The beauty of youth is how time is perceived so differently. Summers could seem to stretch on forever, sprawling chasms of time which needed giant entertainments to fill them up. "King-Size Special" comics did that quite well for many of us. The logic of summer annuals I guess had to do mostly with school schedules, and the tradition of not having school in the summer. Presumably those seemingly endless carefree hours of summer must be filled and the always eager-to-make-a-buck publishers of comics saw that kids and desperate parents might be willing to drop a bit of change to get some nifty extra adventures. The great "Clash" between The Avengers and The Defenders in the summer of 1973 grew from Steven Englehart's desire to offer up a story akin to those he himself had enjoyed throughout much of Marvel's decade-long history.
The Avengers actually had their first all-new summer event in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man Annual #3 in 1966 as guest-stars in a whopper of story which co-starred the Hulk and had Spidey turn down the Assemblers for membership. It's cute little epic, but only a glimpse of what was to come.
My first annual and as it turns out my first Avengers comic book was 1967's Avengers King-Size Special #1. This epic nigh-fity page yarn showcased most of those who had been Avengers in a blockbuster battle against the "Mandarin's Minions", a who's who of former Avengers baddies. The artwork was Don Heck at his most dazzling. (Sadly for Heck it was apparently this job which paved the way for John Buscema to step in on the regular series and began the steady and unfair decline of Heck's reputation.)
The next summer they did it again King-Size Avengers Annual #2 when in a time-travel tale the current Avengers traveled to an alternate universe in which the original team under the sway of the mysterious Scarlet Centurion had defeated most if not all of the superheroes and super-villains of their world and ruled with an iron fist. Again we have Thomas and Heck kicking out an over-sized blockbuster which sported one of the great iconic covers ever in comics by John Buscema.
Along with these new stories though, summer specials had been used to showcased vintage tales from Marvel's past (merely a few years of course). The Avengers were featured in 1965's Marvel Tales Annual #2 when their debut adventure became one of several stories put forth. These over-sized packages were different and hefty enough to shout value. Getting these treasures was a treat for any fan who had missed out by lack of foresight in having been born a bit sooner.
That tradition followed in 1966's Marvel Super-Heroes Annual #1 which reprinted the second Avengers adventure battling the mysterious Space Phantom.
Marvel soon recognized the value of their growing backlog of printed material and great value-for-money packages were popping off the presses such as the transformed Marvel Super-Heroes regular series which gave up its Showcase wannabe vibe and switched to just old material. One of the great comics of all time for this fanboy was MSH #21 which reprinted Avengers #2 as well as X-Men #2.
In the summer of 1969 new material is eschewed in the Avengers annuals too as we get Avengers #4 featuring the return of Captain America. Cap is the focus of this one all the way through as that story is accompanied by three of his adventures from Tales of Suspense. John Buscema does a masterful job reinterpreting Kirby's original image for Avengers #4.
A year is skipped but in 1971 the Avengers Annual returns and gives us Avengers issues #5 and #6 Lee and Kirby. It's a great comic with the Assemblers battling Lava Men and Baron Zemo's Masters of Evil all neatly tucked up under one of my favorite Sal Buscema covers.
In 1972 we get Kang the Conqueror as his story from Avengers #6 is presented as well as his follow up attack from issue #11 co-starring Spider-Man.
And it is in 1972 that Marvel kicks off a robust reprint line. The Avengers eventually get the birth in the oddly named Marvel Triple Action and will hold down that title for a good bit of the Bronze Age. In a time when comics shops were rare as hen's teeth and there was no real outlet for many to acquire back issues, these reprints were a golden way to glimpse Marvel's history. Loved 'em.
And that brings us to 1973. For whatever reason Marvel only offered up a few reprint specials that month and neither the Avengers nor the newly-minted Defenders were on that short list. Steve Englehart attempted to rectify that by offering up a story which move across the two titles month-after-month through the summer. If not a "king-size special" really, it was indeed a king-sized story. Partnering with two consummate storytellers in Sal Buscema and Bob Brown, Englehart had the bones to make it happen and he did.
Tomorrow at the Dojo, the Clash commences!