Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 9

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1846-6 (HB)                    : 978-0-7851-6760-0 (PB)

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

In eight short years FF became the indisputable central title and most consistently groundbreaking series of Marvel’s ever-unfolding web of cosmic creation: bombarding readers with a ceaseless salvo of new concepts and characters at a time when Kirby was in his conceptual prime and continually unleashing his vast imagination on plot after spectacular plot. Clearly inspired, Stan Lee scripted some of the most passionate superhero sagas that Marvel – or any publisher, for that matter – had or has ever seen.

Both were on an unstoppable roll, at the height of their creative powers, and full of the confidence that only success brings, with The King particularly eager to see how far the genre and the medium could be pushed.

This full-colour compendium – available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions – gathers Fantastic Four #82-93: a rollercoaster ride of incredible imagination and passion spanning January to December 1969 with Stan & Jack riding a wave that no fan realised was imminently ending…

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

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and the kid could turn into living flame, but poor, tragic Ben horrifically devolved into a shambling, rocky freak…

Following another frothy Lee Introduction, the magic resumes with Fantastic Four #82 as Susan Richards takes time off to tend her newborn son and Johnny’s Inhuman girlfriend Crystal steps in as her replacement. Before long, however, the substitute’s violent past reasserts itself as her mad cousin Maximus again attempts to conquer mortal humanity.

‘The Mark of… the Madman!’ (by Lee, Kirby & Joe Sinnott sees the quirky quartet invade hidden Inhuman enclave Attilan to aid of the imprisoned Royal Family and overcoming an entire race of subjugated super-beings before uniting to trounce the insane despot in ‘Shall Man Survive?’

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Four #88 focuses on the five champions back in the USA and looking at an unconventional new house found by the determinedly domesticated Sue in her perpetual quest to carve out a relatively normal life for her new – and still unnamed – son.

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

The Thing takes centre-stage in the extended epic which completes this potent tome, as he is targeted and kidnapped to another world when ‘The Skrull Takes a Slave!’ in #90. Abducted to fight in gladiatorial games on a colony world patterned after Earth’s 1920s gangster era, ‘The Thing… Enslaved!’ introduces rival Skrull mobs vying for planetary supremacy and a noble slave destined to slaughter our shanghaied champion.

‘Ben Grimm, Killer!’ then ramps up the tension as Ben Grimm and mechanoid marvel Torgo discover that their home-worlds are hostage to their fortune and ferocity in the arena…

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

Added attractions here include the cover to the all-reprint Fantastic Four Annual #7, a contemporary photo-feature revealing each and every member of the burgeoning Marvel Bullpen, eight un-inked pencil pages from issues #89 and 90 plus the original cover art for FF #90 inked by Sinnott, a graphic bonanza no fan could resist.

These are the stories that confirmed Kirby as the absolute master of superhero storytelling and gave Marvel the push needed to overtake the decades-dominant DC. They’re also some of the very best comics ever produced and as addictively thrilling now as they ever were. This is a must-have book for all fans of Fights ‘n’ Tights graphic narrative.
© 1968, 1969, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Wyf of Bath (The Wife of Bath)

By Geoffrey Chaucer, illustrated by Greg Irons (Bellerophon Books)
ISBN: 978-0-88388-023-4

Perhaps I’m just showing off now, but this lost treasure, published in conjunction with a colouring book (The Chaucer Coloring Book, which collected the original woodcut illustrations from Caxton’s 1484 edition of The Canterbury Tales) is a terrific and logical blending of High Art and Our Art and one so very worthy of being republished.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as well as being a venerable and lauded landmark of English literature, was a ribald, earthy, popular and much-loved concatenation of short story character sketches, full of humanity’s every foible and peccadillo. It was rude, crude, action-packed, jammed with incredible situations and even had talking animals…

Thematically, how much closer can you get to the general opinion and popular conception of the comicbook?

Marry that with the art of the irreverent, subversive aesthetic and attitude of the San Francisco underground movement of the early 1970’s and you have a brilliant slice of pop-art history that actually possesses lasting social relevance and educational value.

The text of the Wife of Bath is typeset and in the original continental accentual-syllabic metre which Chaucer used to champion the London-dialect dominance of Middle English.

That means this will make a lot more sense if read aloud phonetically (the book, not my review, and perhaps in a northern English/Manchester accent). Or you could simply look at the stonkingly brilliant and funny, ribald pictures drawn by the astounding Greg Irons.

Although the original softcover is still available through some online retailers, surely some college or publishing house simply has the wherewithal to get this magical book back into print?
Artwork © 1973 Greg Irons. All rights reserved.

The Files of Ms. Tree volume 1: I, For an Eye and Death Do Us Part

By Max Collins & Terry Beatty (Aardvark-Vanaheim)
ISBN: 0-919359-05-1             ASIN: B00072LQCW

Despite being one of the most popular genres in modern literature and the fact that most fiction books are bought and read by women, hard-boiled Private Eye crime stories are desperately short of female protagonists.

Marry that with the observation that in the 1980s “gum-shoe” comics were also as rare as hen’s teeth and it’s a wonder that a series such as Ms. Tree ever got off the drawing board.

The secret – as always – is quality.

The black widow of detective fiction first appeared in 1981 as a part-work serial in the groundbreaking black-and-white anthology comic Eclipse Magazine, rubbing padded shoulders with a number of other quirky alternatives to the East Coast superheroes that had a stranglehold on American comics at that time980s.

Associating with such gems as Sax Rohmer’s Dope (fabulously adapted by Trina Robbins and only recently collected and released in a wonderful pulp thriller edition); Steve Englehart & Marshal Rogers’ I Am Coyote; Don McGregor & Gene Colan’s Ragamuffins; B.C. Boyer’s masterful Masked Man and a host of other gems from the industry’s finest, Max Allan Collins and young humour cartoonist Terry Beatty introduced a cold, calculating and genuinely fierce avenger who put new gloss on the hallowed imagery and plot of the hard-bitten, tough-guy shamus avenging a murdered partner…

As conceived by the successful crime novelist (and scripter of the venerable Dick Tracy newspaper strip), the gun-toting dame was one of the first features to win a solo title: Ms. Tree’s Thrilling Detective Stories or simply Ms. Tree from the fourth issue. Although the marketplace was not friendly to such a radical concept, the series ran for 50 issues, and 2 specials, from three publishers (Eclipse, Aardvark-Vanaheim and Renegade Press) before finally dying in 1989.

Gone but not quickly forgotten, she was promptly revived as a DC comic in 1990 for another 10 giant-sized issues as Ms. Tree Quarterly/ Ms. Tree Special; three more blood-soaked, mayhem-packed, morally challenging years of pure magic.

Astonishingly, and as far as I know, there are no contemporary collections of her exploits – despite Collins’ status as a prolific and best-selling author of both graphic novels (Road to Perdition, CSI) and prose sequences featuring his crime-creations Nathan Heller, Quarry, Nolan, Mallory and a veritable pantheon of others.

In 2007 Collins released a classy prose novel, “Deadly Beloved” starring his troubled troubleshooter, but thus far The Files of Ms. Tree volumes are the only place to find the collected exploits of this superb crime-stopper.

The first volume, I, For an Eye and Death Do Us Part gathers the introductory escapade from Eclipse Magazine #1-6 (May 1981-July 1982) and the follow-up initial story-arc from Ms. Tree’s Thrilling Detective Stories #1-3 (August-December 1982): two chilling tales of regret and revenge, perfectly delivered as fair-play mystery tales.

You might not be able to extract your own retribution, but if you’re smart enough you can solve the clues as fast as our heroine does…

In ‘I, For an Eye’ we – so very briefly – meet Mike Tree, a true bastion of the detective profession. Hard, tough, sharp and fair he’s an ex-cop who set up in business for himself and did well. At the peak of his career he meets Mike Friday, a feisty, clever, pistol-packing, two-fisted modern woman who quickly moves from secretary to full partner. They fell in love…

On their wedding night her husband is gunned down by an unknown assailant and the new Mrs. Tree sets out to find the killer who made her a honeymoon widow. Assuming control over their detective agency she employs part of the staff to keep the business going but places her husband’s… her… best people onto finding out why her man died. With her tight, dedicated team she uncovers a web of corruption and lies which includes the fact that she was not the first Mrs. Tree.

Mike had a previous wife and a son who’s painfully like his departed dad…

Gritty, witty and darkly relentless, this tale of corruption and twisted friendship sets the pace for all the ensuing adventures; a brilliant odyssey which peels like an onion, always showing that there’s still more to uncover…

Even after finding Mike’s killer and delivering the traditional, mandatory vengeance in grand style, the investigation reveals a higher mastermind behind it all, in the scurrilous shape of mob boss Dominic Muerta, after which second tale ‘Death Do Us Part’ deals with the repercussions of Ms. Tree’s crusade against that psychotic grandee’s operations.

The unrelenting death and misery takes its toll on the traumatised widow: she turns to therapy but when that doesn’t work she takes a long-needed holiday to a distant honeymoon resort.

She even finds a new lover but when the newlyweds in the next cabin are murdered by a hit-man Tree realises that she is trapped on a path that can only lead to more death…

Adult, astute, and enchantingly challenging, this second drama is full of plot twists and clever set-pieces that will charm and beguile crime fans of every persuasion whilst the art by Beatty is a sheer revelation.

Presented as static, informative and understated, the visuals are remorselessly matter-of-fact and deadly in their cold efficiency. It’s a quality which might be off-putting to some but which so perfectly matches the persona of its pitiless star that I can’t imagine any other style working at all.

This volume, released in 1984, is stuffed with behind-the-scenes extras and commentary from both creators, including a colour cover gallery, and – as an added bonus – original illustrated prose short-story ‘Red Light’: a terse thriller that perfectly augments the grim mood of the book.

Despite the tragic scenarios, ruthless characterisations and high body-count, this is a clever, funny affair steeped in the lore of detective fiction, stuffed with in-jokes for the cognoscenti (such as the unspoken conceit that heroine Mike Friday is the daughter of legendary TV cop Joe DragnetFriday) and dripping in the truly magical gratification factor that shows complete scum finally get what’s coming to them…

Ms. Tree is the closest thing the American market has ever produced to challenge our own Queen of Adventure Modesty Blaise: how they can let her languish in graphic obscurity is a greater crime than any described in this compelling classic collection. Hunt it down for your pleasure and pray somebody somewhere has the great good sense to bring back Ms. Tree.
© 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984 Max Collins and Terry Beatty. All Rights Reserved.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

By Harvey Kurtzman with Alex Toth, John Severin, Joe Kubert, Russ Heath, Dave Berg, Ric Estrada, Gene Colan, Johnny Craig others (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-545-7

The legendary EC Comics began in 1944 when comicbook pioneer Max Gaines sold the superhero properties of his All-American Comics company to half-sister National/DC, retaining only Pictures Stories from the Bible.

His plan was to produce a line of Educational Comics with schools and church groups as the major target market and he augmented his core title with Picture Stories from American History, Picture Stories from Science and Picture Stories from World History. Sadly, the worthy project was already struggling badly when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

As detailed in the final comprehensive essay in this superb graphic collection – available as a sturdily spiffy hardcover or in various eBook formats – his son William was dragged into the family business and, with much support and encouragement from unsung hero Sol Cohen (who held the company together until the initially unwilling Bill Gaines abandoned his dreams of a career in chemistry) transformed the ailing enterprise into Entertaining Comics

After a few tentative false starts and abortive experiments, Gaines and his multi-talented associate Al Feldstein settled into a bold and impressive publishing strategy, utilising the most gifted illustrators in the field to tell a “New Trend” of stories aimed at an older and more discerning readership.

From 1950-1954 EC was the most innovative and influential publisher in America, dominating the genres of crime, horror, war and science fiction and, under the auspices of writer, artist and editor Harvey Kurtzman, the inventor of an entirely new beast: the satirical comicbook…

Kurtzman was hired to supplement the workforce on the horror titles but wasn’t keen on the genre and instead suggested a new action-adventure title. The result was Two-Fisted Tales which began with issue #18 at the end of 1959 as an anthology of rip-snorting, he-man suspense dramas. However, with America embroiled in a military “police action” in Korea, the title soon became primarily a war comic and was rapidly augmented by another.

Frontline Combat was also written and edited by Kurtzman, who assiduously laid-out and meticulously designed every story. It made for great entertainment and a unifying authorial voice but was frequently a cause of friction with many artists…

In keeping with the New Trend spirit, these war stories were not bombastic, jingoistic fantasies for glory-hungry little boys, but rather subtly subversive examinations of the cost of conflict which highlighted the madness, futility and senseless, pointless waste of it all…

Kurtzman was a cartoon genius and probably the most important cartoonist of the last half of the 20th century. His early triumphs in the fledgling field of comicbooks (especially the groundbreaking Mad magazine) would be enough for most creators to lean back on but Kurtzman was a force in newspaper strips (See Flash Gordon Complete Daily Strips 1951-1953) and restless innovator. As a commentator and social explorer, he just kept on looking at folk and their doings: a man with exacting standards who just couldn’t stop creating.

Kurtzman invented a whole new format and gave America Popular Satire by converting his highly successful full-colour baby Mad into a monochrome magazine, safely distancing the outrageously brilliant comedic publication from the fall-out caused by the 1950s socio-political witch-hunt which eventually killed all EC’s other titles.

He pursued his unique brand of thoughtfully outré comedy and social satire further with the magazines Trump, Humbug and Help!, all the while still conceiving challenging and powerfully effective funny strips such as Little Annie Fannie (for Playboy), The Jungle Book, Nutz, Goodman Beaver, Betsy and her Buddies and many more. He died far too young in 1993.

This first volume of the Fantagraphics EC Library gathers a stunning selection of Kurtzman stories in a lavish monochrome hardcover edition, packed with supplementary interviews, features and dissertations, and opens with ‘The Truth’ by cartoonist and historian R.C. Harvey, describing in stark detail the history of Kurtzman’s EC days.

Then follows a raft of stirring sagas solely from the master’s hand, beginning with ‘Conquest’ from Two-Fisted Tales #18, which with acerbic aplomb relates the rise and fall of Spanish conquistador Juan Alvorado whose rapacious hunger for Aztec gold led inexorably to the downfall and doom of his entire expedition.

‘Jivaro Death’ (#19) deals with modern-day greed as two duplicitous Yankees search for diamonds in the heart of the Amazon jungle whilst T-FT #20 detailed the fate of an amnesiac buccaneer who returned from certain death to obsessively reclaim his ‘Pirate Gold’ from the men who betrayed him…

From issue #21 comes ‘Search!’ which ironically combines an Italian-American’s search for family with the devastating US assault on Anzio in 1943, after which the first selection from Frontline Combat provides an uncharacteristically patriotic clash with the North Korean aggressors in ‘Contact!’ (#2, September 1951).

‘Kill’ from T-FT #23 also takes place in Korea, relating a squalid encounter between a blood-thirsty knife-wielding G.I. psycho and his soulless Commie antithesis, whilst ‘Prisoner of War!’ (FC #3) highlights the numbing, inhuman brutality of combat when American POWs attempt an escape…

‘Rubble!’ (T-FT #24) boldly steps into “enemy” shoes by highlighting the war’s casual cost to simple Korean civilians whilst ‘Air Burst!’ in FC #4 goes even further by voicing the Communist soldiers’ side of the conflict.

The eponymous ‘Corpse on the Imjin!’ (T-FT #25) is one of the most memorable, moving and respected tales of the genre: a genuine anti-war story which elegiacally traces a floating body’s motion down the river to expose the ruminations of the doomed observers who see it.

The sentiment is further explored in ‘Big ‘If’!’ (FC #5) as G.I. Paul Maynard sits in a shell hole and ponders what might have been…

Kurtzman’s unique display of cartooning and craftsmanship is followed by the essay ‘Combat Duty’ wherein Jared Gardner discusses the background and usage of the other artists who worked on the author’s Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat scripts, before ‘Marines Retreat!’ – drawn by John Severin and inked by Kurtzman from FC #1 (July/August 1951) – describes in microcosm the shocking American forced withdrawal from the Changjin Reservoir in December 1950. The event stunned and terrified the folks at home and shook forever the cherished belief in the US Marines’ invincibility, and this is all told through the eyes of a soldier who understands too late the values he was supposed to be fighting for…

Kurtzman’s relationship with his artists could be fraught. Alex Toth, a tempestuous individualist who only drew three tales from his editor’s incredibly detailed lay-outs, famously produced some of his very best work at EC under such creative duress. The first and least was ‘Dying City!’ (T-FT #22) which found an aged Korean grandfather berating his dying descendent for the death and destruction he had brought upon his family and nation,

‘O.P.!’ was drawn by hyper-realist Russ Heath (FC #1) and once more ladled on the bleak, black irony during an annihilating trench encounter during WWI, after which Toth’s astounding aerial imagination produced in ‘Thunderjet!’ (FC #8) one of the most thrilling and evocative dogfight dramas in comics history.

This tale alone is worth the price of admission and was an alarm-call to complacent America as a US pilot is forced to concede that his winged weapon is technologically inferior to the ever-present Communist MIGs…

‘Fire Mission!’ (T-FT #29) was drawn by Dave Berg – an artist far better regarded for his comedy work – who lent his facility with expressions to a rather standard tale of courage discovered under fire in Korea, after which Gene Colan delineated the rift between military and civilians in the hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor in ‘Wake!’ from T-FT #30.

From the same issue ‘Bunker!’ was the first strip illustrated by Ric Estrada, describing rivalry and tension between American units during a Korean offensive. Oddly enough for the times, the fact that one faction was comprised of Negro soldiers was not mentioned at all…

The Cuban artist then drew a chillingly macabre tale of Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American war of 1898 in ‘Rough Riders!’ (FC #11) before master of comics noir Johnny Craig detailed the fate of a ‘Lost Battalion!’ in WWI (T-FT #32, March/April 1953).

From the same issue, ‘Tide!’ was an EC debut tale for the already-legendary Joe Kubert depicting a D-Day debacle and its insignificance in the grand scheme of things, whilst Toth’s magnificent Kurtzman-scripted swansong ‘F-86 Sabre Jet!’ (FC #12) revisited and even surpassed his Thunderjet job with a potent and beguiling reductionist minimalism that perfectly captured the disorienting hell of war in the air.

Due to illness and the increasing workload caused by Mad, Kurtzman’s involvement with war titles gradually dwindled. Frontline Combat #14, (October 1953) provided his last collaboration with Kubert in ‘Bonhomme Richard!’: a shocking, personalised account of American nautical legend John Paul Jones’ devastating duel with the British warship Serapis – as told by one of the hundreds of ordinary sailors who didn’t survive…

This masterclass in sequential excellence concludes with a salutary tale from the Civil War Special, Two-Fisted Tales #35 (October 1953). Illustrated by Reed Crandall, ‘Memphis!’ blends the destructive horror of the Union’s River Fleet of Ironclads as they inexorably take control of the Mississippi with the irrepressible excitement of Southern kids who simply could not understand what was happening to their parents and families…

Even with the comics extravaganza ended, there’s still more to enjoy as underground cartooning legend Frank Stack discusses the techniques and impact of Kurtzman’s astonishing covers for Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat in ‘Respect for Simplicity – the War Covers of Harvey Kurtzman’; superbly supplemented by a full-colour section representing all of them, even the seldom-seen Two-Fisted Annual 1952.

Also adding to the value is ‘A Conversation with Harvey Kurtzman’ by John Benson, E.B. Boatner & Jay Kinney, which transcribes two interviews from 1979 and 1982, as well as a full appreciation of the great man’s career in ‘Harvey Kurtzman’ by S.C. Ringgenberg.

Rounding everything off is ‘Behind the Panels: Creator Biographies’ a comprehensive run-down of all involved by Bill Mason and others, plus a general heads-up on the entire EC phenomenon in ‘The Ups and Downs of EC Comics: A Short History’ by author, editor, critic and comics fan Ted White.

The short, sweet but severely limited output of EC has been reprinted ad infinitum in the decades since the company died. These astounding stories and art have changed not just comics but also infected the larger world through film and television and via the millions of dedicated devotees still addicted to New Trend tales.

However, as far as I can recall nobody has produced collections faithfully focussing on the contributions of individual creators, and even though fuddy-duddies like me know these timeless classics intimately, this simple innovation has somehow added a new dimension to the readers’ enjoyment.

I strongly suggest that whether you are an aged EC Fan-Addict or nervous newbie, this is a book no comics aficionado can afford to miss…
This edition © 2012 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All comics stories © 2012 William M. Gaines Agent, Inc., reprinted with permission. All other material © 2012 the respective creators and owners.

Captain Marvel: Marvel Masterworks volume 2

By Roy Thomas, Arnold Drake, Gary Friedrich, Archie Goodwin, Gil Kane, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Frank Springer, Tom Sutton, John Buscema, Gene Colan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2430-6 (HB)

After more than a decade as an also-ran and occasional up-and-comer, by 1968 Marvel Comics was in the ascendant. Their sales were rapidly catching up with industry leaders National/DC Comics and Gold Key, and the House of Ideas had finally secured a new distribution deal allowing them to expand their list of titles exponentially.

Once the stars of “twin-books” Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish and Strange Tales all won their own titles, the new concepts just kept coming.

One dead-cert idea was a hero named for the company – and one with some popular cachet and nostalgic pedigree as well. After the DC/Fawcett court case of the 1940s-1950s, the name Captain Marvel had disappeared from the newsstands.

In 1967, during a superhero boom/camp craze generated by the Batman TV show, publisher MLF secured rights to the name and produced a number of giant-sized comics featuring an intelligent robot who (which?) could divide his body into segments and shoot lasers from his eyes.

Quirkily charming and devised by the legendary Carl (Human Torch) Burgos, the feature nevertheless did not attract a large following. On its demise, the name was quickly snapped up by the ever-expanding Marvel Comics Group.

Marvel Super-Heroes was a brand-new title: it had been the giant-sized reprint vehicle Fantasy Masterpieces, combining reprint monster and mystery tales with Golden Age Timely Comics mystery men classics, but with #12 it added an experimental section for characters without homes such as Medusa, Ka-Zar, Black Knight and Doctor Doom.

The title also debuted new concepts like Guardians of the Galaxy, Phantom Eagle and, to start the ball rolling, a troubled alien spy sent to Earth from the Kree Galaxy. He held a Captain’s rank and his name was Mar-Vell.

All that and even more candid, behind-the-scenes historical revelations are contained in series-author Roy Thomas’ effusive Introduction before this cosmically conceived tome – available in hardcover and digital editions – kicks off. On offer are the contents of Captain Marvel #10-21 collectively spanning cover-dates February 1969 to August 1970 plus a little comedy treat from Not Brand Echh # 9 (August 1968)…

Following the destruction of a long-dormant, mechanoid Kree Sentry and the subsequent defeat by the Fantastic Four of Ronan the Accuser – mighty high official of those long-lost extraterrestrials – the millennia-old empire was once again interested in Earth.

They despatched a surveillance mission to learn everything about us but unfortunately for them, the agent they chose was a man of conscience. However, his commanding officer Colonel Yon-Rogg was merciless taskmaster and secretly a ruthless rival for the love of the ship’s medical officer Una.

No sooner did the good captain make a tentative planet-fall than he clashed with the US army from the local missile base (often hinted at as being Cape Kennedy). Soon though he began fighting for the humans and was mistaken by many – including Security officer Carol Danvers – for a crusading costumed superhero…

To further his mission, Mar-Vell also assumed the identity of deceased military consultant Dr. Walter Lawson: but was quickly discovering that the dearly departed scientist concealed a chequered and probably nefarious past which created a whole raft of new problems for the undercover alien infiltrator…

The war of nerves with Yon-Rogg had intensified to the point that the colonel was openly planning murder and the romantic bond to Una was fractured when Carol Danvers began making her own overtures to the heroic Marvel.

Thus, when Ronan orders Mar-Vell to make allies of Lawson’s super-scientific criminal syndicate – at the cost of Carol’s life – the hero ignores his orders and pays the penalty as he is arrested by his own crew and faces a firing squad in #10’s ‘Die Traitor!’ (scripted by Arnold Drake and illustrated by Don Heck & Vince Colletta).

He is only saved by an ambush perpetrated by the survivors of an Aakon ship Yon-Rogg had previously targeted in #11’s ‘Rebirth!’ (illustrated by new penciller Dick Ayers). In the aftermath, however, the Kree colonel traps his despised rival on a missile hurtling into infinity and assumes his problems are over.

During the battle author Drake took the opportunity to kill off – as nobly as possible – the insipid Medic Una, giving staunch Mar-Vell justifiable reason to openly rebel against his entire race and be reborn under the tutelage of a cosmic entity known only as Zo! who saved the trapped hero from death in the void…

Moribund for months, this new beginning with the honourable, dutiful soldier remade as a vengeful vigilante was a real shot in the arm, but it was still quite clear that Captain Marvel the comic was struggling to find an audience. ‘The Moment of… the Man-Slayer!’ (Drake, Ayers and the great Syd Shores) sees the newly super-powered hero gifted with a whole new power set by Zo! and return to Earth.

He is hunting Yon-Rogg but soon distracted by a marauding synthetic assassin at The Cape, in a taut spy-thriller with The Black Widow in deadly guest-star mode.

‘Traitors or Heroes?’ concludes the Man-Slayer storyline with Gary Friedrich, Frank Springer & Vince Colletta as creative team, with the Captain finally confronting Yon-Rogg. The villain escapes by threatening Carol…

In #14’s ‘When a Galaxy Beckons…’ the Captain clashes with an entranced Puppet Master-controlled Iron Man as part of an early experiment in multi-part cross-overs (Sub-Mariner #14 and Avengers #64 being the other parts of the triptych) before leaving Earth… forever, he believes…

The going gets all cosmic in #15 (magnificently illustrated by Tom Sutton & Dan Adkins in a boldly experimental manner) as ‘That Zo Might Live… A Galaxy Must Die!’ sees Mar-Vell return to his home world on a mission of total destruction that wraps up the first career of Captain Marvel in spectacular style.

Beguiled and grateful, the hero revisits his homeworld determined to obliterate it for his almighty sponsor only to uncover an incredible conspiracy before the awesome truth is exposed in #16’s ‘Behind the Mask of Zo!’ by Archie Goodwin, Heck & Shores.

This yarn is the first great “everything you know is wrong” story in Marvel history and captivatingly makes sense of all the previous issues, supplying a grand resolution and providing a solid context for the total revamp of the character to come. That’s how good a writer Archie Goodwin was. And if you read Roy Thomas’s aforementioned Introduction, a clandestine creative secret is finally revealed…

Captain Marvel #16 is a magical issue and I’m being deliberately vague in case you have yet to read it, but I will tell you the ending. After saving the entire Kree Empire Mar-Vell is flying back to Earth in his new red-&-blue costume, when he is suddenly sucked into the anti-matter hell of the Negative Zone

It’s probably best to think of everything previously discussed as prelude, since Captain Marvel as we know him really begins with #17 as Thomas, Gil Kane & Dan Adkins totally retool and upgrade the character.

‘And a Child Shall Lead You!’ sees the imperilled Kree warrior inextricably bonded to voice-of-a-generation and professional side-kick Rick Jones who – just like Billy Batson (the boy who turned into the original Fawcett hero by shouting “Shazam!”) – switched places with a mighty adult hero when danger loomed.

As thrilling, and as revolutionary as the idea of a comic written from the viewpoint of teenager was, the real magic comes from the phenomenally kinetic artwork of Kane – whose mesmeric staging of the perfect human form in motion rewrote the book on superhero illustration with this series.

Issue #18 at last categorically ended the Yon-Rogg saga and started Carol Danvers on her own super-hero career as the Mar-Vell swore ‘Vengeance is Mine!’ – with a last minute pinch-hit pencilling from John Buscema for the concluding nine pages – before the next issue moved firmly into the “Relevancy Era” (where realism and themes of social injustice replaced aliens and super-villains as comics fodder) with a crazed sociologist and too-benevolent landlord revealed as ‘The Mad Master of the Murder Maze!’.

And that’s when the series was cancelled.

As happened so often during that tempestuous period, cutting edge, landmark, classic comic-books just didn’t sell. Silver Surfer, Green Lantern/Green Arrow and a host of other series we today consider high points of the form were axed because they couldn’t find enough of the right audience, but Captain Mar-Vell refused to die. Six months later issue #20 was released, and the quality was still improving with every page.

‘The Hunter and the Holocaust’ has Rick attempt to free his trapped body-and-soulmate by consulting old mentor Bruce Banner. But en route, a tornado destroys a town and Mar-Vell first renders assistance and then fights off resource-looters the Rat Pack. With the next issue Cap and Rick’s mentor finally meet, in ‘Here Comes the Hulk!’ but that’s just a garnish on this tale of student unrest and manipulative intolerance. The book was cancelled again after that… only to return some more!

Although those tales are saved for another time, there are still a few goodies to enjoy. First of these is a spoof strip from Marvel’s own parody comic Not Brand Echh # 9. ‘Captain Marvin: Where Stomps the Scent-ry! or Out of the Holocaust… Hoo-Boy!!’ is by Thomas, Gene Colan & Frank Giacoia : funny or painful depending on your attitude, but also included are some pencilled pages and sketches that are the answer to every wannabe artist’s dreams.

These include a Marie Severin cover rough for #10, Kane’s layout for #17, page 19 and three pin-ups by Kane & Adkins. Glorious!

This is not Marvel’s best character, and much of the material collected here is rather poor. However, the good stuff is some of the very best the company has produced in its entire history. If you want to see how good superhero comics can be you’ll just have to take the rough with the smooth… and who knows? Maybe you’ll learn to lower your standard a bit and enjoy yourself despite it all…

I often do…
© 1968, 1969, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Superman: Escape from Bizarro World

By Geoff Johns, Richard Donner, Eric Powell, Otto Binder, E. Nelson Bridwell, John Byrne, Wayne Boring, Curt Swan & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1794-5 (HB)                                : 978-1-4012-2033-4 (TPB)

One of the most consistent motifs in fiction is the “Dark Opposite” or “player on the other side”: a complete yet closely identical antithesis of the protagonist. Rock yourself to sleep at night if you wish, by listing deadly doppelgangers from Professor Moriarty to Sabretooth to Gladstone Gander

Sometimes though the word is not “dark” but “daft”…

Bizarro debuted in comics during ‘The Battle with Bizarro!’ Crafted by Otto Binder & George Papp, he was a tragic, misunderstood freak and unwilling monster in a captivating 3-part novel in Superboy #68, (October 1958).

Now celebrating sixty years of quirky comicbook un-life, the imperfect Superman duplicate has evolved into a potent symbol in the Man of Tomorrow’s mythology and humanity, with his childlike simplicity and complex, often-baffling reverse reasoning (“Us Bizarros Do Everything Backwards!”) perplexing and delighting generations of readers…

The shambling simpleton’s odd yet enduring appeal even brought lauded film director Richard Donner back to the characters he had transformed into global sensations in Superman: The Movie and Superman II. This volume collects Action Comics #855-857 from October – December 2007, plus earlier appearances from Superman #140, DC Comics Presents #71 and The Man of Steel #5.

Following Brian K. Vaughn’s Introduction ‘This Am Not One of the Best Bizarro Tales Ever Told!’, the lead saga eerily commences: co-written by Donner’s old assistant and super-scripter Geoff Johns, with macabre and stylish illustration from Eric Powell and colourist Dave Stewart.

One night in Smallville, the Kent home is broken into. By the time Superman arrives his mother Martha has recovered her wits and tells how Bizarro blasted in, snatching up Jonathan Kent.

It called him “father” as it bundled him into a rocket and soared away…

Consulting his Fortress of Solitude computers, Kal-El take precautions against his deduced destination’s blue sun before taking ship in hot pursuit…

On arrival, Superman is astounded to see square world Htrae, but even more so on landing when he is brutally attacked by a mob of zombie-like Bizarro creatures led by imperfect duplicates of Clark Kent and Lois Lane

Superman clashes with the Kent clone, accidentally exposing it as his imperfect double. The other creatures immediately switch their murderous attentions to Bizarro, declaring him “World’s Worst Enemy” and the Kryptonian interloper a “Bizarro Bizarro”. The enraged doppelganger’s response is to obliterate the marauding mob with flame breath…

The super-struggle rampages across the countryside, ending with the Man of Tomorrow’s defeat. The triumphant terror resumes his original task: quizzing Pa Kent on how to destroy Bizarro World…

‘Escape from Bizarro World Part II’ resumes the grim tale with glimpses of Bizarro’s well-meaning but disastrous time on Earth, why he left and how the incredible square planet was created. The power of the blue sun is also revealed to have given the flawed duplicate the gift of creating companions to populate this strange new world…

Those semi-sentient souls are currently debating how best to be rid of Bizarro and his smooth pink-skinned Perfect Duplicate as a leader rises amongst them. Bizarro Luthor conceives a cunning plan and a “Sekrit Wepin” he readily unleashes…

The unstoppable Bizarro Doomsday tracks his targets to the Fourtriss uv Bizarro and tears through an army of analogues mirroring Superman’s friends and foes. Taking advantage of the distraction, Kal-El frees his father, only to be faced with the faux Luthor and his zombie-mob. Suddenly, Bizarro is beside him, ready to help defend Pa, as the seemingly unstoppable Doomsday double launches itself at them…

Lunacy and Deus ex Machina moments abound as the conclusion commences with a satellite full of Bizarro Justice Leaguers landing on the dire killer resulting in an all-out brawl. With insanity mounting, Jonathan, Superman & Bizarro brainstorm a devious ploy to save the day and restore what passes for order to the cubic planet…

A glorious fun-filled, action-packed tribute to the anodyne insanity of the Silver Age, Escape from Bizarro World is a delightful Halloween commemoration of simpler times which you can then sample first-hand as the rest of this splendid compilation (available in hardback, trade paperback and eBook editions) provides a trio of vintage yarns starring the Imperfect Icon.

Bracketed with fond and informative commentary from Geoff Johns, ‘Bizarro Through the Years’ first re-presents Superman #140 (October 1960). Although later played for laughs in his own series, most of the earlier appearances of the warped double were generally moving or menacing light-tragedies, such as Binder, Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye’s ‘The Son of Bizarro!’

Here the fractured facsimile and his wife Bizarro-Lois produced a perfect human baby. The fast-growing, bonny-looking tyke had a full set of super-powers but was naturally shunned by the populace of the world of freaks he was born on.

Thus, his simple-minded, heartbroken father had no choice but to exile his son in space where chance brought the lad crashing to Earth as ‘The Orphan Bizarro!’. Placed in the same institution where Supergirl secretly resided, “Baby Buster” soon became a constant headache for the Girl of Steel until an unlikely accident seemingly mutated the nipper just as his distraught father came looking for him at the head of an angry army of enraged Superman duplicates.

A devastating battle was narrowly avoided and a happy ending only materialised with the introduction of ‘The Bizarro Supergirl!’

DC Comics Presents was a Superman team-up vehicle with #71 (July 1984) featuring a truly outrageous escapade by E. Nelson Bridwell, Curt Swan & Dave Hunt. ‘The Mark of Bizarro!’ saw Bizarro – bored with his lack of awesome adventures alongside the Bizarro Justice League – create a really challenging menace in the malformed shape of Bizarro Amazo.

Whereas the original copied super-powers for his own gain, the new nasty steals them with the intention of donating them to somebody without extra abilities. Finding no one qualifying on Htrae, Bizarro Amazo heads for Earth, forcing Superman to ally with his own befuddled duplicate to curtail complete chaos…

The final rerun comes from The Man of Steel #5, cover-dated December 1986.

When DC Comics rationalised and reconstructed their continuity with Crisis on Infinite Earths, they used the event to regenerate their key properties. The biggest shake-up was Superman and it’s hard to argue that change was unnecessary. The old soldier was in a bit of a slump, but he’d weathered those before. So how could a root and branch overhaul be anything but a marketing ploy that would alienate real fans for a few fly-by-night chancers who would jump ship as soon as the next fad surfaced?

Superman’s titles were cancelled/suspended for three months, and boy, did that make the media sit-up and take notice – for the first time since Donner’s Christopher Reeve movies.

However, there was method in this corporate madness…

The Man of Steel, written and drawn by Byrne and inked by Dick Giordano, stripped away vast amounts of accumulated baggage and returned the hero to the far-from-omnipotent, edgy yet good-hearted reformer Siegel and Shuster had first envisioned.

It was a huge and instant success, becoming the industry’s premiere break-out hit and from that overwhelming start Superman returned to his suspended comicbook homes with the addition of a third monthly title premiering in the same month.

The miniseries presented six complete stories from key points in Superman’s newly retrofitted career and continuity: reconstructed in the wake of the aforementioned Crisis. By the fifth issue Lex Luthor was his greatest foe and this episode deals with the creation of Bizarro – cloned by the brilliant villain from illegally acquired Superman cells.

The creature was intended to give the richest man in Metropolis a super-slave of his own, but the flawed process resulted in a rapidly-degenerating freak whose uncontrolled depredations terrorised the city more than imperilling the true Action Ace.

Moreover – and echoing the very first Bizarro tale – the beast sacrificed itself in a generous act, using its own essence to restore the sight of Lois Lane’s blind sister Lucy

With covers by Powell & Stewart, Swan & Stan Kaye, Eduardo Barreto and Byrne, this comic capsule of crazed counterfeit costumed crusader capers offers fun and fearsome frenzy in equal amounts: a deliciously offbeat outing for the World’s Finest Hero, and proves yet again that imitation is the sincerest and most effective form of flattery.
© 2007, 1960, 1984, 1986, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Nostalgia Collection: A Dog Called Bonzo

By George Studdy, with an introduction by Mary Cadogan (Hawk Books)
ISBN: 978-0-94824-852-8

The history of popular culture is studded with anthropomorphic animals that have achieved legendary, almost talismanic status. Mickey Mouse, Tiger Tim, Garfield, Smokey (the) Bear, Bonzo

If that latter causes a puzzled frown that’s a shame because for a while this playful, charming dog-of-dubious-pedigree was a wholly British animorph to rival Disney’s mouse and duck combined.

Only the artistic integrity and creative drive of his creator George Earnest Studdy – always cautious where and how he allowed his canine star to shine – prevented the marvellous mutt from attaining the global domination (and subsequent tawdry commercialisation) of the Disney duo.

In 1878 Studdy was born in Devon to a military family, but a childhood injury prevented him from following that proud path, whilst his prodigious artistic talent moved him to an unsatisfactory position as an engineer before he eventually found his true niche as an illustrator and animator.

Studdy’s first artistic success was a series of Boer War pictures of the Royal Artillery, soon followed by cartoons and illustrations for such comics as Big Budget, Funny Pips, Jester and Wonder and others. He also regularly contributed to papers and magazines including The Graphic, The Humorist, Little Folks, London Magazine, Punch, Windsor Magazine, The Tatler, The Bystander, Illustrated London News, The Field and especially The Sketch.

A superb general stylist, Studdy was most widely known for his animals although he was an early and memorably effective proponent of science fiction themes as well. Naturally, he worked extensively in the budding field of advertising…

Deemed unfit to fight in the Great War, he pioneered animation propaganda films that are still acclaimed for their quality and effectiveness. He first began producing pictures of a homely, engaging dog for The Sketch in the early 1920s, which were immensely popular. Eventually “the Studdy dog” became a permanent fixture and was christened Bonzo in the November 8th issue of 1922.

His luxuriously painted or drawn single panels gradually evolved into fully-sequenced gag-strips with the talking dog and his long-suffering lady-friend Chee-Kee captivating young and old alike with their playful yet slyly mature antics.

Despite Studdy’s decorum, Bonzo became a merchandising miracle of his time, lending his likeness and personality to many games and puzzles, toys of all types, figurines, china and dinnerware, cups, cruet sets and host of other household objects and all manner of advertising campaigns. He even had his very own neon sign in Piccadilly Circus.

Although Studdy voluntarily moved on from his creation to create many other pictorial marvels and to serve his country again in WWII as a draughtsman for the Royal Navy, the delightful dog continued under diverse hands in strips syndicated worldwide by King Features as well as in a series of wonderful books and annuals.

These began in 1935 and continued until 1952, with translations into many foreign editions. For a spectacular view of these you should see the superb websites at Studdying with Bonzo and Bonzo and George Studdy as well as this magical and far too short commemorative edition produced by Mike Higgs under his much-missed Hawk Books imprint. Thankfully this terrific tome is still readily available…

Funny, charming, sublimely illustrated, overwhelmingly successful and still every bit as entertaining today as it always was, the Bonzo experience is long overdue for an extensive repackaging job. Until such a happy event this little gem must act as a tantalising taster…

Go on, Fetch!
© 1990 the Estate of George Studdy. All Rights Reserved.

Avengers Epic Collection Volume 4: Behold… The Vision

By Roy Thomas, John Buscema, Barry Windsor-Smith, Sal Buscema, Gene Colan, Frank Giacoia, Howard Purcell & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9165-0

One of the most momentous events in comics history came in the middle of 1963 when a disparate gang of heroic individual banded together to combat an apparently out of control Incredible Hulk.

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

The Avengers always proved that putting all one’s star eggs in on single basket can pay off big-time. Even when all Marvel Royalty such as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man are absent, it merely allows the team’s lesser lights to shine more brightly.

Of course, the founding stars always regularly feature due to a rotating, open door policy ensuring most issues include somebody’s fave-rave. After instigators Stan Lee & Jack Kirby moved on, the team prospered under the guidance of Roy Thomas who grew into one of the industry’s most impressive writers, guiding the World’s Mightiest Heroes through a range of adventures ranging from sublimely poetic to staggeringly epic…

This fourth trade paperback compilation – also available in eBook iterations – collects Avengers #57-79, plus a solo saga starring a soon to be recruited addition from Marvel Super-Heroes #17 collectively covering October 1968 to August 1970.

This all-action extravaganza opens with the introduction of a new character with John Buscema and George Klein illustrating the 2-part introduction of possibly the most intriguing of all the team’s roster.

‘Behold… the Vision!’ and the concluding ‘Even an Android Can Cry’ retrofitted an old Joe Simon & Jack Kirby hero from the Golden Age (an extra-dimensional mystery-man) into a high-tech, eerie, amnesiac artificial man with complete control of his mass and density: playing him as the ultimate outsider, lost and utterly alone in a world that could never, never understand him.

After attacking the team but inexplicably stopping short of killing the human heroes, the then-nameless “Vision” led the Avengers into astounding adventure as the enigma of his creation unfolded.

It was revealed that he/it had been built by the relentless, remorseless robotic Ultron-5 to destroy the Avengers and especially his own creator Henry Pym. Furthermore, the mechanical mastermind had used the brain pattern of deceased hero and fallen Avenger Wonder Man as a cerebral template. Perhaps that was a mistake since the synthetic man apparently overruled his programming to help defeat his maniac maker…

Avengers #59 and 60, ‘The Name is Yellowjacket’ and ‘…Till Death do us Part!’ (the latter inked by Mike Esposito moonlighting as Mickey DeMeo) saw Goliath and the Wasp finally wed after the heroic Dr. Pym is seemingly replaced by a new insect-themed hero, with a horde of heroic guest-stars and the murderous Circus of Evil in attendance, followed here in swift succession by another of Marvel’s increasingly popular and commonplace crossovers.

‘Some Say the World Will End in Fire… Some Say in Ice!’ concluded a storyline from Doctor Strange #178 wherein a satanic cult unleashed Norse demons Surtur and Ymir to destroy the planet, with occasional ally the Black Knight adding his recently acquired mystic prowess to the defence of the realm.

He hung around for ‘The Monarch and the Man-Ape!’ in Avengers #63; a brief and interlude in hidden nation Wakanda and a brutal exploration of African Avenger Black Panther’s history and rivals – most notably a usurping super-strong trusted regent declaring himself M’Baku the Man-Ape

The next issue began a 3-part tale illustrated by Gene Colan & Klein whose lavish humanism was intriguingly at odds with the team’s usual art style. ‘And in this Corner… Goliath!’, ‘Like a Death Ray from the Sky!’ and ‘Mightier than the Sword?’ (the final chapter inked by Sam Grainger) was part of a broader tale; another early crossover experiment intersecting with both Sub-Mariner and Captain Marvel issues #14, wherein a coterie of cerebral second-string villains combined to conquer the world by stealth…

Within the Avengers portion of proceedings, Hawkeye revealed his civilian identity to be circus performer Clint Barton and recounted his origins before forsaking his bow and trick-arrows to become a size-changing hero and subsequently adopting the now-vacant name Goliath. Along the way the team scotched a terror satellite scheme cooked up by Egghead and enforced by the sinister Swordsman

Another triple-chapter story-arc followed; giving new kid Barry (Winsor) Smith a chance to show just how good he was going to become.

Inked by the legendary Syd Shores, ‘Betrayal!’ (#66) reveals how the development of new super metal Adamantium triggers a long-dormant back-up program in the Vision who is slavishly compelled to reconstruct his destroyed creator…

As ‘We Stand at… Armageddon!’ (Smith & Klein opens), adamantium-reinforced Ultron-6 is moments away from world domination and the nuking of New York when a now truly independent Vision violently intercedes before dramatic conclusion ‘…And We Battle for the Earth’ (illustrated by young Sal Buscema & Sam Grainger) sees the team – augmented by Thor and Iron Man – prove that the only answer to an unstoppable force is an unparalleled mind…

In Avengers #69 ‘Let the Game Begin’ (Thomas, Sal Buscema & Grainger) finds the team – Captain America, Yellowjacket, Wasp, Goliath, Vision and Thor – called to the hospital bedside of ailing Tony Stark just in time to prevent his abduction by the grotesque and gargantuan Growing Man. After battling boldly against the unbeatable homunculus, the team are summarily and collectively snatched into the future by old enemy Kang the Conqueror who co-opts the team to act as pieces in a cosmic chess-game with an omnipotent alien called the Grandmaster.

If the Avengers fail – Earth would be eradicated from the cosmos…

Issues #70 and 71 began a fertile period for writer Thomas as he introduced two new teams who would, in the fullness of time, star in their own stellar series: Squadron Supreme and The Invaders.

‘When Strikes the Squadron Sinister!’ sees the Avengers returned to their own time to battle a team of deadly villains (mischievously based on DC’s Justice League of America) before ‘Endgame!’ – guest-starring the Black Knight – finds the Vision, Black Panther and Yellowjacket dispatched to 1941 to clash with the WWII incarnations of the Sub-Mariner, Human Torch and Captain America…

After foiling Kang’s ambitions and surviving his betrayal the team victoriously return to the present where Avengers # 72 offered a guest-appearance from Captain Marvel and Rick Jones.

Did You Hear the One About Scorpio?’ also debuts malignantly menacing super-mob Zodiac, after which ‘The Sting of the Serpent’ (illustrated by Frank Giacoia & Grainger) pits the Panther against seditious hate-mongers determined to set New York ablaze, leading to a spectacular and shocking clash between Avengers and the Sons of the Serpent in ‘Pursue the Panther!’; the first in a string of glorious issues illustrated by the artistic dream team of John Buscema & Tom Palmer.

Long-missing mutant Avengers Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch resurfaced in #75, desperate to warn of and stave off extra-dimensional invasion and nuclear Armageddon by Conan prototype Arkon the Magnificent in ‘The Warlord and the Witch!’ before the staggering threat is finally extinguished in ‘The Blaze of Battle… the Flames of Love!’

As the tone of the times shifted and other titles entered a period of human-scaled storytelling dubbed “Relevancy”, a far more mundane and insidious menace manifested as billionaire financier Cornelius Van Lunt manoeuvres to bankrupt Avengers sponsor Tony Stark, compelling the team to become the mystery magnate’s ‘Heroes for Hire!’

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

Chronologically adrift but adding plenty of bonus thrills, the comics adventures end for now with ‘The Black Knight Reborn!’ by Thomas, Howard Purcell & Dan Adkins from try-out title Marvel Super-Heroes #17 (November 1968). Here American part-time superhero Dane Whitman inherits an English castle and discovers through ghostly intervention that he is the last descendent of King Arthur’s trusty comrade Percy of Scandia – history’s first Black Knight and Merlin’s last resort against all forces of evil.

Gifted with a mystic ebony blade that can cut through anything, Dane readies himself to fight the good fight in modern times. He soon becomes painfully aware that the malign ghostly spirit of vile Modred is also abroad and empowering dupes such as French derelict Le Sabre with magical weapons to end his crusade before it can even begin…

Unceasingly enticing and always evergreen, these timeless sagas defined and cemented the Marvel experience and are a joy no fans of Fights ‘n’ Tights fiction should deny themselves or their kids.
© 1968, 1969, 1970, 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

An Android Awakes: Fictional Alignment

By Mike French & Tony Allcock (Elsewhen Press)
ISBN: 978-1-911409-20-5                  eISBN: 978-1-911409-30-4

It’s been a while since we looked at anything non-traditional so here’s an intriguing illustrated book which has a lot to recommend it… most importantly, that it’s a long-awaited sequel to a captivating and fascinating tome we reviewed way back in 2015…

In the far future of An Android Awakes, human beings are practically extinct and androids have become the dominant intellects ruling the planet. Sadly, our synthetic successors are as prone to emotional foibles, personal insecurities, obsessive manias and ruthless zealotry as us meat-bags ever were.

To a great extent they also assimilated our creative urges too. One such was Android Writer PD121928 who was part of the Android Publishing Program. The state provided for his needs (drugs, whores, deep-frozen pets and the removal of his wife so that he can achieve the proper frame of artistic angst and squalor) and in return he was to conceive increasingly outré and wild adventure tales. The same deal applied for every creative automaton in the system: Filmmakers, photographers, artists, whatever…

His ultimate failure and tragic martyrdom allowed and compelled his human lover Sapphira to recycle his failed ideas into a global bestseller entitled Humans (An Arrangement of Minor Defects).

On its release – the first human work of fiction for over a century – the volume became the best-selling book of all time, but in the aftermath of publication an ideological schism triggered a violent change in Android government and philosophy leading to a pogrom against everything non-factual…

Eleven years later, with society in crisis and the mythoclasts in charge, Fiction is deemed filth and all creativity is consecrated to Fact. The mighty Pravda and his Proseologist assumed control of the Vatican and began excising everything non-verifiable – mood, tone, poesy, flights of fancy – from the world’s literature.

But even that is not enough. Thus, androids Heisenberg and Tractatus are ordered to conduct arch-imagineer Sapphira – and a select band of equally unwilling and iconic characters – on a succession of journeys through time to re-enact her book’s greatest feats and feasts of fictive excess, rendering them factual in every respect…

Sadly, whilst stage-managing great moments of love, death, spectacle, science fantasy and comedy to prove the fanciful concrete and validatable, the sheer corrupting power of imagination and the forces needed to make creativity and inspiration real have an implacably metamorphic effect of the agents of change and they begin using millennia of time travel to reshape the mission to their own twisted ever-shifting agendas…

Featuring old An Android Awakes favourites such as The Great Explorer Umberto Amunsden, The Locust Wife and The Amazing Arctic Sinking Man and introducing us to the almighty Digitised Treasury and the Real Jesus, this mind-bending Scientific Romance from Mike French offers a challenging odyssey through the theocracy of thought and depicts a trenchant guerrilla war between What Is, What Might and What Should be…

Devotees of Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Thomas M. Disch and other heavyweights of the last century’s SF New Wave movement will love this challenging stand-out return to Big Idea, Deep Thought emotionally expressive speculative fiction, as will any reader hungry to have heart and mind expanded…
Text and artwork © Mike French 2018. Cover artwork © Tony Allcock 2018. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 8

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6294-0 (PB)                     : 978-0-7851-1694-3 (HB)

The monolith of Marvel truly began with the adventures of a small super-team who were as much squabbling family as coolly capable costumed champions. Everything the company produces now comes due to the quirky quartet and the groundbreaking, inspired efforts of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby…

This full-colour compendium – also available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions – collects Fantastic Four #72-81 plus the epic Fantastic Four Annual #6: spanning March – December 1968 with Stan & Jack outdoing themselves with every successive issue to cement their reputation as the greatest team in comics…

What You Should Already Know: maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm – with Sue’s teenaged tag-along little brother – miraculously survived an ill-starred private space-shot after Cosmic rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and project forcefields, Johnny Storm could turn into living flame and tragic Ben devolved into a shambling, rocky freak. The they agreed to use their abilities to benefit mankind and thus was born The Fantastic Four.

Following another effusive Introduction from Lee the drama opens with the team in crisis. With a baby due Reed and Sue had resigned, leaving The Thing, Johnny and his Inhuman girlfriend Crystal to hold the fort just as cosmic calamity came calling.

In ‘Where Soars the Silver Surfer!’ the sky-born wanderer imprisoned on Earth by the world-devouring Galactus went cage-crazy and attacked humanity, forcing Reed’s return, after which FF #73 presented a classic crossover and the conclusion to a long-running Daredevil story wherein the sightless crusader is ousted from his own body by Iron Tyrant Doctor Doom.

Warning the FF of imminent attack, the Man without Fear then subsequently defeats Doom on his own but neglects to tell the heroes of his victory…

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

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

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

As they struggle to survive, Galactus applies ever-more pressure in ‘Shall Earth Endure?’ until the now-fully-apprised Surfer turns himself in to save Earth by finding the great Devourer an alternative snack.

His reward is to be summarily returned to his captivity here as soon as ungrateful Galactus finishes feeding (just in time to begin his own landmark series – but that’s the subject of another review, another time…)

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

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

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

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

With Sue a new mother faithful Crystal then elects herself the first new official member of the Fantastic Four and promptly shows her mettle by pulverizing the incorrigible glutton-for-punishment Wizard in #81’s all-action romp ‘Enter… the Exquisite Elemental!’ to conclude this superb chronological catalogue of fabulously compelling Fights ‘n’ Tights tales.

Did I say concludes? Not quite as this book still finds room for a selection of astounding original art pencil pages of Kirby to further dazzle the senses.

Perfect comics, perfectly packaged. What are you waiting for?
© 1968, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.