Marvel Team Up Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Ross Andru, Gil Kane, Jim Mooney & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4210-2 (HB)

Inspiration isn’t everything. In fact, as Marvel slowly grew to a position of market dominance in the wake of losing their two most innovative and inspirational creators, they did so less by experimentation and more by expanding proven concepts and properties.

The only real exception to this was the assembly line creation of horror and horror-hero titles in response to the industry down-turn in super-hero sales – a move expedited by a rapid revision in the wordings of the increasingly ineffectual Comics Code Authority rules.

The concept of team-up books – an established star pairing or battling (usually both) with less well-selling company characters – was not new when Marvel decided to award their most popular hero the lion’s share of this new title, but they wisely left their options open by allocating an occasional substitute lead in the Human Torch.

In those long-lost days editors were acutely conscious of potential over-exposure – and since superheroes were actually in a decline they may well have been right.

Marvel Team-Up was the second regular Spider-Man title (abortive companion title Spectacular Spider-Man was created for the magazine market in 1968 but had died after two issues). MTU launched at the end of 1971 and went from strength to strength, proving the time had finally come for expansion and a concentration on uncomplicated action over sub-plots…

This engaging hardback and/or eBook compilation gathers the first 11 issues – covering March 1972 to July 1973 – and opens with scripter Gerry Conway’s engaging recollections in ‘Behold: An Introduction’ before the comicbook magic commences with the webspinner and his flighty flaming frenemy reluctantly spending the holidays together…

Marvel Team-Up #1was crafted by Roy Thomas, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito as a mutual old enemy reared his gritty head in the charming ‘Have Yourself a Sandman Little Christmas!’. A light-heated romp full of Christmas cheer, rambunctious action and seasonal sentiment, the story set the tone for all epics to follow.

Merry Marvelite Maximii can award themselves a point for remembering which martial arts and TV heroine debuted in this issue but the folk with lives can simply take my word that it was Iron Fist’s sometime squeeze Misty Knight

Gerry Conway assumed the writer’s role and Jim Mooney the inker’s for ‘And Spidey Makes Four!’ in the succeeding issue as our heroes then take on and trounce the Frightful Four and Negative Zone bogeyman Annihilus before seemingly without pause going after Morbius the Living Vampire in #3’s ‘The Power to Purge!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia).

The new horror-star was still acting the villain in MTU #4 as the Torch was replaced by most of Marvel’s sole mutant team (The Beast having gone all hairy – and solo) in ‘And Then… the X-Men!’

This bold and enthralling thriller was illustrated by the magnificent Gil Kane at the top of his form and inked by Steve Mitchell. Kane became a semi-regular penciller, and his dynamic style and extreme anatomy lifted many rather pedestrian tales such as #5’s ‘A Passion of the Mind!’ (Conway script & Esposito inks), pitting Spidey and The Vision against manipulative mesmeric Puppet Master and robotic assassin the Monstroid.

The villain carried over to the next issue and was joined by the Mad Thinker ‘…As Those Who Will Not See!’ pitted the wallcrawler and the Thing against the cerebral scoundrels in a cataclysmic battle no Fights ‘n’ Tights fan could be unmoved by…

‘A Hitch in Time!’ in #7 was produced by Conway, Andru and Mooney: guest-starring Thor as otherworldly Trolls freeze Earth’s time-line as a prerequisite step to conquering Asgard, after which MTU #8 provides a perfect example of the team-up comic’s other function – to promote and popularise new characters.

‘Man-Killer Moves at Midnight!’ was most fans’ first exposure to The Cat (later retooled as Tigra the Were-Woman) in a painfully worthy if ham-fisted attempt to address feminist issues from Conway and Jim Mooney. The hard-pressed heroes joined forces her to stop a male-hunting murderer paying back abusive men. These days we’d probably be rooting for her…

Iron Man then collaborated in the opening foray of 3-part tale ‘The Tomorrow War!’ (Conway, Andru & Frank Bolle) as he and Spidey are kidnapped by Zarkko the Tomorrow Man to battle Kang the Conqueror. The Torch returned to help deal with the intermediate threat of ‘Time Bomb!’ (with art by Mooney & Giacoia) before the entire race of Black Bolt’s Inhumans pile in to help Spidey stop history unravelling in culminatory clash ‘The Doomsday Gambit!’ – this last chapter scripted by Len Wein over Conway’s plot for Mooney & Esposito to illustrate.

This initial gathering also includes two splendid samples of Kane original art – a cover and interior page.

These stories are of variable quality but nonetheless all show an honest drive to entertain and please whilst artistically the work is superb, and most fans of the genre would find little to complain about. Although not really a book for casual or more maturely-oriented readers, there’s lots of fun on hand and young readers will have a blast, so surely that’s reason enough to add this titanic tome to your library…
© 1972, 1973, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avengers Marvel Masterworks volume 9

By Roy Thomas, Harlan Ellison, John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Frank Giacoia, Herb Trimpe, Sam Grainger & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3501-2

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

Of course, all the founding stars regularly featured due to a rotating, open door policy which meant that most issues included somebody’s fave-rave. The increasingly bold and impressively ambitious stories and artwork were no hindrance either.

This sturdy hardcover and eBook compilation gathers the astounding contents of Avengers issues #80-88 and a cosmic crossover from Incredible Hulk #140 spanning September 1970-June 1971): evocative, socially-informed tales which confirmed Roy Thomas as a major creative force in comics whilst simultaneously consolidating John Buscema’s status as the foremost artist of Marvel’s second generation.

Following another candid reminiscence from Thomas – unravelling the behind-the-scenes secrets of the Dawning Marvel Age in his Introduction – this epochal tome opens with the debut of the company’s first Native American costumed hero in ‘The Coming of Red Wolf!’ (Thomas, John B & Tom Palmer) as the Avengers are drawn into a highly personal and decidedly brutal clash between ruthless entrepreneur Cornelius Van Lunt and a tribe of Indians he is defrauding and persecuting.

The dramatic dilemma (heralding the team’s entry into the era of “Relevant”, socially conscious tales) divides the team and concludes with Vision, Scarlet Witch and Goliath aiding Red Wolf in concluding episode ‘When Dies A Legend!’, whilst the remaining team pursues super crime combine Zodiac and the Black Panther pursues what he believes is a personal quest beside Daredevil. (This last tale occurred in DD #69 but is not included here. You’ll need to see the equivalent Daredevil Masterworks volume [#9, I think] for that).

Sadly, the malevolent mega-mob move first and take the entire island of Manhattan ‘Hostage!’, leaving only the solitary sightless vigilante Daredevil free to save the day, after which Militant Feminism raises its disconcertingly strident head as the Wasp, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and Madame Medusa are seduced into joining a new team called the Lady Liberators (yes, I know how that sounds now but the all-male creative team meant well…).

However, the Valkyrie who declares ‘Come on in… the Revolution’s Fine!’ had her own dark secret and sinister agenda that has nothing to do with justice or equality…

Avengers #84 featured part-time paladin Black Knight who had become addicted to the bloodthirsty hunger of his Ebony Blade, resulting in an otherworldly confrontation with alternate-Earth barbarian king Arkon and his latest paramour the Enchantress in ‘The Sword and the Sorceress!’ The resulting acrimonious clash subsequently left half the team lost in a parallel existence…

In ‘The World is Not for Burning!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia), Vision, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver’s efforts to return home leave them stranded on an Earth where the Squadron Supreme are the World’s Greatest heroes and a solar Armageddon is only hours away…

Illustrated by Sal Buscema & Jim Mooney, ‘Brain-Child to the Dark Tower Came…!’ sees the extremely reluctant trans-Earth allies unite to save a very different world after which, back home, the Black Panther reprises his bombastic origin before taking leave of his comrades to assume the throne of his hidden African nation in ‘Look Homeward, Avenger’ (Giacoia & Sal B).

Novelist Harlan Ellison was a very vocal comics fan in the 1970s and occasionally collaborated on Marvel tales. Avengers #88 began a radical adaptation of one his best short stories, heralding ‘The Summons of Psyklop’ (Ellison, Thomas, Sal Buscema & Mooney) wherein an experiment to cure the Hulk of his destructive nature leads to the Jade Juggernaut’s abduction by a preternatural entity.

The saga concluded in Incredible Hulk #140 (Ellison, Thomas, Herb Trimpe & Sam Grainger) as ‘The Brute… That Shouted Love… at the Heart of the Atom!’ finds the man-monster experiencing truelove and idyllic peace in a sub-molecular paradise, only to lose it all when the demonic Psyklop tracks him down…

Following a reproduction of the cover of the all-reprint Avengers Annual #4, the romantic tragedy is somewhat leavened by a bonus yarn from Marvel’s spoof publication Not Brand Echh #5 (December 1967). Here Thomas, Gene Colan & John Tartaglione recount the sterling saga of ‘The Revengers vs Charlie America’, reinterpreting how – if not why – the heroes saved the Star-Spangled Simpleton of Liberty from icy entombment. Wrapping up the memorable magic is a brace of contemporary house ads and full biographies of all creative folk involved…

Thomas and John Buscema (and Sal too, actually) gloriously led Marvel’s second generation of creators in building on and consolidating Lee, Kirby and Ditko’s initial burst of comics creativity: spearheading and constructing a logical, fully functioning wonder- machine of places and events that so many others were inspired by and could add to.

These terrific tales are perfect examples of superheroes done exactly right and a pivotal step of the little company into the corporate colossus. They are also utterly fabulous stories you’ll never tire of reading
© 1970, 1971, 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Sub-Mariner Marvel Masterworks volume 2

By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Raymond Marais, Archie Goodwin, Bill Everett, Dan Adkins, Werner Roth, Marie Severin, Gene Colan, John Buscema, & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2688-1 (HB)

Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner is the offspring of a water-breathing Atlantean princess and an American polar explorer; a hybrid being of immense strength, highly resistant to physical harm, able to fly and exist above and below the waves. Created by young, talented Bill Everett, Namor technically predates Marvel/Atlas/Timely Comics.

He first caught the public’s attention as part of the fire vs. water headlining team in Marvel Comics #1 (October 1939 and soon to become Marvel Mystery Comics) sharing honours and top billing with The Human Torch, but he had originally been seen (albeit in a truncated black and white version) in Motion Picture Funnies: a weekly promotional giveaway handed out to moviegoers earlier in the year.

Quickly becoming one of the company’s biggest draws, Namor gained his own title at the end of 1940 (cover-dated Spring 1941) and was one of the last super-characters to go at the end of the first heroic age. In 1954, when Atlas (as the company then was) briefly revived its “Big Three” (the Torch and Captain America being the other two) costumed characters, Everett returned for an extended run of superb fantasy tales, but even so the time wasn’t right and the title sunk again.

When Stan Lee & Jack Kirby started reinventing comic-books in 1961 with the Fantastic Four, they revived the all-but forgotten awesome amphibian as a troubled, semi-amnesiac, and decidedly more regal and grandiose anti-hero. The returnee despised humanity; embittered at the loss of his sub-sea kingdom (seemingly destroyed by American atomic testing) whilst simultaneously besotted with the FF’s Sue Storm.

Namor knocked around the budding Marvel universe for a few years, squabbling with other assorted heroes such as the Hulk, Avengers and X-Men, before securing his own series as one half of Tales to Astonish.

This second subsea selection – available in hardback and eBook editions – collects Tales to Astonish #88-101, Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner #1 and The Sub-Mariner #1, circuitously spanning February 1967 to May 1968; opening with a florid and enthusiastic Introduction from sometime-scribe and passionate life-long fan Roy Thomas before the undersea action resumes.

Crafted by Stan Lee & Bill Everett, the Tales to Astonish #88 Sub-Mariner saga saw sub-sea barbarian Attuma attack once more, employing a lost extraterrestrial super-robot when ‘A Stranger Strikes from Space!’. The tale concluded in ‘The Prince and the Power!’ as the Marine Marvel turned the tables on his enemies through brains not brawn, after which Namor’s greatest rival returned in ‘To Be Beaten by Byrrah!’

Here the Prince’s ruthless cousin (last seen in the short-lived 1950s revival of Sub-Mariner Comics) employed gutter politics and subliminal hypnosis to oust the true ruler, only to receive his comeuppance in ‘Outside the Gates Waits Death!’: this latter seeing the inking debut of arch-stylist Dan Adkins.

Illustrating in a style that owed everything to Wally Wood, Adkins took over the pencilling in #92’s ‘It Walks Like a Man!’ This tale of atomic pollution and American naval intransigence is a terse foretaste of Sub-Mariner’s later role as eco-warrior, and the concluding part features Roy Thomas’ first script for the aquatic antihero in ‘The Monarch and the Monster!’ as Namor battles a nuclear golem and aggrieved US submarine commander to curtail imminent war…

Nevertheless, Namor was still dragged into a surface tyrant’s armed conflict in ‘Helpless, at the Hands of Dragorr!’ (Thomas & Everett), and incoming scripter Raymond Marais joined Thomas, Everett & Colletta on ‘The Power of the Plunderer!’ Here the piratical old Daredevil villain attacks an American civilian experimental undersea city.

Marais solo-scripted second chapter ‘Somewhere Stands Skull Island!’ as outraged Namor trails the Plunderer to the antediluvian Savage Land only to be captured and seemingly enslaved.

TtA #97’s ‘The Sovereign and the Savages’ came courtesy of Thomas and unsung art star Werner Roth – who had actually taken over the art halfway through the previous episode. Inked by Adkins, the Plunderer’s assault on Atlantis is finally foiled in ‘…To Destroy the Realm Eternal!’ but the vile events precipitated a similar attack on Namor’s homeland by a US atomic submarine in ‘When Falls the Holocaust!’ (by Archie Goodwin & Dan Adkins) in #99.

Marvel’s “split-books” had been devised as a way to promote their burgeoning stable of stars whilst labouring under a highly restrictive distribution deal which limited the number of titles they could release each month. In 1968 the company escaped this onerous commitment and thereby expanded exponentially.

In the months leading up to that virtual relaunch a number of bold experiments occurred: the most impressive of which was the first actual meeting of the monstrous stars of Marvel’s antihero title since they had won their own series.

Tales to Astonish #100, by Lee, Marie Severin & Adkins had Namor’s plan to recruit the Hulk as an ally go spectacularly awry after the Puppet Master fomented a near-disaster that almost levelled Miami in ‘Let There Be Battle!’, a tale that took 22 pages to unfold.

The final issue of Astonish then introduced a villain who would alter forever the history and perception of the Sub-Mariner. ‘…And Evil Shall Beckon!’ by Goodwin, Gene Colan & Adkins saw the aquatic antihero plagued by visions of a bestial foe who threatened his throne and people, drawing Namor to a confrontation in the Polar regions where the first Atlantis had been built…

For reasons never disclosed (and I shall charitably keep my assumptions private) the Golden Avenger and Prince of Atlantis both had to wait a month before getting their own first issues, necessitating one last split-book. Iron Man and Sub-Mariner #1 (April 1968) carried the middle parts of two epics that each concluded in memorable debut issues, but the amphibian’s contribution ‘Call Him Destiny …or Call Him Death!’ – by Thomas, Colan & Frank Giacoia – did no more than whet the appetite by revealing half an origin before apparently killing the lead character.

Sub-Mariner #1 (May1968, by Thomas, John Buscema & Giacoia) more than made up for the confusion as Namor’s true origin and the reason for his bouts of amnesia were explained by malign super-telepath Destiny, as ‘Years of Glory… Day of Doom!’ recapped Sub-Mariner’s gloriously chequered past whilst setting up another epic quest that would prove amongst this venerable character’s very best. That, however, is the subject of another volume.

Before the end, though, there are bonus benefits in the form of pages of original art and covers by Colan and Everett.

These tales feature some of Marvel’s very best artists at their visual peak, and although a few of the stories no longer bear a critical scrutiny, the verve and enthusiasm still shine through. Many early Marvel Comics are more exuberant than qualitative, but this volume, especially from an art-lover’s point of view, is a wonderful exception: a historical treasure that fans will find delightful.
© 1967, 1968, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Incredible Hulk Marvel Masterworks volume 4

By Stan Lee, Gary Friedrich, Roy Thomas, Bill Everett, Archie Goodwin, Marie Severin, Herb Trimpe, Frank Giacoia & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2682-9 (HB)

Bruce Banner was a military scientist who was caught in a gamma bomb blast of his own devising. As a result of continual ongoing mutation, stress and other factors can cause him to transform into a giant green monster of unstoppable strength and fury.

After an initially troubled few years, the gamma-irradiated gargantuan 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 morose man-monster shambled around the slowly-coalescing Marvel Universe as guest star and/or villain du jour until a new home was found for him.

Covering May to December 1968, this sturdy hardback (and eBook) collection re-presents issues #103-110 of his second solo-starring series and also includes the first Incredible Hulk Annual from autumn of that year.

Following a rather incredulous and self-deprecating Introduction from artist Herb Trimpe the never-ending saga resumes. Trimpe, associated with the character for nearly a decade, began his tenure as Marie Severin’s inker in Tales to Astonish #94 and would eventually take over pencilling the Jade Juggernaut, but before that epic handover rising star Gary Friedrich scripts, Marie pencils and veteran artist Frank Giacoia inks the all-action advent of a tragic alien antagonist in #103’s ‘And Now… the Space Parasite!’: a former hero who seemingly perished after attempting to consume the Green Goliath’s abundant life energies.

‘Ring Around the Rhino!’ in #104 is another paean to the Hulk’s destructive potential and visceral appeal as the gamma-fuelled enemy agent is tasked by his cruel masters with abducting Bruce Banner before a longer plot-strand, tinged with pathos and irony, began in Incredible Hulk #105, courtesy of surprise scripters Roy Thomas and Bill Everett, ably illumined by Severin and inker George Tuska.

‘This Monster Unleashed!’ sees the Missing Link – a radioactive and violently mutating victim of Soviet aggression – dumped in New York, and easily capable of burning our dull-witted hero into glowing ashes.

The second part, ‘Above the Earth… A Titan Rages!’ – by Thomas and Archie Goodwin – was pencilled by the neophyte Trimpe over Severin’s breakdowns, with Tuska inking. Sadly, the result is rather a muddle nearly as great as the story itself since the action abruptly switches from New York to Russia after the battling behemoths are suddenly abducted by Yuri Breslov, the Soviet counterpart to Nick Fury and his agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. who promptly loses them over a rural and isolated farm collective.

The story neatly segues into a much more polished yarn with #107’s ‘Ten Rings Hath… the Mandarin’ (by Friedrich & Trimpe with wonderfully rugged inking from the great Syd Shores) as the oriental despot tries to enslave the emerald engine of destruction…

The extended epic concludes with savage success as Stan Lee returns to script and Trimpe – inked by the legendary John Severin (yep, Marie’s big brother) – pulls all the strands together in the action-packed finale ‘Monster Triumphant!’, guest-starring Nick Fury, Yuri Breslov and even Chairman Mao Tse Tung!

Cover-dated October, The Incredible Hulk Annual #1 was one of the best comics of 1968. Behind an iconic Jim Steranko cover, Friedrich, Marie Severin & Shores (with lots of last-minute inking assistance) delivered a passionate, tense and melodramatic parable of alienation that nevertheless was one of the most action-stuffed fight-fests ever depicted.

In 51 titanic pages ‘A Refuge Divided!’ sees the forlorn and perpetually lonely Jade Juggernaut stumble upon the hidden Great Refuge of genetic outsiders. The Inhumans – recovering from a recent failed coup by new players Falcona, Leonus, Aireo, Timberius, Stallior, Nebulo and their secret backer (the king’s brother Maximus the Mad) – are distracted by the Hulk’s arrival.

All too soon, suspicion and short tempers result in carnage and chaos. The band of super-rebels start the fight but it’s the immensely powerful Black Bolt who eventually battles the infuriated Hulk to a standstill…

This is the vicarious thrill taken to its ultimate, still one of the very best non-Lee-Kirby tales of that period, and the issue also provides a pictorial extra with a Marvel Masterwork Pin-up featuring 11 different versions and a challenge to identify the artists…

Back at the monthly venue, Incredible Hulk #109 takes up from the end of the Mandarin saga with the Hulk rampaging through Red China, but still without a settled creative team in place. ‘The Monster and the Man-Beast!’ was written by Stan Lee, laid out by Giacoia, pencilled by Trimpe and inked by John Severin, as the Hulk trashes the Chinese Army and accidentally interferes with a Red super-missile…

The upshot is that the man-monster is hurtled into space and blasted into the Antarctic paradise known as the Savage Land. This preserve of dinosaurs and cavemen is a visually perfect home for the Hulk and the addition of Tarzan analogue Ka-Zar, and a primitive death-cult worshipping an alien device designed to destroy the world, ramps up the tension nicely.

The tale and this edition wrap up with the attack of ‘Umbu the Unliving!’ (Lee, Trimpe & John Severin) as yet another extraterrestrial device left to facilitate Earth’s demise goes into overkill mode. Thankfully Banner and his green alter-ego dispatch it with Ka-Zar’s assistance, albeit at the cost of Banner’s life.

As they said at the time “To Be Hulkinued!”…

Adding even more deal appeal to this book is a stunning selection of comedy sketches and cartoons devised by the infamously puckish Marie Severin to cheer up her fellow Bullpen pals as well as Hulk original art pages and covers by her, brother John, Trimpe, Giacoia, and Steranko – plus her unused cover for that iconic Annual.

This titanic tome of Hulk heroics offers visceral thrillers and chaotic clashes overflowing with dynamism, enthusiasm and sheer quality: tales crucial to later, more cohesive adventures. Even at their most hurried, these epics offer an abundance of full-on, butt-kicking, “breaking-stuff” catharsis to delight the destructive eight-year-old in all of us.
© 1968, 2007, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Iron Man Marvel Masterworks volume 4

By Stan Lee, Archie Goodwin, Gene Colan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2678-2 (HB)

Marvel’s rise to dominance of the US comicbook industry really took hold in 1968 when most of their characters finally got their own titles. Prior to that – and due to a highly restrictive distribution deal – the company had been tied to a limit of 16 publications per month. To circumvent this drawback, Marvel developed “split-books” with two features per title, such as Tales of Suspense where Iron Man originally solo-starred before being joined by patriotic cohort Captain America in issue #59 (cover-dated November 1964).

Marvel’s fortunes prospered – thanks in large part to Stan Lee’s gift for promotion, but primarily because of superbly engaging stories such as the ones collected in this enticing hardback and/or eBook edition.

With the new distributor came a demand for more product, and the stars of the split books were all awarded their own titles. When the division came, the Armoured Avenger started afresh with a “Collector’s Item First Issue” (but only after a shared one-shot with the Sub-Mariner that squared divergent schedules) with Cap retaining the numbering of the original title; thereby premiering in number #100.

Herein find contained in chronological order the remaining tales of the transitional period, reprinting Tales of Suspense #84-99, plus the pertinent portion of place-holding one-shot Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner #1 and at long last Iron Man #1, cumulatively covering December 1966 to May 1968.

Tony Stark is the acceptable face of 1960s Capitalism; a glamorous ultra-rich industrialist and inventor – and a benevolent all-conquering hero when clad in the super-scientific armour of his secret alter-ego, Iron Man.

Created in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and at a time when “Red-baiting” and “Commie-bashing” were American national obsessions, the emergence of a brilliant new Thomas Edison, using Yankee ingenuity and invention to safeguard and better the World, seemed inevitable. Combine the then-sacrosanct belief that technology and business could solve any problem with the universal imagery of noble knights battling evil and the concept behind the Golden Avenger seems an infallibly successful proposition. Of course, it helps that all that money and gadgetry is great fun and very, very cool…

Following a critique by critic and historian Arlen Schumer in his Introduction, this stunning all-Gene Colan illustrated volume begins with ToS #84 and picks up soap opera fashion with Stark submitting to months of governmental pressure and testifying to a Congressional Committee hungry for the secrets of his greatest creation.

However. at the critical moment, the inventor keels over…

Stark’s controversial reputation is finally restored as the public at last learns that his life is only preserved by a metallic chest-plate which keeps his maimed heart beating in ‘The Other Iron Man!’ (scripted by Lee and inked by Frank Giacoia). Somehow, nobody at all connects that hunk of steel to the identical one his Avenging “bodyguard” wears…

With the hero stuck in a hospital bed, best friend Happy Hogan foolishly dons the suit to preserve that precious secret only to be abducted by the insidious Mandarin in another extended assault that begins with ‘Into the Jaws of Death’.

Propelled by guilt and fuelled by fear the still-ailing Stark breaks into his own Congressionally-closed factory and creates new, more powerful armour before flying to his rescue in ‘Death Duel for the Life of Happy Hogan!’

The epic encounter successfully concluded, the Americans return home just in time for #87 and #88 to host the merciless Mole Man who attacks from below, prompting a ‘Crisis… at the Earth’s Core!’

The villain has no idea who hostage Stark really is, believing the inventor and his assistant Pepper Potts ‘Beyond all Rescue!’ but is soon proved very wrong, after which another old B-List bad-guy takes his shot in ‘The Monstrous Menace of the Mysterious Melter!’

Its tense, terse sequel ‘The Golden Ghost!’ fabulously features a glorious reprise of Iron Man’s original battle suit and a wonderfully twisty conclusion.

‘The Uncanny Challenge of the Crusher!’ offers an all-action tale – possibly marred for modern audiences by a painful Commie-bustin’ sub-plot featuring a thinly disguised Fidel Castro – and the impressions of the on-going “Police Action” in Indo-China are also a little gung-ho (if completely understandable) when Iron Man goes hunting for a Red Menace called Half-Face ‘Within the Vastness of Viet Nam!’

The urgent insertion results in another clash with incorrigible old foe Titanium Man in ‘The Golden Gladiator and… the Giant!’ before our hero at last snatches victory from the mechanical jaws of defeat in ‘The Tragedy and the Triumph!’ (this last inked by Dan Adkins).

Giacoia returns and a new cast member debuts in #95 as eager-beaver adult boy scout S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell is assigned as security advisor to America’s most prominent weapons maker, just as veteran Thor villain Grey Gargoyle attacks in ‘If a Man be Stone!’ The mismatched and overpowered maniac is then summarily defeated in ‘The Deadly Victory!’

Tales of Suspense #97 began an extended story-arc that would carry the series to the launch of the solo series and beyond, in which criminal cartel the Maggia schemes to move in on Stark’s company.

Their campaign opens with the hero’s capture, as ‘The Coming of… Whiplash!’ depicts the Golden Avenger cut to steely ribbons, drawn out in ‘The Warrior and the Whip!’ and – as the magnificent Archie Goodwin assumed the scripting reins and EC legend Johnny Craig came aboard as inker – finds Iron Man trapped on a sinking submarine ‘At the Mercy of the Maggia’ just as the venerable Tales of Suspense ends with its 99th issue…

Of course, it was just changing its name to Captain America, whilst Tales to Astonish seamlessly shifted into The Incredible Hulk, but – due to a scheduling snafu – neither of the split-book co-stars had a home that month (April 1968).

This situation led to the one-and-only Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner #1 to carry concluding episode ‘The Torrent Without… The Tumult Within!’, wherein sinister super-scientists of A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics, acronym-fans) snatch the Armoured Avenger from the Maggia’s swiftly sinking submarine, intent on stealing the hero’s technical secrets.

Invincible Iron Man #1 finally appeared with a May 1968 cover-date, triumphantly ending the extended sub-sea-saga as our hero stands ‘Alone against A.I.M.!’: a thrilling roller-coaster ride supplemented by ‘The Origin of Iron Man’ offering a revitalised re-telling to conclude Colan’s long and impressive tenure on the character.

Supplementing and counterpointing the ongoing graphic dramas herein are a stunning selection of original art pages and covers by Colan from the stories in this volume and even a brace of Don Heck pages from the previous Marvel Masterworks edition…

Despite some rough narrative patches this is a fantastic period in the Golden Gladiator’s career: one immaculately envisioned by Gene Colan and perfectly encapsulating the vast changes Marvel and America went through at the time. These unmissable tales of a true comics icon are some of the best and most memorable efforts of a simply transformative era and no Fights ‘n’ Tights fanatic can afford to be without them.
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos Masterworks volume 2

By Stan Lee & Dick Ayers, with George Roussos, Steve Ditko, Frank Giacoia, Vince Colletta, Chic Stone, Carl Hubbell & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2928-8 (HB)

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos began as an improbable, decidedly over-the-top and raucous WWII combat comics series similar in tone to later ensemble action movies such as The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch and The Dirty Dozen. The surly squad of sorry reprobates premiered in May 1963, one of three teams concocted by men-on-fire Jack Kirby & Stan Lee to secure fledgling Marvel’s growing position as a publisher to watch.

Two years later Fury’s post-war self was retooled as the big-name star of a second series (beginning with Strange Tales #135, August 1965) when espionage shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the 007 film franchise became global sensations.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tensions with sinister schemes of World Domination by subversive all-encompassing hidden enemy organisations: with captivating super-science gadgetry and iconic imagineering from Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko.

For all that time, however, the original wartime version soldiered on (sorry: puns are my weapon of choice), blending a uniquely flamboyant house-bravado style and often ludicrous, implausible, historically inaccurate, all-action bombast with moments of genuine heartbreak, unbridled passion and seething emotion.

Sgt. Fury started out as a pure Kirby creation. As with all his various combat comics, The King made everything look harsh and real and appalling: the people and places all grimy, tired, battered yet indomitable.

The artist had served in some of the worst battles of the war and never forgot the horrific and heroic things he saw – and more graphically expressed in his efforts during the 1950s genre boom at a number of different companies. However, even at kid-friendly, Comics Code-sanitised Marvel, those experiences perpetually leaked through onto his powerfully gripping pages.

Kirby was – unfortunately – far too valuable a resource to squander on a simple war comic (or indeed the X-Men and Avengers: the other series launched in that tripartite blitz on kids spending money) and quickly moved on leaving redoubtable fellow veteran Dick Ayers to illuminate later stories, which he did for almost the entire run of the series (95 issues and Annuals) until its transition to a reprint title with #121 (July 1974). The title then carried on until its ultimate demise in December 1981 with #167.

Following an enticing and revelatory reminiscence from Ayers in his Introduction, this second hardback and eBook compendium re-presents the contents of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #14-23 and the first Annual (collectively spanning January to October 1965) opening with a Lee scripted, George Roussos/Bell inked milestone as harassed Adolf Hitler decrees the creation of a Nazi answer to Fury’s elite attack force.

All ‘The Blitzkrieg Squad of Baron Strucker!’ had to do was lure the Howlers to a V2 rocket base and spring their trap… Yeah, that was all…

Regular supplemental feature Weapons of War then provides all the gen on the ‘B-26 Martin Marauder’ to inform and entertain in equal amounts.

Steve Ditko stepped in to ink Ayers in issue #15 as ‘Too Small to Fight, Too Young to Die’ related an ill-fated mission in Holland to destroy the dykes and flood the occupation forces. The job soon goes drastically wrong and the Howlers “flee” back to Britain with nothing but a broken-hearted boy named Hans Rooten – who had no idea that his despised quisling father was in fact the Allies’ top spy in the region…

The boy is adopted as the Howlers’ plucky mascot but can’t accompany them when the squad is despatched to Africa in #16 to eradicate yet more Nazi super-weapons in ‘A Fortress in the Desert Stands!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia using the pseudonym Frankie Ray). From there it’s only a short camel-ride south until the ragtag rovers encounter spear-wielding natives and nasty Nazis engaged in a battle of Hearts & Minds ‘While the Jungle Sleeps!’ (by Lee, Ayers & Vince Colletta).

All this time the chalk-and-cheese romantic relationship between Nick and English aristocrat Lady Pamela Hawley had been developing to the point where the Yankee lout was ready to propose. That all ends in #18 when, whilst the unit is busy sinking a German battleship in a Norwegian port, she is ‘Killed in Action!’ (Chic Stone inks).

Crushed and crazy, Fury goes AWOL in the next issue, remorselessly hunting down the leader of the bomber flight which had targeted the hospital she worked in before extracting ‘An Eye for an Eye!’ in a satisfyingly shocking Stan Lee story sensitively rendered by Ayers & Giacoia. The Howlers go along for the ride, but whether to help their leader or hold him back is debatable…

A far grimmer Fury is still in the mood for cathartic carnage in #20, so when ‘The Blitz Squad Strikes!’ features the German Kommandos invading a Scottish castle filled with imprisoned Nazi airmen, he and the Howlers are more than delighted to lead the sortie to retake it.

In the next issue the long-running rivalry with First Attack Squad; Baker Company again results in frantic fisticuffs before being interrupted by another last-ditch rescue mission in Czechoslovakia ‘To Free a Hostage!’ (inked by Golden Age legend Carl Hubbell, as was the next issue).

However, even after Allied scientist and captive daughter are reunited, the bubbling beef with B Company doesn’t diminish and when both units are subsequently sent to sabotage the oil refinery at Ploesti the defending forces capture everybody. However, after the gloating Nazis try making Fury and his opposite number to kill each they quickly learn ‘Don’t Turn Your Back on Bull McGiveney!’ and even Strucker’s Blitz Squad can’t contain the devastating destruction that follows…

The final WWII exploit contained herein is the Giacoia-inked saga of ‘The Man Who Failed!’, wherein a rescue jaunt to Burma to save nuns and orphans results in shameful revelations from English Howler Percy Pinkerton’s past: simultaneously supplying close insight into why our True Brit upper lips are so stiff…

This combat compendium then concludes with the 15-page lead story from Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos King Size Annual #1 (1965) as the post-war Howlers are called up and mustered to the 38th Parallel to defend democracy from Communist aggression. This particular escapade sees them rescuing former Commanding Officer Colonel Sam Sawyer and results in Fury winning a battlefield ‘Commission in Korea!’ to at last become a Lieutenant in a rousing romp by Lee, Ayers & Giacoia. Also extracted from that that might special are pictorial features ‘A Re-introduction to the Howlers’; ‘A Birds Eye View of HQ, Able Company – Fury’s Base in Britain’; ‘Plane’s-Eye View of Base Tactical Area, Sub-Pen, Dock and Air-Strip!’ and ‘Combat Arm and Hand Signals’ before a 2-page house ad feature for the hero’s super-spy iteration as ‘Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ wraps everything up in Marvel’s military fashion.

Whereas close rival DC increasingly abandoned the Death or Glory bombast at this time in favour of humanistic, almost anti-war explorations of war and soldiering, Marvel’s take always favoured action-entertainment and fantasy over soul-searching for ultimate truths. On that level at least, these early epics are stunningly effective and galvanically powerful exhibitions of the genre.

Just don’t use them for history homework.
© 1965, 2017 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 10

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia, John Romita, Ron Frenz, John Verpoorten & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2061-2 (HB)                    : 978-0-7851-8839-1 (TPB)

Cautiously bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, Fantastic Four #1 (by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) was crude: rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it and the raw storytelling caught a wave of change starting to build in America. It and succeeding issues changed comicbooks forever.

In eight short years FF meteorically grew into the indisputable core-title and most consistently groundbreaking series of Marvel’s ever-unfolding web of cosmic creation: bombarding readers with a ceaseless salvo of new concepts and characters at a time when Kirby was in his conceptual prime and continually unfettering his vast imagination on plot after spectacular plot. Clearly inspired, Stan Lee scripted some of the most memorable superhero sagas Marvel – or any publisher, for that matter – had or has ever seen.

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

However, with this tenth Masterworks collection of tales from “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” the dream-team of Kirby and Stan Lee was shockingly sundered and a reeling Marvel entered a new epoch of uncertain futures and bold new directions – which is rather ironic since it was the company’s reticence to give the artist creative freedom which led to Kirby’s jumping ship to National/DC in the first place…

This epic and extras-packed tome covers the final days of the King’s reign on Marvel’s flagship title and encompasses the shaky start of a new era, covering Fantastic Four #94-104 (January to November 1970), plus diverse bonus treats including Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure – a rejected, recovered, recycled tale to delight all aficionados and only finally released in April 2008.

Four Those Who Came in Late: As seen in that unforgettable premier issue, maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm – with Sue’s tag-along teenaged brother Johnny – survived an ill-starred 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 and the kid could turn into living flame, but poor, tragic Ben horrifically devolved into a shambling, rocky freak…

Following another frothy, backward-looking Lee Introduction, the magic resumes with Joe Sinnott inking Fantastic Four #94, launching a string of single-issue stories via the doom-laden debut of eldritch babysitter/governess Agatha Harkness in ‘The Return of the Frightful Four!’ The recalcitrant rogues make a major mistake believing they could catch the FF off-guard by attacking when the heroes are interviewing a new nanny for the latest addition to the Fantastic Family…

At a time when superhero sales were in a slump and magical mystery themes resurgently returned, this rollercoaster ride of action, battle and suspense is most significant for finally giving Sue and Reed’s baby a name – Franklin Benjamin Richards – after literally years of shilly-shallying…

The Monocle was a technological super-assassin determined to trigger global nuclear Armageddon in #95’s ‘Tomorrow… World War Three!’ – in the middle of which Johnny’s Inhuman girlfriend Crystal is astoundingly abducted by her own family – before ‘The Mad Thinker and his Androids of Death!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) once again ambush the team and yet more prove no match for the fab foursome…

A tense and moody episode further cashing in on the growing trend for creepy creatures and supernatural shenanigans manifests as ‘The Monster from the Lost Lagoon!’ in #97, offering a decidedly different take on the horror-movies it gloriously homaged as the First Family try to combine a quick tropical vacation with a little rumour-busting sea-beastie hunt…

Both Sinnott and the robotic Sentry Sinister return in #98’s turbulently-topical ‘Mystery on the Moon!’ as the global fervour over the first lunar landing in 1969 (conveniently forgetting, of course, the FF’s own numerous visits to our satellite beginning with issue #13) results in a cracking yarn wherein the team savagely stymie the intergalactic Kree Empire from sabotaging mankind’s first steps into space.

In FF #99 heartsick Johnny Storm at last snaps, invading the hidden home of the Inhumans. His intent is to reunite with his lost love at all costs, but of course tempers fray, everything escalates and ‘The Torch Goes Wild!’

With a restored Crystal happily in tow, the 100th anniversary adventure features a daft, extremely rushed but nonetheless spectacular all-out battle against robotic replicas of their greatest enemies in ‘The Long Journey Home!’

With the anniversary cataclysmically concluded, issue #101 provides a far more intriguing imbroglio when dastardly criminal combine the Maggia buy the team’s skyscraper HQ in a cunning, quasi-legal ploy to appropriate Reed Richards’ scientific secrets, resulting in total ‘Bedlam in the Baxter Building!’

Fantastic Four #102 sported the first cover not drawn by The King as John Romita (senior) prepared to jump into the artistic hot-seat following Kirby’s abrupt move to the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

After an incomprehensibly vast catalogue of creativity an unthinkable Changing of the Guard occurred when the increasingly discontented King of Comics jumped ship from the House of (mostly His) Ideas for arch-rival National/DC where he crafted his Fourth World Magnum Opus as well as a host of other game-changing comicbook classics…

An era ended at Marvel when the King abdicated his seemingly divinely-ordained position. Left to pacify and win back the stunned fans were Lee and a couple of budding talents named Romita and Buscema…

Kirby was not quite gone, however, as he and Sinnott opened an impressive extended epic wherein the mutant menace Magneto uses guile and subterfuge to turn ‘The Strength of the Sub-Mariner’ and his undersea armies against the FF and entire surface world…

Romita and inker John Verpoorten took over the story in mid-flow, depicting an embattled America ‘At War with Atlantis!’ before malign Magneto inevitably turns on Namor, inspiring the Prince to ally with the Fantastic Four to prevent the mutant’s dream of ‘Our World… Enslaved!’

That was more or less the end. Romita drew a couple more issues and eventually John Buscema took up the challenge, although a later issue baffled us fans by inexplicably pairing the new artist with a somehow returned Kirby…

Fantastic Four #108 contained ‘The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man!’, “reintroducing” a character never before seen by recycling portions of a near-complete but rejected Kirby tale modified with new sequences illustrated by Buscema and Romita. In the published story (not included in this volume) the mysterious Janus had tapped into the anti-matter power of the Negative Zone once and now “returned” to steal more by crashing through the portal in Reed’s lab. Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of extinction-event predator Annihilus, who had long sought entry into our life-rich universe…

The origins of that yarn are convoluted and circuitous but are eruditely explained by archivist John Morrow in his article ‘Fantastic Four #108: Kirby’s Way’, supplemented by (almost) the entire original story reproduced from photostats of Kirby’s pencils and published pages from #108.

In 2007 those fragments and Kirby’s story notes were used by Lee, Joe Sinnott and Ron Frenz to reconstruct the tales as the King drafted it. The result was ‘Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure’ which offered a glorious slice of times past as the team (circa 1970) tackled a seemingly schizophrenic super-villain in ‘The Menace of the Mega-Men!’

It doesn’t really fit anywhere into continuity but it is a superbly nostalgic rush for devotees of the classics…

Rounding out the Kirby Kommemorations are a selection of testimonials, recollections and retrospective reminiscences from past collaborators, including ‘Inspiration by Dick Ayers’; ‘On, and On! by Joe Sinnott’ and ‘The Fall of ‘61’ by Roy Thomas, complete with contemporary photos, before former Kirby assistant and associate Mark Evanier discusses ‘The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine’ and Greg Theakston offers one final assessment in ‘The Changing of the Guard’ closes down the show.

Did I say closes? Not quite; as this tome still finds room for a selection of unused covers, production art, house ads, creator biographies and a complete index of the dream team’s achievements in ‘The First One Hundred (And Two) Days: A Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four Lexicon’.

These are the stories which confirmed Jack Kirby as the absolute master of superhero storytelling and gave Marvel the impetus to overtake the decades-dominant DC. They’re also some of the very best comics ever produced and as thrilling and compulsive now as they ever were. This is a book no addict of graphic narratives can be without.
© 1970, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dennis O’Neil, Roy Thomas, John Severin, Joe Sinnott, Don Heck, Howard Purcell, Ogden Whitney, John Buscema, Joe Sinnott, Jim Steranko & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2686-7 (HB)

Veteran war-hero and superspy Nick Fury debuted in Fantastic Four #21 (cover-dated December 1963): a grizzled, world-weary and cunning CIA Colonel at the periphery of the really big adventures in a fast-changing world.

What was odd about that? Well, the gruff, crudely capable combat everyman was already the star of the minor publisher’s only war comic, set twenty years earlier in (depending on whether you were American or European…) the beginning or middle of World War II.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos was an improbable, decidedly over-the-top and raucous combat comics series, similar in tone to later movies such as The Wild Bunch or The Dirty Dozen and had launched in May of that year.

Nevertheless, Fury’s latter-day self soon emerged as a big-name star once espionage yarns went global in the wake of popular TV sensations like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the elder iteration was given a second series beginning in Strange Tales #135 (cover-dated August 1965).

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tensions with sinister schemes of World Conquest by a subversive, all-encompassing, hidden enemy organisation. The unfolding saga came with captivating Kirby-designed super-science gadgetry and – eventually – iconic and game-changing imagineering from Jim Steranko, whose visually groundbreaking graphic narratives took the comics art form to a whole new level…

For those few brief years with Steranko in charge, the S.H.I.E.L.D. series was one of the best strips in America – if not the world – but when the writer/artist left just as the global spy-fad was fading, the whole concept faded into the background architecture of the Marvel Universe…

This astounding full-colour compendium (available in hardcover and digital editions) deals with the outrageous, groundbreaking, but still notionally wedded-to-mundane-reality iteration which set the scene.

Here Jack Kirby’s genius for graphic wizardry and gift for dramatic staging mixed with Stan Lee’s manic melodrama to create a tough and tense series which the new writers and veteran artists that followed turned into a non-stop riot of action and suspense, with Steranko’s late arrival only hinting at the magic to come…

These epic early days of spycraft encompass Strange Tales #135-153 and Tales of Suspense #78, collectively covering August 1965 to February 1967 and guaranteeing timeless thrills for lovers of adventure and intrigue.

Following a little history lesson from Kirby scholar John Morrow in his Introduction, the main event starts with ST #135 as the Human Torch solo feature is summarily replaced by Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. – which back then stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division

In the rocket-paced first episode, Fury is asked to volunteer for the most dangerous job in the world: leading a new counter-intelligence agency dedicated to stopping secretive subversive super-science organisation Hydra. With assassins dogging his every move, the Take-Charge Guy with the Can-Do Attitude quickly proves he is ‘The Man for the Job!’ in a potent twelve-page thriller from Lee, Kirby & Dick Ayers.

Even an artist and plotter of Kirby’s calibre couldn’t handle another strip at that busiest of times, so from the next issue “The King” cut back to laying out episodes, allowing a variety of superb draughtsmen to flesh out the adventures. Even so, there’s probably a stunning invention or cool concept on almost every page that follows…

‘Find Fury or Die!’ brought veteran draughtsman John Severin back to the company; pencilling and inking Kirby’s blueprints as the new Director becomes the target of incessant assassination attempts and we are introduced to masked maniac the Supreme Hydra

The tension ramps up for the next instalment as a number of contenders are introduced – any of whom might be the obscured overlord of evil – even as S.H.I.E.L.D. strives mightily but fails to stop Hydra launching its deadly Betatron Bomb in ‘The Prize is… Earth!’

Despite the restrictions of the Comics Code, these early S.H.I.E.L.D. stories were stark and grim and frequently carried a heavy body count. Four valiant agents died in quick succession in #137 and the next issue underscored the point in ‘Sometimes the Good Guys Lose!’ with further revelations of Hydra’s inner workings.

Fury and fellow Howling Commando war heroes Dum-Dum Dugan and Gabe Jones meanwhile played catch-up after Hydra assassins invade S.H.I.E.L.D.: almost eliminating Fury and munitions genius Tony Stark – the only man capable of destroying the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over the world. Although Nick saves the inventor, he is captured in the process…

Tortured by Hydra in #139’s ‘The Brave Die Hard!’ (with Joe Sinnott replacing Severin as finisher), Fury finds an unlikely ally in Laura Brown: Supreme Hydra’s daughter and a young woman bitterly opposed to her father’s megalomaniacal madness.

Even with only half a comicbook per month to tell a tale, creators didn’t hang around in those halcyon days and #140 promised ‘The End of Hydra!’ (by Don Heck & Sinnott over Kirby) as a S.H.I.E.L.D. squad invades the enemy’s inner sanctum to rescue the already-free-and-making-mayhem Fury. In the meantime, Stark travels into space to remove the Betratron Bomb with his robotic Braino-Saur system. The end result leaves Hydra temporarily headless…

Strange Tales #141 has Kirby return to full pencils (inked by Frank Giacoia pseudonymously moonlighting as Frank Ray) for the mop-up before ‘Operation: Brain Blast!’ introduces Mentallo – a renegade from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ESP division – who joins with technological savant the Fixer to attack the organisation as the first step in an ambitious scheme to rule the world.

The momentous raid begins in ‘Who Strikes at… S.H.I.E.L.D.?’ (illustrated by Kirby with Mike Demeo – AKA Esposito) with the deadly rogues hitting hard and fast: seizing and mind-controlling Fury before strapping him to a mini-H-bomb. With Howard Purcell & Esposito embellishing Kirby’s layouts, Dugan and the boys come blasting in ‘To Free a Brain Slave’ in #143…

A new and deadly threat emerges in #144 as ‘The Day of the Druid!’ as a mystic charlatan targets Fury and his agents with murderous flying techno-ovoids. Happily, new S.H.I.E.L.D. recruit Jasper Sitwell is on hand to augment the triumphant fightback in ‘Lo! The Eggs Shall Hatch!’ (finished by Heck & Esposito).

As Marvel continuity grew evermore interlinked, ‘Them!’ details a Captain America team-up for Fury in the first of the Star-Spangled Avenger’s many adventures as a (more-or-less) Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Taken from Tales of Suspense #78 (June 1966): scripted by Lee with Kirby full pencils and Giacoia inks, the story depicts the WWII wonders battling an artificial assassin with incredible chemical capabilities, after which Nick seeks the creature’s mysterious makers in Strange Tales #146, ‘When the Unliving Strike!’ (Kirby, Heck & Esposito).

Proclaiming themselves a technological Special Interests group, Advanced Idea Mechanics courts S.H.I.E.L.D.’s governmental and military masters, promising potent and incredible new weapons if only they sacked that barbaric slob Fury, but the surly supremo is getting close to exposing A.I.M.’s connection to “Them” and an old enemy thought long gone…

A concerted whispering campaign and “briefing-against” seemingly sees Fury ousted in ‘The Enemy Within!’ and put on trial in ‘Death Before Dishonor!’ (scripted by Kirby with Heck & Esposito finishing his layouts), but it’s all part of a cunning counter-plan which delivers a shattering conclusion and ‘The End of A.I.M.!’ in #149 (scripted by Denny O’Neil, with art by Kirby & Ogden Whitney).

Then, revealed by Lee, Kirby, John Buscema & Giacoia, a malign and devilishly subtle plan is finally exposed in Strange Tales #150 as Fury’s team puts together clues from all the year’s past clashes to come to one terrifying conclusion: ‘Hydra Lives!’

The shocking secret also hints at great events to come as newcomer Steranko assumes the finisher’s role over Lee & Kirby for ‘Overkill!’ with Fury targeted by the new Supreme Hydra who devises a cunning scheme to infiltrate America’s top security agency and use his enemy as the means of triggering global Armageddon…

Although the Good Guys seemingly thwart that scheme, ‘The Power of S.H.I.E.L.D.!’ is actually helpless to discern the villain’s real intent as this initial dossier of doom ends on a cliffhanger after ‘The Hiding Place!’ (ST #153 and scripted by Roy Thomas) closes with the arch villain comfortably ensconced in Fury’s inner circle and ready to destroy the organisation from within…

To Be Continued…

Although the S.H.I.E.L.D. saga stops here, there’s an added bonus still to enjoy: the aforementioned FF #21. This revealed Fury as a wily CIA agent seeking the team’s aid against a sinister demagogue called ‘The Hate-Monger’ (Lee & Kirby, inked by comics veteran George Roussos, under the protective nom-de-plume George Bell) just as the 1960s espionage vogue was taking off, inspired by James Bond films and TV shows like Danger Man.

Here Fury craftily manipulates Marvel’s First Family into invading a sovereign nation reeling in the throes of revolution in a yarn crackling with tension and action…

Fast, furious and fantastically entertaining, these high-octane vintage yarns are a superb snapshot of early Marvel Comics at their creative peak and should be part of every fanboy’s shelf of beloved favourites.

Don’t Yield! Back S.H.I.E.L.D.!
© 1965, 1966, 1967, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Sub-Mariner Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Wally Wood, Gene Colan, Jack Kirby, Bill Everett, Jerry Grandenetti & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-0875-7(HB)                      978-0-7851-5068-8 (TPB)

Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner is the offspring of a water-breathing Atlantean princess and an American polar explorer; a hybrid being of immense strength, highly resistant to physical harm, able to fly and exist above and below the waves. Created by young, talented Bill Everett, Namor technically predates Marvel/Atlas/Timely Comics.

He first caught the public’s attention as part of the fire vs. water headlining team in Marvel Comics #1 (October 1939 and soon to become Marvel Mystery Comics) sharing honours and top billing with The Human Torch, but he had originally been seen (albeit in a truncated black and white version) in Motion Picture Funnies: a weekly promotional giveaway handed out to moviegoers earlier in the year.

Quickly becoming one of the company’s biggest draws Namor gained his own title at the end of 1940 (cover-dated Spring 1941) and was one of the last super-characters to go at the end of the first heroic age. In 1954, when Atlas (as the company then was) briefly revived its “Big Three” (the Torch and Captain America being the other two) costumed characters, Everett returned for an extended run of superb fantasy tales, but even so the time wasn’t right and the title sunk again.

When Stan Lee & Jack Kirby started reinventing comic-books in 1961 with the Fantastic Four, they revived the all-but forgotten awesome amphibian as a troubled, semi-amnesiac, and decidedly more regal and grandiose anti-hero. The returnee despised humanity; embittered at the loss of his sub-sea kingdom (seemingly destroyed by American atomic testing) whilst simultaneously besotted with the FF’s Sue Storm.

Namor knocked around the budding Marvel universe for a few years, squabbling with other assorted heroes such as the Hulk, Avengers and X-Men, before securing his own series as one half of Tales to Astonish.

Marvel’s “split-books” had been devised as a way to promote their burgeoning stable of stars whilst labouring under a highly restrictive distribution deal limiting the number of titles they could release each month. In 1968 the company ended this commitment and expanded exponentially.

This first celebratory volume – available as a hardback, trade paperback and eBook – collects Tales to Astonish #70-87, Daredevil #7 and a crossover chapter from Tales of Suspense #80, spanning April 1965-January 1967 and opens with the now traditional Stan Lee Introduction.

Prior to the Tales to Astonish serial the Sub-Mariner had appeared in numerous established titles as guest villain du jour. One last guest shot with Namor acting as a misunderstood bad-guy was Daredevil #7 (April 1965) which kicks off proceedings here in spectacular style.

The tale is a perfect comicbook and a true landmark: to my mind one of the Top Ten Marvel Tales of all Time. Lee and creative legend Wally Wood concocted a timeless masterpiece with ‘In Mortal Combat with… Sub-Mariner!’ as Prince Namor of Atlantis – recently reunited with the survivors of his decimated race – returns to the surface world to sue mankind for their crimes against his people.

To expedite his claim, the Prince engages the services of Matt Murdock’s law firm; little suspecting the blind lawyer is also the acrobatic Man without Fear.

Whilst impatiently awaiting a hearing at the UN, Namor is informed by his lover Lady Dorma that his warlord, Krang, has usurped the throne in his absence. The tempestuous monarch cannot languish in a cell when the kingdom is threatened, so he fights his way to freedom through the streets of New York, smashing battalions of National Guard and the dauntless Daredevil with supreme ease.

The hopelessly one-sided battle with one of the strongest beings on the planet shows the dauntless courage of DD and the innate nobility of a “villain” far more complex than most of the industry’s usual fare at the time.

Augmented by a rejected Wood cover repurposed as ‘A Marvel Masterwork pin-up: Namor and D.D.’ this yarn is the perfect prequel and a few months later Tales to Astonish #70 heralded ‘The Start of the Quest!’ as Lee, Gene Colan (in the pseudonymous guise of Adam Austin) & Vince Colletta set the Sub-Mariner to storming an Atlantis under martial law. The effort is for naught and the returning hero is rejected by his own people. Callously imprisoned, the troubled Prince is freed by the oft-neglected and ignored Lady Dorma…

As the pompous hero begins a mystical quest to find the lost Trident of King Neptune – which only the rightful ruler of Atlantis can hold – he is unaware that the treacherous Krang allowed him to escape, the better to destroy him with no witnesses…

The serialised search carries Namor through a procession of fantastic adventures and pits him against a spectacular array of sub-sea horrors: a giant octopus in ‘Escape… to Nowhere’; a colossal seaweed man in ‘A Prince There Was’ and a demented wizard and energy-sapping diamonds in ‘By Force of Arms!’

However, as the end approaches in ‘When Fails the Quest!’, revolution breaks out in Atlantis, and Namor seemingly sacrifices his kingdom to save Dorma from troglodytic demons the Faceless Ones.

In issue #75 ‘The End of the Quest’ finds the Prince battling his way back into Atlantis with a gravely-injured Dorma, before the saga concludes in ‘Uneasy Hangs the Head…!’ as the status quo is restored and Namor finally regains his stolen throne. Back in charge, the Prince once more turns his thoughts to peace with the surface world and resolves ‘To Walk Amongst Men!’, but his mission is derailed when he encounters a deep-sea drilling platform and promptly finds himself battling the US military and retired Avengers Henry Pym and Janet Van Dyne.

That fracas was abruptly curtailed in #78’s ‘The Prince and the Puppet’ as an old adversary once again seizes control of the amphibian’s fragile mind…

Inked by the brilliant Bill Everett, ‘When Rises the Behemoth’ has Namor struggling against the Puppet Master’s psychic control and confronting the US Army in the streets of New York, before returning to clash with a cataclysmic doomsday monster in Atlantis. Dick Ayers stepped in to ink the tense conclusion in #80’s ‘To the Death!’, wherein Warlord Krang returns, blackmailing Dorma into betraying her beloved Prince…

Heartbroken and furious, Namor follows them to New York in ‘When a Monarch Goes Mad!’ (TTA#81): a violent melodrama that crossed over into the Iron Man feature in sister title Tales of Suspense #80.

‘When Fall the Mighty!’ (Lee, Colan & Jack Abel, using the pen-name Gary Michaels) offered a spectacular combat classic which only gets more incredible as it continues into Tales to Astonish #82.

Colan was a spectacular illustrator, but no one could ever match Jack Kirby for bombastic battle scenes, and when the former contracted flu after delivering two pages The King stepped in to produce some of the finest action-art of his entire Marvel career, fully displaying ‘The Power of Iron Man’, with neophyte scribe Roy Thomas supplying the fractious dialogue…

Kirby stayed on for #83’s ‘The Sub-Mariner Strikes!’ wherein the enraged prince finally catches Krang and Dorma, only to once again lose his memory and become the pawn of would-be world-conqueror Number 1 of the Secret Empire in ‘Like a Beast at Bay!’ (Colan & Ayers).

The embattled monarch regains his senses just in time to terrorise a New York already reeling from the Incredible Hulk’s mindless depredations in ‘…And One Shall Die!’ (inked again by Everett) before ‘The Wrath of Warlord Krang!’ (Lee, Jerry Grandenetti & Everett) results in the metropolis being inundated by an artificial tsunami.

Naturally blamed for the catastrophe, Namor faces a ‘Moment of Truth’ as he finally deals with Krang and reconciles with Dorma: a conclusion made doubly delightful as Wild Bill Everett at last took full artistic charge of his greatest creation…

Supplemented with House ads, a full cover gallery and creator biographies, this assemblage of tales feature some of Marvel’s very best artists at their visual peak, and although a few of the stories no longer bear a critical scrutiny, the verve and enthusiasm still shine through.

Perhaps more vicarious thrill than fan’s delight, many early Marvel Comics are more exuberant than qualitative, but this volume, especially from an art-lover’s point of view, is a wonderful exception: a historical treasure that fans will find irresistible.
© 1965, 1966, 1967, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Incredible Hulk Marvel Masterworks volume 3

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Gary Friedrich, Marie Severin, Bill Everett, John Buscema, Gil Kane, Jerry Grandenetti & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6762-4 (TPB)

Bruce Banner was a military scientist who was caught in a gamma bomb blast. As a result of continual ongoing mutation, stress and other factors can cause him to transform into a giant green monster of unstoppable strength and fury.

After an initially troubled few years, the gamma-irradiated gargantuan 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 morose man-monster shambled around the slowly-coalescing Marvel Universe as guest star and/or villain du jour until a new home was found for him.

Spanning June 1966 to April 1968, this trade paperback (and eBook) volume covers his years as co-star of Tales to Astonish – specifically issues #80-101 – and includes the first issue of his well-deserved new solo vehicle Incredible Hulk #102.

Following an Introduction by Stan Lee the saga resumes with TtA #80 as the Jade Juggernaut is dragged into an under-earth civil war after not-so-immortal old enemy Tyrannus resurfaces in ‘They Dwell in the Depths!’

Seeing the rampaging Hulk as a weapon of last resort in a bitter war against the Mole Man, the toppled tyrant abducts the emerald brute to Subterranea, but still loses his last bombastic battle. When Hulk returns topside, he promptly shambles into a plot by the insidious Secret Empire in #81’s ‘The Stage is Set!’

The convoluted mini-epic spread into a number of other Marvel series, especially Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Sub-Mariner (who was at that time sharing Tales to Astonish with Ol’ Greenskin).

Here, however, the Hulk is targeted by the Empire’s hired gun Boomerang as they strive to steal the military’s new Orion missile…

As the epic unfolds ‘The Battle Cry of the Boomerang’, ‘Less then Monster, More than Man!’, and ‘Rampage in the City!’ weave potent strands of sub-plot into a gripping mosaic which indicated to the evolving reader just how close-knit the Marvel Universe was becoming.

Obviously, such tight coordination between series caused a few 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 climactic clash 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 with #85 however, as John Buscema & John Tartaglione step in to illustrate ‘The Missile and the Monster!’ with yet another seditious spy diverting the experimental Orion rocket directly onto the city. The obvious stylistic 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 to the strip of veteran inker Mike Esposito also helps.

As obsessed Hulk-hunter and fiery US General “Thunderbolt” Ross foolishly deploys a weapon designed by gamma genius 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 abruptly expands his remit to include everybody in his path and Gil Kane takes up the green pencil for #88 as ‘Boomerang and the Brute’ shows both the assassin and the Hulk’s savage power uniformly unleashed…

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 who would play such a large part in later tales of the ill-fated Bruce Banner.

A new narrative tone comes with ‘Turning Point!’ (TtA #92, June 1967, by the superb and criminally underrated Marie Severin & inker Frank Giacoia), depicting the Gamma Giant hunted through a terrified, locked-down New York City as a prelude to a cataclysmic guest-battle in the next issue.

Back then, the Hulk didn’t really team-up with visiting stars, he just got mad and smashed them. Such was certainly the case when he became ‘He Who Strikes the Silver Surfer!’; ironically battling with and driving off a fellow outcast who held the power to cure him of his atomic affliction…

Herb Trimpe, associated with the character for nearly a decade, began his tenure as Severin’s inker with #94’s ‘To the Beckoning Stars!’: the initial instalment of a terrific 3-part shocker which saw the Hulk transported to the interstellar retreat of the High Evolutionary to futilely battle against recidivist beast-men on ‘A World He Never Made!’, before escaping a feral bloodbath in #96’s ‘What Have I Created?’.

Returned to Earth by the now god-like Evolutionary, the Hulk was gearing up to the next being change in his life.

Returned to Earth, the Green Goliath fell into a high-tech plot to overthrow America in ‘The Legions of: the Living Lightning!’, but the subversives’ beguilement of the monstrous outcast and conquest of a US military base in ‘The Puppet and the Power’ soon faltered and failed ‘When the Monster Wakes!’: his last inked by John Tartaglione.

Tales to Astonish was an anthological “split-book”, with two star-features sharing billing: a strategy caused by Marvel’s having entered into a highly restrictive distribution deal to save the company during a publishing crisis at the end of the 1950s.

At the time when the Marvel Age Revolution took fandom by storm, the company was confined to a release schedule of 16 titles each month, necessitating some doubling-up as characters became popular enough to carry their own strip. Fellow misunderstood misanthrope the Sub-Mariner had proved an ideal thematic companion since issue #70, and to celebrate the centenary of the title, issue #100 featured a breathtaking “who’s strongest?” clash between the blockbusting anti-heroes as the Puppet Master decreed ‘Let There be Battle!’ and Lee, Severin & Dan Adkins made it so.

The next issue was the last. With number #102 the comic would be redesignated The Incredible Hulk and the character’s success was assured. Before that, however, Lee, Severin & Giacoia set the scene with ‘Where Walk the Immortals!’ as Loki, Norse god of Evil transported the monster to Asgard in an effort to distract all-father Odin’s attention from his other schemes.

The premiere issue (#102) of The Incredible Hulk launched with an April, 1968 cover-date.

‘…This World Not His Own!’ included a rehashed origin for the Hulk and completed and concluded the Asgardian adventure with a troll invasion of Asgard with arch-villains Enchantress and the Executioner leading the charge. The issue was written by rising star Gary Friedrich, drawn by Severin and inked by veteran artist George Tuska. It was only the start of a big, bold and brutally enthralling things to come…

To Be Continued…

Adding even more lustre and appeal to this tome is a selection of original art covers by Everett, Kane and Severin…

This titanic tome of Hulk heroics offers visceral thrillers and chaotic clashes overflowing with dynamism, enthusiasm and sheer quality: tales crucial to later, more cohesive adventures, and even at their most hurried, the efforts of Kirby, Everett, Kane, Buscema, Severin and the rest in full-on, butt-kicking, “breaking-stuff” mode is a thrill to delight the destructive eight-year-old in everyone.

Hulk Smash(ing)!
© 1966, 1967, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.