WEST COAST AVENGERS: Looking Back at the First Expansion Team

West Coast Avengers #1
Credit: Marvel Comics

You can see nearly a dozen different Avengers titles from Marvel on your local comic shop’s shelves. But before there were New, Secret, Young, Dark or any other variety of Avengers there were the West Coast Avengers.

…or Avengers West Coast, depending on your predilection.

Created back in 1984 by writer Roger Stern and illustrated by Bob Hall, West Coast Avengers were an offshoot of Marvel’s flagship team title Avengers that was set up in California with a separate set of team members culled from Avengers bursting ranks. According to dialogue in the title and entrenched in the name itself, the West Coast Avengers protected the western side of the United States in ways the New York-based original Avengers team couldn’t. Although that geographic specificity might seem hackneyed by today’s standards, over its 100+ issue run it earned a host of fans with earth-shattering epics and personal stories with Avengers members outside of the classic line-up.

“Well, I know for a fact that the West Coast Avengers is fondly remembered by many people, including a number of current comic creators,” says former Avengers Academy and Avengers: The Initiative writer Christos Gage. “The biggest thing, to my mind, is that West Coast Avengers were the first expansion of the Avengers. The multiple Avengers books we have now started there. Today, the idea of just one Avengers book is unthinkable, but at the time having more than one was a pretty bold thing to do…before that, Marvel would launch completely different teams, like the Defenders. Rather than any specific storyline, I think that is the title’s legacy…that the Avengers could be not just a team, but a franchise.”

West Coast Avengers #18
West Coast Avengers #18
Credit: Marvel Comics

In its beginnings, the West Coast Avengers team was comprised of latter-day recruits to the Avengers franchise after their debut such as Wonder Man, Tigra and Mockingbird with Hawkeye in the lead. Iron Man was a part of the team, but it wasn’t Tony Stark in the suit but rather Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes – a secret that even the team didn’t know for a time. But soon the membership rosters of the West Coast Avengers and the original Avengers team caused a rift in the ranks, amongst characters and even creators.

West Coast Avengers was the first true expansion of the Avengers franchise—the first time that there was more than one Avengers title. So regardless of anything else, it was the first. That said, it had a somewhat difficult birth,” explains longtime Marvel and Avengers editor Tom Brevoort, now Marvel’s Senior Vice President of Publishing. “Purportedly, after inventing the concept and writing the original West Coast Avengers limited series, Avengers writer Roger Stern had to rework a year’s worth of planning when Steve Englehart was hired to write West Coast Avengers as an ongoing series. So right from the start, there was a certain layer of strife between the East and West teams.”

And it also broke up one of the primary dynamics in the Avengers line-up, Brevoort says.

“As Mark Gruenwald lamented at a certain point once he realized what he’d done, it was the creation of the West Coast Avengers that wound up splitting up the “Big Three” founding Avengers for more than a decade—you didn’t get Captain America, Iron Man and Thor on the same team together again until West Coast Avengers was a thing of the past.”

Looking back on the West Coast Avengers title and its run from1984 to 1994, it seems somehow quaint that the Avengers would need a separate branch on the West Coast only 2790 some odd miles away from the Avengers Mansion when the team routinely – both then and now – travels to outer space, other worlds and foreign countries nonetheless.

“I love the West Coast Avengers but they're destined to be a footnote in the evolution of the Avengers,” explains Sam Humphries, writer of The Ultimates and the upcoming Avengers A.I. “When John Byrne took over the main title, he made the membership flexible to include any Avenger in the history of the team. When Brian Michael Bendis took over, he blew it wide open to include the entire Marvel Universe. Jonathan Hickman's era on the book has already been marked by even broader horizons. With a scope like that, the concept of a second, separate team four hours away by commercial airplane seems quaint, doesn't it?”

A team for a bygone age? Perhaps, says Humphries.

West Coast Avengers filled a role back then that they couldn't fill now. The world feels smaller today than it did in 1984 – the West Coast Avengers belongs to the age of the fax and the landline, not the age of the Internet and global trade.”

The fact is that while West Coast Avengers were based on the West Coast was one of their biggest and most recognizable selling points, it also came to be the one of the key things that doomed it from returning in modern comics with its larger-than-life scale. But moving past that, being the first Avengers spin-off title gave it the latitude for some distinct advantages and the landscape to do a different kind of superhero team story.

“It’s the same thing that’s happening now with the current Avengers titles,” points out Bob Hall, co-creator and artist of the original West Coast Avengers series. “Back in the 1980s the Avengers had so many members, many of them fan-favorites, that there simply wasn’t enough room to feature them all in one title. Splitting it off like we did on West Coast Avengers, it gave you a chance to see more Avengers each month.”

“Also, while the main Avengers title at the time tended to feature Marvel’s A-list heroes like Captain America, Thor and Iron Man who had titles of their own, West Coast Avengers were almost exclusively characters who didn’t have their own titles,” Hall reveals. “Editorially they were looking to spotlight characters who couldn’t quite hold their own books, but creatively it gave the writers a chance to tell more personal stories that mattered to those characters without stepping on the toes of a separate solo title.”

Namely, Hawkeye.

“Sometimes it was hard to tell, but you can't have West Coast Avengers without the evolution of Hawkeye,” Humphries says. “Remember, that guy used to be a criminal. As an Avenger, he gained a moral compass, and as the leader of the West Coast Avengers, he ‘grew up’ and became a pillar of the Avengers. He'll always be a smart ass, but without West Coast Avengers, you don't have him at the center of the Marvel Universes -- both cinematic and otherwise.”

The West Coast Avengers title became a welcome home not just for Hawkeye-centric stories, but also other notable members outside the core members.

“What I liked about West Coast Avengers, and I tried to keep to this idea with the faculty of Avengers Academy, is that the West Coast Avengers was sort of the “damaged” Avengers;. Iron Man, Hank Pym, Hawkeye, Tigra, Wonder Man…they all have checkered pasts and/or ongoing issues,” Christos Gage tells Newsarama. “There was a real feeling that they were trying to work things out and attain some kind of redemption. I’ve always had an affinity for these types of characters, from my very first job in comics, Deadshot, to current projects like Angel & Faith.”

By being an Avengers title but not “the” Avengers title, West Coast Avengers also allowed for more free range when it came to extended runs for creators.

“There was also, I feel like, a greater consistency of writer, at least past a certain point—the entirety of the series was pretty much written by three guys, Steve Englehart, John Byrne and Roy Thomas,” said Brevoort, who began working at Marvel in 1989 as an intern. “So there was a greater emphasis placed on the issue-to-issue soap opera of the characters perhaps than was apparent in Avengers.”

West Coast Avengers Omnibus
West Coast Avengers Omnibus
Credit: Marvel Comics

In April, Marvel released an immense 700+ page compendium of this titles stories under the name The Avengers: West Coast Avengers collecting the initial miniseries, the first sixteen issues of the ongoing title and selected ancillary material. Between that and the nearly 100 other issues of the title in its various incarnations  there are many memorable Avengers adventures to be found in back issue bins.

"This is just my opinion, mind you," says Brevoort, "but I think the three most memorable West Coast Avengers stories (apart from things like Operation: Galactic Storm or other similar crossovers that intersected the series) were 'Lost in Space-Time,' 'Vision Quest' and the final issue and the switchover to Force Works that attempted to redefine the team and set them up as something different—which didn’t quite work out, but that’s the way things go sometimes. I think a case could also be made for Englehart’s Ultron-12 story, but again, that one is a little bit divisive among Avengers fans for the manner in which it handled the reformed Ultron, 'Mark.'"

“Lost In Space-Time,” which ran from issues #17 to #23, saw Englehart and veteran Marvel artist Al Milgrom concoct a time travel epic that transverses seven time periods in the arc’s seven issues.

“ People remember it for Mockingbird killing Night Rider, which led to a rift between her and Hawkeye, but there was other stuff going on too, like Hank Pym struggling with suicidal thoughts and the interaction between the atheist Pym and openly religious Firebird,” says Gage. “It was pretty deep for the time.”

The four-part “Vision Quest” arc showed writer/artist John Byrne at the height of his career doing the quintessential story for the Avengers power couple of Vision and Scarlet Witch as their lives are torn apart, presaging the events of Avengers: Disassembled, House Of M and one of the key pillars of Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Avengers years later.

“This was a shocking storyline the merits of which are still debated by Avengers fans of the period, but it definitely got people paying attention,” says Brevoort. “And Byrne at this point was still phenomenally popular, so there was a great draw to seeing him both write and illustrate an Avengers series.”

West Coast Avengers ultimately ran for 102 issues and 8 annuals (with a title switch midway through its life to become Avengers West Coast), ultimately concluding its run in January 1994. As Brevoort alluded to, Marvel attempted to continue the spirit of book in a non geographic-centric title called Force Works but it failed to secure a place for itself on comic shelves. It wasn’t until the successful relaunch of the Avengers franchise in 2004 that a spin-off title was considered again, this time flourishing with Mighty Avengers, New Avengers, Dark Avengers amongst others. But in this emergence of Avengers turning from a single title to an anchor for an entire like of Avengers teams, there hasn’t once been a resurrection of the West Coast Avengers as a title or team name. When asked why the West Coast Avengers name in one form or another hasn’t seen a return, long-time Avengers editor Brevoort was upfront and honest.

West Coast Avengers #45
West Coast Avengers #45
Credit: Marvel Comics

“At least since I started working on Avengers in 1997, that’s probably due as much to me finding the name silly as much as anything,” Brevoort admits. “Nothing wrong with the characters or the grouping, but not being a big fan of the name “West Coast Avengers.” I haven’t pursued it. So it’s all my fault. Apart from nostalgia, I don’t feel like there’s any great value to be had in resurrecting that particular title. At least so far nobody’s hit me up with a good reason to use it apart from nostalgia. I’d never say never, but at the moment there aren’t any plans to use that title in the course of the next year. We’re doing an awful lot of Avengers titles, though, so it’s not for a lack of interest in the franchise.”

Although an admittedly life-long fan of the team and title, Christos Gage agrees with Brevoort’s frank assessment. When asked if a West Coast Avengers title could work in 2013, says there many reasons why not and only one why it should.

“The thing Tom Brevoort insists on – and I think he’s right – is that there has to be a reason for them to exist beyond nostalgia and/or simply expanding the Avengers franchise, because you can’t sustain a title on that. Really, nowadays, the Avengers are heroes for the whole world…with their various means of transportation, they can be on the west coast pretty quick, so there’s no logical need for a West Coast unit. It would make more sense to have an Avengers Europe or Asia, you know? So there needs to be a reason for a West Coast Avengers team to exist, and it’s hard to come up with a good one…so far all I’ve got is “because I want them to.”

Despite that, shadows of the long-running title have shown up from time to time in other books. The “Vision Quest” arc of West Coast Avengers was referenced heavily in the Vision-centric Avengers Assemble Annual #1 by Gage and artist Tomm Coker, and the team’s old headquarters was featured prominently during Gage’s Avengers Academy series – an idea that Gage says was thought of simultaneously by both him and Brevoort. Also, the team made a surprising appearance in the Ultimate line’s The Ultimates as “West Coast Ultimates,” turning that geographic negative into a positive in light of the fractured state of America in that continuity.

Although it seems the chances for a West Coast Avengers title by name is doomed, the spirit and characters created and ushered through that title continue to live on – and so does West Coast Avengers as the Avenger’s first expansion.

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