Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Marvel Masterworks volume 1


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dennis O’Neil, Roy Thomas, John Severin, Joe Sinnott, Don Heck, Howard Purcell, Ogden Whitney, John Buscema, Joe Sinnott, Jim Steranko & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2686-7 (HB)

Veteran war-hero and superspy Nick Fury debuted in Fantastic Four #21 (cover-dated December 1963): a grizzled, world-weary and cunning CIA Colonel at the periphery of the really big adventures in a fast-changing world.

What was odd about that? Well, the gruff, crudely capable combat everyman was already the star of the minor publisher’s only war comic, set twenty years earlier in (depending on whether you were American or European…) the beginning or middle of World War II.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos was an improbable, decidedly over-the-top and raucous combat comics series, similar in tone to later movies such as The Wild Bunch or The Dirty Dozen and had launched in May of that year.

Nevertheless, Fury’s latter-day self soon emerged as a big-name star once espionage yarns went global in the wake of popular TV sensations like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the elder iteration was given a second series beginning in Strange Tales #135 (cover-dated August 1965).

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tensions with sinister schemes of World Conquest by a subversive, all-encompassing, hidden enemy organisation. The unfolding saga came with captivating Kirby-designed super-science gadgetry and – eventually – iconic and game-changing imagineering from Jim Steranko, whose visually groundbreaking graphic narratives took the comics art form to a whole new level…

For those few brief years with Steranko in charge, the S.H.I.E.L.D. series was one of the best strips in America – if not the world – but when the writer/artist left just as the global spy-fad was fading, the whole concept faded into the background architecture of the Marvel Universe…

This astounding full-colour compendium (available in hardcover and digital editions) deals with the outrageous, groundbreaking, but still notionally wedded-to-mundane-reality iteration which set the scene.

Here Jack Kirby’s genius for graphic wizardry and gift for dramatic staging mixed with Stan Lee’s manic melodrama to create a tough and tense series which the new writers and veteran artists that followed turned into a non-stop riot of action and suspense, with Steranko’s late arrival only hinting at the magic to come…

These epic early days of spycraft encompass Strange Tales #135-153 and Tales of Suspense #78, collectively covering August 1965 to February 1967 and guaranteeing timeless thrills for lovers of adventure and intrigue.

Following a little history lesson from Kirby scholar John Morrow in his Introduction, the main event starts with ST #135 as the Human Torch solo feature is summarily replaced by Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. – which back then stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division

In the rocket-paced first episode, Fury is asked to volunteer for the most dangerous job in the world: leading a new counter-intelligence agency dedicated to stopping secretive subversive super-science organisation Hydra. With assassins dogging his every move, the Take-Charge Guy with the Can-Do Attitude quickly proves he is ‘The Man for the Job!’ in a potent twelve-page thriller from Lee, Kirby & Dick Ayers.

Even an artist and plotter of Kirby’s calibre couldn’t handle another strip at that busiest of times, so from the next issue “The King” cut back to laying out episodes, allowing a variety of superb draughtsmen to flesh out the adventures. Even so, there’s probably a stunning invention or cool concept on almost every page that follows…

‘Find Fury or Die!’ brought veteran draughtsman John Severin back to the company; pencilling and inking Kirby’s blueprints as the new Director becomes the target of incessant assassination attempts and we are introduced to masked maniac the Supreme Hydra

The tension ramps up for the next instalment as a number of contenders are introduced – any of whom might be the obscured overlord of evil – even as S.H.I.E.L.D. strives mightily but fails to stop Hydra launching its deadly Betatron Bomb in ‘The Prize is… Earth!’

Despite the restrictions of the Comics Code, these early S.H.I.E.L.D. stories were stark and grim and frequently carried a heavy body count. Four valiant agents died in quick succession in #137 and the next issue underscored the point in ‘Sometimes the Good Guys Lose!’ with further revelations of Hydra’s inner workings.

Fury and fellow Howling Commando war heroes Dum-Dum Dugan and Gabe Jones meanwhile played catch-up after Hydra assassins invade S.H.I.E.L.D.: almost eliminating Fury and munitions genius Tony Stark – the only man capable of destroying the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over the world. Although Nick saves the inventor, he is captured in the process…

Tortured by Hydra in #139’s ‘The Brave Die Hard!’ (with Joe Sinnott replacing Severin as finisher), Fury finds an unlikely ally in Laura Brown: Supreme Hydra’s daughter and a young woman bitterly opposed to her father’s megalomaniacal madness.

Even with only half a comicbook per month to tell a tale, creators didn’t hang around in those halcyon days and #140 promised ‘The End of Hydra!’ (by Don Heck & Sinnott over Kirby) as a S.H.I.E.L.D. squad invades the enemy’s inner sanctum to rescue the already-free-and-making-mayhem Fury. In the meantime, Stark travels into space to remove the Betratron Bomb with his robotic Braino-Saur system. The end result leaves Hydra temporarily headless…

Strange Tales #141 has Kirby return to full pencils (inked by Frank Giacoia pseudonymously moonlighting as Frank Ray) for the mop-up before ‘Operation: Brain Blast!’ introduces Mentallo – a renegade from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ESP division – who joins with technological savant the Fixer to attack the organisation as the first step in an ambitious scheme to rule the world.

The momentous raid begins in ‘Who Strikes at… S.H.I.E.L.D.?’ (illustrated by Kirby with Mike Demeo – AKA Esposito) with the deadly rogues hitting hard and fast: seizing and mind-controlling Fury before strapping him to a mini-H-bomb. With Howard Purcell & Esposito embellishing Kirby’s layouts, Dugan and the boys come blasting in ‘To Free a Brain Slave’ in #143…

A new and deadly threat emerges in #144 as ‘The Day of the Druid!’ as a mystic charlatan targets Fury and his agents with murderous flying techno-ovoids. Happily, new S.H.I.E.L.D. recruit Jasper Sitwell is on hand to augment the triumphant fightback in ‘Lo! The Eggs Shall Hatch!’ (finished by Heck & Esposito).

As Marvel continuity grew evermore interlinked, ‘Them!’ details a Captain America team-up for Fury in the first of the Star-Spangled Avenger’s many adventures as a (more-or-less) Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Taken from Tales of Suspense #78 (June 1966): scripted by Lee with Kirby full pencils and Giacoia inks, the story depicts the WWII wonders battling an artificial assassin with incredible chemical capabilities, after which Nick seeks the creature’s mysterious makers in Strange Tales #146, ‘When the Unliving Strike!’ (Kirby, Heck & Esposito).

Proclaiming themselves a technological Special Interests group, Advanced Idea Mechanics courts S.H.I.E.L.D.’s governmental and military masters, promising potent and incredible new weapons if only they sacked that barbaric slob Fury, but the surly supremo is getting close to exposing A.I.M.’s connection to “Them” and an old enemy thought long gone…

A concerted whispering campaign and “briefing-against” seemingly sees Fury ousted in ‘The Enemy Within!’ and put on trial in ‘Death Before Dishonor!’ (scripted by Kirby with Heck & Esposito finishing his layouts), but it’s all part of a cunning counter-plan which delivers a shattering conclusion and ‘The End of A.I.M.!’ in #149 (scripted by Denny O’Neil, with art by Kirby & Ogden Whitney).

Then, revealed by Lee, Kirby, John Buscema & Giacoia, a malign and devilishly subtle plan is finally exposed in Strange Tales #150 as Fury’s team puts together clues from all the year’s past clashes to come to one terrifying conclusion: ‘Hydra Lives!’

The shocking secret also hints at great events to come as newcomer Steranko assumes the finisher’s role over Lee & Kirby for ‘Overkill!’ with Fury targeted by the new Supreme Hydra who devises a cunning scheme to infiltrate America’s top security agency and use his enemy as the means of triggering global Armageddon…

Although the Good Guys seemingly thwart that scheme, ‘The Power of S.H.I.E.L.D.!’ is actually helpless to discern the villain’s real intent as this initial dossier of doom ends on a cliffhanger after ‘The Hiding Place!’ (ST #153 and scripted by Roy Thomas) closes with the arch villain comfortably ensconced in Fury’s inner circle and ready to destroy the organisation from within…

To Be Continued…

Although the S.H.I.E.L.D. saga stops here, there’s an added bonus still to enjoy: the aforementioned FF #21. This revealed Fury as a wily CIA agent seeking the team’s aid against a sinister demagogue called ‘The Hate-Monger’ (Lee & Kirby, inked by comics veteran George Roussos, under the protective nom-de-plume George Bell) just as the 1960s espionage vogue was taking off, inspired by James Bond films and TV shows like Danger Man.

Here Fury craftily manipulates Marvel’s First Family into invading a sovereign nation reeling in the throes of revolution in a yarn crackling with tension and action…

Fast, furious and fantastically entertaining, these high-octane vintage yarns are a superb snapshot of early Marvel Comics at their creative peak and should be part of every fanboy’s shelf of beloved favourites.

Don’t Yield! Back S.H.I.E.L.D.!
© 1965, 1966, 1967, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Sub-Mariner Marvel Masterworks volume 1


By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Wally Wood, Gene Colan, Jack Kirby, Bill Everett, Jerry Grandenetti & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-0875-7(HB)                      978-0-7851-5068-8 (TPB)

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.

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 limiting the number of titles they could release each month. In 1968 the company ended this commitment and expanded exponentially.

This first celebratory volume – available as a hardback, trade paperback and eBook – collects Tales to Astonish #70-87, Daredevil #7 and a crossover chapter from Tales of Suspense #80, spanning April 1965-January 1967 and opens with the now traditional Stan Lee Introduction.

Prior to the Tales to Astonish serial the Sub-Mariner had appeared in numerous established titles as guest villain du jour. One last guest shot with Namor acting as a misunderstood bad-guy was Daredevil #7 (April 1965) which kicks off proceedings here in spectacular style.

The tale is a perfect comicbook and a true landmark: to my mind one of the Top Ten Marvel Tales of all Time. Lee and creative legend Wally Wood concocted a timeless masterpiece with ‘In Mortal Combat with… Sub-Mariner!’ as Prince Namor of Atlantis – recently reunited with the survivors of his decimated race – returns to the surface world to sue mankind for their crimes against his people.

To expedite his claim, the Prince engages the services of Matt Murdock’s law firm; little suspecting the blind lawyer is also the acrobatic Man without Fear.

Whilst impatiently awaiting a hearing at the UN, Namor is informed by his lover Lady Dorma that his warlord, Krang, has usurped the throne in his absence. The tempestuous monarch cannot languish in a cell when the kingdom is threatened, so he fights his way to freedom through the streets of New York, smashing battalions of National Guard and the dauntless Daredevil with supreme ease.

The hopelessly one-sided battle with one of the strongest beings on the planet shows the dauntless courage of DD and the innate nobility of a “villain” far more complex than most of the industry’s usual fare at the time.

Augmented by a rejected Wood cover repurposed as ‘A Marvel Masterwork pin-up: Namor and D.D.’ this yarn is the perfect prequel and a few months later Tales to Astonish #70 heralded ‘The Start of the Quest!’ as Lee, Gene Colan (in the pseudonymous guise of Adam Austin) & Vince Colletta set the Sub-Mariner to storming an Atlantis under martial law. The effort is for naught and the returning hero is rejected by his own people. Callously imprisoned, the troubled Prince is freed by the oft-neglected and ignored Lady Dorma…

As the pompous hero begins a mystical quest to find the lost Trident of King Neptune – which only the rightful ruler of Atlantis can hold – he is unaware that the treacherous Krang allowed him to escape, the better to destroy him with no witnesses…

The serialised search carries Namor through a procession of fantastic adventures and pits him against a spectacular array of sub-sea horrors: a giant octopus in ‘Escape… to Nowhere’; a colossal seaweed man in ‘A Prince There Was’ and a demented wizard and energy-sapping diamonds in ‘By Force of Arms!’

However, as the end approaches in ‘When Fails the Quest!’, revolution breaks out in Atlantis, and Namor seemingly sacrifices his kingdom to save Dorma from troglodytic demons the Faceless Ones.

In issue #75 ‘The End of the Quest’ finds the Prince battling his way back into Atlantis with a gravely-injured Dorma, before the saga concludes in ‘Uneasy Hangs the Head…!’ as the status quo is restored and Namor finally regains his stolen throne. Back in charge, the Prince once more turns his thoughts to peace with the surface world and resolves ‘To Walk Amongst Men!’, but his mission is derailed when he encounters a deep-sea drilling platform and promptly finds himself battling the US military and retired Avengers Henry Pym and Janet Van Dyne.

That fracas was abruptly curtailed in #78’s ‘The Prince and the Puppet’ as an old adversary once again seizes control of the amphibian’s fragile mind…

Inked by the brilliant Bill Everett, ‘When Rises the Behemoth’ has Namor struggling against the Puppet Master’s psychic control and confronting the US Army in the streets of New York, before returning to clash with a cataclysmic doomsday monster in Atlantis. Dick Ayers stepped in to ink the tense conclusion in #80’s ‘To the Death!’, wherein Warlord Krang returns, blackmailing Dorma into betraying her beloved Prince…

Heartbroken and furious, Namor follows them to New York in ‘When a Monarch Goes Mad!’ (TTA#81): a violent melodrama that crossed over into the Iron Man feature in sister title Tales of Suspense #80.

‘When Fall the Mighty!’ (Lee, Colan & Jack Abel, using the pen-name Gary Michaels) offered a spectacular combat classic which only gets more incredible as it continues into Tales to Astonish #82.

Colan was a spectacular illustrator, but no one could ever match Jack Kirby for bombastic battle scenes, and when the former contracted flu after delivering two pages The King stepped in to produce some of the finest action-art of his entire Marvel career, fully displaying ‘The Power of Iron Man’, with neophyte scribe Roy Thomas supplying the fractious dialogue…

Kirby stayed on for #83’s ‘The Sub-Mariner Strikes!’ wherein the enraged prince finally catches Krang and Dorma, only to once again lose his memory and become the pawn of would-be world-conqueror Number 1 of the Secret Empire in ‘Like a Beast at Bay!’ (Colan & Ayers).

The embattled monarch regains his senses just in time to terrorise a New York already reeling from the Incredible Hulk’s mindless depredations in ‘…And One Shall Die!’ (inked again by Everett) before ‘The Wrath of Warlord Krang!’ (Lee, Jerry Grandenetti & Everett) results in the metropolis being inundated by an artificial tsunami.

Naturally blamed for the catastrophe, Namor faces a ‘Moment of Truth’ as he finally deals with Krang and reconciles with Dorma: a conclusion made doubly delightful as Wild Bill Everett at last took full artistic charge of his greatest creation…

Supplemented with House ads, a full cover gallery and creator biographies, this assemblage of 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.

Perhaps more vicarious thrill than fan’s delight, 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 irresistible.
© 1965, 1966, 1967, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Incredible Hulk Marvel Masterworks volume 3


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Gary Friedrich, Marie Severin, Bill Everett, John Buscema, Gil Kane, Jerry Grandenetti & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6762-4 (TPB)

Bruce Banner was a military scientist who was caught in a gamma bomb blast. 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.

Spanning June 1966 to April 1968, this trade paperback (and eBook) volume covers his years as co-star of Tales to Astonish – specifically issues #80-101 – and includes the first issue of his well-deserved new solo vehicle Incredible Hulk #102.

Following an Introduction by Stan Lee the saga resumes with TtA #80 as the Jade Juggernaut is dragged into an under-earth civil war after not-so-immortal old enemy Tyrannus resurfaces in ‘They Dwell in the Depths!’

Seeing the rampaging Hulk as a weapon of last resort in a bitter war against the Mole Man, the toppled tyrant abducts the emerald brute to Subterranea, but still loses his last bombastic battle. When Hulk returns topside, he promptly shambles into a plot by the insidious Secret Empire in #81’s ‘The Stage is Set!’

The convoluted mini-epic spread into a number of other Marvel series, especially Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Sub-Mariner (who was at that time sharing Tales to Astonish with Ol’ Greenskin).

Here, however, the Hulk is targeted by the Empire’s hired gun Boomerang as they strive to steal the military’s new Orion missile…

As the epic unfolds ‘The Battle Cry of the Boomerang’, ‘Less then Monster, More than Man!’, and ‘Rampage in the City!’ weave potent strands of sub-plot into a gripping mosaic which indicated to the evolving reader just how close-knit the Marvel Universe was becoming.

Obviously, such tight coordination between series caused a few problems as art for the final episode is credited to “almost the whole blamed Bullpen” (which to my jaded eyes is mostly Jerry Grandenetti). During that climactic clash the Hulk marauds through the streets of New York City in what I can’t help but feel is a padded, unplanned conclusion…

Everything’s back on track with #85 however, as John Buscema & John Tartaglione step in to illustrate ‘The Missile and the Monster!’ with yet another seditious spy diverting the experimental Orion rocket directly onto the city. The obvious stylistic discomfort the realism-heavy Buscema experienced with the Hulk’s appearance has mostly faded by second chapter ‘The Birth of… the Hulk-Killer!’, although the return to the strip of veteran inker Mike Esposito also helps.

As obsessed Hulk-hunter and fiery US General “Thunderbolt” Ross foolishly deploys a weapon designed by gamma genius The Leader to capture the Grim Green Giant, the old soldier has no inkling what his rash act will lead to, nor that Boomerang is lurking behind the scenes to make things even hotter for the Hulk…

Issue #87’s concluding episode ‘The Humanoid and the Hero!’ depicts Ross’ regret as the Hulk-Killer abruptly expands his remit to include everybody in his path and Gil Kane takes up the green pencil for #88 as ‘Boomerang and the Brute’ shows both the assassin and the Hulk’s savage power uniformly unleashed…

Tales to Astonish #89 once more sees the Hulk become an unwilling weapon as a nigh-omnipotent alien subverts and sets him to purging humanity from the Earth.

‘…Then, There Shall Come a Stranger!’, ‘The Abomination!’ and ‘Whosoever Harms the Hulk…!’ comprise a taut and evocative thriller-trilogy which also includes the origin of the malevolent Hulk-counterpart who would play such a large part in later tales of the ill-fated Bruce Banner.

A new narrative tone comes with ‘Turning Point!’ (TtA #92, June 1967, by the superb and criminally underrated Marie Severin & inker Frank Giacoia), depicting the Gamma Giant hunted through a terrified, locked-down New York City as a prelude to a cataclysmic guest-battle in the next issue.

Back then, the Hulk didn’t really team-up with visiting stars, he just got mad and smashed them. Such was certainly the case when he became ‘He Who Strikes the Silver Surfer!’; ironically battling with and driving off a fellow outcast who held the power to cure him of his atomic affliction…

Herb Trimpe, associated with the character for nearly a decade, began his tenure as Severin’s inker with #94’s ‘To the Beckoning Stars!’: the initial instalment of a terrific 3-part shocker which saw the Hulk transported to the interstellar retreat of the High Evolutionary to futilely battle against recidivist beast-men on ‘A World He Never Made!’, before escaping a feral bloodbath in #96’s ‘What Have I Created?’.

Returned to Earth by the now god-like Evolutionary, the Hulk was gearing up to the next being change in his life.

Returned to Earth, the Green Goliath fell into a high-tech plot to overthrow America in ‘The Legions of: the Living Lightning!’, but the subversives’ beguilement of the monstrous outcast and conquest of a US military base in ‘The Puppet and the Power’ soon faltered and failed ‘When the Monster Wakes!’: his last inked by John Tartaglione.

Tales to Astonish was an anthological “split-book”, with two star-features sharing billing: a strategy caused by Marvel’s having entered into a highly restrictive distribution deal to save the company during a publishing crisis at the end of the 1950s.

At the time when the Marvel Age Revolution took fandom by storm, the company was confined to a release schedule of 16 titles each month, necessitating some doubling-up as characters became popular enough to carry their own strip. Fellow misunderstood misanthrope the Sub-Mariner had proved an ideal thematic companion since issue #70, and to celebrate the centenary of the title, issue #100 featured a breathtaking “who’s strongest?” clash between the blockbusting anti-heroes as the Puppet Master decreed ‘Let There be Battle!’ and Lee, Severin & Dan Adkins made it so.

The next issue was the last. With number #102 the comic would be redesignated The Incredible Hulk and the character’s success was assured. Before that, however, Lee, Severin & Giacoia set the scene with ‘Where Walk the Immortals!’ as Loki, Norse god of Evil transported the monster to Asgard in an effort to distract all-father Odin’s attention from his other schemes.

The premiere issue (#102) of The Incredible Hulk launched with an April, 1968 cover-date.

‘…This World Not His Own!’ included a rehashed origin for the Hulk and completed and concluded the Asgardian adventure with a troll invasion of Asgard with arch-villains Enchantress and the Executioner leading the charge. The issue was written by rising star Gary Friedrich, drawn by Severin and inked by veteran artist George Tuska. It was only the start of a big, bold and brutally enthralling things to come…

To Be Continued…

Adding even more lustre and appeal to this tome is a selection of original art covers by Everett, Kane and Severin…

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, and even at their most hurried, the efforts of Kirby, Everett, Kane, Buscema, Severin and the rest in full-on, butt-kicking, “breaking-stuff” mode is a thrill to delight the destructive eight-year-old in everyone.

Hulk Smash(ing)!
© 1966, 1967, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Golden Age Marvel Comics Marvel Masterworks volume 1


By Carl Burgos, Bill Everett, Paul Gustavson, Ben Thompson & others (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1609-7 (HB)                    978-0-7851-5052-7 (TPB)

Die-hard fans craving a look at previously inaccessible vintage comics material have never had it so good. When I was young (not quite twenty minutes after the Golden Age actually ended), superhero and other genre stories from the dawn of the industry were all but impossible to find and a comprehensive scheme of reprinting old stuff a very low priority for even big publishers like DC and Marvel

These days a vast percentage of 1930, 1940s and 1950s comics output from many still-existing and bygone outfits is readily readable: either in expensive print compilations or more accessible digital editions.

DC led the way in the early 1990s, but soon after a great deal of Marvel Comics’ Timely and Atlas material joined the collective pool, and the notion that old stuff is not to modern tastes was finally disproved. For years accepted wisdom had decreed that most Golden Age stories were too dated and quite often painfully strident – maybe even offensive to 21st century eyes and sensibilities.

Nevertheless, many like me would rather have the raw historical form rather than any bowdlerised or censored reworking and even in their most jingoistic and populist excesses there are usually individual nuggets of gold amidst the shocking or – horror of horrors – badly crafted yarns from the art form’s sensationalistic antediluvian antecedents.

Marvel took quite some time before producing expensive deluxe volumes featuring their earliest comic adventures and this collection of the first four issues of the anthology title which started it all for Timely/Marvel/Red Circle/Atlas (before eventually and inevitably settling on Marvel Comics), despite re-presenting some of the most revered adventures of the Golden Age, clearly shows why.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh and hyper-critical: I have to admit that there’s a lot of stuff here that I spent much of my early life lusting after. I am however a total comics nut with broad tastes and mutable standards. There are shameful horrors and truly pitiful examples of the medium lurking in my dusty comics boxes. I am not a new, casual or particularly discriminating punter.

Hi – my name is Win and I’m addicted to old comics…

After a rather shaky start and inauspicious in 1936, the fledgling comicbook industry was saved by the invention of Superman. His iconic innovation created a new popular genre and paved the way for explosive expansion.

By 1939 the new kids on the block were in a frantic flurry of creative frenzy with every publisher trying to make and own the Next Big Thing. Martin Goodman’s pulp fiction outfit leapt into the turbulent marketplace and scored big with their initial offering Marvel Comics: released late in the year before inexplicably switching to the marginally less euphonious Marvel Mystery Comics with the second issue.

During those early days, novel ideas, raw ambition and sheer exuberance could take you far and, as most alternative means of entertainment escapism for kids were severely limited, it just wasn’t that hard to make a go of it as a comicbook publisher. Combine that with a creative work-force which kept being drafted, and it’s clear to see why low and declining standards of story and art didn’t greatly affect month-to-month sales during the years of World War II.

However, once hostilities ceased a cascade-decline in super-hero strips began almost as soon as GI boots hit US soil again. Those innocent kids had seen a lot and wanted something more than brashness, naivety and breakneck pace from their funnybooks now…

Both the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner quickly won favour with the burgeoning, fickle readership, but the remaining characters were soon acknowledged to be B-listers and thus subject to immediate replacement once a better idea presented itself. Still, two out of seven was pretty good: Action and Detective Comics only had the one super-star apiece at the outset…

Another holdover from the pre-comics, pulp fiction phase of the company was a predilection to treat instalments as serial chapters; always promising more and better if you’d just come back next month…

Before the year was out Timely’s “Big Two” would clash; frequently and repeatedly battling like elemental gods in the skies above Manhattan…

Goodman apparently favoured Ka-Zar and The Angel: both characters that devolved from his own stable of pulp genre stars. Sadly, neither the generic jungle adventures of the company’s premiere Tarzan knockoff or the thud-and-blunder crimebusting rogue’s potboilers – which owed so much to Leslie Charteris’ iconic dark knight the Saint – just didn’t appeal to kids as much as the spectacular graphic histrionics of the anarchic Fire and Water anti-heroes…

An editorial policy of rapid expansion was quickly adopted: release a new book filled with whatever the art and script monkeys of the comics “shop” (freelance creative types who packaged material on spec for publishing houses: Martin Goodman bought all his product from Lloyd Jacquet’s Funnies Inc.) dreamed up, keep the popular hits and disregard everything else.

Timely Comics, or Red Circle as the company occasionally called itself, enjoyed a huge turnover of characters who only made one or two appearances before vanishing, never to be seen again until variously modern revivals or recreations produced new improved versions of characters such as Angel, Ka-Zar or Electro.

This volume – available in hardback, softcover and eBook editions – kicks into high gear following a knowledgeable and informative scene-setting introduction by Golden Age Guru Roy Thomas.

The landmark Marvel Comics #1 sported a cover by pulp illustrator Frank R. Paul, and after spot gag page ‘Now I’ll Tell One’ (by “Ed Wood” – AKA Fred Schwab) introduces to the gasping populace Carl Burgos’ landmark conception of ‘The Human Torch’

The Fiery Fury led off a parade of wonderment, bursting into life as a malfunctioning humanoid devised by Professor Phineas Horton. Igniting into an uncontrollable blazing fireball whenever exposed to air, the artificial innocent was consigned to entombment in concrete but escaped to accidentally imperil the metropolis until it/he fell into the hands of a gangster named Sardo.

When the crook’s attempts to use the gullible android as a terror weapon dramatically backfire, the hapless newborn is left a misunderstood fugitive, like a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster. Even his creator only sees the humanoid as a means of making filthy money…

Crafted by Paul Gustavson, the opening episode of ‘The Angel’ owed a criminally large debt to the 1938 Louis Hayward film The Saint in New York. Although dressed like a superhero, the globe-trotting do-gooder offered a blending of Charteris’s iconic well-intentioned scoundrel and The Lone Wolf (Louis Vance’s urbane two-fisted hero who was the subject of 8 books and 24 B-movies between 1917 and 1949).

However, the four-colour paladin’s foes soon tended towards only the spooky, the ghoulish and the just plain demented….

He also seemed able to cast giant shadows in the shape of an angel. Not the greatest aid to cleaning up the scum of the Earth, but he seemed to manage in this initial enterprise where he is tasked with cleaning up New York’s gang problems before suffering the deadly depredations of the crime syndicate dubbed ‘the Six Big Men’

Bill Everett’s ‘The Sub-Mariner’ was actually an expanded reprint of a beautiful black-&-white strip from Motion Picture Funnies. Prince Namor was the scion of an aquatic race living under the South Pole. These advanced mer-folk had been decimated by American mineral exploration a generation previously, and the Sub-Mariner’s mother Fen had been dispatched to spy upon the invaders. She had gotten too close, falling pregnant by one of the interlopers, and twenty years later her hybrid son was an amphibious mutant superman determined to exact revenge on the air-breathers – which he promptly began by attacking New York City…

Cowboy Jim Gardley was framed by ruthless cattle-baron Cal Brunder and found the only way to secure a measure of justice was to become ‘The Masked Raider’: dispensing six-gun law. Al Anders’ Lone Ranger riff was competent but uninspired, lasting until the 12th issue of Marvel Mystery.

Offering a complete adventure, ‘Jungle Terror’ by Tomm Dixon (aka Art Panajian) follows gentlemen explorers Ken Masters and Tim Roberts (visually patterned on Caniff’s Pat Ryan and Terry Lee) battling savages in the Amazon to find cursed diamonds, after which a brief prose vignette – a staple of early comics – recounted Ray Gill’s racing car drama of ‘Burning Rubber’ before the aforementioned ‘Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great’ saw Ben Thompson adroitly and serially adapt Bob Byrd’s pulp novel King of Fang and Claw to strip form.

In the first chapter, South African diamond miner John Rand and his wife crash their plane into the Belgian Congo where their son David grows up amidst jungle splendour to become brother to King of Lions Zar.

An idyllic life is only marred years later when murderous explorer Paul De Kraft kills old John, leaving young David to seek vengeance…

Behind a Charles J. Mazoujian Angel cover, the abruptly re-titled Marvel Mystery Comics #2 (December 1939) again offered ‘The Human Torch’ by Burgos, wherein the fiery fugitive has attained a degree of sophistication and control before stumbling onto a murderous racing car racket. Here gangster Blackie Ross ensures his drivers always win by strafing all other contestants from an airplane, until the big-hearted, outraged Torch steps in…

Gustavson then despatched ‘The Angel’ to Hong Kong to prevent museum researcher Jane Framan falling victim to a curse when the perils of the Lost Temple of Alano prove to be caused by greedy men, not magical spirits.

‘The Sub-Mariner’ himself is the threat in Everett’s second chapter, as the Marine Marvel goes berserk in a city powerhouse before showing his true colours by chivalrously saving a pretty girl caught in the ensuing conflagration.

Anders’ ‘Masked Raider’ then breaks up an entire lost town of outlaws, after which the debuting ‘American Ace’ (by Paul Lauretta and clearly based on Roy Crane’s soldier of fortune Wash Tubbs) finds Yankee aviator Perry Wade flying straight into danger when the woman who caused the Great War returns to start WWII by attacking innocent European nations with her hidden armies…

‘The Angel’ stars in an implausible, jingoistic prose yarn (by David C. Cooke illustrated by Mazoujian), single-handedly downing a strafing ‘Death-Bird Squadron’ before Thompson introduced fresh horrors – including a marauding, malicious ape named Chaka to plague young David in more ‘Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great’.

The issue closes with more gag pages: ‘All in Fun’ by Ed Wood and ‘Looney Laffs’ from Thompson.

Cover-dated January 1940 and sporting an Angel cover by Alex Schomburg, Marvel Mystery Comics #3) saw ‘The Human Torch’ slowly evolving into what we’d recognise as a superhero series as he battles a ruthless entrepreneur trying to secure the formula for a super-explosive that he can sell to Martian invaders, whilst ‘The Angel’ confronts a bloodthirsty death-cult sacrificing young women, even as ‘The Sub-Mariner’ takes a huge leap in dramatic quality after policewoman Betty Dean entices, entraps and successfully reasons with the intractably belligerent sub-sea invader.

With global war looming ever closer, opinions and themes were constantly shifting and Everett reacted brilliantly by turning Namor into a protector of all civilians at sea: spectacularly preying on any war-like nation sinking innocent shipping.

Naturally, even before America officially joined the fray, that meant primarily Nazis got their subs and destroyers demolished at the antihero’s sinewy hands…

When gold and oil are discovered under ranch land, ‘The Masked Raider’ steps in to stop greedy killers from driving off the settlers in a timeless tale of western justice, but current events overtook the ‘American Ace’, who faded out after this tale of Blitzkrieg bombings in a picturesque Ruritanian nation.

Even Cooke & Everett’s text thriller ‘Siegfried Suicide’ was naming and shaming the Axis directly in a yarn where a lone Yank saves some French soldiers from German atrocity, before neutrality resumes as, under African skies, the ‘Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great’ sees the boy hero rescue his animal friends from a well-meaning zoo hunter in a tale revealing hints of a Jungle Book style congress of animals…

The final inclusion in this volume – Marvel Mystery Comics #4, February 1940 – opens with a Schomburg cover depicting Sub-Mariner smashing a Nazi U-Boat before another inflammatory Burgos ‘Human Torch’ epic has the android create a secret identity as Jim Hammond and return to New York to clash with a criminal genius terrorising the city using warriors cloaked in deadly, sub-zero ‘Green Flame’

‘The Angel’ too is back in the Big Apple, grappling with a small-time hood who manipulates a monstrous hyper-thyroid case named ‘Butch the Giant’. Impervious to pain and able to punch through brick walls his slavish meal ticket is eventually overcome, after which ‘The Sub-Mariner Goes to War’ when the passionate Prince returns to his Polar people to rally them and their advanced technology into a taskforce to enforce his Pax Namor upon the surface world’s assorted war mongers…

Even by its own low standards ‘The Masked Raider’ tale of claim-jumping is far from exemplary, but prose crime puzzler ‘Warning Enough’ (by Cooke & Harry Ramsey) is a genuinely enthralling change of pace tale.

Rendered by Steve Dahlman, ‘Electro, the Marvel of the Age’ introduces brilliant Professor Philo Zog who constructs an all-purpose wonder robot and forms an international secret society of undercover operatives who seek out uncanny crimes and great injustices for the automaton to fix. The first case involves retrieving a kidnapped child actress…

Another debut is ‘Ferret, Mystery Detective’ by Stockbridge Winslow (Bob Davis) & Irwin Hasen, following the eponymous crime-writer and his faithful assistants as they solve the case of a corpse dropped on the authors doorstep…

Proceedings then culminate with the increasingly impressive ‘Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great’ as the despised De Kraft returns to face the beginning (but not the end: that’s frustratingly left to the next issue and volume) of the jungle lord’s just vengeance…

Despite all the problems I’ve whinged about, I’m constantly delighted with this substantial chronicle, warts and all, but I can fully understand why anyone other than a life-long comics or Marvel fan might baulk at the steep price-tag in these days of grim austerity, with a wealth of better quality and more highly regarded comics collections available.

Nevertheless, value is one thing and worth another, and the sheer vibrantly ingenious rollercoaster rush and vitality of these tales, even more than any historical merit, is just so intoxicating that if you like this sort of thing you’ll love this sort of thing.

If anything could convince the undecided to take a look, later editions of this tome also include numerous tantalising house ads of the period and a full colour cover gallery of Marvel Mystery Comics’ pulp predecessors: Marvel Science Stories, Marvel Tales, Marvel Stories, Ka-Zar, The Anger Detective, Uncanny Tales, Mystery Tales, Dynamic Science Stories and Star Detective Magazine by illustrators Norman Saunders, Frank R. Paul, H. W. Wesso and John W. Scott.

Upping the ante, further bonuses comprise the second print cover of Marvel Comics #1, a sample of Norman Saunders’ original painted art; Everett Sub-Mariner pages and unused cover roughs; a Mazoujian Angel pencilled cover reworked into the never-printed Zephyr Comics Ashcan cover and a Burgos watercolour sketch offering a partial redesign of the Human Torch.

Although probably not to the tastes of modern fans, for devotees of super-heroes, aficionados of historical works and true Marvel Zombies there’s still lots to offer here.

As always, in the end, it’s up to you…
© 1939, 1940, 2004, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 9


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1846-6 (HB)                    : 978-0-7851-6760-0 (PB)

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 became the indisputable central 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 unleashing his vast imagination on plot after spectacular plot. Clearly inspired, Stan Lee scripted some of the most passionate superhero sagas that 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.

This full-colour compendium – available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions – gathers Fantastic Four #82-93: a rollercoaster ride of incredible imagination and passion spanning January to December 1969 with Stan & Jack riding a wave that no fan realised was imminently ending…

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 Lee Introduction, the magic resumes with Fantastic Four #82 as Susan Richards takes time off to tend her newborn son and Johnny’s Inhuman girlfriend Crystal steps in as her replacement. Before long, however, the substitute’s violent past reasserts itself as her mad cousin Maximus again attempts to conquer mortal humanity.

‘The Mark of… the Madman!’ (by Lee, Kirby & Joe Sinnott sees the quirky quartet invade hidden Inhuman enclave Attilan to aid of the imprisoned Royal Family and overcoming an entire race of subjugated super-beings before uniting to trounce the insane despot in ‘Shall Man Survive?’

All-out action then gives way – at least initially – to tense suspense for the start of a 4-part epic starring the team’s greatest foe. ‘His Name is Doom!’ finds Mr. Fantastic, the Human Torch, the Thing and Crystal making their home after failing to capture Maximus, only to be intercepted by Nick Fury and the super-spies of S.H.I.E.L.D. looking for a favour…

Steel-Shod Dictator Victor Von Doom has apparently devised unstoppable super-robots and Fury needs the FF to infiltrate the sovereign state of Latveria to ferret them out. However, it’s impossible to sneak up on the most paranoid man in the world and the heroes are easily intercepted and captured by the totalitarian tyrant’s security team.

‘Within This Tortured Land’ opens with them “guests” in Doom’s picturebook Ruritanian paradise, but even with their powers hypnotically cancelled out the valiant heroes soon discover the cruel iron within their velvet prison once the Monarch of Latveria begins testing his deadly “Doombots” on his own subjects.

When the automatons go berserk the entire postage-stamp kingdom is imperilled in ‘The Victims!’ and only the last-minute arrival of Invisible Girl Sue Richards allows the FF and the villagers to survive Doom’s cataclysmic failsafe plan.

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

Fantastic Four #88 focuses on the five champions back in the USA and looking at an unconventional new house found by the determinedly domesticated Sue in her perpetual quest to carve out a relatively normal life for her new – and still unnamed – son.

Regrettably the trendy, extremely isolated detached dwelling in ‘A House There Was!’ has been designed by the team’s oldest enemy and no sooner do they all move in than ‘The Madness of the Mole Man!’ turns the deadly domicile against them even as the maniac’s goal of turning the entire world blind and wiping out the extended heroic family entirely comes within inches of succeeding…

The Thing takes centre-stage in the extended epic which completes this potent tome, as he is targeted and kidnapped to another world when ‘The Skrull Takes a Slave!’ in #90. Abducted to fight in gladiatorial games on a colony world patterned after Earth’s 1920s gangster era, ‘The Thing… Enslaved!’ introduces rival Skrull mobs vying for planetary supremacy and a noble slave destined to slaughter our shanghaied champion.

‘Ben Grimm, Killer!’ then ramps up the tension as Ben Grimm and mechanoid marvel Torgo discover that their home-worlds are hostage to their fortune and ferocity in the arena…

Meanwhile Reed, Johnny and Crystal have not been idle. While Ben is at ‘The Mercy of Torgo!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) his Earthly brothers-in-arms are enacting a desperate plan to swoop in, save him and destroy the Skrulls planetary doom-weapon… a task undertaken and accomplished with great speed and in stunning style…

Added attractions here include the cover to the all-reprint Fantastic Four Annual #7, a contemporary photo-feature revealing each and every member of the burgeoning Marvel Bullpen, eight un-inked pencil pages from issues #89 and 90 plus the original cover art for FF #90 inked by Sinnott, a graphic bonanza no fan could resist.

These are the stories that confirmed Kirby as the absolute master of superhero storytelling and gave Marvel the push needed to overtake the decades-dominant DC. They’re also some of the very best comics ever produced and as addictively thrilling now as they ever were. This is a must-have book for all fans of Fights ‘n’ Tights graphic narrative.
© 1968, 1969, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain Marvel: Marvel Masterworks volume 2


By Roy Thomas, Arnold Drake, Gary Friedrich, Archie Goodwin, Gil Kane, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Frank Springer, Tom Sutton, John Buscema, Gene Colan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2430-6 (HB)

After more than a decade as an also-ran and occasional up-and-comer, by 1968 Marvel Comics was in the ascendant. Their sales were rapidly catching up with industry leaders National/DC Comics and Gold Key, and the House of Ideas had finally secured a new distribution deal allowing them to expand their list of titles exponentially.

Once the stars of “twin-books” Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish and Strange Tales all won their own titles, the new concepts just kept coming.

One dead-cert idea was a hero named for the company – and one with some popular cachet and nostalgic pedigree as well. After the DC/Fawcett court case of the 1940s-1950s, the name Captain Marvel had disappeared from the newsstands.

In 1967, during a superhero boom/camp craze generated by the Batman TV show, publisher MLF secured rights to the name and produced a number of giant-sized comics featuring an intelligent robot who (which?) could divide his body into segments and shoot lasers from his eyes.

Quirkily charming and devised by the legendary Carl (Human Torch) Burgos, the feature nevertheless did not attract a large following. On its demise, the name was quickly snapped up by the ever-expanding Marvel Comics Group.

Marvel Super-Heroes was a brand-new title: it had been the giant-sized reprint vehicle Fantasy Masterpieces, combining reprint monster and mystery tales with Golden Age Timely Comics mystery men classics, but with #12 it added an experimental section for characters without homes such as Medusa, Ka-Zar, Black Knight and Doctor Doom.

The title also debuted new concepts like Guardians of the Galaxy, Phantom Eagle and, to start the ball rolling, a troubled alien spy sent to Earth from the Kree Galaxy. He held a Captain’s rank and his name was Mar-Vell.

All that and even more candid, behind-the-scenes historical revelations are contained in series-author Roy Thomas’ effusive Introduction before this cosmically conceived tome – available in hardcover and digital editions – kicks off. On offer are the contents of Captain Marvel #10-21 collectively spanning cover-dates February 1969 to August 1970 plus a little comedy treat from Not Brand Echh # 9 (August 1968)…

Following the destruction of a long-dormant, mechanoid Kree Sentry and the subsequent defeat by the Fantastic Four of Ronan the Accuser – mighty high official of those long-lost extraterrestrials – the millennia-old empire was once again interested in Earth.

They despatched a surveillance mission to learn everything about us but unfortunately for them, the agent they chose was a man of conscience. However, his commanding officer Colonel Yon-Rogg was merciless taskmaster and secretly a ruthless rival for the love of the ship’s medical officer Una.

No sooner did the good captain make a tentative planet-fall than he clashed with the US army from the local missile base (often hinted at as being Cape Kennedy). Soon though he began fighting for the humans and was mistaken by many – including Security officer Carol Danvers – for a crusading costumed superhero…

To further his mission, Mar-Vell also assumed the identity of deceased military consultant Dr. Walter Lawson: but was quickly discovering that the dearly departed scientist concealed a chequered and probably nefarious past which created a whole raft of new problems for the undercover alien infiltrator…

The war of nerves with Yon-Rogg had intensified to the point that the colonel was openly planning murder and the romantic bond to Una was fractured when Carol Danvers began making her own overtures to the heroic Marvel.

Thus, when Ronan orders Mar-Vell to make allies of Lawson’s super-scientific criminal syndicate – at the cost of Carol’s life – the hero ignores his orders and pays the penalty as he is arrested by his own crew and faces a firing squad in #10’s ‘Die Traitor!’ (scripted by Arnold Drake and illustrated by Don Heck & Vince Colletta).

He is only saved by an ambush perpetrated by the survivors of an Aakon ship Yon-Rogg had previously targeted in #11’s ‘Rebirth!’ (illustrated by new penciller Dick Ayers). In the aftermath, however, the Kree colonel traps his despised rival on a missile hurtling into infinity and assumes his problems are over.

During the battle author Drake took the opportunity to kill off – as nobly as possible – the insipid Medic Una, giving staunch Mar-Vell justifiable reason to openly rebel against his entire race and be reborn under the tutelage of a cosmic entity known only as Zo! who saved the trapped hero from death in the void…

Moribund for months, this new beginning with the honourable, dutiful soldier remade as a vengeful vigilante was a real shot in the arm, but it was still quite clear that Captain Marvel the comic was struggling to find an audience. ‘The Moment of… the Man-Slayer!’ (Drake, Ayers and the great Syd Shores) sees the newly super-powered hero gifted with a whole new power set by Zo! and return to Earth.

He is hunting Yon-Rogg but soon distracted by a marauding synthetic assassin at The Cape, in a taut spy-thriller with The Black Widow in deadly guest-star mode.

‘Traitors or Heroes?’ concludes the Man-Slayer storyline with Gary Friedrich, Frank Springer & Vince Colletta as creative team, with the Captain finally confronting Yon-Rogg. The villain escapes by threatening Carol…

In #14’s ‘When a Galaxy Beckons…’ the Captain clashes with an entranced Puppet Master-controlled Iron Man as part of an early experiment in multi-part cross-overs (Sub-Mariner #14 and Avengers #64 being the other parts of the triptych) before leaving Earth… forever, he believes…

The going gets all cosmic in #15 (magnificently illustrated by Tom Sutton & Dan Adkins in a boldly experimental manner) as ‘That Zo Might Live… A Galaxy Must Die!’ sees Mar-Vell return to his home world on a mission of total destruction that wraps up the first career of Captain Marvel in spectacular style.

Beguiled and grateful, the hero revisits his homeworld determined to obliterate it for his almighty sponsor only to uncover an incredible conspiracy before the awesome truth is exposed in #16’s ‘Behind the Mask of Zo!’ by Archie Goodwin, Heck & Shores.

This yarn is the first great “everything you know is wrong” story in Marvel history and captivatingly makes sense of all the previous issues, supplying a grand resolution and providing a solid context for the total revamp of the character to come. That’s how good a writer Archie Goodwin was. And if you read Roy Thomas’s aforementioned Introduction, a clandestine creative secret is finally revealed…

Captain Marvel #16 is a magical issue and I’m being deliberately vague in case you have yet to read it, but I will tell you the ending. After saving the entire Kree Empire Mar-Vell is flying back to Earth in his new red-&-blue costume, when he is suddenly sucked into the anti-matter hell of the Negative Zone

It’s probably best to think of everything previously discussed as prelude, since Captain Marvel as we know him really begins with #17 as Thomas, Gil Kane & Dan Adkins totally retool and upgrade the character.

‘And a Child Shall Lead You!’ sees the imperilled Kree warrior inextricably bonded to voice-of-a-generation and professional side-kick Rick Jones who – just like Billy Batson (the boy who turned into the original Fawcett hero by shouting “Shazam!”) – switched places with a mighty adult hero when danger loomed.

As thrilling, and as revolutionary as the idea of a comic written from the viewpoint of teenager was, the real magic comes from the phenomenally kinetic artwork of Kane – whose mesmeric staging of the perfect human form in motion rewrote the book on superhero illustration with this series.

Issue #18 at last categorically ended the Yon-Rogg saga and started Carol Danvers on her own super-hero career as the Mar-Vell swore ‘Vengeance is Mine!’ – with a last minute pinch-hit pencilling from John Buscema for the concluding nine pages – before the next issue moved firmly into the “Relevancy Era” (where realism and themes of social injustice replaced aliens and super-villains as comics fodder) with a crazed sociologist and too-benevolent landlord revealed as ‘The Mad Master of the Murder Maze!’.

And that’s when the series was cancelled.

As happened so often during that tempestuous period, cutting edge, landmark, classic comic-books just didn’t sell. Silver Surfer, Green Lantern/Green Arrow and a host of other series we today consider high points of the form were axed because they couldn’t find enough of the right audience, but Captain Mar-Vell refused to die. Six months later issue #20 was released, and the quality was still improving with every page.

‘The Hunter and the Holocaust’ has Rick attempt to free his trapped body-and-soulmate by consulting old mentor Bruce Banner. But en route, a tornado destroys a town and Mar-Vell first renders assistance and then fights off resource-looters the Rat Pack. With the next issue Cap and Rick’s mentor finally meet, in ‘Here Comes the Hulk!’ but that’s just a garnish on this tale of student unrest and manipulative intolerance. The book was cancelled again after that… only to return some more!

Although those tales are saved for another time, there are still a few goodies to enjoy. First of these is a spoof strip from Marvel’s own parody comic Not Brand Echh # 9. ‘Captain Marvin: Where Stomps the Scent-ry! or Out of the Holocaust… Hoo-Boy!!’ is by Thomas, Gene Colan & Frank Giacoia : funny or painful depending on your attitude, but also included are some pencilled pages and sketches that are the answer to every wannabe artist’s dreams.

These include a Marie Severin cover rough for #10, Kane’s layout for #17, page 19 and three pin-ups by Kane & Adkins. Glorious!

This is not Marvel’s best character, and much of the material collected here is rather poor. However, the good stuff is some of the very best the company has produced in its entire history. If you want to see how good superhero comics can be you’ll just have to take the rough with the smooth… and who knows? Maybe you’ll learn to lower your standard a bit and enjoy yourself despite it all…

I often do…
© 1968, 1969, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 8


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6294-0 (PB)                     : 978-0-7851-1694-3 (HB)

The monolith of Marvel truly began with the adventures of a small super-team who were as much squabbling family as coolly capable costumed champions. Everything the company produces now comes due to the quirky quartet and the groundbreaking, inspired efforts of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby…

This full-colour compendium – also available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions – collects Fantastic Four #72-81 plus the epic Fantastic Four Annual #6: spanning March – December 1968 with Stan & Jack outdoing themselves with every successive issue to cement their reputation as the greatest team in comics…

What You Should Already Know: maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm – with Sue’s teenaged tag-along little brother – miraculously 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 project forcefields, Johnny Storm could turn into living flame and tragic Ben devolved into a shambling, rocky freak. The they agreed to use their abilities to benefit mankind and thus was born The Fantastic Four.

Following another effusive Introduction from Lee the drama opens with the team in crisis. With a baby due Reed and Sue had resigned, leaving The Thing, Johnny and his Inhuman girlfriend Crystal to hold the fort just as cosmic calamity came calling.

In ‘Where Soars the Silver Surfer!’ the sky-born wanderer imprisoned on Earth by the world-devouring Galactus went cage-crazy and attacked humanity, forcing Reed’s return, after which FF #73 presented a classic crossover and the conclusion to a long-running Daredevil story wherein the sightless crusader is ousted from his own body by Iron Tyrant Doctor Doom.

Warning the FF of imminent attack, the Man without Fear then subsequently defeats Doom on his own but neglects to tell the heroes of his victory…

Outmatched and unable to convince them any other way, DD enlists currently de-powered Mighty Thor and the ever-eager Spider-Man in to solve the problem Marvel style – with a spectacular pointless and utterly riveting punch-up – in ‘The Flames of Battle…’

The Surfer was back in #74 ‘When Calls Galactus’ as the planet-eater returns to Terran skies demanding that his one-time herald once more become his food-finding slave. However, despite his increasingly violent and world-shaking probing and the FF’s holding action against the ravenous invader’s robotic Punisher, Galactus cannot locate his target.

That’s because the Surfer has already – and utterly obliviously – departed for ‘World Within Worlds!’, forcing Reed, Ben and Johnny to follow to save humanity from cosmic consumption. When the pioneering micronauts are subsequently attacked by sadistic alien Psycho Man our heroes are ‘Stranded in Sub-Atomica!’

As they struggle to survive, Galactus applies ever-more pressure in ‘Shall Earth Endure?’ until the now-fully-apprised Surfer turns himself in to save Earth by finding the great Devourer an alternative snack.

His reward is to be summarily returned to his captivity here as soon as ungrateful Galactus finishes feeding (just in time to begin his own landmark series – but that’s the subject of another review, another time…)

Meanwhile, after trashing Psycho Man and getting home, Reed and the gang risk another attempt to cure Ben Grimm in FF #78. The procedure goes tragically awry in ‘The Thing No More!’, due to inopportune interference from old foe The Wizard before, in #79, the now human Ben chooses to return to his rocky state to save his friends from the bludgeoning Android Man and possibly remain ‘A Monster Forever?’.

A brief change of pace then takes the team to the Tribal Lands of old friend Wyatt Wingfoot to solve an eerie mystery and save the Indian oil fields from deadly subversion ‘Where Treads the Living Totem!’ before the sixth Annual features – at long last – the birth of Reed and Sue’s baby (known to us now as Franklin Richards).

Unfortunately, the happy event almost never happens since the transformative cosmic rays which gave the team their powers have affected the pregnancy…

Desperate for a miracle cure, Reed, Ben and Johnny scour the antimatter Negative Zone and are confronted by a monstrous creature named Annihilus whose power is the only thing that can prevent the death of Sue and her unborn child. ‘Let There Be… Life!’ is a groundbreaking 48-page epic that is as stunning to read now as it ever was, passionate, thrilling and mind-boggling in its visual intensity.

With Sue a new mother faithful Crystal then elects herself the first new official member of the Fantastic Four and promptly shows her mettle by pulverizing the incorrigible glutton-for-punishment Wizard in #81’s all-action romp ‘Enter… the Exquisite Elemental!’ to conclude this superb chronological catalogue of fabulously compelling Fights ‘n’ Tights tales.

Did I say concludes? Not quite as this book still finds room for a selection of astounding original art pencil pages of Kirby to further dazzle the senses.

Perfect comics, perfectly packaged. What are you waiting for?
© 1968, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Black Panther: Marvel Masterworks volume 2


By Jack Kirby, Ed Hannigan, Jim Shooter, Chris Claremont, Jerry Bingham, John Byrne & various (Marvel Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0020-5 (HB)

Acclaimed as the first black superhero in American comics – and one of the first to carry his own series – the Black Panther’s popularity and fortunes have waxed and waned since his debut.

The Black Panthers rule over a fantastic African paradise which isolated itself from the rest of the world millennia ago. Blessed with unimaginable resources – both natural and not so much – the nation of Wakanda developed uninterrupted into the most technologically advanced human nation on Earth, utterly unmolested by rapacious European imperialism.

The country has also never been conquered and the primary reason is an unbroken line of divinely-sponsored warrior kings who safeguard united tribes. The other is a certain miraculous super-mineral found nowhere else on Earth…

In contemporary times that chieftain is T’Challa: an unbeatable, super-smart, feline-empowered strategic genius who divides his time between ruling at home and serving abroad in superhero teams such as The Avengers, Fantastic Force, The Illuminati and The Ultimates beside costumed champions such as Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Captain Marvel, Thor and Captain America

This stunning hardback collection – also available in eBook and digital formats – gathers the stories from Black Panther volume 1 #1-15 (January 1977 to May 1979) which initially disappointed a legion of fans who were expecting a conclusion or continuance to the long-lauded Don MacGregor epic ‘The Panther Versus The Klan’.

That convoluted yarn had been abruptly cancelled the previous year, but happily this tome also includes the contents of Marvel Premiere #51-53 (December 1979-April 1980) which eventually provided an ending to the Klan clash and an acceptable in-universe explanation as to why wise and noble T’Challa abruptly dropped his hunt for answers and abandoned his adored beloved Monica Lynne

There’s even a little extra bonus yarn originally seen in Marvel Team-Up #100…

Jack Kirby’s return to Marvel in the mid 1970’s was much hyped at the time but swiftly proved to be controversial. His new creations (The Eternals, Devil Dinosaur, 2001, Machine Man) found friends rapidly, but his tenure on established earlier creations Captain America and Black Panther divided the fan base.

Kirby was never slavishly wedded to tight continuity and preferred, in many ways, to treat his stints on titles as another “Day One”. His commitment was to wholesome eye-popping adventure, breakneck action and breathless wonderment. Combined with his absolute mastery of the comic page and unceasing quest for the Next Big Thrill that makes for a captivating read, but will never satisfy those readers fully committed to the minutia of the Marvel Universe.

Beginning with Black Panther #1, what they got was a rollercoaster ride of classic Kirby concept-overload as the Hereditary King of a high-tech Lost Kingdom gallantly pursued fabulous time machines, fought future men and secret samurai clans, thwarted the plots of super-rich artefact stealers and foiled schemes to nuke his hidden homeland, usurp his rule and even consume his faithful subjects…

Further discussion of that comicbook culture shock can be found in the Introduction by Christopher Priest – who took everything that had gone before and made the Panther his own after reviving the character in 1999 as part of the company’s mature-oriented Marvel Knights imprint…

However, this feline funfest is mostly about frantic action and begins at full pelt with a re-introductory romp that spotlights diminutive treasure hunter Abner Little. This devious gentleman entices T’Challa into a search for ‘King Solomon’s Frog!’ after introducing himself as a friend and colleague of the Panther’s grandfather Azzari the Wise

Soon the mismatched pair are in hot pursuit of an artefact that sows death and destruction in its wake. The ancient brass amphibian has the ability to open time-portals, bringing lethal threats from other eras, but its real capacity for catastrophe comes from Little’s rival Collectors, who bring astounding ordnance and unsurpassed riches into play in their own efforts to possess the mystic time-machine.

Most ruthless and relentless is Queen Zanda of Narobia, who expertly ambushes the questers with a highly-skilled mercenary taskforce before accidentally triggering the frog into shanghaiing a hyper-evolved walking WMD from his own far-distant era…

Reluctantly uniting to sedate ‘The Six-Million Year Man’, T’Challa, Little and Zanda then race to uncover King Solomon’s tomb where a twin of the Brass Frog rests. This particular item possesses the most welcome function of returning objects and creatures to their point of origin…

Their ‘Race Against Time’ is exacerbated as the groggy future-man revives just as the searchers locate the tomb, unleashing psionic hell and awakening King Solomon’s formidable funereal guardian Ogar. Thankfully, teamwork saves the day and the newly-found other frog restores order, if not sanity…

Tragically for the tomb-raiders, the time to determine if they are ‘Friends or Foes’ swiftly passes because the calamitous clashes have destabilised the long-lost treasury trove. With mighty explosions wracking the site, it is all T’Challa can do to drag his artefact-lusting companions to safety before Armageddon occurs…

Unfortunately for the Panther, he has proved his worth and – with Wakanda still a nuclear target – ultimate ineffectuality. When the assembled Collectors – Zanda, Count Zorba, Colonel Pigman and withered coffin-dodger Silas Mourner – see the warrior king in battle they determine he must win for them the ultimate prize…

The ‘Quest for the Sacred Water-Skin!!’ begins as T’Challa and equally-reluctant Abner Little set off to find a fabled hidden land where a sect of Samurai warriors have dwelt for centuries, sustained by honour, their martial arts and a literal fountain of youth.

Overcoming monsters and warriors, T’Challa establishes a bond of honour with the last proponents of Bushido, but sadly his venal companion upsets the applecart by secretly stealing ‘A Cup of Youth’

Meanwhile in Wakanda, internal trouble flares when the Panther’s half-brother General Jakarra makes a power-grab, bolstered by a sacrilegious utilisation of raw vibranium…

Black Panther #7 sees the hero and his scurrilous sidekick escape the Samurai city even as ‘Drums!’ sound across Wakanda and the incredible secret origin of the Panther Cult and Vibranium Mound are revealed.

When the awesome sky metal first crashed to Earth in primordial times it transformed many men into monsters. Thankfully mighty chief Bashenga – taking the black cat as his totem – created a force to destroy the creatures and police the metal: preventing alien infection from spreading and forever after shielding his people through a line of dedicated defenders.

As the latest king heads for a final confrontation with the Collectors, T’Challa has no way of knowing his regent N’Gassi has been captured or that Jakarra has gained deadly power through exposure to the gene-warping force of raw Vibranium…

Having battled his way free, T’Challa heads for home. His people, however, are already suffering the increasingly crazed depredations of a Jakarra no longer even remotely human.

Further delayed by a mercy mission – plucking dying men from the sea – the king bemoans his absence whilst half a world away, N’Gassi takes a desperate gamble and “requests” that the sedentary royal cousins – Ishanta, Joshua Itobo, Khanata and Zuni – step up and lead the fight against Jakarra. But are they Panthers or Pussycats?’

Surprising everybody with a show of solidarity and unconventional tactics, the ‘Black Musketeers’ manage to contain the monstrous usurper until T’Challa returns, but his arrival coincides with the loss of Jakarra’s last vestige of humanity. Now a shambling beast resolved that ‘This World Shall Die!’ in an Earth-shattering detonation, the horrific abomination is barely defeated inside the Mound by a true Black Panther who does not escape the mineral’s mutagenic properties…

Issue #11 finds T’Challa recovering from his struggle against Jakarra and plagued by eerie recurring dreams of future battles. As citizens begin vanishing all over Wakanda – including Prince Khanata – the medical team reaches the conclusion that the king has developed some form of Extra-Sensory Perception.

This new gift – or perhaps curse? – leads the Panther to the abductors’ HQ where phantasmal madman ‘Kiber the Cruel’ is converting stolen humans to energy and consuming them…

Following ‘The Kiber Clue’, T’Challa strives mightily to save his kinsman and subjects, but arrives too late for anything but vengeance…

As Jim Shooter, Ed Hannigan, Jerry Bingham & Gene Day take over from the abruptly departed Kirby, the saga swiftly wraps up with the true nature of Kiber grotesquely exposed and the Panther’s judgement delivered in #13’s ‘What is… and What Should Never Be’

With Hannigan scripting, the Black Panther resoundingly re-entered the mainstream Marvel universe in ‘The Beasts in the Jungle!’ (#14 March 1979); opening Wakanda’s first Embassy in New York City, applying to the United Nations and rejoining his former allies in the Avengers.

Soon smothered in red tape and diplomatic hurdles, T’Challa welcomes working with his superhero guests but is quickly embroiled in a deadly scheme by old enemy Klaw, the Master of Sound, and blithely unaware that other relationships are about to be renewed…

After the resurgent villain battles the World’s Mightiest Heroes to a standstill, T’Challa manages to inflict the ‘Revenge of The Black Panther!’ in the final issue (May 1979), yet leaves everything on a cliffhanging note as Monic Lynne breaks into the Wakandan Embassy…

After years in limbo, Don McGregor’s Klan storyline was revisited and concluded when try-out title Marvel Premiere declared “The Return of the Black Panther” with issue #51 (December 1979).

Opening minutes after Black Panther #15 ended, ‘The Killing of Windeagle!’ sees T’Challa arriving back at the Embassy only to be attacked by an unknown flying warrior who claims to be an old foe. After subduing the assailant, the King experiences even more turmoil as Monica Lynne and Georgia journalist Kevin Trublood accost him. Although his staff all seem familiar with the woman, T’Challa has no memory of her…

Granting an audience with the couple, the Panther hears how Monica’s sister Angela was murdered, and how the death seemed to involve both the Ku Klux Klan and rival offshoot the Dragon’s Circle. As he listens, T’Challa hears that for a time he was one of those murder investigators, but his mind is clouded and he recalls none of it…

Suddenly Windeagle attacks again but as the Panther fights back his opponent is assassinated by a sniper…

Working with the police, T’Challa uncovers the sordid history of a petty gangster who somehow became a flying fury and establishes links to yet another organisation: The Spiritual Light Society. At every turn events seem to be pushing him towards one inescapable conclusion: Monica’s ridiculous story is true and someone has tampered with his mind and memory…

When they are ambushed again by armed thugs – later identified as Klansmen – their spirited resistance is supplemented by more sniper fire and the Panther’s ‘Journey Through the Past!’ impels him to invade a Klan gathering. This conclave is subsequently violently disrupted by a costumed maniac dubbed the Soul Strangler

Despite not remembering, the Panther believes he has deduced the nature of the civil war between the KKK and Dragon’s circle, and more importantly, who killed Angela. With resignation and trepidation, T’Challa, Kevin and Monica head for a showdown in the Deep South…

Inked by Alan Gordon, Marvel Premiere #53 (April 1980) delivered ‘The Ending, In Anger!’ as T’Challa visits Monica’s family home and the dam in his memory finally shatters. Acting with clarity at last, the Black Panther tracks down the villains who captured and brainwashed him during his previous visit, exposes a tawdry truth behind all the death and intimidation and brings a kind of closure to all the innocents touched by the tragedy…

With the major story-arcs at last concluded it was back to relative obscurity and bit-parts for the Panther, with the exception of a short tale that would have huge repercussions on the hero’s life in the future.

‘Cry… Vengeance!’ by Chris Claremont, John Byrne & Bob McLeod first appeared in Marvel Team-Up #100 (December 1980) and saw African X-Man Storm targeted by assassins. Easily defeating her attackers, she learned they were hired by Boer hardman Andreas de Ruyter

This sent her mind winging back to her trek across Africa as teenager: an arduous trek made easier after she linked up with a young boy on his own rite of passage ritual. His name was T’Challa and she learned that he was a prince only after South African mercenaries led by de Ruyter tried to kidnap the boy for political advantage.

After driving the thugs off, the youngsters spent a brief but idyllic time together before their paths diverged and duty pulled them apart.

After decades apart, with the villain back seeking vengeance, Ororo reunited with the boy the world now knew as the Black Panther to end the maniac’s threat forever…

This collection is also augmented by Kirby Editorial pages, house ads, a potted history of the Black Panther from #14, the Rich Buckler & McLeod cover to the never-released BP #16 and unused Bingham pencil pages.

An explosive rocket ride of thrills, spills, chills and too-long delayed gratification, these long-lost classics confirm the Black Panther as one of the most complex and versatile characters in comics and simply scream “Read me! Read me!” So you should and you must…
© 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 2001, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Luke Cage, Power Man Marvel Masterworks volume 2


By Len Wein, Tony Isabella, Don McGregor, Bill Mantlo, Georges Pérez, Steve Englehart, George Tuska, Ron Wilson, Rich Buckler, Arvell Jones, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0343-5

As is so often the case, it takes a few a bold creative types and radically changing economics to really promote lasting change. In America, with declining comics sales at a time of enhanced social awareness and rising Black Consciousness, cash – if not cashing in – was probably the trigger for “the Next Step” in the evolution of superheroes.

In the opening years of the 1970s, contemporary “Blacksploitation” cinema and novels had fired up commercial interests throughout the USA and in that atmosphere of outlandish dialogue, daft outfits and barely concealed – but completely justified – outrage, an angry black man with a shady past and apparently dubious morals debuted as Luke Cage, Hero for Hire 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.

Cage’s origin was typically bombastic: Lucas, a hard-case inmate at brutal Seagate Prison always claimed to have been framed and his inflexible, uncompromising attitude made mortal enemies of the racist guards Rackham and Quirt whilst not exactly endearing him to the rest of the prison population – such as out-&-out bad-guys Shades and Comanche

The premiere issue was written by Archie Goodwin and illustrated by George Tuska & Billy Graham (with some initial assistance from Roy Thomas and John Romita) detailing how a new warden promised to reform the hell-hole into a proper, legal penal institution.

New prison doctor Noah Burstein then convinced 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’d managed to stay honest even when his best friend Willis Stryker had not. They remained friends even though they walked different paths – at least until a woman came between them. To get 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 the way of bullets meant for Stryker…

With nothing left to lose Lucas underwent Burstein’s process – an experiment in cell-regeneration – but Rackham sabotaged it, hoping to kill the con before he could expose the guard’s illegal treatment of convicts. It all went haywire and something incredible happened. Lucas, now incredibly strong and pain-resistant, punched his way out of the lab and the through the prison walls, only to be killed in hail of gunfire. His body plunged over a cliff and was never recovered…

Months later, a vagrant prowling the streets of New York City stumbled into a robbery. Almost casually downing the felon, he accepted a cash reward from the grateful victim, prompting a bright idea…

Super-strong, bullet-proof, street-wise and honest, Lucas would hide in plain sight while planning his revenge on Stryker. Since his only skill was fighting, he became a private paladin – A Hero For Hire

This second sturdy hardback (or eBook) volume collects #17-31 of Cage’s adventures – Luke Cage, Power Man – spanning February 1974-May 1976 of the breakthrough series and begins with fond and informative Introduction ‘Always Forward’ from series scripter Tony Isabella.

Whilst making allowances for the colourful, often ludicrous dialogue necessitated by the Comics Code’s sanitising of “street-talking Jive” this was probably the edgiest series of Marvel’s early years, but even so, after a few years the tense action and peripheral interactions with the greater Marvel Universe led to a minor rethink and the title was altered, if not the basic premise…

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

Cage had set up an office over a movie house on 42nd Street and met a young man who would become his greatest friend: D.W. Griffith – nerd, film freak and plucky white sidekick. Noah Burstein resurfaced, running a rehab clinic on the dirty, deadly streets around Times Square, aided by a beautiful woman Dr. Claire Temple. Soon she too was an integral part of Luke’s new life…

Following a calamitous clash with many of his oldest enemies, most old business was settled and a partial re-branding of America’s premier black crusader began in issue #17. The mercenary aspect was downplayed (at least on covers) as Luke Cage, Power Man – by Len Wein, George Tuska & Billy Graham – got another new start during a tumultuous team-up in ‘Rich Man: Iron Man… Power Man: Thief!’

Here the still “For Hire” hero is commissioned to test Tony Stark’s security by stealing his latest invention. Sadly, neither Stark nor his alter ego Iron Man know anything about it and the result is another classic hero-on-hero duel

Vince Colletta joined the team as inker for #18’s ‘Havoc on the High Iron!’ as Cage takes on a murderous high-tech Steeplejack before the next two issues offered the still-wanted fugitive hero a tantalising chance to clear his name.

‘Call Him… Cottonmouth!’ introduced a crimelord with inside information of the frame-up perpetrated by Willis Stryker in issue #1. Tragically, that hope of a new clean life is snatched away after all Cage’s explosive, two-fisted efforts in the Isabella scripted follow-up ‘How Like a Serpent’s Tooth…’

Isabella, Wein, Ron Wilson & Colletta collaborated on ‘The Killer with My Name!’ which sees Cage attacked by old Avengers villain Power Man who understandably wanted his nom de guerre back, but who changed his mind after waking up from the resultant bombastic battle that ensued…

Psychotic archenemy Stiletto returned with his equally high-tech balmy brother Discus in ‘The Broadway Mayhem of 1974’ (Isabella, Wilson & Colletta), subsequently revealing a startling connection to Cage’s origins…

All this constant carnage and non-stop tension had sent sometime romantic interest Claire Temple scurrying for points distant, and finally in LCPM #23 Cage and D.W. went looking for her, promptly fetching up in a fascistic planned-community run by old foe and deranged military terrorist Gideon Mace.

‘Welcome to Security City’ (inked by Dave Hunt) fed directly into a two-part premier for another African American superhero as Cage and D.W. tracked Claire to the Ringmaster’s Circus of Crime in #24’s ‘Among Us Walks… a Black Goliath! (Isabella, Tuska & Hunt)…

Bill Foster was a highly educated black supporting character; a biochemist working with Henry Pym (the scientist-superhero known as Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath and/or Yellowjacket over the decades of his costumed career). Foster first appeared in Avengers #32 (September 1966), before fading from view when Pym eventually regained his size-changing abilities…

Carrying on his own researches in size-shifting, Foster was now trapped as a giant, unable to shrink to normal size, and Cage discovered he was also Claire’s former husband. When the experiments trapped him at fifteen feet tall, she had rushed back to Bill’s colossal side to help find a cure.

After Luke turned up, passions were stoked, resulting in another classic heroes-clash moment until the mesmeric Ringmaster hypnotised all the combatants, intent on using their strength to feather his own three-ring nest. ‘Crime and Circuses’ (by Isabella, Bill Mantlo, Wilson & Fred Kida) saw the heroes helpless until Claire came to the rescue, before making her choice and returning to New York with Luke.

Foster soon thereafter gravitated to his own short-run series, becoming Marvel’s fourth African American costumed hero under the heavy-handed and rather obvious sobriquet Black Goliath

The timely spoofing of a popular ‘70’s TV show provided the theme for ‘Night Shocker!’ (by Steve Englehart, Tuska & Colletta) when Cage stalked an apparent vampire attacking 42nd Street patrons, after which a touching human drama finds Cage forced to subdue a tragically simple-minded but super-powered wrestler in ‘Just a Guy Named “X”!’ (by Mantlo, George Pérez & Al McWilliams, all paying tribute to the Steve Ditko classic from Amazing Spider-Man #38).

A new level of sophistication, social commentary and bizarre villainy began in issue 28 after Don McGregor came aboard to craft a run of macabre crime sagas, opening when Cage meets The Man Who Killed Jiminy Cricket! (illustrated by George Tuska & Vince Colletta).

Hired by a chemical company to stop industrial espionage, Luke fails to prevent the murder of his prime suspect and is somehow defeated by deadly weirdo Cockroach Hamilton (and his beloved shotgun “Josh”) Left for dead in one of the most outré cliffhanger situations ever seen, Cage took two issues to escape as the next issue featured a “deadline-doom” busting fill-in tale…

Produced by Mantlo, Tuska & Colletta Luke Cage, Power Man #29 claimed No One Laughs at Mr. Fish (although the temptation is rather overwhelming) as Cage fights a fin-faced mutated mobster robbing shipping trucks for organised crime analogue The Maggia after which the story already in progress resumes in issue #30 with Look What They’ve Done to Our Lives, Ma! (by McGregor, Rich Buckler, Arvell Jones & Keith Pollard).

Escaping at last from a deadly deathtrap, Cage hunts down Hamilton, and confronts his erudite, sardonic, steel-fanged boss Piranha Jones just after they succeed in stealing a leaking canister of deadly nerve gas…

The dread drama then concludes in Over the Years They Murdered the Stars!’ (Sal Buscema & the legion of deadline busting Crusty Bunkers) as Cage saves his city at the risk of his life before serving just deserts to the eerie evildoers…

Adding extra value to this sterling selection are the cover of reprint one-shot Giant-Size Power Man from 1976; a House ad from 1974 and Dave Cockrum & John Romita’s Cage entry from the 1975 Mighty Marvel Calendar (March, in case you were wondering). Also on view are original cover art by Gil Kane & Mike Esposito (#20 and #24).

Arguably a little dated now (me, Genndy Tartakovsky and others in the know prefer the term “retro”), these tales were nonetheless instrumental in breaking down one more barrier in the complacent, intolerant, WASP-flavoured American comics landscape and their power if not their initial impact remains undiminished to this day. These are tales well worth your time and money.
© 1974, 1975, 1976, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Black Panther Marvel Masterworks, volume 1


By Don McGregor, Rich Buckler, Gil Kane, Billy Graham, Keith Pollard, Klaus Janson & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4198-3 (HB)

Acclaimed as the first black superhero in American comics and one of the first to carry his own series, the Black Panther’s popularity and fortunes have waxed and waned since his debut.

In fact, the cat king actually attacked Marvel’s First Family as part of an extended plan to gain vengeance on the murderer of his father. He was also the first black superhero in American comics, catapulting to instant fame and glory in Fantastic Four #52 (cover-dated July 1966).

As created by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee, T’Challa, son of T’Chaka, is an African monarch whose clandestine domain is the only source of vibration-absorbing wonder mineral Vibranium. The miraculous alien metal – supposedly derived from a fallen meteor which struck the continent in lost antiquity – is the basis of the country’s immense wealth, enabling Wakanda to become one of the wealthiest and most secretive nations on Earth. These riches also allowed the young king to radically remake his country, creating a technological wonderland even after he left Africa to fight as one of the mighty Avengers.

For much of its history Wakanda has been an isolated, utopian kingdom with the tribal resources and people safeguarded and led since time immemorial by a human warrior-king deriving cat-like physical advantages from secret ceremonies and a mysterious heart-shaped herb. This has ensured the generational dominance of the nation’s Panther Cult and Royal Family…

The top-secret “Vibranium mound” had guaranteed the country’s status as a clandestine superpower for centuries but in modern times has increasingly made Wakanda a target for subversion, incursion and even invasion as the world grew ever smaller.

After wandering around the Marvel Universe, enjoying team-ups and saving the world on a semi-regular basis as one the “Earth’s Mightiest Superheroes”, in the summer of 1973 the Black Panther finally won his own solo series, Scripter Don McGregor opted to return the King to his people for an ambitious epic of love, death, vengeance and civil war: inventing from whole cloth, and Kirby’s throwaway notion of a futuristic jungle, the most unique African nation ever seen…

Gathering the groundbreaking stories from Jungle Action volume 2 #6-24 (spanning September 1973 to November 1976 and available in hardback and digital formats), the saga opens with an erudite and informative Introduction by Don McGregor.

‘Panther’s Chronicles’ discusses the author’s work practises, close relationship with his artistic collaborators, and the cultural context and milieu surrounding the creation of the series at a time when segregation and civil rights were still a hot button topic in America…

Now with the Panther’s own big-budget big-screen blockbuster imminently expected, the long-lauded, brilliantly effective and fantastically poetic work of Don McGregor and his collaborators can be enjoyed as the groundbreaking narrative landmark it is, free of the torturous months-long wait between cliff-hanging chapters…

Jungle Action launched with an October 1972 cover-date, a cheap reprint vehicle for old Atlas-era Tarzan and Sheena knock-offs like Tharn, Jann and Lorna (…of the Jungle). The fifth issue abruptly changed tack, reprinting the Black Panther-starring contents of Avengers #62 as prelude to the start of T’Challa’s own all new adventures, which open here with #6 and the eponymous ‘Panther’s Rage’ illustrated by Rich Buckler & Klaus Janson.

The story opens with the Panther back in his African homeland and stumbling upon the torture of an elderly farmer. Despite his best efforts the victim dies in his arms, swearing he never lost faith in king or country…

Learning the attack is the work of a mysterious, brutal rebel leader named Erik Killmonger, T’Challa sets all the resources of his inner court circle to finding the monster. With reports of further atrocities mounting, he leaves his American lover Monica Lynne to hunt the perpetrators and soon confronts his potential usurper at the potently symbolic Warrior Falls roaring above the life-sustaining River of Grace and Wisdom.

The barbarous-seeming giant is not cowed by the Panther’s power or prowess and easily wins the no-holds barred battle that follows…

The initial episode is supplemented by detailed maps of Wakanda (the first fans had ever seen) before JA #7 mobilises ‘Death Regiments Beneath Wakanda’. Barely surviving his fight with Killmonger, T’Challa is nursed back to health by Monica at the Palace even as hideously disfigured American Horatio displays his skill with snakes and poisons to his friend N’Jadaka.

Known to their recruits as Venomm and Erik Killmonger, these rebel leaders plot their next attack which results in the reptilian insurgent ambushing T’Challa when the king investigates an illegal mine. This shocking atrocity is being used to siphon off raw Vibranium to pay for Killmonger’s increasingly violent and widespread attacks on the outlying population centres…

Although triumphant this time, T’Challa realises this is many-layered war: one he might not win…

Cover-dated January 1974, Jungle Action #8 introduced another super-powered rebel as – whilst the Black Panther renews his powers through ancient ritual – ‘Malice by Crimson Moonlight’ sees a spear-wielding wonder woman invade the Royal Palace.

Advisor Taku is interrogating Venomm and gradually making inroads into turning the bitter outcast when Malice attacks. Only the power of the Panther saves him and prevents the brutal jailbreak from succeeding…

After more maps of the hidden country and detailed plans of ‘Central Wakanda’s Palace Royale’ the saga resumes in #9 with ‘But Now the Spears Are Broken’ (illustrated by Gil Kane & Janson) as T’Challa goes in-country to learn the effects of the power-struggle on ordinary Wakandans.

After saving little boy Kantu from a rhino, the king is made painfully aware that the common people view his foreign woman Monica with as much suspicion as the constantly-raiding insurgents. That feeling even penetrates to the heart of the palace. When advisor Zatama is murdered, Monica is arrested for the crime…

T’Challa is not there to protest or defend her: he has returned to Kantu’s village to investigate strange disappearances, discovering a seeming mass-rising of zombies led by a skeletal maniac called Baron Macabre. Once more the Great Cat is forced to ignominiously retreat…

Supreme stylist Billy Graham takes over the pencilling with #10 as the Black Panther returns to the zombie nest, exposing a cunning charade beneath the deserted village as well as a super-scientific base run by a malignant, mind-warping mutant in ‘King Cadaver is Dead and Living in Wakanda!’

Accompanying the dark drama here are examples of ‘Black Panther Artistry’: specifically, Kirby’s first designs for the hero back when he was going by the provisional title of ‘The Coal Tiger’ and Buckler and Janson’s first depiction of ‘Erik Killmonger’

Due to an extremely unfavourable publishing schedule, Panther’s Rage unfolded with agonising slowness, but the lengthy wait between episodes allowed McGregor the latitude to pick and choose key events, with readers accepting that some stuff was actually occurring between issues.

In #11 (September 1974), the civil war had proceeded unchecked and ‘Once You Slay the Dragon!’ sees the Panther and his forces launching a long-awaited counterattack on Killmonger’s base in N’Jadaka Village. The battle is vicious and brief, introducing yet another powered lieutenant in the shape of pitiless high-tech armourer Lord Karnaj

And on the home front, T’Challa finally clears Monica and captures Zatama’s killer…

With Killmonger temporarily pushed back, the Panther goes on the offensive, using the rebel’s most inconsequential converts – Tayete and Kazibe – as guides to follow his ultimate enemy to his most secret strongholds. Heading into the mountains and the fabled Land of Chilling Mists, the Panther discovers mutagenic temple the Resurrection Altar.

Used by Killmonger to create his grotesque super-warriors, it is presided over by scientifically-spawned vampire Sombre. When T’Challa confronts them, he is again overpowered by Erik and left for the wolves to devour in ‘Blood Stains on Virgin Snow!’

Craig Russell inked the next chapter as, enduring incomprehensible hardships in sub-arctic conditions, T’Challa perseveres to follow Killmonger into the temperate swamps of Serpent Valley in #13.

However, this is only after facing a pack of Wakanda’s white apes. To survive, the Panther must blasphemously ignore the sacred religious aspect of the mighty carnivores and become ‘The God Killer’

Following a Venomm pin-up, JA #14 reveals that ‘There Are Serpents Lurking in Paradise’ (inked by Pablo Marcos) as T’Challa again clashes with Sombre and encounters an affable forest sprite guarding Serpent Valley. Pixie-like Mokadi asks difficult moral questions as T’Challa rushes towards his next battle with Killmonger, making him too late to stop the rebel capturing a legion of the valley’s awesome dinosaurs. The usurper even has time to leave one behind as a lethal parting gift for the embattled Wakandan chieftain…

The endgame rapidly approached in #15 as ‘Thorns in the Flesh, Thorns in the Mind’ (inked by Dan Green) finds T’Challa tracking his nemesis only to be overcome by Killmonger’s archer assassin Salamander K’Ruel and left to be dismembered by a ravenous Pterosaur before – against all odds – staggering back to Monica for another bout of recuperation…

Graham inked his own pencils for the beginning of the end in #16 as T’Challa and Monica’s time of idyllic passion culminates in catastrophe when ‘And All Our Past Decades Have Seen Revolutions!’ reveals the origins of Killmonger and sees the vast cast all converge for one final battle…

That comes in #17 as an army of war-trained dinosaurs invades Central Wakanda only to be finally crushed by the Panther’s forces and superior technology. The affair concludes as it began at Warrior Falls, but ‘Of Shadows and Rages’ also holds a shocking twist as the great game of kings is decided by a player no one considered of any relevance…

With its nuanced emotional interplay, extended scope and fiercely independent supporting cast, Panther’s Rage was a milestone in dramatic comics storytelling but it harboured one last punch in a gripping ‘Epilogue!’ (Jungle Action #18, November 1975). Bob McLeod inked McGregor & Graham’s forceful look at the repercussions of conflict as T’Challa and maimed security chief Wakabi are targeted by feral woman Madame Slay: Killmonger’s ardent and unsuspected lover who believes her loss can only be assuaged by having her pack of loyal leopards eviscerate the victorious Wakandans…

Cover-dated January 1976, Jungle Action #19 opened McGregor’s most audacious and ultimately frustrating project, as T’Challa accompanies Monica back to America. The Panther versus the Klan shifted focus from war stories to detective fiction, replacing fabulously exotic Africa for America’s poverty-wracked, troubled Deep South and a head-on collision with centuries of entrenched and endemic racism.

Illustrated by Graham & McLeod, ‘Blood and Sacrifices!’ sees Monica reunite with her family after her sister is murdered. All too soon T’Challa is battling a gang of purple-hooded killers who appear to have set up in opposition to the ancient white-hooded Ku Klux Klan. Moreover, both sects seem determined to conceal the truth of Angela Lynne’s death…

A break comes when bumbling, well-meaning reporter Kevin Trublood stumbles into an attack on the newcomers by the strangely multi-racial Klan sect calling itself the Dragon Circle

With neither townsfolk nor lawmen offering any welcome, T’Challa faces unbridled hostility and suspicion at every turn. He is even attacked by cops and a mob of citizens when he thwarts a knife attack on Monica. Although Sheriff Roderick Tate makes all the right noises and seems helpful, in ‘They Told Me a Myth I Wanted to Believe’, the Panther opts to pursue his own investigation before being overwhelmed by an army of white-robed Klansmen who tie him to a burning cross and leave him to die…

As Monica and Kevin puzzle out the convoluted web of mysteries, the Panther exerts all his gifts to escape becoming ‘A Cross Burning Darkly Blackening the Night!’ Later, as he slowly recovers in hospital, the family, Kevin and Tate review the few verifiable facts of Angela’s demise before patriarch Lloyd Lynne urges T’Challa to stop looking. He only has one daughter left after all…

Nevertheless, when the Panther and Trublood invade and disrupt a Klan rally, Lloyd is right there with them…

With Rick Buckler joining Graham on pencils and Jim Mooney alternating with McCleod on inks, Jungle Action #22 takes a bizarre turn as ‘Death Riders on the Horizon’ explores a Lynne family legend dating back to the formative days of the Klan in 1867 when old Caleb was targeted by the vile southern knights and their seemingly supernatural sponsor the Soul Strangler. As Monica listens to the ghastly, appallingly unjust tale, her mind fills in how T’Challa would have acted in such a hopeless situation…

Issue #23 (September 1976) was a deadline missed and a rapidly-sourced reprint from Daredevil #69 – represented here only by the pertinent cover and a Buckler pin-up – before this tantalising tale is unhappily cut short in final published instalment ‘Wind Eagle in Flight’ (by McGregor, Buckler & Keith Pollard).

The multi-layered, many-stranded plot suddenly expands as the Black Panther is almost killed by a mysterious new player who flies into the ever-more bewildering clash between cops, Klan, Dragon Circle and Lynne family, but, before the mystery could move any further, Jungle Action was cancelled…

A wholly different kind of Black Panther and utterly unrelated adventures would reappear two months later, under the auspices of returning creative colossus Jack Kirby. It would be years before the enigma of Angela’s death and the hero’s war against the Klan would be resolved…

So that’s what to look forward to in the next volume…

Here, however, a passionate reminiscence and appraisal follows in an ‘Afterword by Dwayne McDuffie’, as well as John Romita’s cover for Jungle Action #5; original cover art, pages and sketches by Buckler & Janson and Kane; pencils and layouts by Graham and Buckler as well as Steve Gerber’s ‘Jungle Re-Actions’ feature from JA #7, plus the un-inked Buckler story pages that would have been #25.

Also included are McGregor’s correspondence with then-fan Ralph Macchio and the author’s original working notes, plot synopses and candid contemporary photos of the close-knit creative team.

A truly bold masterpiece of comics narrative, Don McGregor’s Black Panther is stark, vibrant proof that the superhero genre works best when ambitious and passionate creators are given their head and let loose to get on with it. Now, supported by a major movie, perhaps readers will finally see how the Fights ‘n’ Tights game should be played…
© 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 2016 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.