Marvel Masterworks Daredevil volume 15


By Roger McKenzie, Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, Michael Fleischer, David Micheline, Ralph Macchio, Josef Rubinstein, Steve Ditko, Paul Gulacy & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2927-5 (HB/Digital edition)

Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer whose remaining senses hyper-compensate, making him an astonishing acrobat, formidable fighter and living lie-detector. A second-string hero for much of his early career, Daredevil was nonetheless a striking and popular one, due mostly to the captivatingly humanistic art of Gene Colan. DD fought gangsters, super-villains and even the occasional monster or alien invasion, quipping and wisecracking his way through life and life-threatening combat, utterly unlike the grim, moody, quasi-religious metaphor he became.

After a disastrous on-again, off-again relationship with his secretary Karen Page, Murdock took up with Russian emigre Natasha Romanoff, infamous and notorious ex-spy Black Widow but their similarities and incompatibilities led to her leaving as Matt took up with flighty trouble-magnet heiress Heather Glenn

Spanning July 1979 to July 1981 this monumental Masterworks tome compiles Daredevil #159-172 and material from Bizarre Adventures #25 (March 1981), consolidating and completing a Hero’s Transformation begun by Jim Shooter with a bold, apparently carefree Scarlet Swashbuckler devolving into a driven, terrifying figure. Daredevil became here an urban defender and compulsive avenger: a tortured demon dipped in blood. The character makeover was carried on initially by Roger McKenzie in the previous volume and continues with Frank Miller collaborating until he fully takes control: crafting audaciously shocking, groundbreakingly compelling dark delights, and making Daredevil one of comics’ most momentous, unmissable, “must-read” series.

Preceded by an appreciative commentary and Introduction from latterday scripter Charles Soule, the revitalisation resumes with ‘Marked for Murder!’ (McKenzie, Miller & Klaus Janson) wherein infallible assassin-master Eric Slaughter comes out of retirement for a very special hit on the hero of Hell’s Kitchen. Meanwhile elsewhere, veteran Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich works a nagging hunch: slowly piecing together dusty news snippets that indicate a certain sight-impaired attorney might be far more than he seems…

The spectacular showdown between the Crimson Crimebuster and Slaughter’s hit-man army inevitably compels his covert client to eventually do his own dirty work: brutally ambushing and abducts DD’s former flame Natasha Romanoff, The Black Widow

After a single-page info-feature on ‘Daredevil’s Billy Club!’ the saga continues in DD #160 with our hero having no choice but to place himself ‘In the Hands of Bullseye!’ – a stratagem culminating in a devastating duel and shocking defeat for the villain in #161’s ‘To Dare the Devil!’

The next issue offered a fill-in tale from Michael Fleisher & Steve Ditko wherein another radiation accident impairs the hero’s abilities and induces amnesia just as a figure from his father’s pugilistic past resurfaces. Becoming a boxer for crooked promoter Mr. Hyle, Murdock unknowingly relives his murdered dad’s last days in ‘Requiem for a Pug!’ … until his memories return and justice is served…

Stunning David v Goliath action belatedly comes in #163 as the merely mortal Man Without Fear battles The Incredible Hulk in ‘Blind Alley’ (McKenzie & Miller, inked by Josef Rubenstein & Janson) wherein Murdock’s innate compassion for hounded Bruce Banner accidentally endangers Manhattan and triggers a desperate, bone breaking, ultimately doomed attempt to save his beloved city…

In #164 McKenzie, Miller & Janson deliver an evocative ‘Exposé’, retelling the origin saga as meticulous, dogged Urich confronts the hospitalised hero with inescapable conclusions from his diligent research and a turning point is reached…

The landmark tale is followed by accompanied by Miller’s unused cover for Ditko’s fill-in, preceding a mean-&-moody modern makeover for a moribund and over-exposed Spider-Man villain. DD #165 finds the Scarlet Swashbuckler in the ‘Arms of the Octopus’ after Murdock’s millionaire girlfriend Heather is kidnapped by Dr. Otto Octavius. Her company can – and do – rebuild his mechanical tentacles with Adamantium, but “Doc Ock” stupidly underestimates both his hostage and the Man Without Fear…

The long-running plot thread of Foggy Nelson’s oft-delayed wedding finally culminates with some much-needed comedy in #166’s ‘Till Death Do Us Part!’, with true tragedy coming as old enemy The Gladiator has a breakdown and kidnaps his parole officer. With visions of Roman arenas driving him, tormented killer Melvin Potter only needs to see Daredevil to go completely over the top…

David Michelinie wrote #167 for Miller & Janson, as a cruelly wronged employee of tech company the Cord Conglomerate steals super-armour to become ‘…The Mauler!’ and exact personal justice. Constantly drawn into the conflict, DD finds his sense of justice and respect for the law at odds when another unavoidable tragedy results…

The tale is backed up by an info feature revealing the ‘Dark Secrets’ of DD’s everyday life and segues neatly into the story that changed everything.

In Daredevil #168 Miller took over the writing and with Janson’s art contributions increasing in each issue rewired the history of Matt Murdock to open an era of noir-tinged, pulp-fuelled Eisner-inspired innovation. It begins when Daredevil encounters a new bounty hunter in town and reveals a lost college-days first love. Back then diplomat’s daughter Elektra Natchios shared his secret until her father was kidnapped and murdered before her eyes, partly due to Matt’s hasty actions. She left him and vanished, apparently becoming a ninja assassin, but is now tearing up the town hunting for Eric Slaughter. Matt cannot help but get involved…

When Daredevil last defeated Bullseye, the killer was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and in #169, escapes from hospital to enact another murder spree. He is deep in a delusional state where everyone he sees are horn-headed scarlet-clad ‘Devils’. A frenetic chase and brutal battle results in countless civilian casualties and great anxiety as Daredevil has a chance to let the manic die… but doesn’t.

Yet another landmark resurrection of a tired villain begins in DD #170 as Miller & Janson decree ‘The Kingpin Must Die’. The former crimelord of New York faded into serene retirement in Japan by impassioned request of his wife Vanessa, until this triptych of terror sees him return more powerful than ever. It begins when the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen hears rumours the syndicate that replaced Wilson Fisk are trying to kill him. Apparently he has offered all his old records to the Feds…

When Vanessa hires Nelson & Murdock to broker the deal, all hell breaks loose, assassins attack and Mrs Fisk goes missing. Further complicating matters, having survived brain surgery Bullseye offers his services to the syndicate, mercenary killer Elektra senses a business opportunity and a murderously resolute Kingpin sneaks back into the country resolved to save Vanessa at any cost…

The title at last returned to monthly schedule with #171 as the city erupted into sporadic violence with civilians caught in the crossfire. DD dons a disguise and goes undercover but is soon ‘In the Kingpin’s Clutches’ and sent to a watery grave prior to Fisk gambling and losing everything…

The sags ends in all-out ‘Gangwar!’ as, with Vanessa lost and presumed dead, Wilson Fisk destroys the Syndicate and takes back control of New York’s underworld with Daredevil scoring a small toxic victory by apprehending the Kingpin’s assassin, all the while aware that every death since Bullseye’s operation has been because Murdock was not strong enough to let the monster die…

And deep in the bowels of the city, an amnesiac woman wanders, a future trigger for much death and destruction to come…

To Be Continued…

With the Marvel Universe about to change in incomprehensible ways, this tome pauses here but still finds room to focus on a solo outing for a cast regular. In Bizarre Adventures #25 (with cover and ‘Lethal Ladies’ frontispiece included), Ralph Macchio scripted an espionage tale for an older reader-base. The devious spy yarn of double and triple cross saw agents betraying each other while trying to ascertain who might be working for “the other side”.

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

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

The bonus gallery section opens with pertinent pages from Marvel Comics 20th Anniversary Calendar (1981) – June’s entry by Miller & Janson and their Spider-Man vs DD plate from Marvel Team-Up Portfolio One. Next come original art pages and covers, a House ad for Elektra’s debut plus the original art, cover artwork  and finished product for Marvel Super-Heroes Megazine #2 plus covers of #3, 4 & 6 (by Michael Golden, Lee Weeks, Scott McDaniel and others), and Miller’s cover and frontispiece for Daredevil Visionaries: Frank Miller volume 1 as well as his introduction from that collection.

As the decade closed, these gritty tales set the scene for truly mature forthcoming dramas, promising the true potential of Daredevil was finally in reach. Their narrative energy and exuberant excitement are dashing delights no action fan will care to miss.

…And the next volume heads full on into darker shadows, the grimmest of territory and the breaking of many more boundaries…
© 2021 MARVEL.

Marvel Masterworks Daredevil volume 14


By Jim Shooter, Roger McKenzie, Gil Kane, Gerry Conway, Jo Duffy, Don McGregor, Gene Colan, Carmine Infantino, Frank Miller, Lee Elias, George Tuska, Frank Robbins, Tom Sutton & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2163-7 (HB/Digital edition)

Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer whose remaining senses hyper-compensate, making him an astonishing acrobat, formidable fighter and living lie-detector. A second-string hero for much of his early career, Daredevil was nonetheless a striking and popular one, due mostly to the captivatingly humanistic art of Gene Colan. DD fought gangsters, super-villains and even the occasional monster or alien invasion, quipping and wisecracking his way through life and life-threatening combat, utterly unlike the grim, moody, quasi-religious metaphor he became.

After a disastrous on-again, off-again relationship with his secretary Karen Page, Murdock took up with Russian emigre Natasha Romanoff, infamous and notorious ex-spy The Black Widow. She was framed for murder and prosecuted by Matt’s best friend and law partner Franklin “Foggy” Nelson before the blind lawman cleared her. Leaving New York with her for the West Coast, Matt joined a prestigious San Francisco law firm but adventure, disaster and intrigue sought out the Sightless Sentinel and ultimately drew him back to the festering Big Apple. When they finally split up, Murdock and his alter ego remained to champion the law and justice their way…

Spanning April 1977 to March 1979, this pivotal collection gathers Daredevil #144-158, plus a sidebar spin-off from Marvel Premiere #43, subtly shifting the tone and feel of the long-running feature as the Man Without Fear hovers on the brink of a major overhaul and global super-stardom.

Following incoming scripter Roger McKenzie’s reflective Introduction ‘Dreams’, the heroic endeavours resume with writer Jim Shooter, penciller Lee Elias & inker Dan Green amping up the edginess and darkening the foreboding shadows by proving ‘Man-Bull Means Mayhem’ as the petty thug-turned-mutated-menace Bill Taurens again clashes with the Crimson Crusader. The battle begins when he breaks jail to join DD’s oldest archenemy The Owl and it emerges the avian ganglord is critically enfeebled, under attack by rivals and needs the Man-Bull to kidnap the one scientist who can fix him. Sadly, the boffin might also be able to cure Taurens, and the brute’s selfish betrayal leads to disaster when Daredevil intervenes again…

The Owl’s fate is sealed in ‘Danger Rides the Bitter Wind!’ (Shooter from Gerry Conway’s plot, illustrated by George Tuska & Jim Mooney) as the desperate raptor goes after Dr. Petrovic personally, raiding a hospital and triggering his own doom in a rooftop clash with Daredevil. Shooter then amped up the tension as #146 saw Gil Kane pencilling for Mooney as maniac marksman Bullseye returned to force a showdown ‘Duel!’ with the hero by taking a TV studio hostage before being defeated again…

Throughout The Jester’s media reality war, Daredevil had dated flighty socialite Heather Glenn. When, as both masked hero and lawyer he discovered her father was a corrupt slumlord and white collar criminal, he began looking for proof to exonerate his potential father-in-law, but everywhere came further damning proof. Matt Murdock’s girlfriend knows her dad isn’t a ruthless, murdering monster and that someone must have framed him. All evidence says otherwise…

Now another long running plot thread – which had seen Foggy’s girlfriend Debbie Harris kidnapped and held for months – converges as DD confronts Maxwell Glenn and the true culprit reveals himself to readers if not the hero. As Glenn confesses to everything and is arrested, the hero hits his ‘Breaking Point!’ (Shooter, Kane & Janson) after dramatically liberating the broken captive but failing to catch the true villain – mindwarping former foe Killgrave, the Purple Man

With Kane co-plotting, and Glenn actually believing himself guilty, #148’s ‘Manhunt!’ sees the increasingly overwhelmed adventurer lash out at the entire underworld in search of the malign manipulator, only to stumble into a wholly separate evil plot instigated by the diabolical Death-Stalker. Murdock’s relationship with Foggy also takes a hit as the usually genial partner deals with a PTSD ravaged Debbie and can’t understand why his best friend is defending self-confessed perpetrator Glenn…

For DD #149 Carmine Infantino joined Shooter & Janson as ‘Catspaw!’ sees Heather dump Matt and super-thug The Smasher target Daredevil in a blistering battle bout that is mere prelude to #150’s ‘Catastrophe!’ which finds the hero stretched beyond his capacity in court and on the streets just as charming mercenary Paladin debuts in a clash of vigilante jurisdictions. The debuting mercenary hero for hire is also after the Purple Man and has advantages DD can’t match, but no scruples at all…

Kane returns as plotter and penciller with Shooter giving way to McKenzie who joins the creative crew to script ‘Crisis!’ as another tragic death blights Murdock’s soul. As a result Heather accidentally uncovers Matt’s heroic secret and DD simply quits. However the horrors of the world and his own overzealous Catholic conscience soon force him back to work again…

Both Paladin and Infantino return for ‘Prisoner!’ (DD #152) with McKenzie & Janson reintroducing Death-Stalker just as our masked hero makes an intervention to reunite Foggy with his traumatised fiancé Debbie. Although that ploy is successful, another clash with the mercenary leaves DD beaten and open to a surprise attack by The Cobra & Mr Hyde in #153.

Crafted by McKenzie, Gene Colan & Tony DeZuñiga, ‘Betrayal!’ introduces Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich – who will play a huge part in Daredevil’s future – as the weary hero is ambushed, eventually defeated and dragged to the ‘Arena!’ (inked by Steve Leialoha) where Killgrave seeks ultimate victory by mind-piloting a squad of DD’s foes – including The Jester, Gladiator, Cobra & Hyde – to kill the swashbuckler in front of a captive audience. It proves to be the fiend’s final mistake when Paladin shows up to shift the balance of power…

Guest-starring Black Widow, Hercules and The Avengers, aftermath episode ‘The Man Without Fear?’ is illustrated by Franks Robbins & Springer, as a brain-damaged Murdock repeatedly attacks innocent bystanders and his allies before collapsing. Keenly observing, Death-stalker spots an opportunity and follows the hospitalised hero into #156’s ‘Ring of Death!’ (McKenzie, Colan & Janson). As DD undergoes surgery and suffers deadly delusions of fighting himself, the teleporting terror with a death-touch seeks to end his meddling forever, but finds the Avengers almost too much to handle…

The assault ends in 157 ‘The Ungrateful Dead’, with Mary Jo Duffy scripting from McKenzie’s plot as, after frustrating the vanishing villain, Matt is cruelly kidnapped by a new squad of the Ani-Men (Ape-Man, Cat-Man & Bird-Man) all leading to Frank Miller’s debut as penciller in ‘A Grave Mistake!’

With McKenzie writing and Janson inking, all plot threads regarding Death-Stalker spectacularly conclude as the monster gloatingly explains his true origins and reasons for haunting the Sightless Swashbuckler for so long. As always, Villain underestimates Hero and the stunning final fight in a graveyard became one of the most iconic duels in superhero history…

Also included here is a Paladin pilot from Marvel Premiere #43. Cover-dated August 1978 and devised by Don McGregor & Tom Sutton as a super hero/bodyguard/private eye mash-up, it sees Paladin Paul Denning learning ‘In Manhattan, They Play for Keeps’ as the suave merc faces a new iteration of Mr Fear calling himself Phantasm. Mutated in a radiation accident, the maniac soon graduates from abusive boyfriend to enemy of capitalism, fixated on old girlfriend Marsha Connors until she hires Paladin to save her…

Supplementing the resurgent rise in comics form are a gallery of covers by Ed Hannigan, Al Milgrom, Dave Cockrum, Kane, Joe Sinnott, Ron Wilson & Frank Giacoia, Janson, Terry Austin, Colan, Steve Leialoha, Frank Springer, Miller and Joe Rubinstein, contemporary house ads and original art (full pages and covers) by Kane, Infantino, Janson, Colan, DeZuñiga & Leialoha, Al Milgrom & Miller, plus the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page heralding Miller’s debut and biographies on the many creators involved in setting Daredevil back on the path to multimedia greatness.

As the 1970s closed, these gritty tales laid the groundwork for groundbreaking mature dramas to come, promising the true potential of Daredevil was finally in reach. Their narrative energy and exuberant excitement are dashing delights no action fan will care to miss.

…And the next volume heads full on into darker shadows, the grimmest of territory and the breaking of many boundaries…
© 2020 MARVEL.

Mighty Marvel Masterworks Thor volume 3: The Trial of The Gods


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, with Vince Colletta, Chic Stone, Frank Giacoia, Art Simek, Sam Rosen & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-4893-1 (TPB/Digital edition)

These stories are timeless and have been gathered many times before, but today I’m once again focussing on format. The Mighty Marvel Masterworks line launched with economy in mind: classic tales of Marvel’s key creators and characters re-presented in chronological publishing order. It’s been a staple since the 1990s, but always in lavish, hardback collectors editions. These editions are cheaper, on lower quality paper and – crucially – smaller, about the dimensions of a paperback book. Your eyesight might be failing and your hands too big and shaky, but at 152 x 227mm, they’re perfect for kids. If you opt for digital editions, that’s no issue at all…

Even more than The Fantastic Four, The Mighty Thor was the arena in which Jack Kirby’s boundless fascination with all things Cosmic was honed and refined through his dazzling graphics and captivating concepts. The King’s plethora of power-packed signature pantheons began in a modest little fantasy/monster title called Journey into Mystery where – in the summer of 1962 – a tried-&-true comic book concept (feeble mortal transformed into god-like hero) was revived by the rapidly resurgent company who were not yet Marvel Comics: adding a Superman analogue to their growing roster of costumed adventurers.

Cover-dated August 1962, JiM #83 saw a bold costumed Adonis jostling aside the regular fare of monsters, aliens and sinister scientists in a brash, vivid explosion of verve and vigour. The initial exploit followed disabled American doctor Donald Blake who took a vacation in Norway and encountered the vanguard of an alien invasion. Fleeing, he was trapped in a cave where he found an old, gnarled walking stick. When, in frustration, he smashed the stick into the huge boulder blocking his escape, his puny frame was transformed into the Norse God of Thunder!

Plotted by Stan 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), that introduction was pure primal Marvel: bombastic, fast-paced, gloriously illogical and captivatingly action-packed. It was the start of a new kind of legend and style of comics’ storytelling…

Spanning February to October 1964, this third titanic tome reprints the godly exploits from Journey into Mystery #101-109 in a blur of innovation, seat-of-the-pants myth-revising and universe-building. By this time, the ever-expanding world of Asgard was fully established: a mesmerising milieu for Thor’s earlier adventures and exotic setting for fresh wonders hinting at an imminent era of cosmic fantasy to run parallel with the company’s signature Manhattan-based superhero sagas. ‘Every Hand Against Him!’ (by Lee, Kirby & Stone) combines both, as sinister step-brother Loki compels earthly miscreants Cobra and Mr. Hyde to kidnap and wound nigh unto death Thor’s forbidden beloved Jane Foster, even as Odin again overreacts to Thor’s affections for the mortal.

Following a stunning Kirby & Stone Thor Pin-up, and balancing that tension-drenched clash of Good and Evil, is a crafty vignette of Young Thor describing ‘The Defeat of Odin!’ in an old and silly plot sweetened by breathtaking battle scenes. It’s followed by the concluding clash with Cobra & Hyde, redefining ‘The Power of the Thunder God!’ With a major role for Balder the Brave and further integrating “historical” and contemporary Asgard in a spellbinding epic of triumph and near-tragedy, it’s complimented by a Loki Pin-up preceding a fable co-opting a Greek myth (Antaeus if you’re asking) as ‘The Secret of Sigurd!’ (inked by Vince Colletta) is ferreted out by youthful godlings Thor, Balder & Loki.

Journey into Mystery #112 gave readers what they had been clamouring for with ‘The Mighty Thor Battles the Incredible Hulk!’: a glorious gift to all those fans who perpetually ask “who’s stronger…”? Arguably Kirby & Stone’s finest collaborative moment, it details a private duel that apparently appeared off-camera during a free-for-all in The Avengers #3 when the heroes battled Sub-Mariner and the Green Goliath. The raw aggressive power of that clash is balanced by an eagerly anticipated origin yarn in ‘The Coming of Loki!’ (Colletta inks): a retelling of how Odin adopts the baby son of Laufey, the Giant King.

In #113’s ‘A World Gone Mad!’ the Thunderer – right after saving the Shining Realm from invasion – again defies Odin to court Jane: a task made more hazardous by the return of the Grey Gargoyle. A long-running plot strand – almost interminably so – was the soap-opera tangle caused by Don Blake’s love for his nurse: a passion his alter ego shared. Sadly, the Overlord of Asgard could not countenance his son with a mortal, resulting in another heavy-handed example of an acrimonious triangle.

The mythic moment at the back shared ‘The Boyhood of Loki!’ (inked by Colletta), a pensive, brooding foretaste of the villain to be, before JiM #114 began a 2-part tale starring a new villain of the kind Kirby gloried in: a vicious thug who lucks into overwhelming power.

‘The Stronger I Am, The Sooner I Die!’ sees Loki imbue hardened felon Crusher Creel with the ability to duplicate the strength and attributes of anything he touches, but before Creel endures ‘The Vengeance of the Thunder God’ (inked by Frank Giacoia as “Frankie Ray”) we’re graced with another Asgardian parable: ‘The Golden Apples!’

Issue #115’s back-up micro-myth ‘A Viper in our Midst!’ sees young Loki clandestinely cementing relations with the sinister Storm Giants, before a longer Thor saga began in #116, with Colletta becoming regular inker for both lead and support features. ‘The Trial of the Gods’ disclosed more aspects of Asgard as Thor and Loki undertake a brutal ritualised trial by combat, with the latter cheating at every step, after which ‘Into the Blaze of Battle!’ finds Balder protecting Jane even as her godly paramour travels to war-torn Vietnam seeking proof of his step-brother’s infamy.

These yarns are supplemented by stellar novellas ‘The Challenge!’ and ‘The Sword in the Scabbard!’, wherein Asgardian cabin-fever informs an official Quest instituted to expose a threat to the mighty Odinsword, the unsheathing of which will destroy the universe…

Journey into Mystery #118’s ‘To Kill a Thunder God!’ ramps up the otherworldly drama as Loki, to cover his tracks, unleashes ancient Asgardian WMD The Destroyer. When it wrecks Thor’s mystic hammer and nearly kills The Thunderer in ‘The Day of the Destroyer!’, the God of Mischief is forced to save his step-brother or bear the brunt of Odin’s anger.

Meanwhile in Tales of Asgard the Quest further unfolds with verity-testing talisman ‘The Crimson Hand!’ and ‘Gather, Warriors!’ as a band of literally hand-picked “Argonauts” join Thor’s flying longship in a bold but misguided attempt to forestall Ragnarok…

To Be Continued…

There’s a relative paucity of bonus material here but it’s all first rate: two pages of original artwork, and Kirby & Stones 1965 design for a tee-shirt.

These early tales of the God of Thunder show 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 and revel in what makes comic book superheroes such a unique experience.
© 2023 MARVEL.

Mighty Marvel Masterworks The Incredible Hulk volume 3: Less Than Monster, More Than Man


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Bill Everett, Gil Kane, John Buscema, Mike Esposito, John Romita, Jerry Grandenetti, John Tartaglione, Sam Rosen, Art Simek, Ray Holloway & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-4903-7 (TPB/Digital edition)

Their stories are timeless and have been gathered many times before, but today I’m once more focusing on format before Fights ‘n’ Tights – or is that Rags ‘n’ Shatters?

The Mighty Marvel Masterworks line was designed with economy in mind: re-presenting classic tales of Marvel’s key characters by the founding creators in chronological order in cheaper, editions on lower quality paper and – crucially – are physically smaller (152 x 227mm or about the dimensions of a B-format paperback book). Your eyesight might be failing and your hands too big and shaky, but they’re perfect for kids and if you opt for the digital editions, that’s no issue at all…

Bruce Banner was a military scientist caught in the world’s first gamma bomb detonation. As a result of ongoing mutation, stress and other factors cause him to transform into a giant green monster of unstoppable strength and fury.

After an initially troubled debut run, the Gruff Green Giant finally found his size 700 feet and a format that worked, becoming one of young Marvel’s most popular features. After his first solo-title folded, The Incredible Hulk shambled around a swiftly-coalescing Marvel Universe as guest star and/or villain du jour until a new home was found for him.

This tome gathers the evergreen marvels and Hulky bits from Tales To Astonish #75-91: spanning January 1966-May 1967, and seeing the nomadic antihero established as a continuity-wide global fugitive and universal “Bête Vert” whilst his agonised human half became a man of misfortune and constant sorrow…

Way back then, the trigger for the Hulk’s second chance was a reprinting of his origin in the giant anthology comic book Marvel Tales Annual #1. It was the beginning of the company’s inspired policy of keeping early tales in circulation, which did so much to make fervent fans out of casual latecomers. Thanks to reader response, “Ol’ Greenskin” was awarded a back-up strip in a failing title. Giant-Man Hank Pym was the star turn in Tales to Astonish, but by mid-1964 his strip was visibly floundering. In issue #59 the Master of Many Sizes was used to introduce his forthcoming co-star in a colossal punch-up, setting the scene for the next issue wherein the Green Goliath’s co-feature began.

Here – scripted throughout by Stan Lee – the second chapter of the man-monster’s career truly takes off in power-packed intrigue-laded short episodes which resume with The Gamma Goliath freshly returned from space and having survived a clash with the lethal Leader.

TtA#75’s ‘Not all my Power Can Save Me!’ (Kirby layouts under Mike Esposito finishes) sees the Hulk helplessly hurled into a devastated dystopian future, before in ‘I, ‘Against a World!’ (with pencils by Gil Kane moonlighting as “Scott Edward”, but still working from Kirby roughs), the devastation is compounded by a doom-drenched duel with time-lost Asgardian immortal The Executioner.

A true milestone occurred in Tales to Astonish #77 when the tragic physicist’s dread secret is finally exposed. Magnificently illustrated by John Romita (the elder, and still over Kirby layouts), Bruce Banner is the Hulk!’ concludes the time-travel tale and reveals the tragic horror of the scientist’s condition to the military and the general public after teenager Rick Jones at last buckles under months of psychological pressure from Army Major Glenn Talbot and obsessed General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross

It didn’t make The Hulk any less hunted or haunted, but at least now the soldiery were in an emotional tizzy whilst trying to obliterate him.

With #78, Bill Everett began a brief but brilliantly evocative run as penciler (Kirby remaining on layouts throughout). To his very swift and last regrets, megalomaniacal military scientist Dr. Zaxon tries to steal the Gamma Monsters’s bio-energy in The Hulk Must Die!’ Before his body is even cold, follow-up ‘The Titan and the Torment!’ propels the fugitive gargantuan into a bombastic battle against recently Earth-exiled Olympian man-god Hercules.

Fighting a pitiless war with fellow subterranean despot Mole Man, not-so-immortal Tyrannus resurfaced in ‘They Dwell in the Depths!’ Regarding the monster as a weapon of last resort, he abducts the man-brute to Subterranea, but still loses his last battle after which The Hulk returns topside and shambles into a plot by insidious cabal The Secret Empire in #81’s ‘The Stage is Set!’ That convoluted mini-epic touched upon a crossover saga that spread into a number of other Marvel series, especially Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Sub-Mariner. Here, however, the monster is targeted by the Empire’s hired gun Boomerang as they strive to steal the military’s new Orion missile…

As the epic unfolded ‘The Battle Cry of The Boomerang’, ‘Less Than Monster, More Than Man!‘, and ‘Rampage in the City!’ wove strings of subplot into a gripping whole which indicated to the evolving reader just how close-knit the Marvel Universe was. Obviously such tight coordination between series caused some problems as art for the final episode is credited to “almost the whole blamed Bullpen” (which to my jaded eyes is mostly Jerry Grandenetti). During that climax the Hulk marauds through the streets of New York City in what I can’t help but feel is a padded, unplanned conclusion…

Everything’s back on track for #85, however, as John Buscema & John Tartaglione step in to illustrate ‘The Missile and the Monster!’ as yet another spy diverts the experimental Orion rocket onto the city. The obvious discomfort the realism-heavy Buscema experienced with the Hulk’s appearance has mostly faded by second chapter ‘The Birth of… the Hulk-Killer!’, although the return of veteran inker Mike Esposito to the strip also helps. As General Ross releases a weapon designed by the Leader to capture the Grim Green Giant, the old soldier has no inkling what his rash act will lead to, nor that Boomerang is lurking behind the scenes to make things even hotter for the Hulk…

Issue #87’s concluding episode ‘The Humanoid and the Hero!’ depicts Ross’ regret as the Hulk-Killer expands his remit to include everybody in his path before Gil Kane returns for #88 as ‘Boomerang and the Brute’ shows both the assassin and the Hulk’s true power.

Tales to Astonish #89 once more sees the Hulk become an unwilling weapon as a nigh-omnipotent alien subverts and sets him to purging humanity from the Earth. ‘…Then, There Shall Come a Stranger!’, ‘The Abomination!’ and ‘Whosoever Harms The Hulk…!’ comprise a taut and evocative thriller-trilogy which also includes the origin of the malevolent Hulk counterpart (Gamma-suffused spy Emil Blonsky who would play such a large part in later tales of the ill-fated Bruce Banner)…

With covers by Kirby, Gene Colan, Giacoia, Everett, Kane, & Colletta and most certainly “To Be Hulk-inued…” these titanic tales are somewhat hit-and-miss, with visceral thrillers and plain dumb nonsense running together, but the enthusiasm and sheer quality of the awesome artistic endeavours should go a long way to mitigating most of the downside. These are – even at their worst – full-on, butt-kicking, “breaking-stuff” thrillers to delight the destructive eight-year-old in everyone. Hulk Smash(ing)!
© 2023 MARVEL.

Mighty Marvel Masterworks Daredevil volume 2: Alone Against the Underworld


By Stan Lee, Denny O’Neil, John Romita, Gene Colan, with Jack Kirby, Frank Giacoia, Mike Esposito, Dick Ayers, Bill Everett & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-3440-8 (PB/Digital edition)

It’s another year of significant anniversaries so let’s say many happy returns for the swinging sixtieth of the rather tastelessly characterised “Sightless Swashbuckler” and latter-day meanly moody Man Without Fear Daredevil

As the remnants of Atlas Comics grew in popularity in the early 1960s it slowly replaced its broad variety of genre titles with more and more superheroes. The recovering powerhouse that would be Marvel was still hampered by a crippling distribution deal that limited the company to 16 titles (curtailing their output until 1968), so each new untried book would have to be certain of success.

Moreover, as 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 Stan Lee. It all worked out in the end though…

Back then, Matt Murdock was a blind lawyer whose remaining senses hyper-compensate, enabling him to perform astonishing acrobatic feats and fight like a demon. A formidable fighter for justice in both identities and a living lie-detector, he was 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. He 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 vainly romanced their secretary Karen Page, With Lee and a rotating line-up of artists plugging on, concocting some extremely engaging tales until the latest Marvel Sensation could find his feet.

That transition forms the meat of this potent compilation: part of a series of Mighty Marvel Masterworks available as kid-friendly digest paperbacks and eBooks. It traces the move from morose masked avenger to wisecracking Scarlet Swashbuckler, gathering Daredevil #12-21 (January 1965-October 1966) into one boldly boisterous package of thrills and spills.

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 pal who had left during the harshest days of the Atlas implosion. He was to eventually become Marvel’s top – and most loyal – superstar…

‘Sightless, in a Savage Land!’ was laid out by Jack Kirby and illustrated by John Romita. The latter 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-tribute act 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 one-man war on evil: a front 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 né Giacoia had been inking the series since #14).

DD #15’s ‘…And Men Shall Call Him… Ox!’ showed the artist’s facility for explosive superhero action as the dim strongman last seen in #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 follow-up ‘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 the manic armoured villain and archetypal super-thug in a tale two-thirds scripted by legend-in-waiting Denny O’Neil. Here Foggy seeks to sway Karen by bolstering the ridiculous idea that he is Daredevil… and almost perishes as a result of his deception.

DD #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!’ and 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 style – 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, fabulously impressive run on the series, incorporating the Man Without Fear’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 a pulse-pounding house ad, this classy compendium is a nostalgic delight for one and all: a truly magnificent example of Marvel’s compelling formula for success combining 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.
© 2023 MARVEL.

Mighty Marvel Masterworks Captain America volume 2: The Red Skull Lives


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Gil Kane, Jack Sparling, Tom Sutton, Frank Giacoia, Joe Sinnott, Don Heck, Dick Ayers & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-4897-9 (TPB/Digital edition)

During the natal years of Marvel Comics in the early 1960s Stan Lee & Jack Kirby opted to mimic the game-plan which had paid off so successfully for National/DC Comics, albeit with mixed results. Beginning cautiously in 1956, Julie Schwartz had scored incredible, industry-altering hits by re-inventing the company’s Golden Age greats, so it seemed sensible to try and revive the characters that had dominated Timely/Atlas in those halcyon days two decades previously.

A new Human Torch had premiered as part of the revolutionary Fantastic Four, and in the fourth issue of that title the amnesiac Sub-Mariner resurfaced after a 20-year hiatus (everyone concerned had apparently forgotten the first abortive attempt to revive an “Atlas” superhero line in the mid-1950s). The teen Torch was promptly given his own solo lead-feature in Strange Tales (from issue #101 on) where, eventually (in Strange Tales #114), the flaming kid fought a larcenous villain impersonating the nation’s greatest lost hero…

Here’s a quote from the last panel…

“You guessed it! This story was really a test! To see if you too would like Captain America to Return! As usual, your letters will give us the answer!” I guess we all know how that turned out. With reader-reaction strong, the real McCoy was promptly decanted in Avengers #4 (cover dated March but on sale from January 3rd 1964… so happy belated birthday the second time around, Capster!).

After a captivating, centre-stage hogging run in Avengers, the reborn Sentinel of Liberty won his own series as half of a “split-book” with fellow Avenger and patriotic barnstormer Iron Man, beginning with Tales of Suspense #59. This cheap & cheerful second Mighty Marvel Masterworks Cap collection assembles his exploits ToS #78-94, plus a chuckle-packed prize treat from Not Brand Echh #3, spanning June 1966 to October 1967) in a kid-friendly edition that will charm and delight fans of all vintages…

Primarily scripted throughout by Lee, the drama resumes with a dynamic dive into the burgeoning spy fad of the mid-Sixties as ‘Them!’ sees Kirby return to pencilling his first sensation and Frank Giacoia assume a regular inking spot. Here the Star-Spangled Avenger teams with Nick Fury in the first of many missions as a (more-or-less) Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. His foe is an artificial assassin despatched by a new hidden agency set on world domination.

It’s followed by ‘The Red Skull Lives!’ wherein the arch nemesis returns from the grave to menace the Free World again. Initially aided by subversive technology group A.I.M. as the Star Spangled Avenger is distracted by more high-tech assassins, the nasty Nazi promptly steals their ultimate weapon in ‘He Who Holds the Cosmic Cube!’ (inked by Don Heck), setting himself up as Emperor of Earth before his grip on omnipotence finally falters in ‘The Red Skull Supreme!’ (Giacoia inks).

The dynamic dramas contained herein signalled closer links with parallel tales in other titles. Thus, with subversive science scoundrels AIM defeated by S.H.I.E.L.D. over in Strange Tales,‘The Maddening Mystery of the Inconceivable Adaptoid!’ pits Cap against one last unsupervised experiment – their artificial warrior lifeform. It is capable of becoming an exact duplicate of its victim and stalks Cap in a tale of vicious psychological warfare. Sadly, even masterfully manufactured mechanoids are apt to err and ‘Enter… The Tumbler!’ (inked by Dick Ayers) sees a presumptuous wannabe attack the robot after it assumes the identity of our hero before ‘The Super-Adaptoid!’ (with an Avengers cameo) completes the epic of breathtaking suspense and drama as the real super-soldier fights back to defeat all comers.

Such eccentric cross-continuity capers would carry the company to market dominance in a few short years and become not the exception but the norm…

‘The Blitzkrieg of Batroc!’ and ‘The Secret!’ return to the early, minimum-plot, all-action, overwhelming-odds yarns whilst apparent fill-in ‘Wanted: Captain America’ (by Roy Thomas, Jack Sparling & Sinnott) offers a lacklustre interval involving a frame-up. Lee returns as Gil Kane takes his first run on the character with extended saga ‘If Bucky Lives…!’, ‘Back from the Dead!’, ‘…And Men Shall Call Him Traitor!’ and ‘The Last Defeat!’ (TOS #88-91, with the last two inked by Sinnott) for a superb thriller of blackmail and betrayal starring the Red Skull.

The fascist felon had baited a trap with a robotic facsimile of Cap’s dead partner, triggered it with super-hirelings Power Man and The Swordsman whilst blackmailing the Star-Spangled Sentinel into betraying his country and stealing a new atomic submarine. It all turned out okay in the end though…

Closing the comics action on a spectacular high, Kirby & Sinnott detailed ‘Before My Eyes Nick Fury Died!’, ‘Into the Jaws of… A.I.M.!’ and ‘If This Be… Modok!’ as the Champion of Liberty battled a giant brain-being manufactured purely for killing…

Closing on a daft note, October 1967’s Not Brand Echh #3 hawks up Lee, Thomas & Tom Sutton’s ‘The Honest-to-Irving, True-Blue Top Secret Original Origin of Charlie America!’ as a silly but delicious amuse-bouche to end our pulse pounding revels…

These tales of dauntless courage and unmatchable adventure offer timeless thrills, fast-paced and superbly illustrated, and which rightly catapulted Captain America to heights his Golden Age compatriots Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner never regained. They are pure escapist magic. Unmissable reading for the eternally young at heart and fun-seeking.
© 2023 MARVEL.

Fantastic Four Omnibus volume 1


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby with Chrisopher Rule, Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers, Joe Sinnot, George Roussos, Chic Stone, Sam Rosen, Art Simek & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8566-6 (HB/Digital edition)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Reliving How it All Began… 10/10

I’ve gone on record as saying that you actually can have too much of a good thing, by which I mean this collection of utter marvels is really, really heavy (and pricey) if you get the paper version. However, if you opt for electric formats, only the second quibble counts and the stories contained herein truly need to be in every home and library, so…

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 Silver Age comic book ever, behind Showcase #4 – which introduced The Flash – and The Brave and the Bold #28, which brought superhero teams back via the creation of The Justice League of America. 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 he did the best job possible and that genre fare is now considered some of the best of its kind ever seen.

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

According to popular myth, a golfing afternoon led to publisher Martin Goodman ordering nephew Stan to do a series about a group of super-characters like the JLA. The resulting team quickly took the 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 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 for National /DC) laid all the groundwork for the wonders to come, but staid, nigh-hidebound editorial strictures there would never have allowed the undiluted energy of the concept to run all-but-unregulated.

This full-colour compendium collects Fantastic Four #1-30 plus the first giant-sized Annual issues of progressive landmarks (spanning cover-dates November 1961 to September 1964) and tellingly reveals how Stan & Jack cannily built on that early energy to consolidate the FF as the leading title and most innovative series of the era.

Following a typically effusive “found footage” Foreword from Stan – with two more to follow as the many pages turn – we start with Fantastic Four #1 (tentatively bi-monthly by Lee, Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) which is crude, rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it.

‘The Fantastic Four’ saw maverick scientist Reed Richards summon his fiancée 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 turned into a shambling, rocky freak. In ‘The Fantastic Four meet the Mole Man’ they quickly foil a plan by another outcast who controls monsters and slave 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 of 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 an all-powerful amphibian Prince of Atlantis and star of Timely’s Golden Age but one who had been lost for years. A victim of amnesia, the relic recovered his memory thanks to some rather brusque treatment by the delinquent Human Torch. Namor then returned to his sub-sea home only to find it destroyed by atomic testing. A monarch without subjects, he swore vengeance on humanity and attacked New York City with a gigantic monster. This saga is when the series truly kicked into high-gear with Mister Fantastic as the pin-up star.

Until now the creative team – who had both 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 other media – and as reflected in their other titles. Aliens and especially monsters played a major part in 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 subtly sleek 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 was back in the very next issue, teamed with a reluctant Sub-Mariner to attack our heroes as ‘The Deadly Duo!’ – and inked by new regular embellisher Dick Ayers.

Alien kidnappers were behind another FF frame-up resulting in the team briefly being ‘Prisoners of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X’: a dark and grandiose off-world thriller in #7 (the first monthly issue), whilst a new returning villain and the introduction of a love-interest for monstrous Ben Grimm 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 Sub-Mariner returned to exploit another brilliant innovation in comic storytelling. When had a supergenius superhero ever messed up so much that the team had to declare bankruptcy? When had costumed crime busters 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… and prescience…

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

Previously, superheroes were sufficient unto themselves and shared adventures were rare. Now and here, however, was a universe where characters often and literally stumbled over each other, sometimes even fighting other heroes’ 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 and Jack to lure the Richards into a trap where his mind is switched with the bad Doctor’s. The tale is supplemented by a pin-up of ‘Sue Storm, the Glamorous Invisible Girl’ and another Lee Foreword…

Innovations continued in #11, with two short stories instead of the usual book-length yarn, opening with behind-the-scenes travelogue/origin tale ‘A Visit with the Fantastic Four’ with a stunning pin-up of Sub-Mariner segueing into baddie-free, compellingly comedic vignette. ‘The Impossible Man’ was like superhero strip ever seen before.

Cover-dated March 1963, FF #12 featured an early landmark: arguably the first Marvel crossover as the team are asked to help the US army capture ‘The Incredible Hulk’: a tale of intrigue, action and bitter irony. The argument comes as Amazing Spider-Man #1 (not included here) – wherein the arachnid tries to join the team – has the same release date…  Fantastic Four #13’s ‘Versus the Red Ghost and his Incredible Super Apes!’ is a Cold War thriller pitting the quartet against a Soviet scientist in the race to reach the Moon: and notable both for its moody Steve Ditko inking (replacing Ayers for one glorious month) and the introduction of cosmic voyeurs The Watchers.

‘The Sub-Mariner and the Merciless Puppet Master!’ unwillingly co-star in #14, with one vengeful fiend the unwitting mind-slave of the other, followed by ‘The Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android!’, embarking upon a chilling war of intellects between driven super-scientists but with plenty of room for all-out action. After a notable absence, pin-ups resume with a candid group-shot of the team.

Fantastic Four #16 reveals ‘The Micro-World of Doctor Doom!’ in a spectacular romp guest-starring new hero Ant-Man plus a Fantastic Four Feature Page outlining the powers and capabilities of elastic Mister Fantastic. Despite a resounding defeat, the steel-shod villain returns with more infallible, deadly traps a month later in ‘Defeated by Doctor Doom!’, before FF #18 heralds a shape-changing alien who battles the heroes with their own powers when ‘A Skrull Walks Among Us!’: a prelude to greater, cosmos-spanning sagas to come…

The wonderment intensifies with the first Fantastic Four Annual: a spectacular 37-page epic by Lee, Kirby & Ayers as – finally reunited with their wandering prince – warriors of Atlantis invade New York City (and the world) in ‘The Sub-Mariner versus the Human Race!’.

A monumental tale by the standards of the time, it saw the FF repel the undersea invasion through valiant struggle and brilliant strategy whilst providing a secret history of the secretive race Homo Mermanus. Nothing was really settled except a return to a former status quo, but the thrills were intense and unforgettable…

Also included are rousing pin-ups and fact file features. The Mole Man, Skrulls, Miracle Man, Sub-Mariner, Doctor Doom, Kurrgo, Puppet Master, Impossible Man, The Hulk, Red Ghost and his Super-Apes, and Mad Thinker comprise ‘A Gallery of the Fantastic Four’s Most Famous Foes!’, whilst ‘Questions and Answers about the Fantastic Four’, and a diagrammatic trip ‘Inside the Baxter Building’ evoke awe wonder and understanding. Short story ‘The Fabulous Fantastic Four Meet Spider-Man!’ then reexamines in an extended re-interpretation that first meeting from the premiere issue of the wallcrawler’s own comic. Pencilled this time by Kirby, the dramatic duel benefitted from Ditko’s inking which created a truly novel look.

Cover-dated October 1963, Fantastic Four #19 premiered another of the company’s major villains as the quarrelsome quartet travelled back to ancient Egypt and ‘Prisoners of the Pharaoh!’ This time travel tale has been revisited by so many writers that it is considered one of the key stories in Marvel history introducing a future-Earth tyrant who would evolve into overarching menace Kang the Conqueror.

Another universe-threatening foe was introduced and defeated by brains not brawn in FF#20 when ‘The Mysterious Molecule Man!’ menaced New York before being soundly outsmarted, after which one last Lee Foreword precedes another cross-pollination: this time guest-starring Nick Fury, lead character in Marvel’s only war comic.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos was another solid hit, but eventually its brusque and brutish star metamorphosed into Marvel’s answer to James Bond. Here, however, he’s a cunning CIA agent seeking the team’s aid against a sinister demagogue called ‘The Hate-Monger’: 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 Lee & Kirby well on the way to toppling DC/National Comics from a decades-held top spot through an engaging blend of brash, folksy and consciously contemporaneous sagas: mixing high concept, low comedy, trenchant melodrama and breathtaking action.

Unseen since the premiere issue, #22 saw ‘The Return of the Mole Man!’ in another full-on monster-mashing fight-fest, chiefly notable for debuting Sue Storm’s new powers of projecting force fields of “invisible energy.” This advance would eventually make her one of the mightiest characters in Marvel’s pantheon.

Fantastic Four #23 enacted ‘The Master Plan of Doctor Doom!’, by introducing mediocre minions “the Terrible Trio” – Bull Brogin, Handsome Harry and Yogi Dakor – and the uncanny menace of “the Solar Wave” (which was enough to raise the hackles on my 5-year-old neck. Do I need to qualify that with: all of me was five, but only my neck had properly developed hackles back then?)…

In #24’s ‘The Infant Terrible!’ is a sterling yarn of inadvertent extragalactic menace and misplaced innocence, followed by a 2-part tale truly emphasising the inherent difference between Lee & Kirby’s work and everybody else’s at that time.

Fantastic Four #25-26 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 ‘The Avengers Take Over!’, a relentless, lightning-paced, all-out Battle Royale results when the disgruntled man-monster returns to New York in search of side-kick Rick Jones, with only an injury-wracked FF in the way of his destructive rampage.

A definitive moment in The Thing’s character development, action ramps up to the max when a rather stiff-necked and officious 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 bloopers, this is one of Marvel’s key moments and still a visceral, vital read.

Stan & Jack had hit on a winning formula by including other stars in guest-shots – especially since readers could never anticipate if they would fight with or beside the home team. FF #27’s ‘The Search for Sub-Mariner!’ again saw the undersea antihero in amorous mood, and when he abducts Sue the boys call in Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts to locate them. Issue #28 was another terrific team-up, but most notable (for me and many other fans) for the man who replaced George Roussos…

‘We Have to Fight the X-Men!’ sees the disparate super-squads in conflict due to the Mad Thinker and Puppet Master’s malign machinations, but the inclusion of Chic Stone – Kirby’s most simpatico and expressive inker – elevates the illustration to indescribable levels of beauty.

‘It Started on Yancy Street!’ (FF #29) starts low-key and a little bit silly in the slum where Ben Grimm grew up, but with the reappearance of the Red Ghost and his Super-Apes, it all goes Cosmic, resulting in a blockbusting battle on the Moon, with the following issue – and last saga here – introducing evil alchemist ‘The Dreaded Diablo!’ – who briefly breaks up the team while casually conquering the world from his spooky Transylvanian castle….

To Be Continued…

Bolstered by all Kirby’s covers, every ‘Fantastic 4 Fan Page’ (with letters from adoring fans many here will recognise), Lee’s concluding essay ‘Reflections on the Fantastic Four’ and appreciations from Paul Gambaccini, Tom DeFalco and Roy Thomas, the joy concludes with added attractions including Lee’s original synopsis for FF #1, a selection of house ads, unused pages and cover art for #3, #20 and Annual #1.

This is a truly magnificent book highlighting pioneering tales that built a comics empire. 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.
© 2022 MARVEL.

Mighty Marvel Masterworks X-Men volume 3: Divided We Fall


By Roy Thomas, Werner Roth, Dick Ayers, John Tartaglione, Art Simek, Joe Rosen & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: ?978-1-3029-4901-3 (TPB/Digital edition)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Celebrate in X-quisite Classical Style… 9/10

These stories are timeless and have been gathered many times so here’s my now-standard advisory on format.

The Mighty Marvel Masterworks line is designed with economy in mind. Classic tales of Marvel – such as the birthday boys and girl on show today – have been an archival book staple since the 1990s, but always in lavish, expensive hardback collectors’ editions. The new tomes are far cheaper, on lower quality paper and smaller, about the size of a paperback book.

Your eyesight might be failing and your hands too big and shaky, but at 152 x 227mm, they’re perfect for kids. If you opt for the digital editions, that’s no issue at all…

Way back in 1963 things really took off for the budding Marvel Comics Group as Stan Lee & Jack Kirby expanded their meagre line of action titles: putting a bunch of relatively new super-heroes (including hot-off-the-presses Iron Man) together as The Avengers; launching a decidedly different war comic in Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos and creating a group of alienated heroic teenagers united to fight a rather specific, previously unperceived threat to humanity. Those halcyon days are revisited in this splendid trade paperback/eBook compilation, gathering from May 1966 to February 1967, the contents of X-Men #20-29.

Way back in the summer of 1963, the premiere issue had introduced Cyclops/Scott Summers, Iceman/Bobby Drake, Angel/Warren Worthington III and The Beast/Henry “Hank” McCoy: extremely special students of Professor Charles Xavier. This brilliant, driven, charismatic and wheelchair-bound telepath was dedicated to brokering peace and integration between the masses of humanity and the emergent off-shoot race: human mutants called Homo Superior. The story saw the students welcome newest classmate Jean Grey, who would be codenamed Marvel Girl. She possessed the ability to move objects with her mind.

No sooner has the Professor explained their mission than an actual Evil Mutant – Magneto – singlehandedly took over American missile base Cape Citadel. A seemingly unbeatable threat, the master of magnetism was nonetheless driven off in under 15 minutes by the young heroes on their first combat mission…

These days, young heroes are ten-a-penny, but it should be noted that these kids were among Marvel’s first juvenile super-doers (unless you count Spider-Man or Human Torch Johnny Storm) since the Golden Age, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that in early tales the youngsters regularly benefitted from a little adult supervision, such as is the case in the landmark tale that opens this book…

With Werner Roth & Dick Ayers making the pictures, in X-Men #20, the writing reins were turned over to Roy Thomas, who promptly jumped in guns blazing with ‘I, Lucifer…’: an alien invasion yarn starring Xavier’s arch-nemesis as well as old adversaries Unus the Untouchable and the Blob. Most importantly, it revealed in passing how Professor X lost the use of his legs.

With canny concluding chapter ‘From Whence Comes Dominus?’, Thomas & Roth completely made the series their own: blending juvenile high spirits, classy superhero action and torrid soap opera with beautiful drawing and stirring adventure.

At this time Marvel Comics had a vast and growing following among older teens and college kids, and the youthful Thomas spoke and wrote as they did (or maybe a little better?). Coupled with his easy delight in large casts, this would increasingly make X-Men a most welcoming read for any educated adolescent – like you or me…

As suggested already, X-Men was never one of young Marvel’s top titles, but it found a devout and dedicated following, with the frantic, freakish energy of Jack Kirby’s heroic dynamism comfortably transiting into the slick, sleek attractiveness of Roth as the fierce tension of hunted, haunted juvenile outsider settled into a pastiche of college and school scenarios familiar to the students who were the series’ primary audience.

The action continues with a crafty 2-parter resurrecting veteran Avengers villain Count Nefaria who employs illusion-casting technology and a band of other heroes’ second-string foes (The Unicorn, Porcupine, Plantman, Scarecrow and Eel, if you’re wondering) to hold Washington DC hostage and frame the X-Men for the entire scheme.

‘Divided… We Fall!’ and ‘To Save a City!’ form a fast-paced, old-fashioned Goodies vs. Baddies battle with a decided sting in the tail. Moreover, the tale concludes with Marvel Girl yanked off the team when her parents insist she furthers her education by leaving the Xavier School to attend New York’s Metro University…

Illustrated by Roth & Ayers she is off the team and packed off to college but here visits her old chums to regale them with tales of life outside. Her departure segues neatly into a beloved plot standard – Evil Scientist Grows Giant Bugs – when she enrols and meets an embittered recently-fired professor, leading her erstwhile comrades to confront ‘The Plague of… the Locust!’

Perhaps X-Men #24 isn’t the most memorable tale in the canon but it still reads well and has the added drama of Jean Grey’s departure crystallizing the romantic rivalry for her affections between Cyclops and Angel: providing another deft sop to readers as it enabled many future epics to include Campus life in the action-packed, fun-filled mix…

Somehow Jean still managed to turn up in every issue even as ‘The Power and the Pendant’ (#25, October 1966) finds the boys tracking new menace El Tigre. This South American hunter is visiting New York to steal the second half of a Mayan amulet which willgrant him god-like powers…

Having soundly thrashed the male X-Men, newly-ascended and reborn as Kukulkan, the malign meta returns to Amazonian San Rico to recreate a fallen pre-Columbian empire with the heroes in hot pursuit. The result is a cataclysmic showdown in ‘Holocaust!’ which leaves Angel fighting for his life and deputy leader Cyclops crushed by guilt…

Issue #27 see the return of some old foes in ‘Re-enter: The Mimic!’ as the mesmerising Puppet Master pits power-duplicating Calvin Rankin against a team riven by dissention and ill-feeling, before ‘The Wail of the Banshee!’ sees Rankin join the X-Men in a tale introducing the sonic-powered mutant (eventually to become a valued team-mate and team-leader) as a deadly threat.

This was the opening salvo of an ambitious extended epic featuring a global coalition of sinister, mutant-abductors… Factor Three.

This turbulent tome terminates with John Tartaglione replacing Ayers as regular inker beginning with bright and breezy thriller ‘When Titans Clash!’, wherein the power-duplicating Super-Adaptoid almost turns the entire team into super-slaves before ending the Mimic’s career…

Supplemented by original art – an unused Roth cover for X-Men #25 – these charming idiosyncratic tales are a million miles removed from the angst-ridden, breast-beating, cripplingly convoluted X-brand of today’s Marvel, and in many ways are all the better for it. Superbly rendered, highly readable adventures are never unwelcome or out of favour and it should be remembered that everything here informs so very much of the mutant monolith. These are stories for dedicated fans and the rawest converts. Everyone should have this book.
© 2023 MARVEL

Mighty Marvel Masterworks Doctor Strange volume 2: The Eternity War


By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko, Art Simek, Sam Rosen & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-4887-0 (PB/Digital edition)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Magical Marvel Unleashed… 10/10

When the emergent 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 most mention of magic or the supernatural (especially vampires, werewolves and their eldritch ilk) were harshly proscribed by a censorship panel dictating almost all aspects of story content. Almost a decade after a public witch-hunt led to Senate hearings on the malign influences of words and pictures in sequence, comics were ferociously monitored and adjudicated by the draconian Comics Code Authority. Even though 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 terrors.

Companies like ACG, Charlton and DC – and Atlas/Marvel – got around edicts against mystic thrills and chills by making all reference to magic benign or even humorous; the same tone adopted by TV series Bewitched about a year after Doctor Strange debuted. That eldritch embargo probably explains writer/editor Stan Lee’s low-key introduction of Steve Ditko’s mystic adventurer: an exotic, twilight troubleshooter inhabiting the shadowy outer fringes of society…

Prior to being Marvel, the company had already published a quasi-mystic precursor: balding, trench-coated savant. Doctor Droom – later rechristened (or is that re-pagan-ed?) Dr. Druid – had an inconspicuous short run in Amazing Adventures (volume 1 #1-4 & #6: June-November 1961).

He was a psychiatrist, sage and paranormal investigator tackling everything from alien invaders to Atlanteans (albeit not the ones Sub-Mariner rules). Droom was subsequently retro-written into Marvel continuity as an alternative candidate and precursor for Stephen Strange‘s ultimate role as Sorcerer Supreme.

After a shaky start, the 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. That might not have been the creators’ intention but it certainly helped keep the mage at the forefront of Lee’s efforts to break comics out of the “kids-stuff” ghetto…

This enchanting full colour paperback compilation – also available as a digital download – gathers the spectral sections of Strange Tales #130-146 and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2: spanning cover-dates March 1965 to July 1966. With no fuss or muss, a classic extended saga opens with ‘The Defeat of Dr. Strange’ as an enigmatic outer-dimensional sponsor enters into a pact with arch-foe Baron Mordo. He will be supplied with infinite power and ethereal minions in return for the death of Earth’s magical guardian. With the Ancient One assaulted and in a deathly coma, Strange is forced to go on the run: a fugitive hiding in the most exotic corners of the globe as remorseless, irresistible forces close in all around him…

A claustrophobic close shave trapped aboard a jetliner in in #131’s ‘The Hunter and the Hunted!’ expands into cosmic high gear a month later as Strange doubles back to his sanctum and defeats the returning foe The Demon only to come ‘Face-to-Face at Last with Baron Mordo!’ Crumbling into weary defeat as the villain’s godly sponsor is revealed, the hero is hurled headlong out of reality to materialise in ‘A Nameless Land, A Timeless Time!’ before confronting tyrannical witch-queen Shazana.

Upon liberating her benighted realm, Strange resumes being the target of relentless pursuit: recrossing hostile dimensions and taking the fight to his foes in ‘Earth Be My Battleground’.

Returning to the enclave hiding his ailing master, Strange gleans a hint of a solution in the mumbled enigmatic word “Eternity” and begins searching for more information as, in the Dark Dimension, a terrified girl seeks to sabotage Dread Dormammu’s efforts to empower Mordo…

As the world went superscience spy-crazy and Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. took over the lead spot with Strange Tales #135, the Sixties also saw a blossoming of alternative thought and rebellion. Doctor Strange apparently became a confirmed favourite of the blossoming Counterculture Movement and its recreational drug experimentation subculture. With Ditko truly hitting his imaginative stride, it’s not hard to see why. His weirdly authentic otherworlds and demonstrably adjacent dimensions were utterly unlike anything anyone had ever seen or depicted before…

‘Eternity Beckons!’ as Strange is lured to an ancient castle where an old ally betrays him and, after again narrowly escaping Mordo’s minions, the Mage desperately consults the aged senile Genghis in #136: a grave error in judgement. Once more catapulted into a dimension of deadly danger, Strange barely escapes a soul-stealing horror after discovering ‘What Lurks Beneath the Mask?’

Back on Earth and out of options, the Doctor is must test his strength against the Ancient One’s formidable psychic defences to learn the secret of Eternity in ‘When Meet the Mystic Minds!’ Barely surviving the terrible trial, he uses newfound knowledge to translates himself to a place beyond reality and meet the embodiment of creation in ‘If Eternity Should Fail!’

His quest for solutions or extra might failed, he despondently returns to Earth to find his mentor gone and his unnamed female friend prisoners of his worst enemies in anticipation of a deadly showdown…

Strange Tales #139 warns ‘Beware…! Dormammu is Watching!’, but as Mordo – despite being super-charged with the Dark Lord’s infinite energies – fails over and again to kill the Good Doctor, the Overlord of Evil loses all patience, dragging all concerned into his domain.

Intent on making a show of destroying his mortal nemesis, Dormammu convenes a great gathering before whom he will smash Strange in a duel using nothing but ‘The Pincers of Power!’ He is again bathed in ultimate humiliation as the mortal mage’s wit and determination score a stunning triumph in concluding episode ‘Let There Be Victory!’

As the universes tremble, Doctor Strange wearily heads home, blithely unaware his enemies have laid one last trap. The weary victor returns to his Sanctum Sanctorum; unaware his foes have boobytrapped with mundane explosives.

Scripted by Lee and plotted and illustrated by Ditko, Strange Tales #142 reveals ‘Those Who Would Destroy Me!’ as Mordo’s unnamed disciples prepare one final 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 wizard warrior, imprisoning him with a view to plundering all his secrets. It’s a big mistake as – in the Roy Thomas dialogued sequel ‘With None Beside Me!’ – Strange outwits and subdues his captors…

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

On defeating the scheme, Strange returns to Earth and almost dies at the hands of far weaker, but sneakier, wizard Mister Rasputin in a yarn scripted by Dennis O’Neil. The spy and swindler uses meagre mystic gifts for material gain but happily resorts to base brutality ‘To Catch a Magician!’

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 remained, alternating with Fury’s team until the title ended.

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

The cataclysmic chaos ruptures the heavens over infinite dimensions 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 Stephen despondently leaves her, we all know she will be back…

This sideral swansong was Ditko’s last hurrah. Issue #147 saw a fresh start as Strange went back 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. More of that next time.

Before that though there are still treats in store, beginning with a pinup published in 1967’s Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics #10 before we revel in one last Lee/Ditko yarn to enthral and beguile: Although a little chronologically askew, it is very much a case of the best left until last.

In October 1965 ‘The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!’ (from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2) was the astonishing lead feature in an otherwise vintage reprint Spidey comic book. The entrancing fable unforgettably introduced the webslinger to arcane adventuring and otherworldly realities as he unwillingly teams up with the Master of the Mystic Arts to battle power-crazed wizard Xandu: a phantasmagorical, dimension-hopping masterpiece involving ensorcelled zombie thugs and the purloined Wand of Watoomb

After this story it was clear Spider-Man worked in any milieu and nothing could hold him back – and the cross-fertilisation probably introduced many fans to Lee & Ditko’s other breakthrough series.

But wait, there’s even more! Wrapping up the proceeding is a contemporary T-shirt design by Ditko, and the briefest selection of original art.

Doctor Strange has always been the coolest of outsiders and most accessible fringe star of the Marvel firmament. This glorious grimoire is a magical method for old fans to enjoy his world once more and the perfect introduction for recent acolytes or converts created by the movie iteration to enjoy the groundbreaking work of two thirds of the Marvel Empire’s founding triumvirate at their most imaginative.
© 2023 MARVEL.

Ghost Rider Marvel Masterworks volume 3


By Jim Shooter, Roger McKenzie, Gerry Conway, Don Glut, Don Perlin. Jim Starlin, Don Heck, Gil Kane, Tom Sutton & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2214-6 (HB/Digital edition)

At the end of the 1960s American comic books were in turmoil, much like the youth of the nation. Superheroes had dominated for much of the previous decade; peaking globally before explosively falling to ennui and overkill. Established genres such as horror, war, westerns and science fiction returned, fed by contemporary events and radical trends in movie-making where another, new(ish) wrinkle had also emerged: disenchanted, rebellious, unchained Youth on Motorbikes seeking a different way forward.

Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Jack Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen, Captain America and many others all took the Easy Rider option to boost flagging sales (and if you’re interested, the best of the crop was Mike Sekowsky’s tragically unfinished mini-masterpiece of cool Jason’s Quest in Showcase). Over at Marvel – a company still reeling from Kirby’s defection to DC/National in 1970 – canny Roy Thomas green-lighted a new character who combined the freewheeling, adolescent-friendly biker-theme with the all-pervasive supernatural furore gripping the entertainment fields.

Back in 1967, Marvel published a western masked hero named Ghost Rider: a shameless, whole-hearted appropriation of the cowboy hero creation of Vince Sullivan, Ray Krank & Dick Ayers (for Magazine Enterprises from 1949 to 1955), who utilised magician’s tricks to fight bandits by pretending to be an avenging phantom of justice.

Scant years later, with the Comics Code prohibition against horror hastily rewritten – amazing how plunging sales can affect ethics – scary comics came back in a big way. A new crop of supernatural superheroes and monsters began to appear on the newsstands to supplement the ghosts, ghoulies and goblins already infiltrating the once science-only scenarios of the surviving mystery men titles.

In fact, softening the Code ban resulted in such an avalanche of horror titles (new material and reprints from the first boom in the 1950s), in response to the industry-wide down-turn in superhero sales, that it probably caused a few more venerable costumed crusaders to – albeit temporarily – bite the dust.

Almost overnight, nasty monsters became acceptable fare for four-colour pages and whilst a parade of pre-code reprints made sound business sense, the creative aspects of the fascination in supernatural themes was catered to by adapting popular cultural icons before risking whole new concepts on an untested public.

As always in entertainment, the watchword was fashion: what was hitting big outside comics was incorporated into the mix as soon as possible. When proto-monster Morbius, the Living Vampire debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #101 (cover-dated October 1971) and the sky failed to fall in, Marvel moved ahead with a line of shocking superstars – beginning with a werewolf and a vampire – before broadening the scope with a haunted biker to tap into both Easy Rider’s freewheeling motorcycling chic and the prevailing supernatural zeitgeist.

Preceded by western hero Red Wolf in #1 and the aforementioned Werewolf by Night in #2-4, the all-new Ghost Rider debuted in Marvel Spotlight #5 (August 1972) and this sturdy hardback and equivalent digital compendium collects a third heaping helping of his flame-filled early exploits: specifically Ghost Rider #21-35, plus added attraction Marvel Premiere #28, spanning December 1976 to April 1979, and is preceded by an informative Introduction from Ralph Macchio.

What Has Gone Before: Carnival trick cyclist Johnny Blaze sells his soul to the devil in an attempt to save his foster-father Crash Simpson from cancer. As is the way of such things, Satan follows the letter but not spirit of the contract and Simpson dies anyway. When the Dark Lord later comes for his prize, Blaze’s beloved virginal girlfriend Roxanne Simpson intervenes. Her purity prevents the Devil from claiming his due and, temporarily thwarted, Satan spitefully afflicts Johnny with a body that burns with the fires of Hell every time the sun goes down…

After dancing with the Devil and assorted demons for months, and even dabbling with team superheroics on the Champions, Johnny has moved to Hollywood and works as stuntman on the Stuntman TV show: a hazardous gig that has brought him into a romantic dalliance with starlet Karen Page, a team-up with Daredevil and many clashes with supervillains.

As the action opens in GR #21’s ‘Deathplay!’, Gerry Conway, Kil Kane & Sam Grainger build on the trend as manic hireling The Gladiator attacks the Delazny Studio seeking a deadly weapon left by a sinister hidden foe.

After spectacularly repelling the armoured assassin, Blaze does a little digging into the studio and its staff only to clash with another veteran villain – The Eel, abruptly reinforced by Gladiator seeking a rematch. Thrashing them both only gets him in more trouble with the cops and – on the run again – he finally faces the criminal mastermind who has orchestrated many months of woe and learns ‘Nobody Beats the Enforcer!’ (Conway, Don Glut, Don Heck & Keith Pollard). The ganglord has his fingers dug deep into the studio and seeks ultimate power in LA, but somehow Blaze is always in his way, such as here, foiling the costumed killer’s attempt to steal a deadly ray concealed in a ring.

Attempts to further integrate Ghost Rider with mainstream Marvel continuity intensify with the arrival of new scripter – and actual motorbike afficionado – Jim Shooter. With Dons Heck and Newton illustrating, ‘Wrath of the Water Wizard!’ sees the embattled biker battling a hydrokinetic hoodlum at the Enforcer’s behest, only to be betrayed and beaten in anticipation of a blockbusting clash in Shooter, Heck & Dan Green’s ‘I, The Enforcer…!’

Cover-dated August 1977, Ghost Rider #25 presaged a return to wandering ways as Shooter, Heck & Tony DeZuñiga’s ‘Menace is a Man Called Malice!’ finds the infernal antihero implicated in an arson attack on a wax museum before battling a high tech madman. Blaze’s diabolical overreaction in victory signalled dark days ahead…

Don Perlin began his long association with the Spirit Cyclist in #26 as ‘A Doom Named Dr. Druid!’ (words by Shooter & inks by Grainger) as recently-revived and revised proto Marvel superhero Anthony Druid (who as Dr. Droom actually predates Fantastic Four #1) hunts a satanic horror and attacks the Ghost Rider. Only after beating the burning biker does the parapsychologist learn the dreadful mistake he’s made, but by then Blaze’s secret is exposed, his Hollywood life ruined and the end of an era looms…

Back on the road again Johnny encounters two fellow travellers, aimless and in trouble when he pals up with disgruntled former Avengers Hawkeye and time-displaced Matt Hawk The Two-Gun Kid. Crafted by Shooter, Perlin & Green ‘At the Mercy of the Manticore!’ sees Blaze save the heroes from The Brand Corporation’s bestial cyborg monstrosity, but drive them away with his demonic other half’s growing propensity for inflicting suffering…

Still roaming the southern deserts, Blaze is targeted once again by his personal Captain Ahab in ‘Evil is the Orb!’ (Roger McKenzie, Perlin, Tom Sutton, Owen McCarron & Pablo Marcos). His vengeance-crazed rival abducts Roxie and mesmerises a biker gang to do his dirty work but hasn’t reckoned on an intervention by Blaze’s buddy Brahma Bill

What seemed an inevitable team-up at last occurred in #29 as “New York Tribe” McCarron, DeZuñiga, & Alfredo Alcala augment McKenzie & Perlin for a saga of sorcerous subterfuge as Johnny Blaze is abducted and inquisition-ed by Doctor Strange. Sadly, it’s all a trick by the Mage’s greatest foe who turns Ghost Rider into a ‘Deadly Pawn!’, rigging a murderous retaliation and death duel between ‘The Mage and the Monster!’ as delivered by McKenzie, Perlin & Jim Mooney.

The clash concluded in an extreme expression of ‘Demon’s Rage’ (#31, with illustrator Perlin co-plotting with McKenzie and Bob Layton inking) as the diabolical scheme is exposed and expunged just in time for the fugitive Johnny Blaze to be captured by a mystical Bounty Hunter

A story tragically similar to Blaze’s own unfolds in McKenzie, Perlin & Rick Bryant’s ‘The Price!’ before Blaze postpones his dark destiny yet again, only to plunge into a super-science hell to contest a medley of western biker and dystopian tropes run amok in ‘…Whom a Child Would Destroy!’ With both chapters uniquely enhanced by an all-Perlin art job, the mutagenic tragedy catastrophically concludes with ‘The Boy Who Lived Forever!’ before this collection closes with a long-deferred, primal thrill-ride.

Commissioned years earlier, ‘Deathrace!’ is a true Jim Starlin gem with Death and the Devil battling our hero in a war of wheels and will, with Steve Leialoha and pals updating and embellishing what we’d call today a Grindhouse shocker…

A big bonus section opens with another, much reprinted yarn. Courtesy of Bill Mantlo, Frank Robbins & Steve Gan is an attempt to create a team of terrors long before its time. Marvel Premiere #28 (February 1976) introduced the initial iteration of The Legion of Monsters in ‘There’s a Mountain on Sunset Boulevard!’. When an ancient alien manifests a rocky peak in LA, the Werewolf by Night Jack Russell, the macabre Man-Thing, current Hollywood stuntman/Ghost Rider Johnny Blaze and living vampire Morbius are irresistibly drawn into a bizarre confrontation which could have resulted in the answer to all their wishes and hopes, but instead only leads to destruction, death and deep disappointment…

With covers by Jack Kirby, Frank Giacoia, Al Milgrom, John Romita Sr., Steve Leialoha, Kane & Dave Cockrum, George Pérez & Rudy Nebres, Sal Buscema, Ernie Chan, Rich Buckler, Robbins, Pollard, Layton, Bob Budiansky, Bob Wiacek, Perlin, and Nick Cardy, other assets include a June 1978 house ad for all of Marvel’s supernatural series, original art pages and covers by Kirby, Romita Sr., DeZuñiga, Perlin & Alcala and Chan, as well as fascinating art edits by Milgrom & Michael Netzer to Starlin’s ‘Deathrace!’ story and the unused cover he originally drew for it.

These tales return Ghost Rider to his roots, and imminent threat of the real-deal Infernal Realm: portraying a good man struggling to save his soul from the worst of all bargains – as much as the revised Comics Code would allow – so brace yourself, hold steady and accept no supernatural substitutes…
© 2021 MARVEL.