Fantastic Four by Waid & Wieringo Ultimate Collection Book 2


By Mark Waid & Mike Wieringo, with Casey Jones, Karl Kesel & Larry Stucker (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5658-1

The Fantastic Four has long been considered the most pivotal series in modern comics history, introducing both a new style of storytelling and a decidedly different manner of engaging readers’ imaginations and attention. Regarded by fans as more as a family than a team, the roster has changed many times over the years but one which inevitably reverts again to its original core group.

Those steadfast stalwarts are maverick genius Reed Richards, wife Sue, their tried and true friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s younger brother Johnny; survivors of a privately-funded space-shot which went horribly wrong after Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding.

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

This compilation gathers issues #67-70 of the 3rd volume (before the series reverted to its original numbering) and then #500-502 plus bonus material from the Directors Cut edition of #500, highlighting the spectacular run by writer Mark Waid and much-missed illustrator Mike Wieringo, gloriously celebrating their “back-to-basics” approach which utterly rejuvenated the venerable property in 2003.

Key to that revival was a thorough reassessment and reappraisal of the team and their greatest enemy as seen in ‘Under her Skin’ (FF #67, May 2003, inked by Karl Kesel) wherein Victor Von Doom at last abandoned his technological gifts and inclinations, rejecting them for overwhelming sorcerous might to humiliate and destroy his greatest rival Reed Richards.

All he had to do was sacrifice his greatest love and only hope of redemption…

This terrifying glimpse into Doom’s past and shocking character study in obsession was the prologue to a 4-part epic entitled ‘Unthinkable’ which opened one month later and would end with the resumption of the title’s original numbering in Fantastic Four #500.

Waid’s greatest gift is his ability to embed hilarious moments of comedy into tales of shattering terror and poignant drama, and it’s never better displayed than here when the First Family of Superheroes suddenly find their daily antics and explorations ripped from them. The method is straightforward enough: Doom attacks them through their children, using baby Valeria as a medium for eldritch exploitation and sending firstborn Franklin to Hell, a payment to the demons to whom the debased doctor has sold the last dregs of his soul…

A supreme technologist, Richards had never truly accepted the concept of magic, but with Master of the Mystic Arts Dr. Strange oddly unwilling to help, the reeling and powerless Mr. Fantastic nonetheless leads his team to Latveria for a showdown, still unable to grasp just how much his arch-foe has changed.

Invading the sovereign – if rogue – nation, the team fight the greatest battle of their lives but lose anyway. The normally quicksilver mind of Richards seems unable to deal with the new reality and the FF are locked away in prisons specifically and sadistically designed to torment them. As a sign of his utter disdain, Doom locks his broken rival in a colossal library of grimoires and mystic manuscripts, knowing the defeated, dogmatic scientist can never make use of what is there. Big mistake…

Before attacking the FF, Doom had ensorcelled Dr. Strange, but had greatly underestimated Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme. Struggling to free himself, the mage establishes contact with Richards and begins to teach the unbelieving ultra-rationalist the basic of magic…

By the time Doom discovers his danger, Reed has freed his comrades and daughter and in the catastrophic battle which ensues the Iron Dictator replaces Franklin in as the hostage of Hell, but not before, in one final act of malice, he maims Reed Richards with a searing mystic retaliation, melting half his face by means which neither magic nor medicine can mend…

Although victorious, the Fantastic Four are far from winners. Doom’s assault upon the family has scarred them all, but none more so than Franklin, whose time in Hell has left him deeply traumatised and almost catatonic. In the 2-part follow-up ‘5th Wheel’ (illustrated by Casey Jones), Sue and Ben desperately search for treatments that can break through the boy’s wall of silence whilst Johnny begins a campaign to drag Reed out of a post-traumatic funk. The only thing that seems to motivate the obsessively brooding inventor is a half-baked scheme to use Doom’s captured time-machine and visit the dictator’s boyhood…

Meanwhile in the now, a visit to a funfair has resulted in a breakthrough – of sorts – forFranklin, but only reveals that the boy is still, in so many ways, trapped in hell. …And for Johnny there’s a terrifying realisation that his infallible, perfect Brother-in-Law is going to shoot the still innocent Victor Von Doom before the child can grow into the greatest menace in history…

Superbly entertaining, immensely exciting and genuinely challenging, this run of tales was a sublime renaissance for the “World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” and this collection also includes a wealth of bonus material from the Director’s Cut anniversary edition, including a cover gallery, deleted scenes and outtakes, with commentary from Waid & Wieringo, pencil cover sketches, unused draughts and designs, a rundown of the creative process from script to finished page, Stan Lee’s original treatment for Fantastic Four #1, a tribute section from cartoonist Fred Hembeck, and a reproduction of every cover in the series’ monumental run.

What more do you need to know?

© 2003, 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four: Extended Family


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, John Byrne, Steve Englehart, Walter Simonson, Dwayne McDuffie, John Buscema, Arthur Adams, Stuart Immonen, Paul Pelletier & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5303-0

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’ passionate attention. Regarded more as a family than a team, the roster has changed many times over the years and this long overdue examination from 2011 at last gathered a selection of those comings and goings to form a fascinating primer for new fans looking for a quick catch-up class.

I strongly suspect that it also performed a similar function for doddering old devotees such as me, always looking for a salutary refresher session…

If you’re absolutely new to the first family of super-fantasy, or worse yet returning after a sustained absence, you might have a few problems with this otherwise superb selection of clannish classics featuring not only Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, the Thing and the Human Torch but also most of the other Marvel stalwarts who have stuck a big “4” on their chests (or thereabouts) and forged ahead into the annals of four-colour heroic history.

However if you’re prepared to ignore a lot of unexplained references to stuff you’ve missed there’s a still a magically enthralling treat on offer in this terrific tome.

The Fantastic Four are – usually – maverick genius Reed Richards, his fiancée (later wife) Sue Storm, their trusty college friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother Johnny, driven survivors of a independently-funded space-shot which went horribly wrong after Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding.

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

This compilation gathers issues #1, 81, 132, 168, 265, 307, 384 and 544 of “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” as well as issue #42 from the third volume which began in 1998. Confusingly, the title resumed its original numbering with this tale so it’s also #471.

It all began with the November 1961 premier release  which introduced ‘The Fantastic Four’ by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby and showed the mysterious Dr. Richards summoning his fiancée Sue, their friend Ben and Sue’s brother Johnny before heading off on their first mission. Via flashback we discover their incredible origins and how Cosmic Rays transformed them all into outlandish freaks…

Richards’ body had become impossibly pliable and elastic, Sue could fade away as a living phantom, Johnny could briefly blaze like a star and fly like a rocket whilst tragic Ben had been turned into a shambling, rocky freak. Shaken but unbowed the valiant quartet vowed to dedicate their new abilities to benefiting all mankind.

In ‘The Fantastic Four meet the Mole Man’ they foiled a sinister scheme by another hideous outcast who controlled a legion of monsters and army of subhuman slaves from far beneath the Earth by bravely uncovering ‘The Moleman’s Secret!’

This summation of the admittedly mediocre plot cannot do justice to the engrossing wonder of that breakthrough issue – we really have no grasp today of just how different in tone, how utterly 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. Throughout the turbulent 1960s, Lee & Kirby’s astonishing ongoing collaboration rewrote the book on what comics could be and introduced fresh characters and astounding concepts on a monthly basis.

One such was The Inhumans. Conceived as an incredible lost civilisation and debuting in 1965 (Fantastic Four #44-48) during Stan & Jack’s most fertile and productive creative period, they were a race of disparate (generally) humanoid beings, genetically altered by aliens in Earth’s distant pre-history, who consequently became technologically advanced far ahead of emergent Homo Sapiens.

Few in numbers, they isolated themselves from the barbarous dawn-age humans, first on an island and latterly in a hidden Himalayan valley, voluntarily confined to their fabulous city Attilan – until a civil war brought them into the public gaze.

Old foe and charter member of the villainous Frightful Four, Madame Medusa was revealed as a fugitive member Royal Family of Attilan, on the run ever since a coup deposed her lover – the true king Black Bolt.

With her cousins Triton, Karnak and Gorgon, the rest would quickly become mainstays of the Marvel Universe, but Medusa’s bewitching teenaged sister Crystal and her giant teleporting dog Lockjaw were the real stars of the show. For young Johnny 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…

Crystal stuck around for many adventures and eventually when the now-married Sue had a baby and began “taking things easy”, the Inhuman Princess became the first official replacement in the team.

From FF #81 (December 1968 by Lee, Kirby & Joe Sinnott) ‘Enter – the Exquisite Elemental’ saw the devastatingly powerful girl join Reed, Ben and Johnny just as incorrigible technological terror The Wizard attacked the team. In blisteringly short orderCrystal promptly pulverized murderous maniac and began a long combat career with the heroes.

After untold centuries in seclusion, increasing global pollution levels began to attack the Inhumans’ elevated biological systems and eventually Crystalhad to abandon Johnny and return to Attilan. By the time of Fantastic Four #132 (March 1973) Lee & Kirby had also split up and Roy Thomas, John Buscema & Sinnott were in charge of the show.

The concluding chapter of a 2-part tale, ‘Omega! The Ultimate Enemy!’ described how Crystal, her brand new fiancé Quicksilver and the rest of the Inhumans were attacked by their genetically-programmed slave-race the Alpha Primitives, seemingly at the behest of Black Bolt’s diabolical brother Maximus the Mad.

The truth was far stranger but the strife and struggle resulted in Medusa returning toAmericawith the team…

The more things changed the more they stayed the same, however, and by FF#168 (March 1976) Sue was back but the Thing was forcibly retired. ‘Where Have All the Powers Gone?’ by Thomas, Rich Buckler & Sinnott revealed how Ben had been reverted to normal, pedestrian humanity due to radiation exposure and a blockbusting battle with the Hulk and, deprived of the Thing’s sheer power, Reed had enlisted Hero for Hire Luke Cage as a replacement.

However the embittered Grimm simply couldn’t adjust to a life on the sidelines and when brutal bludgeoning super-thug Wrecker went on a rampage the merely mortal Ben risked life and limb to prove he could still play with the big boys…

After years in the creative doldrums the FF were dynamically revitalised when John Byrne took over scripting and illustrating the feature. Following a sequence of bold innovations the creator used the company wide crossover ‘Secret Wars’ to radically overhaul the team, and issue #265 (April 1984) revealed the big change in a brace of short tales re-presented here. Firstly in ‘The House That Reed Built’ the group’s Baxter Building HQ was the star as the automated marvel diligently dealt with a sinister home-invasion by Frightful Four alumnus The Trapster, after which Sue Richards was introduced to the Thing’s replacement (Ben having remained on the distant planet of The Beyonder for personal reasons) as the greenly glamorous She-Hulk joined up in ‘Home Are the Heroes’.

Jumping to October 1987, Fantastic Four #307 offered the most radical change yet as Reed and Sue retired to the suburbs to raise their terrifyingly mega-powered son Franklin, leaving the long-returned Thing to lead a team that consisted of the Human Torch, old flame Crystal and troubled super-strong Amazon Sharon Ventura who used the sobriquet Ms Marvel. However, before they even had a chance to shake hands, the new team was bitterly battling arcane alchemist Diablo in the gripping thriller ‘Good Bye’ by Steve Englehart, J. Buscema & Sinnott…

An even bigger shake-up occurred during Walter Simonson’s run in the gimmick-crazed ‘90s. In an atmosphere of dwindling sales, high-profile stunts became the norm in comics as companies, realizing that a large sector of the buying public thought of themselves as canny “Investors”, began exploiting their readership’s greed and credulity.

A plot twist, a costume change, a different format or shiny cover (or better yet covers: plural), anything – just so long as The Press got hold of it – translated directly into extra sales. There are many stories and concepts from that era which (mercifully) may never make it into trade paperbacks and collections, but there are some that deserved to, did, and really still should be.

Simonson was writing (and usually drawing) the venerable flagship title with the original cast happily back in harness and abruptly interrupted his high-tech, high-tension saga with a gloriously tongue-in-cheek graphic digression. Three issues, #347-349, poked gentle fun at the trend-meisters and speculators, consequently becoming some of the “hottest” comics of that year.

Reprinted here from FF #347 (December 1990) is that splendid first chapter ‘Big Trouble on Little Earth’ (illustrated by Arthur Adams & Art Thibert, assisted by Gracine Tanaka) which revealed how a Skrull outlaw invaded Earth, with her own people hot on her viridian high heels. Evading heavy pursuit she attacked the Fantastic Four and seemingly killed them. Disguised as a mourning Sue Richards she then recruited the four best-selling heroes in the Marvel Universe – Spider-Man, The Hulk, Wolverine and Ghost Rider – to hunt down “the murderers” as The NEW Fantastic Four!

Their hunt took them to the bowels of the Earth and into battle with the Mole Man, and revealed fascinating background into the origins of monsters and supernormal life on Earth.

What could so easily have been a cheap stunt was elevated not only by the phenomenal art of Adams but also the lovingly reverential script, which referenced all those goofy old ‘Furry-Underpants Monsters’ of immediate pre-FF vintage, and was packed with traditional action and fun besides. Sadly only the first pulse-pounding chapter is included here but you really should track down the entire tale as seen in Fantastic Four: Monsters Unleashed

Roster change became a constant during that desperate decade. When Tom DeFalco, Paul Ryan & Danny Bulandi took over the series they tried every trick to drive up sales but the title was in a spiral of commercial decline. Reed was dead – although Sue refused to believe it – and Franklinhad been abducted. Her troubled fellow survivors had their own problems. Johnny had discovered his wife Alicia was in fact the Skrull infiltrator Lyja, Sharon Ventura was missing and Ben had been mutilated in battle and taken to obsessively wearing a full-face helmet at all times.

In #384’s (January 1994) ‘My Enemy, My Son!’, Sue hired Scott Lang AKA Ant-Man to act as the team’s science officer whilst she led an increasingly compulsive search for her lost love. No sooner had the new boy arrived than Franklin reappeared, grown to manhood and determined to save the world from his mother, whom he believed to be possessed by a malign spirit named Malice

Following the crossover event “Onslaught” the FF were excised from Marvel’s continuity for a year. When they returned rebooted and revitalised in 1998, it was as Stan & Jack first envisioned them in a brand-spanking new volume.

Always more explorers than traditional crimebusters, the FF were constantly voyaging to other worlds and dimensions. In Volume 3, #42 (June 2001 and double-numbered as #471) Carlos Pacheco, Rafael Marin, Jeff Loeb, Stuart Immonen & Wade von Grawbadger offered a blistering battle between the Torch and old frenemy Namor the Sub-Mariner which raged through New York City whilst Reed, Sue and Ben were lost in the Negative Zone. Strapped for allies, the two then formed an alliance against mutual foe Gideon with Johnny re-recruiting Ant-Man and She-Hulk before accepting the Atlantean’s cousin Namorita as the latest part-time member of the Fantastic Four…

This meander down memory lane concludes with another major overhaul, this one stemming from the publishing event The Initiative in 2007.

Fantastic Four #544 (March of that year) featured ‘Reconstruction: Chapter One – From the Ridiculous to the Sublime’ by Dwayne McDuffie, Paul Pelletier & Rick Magyar, with Marvel’s first family bitterly divided after the events of the superhero Civil War.

After years of stunning adventures, the close-knit group split up after the Federal Superhuman Registration Act divided them; Reed siding with the Government and his wife and brother-in-law joining the rebels. Ben, appalled at the entire situation, dodged the whole issue by moving toFrance…

A story-arc from issues FF #544-550 (originally running as ‘Reconstruction’) began in the aftermath in a group reconciliation, but with temperaments still frayed and emotional wounds barely scabbed over…

When Reed and Sue attempted to repair their damaged marriage by way of a second honeymoon to the moon of Titan – courtesy of the Eternal demi-gods who inhabited that artificial paradise – on Earth, Ben and Johnny were joined by temporary houseguests Black Panther and his new wife Ororo, the former X-Man Storm.

The royal couple of Wakanda had been forced to leave their palatial New York embassy after it was bombed, but no sooner had they settled in than old ally Michael Collins – formerly the cyborg Deathlok – came asking for a favour.

A hero named Gravity had sacrificed his life to save Collins and a host of other heroes and his body was laid to rest with full honours. But now, that grave had been desecrated and the remains stolen. When the appalled New FF investigated, the trail led directly into intergalactic space…

After visiting the Moon and eliciting information from pan-galactic voyeur Uatu the Watcher, the new questing quartet travelled to the ends of the universe where cosmic entity Epoch was covertly resurrecting Gravity to become her latest “Protector of the Universe”.

Unfortunately she wasn’t likely to finish her magic as the Silver Surfer and Galactus’ new herald Stardust were attacking the sidereal monolith, preparatory to her becoming the World-Eater’s next meal…

For the rest of that epic you’ll need to seek out Fantastic Four: the New Fantastic Four

With a full cover gallery and pin-ups by Steve Epting & Paul Mounts, this power-packed primer and all-action snapshot album is a great way to reacquaint yourself with or better yet discover for the first time the comicbook magic of a truly ideal invention:  the Family that Fights Together…
© 1961, 1968, 1973, 1976, 1984, 1987, 1990, 1994, 2001, 2007, 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Mighty Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest


By Dan Slott, Khoi Pham, Rafa Sandoval, Stephen Segovia, Paco Diaz, Harvey Tolibao & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3746-7

One of the most momentous events in Marvel Comics history occurred in 1963 when a disparate array of individual heroes banded together to stop the Incredible Hulk. The Mighty Avengers combined most of the company’s fledgling superhero line in one bright, shiny and highly commercial package.

Over the decades the roster has continually changed until now almost every character in their universe has at some time numbered amongst their colourful ranks.

In recent years, Norman Osborn (the original Green Goblin) had, through various machinations, replaced Tony Stark asAmerica’s Security Czar: the “top cop” in sole charge of a beleaguered nation’s defence and freedom, especially in regard to ultra-technological threats and all metahuman influences…

Under Stark’s tenure a Superhuman Registration Act had resulted in a divisive Civil War amongst the costumed community with tragic repercussions, but the nation and the world were no safer.

At one stage the planet was almost lost to an insidious Secret Invasion by alien Skrulls leading to Osborn’s succession and the former villain’s exerting overt control over America by instigating an oppressive “Dark Reign” which saw the World’s Mightiest Heroes driven underground. To cement his position Osborn actually replaced the Avengers with his own hand-picked team of criminals and impostors.

From that particularly troubled time comes this fast and furious compilation collecting issues #21-26 of Mighty Avengers (2009) and material from Secret Invasion: Requiem wherein Stark/Iron Man’s lack of leadership and poor judgement during the crisis has led returned founding-member Henry Pym to seize control of the Avengers.

What You Need to Know: the Skrulls are shape-shifting aliens who’ve bedevilled Earth ever since Fantastic Four #2 and they’ve long been a pernicious cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. After years of humiliation and defeat the metamorphic malcontents finally hit on a winning plan, and to this end they gradually replaced a number of key Earth denizens – most notably superheroes and other metahumans.

When the plot was first uncovered it led to a confrontation between Earth’s champions and a Skrull ship full of what appeared to be old friends – some of whom had been dead for years. Were they escaped humans or yet another army of newly undetectable super-Skrulls? With no defender of the Earth knowing who to trust the planet almost fell to a determined massed onslaught…

With all stories written by Dan Slott, ‘How I’ll Remember You’ (illustrated by Khoi Pham & colourist Chris Sotomayor) opens proceedings as robotic Avenger Jocasta looks through the copious wardrobes of Janet Van Dyne whose ultimate sacrifice ended the Skrull assaults. Although the Wasp died, her memory patterns were encoded in the very confused robot and the conflicting data is beginning to cause a few problems…

For a start she is increasingly drawn to Pym, a man Jan was married to for years and a bi-polar genius who has just changed his powers and identity again. In the past Dr. Pym created the roles of Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath and Yellowjacket, but now he’s calling himself the Wasp…

The 3-part ‘Earth’s Mightiest’ begins with ‘The Smartest Man in the Room’ (inked by Crimelab Studios’ Allen Martinez & Danny Miki) and sees two survivors of the decimated Young Avengers sifting through the rubble of the group’s iconic Mansion when the long-gone Scarlet Witch appears. The last time she was seen her madness caused the deaths of many team-mates and the dissolution of the Avengers, but now the enigmatic figure seems intent on putting the band back together.

As well as now commanding all of America’s covert agencies and military resources under his umbrella organisation H.A.M.M.E.R., Osborn also has his own suit of super-armour. As Iron Patriot he leads a hand-picked team which includes Greek War-God Ares, golden superman Sentry, a new Marvel Boy and seemingly familiar heroes Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Man and Wolverine (played by criminal killers Bullseye, Moonstone, Venom and the clawed mutant’s deeply disturbed son Daken) on high profile missions as part of a prolonged charm offensive.

Whilst Iron Patriot leads his ersatz team in media-hogging missions, the juvenile Vision and Stature are manipulated by the Scarlet Witch into joining Hercules, child genius Amadeus Cho, U.S.Agent, the Hulk and even faithful butler Edwin Jarvis as they petition Pym to reorganise and revitalise the Avengers.

She even approaches the out-of-favour Iron Man…

The boy Cho – “seventh smartest person on the planet” has deduced that a Chaos Cascade is warping the laws of physics and threatens humanity but whilst Osborn’s Avengers are wasting time fighting the catastrophic symptoms, the young genius has come to someone potentially even sharper to help tackle the cause…

Pym deduces that the crisis has originated in the mystic provinceof Transia and he’s right. On haunted Mount Wundagore the cursed mystic Modred has been working to bring Cthon, god of Chaos to Earth through the terrifyingly puissant tome the Darkhold.

By the time the scratch-team reach the Balkan ground zero however, the mage has succeeded in his task and the demon deity strides the Earth in the once-comatose body of the Witch’s brother Quicksilver

‘The Writing on the Wall’ opens with a Cthonic crisis slowly wrecking the planet, even as the extremely unwelcome Iron Man strong-arms his way onto the team and straight into a knock-down, drag-out tussle with the ever-irascible Hulk. Pym and the rest of his ill-fitting squad ignore them and instead brave Modred’s lair where the size-shifting scientist gleans a possible solution.

It all has to do with Quicksilver’s mind and soul which are now trapped in the pages of the discarded Darkhold…

The first epic concludes with ‘Three Little Words’ when, in final battle with the disunited defenders, the smugly omnipotent Cthon stupidly underestimates the devious subtlety of the Shrinking Man’s science…

In the happy aftermath with the demon-god banished and both Quicksilver and the World restored, the Scarlet Witch disappears again, taking with her a dark and very damaging secret…

On a high, the Mighty Avengers decide to stick together in ‘Chasing Ghosts’ (with art by Rafa Sandoval, Roger Bonet Martinez & John Rauch) as the provocatively intransigent Witch orchestrates a distracting clash with Nazi bee hive-mind Swarm whilst her obsessed mutant speedster brother Quicksilver desperately tries to catch a few moments alone with his estranged and oddly acting sister.

Meanwhile Osborn (who is also secretly conspiring with a Cabal of super-villains including Asgardian God Loki, gang-boss The Hood, mutant Emma Frost, Taskmaster, Sub-Mariner and Doctor Doom) finally acts to remove his Avenging rivals by sending H.A.M.M.E.R. troops to shut down Pym’s trans-dimension laboratory/citadel…

With the lab slowly detaching from the Real World and Pym’s impossible, hush-hush dream project critically endangered, the embattled heroes split up as the final story-arc ‘Mighty/Fantastic’ (illustrated by Stephen Segovia, Paco Diaz, Harvey Tolibao, Noah Salonga, Jean-Francois Beaulieu & June Chung) finds The Wasp forced into conflict with one of his oldest friends and allies.

By most people’s standards Reed Richards is the Smartest Man Alive, but when he is asked by Pym to return a device which could save the dissolving extra-dimensional lab, the leader of the Fantastic Four makes a big mistake by saying no and even questioning the erstwhile Ant-Man’s intellect and stability.

Of course you realise this means war….

Desperate and really ticked off, Pym and his team launch an assault on the FF to regain the urgently needed doodad in a tension-drenched caper dubbed ‘The Baxter Job’ which culminates in a spectacular, impossibly even-matched fracas and a delightfully off-beat but apropos ending in ‘You Can’t Get There from Here’

Remarkably self-contained and clear-cut for a book so mired in multiple complex continuities, Earth’s Mightiest offers a huge amount of fun, thrills and tense suspense which will delight fans of Costumed Dramas.

This sterling tome also offers a gallery of covers used and unused from Khoi Pham, Marko Djurdjevic, Crimelab Studios’ Allen Martinez, Dave McCaig, Danny Miki, Dean White, Jason Keith, and a Dark Reign teaser ad by Daniel Acuña.
© 2009 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Fantastic Four – a Full Colour Comic Album


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott (World Distributors {Manchester} Ltd)
No ISBN:

The origin of the Fantastic Four saw maverick scientist Reed Richards summon his girl-friend Sue Storm, their friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother Johnny before heading off on their first mission against invading subterranean monsters and their malevolent master the Mole Man. In a handy flashback we discovered that they were driven survivors of a private space-shot which went horribly wrong.

In the depths of space Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and they plummeted back to Earth where they found that they’d all been hideously mutated into outlandish freaks…

Reed’s body became elastic, Sue gained the initially involuntary power to turn invisible, Johnny could briefly and harmlessly burst into living flame and poor, tragic Ben turned irrevocably into a shambling, rocky freak. Shaken but unbowed they vow to dedicate their new abilities to benefiting mankind…

With their red and gold uniforms in stark contrast to the Torch’s lethally hot blue flame and the Thing’s gritty granular monolithic mauve hide, the heroes won global renown and…

No, wait, surely that’s not right…

Well yes, but only in this beguilingly peculiar British album released to tie-in with a strictly regional British release of the 1967-1968 Fantastic Four cartoon series produced by Hanna-Barbera and designed by the legendary Alex Toth.

As the only survivor of a family day out, it’s still one of my most treasured comic possessions and I’ll admit it makes precious little sense on a cognitive level.  It’s certainly no more than an intriguing or irrelevant oddity to most fans, but for me – and many similar Brits of a certain vintage – items like this are irreplaceable nostalgic touchstones of a personal Grand Age of comics wonderment which even smell and feel of thrills and fun and innocent joy…

The contents are an odd mix too. The cartoon show adapted many of the earliest and formative groundbreaking Stan Lee/Jack Kirby classics but the trio of terrific tales came from the stunning mid-Sixties run when the creators were at their absolute peak of perfection…

The only complete and self-contained yarn is ‘This Man This Monster’ from Fantastic Four #51 (June, 1966) and still considered by many to be the greatest single FF story ever. A masterpiece of mood and introspection, it found the Thing’s body usurped by a vengeful, petty maverick scientist who subsequently discovered the true measure of a man, paying the ultimate price for his jealous folly…

The Black Panther was an African monarch whose secretive kingdom was the only source of a unique alien metal dubbed Vibranium. These mineral riches had enabled him to turn his country into a technological wonderland and he had attacked the FF as part of an extended plan to gain vengeance on the murderer of his father. He was also the first Negro superhero in American comics.

Although that tale didn’t make the final cut his origin was revealed here in ‘The Way it Began..!’ (from Fantastic Four #53, cover-dated August 1966) and disclosed how decades before when a ruthless scientist and his mercenary army had invaded Wakanda,  the young Prince T’Challa had single-handedly avenged the murder of his father T’Chaka and driven off the raiders. Now, as incredible creatures of living sound ravaged the Hidden Kingdom, the Panther and the FF teamed up to stop the returned villain who had been transformed into an utterly new form of life and was calling himself Klaw, Master of Sound

Fantastic Four #57-60 displayed Lee & Kirby at their utmost best; with an extended epic of astounding drama and majesty as the most dangerous man on Earth stole the Cosmic Power of alien refugee the Silver Surfer and rampaged unstoppably across the face of the planet.

Sadly, ‘Enter… Dr. Doom!’, ‘The Dismal Dregs of Defeat!’ and ‘Doomsday’ were omitted for this edition and the strangely compelling card cover classic only includes the very last chapter of that superlative saga wherein the team’s valiant resistance allowed Reed’s ingenuity and sheer guts to turn the tables and save all humanity in magnificent manner in ‘The Peril and the Power!’(#60, March 1967)…

These are the stories that cemented Marvel’s reputation and enabled the company to overtake all its competitors. They’re also still some of the best comics ever produced and as exciting and captivating now as they ever were, even in this truly bizarre and torturously truncated form. This is a surely only one for the most dedicated completists, but the timeless tales reprinted are stories every fan should know.

© MCMLXIX (that’s 1969 to you True Believer!) Marvel Comics Group. All rights reserved throughout the world.

Fantastic Four: The New Fantastic Four


By Dwayne McDuffie, Paul Pelletier, Rick Magyar & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2483-2

If you’re new to the first family of comic books, or worse yet returning after a sustained absence, you might have a few problems with this otherwise superb selection of high-concept hi-jinks featuring Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, the Thing and the Human Torch. However if you’re prepared to ignore a lot of unexplained references to stuff you’ve missed there’s a magically enthralling epic on offer in this terrific tome.

The Fantastic Four were – usually – maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fianceé and later wife Sue Storm, their friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother Johnny, driven survivors of a private space-shot which went horribly wrong when Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding.

When they crashed back to Earth the quartet found that they had all been hideously mutated into outlandish freaks. Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and project force-fields, Johnny could turn into living flame, and tragic Ben was trapped as a shambling, rocky freak. Shaken but unbowed they vowed to dedicate their new abilities to benefiting mankind.

After years of stunning adventures the close-knit fantastic family came to a parting after the Federal Superhuman Registration Act put the team on opposing sides of the costumed heroes’ Civil War, when Reed sided with the Government and his wife and brother-in-law joined the rebels. Ben, appalled at the entire situation, dodged the issue by moving to France…

This volume collects Fantastic Four #544-550 (June-November 2007 and originally running as the story-arc ‘Reconstruction’) and picks up in the aftermath of a group reconciliation, with temperaments still frayed and emotional wounds barely scabbed over…

The witty drama begins with ‘From the Ridiculous to the Sublime’ as, in an attempt to repair their damaged marriage, Reed and Sue take a second honeymoon to the moon of Titan courtesy of the Eternal demi-gods who inhabit the artificial paradise, whilst on Earth, Ben and Johnny are joined by temporary houseguests Black Panther and his wife Ororo, the former X-Man Storm.

The royal couple of Wakanda have only recently been forced to leave their palatial New York embassy after it was bombed…

No sooner have they settled in than old ally Michael Collins – formerly the cyborg Deathlok – comes asking a favour…

When a young hero code-named Gravity sacrificed his life to save Collins and a host of other heroes, his body was laid to rest with full honours. But now, his grave has been desecrated and the remains stolen. When the appalled New Fantastic Four investigate, the trail leads directly into intergalactic space…

After visiting the Moon and eliciting information from pan-galactic voyeur Uatu the Watcher, the quartet travel to the ends of the universe where cosmic entity Epoch is resurrecting Gravity to become the latest “Protector of the Universe”.

Unfortunately she might not finish as the Silver Surfer and Galactus’ new herald Stardust are preparing the sidereal monolith to be the World-Eater’s latest snack…

‘Don’t Make Me Embarrass You in Front of Your Friends’ finds Reed and Sue nearing Titan and beginning their break as, in another corner of the Cosmos, the FF battle the gleaming invaders in a desperate holding action. Whilst the Panther and Collins return to Earth for a Deus ex Machina weapon, ‘Aw, That’s Just Crude’ sees Gravity revived just as Galactus himself shows up, ravenous and ready to eat everything…

As the new universal protector shows his mettle by defeating the planet-devourer, Reed is forced to put the honeymoon on pause when his idle examination of an interstellar probe makes him suspect that the entire solar system might well be in danger…

‘Never Ask Her if she’s Wearing Colored Contact Lenses’ finds Reed back on Earth, with Sue simply sunning herself on Titan. However, whilst Mr. Fantastic’s suspicions are confirmed by fellow heroic super-scientist Hank Pym, The Wizard and a host of super-villains from previously iterations the Frightful Four attack and capture the Invisible Woman, but only after a truly cataclysmic clash…

Already distracted by the revelation that an alien race on the verge of extinction had sent the probe as a warning and that an all-consuming horde of marauders dubbed Contrasepsis was heading earthward, Richards flies off the handle when the Wizard boasts of Sue’s plight via long range radio beam. However when he rushes to return to Titan, Reed’s ship explodes…

Luckily the wily Panther had suspected a trap and ‘Kind of an Expensive Test’ finds the heroes hurtling towards the outer moon and a Battle Royale with the despicable scum who had tortured the Invisible Woman.

Even though the Wizard had a terrifying hidden ally, the devastating duel eventually ends in the good guys favour, but not before Sue displays why she is the scariest member of the FF and not one to ever be pushed around, after which ‘So I Guess You’re Saying the Honeymoon’s Over’ finds the Fantastic Six hurtling into deeper space where the Contrasepsis are massing. What they find is a violent degradation in the fabric of reality and a massing of the Watchers, all gathered to observe the end of everything…

It all comes together in a spectacular anniversary romp wherein the assembled heroes, Gravity, Stardust and the Silver Surfer and master of magic Doctor Strange unite to solve a cosmic mystery and save the conceptual being who is the very personification of life in ‘Should Eternity Perish’

Also including a cover gallery from fan-favourite Michael Turner and pencilled pages from the penciller, this brilliantly scripted yarn by Dwayne McDuffie, with captivating art from Paul Pelletier, Rick Magyar & Scott Hanna, perfectly blends high-concept action with dazzling wit and razor-sharp comedy moments to create a perfectly wonderful Fights ‘n’ Tights extravaganza no clued-in, space freak comics fan could possibly find fault with.

Fantastic Fun. Get it.
© 2007 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

Essential Avengers volume 6


By Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas, Jim Starlin, Gerry Conway, Bob Brown,
Don Heck, Dave Cockrum, Joe Staton, Rich Buckler, John Buscema, George Tuska & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3058-1

The Avengers have always proved that putting all one’s star eggs in a single basket pays off big-time: even when all Marvel’s classic all-stars such as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man are absent, it merely allows the team’s lesser lights to shine more brightly.

Of course all the founding stars were regularly featured due to the rotating, open door policy which means that most issues includes somebody’s fave-rave – and the boldly grand-scale impressive stories and artwork are no hindrance either.

This monolithic and monumental sixth tome, collecting the ever-amazing Avengers’ world-saving exploits (presenting in crisp, stylish monochrome the astounding contents of issues #120-140 of their monthly comic book between March 1974 and October 1975, plus Giant-Size Avengers #1-4 and crossover appearances in Captain Marvel #33 and Fantastic Four #150), saw scripter Steve Englehart examine the outer limits of Marvel history and cosmic geography as he took readers to the ends of their universe and the beginning of time…

Opening this epochal tome is ‘Death-Stars of the Zodiac!’ from Avengers #120, by Steve Englehart, Bob Brown & Don Heck, wherein terrorist astrological adversaries and super-criminal cartel Zodiac attacked again with a manic plan to eradicate everyone in Manhattan born under the sign of Gemini, with heroes Thor, Iron Man, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Swordsman and Mantis seemingly helpless to stop them.

In the blistering battle of #121’s ‘Houses Divided Cannot Stand!’, illustrated by John Buscema & Heck, even the added assistance of Captain America and the Black Panther is of little advantage and with Mantis injured the team begin to question her mysterious past, only to be lured to their seeming doom and ‘Trapped in Outer Space!’ (Brown & Mike Esposito) before at last turning the tables on their fearsome foes after the criminal Libra revealed a shocking secret…

Avengers #123, depicted by Brown & Heck, began a vast and ambitious saga with ‘Vengeance in Viet Nam – or – An Origin For Mantis!’ as Libra’s claim to be Mantis’ father (a story vigorously and violently denied by the Martial Arts Mistress) brought the team to Indo-China.

The criminal ex-mercenary declared that he left the baby Mantis with pacifistic Priests of Pama after running afoul of a local crime-lord, but the bewildered warrior-woman has no memory of such events, nor of being schooled in combat techniques by the Priests. Meanwhile the gravely wounded Swordsman has rushed to Saigon to confront his sadistic ex-boss Monsieur Khruul and save the Priests from being murdered by the gangster’s thugs… but was again too late. It is the tragic story of his wasted life…

Issue #124 found the team stumbling upon a scene of slaughter as clerics and criminals lay dead and a monstrous planet-rending alien horror awoke in ‘Beware the Star-Stalker!’ by J. Buscema & Dave Cockrum…

Mantis was forced to accept that her own memories were not real after Avengers #125, which unleashed ‘The Power of Babel!’ when a vast alien armada attacked and, in combating it, the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes were trapped out of phase with their home-world.

This blockbuster battle bonanza was a crossover, and the penultimate episode of the spectacular Thanos War Saga that had featured in Captain Marvel, Marvel Feature and Iron Man, and included in this compendium is ‘The God Himself!’ scripted by Englehart from Captain Marvel #33 (plotted and illustrated by Jim Starlin & Klaus Janson) wherein the mad Titan Thanos finally fell in combat to the valiant Kree warrior: a stunning piece of comics storytelling which stands up remarkably well here despite being seen without benefit of the preceding ten chapters…

It was back to business in #126 as in ‘All the Sights and Sounds of Death!’ (Brown & Cockrum) villains Klaw and Solarr attacked Avengers Mansion in a devious attempt to achieve vengeance for past indignities, after which Roy Thomas, Rich Buckler & Dan Adkins returned to the fold to delve into superhero history with ‘Nuklo… the Invader that Time Forgot!’ for the first quarterly edition of Giant-Size Avengers.

The stirring saga reintroduced 1940 Marvel sensation Bob Frank AKA The Whizzer in a tragic tale of desperation as the aged speedster begged the heroes’ help in rescuing his son: a radioactive mutant locked in stasis since the early 1950s. Unfortunately within the recently unearthed chrono-capsule the lad has grown into a terrifying atomic horror…

Moreover while in the throes of a stress-induced heart-attack the Whizzer let slip that he was the also the father of mutant Avengers Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver

In Avengers #127 Sal Buscema & Joe Staton signed on as regular art team with ‘Bride and Doom!’ when the team travelled to the hidden homeland of the Inhumans for the marriage of the aforementioned Quicksilver to elemental enchantress Crystal only to stumble into a uprising of the genetic slave-race known as Alpha Primitives.

Once again the robotic giant Omega had incited the revolt but this time it was controlled by an old Avengers enemy who revealed himself in the concluding chapter of the crossover…

Fantastic Four #150 featured ‘Ultron-7: He’ll Rule the World!’ by Gerry Conway, Buckler & Joe Sinnott, in which an impossible battle of FF, Inhumans and Avengers was ended by a veritable Deus ex Machina after which, at long last ‘The Wedding of Crystal and Quicksilver’ ended events on a happy note.

But not for long: in Avengers #128’s ‘Bewitched, Bothered, and Dead!’ (Englehart, Sal Buscema & Staton) the FF’s nanny Agatha Harkness began tutoring Wanda Frank in actual sorcery to augment her mutant power, unwittingly allowing dark mage Necrodamus access to the Mansion and their souls, whilst the increasingly troubled Mantis began making a play for the Scarlet Witch’s synthazoid boyfriend The Vision; heedless of the hurt and harm she would bring to her current lover The Swordsman…

In #129 ‘Bid Tomorrow Goodbye!’ kicked the simmering saga into high gear when Kang the Conqueror appeared, determined to possess the legendary female figure he called the Celestial Madonna.

Apparently this anonymous creature would birth the saviour of the universe, and since no records survived disclosing which of the three women in Avengers Mansion at that crucial moment she actually was, the time-reaver was determined to abduct all three and forcibly make Kang the inevitable father of the child…

This time not even the assembled Avengers could stop him and, after crushing and enslaving them, Kang made off with Wanda, Harkness and Mantis, with only the swiftly declining Swordsman free to contest him…

The tale continued into Giant-Size Avengers #2 with ‘A Blast from the Past!’ (illustrated by Cockrum) as reluctant returnee Hawkeye rushed to the team’s rescue, reuniting with old adversary Swordsman and an enigmatic entity named Rama-Tut who claimed to be Kang’s reformed future self…

Against all odds the merely mortal heroes managed to free the enslaved Avengers and rout the unrepentant Kang – but only at the cost of the Swordsman’s life…

Avengers #130’s ‘The Reality Problem!’ (Sal Buscema & Staton) found the heartbroken and much chastened Mantis joining the team in Vietnam to investigate her mysteriously clouded past, only to be drawn into pointless combat with Communist exiles Titanium Man, Radioactive Man and Crimson Dynamo, thanks to the petty manipulations of sneak thief  The Slasher

The brief battle concluded and the trail then led to ‘A Quiet Half-hour in Saigon!’ during which the American Adventurers were again attacked by Kang who trapped them in Limbo and unleashed a Legion of the Unliving against them…

With another time-villain Immortus added to the mix, ‘Kang War II’ saw temporarily resurrected heroes and villains Wonder Man, 1940’s android Human Torch, the Monster of Frankenstein, martial arts assassin Midnight, the ghostly Flying Dutchman and Baron Zemo decimate the Avengers and the trauma and tragedy were further exacerbated as Mantis kept seeing the spectre of her deceased lover…

This absorbing thriller by Englehart, Thomas Sal Buscema & Staton segued inexorably into Giant-Size Avengers #3’s ‘…What Time Hath put Asunder!’ illustrated by Cockrum & Joe Giella, which saw Earth’s Mightiest Heroes pull victory from the ashes of defeat and receive a unique gift from one of the assembled Masters of Time…

Avengers #133 began ‘Yesterday and Beyond…’ (Englehart, S. Buscema & Staton) as the team followed Mantis to the beginnings of recorded Galactic history and the unravelling of her true past, whilst Vision was dispatched to glimpse his own obscure and complex origins; a double quest which encompassed the Kree and Skrull empires, the defeated Star-Stalker and deceased Priests of Pama and Thanos, and the telepathic Titan dubbed Moondragon, as well as a goodly portion of classic superhero history in ‘The Times That Bind!’ before #135 revealed that ‘The Torch is Passed!’ (illustrated by George Tuska & Frank Chiaramonte) and brought all the disparate elements together in Giant-Size Avengers #4.

‘…Let All Men Bring Together’ (art by Heck & Tartaglione) climaxed the long-standing romance between the Scarlet Witch and Vision and another far more cosmic union with a brace of weddings and the ultimate ascension of the Celestial Madonna – even though demonic extra-dimensional despot Dormammu did try to spoil the show…

A new era was supposed to begin in Avengers #136 but a deadline was missed and instead ‘Iron Man: DOA’ by Englehart, Tom Sutton & Mike Ploog was reprinted from Amazing Adventures #12, wherein the newly mutated and furry Hank McCoy AKA the Beast had attacked the Armoured Avenger whilst mind-controlled.

Although an excellent story in its own right, it rather gave the game away for the next issue after the painfully depleted team declared ‘We Do Seek Out New Avengers!!’ (art by Tuska & Vince Colletta) and amongst the applicants – which included Moondragon, Yellowjacket and the Wasp – was an athletic, enigmatic guy bundled up in a raincoat…

No sooner had the introductions begun than a cosmic interloper attacked, hunting for the honeymooning Witch and Vision, but the ‘Stranger in a Strange Man!’ was far from his expected level of puissance and the heroes soon smelled a rat – unfortunately not before the Wasp was gravely injured…

After all the intergalactic hyper-cosmic extravaganzas and extended epic-ing, Avengers #139 ‘Prescription: Violence!’ and #140’s ‘A Journey to the Center of the Ant’ end this volume on a comfortingly down-to-Earth scale as the malevolent Whirlwind tried to murder the bed-ridden Wasp and her devoted defender Yellowjacket succumbed to a growing affliction which doomed him to exponentially expand to his death until the refreshed, returned Vision and the bludgeoning Beast saved the day…

Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart were at the forefront of Marvel’s second generation of story-makers, brilliantly building on and consolidating the compelling creation of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko: spearheading and constructing a logical, fully functioning wonder-machine of places and events that so many others were inspired by and could add to. In this volume, between them they also showed how much more graphic narratives could become and these terrific tales are perfect examples of superhero sagas done just right.

Although not to every reader’s taste these fantastic Fights ‘n’ Tights masterpieces can still boggle the mind and take the breath away, so no lovers of Costumed Dramas can afford to ignore this superbly bombastic book.
© 1972, 1973, 1974, 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Fantastic Four Collectors Album & The Fantastic Four Return (Paperbacks)


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Lancer)
“ISBNs” 72-111 and 72-169

Here’s a final brace of Swinging Sixties “Pop-Art” compendia celebrating the meteoric rise of the Little House that Stan, Jack and Steve Built, which will probably be of interest only to inky-fingered nostalgics, fan fanatics collectors and historical obsessive pickers, but as I’m all of them and it’s my party:

Far more than a writer or Editor; Stan Lee was also a master of entrepreneurial publicity generation and his tireless schmoozing and exhaustive attention-seeking was as crucial as the actual characters and stories in promoting his burgeoning line of superstars.

In the 1960s most adults, especially many of the professionals who worked in the field, considered comic-books a ghetto. Some disguised their identities whilst others were “just there until they caught a break”. Stan and creative lynchpins Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had another idea – change the perception.

Whilst Kirby and Ditko pursued their respective creative credos and craft, waiting for the quality of the work to be noticed, Stan pursued every opportunity to break down the ghetto walls: college lecture tours, animated shows (of frankly dubious quality at the start, but always improving), foreign franchising and of course getting their product onto mainstream bookshelves in real book shops.

There had been a revolution in popular fiction during the 1950s with a huge expansion of affordable paperback books, and companies developed extensive genre niche-markets, such as war, western, romance, science-fiction and fantasy.

Always hungry for more product for their cheap ubiquitous lines, many old novels and short stories collections were republished, introducing new generations to fantastic pulp authors like Robert E. Howard, Otis Adelbert Kline, H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth and many others.

In 1955, spurred on by the huge parallel success of cartoon and gag book collections, Bill Gaines began releasing paperback compendiums culling the best strips and features from his landmark humour magazine Mad, and comics’ Silver Age was mirrored in popular publishing by an insatiable hunger for escapist fantasy fiction.

In 1964 Bantam Books began reprinting the earliest pulp adventures of Doc Savage, triggering a revival of pulp prose superheroes, and seemed the ideal partner when Marvel began a short-lived attempt to “novelise” their comicbook stable with The Avengers Battle the Earth-Wrecker and Captain America in the Great Gold Steal.

Although growing commercially by leaps and bounds, Marvel in the early 1960s was still hampered by a crippling distribution deal limiting the company to 16 titles (which would curtail their output until 1968), so each new comicbook had to fill the revenue-generating slot (however small) of an existing title. Even though the costumed characters were selling well, each new title would limit the company’s breadth of genres (horror, western, war, etc) and comics were still a very broad field at that time. It was putting a lot of eggs in one basket and superheroes had failed twice before for Marvel.

As Lee cautiously replaced a spectrum of genre titles and specialised in superheroes, a most fortunate event occurred with the advent of the Batman TV show in January 1966. Almost overnight the world went costumed-hero crazy and many publishers repackaged their old comics stories in cheap and cheerful, digest-sized monochrome paperbacks, and it’s easy to assume that Marvel’s resized book collections were just another company cash-cow, part of their perennial “flood the marketplace” sales strategy, but it’s just not true.

Lee’s deal with Lancer to publish selected adventures in handy paperback editions had begun a year earlier with The Fantastic Four Collectors Album. Other comics publishers – National/DC, Tower Comics and Archie – were just as keen to add some credibility and even literary legitimacy to their efforts, but were caught playing catch-up in the fresh new marketplace.  Moreover, when Lancer began releasing Marvel’s Mightiest in potent and portable little collections it was simple to negotiate British iterations of those editions.

Except for the FF – as far as I can ascertain neither of the books on display here ever had a UK edition.

A word about artwork here: modern comics are almost universally full-coloured in Britain and America, but for over a century black and white was the only real choice for most mass market publishers – additional (colour) plates being just too expensive for shoe-string operations to indulge in. Even the colour of 1960s comics was cheap, and primitive and solid black line, expertly applied by master artists, was the very life-force of sequential narrative.

These days computer enhanced art can hide a multitude of weaknesses – if not actual pictorial sins – but back then companies lived or died on the illustrating skills of their artists: so even in basic black and white (and the printing of paperbacks was as basic as the accountants and bean-counters could get it) the Kirbys and Ditkos of the industry exploded out of those little pages and electrified the readership.

I can’t see that happening with many modern artists deprived of their slick paper and multi-million hued colour palettes…

This first stellar volume from the utterly on-form Lee, Kirby & Dick Ayers opened with a couple of second appearances as the deadly Doctor Doom allied with a reluctant but gullible Sub-Mariner to attack our quirky quartet in ‘Captives of the Deadly Duo!’ (FF #6, 1962)

In this first Marvel super-villain team up Prince Namor’s growing affection for the team’s female member forced the sub-sea stalwart to save his foes from dire death in outer space – but only after Doom tried to kill him too…

That superb classic was actually split into two sections and interrupted by a quick recap of the origin, cobbled together from #1 and #11…

The Fantastic Four saw maverick scientist Reed Richards summon his girl-friend Sue Storm, their friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother Johnny before heading off on their first mission. In a flashback we discover they are driven survivors of a private space-shot which went horribly wrong when Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding. They crashed back to Earth where they found that they’d all been hideously mutated into outlandish freaks…

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. Shaken but unbowed they vow to dedicate their new abilities to benefiting mankind…

After a series of stunning solo pin-ups by Kirby & Joe Sinnott, ‘The Impossible Man’ also from #11 (February 1963) followed; depicting a bizarre, baddie-free yet compellingly light-hearted tale about a fun-seeking but obnoxiously omnipotent visitor from the stars who only wants to have fun, and could only be “defeated” by boredom…

Following Super Skrull and Molecule Man pin-ups, ‘The Mad Menace of the Macabre Mole Man!’ (Lee, Kirby & Chic Stone from issue #31, October 1964) saw the uncanny underground outcast try once more to conquer the surface world in a stunning tale which balanced a loopy plan to steal entire streets of New York City with a portentous sub-plot featuring a mysterious man from Sue’s past. Presumably to avoid confusion a rather fractious spat over jurisdiction with the Mighty Avengers was excised from this edition…

To complete the graphic wonderment this initial outing ends with pin-ups of the Hate Monger and the dastardly Diablo as well as a house ad for the burgeoning Marvel Comics Line…

The Fantastic Four Return (Guest Star Sub-Mariner) was the penultimate Marvel/Lancer edition, released in 1967 and opening with ‘The Final Victory of Dr. Doom!’ from Fantastic Four Annual #2 (1964, by Lee, Kirby & Stone) and saw the mysterious monarch of Latveria brazenly attack the quartet only to suffer his most galling defeat, after which ‘Side-by-Side with Sub-Mariner!’ brought the aquatic anti-hero one step closer to his own series when the team lent surreptitious aid to the embattled undersea monarch against the hordes of deadly sub-sea barbarian Attuma in a blistering battle yarn by Lee, Kirby & Stone from FF #33 (December 1964).

‘Calamity on the Campus!’ (FF #35 February 1965 by the same creative team) saw the heroes visit Reed Richard’s old Alma Mater in a tale designed to pander to the burgeoning college fan-base Marvel was cultivating, but the rousing yarn that brought back Diablo and introduced the monstrous homunculus Dragon Man easily stands up as a classic on its own merits, full of spectacular action and even advancing the moribund romance between Reed and Sue to the point that he would actually propose in the months to come…

This superb book only boasts one pin-up but it is a classic shot of the mighty and regal Sub-Mariner by Kirby & Stone…

As someone who bought these stories in most of the available formats over the years – including the constantly recycled reprints in British weeklies from the mid-sixties to the 1980s – I have to admit that the classy classic paperback editions have a charm and attraction all their own even if they are heavily edited and abridged and rather disturbingly printed in both portrait and landscape format…

If you’ve not read these tales before then there are certainly better places to do so (such as the pertinent Essential or Marvel Masterwork volumes) but even with all the archaic and just plain dumb bits these books are still fabulous super-hero sagas with beautiful art that will never stale or wither, and for us backward-looking Baby-boomers these nostalgic pocket tomes have an incomprehensible allure that logic just can’t tarnish or taint…
© 1966 and 1967 Marvel Comics Group. All rights reserved.

Essential Fantastic Four volume 6


By Stan Lee, Archie Goodwin, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, John Buscema, Joe Sinnott & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2162-6

With the sixth collection of tales from “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” a new kind of FF style was established. With Jack Kirby’s departure the staggeringly inventive imagination and High-Concept rollercoaster of mind-bending ideas gave way to more traditional tales of character, with soap-opera leanings and super-villain dominated Fights ‘n’ Tights dramas.

This volume covers Fantastic Four #111-137 (June 1971- August 1973) and includes a few pertinent Marvel Universe Handbook pages delivering crucial background data on super-foes Diabolo, Air-Walker, Over-Mind and Thundra.

At the end of the previous collection an experiment to allow Ben Grimm to switch between human and monster forms went tragically awry and the action commences here with ‘The Thing… Amok’ by Stan Lee, John Buscema & Joe Sinnott) as Mr. Fantastic and the Human Torch tried to minimise the damage their deranged friend inflicted on the city whilst the increasingly marginalised Sue Richards was packed off to tend baby Franklin with eldritch governess Agatha Harkness.

With all of New York seemingly against them, the embattled heroes were on the ropes when the Incredible Hulk joined the fracas in #112’s ‘Battle of the Behemoths!’. As Sue finally returned, The Thing appeared to have perished but once more Reed Richards saved – and cured – his best friend just as another menace materialised in ‘The Power of… the Over-Mind!’: another insidious cosmic menace presaged by an ominous warning from alien voyeur The Watcher.

The psionic super-menace further incited civilian antipathy towards the FF in ‘But Who Shall Stop the Over-Mind?’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) before physically trouncing the team.

With #115 Stan Lee surrendered the scripting role to Archie Goodwin, who revealed ‘The Secret of the Eternals’ (not the earthly proto-gods created by Kirby, but an ancient alien race) in a visually stunning sequence limned by Buscema & Sinnott which culminated in Reed being taken over by the Over-Mind and attacking his erstwhile comrades…

Double-sized Fantastic Four #116 featured ‘The Alien, the Ally, and… Armageddon!’ as the desperate heroes, unable to access any superhero assistance, recruited deadly foe Doctor Doom to lead them in the final battle against the unbeatable Over-Mind. They were nonetheless crushed and only saved at the crucial moment by an unexpected saviour in ‘Now Falls the Final Hour!’

With the world saved and order restored, the heartsick Human Torch headed for the Himalayas and a long-delayed rapprochement with his lost girlfriend Crystal of the Uncanny Inhumans in FF #117.

Months previously she had been forced to leave civilisation because modern pollutants had poisoned her system, but when Johnny Storm battled his way into her homeland in ‘The Flame and the Quest!’ he was horrified to discover that she had never arrived back in Attilan’s Great Refuge…

Blazing his way back to New York, Johnny used Agatha Harkness to track Crystal down and found her the mesmerised slave of arcane alchemist Diabolo who was using her to conquer a South American country in ‘Thunder in the Ruins!’ (inked by Jim Mooney). That issue also included an intriguing short piece starring the Thing in ‘What Mad World?’ wherein the Tragic Titan got a glimpse at an alternative Earth where an even greater mishap occurred after the fateful spaceflight which created the Fantastic Four…

The Black Panther – renamed Black Leopard for political reasons – guest-starred in #119’s ‘Three Stood Together!’ as inker Sinnott returned and Roy Thomas scripted a damning indictment of South African apartheid. When the heroic ruler of jungle wonderland Wakanda was interned in the white-ruled state of Rudyarda, Ben and Johnny flew in to bust him out and only incidentally recapture a deadly super-weapon…

Fantastic Four #120 heralded an extended and overlong epic by Stan Lee which began with ‘The Horror that Walks on Air!’ as an invader claiming to be an angel scoured the Earth and declared humanity doomed. The tale laboriously continued in ‘The Mysterious Mind-Blowing Secret of Gabriel!’ with the utterly overmatched FF rescued by the Silver Surfer before facing off against the world-devouring ‘Galactus Unleashed’ whilst Reed again outsmarted the cosmic god to prevent the consumption of ‘This World Enslaved!’

Although beautifully illustrated, the hackneyed saga was a series low-point, but Lee was back on solid dramatic ground with #124’s ‘The Return of the Monster’ and concluding episode ‘The Monster’s Secret!’ wherein the mystery menace Reed had once dubbed ‘the Monster from the Lost Lagoon’ resurfaced to haunt a hospital, steal drugs and kidnap Sue… but only for the best and most noble of reasons.

Roy Thomas became writer/editor with #126, revisiting the classic origin and first clash with the Mole Man in ‘The Way it Began!’

This reverie prompted the Thing to invade the sub-surface despot’s realm in search of a cure for the blindness which afflicted his girlfriend Alicia in ‘Where the Sun Dares Not Shine!’ and soon the embattled brute found  himself embroiled in a three-way war between Mole Man, Kala, Empress of the Netherworld and immortal dictator Tyrannus.

When his comrades came after Ben they were duped into attacking him in ‘Death in a Dark and Lonely Place!’

After four pages of pin-ups by Buscema & Sinnott featuring a host of friends and foes ‘The Frightful Four… Plus One!’ saw the Torch again visit Attilan, whilst in New York the Thing was ambushed by The Sandman, Wizard, Trapster and their newest ally the super-strong Amazon Thundra.

Happily, Crystal’s Inhuman sister Medusa was there to pitch in as the clash escalated and spread to ‘Battleground: the Baxter Building!’ where baby Franklin began to exhibit terrifying abilities. Always left holding the baby and fed up with her husband’s neglect, Sue finally left Reed, whilst in the Himalayas Johnny forced his way to Crystal’s side only to find his worst nightmares realised…

Fantastic Four #131 described a ‘Revolt in Paradise!’ (Thomas, Ross Andru & Sinnott) as Crystal, her brand new fiancé Quicksilver, and the rest of the Inhumans were attacked by their genetically-programmed slave-race the Alpha Primitives.

At first it seemed that insane usurper Maximus was again responsible for the strife but there was a deeper secret behind the deadly danger of ‘Omega! The Ultimate Enemy!’ and when the rest of the FF arrived Reed soon ferreted it out…

Issue #133 celebrated Christmas with ‘Thundra at Dawn!’ as the mysterious Femizon returned to battle Ben again, courtesy of Gerry Conway, Ramona Fradon & Sinnott, whilst ‘A Dragon Stalks the Sky!’ in #134 (Conway, Buscema & Sinnott) found Reed, Johnny, Ben and Medusa fighting forgotten foe Gregory Gideon and his latest acquisition the Dragon Man; a bombastic battle which concluded in a struggle to possess ‘The Eternity Machine’

The secret of that reality-warping device was revealed in the two-part thriller which ends this edition as the cosmic entity Shaper of Worlds created a horrific and paranoid pastiche of 1950s America; re-running the conflicts between rebellious youth and doctrinaire, paternalistic authority in ‘Rock Around the Cosmos!’ and the surreal conclusion ‘Rumble on Planet 3’

Although Kirby had taken the explosive imagination and questing sense of wonder with him on his departure, the sheer range of beloved characters and concepts he had created with Stan Lee served to carry the series for years afterwards and these admittedly erratic and inconsistent stories kept the Fantastic Four ticking over until bolder hands could once again take the World’s Greatest Comics Magazine Heroes back to the stratospheric heights where they belonged.

Solid, honest and creditable efforts, these tales are probably best seen by dedicated superhero fans and continuity freaks like me, but could still thrill and enthral the generous and forgiving casual browser looking for an undemanding slice of graphic narrative excitement.
© 1971, 1972, 1973, 2012 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Human Torch

New, extended review –


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1309-6

Hot on the heels (Sorry, sorry – I simply couldn’t help myself) of the runaway success of Fantastic Four, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby spun the most colourful and youngest member of the team into his own series, hoping to recapture the glory of the 1940s when the Human Torch was one of the company’s “Big Three” superstars.

This captivating, esoteric and economical collection of pure 1960s superhero shenanigans gathers those eclectic but crucial yarns (no less than five major Marvel villains debuted in blistering battle against the Flaming Kid) between Strange Tales #101 and 134 (October 1962- July 1965) and this searing monochrome compendium also includes the team-up of the Torch and Spider-Man from the second Annual.

Within a year of FF #1, the monster anthology title Strange Tales became the home for the hot headed hero. In issue #101, young Johnny Storm started his ancillary solo career in the eponymous ‘The Human Torch’ – a run-of-the-mill script by Larry Lieber (over a plot by his brother Stan) superbly illustrated by Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers wherein Johnny Storm investigated sabotage at a new seaside amusement park and promptly discovered Commie conniving by a Red spy called the Destroyer. Kirby would pencil the first few adventures before moving on after which inker Ayers would assume control of the series’ look for most of its run – although Kirby would generate some of the best covers of his Marvel career throughout the Torch’s tenure.

An odd inconsistency or, more likely, tension and drama-inducing gimmick did crop up here. Although public figures in the Fantastic Four, Johnny and his sister Sue lived part-time in the rural New York hamlet of Glenville and despite the townsfolk being fully aware of her as the glamorous and heroic Invisible Girl, they seemed oblivious to the fact that her baby brother was the equally famous Torch. Many daft pages but ingenious pages of Johnny protecting his secret identity would ensue before the situation was brilliantly resolved.

Although something of a hit-or-miss proposition, the strip was the origin point for many of Marvel’s greatest villains. The first of these appeared in the very next tale ‘Prisoner of the Wizard’ (Lee, Lieber, Kirby & Ayers) wherein a spiteful and publicity-hungry intellectual giant determined to crush the Torch to prove his superiority to the callow kid who stole all the newspaper headlines and the same creative team, then produced the captivating classic ‘Prisoner of the 5th Dimension’, as Johnny defeated a potential invasion and freed a captive populace from tyranny before easily trashing adhesive-toting adversary ‘Paste-Pot Pete!’ (later revamped as the terrifying Trapster), before teaming with sister Sue to tackle the deadly ‘Return of the Wizard’.

When Kirby moved on to engineer and design a host of new characters and concepts (occasionally returning as necessity or special events warranted) Ayers assumed full art duties beginning with Strange Tales #106 (March 1963). This yarn was notable in that it revealed that the entire town of Glenville had always known the Torch’s secret identity but were just playing along to keep him happy.

When Acrobat Carl Zante knocked on Johnny’s door and offered him a better-paying gig in ‘The Threat of the Torrid Twosome’ the kid’s head was swelled and swayed but he soon discovered he had been played by a master conman and diabolical bandit…

This first hint of tongue-in-cheek whimsy presaged an increasing lightness of touch which would come to characterise the Marvel style as much as the infighting between team-mates. The villainous Acrobat would return in another milestone in issue #114…

Issue #107 would be Lieber’s last as Ayers drew a splendid punch-up with the ‘Sub-Mariner’ – a tale reminiscent of the spectacular and immensely popular Golden Age battles of their publishing forebears. Veteran writer Robert “Berns” Bernstein scripted the next two, frankly daft yarns over Lee’s plots, but the saving grace of both ‘The Painter of a Thousand Perils!’(empowered by an alien art kit which brought illustrations to life in ST #108) and ‘The Sorcerer and Pandora’s Box’ (#109, with monstrous demons attacking humanity) was the brief return of King Kirby to the pencilling.

H.E. Huntley (Ernie Hart) typed the words for Ayers to illustrate in ‘The Human Torch vs. the Wizard and Paste-Pot Pete!’ a cunning clash which presaged the villain’s eventual evolution into the FF’s evil counterparts the Frightful Four. In #111 the Torch made short work of ‘Fighting to the Death with the Asbestos Man!’ – yet another demented scientist experiencing the travails and tragedies of simpler times.

Strange Tales #112 (scripted by Jerry Siegel under the pen-name Joe Carter) introduced murderous electrical marauder the Eel who accidentally swiped and activated a miniature A-Bomb in the tense, multifaceted thriller ‘The Human Torch Faces the Threat of the Living Bomb!’ after which Strange Tales Annual #2, featured ‘The Human Torch on the Trail of the Amazing Spider-Man!’ a terrific romp by Lee, Kirby & Steve Ditko wherein the wall-crawler was framed by international art thief The Fox, whilst back in the regular comicbook, “Carter” created another long-term baddie in ‘The Coming of the Plantman!’

Strange Tales #114 changed the face of the Marvel Firmament forever…

Written by Stan Lee himself, illustrated by Kirby & Ayers, it featured the return of the third of Timely Comics’ Golden Age Big Three – or at least an impersonation of him by the insidious Acrobat – in a blockbusting battle entitled ‘The Human Torch meets…Captain America!

Here’s a quote from the last panel…

“You guessed it! This story was really a test! To see if you too would like Captain America to Return! As usual, your letters will give us the answer!” I wonder how that all turned out?

Lee took over as scripter with ST #115’s ‘The Sandman Strikes!’ as Johnny impersonated Spider-Man to defeat the deadly atomic thug Flint Marko, after which the Torrid Teen and team-mate Ben (The Thing) Grimm battled each other ‘In the Clutches of the Puppet Master!’ in #116, with Ayers inked by George Roussos in his own secret identity of George Bell.

‘The Return of the Eel! proved far more of a challenge in #117 after which the Wizard had another go as ‘The Man Who Became the Torch!’, consequently nearly killing the Thing and Reed Richards besides.

A first brush with Marvel’s soon-to-be core readership came in #119 when ‘The Torch Goes Wild!’ due to a Commie Agent called the Rabble Rouser who mesmerised decent citizens, making them surly and rebellious, after which Kirby stepped in for #120 as ‘The Torch Meets Iceman!’, a terrific action extravaganza that pretty much ended the glory days of this strip. From then on, despite every gimmick and occasional burst of sheer inspiration the Bullpen could muster, a slow decline set in as the quirky back-up strip Doctor Strange grew in popularity – and cover space…

Issue #121 saw Johnny as ‘Prisoner of the Plantman!’ (Lee & Ayers) and #122 found a brute, conman and yogi all augmented by Dr. Doom and mustered as the woefully lame Terrible Trio launch an ill-conceived attack in ‘3 Against the Torch!’

Strange Tales #123 saw a creepy inventor build himself an impressive insectoid exo-suit to get rich the easy way as in an effort to boost ratings, The Thing became a permanent fixture in ‘The Birth of the Beetle!’ This so-so saga was most notable for the pencil job by Golden Age Torch creator Carl Burgos, after which Johnny and Ben tackled a fully re-designed ‘Paste-Pot Pete’ (inked by Paul Reinman) and then went after another old adversary in ‘The Sub-Mariner Must Be Stopped!’

‘Pawns of the Deadly Duo!’ saw the Puppet Master return, allied to the Mad Thinker in a clever but shallow yarn whilst #127 pitted Ben and Johnny against a bizarre puzzle and ‘The Mystery Villain!’

After a stunning Kirby Thing pin-up the Fantastic Two then unwillingly battled ‘Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch’ in #128 (inked by Frankie Ray, AKA Frank Giacoia), as the Homo Superior siblings made an abortive first attempt to quit Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, after which ‘The Terrible Trio!’ once more failed to impress or assassinate the heroes…

Pop culture reeled and staggered with #130 in ‘Meet the Beatles’ (some sort of popular musical combo, not villains, and they actually didn’t meet them at all) although the brilliant Golden Age artist Bob Powell (with inking from Chic Stone) did take over the art chores for the comedy of errors/crime caper. Ayers returned to ink #131, the dire ‘Bouncing Ball of Doom!’ with the Mad Thinker siccing a cybernetic bowling bowl on the pair but Larry Ivie then wrote a capable Space Race thriller in ‘The Sinister Space Trap!’ inked by Mike Esposito under his Mickey DeMeo alias.

Stan Lee returned for the last two tales in ST #133 and #134; ‘The Terrible Toys’ wherein the Puppet Master tried a new modus operandi and ‘The Challenge of… The Watcher!’ (inked by the majestic Wally Wood) with the Torch and Thing transported to legendary Camelot to battle time-reaver Kang the Conqueror, but it was clear that the writer’s mind was elsewhere, most likely with the new Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. strip that would replace the Torch and thing in Strange Tales #135.

It is interesting to note that as the parent Fantastic Four title grew in scope and quality The Human Torch’s own series diminished. Perhaps there is something to be said for concentrating one’s efforts or not overexposing your stars. What was originally a spin-off for the younger audience faded as Marvel found its voice and its marketplace, although there would be periodic efforts to reinvigorate the Torch.

Sadly the historic value often supersedes the quality of most of these strange tales, but there’s still a good deal that’s great about this series and Fights ‘n’ Tights fans with a sense of tradition and love of fun will find this book irresistible and unmissable.
© 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 2003 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Essential Marvel Two-In-One volume 1


By Jim Starlin, Roy Thomas, Steve Gerber, Gil Kane, Sal Buscema, Ron Wilson & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1729-2

Imagination isn’t everything. As Marvel slowly grew to a position of dominance in the wake of the losing their two most innovative and inspirational creators, they did so less by experimentation and more by expanding and exploiting proven concepts and properties.

The only real exception to this was the en masse creation of horror titles in response to the industry down-turn in super-hero sales – a move expedited by a rapid revision in the wordings of the increasingly ineffectual Comics Code Authority rules.

The concept of team-up books – an established star pairing, or battling – often both – with less well-selling company characters was not new when Marvel decided to award their most popular hero the lion’s share of this new title, but they wisely left their options open by allocating an occasional substitute lead in the Human Torch. In those long-lost days editors were acutely conscious of potential over-exposure – and since super-heroes were actually in a decline they may well have been right.

After the runaway success of Spider-Man’s Marvel Team-Up the House of Ideas carried on the trend with a series starring bashful, blue-eyed Ben Grimm – the Fantastic Four’s most iconic member – beginning with two test runs in Marvel Feature before graduating to its own somewhat over-elaborate title.

This economical, eclectic monochrome compendium gathers together the contents of Marvel Feature #11-12, Marvel Two-In-One #1-20, 22-25 and Annual #1, as well as Marvel Team-Up #47 and Fantastic Four Annual #11, covering the period September 1973 – March 1977.

It all kicked off with a perennial favourite pairing as the Thing once more clashed with the Hulk in ‘Cry: Monster! (by Len Wein, Jim Starlin and Joe Sinnott from Marvel Feature #11,  September 1973) wherein Kurrgo, Master of Planet X and the lethal Leader manipulated the blockbusting brutes into duking it out – ostensibly to settle a wager – but with both misshapen masterminds concealing hidden agendas…

That ever-inconclusive yet cataclysmic clash left Ben stranded in the Nevada desert where Mike Friedrich, Starlin & Sinnott promptly dropped him in the middle of the ongoing war against mad Titan Thanos as Iron Man helped the Thing crush monstrous alien invaders in ‘The Bite of the Blood Brothers!’ (#12, November 1973); another spectacular and painfully pretty all-action punch-up.

Still stuck in the desert when the dust settled Ben eventually trekked to an outpost of civilisation just in time to be diverted to Florida in Marvel Two-In-One #1 (January 1974) where Steve Gerber, Gil Kane & Sinnott magnificently revealed the ‘Vengeance of the Molecule Man!’ as Ben learned some horrifying home truths about what constituted being a monster battling with and beside the ghastly and grotesque anti-hero Man-Thing.

With the second issue Gerber cannily traded a superfluous supporting character from the Man-Thing series to add some much needed depth to the team-up title. ‘Manhunters from the Stars!’ pitted Ben, old enemy Sub-Mariner and the Aquatic Avenger’s powerful cousin Namorita against each other and aliens hunting the emotionally and intellectually retarded superboy Wundarr in another dynamically intoxicating tale illustrated by Kane & Sinnott. That case also left the Thing de facto guardian of the titanic teenaged tot…

Sal Buscema signed on as penciller with #3 as the Rocky Ranger joined the Man Without Fear ‘Inside Black Spectre!’, a crossover instalment of the extended epic then playing out in Daredevil #108-112 (this action-packed fight-fest occurring between the second and third chapters) after which ‘Doomsday 3014!’ (Gerber, Buscema & Frank Giacoia) found Ben and Captain America catapulted into the 31st century to save Earth from enslavement by the reptilian Brotherhood of Badoon, leaving Wundarr with Namorita for the foreseeable future…

The furious future-shocker concluded in MTIO #5 as the Guardians of the Galaxy climbed aboard the Freedom Rocket to help the time-lost heroes liberate New York before returning home. The overthrow of the aliens was completed by another set of ancient heroes in Defenders #26-29 (since collected in the superbly economical Essential Defenders volume 2).

Marvel Two-In-One #6 (November 1974) began a complex crossover tale with the aforementioned Defenders as Dr. Strange and the Thing encountered a cosmic event which began with a subway busker’s harmonica and led inexorably to a ‘Death-Song of Destiny!’ (Gerber, George Tuska & Mike Esposito) before Asgardian outcasts Enchantress and the Executioner attempted to seize control of unfolding events in #7’s ‘Name That Doom!’ (pencilled by Sal Buscema) only to be thwarted by Grimm and the valiant Valkyrie. There’s enough of an ending here for casual readers but fans and completists will want to hunt down Defenders #20 or the previously plugged Essential Defenders volume 2 for the full story…

Back here though issue #8 teamed the Thing and supernatural sensation Ghost Rider in a quirky and compelling Yuletide yarn for a ‘Silent Night… Deadly Night!’ (Gerber, Buscema & Esposito) as the audacious Miracle Man tried to usurp a very special birth in a stable…

Gerber moved on after plotting the Thor team-up ‘When a God goes Mad!’ for Chris Claremont to script and Herb Trimpe & Joe Giella to finish: a rather meagre effort with the Puppet Master and Radion the Atomic Man making a foredoomed power play, but issue #10 was a slice of inspired espionage action with Ben and the Black Widow battling suicidal terrorist Agamemnon who planned to detonate the planet’s biggest nuke in the blistering thriller ‘Is This the Way the World Ends?’ by Claremont, Bob Brown & Klaus Janson.

Marvel Two-In-One had quickly become a kind of clearing house for cancelled series and uncompleted storylines. Supernatural series The Golem had featured in Strange Tales #174, 176 and 177 (June-December 1974) before being summarily replaced mid-story by Adam Warlock and MTIO #11 provided plotter Roy Thomas, scripter Bill Mantlo and artists Brown & Jack Abel to offer some spectacular closure when ‘The Thing goes South’ resulted in stony bloke and animated statue finally crushing the insidious plot of demonic wizard Kaballa.

Young Ron Wilson began his lengthy association with the series and the Thing in #12 as Iron Man and Ben tackled out of control, mystically-empowered ancient Crusader Prester John in ‘The Stalker in the Sands!’; a blistering desert storm written by Mantlo and inked by Vince Colletta, after which Luke Cage, Power Man popped in to help stop a giant monster in ‘I Created Braggadoom!, the Mountain that Walked like a Man!’ – an old fashioned homage scripted by Roger Slifer & Len Wein, whilst Mantlo, Trimpe & John Tartaglione offered a spooky encounter with spectres and demons in #14’s ‘Ghost Town!’ a moody mission shared with The Son of Satan.

Mantlo, Arvell Jones & Dick Giordano brought on ‘The Return of the Living Eraser!’ a dimension-hopping invasion yarn which introduced Ben to Morbius, the Living Vampire after which a canny crossover epic began with the Thing and Ka-Zar plunging ‘Into the Savage Land!’ to dally with dinosaurs and defeat resource plunderers, after which the action switched to New York as Spider-Man joined the party in MTIO #17 to combat ‘This City… Afire!’ (Mantlo, Sal Buscema & Esposito) when mutated madman Basilisk transported an active volcano from Antarctica to the Hudson River with the cataclysmic conclusion following (from Marvel Team-Up #47) where Mantlo, Wilson & Dan Adkins finished off the epic and saved the day in fine style with ‘I Have to Fight the Basilisk!’

Another short-changed supernatural serial was finally sorted out in MTIO #18. ‘Dark, Dark Demon-Night!’ by Mantlo, Scott Edelman, Wilson, Jim Mooney & Adkins, found mystical watchdog The Scarecrow escape from its painted prison to foil a demonic invasion with the reluctant assistance of the Thing, after which Tigra the Were-Woman slinked into Ben’s life to vamp a favour and crush a sinister scheme by a rogue cat creature in ‘Claws of the Cougar!’ by Mantlo, Sal Buscema, & Don Heck.

That yarn segued directly into Fantastic Four Annual #11 which began a time-travelling sage with ‘And Now Then… the Invaders!’ by Roy Thomas, Big John Buscema & Sam Grainger, wherein Marvel’s First Family travelled back to 1942 to retrieve a cylinder of miracle-metal Vibranium which had begun to unwrite history after falling into Nazi hands.

En route they became embroiled in conflict with WWII super-team the Invaders which comprised early incarnations of Captain America, Sub-Mariner and the android Human Torch.

The time-busting task went well once the heroes finally united to assault the Nazi castle where the Vibranium was held, but after the quartet returned to their own repaired era, only Ben realised that the mission wasn’t completed yet…

The action continues in Marvel Two-In-One Annual #1 as, with the present unravelling around him, Ben returned to 1942 in ‘Their Name is Legion!’ by Thomas, Sal Buscema, Grainger, Tartaglione & George Roussos, to link up with Home Front Heroes The Liberty Legion (The Patriot, Thin Man, Red Raven, Jack Frost, Blue Diamond, Miss America and the Whizzer) and thwart Nazi raiders Skyshark and Master Man, Japanese agent Slicer and Atlantean traitor U-Man’s invasion of America: a battle so big it spilled over and concluded in Marvel Two-In-One #20 (October 1976) in a shattering ‘Showdown at Sea!’ against diabolical Nazi scientist Brain Drain, courtesy of Thomas, Sal Buscema & Grainger.

MTIO #21 featured a team-up with Doc Savage but as Marvel no longer holds a license for that character, the story is excluded from this collection and the action resumes with #22’s two-part Thor pairing against the Egyptian God of Death in ‘Touch Not the Hand of Seth!’ (Mantlo, Wilson & Pablo Marcos); a fantastic cosmic extravaganza concluded with the assistance of Jim Shooter & Marie Severin in ‘Death on the Bridge to Heaven!’, after which Ben had a far more prosaic time with neophyte hero Black Goliath as a devastated downtown Los Angeles asked ‘Does Anyone Remember… the Hijacker?’ (by Mantlo, Shooter, Sal Buscema & Marcos).

This initial economical compendium ends on the cusp of a new era as the much delayed and postponed team-up with Iron Fist, the Living Weapon heralded the start of writer/editor Marv Wolfman’s impressive run on the title. ‘A Tale of Two Countries!’ illustrated by Wilson & Grainger, saw the Thing and the master martial artist shanghaied to the Far East as part of a Machiavellian plan to conquer the island kingdom of Kaiwann. Naturally they both strenuously objected…

These stories from Marvel’s Middle Period are of variable quality but nonetheless all are an honest attempt to entertain and exhibit a dedicated drive to please. Whilst artistically the work varies from adequate to quite superb, most fans of frantic Fights ‘n’ Tights genre would find little to complain about.

Although not really a book for casual or more maturely-oriented readers there’s lots of fun on hand and young readers will have a blast, so there’s no real reason not to add this tome to your straining superhero bookshelves…
© 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.