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…
© 2021 MARVEL

Black Widow: Marvel Team-Up


By Chris Claremont, Tom DeFalco, Marv Wolfman, Roger McKenzie, Bill Mantlo, Priest, Fabian Nicieza, Robert Campanella, Dan Slott, Bob Brown, Sal Buscema, Will Meugniot, Ron Frenz & Greg LaRocque, Rob Liefeld, Larry Alexander & Dwayne Turner & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-3029- (TPB)

The concept of team-ups – an established star pairing or battling (usually both) with new or less well-selling company characters – has been with us since the earliest days of comics, but making the temporary alliance a key selling point really took hold with DC’s The Brave and the Bold before being taken up by their biggest competitor.

Marvel Team-Up was the second regular Spider-Man title, launching at the end of 1971. It went from strength to strength, heralding expansion and spawning a second collaborative vehicle in Marvel Two-In-One (with the Fantastic Four’s strong man The Thing), both offering regular venues for uncomplicated action romps in addition to the House of Ideas’ complex sub-plot fare.

However, even in the infinite Marvel Multiverse, certain stars shine more brightly than others and some characters turn up in team-ups more often than others…

In recent years, carefully curated themed collections from the back-catalogue have served to initiate new readers intrigued by Marvel’s Movie and TV endeavours, and this engaging trade paperback/eBook compilation gathers a selection of potent pairings starring superspy The Black Widow, taken from MTIO #10; Marvel Team-Up #57, 82-85, 98, 140-141 and short tales from fortnightly anthology Marvel Comics Presents #53, 70 and 93: collectively spanning July 1975 – January 1992.

Natasha Romanoff (sometimes Natalia Romanova) is a Soviet Russian spy who came in from the cold and stuck around to become one of Marvel’s major female stars. She started life as a svelte, sultry honey-trap during the early “Commie-busting” days, targeting Tony Stark and battling Iron Man in her debut (Tales of Suspense #52, April, 1964).

She was subsequently redesigned as a torrid tights-&-tech super-villain before defecting to the USA, falling for an assortment of superheroes – including Hawkeye and Daredevil – before finally enlisting as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., setting up as a freelance do-gooder and joining/occasionally leading the Avengers.

Throughout her career she was always ultra-efficient, coldly competent, deadly dangerous and yet somehow cursed to bring doom and disaster to her paramours. As her backstory evolved, it was revealed Natasha had undergone experimental processes which enhanced her physical capabilities and lengthened her lifespan, as well as assorted psychological procedures which had messed up her mind and memories…

Traditionally a minor fan favourite, the Widow only really hit the big time after the Marvel Movie franchise was established, but for us unregenerate comics-addicts her print escapades have always offered a cool, sinister frisson of delight.

The multi-player mayhem opens with Marvel Two-In-One #10 by Chris Claremont, Bob Brown & Klaus Janson: a slice of inspired espionage action-intrigue with Ben Grimm joining the Widow’s war against suicidal terrorist Agamemnon who plans to detonate the planet’s biggest nuke at the bottom of the ocean in a blockbuster 007-styled thriller ‘Is This the Way the World Ends?’.

With artists Sal Buscema & Dave Hunt, Claremont continues defining the Widow’s ways in Marvel Team-Up #57 (May 1977) starting a complex extended thriller embroiling Spider-Man in a devious and deadly espionage plot which begins ‘When Slays the Silver Samurai!’ After being saved from a lethal ambush by Natasha and implausibly holding up a collapsing building, Spidey takes reluctant possession of a strange statuette but soon forgets all about it

The scheme comes to fruition in MTU #82 (June 1979) when Claremont, Sal B & Steve Leialoha craft a 4-part, multi-operative conclusion starting with Spider-Man saving Natasha from street thugs. In ‘No Way to Treat a Lady’ the lethal superspy has escaped capture and torture by retreating into a timid, ineffectual cover personality, and the Arachnid must keep “Nancy Rushman” alive until he learns how and why. The job gets even harder after S.H.E.I.L.D.’s Strike Forcecome mercilessly gunning for her…

The first (white) Nick Fury joins the fray in ‘Slaughter on 10th Avenue!’ capturing Nancy before discovering – when Spidey steals her back – that his entire organisation has been taken over by hidden mastermind Viper and her super hench-thugs Silver Samurai and Boomerang

‘Catch a Falling Hero’ (MTU #84) reveals the purpose of that long-forgotten statuette, as Viper targets Washington DC and President Jimmy Carter. Meanwhile Spider-Man and the slowly recovering Nancy infiltrate the compromised flying fortress Helicarrier and Fury calls in British operative Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu for a distracting frontal assault, culminating in all-out war above the Capitol and the closest of close shave conclusions for all concerned in ‘The Woman Who Never Was!’

A far simpler motive reunited the widow and the webspinner when separate cases overlapped in MTU #98 (October 1980, in an untitled tale by Marv Wolfman, Roger McKenzie, Will Meugniot & Bruce Patterson). Here dockside gunrunners and ambitious mobsters draw the heroes into a clash with The Owl, after which we jump to April 1983 and MTU #140 for the first part of a morally trying dilemma posed by Bill Mantlo, Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz & Mike Esposito with ‘Where Were You …When the Lights Went Out?’

A city-wide blackout provokes riots and looting and Spider-Man is on scene when a skeevy pawnshop owner is shot dead. The next day, lawyer Matt Murdock is appointed to defend gangbanger teen Juan Santiago who is indicted for the murder. Press photographer Peter Parker is also in attendance, and both know the kid is not guilty. As Spider-Man resolves to investigate further, Daredevil’s old flame Natasha Romanoff volunteers to fact-find for the overworked attorney. When investigations overlap a street gang are exposed as behind the incident, but the new murder suspect triggers a deadly car chase and hostage situation before being apprehended.

Frustratingly, although responsible for much of the tragedy on that night, he quickly proves to also be innocent of the pawnbrokers’ death…

This yarn takes place at the beginning of Marvel’s Secret Wars event and pauses for Spidey to go to The Beyonder’s Battleworld; fight lots and come back with his all-black Symbiote uniform, so it’s a much-altered Spider-Man who joins Daredevil and the Widow in obtaining ‘Blind Justice’ in #141 (DeFalco, Jim Owsley AKA Priest, Greg LaRoque & Esposito) as the heroes uncover mob connections and a trail to Kingpin Wilson Fisk, the real killer and the true nature of the kid they’ve been defending…

The team-ups conclude with a selection from twice monthly rotating anthology Marvel Comics Presents, starting with ‘Heads I Win, Tails You Lose’: a jurisdictional clash between Natasha and mercenary antihero Silver Sable from #53 (July 1990) by Fabian Nicieza, Rob Liefeld & Bob Wiacek, and continuing with ‘One into Three Won’t Go!’ (#70, February 1991 by Robert Campanella, Larry Alexander, Jack Abel & Al Milgrom) as the Widow and fellow former Champion Darkstar battle the hyper-irradiated Red Guardian when her master The Presence orders her to capture them for his harem.

Their valiant resistance inspires Tania Belinskaya to overthrow her own mental shackles and transform into new hero Starlight before this collection closes with an early outing for superstar scripter Dan Slott & artist Dwayne Turner who end the ultra-espionage alliances with a ‘Split Seconds’ reunion for the Widow and Daredevil from MCP #93, battling Hydra goons and deactivating deadly booby traps in a midtown building.

The book’s bonus section offers original art from Meugniot & Patterson; Frenz & Esposito and cover-art by Ed Hannigan & Klaus Janson, plus data pages of Black Widow and her weapons and gear from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and a painted cover by Al Milgrom.

These stories may vary in quality, but all stem from an honest drive to entertain and most fans will find little to complain about. Although primarily a tome for casual or new readers – who will have a blast – there’s also a ton of nostalgic delights and patented Marvel mayhem to be had by veteran viewers, and surely that’s reason enough to add this titanic tome to your secret stash of great reads…
© 2020 MARVEL

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 16


By Roy Thomas, Bill Mantlo, George Pérez, John Buscema, Rich Buckler, Sal Buscema Joe Sinnott & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0785188452 (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 with 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 #164-175, Fantastic Four Annual #11 and a crossover epic from the first Marvel Two-In-One Annual #1 and #20 of the monthly MTIO: cumulatively spanning November 1975 to October 1976.

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

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

Following another effusively fact-filled Introduction from writer/editor Roy Thomas, a new direction begins with #164 (part one of a reconditioned yarn originally intended for Giant-Size Fantastic Four), courtesy of Thomas and neophyte illustrator George Pérez, backed up by veteran inker Joe Sinnott. ‘The Crusader Syndrome!’ finds the team battling a veteran superhero gone bad since his last outing as Atlas-Era champion Marvel Boy.

The Crusader wages savage war on the financial institutions whose self-serving inaction doomed his adopted Uranian race in the 1950s. However, his madness and savagery are no match for the FF and ‘The Light of Other Worlds!’ sees his apparent demise. It also sparks many successful additions to Marvel Continuity, such as new hero Quasar, the 1950s Avengers and Agents of Atlas whilst introducing Galactus’ herald-in-waiting Frankie Raye as Johnny’s new girlfriend …

Vince Colletta inks #166 as ‘If It’s Tuesday, This Must be the Hulk!’ sees the team hunting the Gamma Goliath with a potential cure for Bruce Banner. Sadly, military treatment of their target enrages fellow-monster Ben Grimm who unites with the Hulk to menace St. Louis, Missouri as ‘Titans Two!’ (with Sinnott back on inks).

Constantly bathed in Gamma radiation, Ben is permanently reduced to human form and, as Rich Buckler pencils #168’s ‘Where Have All the Powers Gone?’, Reed is forced to replace him with Hero for Hire Luke Cage. The former Thing has his greatest dream realised at last, but happiness still eludes him and events take a worse turn in #169 as ‘Five Characters in Search of a Madman!’ sees Cage attack his new teammates thanks to the machinations of a veteran FF foe…

Pérez and Sinnott reunite for concluding chapter ‘A Sky-Full of Fear!’ as Ben returns to his team and spectacularly saves the day wearing a Thing exoskeleton suit built by Reed. The original and genuine is back at last (sort of), but there’s no time to pause for applause…

The yarn segues directly into Fantastic Four Annual #11 which features time-travel saga ‘And Now… Then… the Invaders! by Thomas, John Buscema & Sam Grainger, wherein Marvel’s First Family flash back to 1942 to retrieve a cylinder of miracle-metal Vibranium. When it somehow fell into Nazi hands it had started unwriting history as a consequence…

On arrival, the FF are attacked by WWII super-team The Invaders – comprising early incarnations of Captain America, Sub-Mariner and the original, android Human Torch. The time-busting task goes better once all the heroes finally unite to assault a Nazi castle where the Vibranium is held, but after the quartet return to their own repaired era, Ben realises the mission isn’t over yet…

Thanks to Uatu the Watcher, the action continues in Marvel Two-In-One Annual #1 as – with the present unravelling around him – Ben blasts back to 1942. ‘Their Name is Legion!’ (Thomas, Sal Buscema, Grainger, John Tartaglione & George Roussos) finds him linking up with Home Front Heroes the Liberty Legion (collectively The Patriot, Thin Man, Red Raven, Jack Frost, Blue Diamond, Miss America and The Whizzer) to thwart Nazis Skyshark and Master Man, Japanese agent Slicer and Atlantean turncoat U-Man’s invasion of America.

The battle proves so big, it spills over and concludes in Marvel Two-In-One #20 (October 1976): a shattering ‘Showdown at Sea!’ pitting the myriad heroes against diabolical Nazi boffin Brain Drain, courtesy this time of Thomas, Sal B & Grainger.

Cover-dated June, Fantastic Four #171 reveals ‘Death is a Golden Gorilla!’ (Thomas, Pérez, Buckler & Sinnott) as a giant alien anthropoid rampages through Manhattan until corralled by the FF. Calmed and physically reduced to standard gorilla proportions, the talking ape delivers a desperate plea for help from the High Evolutionary

Bill Mantlo scripts Thomas’ plot and Pérez & Sinnott excel themselves as ‘Cry, the Bedeviled Planet!’ sees the heroes head for the other side of the Sun to save Counter-Earth from certain annihilation only to meet their nemesis in the depths of space…

Thomas writes and John Buscema steps in as penciller with #173’s ‘Counter-Earth Must Die… At the Hands of Galactus!’ Inexplicably, the world-devourer debates minor deity High Evolutionary: offering hope to his intended repast before despatching the heroes across the universe in search of a planet that will voluntarily sacrifice itself for Counter-Earth…

‘Starquest!’ (Thomas, Buscema & Sinnott) follows each unsavoury search to its logical conclusion, but as the Evolutionary abandons rhetoric for cosmic combat in a desperate delaying tactic, Sue Richards accidentally locates a civilisation willing to make the ultimate gesture…

Returned and augmenting the Evolutionary, a reunited FF attack Galactus ‘When Giants Walk the Sky!’ (drawn & inked by JB), with the Devourer delivering a cruel delayed punishment to Ben before consuming the planetary substitute and realising he has been tricked in a bizarre and wry conclusion that only adds fresh complications to the First Family of the Marvel Universes…

To Be Continued…

This power-packed package also includes the covers (by freshly returned Jack Kirby) and all-new material from The Fabulous Fantastic Four Marvel Treasury Edition #11; house ads and cover and splash page by Dave Cockrum & Sinnott from November 1977’s Marvel Super Action #4 which reprinted Marvel Boy stories from the early 1950s.

Although the “World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” never quite returned to the stratospheric heights of the Kirby era, this later collection offers a tantalising taste-echo of those glory days. These extremely capable efforts are probably most welcome to dedicated superhero fans and continuity freaks like me, but can still thrill and enthral the generous and forgiving casual browser looking for an undemanding slice of graphic narrative excitement.
© 1975, 1976, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four: First Family


By Joe Casey, Chris Weston, Gary Erskine & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1703-2 (TPB)

The Fantastic Four is regarded as 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. In a year bursting with comics anniversaries, the FF are certainly the most significant, having debuted at the end of 1961 to revolutionise the American industry and spearhead a global change in the art form. They have endured upheaval and change but have never stopped influencing comics and the lager world of far-flung fantasy.

More a family than a team, the roster has changed constantly over years before inevitably returning to the original configuration of Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, The Thing and the Human Torch.

The quartet are actually maverick genius Reed Richards, his wife Sue, Reed’s college friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s obnoxious, impetuous younger brother Johnny Storm; survivors of an independent, non-governmental space-shot which went horribly wrong once ferociously mutative Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding.

When they crashed back to Earth, the foursome found that they had all been hideously changed into outlandish freaks. Reed’s body became elastic and Sue gained partial control of energies that allowed her to turn invisible and latterly form force-fields. Johnny could transform into self-perpetuating living flame, but poor, tormented Ben was reduced to a horrifying brute who, unlike his comrades, could not return to a semblance of normality on command.

The sheer simplicity of four archetypes – mercurial boffin, self-effacing distaff, solid, tragic everyman and hot-headed youth – uniting to triumph over accident and adversity shone under Stan Lee’s irreverent humanity coupled to Jack Kirby’s rampant imagination and sense of adventure.

After decades of erratic quality and floundering plotlines following the original creators’ departures, Marvel’s First Family began a steady climb in quality at the beginning of the 21st century culminating in their own troubled film franchise.

To augment increased casual interest, in 2006 a canny, edgy retelling of the team’s earliest days was produced as a 6-issue miniseries by scripter Joe Casey in conjunction with illustrators Chris Weston & Gary Erskine, re-examining the quartet’s coming to terms with their new status in terms far more in keeping with the cynical, jaded modern world…

Available in trade paperback and digital editions, First Family opens with ‘There’s Was a Crash…’ as USAF General Walter Montgomery is called to a top secret military installation where four survivors of a fallen space-shot are being held. They were human once, but have been hideously mutated by Cosmic rays.…

The boy keeps bursting into flames, whilst his older sister is totally transparent. The pilot has become a rock-like atrocity while the General’s old friend Dr. Richards has been reduced to a catatonic mound of shapeless flesh. His coma has nothing to do with the accident, however. The scientist is locked into a cerebral mindscape where he is being lectured to by a fifth cosmic ray survivor…

This entity is explaining some facts of life. The facility they are in is an Air Force base designed to hold a variety of incredibly mutated humans. Apparently, this is not the Government’s first cosmic rodeo…

In ‘Late-Night Creeping’, Sue Storm surreptitiously escapes her cell to check on her companions, but boyfriend Reed is still beyond reach, deep inside his own head. Dr. Franz Stahl is currently explaining to him that a fallen meteor supercharged with C-radiation has been transforming humans under USAF supervision for months and that his own forced evolution is the most significant result.

Seeing Richards as a kindred spirit, the mind-ghost shares his radical theories of evolutionary dominance with his fellow future man, but Richards remains stubbornly unconvinced…

‘The Afterburn’ sees Ben Grimm’s fiancée run screaming from him, prompting a minor riot. This allows Stahl to take matters into his own psychic hands, instigating a further distracting crisis. Provoking one of his fellow monstrous transformees to go on a ‘Cosmic Ray Rampage’, the doctor escapes whilst our super-powered quartet gamely assist the soldiers in stopping the unholy horror.

In return Montgomery agrees to release them on their own recognizance with assurances of Federal backing…

‘Remember the Alamo’ occurs just after the events of Fantastic Four #1, beginning as the heroes escape the atomic destruction of the Mole Man’s Monster Island. Reed later briefs Montgomery and they make plans to formalise the quartet into a proper team. However, Reed is still being regularly mentally shanghaied by Stahl, whose agenda to improve humanity begins with the culling of his own disappointingly mundane family in ‘Domestic Disturbance’

‘The Homecoming Dance’ sees Ben indulging in disastrous drinks in his old neighbourhood even as Johnny, Reed and Sue all realise their old “normal” lives are forever denied them.

A Mole Man monster resurfaces in New York ready for ‘Round Two’ whilst Franz again tries to convince Richards to aid his plan to forcibly fix mankind, with Sue increasingly concerned that her man has lost all interest in a normal domestic future…

After Montgomery situates the four in a fabulous new, government-funded HQ – The Baxter Building – the misfits quickly begin to fall apart in ‘The Ties That Bind’ meaning no one is available when Stahl – intent on taking the life-warping meteor – invades the Air Force’s clandestine Cosmic facility in ‘Evolutionary Modern.’

‘Cold, Hard…’ finds Sue, Johnny and Ben discussing Reed’s intermittent distraction and underhandedness even as the subject of their grievances has opted to tackle Franz in ‘Alone + Easy Target’

As they rush to save him, Reed is locked in psychic combat with Stahl, who has used the meteor to mutate Air Force personnel into a legion of monsters: the first step in his proposed ‘Extinction Event’ for humanity. The battered hero is losing, however, until his cosmic comrades fight their way in and are pulled into the mental arena of ‘Signs and Salvation’to tip the balance…

The titanic battle ends with a ‘Mind’s Eye Open’ leaving the quartet closer than ever and set upon ‘Finding Destiny’together…

Dark, grimly post-modern and disregarded by many purists, First Family nevertheless offers a compelling reinterpretation and rationalisation of epochal events from simpler times framed in the context of a far more cynical century, and is certainly inviting to fans of a more grounded, less optimistic society. It’s also a pretty good yarn for open-minded readers who love the baroque theatrics of modern, film-fuelled superhero stories.
© 2006, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Namor, the Sub-Mariner Epic Collection volume 1 1962-1966: Enter the Sub-Mariner


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, Gene Colan, Dick Ayers, Wallace Wood & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2836-0 (TPB)

Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner is the offspring of a water-breathing Atlantean princess and an American polar explorer: a hybrid being of immense strength; highly resistant to physical harm; able to fly and exist above and below the waves. Created by young, talented Bill Everett, Namor technically predates Marvel/Atlas/Timely Comics.

He first caught the public’s attention as part of the fire vs. water headlining team in Marvel Comics #1 (October 1939 and soon to become Marvel Mystery Comics). He shared honours and top billing with The Human Torch, but had originally been seen (albeit in a truncated monochrome version) in Motion Picture Funnies: a promotional giveaway handed out to moviegoers earlier in the year.

Quickly becoming one of the company’s biggest draws, Namor gained his own title at the end of 1940 (cover-dated Spring 1941) and was one of the last super-characters to go at the end of the first heroic age.

In 1954, when Atlas (as the company then was) briefly revived its costumed character “Big Three” (the Torch and Captain America being the other two), Everett returned for a run of superb fantasy tales, but even so the time wasn’t right and the title sunk again.

When Stan Lee & Jack Kirby started reinventing comic-books in 1961 with the Fantastic Four, they revived the all-but-forgotten awesome amphibian as a troubled, semi-amnesiac, and decidedly more regal, if not grandiose, antihero. The returnee despised humanity; embittered at the loss of his sub-sea kingdom (seemingly destroyed by American atomic testing) whilst simultaneously besotted with the FF’s Sue Storm.

Namor knocked around the budding Marvel universe for a few years, squabbling with other assorted heroes such as the Hulk, Avengers and X-Men, before securing his own series as one half of Tales to Astonish.

Marvel’s “split-books” had been devised as a way to promote their burgeoning stable of stars whilst labouring under a highly restrictive distribution deal limiting the number of titles they could release per month. In 1968 the company ended this commitment and expanded exponentially.

This first celebratory volume – available in trade paperback and eBook formats collects all those early 1960’s guest shots in one tumultuous tome. Here you’ll find Fantastic Four # 4, 6, 9, 14, 27, 33 and Annual #1; Strange Tales #107 & 125; Avengers #3-4; X-Men #6, Daredevil #7 and the first arc of his own series from Tales to Astonish #70-76. These span May 1962 – February 1966 and open without preamble on that fateful first encounter in this cataclysmic clutch of curated classics…

Crafted by Lee Kirby & Sol Brodsky, Fantastic Four #4 proudly shouted ‘The Coming of the Sub-Mariner’, reintroducing (or introducing) the all-powerful amphibian Prince of Atlantis. The star of Timely’s Golden Age had been lost since 1955 – almost a lifetime for the kids believed to be the prime consumer of comics.

A victim of amnesia, the relic recovers his memory thanks to some rather brusque treatment by teen delinquent and AWOL Human Torch Johnny Storm. Namor rapidly 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. After its demise amidst a mass of collateral destruction, Sub-Mariner espies and falls for the Invisible Girl: a fascination that will fuel many a monumental battle…

This saga is when the Fantastic Four series truly kicked into high-gear and Reed Richards was the star of the pin-up section reprinted here…

FF #5 debuted the diabolical Doctor Doom who returned in the next issue after duping and teaming up with a reluctant Sub-Mariner to attack the quarrelsome quartet heroes as ‘The Deadly Duo!’ – inked by new regular embellisher Dick Ayers.

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

Of course, Sub-Mariner’s film project is simply a ruse to divide and conquer and everything is settled with bombastic action and typically off-kilter romantic twist…

The saga is topped off with a Fantastic Four Feature Page explaining ‘How the Human Torch Flies!’

By this time kid-friendly teen Johnny Storm had been awarded a solo-starring lead series in former mystery anthology Strange Tales. Scripted by Larry Lieber and limned by Ayers, #107 featured a splendidly mindless punch-up with the ‘Sub-Mariner’ – a tale powerfully reminiscent of the spectacular and immensely popular Golden Age battles of their publishing forebears.

It’s back to Fantastic Four next as #14 (Lee, Kirby & Ayers) features the return of ‘The Sub-Mariner and the Merciless Puppet Master!’: with one vengeful fiend the unwitting mind-slave of the other, after which 1963’s Fantastic Four Annual #1 offers a spectacular 37-page epic battle as, finally reunited with their wandering prince, the warriors of Atlantis invade New York City and the rest of the world in ‘The Sub-Mariner versus the Human Race!’ by Lee, Kirby & Ayers.

A monumental tale by the standards of the time, the saga saw the FF repel the undersea invasion through valiant struggle and brilliant strategy, and includes the secret history of the secretive race Homo Mermanus. Nothing is really settled except a return to the original status quo, but the thrills are intense and unforgettable…

Also included is a rousing pin-up of Namor from ‘A Gallery of the Fantastic Four’s Most Famous Foes!’.

By now Marvel had many more superheroes and Namor met some in Avengers #3. In the previous issue, the volatile Hulk quit the nascent team in disgust, only to return here as an outright villain in partnership with ‘Sub-Mariner!’ (by Lee, Kirby & Paul Reinman). This globe-trotting romp delivers high-energy thrills and one of the best battle scenes in comics history as the assorted titans clash in abandoned World War II tunnels beneath the Rock of Gibraltar.

Inked by George Roussos, Avengers #4 was a groundbreaking landmark as Marvel’s greatest Golden Age sensation returned in another increasingly war-torn era. ‘Captain America joins the Avengers!’ has everything that made the early tales so fresh and vital. The majesty of a legendary warrior returned in our time of greatest need: stark tragedy in the loss of his boon companion Bucky, aliens, gangsters, the menacing majesty of Sub-Mariner and even subtle social commentary capped by vast amounts of staggering Kirby Action.

The creators had hit on a winning formula by including other stars in guest-shots – especially as readers could never anticipate if they would fight with or beside the home team. FF #27 again finds the undersea anti-hero in amorous mood, but after abducting Sue, he finds the boys have called in called in Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts to aid them in ‘The Search for Sub-Mariner!’

Delivered by Lee & Kirby, X-Men #6 features ‘Sub-Mariner Joins the Evil Mutants!’: a self-explanatory tale of gripping intensity elevated to magical levels of artistic quality as superbly slick inker Chic Stone adds crisp clarity to proceeding when potential mutant Namor is duped into joining malevolent Magneto and his sinister brotherhood. The issue also incorporates a stunning ‘Special Pin-up page’ starring “Cyclops”.

Impetus was building and support growing for renewed sub-sea skirmishes starring Namor, and Strange Tales #125 (October 1964) presented another bombastic battle between the old adversaries as the Torch and Thing picked a fight with the sea lord in ‘The Sub-Mariner Must Be Stopped!’ courtesy of Lee, Ayers & Reinman.

The princely PR campaign then blossomed into unlikely alliance as FF #33 saw the team ‘Side-by-Side with Sub-Mariner!’ (Lee, Kirby & Stone): bringing the aquatic antihero one step closer to his own series as they lend surreptitious aid to the embattled undersea monarch against deadly barbarian Attuma and supplemented by a glorious Kirby & Stone ‘Prince Namor Pin-up’.

As previously stated, prior to Tales to Astonish, Namor appeared in numerous titles as guest villain du jour. One last guest shot with Namor acting as a misunderstood bad-guy was Daredevil #7 (April 1965): a tale that qualifies as a perfect comic book and a true landmark – to my mind one of the Top Ten Marvel Tales of all Time.

Here, Lee and creative legend Wally Wood concocted a timeless masterpiece with ‘In Mortal Combat with… Sub-Mariner!’ as Prince Namor of Atlantis – recently reunited with the survivors of his decimated race – returns to the surface world to sue mankind for their crimes against his people. To expedite his claim, the Prince engages the services of Matt Murdock’s law firm; little suspecting the blind lawyer is also the acrobatic Man without Fear.

Whilst impatiently awaiting a hearing at the UN, Namor is informed by his lover Lady Dorma that his warlord Krang has stolen the throne in his absence. The tempestuous monarch cannot languish in a cell when the kingdom is threatened, so he fights his way to freedom through the streets of New York, smashing battalions of National Guard and the dauntless Daredevil with supreme ease.

The hopelessly one-sided battle with one of the strongest beings on the planet shows the dauntless courage of DD and the innate nobility of a “villain” far more complex than most of the industry’s usual fare at the time.

Augmented by a rejected Wood cover repurposed as ‘A Marvel Masterwork pin-up: Namor and D.D.’ this yarn is merely a cunning prequel…

A few months later Tales to Astonish #70 heralded ‘The Start of the Quest!’ as Lee, Gene Colan (in the pseudonymous guise of Adam Austin) & Vince Colletta set the Sub-Mariner to storming an Atlantis under martial law. The effort is for naught and the returning hero is rejected by his own people. Callously imprisoned, the troubled Prince is freed by the oft-neglected and ignored Lady Dorma…

As the pompous hero begins a mystical quest to find the lost Trident of King Neptune – which only the rightful ruler of Atlantis can hold – he is unaware that treacherous Krang allowed him to escape, the better to destroy him with no witnesses…

The serialised search carries Namor through a procession of fantastic adventures and pits him against a spectacular array of sub-sea horrors: a giant octopus in ‘Escape… to Nowhere’; a colossal seaweed man in ‘A Prince There Was’ and a demented wizard and energy-sapping diamonds in ‘By Force of Arms!’

As the end approaches in ‘When Fails the Quest!’, revolution grips Atlantis, and Namor seemingly sacrifices his kingdom to save Dorma from troglodytic demons the Faceless Ones.

In issue #75 ‘The End of the Quest’ finds the Prince battling his way back into Atlantis with a gravely-injured Dorma, before the saga calamitously concludes in ‘Uneasy Hangs the Head…!’ with the status quo restored, Namor again on the stolen throne and further danger and drama to come…

Supplemented with House ads, a full cover gallery, unseen, unused and original artwork pages and more, this assemblage of tales feature some of Marvel’s very best artists at their visual peak, with creative verve and enthusiasm shining through.

Perhaps more vicarious thrill than fan’s delight, many early Marvel Comics are more exuberant than qualitative, but this volume, especially from an art-lover’s point of view, is a wonderful exception: a historical treasure that fans will find irresistible.
© 2021 MARVEL.

Fantastic Four Epic Collection volume 6 1969-1970: At War with Atlantis


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, John Romita, Ron Frenz, Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia, John Verpoorten & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2202-3 (TPB)

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

This epic and extras-packed full-colour compendium – also available in digital editions – gathers issues #88-104 and Annual #7 (cumulatively spanning July 1969 – November 1970) plus Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure #1 (2008). It covers the final days of the King’s reign on Marvel’s flagship title and shaky transitional start of a new era. And includes diverse bonus treats including a rejected, recovered, recycled tale to delight all aficionados, only finally released in April 2008.

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

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

Throughout the 1960s the FF was the indisputable central title and most consistently groundbreaking series of Marvel’s ever-unfolding web of cosmic creation: a forge for new concepts and characters at a time when Kirby was in his creative prime and 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 creative powers, and full of the confidence that only success brings, with The King particularly eager to see how far the genre and the medium could be pushed… 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…

Without preamble the magical wonderment resumes with Joe Sinnott inking Fantastic Four #88 which focuses on the five champions (Johnny’s Inhuman girlfriend Crystal had been standing in for Sue who was until recently enjoying a hard-earned maternity leave) back in the USA after defeating Doctor Doom. They are soon looking at an unconventional new house found by determinedly domesticated Mrs. Richards in her perpetual quest to carve out a relatively normal life for her new – and still unnamed – son.

Regrettably the trendy, extremely isolated detached dwelling in ‘A House There Was!’ has been designed by the team’s oldest enemy. No sooner do they all move in than ‘The Madness of the Mole Man!’ turns the deadly domicile against them even as the maniac’s goal of rendering the entire world blind and wiping out the extended heroic family comes within inches of succeeding…

The Thing then takes centre-stage in an extended epic as he is stalked and pressganged to another world when ‘The Skrull Takes a Slave!’ in #90. Abducted to fight in gladiatorial games on a colony world patterned after Earth’s 1920s gangster era, ‘The Thing… Enslaved!’ introduces rival Skrull mobs vying for planetary supremacy and a noble slave destined to slaughter our shanghaied champion. ‘Ben Grimm, Killer!’ efficiently ramps up the tension as Ben Grimm and mechanoid marvel Torgo discover their home-worlds are hostage to their fortunes and ferocity in the arena…

Elsewhere, Reed, Johnny and Crystal have not been idle. While Ben is at ‘The Mercy of Torgo!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) his Earthly comrades are enacting a desperate plan to swoop in, save him and destroy the Skrulls doom-weapon… a task undertaken and accomplished with great speed and in stunning style…

Fantastic Four #94, began a string of single-issue stories with the doom-laden debut of eldritch babysitter/governess Agatha Harkness in ‘The Return of the Frightful Four!’. The eponymous recalcitrant rogues make a major mistake believing they can catch the FF off-guard by attacking while the heroes are interviewing a new nanny for the latest addition to the Fantastic Family…

At a time when superhero sales were in a slump and magical mystery themes resurgently returned, this rollercoaster ride of action, battle and suspense is most significant for finally giving Sue and Reed’s baby a name – Franklin Benjamin Richards – after literally years of shilly-shallying…

Technological super-assassin The Monocle is resolved to trigger global nuclear Armageddon in #95’s ‘Tomorrow… World War Three!’ – in the middle of which Crystal is astoundingly abducted by her own family – before ‘The Mad Thinker and his Androids of Death!’ (Giacoia inks) once again ambush the team and still prove to be no match for the fab foursome…

A tense and moody episode further cashing in on the growing trend for creepy creatures and supernatural shenanigans manifests as ‘The Monster from the Lost Lagoon!’ in #97, offering a decidedly different take on the horror-movies it gloriously homages as the First Family try to combine a quick tropical vacation with a little rumour-busting sea-beastie hunt…

Both Sinnott and the robotic Sentry Sinister return in #98’s turbulently then-topical ‘Mystery on the Moon!’ as global fervour over the first lunar landing in 1969 (conveniently forgetting, of course, the FF’s own numerous visits to our satellite, beginning with issue #13) results in a cracking yarn wherein the team stop the extra-galactic Kree Empire sabotaging mankind’s first steps into space.

In FF #99 heartsick Johnny Storm at last snaps, invading the hidden home of the Inhumans. His intent is to reunite with his lost love at all costs, but of course, tempers fray, everything escalates and ‘The Torch Goes Wild!’

With Crystal happily in tow, the 100th anniversary adventure features a daft, extremely rushed but nonetheless spectacular all-out battle against robotic replicas of their greatest enemies in ‘The Long Journey Home!’ Nuff Said!

With the anniversary cataclysmically concluded, issue #101 provides a far more intriguing imbroglio when dastardly criminal combine the Maggia buy the team’s skyscraper HQ in a cunning, quasi-legal ploy to appropriate Reed’s scientific secrets, resulting in total ‘Bedlam in the Baxter Building!’

Fantastic Four #102 sported the first cover not drawn by The King as John Romita (senior) prepared to jump into the artistic hot-seat following Kirby’s abrupt move to the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

After an incomprehensibly vast catalogue of creativity an unthinkable Changing of the Guard occurred when the increasingly discontented King of Comics left the House of (mostly his) Ideas for arch-rival National/DC to craft his Fourth World Magnum Opus plus a host of other game-changing comic book classics…

An era ended at Marvel when the King abdicated his seemingly divinely-ordained position. Left to pacify and win back the stunned fans were Lee and a couple of budding talents named Romita and Buscema…

Kirby was not quite gone, however, as he and Sinnott opened an impressive extended epic wherein mutant menace Magneto uses guile and subterfuge to turn ‘The Strength of the Sub-Mariner’ and his undersea armies against the FF and entire surface world…

Romita and inker John Verpoorten took over the story in mid-flow, depicting an embattled America ‘At War with Atlantis!’ before malign Magneto inevitably turns on Namor, inspiring the Prince to ally with the Fantastic Four to prevent the mutant’s dream of ‘Our World… Enslaved!’

That was more or less the end. Romita drew a couple more issues and eventually John Buscema took up the challenge, although a later issue baffled us fans by inexplicably pairing the new artist with a somehow returned Kirby…

Before that, the cover of all-reprint Fantastic Four Annual #7 brightens our day, as does its contemporary photo-feature, revealing each and every member of the burgeoning Marvel Bullpen.

Fantastic Four #108 contained ‘The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man!’ which “reintroduced” a character never before seen by recycling portions of a near-complete but rejected Kirby tale. This was modified with new sequences illustrated by John Buscema and Romita. In the published story (not included in this volume) the mysterious Janus tapped into the anti-matter power of the Negative Zone once and now “returned” to steal more via 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…

The origins of that yarn are convoluted and circuitous but are eruditely explained by archivist John Morrow in his article ‘Fantastic Four #108: Kirby’s Way’, supplemented by (almost) the entire original story reproduced from photostats of Kirby’s pencils and published pages from #108.

In 2007 those fragments and Kirby’s story notes were used by Lee, Joe Sinnott and Ron Frenz to reconstruct the tales as the King drafted it. The result was ‘Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure’ which here offers a gloriously tantalising slice of times past as the team (circa 1970) tackle a seemingly schizophrenic super-villain in ‘The Menace of the Mega-Men!’

It doesn’t really fit anywhere into continuity but it is a superbly nostalgic rush for devotees of the classics…

Rounding out the Kirby Kommemorations are a selection of original art pages and covers from issues #88-90, unused cover art, house ads, portfolio and poster art and more: a graphic bonanza no fan could resist.

Epic, revolutionary and unutterably unmissable, these are the stories which made Marvel the unassailable leaders in fantasy entertainment. They remain some of the most important superhero comics ever crafted. Verve, conceptual scope and sheer enthusiasm shine through on every page and the wonder is there for you to share. If you’ve never thrilled to these spectacular sagas then this book of marvels is the perfect key to another – far brighter – world and time.
© 2020 MARVEL.

Skin Deep


By Charles Burns (Fantagraphics Books/Penguin)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-167-1 (PB, Fantagraphics) 978-0-14016-543-2 (UK Penguin)

I’s nearly St. Valentine’s day, and the time for extreme efforts for little discernible reward, so here’s a classic treatise on love and affection, inexplicably unattainable in the its native English language. Worth the hunt though…

Charles Burns is a creative force with his roots firmly placed in 1950s kids’ culture (B-movies, cartoons, EC comics and especially Mad Magazine) and talented fingers in many areas of the creative media. As an illustrator, graphic designer, photographer, film-maker and especially cartoonist, his slick, precise methodology tells stories and evokes responses from a place that is dark, skewed, beautiful and overwhelmingly nostalgic.

His comics work blends horror, true romance and Film Noir sensibilities with sensationalistic fascination for the grotesque and absurdist; all delivered in a slick, meticulous, heavy linear style reminiscent of woodcut prints; with huge swathes of solid black, like darkness and light suspended and perfectly balanced in a Cold War on every page.

This gigantic softcover (297mm high x 224mm wide) was the third in a series collecting all the artist’s work prior to the landmark publication of the incredible Black Hole, with the three interlinked – or rather perhaps, overlapping – stories here all originating between 1988 to1992. They were slightly revised after debuting in his Big Baby weekly strip and – in the case of ‘A Marriage Made in Hell’ – the legendary Raw Magazine. All in their own manner examine the theme of love in the modern world.

Leading off is ‘Dog-Boy’, the simple tale of a young man who has a cut-rate heart transplant and finds himself increasingly taking on the characteristics of the canine who provided his new ticker. Just because he acts a little differently, does this mean that there is no girl out there for him? This tale formed the basis of a 1991 MTV serial for the Liquid Television TV programme…

This leads to the outrageously funny and deeply unsettling ‘Burn Again’ wherein reformed televangelist Bliss Blister once more falls under the influence of his huckster father, as well as his own wife, who use him to con the religiously gullible. Unfortunately, what only Bliss knows is that God – in the form of a hideous, diabolical extraterrestrial Cyclops – is coming to end mankind’s self-inflicted woes…

The book ends with the aforementioned and intensely disturbing story-within-a-story ‘A Marriage Made in Hell’. When horny new bride Lydia finally marries her war-hero husband she regretfully discovers that he won’t consummate their union. Just what is the fantastic secret of battle-scarred veteran John Dough, and how does Lydia cope with the incredible situation she finds herself trapped in?

As well as these staggeringly dry, wry and funny tales there is also a selection from the Burns sketchbook, a look at some of those altered story-pages and a brief commentary from the artist himself.

This volume is also available as a hardback edition and was previously released as a Penguin book in 1992. You stand more chance of finding that these days, but if you’re intrigued and can read almost any European tongue, this stuff can be yours in the twinkling of a search engine. Funny old world, isn’t it?
© 1988-1992 Charles Burns. All Rights Reserved.