Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0785137108 (TPB 2009)              978-0785191292 (HB 2015)

I’m partial to a bit of controversy so I’m going start off by saying that Fantastic Four #1 is the third most important American comicbook of the last 75 years. 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 and at the top 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 readership’s 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.

This full-colour compendium (available in hardback, trade paperback and digital formats) collects the first 10 issues of progressive landmarks – spanning November 1961 to January 1963 – and opens with ‘The Fantastic Four’ exactly as seen in that groundbreaking premier issue.

It sees maverick scientist Reed Richards summon his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother before heading off on their first mission. They are all survivors of a private space-shot that went horribly wrong when Cosmic rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible, Johnny Storm could turn into living flame and tragic Ben was a hideous freak trapped in a shambling, rocky body.

In ‘The Fantastic Four meet the Mole Man’ they promptly foil a plan by another outcast who controls monsters and enslaves humanoids from far beneath the Earth.

This summation of the admittedly mediocre plot cannot do justice to the engrossing wonder of that breakthrough issue – we really have no awareness today of how different in tone, how shocking it all was.

“Different” doesn’t mean “better” even here, but the FF was like no other comic on the market at the time and buyers responded to it hungrily. The brash experiment continued with another old plot in #2. ‘The Skrulls from Outer Space’ were shape-changing aliens who framed the FF in the eyes of shocked humanity before the genius of Mister Fantastic bluffed them into abandoning their plans for conquering Earth. The issue concluded with a monstrous pin-up of the Thing, proudly touted as the first in a series…

Sure enough, there was a pin-up of the Human Torch in #3, which headlined ‘The Menace of the Miracle Man’ (inked by Sol Brodsky), whose omnipotent powers had a simple secret, but is more notable for the first appearance of their uniforms, and a shocking line-up change, leading directly into the next issue (continued stories were an innovation in themselves) which revived a golden-age great.

‘The Coming of the Sub-Mariner’ reintroduced the all-powerful amphibian Prince of Atlantis, a star of Timely’s Golden Age but one who had been lost for years.

A victim of amnesia, the relic recovers his memory thanks to some rather brusque treatment by the delinquent Torch. Namor then returns to his sub-sea home only to find it destroyed by atomic testing. A monarch without subjects, he swears vengeance on humanity and attacks New York City with a gigantic monster. This saga is when the series truly kicked into high-gear and Reed was the star of the pin-up section…

Until now the creative team – who had been in the business since it began – had been hedging their bets. Despite the innovations of a contemporary superhero experiment their antagonists had relied heavily on the trappings of popular trends in the media – and as reflected in their other titles.

Aliens and especially monsters played a major part in the earlier tales but Fantastic Four #5 took a full-bite out of the Fights n’ Tights apple by introducing the first full-blown super-villain to the budding Marvel Universe.

No, I haven’t forgotten Mole Man: but that tragic little gargoyle, for all his plans of world conquest, wouldn’t truly acquire the persona of a costumed foe until his more refined second appearance in #22.

‘Prisoners of Doctor Doom’ (July 1962, and inked by the subtly slick Joe Sinnott) has it all. An attack by a mysterious enemy from Reed’s past; magic and super-science, lost treasure, time-travel, even pirates. Ha-Haar, me ‘earties!

Sheer magic! And the creators knew they were on to a winner since the deadly Doctor returned the very next issue, teaming with a reluctant Sub-Mariner to attack our heroes as ‘The Deadly Duo!’ (inked by new regular embellisher Dick Ayers).

Alien kidnappers were the motivating force behind another FF frame-up, resulting in the team becoming ‘Prisoners of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X’; a dark, grandiose, cosmic-scaled off-world thriller in #7 (the first monthly issue), whilst a new returning villain and the introduction of a love-interest for the monstrous Thing were the breakthrough high-points in #8’s ‘Prisoners of the Puppet Master!’

The saga was topped off with a Fantastic Four Feature Page explaining how the Torch’s powers work. The next issue offered another, detailing with endearing mock-science ‘How the Human Torch Flies!’

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

1963 was a pivotal year in the development of Marvel. Lee & Kirby had proved that their new high concept – human heroes with flaws and tempers – had a willing audience. Now they would extend that concept to a new pantheon of heroes. Here is where the second innovation would come to the fore.

Previously, super-heroes were sufficient unto themselves and shared adventures were rare. Here, however, was a universe where characters often tripped over each other, sometimes even fighting each other’s enemies! The creators themselves might turn even up in a Marvel Comic!

Fantastic Four #10 featured ‘The Return of Doctor Doom!’ wherein the arch-villain used Stan & Jack to lure the Richards into a trap where his mind is switched with the bad Doctor’s. The tale was supplemented by a pin-up – at long-last – of ‘Sue Storm, the Glamorous Invisible Girl’

Although possibly – just, perhaps – a little dated in tone, these are still undeniable classics of comic storytelling illustrated by one of the world’s greatest talents approaching his mature peak. They are fast, frantic fun and a joy to read or re-read. This comprehensive, joyous introduction (or reintroduction) to these characters is a wonderful reminder of just how good comic books can and should be.
© 1961, 1962, 1963, 2009, 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Mighty Thor Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, Robert Bernstein, Joe Sinnott, Al Hartley, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1267-9 (HB)                    : 978-0-7851-4568-4 (TPB)

The Mighty Thor was the comic series in which Jack Kirby’s restless fascination with all things Cosmic was honed and refined through his dazzling graphics and captivating concepts. The King’s examination of space-age mythology began in a modest little fantasy/monster title called Journey into Mystery where – in the summer of 1962 – a tried-and-true comicbook concept (feeble mortal transformed into god-like hero) was revived by the fledgling Marvel Comics to add a Superman analogue to their growing roster of costumed adventurers.

This spectacular tome – in hard cover, trade paperback and eFormats – re-presents those pioneering Asgardian exploits from JiM #83-100, spanning August 1962 to January 1964 in a blur of innovation and seat-of-the-pants legend-revising and universe-building…

Following a typically frothy Introduction from Stan Lee, the wonderment begins with the lead tale from anthological Journey into Mystery #83, which saw a bold costumed warrior jostling aside the regular fare of monsters, aliens and sinister scientists in a brash, vivid explosion of verve and vigour.

The initial exploit followed crippled American doctor Donald Blake who takes a vacation in Norway only to encounter the vanguard of an alien invasion. Fleeing, he is trapped in a cave where he finds an old, gnarled walking stick. When in his frustration he smashes the stick into a huge boulder obstructing his escape, his puny frame is transformed into the Norse God of Thunder Mighty Thor!

Plotted by Lee, scripted by his brother Larry Lieber and illustrated by Kirby and inker Joe Sinnott (at this juncture a full illustrator, Sinnott would become Kirby’s primary inker for most of his Marvel career), ‘The Stone Men of Saturn’ is pure early Marvel: bombastic, fast-paced, gloriously illogical and captivatingly action-packed. The hugely under-appreciated Art Simek was the letterer and logo designer.

It was clear that they whey were making it up as they went along – not in itself a bad thing – and all that infectious enthusiasm shows in the next adventure…

‘The Mighty Thor Vs. the Executioner’ is a “commie-busting” tale of its time with a thinly disguised Fidel Castro wasting his formidable armies in battle against our hero. Dr. Blake’s nurse Jane Foster debuts; a bland cipher adored from afar by the Norse superman’s timid alter-ego.

The creative team settled as Dick Ayers replaced Sinnott, and with #85’s ‘Trapped by Loki, God of Mischief!’ the final element fell into place with the “return” of a suitably awesome arch-foe; in this case the hero’s half-brother. The evil magician and compulsive trickster escaped divine incarceration and his first thought was to bedevil Thor by causing terror and chaos on the world of mortals he was so devoted to…

Here a new and greater universe was first revealed with the tantalising hints and glimpses of the celestial otherworld and more Nordic gods…

Issue #86 introduced another recurring villain. Zarrko, bristling at the sedentary ease of 23rd century life, voyages back to 1962 and steals an experimental “C-Bomb”, forcing the Thunderer into a stirring hunt through time and inevitable clash with super-technology ‘On the Trail of the Tomorrow Man!’

On his return Blake became a target of Soviet abductors. Those sneaky spies even managed to make Thor a ‘Prisoner of the Reds!’ before our epic warrior eventually emerges unscathed and triumphant…

‘The Vengeance of Loki’ sees the god of Mischief’s return in #88: a malevolent miscreant uncovering Thor’s secret identity and naturally menacing Jane Foster after which ‘The Thunder God and the Thug’ offers adventure on a much more human scale as a gang boss runs riot over the city and roughshod over a good woman’s heart, giving the Asgardian a chance to demonstrate his more sophisticated and sympathetic side by crushing Thug Thatcher and freeing her from his brutal influence.

Issue #90 was an unsettling surprise as the grandeur of Kirby & Ayers was abruptly replaced by the charming yet angst-free art of Al Hartley, who illustrated Lee & Lieber’s stock alien-invasion yarn ‘Trapped by the Carbon-Copy Man!’ A month later the Storm Lord tackles ‘Sandu, Master of the Supernatural!’, with Sinnott handling pencils and inks in a thriller starring a carnival mentalist who – augmented by Loki’s magic – comes catastrophically close to killing our hero…

Sinnott illustrated JiM #92’s ‘The Day Loki Stole Thor’s Magic Hammer’ (scripted by Robert Bernstein over Lee’s plot) which moves the action fully to the mythical realm of Asgard for the first time as Thor seeks to recover his stolen weapon after Loki enchants the magnificent mallet.

Kirby & Ayers momentarily returned for Cold War/Atom Age thriller ‘The Mysterious Radio-Active Man!’ – again scripted by Bernstein – as Mao Tse Tung unleashes an atomic assassin in retaliation for Thor thwarting China’s invasion of India.

Such “Red-baiting” was common in early Marvel titles, but their inherent jingoistic silliness can’t mar the eerie beauty of the artwork. With this tale the rangy, raw-boned Thunder God completed his slow metamorphosis into the husky, burly blonde bruiser who dominated any panel he was drawn in.

Sinnott illustrated the next three somewhat pedestrian adventures, ‘Thor and Loki Attack the Human Race!’, ‘The Demon Duplicator’ and ‘The Magic of Mad Merlin!’, but these mediocre tales of magic-induced amnesia, scientifically-manufactured evil doppelgangers and an ancient mutant menace were the last of an old style of comics. Lee took over full scripting with Journey into Mystery #97 and a torrent of awesome action wedded to soap opera melodrama resulted in a fresh style for a developing readership.

‘The Lava Man’ in #97 was again drawn by Kirby, with the subtly-textured inking of Don Heck adding depth to the tale of an invader summoned from the subterranean realms to menace humanity at the behest of Loki. More significantly, a long running rift between Thor and his stern father Odin is established after the Lord of Asgard refuses to allow his son to love the mortal Jane.

This acrimonious triangle was a perennial sub-plot fuelling many attempts to humanise Thor, because already he was a hero too powerful for most villains to cope with. Most importantly this issue was notable for the launch of a spectacular back-up series. Tales of Asgard – Home of the mighty Norse Gods gave Kirby a vehicle to indulge his fascination with legends.

Initially adapting classic fables of the Elder Eddas but eventually with all-new material particular to the Marvel pantheon, he built his own cosmos and mythology, to underpin the company’s entire continuity. This first yarn, scripted by Lee and inked by George Bell (AKA old Golden Age collaborator George Roussos), outlined the origin of the world and the creation of the World Tree Yggdrasil.

‘Challenged by the Human Cobra’ introduced the serpentine villain (bitten by a radioactive cobra, would you believe?) in a tale by Lee & Heck, whilst Kirby – with them in attendance – offered ‘Odin Battles Ymir, King of the Ice Giants!’: a short, potent fantasy romp laying more groundwork for decades of cosmic wonderment to come.

The same format held for issues #99 and #100 with the main story (the first 2-part adventure in the run) introducing the ‘Mysterious Mister Hyde’ – and concluding a month later with ‘The Master Plan of Mr. Hyde!’

The modern yarn dealt with a contemporary chemist who could transform into a super-strong villain at will who frames Thor for his crimes, whilst in primordial prehistory Kirby detailed Odin’s war with ‘Surtur the Fire Demon’ and latterly (with Vince Colletta inking) crafted an exploit of the All-Father’s so different sons in ‘The Storm Giants – a tale of the Boyhood of Thor’. As always, Lee scripted these increasingly influential comicbook histories…

These early tales of the God of Thunder reveal the development not only of one of Marvel’s core narrative concepts but, more importantly, the creative evolution of perhaps the greatest imagination in comics. Set your common sense on pause and simply wallow in the glorious imagery and power of these classic adventures for the true secret of what makes comicbook superheroes such a unique experience.
© 1962, 1963, 1964, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 12

By Stan Lee, Archie Goodwin, Roy Thomas, John Buscema, Joe Sinnott & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4218-8 (HB)

Monolithic modern Marvel truly began with the adventures of a small super-team who were as much squabbling family as coolly capable costumed champions. Everything the company produces now is due to the quirky quartet and the groundbreaking, inspired efforts of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby…

This full-colour compendium – available in hardcover and digital editions – collects Fantastic Four #117-128: spanning December 1971 to November 1972 with Stan Lee surrendering the scripting chores whilst John Buscema and Joe Sinnott did their utmost to remake Jack Kirby’s stellar creation in their own style and image and outdoing themselves with every successive issue…

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

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

Following an effusive Preface from Lee and a candid, context-creating and fact-filled Introduction by Roy Thomas, the drama opens with the team in turmoil as usual. After saving the world (from the Over-mind) the heartsick Human Torch headed for the Himalayas and a long-delayed rapprochement with his lost girlfriend Crystal of the Uncanny Inhumans in FF #117.

Months previously she had been forced to leave civilisation because modern pollutants had poisoned her system, but when blazing mad Johnny Storm battled his way into her homeland in ‘The Flame and the Quest!’ (written by Archie Goodwin) he is horrified to discover that she had never arrived back in the Great Refuge of Attilan

Flying way back to New York, Johnny consults part-time nanny and career-sorceress Agatha Harkness who tracks Crystal down in Central American dictatorship Terra Verde. Arriving there exhausted and expectant, Johnny finds his love is the mesmerised slave of arcane alchemist Diabolo.

The mystic has convinced the populace – and Crystal – that she is a reborn goddess and needs her to seize control in ‘Thunder in the Ruins!’ (inked by Jim Mooney). He would have succeeded too, if not for that flaming kid…

The issue also included an intriguing short piece starring the Thing in ‘What Mad World?’ (Goodwin, Buscema & Mooney) wherein the Tragic Titan is afforded a glimpse of an alternate Earth where an even greater mishap occurred after the fateful spaceflight which created the FF…

The Black Panther – cautiously renamed Black Leopard for contemporary political reasons – guest-starred in #119’s ‘Three Stood Together!’ as inker Sinnott returned and Roy Thomas scripted a damning – if shaded – indictment of South African apartheid.

When the heroic ruler of jungle wonderland Wakanda is interned in the white-ruled state of Rudyarda, Ben and Johnny fly in to bust him out and clash with old enemy Klaw who is attempting to steal a deadly new super-weapon…

Fantastic Four #120 heralded an extended and overlong epic by Stan Lee which began with ‘The Horror that Walks on Air!’ as a seemingly omnipotent invader claiming to be an angel scours the Earth and declares humanity doomed.

The tale laboriously continues in ‘The Mysterious Mind-Blowing Secret of Gabriel!’ with the recently reunited and utterly overmatched quartet saved by the late-arriving Silver Surfer before facing off against world-devouring ‘Galactus Unleashed’, before Reed again outsmarts the cosmic god to prevent the consumption of ‘This World Enslaved!’

Although beautifully illustrated, the hackneyed saga was a series low-point, but Lee was back on solid dramatic ground with #124’s ‘The Return of the Monster’ and concluding episode ‘The Monster’s Secret!’ wherein the mystery menace Reed had once dubbed ‘the Monster from the Lost Lagoon’ resurfaces to haunt a Manhattan hospital, steal drugs and kidnap Sue… but only for the best and most noble of reasons…

Roy Thomas assumed the role of writer/editor with #126, revisiting the classic origin and first clash (from FF #1) with the Mole Man in ‘The Way it Began!’ this was all mere prelude for what was to follow…

The reverie prompts the Thing to invade the sub-surface despot’s realm in search of a cure for the blindness which afflicts his girlfriend Alicia Masters in ‘Where the Sun Dares Not Shine!’ and all-too soon the embattled brute is embroiled in a three-way war between Mole Man, Kala, Empress of the Netherworld and immortal dictator Tyrannus.

When his comrades go after Ben they are duped into attacking him in ‘Death in a Dark and Lonely Place!’

The narrative concluded for the moment, there follow four pages of pin-ups by Buscema & Sinnott highlighting ‘The Fabulous F.F.’s Friends… and Foes’, plus the Kirby & Vince Colletta cover to 1971’s all-reprint Fantastic Four Annual #9 to wrap up this morsel of Marvel magic.

Although Kirby had taken the explosive imagination and questing sense of wonder with him on his departure, the sheer range of beloved characters and concepts he had created with Lee served to carry the series for years afterwards. These admittedly erratic and inconsistent stories kept the team book ticking over until bolder hands could once again take the World’s Greatest Comics Magazine Heroes back to the stratospheric heights where they belonged.

Solid, honest and creditable efforts, these tales are probably best appreciated by dedicated superhero fans and continuity freaks like me, but they can still thrill and enthral the generous and forgiving casual browser looking for an undemanding slice of graphic narrative excitement.
© 1971, 1972, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved

Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 6

By Stan Lee, Gary Friedrich, Gene Colan, John Romita, Gray Morrow, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5875-2 (HB)

Created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby in an era of frantic patriotic fervour, Captain America was a dynamic and highly visible response to the horrors of Nazism and the threat of Liberty’s loss.

He faded away during the post-war reconstruction but briefly reappeared after the Korean War: a harder, darker sentinel ferreting out monsters, subversives and the “commies” who lurked under every brave American kid’s bed. Then he vanished once more until the burgeoning Marvel Age resurrected him just in time for the turbulent, culturally divisive 1960s.

By the time of the tales gathered in this sixth Masterworks volume (available in luxurious hardback and accessible eBook formats) – comprising issues #137-148 of his monthly comicbook from May 1971 to April 1972 – the Star-Spangled Avenger had become an uncomfortable symbol of a troubled, divided society, split along age lines and with many of the hero’s fans apparently rooting for the wrong side.

Now into that turbulent mix crept issues of racial and gender inequality…

Following a fond and forthright reminiscence from illustrator John Romita in his Introduction, the action opens here with the Star-Spangled Avenger, still notionally working with – if not for – super-scientific government spy-agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (which back then stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division), returning to Earth after a blistering battle against the malign Mole Man. With him was his now full-time, fully-fledged partner the Falcon.

As scripted by Stan Lee and illustrated by Gene Colan & Bill Everett, the neophyte hero, seeking to impress his mentor, opts ‘To Stalk the Spider-Man’. This typical all-action Marvel misunderstanding led to plenty of unnecessary fighting until forestalled as mob boss Stone-Face returns to settle old scores in #138’s ‘It Happens in Harlem!’

John Romita the elder returned to the art chores to depict Spider-Man and Cap rescuing the Falcon and ending the gangster’s dream of monetising New York’s racial unrest before the Good Captain is whisked away for a top-secret mission heralding the beginning of a lengthy and direction-changing saga…

For years Captain America had been the only expression of Steve Rogers’ life, but with the next issue the man went undercover as a police officer to solve a series of disappearances and subsequently regained a personal life which would have long-term repercussions.

Once Spidey, Falcon and Cap trounced Stone-Face, the Red, White and Blue is subsumed by plain Rookie Blues in ‘The Badge and the Betrayal!’ and Steve finds himself on a Manhattan beat as the latest raw recruit to be bawled out by veteran cop Sergeant Muldoon

Meanwhile, as police officers continue to disappear in increasing numbers and Rogers is getting into more fights on the beat than in costume, social worker Sam (Falcon) Wilson is challenged by seductive black activist Leila Taylor and undergoes a far from voluntary and unwanted audition for S.H.I.E.L.D. …

Issue #140 reveals the plot’s perpetrator as ‘In the Grip of Gargoyle!’ takes events in a frankly bizarre direction, with moody urban mystery inexplicably becoming super-spy fantasy as the villainous Grey Gargoyle steals a mega-explosive from S.H.I.E.L.D. and turns the Falcon into his petrified minion.

With Joe Sinnott inking, Lee & Romita deliver ‘The Unholy Alliance!’ as the stony duo attack a secret base stockpiling ultimate explosive Element X, with Cap, renewed love interest Sharon Carter and Nick Fury attempting to save the world and the Falcon from the Gargoyle…

Spectacular but painfully confusing until now, the epic was dumped on new writer Gary Friedrich to wrap up with ‘And in the End…’ (Captain America and the Falcon #142) wherein the resurgent heroes race a countdown clock of doom to save the day…

All this time Sam had been trying to get friendly with “Black Power” activist Leila and, with the sci fi shenanigans over, a long-running subplot concerning racial tensions in Harlem boiled over…

‘Power to the People’ and ‘Burn, Whitey, Burn!’ (both from giant-sized #143 with Romita inking his own pencils) sees the riots finally erupt with Cap and Falcon caught in the middle, before copping out with the final chapter by taking a painfully parochial and patronising stance and revealing that the seething unrest amongst the ghetto underclass has been instigated by a rabble-rousing fascist super-villain in ‘Red Skull in the Morning… Cap Take Warning!’

Nevertheless, Friedrich made some telling and relevant points – and continued to do so in CA&F #144’s first story ‘Hydra Over All!’ (illustrated by Romita) with the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s all-woman attack squad Femme Force One (stop squirming – at least they were trying to be egalitarian and inclusive…). To facilitate their efficacy they were assigned to train with the Sentinel of Liberty himself…

The issue also offered a solo back-up tale ‘The Falcon Fights Alone!’ (by Friedrich and drawn by the great Gray Morrow) wherein the street vigilante designs a new uniform and rededicates himself to tackling the real problems on his turf: drug-dealers, thieves, racketeers and thugs endangering the weakest, poorest members of society…

Captain America and the Falcon #145 expanded the Hydra storyline with ‘Skyjacked’ (stunningly illustrated by Gil Kane & Romita) as the hooded terrorists kidnap Cap’s new team in mid-air…

Sal Buscema began his long tenure on the series with ‘Mission: Destroy the Femme Force!’ and ‘Holocaust in the Halls of Hydra!’ (#146 and inked by John Verpoorten) wherein devious dealings in the halls of power are uncovered before Falcon races to the rescue of the severely embattled and outgunned heroes, culminating in the unmasking of the hidden operator behind the villainous throne in #147’s ‘And Behind the Hordes of Hydra…’: a staggering battle royale in Las Vegas with a hierarchy of old villains exposed, wherein the ultimate power behind the power reveals himself in Friedrich’s swansong ‘The Big Sleep!’

Rounding out the riotous adventure, bonus extras include the cover to the all-reprint Captain America Annual #2, assorted house ads and a rare Romita colour rough for Captain America #139…

Any retrospective or historical re-reading is going to turn up a few cringe-worthy moments, but these tales of matchless courage and indomitable heroism are always fast-paced, action-packed and illustrated by some of the greatest artists and storytellers American comics has ever produced.

As the nation changed Captain America was finally discovering his proper place in a new era and would once more become unmissable, controversial comicbook reading, as we shall see when I get around to reviewing the next volume…
© 1971, 1972, 2012, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Golden Age U.S.A. Comics Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Phil Sturm, Stan Lee, Pierce Rice, Al Avison, Al Gabriele, Basil Wolverton, Syd Shores, George Klein, Charles Nicholas, Howard Purcell, Arthur & Louis Cazeneuve, Arthur Cazeneuve, Mike Suchorsky, Ed Winiarski, Frank Giacoia, Carmine Infantino & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2478-8

DC was quick off the mark in transferring their Golden Age canon into luxurious archive formats, whereas it took their greatest rival quite a while to commit its earliest output to paper (and latterly digital formats). One reason for that might be the unsavoury fact that a great deal of Marvel Comics’ Timely and Atlas output is both dated and frequently painfully strident, and even histrionically offensive, to modern eyes and sensibilities.

Even so, I’d rather have the raw historical form rather than any bowdlerised or censored reworking and even in their most jingoistic and populist excesses there are usually individual nuggets of gold amidst the shocking or – horror of horrors! – poorly crafted yarns from the House of Ideas’ antediluvian antecedents.

Marvel have thankfully caught up now with most of their pre-1960’s output, and there’s quite a lot to be said for putting the material in sturdy archival hardbound volumes for those early comic adventures. I must admit that when they were good the individual efforts could be very good indeed…

The quarterly USA Comics launched with an August 1941 cover-date and the four complete issues collected here reveal a period of intense experimentation and constant change as the eager neophyte publisher weaned themselves away from the “comics shop” freelancers-for-hire production system and began to build a stable – or bullpen – of in-house creators.

Since these stories come from a time of poor record-keeping, frantic scrabbling to fill pages and under the constant threat of losing staff and creators to the war-effort, the informative introduction discussing the lack of accurate creator detail and best-guess attributions from diligent and dedicated comics historian Dr. Michael J. Vassallo is a godsend for interested fans.

With covers (by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby) and House ads reproduced throughout, the World War Wonderment and Patriotic Perils begin with The Defender illustrated by Al Avison, Al Gabriele, Joe Simon and diverse unknown hands (who might or might not have been Sam Cooper, Al Fagaly, George Klein & Charles Wojtkoski AKA “Charles Nicholas”).

This short-lived sentinel of liberty was another flag-clad patriotic mystery-man who, with designated boy sidekick Rusty, here smashes a band of Nazi-backed river pirates plaguing Manhattan’s waterways.

Next comes the utterly outrageous origin of The Whizzer (by Avison & Gabriele) which saw young Bob Frank gain super-speed after his dying father injects him with mongoose blood to counteract jungle fever and snakebite.

Orphaned and vengeful, the young man dedicates his life to stopping criminals such as the thugs who had forced his ailing parent to hide and die in a tropic hellhole…

‘Mr. Liberty debuted in ‘The Spirits of Freedom’ by Phil Sturm, Syd Shores, & Klein as, with war erupting everywhere, history Professor John Liberty is visited by the ghosts of American patriots past who offer him supernatural assistance to stamp out all threats to democracy.

After Arthur Cazeneuve’s prose crime-thriller ‘Haunted Fireplace’ the astonishing Rockman: Underground Secret Agent blazes into action in ‘The Tunnel That Led to Death’. Crafted by the incomparable Basil Wolverton – but with a splash page drawn by Nicholas – this esoteric yarn introduces an anti-fascist defender of democracy from Abysmia; a super-scientific kingdom situated miles below American soil. Their king is determined to safeguard his upstairs neighbours from tyranny and oppression…

Working as Michael Robard, Howard Purcell then stylishly introduces ‘Young Avenger’: a junior superman summoned by mystic voices to battle spies and saboteurs, before arctic elemental ‘Jack Frost’ springs to life to avenge a murder on ice in a classy origin yarn by Stan Lee & Nicholas.

This polar opposite to the Human Torch (I’m such a wag, me) travels to New York and soon occupies the same well-intentioned/hunted menace/anti-hero niche pioneered by both the blazing android and the Sub-Mariner: a much-used formula still effective to this day…

USA #2 (November 1941) premiered a new, nautically-themed costumed crusader in ‘Captain Terror Battles the Fiends of the Seas’ (by Mike Suchorsky). Retired gentleman adventurer Dan Kane returns to a masked identity he had adopted during the Spanish War to hunt down a Nazi destroyer haunting American waters in an action-packed, extra-long exploit.

Then, with the Allied effort increasing on all fronts in the real world, civilian “Mr.” becomes ‘Major Liberty’ (by Shores & Klein) to crush a monster-making Nazi who transforms a peaceful Caribbean resort into ‘The Island Menace!’

Ed Winiarski then introduces Assistant District Attorney Murphy who opts to crush Home Front racketeers disguised as gaudy tramp Chauncey Throttlebottom III AKA ‘The Vagabond’ after which ‘The Defender’ (by Klein) takes Rusty south of the border to quash a plot to destabilise the USA’s South American allies.

A text piece describing ‘When USA Heroes Meet!’ by Stan Lee is followed by another Wolverton Rockman stunner wherein the Subterranean Supremo tackles Zombo the Hypnotist whose mesmeric powers makes men slavish ‘Killers of the Sea’.

After an uncredited ‘Jack Frost’ exploit finds the freezing fugitive avoiding cops but still destroying a marauding robot octopus ship, ‘The Whizzer’ – sadly also unattributed – ends a string of murders by jockey-fixers ruining the horse-racing industry.

USA Comics #3 (January 1942) commences with Suchorsky’s ‘Captain Terror and the Magic Crystal of Death’, as the bold buccaneer spectacularly smashes a sabotage ring organised by wicked ersatz gypsies, before Major Liberty faces – or rather doesn’t, if you get my point – a cunning killer masquerading as ‘The Headless Horseman’ (Shores & and an unnamed assistant) and Winiarski’s delightful Vagabond demolishes yet another would-be kingpin of crime.

Once The Defender finishes off a hyperthyroid maniac dubbed ‘The Monster Who Couldn’t be Stopped!’ (Klein), Lee’s prestidigitation prose piece ‘Quicker than the Eye!’ gives way to the latest Rockman instalment which he’d scripted for Nicholas to illumine; a broad fantasy set in Jugoslavia where the beauteous Princess Alecia has been abducted by evil pixies: Object: Matrimony!

Young wannabes Frank Giacoia & Carmine Infantino got a big boost to their careers when they illustrated the anonymously-scripted Jack Frost yarn involving strong-arm thugs forcing hospitals to buy their adulterated black market drugs and, after an engaging ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ feature page (which included who created it), Winiarski debuts Tom ‘Powers of the Press’ – a reporter and refreshingly plainclothes hero who, with the aid of diminutive photographer Candid Kenny Roberts, tracks down murderous payroll bandits to explosively end the third issue.

Major Liberty takes the cover and lead spot in USA #4 (May 1942), using his ghostly gifts to smash a gang of spies and infiltrators terrorising German-born Americans in a breathtaking romp from Shores & his unknown collaborator, after which Jack Frost battles deranged cryogenics researchers in ‘The Adventure of the Frozen Corpses’ – attributed to Pierce Rice & Louis Cazeneuve.

Next up, The Defender foils the maker of a deadly artificial fog, assisted as ever by Rusty and the skilled artistic endeavours of George Klein and others.

The Vagabond (by Winiarski and an unknown assistant) found the Faux Hobo exorcising a haunted castle in pursuit of a Mad Monk and loot from a decades-old cold case, after which anonymously-penned text thriller ‘Diamond of Juba’ precedes another Suchorsky Captain Terror tale, which sees the seaborne stalwart smashing a Nazi plot to starve Britain into submission.

The uncredited Rockman story details the Underworld Agent countering murder and banditry in Alaska, after which the equally unattributable Corporal Dix debuts in a stirring tale of a soldier on leave who still finds some time to close down a gang of cheap hoods and set his own wastrel brother on the right and patriotic path…

This premier collection then ends on a riotous high note as The Whizzer (by Howard James) finally comes up to full speed in a riotous action romp with the Golden Rocket crushing a gang of thieves targeting a brilliant boy-inventor.

Raw, boisterous and engagingly enthusiastic, these primal pulp exploits laid the groundwork for today’s superhero-saturated masked media darlings, and still impart a tangible frisson of straightforward, no-nonsense thrills, spills and chills to satiate every action fan’s every desire.
© 1941, 1942, 2007, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Iron Man Marvel Masterworks volume 7

By Archie Goodwin, Allyn Brodsky, Mimi Gold, Gerry Conway, Don Heck, George Tuska, Gene Colan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5044-2

Created in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and at a time when “Red-baiting” and “Commie-bashing” were American national obsessions, the emergence of a brilliant new Thomas Edison employing Yankee ingenuity, invention and wealth to safeguard and better the World seemed inevitable.

Combined with the then-sacrosanct belief that technology and business could solve any problem with the universal imagery of noble knights battling evil, the concept behind the Invincible Iron Man seems an infallibly successful proposition.

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

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

This sterling hardback – or eBook – compilation covers the period June 1970 through June, re-presenting Iron Man #26-38 and incorporating a tumultuous team-up with the Man Without Fear from Daredevil #73 which held a key portion of a rather complex comics crossover.

Following Gerry Conway’s informative retrospective Introduction ‘Iron in the Fire’ original Iron Man artist Don Heck returned for the fantasy-fuelled romp ‘Duel in a Dark Dimension!’ (scripted by Archie Goodwin and inked by Johnny Craig) with guest villain The Collector kidnapping Tony Stark’s right-hand man Happy Hogan in an arcane plot to secure an extradimensional super-sword…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That battle spills over into Daredevil #73 and a mass abduction into another dimension in ‘Behold… the Brotherhood!’ (by Conway, Gene Colan & Syd Shores) before messily and inconclusively concluding halfway through Iron Man #36 (illustrated by Heck & Esposito).

The battle for the Zodiac Key is necessarily shelved as the Steely Centurion is waylaid by terra-forming aliens in ‘…Among Men Stalks the Ramrod!’

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

The galvanised wonderment also includes the cover of Iron Man Annual #1 and a selection of house ads to wrap up this collection with the Golden Gladiator being 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 firmly set itself in the camp of the young and the restless experiencing first-hand the social upheaval America was undergoing. This rebellious teen sensibility and increased political conscience permeated the company’s publications as their core audience grew from Flower Power innocents into a generation of 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 perennial dream of man in perfect synchrony with magic metal remains. These superhero shenanigans are some of the most underrated but impressive tales of the period and are well worth your time, consideration and cold hard cash…
© 1970, 1971, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Incredible Hulk Marvel Masterworks volume 6

By Roy Thomas, Herb Trimpe, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5042-8 (HB)

As the 1970s opened the Incredible Hulk had settled into a comfortable – if always 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 treat re-presents issues #121-134 corresponding to cover-dates December 1969 through December 1970 and opens – after Thomas’ Introduction shares a few intimate behind-the-scenes secrets – with Incredible Hulk #122, hotly touting ‘The Hulk’s Last Fight!’ (Thomas & Trimpe).

When the Fantastic Four advertise a cure for Banner’s condition, the fraught physicist makes his way North from Florida, with the police and army hunting him every step of the way. His quest only falters at the very last moment thanks to a clerical error…

What should have been a quiet transition and resolution instead results in a shattering clash between the Hulk and FF, but eventually the beast is subdued and the cure attempted in concluding episode ‘No More the Monster!’

Sadly, even now that Banner has complete control of his inner demon, he learns that you don’t always get what you want – especially when gamma-super-genius the Leader involves himself in the plan.

Seemingly cured of the curse of the Hulk, Bruce Banner finally marries his troubled sweetheart Betty Ross, but ‘The Rhino Says No!’ and the subsequent set-to (rather heavily finished and inked by Sal Buscema) returns him to the tragic status quo of hunted, haunted antihero perpetually on the run…

Trimpe again took up the inker’s brush for the bludgeoning battle in #125 ‘And Now, the Absorbing Man!’ after which Doctor Stephen Strange guest-stars in trans-dimensional duel with the malign Undying Ones.

‘…Where Stalks the Night-Crawler!’ is a spooky, all-action tidying-up exercise closing a saga from the good Doctor’s own cancelled title – and one which ultimately led to the formation of the outsider super-team The Defenders.

In ‘Mogol!’ (#127) the child-like, eternally-lonely Hulk is transported to the Mole Man’s subterranean realm where he thinks he’s finally found a friend, only to endure bitter disappointment once more. His subsequent subterranean pain-filled rampage threatens to destroy California (#128) when he starts ripping his way surface-ward via the San Andreas Fault. And the American authorities are compelled to call in the Big Guns.

‘And in this Corner… The Avengers!’ sees the assembled heroes seeking a solution to the problem, but they can’t hold the Green Goliath long, leading him to more trouble when ‘Again, The Glob!’ attacks. The embattled Hulk has no idea old enemy The Leader is behind the swampy assault…

Incredible Hulk #130 then sees Banner totally divorce and separate himself from the Hulk in ‘If I Kill You… I Die’, but the scientifically-implausible separation has potentially disastrous consequences for Los Angeles, if not the world, and only Iron Man can help when ‘A Titan Stalks the Tenements!’

This powerful tale introduced black ghetto kid Jim Wilson and is made doubly enjoyable by the inking wizardry of the legendary John Severin who signed on for a 3-issue stint that would eventually turn into a long-term commitment.

In #132, the Hulk is ‘In the Hands of Hydra!’ – although not for long and to their eternal regret. His casually explosive escape leaves him stranded in Mediterranean totalitarian state Morvania, an unwilling freedom fighter against the despicable dictators Draxon on the ‘Day of Thunder… Night of Death!’

Sal Buscema returned as inker for the conclusion of the tale and end of this volume as ‘Among us Walks… the Golem!’ from Incredible Hulk #134 sees revolution free Morvania with the Jade Juggernaut as the most unlikely symbol of freedom ever…

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?
© 1969, 1970, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 11

By Stan Lee, Archie Goodwin, John Buscema, John Romita, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3046-8 (HB)

Cautiously bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, Fantastic Four #1 (by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) was crude: rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement.

Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it and the raw storytelling caught a wave of change starting to build in America. It and succeeding issues changed comicbooks forever.

In eight short years FF meteorically grew into the unmissable core-title and most consistently groundbreaking series of Marvel’s ever-unfolding web of cosmic creation: relentlessly bombarding readers with a ceaseless salvo of new concepts and characters at a time when Kirby was in his conceptual prime and continually unfettering his vast imagination on plot after spectacular plot.

Clearly inspired, Lee scripted some of the most memorable superhero sagas Marvel – or any publisher, for that matter – had or has ever seen.

Both were on an unstoppable roll, at the height of their creative powers, and full of the confidence that only success brings, with The King particularly eager to see how far the genre and the medium could be pushed…

However, nothing lasts forever and in 1971 the dream-team of Kirby & Lee was shockingly sundered. A reeling Marvel entered a new epoch of uncertain futures and bold new directions – which is rather ironic since it was the company’s reticence to give the artist creative freedom which led to Kirby’s jumping ship to National/DC in the first place…

Four Those Who Came in Late: As seen in that unforgettable premier issue, maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm – with Sue’s tag-along teenaged brother Johnny – survived an ill-starred and clandestine private space-shot after Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.

Reed’s body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and the kid could turn into living flame, but poor, tragic Ben horrifically devolved into a shambling, rocky freak…

With this 11th collection of tales from “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” a new style is established. With Kirby gone, the staggeringly inventive imagination and rollercoaster of mind-bending High-Concept ideas gave way to far more traditional tales of characters in conflict, with soap-opera leanings and super-villain dominated Fights ‘n’ Tights dramas.

This volume – available in hardback and digital formats – covers Fantastic Four #105-116 (December 1970 – November1971) and opens with a context-setting Introduction from Jon B. Cooke, before issue #105 – illustrated by John Romita and inker John Verpoorten – began the low-key yet extremely effective suspense thriller ‘The Monster in the Streets!’

When Johnny’s Inhuman girlfriend Crystal is taken ill – preparatory to writing her out of the series completely – Reed’s examination reveals a potential method of curing the misshapen Thing of his Rocky curse.

Tragically, as he is preparing Ben Grimm for the radical process, a mysterious energy-beast starts tearing up the city. By the time ‘The Monster’s Secret!’ is exposed in #106 the team strongman is almost dead and Crystal is gone… seemingly forever.

Veteran inker Joe Sinnott returns in #107 in ‘And Now… the Thing!’ as John Buscema assumes the illustrator’s reins over Kirby’s other masterpiece (he had already been drawing Thor for four months starting with #182).

Here and now the unfortunate man-monster gains the power to become human at will. It seems the best of all possible outcomes but something isn’t quite right…

However, before Reed can investigate an old foe pops up again. Sort of…

Fantastic Four #108 was something of a surprise to fans. ‘The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man!’ “reintroduced” a character never before seen. As covered extensively in the previous Masterworks collection, this was done by recycling large portions of a recently-rejected Kirby & Sinnott tale and adding new framing sequences illustrated by Buscema and Romita.

The mysterious Janus had tapped into the antimatter power of the Negative Zone once before and “now” he resurfaced to steal more by crashing through the portal in Reed’s lab. Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of extinction-event predator Annihilus, who had long sought entry into our life-rich universe…

Forced to follow the utterly mad scientist, Reed, Ben and Johnny once again face ‘Death in the Negative Zone!’ (Lee. Buscema& Sinnott) before FF #110 sees – thanks to a little arcane assistance from sorceress/babysitter Agatha Harkness – Reed escape doom in the anti-cosmos only to realise that “cured” Ben has become a lethally sociopathic threat to all humanity in ‘One from Four Leaves Three!’

Able to switch between human and monster forms, ‘The Thing… Amok’ rampages through New York, with Mr. Fantastic and the Human Torch desperately trying to minimise the damage their deranged friend inflicts on the city even as increasingly marginalised Sue Richards is packed off to tend baby Franklin beside eldritch governess Harkness…

With all of New York apparently against them, the embattled heroes are on the ropes when the Incredible Hulk joins the fracas for #112’s ‘Battle of the Behemoths!’.

As Sue finally and rebelliously returns, The Thing seems to have perished in the brutal battle that ensued when the monsters met, but once again Reed Richards saves – and cures – his best friend just as another menace materialises…

‘The Power of… the Over-Mind!’ reveals another insidious cosmic menace, this presaged and prophesised by an ominous warning from omniscient alien voyeur The Watcher.

The psionic super-menace then further incites civilian antipathy towards the FF in ‘But Who Shall Stop the Over-Mind?’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) before manifesting and physically trouncing the team.

With #115 Stan Lee surrendered the scripting role to Archie Goodwin, who revealed ‘The Secret of the Eternals’ (not the earthly proto-gods created by Kirby, but an ancient alien race) in a visually stunning sequence limned by Buscema & Sinnott which culminates in Reed being taken over by the Over-Mind and turning on his erstwhile comrades…

The graphic narrative concludes here with double-sized Fantastic Four #116, featuring ‘The Alien, the Ally, and… Armageddon!’ as the defeated and embattled heroes, unable to access any superhero assistance, recruit deadly foe Doctor Doom to lead them in final battle against the unbeatable Over-Mind.

They are nonetheless crushed and only saved at the crucial moment by a most unexpected saviour in ‘Now Falls the Final Hour!’

Did I say concludes? Not quite; as there’s still room for the Romita/Verpoorten cover to all-reprint Fantastic Four Annual #8; a stunning house ad; the rare misprinted pink-&-green cover for FF #110 and brace of Buscema original art covers to delight and enthral…

Although sacrificing spectacle and wonder for simple continuous conflict, the Fantastic Four remained at the heart of the Marvel Universe for years, offering furious Fights ‘n’ Tights thrills to delight and beguile. Why not check out how and why?
© 1970, 1971, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avengers Marvel Masterworks volume 10

By Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, Sal Buscema, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3331-5 (HB)

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.

This sturdy hardcover and eBook compilation gathers the astounding contents of Avengers issues #89-100 collectively spanning June 1971 – June 1972: a riot of cosmic calamity which confirmed scripter Roy Thomas as a major creative force in comics whilst simultaneously demonstrating the potential the “debased” medium could aspire to.

At the time Thomas’ bold experiment was rightly considered the most ambitious saga in Marvel’s brief history: astounding sagas of tremendous scope which dumped Earth into a cosmic war the likes of which comics fans had never before seen. The Kree/Skrull War set the template for all multi-part crossovers and publishing events ever since and it was followed by another astounding epic proving that more and better was to come…

Following Thomas’s lengthy discourse on how it all happened in his Introduction, the drama begins relatively quietly as marooned Kree warrior Captain Marvel is finally freed from virtual imprisonment in a ghastly antimatter universe.

Mar-Vell was originally sent as a spy to Earth but he quickly went native and became a protector of humanity. After an intergalactic mission to save his former masters he was flying back to Earth when he was suddenly sucked into the anti-matter hell of the Negative Zone

The trapped warrior found a loophole through long-dormant Kree artefacts and Nega-bands. Inextricably bonding to professional human side-kick Rick Jones, he could switch places whenever danger loomed, but would be drawn back into the dread domain after three hours.

Following interminable, agonising months when Rick refused to trade atoms with his alien alter ego, ‘The Only Good Alien…’ (art by Sal Buscema & Sam Grainger) sees the bonded brothers finally separated just as, in the distant Kree Empire, the ruling Supreme Intelligence is overthrown by his enforcer Ronan the Accuser

On Earth, the rebellion results in the activation of a long-dormant robotic Kree Sentry which attacks Mar-Vell and the Avengers before enacting a deep-programmed protocol to devolve humanity to the level of cavemen in concluding chapter ‘Judgment Day’ (drawn and inked by Sal B)…

Even with Ronan taking personal charge of a compromised polar base, the scheme to eradicate humanity is narrowly defeated in ‘Take One Giant Step… Backward!’, but the cat is let out of the bag about the panic-inspiring notion that extraterrestrials lurk among us. Moreover, public opinion turns against the heroes for concealing the threat of repeated alien incursions…

In a powerful allegory of the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, the epic expands in issue #92 (Sal B & George Roussos) as ‘All Things Must End!’ sees riots in American streets and a political demagogue capitalising on the crisis. Subpoenaed by the authorities, castigated by friends and public, the current team – The Vision, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver – is ordered to disband by founding fathers Thor, Iron Man and Captain America.

Or are they…?

The plot thickens as Neal Adams & Tom Palmer assume the chores with double-sized Avengers #93 and ‘This Beachhead Earth’. Here the Vision is nigh-fatally attacked and those same founding fathers evince no knowledge of having benched the regular team.

With original Ant-Man Henry Pym undertaking ‘A Journey to the Center of the Android!’ to save the Vision’s artificial life, the Avengers become aware of not one, but two hostile alien presences on Earth: bellicose Kree and sinister, seditious shape-shifting Skrulls. The revelation triggers a ‘War of the Weirds!’ on our fragile globe.

Acting too late, the human heroes are unable to prevent mutant siblings Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver as well as their protector Mar-Vell from being abducted by the Super-Skrull

With more stunning Adams art, ‘More than Inhuman!’ in issue #94 entangles the long-hidden race of advanced beings called Inhumans in the mix, disclosing that their advanced science and super-powers are the result of genetic meddling by the Kree in the depths of prehistory. Now, with Inhuman king Black Bolt missing and his mad, malign brother Maximus in charge, the Kree are calling in their ancient markers…

Second chapter ‘1971: A Space Odyssey’ (pencilled by John Buscema) focuses on Mar-Vell as he is increasingly pressured to reveal military secrets to his shape-shifting captors. The Skrulls are ready to launch a final devastating all-out attack on their eons-old rivals, even as on Earth ‘Behold the Mandroids!’ exposes the American authorities attempting to arrest all costumed heroes…

In Avengers #95 ‘Something Inhuman This Way Comes…!’ coalesces the disparate story strands as aquatic Inhuman Triton helps defeat the US government robotic Mandroids before beseeching the beleaguered heroes to find his missing monarch and rescue his people from the pressganging Kree.

After so doing, and with a solid victory under their belts at last, the Avengers head into space to liberate their kidnapped comrades and save Earth from becoming collateral damage in the impending cosmos-shaking clash between Kree and Skrulls…

‘The Andromeda Swarm!’ (with additional inking from Adams and Al Weiss) is perhaps the Avengers’ finest hour, as a small, brave band of valiant heroes hold off an immense armada of star-ships, losing one of their own in the conflict. Meanwhile the Supreme Intelligence is revealed to have been pursuing its own clandestine agenda all along, after having bewildered sidekick Rick Jones abducted to further its terrifyingly ambitious plans….

The astounding final episode ‘Godhood’s End!’ brings the uncanny epic to a climactic close with a literal Deus ex Machina as the Supremor’s master-plan is finally revealed. However, the war is actually ended by the most unlikely of saviours and an avalanche of costumed heroes: an action overload extravaganza which has never been surpassed in the annals of Fights ‘n’ Tights fiction…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This titanic tome is packed with extra treats, including the cover of all-reprint Avengers Annual #5 plus the covers and new bridging material created by Alan Zelenetz, Walt Simonson & Palmer for the 1983 Kree-Skrull War starring the Avengers reprint miniseries. Also on show is Neal Adams’ take on the creation of the tale in ‘Three Cows Shot me Down’, supplemented by his cover for the 2000 and 2008 trade paperbacks. Upping the ante are original art pages and a selection of his un-inked pencil pages to delight every fan of fabulous Fights ‘n’ Tights fantasy action…

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…
© 1971, 1972, 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Daredevil Marvel Masterworks volume 7

By Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Gary Friedrich, Allyn Brodsky, Gene Colan, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6644-3 (HB)

Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer whose remaining senses hyper-compensate, making him capable of astonishing acrobatic feats, a formidable fighter 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 had illustrated the strip. He only really came into his own, however, after artist Gene Colan signed up for the long haul…

The natal DD battled thugs, gangsters, mad scientists and a plethora of super-villains (and – as seen in this collection – even the occasional alien incursion), quipping and wise-cracking his way through life and life-threatening combat, utterly unlike the grim, moody quasi-religious metaphor he’s been seen as in latter years.

Covering May 1970 to March 1971 and re-presenting Daredevil #64-74 plus and crossover material from Iron Man #35 and 36, this seventh swashbuckling compilation (available in both hardback and eBook formats) sees the once staid and so-very Establishment Murdock move with the shifting cultural mores as scripter Roy Thomas hands over the reins to newcomer Gerry Conway in an increasingly determined move to make the Man Without Fear cutting edge and relevant… …

Following Thomas’ revelatory and reminiscing Introduction the action opens here with Horn-Head prowling the rooftops of Los Angeles. He’s there to his find love-of-his-life, who quit New York after the pressure of sharing DD’s secrets proved too much…

After trailing the star-struck Karen Page to Hollywood he gets to take out his bad mood on a handy hood in ‘Suddenly… The Stunt-Master!’ (Thomas, Colan & Syd Shores) but eventually helps his old enemy in getting a TV show of his own…

Murdock remained in LA to oversee Karen’s first acting gig – a pastiche of then-hot spooky Television phenomenon Dark Shadows – and prevented her becoming part of a murder spree in ‘The Killing of Brother Brimstone’, a classy whodunit which cataclysmically climaxed one month later in ‘…And One Cried Murder!’

Still stuck on the West Coast, DD tackles another grudge-bearing villain as ‘Stilt-Man Stalks the Soundstage’ (Gary Friedrich, Thomas, Colan & Shores) with the now-reformed and respectable Stunt-Master ably assisting our hero. Matt finally leaves Karen to the vicissitudes of Tinseltown, landing back in the Big Apple just in time to become embroiled in a plot blending radical politics and the shady world of Boxing – ‘The Phoenix and the Fighter!’

The Black Panther returns seeking a favour in ‘A Life on the Line’ as kid gangs and the birth of the “Black Power” movement leapt from news headlines to comicbook pages. The same consideration of youth in protest also inspired the seditious menace of ‘The Tribune’ (written by Friedrich) as youthful ideologues, cynical demagogues and political bombers tear a terrified and outraged city apart.

The unrest peaked in Daredevil #71 as Roy Thomas contributed his swansong script by concluding the right-wing manufactured anarchy in ‘If an Eye Offend Thee…!’

New find Gerry Conway took over the scripting with the next issue, easing himself in with an interdimensional fantasy frolic wherein the Scarlet Swashbuckler encounters a strange rash of crimes and a mirror-dwelling mystery man named Tagak in ‘Lo! The Lord of the Leopards!’ before plunging readers into an ambitious cosmic crossover yarn which started in Iron Man #35.

Here the Armoured Avenger, seductive morally ambivalent free agent Madame Masque and S.H.I.E.L.D. supremo Nick Fury all sought ‘Revenge!’ (illustrated by Don Heck & Mike Esposito) for various vile acts and specifically the near-fatal wounding of valiant young American agent Jasper Sitwell at the hand of the mercenary Spymaster.

Their efforts – and those of their assembled enemies – were somehow fuelling an alien artefact called the Zodiac Key and, when its creators sucked Daredevil into the mix to battle Spymaster and a bunch of super-villains affiliated to the cosmic device, everybody is ultimately shanghaied to another universe for more pointless fighting in ‘Behold… the Brotherhood!’ (Daredevil #73, illustrated by Colan & Shores with plot input from Allyn Brodsky) before the epic concludes with extreme briskness in Iron Man #36.

So brisk, in fact, that only the first 8 pages of ‘Among Us Stalks the Ramrod!’ (Conway, Heck & Esposito) are reprinted here, leaving this potent brew of action and suspense to wrap up with Daredevil #74: an impressive and mercifully complete conundrum with DD trapped ‘In the Country of the Blind!’ (Colan & Shores) and calling on a group of sight-impaired volunteers to help him thwart a criminal plot to cripple New York…

The social upheaval of the period produced a lot of impressively earnest material that only hinted at the true potential of Daredevil. These beautifully illustrated yarns may occasionally jar with their heartfelt stridency but the honesty and desire to be a part of a solution rather than blithely carry on as if nothing was happening affords them a potency that no historian, let alone comics fan, can dare to ignore.

And the next volume heads even further into uncharted territory…

Rounding out the comics experience are bonus pages including the cover to all-reprint Daredevil Annual #2, and a selection of house ads.

Despite a few bumpy spots, during this period Daredevil blossomed into a truly magnificent example of Marvel’s compelling formula for success: smart, contemporarily astute stories, truly human and fallible characters and always magnificent illustration. These bombastic tales are pure Fights ‘n’ Tights magic no fan of stunning super-heroics can afford to ignore.
© 1970, 1971, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.