Essential Nova volume 1

By Marv Wolfman, John and Sal Buscema, Carmine Infantino & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2093-9

By 1975 the first wave of fans-turned-writers were well ensconced at all the major American comic-book companies. Two fanzine graduates, Len Wein and Marv Wolfman had achieved stellar successes early on, and then risen to the ranks of writer/editors at Marvel, a company in trouble both creatively and in terms of sales. After a meteoric rise and a virtual root and branch overhaul of the industry in the 1960s the House of Ideas – and every other comics publisher except Archie – were suffering from a mass desertion of fans who had simply found other uses for their mad-money.

Whereas Charlton and Gold Key dwindled and eventually died and DC vigorously explored new genres to bolster their flagging sales, Marvel chose to exploit their record with superheroes and foster new titles within a universe it was increasingly impossible to buy only a portion of…

The Man Called Nova was in fact a boy named Richard Rider, a working class nebbish in the tradition of Peter Parker – except he was good at sports and bad at learning – who attended Harry S. Truman High School, where his strict dad was the principal. His mom worked as a police dispatcher and he had a younger brother, Robert, who was a bit of a genius. Other superficial differences to the Spider-Man canon included girlfriend Ginger and best friends Bernie and Caps, but he did have his own school bully, Mike Burley…

An earlier version, “Black Nova” had apparently appeared in the Wolfman/Wein fan mag Super Adventures in 1966, but with a few revisions and an artistic make-over by the legendary John Romita (Senior) the Human Rocket was launched into the Marvel Universe in his own title, beginning in September 1976, ably supported by the illustration A-Team of John Buscema and Joe Sinnott.

‘Nova’, which borrowed as heavily from Green Lantern as well as Spider-Man’s origin, was structured like a classic four-chapter Lee/Kirby early Fantastic Four tale, and rapidly introduced its large cast before quickly zipping to the life-changing moment in Rider’s life when an star-ship with a dying alien aboard transfers to the lad all the mighty powers of an extraterrestrial peacekeeper and warrior.

Centurion Rhomann Dey had tracked a deadly marauder to Earth. Zorr had already destroyed the idyllic world of Xandar, but the severely wounded vengeance seeking Nova Prime was too near death and could not avenge the genocide. Trusting to fate, Dey beamed his powers and abilities towards the planet below where Richard Rider was struck by the energy bolt and plunged into a coma. On awakening Rich realised he had gained awesome powers and the responsibilities of the last Nova Centurion.

The tale is standard origin fare, beautifully rendered by Buscema and Sinnott, but the story really begins with #2’s ‘The First Night of… The Condor!’ as Wolfman, playing to his own strengths, introduced an extended storyline featuring a host of new villains whilst concentrating on filling out the lives of the supporting cast. There was still plenty of action as the neophyte hero learned to use his new powers (one thing the energy transfer didn’t provide was an instruction manual) but battles against winged criminal mastermind Condor and his enigmatic, reluctant pawn Powerhouse plus #3’s brutal super-thug (‘…The Deadly Diamondhead is Ready to Strike!’ illustrated by new art-team Sal Buscema & Tom Palmer) were clearly not as important as laying plot-threads for a big event to come.

Nova #4 saw the first of many guest-star appearances (and the first of three covers by the inimitable Jack Kirby). ‘Nova Against the Mighty Thor’ introduced The Corruptor, a bestial being who turned the Thunder God into a raging berserker whom only the new kid on the block could stop, whilst ‘Evil is the Earth-Shaker!’ pitted the lad against subterranean despot Tyranus and his latest engine of destruction, although a slick sub-plot concerning the Human Rocket’s attempt to become a comic book star still delivers some tongue-in-cheek chuckles to this day…

Issue #6 saw those long-laid plans begin to mature as Condor, Diamondhead and Powerhouse returned to capture Nova, whilst their hidden foe was revealed in ‘And So… The Sphinx!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia), another world-class, immortal super-villain patiently waiting his turn to conquer the world. Meanwhile young Caps had been abducted by another new bad-guy who would eventually make big waves for the Human Rocket.

‘War in Space!’ found Nova a brainwashed ally of his former foes in an invasion of Rhomann Dey’s still orbiting star-ship – an invaluable weapon in the encroaching war with the Sphinx, only to be marooned in deep space once his mind cleared. On narrowly escaping he found himself outmatched by Caps’ kidnapper in ‘When Megaman Comes Calling… Don’t Answer!’ – a tumultuous, time-bending epic that concluded in #9’s ‘Fear in the Funhouse!’

Nova #10 began the final (yeah, right) battle in ‘Four Against the Sphinx!’ with Condor, Diamondhead and Powerhouse in all-out battle against the immortal mage with the hapless Human Rocket caught in the crossfire, whilst ‘Nova No More’ had the hero’s memories removed to take him out of the game; a tactic that only partially worked since he was back for the next issue’s classy crossover with the Spectacular Spider-Man.

‘Who is the Man Called Photon?’ by Wolfman, Sal Buscema & Giacoia, teamed the young heroes in a fair-play murder mystery when Rich Rider’s uncle was killed by a costumed thief. However there were ploys within ploys occurring and after the mandatory hero head-butting the kids joined forces and the mystery was resolved in Amazing Spider-Man #171’s ‘Photon is Another Name For…?’ courtesy of Wein, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito.

Joe Sinnott returned in Nova #13, as another lengthy tale began with the introduction of new hero Crime-Buster in ‘Watch Out World, the Sandman is Back!’, wherein the once formidable villain took a beating and fell under the influence of a far more sinister menace. Meanwhile Rich’s dad was going through some bad times and had fallen into the clutches of a dangerous organisation…

The story continued in the Dick Giordano inked ‘Massacre at Truman High!’ as Sandman attacked Nova’s school and the mystery mastermind was revealed for in-the-know older fans before the guest-star stuffed action-riot ‘The Fury Before the Storm!’ saw Carmine Infantino take over the pencilling and Tom Palmer return to the brushstrokes.

When a bunch of established heroes attack the newbie all at once it’s even money they’re fakes, but Nick Fury of super-spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. was real enough and deputised the fledgling fighter for #16’s ‘Death is the Yellow Claw!’ and #17’s spectacular confrontation ‘Tidal Wave!’ As the kid came good and saved the city of New York from a soggy demise the long awaited conclusion occurred in ‘The Final Showdown!’, inked, as was ‘Beginnings’ a short side-bar story dealing with the fate of the elder Rider, by the agglomeration of last-minute-deadline busters dubbed “the Tribe.”

A new foe debuted in #19: ‘Blackout Means Business and his Business is Murder!’ opened the final large story-arc of the series as a ebon-energy wielding maniac attacked Nova, but before that epic completely engaged, the Human Rocket guest-starred with the Thing in Marvel Two-in-One Annual #3 (1978) in a simple yet entertaining tussle with god-like cosmic marauders entitled ‘When Strike the Monitors!’ an interlude crafted by Wolfman, Sal Buscema, Giacoia & Dave Hunt.

Hunt stayed on as inker for Nova #20 as the steadily improving young hero went after the cabal that had nearly destroyed his dad in ‘At Last… The Inner Circle!’ leading to a breakthrough in comics conventions as the Human Rocket revealed his alter ego to his family in ‘Is the World Ready for the Shocking Secret of Nova?’ (with art by John Buscema, Bob McLeod & Joe Rubinstein), whilst a long-forgotten crusader and some familiar villains resurfaced in ‘The Coming of the Comet!’ (#22, Infantino & Steve Leialoha) and long-hidden cyborg mastermind Dr. Sun (an old Dracula foe, of all things) revealed himself in ‘From the Dregs of Defeat!’ executing his scheme to seize control of the lost Nova Prime star-ship and its super-computers.

A huge epic was impressively unfolding but the Human Rocket’s days were numbered. Penultimate issue #24 (inked by Esposito) introduced ‘The New Champions!’ as Dr. Sun battled the Sphinx for the star-ship, with Crime-Buster, the Comet, Powerhouse and Diamondhead dragged along on a one-way voyage to the ruins of Xandar, lost home of the Nova Centurions.

This volume ends with #25, a hastily restructured yarn as the cancellation axe hit the series before it could properly conclude. ‘Invasion of the Body Changers!’ by Wolfman, Infantino & Klaus Janson saw the unhappy crew lost in space and attacked by shape-shifting alien Skrulls, all somehow implicated in the destruction of Xandar, but the answers to the multitude of questions raised were to be eventually resolved in a couple of issues of the Fantastic Four and latterly Rom: Spaceknight: episodes not included here, thus rendering this collection aggravatingly incomplete.

There’s a lot of good, solid entertainment and beautiful superhero art in this book, and Nova has proved his intrinsic value by returning again and again, but by leaving this edition on such a frustrating open end, the editors have reduced what could have been a fine fights ‘n’ tights collection into nothing more than a historical oddity. Stories need conclusions and mine is that we readers deserve so much better than this.

© 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Zombies: Dead Days

By Robert Kirkman, Sean Phillips, Mark Millar, Greg Land & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3563-0

Fast becoming one of modern Marvel’s most popular niche-franchises the canny blend of gratuitous measured sarcasm and arrant cosmic buffoonery collected here traces some of the shorter early appearances of the deadly departed flesh-eating superheroes of an alternate universe which wasn’t so different from the one we all know – at least until a dire contagion killed every ordinary mortal and infected every super-human upon it.

This volume collects the first appearances of the Marvel Zombies and includes the one-shot prequel that delineates the final hours of that tragic alternity where it all kicked off.

That out of sequence prequel forms the first chapter of this gory storybook: ‘Dead Days’, by Robert Kirkman and Sean Phillips, sees Earth rapidly overwhelmed by its costumed crusaders after a super-villain imports an extra-dimensional curse to that reality: one that turns the infected (for which read “bitten”) victims into ravenous, undead eating machines.

Very much a one-trick pony, the tale depends on a deep familiarity with the regular Marvel pantheon, a fondness for schlock horror and the cherished tradition of superheroes fighting each other. This time, however, it’s for keeps, as beloved icons consume one another until only a handful of living heroes remain, desperately seeking a cure or a way to escape their universe without bring the zombie plague with them…

This is followed by the first chronological appearance of the brain-eaters: a far subtler and blacker exploit which first appeared in Ultimate Fantastic Four #21-23. This team is a revised, retooled version of the Lee/Kirby stalwarts created as part of the Marvel Ultimates project began in 2000.

After the company’s near-demise in the mid-1990s new management oversaw a thoroughly modernising refit of key properties: fresher characters and concepts to appeal to a new generation of “ki-dults” – perceived to be a potentially separate buying public from those readers content to stick with the various efforts that had gradually devolved from the Founding Fathers of the House of Ideas.

This super-powered quartet are part of a corporate think-thank tasked with saving the world and making a profit, and in ‘Crossover’ by Mark Millar, Greg Land & Matt Ryan, wunderkind Reed Richards is contacted by a smarter, older version of himself offering the secrets of trans-dimensional travel. Defying his bosses and comrades Reed translates to the other Earth only to find he’s been duped by zombie versions of the FF, looking for fresh fields to infect and people to digest…

Breaking free Reed discovers a devastated, desolate New York populated with manic monster superheroes, all eager to eat one of the last living beings on the planet. Suddenly rescued by Magneto, Reed meets other remaining survivors as they prepare for their last hurrah. Offering them a chance to escape Reed is blissfully unaware that he’s already allowed the Zombie FF to invade the still living world he came from…

Culminating in a bombastic battle on two planes of reality and a heroic sacrifice, this saga ends with the Zombie FF imprisoned on Ultimate Earth and segues into stories not included in this volume: so in brief then, Zombie World is visited by the Silver Surfer and the world-eating Galactus, who both end up consumed.

In ‘Frightful’ (Ultimate Fantastic Four #30-32, by Millar, Land, Ryan & Mitch Breitweiser) the Ultimate Universe Dr. Doom enacts a subtle plan to crush Reed Richards, but the imprisoned, lab-rat zombie FF have their own agenda: one which includes escaping and eating every living thing on the planet…

A far more serious tale of revenge and obsession, this yarn is a real frightener in a volume far more silly than scary. The Zombie franchise grew exponentially and another un-included tale revealed how, back on undead Earth, six victorious zombies – Tony Stark, Luke Cage, Giant-Man, Spider-Man, Wolverine and the Hulk finally ate Galactus and absorbed all his cosmic power. With all other food sources consumed they ranged their entire dimension, killing everything and every civilisation they could find.

Meanwhile on the original Marvel Earth, a civil war erupted between costumed heroes after the US government ordered all superhumans to unmask and register themselves. From that period comes ‘Good Eatin’’, a light-hearted, grotesquely slapstick three-part hoot from Black Panther #28-30.

One-time X-Man Storm, Human Torch, the Thing and the Panther go dimension-hopping and land on a hidden citadel of the Shape-changing Skrulls just as the Galactal Zombie Diners Club discovers what just might be the last edible planet in their universe. ‘Hell of a Mess’, ‘From Bad to Worse’ and ‘Absolutely No Way to Win’ by Reginald Hudlin & Francis Portela comprise an action-packed, hilariously bad-taste splatter-fest to delight the thrill-seeking, gross-engorged teenager in us all…

This book also includes a plethora of alternate and variant cover reproductions and concludes with a fascinating commentary by painter Arthur Suydam, who based his stunning pastiche images on some landmark covers from Marvel’s decades-long-history.

By no means to everyone’s taste, this blend of dark fable with gross-out comedy mixes the sentiments of American Werewolf in London, the iconography of Shaun of the Dead and the cherished hagiography of the Marvel Universe to surprisingly engaging effect. Not for the squeamish or continuity-cherishing hardliners, there might be a loud laugh or frisson of fear awaiting the open-minded casual reader…

© 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009 Marvel Publishing, Inc, a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

White Tiger: A Hero’s Compulsion

By Tamora Pierce, Timothy Liebe, Phil Briones, Alvaro Rio & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2273-9

I’ll try to be brief but bear with me because this might be a little complex for anyone not hardened by forty years of exposure to raw comic-books…

After the early 1970’s Kung Fu craze subsided Marvel was left with a couple of impressive martial arts-themed properties (Master of Kung Fu and Iron Fist) and a few that needed some traditional superhero “topping up”. The Sons of the Tiger debuted in the black-and-white magazine Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, a multi-racial team of Chop-Sockey types who, augmented by three mystic amulets, fought the usual mystic ninja/secret empire types until internal dissent and an obvious lack of creative imagination split them up.

When they finished, the amulets, a Tiger’s Head and two paws carved from magical Jade, passed on to young Hector Ayala who donned all three to become a super-martial artist calling himself the White Tiger. After an inauspicious but excessively violent career which included team-ups with both Spider-Man and Daredevil, the “first Puerto Rican Superhero” all but vanished until recent times when (in a Man Without Fear storyline I’ll get around to reviewing one day) he lost his life…

In the meantime a new White Tiger had appeared in the 1997 revival of Heroes For Hire: an actual tiger evolved into a humanoid by the renegade geneticist the High Evolutionary. In 2003 Kaspar Kole, a black, Jewish cop briefly replaced the Black Panther, becoming the third White Tiger shortly thereafter…

Which finally brings us full circle – almost – as this volume collects the first 6-issue miniseries to feature Angela Del Toro, niece of the first White Tiger, one time cop, de-frocked FBI agent and eventual recipient of the Jade amulets that empowered and doomed her uncle Hector.

Normally I’d steer clear of reviewing a graphic novel like this because by all rights it should be all but impenetrable to non-fans, but somehow novelist Tamora Pierce and co-scripter Timothy Liebe have made the necessary and mandatory recaps and references to other books (particularly the extended Daredevil storyline that dealt with the death of Angela’s uncle and her becoming a costumed vigilante in his memory) relatively painless:  a seemingly seamless part of the overall narrative thrust of this tale and one that perfectly suits the action-packed, highly realistic artwork of Phil Briones, Alvaro Rio, Ronaldo Adriano Silva & Don Hillsman.

Angela Del Toro used to be a high-ranking Federal Agent, but now she is jobless and bewildered, terrified of becoming just another masked crazy on the streets and skyways of New York City. Luckily she still has a few friends both in the legal and extra-legal law enforcement community, and soon links up with a private security firm while she sorts out her new double life.

That mostly means coming to terms with being a costumed superhero, stopping a covert global organisation of ruthless asset-stripping terrorists from turning the USA into a highly profitable war-zone and getting final closure if not revenge on Yakuza prince Orii Sano, the man who killed her partner…

White Tiger: A Hero’s Compulsion is a canny blend of family drama, cop procedural and gritty superhero thriller, with an engaging lead character, believable stakes, just enough laughs and truly sinister baddies who should appeal to the widest of audiences. Fun-filled and frantic with loads of guest-stars, including Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Black Widow, and such scurrilous dirtbags as the Cobra, the Lizard, Deadpool and the assembled underworld of three continents, this is a read for devotees and dilettantes alike.

Whether cleaning up the mean streets and saving the entire world or just busting heads in her new day job, the new White Tiger has everything necessary to stay the course, but even is she somehow doesn’t, there will always be this thoroughly fascinating book to mark her territory, if not her passing…

© 2006, 2007 Marvel Publishing, Inc, a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Ultimate Avengers: The Next Generation

By Mark Millar, Carlos Pacheco & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-442-3

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 potentially separate buying public to we baby-boomers and our declining descendents, who seemed content to stick with the various efforts that devolved from the fantastic originating 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 lesser mortals.

Although a good 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 #1-6 of Ultimate Comics Avengers: The Next Generation) picks up the story of the survivors as well as the new world readjusting to their altered state. In this dangerous new world global order has yet to be fully re-established and, just like after World War II, Princes and Powers are constantly jostling for position.

Before the Deluge Nick Fury ran an American Black Ops team of super-humans called the Avengers, but he was eventually toppled from his position for sundry rule-bending liberties – and being caught doing them. Now, in the aftermath of the disaster he’s back:  attempting to put another team together – and get his old job back.

Captain America was one of America’s first super-soldiers – a key factor in the Allies beating Hitler and one of the deadliest men alive. Just as in the Marvel Universe Proper, he survived into our era. Whilst fighting terrorists in the sky over Chicago he is soundly thrashed by a man with no face: an incredible assassin with a red skull, who easily overwhelms him and throws him to what would have been certain death, if not for the intervention of master marksman Hawkeye.

All through his second career secrets have been kept from Captain America by his superiors. He had no idea that when he was “lost in action” his girlfriend was already pregnant with his son and that whilst he was dormant the American government confiscated the child to train as another human weapon. On awakening in a new era Cap could not be told how warped and malevolent that boy became or how, on reaching maturity, the lad had murdered everyone who had trained him, embarking on a decades-wide path of horrendous nihilistic slaughter in all the world’s most troubled hotspots: Vietnam, Cambodia, Uganda, Chechnya, Dallas…

Now Cap knows the truth and goes rogue just as the Red Skull allies with the intellectual terrorist sect Advanced Idea Mechanics to build a Cosmic Cube, capable of restructuring reality itself. Only Fury and his new team of Avengers have any chance to stop them, but his motley crew of heroes all have their own plans…

As well as Hawkeye, this next generation includes James Rhodes: an angry soldier wearing devastating War Machine battle armour; Gregory Stark, Iron Man’s smarter, utterly immoral older brother, Nerd Hulk, a cloned gamma-monster with all the original’s power but implanted with Banner’s brain and milksop character; ruthless super-spy Black Widow and paroled assassin Red Wasp, who has history of her own with the Skull…

As the catastrophe-clock ticks down, Fury inexplicably sets his dogs to capture Captain America rather than tackle the Skull, but in this deep, dark, and superbly compelling thriller there are games within games and everybody is working to their own agendas…

Once removed from the market hype and frantic, relentless immediacy of the sales arena there’s a far better chance to honestly assess these tales on merit alone, and given such an opportunity you’d be foolish not to take a good hard look at this spectacular, beautifully cynical and engrossing thriller from Mark Millar and Carlos Pacheco, ably assisted by inkers Dexter Vimes, Danny Miki, Thomas Palmer, Allen Martiniez, Victor Olazaba & Crime Lab Studios.

This is a breathtaking, sinisterly effective yarn that could only be told outside the Marvel Universe, but it’s also one that should solidly resonate with older fans and especially casual readers who love the darker side of superheroes.

™ and © 2010 Marvel Entertainment LCC and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. A British edition released by Panini UK Ltd.

Essential Thor volume 2

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3381-0

Even more than the Fantastic Four The Mighty Thor was the arena in which Jack Kirby’s creative brilliance blended with his questing exploration of an Infinite Imaginative Cosmos: dreaming, extrapolating and honing a dazzling new kind of storytelling graphics with soul-searching, mind-boggling concepts of Man’s place in the universe.

His unforgettable string of pantheons began in a modest little fantasy title called Journey into Mystery where, in the summer of 1962 a tried-and-true comicbook concept (feeble mortal transformed into God-like hero) was employed by the fledgling Marvel Comics to add a Superman analogue to their growing roster of costumed adventurers. This gloriously economical monochrome tome re-presents the end of that catch-all title as the Asgardian’s increasingly popular exploits saw the title become The Mighty Thor.

Gathered here are Journey into Mystery issues #113-125 plus the Annual for 1965, and without breaking stride, Thor #126-136 and the 1966 Annual, all in clean, crisp black and white for your delectation.

Lonely, crippled American doctor Donald Blake took a vacation in Norway only to encounter the vanguard of an alien invasion. Trapped in a cave, Blake found a gnarled old walking stick, which when struck against the ground turned him into the Norse God of Thunder!

Within moments he was defending the weak and smiting the wicked. As the months swiftly passed the rapacious extraterrestrials, Commie dictators, costumed crazies and cheap thugs gradually gave way to a vast panoply of fantastic worlds and incredible, mythic menaces. By issue #113, the magnificent warrior’s world of Asgard was a regular milieu for the hero’s adventures, and in ‘A World Gone Mad!’ by Stan Lee, Kirby and Chic Stone, the Thunderer, after saving the Shining Realm from invasion, once more defied his father Odin to romantically pursue the mortal nurse Jane Foster – a task made rather hazardous by the return of the petrifying villain Grey Gargoyle.

A long-running plot strand – almost interminably so – was the soap-opera tangle caused by Don Blake’s love for his nurse – a passion his alter ego shared. Sadly the Overlord of Asgard refused to allow his son to love a mortal, which acrimonious triangle provided many attempts to humanise and de-power Thor, already a hero few villains could cope with.

These issues also carried a spectacular back-up series. Tales of Asgard – Home of the mighty Norse Gods gave Kirby space to indulge his fascination with legends and allowed both complete vignettes and longer epics (in every sense of the word). Initially adapted myths, these little yarns grew into sagas unique to the Marvel universe where Kirby built his own cosmos and mythology, underpinning the company’s entire continuity. Here he revealed ‘The Boyhood of Loki!’, scripted as ever by Lee and inked by Vince Colletta, a pensive, brooding taste of the villain to be.

JiM # 114, began a two-part tale that introduced a new villain of the sort Kirby excelled at, a vicious thug who suddenly lucked into overwhelming power. ‘The Stronger I Am, The Sooner I Die!’(Lee, Kirby & Stone) saw Loki imbue hardened felon Crusher Creel with the power to duplicate the strength and attributes of anything he touched, but before he was treated to ‘The Vengeance of the Thunder God’ (inked by Frank Giacoia as the pseudonymous Frankie Ray) we’re indulged with another Tale of Asgard‘The Golden Apples.’ Issue #115’s mini-myth was ‘A Viper in our Midst!’ with young Loki clandestinely cementing relations with the sinister Storm Giants – sworn enemies of the Gods.

A longer saga began in #116, as Colletta settled in as the regular inker for both lead and second feature. ‘The Trial of the Gods’ revealed more of fabled Asgard as Thor and Loki underwent a Trial by Combat, with the god of mischief cheating at every step, whilst ‘Into the Blaze of Battle!’ found Balder the Brave protecting Jane Foster whilst her godly paramour travelled to war-torn Vietnam seeking proof of his step-brother’s infamy. These tales were supplemented by the stellar novellas ‘The Challenge!’ and ‘The Sword in the Scabbard!’ which saw Asgardian cabin-fever develop into a quest to destroy a threat to the mystic Odinsword, which unsheathing would destroy the universe…

Journey into Mystery #118’s ‘To Kill a Thunder God!’ ramped up the otherworldly drama as Loki, attempting to cover his tracks, unleashed an ancient Asgardian WMD – the Destroyer. When it damaged the mystic hammer of Thor and nearly killed the hero in ‘The Day of the Destroyer!’, the God of Mischief was forced to save his step-brother or bear the brunt of Odin’s anger. Meanwhile in Tales of Asgard the Quest further unfolded in ‘The Crimson Hand!’ and ‘Gather, Warriors!’ as a band of hand-picked Argonauts joined Thor’s flying longship in a bold attempt to forestall Ragnarok.

With the Destroyer defeated and Loki temporarily thwarted Thor returned to America ‘With My Hammer in Hand…!’ only to clash once more with the awesome Absorbing Man. However before that bombastic battle there’s not only the next instalment of the Asgardian Argonauts who boldly ‘Set Sail!’ but also the admittedly superb digression of Journey into Mystery Annual #1, wherein the God of Thunder fell into the realm of the Greek Gods for the landmark heroic hullabaloo ‘When Titan’s Clash! Thor vs. Hercules!’ This incredible action-epic is augmented here by a beautiful double-page pin-up of downtown Asgard a truly staggering piece of Kirby magic.

The attack of the Absorbing Man resumed with ‘The Power! The Passion! The Pride!’ and seemed set to see the end of Thor: a cliffhanger somewhat assuaged by ‘Maelstrom!’ wherein the Argonauts of Asgard epically encountered an uncanny storm… In JiM #122 ‘Where Mortals Fear to Tread!’ the triumphant Crusher Creel was shanghaied by Loki to attack Asgard and Odin himself, an incredible clash that led to a cataclysmic conclusion ‘While a Universe Trembles!’ Meanwhile ‘The Grim Specter of Mutiny!’ invoked by seditious Loki was quashed in time for valiant Balder to save the Argonauts from ‘The Jaws of the Dragon!’ in the increasingly spectacular Ragnarok Quest.

With the threat to ended Thor returned to Earth to defeat the Demon, a witchdoctor empowered by a magical Asgardian Norn Stone left behind after the Thunder God’s Vietnamese venture. Whilst he was away Hercules was dispatched to Earth on a reconnaissance mission for Zeus. ‘The Grandeur and the Glory!’ began another extended story-arc and all-out action extravaganza, which bounced the Thunderer from bruising battle to brutal defeat to ascendant triumph.

Issue #125 ‘When Meet the Immortals!’ was the last Journey into Mystery: with ‘Whom the Gods Would Destroy!’ the comic was re-titled The Mighty Thor and the drama escalated unabated, culminating with ‘The Hammer and the Holocaust!’ In short order Thor crushed the Demon, seemingly lost his beloved Jane to Hercules, was deprived of his powers and subsequently thrashed by the Grecian Prince of Power but still managed to save Asgard from an unscrupulous traitor who had usurped Odin’s mystic might.

Meanwhile in the Tales of Asgard instalments the Questers homed in on the cause of all their woes. ‘Closer Comes the Swarm’ pitted them against the flying trolls of Thryheim, and ‘The Queen Commands’ saw Loki captured until Thor answered ‘The Summons!’, promptly returning the Argonauts to Asgard to be shown ‘The Meaning of Ragnarok!’

In all honestly these mini-eddas were, although still magnificent in visual excitement, becoming rather rambling in plot, so the narrative reset was neither unexpected nor unwelcome…

Instead of ending, the grandiose saga actually grew in scope with Thor #128 as ‘The Power of Pluto!’ introduced another major foe. The Greek God of the Underworld had tricked Hercules into replacing him in his dread, dead domain, just as the recuperated Thunder God was looking for a rematch, whilst in Tales of Asgard Kirby pulled out all the creative stops to depict the ‘Aftermath!’ of Ragnarok: for many fans the first indication of what was to come in the King’s landmark Fourth World tales half a decade later…

‘The Verdict of Zeus!’ condemned Hercules to the underworld unless he could find a proxy to fight for him, whilst at the back of the comic the assembled Asgardians faced ‘The Hordes of Harokin’ as another multi-chaptered classic began, but for once the cosmic scope of the lead feature eclipsed the little odysseys as ‘Thunder in the Netherworld!’ saw Thor and Hercules carve a swathe of destruction through an unbelievably alien landscape – the beginning of a gradual side-lining of Earthly matters and mere crime-fighting. Thor and Kirby were increasingly expending their efforts in greater realms than ours…

‘The Fateful Change!’ saw the younger Thunder God trade places with the Geghiz Khan-like Harrokin, whilst in issue #136, Thor defeated the invasion plans of Rigellian Colonizer Tana Nile in ‘They Strike from Space!’, but it was merely prologue for a fantastic voyage to the depths of space and a unique universal threat, whilst “Harokin” faced a dire dilemma in ‘The Warlock’s Eye!’.

Thor #132 found the Thunderer laying down the law on ‘Rigel: Where Gods May Fear to Tread!’ whilst ‘The Dark Horse of Death!’ arrived in the Tales of Asgard segment looking for its next doomed rider… The following issue is a Kirby Classic, as ‘Behold… the Living Planet!’ introduced the malevolent Ego, sentient world and master of the living Bio-verse, a stunning visual tour de force that threw one High Concept after another at Thor, his new artificial pal Recorder and the reeling readership, whilst Harokin’s saga ended in one last ride to ‘Valhalla!’

The threat of invasion over, Thor returned to Earth to search for Jane, finding her with ‘The People Breeders!’ – a hidden enclave where the geneticist High Evolutionary was instantly evolving animals into men. His latest experiment had created a lupine future-nightmare ‘The Maddening Menace of the Super-Beast!’ so it’s just as well the Thunder God was on hand. ‘When Speaks the Dragon!’ and ‘The Fiery Breath of Fafnir!’ pitted Thor and his Warriors Three comrades Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg against a staggering reptilian monstrosity: a threat finally quashed in #136’s ‘There Shall Come a Miracle!’

The lead story in that issue is a turning point in the history of Thor. ‘To Become an Immortal!’ saw Odin transform Jane Foster into a Goddess and emigrate to Asgard, but her frail human mind could not cope with the wonders and perils of the Realm Eternal and she was mercifully restored to mortality and all but written out of the series. Lucky for the despondent Thunder God the beauteous Warrior-Maiden Sif was on hand…

With this story Thor’s closest link to Earth was neatly severed: from now on his many adventures on Midgard were as a tourist or beneficent guest, not a resident. Asgard and infinity were now his true home, a situation quickly proved by the bombastic clash that closes this volume. ‘If Asgard Falls…’ is set in the Gleaming City during the annual Tourney of Heroes (and comes from The Mighty Thor Annual #2, 1966): a martial spectacular of outlandish armours and exotic weaponry that turned decidedly serious when the deadly Destroyer was unleashed amidst the wildly warring warriors…

These transitional Thor tales show the development not only of one of Marvel’s fundamental continuity concepts but more importantly the creative evolution of the greatest imagination in comics. Set your commonsense on pause and simply wallow in the glorious imagery and power of these classic adventures for the true secret of what makes graphic narrative a unique experience.

© 1965, 1966, 1967, 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


By Brian Michael Bendis, Olivier Coipel, Michael Lark & others (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-452-2

The things that superhero comic-books do best are Spectacle and Cosmic Retribution: the cathartic comeuppance of someone who truly deserves it. So this collection, reprinting the Siege: Cabal one-shot and the four-issue Siege miniseries it led to (selected portions of the vast 2010 publishing event that partially re-set and restored the traditional “Stan & Jack” Marvel Universe) is an effective and welcome hint of a new dawn in the recently bleak and unfriendly world of Captain America and his costumed cohorts…

Norman Osborn, one-time Green Goblin, has through various machinations become America’s Security Czar: the “top-cop” in sole charge of the beleaguered nation’s defence and freedom. Under his meteoric rise the Superhuman Registration Act led to the Civil War, Captain America was arrested, murdered and resurrected (see Captain America Reborn), and numerous horrific assaults on mankind occurred: including the Secret Invasion and the “Dark Reign” which led up to the graphic novel under review here

As well as commanding all the covert and military resources of the USA, Osborn now has his own suit of Iron Man armour and as Iron Patriot leads a hand-picked team of ersatz Avengers. The country should by rights be beyond any possibility of threat or harm. However as the events of Siege: The Cabal (Bendis, Lark & Stefano Gaudiano) graphically depict, Osborn is playing a deadly double game. The Cabal is a Star Chamber of super-villains comprising Osborn, Asgardian God Loki, gang-boss The Hood, mutant telepath Emma Frost, Taskmaster, Sub-Mariner and Doctor Doom.

But cracks are beginning to show, both in the criminal conspiracy and Osborn himself. When Iron Patriot promises to conquer Asgard for Loki, Doom secedes from the group, prompting a disastrous battle between the Masters of Evil…

Asgard is currently displaced and floating scant metres above the soil of Oklahoma. Using his position as Chief of Homeland Security Osborn manufactures an “Asgardian incident” and launches an all-out invasion on the Gleaming City, overruling the new American President to do so.

And so begins Siege (by Bendis, Coipel & Mark Morales) a knock-down, drag-out fight pitting all the long-cultivated metahuman resources of Osborn – paramilitary strike force H.A.M.ME.R., the Dark Avengers and the villainous penal battalion of The Initiative – against the sorely pressed and time-lost Asgardians…

However Osborn has gone too far and the President fires him.

So What?

Well, now the scattered and fugitive “real” superheroes such as Captain America, Nick Fury, the original Iron Man, Spider-Man, the Vision and all the other underground and Secret Avengers are safe to act, but they had better hurry because Thor’s hard pressed people cannot stand against Osborn’s god-killing ultimate weapon…

Despite feeling a little rushed in places, this is a grand, old-fashioned Fights ‘n’ Tights cataclysmic clash of good guys and bad guys, magnificently illustrated and astonishingly compelling. After years of dark and dangerous anti-heroics it’s a splendid palate-cleanser for what Marvel promises to be a new Heroic Age
© 2010 Marvel Entertainment LCC and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. A British edition released by Panini UK Ltd.

The Best of Marvel Comics volume 1

By various (Marvel)

Here’s a little oddity that might appeal to the collectors amongst you; as well as actually living up to its somewhat hyperbolic title its lush look presaged the high quality, big ticket sensibilities of the modern graphic novel market.

With no particular fanfare this terrific tome leads with a single page recap of the origin of the Fantastic Four (by John Byrne and Pablo Marcos I think) before launching into the origin of the company’s (if not the entire industry’s) first black superhero and Klaw, murderous Master of Sound, in ‘The Black Panther’ and ‘The Way it Began’ from Fantastic Four #52-53, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott.

This tremendous two-parter comes from that incredibly productive mid 1960s period that resulted in the creation of Galactus, Silver Surfer and the Inhumans along with so many others, and the tale has lost none of its force or impact since.

Next follows a far more modern tale, also preceded by a one-page origin (from Sal Buscema and Sinnott). ‘Sasquatch!’ written by Roger Stern and John Byrne, with art from Sal Buscema and Alfredo Alcala, first appeared in Hulk Annual #8, a colossal clash between the Jade Giant and the shaggy beast-man from Canadian super-squad Alpha Flight.

The company’s Astounding Arachnid mascot and corporate figurehead features heavily here in a bevy of landmark tales, beginning with the poignantly powerful short story ‘The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man!’ (Amazing Spider-Man #248 January 1984) by Stern, Ron Frenz & Terry Austin, and complemented by possibly the Wall-Crawler’s greatest comic book moment in the three-part clash with Doctor Octopus from issues #31-33.

I’ve reviewed ‘If This Be My Destiny…!’, ‘Man on a Rampage!’ and ‘The Final Chapter’ scripted by Lee, plotted and illustrated by the increasingly disaffected by still brilliant Steve Ditko, in a variety of different graphic novel formats (everything from Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man 1965 to Essential Spider-Man volume 2) but I can honestly say it has never looked better than here with good old fashioned offset printing and reproduced in the 144-colour palette Ditko intended it for.

Stern and Byrne return with what was for decades the definitive origin of the Sentinel of Liberty in ‘The Living Legend’ from issue #255, the last of their breathtaking run on Captain America. If you’re hungry for more, this tale and all their others can be found in Captain America: War & Remembrance.

There’s more Lee/Kirby magic next with two classic sagas of the Mighty Thor, beginning with ‘The Answer at Last!’ (Thor #159, inked by Vince Colletta) as the secret of the Thunder God’s relationship to feeble mortal Don Blake is revealed, whilst the great Bill Everett provided the embellishment for the bombastic battle-fest ‘The Wrath of the Wrecker!’ (#171).

Doctor Strange gives Roger Stern his last outing of this book in ‘A Mystic Reborn!’, a classy and beautifully illustrated origin and adventure tale pictured by Paul Smith and Terry Austin that first saw the light of Day in issue #56.

No “best of Marvel” would be complete without an X factor, and there’s a wealth of mutant mayhem to end this collection, including one that didn’t even make it onto the contents page. After the single-page “previously on” by Dave Cockrum, ‘He’ll Never Make Me Cry’ by Chris Claremont, John Romita Jr. & Dan Green (Uncanny X-Men #183) re-presents the romantic break-up of Colossus and little Kitty Pryde which resulted in a cathartic clash with the unstoppable Juggernaut.

As an added enticement this book also included an all-new, unpublished Wolverine story set in Triad-infested Japan. ‘The Hunter’ by Claremont & Marshall Rogers is a tasty treat on which to end this impressive and thoroughly delicious concoction. This is a wonderful way to sample the triumphs of a major publishing player: judiciously selected material, well edited and presented. This is what we want and it’s just what the kind of publication the industry needs to lure in new fans…
© 1987 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Spider-Man volume 4

By Stan Lee, John Romita, John Buscema, Jim Mooney and various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1865-7

This fourth exceptionally economical monochrome volume of chronological Spider-Man adventures sees the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero through another rocky period of transformation as the great second era of Amazing Arachnid artists comes to a close. Although the elder John Romita would remain closely connected to the Wall-Crawler’s adventures for some time to come it would be – apart from a brief return after the book had passed its first centenary – his last time as lead illustrator on the series.

Stan Lee’s scripts were completely in tune with the times – as seen by a lot of kid’s parents at least – and the increasing use of pure soap opera plots kept older readers glued to the series even if the bombastic battle sequences didn’t. The Amazing Spider-Man was a comic-book that matured with or perhaps just slightly ahead of its fan-base.

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

This volume (reprinting Amazing Spider-Man #66-89 and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5) kicks off with a sinister two-part tale featuring one of Steve Ditko’s most visually arresting villains. ‘The Madness of Mysterio’ and ‘To Squash a Spider’ (issues #66-67, by Lee, Romita, Don Heck, Mike “DeMeo” Esposito, and Jim Mooney) saw the master of FX illusion engineer his most outlandish stunt on our hero, whilst in the background the amnesiac Norman Osborn slowly began to regain his memory.

This plot thread would culminate in the first return of the Green Goblin, but frustratingly, even though there’s plenty of brooding build-up here you won’t find the actual culminating story (which appeared in the abortive magazine venture Spectacular Spider-Man #2) in this volume. 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 was 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…

However before that another mystery in the Webspinner’s life was cleared up. Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5 by Lee and his brother Larry Lieber (with inking from Esposito – still in his clandestine “Mickey DeMeo” guise) revealed the secret behind the deaths of ‘The Parents of Peter Parker’, an exotic spy-thriller which 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 the second Soviet master-villain who featured in 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 and 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. ‘Here We Go A-Plotting!’ a comedic glimpse at work in the Marvel Bullpen, uncredited but unmistakably drawn by the wonderful Marie Severin concludes the joyous Annual extras included here.

Issue #68 (by Lee Romita & Mooney) began a long-running saga featuring the pursuit of an ancient stone tablet by various nefarious forces, beginning with The Kingpin who exploited a ‘Crisis on the Campus!’ to steal the artifact. 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…

‘Mission: Crush the Kingpin!’ further tightened the screws as the student unrest exploded into violence and the corpulent crime czar framed the hero for the tablet’s theft. Hounded and harried in ‘Spider-Man Wanted!’ he nevertheless managed to defeat the Kingpin only to (briefly) believe himself a killer when he attacked J. Jonah Jameson in a fit of rage causing an apparent heart attack in the obsessive, hero-hating publisher.

At his lowest ebb, and still possessing the tablet, he was attacked by the sometime Avenger Quicksilver in ‘The Speedster and the Spider!’ in issue #71, before John Buscema came aboard as layout-man in ‘Rocked by: the Shocker!’

No sooner did Spider-Man leave the stone tablet with Gwen’s dad – Police Chief Stacy – than the vibrating villain attacked, stealing the petrified artifact and precipitating a frantic underworld Civil War as the Maggia dispatched brutal enforcer Man-Mountain Marko to retrieve it at all costs in ‘The Web Closes!’ (by Lee, Buscema, Romita & Mooney).

Upstart lawyer Caesar Cicero was making his move to depose aged Don of Dons Silvermane, but the ancient boss knew the secret if not the methodology of the tablet and had abducted biologist Curt Connors and his family to reconstruct the formula on the stone and bring him ultimate victory.

Unfortunately nobody but Spider-Man knew that Connors was also the lethal Lizard and that the slightest stress could free the reptilian monster to once more threaten all humanity. ‘If this be Bedlam!’ (illustrated by Romita & Mooney) led directly into ‘Death Without Warning!’ as the unleashed power of the tablet caused a cataclysmic battle that seemingly destroyed one warring faction forever, decimated the mobs, but also freed a far more deadly monster threat…

Amazing Spider-Man #76 saw John Buscema become full penciller because ‘The Lizard Lives!’ and the concluding ‘In the Blaze of Battle!’ found the Webspinner trying to defeat, cure and keep the tragic secret of his friend Connors all whilst preventing the guest-starring Human Torch from destroying the marauding rogue reptile forever, whilst #78’s ‘The Night of the Prowler!’ featured (probably) John Romita Junior’s first ever creator credit for “suggesting” the tragic young black man Hobie Brown, who turned his frustrations and inventive genius to 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 thrillers that delivered maximum thrills and instant satisfaction. First off was a return for the Wallcrawler’s first super-foe in ‘On the Trail of the Chameleon!’ followed by the action-packed if somewhat ridiculous ‘The Coming of The Kangaroo!’ (a clear contender for daftest origin of all time) and Romita senior returned as penciller for ‘And Then Came Electro!’

There were big revelations about the Kingpin in the three part saga that featured in issues #83-85 with the introduction of ‘The Schemer’ (Lee, Romita & “DeMeo”), a mysterious outsider determined to destroy and usurp the power of the sumo-like crime-lord. ‘The Kingpin Strikes Back!’ (art by Romita, 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 to a dubious fate in Vietnam…

‘Beware… the Black Widow!’ saw Romita and Mooney 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, whilst the next issue ‘Unmasked at Last!’ found Parker, convinced that his powers were forever gone, expose 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 in time for the fateful return of the Webslinger’s greatest foe in #88 as the Romita & Mooney art team bow out on a high in ‘The Arms of Doctor Octopus!’

The deranged scientist had gained telepathic control of his incredible mechanical tentacles and sent them on a rampage of destruction through New York. Freeing himself from prison the villain then seized a jet full of Chinese dignitaries and demanded a multi-million dollar ransom until once more defeated and apparently destroyed by Spider-Man.

This volume ends in the most annoying manner possible with Amazing Spider-Man #89, a turning point in the series as the undisputed master of super-heroic anatomy Gil Kane assumed the penciling role (inked by Romita) for ‘Doc Ock Lives!’ wherein the villain attacked once more and hurled the overwhelmed hero to his doom… the result of which you’ll need volume 5 to see.

Moreover that selfsame climatic conclusion signalled the tragic demise of a major character and a genuine turning point in the history of the Amazing Arachnid.

Seriously guys: you couldn’t afford 21 more pages to give this book a proper narrative resolution? What kind of editors or publishers do that to valued fans and especially any new readers you might be cultivating?

Despite that major qualification this is still a fantastic book about an increasingly 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 soap-opera 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.

© 1968, 1969, 1970, 2005 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Essential Defenders volume 1

By Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Len Wein, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1547-2

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

For Marvel, the outsider super-group must have seemed a conceptual inevitability – once they’d finally published it. Apart from Spider-Man and Daredevil all their heroes regularly teamed up in various mob-handed assemblages, and in the wake of the Defenders’ success even more super-teams comprised of pre-existing characters were mustered – such as the Champions, Invaders, New Warriors and so on but never with so many Very Big Guns…

The genesis of the team in fact derived from their status as publicly distrusted “villains”, but before all that later inventive approbation this cheap and cheerful black and white volume (collecting Dr. Strange #183, Sub-Mariner #22, 33-35, Incredible Hulk #126, Marvel Feature #1-3, Avengers #115-118 and Defenders #1-14) re-presents three linked tales that would impact on later issues of the title. Confused yet? You will be…

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

The first tale in this volume comes from Dr. Strange #183 (November 1969). In ‘They Walk by Night!’ Roy Thomas, Gene Colan & Tom Palmer introduced a deadly threat in the Undying Ones, an elder race of demons hungry to reconquer the Earth, but as the series unexpectedly ended with that issue the story went nowhere until the February 1970 Sub-Mariner (#22) ‘The Monarch and the Mystic!’ brought the Prince of Atlantis into the mix, as Thomas, Marie Severin & Johnny Craig told a sterling tale of sacrifice in which the Master of the Mystic Arts seemingly died holding the gates of Hell shut with the Undying Ones pent behind them.

The extended saga concluded on an upbeat note with The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970) with ‘…Where Stalks the Night-Crawler!’ by Thomas and Herb Trimpe wherein a New England cult dispatched helpless Bruce Banner to the nether realms in an attempt to undo Strange’s sacrifice. Luckily cultist Barbara Norris had last minute second thoughts and her own dire fate freed the mystic, seemingly ending the threat of the Undying Ones forever.

At the end of that issue Strange retired, forsaking magic, although he was back before too long as the fates – and changing reading tastes – called him back to duty. Meanwhile Sub-Mariner had become an early advocate of the ecology movement, and in issues #34-35 of his own title (February and March 1971) he took the next step in the evolution of the Defenders when he recruited Hulk and Silver Surfer to help him destroy an American Nuclear Weather-Control station.

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

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

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

Naturally the fiend hadn’t told the whole truth but the day was saved – or at least postponed – in a canny classic from Thomas, Ross Andru and Bill Everett. That comic also revealed how Strange regained his mojo in ‘The Return’ by Thomas, Don Heck and Frank Giacoia: a heady ten-page thriller which proved that not all good things come in large packages.

Clearly destined for great things the Defenders returned in Marvel Feature #2 (March 1972) with Sal Buscema replacing Everett as inker for a Halloween treat ‘Nightmare on Bald Mountain!’ Capturing his arch-foe Dr. Strange, extra-dimensional dark lord Dormammu invaded our realm through a portal in Vermont only to be beaten back by the mage’s surly sometimes comrades, whilst in #3 (June 1972) Thomas, Andru and Everett reunited to revive an old Lee/Kirby “furry underpants” monster in ‘A Titan Walks Among Us!’

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

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

With Sal Buscema as regular penciller an epic adventure ensued with ‘I Slay by the Stars!’ (inked by Giacoia) as sorcerer Necrodamus attempted to sacrifice Namor and free The Undying Ones, a mission that led to conflict with an old ally in ‘The Secret of the Silver Surfer!’ (inked by John Verpoorten) and the concluding, Jim Mooney inked ‘Four Against the Gods!’ as the Defenders took the war to the dimensional dungeon of the Undying Ones and rescued the long imprisoned and now totally insane Barbara Norris.

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

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

The Surfer “rejoined” in #6’s ‘The Dreams of Death!’ as new lightweight magic menace Cyrus Black attacked, and, after a spiffy pin-up, issue #7 saw  Len Wein co-script ‘War Below the Waves!’ (inked by Frank Bolle) as tempestuous ex-Avenger Hawkeye climbed aboard to help defeat the undersea threat of Attuma and the soviet renegade Red Ghost; a bombastic battle-tale concluded in ‘…If Atlantis Should Fall!’

Since issue #4 Englehart had been putting players in place for a hugely ambitious cross-over experiment: one that would turn the comics industry on its head, and in a little prologue taken from the end of Avengers #115 he finally set the ball rolling here. Drawn by Bob Brown and Mike Esposito, ‘Alliance Most Foul!’ saw Dormammu and the Asgardian god of Evil Loki unite to search for an ultimate weapon that would give them final victory against their foes. They would trick the Defenders into securing the six component parts by “revealing” that the reconstructed Evil Eye could restore the petrified Black Knight, a plan that began at the end of Defenders #8…

The first chapter in ‘The Avengers/Defenders Clash’ was ‘Deception!’ as a message from the spirit of the Black Knight was intercepted by the twin gods of evil, leading directly to ‘Betrayal!’ wherein the Avengers, hunting for their missing comrade, “discover” that their oldest enemies Hulk and Sub-Mariner may have turned the Black Knight to stone. This and the third chapter ‘Silver Surfer Vs. the Vision and the Scarlet Witch’ comprise the contents of Avengers #116, illustrated by Brown & Esposito, wherein the rival teams split up: one to gather the scattered sections of the Eye and the other to stop them at all costs…

Defenders #9 (Buscema & McLaughlin) began with the tense recap ‘Divide …and Conquer’ before ‘The Invincible Iron Man Vs. Hawkeye the Archer’ and ‘Dr. Strange Vs. the Black Panther and Mantis’ shed more suspicion and doubt on the mystical villain’s subtle master-plan. Avengers #117 ‘Holocaust’, ‘Swordsman Vs. the Valkyrie’ and the turning point ‘Captain America Vs. Sub-Mariner’ by Brown and Esposito, led to the penultimate clash in Defenders #10 (Buscema & Bolle) ‘Breakthrough! The Incredible Hulk Vs. Thor’ and the inevitable joining together of the warring camps in ‘United We Stand!’, but sadly too late as Dormammu seized the reconstructed Evil Eye using its power to merge his monstrous realm with ours.

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

With the overwhelming cosmic threat over the victorious Defenders attempted to use the Eye to cure their stony comrade only to find that his spirit had found a new home in the 12th century. In #11’s ‘A Dark and Stormy Knight’ (inked by Frank Bolle), the group battled black magic during the Crusades, failed to retrieve the Knight and went their separate ways – as did departing scripter Englehart.

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

The first of these and the last storyline in this volume was a Saves-the-World struggle against the villainous Squadron Sinister that began with ‘For Sale: One Planet… Slightly Used!’ (with an early inking job from Klaus Janson) and concluded in the Dan Green embellished ‘And Who Shall Inherit the Earth?’ as the Batman-analogue Nighthawk joined the Defenders to defeat his murderous ex-team-mates and the aquatic alien marauder Nebulon, the Celestial Man.

With the next volume the Defenders would become one of the best and weirdest superhero comics in the business, but to get there you really need to observe this unruly, uncomfortable selection of misfit heroes in their salad days here. So the fact that their widespread and far-reaching origins are still so eminently entertaining is both a relief and delight.

Go on, Enjoy, Pilgrim…
© 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Punisher

By Steven Grant, Mike Zeck & John Beatty, Jo Duffy & Mike Vosburg (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-394-6

The story goes that Marvel Comics were reluctant to give Frank Castle a starring vehicle in their standard colour comic-book line, feeling that the character’s very nature made him a bad guy and not a good one. 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 response to such increasingly 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.

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…

As well as his many “hero-or-villain” appearances in other character’s series the crazed crime-crusher had previously starred in Marvel Preview #2 (1975) and Marvel Super Action #1 (1976), but as these were both black and white magazines aimed at a far more mature audience, writer Steven Grant and penciller Mike Zeck apparently had an uphill struggle convincing editors to let the grim, gun-crazed maniac loose in that shiny world where little kids might fixate on a dangerous role model – and their parents might get all over-protective, litigious and shirty…

In 1985 they finally got the green-light and the five issue miniseries turned the industry on its head, although there was indeed plenty of controversy to go around – especially as the series had a “hero” who had lots of illicit sex and killed his enemies in cold blood. Also causing problems for censorious eyes were the suicide of one of the major characters and the murder of innocent children. Doesn’t it make you proud to realise how far we’ve since come…

The company mitigated the potential fall-out with the most lacklustre PR campaign in history, but not telling anybody about The Punisher didn’t stop the series from becoming a runaway, barnstorming success. The rest is history…

Two years later as the graphic novel market was finally getting established and with Frank Castle one of the biggest draws in comics (sorry, I’m such a child sometimes) that contentious series was released as a complete book and it remains one of the very best of all his many exploits.

The action begins in ‘Circle of Blood’ as Frank Castle is locked in Ryker’s Island prison where every inmate is queuing up to kill him. Within hours though he has turned the tables and terrified the General Population, but knows that both old foe Jigsaw and the last of the great mob “Godfathers” have special plans for him…

When a mass breakout frees all the cons Castle brutally steps in. For this he is allowed to escape by the warden, who casually offers him membership in The Trust, an organisation of “Right-minded, law-abiding citizens” who approve of his crusade against crime. Castle also discovers he’s being stalked by Tony Massera, a good man from a bad family.

‘Back to the War’ finds the Punisher back on the streets hunting scum, supplied by the Trust but still not a part of their organisation. After an abortive attempt to blow up The Kingpin, he is saved by the mysterious Angel, and begins a liaison with her. Tony wants to kill him to avenge his father, one of Punisher’s many gory successes – but only after the streets have been swept clean of scum like the rest of his own family…

With everybody believing the master of New York’s underworld dead, a bloody gang-war erupts with greedy sub-bosses all trying to claim the top spot, but by the events of ‘Slaughterday’ Castle realises that too many innocents are getting caught in the crossfires. He also discovers in ‘Final Solution’ that the Trust have their own national agenda as hit men and brainwashed criminals dressed in his costume are out there, executing mobsters and fanning the flames…

All the Trust’s plans for this “Punishment Squad” and the country are uncovered in the blockbusting conclusion ‘Final Solution Part 2’ as all the pieces fall into place and the surviving players reveal their true allegiances. In a classy final chapter mysteriously completed by the highly underrated Jo Duffy and Mike Vosburg, from Grant’s original plot, The Punisher takes charge in his inimitable manner, leaving God to sort out the paperwork….

We can only speculate as to why the originators fell away at the last hurdle, but I’m pretty sure those same reluctant editors played some part in it all…

This superbly gritty, morally ambiguous if not actually ethically challenging drama never ceases to thrill and amaze, and has been reprinted a number of times: in the black and white compilation Essential Punisher volume 1, as Punisher: Circle of Blood, in hardback editions (2006 and 2008) and of course, as the satisfyingly heavy calibre softcover graphic novel (with a new original painted Zeck cover) under review here.

Whichever version suits your inclinations and wallet, if you love action, cherish costumed comics adventure and crave the occasional dose of gratuitous personal justice this one should be at the top of your “Most Wanted” list.
© 1988 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.