With the wealth of comics material Marvel has access to it constantly surprises me how poorly served the company’s faithful, mainstream fanbase remains. Whilst there’s always a book or collection with the key stories, name artists, latest edgy hit or crossover compilation available, strong, solid tales comprising pulse-pounding Marvel Madness of the type that made them Number One for so long just don’t seem to make it onto the bookshelves these days.
A perfect example would be this workmanlike gem from 1992, which collected the first unsteady steps of a kid team that grew to be one of the most consistently interesting superhero series of the later Marvel Age.
Created by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz before being assigned to Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley to develop, the team consisted of a bunch of failed young super-doers led by a new grim-‘n’-gritty kid millionaire with a grudge, a battle suit and (trust me, it works) high-tech skateboard calling himself Night Thrasher (I still wince at the name).
At their inception the team consisted of hyper-kinetic Speedball, mutant Firestar, telekinetic Vance Astrovic/Marvel Boy, a re-invigorated Nova the Human Rocket, and Sub-Mariner’s niece Namorita: a line-up seemingly designed to flop, but one which swiftly proved the old adage about there being no bad characters, only bad handling…
They made their first appearance in Thor #411 and 412 before launching into their own title, but here, with uncharacteristic consideration for the reader, the editors have led off with that first issue, ‘From the Ground Up!’ an origin of sorts, which sees Dwayne Taylor, man with a mission, gather up a disparate group of super-kids for a mysterious – and as yet unrevealed – project, only to fall foul of a resurrected cosmic powered ex-herald of Galactus named Terrax.
Overcoming the threat the young heroes band together as much to spite dismissive adults like the Avengers as to fight for Justice. This initial helter-skelter romp was written by Nicieza, drawn by Bagley and inked by the legendary Al Williamson.
From there we jump to those aforementioned Thor issues. ‘The Gentleman’s Name is Juggernaut!’ by DeFalco, Frenz and Joe Sinnott, was actually part of the Acts of Vengeance company event, wherein a coalition of villains arranged to trade enemies in a concerted attempt to wipe out the heroes. The Thunder God was targeted by the mystically enhanced X-Men nemesis, resulting in a spectacular, catastrophic battle that devastated much of New York, and the Asgardian Avenger was on the verge of losing his life until the woefully overmatched teens injected themselves into the battle…
New Warriors #2 ‘Mirror Moves’ found Taylor training his new team with his own adult mentors Chord and the enigmatic dowager Tai, when his mysterious past came back to haunt him in the form of old friends Silhouette and Midnight’s Fire, super-powered siblings who battled Korea-Town crime in their own rather unpalatable way. Also debuting were the human-weapon builders of the unscrupulous Genetech Company – destined to be a long-running thorn in the team’s collective side. When Silhouette was crippled in an ambush her brother instigated a murderous gang war that threatened to engulf the entire city…
As Larry Mahlstadt assumed the inking chores, ‘I Am, Therefore I Think’ further explored the budding relationships of the team whilst old Fantastic Four Foe the Mad Thinker took a decidedly deadly pop at the heroes courtesy of a little Genetech prodding, culminating in the New Warriors taking the battle back to them in the all-action ‘Genetech Potential’, which introduced the exceedingly odd gengineered combat force known as Psionex…
By Christopher Gage, Mike Perkins & Andrew Hennessey (Marvel)
In the company crossover event House of M reality was rewritten (yes, again!) when the sometime Avenger Scarlet Witch had a breakdown and altered Earth continuity so that Magneto’s mutants took control of society and where normal humans (“sapiens”) are an acknowledged evolutionary dead-end living out their lives and destined for extinction within two generations.
Collecting the ancillary miniseries House of M: Avengers this volume is set in a world of perfect order, but one where certain malcontents and criminals are determined not to go quietly. Rallying around escaped convict and artificial superman Luke Cage, a gang of criminals calling themselves the Avengers fight to survive and get by however they can, inadvertently becoming a rallying point for Sapiens in a world only too eager to see them all gone…
With the likes of Hawkeye, Tigra, Mockingbird, Moon Knight, Iron Fist, Misty Knight (no relation, not even close), Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu, Mantis, Swordsman, White Tiger and the Punisher on hand, as well as villains such as Kingpin, Elektra, Bullseye, Taskmaster, Black Cat, Typhoid Mary, the brotherhood of Evil Mutants and Gladiator among the cast there’s plenty of familiar faces and lots of action, but as the countdown ticks towards a big climax and the re-establishment of “real” continuity it’s hard to muster any sense of connection.
Marvel has used this plot to kill off and resurrect our favourites purely for momentary cheap effect so many times its difficult to care…
Weaving established Marvel continuity skilfully into their portion of the overarching epic Gage and Perkins tell an intriguing but frustratingly quick and facile tale that just can’t stand alone (so you will need to read at least some of the other House of M collections for the full picture) that doesn’t fairly reflect their great talents nor deliver the punch we were all hoping for. Pretty, but not for the casual or occasional reader
By Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, DavidAja & various (Marvel)
Iron Fist sprang out of the 1970s Kung Fu craze, by way of a heartfelt tribute from originators Roy Thomas and Gil Kane to Bill Everett’s golden Age super-hero Amazing Man (who appeared from 1939-1945 in Centaur Comics).
Young Danny Rand travels with his parents and uncle to the mysterious Himalayas. Searching for the “lost city of K’un Lun” which only appears once every ten years, the boy’s father is murdered by the uncle, and his mother sacrifices herself to save her child. Alone in the wilderness, the city finds him and he spends the next ten years mastering all forms of martial arts.
A decade later he returns to the real world intent on vengeance, further armed with a mystic punch gained by killing the dragon Shou-Lao the Undying. When he eventually achieves his goal the lad is at something of a loose end and – by default – a billionaire, as his murderous uncle had turned the family business into a multi-national megalith.
The series ran in Marvel Premiere #15-25 (from May 1974 to October 1975), plagued by an inability to keep a creative team (writers and artists included Len Wein, Doug Moench, Tony Isabella, Larry Hama, Arvell Jones, Keith Pollard, Pat Broderick and Al McWilliams) before Chris Claremont and John Byrne steadied the ship and produced a superb run of issues for his own title (Iron Fist #1-15, November 1975 – September 1977). After cancellation the character drifted, until paired with Luke Cage following a splendid three-part try-out in Power Man #48-50.
Power Man & Iron Fist ran from #51 until the book was cancelled in 1986 (#125). The K’un Lun Kid has died, come back and cropped up all over the Marvel universe as guest star, co-star and even in a few of his own miniseries.
This volume contains issues #1-6 of Immortal Iron Fist as well as excerpts from Civil War: Choosing Sides, and follows the directionless hero as he struggles to find his place in the world. Discovering a plot by subversive super-terrorist organisation Hydra to steal his company Danny also learns the secret history of his dragon-power and the lives of previous Iron Fists when he stumbles across his renegade predecessor Orson Randall, on the run from K’un Lun since the First World War…
The book also includes the eight-page prequel from the Civil War: Choosing Sides one-shot, guest-starring Daredevil, plus a fascinating sketch section that describes the design process for the reworked and new characters and superb covers.
A lightning-paced, sleekly exotic thriller blending contemporary costumed drama with gritty period battles (illustrated by a phalanx of talented veterans including Russ Heath, John Severin, Sal Buscema and Tom Palmer), Brubaker’s compelling script and the stylish, compulsive art of David Aja (with Travel Foreman & Derek Fridolfs) carries the reader to a superb climax but no conclusion. Ending on a strangely satisfying cliffhanger, I’ve no doubt that every reader (even new ones – the script is wonderfully inclusive and assumes you don’t know the characters well) will gladly seek out the second volume. I’m certainly going to…
By various (Marvel/Panini UK)
In this third volume collecting the complete adventures of Marvel’s Greatest British super-hero we see the end of his initial run from Super Spider-Man & Captain Britain Weekly # 239-247, continue with the good Captain’s first American tour in Marvel Team-Up #65 and #66 and latterly begin reprinting the seminal fantasy strip he shared with the Black Knight in Hulk Comic Weekly. I fear that as with any decent British hero, the publishing history and back-story has to be as complicated as the Gordian Knot to satisfy our inherent sense of the absurd…
By the time of Super Spider-Man & Captain Britain Weekly # 239 the writing was on the wall. In the best tradition of British comics, a merger of two titles inevitably led to the eventual disappearance of the one after the “&”. Moreover it was clear that the US department responsible for these 6-7 page segments (Editors Larry Lieber and Danny Fingeroth, writer Jim Lawrence and art-team Ron Wilson, Pablo Marcos, Fred Kida and Mike Esposito) were devoting less and less creative enthusiasm – if not effort – to the dying feature.
‘Five Tickets to Terror’, ‘To Shrink in Fear!’, ‘…A Madman’s Whim!’ and ‘HellIsland Climax!’ (# 239-242) detail how the Captain and a plane-load of travellers became the diminutive captives of a mutated madman on a tropical island, whilst the last saga from issues #243-247 ends the English adventures on a relative high-note in a deadly, extended duel with a super-assassin and assorted monsters beginning with ‘When Slaymaster Strikes!’, ‘Dogfight with Death!’, ‘While London Gapes in Horror!’, ‘Tunnels of Terror!’ and concluding with ‘The Devil and the Deep!’ The stories had become increasingly slap-dash, an uncomfortable blend of Marvel House Style and Fleetway generic drama, which couldn’t help but disappoint.
When the Captain reappeared it was in the comfortable style – and home – of the company’s greatest triumphs. ‘Introducing Captain Britain’ by the hero’s original scripter Chris Claremont, appeared in Marvel Team-Up #65, illustrated by John Byrne and Dave Hunt, and found Brian Braddock, on student transfer to New York the unsuspecting house-guest of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man. Before long the heroes had met, fought and then teamed-up to defeat the flamboyant hit-man Arcade.
The original US tale concluded in #66 with ‘Murderworld’ and the entire story is reprinted here in full-colour. As a temptation for Marvel completists however, I should mention that when reprinted in Super Spider-Man & Captain Britain Weekly #248-253, the story was divided into six parts and the necessary extra four splash-pages (by Byrne & Hunt and Wilson & Esposito, it looks like) are included here in historically accurate monochrome.
And then the Lion of Albion disappeared on both sides of the pond until March 1979, when a new British weekly, Hulk Comic, debuted with an eclectic mix of Marvel reprints that veteran UK editor Dez Skinn felt better suited the British market. There were also a number of all-new strips featuring Marvel characters tailored, like the reprints, to appeal to UK kids. The Hulk was there because of his TV show, Nick Fury (by babe-in-arms Steve Dillon) – because we love spies here, and the all-original pulp/gangster thriller Night Raven was by David Lloyd, John Bolton and Steve Parkhouse. And then there was The Black Knight.
This last appeared in issues #1 and 3-30 (all of which are included in this volume) plus #42-55 and #57-63 when the comic folded (and for which we must await a fourth volume). The Black Knight was a sometime member of the super-team The Mighty Avengers but in this engrossing epic, costumed shenanigans are replaced by a classical fantasy saga set in modern Britain with Tolkien-esque or perhaps Alan Garner overtones and Arthurian/Celtic roots.
Dispatched on a mission by Merlin (sometimes Merlyn here) to the wilds of Cornwall the Knight and his winged horse Valinor must battle to save the Heart and Soul of England from Modred and a host of goblins and monsters with the aid of a broken amnesiac Captain Britain.
Delivered in three-page, black and white episodes by writer Parkhouse and John Stokes (joined from #6 by penciller Paul Neary) this fantastical pot-boiler captured the imagination of the readership, became the longest running original material strip in the comic (even The Hulk itself reverted to reprints by #28) and often stole the cover spot from the lead feature.
It’s still a captivating read, beautifully realized, and the only quibble I have is that the whole thing isn’t included here. If you’re wondering, the sword-and-sorcery action ends on a cliffhanger with our heroic Captain about to regain his long-lost memories…
With the inclusion of a few pages of fascinating character designs this third volume of the chronicles of Captain Britain is a mostly wonderful mixed bag of comic delights that will charm the nostalgic and perhaps kindle the interest of newer fans of the outlying regions of the Marvel Universe. And let’s hope the next volume’s not long in coming…
By Brian K Vaughan, Adrian Alphona & Craig Yeung (Marvel)
I’m warming at last to this series about a gang of Los Angeles kids who discover their parents are a cabal of murdering super-villains bent on World Domination. At the close of the previous volume the kids lost one of their own but actually ended their parent’s plans, freeing the city from years of unconscious servitude and sending the villainous Pride to jail.
This book (collecting volume 2, issues #1-6 of the Marvel comic-book series) takes up the saga a few months later. The kids are back on the streets again having escaped from various Social Services institutions, preferring their own company to a life in “The System.” Their other reason for staying together is more worthy.
When The Pride ran LA, other villains, monsters and super-freaks kept clear. Since their incarceration the city has been plagued by the kind of scum that make New York such a weird, wild place. As the kids are unwittingly responsible for the super-criminal invasion of their turf, it’s up to them to end it…
There’s also a new recruit whose dad is one of the worst menaces of the Marvel universe, a killer time-travel sub-plot and a lot of very impressive guest-stars in this story which solidly carves a place for the kids in the greater company continuity plus a sense of undercurrent that (for me, at least) has been missing from the previous, rather superficial volumes.
By Brian K Vaughan, Adrian Alphona & Craig Yeung (Marvel)
The third chapter (collecting volume 1, issues #13-18 of the Marvel comic-book series) in the saga of children on the run from their parents who have been revealed as an evil coalition of mutants, alien, sorcerers and super-criminals kicks the saga into high gear as the youngsters stop escaping and start attacking.
So for newcomers and by way of recap: Six L.A. rich kids with nothing in common except that their parents hang out together discover that those selfsame adults are, in fact, a league of super-villains intent on world conquest. Since no parent can be trusted anyway, the kids band together to use their own powers to bring them to justice. The adults have fingers in every pie, though. As the De Facto owners of Los Angeles it takes little more than a phone call to frame the Runaways for kidnapping each other and for a particularly grisly murder.
From their cool hide-out they rescue another boy with evil parents, only to fall foul of a timeless monster, and super-heroes Cloak and Dagger first hunt, (recruited by a bent cop in the pay of those ol’ evil parents) before teaming up with them. Unfortunately, the insidious adults mind-wipe the heroes as they go for reinforcements…
This volume contains a positive flurry of frantic activity, the kids discover the reason behind their parents’ villainous coalition, find a traitor in their midst, save the world and even clear the way for the sequel in the best manner of bubblegum drama. There’s even room for plenty of fighting and vast bunches of snogging, and a few A-List super-hero guest-stars too.
As a weary old man it’s so easy to be disparaging about a new (-ish) genre-form tailored to the young, hormonal, middle-class and socially advantaged, be it comic books, TV, clothes or music. Yet I’m fairly sure that my discomfort with a lot of modern material aimed at new young consumers is the old one: lacklustre creativity soaked in varnish and dipped in glitter is no substitute for quality storytelling. Even the most naïve newcomer knows “Shiny” is not the same as “Good”.
Soap operas are generally considered to be the ass-end of drama everywhere, yet can often transcend their base origins to produce outstanding quality, shattering depth and lasting worth. And more so in comics where we’ve had this very argument for decades over not just the content but even the very form of our medium. Perhaps I’m just getting tetchy waiting for it to happen.
All that being said there is a marked and consistent improvement in this book, (except with the art which I just can’t seem to warm to, competent though it clearly is) and the story does actually improve with re-reading – especially as this UK edition is printed in the regular trade paperback size and not the annoyingly cramped and cluttered digest format. Perhaps the thing simply needs a decent amount of breathing room to work.
For something that’s a distillation of so many hybrid strands that’s actually not such a bad thing. I’d advise you to read them and decide for yourselves.
By Brian Michael Bendis, Leinil Francis Yu & Mark Morales (Marvel)
The Skrulls are shape-shifting aliens who have threatened Earth since the second issue of Fantastic Four, and have long been a cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. After decades of use and misuse the insidious invaders were made the stars of a colossal braided mega-crossover event beginning in April 2008 and running through all the company’s titles until Christmas.
The premise is simple: the would-be conquerors have undergone a mass religious conversion and are now utterly dedicated to taking Earth as their new homeworld. To this end they have replaced a number of key Earth denizens – including a number of superheroes. When the lid is lifted no defender of the Earth truly knows who is on their side…
This volume is just one of many collecting the vast number of episodes in this saga, and contains all eight issues of the core miniseries, the one-shot spin-off Who Do You Trust? and the illustrated text book Skrulls which claims to provide a listing and biography for every shape-shifter yet encountered in the Marvel Universe (but if they left any out could you tell?).
Fast-paced, well-drawn and suitably spectacular, this is a twisty-turny tale and quite enjoyable – if overly-complex in some places. When the heroes discover the plot they shift into high-gear, but everything gets really sticky when a Skrull ship crashes releasing a band of missing heroes who ought to be the originals that were replaced: but are they…?
Rather than give anything away let me just say that if you like this sort of thing you’ll love it, and a detailed familiarity is not vital to your understanding. However, for a fuller understanding, as well as the relevant 22 Secret Invasion volume that accompany this, you might want to seek out Secret Invasion: the Infiltration, Secret War (2004), Avengers Disassembled, and Annihilation volumes 1-3, as well as various Avengers: Illuminati issues.
Despite all that this is still a solid light adventure read, the kind of stuff-and-nonsense we all need occasionally and one that can honestly stand on its own two feet – or are those tentacles…?
By Michael Avon Oeming, Daniel Berman & Andrea DiVito with Laura Villari (Marvel)
A few years ago the “World’s Mightiest Heroes” were shut down and rebooted in a highly publicised event known as Avengers Disassembled. Of course it was only to replace them with both The New and The Young Avengers. The event also spilled over into the regular titles of current team members and affiliated comic-books such as the Fantastic Four and Spectacular Spider-Man ran parallel but not necessarily interconnected story-arcs to accompany the Big Show.
Said Big Show consisted of the worst day in the team’s history as a trusted comrade betrayed the World’s Mightiest Superteam resulting in the destruction of everything they held dear and the death of several members. The side-bar saga collected here ups the ante somewhat…
An Avenger since the team’s very inception, the Asgardian godling Thor has more often than not gone his own way in recent years, but this saga (collecting Thor #80-85) reunited the mythic hero with his mortal team-mates one last time as a prologue to the really-and-truly final Ragnarok story.
Any long-term fan knows that’s almost an oxymoron but in this revelatory yarn the Thunder God loses everything he holds dear and experiences the death of his entire race as a way of breaking a cycle of death and rebirth which had reduced his immortal race into nothing more than cattle for a predatory force that cannot be defeated…
The grim inevitability of this high-powered fantasy with its heroic dooms and unwavering nobility makes it one of the better post-Lee/Kirby Thor epics and effectively wipes the slate clean in a fair and decent manner for the next incarnation, especially as writers Oeming and Berman have a proven feel for the barbaric scale of mythmaking, whilst DiVito’s pictorial narrative skills blend well with Laura Villari’s colour palette to capture that end-of-everything momentum in a captivating and painterly manner.
A trifle overblown and not to everyone’s taste, this is nonetheless a great treat for saga-lovers who yearn to feel their pulses race and their hearts soar.
By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
Even more than the Fantastic Four The Mighty Thor was the arena in which Jack Kirby’s restless fascination with the Cosmic was honed and refined in dazzling graphics and captivating concepts. His string of pantheons began with a modest little fantasy title called Journey into Mystery where in the summer of 1962 a tried-and-true comicbook concept (feeble mortal transformed into God-like hero) was employed by the fledgling Marvel Comics to add a Superman analogue to their growing roster of costumed adventurers. This gloriously economical tome represents those Asgardian exploits from JiM #83-112 in clean crisp black and white for your delectation.
Journey into Mystery #83 (cover-dated August 1962) featured the tale of crippled American doctor Donald Blake who takes a vacation in Norway only to encounter the vanguard of an alien invasion. Fleeing he is trapped in a cave where he finds an old, gnarled walking stick. When in his frustration he smashes the cane into a huge boulder obstructing his escape, his puny frame is transformed into the Norse God of Thunder, the Mighty Thor! Plotted by Stan Lee, scripted by Larry Lieber and illustrated by Kirby and Joe Sinnott (at this juncture a full illustrator, Sinnott would become Kirby’s primary inker for his Marvel career) ‘The Stone Men of Saturn’ is pure early Marvel, bombastic, fast-paced, gloriously illogical and captivatingly action-packed. The hugely under-appreciated Art Simek was the letterer and logo designer.
They were making it up as they went along – not in itself a bad thing – and the infectious enthusiasm shows in the next adventure ‘The Mighty Thor Vs. the Executioner’, a “commie-busting” tale of its time with a thinly disguised Fidel Castro wasting his formidable armies in battle against our hero. Dr. Blake’s nurse Jane Foster was introduced, a bland cipher adored from afar by the timid alter-ego of mighty hero. The creative team settled as Dick Ayers replacing Sinnott, and with #85’s ‘Trapped by Loki, God of Mischief!’ the last element fell into place with the introduction of a suitably awesome arch-foe; in this case a half-brother evil magician. We also saw a new world revealed with the first hints and glimpses of the celestial otherworld and more Nordic gods.
Issue #86 introduced another recurring villain. Zarrko, bristling at the sedentary ease of 23rd century life, travelled to our time to steal an experimental “C-Bomb” forcing the God of Thunder into a stirring chase through time and battle with super-technology ‘On the Trail of the Tomorrow Man!’, whilst on his return Don Blake became a target for Soviet abductors. Those sneaky spies even managed to make Thor a ‘Prisoner of the Reds!’
‘The Vengeance of Loki’ saw the god of Evil’s flamboyant, bombastic return in #88, but ‘The Thunder God and the Thug’ was an adventure with a much more human scale as a gang boss runs riot over the city and roughshod over a good woman’s heart, giving the Asgardian a chance to demonstrate a more sophisticated and sympathetic side. Issue #90 was a total surprise to fans as the grandeur of Kirby and Ayers was replaced by the charming but drama-free art of Al Hartley, who illustrated a stock invasion tale of shape-changing aliens. ‘Trapped by the Carbon-Copy Man’ was followed a month later by ‘Sandu, Master of the Supernatural!’, with Joe Sinnott handling all the art, in a thriller starring a carnival mentalist augmented by Loki’s magic who comes close to killing our hero.
Sinnott also drew #92’s ‘The Day Loki Stole Thor’s Magic Hammer’ scripted by Robert Bernstein over Lee’s plot which moved the action fully to the mythical realm of Asgard for the first time as the hero sought to recover his stolen weapon. Kirby and Ayers returned for the Cold War thriller ‘The Mysterious Radio-Active Man!’, again plotted by Bernstein, as Mao Tse Tung unleashes an atomic assassin in retaliation for Thor thwarting China’s invasion of India. Such “Red-baiting” was common in early Marvel titles, but their inherent jingoistic silliness can’t mar the eerie beauty of the artwork. With this tale the rangy raw-boned Thunder God completed his slow metamorphosis into the husky, burly blonde bruiser that dominated any panel he was drawn in.
Sinnott illustrated the next three adventures ‘Thor and Loki Attack the Human Race!’, ‘The Demon Duplicator’ and ‘The Magic of Mad Merlin!’, but these mediocre tales of amnesia, evil doppelgangers and ancient menaces were the last of a old style of comics. Stan Lee took over the scripting with the Journey into Mystery #97 and action wedded to melodrama produced a fresh style for a developing readership.
‘The Lava Man’ was again drawn by Kirby, with the subtly textured inking of Don Heck adding depth to the tale of an invader from the subterranean realms, as a long running rift with Thor’s father Odin was established when the Lord of Asgard refused to allow his son to love the mortal Jane Foster. This acrimonious triangle was a perennial sub-plot that fuelled many attempts to humanise Thor, because already he was a hero too powerful for most villains to cope with. This issue was also notable for the launch of a spectacular back-up series. ‘Tales of Asgard – Home of the mighty Norse Gods’ gave Jack Kirby a space to indulge his fascination with legends. Initially adapting classic tales but eventually with all-new material particular to the Marvel pantheon, he built his own cosmos and mythology, which underpinned the company’s entire continuity. This first saga, scripted by Lee and inked by George Bell (AKA George Roussos) outlined the origin of the world and the creation of the World Tree Yggdrasil.
‘Challenged by the Human Cobra’ introduced the serpentine villain (bitten by a radioactive Cobra, would you believe?) in a tale by Lee and Heck, whilst Kirby, with them in attendance contributed ‘Odin Battles Ymir, King of the Ice Giants!’ a short but potent fantasy romp which presaged the cosmic wonderment of years to come. The same format held for issues #99 and #100, where the main story (the first two-part adventure in the run) introduced the bestial ‘Mysterious Mister Hyde’, and concluding ‘The Master Plan of Mr. Hyde!’ dealt with a contemporary super-villain Kirby produced ‘Surtur the Fire Demon’ and latterly (with Vince Colletta inks) ‘The Storm Giants – a tale of the Boyhood of Thor’. As always Lee scripted this increasingly influential comicbook.
JIM #101 saw Kirby finally assume complete control of the pencilling on both strips. ‘The Return of Zarrko, the Tomorrow Man’ sees Odin halve Thor’s powers for disobedience just as the futuristic felon abducts the Thunder God to help him conquer the 23rd century. Anther two-parter (the first half inked by Roussos), it was balanced by another exuberant tale of the boy Thor. ‘The Invasion of Asgard’ sees the valiant lad fight a heroic rearguard action that introduced a host of future villainous mainstays. ‘Slave of Zarrko, the Tomorrow Man’ is a tour de force epic conclusion most notable for the introduction of Chic Stone as inker. To many of us oldsters, the clean full brush lines make him The King’s best embellisher ever. This triumphant epic is balanced by the brooding short ‘Death Comes to Thor!’ as the young hero faces his greatest challenge yet. Two females that would play huge roles in his life were introduced in this brief 5-pager, the young Goddess Sif and Hela, Queen of the dead.
On a creative roll, Lee Kirby and Stone next introduced ‘The Enchantress and the Executioner’ ruthless renegade Asgardians in the front of JIM #103 and in ‘Thor’s Mission to Mirmir’ revealed how the gods created humanity, which lead to a revolutionary saga ‘Giants Walk the Earth’ in the next issue. For the first time Kirby’s imagination was given full play as Loki tricked Odin into visiting Earth, only to release ancient foes Surtur and Skagg, the Storm Giant from Asgardian bondage.
This cosmic saga saw noble gods stride the Earth battling demonic evil in a new Heroic Age, and the greater role of the Norse supporting cast was reinforced by a new Tales of Asgard strand focussing on individual Gods and Heroes. Heimdall the Sentry was first, with Don Heck inking. Issue #105-106 saw the teaming of two old foes in ‘The Cobra and Mr, Hyde’ and ‘The Thunder God Strikes Back’, another continued story packed with tension and spectacular action, which showed that Thor was swiftly growing beyond the constraints of traditional single story adventures. The respective back-ups ‘When Heimdall Failed!’ (Lee, Kirby, Roussos) and ‘Balder the Brave’ (Lee, Kirby, Colletta) further fleshed out the back-story of an Asgardian pantheon deviating more and more from the classical Eddas and Sagas kids had to plough through in schools.
JIM #107 introduced another major villain in ‘When the Grey Gargoyle Strikes’, a rare tale that highlighted the fortitude of Don Blake rather than the Thunder God, who was increasingly reducing his own alter-ego to an inconsequentiality, and the Norn Queen debuted in the quirky reinterpretation of the classic tale ‘Balder Must Die!’ illustrated by Kirby and Colletta. After months of manipulation the God of Evil once again took direct action in ‘At the Mercy of Lokj, Prince of Evil!’ With Jane a helpless pawn to Asgardian magic the willing help of new Marvel star Doctor Strange made this a captivating team-up to read, whilst ‘Trapped by the Trolls’ (inked by Colletta) showed the power and promise of tales set solely on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge. Issue #109 was another superb adventure masquerading as a plug for another new series. ‘When Magneto Strikes!’ pitted Thor against the X-Men’s greatest foe in a cataclysmic clash, but you couldn’t actually call it a team-up as the heroic mutants were never seen. The teasing hints and cropped glimpses are fascinating teasers now, but the kid I was annoyed not to have seen these new heroes. Oh… maybe that was the point?
The young Thor feature ‘Banished from Asgard’ is uncharacteristically lacklustre but the concluding part ‘The Defeat of Odin!’ in JiM #110 makes up for the silly plot with breathtaking battles scenes. The lead story in that issue is ‘Every Hand Against Him’ as Loki, the Cobra and Mr. Hyde kidnap Jane as Odin once again over-reacts to Thor’s affections for the mortal girl. The concluding part ‘The Power of the Thunder God’ features a major role for Balder the Braver, further integrating the “historical” and contemporary Asgards in a spellbinding saga of triumph and near-tragedy, whilst the Tale of Asgard co-opts a Greek myth (Antaeus if you’re asking) for ‘The Secret of Sigurd’.
This wonderfully economical black-and white compendium closes with the contents of Journey into Mystery #112. ‘The Mighty Thor Battles the Incredible Hulk!’ is a glorious gift to all those fans who perpetually ask “Who’s stronger…?” Possibly Kirby and Stone’s finest artistic moment, it details a private duel between the two super-humans that occurred during a free-for-all between The Avengers, the Sub-Mariner and the eponymous Green Goliath. The raw power of that tale is followed by ‘The Coming of Loki’, a retelling of how Odin came to adopt the baby son of Laufey, the Giant King.
These early tales of the God of Thunder show the development not only of one of Marvel’s fundamental story concepts but more importantly the creative evolution of one of the greatest imaginations in comics. Set your commonsense on pause and simply wallow in the glorious imagery and power of these classic adventures for the true secret of what makes graphic narrative a unique experience.
By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, & various (Marvel)
During the Marvel Renaissance of the early 1960’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby tried the same tactic that had worked so tellingly for DC Comics, but with mixed results. Julie Schwartz had incredible success with his revised versions of the company’s Golden Age greats, so it seemed natural to try and revive the characters that had dominated Timely/Atlas in those halcyon days. A new Human Torch had premiered as part of the revolutionary Fantastic Four, and in the fourth issue of that title the Sub-Mariner resurfaced after a twenty year amnesiac hiatus (everyone concerned had apparently forgotten the first abortive attempt to revive their superhero line in the mid 1950s).
The Torch was promptly given his own solo feature in Strange Tales from issue #101 (see Essential Human Torch vol.1, ISBN 0-7851-1309-6) and in #114 the flaming teen fought an acrobat pretending to be Captain America. The real thing promptly surfaced in Avengers #4 and after a captivating and centre-stage hogging run in that title was granted his own series as half of the “split-book” Tales of Suspense with #59 (cover-dated November 1964).
That initial outing ‘Captain America’, scripted by Stan Lee and illustrated by the staggeringly perfect team of Jack Kirby and Chic Stone is a simple fight tale as an army of thugs invades Avengers Mansion since only the one without superpowers is at home, and the next issue held more of the same, when ‘The Army of Assassins Strikes!’. ‘The Strength of the Sumo!’ was insufficient when Cap invaded Viet Nam to rescue a lost US airman and Cap took on an entire prison to thwart a ‘Break-out in Cell Block 10!’
After these gloriously simplistic romps the series took an abrupt turn and began telling tales set in World War II. ‘The Origin of Captain America’, by Lee, Kirby and Frank Ray (AKA Giacoia) recounted how physical wreck Steve Rogers was selected to be the guinea pig for a new super-soldier serum only to have the scientist responsible die in his arms, cut down by a Nazi bullet.
Now forever unique he was given the task of becoming a fighting symbol and guardian of America, based as a regular soldier in a boot camp. It was there he was unmasked by Camp Mascot Bucky Barnes, who blackmailed the hero into making the boy his sidekick. The next issue (Tales of Suspense #64) kicked off a string of spectacular thrillers as the heroes defeated the spies Sando and Omar in ‘Among Us, Wreckers Dwell!’ and Chic Stone returned – as did Cap’s greatest foe – for the next tale ‘The Red Skull Strikes!’
‘The Fantastic Origin of the Red Skull!’ saw the series swing into high gear as sub-plots and characterisation were added to the all-out action and spectacle. ‘Lest Tyranny Triumph!’ and ‘The Sentinel and the Spy!’ (both inked by Giacoia) combined espionage and mad science in a plot to murder Winston Churchill, and the heroic duo stayed in England for ‘Midnight in Greymoor Castle!’ (with art by Dick Ayers over Kirby’s layouts – which are very rough pencils that break down the story elements on a page) and the second part ‘If This be Treason!’ had Golden Age and Buck Rogers artist George Tuska perform the same function. The final part (and the last wartime adventure) was ‘When You Lie Down with Dogs…!’ which added Joe Sinnott inks to the mix for a rousing conclusion to this frantic tale of traitors, madmen and terror weapons.
It was back to the present for Tales of Suspense #72 and Lee, Kirby and Tuska revealed that Cap had been telling war stories to his fellow Avengers for the last nine months. ‘The Sleeper Shall Awake!’ began a classic adventure as a Nazi super-robot activates twenty years after Germany’s defeat to exact a world-shattering vengeance. Continuing in ‘Where Walks the Sleeper!’ and concluding in ‘The Final Sleep!’ this masterpiece of tension and suspense perfectly demonstrated the indomitable nature of this perfect American hero.
Dick Ayers returned with John Tartaglione inking ‘30 Minutes to Live!’ which introduced both the Batroc the Leaper and a mysterious girl who would eventually become Cap’s long-term girl-friend, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter, in a taut 2-part countdown to disaster ending with ‘The Gladiator, The Girl and the Glory’, illustrated by John Romita (Senior). This was the first tale which had no artistic input from Jack Kirby, but he laid out the next issue (TOS #77) for Romita and Giacoia. ‘If a Hostage Should Die!’ again returned to WWII and hinted a both a lost romance and a tragedy to come.
‘Them!’ returned Kirby to full pencils and Giacoia to the regular ink spot as Cap teamed with Nick Fury in the first of the Star-Spangled Avenger’s many adventures as a (more-or-less) Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. It was followed by ‘The Red Skull Lives!’ as his arch nemesis returned from the grave to menace the Free World again. He was initially aided by the subversive technology group AIM, but stole their ultimate weapon in ‘He Who Holds the Cosmic Cube!’ (inked by Don Heck) and ‘The Red Skull Supreme!’
‘The Maddening Mystery of the Inconceivable Adaptoid!’ pitted Cap against AIM’s artificial life-form, capable of becoming an exact duplicate of its victim in a tale of psychological warfare. ‘Enter… The Tumbler!’ (inked by Ayers) and ‘The Super-Adaptoid!’ completed an epic of breathtaking action that further cemented the links between the various Marvel comics, building a shared continuity would carry the company to market dominance in a few short years.
‘The Blitzkrieg of Batroc!’ and ‘The Secret!’ returned to the earliest all-action, overwhelming odds yarns and ‘Wanted: Captain America’ (by Roy Thomas, Jack Sparling and Joe Sinnott) was a lacklustre interval involving a frame-up before Gil Kane had his first run on the character with ‘If Bucky Lives…!’, ‘Back From the Dead!’, ‘…And Men Shall Call Him Traitor!’ and ‘The Last Defeat!’ (TOS #88-91, these last two inked by Sinnott) in a superb drama of blackmail and betrayal starring the Red Skull.
Kirby and Sinnott were back for ‘Before My Eyes Nick Fury Died!’, ‘Into the Jaws of… Aim!’ and ‘If This Be… Modok!’ as the hero fought a giant brain-being manufactured purely for killing. ‘A Time to Die… A Time to Live’ and ‘To Be Reborn!’ has the hero retire and reveal his secret identity, only to jump straight back into the saddle with S.H.I.E.L.D. for #97’s ‘And So It Begins…’ a four part tale that finished in issue #100, with which number Tales of Suspense became simply Captain America. Guest starring the Black Panther, it told of the return of long-dead Baron Zemo and an orbiting Death Ray.
‘The Claws of the Panther!’ was inked by both Sinnott and the great Syd Shores, who became the regular inker with ‘The Man Who Lived Twice!’, whilst that premier hundredth issue (how weird is that?) used the extra page length to retell the origin before concluding a superb thriller with ‘This Monster Unmasked!’
Captain America #101-102 saw the return of the Red Skull and another awesome Nazi revenge weapon in ‘When Wakes The Sleeper!’ and ‘The Sleeper Strikes!’.
This volume concludes with an extra adventure from his actual war career. ‘Captain America and the Terror That Was Devil’s Island’ is from Captain America Comics #10, 1941, written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Joe Simon.
These are tales of dauntless courage and unmatchable adventure, fast paced and superbly illustrated, which rightly returned Captain America to the heights that his Golden Age compatriots the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner never regained. They are pure escapist magic. Great, great stuff for the eternally young at heart.