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

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.

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.

Avengers: Hawkeye


By Mark Gruenwald, Brett Breeding & Danny Bulanadi, with Stan Lee & Don Heck; Mike Friedrich, George Evans & Frank Springer, Steven Grant, John Byrne & Dan Greene, Jimmy Janes & Bruce Patterson & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3723-8 (TPB)

Clint Barton is probably the world’s greatest archer: swift, ingenious, unerringly accurate and augmented by a fantastic selection of multi-purpose high-tech arrows. Other masked bow persons are available…

Following an early brush with the law and as a reluctant Iron Man villain beginning in 1964, he reformed to join the Mighty Avengers where he served with honour and distinction, despite always feeling overshadowed by his more glamorous, super-powered comrades.

Long a mainstay of Marvel continuity and probably Marvel’s most popular B-list hero, the Battling Bowman has risen to great prominence in recent years, boosted no doubt by his filmic incarnation.

This brash and bombastic collection – available in paperback and digital formats – re-presents breakthrough miniseries Hawkeye #1-4 and debut from Tales of Suspense #57 (September 1964) plus the first costumed appearance of occasional wife and frequent paramour Bobbi “Mockingbird” Morse from Marvel Super Action #1 (January 1976) and a more-or-less solo outing for each from Avengers #189 (November 1979), and Marvel Team-Up #95 (July 1980) respectively.

Written and drawn by the hugely underrated and much-missed Mark Gruenwald, ably assisted by inkers Brett Breeding & Danny Bulanadi and running from September to December 1983, Hawkeye was one of Marvel’s earliest miniseries and remains one of the very best adventures of Marvel’s Ace Archer.

Much like the character himself, this project was seriously underestimated when first released: most industry pundits and the more voluble fans expected very little from a second-string hero drawn by a professional writer. Guess again, suckers!

In opening chapter ‘Listen to the Mockingbird’, he is moonlighting as security chief for electronics corporation Cross Technological Enterprises when he captures a renegade S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, who reveals that his bosses are all crooks, secretly involved in shady mind-control experiments.

After some initial doubt, Barton teams with a svelte and sexy super-agent in ‘Point Blank’ to foil the plot, gaining in the process a new costume and instant rogues’ gallery of archfoes such as Silence, Oddball and Bombshell in third chapter ‘Beating the Odds’.

As the constant hunt and struggle wears on, Barton succumbs to – but is not defeated by – a physical handicap and wins a wife (not necessarily the same thing) in explosive conclusion ‘Till Death us do Part…’ wherein the sinister mastermind behind it all is finally revealed and summarily dealt with.

In those faraway days both Gruenwald and Marvel Top Gun Jim Shooter maintained that a miniseries had to deal with significant events in a character’s life, and this bright and breezy, no-nonsense, compelling and immensely enjoyable yarn certainly kicked out the deadwood and re-launched Hawkeye’s career. In short order from here the bowman went on to create and lead his own team: The West Coast Avengers, gain his own regular series in Solo Avengers and Avengers Spotlight and his own series, consequently becoming one of the most vibrant and popular characters of the period and today as well as a modern-day action movie icon…

Hard on the heels of the epic comes ‘Hawkeye, the Marksman!’ (by Stan Lee & Don Heck from Tales of Suspense #57) wherein villainous spy the Black Widow resurfaces to beguile an ambitious and frustrated neophyte costumed vigilante hero into attacking her archenemy. Despite a clear power-imbalance, the former carnival archer comes awfully close to beating the Golden Avenger …

Augmented by a Howard Chaykin frontispiece from black-&-white magazine Marvel Super Action #1 (January 1976), former Ka-Zar romantic interest Dr. Barbera Morse is reinvented by Mike Friedrich, George Evans & Frank Springer ‘Red-Eyed Jack is Wild!’. Using unwieldy nomme de guerre Huntress, Morse devotes herself to cleaning up corruption inside S.H.I.E.L.D., no matter what the cost…

Avengers #189 then reveals how Hawkeye got his job at CTE as ‘Wings and Arrows!’ (by Steven Grant, John Byrne & Dan Green) pits the new security chief against alien avian interloper Deathbird, before Huntress becomes Mockingbird for MTU #95. Crafted by Grant, Jimmy Janes & Bruce Patterson ‘…And No Birds Sing!’ ends the long-extant S.H.I.E.L.D. corruption storyline as Morse and Spider-Man join forces to expose the true cancer at the heart of America’s top spy agency…

Packed with terrific tales of old-fashioned romance, skulduggery and derring-do, this book is a no-nonsense example of the straightforward action-adventure yarns that cemented Marvel’s reputation and success. But oh, the tension, the tension…
© 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Spectacular Spider-Man: Lo, This Monster


By Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, John Romita Sr., Jim Mooney, Bill Everett & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2064-7 (TPB)

The Amazing Spider-Man was always a character and concept which matured with – or perhaps just slightly ahead – of its fan-base. That thought might well have contributed to a rare Marvel misstep during the 1960s as the House of Ideas increasingly challenged the dominance of DC; finally collected here in its own nostalgia-soaked trade paperback and digital tome for your delight and delectation…

After a shaky start, the Wondrous Wallcrawler quickly became a sensational “must-see” with kids of all ages. Before long, the quirky, charming, thrillingly action-packed comics drama would become the model for an entire generation of younger heroes impatiently elbowing aside the (relatively) staid thirty-something mystery-men of previous publications and hallowed tradition.

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

Crafting 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 beloved guardian uncle Ben Parker had been murdered.

Crazed and vengeful, Peter hunted the assailant who’d made doting Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known. When, to his horror, he discovered it was the self-same felon he had neglected to stop, and that irresponsibility had resulted in the death of the man who raised him, the traumatised boy swore to forevermore use his powers to help others…

Since that night, the Wondrous Wallcrawler has tirelessly battled miscreants, monsters and madmen, with a fickle, ungrateful public generally baying for his blood even as he saves them.

Already the darlings of college campuses and media intelligentsia, the Amazing Arachnid’s rise increased pace as the Swinging Sixties closed, with Peter and his ever-expanding cast of comrades well on the way to being household names. Stan Lee’s scripts were completely in tune with the times – as perceived by most kids’ parents at least – and an increasing use of soap opera plots kept older readers glued to the series even if the bombastic battle sequences didn’t.

In 1968, the company finally broke free of a restrictive distribution deal and exponentially expanded. All these factors combined to prompt a foray into the world of oversized mainstream magazines (as successfully developed by James Warren with Eerie, Creepy and Vampirella) which could be higher priced and produced without restrictive oversight from The Comics Code Authority. The result was the quarterly Spectacular Spider-Man #1-2 (July-November 1968): a genuinely wonder-filled thrill for 9-year-old me, but clearly not the mainstream mass of Marvel Mavens…

Re-presented here are both issues, material from the unpublished third and a variety of background supplements, beginning with that first bombastic booklet.

Following a painted cover – Marvel’s first – by John Romita (senior) and illustrator Harry Rosenbaum, the main feature of Spectacular Spider-Man #1 was ‘Lo, This Monster!’ by Lee, John Romita (senior) & Jim Mooney: an extended, political thriller with charismatic reformer Richard Raleigh tirelessly campaigning to become Mayor, but targeted and hunted by a brutish titan seemingly determined to keep the old political machine in place at all costs…

Rendered in moody wash tones, the drama soon disclosed a sinister plotter directing the monster’s campaign of terror… but his identity was the last one Spidey expected to expose…

Also included in the magazine and here was a retelling of the hallowed origin tale as described above. ‘In the Beginning…’ is crafted by Lee, with brother Larry Lieber’s pencils elevated by inks-&-tones from the legendary Bill Everett. Rounding out the experience is a tantalising ‘Next issue’ ad which neatly segues into an all-Romita painted cover and the magazine experiment’s premature the conclusion…

Three months later The Spectacular Spider-Man #2 came out. It was radically different from its predecessor. To offset disappointing sales, Marvel had swiftly switched to a smaller size and added comic book colour. It also sported a Comics Code symbol.

A proposed third issue which would have debuted the Prowler never appeared. It was to be the last attempt to secure ostensibly older-reader shelf-space until the mid-1970s. At least the story in #2 was top-rate…

Following monochrome recap ‘The Spider-Man Saga’ Lee, Romita & Mooney dealt with months of foreshadowing in the monthly comic book series by finally revealing how Norman Osborn had shaken off selective amnesia and returned to full-on super-villainy in ‘The Goblin Lives!’

Steeped in his former madness and remembering Peter Parker was Spider-Man, Osborn plays cat and mouse with his foe, threatening all the hero’s loved ones until a climactic closing battle utilising hallucinogenic weapons again erases the Green Goblin personality… for the moment…

A full colour teaser for never-seen #3’s “The Mystery of the TV Terror!” leads off the extra features, followed by a Dean White version of #2’s cover which fronted 2012’s Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man vol 7 and house ads from various 1968 Marvel comics for Spectacular Spider-Man #1 & 2.

Also included are Romita’s original pencils for the covers of both, with the painted end-products by Harry Rosenbaum and Romita respectively and a 1988 text feature from Marvel Visions #29 detailing ‘The Greatest Comics Never Seen’, and offering sketches and unused pages of the antihero we know as The Prowler (who was legendarily invented by schoolboy John Romita Jr.).

This book is Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak. If you fancy a taste of something simultaneously tried-&-true and spectacularly radical, this might be the book for you.
© 2019 MARVEL

White Tiger: A Hero’s Compulsion


By Tamora Pierce, Timothy Liebe, Phil Briones, Alvaro Rio & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2273-9 (TPB)

I’ll try to be brief but bear with me because this might be a little complex for anyone not hardened by 55 years of constant exposure to raw comic-books…

After the mid-1970’s Kung Fu craze subsided Marvel was left with a couple of impressive themed properties (Master of Kung Fu and Iron Fist) and a few that needed some traditional superhero “topping up”. The Sons of the Tiger debuted in monochrome magazine Deadly Hands of Kung Fu: a multi-racial martial arts team who – augmented by three mystic amulets – fought the usual mystic ninja/secret empire types until internal dissent and an obvious lack of creative imagination split them up.

The amulets – a Tiger’s Head and two paws carved from magical jade – passed on to young Hector Ayala who donned all three to become a super-martial artist calling himself the White Tiger. After an inauspicious, short and excessively violent career including team-ups with both Spider-Man and Daredevil, the “first Puerto Rican Superhero” all but vanished until (in a Man Without Fear storyline I’ll get around to reviewing one day) he lost his life…

In the meantime, a new White Tiger had appeared in the 1997 revival of Heroes for Hire: an actual tiger evolved into a humanoid by renegade geneticist the High Evolutionary. In 2003 Kaspar Kole, a black, Jewish cop briefly replaced the Black Panther, becoming the third White Tiger shortly thereafter…

Which finally brings us here as this volume collects the first 6-issue miniseries to feature Angela Del Toro, niece of the first White Tiger; one time cop, de-frocked FBI agent and eventual recipient of the amulets that empowered and doomed her uncle Hector.

Normally I’d steer clear of reviewing a graphic novel like this because by all rights it should be all but impenetrable to non-fans, but novelist Tamora Pierce and co-scripter Timothy Liebe have made the necessary and mandatory recaps and references to other books (particularly the extended Daredevil storyline that dealt with the death of Angela’s uncle and her becoming a costumed vigilante in his memory) relatively painless: a seemingly seamless part of the overall narrative thrust of this tale and one that perfectly suits the action-packed, highly realistic artwork of Phil Briones, Alvaro Rio, Ronaldo Adriano Silva & Don Hillsman.

Angela Del Toro was a high-ranking Federal Agent, but now she’s jobless and bewildered, terrified of becoming just another masked crazy on the streets and skyways of New York City. Luckily, she still has a few friends – both in the legal and extra-legal law enforcement community – and soon links up with a private security firm while sorting out her new double life.

That mostly means coming to terms with being a costumed superhero, stopping a covert cabal of asset-stripping terrorists from turning the USA into a highly profitable war-zone and getting final closure if not revenge on Yakuza prince Orii Sano, the man who killed her partner…

White Tiger: A Hero’s Compulsion is a canny blend of family drama, cop procedural and gritty superhero thriller, with an engaging lead character, believable stakes, just enough laughs and truly sinister baddies who should appeal to the widest of audiences. Fun-filled and frantic with loads of guest-stars, including Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Black Widow, and such scurrilous dirtbags as the Cobra, the Lizard, Deadpool and the assembled underworld of three continents, this is a read for devotees and dilettantes alike.

Whether cleaning up the mean streets and saving the entire world or just busting heads in her new day job, White Tiger has everything necessary to stay the course, but even if she somehow doesn’t, there will always be this thoroughly fascinating trade paperback and digital book to mark her territory, if not her passing…
© 2006, 2007, 2015 MARVEL. All rights reserved.

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.

The Human Torch Marvel Masterworks volume 2

By Stan Lee, Larry Ivie, Dick Ayers, Bob Powell, Jack Kirby, Carl Burgos & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3505-0 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Evergreen Superhero Frolics… 9/10

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

This captivating, esoteric and joyously exuberant collection of pure 1960s superhero shenanigans gathers those the latter end of those eclectic but crucial yarns from Strange Tales #118 to 134, (spanning March 1964 to July 1965) and comes with an evocative Introduction from Bruce Canwell before all the hot action kicks off…

Filled with fabulous classics of old school Marvel Fights ‘n’ Tights mayhem and mirth, this particular compendium (available in scarce but sturdy Hardback and assorted eBook formats) is a perfect antidote to angst overload.

Within a year of FF #1, magic-&-monsters anthology Strange Tales became the home for our hot-headed hero as issue #101 saw mostly-typical teenager Johnny Storm start an ancillary solo career. The non-stop riot of adventure begins here with Stan Lee & Dick Ayers highlighting the return of envy-obsessive hyper-intellectual the Wizard who has yet another go at the Flaming Kid in ‘The Man Who Became the Torch!’, an act which consequently nearly kills the Thing and Reed Mister Fantastic Richards besides.

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

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

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

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

‘Pawns of the Deadly Duo!’ host a fresh assault by the Puppet Master, allied to the Mad Thinker in a smart yarn, after which #127 pits Ben and Johnny against a bizarre and baffling puzzle thanks to ‘The Mystery Villain!’

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

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

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

Lee returned for the last two Torch tales in ST #133 and #134: beginning with sharp-looking saga ‘The Terrible Toys’, wherein Puppet Master tries a new modus operandi and closing with ‘The Challenge of… The Watcher!’ (inked by the majestic Wally Wood) wherein Torch and Thing are transported to ancient Camelot to battle time-reaver Kang the Conqueror.

It was clear the writer’s mind was elsewhere, most likely with the new Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. strip that would replace the FF pair from Strange Tales #135 onwards.

Wrapping up this memory lane meander is a tantalising cover gallery from the 1974-75 reprint series of Golden and Silver Age Torch Tales, rendered by John Romita, Joe Sinnott, Larry Lieber, Ron Wilson, Frank Giacoia, Gil Kane, Al Milgrom &Vince Colletta, to complete your visit with the hottest duo in early Marvel history.

It’s remarkable to note that as the parent Fantastic Four title grew in scope and quality, the Human Torch’s own series diminished. Perhaps there is something to be said for concentrating one’s efforts or not overexposing your stars. Maybe it was just having Kirby do some plotting? Here, however, what was originally a spin-off for younger readers faded as Marvel found its voice and its marketplace, although there would be periodic efforts to reinvigorate the Torch.

Perhaps the historic value supersedes the quality of most of these strange tales, but there’s still a great deal that’s great about this series and Costumed Drama devotees with a sense of tradition and love of fun will find this book irresistible and unmissable.
© 2020 MARVEL.

The Human Torch Marvel Masterworks volume 1


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, Robert Bernstein, Ernie Hart, Jerry Siegel, Dick Ayers & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2070-4 (HB) 978-0-7851-8781-3 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Timeless Superhero Entertainment… 9/10

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

This captivating, esoteric and joyously exuberant collection of pure 1960s superhero shenanigans gathers those eclectic but crucial yarns – no less than five major Marvel villains debuted in blistering battle against the Flaming Kid – from Strange Tales #101 to 117, as well as the bombastic lead tale from Strange Tales Annual #2 (spanning October 1962 through February 1964) and comes with a fantastically informative Introduction from artist/inker Dick Ayers before all the hot action kicks off…

Filled with fabulous classics of old school Marvel Fights ‘n’ Tights mayhem and mirth, this particular compendium (available in scarce but sturdy Hardback, reassuring trade paperback and assorted eBook formats) is a perfect antidote to angst overload.

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

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

An odd inconsistency or, more likely, tension and drama-inducing gimmick did crop up here. Although public figures in the Fantastic Four, Johnny and his sister Sue live part-time in the Long Island hamlet of Glenville and, despite the townsfolk being fully aware of her as the glamorous and heroic Invisible Girl, they seem communally oblivious to the fact that her baby brother is the equally famous Torch.

Many daft-but-ingenious pages of Johnny protecting his secret identity would ensue before the situation was brilliantly resolved…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a quote from the last panel…

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

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

Ending this initial offering with #117, ‘The Return of the Eel! sees the vengeful reprobate prove far more of a challenge this time, thanks to some careful planning and Johnny’s own impetuosity…

Wrapping up this memory lane meander are some rousing house ads and a marvellous gallery of original art pages from Ayers.

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

Sadly, the historic value sometimes supersedes the quality of these strange tales, but there’s still a great deal to enjoy about this series and Costumed Drama devotees with a sense of tradition and love of fun will find this book irresistible and unmissable.
© 2020 MARVEL