Inhumans Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Archie Goodwin, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Gene Colan, Neal Adams, Mike Sekowsky & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-41419 (HC)                 978-0-7851-4142-6 (TPB)

Debuting in 1965 and conceived as one more incredible lost civilisation during Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s most fertile and productive creative period, The Inhumans are a secretive race of phenomenally disparate beings genetically altered by aliens in Earth’s primordial pre-history.

They subsequently evolved into a technologically-advanced civilisation far ahead of emergent Homo Sapiens and isolated themselves from the world and barbarous dawn-age humans, first on an island and latterly in a hidden valley in the Himalayas, residing in a fabulous city named Attilan.

The mark of citizenship is immersion in the mutative Terrigen Mists which further enhance and transform individuals into radically unique and generally super-powered beings. The Inhumans are necessarily obsessed with genetic structure and heritage, worshipping the ruling Royal Family as the rationalist equivalent of mortal gods.

With a new TV series debuting to mixed reviews and reactions, it’s worth taking a look at how the hereditary outsiders first impacted the Marvel Universe and this tome (available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions) compiles their first solo-starring appearances from the Tales of the Uncanny Inhumans back-up series in Thor #146-153, a one-off yarn from Marvel Super-Heroes #15, their run in Amazing Adventures #1-10, plus a guest shot in Avengers #95, spanning the period November 1967 to January 1972. Also included are a trio of spoof features taken from Not Brand Echh #6 and 12 (February 1968 and February 1969).

Designed to delight all fanboy truth-seekers, the Introduction by Mark Evanier sets the ball rolling with candid and informative behind-the-scenes revelations detailing the true publishing agenda and “Secret Origin of the Inhumans”, before reintroducing the Royal Family of Attilan. Black Bolt, Medusa, Triton, Karnak, Gorgon, Crystal and the rest would soon become mainstays of the Marvel Universe.

The hidden race began their first solo feature in from Thor #146: a series of complete, 5-page vignettes detailing some of the tantalising backstory so effectively hinted at in previous appearances. ‘The Origin of… the Incomparable Inhumans’ (by Lee, Kirby & Joe Sinnott) plunges back to the dawn of civilisation where cavemen flee in fear from technologically advanced humans who live on an island named Attilan.

In that futuristic metropolis, wise King Randac finally makes a decision to test out his people’s latest discovery: genetically mutative Terrigen rays…

The saga expands a month later in ‘The Reason Why!’ as Earth’s duly-appointed Kree Sentry visits the island and reveals how his masters in ages past experimented on an isolated tribe of primitive humanoids. Now observing their progress, the menacing mechanoid learns that the Kree lab rats have fully taken control of their genetic destiny and must now be considered Inhuman…

Skipping ahead 25,000 years, ‘…And Finally: Black Bolt!’ then reveals how a baby’s first cries wreck the city and reveal the infant prince to be an Inhuman unlike any other… one cursed with an uncontrollable sonic vibration which builds to unstoppable catastrophic violence with every utterance…

Raised in isolation, the prince’s 19th birthday marks his release into the city and contact with the cousins he has only ever seen on video screens. Sadly, the occasion is co-opted by Bolt’s envious brother Maximus who tortures the royal heir to prove he cannot be trusted to maintain ‘Silence or Death!’

Thor #150 (March 1968) saw the start of a lengthier continued tale as ‘Triton’ leaves the hidden city to explore the greater human world, only to be captured by a film crew making an underwater monster movie. Allowing himself to be brought back to America, the wily manphibian escapes when the ship docks and becomes an ‘Inhuman at Large!’

The series concluded with Triton on the run and a fish out of water ‘While the City Shrieks!’ before returning to Attilan with a damning assessment of the Inhumans’ lesser cousins…

The first Inhuman introduced to the world was the menacing Madame Medusa in Fantastic Four #36: a female super-villain joining team’s antithesis the Frightful Four. This sinister squad comprised evil genius The Wizard, shapeshifting Sandman and gadget fiend The Trapster and their battles against Marvel’s first family led to the exposure of the hidden race and numerous clashes with humanity.

In 1967 a proposed Inhumans solo series was canned before completion, but the initial episode was retooled and published in the company’s try-out vehicle Marvel Super-Heroes. Written by Archie Goodwin and illustrated by Gene Colan & Vince Colletta, ‘Let the Silence Shatter!’ appeared in #15 (July 1968), revealing how the villainous quartet were temporarily reunited after the Wizard promises a method for control Black Bolt’s deadly sonic affliction in return for Medusa’s services. As usual, the double-dealing mastermind betrays his unwilling accomplice but again underestimates her abilities and intellect, resulting in another humiliating defeat…

A few years later, bi-monthly “split-book” Amazing Adventures launched with an August 1970 cover-date and the Inhumans sharing the pages with a new Black Widow series. The big news however was that Kirby was both writing and illustrating the ‘The Inhumans!’

Inked by Chic Stone, the first episode saw the Great Refuge targeted by atomic missiles apparently fired by the Inhumans’ greatest allies, prompting a retaliatory attack on the Baxter Building and pitting ‘Friend Against Friend!’ However, even as the battle raged Black Bolt was taking covert action against the true culprits…

Issue #3 sees the uncanny outcasts as ‘Pawns of the Mandarin’ when the devilish tyrant tricks the Royal Family into uncovering a mega-powerful ancient artefact, but he is ultimately unable to cope with their power and teamwork in the concluding chapter ‘With These Rings I Thee Kill!’

AA #5 (March 1971) ushered in a radical change of tone and mood as the currently on-fire creative team of Roy Thomas & Neal Adams took over the strip after Kirby shockingly left Marvel for DC.

Inked by Tom Palmer, ‘His Brother’s Keeper’ sees Maximus finally employ a long-dormant power – mind-control – to erase Black Bolt’s memory and seize control of the Great Refuge.

The real problem however, is that at the moment the Mad One strikes, Black Bolt is in San Francisco on a secret mission. When the mind-wave hits, the stranger forgets everything and as a little boy offers assistance, ‘Hell on Earth!’ (inked by John Verpoorten) begins as a simple whisper shatters the docks and the vessels moored there…

As Triton, Gorgon, Karnak and Medusa flee the now utterly entranced Refuge in search of Black Bolt, ‘An Evening’s Wait for Death!’ finds little Joey and the still-bewildered Bolt captured by a radical black activist determined to use the Inhuman’s shattering power to raze the city’s foul ghettoes. A tense confrontation in the streets with the police draws storm god Thor into the conflict during ‘An Hour for Thunder!’, but when the dust settles it seems Black Bolt is dead…

Gerry Conway, Mike Sekowsky & Bill Everett assumed the storytelling duties with # 9 as The Inhumans took over the entire book. Reaching America, the Royal Cousins’ search for their king is interrupted when they are targeted by a cult of mutants.

‘…And the Madness of Magneto!’ reveals Black Bolt in the clutches of the Master of Magnetism who needs the usurped king’s abilities to help him steal a new artificial element but ‘In His Hands… the World!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) soon proves that with his memory restored nothing and no one can long make the mightiest Inhuman a slave…

The series abruptly ended there. Amazing Adventures #11 featured a new treatment of graduate X-Man Hank McCoy who rode the trend for monster heroes by accidentally transforming himself into a furry Beast. The Inhumans simply dropped out of sight until Thomas & Adams wove their dangling plot threads into the monumental epic unfolding from June 1971 to March 1972 in The Avengers #89-97.

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

It began when, in the distant Kree Empire, the ruling Supreme Intelligence is overthrown by his chief enforcer Ronan the Accuser. The rebellion results in humanity learning aliens hide among them, and public opinion turns against suerheroes for concealing the threat of repeated alien incursions…

A powerful allegory of the Anti-Communist Witch-hunts of the 1950s, the epic sees riots in American streets and a political demagogue capitalising on the crisis. Subpoenaed by the authorities, castigated by friends and public, the Avengers are ordered to disband.

Oddly omitted here, issue #94 entangles the Inhumans in the mix, disclosing that their advanced science and powers are the result of Kree genetic meddling in the depths of prehistory. With intergalactic war beginning, Black Bolt missing and his madly malign brother Maximus in charge, the Kree now come calling in their ancient markers…

Wrapping up the graphic wonderment here, ‘Something Inhuman This Way Comes…!’ (from Avengers #95, January 1972) coalesces many disparate story strands as aquatic adventurer Triton aids the Avengers against government-piloted Mandroids before beseeching the beleaguered heroes to help find his missing monarch and rescue his Inhuman brethren from the press-ganging Kree…

After so doing, the Avengers head into space to liberate their kidnapped comrades and save Earth from becoming collateral damage in the impending cosmos-shaking clash between Kree and Skrulls (a much-collected tale you’d be crazy to miss…).

Appended with creator biographies and House Ads for the Inhumans’ debut, the thrills and chills are topped off with three comedy vignettes. The first, from Not Brand Echh #6 (the “Big, Batty Love and Hisses issue!” of February 1968) reveals how ‘The Human Scorch Has to… Meet the Family!’: a snappy satire on romantic liaisons from Lee, Kirby & Tom Sutton, and is complimented by ‘Unhumans to Get Own Comic Book’ (Arnold Drake, Thomas & Sutton) and ‘My Search for True Love’ by Drake & Sutton: both from Not Brand Echh #12 (February 1969).

The first of these depicts how other artists might render the series – with contenders including faux icons bOb (Gnatman & Rotten) Krane, Chester (Dig Tracing) Ghoul and Charles (Good Ol’ Charlie…) Schlitz, whilst the second follows lovelorn Medoozy as she dumps her taciturn man and searches for fulfilment amongst popular musical and movie stars of the era…

These stories cemented the outsiders place in the ever-expanding Marvel universe and helped the company to overtake all its competitors. Although making little impact at the time they are still potent and innovative: as exciting and captivating now as they ever were. This is a must-have book for all fans of graphic narrative and followers of Marvel’s next cinematic star vehicle.
© 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avengers Masterworks volume 2

By Stan Lee, Don Heck, Dick Ayers & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3202-8 (HC)                    978-0785137085 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Immortal masterpieces to savour forever… 9/10

Whenever Jack Kirby left a title he’d co-created it took a little while to settle into a new rhythm, and none more so than the collectivised costumed crusaders called the Avengers. Although writer Stan Lee and the fabulously utilitarian Don Heck were perfectly capable of producing cracking comics entertainments, they never had The King’s unceasing sense of panoramic scope and vast scale which constantly searched for bigger, bolder blasts of excitement. After Kirby, the tales starring Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man, The Wasp and scene-stealing newcomer Captain America concentrated on frail human beings in costumes, not wild modern gods bestriding and shaking the Earth…

Following another Stan Lee introduction, the wonderment herein contained (covering issues #11-20, December 1964 – September 1965 and available in Hard Cover, Trade Paperback and eBook editions) begins with ‘The Mighty Avengers Meet Spider-Man!’; a clever and classy cross-fertilising tale inked by Chic Stone and featuring the return of time-bending tyrant Kang the Conqueror. Here, he attempts to destroy the team by insinuating a robotic duplicate of the outcast hero within their serried ranks. It’s accompanied by a Marvel Master Work Pin-up of ‘Kang!’ and followed by a cracking end-of-the-world thriller with Fantastic Four guest-villains Mole Man and the Red Ghost.

This was another Marvel innovation, as – according to established funnybook rules – bad guys stuck to their own nemeses and didn’t clash outside their own backyards….

‘This Hostage Earth!’ (inked by Dick Ayers) is a welcome return to grand adventure with lesser lights Giant-Man and the Wasp taking rare lead roles, but is trumped by a rousing gangster thriller of a sort seldom seen outside the pages of Spider-Man or Daredevil, which introduced Marvel universe Mafia analogue The Maggia and another major menace in #13’s ‘The Castle of Count Nefaria!’

After failing in his scheme to frame the Avengers, Nefaria was crushed, but the caper ended on a tragic cliffhanger as Janet Van Dyne is left gunshot and dying, leading to a peak in melodramatic tension in #14 (scripted by Paul Laiken & Larry Lieber over Stan’s plot) as the traumatised team scour the globe for the only surgeon who can save her.

‘Even Avengers Can Die!’ – although of course she didn’t – resolves into an epic alien invader tale with overtones of This Island Earth with Kirby stepping in to lay out the saga for Heck & Stone to illustrate, which only whets the appetite for a classic climactic confrontation as the costumed champions finally deal with the Masters of Evil and Captain America finally avenges the death of his dead partner Bucky.

‘Now, by My Hand, Shall Die a Villain!’ in #15 (again laid-out by Kirby, pencilled by Heck but now inked by Mike Esposito) features the final, fatal confrontation between Captain America and Baron Zemo in the heart of the Amazon jungle, whilst the other Avengers and Zemo’s cohort of masked menaces clash once more on the streets of New York City…

The battle ends in concluding episode ‘The Old Order Changeth!’ (again visually broken down by Kirby before being finished by Ayers) which presaged a dramatic change in concept for the series; presumably because, as Lee increasingly wrote to the company’s unique strengths – tight continuity and strongly individualistic characterisation – he found juggling individual stars in their own titles as well as a combined team episode every month was just incompatible if not impossible.

As Cap and teen sidekick Rick Jones fight their way back to civilisation, the Avengers set-up changes completely with big name stars retiring only to be replaced by three erstwhile villains: Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.

Eventually, led by perennial old soldier Captain America, this relatively powerless group with no outside titles to divide the attention (the Sentinel of Liberty did have a regular feature in Tales of Suspense but it was at that time recounting adventures set during the hero’s WWII career), evolved into another squabbling family of flawed, self-examining neurotics, enduring extended sub-plots and constant action as valiant underdogs; a formula readers of the time could not get enough of and which still works superbly well today…

Acting on advice from the departing Iron Man, the neophytes seek to recruit the Hulk to add raw power to the team, only to be sidetracked by the malevolent Mole Man in #17’s ‘Four Against the Minotaur!’ (Lee, Heck & Ayers), after which they then fall foul of a dastardly “commie” plot ‘When the Commissar Commands!’ – necessitating a quick trip to a thinly disguised Viet Nam analogue dubbed Sin-Cong and a battle against a bombastic android…

This brace of relatively run-of-the-mill tales is followed by an ever-improving run of mini-masterpieces starting with a 2-part gem providing an origin for Hawkeye and introducing a rogue-ish hero/villain to close this sturdy, full-colour compendium.

‘The Coming of the Swordsman!’ premiers a dissolute and disreputable swashbuckler – with just a hint of deeply-buried nobility – who attempts to force his way onto the highly respectable team. His rejection lead to him becoming an unwilling pawn of a far greater menace after being kidnapped by A-list world despot the Mandarin.

The conclusion comes in the superb ‘Vengeance is Ours!’ – inked by the one-&-only Wally Wood – wherein the constantly-bickering Avengers finally pull together as a supernaturally efficient, all-conquering super-team.

Augmented by original art, production-stage corrections photostats plus the usual round of Biographies, these immortal epics are tales that defined the Marvel experience and a joy no fan should deny themselves or their kids.
© 1963, 1964, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Golden Age All Winners Marvel Masterworks: Volume 1

By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Carl Burgos, Bill Everett, Al Avison & others (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6635-1

Unlike their Distinguished Competition, Marvel Comics took quite a while to get into producing expensive archival tomes such as this one reprinting some of their earliest comic adventures. In the cold hard light of day, it’s often fairly clear why.

The sad truth is that much Golden Age Marvel material is not only pretty offensive by modern standards, but is also of rather poor writing and art quality. Something of a welcome exception, however, is this venerable collection of quarterly super-hero anthology All Winners Comics #1-4 – available in hardback, paperback and digital formats.

Over the course of the first year’s publication (from Summer 1941 to Spring 1942) the stories and art varied incredibly (thanks to poor pay rates and the constant call-up of creators to serve overseas), but at least in terms of sheer variety the tales and characters excelled in exploring every avenue of patriotic thrill that might enthral ten-year old boys of all ages.

As well as Simon & Kirby, Lee, Burgos and Everett, the early work of Mike Sekowsky, Jack Binder, George Klein, Paul Gustavson, Harry Sahle, Paul Reinman, Al Avison, Al Gabrielle and many others can be found as they dashed out the adventures of Captain America, Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, Black Marvel, The Angel, The Mighty Destroyer, and The Whizzer.

This spectacular deluxe full-colour compendium opens with a fulsome and informative introduction from Roy Thomas – architect of Marvel’s Golden Age revival – ably abetted by Greg Theakston, detailing the strife and exigencies of churning out fun-fodder under wartime restrictions, after which All Winners Comics #1 commences with Human Torch and flaming kid Toro hunting insidious Japanese agent Matsu as the spy terrorises the peaceful pro-American Orientals of New York’s Chinatown in ‘Carnival of Fiends’ (by Carl Burgos), whilst Stan Lee, Al Avison & Al Gabriele set Indian-reared perfect specimen Black Marvel on the trail of ‘The Order of the Hood’: a well-connected gang of West Coast bandits…

Joe Simon & Jack Kirby then contribute a magnificent Captain America thriller-chiller in ‘The Case of the Hollow Men’: battling a plague of beggars turned into marauding zombies by Nazi super-science.

Stripling Stan Lee & Ed Winiarski contribute a thinly disguised infomercial text tale of ‘All Winners’ after which an untitled Bill Everett Sub-Mariner yarn sees the errant Prince of Atlantis uncover and promptly scupper a nest of saboteurs on the Virginia coastline whilst the inexplicably ubiquitous Angel travels to the deep dark Central American jungle to solve ‘The Case of the Mad Gargoyle’ with typical ruthless efficiency in an engaging end-piece by Alan Mandel

All-Winners #2 was cover-dated Fall 1941 and began with Harry Sahle’s Human Torch thriller ‘Carnival of Death!’ wherein the incendiary android and his mutant sidekick tackle a madly murderous knife-thrower running amok in a winter playground for the wealthy, after which ‘The Strange Case of the Malay Idol’ (Simon & Kirby) finds the Sentinel of Liberty and his youthful aide on a tropical island battling a sinister native death-cult secretly sponsored by the Nazis…

Lee graduates to full comic strips in ‘Bombs of Doom!’ as Jack Binder illustrates the All Winners debut of charismatic, behind-enemy-lines hero The Mighty Destroyer; followed by text feature ‘Winners All’: another Lee puff-piece embellished with a Kirby group-shot of the anthology’s cast before second new guy The Whizzer kicks off a long run with a Lee/Paul Reinman tale of spies and society murderers on the home-front.

After a page of believe-it-or-not ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ a ghost artist illuminates ‘The Ghost Fleet’ to end the issue with another Sub-Mariner versus Nazi submariners all-action romp…

All Winners #3 pits the Torch against Japanese terrorists in ‘The Case of the Black Dragon Society’, a rather over-the-top slice of cartoon jingoism credited to Burgos but scripted by Sahle and drawn by another anonymous ghost squad.

Simon and Kirby had moved to National Comics by this issue and Al Avison was drawing Captain America now – with background inking from George Klein – and scripts by the mysterious S.T. Anley (geddit?), but ‘The Canvas of Doom!’ still rockets along with plenty of dynamite punch in a manic yarn about an artist who predicts murders in his paintings, before The Whizzer busts up corruption and slaughter at ‘Terror Prison’ in a rip-roarer from Lee, Mike Sekowsky & George Klein.

‘Jungle Drums’ is standard genre text filler-fare after which Everett triumphs once more with a spectacular maritime mystery as ‘Sub-Mariner visits the Ship of Horrors’ and The Destroyer turns the Fatherland upside down by wrecking ‘The Secret Tunnel of Death!’ in a blistering epic limned by Chad Grothkopf.

The final issue in this compendium was cover-dated Spring 1942 and – with enough lead time following the attack on Pearl Harbor – the patriotic frenzy mill was clearly in full swing.

A word of warning: though modern readers might well blanch at the racial and sexual stereotyping of the (presumably) well-intentioned propaganda machines which generated tales such as ‘Death to the Nazi Scourge’ and ‘The Terror of the Slimy Japs’, please try to remember the tone of those times and recall that these contents obviously need to be read in an historical rather than purely entertainment context.

The aforementioned ‘Terror of the Slimy Japs’ by Burgos & Sahle has Human Torch and Toro routing Moppino, High Priest of the Rising Sun Temple (and saboteur extraordinaire) from his lair beneath New York, whilst Cap and Bucky content themselves with solving ‘The Sorcerer’s Sinister Secret!’ (Avison & Klein) and foiling another Japanese sneak attack before The Whizzer stamps out ‘Crime on the Rampage’ in a breakneck campaign illustrated by Howard “Johns” nee James.

‘Miser’s Gold’ is just one more genre text tale followed by an Everett inspired-&-guided but ultimately unknown creative team’s take on the other war as ‘Sub-Mariner Combats the Sinister Horde!’ …of Nazis, this time… after which the Destroyer brings down the final curtain by hunting down sadistic Gestapo chief torturer Heinrich Bungler in and declaring ‘Death to the Nazi Scourge!’.

Augmented by covers by Alex Schomburg, Jack Binder & Avison, a string of rousing house ads and other original ephemera, this is a collection of patriotic populist publishing from the dawn of a new and cut-throat industry, working under war-time conditions in a much less enlightened time. That these nascent efforts grew into the legendary characters and brands of today attests to their intrinsic attraction and fundamental appeal, but this is a book of much more than simple historical interest. Make no mistake, there’s still much here that any modern fan can and will enjoy.
© 1941, 1942, 2013, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avengers Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Chic Stone & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-0883-2 (HC)                    978-0 7851 3706 1 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Timeless Classics to Enjoy Forever … 10/10

After a period of meteoric expansion, in 1963 the burgeoning Marvel Universe was finally ready to emulate the successful DC concept that cemented the legitimacy of the Silver Age of American comics.

The concept of putting a bunch of all-star eggs in one basket which had made the Justice League of America such a winner had inspired the moribund Atlas outfit – primarily Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko – into inventing “super-characters” of their own. The result in 1961 was the Fantastic Four.

Nearly 18 months later the fledgling House of Ideas had a viable stable of leading men (but only sidekick women) so Lee & Kirby assembled a handful of them and moulded them into a force for justice and soaring sales…

Seldom has it ever been done with such style and sheer exuberance. Cover dated September 1963, The Avengers #1 launched as part of an expansion package which also included Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos and The X-Men

Marvel’s Masterwork’s collections – available in hardcover, paperback and digital formats – are only one of many series faithfully compiling those groundbreaking tales and this premier volume gathers #1-10 of The Avengers spanning March 1963 to November 1964: a sequence no lover of superhero stories can do without…

Following an introduction from Stan the Man himself, the suspenseful action kicks off with ‘The Coming of the Avengers’: one of the cannier origin tales in comics. Instead of starting at a zero point and acting as if the reader knew nothing, Stan & Jack (plus inker Dick Ayers) assumed readers had at least a passing familiarity with Marvel’s other titles and wasted very little time or energy on introductions.

In Asgard, Loki is imprisoned on a dank isle, hungry for vengeance on his half-brother Thor. Observing Earth, the god of evil espies the monstrous, misunderstood Hulk and mystically engineers a situation wherein the man-brute seemingly goes on a rampage, simply to trick the Thunder God into battling the monster.

When the Hulk’s sidekick Rick Jones radios the Fantastic Four for assistance, devious Loki diverts the transmission and smugly awaits the blossoming of his mischief. Sadly, Iron Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp also pick up the redirected SOS….

As the heroes converge in the American Southwest to search for the Jade Giant, they soon realize that something is oddly amiss…

This terse, epic, compelling and wide-ranging yarn (New York, New Mexico, Detroit and Asgard in 22 pages) is Lee & Kirby at their bombastic best and one of the greatest stories of the Silver Age (it’s certainly high in my own top ten Marvel Tales) and is followed by ‘The Space Phantom’ (Lee, Kirby & Paul Reinman), wherein an alien shape-stealer almost destroys the team from within.

With latent animosities exposed by the malignant masquerader, the tale ends with the volatile Hulk quitting the team in disgust, only to return in #3 as an outright villain in partnership with ‘Sub-Mariner!’

This globe-trotting romp delivers high-energy thrills and one of the best battle scenes in comics history as the assorted titans clashed in abandoned World War II tunnels beneath the Rock of Gibraltar.

Inked by George Roussos Avengers #4 was an epic landmark as Marvel’s greatest Golden Age sensation was revived for another increasingly war-torn era. ‘Captain America joins the Avengers!’ has everything that made the company’s early tales so fresh and vital. The majesty of a legendary warrior returned in our time of greatest need: stark tragedy in the loss of his boon companion Bucky, aliens, gangsters, Sub-Mariner and even subtle social commentary and – naturally – vast amounts of staggering Kirby Action.

Reinman returned to ink ‘The Invasion of the Lava Men!’: another staggering adventure romp as the team battle superhuman subterraneans and a world-threatening mutating mountain with the unwilling assistance of the Hulk…

However, even that pales before the supreme shift in quality that was Avengers #6.

Chic Stone – arguably Kirby’s best Marvel inker of the period – joined the creative team just as a classic arch-foe debuts. ‘The Masters of Evil!’ reveals how Nazi super-scientist Baron Zemo is forced by his own arrogance and paranoia out of the South American jungles he’s been skulking in since the Third Reich fell, after learning his hated nemesis Captain America has returned from the dead.

To this end, the ruthless war-criminal recruits a gang of super-villains to attack New York City and destroy the Avengers. The unforgettable clash between valiant heroes and the vile murdering mercenaries Radioactive Man, Black Knight and the Melter is an unsurpassed example of prime Marvel magic to this day.

Issue #7 followed up with two more malevolent recruits for the Masters of Evil as Asgardian outcasts Enchantress and the Executioner ally with Zemo just as Iron Man is suspended from the team due to misconduct occurring in his own series (this was the dawning of the close-continuity era where events in one series were referenced and even built upon in others)…

It may have been ‘Their Darkest Hour!’ but Avengers #8 held the greatest triumph and tragedy as Jack Kirby (inked with fitting circularity by Dick Ayers) relinquished his drawing role with the superb and entrancing invasion-from-time thriller which introduced ‘Kang the Conqueror!’

The Avengers evolved into an entirely different series when the subtle humanity of Don Heck’s work replaced the larger-than-life bombastic bravura of Kirby. The series had rapidly advanced to monthly circulation and even The King could not draw the massive number of pages his expanding workload demanded.

Heck was a gifted and trusted artist with a formidable record for meeting deadlines and, progressing under his pencil, sub-plots and character interplay finally got as much space as action and spectacle.

His first outing was the memorable tragedy ‘The Coming of the Wonder Man!’ (inked by Ayers) wherein the Masters of Evil plant superhuman Trojan Horse Simon Williams within the ranks of the Avengers, only to have the conflicted infiltrator find deathbed redemption amongst the heroes…

This glorious collection concludes with the introduction of malignant master of time Immortus who briefly combines with Zemo’s devilish cohort to engineer a fatal division in the ranks when ‘The Avengers Break Up!’

Accompanied by a Marvel Masterwork Pin-Up of ‘The One and Only Cap’ the bonus features in this titanic tome include September 1963 house ads for the imminently debuting Avengers, a previous Kirby Masterworks cover colourised by painter Dean White, original cover art for Avenger #4 and Alex Ross’s recreation of it for the 1999 Overstreet Guide to Comics plus the usual round of Creator Biographies.

These immortal epics are tales that defined the Marvel experience and a joy no fan should deny themselves or their kids.
© 1963, 1964, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain Marvel: Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Arnold Drake, Gene Colan, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6756-3

After years as an also-ran and up-and-comer, by 1968 Marvel Comics was in the ascendant. Their sales were catching up with industry leaders National/DC Comics and Gold Key, and they finally secured a new distribution deal that would allow them to expand their list of titles exponentially. Once the stars of “twin-books” Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish and Strange Tales all got their own titles the House of Ideas just kept on creating.

One dead-cert idea was a hero named after 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 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.

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

Marvel Super-Heroes was a brand-new title: it had been the giant-sized reprint comicbook Fantasy Masterpieces, combining monster and mystery tales with Golden Age Timely Comics classics, but with the twelfth issue it added an all-new experimental section for characters without homes such as Medusa, Ka-Zar, Black Knight and Doctor Doom, and debuted new concepts like Guardians of the Galaxy, Phantom Eagle and, to start the ball rolling, an troubled alien spy sent to Earth from the Kree Galaxy. He held a Captain’s rank and his name was Mar-Vell.

Most of that is covered in series-author Roy Thomas’ Introduction before this cosmically conceived tome – available in hardcover, paperback and digital editions – kicks off. On offer are the origin adventure from Marvel Super-Heroes #12-13 and the contents of Captain Marvel #1-9 collectively spanning cover-dates December 1967 to January 1969…

Crafted by Stan Lee, Gene Colan & Frank Giacoia, the initial MS-H 15 page-instalment ‘The Coming of Captain Marvel’ devolved directly from Fantastic Four #64-65 wherein the quartet defeated a super-advanced Sentry robot from a mythical alien race, only to be attacked by a high official of those long-lost extraterrestrials in the very next issue!

After defeating Ronan the Accuser, the FF heard no more from the far from extinct Kree, but the millennia-old empire was once again interested in Earth. Dispatching a surveillance mission, the Kree wanted to know everything about us. Unfortunately, the agent they chose was a man of conscience; whilst his commanding officer Colonel Yon-Rogg was a ruthless rival for the love of the ship’s medical officer Una.

No sooner has the good captain made a tentative planet-fall and clashed with the US army from the local missile base (often hinted at as being Cape Kennedy) than the first instalment ends. Stan and Gene had set the ball rolling but it was left to Roy Thomas to establish the basic ground-rules in the next episode.

Colan remained, this time with Paul Reinman inking. ‘Where Stalks the Sentry!’ sees the alien spy improving his weaponry before an attempt by Yon-Rogg to kill him destroys a light aircraft carrying scientist Walter Lawson to that military base.

Assuming Lawson’s identity, Mar-Vell infiltrates “The Cape” but arouses the suspicions of security Chief Carol Danvers. He is horrified to discover that the Earthlings are storing the Sentry (defeated by the FF) on base. Yon-Rogg, sensing an opportunity, activates the deadly mechanoid. As it goes on a rampage only Mar-Vell stands in its path…

That’s a lot of material for twenty pages but Thomas and Colan were on a roll. With Vince Colletta inking, the third chapter was not in Marvel Super-Heroes but in the premiere issue of the Captain’s own title released for May 1968

‘Out of the Holocaust… A Hero!’ is an all-out action thriller, which still made space to establish twin sub-plots of “Lawson’s” credibility and Mar-Vell’s inner doubts. The faithful Kree soldier is rapidly losing faith in his own race and falling under the spell of the Earthlings…

The Captain’s first foray against a super-villain is revealed in the next two issues as we find that the Kree and the shapeshifting Skrulls are intergalactic rivals, and the latter want to know why there’s an enemy soldier stationed on Earth.

Sending their own top agent in ‘From the Void of Space Comes the Super Skrull!’, the resultant battle almost levels the entire state before bombastically concluding with the Kree on top ‘From the Ashes of Defeat!’

Issue #4 saw the secret invader clashing with fellow anti-hero Sub-Mariner in ‘The Alien and the Amphibian!’ as Mar-Vell’s superiors make increasingly ruthless demands of their reluctant agent.

Captain Marvel #5 saw Arnold Drake & Don Heck assume the creative chores (with John Tartaglione on inks) in cold-war monster-mash clash ‘The Mark of the Metazoid’, wherein a mutated Soviet dissident is forced by his militaristic masters to kidnap Walter Lawson (that’s narrative symmetry, that is).

Issue #6 then finds the Captain ‘In the Path of Solam!’; battling a marauding sun-creature before being forced to prove his loyalty by unleashing a Kree bio-weapon on an Earth community in ‘Die, Town, Die!’ However, all is not as it seems since Quasimodo, the Living Computer is also involved…

The romantic triangle sub-plot was wearing pretty thin by this time, as was the increasingly obvious division of Mar-Vell’s loyalties, so a new examination of Dr Lawson, whose identity the Kree man purloined, begins in #8’s ‘And Fear Shall Follow!’.

Wrapping up this first volume is another alien war story as Yon-Rogg is injured by rival space imperialists the Aakon. In the battle Mar-Vell’s heroism buys him a break from suspicion but all too soon he’s embroiled with a secret criminal gang and a robot assassin apparently built by the deceased Lawson, and trouble escalates when the surviving Aakon stumble into the mess in ‘Between Hammer and Anvil!’

Fascinating extras added in here include a full cover gallery, creator biographies, the December 1967 Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page announcing the coming of Captain Marvel, plus sublime pencil-art pages by Colan: the full 16 un-inked pages from Marvel Super-Heroes #13 for art-lovers to drool over. Glorious!
© 1967, 1968, 1969, 2013 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks volume 16

By Len Wein, Bill Mantlo, Archie Goodwin, Ross Andru, Gil Kane, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8801-8

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

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

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

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

By the time of the tales in this 16th superbly scintillating full-colour hardcover compendium (and eBook) of web-spinning adventures the wondrous wallcrawler was a global figure and prime contender for the title of the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero. Spanning May 1976 to May 1977 and chronologically re-presenting Amazing Spider-Man #156-168 and Annual #10, the dramas are preceded by an appreciative appraisal from J.M. DeMatteis in his Introduction before the action resumes.

A long-running romance-thread finally culminates here in the oft-delayed wedding of Pete’s old flame Betty Brant to reporter Ned Leeds, but the nuptials are sadly interrupted by a new costumed crook in ‘On a Clear Day, You Can See… the Mirage!’ (by scripter Len Wein and illustrators Ross Andru & Mike Esposito), even as a sinister hobo who had been haunting the last few yarns came fully into the spotlight…

In the past, a protracted struggle for control of New York between Dr Octopus and cyborg gangster Hammerhead escalated into a full-on and small-scale nuclear near-armageddon, with Spidey and elderly May Parker caught in the middle. The devilish duel concluded with a nuclear explosion and the seeming end of two major antagonists…

However, #157 exposed ‘The Ghost Who Haunted Octopus!’ as the debased, long-limbed loon turns again to Aunt May for his salvation.

With Peter in attendance, the many-handed menace seeks to escape a brutal ghost stalking but their combined actions actually liberate a pitiless killer from inter-dimensional limbo in ‘Hammerhead is Out!’, leading to a savage three-way showdown with Spidey ‘Arm-in-Arm-in-Arm-in-Arm-in-Arm-in-Arm with Doctor Octopus’ to save the horrified Widow Parker…

A new insectoid arch-foe debuted in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #10, courtesy of plotter Wein, scripter Bill Mantlo and artists Gil Kane, Esposito & Frank Giacoia as ‘Step into my Parlor…’ depicts obsessed Spider-hater J. Jonah Jameson hiring outcast, exceedingly fringe-science biologist Harlan Stilwell to create yet another tailor-made nemesis to eradicate the webslinger.

Elsewhere meanwhile, that detested hero is breaking up a vicious hostage situation manufactured by psychotic Rick Deacon, but when the killer escapes and breaks into a certain lab he is rapidly transformed into a winged wonder-man hungry for payback on the web-spinner in ‘…Said the Spider to the Fly!’

Back in the monthly periodical the opening shot in an extended epic was fired as a criminal inventor – and one of the web-spinner’s oldest enemies – recovers Spidey’s long ditched and satisfactorily drowned vehicle, before tricking it out to hunt down its original owner in #160’s ‘My Killer the Car!’ (Wein, Andru & Esposito)…

Having narrowly escaped doom and debacle in equal measure the wallcrawler met a new friend and clashed with an old one, but rising star Frank Castle was reduced to a bit-player in Amazing Spider-Man #162-163 (October and November 1976, by the regular creatives), as the newly-reconstituted X-Men were sales-boosted via a guest-clash in ‘…And the Nightcrawler Came Prowling, Prowling’, wherein the Amazing Arachnid jumps to a very wrong conclusion after a sniper shoots a reveller at Coney Island.

By the time moody mutant Nightcrawler has explained himself – in the tried-&-true Marvel manner of fighting the webspinner to a standstill – old skull-shirt has turned up to take them both on before mutual foe Jigsaw is exposed as the real assassin in concluding episode ‘Let the Punisher Fit the Crime!’

The mystery villain behind many of Spider-Man’s recent woes is exposed in ‘All the Kingpin’s Men!’ as a succession of audacious tech-robberies leads the wallcrawler into another confrontation with the deadly crime lord. This time however, the Machiavellian mobster is playing for personal stakes. His son has been on the verge of death for months and his remedy is to electronically transfer the hero’s life force into the ailing patient. Discarded after the process, Peter Parker’s impending ‘Deadline!’ is extended by old friend Curt Connors until Spider-Man can explosively set things right…

That helping hand comes at a cost in ASM #165 as Dinosaur Man ‘Stegron Stalks the City!’, attempting to revivify the fossilised skeletons of Saurians in the city’s museums. To expedite his actions Steggy blackmails Connors and accidentally unleashes the biologist’s alter ego The Lizard, prompting a ‘War of the Reptile-Men!’ in #166…

Jameson then tries again to destroy his personal Bête Noir by hiring glamourous technologist Dr. Marla Manning to construct an upgraded mechanoid hunter, leaving our hero ‘…Stalked by the Spider-Slayer!’ in #167.

Spider-Man barely notices though, as a new menace is attracting his attention: an eerie ephemeral bandit called Will o’ the Wisp, clearly stealing for a monster with a hidden agenda and no mercy…

The never-ending battle temporarily pauses with the last story in this compilation as the hero, the Spider-Slayer and the deadly pawn all clash in the middle of Manhattan where tragedy is presaged by ‘Murder on the Wind!’

Added extras this go-round include original cover art by John Romita and art pages by Andru and Esposito to complete another superb selection starring an increasingly relevant teen icon and symbol. Spider-Man at this time became a crucial part of many youngsters’ existence and did so by living a life as close to theirs as social mores and the Comics Code would allow.

Blending cultural veracity with glorious art whilst making a dramatic virtue of the awkwardness, confusion and sense of powerlessness most of the readership experienced daily resulted in an irresistibly intoxicating read, delivered in addictive prime time melodrama moments, but none of that would be relevant if the stories weren’t so compellingly entertaining.
© 1976, 1977, 2016 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Defenders Masterworks volume 2

By Steve Englehart, Tony Isabella, Len Wein, Sal Buscema, Bob Brown, Jim Starlin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4216-4

The Defenders were the last of the big star-name conglomerate super-groups, and would eventually number amongst their membership almost every hero – and some few villains – in the Marvel Universe. No real surprise there, since the initial line-up was composed of the company’s major league bad-boys: misunderstood and mad, outcast and bad and so often actually dangerous to know.

The genesis of the team derived from their status as publicly distrusted “villains”, and they never achieved the “in-continuity” fame or acceptance of other teams, but that simply seemed to leave the creators open to taking a few more chances and playing the occasional narrative wild card.

This second sterling and sturdy hardcover (and eBook) masterworks collection assembles a veritable host of Fights ‘n’ Tights wonders from a large list of sources: Defenders #7-16, Giant Sized Defenders #1 and Avengers #115-118, encompassing cover-dates August 1973 to October 1974 and commences after author Steve Englehart shares recollections of his groundbreaking tenure in an informative Introduction, after which Defenders #7 jumps right in as Len Wein co-scripts with Englehart and Frank Bolle inks Sal Buscema in ‘War Below the Waves!’

Here tempestuous ex-Avenger Hawkeye temporarily climbs aboard the “non-team” bandwagon to help defeat the undersea threat of Attuma and soviet renegade the Red Ghost; a bombastic battle to usurp the Sub-Mariner of his titles and kingdom concluded a month later in ‘…If Atlantis Should Fall!’ with Englehart once more providing all the words and Frank McLaughlin inking…

Since Defenders #4 the forward-thinking scripter had been putting players in place for a hugely ambitious cross-over experiment: one that would turn the comics industry on its head, and next here comes a little prologue taken from the end of Avengers #115 which finally set the ball rolling.

Drawn by Bob Brown & Mike Esposito, ‘Alliance Most Foul!’ sees interdimensional despot the Dread Dormammu and Asgardian god of Evil Loki unite to search for an ultimate weapon to give them final victory against their foes. They resolve to trick the Defenders into securing the six component parts by “revealing” that the reconstructed Evil Eye could restore the petrified Black Knight.

That plan was initiated at the end of Defenders #8: a brief opening chapter in ‘The Avengers/Defenders Clash’ entitled ‘Deception!’ as a message from the spirit of the Black Knight is intercepted by the twin entities of evil, leading directly to ‘Betrayal!’ in Avengers #116 (by Englehart Brown & Esposito) wherein the World’s Mightiest Heroes – hunting for their missing comrade – “discover” their old enemies Hulk and Sub-Mariner may have turned the Black Knight to stone.

This and third chapter ‘Silver Surfer Vs. the Vision and the Scarlet Witch’ see the rival teams split up: one to gather the scattered sections of the Eye and the other to stop them at all costs…

Defenders #9 (with Buscema & McLaughlin art) begins with tense recap ‘Divide …and Conquer’ before ‘The Invincible Iron Man Vs. Hawkeye the Archer’ and ‘Dr. Strange Vs. the Black Panther and Mantis’ sheds more suspicion and doubt on the vile villains’ subtle master-plan…

Avengers #117 ‘Holocaust’, ‘Swordsman Vs. the Valkyrie’ and crucial turning point ‘Captain America Vs. Sub-Mariner’ (Brown & Esposito) lead to the penultimate clash in Defenders #10 (Buscema & Bolle) in ‘Breakthrough! The Incredible Hulk Vs. Thor’ and the inevitable joining together of the warring camps in ‘United We Stand!’, but tragically too late as Dormammu seizes the reconstructed Evil Eye and uses its power to merge his monstrous realm with Earth.

Avengers #118 delivers the cathartic climactic conclusion in ‘To the Death’ (Brown, Esposito & Giacoia) wherein all the heroes of the Marvel Universe resist the demonic invasion as Avengers and Defenders plunge deep into the Dark Dimension itself to end forever the threat of the evil gods (or for the moment, at least…).

With the overwhelming cosmic threat over the victorious Defenders attempt to use the Eye to cure their petrified comrade, only to discover that his spirit has found a new home in the 12th century. In #11’s ‘A Dark and Stormy Knight’ (Bolle inks), the group battle black magic during the Crusades, fail to retrieve the Knight and acrimoniously go their separate ways – as did overworked departing scripter Englehart…

With issue #12 Len Wein assumed the writer’s role, starting a run of slightly more traditional costumed capers as Sal Buscema & Jack Abel illustrated the return of the mind-bending Xemnu in ‘The Titan Strikes Back!’ against a pared-down cast consisting of Strange, Valkyrie and the Hulk.

A bona fide hit, the non-team were part of a big experiment in extra-value comics that began with opens with Giant Sized Defenders #1 (July1974): a stunning combination of highly readable reprints wrapped in a classy framing sequence by Tony Isabella, Jim Starlin & Al Milgrom. The vintage thrills commence with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers’ ‘Banished to Outer Space’ from The Incredible Hulk #3, followed by magnificent 1950s Bill Everett Sub-Mariner fantasy-feast ‘Bird of Prey!’

From there the focus switches to Dr. Strange and the Denny O’Neil/Steve Ditko mini-masterpiece ‘To Catch a Magician!’ (Strange Tales #145) before the concoction concludes with a blockbusting battle as the star trio, sorcerer’s apprentice Clea and the valiant Valkyrie dispatch a self-inflicted mystic menace.

After a splendid double-page pin-up by Sal Buscema the regular epics resume for a spectacular Saves-the-World struggle against the villainous Squadron Sinister that opens in ‘For Sale: One Planet… Slightly Used!’ (featuring an early inking job for Klaus Janson) and concludes in the Dan Green-embellished ‘And Who Shall Inherit the Earth?’ as Marvel’s Batman-analogue Nighthawk unites with the Defenders to defeat his murderous former team-mates and aquatic alien marauder Nebulon, the Celestial Man.

Defenders #15 initiates a two-part duel with manic mutant Magneto who first institutes a ‘Panic Beneath the Earth!’ – courtesy of Wein, Buscema & Janson – leading X-Men mentor Charles Xavier to enlist the outcast heroes’ aid. The concluding clash includes the insidious Brotherhood of Evil and ‘Alpha, the Ultimate Mutant’ (inked by Esposito) as well as the apparent end of true master of evil…

Also included here are behind-the-scenes treats including contemporary house ads, creator biographies and previous collection covers by Carlos Pacheco, John Romita and Richard Isanove.

For the longest time, The Defenders was the best and weirdest superhero comicbook in the business, and if you love superheroes but crave something just a little different these yarns are for you… and the best is still to come.
© 1973, 1974, 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks volume 15

By Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Archie Goodwin, Ross Andru, Gil Kane, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6631-3

After a shaky start in 1962 The Amazing Spider-Man quickly rebounded, rapidly proving a sensation with kids of all ages and rivalling the creative powerhouse of Lee & Kirby’s Fantastic Four. Soon the quirky, charming, action-packed comicbook soap-opera would become the model for an entire generation of younger heroes elbowing aside the staid, (relatively) old costumed-crimebusters of previous publications.

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

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

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

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

The Amazing Spider-Man was always a comicbook that matured with – or perhaps just slightly ahead of – its fan-base, and this 15th exceptionally enthralling full-colour compendium of chronological web-spinning adventures confirms that notion as the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero survives one of the most macabre and Byzantine vengeance plots ever conceived. Further backing up the thought is author Gerry Conway’s farewell Introduction – ‘All Things Must Pass’ – which candidly revealed why after killing Peter’s one true love the editors and especially publisher moved heaven and earth to bring her back…

With the material in this sturdy Hardcover compilation (and latterly eBook) Stan Lee’s hand-picked successor Conway moved on after reaching a creative plateau giving way to fresh authorial guide Len Wein. However, scripts continued to blend contemporary issues (which of course often feel quite outdated from here in the 21st century) with soap opera subplots to keep older readers glued to the series as the outrageous adventure and bombastic battle sequences beguiled the youngsters.

Thematically, there’s further decline in the use of traditional crimes and gangsters, as super-science, outlandish villains and monsters took centre stage, but the most sensational advance was an insidious scheme which would reshape the nature of the web-spinner’s adventures for decades to come…

For all that, the wallcrawler was still indisputably mainstream comics’ voice of youth; defining being a teenager for young readers of the 1970s, tackling incredible hardships, fantastic foes and the most pedestrian and debilitating of frustrations.

High School nerd Peter Parker had grown up and gone to college. Because of his guilt-fuelled double-life he struggled there too, developed a stress ulcer but found true love with policeman’s daughter Gwen Stacy

This volume – spanning April 1975 to April 1976 – re-presents Amazing Spider-Man #143-155, Annual #10 and opens with Amazing Spider-Man #143 ‘…And the Wind Cries: Cyclone!’ (Conway Ross Andru, Frank Giacoia & Dave Hunt).

Peter Parker is in Paris to deliver a ransom and save kidnapped publisher J. Jonah Jameson but soon calls in his arachnid alter ego to deal with a hyper-fast French super-villain. The story is fairly run-of-the-mill but the real kicker comes from an overly-fond farewell expressed by “casual chum” Mary Jane Watson: a kiss that finally shifts traumatised, depressed Peter’s thoughts from his beloved, recently murdered Gwen

The creative team capitalised on the situation when Pete returns to New York and his – rather extraordinary – daily travails as #144 launched ‘The Delusion Conspiracy’, whilst #145 focuses on a baffled girl’s confusion and terror at everyone’s reactions when she comes home and the entire world screams ‘Gwen Stacy is Alive …and, Well…?!’

With Gwen somehow resurrected and Peter on the edge of a breakdown, Aunt May is hospitalised just in time for another old foe to strike again in ‘Scorpion… Where is Thy Sting?’, but the real kick in the tale is irrefutable scientific and medical reports proving the increasingly bewildered Miss Stacy is not an impostor but the genuine article…

In Spider-Man #147 Peter finds some answers as further tests prove Gwen is actually a true human clone (remember, this was new and cutting-edge stuff in 1975) but all too soon he’s distracted by another foe bad-guy with a grudge and hungry to prove ‘The Tarantula is a Very Deadly Beast’ (illustrated by Andru, Esposito & Hunt).

It’s all part of a convoluted and utterly Byzantine revenge scheme conceived by a malign old enemy. When the hero is ambushed by a mesmerised Gwen at the behest of the archfiend, ‘Jackal, Jackal, Who’s Got the Jackal?’ (art by Andru, Mike Esposito & Hunt) at last discloses some shocking truths about one of Peter’s most trusted friends before the Delusion Conspiracy explosively concludes with #149’s ‘Even if I Live, I Die!’ (Andru & Esposito).

Learning that he and Gwen had been covertly cloned by their biology teacher Miles Warren, the Amazing Arachnid has to defeat his alchemical double in a grim, no-holds-barred identity-duel, with neither sure who’s the real McCoy. The battle eventually results in the copy’s death… maybe…, perhaps… probably…

That moment of doubt over who actually fell informs anniversary issue Amazing Spider-Man #150, as Archie Goodwin, Gil Kane, Esposito & Giacoia take the hero down memory lane and up against a brigade of old antagonists to decide whether ‘Spider-Man… or Spider-Clone?’ survived that final fight, before debuting regular scripter Len Wein joins Andru & John Romita Sr. to launch a new era of adventure…

After disposing of his duplicate’s corpse in an incineration plant, Spider-Man finds time to let Peter reconnect with his long-neglected friends. However, a jolly party is soon disrupted as blackouts triggered by a super-menace lead the wallcrawler down into the sewers for a ‘Skirmish Beneath the Streets!’, resulting in our hero almost drowning and nearly being ‘Shattered by the Shocker!’(Esposito & Giacoia inks) in a conclusive and decisive return engagement…

A moving change-of-pace tale then finds a blackmailed former football star giving his all to save a child in ‘The Longest Hundred Yards!’ (Andru & Esposito) but it is left to Spider-Man to make the computer-crook culprits pay, after which #154 reveals ‘The Sandman Always Strikes Twice!’ (art by Sal Buscema & Esposito) – albeit with little lasting effect – until devious murder-mystery ‘Whodunnit!’ (Buscema & Esposito again) cunningly links three seemingly unconnected cases in a masterful “Big Reveal”…

This copious compendium then concludes with some contemporary house ads, an editorial explanation of the original “Clone Saga” and biographies. Despite some qualifications this is a superb selection starring an increasingly relevant teen icon and symbol. Spider-Man was and still is a crucial part of many youngsters’ existences: living a life as close to theirs as social mores and the good taste allow.

Blending cultural veracity with glorious art and making a dramatic virtue of the confusion, awkwardness and sense of powerlessness most of the readership experienced daily resulted in an irresistibly intoxicating read, delivered in addictive prime time melodrama moments, but none of that would be relevant if the stories weren’t so compellingly entertaining.

This action-packed collection comprises one of the most momentous periods in Spider-Man’s astounding life and is one every Fights ‘n’ Tights fanatic should see…
© 1975, 1976, 2011, 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Defenders Masterworks volume 1

By Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Sal Buscema, Ross Andru & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3044-4 (HC)

Last of the big star conglomerate super-groups, the Defenders would eventually count amongst its membership almost every hero – and a few villains – in the Marvel Universe. No surprise there then, as initially they were composed of the company’s bad-boy antiheroes: misunderstood, outcast and often actually dangerous to know.

For Marvel, the outsider super-group must have seemed a conceptual inevitability – once they’d finally published it. Apart from Spider-Man and Daredevil all their superstars regularly teamed up in various mob-handed assemblages and, in the wake of the Defenders’ success, even more super-teams comprising pre-existing characters were rapidly mustered. These included the Champions, Invaders, New Warriors and so on – but none of them had any really Very Big Guns…

For kids – of any and all ages – there is a positively primal fascination with brute strength and feeling dangerous, which surely goes some way towards explaining the perennial interest in angry tough guys who break stuff as best exemplified by Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner and the Incredible Hulk. When you add the mystery and magic of Doctor Strange, the recipe for thrills, spills and chills becomes simply irresistible…

Although the genesis of the team may have derived from their status as publicly distrusted but well-selling “villains”, originator Roy Thomas shares his own recollections and deeper ruminations in an informative Introduction which namechecks a pivotal continued experimental crossover which didn’t make the cut in this sterling and sturdy hardcover (and eBook) compendium.

I only mention it as the sinister antagonists of those tales play a crucial role in the later stories that do appear here; namely Sub-Mariner #34-35, Marvel Feature #1-3 and Defenders #1-6, spanning February 1971 through June 1973…

So, for fuller enjoyment, you might want to track down Dr. Strange #183(November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970) and Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970) – Essential Defenders volume 1 has those plus all these and much more, but only in stark monochrome reproduction – which collectively detailed how ancient necromantic threat the Undying Ones returned to bedevil Earth…

An elder race of demons hungry to reconquer humanity, they clashed with Stephen Strange, but as his series unexpectedly ended with that issue the story went nowhere until the Sub-Mariner #22 brought the Prince of Atlantis into the mix. A sterling tale of sacrifice in which the Master of the Mystic Arts seemingly died holding the gates of Hell shut with the Undying Ones pent behind them then concluded on an upbeat note in Incredible Hulk #126, after a New England cult dispatched helpless Bruce Banner to the nether realms in an attempt to undo Strange’s heroic gesture.

Luckily cultist Barbara Norris had last-minute second thoughts and her own sacrifice freed the mystic, seemingly ending the threat of the Undying Ones forever. At the end of that issue Strange retired, forsaking magic, although he was back before too long as the fates – and fickle reading tastes – called him back to duty.

The Defenders’ story officially begins here with Sub-Mariner #34-35 of his own title (February and March 1971). The Prince of Atlantis had become an early advocate of the ecology movement, and here he took the next step in their evolution by fractiously recruiting Hulk and the Silver Surfer to help him destroy an American Nuclear Weather-Control station.

In ‘Titans Three’ and the concluding ‘Confrontation’ (by Thomas, Sal Buscema & Jim Mooney) the always-misunderstood trio battled a despotic dictator’s forces, the US Army, UN defence forces and the mighty Avengers to prevent the malfunctioning station from accidentally vaporising half the planet…

With that debacle smoothed over life resumed its usual frenetic pace for the Hulk and Namor until giant-sized try-out comic Marvel Feature #1 (December 1971) presented ‘The Day of the Defenders!’ wherein a mysteriously returned Dr. Strange recruited the Avenging Son and the Jade Giant to help him stop the deathbed doom of crazed super-mind Yandroth.

Determined to not go gently into the dark, the Scientist Supreme had built an Omegatron weapon programmed to obliterate the Earth as soon as Yandroth’s heart stopped beating and only the brute strength of the misunderstood misanthropes could possibly stop it…

Naturally the fiend hadn’t told the whole truth but the day was saved – or at least postponed – in a canny classic from Thomas, Ross Andru & Bill Everett.

Clearly and immediately destined for great things, the astounding antiheroes returned in Marvel Feature #2 (March 1972) with Sal Buscema replacing Everett as inker for late Halloween treat ‘Nightmare on Bald Mountain!’

By capturing arch-foe Dr. Strange, extra-dimensional dark lord Dormammu sought to invade our realm through a portal in Vermont, only to be savagely beaten back by the mage’s surly sometime comrades, whilst in #3 (June 1972) Thomas, Andru & Everett reunited to revive an old Lee/Kirby “furry underpants” monster in ‘A Titan Walks Among Us!’

Xemnu the Titan was an alien super-telepath seeking to repopulate his desolate homeworld by stealing America’s children until thrashed by the Defenders, but older fans recognised him as the cover-hogging star of Journey into Mystery #62 (November 1960) where he acted as a road-test for a later Marvel star in a short tale entitled ‘I Was a Slave of the Living Hulk!’

An assured hit, The Defenders exploded swiftly into their own title (cover-dated August 1972), to begin a bold and offbeat run of reluctant adventures scripted by super-team wunderkind Steve Englehart. As a group of eclectic associates occasionally called together to save the world (albeit on a miraculously monotonous monthly basis) they were billed as a “non-team” – whatever that is – but it didn’t affect the quality of their super-heroic shenanigans.

With Sal Buscema as regular penciller an epic adventure ensued with ‘I Slay by the Stars!’ (inked by Giacoia) as sorcerer Necrodamus attempted to sacrifice Namor and free those pesky Undying Ones; a mission that promptly led to conflict with an old ally in ‘The Secret of the Silver Surfer!’ (inked by John Verpoorten) before concluding in the Jim Mooney-inked ‘Four Against the Gods!’

Here the Defenders took the war to the dimensional dungeon of the Undying Ones and rescued the long-imprisoned and now utterly insane Barbara Norris.

Clearly a fan of large casts and extended epics, Englehart added a fighting female to the non-team with ‘The New Defender!’ (inked by new regular Frank McLaughlin) as Asgardians exiles Enchantress and Executioner embroiled the antiheroes in their long-running and lethal love-spat. The fallout included bringing the Black Knight briefly into the mix and turning Barbara into the latest incarnation of Feminist Fury (these were far less enlightened days) The Valkyrie.

Defenders #5 began a long-running plot thread that would have major repercussions for the Marvel Universe. The denouement of the previous tale had left the Black Knight an ensorcelled, immobile stone statue, and, as Strange and Co. searched for a cure, the long defused Omegatron suddenly resumed its countdown to global annihilation in ‘World Without End?’

This initial collection then concludes with the increasingly isolationist Silver Surfer momentarily “rejoining” in #6 to share ‘The Dreams of Death!’ as new lightweight magic menace Cyrus Black attacked, and was as rapidly repulsed…

After a spiffy team pin-up by Sal Buscema, a revelatory Afterword by Steve Englehart segues into a brief bonus feature including unpublished cover art, contemporary house ads and creator biographies.

For a brief while The Defenders would be one of the best and weirdest superhero comics in the business, but to get there you really need to observe this unruly, uncomfortable selection of misfit heroes in their salad days here. At least the fact that their widespread and far-reaching origins are still so eminently entertaining should be both a relief and delight.

Go on, Enjoy, Pilgrim… the best is yet to come…
© 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 2009, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks volume 12

By Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, John Romita, Gil Kane & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4214-0 (HB)

Amazing Spider-Man was always a series that matured with – or perhaps just slightly ahead – of its fan-base. As the depressing weight of the Sordid Seventies continued, that feeling seemed to intensify with every issue…

By the time of these tales Stan Lee was easing out of writing and here replaces himself with 19-year-old science fiction author Gerry Conway. The scripts – aided in no small part by the plotting input and mentoring of resident illustrator John Romita – achieved a more contemporary tone (but, naturally feeling quite dated from here in the 21st century, Dude!): purportedly closely in tune with the times. Combined with the emphatic use of soap opera subplots which kept older readers glued to the series even when bombastic battle sequences didn’t, Amazing Spider-Man grew to ever greater heights of popularity.

Moreover, as a sign of the times a hint of cynical surrealism also began creeping in…

Thematically, there’s a decline in the use of old-fashioned gangsterism and a growing dependence on outlandish villains. The balance of costumed super-antagonists with thugs, hoods and mob-bosses, was gradually eroding and soon a global resurgence of interest in supernatural stories would result in more monsters and uncanny happenings…

Nevertheless, the wallcrawler was still indisputably mainstream comics’ voice of youth and defined being a teenager for young readers of the 1970s, tackling incredible hardships, fantastic foes and the most pedestrian and debilitating of frustrations.

Lonely High School nerd Peter Parker had grown up and gone to college. Because of his guilt-fuelled double-life he struggled there too, but found true love with policeman’s daughter Gwen Stacy

Re-presenting Amazing Spider-Man #110-120 (originally released between July 1972 and May 1973) the astonishing tales in this titanic twelfth Masterworks tome begin with ‘The Birth of… the Gibbon!’ (by Lee & Romita) which finds a despondent and world-weary wallcrawler battling another shunned and lonely outcast. Orphaned drifter Martin Blank possessed an anthropoid frame which made him an outcast and brought out the cruel worst in humanity. When he reaches out in friendship and admiration to Spidey he is rebuffed again and savagely lashes out…

The Gibbon retuned a month later when psychopathic stalker Kraven the Hunter brainwashed the hapless outcast ‘To Stalk a Spider!’ in a tale which saw the beginning of Gerry Conway’s tenure on the title, after which #112 follows up with another periodic crisis of faith for Peter Parker as ‘Spidey Cops Out!’

The harassed and exhausted hero is ready to chuck it all in until another nightmarish old adversary resurfaces as part of a burgeoning gang war…

They Call the Doctor… Octopus!’ (Conway & Romita with art assistance from Tony Mortellaro and Jim Starlin) sees the city plunged into chaos when the multi-limbed madman squares off against mysterious gang-boss Hammerhead with a rededicated but fearfully overmatched Spider-Man caught in the middle…

The next chapter in a brutal and comparatively long-running duel for control of New York’s underworld played out in ‘Gang War, Schmang War! What I Want to Know is … Who the Heck is Hammerhead?’ by Conway, John Romita Sr., Mortellaro & Jim Starlin, with our angst-ridden arachnid trapped between the battling mobs of 1930s movie gangster pastiche Hammerhead and sworn nemesis Dr. Octopus; each seeking to top the other’s callous, staggering ruthlessness.

In the melee Spidey is captured by the bizarre newcomer and learns from the boastful braggart how an ordinary amnesiac gunsel was rebuilt into an unstoppable cyborg by a rogue scientist named Jonas Harrow.

Seconds from death, Spider-Man is driven to risk everything on a wild escape bid after he overhears that Ock will be meeting up with an old lady. The agonised wallcrawler fears that his beloved, befuddled, missing-for-months Aunt May is once more sheltering the many-armed menace…

Dashing into the Westchester countryside, he breaks in to Octavius’ HQ only to be brained with a vase by the terrified May Parker. Moments behind him are Hammerhead’s goons and, all too soon, ‘The Last Battle!’ is underway…

As the mobsters decimate each other, Spider-Man barely escapes being shot by his closest relative and is more than happy to disappear when the police show up to arrest (almost) everybody.

In the aftermath, however, the Widow Parker astounds everybody by revealing that she will be staying in Octopus’ mansion until he is released…

Amazing Spider-Man #116 began an extended political thriller as charismatic reformer Richard Raleigh opens a savvy campaign to become Mayor, only to be opposed and hunted by a brutish monster and hidden mastermind in Suddenly… the Smasher!’

Older fans will recognise much of the story and art since it was a recycled Lee, Romita & Jim Mooney monochrome saga from 1968’s Spectacular Spider-Man Magazine (augmented with additional art by Romita & Mortellaro and bridging scenes scripted by Conway): all neatly reconfigured to encompass new subplots regarding May’s absence and publisher J. Jonah Jameson’s involvement and obsession with Law-&-Order demagogue Raleigh…

The drama deepens with ‘The Deadly Designs of the Disruptor!’ as the monster’s masked master intensifies efforts to destroy the would-be Mayor – with only Spider-Man seemingly able to deter the maniac – before the affair finally culminates in a ‘Countdown to Chaos!’ wherein the true architect of the campaign of terror is exposed and destroyed…

Peter’s problems exponentially increased in #119 as a mysterious telegram for Aunt May calls him away to Canada to meet a lawyer named Rimbaud. Before he leaves, however, Peter’s best friend’s father has a disturbing episode.

Norman Osborn had been the maniacal Green Goblin until cured by hallucinogen-induced amnesia. Now as Parker readies himself for a trip to Montreal, Osborn seems to be recovering those obscured memories…

With no other option, our harried hero heads north, arriving in time to be caught in a city-wide panic as another verdant former sparring partner hits town. ‘The Gentleman’s Name is… Hulk’ (an all-Conway & Romita collaboration) saw the wallcrawler utterly overmatched but still striving to stop the rampaging green juggernaut, spectacularly culminating in ‘The Fight and the Fury!’ (illustrated by Gil Kane with Paul Reinman and inked by Romita & Mortellaro).

With the immediate threat averted, Peter at last rendezvous with Rimbaud only to see the secretive legal eagle murdered before he can share whatever he knows about May Parker…

To Be Continued…

Fast-paced, fabulously far-fetched and full of innovative thrills, these tales again proved Spider-Man was bigger than any creator and was well on the way to becoming as real as Romeo and Juliet, Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan
© 1972, 1973, 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.