The Inhumans – By Right of Birth


By Ann Nocenti, Lou Mougin, Bret Blevins, Rich Howell, Al Williamson, Vince Colletta & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8504-8

Debuting in 1965 during Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s most fertile and productive creative period, and conceived as yet another incredible lost civilisation, The Inhumans are a race of incredibly disparate (generally) humanoid beings genetically altered by aliens in Earth’s pre-history, consequently becoming technologically advanced far ahead of emergent Homo Sapiens.

Subsequently they isolated themselves from the world and barbarous dawn-age humanity in a fabulous city named Attilan; firstly, on an island and latterly in a hidden Himalayan valley. After untold centuries in hiding, increasing global pollution levels began to attack their elevated biological systems and the Inhumans relocated their entire city-civilisation to the Moon. This bold act exposed them to military scrutiny and they became known at last to the ordinary citizens of Earth.

The Attilan mark of citizenship is immersion in the mutative Terrigen Mists which further enhance and transform individuals into radically unique and usually super-powered beings. The Inhumans are necessarily obsessed with genetic structure and heritage, worshipping the ruling Royal Family as the rationalist equivalent of mortal gods.

This compilation from 2013 – available as a Trade Paperback and eBook – gathers an original graphic novel from 1988 and bolsters the package with comicbook 1-shot Inhumans: The Untold Story from 1990 that delves into a forgotten corner of their history…

Leading off is a controversial tale from 1988 by scripter Anne Nocenti, illustrated by Brett Blevins & Al Williamson with letters from Jim Novak & Gaspar Saladino and colours by Mike Higgins, which takes a hard look at the underbelly of the concept in a stark examination of personal rights vs. civic responsibility…

With such an unstable potential breeding pool, the Inhuman right to bear children has been taken away from individuals and delegated to a Genetic Council. If on occasion their mandates break hearts or even lead the desperate and lovelorn to commit suicide, that’s sad but just a price the race must pay…

After witnessing one such tragic demise on the day of the annual pronouncement of who may and may not sire offspring, bellicose, passionate and deeply conservative Gorgon has much to ponder upon. Even his own cousin Karnak sympathises with the growing public movement to abolish the Council and let citizens choose their own breeding partners, and the princes have, as usual, come to blows over their always opposing views…

It all becomes agonisingly personal when cousin Medusa, wife and voice of the mighty but voluntarily mute King Black Bolt (whose softest syllable can shatter mountains) announces she is already pregnant and the Council summarily decree the unsanctioned and potentially ultra-destructive foetus must be destroyed…

Horrified when her shocked but resigned family agrees to the appalling Eugenics dictat, Medusa flees Attilan with the unsuspected aid of deranged psychopathic genius (and brother-in-law) Maximus. She hides on Earth, preferring to risk death by pollution rather than the arbitrary murder of her unborn child.

Amongst the Inhumans the rebellious act divides both royal and commoner families, and seems certain to spark civil war. Blithely unaware, on Earth Medusa and faithful companion Minxi are sequestered in a deserted garbage dump on the outskirts of Las Vegas where the soon-to-be-born baby begins to increasingly make its presence – and power – felt…

In Attilan, Blackbolt is crushed and paralysed by the weight of duty and his own indecision whilst Maximus schemes to win Medusa for himself. At last united but still bickering, the Royal Family, Gorgon, Karnak, Triton and Medusa’s younger sister Crystal rush to Earth to stand beside the defiant mother-to-be.

Elementally all-powerful Crystal uses her abilities to collect and banish all the toxins in the air, generating a thirty-mile wide “clean-zone” for Medusa, but as her time nears, strange, unnatural phenomena begin to occur throughout the region…

At last Black Bolt comes to a shattering decision and Maximus makes his final sinister move, Medusa goes into labour and the tortured, twisted environment comes to ghastly unnatural life just as and the full extent of the newborn’s abilities are revealed…

Even after all the horror, death and disaster, there is one last shock and betrayal when the Inhumans return to the Moon under a dubious amnesty…

After navigating that challenging ethical tightrope, more standard fare follows as Lou Mougin, Richard Howell & Vince Colletta reveal the uncanny outcast side of the monumental first meeting with the Fantastic Four.

The Inhumans: The Untold Saga reveals how, many years previously, Maximus sparked an uprising and ousted Black Bolt to assume the throne. ‘Remembrances of Revolutions Past’ follows proud Medusa as she escapes the incipient tyranny, only to crash in the outer world, unharmed but amnesiac…

Compelled by popular outcry to obey their mad cousin, the Royal Family obey ‘A Throne in Darkness’ until they can endure no more and flee too…

‘Of Inhuman Bondage’ finds them separated in the human world, where Gorgon carries a dark secret. On peril of his parents’ lives, he is searching for Medusa, because Maximus wants a bride to legitimise his claim to the crown…

The search takes years and ‘Medusa’s Odyssey’ includes her haunting Europe as a criminal until recruited by the Wizard to his evil enterprise The Frightful Four…

As seen elsewhere the family are reunited by the FF and defeat Maximus before ‘Reckoning!’ depicts their greatest tragedy, with the mad ex-monarch imprisoning the Inhumans behind an impenetrable energy barrier.

Although Maximus believes it his greatest cruellest victory the madman doesn’t realise he has locked himself in with the people he has victimised…

Adding depth to the delicacies on offer are ‘The Inhumans’ – an essay from in-house promotional magazine Marvel Age (#69, December 1988) – plus illustrated info-pages on Black Bolt, Crystal, Gorgon, Karnak, Lockjaw, Maximus, Medusa, Triton and the Inhumans as a race: all culled from Marvel Universe Handbook. Wrapping up the data-fest is a sequence spotlighting 27 other minor Inhumans, a well as pin-ups from Marvel Fanfare by Butch Guice, Colleen Doran, Charles Vess and a run of original covers…

The Inhumans – By Right of Birth is a bold. beautiful, extremely uncompromising and occasionally explicit tale delivering action, tension and soul-searching drama and is something no unabashed older fan of superhero sagas should miss….
© 1988, 1990, 2013, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Inhumans: The Origins of the Inhumans


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, with Chic Stone, Vince Colletta, Frank Giacoia, Joe Sinnott, Tom Sutton & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8497-3

Debuting in 1965 and conceived as yet another incredible lost civilisation during Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s most fertile and productive creative period, The Inhumans are a race of incredibly disparate (generally) humanoid beings genetically altered in Earth’s pre-history, and consequently evolving into a technologically-advanced civilisation far ahead of emergent Homo Sapiens.

They isolated themselves from the world and barbarous dawn-age humans, first on an island and latterly in a hidden valley in the Himalayas, residing in a fabulous city named Attilan.

The mark of citizenship is immersion in the mutative Terrigen Mists which further enhance and transform individuals into radically unique and generally super-powered beings. The Inhumans are necessarily obsessed with genetic structure and heritage, worshipping the ruling Royal Family as the rationalist equivalent of mortal gods.

With a new TV series in the offing it’s worth taking a look at how the voluntary mutants joined the Marvel universe and this trade paperback compilation – also available as a digital edition – scrupulously compiles teasing early appearances from Fantastic Four #36 and 38, the extended introductory saga from FF #41-47, 54 and 62-65, and a team-up tale from Fantastic Four Annual.

Also included are pertinent extracts from FF #48, 50, 52 and 56-61 plus the entire Tales of the Uncanny Inhumans back-up series from Thor #146-153 and a moment of spoofing light-relief from Not Brand Echh #6, cumulatively spanning March 1965 to May 1968.

The first inkling of something epic in the wind came from Fantastic Four #36 and the introduction of a new female super-villain as part of the hero-team’s theoretical nemeses ‘The Frightful Four!’

A sinister squad comprising evil genius The Wizard, shapeshifting Sandman and gadget fiend The Trapster (he was still Paste Pot-Pete here, but not for long) was supplemented by enigmatic outsider Madame Medusa, whose origins were to have a huge impact on the heroes in months to come.

The heroes ‘Defeated by the Frightful Four!’ in FF# 38: a momentous tale with a startling cliff-hanger that marked Chic Stone’s departure in landmark manner.

Vince Colletta assumed the inking chores for a bombastic run which perfectly displays the indomitable power and inescapable tragedy of the brutish Ben Grimm in a tense and traumatic trilogy in which the Frightful Four brainwash The Thing. turning him against his teammates. It starts in # 41 (August 1965) with ‘The Brutal Betrayal of Ben Grimm!’, continues in rip-roaring fashion with ‘To Save You, Why must I Kill You?’ and concluded in bombastic glory with #43’s ‘Lo! There Shall be an Ending!’

The next issue was a landmark in many ways. Firstly, it saw the arrival of Joe Sinnott as regular inker, a skilled brush-man with a deft line and a superb grasp of anatomy and facial expression, and moreover an artist prepared to match Kirby’s greatest efforts with his own.

Some inkers had problems with just how much detail the King would pencil in; Sinnott relished it and the effort showed. What had been merely wonderful now became incomparable…

‘The Gentleman’s Name is Gorgon!’ introduced a mysterious powerhouse with metal hooves instead of feet: a hunter implacably stalking Madame Medusa.

His rampage through New York embroils the Human Torch – and subsequently the whole team – in her frantic bid to escape, and that’s before monstrous android Dragon Man shows up to complicate matters. All this was merely a prelude: with the next episode readers were introduced to a hidden race of superbeings who had secretly shared the Earth with us for millennia.

‘Among us Hide… the Inhumans’ revealed that Medusa was part of the Royal Family of Attilan: rulers of a hidden race of paranormal beings. She had been on the run ever since a coup deposed the true king.

Black Bolt, Triton, Karnak and the rest would quickly become mainstays of the Marvel Universe, but their bewitching young cousin Crystal and her giant teleporting dog Lockjaw were the real stars here. For young Johnny Storm, it was love at first sight, and Crystal’s eventual fate would greatly change his character, giving him a hint of angst-ridden tragedy that resonated greatly with the generation of young readers who were growing up with the comic…

‘Those Who Would Destroy Us!’ and ‘Beware the Hidden Land!’ (FF #46 and 47) saw the heroes unite with the Royal Inhumans as Black Bolt battled to regain his throne from his brother Maximus the Mad, only to stumble into the usurper’s plan to wipe humanity from the Earth.

Ideas just seem to explode from Kirby at this time. Despite being halfway through one storyline, FF #48 trumpeted ‘The Coming of Galactus!’ with the first Inhumans saga swiftly wrapped up by page 7, and the entire race sealed by Maximus behind an impenetrable dome called the Negative Zone (later retitled the Negative Barrier to avoid confusion with the gateway to sub-space that Reed Richards worked on for years).

Those pages and further excerpts from #50 and 52 advancing the “Inhumans-in-a-bottle” plot are included here, but you’ll need to seek elsewhere for the Galactus saga…

I suspect this experimental – and vaguely uncomfortable – approach to narrative mechanics was calculated and deliberate, mirroring the way TV soap operas were increasingly delivering their interwoven storylines, and was introduced as a means to keep readers glued to the series.

They needn’t have bothered. The stories and concepts were enough…

The next full story followed the Torch and college pal Wyatt Wingfoot as they sought a way to sunder the barrier and reunite Johnny with Crystal. This led to the unearthing of the lost tomb of Prester John in #54’s ‘Whosoever Finds the Evil Eye…!’

This became a running sub-plot with the Inhumans increasingly striving to break out whilst, on the other side of the Great Barrier, Johnny and Wyatt wandered the wilds also seeking a method of liberating the Hidden City.

The next major development occurs in snippets from FF #55-61 as Black Bolt finally liberates his imprisoned people by utilising the immeasurable power of his devastating voice: an uncontrollable sonic shockwave which can destroy everything – including the impenetrable energy barrier and the city trapped within it…

Free to follow her heart, Crystal finds Johnny just as Mr. Fantastic is lost in the antimatter hell of the Negative Zone’s sub-space corridor.

‘…And One Shall Save Him!’ (FF #62, May 1967) spotlights aquatic Inhuman Triton who guides the FF’s leader back to Earth after trapped, inadvertently bringing back with them a terrifying brute who quickly teams up with earthly enemy the Sandman. The battle against ‘Blastaar, the Living Bomb-Burst!’ is fast and furious and mirrors the Royal Family’s explorations of the world beyond Attilan and subsequent explosive clash with agents of a totalitarian nation…

In ‘The Sentry Sinister’ – a frenetic romp pitting the team against a super-scientific robot buried for millennia by an ancient star-faring race – the first inkling of the Inhumans’ true origins can be found…

This tropical treat expands the burgeoning interlocking landscape to an infinite degree by introducing the imperial Kree who would grow into one of the fundamental pillars supporting the continuity of the Marvel Universe.

Although regarded as long-dead, the Kree themselves resurfaced in the very next issue as the team are attacked by an alien emissary ‘…From Beyond this Planet Earth!’

The formidable Ronan the Accuser turns up to investigate what could possibly have destroyed a Kree Sentry. Simultaneously, as Johnny and Crystal’s romance grows more serious, her sister and cousins meet the Black Panther to share the stage with the Fantastic Four in that year’s Annual (#5, and inked by Frank Giacoia), wherein sinister sub-microscopic invader Psycho-Man attempts to ‘Divide… and Conquer!’, pitting his emotion-bending alien technology against both the King of the Wakandas and the Royal Family of Attilan until the Fab Four can pitch in…

The Annual also included the now customary Kirby pin-ups: stunning shots of Inhumans Black Bolt, Gorgon, Medusa, Karnak, Triton, Crystal and Maximus plus a colossal group shot of Galactus the Silver Surfer and others – all included here at no extra cost…

That same month the hidden race won their first solo feature: a series of complete, 5-page vignettes detailing some of the tantalising backstory so effectively hinted at in previous appearances. ‘The Origin of… the Incomparable Inhumans’ – by Lee, Kirby & Sinnott from Thor 146 (November 1967) – ranges back to the dawn of civilisation where cavemen flee in fear from technologically advanced humans who live on an island named Attilan.

In that futuristic metropolis, wise King Randac finally makes a decision to test out his people’s latest discovery: genetically mutative Terrigen rays…

The saga expands a month later in ‘The Reason Why!’ as Earth’s duly-appointed Kree Sentry visits the island and reveals how his master in ages past experimented on an isolated tribe of primitive humanoids. Now observing their progress, the menacing mechanoid learns that the Kree lab rats have fully taken control of their genetic destiny and must now be considered Inhuman…

Skipping ahead 25,000 years, ‘…And Finally: Black Bolt!’ reveals how a baby’s first cries wreck the city and reveal the infant prince was an Inhuman unlike any other…

Raised in isolation, the prince’s 19th birthday then marks his release into the city and contact with the cousins he has only ever seen on video systems. Sadly, the occasion is co-opted by envious brother Maximus who tortures the royal heir to prove Bolt cannot be trusted to maintain ‘Silence or Death!’

Thor #150 (March 1968) saw the start of a continued tale as ‘Triton’ left the hidden city to explore the human world only to be captured by a film crew making an underwater monster movie. Allowing himself to brought back to America, the canny manphibian escapes when the ship docks and becomes an ‘Inhuman at Large!’

The story – and series – concluded with Triton on the run and acting as a fish out of water ‘While the City Shrieks!’ before returning to Attilan with a damning assessment of the human race…

Rounding off the thrills and chills is a snippet from Not Brand Echh #6 (the “Big, Batty Love and Hisses issue!” from February 1968) wherein ‘The Human Scorch Has to… Meet the Family!’: a snappy satire on romantic liaisons from Lee, Kirby & Tom Sutton, appended with creator biographies and House Ads for the Inhumans’ debut.

These are the stories that introduced another strand of outsiders to the maverick Marvel universe and cemented Kirby’s reputation as an innovator beyond compare. They also helped the company to overtake all its competitors and are still some of the best stories ever produced: as exciting and captivating now as they ever were. This is a must-have book for all fans of graphic narrative or potential fans of Marvel’s next cinematic star vehicle.
© 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Epic Collection volume 2: The Master Plan of Doctor Doom


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0435-7

Fantastic Four #1 (bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule was crude: rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it and the raw storytelling caught a wave of change starting to build in America. It and succeeding issues changed comicbooks forever.

This full-colour compendium – also available as a digital download – collects Fantastic Four #19-32 plus the first two giant-sized Annuals issues of progressive landmarks (spanning July 1963 to October 1963) and tellingly reveals how Stan & Jack cannily built on that early energy to consolidate the FF as the leading title and most innovative series of the era.

As seen in the ground-breaking premier issue, maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother survived an ill-starred private space-shot after Cosmic rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible, Johnny Storm could turn into living flame and tragic Ben devolved into a shambling, rocky freak.

Here the wonderment resumes with the contents of the first summer Annual: a spectacular 37-page epic battle as, finally reunited with their wandering prince, the warriors of Atlantis invade New York City and the rest of the world in ‘The Sub-Mariner versus the Human Race!’ by Lee, Kirby and inker Dick Ayers.

A monumental tale by the standards of the time, the saga saw the FF repel the undersea invasion through valiant struggle and brilliant strategy as well as providing a secret history of the secretive race Homo Mermanus. Nothing was really settled except a return to the original status quo, but the thrills were intense and unforgettable…

Also included are rousing pin-ups and fact file features ‘A Gallery of the Fantastic Four’s Most Famous Foes!’, ‘Questions and Answers about the Fantastic Four’, a diagrammatic trip ‘Inside the Baxter Building’ and a charming short tale ‘The Fabulous Fantastic Four meet Spider-Man!’.

This is an extended re-interpretation of the first meeting between the two most popular Marvel brands from the premiere issue of the wallcrawler’s own comic. Pencilled this time by Kirby, the dramatic duel benefitted from Steve Ditko’s inking which created a truly novel look.

Cover-dated October 1963, Fantastic Four #19 introduced another of the company’s top-ranking super-villains as the quarrelsome quartet travelled back to ancient Egypt and ‘Prisoners of the Pharaoh!’ This time travel tale has been revisited by so many writers that it is considered one of the key stories in Marvel history introducing a future-Earth tyrant who would evolve into overarching menace Kang the Conqueror.

Another universe-threatening foe was introduced and defeated by brains not brawn in

FF#20 as ‘The Mysterious Molecule Man!’ menaced New York before being soundly outsmarted, whilst the next issue guest-starred Nick Fury: lead character in Marvel’s only war comic.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos was another solid hit, but eventually the brusque and brutal star would metamorphose into the company’s answer to James Bond. Here, however, he’s a simple CIA agent seeking the team’s aid against a sinister demagogue called ‘The Hate-Monger’ in a cracking yarn with a strong message, inked by comics veteran George Roussos, under the protective nom-de-plume George Bell.

By this juncture the team were firmly established and creators Lee & Kirby were well on the way to toppling DC/National Comics from their decades-held top spot through an engaging blend of brash, folksy and consciously contemporaneous sagas, mixing high concept, low comedy, trenchant melodrama and breathtaking action.

Unseen since the premiere issue, #22 finally saw ‘The Return of the Mole Man!’; another full-on monster-mashing fight-fest, chiefly notable for the debut of the Invisible Girl’s newly developed powers of projecting force fields and “invisible energy” – which would eventually make her one of the mightiest characters in the company’s pantheon.

Fantastic Four #23 heralded ‘The Master Plan of Doctor Doom!’, which introduced his frankly mediocre minions the Terrible Trio of Bull Brogin, Handsome Harry and Yogi Dakor, although the uncanny menace of “the Solar Wave” was enough to raise the hackles on my 5-year-old neck…

(Do I need to qualify that with: all of me was five but only my neck had properly developed hackles back then?)

Issue #24’s ‘The Infant Terrible!’ was a sterling yarn of inadvertent extra-galactic menace and misplaced innocence, followed by a two-part epic that truly defined the inherent difference between Lee and Kirby’s work and everybody else’s at that time.

Fantastic Four #25 and 26 featured a cataclysmic clash that had young heads spinning in 1964 and led directly to the Emerald Behemoth finally regaining a strip of his own. In ‘The Hulk Vs The Thing’ and ‘The Avengers Take Over!’, a fast-paced, all-out Battle Royale resulted when the disgruntled man-monster came to New York in search of side-kick Rick Jones, and only an injury-wracked FF stood in the way of his destructive rampage.

A definitive moment in the character development of The Thing, the action was ramped up when a rather stiff-necked and officious Avengers team horn in claiming jurisdictional rights on “Bob” Banner (this tale is plagued with pesky continuity errors which would haunt Stan Lee for decades) and his Jaded alter ego. Notwithstanding the bloopers, this is one of Marvel’s key moments and still a visceral, vital read.

The creators had hit on a winning formula by including their other stars in guest-shots – especially as readers could never anticipate if they would fight with or beside the home team. ‘The Search for Sub-Mariner!’ again found the undersea anti-hero in amorous mood, and when he abducted Sue Storm the boys called in Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts to aid them. Issue #28 is a superb team-up tale too, most notable (for me and many other older fans) for the man who replaced George Roussos.

‘We Have to Fight the X-Men!’ finds the disparate teams battling due to the machinations of Puppet Master and the Mad Thinker, but the inclusion of Chic Stone – Kirby’s most simpatico and expressive inker – elevates the art to indescribable levels of quality.

‘It Started on Yancy Street!’ (FF#29) starts low-key and a little silly in the slum where Ben Grimm grew up, but with the reappearance of the Red Ghost and his Super-Apes the action quickly goes Cosmic and results in a blockbusting battle on the Moon, with the following issue introducing evil alchemist ‘The Dreaded Diablo!’ who almost breaks up the team while casually conquering the world from his spooky Transylvanian castle.

Next up is Fantastic Four Annual #2 from 1964; boldly leading with ‘The Fantastic Origin of Doctor Doom!’, tragically detailing how brilliant gypsy boy Victor Von Doom remakes himself into the most deadly villain in creation.

Following a fresh batch of rogues starring in ‘A Gallery of the Fantastic Four’s Most Famous Foes!’ and pin-ups of Johnny, Sue, Ben, Alicia Masters and Reed, the past informs the present as the ultimate villain believes he has achieved ‘The Final Victory of Dr. Doom!’, but has in fact suffered his most ignominious defeat…

The monthly wonderment resumes with #31’s ‘The Mad Menace of the Macabre Mole Man!’ which precariously balances a loopy plan by the subterranean satrap to steal entire streets of New York City with a portentous sub-plot featuring a mysterious man from Sue’s past, as well as renewing the quartet’s somewhat fractious relationship with the Mighty Avengers…

The secret of that mystery man is revealed in the last tale in this titanic tome. ‘Death of a Hero!’ is a powerful tale of tragedy and regret that spans two galaxies, starring the uniquely villainous Invincible Man who is not at all what he seems…

Adding unique value to the proceedings, this epic encounter closes with a house ad for the first FF Annual plus the unused first cover version, many original art pages by Kirby inked by Ayers, Roussos and Stone, an unused pencilled Kirby cover for FF #20 and a quartet of re-mastered Masterworks collection covers drawn by Jack and painted by Dean White.

This is a truly magnificent book to read highlighting the tales that built a comics empire. The verve, imagination and sheer enthusiasm shines through and the wonder is there for you to share. If you’ve never thrilled to these spectacular sagas then this book of marvels is your best and most economical key to another world and time.
© 1963, 1964, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Incredible Hulk Epic Collection: Man or Monster?


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9600-6

Chronologically collecting the Jade Juggernaut’s earliest appearances, this titanic tome (available as a hefty paperback and relatively weightless digital edition) gathers Incredible Hulk #1-6, Fantastic Four #2 and 25-26, Avengers #1-3 and 5, Amazing Spider-Man #14, Tales to Astonish #59 and a memorable clash with Thor from Journey into Mystery #112: cumulatively spanning early 1962 to the end of 1964.

The Incredible Hulk was new-born Marvel’s second new superhero title, although technically Henry Pym debuted earlier in a one-off yarn in Tales to Astonish #27 (January 1962). However, he didn’t become a costumed hero until the autumn, by which time Ol’ Greenskin was not-so-firmly established.

The Hulk smashed right into his own bi-monthly comic and, after some classic romps by Young Marvel’s finest creators, crashed right out again. After six issues the series was cancelled and Lee retrenched, making the Gruff Green Giant a perennial guest-star in other Marvel titles until such time as they could restart the drama in their new “Split-Book” format in Tales to Astonish where Ant/Giant-Man was rapidly proving to be a character who had outlived his time.

Cover-dated May 1962, the Incredible Hulk #1 sees puny atomic scientist Bruce Banner, sequestered on a secret military base in the desert, perpetually bullied by the bombastic commander General “Thunderbolt” Ross as the clock counts down to the World’s first Gamma Bomb test.

Besotted by Ross’s daughter Betty, Banner endures the General’s constant jibes as the timer ticks on and tension increases.

At the final moment Banner sees a teenager lollygagging at Ground Zero and frantically rushes to the site to drag the boy away. Unknown to everyone, the assistant he’s entrusted to delay the countdown has an agenda of his own…

Rick Jones is a wayward but good-hearted kid. After initial resistance he lets himself be pushed into a safety trench, but just as Banner prepares to join him The Bomb detonates…

Somehow surviving the blast, Banner and the boy are secured by soldiers, but that evening as the sun sets the scientist undergoes a monstrous transformation. He grows larger; his skin turns a stony grey…

In six simple pages that’s how it all starts, and no matter what any number of TV or movie reworkings or comicbook retcons and psycho-babble re-evaluations would have you believe that’s still the best and most primal take on the origin. A good man, an unobtainable girl, a foolish kid, an unknown enemy and the horrible power of destructive science unchecked…

Written by Stan Lee, drawn by Jack Kirby with inking by Paul Reinman, ‘The Coming of the Hulk’ barrels along as the man-monster and Jones are kidnapped by Banner’s Soviet counterpart the Gargoyle for a rousing round of espionage and Commie-busting. In the second issue the plot concerns invading aliens, and the Banner/Jones relationship settles into a traumatic nightly ordeal as the good doctor transforms and is locked into an escape-proof cell whilst the boy stands watch helplessly. Neither ever considers telling the government of their predicament…

‘The Terror of the Toad Men’ is formulaic but viscerally and visually captivating as Steve Ditko inks Kirby; imparting a genuinely eerie sense of unease to the artwork. Incidentally, this is the story where the Hulk inexplicably changed to his more accustomed Green persona…

Although back-written years later as a continuing mutation, the plain truth is that grey tones caused all manner of problems for production colourists so it was arbitrarily changed to the simple and more traditional colour of monsters.

The third issue presented a departure in format as long, chaptered epics gave way to complete short stories. Dick Ayers inked Kirby in the transitional ‘Banished to Outer Space’ which radically altered the relationship of Jones and the monster, with the story thus far reprised in 3-page vignette ‘The Origin of the Hulk’ after which Marvel mainstay of villainy the Circus of Crime debuts in ‘The Ringmaster’. The Hulk goes on an urban rampage in #4’s first tale ‘The Monster and the Machine’ before aliens and Commies combine in the second escapade ‘The Gladiator from Outer Space!’

The Incredible Hulk #5 is a joyous classic of Kirby action, introducing immortal Tyrannus and his underworld empire in ‘The Beauty and the Beast!’ whilst those pesky Commies came in for another drubbing when the Jolly Green freedom-fighter prevents the invasion of Lhasa in ‘The Hordes of General Fang!’

Lee grasped early on the commercial impact of cross-pollination and – presumably aware of disappointing sales – inserted the Jade Juggernaut into his top selling title next.

Fantastic Four #12 (March 1963) featured an early crossover as the team were asked to help the US army capture ‘The Incredible Hulk’: a tale from Lee, Kirby & Ayers packed with intrigue, action and bitter irony as  series of spectacularly destructive sabotage incidents puts the heroes on the trail of a monster when they should have been looking at spies…

Despite the sheer verve and bravura of these simplistic classics – some of the greatest, most rewarding comics nonsense ever produced – the Hulk series was not doing well, and Kirby moved on to more appreciated arenas. Steve Ditko handled all the art chores for #6: another full-length epic and an extremely engaging one.

‘The Incredible Hulk Vs the Metal Master’ has astounding action, sly and subtle sub-plots and a thinking man’s resolution, but nonetheless the title died with the issue, also dated March.

Another comic debuted that month and offered a life line to the floundering Emerald Outcast.  ‘The Coming of the Avengers’ is one of the cannier origin tales in comics. Instead of starting at a zero point and acting as if the reader knew nothing, creators Lee, Kirby & Ayers assumed that interested parties had at least a passing familiarity with Marvel’s other titles, and wasted very little time or energy on introductions in the premiere issue.

In Asgard Loki, god of evil, is imprisoned on a dank islet but still craves vengeance on his step-brother mighty Thor. Observing Earth the villain finds the monstrous Hulk and engineers a situation wherein the man-brute goes on a rampage, hoping to trick the Thunder God into battling the bludgeoning brute. When sidekick Rick Jones radios the Fantastic Four for assistance, Loki diverts the transmission so they cannot hear it and expects his mischief to quickly blossom. However. other heroes pick up the SOS – namely Iron Man, Ant Man and the Wasp.

As the costumed champions on the desert converge to search for the Hulk, they realize something’s amiss…

This terse and compelling yarn is Lee & Kirby at their bombastic best, and one of the greatest stories of the Silver Age (it’s certainly high in my own top ten Marvel Tales of all time!) and is promptly followed by ‘the Space Phantom’ (Lee, Kirby & Reinman), another unforgettable epic, in which an alien shape-stealer almost destroys the group from within.

Ever-changing, the tale ends with the volatile Hulk quitting the team only to return in #3 as a villain in partnership with ‘Sub-Mariner!’ This globe-trotting romp delivered high energy thrills and one of the best battle scenes in comics history.

Three months later Fantastic Four #25 featured a cataclysmic clash that had young heads spinning in 1964 and pretty much ever since. Inked by George Roussos, ‘The Hulk Vs The Thing’ and concluding tale ‘The Avengers Take Over!’ in FF #26 offered a fast-paced, all-out Battle Royale as the disgruntled man-monster comes to New York in search of sidekick Rick with only an injury-wracked FF in the way of his destructive rampage.

A definitive moment in the character development of the Thing, the action amplifies when a rather stiff-necked and officious Avengers team horns in claiming jurisdictional rights on “Bob” Banner (this tale is plagued with pesky continuity errors which would haunt Lee for decades) and his Jaded Alter Ego.

Notwithstanding the bloopers, this is one of Marvel’s key moments and still a visceral, vital read.

Over in Avengers #5, ‘The Invasion of the Lava Men!’ (Lee, Kirby & Reinman) revealed another incredible romp as Earth’s Mightiest battled superhuman subterraneans and a lethally radioactive mutating mountain with the unwilling assistance of the Hulk… his last appearance there for many months…

The next cameo came in Amazing Spider-Man #14 (July 1964): an absolute milestone as a hidden criminal mastermind debuted by manipulating a Hollywood studio into making a movie about the wall-crawler. Even with guest-star opponents such as the Enforcers the Incredible Hulk steals all the limelight in ‘The Grotesque Adventure of the Green Goblin’ (by Lee & Ditko) which is only otherwise notable for introducing Spider-Man’s most perfidious and flamboyant enemy (sarcasm alert!).

The second chapter of the man-monster’s career was about to take off and Tales to Astonish #59 (September) offered a bombastic prologue as ‘Enter: The Hulk!’ (Lee, Ayers & Reinman) sees the Avengers inadvertently inspiring Giant-Man to hunt down the Green Goliath.

Although the Human Top devilishly engineered that blockbusting battle, Lee was the real mastermind, as with the next issue The Hulk began starring in his own series and on the covers whilst Giant-Man’s adventures shrank back to a dozen or so pages.

This wonderfully economical compendium of wonders closes with the lead story from Journey into Mystery #112 (January 1965). ‘The Mighty Thor Battles the Incredible Hulk!’ is a glorious gift to all those fans who perpetually ask “Who’s stronger…?” Possibly Kirby and Chic Stone’s finest artistic moment, it details a private duel between the two super-humans that occurred during that free-for-all between Earth’s Mightiest, Sub-Mariner and Ol’ Greenskin in Avengers #3. The raw power of that tale is a perfect exemplar of what makes the Hulk work and would an ideal place to close proceedings but fans and art lovers can enjoy further treats in the form of assorted House Ads, original artwork by Kirby and Ditko, a gallery of classic Kirby covers modified by painter Dean White (originally seen on assorted Marvel Masterworks editions), plus reproduced Essentials collection and Omnibus covers by Bruce Timm and Alex Ross…

Hulk Smash! He always was and with material like this he always will be.
© 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Epic collection: The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8832-2

I’m partial to a bit of controversy so I’m going start off by saying that Fantastic Four #1 is the third most important American comicbook of the last 75 years, behind Showcase #4, which introduced the Flash and therefore the Silver Age, and The Brave and the Bold #28, which brought superhero teams back via the creation of the Justice League of America. Feel free to disagree…

After a troubled period at DC Comics (National Periodicals as it then was) and a creatively productive but disheartening time on the poisoned chalice of the Sky Masters newspaper strip (see Complete Sky Masters of the Space Force) Jack Kirby settled into his job at the small outfit that used to be the publishing powerhouse Timely/Atlas. He churned out mystery, monster, romance and western material in a market he suspected to be ultimately doomed, but as always he did the best job possible and that genre fare is now considered some of the best of its kind ever seen.

But his fertile imagination couldn’t be suppressed for long and when the JLA caught the reader’s attention it gave him and writer/editor Stan Lee an opportunity to change the industry forever.

Depending upon who you believe, a golfing afternoon led publisher Martin Goodman to order his nephew Stan to try a series about a group of super-characters like the JLA. The resulting team quickly took the fans by storm. It wasn’t the powers: they’d all been seen since the beginning of the medium. It wasn’t the costumes: they didn’t have any until the third issue.

It was Kirby’s compelling art and the fact that these characters weren’t anodyne cardboard cut-outs. In a real and recognizable location – New York City – imperfect, raw-nerved, touchy people banded together out of tragedy, disaster and necessity to face the incredible.

In many ways, The Challengers of the Unknown (Kirby’s prototype partners in peril at National/DC) laid all the groundwork for the wonders to come, but the staid, almost hide-bound editorial strictures of National would never have allowed the undiluted energy of the concept to run all-but-unregulated.

Fantastic Four #1 (bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, by Lee, Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) is crude: rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it.

This full-colour compendium (also available as a digital download) collects the first 18 issues of progressive landmarks – spanning November 1961 to September 1963 – and

opens with ‘The Fantastic Four’ as seen in the ground-breaking premier issue.

It saw maverick scientist Reed Richards summon his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother before heading off on their first mission. They are all survivors of a private space-shot that went horribly wrong when Cosmic rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible, Johnny Storm could turn into living flame and tragic Ben turned into a shambling, rocky freak. In ‘The Fantastic Four meet the Mole Man’ they quickly foil a plan by another outcast who controls monsters and slave humanoids from far beneath the Earth. This summation of the admittedly mediocre plot cannot do justice to the engrossing wonder of that breakthrough issue – we really have no awareness today of how different in tone, how shocking it all was.

“Different” doesn’t mean “better” even here, but the FF was like no other comic on the market at the time and buyers responded to it hungrily. The brash experiment continued with another old plot in #2. ‘The Skrulls from Outer Space’ were shape-changing aliens who framed the FF in the eyes of shocked humanity before the genius of Mister Fantastic bluffed them into abandoning their plans for conquering Earth. The issue concluded with a monstrous pin-up of the Thing, proudly touted as the first in a series…

Sure enough, there was a pin-up of the Human Torch in #3, which headlined ‘the Menace of the Miracle Man’ (inked by Sol Brodsky), whose omnipotent powers had a simple secret, but is more notable for the first appearance of their uniforms, and a shocking line-up change, leading directly into the next issue (continued stories were an innovation in themselves) which revived a golden-age great.

‘The Coming of the Sub-Mariner’ reintroduced the all-powerful amphibian Prince of Atlantis, a star of Timely’s Golden Age but one who had been lost for years.

A victim of amnesia, the relic recovered his memory thanks to some rather brusque treatment by the delinquent Human Torch. Namor then returned to his sub-sea home only to find it destroyed by atomic testing. A monarch without subjects, he swore vengeance on humanity and attacked New York City with a gigantic monster. This saga is when the series truly kicked into high-gear and Reed was the star of the pin-up section…

Until now the creative team – who had been in the business since it began – had been hedging their bets. Despite the innovations of a contemporary superhero experiment their antagonists had relied heavily on the trappings of popular trends in the media – and as reflected in their other titles. Aliens and especially monsters played a major part in the earlier tales but Fantastic Four #5 took a full-bite out of the Fights n’ Tights apple and introduced the first full-blown super-villain to the budding Marvel Universe.

No, I haven’t forgotten Mole Man: but that tragic little gargoyle, for all his plans of world conquest, wouldn’t truly acquire the persona of a costumed foe until his more refined second appearance in #22.

‘Prisoners of Doctor Doom’ (July 1962, and inked by the subtly slick Joe Sinnott) has it all. An attack by a mysterious enemy from Reed’s past; magic and super-science, lost treasure, time-travel, even pirates. Ha-Haar, me ‘earties!

Sheer magic! And the creators knew they were on to a winner as the deadly Doctor returned the very next issue, teamed with a reluctant Sub-Mariner to attack our heroes as ‘The Deadly Duo!’ inked by new regular embellisher Dick Ayers.

Alien kidnappers were the motivating force behind another FF frame-up resulting in the team becoming ‘Prisoners of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X’; a dark and grandiose off-world thriller in #7 (the first monthly issue), whilst a new returning villain and the introduction of a love-interest for the monstrous Ben Grimm were the breakthrough high-points in #8: ‘Prisoners of the Puppet Master!’ The saga was topped off with a Fantastic Four Feature Page explaining how the Torch’s powers work. The next issue offered another detailing with endearing mock-science ‘How the Human Torch Flies!’

That issue, #9, trumpeted ‘The End of the Fantastic Four’ as the Sub-Mariner returned to exploit another brilliant innovation in comic storytelling. When had a super-genius superhero ever messed up so much that the team had to declare bankruptcy? When had costumed crimefighters ever had money troubles at all? The eerily prescient solution was to “sell out” and make a blockbuster movie – giving Kirby a rare chance to demonstrate his talent for caricature…

1963 was a pivotal year in the development of Marvel. Lee and Kirby had proved that their new high concept – human heroes with flaws and tempers – had a willing audience. Now they would extend that concept to a new pantheon of heroes. Here is where the second innovation would come to the fore.

Previously, super-heroes were sufficient unto themselves and shared adventures were rare. Here, however, was a universe where characters often tripped over each other, sometimes even fighting each other’s enemies! The creators themselves might turn even up in a Marvel Comic! Fantastic Four #10 featured ‘The Return of Doctor Doom!’ wherein the arch villain used Stan and Jack to lure the Richards into a trap where his mind is switched with the bad Doctor’s. The tale was supplemented by a pin-up – at long-last – of ‘Sue Storm, the Glamorous Invisible Girl’

The innovations continued. Issue #11 had two short stories instead of the usual book-length yarn; ‘A Visit with the Fantastic Four’ and ‘The Impossible Man’, with a behind-the-scenes travelogue and a baddie-free, compellingly comedic tale, rounded out with an epic pin-up of the Sub-Mariner.

FF#12 featured an early crossover as the team were asked to help the US army capture ‘The Incredible Hulk’: a tale packed with intrigue, action and bitter irony and is followed by ‘Versus the Red Ghost and his Incredible Super Apes!’: a cold war thriller pitting them against a Soviet scientist in the race to reach the Moon: a tale notable both for the moody Steve Ditko inking (replacing the adroit Ayers for one glorious month) of Kirby’s artwork and the introduction of the cosmic voyeurs called The Watchers.

Issue #14 featured the return of ‘The Sub-Mariner and the Merciless Puppet Master!’ – with one vengeful fiend the unwitting mind-slave of the other – and was followed by ‘The Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android!’, a chilling war of intellects between driven super-scientists with plenty of room for all-out action. The pin-up extra this time was a candid group-shot of the entire team.

Fantastic Four #16 revealed ‘The Micro-World of Doctor Doom!’ in a spectacular romp guest-starring new hero Ant-Man and also offered a Fantastic Four Feature Page outlining the powers and capabilities of the elastic Mister Fantastic. Despite his resounding defeat, the steel-shod villain returned with more infallible, deadly traps a month later in ‘Defeated by Doctor Doom!’

This astounding collection concludes with the tale of a shape-changing alien who battles the FF with their own powers when ‘A Skrull Walks Among Us!’: a prelude to the greater, cosmos-spanning sagas to come…

Although possibly – just, perhaps – a little dated in tone, these are still classics of comic story-telling illustrated by one of the world’s greatest talents approaching his mature peak. They are fast, frantic fun and a joy to read or re-read. This comprehensive, joyous introduction (or even reintroduction) to these characters is a wonderful reminder of just how good comic books can and should be.
© 1961, 1962, 1963, 2014 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 4


By Tom DeFalco, David Michelinie, David Anthony Kraft, Jan Strnad, John Byrne, Doug Moench, Ron Wilson, Alan Kupperberg & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6284-7

The concept of team-up books – an established star pairing with or battling and frequently doing both – with less well-selling company characters was not new when Marvel decided to award their most popular hero the same deal DC had long prospered from with Batman in The Brave and the Bold.

After the runaway success of Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up, the company repeated the experiment with a series starring bashful, blue-eyed Ben Grimm – the Fantastic Four’s most iconic and popular member – beginning with a brace of test runs in Marvel Feature #11-12 before graduating him to his own guest-friendly title. This fourth and final economical, eclectic monochrome compendium gathers together the contents of Marvel Two-In-One #78-98 and 100 (the omitted #99 being a pairing with Space Knight Rom, no longer an active Marvel licensed property) plus Annuals #6 and 7, covering August 1981 to June 1983; a period which saw the clearly weary series and concept dwindle and die to make room for straight solo vehicle for the Thing.

The innate problem with team-up tales is always a lack of continuity – something Marvel always prided itself upon – and which writer/editor Marv Wolfman had sought to address during his tenure through the simple expedient of having stories link-up via evolving, overarching plots which took Ben from place to place and from guest to guest.

That policy remained in play until the end, and here sees the lovably lumpy lummox head to Hollywood to head-off a little copyright infringement in ‘Monster Man!’ by Tom DeFalco, David Michelinie, Ron Wilson & Chic Stone. The sleazy producer to blame is actually alien Xemnu the Titan and Big Ben needs the help of budding actor Wonder Man to foil a subliminal mind-control scheme…

Marvel Two-In-One Annual #6 by Doug Moench, Wilson & Gene Day then introduces ‘An Eagle from America!’ as old pal Wyatt Wingfoot calls the Thing in to help in a battle between brothers involving Indian Tribal Land rights which had grown into open warfare and attempted murder.

The clash resulted in one sibling becoming new superhero ‘The American Eagle’, hunting his brother and a pack of greedy white killers to the Savage Land, consequently recruiting jungle lord Ka-Zar before ‘Never Break the Chain’ sees Ben catch up to them and join in a cataclysmic final clash against old enemy Klaw, Master of Sound in ‘…The Dinosaur Graveyard’

Marvel Two-In-One #79 reveals how cosmic entity ‘Shanga, the Star-Dancer!’ (DeFalco, Wilson & Stone) visits Earth and makes a lifelong commitment to decrepit WWII superhero Blue Diamond whilst in #80 ‘Call Him… Monster!’ sees Ben risk doom and damnation to prevent Ghost Rider Johnny Blaze from crossing the line with a pair of cheap punks…

Extended subplots return in ‘No Home for Heroes!’ as Bill (Giant-Man) Foster enters the final stages of his lingering death from radiation exposure. Ben, meanwhile, has been captured by deranged science experiment MODOK and subjected to a new bio-weapon, only to be rescued by old sparring partner Sub-Mariner. Before long ‘The Fatal Effects of Virus X!’ lay him low and he begins to mutate into an even more hideous gargoyle…

Helping him hunt for MODOK and a cure are Captain America and Giant-Man. Their success leads to super-genius Reed Richards taking over Bill’s treatment, resulting in the Thing heading north in #83 to ‘Where Stalks the Sasquatch!’

The most monstrous member of Alpha Flight is actually radiation researcher Dr. Walter Langkowski, but his impromptu medical consultation obliquely leads to the release of malign Indian spirit Ranark the Ravager and a Battle Royale which quickly escalates to include the entire team in ‘Cry for Beloved Canada!’

‘The Final Fate of Giant-Man!’ came in Marvel Two-In-One #85 as Spider-Woman teamed with the Thing to tackle Foster’s arch-nemesis Atom-Smasher, after which ‘Time Runs Like Sand!’ offered an astoundingly low key landmark as Ben and the sinister Sandman had a few bevies in a bar and turned the felon’s life around…

Also included was a short, sharp comedy vignette wherein Ben and godson Franklin have to deal with a bored Impossible Man and his equally obnoxious kids in ‘Farewell, My Lummox!’

The FF call in Ant-Man Scott Lang when Ben is kidnapped in #87, helping the rocky rogue defeat a duplicitous queen in the ‘Menace of the Microworld!’ after which David Anthony Kraft and Alan Kupperberg join Chic Stone in detailing a ‘Disaster at Diablo Reactor!’ with Ben and the Savage She-Hulk countering the nefarious Negator’s plans to turn Los Angeles into a cloud of radioactive vapour…

They then pit the Thing and Human Torch against deranged demagogues seeking to stamp out extremes of beauty, ugliness, weakness and strength in ‘The Last Word!’ before Jan Strnad, Kupperberg & Jim Mooney pit Spider-Man and Ben against time-bending chaos in ‘Eyes of the Sorcerer’. A new extended epic begins as DeFalco, Wilson & Jon D’Agostino reveal what lurks in ‘In the Shadow of the Sphinx!’

When mystic master Doctor Strange asks the thing to investigate a vision of Egypt, the bold battler falls into the clutches of immortal wizard The Sphinx who wants to recover his power-providing Ka-stone. On the voyage home Ben encounters robotic Avenger Jocasta, but not in time to stop her helplessly reviving Ultron in ‘This Evil Returning…!’ by DeFalco, Wilson & A. Sorted inkers…

When handmade hero Machine Man and his human assistants insert themselves into the crisis, they unexpectedly score a narrow win but not before ‘And One Shall Die…!’ (DeFalco, Wilson & D. Hands)…

Kraft, Wilson & Ricardo Villamonte then place a sympathetic and over-protective Ben in the path of Power Man & Iron Fist as they reluctantly hunt down a sad-sack fugitive the Thing has befriended in ‘The Power Trap!’ after which Kupperberg & Jon D’Agostino illustrate Kraft’s supernatural saga ‘The Power to Live… the Power to Die!’, wherein the Living Mummy helps Ben free his beloved Alicia from the glamours of an Egyptian sorcerer.

Marvel Two-In-One Annual #7 is a multi-starred battle bonanza with an Elder of the Universe visiting Earth determined to defeat the world’s greatest fighter in a boxing match. ‘And They Shall Call him… Champion!’ by DeFalco, Wilson and inkers Bob Camp, Mike Esposito, Frank Giacoia, Dan Green & Chic Stone sees Ben improbably remain after Thor, the Hulk, Sasquatch, Wonder Man, Doc Samson, Sub-Mariner and Colossus all fall, not because of superior strength but simply because he won’t lie down when beaten…

Following immediately on, MTIO #96 depicts Ben hospitalised and gradually recuperating in ‘Visiting Hours!’ (Esposito inks). Every villain in town thinks it’s the perfect moment for payback and reputation-building but singly or collectively never considered that Ben’s superhero friends might object…

In ‘Yesterdaze!’ (Michelinie, Wilson & D’Agostino), a lucrative offer from Hollywood lands Ben in a battle with dinosaurs that are definitely not special effects. Thankfully Iron Man is around to help minimise the carnage after which ‘Vid Wars!’ (Michelinie, Wilson & Giacoia) finds Mr Grimm and little Franklin transported to an alien realm where they are trapped in a planet-sized (nigh copyright-infringing) competition against vast, voracious Pac-Man like monsters…

As previously mentioned the penultimate team-up with Rom is not included here, so the series – and this collection – ends with a return to probably Marvel Two-In-One’s greatest triumph.

Anniversary issue #50 took a powerful and poignant look at the Thing’s formative months as a monster outcast and posited a few might-have-beens. Following another failure by Mr Fantastic to cure his rocky condition, Ben stole the chemicals and travelled into his own past, determined to use the remedy on his younger, less mutated self, but his bitter, brooding, brittle earlier incarnation was not prepared to listen to another monster and inevitably catastrophic combat ensued…

For #100, John Byrne, Wilson, Giacoia & Kevin Dzuban revisited the yarn as Ben returned to that timeline in ‘Aftermath!’ What he found was Earth in ruins. Because he had cured his alternate the world was later devastated when Galactus came to consume the planet. Here and now the last survivors of humanity are struggling for their lives against the minions of the fanatical Red Skull. Tormented by guilt, the Thing joins freedom fighter Ben Grimm in liberating the last of humanity from its greatest monster…

Although the company’s glory-days were undoubtedly the era of Lee, Kirby & Ditko leading through to the Adams, Buscema(s), Englehart, Gerber, Steranko and Windsor-Smith “Second Wave”, a lot of superb material came out the middle years when Marvel was transforming from inspirational small-business to corporate heavyweight.

This is not said to demean or denigrate the many fine creators who worked on the tide of titles published after that heady opening period, but only to indicate that after that time a certain revolutionary spontaneity was markedly absent from the line.

It should also be remembered that this was not deliberate. Every creator does the best job he/she can: posterity and critical response is the only arbiter of what is classic and what is simply one more comicbook. Certainly high sales don’t necessarily define a masterpiece – unless you’re a publisher…

This closing compendium is packed with simple, straightforward Fights ‘n’ Tights meet, greet and defeat episodes: entertaining and exciting with no hint of pretension and no real need to swot up on superfluous backstory.

Even if artistically the work varies from only adequate to truly top-notch, most fans of Costumed Dramas will find little to complain about and there’s plenty of fun to be found for young and old readers. So why not lower your critical guard and have an honest blast of pure warts-and-all comics craziness? You’ll almost certainly grow to like it…
© 1981, 1982, 1983, 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four: The Life Fantastic


By J. Michael Straczynski, Karl Kesel, Dwayne McDuffie, Mike McKone, Drew Johnson, Casey Jones, Lee Weeks & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1896-1

The Fantastic Four has long been rightly regarded as the most pivotal series in modern comicbook history, responsible for introducing both a new style of storytelling and a radically different manner of engaging the readers’ impassioned attentions.

More family than team, the line-up has changed many times over the years but always eventually returned to Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s original configuration of Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch and the Thing, who jointly formed the vanguard of modern four-colour heroic history.

The quartet are actually maverick genius Reed Richards, his wife Sue, their trusty college friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s obnoxious, impetuous younger brother Johnny Storm; survivors of an independent space-shot which went horribly wrong once ferociously mutative Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding.

When they crashed back to Earth, the foursome found that they had all been hideously changed into outlandish freaks. Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and form force-fields, Johnny could turn into self-perpetuating living flame, and poor, tormented Ben was transformed into a horrifying brute who, unlike his comrades, could not return to a semblance of normality on command.

The sheer simplicity of four archetypes – mercurial boffin, self-effacing distaff, solid everyman and hot-headed youth, uniting to triumph over accident and adversity – shone under Lee’s irreverent humanity coupled to Kirby’s rampant imagination and tirelessly emphatic sense of adventure.

Decades of erratic quality and floundering plotlines followed the original creators’ departures, but from the beginning of the 21st century Marvel’s First Family experienced a steady and sustained climb in quality which culminated in their own film franchise, currently experiencing its own radical reboot.

The return to peak quality was the result of sheer hard work by a number of “Big Ideas” writers and this slim hardback compilation – re-presenting Fantastic Four #533-535, spanning January to April 2006, supplemented by a selection of celebratory one-shots comprising Fantastic Four Wedding Special (January 2006), Fantastic Four Special 2005 and Fantastic Four: A Death in the Family (July 2006) – wraps up J. Michael Straczynski’s brief but splendidly entertaining tenure in the command chair.

Illustrated by Mike McKone (with inkers Andy Lanning, Simon Coleby & Cam Smith) the never-ending excitement opens with a bombastic three-part tale which is perhaps the ultimate clash between the Hulk and the Thing… and possibly the funniest yet most heart-rending FF story ever written…

‘What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas’ opens as the Hulk – now governed by Bruce Banner’s intellect and working for SHIELD – dramatically fails to defuse a gamma bomb and is caught in the resulting blast…

In New York Reed and Sue are facing their greatest battle; trying to stop Simone Debouvier of New York’s Division of Child Welfare from placing their children Franklin and Valeria into State custody to protect them from the Fantastic Four’s life-threatening influence and circumstances. It’s almost a relief for the embattled parents to despatch their boisterous and understandably furious team-mates to Nevada so they can concentrate on navigating the tricky legal maze of the Social Services system.

When Torch and Thing arrive it’s too their worst nightmare: the gamma blast has seemingly devolved the Hulk’s mind back to his primitive, enraged and devastatingly destructive state and supercharged his body. The heroes are all that stand between the unstable juggernaut and the utter destruction of the city…

Utterly overmatched, Ben is pushed to his limits in ‘Shadow Boxing’ but even amidst the hurricane of shattering violence, he realises it’s not rage but guilt that is pushing the over-Hulk to such brutal excess, even as back in New York Reed and Sue take a desperate gamble to keep their family together…

The transcontinental confrontations crash into a pair of stunning victories for heart and brains over brawn in the climactic finale ‘To Be This Monster’

The rest of this slim, sleek and celebratory volume concentrates on a wealth of special editions and follows up first with Fantastic Four Wedding Special where Karl Kesel, Drew Johnson, Drew Geraci & Drew Hennessy combine to venerate the past and offer tantalising glimpses of things to come when Sue and Reed go for a quiet meal and – thanks to the technological miracle of time travel – discover that every guest is the happy couple themselves, plucked from key moments of their fantastic past and incredible future…

That gloriously heart-warming spectacle is followed by a far more tense but no less intriguing yarn from Fantastic Four Special #1 with Dwayne McDuffie, Casey Jones & Vince Russell depicting ‘My Dinner with Doom’ as Reed opts to try fine dining and frank conversation as a way of finally ending the long-standing feud between him and the relentless and duplicitous Iron Dictator. If only Doom was as open-minded about the eventual outcome…

Focus shifts to Johnny for the last epic as Fantastic Four: A Death in the Family (Kesel, Lee Weeks, Rob Campenella & Tom Palmer) sees the frat-boy goof suddenly forced to wise up, man up and make a horrific choice to save his beloved, fractious family from certain doom in another time-travel flavoured adventure.

In this story however, there is no happy ending…

A stellar combination of apocalyptic action, heartbreak, suspense and hilarious low comedy, this exhilarating compilation also includes a stunning cover gallery by McKone, Gene Ha, Leinil Yu, Morry Hollowell and Weeks to provide a warm, fast-paced, tension-soaked Fights ‘n’ Tights chronicle which will provide all the thrills and chills a devoted Costumed Drama lover could ever want.
© 2005, 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four by J. Michael Straczynski volume 1


By J. Michael Straczynski, Mike McKone, Andy Lanning & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-9774821-5-3

The Fantastic Four has long been rightly regarded as the most pivotal series in modern comicbook history, responsible for introducing both a new style of storytelling and a decidedly different manner of engaging the readers’ impassioned attentions.

More family than team, the line-up has changed many times over the years but always eventually returned to Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s original configuration of Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch and the Thing, who jointly formed the vanguard of modern four-colour heroic history.

The quartet are actually maverick genius Reed Richards, his wife Sue, their trusty college friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s obnoxious, impetuous younger brother Johnny Storm; survivors of an independent space-shot which went horribly wrong once ferociously mutative Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding.

When they crashed back to Earth, the foursome found that they had all been hideously changed into outlandish freaks. Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and form force-fields, Johnny could turn into self-perpetuating living flame, and poor, tormented Ben was transformed into a horrifying brute who, unlike his comrades, could not return to a semblance of normality on command.

The sheer simplicity of four archetypes – mercurial boffin, self-effacing distaff, solid everyman and hot-headed youth, uniting to triumph over accident and adversity – shone under Lee’s irreverent humanity coupled to Kirby’s rampant imagination and tirelessly emphatic sense of adventure.

Decades of erratic quality and floundering plotlines followed the original creators’ departures, but from the beginning of the 21st century Marvel’s First Family experienced a steady and sustained climb in quality which culminated in their own film franchise, currently experiencing its own radical reboot.

The return to top-quality was the result of hard work by a number of “Big Ideas” writers and this slim hardback compilation – re-presenting Fantastic Four #527-532 (August 2005-January 2006) – celebrates the transition from one to another. When J. Michael Straczynski took over “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” – with illustrators Mike McKone & Andy Lanning providing sublime visuals – he looked back at the most fundamental moment of the long-lived franchise and found something new to play with…

It all begins with ‘Distant Music’ as an tortured ancient creature asks a devastating question which has shattered many worlds over the ages before cutting to Earth and now where a currently impoverished but still relentlessly inquisitive Reed Richards is unfortunately about to ask the same thing…

Happily he is distracted by wife Sue who drags him to dinner just as the team’s accountant is delivering a shocking piece of news to Ben Grimm. Apparently the rocky pauper has just become one of the richest men on Earth…

Another lucky distraction arrives in the form of Nick Fury, keen on mending fences whilst politely ordering his former friend to join a secret government project.

As Ben lets his newfound affluence go straight to his head, Reed reluctantly heads for Nevada and a hidden lab where scientists are trying to determine exactly why the ever-present Cosmic Rays beyond Earth have affected nobody to the extent they did the Fantastic Four so long ago.

Now Chief Researcher Dr. Stephen Crane claims to have discovered those particular mutative radiations were of a most specific configuration and that they are about to repeat for the first time in years…

To exploit the event he and his government backers have replicated almost all the factors in Richard’s originating space-shot and now just need Reed to fine-tune the details of his long-wrecked ship: details absolutely necessary before America can send up a platoon of ordinary patriotic grunts and bring back a legion of unstoppable super-soldiers…

The unappetising mission continues in ‘Random Factors’ with Reed’s distaste growing and his suspicions further fuelled, even as in the Big Apple Ben’s monetary excesses continue.

Sue meanwhile is keeping a secret of her own. Simone Debouvier of New York’s Division of Child Welfare has just informed her of an official investigation. State authorities are concerned that the Fantastic Four’s lifestyle pose a danger to children and are looking into taking young Franklin and Valeria Richards away from their obsessively do-gooding parents…

When a full test goes catastrophically wrong in Nevada, Reed finds himself under suspicion of committing sabotage and with the military on his heels escapes back to New York in ‘Appointment Overdue’. He lands right in the middle of a family crisis but can’t stop to deal with it because he is carrying a terrifying piece of news: the specific Cosmic Rays which transformed amateur astronauts into superheroes might actually have been a carefully constructed message. Moreover the communication from the great unknown is due to repeat imminently…

After depositing the kids on the Moon with the Inhumans even as General Clement Bragg leads troops into the Baxter Building, the FF blast off in their own spaceship to intercept the cosmic communiqué before once more crashing to Earth in a desolate region.

This time however an astounding entity which has been abiding within the energy message crawls out of the wreckage with them but Bragg’s rapidly responding forces are less than interested in learning ‘Truth in Flight’ and open fire on the creature. Much to their regret…

The entity is in mysterious communication with Ben and possesses bizarre space-warping abilities, so in an eye-blink it ferries the cosmic quartet back to the city where the tragic story of the ancient truth seeker – so much like Reed – is an amazing confirmation of how some traits transcend species.

Sadly, the quester also has obsessive enemies of near-divine power and they have noticed the Entity’s re-manifestation. In an instant the skies are filled with colossal vessels determined to end the searcher – and any other beings it might have infected with dangerous inquisitiveness – in ‘Many Questions, Some Answered’ and to save everything Reed must embark on the most momentous extended trip in all the annals of creation, realising at long last ‘Any Day Now… I Shall Be Released’…

Winningly combining stellar spectacle with apocalyptic action and hilarious low comedy, this splendid romp comes supplemented with a cover gallery by McKone &Lanning plus a brief picture feature on the artist’s ‘Thing Reference Sculpture’.

Funny, warm, challenging and exhilarating, this fast-paced, tension-soaked chronicle provides all the thrills and chills a devoted Costumed Drama lover could ever want.
© 2005 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Essential Marvel Two-In-One volume 3


By Mark Gruenwald, Ralph Macchio, Tom DeFalco, John Byrne, George Pérez, Jerry Bingham, Ron Wilson, Alan Kupperberg & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3069-7

The concept of team-up books – an established star pairing with or battling and frequently doing both – with less well-selling company characters was not new when Marvel decided to award their most popular hero the same deal DC had long prospered from with Batman in Brave and the Bold.

After the runaway success of Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up, the House of Ideas repeated the experiment with a series starring bashful, blue-eyed Ben Grimm – the Fantastic Four’s most iconic and popular member – beginning with a brace of test runs in Marvel Feature #11-12, before graduating him to his own guest-friendly title. This third economical, eclectic monochrome compendium gathers together the contents of Marvel Two-In-One #53-77 plus Marvel T-I-O Annuals #4 and 5, covering May 1979 to July 1981; a period which saw the best and worst the series could offer.

The innate problem with team-up tales was always a lack of continuity – something Marvel always prided itself upon – and which writer/editor Marv Wolfman had sought to address during his tenure through the simple expedient of having stories link-up through evolving, overarching plots which took Ben from place to place and from guest to guest.

Arguably the very best of these opens this volume; a big scale, and supremely convoluted saga known as “The Project Pegasus Saga”…

Although the company’s glory-days were undoubtedly the era of Lee, Kirby & Ditko leading through to the Adams, Buscema(s), Englehart, Gerber, Steranko and Windsor-Smith “Second Wave”, a lot of superb material came out the middle years when Marvel was transforming from inspirational small-business to corporate heavyweight.

This is not said to demean or denigrate the many fine creators who worked on the tide of titles published after that heady opening period, but only to indicate that after that time a certain revolutionary spontaneity was markedly absent from the line.

It should also be remembered that this was not deliberate. Every creator does the best job he/she can: posterity and critical response is the only arbiter of what is classic and what is simply one more comicbook. Certainly high sales don’t necessarily define a masterpiece – unless you’re a publisher…

Nevertheless every so often everybody involved in a particular tale seems to catch fire at the same time and magic occurs. A great case in point is the self-contained mini-saga which partnered the Thing with a succession of Marvel’s quirkiest B-listers and newcomers…

Project Pegasus had debuted in Marvel T-I-O #42 and 43: a federal research station tasked with investigating new and alternative energy sources and a sensible place to dump super-powered baddies when they’ve been trounced. Ten issues later writers Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio flexed their creative muscles with a 6-issue epic that found Ben back at Pegasus just as a sinister scheme by a mysterious mastermind to eradicate the facility went into full effect.

Scripted by Gruenwald & Macchio, it all begins as ‘The Inner War!’ (illustrated by John Byrne & Joe Sinnott) sees Ben visiting his educationally and emotionally challenged ward Wundarr who had been left at the secret base after exposure to a reality-warping Cosmic Cube.

Ben meets light-powered security chief Quasar – who debuted here – only to stumble into a treacherous plot to sabotage the facility which continues in ‘Blood and Bionics’ as a reprogrammed Deathlok cyborg stalks the base until the Thing and Quasar crush it.

Elsewhere, Ben’s old sparring partner Thundra is recruited by a team of super-powered women wrestlers (I know what you’re thinking but trust me, it works) with a secret and nefarious sideline…

One of the resident scientists at Pegasus is Bill Foster – who had a brief costumed career as Black Goliath – and he resumes adventuring with a new/old name just in time to help tackle freshly-liberated atomic monster Nuklo in ‘Giants in the Earth’. Sadly the traitor who let the infantile walking inferno out is still undiscovered and in the darkest part of the Project something strange is whispering to the comatose Wundarr…

George Pérez & Gene Day take over as illustrators from #56 as Thundra and her new friends invade in ‘The Deadlier of the Species!’ but even their blistering assault is merely a feint for the real threat and soon a final countdown to disaster is in effect…

Doomsday begins ‘When Walks Wundarr!’ and, in his mesmerised wake, a horde of energy-projecting villains incarcerated in the research facility break free…

With chaos everywhere the traitor triggers an extra-dimensional catastrophe, intent on destroying Pegasus ‘To the Nth Power!’, but as a living singularity tries to suck the entire institution into infinity, the end of everything is countered by the ascension of a new kind of hero as The Aquarian debuts to save the day…

Released as one of Marvel’s earliest trade paperback collections, the high-tension bombastic action of The Project Pegasus Saga rattles along without the appearance of any major stars – a daring move for a team-up title but one which greatly enhanced the power and depth of The Thing.

Moreover, by concentrating on rebooting moribund characters such as Deathlok and Giant-Man whilst launching fresh faces Quasar and The Aquarian instead of looking for ill-fitting, big-name sales-boosters, the story truly proves the old adage about there being no bad characters…

Another sound decision was the use of Byrne & Sinnott for the first half and Pérez & the late, great Gene Day to finish off the tale. Both pencillers were in their early ascendancy here and the artistic energy just jumps off the pages.

Deadlines wait for no one however and the pulse-pounding epic is immediately followed here by Marvel Two-In-One Annual #4 which offered an old-fashioned, world-busting blockbuster as ‘A Mission of Gravity!’ (plotted by Allyn Brodsky, scripted by David Michelinie and illustrated by Jim Craig, Bob Budiansky & Bruce Patterson) brought the Thing and Inhuman monarch Black Bolt together to stop unstable maniac Graviton turning into a black hole and taking the world with him…

Wolfman, Macchio, Chic Stone & Al Gordon then explored ‘Trial and Error!’ in monthly issue #59 as Ben and the Human Torch played matchmaker for a dopey dreamer, after which Marvel Two-in-One #60 featured Ben and impish ET Impossible Man in hilarious combat with three of Marvel’s earliest bad-guys.

Happiness is a Warm Alien’ – by Gruenwald, Macchio, Pérez & Day – offers a delightful change-of-pace which applies much-needed perspective and lots of laughs as the madcap invader from beyond gets bored and creates a perfect mate…

A stellar epic started in #61 with ‘The Coming of Her!’ (Gruenwald, Jerry Bingham & Day) as time-travelling space god Starhawk became embroiled in the birth of a female counterpart to artificial superman Adam Warlock.

The distaff genetic paragon awoke fully empowered and instantly began searching for her predecessor, dragging Ben’s girlfriend Alicia and mind goddess Moondragon across the solar system, arriving where issue #62 observed ‘The Taking of Counter-Earth!’

Hot on their heels Thing and Starhawk catch Her just as the women encounter a severely wounded High Evolutionary and discover the world built by that self-made god has been stolen…

United in mystery the strange grouping follow the planet’s trail out of the galaxy and uncover the incredible perpetrators but Her’s desperate quest to secure her predestined, purpose-grown mate ends in tragedy as she learns ‘Suffer Not a Warlock to Live!’

Clearly on a roll and dedicated to exploiting Marvel Two-in-One’s unofficial role as a clean-up vehicle for settling unresolved plotlines from cancelled series, Gruenwald & Macchio then dived into ‘The Serpent Crown Affair’ in #64.

‘From the Depths’ (illustrated by Pérez & Day) saw sub-sea superhero Stingray approach Reed Richards in search of a cure for humans who had been mutated into water-breathers by Sub-Mariner villain Doctor Hydro – a plotline begun in 1973 and left unresolved since the demise of the Atlantean prince’s own title.

Richards’ enquiries soon found the transformation had been caused by the Inhumans’ Terrigen Mist but when he had Ben ferry the mermen’s leader Dr. Croft and Stingray to a meeting, the trip was cut short by a crisis on an off-shore oil-rig, thanks to an ambush by a coalition of snake-themed villains.

The ‘Serpents from the Sea’ (art by Bingham & Day) were attempting to salvage dread mystic artefact the Serpent Crown, but luckily the Inhumans had sent out their seagoing champion Triton to meet the Thing…

Thundra meanwhile had been seeking the men responsible for tricking her into attacking Pegasus but fell under the spell of sinister superman Hyperion – a pawn of corrupt oil conglomerate Roxxon, whose CEO Hugh Jones possessed or had been possessed by the heinous helm…

With the situation escalating Ben had no choice but to call in an expert and before long The Scarlet Witch joins the battle, her previous experience with the relic enabling the heroes to thwart the multi-dimensional threat of ‘A Congress of Crowns!’ (Pérez & Day) and a devastating incursion by diabolical serpent god Set

With Armageddon averted Ben diverted to Pegasus to drop off the emasculated crown in #67 and found Bill Foster had been diagnosed with terminal radiation sickness due to his battle with Nuklo. Thundra meanwhile, seduced by promises of being returned to her own reality, wised up in time to abscond from Roxxon in ‘Passport to Oblivion!’ (Gruenwald, Macchio, Ron Wilson, Day & friends), but hadn’t calculated on being hunted by Hyperion. Although outmatched her frantic struggle did attract the attentions of the Thing and Quasar…

Marvel T-I-O #68 shifted gears as Ben met former X-Man The Angel as they stumbled into – and smashed out of – a mechanical murder-world in ‘Discos and Dungeons!’ (Wilson & Day) after which ‘Homecoming!’ found Ben contending with the time-lost Guardians of the Galaxy whilst striving to prevent the end of everything as millennial man Vance Astro risked all of reality to stop his younger self ever going into space…

Issue #70 offered a mystery guest team-up for ‘A Moving Experience’ (Gruenwald, Macchio, Mike Nasser & Day) as Ben was again pranked by old frenemy’s The Yancy Street Gang and ambushed by real old foes when he helped his girlfriend move into new digs, after which the so-long frustrated Hydromen finally get ‘The Cure!’ (Wilson & Day) when Ben and Reed travel to the Inhuman city of Attilan.

Sadly a cure for the effects of Terrigen is a perfect anti-Inhuman weapon and when the process is stolen by a trio of freaks the trail leads to a brutal clash with a deadly Inhuman renegade wielding ‘The Might of Maelstrom’ (Gruenwald, Macchio, Wilson & Stone). The pariah is intent on eradicating every other member of his hidden race and just won’t stop until he’s done…

Marvel Two-In-One #73 by Macchio, Wilson & Stone then ties up loose ends from the Pegasus epic as Ben and Quasar pursue Roxxon to another Earth where the rapacious plunderers have enslaved a primitive population and begun sending their pillaged oil back here via a ‘Pipeline Through Infinity’ (#74), whilst Gruenwald, Frank Springer & Stone celebrate the festive season with ‘A Christmas Peril!’ as Ben and the Puppet Master are drawn into the Yuletide celebrations of brain-damaged, childlike, immensely powerful Modred the Mystic

Alan Kupperberg & Pablo Marcos then detail another tumultuous clash between Hulk and Thing from Marvel Two-In-One Annual #5. ‘Skirmish with Death’ sees the titanic duo team with extraterrestrial explorer The Stranger to stop death god Pluto destroying the universe and cosmic epics remain in vogue in anniversary issue #75 where Ben and the Avengers are drawn into the Negative Zone to stop a hyper-powered Super-Adaptoid, only to find themselves inevitably ‘By Blastaar Betrayed!’ (Tom DeFalco, Alan Kupperberg & Stone)…

Thereafter hitting mundane reality with a bump, #76 exposes ‘The Big Top Bandits’ (DeFalco, Michelinie, Bingham & Stone) as Iceman and the Thing make short work of the Circus of Evil before this paladin-packed tome concludes with a double dose of action in #77 as Thing and Man-Thing nearly unite in a rescue mission where ‘Only the Swamp Survives!’ (DeFalco, Wilson & Stone), which also features a poignant, bizarre cameo from Sergeant Nick Fury and the Howling Commandoes

There’s even one last treat: a revelatory cutaway diagram of Project Pegasus to make sense of all the carnage that you’ve just enjoyed…

Fiercely tied to the minutia of Marvel continuity, these stories from Marvel’s Middle Period are certainly of variable quality, but whereas some might feel rushed and ill-considered they are balanced by some superb adventure romps and a genuine modern comics classic; still as captivating today as it always was.

Even if artistically the work varies from only adequate to truly top-notch, most fans of Costumed Dramas will find little to complain about and there’s plenty of fun to be found for young and old readers. So why not lower your critical guard and have an honest blast of pure warts-and-all comics craziness? You’ll almost certainly grow to like it…
© 1979, 1980, 1981, 2009 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four: the Beginning of the End


By Dwayne McDuffie, Karl Kesel, Paul Pelletier, Tom Grummett & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2554-9

The Fantastic Four has long been considered the most pivotal series in modern comicbook history, introducing both a new style of storytelling and a decidedly different manner of engaging the readers’ impassioned attentions.

More family than team, the roster has changed many times over the years but always eventually returns to the original configuration of Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch and the Thing, who have together formed the vanguard of modern four-colour heroic history.

The quartet are actually maverick genius Reed Richards, his wife Sue, their trusty college friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s obnoxious and impetuous younger brother Johnny Storm; survivors of an independent space-shot which went horribly wrong once ferociously mutative Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding.

When they crashed back to Earth, the foursome found that they had all been hideously changed into outlandish freaks.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and form force-fields, Johnny could turn into self-perpetuating living flame, and poor, tormented Ben was transformed into a horrifying brute who, unlike his comrades, could not return to a semblance of normality on command.

The sheer simplicity of four archetypes – mercurial boffin, self-effacing distaff, solid everyman and hot-headed youth, uniting to triumph over accident and adversity – shone under Stan Lee’s irreverent humanity coupled to Jack Kirby’s rampant imagination and emphatic sense of adventure.

Decades of erratic quality and floundering plotlines followed the original creators’ departures, but from the beginning of the 21st century Marvel’s First Family experienced a steady climb in quality which culminated in their own blockbuster film franchise.

A key factor in the series success was an incredible roster of unforgettable villains and this slim compilation – re-presenting Fantastic Four #525-526 and #551-553 – features a brace of the very best at their very worst…

By this time the FF had achieved the comfortably universal status of being defined mostly by their current creators (like a Brannagh or Olivier Hamlet, Rathbone or Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes or Stan Lee vs. Frank Miller Daredevil) and this beguilingly mismatched collection gathers two story-oddments which wouldn’t comfortably fit in the themed compilations that surround it, but nonetheless offer some splendidly entertaining Fights ‘n’ Tights action from the “World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” for fans and aficionados to enjoy…

The drama anachronistically kicks of with a 3-part ‘Epilogue’ from Fantastic Four #551-553 (January-March 2008) which followed the return of the original quartet after a period when the universe had been championed by a substitute team (see Fantastic Four: the New Fantastic Four)…

‘The Beginning of the End’ by scripter Dwayne McDuffie, illustrated by Paul Pelletier & Rick Magyar, opens 75 years after the great superhero Civil War. Reed Richards has triggered a global revolution in humanity, but he spends his days as warden of a high security facility with only six incorrigible reprobates pent within.

When that number is suddenly reduced by one the science hero isn’t too bothered: after all, he remembers it happening decades ago…

Back at Now, the in-their-prime FF are astonished to find Doctor Doom accompanied by elderly incarnations of Sub-Mariner and recent team-mate Black Panther sitting on their couch. After the usual violent preamble the visitors explain they have come from the future to stop Richards from making the greatest mistake in human history…

Reed has a secret room in the Baxter Building where he brainstorms his “100 Ideas” to create a utopia, but Doom and his fellow time-travellers are determined to stop the super genius from instigating Idea 101 – the concept which made the future a living hell.

To prove his point the Iron Dictator reveals the shocking fate of his wife and comrades in years to come. In response Reed picks up a gun and murders one of his “guests”…

The shocking saga continues with ‘The Middle of the End’ as Reed proceeds to expose the time-tossed terror’s true intent, but as combat climaxes his comrades – so recently sundered by the Civil War and still trying to regain trust in each – other cannot shake the dread that there’s a kernel of truth in what Doom predicts …

The suspense then roars into overdrive when the Fantastic Four of Doom’s distant era materialise, determined to recapture the fugitive and prevent catastrophic time-branching no matter who has to pay the price in ‘The End’

After a stunning all-out battle, a measure of equilibrium is restored before this cunning chronicle harks back to Fantastic Four #525-526 (June-July 2005) for ‘Dream Fever parts I and 2’, written by Karl Kesel with art by Tom Grummett, Larry Stucker & Norm Rapmund.

A less conflicted First Family have just returned from a peril-packed jaunt to the Micro-verse when alarms alert them that arcane immortal alchemist Diablo is attacking a bank, but this time he’s not looking for loot or even a fight…

Revealing his origins in 9th century Spain the mage wants the FF’s time machine so that he can return to his birth era and crush the sadistic Inquisition before it can torture and murder millions – and he’s prepared to raze New York to get his way…

After failing to capture the mystic maniac the heroes return home but are plagued by shared horrendous dreams which increasingly set the family at each other’s throats. Reed’s researches, however, soon prove Diablo is not the cause but only another victim of what seems to be a globally debilitating epidemic of nightmares…

Frantically racing against time the pliable genius traces the true cause of the contagion but to save the world the quarrelsome quartet might well have to strike that deal with the devil…

Supplemented with a cover gallery by Michael Turner and Jim Cheung plus a selection of pre-inked pencil pages from issues #551 and 553, The Beginning of the End is a fast-paced, action packed and tension-soaked chronicle of fantastic fragments that provides all the thrills and chills a devoted Costumed Drama lover could ever want.
© 2005, 2007 and 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.