“Finish them off, Goliath,” ordered Karzz. “Pick up that iron club and see that nothing recognizable remains of them. Go… do as I say.” But Goliath was hesitating, a bewildered look on his face, like that of a man coming out of a dream. “But they… my friends,” he said brokenly. “Won’t… can’t harm them”.
The Wasp helplessly watched Karzz shine his headband device at Goliath, who again subsided into a mindless slave with slack jaws and transfixed stare. In a trance the mighty man picked up a huge spiked iron club that lay ready and strode ponderously toward the nearest limp Avenger.
Published by Bantam Books in June 1967 The Avengers Battle The Earth-Wrecker was Marvel Comics’ first attempt to adapt their successful range of superhero comics into prose novels. Ultimately the experiment failed and the book is all but forgotten today.
Written by prolific comic book scribe Otto Binder the 122 page story centres around the super team’s efforts to defeat Karzz the Conqueror and his devilish plan to destroy all life on the Earth. Karzz (clearly a proxy for existing Avengers villain Kang the Conqueror) has travelled back in time from the 70th Century to exact revenge against the people of the Earth, utilising giant machines to create four ‘world-dooms’ that will wipe-out all life on the planet. It’s up to Captain America, Iron Man, Goliath, The Wasp and Hawkeye to defeat Karzz before his evil plan comes to fruition.
Although no one could fault his comic book credentials the choice of Binder as author for Marvel’s first foray into prose novels was an unlikely one. He began his career writing Captain Marvel for Fawcett Publications during the medium’s Golden Age, helping to create some of the Big Red Cheese’s most memorable supporting cast, including Mary Marvel, Mr. Mind and Black Adam. He then moved over to Timely Comics (the precursor of Marvel) where he wrote stories featuring Captain America, The Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner. Binder finally settled at National Periodical Publications (later DC Comics) where he made significant contributions to the Superman family of characters, co-creating Supergirl, Brainiac, Krypto the Superdog and even Titano the Super Ape. He then returned briefly to Marvel to pen The Avengers Battle The Earth-Wrecker – but the Marvel of the 1960’s was a very different one from that of the 1950’s.
Since Binder’s tenure Marvel Editor Stan Lee had helped usher in a new wave of more realistic, introspective and ‘hip’ characters. These troubled heroes were more rooted in the turbulent Sixties than in the wholesome Fifties, and The Avengers Battle The Earth-Wrecker feels too much like a throw-back to the latter. That’s not to say Binder doesn’t do a decent job, he keeps the story flowing at a brisk clip while successfully translating most of the comic book character’s into print. Iron Man and Captain America are particularly well developed with Binder adding a great deal of technical detail to the workings of Iron Man’s armour, while also portraying Cap’s feelings as a ‘man out of his time’. Less successful are Binder’s attempts to recreate Lee’s unique brand of character banter – it clearly isn’t something he’s comfortable with and their exchanges (particularly those between Hawkeye and The Wasp) frequently border on sniping.
As for the plot itself it’s pure Silver Age fodder, so much so that the reader could be forgiven for believing the story had been rehashed from an old issue of DC’s Justice League of America. Four seemingly unstoppable world-destroying machines that require brains as well as brawn to defeat? Sounds like typical DC fare to me. But as I’ve said Binder keeps the action flowing and it’s a pretty entertaining read, it’s just that the story feels dated and a bit hokey. Binder also wraps up the story far too quickly – Karzz is defeated and brought to justice while the terrible damage inflicted by the four world-dooms is undone, all in just a page and a half.
Unsurprisingly The Avengers Battle The Earth-Wrecker didn’t usher in a new wave of prose novels for Marvel, and the book vanished almost as soon as it appeared. Despite being the first of its kind it was launched with almost no fanfare from Marvel, which is surprising for a publisher so adept at self-promotion. I’ve looked through all the monthly issues of The Avengers comic from 1967 and could find no mention of the book in either the Bullpen Bulletins or in any of the adverts. The only reference I found was a letter published in issue #46 (November 1967) from a reader praising the novel and Binder’s interpretation of the team. The only other tangible link between the novel and Marvel is Lee’s Introduction to the book.*
But why did the book fail? By the mid-sixties Marvel had become a market leader in the comic book industry and their characters were hugely popular. Cartoons featuring their superheroes were appearing on TV and merchandising was booming as Marvel ably demonstrated that their properties could successfully cross-pollenate with other media. So why did this prose adaption fail to find an audience? Ultimately the reason for the book’s failure has little to do with Binder’s writing or the story. The novel suffers from a fatal and insurmountable flaw: it isn’t a comic book. At the risk of sounding facetious comics are comics and books are books. They both have their own story-telling language and vocabulary and the two do not – and more importantly should not –mix.
I stated at the beginning of this article that The Avengers Battle The Earth-Wrecker was all but forgotten but that’s not entirely true. It is remembered, but more for its cover artwork than its story. The novel’s striking cover was painted by prominent cover artist Robert McGinnis, of whom I’m a great fan (I’ve already written about his paperback cover paintings, as well as his movie posters). McGinnis imbues the cover artwork with just the right amount of impact and drama and the five Avengers really stand out against the black background. The only inconstancy with the book’s contents is his decision to include both The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, neither of whom appear in the book, while neglecting The Wasp and Iron Man. That’s a real shame as I’m a great fan of painted Marvel characters, particularly from the Sixties and Seventies, and I would love to see McGinnis’s interpretation of the golden Avenger. I also must praise the book’s excellent wavy logo design, which was clearly filched from the Doc Savage books (also published by Bantam) – great stuff.
Despite its failure The Avengers Battle The Earth-Wrecker wasn’t the last novel based on a Marvel property to be published by Bantam. A year after its publication a second book was released – Captain America: The Great Gold Steal by Ted White. It too featured an eye-catching cover as well as a new interpretation of Cap’s origin. I’ve taken a closer look at that book here.*Update: After posting this article I came across a message board where Ted White, author of The Great Gold Steal, claims that Stan Lee objected greatly to Binder’s selection as the author of The Avengers Battle The Earth-Wrecker. Undaunted Binder went over Lee’s head and appealed directly to Martin Goodman, Marvel’s publisher, who green-lit the project despite Lee’s protestations. If White’s story is accurate this probably goes some way to explaining why Lee failed to promote the novel in any of Marvel’s comics.