The Mighty Thor Epic Collection volume 6: Into the Dark Nebula 1972-1973


By Gerry Conway, Stan Lee, Len Wein, John Buscema, Don Perlin, Marie Severin, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2248-1 (TPB)

With the constantly expanding Marvel Universe growing ever more interconnected as it matured, characters literally tripped over each other in New York City and its environs, but such was seldom the case with Thor.

The Asgardian milieu and the soaring imagination of Jack Kirby had long drawn the Thunder God away from mortal realms into stunning new landscapes. When the unthinkable happened and the increasingly discontented King of Comics jumped ship from the House of (His) Ideas for arch-rival DC in 1970 an era ended. Left to soldier on, Stan Lee called in top artist John Buscema to carry a seemingly unbearable burden and after initial loss of focus and impetus – a new type of tale began to emerge…

In case you came in late: disabled doctor Donald Blake took a vacation in Norway only to stumble into an alien invasion. Trapped in a cave, he found an ancient walking stick which, when struck against the ground, turned him into the Norse God of Thunder! Within moments he was defending the weak and smiting the wicked.

Months swiftly passed with the Lord of Storms tackling rapacious extraterrestrials, Commie dictators, costumed crazies and cheap thugs, but these soon gave way to a vast kaleidoscope of fantastic worlds and incredible, mythic menaces.

This bombastic transitional compendium (available in trade paperback and digital formats) reprints Mighty Thor #195-216, spanning January 1972 to October 1973, with the puissant Thunder God going both forward and back between mortal and godly realms. By the time of these monthly episodes, the Thunderer and select Asgardian companions were slowly devolving into a muddled, self-doubting band of fantasy spacemen roving the outer limits of the Marvel Universe under the earnest governance of young science fiction novelist Gerry Conway and a dedicated, talented but still unsettled string of artists. Now, at last, a new path was being forged…

Illustrated by John Buscema & Vince Colletta, the action resumes with ‘In the Shadow of Mangog!’: the first chapter of another extended odyssey wherein Thor and friends are dispatched to the ends of the Universe. In another righteous rage, All-Father Odin had banished second son Loki to a fantastic world, momentarily forgetting that once there, the Prince of Evil might possibly awaken the most vicious, unbeatable monster in the Asgardian universe ….

Now the Storm God and Warriors Three Fandral the Dashing, Voluminous Volstagg and Hogun the Grim find themselves lost ‘Within the Realm of Kartag!’ and facing slug-men and bewitching temptress Satrina, even as the All-Father and the hosts of the Shining City struggle to hold the liberated Mangog at bay. Meanwhile, on planet Blackworld, Lady Sif and her muscular shield-maiden Hildegarde undertake another Odinian quest and find themselves caught up in a time-bending nightmare…

Thor #197 witnesses the heroes overcoming all odds to find ‘The Well at the Edge of the World!’: meeting the conniving, all-powerful Norns and recruiting colossal former foe Kartag for their desperate return and rescue mission to shattered Asgard.

On Blackworld, Sif and Hildegarde encounter monsters and men making uncontrollable evolutionary leaps towards an unguessable future, but find an unlikely ally and guide in aged sailor Silas Grant

The male heroes return to find Asgard in flaming ruins and the cataclysmic confrontation with Mangog nearing its apocalyptic end, whilst on Blackworld, Sif, Hildegarde and Silas met alien Rigellian Colonizer Tana Nile and the horrendous creature behind the evolutionary jumps. Simultaneously, the battle in Asgard reaches a horrific climax when Mangog is at last defeated ‘…And Odin Dies!’

For #199, the ravaged home of the gods comes adrift in a dimensional void, allowing Thor – clutching to a desperate last hope – to cocoon his deceased father in a timeless force energy field. This prevents Death Goddess Hela from claiming his soul, but sadly, she isn’t the only deity hungry for the All-Father’s spirit. ‘If This Be Death…!’ sees Grecian-Roman netherlord Pluto invading the broken realm to take Odin into his own dire domain.

…And, on Blackworld, Tana Nile hints at the origin of the monstrous Ego-Prime, and how it can force such terrifying uncontrollable time-warps. Back in free-floating Asgard, things go from bad to worse as brave Balder’s beloved Karnilladeserts him, just as invincible Pluto bests Hela and aims a killing blow at Thor…

The denouement was postponed as anniversary issue #200 hit the pause button to flashback to an earlier age. Crafted by Stan Lee, Buscema & John Verpoorten, ‘Beware! If This Be… Ragnarok!’ spectacularly depicts the mythologised fall of the gods through the mystic visions of Volla the Prophetess, with only a bridging Prologue and Epilogue – by Conway & Buscema – revealing how the Norns save Thor’s life for the concluding battle against Pluto which resumes in #201 (with Jim Mooney providing lush finished art over Buscema’s layouts).

As Hela relinquishes her claim to the father of the gods and Odin enjoys a miraculous ‘Resurrection!’ on Earth, absentee Asgardians Heimdall and Kamorr seek out certain mortals for another Odinian master-plan, even before the battle with Pluto is fully concluded…

As they scour Midgard, on Blackworld Ego-Prime advances the in-situ civilisation to the point of atomic Armageddon. Sif barely transports her companions to Earth in time to escape thermonuclear conflagration. Luckily Thor, Balder, and the Warriors Three are in Manhattan to meet the refugees, since the deadly, now self-evolving, Ego-Prime has followed the fugitives…

Thor #202 boasts ‘…And None Dare Stand ’Gainst Ego-Prime!’ (Colletta inks) although Silas, Tana Nile and the assembled Asgardians try their best as the now-sentient shard of Ego, the Living Planet rampages through the city. As it makes monsters and shatters entire streets, Odin calmly observes the carnage whilst Heimdall and Kamorr gather their human targets for the concluding ‘They Walk Like Gods!’

Odin’s complex machinations are finally exposed as Ego-Prime inadvertently creates a new race of 20th century deities. Sadly, the All-Father’s single-minded scheme appals his son and weary, war-weary subjects, and their wholly understandable rebukes lead to their all being ‘Exiled on Earth!’ in #204 (Buscema & Mooney) and immediately targeted by satanic tempter Mephisto

Soon, only the Thunderer is left to beat the devil: recklessly invading his private hell and gloriously liberating hundreds of demon-possessed humans from ‘A World Gone Mad!’ (Colletta inks). Their triumphant return, however, is merely to Midgard, not the gleaming spires of forbidden Asgard…

A new chapter opens when the Earthbound godling clashes brutally but inconclusively with an uncharacteristically out-of-control Absorbing Man Crusher Creel, just as Thor’s greatest enemy resurfaces in #206’s ‘Rebirth!’

After a destructive but inconclusive clash in the city, Thor tracks Creel to Rutland, Vermont just in time for the annual Halloween festival. Here Thor, Sif and Hildegarde clash with malign Loki and his all-powerful ‘Firesword!’ in an action-heavy duel elevated by a plethora of quirky comic creator cameos (thanks to the divine Marie Severin adding her caricaturing brilliance to Buscema & Colletta’s workmanlike illustration). Another extended sub-plot opens here as Sif vanishes, spirited away to the ends of the universe by lovelorn Norn Queen Karnilla …

Sci fi themes predominate #208 as ‘The Fourth-Dimensional Man!’ manifests, pilfering the Thunderer’s ambient Asgardian energies to save his own world from disaster. Sadly, they are insufficient and malevolent Mercurio is compelled to tap his source directly, resulting in battle without mercy as Thor’s noble spirit gradually gives way to the despair of exile and constant loss…

Ceaselessly searching for Sif, Thor stops over in London (albeit not one any Briton would ever recognise, though) in #209. It’s just long enough to accidentally awaken a sleeping alien dormant since the building of Stonehenge, and the resultant clash between Thunder God and Demon Druid devastates much of England in ‘Warriors in the Night!’, after which our globe-girdling hero is ambushed in Red China by Mao’s soldiers in #210’s (Buscema, Don Perlin & Colletta)‘The Hammer and the Hellfire!’

The People’s Army are merely the action appetiser, however, since ultimate Troll Ulik has decided to conquer both his own people and Earth: moving pre-emptively to remove his greatest foe from the equation…

With New York City invaded by Troll warriors, #211 highlights ‘The End of the Battle!’ as fellow exiles and the Warriors Three join the fray.

The fighting-mad Asgardians rout the underworld insurgents just as a now utterly insane Balder resurfaces, warning that Asgard has been conquered.

With the Realm Eternal emptied of gods and occupied by sleazy lizard-men, Thor and his companions are soon hot on the trail of their missing race. Guided by saurian rogue Sssthgar and his serpentine horde, the heroes undertake a ‘Journey to the Golden Star!’ in #212 to discover their liege and kin meek chattels on a slaver’s auction block…

Scripted by Len Wein over Conway’s plot, ‘The Demon Brigade!’ depicts Thor betrayed by the Lizard Lord and embroiled in a civil war between slaver races, before exposing Sssthgar’s secret and freeing his debilitated father. He also obtains a lead to the whereabouts of Sif and Karnilla, consequently plunging the dedicated band recklessly ‘Into the Dark Nebula!’ (Conway, Sal Buscema & Jim Mooney) to rescue the missing warrior maidens from asteroid miners who had purchased them.

They find their quarry besieged by the 4D Man and his army, who are intent on acquiring a malign, sentient source of infinite power, but events take an uncanny turn when ‘The God in the Jewel’ (John Buscema & Mooney) absorbs the women into its crystalline mass and flies off, intent on dominating all life in the universe…

Forced to become allies of convenience, the Asgardians and Mercurio strive together ‘Where Chaos Rules!’, resolved to freeing the captives and stop the rapacious gem god. Sadly, even after eventual victory leaves them all tenuous comrades, Thor’s trials are not done…

To Be Continued…

Also included is a lengthy gallery of original art pages and covers to delight and charm fans

The tales gathered here might lack the sheer punch and verve of The King, but fans of cosmic Fights ‘n’ Tights fantasy – whether graphic or cinematic – will find this tome stuffed with intrigue and action aplenty, magnificently rendered by artists who, whilst not possessing Kirby’s vaulting visionary passion, were every inch his equal in craft and dedication. This chronicle is an absolute must for all fans of the medium and far-flung fantasy thrills.
© 2020 MARVEL

Master of Kung Fu Epic Collection volume 1: 1973-1975 Weapon of the Soul


By Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, Doug Moench, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Roger Stern, Paul Gulacy, Ron Wilson, Al Milgrom, Ross Andru, Keith Pollard, Alan Weiss, Walter Simonson, John Buscema, Ed Hannigan, Aubrey Bradford, P Craig Russell, Frank McLaughlin, Jeff Aclin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0135-6 (TPB)

Comic books have always operated within the larger bounds of popular trends and fashions – just look at what got published whenever westerns or science fiction dominated on TV – so when the ancient philosophy and discipline of Kung Fu made its unstoppable mark on domestic western entertainment, it wasn’t long before all those kicks and punches found their way onto four-colour pages of America’s periodicals. Early starter Charlton added Yang and House of Yang to the pioneering Judo Joe and Frank McLaughlin’s Judomaster; DC debuted Richard Dragon and rebooted Karate Kid; Atlas/ Seaboard opened The Hands of the Dragon and Marvel rapidly converted a proposed literary adaptation into an ongoing saga about a villain’s son. A month after it launched, a second orient-tinged hero in Iron Fist: combining combat philosophy, high fantasy and magic powers with a proper superhero mask and costume…

At their core, comics are just another mass-media entertainment form, but even (or do I mean especially?) the most frivolous fun for the largest audiences may carry at its heart cultural and social iniquity, easily-exploitable prejudices and dangerously-pernicious stereotyping and profiling. With that in mind, here’s a thorny subject for all concerned, on so many levels…

After the sublime success and cultural phenomenon of the Black Panther movie, people of colour finally had a heroic icon and cultural touchstone of their very own. The glorious and affirmative characters and stories were based on comics generated over many years by a multitude of talented, well-meaning creators, all originating at a company that was generally liberal, socially aware and earnestly seeking to address issues of prejudice and inclusivity whenever and wherever they found them.

That was black folk sorted, right? However, people of Asian ancestry still cry out for something of relevance and meaning to them. That’s why there’s a blockbuster Shang-Chi movie heading towards our screens in September.

It’s also notionally based on some incredible comics by a variety of gifted individuals and teams, but the white world in general and Marvel in particular have a different kind of history with those of Asian heritage…

Although largely retrofitted for modern times, inspirational Master of Kung Fu star Shang-Chi comes with a lot of tricky baggage. He debuted in the autumn of 1973, cashing in on a 1970s craze for Eastern philosophy and martial arts action which generated an avalanche of “Chop Sockey” movies and a controversial TV sensation entitled Kung Fu. You may recall that the lead in that western-set saga was a half-Chinese Shaolin monk, played – after much publicised legal and industry agitation – by a white actor…

At Marvel, no one at that time particularly griped about the fact that Shang-Chi was designed by editor Roy Thomas and artisans Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin & Al Milgrom as a naive innocent (also half Chinese, with an American mother) thrown into tumultuous modern society as a rebellious but involved counterpoint to his father: an insidious scheming fiend intent on global domination.

Back then, securing rights to a major literary property and wrapping new comics in it was an established practise. It had worked spectacularly with Conan the Barbarian and horror stars like Dracula and Frankenstein. The same process also brilliantly informed seminal science fiction icon Killraven in War of the Worlds and plenty more…

These days we comics apologists keep saying “it was a different era”, but I genuinely don’t think anyone in the editorial office paused for a moment of second thoughts when their new Kung Fu book secured the use one of literature’s greatest villains as a major player. Special Marvel Edition #15 (cover-dated December 1973) launched to great success, and the overarching villain was already a global personification of infamy …Fu Manchu.

Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward AKA Sax Rohmer’s ultimate embodiment of patronising mistrust and racist suspicion had been hugely popular since 1913’s The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu. The prime archetype for mad scientists and the remorseless “Yellow Peril” threatening civilization, the character spread to stage, screen, airwaves and comics (even appropriating the cover of Detective Comics #1, heralding an interior series that ran until #28), but most importantly, became the visual affirmation and conceptual basis for countless evil “Asiatics”, “Orientals” and “Celestials” dominating popular fiction ever since.

In recent years as we’ve all (well, mostly all) acknowledged past iniquities, Shang-Chi has been reimagined, with that paternal link downplayed or abandoned – as much for licensing laws as social justice.

For the movie, the villainous sire is now The Mandarin, but that only reminds us that, over its decades of existence, Marvel has employed plenty of “Yellow Peril” knock-offs and personifications – including Wong Chu; Plan Tzu (AKA the Yellow – or latterly GoldenClaw); Huang Zhu; Silver Samurai; Doctor Sun ad infinitum: all birds of another colour that are still nastily pejorative shades of saffron. Perhaps this is just my white guilt and fanboy shame talking. These stories, crafted by Marvel’s employees were – and remain – some of the best action comics you’ll ever encounter, but never forget what they’re actually about… distrust of the obviously other…

Without making excuses, I should also state that despite the easy, casual racism suggested by legions of outrageously exotic, inscrutable bad guys haunting this series at every level, Master of Kung Fu did sensitively address issues of race and honestly attempt to share non-Christian philosophies and thought whilst, most importantly, offering potent and powerful role models to kids of Asian origins. So at least there’s that to defend…

Packed with stunning adventure and compellingly convincing drama, this trade paperback and digital collection gathers far-ranging appearances from Special Marvel Edition #15-16; Master of Kung Fu #17-28; Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #1-4; Giant-Size Spider-Man #2, plus material from Iron Man Annual #4 (collectively spanning December 1973-August 1977) and it opens without a preamble in the middle of a mighty battle…

‘Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu!’ introduces a vibrant, brilliant young man raised in utter isolation in the style and manner of imperial China. Reared by monks and savants, the boy is the result of a match between a physically perfect American woman and misunderstood patriot Fu Manchu: a noble hero unfairly hunted and slandered by corrupt western governments and the communist usurpers now blasphemously controlling the world’s greatest empire.

This son was schooled to respect and obey his sire, trained to perfection in martial arts: designed as the ultimate warrior servant and the doctor’s devoted personal weapon against lifelong enemies Sir Dennis Nayland Smith and Doctor Petrie.

On reaching maturity, Shang – who’s name means “the rising and advancing of a spirit” – is despatched to execute Petrie, but after the obedient weapon executes his mission, he subsequently questions his entire life and the worldly benefit of killing an elderly, dying man. An emotional confrontation with Nayland Smith – who endures the daily agonies of being maimed at the Devil Doctor’s command – further shakes the boy’s resolve and eventually Shang’s sublime education demands that he reassess everything his father has taught him…

After invading the villain’s New York citadel and crushing his army of freaks and monsters, Shang Chi faces his father and rejects all he stands for. The battle lines of an epic family struggle are drawn…

Focusing on the madness of modern living, outcast misfit Shang navigates the perils of New York City in the next episode, before reluctantly fighting his childhood companion M’nai in ‘Midnight brings Dark Death!’ It’s another bittersweet betrayal, since Midnight has always known of Fu’s true nature and happily acted as his infallible assassin… until now…

The series had launched in bimonthly reprint title Special Marvel Edition as The Hands of Shang Chi: Master of Kung Fu and by the third issue (April 1974) it became exclusively his. Issue #17’s ‘Lair of the Lost!’ introduced (a painfully, equally stereotypical) True Brit foe who would soon become a trusted ally.

Blackjack Tarr seeks vengeance for his old ally Petrie; luring Shang Chi to a private murder mansion. However, the battle royal ends with all concerned re-evaluating their positions and agreeing to unite to defeat the actual enemy of all humanity…

Scripted by Englehart and inked by Milgrom, #18 was the true turning point in the series. Newcomer Paul Gulacy became penciller, blending a love of popular cinema with a vivid illustration style based on the comics designs of Jim Steranko. ‘Attack!’ sees Shang taking his war to Fu Manchu and his complex, convoluted secret society of assassins and acolytes, invading Fu’s New York base to deliver a salutary declaration of war before undertaking his first mission for spymaster Nayland Smith.

Despatched to Florida to intercept mysterious smugglers and an unknown cargo, the Master of Kung Fu foils a scheme to poison America’s gasoline supply, defeats a supernaturally enhanced Dacoit (look it up: Rohmer’s literary creation enlisted almost every Asian subculture into an admittedly beguiling army of oriental killers faithfully aligned against white imperialism) and escapes a hallucinogenic ambush…

Promoted to monthly with #19 (August 1974), the next chapter sees the hero’s full initiation into the Marvel Universe with a crossover. ‘Retreat’ depicts the still-drugged Shang lost in the Everglades, hunted by assassins and clashing with the monstrous Man-Thing. There’s even a cheeky acknowledgement of the series’ antecedents with a cameo starring a certain TV Sino-American wandering philosopher…

Gerry Conway scripts ‘Weapon of the Soul’ as Mafia boss Demmy Marston targets Shang Chi in an effort to curry favour with Fu Manchu before Doug Moench begins his long association with the series in concluding chapter ‘Season of Vengeance…’ (illustrated by Ron Wilson & Milgrom) clearing the decks for explosive action and epic adventure by demonstrating why Fu is the most dangerous ally an ambitious crook could ever encounter…

By this time – the summer of 1975 – the series was one of Marvel’s most successful, spawning guest shots and extra issues galore. Cover-dated September 1974, Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #1 offered even more martial arts mayhem in a quarterly spin-off that opened with ‘Death Masque!’ (Moench, Gulacy & Dan Adkins). To celebrate Shang’s birthday, his father orchestrates a terrifying gauntlet of killers, even as the son infiltrates his administrative Council of 7: the Si-Fan

The double-sized issue also offers apparent change-of-pace yarn ‘Frozen Past, Shattered Memories’ (Moench & P. Craig Russell) as Shang fails to foil a museum robbery; a fact page on ‘Shaolin Temple Boxing’ by comic book Kung Fu pioneer Frank McLaughlin and a parable on racism and psychopathy in Moench, Wilson & Mike Esposito’s ‘Reflections in a Rippled Pool!’

In quick order, Giant-Size Spider-Man #2 (October 1974, by Len Wein, Ross Andru & Milgrom) reinforced the hero’s crossover credentials as ‘Masterstroke!’ finds the wondrous webslinger drawn into battle with the Master of Kung Fu after Fu Manchu frames Spider-Man for attacking Chinese-Americans and sabotaging New York’s power grid. Eventually the duped heroes clear the air Marvel-style in ‘Cross… and Double-Cross!’ before uniting to foil the madman’s true scheme to mindwipe America from the ‘Pinnacle of Doom!’

MOKF #22 (November) sets up the next phase of Shang’s life as a secret agent. In ‘A Fortune of Death!’ (Moench, Gulacy & Dan Adkins) he saves Nayland Smith and Blackjack Tarr while foiling another attempt to destroy America’s complacency and security before Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #2 (December 1974, by Moench, Gulacy & Jack Abel) declares ‘The Devil-Doctor’s Triumph’ with romantic distraction Sandy Chen enticing our young lonely warrior before tragically teaching him the power of deceit while courting his aid to rescue her father from his father…

With Gulacy going from strength to strength in the Giant-Size tales, Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson stepped in for Moench’s next twisty epic; beginning in MOKF #23 as Shang agrees to quash his father’s potential alliance with a Nazi war criminal, necessitating a lethal voyage up the ‘River of Death!’ The bloody debacle goes completely off-script in ‘Massacre Along the Amazon!’ (Milgrom, Alan Weiss, Starlin, Walt Simonson & Sal Trapani) as Si-Fan, neo-Nazis and indigenous forest people clash, leading to Shang running a savage gauntlet in brutal conclusion ‘Rites of Courage, Fists of Death!’ (Gulacy & Trapani).

Vince Colletta inks Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #3 (March 1975) as ‘Fires of Rebirth’ introduces British agent Clive Reston (an homage to and descendent of literary icons like James Bond and Sherlock Holmes) as both sides in the unending war seek the last remaining stock of Fu Manchu’s immortality-inducing Elixir Vitae. The hunt catastrophically encompasses Central Park West, the British Museum and Buckingham Palace, involving lethal Phansigars, reanimated Neanderthals and potential new archnemesis Shadow-Stalker before delivering an utterly life-altering surprise to Shang-Chi…

Digging deeper into Romer’s novels, Moench increasingly capitalizes on Fu Manchu’s expansive cast with Master of Kung Fu #26. Limned by Keith Pollard & Trapani, ‘Daughter of Darkness!’ features the Devil Doctor’s recalcitrant first-born Fah Lo Suee (who debuted in either third book The Si-Fan Mysteries/The Hand of Fu-Manchu in 1917 or fourth outing The Daughter of Fu-Manchu in 1931, depending on who you ask) and the son of former valiant Brit Shan Greville and her latest treacherous scheme to supplant her sinister sire using an ancient Egyptian relic…

John Buscema & Frank Springer unite to depict Moench’s ‘Confrontation’ as the family war intensifies over possession of the last dregs of Elixir Vitae and conflicted Shang is pressed to pick a side after the collateral death of an innocent bystander after which Wilson, Ed Hannigan & Aubrey Bradford join Moench and Trapani for #28 as ‘A Small Spirit Slowly Shaped…’ finds Shang Chi invading his childhood home in Honan to save Nayland Smith from his ascendant sister…

Slightly askew of the tight continuity, Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #4 (June 1975) absurdly enquires ‘Why a Tiger-Claw?’ in a surreal comedy thriller from Moench, Pollard & Trapani as Shang encounters Groucho Marx tribute and living force of irascible nature Rufus T. Hackstabber when a mundane bank robbery leads to a rebellious Si-Fan assassin with a personal agenda and big ambitions…

Wrapping up the martial arts mastery is a short piece from Iron Man Annual #4 (August 1977): an out-of-place Kung Fu vignette by Roger Stern, Jeff Aclin & Don Newton. ‘Death Lair!’ stars the long dead but never forgotten Midnight on a mission of murder for Fu Manchu and targeting Vietnamese rival and old Iron Man enemy Half-Face

Adding value to the package are Starlin & Milgrom’s original art for the cover of Special Marvel Edition #15; Roy Thomas’ editorial from that issue and assorted house ads, a spoof ad from official fanzine F.O.O.M. and an unused Starlin & Milgrom cover for #17.

In recent years, Shang Chi’s backstory has been forced to adapt and alter. His father has been reinvented as Zheng Zu, Mr. Han, Chang Hu, Wang Yu-Seng and The Devil Doctor and in the end, you have the ultimate choice and sanction of not buying or reading this material.

If you do – with eyes wide open and fully acknowledging that the past is another place that we can now consign to history – your comics appreciation faculties will see some amazing stories incredibly well illustrated: ranking amongst the most exciting and enjoyable in Marvel’s canon.
© 1973, 1974, 1975, 1977, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avengers: Hawkeye


By Mark Gruenwald, Brett Breeding & Danny Bulanadi, with Stan Lee & Don Heck; Mike Friedrich, George Evans & Frank Springer, Steven Grant, John Byrne & Dan Greene, Jimmy Janes & Bruce Patterson & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3723-8 (TPB)

Clint Barton is probably the world’s greatest archer: swift, ingenious, unerringly accurate and augmented by a fantastic selection of multi-purpose high-tech arrows. Other masked bow persons are available…

Following an early brush with the law and as a reluctant Iron Man villain beginning in 1964, he reformed to join the Mighty Avengers where he served with honour and distinction, despite always feeling overshadowed by his more glamorous, super-powered comrades.

Long a mainstay of Marvel continuity and probably Marvel’s most popular B-list hero, the Battling Bowman has risen to great prominence in recent years, boosted no doubt by his filmic incarnation.

This brash and bombastic collection – available in paperback and digital formats – re-presents breakthrough miniseries Hawkeye #1-4 and debut from Tales of Suspense #57 (September 1964) plus the first costumed appearance of occasional wife and frequent paramour Bobbi “Mockingbird” Morse from Marvel Super Action #1 (January 1976) and a more-or-less solo outing for each from Avengers #189 (November 1979), and Marvel Team-Up #95 (July 1980) respectively.

Written and drawn by the hugely underrated and much-missed Mark Gruenwald, ably assisted by inkers Brett Breeding & Danny Bulanadi and running from September to December 1983, Hawkeye was one of Marvel’s earliest miniseries and remains one of the very best adventures of Marvel’s Ace Archer.

Much like the character himself, this project was seriously underestimated when first released: most industry pundits and the more voluble fans expected very little from a second-string hero drawn by a professional writer. Guess again, suckers!

In opening chapter ‘Listen to the Mockingbird’, he is moonlighting as security chief for electronics corporation Cross Technological Enterprises when he captures a renegade S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, who reveals that his bosses are all crooks, secretly involved in shady mind-control experiments.

After some initial doubt, Barton teams with a svelte and sexy super-agent in ‘Point Blank’ to foil the plot, gaining in the process a new costume and instant rogues’ gallery of archfoes such as Silence, Oddball and Bombshell in third chapter ‘Beating the Odds’.

As the constant hunt and struggle wears on, Barton succumbs to – but is not defeated by – a physical handicap and wins a wife (not necessarily the same thing) in explosive conclusion ‘Till Death us do Part…’ wherein the sinister mastermind behind it all is finally revealed and summarily dealt with.

In those faraway days both Gruenwald and Marvel Top Gun Jim Shooter maintained that a miniseries had to deal with significant events in a character’s life, and this bright and breezy, no-nonsense, compelling and immensely enjoyable yarn certainly kicked out the deadwood and re-launched Hawkeye’s career. In short order from here the bowman went on to create and lead his own team: The West Coast Avengers, gain his own regular series in Solo Avengers and Avengers Spotlight and his own series, consequently becoming one of the most vibrant and popular characters of the period and today as well as a modern-day action movie icon…

Hard on the heels of the epic comes ‘Hawkeye, the Marksman!’ (by Stan Lee & Don Heck from Tales of Suspense #57) wherein villainous spy the Black Widow resurfaces to beguile an ambitious and frustrated neophyte costumed vigilante hero into attacking her archenemy. Despite a clear power-imbalance, the former carnival archer comes awfully close to beating the Golden Avenger …

Augmented by a Howard Chaykin frontispiece from black-&-white magazine Marvel Super Action #1 (January 1976), former Ka-Zar romantic interest Dr. Barbera Morse is reinvented by Mike Friedrich, George Evans & Frank Springer ‘Red-Eyed Jack is Wild!’. Using unwieldy nomme de guerre Huntress, Morse devotes herself to cleaning up corruption inside S.H.I.E.L.D., no matter what the cost…

Avengers #189 then reveals how Hawkeye got his job at CTE as ‘Wings and Arrows!’ (by Steven Grant, John Byrne & Dan Green) pits the new security chief against alien avian interloper Deathbird, before Huntress becomes Mockingbird for MTU #95. Crafted by Grant, Jimmy Janes & Bruce Patterson ‘…And No Birds Sing!’ ends the long-extant S.H.I.E.L.D. corruption storyline as Morse and Spider-Man join forces to expose the true cancer at the heart of America’s top spy agency…

Packed with terrific tales of old-fashioned romance, skulduggery and derring-do, this book is a no-nonsense example of the straightforward action-adventure yarns that cemented Marvel’s reputation and success. But oh, the tension, the tension…
© 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Spectacular Spider-Man: Lo, This Monster


By Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, John Romita Sr., Jim Mooney, Bill Everett & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2064-7 (TPB)

The Amazing Spider-Man was always a character and concept which matured with – or perhaps just slightly ahead – of its fan-base. That thought might well have contributed to a rare Marvel misstep during the 1960s as the House of Ideas increasingly challenged the dominance of DC; finally collected here in its own nostalgia-soaked trade paperback and digital tome for your delight and delectation…

After a shaky start, the Wondrous Wallcrawler quickly became a sensational “must-see” with kids of all ages. Before long, the quirky, charming, thrillingly action-packed comics drama would become the model for an entire generation of younger heroes impatiently elbowing aside the (relatively) staid thirty-something mystery-men of previous publications and hallowed tradition.

You know the story: Peter Parker was a smart-but-alienated teenager bitten by a radioactive spider during a high school science trip. Discovering he’d developed astonishing arachnid abilities – which he augmented with his own natural chemistry, physics and engineering genius – the Parker did what any lonely, geeky nerd would do with such newfound prowess: he tried to cash in for girls, fame and money.

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

Crazed and vengeful, Peter hunted the assailant who’d made doting Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known. When, to his horror, he discovered it was the self-same felon he had neglected to stop, and that irresponsibility had resulted in the death of the man who raised him, the traumatised boy swore to forevermore use his powers to help others…

Since that night, the Wondrous Wallcrawler has tirelessly battled miscreants, monsters and madmen, with a fickle, ungrateful public generally baying for his blood even as he saves them.

Already the darlings of college campuses and media intelligentsia, the Amazing Arachnid’s rise increased pace as the Swinging Sixties closed, with Peter and his ever-expanding cast of comrades well on the way to being household names. Stan Lee’s scripts were completely in tune with the times – as perceived by most kids’ parents at least – and an increasing use of soap opera plots kept older readers glued to the series even if the bombastic battle sequences didn’t.

In 1968, the company finally broke free of a restrictive distribution deal and exponentially expanded. All these factors combined to prompt a foray into the world of oversized mainstream magazines (as successfully developed by James Warren with Eerie, Creepy and Vampirella) which could be higher priced and produced without restrictive oversight from The Comics Code Authority. The result was the quarterly Spectacular Spider-Man #1-2 (July-November 1968): a genuinely wonder-filled thrill for 9-year-old me, but clearly not the mainstream mass of Marvel Mavens…

Re-presented here are both issues, material from the unpublished third and a variety of background supplements, beginning with that first bombastic booklet.

Following a painted cover – Marvel’s first – by John Romita (senior) and illustrator Harry Rosenbaum, the main feature of Spectacular Spider-Man #1 was ‘Lo, This Monster!’ by Lee, John Romita (senior) & Jim Mooney: an extended, political thriller with charismatic reformer Richard Raleigh tirelessly campaigning to become Mayor, but targeted and hunted by a brutish titan seemingly determined to keep the old political machine in place at all costs…

Rendered in moody wash tones, the drama soon disclosed a sinister plotter directing the monster’s campaign of terror… but his identity was the last one Spidey expected to expose…

Also included in the magazine and here was a retelling of the hallowed origin tale as described above. ‘In the Beginning…’ is crafted by Lee, with brother Larry Lieber’s pencils elevated by inks-&-tones from the legendary Bill Everett. Rounding out the experience is a tantalising ‘Next issue’ ad which neatly segues into an all-Romita painted cover and the magazine experiment’s premature the conclusion…

Three months later The Spectacular Spider-Man #2 came out. It was radically different from its predecessor. To offset disappointing sales, Marvel had swiftly switched to a smaller size and added comic book colour. It also sported a Comics Code symbol.

A proposed third issue which would have debuted the Prowler never appeared. It was to be the last attempt to secure ostensibly older-reader shelf-space until the mid-1970s. At least the story in #2 was top-rate…

Following monochrome recap ‘The Spider-Man Saga’ Lee, Romita & Mooney dealt with months of foreshadowing in the monthly comic book series by finally revealing how Norman Osborn had shaken off selective amnesia and returned to full-on super-villainy in ‘The Goblin Lives!’

Steeped in his former madness and remembering Peter Parker was Spider-Man, Osborn plays cat and mouse with his foe, threatening all the hero’s loved ones until a climactic closing battle utilising hallucinogenic weapons again erases the Green Goblin personality… for the moment…

A full colour teaser for never-seen #3’s “The Mystery of the TV Terror!” leads off the extra features, followed by a Dean White version of #2’s cover which fronted 2012’s Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man vol 7 and house ads from various 1968 Marvel comics for Spectacular Spider-Man #1 & 2.

Also included are Romita’s original pencils for the covers of both, with the painted end-products by Harry Rosenbaum and Romita respectively and a 1988 text feature from Marvel Visions #29 detailing ‘The Greatest Comics Never Seen’, and offering sketches and unused pages of the antihero we know as The Prowler (who was legendarily invented by schoolboy John Romita Jr.).

This book is Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak. If you fancy a taste of something simultaneously tried-&-true and spectacularly radical, this might be the book for you.
© 2019 MARVEL

Namor, the Sub-Mariner Epic Collection volume 1 1962-1966: Enter the Sub-Mariner


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, Gene Colan, Dick Ayers, Wallace Wood & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2836-0 (TPB)

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

He first caught the public’s attention as part of the fire vs. water headlining team in Marvel Comics #1 (October 1939 and soon to become Marvel Mystery Comics). 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 promotional giveaway handed out to moviegoers earlier in the year.

Quickly becoming one of the company’s biggest draws, Namor gained his own title at the end of 1940 (cover-dated Spring 1941) and was one of the last super-characters to go at the end of the first heroic age.

In 1954, when Atlas (as the company then was) briefly revived its costumed character “Big Three” (the Torch and Captain America being the other two), Everett returned for a run of superb fantasy tales, but even so the time wasn’t right and the title sunk again.

When Stan Lee & Jack Kirby started reinventing comic-books in 1961 with the Fantastic Four, they revived the all-but-forgotten awesome amphibian as a troubled, semi-amnesiac, and decidedly more regal, if not grandiose, antihero. The returnee despised humanity; embittered at the loss of his sub-sea kingdom (seemingly destroyed by American atomic testing) whilst simultaneously besotted with the FF’s Sue Storm.

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

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

This first celebratory volume – available in trade paperback and eBook formats collects all those early 1960’s guest shots in one tumultuous tome. Here you’ll find Fantastic Four # 4, 6, 9, 14, 27, 33 and Annual #1; Strange Tales #107 & 125; Avengers #3-4; X-Men #6, Daredevil #7 and the first arc of his own series from Tales to Astonish #70-76. These span May 1962 – February 1966 and open without preamble on that fateful first encounter in this cataclysmic clutch of curated classics…

Crafted by Lee Kirby & Sol Brodsky, Fantastic Four #4 proudly shouted ‘The Coming of the Sub-Mariner’, reintroducing (or introducing) the all-powerful amphibian Prince of Atlantis. The star of Timely’s Golden Age had been lost since 1955 – almost a lifetime for the kids believed to be the prime consumer of comics.

A victim of amnesia, the relic recovers his memory thanks to some rather brusque treatment by teen delinquent and AWOL Human Torch Johnny Storm. Namor rapidly returns to his sub-sea home only to find it destroyed by atomic testing. A monarch without subjects, he swears vengeance on humanity and attacks New York City with a gigantic monster. After its demise amidst a mass of collateral destruction, Sub-Mariner espies and falls for the Invisible Girl: a fascination that will fuel many a monumental battle…

This saga is when the Fantastic Four series truly kicked into high-gear and Reed Richards was the star of the pin-up section reprinted here…

FF #5 debuted the diabolical Doctor Doom who returned in the next issue after duping and teaming up with a reluctant Sub-Mariner to attack the quarrelsome quartet heroes as ‘The Deadly Duo!’ – inked by new regular embellisher Dick Ayers.

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

Of course, Sub-Mariner’s film project is simply a ruse to divide and conquer and everything is settled with bombastic action and typically off-kilter romantic twist…

The saga is topped off with a Fantastic Four Feature Page explaining ‘How the Human Torch Flies!’

By this time kid-friendly teen Johnny Storm had been awarded a solo-starring lead series in former mystery anthology Strange Tales. Scripted by Larry Lieber and limned by Ayers, #107 featured a splendidly mindless punch-up with the ‘Sub-Mariner’ – a tale powerfully reminiscent of the spectacular and immensely popular Golden Age battles of their publishing forebears.

It’s back to Fantastic Four next as #14 (Lee, Kirby & Ayers) features the return of ‘The Sub-Mariner and the Merciless Puppet Master!’: with one vengeful fiend the unwitting mind-slave of the other, after which 1963’s Fantastic Four Annual #1 offers a spectacular 37-page epic battle as, finally reunited with their wandering prince, the warriors of Atlantis invade New York City and the rest of the world in ‘The Sub-Mariner versus the Human Race!’ by Lee, Kirby & Ayers.

A monumental tale by the standards of the time, the saga saw the FF repel the undersea invasion through valiant struggle and brilliant strategy, and includes the secret history of the secretive race Homo Mermanus. Nothing is really settled except a return to the original status quo, but the thrills are intense and unforgettable…

Also included is a rousing pin-up of Namor from ‘A Gallery of the Fantastic Four’s Most Famous Foes!’.

By now Marvel had many more superheroes and Namor met some in Avengers #3. In the previous issue, the volatile Hulk quit the nascent team in disgust, only to return here as an outright villain in partnership with ‘Sub-Mariner!’ (by Lee, Kirby & Paul Reinman). This globe-trotting romp delivers high-energy thrills and one of the best battle scenes in comics history as the assorted titans clash in abandoned World War II tunnels beneath the Rock of Gibraltar.

Inked by George Roussos, Avengers #4 was a groundbreaking landmark as Marvel’s greatest Golden Age sensation returned in another increasingly war-torn era. ‘Captain America joins the Avengers!’ has everything that made the early tales so fresh and vital. The majesty of a legendary warrior returned in our time of greatest need: stark tragedy in the loss of his boon companion Bucky, aliens, gangsters, the menacing majesty of Sub-Mariner and even subtle social commentary capped by vast amounts of staggering Kirby Action.

The creators had hit on a winning formula by including other stars in guest-shots – especially as readers could never anticipate if they would fight with or beside the home team. FF #27 again finds the undersea anti-hero in amorous mood, but after abducting Sue, he finds the boys have called in called in Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts to aid them in ‘The Search for Sub-Mariner!’

Delivered by Lee & Kirby, X-Men #6 features ‘Sub-Mariner Joins the Evil Mutants!’: a self-explanatory tale of gripping intensity elevated to magical levels of artistic quality as superbly slick inker Chic Stone adds crisp clarity to proceeding when potential mutant Namor is duped into joining malevolent Magneto and his sinister brotherhood. The issue also incorporates a stunning ‘Special Pin-up page’ starring “Cyclops”.

Impetus was building and support growing for renewed sub-sea skirmishes starring Namor, and Strange Tales #125 (October 1964) presented another bombastic battle between the old adversaries as the Torch and Thing picked a fight with the sea lord in ‘The Sub-Mariner Must Be Stopped!’ courtesy of Lee, Ayers & Reinman.

The princely PR campaign then blossomed into unlikely alliance as FF #33 saw the team ‘Side-by-Side with Sub-Mariner!’ (Lee, Kirby & Stone): bringing the aquatic antihero one step closer to his own series as they lend surreptitious aid to the embattled undersea monarch against deadly barbarian Attuma and supplemented by a glorious Kirby & Stone ‘Prince Namor Pin-up’.

As previously stated, prior to Tales to Astonish, Namor appeared in numerous titles as guest villain du jour. One last guest shot with Namor acting as a misunderstood bad-guy was Daredevil #7 (April 1965): a tale that qualifies as a perfect comic book and a true landmark – to my mind one of the Top Ten Marvel Tales of all Time.

Here, Lee and creative legend Wally Wood concocted a timeless masterpiece with ‘In Mortal Combat with… Sub-Mariner!’ as Prince Namor of Atlantis – recently reunited with the survivors of his decimated race – returns to the surface world to sue mankind for their crimes against his people. To expedite his claim, the Prince engages the services of Matt Murdock’s law firm; little suspecting the blind lawyer is also the acrobatic Man without Fear.

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

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

Augmented by a rejected Wood cover repurposed as ‘A Marvel Masterwork pin-up: Namor and D.D.’ this yarn is merely a cunning prequel…

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

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

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

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

In issue #75 ‘The End of the Quest’ finds the Prince battling his way back into Atlantis with a gravely-injured Dorma, before the saga calamitously concludes in ‘Uneasy Hangs the Head…!’ with the status quo restored, Namor again on the stolen throne and further danger and drama to come…

Supplemented with House ads, a full cover gallery, unseen, unused and original artwork pages and more, this assemblage of tales feature some of Marvel’s very best artists at their visual peak, with creative verve and enthusiasm shining through.

Perhaps more vicarious thrill than fan’s delight, many early Marvel Comics are more exuberant than qualitative, but this volume, especially from an art-lover’s point of view, is a wonderful exception: a historical treasure that fans will find irresistible.
© 2021 MARVEL.

Fantastic Four Epic Collection volume 6 1969-1970: At War with Atlantis


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, John Romita, Ron Frenz, Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia, John Verpoorten & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2202-3 (TPB)

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

This epic and extras-packed full-colour compendium – also available in digital editions – gathers issues #88-104 and Annual #7 (cumulatively spanning July 1969 – November 1970) plus Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure #1 (2008). It covers the final days of the King’s reign on Marvel’s flagship title and shaky transitional start of a new era. And includes diverse bonus treats including a rejected, recovered, recycled tale to delight all aficionados, only finally released in April 2008.

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… which is rather ironic since it was the company’s reticence to give the artist creative freedom which led to Kirby’s jumping ship to National/DC in the first place…

And then, he was gone…

Without preamble the magical wonderment resumes with Joe Sinnott inking Fantastic Four #88 which focuses on the five champions (Johnny’s Inhuman girlfriend Crystal had been standing in for Sue who was until recently enjoying a hard-earned maternity leave) back in the USA after defeating Doctor Doom. They are soon looking at an unconventional new house found by determinedly domesticated Mrs. Richards in her perpetual quest to carve out a relatively normal life for her new – and still unnamed – son.

Regrettably the trendy, extremely isolated detached dwelling in ‘A House There Was!’ has been designed by the team’s oldest enemy. No sooner do they all move in than ‘The Madness of the Mole Man!’ turns the deadly domicile against them even as the maniac’s goal of rendering the entire world blind and wiping out the extended heroic family comes within inches of succeeding…

The Thing then takes centre-stage in an extended epic as he is stalked and pressganged to another world when ‘The Skrull Takes a Slave!’ in #90. Abducted to fight in gladiatorial games on a colony world patterned after Earth’s 1920s gangster era, ‘The Thing… Enslaved!’ introduces rival Skrull mobs vying for planetary supremacy and a noble slave destined to slaughter our shanghaied champion. ‘Ben Grimm, Killer!’ efficiently ramps up the tension as Ben Grimm and mechanoid marvel Torgo discover their home-worlds are hostage to their fortunes and ferocity in the arena…

Elsewhere, Reed, Johnny and Crystal have not been idle. While Ben is at ‘The Mercy of Torgo!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) his Earthly comrades are enacting a desperate plan to swoop in, save him and destroy the Skrulls doom-weapon… a task undertaken and accomplished with great speed and in stunning style…

Fantastic Four #94, began a string of single-issue stories with the doom-laden debut of eldritch babysitter/governess Agatha Harkness in ‘The Return of the Frightful Four!’. The eponymous recalcitrant rogues make a major mistake believing they can catch the FF off-guard by attacking while the heroes are interviewing a new nanny for the latest addition to the Fantastic Family…

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

Technological super-assassin The Monocle is resolved to trigger global nuclear Armageddon in #95’s ‘Tomorrow… World War Three!’ – in the middle of which Crystal is astoundingly abducted by her own family – before ‘The Mad Thinker and his Androids of Death!’ (Giacoia inks) once again ambush the team and still prove to be no match for the fab foursome…

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

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

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

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

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

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

After an incomprehensibly vast catalogue of creativity an unthinkable Changing of the Guard occurred when the increasingly discontented King of Comics left the House of (mostly his) Ideas for arch-rival National/DC to craft his Fourth World Magnum Opus plus a host of other game-changing comic book classics…

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

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

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

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

Before that, the cover of all-reprint Fantastic Four Annual #7 brightens our day, as does its contemporary photo-feature, revealing each and every member of the burgeoning Marvel Bullpen.

Fantastic Four #108 contained ‘The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man!’ which “reintroduced” a character never before seen by recycling portions of a near-complete but rejected Kirby tale. This was modified with new sequences illustrated by John Buscema and Romita. In the published story (not included in this volume) the mysterious Janus tapped into the anti-matter power of the Negative Zone once and now “returned” to steal more via the portal in Reed’s lab.

Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of extinction-event predator Annihilus, who had long sought entry into our life-rich universe…

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

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

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

Rounding out the Kirby Kommemorations are a selection of original art pages and covers from issues #88-90, unused cover art, house ads, portfolio and poster art and more: a graphic bonanza no fan could resist.

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.

White Tiger: A Hero’s Compulsion


By Tamora Pierce, Timothy Liebe, Phil Briones, Alvaro Rio & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2273-9 (TPB)

I’ll try to be brief but bear with me because this might be a little complex for anyone not hardened by 55 years of constant exposure to raw comic-books…

After the mid-1970’s Kung Fu craze subsided Marvel was left with a couple of impressive themed properties (Master of Kung Fu and Iron Fist) and a few that needed some traditional superhero “topping up”. The Sons of the Tiger debuted in monochrome magazine Deadly Hands of Kung Fu: a multi-racial martial arts team who – augmented by three mystic amulets – fought the usual mystic ninja/secret empire types until internal dissent and an obvious lack of creative imagination split them up.

The amulets – a Tiger’s Head and two paws carved from magical jade – passed on to young Hector Ayala who donned all three to become a super-martial artist calling himself the White Tiger. After an inauspicious, short and excessively violent career including team-ups with both Spider-Man and Daredevil, the “first Puerto Rican Superhero” all but vanished until (in a Man Without Fear storyline I’ll get around to reviewing one day) he lost his life…

In the meantime, a new White Tiger had appeared in the 1997 revival of Heroes for Hire: an actual tiger evolved into a humanoid by renegade geneticist the High Evolutionary. In 2003 Kaspar Kole, a black, Jewish cop briefly replaced the Black Panther, becoming the third White Tiger shortly thereafter…

Which finally brings us here as this volume collects the first 6-issue miniseries to feature Angela Del Toro, niece of the first White Tiger; one time cop, de-frocked FBI agent and eventual recipient of the amulets that empowered and doomed her uncle Hector.

Normally I’d steer clear of reviewing a graphic novel like this because by all rights it should be all but impenetrable to non-fans, but novelist Tamora Pierce and co-scripter Timothy Liebe have made the necessary and mandatory recaps and references to other books (particularly the extended Daredevil storyline that dealt with the death of Angela’s uncle and her becoming a costumed vigilante in his memory) relatively painless: a seemingly seamless part of the overall narrative thrust of this tale and one that perfectly suits the action-packed, highly realistic artwork of Phil Briones, Alvaro Rio, Ronaldo Adriano Silva & Don Hillsman.

Angela Del Toro was a high-ranking Federal Agent, but now she’s jobless and bewildered, terrified of becoming just another masked crazy on the streets and skyways of New York City. Luckily, she still has a few friends – both in the legal and extra-legal law enforcement community – and soon links up with a private security firm while sorting out her new double life.

That mostly means coming to terms with being a costumed superhero, stopping a covert cabal of asset-stripping terrorists from turning the USA into a highly profitable war-zone and getting final closure if not revenge on Yakuza prince Orii Sano, the man who killed her partner…

White Tiger: A Hero’s Compulsion is a canny blend of family drama, cop procedural and gritty superhero thriller, with an engaging lead character, believable stakes, just enough laughs and truly sinister baddies who should appeal to the widest of audiences. Fun-filled and frantic with loads of guest-stars, including Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Black Widow, and such scurrilous dirtbags as the Cobra, the Lizard, Deadpool and the assembled underworld of three continents, this is a read for devotees and dilettantes alike.

Whether cleaning up the mean streets and saving the entire world or just busting heads in her new day job, White Tiger has everything necessary to stay the course, but even if she somehow doesn’t, there will always be this thoroughly fascinating trade paperback and digital book to mark her territory, if not her passing…
© 2006, 2007, 2015 MARVEL. All rights reserved.

Shuri: Wakanda Forever


By Nnedi Okorafor, Vita Ayala, Leonardo Romero, Paul Davidson, Rachael Stott, Jordie Bellaire, Tríona Farrell, Carlos Lopez, VC’s Joe Sabino & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2369-3 (TPB)

Lauded as the first black superhero in American comics and one of the first to carry his own series, the Black Panther’s popularity and fortunes have waxed and waned since the 1960s when he first attacked the FF (in Fantastic Four #52; cover-dated July 1966) as part of an extended plan to gain vengeance on the murderer of his father.

T’Challa, son of T’Chaka was revealed as an African monarch whose hidden kingdom was the only source of a vibration-absorbing alien metal upon which the country’s immense wealth was founded. Those mineral riches – derived from a fallen meteor which struck the continent in lost antiquity – had turned his country into a technological wonderland.

The tribal wealth had long been guarded by a hereditary feline champion deriving physical advantages from secret ceremonies and a mysterious heart-shaped herb that ensured the generational dominance of the nation’s warrior Panther Cult.

In recent years, Vibranium made the country a target for increasing subversion and incursion. After one all-out attack by Doctor Doom – culminating in the Iron Dictator seizing control of Wakanda – T’Challa was forced to render all Vibranium on Earth inert, defeating the invader but leaving his own homeland broken and economically shattered.

During that cataclysmic clash T’Challa’s flighty, spoiled brat half-sister Shuri took on the mantle of Black Panther, becoming clan and country’s new champion whilst her predecessor struggled with the disaster he had deliberately caused and recuperated from near-fatal injuries.

Despite initially being rejected by the divine Panther Spirit, Shuri proved a dedicated and ingenious protector, serving with honour until she perished defending the nation from alien invader Thanos. When T’Challa resumed his position as warrior-king, one of his earliest tasks was resurrecting his sister. She had passed into the Djalia (Wakanda’s spiritual Plane of Memories) where she absorbed the entire history of the nation from ascended Elders. On her return to physicality, she gained mighty new powers as the Ascended Future…

Since then – thanks to the equally formidable magic of a bravura role in a blockbuster movie – a slightly reimagined Shuri starred in her own series, blending established comics mythology with the fresh characterisation of a spunky, savvy, youthful super-scientist.

Initially written by multi award-winning fantasy author Nnedimma Nkemdili “Nnedi” Okorafor (Binti, Who Fears Death, Broken Places & Outer Spaces, Black Panther: Long Live the King) and illustrated by Leonardo Romero (Hawkeye, Captain America, Doctor Strange), this collection – gathering #1-10 of Shuri (spanning December 2018-September 2019 and available as a trade paperback or digitally) – finds Wakanda in turmoil.

In the aftermath of the nation’s first (official) manned space mission, King T’Challa is ‘Gone’, leaving Shuri to initially revel in the sheer joy and freedom of technological creation. However, the pressures of her family position always bedevil her. If it’s not frequent overtures from a mystery hacker she’s befriended and dubbed Muti or the constant chidings of the Ancestral Spirits who connect her to the Djalia, it’s her unwelcome invitation to join a secret society of women who have covertly steered and safeguarded Wakanda for generations…

The Sisters of the Elephant’s Trunk have a cherished goal: despite the nation recently becoming a constitutional monarchy, they want Shuri to step up in T’Challa’s absence and be the country’s spiritual leader … a new Black Panther…

Her answer in ‘The Baobab Tree’ pleases no one, but she has no time for second thoughts as sister-in-law Storm comes to her with news that T’Challa is now lost in space. The crisis is further compounded after Queen Mother Ramonda also vanishes. When Shuri resorts to spiritual means of locating her missing family, the ritual accidentally catapults her astral personality across the universe and into the vegetable body of a Guardian of the Galaxy…

Trapped but never helpless, Shuri’s brains save the alien heroes from dire peril and a deadly energy, memory and sound-eating bug in ‘Groot Boom’, but her return to Earth brings more trouble as the energy-insectoid follows to cause chaos in ‘Timbuktu’ – thanks in large part to the machinations of opportunist supervillain Moses Magnum. More concerning is the fact that many of her Ascended powers have gone

With catastrophe all around and the planet in deadly peril, Shuri calls in a favour and Iron Man responds to assist in preventing ‘The End of the Earth’, but ultimately Shuri knows that the call of the Panther cult must be answered no matter what she wants…

The crisis deepens in ‘A Friend in Need’ parts 1 and 2 (illustrated by Paul Davidson & Tríona Farrell) as the reluctant new Black Panther traces a living black hole generator to Brooklyn, USA and shares a perilous romp with second Spider-Man Miles Morales and modern Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan, redeeming genius kid Augustin Torres from a dangerous association with major mag guy Graviton

Events spiral to a spectacular conclusion as Vita Ayala (Livewire, New Mutants) takes over scripting for #8-10 with Rachael Stott & Carlos Lopez tackling the picture-making. In ‘24/7 Vibranium’, that pesky bug resurfaces to imperil Earth prompting a fact-find visit to the Djalia, a fraught confrontation at Wakanda’s Vibranium mines in ‘Godhead’ and an unexpected resolution in ‘Living Memory’ that answers most of Shuri’s questions, restores her powers and sets her up for the next great adventure…

Balancing the fantastic fun and affirmative inspiration, this delightfully angst-free action romp also offers an Afterwordfrom Okorafor; Variant cover gallery by Skottie Young, Jamal Campbell, Carlos Pacheco, Travis Charest, John Tyler Christopher, Afua Richardson (plus movie photo-cover) and Romero design pages.

Wakanda Forever is a fast-moving, funny and supremely inventive delight: a splendidly fresh take on female superheroes that is compulsive reading for any fan of tight continuity, breathtaking action and smart characterisation as well as everyone who fell in love with the super-smart young woman who stole every scene in the Black Panther movie. What are you waiting for?
© 2020 MARVEL.

Cage!


By Genndy Tartakovsky, Stephen DeStefano & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2786-4 (TPB)

For most of modern history black consumers of popular entertainments enjoyed far too few fictive role models. In the English-speaking world that began changing in the turbulent 1960s and truly took hold during the decade that followed. Many characters stemming from those days come from a cultural phenomenon called Blaxploitation. Although criticised for its seedy antecedents, stereotypical situations and violence, the films, books, music and art were the first mass-market examples of minority characters in leading roles, rather than as fodder, flunkies or flamboyant villains. If you scroll back a bit, you’ll see a rather pompous review by (old, white) me detailing how that groundbreaking era led to the birth of superheroic cultural icon Luke Cage. You should read those stories: they’re rather good.

In 2016, animation superstar Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, Hotel Transylvania) reminded readers of something else: those tales were outrageously frantic fun too.

Four-issue miniseries Cage! dials us back to that fabulous mythical moment – or at least 1977 in New York – for a sublimely daft interlude as the street-jivin’ Hero for Hire interrupts roller skating bank robbers before being drawn into an incredible mystery…

Super heroes and top ass-kickers like his friends Misty Knight and Iron Fist are going missing and diligent investigation leads him into nothin’ but trouble…

Soon the bewildered champion is facing off against an army of old enemies, enduring psychedelic enlightenment, and battling simian Professor Soos to liberate the lost defenders and survive a deadly festival of combat on a lost island…

With raucous and rowdy guest appearances from the pre-Dark Phoenix X-Men, Dazzler, Black Panther, Ghost Rider, Brother Voodoo and a host of period stars of the Marvel Pantheon, this timeless delight also includes a full reprint of origin/debut ‘Out of Hell… A Hero!’ (by Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Billy Graham, Roy Thomas &John Romita Senior) as seen in Luke Cage Hero for Hire #1, plus a stunning covers-&-variants gallery by Tartakovsky, Trevor Von Eeden, Marco D’Alfonso, Joe Quesada, Damion Scott, Bruce Timm, Bill Pressing and Arthur Adams & Paul Mounts

I honestly don’t know what the commissioning editors were thinking, but By Gosh, It Works! This is a superb pastiche and spoof of distant days, packed with fun and frenetic energy. Read it fast with loud music playing and preferably wearing orange rayon slacks. Dig it in paperback or digital, but do, do dig it Baby…
© 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Luke Cage Epic Collection volume 1 1972-1975: Retribution


By Archie Goodwin, Steve Englehart, Tony Isabella, Len Wein, Gerry Conway, Billy Graham, George Tuska, Ron Wilson & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1302928315 (TPB)

In 1968 the consciousness-raising sporting demonstration of Black Power at the Olympic Games politicised a generation of youngsters. By this time a few comics companies had already made tentative efforts to address what were national and socio-political iniquities, but issues of race and ethnicity took a long time to filter through to still-impressionable young minds avidly absorbing knowledge and attitudes via four-colour pages that couldn’t even approximate the skin tones of African-Americans.

As with television, breakthroughs were small, incremental and too often reduced to a cold-war of daringly liberal “firsts.” Excluding a few characters in Jungle comic-books of the 1940s and 1950, Marvel clearly led the field with a black soldier in Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandos team – the historically impossible Gabe Jones who debuted in #1, May 1963. So unlikely a character was ol’ Gabe that he was re-coloured Caucasian at the printers, who clearly didn’t realise his ethnicity, but knew he couldn’t be un-white.

He was followed by actual negro superheroes Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966), and the Falcon in Captain America #117 (September 1969).

America’s first black hero to helm in his own title had come (and gone largely unnoticed) in a little remembered or regarded title from Dell Comics. Debuting in December 1965 and created by artist Tony Tallarico and scripter D.J. Arneson, Lobo was a gunslinger in the old west, battling injustice just like any cowboy hero would.

Arguably a greater breakthrough was Joe Robertson, City Editor of the Daily Bugle; an erudite, brave and proudly ordinary mortal distinguished by his sterling character, not costume or skin tone. He first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man # 51 (August 1967), proving in every panel that the world wouldn’t end if black folk and white folk occupied the same spaces…

This big change slowly grew out of raised social awareness during a terrible time in American history; yes, even worse than today’s festering social wound, as typified by cops under pressure providing no answer to seemingly constant Black Lives Matter events. Those tragedies occur in the UK too, so we have nothing to be smug about either. We’ve had race riots since the Sixties which left simmering scars that only comedians and openly racist politicians dare to talk about. Things today in don’t seem all that different, except the bile and growing taste for violence is turned towards European accents, or health workers as well as brown skins…

As the 1960s became a new decade, more positive and inclusive incidences of ethnic characters appeared in the USA, with DC finally getting an African-America hero in John Stewart (Green Lantern #87 December 1971/January 1972) – although his designation as a replacement Green Lantern might be construed as more conciliatory and insulting than revolutionary.

The first DC hero with his own title was Black Lightning. He didn’t debut until April 1977, although Jack Kirby had introduced Vykin in Forever People #1 and the Black Racer in New Gods #3 (March and July 1971) and Shilo Norman as Scott Free’s apprentice (and eventual successor) in Mister Miracle #15 (August 1973).

As usual, it took a bold man and changing economics to really promote change. With declining comics sales at a time of rising Black Consciousness, cash – if not cashing in – was probably the trigger for “the Next Step.”

Contemporary “Blaxsploitation” cinema and novels had fired up commercial interests throughout America, and in that atmosphere of outlandish dialogue, daft outfits and barely concealed – if justified – outrage, an angry black man with a shady past and apparently dubious morals must have felt like a sure-fire hit to Marvel’s bosses.

Luke Cage, Hero for Hire launched in the summer of 1972. A year later, Black Panther finally got his own series in Jungle Action #5 and Blade: Vampire Hunter debuted in Tomb of Dracula #10.

This stunning trade paperback/digital compendium collects the first 23 issues of the breakthrough series: including the moment the series was thematically adjusted to become Luke Cage Power Man and cumulatively spanning June 1972 to February 1975.

The saga begins with Lucas, a hard-case inmate at brutal Seagate Prison. Like all convicts he says he was framed and his uncompromising attitude makes mortal enemies of savage, racist guards Rackham and Quirt, whilst not endearing him to the rest of the prison population such as genuinely bad guys Shades and Comanche either…

‘Out of Hell… A Hero!’ was written by Archie Goodwin and illustrated by George Tuska & Billy Graham – with some initial assistance from Roy Thomas and John Romita Senior – and sees a new warden arrive promising to change the hell-hole into a proper, correctly administered correctional facility. Prison doctor Noah Burstein convinces Lucas to participate in a radical experiment in exchange for a parole hearing, having heard the desperate con’s tale of woe…

Lucas had grown up in Harlem, a tough kid who had managed to stay honest even when his best friend Willis Stryker had not. They remained friends even though they walked different paths – until a woman came between them. To be rid of his romantic rival Stryker planted drugs and had Lucas shipped off to jail. While he was there his girl Reva, who had never given up on him, was killed when she got in way of bullets meant for up-and-coming gangster Stryker…

With nothing to lose Lucas undergoes Burstein’s process – an experiment in cell-regeneration – but Rackham sabotages it, hoping to kill the con before he can expose the illegal treatment of convicts. The equipment goes haywire and something incredible occurs. Lucas – panicked and somehow super-strong – punches his way out of the lab and the through the prison walls, only to be killed in hail of gunfire. His body plunges over a cliff and is never recovered…

Months later, a vagrant prowls the streets of New York City and stumbles into a robbery. Almost casually he downs the felon and accepts a reward from the grateful victim. He also has a bright idea. Strong, bullet-proof, street-wise and honest, Lucas will hide in plain sight while planning his revenge on Stryker. Since his only skill is fighting, he becomes a private paladin… a Hero for Hire…

Making allowances for the colourful, often ludicrous dialogue necessitated by the Comics Code’s sanitising of “street-talking Jive” this is probably the grittiest origin tale of the classic Marvel years, and the tense action continues in ‘Vengeance is Mine!’ as the man now calling himself Luke Cage stalks his target.

Stryker has risen quickly, now controlling a vast portion of the drug trade as the deadly Diamondback, and Cage has a big surprise in store when beautiful physician Claire Temple comes to his aid after a calamitous struggle. Thinking him fatally shot, her surprise is dwarfed by his own when Cage meets her boss.

Seeking to expiate his sins, Noah Burstein runs a rehab clinic on the sordid streets of Times Square, but his efforts have drawn the attention of Diamondback, who doesn’t like someone trying to fix his paying customers…

Burstein apparently does not recognise Cage, and even though faced with eventual exposure and return to prison, the Hero for Hire offers to help the hard-pressed medics. Setting up an office above a movie house on 42nd Street, Cage meets a lad who will be his greatest friend: D.W. Griffith: nerd, film freak and plucky white sidekick. However, before Cage can settle in, Diamondback strikes and the age-old game of blood and honour plays out the way it always does…

Issue #3 introduces Cage’s first returning villain in ‘Mark of the Mace!’ as Burstein – for his own undisclosed reasons – decides to keep Cage’s secret, and disgraced soldier Gideon Mace launches a terror attack on Manhattan. With his dying breath, one of the mad Colonel’s troops hires Cage to stop the attack, which he does in explosive fashion…

Inker Billy Graham graduated to full art chores for ‘Cry Fear… Cry Phantom!’ in #4, as a deranged, deformed maniac carries out random assaults in Times Square. Or is there perhaps another motive behind the crazed attacks?

Steve Englehart took over as scripter and Tuska returned to pencil ‘Don’t Mess with Black Mariah!’ in the next issue: a sordid tale of organised scavengers which debuts unscrupulous reporter Phil Fox: an unsavoury sneak with greedy pockets and a nose for scandal…

The private detective motif proved a brilliant stratagem in generating stories for a character perceived as a reluctant champion at best and outright antihero by nature. It allowed Cage to maintain an outsider’s edginess, but also meant danger and adventure literally walked through his shabby door every issue.

Such was the case with ‘Knights and White Satin’ (Englehart, Gerry Conway, Graham & Paul Reinman) as the swanky, ultra-rich Forsythe sisters hire Cage to bodyguard their dying father from a would-be murderer too impatient to wait the week it will take for the old man to die from a terminal illness.

This more-or less straight mystery yarn (if you discount a madman and killer robots) is followed by ‘Jingle Bombs’ – a strikingly different Christmas tale from Englehart, Tuska & Graham, before Cage properly enters the Marvel Universe in ‘Crescendo!’ after he is hired by Doctor Doom to retrieve rogue androids that had absconded from Latveria. They are

hiding as black men among the shifting masses of Harlem and the Iron Dictator needs someone who can work in the unfamiliar environment. Naturally, Cage accomplishes his mission, only to have Doom stiff him for the fee. Big mistake…

‘Where Angels Fear to Tread!’ (#9) finds the enraged Hero for Hire borrowing a vehicle from the Fantastic Four to play Repo Man in Doom’s own castle, just in time to get caught in the middle of a grudge match between the tyrant and alien invader the Faceless One.

It’s back to street-level basics in ‘The Lucky… and the Dead!’ as Cage takes on a gambling syndicate led by the schizophrenic Señor Suerte, who could double his luck by becoming murderous Señor Muerte (that’s Mr. Luck and Mr. Death to you): a 2-part thriller complete with rigged games and death-traps that climaxes in the startling ‘Where There’s Life…!’ as relentless Phil Fox finally uncovers Cage’s secret…

Issue #12 featured the first of many battles against alchemical villain ‘Chemistro!’, after which Graham handled full art duties with ‘The Claws of Lionfang’ – a killer using big cats to destroy his enemies – before Cage tackles hyperthyroid lawyer Big Ben Donovan in ‘Retribution!’ as the tangled threads of his murky past slowly become a noose around his neck…

‘Retribution: Part II!’ finds Graham and Tony Isabella sharing the writer’s role as many disparate elements converge to expose Cage. The crisis is exacerbated by Quirt kidnapping Luke’s girlfriend, and Seagate escapees Comanche and Shades stalking him whilst the New York cops hunt him.

The last thing the Hero for Hire needs is a new super-foe, but that’s just what he gets in #16’s ‘Shake Hands with Stiletto!’(Isabella, Graham & Frank McLaughlin): a dramatic finale which literally brings the house down and clears up most of the old business.

A partial re-branding of America’s premier black crimebuster began in issue #17. The mercenary aspect was downplayed (at least on covers) as Luke Cage, Power Man – by Len Wein, Tuska & Graham – got another new start during a tumultuous team-up in ‘Rich Man: Iron Man… Power Man: Thief!’

Here the still “For Hire” hero is commissioned to test Tony Stark’s security by stealing his latest invention. Sadly, neither Stark nor his alter ego Iron Man know anything about it and the result is another classic hero-on-hero duel…

Vince Colletta signed on as inker with #18’s ‘Havoc on the High Iron!’, as Cage takes on a murderous high-tech Steeplejack before the next two issues offer the still-wanted fugitive hero a tantalising chance to clear his name.

‘Call Him… Cottonmouth!’ introduced a crime lord with inside information of the frame-up perpetrated by Willis Stryker. Tragically, that hope of a new clean life is snatched away after all Cage’s explosive, two-fisted efforts in the Isabella scripted follow-up ‘How Like a Serpent’s Tooth…’

Isabella, Wein, Ron Wilson & Colletta collaborated on ‘The Killer with My Name!’ with Cage attacked by old Avengers villain Power Man, who understandably wants his nom de guerre back. He changes his mind upon waking up from the resultant bombastic battle that ensues…

Psychotic archenemy Stiletto returned with his equally high-tech balmy brother Discus in ‘The Broadway Mayhem of 1974’ (Isabella, Wilson & Colletta), subsequently revealing a startling connection to Cage’s origins…

All this constant carnage and non-stop tension had sent sometime-romantic interest Claire Temple scurrying for points distant, and as this collection concludes with LCPM #23, Cage and D.W. go looking for her, promptly fetching up in a fascistic planned-community run by old foe and deranged military terrorist Gideon Mace in ‘Welcome to Security City’(inked by Dave Hunt).

Adding extra value to this sterling selection are a Marvel Bulletins page promo from 1972; unused cover art by Graham, pre-edited, corrected and just plain toned-down pages (LCHFH was one of the most potentially controversial and thus most scrupulously edited books in Marvel’s stable at the time); a House ad from 1974 and Dave Cockrum & John Romita’s Cage entry from the 1975 Mighty Marvel Calendar (March, in case you were wondering). Also on view are original art and covers by Graham, Gil Kane & Mike Esposito (#17 and 20), plus a editorial apology from Steve Englehart over language used in #8 which has been modified for later reprintings… Now you’re intrigued, right?

Arguably a little dated now – me, Genndy Tartakovsky and others in the know prefer the term “retro” – these tales were instrumental in breaking down a major barrier in the complacent, intolerant, WASP-flavoured American comics landscape and their quality and power if not their initial impact remains undiminished to this day. These are tales well worth your time and money.
© 2021 MARVEL.