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

Spider-Man Vs. Mysterio


By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko, Gerry Conway, Roger Stern, Howard Mackie, Peter David, Dan Slott, John Romita Sr., Ross Andru, John Romita Jr., Marie Severin, Alex Saviuk, Todd Nauck & Marcos Martin, with Don Heck, Javier Pulido & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1871-2 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Fabulous Fights ‘n’ Tights Fantasy… 8/10

Heroes are only truly defined by their enemies and superheroes doubly so, with the added proviso that costumed crusaders generally have a rogue’s gallery of fantastic foes rather than just one arch-nemesis. Even so, there’s always one particular enemy who wears that mantle: Moriarty for Sherlock Holmes; Blofeld for James Bond; Luthor for Superman.

Spider-Man has always had two top contenders… but Mysterio was never one of them.

However, this nifty trade paperback (and eBook) compilation gathers many of the now-cinematic evil enigma’s key and most entertaining clashes with the Wondrous Wallcrawler, tracing his devious development whilst offering an uncomplicated, no-frills thrill-ride of frantic spills and chills, equally appetising to film-inspired new meat and grizzled old veterans of the Fights ‘n’ Tights arena.

Collecting Amazing Spider-Man #13, 66-67, 141-142, 618-620; Web of Spider-Man #90; Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #11-13 and Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #50-51 – collectively spanning June 1964 to April 2010 – the moody menace manifests sans preamble in ‘The Menace of… Mysterio!’ (by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko from Amazing Spider-Man #13).

Here a chilling super-foe premiers in the form of a seemingly eldritch mercenary hired by publisher J. Jonah Jameson to capture Spider-Man. Eventually, however, the bizarre bounty-hunter reveals his own dark criminal agenda and is exposed as a scientific trickster not a mystic marauder…

When Ditko quit Marvel the webspinner’s adventurers were limned by John Romita and a succession of stellar associates. One of most spectacular collaborations came in Amazing Spider-Man #66-67 (November & December 1968) as Lee scripted a psychedelic blockbuster for Romita, Don Heck & inkers Mike Esposito (Mickey Demeo) and Jim Mooney to illuminate. This time, the psychotic special-effects mastermind returns seeking loot and vengeance in ‘The Madness of Mysterio!’ as the master of FX illusions engineers his most outlandish stunt, with the wallcrawler subjected to a bizarre form of mind-bending resulting in an all-out action-packed brawl entitled ‘To Squash a Spider!’.

Perhaps more interestingly, this yarn introduces Randy Robertson, college student son of the Daily Bugle’s city editor and one of the first young black regular roles in Silver Age comics.

Lee and his staff were increasingly making a stand on Civil Rights issues at this time of unrest and Marvel would blaze a trail for African American and other minority characters in their titles. There would also be a growth of student and college issues during a period when American campuses were coming under intense media scrutiny…

Jump forward a few years to February & March 1975 and Amazing Spider-Man #141-142 and – as Peter Parker comes to terms with the death of first love Gwen Stacy – a long-running comedy thread ends with the frankly ridiculous Spider-Mobile crashing into the harbour, thanks to a series of apparent hallucinations, but the wallcrawler barely has time to care as a supposedly long-dead enemy returns in ‘The Man’s Name Appears to be… Mysterio!’

Despite the psychological assaults escalating and Parker continually questioning his own sanity, the mystery is solved through rational deduction and violence in ‘Dead Man’s Bluff!’, with all entertainment coming courtesy of Gerry Conway, Ross Andru & Esposito…

Even more years later, a fanciful piece of classic Spider-history is unpicked by Roger Stern John Romita Jr. & Mooney in Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #50 and 51 (from January & February 1981) as ‘Dilemma’ and ‘Aliens and Illusions!’ (the latter pencilled by Marie Severin) reveal how special effects guru Quentin Beck was secretly battling the Amazing Arachnid long before he adopted his luminous fishbowl hat and green tights…

Crafted by Howard Mackie, Alex Saviuk & Sam de la Rosa, Web of Spider-Man #90 (November 1992) was part of the wallcrawler’s 30th anniversary celebrations. ‘The Spider’s Thread’ again delves into secret personal history as the hero’s old theatrical agent returns, presaging a manic series of attacks from an army of impossible foes… until Spidey discerns his real enemy in ‘Sleight of Mind!’

Set during the first superhero Civil War, 3-parter ‘I Hate a Mystery’ is by Peter David, Todd Nauck, Robert Campanella, & Rodney Ramos and comes from Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #11-13 (October-December 2006). Peter Parker has recently gone public with his identity after acquiescing to the Super Human Registration Act, but his life as a high school science teacher is shattered by press intrusion and the vengeful acts of three separate but equally unhappy Mysterios…

The dramatic quotient of this collection cranks into overdrive for concluding extended epic ‘Mysterioso’, originally seen in Amazing Spider-Man #618-620 (March & April 2010), by writer Dan Slott and art team Marcos Martin, Javier Pulido & Javier Rodriguez. Divided into ‘Un-Murder Incorporated’, ‘Re-Appearing Act’ and ‘Smoke & Mirrors’, the wallcrawler’s war against Mr. Negative and an army of old enemies takes an even darker turn after Aunt May is turned evil and a seemingly undead Mysterio is hired by cyborg mafioso Silvermane to destroy his bitter rival Hammerhead. The chaotic final clash is even more confused and cataclysmic and leaves us all on a tense cliffhanger…

Adding extra sheen are info pages, cover reprints (from Spider-Man Classics, Marvel Tales and others), variant covers and pin-ups by Ditko, Dwayne Turner, Romita Sr. and Jr. and Joe Quinones, plus Marvel Handbook fact-pages on all three villains who have thus far played Mysterio.

Epic and engaging, this grab-bag of aerial assaults and titanic tussles is pure comicbook catharsis: fast, furious fun and thrill-a-minute-melodrama no fights ‘n’ Tights fan could resist.
© 2019 MARVEL.

Marvel Team-Up Marvel Masterworks volume 5


By Bill Mantlo, Gerry Conway, Roger Stern, Sal Buscema, Ron Wilson, George Tuska & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2218-4 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Simply Superb Merry Marvel Madness … 8/10

In the 1970s, Marvel grew to dominate the comic book market despite losing their two most innovative and inspirational creators. They did so less by experimentation and more by expanding proven concepts and properties. The only real exception to this was the mass 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 was not new when Marvel awarded 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 at that time, they may well have been right.

Nevertheless, after abortive companion title Spectacular Spider-Man (created for the magazine market in 1968) died after two issues, Marvel Team-Up was the second full Spider-Man title. Debuting in March 1972, it was a resounding hit.

This fifth fabulous compilation (in hardback and digital formats) gathers material from MTU #41-52, plus a crossover from Marvel Two-in-One #17, and a rare seasonal sage from tabloid rarity Marvel Treasury Edition #13, cumulatively spanning January-December 1976. The book opens with an informative assessment and appreciation from historian and archivist Bruce Canwell in his Introduction before we plunge into the many-starred dramas…

A major attraction of those early comics combos was an earnest desire to get things “done in one”, with tales that concentrated on plot and resolution with the guest du jour. Here, however, neophyte scripter Bill Mantlo begins an era of closer continuity with an extended time travel epic that took taking the wallcrawler to the farthest, weirdest corners of Marvel’s ever-expanding universe…

With artists Sal Buscema & Mike Esposito in control of the horizontal and vertical, a truly impressive and ambitious multi-part epic opens with the Amazing Arachnid visiting the past and a number of alternate tomorrows beginning with ‘A Witch in Time!’

Here mutant Avenger Scarlet Witch is abducted from her rightful time and place by infamous witch-hunter Cotton Matherwho uses Doctor Doom’s time machine to drag her back to Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Her plight is observed by Spider-Man who naturally follows, but after failing to save her, the webspinner is himself accused of infernal sorcery in that rabid Massachusetts township…

Whilst Mather fans hysterical flames of paranoia, the Avenger’s synthezoid husband time-travels to her side in #42’s ‘Visions of Hate!’, only to fall before the witchfinder’s mysterious power too. As the innocents of Salem prepare themselves for death, our heroes make their escape only to fall to Mather’s hitherto unseen benefactor The Dark Rider.

Just as the master manipulator reveals himself, however, the stakes change again when a severely affronted Victor Von Doom appears, angrily demanding to know who’s been playing with his toys in #43’s ‘A Past Gone Mad!’

The frantic battle against an immortal chronal predator seems predestined to fail until the time-tides are unexpectedly turned in MTU #44 with the last-minute arrival of mind-goddess Moondragon, but in the aftermath Spider-Man tragically discovers that history is well-nigh impossible to alter in ‘Death in the Year Before Yesterday!’

The arachnoid adventurer is the last to return to the 20th century but his departure in issue #45 results in deadly diversions and understandable ‘Future-Shock!’ as he overshoots his home time and lands in devastated (and now defined as an alternate future) New York City circa 2019 where Warrior of the Worlds Killraven helps him survive numerous attacks by mutants and Martians in terrifying tripods before sending the spider back on his way home..

Unfortunately, before he gets there the wallcrawler experiences another shocking stopover in ‘Am I Now or Have I Ever Been?’, with cyborg warrior Deathlok saving him from a mutant hive-mind in a Manhattan shattered by war a mere fifteen years after his own lost and longed-for era…

A scared, sad and sobered Spider-Man finally makes it home in Marvel Two-In-One #17 just in time for a crossover with Ben Grimm AKA the Thing. The blockbuster opens with ‘This City… Afire!’ by Mantlo, Sal B & Esposito where, after battling beside Ka-Zar in the dinosaur paradise of the Savage Land, big Ben is ignominiously returned to the Big Apple by mutated madman Basilisk. This manic malcontent has manifested an erupting volcano in the Hudson River and it needs to go…

Already reeling, Spidey swings into action for the cataclysmic conclusion in Marvel Team-Up #47 where Mantlo, Ron Wilson & Dan Adkins render the spectacular clash of heroes who boldly proclaim ‘I Have to Fight the Basilisk!’

Proving there’s no rest for the wicked or the righteous, MTU #48 begins another suspenseful extended saga when ‘Enter: the Wraith!’ (Mantlo, Sal B & Esposito) introduces Police Captain Jean DeWolff whilst 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 some kind of psionic metahuman…

With Iron Man again the guest-star, issue #49 reveals that ‘Madness is All in the Mind!’ as the masked maniac resumes 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 confrontation steered by a most unusual panel of judges whose hidden abilities are not enough to prevent one last crack of the whip by the unrepentant renegade…

The thrills, spills and chills are followed with blatant fill-in ‘Danger: Demon on a Rampage!’: a rather rushed but action-heavy pairing of Spidey and Captain America from Gerry Conway, SB & Esposito which sees the heroes unite to take down Gallic mercenary Batroc and an enraged monster that has somehow slipped out of an adjacent dimension…

The bulging bonus section begins with a house ad for the Mighty Marvel Bicentennial Calendar of 1976 which follows in its entirety, featuring the artistic excellence of John Romita Sr, Frank Robbins & Frank Giacoia, Herb Trimpe, Bob Brown, Gil Kane, John Buscema, Ross Andru, Joe Sinnott, Sal Buscema, Frank Brunner, Jim Starlin & Alan Weiss, and Jim Mooney.

After original art and covers from the text of this collection, Gil Kane’s sketches and finished art for the covers and frontispieces of Marvel Treasury Edition #9 (Giant Superhero Team-Up) and Marvel Treasury Edition #13 (Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag) precede a delightful lost gem from the latter: an all-new clash between the Fantastic Four and Avengers by Roger Stern, George Tuska & Don Perlin. Thankfully, as the battle – with snowballs in Central Park – escalates, Daredevil, the Defenders and Champions are on hand to maintain the proper seasonal spirit…

These stories all have an honest drive to entertain and most fans of the genre would find little to complain about. Although not really a book for casual or more maturely-oriented enthusiasts, there’s plenty of fun on hand here and younger readers will have a blast, so there’s no reason not to add this tome to your comics library…
© MARVEL 2020 Marvel.

Marvel Two-in-One Marvel Masterworks volume 2

By Bill Mantlo, Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Roger Slifer, Marv Wolfman, Scott Edelman, Tony Isabella, Ron Wilson, Sal Buscema, Bob Brown, Herb Trimpe, Arvell Jones, John Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0352-7 (HB)

Innovation isn’t everything. As Marvel slowly grew to a position of dominance in the wake of losing their two most groundbreaking 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 (often 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 Marvel Two-In-One. After a stunning experimental first ten issues, the title settled into a comfortable and entertaining format designed to draw in casual browsers as well as dedicated fans by featuring characters from far and wide across the MU…

This second compelling compendium – available in sturdy hardback and instantly-accessible digital formats – gathers the contents of Marvel Two-In-One #11-20, Annual #1, Marvel Team-Up #47 and Fantastic Four Annual #11, cumulatively covering the period September 1975 to October 1976, and kicks off with a fond remembrance by occasional scripter Roy Thomas in his Introduction before the action recommences…

During this period, this team-up title became a kind of clearing house for cancelled series and uncompleted storylines. Supernatural series The Golem had run ran in Strange Tales #174, 176 & 177 (June-December 1974) before being summarily replaced mid-story by Adam Warlock, and MTIO #11 provided plotter Thomas, scripter Bill Mantlo and artists Brown & Jack Abel the opportunity to offer some spectacular closure when ‘The Thing Goes South!’

This resulted in stony bloke and animated statue – after the traditional misapprehensions and mistaken brawl between good guys – finally combining forces to crush the insidious plot of demonic wizard Kaballa

Ron Wilson began his lengthy association with the series and the Thing in #12 as Iron Man and Ben tackle out of control, mystically-empowered ancient Crusader Prester John in ‘The Stalker in the Sands!’: a blistering desert storm written by Mantlo with inks from Vince Colletta, after which Luke Cage, Power Man pops in to help stop a giant monster in ‘I Created Braggadoom!, the Mountain that Walked like a Man!’ – an unabashed homage to Marvel’s anthological blockbuster beasties, scripted by Roger Slifer & Len Wein – after which Mantlo, Trimpe & John Tartaglione deliver a spooky encounter with spectres and demons in #14’s ‘Ghost Town!’ This moody mystical mission of mercy is shared with exorcist Daimon Hellstrom, The Son of Satan and leaves Ben rattled for months to come…

Mantlo, Arvell Jones & Dick Giordano brought on ‘The Return of the Living Eraser!’: a dimension-hopping invasion yarn introducing Ben to Morbius, the Living Vampire, before a canny crossover epic begins with the Thing and Ka-Zar plunging ‘Into the Savage Land!’ to dally with dinosaurs and defeat resource plunderers.

The action then switches to New York as Spider-Man joins the party in MTIO #17 to combat ‘This City… Afire!’ (Mantlo, Sal Buscema & Esposito) after mutated madman Basilisk transports an active volcano from Antarctica to the Hudson River, with the cataclysmic conclusion (from Marvel Team-Up #47) following, wherein Mantlo, Wilson & Dan Adkins have our heroes finish off the furore and save the day in fine style with ‘I Have to Fight the Basilisk!’

Another short-changed supernatural serial is laid to rest in MTIO #18. ‘Dark, Dark Demon-Night!’ – Mantlo, Scott Edelman, Wilson, Jim Mooney & Adkins – sees enigmatic mystical watchdog The Scarecrow escape from its painted prison to foil a demonic invasion with the reluctant assistance of the Thing, after which Tigra the Were-Woman slinks into Ben’s life to vamp a favour and crush a sinister scheme by a rogue cat creature in ‘Claws of the Cougar!’ by Mantlo, Sal Buscema, & Don Heck.

That yarn segued directly into Fantastic Four Annual #11 which featured portentous time-travel saga ‘And Now Then… the Invaders!’ by Thomas, John Buscema & Sam Grainger, wherein Marvel’s First Family dash back to 1942 to retrieve a cylinder of miracle-metal Vibranium. It had somehow fallen into Nazi hands and had begun to unwrite history as a consequence…

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

The action continues in Marvel Two-In-One Annual #1 as, with the present unravelling around him, Ben blasts back to 1942 in ‘Their Name is Legion!’ (Thomas, Sal Buscema, Grainger, Tartaglione & George Roussos), to link up with Home Front Heroes The Liberty Legion (collectively The Patriot, Thin Man, Red Raven, Jack Frost, Blue Diamond, Miss America and the Whizzer) in thwarting Nazi raiders Skyshark and Master Man, Japanese agent Slicer and Atlantean traitor U-Man’s invasion of America. The battle proved so big it spilled over and concluded in Marvel Two-In-One #20 (October 1976) in a shattering ‘Showdown at Sea!’: pitting the heroes against diabolical Nazi scientist Brain Drain, courtesy this time of Thomas, Sal B & Grainger.

That yarn ends the narrative thrills and chills for now, but there’s still room for a brief gallery of original art by Sal Buscema and Jack Kirby to delight and astound.

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?
© 1975, 1976, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Spidey volume 2: After-School Special


By Robbie Thompson, André Lima Araújo, Nathan Stockman & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9676-1 (TPB)

Since its earliest days the publishing company now known as media monolith Marvel always courted the youngest of comicbook consumers. Whether through animated tie-ins and licensed properties such as Terrytoons Comics, Mighty Mouse, Duckula, assorted Hanna-Barbera and Disney licenses and a myriad of others, or original characters such as Millie the Model, Homer the Happy Ghost and Calvin, the House of Ideas always understood the necessity of cultivating the next generation of readers.

These days, however, kids’ interest titles are a tricky balancing act and, with the Marvel Universe’s characters all over screens large and small, the company usually prefers to create child-friendly versions of its own proprietary pantheon in their own playground, making that eventual hoped-for transition to more mature comics and other venues as painless as possible.

In the 1980s-1990s Marvel published an entire line of kiddie titles through its Star Comics line and, in 2003, the company created a Marvel Age line to update and retell classic original tales by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko, mixing it in with the remnants of its manga-inspired Tsunami imprint: again, all intended for a younger readership.

The experiment was tweaked in 2005, becoming the Marvel Adventures line, with titles reflecting the most popular characters and whatever was on TV screens at the time. In 2012 these were superseded by specific comicbook titles tied to Disney XD TV shows designated as “Marvel Universe cartoons”.

Today’s featured item – Spidey: After-School Special – is a horse of a different colour: similar but different…

Rather than simply crafting a wallcrawler for younger sensibilities, this iteration – presumably sparked by the teenaged, light-adventure version seen in the Spider-Man: Homecoming movie – innovates and modernizes by once again looking back and superbly succeeds in recapturing a sense of the madcap gaiety that counterbalanced the action and pathos of the earliest Lee/Ditko stories. This series is all about thrills and fun…

Scripted throughout by Robbie Thompson and re-presenting Spidey#7-12 (originally released from August 2016 to January 2017), the non-stop, youngster-appropriate mayhem recommences with a cracking catch-up origin-page illustrated by Nick Bradshaw and colourist Jim Campbell.

Firmly set in The Now, our hero is still and once again a callow schoolboy, fighting crime and making enemies between High School classes. In his off-hours he’s also a crimefighting sensation of the internet and social media whenever he puts on his blue-&-red duds. As ever, news magnate J. Jonah Jameson is there to vilify the webslinger at every opportunity…

Sadly, thanks to the kid’s double life, Peter Parker’s grades – except for science and maths – are tanking now, and the secret superhero is forced to accept Popular Girl Gwen Stacy as a much-needed history tutor. Not only is she the hottest girl in school, but she also decks Flash Thompson with one punch after the jocks starts bullying “Puny” Parker again…

That tricky triangle develops in captivating manner over the next half dozen arachnid escapades, starting with an untitled team-up co-starring African monarch T’Challa the Black Panther and illustrated by André Lima Araújo. Here, the tutoring of classmates is counterbalanced by a spectacular teaching moment as the schoolboy hero stumbles into a subterranean smuggling operation masterminded by the diabolical and unhuman Klaw, Master of Sound…

Peter Parker’s dream “maybe date” with Gwen takes an even-more terrifying turn in ‘Blackout!’ (art by Nathan Stockman) as voltaic villain Electro assaults the city in a deadly but foredoomed attempt to kill Spider-Man. His spectacular trouncing is only slightly mitigated when he is sprung from custody by a band of fellow murderous Arachnophobes…

Peter’s desperate schemes to earn enough cash for Aunt May’s birthday present lead to confrontations with occasional-employer Jameson and all-out war with psycho-stalker Kraven the Hunter in ‘To Catch a Spider’ after which the wallcrawler’s media-created ‘Bad Reputation’ is temporarily redeemed after a dynamic team-up with Captain America against AIM and their lethal leader M.O.D.O.K.

The year-long story arcs detailing the tricky triangle of Gwen, Flash and Peter and the gradual coalition of a new Sinister Six coalesce in ‘Missing Out’ as the kids take their dreaded exams and Spidey attempts to join in a mass battle against Galactus, only to stopped at every stage by a far more important and immediate crisis – such as an unrelenting attack by brainwashed villain Scorpion – before the drama magnificently concludes in the boy hero’s best day ever. Unless, of course, Doctor Octopus, Mysterio, Sandman, Kraven, Electro and the Vulture succeed with their plan in ‘Spidey No More!’

Supplemented with a wealth of behind-the-scenes artwork and illustration secrets from Lima Araújo and Stockman, this is a sublime slice of fun and action, referencing the intoxicating days of Stan Lee & Steve Ditko whilst offering an enthrallingly refreshing reinterpretation of an evergreen heroic icon. Here is an intriguing and more culturally accessible means of introducing character and concepts to kids born two and three generations or more away from those far-distant 1960s originating events. These Spidey super-stories are outrageously enjoyable yarns, and well worth seeking out.
© 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avengers Epic Collection volume 1 1963-1965: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, Larry Ivie, Don Heck, Dick Ayers & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8864-3(TPB)

After a period of meteoric expansion, in 1963 the burgeoning Marvel Universe was finally ready to emulate the successful DC concept that had cemented the legitimacy of the Silver Age of American comics.

The concept of putting a bunch of all-star eggs in one basket which had made the Justice League of America such a winner also inspired the moribund Atlas outfit – primarily Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko – into inventing “super-characters” of their own. The result – in 1961 – was the Fantastic Four.

Nearly 18 months later, the fledgling House of Ideas had generated a small but viable stable of costumed leading men (but only sidekick women) so Lee & Kirby assembled a handful of them and moulded them into a force for justice and soaring sales…

Seldom has it ever been done with such style and sheer exuberance. Cover dated September 1963, The Avengers #1 launched as part of an expansion package which also included Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos and The X-Men

Marvel’s Epic Collections – available in trade paperback and digital formats – are only one of many archival series faithfully compiling those groundbreaking tales and this premier volume gathers #1-20 of The Avengers (spanning March 1963 to September 1965) is a sequence no lover of superhero stories can do without…

The suspenseful action kicks off with ‘The Coming of the Avengers!’: Instead of starting at a neutral beginning Stan & Jack (plus inker Dick Ayers) presumed buyers had a passing familiarity with Marvel’s other heroes and so wasted very little time or space on introductions.

In Asgard, immortal trickster Loki is imprisoned on a dank isle, hungry for vengeance on his noble half-brother Thor. Whilst malevolently observing Earth, the god of evil espies the monstrous, misunderstood Hulk and mystically engineers a situation wherein the man-brute seemingly goes on a rampage, simply to trick the Thunder God into battling the monster.

When the Hulk’s teen sidekick Rick Jones radios the FF for assistance, devious Loki scrambles and diverts the transmission and smugly awaits the blossoming of his mischief. Sadly for the schemer, Iron Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp also pick up the redirected SOS. As the heroes all converge in the American Southwest to search for the Jade Giant, they realise that something is oddly amiss…

This terse, epic, compelling and wide-ranging yarn (New York, New Mexico, Detroit and Asgard in 22 pages) is Lee & Kirby at their bombastic best, and remains one of the greatest stories of the Silver Age (it’s certainly high in my own top ten Marvel Tales) and is followed by ‘The Space Phantom’ (Lee, Kirby & Paul Reinman), wherein an alien shape-stealer almost destroys the team from within.

With latent animosities exposed by the malignant masquerader, the tale ends with the volatile Hulk quitting the team in disgust, only to return in #3 as an outright villain in partnership with ‘Sub-Mariner!’ This globe-trotting romp delivers high-energy thrills and one of the best battle scenes in comics history as the assorted titans clash in abandoned World War II tunnels beneath the Rock of Gibraltar.

Inked by George Roussos, Avengers #4 was a groundbreaking landmark as Marvel’s greatest Golden Age sensation returns for another increasingly war-torn era. ‘Captain America joins the Avengers!’ has everything that made the company’s early tales so fresh and vital. The majesty of a legendary warrior returned in our time of greatest need: stark tragedy in the loss of his boon companion Bucky, aliens, gangsters, Sub-Mariner and even subtle social commentary and – naturally – vast amounts of staggering Kirby Action. It even begins with a cunning infomercial as Iron Man unsuccessfully requests the assistance of the company’s other fresh young stars, giving readers a taste of the other mighty Marvels on offer to them…

Reinman returned to ink ‘The Invasion of the Lava Men!’: another staggering adventure romp as the team battle incendiary subterraneans and a world-threatening mutating mountain… with the unwilling assistance of the ever-incredible Hulk…

However, even that pales before the supreme shift in artistic quality that is Avengers #6.

Chic Stone – arguably Kirby’s best Marvel inker of the period – joined the creative team just as a classic arch-foe debuts. ‘The Masters of Evil!’ reveals how Nazi super-scientist Baron Zemo is forced by his own arrogance and paranoia to emerge from the South American jungles he’s been skulking in since the Third Reich fell, after learning his despised nemesis Captain America has returned from the dead.

To this end, the ruthless war-criminal recruits a gang of previously established super-villains to attack New York City and destroy the Avengers. The unforgettable clash between valiant heroes and the vile murdering mercenaries Radioactive Man, Black Knight and the Melter is an unsurpassed example of prime Marvel magic to this day.

Issue #7 followed up with two more malevolent recruits for the Masters of Evil as Asgardian outcasts Enchantress and the Executioner ally with Zemo, just as Iron Man is suspended from the team due to misconduct occurring in his own series. This was the dawning of the close-continuity era where events in one series were regularly referenced and even built upon in others. The practise would quickly become a rod for the creators’ own backs and lead to a radical rethink…

It may have been ‘Their Darkest Hour!’, but #8 delivered the team’s greatest triumph and tragedy as Jack Kirby (inked with fitting circularity by Dick Ayers) relinquished his drawing role with the superbly entrancing invasion-from-time thriller which introduced ‘Kang the Conqueror!’ Riffing on the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, the tale sees an impossible powerful foe defeated by the cunning of ordinary teenagers and the indomitable spirit of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes…

Whenever Jack Kirby left a title he’d co-created, it took a little while to settle into a new rhythm, and none more so than with these collectivised costumed crusaders. Although Lee and the fabulously utilitarian Don Heck were perfectly capable of producing cracking comics entertainments, they never had The King’s unceasing sense of panoramic scope and scale which constantly sought bigger, bolder blasts of excitement.

The Avengers evolved into an entirely different series when the subtle humanity of Heck’s vision replaced Kirby’s larger-than-life bombastic bravura. The series had rapidly advanced to monthly circulation and even The King could not draw the massive number of pages his expanding workload demanded. Heck was a gifted and trusted artist with a formidable record for meeting deadlines and, progressing under his pencil, sub-plots and character interplay finally got as much space as action and spectacle. After Kirby, the stories increasingly focused on scene-stealing newcomer Captain America: concentrating on frail human beings in costumes, rather than wild modern gods and technological titans bestriding and shaking the Earth…

Inked by Ayers, Heck’s first outing was memorable tragedy ‘The Coming of the Wonder Man!’ wherein the Masters of Evil plant superhuman Trojan Horse Simon Williams within the heroes’ ranks, only to have the conflicted infiltrator find deathbed redemption by saving them from the deadly deathtrap he creates…

Another Marvel mainstay debuts with the introduction of (seemingly) malignant master of time Immortus, who briefly combines with Zemo’s devilish cohort to engineer a fatal division in the ranks by removing Cap from the field in ‘The Avengers Break Up!’ A sign of the Star-Spangled Sentinel’s increasing popularity, the issue is augmented by a Marvel Masterwork Pin-Up of ‘The One and Only Cap’ courtesy of Kirby & Ayers…

An eagerly-anticipated meeting delighted fans when #11 declared ‘The Mighty Avengers Meet Spider-Man!’: a clever and classy cross-fertilising tale inked by Chic Stone. It features the return of the time-bending tyrant conqueror as he attempts to destroy the team by insinuating a robotic duplicate of the outcast arachnid within their serried ranks. It’s accompanied by Heck’s Marvel Master Work Pin-up of ‘Kang!’ and is followed by a cracking end-of-the-world thriller with guest-villains Mole Man and the Red Ghost doing their best avoid another clash with the Fantastic Four.

This was another Marvel innovation, as – according to established funnybook rules – bad guys stuck to their own nemeses and didn’t clash outside their own backyards….

‘This Hostage Earth!’ (inked by Ayers) is a welcome return to grand adventure with lesser lights Giant-Man and the Wasp taking rare lead roles, but is trumped by a rousing gangster thriller of a sort seldom seen outside the pages of Spider-Man or Daredevil, premiering Marvel universe Mafia analogue the Maggia and another major menace in #13’s ‘The Castle of Count Nefaria!’

After crushingly failing in his scheme to frame the Avengers, Nefaria’s caper ends on a tragic cliffhanger as Janet Van Dyne is left gunshot and dying, leading to a peak in melodramatic tension in #14 – scripted by Paul Laiken/Larry Ivie & Larry Lieber over Stan’s plot – as the traumatised team scour the globe for the only surgeon who can save her.

‘Even Avengers Can Die!’ – although of course she doesn’t – resolves into an epic alien invader tale with overtones of This Island Earth with Kirby stepping in to lay out the saga for Heck & Stone to illustrate. This only whets the appetite for the classic climactic confrontation that follows as the costumed champions finally deal with the Masters of Evil and Captain America finally avenges the death of his dead partner.

‘Now, by My Hand, Shall Die a Villain!’ in #15 – laid-out by Kirby, pencilled by Heck and inked by Mike Esposito – features the final, fatal confrontation between Cap and Zemo in the heart of the Amazon, whilst the other Avengers and the war-criminal’s cohort of masked menaces clash once more on the streets of New York City…

The battle ends with ‘The Old Order Changeth!’ (broken down by Kirby before being finished by Ayers) presaging a dramatic change in concept for the series; presumably because, as Lee increasingly wrote to the company’s unique strengths – tight continuity and strongly individualistic characterisation – he found juggling individual stars in their own titles as well as a combined team episode every month was just incompatible if not impossible…

As Cap and substitute sidekick Rick Jones fight their way back to civilisation, the Avengers institute changes. The big-name stars retire and are replaced by three erstwhile villains: Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.

Eventually, led by perennial old soldier Captain America, this relatively powerless group with no outside titles to divide the attention (the Sentinel of Liberty did have a regular feature in Tales of Suspense but at that time it featured adventures set during WWII), evolved into another squabbling family of flawed, self-examining neurotics, enduring extended sub-plots and constant action as valiant underdogs; a formula readers of the time could not get enough of and which still works today…

Acting on advice from the departing Iron Man, the neophytes seek to recruit the Hulk to add raw power to the team, only to be sidetracked by the Mole Man in #17’s kFour Against the Minotaur!’ (Lee, Heck & Ayers), after which they then fall foul of a dastardly “commie” plot ‘When the Commissar Commands!’ – necessitating a quick trip to thinly-disguised Viet Nam analogue Sin-Cong to unwittingly battle a bombastic android…

This brace of relatively run-of-the-mill tales is followed by an ever-improving run of mini-masterpieces: the first of which wraps up this initial Epic endeavour with a 2-part gem providing an origin for Hawkeye and introducing a rogue-ish hero/villain.

‘The Coming of the Swordsman!’ introduces a dissolute and disreputable swashbuckler – with just a hint of deeply-buried flawed nobility – who attempts to force his way onto the highly respectable team. His rejection leads to him becoming an unwilling pawn of a far greater menace after being kidnapped by A-list would-be world despot the Mandarin.

The conclusion comes in the superb ‘Vengeance is Ours!’ – sublimely inked by the one-&-only Wally Wood – wherein the constantly-bickering Avengers finally pull together as a supernaturally efficient, all-conquering super-team…

The bonus features in this titanic tome include September 1963 house ads for the imminently debuting Avengers, augmented by production-stage correction photostats and original art by Kirby, Ayers, Heck and Wood.
These immortal tales defined the early Marvel experience and are still a joy no fan should deny themselves or their kids.
© 2019 MARVEL.