The Amazing Spider-Man: The Complete Alien Costume Saga – Book 1


By Tom DeFalco, Al Milgrom, David Michelinie, Louise Simonson, Cary Burkett & Tony Isabella with Roger Stern, Jim Owsley & Bob DeNatale, Ron Frenz, Greg LaRocque, Rick Leonardi & Paul Neary with David Mazzuchelli & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8867-4 (TPB)

Spider-Man exchanged his heavily-copyrighted and thoroughly trademarked costume whilst on another planet during the first Marvel Secret Wars. It was replaced with a magnificently stylish black & white number for the duration of the 12 issue maxi-series in his own titles (except the all-reprint Marvel Tales) which over the course of the year revealed the true horrifying nature of the extraterrestrial ensemble…

Collecting Amazing Spider-Man #252-258; Marvel Team-Up #141-145 and MTU Annual #7 and Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #90-95 and covering May-November 1984, this rather rare paperback or instantly accessible digital tome seeks to chronologically cover all the bases in regard to the black bodysuit’s every appearance and thus opens with relevant clips from clips from Secret Wars #8, 9 and 12

Continuity-wise, the extended epic opens at the conclusion of the Secret Saga with Spider-Man and Curt Connors – occasionally lethally maniacal monster the Lizard – explosively returning to Earth after a week when the world’s greatest heroes and villains had simply vanished.

To clear up any potential confusion: Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars debuted in May 1984 and ran for 12 monthly issues until April 1985. In it, a selection of metahumans good and bad were shanghaied by a godlike being dubbed The Beyonder: compelled to interminably battle each other. Every other Marvel comic  of that month chronologically occurred in the apparent aftermath of that struggle with most of the returned heroes and villains refusing to divulge what had happened on Battleworld …a cheap but extremely effective ploy which kept fans glued to the Limited Series in the months that followed.

This compendium catapults us into action with ‘Homecoming!’ by Roger Stern, Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz & Brett Breeding as spectators in Central Park see a mysterious black garbed stranger explode out of an alien artefact … only the first of many costumed characters to escape the Beyonder’s world.

Spider-Man takes the shell-shocked Connors back to his family and then begins to explore his new uniform: a thought-controlled, self-activating, metamorphic ball with chameleon capabilities, able to construct webbing out of its own mass.

The smart-cloth is astonishing, but weary Peter Parker has family to see and a city to reacquaint himself with. The hero promises himself he’ll further research the incredible material at a later date…

Not included here, Marvel Team-Up #140 posed a morally trying dilemma as a city-wide blackout provoked riots and looting. Spider-Man was on scene when a pawnshop owner was shot dead and the next day, lawyer Matt Murdock was appointed to defend a teenager indicted for the murder. Parker was there too, and knows the kid is innocent. As Spider-Man investigates, Daredevil’s old flame Natasha Romanoff volunteers to fact-find for the overworked attorney. When investigations overlapped a street gang was confirmed to be behind the incident, but the new murder suspect triggered 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 pawnbroker’s death…

This yarn happened at the beginning of Secret Wars and it’s a much-altered Spider-Man who joins Daredevil and the Black Widow in obtaining ‘Blind Justice’ in #141 (by DeFalco, Jim Owsley AKA Priest, Greg LaRoque & Mike Esposito) as the heroes uncover New York mob connections, a trail to Kingpin Wilson Fisk, the real killer and the true nature of the kid they’ve been defending…

In Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #90, Al Milgrom & Jim Mooney’s ‘Where, oh Where Has My Spider-Man Gone…?’ sees occasionally reformed adventurer and thief the Black Cat scouring the city and encountering many foes and friends before finally finding her transformed man, after which the wonderful Rick Leonardi & Bill Anderson illustrate DeFalco’s powerful crime thriller ‘By Myself Betrayed!’

Here a prominent football player, sucked into gambling and match-fixing, drags the Web-spinner into conflict with new gang-lord The Rose. As his new uniform increasingly, obsessively amazes Peter with its rather disturbing autonomy (it comes to him unbidden and regularly envelops him while he sleeps), the hero uncomprehendingly alienates his beloved Aunt May when he drops out of college…

Milgrom & Mooney’s ‘If it Wasn’t for Bad Luck…’ in PPSS #91 sees the Black Cat keeping secrets from her frankly now-creepy paramour even as mutant menace the Blob goes on a grief-fuelled rampage before Amazing Spider-Man #254 questions ‘With Great Power…’ (DeFalco, Leonardi & Joe Rubinstein) as the ebon wallcrawler battles terrorist mercenary Jack O’Lantern for possession of a hi-tech battle-van designed and built by the terrifying Hobgoblin. Peter should have been reconciling with May, and suffers another heartbreaking personal setback…

PPSS #92 (Milgrom & Mooney) bombastically introduces the Kingpin’s latest diabolical fixer in ‘And the answer is…’, with the Cat desperate to keep Spider-Man in the dark about her deal with Wilson Fisk, whilst Marvel Team-Up #142 and 143 take the wallcrawler very far from home in a cosmic mini epic by David Michelinie, LaRoque & Esposito.

‘Foiled!’ sees living light source Monica Rambeau (the second Marvel Captain Marvel) trapped in energy form following a high-tech heist and dependent on Spidey and Titan Starfox to save the day and secure a trans-dimensional remedy in ‘Shifts and Planes’

In Amazing Spider-Man #255, DeFalco, Frenz & Rubinstein introduce charismatic septuagenarian cat-burglar Black Fox(whose outfit coincidentally resembled Spidey’s new kit) who is a hapless pawn and target of the ruthless but cash-strapped Red Ghost and his Super-Apes in ‘Even a Ghost Can Fear the Night!’ Compelled to rob until caught by Spider-Man, the Fox orchestrated a spectacular battle between the hero and the Ghost before getting away with all the loot…

Marvel Team-Up Annual #7 (by Louise Simonson, Paul Neary & Sam De La Rosa) saw Spider and Cat meet Alpha Flight as a certain Elder of the Universe goes after aliens to complete a set and falls for ‘The Collected Spider-Man’.

The issue also revealed ‘No Place to Run’ for a loving ordinary couple forever unsettled by witnessing the world of Superheroes and villains by Bob DeNatale, David Mazzuchelli & Brett Breeding…

Milgrom & Mooney crafted ‘A Hot Time in the Old Morgue Tonight!’ for Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man#93 as The Answer stalks the Black Cat to unearth Spider-Man’s secrets, only to see love being poisoned and Spidey’s suit start to malfunction…

Subsequently kidnapping the Cat is only part of his masterplan – as is letting the wallcrawler win her back…

Cary Burkett, LaRoque & Esposito pit the webslinger and Moon Knight against Chinese ganglord White Dragon in ‘My Sword I Lay Down!’ as a prelude to Milgrom & Mooney bringing Cloak and Dagger into the game with PPSS #94’s ‘How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down at the Morgue After They’ve Seen N.Y.C.?’ as the Kingpin resurrects his former rival Silvermane and the mindless cyborg goes wild. The tale ends but does not conclude here with #95 and ‘The Dagger at the End of the Tunnel’ as the Kingpin’s grand scheme is exposed and one hero falls…

Closing the team tussles, MTU #145 (September 1984, by Tony Isabella,  LaRocque & Esposito) delivers ‘Hometown Boy’: from the period when Tony Stark first succumbed to alcoholism. He lost everything, and friend/bodyguard Jim Rhodes took on the role and duties of the Golden Avenger. As Stark tried to make good with a new start-up company, this engaging yarn sees the substitute hero still finding his ferrous feet whilst battling oft-failed assassin Blacklash (formerly Whiplash) at a Cleveland trade fair, as much hindered as helped by visiting hero Spider-Man wearing his enigmatic black duds…

Having granted readers a period of adjustment, the saga hits its stride in Amazing Spider-Man #256 as ‘Introducing… Puma!’ finds an increasingly weary and listless Spider-Man attacked by a Native American super-mercenary hired by the Rose. The Arachnid’s gang-busting crusade beside Black Cat was making life too hot and unprofitable for the ambitious mobster…

That calamitous clash carries over into ‘Beware the Claws of Puma!’ furiously escalating until The Kingpin steps in to stop it, forcing the Rose to ally himself with the murderous Hobgoblin. The issue ends with an exhausted Parker confronted with a stunning revelation from former lover Mary Jane Watson

The shock prompts Peter into seeking out ‘The Sinister Secret of Spider-Man’s New Costume!’ Plagued by nightmares, perpetually tired and increasingly debilitated, the webslinger visits the Fantastic Four and is disgusted and horrified to learn that his suit is alive: a parasite slowly attaching itself to him body and soul…

Meanwhile, Hobgoblin and the Rose’s uneasy alliance has resulted in bloody, undeclared war on the Kingpin…

With Reed Richards’ help the creature is removed from Spider-Man and imprisoned, but the story is still unfinished and there’s so much more to come.

To Be Continued…

Also on show here are Leonardi designs from Mike Zeck’s design for the black costume from Marvel Age #12; text pieces by Bob Sodaro & Mark Lerer from #14; covers by Ron Lim, Larry Mahlstedt, Keith Williams, Milgrom, Terry Austin, from Marvel Tales #266-272 (reprinting the Amazing Spider-Man stories) and two previous collection covers by Ron Frenz, Rubinstein and John Romita Sr.

Rounding out this initial collection is a foreword by Jim Salicrup from the 1988 collection; seven original art pages by Frenz & Breeding, LaRocque, Rubinstein & Esposito, and front and back covers from Essential Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man volume 4 by Milgrom, tom chu and Tom Smith.

This run of tales marvellously rejuvenated the Amazing Arachnid: kicking off a period of gripping and imaginative stories that culminated with the creation of arch antihero/villain Venom and today’s whole symbiote super-subculture.  If you’re a fan of superhero comics these are tales you just don’t want to miss, specially in Spder-Man’s anniversary year!
© 2019 MARVEL

Marvel Two-in-One Masterworks volume 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still stuck in the desert when the dust settles, Ben laboriously treks to a minor outpost of civilisation just in time to be diverted to Florida for the grand opening of his own title. Cover-dated January 1974, Marvel Two-In-One #1 sees Steve Gerber, Gil Kane & Sinnott magnificently detail the ‘Vengeance of the Molecule Man!’, with Ben learning some horrifying home truths about what constitutes being a monster after battling with and beside ghastly, grotesque anti-hero Man-Thing.

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

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

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

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

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

Back here, however, MTIO #8 teams Grimm and supernatural sensation Ghost Rider in a quirkily compelling Yuletide yarn. ‘Silent Night… Deadly Night!’ – by Gerber, Buscema & Esposito – finds the audacious Miracle Man trying to take control of a very special birth in a stable…

Gerber moved on after plotting Thor team-up ‘When a God goes Mad!’ for Chris Claremont to script and Herb Trimpe & Joe Giella to finish: a rushed and meagre effort with the Puppet Master and Radion the Atomic Man making a foredoomed power play, before issue #10 concludes this initial compendium.

Crafted by Claremont, the still much-missed Bob Brown & Klaus Janson, it is a slice of inspired espionage action-intrigue with Ben and the Black Widow battling suicidal terrorist Agamemnon who plans to detonate the planet’s biggest nuke in blistering thriller ‘Is This the Way the World Ends?’.

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

Although not really a book for casual or more maturely-oriented readers there’s still buckets of fun on hand and young readers will have a blast, so why not to add this colossal comics chronicle to your straining superhero bookshelves?
© 2020 MARVEL

Black Widow Epic Collection volume 2: The Coldest War 1981-1998


By Ralph Macchio, Gerry Conway, D.G. Chichester, Jim Starlin, Cefn Ridout, Mindy Newell, Scott Lobdell, Paul Gulacy, George Pérez, George Freeman, Larry Stroman, Joe Chiodo, Charlie Adlard, Bob Layton, Butch Guice, John Stanisci, Sergio Cariello, Randy Green & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2126-2 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: All-Out Action Adventure to Rival Any Cinema Classic… 8/10

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 earliest female stars, using a nomme de guerre first coined for a golden age supernatural superstar. Today’s Black Widow started life as a svelte, sultry honey-trap during Marvel’s 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 Yankee 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 Champions and The Avengers.

Throughout her career, she has always been considered ultra-efficient, coldly competent, deadly dangerous and yet somehow cursed to bring doom and disaster to her paramours. As her backstory evolved, it was disclosed that 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 Marvel’s cinematic franchise was established, but for us unregenerate comics-addicts, her print escapades have always offered a cool, sinister frisson of delight.

This expansive trade paperback and digital compilation gathers the contents of Bizarre Adventures #25, Marvel Fanfare #10-13; Solo Avengers #7; Black Widow: The Coldest War; Punisher/Black Widow: Spinning Doomsday’s Web; Daredevil/Black Widow: Abattoir; Marvel Comics Presents #135; Daredevil Annual #10; Fury/Black Widow:Death Duty and Journey into Mystery #517-519, cumulatively covering March 1981 to April 1998.

Preceded by prose  recaps ‘The Black Widow and Daredevil’ and ‘We are The Champions’, the action opens with an iconic appearance from 1981, first seen in monochrome mature-reader magazine Bizarre Adventures #25, featuring short tales starring female heroes.

Here Ralph Macchio scripted a far more devious spy yarn of double and triple cross with agents betraying each other while trying to ascertain who might be working for “the other side”…

‘I Got the Yo-Yo… You Got the String’ sees the Widow despatched by S.H.I.E.L.D. to assassinate her former tutor Irma Klausvichnova in an African political hot spot. However, as the mission proceeds, Natasha learns that she can’t trust anybody and everything she knows is either a lie or a test with fatal consequences…

The chilling, twist-ridden tale is elevated to excellence by the powerful tonal art of Paul Gulacy who fills the piece with sly tributes to numerous movie spies and the actors – such as Michael Caine and Humphry Bogart – who first made the genre so compelling.

Next up is a saga seen in Marvel Fanfare #10-13 (August 1983-March 1984), wherein Macchio and George Pérez – with inkers Brett Breeding, Jack Abel, Joe Sinnott, Al Milgrom & John Beatty – depict the spy in extreme peril as ‘Widow’finds her tapped again by S.H.I.E.L.D. to extract an abducted asset – her beloved mentor Ivan Petrovich.

As she tracks and trashes assorted killers and crazies, we get a potted rundown of her complex origins before she arrives ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’: infiltrating a top-secret science project and facing the assembled killer elite of a mystery mastermind with a grudge…

As mercenary assassins close in, ‘The Web Tightens!’ until a last-minute rescue by agent Jimmy Woo and frenzied clash with mad killer Snapdragon at last leads to revelation and full disclosure after ‘The Widow… Alone!’ faces a foe long believed dead and spectacularly triumphs…

A short from Solo Avengers #7 (June 1988) by Bob Layton & Jackson “Butch” Guice) sees the Widow brave unimaginable peril to return to her old dancing teacher ‘The Token’ she no longer feels worthy of before intriguing superhero spy Original Graphic Novel The Coldest War unfolds.

Set in the last days of the US/Soviet face-off – with what looks to be an epilogue added to address the collapse of the Soviet State – the tale was clearly meant as a contemporary thriller (probably for fortnightly anthology Marvel Comics Presents) before events overtook the time-consuming process of printing a comic.

The afterword – set after the fall of the Berlin Wall – doesn’t jar too much and must have lent an air of imminent urgency to the mix at the time.

Gerry Conway provides a typically complex, double-dealing tale set in the dog-days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” (“openness”) government, where ambitious KGB upstarts undertake a plan to subvert Natasha  and return her to Soviet control. Their leverage and bait is husband Alexei Shostokoff – whom she has believed dead for years. Naturally, nothing is as it seems, nobody can be trusted and only the last spy standing can be called the winner…

Low key and high-tech go hand in hand in this sort of tale, and although there’s much reference to earlier Marvel classics, it can be easily enjoyed by the casual reader or movie convert.

And what art! George Freeman is a supreme stylist, whose drawing work – although infrequent – is always top rate. Starting out on Captain Canuck, he has excelled on Jack of Hearts, Green Lantern, Avengers, Batman Annual #11 (with Alan Moore), Wasteland, Elric, Nexus and The X-Files (for which he won an Eisner Award). Here, inked by Ernie Colon, Mark Farmer, Mike Harris, Val Mayerik & Joe Rubinstein, with colours from Lovern Kindzierski, he renders a subtle and sophisticated blend of costumed chic and espionage glamour to make this tale a “must-have” item all by itself.

It’s followed by 1992’s OGN Punisher/Black Widow: Spinning Doomsday’s Web by D.G. Chichester, Larry Stroman & Mark Farmer. Action-packed and plot-lite, it sees Frank Castle clash with the super-agent as she tracks rogue killer Peter Malum: an atomic scientist with a taste for slaughter and an insatiable thirst to test the deadliest weapon he’s ever built…

Presumably her spicy spy cachet wasn’t deemed enough to garner a regular series but warranted plenty of guest shots. In 1993, Jim Starlin & Joe Chiodo reunited her with an old lover for OGN Daredevil/Black Widow: Abattoir as a duo of depraved psionic predators inflict the tortures of the damned upon the Widow until the Man Without Fear saves her… and she subsequently rescues him…

Released in Late August 1993, ‘Legacy’ by Mindy Newell, John Stanisci & Sergio Cariello, was one quarter of Marvel Comics Presents #135 and sees Natasha touch base with her roots in New York’s Russian enclave only to find prejudice, murder and hidden KGB agents, before 1994’s Daredevil Annual #10 ‘Dead End’ offers a kind of sequel by Newell, Cariello & Rich Rankin as Natasha retrieves a lost bio-agent and is unexpectedly forced into reviewing her own defection to find a supposedly long-deceased old enemy…

Presumably crafted under the aegis of the much-missed Marvel UK sub-division, 1995 OGN Fury/Black Widow: Death Duty is by Cefn Ridout & Charlie Adlard and is a bit of a misnomer.

Don’t be fooled by the title and brace yourself for a disappointment if you’re a huge fan of the World War II Howling Commando and irascible erstwhile leader of the planet’s most advanced espionage agency. Although he gets top billing, Nick Fury is largely absent from the post-Cold War proceedings in this pacy thriller that is in actuality the spiritual conclusion to the saga of the mysterious Night Raven.

The enigmatic wanderer was a masked vigilante who fought crime in New York and Chicago s between World Wars I and II. In later years, he was locked in a bloody, pitiless vendetta with immortal villainess Yi Yang, Queen of the Dragon Tong.

Here, when a S.H.I.E.L.D. asset is murdered inside Moscow’s US embassy soon after the fall of the Soviet system, expatriate Russian super-agent/Avenger Natasha Romanoff is dispatched to unravel the secrets the new rulers don’t want revealed.

What she discovers is the incredible fate of the fearsome urban legend now known as Black Bird as he slaughters his way through bureaucrats and Russian Mafia alike in his single-minded mission to destroy the woman who kept him from a peaceful grave.

Superbly illustrated and tightly scripted, this is nonetheless an uncomfortable blending of genres, with a strange pace to it: as if a propose serial was savagely trimmed and pruned with no thought to narrative cohesion.

Closing the file this time around is a 3-part exploit by Scott Lobdell, Randy Green & Rick Ketcham from Journey into Mystery #517-519 (February to April 1998). ‘The Fire Next Time… parts 1-3’ offers a convoluted hunt for a Far Right terror group’s hidden leader whose scheme to simultaneously murder every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent on Earth revolves around a hidden traitor. But as the plot unfolds, it’s clear to the beleaguered Widow that absolutely nobody is who or what they seem…

Supplemented by Gulacy’s stunning 1982 Black Widow Portfolio (six monochrome plates and the cover image); info pages from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and pin-ups and posters by Al Milgrom, Kevin Nowlan, Terry Austin, June Brigman & Jim Lee and Joe Chiodo, this monumental collection also contains original art pages from Chiodo, Stroman & Farmer and covers by Yancy LaBat, Mark Morales, Pérez & Layton from previous collections of Black Widow: Web of Intrigue combining to create a suspenseful dossier of devious delights no fan should miss.
© 2020 MARVEL.

Avengers Marvel Masterworks volume 18


By David Michelinie, Roger Slifer, Steve Gerber, Tom DeFalco, Mark Gruenwald, Steven Grant, Bill Mantlo, Jim Shooter, Scott Edelman, Mark Evanier, John Byrne, George Pérez, Carmine Infantino, Jim Mooney, Don Newton, Michael Netzer, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0960-4 (HB)

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

Of course, all the founding stars were regularly featured due to the rotating, open door policy, which means that every issue includes somebody’s fave-rave – and the boldly grand-scale impressive stories and artwork are no hindrance either. With the team now global icons, let’s look again at the stories which form the foundation of that pre-eminence.

Re-presenting Avengers #178-188, Avengers Annual #8-9, plus Marvel Premier #49 and material from Marvel Tales #100 (cumulatively spanning December 1978 to October 1979), these stories again see the team in transition.

Jim Shooter, having galvanised and steadied the company’s notional flagship, moved on, leaving David Michelinie to impress his own ideas and personality upon the team, but such transitions are always tricky and a few water-treading fill-ins were necessary before progress resumed. For behind the scenes details you can read Michelinie’s fascinating Introduction before diving in to the fabulous action and drama…

After the death and resurrection of the heroes in the previous volume, Korvac’s defeat leads seamlessly into Avengers Annual #8, getting back to business with a monolithic Fights ‘n’ Tights melee in ‘Spectrums of Deceit!’, courtesy of Roger Slifer, George Pérez, Pablo Marcos & Ricardo Villamonte. It sees the sentient power-prism of archvillain Doctor Spectrum systematically possessing Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The upshot is another blockbusting battle against the Squadron Sinister and ethically ambivalent Femizon Thundra and another guest shot for mighty Ms. Marvel

A subtle change of pace and tone came in Avengers #178. ‘The Martyr Perplex!’ – by Steve Gerber, Carmine Infantino & Rudy Nebres – sees mutant Hank McCoy/The Beast targeted by master brainwasher The Manipulator in a tense psycho-thriller teeming with shady crooks and government spooks, after which Tom DeFalco, Jim Mooney, Al Gordon & Mike Esposito deliver a 2-part yarn introducing tragic mutant Bloodhawk and an ambitious human hitman in ‘Slowly Slays the Stinger!’

Whilst Stinger cautiously executes his commission, another cohort of champions accompany Bloodhawk to his desolate island home of Maura for a ‘Berserkers’ Holiday’, just in time to battle an animated and agitated stone idol. When they return victorious, Stinger is waiting and the assemblage loses its newest ally forever…

Finally getting back on track, Avengers #181 introduces new regular creative team David Michelinie & John Byrne – augmented by inker Gene Day – as ‘On the Matter of Heroes!’ sees intrusive and obsessive Government Agent Henry Peter Gyrich lay down the law and winnow the army of heroes down to a federally acceptable seven.

As the Guardians of the Galaxy headed back to their future, Iron Man, the Vision, Captain America, Scarlet Witch, Beast and Wasp must placate Hawkeye after he is rejected in favour of new member The Falcon – reluctantly parachuted in to conform to government affirmative action quotas…

Almost immediately, Gyrich’s methodically calculated plans are in tatters as an elderly Romani sorcerer attacks. He claims mutants Wanda and Pietro Frank as his long-lost children and traps their souls inside little wooden dolls, and the resultant clash in #182’s ‘Honor Thy Father’ (inked by Klaus Janson) creates even more questions, as overwhelming evidence seems to confirm Django Maximoff’s story. The upshot sees the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver leave with him on a quest for answers…

Michelinie, Byrne, Janson & D(iverse). Hands provide a breathtaking all-action extravaganza in #183-184 as ‘The Redoubtable Return of Crusher Creel!’ finds Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel cleared by Gyrich to replace the Witch…

Elsewhere in the Big Apple, the formidable Absorbing Man has decided to leave the country and quit being thrashed by heroes. Unfortunately, his departure plans include kidnapping a young woman “for company”, leading to a cataclysmic showdown with the heroes and Hawkeye (still determined to win back his place on the team) and resulting in carnage, chaos and a ‘Death on the Hudson!’

Historical continuity addicts Mark Gruenwald & Steven Grant plot #185’s ‘The Yesterday Quest!’ for Michelinie, Byrne & Dan Green to execute as, in America, new robotic ally Jocasta strives to entice the Vision even as his wife and brother-in-law arrive in Balkan Transia. In the shadow of mystic Mount Wundagore Wanda is beguiled by Modred the Mystic, leaving Quicksilver to perish if not for the ministrations of talking humanoid cow Bova.

The wetnurse once employed by the High Evolutionary doesn’t mind, after all she was his mother’s midwife years ago…

‘Nights of Wundagore!’ then unpicks years of mystery with secrets of the mutants’ origins; how she passed them off as the stillborn children of American superhero Bob Frank and offers big hints as to their true father. Wanda meanwhile has lost a magic duel with Modred and is possessed by ancient demon Chthon. Pietro barely survives his clash with her/it, and calls for help, but thanks to more pointless bureaucracy from Gyrich, its hours before the Avengers – missing Iron Man but including Wonder Man – arrive to face the world rending

‘Call of the Mountain Thing!’ Although they ultimately triumph, not every participant makes it out alive…

The way home is just as momentous as #188’s ‘Elementary, Dear Avengers’ (by Bill Mantlo, Byrne, Green & Frank Springer) begins with a side trip to Inhuman City Attilan and news that Quicksilver is about to become a dad, and ends with the team causing an international incident by diverting over Russian airspace. Thankfully, the incident overlaps with a secret Soviet science experiment going badly wrong, compelling the heroes to tackle sentient elements with a taste for death and destruction

Avengers Annual #9 then introduces a lethal secret from the past as Mantlo, Don Newton, Jack Abel & Joe Rubinstein reveal a deadly robotic sleeper locked beneath Avengers Mansion. ‘…Today the Avengers Die!’ reprises Iron Man’s battle against deadly vintage mechanoid Arsenal and reveals that the Howard Stark-built weapon was cached in his old townhouse. Now ‘Something Deadly Lurks Below!’ proves that they should have let sleeping bots lie…

Rounding out the chronologically completist action is a snippet from Marvel Tales #100 (February 1979) and a solo yarn from Marvel Premier #49 (August 1979). The first finds time-displaced Two-Gun Kid and Hawkeye battle Killgrave the Controller in ‘Killers of a Purple Rage!’ by Scott Edelman, Michael Netzer & Terry Austin, after which Mark Evanier, Sal Buscema & Dave Simons craft a try-out mission for The Falcon who faces the sinister ‘Sound of the Silencer’: finding profit not patriotism motivates his string of assassination attempts

Available in hardback and digital iterations, and supplemented by original art from Pérez, Dave Cockrum, Byrne, Gene Day & Green; previous collection covers by Steve Epting & Tom Palmer and letters columns debating the new origins for Pietro and Wanda, this archival tome and this type of heroic adventure might not be to every reader’s taste but these – and the epic yarns that followed – set the tone for decades to come and informed all those movies everybody loves.
© 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Spider-Man/Iron Man: Marvel Team-Up


By Gerry Conway, Bill Mantlo, Tony Isabella, Len Wein, Herb Trimpe, David Michelinie, Ross Andru, Jim Mooney, Sal Buscema, Greg LaRocque & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1368-7 (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, proving the time had finally come for expansion and offering regular venue 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 pairings co-starring Golden Avenger Iron Man and the wondrous wallcrawler, taken from Marvel Team-Up #9-11; 48-51; 72, 100 and 145: collectively covering May 1973 – September 1984.

It begins with a time-twisting three-part saga that exposes ‘The Tomorrow War!’ (by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru & Frank Bolle) as Iron Man and Spidey are abducted by Zarkko the Tomorrow Man to battle rival chronal creep Kang the Conqueror. The Human Torch got involved to help deal with the intermediate threat of a literal ‘Time Bomb!’ in #10 (with art by Jim Mooney & Frank Giacoia), before the entire Inhuman race led by king Black Bolt pile in to help the webslinger stop history unravelling in culminatory clash ‘The Doomsday Gambit!’ – this last chapter scripted by Len Wein over Conway’s plot for Mooney & Mike Esposito to illustrate.

The steel shod centurion next appeared in MTU #29 beside the Torch, but his next Spider-Man collaboration didn’t happen until #48 and the beginning of a suspenseful extended saga. ‘Enter: The Wraith!’ (Bill Mantlo, Sal Buscema & Esposito) introduces feisty, stylish and fiercely independent Police Captain Jean DeWolff as Spidey and Iron Man struggle to stop a mad bomber using model planes to destroy city landmarks and Stark International properties. As the heroes fruitlessly pursue leads, the enigmatic Wraith turns his attention upon them, proving to be not only connected to Jean but also some kind of psionic metahuman…

With Iron Man again the headline guest-star, issue #49 reveals that ‘Madness is All in the Mind!’ The masked maniac intensifies his irresistible psychic assaults: explosively attacking Manhattan even as the tragic story of Jean’s Police Commissioner dad and murdered cop brother comes out…

However, the connection between them and the unstoppable villain is only exposed after the webslinger and Golden Avenger recruit Master of Mystic Arts Doctor Strange who applies his unique gifts to the problem in #50’s ‘The Mystery of the Wraith!’

The saga concludes with Marvel Team-Up #51 and ‘The Trial of the Wraith!’: a legal drama and character confrontation steered by a most unusual panel of judges whose hidden abilities are not enough to prevent one last assault by the unrepentant renegade…

DeWolff features heavily in the Wraith’s demented revenge plot ‘Crack of the Whip!’ (#72; August 1978 by Mantlo & Mooney) which sees the superheroes battling Maggia stooges and assassin Whiplash whilst MTU #110 (October 1981) pitted Stark-tech and web-shooters against tectonic terror deep under the earth. Herb Trimpe plotted and pencilled breakdowns, with David Micheline scripting and Esposito inking the blistering ‘Magma Force’

Closing the team tussles, MTU #145 (September 1984, by Tony Isabella, Greg LaRocque & Esposito) delivers ‘Hometown Boy’: coming from the period when Tony Stark first succumbed to alcoholism. He lost everything, and his friend and bodyguard Jim Rhodes took over the role and duties of Golden Avenger. As Stark tried to make good with a new start-up company, this engaging yarn sees the substitute hero still finding his ferrous feet whilst battling oft-failed assassin Blacklash (formerly Whiplash) and at a trade fair in Cleveland, as much hindered as helped by visiting hero Spider-Man who was currently wearing the black symbiote costume that would become the terrifying antihero Venom

The book’s bonus section begins with original art from Andru, Mooney, Sal Buscema and inkers Bolle, Giacoia & Esposito plus cover-art from earlier collections courtesy of John Romita Sr., John Byrne, Bob Layton, Jeff Aclin & Al Milgrom.

These stories are admittedly of variable 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 library…
© 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avengers Epic Collection volume 6: A Traitor Stalks Among Us 1972-1973


By Roy Thomas, Harlan Ellison, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, Chris Claremont, Barry Windsor-Smith, Rick Buckler, John Buscema, Don Heck, George Tuska, Jim Starlin, Bob Brown, Sam Kweskin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2911-4 (TPB)

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

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

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

This stunning trade paperback compilation – also available in eBook iterations – assembles Avengers #98-114, plus a crucial crossover episode from Daredevil #99: collectively covering April 1972 to August 1973, confirming an era of cosmic catastrophe and cataclysmically captivating creative cross-pollination…

Even after saving the world, life goes on and seemingly gets more dangerous every day. Having ended war between the star-spanning Kree and Skrulls, ‘Let Slip the Dogs of War’ (#98, by Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith & Sal Buscema) sees harried heroes Captain America, Iron Man, the Vision, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and Thor debating the loss of their comrade Goliath, missing in action since he explosively stopped a Skull warship from nuking Earth…

As the Thunderer heads for Asgard and its magic scrying mirrors, the fruitless debate is curtailed as war-mongering demagogue Mr. Tallon incites riot in the streets of New York. The gathered crowds attack the Avengers when they tried to quell the unrest and it is soon evident that the war-hawk has supernatural assistance.

…And in the dimensional void the Thunder God discovers all access to the Immortal Realms has been cut off…

By the time he returns to Earth his comrades are bewitched too. Joining with the seemingly immune Vision in a last-ditch, hopeless battle, the Storm Lord fights his greatest allies until the tide is turned by a perfectly-aimed arrow, heralding the return of Goliath to his original identity… Hawkeye.

Moreover, he has with him another Avenger: an amnesiac Hercules, Prince of Power, whose only certain knowledge is that Earth and Asgard are jointly doomed…

Inked by Tom Sutton, ‘…They First Make Mad!’ expands the epic as the Avengers call on all their resources to cure Hercules and decipher his cryptic warning whilst Earth’s leaders seem determined to catapult the planet into atomic Armageddon.

As Hawkeye explains his miraculous escape from death in space and how he found Hercules, the desperate call to assemble goes out, summoning every hero who has ever been an Avenger. Suddenly, two Grecian Titans materialise to trounce the team, dragging the terrified Prince of Power back to Olympus…

The saga ends in the staggeringly beautiful anniversary 100th issue ‘Whatever Gods There Be!’ (inked by Smith, Joe Sinnott & Syd Shores) as thirteen Avengers – including even the scurrilous Swordsman and blockbusting Hulk – invade the home of the Hellenic Gods to discover old enemy Enchantress and war god Ares are behind the entire malignant plot…

It’s always tricky starting fresh after an epic conclusion but Thomas and debuting penciller Rich Buckler – doing his best Neal Adams impersonation – had a secret weapon in mind: a Harlan Ellison tale inked by veteran brushman Dan Adkins.

‘Five Dooms to Save Tomorrow!’ was based on the novella from 1964 and sees the Avengers battling Leonard Tippit, an ordinary man granted god-like power so that he could murder five innocent human beings. To be fair though, those innocuous targets’ continued existence threatened Earth’s entire future…

Determined to stop him whatever the ultimate consequences, the Avengers eschew murky moral quandaries and are tested to their utmost, before the crisis is averted…

They are on firmer, more familiar ground in #102 when the Grim Reaper returns, offering to place the Vision’s consciousness in a human body in return for the android’s allegiance in ‘What to Do till the Sentinels Come!’ (Thomas, Buckler & Joe Sinnott). Meanwhile, the mutant-hunting robots kidnap the Scarlet Witch and start another scheme to eradicate the threat of Homo Superior forever…

A budding romance between the Witch and the Vision exposes tensions and bigotries in most unexpected places as the cataclysmic tale continues with ‘The Sentinels are Alive and Well!’ as the team search the globe for the monstrous mechanical marauders before being captured themselves whilst invading their Australian Outback hive.

The tale concludes ‘With a Bang… and a Whimper!’ as the assemblers thwart a project to sterilise humanity – but only at the cost of two heroes’ lives…

The grieving Scarlet Witch takes centre stage in #105 as ‘In the Beginning was… the World Within!’ pairs neophyte scripter Steve Englehart with veteran artists John Buscema & Jim Mooney. The team travel to South America and encounter cavemen mutants from the antediluvian Savage Land, after which the Avengers discover ‘A Traitor Stalks Among Us!’ (art by Buckler, George Tuska & Dave Cockrum) with the revelation that perennial sidekick Rick Jones has become atomically bonded to alien hero Captain Marvel: a revelation that triggers a painful flashback in memory-blocked Captain America, just as an old foe turns the team against itself.

Limned by Jim Starlin, Tuska & Cockrum, Avengers #107 reveals ‘The Master Plan of the Space Phantom!’ and his complex and sinister alliance with the Grim Reaper even as the love-sick Vision finally accepts the Faustian offer of a human body.

Unfortunately, the corpus on offer is the Star-Spangled Avenger’s…

‘Check… and Mate!’ – illustrated by veteran Avenger artist Don Heck and inkers Cockrum & Sinnott – wraps up the intriguing saga in spectacular fashion as an army of Avengers thrash Phantom, Reaper and assorted hordes of Hydra hoods. However, the true climax is the Vision and Witch’s final acknowledgement of their love for each other.

The announcement provokes a storm of trouble…

In #109 Hawkeye – who’s always carried a torch for Wanda – quits the team in a dudgeon and ‘The Measure of a Man!’ (Heck & Frank McLaughlin) finds the heartsick archer duped by billionaire businessman Champion and nearly responsible for causing the complete destruction of California before wising up to save the day…

Next the depleted team of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Scarlet Witch, Vision and Black Panther investigate the disappearance of mutant heroes the X-Men and are thoroughly beaten by an old enemy with a new power.

‘… And Now Magneto!’ (Englehart, Heck, Frank Giacoia & Mike Esposito) ends with half the team brainwashed captives of the villain with the remaining crusaders desperately seeking new allies. We then pop over to San Francisco and a crossover from Daredevil and the Black Widow #99 (May 1973, by Steve Gerber, Sam Kweskin & Syd Shores).

‘The Mark of Hawkeye!’ sees Natasha Romanoff’s old boyfriend fetch up on the Widow’s doorstep, determined to “reclaim” her. The caveman stunt culminates in the Archer’s sound and well-deserved thrashing, and when the last Avengers arrive, asking him to return and assist, he refuses. DD and the Widow don’t, though…

The saga resumes and concludes in Avengers #111 as, ‘With Two Beside Them!’ (Englehart, Heck & Esposito) the returned heroes and West Coast vigilantes successfully rescue X-Men and Avengers enslaved by malevolent Magneto. With the action over, Daredevil returns to California, but the Black Widow elects to stay with the World’s Mightiest Heroes…

Escalating cosmic themes and colossal clashes commence here with Avengers #112 and ‘The Lion God Lives!’ (Don Heck & Frank Bolle art) wherein a rival African deity manifests to destroy the human avatar of the Panther God. As T’Challa and his valiant comrades tackle that threat, in the wings an erstwhile ally/enemy and his exotic paramour make their own plans for the team…

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

Rewarded with probationary status and the benefit of the doubt, they are in place for a forthcoming clash that will rock the universes…

As if extra enticements are even necessary, also included in this compendium are the stunning front and back covers crafted by Stuart Immonen, Wade von Grawbadger & Marie Javins for Essential Avengers #1-3, and original art covers, pages and unused pencils by Windsor, Smith, Buckler, John Buscema, Starlin, Heck, Cockrum and Brown.

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

These terrific tales are ideal examples of superheroes done exactly right: pivotal points as the underdog company evolved into a corporate entertainment colossus. These are some of the best superhero stories you’ll ever read and Englehart’s forthcoming concoctions would turn the Marvel Universe on its head and pave the way for a new peak of cosmic adventure…
© 2021 MARVEL.

Black Widow Epic Collection volume 1: Beware the Black Widow 1964-1971


By Stan Lee, Don Rico & Don Heck, Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich, Mimi Gold, Gerry Conway, Jack Kirby, John Buscema, John Romita, Gene Colan, Bill Everett & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2126-2 (TPB)

After a truly interminable time of waiting, the Black Widow movie is scheduled for general release on July 9th, so lets all take a look at her comic path from wicked wanton to war-weary world-saver courtesy of a carefully curated Epic Collection, gathering the majority of her earliest appearances.

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 earliest female stars. The Black Widow started life as a svelte, sultry honey-trap during Marvel’s 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 Yankee 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 has always been considered 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 that 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 Marvel Movie franchise was established, but for us unregenerate comics-addicts her print escapades have always offered a cool, sinister frisson of delight.

This expansive trade paperback and digital compilation gathers the contents of Tales of Suspense #52-53, 57, 60, 64; Avengers #29-30, 36-37, 43-44; Amazing Spider-Man #86; Amazing Adventures #1-8 and Daredevil #81, plus pertinent excerpts from Avengers #16, 32-33, 38-39, 41-42, 45-47, 57, 63-63 & 76, cumulatively spanning April 1964 to November 1971.

The action opens as a sexy Soviet operative Natasha and her hulking sidekick Boris (yes, I know: simpler times) is despatched to destroy recent defector Anton Vanko and his American protectors Tony Stark and Iron Man. ‘The Crimson Dynamo Strikes Again!’ (drawn by Don Heck and scripted, like the next issue, by “N. Kurok” – actually veteran creator Don Rico) sees the hero quickly dispose of the armoured Russian heavy while underestimating the far greater threat of the Soviet Femme Fatale.

With Tales of Suspense #53, she was a headliner. In ‘The Black Widow Strikes Again!’ she steals Stark’s anti-gravity ray yet ultimately fails in her sabotage mission, fleeing Russian retribution until resurfacing in ToS #57.

The Black Widow returned to beguile disgruntled budding superhero ‘Hawkeye, The Marksman!’ (Stan Lee & Heck) into attacking the Golden Avenger in #57, with no appreciable effect.

Tales of Suspense #60 featured an extended plotline with Stark’s “disappearance” leading to Iron Man being ‘Suspected of Murder!’. Capitalizing on the chaos, lovestruck Hawkeye and the Widow struck again, but another failure led to her being recaptured and re-educated by enemy agents…

Abruptly transformed from fur-clad seductress into a gadget-laden costumed villain, she returned in #64’s ‘Hawkeye and the New Black Widow Strike Again!’ (Lee, Heck & Chic Stone). Her failure led to big changes as pages from Avengers #16 reveal her punishment and Hawkeye’s reformation and induction into the superteam.

Jump forward more than a year and Avengers #29 as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch prepare to retire: returning to Europe to reinvigorate their fading powers even as ‘This Power Unleashed!’ brings back Hawkeye’s lost love: a brainwashed nemesis resolved to destroy the team.

Recruiting old foes Power Man and the Swordsman as cannon-fodder, she is foiled by her own incompletely submerged feelings for Hawkeye, after which ‘Frenzy in a Far-Off Land!’ sees dispirited colossus Henry Pym embroiled in a futuristic civil war amongst a lost south American civilisation while a temporary détente between Hawkeye and the Widow seems set to fail…

Extracts from Avengers #32-33 (with Heck providing raw, gritty inks over his own pencils in ‘The Sign of the Serpent!’ and concluding chapter ‘To Smash a Serpent!’) sees her own recovery begin as Natasha independently infiltrates a racist secret society before joining the Avengers to destroy the hatemongering snakes…

Her international credentials are exploited when long-missing Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver return, heralding an alien invasion of the Balkans in ‘The Ultroids Attack!’ and ‘To Conquer a Colossus!’ (Avengers #36-37). Newly cured, programming-free and reformed, she is the crucial factor in repelling an extraterrestrial invasion: a sinister, merciless Black Widow whose willingness to apply lethal force ultimately saves the day and the Earth……

Extracts from Avengers #38, 39, 41 and 42 detail how she then forsakes her new heroic reputation to go undercover for SHIELD, infiltrating a Communist Chinese super-weapon project as a supposed Soviet agent. In #43’s complete tale ‘Color him… the Red Guardian!’ (Roy Thomas, John Buscema & George Roussos) her origins and reasons for the title “widow” are revealed before – reacting to a world-threatening superweapon – the Avengers storm in for the fight of their lives as the saga climaxes in ‘The Valiant Also Die!’ (inked by Vince Colletta), a blistering all-out clash to save humanity from mental conquest…

The fractured relationship between Hawkeye and the Widow plays out in snippets from Avengers #45-47, #63 and 64 as her growing ties to SHIELD lead to an heartbreaking split with the Avenging Archer in #76 and the prospect of a new beginning for the Russian misfit…

It comes in Amazing Spider-Man #86 as ‘Beware… the Black Widow!’ affords John Romita & Jim Mooney a chance to redesign, redefine and relaunch the super-spy in an enjoyable if formulaic Lee-scripted misunderstanding/clash-of-heroes yarn with an ailing webspinner never really endangered. The entire episode was actually a promotion for the Widow’s own soon-to-debut solo series…

The Black Widow’s first solo series, appeared in “split-book” Amazing Adventures #1-8: mini-epics paying dues the superspy’s contemporary influences… Modesty Blaise and Emma Peel (that lass from the other Avengers…)

It all begins with ‘Then Came…The Black Widow’ (Amazing Adventures #1, August 1970 by Gary Friedrich, John Buscema & John Verpoorten) wherein Natasha comes out of self-imposed retirement to be a socially-aware crusader: defending low-income citizens from thugs and loan sharks. One act of charity leads her to help activists ‘The Young Warriors!’ as their attempts to build a centre for underprivileged kids in Spanish Harlem are countered by crooked, drug-dealing property speculators…

Gene Colan & Bill Everett assume art duties from #3’s ‘The Widow and the Militants!’, with her actions and communist past drawing hostile media attention, more criminal attacks and ultimately precipitating an inner-city siege, before the ‘Deadlock’ (scripted by Mimi Gold) comes to a shocking end…

Roy Thomas steps in for a bleakly potent Christmas yarn as ‘…And to All a Good Night’ sees Natasha and faithful retainer/father figure Ivan meet and fail a desperate young man, only to be dragged into a horrific scheme by deranged cult leader the Astrologer who plans to hold the city’s hospitals to ransom in ‘Blood Will Tell!’ (art by Heck & Sal Buscema).

Convinced she is cursed to do more harm than good, the tragic adventurer nevertheless inflicts ‘The Sting of the Widow!’(Gerry Conway, Heck & Everett) on her ruthless prey and his kid warriors, after which the series wraps up in rushed manner with a haphazard duel against Russian-hating super-patriot Watchlord in the Thomas-scripted ‘How Shall I Kill Thee? Let Me Count the Ways!’

The formative tales conclude here with ‘And Death is a Woman Called Widow’ (Daredevil #81, by Conway, Colan & Jack Abel), which sees infamous defector Natasha Romanoff burst onto the scene to save the Man Without Fear from ubiquitous manipulator Mr. Kline and deadly predator The Owl: exposing the mastermind behind most of DD and the Widow’s recent woes and tribulations…

Rounding out the comics experience here are bonus pages including a stunning pin-up of the bodacious Black Widow by Bill Everett; house ads and a huge gallery of original art pages by John Buscema, Verpoorten, Heck, Colan and Everett – including restored artworks edited for overly-salacious content that revealed a little too much of the sexy spy, and toned down for eventual publication…

These beautifully limned yarns might still occasionally jar with their earnest stridency and dated attitudes, but the narrative energy and sheer exuberant excitement of the adventures are compelling delights no action fan will care to miss …
© 2020 MARVEL.

Shuri: Wakanda Forever


By Nnedi Okorafor, Vita Ayala, Leonardo Romero, Paul Davidson, Rachael Stott, Jordie Bellaire, Tríona Farrell, Carlos Lopez, VC’s Joe Sabino & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2369-3 (TPB)

Lauded as the first black superhero in American comics and one of the first to carry his own series, the Black Panther’s popularity and fortunes have waxed and waned since the 1960s when he first attacked the FF (in Fantastic Four #52; cover-dated July 1966) as part of an extended plan to gain vengeance on the murderer of his father.

T’Challa, son of T’Chaka was revealed as an African monarch whose hidden kingdom was the only source of a vibration-absorbing alien metal upon which the country’s immense wealth was founded. Those mineral riches – derived from a fallen meteor which struck the continent in lost antiquity – had turned his country into a technological wonderland.

The tribal wealth had long been guarded by a hereditary feline champion deriving physical advantages from secret ceremonies and a mysterious heart-shaped herb that ensured the generational dominance of the nation’s warrior Panther Cult.

In recent years, Vibranium made the country a target for increasing subversion and incursion. After one all-out attack by Doctor Doom – culminating in the Iron Dictator seizing control of Wakanda – T’Challa was forced to render all Vibranium on Earth inert, defeating the invader but leaving his own homeland broken and economically shattered.

During that cataclysmic clash T’Challa’s flighty, spoiled brat half-sister Shuri took on the mantle of Black Panther, becoming clan and country’s new champion whilst her predecessor struggled with the disaster he had deliberately caused and recuperated from near-fatal injuries.

Despite initially being rejected by the divine Panther Spirit, Shuri proved a dedicated and ingenious protector, serving with honour until she perished defending the nation from alien invader Thanos. When T’Challa resumed his position as warrior-king, one of his earliest tasks was resurrecting his sister. She had passed into the Djalia (Wakanda’s spiritual Plane of Memories) where she absorbed the entire history of the nation from ascended Elders. On her return to physicality, she gained mighty new powers as the Ascended Future…

Since then – thanks to the equally formidable magic of a bravura role in a blockbuster movie – a slightly reimagined Shuri starred in her own series, blending established comics mythology with the fresh characterisation of a spunky, savvy, youthful super-scientist.

Initially written by multi award-winning fantasy author Nnedimma Nkemdili “Nnedi” Okorafor (Binti, Who Fears Death, Broken Places & Outer Spaces, Black Panther: Long Live the King) and illustrated by Leonardo Romero (Hawkeye, Captain America, Doctor Strange), this collection – gathering #1-10 of Shuri (spanning December 2018-September 2019 and available as a trade paperback or digitally) – finds Wakanda in turmoil.

In the aftermath of the nation’s first (official) manned space mission, King T’Challa is ‘Gone’, leaving Shuri to initially revel in the sheer joy and freedom of technological creation. However, the pressures of her family position always bedevil her. If it’s not frequent overtures from a mystery hacker she’s befriended and dubbed Muti or the constant chidings of the Ancestral Spirits who connect her to the Djalia, it’s her unwelcome invitation to join a secret society of women who have covertly steered and safeguarded Wakanda for generations…

The Sisters of the Elephant’s Trunk have a cherished goal: despite the nation recently becoming a constitutional monarchy, they want Shuri to step up in T’Challa’s absence and be the country’s spiritual leader … a new Black Panther…

Her answer in ‘The Baobab Tree’ pleases no one, but she has no time for second thoughts as sister-in-law Storm comes to her with news that T’Challa is now lost in space. The crisis is further compounded after Queen Mother Ramonda also vanishes. When Shuri resorts to spiritual means of locating her missing family, the ritual accidentally catapults her astral personality across the universe and into the vegetable body of a Guardian of the Galaxy…

Trapped but never helpless, Shuri’s brains save the alien heroes from dire peril and a deadly energy, memory and sound-eating bug in ‘Groot Boom’, but her return to Earth brings more trouble as the energy-insectoid follows to cause chaos in ‘Timbuktu’ – thanks in large part to the machinations of opportunist supervillain Moses Magnum. More concerning is the fact that many of her Ascended powers have gone

With catastrophe all around and the planet in deadly peril, Shuri calls in a favour and Iron Man responds to assist in preventing ‘The End of the Earth’, but ultimately Shuri knows that the call of the Panther cult must be answered no matter what she wants…

The crisis deepens in ‘A Friend in Need’ parts 1 and 2 (illustrated by Paul Davidson & Tríona Farrell) as the reluctant new Black Panther traces a living black hole generator to Brooklyn, USA and shares a perilous romp with second Spider-Man Miles Morales and modern Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan, redeeming genius kid Augustin Torres from a dangerous association with major mag guy Graviton

Events spiral to a spectacular conclusion as Vita Ayala (Livewire, New Mutants) takes over scripting for #8-10 with Rachael Stott & Carlos Lopez tackling the picture-making. In ‘24/7 Vibranium’, that pesky bug resurfaces to imperil Earth prompting a fact-find visit to the Djalia, a fraught confrontation at Wakanda’s Vibranium mines in ‘Godhead’ and an unexpected resolution in ‘Living Memory’ that answers most of Shuri’s questions, restores her powers and sets her up for the next great adventure…

Balancing the fantastic fun and affirmative inspiration, this delightfully angst-free action romp also offers an Afterwordfrom Okorafor; Variant cover gallery by Skottie Young, Jamal Campbell, Carlos Pacheco, Travis Charest, John Tyler Christopher, Afua Richardson (plus movie photo-cover) and Romero design pages.

Wakanda Forever is a fast-moving, funny and supremely inventive delight: a splendidly fresh take on female superheroes that is compulsive reading for any fan of tight continuity, breathtaking action and smart characterisation as well as everyone who fell in love with the super-smart young woman who stole every scene in the Black Panther movie. What are you waiting for?
© 2020 MARVEL.

Avengers Marvel Masterworks volume 17


By Jim Shooter, Jim Starlin, Roger Stern, Marv Wolfman, George Pérez, David Michelinie, Bill Mantlo, Mark Gruenwald, Sal Buscema, Dave Wenzel, Tom Morgan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1302903411 (HB)

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

Of course, all the founding stars were regularly featured due to the rotating, open door policy, which means that every issue includes somebody’s fave-rave – and the boldly grand-scale impressive stories and artwork are no hindrance either. With the team now global icons, let’s look again at the stories which form the foundation of that pre-eminence.

Re-presenting Avengers #164-177, Avengers Annual #7 plus the concluding half of the legendary crossover epic from Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2 (cumulatively spanning October 1977 to November 1978), these stories again see the team in transition and against the biggest threats ever imagined.

During this period Jim Shooter, having galvanised and steadied the company’s notional flagship, moved on, leaving David Michelinie to impress his own ideas and personality upon the team, even as Cosmic Doomsmith Jim Starlin recruited the team to inscribe an epic ending to his seminal interpretation of tragic antihero Adam Warlock

Opening this titanic tome is an informative Foreword from scripter Roger Stern, followed by a stunning 3-part saga by Shooter, John Byrne & Pablo Marcos which reinvented one of the team’s oldest adversaries.

It begins in #164 as, after months of speculation and experimentation, the resurrected Wonder Man is finally revealed to have evolved into a creature of pure ionic energy. Elsewhere, aging Maggia Don Count Nefaria recruits Whirlwind, Power Man (the original mercenary who had undergone the same transformative experiment as Wonder Man) and Living Laser to amass plunder for him. This tactic is mere subterfuge…

After the thieves trash a squad of Avengers, Nefaria uses his flunkies’ bodies as templates and power source to turn himself into a literal Superman before attacking the already-battered heroes in ‘To Fall by Treachery!’

The tension builds in #165 as ‘Hammer of Vengeance’ sees the out-powered team fall, only to be saved by elderly speedster The Whizzer who points out that, for all his incredible strength, Nefaria too is an old man with death inevitably dogging his heels…

Panicked and galvanised, the Overman goes berserk, carving a swathe of destruction through the city whilst seeking a confrontation with Thunder God Thor and the secret of his immortality. Before too long he had reason to regret his demands. The surprise arrival of the Thunderer in ‘Day of the Godslayer!’ ends the madman’s dreams but also highlights growing tensions within the victorious team…

This superb thriller is followed by ‘The Final Threat’ (Jim Starlin & Joe Rubinstein) from Avengers Annual #7, wherein Kree warrior Captain Marvel and Titanian mind-goddess Moondragon return to Earth with vague anticipations of an impending cosmic catastrophe.

Their premonitions are confirmed when galactic wanderer Adam Warlock arrives with news that death-obsessed Thanos has amassed an alien armada and built a Soul-gem powered weapon to snuff out the stars like candles…

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

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

With nowhere else to turn, the anguished, disbelieving Spider-Man heads for the Baxter Building, hoping to borrow a spacecraft, unaware that The Thing also has history with the terrifying Titan.

Although utterly overmatched, the mismatched champions of Life subsequently upset Thanos’ plans enough so that the Avengers and the Universe’s true agent of retribution can end the Titan’s threat forever… or at least until next time…

Back in the monthly, an epic of equal import was about to unfold. Shooter’s connection to the series, although episodic, was long-lived and produced some of that period’s greatest tales, none more so than the stellar – if deadline-doomed – saga which occurred over succeeding months: a sprawling tale of time-travel and universal conquest which began in Avengers #167-168 and, after a brief pause, resumed for #170 through #177.

In previous issues a difference of opinion between Captain America and Iron Man over leadership styles had begun to polarise the team. Cracks appeared and tensions started to show in #167 with ‘Tomorrow Dies Today!’ (Shooter, George Pérez & Marcos).

In the Gods-&-Monsters filled Marvel Universe there are entrenched and jealous Hierarchies of Power, so when a new player mysteriously materialises in the 20th century the very Fabric of Reality is threatened…

It kicks off when star-spanning 31st century superheroes the Guardians of the Galaxy materialise in Earth orbit, hotly pursuing cyborg despot Korvac. Inadvertently setting off planetary incursion alarms, their minor-moon sized ship is swiftly penetrated by an Avengers squad, and – after the customary introductory squabble – the future men (Charlie-27, Yondu, Martinex, Nikki, Vance Astro and enigmatic space God Starhawk) explain the purpose of their mission…

Captain America had fought beside them to liberate their home era from Badoon rule and Thor battled the fugitive Korvac before, so peace soon breaks out, but even with the resources of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, the time travellers are unable to find their quarry…

Meanwhile on Earth, a mysterious being named Michael lurks in the background. At a fashion show staged by the Wasp, he achieves a psychic communion with model Carina Walters before they both vanish…

‘First Blood’ (Avengers #168) stirs up more trouble as Federal liaison and hidebound martinet Henry Peter Gyrich begins making life bureaucratically hot for the maverick team. In Colorado, meanwhile, Hawkeye gets a shock as his travelling partner Two-Gun Kid vanishes before his eyes whilst in suburban Forest Hills, Starhawk – in his female iteration of Aleta – approaches a quiet residence…

Michael/Korvac’s plan consists of subtly altering events as he gathers strength in secret preparation for a sneak attack on those aforementioned Cosmic Hierarchies. His entire plan revolves around not being noticed. When Starhawk confronts him, the villain kills the stellar intruder and instantly resurrects him minus the ability to perceive Michael or any of his works…

The drama screeches to a halt in #169, which declares ‘If We Should Fail… The World Dies Tonight!’ The out of context potboiler – by Marv Wolfman, Sal Buscema & Dave Hunt – sees Cap, Iron Man and the Black Panther scour the planet in search of doomsday bombs wired to the failing heart of a dying man, after which the major mayhem resumes in #170 with ‘…Though Hell Should Bar the Way!’ by Shooter, Pérez & Marcos.

As Sentinel of Liberty and Golden Avenger finally settle their differences, in Inhuman city Attilan, ex-Avenger Quicksilver suddenly disappears even as dormant mechanoid Jocasta (designed by maniac AI Ultron to be his bride) goes on a rampage before vanishing into the wilds of New York City.

In stealthy pursuit and hoping her trail will lead to Ultron himself, the team stride into a trap ‘…Where Angels Fear to Tread’ but nevertheless triumph thanks to the hex powers of the Scarlet Witch, the assistance of pushy, no-nonsense new hero Ms. Marvel and Jocasta’s own rebellion against the metal monster who made her. However, at their moment of triumph the Avengers are stunned to see Cap and Jocasta wink out of existence…

The problems pile up in #172 as Watchdog-come-Gadfly Gyrich is roughly manhandled and captured by out-of-the-loop returnee Hawkeye and responds by rescinding the team’s Federal clearances.

Badly handicapped, the heroes are unable to warn other inactive members of the increasing disappearances even as a squad of heavy hitters rush off to tackle marauding Atlantean maverick Tyrak the Treacherous who is bloodily enacting a ‘Holocaust in New York Harbor!’ (by Shooter, Sal Buscema & Klaus Janson)…

Answers to the growing mystery are finally forthcoming in ‘Threshold of Oblivion!’, plotted by Shooter, with David Michelinie scripting for Sal Buscema & D(iverse) Hands to illustrate.

As the vanishings escalate, the remaining Avengers (Thor, Wasp, Hawkeye and Iron Man – with the assistance of Vance Astro) finally track down their hidden foe and beam into a cloaked starship to liberate the ‘Captives of the Collector!’(Shooter, Bill Mantlo, Dave Wenzel & Marcos)…

After a staggering struggle, the heroes triumph and their old foe reveals the shocking truth: he is in fact an Elder of the Universe who foresaw cosmic doom millennia previously and sought to preserve special artefacts and creatures – such as the Avengers – from the slowly approaching apocalypse.

As he reveals that predicted end-time is here and that he has sent his own daughter Carina to infiltrate the Enemy’s stronghold, the cosmic curator is obliterated in a devastating blast of energy. The damage however is done and the entrenched hierarchies of creation may well be alerted…

Issue #175 began the final countdown as ‘The End… and Beginning!’ (Shooter, Michelinie, Wenzel & Marcos) sees the amassed and liberated ranks of Avengers and Guardians follow the clues to Michael, just as the new god shares the incredible secret of his apotheosis with Carina, before ‘The Destiny Hunt!’ and ‘The Hope… and the Slaughter!’ (Shooter, Wenzel, Marcos & Ricardo Villamonte) depicts the entire army of champions destroyed and resurrected as Michael easily overpowers all opposition but falters for lack of one fundamental failing…

Spread through a series of lesser adventures, the overarching epic ponderously and ominously unfolds before finally exploding into a devastating and tragic Battle Royale that is the epitome of superhero comics. This is pure escapist fantasy at its finest.

Despite being somewhat diminished by the artwork when the magnificent Pérez gave way to less inspired hands and cursed by the inability to keep a regular inker (Pablo Marcos, Klaus Janson Ricardo Villamonte and Tom Morgan all pitched in), the sheer scope of the epic plot nevertheless carries this story through to its cataclysmic and fulfilling conclusion.

Even Shooter’s reluctant replacement by scripters Dave Michelinie and Bill Mantlo (as his editorial career advanced) couldn’t derail this juggernaut of adventure.

If you want to see what makes Superhero fiction work, and can keep track of nearly two dozen flamboyant characters, this is a fine example of how to make such an unwieldy proposition easily accessible to the new and returning reader.

Available in hardback and digital iterations, and supplemented by original cover art by Pérez and Dave Cockrum, contemporary House Ads, editorial material and covers from previous compilations plus an epilogue strip by Mark Gruenwald & Tom Morgan, this archival tome and this type of heroic adventure might not be to every reader’s taste but these – and the truly epic yarns that followed – set the tone for fantastic Fights ‘n’ Tights dramas for decades to come and informed all those movies everybody loves. This tale can still boggle the mind and take the breath away, even here in the quietly isolated and no less dangerous 21st century…

No lovers of Costumed Dramas can afford to ignore this superbly bombastic book, and fans who think themselves above superhero stories might also be pleasantly surprised…
© 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Iron Man Epic Collection volume 4 1970-1972: The Fury of the Firebrand


By Archie Goodwin, Gerry Conway, Allyn Brodsky, Mimi Gold, Robert Kanigher, Gary Friedrich, Johnny Craig, Don Heck, George Tuska, Herb Trimpe, Gene Colan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2207-8 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Glittering Bauble of Shiny Nostalgic Marvel Madness… 8/10

Created in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and at a time when “Red-baiting” and “Commie-bashing” were American national obsessions (just like now), the emergence of a brilliant new Thomas Edison, using Yankee ingenuity and invention to safeguard and better the World, seemed inevitable. Combined with the then-sacrosanct belief that technology and business could solve any problem with the universal imagery of noble knights battling evil, the concept behind the Invincible Iron Man seems an infallibly successful proposition.

Of course, where once Tony Stark was the acceptable face of 1960s Capitalism: a glamorous millionaire industrialist/inventor and a benevolent all-conquering hero when clad in the super-scientific armour of his metal alter-ego, the tumultuous tone of changing times soon resigned his suave, playboy image to the dustbin of history and, with ecological disasters and social catastrophe from the abuse of industry and technology the new mantras of the young, the Golden Avenger and Stark International were soon confronting some tricky questions from the increasingly socially conscious readership.

All of a sudden maybe that money and fancy gadgetry weren’t quite so fun or cool anymore…?

This sterling hardback – and eBook – compilation covers the period May 1970 through May 1972, re-presenting Iron Man #25-46 and incorporating a tumultuous team-up with the Man Without Fear from Daredevil #73 which held a key portion of a rather complex comics crossover.

Imminently departing scripter Archie Goodwin pins Iron Man’s new Green colours to the comic’s mast in #25’s stunning eco-parable ‘This Doomed Land… This Dying Sea!’, ably assisted by EC legend Johnny Craig, whose slick understated mastery adds a sheen of terrifying authenticity to proceedings. Here, the Armoured Avenger clashes and ultimately teams with veteran antihero Namor the Sub-Mariner, before being compelled to destroy one of his own hyper-polluting facilities, consequently overruling and abandoning his company’s previous position and business model…

Tragically, his attempts to convince other industry leaders to do likewise meets with the kind of reaction that tragically then (and again now) typifies America’s response to the real-world situation…

Original Iron Man artist Don Heck returned for the fantasy-fuelled romp ‘Duel in a Dark Dimension!’ (scripted by Goodwin and inked by Craig) with guest villain The Collector kidnapping Stark’s right-hand man Happy Hogan in a convoluted scheme to secure an extradimensional super-sword…

America’s mounting racial tensions took centre-stage in ‘The Fury of the Firebrand!’, introducing an inflammatory radical with a secret and highly personal hate-filled agenda aimed squarely at Stark and the fat cats he represented. The incendiary fiend was also a human napalm grenade…

Goodwin bowed out with #28’s riotous return match ‘The Controller Lives!’, wherein the mind parasite attacks Stark and SHIELD agent Jasper Sitwell through an old girlfriend, after which Mimi Gold scripted an old-fashioned commie-buster yarn, drawn by Heck and inked by Chic Stone in #29, with Iron Man liberating a tropical paradise from its enslaving socialist overlords in ‘Save the People… Save the Country!’.

Impressive new kid on the block Allyn Brodsky took over as scripter with #30’s ‘The Menace of the Monster-Master!’: a rousing rampage full of Maoist menace with a giant lizard ravaging Japan until the Golden Avenger steps in, taking charge and exposing a cunning plot…

Far more intriguing is ‘Anything… For the Cause!’ wherein back-to-nature hippie protesters and outraged teen radicals are manipulated by an unscrupulous local businessman. This social drama also adds cool young Irish science nerd Kevin O’Brian to the regular cast.

IM #32’s ‘Beware… The Mechanoid!’ (illustrated by George Tuska & “Joe Gaudioso”) then relates a salutary tale of a benign alien explorer making the tragic mistake of exploring America whilst disguised as a black man…

Heck & Gaudioso (actually moonlighting Mike Esposito) handled the art for ‘Their Mission: Destroy Stark Industries!!’as corporate raider Spymaster unleashes his Mission: Impossible-inspired team The Espionage Elite to deprive America of both the inventor and his company. This fast-paced thriller concluded in bombastic finale ‘Crisis… and Calamity!!’with the near-death of a cast regular, signalling the advent of a darker, more driven Armoured Avenger…

Something of a comics wunderkind at this time, Gerry Conway assumed the writer’s reins in Iron Man #35 as the traumatised hero understandably seeks ‘Revenge!’ on Spymaster before being distracted by an ongoing battle between Daredevil, Nick Fury, Madame Masque and the global criminal network Zodiac – all contesting ownership of an extra-dimensional wish-granting super-weapon.

That battle spills over into Daredevil #73 and a mass abduction into another dimension in ‘Behold… the Brotherhood!’(by Conway, Gene Colan & Syd Shores) before messily and inconclusively concluding halfway through Iron Man #36 (Heck & Esposito). The remainder of the issue and battle for the Zodiac Key is necessarily shelved as the Steely Centurion is waylaid by terra-forming aliens in ‘…Among Men Stalks the Ramrod!’

Incapacitated and with his recently transplanted new heart critically damaged, Stark reveals his secret to Kevin O’Brian ‘In This Hour of Earthdoom!’ (Jim Mooney inks) before rapidly retrenching, recuperating and ultimately repelling the invaders. The fantastic fantasy drama pauses here for a hard-boiled and pleasantly low-key diversion in the form of an engaging gangster caper from Conway, Tuska & Esposito wherein Iron Man is forced to respond quite assertively ‘When Calls Jonah…!’

Conway resumes the mad science tales – with Herb Trimpe illustrating – in ‘A Twist of Memory… a Turn of Mind!’, wherein insidious oriental mastermind White Dragon (Yes, I know, but social relevance clearly advanced at its own piecemeal rate and racial profiling was less obvious than poisoned air and rivers…) deviously turns Stark into a brainwashed pawn, thereby inadvertently enslaving the Golden Avenger too.

Devoted assistant Kevin O’Brian comes to the rescue, but is led down a path to inevitable doom when he assists his mind-locked employer in a torturous ‘Night Walk!’ (by Tuska & Jim Mooney) to save his sanity and defeat the sinister foe.

Simultaneously, Marianne Rodgers, a woman they both love, begins a slow glide into madness as her telepathic powers gradually grow beyond her control and start eating at her mind…

Issue #41 continued a convoluted storyline dealing with mystery mastermind Mr. Kline. (For the full story you should also track down contemporaneous Daredevil and Sub-Mariner issues: you won’t be any the wiser but at least you’ll have a full set…)

Next, ‘The Claws of the Slasher!’ sees squabbling saboteurs target Washington DC during a Senate investigation into Stark Industries; accidentally triggering a psychic transformation in Marianne, who temporarily morphs into a mind-warping harpy in ‘When Demons Wail!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia). The clash culminates in a blockbusting, extra-long battle against psionic godling Mikas in ‘Doomprayer!’ (with Mooney inks). During that cataclysmic conflict O’Brian dons his own super-armour to join the fray as The Guardsman; causing his own mental state to rapidly deteriorate and making his eventual showdown with Stark utterly unavoidable…

Plotted by Conway, scripted by DC A-Lister Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Tuska & Vince Colletta, Iron Man #44 finds Stark near death after his last battle. In ‘Weep for a Lost Nightmare!’, he is watched over by Kevin and Marianne as Kline dispatches a robotic copy of old adversary The Night Phantom to finish the ailing hero off. The tale was truncated midway and completed in the next issue – presumably due to deadline problems.

Gary Friedrich scripted concluding chapter ‘Beneath the Armour Beats a Heart!’ in #45, after which Stark faces a revolt by his own Board of Directors who convince the jealousy-consumed O’Brian to stand with them.

When student protestors invade the factory, greed-crazed capitalist and reactionary revolt instigator Simon Gilbertconvinces O’Brian to don his Guardsman suit and teach the kids a lesson, leading to a horrific escalation in ‘Menace at Large!’ (inked by John Verpoorten) wherein Iron Man intervenes to save lives and causes the fully-amok O’Brian’s death…

To Be Continued…

The galvanised wonderment also includes the covers of Iron Man Annuals #1 and 2, a selection of house ads and a gallery of original art covers and interior pages by Marie Severin & Sam Grainger, Sal Buscema, Tuska and Frank Giacoia, to wrap up this collection with the Golden Gladiator carefully politically repositioned at a time when Marvel solidly set itself up at the vanguard of a rapidly changing America increasingly at war with itself.

With this volume Marvel further entrenched itself in the camp of the young and the restless, experiencing first hand, and every day, the social upheaval America was undergoing. This rebellious teen sensibility and enhanced political conscience permeated the company’s publications as their core audience evolved from Flower Power innocents into a generation of acutely aware activists. Future tales would increasingly bring reformed capitalist Stark into many unexpected and outrageous situations…

But that’s the meat of another review, as this engrossing graphic collection is done. From our distant vantage point the polemical energy and impact might be dissipated, but the sheer quality of the comics and the cool thrill of the eternal aspiration of man in perfect partnership with magic metal remains. These superhero sagas are amongst the most underrated but impressive tales of the period and are well worth your time, consideration and cold hard cash…
© 2020 MARVEL.