinie has revealed that editorial interference caused him to rework the story on the fly, though his original plan doesn’t seem much better… it involved Ms. Marvel becoming pregnant due to the machinations of the Kree Supreme Intelligence to jumpstart the evolution of its race; different villain, same loss of agency for the character. Carol Strickland, a writer and critic whose missives frequented the letters pages of numerous comic books at the time, wrote a scathing editorial in the fanzine LoC #1 titled “The Rape of Ms. Marvel“, denouncing the plotline. X-Men writer Chris Claremont, who developed an affinity for Ms. Marvel while writing the majority of her earlier solo series, was so incensed by the Avengers’ treatment of her that he dedicated the tenth Avengers annual to bringing the character out of Immortus’ Limbo and letting her dress down the Avengers for the way they stood by and let her be manipulated by a villain with little more than cheers and well-wishes.
All of that begins in Avengers #197, as the issue’s collection of vignettes and subplots concludes with the news of Ms. Marvel’s pregnancy, the first step in one of the worst and most poorly-regarded Avengers stories of all time. In contrast to that nadir, the issue also features examples of some of the most beloved and fun elements of the Bronze Age Avengers. Yet those highs also mask, however intentionally or not, a conservative perspective on women and motherhood.
Sure, we enjoy the fan favorite Beast/Wonder Man camaraderie. They are Avengers, our heroes, and just by the structure of storytelling alone, we’re primed to side with them and their perspectives. And so we laugh along with Beast at Wonder Man’s comical terror at the prospect of dating a single mother. Yet the “joke” also sets up single mothers as an “other”, something to be feared and to run from (“see, it’s funny because the strong and invulnerable Wonder Man is scared of a lady and her young son!”). This, in turn, is meant to add peril to the issue’s cliffhanger ending: not only does Ms. Marvel not want to have children, as expressed earlier in the story, but she’s unmarried, which means she’s about to become the very thing which so freaked out Wonder Man.
This perspective is carried forward throughout the story: Ms. Marvel going off to Limbo with her rapist boyfriend-son is presented as a happy ending (and celebrated as one by the Avengers) because it represents a fulfillment of the conservative ideal subtly put forward in this issue: Ms. Marvel has embraced the joys of motherhood, and – even better – doesn’t have to be one of those icky single mothers. Given the way the Avengers’ perspective on Ms. Marvel’s fate in Avengers #200 is programmed into readers in ways both subtle and obvious in Avengers #197, it’s admirable how many of them reacted as poorly as they did to the storyline. In the end, all the Bronze Age highs of Avengers #197 can’t mask the regressive presentation of women and its role in the unfortunate fate of Ms. Marvel.
Avengers #197: Prelude of the War-Devil!
Writer: David Michelinie
Layouts: Carmine Infantino
Finished Art: “Jack’s Little Helpers”
Colorist: Bob Sharen
Letterer: John Costanza
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