Trish Trash Rollergirl of Mars: The Collected Edition


By Jessica Abel, with Lydia Roberts & Walter various (Super Genius/Papercutz)
ISBN: 978-1-5458-0167-3 (TPB)               978-1-5458-0166-6 (HB)

Our fascination with Mars has never faltered and now that we seem within touching distance, the Red Planet’s allure and presence in our fiction has never been more broad-based and healthily imaginative. Amidst all the recent TV, movie and literary product, one of the most engaging treatments has been a comics serial detailing the life of an extraordinary young woman in exceedingly trying times.

After Earth collapsed in an ecological and economic meltdown, the recently arrived first settlers on Mars became trapped under an increasingly burdensome fixed economic structure and oppressive corporate plutocracy. Two hundred years later, an entire class of indentured servants eke out a fraught existence, harvesting water and food with machines rented from Arex (“we’re the air that you breathe”). The air they don’t breathe is meagre, toxic, dust-filled and slightly radioactive…

On Mars, everything belongs to the company, and people usually go from cradle to grave in crippling debt. There is, ostensibly, a chance to escape: mandatory offworld mining missions to the asteroid belt. These Temporary Labor Assignments, however, are looked on as a quick ticket to certain death…

All tyrannies need bread and circuses though. On Mars that’s Hoverderby.

Based on the ancient Earth entertainment, teams of women race around a hover track in flying boots, scoring points by beating each other up. It’s the planet’s most popular spectator sport and Arex own that too…

Trish Nupindu is seven-and-a-half (on Mars: in Earth terms that’s 15), a smart, recently-orphaned kid who’s really good with engines and mechanical systems. Stuck on her aunt’s water farm, she dreams of becoming a Hoverderby star and is utterly discontented with the state of her existence…

All “Martys” reel from the force of crushing, inescapable poverty and Trish believes her only chance of getting out from under a system stacked from the get-go against ordinary people is to become a media star of the great sport.

Bold and impatient, she sneaks off to join the local team and is suckered into a binding intern’s contract, even though she’s under-age…

Trish doesn’t even get to play: the team manager wants her because she’s good at repairing the hoverboots continually malfunctioning due to the all-pervasive dust…

The world turns upside down after she and her avowed-revolutionary pal Marq discover a native Martian. Recalled from near-death, the mythical creature opens their eyes to a whole new world and “her” secrets will change forever not just the way Hoverderby is played but the very economic balance of power on the Red Planet… if the ruthless upper echelons of Arex don’t stop them first…

The inspirational drama is backed up by extensive supplemental features delivered in the manner of wiki pages such as the rules of Hoverderby; Derby Gear: Then and Now; illustrated specifications for Radsuits; fact-features on The Homestead Debate, Native Martians, Ares Collective Statement of Debt (ACSOD), TLAs, Asteroid Mining and legendary water miner Ismail Khan, faux kids’ comics “True Tales of the Early Colonists” and a complete Timeline of Mars Colonization.

Jessica Abel has been wowing readers and winning prizes since 1997 when she took both the Harvey and Lulu awards for Best New Talent. Her previous graphic delights include the fabulous Artbabe, Growing Gills, Life Sucks, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, collections Soundtrack and Mirror, Window plus the Harvey-winning La Perdida.

Trish Trash has been gradually unfolding since 2016: a sublime blend of subversive human drama and hard science fiction thriller with a supremely human and believable lead taking charge and changing the world. After three previous album releases, the entire saga is now available in oversized (218 x 284 mm) hardback, paperback and eBook editions, at least one of which you really must see ASAP.
© Jessica Abel and Dargaud. All rights reserved. All other editorial material © 2018 by Super Genius.

Trish Trash Rollergirl of Mars: The Collected Edition will be released January 22nd 2019 and is available for pre-order now.

JLA Classified: New Maps of Hell


By Warren Ellis, Jackson Guice & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0944-5 (TPB)

It’s been quite a while since we covered a good old-fashioned straightforward and no-strings-attached superhero blockbuster: one which any old punter can pick up with no worry over continuity or identification and where good guys and bad guys are clearly defined.

That’s due in large part to the fact that nobody really does those anymore, but at least it gives me the opportunity to take another look at a tale I didn’t much like when it first came out in 2006, but which has definitely grown on me with every re-read.

Produced at a time when the Justice League of America was enjoying immense popularity and benefiting from a major reboot courtesy of Grant Morrison, this politically-barbed, end-of-the-world epic – starring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Oracle and Martian Manhunter – originally ran in issues #10-15 of spin-off title JLA Classified (cover-dated September 2005 to February 2006), with gritty futurist super-scribe Warren Ellis upping the angst-quotient on a hoary old plot whilst hyper-realist illustrator Jackson Guice adds a terrifying veracity to events.

The drama begins as Clark Kent and wife Lois Lane stumble onto a dirty little secret. Assorted, and one would assume unconnected, scientists and bean-counters at President Luthor’s Lexcorp conglomerate have been committing suicide in large numbers and now, the intrepid reporters suspect something very nasty is going on…

In Gotham City, Batman learns the police have been turned away from an extremely unconventional crime-scene by Feds and a private security company, and he too starts digging…

In the Bermuda triangle, a group of researchers are invited to the Amazon’s ancient library of knowledge only to die when the sky-floating island explodes in a horrendous detonation.

Legacy Flash Wally West has terrible dreams of his beloved predecessor Barry Allen which lead him to a similar catastrophic conflagration, whilst Green Lantern Kyle Rayner ruminates on a primordial legend of the Corps’ origins until a wave of explosions rouse him to action.

In the ruins of each disaster the scattered, hard-pressed heroes find an ancient parchment of alien hieroglyphs and, when Superman recovers another page of the same from the shredded remnants of a plummeting space station, the call goes out to activate the League…

Tasking cyber-savant Oracle and aged Martian sole survivor J’onn J’onzz with uncovering information, the team learn of an antediluvian scourge which wracked the red planet millions of years past. A God/Devil which tested a species right to survive and heralded its coming through a written code…

Moreover, Luthor’s scientists have found such writings in remnants of ancient Sumeria and begun deciphering the text…

Mobilising to stop the summoning, our heroes confront Luthor in the White House but are too late. In Las Vegas the bowels of Hell vomit horrors into the streets and as the frantic super squad rush to battle they are snatched up, separated by the malign entity which has spent eons traversing the universe testing the worth of intelligent races and individually putting them to their sorest tests.

However, the monstrous terror has never faced beings like the JLA before, or a mind like Batman’s, and soon the horror’s own darkest secret is exposed and its fatal weakness exploited to devastating effect…

With a painted cover gallery by Michael Stribling, this book – now also available in eBook formats – offers simple, solid Fights ‘n’ Tights fun gilded with a sly and cynical post-modern edge: a sound example of costumed action blockbuster comics at their best.
© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Two-In-One Epic Collection volume 1 1973-1976: Cry Monster


By Steve Gerber, Bill Mantlo, Len Wein, Mike Friedrich, Chris Claremont, Roy Thomas, Roger Slifer, Marv Wolfman, Scott Edelman, Tony Isabella, Jim Starlin, Gil Kane, Sal Buscema, George Tuska, Herb Trimpe, Bob Brown, Ron Wilson, Arvell Jones & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1332-8 (TPB)

Imagination isn’t everything. As Marvel slowly grew to a position of dominance in the wake of the losing their two most innovative and inspirational creators, they did so less by experimentation and more by expanding and exploiting proven concepts and properties.

The only real exception to this was the en masse creation of horror titles in response to the industry down-turn in super-hero sales – a move expedited by a rapid revision in the wordings of the increasingly ineffectual Comics Code Authority rules.

The concept of team-up books – an established star pairing, or battling – preferably both – with less well-selling company characters was not new when Marvel decided to award their most popular hero the lion’s share of this new title, but they wisely left their options open by allocating an occasional substitute lead in the Human Torch. In those long-lost days, editors were acutely conscious of potential over-exposure – and since super-heroes were actually in a decline, they may well have been right.

After the runaway success of Spider-Man’s Marvel Team-Up the House of Ideas carried on the trend with a series starring bashful, blue-eyed Ben Grimm – the Fantastic Four’s most iconic member – beginning with a brace of test runs in Marvel Feature before graduating to its own somewhat over-elaborate title.

This trade paperback and eBook compendium gathers together the contents of Marvel Feature #11-12, Marvel Two-In-One #1-19, 22-25 and Marvel Team-Up #47, covering the period September 1973 – September 1976, and kicks off with a perennial favourite pairing as the Thing again clashes with the Hulk in ‘Cry: Monster! (by Len Wein, Jim Starlin & Joe Sinnott) wherein Kurrgo, Master of Planet X and the lethal Leader manipulate the blockbusting brutes into duking it out – ostensibly to settle a wager – but with both misshapen masterminds concealing hidden agendas…

That ever-inconclusive yet cataclysmic confrontation strands Ben in the Nevada desert where Mike Friedrich, Starlin & Sinnott promptly drop him into the middle of the ongoing war against mad Titan Thanos as Iron Man – helped by the Thing – crushes monstrous alien invaders in ‘The Bite of the Blood Brothers!’ (#12, November 1973); another spectacular and painfully pretty, all-action punch-up.

Still stuck in the desert when the dust settles Ben eventually treks to an outpost of civilisation just in time to be diverted to Florida for Marvel Two-In-One #1 (January 1974). Here Steve Gerber, Gil Kane & Sinnott magnificently reveal the ‘Vengeance of the Molecule Man!’ as Ben learns some horrifying home truths about what constitutes being a monster, battling with and beside ghastly grotesque anti-hero Man-Thing.

With the second issue Gerber cannily traded a superfluous supporting character from the Man-Thing series to add some much-needed depth to the team-up title. ‘Manhunters from the Stars!’ pits Ben, old enemy Sub-Mariner and the Aquatic Avenger’s powerful cousin Namorita against each other and aliens hunting the emotionally and intellectually retarded superboy Wundarr in another dynamically intoxicating tale illustrated by Kane & Sinnott. That case also leaves the Thing de facto guardian of the titanic teenaged tot…

Sal Buscema signed on as penciller with #3 with the Rocky Ranger joining the Man Without Fear ‘Inside Black Spectre!’: a crossover instalment of an extended epic then playing out in Daredevil #108-112 (this action-packed fight-fest featuring the swashbuckler and the Black Widow occurring between the second and third chapters), after which ‘Doomsday 3014!’ (Gerber, Buscema & Frank Giacoia) finds Ben and Captain America catapulted into the 31st century to save Earth from enslavement by the reptilian Brotherhood of Badoon, leaving Wundarr with Namorita for the foreseeable future…

The furious future-shocker concluded in MTIO #5 as the Guardians of the Galaxy (the future team not the modern movie sensations) climb aboard the Freedom Rocket to help the time-lost heroes liberate New York before returning home. The overthrow of the aliens was completed by another set of ancient heroes in Defenders #26-29 in case you’re the kind of reader that craves comics closure…).

Marvel Two-In-One #6 (November 1974) began a complex crossover tale with the aforementioned Defenders as Dr. Strange and the Thing are embroiled in a cosmic event which begins with a subway busker’s harmonica and leads inexorably to a ‘Death-Song of Destiny!’ (Gerber, George Tuska & Mike Esposito) before Asgardian outcasts Enchantress and the Executioner attempt to seize control of unfolding events in #7’s ‘Name That Doom!’ (pencilled by Sal Buscema), only to be thwarted by Grimm and the valiant Valkyrie. There’s enough of an ending here for casual readers but fans and completists will want to hunt down Defenders #20 or one of many collected volumes for the full story…

Back here, though, issue #8 teamed the Thing and supernatural sensation Ghost Rider in a quirky yet compelling Yuletide yarn for a ‘Silent Night… Deadly Night!’ (Gerber, Buscema & Esposito) wherein the audacious Miracle Man tries to usurp a very special birth in a stable…

Gerber moved on after plotting the Thor team-up ‘When a God goes Mad!’ for Chris Claremont to script and Herb Trimpe & Joe Giella to finish: a frankly meagre effort with the Puppet Master and Radion the Atomic Man making a foredoomed powerplay, but issue #10 serves up a slice of inspired espionage action with Ben and the Black Widow battling suicidal terrorist Agamemnon. He plans to detonate the planet’s biggest nuke in the blistering thriller ‘Is This the Way the World Ends?’ by Claremont, Bob Brown & Klaus Janson.

Marvel Two-In-One had quickly become a clearing house for cancelled series and uncompleted storylines. Supernatural star The Golem had featured in Strange Tales #174, 176 and 177 (June-December 1974) before being summarily replaced mid-story by Adam Warlock and MTIO #11 provided plotter Roy Thomas, scripter Bill Mantlo and artists Brown & Jack Abel opportunity to end the saga when ‘The Thing Goes South’ results in stony bloke and animated statue finally crushing the insidious plot of demonic wizard Kaballa.

Young Ron Wilson began his lengthy association with the series and the Thing in #12 as Iron Man and Ben tackle out of control, mystically-empowered ancient Crusader Prester John in ‘The Stalker in the Sands!’; a blistering desert storm written by Mantlo and inked by Vince Colletta, after which Luke Cage, Power Man pops in to help stop a giant monster in ‘I Created Braggadoom!, the Mountain that Walked like a Man!’: an old fashioned homage scripted by Roger Slifer & Len Wein, after which Mantlo, Trimpe & John Tartaglione collaborate on a spooky encounter with spectres and demons in #14’s ‘Ghost Town!’ This moody mission is shared with bellicose newcomer The Son of Satan

Mantlo, Arvell Jones & Dick Giordano bring on ‘The Return of the Living Eraser!’: a dimension-hopping invasion yarn introducing Ben to Morbius, the Living Vampire before a canny crossover epic begins with the Thing and Ka-Zar plunging ‘Into the Savage Land!’ to dally with dinosaurs and defeat resource-plunderers, after which the action switches to New York as Spider-Man joins the party in MTIO #17 to combat ‘This City… Afire!’ (Mantlo, Sal Buscema & Esposito) when a mutated madman transports an active volcano from Antarctica to the Hudson River with the cataclysmic conclusion (from Marvel Team-Up #47) following, wherein Mantlo, Wilson & Dan Adkins reveal how the day is saved in fine style with ‘I Have to Fight the Basilisk!’

Another short-changed supernatural serial was finally sorted out in MTIO #18. ‘Dark, Dark Demon-Night!’ by Mantlo, Scott Edelman, Wilson, Jim Mooney & Adkins, sees mystical watchdog The Scarecrow escape from its painted prison to foil a demonic invasion with the reluctant assistance of the Thing, after which Tigra the Were-Woman slinks into Ben’s life to vamp a favour and crush a sinister scheme by a rogue cat creature in ‘Claws of the Cougar!’ by Mantlo, Sal Buscema, & Don Heck.

This initial compendium also includes house ads, and loads of original art and covers from Kane, Wilson and Buscema to seal a splendid deal. These stories from Marvel’s Middle Period are of variable quality but nonetheless all are honest efforts to entertain and exhibit a dedicated drive to please. Whilst artistically the work varies from adequate to quite superb, most fans of frantic Fights ‘n’ Tights genre would find little to complain about.

Although not really a book for casual or more maturely-oriented readers there’s lots of fun on hand and young readers will have a blast, so why not add this titanic tome to your straining superhero bookshelves?
© 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Flash Gordon Volume 1


By Alex Raymond with Don Moore (Checker BPG)
ISBN: 978-0-97416-643-8 (HB)

By many lights Flash Gordon is the most influential comic strip in the world. When the hero debuted on Sunday January 7th 1934 (with the superb Jungle Jim running as a supplementary “topper” strip) as an answer to the revolutionary, inspirational, but clunky Buck Rogers of Philip Nolan & Dick Calkins (which also began on January 7th but in 1929), a new element was added to the wonderment: Classical Lyricism.

Where Rogers had traditional adventures and high science concepts, the new feature reinterpreted Fairy Tale, Heroic Epics and Mythology, spectacularly draping them in the trappings of the contemporary future, with varying ‘Rays’, ‘Engines’ and ‘Motors’ substituting for trusty swords and lances – although there were also plenty of those – and exotic craft and contraptions standing in for Galleons, Chariots and Magic Carpets.

Most important of all, the sheer artistic talent of Raymond, his compositional skills, fine line-work, eye for concise, elegant detail and just plain genius for drawing beautiful people and things, swiftly made this the strip that all young artists swiped from.

When all-original comic books began a few years later, literally dozens of talented kids used the clean lined Romanticism of Gordon as their model and ticket to future success in the field of adventure strips. Most of the others went with Milton Caniff’s expressionistic masterpiece Terry and the Pirates (which also began in 1934 – and he’ll get his go another day).

Thankfully there are a few collections knocking about, but I’m plumping here for the 2003 Checker hardcover which combines quality reproduction with affordability…

The very first tale begins with a rogue planet about to smash into the Earth. As panic grips the planet, polo player Flash and fellow passenger Dale Arden narrowly escape disaster when a meteor fragment downs the airplane they are on. They land on the estate of tormented genius Dr. Hans Zarkov, who imprisons them on the rocket-ship he has built. His plan? To fly the ship directly at the astral invader and deflect it from Earth by crashing into it!

And that’s just in the first, 13-panel episode. ‘On the Planet Mongo’ ran every Sunday until April 15th 1934, when, according to this wonderful full-colour book, second adventure ‘Monsters of Mongo’ began, promptly followed by ‘Tournaments…’ and ‘Caverns of Mongo’.

To the readers back then, of course, there were no such artificial divisions. There was just one continuous, unmissable Sunday appointment with sheer wonderment.

The machinations of the utterly evil but magnetic Ming, emperor of the fantastic wandering planet; Flash’s battles and alliances with all the myriad exotic races subject to the Emperor’s will and the gradual victory over oppression captivated America, and the World, in tales that seemed a direct contrast to the increasingly darker reality in the days before World War II.

In short order the Earthlings become firm friends – and in the case of Flash and Dale, much more – as they encounter beautiful, cruel Princess Aura, the Red Monkey Men, Lion Men, Shark Men, Dwarf Men, King Vultan and the Hawkmen.

The rebellion against Ming begins with the awesome ‘Tournaments of Mongo’, a sequence spanning November 25th to February 24th 1935 – and where Raymond seemed to simply explode with confidence.

It was here that the true magic began, with every episode more spectacular than the last. Without breaking step Raymond moved on, and the next tale, which leaves this book on something of a cliffhanger, sees our hero enter ‘The Caverns of Mongo’.

Don Moore “assisted” Raymond with the writing, beginning soon after the strip first gained popularity, and Moore remained after Raymond departed. The artist joined the Marines in February 1944, and the last page he worked on was published on April 30th of that year. Mercifully, that still leaves a decade’s worth of spectacular, majestic adventure for us to enjoy. Why don’t you join me?
© 2003 King Features Syndicate Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc.

The Adventures of Jo, Zette & Jocko: The Valley of the Cobras


By Hergé, translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont UK/Mammoth)
ISBN: 978-1-4052-1244-1 (HB)                    978-0-74970-385-1 (PB)

George Remi, world famous as Hergé, had a long creative connection to Catholicism. At the behest of Abbot Norbert Wallez, editor of Belgian Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siécle, he had created Tintin before moving on to such strips as the mischievous Quick and Flupke, Tim the Squirrel in the Far West’, ‘The Amiable Mr. Mops’, ‘Tom and Millie’ and ‘Popol Out West’ – all while continuing and expanding the globe-trotting adventures of the dauntless boy reporter and his faithful little dog.

In 1935, between working on serialised Tintin epics The Blue Lotus and The Broken Ear, Remi was approached by Father Courtois, director of the French weekly newspaper Coeurs Vaillants (Valiant Hearts). The paper already carried the daily exploits of Hergé’s undisputed star-turn, but Courtois also wanted a strip depicting solid family values and situations that the seemingly-orphaned and independent boy reporter was never exposed to.

He also presumably wanted something less subversive than the mischievous, trouble-making working-class boy rascals Quick and Flupke

The proposed feature needed a set of characters typifying a decent, normal family: A working father, a housewife and mother, young boy, a sister, even a pet. Apparently inspired by a toy monkey called Jocko, Hergé devised the family Legrand.

Jacques was an engineer, and son Jo and daughter Zette were average kids; bright, brave, honest, smart and yet still playful. Mother stayed home, cooking and being rather concerned rather a lot. They had a small, feisty monkey for a pet – although I suspect as Jocko was tailless, he might have been a baby chimpanzee, which “As Any Fule Kno” is actually a species of ape.

The first adventure was a two-volume treasure: ‘The Secret Ray’ – only once published in English and consequently rarer than Hen’s teeth or monkey feathers. A ripping yarn of scientific bandits, gangsters, mad professors, robots and, regrettably, some rather ethnically unsound incidences of cannibal savages, this is very much a product of its time in too many respects.

Although Hergé came to deeply regret (and wherever possible amend) his many early uses of that era’s racial stereotyping, the island dwelling natives in Le “Manitoba” Ne Répond Plus and L’ Éruption Du Karamako (which originally ran in Coeurs Vaillants from January 19th 1936 to June 1937) will now always be controversial.

It’s a true pity that such masterful and joyous work has to be viewed with caution, read strictly in context and must be ascribed subtext and values which may never have been intended, merely because the medium is pictorial and its meaning passively acquired rather than textual, and which can therefore only be decoded by the conscious effort of reading.

I also wonder how much was a quiet, sensitive artist led by an aggressively proselytising, missionary Church’s doctrine and policy…

How much Church opposition was there to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935 for example? And don’t get me started on Nazi Germany and the Vatican…

Sorry. Rant brakes have been applied now…

The last completed adventure of the boldly capable Legrand family came out in the 1950’s, when Hergé was at the peak of his creative powers. Although he found the concept a difficult one to work with, devoid of the opportunities for satire or social commentary, the wholesome derring-do of this series still provides thrilling and funny entertainment for kids of all ages.

Whilst vacationing in the Alps, Jo and Zette inadvertently fall foul of the whimsical and capricious Maharajah of Gopal, who is infuriated that they are better skiers than he. Matters only worsen when Jo accidentally hits the Maharajah with a snowball.

The spoiled, rich bully’s appalling behaviour escalates until eventually their father Jacques administers a long overdue spanking to the middle-aged potentate which completely changes his attitude. The much friendlier Maharajah promptly commissions the engineer to construct a bridge across the fabled Valley of the Cobras that divides his mountainous kingdom.

As the family embark for the sub-continent, all are unaware that the villainous Prime Minister of Gopal has colluded with a greedy Fakir to sabotage the project…

Begun in 1939 but shelved for nearly two decades, this is still a light exuberant romp, full of thrills and packed with laughs, executed with the captivating artistry that has made Tintin a global phenomenon. This is a book any child will adore and it baffles me why it and its companion volumes are out of print. Hopefully not for long though
© 1957, 2007 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai. All rights reserved. English text © 1986, 2005 Egmont UK Limited. All rights reserved.

Incredible Hulk Marvel Masterworks volume 7


By Roy Thomas, Harlan Ellison, Gary Friedrich, Herb Trimpe, Sal Buscema, Dick Ayers, John Severin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6668-9 (HB)

As the 1970s opened the Incredible Hulk had settled into a comfortable – if always excessively and spectacularly destructive – niche. The globe-trotting formula saw tragic Bruce Banner hiding and seeking cures for his gamma-transformative curse, alternately aided or hunted by prospective father-in-law US General “Thunderbolt” Ross and a variety of guest-star heroes and villains.

Herb Trimpe had made the character his own, displaying a penchant for explosive action and an unparalleled facility for drawing technology – especially honking great ordnance and vehicles. Scripter Roy Thomas – unofficial custodian of Marvel’s burgeoning shared-universe continuity – played the afflicted Jekyll/Hyde card for maximum angst and ironic heartbreak even as he continually injected the Jade Juggernaut into the lives of other stalwarts of Marvel’s growing pantheon…

This chronologically-curated hardback and eBook compendium re-presents issues #135-144 plus a crossover tale from Avengers #88 and a delightful surprise from Marvel Super-Heroes #16 (September 1968), encompassing cover-dates January to October 1971 and opens – after Thomas’ Introduction shares a few more intimate behind-the-scenes secrets – with Incredible Hulk #122.

Inked by Sal Buscema, one of the strangest Marvel team-ups occurred in ‘Descent into the Time-Storm!’ as Kang the Conqueror dispatches the Jade Juggernaut to the dog-days of World War I to prevent the Avengers’ ancestors from being born, only to fall foul of the enigmatic masked aviator known as the Phantom Eagle.

Apparently as the result of a Gerry Conway suggestion, Moby Dick (among other cross-media classics) was then homaged in ‘Klattu! The Behemoth From Beyond Space!’ and ‘The Stars, Mine Enemy!’ (this last inked by Mike Esposito) as a vengeance-crazed starship captain pursues the Brobdingnagian alien beast that had maimed him, consequently press-ganging the Hulk in the process and pitting him against old foe the Abomination.

It was back to Earth and another old enemy in ‘…Sincerely, the Sandman!’ (inked by Sam Grainger) as the vicious villain turns Banner’s true love Betty Ross to brittle, fragile glass, whilst #139’s ‘Many Foes Has the Hulk!’ looks in on the Leader’s latest attempt to kill his brutish nemesis: by exhaustion, with seemingly hundreds of old villains attacking the man-monster all at once…

A most impressive crossover follows as Harlan Ellison, Thomas, Sal Buscema & Jim Mooney craft ‘The Summons of Psyklop!’ for Avengers #88 (May 1971) wherein an insectoid servant of the Elder Gods abducts the Hulk to fuel their resurrection… This leads directly into Incredible Hulk #140 and landmark yarn ‘The Brute that Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom’ (pencilled & inked by Grainger over Trimpe’s layouts). Trapped on a sub-atomic world, Banner’s intellect and the Hulk’s body are reconciled, and he becomes a barbarian hero to an appreciative populace, and the lover of the perfect princess Jarella, only to be snatched away by Psyklop at the moment of his greatest happiness.

The sudden return to full-sized savagery is the insectoid’s undoing and the Hulk resumes his ghastly existence… at least until #141 when an experimental psychologist provides a means to drain the Hulk’s gamma-energy and utilise it to restore the crystalline Betty.

He even uses the remaining gamma force to turn himself into a superhero in ‘His Name is … Samson!’ (with the wonderful John Severin inking).

Next comes a satirical poke at “Radical Chic” and the return of the “feminist” villain Valkyrie when the Hulk is made a media cause celebre by Manhattan’s effete elite in the oddly charming ‘They Shoot Hulks, Don’t They?’

But don’t fret, there’s plenty of monumental mayhem as well…

This titanic tome terminates with an inevitable but long-delayed clash as the Green Goliath battles Doctor Doom in a two-part epic begun by Thomas, Dick Ayers & Severin wherein the hunted Banner finds ‘Sanctuary!’ in New York City’s Latverian Embassy. The deal is a bad one, however, since the Iron Dictator proceeds to enslave the Gamma scientist for his bomb-making knowledge in an attempt to make his awesome alter ego into an unstoppable war machine…

The scheme goes awry in ‘The Monster and the Madman!’ (scripted by Gary Friedrich over Thomas’ plot) as the brainwashed Banner shucks his mind-warped conditioning – thanks to Doom’s conflicted consort Valeria – just in time for the Hulk to deliver a salutary lesson in mayhem throughout the dictator’s domain.

Did I say it was all over? Not so as wrapping up is the cover to Hulk Annual #3 and original artwork by Ayers & Severin as well as the debut tale of ‘The Phantom Eagle’ by Friedrich & Trimpe as seen in Marvel Super-Heroes #16.

It’s March 1917 and barnstorming aviator Karl Kaufman chafes at his inability to enlist in the US Army Air Corps. America is not in the Great War yet, but everyone knows it’s coming and Karl’s best friend cannot understand his pal’s reticence. Despite a crash-created infirmity, Rex Griffin signed up immediately but doesn’t realise that Karl can’t be an allied air warrior until he has smuggled his German parents out of the Fatherland and beyond the reach of reprisals…

All too suddenly the war comes to Karl as, while testing his new super-plane, he encounters a gigantic Fokker-carrying zeppelin over Long Island Sound, and realizes the Kaiser has launched an invasion of America…

Mobilising his meagre resources and masked as a Phantom Eagle, Karl takes to the skies but his sortie, although successful, will cost him dearly…

The Hulk is one of the most well-known comic characters on Earth, and these stories, as much as the movies, TV shows and action figures, are the reason why. For an uncomplicated, honestly vicarious experience of Might actually being Right, you can’t do better than these yarns so why not Go Green.
© 1970, 1971, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! volume 1


By Mike Kunkel, Art Baltazar, Franco, Byron Vaughns, Ken Branch & Stephen DeStefano (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2248-2

After the runaway success of Jeff Smith’s magnificent reinvention of the original Captain Marvel (see Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil) it was simply a matter of time before this latest iteration won its own title in the monthly marketplace. What was a stroke of sheer genius was to place the new Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! under the bright and shiny aegis of the company’s young reader imprint – what used to be the Cartoon Network umbrella.

In a most familiar world, slightly askew of the mainstream DC Universe, these frantically ebullient and utterly contagious tales of the orphan Batson and his obnoxious, hyperactive little sister – both gifted by an ancient mage with the powers of the gods – can play out in wild and woolly semi-isolation hampered by nothing except the page count…

Billy Batson is a homeless kid with a murky past and a glorious destiny. One night he follows a mysterious figure into an abandoned subway station and met the wizard Shazam, who grants him the ability to turn into an adult superhero called Captain Marvel. Gifted with the wisdom of Solomon, strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, power of Zeus, courage of Achilles and speed of Mercury, the lad is despatched into the world to do good, a noble if immature boy in a super man’s body.

Accompanied by talking tiger-spirit Mr. Tawky Tawny, Billy tracks down his missing little sister, but whilst battling evil genius Dr. Sivana (US Attorney General and would-be ruler of the universe) he impetuously causes a ripple in the world’s magical fabric through which monsters and ancient perils occasionally slip through. Now, the reunited orphans are trying to live relatively normal lives, but finding the going a little tough…

Firstly, without adults around, Billy often has to masquerade as his own dad and when he’s not at school he’s the breadwinner, earning a living as a boy-reporter at radio and TV station WHIZ. Moreover, little Mary also has access to the Power of Shazam, and she’s a lot smarter than he is in using it… and a real pain in Billy’s neck.

Mike Kunkel, inspired creator of the simply lovely Herobear and the Kid, leads off this collection (gathering the first six issues of the much-missed monthly comic-book for readers of all ages): writing and drawing a breakneck, riotous romp reintroducing the new Marvel Family to any new readers and, by virtue of that pesky rift in the cosmic curtain, recreating the Captain’s greatest foe: Black Adam.

This time the evil predecessor of the World’s Mightiest Mortal is a powerless but truly vile brat: a bully who returns to Earth after millennia in limbo ready to cause great mischief – but he can’t remember his own magic word…

This hilarious tale has just the right amount of dark underpinning as the atrocious little thug stalks Billy and Mary, trying to wheedle and eventually torture the secret syllables from them, and when inevitably Black Adam regains his mystic might and frees the sinister Seven Deadly Evils of Mankind from their imprisonment on the wizard’s Rock of Eternity, the stage is set for a classic confrontation.

Pitched perfectly at the young reader, with equal parts danger, comedy, sibling rivalry and the regular outwitting of adults, this first storyline screams along with a brilliantly clever feel-good finish…

From issue #5 the writing team of Art Baltazar and Franco (responsible for the incomparably compulsive madness of Tiny Titans and Superman Family) take over, and artists Byron Vaughns & Ken Branch handled the first bombastic tale as convict Doctor Sivana unleashes the destructive giant robot Mr. Atom to cover his escape from prison.

The story-section concludes with another funny and extremely dramatic battle – this time against primordial super-caveman King Kull, who wants to reconquer the planet he ruled millennia ago. Older fans of gentle fantasy will be enthralled and delighted here by the singular art of Stephen DeStefano, who won hearts and minds with his illustration of Bob Rozakis’ seminal series Hero Hotline and ‘Mazing Man (both painfully, criminally overdue for graphic novel collections of their own…)

Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! is an ideal book for getting kids into comics: funny, thrilling, beautifully, stylishly illustrated and perfectly in tune with what young minds want to see. Moreover, with the major motion picture adaptation set to premiere in April, it’s a timely moment to get reacquainted with the Big Red Cheese…

With a gloriously enticing sketches section and a key code for those pages written in the “Monster Society of Evil Code” this is an addictive treat for all readers who can still revel in the power of pure wonderment and still glory in an unbridled capacity for joy.
© 2008, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Uncanny X-Men Marvel Masterworks volume 2


By Chris Claremont, Bill Mantlo, Dave Cockrum, John Byrne, Bob Brown, Tony DeZuñiga & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1193-1 (TPB)                  978-0-7851-3704-7 (TMB)

In the autumn of 1963 The X-Men #1 introduced Scott (Cyclops) Summers, Bobby (Iceman) Drake, Warren (Angel) Worthington, Jean (Marvel Girl) Grey and Hank (The Beast) McCoy: very special students of Professor Charles Xavier.

The teacher was a wheelchair-bound telepath dedicated to brokering peace and integration between the masses of humanity and the emergent off-shoot race of mutants dubbed Homo Superior; considered by many who knew him as a living saint.

After nearly eight years of eccentrically spectacular adventures the mutant misfits virtually disappeared at the beginning of 1970 during another periodic downturn in superhero comics sales. Just like in the closing years of the 1940s, mystery men faded away as supernatural mysteries and traditional genre themes once more dominated the world’s entertainment fields…

Although their title returned at the end of the year as a cheap reprint vehicle, the missing mutants were reduced to guest-stars and bit-players throughout the ongoing Marvel universe, whilst the bludgeoning Beast was opportunistically transformed into a scary monster to cash in on the horror boom.

Then, with sales of the spooky stuff subsequently waning in 1975, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Roy Thomas green-lighted a bold one-shot as part of the company’s line of Giant-Size specials and history was made…

This second startling selection (available in luxurious hardcover, trade paperback and eBook editions) is perfect for newbies, neophytes and even old lags nervous about reading such splendid yarns on fragile but extremely valuable newsprint paper. It celebrates the unstoppable march to market dominance through the exuberant and pivotal early stories: specifically, issues #101-110 of the decidedly “All-New, All-Different” X-Men – spanning October 1976 to April 1978 and tracing the reinvigorated merry mutants from young, fresh and delightfully under-exposed innovations to the beginnings of their unstoppable ascendancy to ultimate comicbook icons, in their own title and through an increasingly broad clutch of guest shots…

As #101 unfolds, scripter Chris Claremont and illustrators Dave Cockrum & Frank Chiaramonte were on the on the verge of utterly overturning the accepted status quo of women in comics forever…

Led by field-leader Cyclops, the team now consisted of old acquaintance and former foe SeanBansheeCassidy, Wolverine, and new creations Nightcrawler, Storm, Colossus and part-timer Jean Grey still labouring under the nom-de guerre Marvel Girl… but not for much longer…

‘Like a Phoenix from the Ashes’ sees a space-shuttle cataclysmically crash into Jamaica Bay. The X-Men – fresh from eradicating a space station full of mutant-hunting Sentinels – had safely travelled in a specially-shielded chamber but Jean had manually piloted the vehicle, unprotected through a lethal radiation storm…

As the mutants escape the slowly sinking craft, a fantastic explosion propels the impossibly alive pilot into the air, now-clad in a strange gold-&-green uniform screaming that she is “Fire and Life Incarnate… Phoenix!”

Immediately collapsing, the critically injured girl is rushed to hospital and a grim wait begins.

Unable to explain her survival and too preoccupied to spare time for teaching, Xavier packs the newest recruits off to the Irish mutant’s home in County Mayo for a vacation, blissfully unaware that Cassidy Keep has been compromised and is now a deadly trap for his new students…

Within the ancestral pile, Sean’s mutant cousin Black Tom has usurped control of the manor and its incredible secrets before – at the behest of mysterious plotter Eric the Red – contriving an inescapable ambush, assisted by an old X-Men enemy.

‘Who Will Stop the Juggernaut?’ (Sam Grainger inks) sees the inexperienced heroes in over their heads and fighting for their lives, but still finds room to reveal the origins of Storm and provide an explanation for her crippling claustrophobia, before ‘The Fall of the Tower’ explosively ends the tale with mutant heroes and the Keep’s Leprechaun colony (no, really!) uniting to expel the murderous usurpers.

Although still bi-monthly at the time, the series kicked into confident top gear with ‘The Gentleman’s Name is Magneto’ as the weary warriors head for Scotland to check on Moira MacTaggert’s island lab: a secret facility containing myriad mutant menaces the X-Men have previously defeated.

It’s a very bad move since the ever-active Eric has restored the dormant master of magnetism to full power…

The mutant terrorist had been turned into a baby – a strangely commonplace fate for villains in those faraway days – but he was all grown up again now but indulging in one last temper tantrum…

Freshly arrived from America, Moira (who had been acting as the team’s US housekeeper) and Cyclops are only just in time to lead a desperate, humiliating retreat from the triumphant Master of Magnetism. Scott doesn’t care: he realises the entire affair has been a feint to draw the mutant heroes away from Xavier and Jean…

He needn’t have worried. Although in ‘Phoenix Unleashed’ (inks by Bob Layton) Eric orchestrates an attack by Firelord – a cosmic flamethrower and former herald of Galactus much like the Silver Surfer – Jean is now fully-evolved into a being of unimaginable power who readily holds the fiery marauder at bay…

In the interim a long-standing mystery is solved as the visions which have haunted and tormented Xavier for months are revealed as a psychic connection with a runaway warrior-princess from a distant alien empire.

Lilandra of the Shi’ar had rebelled against her imperial brother and, whilst fleeing, somehow telepathically locked onto her trans-galactic soul-mate Charles Xavier. As she made her circuitous way to Earth, embedded Shi’ar spy Shakari had assumed the role of Eric the Red and attempted to remove Lilandra’s potential champion before she even arrived…

During the blistering battle which follows the X-Men’s dramatic arrival, Shakari snatches up Lilandra and drags her through a stargate to their home galaxy, before, with the entire universe imperilled, Xavier urges his team to follow.

All Jean has to do is re-open a wormhole to the other side of creation…

A minor digression follows as overstretched artist Cockrum gains a breather via a fill-in “untold” tale of the new team featuring an attack by psychic clones of the original X-men. ‘Dark Shroud of the Past’ is a competent pause by Bill Mantlo, Bob Brown & Tom Sutton, set inside a framing sequence from Cockrum.

The regular story resumes in a knowing homage to Star Trek as ‘Where No X-Man Has Gone Before!’ (Claremont, Cockrum & Dan Green) sees the heroes stranded in another galaxy where they meet and are beaten by the Shi’ar Imperial Guard (an in-joke version of DC’s Legion of Super Heroes in the inimitable Cockrum manner). The odds change radically when bold interstellar rebel freebooters the Starjammers bombastically arrive to turn the tables once again whilst uncovering a mad scheme to unmake the fabric of space-time.

Lilandra’s brother Emperor D’Ken is a deranged maniac who wants to activate a cosmic artefact known alternatively as the M’Kraan Crystal and “the End of All that Is” in his quest for ultimate power. He’s also spent time on Earth in the past and played a major role in the life of one of the X-Men…

This tale (from issue #107) was Cockrum’s last for years. He would eventually return to replace the man who replaced him. John Byrne not only illustrated but also began co-plotting the X-tales and, as the team roster expanded, the series rose to even greater heights. It would culminate in the landmark Dark Phoenix storyline which saw the death of arguably the book’s most beloved and imaginative character and the departure of the team’s heart and soul. The epic cosmic saga also seemed to fracture the epochal working relationship of Claremont and Byrne.

Within months of publication they went their separate ways: Claremont staying with the mutants whilst Byrne moved on to establish his own reputation as a writer on series such as Alpha Flight, Incredible Hulk and especially his revolutionised Fantastic Four

Here though, the X-Men and Starjammers battle the Crystal’s astoundingly deadly automated guardians, as this final chapter depicts the newly puissant Phoenix literally saving all Reality in a mind-blowing display of power and skill.

Trapped inside a staggering other-realm, and appalled and enthralled by the intoxicating, addictive nature of her own might, Phoenix rewove the fabric of Reality and for an encore brought the heroes home again.

The conclusion of this ambitious extended saga was drawn by Byrne and inked by Terry Austin and their visual virtuosity was to become an industry bench-mark as the X-Men grew in popularity and complexity.

However, even though the bravura high-octane thrills of ‘Armageddon Now’ seem an unrepeatable high-point, Claremont & Byrne had only started. The best was still to come, as in X-Men #109’s ‘Home Are the Heroes!’ (Claremont, Byrne & Austin) Wolverine finally begins to develop a back-story and some depth of character after technological wonder Weapon Alpha attacks the recuperating team in an appallingly misjudged attempt to force the enigmatic Logan to rejoin the Canadian Secret Service.

Renamed Vindicator Alpha would later return leading Alpha Flight – a Canadian government sponsored super-team which would eventually graduate to their own eccentric high-profile series.

The drama concludes with X-Men #110 (April 1978) wherein Claremont, and illustrators Tony DeZuñiga & Cockrum, detail ‘The “X”-Sanction!’: a rather limp and hasty fill-in with cyborg mercenary Warhawk infiltrating the Xavier mansion in search of “intel” for a mysterious, unspecified master… before getting his shiny silver head handed to him…

Entertaining, groundbreaking and incredibly intoxicating, these adventures are an invaluable and crucial grounding in contemporary fights ‘n’ tights fiction no fan or casual reader can be allowed to ignore.
© 1976, 1977, 1978, 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Top 10


By Alan Moore, Gene Ha, Xander Cannon & various (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5493-3

Let’s start the New Year with a fresh look at a much-neglected gem of mature-reader Fights ‘n’ Tights fun courtesy of the grandmaster of the sub-genre. These tales first appeared at the turn of the century under the America’s Best Comics banner – and are still available in those editions should you be so minded to seek them out – but this hefty paperback (or eBook) gathers the first dozen award-winning issues in one nifty pack, so that’s convenient, if nothing else…

Following his usual avuncular introduction in ‘Powers of Arrest: Precinct Ten and Social Super-Vision’ Alan Moore effortlessly welds superteam dynamics to the modern world’s fascination with police procedural dramas in this series based on the premise of everyday life in a universe where Super-Nature is accepted and common place.

Neopolis is a city entirely populated by super-beings. Heroes, villains, gods, robots and monsters, the city is a vast dumping ground for copyright-confounding analogues of everything that ever appeared in a comicbook, cartoon or movie since the genre and industry began.

Such a city needs really special policing and the beat cops are based at Precinct Ten – or Top 10 to you and me. In the mid-1980s this city joined a pan-dimensional league of worlds and came under the jurisdiction of the security organisation based on “Grand Central”. That morsel of data will play a large part in the overarching storyline, but the nature of this fascinating ensemble piece is to build a longer narrative by seeming disconnected snippets and increments of daily drudgery.

Robyn Slinger is the new rookie at Top 10 and we start on her first day as a “real Police”. Her dad was a respected officer, but her own talent – controlling tiny robotic toys (like General Jumbo if you’re a doddery old Beano reader like me) – doesn’t instil her with any great confidence as she is gently ushered into the routine by the affable desk-sergeant Kemlo Caesar. Nor, really, does the realisation that he’s an actual talking dog in a mecha suit.

Adapting to the banter, routine and teasing of her fellow officers is daunting, but not as much as being partnered with the surly, invulnerable blue giant Smax.

In short order, whilst going about their regular duties, which include sorting out super-powered “domestics” (no, not housekeepers – spousal confrontations), crowd control at robotic murder scenes, rousting hookers and generally keeping the peace, they become embroiled in an unsolved – now potentially ongoing – serial killer case and a drug investigation that will eventually reach to the highest levels of their own organisation (‘Blind Justice’ and ‘Internal Affairs’).

By adopting the “day-in-the-life” approach, Moore and Gene Ha cover a lot of character ground and fill in back-story history whilst showing us “The Job”. As the method is used so effectively in TV Cop shows, readers not only get the same benefits of tone, texture and information value, but the added bonus of making the super-heroic elements more “real” and authentic seeming: a huge advantage when your protagonists deal every day with the most outlandish concepts comics have devised in the last 80 years.

For example: When – in ‘Eight Miles High’ – a reptilian gangbanger is arrested his dad wants to bust him out, and even the cops have to think twice when a foul-mouthed, 300-foot drunken lizard comes calling… Or how do you bust up a rave-party when all the revellers are dancing so fast they can’t be seen? Perhaps your apartment has been invaded by hyper-intelligent UltraMice? Check out ‘Great Infestations’ for a truly bizarre sit-rep…

When the serial killer case finally breaks it exposes an alien monster whose real identity will bring nothing but trouble…

Before that though, the guys have to deal with the usual Seasonal problems brought on by the Yule Holidays as ‘You Better Watch Out, You Better Not Cry…’ leads to murder and other ‘Mythdemeanors’ in a bar frequented by the gods of Asgard and other pantheons…

Like any good cop story, cases run in parallel, at different rates and often in opposition, and the large cast all have their own lives which are impossible to completely divorce from “The Job”. That’s epitomised by more “one-day-at-a-time” storytelling and ‘The Overview’, as a major traffic accident draws most of the day-shift’s resources.

A couple of teleporting extra-dimensional travellers have catastrophically intersected, but by the end of the clear-up it’s clear the tragedy wasn’t a simple accident. Meanwhile, influential friends are trying to quash the case against the monstrous serial killer known as Libra, and Voodoo-powered officer King Peacock is sent to Grand Central, the head office of the police force…

‘Rules of Engagement’ finds him being given a particularly deadly form of the old run-around whilst the war between the UltraMice and the AtomCats in the apartment Duane shares with his ghastly mother has escalated to cosmic levels, in a brilliant swipe at comicbook mega-crossovers. Moreover, a long-running investigation is starting to look like a case for Internal Affairs…

‘Music for the Dead’ then sees the death of one of the key cast members as those corruption suspicions are horribly confirmed in a brutal incident that also closes the Libra killer case for good.

‘His First Day on the New Job’ introduces Joe Pi, the new (robotic) rookie experiencing some rather unsettling prejudice from his fellow officers as well as the funeral of the beloved colleague he’s replacing. The volume – in fact, the original series – concludes with ‘Court on the Street’, with an atypical clear win for the Good Guys when they go after the influential cronies of the deceased Libra Killer…

Superbly sardonic, this blend of low-key action and horror coupled with dark, ironic and occasionally surreal humour, is drawn in a super-realistic style by Gene Ha, leavened by the solid inks of Zander Cannon, and the drama is supplemented by a Top 10 Gallery (artists’ designs and commentary by Moore) of the huge cast of characters, plus a Precinct Layout and floor plans.

This cross-genre mix is immensely entertaining reading and the subtle shades of the writing are matched in full by Gene Ha’s beautiful, complex, detail-studded art, but in truth this seductive blend of police procedural drama and the whacky world of full-on superhero universes isn’t really about the narrative: its joys are to be found in the incidentals, the sidebars and the shared in-jokes.

This is a must-read series for jaded fans and newcomers with an open, imaginative mind.
© 1999, 2000, 2001 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Doctor Strange Epic Collection volume 1 1963-1966: Master of the Mystic Arts


By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, with Don Rico, Roy Thomas, Dennis O’Neil, George Roussos & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1138-6

We lost some grand masters of our art form this year, including arguably the biggest name left in the pantheon in American comics, Stan Lee. Also gone is certainly the most influential and least understood of American comics’ true greats: Steve Ditko. Despite their infamous acrimonious later working relationship, Lee & Ditko literally made magic together.

Here’s a recently-released collection with them at their very best and most groundbreaking…

When the budding House of Ideas introduced a warrior wizard to their burgeoning pantheon in the summer of 1963 it was a bold and curious move. Bizarre adventures and menacing monsters were still incredibly popular but mention of magic or the supernatural – especially vampires, werewolves and their eldritch ilk – were harshly proscribed by a censorship panel which dictated almost all aspects of story content.

At this time – almost a decade after a public witch hunt led to Senate hearings – all comics were ferociously monitored and adjudicated by the draconian Comics Code Authority. Even though some of the small company’s strongest sellers were still mystery and monster mags, their underlying themes and premises were almost universally mad science and alien wonders, not necromantic or thaumaturgic horrors.

That might explain Stan Lee’s low-key introduction of Steve Ditko’s mystic adventurer: an exotic, twilit troubleshooter inhabiting the shadowy outer fringes of rational, civilised society.

Capitalising on of the runaway success of Fantastic Four, Lee had quickly spun off the youngest, most colourful member of the team into his own series, hoping to recapture the glory of the 1940s when the Human Torch was one of the company’s untouchable “Big Three” superstars.

Within a year of FF #1, anthology title Strange Tales became home for the blazing boy-hero (beginning with issue #101, cover-dated October 1962): launching Johnny Storm on a creatively productive but commercially unsuccessful solo career.

Soon after, in Tales of Suspense #41 (May 1963) current sensation Iron Man battled a crazed technological wizard dubbed Doctor Strange, and with the name successfully and legally in copyrightable print (a long-established Lee technique: Thorr, The Thing, Electro, Magneto and the Hulk had been disposable Atlas “furry underpants monsters” long before they became in-continuity Marvel characters), preparations began for a new and truly different kind of hero.

The company had already – recently – published a quasi-mystic precursor: balding, trench-coated savant Doctor Droom – later rechristened (or is that re-paganed?) Dr. Druid – had an inconspicuous short run in Amazing Adventures (volume 1 #1-4 & #6: June-November 1961).

He was a psychiatrist, sage and paranormal investigator tackling everything from alien invaders to Atlanteans (albeit not the ones Sub-Mariner ruled). Droom was subsequently retro-written into Marvel continuity as an alternative candidate and precursor for Stephen Strange’s ultimate role as Sorcerer Supreme…

Nevertheless, after a shaky start, the Marvel Age Master of the Mystic Arts became an unmissable icon of the cool counter-culture kids who saw in Ditko’s increasingly psychedelic art echoes and overtones of their own trippy explorations of other worlds and realms…

That might not have been the authors’ intentions but it certainly helped keep the mage at the forefront of Lee’s efforts to break comics out of the kids-stuff ghetto…

This enchanting full colour paperback compilation – also available as a digital download – collects the mystical portions of Strange Tales #110, 111 and 114-146 plus a titanic team-up from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2; spanning July 1963 to July 1966. Moreover, although the Good Doctor was barely cover-featured until issue #130, it also magnanimously includes every issue’s stunning frontage, thus offering an incredible array of superbly eye-catching Marvel masterpieces from the upstart outfit’s formative heyday by Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, Bob Powell, John Severin and others.

Thus, without any preamble, our first meeting with the man of mystery comes courtesy of a quiet little chiller which has never been surpassed for sheer mood and imagination.

Lee & Ditko’s ‘Doctor Strange Master of Black Magic!’ debuted at the back of Strange Tales #110 and saw a terrified man troubled by his dreams approach an exceptional consultant in his search for a cure…

That perfect 5-page fright-fest introduces whole new realms and features deceit, desperation, double-dealing and the introduction of both a mysterious and aged oriental mentor and devilish dream demon Nightmare in an unforgettable yarn that might well be Ditko’s finest moment…

A month later in #111 the good Doctor was back, ‘Face-to-Face with the Magic of Baron Mordo!’ which sensibly introduced a player on the other side…

The esoteric duel with such an obviously formidable foe established Strange as a tragic solitary guardian tasked with defending the world from supernatural terrors and uncanny encroachment whilst introducing his most implacable enemy, a fellow sorcerer with vaulting ambition and absolutely no morals. In the astounding battle that ensued, it was also firmly confirmed that Strange was the smarter man…

Then things went quiet for a short while until the letters started coming in…

Strange Tales #114 (November 1963) was one of the most important issues of the era. Not only did it highlight the return of another Golden Age hero – or at least a villainous facsimile of him – by Lee, Kirby & Ayers. Here’s a quote from the last panel. “You guessed it! This story was really a test! To see if you too would like Captain America to Return! As usual, your letters will give us the answer!” We all know how that turned out…

Nevertheless, for many of us the true treasure trove here was the fabulously moody resurrection of Doctor Strange: permanently installing an eccentric and baroque little corner of the growing unified universe where Ditko could let his imagination run wild…

With #114, the Master of the Mystic Arts took up monthly residence behind the Torch as ‘The Return of the Omnipotent Baron Mordo!’ (uncredited inks by George Roussos) finds the Doctor lured to London and into a trap, only to be saved by unlikely adept Victoria Bentley: an abortive stab at a romantic interest who would periodically turn up in years to come.

The forbidding man of mystery is at last revealed in all his frail mortality as Strange Tales #115 offered ‘The Origin of Dr. Strange’, disclosing how Stephen Strange was once America’s greatest surgeon. A brilliant man, yet greedy, vain and arrogant, he cares nothing for the sick except as a means to wealth and glory. When a self-inflicted, drunken car-crash ends his career, Strange hits the skids.

Then, fallen as low as man ever could, the debased doctor overheard a barroom tale which led him on a delirious odyssey or, perhaps more accurately, pilgrimage to Tibet, where a frail and aged mage changed his life forever. It also showed his first clash with the Ancient One’s other pupil Mordo: thwarting a seditious scheme and earning the Baron’s undying envious enmity…

Eventual enlightenment through daily redemption transformed Stephen the derelict into a solitary, dedicated watchdog for at the fringes of humanity, challenging all the hidden dangers of the dark on behalf of a world better off not knowing what dangers lurk in the shadows…

‘Return to the Nightmare World!’ sees the insidious dream predator trapping earthly sleepers in perpetual slumber until the doubtful authorities asked Strange to investigate. The hero’s invasion of his oneiric enemy’s stronghold is a masterpiece of moody suspense and is followed here by ‘The Many Traps of Baron Mordo!’: apparently showing the malevolent mage devising an inescapable doom, which once more founders after Strange applies a little logic to it…

The wildness and infinite variety of Strange’s universe offered Ditko tremendous opportunities to stretch himself visually and as plotter of the stories. In ST #118 the Master of Magic travels to Bavaria to combat ‘The Possessed!’, finding humans succumbing to extra-dimensional invaders neither fully mystic or mundane, whilst ‘Beyond the Purple Veil’ has Strange rescuing burglars who have stolen one of his deadly treasures from ray-gun wielding slaver-tyrants…

Strange Tales #120 played with the conventions of ghost stories as a reporter vanishes during a live broadcast from ‘The House of Shadows!’ and the concerned Doctor diagnoses something unworldly but certainly not dead…

Mordo springs yet another deadly trap in ‘Witchcraft in the Wax Museum!’ but is once again outsmarted and humiliated after stealing his rival’s body whilst Strange wanders the world in astral form…

Roussos returned as an uncredited inker for #122’s ‘The World Beyond’ wherein Nightmare nearly scores his greatest victory after the exhausted Strange falls asleep before uttering the nightly charm that protects from him from attack through his own dreams.

Strange hosts his first Marvel guest star in #123 whilst meeting ‘The Challenge of Loki!’ (August 1964 by Lee, Ditko & George Roussos as George Bell) as the god of Mischief tricks the earthly mage into briefly stealing Thor’s hammer before deducing where the emanations of evil he senses really come from…

Strange battles a sorcerer out of ancient Egypt to save ‘The Lady from Nowhere!’ from time-bending banishment and imprisonment, and performs similar service to rescue the Ancient One after the aged sage is kidnapped in ‘Mordo Must Not Catch Me!’, after which Roussos moves on whilst Lee & Ditko gear up for even more esoteric action.

Strange Tales #126 took the Master of the Mystic arts to ‘The Domain of the Dread Dormammu!’ as an extra-dimensional god seeks to subjugate Earth. In a fantastic realm Strange meets a mysterious, exotic woman who reveals the Dread One operates by his own implacable code: giving the overmatched Earthling the edge in the concluding ‘Duel with of the Dread Dormammu!’

This sees Earth saved, the Ancient One freed from a long-standing crippling curse and Strange awarded a new look and mystic weapons upgrade…

Restored to his homeworld and Sanctum Sanctorum in Greenwich Village, Strange then solves ‘The Dilemma of… the Demon’s Disciple!’ by saving a luckless truth-seeker from an abusive minor magician and – after a stunning pin-up by Ditko – defeats a demonic god of decadence stealing TV guests and execs in #129’s ‘Beware… Tiborro! The Tyrant of the Sixth Dimension!’ (scripted by Golden Age great Don Rico).

Doctor Strange got his first star cover slot for Strange Tales #130 to celebrate the start of an ambitious multi-part saga which would be rightly acclaimed one of the mystic’s finest moments.

‘The Defeat of Dr. Strange’ opens with an enigmatic outer-dimensional sponsor entering into a pact with Baron Mordo to supply infinite power and ethereal minions in return for the death of Earth’s magical guardian…

With the Ancient One assaulted and stuck in a deathly coma, Strange is forced to go on the run: a fugitive hiding in the most exotic corners of the globe as remorseless, irresistible forces close in all around him…

A claustrophobic close shave whilst trapped aboard a jetliner in ‘The Hunter and the Hunted!’ expands into cosmic high gear in #132 as Strange doubles back to his sanctum and defeats the returning Demon only to come ‘Face-to-Face at Last with Baron Mordo!’ Crumbling into weary defeat as the villain’s godly sponsor is revealed, the hero is hurled headlong out of reality to materialise in ‘A Nameless Land, A Timeless Time!’ before confronting tyrannical witch-queen Shazana.

Upon liberating her benighted realm, the relentless pursuit resumes as Strange re-crosses hostile dimensions to take the fight to his foes in ‘Earth Be My Battleground’.

Returning to the enclave hiding his ailing master, he gleans a hint of a solution in the mumbled enigmatic word “Eternity” and begins searching for more information, even as, in the Dark Dimension, a terrified girl attempts to sabotage Dread Dormammu’s efforts to empower Mordo…

As the world went super-science spy-crazy and Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. took over the lead spot with Strange Tales #135, the Sixties also saw a blossoming of alternative thought and rebellion. Doctor Strange apparently became a confirmed favourite of the blossoming Counterculture Movement and its recreational drug experimentation subculture. With Ditko truly hitting his imaginative stride, it’s not hard to see why. His weirdly authentic otherworlds and demonstrably adjacent dimensions were just unlike anything anyone had ever seen or depicted before…

‘Eternity Beckons!’ when Strange is lured to an ancient castle where an old ally seeks to betray him and, after again narrowly escaping Mordo’s minions, the Mage desperately consults the aged senile Genghis in #136: a grave error in judgement. Once more catapulted into a dimension of deadly danger, Strange barely escapes a soul-stealing horror after discovering ‘What Lurks Beneath the Mask?’

Back on Earth and out of options, the Doctor is forced to test his strength against the Ancient One’s formidable psychic defences to learn the secret of Eternity in ‘When Meet the Mystic Minds!’ After barely surviving the terrible trial, he translates himself to a place beyond reality to meet the embodiment of creation in ‘If Eternity Should Fail!’

The quest for solutions or extra might bears little fruit and, as he despondently arrives on Earth, the Doctor finds his mentor One and his unnamed female friend prisoners of his worst enemies in anticipation of a fatal showdown…

Strange Tales #139 warns ‘Beware…! Dormammu is Watching!’, but as Mordo – despite being super-charged with the Dark Lord’s infinite energies – fails over and again to kill the Good Doctor, the Overlord of Evil loses all patience and drags the whole show into his home domain…

Intent on making a show of destroying his mortal nemesis, Dormammu convenes a great gathering before whom he will smash Strange in a duel using nothing but ‘The Pincers of Power!’ and is again bathed in ultimate humiliation as the mortal’s wit and determination result in a stunning triumph in concluding episode ‘Let There Be Victory!’

As the universes tremble, Doctor Strange wearily heads home, blithely unaware that his enemies have laid one last trap. The weary victor returns to his mystic Sanctum Sanctorum, unaware that his foes have boobytrapped his residence with mundane explosives…

Scripted by Lee and plotted and illustrated by Ditko, Strange Tales #142 reveals ‘Those Who Would Destroy Me!’ as Mordo’s unnamed disciples ready for one last stab at the Master of the Mystic Arts.

They would remain anonymous for decades, only gaining names of their own – Kaecillius, Demonicus and The Witch – upon their return in the mid-1980s. Here, however, they easily entrap the exhausted mage and imprison him with a view to plundering all his secrets. It’s a big mistake as, in the Roy Thomas dialogued sequel ‘With None Beside Me!’, Strange quickly outwits and subdues his captors…

In #144 Ditko & Thomas take the heartsick hero ‘Where Man Hath Never Trod!’ Although Dormammu was soundly defeated and humiliated before his peers and vassals, the demonic tyrant takes a measure of revenge by exiling Strange’s anonymous female collaborator to realms unknown. Now, as the Earthling seeks to rescue her while searching myriad mystic planes, he stumbles into a trap laid by the Dark One and carried out by devilish collector of souls Tazza

On defeating the scheme, Strange returns to Earth and almost dies at the hands of a far weaker, but much sneakier wizard dubbed Mister Rasputin. The spy and swindler utilises meagre mystic gifts for material gain but is happy to resort to base brutality ‘To Catch a Magician!’ (scripted by Dennis O’Neil).

All previous covers had been Kirby S.H.I.E.L.D. affairs but finally, with Strange Tales #146, Strange and Ditko won their moment in the sun. Although the artist would soon be gone, the Good Doctor remained, alternating with Nick Fury’s team until the title ended.

Ditko & O’Neil presided over ‘The End …At Last!’ as a deranged Dormammu abducts Strange before suicidally attacking the omnipotent embodiment of the cosmos known as Eternity.

The cataclysmic chaos ruptures the heavens over infinite dimensions and when the universe is calm again both supra-deities are gone. Rescued from the resultant tumult, however, is the valiant girl Strange had loved and lost. She introduces herself as Clea, and although Stephen despondently leaves her, we all know she will be back…

This cosmic swansong was Ditko’s last hurrah. Issue #147 saw a fresh start as Strange went back to his Greenwich Village abode under the auspices of co-scripters Lee & O’Neil, with comics veteran Bill Everett suddenly and surprisingly limning the arcane adventures.

Before that though there are a few treats still in store, beginning with one last Lee/Ditko yarn to enthral and beguile: Although a little chronologically askew, it is very much a case of the best left until last…

In October 1965 ‘The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!’ (from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2) was the astonishing lead feature in an otherwise vintage reprint Spidey comicbook.

The entrancing fable unforgettably introduced the webslinger to arcane adventure and otherworldly realities as he teamed up with the Master of the Mystic Arts to battle power-crazed wizard Xandu in a phantasmagorical, dimension-hopping masterpiece involving ensorcelled zombie thugs and the purloined Wand of Watoomb.

After this story it was clear that Spider-Man could work in any milieu and nothing could hold him back… and the cross-fertilisation probably introduced many fans to Lee & Ditko’s other breakthrough series.

But wait, there’s even more! Wrapping up the proceeding is a selection of original art beginning with an unused pencil sketch of a master and student pinup plus a completed pinup published in 1967’s Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics #10 and the original art for it.

Following those is a contemporary T-shirt design, a cover gallery of Marvel Tales #1 and Doctor Strange Classics #1-4 (by John Byrne & Al Milgrom, including text pages by Roger Stern) all nicely rounded off by a re-presentation of previous Ditko collection covers modified by painters Dean White & Richard Isanove as well as Alex Ross’ epic Doctor Strange Omnibus cover.

Doctor Strange has always been the coolest of outsiders and most accessible fringe star of the Marvel firmament. This glorious grimoire is a magical method for old fans to enjoy his world once more and the perfect introduction for recent acolytes or converts created by the movie iteration to enjoy the groundbreaking work of two thirds of the Marvel Empire’s founding triumvirate at their most imaginative.
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