This post is about comics. It’s also about superheroes, robots, Norse gods, shrinking men, and women made of light – so it makes sense that it was inspired in the first place by a 10 year-old.
Last week, I was pointed by Santiago Ortiz to this excellent chart made by Theo Zaballos, in which he plots the relative interestingness in Avengers characters from the animated series, over time. It’s a fantastic example of the power of visualization to help us understand things – or, put another way, the power of building systems to think about systems. It’s also a reminder that visualization doesn’t always need to be pitted against huge, world-changing tasks – it can be useful in exploring small, fun, even seemingly frivolous things.
I started reading comics in 1985 (coincidentally, when I was 10). For years, I’d visit the comic shop every Wednesday, and pick up a stack of titles – and The Avengers was a real mainstay on my list. I was always more of a reader than a collector; my longboxes were full of dog-eared issues from incomplete series, which I revisited over and over again until the stories imprinted themselves in my brain.
There’s a huge storehouse of mythology, cultural touchstones, and real historical events contained in the pages of the 570 issues of the Avengers.
Inspired by Theo, and using comicvine.com’s API, I’ve put together a few datasets and some tools that I can use to visually explore some of this leotarded history.
The Avengers has been published pretty much continuously since 1963. Here are the covers of all 570 issues:
Now, you might be aware of a little, low budget art-house movie that’s being released tomorrow about this particular group of costumed heroes. That movie features 5 avengers – Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, and Black Widow. But did you know there were 127 more Avengers? You may know that the Avengers were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but you might be surprised to hear that there were 184 other people who invented Avengers characters. In total, there have been 581 men and women who written, edited, pencilled, inked, colored, lettered, and otherwise created at least one issue of the Avengers.
Let’s start with a look at those characters. My first thought was to use images of the characters in my visualizations, but while the Comic Vine API provides images in all kinds of sizes, the styles of drawing are so varied that it ended up not holding together. Instead, then, I built a small tool that let me go through those characters and pick three colours that I thought represented them the best (everybody gets a shield!). Here are all of the Avengers in an overlapped plot that doesn’t really tell us much, but gives you an idea of what these icons look like:
These character icons can be drawn at any size, and give us a nice way to plot the characters that isn’t just dots or boxes. Here’s all of the Avengers again, this time plotted by their number of appearances:
Below Captain America is a cluster of the most consistent Avengers – Iron Man, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Thor, Hawkeye, Wasp, and Henry Pym (aka Ant Man). That blue and grey dot trailing just behind is Jarvis, the Avengers’ butler – who also happens to be an honorary member of the team.
Using those same shield icons, but sorting by issue so that characters in an issue together form a radial line, here is every appearance of ever Avengers character in every issue:
It’s not too helpful, but we can use this same system, and filter it by any number of criteria. For example, let’s look at just first appearances of Avengers:
You can see the same graphic in a timeline form here:
I built a little tool to let me assign three colours to each Avenger, so they’re all represented by small spheres (now would be a good time to look at the full resolution version of that image – a good strategy for everything I’m going to put in this post) We can see a big cluster of major Avengers appearing in the first few episodes, with some other big names coming in the next few years (Vision, the Avenger with the 3rd most appearances in issues, doesn’t come along until #57). While there are a couple of major additions along the way (She-Hulk & Photon in 1982), we can see that the cast of characters for the team is defined pretty early.
One of the first things that I was interested in was the gender balance in the Avengers over time. While there have been women on the team since the beginning (Janet Van Dyne, aka The Wasp, appears in issue #1), has this changed or increased over the 50 year span of the series?
Let’s have a look:
You’ll notice that the Wasp (in yellow), and the Scarlet Witch (in red), pretty much hold the fort for the female Avengers until the late 70s, at which time variety and frequency of female characters increases. There are some dips – 1990 to 1992, and 2005 to 2007, and overall the female ratio at the Avengers mansion peaks in the 1980s and never quite gets back up to that level again.
Of course, there are many other categorizations of comic characters that we can make aside from gender. I mentioned Vision before, who is a robot (OK, OK, he’s a synthezoid). How have superheroes of the electronic persuasion fared amongst Earth’s Mightiest Heroes?
I’m glad you asked:
Here we see some much more interesting patterns. Robots are big from the late 60s to the early 1990s, after which they disappear. There’s a robot renaissance of sorts from 1990 to 2005, but again they lose density (see what I did there, Avengers fans?).
We can do the same thing with Gods, and Eternals (if you don’t know the difference, ask your local comic shop clerk):
Again, there is some real patchiness here. Now, the clever ones among you might be wondering if these patterns are tied to historical periods, or if they are linked to the preferences of specific writers, editors, or artists. Is that crowded patch of Gods in 1985 due to a cultural fascination with myth? Or do Mark Gruenwald & Jim shooter just really, really like Thor? Great questions, and ones that I’ll take a look at Part 2 of this post.
This week-long dig through Avengers data has been fascinating. Even as an Avengers fan, it’s been surprising to see the depth and richness of content that finds its way into the pages of every issue and volume. As I’ve been working, I’ve also been reading a lot about the various people – inkers, letterers, writers, who have built the Avengers story over time. It has been a good reminder, particularly in the wake of a blockbuster film, that myths are rarely formed by individuals.
Finally, it should give anyone fearing a shortage of Avengers storylines and characters for possible sequels some reassurance – 5 down, 127 to go. (Mr. Whedon, if you’re looking for a researcher, you know where to find me.)
‘Nuff said. (For now.)