Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 11

By Stan Lee, Archie Goodwin, John Buscema, John Romita, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3046-8 (HB)

Cautiously bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, Fantastic Four #1 (by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) was crude: rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement.

Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it and the raw storytelling caught a wave of change starting to build in America. It and succeeding issues changed comicbooks forever.

In eight short years FF meteorically grew into the unmissable core-title and most consistently groundbreaking series of Marvel’s ever-unfolding web of cosmic creation: relentlessly bombarding readers with a ceaseless salvo of new concepts and characters at a time when Kirby was in his conceptual prime and continually unfettering his vast imagination on plot after spectacular plot.

Clearly inspired, Lee scripted some of the most memorable superhero sagas Marvel – or any publisher, for that matter – had or has ever seen.

Both were on an unstoppable roll, at the height of their creative powers, and full of the confidence that only success brings, with The King particularly eager to see how far the genre and the medium could be pushed…

However, nothing lasts forever and in 1971 the dream-team of Kirby & Lee was shockingly sundered. A reeling Marvel entered a new epoch of uncertain futures and bold new directions – which is rather ironic since it was the company’s reticence to give the artist creative freedom which led to Kirby’s jumping ship to National/DC in the first place…

Four Those Who Came in Late: As seen in that unforgettable premier issue, maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm – with Sue’s tag-along teenaged brother Johnny – survived an ill-starred and clandestine private space-shot after Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.

Reed’s body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and the kid could turn into living flame, but poor, tragic Ben horrifically devolved into a shambling, rocky freak…

With this 11th collection of tales from “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” a new style is established. With Kirby gone, the staggeringly inventive imagination and rollercoaster of mind-bending High-Concept ideas gave way to far more traditional tales of characters in conflict, with soap-opera leanings and super-villain dominated Fights ‘n’ Tights dramas.

This volume – available in hardback and digital formats – covers Fantastic Four #105-116 (December 1970 – November1971) and opens with a context-setting Introduction from Jon B. Cooke, before issue #105 – illustrated by John Romita and inker John Verpoorten – began the low-key yet extremely effective suspense thriller ‘The Monster in the Streets!’

When Johnny’s Inhuman girlfriend Crystal is taken ill – preparatory to writing her out of the series completely – Reed’s examination reveals a potential method of curing the misshapen Thing of his Rocky curse.

Tragically, as he is preparing Ben Grimm for the radical process, a mysterious energy-beast starts tearing up the city. By the time ‘The Monster’s Secret!’ is exposed in #106 the team strongman is almost dead and Crystal is gone… seemingly forever.

Veteran inker Joe Sinnott returns in #107 in ‘And Now… the Thing!’ as John Buscema assumes the illustrator’s reins over Kirby’s other masterpiece (he had already been drawing Thor for four months starting with #182).

Here and now the unfortunate man-monster gains the power to become human at will. It seems the best of all possible outcomes but something isn’t quite right…

However, before Reed can investigate an old foe pops up again. Sort of…

Fantastic Four #108 was something of a surprise to fans. ‘The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man!’ “reintroduced” a character never before seen. As covered extensively in the previous Masterworks collection, this was done by recycling large portions of a recently-rejected Kirby & Sinnott tale and adding new framing sequences illustrated by Buscema and Romita.

The mysterious Janus had tapped into the antimatter power of the Negative Zone once before and “now” he resurfaced to steal more by crashing through the portal in Reed’s lab. Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of extinction-event predator Annihilus, who had long sought entry into our life-rich universe…

Forced to follow the utterly mad scientist, Reed, Ben and Johnny once again face ‘Death in the Negative Zone!’ (Lee. Buscema& Sinnott) before FF #110 sees – thanks to a little arcane assistance from sorceress/babysitter Agatha Harkness – Reed escape doom in the anti-cosmos only to realise that “cured” Ben has become a lethally sociopathic threat to all humanity in ‘One from Four Leaves Three!’

Able to switch between human and monster forms, ‘The Thing… Amok’ rampages through New York, with Mr. Fantastic and the Human Torch desperately trying to minimise the damage their deranged friend inflicts on the city even as increasingly marginalised Sue Richards is packed off to tend baby Franklin beside eldritch governess Harkness…

With all of New York apparently against them, the embattled heroes are on the ropes when the Incredible Hulk joins the fracas for #112’s ‘Battle of the Behemoths!’.

As Sue finally and rebelliously returns, The Thing seems to have perished in the brutal battle that ensued when the monsters met, but once again Reed Richards saves – and cures – his best friend just as another menace materialises…

‘The Power of… the Over-Mind!’ reveals another insidious cosmic menace, this presaged and prophesised by an ominous warning from omniscient alien voyeur The Watcher.

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

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

The graphic narrative concludes here with double-sized Fantastic Four #116, featuring ‘The Alien, the Ally, and… Armageddon!’ as the defeated and embattled heroes, unable to access any superhero assistance, recruit deadly foe Doctor Doom to lead them in final battle against the unbeatable Over-Mind.

They are nonetheless crushed and only saved at the crucial moment by a most unexpected saviour in ‘Now Falls the Final Hour!’

Did I say concludes? Not quite; as there’s still room for the Romita/Verpoorten cover to all-reprint Fantastic Four Annual #8; a stunning house ad; the rare misprinted pink-&-green cover for FF #110 and brace of Buscema original art covers to delight and enthral…

Although sacrificing spectacle and wonder for simple continuous conflict, the Fantastic Four remained at the heart of the Marvel Universe for years, offering furious Fights ‘n’ Tights thrills to delight and beguile. Why not check out how and why?
© 1970, 1971, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avengers Marvel Masterworks volume 10

By Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, Sal Buscema, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3331-5 (HB)

One of the most momentous events in Marvel Comics history occurred in 1963 when a disparate array of individual heroes banded together to stop the Incredible Hulk.

The Avengers combined most of the company’s fledgling superhero line in one bright, shiny and highly commercial package. Over the decades the roster has unceasingly changed, and now almost every character in their universe has at some time numbered amongst their colourful ranks…

The Avengers always proved that putting all one’s star eggs in on single basket paid off big-time; even when all Marvel’s all-stars such as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man were absent, it merely allowed the lesser lights of the team to shine more brightly.

Of course, all the founding stars regularly featured due to a rotating, open door policy which meant that most issues included one of any reader’s favourites. The increasingly bold and impressively ambitious stories and artwork were no hindrance either.

This sturdy hardcover and eBook compilation gathers the astounding contents of Avengers issues #89-100 collectively spanning June 1971 – June 1972: a riot of cosmic calamity which confirmed scripter Roy Thomas as a major creative force in comics whilst simultaneously demonstrating the potential the “debased” medium could aspire to.

At the time Thomas’ bold experiment was rightly considered the most ambitious saga in Marvel’s brief history: astounding sagas of tremendous scope which dumped Earth into a cosmic war the likes of which comics fans had never before seen. The Kree/Skrull War set the template for all multi-part crossovers and publishing events ever since and it was followed by another astounding epic proving that more and better was to come…

Following Thomas’s lengthy discourse on how it all happened in his Introduction, the drama begins relatively quietly as marooned Kree warrior Captain Marvel is finally freed from virtual imprisonment in a ghastly antimatter universe.

Mar-Vell was originally sent as a spy to Earth but he quickly went native and became a protector of humanity. After an intergalactic mission to save his former masters he was flying back to Earth when he was suddenly sucked into the anti-matter hell of the Negative Zone

The trapped warrior found a loophole through long-dormant Kree artefacts and Nega-bands. Inextricably bonding to professional human side-kick Rick Jones, he could switch places whenever danger loomed, but would be drawn back into the dread domain after three hours.

Following interminable, agonising months when Rick refused to trade atoms with his alien alter ego, ‘The Only Good Alien…’ (art by Sal Buscema & Sam Grainger) sees the bonded brothers finally separated just as, in the distant Kree Empire, the ruling Supreme Intelligence is overthrown by his enforcer Ronan the Accuser

On Earth, the rebellion results in the activation of a long-dormant robotic Kree Sentry which attacks Mar-Vell and the Avengers before enacting a deep-programmed protocol to devolve humanity to the level of cavemen in concluding chapter ‘Judgment Day’ (drawn and inked by Sal B)…

Even with Ronan taking personal charge of a compromised polar base, the scheme to eradicate humanity is narrowly defeated in ‘Take One Giant Step… Backward!’, but the cat is let out of the bag about the panic-inspiring notion that extraterrestrials lurk among us. Moreover, public opinion turns against the heroes for concealing the threat of repeated alien incursions…

In a powerful allegory of the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, the epic expands in issue #92 (Sal B & George Roussos) as ‘All Things Must End!’ sees riots in American streets and a political demagogue capitalising on the crisis. Subpoenaed by the authorities, castigated by friends and public, the current team – The Vision, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver – is ordered to disband by founding fathers Thor, Iron Man and Captain America.

Or are they…?

The plot thickens as Neal Adams & Tom Palmer assume the chores with double-sized Avengers #93 and ‘This Beachhead Earth’. Here the Vision is nigh-fatally attacked and those same founding fathers evince no knowledge of having benched the regular team.

With original Ant-Man Henry Pym undertaking ‘A Journey to the Center of the Android!’ to save the Vision’s artificial life, the Avengers become aware of not one, but two hostile alien presences on Earth: bellicose Kree and sinister, seditious shape-shifting Skrulls. The revelation triggers a ‘War of the Weirds!’ on our fragile globe.

Acting too late, the human heroes are unable to prevent mutant siblings Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver as well as their protector Mar-Vell from being abducted by the Super-Skrull

With more stunning Adams art, ‘More than Inhuman!’ in issue #94 entangles the long-hidden race of advanced beings called Inhumans in the mix, disclosing that their advanced science and super-powers are the result of genetic meddling by the Kree in the depths of prehistory. Now, with Inhuman king Black Bolt missing and his mad, malign brother Maximus in charge, the Kree are calling in their ancient markers…

Second chapter ‘1971: A Space Odyssey’ (pencilled by John Buscema) focuses on Mar-Vell as he is increasingly pressured to reveal military secrets to his shape-shifting captors. The Skrulls are ready to launch a final devastating all-out attack on their eons-old rivals, even as on Earth ‘Behold the Mandroids!’ exposes the American authorities attempting to arrest all costumed heroes…

In Avengers #95 ‘Something Inhuman This Way Comes…!’ coalesces the disparate story strands as aquatic Inhuman Triton helps defeat the US government robotic Mandroids before beseeching the beleaguered heroes to find his missing monarch and rescue his people from the pressganging Kree.

After so doing, and with a solid victory under their belts at last, the Avengers head into space to liberate their kidnapped comrades and save Earth from becoming collateral damage in the impending cosmos-shaking clash between Kree and Skrulls…

‘The Andromeda Swarm!’ (with additional inking from Adams and Al Weiss) is perhaps the Avengers’ finest hour, as a small, brave band of valiant heroes hold off an immense armada of star-ships, losing one of their own in the conflict. Meanwhile the Supreme Intelligence is revealed to have been pursuing its own clandestine agenda all along, after having bewildered sidekick Rick Jones abducted to further its terrifyingly ambitious plans….

The astounding final episode ‘Godhood’s End!’ brings the uncanny epic to a climactic close with a literal Deus ex Machina as the Supremor’s master-plan is finally revealed. However, the war is actually ended by the most unlikely of saviours and an avalanche of costumed heroes: an action overload extravaganza which has never been surpassed in the annals of Fights ‘n’ Tights fiction…

Even after saving the world, life goes on and seemingly gets more dangerous every day. ‘Let Slip the Dogs of War’ (Avengers #98, by Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith & Sal Buscema) sees harried heroes Captain America, Iron Man, Vision, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and Thor debating the loss of their comrade Goliath, missing in action since he explosively stopped an alien warship from nuking Earth…

As the Thunderer heads for Asgard and its magic scrying mirrors, the fruitless debate is curtailed as war-mongering demagogue Mr. Tallon incites riot in the streets of New York. The gathered crowds attack the Avengers when they tried to quell the unrest and it is soon evident that the war-hawk has supernatural assistance.

…And in the dimensional void the Thunder God discovers all access to the Immortal Realms has been cut off…

By the time Thor returns to Earth his comrades are bewitched too. Joining with the seemingly immune Vision in a last-ditch, hopeless battle, the Storm Lord fights his best friends until the tide is turned by a perfectly aimed arrow, heralding the return of Goliath to his original Hawkeye identity…

Moreover, he has with him another Avenger: an amnesiac Hercules, Prince of Power, whose only certain knowledge is that Earth and Asgard are doomed…

Inked by Tom Sutton ‘…They First Make Mad!’ expands the epic as the Avengers call on all their resources to cure Hercules and decipher his cryptic warning whilst the World’s leaders seem determined to catapult the planet into atomic Armageddon.

As Hawkeye explains his miraculous escape from death in space and how he found Hercules the call goes out, summoning every hero who has ever been an Avenger. Suddenly two Grecian Titans materialise to trounce the team, dragging the terrified Prince of Power back to Olympus…

The epic ends in the staggeringly beautiful anniversary 100th issue ‘Whatever Gods There Be!’ (inked by Smith, Joe Sinnott & Syd Shores) as thirteen Avengers – including even the scurrilous Swordsman and blockbusting Hulk – indomitably invade the home of the Hellenic Gods to discover old enemy Enchantress and war god Ares are behind the entire malignant plot…

This titanic tome is packed with extra treats, including the cover of all-reprint Avengers Annual #5 plus the covers and new bridging material created by Alan Zelenetz, Walt Simonson & Palmer for the 1983 Kree-Skrull War starring the Avengers reprint miniseries. Also on show is Neal Adams’ take on the creation of the tale in ‘Three Cows Shot me Down’, supplemented by his cover for the 2000 and 2008 trade paperbacks. Upping the ante are original art pages and a selection of his un-inked pencil pages to delight every fan of fabulous Fights ‘n’ Tights fantasy action…

Roy Thomas and his artistic collaborators were always at the forefront of Marvel’s second generation of creators: brilliantly building on and consolidating Lee, Kirby and Ditko’s initial burst of comics creativity whilst spearheading and constructing a logical, fully functioning wonder- machine of places and events that so many others could add to.

These terrific tales are ideal examples of superheroes done exactly right and also act as pivotal points as the underdog company evolved into a corporate entertainment colossus. There are also some of the best superhero stories you’ll ever read…
© 1971, 1972, 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Daredevil Marvel Masterworks volume 7

By Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Gary Friedrich, Allyn Brodsky, Gene Colan, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6644-3 (HB)

Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer whose remaining senses hyper-compensate, making him capable of astonishing acrobatic feats, a formidable fighter and a living lie-detector.

Very much a second-string hero for most of his early years, Daredevil was nonetheless a striking and popular one, due in large part to the roster of brilliant artists who had illustrated the strip. He only really came into his own, however, after artist Gene Colan signed up for the long haul…

The natal DD battled thugs, gangsters, mad scientists and a plethora of super-villains (and – as seen in this collection – even the occasional alien incursion), quipping and wise-cracking his way through life and life-threatening combat, utterly unlike the grim, moody quasi-religious metaphor he’s been seen as in latter years.

Covering May 1970 to March 1971 and re-presenting Daredevil #64-74 plus and crossover material from Iron Man #35 and 36, this seventh swashbuckling compilation (available in both hardback and eBook formats) sees the once staid and so-very Establishment Murdock move with the shifting cultural mores as scripter Roy Thomas hands over the reins to newcomer Gerry Conway in an increasingly determined move to make the Man Without Fear cutting edge and relevant… …

Following Thomas’ revelatory and reminiscing Introduction the action opens here with Horn-Head prowling the rooftops of Los Angeles. He’s there to his find love-of-his-life, who quit New York after the pressure of sharing DD’s secrets proved too much…

After trailing the star-struck Karen Page to Hollywood he gets to take out his bad mood on a handy hood in ‘Suddenly… The Stunt-Master!’ (Thomas, Colan & Syd Shores) but eventually helps his old enemy in getting a TV show of his own…

Murdock remained in LA to oversee Karen’s first acting gig – a pastiche of then-hot spooky Television phenomenon Dark Shadows – and prevented her becoming part of a murder spree in ‘The Killing of Brother Brimstone’, a classy whodunit which cataclysmically climaxed one month later in ‘…And One Cried Murder!’

Still stuck on the West Coast, DD tackles another grudge-bearing villain as ‘Stilt-Man Stalks the Soundstage’ (Gary Friedrich, Thomas, Colan & Shores) with the now-reformed and respectable Stunt-Master ably assisting our hero. Matt finally leaves Karen to the vicissitudes of Tinseltown, landing back in the Big Apple just in time to become embroiled in a plot blending radical politics and the shady world of Boxing – ‘The Phoenix and the Fighter!’

The Black Panther returns seeking a favour in ‘A Life on the Line’ as kid gangs and the birth of the “Black Power” movement leapt from news headlines to comicbook pages. The same consideration of youth in protest also inspired the seditious menace of ‘The Tribune’ (written by Friedrich) as youthful ideologues, cynical demagogues and political bombers tear a terrified and outraged city apart.

The unrest peaked in Daredevil #71 as Roy Thomas contributed his swansong script by concluding the right-wing manufactured anarchy in ‘If an Eye Offend Thee…!’

New find Gerry Conway took over the scripting with the next issue, easing himself in with an interdimensional fantasy frolic wherein the Scarlet Swashbuckler encounters a strange rash of crimes and a mirror-dwelling mystery man named Tagak in ‘Lo! The Lord of the Leopards!’ before plunging readers into an ambitious cosmic crossover yarn which started in Iron Man #35.

Here the Armoured Avenger, seductive morally ambivalent free agent Madame Masque and S.H.I.E.L.D. supremo Nick Fury all sought ‘Revenge!’ (illustrated by Don Heck & Mike Esposito) for various vile acts and specifically the near-fatal wounding of valiant young American agent Jasper Sitwell at the hand of the mercenary Spymaster.

Their efforts – and those of their assembled enemies – were somehow fuelling an alien artefact called the Zodiac Key and, when its creators sucked Daredevil into the mix to battle Spymaster and a bunch of super-villains affiliated to the cosmic device, everybody is ultimately shanghaied to another universe for more pointless fighting in ‘Behold… the Brotherhood!’ (Daredevil #73, illustrated by Colan & Shores with plot input from Allyn Brodsky) before the epic concludes with extreme briskness in Iron Man #36.

So brisk, in fact, that only the first 8 pages of ‘Among Us Stalks the Ramrod!’ (Conway, Heck & Esposito) are reprinted here, leaving this potent brew of action and suspense to wrap up with Daredevil #74: an impressive and mercifully complete conundrum with DD trapped ‘In the Country of the Blind!’ (Colan & Shores) and calling on a group of sight-impaired volunteers to help him thwart a criminal plot to cripple New York…

The social upheaval of the period produced a lot of impressively earnest material that only hinted at the true potential of Daredevil. These beautifully illustrated yarns may occasionally jar with their heartfelt stridency but the honesty and desire to be a part of a solution rather than blithely carry on as if nothing was happening affords them a potency that no historian, let alone comics fan, can dare to ignore.

And the next volume heads even further into uncharted territory…

Rounding out the comics experience are bonus pages including the cover to all-reprint Daredevil Annual #2, and a selection of house ads.

Despite a few bumpy spots, during this period Daredevil blossomed into a truly magnificent example of Marvel’s compelling formula for success: smart, contemporarily astute stories, truly human and fallible characters and always magnificent illustration. These bombastic tales are pure Fights ‘n’ Tights magic no fan of stunning super-heroics can afford to ignore.
© 1970, 1971, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Team Up Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Ross Andru, Gil Kane, Jim Mooney & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4210-2 (HB)

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

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

The concept of team-up books – an established star pairing or battling (usually both) with less well-selling company characters – was not new when Marvel decided to award their most popular hero the lion’s share of this new title, but they wisely left their options open by allocating an occasional substitute lead in the Human Torch.

In those long-lost days editors were acutely conscious of potential over-exposure – and since superheroes were actually in a decline they may well have been right.

Marvel Team-Up was the second regular Spider-Man title (abortive companion title Spectacular Spider-Man was created for the magazine market in 1968 but had died after two issues). MTU launched at the end of 1971 and went from strength to strength, proving the time had finally come for expansion and a concentration on uncomplicated action over sub-plots…

This engaging hardback and/or eBook compilation gathers the first 11 issues – covering March 1972 to July 1973 – and opens with scripter Gerry Conway’s engaging recollections in ‘Behold: An Introduction’ before the comicbook magic commences with the webspinner and his flighty flaming frenemy reluctantly spending the holidays together…

Marvel Team-Up #1was crafted by Roy Thomas, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito as a mutual old enemy reared his gritty head in the charming ‘Have Yourself a Sandman Little Christmas!’. A light-heated romp full of Christmas cheer, rambunctious action and seasonal sentiment, the story set the tone for all epics to follow.

Merry Marvelite Maximii can award themselves a point for remembering which martial arts and TV heroine debuted in this issue but the folk with lives can simply take my word that it was Iron Fist’s sometime squeeze Misty Knight

Gerry Conway assumed the writer’s role and Jim Mooney the inker’s for ‘And Spidey Makes Four!’ in the succeeding issue as our heroes then take on and trounce the Frightful Four and Negative Zone bogeyman Annihilus before seemingly without pause going after Morbius the Living Vampire in #3’s ‘The Power to Purge!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia).

The new horror-star was still acting the villain in MTU #4 as the Torch was replaced by most of Marvel’s sole mutant team (The Beast having gone all hairy – and solo) in ‘And Then… the X-Men!’

This bold and enthralling thriller was illustrated by the magnificent Gil Kane at the top of his form and inked by Steve Mitchell. Kane became a semi-regular penciller, and his dynamic style and extreme anatomy lifted many rather pedestrian tales such as #5’s ‘A Passion of the Mind!’ (Conway script & Esposito inks), pitting Spidey and The Vision against manipulative mesmeric Puppet Master and robotic assassin the Monstroid.

The villain carried over to the next issue and was joined by the Mad Thinker ‘…As Those Who Will Not See!’ pitted the wallcrawler and the Thing against the cerebral scoundrels in a cataclysmic battle no Fights ‘n’ Tights fan could be unmoved by…

‘A Hitch in Time!’ in #7 was produced by Conway, Andru and Mooney: guest-starring Thor as otherworldly Trolls freeze Earth’s time-line as a prerequisite step to conquering Asgard, after which MTU #8 provides a perfect example of the team-up comic’s other function – to promote and popularise new characters.

‘Man-Killer Moves at Midnight!’ was most fans’ first exposure to The Cat (later retooled as Tigra the Were-Woman) in a painfully worthy if ham-fisted attempt to address feminist issues from Conway and Jim Mooney. The hard-pressed heroes joined forces her to stop a male-hunting murderer paying back abusive men. These days we’d probably be rooting for her…

Iron Man then collaborated in the opening foray of 3-part tale ‘The Tomorrow War!’ (Conway, Andru & Frank Bolle) as he and Spidey are kidnapped by Zarkko the Tomorrow Man to battle Kang the Conqueror. The Torch returned to help deal with the intermediate threat of ‘Time Bomb!’ (with art by Mooney & Giacoia) before the entire race of Black Bolt’s Inhumans pile in to help Spidey stop history unravelling in culminatory clash ‘The Doomsday Gambit!’ – this last chapter scripted by Len Wein over Conway’s plot for Mooney & Esposito to illustrate.

This initial gathering also includes two splendid samples of Kane original art – a cover and interior page.

These stories are of variable quality but nonetheless all show an honest drive to entertain and please whilst artistically the work is superb, and most fans of the genre would find little to complain about. Although not really a book for casual or more maturely-oriented readers, there’s lots of fun on hand and young readers will have a blast, so surely that’s reason enough to add this titanic tome to your library…
© 1972, 1973, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avengers Marvel Masterworks volume 9

By Roy Thomas, Harlan Ellison, John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Frank Giacoia, Herb Trimpe, Sam Grainger & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3501-2

The Avengers always proved that putting all one’s star eggs in on single basket paid off big-time; even when all Marvel’s all-stars such as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man were absent, it merely allowed the lesser lights of the team to shine more brightly.

Of course, all the founding stars regularly featured due to a rotating, open door policy which meant that most issues included somebody’s fave-rave. The increasingly bold and impressively ambitious stories and artwork were no hindrance either.

This sturdy hardcover and eBook compilation gathers the astounding contents of Avengers issues #80-88 and a cosmic crossover from Incredible Hulk #140 spanning September 1970-June 1971): evocative, socially-informed tales which confirmed Roy Thomas as a major creative force in comics whilst simultaneously consolidating John Buscema’s status as the foremost artist of Marvel’s second generation.

Following another candid reminiscence from Thomas – unravelling the behind-the-scenes secrets of the Dawning Marvel Age in his Introduction – this epochal tome opens with the debut of the company’s first Native American costumed hero in ‘The Coming of Red Wolf!’ (Thomas, John B & Tom Palmer) as the Avengers are drawn into a highly personal and decidedly brutal clash between ruthless entrepreneur Cornelius Van Lunt and a tribe of Indians he is defrauding and persecuting.

The dramatic dilemma (heralding the team’s entry into the era of “Relevant”, socially conscious tales) divides the team and concludes with Vision, Scarlet Witch and Goliath aiding Red Wolf in concluding episode ‘When Dies A Legend!’, whilst the remaining team pursues super crime combine Zodiac and the Black Panther pursues what he believes is a personal quest beside Daredevil. (This last tale occurred in DD #69 but is not included here. You’ll need to see the equivalent Daredevil Masterworks volume [#9, I think] for that).

Sadly, the malevolent mega-mob move first and take the entire island of Manhattan ‘Hostage!’, leaving only the solitary sightless vigilante Daredevil free to save the day, after which Militant Feminism raises its disconcertingly strident head as the Wasp, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and Madame Medusa are seduced into joining a new team called the Lady Liberators (yes, I know how that sounds now but the all-male creative team meant well…).

However, the Valkyrie who declares ‘Come on in… the Revolution’s Fine!’ had her own dark secret and sinister agenda that has nothing to do with justice or equality…

Avengers #84 featured part-time paladin Black Knight who had become addicted to the bloodthirsty hunger of his Ebony Blade, resulting in an otherworldly confrontation with alternate-Earth barbarian king Arkon and his latest paramour the Enchantress in ‘The Sword and the Sorceress!’ The resulting acrimonious clash subsequently left half the team lost in a parallel existence…

In ‘The World is Not for Burning!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia), Vision, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver’s efforts to return home leave them stranded on an Earth where the Squadron Supreme are the World’s Greatest heroes and a solar Armageddon is only hours away…

Illustrated by Sal Buscema & Jim Mooney, ‘Brain-Child to the Dark Tower Came…!’ sees the extremely reluctant trans-Earth allies unite to save a very different world after which, back home, the Black Panther reprises his bombastic origin before taking leave of his comrades to assume the throne of his hidden African nation in ‘Look Homeward, Avenger’ (Giacoia & Sal B).

Novelist Harlan Ellison was a very vocal comics fan in the 1970s and occasionally collaborated on Marvel tales. Avengers #88 began a radical adaptation of one his best short stories, heralding ‘The Summons of Psyklop’ (Ellison, Thomas, Sal Buscema & Mooney) wherein an experiment to cure the Hulk of his destructive nature leads to the Jade Juggernaut’s abduction by a preternatural entity.

The saga concluded in Incredible Hulk #140 (Ellison, Thomas, Herb Trimpe & Sam Grainger) as ‘The Brute… That Shouted Love… at the Heart of the Atom!’ finds the man-monster experiencing truelove and idyllic peace in a sub-molecular paradise, only to lose it all when the demonic Psyklop tracks him down…

Following a reproduction of the cover of the all-reprint Avengers Annual #4, the romantic tragedy is somewhat leavened by a bonus yarn from Marvel’s spoof publication Not Brand Echh #5 (December 1967). Here Thomas, Gene Colan & John Tartaglione recount the sterling saga of ‘The Revengers vs Charlie America’, reinterpreting how – if not why – the heroes saved the Star-Spangled Simpleton of Liberty from icy entombment. Wrapping up the memorable magic is a brace of contemporary house ads and full biographies of all creative folk involved…

Thomas and John Buscema (and Sal too, actually) gloriously led Marvel’s second generation of creators in building on and consolidating Lee, Kirby and Ditko’s initial burst of comics creativity: spearheading and constructing a logical, fully functioning wonder- machine of places and events that so many others were inspired by and could add to.

These terrific tales are perfect examples of superheroes done exactly right and a pivotal step of the little company into the corporate colossus. They are also utterly fabulous stories you’ll never tire of reading
© 1970, 1971, 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Sub-Mariner Marvel Masterworks volume 2

By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Raymond Marais, Archie Goodwin, Bill Everett, Dan Adkins, Werner Roth, Marie Severin, Gene Colan, John Buscema, & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2688-1 (HB)

Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner is the offspring of a water-breathing Atlantean princess and an American polar explorer; a hybrid being of immense strength, highly resistant to physical harm, able to fly and exist above and below the waves. Created by young, talented Bill Everett, Namor technically predates Marvel/Atlas/Timely Comics.

He first caught the public’s attention as part of the fire vs. water headlining team in Marvel Comics #1 (October 1939 and soon to become Marvel Mystery Comics) sharing honours and top billing with The Human Torch, but he had originally been seen (albeit in a truncated black and white version) in Motion Picture Funnies: a weekly promotional giveaway handed out to moviegoers earlier in the year.

Quickly becoming one of the company’s biggest draws, Namor gained his own title at the end of 1940 (cover-dated Spring 1941) and was one of the last super-characters to go at the end of the first heroic age. In 1954, when Atlas (as the company then was) briefly revived its “Big Three” (the Torch and Captain America being the other two) costumed characters, Everett returned for an extended run of superb fantasy tales, but even so the time wasn’t right and the title sunk again.

When Stan Lee & Jack Kirby started reinventing comic-books in 1961 with the Fantastic Four, they revived the all-but forgotten awesome amphibian as a troubled, semi-amnesiac, and decidedly more regal and grandiose anti-hero. The returnee despised humanity; embittered at the loss of his sub-sea kingdom (seemingly destroyed by American atomic testing) whilst simultaneously besotted with the FF’s Sue Storm.

Namor knocked around the budding Marvel universe for a few years, squabbling with other assorted heroes such as the Hulk, Avengers and X-Men, before securing his own series as one half of Tales to Astonish.

This second subsea selection – available in hardback and eBook editions – collects Tales to Astonish #88-101, Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner #1 and The Sub-Mariner #1, circuitously spanning February 1967 to May 1968; opening with a florid and enthusiastic Introduction from sometime-scribe and passionate life-long fan Roy Thomas before the undersea action resumes.

Crafted by Stan Lee & Bill Everett, the Tales to Astonish #88 Sub-Mariner saga saw sub-sea barbarian Attuma attack once more, employing a lost extraterrestrial super-robot when ‘A Stranger Strikes from Space!’. The tale concluded in ‘The Prince and the Power!’ as the Marine Marvel turned the tables on his enemies through brains not brawn, after which Namor’s greatest rival returned in ‘To Be Beaten by Byrrah!’

Here the Prince’s ruthless cousin (last seen in the short-lived 1950s revival of Sub-Mariner Comics) employed gutter politics and subliminal hypnosis to oust the true ruler, only to receive his comeuppance in ‘Outside the Gates Waits Death!’: this latter seeing the inking debut of arch-stylist Dan Adkins.

Illustrating in a style that owed everything to Wally Wood, Adkins took over the pencilling in #92’s ‘It Walks Like a Man!’ This tale of atomic pollution and American naval intransigence is a terse foretaste of Sub-Mariner’s later role as eco-warrior, and the concluding part features Roy Thomas’ first script for the aquatic antihero in ‘The Monarch and the Monster!’ as Namor battles a nuclear golem and aggrieved US submarine commander to curtail imminent war…

Nevertheless, Namor was still dragged into a surface tyrant’s armed conflict in ‘Helpless, at the Hands of Dragorr!’ (Thomas & Everett), and incoming scripter Raymond Marais joined Thomas, Everett & Colletta on ‘The Power of the Plunderer!’ Here the piratical old Daredevil villain attacks an American civilian experimental undersea city.

Marais solo-scripted second chapter ‘Somewhere Stands Skull Island!’ as outraged Namor trails the Plunderer to the antediluvian Savage Land only to be captured and seemingly enslaved.

TtA #97’s ‘The Sovereign and the Savages’ came courtesy of Thomas and unsung art star Werner Roth – who had actually taken over the art halfway through the previous episode. Inked by Adkins, the Plunderer’s assault on Atlantis is finally foiled in ‘…To Destroy the Realm Eternal!’ but the vile events precipitated a similar attack on Namor’s homeland by a US atomic submarine in ‘When Falls the Holocaust!’ (by Archie Goodwin & Dan Adkins) in #99.

Marvel’s “split-books” had been devised as a way to promote their burgeoning stable of stars whilst labouring under a highly restrictive distribution deal which limited the number of titles they could release each month. In 1968 the company escaped this onerous commitment and thereby expanded exponentially.

In the months leading up to that virtual relaunch a number of bold experiments occurred: the most impressive of which was the first actual meeting of the monstrous stars of Marvel’s antihero title since they had won their own series.

Tales to Astonish #100, by Lee, Marie Severin & Adkins had Namor’s plan to recruit the Hulk as an ally go spectacularly awry after the Puppet Master fomented a near-disaster that almost levelled Miami in ‘Let There Be Battle!’, a tale that took 22 pages to unfold.

The final issue of Astonish then introduced a villain who would alter forever the history and perception of the Sub-Mariner. ‘…And Evil Shall Beckon!’ by Goodwin, Gene Colan & Adkins saw the aquatic antihero plagued by visions of a bestial foe who threatened his throne and people, drawing Namor to a confrontation in the Polar regions where the first Atlantis had been built…

For reasons never disclosed (and I shall charitably keep my assumptions private) the Golden Avenger and Prince of Atlantis both had to wait a month before getting their own first issues, necessitating one last split-book. Iron Man and Sub-Mariner #1 (April 1968) carried the middle parts of two epics that each concluded in memorable debut issues, but the amphibian’s contribution ‘Call Him Destiny …or Call Him Death!’ – by Thomas, Colan & Frank Giacoia – did no more than whet the appetite by revealing half an origin before apparently killing the lead character.

Sub-Mariner #1 (May1968, by Thomas, John Buscema & Giacoia) more than made up for the confusion as Namor’s true origin and the reason for his bouts of amnesia were explained by malign super-telepath Destiny, as ‘Years of Glory… Day of Doom!’ recapped Sub-Mariner’s gloriously chequered past whilst setting up another epic quest that would prove amongst this venerable character’s very best. That, however, is the subject of another volume.

Before the end, though, there are bonus benefits in the form of pages of original art and covers by Colan and Everett.

These tales feature some of Marvel’s very best artists at their visual peak, and although a few of the stories no longer bear a critical scrutiny, the verve and enthusiasm still shine through. Many early Marvel Comics are more exuberant than qualitative, but this volume, especially from an art-lover’s point of view, is a wonderful exception: a historical treasure that fans will find delightful.
© 1967, 1968, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Incredible Hulk Marvel Masterworks volume 4

By Stan Lee, Gary Friedrich, Roy Thomas, Bill Everett, Archie Goodwin, Marie Severin, Herb Trimpe, Frank Giacoia & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2682-9 (HB)

Bruce Banner was a military scientist who was caught in a gamma bomb blast of his own devising. As a result of continual ongoing mutation, stress and other factors can cause him to transform into a giant green monster of unstoppable strength and fury.

After an initially troubled few years, the gamma-irradiated gargantuan finally found his size 700 feet and a format that worked, becoming one of young Marvel’s most popular features. After his first solo-title folded, the morose man-monster shambled around the slowly-coalescing Marvel Universe as guest star and/or villain du jour until a new home was found for him.

Covering May to December 1968, this sturdy hardback (and eBook) collection re-presents issues #103-110 of his second solo-starring series and also includes the first Incredible Hulk Annual from autumn of that year.

Following a rather incredulous and self-deprecating Introduction from artist Herb Trimpe the never-ending saga resumes. Trimpe, associated with the character for nearly a decade, began his tenure as Marie Severin’s inker in Tales to Astonish #94 and would eventually take over pencilling the Jade Juggernaut, but before that epic handover rising star Gary Friedrich scripts, Marie pencils and veteran artist Frank Giacoia inks the all-action advent of a tragic alien antagonist in #103’s ‘And Now… the Space Parasite!’: a former hero who seemingly perished after attempting to consume the Green Goliath’s abundant life energies.

‘Ring Around the Rhino!’ in #104 is another paean to the Hulk’s destructive potential and visceral appeal as the gamma-fuelled enemy agent is tasked by his cruel masters with abducting Bruce Banner before a longer plot-strand, tinged with pathos and irony, began in Incredible Hulk #105, courtesy of surprise scripters Roy Thomas and Bill Everett, ably illumined by Severin and inker George Tuska.

‘This Monster Unleashed!’ sees the Missing Link – a radioactive and violently mutating victim of Soviet aggression – dumped in New York, and easily capable of burning our dull-witted hero into glowing ashes.

The second part, ‘Above the Earth… A Titan Rages!’ – by Thomas and Archie Goodwin – was pencilled by the neophyte Trimpe over Severin’s breakdowns, with Tuska inking. Sadly, the result is rather a muddle nearly as great as the story itself since the action abruptly switches from New York to Russia after the battling behemoths are suddenly abducted by Yuri Breslov, the Soviet counterpart to Nick Fury and his agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. who promptly loses them over a rural and isolated farm collective.

The story neatly segues into a much more polished yarn with #107’s ‘Ten Rings Hath… the Mandarin’ (by Friedrich & Trimpe with wonderfully rugged inking from the great Syd Shores) as the oriental despot tries to enslave the emerald engine of destruction…

The extended epic concludes with savage success as Stan Lee returns to script and Trimpe – inked by the legendary John Severin (yep, Marie’s big brother) – pulls all the strands together in the action-packed finale ‘Monster Triumphant!’, guest-starring Nick Fury, Yuri Breslov and even Chairman Mao Tse Tung!

Cover-dated October, The Incredible Hulk Annual #1 was one of the best comics of 1968. Behind an iconic Jim Steranko cover, Friedrich, Marie Severin & Shores (with lots of last-minute inking assistance) delivered a passionate, tense and melodramatic parable of alienation that nevertheless was one of the most action-stuffed fight-fests ever depicted.

In 51 titanic pages ‘A Refuge Divided!’ sees the forlorn and perpetually lonely Jade Juggernaut stumble upon the hidden Great Refuge of genetic outsiders. The Inhumans – recovering from a recent failed coup by new players Falcona, Leonus, Aireo, Timberius, Stallior, Nebulo and their secret backer (the king’s brother Maximus the Mad) – are distracted by the Hulk’s arrival.

All too soon, suspicion and short tempers result in carnage and chaos. The band of super-rebels start the fight but it’s the immensely powerful Black Bolt who eventually battles the infuriated Hulk to a standstill…

This is the vicarious thrill taken to its ultimate, still one of the very best non-Lee-Kirby tales of that period, and the issue also provides a pictorial extra with a Marvel Masterwork Pin-up featuring 11 different versions and a challenge to identify the artists…

Back at the monthly venue, Incredible Hulk #109 takes up from the end of the Mandarin saga with the Hulk rampaging through Red China, but still without a settled creative team in place. ‘The Monster and the Man-Beast!’ was written by Stan Lee, laid out by Giacoia, pencilled by Trimpe and inked by John Severin, as the Hulk trashes the Chinese Army and accidentally interferes with a Red super-missile…

The upshot is that the man-monster is hurtled into space and blasted into the Antarctic paradise known as the Savage Land. This preserve of dinosaurs and cavemen is a visually perfect home for the Hulk and the addition of Tarzan analogue Ka-Zar, and a primitive death-cult worshipping an alien device designed to destroy the world, ramps up the tension nicely.

The tale and this edition wrap up with the attack of ‘Umbu the Unliving!’ (Lee, Trimpe & John Severin) as yet another extraterrestrial device left to facilitate Earth’s demise goes into overkill mode. Thankfully Banner and his green alter-ego dispatch it with Ka-Zar’s assistance, albeit at the cost of Banner’s life.

As they said at the time “To Be Hulkinued!”…

Adding even more deal appeal to this book is a stunning selection of comedy sketches and cartoons devised by the infamously puckish Marie Severin to cheer up her fellow Bullpen pals as well as Hulk original art pages and covers by her, brother John, Trimpe, Giacoia, and Steranko – plus her unused cover for that iconic Annual.

This titanic tome of Hulk heroics offers visceral thrillers and chaotic clashes overflowing with dynamism, enthusiasm and sheer quality: tales crucial to later, more cohesive adventures. Even at their most hurried, these epics offer an abundance of full-on, butt-kicking, “breaking-stuff” catharsis to delight the destructive eight-year-old in all of us.
© 1968, 2007, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Iron Man Marvel Masterworks volume 4

By Stan Lee, Archie Goodwin, Gene Colan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2678-2 (HB)

Marvel’s rise to dominance of the US comicbook industry really took hold in 1968 when most of their characters finally got their own titles. Prior to that – and due to a highly restrictive distribution deal – the company had been tied to a limit of 16 publications per month. To circumvent this drawback, Marvel developed “split-books” with two features per title, such as Tales of Suspense where Iron Man originally solo-starred before being joined by patriotic cohort Captain America in issue #59 (cover-dated November 1964).

Marvel’s fortunes prospered – thanks in large part to Stan Lee’s gift for promotion, but primarily because of superbly engaging stories such as the ones collected in this enticing hardback and/or eBook edition.

With the new distributor came a demand for more product, and the stars of the split books were all awarded their own titles. When the division came, the Armoured Avenger started afresh with a “Collector’s Item First Issue” (but only after a shared one-shot with the Sub-Mariner that squared divergent schedules) with Cap retaining the numbering of the original title; thereby premiering in number #100.

Herein find contained in chronological order the remaining tales of the transitional period, reprinting Tales of Suspense #84-99, plus the pertinent portion of place-holding one-shot Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner #1 and at long last Iron Man #1, cumulatively covering December 1966 to May 1968.

Tony Stark is the acceptable face of 1960s Capitalism; a glamorous ultra-rich industrialist and inventor – and a benevolent all-conquering hero when clad in the super-scientific armour of his secret alter-ego, Iron Man.

Created in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and at a time when “Red-baiting” and “Commie-bashing” were American national obsessions, the emergence of a brilliant new Thomas Edison, using Yankee ingenuity and invention to safeguard and better the World, seemed inevitable. Combine the then-sacrosanct belief that technology and business could solve any problem with the universal imagery of noble knights battling evil and the concept behind the Golden Avenger seems an infallibly successful proposition. Of course, it helps that all that money and gadgetry is great fun and very, very cool…

Following a critique by critic and historian Arlen Schumer in his Introduction, this stunning all-Gene Colan illustrated volume begins with ToS #84 and picks up soap opera fashion with Stark submitting to months of governmental pressure and testifying to a Congressional Committee hungry for the secrets of his greatest creation.

However. at the critical moment, the inventor keels over…

Stark’s controversial reputation is finally restored as the public at last learns that his life is only preserved by a metallic chest-plate which keeps his maimed heart beating in ‘The Other Iron Man!’ (scripted by Lee and inked by Frank Giacoia). Somehow, nobody at all connects that hunk of steel to the identical one his Avenging “bodyguard” wears…

With the hero stuck in a hospital bed, best friend Happy Hogan foolishly dons the suit to preserve that precious secret only to be abducted by the insidious Mandarin in another extended assault that begins with ‘Into the Jaws of Death’.

Propelled by guilt and fuelled by fear the still-ailing Stark breaks into his own Congressionally-closed factory and creates new, more powerful armour before flying to his rescue in ‘Death Duel for the Life of Happy Hogan!’

The epic encounter successfully concluded, the Americans return home just in time for #87 and #88 to host the merciless Mole Man who attacks from below, prompting a ‘Crisis… at the Earth’s Core!’

The villain has no idea who hostage Stark really is, believing the inventor and his assistant Pepper Potts ‘Beyond all Rescue!’ but is soon proved very wrong, after which another old B-List bad-guy takes his shot in ‘The Monstrous Menace of the Mysterious Melter!’

Its tense, terse sequel ‘The Golden Ghost!’ fabulously features a glorious reprise of Iron Man’s original battle suit and a wonderfully twisty conclusion.

‘The Uncanny Challenge of the Crusher!’ offers an all-action tale – possibly marred for modern audiences by a painful Commie-bustin’ sub-plot featuring a thinly disguised Fidel Castro – and the impressions of the on-going “Police Action” in Indo-China are also a little gung-ho (if completely understandable) when Iron Man goes hunting for a Red Menace called Half-Face ‘Within the Vastness of Viet Nam!’

The urgent insertion results in another clash with incorrigible old foe Titanium Man in ‘The Golden Gladiator and… the Giant!’ before our hero at last snatches victory from the mechanical jaws of defeat in ‘The Tragedy and the Triumph!’ (this last inked by Dan Adkins).

Giacoia returns and a new cast member debuts in #95 as eager-beaver adult boy scout S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell is assigned as security advisor to America’s most prominent weapons maker, just as veteran Thor villain Grey Gargoyle attacks in ‘If a Man be Stone!’ The mismatched and overpowered maniac is then summarily defeated in ‘The Deadly Victory!’

Tales of Suspense #97 began an extended story-arc that would carry the series to the launch of the solo series and beyond, in which criminal cartel the Maggia schemes to move in on Stark’s company.

Their campaign opens with the hero’s capture, as ‘The Coming of… Whiplash!’ depicts the Golden Avenger cut to steely ribbons, drawn out in ‘The Warrior and the Whip!’ and – as the magnificent Archie Goodwin assumed the scripting reins and EC legend Johnny Craig came aboard as inker – finds Iron Man trapped on a sinking submarine ‘At the Mercy of the Maggia’ just as the venerable Tales of Suspense ends with its 99th issue…

Of course, it was just changing its name to Captain America, whilst Tales to Astonish seamlessly shifted into The Incredible Hulk, but – due to a scheduling snafu – neither of the split-book co-stars had a home that month (April 1968).

This situation led to the one-and-only Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner #1 to carry concluding episode ‘The Torrent Without… The Tumult Within!’, wherein sinister super-scientists of A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics, acronym-fans) snatch the Armoured Avenger from the Maggia’s swiftly sinking submarine, intent on stealing the hero’s technical secrets.

Invincible Iron Man #1 finally appeared with a May 1968 cover-date, triumphantly ending the extended sub-sea-saga as our hero stands ‘Alone against A.I.M.!’: a thrilling roller-coaster ride supplemented by ‘The Origin of Iron Man’ offering a revitalised re-telling to conclude Colan’s long and impressive tenure on the character.

Supplementing and counterpointing the ongoing graphic dramas herein are a stunning selection of original art pages and covers by Colan from the stories in this volume and even a brace of Don Heck pages from the previous Marvel Masterworks edition…

Despite some rough narrative patches this is a fantastic period in the Golden Gladiator’s career: one immaculately envisioned by Gene Colan and perfectly encapsulating the vast changes Marvel and America went through at the time. These unmissable tales of a true comics icon are some of the best and most memorable efforts of a simply transformative era and no Fights ‘n’ Tights fanatic can afford to be without them.
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos Masterworks volume 2

By Stan Lee & Dick Ayers, with George Roussos, Steve Ditko, Frank Giacoia, Vince Colletta, Chic Stone, Carl Hubbell & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2928-8 (HB)

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos began as an improbable, decidedly over-the-top and raucous WWII combat comics series similar in tone to later ensemble action movies such as The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch and The Dirty Dozen. The surly squad of sorry reprobates premiered in May 1963, one of three teams concocted by men-on-fire Jack Kirby & Stan Lee to secure fledgling Marvel’s growing position as a publisher to watch.

Two years later Fury’s post-war self was retooled as the big-name star of a second series (beginning with Strange Tales #135, August 1965) when espionage shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the 007 film franchise became global sensations.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tensions with sinister schemes of World Domination by subversive all-encompassing hidden enemy organisations: with captivating super-science gadgetry and iconic imagineering from Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko.

For all that time, however, the original wartime version soldiered on (sorry: puns are my weapon of choice), blending a uniquely flamboyant house-bravado style and often ludicrous, implausible, historically inaccurate, all-action bombast with moments of genuine heartbreak, unbridled passion and seething emotion.

Sgt. Fury started out as a pure Kirby creation. As with all his various combat comics, The King made everything look harsh and real and appalling: the people and places all grimy, tired, battered yet indomitable.

The artist had served in some of the worst battles of the war and never forgot the horrific and heroic things he saw – and more graphically expressed in his efforts during the 1950s genre boom at a number of different companies. However, even at kid-friendly, Comics Code-sanitised Marvel, those experiences perpetually leaked through onto his powerfully gripping pages.

Kirby was – unfortunately – far too valuable a resource to squander on a simple war comic (or indeed the X-Men and Avengers: the other series launched in that tripartite blitz on kids spending money) and quickly moved on leaving redoubtable fellow veteran Dick Ayers to illuminate later stories, which he did for almost the entire run of the series (95 issues and Annuals) until its transition to a reprint title with #121 (July 1974). The title then carried on until its ultimate demise in December 1981 with #167.

Following an enticing and revelatory reminiscence from Ayers in his Introduction, this second hardback and eBook compendium re-presents the contents of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #14-23 and the first Annual (collectively spanning January to October 1965) opening with a Lee scripted, George Roussos/Bell inked milestone as harassed Adolf Hitler decrees the creation of a Nazi answer to Fury’s elite attack force.

All ‘The Blitzkrieg Squad of Baron Strucker!’ had to do was lure the Howlers to a V2 rocket base and spring their trap… Yeah, that was all…

Regular supplemental feature Weapons of War then provides all the gen on the ‘B-26 Martin Marauder’ to inform and entertain in equal amounts.

Steve Ditko stepped in to ink Ayers in issue #15 as ‘Too Small to Fight, Too Young to Die’ related an ill-fated mission in Holland to destroy the dykes and flood the occupation forces. The job soon goes drastically wrong and the Howlers “flee” back to Britain with nothing but a broken-hearted boy named Hans Rooten – who had no idea that his despised quisling father was in fact the Allies’ top spy in the region…

The boy is adopted as the Howlers’ plucky mascot but can’t accompany them when the squad is despatched to Africa in #16 to eradicate yet more Nazi super-weapons in ‘A Fortress in the Desert Stands!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia using the pseudonym Frankie Ray). From there it’s only a short camel-ride south until the ragtag rovers encounter spear-wielding natives and nasty Nazis engaged in a battle of Hearts & Minds ‘While the Jungle Sleeps!’ (by Lee, Ayers & Vince Colletta).

All this time the chalk-and-cheese romantic relationship between Nick and English aristocrat Lady Pamela Hawley had been developing to the point where the Yankee lout was ready to propose. That all ends in #18 when, whilst the unit is busy sinking a German battleship in a Norwegian port, she is ‘Killed in Action!’ (Chic Stone inks).

Crushed and crazy, Fury goes AWOL in the next issue, remorselessly hunting down the leader of the bomber flight which had targeted the hospital she worked in before extracting ‘An Eye for an Eye!’ in a satisfyingly shocking Stan Lee story sensitively rendered by Ayers & Giacoia. The Howlers go along for the ride, but whether to help their leader or hold him back is debatable…

A far grimmer Fury is still in the mood for cathartic carnage in #20, so when ‘The Blitz Squad Strikes!’ features the German Kommandos invading a Scottish castle filled with imprisoned Nazi airmen, he and the Howlers are more than delighted to lead the sortie to retake it.

In the next issue the long-running rivalry with First Attack Squad; Baker Company again results in frantic fisticuffs before being interrupted by another last-ditch rescue mission in Czechoslovakia ‘To Free a Hostage!’ (inked by Golden Age legend Carl Hubbell, as was the next issue).

However, even after Allied scientist and captive daughter are reunited, the bubbling beef with B Company doesn’t diminish and when both units are subsequently sent to sabotage the oil refinery at Ploesti the defending forces capture everybody. However, after the gloating Nazis try making Fury and his opposite number to kill each they quickly learn ‘Don’t Turn Your Back on Bull McGiveney!’ and even Strucker’s Blitz Squad can’t contain the devastating destruction that follows…

The final WWII exploit contained herein is the Giacoia-inked saga of ‘The Man Who Failed!’, wherein a rescue jaunt to Burma to save nuns and orphans results in shameful revelations from English Howler Percy Pinkerton’s past: simultaneously supplying close insight into why our True Brit upper lips are so stiff…

This combat compendium then concludes with the 15-page lead story from Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos King Size Annual #1 (1965) as the post-war Howlers are called up and mustered to the 38th Parallel to defend democracy from Communist aggression. This particular escapade sees them rescuing former Commanding Officer Colonel Sam Sawyer and results in Fury winning a battlefield ‘Commission in Korea!’ to at last become a Lieutenant in a rousing romp by Lee, Ayers & Giacoia. Also extracted from that that might special are pictorial features ‘A Re-introduction to the Howlers’; ‘A Birds Eye View of HQ, Able Company – Fury’s Base in Britain’; ‘Plane’s-Eye View of Base Tactical Area, Sub-Pen, Dock and Air-Strip!’ and ‘Combat Arm and Hand Signals’ before a 2-page house ad feature for the hero’s super-spy iteration as ‘Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ wraps everything up in Marvel’s military fashion.

Whereas close rival DC increasingly abandoned the Death or Glory bombast at this time in favour of humanistic, almost anti-war explorations of war and soldiering, Marvel’s take always favoured action-entertainment and fantasy over soul-searching for ultimate truths. On that level at least, these early epics are stunningly effective and galvanically powerful exhibitions of the genre.

Just don’t use them for history homework.
© 1965, 2017 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 10

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia, John Romita, Ron Frenz, John Verpoorten & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2061-2 (HB)                    : 978-0-7851-8839-1 (TPB)

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

In eight short years FF meteorically grew into the indisputable core-title and most consistently groundbreaking series of Marvel’s ever-unfolding web of cosmic creation: bombarding readers with a ceaseless salvo of new concepts and characters at a time when Kirby was in his conceptual prime and continually unfettering his vast imagination on plot after spectacular plot. Clearly inspired, Stan Lee scripted some of the most memorable superhero sagas Marvel – or any publisher, for that matter – had or has ever seen.

Both were on an unstoppable roll, at the height of their creative powers, and full of the confidence that only success brings, with The King particularly eager to see how far the genre and the medium could be pushed…

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

This epic and extras-packed tome covers the final days of the King’s reign on Marvel’s flagship title and encompasses the shaky start of a new era, covering Fantastic Four #94-104 (January to November 1970), plus diverse bonus treats including Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure – a rejected, recovered, recycled tale to delight all aficionados and only finally released in April 2008.

Four Those Who Came in Late: As seen in that unforgettable premier issue, maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm – with Sue’s tag-along teenaged brother Johnny – survived an ill-starred private space-shot after Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and the kid could turn into living flame, but poor, tragic Ben horrifically devolved into a shambling, rocky freak…

Following another frothy, backward-looking Lee Introduction, the magic resumes with Joe Sinnott inking Fantastic Four #94, launching a string of single-issue stories via the doom-laden debut of eldritch babysitter/governess Agatha Harkness in ‘The Return of the Frightful Four!’ The recalcitrant rogues make a major mistake believing they could catch the FF off-guard by attacking when the heroes are interviewing a new nanny for the latest addition to the Fantastic Family…

At a time when superhero sales were in a slump and magical mystery themes resurgently returned, this rollercoaster ride of action, battle and suspense is most significant for finally giving Sue and Reed’s baby a name – Franklin Benjamin Richards – after literally years of shilly-shallying…

The Monocle was a technological super-assassin determined to trigger global nuclear Armageddon in #95’s ‘Tomorrow… World War Three!’ – in the middle of which Johnny’s Inhuman girlfriend Crystal is astoundingly abducted by her own family – before ‘The Mad Thinker and his Androids of Death!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) once again ambush the team and yet more prove no match for the fab foursome…

A tense and moody episode further cashing in on the growing trend for creepy creatures and supernatural shenanigans manifests as ‘The Monster from the Lost Lagoon!’ in #97, offering a decidedly different take on the horror-movies it gloriously homaged as the First Family try to combine a quick tropical vacation with a little rumour-busting sea-beastie hunt…

Both Sinnott and the robotic Sentry Sinister return in #98’s turbulently-topical ‘Mystery on the Moon!’ as the global fervour over the first lunar landing in 1969 (conveniently forgetting, of course, the FF’s own numerous visits to our satellite beginning with issue #13) results in a cracking yarn wherein the team savagely stymie the intergalactic Kree Empire from sabotaging mankind’s first steps into space.

In FF #99 heartsick Johnny Storm at last snaps, invading the hidden home of the Inhumans. His intent is to reunite with his lost love at all costs, but of course tempers fray, everything escalates and ‘The Torch Goes Wild!’

With a restored Crystal happily in tow, the 100th anniversary adventure features a daft, extremely rushed but nonetheless spectacular all-out battle against robotic replicas of their greatest enemies in ‘The Long Journey Home!’

With the anniversary cataclysmically concluded, issue #101 provides a far more intriguing imbroglio when dastardly criminal combine the Maggia buy the team’s skyscraper HQ in a cunning, quasi-legal ploy to appropriate Reed Richards’ scientific secrets, resulting in total ‘Bedlam in the Baxter Building!’

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

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

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

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

Romita and inker John Verpoorten took over the story in mid-flow, depicting an embattled America ‘At War with Atlantis!’ before malign Magneto inevitably turns on Namor, inspiring the Prince to ally with the Fantastic Four to prevent the mutant’s dream of ‘Our World… Enslaved!’

That was more or less the end. Romita drew a couple more issues and eventually John Buscema took up the challenge, although a later issue baffled us fans by inexplicably pairing the new artist with a somehow returned Kirby…

Fantastic Four #108 contained ‘The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man!’, “reintroducing” a character never before seen by recycling portions of a near-complete but rejected Kirby tale modified with new sequences illustrated by Buscema and Romita. In the published story (not included in this volume) the mysterious Janus had tapped into the anti-matter power of the Negative Zone once and now “returned” to steal more by crashing through the portal in Reed’s lab. Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of extinction-event predator Annihilus, who had long sought entry into our life-rich universe…

The origins of that yarn are convoluted and circuitous but are eruditely explained by archivist John Morrow in his article ‘Fantastic Four #108: Kirby’s Way’, supplemented by (almost) the entire original story reproduced from photostats of Kirby’s pencils and published pages from #108.

In 2007 those fragments and Kirby’s story notes were used by Lee, Joe Sinnott and Ron Frenz to reconstruct the tales as the King drafted it. The result was ‘Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure’ which offered a glorious slice of times past as the team (circa 1970) tackled a seemingly schizophrenic super-villain in ‘The Menace of the Mega-Men!’

It doesn’t really fit anywhere into continuity but it is a superbly nostalgic rush for devotees of the classics…

Rounding out the Kirby Kommemorations are a selection of testimonials, recollections and retrospective reminiscences from past collaborators, including ‘Inspiration by Dick Ayers’; ‘On, and On! by Joe Sinnott’ and ‘The Fall of ‘61’ by Roy Thomas, complete with contemporary photos, before former Kirby assistant and associate Mark Evanier discusses ‘The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine’ and Greg Theakston offers one final assessment in ‘The Changing of the Guard’ closes down the show.

Did I say closes? Not quite; as this tome still finds room for a selection of unused covers, production art, house ads, creator biographies and a complete index of the dream team’s achievements in ‘The First One Hundred (And Two) Days: A Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four Lexicon’.

These are the stories which confirmed Jack Kirby as the absolute master of superhero storytelling and gave Marvel the impetus to overtake the decades-dominant DC. They’re also some of the very best comics ever produced and as thrilling and compulsive now as they ever were. This is a book no addict of graphic narratives can be without.
© 1970, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.