Guide to Groot – a Sound Book


By Matthew K. Manning & Nicholas Rix (Becker & Mayer! books/Quarto)
ISBN: 978-0-7603-6217-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Sheer Delight for Youngsters of Any Age… 9/10

Technically speaking, Groot is one of Marvel’s oldest characters, having debuted as a woody alien invader in Tales to Astonish #13 (cover-dated November 1960), a good year before Fantastic Four #1.

Crafted by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers, ‘I Challenged Groot! The Monster from Planet X’ revealed how a studious biologist saved humanity from a rapacious rampaging tree intent on stealing Earth cities and shipping them back to his distant world. That tale’s not in this tome, because in the intervening decades the deciduous despot cleaned up his act, pruned off the bad wood and now resides firmly on the side of the good guys…

As a beloved star of print and screen, the leafy legend has profoundly planted himself in the hearts of kids everywhere and this nifty marriage of sound and vision allows readers to enjoy a succession of cool narrative image scenarios by Nicholas Rix whilst Rocket Raccoon (in his identity of author Matthew K. Manning) clarifies the intricacies of Groot’s seemingly limited vocabulary in text. And all while Groot emotes right in your ears!

This is all achieved via a selection of 10 pushbutton activated sound files, each revealing the utterance nuances of the titanic timber-man’s 3-word vocalisations.

Following Rocket’s Introduction, the lessons commence with “I Am Groot” which of course means ‘Hello’ whereas the second spoken “I Am Groot” reveals just how the super sapling says ‘Did You Mean This?’

You get the picture – and they’re all beautifully rendered illustrations of key moments featuring Star-Lord, Gamora, Mantis, Drax, Rocket and other old favourites – as they are followed in close order by ‘I Gotcha’, ‘Nope. Not Gonna Happen’, ‘Geez. Leave Me Alone, Already’, ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Trust Me. I Got This’, ‘I Want That!’, ‘Face My Wrath, Chumps!’ and ‘I Love You’

This is a marvellously accessible addition to any fan’s library or toybox so it’s a shame that Guide to Groot is not available in the UK yet. Still, as I’m sure you know the internet is your friend in situations like these…

I am Groot I am Groot I am Groot, I am Groot I am Groot I Am Groot I am Groot-I am Groot I am Groot I am…
© 2018 Marvel. MARVEL and all characters, names and distinct likenesses thereof ™ & © 2018 Marvel characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Iron Fist Marvel Masterworks volume 2


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 3


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hulk: Return of the Monster


By Bruce Jones, Brian Azzarello, John Romita Jr. & Tom Palmer, Richard Corben & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5346-7 (HB)

Bruce Banner was a military scientist accidentally caught in a gamma bomb blast of his own devising. As a result. he would unexpectedly transform into a gigantic green juggernaut of unstoppable strength and fury when distressed or surprised.

As both occasional hero and near-mindless marauding monster he rampaged across the Marvel Universe for years, finally finding his size 700 feet and a format that worked to become one of young Marvel’s most resilient and enduring features.

An incredibly popular character both in comics and myriad global media beyond, he has often undergone radical changes in scope and direction to keep his stories fresh and his exploits explosively compelling…

One of the most impressive runs of the entire canon came from noted thriller and horror writer Bruce Jones (see especially his impressive Hitchcock pastiche Somerset Holmes) who injected a stunning dose of long-neglected suspense and pure menace back into the saga, as well as tipping his hat to the peripatetic wanderings of the tormented star of the 1970s and 1980s TV series.

This hardcover and eBook re-presents issues #34-39 of The Incredible Hulk comicbook, spanning January to June 2002, and also includes precursor sidebar series Startling Stories: Banner #1-4 (from July to October of the same year) to set the scene for a terrifying new take on the relationship between Banner and his Inner Demon…

The main tale of guilt, paranoia and pursuit combines Jones’ moody, humanistic writing with the ponderously powerful pencilling of John Romita Jr. and the slickly realistic inking of Tom Palmer to stunning effect.

After decades of building up a huge supporting cast this Hulk also strips away all but the most basic remnants of the series’ lynchpins, leaving Banner and the Beast in new territory and to all intents and purposes going it alone…

Always running from the authorities and himself, Banner has finally lost all hope in the aftermath of one of the Hulk’s most appalling bouts of mindless destruction: a rampage which devastated Chicago and resulted in the death of a little boy, Ricky Myers…

We open with ‘The Morning After’ as a cold and emotionally dead Banner hides in a sleazy hotel. Here he encounters Jerome, a kid so smart that he knows joining a gang is the only thing that can keep someone with his level of intellect alive.

The desperate lad gets a glimpse at another option after he tries to rob the skinny, repressed white guy down the hall and, when Jerome gets in over his head, it is Banner not the Hulk who is the solution…

Incognito, restlessly wandering but with a mysterious online ally keeping him one step ahead of his myriad pursuers, Banner is slowly reconnecting with the humanity he has avoided ever since the monster was first created.

In the wordless, deeply moving ‘Silent Running’ (part of Marvel’s ‘Nuff Said publishing event) the fugitive narrowly escapes capture by enigmatic Men in Black at a roadside diner due to the inadvertent assistance of an autistic child, after ‘The Gang’s All Here!’ introduces a mismatched pair of over-competitive assassins hired by the secret organisation actually behind the current manhunt for Banner and the Hulk.

Both the lethal killer Slater and his rival/partner Sandra Verdugo have been co-opted by the cabal of MiBs with an unspecified interest in ramping up anti-Hulk hysteria. They definitely want Banner, but only in one piece. They also appear to have the literal power of life and death over their unwilling agents…

With Banner’s old friend and erstwhile therapist Doc Samson lured into the pursuit, the cabal makes its move in ‘You Must Remember This…’ but after the gamma-fuelled psychologist is distracted by a small child’s experience of school bullying the murderous Hulk-hunters converge and generate a colossal amount of collateral damage at the ‘Last Chance Café’, before events get totally out of hand and terrifyingly weird in concluding episode ‘Tag… You’re Dead!’

Using the theme of troubled childhoods and imagery based on the classic Frankenstein films that were such an integral part of the Jade Giant’s conceptual genesis, these tales focus on Banner and judiciously limit the use of his emerald alter ego to the point where the monster almost becomes a ghost. Ever-present but never seen (the monster is only on 21 of the 144 pages of this storyline and that includes covers, dream-sequences, flashbacks and spot illustrations) like a catastrophic Rebecca haunting a Midwestern Manderley, the Hulk is an oppressive force of calculated salvation and last resort rather than mere reader-friendly graphic destruction and gratuitous gratification.

Like all great monsters he lurks in the shadows, waiting for his moment…

Moreover, the guys pulling all those tangled strings are still waiting for their next opportunity…

One of the most beguiling and impressive Hulk yarns of all, this book offers merely one third of the complete saga but does sweeten the wait for a conclusion by delivering a stunning storm of relentless action and conspiracy from Brian Azzarello & Richard Corben in Banner.

Notionally set on alternate Earth-20017, here the monster’s rampages – in which massive loss of life are a given – are being tracked by Doc Samson, General Ross and the US Army who are actively covering up all knowledge of the Hulk.

Wracked by guilt, Banner tries to help as volunteer medic and grave digger because he’s tried to kill himself and the green devil inside won’t let him die…

Eventually after a horrific casualty count Samson’s brains trump the Hulk’s brawn and the fugitive is brought in and prepped for a lobotomy. Samson is appalled that Bruce welcomes the procedure and while trying to talk his captive out is mad privy to a most unsettling secret: one Ross and his superiors are utterly complicit in. A man of great intellect and high-minded principles, Samson makes a decision that will cause nothing but trouble…

Also included here are sketches, designs and a rundown of the cover process for Hulk #34-39, the text essay from Startling Stories: Banner #1, two promotional interviews with Bruce Jones, promo art by Romita Jr., Palmer and colourist Studio F, the script for ‘Silent Running’ and a series of covers, pages and designs from Corben’s Sketchbook.

A burst of fresh-thinking which utterly reinvigorated the character and completely refocused the series for the 21st century, these staggeringly engrossing tales are a masterpiece of the form. If you’re new to the series or looking for an excuse to jump back on, this is the book for you…
© 2001, 2002, 2018 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

Iron Fist Marvel Masterworks volume 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued…

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

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 2


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain America and the Falcon: Nomad


By Steve Englehart, John Warner, Sal Buscema, Frank Robbins, Herb Trimpe & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2197-8 (TPB)

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

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

This startling paperback and eBook collection reprints issues #177-186 (spanning September 1974 – June 1975) of the monthly comicbook and shows the previously steadfast Sentinel of Liberty as a troubled and disillusioned man: unhappy, uncomfortable and unable to bear the weight of being a national symbol of a divided nation that had been betrayed and subverted by its highest elected officials.

At this time America was a nation reeling from mass culture shock caused by Vietnam, the Watergate scandal and the humiliating exposure of President Nixon’s crimes. The widespread loss of idealism and painful public revelations that politicians are generally unpleasant – and even possibly ruthlessly wicked exploiters – kicked the props out of most Americans who had an incomprehensibly rosy view of their leaders, so a conspiracy that reached into the halls and backrooms of government was extremely controversial yet oddly attractive in those distant, simpler days…

Sickened, shocked and stunned at the poisoned American Dream – and despite the arguments and advice of his Avenging allies – Steve Rogers searched his soul and realised he could not be the symbol of such a country. He threw off the costume and rank to wander the country bereft of ideals or direction…

Unable to convince him otherwise his crimefighting partner Sam Wilson carried on alone, as the high-flying Falcon tackles an invasion by a body-snatching alien X-Men foe – in conjunction with earthly villain Aries – in ‘Lucifer be thy Name’ (scripted by Steve Englehart and illustrated by Sal Buscema & Vince Colletta).

The double-dealing devils are promptly wrapped up in ‘If the Falcon Should Fall…!’ when Steve, unable to keep aloof, resorts to type and heroically piles in to the final showdown…

Whilst the dejected civilian settles into an uncomfortable self-inflicted retirement, in his costumed absence a few painfully unqualified civilians begin trying to fill the crimson boots of Captain America… with dire results…

Captain America and the Falcon #179 sees Rogers hunted by a mysterious Golden Archer whose ‘Slings and Arrows!’ soon convince the ex-hero that even if he can’t be the Star-Spangled Avenger, neither can he abandon the vocation of do-gooder. This moment of revelation leads to a life-changing decision and ‘The Coming of the Nomad!’ in #180, even as the Serpent Squad turn up again with morally ambivalent Princess Python in tow and maniac nihilist Madame Hydra assuming the suddenly-vacant role of the Viper.

When “the Man Without a Country” tackles the ophidian outlaws, he comes off second best but does stumble across a sinister scheme by the Squad and Sub-Mariner’s arch-nemesis Warlord Krang. The marine malcontent plans to raise a sunken continent and restore an ancient evil-drenched civilisation in ‘The Mark of Madness!’

At the same time Falcon is ignoring his better judgement: agreeing to train a determined young man to become the next Captain America…

An era ended when Sal Buscema surrendered Captain America and newspaper-strip creator Frank Robbins came aboard for a controversial run beginning with ‘Inferno!’ (inked by Joe Giella). Whilst Nomad successfully mops up the Serpent Squad – despite well-meaning police interference – Sam and Cap’s youthful substitute had encounter the Sentinel of Liberty’s greatest enemy with fatal consequences…

Inked by Frank Giacoia, ‘Nomad: No More!’ finds a grief-stricken, guilt-crushed Rogers once more take up his stars and stripes as the murderous Red Skull simultaneously attacks the hero’s loved ones and destabilising America’s economy by defiling banks and slaughtering the financial wizards who run them…

Beginning in the chillingly evocative ‘Cap’s Back!’ (with art by Herb Trimpe, Giacoia & Mike Esposito), rampaging through the utterly shocking ‘Scream of the Scarlet Skull!’ (Buscema, Robbins & Giacoia) and climaxing in ‘Mindcage!’ (with additional scripting from John Warner and art by Robbins & Esposito) the inimitable Sentinel of Liberty takes the fight to freedom’s greatest foe.

Tragically, despite driving the Skull off, Steve is stymied and frustrated when his greatest friend and ally is apparently revealed as the Skull’s stooge and sleeper-agent slave…

And on that staggering cliffhanger note this epic collection concludes…

To Be Continued…

Despite the odd cringe-worthy moment (for example, I specifically omitted the part where Nomad battles three chicken-themed crooks, and still wince at some from this era of “blacksploitation” and burgeoning ethnic awareness), these tales of matchless courage and indomitable heroism are fast-paced, action-packed, totally engrossing fights ‘n’ tights that no comics fan will care to miss: fabulously fun tales of a true American Dreamer…

Moreover, and all joking aside, the cultural significance of these tales were crucial in informing the consciences of the youngest members of the post-Watergate generation and could even stand as a warning from history in regard to the current polarising party-political shenanigans besetting the hotly-contested, gerrymandered Land of the Free and over-mortgaged Home of the Brave…
© 1972, 1973, 1984, 1975, 2006, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Essential Godzilla


By Doug Moench, Herb Trimpe, Tom Sutton & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2153-4

What’s big and green and leaves your front room a complete mess? No, not a Christmas tree, but (arguably) the world’s most famous monster.

Back in 1976 manga and anime were only starting to creep into global consciousness and the most well-known popular culture Japanese export was a colossal radioactive dinosaur who regularly rampaged through the East, destroying cities and fighting monsters even more bizarre and scary than he was.

At this time Marvel was well on the way to becoming the multi-media corporate colossus of today and was looking to increase its international profile. Comic companies have always sought licensed properties to bolster their market-share and in 1977 Marvel truly landed the big one with a 2-year run of one of the world’s most recognisable characters. They boldly broke with tradition by dropping him solidly into real-time contemporary company continuity. The series ran for 24 guest-star-stuffed issues between August 1977 and July 1979.

Gojira first appeared in the eponymous 1954 anti-war, anti-nuke parable directed by Ishiro Honda for Toho Films; a symbol of ancient forces roused to violent reaction by mankind’s incessant meddling. The film was re-cut and dubbed into English with a young Raymond Burr inserted for US audience appeal, and the Brobdingnagian beast renamed Godzilla. He has smashed his way through 27 further Japanese movies, records, books, games, many, many comics and is the originator of the manga sub-genre Daikaijû (giant strange beasts).

Although a certified sell-out, this mammoth monochrome collection is not generally available and – due, I presume to copyright issues – is not likely to resurface anytime soon in either physical or digital form, but if you’re a regular prowler in back issue bins you might get lucky. Stranger things have happened…

In this no-frills, no-preamble Marvel interpretation compilation, the drama begins with ‘The Coming!’, courtesy of Doug Moench, Herb Trimpe & Jim Mooney, as the monstrous aquatic lizard with radioactive fire-breath erupts out of the Pacific Ocean and rampages through Alaska.

Superspy organisation S.H.I.E.L.D. is quickly dispatched to stop the onslaught, and Nick Fury calls in Japanese experts Dr. Yuriko Takiguchi, his grandson Robert and their eye-candy assistant Tamara Hashioka. After an inconclusive battle of ancient strength against modern tech, Godzilla returns to the sea, but the seeds have been sown and everybody knows he will return…

In Japan many believe that Godzilla is a benevolent force destined to oppose true evil. Young Robert is one of them and he gets the chance to expound his views in #2’s ‘Thunder in the Darkness!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia & George Tuska) when the skyscraper saurian resurfaces in Seattle and nearly razes the place before being lured away by S.H.I.E.L.D. ingenuity.

Veteran agents Dum-Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones and Jimmy Woo are seconded to a permanent anti-lizard task force until the beast is finally vanquished, but there are also dozens of freelance do-gooders in the Marvel universe…

Sadly, when the Green Goliath takes offence at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, he attracts the attention of a local superhero team. The Champions – a short-lived, California-based team consisting of Black Widow, The Angel, Iceman, Ghost Rider and Hercules – rapidly respond in ‘A Tale of Two Saviours’ (with the solids inks of Tony DeZuñiga adding a welcome depth to the art). Typically, the humans spend more time fighting each other than the monster…

There’re only so many cities even the angriest dinosaur can trash before tedium sets in so writer Moench begins his first continued story in #4 with ‘Godzilla Versus Batragon!’ (guest-pencilled by the superb Tom Sutton and again inked by DeZuñiga), wherein deranged scientist Dr. Demonicus enslaves Aleutian Islanders to help him grow his own world-wrecking giant horrors… until the real thing shows up…

The epic encounter concludes in ‘The Isle of Lost Monsters’ (inked by a fresh-faced Klaus Janson) before ‘A Monster Enslaved!’ in #6 opens another extended epic as Herb Trimpe returns and Godzilla as well as the general American public are introduced to another now commonplace Japanese innovation.

Giant, piloted battle-suits or Mecha first appeared in Go Nagai’s 1972 manga classic Mazinger Z, and Marvel would do much to popularise the sub-genre in their follow-up licensed title Shogun Warriors, (based on an import toy rather than movie or comic characters but by the same creative team as Godzilla). Here young Rob Takiguchi steals S.H.I.E.L.D.’s latest weapon – a giant robot codenamed Red Ronin – to aid the Big Green Guy when he is finally captured.

Fred Kida stirringly inked the first of a long line of saurian sagas with #7’s ‘Birth of a Warrior!’ whilst the uneasy giant’s alliance ends in another huge fight in concluding chapter ‘Titan Time Two!’

‘The Fate of Las Vegas’ (Trimpe and Kida) in Godzilla #9 is a lighter-toned morality play with the monster destroying Boulder Dam and flooding the modern Sodom and Gomorrah, but it’s soon back to big beastie bashing in ‘Godzilla vs Yetrigar’: another multi-part mash-up that ends in ‘Arena for Three!’ as Red Ronin returns to tackle both large looming lizard and stupendous, smashing Sasquatch.

The first year ends with #12’s ‘The Beta-Beast!’: first chapter in an invasion epic. Shanghaied to the Moon, Godzilla is co-opted as a soldier in a war between alien races who breed giant monsters as weapons, and when the battle transfers to Earth in ‘The Mega-Monsters from Beyond!’, Red Ronin joins the fray for blockbusting conclusion ‘The Super-Beasts’ (this last inked by Dan Green).

Afterwards, loose in cowboy country, Godzilla stomps into a rustling mystery and modern showdown in ‘Roam on the Range’ and ‘The Great Godzilla Roundup!’ before the final story arc begins.

‘Of Lizards, Great and Small’ in #17 starts with a logical solution to the beast’s rampages after superhero Ant-Man’s shrinking gas is used to reduce Godzilla to a more manageable size. However, when the diminished devastator escapes from his cage and becomes a ‘Fugitive in Manhattan!’, it’s all hands on deck as the city waits for the shrinking vapour’s effects to wear off.

‘With Dugan on the Docks!’ then sees the secret agent battle the saurian on more or less equal terms before the Fantastic Four step in for ‘A Night at the Museum.’

The FF have another humane solution and dispatch Godzilla to a primeval age of dinosaurs in #21’s ‘The Doom Trip!’, allowing every big beast fan’s dream to come true as the King of the Monsters teams up with Jack “King” Kirby’s uniquely splendid Devil Dinosaur – and Moon Boy – in ‘The Devil and the Dinosaur!’ (inked by Jack Abel), before returning to the 20th century and full size for a spectacular battle against the Mighty Avengers in ‘The King Once More’.

The story and series concluded in #24 (July 1979) with the remarkably satisfying ‘And Lo, a Child Shall Lead Them’ as all New York’s superheroes prove less effective than an impassioned plea, and Godzilla wearily departs for new conquests and other licensed outlets.

By no means award-winners or critical masterpieces, these stories are nonetheless a perfect example of what comics should be: enticing, exciting, accessible and brimming with “bang for your buck.”

Moench’s oft-times florid prose and dialogue meld perfectly here with Trimpe’s stylised interpretation, which often surpasses the artist’s excellent work on that other big, green galoot.

These are great tales to bring the young and disaffected back to the comics fold and are well worth their space on any fan’s bookshelf. If only somebody could get all the lawyers in a room and have them battle out a solution to enable us to see them in a new edition…
© 1977, 1978, 1979, 2006 Toho Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved. Godzilla, King of the Monsters ® Toho Co., Inc.

Golden Age Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 2


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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