S.H.I.E.L.D volume 1: Perfect Bullets


By Mark Waid, Carlo Pacheco, Humberto Ramos, Alan Davis, Chris Sprouse, Mike Choi, Chris Renaud & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9362-3

Just as the 1960s espionage fad was taking off, inspired by the James Bond films and TV shows like Danger Man, war hero Nick Fury “re-debuted” in Fantastic Four #21 as a spy.

That was December 1963 – between issues #4 and 5 of his own blistering battle mag – and the perpetually grizzled warrior was re-imagined as a cunning CIA Colonel lurking at the periphery of big adventures, craftily manipulating the First Family of Marvel superheroes into taking on a racist demagogue with a world-shattering secret…

Fury was already the star of the little company’s only war comic: Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, an improbable and decidedly over-the-top, wild WWII-set series similar in tone to later movies such as The Magnificent Seven, Wild Bunch and The Dirty Dozen.

When spy stories went global in the wake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the veteran’s elder iteration was given a second series (from Strange Tales #135, August 1965), set in the then-present. Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tensions and sinister schemes of World Conquest by hidden, subversive all-encompassing enemy organisation Hydra – all gift-wrapped with captivating Kirby-designed super-science gadgets and explosive high energy. It was set firmly in the heart of the slowly burgeoning Marvel Universe…

Once iconic imagineer Jim Steranko took charge, layering in a sleek, ultra-sophisticated edge of trend-setting drama, the series became one of the best and most visually innovative strips in America, if not the world.

When the writer/artist left and the spy-fad faded, the whole concept simply withdrew into the background architecture of the Marvel Universe, occasionally resurfacing in new series but growing increasingly uncomfortable to read as the role of spooks “on our side” became ever more debased in a world where covert agencies were continually exposed as manipulative, out-of-control tools of subversion and oppression.

In 1989 a six issue prestige format miniseries reinvigorated the concept. As a company targeting the youth-oriented markets, Marvel had experienced problems with their in-house clandestine organisation. In almost all of their other titles, US agents and “the Feds” were usually the bad guys. Author Bob Harras used this theme as well as the oddly quirky self-referential fact that nobody aged in comic continuity to play games with the readers…

Fury had discovered that everybody in his organisation had been “turned” and was now an actual threat to freedom and democracy. With his core beliefs and principles about leading “the Good Guys” betrayed and destroyed, he went on the run, hunted by the world’s most powerful covert agency with all the resources he’d devised and utilised now turned against him.

As part of the resolution SHIELD was reinvented for the 1990s: a leaner, cleaner, organisation, nominally acting under UN mandate, and proactive throughout the Marvel Universe. The taste of betrayal and seeds of doubt and mistrust never went away though…

Following numerous global crises – including a superhero Civil War – Fury was replaced as SHIELD director. His successor Tony Stark proved to be a huge mistake and after an alien invasion by Skrulls, the organisation was mothballed: replaced by the manically dynamic Norman Osborn and his fanatically loyal H.A.M.M.E.R. project. As America’s top Fed, he was specifically tasked with curbing the unchecked power and threat of the burgeoning metahuman community.

Osborn’s ascent was an even bigger error. As America’s Director of National Security the former Green Goblin and not-really-recovering psychopath instituted a draconian “Dark Reign” of oppressive, aggressive policies which turned the nation into a paranoid tinderbox.

This spectacularly poor choice was, however, also directing a cabal of the world’s greatest criminals and conquerors intent on divvying up the planet between them. The repercussions of Osborn’s rise and fall were felt throughout and featured in many series and collections throughout the entire fictive continuity. His brief rule also drastically shook up the entrenched secret powers of the planet and his ultimate defeat destabilised many previously unassailable empires…

Fury, a man driven by duty, fuelled by suspicion and powered by a serum which kept him vital far beyond his years, didn’t go away. He just went deep undercover and continued doing what he’d always done: saving the world, one battle at a time. Even after Osborn was gone, Fury stayed buried, preferring to fight battles his way and with assets and resources he’d personally acquired and built…

Since the concept became an integral part of Marvel’s cinematic and TV universe, the comics division has laboured to find a way to rationalise their two wildly dissimilar iterations of SHIELD. In 2015 scripter Mark Waid and a rotating squad of illustrators finally settled on a way to square that circle…

S.H.I.E.L.D. – now standing for the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement Logistics Division – is still a major player in defending humanity from the unimaginable, but movie icon Phil Coulson, his core TV team of Melinda May, Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons, plus hybrid versions of print-turned-screen stars such as Bobbi (Mockingbird) Morse have been deftly hived off into their own niche of comicbook continuity with Coulson in charge of an official sub-agency where – supplemented by SHIELD resources – his own geekishly vast and deep knowledge of metahuman trivia and contacts with the entire super-heroic community combine to tackle unnatural crises on a case-by-case basis…

The result – written by the master planner Mark Waid and illustrated by a rotating roster of star artists – is a fresh and supremely appetising blend of spies, sinister secret villains and super folk that is a joy to behold…

Collecting issues #1-6 of the breakthrough series (technically S.H.I.E.L.D. volume 3, spanning February to July 2015, if you’re keeping count) this volume commences with the eponymous ‘Perfect Bullets’ (illustrated by Carlos Pacheco, Mariano Taibo & Jason Paz, with Dono Sanchez Almara providing the colours) as SHIELD Special Ops Supreme Commander Coulson is forced to rally his barely wet-behind-the-ears unit to tackle a middle-eastern terrorist who has somehow latched onto a magic sword allowing him to summon all the monsters of mythology to batter the Earth.

As all the planet’s heroes wage a losing war against the invasion of gargantuan terrors, Coulson’s team rapidly identify the true owner of the blade and deploy the two ideal superheroes able to counter its threat…

Sadly, however, when the sword is restored to its rightful wielder, a hidden extra-dimensional presence is unleashed, forcing Coulson to improvise a final solution…

Then, adding funny to the fast and furious, a brace of comedic shorts follows. Crafted by Joe Quesada and starring boy-genius Fitz and his digital avatar H.E.N.R.Y., these strips were originally concocted to amuse the cast and crew of the TV show…

The all-comics action resumes with ‘The Animator’ (art by Humberto Ramos, Victor Olazabo & Edgar Delgado) as Xenobiology specialist Simmons is sent undercover to a High School in Jersey City to crack a smuggling ring. Of course, being a SHIELD Special Ops mission, the contraband being sought is not drugs of guns or something equally mundane, but rather weapons and tech stolen from super-villains.

Things instantly go bad when a Wizard power-glove stashed in a locker spontaneously activates, causing a riot. Thankfully fresh new Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan is a student at the beleaguered institution and steps up, impressing Coulson in the process…

Sadly it’s not the only crisis on campus as bio-plasm from genetic meddler Arnim Zola infects the cafeteria food, turning hungry kids into ravenous monsters…

With that catastrophe stomach-churningly averted, Fitz and H.E.N.R.Y. make another mirthful appearance before Alan Davis, Mark Farmer and colourist Matthew Wilson make the pictures for ‘Home Invasion’ as Coulson, Spider-Man and mystic parolee Mr. Rasputin break into the bewitched citadel of Doctor Strange to battle mystic mercenaries hired to raid the storehouse of magical wonders.

The thieves think they had it covered but their meddling unleashes forces that imperil the entire Earth. Moreover, in the aftermath Coulson sees something which sets him thinking that one hand might be behind the many threats his team has recently tackled…

After another delightful Fitz and H.E.N.R.Y. escapade, Chris Sprouse, Carl Story & Almara illustrate a deeply disturbing tale as Invisible Woman Susan Richards is seconded to the Special Ops unit to save a reluctant Hydra informant from a radioactive prison five miles underground. Sadly as ‘Fuel’ unfolds she discovers the truly vicious duplicity of her opponents and endures cruel whims of fate as the Mole Man attacks everybody and Coulson is forced to intervene before atomic Armageddon ensues…

The fifth instalment starts drawing disparate plot points together as the world’s mystics and supernatural champions are systematically gunned down by an assassin firing purpose-built ‘Magic Bullets’ (with art by Mike Choi and colourist Rachelle Rosenberg)…

With his resources reduced to the Scarlet Witch and professional sceptics Fitz and Simmons, Coulson uncovers a connection to Asgard and a mystery magical mastermind, only to have his team supernaturally suborned as the hidden manipulator makes his long-anticipated move…

This immensely entertaining epic concludes as Earth is afflicted with an arcane plague transforming humanity into mindless monsters compelling Coulson to assemble a squad of intellect-deficient atrocities – zombie Simon Garth, the Living Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster and Man-Thing – into an all-new unit of Howling Commandos to invade the ‘Dark Dimensions’ (illustrated by Paul Renaud & Romulo Farjado, Jr.) and stop the contagion and its creator at the source.

And because he’s the sneaky bastard he is, Coulson also takes along a secret weapon: the last villain anyone might expect to save the universe…

Fast-paced, action-packed, imaginative, thrilling, funny and superbly illuminated throughout, Perfect Bullets offers fantastic enjoyment for any Fights ‘n’ Tights fan with a smattering of Marvel history in their heads, but will particularly reward any TV aficionado willing to peek into the convoluted comicbook universe the SHIELD show sprang from.
© 2015 Marvel Characters. All rights reserved.

Thor, God of Thunder volume 4: The Last Days of Midgard


By Jason Aaron, Esad Ribic, Agustin Alessio, Simon Bisley, R.M. Guera, Ive Svorcina & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8991-6

Created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, The Mighty Thor began his stellar career delivering an unceasing procession of spectacular fantasy-flavoured adventures which encompassed everything from crushing crime capers and smashing sinister super-villains to crushing mythical monsters saving entire universes from cosmic doom.

As the decades passed he survived numerous reboots and re-imaginings to keep the wonders of fabled Asgard appealing to an increasingly more sophisticated – and therefore jaded – readership. An already exceedingly broad range of scenarios spawned even greater visual variety after the Thunderer’s introduction to the pantheon of cinematic Marvels and his ongoing triumphs as a bona fide movie sensation.

A relatively recent publishing iteration of Marvel’s most tempestuous hero began by simultaneously focusing on the Storm Lord in the past, present and future. Thor, God of Thunder ended with #25 with this compilation gathering #19.NOW through to that momentous anniversary climax (cover-dates April to October 2014) bringing that conceit to its natural, if staggeringly apocalyptic, conclusion.

Crafted primarily by Jason Aaron & Esad Ribic, this chronicle visits two vastly separated eras as the Lord of Storms tackles two ultimate enemies of Earth in two distinctly different times.

‘The Last Days of Midgard’ opens with an appraisal of how, across the universe, many worlds are inexplicably expiring even as, on Earth, Thor is renewing his ineffable bond with the blue planet he loves so much.

Having recently made the acquaintance of junior S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Rosalind Solomon and been more than a little impressed, he is thus on hand when she begins her job in the agency’s new Environmental Hazard Division and uncovers a high-tech underwater Japanese whaling fleet hunting inside a UN undersea preserve.

As her solo assault fails Solomon is surprised – and a tad annoyed – to be rescued by the almighty storm god who soon routs and destroys the poachers. Meanwhile in Alaska, the new CEO of super-corporation Roxxon is unveiling his latest moneymaking scheme…

Unctuous yet menacing wunderkind Dario Agger is proudly publicising his new project to bring clean – albeit exorbitantly expensive – mined ice for drinking water from Jupiter’s moon Europa. Of course, he neglects to mention his company’s covert countervailing activities: secretly polluting water tables, melting Earth’s icecaps and befouling the atmosphere to maximise the profit potential of Roxxon’s newest line….

Under his new business model Roxxon intends to ecologically destabilise the planet so that they can monetise their brand of high-tech stopgap solutions…

Agger’s first foray goes embarrassingly awry when Thor hijacks his press launch; hand-delivering an entire mountain of clean ice and promising all Earth might ever need…

Furiously brushing aside Agent Solomon’s thinly veiled threat that S.H.I.E.L.D. is onto him, the self-proclaimed god of money vows vengeance and brings in his lawyers and lobbyists. Superheroes and even S.H.I.E.L.D. enforce laws, but corporations own the politicians who make and – where necessary – rewrite them…

In the far distant future the universe is winding down and All-father Thor is a weary, maimed but still stubborn god. The end of time has almost no deities left in it, save the aged, one-eyed, one-armed Last King of Asgard, with only his (recently liberated from slavery yet ferociously independent) granddaughters Atli, Ellisiv and Frigg for company.

He spends his days sitting on and mourning the burned-out, nigh-dead Earth he loves so much, but Thor’s ancient passions for the planet are stoked back to blazing fury when world-devourer Galactus arrives, determined to consume at last the only celestial morsel ever to frustrate his unending hunger…

‘All Worlds Must Die’ opens in that aforementioned far distant future as All-Father Thor banishes his tempestuous granddaughters back to Asgard whilst he prepares to die at long last defending his barren charge. Back in the Now his younger self has returned to the town of Broxton, Oklahoma; a place he sometimes calls home.

After a previous Ragnarok brought the extra-dimensional realm of Asgard to destruction and scattered the souls of the gods, a mysterious voice summoned the deceased Thor back to life – on Earth – in a crack of shattering thunder. Revived for an unspecified purpose the solitary godling swiftly set about retrieving the souls of his fellow Aesir, all scattered and hidden inside human hosts, and set up Asgard-on-Earth a few paltry feet above the ground of Oklahoma…

Following many battles and conflicts the mystic floating city – now dubbed Asgardia – was officially declared an Embassy of the Gods by the US government, and life for the rural humans below settled down to a pattern of strangely heightened, intense friendly cooperation with their amazing neighbours…

Outraged at what Solomon has told him of Roxxon and contemptuous as ever of mortal laws, Thor then causes the destruction of all the corporation’s flying pollution factories, provoking Agger to move the hero up his agenda and retaliate…

In his corporate lair the billionaire revels in the power of money and science whilst murderously “inspiring” his ineffectual think-tank to find solutions to his god problem. The gorily bloodletting brainstorming session soon arrives at a perfect response, but also inadvertently reveals a stunning secret about the cruel plutocrat…

With Agger setting his plans into motion in the present, at the end of time the last King of Asgard refuses to surrender his beloved Earth to Galactus and, as the battle ferociously escalates, readies himself to die gloriously with his wounded world…

‘God, Inc.’ sees the apparent defeat of the elder god, whilst in his past the unstoppable power of money and influence as applied by Roxxon has moved clerical mountains and brought misery to the younger Thunderer.

The corporation has moved into Broxton with a spurious scheme to bring jobs, prosperity and progress to the isolated farming town. Of course the first step is buying up all the land they can and splitting up the community. That is quickly followed by establishing a second wave of atmosphere-poisoning flying factories over their bewildered heads…

Correctly assessing what Thor’s furiously impatient response will be, smug Agger is waiting with a legion of lawyers and writs waiting to serve the god with injunctions, cease-&-desist orders and damages suits. After the CEO refuses the Asgardian’s offer to buy back Broxton with the unlimited wealth of the Eternal Realm, only Rosalind’s frantic pleading stops the enraged Thunderer from blowing his top and getting himself arrested and even deported from Earth…

In a distant Tomorrow Galactus has defeated the ancient Thunder Lord and thrown his battered body into space, whilst in the Now Agger initiates the next phase in his blueprint for vengeance, summoning monstrous troll Ulik and his troglodytic legions to literally undermine Broxton and Asgardia and slay Thor when he inevitably intervenes…

‘For Thor So Loved the World’ finds the world-devourer preparing to render the defenceless future Earth to rubble when the incomparable and ever defiant Atli, Ellisiv and Frigg return, bearing an arsenal of god-killing weapons, whilst in present day Oklahoma Thor resorts to guile and patience – two things he is legendarily short of – whilst Rosalind leads the fight back against Roxxon.

Things soon go wrong though when she is targeted by hungry trolls…

As defeated King Thor rallies at the end of the universe and storms towards the place where the most ultimate of weapons is cached, in the present Thor confronts Agger and is astonished to see him transform into a bloodthirsty beast-monster easily the match of a mere god…

‘Blood of the Earth’ features even more spectacularly climactic cataclysmic combat on two time-fronts with ravening monsters equally served their just deserts, topped off with a brace of twist endings each serving to set the scene for forthcoming dramas, but the graphic drama does not end there.

Thor, God of Thunder #24 featured ‘The Last Days of Midgard Epilogue: Adieu, Midgard, Adieu’ (illustrated by Agustin Alessio & colourist Ive Svorcina with Ribic), offering a rather downbeat conclusion to the bombastic epic as – beaten but undeterred – Dario Agger pleads possession by uncanny forces and puts all Roxxon’s resources behind a campaign to remove the terrifying, alien, immigrant Asgardians from American – if not Earth’s – holy soil…

Amidst an aura of almost constant super-powered strife, it’s ludicrously easy to sway public opinion and All-Mother Freyja decides its time for the repaired and fully restored city of wonders to leave for another, more welcoming place in the unending cosmos. But before they go, Thor has one last invaluable gift for all the friends in Broxton he feels he has failed…

Closing this collection and that era of the never-ending chronicles of Thor comes issue #25, disseminating ‘Tales of Thunder’ written as always by Aaron who takes the opportunity to delve into the secret histories of many of the lesser characters whilst laying the foundations for Thor’s Next Big Evolution.

This would happen as a result of the Original Sin Crossover Event which ended with a completely different Thunderer holding the Hammer of Thor…

Cloaked in a framing sequence where All-Father Thor’s granddaughters are forced to study excerpts from history the lessons begin with ‘The 13th Son of a 13th Son’ (limned by R.M. Guera and coloured by Giulia Brusco) which luxuriously details the sordid development of an elf sold into slavery by his mother. Rising from that cruel and demeaning state due to his ruthlessness and affinity for sorcery, the goddesses’ research shows how and why Dark Elf Malekith the Accursed became leader of the Wild Hunt and enemy of all that lives…

Next Simon Bisley spectacularly illuminates a tale of Thor’s Boyhood when he rode with the Vikings of Midgard against invading Frost Giant’s in a war of ‘Blood and Ice’. Despite emerging triumphant, the young prince of Asgard made an error of judgement which would cost him dear in centuries to come…

The school session ends soon after the last war maidens of Asgard consult a forbidden tome and learn of a woman who held mighty Mjolnir after the son of Odin was found to be ‘Unworthy’ (art by Ribic & Svorcina) which tantalisingly leads into another book for another time…

This blistering book of battles, trickery, triumphs and tragedies affords furious thrills and fabulous Fights ‘n’ Tights furore no fan of mythic cosmic adventure could possibly resist, so why not surrender to an irresistible force of full-on fun?
© 2012, 2015 Marvel Characters. All rights reserved.

Thor Epic Collection: The God of Thunder


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, Robert Bernstein, Joe Sinnott, Al Hartley, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8835-3

Even more than the Fantastic Four, The Mighty Thor was the arena in which Jack Kirby’s restless fascination with all things Cosmic was honed and refined through his dazzling graphics and captivating concepts. The King’s string of power-packed signature pantheons began in a modest little fantasy/monster title called Journey into Mystery where – in the summer of 1962 – a tried-and-true comicbook concept (feeble mortal transformed into god-like hero) was revived by the fledgling Marvel Comics to add a Superman analogue to their growing roster of costumed adventurers.

This gloriously economical full-colour tome – also available in eFormats – re-presents those pioneering Asgardian exploits from JiM #83-109, spanning summer 1962 to October 1964 in a blur of innovation and seat-of-the-pants myth-revising and universe-building…

Cover-dated August 1962, Journey into Mystery #83 saw a bold costumed warrior jostling aside the regular fare of monsters, aliens and sinister scientists in a brash, vivid explosion of verve and vigour.

The initial exploit followed crippled American doctor Donald Blake who takes a vacation in Norway only to encounter the vanguard of an alien invasion. Fleeing, he is trapped in a cave where he finds an old, gnarled walking stick. When in his frustration he smashes the stick into a huge boulder obstructing his escape, his puny frame is transformed into the Norse God of Thunder, the Mighty Thor!

Plotted by Stan Lee, scripted by his brother Larry Lieber and illustrated by Kirby and inker Joe Sinnott (at this juncture a full illustrator, Sinnott would become Kirby’s primary inker for most of his Marvel career), ‘The Stone Men of Saturn’ is pure early Marvel, bombastic, fast-paced, gloriously illogical and captivatingly action-packed. The hugely under-appreciated Art Simek was the letterer and logo designer.

It was clear that they whey were making it up as they went along – not in itself a bad thing – and that infectious enthusiasm shows in the next adventure…

‘The Mighty Thor Vs. the Executioner’ is a “commie-busting” tale of its time with a thinly disguised Fidel Castro wasting his formidable armies in battle against our hero. Dr. Blake’s nurse Jane Foster is introduced; a bland cipher adored from afar by the Norse superman’s timid alter-ego. The creative team settled as Dick Ayers replaced Sinnott, and with #85’s ‘Trapped by Loki, God of Mischief!’ the final element fell into place with the “return” of a suitably awesome arch-foe; in this case the hero’s half-brother. This evil magician and compulsive trickster escaped divine incarceration and his first thought was to bedevil Thor by causing terror and chaos on the world of mortals he was so devoted to.

Here a new and greater universe was first revealed with the tantalising hints and glimpses of the celestial otherworld and more Nordic gods…

Issue #86 introduced another recurring villain. Zarrko, bristling at the sedentary ease of 23rd century life, travelled to 1962 to steal an experimental “C-Bomb”, forcing the Thunderer into a stirring hunt through time and inevitable clash with super-technology ‘On the Trail of the Tomorrow Man!’ On his return Blake became a target of Soviet abductors. Those sneaky spies even managed to make Thor a ‘Prisoner of the Reds!’ before eventually emerging unscathed and triumphant…

‘The Vengeance of Loki’ saw the god of Mischief’s return in #88 as the malevolent miscreant uncovered Thor’s secret identity and naturally menaced Jane Foster whilst ‘The Thunder God and the Thug’ was adventure on a much more human scale wherein a gang boss runs riot over the city and roughshod over a good woman’s heart, giving the Asgardian a chance to demonstrate a more sophisticated and sympathetic side by crushing him and freeing her from Thug Thatcher’s influence.

Issue #90 was an unsettling surprise as the grandeur of Kirby & Ayers was replaced by the charming yet angst-free art of Al Hartley, who illustrated Lee & Lieber’s stock alien-invasion yarn ‘Trapped by the Carbon-Copy Man!’ A month later the Storm Lord tackles ‘Sandu, Master of the Supernatural!’, with Sinnott handling all the art, in a thriller starring a carnival mentalist who – augmented by Loki’s magic – comes catastrophically close to killing our hero…

Sinnott drew JiM #92’s ‘The Day Loki Stole Thor’s Magic Hammer’ (scripted by Robert Bernstein over Lee’s plot) which moves the action fully to the mythical realm of Asgard for the first time as Thor sought to recover his stolen weapon after Loki ensorcelled the magnificent mallet. Kirby & Ayers momentarily returned for Cold War/Atom Age thriller ‘The Mysterious Radio-Active Man!’ – again plotted by Bernstein – as Mao Tse Tung unleashes an atomic assassin in retaliation for Thor thwarting China’s invasion of India. Such “Red-baiting” was common in early Marvel titles, but their inherent jingoistic silliness can’t mar the eerie beauty of the artwork. With this tale the rangy, raw-boned Thunder God completed his slow metamorphosis into the husky, burly blonde bruiser who dominated any panel he was drawn in.

Sinnott illustrated the next three somewhat pedestrian adventures. ‘Thor and Loki Attack the Human Race!’, ‘The Demon Duplicator’ and ‘The Magic of Mad Merlin!’, but these mediocre tales of magic-induced amnesia, science-fuelled evil doppelgangers and an ancient mutant menace were the last of an old style of comics. Stan Lee took over full scripting with Journey into Mystery #97 and a torrent of action wedded to soap opera melodrama resulted in a fresh style for a developing readership.

‘The Lava Man’ in #97 was again drawn by Kirby, with the subtly textured inking of Don Heck adding depth to the tale of an invader summoned from the subterranean realms to menace humanity at the behest of Loki. More significantly a long running rift between Thor and his stern father Odin was established after the Lord of Asgard refused to allow his son to love the mortal Jane.

This acrimonious triangle was a perennial sub-plot fuelling many attempts to humanise Thor, because already he was a hero too powerful for most villains to cope with. Most importantly this issue was notable for the launch of a spectacular back-up series. ‘Tales of Asgard – Home of the mighty Norse Gods’ gave Kirby a vehicle to indulge his fascination with legends. Initially adapting classic tales but eventually with all-new material particular to the Marvel pantheon, he built his own cosmos and mythology, which underpinned the company’s entire continuity. This first saga, scripted by Lee and inked by George Bell (AKA old Golden Age collaborator George Roussos), outlined the origin of the world and the creation of the World Tree Yggdrasil.

‘Challenged by the Human Cobra’ introduced the serpentine villain (bitten by a radioactive Cobra, would you believe?) in a tale by Lee & Heck, whilst Kirby – with them in attendance – offered ‘Odin Battles Ymir, King of the Ice Giants!’ a short, potent fantasy romp which laid the groundwork for decades of cosmic wonderment of years to come.

The same format held for issues #99 and #100 with the main story (the first two-part adventure in the run) introducing the brutal ‘Mysterious Mister Hyde’ – and concluding a month later with ‘The Master Plan of Mr. Hyde!’ The modern yarn dealt with a contemporary chemist who could transform into a super-strong villain at will and who framed Thor for his crimes whilst in primordial prehistory Kirby detailed Odin’s war with ‘Surtur the Fire Demon’ and latterly (with Vince Colletta inking) crafted an exploit of the All-Father’s so different sons in ‘The Storm Giants – a tale of the Boyhood of Thor’. As always, Lee scripted these increasingly influential comicbook histories…

JiM #101 saw Kirby finally assume control of the pencilling on both strips. ‘The Return of Zarrko, the Tomorrow Man’ sees Odin halve Thor’s powers for wilful disobedience just as the futuristic felon abducts the Thunder God to help him conquer the 23rd century. Anther two-parter (the first half inked by Roussos), it was balanced by another exuberant tale of the boy Thor. ‘The Invasion of Asgard’ sees the valiant lad fight a heroic rearguard action that introduced a host of future villainous mainstays such as Rime Giants and Geirrodur the Troll.

‘Slave of Zarrko, the Tomorrow Man’ is a tour de force epic conclusion most notable for the introduction of Chic Stone as inker. To many of us oldsters, his clean, full brush lines make him The King’s best embellisher ever.

This triumphant futuristic thriller is counterbalanced by brooding short ‘Death Comes to Thor!’ as the teen hero faces his greatest challenge yet. Two females who would play huge roles in his life were introduced in this brief 5-pager; the young goddess Sif and Hela, Queen of the Dead.

On a creative roll, Lee, Kirby & Stone next introduced ‘The Enchantress and the Executioner’: ruthless renegade Asgardians determined to respectively seduce or destroy the warrior prince in the front of JiM #103 whilst the rear revealed ‘Thor’s Mission to Mirmir’ disclosing how the gods created humanity. That led one month later to a revolutionary saga when ‘Giants Walk the Earth’.

For the first time Kirby’s imagination was given full play after Loki tricks Odin into visiting Earth, only to release ancient elemental enemies Surtur and Skagg, the Storm Giant from Asgardian bondage.

This cosmic clash saw noble gods battling demonic evil in a new Heroic Age, and the greater role of the Norse supporting cast – especially noble warrior Balder – was reinforced by a new Tales of Asgard strand focussing on individual Gods and Heroes. ‘Heimdall: Guardian of the Mystic Rainbow Bridge’ was first, with Heck inking.

Issues #105-106 saw the teaming of two old foes in ‘The Cobra and Mr, Hyde’ and ‘The Thunder God Strikes Back’; another continued story packed with tension and spectacular action, proving Thor was swiftly growing beyond the constraints of traditional single issue adventures. The respective back-ups ‘When Heimdall Failed!’ (Lee, Kirby & Roussos) and ‘Balder the Brave’ (Lee, Kirby & Colletta) further fleshed out the back-story of an Asgardian pantheon deviating more and more from those classical Eddas and Sagas kids had to plough through in schools.

Journey into Mystery #107 premiered a petrifying villain in ‘When the Grey Gargoyle Strikes’, a rare yarn highlighting the fortitude of Dr. Blake rather than the power of the Thunder God, who was increasingly reducing his own alter-ego to an inconsequentiality. Closing the issue, the Norn Queen debuted in a quirky reinterpretation of the classic myth ‘Balder Must Die!’ illustrated by Kirby & Colletta.

After months of manipulation the God of Evil once again took direct action in ‘At the Mercy of Loki, Prince of Evil!’ With Jane a helpless victim of Asgardian magic, the willing assistance of new Marvel star Doctor Strange made this a captivating team-up to read, whilst ‘Trapped by the Trolls’ (Colletta inks) showed the power and promise of tales set solely on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge after Thor liberates Asgardians from Subterranean bondage.

Bringing down the curtain on this increasingly cosmic carnival, Journey into Mystery #109 was another superb adventure masquerading as a plug for recent addition to the Marvel roster.

‘When Magneto Strikes!’ pits Thor against the X-Men’s greatest foe in a cataclysmic clash of fundamental powers, but you couldn’t really call it a team-up since the heroic mutants are never actually seen. The tantalising hints and cropped glimpses are fascinating teasers now, but the kid I then was felt annoyed not to have seen these new heroes… oh… wait… maybe that was the point?

The Young Thor feature ‘Banished from Asgard’ is an uncharacteristically lacklustre effort to end on as Odin and Thor enact a devious plan to trap a traitor in Asgard’s ranks but the vignette hinted at much greater thrills to follow…

These early tales of the God of Thunder show the development not only of one of Marvel’s core narrative concepts but, more importantly, the creative evolution of perhaps the greatest imagination in comics. Set your common sense on pause and simply wallow in the glorious imagery and power of these classic adventures for the true secret of what makes comicbook superheroes such a unique experience.
© 1962, 1963, 1964, 2014 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Daredevil Masterworks volume 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cravan – Mystery Man of the Twentieth Century


By Mike Richardson & Rick Geary (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-59307-291-9                  eISBN: 978-1-62115-198-2

The old cliché about truth being stranger than fiction seemingly has a lot more force these days than it used to have. Moreover, everybody is captivated by an unsolved mystery, aren’t they?

That was clearly the case when occasional writer and full-time publisher (of Dark Horse Comics) Mike Richardson discovered he shared a small obsession with cartoonist and true crime raconteur Rick Geary…

That story is intriguing enough in itself but only constitutes a minor footnote at the back of this fascinating appraisal of one of the most infamous self-aggrandizers of the early 20th century and a man all but forgotten today.

Rick Geary is a unique talent in the comic industry, not simply because of his style of drawing but especially because of his method of telling tales.

For decades he toiled as an Underground cartoonist and freelance illustrator of strange stories, published in locales as varied as Heavy Metal, Epic Illustrated, National Lampoon, RAW and High Times, honing a unique ability to create sublimely understated stories by stringing together seemingly unconnected streams of narrative to compose tales moving, often melancholy and always beguiling.

Discovering his natural oeuvre with works including biographies of J. Edgar Hoover and Trotsky plus the multi-volumed Treasury of Victorian Murder/Treasury of XXth Century Murder series, Geary has grown into a grand master and unique presence in both comics and True Crime literature.

Here, in this captivating monochrome tome, he and Richardson weave the scanty facts, some solid supposition and a bit of bold extrapolation into a mesmerising treatise about a precursor to Jimmy Hoffa and Lord Lucan – with a hefty dose of Shergar, D.B. Cooper, Ronnie Biggs and Forrest Gump thrown in for good measure…

Arthur Cravan was but one of the names used by serial fraudster and inveterate troublemaker Fabian Lloyd, a nephew of Oscar Wilde who, after being expelled from the last of many good schools in 1903, began – at the tender age of 16 – a short and sparkling career seeking the limelight.

In a scant few years he became a star of the art world: a noted poet, Bohemian, journalist, art critic, painter, publisher, author, performer and pugilist (through a string of uncanny flukes he became Lightweight Champion of France without throwing a punch…) whilst simultaneously admitting to being a thief, forger, deserter, confidence-trickster, political subversive and agitator…

A man of many identities – for most of whom he created impeccably-crafted forged papers – Cravan numbered Jack Johnson, Leon Trotsky, Marcel Duchamp and other stellar luminaries of the Edwardian and pre-Great War era as friends. Even after admitting to manufacturing undiscovered works by Manet, Dante and his uncle Oscar whilst assiduously avoiding any involvement in the global conflagration, he was feted by America’s intellectual elite whilst being hounded by the US Secret Service…

In 1918, with the American authorities making his life miserable, he set sail from Mexico to join poet Mina Loy – wife and mother of his unborn daughter – in Buenos Aires, but was lost at sea and never seen again.

At least that’s the official version. Searches found nothing and eventually he was declared dead and mostly forgotten, but stories and sightings persisted, as they always do…

And here’s where Richardson and Geary boldly imagine and draw some admittedly convincing conclusions about Cravan’s possible fate, linking it to the short but fabled career of reclusive author B. Traven: most well known today as the enigma who penned Death Ship and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Beguilingly speculative and ringing with authenticity if not indisputable veracity, this fictive biography is a superb exercise in historical exploration and one packed with wholehearted fun and mercurial love of life.
©2005 Dark Horse Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avengers: The Kree/Skrull War


By Roy Thomas, Sal Buscema, Neal Adams, John Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0785164791(HC)             978-0785132301(PB)

One of the most momentous events in Marvel Comics history occurred in 1963 when a disparate array of individual heroes banded together to stop the Incredible Hulk. The Avengers combined most of the company’s fledgling superhero line in one bright, shiny and highly commercial package. Over the decades the roster has unceasingly changed, and now almost every character in their universe has at some time numbered amongst their colourful ranks…

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

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

After Lee & Kirby moved on, the team was left in the capable hands of artists Don Heck and John Buscema whilst Roy Thomas grew into one of the industry’s most impressive writers, guiding the World’s Mightiest Heroes through a range of adventures ranging from sublimely poetic to staggeringly epic…

This compilation – available in hard cover, paperback and eBook iterations – collects Avengers #89-97 from June 1971 to March 1972. At the 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 all began relatively quietly as marooned Kree warrior Captain Marvel was finally freed from virtual imprisonment in the Negative Zone.

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

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

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

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

Even with Ronan taking personal charge the scheme to eradicate humanity is narrowly defeated in ‘Take One Giant Step… Backward!’, but the cat is let out of the bag about the panic-inspiring notion that extraterrestrials lurk among us.

Moreover, public opinion turns against the heroes for concealing the threat of repeated alien incursions…

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

Or are they…?

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

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

Acting too late the human heroes are unable to prevent Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Mar-Vell from being abducted by the Super-Skrull…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This terrific tale is the ideal example of superheroes done exactly right and also a pivotal point as the little company evolved into a corporate entertainment colossus. It’s also still one of the best superhero stories you’ll ever read…
© 1971, 1972, 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Rocket Raccoon and Groot Complete Collection


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Bill Mantlo, Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, Keith Giffen, Mike Mignola, Timothy Green II & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6713-6

Although heralded since its genesis in the early 1960s with making superheroes more realistic, The House of Ideas has also always maintained its close connection with outlandish and outrageous cosmic calamity (as seen in their pre-superhero “monster-mag” days), and their pantheon of much-travelled space stalwarts maintain that delightful “Anything Goes” attitude in all of their many and varied iterations.

The pair of interstellar oddments featured here are creative oddments who took a very long time to achieve their stellar potential and have done particularly well out of recent reboots and re-imaginings: both in comicbooks and through large and small screen reinterpretations…

Collecting Groot’s debut from Tales to Astonish #13; Incredible Hulk # 271, Rocket Raccoon volume 1 #1-4, and pertinent material from Marvel Preview #7, Annihilators #1-4 and Annihilators: Earthfall #1-4, collectively ranging from November 1960 to February 2012, this fun-filled paperback compendium offers a wealth of thrills and expansive action and a fair slice of witty satire to boot…

The sidereal shenanigans begin with an absolute classic of the gloriously whacky “Kirby Kritter” genre, predating the birth of the Marvel Age. Crafted by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Kirby & Dick Ayers, ‘I Challenged Groot! The Monster from Planet X’ (Tales to Astonish #13, November/December 1960) reveals how a studious biologist saves humanity from a rapacious walking tree intent on stealing Earth cities and shipping them back to his distant world.

Rocket Raccoon was a minor character who first appeared in backup serial ‘The Sword in the Star’. His debut was in Marvel Preview #7 in 1976 but that particular tale comes later.

In 1982, writer Bill Mantlo brought him into the mainstream of the Marvel Universe with a star role in Incredible Hulk #271 (May). Like Wolverine years before, the hairy iconoclast then simply refused to go away quietly…

Illustrated by Sal Buscema, ‘Now Somewhere In the Black Holes of Sirius Major There Lived a Young Boy Name of… Rocket Raccoon!’ found the jade juggernaut stranded on an alien world where sentient animals used super-scientific gadgetry to battle robot clowns to preserve the security of humans who seemed incapable of caring for themselves. When Green-skin arrived, a simmering civil war broke out…

With the Hulk safely removed from the combat zone, Rocket faded from view for a few years before returning in a newfangled format for comicbooks: a mini series…

The 4-issue Rocket Raccoon miniseries (cover-dated May to August 1985 and crafted by Mantlo, Mike Mignola, Al Gordon & Al Milgrom) presented a bizarre and baroque sci-fi fantasy blending the charm of Pogo with the biting social satire of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest all whilst ostensibly describing a battle between Good and Evil in a sector of space crazy even by funnybook standards.

Rocket was one of many talking animals in the impenetrable, inescapable Keystone Quadrant; a Ranger in charge of keeping the peace in a troubled atmosphere where robots and anamorphic beasties went about their ordained task of caring for the distinctly odd and carefree humans known as The Loonies on their idyllic, sybaritic planet Halfworld.

When a brutal shooting war between voracious apex toymakers Judson Jakes and Lord Dyvyne leads to Rocket’s girlfriend Lylla Otter being kidnapped, the planet goes crazy wild, or perhaps… ‘Animal Crackers’.

In rescuing her, Rocket and faithful deputy Wal Rus have to contend with a murderous army of mechanised Killer Clowns, face an horrific, all-consuming bio-weapon at ‘The Masque of the Red Breath’, and even team up with arch-foe and disreputable mercenary bunny Blackjack O’Hare in ‘The Book of Revelations!’ before finally uncovering the horrendous truth behind the mad society they so unquestioningly defend…

The final chapter shakes everything up as ‘The Age of Enlightenment’ sees the end of The Loonies, allowing the Raccoon and his surviving companions to escape the confines of the eternally segregated Keystone Quadrant into the greater universe beyond…

Next – eschewing continuity but at least presented here in the original monochrome – is that first Rocket romp from Marvel Preview #7.

‘The Sword in the Star’ was an epic combination of Druillet’s Loan Sloane stories with Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, detailing the interstellar search by Prince Wayfinder of Ithacon to find a new home for his dying people. That exodus took them from 1500 years in Earth’s future to prehistory where, on their second stop, the Once and Future King landed on a ‘Witch World!’ where trees tried to kill the imperial exile and a sarcastic, heavily-armed rodent helped him confront a sinister sorceress dubbed Kirke

Impressively rendered by Keith Giffen in full Euro-mode, the story ended on a cliffhanger you won’t see resolved here…

In 2006 a massive crossover involved most of Marvel’s 21st century space specialists in a spectacular Annihilation Event, leading writing team Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning to confiscate and reconfigure the Guardians of the Galaxy concept for modern times and tastes.

Among the stalwarts in the big event were Silver Surfer, Galactus, Firelord (and other previous heralds of the world-eater), Moondragon, Quasar, Star-Lord, Thanos, SuperSkrull, Rigellian Colonizer Tana Nile, Gamora (“Deadliest Woman in the Galaxy”), Ronan the Accuser, Nova, Drax the Destroyer, a Watcher and many previously established alien civilisations such as the Kree, Skrulls, Xandarians, Shi’ar et al., all falling before an invasion of rapacious Negative Zone bugs and beasties unleashed by insectoid horror Annihilus..

After that shooting match subsided the decimated sectors and empires were left helpless as all-subsuming technological parasite The Phalanx struck, absorbing and thriving inside the machines and electronic engines the shaken civilisations were using to rebuild in a follow-up apocalypse designated Annihilation: Conquest.

To counter the threat Star-Lord Peter Quill was tasked with turning a bunch of Kree convicts into a Penal Strike Force (a highly engaging intergalactic Dirty Half-Dozen): Galactic Warrior Bug (originally from 1970’s phenomenon Micronauts), then-current Captain Universe, Shi’ar berserker Deathcry, failed Celestial Madonna Mantis, Groot and a so-very-far-from-home Rocket Raccoon…

From those sidereal sagas came a new Guardians of the Galaxy plus a pack of Cosmic Crusaders known as Annihilators. Their first 4-issue miniseries spanned May to August 2011 and carried a back-up strip starring Rocket and Groot by Abnett, Lanning and Timothy Green II.

After the wars, not all the heroes were feted – or even remembered – and Rocket is forced to take a job in the mail room of intergalactic corporation ‘Timely Inc’. He loathes the entire experience but when somebody sends a Killer Clown after him soon slips into old habits and goes looking for guns, grenades and answers…

He doesn’t find them on Planet X when seeking out Groot, but does save his old pal from certain death in ‘There is Unrest in the Forest, There is Trouble with the Trees’

When Groot speaks of events Rocket can’t remember, the little warrior realises his mind has been tampered with and the trail leads right back to Halfworld…

The place has completely changed. ‘It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World’ now, containing the most dangerous mind in creation, and once Rocket discovers who excised his memories and why, it’s only a little leap of imagination to realise he’s been drawn into a subtle snare with potentially catastrophic consequences…

Armed with knowledge – and heavy ordnance – he and Groot then shut down the manipulator and save the universe through a carefully applied ‘Brain Storm’

In November 2011 Annihilators: Earthfall offered another 4-issue miniseries with Abnett, Lanning & Green reprising Rocket and Groot’s danger-magnet escapades at the back of each. In ‘Batteries Not Included’ our unlikely heroes find themselves in one perilous situation after another with no idea of how they got there.

Only gradually do they realise they’ve been kidnapped by insidious impresario Mojo: turned into unwilling showmen and merchandising franchise with the prospect of painful death arising at every moment.

Understandably unhappy, they renegotiate terms in the most destructive manner possible…

This razor-sharp, spectacular slice of riotous star-roving action is a non-stop feast of tense suspense, surreal fun and blockbuster action: well-tailored, on-target and certain to turn curious movie-goers into fans of the comics incarnation.
© 2013 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Panther volume 1: A Nation Under Our Feet


By Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-302-90053-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: The Cat’s Whiskers for Comics Fans… 8/10

Regarded as the first black superhero in American comics and one of the first to carry his own series, the Black Panther’s popularity and fortunes have waxed and waned since July 1966 when he first met the Fantastic Four. You can even see how far we’ve all come in his fiftieth anniversary year as that intriguing introductory tale in included at the back of this slim new volume…

T’Challa, son of T’Chaka, is an African monarch whose hidden kingdom is the only source of a miraculous alien metal upon which the country’s immense wealth was founded. Those mineral riches – supposedly derived from a fallen meteor which struck the continent in lost antiquity – had enabled Wakanda to become one of the wealthiest and most secretive nations on Earth. For much of its history it has been an isolated, utopian technological wonderland.

The tribal resources and people of Wakanda have been safeguarded since time immemorial by a human champion who derived cat-like physical advantages from secret ceremonies and a mysterious heart-shaped herb which ensure the generational dominance of the nation’s Panther Cult and Royal Family.

The “Vibranium” mound had ensured the country’s status as a secret superpower for centuries but increasingly made Wakanda a target for subversion and incursion in modern times.

Now this sleek, extremely engaging restart – collecting Black Panther volume 6 #1-4 and spanning June-September 2016 – introduces a whole new era of political unrest to Africa’s oldest surviving kingdom and Earth’s most advanced (human) nation…

Scripted by correspondent and author Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) and illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze (Batman: Shadow of the Bat, Day Men) the story opens as T’Challa resumes the throne he had so recently surrendered to his sister Shuri before global catastrophe, economic collapse and consecutive invasions from Sub-Mariner’s Atlantis and Thanos’ extraterrestrial Black Legion wrought havoc amongst the Wakandans.

Now as he strives to reassure his people, a moment of indiscipline amongst his soldiers provokes disaster. As T’Challa addresses striking miners at the Great Mound, a gesture is misinterpreted and guards fire on protesters. Only the Black Panther’s senses can detect the presence of another influence, shaping emotions and triggering the escalating clash which follows…

Meanwhile, in The Golden City of Wakanda another crisis brews. A member of his formidable Dora Milaje elite bodyguards has acted beyond her station; punishing a local chieftain’s abusive treatment of wives and daughters with uncompromising finality.

For taking the law into her own hands Aneka must die…

Near the Nigandan Border a political cell of super-powered rebels takes stock. “The People” are dedicated to fomenting violent change in Wakanda using ancient sorcery, unsuspected connections to the palace and the fervent dream of a new nation…

Aneka’s resolve to face her fate bravely is challenged and swiftly withers when her comrade-in-arms and lover Ayo explosively breaks her out of jail. Wearing the latest in (stolen) Wakandan cybernetic war-armour, the women head into the wilds, seeking nothing but freedom but all too soon they are diverted by the horrific plight of abused women they continually encounter.

As the furious fugitives punish the awful ravages of malevolent bandits and rogue chiefs, emancipated women flock to their bloody banner. Wakanda’s growing civil war finds itself faced with a third passionate, deadly faction ready to die for their cause…

And in a place supposedly far removed from the cares of the world, recently deceased Queen Shuri is challenged by a mysterious stranger on The Djalia, the ethereal Plane of Wakandan Memory. Shuri is not destined for peace or rest but has a task to finish if the spirits of her ancestors are to be believed…

Tragically, as the opposing forces and ideologies converge in a very earthly hiding hole, the extremely rich white man funding much of the chaos gloats and further refines his grand plans…

To Be Continued…

Fast-paced, compelling and gloriously readable, this splendid blend of political thriller, action epic and mystic revelation comes with a stunning cover-&-variants gallery by Alex Ross, Stelfreeze, Olivier Coipel, Gabrielle Dell’Otto, Mark Brooks, Ryan Sook, Todd Nauck & Rachelle Rosenberg, Felipe Smith, Larry Stroman, Mark Morales & Jason Keith, Funko, Skottie Young, John Tyler Christopher, Neal Adams Dale Keown, Mike McKone & Frank Martin, Sanford Greene, Frank Cho, Jamal Campbell and Kyle Baker. There’s also a map of Wakanda and its encroaching border nation, a fascinating glimpse ‘Behind the Scenes with Brian Stelfreeze’ offering commentary, insights and a wealth of production art and sketches, and a feature on ‘Process and Development’ tracing typed word to printed page…

Moreover, following a comprehensive Black Panther Chronology and Creator Biographies, is followed by that aforementioned Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott classic. Here ‘The Black Panther!’ attacks the FF as part of an extended plan to gain vengeance on the murderer of his father.

A full-on rollercoaster ride no fan of Fights ‘n’ Tights furore will want to miss.
© 2016 MARVEL. All rights reserved.

Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange volume 1


By Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Don Rico, George Roussos & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4564-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Little Seasonal Magic… 9/10

When the budding House of Ideas introduced a warrior wizard to their burgeoning pantheon in the summer of 1963 it was a bold and curious move. Bizarre adventures and menacing monsters were still incredibly popular but mention of magic or the supernatural (especially vampires, werewolves and their eldritch ilk) were harshly proscribed by a censorship panel which dictated almost all aspects of story content.

At this time all – almost a decade after a public witch hunt led to Senate hearings – comics were ferociously monitored and adjudicated by the draconian Comics Code Authority. Even though the some of the small company’s strongest sellers were still mystery and monster mags, their underlying themes and premises were almost universally mad science and alien wonders, not necromantic or thaumaturgic horrors.

That might explain Stan Lee’s low key introduction of Steve Ditko’s mystic adventurer: an exotic, twilight troubleshooter inhabiting the shadowy outer fringes of society.

Capitalising on of the runaway success of Fantastic Four, Lee had quickly spun off the youngest, most colourful member of the team into his own series, hoping to recapture the glory of the 1940s when the Human Torch was one of the company’s untouchable “Big Three” superstars.

Within a year of FF #1, anthology title Strange Tales became home for the blazing boy-hero (with issue #101, cover-dated October 1962), launching Johnny Storm on a creatively productive but commercially unsuccessful solo career.

Soon after in Tales of Suspense #41 (May 1963) current sensation Iron Man battled a crazed scientific wizard dubbed Doctor Strange, and with the name successfully and legally in copyrightable print (a long-established Lee technique: Thorr, The Thing, Magneto and the Hulk had been disposable Atlas “furry underpants monsters” long before they became in-continuity Marvel characters) preparations began for a new and truly different kind of hero.

The company had already published a quasi-mystic precursor: balding, trench-coated savant Doctor Droom – later rechristened (or is that re-paganed?) Dr. Druid – had an inconspicuous short run in Amazing Adventures (volume 1 #1-4 & #6: June-November 1961). He was a balding psychiatrist, magician and paranormal investigator who tackled everything from alien invaders to Atlanteans and was subsequently retro-written into Marvel continuity as an alternative candidate for Stephen Strange’s ultimate role as Sorcerer Supreme…

After a shaky start, the Master of the Mystic Arts became an unmissable icon of the cool counter-culture kids who saw in Ditko’s increasingly psychedelic art, echoes and overtones of their own trippy explorations of other worlds…

That might not have been the authors’ intentions but it certainly helped keep the mage at the forefront of Lee’s efforts to break comics out of the kids-stuff ghetto…

This enchanting full colour paperback compilation – also available as a digital download – collects the mystical portions of Strange Tales #110, 111 and 114-141 and a titanic team-up from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2; spanning July 1963 to February 1966. Moreover, although the Good Doctor was barely cover-featured until issue #130, it also magnanimously includes every issue’s stunning frontage: thus offering an incredible array of superbly eye-catching Marvel masterpieces from the upstart outfit’s formative heyday by Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, Bob Powell, John Severin and others.

Following a fond reminiscence and commentary from Dean Mullaney our first meeting with the man of mystery comes courtesy of a quiet little chiller which has never been surpassed for sheer mood and imagination.

‘Doctor Strange Master of Black Magic!’ by Lee & Ditko debuted at the back of Strange Tales #110 and saw a terrified man troubled by his dreams approach an exceptional consultant in his search for a cure…

That perfect 5-page fright-fest introduces whole new realms and features deceit, desperation, double dealing and the introduction of both a mysterious and aged oriental mentor and devilish dream demon Nightmare in an unforgettable yarn that might well be Ditko’s finest moment…

A month later in #111 he was back, ‘Face-to-Face with the Magic of Baron Mordo!’ which introduced a player on the other side…

The esoteric duel with such an obviously formidable foe established Strange as a tragic solitary guardian tasked with defending the world from supernatural terrors and uncanny encroachment whilst introducing his most implacable enemy, a fellow sorcerer with vaulting ambition and absolutely no morals. In the astounding battle that ensued, it was also firmly confirmed that Strange was the smarter man…

Strange Tales #114 (November 1963) was one of the most important issues of the era. Not only did it highlight the return of another Golden Age hero – or at least a villainous facsimile of him by Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers. Here’s a quote from the last panel. “You guessed it! This story was really a test! To see if you too would like Captain America to Return! As usual, your letters will give us the answer!” We all know how that turned out…

Nevertheless, for many of us the true treasure trove here was the fabulously moody resurrection of Doctor Strange: permanently installing an eccentric and baroque little corner of the growing unified universe where Ditko could let his imagination run wild…

With #114 the Master of the Mystic Arts took up monthly residence behind the Torch as ‘The Return of the Omnipotent Baron Mordo!’ (uncredited inks by George Roussos) found the Doctor lured to London and into a trap, only to be saved by unlikely adept Victoria Bentley: an abortive stab at a romantic interest who would periodically turn up in years to come.

The forbidding man of mystery was at last revealed in all his frail mortality as Strange Tales #115 offered ‘The Origin of Dr. Strange’, disclosing how Stephen Strange was once America’s greatest surgeon. A brilliant man, yet greedy, vain and arrogant, he cared nothing for the sick except as a means to wealth and glory. When a self-inflicted drunken car-crash ended his career, Strange hit the skids.

Then, fallen as low as man ever could, the debased doctor overheard a barroom tale which led him on a delirious odyssey or, perhaps more accurately, pilgrimage to Tibet, where a frail and aged mage changed his life forever. It also showed his first clash with the Ancient One’s other pupil Mordo: thwarting a seditious scheme and earning the Baron’s undying envious enmity…

Eventual enlightenment through daily redemption transformed Stephen the derelict into a solitary, dedicated watchdog for at the fringes of humanity, challenging all the hidden dangers of the dark on behalf of a world better off not knowing what dangers lurk in the shadows…

‘Return to the Nightmare World!’ saw the insidious dream predator trapping earthly sleepers in perpetual slumber until the doubtful authorities asked Strange to investigate and invade his oneiric enemy’s stronghold after which ‘The Many Traps of Baron Mordo!’ apparently saw the malevolent mage devise an inescapable doom, which once more foundered after Strange applied a little logic to it…

The wildness and infinite variety of Strange’s universe offered Ditko tremendous opportunities to stretch himself visually and as plotter of the stories. In ST #118 the Master of Magic travelled to Bavaria to combat ‘The Possessed!’ and found humans succumbing to extra-dimensional invaders neither fully mystic or mundane, whilst ‘Beyond the Purple Veil’ found him rescuing burglars who had stolen one of his deadly treasures from ray-gun wielding slaver tyrants…

Strange Tales #120 played with the conventions of ghost stories after a reporter vanishes during a live broadcast from ‘The House of Shadows!’ and the concerned Doctor diagnoses something unworldly but certainly not dead…

Mordo sprang yet another deadly trap in ‘Witchcraft in the Wax Museum!’ but was once again outsmarted and humiliated after stealing his rival’s body whilst Strange wandered the world in astral form…

Roussos returned as an uncredited inker for #122’s ‘The World Beyond’ wherein Nightmare nearly scored his greatest victory after an exhausted Strange fell asleep before uttering the nightly charm that protected from him from attack through his own dreams.

Strange hosted his first Marvel guest star #123 whilst meeting ‘The Challenge of Loki!’ (Lee, Ditko & George Roussos as George Bell from August 1964) as the god of Mischief tricked the earthly mage into briefly stealing Thor’s hammer before deducing where the emanations of evil he sensed really came from…

Strange battled a sorcerer from ancient Egypt to save ‘The Lady from Nowhere!’ from time-bending exile and imprisonment, and performed similar service to rescue the Ancient after the aged sage was kidnapped in ‘Mordo Must Not Catch Me!’ after which Roussos/Bell moved on whilst Lee & Ditko geared up for even more esoteric action.

Strange Tales #126 took the Master of the Mystic arts to ‘The Domain of the Dread Dormammu!’ as an extra-dimensional god sought to subjugate Earth. In a fantastic realm Strange met a mysterious and exotic woman who revealed the Dread One operated by his own implacable code: giving the overmatched Earthling the edge in the concluding ‘Duel with of the Dread Dormammu!’ which saw Earth saved, the Ancient One freed of a long-standing curse and Strange given a new look and mystic weapons upgrade…

Restored to his homeworld and Sanctum Sanctorum in Greenwich Village, Strange solved ‘The Dilemma of… the Demon’s Disciple!’ by saving a luckless truth-seeker from an abusive minor magician and – after a stunning pin-up by Ditko – tackled a demonic god of decadence stealing TV guests and execs in #129’s ‘Beware… Tiborro! The Tyrant of the Sixth Dimension!’ (scripted by Golden Age great Don Rico).

Doctor Strange got his first star cover slot in Strange Tales #130 to celebrate the start of an ambitious multi-part saga which would be rightly acclaimed one of the mystic’s finest moments. ‘The Defeat of Dr. Strange’ opens with an enigmatic outer-dimensional sponsor entering into a pact with Baron Mordo to supply infinite power and ethereal minions in return for the death of Earth’s magical guardian…

With the ancient One assaulted and stuck in a deathly coma, Stephen Strange was forced to go on the run: a fugitive hiding in the most exotic corners of the globe as remorseless, irresistible forces closed in all around him…

A claustrophobic close shave whilst trapped aboard a jetliner in ‘The Hunter and the Hunted!’ expands into cosmic high gear in #132 as Strange doubles back to his sanctum and defeats the returning Demon only to come ‘Face-to-Face at Last with Baron Mordo!’ Crumbling into weary defeat as the villain’s godly sponsored is revealed, the hero is hurled headlong out of reality to materialise in ‘A Nameless Land, A Timeless Time!’ and confront tyrannical witch-queen Shazana.

Upon liberating her benighted land the relentless pursuit resumes as Strange re-crosses hostile dimensions to take the fight to his foes in ‘Earth Be My Battleground’. Returning to the enclave hiding his ailing master, he gleans a hint of a solution in the mumbled enigmatic word “Eternity” and begins searching for more information, even as, in the Dark Dimension, a terrified girl attempts to sabotage the Dread Dormammu’s efforts to empower Mordo…

As the world went super-science spy-crazy and Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. took over the lead spot with Strange Tales #135, the Sixties also saw a blossoming of alternative thought and rebellion. Doctor Strange apparently became a confirmed favourite of the blossoming Counterculture Movement with its recreational drug experimentation subculture. With Ditko truly hitting his imaginative stride, it’s not hard to see why. His weird worlds and demonstrably adjacent dimensions were just unlike anything anyone had ever seen or depicted before…

‘Eternity Beckons!’ when Strange is lured to an ancient castle where an old ally seeks to betray him and, after again narrowly escaping Mordo’s minions, the Mage desperately consults the aged senile Genghis in #136 and makes a grave error in judgement. Once more catapulted into a dimension of deadly danger, Strange barely escapes a soul-stealing horror after discovering ‘What Lurks Beneath the Mask?’

Back on Earth and out of options the Doctor is forced to test his strength against the Ancient One’s formidable psychic defences to learn the secret of Eternity ‘When Meet the Mystic Minds!’ and after barely surviving the terrible trial translates himself to a place beyond reality to meet the embodiment of creation in ‘If Eternity Should Fail!’

The quest for solutions or extra might bears little fruit and as he despondently arrives on Earth he finds The Ancient One and his unnamed female friend prisoners of his worst enemies in anticipation of a fatal showdown…

Strange Tales #139 warns ‘Beware…! Dormammu is Watching!’ but as Mordo, despite being super-charged with the Dark Lord’s infinite energies, fails over and again to kill the Good Doctor the Overlord of Evil loses all patience and drags the whole show into his domain…

Intent on making a show of destroying his mortal nemesis, Dormammu convenes a great gathering in which he will smash Strange in a duel using nothing but ‘The Pincers of Power!’ and is again bathed to ultimate humiliation as the mortal’s wit and determination result in a stunning triumph in the concluding ‘Let There Be Victory!’ As the universes tremble Doctor Strange wearily heads home, blithely unaware that his enemies have laid one last trap…

To Be Continued…

After all that tense suspense there are a few treats still in store, beginning with one last Lee/Ditko yarn to enthral and beguile: Although a little chronologically askew, it is very much a case of the best left until last…

In October 1965 ‘The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!’ (from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2) was the astonishing lead feature in an otherwise vintage reprint Spidey volume.

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

After this story it was clear that Spider-Man could work in any milieu and nothing could hold him back… and the cross-fertilisation probably introduced many fans to Lee & Ditko’s other breakthrough series.

But wait, there’s more! Wrapping up the proceeding is a selection of original art pages and contemporary T-shirt designs, a cover gallery from the 1970’s reprint revival of “Strange Tales” volume 2 with art from Gil Kane, Ed Hannigan, Dan Adkins, Klaus Janson, Frank Giacoia, Gene Colan & Tom Palmer, all nicely rounded off by a re-presentation of this collection’s previous Ditko/Dean White cover and informative ‘Biographies’ of the creative stars featured herein…

Doctor Strange has always been the coolest of outsiders and most accessible fringe star of the Marvel firmament. This glorious grimoire is a magical method for old fans to enjoy his world once more and the perfect introduction for recent acolytes or converts created by the movie iteration.
© 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.