Amazing Spider-Man Marvel Masterworks volume 6

By Stan Lee, John Romita, Larry Lieber, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1362-2 (HB)                    978-1-3023-7876-9 (HB)

After a shaky start The Amazing Spider-Man quickly became a popular sensation with kids of all ages, rivalling the creative powerhouse that was Fantastic Four. 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 with a need for vengeance, 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 unfolded and, by the time of the tales in this sixth sterling celebration (re-presenting Amazing Spider-Man #51-61 and Annual #4, originally released between August 1967 and June 1968), Peter and his ever-expanding cast of cohorts were on the way to being household names as well as the darlings of college campuses and the media intelligentsia.

Issue #50 had introduced one of Marvel’s greatest villains in the first of a 3-part yarn that saw the blooming of romance between Parker and college classmate Gwen Stacy and re-established Spidey’s war on cheap thugs and common criminals (a key component of the hero’s appeal was that no criminal was too small for him to bother with).

The saga also saw a crisis of conscience force him to quit before resolving to take up his heroic burden once more.

This volume opens with the second chapter as the wallcrawler is trapped ‘In the Clutches of… the Kingpin!’ (by Lee & Romita), battling an army of thugs to save hostages Fred Foswell and J. Jonah Jameson but ultimately losing a fateful fight with the big boss before tragically triumphing in concluding clash ‘To Die a Hero!’

This gang-busting triptych saw Romita relinquish the inking of his art to Mike Esposito (moonlighting from DC as Mickey DeMeo).

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #4 follows as Lee – with his brother Larry Lieber & Esposito handling the art chores – crafts an epic battle-saga wherein Spidey and the Human Torch are tricked into appearing in a movie. Sadly ‘The Web and the Flame!’ is just a deviously diabolical scheme to kill them orchestrated by old enemies The Wizard and Mysterio, but the titanic teens are up to the task of trashing their attackers…

From the same issue – and all courtesy of Lieber – come pictorial fact-features ‘The Coffee Bean Barn!’ face-checking the then-current Spider-Man regulars, sartorial secrets exposed in ‘What the Well-Dressed Spider-Man Will Wear’ before superpowers are scrutinised in ‘Spidey’s Greatest Talent’.

Also included are big pin-ups of our hero testing his strength against Marvel’s mightiest good guys, a double-page spread ‘Say Hello to Spidey’s Favorite Foes!’ plus another 2-page treat as we enjoy ‘A Visit to Peter’s Pad!’

A new multi-part saga began in #53 with ‘Enter: Dr. Octopus’ as the many-tentacled madman tries to steal a devastating new piece of technology. After being soundly routed the madman goes into hiding as a lodger at Aunt May’s house in ‘The Tentacles and the Trap!’, before regrouping and finally succeeding in ‘Doc Ock Wins!’

He even convinces a mind-wiped webslinger to join him before the astonishing conclusion in ‘Disaster!’ as, even bereft of memory, the Amazing Arachnid turns on his sinister subjugator and saves the day…

Shell-shocked and amnesiac, Spider-Man is lost in New York in #57 (with lay-outs by Romita, and pencils from the reassuring reliable Don Heck) until he clashes with Marvel’s own Tarzan clone in ‘The Coming of Ka-Zar!’ whilst in the follow-up ‘To Kill a Spider-Man!’ vengeance-crazed roboticist Professor Smythe convinces Jonah Jameson to finance another murderous mechanical Spider-Slayer

With Heck still in the artist’s chair, Amazing Spider-Man #59 sees the hero regain his memory and turn his attention to a wave of street-crime in ‘The Brand of the Brainwasher!’ as a new mob-mastermind begins taking control of the city by mind-controlling city leaders and prominent cops – including Gwen’s dad.

The drama continues as the schemer is revealed to be one of Spidey’s old foes in ‘O, Bitter Victory!’ The revelation creates big problems for Peter and Gwen before concluding part ‘What a Tangled Web We Weave…!’ sees our hero save the day but still stagger away more victim than victor…

Spider-Man became a permanent and 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 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 Stan Lee’s Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak. You should be here too…
© 1967, 1968, 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

X-Men Masterworks volume 6

By Roy Thomas, Denny O’Neil, Arnold Drake, Don Heck, Werner Roth, Neal Adams, Sal Buscema, Tom Palmer, Sam Grainger, Vince Colletta & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2056-8(HB)                                  978-0-7851-8837-7(PB)

X-Men was never Marvel’s top seller but did secure a devout and dedicated following, with the frantic, freakish energy of Jack Kirby’s heroic dynamism comfortably transiting into the slick, sleek prettiness of Werner Roth as the blunt tension of hunted outsider kids settled into a pastiche of the college and school scenarios so familiar to the students who were the series’ main audience. As the decade progressed the kids got edgier and more angst-ridden – as did the world around them and their readers – and the sense of pent-up aggression, isolation and alienation grew.

The core team still consisted of tragic leader Scott Summers/Cyclops, ebullient Bobby Drake/Iceman, wealthy golden boy Warren Worthington/Angel and erudite, brutish genius Henry McCoy/Beast although they were now without Professor Charles Xavier, the wheelchair-bound telepath dedicated to brokering peace and integration between the masses of humanity and the gradually emerging race of mutant Homo Superior.

Jean Grey/Marvel Girl had recently taken up much of the professor’s role and the team was also occasionally supplemented by magnetic minx Polaris, although she was usually referred to as Lorna Dane

However, by the time of this final collection (re-presenting X-Men #54-66 from March 1969 to March 1970) of the turbulent teens’ original series, despite some of the most impressive and influential stories and art of the decade, the writing was definitely on the wall for Marvel’s misunderstood mutants…

The mayhem begins with ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive… Cyclops!’ by Arnold Drake, Don Heck & Vince Colletta, which introduces Scott’s kid brother Alex just in time for the lad to be kidnapped by Egyptian acolytes of emergent Homo Superior The Living Pharaoh. It appears the boy has a hidden power the Pharaoh covets, which necessitates framing the X-Men’s leader…

At that time the back of the X-Men comic was running “untold origins” of the team, and ‘The Million Dollar Angel’ (Drake & Werner Roth) began unfolding the background of Warren Worthington III, a precocious rich boy rushed off to prep school where he grew wings and concealed them by making himself the most despised and lonely person on campus…

Roy Thomas returned as scripter for #55’s ‘The Living Pharaoh!’ – illustrated by Don Heck, Roth & Colletta – as the full team follow the Summers brothers to the Valley of the Kings and soundly thrash the faux potentate’s minions, only to have the new mutant’s unsuspected power go wild.

Meanwhile, in ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread!’ (Thomas, Roth & Sam Grainger) little Warren has left school and plans a superhero career until an atomic accident brings him into contact with a couple of kids code-named Cyclops and Iceman…

Nobody knew it at the time – and sales certainly didn’t reflect it – but with X-Men #56 superhero comics changed forever. Neal Adams had stunned the comics-buying public with his horror anthology work and revolutionary art on Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Batman, but here, with writer Thomas in iconoclastic form, they began to expand the horizons of graphic narrative with a succession of boldly innovative, tensely paranoid dramas that pitted mutants against an increasingly hostile world.

Deliberately pitched at an older audience, a run of gripping, addictively beautiful epics captivated and enchanted a small band of amazed readers – and were completely ignored by the greater mass of the buying public. Without these tales, the modern X-phenomenon could not have existed, but they couldn’t save the series from cancellation. The cruellest phrase in comics is “ahead of its time…”

‘What is… the Power?’ (Thomas, Adams & inker extraordinaire Tom Palmer) reveals an uncanny connection between the Pharaoh and Alex and, as the Egyptian mastermind transformed into a colossal Living Monolith, the terrified boy’s mutant energies are unleashed with catastrophic results…

At the back, a chemically unbalanced Angel becomes ‘The Flying A-Bomb!’ but happily is defused in time to become the newest X-Man.

Issue #57 brought back the team’s most relentless adversaries in ‘The Sentinels Live!’ as a public witch-hunt prompts the mutant-hunting robots to pursue X-Men across the globe. Amongst the first victims are magnetic Lorna Dane and Alex but the sinister Sentinels have their unblinking optics set on all mutants…

That issue also saw a rundown on Marvel Girl’s abilities in the last back-up feature ‘The Female of the Species!’.

From the next issue on, Thomas and Adams would have an entire issue to play with…

‘Mission: Murder!’ ramps up the tension as the toll of fallen mutants increases, with Iceman, the Pharaoh, Angel and Mesmero all falling to the murderous mechanoids, but when their human controller discovers an unsuspected secret the automatons strike out on their own…

With all other mutants in the Marvel universe captured, Cyclops, Marvel Girl and Beast are reduced to a suicidal frontal assault in ‘Do or Die, Baby!’; pulling off a spectacular victory, but only at the cost of Alex, now calling himself Havok

Badly injured, Alex is brought to an old colleague of Professor Xavier’s named Karl Lykos – a discreet physician hiding a dark secret. ‘In the Shadow of Sauron!’ reveals that as a child the not-so-good doctor had been bitten by Pterodactyls from the Antarctic Savage Land and become an energy vampire.

Now with a powerful mutant to feed on, his addiction fully manifests and a sated Lykos transforms into a winged saurian with hypnotic powers, determined to gorge himself on the other X-Men.

After a shattering struggle in ‘Monsters Also Weep!’ Lykos is defeated and instinctively flees South to the Savage Land to die. Drained of his power, he reverts to human form and when the X-Men track him down the tormented leech chooses suicide rather than become Sauron once more.

Searching for his body, Angel is also attacked by Pteranodons and crashes to the bottom of a vast crevasse, precipitating the mutants into another primordial encounter with wild man Ka-Zar as ‘Strangers …in a Savage Land!’

Marooned once more in a lost world, Angel is healed by the enigmatic Creator: a wounded genius protecting the Savage Land’s mutant population with his own team of X-Men counterparts.

As his team-mates search for him, the Winged Wonder switches allegiance, unaware that his benefactor is actually the X-Men’s oldest enemy…

‘War in the World Below!’ sees the villain’s plans revealed and finally thwarted by the heroes and Ka-Zar, leaving the returning team to tackle a controversial Japanese extremist in ‘The Coming of Sunfire!’ (#64, with veteran stalwart Don Heck doing an impressive fill-in job for Adams) whilst the next issue resurrects the long-dead Professor Xavier – only to nearly kill him again in the Denny O’Neil scripted alien-invasion yarn ‘Before I’d Be Slave…’: an astounding epic that ended Adams’ artistic tenure in grand style.

All the staffing changes were hints of a bigger shake-up. With X-Men #66 (March 1970), the series was cancelled, despite all the frantic and radical innovations crafted by a succession of supremely talented creators.

‘The Mutants and the Monster’, by Thomas, Sal Buscema & Grainger, sent the team hunting for Bruce Banner in an attempt to save Professor X from a coma induced by his psychic battle against the aliens. Unfortunately, when you hunt Banner what you usually end up with is an irate Incredible Hulk

Although gone, the mutants were far from forgotten. The standard policy at that time to revive characters that had fallen was to pile on the guest-shots and reprints. X-Men #67 (December 1970) saw them return, re-presenting early classics.

The Beast fared better than his buddies: riding a wave of monster titles, he was reinvented in a solo series as a response to the world horror boom which shifted general comicbook fare from bright shiny costumed heroes to dark and sinister monsters.

Blue, furry and misunderstood, he soldiered on in various venues until the X-Men stormed back in 1975, but that’s all meat for different collections…

Although a little scrappy in places, these disparate stories are wonderful comics sagas that were too radical for the readership of the times but have since been acknowledged as groundbreaking mini-masterpieces which reshaped the way we tell stories to this day: making this comprehensive collection an unquestionable treasure no fan should be without.
© 1969, 1970, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

X-Men Masterworks volume 5

By Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich, Arnold Drake, Jerry Siegel, Don Heck, Werner Roth, Jim Steranko, Barry Windsor-Smith & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1787-2(HC)                   :978-0-7851-5909-4(PB)

X-Men was never one of young Marvel’s top titles but it did secure a devout and dedicated following, with the frantic, freakish energy of Jack Kirby’s heroic dynamism comfortably transiting into the slick, sleek attractiveness of Werner Roth as the blunt tension of hunted outsider kids settled into a pastiche of college and school scenarios so familiar to the students who were the series’ main audience.

The team still consisted of tragic Scott Summers/Cyclops, ebullient Bobby Drake/Iceman, wealthy golden boy Warren Worthington/Angel and erudite, brutish genius Henry McCoy/Beast whose perpetual training with Professor Charles Xavier was seemingly ended when the wheelchair-bound telepath seemingly perished. Now his lifelong crusade to broker peace and integration between the masses of humanity and the emergent race of mutant Homo Superior was left to his heartbroken ex-students…

This meander down mutant memory lane reprints X-Men #43-53, a crossover from Avengers #53 and pertinent extracts from Ka-Zar #2-3 and Marvel Tales #31; collectively covering April 1968 to April 1971.

Issue #43 began the reinvention of the mutant team with ‘The Torch is Passed!’ (Roy Thomas, Tuska & Tartaglione) as arch-nemesis Magneto returned with reluctant confederates Toad, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch to ensnare the bereaved heroes in his hidden island fortress.

This epic action event was supported by an educational back-up tale entitled ‘Call Him… Cyclops’ (by Thomas, Roth & John Verpoorten) which revealed the secrets of the mutant’s awesome eye-blasts, after which the next issue saw the Angel inexplicably escape and encounter a revived Golden Age Timely Comics hero whilst flying back to America for reinforcements.

Stirring yarn ‘Red Raven, Red Raven…’ (Thomas and Gary Friedrich, with Don Heck layouts, Roth pencils and inks from John Tartaglione) was accompanied by the opening of the next X-Men Origins chapter-play as ‘The Iceman Cometh!’, courtesy of Friedrich, Tuska & Verpoorten.

X-Men #45 led with ‘When Mutants Clash!’ as Cyclops also escaped, only to encounter the highly-conflicted Quicksilver; a battle latterly concluded in Avengers #53 as ‘In Battle Joined’ (Thomas, John Buscema and Tuska) which depicted Magneto’s defeat and apparent death. Meanwhile, back in the back of #45, Iceman’s story of small town intolerance continued in ‘And the Mob Cried… Vengeance!’

‘The End of the X-Men!’ occurred in issue #46, with the reading of Charles Xavier’s will. FBI Agent Duncan – unseen since the earliest days of the series – reappeared and ordered the team to split up in order to more efficiently monitor different regions of the country for mutant activity.

That shocking pronouncement came just as the unstoppable Juggernaut returned from extradimensional exile, and took great umbrage at being unable to kill his recently deceased step-brother Charles Xavier.  Iceman’s origin then concluded with ‘…And Then There were Two!’ as the cold kid escaped the raving mob trying to lynch him by joining the X-school…

Friedrich was joined by Arnold Drake to script Beast and Iceman’s adventure ‘The Warlock Wears Three Faces!’ as ancient mutant Merlin once more re-branded himself – this time as psychedelic guru Maha Yogi – but again found his brain insufficient against the X-Men’s brawn. Topping off the action, Drake, Roth & Verpoorten explained the cool kid’s powers in gag-stuffed info feature ‘I, the Iceman.’.

As full scripter, Drake penned the Cyclops and Marvel Girl tale for #48. ‘Beware Computo, Commander of the Robot Hive’ is a pacy thriller involving a robotic revolution with a surprise guest villain lurking in the shadows, whilst ‘Yours Truly. the Beast’ wrong-footed everybody by outlining his powers before actually revealing his origin epic.

X-Men#49 offered a tantalising taste of things to come with a startling and stylish Jim Steranko cover, behind which Drake, Heck, Roth & Tartaglione revealed ‘Who Dares Defy… the Demi-Men?’

Nominally an Angel story, this convoluted thriller hastily reunited the team to confront the assembled mutant hordes of Mesmero and Iceman’s new girlfriend Lorna Dane… the daughter of Magneto…

This shocker was supplemented by the natal advent of Henry McCoy in ‘A Beast is Born’ by Drake, Roth & Verpoorten.

Drake, Steranko & Tartaglione reached incredible heights with the magnificently baroque ‘City of Mutants’ in #50; a visual tour de force that remains as spectacular now it was in 1968, but which was actually surpassed by Magneto’s inevitable return for ‘The Devil had a Daughter’ in #51.

The saga then rather rapidly wrapped up in ‘Twilight of the Mutants!’ with the team infiltrating the malign Mutant City to recue Lorna and bring down the evil overlord once and for all…

Don’t misunderstand me, however: This isn’t a bad story, but after two issues of Steranko in his creative prime, nobody could satisfactorily end this tale, and I pity Heck, Roth & Tartaglione for having to try.

The Beast origin chapters in those issues were ‘This Boy, This Bombshell’, ‘The Lure of the Beast-Nappers!’ and ‘The Crimes of the Conquistador!’, as the simian son of a gun is abducted by a would-be world conqueror in need of super-powered servants. That epic of child exploitation and the isolation of being different ended in #53’s ‘Welcome to the Club, Beast!’ but the issue’s main claim to notoriety was the lead feature which was drawn by another young superstar in the making.

Hard to believe now, but in the 1960s X-Men was a series in perpetual sales crises, and a lot of great talent was thrown at it back then. ‘The Rage of Blastaar!’ was illustrated by a young Barry Smith – still in his Kirby clone/appreciation phase – and his engagingly unique interpretations in this off-beat battle-blockbuster from Arnold Drake, inked by the enigmatic Michael Dee (I’m assuming its Mike Esposito), is memorable but regrettably brisk.

Completing the contemporary mutant exploits is a three-part solo saga starring the Angel which endured a peculiarly nomadic publication schedule.

In 1970 Tarzan analogue Ka-Zar starred in three giant sized reprint specials gathering his earlier appearances. These vintage yarns were bolstered by all new short sections – presumably try-out or inventory material. Issues #2 and 3 delved into the private life of the pinioned paladin with Jerry Siegel scripting ‘From the Sky… Winged Wrath!’ as Warren Worthington III visits his parents and sometime girlfriend Candy Southern just as a macabre criminal genius murders the mutant hero’s father…

Illustrated throughout by Tuska & Dick Ayers, the saga of unvarnished vengeance continues with the winged wonder ‘In the Den of the Dazzler!’ (a mad scientist bloke, not the later mutant disco diva) before concluding in suitably ironic fashion in Marvel Tales #30 as the villain attempts ‘To Cage an Angel!’ and pays a heavy price…

These tales perfectly display Marvel’s evolution from quirky action tales to the more fraught, breast-beating, complex melodramas which inexorably led to the monolithic X-brand of today. Well drawn, highly readable stories are never unwelcome or out of favour though, and it should be remembered that everything here informs so very much of today’s mutant mythology. These are stories for the dedicated fan and newest convert, and never better packaged than in this economical tome. Everyone should own this book.
© 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 2012 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

X-Men Masterworks volume 4

By Roy Thomas, Werner Roth, Dan Adkins, Ross Andru, Don Heck, John Tartaglione, George Tuska & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1607-3 (HC)                    :978-0-7851-5072-5 (PB)

X-Men was never one of young Marvel’s top titles but it did secure a devout and dedicated following, with the frantic, freakish energy of Jack Kirby’s heroic dynamism comfortably transiting into the slick, sleek attractiveness of Werner Roth as the blunt tension of hunted outsider kids settled into a pastiche of college and school scenarios so familiar to the students who were the series’ main audience.

The core team still consisted of tragic Scott Summers/Cyclops, ebullient Bobby Drake/Iceman, wealthy golden boy Warren Worthington/Angel and erudite, brutish genius Henry McCoy/Beast in perpetual training with Professor Charles Xavier, a wheelchair-bound (and temporarily deceased) telepath dedicated to brokering peace and integration between the masses of humanity and the emergent race of mutant Homo Superior.

By the time of this turbulent compilation (re-presenting X-Men #32-42 and spanning May 1967 to March 1968) attitudes and events from the wider world were starting to inflict an era of uncertainty on the Merry Mutants and beginning to infuse every issue with an aura of nervous tension. During those heady days, Marvel Comics had a vast following among older teens and college kids, and youthful scribe Roy Thomas spoke and wrote as they did. Coupled with his easy delight in expansive character casts this initially made X-Men a very welcoming read for we adolescent baby-boomers but with societal unrest everywhere those greater issues were beginning to be reflected in the comics…

A somewhat watered down version of the counter-culture had been slowly creeping into these tales of teenaged triumph and tragedy, mostly for comedic balance, but they were – along with Peter Parker in Amazing Spider-Man – some of the earliest indications of the changing face of America.

Illustrated by Werner Roth with John Tartaglione inking, ‘Beware the Juggernaut, My Son!’ augmented that aura of oppression and dire days ahead as Professor X is abducted by clandestine agency Factor Three and the X-Men are forced to stand alone against an unstoppable mystic monster.

The blistering battle against the Juggernaut was interrupted by a helpful guest-shot from Doctor Strange (and his mentor the Ancient One) leading to a life-saving trip ‘Into the Crimson Cosmos!’ Armed with knowledge of the nature of their enemy the mutants were able to vanquish the unstoppable Cain Marko, but when the dust settled the kids were left with almost no resources to rescue their abducted leader…

Dan Adkins – in full Wally Wood appreciation mode – memorably illustrated #34’s ‘War… In a World of Darkness!’ as the desperate team’s search for Xavier took them into the middle of a subterranean civil war between Tyrannus and the Mole Man, and he also inked Werner Roth on ‘Along Came A Spider…’

When absent ally Banshee was captured mid-sentence during a crucial communication with the X-Men, everybody’s favourite wall-crawler was mistaken for a Factor Three flunky. When the desperate and distraught mutants found him the webslinger was forced to battle for his life against the increasingly unstable teens.

‘Mekano Lives’ (with art from Ross Andru & George Roussos, nee Bell) found the team of cash-strapped kids delayed in their attempts to follow a lead to Europe by a troubled rich kid with a stolen exo-skeleton super-suit but his defeat gave them the wherewithal needed to resume their search…

Don Heck stepped in as inker over Andru’s pencils with #37 as ‘We, the Jury…’ saw the mutants finally find Factor Three – allied to a host of their oldest and most venal mutant foes – and primed to trigger an atomic war between the Americans and Soviet Union. Heck then assumed the penciller’s role for ‘The Sinister Shadow of… Doomsday!’ (inked by Roussos), before concluding the tense Armageddon saga with good and evil mutants temporarily united against a common foe in ‘The Fateful Finale!’ (embellished by Vince Colletta).

Werner Roth had not departed the mutant melee: with issue #38 a classy back-up feature had commenced, and his slick illustration was perfect for the fascinating Origins of the X-Men series. Inked by John Verpoorten ‘A Man Called… X’ began unveiling the hidden history of Cyclops, also revealing how Xavier began his cozy relationship with human FBI agent Fred Duncan

The second instalment ‘Lonely are the Hunted!’ displayed humanity in mob-mode as terrified citizens rioted and stalked the newly “outed” mutant Scott Summers: scenes reminiscent of contemporary race-riots that would fuel the racial outcast metaphor of the later Chris Claremont team.

Back at the front of the comicbook, Thomas, Heck and George Tuska ushered in a new era for the team with #40’s ‘The Mask of the Monster!’ as – now clad in individual costumes rather than superhero school uniforms – the young warriors tackled what seemed to be Frankenstein’s unholy creation whilst in the second feature Scott Summers met ‘The First Evil Mutant!’

‘Now Strikes… the Sub-Human!’ and the sequel ‘If I Should Die…’ introduced the tragic Grotesk, whose only dream was to destroy the entire planet, and who instituted the greatest and most stunning change yet.

I’m spoiling nothing now but when this story first ran, the shock couldn’t be described when the last page showed the heroic, world-saving death of Charles Xavier. I’m convinced that at the time this was an honest plot development – removing an “old” figurehead and living deus ex machina from a “young” series – and I’m just as certain that his subsequent “return” a few years later was an inadvisable reaction to dwindling sales…

From the rear of those climactic issues ‘The Living Diamond!’ and ‘The End… or the Beginning?’ (this last inked by neophyte Herb Trimpe) signalled the beginning of The Xavier School for Gifted Children as solitary recluse Professor X took the fugitive Scott under his wing and began his Project: X-Men…

These tales perfectly display Marvel’s evolution from quirky action tales to the more fraught, breast-beating, convoluted melodramas that inexorably led to the monolithic X-brand of today. Well drawn, highly readable stories are never unwelcome or out of favour though, and it should be remembered that everything here informs so very much of today’s mutant mythology. These are stories for the dedicated fan and newest convert, and never better packaged than in this wide range (hardback, softcover and eEditions) of releases. Every comics fan should own this book, so do…
© 1967, 1968, 2012 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Masterworks X-Men volume 3

By Roy Thomas, Werner Roth, Jack Sparling, Dick Ayer, John Tartaglione & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1269-3(HC)                      :978-0-7851-5070-1(PB)

X-Men was never one of young Marvel’s top titles but it did secure a devout and dedicated following, with the frantic, freakish energy of Jack Kirby’s heroic dynamism comfortably transiting into the slick, sleek attractiveness of Werner Roth as the blunt tension of hunted outsider kids settled into a pastiche of college and school scenarios so familiar to the students who were the series’ main audience.

The core team still consisted of tragic Scott Summers/Cyclops, ebullient Bobby Drake/Iceman, wealthy golden boy Warren Worthington/Angel and erudite, brutish genius Henry McCoy/Beast in perpetual training with Professor Charles Xavier, a wheelchair-bound (and temporarily deceased) telepath dedicated to brokering peace and integration between the masses of humanity and the emergent race of mutant Homo Superior.

Stan Lee had relinquished the writing reins to Roy Thomas in #20, and by the time of this nostalgic compilation (re-presenting The X-Men #22-31, spanning July 1966 to April 1967) he was getting better with every issue. During those heady days Marvel Comics had a vast and growing following among older teens and college kids, and the youthful Thomas spoke and wrote as they did. Coupled with his easy delight in expansive character casts this made X-Men a very welcoming read for we adolescent baby-boomers…

Illustrated primarily by Roth with Dick Ayers inking, the action opens with a crafty 2-parter resurrecting veteran Avengers villain Count Nefaria who employed illusion casting technology and a band of other heroes’ second-string foes (Unicorn, Porcupine, Plantman, Scarecrow and the Eel, if you’re wondering) to hold Washington DC hostage and frame the X-Men for the entire scheme.

‘Divided… We Fall!’ and ‘To Save a City!’ comprise a fast-paced, old-fashioned goodies vs. baddies epic with a decided sting in the tail.

The tale concludes with Marvel Girl being yanked off the team as her parents insist she furthers her education by leaving the Xavier School to attend New York’s Metro University…

Her departure segues neatly into a beloved plot standard – Evil Scientist Grows Giant Bugs – when she enrols and meets an embittered recently-fired professor, leading her erstwhile comrades to confront ‘The Plague of… the Locust!’

Perhaps X-Men #24 isn’t the most memorable tale in the canon but it still reads well and has the added drama of Marvel Girl’s departure for college crystallizing the romantic rivalry for her affections between Cyclops and Angel and provided another deft sop to the audience as it enabled many future epics to include Campus life in the action-packed, fun-filled mix…

Jean Grey still managed to turn up in every issue and ‘The Power and the Pendant’ (X-Men #25, October 1966) found the boys tracking new menace, El Tigre. This South American hunter was visiting New York to steal the second half of a Mayan amulet which would grant him god-like powers.

Having soundly thrashed the mutant heroes, newly-ascended Kukulcán returns to Amazonian San Rico to recreate the fallen pre-Columbian empire with the heroes in hot pursuit. The result is a cataclysmic showdown in ‘Holocaust!’ which leaves Angel fighting for his life and deputy leader Cyclops crushed by guilt…

Issue #27 saw the return of some old foes in ‘Re-enter: The Mimic!’ even as the mesmerising Puppet Master pitted power-duplicating Calvin Rankin against a team riven by dissention and ill-feeling, whilst in ‘The Wail of the Banshee!’ Rankin joined the X-Men in a tale which introduced the sonic-powered mutant (eventually to become a valued team-mate and team-leader) as a deadly threat in the opening instalment of an ambitious extended epic which featured the global menace of the sinister mutant-abducting organisation Factor Three.

John Tartaglione signed on as regular inker with the bright and breezy thriller ‘When Titans Clash!’ as the power-duplicating Super-Adaptoid almost turned the team into robotic slaves before ending the Mimic’s crimebusting career, after which Jack Sparling & Tartaglione illustrated ‘The Warlock Wakes’.

Here old Thor foe Merlin received a stylish upgrade to malevolent mutant menace as he attempted to turn the planet into his mind-controlled playground before, in the concluding tale of this collection (illustrated by Roth & Tartaglione), Marvel Girl and the boys tackle a deranged Iron Man wannabe who was also an accidental atomic time bomb in ‘We Must Destroy… the Cobalt Man!’

These quirky tales are a million miles removed from the angst-ridden, breast-beating, cripplingly convoluted X-brand of today’s Marvel, and in many ways are all the better for it. Well drawn, highly accessible and superbly entertaining stories are never unwelcome or out of favour though, and it should be remembered that everything here informs so very much of the mutant monolith. These are stories for the dedicated fan and newest convert.
© 1966, 1967, 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Daredevil Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Bill Everett, Joe Orlando, Wally Wood, Bob Powell & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0785145639

As the remnants of Atlas Comics grew in popularity in the early 1960s it gradually supplanted its broad variety of genre titles with more and more super-heroes. The recovering powerhouse that was to become Marvel was still hampered by a crippling distribution deal that limited the company to 16 titles (which would curtail their output until 1968), so each new untried book would have to fill the revenue-generating slot (however small) of an existing title.

Moreover as the costumed characters were selling, each new similarly-themed title would limit the breadth of the monster, western, war, humour or girls’ comics that had been the outfit’s recent bread and butter. It was putting a lot of eggs in one basket, and superheroes had failed twice before for Marvel.

So in retrospect the visual variety of the first few issues of Daredevil, the Man Without Fear seemed a risky venture indeed. Yes, the artists were all seasoned, talented veterans, but not to the young kids who were the audience. Most importantly, they just weren’t Kirby or Ditko, and new features need consistency and continuity…

Still, Lee and his rotating line-up of artists plugged on, concocting some extremely engaging tales until the latest Marvel Sensation found his feet, and the fascinating transition of moody masked avenger to wisecracking Scarlet Swashbuckler can be enjoyed in this collection gathering the first 11 issues (spanning April 1964 to December 1965) into one effervescent package of thrills and spills which begins with ‘The Origin of Daredevil’

This much-retold tale recounts how young Matthew Murdock grew up in the slums, raised by his father Battling Jack Murdock, a second-rate prize-fighter. Determined that the boy will be something, the father extracts a solemn promise from his son that he will never fight. Mocked by other kids who sarcastically dub him “Daredevil”, Matt abides by his vow, but secretly trains his body to physical perfection.

One day he saves a blind man from being hit by a speeding truck, only to be struck in the face by its radioactive cargo. His sight is burned away forever but his other senses are super-humanly enhanced and he gains a sixth, “radar-sense”. He tells no-one, not even his dad.

The senior Murdock is in dire straits. As his career declined he signed with The Fixer, knowing full well what the corrupt promoter expected from his fighters. Yet Jack’s star started to shine again and his downward spiral reversed itself. Unaware that he was being set up, Murdock got a shot at the Big Time, but when ordered to take a dive he refused. Winning was the proudest moment of his life. When his bullet-riddled corpse was found, the cops had suspicions but no proof…

Heartbroken Matt graduated college with a law degree and set up in business with his room-mate FranklinFoggyNelson. They hired a lovely young secretary named Karen Page and, with his life on track, young Matt now had time to solve his father’s murder… His promise stopped him from fighting but what if he became “somebody else”?

Scripted by Lee and moodily illustrated by the legendary Bill Everett (with assistance from Ditko) this is a rather nonsensical yet visually engaging yarn that just goes through the motions, barely hinting at the magic yet to come.

Plot-wise the second issue fares little better as Joe Orlando & Vince Colletta take over the art: ‘The Evil Menace of Electro!’ guest-stars the Fantastic Four and features a second-hand Spider-Man villain.

The FF call in lawyer Matt Murdock just as the electrical outlaw tries to break into their building and before long Daredevil deals with Electro by the numbers. Issue #3 finally offers the sightless crusader a super-foe of his own when he meets and trounces ‘The Owl, Ominous Overlord of Crime!’

Daredevil #4 was a turning point, and just in time. ‘Killgrave, the Unbelievable Purple Man!’ finally gave some character to the big, blind stiff as he strove to overcome a villain who could exert total control over anyone who saw him. Although Orlando & Colletta’s uncomfortable, over-busy art remained for one last episode Lee finally seemed to get a handle on the hero; just in time for a magician-in-waiting to elevate the series to spectacular heights.

With #5 Wally Wood assumed the art chores where his lush, lavish work brought power, grace and beauty to the series. At last this costumed acrobat seemed to spring and dance across the rooftops and pages. Wood’s contribution to the plotting didn’t hurt either. He actually got a cover plug on his first issue.

In ‘The Mysterious Masked Matador!’ a cool, no-nonsense hero who looked commanding and could handle anything started fighting hard and fast. The series began advancing the moribund romantic sub-plot (Foggy adores Karen, who only has eyes for Matt, who loves her, but won’t let her waste her life on a blind man) and actually started making sense and progress. Most importantly, the action scenes were intoxicating…

Although a bullfighter who used his skills for crime is frankly daft, the drawing makes it utterly convincing, and the following issue’s ‘Trapped by the Fellowship of Fear!’ is a minor classic as the Man Without Fear had to defeat not only the super-powered Ox and Eel (yet more recycled villains) but his own threat-specific foe Mr. Fear who could instil terror and panic in victims, courtesy of his deadly fear-gas gun.

Daredevil #7 is a true landmark: to my mind one of the Top Ten Marvel Tales of all Time. Lee & Wood concocted a true masterpiece with ‘In Mortal Combat with… Sub-Mariner!’

Prince Namor of Atlantis travels to the surface world to have his day in court and sue all Mankind, but discovers too late that his warlord, Krang, has usurped the throne in his absence. The fiery monarch cannot sit languishing in a cell when the kingdom is threatened, so he fights his way to freedom and the sea.

This story shows Murdock the lawyer to be a brilliant orator, whilst the hopelessly one-sided battle with one of the strongest beings on the planet shows the dauntless courage of DD and nobility of the Sub-Mariner whilst most notably, with no fanfare at all, Wood replaced the original yellow-&-black costume with the iconic and beautiful all-red outfit we know today. As one pithy commentator stated “the original costume looked as if it had been designed by a blind man”.

Another all-new villain debuted in #8’s gripping industrial espionage thriller ‘The Stiltman Cometh!’ pitting the acrobat against a villain who towered above the skyscrapers after which Golden Age Great Bob Powell came aboard as penciller to Wood’s layouts and inks with #9’s ‘That He May See!’

Relentlessly badgered by Karen, Matt finally agrees to see an eye-specialist who might be able to cure his blindness, only to become embroiled in a plot to conquer the World by a Ruritanian maniac with a knights-in-armour fixation…

Wood was clearly chafing after a year on the book. The series’ first continued story ‘While the City Sleeps!’ was also scripted by him: a political thriller which first saw Foggy run for District Attorney of New York even as mysterious mastermind known as The Organizer and his animal-powered gang, Bird-Man, Frog-Man, Cat-Man and Ape-Man terrorised the city.

With Powell now on full pencils and Wood just inking, Lee was left to write the concluding ‘A Time to Unmask!’ as Daredevil pulled out all the stops to confound a devious power-grab scheme which saw the villains defeated, but only at great personal cost to Nelson & Murdock…

With a brace of glorious pin-ups by Wood, this sleek compendium offers a few bumpy false starts before blossoming into a truly magnificent example of Marvel’s compelling formula for success: smart stories, human characters and magnificent illustration.

If you’ve not read these tales before I strongly urge you to rectify that error as soon as superhumanly possible.
© 1964, 1965, 2012 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks: Golden Age Captain America volume 1 – Revised Review

By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby and various (Marvel Comics)
ISBN: 0-7851-1619-2 (HC);  978-0785157939 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: An Evergreen Hit… 8/10

The success of DC’s Archive imprint – luxury hardback chronological collections of rare, expensive and just plain old items out of their mammoth back-catalogue – gradually resulted in a shelf-buckling array of Golden and Silver Age volumes which paid worthy tribute to the company’s grand past and still serves a genuine need amongst fans of old comics who don’t own their own software company or Money Bin. Even if production of the series seems to have been generally sidelined in recent months…

From DC’s tentative beginnings in the 1990’s Marvel, Dark Horse and other publishers have since pursued this (presumably) lucrative avenue, perhaps as much a sop to their most faithful fans as an exercise in expansion marketing.

DC’s electing to spotlight not simply their World Branded “Big Guns” but also those idiosyncratic yet well-beloved collector nuggets – such as Doom Patrol, Sugar and Spike or Kamandi – was originally at odds with Marvel’s policy of only releasing equally expensive editions of major characters from “the Marvel Age of Comics”, but eventually their Timely and Atlas era material joined the procession…

A part of me understands Marvel’s initial reluctance: sacrilegious as it may sound to my fellow fan-boys, the simple truth is that no matter how venerable and beloved those early stories are, no matter how their very existence may have lead to true classics in a later age, in and of themselves, most early Marvel tales – and other “Golden Age Greats” – just aren’t that good by today’s standards.

This Marvel Masterworks Captain America – now also available as an ebook – volume  reprints more or less the complete contents of the first four issues of his original title (spanning March to June 1941) and I stress this because all the leading man’s adventures have often been reprinted before, most notably in a shoddy, infamous yet expensive 2-volume anniversary boxed set issued in 1991.

However, the groundbreaking and exceptionally high quality material by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby seen here is not really the lure … the real gold nuggets for us old sods are those rare back-up features from the star duo and their small team of talented youngsters. Reed Crandall, Syd Shores, Alex Schomburg and the rest worked on main course and filler features such as Hurricane, the God of Speed and Tuk, Caveboy; strips barely remembered yet still brimming with the first enthusiastic efforts of creative legends in waiting.

Captain America was devised at the end of 1940 and boldly launched in his own monthly title from Timely – the company’s original name – with none of the customary cautious shilly-shallying.

Captain America Comics, #1 was cover-dated March 1941 and was an instant monster, blockbuster smash-hit. Cap was instantly the absolute and undisputed star of Timely’s “Big Three” – the other two being the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner – and one of the very first to fall from popularity at the end of the Golden Age.

Today, the huge 1940s popularity of the other two just doesn’t translate into a good read for modern consumers – excluding, perhaps, those far-too-few Bill Everett crafted Sub-Mariner yarns.

In comparison to their contemporaries at Quality, Fawcett, National/All American and Dell, or Will Eisner’s The Spirit newspaper strip, the standard of most Timely periodicals was woefully lacklustre in both story and most tellingly, art. That they survived and prospered is a Marvel mystery, but a clue might lie in the sheer exuberant venom of their racial stereotypes and heady fervour of jingoism at a time when America was involved in the greatest war in world history…

I suspect given the current tone of the times politically, such sentiments might be less controversial now than they have been for quite a while…

However, the first ten Captain America Comics are the most high-quality comics in the fledgling company’s history and I can’t help but wonder what might have been had National (née DC) been wise enough to hire Simon & Kirby before they were famous, instead of after that pivotal first year?

Of course we’ll never know and though they did jump to the majors after a year, their visual dynamic became the aspirational style for superhero comics at the company they left and their patriotic creation became the flagship icon for them and the entire industry.

This compelling and exceptional volume opens with ‘Case No. 1: Meet Captain America’ by Simon & Kirby (with additional inks by Al Liederman) wherein we first see how scrawny, enfeebled young patriot Steven Rogers, continually rejected by the US Army, is recruited by the Secret Service.

Desperate to counter a wave of Nazi-sympathizing espionage and sabotage, this passionate man is invited to become part of a clandestine experiment intended to create physically perfect super-soldiers. However, when a vile Nazi agent infiltrates the project and murders its key scientist, Rogers became the only successful graduate and America’s not-so-secret weapon.

Sent undercover as a simple private he soon encounters Bucky Barnes: a headstrong, orphaned Army Brat who becomes his sidekick and costumed confidante. All of that is perfectly packaged into mere seven-and-a-half pages, and the untitled ‘Case No. 2’ takes just as long to spectacularly defeat Nazi showbiz psychics Sando and Omar as they spread anxiety and fear amongst the Americans.

‘Captain America and the Soldier’s Soup’ is a rather mediocre and unattributed prose tale promptly followed by a sinister 16-page epic ‘Captain America and the Chess-board of Death’ with our heroes thrashing more macabre murdering Nazi malcontents before the groundbreaking introduction of the nation’s greatest foe…

Solving ‘The Riddle of the Red Skull’ proves to be a thrill-packed, horror-drenched master-class in comics excitement…

The first of the B-features follows next as Hurricane (Son of Thor) and the last survivor of the Greek Gods – don’t blame me; that’s what it says – sets his super-fast sights on ‘Murder Inc.’ in a rip-roaring but clearly rushed battle against fellow-immortal Pluto (so not quite the last god either; nor exclusively Norse or Greek…) who is once more using mortals to foment pain, terror and death.

Hurricane was a rapid reworking and sequel to Kirby’s ‘Mercury in the 20th Century’ from Red Raven Comics #1 (August 1940) whereas ‘Tuk, Caveboy: Stories from the Dark Ages’ is all-original excitement as a teenaged boy in 50,000 BC and raised by a beast-man determines to regain the throne of his antediluvian kingdom Attilan from the usurpers who stole it.

This is an imaginative barbarian spectacular that owes as much to Tarzan as The Land that Time Forgot but it certainly delivers the thrills we all want…

Historians believe Kirby pencilled this entire issue and although no records remain, inkers as diverse as Liederman, Crandall, Bernie Klein, Al Avison, Al Gabrielle, Syd Shores and others may have been involved in this and subsequent issues…

Captain America Comics #2 screamed onto the newsstands a month later and spectacularly opened with monster mash-up ‘The Ageless Orientals Who Wouldn’t Die’, blending elements of horror and jingoism into a terrifying thriller with a ruthless American capitalist exposed as the true source of a rampage against the nation’s banks…

‘Trapped in the Nazi Stronghold’ sees Cap and Bucky in drag and in Europe to rescue a pro-British financier kidnapped by the Nazis whilst ‘Captain America and the Wax Statue that Struck Death’ returned to movie-thriller themes in the tale of a macabre murderer with delusions of world domination.

The Patriotic Pair then deal with saboteurs in the prose piece ‘Short Circuit’ before Tuk tackles monsters and mad priests in ‘The Valley of the Mist’ (by either the King and a very heavy inker or an unnamed artist doing a passable Kirby impression) and Hurricane – now “Master of Speed” swiftly and spectacularly expunges ‘The Devil and the Green Plague’ in the fetid heart of the Amazon jungles.

17-page epic ‘The Return of the Red Skull’ led in #3 – knocking Adolf Hitler off the cover-spot he’d hogged in #1 and #2 – with Kirby opening up his layouts to utterly enhance the graphic action with a veritable production line of creators (including Ed Herron, Martin A, Burnstein, Howard Ferguson, William Clayton King, and possibly George Roussos, Bob Oksner, Max Elkan and Jerry Robinson) joining the art team.

Whilst eye-shattering scale and spectacle unite with non-stop action and eerie mood as key components of the Sentinel of Liberty’s exploits horror elements dominated in ‘The Hunchback of Hollywood and the Movie Murder’ as a patriotic film is plagued by sinister “accidents”.

Stan Lee debuts with text tale ‘Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge’ before Simon & Kirby – and friends – recount ‘The Queer Case of the Murdering Butterfly and the Ancient Mummies’; blending eerie Egyptian antiquities with a thoroughly modern costumed psychopath.

Then Tuk (drawn by either Mark Schneider – or perhaps Marcia Snyder) reaches ‘Atlantis and the False King’ after which Kirby contributes a true tale in ‘Amazing Spy Adventures’ before Hurricane confronts ‘Satan and the Subway Disasters’ with devastating and final effect…

The final issue in this fabulous chronicle opens with ‘Captain America and the Unholy Legion’ as the star-spangled brothers-in-arms crush a conspiracy of beggars terrorising the city, before taking on ‘Ivan the Terrible’ in a time-bending vignette and thereafter solving ‘The Case of the Fake Money Fiends’. The all-action extravaganzas culminate in magnificent fashion when our heroes then expose the horrendous secret of ‘Horror Hospital’

After Lee-scripted prose-piece ‘Captain America and the Bomb Sight Thieves’ young Tuk defeats ‘The Ogre of the Cave-Dwellers’ and Hurricane brings down a final curtain on ‘The Pirate and the Missing Ships’.

An added and very welcome bonus for fans is the inclusion of all the absolutely beguiling house-ads for other titles, contents pages, Sentinels of Liberty club bulletins and assorted pin-ups…

Although lagging far behind DC and despite in many ways having a much shallower vintage well to draw from, with this particular tome at least the House of Ideas has a book that will always stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best that the Golden Age of Comics could offer and should be on every fan’s “never-miss” bookshelf.
© 1941, 2005, 2012 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Masterworks: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire volume 1

By Archie Goodwin, Steve Englehart, Gerry Conway, Billy Graham, Tony Isabella, George Tuska & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9180-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Ideal Item for new Marvel Movie-verse addicts… 8/10

In 1968 the consciousness-raising sporting demonstration of Black Power at the Olympic Games politicised a generation of youngsters. By this time a few comics companies had already made tentative efforts to address what were national and socio-political iniquities, but issues of race and ethnicity took a long time to filter through to still-impressionable young minds avidly absorbing knowledge and attitudes via four colour pages that couldn’t even approximate the skin tones of African-Americans.

As with television, breakthroughs were small, incremental and too often reduced to a cold-war of daringly liberal “firsts.” Excluding a few characters in Jungle comic-books of the 1940s and 1950, Marvel clearly led the field with a black soldier in Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandos team (the historically impossible Gabe Jones who debuted in #1, May 1963, and was accidentally re-coloured Caucasian at the printers, who clearly didn’t realise his ethnicity). He was followed by first negro superheroes Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966), and the Falcon in Captain America #117 (September 1969).

America’s first Black hero to star in his own title had come (and gone largely unnoticed) in a little remembered or regarded title from Dell Comics. Created by artist Tony Tallarico and scripter D.J. Arneson, Lobo was a gunslinger in the old west, battling injustice just like any cowboy hero would, first appearing in December 1965.

Arguably a greater breakthrough was Joe Robertson, City Editor of the Daily Bugle; an erudite, brave and proudly ordinary mortal distinguished by his sterling character, not a costume or skin tone. He first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man # 51 (August 1967), proving in every panel that the world wouldn’t end if black folk and white folk occupied the same spaces…

This big change slowly grew out of raised social awareness during a terrible time in American history; yes, even worse than today’s festering social wound, as typified by cops under pressure providing no answer to the seemingly constant Black Lives Matter events. Although far rarer, those tragedies occur here in the UK too, so we have nothing to be smug about either. We’ve had race riots since the Sixties here which left simmering scars that only comedians and openly racist politicians dared to talk about. Things today in post-Brexit Britain don’t seem all that different, except the bile and growing taste for violence is turned towards European accents as well as brown skins…

As the 1960s became a new decade, more positive and inclusive incidences of ethnic characters appeared in the USA, with DC finally getting an African-America hero in John Stewart (Green Lantern #87 December 1971/January 1972), although his designation as a replacement Green Lantern might be construed as more conciliatory and insulting than revolutionary.

The first DC hero with his own title was Black Lightning, who didn’t debut until April 1977, although Jack Kirby had introduced Shilo Norman as Scott Free’s apprentice (and eventual successor) in Mister Miracle ##15 (August (1973).

As usual, it took a bold man and changing economics to really promote change. With declining comics sales at a time of rising Black Consciousness, cash – if not cashing in -was probably the trigger for “the Next Step.”

Contemporary “Blaxsploitation” cinema and novels had fired up commercial interests throughout America, and in that atmosphere of outlandish dialogue, daft outfits and barely concealed – if justified – outrage, an angry black man with a shady past and apparently dubious morals must have felt like a sure-fire hit to Marvel’s bosses.

Luke Cage, Hero for Hire launched in the summer of 1972. A year later the Black Panther finally got his own series in Jungle Action #5 and Blade: Vampire Hunter debuted in Tomb of Dracula #10.

This stunning full-colour hardback compendium collects the first 16 issues of the breakthrough series: the entire run before the series was thematically adjusted to become Luke Cage Power Man.

The saga begins with Lucas, a hard-case inmate at brutal Seagate Prison. Like all convicts he claims to have been framed and his uncompromising attitude makes mortal enemies of the savage, racist guards Rackham and Quirt whilst not endearing him to the rest of the prison population such as genuinely bad guys Shades and Comanche either…

‘Out of Hell… A Hero!’ was written by Archie Goodwin and illustrated by George Tuska & Billy Graham – with some initial assistance from Roy Thomas and John Romita senior – and sees a new warden arrive promising to change the hell-hole into a proper, correctly administered correctional facility.

Prison Doctor Noah Burstein then convinces Lucas to participate in a radical experiment in exchange for a parole hearing, having heard the desperate con’s tale of woe…

Lucas had grown up in Harlem, a tough kid who had managed to stay honest even when his best friend Willis Stryker had not. They remained friends even though they walked different paths – until a woman came between them. To be rid of his romantic rival Stryker planted drugs and had Lucas shipped off to jail. While he was there his girl Reva, who had never given up on him, was killed when she got in way of bullets meant for up-and-coming gangster Stryker…

With nothing to lose Lucas undergoes Burstein’s process – an experiment in cell-regeneration – but Rackham sabotages it, hoping to kill the con before he can expose the illegal treatment of convicts. The equipment goes haywire and something incredible occurs. Lucas, panicked and somehow super-strong, punches his way out of the lab and the through the prison walls, only to be killed in hail of gunfire. His body plunges over a cliff and is never recovered…

Months later a vagrant prowls the streets of New York City and stumbles into a robbery. Almost casually he downs the felon and accepts a reward from the grateful victim. He also has a bright idea. Strong, bullet-proof, street-wise and honest, Lucas will hide in plain sight while planning his revenge on Stryker. Since his only skill is fighting, he became a private paladin… A Hero For Hire…

Making allowances for the colourful, often ludicrous dialogue necessitated by the Comics Code’s sanitising of “street-talking Jive” this is probably the grittiest origin tale of the classic Marvel years, and the tense action continued in ‘Vengeance is Mine!’ as the man now calling himself Luke Cage stalks his target.

Stryker has risen quickly, now controlling a vast portion of the drug trade as the deadly Diamondback, and Cage has a big surprise in store when beautiful Doctor Claire Temple came to his aid after a calamitous struggle.

Thinking him fatally shot her surprise is dwarfed by his own when Cage meets her boss. Seeking to expiate his sins, Noah Burstein has opened a rehab clinic on the sordid streets of Times Square, but his efforts have drawn the attention of Diamondback who doesn’t like someone trying to fix his paying customers…

Burstein apparently does not recognise Cage, and even though faced with eventual exposure and return to prison, the Hero for Hire offers to help the hard-pressed medics. Setting up an office above a movie house on 42nd Street Cage meets a lad who will be his greatest friend: D.W. Griffith: nerd, film freak and plucky white sidekick.

However, before Cage can settle in, Diamondback strikes and the age-old game of blood and honour plays out the way it always does…

Issue #3 introduced Cage’s first returning villain in ‘Mark of the Mace!’ as Burstein – for his own undisclosed reasons – decides to keep Cage’s secret, and disgraced soldier Gideon Mace launches a terror attack on Manhattan. With his dying breath one of the mad Colonel’s troops hires Cage to stop the attack, which he does in explosive fashion.

Inker Billy Graham graduated to full art chores for ‘Cry Fear… Cry Phantom!’ in #4 as a deranged and deformed maniac carried out random assaults in Times Square. Or was there perhaps another motive behind the crazed attacks?

Steve Englehart took over as scripter and Tuska returned to pencil ‘Don’t Mess with Black Mariah!’ in the next issue: a sordid tale of organised scavengers which introduced unscrupulous reporter Phil Fox, an unsavoury sneak with greedy pockets and a nose for scandal…

The private detective motif proved a brilliant stratagem in generating stories for a character perceived as a reluctant champion at best and outright antihero by nature. It allowed Cage to maintain an outsider’s edginess but also meant that danger and adventure literally walked through his shabby door every issue.

Such was the case with ‘Knights and White Satin’ (by Englehart, Gerry Conway, Graham and Paul Reinman) as the swanky, ultra-rich Forsythe sisters hire him to bodyguard their dying father from a would-be murderer too impatient to wait the week it will take for the old man to die from a terminal illness.

This more-or less straight mystery yarn (not counting a madman and killer-robots) is followed by ‘Jingle Bombs’, a strikingly different Christmas tale by from Englehart Tuska & Graham, before Cage properly entered the Marvel Universe in ‘Crescendo!’ when he is hired by Doctor Doom to retrieve rogue androids which had absconded from Latveria.

They were hiding as black men among the shifting masses of Harlem and the Iron Dictator needed someone who could work in the unfamiliar environment. Naturally Cage accomplishes his mission, only to have Doom stiff him for the fee. Big mistake…

‘Where Angels Fear to Tread!’ in issue #9 finds the enraged Hero for Hire borrowing a vehicle from the Fantastic Four to play Repo Man in Doom’s own castle just in time to get caught in the middle of a grudge match between the tyrant and an alien invader called the Faceless One.

It was back to street-level basics in ‘The Lucky… and the Dead!’ as Cage takes on a gambling syndicate led by the schizophrenic Señor Suerte who could double his luck by becoming murderous Señor Muerte (that’s Mr. Luck and Mr. Death to you): a two-part thriller complete with rigged games and death traps that climaxes in the startling ‘Where There’s Life…!’ as relentless Phil Fox finally uncovers Cage’s secret…

Issue #12 featured the first of many battles against alchemical villain ‘Chemistro!’, after which Graham assumed full art duties with ‘The Claws of Lionfang’ – a killer using big cats to destroy his enemies – before Cage tackles hyperthyroid lawyer Big Ben Donovan in ‘Retribution!’ as the tangled threads of his murky past slowly become a noose around his neck…

‘Retribution: Part II!’ finds Graham and Tony Isabella sharing the writer’s role as so many disparate elements converge to expose Cage. The crisis is exacerbated by Quirt kidnapping Luke’s girlfriend, and fellow Seagate escapees Comanche and Shades stalking him whilst the New York cops hunt him.

The last thing the Hero For Hire needs is a new super-foe, but that’s just what he get in #16’s ‘Shake Hands With Stiletto!’ (Isabella, Graham & inker Frank McLaughlin): a dramatic finale which literally brings the house down and clears up most of the old business. This would lead to a re-branding of the nation’s premier black crusader, but that’s meat for a different collection.

Bracketed by an Introduction from Steve Englehart – offering an informative issue-by-issue breakdown on how the series was created and bonus material including a cover gallery, promotional material from the times, unused artwork and pre-corrected/toned down pages (LCHFH was one of the most potentially controversial and thus most scrupulously edited books in Marvel’s stable at the time) and full creator Biographies, this is a fabulous and unmissable glimpse at one of the edgiest series of the era, and a fine way to back up the live-action Netflix iteration.
© 2015 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Masterworks volume 16: Amazing-Spider-Man 31-40 & Annual 2

By Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita Sr. & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-730-5

After a shaky start The Amazing Spider-Man quickly became a popular sensation with kids of all ages, rivalling the creative powerhouse that was Fantastic Four. Before too long the quirky, charming, 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.

The rise and rise of the wondrous Web-spinner continued and even increased pace as the Swinging Sixties unfolded and, by the time of the tales in this third sumptuous hardcover (re-presenting Amazing Spider-Man #31-40 and including Annual 2, originally released between December 1965 and September 1966), Peter Parker and friends were on the way to being household names as well as the darlings of college campuses and the media intelligentsia.

Sadly by 1966 Stan Lee and Steve Ditko could no longer work together on their greatest creation. After increasingly fraught months the artist simply resigned, leaving Spider-Man without an illustrator.

In the coincidental meantime John Romita had been lured away from DC’s romance line and given odd assignments before assuming the artistic reins of Daredevil, the Man Without Fear. Before long he was co-piloting the company’s biggest property and expected to run with it.

In this momentous compilation of (mostly) chronological Arachnoid adventures, the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero successfully challenged the dominant Fantastic Four as Marvel’s top comicbook both in sales and quality.

Ditko’s off-beat plots and quirkily bizarre art had reached an accommodation with the slick and potent superhero house-style that Jack Kirby had developed (at least as much as such a unique talent ever could), with a marked reduction of signature line-feathering and moody backgrounds plus a lessening of concentration on totemic villains.

Although still very much a Ditko baby, The Amazing Spider-Man had attained a sleek pictorial gloss whilst Lee’s scripts were comfortably in tune with the times if not his collaborator. Although Lee’s assessment of the audience was probably the correct one, disagreements with the artist over the strip’s editorial direction were still confined to the office and not the pages themselves.

However an indication of the growing tensions could be seen once Ditko began being credited as plotter of the stories…

After a period where old-fashioned crime and gangsterism predominated, science fiction themes and costumes crazies started to return full force here as the world went gaga for superheroes and the creators experimented with longer storylines and protracted subplots…

When Ditko abruptly left, the company feared a drastic loss in quality and sales but it didn’t happen. John Romita (senior) considered himself a mere “safe pair of hands” keeping the momentum going until a better artist could be found but instead blossomed into a major talent in his own right, and the Wallcrawler continued his unstoppable rise at an accelerated pace…

Change was in the air everywhere. Included amongst the milestones for the ever-anxious Peter Parker collected here are graduating High School, starting college, meeting true love Gwen Stacy and tragic friend/enemy Harry Osborn and the introduction of arch nemesis Norman Osborn. Old friends Flash Thompson and Betty Brant subsequently begin to drift out of his life…

The fabulous four-colour fantasy opens – following the standard Stan Lee Introduction – with  ‘If This Be My Destiny…!’ from issue #31 which depicted a spate of high-tech robberies by the Master Planner and a spectacular confrontation with Spider-Man. Also on show was the aforementioned college debut, first sight of Harry and Gwen and Aunt May on the edge of death.

This led to indisputably Ditko’s finest and most iconic moments on the series – and perhaps of his entire career. ‘Man on a Rampage!’ showed Parker pushed to the very edge of desperation as the Planner’s men made off with the chemicals that might save Aunt May, resulting in an utterly driven, berserk Wallcrawler ripping the town apart trying to find them.

Trapped in an underwater fortress, pinned under tons of machinery, the hero faced his greatest failure as the clock ticked down the seconds of May’s life…

This in turn produced the most memorable visual sequence in Spidey history as the opening of ‘The Final Chapter!’ took five full, glorious pages to depict the ultimate triumph of will over circumstance. Freeing himself from tons of fallen debris Spider-Man gave his absolute all delivering the medicine May needed, to be rewarded with a rare happy ending…

Russian exile Kraven the Hunter returned in ‘The Thrill of the Hunt!’ seeking vengeance by impersonating the Web-spinner whilst #35 offered ‘The Molten Man Regrets…!’: a plot-light but inimitably action-packed combat classic as the gleaming bandit foolishly resumed his career of pinching other peoples jewels…

Amazing Spider-Man #36 featured a deliciously off-beat, almost comedic turn in ‘When Falls the Meteor!’ as deranged scientist Norton G. Fester began stealing museum exhibits whilst calling himself the Looter

In retrospect these brief, fight-oriented tales, coming after such an intricate, passionate epic as the Master Planner saga, should have been seen as some sort of clue that things were not going well, but the fans had no idea that ‘Once Upon a Time, There was a Robot…!’ which featured a beleaguered Norman Osborn being targeted by his disgraced ex-partner and some eccentrically bizarre murder machines in #37 and the tragic comedy of ‘Just a Guy Named Joe!’ – wherein a hapless sad-sack stumblebum boxer gains super-strength and a bad-temper – were to be Ditko’s last arachnid adventures.

When Amazing Spider-Man #39 appeared with the first of a two-part adventure that featured the ultimate victory of the Wall-Crawler’s greatest foe no reader knew what had happened – and no one told them…

‘How Green Was My Goblin!’ and ‘Spidey Saves the Day! (“Featuring the End of the Green Goblin!”)’ calamitously changed everything whilst describing how the arch-foes learned each other’s true identities before the Goblin “perished” in a climactic showdown. It would have been memorable even it the tale didn’t feature the debut of a new artist & a whole new manner of story-telling…

Issues #39 and 40 (August – September 1966) were a turning point in many ways, and inked by old DC colleague Mike Esposito (under the pseudonym Mickey Demeo) they still stand as another of the greatest Spider-Man yarns of all time, heralding a run of classic tales from the Lee/Romita team that saw sales rise and rise, even without the seemingly irreplaceable Ditko.

Earlier in 1965 however the artist was blowing away audiences with another oddly tangential superhero. ‘The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!’ was the lead story in the second Spider-Man Annual (October of that year and filled out with vintage Spidey classics).

The entrancing fable unforgettably introduced the Webslinger to arcane other realities as he teamed up with the Master of the Mystic Arts to battle power-crazed wizard Xandu in a phantasmagorical, dimension-hopping masterpiece involving ensorcelled zombie thugs and the stolen Wand of Watoomb.

After this story it was clear that Spider-Man could work in any milieu and nothing could hold him back…

Also included from that immensely impressive landmark are more Ditko pin-ups in ‘A Gallery of Spider-Man’s Most Famous Foes’ – exposing such nefarious ne’er-do-wells as The Scorpion, Circus of Crime and the Beetle, making this astounding tome one of the most impressive Spider-Man books you could ever read, even if later editions have slightly altered contents. If you want to experience the quintessential magic of the Amazing Arachnid this book has to be your first stop…
© 1965, 1966, 1996 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Masterworks volume 12: The X-Men 101-110

By Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, John Byrne & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-628-7

In 1963 The X-Men #1 introduced Cyclops, Iceman, Angel, Marvel Girl and the Beast: very special students of Professor Charles Xavier, a cerebral, scholarly wheelchair-bound telepath dedicated to brokering peace and integration between the masses of humanity and the emergent off-shoot race of mutants dubbed Homo Superior.

After years of eccentric and spectacular adventures, the mutant misfits disappeared at the beginning of 1970 (issue #66 cover-dated March) during a sustained decline in costumed hero comics, when mystery and all things supernatural once more gripped the world’s entertainment fields.

Although their title was revived at the end of the year as a reprint vehicle, the missing mutants were reduced to guest-stars and bit-players throughout the Marvel Universe and the Beast was transformed into a monster to cash in on the horror boom, until new editor-in-chief Roy Thomas green-lighted a bold one-shot in 1975 as part of the company’s line of Giant-Sized specials…

This superb second deluxe hardcover compendium recaptures the stellar excitement of those exuberant days through X-Men #101-110 of the decidedly “All-New, All-Different” X-Men (from October 1976 to April 1978) when the merry mutants were still young, fresh and delightfully under-exposed and only beginning their inexorable rise to mega-stardom. Moreover scripter Chris Claremont & artist Dave Cockrum were on the on the verge of utterly overturning the accepted status quo of women in comics forever…

What You Need to Know: The team now consisted of old acquaintance and former foe Sean “Banshee” Cassidy, Hulk villain Wolverine, and new creations Kurt Wagner, a demonic German teleporter codenamed Nightcrawler, African weather “goddess” Ororo Monroe AKA Storm and Russian farmboy Peter Rasputin, who could transform into a living steel Colossus and joined field-commander Scott (Cyclops) Summers and Jean Grey – still labouring under the nom-de guerre Marvel Girl…

But not for much longer…

For months a long-running, blockbuster-widescreen plotline had been building. Xavier, plagued by visions of interstellar wars and alien mind-mates, was on the verge of a mental breakdown. Not coincidentally, former students Havok and Polaris had attacked the new team, apparently willing allies of a mysterious madman disguised as Cyclops’ old alias Eric the Red.

That devastating conflict then segued into a spectacular battle as remorseless robotic Sentinels returned under the hate-filled auspices of rogue Federal Agent Steven Lang and his mysterious backers of Project Armageddon. Coordinated attacks successfully snared the semi-retired Jean, Wolverine, Banshee and Xavier himself, compelling Cyclops to co-opt a space-shuttle and, with the remaining team, storm an orbiting space-station to rescue them.

Although the new X-Men were victorious, their cataclysmic clash wrecked their only means of escape and, as an immense solar flare threatened to eradicate the complex, their only chance of survival meant certain death for one X-Man…

Bracketed by a brace of team pin-ups (by Paul Ryan and Javier Saltares respectively and both inked by Al Williamson), the ten tales of stunning power and imagination contained herein begin with the debut of a landmark character in ‘Like a Phoenix from the Ashes’ (by Claremont, Cockrum & inker Frank Chiaramonte) as the shuttle spectacularly crashes back to Earth.

The X-Men had travelled in a specially shielded chamber but Marvel Girl had been compelled to pilot the vehicle unprotected through the lethal radiation storm.

As the mutants escaped the craft slowly sinking in JamaicaBay, a fantastic explosion propelled the impossibly alive Jean into the air, clad in a strange gold and green uniform and screaming that she was “Fire and Life Incarnate… Phoenix!”

Immediately collapsing, the critically injured girl was rushed to hospital and a grim wait began.

Unable to explain her survival and too preoccupied to spare time to teach, Xavier then packs Banshee, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Storm and Colossus off to the Irish mutant’s home in County Mayo for a vacation, blissfully unaware that Cassidy Keep has become a deadly trap for his new students…

Within the ancestral pile, Sean Cassidy’s mutant cousin Black Tom has usurped control of the manor and its incredible secrets and at Eric the Red’s behest has contrived an inescapable ambush, assisted by an old X-Men enemy.

‘Who Will Stop the Juggernaut?’ (inked by Sam Grainger) sees the neophyte heroes in well over their heads and fighting for their lives, but finds room to tell the origin of weather-witch Storm and provide an explanation for her crippling claustrophobia, before ‘The Fall of the Tower’ shockingly concludes the tale as the heroes and the Keep’s Leprechauns (no, really) unite to expel the murderous invaders.

Although bi-monthly at the time, the epic kicked into strident top gear with ‘The Gentleman’s Name is Magneto’ as the weary heroes then divert to Scotland and check up on their gun-toting biologist/housekeeper Moira MacTaggert’s island lab: a previously secret facility containing many of the mutant menaces the X-Men have defeated.

It’s a bad move as the ever-active Eric has restored the dormant master of magnetism to full power. He’d been turned into a baby – a strangely common fate for villains in those faraway days – but was all grown up again now – and very angry…

Arriving from America, MacTaggert and Cyclops are only just in time to lead a desperate, humiliating retreat from the exultant, triumphant Magneto. Cyclops doesn’t care: he realises the entire affair has been a feint to draw the heroes away from Xavier and Jean…

He needn’t have worried. Although in ‘Phoenix Unleashed’ (inks from Bob Layton) Eric orchestrated an attack by Firelord – a cosmic flamethrower who had been a herald of Galactus much like the Silver Surfer – Jean was now fully evolved into a being of unimaginable power who readily held the fiery marauder at bay…

In the interim a long-standing mystery was solved as the vision which had haunted Xavier was revealed as a fugitive princess from a distant alien empire.

Lilandra of the Shi’ar had rebelled against her imperial brother and whilst fleeing had somehow telepathically locked onto her inter-cosmic soul-mate Xavier. As she made her circuitous way to Earth, embedded Shi’ar spy Shakari had assumed the role of Eric the Red and attempted to remove Lilandra’s potential champion long before she arrived…

During the blistering battle that followed the X-Men’s arrival, Shakari snatched up Lilandra and dragged her through a stargate to another galaxy, but now, aware that the fate of entire universe is at stake, Xavier urges his team to follow.

All Jean has to do is re-open a wormhole to the other side of creation…

A slight digression followed as overstretched artist Cockrum was given a breather by a fill-in “untold” tale of the new team featuring an attack by psychic clones of the original X-men in ‘Dark Shroud of the Past’(by Bill Mantlo, Bob Brown & Tom Sutton, but with a framing sequence from Cockrum).

The regular story resumes in a wry tribute to Star Trek as ‘Where No X-Man Has Gone Before!’ (by Claremont, Cockrum & Dan Green) finds the heroes stranded in another galaxy where they meet and are defeated by The Shi’ar Imperial Guard (an in-joke version of DC’s Legion of Super Heroes), until bold interstellar freebooters The Starjammers arrive to turn the tables and uncover a mad scheme to unmake the fabric of space-time.

Lilandra’s brother Emperor D’Ken is a certified maniac and wants to activate a cosmic artefact known alternatively as the M’Kraan Crystal and “the End of All that Is” in his quest for ultimate power. He’s also spent time on Earth in the past and has played a major role in the life of one of the X-Men …

This tale (from issue #107) was the last drawn by Cockrum for many years. He would eventually return to replace the man who replaced him.

As X-Men and Starjammers battle the Crystal’s impossibly deadly automated guardians, this final chapter sees the newly puissant Phoenix literally save all of reality in a mind-blowing display of power and skill, all whilst trapped in a truly staggering other realm before taking the heroes home, appalled and enthralled by the intoxicating, addictive nature of her own might.

The conclusion of this ambitious extended saga was drawn by John Byrne (with inks from Terry Austin) and his efforts were to become an industry bench-mark as the X-Men grew in popularity and complexity. However, even though the bravura high-octane thrills of “Armageddon Now” seemed an unrepeatable high-point, Claremont & Byrne had only started. The best was still to come…

In ‘Home Are the Heroes’ Wolverine finally began to develop a back-history and some depth of character as technological wonder Weapon Alpha attacked the recuperating team in an attempt to force Logan to rejoin the Canadian Secret Service. Renamed Vindicator he would later return with Alpha Flight – a Canadian super-team which would eventually graduate to their own eccentric high-profile series.

This splendid compilation ends rather limply with another hasty fill-in as ‘The “X”-Sanction’ (illustrated by Tony DeZuniga & Cockrum), finds hired cyborg-assassin Warhawk infiltrating the mansion in search of “intel” for a mysterious, unspecified master before getting his shiny silver head handed to him…

The immortal epics compiled here 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 sturdy and substantial full-colour feel of these sturdily Marvellous Masterwork editions.
© 1976, 1977, 1978, 1990 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc/Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.