Essential Fantastic Four volume 5


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia, John Romita, John Buscema, John Verpoorten & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2162-6

With the fifth collection of tales from “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” the dream-team of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee was sundered and a reeling Marvel entered a new epoch of uncertain futures and bold new directions – which is rather ironic since it was the company’s reticence to give the artist creative freedom which led to Kirby’s jumping ship to National/DC in the first place…

This volume covers the final days of “the King’s” reign on Marvel’s flagship title and the shaky start of a new era covers Fantastic Four #84-110 (March 1969-May 1971) plus the covers of FF Annuals #7 and 8, but also includes a few surprise features to stun and startle art-lovers everywhere.

The narrative delights begin with the start of a four-part epic starring their greatest foe. ‘His Name is Doom!’ (by the team supreme of Lee, Kirby & Joe Sinnott) found Mr. Fantastic, Human Torch, Thing and substitute member Crystal returning from battling Maximus and the Inhumans only to be intercepted by Nick Fury and the super-spies of S.H.I.E.L.D. looking for a favour…

The Steel-Shod Dictator had apparently devised unstoppable super-robots and the quixotic quartet was asked to infiltrate the sovereign state of Latveria to ferret them out. However it’s impossible to sneak up on the most paranoid man in the world and the heroes were easily intercepted and captured. ‘Within This Tortured Land’ found them “guests” in Doom’s fairytale Ruritanian paradise, but even with their powers removed they soon discovered the cruel iron within their velvet prison as the Monarch of Latveria began testing his deadly Doombots on his own subjects. When the automatons went wild the entire kingdom was imperilled in ‘Victims’ and only the last-minute arrival of Invisible Girl Sue Richards allowed the FF and the villagers to survive Doom’s cataclysmic failsafe plan

The shocking final confrontation and conclusion came in ‘The Power and the Pride!’ which wrapped up the saga in a bombastic blend of super-science, soap opera and delightful melodrama seldom seen in comicbooks before or since.

Fantastic Four #88 found the five champions back in the USA and looking at an unconventional new house found by the dedicatedly-domesticated Sue in her perpetual quest to carve out a relatively normal life for her new son. Regrettably the trendy detached dwelling in ‘A House There Was!’ had been designed by the FF’s oldest enemy and ‘The Madness of the Mole Man!’ predicated his turning the entire world blind and wiping out the extended heroic family entirely.

The Thing took centre-stage in the next extended epic as he was kidnapped to another world when ‘The Skrull Takes a Slave!’ in #90. Abducted to fight in gladiatorial games on a colony world patterned after Earth’s 1920s gangster era ‘The Thing… Enslaved!’ introduced rival Skrull mobs vying for supremacy and a noble slave destined to slaughter our shanghaied champion. ‘Ben Grimm, Killer!’ ramped up the tension as Thing and mechanoid marvel Torgo discovered that their home-worlds were hostage to their fortune and ferocity in the arena…

Meanwhile Reed, Johnny and Crystal had not been idle. While Ben was at ‘The Mercy of Torgo!’ his Earthly brothers-in-arms were enacting a desperate plan to save him and destroy the Skrulls planetary doom-weapon.

After the cover to the all-reprint Fantastic Four Annual #7 a series of single issue stories kicked off with the debut of eldritch babysitter/governess Agatha Harkness in ‘The Return of the Frightful Four!’ a rollercoaster romp of action and suspense most significant for finally giving Sue and Reed’s baby a name after a year of shilly-shallying… Franklin Benjamin Richards.

The Monocle was a technological assassin determined to cause global Armageddon in #95’s ‘Tomorrow… World War Three!’ in the middle of which Crystal was abruptly abducted by her own family, after which ‘The Mad Thinker and his Androids of Death!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) once again proved no match for the heroic foursome whilst ‘The Monster From the Lost Lagoon!’ offered a decidedly different take on the horror-movies it gloriously pastiched when the First Family tried to combine a quick tropical vacation with a little rumour-busting creature-hunt…

Both Joe Sinnott and the Sentry Sinister returned in #98’s ‘Mystery on the Moon!’ as the global fervour over the first lunar landing in 1969 (conveniently forgetting, of course, the FF’s own visit to our satellite in issue #13) resulted in a cracking yarn wherein the team stopped the intergalactic Kree empire from sabotaging mankind’s first steps into space, whilst in #99 the heartsick Johnny Storm invaded the hidden home of the Inhumans intent on reuniting with his lost love at all costs when ‘The Torch Goes Wild!’

With a restored Crystal happily in tow the 100th anniversary adventure featured a daft but spectacular battle against robotic replicas of their greatest enemies in ‘The Long Journey Home!’ but #101 provided a far more intriguing contest when criminal combine the Maggia bought the team’s skyscraper headquarters in a cunning, quasi-legal ploy to steal the FF’s scientific secrets, culminating in ‘Bedlam in the Baxter Building!’

Fantastic Four #102 featured the first cover not drawn by The King as John Romita (senior) prepared to jump into the artistic hot-seat following Kirby’s abrupt move to the home of Superman and Batman.

After an incomprehensibly vast catalogue of creativity an unthinkable Changing of the Guard occurred when the increasingly discontented King of Comics jumped ship from the House of (His) Ideas for arch-rival National/DC where he crafted his Fourth World Magnum Opus as well as a host of other game-changing comicbook classics…

An era ended at Marvel when the King abdicated his seemingly divinely-ordained position. Left to pacify and win over again the stunned fans were Stan Lee and a couple of budding talents named Romita and Buscema…

Kirby was not quite gone however, as he and Sinnott opened an impressive extended epic wherein the mutant menace Magneto used guile and subterfuge to turn ‘The Strength of the Sub-Mariner’ and his undersea armies against the FF and entire surface world…

Romita and inker John Verpoorten took over the story in mid-stream depicting America ‘At War with Atlantis!’ as Magneto inevitably betrayed Namor, inspiring the Prince to join with the embattled quartet to prevent ‘Our World… Enslaved!’, which is followed here by the cover of Fantastic Four Annual #8 (which had reprinted the original clash between Subby’s undersea empire and the surface world from the first FF Annual) after which Lee, Romita & Verpoorten began the low-key but extremely effective tale of ‘The Monster in the Streets!’

When Crystal was taken ill – preparatory to writing her out of the series completely – Reed’s examination revealed a potential method of curing the misshapen Thing of his Rocky curse, but whilst he was preparing Ben Grimm for the longed-for process a mysterious energy-beast began to tear up the city. By the time ‘The Monster’s Secret!’ was exposed in #106 the team strongman was near death and Crystal gone… seemingly forever.

Joe Sinnott returned – again – in #107 in ‘And Now… the Thing!’ as John Buscema took over Kirby’s other masterpiece (he had begun drawing Thor four months previously from issue #182) wherein the tragic man-beast gained the power to become human at will. It seemed the best of all possible outcomes but something wasn’t quite right… However, before Reed could investigate an old foe popped up again. Sort of…

FF #108 was something of a surprise to fans. ‘The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man!’ reintroduced a character never before seen by recycling portions of a rejected Lee, Kirby & Sinnott tale with new framing sequences illustrated by Buscema and Romita. The mysterious Janus had tapped into the anti-matter power of the Negative Zone once and now he had “returned” to steal more by crashing through the portal in Reed’s lab. Unfortunately this had attracted the attention of extinction-event predator Annihilus, who had long sought entry into our life-rich universe…

Forced to follow the truly mad scientist Reed, Ben and Johnny once again faced ‘Death in the Negative Zone!’ and this compelling compendium closes on a cliffhanger with Fantastic Four #110 as, with a little arcane assistance, Reed escaped doom in the anti-matter cosmos only to realise that the “cured” Ben Grimm had become a lethal threat to all humanity in ‘One From Four Leaves Three!’

Did I say closes? Not quite; as this massive monochrome tome still finds room for a selection of original un-inked Kirby pencil pages from #89 and even reprints a photo gallery of the entire Marvel Bullpen from circa 1971. Boy – talk about bonuses…

These are the stories which confirmed Jack Kirby as the absolute master of superhero storytelling and gave Marvel the push needed to overtake the decades-dominant DC, as well as the valiant efforts tat saved the company after the Great Imaginer left for their biggest rival. They’re also some of the very best comics ever produced and as thrilling and compulsive now as they ever were. This is another must-have book for all fans of graphic narrative.

© 1969, 1970, 1971, 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks (volume 2): The Fantastic Four 1-10


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-307-5

I love a bit of controversy so I’m going start off by saying that Fantastic Four #1 is the third most important American comicbook of the Silver Age and ever since, ranking just behind Showcase #4, which introduced the Flash and The Brave and the Bold #28, which brought superhero teams back via the creation of the Justice League of America. I’m just saying…

After a troubled period at DC Comics (National Periodicals as it then was) and a creatively productive but disheartening time on the poisoned chalice of the Sky Masters newspaper strip Jack Kirby settled into his job at the small outfit that used to be the publishing powerhouse Timely/Atlas, churning out mystery, monster, romance and western material in a market he suspected to be ultimately doomed.

But his fertile imagination couldn’t be suppressed for long and when the JLA caught the public’s massed imagination it gave him and writer/editor Stan Lee an opportunity which changed the industry forever.

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

It was Kirby’s compelling art and the fact that these characters weren’t anodyne cardboard cut-outs. In a real and recognizable location, (New York City from #3 onwards) imperfect, rather touchy people banded together out of tragedy and disaster to face the incredible.

In many ways The Challengers of the Unknown (Kirby’s prototype quartet whose escapades are available in two wonderful DC Archives as well as a single economical, black and white Showcase Presents volume) laid all the groundwork for the wonders to come, but the staid, almost hide-bound editorial strictures of National would never have allowed the, undiluted energy of the concept to run all-but unregulated.

This glorious and lavish hardcover compilation reprints the first ten trend-setting, empire-building issues beginning with Fantastic Four #1 (bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, by Lee, Kirby and an uncredited inker whose identity remains a topic of much debate to this day) – a raw, rough, passionate and uncontrolled blend of traditional monster adventure and sci-fi saga. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it.

‘The Fantastic Four’ saw maverick scientist Reed Richards summon his fiancé Sue Storm, their friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother Johnny before heading off on their first mission. In a flashback we discover that they are driven survivors of a private space-shot that went horribly wrong when Cosmic rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding. They crashed back to Earth and found that they had 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.

In ‘The Fantastic Four meet the Mole Man’ they foil a plan by another outcast who controls monsters and slave humanoids from far beneath the Earth. This summation of the admittedly mediocre plot cannot do justice to the engrossing wonder of that breakthrough issue – we really have no grasp today of just how different in tone, how shocking it all was.

“Different” doesn’t mean “better” even here, but the FF was like no other comic on the market at the time and buyers responded to it hungrily. The brash experiment continued with another old plot in #2. ‘The Skrulls from Outer Space’ were shape-changing aliens who framed the FF and made them hunted outlaws (a fruitful theme often returned to in those early days) before the genius of Mister Fantastic bluffed their entire invasion fleet into abandoning their plans for conquering Earth.

Issue #3 (inked by Sol Brodsky) featured ’The Menace of the Miracle Man’ whose omnipotent powers had a simple secret, but is more notable for the first appearance of their uniforms and a shocking line-up change, which led directly into the next issue. Continued stories were an innovation in themselves, but the revival of a Golden Age Great instantly added depth and weight to the six month old and still un-named Marvel Universe.

‘The Coming of the Sub-Mariner’ reintroduced the all-powerful amphibian Prince of Atlantis, who had been lost for decades, a victim of amnesia. Recovering his memory thanks to the Human Torch, Namor returned to his sub-sea home only to find it destroyed by atomic testing. A monarch without subjects, he swore vengeance on humanity and attacked New York City with a gigantic monster. This saga is when the series truly kicked into high-gear…

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

I’m not discounting Mole Man, but that tragic little gargoyle, for all his plans of world conquest, wouldn’t truly acquire the persona of a costumed foe until his more refined second appearance in #22.

‘Prisoners of Doctor Doom’ (July 1962, inked by the subtly slick Joe Sinnott) has it all. An attack by a mysterious enemy from Reed’s past, magic and super-science, lost treasure, time-travel – even pirates. Ha-haar, me ‘earties! One brief aside for collectors here: the 1987 first printing of this Marvel Masterworks has a number of the pages in this tale wrongly sequenced – an error rectified in later releases – so if this is a problem, buy a different edition.

Sheer magic, and the so on-form creators knew they were on to a winner since the deadly Doctor returned the very next issue, teamed with a reluctant but gullible Sub-Mariner to attack our heroes in #6’s ‘Captives of the Deadly Duo!’ inked by new regular embellisher Dick Ayers.

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

The first inklings of the rough-and-tumble humour and familial byplay smoothed the raw edginess from now on and Alien abductors were the motivating force when the team became ‘Prisoners of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X’, a dark and grandiose off-world thriller in FF#7 (the first monthly issue) whilst a new villain and the introduction of a love-interest for the monstrous Ben Grimm were the breakthrough high-points in the action-packed ‘Prisoners of the Puppet Master!’

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

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

Previously, super-heroes were sufficient unto themselves and shared adventures were rare. Here, however was a universe where characters often tripped over each other, sometimes even fighting each other’s enemies! The creators themselves might turn even up in a Marvel Comic! Fantastic Four #10, which rounds out this deluxe box of delights, featured ‘The Return of Doctor Doom!’ wherein the arch villain used Stan and Jack to lure Reed Richards into a trap where his mind was switched with the Iron Dictator’s until hubris, arrogance and valiant heroism inevitably saved the day…

These immortal epics are available in numerous formats (including softcover editions of the luxurious and enticing hardback under review here), but for a selection that will survive the continual re-readings of the serious, incurable fan there’s nothing to beat the substantial full-colour feel of these Marvellous Masterwork editions.

If you’re going to read the World’ Greatest Comics Magazine’s finest moments, surely you’ll be wanting to do it in style?
© 1961, 1962, 1963, 1987, 2003 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Super-Villain Team-Up volume 1


By Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Wally Wood, Keith Giffen & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-9041-5973-5

Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner was the second super-star of the Timely Age of Comics (but only because he followed after the cover-featured Human Torch in Marvel Mystery Comics #1) and has had the most impressive longevity of the company’s “Big Three” Torch, Subby and Captain America.

He was revived in 1962 in Fantastic Four #4; once again an anti-hero/noble villain and has been prominent in the company’s pantheon ever since.

The following issue introduced the first great villain of the Silver Age in the form of technologically armoured dark knight Doctor Doom, who takes up the lion’s share of this eclectic yet excellent collection of dastardly double-dealings encompassing Astonishing Tales #1-8, Giant-Sized Super-Villain Team-Up #1-2, Super-Villain Team-Up #1-14 and 16-17, as well as pertinent crossover appearances in Avengers #154-156 and Champions 16.

Incidentally, Fantastic Four #6 featured the first Super-Villain Team-Up of the Marvel age as Doom and Namor joined forces as ‘The Deadly Duo’. The Master of Latveria inevitably betrayed and tried to kill the Prince of Atlantis in that tale: an event which colours the relationship of the characters to this day… All of those magical moments appear in Essential Fantastic Four volume 1, by the way.

Although Doom had his first true solo outing in Marvel Super-Heroes #20 (May 1969) this magnificent and monumental monochrome collection opens with his follow-up series which began with ‘Unto You is Born… the Doomsman!’ (July-August 1970) wherein Roy Thomas & Wally Wood revealed the master manipulator’s daily struggle to maintain his iron control over the Ruritanian kingdom of Latveria, building a super-robot to crush the incipient rebellion of ousted Crown Prince Rudolfo and his mysterious sponsor.

However the use of a girl who seemed to be Victor von Doom’s lost love had the desired effect and the rebels almost succeeded in driving the tyrant from Doom Castle. In the attendant chaos the Doomsman device wandered away…

‘Revolution!’ proved Doom was not the only master of mechanoids as Rudolfo and the enigmatic Faceless One used the Doomsman to wreak havoc throughout the country, before a final assault in ‘Doom Must Die!’ (scripted by Larry Lieber) found all the tyrant’s enemies vanquished and the Monarch of Menace once more firmly in control.

Lieber & Wood then pitted Doom against the Red Skull in ‘The Invaders!’ as an army of leftover Nazis stormed into the country whilst Doom was away, only to be crushed and banished in ‘A Land Enslaved!’ (Astonishing Tales #5, by Lieber, George Tuska & Mike Esposito) as soon as he came back.

Issue #6 saw the Lord of Latveria invade the African nation of Wakanda in ‘The Tentacles of the Tyrant!’ determined to seize the vast stock of wonder mineral Vibranium only to fall foul of the furious tenacity of its king and defender T’Challa the Black Panther in ‘…And If I be Called Traitor!’ (Gerry Conway, Gene Colan & Frank Giacoia).

The short solo run ended in high style with a little landmark entitled ‘Though Some Call it Magic!’, wherein Conway, Colan & Tom Palmer revealed Doom’s darkest secret. Every year the ultimate villain was forced to duel the rulers of Hell in the vain hope of freeing the soul of his mother from eternal torment, and every year he failed: a tragic trial which punished both the living and the dead.

With this tormented mini-epic even further depth and drama were added to the greatest villain in the Marvel universe.

The series vanished with no warning and Doom returned to his status as premier antagonist in the Fantastic Four and elsewhere until Giant-Sized Super-Villain Team-Up #1 was released (March 1975), once more bathing the Deadly Despot in a starring spotlight.

In the intervening years the Sub-Mariner had also lost his own series, despite some very radical and attention-grabbing stunts. A nerve gas dumping accident perpetrated by surface dwellers had catastrophically altered his hybrid body, forcing him to wear a hydrating-suit to breathe. The same toxin had plunged the entire nation of Atlantis into a perpetual coma.

Alone and pushed to the brink of desperation, Prince Namor rescued Doom from a deadly plunge to Earth after the Iron Dictator’s latest defeat the hands of the FF and Silver Surfer in an impressive and effective framing sequence bracketing two classic reprint tales. ‘Encounter at Land’s End!’ (by Roy Thomas, John Buscema & Joe Sinnott) saw Doom plucked from the sea and the edge of death by a Sub-Mariner in dire need of scientific wizardry to cure his somnolent race and prepared to offer an alliance against all mankind to get it…

Painfully aware of their unhappy past history the outlaws recalled a previous encounter ‘In the Darkness Dwells Doom!’ (from Sub-Mariner #20, by Thomas, Buscema & Johnny Craig) wherein the fugitive Atlantean was offered sanctuary in New York’s Latverian embassy before being blackmailed and betrayed (again) by the Devil Doctor…

Initially reluctant, Doom reconsiders after recalling a past battle against the diabolical Diablo. ‘This Man… This Demon!’ (Thomas, Lieber, Giacoia & Vince Colletta) is the aforementioned solo tryout from Marvel Super-Heroes #20, which restated the Doctor’s origins and revealed his tragic, doomed relationship with a gypsy girl named Valeria…

The debate ends in a cataclysmic clash of egos and raw destructive power with both parties more bitterly opposed than ever but the follow-up ‘To Bestride the World!’ (Thomas, Mike Sekowsky & Sam Grainger) in the all-new Giant-Sized Super-Villain Team-Up #2 (June 1975), forced Doom to change his mind when his own android army rebelled after the long-lost Doomsman (under its new guise of Andro) returned and co-opted them for a war against organic life.

After blistering battle and extensive carnage Namor and Doom triumphed together and parted uneasy allies, only to regroup in the pages of Super-Villain Team-Up #1 (August 1975) as a chaotic ongoing series began with ‘Slayers from the Sea!’ by Tony Isabella, George Tuska, Bill Everett & Fred Kida.

As Doom actually contemplates treating an ally as a equal in the opening chapter ‘An Alliance Asunder?’, in the second part ‘Frenzy on a Floating Fortress’ (illustrated by George Evans & Frank Springer) Namor is ambushed by old foes Attuma, Dr. Dorcas and Tiger Shark, leading Doom to rush to his rescue in #2 as ‘In the Midst of Life…!’ (with art from Sal Buscema & Kida) the Sub-Mariner’s truest friend was murdered by his assembled enemies, leading to a brutal climax in ‘If Vengeance Fails!’ by Jim Shooter, Evans & Jack Abel.

Super-Villain Team-Up was an intriguing concept cursed with a revolving door creative team crisis: nobody seemed able to stay with the series for more than a couple of issues. Somehow the standards remained high but with no long-term planning the plots and characterisation jumped all over the place.

Bill Mantlo, Herb Trimpe & Jim Mooney produced ‘A Time of Titans!’ in #4 as Doom and Sub-Mariner battled each other and encountered a prototype Deathlok the Demolisher before splitting up yet again, after which Steve Englehart stepped in for ‘…And Be a Villain!’ (illustrated by Trimpe & Don Perlin) wherein the Lord of Latveria artificially exacerbated Namor’s breathing affliction and threatened to annihilate dormant Atlantis. Despite all the efforts of the Fantastic Four the Sub-Mariner was forced to swear fealty to Doom or see his people and himself perish forever…

This tumultuous issue also introduced mystic Batman knock-off the Shroud whose avowed mission was to free the world from the curse of Doom at all costs…

Jack Abel inked ‘Prisoner!’ in #6 as the FF invaded Latveria to rescue the promise-bound Sub-Mariner only to be sent packing by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who had just signed a non-aggression pact with Doom. One American observed no such legal or diplomatic niceties in ‘Who is… The Shroud?’ (Pablo Marcos inks) and, after revealing his origins to Namor, the Master of Darkness freed him from his vow by killing Dr. Doom.

As Shroud and Namor fled for the border chaos broke out in Latveria, but in actuality Doom was not dead. He had been rescued and imprisoned by Namor’s cousin Namorita and girlfriend Tamara in ‘Escape!’ (illustrated by Keith Giffen & Owen McCarron) under the misguided apprehension that they could force the Metal-shod Monarch into helping Atlantis and their Prince., The crisis escalated as it segued into an ongoing Avengers storyline, beginning ‘When Strikes Attuma?’ (Avengers #154 by Conway, George Perez & Marcos) as the Sub-sea Slayer enslaved the World’s Mightiest Heroes and commanded them to kill Namor…

The saga continued in Super-Villain Team-Up #9 (scripted by Mantlo, drawn by Jim Shooter & Sal Trapani) as the ‘Pawns of Attuma!’ attacked only to discover Doom in charge and easily able to thwart their half-hearted assault. In Avengers #155 the beaten heroes were helpless, leaving only the confused, battle-crazed Namor and a substitute team to hunt down the barbarian sea lord, with the epic conclusion ‘The Private War of Doctor Doom!’ in #156 (written by Shooter, drawn by Sal Buscema & Marcos) where the liberated and resurgent heroes joined forces to crush Attuma and prevent Doom from turning the situation to his own world-conquering advantage…

Behind the scenes in Latveria, Shroud had installed Prince Rudolfo as a faux Doctor Doom but things went wrong very quickly in Super-Villain Team-Up #10 (by Mantlo, Bob Hall & Perlin) when Captain America investigated ‘The Sign of the Skull!’

In the Latverian Embassy the genuine despot learned from the Star-Spangled Avenger that Red Skull had once more invaded Doom’s homeland, even as the Sub-Mariner discovered greedy surface-men pillaging his comatose city of Atlantis.

As Doom and Captain America battled their way through Latveria’s formidable defences the Skull proceeded in establishing his Fourth Reich, easily defeating the Shroud in ‘My Ally, my Enemy’ but when Namor raged in, tracking the ravagers of Atlantis to Doom’s castle, the tables were finally turned and the Iron Dictator swore to finally cure the Atlanteans in return for the Sub-Mariner’s aid against the Nazi invaders.

Firstly though, the Skull plans to enslave the earth with a hypno-ray had to be crushed in ‘Death Duel!’ with the Iron Doctor pursuing the Nazi mastermind to his hidden moonbase, casually sacrificing the Shroud in the process.

Finally fulfilling his oath Doom resurrected the comatose Atlanteans in #13, but only after a blistering sub-sea battle with amphibian arch-foe Krang and a brobdingnagian sea beast in ‘When Walks the Warlord!’ (by Mantlo, Giffen & Perlin)

With Atlantis and Namor restored a new era began and ended with Super-Villain Team-Up #14 (October 1977). ‘A World For the Winning!’ by Mantlo, Hall, Perlin & Duffy Vohland, opened with mutant villain Magneto tricked into a duel with Doom who was de facto master of the world since he had seeded the atmosphere with a mind control gas.

Ever the sportsman, the Lord of Latveria released Magneto from his control, allowed him to liberate one other thrall and challenged them both to save the world…

It was the last issue of the troubled title and the story concluded in Champions #19 (November 1977) as the Master of Magnetism and the Beast spectacularly overcame all odds and saved the day in ‘A World Lost!’ (Mantlo, Hall & Mike Esposito). A year later Super-Villain Team-Up #15 appeared from nowhere (dated November 1978 and presumably released to safeguard the copyright) with a reprint of the Red Skull story from Astonishing Tales #4-5.

‘Shall I Call Thee Master?’ by Peter Gillis, Carmine Infantino & Bruce Patterson was released a year later ( #16 May 1979, with one final issue 12 months after that) wherein the Skull, Hatemonger and radical geneticist Arnim Zola whiled away the days in a human atrocity lab. This was a dark exploration of monstrous inhumanity where torture and degradation were simply a way of passing the time until the leftover Fascists could build a new Cosmic Cube and reshape all reality to their twisted whims.

In this instance they were thwarted by merely mortal secret agents in the long delayed but savagely effective conclusion ‘Dark Victory!’ (Gillis, Arvell Jones & Patterson), after which the concept and title were shelved for decades.

This eccentric and thoroughly fan-only compendium concludes with a double page spread omitted from earlier reprintings of ‘This Man… This Demon!’ and the rather magnificent cover of that tale from Marvel Super-Heroes #20.

For all its flaws Super-Villain Team-Up was a bold experiment and a genuinely enjoyable dalliance with the different during the 1970s – as long as the reader had an in depth knowledge of the company’s ever- more complex continuity. I truly wish more people would sample the delights of this offbeat saga but I doubt any new reader could cope with the terrifying torrent of unexplained backstory.

Still, I’d be delighted if you prove me wrong…
© 1970, 1971, 1975, 1976, 1977, 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

The Fantastic Four – Marvel Illustrated Books


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby with Joe Sinnott
(Marvel Illustrated Books)
ISBN: 0-939766-02-7

Here’s another look at how our industry’s gradual inclusion into mainstream literature began and one more pulse-pounding paperback package for action fans and nostalgia lovers.

One thing you could never accuse entrepreneurial maestro Stan Lee of was reticence, especially when promoting his burgeoning line of superstars. In the 1960s most adults, – including the people who worked there – considered comic-books a ghetto. Some disguised their identities whilst others were “just there until they caught a break.” Stan, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had another idea – change the perception.

Whilst the artists pursued their imaginations waiting for the quality of the work to be noticed, Lee proactively pursued every opportunity to break down the slum walls: college lecture tours, animated TV shows, ubiquitous foreign franchising and of course getting their product onto the bookshelves of “real” book shops.

After a few abortive attempts in the 1960s to storm the shelves of bookstores and libraries, Marvel made a concerted and comprehensive effort to get their wares into more socially acceptable formats. As the 1970s closed, purpose-built graphic collections and a string of new prose adventures tailored to feed into their all-encompassing continuity began to appear.

Whereas the merits of the latter are a matter for a different review, the company’s careful reformatting of classic comics adventures were generally excellent; a superb series of primers and a perfect new venue to introduce fresh readers to their unique worlds.

The project was never better represented than in this classy little Kirby cornucopia of wonders with crisp black and white reproduction, sensitive editing, efficient picture-formatting and of course, three superb yarns from the very peak of Lee & Kirby’s magnificent partnership…

The first story ‘When Strikes the Silver Surfer!’ pitted the bludgeoning, tragic, jealousy-consumed Thing in unabashed, brutal battle with the Silver Surfer, an uncomprehending alien of incomprehensible power, trapped on Earth and every inch a “Stranger in a Strange Land”. When the gleaming godling turned to the Thing’s blind girlfriend Alicia Masters for tea and sympathy, her brooding boyfriend immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion…

Alicia was the pivotal actor in the follow-up two-part tale ‘What Lurks Behind theBeehive’ and the concluding ‘When Opens the Cocoon!’ a sinister saga of science gone mad which served to introduce a menace who would eventually become a major star in Marvel’s firmament.

The action opens as gifted sculptress Alicia is abducted to a technological wonderland where a band of rogue geniuses have genetically engineered the next phase in evolution but now risk losing control of their creation even before it can be properly born… As the Fantastic Four frantically searches for the seemingly helpless girl, she has penetrated the depths of the incredible hive and discovered the secret of the creature known only as “Him”.

Alicia’s gentle nature is the only thing capable of placating the nigh-omnipotent newborn creature (who would eventually evolve into the tragic cosmic voyager Adam Warlock), but as the FF finally arrive to save the day events spiral out of control and imminent disaster looms large…

It’s easy to assume that such resized, repackaged paperback book collections of early comics extravaganzas were just another Marvel cash-cow in their tried-and-tested “flood the marketplace” sales strategy – and maybe they were – but as someone who has bought these stories in most of the available formats over the years, I have to admit that these handy back-pocket versions are among my very favourites and ones I’ve re-read most – they’re just handier and more accessible – so why aren’t they are available as ebooks yet?
© 1966, 1967, 1982 Marvel Comics Group, a division of Cadence Industries Corporation. All rights reserved.

Essential Fantastic Four volume 4


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1484-X

This fabulous fourth black-and-white compendium of the classic and landmark “Stan & Jack” Fantastic Four sees the feature achieve its highest potential in a string of superlative tales that proved the bold boast on every cover… “World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!”

Jack Kirby was in his conceptual prime and continually unleashed his vast imagination on spectacular plot after plot whilst Stan Lee scripted some of the most passionate superhero sagas that Marvel – or any publisher, for that matter – has ever seen. Both were on an unstoppable roll, at the height of their creative powers, and full of the confidence that only success brings, with Kirby in particular eager to see how far the genre and the medium could be pushed.

This volume, covering the early career of comics’ First Family covers Fantastic Four #64-83 (July 1967-February 1969) plus the fifth and sixth annuals, a bombastic blend of super-science, soap opera and stunning action that has seldom been equaled and never bettered.

The magic commences with ‘The Sentry Sinister’ (inked as always by Joe Sinnott) a frenetic adventure romp which pitted the team against a super-scientific robot buried for millennia by an ancient star-faring race. This tropical treat expanded the burgeoning interlocking landscape to an infinite degree by introducing the imperial Kree who would grow into one of the fundamental pillars supporting the continuity of the Marvel Universe.

Although regarded as long-dead the Kree themselves resurfaced in the very next issue as the team was attacked by an alien emissary ‘…From Beyond this Planet Earth!’ The formidable Ronan the Accuser turned up looking to see what could possibly have destroyed his Sentry. Simultaneously The Thing’s blind girlfriend Alicia was abducted by a super scientific stranger…

The mystery of her disappearance was revealed in #66 in ‘What Lurks Behind the Beehive?’ as the heroes trailed the seemingly helpless girl to a technological wonderland where a band of rogue geniuses had genetically engineered the next phase in evolution but lost control of it even before it could be properly born…

‘When Opens the Cocoon!’ revealed the secret of the creature known only as Him and only Alicia’s gentle nature could placate the nigh-omnipotent creature (who would eventually evolve into the tragic cosmic voyager Adam Warlock), after which the tight continuity gradually paused to allow the Inhumans (a time-lost race of paranormal beings long secluded from mortal men) and the Black Panther to share the stage in that year’s Annual, wherein the sinister invader Psycho-Man attempted to ‘Divide… and Conquer!’

Frank Giacoia actually inked this wrongly attributed yarn that pitted the emotion-bending invader against both the King of Wakanda and the Royal Family of hidden Attilan until the FF could pitch in, delayed as they were by the news that the Sue Richards was pregnant – and soon to confined in the most appallingly sexist manner until the birth…

The Annual also included another comedy insight into the creation of Marvel Epics as Stan, Jack and Frank asked ‘This is a Plot?’ and after the now customary Kirby pin-ups (Inhumans Black Bolt, Gorgon, Medusa, Karnak, Triton, Crystal and Maximus, a colossal group shot of Galactus the Silver Surfer and others and a double page spread of the FF themselves) a rapidly rising star-in-the-making got his first solo appearance in ‘The Peerless Power of the Silver Surfer’ a pithy fable of cruel ingratitude that reintroduced the Mad Thinker’s lethal Artificial Intelligence creation Quasimodo…

In FF #68 the Thinker himself enacted his latest plan and ‘His Mission: Destroy the Fantastic Four!’ as the cogitating criminal replaced a famous doctor and subverted a potential cure for The Thing’s rocky condition into a mind-warping scheme to turn the Thing against his comrades (inked as ever by the remarkable Joe Sinnott). The scheme progressed in ‘By Ben Betrayed!’ as the newly malevolent Grimm attempted to murder the rest of the team only to be driven temporarily away. Desperately searching for him the FF soon captured the Thinker and freed Ben from mind-control in ‘When Fall the Mighty!’ but the victory left the heroes unconscious and only Sue conscious to tackle the villains last-ditch killer android in ‘…And So It Ends…’

With baby on board Reed and Sue resigned, leaving Ben, Johnny and the Inhuman maid Crystal to hold the fort when cosmic calamity came calling. In ‘Where Soars the Silver Surfer!’ the sky-born wanderer imprisoned on Earth by the world-devouring Galactus went cage-crazy and attacked humanity, forcing Reed’s return, whilst #73 presented the conclusion to a long-running Daredevil (see Essential Daredevil volume 2) story wherein the sightless crusader was ousted from his own body by the Iron Dictator Doctor Doom.

Warning the FF of imminent attack the Man without Fear then subsequently defeated Doom – but neglected to tell the heroes of his victory… outmatched and unable to convince them any other way DD enlisted Thor and Spider-Man in ‘The Flames of Battle…’ to solve the problem Marvel style – with a spectacular pointless and utterly riveting punch-up…

The Surfer was back in #74 ‘When Calls Galactus’ as the planet-eater returned to our skies demanding that his one-time herald once more become his food-finding slave, but despite his increasingly violent probings, Galactus cannot locate his target. That’s because the Surfer had departed for ‘World Within Worlds!’ forcing Reed, Ben and Johnny to follow. When attacked by Psycho Man they are ‘Stranded in Sub-Atomica!’ and as they struggle to survive Galactus applies ever-more pressure… ‘Shall Earth Endure?’

Turning himself in to save Earth, the Surfer is summarily returned to his captivity here as soon as ungrateful Galactus is finished feeding, just in time to begin his own landmark series – but that’s the subject of another review, another time…

Meanwhile in FF#78 another attempt to cure Ben Grimm goes awry in ‘The Thing No More!’ due to interference from old foe The Wizard and, in ‘A Monster Forever?’, Ben’s choice to stay a rocky monster and save his friends from the bludgeoning Android Man.

A brief change of pace took the team to the Indian Lands of old friend Wyatt Wingfoot to solve an eerie mystery ‘Where Treads the Living Totem!’ before the sixth Annual spotlighted the birth of Franklin Richards. Unfortunately however, not before Reed, Ben and Johnny invaded the anti-matter Negative Zone to confront a monstrous creature named Annihilus whose power was the only thing that could prevent the death of Sue and her unborn child. ‘Let There Be… Life!’ is a groundbreaking 48 page epic that is as stunning to read now as it ever was, passionate thrilling and mind-boggling in its visual intensity.

With Sue a new mother faithful Crystal became the first new official member of the team and promptly showed her mettle by pulverizing the incorrigible Wizard in #81’s ‘Enter… the Exquisite Elemental!’ and this volume concludes with a classic two-part clash against the inhuman Maximus as he once more attempted to conquer mortal humanity. ‘The Mark of… the Madman!’ saw the FF come to the aid of the imprisoned Royal Family of Attilan before together trouncing the insane despot in ‘Shall Man Survive?’

Did I say concludes? Not quite as this book still finds room for a selection of 6 original art pages from Kirby and his alternate cover for issue #65, you lucky, lucky people…

These are the stories that confirmed Jack Kirby as the absolute master of superhero storytelling and gave Marvel the push needed to overtake the decades-dominant DC. They’re also some of the very best comics ever produced and as thrilling and compulsive now as they ever were. This is a must-have book for all fans of graphic narrative.

© 1967, 1968, 1969, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Fantastic Four versus the X-Men


By Chris Claremont, John Bogdanove & Terry Austin (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-650-3

Here’s a good solid yarn from simpler times which serves as the perfect introduction to two fully developed franchises, but still won’t leave you reeling under an avalanche of new names and concepts. Originally released as a four issue miniseries in 1987, this intriguing mystery looks deep into the character of possibly the oldest character in the Marvel universe and turns its most trusted hero into a potential monster.

Everybody knows that Reed Richards is the smartest man on the planet, and how he took his three most trusted companions on a trip into space. Once there the ever-present cosmic rays mutated the quartet into the super-powered freaks now known as the Fantastic Four. How could such a colossal intellect forget something as basic as radiation shielding?

This tale takes place at a time when the mutant heroes and public fugitives called X-Men are being led by Magneto, and is the culmination to a story-arc where young Kitty Pryde is dying: her ability to pass through matter out of control and her body gradually drifting to unconnected atoms.

When Sue Richards finds an old journal belonging to her husband the trust and loyalty that bind the FF together is shattered. The book reveals that the younger Reed had in fact deduced the transformative power of cosmic rays and manufactured the entire incident to create a team of super-warriors. All the years of misery and danger have been a deliberate, calculated scheme by a ruthless mind that could only see life in terms of goals and outcomes.

When the X-Men bring their medical emergency to the FF, Reed, protesting his innocence to a family and team who no longer trust him and with his confidence shattered, falters. He knows that he didn’t plan to mutate his team, but he did make a mistake that altered their lives forever. What if he makes another blunder with Pryde’s cure?

And then Doctor Doom steps in…

This is a superb adventure stuffed with guest-stars that moves beyond gaudy costumes and powers to display the core humanity of Reed Richards and the true depths of evil his greatest enemy can sink to. As an example of sensitive character writing it has few equals and the stylish illustration of Jon Bogdanove is captivating to behold. Long overdue for reprinting this is a tale for all drama lovers, not just the fights ‘n’ tights crowd.
© 1987, 1990 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Fantastic Four volume 3


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2625-6

This third collected black-and-white volume of the “World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” certainly lives up to its own hype as it re-presents those tales wherein Jack Kirby finally unleashed his vast imagination and Stan Lee scripted some of the most passionate superhero sagas that Marvel – or any publisher, for that matter – has ever produced. Both were at the height of their creative powers, and full of the confidence that only success brings, with Kirby in particular eager to see how far the genre and the medium could be pushed.

The wonderment begins with the first part of a tense and traumatic trilogy (inked by Vince Colletta) in which the Frightful Four – Wizard, Sandman, Trapster and the enigmatic Madame Medusa – brainwash The Thing and turn him against his former team-mates. It started in Fantastic Four # 41 (August 1965) with ‘The Brutal Betrayal of Ben Grimm!’, continued in rip-roaring fashion with ‘To Save You, Why must I Kill You?’ and concluded in bombastic glory with #44’s ‘Lo! There Shall be an Ending!’

After that Colletta signed off by inking one of the most crowded Marvel stories ever. Fantastic Four Annual #3 featured every hero, most of the villains and lots of ancillary characters (such as teen-romance stars Patsy Walker & Hedy Wolf and even Stan and Jack themselves) in the company pantheon. In ‘Bedlam at the Baxter Building!’ Reed Richards and Sue Storm finally wed, despite being attacked by an army of baddies mesmerised by the diabolical Doctor Doom. In its classical simplicity it signalled the end of one era and the start of another…

FF #44 was a landmark in many ways. Firstly it saw the arrival of Joe Sinnott as regular inker, a skilled brush-man with a deft line and a superb grasp of anatomy and facial expression, and moreover an artist prepared to match Kirby’s greatest efforts with his own. Some inkers had problems with just how much detail the King would pencil in; Sinnott relished it and the effort showed. What was wonderful now became incomparable.

‘The Gentleman’s Name is Gorgon!’ introduced a mysterious powerhouse with metal hooves instead of feet, a hunter implacably stalking Madame Medusa, who embroiled the Human Torch and thus the whole team in her frantic bid to escape, and that’s before the monstrous android Dragon Man showed up to complicate matters. All this was merely a prelude: with the next issue we were introduced to a hidden race of super-beings that had secretly shared the Earth with us for millennia. ‘Among us Hide… the Inhumans’ revealed that Medusa was part of the Royal Family of Attilan, a race of paranormal beings on the run ever since a coup deposed the true king.

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

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

Ideas just seem to explode from Kirby at this time. Despite being halfway through one storyline, FF #48 trumpeted ‘The Coming of Galactus!’ and the first Inhumans saga was swiftly wrapped up by page 6, with the entire race sealed behind an impenetrable dome called the Negative Zone (later retitled the Negative Barrier to avoid confusion with the gateway to sub-space that Reed worked on for years).

Meanwhile a cosmic entity approached Earth, preceded by a gleaming herald on a surfboard of pure cosmic energy. I suspect this experimental – and vaguely uncomfortable – approach to narrative mechanics was calculated and deliberate, mirroring the way that TV soap operas were increasingly delivering their interwoven storylines, and a way to keep the readers glued to the series.

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

‘If this be Doomsday!’ saw the planet-eating Galactus set up shop above the Baxter Building despite the team’s best efforts, whilst his cold and shining herald had his humanity rekindled by simply conversing with the Thing’s blind girlfriend Alicia. Issue #50’s ‘The Startling Saga of the Silver Surfer!’ concluded the epic in grand style as the reawakened humanity of the Surfer and heroism of the FF bought enough time for Richards to literally save the World. Once again the tale ended in the middle of the issue, and the remaining half concentrated on the team getting back to “normal”. To that extent Johnny Storm enrolled at Metro College, desperate to forget his lost love Crystal and his unnerving jaunts to the ends of the universe. On his first day, the lad met the imposing and enigmatic Native American Wyatt Wingfoot, destined to become his greatest friend…’

Fantastic Four #51 is considered by many the greatest single FF story ever. ‘This Man… This Monster!’ found the Thing’s body usurped by a vengeful and petty scientist who subsequently discovered the true measure of a man, whilst another innovation and great character debuted in the next issue.

‘The Black Panther!’ was an African monarch whose secretive kingdom was the only source of a vibration-absorbing alien metal. These mineral riches had enabled him to turn his country into a technological wonderland. He 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 (Fantastic Four #52, cover-dated July 1966). His origin was revealed in ‘The Way it Began..!’, which also introduced sonic super-villain Klaw. Johnny and Wyatt then embarked on a quest to find Crystal but discovered instead the lost tomb of Prester John in #54’s ‘Whosoever Finds the Evil Eye…!’

Imprisoned on Earth the brooding ex-herald of Galactus had become an instant fan-favourite, and his regular appearances were always a guarantee of something special. ‘When Strikes the Silver Surfer!’ found him in uncomprehending, brutal battle with the Thing, whose insecurities about Alicia had turned into searing jealousy, whereas it was business as unusual when ‘Klaw the Murderous Master of Sound!’ attacked again in # 56.

Throughout all the issues since their imprisonment a running sub-plot with the Inhumans had been slowly building, whilst the on the other side of the Great Barrier, Johnny and Wyatt wandered the wilds also seeking a method of liberating the Hidden City. Their quest led directly into the landmark tale ‘The Torch that Was!’: lead feature in the fourth FF Annual (1966), in which The Mad Thinker resurrected the original Human Torch (actually the World’s first android) to battle destroy the flaming teenager…

Fantastic Four #57-60 displayed Lee and Kirby at their very best; with incredible drama and action on a number of fronts as the most dangerous man on Earth stole the Silver Surfer’s power, the Inhumans finally won their freedom and we discovered the tragic secret of Black Bolt in all its awesome fury. It all began with a jailbreak by the Sandman in #57’s ‘Enter… Dr. Doom!’, continued in ‘The Dismal Dregs of Defeat!’ and ‘Doomsday’ culminating in brains saving the day and humanity in magnificent manner with ‘The Peril and the Power!’

But there was never a dull moment: no sooner had they relaxed than a new and improved foe resumed his aborted attack in #61’s ‘Where Stalks the Sandman?’, another explosive multi-part tale wherein Johnny and Crystal were reunited, the Surfer regained his stolen power and Reed was lost to the anti-matter hell of the Negative Zone’s sub-space corridor.

‘…And One Shall Save Him!’ guest-starred Triton and the newly liberated Inhuman Royal Family, and saw the introduction of another unique enemy, who followed Reed back from the anti-matter universe and straight into partnership with the Sandman. The battle against ‘Blastaar, the Living Bomb-Burst!’ (FF #63, June 1967), concludes the incredible run of superb stories in this volume, but there was still room to include some fascinating freebies in the form of pages of original art, the initial designs for Coal Tiger (who became Black Panther) and an unused cover for #52.

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 stories ever produced and as exciting and captivating now as they ever were. This is a must-have book for all fans of graphic narrative.

© 1965, 1966, 1967, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Fantastic Four Pop-Up


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel/Templar Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-84011-670-0

Here’s a hunk of sheer comic extravagance that will appeal to the great, big kid so inadequately buried in us all. Part of a line of publications first released in 2008 (and just now making it into book remainder stores around the country, but also still available online) I got this masterpiece of “paper technology” or pop-up book as part of my recent 50th birthday commiserations.

By selecting pages and scenes from the glory days of Stan and Jack, such as the cover of Fantastic Four #1, the origin of Doctor Doom, the battle against the Molecule Man (FF#20) and many others, the creators have produced a startling, quite literally three-dimensional dossier of the World’s Greatest Magazine heroes and their most dastardly foes. These snippets of King Kirby at his bombastic best include Victor Von Doom, Mole Man, Puppet Master, Sub-Mariner, Super-Skrull, Mad Thinker, and even the incredible Fantasticar, all augmented by the very latest in folding, spindling, sliding and even plastic enhancing techniques.

Delightfully ingenious, fabulously fun and capable of reducing sour old coots to fits of gleeful burbling this is just plain fun and you really, really need it…

TM and © 2008 Marvel Characters inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Fantastic Four volume 2


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-0731-2

This second big value, low priced compendium starring the World’s most popular adventure quartet collects Fantastic Four #21-40, the second (1964) Annual and includes a seldom seen team-up of the Human Torch and Spider-Man from Strange Tales Annual #2.

By this juncture the FF were firmly established and creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were well on the way to toppling DC/National Comics from their decades-held top spot with their brash, folksy and consciously contemporaneous sagas, blending high concept, low comedy, trenchant melodrama and breathtaking action.

The first tale here is from Fantastic Four #21 (cover-dated December 1963) guest-starring Nick Fury, then the lead character in Marvel’s only war comic Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos but eventually to metamorphose into the company’s answer to James Bond. Here he’s a CIA agent seeking the team’s aid against a sinister demagogue called ‘The Hate-Monger’ in a cracking yarn with a strong message, inked by comics veteran George Roussos, under the protective nom-de-plume George Bell.

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

Number #23 heralded ‘The Master Plan of Doctor Doom!’, which introduced his frankly mediocre minions the Terrible Trio of Bull Brogin, Handsome Harry and Yogi Dakor, although the eerie menace of “the Solar Wave” was enough to raise the hackles on my five year old neck. Issue #24’s ‘The Infant Terrible!’ was a sterling yarn of extra-galactic menace and innocence, followed by a two-part epic that truly defined the inherent difference between Lee and Kirby’s work and everybody else at that time.

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

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

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

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

‘It Started on Yancy Street!’ (FF#29) may start low-key in the slum where Ben Grimm grew up but with the reappearance of the Red Ghost and his Super-Apes the action quickly goes Cosmic, and the next issue introduced evil alchemist ‘The Dreaded Diablo!’ who nearly broke up the team while conquering the world from his spooky Transylvanian castle.

Next up is Fantastic Four Annual #2 from 1964, which boldly led off with ‘The Fantastic Origin of Doctor Doom!’, before storming into the climactic adventure epic ‘The Final Victory of Dr. Doom!’ The monthly wonderment resumes with #31’s ‘The Mad Menace of the Macabre Mole Man!’ 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, as well as renewing the quartet’s somewhat fractious relationship with the Mighty Avengers.

The secret of that mystery man was revealed in the next issue’s ‘Death of a Hero’, a powerful tale of tragedy and regret that spanned two galaxies, and which starred the uniquely villainous Invincible Man who was not at all what he seemed…

‘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 as the deadly barbarian Attuma made his debut in FF #33, whilst in ‘A House Divided!’ the team were nearly destroyed by Mr. Gideon, the Richest Man in the World.

‘Calamity on the Campus!’ saw the team visit Reed Richard’s old Alma Mater in a tale designed to pander to the burgeoning college fan-base Marvel was cultivating (there’s even a cameo role for Peter Parker), 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. Fantastic Four #36 introduced the team’s theoretical nemeses with ‘The Frightful Four’ a team of villains comprising The Wizard, Sandman, Trapster (he was still Paste Pot-Pete here, but not for long) and an enigmatic new character called Madame Medusa, whose origin would have a huge impact on the heroes in months to come. Also notable in this auspicious but inconclusive duel was the announcement after many months of Reed and Sue’s engagement – in itself a rare event in the realm of comic books.

Issue #37 found the team spectacularly travelling to the homeworld of the shape-shifting Skrulls in search of justice in ‘Behold! A Distant Star!’ and they returned only to be ‘Defeated by the Frightful Four!’ in FF# 38, a momentous tale with a startling cliff-hanger that marked Chic Stone’s departure in landmark manner.

Frank Giacoia, under the pseudonym Frank Ray, stepped in to ink #39’s ‘A Blind Man Shall Lead Them!’ wherein a powerless Fantastic Four were attacked by an enraged Doctor Doom and only the sightless vigilante Daredevil had a chance to keep them alive. The tale concluded in #40 with ‘The Battle of the Baxter Building as Vince Colletta assumed the ink chores for a bombastic conclusion that perfectly displays the indomitable power and inescapable tragedy of the brutish Thing.

There’s pin-ups galore scattered throughout this volume and as an added bonus a Spider-Man/Human Torch clash from Strange Tales Annual #2 in 1963, a period when the Flaming Kid had his own solo series (see Essential Human Torch, ISBN 0-7851-1309-6).

‘On the Trail of the Amazing Spider-Man’ is a mediocre story at best, blessed with superb art from Kirby inked by Steve Ditko, but sadly even that saving grace is marred here by some pretty amateurish application of grey-tones, which reduce too many pages to monochromatic mud (hopefully just a glitch that can corrected in later editions).

Despite this last cavil this is still a magnificent book to read and these are the tales that built a comics empire. The verve, imagination and sheer enthusiasm shines through and the wonder is there for you to share. If you’ve never thrilled to these spectacular sagas then this black and white book of marvels is your best and most economical key to another world and time.

© 1963, 1964, 1965, 2003, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest


By Mark Millar & Bryan Hitch with Paul Neary, Andrew Currie and Matt Banning (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-404-1

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 two magically enthralling tales on offer in this chunky tome.

Collecting the contents of Fantastic Four #554-561, the wonderment begins when Reed Richard’s old college girlfriend reappears with a request and proposition he simply cannot refuse. Alyssa Moy is as smart as Richards but she need help finishing her latest project – a fully working replica of planet Earth for the entire race to escape to when (not if) the original is destroyed by climate change and humanity’s abuse.

Designed as the ultimate gated community, disaster strikes when its robotic police/peacekeeper unit “Cap” escapes into the real world. Created to deal with any sign of conflict it goes on a rampage, destroying superheroes and armies alike. Nothing can stop it, but Mister Fantastic has an idea…

Doctor Doom returns for the next mini epic, only to be humbled and abducted by a new team of super-beings who seem linked to the Torch’s new girlfriend. As the body count and collateral damage rises, Reed discovers he’s been betrayed by Alyssa Moy and events spiral to a climax that could wipe-out reality itself…

Tense and gripping with superb art from Hitch and inkers Neary, Currie and Banning, plus evocative colouring by Paul Mounts, these super-science sagas revolve heavily around the FF’s roles as a tight-knit family and the human dramas seldom play second fiddle to simple tights ‘n’ fights action.

Potentially confusing at first, but a cautious, conscious perusal will deliver great rewards for fans of the genre.

© 2008 Marvel Entertainment, Inc. and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. (A BRITISH EDITION BY PANINI UK LTD)