Marvel Masterworks volume 1: The Amazing Spider-Man 1-10


By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-305-9, 2nd edition 978-0-7851-1181-8

Marvel is often termed “the House that Jack Built” and King Kirby’s contributions are undeniable and inescapable in the creation of a new kind of comicbook story-telling, but there was another unique visionary toiling at Atlas-Comics-as-was: one whose creativity and even philosophy seemed diametrically opposed to the bludgeoning power, vast imaginative scope and clean, broad lines of Kirby’s ever-expanding search for the external and infinite.

Steve Ditko was quiet and unassuming, voluntarily diffident to the point of invisibility though his work was both subtle and striking: innovative, meticulously polished, always questing for detail, he ever explored the man within. He found heroism – and humour and ultimate evil – all contained within the frail but noble confines of human scope and consciousness. His drawing could be oddly disquieting… and, when he wanted, almost creepy.

Drawing extremely well-received monster and mystery tales for Stan Lee, Ditko had been given his own title. Amazing Adventures/Amazing Adult Fantasy featured a subtler brand of yarn than Rampaging Aliens and Furry Underpants Monsters and the ilk which, though individually entertaining, had been slowly losing traction in the world of comics ever since National/DC had successfully reintroduced costumed heroes. Lee & Kirby had responded with Fantastic Four and the ahead-of-its-time Incredible Hulk but there was no indication of the renaissance to come when the already cancelled Amazing Fantasy #15 cover featured a brand new and rather creepy adventure character.

In 11 captivating pages ‘Spider-Man!’ told the parable of Peter Parker, a smart but alienated kid bitten by a radioactive spider on a High School science trip. Discovering he had developed arachnid abilities which he augmented with his own natural engineering genius, he did what any lonely, geeky nerd would do when given such a gift – he tried to cash in for girls, fame and money.

Making a costume to hide his identity in case he made a fool of himself, Parker became a minor celebrity – and a self-important one. To his eternal regret, when a thief fled past he didn’t lift a finger to stop him, only to find when he returned home that his uncle Ben had been murdered.

Crazy for vengeance, Parker hunted the assailant who had made his beloved Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known, only to find that it was the felon he couldn’t be bothered with. His social irresponsibility had led to the death of the man who raised him and the boy swore to always use his powers to help others…

It wasn’t a new story, but the setting was one familiar to every kid reading it and the artwork was downright spooky. This wasn’t the gleaming high-tech world of moon-rockets, giant monsters and flying cars – this stuff could happen to anybody…

Amazing Fantasy #15 came out the same month as Tales to Astonish #35 (cover-dated September 1962) – the first to feature the Astonishing Ant-Man in costumed capers, but it was the last issue of Ditko’s Amazing playground.

However the tragic last-ditch tale had struck a chord with the reading public and by Christmas a new comicbook superstar was ready to launch in his own title, with Ditko eager to show what he could do with his first returning character since the demise of the Charlton hero Captain Atom (see Action Heroes Archive volume 1).

Holding on to the “Amazing” prefix to jog reader’s memories, the bi-monthly Amazing Spider-Man #1 had a March 1963 cover-date and two complete stories. It prominently featured the Fantastic Four and took the readers by storm. The opening tale, again simply entitled ‘Spider-Man!’, recapitulated the origin whilst adding a brilliant twist to the conventional mix.

The wall-crawling hero was feared and reviled by the general public thanks in no small part to J. Jonah Jameson, a newspaper magnate who pilloried the adventurer from spite and for profit. With time-honoured comicbook irony, Spider-Man then had to save Jameson’s astronaut son John from a faulty space capsule…

The second yarn ‘Vs the Chameleon!’ found the cash-strapped kid trying to force his way onto the roster – and payroll – of the Fantastic Four whilst elsewhere a spy perfectly impersonated the web-spinner to steal military secrets, in a stunning example of the high-strung, antagonistic crossovers and cameos that so startled the jaded kids of the early 1960s.

Heroes just didn’t act like that…

With the second issue our new champion began a meteoric rise in quality and innovative storytelling. ‘Duel to the Death with the Vulture!’ found Parker chasing a flying thief as much for profit as justice. Desperate to help his aunt make ends meet, Spider-Man began to take photos of his cases to sell to Jameson’s Daily Bugle, making his personal gadfly his sole means of support.

Along with comedy and soap-operatic melodrama Ditko’s action sequences were imaginative and magnificently visceral, with odd angle shots and quirky, mis-balanced poses adding a vertiginous sense of unease to fight scenes. But crime wasn’t the only threat to the world and Spider-Man was just as (un)comfortable battling “aliens” in ‘The Uncanny Threat of the Terrible Tinkerer!’

Amazing Spider-Man #3 introduced possibly the apprentice hero’s greatest enemy in ‘Versus Doctor Octopus’, a full-length epic wherein a dedicated scientist survived an atomic accident only to find his self-designed mechanical tentacles permanently grafted to his body. Power-mad, Otto Octavius initially thrashed Spider-Man, sending the lad into a depression until an impromptu pep-talk from the Human Torch galvanized Spider-Man to one of his greatest victories.

‘Nothing Can Stop… the Sandman!’ was another instant classic wherein a common thug who had gained the power to transform to sand (another pesky nuclear snafu) invaded Parker’s school, and had to stopped at all costs whilst issue #5 found the web-spinner ‘Marked for Destruction by Dr. Doom!’ – not so much winning as surviving his battle against the deadliest man on Earth. Presumably he didn’t mind too much as this marked the transition from bi-monthly to monthly status for the series. In this tale Parker’s social nemesis, jock bully Flash Thompson, first displayed depths beyond the usual in contemporary comicbooks, beginning one of the best love/hate buddy relationships in popular literature…

Sometime mentor Dr. Curtis Connors debuted in #6 when Spidey came ‘Face-to-face with… The Lizard!’ as the wallcrawler fought his battle far from the concrete canyons and comfort zone of New York – specifically in the murky Florida Everglades. Parker was back in the Big Apple in #7 to breathtakingly tackle ‘The Return of the Vulture’.

Fun and youthful hi-jinks were a signature feature of the series, as was Parker’s budding romance with “older woman” Betty Brant, Jameson’s PA at the Daily Bugle. Youthful exuberance was the underlying drive in #8′s lead tale ‘The Living Brain!’ an ambulatory robot calculator that threatened to expose Spider-Man’s secret identity before running amok at beleaguered Midtown High, just as Parker was finally beating the stuffings out of school bully Flash Thompson.

This 17 page joy was accompanied by ‘Spiderman Tackles the Torch!’ (a 6 page vignette drawn by Jack Kirby and inked by Ditko) wherein a boisterous wall-crawler gate-crashed a beach part thrown by the flaming hero’s girlfriend… with explosive consequences.

Amazing Spider-Man #9 was a qualitative step-up in dramatic terms as Aunt May was revealed to be chronically ill – adding to Parker’s financial woes – and the action was supplied by ‘The Man Called Electro!’ a super-criminal with grand aspirations. Spider-Man was always a loner, never far from the streets and small-scale-crime, and with this tale wherein he also quells a prison riot single handed, Ditko’s preference for tales of gangersterism began to show through; a predilection confirmed in #10′s ‘The Enforcers!’ a classy mystery where a masked mastermind known as the Big Man used a position of trust at the Bugle to organize all the New York mobs into one unbeatable army against decency. Longer plot-strands were also introduced as Betty Brant mysteriously vanished (her fate to be revealed in the next issue and here the second Mighty Marvel Masterworks volume), but most fans remember this one for the spectacularly climactic seven-page fight scene in an underworld chop-shop that has still never been topped for action-choreography.

These immortal epics are available in numerous formats (including softcover editions of the luxurious and enticing hardback under review here), but for a selection that will survive the continual re-readings of the serious, incurable fan there’s nothing to beat the substantial full-colour feel of these Marvellous Masterwork editions.
© 1962, 1963, 1964, 1987, 2003 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks (volume 2): The Fantastic Four 1-10


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-307-5

I love 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 Silver Age and ever since, ranking just behind Showcase #4, which introduced the Flash and The Brave and the Bold #28, which brought superhero teams back via the creation of the Justice League of America. I’m just saying…

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 Jack Kirby settled into his job at the small outfit that used to be the publishing powerhouse Timely/Atlas, churning out mystery, monster, romance and western material in a market he suspected to be ultimately doomed.

But his fertile imagination couldn’t be suppressed for long and when the JLA caught the public’s massed imagination it gave him and writer/editor Stan Lee an opportunity which changed the industry forever.

Depending upon who you believe a golfing afternoon led publisher Martin Goodman to order his nephew Stan to try a series about super-characters like the JLA, and the resulting team quickly took the industry and the fans by storm. It wasn’t the powers: they’d all been seen since the beginning of the medium. It wasn’t the costumes: they didn’t even have any until the third issue.

It was Kirby’s compelling art and the fact that these characters weren’t anodyne cardboard cut-outs. In a real and recognizable location, (New York City from #3 onwards) imperfect, rather touchy people banded together out of tragedy and disaster to face the incredible.

In many ways The Challengers of the Unknown (Kirby’s prototype quartet whose escapades are available in two wonderful DC Archives as well as a single economical, black and white Showcase Presents volume) 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.

This glorious and lavish hardcover compilation reprints the first ten trend-setting, empire-building issues beginning with Fantastic Four #1 (bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, by Lee, Kirby and an uncredited inker whose identity remains a topic of much debate to this day) – a raw, rough, passionate and uncontrolled blend of traditional monster adventure and sci-fi saga. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it.

‘The Fantastic Four’ saw maverick scientist Reed Richards summon his fiancé Sue Storm, their friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother Johnny before heading off on their first mission. In a flashback we discover that they are driven survivors of a private space-shot that went horribly wrong when Cosmic rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding. They crashed back to Earth and found that they had all been hideously mutated into outlandish freaks.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible, Johnny Storm could turn into living flame and tragic Ben turned into a shambling, rocky freak. Shaken but unbowed they vow to dedicate their new abilities to benefiting mankind.

In ‘The Fantastic Four meet the Mole Man’ they foil a plan by another outcast who controls monsters and slave humanoids from far beneath the Earth. This summation of the admittedly mediocre plot cannot do justice to the engrossing wonder of that breakthrough issue – we really have no grasp today of just 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 and made them hunted outlaws (a fruitful theme often returned to in those early days) before the genius of Mister Fantastic bluffed their entire invasion fleet into abandoning their plans for conquering Earth.

Issue #3 (inked by Sol Brodsky) featured ’The Menace of the Miracle Man’ whose omnipotent powers had a simple secret, but is more notable for the first appearance of their uniforms and a shocking line-up change, which led directly into the next issue. Continued stories were an innovation in themselves, but the revival of a Golden Age Great instantly added depth and weight to the six month old and still un-named Marvel Universe.

‘The Coming of the Sub-Mariner’ reintroduced the all-powerful amphibian Prince of Atlantis, who had been lost for decades, a victim of amnesia. Recovering his memory thanks to the Human Torch, Namor returned to his sub-sea home only to find it destroyed by atomic testing. A monarch without subjects, he swore vengeance on humanity and attacked New York City with a gigantic monster. This saga is when the series truly kicked into high-gear…

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 monsters played a major role in the earlier tales but Fantastic Four #5 took a full-bite out of the fight n’ tights apple and introduced the first full-blown super-villain to the budding Marvel Universe.

I’m not discounting 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, 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! One brief aside for collectors here: the 1987 first printing of this Marvel Masterworks has a number of the pages in this tale wrongly sequenced – an error rectified in later releases – so if this is a problem, buy a different edition.

Sheer magic, and the so on-form creators knew they were on to a winner since the deadly Doctor returned the very next issue, teamed with a reluctant but gullible Sub-Mariner to attack our heroes in #6’s ‘Captives of the Deadly Duo!’ inked by new regular embellisher Dick Ayers.

In this first super-villain team up Prince Namor’s growing affection for Sue Storm forced the sub-sea stalwart to save his foes from dire death in outer space – but only after Doom tried to kill him too…

The first inklings of the rough-and-tumble humour and familial byplay smoothed the raw edginess from now on and Alien abductors were the motivating force when the team became ‘Prisoners of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X’, a dark and grandiose off-world thriller in FF#7 (the first monthly issue) whilst a new villain and the introduction of a love-interest for the monstrous Ben Grimm were the breakthrough high-points in the action-packed ‘Prisoners of the Puppet Master!’

The December issue, #9, trumpeted ‘The End of the Fantastic Four’ as Sub-Mariner returned 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 crime-fighters 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 and 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, which rounds out this deluxe box of delights, featured ‘The Return of Doctor Doom!’ wherein the arch villain used Stan and Jack to lure Reed Richards into a trap where his mind was switched with the Iron Dictator’s until hubris, arrogance and valiant heroism inevitably saved the day…

These immortal epics are available in numerous formats (including softcover editions of the luxurious and enticing hardback under review here), but for a selection that will survive the continual re-readings of the serious, incurable fan there’s nothing to beat the substantial full-colour feel of these Marvellous Masterwork editions.

If you’re going to read the World’ Greatest Comics Magazine’s finest moments, surely you’ll be wanting to do it in style?
© 1961, 1962, 1963, 1987, 2003 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks (volume 8): The Incredible Hulk #1-6


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-594- 9   second edition: 978-0785111856

Coming out of a monster comics mini-boom and well aware of the fact that everybody loves a terrifying titan, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby didn’t look too far afield or take massive risks when they were looking to capitalise on the burgeoning success of their radical new comic Fantastic Four.

The Incredible Hulk was Marvel’s second superhero title, although technically Henry Pym debuted earlier in a one-off yarn in Tales to Astonish #27 (January 1962), but he didn’t become costumed hero Ant-Man until the autumn, by which time Ol’ Greenskin was not-so-firmly established.

The Hulk crashed right into his own comicbook and after some supremely exciting exploits by Young Marvel’s finest creators, crashed right out again. After six bi-monthly issues the series was cancelled and Lee retrenched, making the character a perennial guest-star in other Marvel titles (Fantastic Four #12, Amazing Spider-Man #14, The Avengers from #1- first as a member then a recurring foe) until they found a way to rekindle the drama in their new “Split-Book” format.

Cover-dated May 1962 The Incredible Hulk #1 introduced physically unprepossessing atomic scientist Bruce Banner, sequestered on a secret military base in the desert, perpetually bullied by bombastic commander General “Thunderbolt” Ross as the hours and minutes slipped away before the World’s first Gamma Bomb test.

Besotted by Ross’s daughter Betty, Banner endured the General’s constant jibes as the clock ticked on and tension increased even while his abrasive assistant Igor constantly cajoled him for keeping the details of the G-Bomb secret.

During the final countdown Banner saw a teenager drive into Ground Zero and frantically dashed to the site to drag the boy away. Unknown to him the Igor, who has been ordered to delay the countdown, has an agenda of his own…

Rick Jones was a wayward but good-hearted kid. After initial resistance he lets himself be dragged into a safety trench, but just as Banner was about to join him The Bomb detonated…

Miraculously surviving the blast Banner and the boy were secured by soldiers, but that evening as the sun set the scientist underwent a monstrous transformation. He grew larger; his skin turned a stony grey…

In six simple pages that’s how it all started and no matter what any number of TV or movie reworkings, comicbook retcons and psycho-babble re-evaluations would have you believe it’s still the best and most primal take on the origin. A good man, an unobtainable girl, a foolish kid, an unknown enemy and the horrible power of destructive science unchecked when the sun set and darkness fell…

Written by Stan Lee, drawn by Jack Kirby with inking by Paul Reinman, ‘The Coming of the Hulk’ barrels along as the man-monster and Jones are kidnapped by Banner’s Soviet counterpart the Gargoyle for a rousing round of espionage and Commie-busting before simple humanity saved the day and returned the heroes to their own, less than friendly shores.

In the second issue the plot concerned invading aliens – a staple of Early Marvel Tales – and the Banner/Jones relationship settled into a traumatic nightly ordeal as the scientist metamorphosed and was summarily locked into an escape-proof cell whilst the boy stood watch helplessly. Neither considered for a moment telling the government of their predicament…

‘The Terror of the Toad Men’ was formulaic but viscerally and visually captivating as Steve Ditko inked Kirby, imparting a genuinely eerie sense of sinister unease to the artwork as grotesque invaders conquered Earth only to be repelled at the last moment by Banner – not the Jade Juggernaut. Incidentally, this is the story where the Hulk inexplicably developed his more accustomed Green tan.

Although back-written years later as a continuing mutation, the plain truth is that grey tones caused all manner of problems for the production colourists so it was arbitrarily changed to the simple and more traditional colour of creatures.

The third issue presented a departure in format as the full-length, chaptered epics gave way to complete short stories. Dick Ayers inked Kirby in the transitional ‘Banished to Outer Space’ which radically altered the relationship of Jones and the monster after the rampaging Hulk was rocketed into orbit where radiation created a mental link between boy and beast. Moreover the Hulk was now able to emerge even in daylight from there on…

The story thus far was reprised in a three-page vignette ‘The Origin of the Hulk’ and that Marvel mainstay of malice the Circus of Crime debuted in ‘The Ringmaster’ – a riotous romp of brute strength and inspired larceny.

After a double-image cover which presaged those aforementioned split-books, the Hulk went on an urban rampage in #4’s first tale ‘The Monster and the Machine’ and Rick began using a colossal cyclotron to forcibly change the beast back into Banner whilst aliens and Commies combined in unlikely fashion with the second adventure ‘The Gladiator from Outer Space!’

The Incredible Hulk #5 was a joyous classic of primal Kirby action; introducing the immortal despot Tyrannus and his subterranean empire in ‘The Beauty and the Beast!’ whilst those pesky commies came in for another drubbing when our Jolly Green freedom-fighter travelled to the East to counter the invasion of Lhasa by ‘The Hordes of General Fang!’

Despite the sheer verve and bravura of these stripped-down, simplistic classics – some of the purest most exhilarating and rewarding comics nonsense ever produced – the series was not selling and Kirby was moved on to more appreciated arenas. Steve Ditko handled the art chores for #6, which returned to a full-length epic – and an extremely engaging one. ‘The Incredible Hulk Vs the Metal Master’ involved an invasion by an alien who could mentally manipulate minerals, alloys and processed metal and almost made Earth his own. Combining superb action, sly and subtle sub-plots, tragedy, mystery and a sublime thinking man’s resolution, it was nonetheless the final issue.

After shambling around the nascent Marvel universe for a year or so, usually as a misunderstood villain-cum-monster, the Emerald Behemoth got another shot at the big time and eventually found a home in Tales To Astonish where Ant-Man/Giant-Man was rapidly proving to be a character who had outlived his time.

The rest is history…

These immortal epics are available in numerous formats (including softcover editions of the luxurious deluxe hardback under review here), but for a selection that will survive the continual re-readings of the serious, incurable fan there’s nothing to beat the substantial full-colour feel of these Marvellous Masterwork editions.
© 1962, 1963, 1989, 2003 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

MARVEL MASTERS: THE ART OF JOHN ROMITA SR.


By various & John Romita Sr. (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-403-4

At last, a book commemorating one of the industry’s most polished stylists and a true cornerstone of the Marvel Comics phenomenon. The elder John Romita began his comics career in the late 1940s ghosting for other artists before striking out under his own colours, eventually illustrating horror and other anthology tales for Stan Lee at Atlas.

He illustrated a fine run of cowboy adventures starring the Western Kid and the 1954 revival of Captain America plus other minor luminaries before an industry implosion derailed his – and many other – budding careers. He eventually found himself trapped in DC’s romance comics division – a job he hated – before making the reluctant jump again to the resurgent House of Ideas in 1965.

After a brief stint as an inker he took over Daredevil with #12, following on from Wally Wood and Bob Powell. Initially Jack Kirby provided layouts to help Romita assimilate the style and pacing of Marvel tales but he was soon in full control of his pages. He drew DD until #19, by which time he had been handed the assignment of a lifetime.

This volume opens with the Captain America story from Tales of Suspense # 77(May 1966). ‘If a Hostage Should Die!’, written by Lee, with Kirby layouts and inks by Frank Giacoia (AKA Frank Ray) recounted a moment from the hero’s wartime exploits involving a woman he loved and lost, and is followed by a classic Daredevil thriller from #18. ‘There Shall Come a Gladiator!’ introduced the buzz-saw wielding psychopath in a gripping tale of mistaken identity, by Lee and office junior Denny O’Neil with Giacoia once more handling the pens and brushes.

Represented next is that aforementioned Big Break. By 1966 Stan Lee and Steve Ditko could no longer work together on their greatest creation. After increasingly fraught months the artist resigned leaving the Spider-Man without an illustrator. The new kid was handle the ball and told to run. ‘How Green was my Goblin!’ and ‘Spidey Saves the Day!’ (“Featuring the End of the Green Goblin!” as it so facetiously and dubiously proclaimed) was the climactic battle fans had been clamouring for since the viridian villain’s first appearance, and it didn’t disappoint – and still doesn’t today.

Reprinted from issues #39 and 40 (August and September 1966 and inked by old DC colleague Mike Esposito under the pseudonym Mickey Demeo) this is still one of the best Spider-Man yarns ever, and heralded a run of classic sagas from the Lee/Romita team that actually saw sales rise, even after the departure of the seemingly irreplaceable Ditko. Another such was the contents of Amazing Spider-Man #47-49.

‘In the Hands of the Hunter!’, ‘The Wings of the Vulture!’ and ‘From the Depths of Defeat!’, with Romita finally providing pencils and inks (April, May and June 1967) comprises a complex and engrossing thriller featuring Kraven the Hunter and both the old and a new Vultures, as well as relating a tension building sub-plot about the gone-but-not-forgotten Green Goblin.

Romita was clearly considered a safe pair of hands and the “go-to-guy” by Stan Lee. When Jack Kirby left to create his incredible Fourth World for DC, Romita was handed the company’s other flagship title – and in the middle of an on-going storyline.

Fantastic Four #103 (October 1970) ‘At War With Atlantis!’ is the second chapter in a gripping invasion tale where Magneto blackmails the Sub-Mariner into conquering the surface world with his Atlantean legions (as is so often the case, the first part is not included here, but there are recaps aplenty to bring you up to speed) and with the conclusion ‘Our World.. Enslaved!‘ (both inked with angular, brittle brilliance by John Verpoorten) they form the first non-Kirby classic of the super-team’s illustrious history. Sadly the title began a gradual decline from there…

Romita briefly returned to the Star-Spangled Avenger in the early 1970s and ‘Power to the People’ – is the culmination of an extended storyline very much of its time with the Falcon and Nick Fury helping to once again stop the insidious Red Skull. Gary Friedrich scripted Captain America #143 (November 1971) and another new kid was writing the web-spinner when Romita returned.

‘The Master-Plan of the Molten Man’ (issue #132, May 1974) was scripted by Gerry Conway, but the increasingly busy Romita, now art director for the entire company, was here uncomfortably assisted by Paul Reinman and Tony Mortellaro in the inking of this two-fisted interlude.

‘Vicious Cycle’ by Peter David, with Fred Fredericks inks is a quirky, moving short tale from Incredible Hulk Annual #17 (1991), and is followed by an adventure of Peter Parker’s parents from Untold Tales of Spider-Man #minus 1 (July 1997, and part of the company’s Flashback publishing event). ‘The Amazing Parkers’, written by Roger Stern and inked by Al Milgrom, pitted the married secret agents against the deadly Baroness and guest-starred a pre-Weapon-X Wolverine in a delightful spy-romp.

The Wall-crawler and Daredevil teamed up in Spider-Man/Kingpin: To the Death, a 1997 one-shot which reunited Lee and Romita (with inker Dan Green along for the ride) in an old fashioned countdown caper that should delight older fans, and this book’s narrative delights end with ‘The Kiss’: a trip down memory lane with a much younger Peter Parker still in the throes of first love with Gwen Stacy.

Tugging those tears is writer J.M. DeMatteis and the content proves to me, at least, that Romita’s detested romance stories must be something to see, all his protestations notwithstanding. With another superbly informative biography section from Mike Conroy to close out the volume, this is certainly one of the most cohesive and satisfactory compilations in this series of Marvel Masters. If only they could all be as good…

© 2008 Marvel Entertainment, Inc. and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. (A BRITISH EDITION BY PANINI UK LTD)

Marvel Masterworks: The Uncanny X-Men 1977-78

Marvel Masterworks: The Uncanny X-Men 1977-78 

By Various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN 978-1-84653-009-8

This second volume of these cheap‘n’cheerful UK editions featuring early landmarks of Marvel’s most popular characters starts with the conclusion of a tale wherein the team visit Banshee’s ancestral castle in Ireland but run afoul of the ultra-powerful Juggernaut and Banshee’s cousin Black Tom Cassidy. There’s lots of action and much background on the newly minted mutant heroes. And Leprechauns. No, really. That one was originally printed in Uncanny X-Men #103.

Following on in swift and wonderful succession are the contents of issues #104-116, which once again leaves the reader with a bit of a cliff-hanger situation — although, in fairness, it would be hard to find an episode that didn’t end with some kind of unresolved plot thread.

Throughout those early stories a mysterious enemy calling himself Eric the Red was sending villains to attack the team. His next ploy was to restore Magneto to full power (he’d been turned into a baby – a very common fate for villains in those faraway days) and the arch villain’s subsequent attack nearly destroyed the team. After that he orchestrated an attack by the Firelord, an alien flamethrower, then a slight digression as overstretched artist Dave Cockrum was given a breather by a fill-in tale featuring psychic clones of the original X-men from Bill Mantlo and Bob Brown.

The regular story resumes with Eric revealed as an alien spy and the heroes catapulted to another galaxy to save the universe. This marks the beginning of the cosmic nature of the X-Teams. They meet The Shi’ar Imperial Guard (an in-joke version of DC’s Legion of Super Heroes), the heroic space pirates the Star Jammers, and uncover a plot to unmake the fabric of space-time. This tale (from issue 107) was also the last drawn by Cockrum for many years. He would return to replace the man who replaced him.

The final part of the cosmic saga was drawn by John Byrne, whose work was to become an industry bench-mark as the X-Men grew in popularity and complexity. The bravura high-octane thrills of “Armageddon Now” seemed a high-point, but Claremont and Byrne just got better each issue. Weapon Alpha attacked in an attempt to force Wolverine to rejoin the Canadian Secret Service. He would later return, renamed Vindicator, with Alpha Flight — a Canadian team that would eventually star in their own comic.

Another fill-in, by artist Tony Dezuniga, featuring the assassin Warhawk and best forgotten, is followed by a thrilling mystery when the heroes vanish. X-Men graduate the Beast tracks them to a carnival where mutant hypnotist Mesmero has enslaved them. No sooner have they escaped that trap when Magneto returns, and after a titanic struggle is defeated. The battle, in Antarctica, seemingly claims the lives of all but Beast and Phoenix, who return to civilisation and try to pick up their lives. This ‘tragedy’ directly leads into the justly famed “Dark Phoenix Saga” but that’s a tale for another volume.

In actual fact, the X-Men survived by tunnelling into the subterranean paradise known as the Savage Land, a Pellucidarian tropical jungle beneath the ice where dinosaurs and cavemen still live. Here the team recuperate until they encounter an old foe, Sauron, and become embroiled in a war instigated by a Zaladane and Garokk, a mad queen and reincarnated God, respectively. After defeating them the team try to return home but get caught in a major typhoon…

And that’s where this volume closes, but don’t let that dissuade you from this book. It’s a bright and breezy introduction (or even reintroduction) to these characters, and irrespective of your views on the current series it serves as a reminder of just how good comic book adventure can be.

© 1977, 1978, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man 1964

Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man 1964

By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko with Jack Kirby

(Marvel/Panini UK)  ISBN 978-1-905239-58-0

The early years of Marvel Comics produced nothing but evergreen classics, and this cheap and cheerful softcover collection of the Spider-Man stories with cover-dates of 1964 – (issues #8-19 of the comic, plus the first Amazing Spider-Man Annual) is a wonderful way to introduce very valuable stories to the greater public in an accessible manner and at a very reasonable price. I’m not going to attempt to explain the vagaries of the US distribution system – just remember that in America the month on the cover denotes when the issue should be taken OFF sale – that’s why all the Christmas stories have February or March cover dates. This is a book for readers not collectors, okay?

The second year of the moody and misunderstood Peter Parker’s superhero career kicked off with a battle against a robot that divined his secret identity before going on a rampage at his high school, and a battle with the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch (drawn by Jack Kirby but inked by Spidey’s artistic godfather Steve Ditko, who drew everything else web-based in those formative years). Closely following were the first encounters with Electro and The Enforcers as Lee and Ditko balanced costumed villains with more down to earth criminals. Doctor Octopus made a return appearance and then Mysterio, The Green Goblin and Kraven the Hunter all took a bow. For added flavour – and free advertising – Lee began using guest appearances of his other heroic characters. The Hulk appeared with the Green Goblin, and Spider-Man actually teamed up with Daredevil to battle the Circus of Crime.

The growth of comics continuity can be seen here, as a storyline – innovative for the times – stretched over three episodes when the returning Green Goblin, Sandman and Enforcers seemingly made a coward of the web-spinner and not even the Human Torch could help him. It all worked out eventually, of course, and the year “concluded” – for the purposes of this book at least – with a re-presentation of the landmark, and still magnificently thrilling, battle against the ‘Sinister Six’. When a team of villains comprising Electro, Kraven, Mysterio, Vulture, Sandman and Doctor Octopus kidnap Aunt May and Peter’s girl friend Betty Brant, Spider-Man must defeat them without his Spider-powers! Also included are original pin-ups and special feature pages and the comedic short ‘How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Create Spider-Man’.

Full of energy, verve, pathos and laughs, gloriously short of post-modern angst and breast-beating, these fun classics are quintessential comic book magic, and along with the Fantastic Four, they form the very foundation of everything Marvel. This volume is a fabulous opportunity for new readers of all ages.

© 1964, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.