Daredevil Masterworks volume 2


By Stan Lee, Dennis O’Neill, John Romita, Gene Colan, with Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-0804-7 (HB)                    978-0-7851-5050-3 (TPB)

As the remnants of Atlas Comics grew in popularity in the early 1960s it gradually supplanted its broad variety of genre titles with more and more super-heroes. The recovering powerhouse that was to become Marvel was still hampered by a crippling distribution deal that limited the company to 16 titles (which would curtail their output until 1968), so each new untried book would have to fill the revenue-generating slot (however small) of an existing title.

Moreover. as the costumed characters were selling, each new similarly-themed title would limit the breadth of the monster, western, war, humour or girls’ comics that had been the outfit’s recent bread and butter. It was putting a lot of eggs in one basket, and superheroes had failed twice before for Marvel.

It all worked out in the end though…

Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer whose remaining senses hyper-compensate, enabling him to perform astonishing acrobatic feats and fight like a demon. He is a formidable fighter for justice in both identities and a living lie-detector. Very much a second-string hero for most of his early years, Daredevil was nonetheless a striking and popular one, due in large part to the roster of brilliant artists who illustrated the strip.

DD battled thugs, gangsters, a plethora of super-villains and even the occasional monster or alien invasion, quipping and wise-cracking his way through life and life-threatening combat. His civilian life consisted of assorted legal conundra and manfully standing back while quenching his own feelings as his portly best friend and partner Franklin “Foggy” Nelson romanced their secretary Karen Page

Still, Lee and a rotating line-up of artists plugged on, concocting some extremely engaging tales until the latest Marvel Sensation found his feet. This potent compilation from the much-loved and crucial series of Marvel Masterworks – available in hardcover, trade Paperback and eBook formats – traces the fascinating transition of moody masked avenger to wisecracking Scarlet Swashbuckler, which can be enjoyed in this collection. It gathers Daredevil #12-21 (spanning January to October 1966) into one boldly boisterous package of thrills and spills which commence following another effervescent Introduction from Stan Lee…

The previous year had seen Golden Age giant Wally Wood leave his own unmistakable mark on the series but with his departure Lee turned to an old friend who had left during the harshest days of the Atlas implosion. He was to eventually become Marvel’s top – and most loyal – star…

‘Sightless, in a Savage Land!’ was laid out by Jack Kirby and illustrated by John Romita, who had worked for Timely/Atlas in the 1950s before moving to relatively steady work on National/DC.’s romance comics, as well as freelance advertising.

He returned to take DD on an epic quest, guest-starring Tarzan-analogue Ka-Zar, ranging from the dinosaur-haunted Savage Land via an extended battle with high-tech pirates led by The Plunderer to Jolly Olde England-land (in #13’s ‘The Secret of Ka-Zar’s Origin!’) and ultimately to a US Early Warning Base (#14, ‘If This be Justice…’, and with what I’m sure is some un-credited assistance from George Tuska).

With this multi-part globe-girdling epic, Daredevil began to confirm his persona as a wisecracking Scarlet Swashbuckler: one that would carry him all the way to the grim ‘n’ gritty Frank Miller days, far, far in the future.

Romita’s graceful, flamboyant style and expressiveness imparted new energy into the character (especially since Frank Ray Née Giacoia had been inking the series since # 14) and #15’s ‘…And Men Shall Call Him… Ox!’ showed the artist’s facility for explosive superhero action as the dim strongman last seen in DD #6 resurfaced, albeit in a new and sinister fashion as the lummox is made the subject of a macabre brain-swapping experiment…

When a certain webslinger guest-starred in #16, little did anyone suspect how soon Romita would be leaving…

‘Enter… Spider-Man!’ introduces criminal mastermind Masked Marauder who has big plans; the first of which is to get DD and the wallcrawler to kill each other…

With next issue ‘None are so Blind…’, a convoluted a sub-plot began which would lead to some of the highest and lowest moments of the early Daredevil series, beginning after the wondrous wallcrawler accuses Foggy of being the Man Without Fear!

Although the webspinner quickly realizes his mistake, others present don’t…

Issue #18’s ‘There Shall Come a Gladiator!’ introduces a manic armoured villain and archetypal super-thug in a tale two-thirds scripted by legend-in-waiting Denny O’Neil. Here Foggy tries to sway Karen by bolstering the idea that he is Daredevil… and almost perishing as a result of the deception.

Issue #19 then sees the Masked Marauder ally with Gladiator in action-packed big fight tale ‘Alone… Against the Underworld!’: a fitting farewell for Romita who was moving over to Amazing Spider-Man after Steve Ditko’s abrupt, controversial and utterly unexpected departure.

Originally tipped for a fill-in issue, Gene Colan came aboard as penciller with #20’s ‘The Verdict is: Death!’ Inked by Mike Esposito (as Mickey DeMeo). Colan’s superbly humanistic drawing and facility with expressions was a little jarring at first – since he drew Daredevil in a passable Romita imitation and everything else in his own manner – but he soon settled in and this two-part revenge thriller featuring the Owl (concluding with the Giacoia, Dick Ayers & Bill Everett inked ‘The Trap is Sprung!’) is a fine beginning to his long, impressive run on the series, incorporating the Sightless Swashbuckler’s battle against his ferocious arch-foe, an army of thugs, deadly flying robots and even an exploding volcano to keep the readers on their toes….

Augmented by Kirby’s designs for the Plunderer, his pencil page layouts, house ads and Romita’s very first pencil sketch of ‘Ol Hornhead, this classy compendium is a nostalgic delight for one and all.

Despite a few bumpy false starts Daredevil blossomed into a truly magnificent example of Marvel’s compelling formula for success: smart stories, human characters and magnificent illustration. If you’ve not read these tales before I strongly urge you to rectify that error as soon as superhumanly possible.
© 1965, 1966, 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Silver Surfer Marvel Masterworks volume 1


By Stan Lee, John Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1187-0 (HB)                    978-0-7851-4282-9 (TPB)

Although pretty much a last-minute addition to Fantastic Four #48-50’s ‘Galactus Trilogy’, Jack Kirby’s scintillating creation the Silver Surfer quickly became a watchword for depth and subtext in the Marvel Universe and one Stan Lee kept as his own personal toy for many years.

Tasked with finding planets for space god Galactus to consume and, despite the best efforts of intergalactic voyeur Uatu the Watcher, one day the Silver Surfer discovers Earth, where the latent nobility of humanity reawakens his own suppressed morality; causing the shining scout to rebel against his master and help the FF save the world.

In retaliation, Galactus imprisons his one-time herald on Earth, making him the ultimate outsider on a planet remarkably ungrateful for his sacrifice.

The Galactus Saga was a creative highlight from a period where the Lee/Kirby partnership was utterly on fire. The tale has all the power and grandeur of a true epic and has never been surpassed for drama, thrills and sheer entertainment. It’s not included here: for that treat you’ll need to see an upcoming Fantastic Four Epic Collection or many other Marvel collections…

In 1968, after increasingly frequent guest-shots and even a solo adventure in the back of Fantastic Four Annual #5 (happily included here at the back; chronologically adrift but well worth the wait), the Surfer finally got his own (initially double-length) title at long last. There’s also a sassy spoof from Not Brand Echh #13 to puncture any pomposity overdose you might experience…

This stellar collection – available in deluxe hardback, sturdy trade paperback and assorted eBook formats – gathers the first six extra-length adventures from August 1968 to June 1969 and, following a fond Introductory reminiscence from author Stan Lee, begins with ‘The Origin of the Silver Surfer!’

Illustrated by John Buscema & Joe Sinnott, the drama unfolds after a prolonged flashback sequence and repeated examples of crass humanity’s brutal callousness and unthinking hostility, detailing how Norrin Radd, discontented soul from an alien paradise named Zenn-La, became the gleaming herald of a planetary scourge.

Radd had constantly chafed against a civilisation in comfortable, sybaritic stagnation, but when Galactus shattered their vaunted million years of progress in a fleeting moment, the dissident without hesitation offered himself as a sacrifice to save the world from the Devourer’s hunger.

Converted into an indestructible, gleaming human meteor, Radd agreed to scour the galaxies looking for uninhabited worlds rich in the energies Galactus needs to survive, thus saving planets with life on them from destruction. He didn’t always find them in time…

The stories in this series were highly acclaimed – if not really commercially successful – both for Buscema’s agonised, emphatic and truly beautiful artwork as well as Lee’s deeply spiritual and philosophical scripts. The tone was accusatory; with the isolated alien’s travails and social observations creating a metaphoric status akin to a Christ-figure for an audience that was maturing and rebelling against America’s creaking and unsavoury status quo.

The second 40-page adventure exposes a secret invasion by extraterrestrial lizard men ‘When Lands the Saucer!’ This forces the Surfer into battle against the sinister Brotherhood of Badoon without human aid or even awareness in ‘Let Earth be the Prize!’

A little side-note for sad nit-picking enthusiasts like me: I suspect that the original intention was to drop the page count to regular 20-page episodes from #2, since in terms of pacing both the second and third issues divide perfectly into two-parters, with cliffhanger endings and splash page/chapter titles that are dropped from #4 onwards.

Silver Surfer #3 is pivotal in the ongoing saga as Lee & Buscema introduced Marvel’s Satan-analogue in ‘The Power and the Prize!’

Mephisto is Lord of Hell and sees the Surfer’s untarnished soul as a threat to his evil influence on Earth. To crush the anguished hero’s spirit, the demon abducts Norrin Radd’s true love Shalla Bal from still-recovering Zenn-La and torments the Sentinel of the Spaceways with her dire distress in his sulphurous nether-realm…

The concluding chapter sees mortal angel of light and devil of depravity conduct a spectacular ‘Duel in the Depths’ wherein neither base temptations nor overwhelming force are enough to stay the noble Surfer’s inevitable triumph.

Just as wicked a foe then attempted to exploit the Earth-bound alien’s heroic impulses in #4’s ‘The Good, The Bad and the Uncanny!’ (inked by new art collaborator Sal Buscema) wherein Asgardian God of Evil Loki offers lies, deceit and even escape from Galactus’ terrestrial cage to induce the Silver Stalwart to attack and destroy the mighty Thor. The net result is a staggering and bombastic clash that just builds and builds as the creative team finally let loose and fully utilise their expanded story-proportions and page count to create smooth flowing, epic action-adventures.

This magical collection continues with a powerful parable about race, prejudice and shared humanity as the Surfer is befriended by ostracised black physicist Al Harper in ‘…And Who Shall Mourn Him?’

As the two outcasts bond, the scientist realises he might have a way to free the Surfer from his Galactine incarceration, but just as they put their plan into operation, remorseless alien entity The Stranger arrives, determined to erase the potential threat mankind offers to the rest of the universe.

To stop him both, Harper and Radd must sacrifice everything they cherish most for a world that doesn’t care if they live or die…

Officially closing this volume ‘World Without End!’ from issue #6 embraces dystopian fantasy as the Surfer reasons that by breaking the time-barrier he might escape the energy shield binding him to Earth. Tragically, although the plan works, the lonely wanderer discovers that the far future harbours little life, and what there is owes fealty and its own precarious continuation to a monstrous mutant who lives simply to conquer and kill.

Appalled, overwhelmed and utterly unable to beat the horrific Overlord, all the Surfer can do to preserve all Creation is to escape back into time and seek to prevent the murderous freak from ever being born…

As foretold, this compulsive comicbook chronicle concludes with a groundbreaking vignette from Fantastic Four Annual #5 – released in November 1967 – wherein the rapidly rising star-in-the-making got his first solo shot.

‘The Peerless Power of the Silver Surfer’ (Lee, Kirby & Frank Giacoia) is a pithy fable of cruel ingratitude that reintroduced the Mad Thinker’s lethal A.I. assassin Quasimodo

The Quasi-Motivational Destruct Organ was a malevolent murder machine trapped in a static computer housing which dreamed of being able to move within the real world. Sadly, although its pleas initially found favour with the gullibly innocent stranger from the stars, the killer computer itself had underestimated the power and conscience of its foolish saviour and the gleaming guardian of life was explosively forced to take back the boon he had impetuously bestowed in a bombastic bravura display of Kirby action and Lee pathos…

One last sally comes with ‘The Origin of the Simple Surfer!’ – by Roy Thomas and the sublime Marie Severin from Not Brand Echh #13,May 1969 – as alien émigré Borin-Kadd ruminates on his strange fate and pines for his daftly-beloved Shallo-Gal when… well you get the idea, right?

Completing the treats are a reprint cover gallery from Fantasy Masterpieces, house ads and a stunning original art cover by Buscema & Sinnott

The Silver Surfer was always a pristine and iconic character when handled well – and sparingly – and these early forays into a more mature range of adventures, although perhaps a touch heavy-handed, showed that there was far more to comicbooks than cops and robbers or monsters and misfits.

That exploratory experience and the mystique of hero as Christ allegory made the series a critically beloved but commercially disastrous cause célèbre until eventually financial failure killed the experiment.

After the Lee/Kirby/Ditko sparks had initially fired up the imaginations of readers in the early days, the deeper, subtler overtones and undercurrents offered by stories like these kept a maturing readership enthralled, loyal and abidingly curious as to what else comics could achieve if given half a chance, and this fabulously lavish tome offers the perfect way to discover or recapture the thrill and wonder of those startlingly different days and times.
© 1968, 1969, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Team Up Marvel Masterworks volume 2


By Len Wein, Gerry Conway, Steve Gerber, Gil Kane, Ross Andru, Sal Buscema, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5933-9 (HB)

Inspiration isn’t everything. In fact, as Marvel slowly grew to a position of market dominance in the wake of the 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 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 at that time they may well have been right.

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

This second sturdy compilation (in hardback or digital formats) gathers material from MTU #12-22 plus a crossover with Daredevil (and the Black Widow) #103 spanning August 1973 to June 1974 and opens with a fond, if self-proclaimed foggy, recollection from then Editor-in-Chief Roy Thomas in his cheery Introduction before we plunge into the many-starred dramas…

Len Wein scripted a Gerry Conway plot for ‘Wolf at Bay!’ from MTU #12 as the Wall-Crawler meets the Werewolf By Night Jack Russell and malevolent mage Moondark in foggy San Francisco, as deftly delineated by Ross Andru & Don Perlin, after which we divert to the Man without Fear and the Black Widow’s own title. Here they share the left coast limelight as Daredevil #103 sees them joining with the still California-bound wallcrawler. A merciless cyborg attacks the odd couple while they pose for roving photojournalist Peter Parker in ‘…Then Came Ramrod!’ – by Steve Gerber, Don Heck & Sal Trapani – and the only response can be battle…

Gil Kane & Frank Giacoia illustrated ‘The Granite Sky!’ wherein Wein pits Spider-Man and Captain America against Hydra and the Grey Gargoyle in a simple clash of ideologies after which ‘Mayhem is… the Men-Fish!’ (inked by Wayne Howard – and, yes bad grammar, but great action-art!) matches the webslinger with the savage Sub-Mariner against vile villains Tiger Shark and Doctor Dorcas as well as an army (navy?) of mutant sea-beasts.

Wein, Andru & Perlin created The Orb to bedevil Spidey and the Ghost Rider in ‘If an Eye Offend Thee!’ in #15 after which Kane & Jim Mooney illustrated ‘Beware the Basilisk my Son!’: a gripping romp featuring (the original Kree) Captain Marvel, which concludes in ‘Chaos at the Earth’s Core!’ (inked by “everybody”!), as Mister Fantastic joins the fracas to stop the Mole Man from inadvertently blowing up the world.

Human Torch Johnny Storm teams with the Hulk in MTU #18 to stop antimatter malcontent Blastaar in ‘Where Bursts the Bomb!’ (inked by Giacoia & Esposito), but Spidey blazes back a month later with Ka-Zar in situ to witness ‘The Coming of… Stegron, the Dinosaur Man!’ (Wein, Kane & Giacoia) whose plans to flatten New York by releasing ‘Dinosaurs on Broadway!’ is foiled with the Black Panther’s help – as well as the artistic skills of Sal Buscema, Giacoia & Esposito.

Dave Hunt replaced Esposito and aide Giacoia inking ‘The Spider and the Sorcerer!’ in #21 as Spidey and Doctor Strange once more battle Xandu, a wily wizard first seen in Spider-Man Annual #2, before ‘The Messiah Machine!’ brings the story glories to a conclusion by depicting Hawkeye and the Amazing Arachnid frustrating deranged computer Quasimodo’s ambitious if absurd mechanoid invasion.

Adding extra lustre before we close, there’s a brace of original art pages from Andru & Perlin and Kane and Mooney to drool over, too…

These stories are of variable quality but nonetheless all have an honest drive to entertain and please, whilst artistically the work – particularly action-man-on-fire Gil Kane – is superb, and most fans of the genre would find little to complain about. Although not really a book for casual or more maturely-oriented readers there’s lots of fun on hand and young readers will have a blast, so there’s no real reason not to add this tome to your library…
© 1973, 1974, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Incredible Hulk Marvel Masterworks volume 7


By Roy Thomas, Harlan Ellison, Gary Friedrich, Herb Trimpe, Sal Buscema, Dick Ayers, John Severin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6668-9 (HB)

As the 1970s opened the Incredible Hulk had settled into a comfortable – if always excessively and spectacularly destructive – niche. The globe-trotting formula saw tragic Bruce Banner hiding and seeking cures for his gamma-transformative curse, alternately aided or hunted by prospective father-in-law US General “Thunderbolt” Ross and a variety of guest-star heroes and villains.

Herb Trimpe had made the character his own, displaying a penchant for explosive action and an unparalleled facility for drawing technology – especially honking great ordnance and vehicles. Scripter Roy Thomas – unofficial custodian of Marvel’s burgeoning shared-universe continuity – played the afflicted Jekyll/Hyde card for maximum angst and ironic heartbreak even as he continually injected the Jade Juggernaut into the lives of other stalwarts of Marvel’s growing pantheon…

This chronologically-curated hardback and eBook compendium re-presents issues #135-144 plus a crossover tale from Avengers #88 and a delightful surprise from Marvel Super-Heroes #16 (September 1968), encompassing cover-dates January to October 1971 and opens – after Thomas’ Introduction shares a few more intimate behind-the-scenes secrets – with Incredible Hulk #122.

Inked by Sal Buscema, one of the strangest Marvel team-ups occurred in ‘Descent into the Time-Storm!’ as Kang the Conqueror dispatches the Jade Juggernaut to the dog-days of World War I to prevent the Avengers’ ancestors from being born, only to fall foul of the enigmatic masked aviator known as the Phantom Eagle.

Apparently as the result of a Gerry Conway suggestion, Moby Dick (among other cross-media classics) was then homaged in ‘Klattu! The Behemoth From Beyond Space!’ and ‘The Stars, Mine Enemy!’ (this last inked by Mike Esposito) as a vengeance-crazed starship captain pursues the Brobdingnagian alien beast that had maimed him, consequently press-ganging the Hulk in the process and pitting him against old foe the Abomination.

It was back to Earth and another old enemy in ‘…Sincerely, the Sandman!’ (inked by Sam Grainger) as the vicious villain turns Banner’s true love Betty Ross to brittle, fragile glass, whilst #139’s ‘Many Foes Has the Hulk!’ looks in on the Leader’s latest attempt to kill his brutish nemesis: by exhaustion, with seemingly hundreds of old villains attacking the man-monster all at once…

A most impressive crossover follows as Harlan Ellison, Thomas, Sal Buscema & Jim Mooney craft ‘The Summons of Psyklop!’ for Avengers #88 (May 1971) wherein an insectoid servant of the Elder Gods abducts the Hulk to fuel their resurrection… This leads directly into Incredible Hulk #140 and landmark yarn ‘The Brute that Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom’ (pencilled & inked by Grainger over Trimpe’s layouts). Trapped on a sub-atomic world, Banner’s intellect and the Hulk’s body are reconciled, and he becomes a barbarian hero to an appreciative populace, and the lover of the perfect princess Jarella, only to be snatched away by Psyklop at the moment of his greatest happiness.

The sudden return to full-sized savagery is the insectoid’s undoing and the Hulk resumes his ghastly existence… at least until #141 when an experimental psychologist provides a means to drain the Hulk’s gamma-energy and utilise it to restore the crystalline Betty.

He even uses the remaining gamma force to turn himself into a superhero in ‘His Name is … Samson!’ (with the wonderful John Severin inking).

Next comes a satirical poke at “Radical Chic” and the return of the “feminist” villain Valkyrie when the Hulk is made a media cause celebre by Manhattan’s effete elite in the oddly charming ‘They Shoot Hulks, Don’t They?’

But don’t fret, there’s plenty of monumental mayhem as well…

This titanic tome terminates with an inevitable but long-delayed clash as the Green Goliath battles Doctor Doom in a two-part epic begun by Thomas, Dick Ayers & Severin wherein the hunted Banner finds ‘Sanctuary!’ in New York City’s Latverian Embassy. The deal is a bad one, however, since the Iron Dictator proceeds to enslave the Gamma scientist for his bomb-making knowledge in an attempt to make his awesome alter ego into an unstoppable war machine…

The scheme goes awry in ‘The Monster and the Madman!’ (scripted by Gary Friedrich over Thomas’ plot) as the brainwashed Banner shucks his mind-warped conditioning – thanks to Doom’s conflicted consort Valeria – just in time for the Hulk to deliver a salutary lesson in mayhem throughout the dictator’s domain.

Did I say it was all over? Not so as wrapping up is the cover to Hulk Annual #3 and original artwork by Ayers & Severin as well as the debut tale of ‘The Phantom Eagle’ by Friedrich & Trimpe as seen in Marvel Super-Heroes #16.

It’s March 1917 and barnstorming aviator Karl Kaufman chafes at his inability to enlist in the US Army Air Corps. America is not in the Great War yet, but everyone knows it’s coming and Karl’s best friend cannot understand his pal’s reticence. Despite a crash-created infirmity, Rex Griffin signed up immediately but doesn’t realise that Karl can’t be an allied air warrior until he has smuggled his German parents out of the Fatherland and beyond the reach of reprisals…

All too suddenly the war comes to Karl as, while testing his new super-plane, he encounters a gigantic Fokker-carrying zeppelin over Long Island Sound, and realizes the Kaiser has launched an invasion of America…

Mobilising his meagre resources and masked as a Phantom Eagle, Karl takes to the skies but his sortie, although successful, will cost him dearly…

The Hulk is one of the most well-known comic characters on Earth, and these stories, as much as the movies, TV shows and action figures, are the reason why. For an uncomplicated, honestly vicarious experience of Might actually being Right, you can’t do better than these yarns so why not Go Green.
© 1970, 1971, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Iron Man Marvel Masterworks volume 8


By Gerry Conway, Mike Friedrich, Robert Kanigher, Gary Friedrich, Roy Thomas, George Tuska, Herb Trimpe, Barry Windsor-Smith, Jim Starlin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6623-8 (HB)

First conceived in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis at a time when the economy was booming and “Commie-bashing” was an American national obsession, the emergence of a new and shining young Thomas Edison, using Yankee ingenuity, wealth and invention to safeguard the Land of the Free and better the World, seemed an obvious development. Combining the then-sacrosanct faith that technology and business in unison could solve any problem, with the universal imagery of noble knights battling evil, Tony Stark – the Invincible Iron Man – seemed an infallibly successful proposition.

Of course, whilst Tony Stark was the acceptable face of 1960s Capitalism – a glamorous millionaire industrialist/scientist and a benevolent all-conquering hero when clad in the super-scientific armour of his alter-ego – the turbulent tone of the 1970s soon relegated his suave, “can-do” image to the dustbin of history.

With ecological disaster and social catastrophe from the myriad abuses of big business the new zeitgeists of the young, the Golden Avenger and Stark International were soon confronting a few tricky questions from the increasingly politically savvy readership.

With glamour, money and fancy gadgetry not quite so cool anymore the questing voices of a new generation of writers began posing uncomfortable questions in the pages of a series that was once the bastion of militarised America …

This grand and gleaming chronological compendium – available in hardback and digital editions – navigates that transitional period; reprinting Iron Man #39-53 (July 1971 to December 1972) as the title experienced an unprecedented and often uncomfortable number of creative personnel changes whilst the country endured a radical and often divisive split in ideology.

Tone and context for the times comes courtesy of Gerry Conway’s Introduction ‘A Few Last Words’ and the follow up essay from Mike Friedrich writer who replaced before Conway & Herb Trimpe open the graphic proceedings with ‘A Twist of Memory… a Turn of Mind!’ Insidious oriental mastermind White Dragon deviously turns Stark into a brainwashed pawn, thereby inadvertently enslaving the Golden Avenger too.

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

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

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

‘The Claws of the Slasher!’ sees a squabbling pair of paranormal saboteurs attack Washington DC during a Senate investigation into Stark Industries; accidentally triggering a psychic transformation in Marianne.

She temporarily morphed into a mind-warping harpy in ‘When Demons Wail!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia), culminating in a blockbusting, extra-long battle against psionic godling Mikas in ‘Doomprayer!’(Mooney inks).

During that cataclysmic conflict O’Brian dons his own super-armour to join the fray as The Guardsman; causing his own mental state to rapidly deteriorate and making his eventual showdown with Stark ever more unavoidable…

Plotted by Conway, scripted by DC A-Lister Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Tuska & Vince Colletta, Iron Man #44 finds Stark near death after his last battle.

In ‘Weep for a Lost Nightmare!’ he is watched over by Kevin and Marianne as Kline dispatches a robotic copy of old Stark enemy The Night Phantom to finish the ailing hero off. The tale is truncated midway and completed in the next issue – presumably due to deadline problems.

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

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

In the aftermath Stark traumatically reviews his origins, twin careers and now-obscured objectives in the classic ‘Why Must There be an Iron Man?’ (# 47, by Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith & Mooney) after which, emotionally reinvigorated, the Armoured Ace welcomes new scripter Mike Friedrich and old artists Tuska & Colletta to face a renewed threat from radical incendiary anarchist Firebrand in ‘The Fury and the Inferno!’

Meanwhile, whilst attempting a new start in life, Marianne’s final breakdown begins…

‘… There Lurks the Adaptoid!’ finds her experiencing horrifying precognitive visions of a power-mimicking robot attacking Iron Man, leading to her accidental betrayal of the man she loves when the automaton arrives and evolves into an unbeatable new form in #50’s ‘Deathplay’.

This coincides with equally-troubled Z-list villain Princess Python attempting to kidnap Tony, even as the hero is targeted by power-leeching sub-atomic tyrants, before the bizarre saga concludes with bombastic battle in ‘Now Stalks the Cyborg-Sinister!’

New Age mysticism and West Coast celebrity-cults informed Iron Man #53 as Stark confronts ‘Raga: Son of Fire!’: an emotion-fuelled, flaming maniac trained by an evil guru who subsequently takes over from his failed disciple when things get too hot.

‘The Black Lama!’ (with additional pencils from star-in-waiting Jim Starlin) is also unable to destroy the Golden Avenger, but would subsequently return to become one of the hero’s greatest foes of the period.

Don’t fret folks; it all turns out alright in the end…

The galvanised wonderment also includes the cover of Iron Man Annual #2 and a selection of house ads to wrap up this collection with the Golden Gladiator being carefully politically repositioned at a time when Marvel solidly set itself up at the vanguard of a rapidly changing America increasingly at war with itself.

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

But that’s the meat of another review, as this engrossing graphic novel is done. From our distant vantage point the polemical energy and impact might be dissipated, but the sheer quality of the comics and the cool thrill of the eternal aspiration of man in perfect partnership with magic metal remains. These superhero sagas are amongst the most underrated but impressive tales of the period and are well worth your time, consideration and cold hard cash…
© 1971, 1972, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Golden Age Human Torch Marvel Masterworks: volume 1 #2-5A


By Carl Burgos, Bill Everett, Paul Reinman, Joe Simon, Al Gabriele, Harry Sahle, George Mandel, Stan Lee, Sid Greene & others (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1623-3 (HB)                    978-0785167778 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A little fireside fun and frolic… 8/10

During the early Golden Age, a novel idea and sheer exuberance could take you far, and since the alternative means of entertainment escapism for most kids were severely limited, it just wasn’t that hard to make a go of it as a comic book publisher.

Combine that once in a life-time moment with a creative work-force which kept being drafted, and it’s clear to see why declining standards of story and art didn’t greatly affect month-to-month sales during World War II, but promptly started a cascade-decline in super-hero strips almost as soon as GI boots hit US soil again.

In 1940 the comicbook industry was in frantic expansion mode and every publisher was trying to make and own the Next Big Thing. The Goodman pulp fiction outfit leapt into the new industry and scored big through debut anthology Marvel Comics in the Fall of 1939 (becoming Marvel Mystery with its second issue), with both the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner finding huge favour amongst the burgeoning, fickle readership. Two out of seven was pretty good: Action and Detective Comics only had the one super-star apiece…

An editorial policy of rapid expansion was in play: release a new book filled with whatever the art and script-monkeys of the comics “shop” had dreamed up and not yet sold. Shops – freelance creative studios who packaged material on spec for publishing houses – were the big facilitators of the early days, and Martin Goodman bought all his product from Lloyd Jacquet’s Funnies Inc.) Like every other money-man, he kept the popular hits and disregarded everything else as soon as sales reports came in.

In quick succession Daring Mystery Comics #1 (January. 1940) and Mystic Comics #1 (March 1940) followed, with limited success and a rapid turnover of concepts and features. Timely Comics – or occasionally Red Circle – as the company then called itself, had a huge turnover of characters who only made one or two appearances before vanishing, never to be seen again until various modern revivals or recreations produced new, improved versions of heroes like Black Widow, Thin Man, the original Angel, Citizen V or Red Raven.

That last one is especially relevant here. Although fresh characters were plentiful, physical resources were not and when the company’s fourth title Red Raven #1 was released with an August 1940 cover-date it failed to ignite any substantial attention with either title character or B-features Comet Pierce, Mercury, Human Top, Eternal Brain and Magar the Mystic, despite being crammed with the stunning early work of young Jack Kirby.

The magazine and its entire cast was killed and the publishing slot and numbering handed over to a proven seller. Thus, Human Torch launched with #2 (Fall 1940) – the first issue to solo star the flammable android hero, and one which introduced his own fiery side-kick.

Just so’s you know; the next two releases fared a little better: Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941) and inevitably, a singular title for Sub-Mariner (Fall 1941)…

Although the material in this collection is of variable quality and probably not to the tastes of modern fans, for devotees of super-heroes, aficionados of historical works and true Marvel Zombies there’s still lots to offer here. It’s probably best to also remind readers that these stories were created in far less enlightened times and racial depictions and treatments leave a lot to be desired. But that’s history, and we need to see it, warts – not to mention slurs and gross misconceptions – and all…

After a knowledgeable and informative introduction by Roy Thomas, the hot-dogging begins with ‘Introducing Toro – the Flaming Torch Kid’ by Carl Burgos wherein the blazing star discovers a circus boy possessing all his own incendiary abilities, before fighting a criminal strongman with a ray-gun.

The misnamed elder Torch was actually a miraculous android and not at all human, but here he acquires a plucky, excitable teen assistant who would become his faithful comrade for (almost all) the remainder of his career…

This is followed by Bill Everett’s ‘Sub-Mariner Crashes New York Again!!!’ as sub-sea stalwart Prince Namor once more attacks America, after which ‘Carl Burgos’ Hot Idea’ and ‘Bill Everett’s Hurricane’ provide text features supposedly detailing how the respective creators came up with their tempestuous brain-children…

The remaining stories are pretty pedestrian. ‘The Falcon’ by Paul Reinman features a young District Attorney who corrects legal shortcomings and miscarriages of justice as a masked vigilante, ‘Microman’ (Harold Delay & Paul Quinn) stars a young boy exploring his own garden at insect-size before Mandrake knock-off ‘Mantor the Magician’ (by Al Gabriele) saw a fez-topped modern wizard battle crooks posing as ghosts.

Joe Simon’s Fiery Mask actually debuted in Daring Mystery #1 and ended his career here with ‘The Strange Case of the Bloodless Corpses’, with the multi-powered physician hunting a remorseless mad doctor terrorising the city…

Issue #3 is actually pretty impressive, with an ambitious and spectacular untitled 40-page Torch epic which reveals Toro seduced by Nazism, before seeing the patriotic light and burning off Hitler’s moustache, whilst John H. Compton’s text piece ‘Hot and Wet’ has the two elemental stars debate whose creator is best before a 20-page Sub-Mariner crossover (anticipating Marvel’s successful policy of the 1960s onward) finds Namor and the Torch teaming up to trash Nazi vessels sinking Allied convoys, and latterly scuttling a full invasion together.

By Human Torch #4 much of the work is clearly being ghosted to a greater or lesser degree. The Torch takes far too long solving the ever-so-simple ‘Mystery of the Disappearing Criminals’, after which Ray Gill introduces star-spangled hero The Patriot in a 2-page text piece.

At least Everett is still very much in evidence and on top form when the Sub-Mariner takes ten beautiful pages to save an Alaskan village from plague, blizzards, an onrushing glacier and incendiary bombs in a genuine forgotten classic, before lacklustre Captain America knock-off The Patriot shambles through a proper comic-strip tale of Bundist (that’s German/American Nazi sympathizers to you, kid) saboteurs to close the issue.

That line-up continued in the last issue reprinted here (Human Torch #5A, Summer 1941, and the “A” is because the series did a little lock-step to catch up with itself: the next issue would also be a #5). Here, however, the fiery star and his Flaming Kid clash in a two-part epic with a mad scientist named Doc Smart in ‘The March of Death’, then join forces again with Namor in a Stan Lee scripted prose vignette entitled ‘The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner Battle the Nazi Super Shell of Death!’

Sub-Mariner and guest-star the Angel followed, fighting Nazi zombies in ‘Blitzkrieg of the Living Dead’ (attributed to Bill Everett, but clearly overwhelmed by lesser hands in the inking and perhaps even pencilling stages) after which The Patriot wraps thing up in a bold and experimental job from future art great Sid Greene. Here the Red, White and Blue Home-front Hero tracks down a Nazi who kills by playing the violin…

I’m happy to have this book (available in premium hardback, trade paperback and digital formats), even with all the quibbles and qualifications, but I’m a funnybook addict and can understand why anyone other than a life-long Marvel fan would baulk at a rather steep price-tag, with a wealth of better-quality and more highly regarded Golden Age material available. Still, value is one thing and worth another, so in the end it’s up to you…
© 1940, 1941, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avengers Marvel Masterworks volume 11


By Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Harlan Ellison, Chris Claremont, Stan Lee, Steve Gerber, Rich Buckler, Don Heck, John Buscema, George Tuska, Jim Starlin, Dave Cockrum, Sam Kweskin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5038-1 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Pure Blockbuster Entertainment… 8/10

One of the most momentous events in Marvel Comics history occurred in 1963 when a disparate array of individual heroes banded together to stop the Incredible Hulk.

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

The Avengers always proved that putting all one’s star eggs in on single basket paid off big-time; even when all Marvel’s all-stars such as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man were absent, it merely allowed the lesser lights of the team to shine more brightly.

Of course, all the founding stars regularly featured due to a rotating, open door policy which meant that most issues included one of any reader’s favourites. The increasingly bold and impressively ambitious stories and artwork were no hindrance either even though at this particular time, creators were passing through at an even faster rate than the masked marvels…

Graced with a scene-setting Preface from outgoing scripter Roy Thomas and context-creating Introduction from new kid Steve Englehart, this sturdy hardcover and eBook compilation gathers the astounding contents of Avengers #89-100 (collectively spanning July 1972 – May 1973) and includes a cross-over moment from Daredevil and the Black Widow #99.

Now scripter extraordinaire Thomas was about to hand over the reins to an even more imaginative and groundbreaking author who took the team to dizzying new imaginative and dramatic heights, but before that he and debuting penciller Rich Buckler – doing his best Neal Adams impersonation – shone on a Harlan Ellison tale inked by Dan Adkins.

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

Determined to stop him whatever the ultimate consequences, the Avengers eschewed the murky moral quandary and were tested to their utmost, before the crisis was averted…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The announcement provokes a storm of trouble…

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

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

‘… And Now Magneto!’ (Englehart, Heck, Frank Giacoia & Mike Esposito) ends with half the team brainwashed captives of the master villain with the remaining crusaders desperately searching for new allies. We then pop over to San Francisco and a crossover from Daredevil and the Black Widow #99 (May 1973, by Steve Gerber, Sam Kweskin & Syd Shores). ‘The Mark of Hawkeye!’ sees Natasha Romanoff’s old boyfriend fetch up on the Widow’s doorstep, determined to reclaim her. The caveman stunt culminates in the Archer’s sound and well-deserved thrashing, and when the last Avengers arrive, asking him to return and assist, he refuses. DD and the Widow don’t, though…

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

This titanic tome also offers extra treats: namely an unused page of Buckler’s beautiful pencil art and his Sinnott-inked cover for Avengers #104.

Roy Thomas and his artistic collaborators were always at the forefront of Marvel’s second generation of creators: brilliantly building on and consolidating Lee, Kirby and Ditko’s initial burst of comics creativity whilst spearheading and constructing a logical, fully functioning wonder- machine of places and events that so many others could add to.

These terrific tales are ideal examples of superheroes done exactly right and also act as pivotal points as the underdog company evolved into a corporate entertainment colossus. There are also some of the best superhero stories you’ll ever read and Englehart’s forthcoming concoctions would turn the Marvel Universe on its head and pave the way for a new peak of cosmic adventure…
© 1972, 1973, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Doctor Strange Marvel Masterworks volume 2


By Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Dennis O’Neil, Roy Thomas, Raymond Marais, Jim Lawrence, Dan Adkins, Bill Everett, Marie Severin, George Tuska & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1737-7 (HB)                    978-0-7851-6770-9 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Modicum More Merry Seasonal Magic… 9/10

When the budding House of Ideas introduced a warrior wizard to their burgeoning pantheon in the summer of 1963 it was a bold and curious move. Bizarre adventures and menacing monsters were still incredibly popular but mention of magic or the supernatural – especially vampires, werewolves and their eldritch ilk – were harshly proscribed by a censorship panel which dictated almost all aspects of story content.

At this time – almost a decade after a public witch hunt led to Senate hearings – all comics were ferociously monitored and adjudicated by the draconian Comics Code Authority. Even though the some of the small company’s strongest sellers were still mystery and monster mags, their underlying themes and premises were almost universally mad science and alien wonders, not necromantic or thaumaturgic horrors.

That might explain Stan Lee’s low-key introduction of Steve Ditko’s mystic adventurer: an exotic, twilit troubleshooter inhabiting the shadowy outer fringes of rational, civilised society.

Capitalising on of the runaway success of Fantastic Four, Lee had quickly spun off the youngest, most colourful 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 untouchable “Big Three” superstars.

Within a year of FF #1, anthology title Strange Tales became home for the blazing boy-hero (beginning with issue #101, cover-dated October 1962): launching Johnny Storm on a creatively productive but commercially unsuccessful solo career.

Soon after in Tales of Suspense #41 (May 1963) current sensation Iron Man battled a crazed technological wizard dubbed Doctor Strange, and with the name successfully and legally in copyrightable print (a long-established Lee technique: Thorr, The Thing, Magneto and the Hulk had been disposable Atlas “furry underpants monsters” long before they became in-continuity Marvel characters) preparations began for a new and truly different kind of hero.

The company had already recently published a quasi-mystic precursor: balding, trench-coated savant Doctor Droom – later rechristened (or is that re-paganed?) Dr. Druid – had an inconspicuous short run in Amazing Adventures (volume 1 #1-4 & #6: June-November 1961). He was a balding psychiatrist, sage and paranormal investigator who tackled everything from alien invaders to Atlanteans. He was subsequently retro-written into Marvel continuity as an alternative candidate and precursor for Stephen Strange’s ultimate role as Sorcerer Supreme…

Nevertheless, after a shaky start, the Marvel Age Master of the Mystic Arts became an unmissable icon of the cool counter-culture kids who saw in Ditko’s increasingly psychedelic art echoes and overtones of their own trippy explorations of other worlds and realms…

That might not have been the authors’ intentions but it certainly helped keep the mage at the forefront of Lee’s efforts to break comics out of the kids-stuff ghetto…

This magnificent confabulation (available in hardback, trade paperback and digital reincarnations) collects the mystical portions of Strange Tales #142-168, (spanning March 1966 to May 1968) and – despite the Good Doctor barely cover-featuring until #130 – kindly includes every issue’s stunning frontage: thus offering an incredible array of superb eye-catching Marvel masterpieces from the upstart company’s formative heydays by not only Ditko but also Jack Kirby, Bob Powell, John & Marie Severin, Bill Everett, Jim Steranko and Dan Adkins.

The sorcerous super-shenanigans commence after the traditional jocund reminiscences by Stan Lee in his Introduction, after which mystic mayhem resumes at full pelt and breakneck pace. This time-period, leading up to a full-blown Marvel expansion and solo-star status, saw the magician achieve his greatest triumphs under Ditko before entering a period of great creative insecurity under a welter of substitute writers and artists after the originator abruptly left the company at the height of his fame and success in early 1967.

The previous volume had seen Dr. Stephen Strange defeat his sworn nemesis Baron Mordo and extra-dimensional dark god Dormammu after an epic serial saga. The weary victor had then returned to his mystic Sanctum Sanctorum, unaware that lesser enemies had boobytrapped his residence with mundane explosives…

Scripted by Lee and plotted and illustrated by Ditko, Strange Tales #142 revealed ‘Those Who Would Destroy Me!’ as Mordo’s unnamed disciples ready for one last stab at the Master of the Mystic Arts.

They would remain anonymous for decades, only gaining names of their own – Kaecillius, Demonicus and The Witch – upon their return in the mid-1980s. Here, however, they easily entrap the exhausted mage and imprison him with a view to plundering all his secrets. It’s a big mistake as in the Roy Thomas scripted sequel ‘With None Beside Me!’, Strange quickly outwits and subdues his captors…

In #144 Ditko & Thomas take the heartsick hero ‘Where Man Hath Never Trod!’ Although Dread Dormammu was soundly defeated and humiliated before his peers and vassals, the demonic tyrant took a measure of revenge by exiling Strange’s anonymous female collaborator to realms unknown. Now, as the Earthling seeks to rescue her by searching myriad mystic planes he stumbles into a trap laid by the Dark One and carried out by devilish collector of souls Tazza

On defeating the scheme, Strange returns to Earth and almost dies at the hands of a far weaker, but much sneakier wizard dubbed Mister Rasputin. The spy and swindler utilises his meagre gifts for material gain but is happy to resort to base brutality ‘To Catch a Magician!’ (scripted by Dennis O’Neil).

All previous covers had been Kirby S.H.I.E.L.D. affairs but finally, with Strange Tales #146, Strange and Ditko won their moment in the sun. Although the artist would soon be gone, the Good Doctor would remain, alternating with Nick Fury’s team until the title ended.

Ditko & O’Neil presided over ‘The End …At Last!’ as a deranged Dormammu abducts Strange before suicidally attacking the omnipotent embodiment of the cosmos known as Eternity.

The cataclysmic chaos ruptures the heavens over infinite dimension and when the universe is calm again both supra-deities are gone. Rescued from the resultant tumult, however, is the valiant girl Strange had loved and lost. She introduces herself as Clea, and although Strange despondently leaves her, we all know she will be back…

This cosmic swansong was Ditko’s last hurrah. Issue #147 saw a fresh start as Strange returns to his Greenwich Village abode under the auspices of co-scripters Lee & O’Neil, with comics veteran Bill Everett suddenly and surprisingly limning the arcane adventures.

From the Nameless Nowhere Comes… Kaluu!’ sees sagacious mentor The Ancient One rush to his pupil’s side mere moments before an ancient enemy launches a deadly attack from beyond the unknown. O’Neil & Everett then tread new ground by revealing ‘The Origin of the Ancient One!’ even as the mysterious foe intensifies his siege of the Sanctum in #149’s ‘If Kaluu Should Triumph…’

Roy Thomas then steps in to write concluding battle bonanza ‘The Conquest of Kaluu!’ as Master and Student defeat the overwhelmingly powerful intruder through grit and ingenuity. ST #150 then wraps up on an ominous note as with Dormammu gone another ancient evil begins to stir in the Dark Dimension…

Throughout his despotic reign the Dread One had apparently been keeping captive a being every bit his equal in power and perfidy and his superior in guile and cruelty. She was his sister and in #151 ‘Umar Strikes!’ Returning scribe Lee & Everett document her assumption of the throne, revenge on Clea and plans for Earth before plunging Strange ‘Into the Dimension of Death!’ in #152.

Naturally, she too has underestimated the puny mortal and Strange begins his retaliation even as he finds himself traversing outer dimensions and eventually ‘Alone, Against the Mindless Ones!’ This episode is notable for the illustrative debut of the magnificent Marie Severin, who applies a sense of potent wonder and film-inspired kinetics to the storytelling.

Strange Tales #154 has Lee, Severin & Umar declare ‘Clea Must Die!’, but the task proves harder than imagined after Strange finds macabre and unlikely allies in the demonic dictator’s own dungeons.

Winning temporary reprieve, Strange and Clea voyage to Earth where the Ancient One ruthlessly moves her beyond Umar’s reach forever but ‘The Fearful Finish…!’ only escalates the goddess’ determination and wrath. In #156 she resolves to dirty her own hands and all too soon, ‘Umar Walks the Earth!’ She is too late as Strange’s mentor has despatched him to a distant realm beyond all worlds on a suicide mission that could endanger all creation…

Artistic super-star-in-waiting Herb Trimpe signed on as inker for #157’s ‘The End of the Ancient One!’ as Strange and his unleashed secret weapon arrive back in time to see off Umar, but only at an unforgivable cost…

Bereft and aghast, Strange must face alone the monster he has unleashed, unaware that his liberating of the beast Zom has not only sparked an awakening of mystic force all over the world but also invoked the draconian assessment of supernal arbiter The Living Tribunal who rules that Earth must die…

With Thomas scripting, the Cosmic Judge manifests ‘The Sands of Death’ to eradicate the destabilising wild magic infesting the planet but grudgingly accepts Strange’s plea bargain to save the universe from ‘The Evil That Men Do…’

This constant ramping up of tension proceeds as Strange enlists old foe Mordo, who magnanimously agrees to absorb all the evil energy the Doctor siphons from a legion of newly-empowered sorcerers.

In Strange Tales #160 Raymond Marais, Severin & Trimpe reveal what a bad idea that is as ‘If This Planet You Would Save!’ sees the powered-up Baron turn on his benefactor, before exiling him to a fantastic alien cosmos in #161’s ‘And a Scourge Shall Come Upon You!’ (by Marais & new star-turn artist Dan Adkins).

In that uncanny other realm Strange meets former romantic entanglement Victoria Bentley before both are accosted by a macabre mystic tyrant who offers aid against the nigh-omnipotent Mordo for a price…

From the Never-World Comes… Nebulos!’ (scripted by James Bond writer Jim Lawrence & rendered by Adkins) sees Strange pull all the stops out: crushing Mordo, outwitting Nebulos and stymying The Tribunal’s ‘Three Faces of Doom!’ just in time save Earth.

As his reward he is despatched by the Grand Arbiter into a ‘Nightmare!’ pursuit of Victoria, arriving on a monster-ridden planet ruled by a techno-wizard named Yandroth, who declares himself to be the Scientist supreme of the universe…

The subject of a case of hate at first sight, Dr. Strange endures more gadget-laden peril in issue #165 as Yandroth inflicts testing to destruction on ‘The Mystic and the Machine’. Defeated by the hero’s courage and magic the bonkers boffin activates his doomsday scenario, stating ‘Nothing Can Halt… Voltorg!’ (Lawrence, George Tuska & Adkins) until science proves him wrong…

Big things were happening at Marvel in 1968. After years under a restrictive retail sales deal, The House of Ideas secured a new distributor and were finally expanding with a tidal wave of titles. “Split-Books” such as Strange Tales were phased out in favour of solo series for their cohabiting stars and, for the Master of the Mystic Arts at least, that meant a bit of rapid resetting…

O’Neil & Adkins teamed up in ST #167 for ‘This Dream… This Doom!’ in which Strange returns to Earth, indulges in a spot of handy resurrecting and proceeds to track down the still missing Victoria Bentley. This excursion takes the wizard of Greenwich Village deep into the realm of imagination where Yandroth is waiting for him…

The end comes suddenly in #168 as ‘Exile!’ apparently sees the end of the villain and a quick return to home in time for a bold new start…

That’s it for this exemplary exhibition of ethereal escapades – unless you include one last treat in the form of a stunning Ditko pin-up originally seen in Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics #10 (August 1967) – but there’s more magical marvels to come in your future…

Doctor Strange has always been the coolest of outsiders and most accessible fringe star of the Marvel firmament. This glorious grimoire is a miraculous means for old fans to enjoy his world once more and the perfect introduction for recent acolytes or converts created by the movie iteration.
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Iron Fist Marvel Masterworks volume 2


By Chris Claremont, John Byrne & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5955-1 (HB)

Comicbooks have always operated within the larger bounds of popular trends and fashions – just look at what got published whenever westerns or science fiction dominated on TV – so when the ancient philosophy and health-&-fitness discipline of Kung Fu made its unstoppable mark on domestic entertainment it wasn’t long before the Chop Sockey kicks and punches found their way onto the four-colour pages of America’s periodicals.

In 1974 Marvel’s second roll of the dice was a blending of Kung Fu tropes and fantasy settings with traditional masked crusader standards. Iron Fist combined Eastern combat philosophy with lost civilisations, magic powers and a proper superhero mask and costume…

The character owed a hefty debt to Bill Everett’s pioneering golden Age super-hero Amazing Man who graced various Centaur Comics publications between 1939 and 1942. The tribute was paid by Roy Thomas & Gil Kane who adopted and translated the fictive John Aman’s Tibetan origins into something that meshed better with the 1970’s twin zeitgeists of Supernatural Adventure and Martial Arts Mayhem…

This second power-packed collection (available as both sturdy hardback and bantamweight EBook) gathers Iron Fist #3-15 plus a wrap-up tale from Marvel Team-Up ##63-64, collectively ranging from February 1976 to December 1977.

What Has Gone Before: A little more than years previously little Daniel Rand had watched helplessly as his father and mother died at the hands of family friend Harold Meachum whilst the party risked deadly Himalayan snows to find the legendary lost city of K’un Lun.

The boy had travelled with his wealthy parents and their business partner Meachum in search of the fabled city which only appears on Earth for one day every ten years. Wendell Rand had some unsuspected connection to the fabled Shangri La, but was killed before they find it, and Danny’s mother sacrificed herself to save her child from wolves… and their murderous pursuer.

As he wandered alone in the wilderness, the city came to Danny and he spent the next decade training: mastering all forms of martial arts in the militaristic, oriental, feudal paradise. He endured arcane ordeals, living only for the day he could return to Earth and avenge his parents.

After conquering all comers and refusing peace, a home and immortality, Iron Fist touched Earth once more: a Living Weapon able to turn his force of will into a devastating super-punch. As he left K’un Lun, supreme ruler of the city Yü-Ti, the August Personage in Jade, had revealed that murdered Wendell Rand had been his own brother……

After a relentless campaign against Meachum and his heirs, he eventually rejected vengeance but was nevertheless embroiled in cosmic schemes as enemies of city sought him out as a means of accessing the wandering paradise. He had made friends though: adopted by the enigmatic warrior Colleen Wing and her father, an aging professor of Oriental Studies who has fallen foul of a Death Cult. More importantly, he also grew close to her associate Misty Knight: a former cop with a bionic arm.

His greatest nemesis was now sublime wizard Master Khan, who had once attempted to conquer K’un Lun, only to be imprisoned within a crumbling book for his pains, but in the shadows a mysterious stalker dubbed Steel Serpent was getting ever closer to the K’un Lun Kid…

Over the years the prisoner had discovered a temporary escape and subsequently manipulated the Wings and Iron Fist to secure a permanent release and the doom of his jailers.

Another recent cast addition was Princess Azir of Halwan. Master Khan was also apparently intent on killing her and seizing her country…

After Colleen was abducted and her father pushed to the edge of insanity by mind-bending terrorist Angar the Screamer, they were renditioned to Halwan, leaving Danny and Misty to a resolute pursuit…

Following Bruce Canwell’s Introduction on the dream team of Chris Claremont & John Byrne, the action resumes with ‘The City’s Not for Burning!’ (inked by Frank Chiaramonte) with Master Khan attempting to break Colleen in Halwan and the determinedly Danny and Misty frantically giving chase.

They are forced to interrupt their chase with an enforced stopover in England after nuclear-powered maniac The Ravager slaughters innocents and blows up London Heathrow Airport. After defeating Danny on the runway, the monster tops that feat of terrorism by attacking the Post Office Tower (we rebuilt it as the BT Tower, so don’t panic).

With Iron Fist punching way above his weight it inevitably it ends in ‘Holocaust!’ as Ravager is unmasked as old villain Radion the Atomic Man.

He fatally irradiates Danny before the wounded warrior fortuitously discovers the miraculous cleansing and curative power of the Iron Fist and storms to his greatest triumph yet…

With Misty still recuperating in a London hospital, Danny gets involved with a guilt-ridden IRA bomber named Alan Cavenaugh before tackling another of Khan’s assassins in ‘When Slays the Scimitar!’

Danny and Misty finally infiltrate Halwan in #6, courtesy of crusading lawyer Jeryn Hogarth who also promises to secure Danny’s illegally-withheld inheritance and interests from the Rand-Meachum Corporation.

The Pride of K’un Lun doesn’t much care since the successfully brainwashed Colleen has been unleashed by Khan, determined to kill her rescuers in ‘Death Match!’

None of the earthly participants are aware that, from a hidden dimension, Yü-Ti is observing the proceedings with cold calculation…

By using his mystic Iron Fist to psychically link with Colleen, Danny breaks Khan’s conditioning. Thus, at last, the malignant mage personally enters the fray in #7’s ‘Iron Fist Must Die!’: a blistering battle which breaches the dimensions and exposes the August Personage in Jade’s long-concealed involvement in Wendell Rand’s death.

Given the choice between abandoning his friends on Earth or returning to K’un Lun for answers and justice, the Living Weapon made a true hero’s choice…

A new direction for Iron Fist came with #8 as Danny returns to New York and attempts to pick up the pieces of a life interrupted for more than a decade.

Unaware that Steel Serpent now works for new CEO Joy Meachum, Danny joins the company as an executive, until merciless mob boss Chaka and his Chinatown gangs attack the business ‘Like Tigers in the Night!’ (inked by Dan Adkins). When Iron Fist responds in savage retaliation he is fatally poisoned.

Sportingly offered an antidote if he survives a gauntlet of Chaka’s warriors, Danny triumphs in his own manner when ‘The Dragon Dies at Dawn!’ (Chiaramonte inks). However, when a hidden killer bludgeons Chaka, Danny is once again a fugitive from the cops and dubbed the ‘Kung Fu Killer!’ (Adkins) until he, Colleen and Misty expose the entire plot as a fabrication of the gang lord.

In #11 ‘A Fine Day’s Dawn!’ the Living Weapon squares off against the Asgardian-empowered Wrecking Crew and, with Misty a hostage, is compelled to fight Captain America in #12’s ‘Assault on Avengers’ Mansion!’

Eventually, though, the Pride of K’un Lun and the Sentinel of Liberty unite to turn the tables on the grotesque god-powered gangsters…

In all this intervening time Cavenaugh has arrived in New York, but has not escaped the reach of his former Republican comrades. They hire hitman Boomerang to kill the defector and ‘Target: Iron Fist!’, but with little success, whereas the villain introduced in issue #14 comes a lot closer: even eventually eclipsing Iron Fist in popularity…

‘Snowfire’ – inked by Dan Green – finds Danny and Colleen running for their lives in arctic conditions when a retreat at Hogarth’s palatial Canadian Rockies estate is invaded by deadly mercenary Sabre-tooth. It just wasn’t their week as, only days before, a mystery assailant had ambushed Iron Fist and impossibly drained off a significant portion of the lad’s Shou-Lao fuelled life-force…

Despite being rendered temporarily blind, the K’un Lun Kid ultimately defeats his ferocious foe, but the fiercely feral mutant would return again and again…

With Claremont & Byrne increasingly absorbed by their stellar collaboration on the revived and resurgent adventures of Marvel’s mutant horde, Iron Fist #15 (September 1977) was their last Martial Arts mash-up for a while. The series ended in spectacular fashion as – through a comedy of errors – Danny stumbles into blazing battle against Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Banshee, Storm and Phoenix in cataclysmic clash ‘Enter, the X-Men’.

The cancellation was clearly unplanned as two major subplots went unresolved: Misty had disappeared on an undercover assignment to investigate enigmatic European gang-boss John Bushmaster and Danny again had his chi siphoned off by Steel Serpent…

Fans didn’t have to wait long: Claremont & Byrne had already begun their magical stint on Marvel Team-Up: turning the Spider-Man vehicle into their own personal clearing house for unresolved plot-lines.

MTU #63-64 (November & December 1977 and inked by Dave Hunt) at last revealed the secret of K’un Lun exile Davos in ‘Night of the Dragon’ as Steel Serpent sucked the power of the Iron Fist from Danny, leaving him near death. Risking all she had gained, Misty broke cover and rushed to his aid…

With the wallcrawler and Colleen (the warrior women using the team name “Daughters of the Dragon”) to bolster him, Iron Fist defeats Davos and reclaims his heritage in ‘If Death be my Destiny…’ before shuffling off into a quiet retirement and anonymity.

…But not for long – and certainly the subject of further mammoth full-colour collections to come…

The Iron Fist saga ranks amongst the most exciting and enjoyable Costumed Dramas of Marvel’s second generation. If you want a good, clean fight comic this is probably one of your better bets, especially if you’re a fan of original artwork as this titanic tome closes with a fabulous selection, shot from Byrne’s pages and inked by Adkins, Green and Hunt…
© 1976, 1977, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 3


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1182-5 (HB)                    978-0-7851-4296-6 (TPB)

Fantastic Four #1 is the third most important American comicbook in the industry’s astounding history. Just ahead of it are The Brave and the Bold #28, which brought superhero teams back via the creation of the Justice League of America. At the top is Showcase #4, which introduced the Flash and therefore the Silver Age. Feel free to disagree…

After a troubled period at DC Comics – National Periodicals as it then was – and a creatively productive but disheartening time on the poisoned chalice of the Sky Masters newspaper strip (see Complete Sky Masters of the Space Force) Jack Kirby settled into his job at the small outfit that used to be the publishing powerhouse Timely/Atlas.

He churned out mystery, monster, romance and western material in a market he suspected to be ultimately doomed, but as always, did the best job possible. That quirky genre fare is now considered some of the best of its kind ever seen.

However, his fertile imagination couldn’t be suppressed for long and when the JLA caught the readerships attention it gave him and writer/editor Stan Lee an opportunity to change the industry forever.

Depending upon who you believe, a golfing afternoon led publisher/owner Martin Goodman ordering his nephew Stan to try a series about a group of super-characters like the one DC was doing. The resulting team quickly took fans by storm. It wasn’t the powers: they’d all been seen since the beginning of the medium. It wasn’t the costumes: they didn’t have any until the third issue.

It was Kirby’s compelling art and the fact that these characters weren’t anodyne cardboard cut-outs. In a real and a recognizable location – New York City – imperfect, raw-nerved, touchy people banded together out of tragedy, disaster and necessity to face the incredible.

In many ways, The Challengers of the Unknown (Kirby’s prototype partners-in-peril at National/DC) laid all the groundwork for the wonders to come, but the staid, almost hide-bound editorial strictures of National would never have allowed the undiluted energy of the concept to run all-but-unregulated.

Fantastic Four #1 (bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, by Lee, Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) is crude: rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it.

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

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible, Johnny Storm could turn into living flame and poor, tragic Ben devolved into a shambling, rocky freak. Despite these terrifying transformations, before long the quartet had become the darlings of the modern age: celebrity stalwarts alternately saving the world and publicly squabbling shamefully…

This full-colour hardcover or paperback compendium (also available in various digital formats) collects Fantastic Four #21-30 – spanning December 1963 to September 1964.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos was another solid Marvel hit. Eventually its brusque and brutal star would metamorphose into the company’s answer to James Bond. Here, however, he’s a simple CIA agent seeking the team’s aid against a sinister demagogue called ‘The Hate-Monger’ in a cracking yarn with a strong message, inked by comics veteran George Roussos, under the protective nom-de-plume George Bell.

By this juncture the FF were firmly established and creators Lee & Kirby were well on the way to toppling DC/National Comics from their decades-held top spot through an engaging blend of brash, folksy and consciously contemporaneous sagas, mixing high concept, broad comedy, trenchant melodrama and breathtaking action.

Unseen since the premiere issue, #22 finally featured ‘The Return of the Mole Man!’; another full-on monster-mashing fight-fest, chiefly notable for the debut of the Invisible Girl’s newly developed powers of projecting force fields and “invisible energy”.

After an incredibly long period these would eventually make her one of the mightiest characters in the company’s pantheon…

Fantastic Four #23 heralded ‘The Master Plan of Doctor Doom!’, and introduced his frankly mediocre minions the Terrible Trio of Bull Brogin, Handsome Harry and Yogi Dakor. Even after thy were boosted by Doom’s science the goons were sub-par but the uncanny menace of “the Solar Wave” was enough to raise the hackles on my 5-year-old neck… and still does…

(Do I need to qualify that with: all of me was five but only my precious neck had developed hackles worth boasting of back then?)

Issue #24’s ‘The Infant Terrible!’ was a sterling yarn of inadvertent extra-galactic menace and misplaced innocence, as New York is besieged by a lost and wilful alien child with the power to reshape reality.

It’s followed by a two-part epic that truly defined the inherent difference between Lee & Kirby’s work and everybody else’s at that time.

Fantastic Four #25 and 26 featured a cataclysmic clash that had young heads spinning in 1964 and led directly to the Emerald Behemoth finally regaining a strip of his own. In ‘The Hulk Vs The Thing’ and concluding clash ‘The Avengers Take Over!’, a fast-paced, all-out Battle Royale resulted when the gargantuan green man-monster came to New York in search of side-kick Rick Jones, and only an injury-wracked FF stood in the way of his destructive rampage.

Highlighting a definitive moment in the character development of The Thing, the action is ramped up when a rather stiff-necked and officious, newly-constituted Avengers team horn in, claiming jurisdictional rights on “Bob” Banner (this tale is plagued with pesky continuity errors which would haunt Stan Lee for decades) and his Jaded alter ego.

Notwithstanding the bloopers, this is one of Marvel’s key moments and still a visceral, vital read.

The creators had hit on a winning formula by including their other stars in guest-shots – especially as readers could never anticipate if they would fight with or beside the home team.

‘The Search for Sub-Mariner!’ again sees the undersea anti-hero in amorous mood, and when he abducts Sue the boys called in Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts to aid them… Issue #28 is a superb team-up tale too, most notable (for me and many other older fans) for the man who replaced George Roussos.

‘We Have to Fight the X-Men!’ has the disparate teams clashing due to the machinations of Puppet Master and the Mad Thinker, but the inclusion of Chic Stone – Kirby’s most simpatico and expressive inker – elevated the art to indescribable levels of slick, seductive quality.

‘It Started on Yancy Street!’ (FF#29) begins in a low-key manner with plenty of silly basic comedy on show as the team investigate a crime wave in the slum where Ben Grimm grew up. After dodging cabbages and garbage, things get serious with the reappearance of the Red Ghost and his Super-Apes before the action quickly goes full-on Cosmic…

Abducted into space, the heroes enjoy blockbusting battle on the Moon and another dauntingly close encounter with the omnipotent Watcher

The following issue introduced evil alchemist ‘The Dreaded Diablo!’ who almost breaks up the team while casually conquering the world from his spooky Transylvanian castle. His divide and conquer strategy involved almost curing The Thing of his monstrous deformity, but alchemy, unlike friendship, proves to be fleeting and untrustworthy…

This is a truly magnificent book to read, highlighting the tales that built a comics empire. It’s actually so well-crafted that it could easily work as anybody’s introduction to the most famous family in comicbooks.

The verve, imagination and sheer enthusiasm shines through and the wonder is there for you to share. If you’ve never thrilled to these spectacular sagas then this book of marvels is your best and most economical key to another world and time.
© 1963, 1964, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.