By Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & various (Marvel)
To dyed-in-the-wool comic-book fanboys there’s a much beloved period in history when a frankly daft and woefully formulaic trend produced utter, joyous magic. We look back on it now and see only the magnificent art, or talk with loving derision of the crazy (often onomatopoeic) names, but deep down we can’t shake the exuberant thrill inside or the frisson of emotion that occurs when we see or even think of them.
Before Jack Kirby and Stan Lee brought superheroes back to Marvel Comics, the company was on its last legs. Trapped in a woefully disadvantageous distribution deal, the company’s output was limited to some sixteen genre titles. But there was hope…
The outside mainstream world was currently gripped in an atomic B-movie monster craze, so Lee, Kirby and Steve Ditko dutifully capitalised on it in their anthology mystery titles Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense.
In an unending procession of brief inspirational novelettes, dauntless or canny or just plain outsider humans outsmarted a succession of bizarre aliens, mad scientists, an occasional ghost or sorcerer (this was, after all, the heyday of the Comics Code Authority when any depiction of the supernatural was BAD) and a horde of outrageous beasties in a torrent of wonders best described by the catchphrase “monsters-in-underpants”.
Simplistic, moralistic, visually experimental yet reassuringly predictable in narrative, these Outer Limits-style yarns were – and still are – the epitome of sheer unrelenting fun with no redeeming social context required.
Marvel have increasingly celebrated that fact in recent years and – over the course of one month – commissioned a line of 26 “Kirby Monster” variant covers for their periodical releases, all lovingly crafted by a number of top names to highlight the treasured contribution of beasties, things and what-nots…
This volume gathers those images in a handy hardcover primer (and eBook edition) whilst gloriously gilding the lily with a splendid selection of many of the original mini-epics as created from those pre-Marvel Age masterpieces and augmented by ‘Jack Kirby, Atlas Comics & Monsters!’: a 1994 Introduction from the King himself.
The next bit’s another shopping-list moment so if you want to skip ahead a little I shouldn’t be at all surprised…
The worshipful A-Z art-section – augmented by the original cover of each diabolical debut – opens with Erica Henderson’s reinterpretation of ‘The Awesome Android!’ (which premiered in Fantastic Four #15) and rapidly follows up ‘The Blip!’ by Simon Bisley, and ‘The Crawling Creature!’ as delineated by Maguerite Sauvage.
An extreme late entry in the Kirby-Kritter Circus, ‘Devil Dinosaur!’ launched in his own title in 1978 and his moody reprise from Matthew Wilson is followed by Jeff Lemire’s take on ‘Elektro!’ and ‘Fin Fang Foom!’ – first seen in Strange Tales #89 – and rendered here by Walter Simonson & Laura Martin.
Michael & Laura Allred depict latter-day cellulose celluloid star ‘Groot!’ (originating in Tales to Astonish #13) before Francesco Francavilla highlights ‘The Hypno-Creature!’, Paolo Rivera revisits Fantastic Four #24’s weird menace ‘The Infant Terrible!’ and Glenn Fabry regales us with an Asgardian god battling ‘The Jinni Devil!’ in a scene that didn’t make it into 1967’s Thor #137…
Dave Johnson details a key point in the life of ‘Kraa the Unhuman!’ before John Cassaday & Matthew Wilson illuminate the depredations of ‘Lo-Karr, Bringer of Doom!’ after which Geof Darrow takes us back to Thor #154 to meet again amalgamated menace ‘Mangog!’
Kirby’s astounding 1976 Eternals series produced many incredible images and Paul Pope & Shay Plummer have chosen 2,000 feet tall Space God ‘Nezarr the Calculator!’ to set the pulses racing, whilst Mike del Mundo plumps for Strange Tales #90’s ‘Orrgo!’ and James Stokoe recalls forgotten fiend ‘Poker Face!’ as originally seen in Strange Tales of the Unusual #1 from December 1956…
Recurring FF foe ‘The Quonian!’ first appeared in Fantastic Four #97 and wows again here thanks to Christian Ward, after which Eric Powell previews ‘Rommbu!’ and Tradd Moore pits Ant-Man against Tales to Astonish #39 terror ‘The Scarlet Beetle!’ before Chris Bachalo & Tim Townsend show us the power of ‘Thorr!’
Chris Samnee & Wilson expose the tricky ferocity of Journey into Mystery #63’s undersea goliath ‘Ulvar!’ and Arthur Adams & Chris Sotomayor hark back to Tales to Astonish #17 to focus on ‘Vandoom’s Monster’ after which one last FF antagonist features as Cliff Chiang reveals ‘The Wrecker’s Robot!’ as seen in Fantastic Four #12.
Wrapping up this astounding alphabet are Dan Brereton’s rendition of ‘Xemnu!’ and Phil Noto’s depiction of ‘The Yeti!’ who battled Kirby’s Black Panther in #5 before Tony Moore & John Rauch hilariously conclude the countdown with alien outlaw ‘Zetora’.
Okay so maybe a few of those spooky stalwarts might have been from a later era and star in superhero sagas, but the influence and intent was clearly seen throughout and just sets the tone for the Kirby-crafted fearsome fantasy-features that follow…
The family-friendly monster mash – featuring scripts by Lee and Larry Lieber with Dick Ayers inking – opens with ‘I Learned the Dread Secret of The Blip!’ (from Tales to Astonish #15, January 1961) wherein an openminded radar operator attempts to assist a stranded alien energy being.
‘I Dared to Battle the Crawling Creature!’ comes from Tales to Astonish #22 (August 1961) and sees a scrawny High School nerd travel into the bowels of the Earth and face a primitive predator whilst an aging electronicist creates and eventually counters a would-be computerised conqueror in ‘Elektro! He Held the World in his Iron Grip!’ (Tales of Suspense #19, January 1961).
The hideous Hypno-Creature harried a very human hero in extra-dimensional invasion epic ‘I Entered the Dimension of Doom!’ from Tales of Suspense #23 (November 1961) whilst facing hulking atomic victim ‘Kraa the Unhuman!’ (Tales of Suspense #18, June 1961) proves the making of a timid American teacher…
A sunken stone head on a Pacific Island proved to be big trouble when explorers awakened ancient alien invaders in ‘Here Comes… Thorr the Unbelievable’ (Tales to Astonish #16, February 1961) and the origins of Defenders villain Xemnu the Titan are exposed in ‘I Was a Slave of the Living Hulk!’ (from Journey into Mystery #62, November 1960) before a hapless human proves to be the perfect hideout for extraterrestrial fugitive Zetora in ‘The Martian Who Stole My Body!’ as seen in Journey into Mystery #57 (March 1960).
Foolish, fabulous, thrill-packed and utterly intoxicating, these are fun-filled tales no puny human could possibly resist.
© 1956-1961, 2017 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.