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.

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, George Tuska, Herb Trimpe, Bob Brown, Ron Wilson, Arvell Jones & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1332-8 (TPB)

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

The only real exception to this was the 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 – preferably 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 Marvel Team-Up the House of Ideas carried on the trend with a series starring bashful, blue-eyed Ben Grimm – the Fantastic Four’s most iconic member – beginning with a brace of test runs in Marvel Feature before graduating to its own somewhat over-elaborate title.

This trade paperback and eBook compendium gathers together the contents of Marvel Feature #11-12, Marvel Two-In-One #1-19, 22-25 and Marvel Team-Up #47, covering the period September 1973 – September 1976, and kicks off with a perennial favourite pairing as the Thing again clashes with the Hulk in ‘Cry: Monster! (by Len Wein, Jim Starlin & Joe Sinnott) wherein Kurrgo, Master of Planet X and the lethal Leader manipulate the blockbusting brutes into duking it out – ostensibly to settle a wager – but with both misshapen masterminds concealing hidden agendas…

That ever-inconclusive yet cataclysmic confrontation strands Ben in the Nevada desert where Mike Friedrich, Starlin & Sinnott promptly drop him into the middle of the ongoing war against mad Titan Thanos as Iron Man – helped by the Thing – crushes 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 for Marvel Two-In-One #1 (January 1974). Here Steve Gerber, Gil Kane & Sinnott magnificently reveal the ‘Vengeance of the Molecule Man!’ as Ben learns some horrifying home truths about what constitutes being a monster, battling with and beside ghastly grotesque anti-hero Man-Thing.

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

Sal Buscema signed on as penciller with #3 with the Rocky Ranger joining the Man Without Fear ‘Inside Black Spectre!’: a crossover instalment of an extended epic then playing out in Daredevil #108-112 (this action-packed fight-fest featuring the swashbuckler and the Black Widow occurring 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 concluded in MTIO #5 as the Guardians of the Galaxy (the future team not the modern movie sensations) 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 in case you’re the kind of reader that craves comics closure…).

Marvel Two-In-One #6 (November 1974) began a complex crossover tale with the aforementioned Defenders as Dr. Strange and the Thing are embroiled in 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), only to be 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 one of many collected volumes for the full story…

Back here, though, issue #8 teamed the Thing and supernatural sensation Ghost Rider in a quirky yet compelling Yuletide yarn for a ‘Silent Night… Deadly Night!’ (Gerber, Buscema & Esposito) wherein the audacious Miracle Man tries to usurp a very special birth in a stable…

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

Marvel Two-In-One had quickly become a clearing house for cancelled series and uncompleted storylines. Supernatural star The Golem had featured in Strange Tales #174, 176 and 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 opportunity to end the saga when ‘The Thing Goes South’ results 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 ‘I Created Braggadoom!, the Mountain that Walked like a Man!’: an old fashioned homage scripted by Roger Slifer & Len Wein, after which Mantlo, Trimpe & John Tartaglione collaborate on a spooky encounter with spectres and demons in #14’s ‘Ghost Town!’ This moody mission is shared with bellicose newcomer The Son of Satan

Mantlo, Arvell Jones & Dick Giordano bring on ‘The Return of the Living Eraser!’: a dimension-hopping invasion yarn introducing Ben to Morbius, the Living Vampire before a canny crossover epic begins with the Thing and Ka-Zar plunging ‘Into the Savage Land!’ to dally with dinosaurs and defeat resource-plunderers, after which the action switches to New York as Spider-Man joins the party in MTIO #17 to combat ‘This City… Afire!’ (Mantlo, Sal Buscema & Esposito) when a mutated madman 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 reveal how the day is saved in fine style with ‘I Have to Fight the Basilisk!’

Another short-changed supernatural serial was finally sorted out in MTIO #18. ‘Dark, Dark Demon-Night!’ by Mantlo, Scott Edelman, Wilson, Jim Mooney & Adkins, sees 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.

This initial compendium also includes house ads, and loads of original art and covers from Kane, Wilson and Buscema to seal a splendid deal. These stories from Marvel’s Middle Period are of variable quality but nonetheless all are honest efforts to entertain and exhibit a dedicated drive to please. Whilst artistically the work varies from adequate to quite superb, most fans of 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 lots of fun on hand and young readers will have a blast, so why not add this titanic tome to your straining superhero bookshelves?
© 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 3


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1182-5 (HB)                    978-0-7851-4296-6 (TPB)

Fantastic Four #1 is the third most important American comicbook in the industry’s astounding history. Just ahead of it are The Brave and the Bold #28, which brought superhero teams back via the creation of the Justice League of America. At the top is Showcase #4, which introduced the Flash and therefore the Silver Age. Feel free to disagree…

After a troubled period at DC Comics – National Periodicals as it then was – and a creatively productive but disheartening time on the poisoned chalice of the Sky Masters newspaper strip (see Complete Sky Masters of the Space Force) Jack Kirby settled into his job at the small outfit that used to be the publishing powerhouse Timely/Atlas.

He churned out mystery, monster, romance and western material in a market he suspected to be ultimately doomed, but as always, did the best job possible. That quirky genre fare is now considered some of the best of its kind ever seen.

However, his fertile imagination couldn’t be suppressed for long and when the JLA caught the readerships attention it gave him and writer/editor Stan Lee an opportunity to change the industry forever.

Depending upon who you believe, a golfing afternoon led publisher/owner Martin Goodman ordering his nephew Stan to try a series about a group of super-characters like the one DC was doing. The resulting team quickly took fans by storm. It wasn’t the powers: they’d all been seen since the beginning of the medium. It wasn’t the costumes: they didn’t have any until the third issue.

It was Kirby’s compelling art and the fact that these characters weren’t anodyne cardboard cut-outs. In a real and a recognizable location – New York City – imperfect, raw-nerved, touchy people banded together out of tragedy, disaster and necessity to face the incredible.

In many ways, The Challengers of the Unknown (Kirby’s prototype partners-in-peril at National/DC) laid all the groundwork for the wonders to come, but the staid, almost hide-bound editorial strictures of National would never have allowed the undiluted energy of the concept to run all-but-unregulated.

Fantastic Four #1 (bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, by Lee, Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) is crude: rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it.

As seen in that 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 poor, tragic Ben devolved into a shambling, rocky freak. Despite these terrifying transformations, before long the quartet had become the darlings of the modern age: celebrity stalwarts alternately saving the world and publicly squabbling shamefully…

This full-colour hardcover or paperback compendium (also available in various digital formats) collects Fantastic Four #21-30 – spanning December 1963 to September 1964.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos was another solid Marvel hit. Eventually its brusque and brutal star would metamorphose into the company’s answer to James Bond. Here, however, he’s a simple CIA agent seeking the team’s aid against a sinister demagogue called ‘The Hate-Monger’ in a cracking yarn with a strong message, inked by comics veteran George Roussos, under the protective nom-de-plume George Bell.

By this juncture the FF were firmly established and creators Lee & Kirby were well on the way to toppling DC/National Comics from their decades-held top spot through an engaging blend of brash, folksy and consciously contemporaneous sagas, mixing high concept, broad comedy, trenchant melodrama and breathtaking action.

Unseen since the premiere issue, #22 finally featured ‘The Return of the Mole Man!’; another full-on monster-mashing fight-fest, chiefly notable for the debut of the Invisible Girl’s newly developed powers of projecting force fields and “invisible energy”.

After an incredibly long period these would eventually make her one of the mightiest characters in the company’s pantheon…

Fantastic Four #23 heralded ‘The Master Plan of Doctor Doom!’, and introduced his frankly mediocre minions the Terrible Trio of Bull Brogin, Handsome Harry and Yogi Dakor. Even after thy were boosted by Doom’s science the goons were sub-par but the uncanny menace of “the Solar Wave” was enough to raise the hackles on my 5-year-old neck… and still does…

(Do I need to qualify that with: all of me was five but only my precious neck had developed hackles worth boasting of back then?)

Issue #24’s ‘The Infant Terrible!’ was a sterling yarn of inadvertent extra-galactic menace and misplaced innocence, as New York is besieged by a lost and wilful alien child with the power to reshape reality.

It’s followed by a two-part epic that truly defined the inherent difference between Lee & Kirby’s work and everybody else’s at that time.

Fantastic Four #25 and 26 featured a cataclysmic clash that had young heads spinning in 1964 and led directly to the Emerald Behemoth finally regaining a strip of his own. In ‘The Hulk Vs The Thing’ and concluding clash ‘The Avengers Take Over!’, a fast-paced, all-out Battle Royale resulted when the gargantuan green man-monster came to New York in search of side-kick Rick Jones, and only an injury-wracked FF stood in the way of his destructive rampage.

Highlighting a definitive moment in the character development of The Thing, the action is ramped up when a rather stiff-necked and officious, newly-constituted Avengers team horn in, claiming jurisdictional rights on “Bob” Banner (this tale is plagued with pesky continuity errors which would haunt Stan Lee for decades) and his Jaded alter ego.

Notwithstanding the bloopers, this is one of Marvel’s key moments and still a visceral, vital read.

The creators had hit on a winning formula by including their other stars in guest-shots – especially as readers could never anticipate if they would fight with or beside the home team.

‘The Search for Sub-Mariner!’ again sees the undersea anti-hero in amorous mood, and when he abducts Sue the boys called in Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts to aid them… Issue #28 is a superb team-up tale too, most notable (for me and many other older fans) for the man who replaced George Roussos.

‘We Have to Fight the X-Men!’ has the disparate teams clashing due to the machinations of Puppet Master and the Mad Thinker, but the inclusion of Chic Stone – Kirby’s most simpatico and expressive inker – elevated the art to indescribable levels of slick, seductive quality.

‘It Started on Yancy Street!’ (FF#29) begins in a low-key manner with plenty of silly basic comedy on show as the team investigate a crime wave in the slum where Ben Grimm grew up. After dodging cabbages and garbage, things get serious with the reappearance of the Red Ghost and his Super-Apes before the action quickly goes full-on Cosmic…

Abducted into space, the heroes enjoy blockbusting battle on the Moon and another dauntingly close encounter with the omnipotent Watcher

The following issue introduced evil alchemist ‘The Dreaded Diablo!’ who almost breaks up the team while casually conquering the world from his spooky Transylvanian castle. His divide and conquer strategy involved almost curing The Thing of his monstrous deformity, but alchemy, unlike friendship, proves to be fleeting and untrustworthy…

This is a truly magnificent book to read, highlighting the tales that built a comics empire. It’s actually so well-crafted that it could easily work as anybody’s introduction to the most famous family in comicbooks.

The verve, imagination and sheer enthusiasm shines through and the wonder is there for you to share. If you’ve never thrilled to these spectacular sagas then this book of marvels is your best and most economical key to another world and time.
© 1963, 1964, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 2


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-0980-8 (HB)                    978-0-7851-3712-2 (TPB)

Fantastic Four #1 is the third most important American comicbook in the industry’s astounding history. Just ahead of it are The Brave and the Bold #28, which brought superhero teams back via the creation of the Justice League of America, and at the top Showcase #4, which introduced the Flash and therefore the Silver Age. Feel free to disagree…

After a troubled period at DC Comics – National Periodicals as it then was – and a creatively productive but disheartening time on the poisoned chalice of the Sky Masters newspaper strip (see Complete Sky Masters of the Space Force), Jack Kirby settled into his job at the small outfit that used to be the publishing powerhouse Timely/Atlas.

He churned out mystery, monster, romance and western material in a market he suspected to be ultimately doomed but, as always, did the best job possible. That quirky genre fare is now considered some of the best of its kind ever seen.

However, his fertile imagination couldn’t be suppressed for long and when the JLA caught the readership’s attention it gave him and writer/editor Stan Lee an opportunity to change the industry forever.

Depending upon who you believe, a golfing afternoon led publisher/owner Martin Goodman ordering his nephew Stan to try a series about a group of super-characters like the one DC was doing. The resulting team quickly took fans by storm. It wasn’t the powers: they’d all been seen since the beginning of the medium. It wasn’t the costumes: they didn’t have any until the third issue.

It was Kirby’s compelling art and the fact that these characters weren’t anodyne cardboard cut-outs. In a real and a recognizable location – New York City – imperfect, raw-nerved, touchy people banded together out of tragedy, disaster and necessity to face the incredible.

In many ways, The Challengers of the Unknown (Kirby’s prototype partners-in-peril at National/DC) laid all the groundwork for the wonders to come, but the staid, almost hide-bound editorial strictures of National would never have allowed the undiluted energy of the concept to run all-but-unregulated.

Fantastic Four #1 (bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, by Lee, Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) is crude: rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it.

As seen in that ground-breaking premier issue, maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancé 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 poor, tragic Ben devolved into a shambling, rocky freak. Despite these terrifying transformations, before long the quartet had become the darlings of the modern age: celebrity stalwarts alternately saving the world and publicly squabbling shamefully…

This full-colour hardcover or paperback compendium (also available in various digital formats) collects Fantastic Four #11-20, plus the first Annual, and chronologically spans February to November 1963.

We open sans preamble with more groundbreaking innovations as FF #11 offers two short stories instead of the usual book-length yarn. ‘A Visit with the Fantastic Four’ provides a behind-the-scenes travelogue and examination of our stars’ pre-superhero lives, after which ‘The Impossible Man’, proves to be a baddie-free, compellingly comedic tale about facing an unbeatable foe.

The unorthodox shenanigans are rounded off with a suitably grandiose pin-up of Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner.

FF #12 featured an early example of guest-star promotion as the team are required to help the US army capture ‘The Incredible Hulk’: a tale packed with intrigue, action and bitter irony. It’s followed by an even more momentous and game-changing episode.

‘Versus the Red Ghost and his Incredible Super Apes!’ is a cold war thriller pitting the heroic family against a Soviet scientist in the race to reach the Moon: a tale notable both for the moody Steve Ditko inking (replacing adroit Dick Ayers for one glorious month) of Kirby’s artwork and the introduction of the oxygen-rich “Blue Area of the Moon” and the omnipotent, omnipresent cosmic voyeurs called The Watchers

As the triumphant Americans rocket home, issue #14 touts the return of ‘The Sub-Mariner and the Merciless Puppet Master!’ – with one vengeful fiend made the unwitting mind-slave of the other – and adding lustre and tantalising moral ambivalence to the mighty Sea King who was to become the company’s other all-conquering antihero in months to come…

This epic was followed in turn by ‘The Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android!’ wherein a chilling war of intellects between driven super-scientists resulted in a cerebral yet all-action clash with plenty of room for smart laughs to leaven the drama. The pin-up extra this time is a candid group-shot of the entire team.

Fantastic Four #16 explored ‘The Micro-World of Doctor Doom!’ in a spectacular romp guest-starring new hero Ant-Man whilst also offering a Fantastic Four Feature Page outlining the powers and capabilities of the elastic Mister Fantastic. Despite his resounding defeat, the steel-shod villain promptly returned with more infallible, deadly traps a month later in ‘Defeated by Doctor Doom!’ Except they actually weren’t and soon sent the sinister tyrant packing…

The shape-shifting aliens who challenged the team in their second adventure returned with a new tactic in #18 as the team tackle an implacable foe equipped with their own powers in ‘A Skrull Walks Among Us!’: a potent prelude to greater, cosmos-spanning sagas still to come…

Cover-dated October 1963, Fantastic Four #19 introduced another remarkable, top-ranking super-villain as the quarrelsome quartet travel back to ancient Egypt and become ‘Prisoners of the Pharaoh!’

This time twisting tale tale has been revisited by so many writers that it’s considered one of the key stories in Marvel Universe history: introducing a future-Earth tyrant who would evolve into overarching menace Kang the Conqueror.

Another universe-rending foe debuted and was defeated by brains not brawn in FF #20 as ‘The Mysterious Molecule Man!’ briefly menaced New York before being soundly outsmarted.

The vintage wonderment concludes here with the contents of the first summer Fantastic Four Annual: a spectacular 37-page epic by Lee, Kirby & Ayers as, finally reunited with their wandering prince, the armies of Atlantis invade New York City and the rest of the world in ‘The Sub-Mariner versus the Human Race!’

A monumental tale by the standards of the time (and still today), the saga saw the FF repel the initially overwhelming undersea invasion through valiant struggle, brilliant strategy and technological innovation, as well as providing a secret history of the secretive race Homo Mermanus.

Nothing was really settled except a return to the original status quo, but the thrills are intense and unforgettable…

Also included herein are rousing pin-ups and fact file features. Interspersed by ‘A Gallery of the Fantastic Four’s Most Famous Foes!’ (powerful pin-ups of The Mole Man, Skrulls, Miracle Man, Prince Namor, Doctor Doom, Kurrgo, Master of Planet X, Puppet Master, Impossible Man, The Hulk, Red Ghost and his Indescribable Super-Apes and The Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android), you can enjoy ‘Questions and Answers about the Fantastic Four’; a diagrammatic trip ‘Inside the Baxter Building’ and a bemusing short tale ‘The Fabulous Fantastic Four meet Spider-Man!’.

This is an extended re-interpretation of the first meeting between the two most popular Marvel brands from the premiere issue of the wallcrawler’s own comic. Pencilled this time by Kirby, the dramatic duel was graced by Steve Ditko’s inking which created a truly novel and compelling look.

Some might argue that these yarns might be a little dated in tone, but they these are still classics of comic story-telling illustrated by one of the world’s greatest talents approaching his mature peak. Fast, frantic fun and a joy to read or re-read, this comprehensive, joyous introduction (or even reintroduction) to these characters is a wonderful reminder of just how good comic books can and should be.
© 1963, 2014 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 1


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0785137108 (TPB 2009)              978-0785191292 (HB 2015)

I’m partial to a bit of controversy so I’m going start off by saying that Fantastic Four #1 is the third most important American comicbook of the last 75 years. Just ahead of it are The Brave and the Bold #28, which brought superhero teams back via the creation of the Justice League of America and at the top Showcase #4, which introduced the Flash and therefore the Silver Age. Feel free to disagree…

After a troubled period at DC Comics – National Periodicals as it then was – and a creatively productive but disheartening time on the poisoned chalice of the Sky Masters newspaper strip (see Complete Sky Masters of the Space Force), Jack Kirby settled into his job at the small outfit that used to be the publishing powerhouse Timely/Atlas.

He churned out mystery, monster, romance and western material in a market he suspected to be ultimately doomed but, as always, did the best job possible. That quirky genre fare is now considered some of the best of its kind ever seen.

However, his fertile imagination couldn’t be suppressed for long and when the JLA caught the readership’s attention it gave him and writer/editor Stan Lee an opportunity to change the industry forever.

Depending upon who you believe, a golfing afternoon led publisher/owner Martin Goodman ordering his nephew Stan to try a series about a group of super-characters like the one DC was doing. The resulting team quickly took fans by storm. It wasn’t the powers: they’d all been seen since the beginning of the medium. It wasn’t the costumes: they didn’t have any until the third issue.

It was Kirby’s compelling art and the fact that these characters weren’t anodyne cardboard cut-outs. In a real and a recognizable location – New York City – imperfect, raw-nerved, touchy people banded together out of tragedy, disaster and necessity to face the incredible.

In many ways, The Challengers of the Unknown (Kirby’s prototype partners-in-peril at National/DC) laid all the groundwork for the wonders to come, but the staid, almost hide-bound editorial strictures of National would never have allowed the undiluted energy of the concept to run all-but-unregulated.

Fantastic Four #1 (bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, by Lee, Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) is crude: rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it.

This full-colour compendium (available in hardback, trade paperback and digital formats) collects the first 10 issues of progressive landmarks – spanning November 1961 to January 1963 – and opens with ‘The Fantastic Four’ exactly as seen in that groundbreaking premier issue.

It sees maverick scientist Reed Richards summon his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother before heading off on their first mission. They are all survivors of a private space-shot that went horribly wrong when 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 was a hideous freak trapped in a shambling, rocky body.

In ‘The Fantastic Four meet the Mole Man’ they promptly foil a plan by another outcast who controls monsters and enslaves humanoids from far beneath the Earth.

This summation of the admittedly mediocre plot cannot do justice to the engrossing wonder of that breakthrough issue – we really have no awareness today of how different in tone, how shocking it all was.

“Different” doesn’t mean “better” even here, but the FF was like no other comic on the market at the time and buyers responded to it hungrily. The brash experiment continued with another old plot in #2. ‘The Skrulls from Outer Space’ were shape-changing aliens who framed the FF in the eyes of shocked humanity before the genius of Mister Fantastic bluffed them into abandoning their plans for conquering Earth. The issue concluded with a monstrous pin-up of the Thing, proudly touted as the first in a series…

Sure enough, there was a pin-up of the Human Torch in #3, which headlined ‘The Menace of the Miracle Man’ (inked by Sol Brodsky), whose omnipotent powers had a simple secret, but is more notable for the first appearance of their uniforms, and a shocking line-up change, leading directly into the next issue (continued stories were an innovation in themselves) which revived a golden-age great.

‘The Coming of the Sub-Mariner’ reintroduced the all-powerful amphibian Prince of Atlantis, a star of Timely’s Golden Age but one who had been lost for years.

A victim of amnesia, the relic recovers his memory thanks to some rather brusque treatment by the delinquent Torch. Namor then returns to his sub-sea home only to find it destroyed by atomic testing. A monarch without subjects, he swears vengeance on humanity and attacks New York City with a gigantic monster. This saga is when the series truly kicked into high-gear and Reed was the star of the pin-up section…

Until now the creative team – who had been in the business since it began – had been hedging their bets. Despite the innovations of a contemporary superhero experiment their antagonists had relied heavily on the trappings of popular trends in the media – and as reflected in their other titles.

Aliens and especially monsters played a major part in the earlier tales but Fantastic Four #5 took a full-bite out of the Fights n’ Tights apple by introducing the first full-blown super-villain to the budding Marvel Universe.

No, I haven’t forgotten Mole Man: but that tragic little gargoyle, for all his plans of world conquest, wouldn’t truly acquire the persona of a costumed foe until his more refined second appearance in #22.

‘Prisoners of Doctor Doom’ (July 1962, and inked by the subtly slick Joe Sinnott) has it all. An attack by a mysterious enemy from Reed’s past; magic and super-science, lost treasure, time-travel, even pirates. Ha-Haar, me ‘earties!

Sheer magic! And the creators knew they were on to a winner since the deadly Doctor returned the very next issue, teaming with a reluctant Sub-Mariner to attack our heroes as ‘The Deadly Duo!’ (inked by new regular embellisher Dick Ayers).

Alien kidnappers were the motivating force behind another FF frame-up, resulting in the team becoming ‘Prisoners of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X’; a dark, grandiose, cosmic-scaled off-world thriller in #7 (the first monthly issue), whilst a new returning villain and the introduction of a love-interest for the monstrous Thing were the breakthrough high-points in #8’s ‘Prisoners of the Puppet Master!’

The saga was topped off with a Fantastic Four Feature Page explaining how the Torch’s powers work. The next issue offered another, detailing with endearing mock-science ‘How the Human Torch Flies!’

That issue – #9 – trumpeted ‘The End of the Fantastic Four’ as the Sub-Mariner returns to exploit another brilliant innovation in comic storytelling. When had a super-genius superhero ever messed up so much that the team had to declare bankruptcy? When had costumed crimefighters ever had money troubles at all? The eerily prescient solution was to “sell out” and make a blockbuster movie – giving Kirby a rare chance to demonstrate his talent for caricature…

1963 was a pivotal year in the development of Marvel. Lee & Kirby had proved that their new high concept – human heroes with flaws and tempers – had a willing audience. Now they would extend that concept to a new pantheon of heroes. Here is where the second innovation would come to the fore.

Previously, super-heroes were sufficient unto themselves and shared adventures were rare. Here, however, was a universe where characters often tripped over each other, sometimes even fighting each other’s enemies! The creators themselves might turn even up in a Marvel Comic!

Fantastic Four #10 featured ‘The Return of Doctor Doom!’ wherein the arch-villain used Stan & Jack to lure the Richards into a trap where his mind is switched with the bad Doctor’s. The tale was supplemented by a pin-up – at long-last – of ‘Sue Storm, the Glamorous Invisible Girl’

Although possibly – just, perhaps – a little dated in tone, these are still undeniable classics of comic storytelling illustrated by one of the world’s greatest talents approaching his mature peak. They are fast, frantic fun and a joy to read or re-read. This comprehensive, joyous introduction (or reintroduction) to these characters is a wonderful reminder of just how good comic books can and should be.
© 1961, 1962, 1963, 2009, 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 12


By Stan Lee, Archie Goodwin, Roy Thomas, John Buscema, Joe Sinnott & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4218-8 (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 #117-128: spanning December 1971 to November 1972 with Stan Lee surrendering the scripting chores whilst John Buscema and 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…

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 Preface from Lee and a candid, context-creating and fact-filled Introduction by Roy Thomas, the drama opens with the team in turmoil as usual. After saving the world (from the Over-mind) the heartsick Human Torch headed for the Himalayas and a long-delayed rapprochement with his lost girlfriend Crystal of the Uncanny Inhumans in FF #117.

Months previously she had been forced to leave civilisation because modern pollutants had poisoned her system, but when blazing mad Johnny Storm battled his way into her homeland in ‘The Flame and the Quest!’ (written by Archie Goodwin) he is horrified to discover that she had never arrived back in the Great Refuge of Attilan

Flying way back to New York, Johnny consults part-time nanny and career-sorceress Agatha Harkness who tracks Crystal down in Central American dictatorship Terra Verde. Arriving there exhausted and expectant, Johnny finds his love is the mesmerised slave of arcane alchemist Diabolo.

The mystic has convinced the populace – and Crystal – that she is a reborn goddess and needs her to seize control in ‘Thunder in the Ruins!’ (inked by Jim Mooney). He would have succeeded too, if not for that flaming kid…

The issue also included an intriguing short piece starring the Thing in ‘What Mad World?’ (Goodwin, Buscema & Mooney) wherein the Tragic Titan is afforded a glimpse of an alternate Earth where an even greater mishap occurred after the fateful spaceflight which created the FF…

The Black Panther – cautiously renamed Black Leopard for contemporary political reasons – guest-starred in #119’s ‘Three Stood Together!’ as inker Sinnott returned and Roy Thomas scripted a damning – if shaded – indictment of South African apartheid.

When the heroic ruler of jungle wonderland Wakanda is interned in the white-ruled state of Rudyarda, Ben and Johnny fly in to bust him out and clash with old enemy Klaw who is attempting to steal a deadly new super-weapon…

Fantastic Four #120 heralded an extended and overlong epic by Stan Lee which began with ‘The Horror that Walks on Air!’ as a seemingly omnipotent invader claiming to be an angel scours the Earth and declares humanity doomed.

The tale laboriously continues in ‘The Mysterious Mind-Blowing Secret of Gabriel!’ with the recently reunited and utterly overmatched quartet saved by the late-arriving Silver Surfer before facing off against world-devouring ‘Galactus Unleashed’, before Reed again outsmarts the cosmic god to prevent the consumption of ‘This World Enslaved!’

Although beautifully illustrated, the hackneyed saga was a series low-point, but Lee was back on solid dramatic ground with #124’s ‘The Return of the Monster’ and concluding episode ‘The Monster’s Secret!’ wherein the mystery menace Reed had once dubbed ‘the Monster from the Lost Lagoon’ resurfaces to haunt a Manhattan hospital, steal drugs and kidnap Sue… but only for the best and most noble of reasons…

Roy Thomas assumed the role of writer/editor with #126, revisiting the classic origin and first clash (from FF #1) with the Mole Man in ‘The Way it Began!’ this was all mere prelude for what was to follow…

The reverie prompts the Thing to invade the sub-surface despot’s realm in search of a cure for the blindness which afflicts his girlfriend Alicia Masters in ‘Where the Sun Dares Not Shine!’ and all-too soon the embattled brute is embroiled in a three-way war between Mole Man, Kala, Empress of the Netherworld and immortal dictator Tyrannus.

When his comrades go after Ben they are duped into attacking him in ‘Death in a Dark and Lonely Place!’

The narrative concluded for the moment, there follow four pages of pin-ups by Buscema & Sinnott highlighting ‘The Fabulous F.F.’s Friends… and Foes’, plus the Kirby & Vince Colletta cover to 1971’s all-reprint Fantastic Four Annual #9 to wrap up this morsel of Marvel magic.

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. These admittedly erratic and inconsistent stories kept the team book 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 appreciated by dedicated superhero fans and continuity freaks like me, but they can still thrill and enthral the generous and forgiving casual browser looking for an undemanding slice of graphic narrative excitement.
© 1971, 1972, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved