Iron Fist Marvel Masterworks volume 2


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 3


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iron Fist Marvel Masterworks volume 1


By Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Doug Moench, Tony Isabella, Chris Claremont, Gil Kane, Larry Hama, Arvell Jones, John Byrne & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5032-9 (HB)

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

As part of the first Martial Arts bonanza, Marvel converted a forthcoming license to use venerable fictional villain Fu Manchu into a series about his son. The series launched in Special Marvel Edition#15, December 1973 as The Hands of Shang Chi: Master of Kung Fu and by April 1974 (#17) the title became his exclusively.

A month later the House of Ideas launched a second oriental-tinged hero in Iron Fist; a character combining Eastern combat philosophy with high fantasy, magic powers and a proper superhero mask and costume…

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

This power-packed collection (available as both sturdy hardback and bantamweight EBook) gathers the far-ranging appearances of the youthful Living Weapon from Marvel Premier #15-25 and Iron Fist#1-2 (spanning May 1974 to December 1975), tracking the high-kicking wonder as he uncovers his past and rediscovers a long-deferred heritage of humanity before inevitably settling into the inescapable role of costumed crusader…

Following a fond and informative reminiscence from Thomas in his Introduction, the non-stop action begins with the spectacular Marvel Premier #15 and the first flurry of ‘The Fury of Iron Fist!’

Thomas, Kane & inker Dick Giordano reveal how a young masked warrior defeats the cream of a legendary combat elite in a fabled other-dimensional city before returning to Earth.

Ten years previously little Daniel Rand had watched helplessly as his father and mother died at the hands of family friend Harold Meachum whilst the party risked Himalayan snows to find the legendary lost city of K’un Lun.

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

As he wanders alone in the wilderness, the city comes to Danny. He spends the next decade training: mastering all forms of martial arts in the militaristic, oriental, feudal paradise. He endures arcane ordeals, living only for the day he will return to Earth and avenge his parents…

After conquering all comers and refusing peace, a home and immortality, Iron Fist touches Earth once more: a Living Weapon able to turn his force of will into a devastating super-punch…

From the outset the feature was plagued by an inability to keep a stable creative team, although, to be fair, story quality never suffered, only plot and direction. Reaching New York City in #16, ‘Heart of the Dragon!’ (by Len Wein, Larry Hama & Giordano) finds Iron Fist reliving the years of crushing tuition and toil which had culminated in a trial by combat with mystic dragon Shou-Lao the Undying. Victory granted him the power to concentrate his fist “like unto a thing of Iron” and other, as yet unspecified, abilities. The epic clash had branded his chest with the seared silhouette of the fearsome wyrm…

His recollections are shattered when martial arts bounty hunter Scythe attacks, revealing that Meachum knows the boy is back and has put a price on his callow head…

Danny has not only sacrificed immortality for vengeance but also prestige and privilege. As he left K’un Lun, supreme ruler of the city Yü Ti, the August Personage in Jade, had revealed that murdered Wendell Rand had been his own brother…

Marvel Premier #17 saw Doug Moench take over scripting as Iron Fist storms Meachum’s skyscraper headquarters: a ‘Citadel on the Edge of Vengeance’ and converted into a colossal 30-storey death trap. Danny’s undaunted progress to the top leads to a duel with cybernetically-augmented giant Triple-Iron and a climactic confrontation with his parents’ killer in #18’s ‘Lair of Shattered Vengeance!’

The years had not been kind to Meachum. He lost his legs to frostbite returning from the high peaks, and, upon hearing from Sherpas that a boy had been taken into K’un Lun, the broken American had spent the intervening decade awaiting in dread for his victims’ avenger…

Filled with loathing, frustration and pity, Iron Fist turns away from his intended retribution, but Meachum dies anyway, slain by a mysterious Ninja as the deranged multi-millionaire attempts to shoot Danny in the back…

In #19, Joy Meachum and her ruthless uncle Ward – convinced that Iron Fist has assassinated the wheelchair-bound Harold – steps up the hunt for Danny through legal and illegal means, even as the shell-shocked Living Weapon aimlessly wanders the strange streets of Manhattan. Adopted by the enigmatic Colleen Wing, Danny meets her father, an aging professor of Oriental Studies who has fallen foul of a ‘Death Cult!’

In his own youthful travels, the aged savant had acquired ancient text The Book of Many Things which, amongst other wonders, held the secret of K’un Lun’s destruction. The deadly disciples of Kara-Kai are determined to possess it…

After thwarting another murder attempt Iron Fist tries to make peace with Joy, but instead walks into an ambush with the bloodthirsty ninja again intervening and slaughtering the ambushers…

A period of often painful inconsistency began as Tony Isabella, Arvell Jones & Dan Green took over with #20. The Kara-Kai cultists renew their attacks on the Wings whilst Ward Meachum hires a veritable army of killers to destroy the Living Weapon in ‘Batroc and Other Assassins’ – with the identity of the ninja apparently revealed here as the elderly scholar…

Marvel Premier #21 (inked by Vince Colletta) introduced the ‘Daughters of the Death Goddess’ as the Wings are abducted by the cultists and bionic former cop Misty Knight debuts, first as foe but soon after as an ally.

When Danny tracks down the cult he discovers some shocking truths – as does the ninja, who had been imprisoned within the ancient book by the August Personage in Jade in ages past and possessed Professor Wing in search of escape and vengeance…

All is revealed and the hero exonerated in #22’s ‘Death is a Ninja’ (inked by “A. Bradford”) with the ninja disclosing how, as disciple to sublime wizard Master Khan, he had attempted to conquer K’un Lun only to be imprisoned within the crumbling tome for his pains.

Over the years the prisoner had discovered a temporary escape and subsequently manipulated the Wings and Iron Fist to secure a permanent release and the doom of his jailers. Now exposed, the ninja faces the Living Weapon in a final cataclysmic clash…

A measure of stability resumed with #23 as Chris Claremont, Pat Broderick & Bob McLeod took the series in a new direction. With his life’s work over and nearly nine years until he can go “home”, Danny is now a man without purpose… until, whilst strolling with Colleen, he stumbles into a spree shooting in ‘The Name is… Warhawk.’

When the cyborg-assassin has a Vietnam flashback and begins heedlessly sniping in Central Park, the Pride of K’un Lun instantly responds to the threat… and thus begins his new role as a hero…

In ‘Summerkill’ (inked by Colletta) the itinerant exile battles alien robot The Monstroid and commences a long and complicated association with Princess Azir of Halwan. The incident also coincides with the mysterious Master Khan resurfacing, apparently intent on killing her and seizing her country…

Inked by Al McWilliams, Marvel Premier #25 was the last of the hero’s run and the start of his short-but-sweet Golden Age as John Byrne signed on as regular penciller for ‘Morning of the Mindstorm!’

Whilst Colleen is driven to unconsciousness and abducted and her father pushed to the edge of insanity by mind-bending terrorist Angar the Screamer, Danny – who is made of far sterner, more disciplined stuff – overcomes the psycho-sonic assaults and tracks the attackers to Stark Industries and into his own series…

Iron Fist #1 (November 1975) featured ‘A Duel of Iron!’ as he is tricked into battling Iron Man, even as Colleen escapes and runs into Danny’s future nemesis Steel Serpent before being recaptured and renditioned to Halwan…

After a spectacular, inconclusive and ultimately pointless battle, Danny and Misty Knight also head for Halwan in ‘Valley of the Damned!’ (#2, inked by Frank Chiaramonte), with our hero recalling a painful episode from his youth wherein his best friends Conal and Miranda chose certain death beyond the walls of regimented K’un Lun rather than remain in the lost city where they could not love each other…

To Be Continued…

Iron Fist’s peripatetic saga ranks amongst the most exciting and enjoyable Costumed Dramas of Marvel’s second generation. If you want a good, clean fight comic (and one supported by a TV iteration) this is certainly one of your best bets. Bow reverently, and Begin…
© 1974, 1975, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 2


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-0980-8 (HB)                    978-0-7851-3712-2 (TPB)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This full-colour hardcover or paperback compendium (also available in various digital formats) collects Fantastic Four #11-20, plus the first Annual, and chronologically spans February to November 1963.

We open sans preamble with more groundbreaking innovations as FF #11 offers two short stories instead of the usual book-length yarn. ‘A Visit with the Fantastic Four’ provides a behind-the-scenes travelogue and examination of our stars’ pre-superhero lives, after which ‘The Impossible Man’, proves to be a baddie-free, compellingly comedic tale about facing an unbeatable foe.

The unorthodox shenanigans are rounded off with a suitably grandiose pin-up of Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner.

FF #12 featured an early example of guest-star promotion as the team are required to help the US army capture ‘The Incredible Hulk’: a tale packed with intrigue, action and bitter irony. It’s followed by an even more momentous and game-changing episode.

‘Versus the Red Ghost and his Incredible Super Apes!’ is a cold war thriller pitting the heroic family against a Soviet scientist in the race to reach the Moon: a tale notable both for the moody Steve Ditko inking (replacing adroit Dick Ayers for one glorious month) of Kirby’s artwork and the introduction of the oxygen-rich “Blue Area of the Moon” and the omnipotent, omnipresent cosmic voyeurs called The Watchers

As the triumphant Americans rocket home, issue #14 touts the return of ‘The Sub-Mariner and the Merciless Puppet Master!’ – with one vengeful fiend made the unwitting mind-slave of the other – and adding lustre and tantalising moral ambivalence to the mighty Sea King who was to become the company’s other all-conquering antihero in months to come…

This epic was followed in turn by ‘The Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android!’ wherein a chilling war of intellects between driven super-scientists resulted in a cerebral yet all-action clash with plenty of room for smart laughs to leaven the drama. The pin-up extra this time is a candid group-shot of the entire team.

Fantastic Four #16 explored ‘The Micro-World of Doctor Doom!’ in a spectacular romp guest-starring new hero Ant-Man whilst also offering a Fantastic Four Feature Page outlining the powers and capabilities of the elastic Mister Fantastic. Despite his resounding defeat, the steel-shod villain promptly returned with more infallible, deadly traps a month later in ‘Defeated by Doctor Doom!’ Except they actually weren’t and soon sent the sinister tyrant packing…

The shape-shifting aliens who challenged the team in their second adventure returned with a new tactic in #18 as the team tackle an implacable foe equipped with their own powers in ‘A Skrull Walks Among Us!’: a potent prelude to greater, cosmos-spanning sagas still to come…

Cover-dated October 1963, Fantastic Four #19 introduced another remarkable, top-ranking super-villain as the quarrelsome quartet travel back to ancient Egypt and become ‘Prisoners of the Pharaoh!’

This time twisting tale tale has been revisited by so many writers that it’s considered one of the key stories in Marvel Universe history: introducing a future-Earth tyrant who would evolve into overarching menace Kang the Conqueror.

Another universe-rending foe debuted and was defeated by brains not brawn in FF #20 as ‘The Mysterious Molecule Man!’ briefly menaced New York before being soundly outsmarted.

The vintage wonderment concludes here with the contents of the first summer Fantastic Four Annual: a spectacular 37-page epic by Lee, Kirby & Ayers as, finally reunited with their wandering prince, the armies of Atlantis invade New York City and the rest of the world in ‘The Sub-Mariner versus the Human Race!’

A monumental tale by the standards of the time (and still today), the saga saw the FF repel the initially overwhelming undersea invasion through valiant struggle, brilliant strategy and technological innovation, as well as providing a secret history of the secretive race Homo Mermanus.

Nothing was really settled except a return to the original status quo, but the thrills are intense and unforgettable…

Also included herein are rousing pin-ups and fact file features. Interspersed by ‘A Gallery of the Fantastic Four’s Most Famous Foes!’ (powerful pin-ups of The Mole Man, Skrulls, Miracle Man, Prince Namor, Doctor Doom, Kurrgo, Master of Planet X, Puppet Master, Impossible Man, The Hulk, Red Ghost and his Indescribable Super-Apes and The Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android), you can enjoy ‘Questions and Answers about the Fantastic Four’; a diagrammatic trip ‘Inside the Baxter Building’ and a bemusing short tale ‘The Fabulous Fantastic Four meet Spider-Man!’.

This is an extended re-interpretation of the first meeting between the two most popular Marvel brands from the premiere issue of the wallcrawler’s own comic. Pencilled this time by Kirby, the dramatic duel was graced by Steve Ditko’s inking which created a truly novel and compelling look.

Some might argue that these yarns might be a little dated in tone, but they these are still classics of comic story-telling illustrated by one of the world’s greatest talents approaching his mature peak. Fast, frantic fun and a joy to read or re-read, this comprehensive, joyous introduction (or even reintroduction) to these characters is a wonderful reminder of just how good comic books can and should be.
© 1963, 2014 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Golden Age Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 2


By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby and various (Marvel Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2228-9 (HB)

Captain America was devised at the end of 1940 and boldly launched in his own monthly title from Timely – the company’s unofficial trading designation – with none of the customary cautious shilly-shallying. The first issue was cover-dated March 1941 and was an instant monster, blockbuster smash-hit. Cap was instantly the absolute and undisputed star of Timely’s “Big Three” – the other two being The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner. He was also one of the very first to plummet from popularity at the end of the Golden Age.

These days, the huge 1940s popularity of the other two just doesn’t translate into a good read for modern consumers; excluding, perhaps, some far-too-few Bill Everett-crafted Sub-Mariner yarns. In comparison to their contemporary rivals and industry leaders at Quality, Fawcett, National/All American and Dell, or The Spirit newspaper strip by Will Eisner, the standard of most Timely periodicals was woefully lacklustre in both story and, most tellingly, art.

That they survived and prospered is a true Marvel mystery, but a clue might lie in the sheer exuberant venom of their racial stereotypes and heady fervour of jingoism at a time when America was involved in the greatest war in world history…

However, the first ten Captain America Comics are indisputably the most high-quality comics in the fledgling company’s history and I can’t help but wonder what might have been had National (née DC) been wise enough to hire Simon & Kirby before they were famous, instead of after that pivotal first year?

Of course, we’ll never know and although the team supreme did jump to the majors after a year, their visual dynamic became the mandated aspirational style for super-hero comics at the company they left. Moreover, their patriotic creation became a flagship icon for them and the industry.

Truth be told however, the groundbreaking and exceptionally high-quality material from Joe Simon & Jack Kirby is not really the lure here… the real gold nuggets for us old sods and comics veterans are the rare back-up features overseen by the star duo and crafted by their small pool of talented up-&-comers.

Although unattributed the assistants included at various times Reed Crandall, Syd Shores, Alex Schomburg, Mort Meskin, Chu Hing, Gustav Schrotter, George Klein, C.A. Winter, Fred Bell and many more working on main course and filler features such as Hurricane, the God of Speed and Tuk, Caveboy; strips barely remembered today yet still brimming with the first enthusiastic efforts of creative legends in waiting.

This lavish and exceptional hardback volume (also available in various digital formats) reprints original Star-Spangled blockbusters Captain America Comics #5-8 (spanning August to November 1941) and also provides a fascinating insight into the fly-by-night nature of publishing during those get-rich-quick days in an Introduction from historian and comics scripter Gerard Jones, after which the astounding never-ending action resumes…

After scrawny, enfeebled young patriot Steve Rogers is continually rejected by the US Army, he is recruited by the Secret Service. In an effort to counter a wave of Nazi-sympathizing espionage and sabotage, the passionate young man was invited to become part of a clandestine experiment intended to create physically perfect super-soldiers.

However, when a Nazi agent infiltrated the project and murdered its key scientist, Rogers became the only successful graduate and transitioned into America’s not-so-secret weapon and very public patriotic symbol.

Despatched undercover as a simple army private, he soon encountered James Buchanan Barnes: a headstrong, orphaned Army Brat who became his sidekick and costumed confidante “Bucky”.

In the period when America was still officially non-combatant, Rogers and his sidekick were stationed at East Coast army base Camp Lehigh, but still manage to find plenty of crime to crush and evil to eradicate.

In Simon & Kirby’s ‘Captain America and the Ringmaster of Death’ the arrival in town of a circus leads to the deaths of General Blaine and Defense Commissioner Newsome in suspicious circumstances. It’s not long before both the masked heroes and government agent Betty Ross reach the same conclusion: all the acts and freaks are Nazi operatives sabotaging the nation’s security through murder… but not for much longer…

Japan was still a neutral nation too, so although visually their soldiers and spies were also unmistakeably ever-present, the eastern arm of the Axis alliance (the other two being Germany and Italy, history fans) were still being referred to as “sinister Orientals” and “Asiatic Aggressor nations”. Even so, when Steve and Bucky accompany new commanding General Haywood to the US pacific base of Kunoa, the readers knew who was really behind ‘The Gruesome Secret of the Dragon of Death!’, and revelled in seeing them scupper the most spectacular secret weapon yet aimed at the forces of freedom…

Back in the USA, the hard-hitting Star-Spangled Stalwarts then come to rescue of decent, law-abiding German Americans terrorised by the ‘Killers of the Bund’, who were determined to create a deadly Fifth Column inside America’s heartland.

Following a rousing ad for the newly minted Captain America’s Sentinels of Liberty society, a glorified infomercial for the club comes in the form of prose adventure ‘Captain America and the Ruby Robbers’ scripted by Stan Lee with spot art by S&K, after which the Patriotic Pair rescue a downed volunteer American flyer held prisoner on a former French Island now administered by the collaborating Vichy government.

‘Captain America and… The Terror That Was Devil’s Island’ is an action-drenched melodrama plucked from the contemporaneous Hollywood movie mill and referencing films such as 1937’s The Life of Emile Zola, 1939’s Devil’s Island and perhaps even 1941’s I Was a Prisoner on Devil’s Island. It served to show that infamy and cruelty could not long subdue any valiant American heart…

Joining the list of supporting features, the equally relevant if improbable adventures of ‘Headline Hunter, Foreign Correspondent’ began with this issue. Crafted by Stan Lee & Harry Fisk, these shorts find US journalist Jerry Hunter sent to Blitz-blighted London to report on the European war, only to become the story after he uncovers a traitor in the corridors of power…

Sporting only a title page by Simon & Kirby, primeval wonder ‘Tuk, Cave Boy’ bows out in a final example of “Weird Stories from the Dark Ages” as he saves his mentor Tanir from marauding beast-men and ends forever the depredations of brutal tyrant Bongo, before seasoned pro Charles Nicholas (née Wojtkowski) assumes the art chores on ‘Hurricane, Master of Speed’. Hurricane was the earthbound son of the thunder god Thor (no relation to the 1960s version): a brisk reworking and sequel to Kirby’s ‘Mercury in the 20th Century’ from Red Raven Comics #1 (August 1940), and here intercedes in a diabolical plot to destabilise the economy by flooding the banks with counterfeit currency…

Issue #6 carried a September 1941 cover-date and opens with a classic murder spree thriller as ‘Captain America Battles the Camera Fiend and his Darts of Doom’ in a frantic bid to prevent the theft of Britain’s Crown Jewels.

Timely were never subtle in terms of jingoistic (we’d say appallingly racist) depictions, and even the normally reserved Simon & Kirby let themselves go in ‘Meet the Fang, the Arch Fiend of the Orient’ as Cap and Bucky challenge the full insidious might of the Tongs of San Francisco’s China Town to save kidnapped Chinese dignitaries from a master torturer…

Another new feature debuted next. Scripted by Lee and illustrated by Al Avison & Al Gabriele ‘Father Time: The Grim Reaper Deals with Crime’ details how Larry Scott learned that his father had been framed for murder. Through heroic efforts Scott exposed the true culprits but was seconds too late to save his sire from the noose.

Determined that time should no longer be on the side of criminals and killers, Larry devised a ghastly costume and – wielding a scythe – brought his dad’s persecutors to justice. They would be only the first in Father Time’s crusade…

Simon & Kirby’s art and stories were becoming increasingly bold and innovative and ‘The Strange Case of Captain America and the Hangman Who Killed Doctor Vardoff’ reveals a diabolical game of Ten Little Indians as the suspects perish one by one whilst the superheroes attempt to catch a ruthless killer and retrieve a stolen experimental super-silk invention…

Lee and an unknown artist then offer another thinly-veiled prose plug for the Sentinels of Liberty club as Cap and Bucky lay a ‘Trap for a Traitor’, after which Headline Hunter, Foreign Correspondent ‘Battles the Engine of Destruction’ (by Lee & Fisk) and exposes an aristocratic English fascist building Nazi terror weapons in his British factories.

Following further Sentinels of Liberty club news and puzzle pages ‘Hurricane, Master of Speed’ closes the issue, crushing a murder plot in his own boarding house with art courtesy of Charles Nicholas.

CAC #7 is a stunning comic milestone and leads with the iconic clash ‘Captain America in the Case of the Red Skull and the Whistling Death’. With Steve and Bucky ordered to participate in a Vaudeville-themed troop show at Camp Lehigh, the Nazi super-assassin stalks the city slaughtering his old cronies and American military experts with a mysterious sound weapon. The monster’s big mistake is leaving the shadows and arrogantly turning his attention to Cap…

‘The Case of the Baseball Murders: Death Loads the Bases’ seemingly offers a change of pace but Steve’s sporting relaxation turns into more work when a masked maniac starts knocking off his team’s star players…

Lee’s regular prose novelette provides ‘A Message from Captain America’ introducing his fellow heroes Jerry Hunter, Hurricane and Father Time before S&K strip feature ‘Horror Plays the Scales’ pits the Red, White and Blue Bravos against a murdering musician knocking off anti-Nazi politicians.

Ken Bald & Bill Ward introduce a comedy foil for Hurricane, Master of Speed as ‘Justice Laughs Last’ sees the speedster adopt portly shopkeeper Speedy Scriggles after protection racketeers target the feisty fool.

Headline Hunter (by Lee & Fisk) then clears an Englishman accused of murdering an American film star and reveals a Nazi plot to disrupt Anglo-US relations whilst Father Time’s ‘Race Against Doom’ (Lee, Al Avison & Al Gabriele) saves another innocent patsy from taking the fall for a crooked DA and his mob boss paymaster. The issue then closes with more puzzles and patriotic pronouncements from Cap and Bucky to all their fee-paying Sentinels…

Captain America Comics #8 (cover-date November 1941) was released months before the Pearl Harbor atrocity catapulted the nation into official war so the contents might have compiled as early as June or July. Thus it opens with another gripping crime conundrum – ‘The Strange Mystery of the Ruby of the Nile and Its Heritage of Horror’ – which sees the heroes assisting Betty Ross in safeguarding a fabulous antique jewel but seemingly helpless to prevents its archaeologist excavators from being butchered by a marauding phantasm…

The impending conflagration does inform ‘Murder Stalks the Maneuvers’ when a Nazi infiltrator attends full-contact war games and uses the opportunity to trick American soldiers into destroying each other with live ammo whilst Headline Hunter, Foreign Correspondent remains in the thick of it facing ‘The Strange Riddle of the Plague of Death’ (Lee & Fisk).

This time he saves London (and the Home Counties) from a strange sickness spread by bread…

After more Sentinel propaganda and absorbing puzzles Simon & Kirby reveal the ‘Case of the Black Witch’ as Cap and Bucky protect a young woman’s inheritance and clash with a sinister sorceress and the worst horrors hell could conceive of.

Charles Nicholas returns to Hurricane as the Master of Speed and his new pal shut down a crooked ‘Carnival of Crime’, after which Lee & an unsung illustrator promote in prose a new Timely title when ‘The Young Allies Strike a Blow for Justice’. Please be warned: the treatment of Negro (heroic) character Whitewash here is every bit as dated, contentious and potentially offensive as the era’s representations of other races, so kudos to the editors for leaving the story untouched…

Closing on a bombastic high Father Time then deals harshly with robbers who use bank strong rooms to asphyxiate witnesses in ‘Vault of Doom!’

An added and very welcome bonus for fans is the inclusion of some absolutely beguiling house-ads for other titles, contents pages, Sentinels of Liberty club bulletins and assorted ephemera…

Although lagging far behind DC and despite, in many ways having a much shallower Golden Age well to draw from, it’s still commendable that Marvel has overcome an understandable initial reluctance about its earliest product and continues to re-present these masterworks – even if they’re only potentially of interest to the likes of sad old folk like me.

However, with this particular tome at least, the House of Ideas has a book that will always stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best that the Golden Age of Comics could offer.
© 1941 and 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 1


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

I’m partial to a bit of controversy so I’m going start off by saying that Fantastic Four #1 is the third most important American comicbook of the last 75 years. Just ahead of it are The Brave and the Bold #28, which brought superhero teams back via the creation of the Justice League of America and at the top Showcase #4, which introduced the Flash and therefore the Silver Age. Feel free to disagree…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mighty Thor Marvel Masterworks volume 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 12


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 6


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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