Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes


By Geoff Johns, Gary Frank & Jon Sibal (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1819-5 (HC)                    978-1-4012-1904-8 (TPB)

Almost 79 years ago Superman started the whole modern era of fantasy heroes: outlandish, flamboyant indomitable, infallible, unconquerable.

He also saved a foundering industry and created an entirely new genre of storytelling – the Super Hero. Since June 1938 he has grown into a mighty presence in all aspects of art, culture and commerce even as his natal comicbook universe organically grew and expanded.

Long ago and far away a scientifically advanced civilisation perished, but not before its greatest genius sent his baby son to safety is a star-spanning ship. It landed in Kansas and the interplanetary orphan was reared by decent folk as one of us…

Once upon a time, in the far future, a band of super-powered kids from dozens of alien civilisations took inspiration from the greatest legend of all time and formed a club of heroes. One day these Children of Tomorrow came back in time and invited that legend to join them…

And thus began the vast and epic saga of Superman and tangentially the Legion of Super-Heroes: as first envisioned by writer Otto Binder and artist Al Plastino in the landmark Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958). Since that time, the fortunes and popularity of the Legion have perpetually waxed and waned, with their future history tweaked and rebooted, retconned and unwritten over and again to comply with editorial diktat and popular whim.

One popular trend is to re-embrace the innocent, silly, joyous, stirring and utterly compelling pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths tales but to shade them with contemporary sensibilities and with this in mind Geoff Johns gradually reinstituted the Lore of the Legion in a number of his assignments during the early part of this century.

Beginning most notably with Justice League of America: The Lightning Saga and culminating in the epic New Krypton and War against Brainiac sagas the Legion were back and once more carving out a splendid niche in the DC Universe.

Along the way came this superb, nostalgia-laced cracker of a tale which re-established direct contact between the futuristic paladins and the Man of Tomorrow…

Compiling Action Comics #858-863 (spanning December 2007 through May 2008), this collected chronicle – also sporting an Introduction from veteran LSH creator Keith Giffen – finds the Legion back in the 21st century, summoning Superman to save Tomorrow’s World once more. Long ago the Legion had regularly visited: spiriting the young Kryptonian to a place and time where he didn’t have to hide his true nature. However, once he began his public career, the visits ceased and his memories were suppressed to safeguard the integrity of history and the inviolability of the time-line.

Now a desperate squad of Legionnaires must reawaken those memories since the Man of Steel is the last hope for a world on the edge of destruction. In the millennium since his debut Superman has become a beacon of justice and tolerance throughout the Utopian Universe, but a radical, xenophobic anti-alien movement has swept Earth, marginalising, interning and even executing all non-Terrans.

Moreover, a super-powered team of Legion rejects has formed a Justice League of Earth to lead a crusade against all extraterrestrial immigrants, claiming Superman was actually a true-born Earthling, and declaring him their spiritual leader…

Of course, Kal-El of Krypton must travel to the future and not only save the day but scour the racist stain from his name – a task made infinitely more difficult because Earth-Man, psychotic xenophobic leader of the Earth-First faction, has turned our yellow sun a power-sapping red…

Bold, thrilling and absolutely enthralling, the last-ditch struggle of a few brave aliens against a racist, fascistic and completely ruthless totalitarian tomorrow is the stuff of pure comic-book dreams. Superman strives to unravel a poisonous future where all his hopes and aspirations have been twisted, with only his truest childhood friends to aid him with the incredibly intense and hyper-realistic art of Gary Frank & Jon Sibal making it all seem not only plausible but inevitable…

Sweetening the deal is a stunning covers and variants gallery by Gary Frank, Adam Kubert, Steve Lightle, Mike Grell and Al Milgrom plus pages of notes, roughs and designs from Frank’s preparatory work before embarking on the epic adventure.

Total Fights ‘n’ Tights future shock in the best way possible
© 2007, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Jonah Hex volume 7: Lead Poisoning


By Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Jordi Bernet, Rafa Garres, David Michael Beck, Rob Schwager & Rob Leigh (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2485-1

When Justin Grey & Jimmy Palmiotti reinvigorated modern Western legend Jonah Hex they deftly blended a blackly ironic streak of wit with a sanguine view of morality and justice to produce some of the most accessible and enjoyable comics fiction available from the period. They also had the services of extremely talented people such as colourist Rob Schwager and letterer Rob Leigh and the pick of top artists such as European maestro Jordi Bernet who illustrates fully half the gritty tales in seventh trade paperback (or digital, should you be so inclined) compilation from 2009. The contents comprise issues 37-42 of the superb and much-missed iteration…

I first recognised Jordi Bernet’s work on The Legend Testers. By “recognised” I mean that very moment when I actually understood that somebody somewhere drew the stuff I was adoring, and that it was better than the stuff either side of it.

This was 1966 when British comics were mostly black and white and never had signatures or credits so it was years before I knew who had sparked my interest…

Jordi Bernet Cussó was born in Barcelona in 1944, son of a prominent and successful humour cartoonist. When his father died suddenly Jordi, aged 15, took over his father’s strip Doña Urraca (Mrs. Magpie).

A huge fan of Alex Raymond, Hal Foster and particularly expressionist genius Milton Caniff, Bernet yearned for less restrictive horizons and left Spain in the early 1960s to chance his hand at dramatic storytelling.

He worked for Belgium’s Spirou, Germany’s Pip and Primo, before finding work on English weeklies. Bernet toiled on British publishers between 1964 and 1967, and as well as the Odhams/Fleetway/IPC anthologies Smash, Tiger and War Picture Library he also produced superlative material for DC Thomson’s Victor and Hornet.

He even illustrated a Gardner Fox horror short for Marvel’s Vampire Tales #1 in 1973, but mainstream America was generally denied his mastery (other than some translated Torpedo volumes and a Batman short story) until the 21st century reincarnation of Jonah Hex.

His most famous strips include thrillers Dan Lacombe (written by his uncle Miguel Cussó), Paul Foran (scripted by José Larraz) the saucy Wat 69 and spectacular post-apocalyptic barbarian epic Andrax (both with Cussó again).

When General Franco died Bernet returned to Spain and began working for Cimoc, Creepy and Metropol, collaborating with Antonio Segura on the sexy fantasy Sarvan and dystopian SF black comedy Kraken. His other job was collaborating with Enrique Sánchez Abulí on gangster and adult themes tales that have made him one of the world’s most honoured artists, and which culminated on the incredibly successful crime saga Torpedo 1936

The rawhide dramas commence with Bernet in top form as Hex tangles and torridly tussles with a trio of female former circus performers who take up bounty hunting and prove that ‘Trouble Comes in Threes’, after which ‘Hell or High Water’ finds the gritty gunslinger enduring horrific tortures at the hands of a sheriff he once shamed.

The brutal psychopath has no idea what real vengeance feels like until Jonah gives him a fast and final lesson…

Baroque stylist Rafa Garres supplies art and colours for a grim parable examining ‘Cowardice’ wherein a rookie sheriff gets life lessons in doing his job after Hex tracks murderous escaped convicts to a quiet country backwater, after which David Michael Beck depicts a gruesome two-part tale of savage madness.

When Hex and sometime ally/constant foil Tallulah track a serial-killing civil war surgeon teaching other perverts his bloody discoveries, the red-handed butcher displays enough body-shredding acumen to almost end them both. However, even his gory assaults and inclinations to devil-worship of the ‘Sawbones’ are no match for Jonah Hex in a mood to display his all-consuming displeasure and irritation…

Bernet wraps things up in inimitable blackly comedic style as ‘Shooting the Sun’ offers a shocking glimpse at the bounty hunter’s formative years with parental sadist Woodson Hex

Apparently, the abusive behaviour made Jonah the man he is: someone able to turn an inescapable death-trap into a private shooting gallery offering the added attraction of long-deferred vengeance on the bullies who garnished little Jonah’s hellish childhood with extra misery…

With captivating covers from Bernet, Garres and Beck, Lead Poisoning is another explosively grim, yet bleakly hilarious outing for the very best Western anti-hero ever created: an intoxicating blend of action and social commentary no fan of the genre or cream-of-the-crop comics magic will want to miss.
© 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks volume 9


By Stan Lee, John Romita, John Buscema, Jim Mooney & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2462-7

Amazing Spider-Man was always a comicbook that matured with – or perhaps just slightly ahead of – its fan-base.

This nail-biting ninth full-colour compilation of chronological Arachnoid Amazement sees the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero navigate another rocky period of transformation and tribulation on the road to becoming the world’s most popular comics character.

After a shaky start The Amazing Spider-Man quickly became a popular sensation with kids of all ages. Before too long the quirky, charming, thrillingly action-packed comics soap-opera would become the model for an entire generation of younger heroes impatiently elbowing aside the staid, (relatively) old thirty-something mystery-men of previous publications and hallowed tradition.

Smart-but-alienated Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider during a school trip. Discovering strange superhuman abilities which he augmented with his own natural chemistry, physics and engineering genius, the kid did what any lonely, geeky nerd would do with such newfound prowess: he tried to cash in for girls, fame and money.

Making a costume to hide his identity in case he made a fool of himself, Parker became a minor media celebrity – and a criminally self-important one. To his eternal regret, when a thief fled past him one night he didn’t lift a finger to stop him, only to find when he returned home that his guardian uncle Ben Parker had been murdered.

Crazed and vengeful, Peter hunted the assailant who’d made his beloved Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known, discovering, to his horror, that it was the self-same felon he had neglected to stop. His irresponsibility had resulted in the death of the man who raised him, and the traumatised boy swore to forevermore use his powers to help others…

Since that night, the Wondrous Wallcrawler has tirelessly battled miscreants, monsters and madmen, with a fickle, ungrateful public usually baying for his blood even as he perpetually saves them…

The rise and rise of the Amazing Arachnid increased pace as the Swinging Sixties drew to a close and, by the time of the tales collected herein (re-presenting Amazing Spider-Man #78-87, originally released between November 1969 and August 1970), Peter and his ever-expanding cast of comrades were practically household names and the darlings of college campuses and the media intelligentsia throughout America and the world.

Stan Lee’s scripts tapped into the always-evolving zeitgeists of the times and the deft use of soap opera plots kept older readers glued to the series even if the bombastic battle sequences didn’t.

One of those American “time-ghosts” was crime and gangsterism and dependence on flamboyant costumed super-foes as antagonists was finely balanced with the usual suspect-pool of thugs, hoods and mob-bosses, but these were not the individual gangs of the Ditko days.

Now Organised Crime and was a huge cultural touchstone with comics cashing in on modern movies, novels and headlines…

Illustrated by John Buscema, Amazing Spider-Man#78 opens this volume with ‘The Night of the Prowler!’ featuring John Romita Junior’s first ever creator-credit for “suggesting” dissatisfied young black man Hobie Brown who briefly turned his frustrations and innate inventive genius to costumed criminal purposes until set straight by Spider-Man in the concluding ‘To Prowl No More!’

With #80 a policy of single-issue adventures was instituted: short, snappy stand-alone thrillers delivering maximum thrills and instant satisfaction. First off was a return for the wallcrawler’s very first super-foe as ‘On the Trail of the Chameleon!’ found the criminal charlatan indulging in a spree of robberies after which an action-packed if somewhat ridiculous punch-up resulted from ‘The Coming of The Kangaroo!’, including a clear contender for daftest origin of all time…

Romita senior then returned as penciller for ‘And Then Came Electro!’ with the voltaic villain attempting to slaughter Spidey live on national TV.

There were big revelations about the Kingpin in the 3-part saga that featured in issues #83-85 with the introduction of ‘The Schemer’ (Lee, Romita sr. & Mike “DeMeo” Esposito): a mysterious but extremely well-heeled criminal outsider determined to destroy the power of the sumo-like crime-lord and usurp his position in the underworld.

‘The Kingpin Strikes Back!’ (Romita sr., Buscema & Mooney) and ‘The Secret of the Schemer!’ changed the Marvel Universe radically, not just by disclosing some of the family history of one of the company’s greatest villains, but also by sending Peter Parker’s eternal gadfly Flash Thompson back to a dubious fate in Vietnam.

It wasn’t the kid’s first tour but now the war was becoming unpopular at home and the bombastic jingoism of earlier issues was being replaced by more contemplative concern as evoked by authorial mouthpiece Stan Lee…

‘Beware… the Black Widow!’ then gave Romita and Mooney a chance to redesign and relaunch the Soviet super-spy and sometime-Avenger in an enjoyable if highly formulaic misunderstanding/clash-of-heroes yarn with an ailing Spider-Man never really endangered. The entire episode was actually a promotion for the Widow’s own soon-to-debut solo series…

The dramas conclude for now with ‘Unmasked at Last!’ which found Parker, convinced that his powers were fading forever and suffering from a raging fever, exposing his secret identity to all the guests at his girlfriend’s party…

Using the kind of logic and subterfuge that only works in comics and sitcoms, Parker and Hobie Brown convinced everybody that it was only a flu-induced aberration…

This is another fabulous celebration of an important teen icon and symbol. Spider-Man at this time became a permanent, unmissable part of many youngsters’ lives and did so by living a life as close to theirs as social mores and the Comics Code would allow. Blending cultural authenticity with spectacular art, and making a dramatic virtue of the awkwardness, confusion and sense of powerlessness that most of the readership experienced daily, resulted in an irresistibly intoxicating read, delivered in addictive emotionally-intense instalments, but none of that would be relevant if the stories weren’t so compellingly entertaining. This book is Stan Lee’s Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak.
© 1969, 1970, 2014 Marvel Character, Inc. All rights reserved.

Doctor Strange & Doctor Doom: Triumph & Torment


By Roger Stern, Michael Mignola & Mark Badger, Gerry Conway, Gene Colan, Bill Mantlo, Kevin Nowlan & various(Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8454-6

This occult odd couple concoction is perhaps one of the very best Marvel Universe yarns from the post-Kirby years and tells a powerful tale by contrasting the mandatory origin sequences of the two doctors to produce effective motivations for and deeper insights into both characters.

Adding even greater interest and incentive, this collection from 2016 – also released as an eBook – offers loosely associated material from Astonishing Tales #8, Doctor Strange #57 (February 1983) and Marvel Fanfare #16 and 43…

Victor Von Doom is a troubled gypsy genius who escaped the oppression of his homeland on a scholarship to America. Whilst there he succumbed to an intense rivalry with young Reed Richards, even then perhaps the most brilliant man alive.

The arrogant Von Doom performed unsanctioned experiments which marred his perfect features, leading him down a path to super-science and an overwhelming hunger for power and control. His mother, a sorceress, burns in hell for the unholy powers she used in life, powers which her son also possesses.

Steven Strange was America’s greatest surgeon, a vain and arrogant man who cared nothing for the sick, except as a means to wealth and glory. When a drunken car-crash ended his career, Strange hit the skids until an overheard barroom tall tale led him to Tibet, an ancient magician, and eventual enlightenment through daily redemption. He battles otherworldly evil as the Sorcerer Supreme, Master of the Mystic arts.

When a magical call goes out to all the World’s adepts offering a granted wish to the victor in a contest of sorcery, both Doom and Strange are among the gathered. After mystic combat reduces the assemblage to the two doctors, Doom’s granted wish is to rescue his mother’s soul from Hell…

A classic quest saga, Triumph & Torment sees the two mages storm the gates of the Underworld in a mission of vain hope and warped mercy, battling the hordes of Mephisto and their own natures in a mesmerizing epic of power and pathos.

Roger Stern is at his absolute writing peak here and the unlikely art team of Michael Mignola and Mark Badger defy any superlatives I could use. The art is simply magical, especially the mesmerising colouring, also courtesy of Mr Badger.

High drama, heroism, perfidy and plenty of surprises wrapped in superb craftsmanship typify all that’s best in the “Marvel Style” and this tale has it all aplenty.

The bonus material kicks off with ‘… Though Some Call it Magic!’ by Gerry Conway, Gene Colan & Tom Palmer: a tense vignette from Astonishing Tales #8 (October 1971) which first revealed details of the arcane annual ritual in which the metal-shod monarch of Latveria battled with the King of Hell for possession of a gypsy witch’s soul, after which Doctor Strange #57 (February 1983) revealed Roger Stern’s first stray thoughts on the forthcoming Triumph & Torment epic…

Although the story mainly dealt with other acolytes trying to become the sorcerer’s latest apprentice, ‘Gather My Disciples Before Me!’ – illustrated by Kevin Nowlan & Terry Austin – saw Doom attempt to swallow his gargantuan pride and also petition Stephen Strange to become his tutor in the ways of magic…

The story portion of this graphic grimoire concludes with a brace of salty sea tales starring Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner both illustrated by then callow newcomer Mike Mignola and scripted by Bill Mantlo. The undersea action opens with ‘A Fable’ (Marvel Fanfare #16, September 1984) with the Sea King striving to save a beautiful beast from the callous cruelty of sailors whilst from MF #43 (April 1989) ‘Time After Time’ – inked by P. Craig Russell – sees the Sub-Mariner fall through time to an age of piracy and share a brief, overpowering passion with a ferocious female freebooter…

Sweetening the pot is a full cover gallery, Mignola Namor pin-ups, a Marvel Age article on Triumph & Torment (by Peter Sanderson) and a couple of delicious Mignola parody ads. Also included are Mignola sketches, and a gallery of pin-ups by Austin, Carl Potts, Ken Steacy, Ian Akin & Brian Garvey, Bret Blevins, Bob Layton, Gregory Wright, Craig Hamilton, Mike Machlan, Joe Sinnott, Kerry Gammill, Nowlan & Paul Ryan.

Sheer comic enchantment, this a book no lover of the fantastic fiction can afford to ignore.
© 1971, 1983, 1984, 1989, 2013, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Batman: Illustrated by Neal Adams volume 1


By Neal Adams with Bob Haney, Leo Dorfman, Cary Bates & various (DDC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0041-1 (HC):                   978-1-4012-3537-6 (PB)

As the 1960s began Neal Adams was a young illustrator who had worked in advertising and ghosted some newspaper strips whilst trying to break into comics. Whilst pursuing a career in advertising and “real art” he did a few comics pages for Archie Comics and subsequently became one of the youngest artists to co-create and illustrate a major licensed newspaper strip – Ben Casey (based on a popular TV medical drama series).

That comics fascination never faded however, and Adams drifted back to National/DC doing a few covers as inker of penciller and eventually found himself at the vanguard of a revolution in pictorial storytelling…

He made such a mark that DC chose to reprint every piece of work Adams ever did for them into a series of commemorative collections. Batman: Illustrated by Neal Adams is the first of three superb tomes (available in  variety of formats) featuring the “Darknight Detective” – as he was dubbed back then – and featuring every cover, story and issue in original publication order.

‘From Me to You: An Introduction’ gives you the history of his early achievements in his own words, after which the covers of Detective Comics #370 (December 1967, inking Carmine Infantino) and the all-Adams Brave and the Bold #75 (January 1968), Detective #372 (February), B&B #76 (February/March), Batman #200 and World’s Finest Comics #174 (both March) all serve as a timely taster for the artist’s first full-length narrative…

The iconoclastic penciller first started truly turning heads and making waves with a couple of enthralling Cape & Cowl capers beginning with World’s Finest Comics #175 (April 1968) and ‘The Superman-Batman Revenge Squads!’

Scripted by Leo Dorfman and inked by Dick Giordano, the story detailed how an annual – and friendly – battle of wits between the crime-busters is infiltrated by alien and Earthly criminal groups intent on killing their foes whilst they are off-guard…

WFC #176 (June) then featured a beguiling enigma in ‘The Superman-Batman Split!’ – written by fellow newcomer Cary Bates. Ostensibly just another alien mystery yarn, this twisty little gem has a surprise ending for all and guest stars Robin, Jimmy Olsen, Supergirl and Batgirl, with Adams’ hyper-dynamic realism lending an aura of solid credibility to even the most fanciful situations.

It also ushered in an era of gritty veracity to replace previously anodyne and frequently frivolous Costumed Dramas…

More Dynamite Covers follow: Batman #203 (July/August) leads to Brave & Bold #79 (August/September) and heralded Adams’ assumption of the interior art chores for a groundbreaking run that rewrote the rulebook for strip illustration…

‘The Track of the Hook’ – written by Bob Haney and inked Giordano – paired the Gotham Guardian with justice-obsessed ghost Deadman: formerly trapeze artist Boston Brand who was hunting his own killer, and whose earthy, human tragedy elevated the series’ costume theatrics into deeper, more mature realms of drama and action.

The stories aged ten years overnight and instantly became every discerning fan’s favourite read.

Covers for World’s Finest Comics #178-180 (spanning September through November) segue sweetly into Brave and the Bold #80 (October/November 1968) with ‘And Hellgrammite is his Name’ finding Batman and the Creeper clashing with an infallible, insect-themed super-hitman again courtesy of Haney, Adams & Giordano.

B&B #81 saw the Flash aid the Caped Crusader against an unbeatable thug in ‘But Bork Can Hurt You!’ (inked by Giordano & Vince Colletta) after which Aquaman became ‘The Sleepwalker from the Sea’ in an eerie tale of mind-control and sibling rivalry.

Interwoven through those thrillers are the covers for World’s Finest #182 (February 1969, inking Curt Swan’s pencils), #183 (March, inking over Infantino), Batman #210 and Detective #385 (both March and all Adams).

B&B # 83 took a radical turn (and is the only story herein without a cover since that one was limned by Irv Novick) as the Teen Titans try to save Bruce Wayne’s latest foster-son from his own inner demons in ‘Punish Not my Evil Son!’ (Haney & Giordano as ever on board) but the next team-up was one that got many fans in a real tizzy in 1969.

Before that though you can enjoy the fabulous frontage for World’s Finest #185 (June 1969) after which ‘The Angel, the Rock and the Cowl’ recounts a World War II exploit where Batman and Sgt. Rock of Easy Company hunt Nazi gold together, only closing the case 25 years later.

Try to ignore the kvetching about relative ages and which Earth we’re on: you should really focus on the fact that this is a startlingly gripping tale of great intensity, beautifully realised, and one which has been criminally discounted for decades as “non-canonical”.

Detective Comics #389 (July), World’s Finest #186 (August and pencilled by Infantino) precede Brave and the Bold #85. Behind a stunning cover is arguably the best of an incredible run of action adventures…

‘The Senator’s Been Shot!’ reunites Batman and Green Arrow in a superb multi-layered thriller of politics, corruption and cast-iron integrity, with Bruce Wayne being appointed as a stand-in for a law-maker whilst the Emerald Archer receives a radical make-over that turned him into the fiery liberal gadfly champion of the relevancy generation and still informs his character today, both in funnybooks and on TV screens…

Wrapping up this initial artistic extravaganza are the covers for Detective Comics #391 and 392, (September and October 1969) completing a delirious run of comics masterpieces no ardent art lover or fanatical Fights ‘n’ Tights aficionado can do without.
© 1967, 1968, 1969, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks volume 8


By Stan Lee, John Romita, John Buscema, Ross Andru, Jim Mooney, Bill Everett & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2074-2) (HB)                   978-0-7851-8807-0 (TPB)

This eighth astounding full-colour compilation of webspinning wonderment again follows the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero through deadly dangers and romantic rollercoasters as the second great era of Amazing Arachnid artists moved inevitably to a close. Although the elder John Romita would remain closely connected to Spider-Man’s adventures for some time yet, these tales would be amongst his last long run as lead illustrator on the series.

After a shaky start – suffering cancellation before his first issue – The Amazing Spider-Man quickly became a popular sensation with kids of all ages. Before long the quirky, charming, thrillingly action-packed comics soap-opera became the model for an entire generation of younger heroes impatiently elbowing aside the staid, (relatively) old thirty-something mystery-men of previous publications and hallowed tradition.

Peter Parker was a smart-but-alienated kid bitten by a radioactive spider during a school science trip. Discovering astonishing arachnid abilities – which he augmented with his own natural chemistry, physics and engineering genius – the kid did what any lonely, geeky nerd would do with such newfound prowess: he tried to cash in for girls, fame and money.

Making a costume to hide his identity in case he made a fool of himself, Parker became a minor media celebrity – and a criminally self-important one. To his eternal regret, when a thief fled past him one night he didn’t lift a finger to stop him, only to find when he returned home that his guardian uncle Ben Parker had been murdered.

Crazed and vengeful, Peter hunted the assailant who’d made his beloved Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known, discovering, to his horror, that it was the self-same felon he had neglected to stop. His irresponsibility had resulted in the death of the man who raised him, and the traumatised boy swore to forevermore use his powers to help others…

Since that night, the Wondrous Wallcrawler has tirelessly battled miscreants, monsters and madmen, with a fickle, ungrateful public usually baying for his blood even as he perpetually saves them…

The rise and rise of the Amazing Arachnid accelerated as the Swinging Sixties drew to a close and, by the time of the tales collected herein (Amazing Spider-Man#68-77 originally released between January-October 1969, plus an obscure thriller from Marvel Super-Heroes #14), Peter and his ever-expanding cast of comrades were on the way to being household names as well as the darlings of college campuses and the media intelligentsia.

Stan Lee’s scripts were completely in tune with the times – as observed by most kids’ parents at least – and the increasing use of soap opera plots kept older readers glued to the series even if the bombastic battle sequences didn’t.

Thematically, gangsterism dominated (probably due to the contemporary buzz caused by Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather) and an increasing use of mystery plots balanced a dependence on costumed super-foes as antagonists: all finely balanced with the usual suspect-pool of thugs, hoods and mob-bosses, but these were not the individual gangs of the Ditko days.

Now Organised Crime and Mafia analogue The Maggia were the big criminal-cultural touchstone as comics caught up with modern movies and headlines.

Issue #68 (by Lee, Romita & Jim Mooney) started a lengthy saga featuring the pursuit of an ancient stone tablet by various nefarious forces, beginning with The Kingpin who exploited a topical moment of student dissent to foment a ‘Crisis on the Campus!’

When a seemingly inevitable riot erupted, the Big Bad tried to swipe the artefact, leaving a few teenagers we’re all too familiar with looking very guilty…

Meanwhile Peter Parker, already struggling with debt, a perpetually at-Death’s-Door Aunt May, relationship grief with girlfriend Gwen Stacy and no time to study, was accused of not being involved enough by his fellow students…

During this period scripter Lee increasingly tapped into the student unrest of the times in various Marvel titles and ‘Mission: Crush the Kingpin!’ further tightened the screws as the student unrest exploded into violence whilst the corpulent crime czar incriminated Spider-Man in the tablet’s theft.

Hounded and harried in ‘Spider-Man Wanted!’ the web warrior nevertheless managed to defeat the Kingpin only to (briefly) believe himself a killer after he attacked personal gadfly J. Jonah Jameson in a fit of rage; causing an apparent heart attack in the obsessive, hero-hating publisher.

At his lowest ebb, and now stuck with the tablet, Parker is attacked by sometime-Avenger Quicksilver in ‘The Speedster and the Spider!’ (#71), before John Buscema signs on as layout-man in ‘Rocked by the Shocker!’

No sooner does Spider-Man leave the stone tablet with Gwen’s dad – former Police Chief Stacy – than the vibrating villain attacks, pinching the petrified artefact and precipitating a frantic underworld civil war. The Maggia dispatch brutal over-sized enforcer Man-Mountain Marko to retrieve it at all costs in ‘The Web Closes!’ (Lee, Buscema, Romita & Mooney) as upstart lawyer Caesar Cicero makes his long-anticipated move to depose aged Don of Dons Silvermane

However, the frail, elderly crime-lord knows the true secret – if not the methodology – of the tablet. To that end, he abducts biologist Curt Connors and his family to reconstruct the formula hidden on the stone and bring him ultimate victory.

Unfortunately, nobody but Spider-Man knows Connors is also the lethal Lizard and that the slightest stress might unleash the reptilian monster within to once more threaten all humanity. ‘If this be Bedlam!’ (Romita & Mooney) leads directly into ‘Death Without Warning!’ as the decrypted power of the tablet causes a cataclysmic battle that seemingly destroys one warring faction forever, decimating the mobs, but also freeing a far more deadly threat…

Amazing Spider-Man #76 sees John Buscema become full penciller with ‘The Lizard Lives!’ whilst concluding chapter ‘In the Blaze of Battle!’ witnesses the webspinner trying to defeat, cure and keep the tragic secret of his friend Connors, all whilst preventing guest-starring Human Torch Johnny Storm exterminating the marauding rogue reptile forever…

Closing this comics compendium is a one-off yarn from Marvel Super-Heroes #14 (May 1968). ‘The Reprehensible Riddle of the… The Sorcerer!’ actually debuted a year previously in the try-out title and reads to me like an inventory tale rushed out to fill a deadline gap or printed just before its “use-by” date expired. Nonetheless, as crafted by Lee, Ross Andru & Bill Everett, it offers a different spin on the wallcrawler as an enigmatic psychic targets Spider-Man, using psionic strikes and voodoo tricks to draw the hero to New Orleans and a death duel with a synthetic, science-tinged homunculus…

Spider-Man became a permanent unmissable part of many teenagers’ lives at this time and did so by living a life as close to theirs as social mores and the Comics Code would allow. Blending cultural authenticity with glorious narrative art, and making a dramatic virtue of the awkwardness, confusion and sense of powerlessness most of the readership experienced daily, resulted in an irresistibly intoxicating read, delivered in addictive soap-opera slices, but none of that would be relevant if the stories weren’t so compellingly entertaining.

This book is Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak. Why not see why…?
© 1968, 2012 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Guardians of the Galaxy Prelude


By Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, Mike Friedrich, Bill Mantlo, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Steve Englehart, Wellinton Alves, Daniel Govar, Andrea Di Vito, Jim Starlin, Sal Buscema, Steve Gan, Bob McLeod & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5410-5

With another Marvel Filmic Fantasy premiering around the world, here’s a timely trade paperback collection to augment the cinematic exposure and cater to movie fans wanting to follow up with a comics experience.

Comprising a big bunch of reprints and digital material designed to supplement the first movie release, this compilation contains Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Prelude #1-2, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Infinite Comic #1 and Guardians of the Galaxy #0.1, plus debut or early appearances of Drax, Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, Groot and Star-Lord as first seen in Iron Man #55, Strange Tales #181, Incredible Hulk #271, Tales to Astonish #13 and Marvel Preview #4.

Thanks to all that fabulous, futuristic technology, you can even look at this treasure chest of thrills on screen too through its digital iteration if you prefer…

The sky-high high jinks kick off with a glimpse at the frankly horrific childhoods of Gamora and Nebula with big daddy Thanos, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Wellinton Alves & Manny Clark: set just before the first film begins (the clue’s in the name as it comes from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Prelude #1), after which # 2 provides a similarly candid review of Rocket and Groot as their quest for cash draws them into a questionably legal repo job for a criminal big shot…

Next up is Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Infinite Comic #1 by Abnett & Lanning, storyboarder Daniel Govar and artist Andrea Di Vito: a screen-based adventure, rather uncomfortably reformatted for the printed page. Here Taneleer Tivan, The Collector commissions Gamora with the retrieval of a certain Orb…

Of course, all these plot strands get knotted together in the movie…

The classic appearances kick off with Iron Man#55 (February 1973), scripted by Mike Friedrich and illustrated by Jim Starlin & Mike Esposito. ‘Beware The … Blood Brothers!’ introduces Drax the Destroyer, an incredibly powerful alien… or so he seems at first glance.

Trapped by another extraterrestrial newcomer – Thanos – under the desert, Drax is rescued by the Armoured Avenger, but it’s merely a prelude to the main story which appeared in Captain Marvel #25-33, a saga to be savoured elsewhere…

Gamora was first seen in Strange Tales #181 (August 1975), as Avatar of Life Adam Warlock made his way across the cosmos, battling the depredations of the Universal Church of Truth and his own evil future self The Magus. Technically it was her second, but in this yarn she got a name and speaking part…

‘1000 Clowns!’ – by Starlin and Al Milgrom – saw the accursed hero trapped in an insidious psychic prison even as in the notionally real world, a green-skinned gamin was slowly eradicating his tormentors. She was about to free the golden saviour, when Warlock escaped under his own steam. If he’d known that Gamora was actually working for his cosmic nemesis Thanos, he might not have bothered…

Rocket Raccoon was a minor character who first appeared in backup serial ‘The Sword in the Star’. His actual debut was in Marvel Preview #7 in 1976 but in 1982, writer Bill Mantlo brought him into the mainstream of the Marvel Universe with a choice starring role in Incredible Hulk #271 (May 1982).

Like Wolverine and the Punisher years before, the foul-mouthed, fuzzy faced iconoclast then simply refused to go away quietly…

Illustrated by Sal Buscema, ‘Now Somewhere in the Black Holes of Sirius Major There Lived a Young Boy Name of… Rocket Raccoon!’ find Earth’s jade juggernaut stranded on an alien world where sentient animals used super-scientific gadgetry to battle robot clowns. They do this to preserve the security of humans who seem incapable of caring for themselves. When Green-skin arrives, a simmering civil war is just breaking out…

With the Hulk safely removed from the combat zone, Rocket faded from view for a few years before returning in a new-fangled format for comicbooks: a miniseries…

More sidereal shenanigans surface in an absolute classic of the gloriously whacky “Kirby Kritter” genre, predating the birth of the Marvel Age. Crafted by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers, ‘I Challenged Groot! The Monster from Planet X’ (Tales to Astonish #13, November/December 1960) reveals how a studious biologist saves humanity from a rapacious walking tree intent on stealing Earth cities and shipping them back to his distant world. The tree titan might have started life as a disposable notion, but he too grew into a larger role over the unfolding decades…

Notional leading man Star-Lord premiered in monochrome mature-reader magazine Marvel Preview # 4 (January 1976), appearing thrice more – in #11, 14 and 15 – during the height of the Star Wars-inspired Science Fiction explosion of the late 1970s and 1980s.

Years previously a warrior prince of an interstellar empire was shot down over Colorado and had a brief fling with solitary Earther Meredith Quill. Despite his desire to remain in idyllic isolation, duty called the starman back to the battle and he left, leaving behind an unborn son and a unique weapon…

A decade later, the troubled boy saw his mother assassinated by alien lizard men. Peter Jason Quill vengefully slew the creatures with Meredith’s shotgun, before his home was explosively destroyed by a flying saucer.

The orphan awoke in hospital, his only possession a “toy” ray-gun his mother had hidden from him his entire life. He became obsessed with the stars – astronomy and astrology – and overcame all odds to become a part of America’s budding space program… but he made no friends and plenty of enemies on the way…

Years later his destiny found him, as the half-breed scion was elevated by the divinity dubbed the “Master of the Sun”, becoming Star-Lord. Rejecting both Earth and his missing father, Peter chose freedom, the pursuit of justice and the expanse of the cosmos…

From such disparate strands movie gold can be made, but never forget that the originating material is pretty damned good too and will deliver a tempting tray of treats that should have most curious fans scurrying for back-issue boxes, bookshop shelves or online emporia…
© 1960, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1982, 2014 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Batman: Knightfall


By Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant, Jim Aparo, Norm Breyfogle, Graham Nolan, Jim Balent, Bret Blevins, Klaus Janson, Mike Manley & various (DC Comics) ISBN: 978-1-4012-3379-2

The early 1990s were troubled times for the American comicbook industry, with speculative collectors rather than fans driving the business. Many new companies had established themselves using attention-catching gimmicks augmented by cutting-edge print technology and shameless pandering to simplistic sex and violence and the tactics had worked, sparking a glossy, four-colour Gold-Rush amongst fans and, more importantly, previously disinterested outsiders.

With vapid ploys and fleeting trends fuelling frantic mass-multiple purchases by buyers who were too scared to even open up the hundreds of polybagged, technologically-enhanced variant-covered issues they intended to pay for college and a condo with, the major publishers were driven to design boldly bonkers stunts just to keep the attention of their once-devoted readership. At least here, however, story-content still held some worth and value…

In 1992 DC began their epic Death of Superman story-arc and apparently immediately afterward began preparing a similar tradition-shaking, continuity-shattering epic for their other iconic household-name property. Groundwork had already been laid with the introduction of Jean-Paul Valley, a mild-mannered student utterly unaware that he had been programmed since birth by his father and an ancient warrior-cult to become an hereditary instrument of assassination (see Batman: Sword of Azrael) so all that was needed was to sort creative personnel and decide just how best to shake up the life of the Gotham Guardian…

KnightFall, and the subsequent KnightQuest and KnightsEnd, follow the brutal fall, replacement and inevitable return of Bruce Wayne as the indomitable, infallible Batman and was another spectacular success from the old guard which showed all the comicbook upstarts and Young Turks the true value of proper storytelling. It also proved the unshakable power of established characters, as the world was gripped by the Dark Knight’s horrific defeat at the hands of a blatantly superior nemesis.

The crossover publishing event impacted many comics outside the usual Batbook suspects, spawned a bunch of toys, three novelisations, many (necessarily incomplete) trade paperback collections and even jumped the pond to Britain’s staid BBC who turned it into a serialised audio-play on Radio One…

In 2012 DC finally began collecting the entire saga into three huge chronological compilations which, whilst still not truly complete, render the tale a far smoother and more readable experience for older fans and curious newcomers…

Batman: KnightFall volume 1, which could be best codified as and divided into ‘The Breaking of the Bat’ and ‘Who Rules the Night’, gathers the pertinent contents of Batman: Vengeance of Bane Special #1, Batman #491-500, Detective Comics #659-666, Showcase ’93 #7-8 and Batman: Shadow Of The Bat #16-18 – spanning January to October 1993 – and scrupulously covers the most traumatic six months of Bruce Wayne’s adult life in instalments of a shared and progressing narrative alternating between Bat-titles and discrete creative teams.

What you won’t find out here: in the months preceding the start of KnightFall (roughly correlating to Batman issues #484-489 and Detective #654-658), a mysterious new criminal had entered Gotham, covertly observing the Caped Crimebuster at work as the hard-pressed hero tackled sinister crime-lord Black Mask, psycho-killer Metalhead and juvenile military genius The General, all whilst foiling an assassination plot against Police Commissioner Jim Gordon.

On the edge of exhaustion, Wayne began seeing doctor and holistic therapist Shondra Kinsolving, whilst assigning Tim Drake – the third Robin – to training and monitoring Jean-Paul Valley, with the intention of turning the former Azrael’s dark gifts to a beneficial purpose.

Kinsolving was also treating Drake’s father, crippled after an attack by another of the City’s endless stream of criminal lunatics…

Coldly clinical observer Bane revealed himself and designed further tests for the depleted Dark Knight, challenging Batman for the right to rule Gotham, by manufacturing confrontations with Killer Croc and The Riddler; the latter augmented and driven crazy by a dose of deadly super-steroid Venom

Thus, the action begins here with the origin of the calamitous challenger in ‘Vengeance of Bane’ by Chuck Dixon, Graham Nolan & Eduardo Barretto, wherein the hulking brute is fully revealed and exposed.

Years ago, on the Caribbean island of Santa Prisca, the ruling junta imprisoned the pregnant wife of a freedom fighter. When the baby was born, he was sentenced in his father’s stead to life on the hellish prison rock of Pena Duro where he somehow thrived, touched by the horror and madness to inexorably become a terrifying, brilliant master of men.

Not merely surviving but educating himself and ultimately thriving on the hard medicine of life, the boy knew he had a destiny beyond those walls. Eventually he named himself Bane.

His only non-hostile contacts became his faithful lieutenants, Trogg, Zombie and the Americano Bird, whose tales of the Bat in Gotham City fired the eternal prisoner’s jealousy and imagination…

Santa Prisca’s entire economy is based on drug smuggling and Bane’s moment came when one of his periodic rages crippled thirty inmates. After finally being subdued by an army of guards he was turned over to scientists testing a new iteration of the muscle and aggression-enhancing formulation Venom. The effects of the steroid had caused the death of all previous candidates, but Bane survived and the delighted technologists devised biological implants that would deliver doses of the drug directly into his brain, enabling him to swiftly multiply his strength and speed at the press of a button…

A plan formed and the patient faked his own death. Disposed of as trash, he returned, seizing the Venom supply, rescuing his comrades and indulging in a fearsome vengeance-talking against his oppressors. Then he turned greedy eyes towards Gotham and the only rival he could imagine…

KnightFall proper begins after Bane’s challenge to the already on-the-ropes Gotham Gangbuster with Batman #491 as ‘The Freedom of Madness’ (Doug Moench & Jim Aparo) sees the ambitious strategist steal National Guard armaments and use them to free every insane super-criminal locked away in Arkham Asylum.

Pushed almost beyond rationality, Batman orders Robin to stick with his mission to train and de-program Jean-Paul and sets out to recapture all his most dangerous enemies, whilst Bane sits back, watching and waiting…

Issue #492 sees the round-up start with the Mad Hatter in ‘Crossed Eyes and Dotty Teas’ (Moench & Norm Breyfogle) proving that even Bane can make mistakes, for whilst Batman acts according to plan and scotches the Hatter’s main party, the Mad Cap Maniac has already despatched a mind-controlled Film Freak to track down their mysterious liberator…

Detective Comics #659 opens with Hellenic god-obsessed Maxie Zeus, innocuous Arnold Wesker and hyperthyroid brute Amygdala fleeing shattered Arkham in ‘Puppets’ (Dixon & Breyfogle) as Batman is called to the alley where the broken, lifeless body of Film Freak is found.

As The Ventriloquist, Wesker used the gangster doll Scarface to express his murderous schemes and – with Amygdala now in tow – has begun a lethal search to get back his old boss. The Dark Knight is obsessively locked on recapturing all his old enemies and ignores Robin’s pleas for rest and reason before tackling the hulking brute, but the confrontation does allow the cool-headed Boy Wonder to turn the tables on Bird, secretly following the Dynamic Duo for Bane.

However, the Pena Duro inmate is too much for the apprentice adventurer and only Bane’s order stops Bird from killing the boy too soon. The chaos is building in Gotham and the master planner wants nothing to spoil his intricate schemes…

Moench & Breyfogle then contribute ‘Redslash’ (Batman #493) as knife-wielding nut-job Victor Zsasz invades a girl’s school. The blood-soaked psycho marks each kill with a new scar on his own body and it’s been too long since his last…

By-the-book cop Lieutenant Stan Kitch’s wait-and-see policy only results in two more deaths that Batman cannot scrub from his own over-worked conscience. In the final confrontation patrolwoman Rene Montoya needs all her determination and utmost efforts to prevent the Dark Knight from beating Zsasz to death…

The chaos grows…

When they last met, Bane nearly crippled Killer Croc and the diseased carnival freak goes looking for payback in Detective #660, but his ‘Crocodile Tears’ (Dixon, Jim Balent & Scott Hanna) lead Robin – still craftily tracking Bird and Bane – into a deadly trap in the City’s sewers before Batman#494’s ‘Night Terrors’ (Moench, Aparo & Tom Mandrake) finally sees the re-emergence of the Joker, having fun his own way whilst looking for a partner to play with.

A collapsed tunnel saves Robin, but Bruce Wayne seems hell-bent on self-destruction; unable to relax until the maniacs are back behind padded bars. Ignoring all pleas from Alfred and Tim, he heads out into the night and narrowly prevents Jim Gordon’s murder at the hands of illusion-casting cannibal Cornelius Stirk, but is woefully unaware that the Clown Prince has allied with the Scarecrow and kidnapped Gotham Mayor Armand Krol

In Detective #661 the Arkham Alumni terrorise Krol, forcing him to further sabotage the benighted metropolis through emergency edicts even as pyromaniac Garfield Lynns sets the ‘City on Fire’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna). Having allowed Robin to tag along, Batman permits the Boy Wonder to tackle Firefly whilst the exhausted manhunter searches for less predictable prey. Meanwhile, Wesker is closing in on his Scarface and a recently de-toxified Riddler can’t pull off a robbery because there’s nobody around to answer his obsessively-constructed crime conundrums…

Barely breaking stride to take out the Cavalier, the Caped Crusader stumbles across the Firefly and almost dies at the hands of the relative lightweight in ‘Strange Bedfellows’ (Batman #495, Moench, Aparo & Bob Wiacek) as, impatient to help, Jean-Paul takes to the streets on his own, eager to contribute in his makeshift masked identity…

Finally convinced to take a night off, Bruce attends a civic gala and is recognised by Bane just as Poison Ivy turns up to kidnap all of Gotham’s glitterati. As Batman fights floral-based zombies, Gordon and his top aide Harvey Bullock lead the GCPD into a perfect ambush set by Scarecrow and the Joker…

Detective #662 sees Robin spectacularly if injudiciously tackle Riddler’s ‘Burning Questions’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna) just as Batman finally writes finis to Firefly’s horrific depredations, and unsanctioned vigilante Huntress secretly joins the battle to stem the rising tide of chaos, after which Batman #496 commences the climactic clash between the completely exhausted Masked Manhunter and his maddest monsters in ‘Die Laughing’ (Moench, Aparo & Josef Rubinstein), with Scarecrow and Joker explosively sealing off the Gotham River Tunnel… with the broken Mayor at the bottom of it.

Only the detonation of the tunnel roof and a million gallons of ingressing river prevent Batman from beating the Harlequin of Hate to death, but Detective #663 proves there’s ‘No Rest for the Wicked’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna) as our hero frantically hauls Krol to safety, merely to fall victim to a concerted assault by Bane’s hit squad.

Narrowly escaping, the harried hero heads home only to find Alfred unconscious and his home invaded by the orchestrator of all his woes…

Batman #497 presents the end of the road in ‘Broken Bat’ – by Moench, Aparo & Dick Giordano – as Bane finally attacks in person, mercilessly beating the exhausted but valiantly battling hero, ultimately breaking Batman’s spine in a savage demonstration of his physical and mental superiority.

Detective #664 sees the beginning of Bane’s Reign in ‘Who Rules the Night’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna) as the Scourge of Pena Duro drops the broken Batman’s body in the middle of Gotham; publicly declaring himself the new boss.

Even after Alfred and Robin intercept the ambulance carrying their shattered friend and mentor, saving his life proves a touch-and-go proposition, and in the interval Joker and Scarecrow come to a parting of the ways whilst the Ventriloquist is reunited with his malevolent master Scarface.

Gotham is a city at war and soon Boy Wonder and ex-Azrael are prowling the rooftops trying to stem the tide…

The tale diverges here to reveal the contents of Showcase ’93 #7 and 8, wherein Alfred, Robin and Jean-Paul restlessly wait by the comatose Wayne’s bedside, and traumatised Tim Drake recalls how mere days previously they thwarted the latest murder-spree of erstwhile Gotham DA Harvey Dent.

‘2-Face: Double Cross’ and the concluding ‘2-Face: Bad Judgment’ (Moench & Klaus Janson) depict the Double Desperado again challenging his one-time ally by setting up a hangman’s court in a confused and tragic attempt to convict Batman of causing all the former prosecutor’s problems…

Batman #498’s ‘Knights in Darkness’ (Moench, Aparo & Rick Burchett) see the brutalised Wayne regain consciousness as a paralysed, paraplegic wreck, only to reveal an even greater loss: his fighting spirit. Faking a road crash to explain his massive injuries, Tim and Alfred consult blithely oblivious Dr. Kinsolving in an attempt to restore the billionaire’s shattered spirit and broken body, whilst Bane goes wild in the city, mercilessly consolidating his hold on the various gangs and rackets.

To further his schemes and swiftly counter any stubborn opposition, the King of Gotham recruits Catwoman as his personal thief and retrieval service…

And in Wayne Mansion, as Shondra begins her course of therapy – now knowing full well her patient’s injuries were not caused by pranging a Porsche – Tim Drake carries out Bruce’s wishes and offers Jean-Paul the role and Mantle of Batman…

Gotham City is a criminal’s paradise with thugs big and small running riot now that the Dark Knight has been so publicly destroyed, but Detective #665 reveals ‘Lightning Changes’ (Dixon, Nolan & Giordano) as the new but inexperienced Batman and Robin team start wiping up the street scum and making them fear the night again, under strict instructions from Wayne to avoid major threats until they’re ready.

Valley, however, seems to be slowly coming unglued, happily using excessive force and chafing to test himself against Bane.

Meanwhile, demoralised, wheelchair-bound Bruce is becoming increasing dependent on Shondra. When he can’t find her, he wheels himself through the gardens to the adjoining house of Tim’s father Jack Drake in time to interrupt an abduction by masked gunmen. Despite his best efforts, Wayne is unable to stop them taking Shondra and the elder Drake, whilst in Gotham the new Bat has overstepped his orders and determined to go after Bane – even if it means allying with gangsters and risking the lives of innocent children…

One final diversion comes next in a sidebar tale from Shadow of the Bat#16-18 wherein Alan Grant, Bret Blevins, Mike Manley & Steve George describe how the sinister Scarecrow returns to his old college life long enough to turn innocent students into his phobic slaves as part of a grandiose and clearly crazy plan to turn himself into ‘The God of Fear’

Juvenile ideologue and criminal genius Anarky escapes prison just in time to see “Batman” facing off against his first fully deranged super-villain and realises that the Dark Knight is as much a threat to the people as the Tatterdemalion of Terror. The young rebel decides that for the good of the common man he should take them both out…

It doesn’t quite work out that way, but after Scarecrow exposes Batman to his fear gas and it doesn’t work, they combine to vanquish the failed deity. Valley, in an increasingly rare moment of rationality, lets Anarky off with a pretty scary warning. The former Azrael muses on how his programming had made him immune to the fear chemicals, but he couldn’t be more wrong…

The Beginning of the End starts in Batman #499 with ‘The Venom Connection’ (Moench, Aparo & Hanna), as Jean-Paul’s ruthless savagery and burgeoning paranoia drives a wedge between him and Robin, whilst oblivious to it all, the rededicated and driven Bruce Wayne uses the sleuthing skills of a lifetime to trace the kidnappers to Santa Prisca…

In the Batcave, Jean-Paul realises he is still subject to the deep programming that created Azrael when he falls into a trance and awakens to find he has designed deadly new high-tech gauntlets to augment his war on crime. Bane, meanwhile, ignores all entreaties to act, refusing to bother with a mere impostor.

In a blockbusting raid, Batman and Robin capture Bane’s lieutenants, although the Darker Knight coldly risks children’s lives to achieve victory. Alienated and deeply troubled, Tim resolves to tell Bruce but finds the Mansion deserted. Bruce and Alfred have left for the Caribbean, unaware that they have a svelte stowaway in the form of Selina Kyle

Detective #666 pushes things to fever-pitch with ‘The Devil You Know’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna) as the augmented, ever-angry and clearly losing it Batman breaks Trogg, Bird and Zombie out of jail and follows them back to Bane, only to fall before the sheer power and ferocity of the Venom-addicted living juggernaut…

Batman #500 is divided into a landmark two-part conclusion. ‘Dark Angel 1: the Fall’, by Moench, Aparo & Terry Austin, sees Batman frantically escape certain death at Bane’s hands and retreat to the Batcave where Azrael’s submerged programming – dubbed “the System” – takes temporary control: devising a perfectly-honed technological armoured suit that turns Batman into a human war-machine. Far more worrying is the rift that drives Robin, Nightwing and every other possible ally away as Valley prepares for his final confrontation with Bane…

The infuriated King of the City wants it too: challenging the impostor to a highly public duel in the centre of Gotham. ‘Dark Angel 2: the Descent’ (art by Mike Manley) sees a catastrophic clash which comprehensively crushes Bane and publicly proclaims the return of a new, darker Champion of the Night. As Batman narrowly chooses to leave Bane a crushed and humiliated living trophy rather than dead example, Robin – who had to save a train full of innocent bystanders from becoming collateral casualties of Batman – realises something very bad has come to Gotham…

To Be Continued…

There’s something particularly enticing about these colossal mega-compilations (available in both printed and digital editions) that utterly delights the 10-year-old in me: proven, familiar favourite stories in a huge, wrist-numbing package offering a vast hit of full-colour funnybook action, suspense and solid entertainment. And there’s even better to come…
© 1993, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks volume 7


By Stan Lee, John Romita, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Jim Mooney & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1637-0 (HB)                    978-0-7851-5935-3 (TPB)

Amazing Spider-Man was always a comicbook that matured with – or perhaps just slightly ahead – of its fan-base.

This seventh superbly scintillating full-colour compilation of chronological webspinning wonderment sees the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero through another rocky period of transformation as the second great era of Amazing Arachnid artists moved inevitably to a close. Although the elder John Romita would remain closely connected to the Wall-Crawler’s adventures for a little time yet, these tales would be amongst his last long run as lead illustrator on the series.

After a shaky start The Amazing Spider-Man quickly became a popular sensation with kids of all ages. Before too long the quirky, charming, thrillingly action-packed comics soap-opera would become the model for an entire generation of younger heroes impatiently elbowing aside the staid, (relatively) old thirty-something mystery-men of previous publications and hallowed tradition.

You know the story: Peter Parker was a smart-but-alienated kid bitten by a radioactive spider during a school science trip. Discovering he’d developed astonishing arachnid abilities – which he augmented with his own natural chemistry, physics and engineering genius – the kid did what any lonely, geeky nerd would do with such newfound prowess: he tried to cash in for girls, fame and money.

Making a costume to hide his identity in case he made a fool of himself, Parker became a minor media celebrity – and a criminally self-important one. To his eternal regret, when a thief fled past him one night he didn’t lift a finger to stop him, only to find when he returned home that his guardian uncle Ben Parker had been murdered.

Crazed and vengeful, Peter hunted the assailant who’d made his beloved Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known, discovering, to his horror, that it was the self-same felon he had neglected to stop. His irresponsibility had resulted in the death of the man who raised him, and the traumatised boy swore to forevermore use his powers to help others…

Since that night, the Wondrous Wallcrawler tirelessly battled miscreants, monsters and madmen, with a fickle, ungrateful public usually baying for his blood even as he perpetually saves them…

The rise and rise of the Amazing Arachnid increased pace as the Swinging Sixties drew to a close and, by the time of the tales collected herein (re-presenting Amazing Spider-Man #62-67, Annual #5 and oversized mainstream magazine experiment Spectacular Spider-Man #1-2, all originally released between July and December 1968), Peter and his ever-expanding cast of comrades were on the way to being household names as well as the darlings of college campuses and the media intelligentsia.

Stan Lee’s scripts were completely in tune with the times – as seen by most kids’ parents at least – and the increasing use of soap opera plots kept older readers glued to the series even if the bombastic battle sequences didn’t.

Thematically, there’s still a large percentage of old-fashioned crime and gangsterism and an increasing use of mystery plots. Dependence on costumed super-foes as antagonists was finely balanced with the usual suspect-pool of thugs, hoods and mob-bosses, but these were not the individual gangs of the Ditko days. Now Organised Crime and Mafia analogue The Maggia were the big criminal-cultural touchstone as comics caught up with modern movies and headlines.

First however from July 1968 comes Spectacular Spider-Man #1 by Lee, John Romita & Jim Mooney: an extended political thriller with charismatic reformer Richard Raleigh ferociously campaigning to become Mayor thus targeted and hunted by a brutish monster seemingly determined to keep the old political machine in place at all costs…

Rendered in moody wash tones, the drama soon disclosed a sinister plotter behind the campaign of terror… but his identity was the last one Spidey expected to expose…

Also included in the magazine and here was a retelling of the hallowed origin tale – ‘In the Beginning…’ by Lee, with Larry Lieber pencils and inks-&-tones added by the great Bill Everett.

Back in the four-colour world Amazing Spider-Man #62 demanded ‘Make Way for …Medusa!’: Lee, Romita, Don Heck & Mike Esposito/DeMeo supplied a fresh change-of-pace yarn as the wallcrawler stumbles into combat with the formidable Inhuman due to the machinations of a Madison Avenue ad man, after which ‘Wings in the Night!’ in #63 saw the original elderly Vulture return to crush his usurper Blackie Drago, and then take on Spidey for dessert.

The awesome aerial angst concluded with ‘The Vultures Prey’ which led to another art-change (with the sumptuous heavy line-work of Jim Mooney briefly replacing the workmanlike Heck & Esposito) in #65 as Spider-Man was arrested and had to engineer ‘The Impossible Escape!’ from a Manhattan prison, foiling a mass jailbreak along the way.

A psychotic special-effects mastermind returns seeking loot and vengeance in #66’s ‘The Madness of Mysterio!’ (Romita, Heck & DeMeo) as the master of FX illusion engineered his most outlandish stunt, whilst in the background the amnesiac Norman Osborn slowly began to regain his memory.

Although the wallcrawler is subjected to a hugely bizarre form of mind-bending it nevertheless results in an all-out action-packed brawl (rendered by Romita & Mooney) entitled ‘To Squash a Spider!’. Perhaps more interestingly, this yarn introduced Randy Robertson, college student son of the Daily Bugle’s city editor and one of the first young black regular roles in Silver Age comics. Lee and his staff were increasingly making a stand on Civil Rights issues at this time of unrest and Marvel would blaze a trail for African American characters in their titles. There would also be a growth of student and college issues during a period when American campuses were coming under intense media scrutiny…

The Amazing Arachnid’s magazine experiment then concludes with The Spectacular Spider-Man #2 (November 1968). To offset disappointing sales, Marvel had switched to a smaller size and added colour, but it was to be the last attempt to secure older-reader shelf-space until the early 1970s. At least the story was top-rate…

Following monochrome recap ‘The Spider-Man Saga’ Lee, Romita & Mooney dealt with months of foreshadowing by finally revealing how Norman Osborn shook off his selective amnesia and returned to full-on super-villainy in ‘The Goblin Lives!’

Steeped in his former madness and remembering Peter Parker was Spider-Man, Osborn plays cat and mouse with his foe, threatening all the hero’s loved ones until a climactic battle utilising hallucinogenic weapons again erases the Goblin personality… for the moment…

This volume closes with Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5 by Lee and his brother Larry Lieber (with inking from Esposito – still in his clandestine “Mickey DeMeo” guise) and clears up a huge mystery in the webspinner’s life by revealing the secret behind the deaths of ‘The Parents of Peter Parker!’.

Played as an exotic spy-thriller the tale took Spider-Man to the Algerian Casbah and a confrontation with the Red Skull. Nit-pickers and continuity-mavens will no doubt be relieved to hear that the villain was in fact retconned later and designated as the second Soviet master-villain who featured in the Captain America revival of 1953-1954, and not the Nazi original that Lee and Co had clearly forgotten was in “suspended animation” throughout that decade when writing this otherwise perfect action romp and heartstring-tugging melodrama…

That annual also provided a nifty Daily Bugle cast pin-up, a speculative sports feature displaying the advantages of Spider powers, a NYC street-map of the various locations where the Spidey saga unfolded plus a spoof section displaying how the Wallcrawler would look if published by Disney/Gold Key, DC or Archie Comics, or drawn by Al “Li’l Abner” Capp, Chester “Dick Tracy” Gould and Charles “Peanuts” Schulz.

It all wraps up with ‘Here We Go A-Plotting!’: a comedic glimpse at work in the Marvel Bullpen, uncredited but unmistakably drawn by the marvellous Marie Severin…

Blending cultural authenticity with stunning narrative art, and making a dramatic virtue of the awkwardness, confusion and sense of powerlessness that most of the readership experienced daily, resulted in an irresistibly intoxicating read, delivered in addictive soap-opera instalments, but none of that would be relevant if the stories weren’t so compellingly entertaining.

This book is Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak. Wish you were here?
© 1968, 2012 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Rocket Raccoon: Tales from Half-World


By Bill Mantlo, Mike Mignola, Al Gordon, Milgrom & various (Marvel)
No ISBN:

You can’t have failed to notice that the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie has thundered into theatres this season, so in a spirit of mirror-image opportunism I’ll be shuffling in short reviews of some of the many tie-in books the House of Ideas has kindly dashed out to celebrate the filmic franchise in the hope of making a few more readers out of viewers…

Tales from Half-World came out in 2013 (and is still readily available in both printed and digital formats) and provides a cheap and cheerful way to see the militant mystery mammal’s first scene-stealing starring role.

Rocket Raccoon was a throwaway character who first appeared in backup serial ‘The Sword in the Star’ in Marvel Preview#7 in 1976. In 1982, his originator Bill Mantlo brought him into the mainstream Marvel Universe with a guest-star role in Incredible Hulk #271 (May). Like the Punisher and Wolverine in previous years, the hairy iconoclast then simply refused to go away quietly…

A few years the furry force of nature popped up again in a new-fangled format for comicbooks: a miniseries…

The 4-issue Rocket Raccoon Limited Series was cover-dated May to August 1985 and crafted by Mantlo, then neophyte penciller Mike Mignola, and inkers Al Gordon & Al Milgrom and presented a bizarre and baroque sci-fi fantasy blending the charm of Pogo with the biting social satire of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (and vice versa): all whilst ostensibly describing a battle between Good and Evil in a sector of space crazy even by funnybook standards.

Rocket was one of many sentient and dedicated talking animals in the impenetrable, inescapable Keystone Quadrant: a Ranger in charge of keeping the peace in a troubled atmosphere where robots and anamorphic beasties went about their ordained task. That was caring for the distinctly odd and carefree humans known as The Loonies on their idyllic, sybaritic planet Halfworld.

Sadly, the critters were too much like their human charges.

When a brutal shooting war between voracious apex toymakers Judson Jakes and Lord Dyvyne leads to Rocket’s girlfriend Lylla Otter being kidnapped, the entire planet goes crazy wild, or perhaps more appropriately… ‘Animal Crackers’

In rescuing her, Rocket and faithful deputy Wal Rus have to contend with a murderous army of mechanised Killer Clowns, face an horrific, all-consuming bio-weapon at ‘The Masque of the Red Breath’, and even team up with arch-foe and disreputable mercenary bunny Blackjack O’Hare in ‘The Book of Revelations!’ before finally uncovering the horrendous truth behind the mad society they so unquestioningly defend…

The final chapter shakes everything up as ‘The Age of Enlightenment’ sees the shocking end of The Loonies, allowing the Raccoon and his surviving companions to escape the confines of the eternally segregated Keystone Quadrant into the greater universe beyond…

This razor-sharp, spectacular slice of riotous star-roving action is a non-stop feast of tense suspense, surreal fun and blockbuster action: well-tailored, on-target and certain to turn curious movie-goers into fans of the comics incarnation.
© 2013 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.