Captain America Reborn

By Ed Brubaker, Bryan Hitch, Alex Ross, Paul Dini & various (Marvel/Panini UK)

ISBN: 978-1-84653-440-9
Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby at the end of 1940, and launched in his own title (Captain America Comics, #1 cover-dated March 1941) with overwhelming success. He was the absolute and undisputed star of Timely (Marvel’s early predecessor) Comics’ “Big Three” – the other two being the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner – and one of the first to fall from popularity at the end of the Golden Age.

When the Korean War and Communist aggression dominated the American psyche in the early 1950s he was briefly revived – as were the Torch and Sub-Mariner – in 1953 before sinking once more into obscurity until a resurgent Marvel Comics once more brought him back in Avengers #4. It was March 1964 and the Vietnam conflict was just beginning to pervade the minds of the American public…

This time he stuck around, first taking over the Avengers, then winning his own series and title. He waxed and waned through the most turbulent period of social change in US history but always struggled to find an ideological place and stable footing in the modern world. Eventually, whilst another morally suspect war raged in the real world, during the Marvel event known as Civil War he became a rebel and was assassinated on the steps of a Federal Courthouse.

Nobody really believed he was dead.

Marvel’s extended publicity stunt came to a dramatic close with the inevitable return of the original Star-Spangled Avenger in an impressive and highly readable – if necessarily convoluted – tale from Ed Brubaker, Bryan Hitch and Butch Guice, released as the six-issue miniseries Captain America Reborn, but before that, years of cross-company plot threads and side-stories came to a formidable close in the anniversary issue Captain America #600. All those wide-ranging, far-flung bits and bobs are gathered together for your convenience in this classy tome.

The action starts with an impressive potted biography ‘Origin’ by Alex Ross, Paul Dini and Todd Klein (which first appeared in Captain America: Red, White and Blue, September 2002) after which Brubaker, scripts ‘One Year Later’ (Captain America #600) for Guice, Howard Chaykin, Rafael Albuquerque, David Aja and Mitch Breitweiser to illustrate, summing up the heroes origins, career and impact on the world up to his “death”, whereupon his long-dead sidekick Bucky (surprise, surprise!) took over the role…

With all the dominoes in place the moment is ripe for the true hero’s return – and since his mind and body have been lost in time all the while there’s a glorious opportunity to examine some key moments in the old soldier’s decades-long history as the Avengers, Nick Fury, Dr. Doom, Sub-Mariner, Norman (Green Goblin) Osborn and the undying Red Skull all seek to manipulate his return for their own ends. Incisive, clever, all-encompassing and beautifully realised by Hitch and Guice Captain America Reborn is a grand example of the Deus ex Machina revival as only comics can produce it.

Overcoming all odds Cap is back: but now that he is what’s to become of him?

This impressive and entertaining book also includes a fan’s dream of added value inducements: an article by surviving original creator Joe Simon, a “Reborn” variant cover gallery (20 different covers for six issues!) and a far-too small but incredibly impressive complete reproduction of every Cap cover since March 1941, as well as a few surprise extras.

If you are a fan of the superhero genre this is a thoroughly enjoyable recap and reboot that proves that new and old can work together; let’s hope the new old Captain America can find enough of an audience to keep him occupied…
™ and © 2010 Marvel Entertainment LCC and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. A British edition released by Panini UK Ltd.

Ultimate Armour Wars

By Warren Ellis & Steve Kurth (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-441-6

The Marvel Ultimates project began in 2000 with a thoroughly modernizing refit of key characters and concepts to bring them into line with contemporary “ki-dults” – perceived to be a separate buying public to we baby-boomers and our declining descendents who seemed content to stick with the various efforts that sprang from the fantastic talents of Kirby, Ditko and Lee. Eventually this streamlined new universe became as crowded and continuity-constricted as its predecessor and in 2008 the cleansing publishing event “Ultimatum” culminated in a reign of terror which apparently (this is comics, after all) killed three dozen odd heroes and villains and millions of ordinary mortals.

Although a huge seller (in contemporary terms, at least) the saga was largely trashed by the fans who bought it, and the ongoing new “Ultimatum Comics” line is quietly back-pedalling on its declared intentions…

The key and era-ending event was a colossal tsunami that drowned the superhero-heavy island of Manhattan and this post-tidal wave collection (assembling issues #1-4 of the miniseries Ultimate Comics Armor War – and yes, it has been spelled differently for this British Edition) picks up the story of the survivors as well as the new world readjusting to their altered state.

Young Tony Stark is a tech-genius weapon-smith – and amiable drunk – from a family of armaments manufacturers. When the wave hit, his greatest treasure was lost in his state-of-the-art Manhattan Corporate HQ. A public figure in his trademarked Iron Man war-suit, he is down to his last few million bucks and sifting through the wreckage of his building when a cybernetic super-thief called The Ghost steals his precious strongbox, and would have killed the billionaire brat if not for the intervention of Justine Hammer, daughter of Stark’s greatest enemy: a girl dying from her father’s abusive attempts to giver her marketable super-powers.

Wearing a suit painfully similar to the Iron Man suit the Ghost vanishes, leaving Stark with the realisation that his technology has been pirated and sold to unscrupulous monsters. Although spoiled and dissolute even Stark can’t drink enough to wash away all the blood his inventions could spill if he doesn’t take control back…

With Justine in tow he follows the bloody trail, finding and neutralising all illicit incidences of his armour from malevolent arms dealer Dr. Faustus to deviant Balkan mad scientist Bram Velsing to the ever-OTT Metropolitan Police Force (who use their Stark-based tin-suits to quell political protest and civil disobedience… same as it ever was…)

Eventually the trail leads to the shocking mastermind behind the plot, with plenty of twisty-turny revelations in store – or not, depending on how astute you are, how much attention you’ve been paying and of course on whether you’ve read the original tale this was based on (see the graphic novel Iron Man: the Armor Wars as well as our review of same).

Visually stunning (True Brits especially will revel in the spectacular battle in the skies over London) thanks to artist Steve Kurth and the colouring magic of Guru EFX, Warren Ellis’s tale is sharp and witty, if fairly predictable: heavy on attitude and action, and over almost too quickly, leaving the reader genuinely hungry for more…

Once removed from the market hype and frantic, relentless immediacy of the sales arena there’s a chance to reassess these tales on merit alone, and given such a opportunity you’d be foolish not to take a good hard look at this solid, accessible superhero yarn.
™ and © 2010 Marvel Entertainment LCC and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. A British edition released by Panini UK Ltd

Punisher: Assassin’s Guild

By Jo Duffy, Jorge Zaffino & Julie Michel (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-460-8

Frank Castle saw his family gunned down in Central Park after witnessing a mob hit, and thereafter dedicated his life to destroying criminals. His methods are violent and permanent.

Debuting as a villain in Amazing Spider-Man #129 (February 1974), the Punisher was created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru, a reaction to such popular prose anti-heroes as Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan: the Executioner and other returning Viet Nam vets who all turned their training and talents to wiping out organised crime. It’s intriguing to note that unlike most heroes who debuted as villains (Wolverine comes to mind) the Punisher actually became more immoral, anti-social and murderous, not less: the buying public shifted its communal perspective – Castle never toned down or cleaned up his act…

After bouncing around the Marvel universe for many years a 1986 miniseries by Steven Grant and Mike Zeck swiftly led to overnight stardom and a plethora of “shoot-‘em-all and let God sort it out” antics that quickly boiled over into tedious overkill, but along the way a few pure gems were cranked out, such as this clever, darkly funny graphic novel from the hugely underrated Jo Duffy and much missed Argentinean artist Jorge Zaffino.

Zaffino died of a heart attack in 2002, aged 43, having been “discovered” in the late 1980s by Eclipse Comics who published the dystopian science fiction thriller Winter World he created with writer Chuck Dixon.

Zaffino’s style of dark, oppressive, macho illustration was seen in America in Batman: Black and White, Savage Sword of Conan, Shadowline: Critical Mass, Terror, Inc., Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, The ‘Nam and Punisher: Kingdom Gone as well as my personal favourite, the crime/horror one-shot Seven Block. Throughout this period he was maintaining a full-time career in his homeland, particularly on the adventure series Wolf, and as a gallery painter.

Frank Castle is pursuing his favourite occupation wiping out scum when he accidentally crosses paths with a rather unique band of paid killers working out of a Japanese restaurant. These assassins are skilled, imaginative, highly professional and mostly kids. Investigating with a view to permanently stopping them he discovers that their motives and ethics aren’t so far removed from his own and moreover that they all have their eyes on the same target…

Sardonic, brutal and powerfully effective this is a top-notch yarn that moves effortlessly from Noir to adventure-caper to tragedy and back again, a genuinely accessible thriller for all genre fans – especially Yakuza gangster movies. Still readily available in the so-satisfying oversized European format (284m x 215m) this hard, fast and deliciously sharp extravaganza has everything that made the Punisher so popular, without any of the charmless excesses that scuppered the first, over-exploited run. This is an unreconstructed guilty pleasure and you know you want it…
© 1988 Marvel Entertainment Group, Ltd. All rights reserved.

Ultimate Spider-Man Volume1: The New World According to Peter Parker

By Brian Michael Bendis & David Lafuente with Justin Ponsor (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-443-0

The Marvel Ultimates project began in 2000 with a thoroughly modernizing refit of key characters and concepts to bring them into line with contemporary “ki-dults” – perceived to be a separate buying public to those baby-boomers and their declining descendents who seemed content to stick with the various efforts that sprang from the fertile, febrile gifts of Kirby, Ditko and Lee. Eventually the streamlined new universe became as crowded and continuity-constricted as its predecessor and in 2008 a publishing event dubbed “Ultimatum” culminated in a reign of terror which apparently (this is comics, after all) killed three dozen odd heroes and villains and millions of ordinary mortals.

Although a huge seller (for modern comics at least) the saga has been largely slated by the fans who bought it, and the ongoing new “Ultimatum Comics” line is quietly back-pedalling on its declared intentions…

The key and era-ending event was a colossal tsunami that drowned the superhero-heavy island of Manhattan and this post-tidal wave collection (assembling issues #1-6 of the relaunched Ultimate Comics Spider-Man) picks up the story of the survivors slowly readjusting to their altered state.

Peter Parker is sixteen years old, a perennial hard-luck kid and loser and canny geek just trying to get by. Between High School and slinging fast food (Burger Frog is his only source of income since the Daily Bugle got hit) he still finds time to fight crime although his very public heroics during the crisis have made him a beloved hero of police and citizenry alike – which is the creepiest thing he has ever endured.

He lives in a big house with his Aunt May, and despite his low self-image has stellar hottie Gwen Stacy for a devoted girlfriend, and is daily enduring the teen-angsty situation of equally stellar hottie Mary Jane Watson (his ex-squeeze) being constantly around and acting all grown-up about it. He briefly dated mutant babe Kitty Pride: remember when not having any girlfriend was the definition of “loser”?

As New York slowly recovers a new villain with a purloined name is carefully positioning himself to take full control – which he commences by murdering one of Spidey’s greatest surviving foes – whilst the wallcrawler is occupied with a resurgent pack of increasingly violent street crimes. One thing the wave didn’t wash away was greed and stupidity…

As the mastermind’s wicked plans near brutal fruition Spider-Man is being secretly helped by a new young crusader who seems determined to avoid observation at all costs, but Peter’s real problems begin when old superhero chums start returning. Kids like the Human Torch and Iceman are completely alone in the aftermath, and with schools and accommodation stretched to breaking point, what can a sweet old lady like May do but open her doors to them? His secret identity was constantly threatened before; how can he possibly conceal his adventurous life when two such famous characters suddenly move in…?

Combining smart dialogue and teen soap opera dynamics with spectacular action – beautifully rendered by artist David Lafuente and colourist Justin Ponsor – this is a surprisingly compelling and enjoyable costumed drama with plenty of laughs that easily rises above its troubled origins. Absolutely worth any jaded superhero fan’s time and money and well on the way to becoming a palpable sleeper hit…
™ and © 2010 Marvel Entertainment LCC and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. A British edition released by Panini UK Ltd

Ka-Zar: Guns of the Savage Land – A Marvel Graphic Novel

By Chuck Dixon, Timothy Truman, Gary Kwapisz & Ricardo Villagrán (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-641-4

Beginning as a knock-off Tarzan in a lost sub-polar realm of swamp-men and dinosaurs Ka-Zar eventually evolved into one of Marvel’s more complex – if variable – characters. Wealthy heir to one of Britain’s oldest noble families, his best friend is a sabre-tooth tiger, his wife is feisty super-heroine Shanna the She-Devil and his brother is a homicidal super-scientific bandit.

Lord Kevin Plunder is perpetually torn between the clean life-or-death simplicity of the jungle and the bewildering constant compromises of modern civilisation. As this enjoyable, under-appreciated tale unfolds it is clear that the dichotomy is driving him crazy…

Sociologist and Native American Wyatt Wingfoot (associate of the Fantastic Four and sometime paramour of the She-Hulk) is called to a hospital to consult on an enigmatic dying man. The fatally radioactive John Doe has walked out of heart of the Nevada desert, and has clearly lived in place no hint of civilisation has ever touched. He speaks nothing but an unknown tongue that might just be the basis of all Indian language.

Is it possible he has come from the fabled Hopi legend-land Sibopay, Third World of Creation, far under the Earth? Could it be that the South Polar Savage Land extends as far as America? Luckily, the burly researcher knows of an expert in subterranean lost worlds…

Seemingly shaken from his bipolar fugues by the promise of adventure, Ka-Zar is eager to find out, and with Zabu and Shanna joins Wingfoot in a borrowed flying Fantasticar on a voyage of primal discovery to an unspoiled realm that promises to cure all his soul’s ills.

Little does the Lord of the Savage Jungle suspect that a rapacious energy conglomerate has already found his lost promised land, and is well on the way to eradicating both native dinosaur wildlife and the innocent proto-Indians of Sibopay. Nor does anybody realise just how much civilisation has poisoned Ka-Zar’s heart and soul…

This is a grand old-fashioned “Lost World” romp of giant beasts, scurrilous greedy men and noble savages, skillfully paying tribute to those wonderful old Gold Key/Dell series like Turok, Son of Stone and Kona, Monarch of Monster Island (Sam Glanzman’s adventure masterpiece which is long overdue for the deluxe archive treatment) gloriously reveling in the age-old battles of old against new, greed versus contentment, and man against beast.

Dixon and Truman perfectly blend Marvel continuity with classic adventure themes, and Gary Kwapisz’s solid storytelling is magically elevated by Ricardo Villagrán’s lush yet gritty painting. A little outside the company’s regular – if complex – comfort zone, this is a rousing tale any newcomer could enjoy without recourse to decades of back-story.
© 1990 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Punisher: Return to Big Nothing

By Steven Grant, Mike Zeck & John Beatty (Marvel/Epic)
ISBN: 0-87135-553-1

Ever woken up in one of those bad moods where you just want to bite everybody and kick their dog, but just can’t justify the expense of spleen?

Well you could give in to the urge but you might want to try my remedy: find a good, old-fashioned kick-ass, gratuitous comic story and let someone more qualified in mayhem-management handle the hard work whilst you vicariously reap the subsequent rewards in karma and entertainment value.

A faithful standby in such situations is always the Punisher: an unreconstructed and unrepentant slice of “because I said so” gloriously devoid of such tricky downers as conscience, remorse or annoying, shilly-shallying moral grey areas.

Debuting as a villain in Amazing Spider-Man #129 (February 1974), the Punisher was created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru, a reaction to such popular prose anti-heroes as Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan: the Executioner and other returning Viet Nam vets who all turned their training and talents to wiping out organised crime.

Frank Castle saw his family gunned down in Central Park after witnessing a mob hit, and thence dedicated his life to eradicating criminals everywhere. His methods are violent and permanent. It’s intriguing to note that unlike most heroes who debuted as villains (Wolverine comes to mind) the Punisher actually became more immoral, anti-social and murderous, not less: the buying public shifted its communal perspective – Castle never toned down or cleaned up his act…

After bouncing around the Marvel universe for a good few years a 1986 miniseries by Steven Grant and Mike Zeck (which I must review sometime soon) swiftly led to a plethora of “shoot-‘em-all and let God sort it out” antics that quickly boiled over into tedious overkill, but along the way a few pure gems were cranked out, such as this intriguing and absorbing graphic novel which reunited the creative team, mysteriously released in 1989 under the generally creator-owned Epic imprint.

Still available in hardback and softcover in the so-satisfying oversized European format (284m x 215m) it sees the Urban Commando re-explore his early days as a Marine when his perpetual hunt for criminals reunites him with Supply Sergeant Gorman, his old Nam top-kick: a savage, cunning thug who couldn’t be outfought, and a man who murdered his own men to begin his career as a drug baron…

Years later Castle’s crusade has brought him to Las Vegas and to his horror the man he couldn’t beat is at the top of a pyramid of vice and death that leads from the US Army to the Asian drug-gangs that peddle death in the streets. Looks like the Punisher is going to need a bigger gun – or lots of them…

Hard, fast and deliciously brutal, this non-stop rocket-ride has everything that made the series so popular, stripped down to a form of costumed Noir that is absolutely irresistible. Grant, Zeck and Beatty completely understand the tough guy mystique of the character whilst the action and exotic locales fuel and feed the impression of a proper movie blockbuster that neither of the two actual films (so far) has got anywhere near.

If you truly need to see bullets fly and creeps die – then you need Return to Big Nothing.
© 1989 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Black Widow: The Coldest War – A Marvel Graphic Novel

By Gerry Conway, George Freeman & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 0- 87135-643-0

By 1990 Marvel’s ambitious line of all-new graphic novels was beginning to falter, and some less-than-stellar tales were squeaking into the line-up. Moreover, the company was increasingly resorting to in-continuity stories with established – and company copyrighted – characters rather than creator-owned properties and original concepts.

Not that that necessarily meant poor product, as this intriguing superhero spy thriller proves. The Coldest War is set in the last days of the US/Soviet face-off with what looks to be a pasted-on epilogue added as an afterthought, but as the entire affair was clearly scripted as a miniseries – most probably for the fortnightly anthology Marvel Comics Presents – an afterword set after the fall of the Berlin Wall doesn’t jar too much and must have lent an air of imminent urgency to the mix.

The Black Widow started life as a svelte and sultry honey-trap Russian agent during Marvel’s early “Commie-busting” days. She fell for an assortment of Yankee superheroes – including Hawkeye and Daredevil – and finally defected; becoming an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and occasional leader of the Avengers. Throughout her career she has been considered competent, deadly, efficient and cursed to bring doom and disaster to her paramours.

Gerry Conway provides a typically twisty, double-dealing tale set in the dog-days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” (“openness”) government when ambitious KGB upstarts undertake a plan to subvert Natasha (nee Natalia) Romanova and return her to Soviet control using the bait of her husband Alexei Shostokoff – whom she has believed dead for years. Naturally nothing is as it seems, nobody can be trusted and only the last spy standing can be called the winner…

Low key and high-tech go hand in hand in this sort of tale, and although there’s much reference to earlier Marvel classics this tale can be easily enjoyed by the casual reader and art fan.

And what art! George Freeman is a supreme stylist, whose drawing work – although infrequent – is always top rate. Starting out on the seminal Captain Canuck, he has excelled on Jack of Hearts, Green Lantern, Avengers, Batman (Annual #11, with Alan Moore), Wasteland, Elric, Nexus and The X-Files (for which he won the Eisner Award for colouring). He co-founded the design/colouring studio Digital Chameleon in 1991.

Here, inked by Ernie Colon, Mark Farmer, Mike Harris, Val Mayerik and Joe Rubinstein with colours from Lovern Kindzierski he produced a subtle and sophisticated blend of costumed chic and espionage glamour that easily elevated this tale to a “must-have” item.
© 1990 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Iron Man volume 2

By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, Gene Colan, George Tuska, Johnny Craig, & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-90415-975-9

Marvel’s rise to dominance of the American comicbook industry really took hold in 1968 when most 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 drawback, Marvel developed “split-books” with two features per publication, such as Tales of Suspense where Iron Man was joined by Captain America with #59 (cover-dated November 1964). When the division came the armoured Avenger started afresh with a “Collectors Item First Issue” – after a shared one-shot with the Sub-Mariner that squared divergent schedules – and Cap retained the numbering of the original title; thus premiering in number #100.

This second sterling black and white chronological compendium covers that transitional period, reprinting Tales of Suspense #73-99, Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner #1 and Iron Man #1-11, and also includes the Subby portion of Tales to Astonish #82, which held a key portion of an early comics crossover.

Tony Stark is the acceptable face of 1960s Capitalism; a glamorous millionaire industrialist and inventor – and a benevolent all-conquering hero when clad in the super-scientific armour of his alter-ego, Iron Man. Created in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and at a time when “Red-baiting” and “Commie-bashing” were American national obsessions, the emergence of a brilliant new Thomas Edison, using Yankee ingenuity and invention to safeguard and better the World seemed inevitable. Combine the then-sacrosanct belief that technology and business could solve any problem with the universal imagery of noble knights battling evil and the concept behind the Golden Avenger seems an infallibly successful proposition. Of course it helps that all that money and gadgetry is great fun and very, very cool…

This volume begins with Tales of Suspense #73 (cover-dated January 1966) and picks up, soap opera fashion, on Iron Man, rushing to the bedside of his best friend Happy Hogan, gravely wounded in an earlier battle, and now missing from his hospital bed. ‘My Life for Yours!’ by a veritable phalanx of creators including Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gene Colan & Jack Abel (in their Marvel modes of Adam Austin and Gary Michaels), Sol Brodsky, Flo Steinberg and Marie Severin, pitted the Avenger in final combat against the Black Knight to rescue Happy but after this the creative stabilised at Lee, Colan and Abel, for ‘If this Guilt be Mine..!’ wherein Tony Stark’s inventive intervention saved his friend’s life but transformed the patient into a terrifying monster.

Whilst in pitched battle against ‘The Fury of… the Freak!’ (who scared the stuffings out of me as an comic-crazed seven-year-old!), Iron Man was helpless when the Mandarin attacked in #76’s ‘Here Lies Hidden…the Unspeakable Ultimo!’ The saga continued in ‘Ultimo Lives!’ and closed as the gigantic android went berserk in ‘Crescendo!’ dooming itself and allowing our ferrous hero to escape home, only to face a Congressional Inquiry and a battle crazed Sub-Mariner in ‘Disaster!’ The Prince of Atlantis had been hunting his enemy Warlord Krang in his own series, and the path led straight to Stark’s factory, so when confronted with another old foe the amphibian over-reacted in his usual manner.

‘When Fall the Mighty!’ in Tales of Suspense #80, was one colossal punch-up, which carried over into Tales to Astonish #82, where Thomas and Colan began the conclusion before the penciller contracted flu after delivering only two pages. Jack Kirby, inked by Dick Ayers, stepped in to produce some of the finest action-art of his entire Marvel career, fully displaying ‘The Power of Iron Man!’

TOS #81 featured ‘The Return of the Titanium Man!’ – and Gene Colan – as the Communist Colossus attacked the Golden Avenger on his way to Congress, and threatened all of Washington DC in the Frank Giacoia inked ‘By Force of Arms!’ before succumbing to superior fire power in ‘Victory!’ Stark’s controversial reputation was finally restored as the public finally discovered that his life was only preserved by a metallic chest-plate to kept his heart beating in ‘The Other Iron Man!’ – but nobody connected that hunk of steel to the identical one his Avenging “bodyguard” wore…

The Mandarin kidnapped the inventor’s recovering pal – temporarily wearing the super-suit – in another extended assault that began with ‘Into the Jaws of Death’ which compelled the ailing Stark to fly to his rescue in ‘Death Duel for the Life of Happy Hogan!’, in #87-88 the Mole Man attacked in ‘Crisis… at the Earth’s Core!’ and ‘Beyond all Rescue!’ and it was the turn of another old B-List bad-guy in ‘The Monstrous Menace of the Mysterious Melter!’ and its sequel ‘The Golden Ghost!’

‘The Uncanny Challenge of the Crusher!’ is an okay battle tale somewhat marred for modern audiences by a painful Commie-Bustin’ sub-plot featuring a thinly disguised Fidel Castro, and the impressions of the on-going “Police Action” in Indo-China are also a little gung-ho (if completely understandable) when Iron Man went hunting for a Red Menace called Half-Face ‘Within the Vastness of Viet Nam!’ and met an incorrigible old foe in ‘The Golden Gladiator and… the Giant!’ before snatching victory from Titanium jaws of defeat in ‘The Tragedy and the Triumph!’ (this last inked by Dan Adkins).

A new cast member was introduced in #95 as preppie S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell was assigned as security advisor to America’s most prominent weapons maker, just as the old Thor villain Grey Gargoyle attacked in ‘If a Man be Stone!’ and ‘The Deadly Victory!’

Tales of Suspense #97 began an extended story-arc that would carry the series to the start of the solo-book and beyond. Criminal cartel the Maggia had a scheme to move in on Stark’s company which opened with ‘The Coming of… Whiplash!’ proceeded to ‘The Warrior and the Whip!’ and as the brilliant Archie Goodwin assumed the scripting reins and EC legend Johnny Craig came aboard as inker Iron Man found himself trapped on a sinking submarine ‘At the Mercy of the Maggia’, just as Tales of Suspense ended at #99…

Of course it was just changing its name to Captain America, as Tales to Astonish seamlessly transformed into the Incredible Hulk, but due to a scheduling snafu neither of those split-book co-stars had a home that month (April 1968) which led to the one-and-only Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner #1, and the concluding episode ‘The Torrent Without… The Tumult Within!’ wherein the sinister super-scientists of A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics, acronym-fans) snatch the Armoured Avenger from the Maggia sub intent on stealing the hero’s technical secrets.

Invincible Iron Man #1 finally appeared with a May 1968 cover-date, and triumphantly ended the extended sea-saga as our hero stood ‘Alone against A.I.M.!’, a thrilling roller-coaster ride that was supplemented by ‘The Origin of Iron Man’ a revitalised re-telling that ended Colan’s long and impressive tenure on the character. With #2, ‘The Day of the Demolisher!’, Craig took over the art, and his first job is a cracker, as Goodwin introduced Janice Cord a new romantic interest for the playboy, the killer robot built by her deranged father and a running plot-thread that examined the effects of the munitions business and the kind of inventors who work for it…

Following swiftly on Goodwin and Craig brought back Happy Hogan’s other self in ‘My Friend, My Foe… the Freak!’ in #3 and retooled a long-forgotten Soviet villain into a major threat in ‘Unconquered is the Unicorn!’ before George Tuska, another Golden Age veteran who would illustrate the majority of the Iron Man’s adventures over the next decade. Inked by Craig, ‘Frenzy in a Far-Flung Future!’ is a solid time-paradox tale wherein Stark is kidnapped by the last survivors of humanity, determined to kill him before he can build the super-computer that eradicated mankind. Did somebody say “Terminator”…

The super-dense (by which I mean strong and heavy) Commie threat returned – but not for long – in ‘Vengeance… Cries the Crusher!’ and the scheme begun in TOS #97 finally bore painful fruit in the two-part thriller ‘The Maggia Strikes!’ and ‘A Duel Must End!’ as the old Daredevil foe the Gladiator led a savage attack on Stark’s factory, friends and would-be new love…

This volume ends with a bold three-part saga as the ultimate oriental arch-fiend returned with a cunning plan and the conviction that Stark and Iron Man were the same person. Beginning in a “kind-of” Hulk guest-shot with #9’s ‘…There Lives a Green Goliath!’ proceeding through the revelatory ‘Once More… The Mandarin!’ and climaxing in spectacular “saves-the-day” fashion as our hero is ‘Unmasked!’, this epic from Goodwin, Tuska and Craig ends the book on a brilliant high note, just as the first inklings of the social upheaval America was experiencing began to seep into Marvel’s publications and their core audience started to grow into the Flower Power generation. Future tales would take the arch capitalist Stark in many unexpected and often peculiar directions…

But that’s a tale for another review, as this sparkling graphic novel is done. Despite some rough patches this is a fantastic period in the Golden Gladiator’s career and one perfectly encapsulates the changes Marvel and America went through: seen through some of the best and most memorable efforts of a simply stellar band of creators.

© 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 2004 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Immortal Iron Fist: the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven

By Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, David Aja & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2535-8

To save you looking up old graphic novel reviews (but please don’t let me stop you if you feel so inclined) Iron Fist was an early entry from Marvel during the 1970s Kung Fu boom, although the character also owed a hefty debt to Bill Everett’s golden Age super-hero Amazing Man – who graced various Centaur Comics publications between1939 and 1945. The tribute was paid by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane although a veritable host of successors (writers and artists included Len Wein, Doug Moench, Tony Isabella, Larry Hama, Arvell Jones, Keith Pollard, Pat Broderick and Al McWilliams) followed them in what was a relatively short run on the adventures of the “Living Weapon”.

Little Danny Rand travelled with his parents and uncle to the Himalayas, searching for the “lost city of K’un Lun” which only appears once every ten years. The boy’s father Wendell was murdered by the uncle, and Danny’s mother sacrificed herself to save her child. Alone in the wilderness, the city found him and he spent the next decade mastering all forms of martial arts.

As soon he was able he returned to the real world intent on vengeance, further armed with a mystic punch gained by killing the dragon Shou-Lao the Undying. When Iron Fist eventually achieved his goal the lad was at a loose end and – by default – a billionaire, as his murderous uncle had turned the family business into a multi-national megalith.

The series ran in Marvel Premier (#15-25; May 1974 to October 1975), before Chris Claremont and John Byrne steadied the ship and produced a superb run of issues in his own title (Iron Fist #1-15, November 1975 – September 1977). After cancellation the character drifted until paired with street tough hero Luke Cage. Power Man & Iron Fist ran from #51 until the book ended in 1986 (#125). The K’un Lun Kid has died, come back and cropped up all over the Marvel universe as guest star, co-star and even in a few of his own miniseries.

Recently revived and somewhat re-imagined as The Immortal Iron Fist, the new series revealed that there has been a steady progression of warriors bearing the title for centuries – if not millennia – and in volume 1 (The Last Iron Fist Story) Danny discovered that his predecessor Orson Randall went rogue, refusing to die for the Holy City, roaming the Earth ever since. He also knew Danny’s father…

This volume contains issues #8-14 of the monthly comicbook plus the first Annual and follows the orphan hero as he learns the true history and meaning of his life, a task complicated by the fact that a cadre of super scientific Hydra warriors have kidnapped his friend Jeryn Hogarth and are using Rand technology to break the dimensional walls and invade K’un Lun.

The title comes from the fact that there are in fact seven mystical cities in this universe and every 88 years their celestial orbits coincide to permit a grand martial arts tournament. Each city has a champion as puissant and dedicated as Iron Fist and they must fight. The eventual climax will change the hidden cities forever…

Interspersing revelations about Wendell Rand and the renegade Orson with scenes on Earth and in the confluence of Floating Cities, these tales reveal the true nature of K’un Lun, and the power of Iron Fist, easily blending traditional costume-capers with the best of movie martial arts fantasy. Old fans can revel in guest-appearances by Luke Cage, Colleen Wing and Misty Knight as well as tantalising glimpses of pre-Marvel Age 1920s and 1930s super-heroics whilst newcomers can simply enjoy the wonders of an enchanting, multi-layered action epic told exceedingly well.

Swift and compellingly exotic the story balances character and plot perfectly augmented by masterful artistic contributions from Roy Allan, Martinez, Scott Koblish, Kano, Javier Pulido, Tonci Zonjic, Clay Mann, Stefano Gaudiano, Jelana Kevic Djurdjevic, Dan Brereton and Howard Chaykin. This mesmerising saga resolves the cliffhanging ending of the previous volume and taken together these two books form one of the best Marvel Masterpieces of the last decade.

© 2006, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Death of Captain Marvel – A Marvel Graphic Novel

By Jim Starlin, coloured by Steve Oliff (Marvel)
No ISBN /later editions 978-0-7851-0040-9 and 978-0-7851-0837-5

Often reprinted and now released as a spiffy hardcover in their Premier editions range The Death of Captain Marvel was the first Marvel Graphic Novel and the one that truly demonstrated how mainstream superhero material could breach the wider world of general publishing.

Written and illustrated by Jim Starlin whose earliest efforts in the industry had revitalised the moribund hero with his epic, Jack Kirby-inspired ‘Thanos Saga’ (from issues #25-34 of the fantastically hit-or-miss comicbook) this tale effectively concluded that storyline in a neat symmetrical and textually final manner – although the tale’s success led to some pretty crass commercialisations in its wake…

Mar-Vell was a soldier of the alien Kree empire dispatched to Earth as a spy, but who subsequently went native becoming first a hero and then the cosmically “aware” protector of the universe, destined since life began to be a cosmic champion in its darkest hour. In concert with the Avengers and other heroes he defeated the death-worshipping mad Titan Thanos, just as that villain transformed into God, after which the good Captain went on to become a universal force for good.

That insipid last bit pretty much sums up Mar-Vell’s later career: without Thanos the adventures again became uninspired and eventually just fizzled out. He lost his own comicbook, had a brief shot at revival in try-out book Marvel Spotlight and then just faded away…

Re-enter Starlin, who had long been perceived as obsessed by themes of death, with a rather novel idea – kill him off and leave him dead.

In 1982 that was a bold idea, especially considering how long and hard the company had fought to obtain the rights to the name (and sure enough there’s been somebody with that name in print ever since) but Starlin wasn’t just proposing a gratuitous stunt. The story developed into a different kind of drama: one uniquely at odds with contemporary fare and thinking.

At the end of the Thanos Saga (see The Life of Captain Marvel, or you could try to track down the all-inclusive compendium The Life and Death of Captain Marvel which combines that tome with the contents of the book under discussion here) Mar-Vell defeated a villain called Nitro and was exposed to an experimental nerve gas. Now he discovers that, years later, just as he has found love and contentment, the effects of that gas have caused cancer which has metastasized into something utterly incurable…

Going through the Kree version of the classic Kubler-Ross Cycle: grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, the Space-Born hero can only watch as all his friends and comrades try and fail to find a cure, before death comes for him…

This is a thoughtful, intriguing examination of the process of dying observed by a being who never expected to die in bed, and argues forcefully that even in a universe where miracles occur by the hour sometimes death might not be unwelcome…

Today, in a world where the right to life is increasingly being challenged and contested by special interest groups, this story is still a strident, forceful reminder that sometimes the personal right to dignity and freedom from distress is as important as any and all other Human Rights.

No big Deus ex Machina, not many fights and no happy ending: but still one of the best stories the House of Ideas ever published.
© 1982 Marvel Comics Group. All Rights Reserved.