Marvel Two-in-One Masterworks volume 1


By Steve Gerber, Len Wein, Mike Friedrich, Chris Claremont, Jim Starlin, Gil Kane, Sal Buscema, George Tuska, Herb Trimpe, Bob Brown & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6633-7 (HB)

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 – and usually 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 hardback and digital formats – gathers the contents of Marvel Feature #11-12 and Marvel Two-In-One #1-10, covering September 1973 – July 1975, and opens with a Roy Thomas Introduction explaining how it was Stan’s idea…

Then the much told tales take centre stage with a perennial favourite pairing and the Thing once more clashing with The Incredible Hulk in ‘Cry: Monster! by Len Wein, Jim Starlin & Joe Sinnott (from MF #11).

Here, Kurrgo, Master of Planet X and the lethal Leader manipulate both blockbusting brutes into duking it out – ostensibly to settle a wager – but with the mighty minded, misshapen masterminds each 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 with Iron Man helping Ben crush monstrous alien invaders in ’The Bite of the Blood Brothers!’ (Marvel Feature #12, November 1973): another spectacular and painfully pretty all-action punch-up.

Still stuck in the desert when the dust settles, Ben laboriously treks to a minor outpost of civilisation just in time to be diverted to Florida for the grand opening of his own title. Cover-dated January 1974, Marvel Two-In-One #1 sees Steve Gerber, Gil Kane & Sinnott magnificently detail the ‘Vengeance of the Molecule Man!’, with Ben learning some horrifying home truths about what constitutes being a monster after 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 Namor, the Sub-Mariner (another series Gerber was currently writing) and the Aquatic Avenger’s feisty and single-minded cousin Namoritaagainst each other as well as aliens hunting the emotionally and intellectually retarded superboy Wundarr. Another dynamically, intoxicating 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 visiting 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 original Guardians of the Galaxy (not the movie group) climb aboard the Freedom Rocket to help our 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 (which is also 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 link please volume 3 for the full story…

Back here, however, MTIO #8 teams Grimm and supernatural sensation Ghost Rider in a quirkily compelling Yuletide yarn. ‘Silent Night… Deadly Night!’ – by Gerber, Buscema & Esposito – finds the audacious Miracle Man trying 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 rushed and meagre effort with the Puppet Master and Radion the Atomic Man making a foredoomed power play, before issue #10 concludes this initial compendium.

Crafted by Claremont, the still much-missed Bob Brown & Klaus Janson, it is a slice of inspired espionage action-intrigue with Ben and the 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?’.

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?
© 2020 MARVEL

Decades: Marvel in the ‘60s – Spider-Man Meets the Marvel Universe


By Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Roy Thomas, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, John Romita Sr, Gene Colan, Werner Roth & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1660-2 (TPB)

The Amazing Spider-Man was first seen in the middle of 1962, so expect plenty of wallcrawling reviews over the next twelve months, and if any of us make it to the end I’m sure we’ll all be well-versed in Arachnid Lore with our book shelves (physical or digital) positively groaning with sublimely re-readable tales and tomes…

For Marvel, it’s always been all about the team-ups…

In the company’s 80th Anniversary year of 2019, they published plenty of reprint material in archival formats designed to highlight specific triumphs of the House of Ideas. One of the mot interesting was the Decades project: collecting material from each era seen through a themed lens. For the 1960s – with so very much astounding innovation to be proud of – the editors opted to re-present critical confrontations of the company’s signature star with the other breakthrough characters that formed the bedrock of the Marvel Universe. After all, it’s always been all about the team-ups…

Within this trade paperback/digital delight – in full or in extract – are bombastic battles and eccentric encounters between the wondrous wallcrawler and the other growing stars of the ever-expanding firmament, culled from Amazing Spider-Man #1, 8, 14, 16; Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2; Fantastic Four #73; Fantastic Four Annual #1; Strange Tales Annual #2; Tales to Astonish #57; The Avengers #11; The Avengers Annual #3; Daredevil #16, 17, 27 and The X-Men #35 spanning March 1963 to 1968. The curated cruise begins with a context-setting Introduction from Jess Harrold, before we see a skinny kid in a costume meet his heroes for the first time…

Marvel is often termed “the House that Jack Built” and Kirby’s contributions are undeniable and inescapable in the creation of a new kind of comic storytelling, but there was another unique visionary toiling at Atlas-Comics-as-was, one whose creativity and even philosophy seemed diametrically opposed to the bludgeoning power, vast imaginative scope and clean, broad lines of Jack’s ever-expanding search for the external and infinite.

Steve Ditko was quiet and unassuming, voluntarily diffident to the point of invisibility, but his work was both subtle and striking: simultaneously innovative and meticulously polished. Always questing for the ideal, he explored the man within. He saw heroism and humour and ultimate evil all contained within the frail but noble confines of humanity. His drawing could be oddly disquieting… and, when he wanted, decidedly creepy.

Crafting extremely well-received monster and mystery tales for and with Stan Lee, Ditko had been rewarded with his own title. Amazing Adventures/Amazing Adult Fantasy featured a subtler brand of yarn than Rampaging Aliens and Furry Underpants Monsters: an ilk which, though individually entertaining, had been slowly losing traction in comics ever since DC had successfully reintroduced costumed heroes.

Lee & Kirby had responded with Fantastic Four and the ahead-of-its-time Incredible Hulk but there was no indication of the renaissance ahead when officially just-cancelled Amazing Fantasy featured a brand new and rather eerie adventure character…

It wasn’t a new story, but the setting was familiar to every kid reading it and the artwork was downright spooky. This wasn’t the gleaming high-tech world of moon-rockets, mammoth monsters and flying cars… this stuff could happen to anybody…

The debut of Spider-Man and his pathetic, loser, young alter ego Peter Parker was a landmark moment. The hard luck hero effortlessly made the jump to his own title. Holding on to the “Amazing” prefix to jog reader’s memories, the bi-monthly Amazing Spider-Man #1 arrived with a March 1963 cover-date and two complete stories. It also prominently featured the aforementioned FF and took the readership by storm. Excerpted here are the 5 pages wherein the cash-strapped youngster breaks into the Baxter Building determined to get himself hired by the team and ends battling his idols…

That’s followed by a back-up story from 1963’s Fantastic Four Annual #1 which expanded the incident into a proper yarn. ‘The Fabulous Fantastic Four Meet Spider-Man sees Kirby redraw the moment with Ditko inking and it is superb, smartly segueing into the lead feature from the same year’s Strange Tales Annual #2. This terrific romp from Lee, Kirby & Ditko depicts an early Marvel Misapprehension as the wallcrawler is framed by international art thief and disguise-master The Fox, and hot-headed Johnny Storm determines to bring the aggravating arachnid to justice. Guess how that works out…

Cover-dated January 1964, Amazing Spider-Man #8 led with a battle against the computer dubbed the Living Brain, but you’ll need to look elsewhere for that. An extra vignette in that issue provided another Lee/Kirby/Ditko delight. ‘Spiderman Tackles the Torch!’ is a 6-page comedy romp wherein a boisterous and envious wall-crawler gate-crashes a beach party thrown by the flaming hero’s girlfriend… with suitably explosive consequences.

Marvel’s growing band of stars were pooping up everywhere in others titles by this time, and the next snippet – 5 pages culled from Amazing Spider-Man #14 (July 1964) – sees the webspinner’s battle against the Green Goblin and Enforcers interrupted by the Incredible Hulk who delivers an unforgettable lesson in staying in your own weight class. That same month, Tales to Astonish #57 saw Giant-Man and the Wasp ‘On the Trail of the Amazing Spider-Man!’ – courtesy of Lee, Dick Ayers & Paul Reinman – with sinister mastermind Egghead pulling strings to make the complete strangers into mortal enemies…

September 1964 found Amazing Spider-Man #16 extending the wallcrawler’s circle of friends and foes whilst battling the Ringmaster and his Circus of Evil and encountering freshly minted fellow loner hero in a dazzling and delightful‘Duel with Daredevil’ (Lee & Ditko), after which The Avengers #11 (by Lee, Don Heck & Chic Stone) details how ‘The Mighty Avengers Meet Spider-Man!’ This is a clever and classy cross-fertilising tale featuring time-bending tyrant Kang the Conqueror who attempts to destroy the team by insinuating within their serried ranks a robotic duplicate of the outcast hero.

Next up is arguably Ditko’s greatest artistic triumph of this era: the lead tale from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 (October of that year and filled out with vintage Spidey classics).

Ditko was on peak form: fast enough to handle two monthly strips, and at this time also blowing away audiences with another ill-fitting, oddly tangential superhero. The disparate crusaders met in ‘The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!’: an entrancing fable unforgettably introducing the Amazing Arachnid to arcane realities and metaphysical mysteries as he joins the Master of the Mystic Arts to battle power-crazed mage Xandu in a phantasmagorical, dimension-hopping masterpiece involving ensorcelled zombie thugs and the stolen Wand of Watoomb. After this, it was clear that Spider-Man could work in any milieu and that nothing could hold him back…

Now sporting his signature all-red outfit, the Man Without Fear re-encountered Spider-Man in Daredevil #16-17 (May & June 1966 and crafted by Lee, John Romita the elder and inker Frank Giacoia) as ‘Enter… Spider-Man!’ introduces diabolical criminal mastermind Masked Marauder who has big plans; the first of which is to get DD and the wallcrawler to kill each other…

With chapter ‘None are so Blind…’ opens a convoluted a sub-plot which would lead to some of the highest and lowest moments of the early Daredevil series – such as Spidey accusing Law-firm partner Foggy Nelson of being the Scarlet Swashbuckler and Matt Murdock inventing a twin brother Mike – but the art is superb and the action is nonstop, so there’s not much to complain about…

Next comes Amazing Spider-Man Annual # 3 and ‘…To Become an Avenger!’ with the World’s Mightiest Heroes offering the webspinner membership if he can capture and bring them the Hulk. As usual, all is not as it seems but the action-drenched epic, courtesy of Lee, Romita (on layouts), Don Heck, & Mike Esposito is the kind of guest-heavy, power-punching package that made these summer specials such a prize…

Jumping to April 1967, Daredevil #27 (Lee, Gene Colan & Giacoia) closes a chapter as a leaner, moodier Man Without Fear manifested. Earlier episodes saw the hopeless romantic triangle of Murdock, best friend Foggy and their secretary Karen Page become a whacky quadrangle by introducing fictitious twin Mike Murdock. Now he would be “exposed” as Daredevil to divert suspicion from the blind attorney who actually battled all those weird villains…

Well that happened, and – still skulking in the background – arch-villain Masked Marauder slowly honed in on DD’s actual alter ego. He got closest in ‘Mike Murdock Must Die!’ after Stilt-Man teams with the Marauder before Spider-Man abrasively helped out in a brief cameo to take down the long-legged loon…

Cover-dated August 1967, The X-Men #35 finally found Marvel’s top teens in the same story. At that time the mutant heroes were hunting secret cabal Factor Three who had used robot arachnoids to kidnap Professor X.

When ally Banshee is captured mid-sentence during a crucial communication with the team in ‘Along Came A Spider…’(by Roy Thomas, Werner Roth & Dan Adkins) everybody’s favourite wallcrawler is mistaken for a foe. After the desperate, distraught mutants find the hero amidst robot wreckage, he is forced to battle for his life against the increasingly unstable teens…

Ending this chronological collaboration excursion is Fantastic Four #73 (April 1968) which carried an instant-classic crossover that overlapped an ongoing Thor storyline and conclusion to a long-running Daredevil story wherein the sightless crusader is ousted from his own body by Doctor Doom. After warning the FF of imminent attack, the Swashbuckler subsequently defeats Doom on his own, but neglects to tell the heroes of his victory…

Thus, outmatched and unable to convince them any other way, DD enlists currently the de-powered Thunder God and ever-eager webspinner in to solve the problem Marvel style – with a pointless, spectacular and utterly riveting punch-up – in ‘The Flames of Battle…’

These timeless team-ups of Marvel’s original loner comprise a superb catalogue of splendid triumphs to be enjoyed over and over again. How can you not?
© 2019, MARVEL

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 17


By Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Mike Friedrich, Gerry Conway, Bill Mantlo, Jim Shooter, Archie Goodwin, Marv Wolfman, George Pérez, Sal Buscema, Ron Wilson, Joe Sinnott & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9192-6 (HB)

Monolithic Marvel truly began at the end of 1961 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. Happy Anniversary, all…

With Lee & Kirby long gone but their mark very much still stamped onto every page of the still-prestigious title, this full-colour compendium – available in hardcover and digital editions – collects Fantastic Four #176-191, spanning November 1976 to February 1978.

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 a Preface by outgoing scribe Roy Thomas and Introduction from incoming writer/editor Len Wein a new direction begins with #176 and ‘Improbable as it May Seem…The Impossible Man is Back in Town!’ by Thomas, George Pérez & Joe Sinnott as the mighty manic shapeshifter – having just saved everybody from World-Devourer Galactus – returns to Earth with our heroes and promptly turns the city upside down in his search for amusement and entertainment…

High point of the day is his impromptu visit to the Marvel Bullpen where even more hilarity and hysteria ensue…

By the time the flustered four drag him back to the Baxter Building in #177 it’s straight into an ambush as ‘Look Out for the Frightful Four!’ finds their evil counterparts gain the upper hand. There are only three – The Wizard , Sandman and Trapster – but with the heroes shackled there’s no better time for a casting call of evil and soon a succession of potential fourths (such as latterday B-Listers Texas Twister and Captain Ultra) are filing through in search of fame and glory…

Also in the queue are a few valiant allies such as Thundra and Tigra who almost manage a last-minute rescue until an unstoppable mystery candidate crushes all opposition and hurls the Thing into the antimatter Negative Zone…

Inked by Dave Hunt, FF #178 ‘Call My Killer… The Brute!’ sees a devious, deadly monster revealed as the Reed Richards of Counter-Earth, carrying grudges and enacting his own masterplan until Impossible Man – oblivious to everything since discovering television – now responds to the horrific home invasion in typical manner. The Fantastic Four, Thundra and Tigra soon rescue Ben and drive off the bad guys but in the melee the Brute is fittingly lost in the Negative Zone.

At least, one of the Reeds is…

A joint effort by Thomas, Gerry Conway, Ron Wilson & Sinnott, FF #179 sees the good Dr. Richards ‘A Robinson Crusoe in the Negative Zone!’ and – deprived of his stretching powers (a long running plot-thread finally paying off) – struggling to survive in hostile conditions against appalling monsters…

Until ultimate predator Annihilus finds him…

Back on Earth, everything seems fine and the deadly doppelganger continues to insinuate himself into all aspects of FF life. The power loss works to his advantage and reed’s oldest friend Ben is distracted by a giant robbing robot and an increasingly flirtatious Tigra…

Fantastic Four #180 was a new Jack Kirby cover on a deadline-busting reprint (from issue #101) so only it stands between us and next episode ‘Side by Side with… Annihilus??’ – from #181 by Thomas, Wilson & Sinnott – wherein the zone-lost genius allies with the antimatter monster.

Meanwhile, Ben, Impy, Tigra and Thundra form an impromptu quartet to sort out that robot and Susan Richards – just starting to suspect something’s wrong with her man – is distracted when former governess and still-current witch Agatha Harkness flamboyantly abducts her old charge Franklin from Sue’s arms…

Fantastic Four #182 reveals the nigh-omnipotent Annihilus has a problem he can’t handle: an incredibly adaptable, constantly mutating android once banished to the Zone after failing to destroy the quirky quartet. Now its creator has regained control and ‘Enter: The Mad Thinker!’ (Bill Mantlo, with Len Wein, Jim Shooter, Archie Goodwin, Sal Buscema & Sinnott) sees Reed and Annihilus working together to stop it even as on Earth evil Reed tricks the Thing and the Torch into the Negative Zone too. Sue, meanwhile, has rushed to spooky Whisper Hill to confront Harkness and arrives just in time to see the eldritch elder and Franklin spirited away by ghostly beings…

Her return to the Baxter Building is even more traumatic as the now exposed Brute attempts to murder her, culminating in a spectacular all action conclusion from Mantlo, Sal Buscema & Sinnott as #183’s ‘Battleground: The Baxter Building!’sees all the opposing elements clash and an unexpected turn of events restore the status quo with one last-minute change of heart and tragic sacrifice…

A new era dawned as Wein took on the role of writer/editor and his artist partners George Pérez & Joe Sinnott began as they meant to go on with #184 as ‘Aftermath: The Eliminator!’ saw romantic rivals Tigra and Thundra go their own ways as the restored First Family of heroes took up the search for missing Franklin and arrive at the Whisper Hill mansion just as mystic cyborg began removing all traces of it and its former occupier…

Brutal, pointless battle proved useless but science scored again in #185 as Reed tracks the Eliminator to the Colorado Rockies and the team – with Richards using tech to pinch-hit for his lost powers – head incognito for the isolated town of New Salem. Once there they soon discover ‘Here There Be Witches!’… and they be hostile…

The next issue and ‘Enter: Salem’s Seven!’ delivers an explanation for Harkness’ actions, Franklin’s kidnapping and tantalising hints of a hidden town of mystic refugees led by deranged demagogue Nicholas Scratch, whose dark secret doesn’t stop him unleashing a septet of sorcerous sentinels on the cosmic-powered but woefully human heroes. It does, sadly, ultimately lose him the support of his peers and the battle, leaving #187 to see our heroes and the help heading home just in time for ‘Trouble Times Two!’ When “Master of Sound” Klaw and the almighty Molecule Man ambush the FF, the furious fight raises the ire of TV-addicted Impy and the resultant rumble results in the Molecule Man’s disembodied intellect possessing Reed’s weary body…

‘The Rampage of Reed Richards!’ in #188 sees the city wrecked and events of cosmic import occur, with Uatu the Watcher closely observing as the heroes triumph in the end, but only at the cost of their leader’s confidence. Weary, devoid of superpowers, Richard makes the only logical decision and calls it a day for the team…

At the time tensions were especially enhanced as the next issue was another reprint (from FF Annual #4 and again represented here only by the cover art of #189) before normal service resumes with #190 and next writer/editor Marv Wolfman collaborating with Sal Buscema & Tony DeZuñiga to reassess past glories in ‘The Way It Was’. Shellshocked Ben and girlfriend Alicia Masters review the glory days leading up to his current unemployment, before #191 closes this compilation’s story component with ‘Four No More’ wherein Wein, Pérez & Sinnott detail the decommissioning of the Baxter Building and track the fond farewells as the team go their separate ways. However, even here there’s time and space for one last hurrah as the scurrilous Plunderer tries to steal all the FF’s toys and rapidly learns to regret his impertinence…

To Be Continued…

This power-packed package also includes the letters page from FF #176, explaining how the Impossible Man’s visit to the Marvel Bullpen came about, and full biographies to satisfy the completists in attendance…

Although the “World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” never quite returned to the stratospheric heights of the Kirby era, this collection offers a tantalising taste-echo of those heady heights. These 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.
© 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Two-in-One Marvel Masterworks volume 5


By Mark Gruenwald, Ralph Macchio, Bill Mantlo, Jo Duffy, John Byrne, Peter B. Gillis, Steven Grant, Marv Wolfman, Allyn Brodsky, David Michelinie, George Pérez, Chic Stone, Alan Kupperberg, Frank Miller, Jim Craig& various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2220-7 (HB)

It’s the anniversary of the Fantastic Four this year and we couldn’t let it go without celebrating the team’s most iconic member…

Above all else, Marvel has always been about team-ups. 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 awarded their most popular hero the same deal DC had with Batman in The Brave and the Bold. Although confident in their new title, they wisely left options open by allocating an occasional substitute lead in the Human Torch.

In those long-ago days, editors were acutely conscious of potential over-exposure – and since super-heroes were actually in a decline they may well have been right.

Nevertheless, after the runaway success of Spider-Man’s guest vehicle 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 popular star. They began with a brace of test runs in Marvel Feature #11-12 before awarding him his own team-up title, with this fifth classy compendium gathering in hardback or digital editions the contents of Marvel Two-In-One #47-60, MTIO Annuals #2-3 and Avengers Annual #4, covering January 1979-February 1980. Preceded by a comprehensive and informative reminiscence in Ralph Macchio’s Introduction, the action begins a true golden age for the title.

The innate problem with team-up tales was always a lack of continuity – something Marvel always prided itself upon – and which writer/editor Marv Wolfman had sought to address during his tenure through the simple expedient of having stories link-up through evolving, overarching plots which took Ben from place to place and from guest to guest.

Arguably the very best of these closes this volume; the vast-scaled, supremely convoluted saga known as “The Project Pegasus Saga”…

Although the company’s glory-days were undoubtedly the era of Lee, Kirby & Ditko leading through to the Adams, Buscema(s), Englehart, Gerber, Steranko and Windsor-Smith “Second Wave”, a lot of superb material came out the middle years when Marvel was transforming from inspirational small business to corporate heavyweight.

This is not said to demean or denigrate the many fine creators who worked on the tide of titles published after that heady opening period, but only to indicate that after that time a certain revolutionary spontaneity was markedly absent from the line.

It should also be remembered that this was not deliberate. Every creator does the best job he/she can: posterity and critical response is the only arbiter of what is classic and what is simply one more comicbook. Certainly high sales don’t necessarily define a masterpiece – unless you’re a publisher…

Nevertheless, every so often everyone involved in a particular tale seems to catch fire at the same time and magic occurred. Before that, though, a gradual increase in overall quality begins after perpetual gadflies The Yancy Street Gangheadlined in MT-I-O #47 as ‘Happy Deathday, Mister Grimm!’ (Bill Mantlo & Chic Stone) saw a cybernetic tyrant take over Ben’s old neighbourhood. The invasion concluded – once awesome alien energy powerhouse Jack of Hearts joined the fight – with ‘My Master, Machinesmith!’ in #48 by Mantlo, Stone & Tex Blaisdell.

Mary Jo Duffy, Alan Kupperberg & Gene Day piled on spooky laughs in #49 as the ‘Curse of Crawl-Inswood’ found Doctor Strange manipulating Ben into helping crush a paranormal incursion in a quaint and quiet seaside resort…

Anniversary issue #50 was everything a special issue should be. ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ by Byrne & Joe Sinnott took a powerful and poignant look at the Thing’s history as a monster outcast and posited a few what-might-have-beens…

Following another failure by Reed Richards to cure Ben’s rocky condition, The Thing steals the chemical and travels into his own past, determined to use the remedy on his younger, less mutated self, but his bitter, brooding, brittle earlier incarnation is hardly prepared to listen to another monster and inevitably, catastrophic combat ensues…

Issue #51 was even better. ‘Full House… Dragons High!’ by Peter Gillis, up-&-coming artist Frank Miller & Bob McLeod, details how a weekly poker session at Avengers Mansion is interrupted by rogue US General Pollock, who again tries to conquer America with stolen technology. Happily, Ben and Nick Fury finds Ms. Marvel (not today’s teenager Kamala Khan but Carol Danvers – the current Captain Marvel), Wonder Man and the Beast better combat comrades than Poker opponents…

A note of sinister paranoia creeps in with Marvel Two-In-One #52 in ‘A Little Knight Music!’ (by Steven Grant, Jim Craig & Marcos), as the mysterious Moon Knight joins the Thing to stop CIA Psy-Ops master Crossfire from brainwashing the city’s superheroes into killing each other…

Marvel Two-In-One Annual #4 then provides an old-fashioned, world-busting blockbuster as ‘A Mission of Gravity!’(plotted by Allyn Brodsky, scripted by David Michelinie and illustrated by Jim Craig, Bob Budiansky & Bruce Patterson) brings the Thing and Inhuman monarch Black Bolt together to stop unstable maniac Graviton turning into a black hole and taking the world with him…

That disaster averted, the Thing hits that aforementioned high note in the self-contained mini-saga which partnered him with a succession of Marvel’s quirkiest B-listers and newcomers…

Project Pegasus had debuted in Marvel T-I-O #42-43: a federal research station tasked with investigating new and alternative energy sources and a sensible place to dump super-powered baddies when they’ve been trounced. Ten issues later writers Mark Gruenwald & Ralph Macchio flexed their creative muscles with a 6-issue epic seeing Ben return to Pegasus just as a sinister scheme by a mysterious mastermind to eradicate the facility goes into full effect.

Scripted by Mark Gruenwald & Macchio, it begins as ‘The Inner War!’ (illustrated by Byrne & Joe Sinnott) sees Ben visiting his educationally and emotionally challenged ward Wundarr – who had been left at the secret base after exposure to a reality-warping Cosmic Cube.

Ben meets light-powered security chief Quasar – who technically debuts here, although he was first seen as Marvel Boy in Captain America – only to stumble into a treacherous plot to sabotage the facility…

The consequent clash is augmented by a handy schematic of The Federal research station designated the Potential EnergyGroup/Alternate Sources/United States that will prove invaluable as the saga unfolds.

The tension mounts in ‘Blood and Bionics’ as a reprogrammed Deathlok cyborg stalks the base until the Thing and Quasar crush it. Elsewhere, Ben’s old sparring partner Thundra is recruited by a team of super-powered women wrestlers (I know what you’re thinking, but trust me, it works) with a secret and nefarious sideline…

One of the resident scientists at Pegasus is Bill Foster – who had a brief costumed career as Black Goliath – and he resumes adventuring with a new/old name just in time to help tackle freshly-liberated atomic monster Nuklo in ‘Giants in the Earth’. Sadly, the traitor who let the infantile walking atomic inferno out is still undiscovered and, in the darkest part of the Project, something strange is whispering to the comatose Wundarr…

George Pérez & Gene Day took over as illustrators from #56 as Thundra and her new friends invade in ‘The Deadlier of the Species!’ but even their blistering assault is merely a feint for the real threat and soon a final countdown to disaster is in effect. Doomsday begins ‘When Walks Wundarr!’ and, in his mesmerised wake, a horde of energy-projecting villains incarcerated in the research facility break free…

With chaos everywhere the traitor triggers an extra-dimensional catastrophe, intent on destroying Pegasus ‘To the Nth Power!’, but as a living singularity tries to suck the entire institution into infinity, the end of everything is countered by the ascension of a new kind of hero as The Aquarian debuts to save the day…

Released as one of Marvel’s earliest trade paperback collections, the high-tension bombastic action of The Project Pegasus Saga rattles along without the appearance of any major stars – a daring move for a team-up title but one which greatly enhanced the power and depth of The Thing.

Moreover, by concentrating on rebooting moribund characters such as Deathlok and Giant-Man whilst launching fresh faces Quasar and The Aquarian instead of looking for ill-fitting, big-name sales-boosters, the story truly proves the old adage about there being no bad characters…

Another sound decision was the use of Byrne & Sinnott for the first half and Pérez & the late, great Gene Day to finish off the tale. Both pencillers were in their early ascendancy here and the artistic energy just jumps off the pages.

Publishing schedules wait for no one, however, and the landmark epic is immediately followed by a rather lesser yarn as Marv Wolfman, Macchio, Chic Stone & Al Gordon depict ‘Trial and Error!’ in #59 as Ben and the Human Torch play matchmaker for a dopey dreamer, after which #60 balances the thrills with fun and frolics with Ben and impish ET Impossible Man in hilarious combat with three of Marvel’s earliest bad guys….

Augmented by original art and covers by Pérez; Macchio’s essay ‘Project Prelude’ from that early Marvel collection and its wraparound cover by Ron Frenz; covers from reprint title The Adventures of the Thing (by Sam Keith and Joe Quesada) and biographies for the legion of creators contained herein, this tome of tales from Marvel’s Middle Period are admittedly of variable quality. They are, however, offset by truly timeless classics, still as captivating today as they ever were. Most fans of Costumed Dramas will find little to complain about and there’s lots of fun to be found for young and old readers. So why not lower your critical guard and have an honest blast of pure warts ‘n’ all comics craziness? You’ll almost certainly grow to like it…
© 2020 MARVEL.

Mighty Marvel Masterworks – The Amazing Spider-Man: With Great Power…


By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko, with Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2977-0 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: An Immaculate Confection… 10/10

As any fule kno, Spider-Man turns 60 in 2022. In advance of that, here’s a little preliminary stocking-stuffer to start next year’s party early. I’m celebrating it here and now… and in a rather controversial new format.

These stories are timeless and have been gathered many times before so I’m digressing to talk about format first. The Mighty Marvel Masterworks line has been designed with economy in mind. Classic tales of Marvel’s key creators and characters re-presented in chronological order have been a staple since the 1990s, but always in lavish, expensive hardback collectors editions. These new books are far cheaper, on lower quality paper and – crucially – are smaller, about the dimensions of a paperback book. Your eyesight might be failing and your hands too big and shaky, but at 152 x 227mm, they’re perfect for kids. If you opt for the digital editions, that’s no issue at all…

Marvel is often termed “the House that Jack Built” and King Kirby’s contributions are undeniable and inescapable in the creation of a new kind of comic book storytelling, but there was another unique visionary toiling at Atlas-Comics-as-was, one whose creativity and even philosophy seemed diametrically opposed to the bludgeoning power, vast imaginative scope and clean, broad lines of Kirby’s ever-expanding search for the external and infinite.

Steve Ditko was quiet and unassuming, voluntarily diffident to the point of invisibility, but his work was both subtle and striking: innovative and meticulously polished. Always questing for detail, he ever explored the man within. He saw heroism and humour and ultimate evil all contained within the frail but noble confines of humanity. His drawing could be oddly disquieting… and, when he wanted, decidedly creepy.

Crafting extremely well-received monster and mystery tales for and with Stan Lee, Ditko had been rewarded with his own title. Amazing Adventures/Amazing Adult Fantasy featured a subtler brand of yarn than Rampaging Aliens and Furry Underpants Monsters: an ilk which, though individually entertaining, had been slowly losing traction in the world of comics ever since National/DC had successfully reintroduced costumed heroes.

Lee & Kirby had responded with Fantastic Four and the ahead-of-its-time Incredible Hulk but there was no indication of the renaissance ahead when officially just-cancelled Amazing Fantasy featured a brand new and rather eerie adventure character.

This compelling and economical full-colour paperback/digital compilation re-presents that auspicious tale from Amazing Fantasy #15 and Amazing Spider-Man #1-10, (spanning cover-dates August 1962-March 1964): allowing newcomers and veteran readers to relive some of the greatest moments in sequential narrative.

The initial burst of wonderment came and concluded in 11 captivating pages. ‘Spider-Man!’ offers the parable of Peter Parker: a smart but alienated kid bitten by a radioactive spider on a high school science trip. Discovering he’s developed arachnid abilities – which he augments with his own ingenuity and engineering genius – Peter does what any lonely, geeky nerd would do when given such a gift… he tries to cash in for girls, fame and money.

Creating a costume to hide his identity in case he makes a fool of himself, Parker becomes a minor celebrity – and a vain, self-important one. To his eternal regret, when a thief flees past him, he doesn’t lift a finger to stop the thug, and days later returns home to find that his Uncle Ben has been murdered.

Crazy for vengeance, Parker stalks the assailant who made his beloved Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known, only to find that it is the felon he couldn’t be bothered with. Since his social irresponsibility led to the death of the man who raised him, the boy swears to always use his powers to help others…

It wasn’t a new story, but the setting was familiar to every kid reading it and the artwork was downright spooky. This wasn’t the gleaming high-tech world of moon-rockets, mammoth monsters and flying cars… this stuff could happen to anybody…

Amazing Fantasy #15 came out the same month as Tales to Astonish #35 – the first to feature the Astonishing Ant-Man in costume, but it was the last issue of Ditko’s Amazing playground. In this volume you’ll find the ‘Fan Page – Important Announcement from the Editor!’ that completely misled fans as to what would happen next…

However, the tragic last-ditch tale struck a chord with the public and by year’s end a new comic book superstar was ready to launch in his own title, with Ditko eager to show what he could do with his first returning character since the demise of Charlton’s Captain Atom

Holding on to the “Amazing” prefix to jog reader’s memories, the bi-monthly Amazing Spider-Man #1 arrived with a March 1963 cover-date and two complete stories. It also prominently featured the Fantastic Four and took the readership by storm. The opening tale, again simply entitled ‘Spider-Man!’, recapitulated the origin whilst adding a brilliant twist to the conventional mix…

By now the wall-crawling hero was feared and reviled by the general public thanks mostly to J. Jonah Jameson, a newspaper magnate who pilloried the adventurer from spite and for profit. With time-honoured comic book irony, Spider-Man then had to save Jameson’s astronaut son John from a defective space capsule in extremely low orbit…

Second yarn ‘Vs the Chameleon!’ finds the cash-strapped kid trying to force his way onto the roster – and payroll – of the FF whilst elsewhere a spy perfectly impersonates the webspinner to steal military secrets. This is a stunning example of the high-strung, antagonistic cameos and crossovers that so energised the jaded kids of the early 1960s. Heroes just didn’t act like that and they certainly didn’t speak directly to the fans as in the editorial ‘A Personal Message from Spider-Man’ page reprinted here…

With #2, our new champion began a meteoric rise in quality and innovative storytelling. ‘Duel to the Death with the Vulture!’ catches Parker chasing a flying thief as much for profit as justice. Desperate to help his aunt make ends meet, Spider-Man starts taking photos of his cases to sell to Jameson’s Daily Bugle, making the gadfly his sole means of support.

Matching his deft comedy and moody soap-operatic melodrama, Ditko’s action sequences were imaginative and magnificently visceral, with odd angle shots and quirky, mis-balanced poses adding a vertiginous sense of unease to fight scenes. But crime wasn’t the only threat to the world and Spider-Man was just as (un)comfortable battling “aliens” in ‘The Uncanny Threat of the Terrible Tinkerer!’

Amazing Spider-Man #3 introduced possibly the apprentice hero’s greatest enemy in ‘Versus Doctor Octopus’: a full-length saga wherein a dedicated scientist survives an atomic accident only to find his self-designed mechanical tentacles have permanently grafted to his body. Power-mad, Otto Octavius initially thrashes Spider-Man, sending the lad into a depression until an impromptu pep-talk from Human Torch Johnny Storm galvanises Spider-Man to one of his greatest victories. Rounding out the tense drama is a stunning ‘Special Surprise Bonus Spider-Man Pin-up Page!’

‘Nothing Can Stop… the Sandman!’ was another instant classic wherein a common thug who gains the power to transform to sand – another pesky nuclear snafu – invades Parker’s school, and must be stopped at all costs, whilst #5 finds the webspinner ‘Marked for Destruction by Dr. Doom!’ – not so much winning as surviving his battle against the deadliest man on Earth.

Presumably he didn’t mind too much, as this marked the series’ transition from bi-monthly to monthly status. Here Parker’s social nemesis, jock bully Flash Thompson, first displays depths beyond the usual in contemporary comic books, beginning one of the most enduring love/hate buddy relationships in popular literature…

Sometime mentor Dr. Curtis Connors debuts in #6 when Spidey comes ‘Face-to-face with… The Lizard!’ with the wallcrawler fighting far from the concrete canyons and comfort zone of New York – specifically in the murky Florida Everglades. Parker was back in the Big Apple for #7 to breathtakingly tackle ‘The Return of the Vulture’ in a full-length masterpiece.

Fun and puckish hi-jinks were a signature feature of the series, as was Parker’s budding romance with “older woman” Betty Brant – Jameson’s secretary/PA at the Daily Bugle. Youthful exuberance was the underlying drive in #8′s lead tale‘The Living Brain!’ wherein an ambulatory robot calculator threatens to expose Spider-Man’s secret identity before running amok at beleaguered Midtown High, just as Parker is finally beating the stuffings out of school bully Flash.

This 17-page triumph is accompanied by ‘Spiderman Tackles the Torch!’: a 6-page vignette drawn by Jack Kirby and inked by Ditko, wherein a boisterous wall-crawler gate-crashes a beach party thrown by the flaming hero’s girlfriend… with suitably explosive consequences.

Amazing Spider-Man #9 is a qualitative step-up in dramatic terms, as Aunt May is revealed to be chronically ill – adding to Parker’s financial woes – with the action supplied by ‘The Man Called Electro!’ – an accidental super-criminal with grand aspirations.

The wallcrawler was always a loner, never far from the streets and small-scale-crime, and with this tale – wherein he also quells a prison riot single handed – Ditko’s preference for tales of human-scaled lawbreakers starts to show through: a predilection confirmed in #10’s ‘The Enforcers!’

This is a classy mystery with a masked mastermind known as the Big Man using a position of trust at the Bugle to organise all New York mobs into one unbeatable army against decency.

Longer plot-strands are also introduced as Betty mysteriously vanishes, although most fans remember this one for the spectacularly climactic 7-page fight scene in an underworld chop-shop that has still never been beaten for action-choreography.

And more and even better is yet to come…

The jumbo-economy selection is supplemented by an early 1960s monochrome promotional pin-up, unused covers, and house ads – including one from Fantastic Four #14 (May 1963) that announced the company’s new branding and name… the Marvel Comics Group!

These immortal epics are something no fan can be without, and will make the ideal gift for any curious newcomer.

Happy birthday Spidey and many, many more please…
© 2021 MARVEL

Marvel Two-in-One Marvel Masterworks volume 4


By Marv Wolfman, Jim Starlin, Roger Slifer, Tom DeFalco, David Anthony Kraft, Ralph Macchio, Peter B. Gillis, Alan Kupperberg, Ron Wilson, Sal Buscema, John Byrne, Bob Hall & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1815-6 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Blockbuster Epic Adventures… 8/10

It’s the anniversary of the Fantastic Four this year and we couldn’t let it go without celebrating the team’s most iconic member…

Above all else, Marvel has always been about team-ups. 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 awarded their most popular hero the same deal DC had with Batman in The Brave and the Bold. Although confident in their new title, they wisely left options open by allocating an occasional substitute lead in the Human Torch.

In those long-ago days, editors were acutely conscious of potential over-exposure – and since super-heroes were actually in a decline they may well have been right.

Nevertheless, after the runaway success of Spider-Man’s guest vehicle 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 and popular member. They began with a brace of test runs in Marvel Feature #11-12, before awarding him his own team-up title, with this fourth eclectic compendium gathering in hardback or digital editions the contents of Marvel Two-In-One #37-66, MTIO Annuals #2-3 and Avengers Annual #7, covering November 1977 to December 1978.

Preceded by a comprehensive reminiscence in Roger Stern’s Introduction, the action begins with ‘The Final Threat’ by Jim Starlin & Joe Rubinstein) from Avengers Annual #7, wherein Kree warrior Captain Marvel and Titanian mind-goddess Moondragon return to Earth with vague anticipations of an impending cosmic catastrophe. Their premonitions are confirmed when galactic wanderer Adam Warlock arrives with news that death-obsessed Thanos has amassed an alien armada and built a Soul-gem powered weapon to snuff out the stars like candles…

Broaching interstellar space to stop the scheme, the united heroes forestall the stellar invasion and prevent the Mad Titan destroying the Sun, but only at the cost of Warlock’s life…

Then Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2 undertakes a ‘Death Watch!’ (Starlin & Rubinstein) finding Peter Parker plagued by prophetic nightmares, disclosing how Thanos had snatched victory from defeat and now holds the Avengers captive whilst again preparing to extinguish Sol.

With nowhere else to turn, anguished, disbelieving Spider-Man heads for the Baxter Building to borrow a spacecraft, unaware that The Thing also has history with the terrifying Titan. Although utterly outpowered, the mismatched champions of Life subsequently upset Thanos’ plans, allowing the Avengers and the Universe’s true agent of retribution to end the Titan’s threat forever… or at least until next time…

Marvel Two-In-One’s apparent function as a clearing-house for old, unresolved series and plot-lines was then briefly put on hold as issue #37 teamed Ben with Matt Murdock (not alter ego Daredevil) for legal drama ‘Game Point!’ (Marv Wolfman, Ron Wilson & Pablo Marcos). Ben had been framed for monstrous acts of wanton destruction, and when the case went badly, he faced decades in jail.

However, the Man Without Fear and eccentric street punk “Eugene the Kid” determine the Mad Thinker is behind the plot to place the ‘Thing Behind Prison Bars’ (by Roger Slifer, Wilson & Jim Mooney): tackling the maniac whose ultimate game plan is cornering the future and mass-producing his own android Avenger in #39’s ‘The Vision Gambit’ (inked by Marcos).

Slifer, Tom DeFalco, Wilson & Marcos then detail a spooky international yarn as the Black Panther is involved in a monstrous reign of terror with a zombie-vampire stalking the streets and abducting prominent African Americans. Concluding chapter ‘Voodoo and Valor!’ by David Anthony Kraft, Wilson & Marcos) sees Jericho Drumm (AKA Brother Voodoo) volunteer his extremely specialised services to Ben and T’Challa, in hopes of ending the crisis. The trail takes our heroes to Uganda for a confrontation with Doctor Spectrum and the far more dangerous real-world crazed killer Idi Amin

Crafted by Ralph Macchio, Sal Buscema, Alfredo Alcala & Sam Grainger, Marvel Two-In-One #42 introduces a new mainstay of Marvel Universe continuity as Project Pegasus debuts in ‘Entropy, Entropy…’

The Federal research station designated Potential Energy Group/Alternate Sources/United States is dedicated to investigating alternative power sources and becomes the most sensible place to dump energy-wielding super-baddies once they were subdued. Ben finds and begins trashing the place whilst tracking down his educationally- and emotionally-challenged ward Wundarr after the kid was renditioned by the Government. The furious Thing is soon confronted and contained by Captain America in his role as security advisor and together they stumble over a sabotage scheme by martial maniac Victorius who unleashes a deadly new threat in the ghostly form of Jude, the Entropic Man

This phantasmic force easily trounces Cap and Ben but find the macabre Man-Thing a bit harder to handle in concluding episode ‘The Day the World Winds Down’ by Macchio, John Byrne – & Friends – & Bruce Patterson)…

Marvel Two-In-One Annual #3 then hosts a great big, old-fashioned world-breaking blockbuster wherein Nova the Human Rocket battles beside the Thing to free captive alien princesses and save the Earth from colossal cosmos-marauding space invaders: a simple yet entertaining tussle entitled ‘When Strike the Monitors!’ all carefully crafted by Wolfman, Sal Buscema, Frank Giacoia & Dave Hunt.

Back in the monthly comic book issue #44 strays away from standard fare with ‘The Wonderful World of Brother Benjamin J. Grimm’ (Wolfman, Bob Hall & Frank Giacoia) with the Thing telling rowdy kids a rather fanciful bedtime story concerning his recent partnership with Hercules to free Olympus from invading giants…

In issue #45 Kree Captain Marvel’s Cosmic Awareness warns him that the Thing had been targeted by vengeful Skrulls in ‘The Andromeda Rub-Out!’ (Peter Gillis, Alan Kupperberg & Mike Esposito), after which the Incredible Hulk’s new TV show compels an outraged Ben to head for Hollywood, only to become accidentally embroiled in a ‘Battle in Burbank!’(Kupperberg & Chic Stone) to end this tranche of titanic team-ups on a classic note…

Added interest comes in the form of tantalising house ads and original art by Starlin & Rubenstein.

These stories from Marvel’s Middle Period are admittedly of variable quality, but whereas some might feel rushed and ill-considered they are balanced by truly timeless classics, still as captivating today as they ever were. Even if artistically the work varies from only adequate to superb, most fans of Costumed Dramas will find little to complain about and there’s lots of fun to be found for young and old readers. So why not lower your critical guard and have an honest blast of pure warts ‘n’ all comics craziness? You’ll almost certainly grow to like it…
© 2019 MARVEL.

Fantastic Four Epic Collection volume 7: Battle of the Behemoths 1970-1972


By Stan Lee, Archie Goodwin, John Romita, John Buscema, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, John Verpoorten, Frank Giacoia, Jim Mooney & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2913-8 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Fantastic Fight Fuelled Fun… 8/10

It’s still 60 glorious years of the team who changed comics forever, so let’s revisit some more Mighty Marvel Magic…

Cautiously bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, Fantastic Four #1 (by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) was raw and crude even by the ailing company’s standards: but it seethed with rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on its dynamic storytelling and caught a wave of change starting to build in America. It and succeeding issues changed comics forever.

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

All permanently mutated: Richards’ body became elastic, Sue became (even more) invisible, Johnny Storm burst into living flame whilst tragic Ben shockingly devolved into a shambling, rocky freak. After the initial revulsion and trauma passed, they solemnly agreed to use their abilities to benefit mankind. Thus was born The Fantastic Four.

Throughout the 1960s the FF was indisputably the core title and most consistently groundbreaking series of Marvel’s ever-unfolding web of cosmic creation: a forge for new concepts and characters. Kirby was in his creative prime: continually unleashing his vast imagination on plot after spectacular plot, whilst Lee scripted some of the most passionate superhero sagas ever seen.

Both were on an unstoppable roll, at the height of their powers and full of the confidence only success brings, with The King particularly eager to see how far the genre and the medium could be pushed… which is rather ironic since it was the company’s reticence to give the artist creative freedom which led to Kirby’s jumping ship to National/DC in the first place…

And then, he was gone…

With this collection from “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” a new style develops. Without Kirby’s restless imagination the rollercoaster of mind-bending High Concepts gave way to more traditional tales of characters in conflict, with soap-opera leanings and super-villain-dominated Fights ‘n’ Tights dramas.

This blockbuster bonanza compendium – also available in digital editions – gathers issues #105-125 (spanning December 1970-August 1972) and opens with The Monster in the Streets!’

Scripted by Lee and illustrated by John Romita & inker John Verpoorten, this is a low-key yet extremely effective suspense thriller played against a resuming subplot of Johnny’s failing romance. When his Inhuman girlfriend Crystal is taken ill – preparatory to writing her out of the series completely – Reed’s diligent examination reveals a potential method of curing the misshapen Thing of his rocky curse.

Tragically, as Ben is prepped for the radical process, a mysterious energy-beast starts tearing up the city. By the time ‘The Monster’s Secret!’ is exposed in #106, the team strongman is almost dead and Crystal is gone… seemingly forever.

Veteran inker Joe Sinnott returns in #107 for ‘And Now… the Thing!’ as John Buscema assumes the illustrator’s reins over Kirby’s other masterpiece (he had already been drawing Thor for four months – starting with #182).

Here and now the unfortunate man-monster gains the power to become human at will. It seems the best of all possible outcomes but something isn’t quite right…

However, before Reed can investigate an old foe pops up again. Sort of…

Fantastic Four #108 was something of a surprise to fans. ‘The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man!’ “reintroduced” a character never seen before.

This was done by recycling large portions of a recently-rejected Kirby & Sinnott tale and adding new framing sequences illustrated by Buscema and Romita. The mysterious Janus had tapped into the antimatter power of the Negative Zoneonce before and “now” resurfaces to steal more by crashing through the portal in Reed’s lab. Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of extinction-event predator Annihilus, who had long sought entry into our life-rich universe…

Forced to follow the utterly mad scientist, Reed, Ben and Johnny once again face ‘Death in the Negative Zone!’ (Lee. Buscema& Sinnott) before FF #110 sees – thanks to a little arcane assistance from sorceress/babysitter Agatha Harkness – Reed escape doom in the anti-cosmos only to realise that “cured” Ben has become lethally sociopathic: a threat to all humanity in ‘One from Four Leaves Three!’

Able to switch between human and monster forms, ‘The Thing… Amok’ rampages through New York, with Mr. Fantastic and the Human Torch desperately trying to minimise the damage their deranged friend inflicts on the city even as increasingly marginalised Sue Richards is packed off to tend baby Franklin beside eldritch governess Harkness…

With all of New York apparently against them, the embattled heroes are on the ropes when the Incredible Hulk joins the fracas for #112’s Battle of the Behemoths!’.

As Sue finally and rebelliously returns, The Thing seems to have perished in the brutal battle that ensued when the monsters met, but once again Reed saves – and cures – his best friend just as another menace materialises…

‘The Power of… the Over-Mind!’ reveals another insidious cosmic menace, presaged and prophesised by an ominous warning from omniscient alien spectator The Watcher.

The psionic super-menace further incites civilian antipathy towards the FF in But Who Shall Stop the Over-Mind?’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) before manifesting and physically trouncing the team.

With #115,  Stan Lee surrendered scripting to Archie Goodwin, who promptly revealed ‘The Secret of the Eternals’ (not the earthly proto-gods and blockbuster movie icons created by Kirby, but an entirely different ancient alien race) in a visually stunning sequence limned by Buscema & Sinnott, culminating in Reed being taken over by the Over-Mind and turning on his erstwhile comrades…

The saga concludes with double-sized Fantastic Four #116’s ‘The Alien, the Ally, and… Armageddon!’ as the defeated, embattled heroes – unable to access any superhero assistance – recruit arch foe Doctor Doom to lead them in final battle against the seemingly unbeatable Over-Mind. They are nonetheless crushed and only saved at the crucial moment by a most unexpected saviour in ‘Now Falls the Final Hour!’

Having helped save the world – and with time on his hot little hands – the heartsick Human Torch heads for the Himalayas and a long-delayed rapprochement with lost girlfriend Crystal in FF #117.

Months previously she had been forced to abandon human civilisation because modern pollutants poisoned her system, but when blazing mad Johnny battles his way into her hidden homeland in ‘The Flame and the Quest!’, he is horrified to discover that she had never arrived back in the Great Refuge of Attilan

Flying back to New York, Johnny consults part-time nanny and career-sorceress Agatha Harkness who traces Crystal to the Central American dictatorship of 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 herself – that she is a reborn goddess he needs 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 included an intriguing vignette starring the Thing: ‘What Mad World?’ (Goodwin, Buscema & Mooney) finds the Tragic Titan afforded a glimpse of an alternate Earth where an even greater mishap occurred after the fateful spaceflight which created the team…

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 Africa’s apartheid regime.

When the heroic ruler of jungle wonderland Wakanda is interned in white-ruled state 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 somewhat 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 and scourges Earth before declaring humanity doomed.

The tale vividly yet laboriously continues in ‘The Mysterious Mind-Blowing Secret of Gabriel!’ with the recently reunited, utterly overmatched quartet saved by the late-arriving Silver Surfer before facing off against world-devouring ‘Galactus Unleashed’. The end comes and humanity survives another day thanks to Reed who again outsmarts the cosmic god and prevents 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 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…

His depredations are soon halted and explained, concluding this tome on a rare quiet note but more calamity was still to come…

Did I say concluding? Not quite; as there’s still room for the Romita/Verpoorten cover to all-reprint Fantastic FourAnnual #8 plus the Kirby & Vince Colletta cover to 1971’s Annual #9; a stunning house ad; original art pages by Romita and Buscema, uncorrected cover proofs; the rare misprinted pink-&-green cover for FF #110 and 6 previous collection covers by Alan Davis & Steve Buccellato to delight and enthral…

Although sacrificing spectacle and wonder for simple continuous conflict, the Fantastic Four remained at the heart of the Marvel Universe for decades, offering furious Fights ‘n’ Tights thrills to delight and beguile. Why not check out how and why?
© 2021 MARVEL.

Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection volume 5 – 1968-1970: The Secret of the Petrified Tablet


By Stan Lee, John Romita, John Buscema, Larry Lieber, Marie Severin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2196-5 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Scintillant Superhero Sagas… 9/10

The Amazing Spider-Man was always a comic book that matured with – or perhaps just slightly ahead of – its fan-base. In this superbly scintillating compilation of chronologically corrected webspinning wonderment (available in ponderous paperback or ephemeral eBook formats), the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero barely survives another rocky period of transformation as the second great era of Amazing Arachnid artists moved inevitably to a close. Although the elder John Romita would remain closely connected to the Wallcrawler’s adventures for some time yet, these tales would number amongst his last sustained run as lead illustrator.

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

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

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

Crazed and vengeful, Peter hunted the assailant who’d made his beloved Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known, discovering, to his horror, that it was the self-same felon he had neglected to stop. His irresponsibility had resulted in the death of the man who raised him, and the traumatised boy swore to forevermore use his powers to help others. Since that night, the Wondrous Wallcrawler tirelessly battled miscreants, monsters and madmen, with a fickle, ungrateful public usually baying for his blood even as he perpetually saves them…

The rise and rise of the Amazing Arachnid increased pace as the Swinging Sixties drew to a close. By the time of the tales collected in this fulsome, Epic Collection – featuring Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5 and #68-85 of the monthly title (spanning October 1968 to June 1970) and the usual basket of editorial extras – Peter and his ever-expanding cast of comrades were on the way to being household names and the darlings of college campuses and media intelligentsia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issue #68 (by Lee, Romita & Jim Mooney) launched a lengthy saga devoted to the pursuit of an ancient stone tablet by various nefarious forces, beginning as The Kingpin exploits a topical moment of student dissent to trigger a ‘Crisis on the Campus!’ When a seemingly inevitable riot erupts, the Big Bad tries to swipe the artefact, leaving a few teenagers we’re all familiar with looking very guilty…

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

During this period scripter Lee increasingly tapped into contemporary student unrest in various Marvel titles, and ‘Mission: Crush the Kingpin!’ further tightens the screws as dissent explodes into violence whilst the corpulent crime czar incriminates Spider-Man in the tablet’s theft.

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

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

No sooner does Spider-Man leave the stone tablet with Gwen’s dad – former Police Chief George Stacy – than the vibrating villain (don’t bother – all the jokes have been done) attacks, pinching the petrified artefact and precipitating a frantic underworld civil war. The Maggia dispatch brutal over-sized  enforcer Man-Mountain Marko to retrieve it at all costs in ‘The Web Closes!’ (Lee, Buscema, Romita & Mooney) as upstart mob lawyer Caesar Cicero makes his long-anticipated move to depose aged Don of Dons Silvermane

The frail, elderly crime-lord knows the true secret – if not methodology – of the tablet, and abducts biologist Curt Connorsand his family to reconstruct the formula hidden on the stone and ensure his ultimate victory.

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

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

Amazing Spider-Man #78 details ‘The Night of the Prowler!’ and features John Romita Junior’s first ever creator-credit for “suggesting” dissatisfied young black man Hobie Brown. Hobie briefly turns his frustrations and innate inventive genius to costumed criminal purposes until set straight by Spider-Man in concluding chapter ‘To Prowl No More!’

With #80, a string of single-issue adventures was instituted: short, stand-alone fight-episodes delivering maximum thrills and instant satisfaction. ‘On the Trail of the Chameleon!’ sees the criminal charlatan indulging in a robbery spree until the wallcrawler steps in, after which an action-packed if ridiculous punch-up results from ‘The Coming of The Kangaroo!’ It also includes a clear contender for daftest origin of all time…

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

Major revelations about the Kingpin came in a 3-part saga spanning #83-85: opening with the introduction of ‘The Schemer’ (Lee, Romita Sr. & Esposito): a mysterious, extremely well-heeled criminal outsider determined to destroy the power of the sumo-like crime-lord and usurp his position in the underworld.

‘The Kingpin Strikes Back!’ (Romita sr., Buscema & Mooney) and ‘The Secret of the Schemer!’ radically reshaped the Marvel Universe, not just by disclosing the family history of one of the company’s greatest villains, but also by sending Parker’s eternal gadfly Flash Thompson back to a dubious fate in Vietnam. It wasn’t the kid’s first tour, but now the war was becoming unpopular at home and the bombastic jingoism of earlier issues was replaced by more contemplative concerns as evoked by authorial mouthpiece Stan Lee…

Also on glorious show are the Romita Snr cover from all-reprint Amazing Spider-Man Annual #6; a reproduction of an earlier collection cover by Romita Snr & Richard Isanove, and a treasure trove (31 pages!) of original art, sketches, designs, rejected pages and covers plus pencils and roughs by Lieber, Romita Snr. Buscema, Mooney, Severin & Esposito.

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

This book is Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak. Care to see why?
© 2020 MARVEL

Fantastic Four by Johnathan Hickman – The Complete Collection volume 1


By Jonathan Hickman with Sean Chen, Lorenzo Ruggiero Adi Granov, Dale Eaglesham, Neil Edwards, Andrew Currie, Paul Neary, Scott Hanna & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1336-6 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: World’s Greatest Comic Conceptualists… 9/10

The Fantastic Four is generally considered the most pivotal series in modern comic book history, introducing both a new style of storytelling and a decidedly different manner of engaging the readers’ impassioned attentions.

More family than team, the roster has changed continuously over the years but always returning to the original configuration of Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, the Thing and Human Torch, who together formed the vanguard of modern four-colour heroic history.

The quartet are also known as maverick genius Reed Richards, his wife Sue, their trusty college friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s obnoxious younger brother Johnny Storm; driven survivors of an independently-funded space-shot which went horribly wrong after Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding.

When they crashed back to Earth, the foursome found that they had all been hideously mutated into outlandish freaks. Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and, eventually, project force-fields, Johnny could turn into living flame, and poor, tormented Ben was mutated into a horrifying brute who, unlike his comrades, could not return to a semblance of normality on command.

The series has always been more about big ideas than action/adventure, and that was never more true than in this compilation when the FF were steered by writer, artist designer and stellar modern imagineer Jonathan Hickman (Nightly News; Pax Romana; East of West; Infinity; House of X; Secret Wars).

This chronological compilation opens during the Dark Reign that followed a successful conquest of Earth, when the draconian Federal mandate known as the Superhuman Registration Act led to Civil War between costumed heroes. Tony Stark was hastily appointed the US government’s Security Czar – a “top cop” in sole charge of the beleaguered nation’s defence and freedom. As Director of high-tech enforcement agency S.H.I.E.L.D. he became the very last word in all matters involving metahumans and the USA’s vast costumed community…

Stark’s subsequent mismanagement of various crises led to the arrest and assassination of Captain America and an unimaginable escalation of global tension and destruction, culminating in the Secret Invasion by shape-shifting alien Skrulls. Discredited and ostracised, he was replaced by apparently rehabilitated, recovering schizophrenic Norman Osborn – the original Green Goblin – who assumed full control of the USA’s covert agencies and military resources, disbanded S.H.I.E.L.D. and placed the nation under the aegis of his own new organisation H.A.M.M.E.R.

The erstwhile villain had first begun his climb back to respectability after taking charge of the Thunderbolts Project: a penal program which offered a second chance to super-criminals who volunteered to undertake Federally-sanctioned missions…

Not content with legitimate political and personal power, Osborn also secretly conspired with a coalition of major malevolent masterminds to divvy up the world between them. The Cabal was a Star Chamber of super-villains working towards mutually self-serving goals, but such egomaniacal personalities could never play well together for long and cracks soon began to show, both in the criminal conspiracy and Osborn himself…

As another strand of his long-term plan, the Homeland Metahuman Security overlord fired Iron Man’s Mighty Avengers and created his own, more manageable team consisting of compliant turncoats, tractable replacements and outright impostors. Constantly courting public opinion, Osborn launched his Avengers whilst systematically building up a personally loyal high-tech paramilitary rapid-response force.

During this Dark Reign, the rapidly destabilising madman – through means fair and foul – officially worked to curb the unchecked power and threat of meta-humanity, whilst his clandestine cabal of dictators divvied up the planet between them. The repercussions of Osborn’s rise and fall were felt throughout and featured in many series and collections covering the entire Marvel Universe.

Reed Richards had been a major supporter of Stark and key proponent of the Superhuman Registration Act even though his actions tore his family apart; driving his wife Sue and brother-in-law Johnny Storm into the opposing camp of costumed resistors dubbed the Secret Avengers. His best friend Ben Grimm – unwilling to choose sides – left the country to become an exile in France…

This collection opens with 5-issue miniseries Dark Reign: Fantastic Four and portions of Dark Reign: The Cabal (spanning May to September 2009): exploring and explaining Mister Fantastic’s side of the argument, as well as the terrifying motivations which prompted his uncharacteristic behaviour even as the still-wounded family painfully try to reconcile in their old home The Baxter Building……

The drama begins with a prelude a week after the Skrull invasion as Earth’s greatest mind constructs a colossal interdimensional transit threshold. ‘The Bridge’ – illustrated by Sean Chen & Lorenzo Ruggiero – is a pathway to alternate Earths. Demoralised and confused, Richards wants to explore all the other Earths to see if the Civil War and subsequent tragedies which followed happened elsewhere and how a plurality of other Mr. Fantastics dealt with it.

He needs to know how to prevent such a catastrophe ever happening again, but only just convinces Sue, Ben and Johnny that he must go before the metaphorical roof caves in…

Acting with sublime overconfidence and seemingly blessed by good fortune, Osborn chooses that moment to invade the Baxter Building with his H.A.M.M.E.R. troops, determined to shut down the Fantastic Four and confiscate all their incredible technologies.

Outraged and ready for trouble, Invisible Woman, the Torch and the Thing head for the ground floor just as Osborn’s men cut power to the building. The resultant surge in energy interacts with Reed’s Bridge and collapses space-time. When the elevator doors open they find themselves in another realm: a primitive jungle where men, dinosaurs and space gods co-exist…

With the adults out of action, children Franklin and Valeria take charge of the situation, bluffing the H.A.M.M.E.R. heavies into leaving, but little Val knows it’s only a matter of time until Osborn comes in person. She might be only three, but she’s already as smart as her father…

Setting to, Val begins repairing the building’s electrical and defence systems even as somewhen else her devoted guardians battle hordes of time-lost terrors and, in a region where all places meet, her dad views universe after universe and sees few happy outcomes…

As hours pass in the normal world, Sue, Johnny and Ben are bounced from one bizarre alternity to the next, gradually gathering a stout band of like-minded heroes about them.

In fact they are strange variations of themselves: a gentle, noble erudite Thing, chamberlain to the court of the Virgin Queen; a blazing pirate Torch on a flying galleon, sharp-shooting sheriff Black Susan from an extremely wild, Wild West frontier town and so many more, all assisting as they determinedly fight their way to somewhere they can get home from…

After a night on their own, Val and Franklin are awoken by Security Czar Osborn and his forces, accompanied by Dark Avenger “heavy” Spider-Man (actually deranged impostor Scorpion possessed by the Venom symbiote). In a moment of sublime bravado, the forces of Big Bad Government are stalled and legally finessed by the really annoying little girl…

In Collapsed Time, Sue, Johnny and Ben inexorably carve their way through a cascade of colliding realities whilst, in No Space, Reed – having analysed an infinity of alternate Earths – is forced to accept a truly humbling hypothesis…

His switching off The Bridge instantly returns the displaced FF to the Baxter Building where Osborn, having lost all patience, is trying to shoot the kids. After a brief but brutal battle the Federal forces are routed. When Osborn tries to shoot Reed in the back after surrendering, Franklin displays a burst of the dormant power which will make him the terror of reality in years to come…

In the tense aftermath of a temporary, portent-laden standoff, Mister Fantastic dismantles The Bridge at Sue’s insistence, but keeps from her the incredible beings he met before returning and the new resolution he has made: a decision that will also have devastating repercussions for all the universes in the months to come…

Rounding out this spectacular segue into the unknown is a sinister snippet from Dark Reign: The Cabal. ‘And I’ll Get the Land’ (limned by Adi Granov) gives a salutary glimpse into the scary mind of Doctor Doom as he negotiates a side deal with fellow Cabal associate Sub-Mariner whilst pondering what to do with maniac upstart Osborn once his usefulness is ended…

The wonderment resumes with Hickman’s initial arc on the monthly Fantastic Four title – #570 to 574 from October 2009 to February 2010 and dubbed Solve Everything. These first forays of a truly mind-boggling confirmed Hickman as someone who truly lived up to the series’ “Big Sky Thinking” antecedents…

Illustrated by Dale Eaglesham ‘Is It Playing God If You’re Truly Serious About Creation?’ sees certified super-genius Richards – driven by childhood memories of his demanding father – face the greatest challenge and most beguiling seduction of his fantastic life.

After foiling the latest mad assault by scientific criminal Bentley Wittman – AKA the Wizard – involving giant robots piloted by hideously modified clones of the deranged hyper-intellectual, Wittman upsets and destabilises the victorious Richards by challenging him to examine some cold hard facts. He postulates that the world is broken and about to tear itself apart, but everyone is too busy applying band-aids to try fixing it…

The exchange stays with Richards. Even as the family goes about its usual business, Mister Fantastic discusses things with 3-year old Valeria – a prodigy even smarter than he is – before retiring to his private lab to mull things over.

The Room of 100 Ideas is the place where Richards has made his greatest breakthroughs and triumphs, the sanctum from which he has changed the world over and over again, but it also harbours one last dream and goal – Idea 101: Solve Everything…

Now, he contacts a mysterious inter-dimensional organisation of intellectual supermen to help him fix the world and at last discovers that the benevolent Council is completely composed of alternate Earth iterations of himself, all waiting patiently for him to join their elevated ranks. The self-appointed champions of rationality and guardians of the multiverse feel it is time he lived up to his true potential. He is sorely tempted…

The grand tour of perfect possibilities continues in ‘You Stood Beside Me, Larger Than Life and Did the Impossible’ as the newcomer proves his worth by killing a planet-devouring Galactus and army of Silver Surfers on Earth 2012, all before popping home to touch base with his friends and family at breakfast.

They’re preparing for Franklin’s birthday and, even though Richards cannot share his new experiences, Sue knows something big is troubling him. After a frank but vague discussion, the distracted super-mind promises to have everything sorted one way or another in seven days…

His time “in the lab” actually finds him travelling to every incredible corner of Creation where his agglomerated alternates police and improve the lot of all humanities. Over and again their combined efforts have created a fantastic technological paradise but still Richards has unresolved, inexplicable reservations, especially at night in bed, thinking about his family and recalling conversations with his own father…

The intellectual idyll is rudely shattered in ‘We Are Men We Have No Masters’ when the multiversal Council is attacked by Celestials: Space Gods intent on taking control of all realities. The apocalyptic battle decimates the ranks of the Richards before a solution and ultimate victory is achieved. As the cosmic dust settles, Reed at last makes his decision – the only one a really smart man can…

Originally published as ‘Adventures on Nu-World’ (and illustrated by Neil Edwards & Andrew Currie) the next tale focuses on the Thing and Human Torch as they take a long-anticipated vacation-break on an artificial resort much like a cosmic Las Vegas, blithely unaware of two extremely important facts…

The first is that Reed and Sue’s kids have stowed away aboard their transport, but probably more critical is the realisation that the man-made world is in the midst of civil war prompted by the entire planet having slipped into the event horizon of a Black Hole…

With a host of guest including Skaar, Son of Hulk, ‘These Are the End Times’ follows the slow procession and brutal struggle to total obliteration, highlighting the astounding gifts of toddler Valeria who secretly solves the problem and gets (almost) everyone home safely…

The story portion of this splendid celebration of all things Fantastical continues with ‘All Hope Lies With Doom’(Edwards & Currie again) as the boy’s birthday finally arrives and the extended family – including Dragon Man, uncle Spider-Man, the kids from Power Pack and mutant orphans Artie and Leech – enjoy the party of a lifetime. It’s only slightly spoiled when a time-travelling raider crashes the affair, and he’s soon sent packing by the adults – but not before he delivers a secret warning to Valeria and a unique gift for the birthday boy.

Valeria isn’t worried: after all, if there’s one person she can trust, it’s her grown up brother Franklin…

Originally collected as graphic compilation Prime Elements, FF #575 to 578 (October 2009-February 2010) follows, as the author and illustrator Dale Eaglesham set the scene for future epics with a series of exploratory fables classified as ‘This is a Summoning’

It begins as the Mole Man dumps mutated moloids on the Richards’ clan, alerting them to ‘The Abandoned City of the High Evolutionary’ deep beneath the world. Here, hyper-evolved beings are apparently running rampant and will soon be let loose on the surface world…

Alerted to secrets in the Earth, the team head into the oldest lake in existence in #576, encountering incredible ancient beings who claim to be ‘The Old Kings of Atlantis’

In #577, the secrets of primordial Kree genetic tampering seems to signal the end for the lunar colony of Black Bolt: revealing links to four other cosmic species and the rise of all-conquering ‘Universal Inhumans’

The innovation revolution then concludes – for now – with #578 as ‘The Cult of the Negative Zone’ ominously reveals that the insectoid hordes of Annihilus have established a deadly fifth column on Earth, but are unable to maintain dominance in the antimatter realm that spawned them. Are they then prepared for an assault by the new Inhuman alliance’s war-hungry Light Brigade?

Fast-paced, action-drenched, profoundly imaginative and wickedly funny, this sharp sortie into strange worlds includes a covers-&-variants gallery by Simone Bianchi & Simone Peruzzi; Pasqual Ferry & Dave McCaig; Alan Davis, Mark Farmer; Marko Djurdjevic, Jelena Kevic Djurdjevic, Daniel Acuña, John Rausch, Javier Rodriguez, Eaglesham & Paul Mounts, John Cassaday & Laura Martin, Marcelo Dichiara, Christopher Jones & Sotocolor, to deliver the perfect package for all tried-and-true Fights ‘n’ Tights aficionados with a hunger for mind-expanding marvels…

Smart, tense, thrilling and exhibiting genuine warmth and humanity, this is a grand starting point for new or returning readers with a view to recapturing the glory days of fantasy and science fiction, and especially a different kind of Fights ‘n’ Tights theatre…
© 2019 MARVEL

Mighty Marvel Masterworks -The Fantastic Four volume 1 : The World’s Greatest Heroes


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, with George Klein, Christopher Rule, Sol Brodsky, Dick Ayers, Joe Sinnott & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2979-4 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: An Immaculate Concoction… 9/10

In August 1961, a rather peculiar new comic hit US newsstands. At first glance it looked not dissimilar from lots of other monster books, but it was the start of an actual revolution. Because it had a November cover-date – specifying when unsold copies had to be returned – I’m celebrating it here and now… and in a rather controversial new format.

I’m partial to controversy so I’m starting off by declaring that Fantastic Four #1 is one of most important American comic book of all time. 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 a small, struggling outfit that used to be publishing powerhouse Timely/Atlas.

He crafted mystery, monster, war, romance and western material for a market he suspected was 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 DC’s Justice League of America enflamed the readership’s attention, it gave him and writer/editor Stan Lee an opportunity to change the industry forever.

When publisher/owner Martin Goodman ordered his nephew Stan to try a group of super-characters like the one DC was doing, the result quickly took fans by storm. It wasn’t the powers: they’d all been seen since the beginning of the medium. It wasn’t costumes: they didn’t have any until the third issue. It was Kirby’s compelling art and the fact that these new guys weren’t anodyne cardboard cut-outs. In a real and a recognizable location – New York City – fractious, imperfect, raw-nerved, touchy people banded together out of tragedy, disaster and necessity to face the incredible.

The groundwork for all the wonders to come had been laid with 1957’s Challengers of the Unknown (Kirby’s prototype partners-in-peril at National/DC) but that company’s staid, cautious editorial strictures could never have allowed the undiluted energy of the concept to run all-but-unregulated. The Fantastic Four was the right mix in the right manner at the right moment and we’re all here now because of it. These stories are timeless and have been gathered many times before so I’m diverting to talk about format here.

The Mighty Marvel Masterworks line has been designed with economy in mind. Classic tales of Marvel’s key creators and characters re-presented in chronological order have been a staple since the 1990s, but always in lavish, expensive collectors editions. These new books are far cheaper, on lower quality paper and – crucially – are physically smaller, about the dimensions of a paperback book. Your eyesight might be failing and your hands too big and shaky, but they’re perfect for kids and if you opt for the digital editions, that’s no issue at all…

This first compilation represents the tentatively bi-monthly Fantastic Four #1-10, spanning November 1961 – January 1963 and opens as it means to go on. Courtesy of Lee, Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule the introductory adventure is crude, rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it.

‘The Fantastic Four’ is exactly as seen in that groundbreaking premier issue, with maverick scientist Reed Richardsperemptorily summoning his fiancé Sue Storm, close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother before heading off on their first mission. They are all freakish survivors of a private space-shot that went horribly wrong 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 morphed permanently into a hideous freak trapped in a shambling, leathery body.

The second half of the issue reported how ‘The Fantastic Four meet the Mole Man’: promptly foiling a mad scheme 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 conception now 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. Inked by Klein, ‘The Skrulls from Outer Space’ were shape-changing aliens who framed the team in the eyes of shocked humanity, before the genius of Mister Fantastic bluffed them into abandoning 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 (inked by Sol Brodsky), which headlined ‘The Menace of the Miracle Man’ whose omnipotent powers had a simple secret. The tale is most 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 Namor of Atlantis, a star of Timely’s Golden Age but one who had been lost for years.

A victim of amnesia, the rowdy 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 embraced the unique basics and took a full-bite out of the Fights n’ Tights apple by introducing the first full-blown, unrepentant 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 sublimely slick and perfectly polished Joe Sinnott) has it all. An attack by a mysterious enemy from Reed’s past; super-science, magic, lost treasure, time-travel, even pirates. Ha-Haar, me ‘earties!

Sheer magic! and the creators knew they were on to a winner, as 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). It also introduced the concept of antiheroes as the conflicted Sub-Mariner falls out with the demon doctor and saves the day…

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 emotional saga was balanced by 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 Sub-Mariner returned 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 gift for caricature…

1963 would be 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, superheroes 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!

Although cover-date January 1963, Fantastic Four #10 was released in October of 1962 and featured ‘The Return of Doctor Doom!’. Here, the arch-villain used Stan & Jack to lure Richards into a trap where his mind is switched with the bad Doctor’s. The tale was supplemented by a pin-up of ‘Sue Storm, the Glamorous Invisible Girl’

Although possibly – just a bit, perhaps – somewhat dated in tone, these are still undeniable milestones of comic storytelling illustrated by one of the world’s greatest talents approaching his absolute 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.

Happy birthday and many, many more please…
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