Fantastic Four Epic Collection volume 4 1966-1967: The Mystery of the Black Panther


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby with Marie Severin, Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia and various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1556-8 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Epic and Groundbreaking… 10/10

Concocted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, with inks by George Klein & Christopher Rule, Fantastic Four #1 (bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961) was crude, rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement unlike anything young fans had ever seen before.

Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it and the raw storytelling caught a wave of change starting to build in America. It and succeeding issues changed comicbooks forever.

This full-colour compendium – also available as a digital download – collects issues #52-67 and Annuals #4-5, plus material from Not Brand Echh #1 & 5 (spanning July 1966 to December 1967): an astounding progression of landmark tales as Stan & Jack cannily built on that early energy to consolidate the FF as the leading title and most innovative series of the era.

As seen in the ground-breaking premier issue, maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancée Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother survived an ill-starred private space-shot after Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible, Johnny Storm could turn into living flame whilst tragic Ben shockingly devolved into a shambling, rocky freak. After the initial revulsion and trauma pass, they solemnly agree to use their abilities to benefit mankind and thus was born The Fantastic Four.

The FF became the indisputable central title and most consistently groundbreaking series of Marvel’s ever-unfolding web of cosmic creation: a forge for new concepts and characters at a time when Kirby was in his conceptual prime and continually unleashing his vast imagination on plot after spectacular plot whilst Lee scripted some of the most passionate superhero sagas that Marvel – or any publisher, for that matter – has ever seen.

Both were on an unstoppable roll, at the height of their creative powers, and full of the confidence that only success brings, with The King particularly eager to see how far the genre and the medium could be pushed…

Without preamble the wonderment commences with an actual social revolution as a new unforgettable character debuted. ‘The Black Panther!’ (Fantastic Four #52, cover-dated July 1966) was an enigmatic African monarch whose secretive kingdom was the only source of a vibration-absorbing alien metal. These mineral riches had enabled him to turn his country into a technological wonderland. Bold and confident, he lured the quartet into his savage super-scientific kingdom as part of an extended plan to gain vengeance on the murderer of his father. He was also the first black superhero in American comics.

After battling the team to a standstill, King T’Challa reveals his tragic origin in ‘The Way it Began..!’, which also introduces sonic super-villain Klaw. In the aftermath Johnny and his tag-along college roommate Wyatt Wingfoot embark on a quest to rescue the Torch’s Inhuman lover Crystal (imprisoned with her people behind an impenetrable energy barrier in the Himalayas). Their journey is interrupted when they discover the lost tomb of Prester John in #54’s‘Whosoever Finds the Evil Eye…!’ and almost perish in devastating, misguided combat…

After aiding the FF against world-devouring Galactus, the Silver Surfer was imprisoned on Earth by the vengeful space-god. The brooding, perpetually moralising ex-herald had quickly become a fan-favourite, and his regular appearances were always a guarantee of something special.

When Strikes the Silver Surfer!’ sees him in uncomprehending, brutal battle with the Thing, whose insecurities over his blind girlfriend Alicia Masters explode into searing jealousy when the gleaming skyglider comes calling, after which business as unusual resumes when ‘Klaw, the Murderous Master of Sound!’ ambushes the team in their own home in #56.

Throughout all the stories since their imprisonment, a running sub-plot with the Inhumans had been slowly building, with Johnny and Wyatt stuck on the other side of the Great Barrier: wandering the wilds and seeking a method of liberating the Hidden City.

Their quest led directly into the spectacular battle yarn ‘The Torch that Was!’: lead feature in the fourth FF Annual (November 1966) in which The Mad Thinker recovers and resurrects the original Human Torch (in actuality the world’s first android and a major star of Timely/Marvel’s Golden Age) to destroy the flaming teenager…

The blistering battle briefly reunites the entire team and leads into an epic clash with their greatest foe.

Fantastic Four #57-60 is Lee & Kirby at their very best; with unbearable tension, incredible drama and breathtaking action on a number of fronts as the most dangerous man on Earth steals the Silver Surfer’s cosmic power, even as the Inhumans finally win their freedom and we discovered the tragic secret of mighty mute Black Bolt in all its awesome fury.

It all begins with a jailbreak by the Sandman in #57’s ‘Enter… Dr. Doom!’, escalates in ‘The Dismal Dregs of Defeat!’ as Doom tests his limitless stolen power; builds to a crescendo in ‘Doomsday’ with the heroes’ utter defeat and humiliation before culminating in brains and valour saving the day – and all humanity – in truly magnificent manner in ‘The Peril and the Power!’

Even though the team had just defeated cosmically-empowered Doom and returned to the Silver Surfer his purloined life-energies, there was never a dull moment: no sooner had the heroes relaxed than a new and improved foe attacked once more in Fantastic Four #61’s ‘Where Stalks the Sandman?’.

This began another explosive multi-part tale wherein Johnny and imprisoned beloved Crystal are reunited, even as Reed is beaten in battle and lost to the anti-matter hell of the Negative Zone’s sub-space corridor…

It’s Crystal to the rescue in ‘…And One Shall Save Him!’ as amphibious guest-star Triton (of the newly liberated Inhuman Royal Family) plucks the doomed genius from the jaws of disaster and inadvertently introduces another unique enemy. This diabolical monster follows Reed back from the anti-matter universe and straight into partnership with the still-seething Sandman. The resulting battle against ‘Blastaar, the Living Bomb-Burst!’ (FF #63, June 1967) wrecks half the city before some modicum of security is restored…

Looking for a little peace and quiet, the exhausted team then tackle ‘The Sentry Sinister’: a frenetic south seas adventure romp pitting the vacationing heroes against a super-scientific automaton buried for millennia by an ancient star-faring race.

This tropical treat expanded the burgeoning interlocking landscape to an infinite degree by introducing the ancient, imperial and alien Kree who would grow into one of the fundamental pillars supporting the vast continuity of the Marvel Universe.

Although regarded on Earth as a long-dead race, the Kree themselves resurface in the very next issue as the team is targeted by an alien emissary of vengeance ‘…From Beyond this Planet Earth!’

Pitiless Ronan the Accuser has come looking to see what could possibly have destroyed an invincible Sentry – and finds out to his great regret – but whilst the fight ensues Alicia is abducted by a super scientific stranger…

The mystery of her disappearance is revealed in #66 in ‘What Lurks Behind the Beehive?’ as the outraged FF trail the seemingly helpless artisan to a man-made technological wonderland. Here a band of rogue geniuses have genetically engineered the next phase in evolution only to lose control of it even before it can be properly born…

‘When Opens the Cocoon!’ exposes the secret of the creature known as Him and only Alicia’s gentle nature is able to placate the nigh-omnipotent creature (who would eventually evolve into doom-ridden cosmic voyager Adam Warlock), after which the tight continuity pauses to allow the Inhumans (time-lost race of paranormal beings long secluded from mortal men) and Black Panther to share the stage in 1967’s Fantastic Four Annual wherein sinister invader Psycho-Manattempts to ‘Divide… and Conquer!’ the Earth.

Frank Giacoia inked this tale, with the emotion-bending micro-marauder holding both the King of Wakanda and the Royal Family of Attilan at bay until the FF can pitch in, delayed as they were by the news that the Sue Richards is pregnant… and soon to be confined in the most appallingly sexist manner until the birth…

The Annual also includes another comedy insight into the creation of Marvel Epics as Stan, Jack & Frank ask ‘This is a Plot?’ and – after the now customary Kirby pin-ups (Inhumans Black Bolt, Gorgon, Medusa, Karnak, Triton, Crystal and Maximus, a colossal group shot of Galactus, Silver Surfer and others, plus a double-page spread of the quirky quartet) – a rapidly rising star-in-the-making gets his first solo appearance.

‘The Peerless Power of the Silver Surfer’ is a pithily potent fable of ambition and ingratitude reintroducing and upgrading the threat-level of the Mad Thinker’s lethal Artificial Intelligence murder-machine Quasimodo

Ending on a comedic note, this enticing tome includes a brace of pertinent parodies from Marvel’s spoof title Not Brand Echh, opening with (#1 August 1967) Lee, Kirby & Giacoia’s reassessment of Doom’s theft of the Power Cosmic in ‘The Silver Burper!’) and ending in a blistering boisterous bout between ‘The Ever-Loving Thung vs The Inedible Bulk!’(courtesy of Lee, Marie Severin & Giacoia).

Art lovers and history buffs can also enjoy a boundless hidden bounty at the end of this volume as we close with fascinating freebies in the form of the initial designs for Coal Tiger (who evolved into the Black Panther), Kirby & Sinnott’s unused first cover for FF #52 as well as a dozen Kirby/Sinnott original art pages.

Also on show is a pencil rough for FF #64, an alternative cover to #65 plus a previous collection cover drawn by Kirby and painted by Dean White.

Epic, revolutionary and unutterably unmissable, these are the stories which made Marvel the unassailable leaders in fantasy entertainment and which remain some of the most important superhero comics ever crafted. The verve, conceptual scope and sheer enthusiasm shines through on every page and the wonder is there for you to share. If you’ve never thrilled to these spectacular sagas then this book of marvels is the perfect key to another – far brighter – world and time.
6© 1966, 1967, 2019 MARVEL. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 15


By Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Tony Isabella, Marv Wolfman, Chris Claremont, Rich Buckler, Bob Brown, Dick Ayers, John Buscema, Joe Sinnott & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6625-2 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Frantic Festive Fireworks… 8/10

Monolithic modern Marvel truly began with the adventures of a small super-team who were as much squabbling family as coolly capable costumed champions. Everything the company produces now is due to the quirky quartet and the groundbreaking, inspired efforts of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby…

This full-colour compendium – available in hardcover and digital editions – collects Fantastic Four #151-163 and Giant-Size Fantastic Four #3-4: collectively spanning November 1974 to October 1975 with Stan Lee long gone from the prestigious title but with his co-creator still very much in evidence through a new generation of artists mimicking his visual verve and punch.

What You Should Already Know: maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimmand Sue’s teenaged tag-along little brother Johnny miraculously survived an ill-starred private space-shot after cosmic rays penetrated their stolen ship’s inadequate shielding. As they crashed back to Earth the uncanny radiation mutated them all in unimaginable ways…

Richards’ body became astoundingly elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and project forcefields whilst Johnny could turn into living flame and tragic Ben devolved into a shambling, rocky freak. They agreed to use their abilities to benefit mankind and thus was born the Fantastic Four.

Following an effusive and fact-filled Introduction from writer editor Roy Thomas the dramatic tensions resume withGiant-Size Fantastic Four #3 courtesy of plotter Gerry Conway, scripter Marv Wolfman and illustrators Rich Buckler & Joe Sinnott. The extra-special quarterly magazine was devoted to offering epic thrills, herein revealing ‘Where Lurks Death …Ride the Four Horsemen!’ as cosmic aliens arrive, intent on scourging the Earth.

Forewarned after the team stumble across the first horror in ‘…There Shall Come Pestilence’, the harried heroes split up with Inhuman stand-in for Sue Richards Medusa and Johnny striving against international madness in ‘…And War Shall Take the Land!’ whilst Reed and Ben strive to conquer the personification of Famine in ‘…And the Children Shall Hunger!’, before all reuniting to wrap up the final invader in‘…All in the Valley of Death!’

Crafted by Conway, Buckler & Sinnott, FF #151 then begins revealing the truth about a mysterious Femizon who had been stalking the Thing. ‘Thundra and Lightning!’ introduces the male-dominated alternate Future Earth dubbed Machus and its brutal despot Mahkizmo, the Nuclear Man, who explosively invades the Baxter Building in search of a mate to dominate and a new world to conquer…

Inked by Jim Mooney, #152 exposes ‘A World of Madness Made!’ as the team are held captive in the testosterone-saturated side-dimension whilst Medusa seemingly flees, but actually seeks reinforcements from the diametrically-opposed Femizon future alternity, resulting in two universes crashing together in the concluding ‘Worlds in Collision!’ by Tony Isabella, Buckler & Sinnott.

Rapidly reworked by Len Wein, Fantastic Four #154 features ‘The Man in the Mystery Mask!’ – a recycled partial reprint from Strange Tales #127 in which Stan Lee, Dick Ayers & Paul Reinman pitted Ben and Johnny against ‘The Mystery Villain!’.

Here, however, Bob Brown, Frank Giacoia & Mike Esposito find that Reed’s early lesson in leadership has been hijacked by another old friend with explosive and annoying results…

Meanwhile over in Giant-Size Fantastic Four #4 Wein, Chris Claremont, John Buscema, Chic Stone & Sinnott unite to introduce ‘Madrox the Multiple Man’: a young mutant who grew up on an isolated farm unaware of the incredible power he possessed.

When his parents pass away, the kid is inexplicably drawn to New York City, but the mysterious hi-tech suit he wears to contain his condition malfunctions and the boy devolves into a mobile fission device that can endlessly, lethally replicate itself…

Thankfully the FF are aided by mutant Moses Charles Xavier who dutifully takes young Jamie under his wing…

A minor classic follows from Fantastic Four #155-157 as the long dormant Silver Surfer resurfaces in ‘Battle Royal!’(by Wein, Buckler & Sinnott), apparently now a murderous and willing thrall of Doctor Doom.

The dictator can command the Stellar Skyrider because he holds the alien’s lover Shalla Bal – threatening to take her in marriage – but as seen in ‘Middle Game!’ (with Roy Thomas joining as co-writer and Editor) the Surfer cannot kill and merely delivers the defeated FF as prisoners to the Devil Doctor’s citadel.

However, there are schemes within schemes unfolding and Doom is playing a waiting game whilst he covertly siphons the Skyrider’s Power Cosmic to fuel a deadly Doomsman mechanoid…

With Thomas in full authorial control ‘And Now… the Endgame Cometh!’ sees the heroes fight back to conquer the Lethal Latverian, all blithely unaware that the entire charade has been a crafty confection of malign and manipulative demon Mephisto

The furore is followed by another nostalgia-tinged 2-part epic beginning with FF #158’s ‘Invasion from the 5th (Count it, 5th!) Dimension’ – by Thomas, Buckler & Sinnott – wherein one of the Torch’s earliest solo scourges returns to occupy the homeland of the Inhumans.

Extra-dimensional dictator Xemu opens his campaign of vengeance by dispatching mutant Quicksilver to lure his sister-in-law Medusa back to Attilan. The intention is to force defiant King Black Bolt to utilise his doomsday sonic power on the invader’s behalf, for which the conqueror needs the silent king’s beloved as a bargaining chip.

However, when the FF accompany her into the obvious trap, they bring a hidden ally who unobtrusively turns the tables on Xemu, unleashing ‘Havoc in the Hidden Land!’ coincidentally and at long last reuniting the First Family of comic book fiction…

This formidable high-tension Fights ‘n’ Tights tome terminates in pan-dimensional panic which ensues when a multiversal conflict is cunningly concocted by a hidden mastermind orchestrating Armageddon for a trio of dimensionally-adjacent planets in ‘In One World… and Out the Other!’

Devised by Thomas, J. Buscema & Stone, the first chapter sees shapeshifting Reed Richards sell his patents to a vast corporation, even as in the streets his counterpart from another universe is kidnapped by barbarian warlord Arkon the Magnificent. That abduction is investigated by a very Grimm Thing who has uncomfortable suspicions about what’s occurring…

With Buckler & Sinnott assuming the delineation, ‘All the World Wars at Once!’ expands the saga as Johnny Storm visits the recently liberated 5th Dimension Earth to discover it under assault by androids from yet another slightly different one…

As the Thing teams up with his other-earth counterpart to quell a dinosaur invasion, “our” world is assaulted by an army from the 5th dimension led by the Human Torch. With each realm believing itself provoked by trans-terrestrial aggressors, the divided team only knows one thing: each invading force is using weaponry invented by Richards…

The crisis peaks in ‘The Shape of Things to Come!’ as the mastermind is exposed and the scheme to annihilate three worlds come close to fruition, necessitating a voyage to a cosmic nexus point and a devastating battle with yet another twisted alternate-reality hero to save three worlds in a spectacular and poignant ‘Finale!’ in #163.

This power-packed package also includes the covers to all-reprint Giant-Sized Fantastic Four #5 and 6; the original unused cover for GSFF #5 (which became FF #158-159); house ads and the all-new material from The Fabulous Fantastic Four Marvel Treasury Edition (#2, December 1975).

This bombastic oversized tabloid edition featured a bevy of classic yarns and is represented here by front-&-back cover art from John Romita, a frontispiece by Marie Severin, a Stan Lee Introduction, the contents page and a double-page pin-up of the team and supporting cast by John Buscema & Giacoia.

Although Kirby had taken the unmatched imagination and questing sense of wonder with him on his departure, the sheer range of beloved characters and concepts he had created with Lee carried the series for years afterwards. So once writers who shared the originators’ sensibilities were crafting the stories a mini-renaissance began…

Although the “World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” didn’t quite return to the stratospheric heights of yore, this period offers fans a tantalising taste of the glory days. These honest and extremely capable efforts are probably most welcome to dedicated superhero fans and continuity freaks like me, but will still thrill and enthral the generous and forgiving casual browser looking for an undemanding slice of graphic narrative excitement.
© 1974, 1975, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Two in One Epic Collection volume 1 1973-1976: Cry Monster


By Steve Gerber, Bill Mantlo, Len Wein, Mike Friedrich, Chris Claremont, Roy Thomas, Roger Slifer, Marv Wolfman, Scott Edelman, Tony Isabella, Jim Starlin, Gil Kane, Sal Buscema, Ron Wilson, George Tuska, Herb Trimpe, Bob Brown, Arvell Jones & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1332-8 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Brash, Bold Cornucopia of Classic Comics Collaborations… 8/10

Imagination isn’t everything. As Marvel slowly grew to a position of dominance in the wake of losing their two most innovative and inspirational creators, they did so less by risky experimentation and more by expanding and exploiting proven concepts and properties.

The only real exception to this was their en masse creation of horror titles in response to the industry down-turn in super-hero sales – a move expedited by a rapid revision in the wordings of the increasingly ineffectual Comics Code Authority rules.

The concept of team-up books – an established star pairing, or battling – often both – with less well-selling company characters, was not new when Marvel decided to award their most popular hero the lion’s share of this new title, but they wisely left their options open by allocating an occasional substitute lead in the Human Torch. In those long-lost days, editors were acutely conscious of potential over-exposure – and since super-heroes were actually in a decline, they may well have been right.

After the runaway success of Spider-Man’s collaborations in Marvel Team-Up, the House of Ideas reinforced the trend with a series starring bashful, blue-eyed Ben Grimm – the Fantastic Four’s most iconic member – beginning with two test runs in Marvel Feature before graduating to its own somewhat over-elaborate title.

This compelling compendium – available in trade paperback and digital formats – gathers the contents of Marvel Feature #11-12, Marvel Two-In-One #1-19 and Marvel Team-Up #47, covering the period September 1973 – September 1976, and it all kicks off with a perennial favourite pairing as the Thing once more clashes with the Hulk in ‘Cry: Monster! (by Len Wein, Jim Starlin & Joe Sinnott from MF #11).

Here Kurrgo, Master of Planet X and the lethal Leader manipulated both blockbusting brutes into duking it out – ostensibly to settle a wager – but with the mighty minded, misshapen masterminds concealing hidden agendas…

That ever-inconclusive yet cataclysmic clash leaves Ben stranded in the Nevada desert where Mike Friedrich, Starlin & Sinnott promptly drop him in the middle of the ongoing war against mad Titan Thanos as Iron Man helps the Thing crush monstrous alien invaders in ’The Bite of the Blood Brothers!’ (#12, November 1973): another spectacular and painfully pretty all-action punch-up.

Still stuck in the desert when the dust settles, Ben eventually treks to an outpost of civilisation just in time to be diverted to Florida in Marvel Two-In-One #1 (cover-dated January 1974) as Steve Gerber, Gil Kane & Sinnott magnificently reveal the ‘Vengeance of the Molecule Man!’ with Ben learning some horrifying home truths about what constitutes being a monster by battling with and beside ghastly, grotesque anti-hero Man-Thing.

With the second issue Gerber cannily trades a superfluous supporting character from his Man-Thing series to add some much-needed depth to the team-up title. ‘Manhunters from the Stars!’ pits Ben, old enemy Sub-Mariner (another series Gerber was currently writing) and the Aquatic Avenger’s powerful cousin Namorita against each other and aliens hunting the emotionally and intellectually retarded superboy Wundarr. Again a dynamically, intoxicatingly tale illustrated by Kane & Sinnott, this case also leaves the Thing as de facto guardian of the titanic teenaged tot…

Sal Buscema signed on as penciller with #3 as the Rocky Ranger joins the Man Without Fear ‘Inside Black Spectre!’: a crossover instalment of the extended epic then playing out in Daredevil #108-112 (in case you’re wondering, this action-packed fight-fest occurs between the second and third chapters) after which ‘Doomsday 3014!’ (Gerber, Buscema & Frank Giacoia) finds Ben and Captain America catapulted into the 31st century to save Earth from enslavement by the reptilian Brotherhood of Badoon, leaving Wundarr with Namorita for the foreseeable future…

The furious future-shocker concludes in MTIO #5 as the Guardians of the Galaxy (not the movie group) climb aboard the Freedom Rocket to help the time-lost heroes liberate New York before returning home. The overthrow of the aliens was completed by another set of ancient heroes in Defenders #26-29 (that’s the subject of a different review).

Marvel Two-In-One #6 began a complex crossover tale with the aforementioned Defenders as Dr. Strange and the Thing witness a cosmic event which begins with a subway busker’s harmonica and leads inexorably to a ‘Death-Song of Destiny!’ (Gerber, George Tuska & Mike Esposito) before Asgardian outcasts Enchantress and the Executioner attempt to seize control of unfolding events in #7’s ‘Name That Doom!’ (pencilled by Sal Buscema).

As they are thwarted by Grimm and the valiant Valkyrie, there’s enough of an ending here for casual readers, but fans and completists will want to hunt down Defenders #20 or Defenders Masterworks volume 3 for the full story…

Back here though, issue #8 teams Grimm and supernatural sensation Ghost Rider in quirkily compelling Yuletide yarn ‘Silent Night… Deadly Night!’ (Gerber, Buscema & Esposito) as the audacious Miracle Man tries to take control of a very special birth in a stable…

Gerber moved on after plotting Thor team-up ‘When a God goes Mad!’ for Chris Claremont to script and Herb Trimpe & Joe Giella to finish: a rather meagre effort with the Puppet Master and Radion the Atomic Man making a foredoomed power play, but issue #10 – by Claremont, Bob Brown & Klaus Janson – is a slice of inspired espionage action-intrigue with Ben and Black Widow battling suicidal terrorist Agamemnon who plans to detonate the planet’s biggest nuke in blistering thriller ‘Is This the Way the World Ends?’.

Marvel Two-In-One quickly became a kind of clearing house for cancelled series and uncompleted storylines. Supernatural series The Golem ran in Strange Tales #174, 176 & 177 (June-December 1974) before being summarily replaced mid-story by Adam Warlock, and MTIO #11 provided plotter Roy Thomas, scripter Bill Mantlo and artists Brown & Jack Abel to offer some spectacular closure when ‘The Thing goes South’: resulting in stony bloke and animated statue finally crushing the insidious plot of demonic wizard Kaballa.

Young Ron Wilson began his lengthy association with the series and the Thing in #12 as Iron Man and Ben tackle out of control, mystically-empowered ancient Crusader Prester John in ‘The Stalker in the Sands!’; a blistering desert storm written by Mantlo and inked by Vince Colletta, after which Luke Cage, Power Man pops in to help stop a giant monster in kI Created Braggadoom!, the Mountain that Walked like a Man!’ – an unabashed homage scripted by Roger Slifer & Len Wein – whilst Mantlo, Trimpe & John Tartaglione deliver a spooky encounter with spectres and demons in #14’s ‘Ghost Town!’ This moody mission was shared with exorcist Daimon Hellstrom, The Son of Satan and left Ben rattled for months to come…

Mantlo, Arvell Jones & Dick Giordano brought on ‘The Return of the Living Eraser!’: a dimension-hopping invasion yarn introducing Ben to Morbius, the Living Vampire, after which a canny crossover epic begins with the Thing and Ka-Zar plunging ‘Into the Savage Land!’ to dally with dinosaurs and defeat resource plunderers. The action then switches to New York as Spider-Man joins the party in MTIO #17 to combat ‘This City… Afire!’ (Mantlo, Sal Buscema & Esposito) after mutated madman Basilisk transports an active volcano from Antarctica to the Hudson River, with the cataclysmic conclusion (from Marvel Team-Up #47) following, wherein Mantlo, Wilson & Dan Adkins have the heroes finish off the epic and save the day in fine style with ‘I Have to Fight the Basilisk!’

Another short-changed supernatural serial is laid to rest in MTIO #18. ‘Dark, Dark Demon-Night!’ – Mantlo, Scott Edelman, Wilson, Jim Mooney & Adkins – sees enigmatic mystical watchdog The Scarecrow escape from its painted prison to foil a demonic invasion with the reluctant assistance of the Thing, after which Tigra the Were-Woman slinks into Ben’s life to vamp a favour and crush a sinister scheme by a rogue cat creature in ‘Claws of the Cougar!’ by Mantlo, Sal Buscema, & Don Heck.

That yarn ends the narrative thrills and chills for now, but there’s still room for a trove of house ads and original art by Kane & Wilson to delight and astound.

These stories from Marvel’s Middle Period are of variable quality but nonetheless represent an honest attempt to entertain and exhibit a dedicated drive to please. Whilst artistically the work varies from adequate to utterly superb, most fans of the frantic Fights ‘n’ Tights genre would find little to complain about.

Although not really a book for casual or more maturely-oriented readers there’s still buckets of fun on hand and young readers will have a blast, so why not to add this colossal comics chronicle to your straining superhero bookshelves?
© 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 14


By Gerry Conway, Steve Englehart, Rich Buckler, Ross Andru, John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Joe Sinnott & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5963-6 (HB)

Monolithic modern Marvel truly began with the adventures of a small super-team who were as much squabbling family as coolly capable costumed champions. Everything the company produces now is due to the quirky quartet and the groundbreaking, inspired efforts of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby…

This full-colour compendium – available in hardcover and digital editions – collects Fantastic Four #142-150 (January-September 1974) and includes a blockbusting battle-bouts from Giant-Size Super-Stars #1 and Giant-Size Fantastic Four #2, as well as the other half of a rather significant crossover tale begun in Avengers #127.

What You Should Already Know: maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged tag-along little brother Johnny miraculously survived an ill-starred private space-shot after cosmic rays penetrated their stolen ship’s inadequate shielding. As they crashed back to Earth the uncanny radiation mutated them all in unimaginable ways…

Richards’ body became astoundingly elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and project forcefields whilst Johnny could turn into living flame and tragic Ben devolved into a shambling, rocky freak. They agreed to use their abilities to benefit mankind and thus was born the Fantastic Four.

Before the pictorial pleasures commence, scripter Gerry Conway offers more behind-the-scenes insights in his Introduction ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’ after which dramatic tensions resume with the team in tatters.

In the previous collection the never-ending stress forced Sue Richards apart from her husband and Inhuman warrior-queen Medusa had taken her place in the team whilst the Invisible Girl (as she was condescendingly dubbed) cared for son Franklin, now a toddler with strange, undiagnosed cosmic powers and problems. When an attack by antimatter tyrant Annihilus escalated little Franklin’s powers and triggered a cosmic catastrophe, his tormented father was compelled to blast the child, shutting down his mutant brain and plunging him into a coma to save the universe. The act of desperation revolted his teammates and triggered mass resignations…

Appalled at the callous cold calculations needed to neutralise his own child, Johnny and Ben joined Sue in declaring their heroic partnership defunct. With only ruthlessly pragmatic Medusa remaining, FF #142 finds the shell-shocked Richards with ‘No Friend Beside Him!’ (as Conway inker Joe Sinnott were joined by new artist Rich Buckler, whose faithful pastiche of Jack Kirby produced a wave of favourable nostalgia in fans then and now) whilst the Thing followed long-time girlfriend Alicia Masters to central Europe.

She has been lured to the Balkans with promises of a medical breakthrough that can cure her blindness, but after Ben arrives, they are promptly attacked by a sinister supernatural horror named Darkoth the Death-Demon

Back in the USA, Johnny and old pal Wyatt Wingfoot head for Metro College to see their old sports coach Sam Thorne on his way to an Alumni reunion. Reed is another attendee, despondently dragged there by Medusa, but nobody expects that weird foreign kid who had been expelled so long ago to turn up, leading to ‘The Terrible Triumph of Doctor Doom!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia)…

The Iron Dictator was never one to forgive a slight, real or imagined, and as he gloatingly reveals himself to be the creator of Darkoth and jailer of the Thing, Victor von Doom further boasts to his captives of his latest scheme… to utterly eradicate human free will.

Typically, though, the tyrant hasn’t considered how his death-demon might react to the news that he is sham. The outraged artificial puppet rebels and the monster’s ‘Attack!’ (#144 by Buckler & Sinnott) results in a cataclysmic clash and Doom’s defeat…

Back together but still disunited, the FF part company again in #145, as the Torch accompanies Medusa on a visit to the Himalayan citadel of Attilan – the hidden city of the Inhumans – only to be brought down by a lost race of ice people and forced to endure a ‘Nightmare in the Snow!’ (illustrated by Ross Andru & Sinnott).

The snow troglodytes’ plans to transform the world into an ice-ball only they can inhabit go bizarrely awry as the Thing joins the frozen heroes. When a dissident faction trained by a Buddhist monk pitch in too, the conclusion is a happy ending all round in ‘Doomsday: 200 Below!’

This was period of great experimentation and expansion at Marvel, with new formats and lines launching almost continuously. Giant-Size Super-Stars #1 (May 1974) was a forerunner in a line of supplementary, double-sized titles starring the company’s most popular stars.

In this initial exploratory outing – the title became Giant-Size Fantastic Four with the next quarterly release – Conway, Buckler & Sinnott crafted ‘The Mind of the Monster!’: a shattering reprise of earlier titanic team-up triumphs as Bruce Banner came calling upon the FF, still seeking a cure for his mean green alter ego. Unfortunately the Thing is overly sympathetic, and in his self-loathing foolishly allows the fugitive physicist to modify one of Reed’s devices…

Unfortunately, that mutual meddling with the Psi-Amplifier switches their minds, leaving the Rampaging Hulk trapped and furiously running amok in the Thing’s body whilst Ben/Hulk struggles to stop him.

The situation descends into more chaos when trans-dimensional Femizon Thundra pitches in, mistakenly believing she is helping her intended main squeeze Ben battle a big green monster, and the violence intensifies to the max when Reed, Johnny and Medusa get involved in second chapter ‘Someone’s Been Sleeping in My Head’

Ultimately it takes everybody and a cunning plan to set the world to rights in the spectacular, full-throated conclusion ‘…And in This Corner: The Incredible Hulk!’

Following a bunch of editorial extras from the special, the monthly mayhem continues in

Fantastic Four #147, which offers up action-tinged melodrama with ‘The Sub-Mariner Strikes!’ (Conway, Buckler & Sinnott) wherein Sue starts divorce proceedings whilst taking comfort in the arms of long-time admirer/stalker Prince Namor of Atlantis. When Reed, Johnny and Ben tried to “rescue” her, the Atlantean thrashes them and she sends them packing…

To add insult to injury, the dejected men return home to find the Baxter Building once more invaded by the Frightful Four and are forced to fight a ‘War on the Thirty-Sixth Floor!’ Sadly for The Sandman, Wizard and Trapster, they have no idea their newest ally Thundra is smitten with the Thing…

Issue #149 then finally resolves the scandalous Sub-Mariner storyline as the undersea emperor invades New York in ‘To Love, Honour, and Destroy!’. Happily, his awesome attack is only a cunning plan to trick Sue into reconciling with her husband…

Giant-Size Fantastic Four #2 then reveals a time-twisting ‘Cataclysm!’, courtesy of Conway, John Buscema & Chic Stone, wherein cosmic voyeur The Watcher warns of a hapless innocent who has inadvertently altered history, thanks to Dr. Doom’s confiscated time platform.

Moreover, the imposing, supposedly non-interventionist extraterrestrial expects the FF to fix the problem…

With more than one temporal hot-spot, Reed and Johnny head for Colonial America to rescue the Father of the Nation in ‘George Washington Almost Slept Here!’ whilst Ben and Medusa crash into the “Roaring Twenties” and save the time-lost wanderer from being rubbed out by racketeers in ‘The Great Grimmsby’

Thinking their mission accomplished, the heroes are astounded to then find themselves trapped in timeless Limbo, battling monstrous giant Tempus before escaping to their restored origin point in ‘Time Enough for Death!’

For months lovelorn Johnny had fretted and fumed that his first true love Crystal intended to marry super-swift mutant Quicksilver. That plot-thread finally closes with a 2-part crossover tale opening in Avengers #127. ‘Bride and Doom!’ (by Steve Englehart, Sal Buscema & Joe Staton) sees the Assemblers travel to the hidden homeland of the Inhumans for the wedding of the aforementioned Pietro to elemental enchantress and Royal Princess, only to stumble into an uprising of the genetic slave-race known as Alpha Primitives.

Once again, sinister robotic colossus Omega has incited revolt, but this time it isn’t insane usurper Maximus behind the skulduggery but an old Avengers enemy who reveals himself in the concluding chapter from in Fantastic Four #150.

‘Ultron-7: He’ll Rule the World!’ (by Conway, Buckler & Sinnott) finds both hero teams joining Black Bolt’s Inhumans against the malign A.I., but only saved by a veritable Deus ex Machina after which, at long last, ‘The Wedding of Crystal and Quicksilver’ finally ends events on a happy note… for everybody but the Torch, that is…

The narrative concluded for the moment, one last treat is supplied via a selection of contemporary house ads to wrap up this morsel of Marvel magic.

Although Kirby had taken the unmatched imagination and questing sense of wonder with him on his departure, the sheer range of beloved characters and concepts he had created with Stan Lee carried the series for years afterwards. So once writers who shared the originators’ sensibilities were crafting the stories a mini-renaissance began…

Certainly the “World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” didn’t quite return to the stratospheric heights of yore, but this period offers fans a tantalising taste of the glory days and these solid, honest and intriguing efforts will be welcomed by dedicated superhero fans and continuity freaks like me, but will also thrill and enthral the generous and forgiving casual browser looking for an undemanding slice of graphic narrative excitement.
© 1974, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avengers Marvel Masterworks volume 13


By Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Bob Brown, John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Rich Buckler, & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6629-0 (HB)

The Avengers have always proved that putting all one’s star eggs in a single basket pays off big-time: even when all Marvel’s classic all-stars such as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man are absent, it merely allows the team’s lesser lights to shine more brightly.

Of course, all the founding stars were regularly featured due to the rotating, open door policy which means that every issue includes somebody’s fave-rave – and the boldly grand-scale impressive stories and artwork are no hindrance either.

This monolithic and monumental tome collects the ever-amazing Avengers’ exploits from issues #120-128 (between March and October 1974), plus Giant-Size Avengers #1 and crossover appearances in Captain Marvel #33 and Fantastic Four #150), and sees scripter Steve Englehart probe the outer limits of Marvel history…

Preceded by his reminiscent commentaries in a fulsome Introduction, this epochal tome opens with Avengers #120. ‘Death-Stars of the Zodiac!’ by Englehart, Bob Brown & Don Heck, sees terrorist astrological adversaries and super-criminal cartel Zodiac attack; instigating a manic plan to eradicate everyone in Manhattan born under the sign of Gemini, with Thor, Iron Man, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Swordsman and Mantis seemingly helpless to stop them.

In the blistering battle of #121’s ‘Houses Divided Cannot Stand!’ (illustrated by John Buscema & Heck), even the added assistance of Captain America and Black Panther is of little advantage. After Mantis is injured, the team begin questioning her mysterious past, only to be lured to their seeming doom and ‘Trapped in Outer Space!’ (Brown & Mike Esposito) before at last turning the tables on their fearsome foes when Zodiac crime chief Libra discloses a shocking secret…

Rendered by Brown & Heck, Avengers #123 then begins a vast and ambitious saga with ‘Vengeance in Viet Nam – or – An Origin for Mantis!’ wherein Libra’s claim to be the Vietnamese warrior’s father (a story vigorously and violently denied by the Martial Arts Maestro) brings the team to Indo-China.

Former mercenary Libra states that he left baby Mantis with pacifistic Priests of Pama after running afoul of a local crime-lord, but she has no memory of such events, nor of being schooled in combat techniques by the hermit monks. Meanwhile, gravely wounded Swordsman has rushed to Saigon to confront his sadistic ex-boss Monsieur Khruul and save the Priests from being murdered by the gangster’s thugs… but is again too late. It’s the tragic story of his wasted life…

Issue #124 finds the team stumbling upon a scene of savage slaughter as clerics and criminals lay dead and a monstrous planet-rending alien horror awoke in ‘Beware the Star-Stalker!’ by J. Buscema & Dave Cockrum…

Mantis is forced to accept that her own memories are unreliable after Avengers #125, which unleashes ‘The Power of Babel!’ when a vast alien armada attacks the Earth and, while combating it, the planet’s Mightiest Heroes are trapped out of phase with their homeworld.

This blockbuster battle bonanza was a crossover, and the penultimate episode of the spectacular Thanos War Saga that had unfolded for a year in Captain Marvel, Marvel Feature, Daredevil and Iron Man.

Thoughtfully included in this compendium is the stunning conclusion ‘The God Himself!’ from Captain Marvel #33 (scripted by Englehart. plotted and illustrated by Jim Starlin & Klaus Janson) wherein mad Titan Thanos finally falls in combat to the valiant Kree warrior: a stunning piece of comics storytelling which stands up remarkably well here despite being seen without benefit of the preceding chapters…

In response to reader demand, a range of quarterly Giant-Size specials began at this time: augmenting the regular output of Marvel’s most popular titles. The first Giant-Size Avengers was crafted by Roy Thomas, Rich Buckler & Dan Adkins, who delved into superhero history with ‘Nuklo… the Invader that Time Forgot!’

The stirring saga reintroduced 1940 Marvel sensation the Whizzer – AKA Bob Frank – in a tragic tale of duty, desperation and loss as the aged speedster first attacks and then begs the heroes’ help in rescuing his son: a radioactive mutant locked in stasis since the early 1950s. Unfortunately, within the recently unearthed chrono-capsule the lad has grown into a terrifying atomic horror…

Moreover, while in the throes of a stress-induced heart-attack the Whizzer let slip that he was the also the father of mutant Avengers Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver

Supplementing the rousing Kirby-inspired pastiche are editorial pages ‘Avengers Re-assemble!’, explaining the process of expansion…

It’s back to business in #126 as in ‘All the Sights and Sounds of Death!’ (Brown & Cockrum) creepy villains Klaw and Solarr assault Avengers Mansion in a devious attempt to achieve vengeance for past indignities, after which Sal Buscema & Joe Staton came aboard as regular art team with ‘Bride and Doom!’ wherein the team voyage to the hidden homeland of the Inhumans for the marriage of The Scarlet Witch’s brother Quicksilver to elemental enchantress Crystal, only to stumble into a uprising of the genetic slave-race known as Alpha Primitives.

Robotic colossus Omega again incited the revolt but this time it is shanghaied by an old Avengers enemy who reveals himself in the concluding chapter of the crossover…

Fantastic Four #150 then declaims ‘Ultron-7: He’ll Rule the World!’ (Gerry Conway, Buckler & Joe Sinnott, in which an escalating unwinnable clash between FF, Inhumans and Avengers is ended by a veritable Deus ex Machina after which, at long last ‘The Wedding of Crystal and Quicksilver’ closes events on a happy note.

But not for long: in Avengers #128’s ‘Bewitched, Bothered, and Dead!’ (Englehart, Sal Buscema & Staton) the FF’s nanny Agatha Harkness begins tutoring Wanda Frank in the arts of sorcery to augment her mutant power, unwittingly allowing dark mage Necrodamus access to Avengers Mansion and their souls. In the meantime, the increasingly troubled Mantis makes a romantic play for the Scarlet Witch’s synthazoid boyfriend The Vision; heedless of the hurt and harm she might bring to her current lover The Swordsman…

To Be Continued…

Gilding this graphic lily – available in hardback and digital formats – fans can also enjoy a large and lovely gallery of cover sketches and original art plus house ads.

Steve Englehart was a crucial component of Marvel’s second generation of story-makers; brilliantly building on and consolidating the compelling creations of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko while spearheading and constructing a logical, fully functioning wonder-machine of places and events that so many others were inspired by and could add to. These tales laid the groundwork for his most ambitious and absorbing masterpiece and the best is yet to come…

These terrific tales are perfect examples of superhero sagas done just right and also a pivotal step transforming the little company into today’s multinational corporate colossus. Best of all, Englehart’s forthcoming concoctions would turn the Marvel Universe on its head and pave the way for a new acme of cosmic adventure…
© 1974, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avengers Marvel Masterworks volume 12


By Steve Englehart, Bob Brown, Sal Buscema, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5879-0 (HB)

One of the most momentous events in comics (and now, film) history came in the middle of 1963 when a disparate gang of heroic individuals banded together to combat an apparently out of control Incredible Hulk.

The Avengers combined most of the company’s fledgling superhero line in one bright, shiny and highly commercial package. Over the intervening decades the roster has unceasingly changed, and now almost every character in the Marvel multiverse has at some time numbered amongst their colourful ranks…

The everchanging roster proved that putting all one’s star eggs in a single basket can pay off big-time. Even when all Marvel Royalty such as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man are absent, there’s no detriment: it merely allows the team’s lesser lights to shine more brightly.

Of course, the founding stars are never away for too long due to a rotating, open door policy ensuring most issues include somebody’s fave-rave.

After instigators Stan Lee & Jack Kirby moved on, the team prospered under the guidance of Roy Thomas who grew into one of the industry’s most impressive writers, guiding the World’s Mightiest Heroes through a range of adventures ranging from sublimely poetic to staggeringly epic. He then handed over the scripting to a young writer who carried the team to even greater heights…

This stunning hardcover compilation – also available in eBook iterations – assembles Avengers #112-119, plus crucial crossover episodes from Defenders #8-11: collectively covering June 1973 to January 1974 and celebrating the beginning of an era of cosmic catastrophe and cataclysmically captivating creative cross-pollination…

This bombastic tome commences with Avengers #112 in ‘The Lion God Lives!’ (illustrated by Don Heck & Frank Bolle) wherein a rival African deity returns to destroy the human avatar of the Panther God. As the Black Panther and his valiant comrades tackle that threat, in the wings an erstwhile ally and enemy and his exotic paramour made their own plans for the team…)

Unreasoning prejudice informed #113’s ‘Your Young Men Shall Slay Visions!’ (Bob Brown & Bolle) as a horde of fundamentalist bigots – offended by the “unnatural” love between Wanda, the mutant Scarlet Witch and the Vision – turn themselves into human bombs to destroy the sinful, unholy couple. Soon after, ‘Night of the Swordsman’ in #114 (Brown & Esposito) formally introduces the reformed swashbuckler and his enigmatic psychic martial artist paramour Mantis to the team… just in time to thwart the Lion God’s latest scheme.

In 1973 wunderkind scripter Steve Englehart (who provides a context-enhancing Introduction in this collected volume) was writing both Avengers and Defenders (as well as Doctor Strange, the Hulk and Luke Cage, Hero for Hire) and, yearning for the days of DC’s summer blockbuster annual events, decided to attempt his own massive multi-player epic.

Bravely given the editorial go-ahead at a time when deadline crunches regularly interrupted ongoing storylines, the author and his regular pencillers Sal Buscema and Bob Brown laid their plans…

Threads had been planted as early as Defenders #4 with Englehart carefully putting players in place for a hugely ambitious cross-over experiment: one that would turn the comics industry on its head.

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 and 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…

Last of the big star-name conglomerate super-groups, the Defenders would eventually number amongst its membership almost every hero – and some few villains – in the Marvel Universe. No surprise there then since the initial line was composed of the company’s major league bad-boys: misunderstood, outcast and often actually dangerous to know. For Marvel in the 1970s, 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 featuring pre-existing characters would be packaged: The Champions, Invaders, New Warriors, Inhumans, Guardians of the Galaxy and so on… but never again with so many Very Big Guns…

The genesis of the team in fact derived from their status as publicly distrusted “villains”, and they never achieved the “in-continuity” fame or acceptance of other teams, but that simply seemed to leave the creators open to taking a few chances and playing the occasional narrative wild card.

After earthly madwoman Barbara Norris was cursed by amoral Asgardian Amora the Enchantress, the human was transformed into an incarnation of old Avengers enemy Valkyrie. The denouement of the tale also left part-time Avenger and Defender the Black Knight an ensorcelled, immobile stone statue. As Strange and Co. searched for a cure, aided by the Silver Surfer and tempestuous Hawkeye (another ex-Assembler looking to forge a solo career), they all fell into a subtle scheme orchestrated by two of the greatest forces of evil in all creation….

The classic confrontation finally commenced in Avengers #115 with lead story ‘Below Us the Battle!’ (Brown & Esposito) wherein the still-understaffed heroes travel to England and the castle of the Black Knight, only to encounter mystic resistance, a troglodytic race of scavengers and a comrade long missing…

The issue also contained a brief prologue at the end. ‘Alliance Most Foul!’ reveals other-dimensional Dark Lord Dormammu and Asgardian god of Evil Loki allying to secure an ultimate weapon which will give them ultimate victory against all their foes. This despotic duo plan a false flag operation to deceive the Defenders into securing the six component parts: surreptitiously “revealing” that the reconstructed Evil Eye can de-petrify and restore the Black Knight – a plan that opens with a similar prologue at the end of Defenders #8…

‘Deception’ (Englehart, Sal Buscema & Esposito) is the first chapter in ‘The Avengers/Defenders Clash’, disclosing how a mystic SOS from the spirit of the Black Knight is intercepted by the twin gods of evil, leading directly to ‘Betrayal!’ in Avengers #116, wherein the World’s Mightiest Heroes, hunting for their missing comrade, “discover” their oldest enemies Hulk and Sub-Mariner may have turned Black Knight to stone…

This and third chapter ‘Silver Surfer Vs. the Vision and the Scarlet Witch’ see 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 (with Sal Buscema & Frank McLaughlin art) begins with tense recap ‘Divide …and Conquer’ before ‘The Invincible Iron Man Vs. Hawkeye the Archer’ and ‘Dr. Strange Vs. the Black Panther and Mantis’ sheds more suspicion and doubt on the vile villains’ subtle master-plan…

In Avengers #117, ‘Holocaust’, ‘Swordsman Vs. the Valkyrie’ and crucial turning point ‘Captain America Vs. Sub-Mariner’ (all illustrated by Brown & Esposito) lead to the penultimate duel in Defenders #10 (Sal Buscema & Bolle) in ‘Breakthrough! The Incredible Hulk Vs. Thor’ and the inevitable joining together of the warring camps in ‘United We Stand!’. Tragically, understanding comes too late as Dormammu seizes the reconstructed Evil Eye and uses its power to merge his entire dimensional realm with Earth’s.

Avengers #118 delivers the cathartic, climactic conclusion in ‘To the Death’ (Brown, Esposito & Frank Giacoia) wherein all the heroes of the Marvel Universe resist demonic invasion on hideously mutated home soil whilst Avengers and Defenders plunge deep into the Dark Dimension itself to end forever the threat of the evil gods (well, for the moment, at least…).

With the overwhelming cosmic threat quelled, the victorious Defenders attempt to use the Eye to cure their petrified comrade, only to discover that his spirit has found a new home in the time of the Crusades.

In #11’s ‘A Dark and Stormy Knight’ (Sal B & Bolle), the group battle 12th century black magic, fail to retrieve the Knight and acrimoniously go their separate ways – as did overworked scripter Englehart, who dropped the “non-team” to concentrate on “The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes”…

Those never-ending struggles resume and the adventuring pauses after a delightfully traditional spooky Halloween tale as the Avengers – warned by clairvoyant vision from enigmatic Mantis – head once more to Rutland, Vermont for the ‘Night of the Collector’ (#119, by Brown & Heck): encountering old friends, a dastardly and determined foe, blistering action, staggering suspense and blistering battle…

As if extra enticements be needed, also included in this compendium are pages and pin-ups from company fanzine F.O.O.M. (#5, 6, 7: Mantis by John Byrne & Duffy Vohland, Jarvis by Marie Severin and a bombastic team shot by John and Sal Buscema), plus house ads for Avengers #116, previous collection covers from Carlos Pacheco, Jesus Merino & Ang Tsang, John Romita & Richard Isanove and original art pages by Brown & Esposito and #119’s Romita cover.

Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart were at the forefront of Marvel’s second generation of story-makers; brilliantly building on and consolidating the compelling creations of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko while spearheading and constructing a logical, fully functioning wonder-machine of places and events that so many others were inspired by and could add to.

These terrific tales are perfect examples of superhero sagas done just right and also a pivotal step transforming the little company into today’s multinational corporate colossus. Best of all, Englehart’s forthcoming concoctions would turn the Marvel Universe on its head and pave the way for a new acme of cosmic adventure…
© 1973, 1974, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 13


By Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, John Buscema, Ross Andru, Ramona Fradon, Joe Sinnott & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5040-4 (HB)

Monolithic modern Marvel truly began with the adventures of a small super-team who were as much squabbling family as coolly capable costumed champions. Everything the company produces now is due to the quirky quartet and the groundbreaking, inspired efforts of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby…

This full-colour compendium – available in hardcover and digital editions – collects Fantastic Four #129-141: spanning December 1972 to December 1972 with Stan Lee leaving his most significant co-creation to his top disciple Roy Thomas – and latterly Gerry Conway – whilst John Buscema & Joe Sinnott did their utmost to remake Jack Kirby’s stellar creation in their own style and image and outdoing themselves with every successive issue.

…And when they weren’t around there was a ready pool of visual talent to tap…

What You Should Already Know: maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged tag-along little brother Johnny miraculously survived an ill-starred private space-shot after cosmic rays penetrated their stolen ship’s inadequate shielding. As they crashed back to Earth the uncanny radiation mutated them all in unimaginable ways…

Richards’ body became astoundingly elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and project forcefields whilst Johnny could turn into living flame and tragic Ben devolved into a shambling, rocky freak. They agreed to use their abilities to benefit mankind and thus was born the Fantastic Four.

Following an effusive Introduction from Thomas and a candid, context-creating and fact-filled second essay – ‘Foreword into the Past’ – from Conway, the dramatic tensions resume with the team in turmoil as usual. Having just survived a three-way war between Mole Man, Kala, Empress of the Netherworld and immortal dictator Tyrannus, the exhausted team return to their Baxter Building HQ just in time for lovesick, heartsore Johnny to leave for the hidden kingdom of Attilan and explosively confront lost love – and Inhuman Princess – Crystal.

Tragically as he leaves, ‘The Frightful Four… Plus One!’ (by Thomas, Buscema & Sinnott) sees the Thing ambushed by The Sandman, Wizard and Trapster, beside their newest and almost uncontrollable ally… super-strong amazon Thundra.

Happily, Crystal’s sister Medusa is there to pitch in as the clash escalates and spread to ‘Battleground: the Baxter Building!’ wherein baby Franklin Richards begins exhibiting terrifying abilities. Always left holding the baby and fed up with her husband’s neglect, Sue finally leaves Reed, whilst in the Himalayas Johnny has forced his way to Crystal’s side only to find his worst nightmares realised…

Fantastic Four #131 describes a ‘Revolt in Paradise!’ (illustrated by Ross Andru & Sinnott) as Crystal, her new fiancé Quicksilver, and the rest of the Inhumans are attacked by their genetically-bred and programmed slave-race the Alpha Primitives.

At first it seems that insane usurper Maximus is again responsible for the strife but a deeper secret lurks behind the deadly danger of ‘Omega! The Ultimate Enemy!’, and when the rest of the FF arrive Reed soon ferrets it out…

Issue #133 celebrated the holiday season with plenty of fireworks in ‘Thundra at Dawn!’ as the mysterious Femizon returns to battle Ben once more, courtesy of incoming scripter Gerry Conway, guest penciller Ramona Fradon & Sinnott, after which ‘A Dragon Stalks the Sky!’ in #134 (Buscema & Sinnott) finds Reed, Johnny, Ben and Medusa fighting forgotten super-rich foe Gregory Gideon and his latest acquisition the Dragon Man: a bombastic battle which concludes in a struggle to possess ‘The Eternity Machine’

The secret of that reality-warping device is revealed in a two-part thriller as cosmic entity Shaper of Worlds creates a horrific paranoid pastiche of 1950s America: re-running the conflicts between rebellious youth and doctrinaire, paternalistic authority in ‘Rock Around the Cosmos!’ and the surreal conclusion ‘Rumble on Planet 3’ which also taps into the ongoing struggles of the Civil Rights movement…

In the sub-plot arena, the never-ending stress had forced Sue Richards away from her husband but their son’s rapidly-developing strange, undiagnosed cosmic powers and problems were pulling them reluctantly back together …

Mr. Fantastic was not taking the trial separation well and issue #138 finds him left behind in an increasingly disturbed depressive state when old comrade Wyatt Wingfoot comes looking for assistance against impossible, unimaginable disasters.

Madness is… The Miracle Man’ began a period when rocky everyman Ben Grimm became the de facto star of the Fantastic Four and here he, the Torch and Medusa travel to Wingfoot’s tribal lands in Oklahoma to battle a cheesy hypnotist first encounter in their third adventure.

Now, however, thanks to the charlatan’s subsequent studies under mystic Cheemuzwa medicine men, the maniac actually can reshape reality with a thought…

The battle concluded in the next issue as ‘Target: Tomorrow!’ sees the villain able to control matter but not himself spiralling frantically out of control, with our heroes struggling indomitably on until the Miracle Man makes a fatal, world-threatening error…

Reed’s travails take a darker turn in Fantastic Four # 140 as ‘Annihilus Revealed!’ finds the insectoid Negative Zone tyrant of a dying antimatter universe kidnapping the ever-more powerful Franklin before invading the Baxter Building in search of new worlds to ravage.

In triumph, the bug horror discloses his incredible origin to the helpless Wingfoot before dragging all his enemies back to his subspace hell to engineer ‘The End of the Fantastic Four!’

However, even though the beaten heroes counterattacked and gained an unlikely victory, Annihilus’ prior tampering with Franklin triggers a cosmic catastrophe. As the boy’s limitless power spikes out of control, his tormented father is compelled to blast the boy, shutting down his mutant brain and everything else.

Appalled at the callous cold calculations needed to put his own son into a coma, Johnny and Ben joined Sue in deserting the grief-stricken Mr. Fantastic and declaring their heroic partnership defunct.

To Be Continued…?

This power-packed package also includes unused a full cover gallery – including that of all-reprint Annual 10 – by Buscema, Frank Giacoia, Rich Buckler, Jim Steranko and John Romita, as well as many examples of original art and covers to add to the overall Costumed Drama and delight fans everywhere.

Although Kirby had taken the explosive imagination and questing sense of wonder with him on his departure, the sheer range of beloved characters and concepts he had created with Lee served to carry the series for years afterwards and these admittedly erratic and inconsistent stories kept the Fantastic Four ticking over until bolder hands could once again take the World’s Greatest Comics Magazine Heroes back to the stratospheric heights where they belonged.

Solid, honest and creditable efforts, these tales are probably best seen by dedicated superhero fans and continuity freaks like me, but can still thrill and enthral the casual browser looking for an undemanding slice of graphic narrative excitement.
© 1972, 1973, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Nova Classic vol 2


By Marv Wolfman, David Anthony Kraft, Sal Buscema, Carmine Infantino, Bob Hall, Don Perlin, Keith Pollard & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8544-4 (TPB)

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-&-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.

Where other companies dwindled and eventually died and DC vigorously explored new genres to bolster their flagging sales, Marvel chose to exploit their record with superheroes: fostering new titles within a universe it was increasingly impossible to buy only a portion of…

As seen in this second no-nonsense compilation collecting Nova #13-19 plus guest shots from Defenders #62-64, Fantastic Four Annual #12 and Marvel Two-In-One Annual #3, (cumulatively covering September 1977-September 1978), the neophyte learned quickly and on-the-job, earning a sterling reputation, but never quite settled on what he should be doing…

The Man Called Nova was in fact a boy named Richard Rider. The new kid was a working-class teen 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.

Nova borrowed heavily from Green Lantern as well as the wallcrawler’s origin, as Rider’s life changes forever when a colossal star-ship with a dying alien aboard transfers to the lad all the mighty powers of an extraterrestrial peacekeeper and warrior. Centurion Rhomann Dey was tracking a deadly marauder to Earth. Zorr had already destroyed the warrior’s idyllic homeworld Xandar, but the severely wounded, vengeance-seeking Nova Prime was too near death and could not avenge the genocide.

Trusting to fate, Dey beams his powers and abilities towards the planet below where Rich is struck by an energy bolt and plunged into a coma. On awakening, the boy realises he has gained awesome powers… and the responsibilities of the last Nova Centurion…

This compelling trade paperback and/or digitally formatted epic resumes the non-stop action courtesy of Wolfman, Sal Buscema and Joe Sinnott, Nova #13 begins another extended tale with the introduction of debutante hero Crime-Buster in ‘Watch Out World, the Sandman is Back!’

After the once-formidable villain takes a beating, he falls under the influence of a far more sinister menace. Meanwhile, Rich Rider’s dad is going through some bad times and succumbed to the blandishments fallen of a dangerous subversive organisation…

The story continues in the Dick Giordano inked ‘Massacre at Truman High!’ as Sandman attacks Nova’s school and the mystery mastermind is revealed for in-the-know older fans, before guest-star-stuffed action-riot ‘The Fury Before the Storm!’ sees veteran illustrator Carmine Infantino take over pencilling as Tom Palmer returns 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. is real enough and deputises the fledgling fighter for #16’s ‘Death is the Yellow Claw!’ and #17’s spectacular confrontation ‘Tidal Wave!’

As the kid comes good and saves the city of New York from a soggy demise, the long-anticipated conclusion occurs in ‘The Final Showdown!’, inked – as is ‘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 premieres in #19: ‘Blackout Means Business and his Business is Murder!’ opens the final large story-arc of the series, as an ebon-energy wielding maniac attacks Nova, but before that epic completely engages, the Human Rocket guest-stars in some other Marvel titles.

Although included here November 1977’s Fantastic Four Annual #12, isn’t one of them. It proclaims ‘The End of Inhumans… and the Fantastic Four’ (by Wolfman, pencillers Bob Hall & Keith Pollard and inker Bob Wiacek) and lacks any sight of Nova, but does involve the aforementioned heroes battling rogue Inhuman tyrant Thraxon, and his mysterious sponsor. That is old Nova foe the immortal Sphinx, who shares his origins and plans for the Human Rocket before being trounced by the assembled team…

Just slightly lightly less notional is Nova’s appearance in Defenders #62-64, (August to October 1978 by David Anthony Kraft, Sal Buscema, Don Perlin & Jim Mooney). ‘Membership Madness’, ‘Deadlier by the Dozen!’ and ‘D-Day!’ depict how a poorly-judged and unwanted TV documentary leads an army of superheroes – Nova included – to seek membership in the Defenders, leading to chaos and blockbusting battle with Zodiac and an army of villains trying to legitimise their crimes…

This side-bar saga comes with the first two pages of #65 (illustrated by Perlin & Bruce D. Berry) to complete the experience before moving on to a proper team-up from Marvel Two-In-One Annual #3 (September 1978).

Battling beside the Thing in a simple yet entertaining tussle with god-like cosmic marauders Nova resists mightily ‘When Strike the Monitors!’ – crafted by Wolfman, Sal Buscema, Frank Giacoia & Dave Hunt – to save an alien princess and save Earth from demolition.

Adding even more value is a selection of original art pages from Buscema & Giordano, Hall & Wiacek, Buscema & Hunt, Giacoia and Perlin, plus past collection covers by John Romita Jr. Bob Layton, Ed Hannigan, Rich Buckler and John Buscema,

There’s a lot of good, solid fights ‘n’ tights entertainment and fabulous superhero art here, and Nova has proved his intrinsic value by returning again and again. This stalwart edition is one readers can rely on to deliver the blockbusting basics in the approved Marvel Manner.
© 1977, 1978, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Epic Collection volume 3: The Coming of Galactus 1964-1966


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby with Chic Stone, Vince Colletta, Frank Giacoia, Joe Sinnott and various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1331-1 (TPB)

Concocted by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule, Fantastic Four #1 (bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961) was crude: rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement.

Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it and the raw storytelling caught a wave of change starting to build in America. It and succeeding issues changed comicbooks forever.

This full-colour compendium – also available as a digital download – collects issues 33-51 plus the third giant-sized Annual (spanning December 1964 to June 1966): astonishing tales and progressive landmarks as Stan & Jack cannily built on that early energy to consolidate the FF as the leading title and most innovative series of the era.

As seen in the ground-breaking premier issue, maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancée Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother survived an ill-starred private space-shot after Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible, Johnny Storm could turn into living flame and tragic Ben devolved into a shambling, rocky freak.

Here the wonderment resumes

Supplemented by a glorious Kirby & Chic Stone ‘Prince Namor Pin-up’, the wonderment begins ‘Side-by-Side with Sub-Mariner!’, bringing the aquatic anti-hero one step closer to his own series as the team lend surreptitious aid to the embattled undersea monarch against deadly barbarian Attuma who makes his debut in FF #33.

In ‘A House Divided!’, the team are nearly destroyed by Mr. Gregory Hungerford Gideon, the power-hungry “Richest Man in the World” after which (and following a wry ‘Yancy Street Pin-Up’), ‘Calamity on the Campus!’ sees the team visit Reed’s old Alma Mater in a tale designed to pander to the burgeoning college fan-base Marvel was assiduously cultivating.

Incorporating a cameo role for then prospective college student Peter Parker, the rousing yarn brings back demon alchemist Diablo whilst introducing the monstrous misunderstood homunculus Dragon Man. Fantastic Four #36 premiered the team’s theoretical nemeses ‘The Frightful Four’: a team of villains comprising The Wizard, Sandman, Trapster (he was still Paste Pot-Pete here, but not for much longer) plus enigmatic new character Madame Medusa, whose origins were to have a huge impact on the heroes in months to come…

Most notable in this auspicious, action-packed, but inconclusive, duel is the announcement after many months of Reed and Sue’s engagement – in itself a rare event in the realm of comicbooks.

Issue #37 finds the team spectacularly travelling to the homeworld of the shape-shifting Skrulls in search of justice or vengeance (for Sue and Johnny’s recently-murdered father) in ‘Behold! A Distant Star!’ They return only to be ‘Defeated by the Frightful Four!’ in #38: a sinister sneak attack and catastrophic clash of opposing forces with a startling cliff-hanger that marked Chic Stone’s departure in suitably epic manner.

Frank Giacoia – under the pseudonym Frank Ray – stepped in to ink #39’s ‘A Blind Man Shall Lead Them!’ wherein a suddenly-powerless Fantastic Four are targeted by an enraged Doctor Doom with only sightless vigilante Daredevil offering a chance to keep them alive.

The tale concludes in #40 with ‘The Battle of the Baxter Building’ as Vince Colletta assumes the inking duties for a bombastic conclusion that perfectly displays the undeniable power, overwhelming pathos and indomitable heroism of the brutish Thing.

A new era of fantastic suspense begins with the first chapter of a tense and traumatic trilogy in which the other FF brainwash the despondent and increasingly isolated Thing: turning him against his former team-mates.

It starts with ‘The Brutal Betrayal of Ben Grimm!’, continues in rip-roaring fashion as ‘To Save You, Why Must I Kill You?’ pits the monster’s baffled former comrades against their best friend and the world’s most insidious villains before concluding in bombastic glory with #44’s ‘Lo! There Shall be an Ending!’

After that Colletta signed off by inking the most crowded Marvel story yet conceived: Fantastic Four Annual #3. Cover-dated November 1965, it famously features every hero, most of the villains and lots of ancillary characters in the company pantheon (such as teen-romance stars Patsy Walker & Hedy Wolf and even Stan & Jack themselves).

‘Bedlam at the Baxter Building!’ spectacularly celebrates the Richards-Storm nuptials, despite a massed attack by an army of baddies mesmerised by the diabolical Doctor Doom. In its classical simplicity it signalled the end of one era and the start of another…

FF #44 was also landmark in so many ways. Firstly, it saw the arrival of Joe Sinnott as regular inker: a skilled brush-man with a deft line and a superb grasp of anatomy and facial expression, and an artist prepared to match Kirby’s greatest efforts with his own. Some inkers had problems with just how much detail the King would pencil in; Sinnott relished it and the effort showed. What was wonderful now became incomparable…

‘The Gentleman’s Name is Gorgon!’ introduces a mysterious powerhouse with ponderous metal hooves instead of feet, a hunter implacably stalking Medusa. She then entangles the Human Torch – and thus the whole team – in her frantic bid to escape, and that’s before the monstrous android Dragon Man shows up to complicate matters.

All this is merely prelude, however: with the next issue we meet a hidden race of super-beings secretly sharing Earth with us for millennia. ‘Among us Hide… the Inhumans’ reveals Medusa to be part of the Royal Family of Attilan, a race of paranormal aristocrats on the run ever since a coup deposed the true king.

Black Bolt, Triton, Karnak and the rest would quickly become mainstays of the expanding Marvel Universe, but their bewitching young cousin Crystal and her giant teleporting dog Lockjaw (“who’s a Goo-hood Boh-oy?”) were the real stars here. For young Johnny it is love at first sight, and Crystal’s eventual fate would greatly mature his character, giving him a hint of angst-ridden tragedy that resonated greatly with the generation of young readers who were growing up with the comic…

Those Who Would Destroy Us!’ and ‘Beware the Hidden Land!’ (FF#46 – 47) see the team join the Inhumans as Black Bolt struggles to take back the throne from his bonkers brother Maximus the Mad, only to stumble into the usurper’s plan to wipe “inferior” humanity from the Earth.

Ideas just seem to explode from Kirby at this time. Despite being halfway through one storyline, FF #48 trumpeted ‘The Coming of Galactus!’ so the Inhumans saga is swiftly wrapped up by page 6, with the entire clandestine race sealed behind an impenetrable dome called the Negative Zone (later retitled the Negative Barrier to avoid confusion with the gateway to sub-space that Reed worked on for years).

Meanwhile, a cosmic entity approaches Earth, preceded by a gleaming herald on a surfboard of pure cosmic energy…

I suspect this experimental – and vaguely uncomfortable – approach to narrative mechanics was calculated and deliberate, mirroring the way TV soap operas were increasingly delivering their interwoven storylines, and used as a means to keep readers glued to the series.

They needn’t have bothered. The stories and concepts were enough…

‘If this be Doomsday!’ sees planet-eating Galactus setting up shop over the Baxter Building despite the team’s best efforts, whilst his cold and shining herald has his humanity accidentally rekindled by simply conversing with the Thing’s blind girlfriend Alicia Masters.

Issue #50’s ‘The Startling Saga of the Silver Surfer!’ then concludes the epic in grand style as the reawakened ethical core of the Surfer and heroism of the FF buy enough time for Richards to literally save the world with a boldly-borrowed Deus ex Machina gadget…

Once again, the tale ends in the middle of the issue, and the remaining half concentrating on the team getting back to “normal”. To that extent, Johnny finally enrols at Metro College, desperate to forget lost love Crystal and his unnerving jaunts to the ends of the universe.

On his first day, the lad meets imposing and enigmatic Native American Wyatt Wingfoot, destined to become his greatest friend…

That would be a great place to stop but there’s one last titanic story treat: one many fans consider the greatest single FF story ever. Illustrated by Kirby and inked by Sinnott, ‘This Man… This Monster!’ finds Ben’s grotesque body usurped and stolen by a vengeful, petty-minded scientist with a grudge against Reed Richards. The anonymous boffin subsequently discovers the true measure of his unsuspecting intellectual rival and pays a fateful price for his envy…

Topped off with a swathe of enticing house ads, pages of original art (including Kirby’s astounding collage pieces), contemporary apparel art designs and painted Kirby/Dean White covers to previous compilations, this tome teems with tales of unmatched imagination and innovation that cemented Marvel’s dominance and confirmed that they were crafting a comics empire.

The verve, conceptual scope and sheer enthusiasm shines through on every page and the wonder is there for you to share. If you’ve never thrilled to these spectacular sagas then this book of marvels is the perfect key to another – far brighter – world and time.
© 1964, 1965, 1966, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Human Torch and the Thing: Strange Tales – the Complete Collection


By Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Robert Bernstein, Ernie Hart, Jerry Siegel, Larry Ivie, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, Bob Powell, Steve Ditko, Carl Burgos, Wallace Wood & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1334-2 (TPB)

Hot on the heels of the runaway success of Fantastic Four, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby spun the most colourful and youngest member of the team into his own series, hoping to recapture the glory of the 1940s when the Human Torch was one of the company’s “Big Three” superstars.

This captivating, esoteric and economical collection of pure 1960s superhero shenanigans gathers those eclectic but crucial yarns – no less than five major Marvel villains debuted in blistering battle against the Flaming Kid – between Strange Tales #101 – 134, as well as the lead tale from Strange Tales Annual #2 (spanning October 1962-July 1965).

Filled with fabulous classics of old school Marvel Fights ‘n’ Tights mayhem and mirth, this particular compendium (available in trade paperback and assorted eBook formats) also finally acknowledges that for a large part of that run his rocky companion and elder gadfly Ben “the Thing” Grimm was an equal player and partner in crime-busting.

Within a year of FF #1, the magic-&-monsters anthology title Strange Tales became the home for the hot-headed hero. In issue #101, teenager Johnny Storm started his ancillary solo career in the eponymous ‘The Human Torch’.

Scripted by Larry Lieber (over a plot by his brother Stan) and sublimely illustrated by Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers, here the plucky lad investigates sabotage at a new seaside amusement park and promptly discovers Commie-conniving thanks to a Red spy called the Destroyer. Kirby would pencil the first few adventures before moving on, after which inker Ayers would assume control of the series’ look for most of its run – although The King would generate some of the best covers of his Marvel career throughout the Torch’s tenure in Strange Tales.

An odd inconsistency or, more likely, tension- and drama-inducing gimmick did crop up here. Although public figures in the Fantastic Four, Johnny and his sister Sue live part-time in Long Island hamlet of Glenville and, despite the townsfolk being fully aware of her as the glamorous and heroic Invisible Girl, they seem oblivious to the fact that her baby brother is the equally famous Torch. Many daft-but-ingenious pages of Johnny protecting his secret identity would ensue before the situation was brilliantly resolved…

Although something of a hit-or-miss proposition in itself, the strip was the origin point for many of Marvel’s greatest villains. The first of these appeared in the very next issue. ‘Prisoner of the Wizard’ (Lee, Lieber, Kirby & Ayers) sees a spiteful and publicity-hungry intellectual giant determined to crush the Torch to prove his superiority to the callow kid who steals all the newspaper headlines…

The same creative team then produced captivating classic ‘Prisoner of the 5th Dimension’, as Johnny defeats an imminent invasion and frees a captive populace from tyranny before easily trashing adhesive-toting adversary ‘Paste-Pot Pete!’ (later revamped as the terrifying Trapster), before teaming with sister Sue to tackle the perilous ‘Return of the Wizard’.

When Kirby moved on to engineer and design a host of new characters and concepts (occasionally returning as necessity or special events warranted), Ayers assumed full art duties beginning with Strange Tales#106 (March 1963). This Lee & Lieber yarn was notable in that it revealed that the entire town of Glenville had always known the Torch’s secret identity but were just playing along to keep him happy…

When Acrobat Carl Zante knocks on Johnny’s door and offers him a better-paying gig in ‘The Threat of the Torrid Twosome’, the kid’s head is swelled and swayed, but he soon learns he’s been played by a master conman and diabolical bandit…

This first hint of tongue-in-cheek whimsy presaged an increasing lightness of touch which would come to characterise the Marvel style as much as the infighting between team-mates. The villainous Zante would return for another milestone in issue #114…

Issue #107 was Lieber’s last as Ayers drew a splendid punch-up with the ‘Sub-Mariner’ – a tale reminiscent of the spectacular and immensely popular Golden Age battles of their publishing forebears. Veteran writer Robert “Berns” Bernstein scripted the next two – frankly daft – sagas over Lee’s plots, but the saving grace of both ‘The Painter of a Thousand Perils!’ (empowered by an alien art kit which brought illustrations to life in ST #108) and ‘The Sorcerer and Pandora’s Box’ (#109, with monstrous demons attacking humanity) was the brief return of Kirby to the pencilling.

H.E. Huntley (Ernie Hart) typed the words for Ayers to illumine in ‘The Human Torch vs. the Wizard and Paste-Pot Pete!’: a cunning clash presaging the villains’ eventual evolution into FF’s evil counterparts the Frightful Four.

In #111 the Torch made short work of ‘Fighting to the Death with the Asbestos Man!’ – yet another demented scientist experiencing the travails and tragedies of simpler times.

Strange Tales #112 (scripted by Jerry Siegel under pen-name Joe Carter) introduced murderous electrical marauder the Eel who accidentally swiped and activated a miniature A-Bomb in tense, multifaceted thriller ‘The Human Torch Faces the Threat of the Living Bomb!’, after which1963’s Strange Tales Annual #2, featured ‘The Human Torch on the Trail of the Amazing Spider-Man!’

This terrific romp by Lee, Kirby & Steve Ditko details how the wallcrawler is framed by international art thief The Fox, whilst back in regular comicbook Strange Tales #113, “Carter” created another long-term always-employed baddie in ‘The Coming of the Plantman!’

November’s Strange Tales #114 then changed the face of the Marvel Firmament forever…

Written by Lee himself and illustrated by Kirby & Ayers, it featured the return of the third of Timely Comics’ Golden Age Big Three – or at least an impersonation of him by the insidious Acrobat – in a blockbusting battle entitled ‘The Human Torch meets…Captain America!

Here’s a quote from the last panel…

“You guessed it! This story was really a test! To see if you too would like Captain America to Return! As usual, your letters will give us the answer!” I wonder how that all turned out?

Lee took over as scripter with ST #115’s ‘The Sandman Strikes!’ wherein Johnny impersonates Spider-Man to defeat the granular gangster Flint Marko, after which the Torrid Teen and team-mate Ben Grimm battle each other while ‘In the Clutches of the Puppet Master!’ (#116, with Ayers inked by George Roussos in his own secret identity of George Bell).

‘The Return of the Eel! proved far more of a challenge in #117, after which the Wizard has another go as ‘The Man Who Became the Torch!’, consequently nearly killing the Thing and Reed Richards besides.

A first brush with Marvel’s soon-to-be core readership came in #119. ‘The Torch Goes Wild!’ details how Commie Agent the Rabble Rouser mesmerises decent citizens, making them surly and rebellious, after which Kirby stepped back in for #120 as ‘The Torch Meets Iceman!’: a terrific action-extravaganza that pretty much ended the glory days of this strip. From then on, despite every gimmick and occasional burst of sheer inspiration, the Bullpen could muster, a slow decline set in as quirky back-up strip Doctor Strange grew in popularity – and cover space…

ST #121 saw Johnny as ‘Prisoner of the Plantman!’ (Lee & Ayers) and #122 found a thug, a conman and a yogi all augmented by Dr. Doom and mustered as the woefully lame Terrible Trio ordered to launch an ill-conceived attack in ‘3 Against the Torch!’

Strange Tales #123 has a creepy inventor build himself an impressive insectoid exo-suit to get rich the easy way, as – in an effort to boost ratings – The Thing becomes a permanent fixture in ‘The Birth of the Beetle!’

This so-so saga was most notable for the pencil job by Golden Age Torch creator Carl Burgos, after which Johnny and Ben tackle a fully re-designed ‘Paste-Pot Pete’ (inked by Paul Reinman) before going after another old adversary in ‘The Sub-Mariner Must Be Stopped!’

‘Pawns of the Deadly Duo!’ sees Puppet Master return, allied to the Mad Thinker in a clever but shallow yarn whilst #127 pits Ben and Johnny against a bizarre puzzle and ‘The Mystery Villain!’

After a stunning Kirby pin-up of the Thing, the Fantastic Two then unwillingly battle ‘Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch’ in #128 (this one inked by Frankie Ray, AKA Frank Giacoia), as the Homo Superior siblings make an abortive first attempt to quit Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, after which ‘The Terrible Trio!’ once more fail to impress or assassinate our heroes…

Pop culture reeled and staggered with #130 in ‘Meet the Beatles’ (not villains, but actually some sort of popular musical combo of the times, and they actually didn’t meet them at all), although brilliant Golden Age artist Bob Powell (with inking from Chic Stone) did take over the art chores for the comedy of errors/crime caper.

Ayers returned to ink #131, the dire ‘Bouncing Ball of Doom!’ with the Mad Thinker siccing a cybernetic bowling bowl on the pair before Larry Ivie scripts a capable Space Race thriller in ‘The Sinister Space Trap!’ (inked by Mike Esposito under his Mickey DeMeo alias).

Stan Lee returned for the last two tales in ST #133 and #134; ‘The Terrible Toys’ wherein Puppet Master tries a new modus operandi and ‘The Challenge of… The Watcher!’ (inked by the majestic Wally Wood) wherein Torch and Thing are transported to legendary Camelot to battle time-reaver Kang the Conqueror, but it was clear the writer’s mind was elsewhere, most likely with the new Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. strip that would replace the FF pair from Strange Tales #135 onwards.

Wrapping up this memory lane meander are a marvellous melange of original art pages by Kirby and/or Ayers, nostalgia-invoking House Ads and a cover gallery from the 1974-75 reprint series of Golden and Silver Age Torch Tales, rendered by John Romita, Joe Sinnott, Larry Lieber, Ron Wilson, Frank Giacoia, Gil Kane, Al Milgrom &Vince Colletta, plus the Kirby/Richard Isanove paint cover from Marvel Masterworks: The Human Torch #1.

It’s interesting to note that as the parent Fantastic Four title grew in scope and quality the Human Torch’s own series diminished. Perhaps there is something to be said for concentrating one’s efforts or not overexposing your stars. What was originally a spin-off for the younger audience faded as Marvel found its voice and its marketplace, although there would be periodic efforts to reinvigorate the Torch.

Sadly, the historic value often supersedes the quality of most of these strange tales, but there’s still a good deal that’s great about this series and Costumed Drama devotees with a sense of tradition and love of fun will find this book irresistible and unmissable.
© 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.