Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks volume 9


By Stan Lee, John Romita, John Buscema, Jim Mooney & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2462-7

Amazing Spider-Man was always a comicbook that matured with – or perhaps just slightly ahead of – its fan-base.

This nail-biting ninth full-colour compilation of chronological Arachnoid Amazement sees the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero navigate another rocky period of transformation and tribulation on the road to becoming the world’s most popular comics character.

After a shaky start The Amazing Spider-Man quickly became a popular sensation with kids of all ages. Before too long the quirky, charming, thrillingly action-packed comics soap-opera would become the model for an entire generation of younger heroes impatiently elbowing aside the staid, (relatively) old thirty-something mystery-men of previous publications and hallowed tradition.

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

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

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

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

The rise and rise of the Amazing Arachnid increased pace as the Swinging Sixties drew to a close and, by the time of the tales collected herein (re-presenting Amazing Spider-Man #78-87, originally released between November 1969 and August 1970), Peter and his ever-expanding cast of comrades were practically household names and the darlings of college campuses and the media intelligentsia throughout America and the world.

Stan Lee’s scripts tapped into the always-evolving zeitgeists of the times and the deft use of soap opera plots kept older readers glued to the series even if the bombastic battle sequences didn’t.

One of those American “time-ghosts” was crime and gangsterism and dependence on flamboyant costumed super-foes as antagonists was finely balanced with the usual suspect-pool of thugs, hoods and mob-bosses, but these were not the individual gangs of the Ditko days.

Now Organised Crime and was a huge cultural touchstone with comics cashing in on modern movies, novels and headlines…

Illustrated by John Buscema, Amazing Spider-Man#78 opens this volume with ‘The Night of the Prowler!’ featuring John Romita Junior’s first ever creator-credit for “suggesting” dissatisfied young black man Hobie Brown who briefly turned his frustrations and innate inventive genius to costumed criminal purposes until set straight by Spider-Man in the concluding ‘To Prowl No More!’

With #80 a policy of single-issue adventures was instituted: short, snappy stand-alone thrillers delivering maximum thrills and instant satisfaction. First off was a return for the wallcrawler’s very first super-foe as ‘On the Trail of the Chameleon!’ found the criminal charlatan indulging in a spree of robberies after which an action-packed if somewhat ridiculous punch-up resulted from ‘The Coming of The Kangaroo!’, including a clear contender for daftest origin of all time…

Romita senior then returned as penciller for ‘And Then Came Electro!’ with the voltaic villain attempting to slaughter Spidey live on national TV.

There were big revelations about the Kingpin in the 3-part saga that featured in issues #83-85 with the introduction of ‘The Schemer’ (Lee, Romita sr. & Mike “DeMeo” Esposito): a mysterious but extremely well-heeled criminal outsider determined to destroy the power of the sumo-like crime-lord and usurp his position in the underworld.

‘The Kingpin Strikes Back!’ (Romita sr., Buscema & Mooney) and ‘The Secret of the Schemer!’ changed the Marvel Universe radically, not just by disclosing some of the family history of one of the company’s greatest villains, but also by sending Peter Parker’s eternal gadfly Flash Thompson back to a dubious fate in Vietnam.

It wasn’t the kid’s first tour but now the war was becoming unpopular at home and the bombastic jingoism of earlier issues was being replaced by more contemplative concern as evoked by authorial mouthpiece Stan Lee…

‘Beware… the Black Widow!’ then gave Romita and Mooney a chance to redesign and relaunch the Soviet super-spy and sometime-Avenger in an enjoyable if highly formulaic misunderstanding/clash-of-heroes yarn with an ailing Spider-Man never really endangered. The entire episode was actually a promotion for the Widow’s own soon-to-debut solo series…

The dramas conclude for now with ‘Unmasked at Last!’ which found Parker, convinced that his powers were fading forever and suffering from a raging fever, exposing his secret identity to all the guests at his girlfriend’s party…

Using the kind of logic and subterfuge that only works in comics and sitcoms, Parker and Hobie Brown convinced everybody that it was only a flu-induced aberration…

This is another fabulous celebration of an important teen icon and symbol. Spider-Man at this time became a permanent, unmissable part of many youngsters’ lives and did so by living a life as close to theirs as social mores and the Comics Code would allow. Blending cultural authenticity with spectacular art, and making a dramatic virtue of the awkwardness, confusion and sense of powerlessness that most of the readership experienced daily, resulted in an irresistibly intoxicating read, delivered in addictive emotionally-intense instalments, but none of that would be relevant if the stories weren’t so compellingly entertaining. This book is Stan Lee’s Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak.
© 1969, 1970, 2014 Marvel Character, Inc. All rights reserved.

Doctor Strange & Doctor Doom: Triumph & Torment


By Roger Stern, Michael Mignola & Mark Badger, Gerry Conway, Gene Colan, Bill Mantlo, Kevin Nowlan & various(Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8454-6

This occult odd couple concoction is perhaps one of the very best Marvel Universe yarns from the post-Kirby years and tells a powerful tale by contrasting the mandatory origin sequences of the two doctors to produce effective motivations for and deeper insights into both characters.

Adding even greater interest and incentive, this collection from 2016 – also released as an eBook – offers loosely associated material from Astonishing Tales #8, Doctor Strange #57 (February 1983) and Marvel Fanfare #16 and 43…

Victor Von Doom is a troubled gypsy genius who escaped the oppression of his homeland on a scholarship to America. Whilst there he succumbed to an intense rivalry with young Reed Richards, even then perhaps the most brilliant man alive.

The arrogant Von Doom performed unsanctioned experiments which marred his perfect features, leading him down a path to super-science and an overwhelming hunger for power and control. His mother, a sorceress, burns in hell for the unholy powers she used in life, powers which her son also possesses.

Steven Strange was America’s greatest surgeon, a vain and arrogant man who cared nothing for the sick, except as a means to wealth and glory. When a drunken car-crash ended his career, Strange hit the skids until an overheard barroom tall tale led him to Tibet, an ancient magician, and eventual enlightenment through daily redemption. He battles otherworldly evil as the Sorcerer Supreme, Master of the Mystic arts.

When a magical call goes out to all the World’s adepts offering a granted wish to the victor in a contest of sorcery, both Doom and Strange are among the gathered. After mystic combat reduces the assemblage to the two doctors, Doom’s granted wish is to rescue his mother’s soul from Hell…

A classic quest saga, Triumph & Torment sees the two mages storm the gates of the Underworld in a mission of vain hope and warped mercy, battling the hordes of Mephisto and their own natures in a mesmerizing epic of power and pathos.

Roger Stern is at his absolute writing peak here and the unlikely art team of Michael Mignola and Mark Badger defy any superlatives I could use. The art is simply magical, especially the mesmerising colouring, also courtesy of Mr Badger.

High drama, heroism, perfidy and plenty of surprises wrapped in superb craftsmanship typify all that’s best in the “Marvel Style” and this tale has it all aplenty.

The bonus material kicks off with ‘… Though Some Call it Magic!’ by Gerry Conway, Gene Colan & Tom Palmer: a tense vignette from Astonishing Tales #8 (October 1971) which first revealed details of the arcane annual ritual in which the metal-shod monarch of Latveria battled with the King of Hell for possession of a gypsy witch’s soul, after which Doctor Strange #57 (February 1983) revealed Roger Stern’s first stray thoughts on the forthcoming Triumph & Torment epic…

Although the story mainly dealt with other acolytes trying to become the sorcerer’s latest apprentice, ‘Gather My Disciples Before Me!’ – illustrated by Kevin Nowlan & Terry Austin – saw Doom attempt to swallow his gargantuan pride and also petition Stephen Strange to become his tutor in the ways of magic…

The story portion of this graphic grimoire concludes with a brace of salty sea tales starring Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner both illustrated by then callow newcomer Mike Mignola and scripted by Bill Mantlo. The undersea action opens with ‘A Fable’ (Marvel Fanfare #16, September 1984) with the Sea King striving to save a beautiful beast from the callous cruelty of sailors whilst from MF #43 (April 1989) ‘Time After Time’ – inked by P. Craig Russell – sees the Sub-Mariner fall through time to an age of piracy and share a brief, overpowering passion with a ferocious female freebooter…

Sweetening the pot is a full cover gallery, Mignola Namor pin-ups, a Marvel Age article on Triumph & Torment (by Peter Sanderson) and a couple of delicious Mignola parody ads. Also included are Mignola sketches, and a gallery of pin-ups by Austin, Carl Potts, Ken Steacy, Ian Akin & Brian Garvey, Bret Blevins, Bob Layton, Gregory Wright, Craig Hamilton, Mike Machlan, Joe Sinnott, Kerry Gammill, Nowlan & Paul Ryan.

Sheer comic enchantment, this a book no lover of the fantastic fiction can afford to ignore.
© 1971, 1983, 1984, 1989, 2013, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvels


By Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4286-7 (TPB)       978-0-7851-1388-1(HC)

Every so often something comes along in mainstream comics which irrevocably alters the landscape of the art-form, if not the business. After each such event the medium is never quite the same again. One such work was 4-issue Prestige Format Limited Series Marvels by jobbing scripter Kurt Busiek and then just-breaking illustrative artist Alex Ross.

I’m usually quite reticent in suggesting people read stuff I know damn well they’ve probably already seen, but apparently every day is somebody’s first, and even certified bona fide unmissables get shuffled into touch and forgotten…

… And just for clarity’s sake my copy is the 1994 Deluxe, Signed and Numbered Limited Hardcover edition produced under license by Graphitti Designs (pretty spiffy with, I gather, a few little extras not included in other editions) whereas here I’m looking at a rather more recent digital re-issue.

Of course, these are far from the only versions available…

This tale is all about history and human perspective and follows the working life of photo-journalist Phil Sheldon, whose career closely parallels the dawn of the heroic era; when science, magic, courage and overwhelming super-nature give birth to an Age of Marvels…

The saga opens with Alex Ross’ brief, preliminary retelling of the origin of the Golden Age Human Torch as first seen in Marvels #0 before the story proper opens in ‘A Time of Marvels’.

In 1939 a gaggle of ambitious young newspapermen are discussing the War in Europe. Brash up-and-comer J. Jonah Jameson is trying to dissuade his shutterbug pal Phil from heading overseas, claiming there’s plenty of news to snap in New York…

Unconvinced, Sheldon heads to his next assignment: a press conference with scientific crackpot Professor Phineas T. Horton. The photographer’s head is filled with thoughts of journalistic fame and glory on distant battlefields and he almost misses the moment Horton unveils his artificial man: a creature that bursts into flame like a Human Torch…

From that moment on Sheldon’s life transforms forever. His love-hate fascination with the fantastic miracles which rapidly, unceasingly follow in the inflammatory inhumanoid’s fiery wake is used to trace the history of superhumanity and monstrous menace which comprises the entire canon of what we know as the Marvel Universe….

Soon the android is accepted as a bona fide hero, frequently battling aquatic invader Sub-Mariner like elemental gods in the skies above the city whilst seemingly-human vigilante supermen like The Angel constantly ignore the law and daily diminish Phil’s confidence and self-worth.

It’s as if by their well-meaning actions these creatures are showing that mere men are obsolete and insignificant…

The photographer’s feelings of ineffectuality and inadequacy having crushed his spirit, Phil turns down the War Correspondent assignment and descends into a funk. He even splits up with fiancée Doris Jaquet. After all, what kind of man brings children into a world with such inhuman horrors in it?

Nevertheless Sheldon cannot stop following the exploits of the singular human phenomenons he’s dubbed “Marvels”…

It all changes with the arrival of patriotic icon Captain America. With the Land of Liberty in World War II at long last, many once-terrifying titans have become the nation’s allies and secret weapons, turning their awesome power against the Axis foe and winning the fickle approval of a grateful public.

However, some were always less dutiful than others and when the tempestuous Sub-Mariner again battles the Torch, Prince Namor of Atlantis petulantly unleashes a tidal wave against New York. Phil is critically injured snapping the event…

Even after the loss of an eye, Phil’s newfound belief in the Marvels doesn’t waver and he rededicates himself to his job and Doris; happily going to Europe where his pictures of America’s superhuman Invaders crushing the Nazi threat become part of the fabric of history…

The second chapter jumps to the 1960s where Sheldon, wife Doris and daughters Jenny and Beth are – like most New Yorkers – at the epicentre of another outbreak of meta-humanity… a second Age of Marvels…

Two new bands of costumed heroes are operating openly: A Fantastic Foursome comprising famous scientist Reed Richards, test pilot Ben Grimm plus Sue and Johnny Storm. Another anonymous team who hide their identities call themselves the Avengers. There are also numerous independent costumed characters streaking across the skies and hogging the headlines, which Jonah Jameson – now owner/publisher of the newspaper he once wrote for – is none too happy about. After all, he has never trusted masks and is violently opposed to this new crop of masked mystery-men…

Phil is still an in-demand freelancer, but has had a novel idea and signs a deal for a book of his photos just as the first flush of popular fancy begins to wane and the increasing anxiety about humanoid mutants begins to choke and terrify the man in the street…

When the mysterious X-Men are spotted, Sheldon is caught up in a spontaneous anti-mutant race-riot: appalled to find himself throwing bricks with the rest of a deranged mob. He’s even close enough to hear their leader dismissively claim “They’re not worth it”…

Shocked and dazed, Sheldon goes home to his nice, normal family but the incident won’t leave him, even as he throws himself into his work and his book. He worries that his daughters seem to idolise Marvels. “Normal” people seemed bizarrely conflicted, dazzled and besotted by the celebrity status of the likes of Reed Richards and Sue Storm as they prepared for their upcoming wedding, yet prowl the streets in vigilante packs lest some ghastly “Homo Superior” abomination show its disgusting face…

Events come to a head when Phil finds his own children harbouring a mutant in the cellar. During WWII Phil photographed the liberation of Auschwitz and – looking into the huge deformed orbs of “Maggie” – he sees what he saw in the eyes of those pitiful survivors.

His basic humanity wins out and Phil lets her stay, but he can’t help dreading what friends and neighbours might do if they find such a creature mere yards from their own precious families…

The hysteria keeps on growing and the showbiz glitz of the Richards/Storm wedding is almost immediately overshadowed by the catastrophic launch of anthropologist Bolivar Trask’s Sentinels. At first the mutant-hunting robots seem like humanity’s boon but when they override their programming and attempt to take over Earth, it is the despised and dreaded mutants who save mankind.

Naturally, the man in the street knows nothing of this and all Phil sees is more panicked mobs rioting and destroying their own homes…

In fear for his family he rushes back to Doris and the girls, only to find that Maggie has vanished: the unlovely little child had realised how much her presence had endangered her benefactors. They never see her again…

The third chapter focuses on the global trauma of ‘Judgement Day’ as the shine truly starts coming off the apple. Even though crises come thick and fast and are as quickly dealt with, vapid, venal humanity becomes jaded with the ever-expanding costumed community and once-revered heroes are plagued by scandal after scandal.

Exhausted, disappointed and dejected, Phil shelves his book project, but fate takes a hand when the skies catch fire and an incredible shiny alien on a sky-borne surfboard announces the end of life on Earth…

Planet-devouring Galactus seems unstoppable and the valiant, rapidly-responding Fantastic Four are humiliatingly defeated. Phil, along with the rest of the world, embraces the end and wearily walks home to be with his loved ones, repeatedly encountering humanity at its best and nauseating, petty, defeated worst.

However, with the last-minute assistance of the Silver Surfer – who betrays his puissant master and endures an horrific fate – Richards saves the world, but within days is accused of faking the entire episode. Sheldon, disgusted with his fellow men, explodes in moral revulsion…

Some time later, Phil’s photo-book is finally released in concluding instalment ‘The Day She Died’. Now an avowed and passionate proponent of masked heroes, humanity’s hair-trigger ambivalence and institutionalised rushes to judgement constantly aggravate Sheldon even as he meets the public and signs countless copies of “Marvels”.

The average American’s ungrateful, ingracious attitudes rankle particularly since the mighty Avengers are currently lost in another galaxy defending Earth from collateral destruction in a war between rival galactic empires – the Kree and the Skrulls – but the most constant bugbear is old associate Jameson’s obsessive pillorying of Spider-Man.

Phil particularly despises a grovelling, ethically-deprived young freelance photographer named Peter Parker who constantly curries favour with the Daily Bugle’s boss by selling pictures that deliberately make the wallcrawler look bad…

Phil’s book brings a measure of success, and when the aging photographer hires young Marcia Hardesty as a PA/assistant whilst he works on a follow-up, he finds a passionate kindred spirit.

Still, everywhere Sheldon looks costumed champions are being harried, harassed and hunted by two-faced citizens and corrupt demagogues, although even he has to admit some of the newer heroes are hard to like…

Ex-Russian spy Black Widow is being tried for murder, protesting students are wounded by a Stark Industries super-armoured thug and in Times Square a guy with a shady past is touting himself as a Hero for Hire

When respected Police Captain George Stacy is killed during a battle between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus, Jameson is frantic to pin the death on the webspinner but hero-worshipping Phil digs deeper. He interviews many witnesses, including the murderously malign, multi-limed loon himself, and consequently strikes up a friendship with Stacy’s daughter Gwen, a truly sublime young lady who is inexplicably dating that unscrupulous weasel Parker…

One evening, hoping for another innocuous chat with the vivacious lass, Phil sees her being abducted by the Green Goblin and, desperately giving chase, watches as his vaunted hero Spider-Man utterly fails to save her from death. Her murder doesn’t even rate a headline; that’s saved for industrialist Norman Osborn who is found mysteriously slain that same night…

Gutted, worn out and somehow betrayed, Sheldon chucks it all in, but seeing that Marcia still has the fire in her belly and wonder in her eyes, leaves her his camera and his mission…

Although this titanic tale traces the history of Marvel continuity, the sensitive and evocative journey of Phil Sheldon is crafted in such a way that no knowledge of the mythology is necessary to follow the plot; and would indeed be a hindrance to sharing the feelings of an ordinary man in extraordinary times.

One of Marvel’s – and indeed the genre’s – greatest.

But you probably already know that and if you don’t what are you waiting for…?
© 1994, 2010 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain America Epic Collection volume 2: The Coming of… the Falcon


By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko, Gene Colan, John Romita Sr., John Buscema, Tom Sutton, Marie Severin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0007-6

During the Marvel Renaissance of the early 1960’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby tried the same tactic that had worked so tellingly for DC Comics, but with mixed results. Julie Schwartz had scored an incredible success with his revised versions of the company’s Golden Age greats, so it seemed natural to try and revive the characters that had dominated Timely/Atlas in those halcyon days.

A new Human Torch had premiered as part of the revolutionary Fantastic Four, and in the fourth issue of that title the Sub-Mariner resurfaced after a twenty-year amnesiac hiatus (everyone concerned had apparently forgotten the first abortive attempt to revive an “Atlas” superhero line in the mid-1950s).

The Torch was promptly given his own solo feature in Strange Tales from issue #101 on and in #114 the flaming teen fought an acrobat pretending to be Captain America. With reader-reaction strong, the real thing promptly resurfaced in Avengers #4 and, after a captivating and centre-stage hogging run in that title, was granted his own series as half of the “split-book” Tales of Suspense with #59 (cover-dated November 1964).

This resoundingly resolute full-colour Epic Collection gather the last few issues of that run – ToS #97-99 – and the freshly re-titled Captain America #100-#119 spanning January 1968 to November 1968 and also includes a contemporaneous brace of Star-Spangled Spoofs from Not Brand Echh #3 and 12 to lighten the fervently patriotic load.

As this volume opens the Sentinel of Liberty has just retired from superhero service and revealed his secret identity to the world only to jump straight back into the saddle with S.H.I.E.L.D. for #97’s ‘And So It Begins…’: a four-part tale that spectacularly concludes in issue #100, with which number Tales of Suspense became simply Captain America. Guest starring the Black Panther, it tells of the return of long-dead Baron Zemo and an orbiting Death Ray. Scripted by Lee and bombastically drawn by King Kirby, ‘The Claws of the Panther!’ was inked by both Joe Sinnott and the great Syd Shores, who became regular embellisher with ‘The Man Who Lived Twice!’, whilst that premier hundredth first issue (how weird is that?) used the extra page length to retell Cap’s origin before climactically closing the superb thriller with ‘This Monster Unmasked!’

Marvel’s inexorable rise to dominance of the American comicbook industry really took hold in 1968 when a number of their characters finally got their own titles. Prior to that and due to a highly restrictive distribution deal the company was tied to a limit of 16 publications per month.

To circumvent this limitation, Marvel developed split-books with two series per publication, such as Tales of Suspense where original star Iron Man was joined by Cap. When the division came Shellhead started afresh with a First Issue, but Cap retained the numbering of the original title; thus premiering at #100.

Captain America#101-102 saw the return of fascist revenant Red Skull and another awesome Nazi revenge-weapon in ‘When Wakes the Sleeper!’ and ‘The Sleeper Strikes!’ as our hero and his support crew Agent 13 and Nick Fury hunt a murderous mechanoid capable of ghosting through solid Earth and blowing up the planet.

Although the immediate threat was quashed the instigator was still at large and #103 saw ‘The Weakest Link!’ as a budding romance with S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent 13 (finally revealed after two years as Sharon Carter) interrupted by the nefarious Red Skull.

The über-fascist’s new scheme of nuclear blackmail extended to a second issue, wherein his band of war-criminal assassins, The Exiles, tested Cap nigh to destruction on the hidden isle where he became the ‘Slave of the Skull!’

That issue and the following super-villain team-up wherein Living Laser and the Swordsman united with another old Cap foe to attack ‘In the Name of Batroc!’ featured the loose flowing inking of Dan Adkins whilst Frank Giacoia embellished the spies-and-evil-doppelgangers romp ‘Cap goes Wild!’ in issue #106, before Shores returned in #107 for the sinister ‘If the Past Be Not Dead…’: an action-packed psycho-thriller introducing malevolent, mind-bending psychiatrist Doctor Faustus.

The Star-Spangled Avenger was rescuing Agent 13 again in breakneck thriller ‘The Snares of the Trapster!’ before Captain America #109 (January 1970) redefined his origin with ‘The Hero That Was!’: a spectacular wrap-up to Kirby’s run on the Sentinel of Liberty – at least for the moment…

Comics phenomenon and one-man sensation Jim Steranko then took over the art chores with #110, for a brief stint that became everybody’s favourite Cap epic for decades to come. After a swift and brutal skirmish with the Incredible Hulk, Rick Jones became the patriotic paladin’s new sidekick in ‘No Longer Alone!’, just in time for the pair to tackle the iconically lascivious Madame Hydra and her obedient hordes in #111’s ‘Tomorrow You Live, Tonight I Die!’ – both inked by Joe Sinnott in a landmark saga that galvanised a generation of would-be comics artists.

Seemingly killed at the issue’s close, the next month saw a bombastic account of Captain America’s career by fill-in superstars Kirby and George Tuska, before Lee, Steranko and Tom Palmer concluded the Hydra epic with ‘The Strange Death of Captain America’ in #113.

A period of artistic instability then kicked off with John Romita the Elder illustrating a tense spy-caper inked by Sal Buscema. ‘The Man Behind the Mask!‘ in CA #114 was merely prologue to an extended war against the Red Skull. Issue #115 – ‘Now Begins the Nightmare!’ – was drawn by John Buscema and inked by his brother Sal, wherein the arch-villain uses the reality-warping Cosmic Cube to switch bodies with the shield-slinger, whilst ‘Far Worse than Death!’ followed Cap’s frantic attempts to escape his own friends and allies. This issue saw the start of Gene Colan’s impressive run on the character, here accompanied by the smooth inks of Joe Sinnott.

The third instalment returned him to the Isle – and clutches – of the Exiles in a tale that introduced Marvel’s second black superhero. ‘The Coming of … the Falcon!’ was a terse, taut build-up to issue #118 with the neophyte hero taking centre-stage in ‘The Falcon Fights On!’ before all the ducks fall neatly into place for a spectacular finale in ‘Now Falls the Skull!’ in #119.

Supplementing and counterpointing the drama are two daft doses of period silliness from spoof comic Not Brand Echh. First up, Lee, Roy Thomas & Tom Sutton describe ‘The Honest-to-Irving, True-Blue Top Secret Original Origin of Charlie America!’ (#3, October 1967) before the irrepressible Marie Severin delves into ‘Charlie America’s Family Album!’ (#12 February 1969).

Also on offer are a selection of Kirby’s and Colan’s original art pages and covers, rejected covers, unseen pencil and colour roughs by Romita (from stories in this volume) and a gallery of classic Kirby and Steranko covers modified by painters Dean White and Richard Isanove, originally seen on assorted Marvel Masterworks editions…

These are tales of dauntless courage and unmatchable adventure, fast-paced and superbly illustrated, which rightly returned Captain America to the heights that his Golden Age compatriots the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner never regained. They are pure escapist magic. Glorious treats for the eternally young at heart, these are episodes of sheer visual dynamite that cannot be slighted and should not be missed.
© 1968, 1969, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks volume 8


By Stan Lee, John Romita, John Buscema, Ross Andru, Jim Mooney, Bill Everett & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2074-2) (HB)                   978-0-7851-8807-0 (TPB)

This eighth astounding full-colour compilation of webspinning wonderment again follows the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero through deadly dangers and romantic rollercoasters as the second great era of Amazing Arachnid artists moved inevitably to a close. Although the elder John Romita would remain closely connected to Spider-Man’s adventures for some time yet, these tales would be amongst his last long run as lead illustrator on the series.

After a shaky start – suffering cancellation before his first issue – The Amazing Spider-Man quickly became a popular sensation with kids of all ages. Before long the quirky, charming, thrillingly action-packed comics soap-opera became the model for an entire generation of younger heroes impatiently elbowing aside the staid, (relatively) old thirty-something mystery-men of previous publications and hallowed tradition.

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

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

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

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

The rise and rise of the Amazing Arachnid accelerated as the Swinging Sixties drew to a close and, by the time of the tales collected herein (Amazing Spider-Man#68-77 originally released between January-October 1969, plus an obscure thriller from Marvel Super-Heroes #14), Peter and his ever-expanding cast of comrades were on the way to being household names as well as the darlings of college campuses and the media intelligentsia.

Stan Lee’s scripts were completely in tune with the times – as observed by most kids’ parents at least – and the increasing use of soap opera plots kept older readers glued to the series even if the bombastic battle sequences didn’t.

Thematically, gangsterism dominated (probably due to the contemporary buzz caused by Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather) and an increasing use of mystery plots balanced a dependence on costumed super-foes as antagonists: all finely balanced with the usual suspect-pool of thugs, hoods and mob-bosses, but these were not the individual gangs of the Ditko days.

Now Organised Crime and Mafia analogue The Maggia were the big criminal-cultural touchstone as comics caught up with modern movies and headlines.

Issue #68 (by Lee, Romita & Jim Mooney) started a lengthy saga featuring the pursuit of an ancient stone tablet by various nefarious forces, beginning with The Kingpin who exploited a topical moment of student dissent to foment a ‘Crisis on the Campus!’

When a seemingly inevitable riot erupted, the Big Bad tried to swipe the artefact, leaving a few teenagers we’re all too familiar with looking very guilty…

Meanwhile Peter Parker, already struggling with debt, a perpetually at-Death’s-Door Aunt May, relationship grief with girlfriend Gwen Stacy and no time to study, was accused of not being involved enough by his fellow students…

During this period scripter Lee increasingly tapped into the student unrest of the times in various Marvel titles and ‘Mission: Crush the Kingpin!’ further tightened the screws as the student unrest exploded into violence whilst the corpulent crime czar incriminated Spider-Man in the tablet’s theft.

Hounded and harried in ‘Spider-Man Wanted!’ the web warrior nevertheless managed to defeat the Kingpin only to (briefly) believe himself a killer after he attacked personal gadfly J. Jonah Jameson in a fit of rage; causing an apparent heart attack in the obsessive, hero-hating publisher.

At his lowest ebb, and now stuck with the tablet, Parker is attacked by sometime-Avenger Quicksilver in ‘The Speedster and the Spider!’ (#71), before John Buscema signs on as layout-man in ‘Rocked by the Shocker!’

No sooner does Spider-Man leave the stone tablet with Gwen’s dad – former Police Chief Stacy – than the vibrating villain attacks, pinching the petrified artefact and precipitating a frantic underworld civil war. The Maggia dispatch brutal over-sized enforcer Man-Mountain Marko to retrieve it at all costs in ‘The Web Closes!’ (Lee, Buscema, Romita & Mooney) as upstart lawyer Caesar Cicero makes his long-anticipated move to depose aged Don of Dons Silvermane

However, the frail, elderly crime-lord knows the true secret – if not the methodology – of the tablet. To that end, he abducts biologist Curt Connors and his family to reconstruct the formula hidden on the stone and bring him ultimate victory.

Unfortunately, nobody but Spider-Man knows Connors is also the lethal Lizard and that the slightest stress might unleash the reptilian monster within to once more threaten all humanity. ‘If this be Bedlam!’ (Romita & Mooney) leads directly into ‘Death Without Warning!’ as the decrypted power of the tablet causes a cataclysmic battle that seemingly destroys one warring faction forever, decimating the mobs, but also freeing a far more deadly threat…

Amazing Spider-Man #76 sees John Buscema become full penciller with ‘The Lizard Lives!’ whilst concluding chapter ‘In the Blaze of Battle!’ witnesses the webspinner trying to defeat, cure and keep the tragic secret of his friend Connors, all whilst preventing guest-starring Human Torch Johnny Storm exterminating the marauding rogue reptile forever…

Closing this comics compendium is a one-off yarn from Marvel Super-Heroes #14 (May 1968). ‘The Reprehensible Riddle of the… The Sorcerer!’ actually debuted a year previously in the try-out title and reads to me like an inventory tale rushed out to fill a deadline gap or printed just before its “use-by” date expired. Nonetheless, as crafted by Lee, Ross Andru & Bill Everett, it offers a different spin on the wallcrawler as an enigmatic psychic targets Spider-Man, using psionic strikes and voodoo tricks to draw the hero to New Orleans and a death duel with a synthetic, science-tinged homunculus…

Spider-Man became a permanent unmissable part of many teenagers’ lives at this time and did so by living a life as close to theirs as social mores and the Comics Code would allow. Blending cultural authenticity with glorious narrative art, and making a dramatic virtue of the awkwardness, confusion and sense of powerlessness most of the readership experienced daily, resulted in an irresistibly intoxicating read, delivered in addictive soap-opera slices, but none of that would be relevant if the stories weren’t so compellingly entertaining.

This book is Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak. Why not see why…?
© 1968, 2012 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Guardians of the Galaxy Prelude


By Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, Mike Friedrich, Bill Mantlo, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Steve Englehart, Wellinton Alves, Daniel Govar, Andrea Di Vito, Jim Starlin, Sal Buscema, Steve Gan, Bob McLeod & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5410-5

With another Marvel Filmic Fantasy premiering around the world, here’s a timely trade paperback collection to augment the cinematic exposure and cater to movie fans wanting to follow up with a comics experience.

Comprising a big bunch of reprints and digital material designed to supplement the first movie release, this compilation contains Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Prelude #1-2, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Infinite Comic #1 and Guardians of the Galaxy #0.1, plus debut or early appearances of Drax, Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, Groot and Star-Lord as first seen in Iron Man #55, Strange Tales #181, Incredible Hulk #271, Tales to Astonish #13 and Marvel Preview #4.

Thanks to all that fabulous, futuristic technology, you can even look at this treasure chest of thrills on screen too through its digital iteration if you prefer…

The sky-high high jinks kick off with a glimpse at the frankly horrific childhoods of Gamora and Nebula with big daddy Thanos, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Wellinton Alves & Manny Clark: set just before the first film begins (the clue’s in the name as it comes from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Prelude #1), after which # 2 provides a similarly candid review of Rocket and Groot as their quest for cash draws them into a questionably legal repo job for a criminal big shot…

Next up is Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Infinite Comic #1 by Abnett & Lanning, storyboarder Daniel Govar and artist Andrea Di Vito: a screen-based adventure, rather uncomfortably reformatted for the printed page. Here Taneleer Tivan, The Collector commissions Gamora with the retrieval of a certain Orb…

Of course, all these plot strands get knotted together in the movie…

The classic appearances kick off with Iron Man#55 (February 1973), scripted by Mike Friedrich and illustrated by Jim Starlin & Mike Esposito. ‘Beware The … Blood Brothers!’ introduces Drax the Destroyer, an incredibly powerful alien… or so he seems at first glance.

Trapped by another extraterrestrial newcomer – Thanos – under the desert, Drax is rescued by the Armoured Avenger, but it’s merely a prelude to the main story which appeared in Captain Marvel #25-33, a saga to be savoured elsewhere…

Gamora was first seen in Strange Tales #181 (August 1975), as Avatar of Life Adam Warlock made his way across the cosmos, battling the depredations of the Universal Church of Truth and his own evil future self The Magus. Technically it was her second, but in this yarn she got a name and speaking part…

‘1000 Clowns!’ – by Starlin and Al Milgrom – saw the accursed hero trapped in an insidious psychic prison even as in the notionally real world, a green-skinned gamin was slowly eradicating his tormentors. She was about to free the golden saviour, when Warlock escaped under his own steam. If he’d known that Gamora was actually working for his cosmic nemesis Thanos, he might not have bothered…

Rocket Raccoon was a minor character who first appeared in backup serial ‘The Sword in the Star’. His actual debut was in Marvel Preview #7 in 1976 but in 1982, writer Bill Mantlo brought him into the mainstream of the Marvel Universe with a choice starring role in Incredible Hulk #271 (May 1982).

Like Wolverine and the Punisher years before, the foul-mouthed, fuzzy faced 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!’ find Earth’s jade juggernaut stranded on an alien world where sentient animals used super-scientific gadgetry to battle robot clowns. They do this to preserve the security of humans who seem incapable of caring for themselves. When Green-skin arrives, a simmering civil war is just breaking out…

With the Hulk safely removed from the combat zone, Rocket faded from view for a few years before returning in a new-fangled format for comicbooks: a miniseries…

More sidereal shenanigans surface in an absolute classic of the gloriously whacky “Kirby Kritter” genre, predating the birth of the Marvel Age. Crafted by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack 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. The tree titan might have started life as a disposable notion, but he too grew into a larger role over the unfolding decades…

Notional leading man Star-Lord premiered in monochrome mature-reader magazine Marvel Preview # 4 (January 1976), appearing thrice more – in #11, 14 and 15 – during the height of the Star Wars-inspired Science Fiction explosion of the late 1970s and 1980s.

Years previously a warrior prince of an interstellar empire was shot down over Colorado and had a brief fling with solitary Earther Meredith Quill. Despite his desire to remain in idyllic isolation, duty called the starman back to the battle and he left, leaving behind an unborn son and a unique weapon…

A decade later, the troubled boy saw his mother assassinated by alien lizard men. Peter Jason Quill vengefully slew the creatures with Meredith’s shotgun, before his home was explosively destroyed by a flying saucer.

The orphan awoke in hospital, his only possession a “toy” ray-gun his mother had hidden from him his entire life. He became obsessed with the stars – astronomy and astrology – and overcame all odds to become a part of America’s budding space program… but he made no friends and plenty of enemies on the way…

Years later his destiny found him, as the half-breed scion was elevated by the divinity dubbed the “Master of the Sun”, becoming Star-Lord. Rejecting both Earth and his missing father, Peter chose freedom, the pursuit of justice and the expanse of the cosmos…

From such disparate strands movie gold can be made, but never forget that the originating material is pretty damned good too and will deliver a tempting tray of treats that should have most curious fans scurrying for back-issue boxes, bookshop shelves or online emporia…
© 1960, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1982, 2014 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain America Masterworks volume 2


By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Jack Kirby, John Romita Sr., Gil Kane, Jack Sparling & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1785-8 (HB)        978-0-7851-5931-5(TPB)

After his resurrection in Avengers #4 (March 1964), Captain America grew in popularity and quickly won his own solo feature, sharing Tales of Suspense with former teammate Iron Man (beginning with #59, cover-dated November 1964).

Scripted by Stan Lee and with the astoundingly prolific Jack Kirby either pencilling or laying out each action-packed episode, the series grew in standing and stature until it became must-read entertainment for most comics fans.

This second Masterworks compilation re-presents ToS #82-99 (October 1966 to March 1969) and concludes with Captain America #100 as the Star-Spangled Stalwart took the next big step and returned to solo stardom in the April cover-dated first issue.

The dynamic dramas contained herein signalled closer links with parallel tales in other titles. Thus, with subversive science scoundrels Advanced Idea Mechanics defeated by S.H.I.E.L.D. in Strange Tales ‘The Maddening Mystery of the Inconceivable Adaptoid!’ pitted Cap against one last unsupervised experiment as A.I.M.’s artificial life-form – capable of becoming an exact duplicate of its victim – stalked Cap in a tale of vicious psychological warfare. Sadly, even masterfully manufactured mechanoids are apt to err and ‘Enter… The Tumbler!’ (inked by Dick Ayers) saw a presumptuous wannabe attack the robot after it assumed the identity of our hero before ‘The Super-Adaptoid!’ completed an epic of breathtaking suspense and drama as the real McCoy fought back and overcame everybody…

Such eccentric cross-continuity capers would carry the company to market dominance in a few short years and become not the exception but the norm…

‘The Blitzkrieg of Batroc!’ and ‘The Secret!’ returned to the early minimum-plot, all-action, overwhelming-odds yarns whilst ‘Wanted: Captain America’ (by Roy Thomas, Jack Sparling & Joe Sinnott) offered a lacklustre interval involving a frame-up before Gil Kane took his first run on the character with ‘If Bucky Lives…!’, ‘Back from the Dead!’, ‘…And Men Shall Call Him Traitor!’ and ‘The Last Defeat!’ (TOS #88-91, with the last two inked by Sinnott): a superb thriller of blackmail and betrayal starring the Red Skull. The fascist felon had baited a trap with a robotic facsimile of Cap’s dead partner, triggered it with super-hirelings Power Man and the Swordsman and then blackmailed the Star-Spangled Sentinel into betraying his country and stealing an atomic submarine…

Kirby & Sinnott were back for ‘Before My Eyes Nick Fury Died!’, ‘Into the Jaws of… AIM!’ and ‘If This Be… Modok!’ as the Champion of Liberty fought a giant brain-being manufactured purely for killing…

In rapid succession ‘A Time to Die… A Time to Live’ and ‘To Be Reborn!’ see the hero retire and reveal his secret identity, only to jump straight back into the saddle with S.H.I.E.L.D. for #97’s ‘And So It Begins…’ a four-part epic which concluded in the aforementioned issue #100, with which number Tales of Suspense became simply Captain America. Guest starring the Black Panther, it described the apparent return of long-dead Baron Zemo utilising an orbiting Death Ray to scourge Africa and threaten the world.

‘The Claws of the Panther!’ was inked by both Sinnott and the great Syd Shores – who would continue for the next year as regular inker – beginning with ‘The Man Who Lived Twice!’, whilst the hundredth issue used the extra page-length to retell the origin before concluding a superb thriller with ‘This Monster Unmasked!’

Rounding out this patriotic bonanza is a gallery of original art pages by Kirby and Kane plus uncorrected proofs showing last-minute editorial alterations to the priceless published pearls of wonder.
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks volume 7


By Stan Lee, John Romita, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Jim Mooney & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1637-0 (HB)                    978-0-7851-5935-3 (TPB)

Amazing Spider-Man was always a comicbook that matured with – or perhaps just slightly ahead – of its fan-base.

This seventh superbly scintillating full-colour compilation of chronological webspinning wonderment sees the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero through another rocky period of transformation as the second great era of Amazing Arachnid artists moved inevitably to a close. Although the elder John Romita would remain closely connected to the Wall-Crawler’s adventures for a little time yet, these tales would be amongst his last long run as lead illustrator on the series.

After a shaky start The Amazing Spider-Man quickly became a popular sensation with kids of all ages. Before too long the quirky, charming, thrillingly action-packed comics soap-opera would become the model for an entire generation of younger heroes impatiently elbowing aside the staid, (relatively) old thirty-something mystery-men of previous publications and hallowed tradition.

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

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

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

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

The rise and rise of the Amazing Arachnid increased pace as the Swinging Sixties drew to a close and, by the time of the tales collected herein (re-presenting Amazing Spider-Man #62-67, Annual #5 and oversized mainstream magazine experiment Spectacular Spider-Man #1-2, all originally released between July and December 1968), Peter and his ever-expanding cast of comrades were on the way to being household names as well as the darlings of college campuses and the media intelligentsia.

Stan Lee’s scripts were completely in tune with the times – as seen by most kids’ parents at least – and the increasing use of soap opera plots kept older readers glued to the series even if the bombastic battle sequences didn’t.

Thematically, there’s still a large percentage of old-fashioned crime and gangsterism and an increasing use of mystery plots. Dependence on costumed super-foes as antagonists was finely balanced with the usual suspect-pool of thugs, hoods and mob-bosses, but these were not the individual gangs of the Ditko days. Now Organised Crime and Mafia analogue The Maggia were the big criminal-cultural touchstone as comics caught up with modern movies and headlines.

First however from July 1968 comes Spectacular Spider-Man #1 by Lee, John Romita & Jim Mooney: an extended political thriller with charismatic reformer Richard Raleigh ferociously campaigning to become Mayor thus targeted and hunted by a brutish monster seemingly determined to keep the old political machine in place at all costs…

Rendered in moody wash tones, the drama soon disclosed a sinister plotter behind the campaign of terror… but his identity was the last one Spidey expected to expose…

Also included in the magazine and here was a retelling of the hallowed origin tale – ‘In the Beginning…’ by Lee, with Larry Lieber pencils and inks-&-tones added by the great Bill Everett.

Back in the four-colour world Amazing Spider-Man #62 demanded ‘Make Way for …Medusa!’: Lee, Romita, Don Heck & Mike Esposito/DeMeo supplied a fresh change-of-pace yarn as the wallcrawler stumbles into combat with the formidable Inhuman due to the machinations of a Madison Avenue ad man, after which ‘Wings in the Night!’ in #63 saw the original elderly Vulture return to crush his usurper Blackie Drago, and then take on Spidey for dessert.

The awesome aerial angst concluded with ‘The Vultures Prey’ which led to another art-change (with the sumptuous heavy line-work of Jim Mooney briefly replacing the workmanlike Heck & Esposito) in #65 as Spider-Man was arrested and had to engineer ‘The Impossible Escape!’ from a Manhattan prison, foiling a mass jailbreak along the way.

A psychotic special-effects mastermind returns seeking loot and vengeance in #66’s ‘The Madness of Mysterio!’ (Romita, Heck & DeMeo) as the master of FX illusion engineered his most outlandish stunt, whilst in the background the amnesiac Norman Osborn slowly began to regain his memory.

Although the wallcrawler is subjected to a hugely bizarre form of mind-bending it nevertheless results in an all-out action-packed brawl (rendered by Romita & Mooney) entitled ‘To Squash a Spider!’. Perhaps more interestingly, this yarn introduced Randy Robertson, college student son of the Daily Bugle’s city editor and one of the first young black regular roles in Silver Age comics. Lee and his staff were increasingly making a stand on Civil Rights issues at this time of unrest and Marvel would blaze a trail for African American characters in their titles. There would also be a growth of student and college issues during a period when American campuses were coming under intense media scrutiny…

The Amazing Arachnid’s magazine experiment then concludes with The Spectacular Spider-Man #2 (November 1968). To offset disappointing sales, Marvel had switched to a smaller size and added colour, but it was to be the last attempt to secure older-reader shelf-space until the early 1970s. At least the story was top-rate…

Following monochrome recap ‘The Spider-Man Saga’ Lee, Romita & Mooney dealt with months of foreshadowing by finally revealing how Norman Osborn shook off his selective amnesia and returned to full-on super-villainy in ‘The Goblin Lives!’

Steeped in his former madness and remembering Peter Parker was Spider-Man, Osborn plays cat and mouse with his foe, threatening all the hero’s loved ones until a climactic battle utilising hallucinogenic weapons again erases the Goblin personality… for the moment…

This volume closes with Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5 by Lee and his brother Larry Lieber (with inking from Esposito – still in his clandestine “Mickey DeMeo” guise) and clears up a huge mystery in the webspinner’s life by revealing the secret behind the deaths of ‘The Parents of Peter Parker!’.

Played as an exotic spy-thriller the tale took Spider-Man to the Algerian Casbah and a confrontation with the Red Skull. Nit-pickers and continuity-mavens will no doubt be relieved to hear that the villain was in fact retconned later and designated as the second Soviet master-villain who featured in the Captain America revival of 1953-1954, and not the Nazi original that Lee and Co had clearly forgotten was in “suspended animation” throughout that decade when writing this otherwise perfect action romp and heartstring-tugging melodrama…

That annual also provided a nifty Daily Bugle cast pin-up, a speculative sports feature displaying the advantages of Spider powers, a NYC street-map of the various locations where the Spidey saga unfolded plus a spoof section displaying how the Wallcrawler would look if published by Disney/Gold Key, DC or Archie Comics, or drawn by Al “Li’l Abner” Capp, Chester “Dick Tracy” Gould and Charles “Peanuts” Schulz.

It all wraps up with ‘Here We Go A-Plotting!’: a comedic glimpse at work in the Marvel Bullpen, uncredited but unmistakably drawn by the marvellous Marie Severin…

Blending cultural authenticity with stunning narrative art, and making a dramatic virtue of the awkwardness, confusion and sense of powerlessness that most of the readership experienced daily, resulted in an irresistibly intoxicating read, delivered in addictive soap-opera instalments, but none of that would be relevant if the stories weren’t so compellingly entertaining.

This book is Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak. Wish you were here?
© 1968, 2012 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Rocket Raccoon: Tales from Half-World


By Bill Mantlo, Mike Mignola, Al Gordon, Milgrom & various (Marvel)
No ISBN:

You can’t have failed to notice that the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie has thundered into theatres this season, so in a spirit of mirror-image opportunism I’ll be shuffling in short reviews of some of the many tie-in books the House of Ideas has kindly dashed out to celebrate the filmic franchise in the hope of making a few more readers out of viewers…

Tales from Half-World came out in 2013 (and is still readily available in both printed and digital formats) and provides a cheap and cheerful way to see the militant mystery mammal’s first scene-stealing starring role.

Rocket Raccoon was a throwaway character who first appeared in backup serial ‘The Sword in the Star’ in Marvel Preview#7 in 1976. In 1982, his originator Bill Mantlo brought him into the mainstream Marvel Universe with a guest-star role in Incredible Hulk #271 (May). Like the Punisher and Wolverine in previous years, the hairy iconoclast then simply refused to go away quietly…

A few years the furry force of nature popped up again in a new-fangled format for comicbooks: a miniseries…

The 4-issue Rocket Raccoon Limited Series was cover-dated May to August 1985 and crafted by Mantlo, then neophyte penciller Mike Mignola, and inkers Al Gordon & Al Milgrom and 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 (and vice versa): 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 sentient and dedicated 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. That was caring for the distinctly odd and carefree humans known as The Loonies on their idyllic, sybaritic planet Halfworld.

Sadly, the critters were too much like their human charges.

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

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.

Captain America Masterworks volume 1


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, George Tuska, John Romita Sr. & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1176-X (HB)                   978-0-7851-4298-0 (TBP)

During the natal years of Marvel Comics in the early 1960’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby opted to mimic the game-plan which had paid off so successfully for National/DC Comics, albeit with mixed results.

From 1956 to 1960, Julie Schwartz had scored incredible, industry-altering hits by re-inventing the company’s Golden Age greats, so it seemed sensible to try and revive the characters that had dominated Timely/Atlas in those halcyon days two decades previously.

A new Human Torch had premiered as part of the revolutionary Fantastic Four, and in the fourth issue of that title the Sub-Mariner resurfaced after a twenty-year amnesiac hiatus (everyone concerned had apparently forgotten the first abortive attempt to revive an “Atlas” superhero line in the mid-1950s).

The Torch was promptly given his own solo lead-feature in Strange Tales (from issue #101 on) and in #114 the flaming teen fought a larcenous acrobat pretending to be Captain America.

With reader-reaction strong, the real McCoy was promptly decanted in Avengers #4 and, after a captivating and centre-stage hogging run in that title, won his own series as half of a “split-book” with fellow Avenger and patriotic barnstormer Iron Man.

Gathered in this star-spangled celebration – available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions – are the stunning all-action adventures from Tales of Suspense #59-81 (cover-dates November 1964 to September 1966), which following the customary retrospective Introduction by author/Editor Stan Lee beginning with the eponymously initial outing ‘Captain America’.

Illustrated by the staggeringly perfect team of Jack Kirby & Chic Stone, the plot is non-existent, but what you do get is a phenomenal fight tale as an army of thugs invades Avengers Mansion because “only the one without superpowers” is at home. They soon learn the folly of that misapprehension…

The next issue held more of the same, as ‘The Army of Assassins Strikes!’ on behalf of evil arch enemy Zemo before ‘The Strength of the Sumo!’ proves insufficient after Cap invades Viet Nam to rescue a lost US airman. The Star-Spangled Swashbuckler then took on an entire prison to thwart a ‘Break-out in Cell Block 10!’

After these gloriously simplistic romps the series took an abrupt turn and began telling tales set in World War II. ‘The Origin of Captain America’, by Lee, Kirby & Frank Ray (AKA Giacoia) recounts how frail physical wreck Steve Rogers is selected to be the guinea pig for an experimental super-soldier serum, only to have the scientist responsible die in his arms, cut down by a Nazi bullet.

Now forever unique, he is given the task of becoming the fighting symbol and guardian of America, based as a regular soldier in a boot camp. It was there he is accidentally unmasked by Camp Mascot Bucky Barnes, who then blackmails the hero into making the kid his sidekick.

The next issue (Tales of Suspense #64) kicked off a string of spectacular episodic thrillers adapted from Golden Age classics as the heroes defeat Nazi spies Sando and Omar in ‘Among Us, Wreckers Dwell!’ and Chic Stone returned – as did Cap’s greatest foe – for the next tale ‘The Red Skull Strikes!’

‘The Fantastic Origin of the Red Skull!’ found the series swinging into high gear – and original material – as sub-plots and characterisation were added to the all-out action and spectacle.

‘Lest Tyranny Triumph!’ and ‘The Sentinel and the Spy!’ (both inked by Giacoia) combined espionage and mad science with a plot to murder the head of Allied Command, and the heroic American duo stayed in England for moody gothic suspense shocker ‘Midnight in Greymoor Castle!’ (with art by Dick Ayers over Kirby’s layouts – which in case you ever wondered are very simple pencils that break down the story elements on a page).

The second chapter ‘If This be Treason!’ had Golden Age and Buck Rogers newspaper strip artist George Tuska perform the same function before the final part (and last wartime adventure) revealed ‘When You Lie Down with Dogs…!’ – the result is fantastic entertainment. Joe Sinnott inked that rousing conclusion to this frantic tale of traitors, madmen and terror-weapons.

It was back to the present for ToS #72 where Lee, Kirby & Tuska revealed that Cap had been telling war stories to his fellow Avengers for the last nine months. The reverie then triggered a long dormant memory as ‘The Sleeper Shall Awake!’ began a classic catastrophe romp with a Nazi super-robot activating twenty years after Germany’s defeat to exact a world-shattering vengeance.

Continuing in ‘Where Walks the Sleeper!’ and concluding in ‘The Final Sleep!’, this masterpiece of tense suspense perfectly demonstrates the indomitable nature of the perfect American hero.

Dick Ayers returned with John Tartaglione inking ‘30 Minutes to Live!’ which introduced both Gallic mercenary Batroc the Leaper and a mysterious girl who would eventually become Cap’s long-term girl-friend: S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter.

The taut 2-part countdown to disaster ends with ‘The Gladiator, The Girl and the Glory’, illustrated by John Romita: the first tale which had no artistic input from Kirby, although he did lay out the next issue (TOS #77) for Romita & Giacoia. ‘If a Hostage Should Die!’ again returned to WWII and hinted at both a lost romance and tragedy to come.

‘Them!’ saw Kirby return to full pencils and Giacoia to a regular inking spot as the Sentinel of liberty teamed with Nick Fury in the first of many missions as a (more-or-less) Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. It was followed by ‘The Red Skull Lives!’ as his arch nemesis escapes from the grave to menace the Free World again. He is initially aided by the subversive technology group AIM, but promptly steals their ultimate weapon in ‘He Who Holds the Cosmic Cube!’ (inked by Don Heck) and sets himself up as Emperor of Earth before his grip on omnipotence finally falters in ‘The Red Skull Supreme!’ (Giacoia inks).

This volume then concludes with mouth-watering extras in the form of original Kirby cover art and creator biographies.

These are tales of dauntless courage and unmatchable adventure, fast paced and superbly illustrated, which rightly returned Captain America to the heights his Golden Age compatriots the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner never regained. They are pure escapist magic. Unmissable reading for the eternally young at heart.
© 1964, 1965, 1966, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.