Marvel Masterworks volume 9: The Avengers 11-20

By Stan Lee, Don Heck, Dick Ayers & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-595-7   second edition: 978-0-7851-1178-8

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 champions called the Avengers. Although writer Stan Lee and the marvellously 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 concentrated on human beings in costume, not wild new gods bestriding the Earth…

The wonderment herein contained (covering issues #11-20, December 1964 – September 1965) begins with ‘The Mighty Avengers Meet Spider-Man!’, a clever cross-over tale inked by Chic Stone and featuring the return of time-bending tyrant Kang the Conqueror who attempted to destroy the team by insinuating a robotic duplicate within their serried ranks, which precedes a cracking end-of-the-world thriller with guest Fantastic Four villains Mole Man and the Red Ghost.

‘This Hostage Earth!’ (inked by Dick Ayers) was a welcome return to grand adventure with lesser lights Giant-Man and the Wasp taking rare lead roles, followed 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 bad-guy in #13’s ‘The Castle of Count Nefaria!’

That caper ended on a tragic cliffhanger as the Wasp was left gunshot and dying, leading to a high-point in melodramatic tension in #14 (scripted by Paul Laiken & Larry Lieber over Stan’s plot) as the shattered team of heroes scoured the globe for the only surgeon who could save her.

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

‘Now, by My Hand, Shall Die a Villain!’ in #15 (laid-out by Kirby, pencilled by Heck with inks by Mike Esposito) featured Captain America and Baron Zemo in one final, fatal confrontation in the heart of the Amazon jungle, whilst the other Avengers and Zemo’s army of masked menaces clashed once more on the streets of New York…

The battle ended in the 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 discovered that 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 fought their way back to civilisation, the Avengers set-up changed completely with big name stars 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 neuroses, extended sub-plots and constant action as valiant underdogs; a formula readers of the time could not get enough of.

Acting on advice from the departing Iron Man the neophytes sought 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 fell foul of a dastardly “commie” plot ‘When the Commissar Commands!’

This brace of rather run-of-the-mill tales was followed by an ever-improving run of mini-masterpieces which began with a two part gem that provides an origin for Hawkeye and introduces a favourite hero/villain to close this sturdy, full-colour hardback compendium.

‘The Coming of the Swordsman!’ featured a dissolute and disreputable swashbuckler – with just a hint of deeply-buried nobility – who attempted to force his way into the highly respectable team, before becoming an unwilling pawn of a far greater menace – the Mandarin – and was closely followed by the superb ‘Vengeance is Ours!’ inked by the one-and-only Wally Wood wherein the constantly-bickering Avengers finally pulled together as a supernaturally efficient, all-conquering super-team.

These immortal epics are available in numerous formats (including softcover editions of the luxurious and enticing item under review here), but for a selection that will survive the continual re-readings of the delirious, incurable fan nothing beats these substantially lavish and colourful Marvellous Masterwork hardbacks.

After all, if you’re going to enjoy the exploits of Earth’s Mightiest Super-Heroes surely you want to do it in appropriate style?
© 1964, 1965, 1989, 2004 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks volume 5: The Amazing Spider-Man 11-20

By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-480-2

After a shaky start The Amazing Spider-Man quickly became a popular sensation with kids of all ages, rivalling the creative powerhouse that was Lee & Kirby’s Fantastic Four and soon the quirky, charming action-packed comics soap-opera would become the model for an entire generation of younger heroes elbowing aside the staid, (relatively) old thirty-something mystery-men of previous publications.

This second supremely lavish deluxe hardback collection gathers issues #11-20 of the pulsating prodigy’s enduring exploits, covering April 1964 to January 1965, a truly stellar period of imaginative innovation and terrific thrills…

The wonderment begins with a magical two-part adventure ‘Turning Point’ and ‘Unmasked by Dr. Octopus!’ which saw the return of the lethally deranged and deformed scientist and the disclosure of a long-hidden secret which had haunted Peter Parker’s girlfriend Betty Brant for years.

The dark, tragedy-filled tale of extortion and excoriating tension stretched from Philadelphia to the Bronx Zoo and cannily tempered the trenchant melodrama with spectacular fight scenes in unusual and exotic locations, before culminating in a truly staggering super-powered duel as only the masterful Steve Ditko could orchestrate it.

A new super-foe premiered in Amazing Spider-Man #13 with ‘The Menace of Mysterio!’ as a seemingly eldritch bounty-hunter hired by Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson to capture Spider-Man eventually revealed his own dark agenda, whilst #14 was an absolute milestone in the series as a hidden criminal mastermind manipulated a Hollywood studio into making a movie about the wall-crawler.

Even with guest-star opponents such as the Enforcers and the Incredible Hulk ‘The Grotesque Adventure of the Green Goblin’ is most notable for introducing Spider-Man’s most perfidious and flamboyant enemy.

Jungle superman and thrill-junkie ‘Kraven the Hunter!’ made Spider-Man his intended prey at the behest of embittered old Spidey-foe the Chameleon in #15, whilst the Ringmaster and his Circus of Evil prompted #16′s dazzling and delightful ‘Duel with Daredevil’.

An ambitious three-part saga began in Amazing Spider-Man #17 which saw the rapidly-maturing hero touch emotional bottom before rising to triumphant victory over all manner of enemies. ‘The Return of the Green Goblin!’ saw the wall-crawler endure renewed print assaults from the Daily Bugle just as the Goblin began a war of nerves using the Enforcers, Sandman and an army of thugs to publicly humiliate the Amazing Arachnid, just as Aunt May’s health took a drastic downward turn.

Continued in ‘The End of Spider-Man!’ and concluded in ‘Spidey Strikes Back!’ – featuring a turbulent team-up with friendly rival the Human Torch – this extended tale proved that the fans were ready for every kind of narrative experiment (single issue and even two stories per issue were still the norm in 1964) and Stan and Steve were more than happy to try anything.

This magical compendium closes with ‘The Coming of the Scorpion!’ wherein Jameson let his obsessive hatred for the cocky kid crusader get the better of him; hiring scientist Farley Stillwell to endow a private detective with insectoid-based superpowers. Unfortunately the process drove Mac Gargan completely mad before he could capture Spidey, leaving the web-spinner with yet another lethally dangerous meta-nutcase to deal with…

Such was the early life of comic’s most misunderstood hero and this gloriously lavish collection of landmark tales absolutely resonates with mesmerising power and creativity.

This sturdy chronicle is simply the most self-indulgent way to enjoy these Marvel masterpieces.
© 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks volume 11: Giant-Size X-Men #1 and X-Men 94-100

By Len Wein, Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-597-3

The X-Men #1 introduced Cyclops, Iceman, Angel, Marvel Girl and the Beast: very special students of Professor Charles Xavier, a wheelchair-bound telepath dedicated to brokering peace and integration between the masses of humanity and the emergent off-shoot race of mutants dubbed Homo Superior. After years of eccentric and spectacular adventures the mutant misfits disappeared at the beginning of 1970 (issue #66 cover-dated March) during a sustained downturn in costumed hero comics as mystery and all things supernatural once more gripped the world’s entertainment fields.

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

This magnificent deluxe hardcover compendium recaptures the sun-bright excitement of those exuberant and pivotal early stories from Giant Size X-Men #1 and issues #94-100 of the definitely “All-New, All-Different” X-Men from May 1975, through to August 1976 when the merry mutants were still, young, fresh and delightfully under-exposed and opens with a classic mystery monster mash in ‘Second Genesis!’ as Len Wein & Dave Cockrum (the latter hot from a stint reviving DC’s equally eclectic super-team The Legion of Super-Heroes) detailed how the classic team had been lost in action, leaving Charles Xavier to scour the Earth and the Marvel Universe for a replacement team.

To old foes-turned-friends Banshee and Sunfire was added a one-shot Hulk villain dubbed the Wolverine, but most time and attention was paid to new creations Kurt Wagner, a demonic German teleporter who would be codenamed Nightcrawler, African weather “goddess” Ororo Monroe AKA Storm, Russian farmboy Peter Rasputin, who could transform into a living steel Colossus and bitter, disillusioned Apache superman John Proudstar who was cajoled into joining the makeshift squad as Thunderbird.

The second chapter of the epic introductory adventure ‘…And When There Was One!’ reintroduced the wounded team leader Cyclops who swiftly trained the team before leading them into primordial danger against the monolithic threat of ‘Krakoa… the Island That Walks Like a Man!’

Overcoming the phenomenal terror of the living mutant eco-system and rescuing the original team should have led to the next quarterly issue, but so great was the groundswell of support that the follow-up adventure was reworked into a two part for in the rapidly reconfigured reprint monthly which became a bimonthly home to the team and began the mutant madness we’re still experiencing today.

X-Men #94 (August 1975) presented ‘The Doomsmith Scenario!’, plotted by Editor Wein, scripted by Chris Claremont and with Bob McLeod inking the man-on-fire Dave Cockrum, in a canny Armageddon-countdown shocker as the newly pared-down strike-squad (minus Sunfire and recovering mutants Marvel Girl, Angel, Iceman, Havok and Lorna Dane) were dispatched by The Beast – then serving as a full-time Avenger – to stop criminal terrorist Count Nefaria from starting an atomic war.

The insidious mastermind had invaded America’s Norad citadel with a gang of artificial superhumans and accidentally turned a nuclear blackmail scheme into an inescapable holocaust before the new mutants stormed in to save the world in the epic conclusion ‘Warhunt! (inked by Sam Grainger).

However one of the valiant neophytes didn’t make it back…

X-Men #96 saw Claremont take full control of the team’s writing (albeit with some plotting input from Bill Mantlo) in ‘Night of the Demon!’ as a guilt-wracked Cyclops, blaming himself for the loss of a team-mate, accidentally unleashed a demonic antediluvian horror from earth’s dimmest prehistory for the heroes-in-training to thrash. The infernal Nagarai would return over and again to bedevil mankind, but the biggest innovation in this issue was the introduction of gun-toting biologist/housekeeper Moira MacTaggert and the first inklings of the return of implacable old adversaries…

Issue #97 began a long-running, intergalactically-widescreen plotline with ‘My Brother, My Enemy!’ as Xavier, plagued by visions of interstellar wars, tried to take a vacation, just as Havok and Lorna Dane (finally settling on the superhero nom de guerre Polaris) attacked the team, seemingly willing servants of a mysterious madman using Cyclops’ old alter ego Eric the Red.

The devastating conflict segued into a spectacular, three-part saga as the pitiless robotic Sentinels returned under the hate-filled auspices of mutantophobic Steven Lang and his mysterious backers of Project Armageddon. The action began with #98’s ‘Merry Christmas, X-Men…the Sentinels Have Returned!’ with coordinated attacks successfully capturing the semi-retired Marvel Girl, Wolverine, Banshee and Xavier, compelling Cyclops and the remaining heroes to co-opt a space shuttle and storm Lang’s orbital HQ to rescue them in ‘Deathstar Rising!’ (inks by Frank Chiaremonte) – another phenomenal all-action episode.

After a magical pinup of the extended team by Arthur Adams (the cover of Classic X-Men #1 from 1986 if you were wondering) this first stellar, deluxe hardcover compilation concludes on an agonising cliffhanger with the 100th issue anniversary classic ‘Greater Love Hath no X-Man…’ (with Cockrum inking his own pencils) wherein the new X-Men apparently battled the original team before overturning Lang’s monstrous schemes forever.

However, their catastrophic clash had destroyed their only means of escape and, as a colossal solar flare threatened to eradicate the entire satellite, the only chance to survive meant certain death for another X-Man…

With even greater excitement and innovation to follow in succeeding issues, these superb comics thrillers revolutionised a moribund genre and led directly to today’s ubiquitous popular cultural landscape where superheroes are as common as cops, cowboys, monsters or rom-com romeos.

The immortal epics compiled here are available in numerous formats (including softcover editions of the luxurious and enticing hardback under review here), but for a selection that will survive the continual re-readings of the serious, incurable fan there’s nothing to beat the sturdy and substantial full-colour feel of these Marvellous Masterwork editions.
© 1975, 1976, 1989 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc/Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Essential Ghost Rider volume 1

By Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich, Mike Ploog, Jim Mooney, John Byrne & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1838-1

At the end of the 1960s American comicbooks were in turmoil, much like the youth of the nation they targeted. Superheroes had dominated for much of the decade; peaking globally before explosively falling to ennui and overkill. Older genres such as horror, westerns and science fiction returned, fed by radical trends in movie-making where another, new(ish) wrinkle had also emerged: disenchanted, rebellious, unchained Youth on Motorbikes seeking a different way forward.

Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Jack Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen, Captain America and many others all took the “Easy Rider” option to boost flagging sales (and if you’re interested the best of the crop was Mike Sekowsky’s tragically unfinished mini-masterpiece of cool Jason’s Quest in Showcase). Over at Marvel, a company still reeling from Kirby’s defection to DC/National in 1970, canny Roy Thomas green-lighted a new character who combined the freewheeling, adolescent-friendly biker-theme with the all-pervasive supernatural furore gripping the entertainment fields.

Back in 1967, Marvel published a western masked hero named Ghost Rider: a shameless, whole-hearted appropriation of the cowboy hero creation of Vince Sullivan, Ray Krank & Dick Ayers (Magazine Enterprises from 1949 to 1955), who utilised magician’s tricks to fight bandits by pretending to be an avenging phantom of justice.

Scant years later with the Comics Code prohibition against horror hastily rewritten – amazing how plunging sales can affect ethics – scary comics came back in a big way and a new crop of supernatural superheroes and monsters began to appear on the newsstands to supplement the ghosts, ghoulies and goblins already infiltrating the once science-only scenarios of the surviving mystery men titles.

In fact the lifting of the Code ban resulted in such an en masse creation of horror titles (new stories and reprints from the first boom of the 1950s), in response to the industry-wide down-turn in superhero sales, that it probably caused a few more venerable costumed crusaders to (temporarily, at least) bite the dust.

Almost overnight nasty monsters (and narcotics – but that’s another story) became acceptable fare within four-colour pages and whilst a parade of pre-code reprints made sound business sense the creative aspect of the contemporary fascination in supernatural themes was catered to by adapting popular cultural icons before risking whole new concepts on an untested public.

As always in entertainment, the watch-world was fashion: what was hitting big outside comics was to be incorporated into the mix as soon as possible.

When proto-monster Morbius, the Living Vampire debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #101 (October 1971) and the sky failed to fall in, Marvel moved ahead with a line of shocking superstars – beginning with a werewolf and a vampire – before chancing something new with a haunted biker who could tap into both Easy Rider’s freewheeling motorcycling chic and the supernatural zeitgeist.

The all-new Ghost Rider debuted in Marvel Spotlight #5, August 1972 (preceded by western hero Red Wolf in #1 and the aforementioned Werewolf By Night).

This copious compendium collects in moody monochrome the earliest exploits adventures from Marvel Spotlight #5-12, Ghost Rider #1-20 and an horrific crossover with Daredevil #138, beginning with that landmark first appearance which introduced stunt biker Johnny Blaze, his fatally flawed father-figure Crash Simpson and Johnny’s devoted girlfriend: sweet virginal Roxanne Simpson

‘Ghost Rider’, plotted by Thomas, scripted by Friedrich and stunningly illustrated by Ploog, saw carnival cyclist Blaze sell his soul to the devil in an attempt to save his foster-father Crash from cancer. As is the way of such things, Satan followed the letter but not spirit of the contract and Simpson died anyway, but when the Dark Lord later came for Johnny Roxanne intervened, her purity preventing the Devil from claiming his due. Temporarily thwarted Satan afflicted Johnny with a body that burned with the fires of Hell every time the sun went down…

Haunting the night and terrorising thugs and criminals at first, the traumatised biker soon left the Big City and headed for the solitary deserts where in ‘Angels From Hell’ the flaming skulled fugitive joined a biker gang led by the enigmatic Curly Samuels: a resurrected agent of Satan attempting to destroy the protective Roxanne and claim Blaze.

No prizes for guessing Curly’s true identity then, when the next chapter (inked by Frank Chiaramonte) is entitled ‘Die, Die, My Daughter!’ before the origin epic concluded with a monumental battle against ‘…The Hordes of Hell!’ (with a rather uncomfortable artistic collaboration by Ploog and Jim Mooney) resulting in a torturous Cold War détente between the still nightly-transforming Blaze and Satan, as well as the introduction of a new eldritch enemy in Native American Witch Man Snake-Dance

Marvel Spotlight #9 saw the tragically undervalued Tom Sutton take over the pencilling – with inks by Chic Stone – for ‘The Snakes Crawl at Night…’ as Medicine Man magic and demonic devil-worship combined to torment Johnny Blaze just as Roxanne went west to look for him. To further confound the cursed cyclist, Satan decreed that although he must feel the pain, no injury would end Johnny’s life until his soul resided in Hell… which came in very handy when Roxanne was sacrificed by Snake-Dance and the Ghost Rider had to battle his entire deviant cult to rescue her…

In #10 ‘The Coming of… Witch-Woman!’ (Friedrich, Sutton & Mooney) opened with Blaze, a fugitive from the police, rushing the dying Roxanne to hospital whilst on the Reservation tensions remained high as Snake-Dance’s daughter Linda Littletrees revealed her own connection to Satan, culminating in a devastating eldritch assault on Blaze in #11’s ‘Season of the Witch-Woman!’ (inked by the incomparable Syd Shores).

That cataclysmic conflict continued into Ghost Rider #1 (September 1973), which further extended the escalating war between Blaze and the devil, whilst introducing a new horror-hero who would take over the biker’s vacant spot in Spotlight.

Linda Littletrees wasn’t so much a Satan-worshipping witch as a ‘A Woman Possessed!’ but when her father and fiancé Sam Silvercloud called Boston-based exorcist Daimon Hellstrom for help, they were completely unprepared for the kind of assistance the demonologist offered.

With Roxanne slowly recovering and Blaze still on the run, issue #2 saw the bedevilled biker dragged down to Hell in ‘Shake Hands With Satan!’ (illustrated by Mooney & Shores) before the saga concluded in Marvel Spotlight #12 with the official debut of ‘The Son of Satan!’ by Friedrich, Herb Trimpe & Frank Chiaremonte, which revealed Daimon Hellstrom’s long-suppressed inner self to be a brutal scion of the Infernal Realm eternally at war with his fearsome father.

The released Prince of Hell swiftly rushed to Blaze’s aid – although more to spite his sire than succour the victim – and, with his own series off to a spectacular start, continued to take the pressure of the flaming-skulled hero. From Ghost Rider #3’s ‘Wheels on Fire’ (Friedrich, Mooney & John Tartaglione) a fresh direction was explored with more mundane menaces and contemporary antagonists such as the thuggish gang of Big Daddy Dawson – who had kidnapped the still frail Roxanne…

Blaze also learned to create a spectral motorcycle out of the Hellfire that perpetually burned through his body: a most useful trick considering the way he got through conventional transport…

Eager to establish some kind of normal life, the still wanted-by-the-cops Blaze accepted a pardon by the State Attorney General in #4’s ‘Death Stalks the Demolition Derby’ (inked by Vince Colletta) in return for infiltrating a Las Vegas showman’s shady operation, leading to another supernatural encounter, this time against a demonic gambler dubbed Roulette in ‘And Vegas Writhes in Flame!’ by the transitional creative team of Marv Wolfman, Doug Moench, Mooney & Sal Trapani.

With #6, ill-considered attempts to convert the tragic biker into a more conventional superhero began with ‘Zodiac II’ (story and concept by Tony Isabella & Friedrich) as Blaze stumbled into a senseless fight with a man who had all the powers of the old Avengers’ arch-foes. However there was a hidden Satanic component to the mystery as Johnny discovered when reformed super-villain turned TV star Stunt-Master turned up to help close the case and watch helplessly as the one-man Zodiac fell-foul of his own diabolical devil’s bargain in ‘…And Lose His Own Soul!’ (Isabella, Mooney & Jack Abel).

A final confrontation – of sorts – began in Ghost-Rider #8 as ‘Satan Himself!’ came looking for Johnny’s soul with a foolproof scheme to force Roxanne to rescind her protection, which she finally did as the Hell-biker battled Inferno, the Fear-demon and most of San Francisco in a game-changing epic called ‘The Hell-Bound Hero!’ wherein Blaze was finally freed from his satanic burden by the intervention of someone who appeared to be Jesus Christ…

The cover of issue #10 (by Ron Wilson and Joe Sinnott, I think) featured Ghost Rider battling the Hulk, but a deadline cock-up delayed that tale until #11 and the already included origin from Marvel Spotlight #5 filled those pages. Gil Kane & Tom Palmer reinterpreted the scene for their cover on next issue which finally detailed ‘The Desolation Run!’ by Isabella, Sal Buscema, Tartaglione & George Roussos, as Johnny joined a disparate band of dirt-bikers in a desert race which collided with the legendarily solitary and short-tempered Green Goliath, after which artists Frank Robbins, Frank Giacoia & Mike Esposito recounted the fate of World War I fighter ace Phantom Eagle when Blaze tried to unknowingly attempted to rescue the warrior’s murderer from the ‘Phantom of the Killer Skies’

Ghost Rider #13 declared ‘You’ve Got a Second Chance, Johnny Blaze!’ (Isabella, George Tuska & Colletta) as the terms of the hero’s on-going curse were changed again, just as the dissolute biker headed to Hollywood and a promised job as Stunt-Master’s body-double. No sooner had he signed up however, than Blaze became involved with starlet Karen Page – Daredevil’s one-time girlfriend – and a bizarre kidnap plot by super-villain The Trapster.

Not included here is a yarn where Ghost Rider and Spider-Man battled the demented biker bad-guy The Orb (you’ll need to track down Marvel Team-Up #15 or at least the first Essential Marvel Team-Up volume for that tale) which is a pity as ‘A Specter Stalks the Soundstage!’ features his revenge-hungry return attempt to destroy Blaze which spectacularly concludes with ‘Vengeance on the Ventura Freeway!’ (illustrated by Bob Brown & Don Heck).

Whilst hanging out on the West Coast Blaze joined new superteam The Champions, but they played no part in Bill Mantlo, Tuska & Colletta’s fill-in issue ‘Blood in the Waters’ as the Ghost Rider oh, so topically tangled with a Great White Shark in the gore-soaked California surf before #17 highlighted a team-up with the Son of Satan in ‘Prelude to a Private Armageddon!’ (by Isabella, Robbins & Colletta) wherein fellow stunt-actor Katy Milner was possessed by a demon and only Hellstrom could help.

The saga continued with ‘The Salvation Run!’ as Blaze was forced to race through the bowels of Hell and relive his own traumatic past before finally saving the day, Katy and his own much-tarnished soul in ‘Resurrection’.

All this time the mystery of Karen’s attempted abduction had been percolating through the subplots here, but explosively boiled over in Daredevil #138 as ‘Where is Karen Page?’ (by Wolfman, John Byrne & Mooney) revealed the machinations of criminal maniac Death’s-Head to be merely part of a greater scheme involving Blaze, Stunt-Master, the Man without Fear and the homicidal Death Stalker. The convoluted conundrum cataclysmically climaxed in Ghost-Rider #20 with ‘Two Against Death!’ by Wolfman, John Byrne & Don Perlin…

This spooky, black and white thriller compendium finishes the chilling action with Marvel Universe Handbook pages imparting all the background you could ever desire regarding Johnny Blaze and Daimon Hellstrom to truly complete your fear-filled fun fest.

One final note: backwriting and retcons notwithstanding, the Christian boycotts and moral crusades of a later decade were what compelled the criticism-averse and commercially astute corporate Marvel to “translate” the biblical Satan of these early tales into generic and presumably more palatable or “acceptable” demonic creatures such as Mephisto, Satanish, Marduk Kurios and other equally naff downgrades, but the original intent and adventures of Johnny Blaze – and indeed series spin-offs Daimon Hellstrom and Satana, respectively the  Son and Daughter of Satan, tapped into the period’s global fascination with Satanism, Devil-worship and all things Spooky and Supernatural which had begun with such epochal films as Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski’s 1968 film more than Ira Levin’s novel) and remember aren’t your feeble bowdlerised “Hell-lite” horrors.

These tales are about the real-deal Infernal Realm and a good man struggling to save his soul from the baddest of all bargains – as much as the revised Comics Code would allow – so brace yourself, hols steady and accept no supernatural substitutes…

© 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 2005 Marvel Characters, Incorporated. All rights reserved.

Marvel Masterworks volume 15: Silver Surfer 1-5

By Stan Lee, John Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-631-7

Although pretty much a last minute addition to Fantastic Four #48-50’s ‘Galactus Trilogy’, Jack Kirby’s scintillating creation the Silver Surfer quickly became a watchword for depth and subtext in the Marvel Universe and one Stan Lee kept as his own personal toy for many years.

Tasked with finding planets for space god Galactus to consume and despite the best efforts of intergalactic voyeur Uatu the Watcher, one day the Silver Surfer discovered Earth, where the latent nobility of humanity reawakened his own suppressed morality; causing the shining scout to rebel against his master and help the FF save the world.

In retaliation, Galactus imprisoned his one-time herald on Earth, making him the ultimate outsider on a planet remarkably ungrateful for his sacrifice.

The Galactus Saga was a creative highlight from a period where the Lee/Kirby partnership was utterly on fire. The tale has all the power and grandeur of a true epic and has never been surpassed for drama, thrills and sheer entertainment. It’s not included here: for that treat you’ll need to see Essential Fantastic Four volume 3 or many other Marvel collections…

In 1968, after increasingly frequent guest-shots and even a solo adventure in the back of Fantastic Four Annual #5 (also omitted, but it is in Essential Fantastic Four volume 4) the Surfer finally got his own (initially double-sized) title at long last.

This stellar hardback deluxe edition collects the first five extra-length adventures from August 1968 to April 1969 and begins with ‘The Origin of the Silver Surfer!’ by Lee, John Buscema & Joe Sinnott who, after a prolonged flashback sequence and repeated examples of crass humanity’s brutal callousness and unthinking hostility, detailed how Norrin Radd, discontented soul from an alien paradise named Zenn-La, became the gleaming herald of a planetary scourge.

Radd had constantly chafed against a civilisation in comfortable, sybaritic stagnation, but when Galactus shattered their vaunted million years of progress in a fleeting moment, the dissident without hesitation offered himself as a sacrifice to save the world from the Devourer’s hunger.

Converted into an indestructible gleaming human meteor Radd agreed to scour the galaxies looking for uninhabited worlds rich in the energies Galactus needed to survive, thus saving planets with life on them from destruction. He didn’t always find them in time…

The stories in this series were highly acclaimed – if not commercially successful – both for Buscema’s agonised, emphatic and truly beautiful artwork as well as Lee’s deeply spiritual and philosophical scripts; with the isolated alien’s travails and social observations creating a metaphoric status akin to a Christ-figure for an audience that was maturing and rebelling against America’s creaking and unsavoury status quo.

The second 40 page adventure detailed a secret invasion by extraterrestrial lizard men ‘When Lands the Saucer!’ forcing the Surfer to battle the sinister Brotherhood of Badoon without human aid or even awareness in ‘Let Earth be the Prize!’

A little side-note for sad nit-picking enthusiasts like me: I suspect that the original intention was to drop the page count to regular 20-page episodes from #2, since in terms of pacing both the second and third issues divide perfectly into two-parters, with cliffhanger endings and splash page/chapter titles that are dropped from #4 onwards.

Silver Surfer #3 is pivotal in the ongoing saga as Lee & Buscema introduced Marvel’s Satan-analogue in ‘The Power and the Prize!’

Mephisto is Lord of Hell and saw the Surfer’s untarnished soul as a threat to his evil influence on Earth. To crush the anguished hero’s spirit the demon abducted Norrin Radd’s true love Shalla Bal from still-recovering Zenn-La and tormented the Sentinel of the Spaceways with her dire distress in his sulphurous nether-realm…

The concluding chapter sees mortal angel of light and devil of depravity conduct a spectacular ‘Duel in the Depths’ wherein neither base temptations nor overwhelming force were enough to stay the noble Surfer’s inevitable triumph.

Just as wicked a foe then attempted to exploit the Earth-bound alien’s heroic impulses in #4’s ‘The Good, The Bad and the Uncanny!’ (inked by new art collaborator Sal Buscema) wherein Asgardian God of Evil Loki offered lies, deceit and even escape from Galactus’ terrestrial cage to induce the Silver Stalwart to attack and destroy the Mighty Thor; resulting in a staggering and bombastic clash that just builds and builds as the creative team finally let loose and fully utilised their expanded story-proportions and page count to create smooth flowing epic action-adventures.

This magical collection concludes with a powerful parable about race, prejudice and shared humanity when the Surfer was befriended by ostracised black physicist Al Harper in ‘…And Who Shall Mourn Him?’

As the two outcasts bonded the scientist realised he might have a way to free the Surfer from his Galactine incarceration, but as they put their plan into operation remorseless alien entity The Stranger turned up, determined to erase the potential threat mankind offered to the rest of the universe. To stop him both Harper and Norrin Radd had to sacrifice everything they cherished most for a world that didn’t care if they lived or died…

The Silver Surfer was always a pristine and iconic character when handled well – and sparingly – and these early forays into a more mature range of adventures, although perhaps a touch heavy-handed, showed that there was far more to comicbooks than cops and robbers or monsters and misfits. That exploratory experience and mystique of hero as Christ allegory made the series a critically beloved but commercially disastrous cause celebré until eventually financial failure killed the experiment.

After the Lee/Kirby/Ditko sparks had initially fired up the imaginations of readers in the early days, the deeper, subtler overtones and undercurrents offered by stories like these kept a maturing readership enthralled, loyal and abidingly curious as to what else comics could achieve if given half a chance and this fabulously lavish tome offers the perfect way to discover or recapture the thrill and wonder of those startlingly different days and times
© 1968, 1969, 1990 Marvel Entertainment Group/Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Masterworks (volume 6): The Fantastic Four 11-20

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, Steve Ditko & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-481-0   Second edition 978-0-7851-0980-8

After blasting into the comics-buying consciousness and swiftly garnering a devoted following in 1961 “the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” continued to live up to its boast in an astounding succession of boldly experimental, evocatively enthralling and amazingly human funny, thrilling and completely compelling sequential sagas.

This second deluxe hardcover compilation carries on reprinting those groundbreaking classics in lavish full-colour splendour, re-presenting Fantastic Four #11-20, originally released between February and November 1963, and almost unanimously the result of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers’ close and effective collaboration.

Actually I’m possibly rewriting history just a bit here. The innovations continued but didn’t always hit the mark, as tellingly described in Lee’s effusive introduction to this volume.

Issue #11 had two short stories instead of the usual book-length yarn; ‘The Impossible Man’ – a baddie-free yet compellingly light-hearted tale about a fun-seeking but obnoxiously omnipotent visitor from the stars and ‘A Visit with the Fantastic Four’, which offered background into the characters plus a behind-the-scenes travelogue of off-duty life with the team which mischievously reiterated the novel fact the heroes collected and read a comic book about themselves…

Fans hated the issue at the time but now these vignettes are considered some of the most effective tales of that formative period…

Fantastic Four #12 featured an early crossover experiment when the team were asked to help the US army capture ‘The Incredible Hulk’ (whose own short-lived title had recently been cancelled). This tense cold-war spy and sabotage thriller set the ground rules for many a two-fisted clash between the Jade Goliath and the blockbusting Thing…

This was followed by ‘Versus the Red Ghost and his Incredible Super Apes!’ another politically-charged, commie-baiting drama pitting Marvel’s First Family against a Soviet scientist in the space-race to the Moon: a tale notable not only for the supremely moody inking of Steve Ditko (replacing the adroit Ayers for one month) over Kirby’s astounding pencils but also for the introduction of the cosmic voyeurs called The Watchers and the discovery of the intoxicatingly intriguing lost city in the “Blue Area of the Moon”.

Issue #14 featured the return of ‘The Sub-Mariner and the Merciless Puppet Master!’ with the Atlantean Prince a hapless pawn of the mind-controlling doll-despot’s revenge plot, promptly followed by ‘The Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android!’ a chilling war of intellects with plenty of room for all-out action as a master-strategist manipulated the team into splitting up in order to steal all Reed Richards’ scientific secrets.

FF #16 revealed ‘The Micro-World of Doctor Doom!’ in a spectacular other-worldly rollercoaster action-romp guest-starring new hero Ant-Man, after which the incorrigible Iron-Clad villain promptly returned with infallible, deadly traps a month later when the quartet were almost ‘Defeated by Doctor Doom!’

A shape-changing super-alien with all their cosmically induced powers was next to menace our heroes when ‘A Skrull Walks Among Us!’ and issue #19 introduced another of the company’s top-ranking super-villains when the FF became ‘Prisoners of the Pharaoh!’ whilst exploring ancient Egypt seeking a cure for the blind sculptress Alicia Masters. This time travel tale has been revisited by so many writers that it is considered one of the key-stone stories of Marvel continuity.

Fantastic Four #20 concludes this compendium with a terrifying new foe, as the compulsorily aloof Watcher broke his eternal vow of neutrality to warn the heroes of a potential threat to all Existence before standing back and letting them do all the hard work by defeating ‘The Mysterious Molecule Man!’

Also included in this tantalising tome is a splendid Thing pin-up and a brace of pseudo-scientific Fantastic Four Feature Pages by Lee, Kirby & Ayers telling all you need to know about the powers of the Human Torch.

Although possibly – just, perhaps – a little dated in tone, these are undoubtedly graphic classics of comic story-telling illustrated by one of the world’s greatest talents just approaching his mature peak: fast, frantic fun and a joy to read or re-read. This comprehensive, joyous introduction (or even reintroduction) to these characters is a wonderful reminder of just how good comic books can – and should – be.
© 1963, 1964, 1988, 2003 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Masterworks volume 14: Captain America from Tales of Suspense 59-81

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-630-9   second edition 978-0-7851-1176-4

During the earliest days of Marvel Comics Stan Lee and Jack Kirby emulated the same strategy which had worked so tellingly for National Periodicals/DC, but with mixed results. Julie Schwartz had achieved incredible success with his revised versions of DC’s Golden Age greats, so it was only natural to try and revive characters who had dominated the ailing new kids of Timely/Atlas in those halcyon days of yore. A completely new Human Torch had premiered as part of the revolutionary Fantastic Four and in the fourth issue of that title Sub-Mariner resurfaced after a twenty year amnesiac hiatus (everyone concerned had apparently forgotten the initial abortive attempt to revive the superheroes in the mid-1950s).

Torrid Teen Johnny Storm was promptly given his own solo feature in Strange Tales from issue #101 (as collected in Essential Human Torch volume1) where, in #114 the flaming kid fought a malevolent acrobat pretending to be a revived Captain America. An unabashed test-run, the tales was soon eclipsed when the real McCoy promptly surfaced in Avengers #4. After a captivating and centre-stage hogging run in that title the Sentinel of Liberty was quickly awarded his own series as half of the “split-book” Tales of Suspense, beginning with #59 (after another impostor battled titular star Iron Man in the previous issue).

This magnificent full-colour hardback stirringly re-presents those early short sagas which span the period cover-dated November 1964-September 1966), opening with the initial outing ‘Captain America’, scripted by Stan Lee and illustrated by the staggeringly perfect team of Jack Kirby & Chic Stone: an unapologetic all-action romp wherein an army of thugs invades Avengers Mansion since only the one without superpowers is at home… The next issue held more of the same, when ‘The Army of Assassins Strikes!’, this time attempting to overwhelm the inexhaustible human fighting machine at the behest of arch foe Baron Zemo, whilst ‘The Strength of the Sumo!’ was insufficient when Cap invaded Viet Nam to rescue a captured US airman, after which he took on an entire prison’s population to stop the ‘Break-out in Cell Block 10!’

After these gloriously simplistic romps the series took an abrupt turn and began telling tales set in World War II. ‘The Origin of Captain America’, by Lee, Kirby & Frank Ray (AKA Frank Giacoia – one of an increasing wave of DC stalwarts anonymously moonlighting at the House of Ideas) recounted, recapitulated and expanded the way physical wreck Steve Rogers was selected to be the guinea pig for a new super-soldier serum only to have the scientist responsible die in his arms, cut down by a Nazi bullet.

Now forever unique, Rogers was became a living fighting symbol and guardian of America, based as a regular soldier in a boot camp.

It was there he was unmasked by Camp Mascot Bucky Barnes, who blackmailed the hero into making the boy his sidekick. The next issue (Tales of Suspense #64) kicked off a string of spectacular thrillers as the heroes defeated the spies Sando and Omar in ‘Among Us, Wreckers Dwell!’ before Chic Stone returned for the next tale ‘The Red Skull Strikes!’ in which the daring duo foiled the Nazi mastermind’s sabotage plans in America.

‘The Fantastic Origin of the Red Skull!’ saw the series swing into high gear and switch settings to Europe as sub-plots and characterisation were added to the all-out action and spectacle. ‘Lest Tyranny Triumph!’ and ‘The Sentinel and the Spy!’ (both inked by Giacoia) combined espionage and mad science in a plot to murder the head of Allied Command after which the heroic duo stayed in England for ‘Midnight in Greymoor Castle!’ (with art by Dick Ayers over Kirby’s layouts – rough pencils sketches that break down the story elements on a page). The second part ‘If This be Treason!’ had Golden Age veteran and Buck Rogers newspaper strip artist George Tuska perform the same function. The final part (and the last wartime adventure) was ‘When You Lie Down with Dogs…!’ which added Joe Sinnott inks to the mix for a rousing conclusion to this frantic tale of traitors, madmen and terror weapons…

It was back to the present for Tales of Suspense #72 and Lee, Kirby & Tuska revealed that Cap had been telling war stories to his fellow Avengers for the last nine months. ‘The Sleeper Shall Awake!’ began a spectacular contemporary adventure as a Nazi super-robot was activated twenty years after Germany’s defeat to exact a world-shattering vengeance. Continuing its rampage across Europe in ‘Where Walks the Sleeper!’ before concluding in ‘The Final Sleep!’ this masterpiece of tension and suspense perfectly demonstrated the indomitable nature of the ultimate American hero.

Dick Ayers returned with John Tartaglione inking ‘30 Minutes to Live!’ which introduced both Batroc the Leaper and a mysterious girl who would eventually become Cap’s long-term girl-friend, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter, in a taut 2-part countdown to disaster ending with ‘The Gladiator, The Girl and the Glory’, illustrated by John Romita (Senior). This was the first tale which had no artistic input from Jack Kirby, but he laid out the next issue (TOS #77) for Romita & Giacoia. ‘If a Hostage Should Die!’ again returned to WWII and hinted at both a lost romance and tragedy to come.

‘Them!’ returned Kirby to full pencils and Giacoia to the regular inks-spot as Cap teamed with Nick 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. It was followed by ‘The Red Skull Lives!’ as his arch nemesis returned from the grave to menace the Free World again. He was initially aided by the subversive technology group AIM, but stole their ultimate weapon in ‘He Who Holds the Cosmic Cube!’ (inked by Don Heck) – a device which could rewrite reality with but a whim…

This staggeringly fast-paced, rollercoaster collection climaxes with a classic confrontation in ‘The Red Skull Supreme!’ and concludes with one last breathtaking Cap pin-up by Kirby & Ayers.

These are tales of dauntless courage and unmatchable adventure, addictive and superbly illustrated, which rightly returned Captain America to heights his Golden Age compatriots the Torch and the Sub-Mariner never regained – pure escapist magic.

Great, great stuff for the eternally young at heart, perfectly presented in a sturdy deluxe hardcover edition.
© 1963, 1964, 1965, 1990 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Masterworks volume 3: X-Men 1-10

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-308-3, second edition 978-0-7851-0845-0 (2002)

In 1963 things really took off for the budding Marvel Comics as Stan Lee & Jack Kirby expanded their diminutive line of action titles, putting a bunch of relatively new super-heroes (including hot off the presses Iron Man) together as the Avengers, launching a decidedly different war comic in Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos and creating a group of alienated heroic teenagers who gathered together to fight a rather specific, previously unperceived threat to humanity.

The X-Men #1 (September 1963) introduced Cyclops, Iceman, Angel and the Beast: very special students of Professor Charles Xavier, a wheelchair-bound telepath dedicated to brokering peace and integration between the masses of humanity and the emergent off-shoot race of mutants dubbed Homo Superior. The story opens as the students welcome their newest classmate, Jean Grey, aka Marvel Girl, a beautiful young woman with the ability to move objects with her mind.

No sooner has the Professor explained their mission than an actual Evil Mutant, Magneto, single-handedly takes over American missile-base Cape Citadel. A seemingly unbeatable threat, the master of magnetism was nonetheless driven off by the young heroes on their first mission in under 15 minutes…

It doesn’t sound like much, but the gritty dynamic power of Kirby’s art, solidly inked by veteran Paul Reinman, imparted a raw energy to the tale which carried the bi-monthly book irresistibly forward. With issue #2 ‘No One Can Stop the Vanisher!’ a Federal connection was established in the form of FBI Special Agent Fred Duncan, who requested the teen team’s assistance in capturing a teleporting mutant who threatened to steal US military secrets.

These days, young heroes are ten-a-penny, but it should be noted that these kids were the first juvenile super-doers in comics since the end of the Golden Age, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that in this tale of a terrifying teleporter the outmatched youngsters needed a little adult supervision…

Issue #3′s ‘Beware of the Blob!’ displayed a rare lapse of judgement as proselytising Professor X invited a sideshow freak into the team only to be rebuffed by the felonious mutant. Impervious to mortal harm the Blob used his carnival cronies to attack the hidden heroes before they could come after him and once again it was up to teacher to save the day…

With X-Men #4 (March 1964) a thematic sea-change occurred as Magneto returned with ‘The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants!’ intent on conquering a South American country and establishing a political powerbase. Mastermind, Toad, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch were very much his unwilling thralls in the bombastic struggle that followed, but from then on the callow champions-in-training were the hunted prey of malevolent mutants. ‘Trapped: One X-Man!’ in issue #5 saw early results in that secret war as the Angel was abducted to Magneto’s orbiting satellite base Asteroid M, and only a desperate battle at the edge of space eventually saved him…

‘Sub-Mariner Joins the Evil Mutants!’ is a self-explanatory tale of gripping intensity elevated to magical levels of artistic quality as the superb Chic Stone replaced Reinman as inker for the rest of Kirby’s tenure and genuine narrative progress was made in ‘The Return of the Blob!’ as their mentor left on a secret mission, but not before appointing Cyclops acting team leader.

Comedy relief was provided as Lee & Kirby introduced Beast and Iceman to the Beatnik inspired “youth scene” but the high action quotient came courtesy of the troubled teaming of the Blob and Magneto’s malign brood.

Another invulnerable mutant debuted in ‘Unus the Untouchable!’ a wrestler with an invisible force field who tried to join the Brotherhood by offering to bring them an X-Man. Also notable is the first real incident of “anti-mutant hysteria” when a mob attacked the Beast, a theme that would become the cornerstone of the X-Men mythos.

X-Men #9 (January 1965) is the first true masterpiece of this celebrated title. ‘Enter, the Avengers!’ reunited the mutants with Professor X in the wilds of Balkan Europe, as the deadly Lucifer attempted to destroy the world with a super-bomb, subsequently manipulating the teens into an all-out battle with the awesome Avengers.

This is still a perfect Marvel comic story today, as is its follow-up ‘The Coming of Ka-Zar!’ a wild excursion to Antarctica, featuring the discovery of the Antediluvian Savage Land and the modern incarnation of one of Marvel/Timely’s oldest heroes (Kazar the Great originated in Marvel Comics #1, November 1939). Dinosaurs, lost cities, spectacular locations, mystery and all-out action: it doesn’t get better than this…

These quirky tales are a million miles removed from the angst-ridden, breast-beating, cripplingly convoluted X-brand of today’s Marvel and many would argue are all the better for it. Well drawn, highly readable stories are never unwelcome or out of favour though, and it should be remembered that everything here informs so very much of the mutant monolith. These are stories for the dedicated fan and newest convert, and never better packaged than in this glorious and lavish hardback edition.

These immortal epics are available in numerous formats (including softcover editions of the luxurious and enticing hardback under review here), but for a selection that will survive the continual re-readings of the serious, incurable fan there’s nothing to beat the substantial full-colour feel of these Marvellous Masterwork editions.
© 1963, 1964, 1965, 1987, 2002 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks volume 4: The Avengers 1-10

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 0- 87135-479-9   second edition: 978-0-7851-0590-9

After a period of meteoric expansion, in 1963 the burgeoning Marvel Universe was finally ready to emulate the successful DC concept that had truly kick-started the Silver Age of comics.

The concept of putting a bunch of star eggs in one basket which had made the Justice League of America such a winner had inspired the moribund Atlas outfit of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko into inventing “super-characters” of their own and the result 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 high sales…

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

The Coming of the Avengers’ is 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, god of evil, is imprisoned on a dank isle, hungry for vengeance on his half-brother Thor. Observing Earth he espies the monstrous, misunderstood Hulk and engineers a situation wherein the man-brute seemingly goes on a rampage, just to trick the Thunder God into battling the monster. When the Hulk’s sidekick Rick Jones radios the Fantastic Four for assistance Loki diverts the transmission and smugly awaits the blossoming of his mischief. However Iron Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp also pick up the SOS….

As the heroes converge in the American Southwest to search for the Jade Giant they 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), in which 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 only to return in #3 as an outright villain in partnership with ‘Sub-Mariner!’ This globe-trotting romp delivered high energy thrills and one of the best battle scenes in comics history as the assorted titans clashed in abandoned tunnels beneath the Rock of Gibraltar.

Avengers #4 – inked by George Roussos – was an epic landmark as Marvel’s biggest sensation of the Golden Age was revived. ‘Captain America joins the Avengers!’ had 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 wry social commentary and vast amounts of staggering Kirby Action.

Reinman returned to ink ‘The Invasion of the Lava Men’: another brilliant tale of adventure and suspense as the team battled superhuman subterraneans and a world-threatening mutating mountain with the unwilling assistance of the Hulk, but it paled before the supreme shift in quality that was #6.

Chic Stone – arguably Kirby’s best Marvel inker – joined the creative team just as a classic arch-foe debuted. ‘The Masters of Evil!’ forced Nazi super-scientist Baron Zemo out of the South American jungles he’d been skulking in to strike at his hated and now returned nemesis Captain America. To this end the ruthless war-criminal recruited a gang of super-villains to attack New York and destroy the Avengers. The unforgettable clash between our heroes and Radioactive Man, Black Knight and the Melter is an unsurpassed example of 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 joined Zemo just as Iron Man was suspended from the team due to misconduct occurring in his own series (this was the dawn of the close continuity era where events in one series were referenced and even built upon in others).

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

The Avengers was an entirely different package 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 huge number of pages his expanding workload demanded. Heck was a gifted and trusted artist with a formidable record for meeting deadlines and, 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 planted superhuman Trojan Horse Simon Williams within the ranks of the Avengers only to have the conflicted infiltrator find deathbed redemption amongst the heroes, whilst this glorious deluxe hardback collection concludes with the introduction of malignant master of time Immortus who combined with the Masters of Evil to engineer a fatal division in the ranks when ‘The Avengers Break Up!’

These immortal epics are available in numerous formats (including softcover editions of the luxurious and enticing item under review here), but for a selection that will survive the continual re-readings of the serious, incurable fan there’s nothing to beat the substantial full-colour feel of these Marvellous Masterwork editions.

After all, if you’re going to enjoy the exploits of Earth’s Mightiest Super-Heroes surely you’ll be wanting to do it in style?
© 1963, 1964, 1988, 2003 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Masterworks volume 1: The Amazing Spider-Man 1-10

By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-305-9, 2nd edition 978-0-7851-1181-8

Marvel is often termed “the House that Jack Built” and King Kirby’s contributions are undeniable and inescapable in the creation of a new kind of comicbook story-telling, but there was another unique visionary toiling at Atlas-Comics-as-was: one whose creativity and even philosophy seemed diametrically opposed to the bludgeoning power, vast imaginative scope and clean, broad lines of Kirby’s ever-expanding search for the external and infinite.

Steve Ditko was quiet and unassuming, voluntarily diffident to the point of invisibility though his work was both subtle and striking: innovative, meticulously polished, always questing for detail, he ever explored the man within. He found heroism – and humour and ultimate evil – all contained within the frail but noble confines of human scope and consciousness. His drawing could be oddly disquieting… and, when he wanted, almost creepy.

Drawing extremely well-received monster and mystery tales for Stan Lee, Ditko had been given his own title. Amazing Adventures/Amazing Adult Fantasy featured a subtler brand of yarn than Rampaging Aliens and Furry Underpants Monsters and the ilk which, though individually entertaining, had been slowly losing traction in the world of comics ever since National/DC had successfully reintroduced costumed heroes. Lee & Kirby had responded with Fantastic Four and the ahead-of-its-time Incredible Hulk but there was no indication of the renaissance to come when the already cancelled Amazing Fantasy #15 cover featured a brand new and rather creepy adventure character.

In 11 captivating pages ‘Spider-Man!’ told the parable of Peter Parker, a smart but alienated kid bitten by a radioactive spider on a High School science trip. Discovering he had developed arachnid abilities which he augmented with his own natural engineering genius, he did what any lonely, geeky nerd would do when given such a gift – 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 celebrity – and a self-important one. To his eternal regret, when a thief fled past he didn’t lift a finger to stop him, only to find when he returned home that his uncle Ben had been murdered.

Crazy for vengeance, Parker hunted the assailant who had made his beloved Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known, only to find that it was the felon he couldn’t be bothered with. His social irresponsibility had led to the death of the man who raised him and the boy swore to always use his powers to help others…

It wasn’t a new story, but the setting was one familiar to every kid reading it and the artwork was downright spooky. This wasn’t the gleaming high-tech world of moon-rockets, giant monsters and flying cars – this stuff could happen to anybody…

Amazing Fantasy #15 came out the same month as Tales to Astonish #35 (cover-dated September 1962) – the first to feature the Astonishing Ant-Man in costumed capers, but it was the last issue of Ditko’s Amazing playground.

However the tragic last-ditch tale had struck a chord with the reading public and by Christmas a new comicbook superstar was ready to launch in his own title, with Ditko eager to show what he could do with his first returning character since the demise of the Charlton hero Captain Atom (see Action Heroes Archive volume 1).

Holding on to the “Amazing” prefix to jog reader’s memories, the bi-monthly Amazing Spider-Man #1 had a March 1963 cover-date and two complete stories. It prominently featured the Fantastic Four and took the readers by storm. The opening tale, again simply entitled ‘Spider-Man!’, recapitulated the origin whilst adding a brilliant twist to the conventional mix.

The wall-crawling hero was feared and reviled by the general public thanks in no small part to J. Jonah Jameson, a newspaper magnate who pilloried the adventurer from spite and for profit. With time-honoured comicbook irony, Spider-Man then had to save Jameson’s astronaut son John from a faulty space capsule…

The second yarn ‘Vs the Chameleon!’ found the cash-strapped kid trying to force his way onto the roster – and payroll – of the Fantastic Four whilst elsewhere a spy perfectly impersonated the web-spinner to steal military secrets, in a stunning example of the high-strung, antagonistic crossovers and cameos that so startled the jaded kids of the early 1960s.

Heroes just didn’t act like that…

With the second issue our new champion began a meteoric rise in quality and innovative storytelling. ‘Duel to the Death with the Vulture!’ found Parker chasing a flying thief as much for profit as justice. Desperate to help his aunt make ends meet, Spider-Man began to take photos of his cases to sell to Jameson’s Daily Bugle, making his personal gadfly his sole means of support.

Along with comedy and soap-operatic melodrama Ditko’s action sequences were imaginative and magnificently visceral, with odd angle shots and quirky, mis-balanced poses adding a vertiginous sense of unease to fight scenes. But crime wasn’t the only threat to the world and Spider-Man was just as (un)comfortable battling “aliens” in ‘The Uncanny Threat of the Terrible Tinkerer!’

Amazing Spider-Man #3 introduced possibly the apprentice hero’s greatest enemy in ‘Versus Doctor Octopus’, a full-length epic wherein a dedicated scientist survived an atomic accident only to find his self-designed mechanical tentacles permanently grafted to his body. Power-mad, Otto Octavius initially thrashed Spider-Man, sending the lad into a depression until an impromptu pep-talk from the Human Torch galvanized Spider-Man to one of his greatest victories.

‘Nothing Can Stop… the Sandman!’ was another instant classic wherein a common thug who had gained the power to transform to sand (another pesky nuclear snafu) invaded Parker’s school, and had to stopped at all costs whilst issue #5 found the web-spinner ‘Marked for Destruction by Dr. Doom!’ – not so much winning as surviving his battle against the deadliest man on Earth. Presumably he didn’t mind too much as this marked the transition from bi-monthly to monthly status for the series. In this tale Parker’s social nemesis, jock bully Flash Thompson, first displayed depths beyond the usual in contemporary comicbooks, beginning one of the best love/hate buddy relationships in popular literature…

Sometime mentor Dr. Curtis Connors debuted in #6 when Spidey came ‘Face-to-face with… The Lizard!’ as the wallcrawler fought his battle far from the concrete canyons and comfort zone of New York – specifically in the murky Florida Everglades. Parker was back in the Big Apple in #7 to breathtakingly tackle ‘The Return of the Vulture’.

Fun and youthful hi-jinks were a signature feature of the series, as was Parker’s budding romance with “older woman” Betty Brant, Jameson’s PA at the Daily Bugle. Youthful exuberance was the underlying drive in #8′s lead tale ‘The Living Brain!’ an ambulatory robot calculator that threatened to expose Spider-Man’s secret identity before running amok at beleaguered Midtown High, just as Parker was finally beating the stuffings out of school bully Flash Thompson.

This 17 page joy was accompanied by ‘Spiderman Tackles the Torch!’ (a 6 page vignette drawn by Jack Kirby and inked by Ditko) wherein a boisterous wall-crawler gate-crashed a beach part thrown by the flaming hero’s girlfriend… with explosive consequences.

Amazing Spider-Man #9 was a qualitative step-up in dramatic terms as Aunt May was revealed to be chronically ill – adding to Parker’s financial woes – and the action was supplied by ‘The Man Called Electro!’ a super-criminal with grand aspirations. Spider-Man was always a loner, never far from the streets and small-scale-crime, and with this tale wherein he also quells a prison riot single handed, Ditko’s preference for tales of gangersterism began to show through; a predilection confirmed in #10′s ‘The Enforcers!’ a classy mystery where a masked mastermind known as the Big Man used a position of trust at the Bugle to organize all the New York mobs into one unbeatable army against decency. Longer plot-strands were also introduced as Betty Brant mysteriously vanished (her fate to be revealed in the next issue and here the second Mighty Marvel Masterworks volume), but most fans remember this one for the spectacularly climactic seven-page fight scene in an underworld chop-shop that has still never been topped for action-choreography.

These immortal epics are available in numerous formats (including softcover editions of the luxurious and enticing hardback under review here), but for a selection that will survive the continual re-readings of the serious, incurable fan there’s nothing to beat the substantial full-colour feel of these Marvellous Masterwork editions.
© 1962, 1963, 1964, 1987, 2003 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.