Avengers Marvel Masterworks volume 17

By Jim Shooter, Jim Starlin, Roger Stern, Marv Wolfman, George Pérez, David Michelinie, Bill Mantlo, Mark Gruenwald, Sal Buscema, Dave Wenzel, Tom Morgan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1302903411 (HB)

The Avengers have always proved that putting all one’s star eggs in a single basket pays off big-time: even when all Marvel’s classic all-stars such as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man are absent, it merely allows the team’s lesser lights to shine more brightly.

Of course, all the founding stars were regularly featured due to the rotating, open door policy, which means that every issue includes somebody’s fave-rave – and the boldly grand-scale impressive stories and artwork are no hindrance either. With the team now global icons, let’s look again at the stories which form the foundation of that pre-eminence.

Re-presenting Avengers #164-177, Avengers Annual #7 plus the concluding half of the legendary crossover epic from Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2 (cumulatively spanning October 1977 to November 1978), these stories again see the team in transition and against the biggest threats ever imagined.

During this period Jim Shooter, having galvanised and steadied the company’s notional flagship, moved on, leaving David Michelinie to impress his own ideas and personality upon the team, even as Cosmic Doomsmith Jim Starlin recruited the team to inscribe an epic ending to his seminal interpretation of tragic antihero Adam Warlock

Opening this titanic tome is an informative Foreword from scripter Roger Stern, followed by a stunning 3-part saga by Shooter, John Byrne & Pablo Marcos which reinvented one of the team’s oldest adversaries.

It begins in #164 as, after months of speculation and experimentation, the resurrected Wonder Man is finally revealed to have evolved into a creature of pure ionic energy. Elsewhere, aging Maggia Don Count Nefaria recruits Whirlwind, Power Man (the original mercenary who had undergone the same transformative experiment as Wonder Man) and Living Laser to amass plunder for him. This tactic is mere subterfuge…

After the thieves trash a squad of Avengers, Nefaria uses his flunkies’ bodies as templates and power source to turn himself into a literal Superman before attacking the already-battered heroes in ‘To Fall by Treachery!’

The tension builds in #165 as ‘Hammer of Vengeance’ sees the out-powered team fall, only to be saved by elderly speedster The Whizzer who points out that, for all his incredible strength, Nefaria too is an old man with death inevitably dogging his heels…

Panicked and galvanised, the Overman goes berserk, carving a swathe of destruction through the city whilst seeking a confrontation with Thunder God Thor and the secret of his immortality. Before too long he had reason to regret his demands. The surprise arrival of the Thunderer in ‘Day of the Godslayer!’ ends the madman’s dreams but also highlights growing tensions within the victorious team…

This superb thriller is followed by ‘The Final Threat’ (Jim Starlin & Joe Rubinstein) from Avengers Annual #7, wherein Kree warrior Captain Marvel and Titanian mind-goddess Moondragon return to Earth with vague anticipations of an impending cosmic catastrophe.

Their premonitions are confirmed when galactic wanderer Adam Warlock arrives with news that death-obsessed Thanos has amassed an alien armada and built a Soul-gem powered weapon to snuff out the stars like candles…

Broaching interstellar space to stop the scheme, the united heroes forestall the stellar invasion and prevent the Dark Titan from destroying the Sun, but only at the cost of Warlock’s life…

Then ‘Death Watch!’ (Starlin & Rubinstein from Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2) finds Peter Parker plagued by prophetic nightmares, disclosing how Thanos had snatched victory from defeat and now holds the Avengers captive whilst again preparing to extinguish Sol.

With nowhere else to turn, the anguished, disbelieving Spider-Man heads for the Baxter Building, hoping to borrow a spacecraft, unaware that The Thing also has history with the terrifying Titan.

Although utterly overmatched, the mismatched champions of Life subsequently upset Thanos’ plans enough so that the Avengers and the Universe’s true agent of retribution can end the Titan’s threat forever… or at least until next time…

Back in the monthly, an epic of equal import was about to unfold. Shooter’s connection to the series, although episodic, was long-lived and produced some of that period’s greatest tales, none more so than the stellar – if deadline-doomed – saga which occurred over succeeding months: a sprawling tale of time-travel and universal conquest which began in Avengers #167-168 and, after a brief pause, resumed for #170 through #177.

In previous issues a difference of opinion between Captain America and Iron Man over leadership styles had begun to polarise the team. Cracks appeared and tensions started to show in #167 with ‘Tomorrow Dies Today!’ (Shooter, George Pérez & Marcos).

In the Gods-&-Monsters filled Marvel Universe there are entrenched and jealous Hierarchies of Power, so when a new player mysteriously materialises in the 20th century the very Fabric of Reality is threatened…

It kicks off when star-spanning 31st century superheroes the Guardians of the Galaxy materialise in Earth orbit, hotly pursuing cyborg despot Korvac. Inadvertently setting off planetary incursion alarms, their minor-moon sized ship is swiftly penetrated by an Avengers squad, and – after the customary introductory squabble – the future men (Charlie-27, Yondu, Martinex, Nikki, Vance Astro and enigmatic space God Starhawk) explain the purpose of their mission…

Captain America had fought beside them to liberate their home era from Badoon rule and Thor battled the fugitive Korvac before, so peace soon breaks out, but even with the resources of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, the time travellers are unable to find their quarry…

Meanwhile on Earth, a mysterious being named Michael lurks in the background. At a fashion show staged by the Wasp, he achieves a psychic communion with model Carina Walters before they both vanish…

‘First Blood’ (Avengers #168) stirs up more trouble as Federal liaison and hidebound martinet Henry Peter Gyrich begins making life bureaucratically hot for the maverick team. In Colorado, meanwhile, Hawkeye gets a shock as his travelling partner Two-Gun Kid vanishes before his eyes whilst in suburban Forest Hills, Starhawk – in his female iteration of Aleta – approaches a quiet residence…

Michael/Korvac’s plan consists of subtly altering events as he gathers strength in secret preparation for a sneak attack on those aforementioned Cosmic Hierarchies. His entire plan revolves around not being noticed. When Starhawk confronts him, the villain kills the stellar intruder and instantly resurrects him minus the ability to perceive Michael or any of his works…

The drama screeches to a halt in #169, which declares ‘If We Should Fail… The World Dies Tonight!’ The out of context potboiler – by Marv Wolfman, Sal Buscema & Dave Hunt – sees Cap, Iron Man and the Black Panther scour the planet in search of doomsday bombs wired to the failing heart of a dying man, after which the major mayhem resumes in #170 with ‘…Though Hell Should Bar the Way!’ by Shooter, Pérez & Marcos.

As Sentinel of Liberty and Golden Avenger finally settle their differences, in Inhuman city Attilan, ex-Avenger Quicksilver suddenly disappears even as dormant mechanoid Jocasta (designed by maniac AI Ultron to be his bride) goes on a rampage before vanishing into the wilds of New York City.

In stealthy pursuit and hoping her trail will lead to Ultron himself, the team stride into a trap ‘…Where Angels Fear to Tread’ but nevertheless triumph thanks to the hex powers of the Scarlet Witch, the assistance of pushy, no-nonsense new hero Ms. Marvel and Jocasta’s own rebellion against the metal monster who made her. However, at their moment of triumph the Avengers are stunned to see Cap and Jocasta wink out of existence…

The problems pile up in #172 as Watchdog-come-Gadfly Gyrich is roughly manhandled and captured by out-of-the-loop returnee Hawkeye and responds by rescinding the team’s Federal clearances.

Badly handicapped, the heroes are unable to warn other inactive members of the increasing disappearances even as a squad of heavy hitters rush off to tackle marauding Atlantean maverick Tyrak the Treacherous who is bloodily enacting a ‘Holocaust in New York Harbor!’ (by Shooter, Sal Buscema & Klaus Janson)…

Answers to the growing mystery are finally forthcoming in ‘Threshold of Oblivion!’, plotted by Shooter, with David Michelinie scripting for Sal Buscema & D(iverse) Hands to illustrate.

As the vanishings escalate, the remaining Avengers (Thor, Wasp, Hawkeye and Iron Man – with the assistance of Vance Astro) finally track down their hidden foe and beam into a cloaked starship to liberate the ‘Captives of the Collector!’(Shooter, Bill Mantlo, Dave Wenzel & Marcos)…

After a staggering struggle, the heroes triumph and their old foe reveals the shocking truth: he is in fact an Elder of the Universe who foresaw cosmic doom millennia previously and sought to preserve special artefacts and creatures – such as the Avengers – from the slowly approaching apocalypse.

As he reveals that predicted end-time is here and that he has sent his own daughter Carina to infiltrate the Enemy’s stronghold, the cosmic curator is obliterated in a devastating blast of energy. The damage however is done and the entrenched hierarchies of creation may well be alerted…

Issue #175 began the final countdown as ‘The End… and Beginning!’ (Shooter, Michelinie, Wenzel & Marcos) sees the amassed and liberated ranks of Avengers and Guardians follow the clues to Michael, just as the new god shares the incredible secret of his apotheosis with Carina, before ‘The Destiny Hunt!’ and ‘The Hope… and the Slaughter!’ (Shooter, Wenzel, Marcos & Ricardo Villamonte) depicts the entire army of champions destroyed and resurrected as Michael easily overpowers all opposition but falters for lack of one fundamental failing…

Spread through a series of lesser adventures, the overarching epic ponderously and ominously unfolds before finally exploding into a devastating and tragic Battle Royale that is the epitome of superhero comics. This is pure escapist fantasy at its finest.

Despite being somewhat diminished by the artwork when the magnificent Pérez gave way to less inspired hands and cursed by the inability to keep a regular inker (Pablo Marcos, Klaus Janson Ricardo Villamonte and Tom Morgan all pitched in), the sheer scope of the epic plot nevertheless carries this story through to its cataclysmic and fulfilling conclusion.

Even Shooter’s reluctant replacement by scripters Dave Michelinie and Bill Mantlo (as his editorial career advanced) couldn’t derail this juggernaut of adventure.

If you want to see what makes Superhero fiction work, and can keep track of nearly two dozen flamboyant characters, this is a fine example of how to make such an unwieldy proposition easily accessible to the new and returning reader.

Available in hardback and digital iterations, and supplemented by original cover art by Pérez and Dave Cockrum, contemporary House Ads, editorial material and covers from previous compilations plus an epilogue strip by Mark Gruenwald & Tom Morgan, this archival tome and this type of heroic adventure might not be to every reader’s taste but these – and the truly epic yarns that followed – set the tone for fantastic Fights ‘n’ Tights dramas for decades to come and informed all those movies everybody loves. This tale can still boggle the mind and take the breath away, even here in the quietly isolated and no less dangerous 21st century…

No lovers of Costumed Dramas can afford to ignore this superbly bombastic book, and fans who think themselves above superhero stories might also be pleasantly surprised…
© 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Sub-Mariner Marvel Masterworks volume 4

By Roy Thomas, Marie Severin, John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Jack Katz & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5048-0 (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 elementally appealing fire vs. water headlining team in the October 1939 cover-dated Marvel Comics #1 which became Marvel Mystery Comics with issue #2. He shared honours and top billing with The Human Torch, but had originally been seen (albeit in a truncated monochrome version) in Motion Picture Funnies: a weekly promotional giveaway handed out to moviegoers earlier in the year.

Rapidly emerging as one of the industry’s biggest draws, Namor gained his own title at the end of 1940 (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 darkly timely fantasy tales, but even his input wasn’t sufficient to keep the title afloat and Sub-Mariner sank again.

When Stan Lee & Jack Kirby began reinventing comic book superheroes in 1961 with the groundbreaking Fantastic Four, they revived the awesome and all-but-forgotten amphibian as a troubled, semi-amnesiac anti-hero. Decidedly more bombastic, regal and grandiose, 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 Susan Storm.

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

This fourth subsea selection – available in hardback and eBook editions – collects Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner #14-25, spanning June 1969 to May 1970 and opens with another heartfelt appreciation and some creative secret-sharing from sometime-scribe and life-long devotee Roy Thomas in his Introduction.

Innovative action and shameless nostalgia vie for attention as Thomas, Marie Severin and Mike Esposito (moonlighting as Joe Gaudioso) decree ‘Burn, Namor… Burn!’ in Sub-Mariner #14, as the Mad Thinker apparently resurrects the original – android – Human Torch and sets him to destroy the monarch of Atlantis. This epic clash was one prong of an early experiment in multi-part cross-overs (Captain Marvel #14 and Avengers #64 being the other episodes of the triptych).

Inked by Vince Colletta, ‘The Day of the Dragon!’ finds Namor back in Atlantis after months away, only to find his beloved Lady Dorma has been abducted by old foe Dr. Dorcas. The trail leads to Empire State University and brutal battle against mighty android Dragon Man

“Gaudioso” returned for Namor’s voyage to a timeless phenomenon in search of mutated foe Tiger Shark who had conquered ‘The Sea that Time Forgot!’, after which the Sub-Mariner contends with an alien intent on draining Earth’s oceans in ‘From the Stars… the Stalker!’ pencilled in tandem by Severin and Golden Age Great Jack Katz, using nom de plume Jay Hawk.

The saga ends calamitously in ‘Side by Side with… Triton!’ (Thomas, Severin & Gaudioso) as, with the help of the aquatic Inhuman, Namor repels the extraterrestrial assault, but loses his ability to breathe underwater. Now forced to dwell on the surface, the despised Atlantean then crushingly clashes with an old friend in the livery of a new superhero in ‘Support your Local Sting-Ray!’ This bombastic battle yarn also offers a delicious peek at the Marvel Bullpen, courtesy of (ex-EC veterans) Severin and inker Johnny Craig’s deft caricaturing skills…

John Buscema returns for #20, with Thomas scripting and Craig inking a chilling dose of realpolitik. ‘In the Darkness Dwells… Doom!’ sees Namor lured by the promise of a cure to his breathing difficulties into the exploitative clutches of the mad Monarch of Latveria. Trapping the Sub-Mariner and keeping him, however, are two wildly differing concepts…

Informed of Namor’s condition, the armies of Atlantis are marshalled by Dorma and disgraced Warlord Seth in ‘Invasion from the Ocean Floor!’ (art by Severin & Craig) besieging New York and almost invoking a new age of monsters.

As Namor’s malady is treated by Atlantean super-science, a key component of a new Superhero concept begins.

Last of the big star conglomerate super-groups, the Defenders would eventually count amongst its membership almost every hero – and a few villains – in the Marvel Universe. No surprise there as initially they were composed of the company’s bad-boys: misunderstood, outcast and often actually dangerous to know.

The genesis of the team in fact derived from their status as publicly distrusted “villains”, but before all that later inventive approbation linked tales of enigmatic antiheroes as best exemplified by Prince Namor, and the Incredible Hulk. When you add the mystery and magic of Doctor Strange the recipe for thrills, spills and chills became simply irresistible…

Following on from Dr. Strange #183 (November 1969) – which introduced the infernal Undying Ones, an elder race of demons hungry to reconquer the Earth – February 1970’s Sub-Mariner #22 ‘The Monarch and the Mystic!’ brought the Prince of Atlantis into the mix, as Thomas, Severin & Craig relate a moody tale of sacrifice in which the Master of the Mystic Arts apparently dies holding the gates of Hell shut with the Undying Ones pent behind them.

In case you’re curious, the saga concludes on an upbeat note in Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970). You might want to track down that yarn too…

Even restored to full capacity, there’s no peace for the regal, and Sub-Mariner #23 finds Namor still contending with Dorcas and arch villain Warlord Krang after the human mad scientist uses his power-transfer process to create an Atlantean wonder with the might of killer whales in ‘The Coming of… Orka!’ The slow-witted psycho subsequently sets an army of enraged cetaceans against the sunken city as John Buscema & Jim Mooney step in artistically to depict how ‘The Lady and the Tiger Shark!’ finds Namor enslaved and Dorma making Faustian pacts to save Atlantis.

This scintillating volume concludes with a landmark tale as – restored to rule and ready to be riled – Namor becomes an early and strident environmental activist after surface world pollution slaughters some of his subjects. Crafted by Thomas, Sal Buscema & Mooney, ‘A World My Enemy!’ follows Sub-Mariner’s bellicose confrontation with the UN as he puts humanity on notice: clean up your mess or I will…

From this point on the antihero would become a minor icon and subtle advocate of the issues, even if only to young comics readers…

These tales feature some of Marvel’s greatest artists at their visual peak, with all the verve and enthusiasm still shining 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 fans will delight in forever.
© 1968, 1969, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ghost Rider Marvel Masterworks volume 2

By Tony Isabella, Gary Friedrich, Bill Mantlo, Marv Wolfman, Steve Gerber, Jim Mooney, Frank Robbins, George Tuska, Sal Buscema, Bob Brown, John Byrne & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2214-6 (HB)

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

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

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

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

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

Almost overnight nasty monsters (and narcotics – but that’s another story) became acceptable fare within four-colour pages and whilst a parade of pre-code reprints made sound business sense, the creative aspect of the contemporary fascination in supernatural themes was catered to by adapting popular cultural icons before risking whole new concepts on an untested public.

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

The all-new Ghost Rider debuted in Marvel Spotlight #5, August 1972 (preceded by western hero Red Wolf in #1 and the aforementioned Werewolf by Night in #2-4).

This sturdy hardback and equivalent digital compendium collects more of those early flame-filled exploits: specifically Ghost Rider #6-20 pairing with the Thing in Marvel Two-in-One #8 and a crossover with Daredevil #138, spanning June 1974 to June 1976, and preceded by an informative Introduction in writer Tony Isabella’s ‘The Remembrance Run’

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

Creative team Isabella, Gary Friedrich, Jim Mooney & Sal Trapani hit the kickstart here as GR #6 sees a perhaps ill-considered attempt to convert the tragic haunted biker into a more conventional superhero. ‘Zodiac II’ sees Blaze stumble into a senseless fight with a man possessing all the powers of the Avengers’ arch-foes. However, there’s a hidden Satanic component to the mystery as Blaze discovers when reformed super-villain turned TV star Stunt-Master turns up to help close the case and watch helplessly as the one-man Zodiac falls foul of his own diabolical devil’s bargain in ‘…And Lose His Own Soul!’ (Isabella, Mooney & Jack Abel).

A final confrontation – of sorts – begins in Ghost-Rider #8 as ‘Satan Himself!’ comes looking for Johnny’s soul, with a foolproof scheme to force Roxanne to rescind her protection. She finally does so as the Hell-biker battles Inferno, the Fear-demon and most of San Francisco in a game-changing epic called ‘The Hell-Bound Hero!’. Here Blaze is finally freed from his satanic burden by the intervention of someone who appeared to be Jesus Christ

The cover of issue #10 (by Ron Wilson & Joe Sinnott) featured GR battling the Hulk, but a deadline cock-up delayed that tale until #11 and the already included origin from Marvel Spotlight #5 filled those pages. Gil Kane & Tom Palmer reinterpreted the scene for their cover on #11 as the issue finally detailed ‘The Desolation Run!’ (by Isabella, Sal Buscema, Tartaglione & George Roussos).

As Johnny joins a disparate band of dirt-bikers in a desert race, he collides with the legendarily solitary and short-tempered Green Goliath and learns who his true friends are, after which we divert to Marvel Two-in-One #8, teaming Ben Grimm with the supernatural sensation in a quirkily compelling Yuletide yarn. Crafted by Steve Gerber, Sal Buscema & Mike Esposito ‘Silent Night… Deadly Night!’ sees the audacious Miracle Man attempting to take control of a very special birth in a modern-day stable…

Artists Frank Robbins, Frank Giacoia & Mike Esposito limn Ghost Rider #12 wherein Isabella reveals the fate of World War I fighter ace Phantom Eagle. When Blaze tries to rescue a stranger from a ghostly aerial assault, he soon learns he has innocently thwarted justice and helped the warrior’s murderer avoid the ‘Phantom of the Killer Skies’

Ghost Rider #13 declares ‘You’ve Got a Second Chance, Johnny Blaze!’ (Isabella, George Tuska & Vince Colletta) as the terms of the hero’s on-going curse are changed again, just as the dissolute biker heads to Hollywood and a promised job as Stunt-Master’s body-double. No sooner has he signed up, however, than Blaze becomes involved with starlet Karen PageDaredevil’s one-time girlfriend – and a bizarre kidnap plot by super-villain The Trapster.

‘A Specter Stalks the Soundstage!’ features Blaze’s revenge-hungry nemesis The Orb who returns to destroy the Ghost Rider, an action yarn that spectacularly concludes with ‘Vengeance on the Ventura Freeway!’ (illustrated by Bob Brown & Don Heck).

Whilst hanging out on the West Coast Blaze joins new superteam The Champions, but they play no part in Bill Mantlo, Tuska & Colletta’s fill-in yarn ‘Blood in the Waters’, as the Ghost Rider oh, so topically tangles with a Great White Shark in the gore-soaked California surf.

Back on track in #17, ‘Prelude to a Private Armageddon!’ by Isabella, Robbins & Colletta sees a team-up with the Son of Satan wherein fellow stunt-actor Katy Milner is possessed by a demon and only Daimon Hellstrom can help…

The saga continues in ‘The Salvation Run!’ as Blaze must race through the bowels of Hell and relive his own traumatic past before finally saving the day, Katy and his own much-tarnished soul in ‘Resurrection’.

All this time the mystery of Karen’s attempted abduction had percolated through the subplots here, but explosively boil over in Daredevil #138 as ‘Where is Karen Page?’ (by Wolfman, John Byrne & Mooney) reveal the machinations of criminal maniac Death’s-Head to be merely part of a greater scheme involving Blaze, Stunt-Master, the Man without Fear and the homicidal Death Stalker. The convoluted conundrum cataclysmically climaxes in Ghost-Rider #20 with ‘Two Against Death!’ by Wolfman, Byrne & Don Perlin…

This spooky compendium compounds the chilling action with a cover gallery from repint series The Original Ghost Rider #14-20, and original art covers from Gil Kane to truly complete your fear-filled fun fest.

One final note: backwriting and retcons notwithstanding, the Christian boycotts and moral crusades of a later decade were what compelled the criticism-averse and commercially astute corporate Marvel to “translate” the biblical Satan of these early tales into generic and presumably more palatable or “acceptable” demonic creatures such as Mephisto, Satanish, Marduk Kurios and other equally naff downgrades, but the original intent and adventures of Johnny Blaze – and indeed series spin-offs Daimon Hellstrom and Satana, respectively the Son and Daughter of Satan – tapped into the period’s global fascination with Satanism, Devil-worship and all things Spooky and Supernatural which had begun with such epochal films as Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski’s 1968 film more than Ira Levin’s novel) and remember these aren’t your feeble bowdlerised “Hell-lite” horrors.

These tales are about the real-deal Infernal Realm and a good man struggling to save his soul from the worst of all bargains – as much as the revised Comics Code would allow – so brace yourself, hold steady and accept no supernatural substitutes…
© 2020 MARVEL.

The Human Torch Marvel Masterworks volume 2

By Stan Lee, Larry Ivie, Dick Ayers, Bob Powell, Jack Kirby, Carl Burgos & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3505-0 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Evergreen Superhero Frolics… 9/10

Hot on the heels of the Fantastic Four’s stunning success, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby spun the team’s most colourful and youngest member into his own series, eager to recapture the 1940s glory days when the Human Torch was one of the company’s “Big Three” superstars.

This captivating, esoteric and joyously exuberant collection of pure 1960s superhero shenanigans gathers those the latter end of those eclectic but crucial yarns from Strange Tales #118 to 134, (spanning March 1964 to July 1965) and comes with an evocative Introduction from Bruce Canwell before all the hot action kicks off…

Filled with fabulous classics of old school Marvel Fights ‘n’ Tights mayhem and mirth, this particular compendium (available in scarce but sturdy Hardback and assorted eBook formats) is a perfect antidote to angst overload.

Within a year of FF #1, magic-&-monsters anthology Strange Tales became the home for our hot-headed hero as issue #101 saw mostly-typical teenager Johnny Storm start an ancillary solo career. The non-stop riot of adventure begins here with Stan Lee & Dick Ayers highlighting the return of envy-obsessive hyper-intellectual the Wizard who has yet another go at the Flaming Kid in ‘The Man Who Became the Torch!’, an act which consequently nearly kills the Thing and Reed Mister Fantastic Richards besides.

A first brush with Marvel’s soon-to-be core readership came in #119. ‘The Torch Goes Wild!’ details how Commie AgentRabble Rouser mesmerises decent citizens, making them surly and rebellious, after which Jack Kirby pops back for #120 as ‘The Torch Meets Iceman!’: a terrific action-extravaganza with Ayers inks that pretty much closes the glory days of this strip. From then on, despite every gimmick – and occasional burst of sheer inspiration the Bullpen could muster – a slow decline sets in as quirky back-up strip Doctor Strange grew in popularity and cover space…

ST #121 sees Johnny as ‘Prisoner of the Plantman!’ (by Lee & Ayers) and #122 finds a thug, a conman and a crooked yogi all augmented by Dr. Doom and mustered as a woefully inadequate Terrible Trio ordered to launch an ill-conceived attack in ‘3 Against the Torch!’

Strange Tales #123 has a creepy inventor build himself an impressive insectoid exo-suit to get rich the easy way, as – in an effort to boost ratings – The Thing becomes a permanent fixture in ‘The Birth of the Beetle!’

This saga was most notable for the pencil job by Golden Age Human Torch originator Carl Burgos, after which Johnny and Ben tackle a fully re-designed ‘Paste-Pot Pete’ (Ayers inked by Paul Reinman) before going after another old adversary in ‘The Sub-Mariner Must Be Stopped!’

‘Pawns of the Deadly Duo!’ host a fresh assault by the Puppet Master, allied to the Mad Thinker in a smart yarn, after which #127 pits Ben and Johnny against a bizarre and baffling puzzle thanks to ‘The Mystery Villain!’

After a stunning Kirby pin-up of the Thing, the Fantastic Two then unwillingly battle ‘Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch’in #128 (this one inked by Frankie Ray, AKA Frank Giacoia), as the Homo Superior siblings make an abortive first attempt to quit Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, after which ‘The Terrible Trio!’ once more fail to impress or assassinate our heroes…

Pop culture at its most opportunistic reeled and staggered with #130 in ‘Meet the Beatles’ (not villains, but actually some sort of popular musical combo of the times, whom they actually didn’t meet at all), although sublime Golden Age artist Bob Powell (with inking from Chic Stone) did take over the art chores for the comedy of errors/crime caper.

Ayers returned to ink #131, a frankly dire Lee script entitled ‘Bouncing Ball of Doom!’, with the Mad Thinker siccing a cybernetic bowling bowl on our torrid twosome before Larry Ivie scripts a capable Space Race thriller in ‘The Sinister Space Trap!’ (inked by Mike Esposito under his Mickey DeMeo alias).

Lee returned for the last two Torch tales in ST #133 and #134: beginning with sharp-looking saga ‘The Terrible Toys’, wherein Puppet Master tries a new modus operandi and closing with ‘The Challenge of… The Watcher!’ (inked by the majestic Wally Wood) wherein Torch and Thing are transported to ancient Camelot to battle time-reaver Kang the Conqueror.

It was clear the writer’s mind was elsewhere, most likely with the new Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. strip that would replace the FF pair from Strange Tales #135 onwards.

Wrapping up this memory lane meander is a tantalising cover gallery from the 1974-75 reprint series of Golden and Silver Age Torch Tales, rendered by John Romita, Joe Sinnott, Larry Lieber, Ron Wilson, Frank Giacoia, Gil Kane, Al Milgrom &Vince Colletta, to complete your visit with the hottest duo in early Marvel history.

It’s remarkable to note that as the parent Fantastic Four title grew in scope and quality, the Human Torch’s own series diminished. Perhaps there is something to be said for concentrating one’s efforts or not overexposing your stars. Maybe it was just having Kirby do some plotting? Here, however, what was originally a spin-off for younger readers faded as Marvel found its voice and its marketplace, although there would be periodic efforts to reinvigorate the Torch.

Perhaps the historic value supersedes the quality of most of these strange tales, but there’s still a great deal that’s great about this series and Costumed Drama devotees with a sense of tradition and love of fun will find this book irresistible and unmissable.
© 2020 MARVEL.

The Eternals by Jack Kirby: The Complete Collection

By Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2200-9 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Monumental Marvel Magic for Movie-Oriented Fun Seekers… 9/10

Jack Kirby was – and remains – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are millions of words about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium.

Naturally, I’m adding my own two-bobs’-worth, pointing out what you probably already know: Kirby was a man of vast imagination who translated big concepts into astoundingly potent and accessible symbols for generations of fantasy fans. If you were exposed to Kirby as an impressionable kid, he owns you for life. To be honest, the same probably applies whatever age you jump aboard the “Kirby Express”…

For those of us who grew up with Jack, his are the images which furnish our interior mindsets. Close your eyes and think “robot” and the first thing that pops up is a Kirby creation. Every fantastic, futuristic city in our heads is crammed with his chunky, towering spires. Because of Jack, we all know what the bodies beneath those stony-head statues on Easter Island look like, we’re all viscerally aware that you can never trust great big aliens parading around in their underpants and, most importantly, we know how cavemen dress and carnosaurs clash. Kirby’s creations are magical: they all inspire successive generations of creators to pick up the ball and keep running with it…

In the late 1930s, it took a remarkably short time for Kirby and his creative partner Joe Simon to become the wonder-kid dream-team of the newborn comic book industry. Together they produced a year’s worth of pioneering influential monthly Blue Bolt; dashed out Captain Marvel Adventures (#1) for overstretched Fawcett and – after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely Comics – co-created a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, the original Marvel Boy, Mercury, Hurricane, The Vision, Young Allies and of course million-selling mega-hit icon Captain America.

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby were snapped up by National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a fat chequebook. Bursting with ideas the staid company were never really comfortable with, the Dynamism Duo were initially an uneasy fit, and were given two moribund strips to play with until they found their creative feet: These were Sandman and Manhunter and they are an amazing feat of breathtaking bravura.

Both features turned both around virtually overnight and, once established, were parcelled off to studio staff as S&K switched to the “Kid Gang” genre they had pioneered at Timely. Joe ‘n’ Jack created wartime sales sensation Boy Commandos and Homefront iteration the Newsboy Legion, before being called up to serve in the war they had been fighting on comic pages since 1940.

Once demobbed, they returned to a very different funnybook business and soon left National to create their own little empire…

Simon & Kirby heralded and ushered in the first American age of mature comics – not just by inventing the Romance comic, but with all manner of challenging modern material about real people in extraordinary situations – before seeing it all disappear again in less than eight years.

Their small stable of magazines – generated for the association of companies known as Prize, Crestwood, Pines, Essenkay and/or Mainline Comics – blossomed and as quickly wilted when the industry abruptly contracted throughout the 1950s. After years of working for others, Simon & Kirby had finally established their own publishing house, producing comics for a far more sophisticated audience, only to find themselves in a sales downturn and awash in public hysteria generated by an anti-comicbook pogrom.

Hysterical censorship-fever spearheaded by US Senator Estes Kefauver and opportunistic pop psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham led to witch-hunting Senate hearings. Caving in, publishers adopted a castrating straitjacket of draconian self-regulatory rules. Horror titles produced under the aegis and emblem of the Comics Code Authority were sanitised and anodyne affairs in terms of Shock and Gore, even though the market’s appetite for suspense and the uncanny was still high. Crime comics vanished and mature themes challenging an increasingly stratified and oppressive society were suppressed…

Simon quit the business for advertising, but Jack soldiered on, taking his skills and ideas to a number of safer, if less experimental, companies. As the panic abated, Kirby returned briefly to DC Comics where he worked on mystery tales and Green Arrow (at that time a mere back-up, page-filler in Adventure Comics and World’s Finest Comics) whilst concentrating on his long-dreamed-of newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force.

During that period Kirby also re-packaged an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and Joe had closed their studio. At the end of 1956, Showcase #6 premiered the Challengers of the Unknown

After three more test issues the “Challs” won their own title with Kirby in command for the first eight issues. Then a legal dispute with Editor Jack Schiff exploded and the King was gone…

He found fresh fields and an equally hungry-for-change new partner in Stan Lee at ailing Atlas Comics (which had once been mighty Timely) and there created a revolution in superhero comics storytelling…

After just over a decade of never-ending innovation and crowd-pleasing wonderment, Kirby felt increasingly stifled. His efforts had transformed the little publisher into industry-pioneer Marvel but now felt trapped in a rut. Thus, he moved back to DC for another burst of sheer imagination and pure invention.

Kirby always understood the fundamentals of pleasing his audience and strived diligently to combat the appalling state of prejudice about the comics medium – especially from industry insiders and professionals who despised the “kiddies’ world” they felt trapped in.

After his controversial, grandiose Fourth World titles were cancelled, Kirby looked for other concepts which would stimulate his own vast creativity yet still appeal to a market growing evermore fickle. His follow-ups included science fiction themed heroes Kamandi and OMAC, supernatural stalwart The Demon, a run of war stories starring The Losers, and even a new Sandman, co-created with Simon, but although the ideas kept coming (Atlas, Kobra, Dingbats of Danger Street), yet again editorial disputes ended up with him leaving for promises of more creative freedom elsewhere…

Jack Kirby’s return to Marvel in 1976 was much hyped at the time but again turned out to be controversial. His new works and creations found friends rapidly, but his return to earlier creations Captain America and Black Pantherdivided the fanbase.

Kirby was never slavishly wedded to tight continuity, and preferred, in many ways, to treat his stints on titles as another “Day One”: a policy increasing at odds with the close-continuity demanded by a strident faction of the readership…

They were apparently blind to the unfettered, joyous freedom of imagination run wild, the majesty of pulse-pounding thrills and galvanising BIG ART channelling BIG IDEAS!

The end of the 1970s saw Kirby drift into animation: designing characters and scenarios for shows such as Turbo-Teen, Thundarr the Barbarian and even The New Fantastic Four. His comics efforts included graphic novel The Hunger Dogs and Super Powers for DC, and an adaptation of movie The Black Hole for syndicated strip Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales.

However, his most memorable move was to validate the newly-minted Independent Comics/Direct Sale Market sector where he launched bombastic sci fi shockers Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers and Silver Star for distributor-turned-publisher Pacific Comics.

For Eclipse, he co-created with Steve Gerber the industry-excoriating symbol of creative rebellion Destroyer Duck (part of a grass-roots campaign that ultimately destroyed the iniquitous work-for-hire business model that had made creators little more than indentured servants for decades).

Let’s return to that final tenure at Marvel though. Despite his ideas frequently clashing with the company continuity, and being editorially sabotaged, his new ideas found an appreciative audience. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Devil Dinosaur and Machine Man broke new ground but his greatest and final contribution was undoubtedly his treatment of a contemporary crypto-science fad: The Eternals

Now with a blockbuster Marvel movie just waiting on the shelf for punters to come watch it, the eccentric original feature has been squeezed into a trade paperback and digital Complete Collection (containing issues #1-20 and Eternals Annual#1 from June 1976 to January 1978), and is just crying out for you to come get it…

Written and drawn by Kirby withs inks by John Verpoorten, it all begins on ‘The Day of the Gods’, as anthropologist Doctor Damian and his daughter Margo are steered by mysterious guide Ike Harris through an incredible South American temple to discover that aliens inspired and educated the ancients…

Simultaneously, half a world away, diabolical monsters emerge from millennia of self-isolation to resume a war that spans the length of human existence…

And so begins a frantic scrabble as history is rewritten and humanity learns terrible truths: how giant aliens had visited Earth in ages past, sculpting proto-hominids into three distinct species: Human Beings; monstrous, genetically unstable Deviants and god-like super-beings who called themselves Eternals. Moreover, those humungous Space Gods have returned once again to check up on their experiment…

Remember Ike? His real name is Ikaris and he’s an Eternal monitoring how ‘The Celestials!’ will react as they set up to assess their experiment. As a country-sized ship enters Earth orbit, a cadre of mountain-sized aliens set up a monitoring station in the ruins, ignoring humanity, Deviants and Eternals alike, but the monstrous faction who once subjugated mankind and inspired most of our infernal mythology have resolved to destroy their creators whatever the cost…

The plan involve provoking humanity into rash attacks and their warlord Kro unleashes hell as ‘The Devil in New York!’Sadly for him and his vile minions, Ikaris has just left potentially orphaned Margo with capricious party-loving Sersi at her Manhattan apartment just in time to be truly ticked off by ‘The Night of the Demons!’

Mike Royer takes over as series inker with #5 as the solitary Eternals finally respond by having a committee meeting in their isolated citadel ‘Olympia!’ In the meantime, Sersi, Margo and Ikaris have been abducted to the Deviants’ undersea city, invoking a brutal response from warrior princess Thena, excitable speedster Makkari and a novel one from supreme Eternal Zuras who calls a press conference to explain Earth’s real history in ‘Gods and Men at City College!’

As ‘The Fourth Host’ take their mysterious measurements around the world, spy agency SHIELD infiltrates the Space God compound and almost triggers Armageddon, even as in Deviant Lemuria clandestine war within the ruling family endangers ‘The City of Toads’, while introducing two more tormented characters who fit no mould or definition.

The first is comely Ransak, and the other horrific Karkas: but which one is ‘The Killing Machine!’ too savage even for the Deviant arena?

The question remains unanswered as a curious Celestial invades the city in ‘Mother!’ sparking catastrophe and mass evacuation, even as the still-gathering Eternals debate their future in Olympia. The world’s doom-clock then jumps closer to midnight as the Soviets respond precipitately in ‘The Russians are Coming!’ just as the godly Eternals form a psychic gestalt to meet the Space Gods on more equal terms in ‘Uni-Mind!’

An extra-length diversion follows as The Eternals Annual #1 pits recently-relocated Ransak and Karkas against ‘The Time Killers’, after which the mind-blowing Story of Us resumes with human ‘Astronauts’ breaking into the Celestial orbiter, and proving an unreasonable response from the youngest Eternal and a forgotten colossus of human legend…

Presumably in response to publisher pressure, Kirby almost perpetrates a guest appearance from the mainstream Marvel Universe as a college experiment unleashes uncanny cataclysm in ‘Ikaris and the Cosmic Powered Hulk’: a brutal battle leaving the local environs a ‘Disaster Area’ and uncovering a lost terror of antiquity imprisoned in a subterranean ‘Big City Crypt’

The awesome menace ignores the best the Eternals can muster, but ultimately falls to ‘Sersi the Terrible’, precipitating another crisis as sly, scheming Druig disregards the concerns of his fellow immortals and attempts ‘To Kill a Space God!’, before falling to the sheer determination of Ikaris in ‘The Pyramid’

And then it stopped. Never a comfortable fit with the rest of the Marvel Universe, the comic explored Kirby’s fascinations with Deities, Space and Supernature through the lens of very human observers. Once the series ended and Kirby left, other creators greedily co-opted the concept – with mixed success – into the company’s mainstream continuity. The concept remade the greater continuity and there’s been duff and excellent reinterpretations ever since.

No matter their merits though, nothing has ever matched The King’s verve, passion or scope and scale…

This volume also includes unused art and covers, character designs, original art pages, pages of Kirby pencils, promotional house ads and editorial pages, plus a gallery of covers from previous collections.

Jack Kirby’s commitment to wholesome adventure, breakneck action and breathless wonderment, combined with his absolute mastery of the comic page and unceasing quest for the Next Big Thrill always makes for a captivating read. His comics should be compulsory for all and found in every home…
© 2020 MARVEL

Avengers Epic Collection volume 5 1970-1972: This Beachhead Earth

By Roy Thomas, Harlan Ellison, John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Frank Giacoia, Herb Trimpe, Sam Grainger, Neal Adams & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2197-2 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Matchless Blockbuster Action… 9/10

One of the most momentous events in Marvel Comics history occurred in 1963 when a disparate array of individual heroes banded together to stop the Incredible Hulk.

The Avengers combined most of the company’s fledgling superhero line in one bright, shiny and highly commercial package. Over the decades the roster has unceasingly changed, and now almost every character in their universe has at some time numbered amongst their colourful ranks…

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

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

This robust trade paperback and eBook compilation gathers the astounding contents of Avengers issues #77-97, plus a crossover classic from Incredible Hulk #140, collectively spanning June 1970 – March 1972: a riot of informed social commentary and astounding cosmic calamity which confirmed scripter Roy Thomas as a major creative force in comics whilst simultaneously demonstrating the potential the “debased” medium could aspire to.

At the time Thomas’ bold experiment was rightly considered the most ambitious saga in Marvel’s brief history: astounding sagas of tremendous scope which dumped Earth into a cosmic war the likes of which comics fans had never before seen.

The Kree/Skrull War” set the template for all multi-part crossovers and publishing events from that point onwards and was followed by more astounding epics proving that more and better was to come…

This epochal tome opens ss the tone of the times shifted and comics titles entered a period of human-scaled storytelling dubbed “Relevancy” and here – crafted by Thomas, John Buscema & Tom Palmer – a far more mundane and insidious menace manifests as billionaire financier Cornelius Van Lunt manoeuvres to bankrupt Avengers (currently Cap, Black Panther, Goliath, the Vision, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver) sponsor Tony Stark, compelling the team to become the mystery magnate’s ‘Heroes for Hire!’

Sal Buscema then popped in to pencil ‘The Man-Ape Always Strikes Twice!’ as the embattled champions are targeted by a coterie of vengeful villains competing to join a new league of evil, spectacularly culminating in a grand clash with the aforementioned anthropoid, the Swordsman, Power Man, Living Laser and the Grim Reaper in ‘Lo! The Lethal Legion!’, which concluding chapter heralded the artistic return of Big Brother John….

Next is the debut of the company’s first Native American costumed hero in ‘The Coming of Red Wolf!’ (Thomas, John B & Palmer) wherein the Avengers are drawn into a highly personal and decidedly brutal clash between ruthless entrepreneur Cornelius Van Lunt and an Indian tribe he is defrauding and persecuting.

The dramatic dilemma 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 plus Iron Man and Thor pursue 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.)

Crucially, the malevolent mega-mob move first, taking the island of Manhattan ‘Hostage!’, leaving only the solitary sightless vigilante Man Without Fear 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 all that sounds now but the all-male creative team meant well…).

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

Avengers #84 features part-time paladin Black Knight who has become addicted to the bloodthirsty hunger of his Ebony Blade, resulting in an otherworldly confrontation with alternate-Earth barbarian king Arkon the Magnificent and his latest paramour the Enchantress in ‘The Sword and the Sorceress!’ The resulting acrimonious clash subsequently drops half the team in a parallel existence with no apparent way back…

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 B & Jim Mooney, ‘Brain-Child to the Dark Tower Came…!’ sees the extremely reluctant trans-Earth allies unite to save a very different world while, 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 true love and idyllic peace in a sub-molecular paradise, only to lose it all when the demonic Psyklop finally tracks him down…

A major turning point in Marvel history begins relatively quietly as marooned Kree warrior Captain Marvel is finally freed from imprisonment in a ghastly antimatter universe. Mar-Vell was originally sent as a spy to Earth but quickly went native to become a protector of humanity. After an intergalactic mission to save his former masters, he was flying back to Earth when suddenly sucked into the anti-matter hell of the Negative Zone

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

Following interminable, agonising months when Rick refused to trade atoms with his alien alter ego, ‘The Only Good Alien…’ (#89, with art by Sal B & Grainger) sees the bonded brothers finally separate just as, in the distant Kree Empire, the ruling Supreme Intelligence is overthrown by his enforcer Ronan the Accuser

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

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

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

Or are they…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This titanic tome is packed with extra treats, including the covers of all-reprint Avengers Annual #4 and a selection of House Ads, as well as a self-portrait of John Buscema and some of his creations. Also on view is a wealth of original art from him and Adams, plus the covers and new bridging material created by Alan Zelenetz, Walt Simonson & Palmer for the 1983 Kree-Skrull War starring the Avengers reprint miniseries and previous collection covers.

Roy Thomas and his artistic collaborators were always at the forefront of Marvel’s second generation of creators: brilliantly building on and consolidating Lee, Kirby and Ditko’s initial burst of comics creativity whilst spearheading and constructing a logical, fully functioning wonder-machine of places and events that so many others could add to.

These terrific tales are ideal examples of superheroes done exactly right and also act as pivotal points as the underdog company evolved into a corporate entertainment colossus. There are also some of the best superhero stories you’ll ever read…
© 2020 MARVEL.

The Human Torch Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, Robert Bernstein, Ernie Hart, Jerry Siegel, Dick Ayers & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2070-4 (HB) 978-0-7851-8781-3 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Timeless Superhero Entertainment… 9/10

Hot on the heels of the stunning success of Fantastic Four, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby spun the most colourful and youngest member of the team into his own series, hoping to recapture the glory of the 1940s when the Human Torch was one of the company’s “Big Three” superstars.

This captivating, esoteric and joyously exuberant collection of pure 1960s superhero shenanigans gathers those eclectic but crucial yarns – no less than five major Marvel villains debuted in blistering battle against the Flaming Kid – from Strange Tales #101 to 117, as well as the bombastic lead tale from Strange Tales Annual #2 (spanning October 1962 through February 1964) and comes with a fantastically informative Introduction from artist/inker Dick Ayers before all the hot action kicks off…

Filled with fabulous classics of old school Marvel Fights ‘n’ Tights mayhem and mirth, this particular compendium (available in scarce but sturdy Hardback, reassuring trade paperback and assorted eBook formats) is a perfect antidote to angst overload.

Within a year of FF #1, the magic-&-monsters anthology title Strange Tales became the home for our hot-headed hero as issue #101 saw mostly-typical teenager Johnny Storm started an ancillary solo career in the eponymous ‘The Human Torch’.

Scripted by Larry Lieber (over a plot by his brother Stan) and spectacularly illustrated by Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers, the plucky lad here investigates sabotage at a new seaside amusement park and promptly discovers Commie-conniving, thanks to a Red spy called the Destroyer. Starting a recurring pattern, Kirby would pencil the first few adventures before moving on, after which inker Ayers assumed control of the series’ look for most of its run – although The King would generate some of the best covers of his Marvel career throughout the Torch’s tenure in Strange Tales.

An odd inconsistency or, more likely, tension and drama-inducing gimmick did crop up here. Although public figures in the Fantastic Four, Johnny and his sister Sue live part-time in the Long Island hamlet of Glenville and, despite the townsfolk being fully aware of her as the glamorous and heroic Invisible Girl, they seem communally oblivious to the fact that her baby brother is the equally famous Torch.

Many daft-but-ingenious pages of Johnny protecting his secret identity would ensue before the situation was brilliantly resolved…

Although something of a hit-or-miss proposition in itself, the strip was – as previously mentioned – the starting point for many of Marvel’s best bad-guys. The first of these appeared in the very next issue. ‘Prisoner of the Wizard’ (Lee, Lieber, Kirby & Ayers) sees a spiteful, publicity-hungry intellectual giant determined to crush the Torch to prove his superiority to the callow kid who steals all the newspaper headlines…

The same creative team then produced Sci Fi captivating classic ‘Prisoner of the 5th Dimension’, wherein Johnny defeats an imminent invasion and frees a captive populace from tyranny before a month later easily trashing adhesive-toting adversary ‘Paste-Pot Pete!’ (later revamped as the terrifying Trapster). He then teams with sister Sue to tackle the perilous ‘Return of the Wizard’.

When Kirby moved on to engineer and design a host of fresh characters and concepts (occasionally returning as necessity or special events warranted), Ayers assumed full art duties with Strange Tales #106 (March 1963). This Lee & Lieber yarn was notable in that it revealed that the entire town of Glenville had always known the Torch’s secret identity, but were just playing along to keep him happy…

When Carl Zante AKA the Acrobat knocks on Johnny’s door and offers him a better-paying gig in ‘The Threat of the Torrid Twosome’, the kid’s head is swelled and swayed, but he soon learns he’s been played by a master conman and diabolical bandit…

This first hint of tongue-in-cheek whimsy presaged an increasing lightness of touch which would come to characterise the Marvel style as much as the infighting between team-mates. The villainous Zante would return for another milestone in issue #114…

Issue #107 was Lieber’s last, and Ayers drew a splendid punch-up with the ‘Sub-Mariner’ a tale reminiscent of the spectacular and immensely popular Golden Age battles of their publishing forebears. Veteran writer Robert “Berns” Bernstein scripted the next two – frankly daft – sagas over Lee’s plots, but the saving grace of both ‘The Painter of a Thousand Perils!’ (empowered by an alien art kit which brought illustrations to life in ST #108) and ‘The Sorcerer and Pandora’s Box’ (#109, with monstrous demons attacking humanity) was the brief return of Kirby as penciller.

H.E. Huntley (Ernie Hart) typed the words for Ayers to illumine in ‘The Human Torch vs. the Wizard and Paste-Pot Pete!’: a cunning clash presaging the villains’ eventual evolution into FF’s evil counterparts the Frightful Four.

In #111 the Torch made short work of ‘Fighting to the Death with the Asbestos Man!’ – yet another demented scientist experiencing the travails and tragedies of simpler times.

Strange Tales #112 (scripted by Jerry Siegel under pen-name Joe Carter) introduced murderous electrical marauder the Eel, who accidentally swiped and activated a miniature A-Bomb in tense, multifaceted thriller ‘The Human Torch Faces the Threat of the Living Bomb!’, after which1963’s Strange Tales Annual #2, featured ‘The Human Torch on the Trail of the Amazing Spider-Man!’

This terrific romp from Lee, Kirby & Steve Ditko details how the wallcrawler is framed by international art thief The Fox, whilst back in regular comic book Strange Tales #113, “Carter” created another long-term, always-employed villain in ‘The Coming of the Plantman!’

November’s Strange Tales #114 then changed the face of the Marvel Firmament forever…

Written by Lee himself and illustrated by Kirby & Ayers, it featured the return of the third of Timely Comics’ Golden Age Big Three – or at least an impersonation of him by the insidious Acrobat – in a blockbusting battle entitled ‘The Human Torch meets…Captain America!

Here’s a quote from the last panel…

“You guessed it! This story was really a test! To see if you too would like Captain America to Return! As usual, your letters will give us the answer!” I wonder how that all turned out?

Lee took over as full scripter with ST #115’s ‘The Sandman Strikes!’, wherein Johnny impersonates Spider-Man to defeat granular gangster Flint Marko, after which the Torrid Teen and team-mate Ben Grimm battle each other while ‘In the Clutches of the Puppet Master!’ (#116, with Ayers inked by George Roussos in his own secret identity of George Bell).

Ending this initial offering with #117, ‘The Return of the Eel! sees the vengeful reprobate prove far more of a challenge this time, thanks to some careful planning and Johnny’s own impetuosity…

Wrapping up this memory lane meander are some rousing house ads and a marvellous gallery of original art pages from Ayers.

It’s interesting to note that as the parent Fantastic Four title grew in scope and quality the Human Torch’s own series diminished. Perhaps there is something to be said for concentrating one’s efforts or not overexposing your stars. What was originally a spin-off for the younger audience faded as Marvel found its voice and its marketplace, although there would be periodic efforts to reinvigorate the Torch.

Sadly, the historic value sometimes supersedes the quality of these strange tales, but there’s still a great deal to enjoy about this series and Costumed Drama devotees with a sense of tradition and love of fun will find this book irresistible and unmissable.
© 2020 MARVEL

Fantastic Four Epic Collection volume 5 1967-1969: The Name is Doom

By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, Marie Severin, Joe Sinnott, Tom Sutton & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2203-0 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Groundbreaking Blockbuster Entertainment… 10/10

Concocted by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby (with inks by George Klein & Christopher Rule), Fantastic Four #1 (bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961) was crude, rough, passionately uncontrolled excitement unlike anything young fans had ever seen before.

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.

This full-colour compendium – also available as a digital download – gathers issues #68-87, Annual #6 and material from Not Brand Echh #6 & 7 (cumulatively spanning November 1967- June 1969): an astounding progression of landmark tales as Stan & Jack cannily built on that early energy to consolidate the FF as the leading title and most innovative series of the era.

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

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible, Johnny Storm could turn into living flame whilst tragic Ben shockingly devolved into a shambling, rocky freak. After the initial revulsion and trauma pass, they solemnly agree to use their abilities to benefit mankind and thus was born The Fantastic Four.

Throughout the 1960s the FF was the indisputable central title and most consistently groundbreaking series of Marvel’s ever-unfolding web of cosmic creation: a forge for new concepts and characters at a time when Kirby was in his creative prime and continually unleashing his vast imagination on plot after spectacular plot whilst Lee scripted some of the most passionate superhero sagas 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…

Without preamble the wonderment commences with FF #68 (inked as ever by the remarkable Joe Sinnott), wherein the Mad Thinker resurfaces to enact his latest scheme, ‘His Mission: Destroy the Fantastic Four!’ beginning as the cogitating criminal replaces a famous doctor to subvert a potential cure for The Thing’s irradiated condition.

Phase two involves a mind-warping scheme turning the rocky stalwart against his comrades, progressing in ‘By Ben Betrayed!’ as the newly malevolent Grimm tries to mercilessly murder his comrades before being temporarily driven away.

Desperately searching for their brainwashed friend, the FF quickly capture the Thinker and free Ben’s shackled mind in ‘When Fall the Mighty!’, but the victory leaves the heroes unconscious with only Sue conscious to tackle the villain’s last-ditch killer android in ‘…And So It Ends…’

Having plucked victory from certain doom, a fresh drama opens with the team in crisis. With a baby due, Reed and Sue resign, leaving Ben, Johnny and his Inhuman girlfriend Crystal to hold the fort just as cosmic calamity comes calling.

In ‘Where Soars the Silver Surfer!’ the sky-born wanderer imprisoned on Earth by world-devouring Galactus goes cage-crazy and attacks humanity, forcing an intervention by the supposedly aloof Watcher and Reed’s return, after which FF#73 offers a classic crossover and the conclusion to a long-running Daredevil story wherein the sightless crusader is ousted from his own body by Iron Tyrant Doctor Doom. After warning the FF of the imposter’s imminent attack, the Man without Fear subsequently defeats Doom on his own but neglects to tell the heroes of his victory…

Outmatched and unable to convince them any other way, DD enlists currently de-powered Mighty Thor and the ever-eager Spider-Man in to solve the problem Marvel style – with a spectacular, pointless and utterly riveting punch-up – in ‘The Flames of Battle…’

The Surfer resurfaces in #74’s ‘When Calls Galactus’ as the planet-eater returns to Terran skies demanding his one-time herald once more become his food-finding slave. However, despite his increasingly violent and world-shaking probing, and the FF’s holding action against the ravenous invader’s robotic Punisher, Galactus cannot locate his quarry…

That’s because the Surfer has already – and utterly obliviously – departed for ‘World Within Worlds!’, forcing Reed, Ben and Johnny to follow if humanity is to be saved from cosmic consumption. When the pioneering micronauts are subsequently attacked by sadistic alien Psycho Man, our heroes are then ‘Stranded in Sub-Atomica!’

As they struggle to survive, Galactus applies ever-more pressure in ‘Shall Earth Endure?’ until the now-fully-apprised Surfer turns himself in to save Earth by finding the great Devourer an alternative snack. His reward is to be summarily returned to captivity here as soon as ungrateful Galactus finishes feeding (just in time to begin his own landmark series – but that’s the subject of another review…)

Meanwhile, after trashing Psycho Man and getting home, Reed and the gang risk another attempt to cure Ben Grimm in FF #78. The procedure goes tragically awry in ‘The Thing No More!’, due to inopportune interference from old foe The Wizard before, in #79, a now human Ben chooses to return to his rocky state to save his friends from the bludgeoning Android Man, resolved to possibly remain ‘A Monster Forever?’.

A brief change of pace then takes the team to the tribal homelands of old friend Wyatt Wingfoot to solve an eerie mystery and save the Indian oil fields from deadly subversion ‘Where Treads the Living Totem!’ before the sixth Annual features – at long last – the birth of Reed and Sue’s baby (known to us now as Franklin Richards).

Unfortunately, the happy event almost never happens since the transformative cosmic rays which gave the team their powers have affected the pregnancy…

Desperate for a miracle cure, Reed, Ben and Johnny scour the antimatter Negative Zone and are confronted by a monstrous creature named Annihilus whose cosmic energies are the only thing that can prevent the death of Sue and her unborn child. ‘Let There Be… Life!’ is a groundbreaking 48-page epic that is as stunning to read now as it ever was: passionate, thrilling and mind-boggling in its visual intensity.

With Sue adapting to motherhood, faithful Crystal elects herself the first new official member of the FF and promptly shows her mettle by pulverizing the incorrigible glutton-for-punishment Wizard in #81’s all-action romp ‘Enter… the Exquisite Elemental!’

Fantastic Four #82 sees Mrs Richards retire to tend her infant son and Crystal officially inducted as her replacement. Before long, however, the substitute’s violent past reasserts itself as her deranged cousin Maximus again attempts to conquer mortal humanity.

‘The Mark of… the Madman!’ sees the quirky quartet invade hidden Inhuman enclave Attilan to aid the imprisoned Royal Family in overcoming an entire race of subjugated super-beings before trouncing the insane despot in ‘Shall Man Survive?’

All-out action then gives way – at least initially – to tense suspense for the start of a 4-part epic starring the team’s greatest foe. ‘His Name is Doom!’ finds Reed, Ben, Johnny and Crystal making their way home after failing to capture Maximus, only to be intercepted by Nick Fury and the super-spies of S.H.I.E.L.D., looking for a favour…

Steel-Shod Dictator Victor Von Doom has apparently devised unstoppable super-robots and Fury needs the FF to infiltrate the sovereign state of Latveria to ferret them out. However, it’s impossible to sneak up on the most paranoid man in the world and the heroes are easily intercepted and captured by the totalitarian tyrant’s security team.

‘Within This Tortured Land’ opens with them as “guests” in Doom’s picture-book Ruritanian paradise, but even with their powers hypnotically cancelled out, the valiant heroes soon discover the cruel iron within their velvet prison once the Monarch of Latveria begins testing his deadly “Doombots” on his own subjects… and them.

When the automatons go berserk the entire postage-stamp kingdom is imperilled in ‘The Victims!’ and only the last-minute arrival of Invisible Girl Sue Richards allows the team and the villagers to survive Doom’s cataclysmic failsafe plan.

The shocking final confrontation and conclusion manifest in ‘The Power and the Pride!’, wrapping up the saga in a bombastic blend of super-science, soap opera and mesmerising melodrama seldom seen in comicbooks before or since.

After all that searing drama and tension, we end on a comedic note as this enticing tome includes a brace of pertinent parodies from Marvel’s spoof title Not Brand Echh. The opening is from #6 (the “Big, Batty Love and Hisses issue!” of February 1968) revealing how ‘The Human Scorch Has to… Meet the Family!’: a snappy satire on romantic liaisons from Lee, Kirby & Tom Sutton. It’s counterbalanced by a boisterous but non-canonical retelling of ‘The Origin of the Fantastical Four!’ (April’s #7, courtesy of Lee, Kirby, Marie Severin & Sutton).

Art lovers and history buffs can also enjoy a boundless hidden bounty at the end of this volume as we close with fascinating freebies in the form of original art covers for #71 – both the finished article and a stunning pencil rough inexplicably rejected at the time – plus a wealth of pencilled pages and a brace of cover reproductions from previous collections.

Epic, revolutionary and unutterably unmissable, these are the stories which made Marvel the unassailable leaders in fantasy entertainment. They remain some of the most important superhero comics ever crafted. Verve, conceptual scope and sheer enthusiasm shine through on every page and the wonder is there for you to share. If you’ve never thrilled to these spectacular sagas then this book of marvels is the perfect key to another – far brighter – world and time.
© 2020 MARVEL.

Ant-Man/Giant-Man Marvel Masterworks volume 2

By Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Leon Lazarus, Al Hartley, Dick Ayers, Don Heck, Steve Ditko, Carl Burgos, Bob Powell & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2911-0 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Little Bit of Vintage Wonderment… 8/10

If you’re of a particularly picky nature – and what comic fan isn’t? – you might consider the Astonishing Ant-Man one of the earliest heroes of the Marvel Age of Comics. He first appeared in Tales to Astonish #27 (cover-dated January 1962), in one of the splendidly addictive men-vs-monsters anthology titles that dominated in those heady days of Science Fiction Double-Feature B-Movies.

As superheroes proliferated to explosively dominate the early 1960s, he was rapidly retooled and recycled to become a key pillar of the company’s powerhouse pantheon… but not for long…

This second episodic, eclectic and entomologically edifying compendium – available in hardback and digital formats – gathers the pertinent portions of Tales to Astonish #53-69: spanning March 1964 to July 1965 and tracing the first gradual decline and fall of the “Man of Many Sizes”. The comic adventures herein are preceded by a typically voluble Stan Lee Introduction before the action and drama recommences.

TTA #53 led with a spectacular battle-bout rematch as our hero and his partner Janet Van Dyne are ‘Trapped by the Porcupine!’ (by Lee & Dick Ayers) and closed with the Wonderful Wasp narrating short fantasy yarn ‘When Wakes the Colossus!’ (actually crafted by Lee, Larry Lieber & Don Heck).

The next issue saw Heck illustrate the Crusading Couple’s catastrophic trip to Santo Rico and finding ‘No Place to Hide!’: trapped and powerless in a South American banana republic run by brutal commie agent El Toro. This was neatly counter-balanced by the Wasp’s sci fi saga ‘Conquest!’ by Lee, Lieber & Sol Brodsky.

An implacable old foe defeated himself in ‘On the Trail of the Human Top!’ when the psychotic mutant killer steals Giant-Man’s size-changing pills in #55, following which Lee, Lieber & George Bell produce the Wasp’s fable ‘The Gypsy’s Secret!’

A larcenous stage conjuror proves far more trouble than you’d suspect in ‘The Coming of The Magician!’ – even successfully abducting the Wasp before his defeat, which Jan celebrated by regaling us all with tall tale ‘Beware the Bog Beast!’ (Lee, Lieber & Paul Reinman) after which TTA #57 featured a big guest-star as the size-changing sweethearts set out ‘On the Trail of the Amazing Spider-Man!’, courtesy of Lee, Ayers & Reinman, with sinister savant Egghead waiting in the wings and pulling strings. A minor landmark occurred in the back of that issue as the Wasp participated in a complete solo adventure. ‘A Voice in the Dark!’, by Lee, Lieber & Chic Stone, saw Jan defeat a big burly jewel thief. It was precious little to crow over, but Marvel had finally let a lady loose on her own with no apparent riot or collapse of the macho social order. Things would certainly get better… but not soon…

These were not only signs of the increasing interconnectivity Lee was developing but also indicated that the strip was losing impetus. In a market increasingly flooded with superheroes, the adventures of Giant-Man were not selling as well as they used to or should…

Captain America cameo-ed in #58’s epic Africa-based battle with a giant alien in ‘The Coming of Colossus!’ (Lee, Ayers & Reinman), supplemented by the Wasp’s second lone hand, played this time against an old enemy in ‘The Magician and the Maiden!’ by Lee & Lieber.

The beginning of the end for Giant-Man came in Tales to Astonish #59 and ‘Enter: The Hulk!’ (Lee, Ayers & Reinman), with the Avengers inadvertently prompting the Size-Shifting Sentinel to hunt down the Green Goliath. Although the Human Top engineered the blockbusting battle, Lee was the real mastermind as, one month later, The Hulk began co-starring in his own series and on the covers, whilst Giant-Man’s adventures shrank back to a dozen or so pages. Ten issues later Hank and Jan would retire making way for amphibian antihero Namor, the Sub-Mariner

Before then though there’s a rousing house ad and comic fact-feature ‘Let’s Learn About Hank and Jan’, leading to the first half-sized yarn. Produced by Lee, Ayers & Reinman, Tales to Astonish #59’s ‘The Beasts of Berlin!’ was a throwback in many ways to the daft old days, as the duo smuggle themselves over the Wall and into the Russian Sector to battle Commie Apes (no, really!) behind the Iron Curtain.

The writing was on the wall by issue #61. With the Hulk already most prominent on the covers, hastily-executed stories and a rapid rotation of artists, it was obvious Giant-Man was waning. ‘Now Walks the Android’ was a fill-in rather rapidly illustrated by Steve Ditko & George (Bell) Roussos, starring Egghead and his latest technological terror-weapon after which ‘Versus the Wonderful Wasp’ (by Golden Age icon Carl Burgos & Ayers) recycles an ancient plot wherein a thief steals Giant-Man’s costume and equipment, leaving the mere girl to save the day…

‘The Gangsters and the Giant’ in #63 – by Lee, Burgos & Stone – incestuously reproduces the plot of #37 with the gem-stealing Protector here re-imagined as “the Wrecker” and comes with a Marvel Masterwork pin-up of the Diminutive Duo by Chic Stone. ‘When Attuma Strikes’ (Burgos & Reinman) offers a crumb of imagination and wit as Hank and Jan split up and the heartbroken lass gets herself abducted by an undersea tyrant. This last was scripted by incredibly under-appreciated and almost anonymous comics veteran Leon Lazarus.

One last attempt to resuscitate the series came with the addition of another Golden-Age legend. Bob Powell signed on as artist for issue #65’s ‘Presenting the New Giant-Man’ (scripted by Lee, inked by Heck) wherein the Master of Many Sizes built a better costume and powers, but almost dies at the hands of a cat and spider he accidentally enlarges in the process.

With a fresh new look, the last five issues are actually some of the best tales in the run, but it was clearly too late.

Frankie (Giacoia) Ray inked Powell for ‘The Menace of Madam Macabre’, with a murderous oriental seductress attempting to steal Pym’s secrets, and Stone applied the brushes for ‘The Mystery of the Hidden Man and his Rays of Doom!’, wherein a power-stealing alien removes Hank Pym’s ability to shrink, before the series concludes with a powerfully impressive 2-parter in Tales to Astonish #68 and 69. ‘Peril from the Long-Dead Past’ and ‘Oh, Wasp, Where is Thy Sting?’, were inked by Vince Colletta and John Giunta respectively.

So far along was the decline that Al Hartley had to finish what Stan Lee started: concluding a tense and thrilling tale of the Wasp’s abduction by the Human Top and the abrupt retirement of the weary, shell-shocked heroes at the saga’s end.

(Gi)-Ant-Man and the Wasp did not die, but instead joined the vast cast of characters which Marvel kept in relatively constant play through team books, via guest shots and in occasional re-launches and mini-series.

Despite variable quality and treatment, the eclectic, eccentric and always fun exploits of Marvel’s premier “odd couple” remain an intriguing and engaging reminder that the House of Ideas didn’t always get it right, but generally gave their all to entertaining their fans.

By turns superb, stupid, exciting and appalling this tome and these tales epitomise the best and worst of Early Marvel (with the delightful far outweighing the duff) and certainly won’t appeal to everybody, but if you’re a Fights ‘n’ Tights fan with a forgiving nature the good stuff here will charm, amaze and enthral you whilst the rest could just be considered as a garish garnish to provide added flavour…
© 2020 MARVEL.

Iron Man Epic Collection volume 4 1970-1972: The Fury of the Firebrand

By Archie Goodwin, Gerry Conway, Allyn Brodsky, Mimi Gold, Robert Kanigher, Gary Friedrich, Johnny Craig, Don Heck, George Tuska, Herb Trimpe, Gene Colan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2207-8 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Glittering Bauble of Shiny Nostalgic Marvel Madness… 8/10

Created in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and at a time when “Red-baiting” and “Commie-bashing” were American national obsessions (just like now), the emergence of a brilliant new Thomas Edison, using Yankee ingenuity and invention to safeguard and better the World, seemed inevitable. Combined with the then-sacrosanct belief that technology and business could solve any problem with the universal imagery of noble knights battling evil, the concept behind the Invincible Iron Man seems an infallibly successful proposition.

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

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

This sterling hardback – and eBook – compilation covers the period May 1970 through May 1972, re-presenting Iron Man #25-46 and incorporating a tumultuous team-up with the Man Without Fear from Daredevil #73 which held a key portion of a rather complex comics crossover.

Imminently departing scripter Archie Goodwin pins Iron Man’s new Green colours to the comic’s mast in #25’s stunning eco-parable ‘This Doomed Land… This Dying Sea!’, ably assisted by EC legend Johnny Craig, whose slick understated mastery adds a sheen of terrifying authenticity to proceedings. Here, the Armoured Avenger clashes and ultimately teams with veteran antihero Namor the Sub-Mariner, before being compelled to destroy one of his own hyper-polluting facilities, consequently overruling and abandoning his company’s previous position and business model…

Tragically, his attempts to convince other industry leaders to do likewise meets with the kind of reaction that tragically then (and again now) typifies America’s response to the real-world situation…

Original Iron Man artist Don Heck returned for the fantasy-fuelled romp ‘Duel in a Dark Dimension!’ (scripted by Goodwin and inked by Craig) with guest villain The Collector kidnapping Stark’s right-hand man Happy Hogan in a convoluted scheme to secure an extradimensional super-sword…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That battle spills over into Daredevil #73 and a mass abduction into another dimension in ‘Behold… the Brotherhood!’(by Conway, Gene Colan & Syd Shores) before messily and inconclusively concluding halfway through Iron Man #36 (Heck & Esposito). The remainder of the issue and battle for the Zodiac Key is necessarily shelved as the Steely Centurion is waylaid by terra-forming aliens in ‘…Among Men Stalks the Ramrod!’

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

Conway resumes the mad science tales – with Herb Trimpe illustrating – in ‘A Twist of Memory… a Turn of Mind!’, wherein insidious oriental mastermind White Dragon (Yes, I know, but social relevance clearly advanced at its own piecemeal rate and racial profiling was less obvious than poisoned air and rivers…) deviously turns Stark into a brainwashed pawn, thereby inadvertently enslaving the Golden Avenger too.

Devoted assistant Kevin O’Brian comes to the rescue, but is led down a path to inevitable doom when he assists his mind-locked employer in a torturous ‘Night Walk!’ (by Tuska & Jim Mooney) to save his sanity and defeat the sinister foe.

Simultaneously, Marianne Rodgers, a woman they both love, begins a slow glide into madness as her telepathic powers gradually grow beyond her control and start eating at her mind…

Issue #41 continued a convoluted storyline dealing with mystery mastermind Mr. Kline. (For the full story you should also track down contemporaneous Daredevil and Sub-Mariner issues: you won’t be any the wiser but at least you’ll have a full set…)

Next, ‘The Claws of the Slasher!’ sees squabbling saboteurs target Washington DC during a Senate investigation into Stark Industries; accidentally triggering a psychic transformation in Marianne, who temporarily morphs into a mind-warping harpy in ‘When Demons Wail!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia). The clash culminates in a blockbusting, extra-long battle against psionic godling Mikas in ‘Doomprayer!’ (with Mooney inks). During that cataclysmic conflict O’Brian dons his own super-armour to join the fray as The Guardsman; causing his own mental state to rapidly deteriorate and making his eventual showdown with Stark utterly unavoidable…

Plotted by Conway, scripted by DC A-Lister Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Tuska & Vince Colletta, Iron Man #44 finds Stark near death after his last battle. In ‘Weep for a Lost Nightmare!’, he is watched over by Kevin and Marianne as Kline dispatches a robotic copy of old adversary The Night Phantom to finish the ailing hero off. The tale was truncated midway and completed in the next issue – presumably due to deadline problems.

Gary Friedrich scripted concluding chapter ‘Beneath the Armour Beats a Heart!’ in #45, after which Stark faces a revolt by his own Board of Directors who convince the jealousy-consumed O’Brian to stand with them.

When student protestors invade the factory, greed-crazed capitalist and reactionary revolt instigator Simon Gilbertconvinces O’Brian to don his Guardsman suit and teach the kids a lesson, leading to a horrific escalation in ‘Menace at Large!’ (inked by John Verpoorten) wherein Iron Man intervenes to save lives and causes the fully-amok O’Brian’s death…

To Be Continued…

The galvanised wonderment also includes the covers of Iron Man Annuals #1 and 2, a selection of house ads and a gallery of original art covers and interior pages by Marie Severin & Sam Grainger, Sal Buscema, Tuska and Frank Giacoia, to wrap up this collection with the Golden Gladiator carefully politically repositioned at a time when Marvel solidly set itself up at the vanguard of a rapidly changing America increasingly at war with itself.

With this volume Marvel further entrenched itself in the camp of the young and the restless, experiencing first hand, and every day, the social upheaval America was undergoing. This rebellious teen sensibility and enhanced political conscience permeated the company’s publications as their core audience evolved from Flower Power innocents into a generation of acutely aware activists. Future tales would increasingly bring reformed capitalist Stark into many unexpected and outrageous situations…

But that’s the meat of another review, as this engrossing graphic collection is done. From our distant vantage point the polemical energy and impact might be dissipated, but the sheer quality of the comics and the cool thrill of the eternal aspiration of man in perfect partnership with magic metal remains. These superhero sagas are amongst the most underrated but impressive tales of the period and are well worth your time, consideration and cold hard cash…
© 2020 MARVEL.