The Golden Age of Marvel Comics

By various (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-0564-6

I’ve said some harsh things about the work produced by Marvel (nee Timely) Comics in its golden age incarnation, so it’s only fair that I redress the balance with this tome that collects a bunch of tales that show the company in its most flattering light during those dark times. Edited by the inestimable Tom Brevoort, it gathered and remastered a selection of material (admittedly much of which the company had already reprinted during its first large scale expansion in the late 1960s in such comic specials as Marvel Tales and Fantasy Masterpieces), that combined historical significance with the best quality work that the archives could offer.

First is Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner from Motion Picture Funnies Weekly which actually pre-dated the company, but which was re-packaged as part of Marvel Comics #1 (1939). It is followed by the team-up/cross-over with the Human Torch from that venerable magazine’s eighth issue (June 1940) with art by Carl Burgos and Everett.

Another collaboration of both the artists and their most famous creations follows with ‘The Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner Fighting Side by Side’ (Marvel Mystery Comics #17, March 1941), and Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s ‘Horror Plays the Scales’ stars the gruesome Red Skull in an adventure from Captain America Comics #7 (September 1941).

Simon and Kirby also produced ‘The Vision’ from Marvel Mystery Comics #25, in November of that year. A second Cap story ‘The Cobra Ring of Death’ comes courtesy of Captain America Comics # 22, drawn by Syd Shores in 1943. Sub-Mariner returns in ‘Terror of the Boiling Sea’ from Marvel Mystery Comics #42, April 1943, drawn by Carl Pfeufer, and that issue also provides ‘Quarantine for Murder’ a swashbuckling adventure of the Angel, credited to Ron Garn and Gustav “Gus” Schrotter.

Mike Sekowsky drew the Mighty Destroyer tale ‘The Beachhead Blitz’ from All-Winners Comics #12 (Spring 1944), technically perhaps the last truly Golden Age story in the book, as the Marvel Boy adventure that follows, ‘The Deadly Decision’ comes from 1951. This was produced (from Astonishing #5) by Bill Everett at the absolute top of his creative form, as he still was with the ‘Tidal Wave of Fear’ reprinted from Venus #18, February 1952.

In the mid-1950s Marvel tried to revive their ‘big three’ and super-hero comics in general, on the back of a putative Sub-Mariner television series to cash in on the success of the Superman show. This led to some impressively creative comic work, but no appreciable results.

Young Men Comics #24 (December 1953) is represented in its entirety here, and featured ‘The Return of the Human Torch’ by Russ Heath, Captain America was ‘Back From the Dead’ as was a now mysteriously communistic Red Skull, in a tale drawn by John Romita Sr., and Bill Everett returned to his greatest triumph with ‘The Sub-Mariner’. The Star-Spangled Avenger gets one more bite of the cherry in ‘Captain America Turns Traitor’ (Young Men Comics #26, March 1954) with Romita Sr. once again providing the visuals.

When this last gasp of super-heroic shenanigans failed, Marvel/Atlas once again concentrated on humour, horror, westerns, war and more or less straight adventure. From July 1955 (issue #2) comes a tale of the Black Knight, written by Stan Lee and drawn by the absolutely unparalleled Joe Maneely, and the book closes with a taste of what was soon to come with Jack Kirby’s scientific fantasy adventure ‘The Microscopic Army’, a tale of the insidious Yellow Claw (one of the comics industry’s many knock-offs of Sax Rohmer’s legendary Fu Manchu) from the third issue of his own short-lived magazine (February 1957).

Without exception these varied and excellent tales showed what the characters and creative forces at Marvel Comics could produce. Sadly much of the best comics work of the period covered here were produced in genres not considered particularly commercial in today’s superhero and space-opera dominated market-place. Here then, is a historical document that Marvel can feel proud of, and which does fit today’s market forces. Why isn’t it still in print then?

© 1939-1944, 1951-1955, 1957, 1997 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

James Bond 007: The Spy Who Loved Me

James Bond 007: The Spy Who Loved Me 

By Ian Fleming, Jim Lawrence & Yaroslav Horak (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-174-X

The action goes into overdrive in this 007 compilation from Titan Books as the reprints of the 1960’s newspaper strips reaches the point where Fleming’s last work is adapted, promptly followed by all new adventures from adaptor Jim Lawrence.

The Spy Who Loved Me is fleshed out (Fleming’s novel is written from the view point of damsel in distress Vivienne Michel, and Bond does not appear until the last third of the text) into a taut battle of wits between Bond and Vivienne against a duo of deadly arsonists and hitmen, following the super-agent’s foray against a revived S.P.E.C.T.R.E. gang in Canada to provide a tense battle of wits and suitably gratuitous come-uppances all around.

Veteran strip writer Lawrence swiftly shifts the emphases from the tense, terse prose model to encompass the much more visual prerequisites of the illustrated story-form, and by the next adventure which closes out this volume, the action aspect has been given the spotlight previously awarded to the setting of scenes and building of tension.

The all original material begin with ‘The Harpies’ as Bond goes undercover at a defence contractor’s factory to rescue a kidnapped scientist and end the depredations of a deadly gang of female flying bandits. Both tales are illustrated by the uniquely stylish Yaroslav Horak, whose extreme design style and dynamic lines impart tremendous energy to scenes that must labour under the incredibly difficult restrictions of the three-panel-a-day newspaper format.

Stirring stuff from top-notch creators working on a legend of fiction. What could be better?

Strip © Express Newspapers Ltd. 1987. All Rights Reserved

Global Frequency 2: Detonation Radio

Global Frequency 2: Detonation Radio

By Warren Ellis & various (WildStorm)
ISBN 1-84023-858-5

The second volume of Ellis’ take on International Rescue (no hidden Islands – lots of guns) crossed with Mission: Impossible sees the planetary saviour squad of 1001 agents tackle hi-tech hitmen (drawn by Simon Bisley), kidnappers (Chris Sprouse and Karl Story), deranged gene-therapists (Lee Bermejo), super-violent bio feedback experts (Tom Coker), an attack on their own “headquarters” (Jason Pearson) and an attempt by the US military to cull their own surplus population back to a manageable level (Gene Ha).

This is a most modern comic series, stripped down to all its most essential elements, frenetic, vastly, graphically violent and always thundering along at top speed. Being drawn by the top artists in the industry doesn‘t hurt either. Think of six summer blockbusters per volume and don’t worry too much about making sense.

© 2003, 2004 Warren Ellis and DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Modesty Blaise: Bad Suki

Modesty Blaise: Bad Suki 

By Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-721-X

One of the greatest strengths of Modesty Blaise was the powerfully contemporary relevance of the stories when they first appeared in the London Evening Standard. Many of the topical plots could also be seen on the news pages most days, but there they sadly lacked the likes of the inimitable heroine and the charismatic Willie Garvin to sort out the perpetrators.

The title feature pits our reformed supercriminals against a deadly gang of drug-dealers, an area of endeavour they’d loathed and shunned when they ran the organisation called the Network. The vehemence with which they dispatch the dealers plaguing London’s swinging scene has more than a little whiff of wish-fulfilment to it, and the action set-pieces crackle with tension.

The follow-up tale “The Galley Slaves” uses the lavishly garish location of a movie-prop Roman Trireme to pit Modesty and Willie against an army of mobsters attempting to make off with US military hardware, and the final tale, “The Red Gryphon” is a more personal tale as Modesty takes revenge for the murder of a companion whilst solving an ancient Venetian treasure mystery.

In all these stories, as the plots unfold, O’Donnell and Holdaway increasingly concentrate on the protagonists’ characters, fleshing out already-complex heroes with subtle mannerisms and peccadilloes seldom seen in popular fiction, let alone strip features. Blaise and Garvin are complex, complex people.

These tales are classic adventure outings. The action is always credible, even throwaway characters are well-realised and the villains memorable even when they suffer their inevitable ends. Perhaps the greatest strength of Modesty Blaise is the powerfully timeless quality of these tales.

© 2005 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication.

Global Frequency 1: Planet Ablaze

Global Frequency 1: Planet Ablaze 

By Warren Ellis & various (WildStorm)
ISBN 1-84023-849-6

The Global Frequency is a pan-national organisation owing allegiance to no government, dedicated to cleaning up the technological, biological and other extraordinary menaces perpetrated by delusional rulers and/or the deranged populations of our patently insane planet. Run by the charismatic but stroppy Miranda Zero, with 1001 specialists based all over the world, they take on the tasks that the authorities can’t or won’t – with or without their approval.

Each story is drawn by one of the industry’s top talents in an all-out action-fest. Pared down, terse dialogue races beautiful graphics to spectacular conclusions as Ellis blends the ethos of Thunderbirds with the tactics of Mission: Impossible to solve the dilemmas of The X Files. ‘Bombhead’ (with art by Garry Leach) finds the solution to a malfunctioning and long-forgotten cold-war weapon; ‘Big Wheel’ (art by Glenn Fabry – with a little help from Liam Sharp) deals with a Cyborg assassin built by the US military, and ‘Invasive’ tells a last stand tale of alien incursion (drawn by Steve Dillon).

‘Heaven’s One Hundred’ finds desperate agents to handle one of the dumbest hostage situations ever (Roy Allan Martinez), ‘Big Sky’ deals with the aftermath of an invasion by Angels (John J Muth), and the volume concludes with David Lloyd’s gripping illustration of ‘The Run’, as an Ebola bomb is set to devastate London and only a Le Parkour (urban street racer) runner can find and stop it.

This is comics as pure action. There are no textures or sub-plots and nothing but a hint of backstory. This is a full-pelt run to the end of the tale as a series about last-minute rescues ought to be, with pictures by some of the best in the business. I’m not sure if that’s enough to sustain a long run but since that’s not the point of a miniseries or graphic novel that shouldn’t be too much of a problem, no?

© 2003, 2004 Warren Ellis and DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Girl Got Game

Girl Got Game 

By Shizuru Seino (TokyoPop)
ISBN 1-59182-696-9

This bizarrely engaging cross-dressing sports comedy is an examination of pushy parenthood gone wild. Kyo Aizawa’s father was good enough to play basketball for the majors of the NBA, but an injury destroyed his career forever. Kyo has the potential to be an even greater player, and dear old dad will let nothing thwart this second chance for fame and family glory. He enrols Kyo at the legendary Seisyu High School, home of the greatest Boys Basketball team in Japan. Not even the fact that Kyo is a girl will stop him from having a Basketball star in the family!

Blending genuine pathos with the slap-stick and teen angst comedy-of-embarrassment, Shizuru Seino examines the need to fulfil family obligations battling the growth to independence, and the first inklings of adult desire within the trite framework of an ostensibly hackneyed and moribund theme. There are school hi-jinks aplenty, with Kyo, a double outsider, striving to excel, trying to remain undiscovered, and fighting off the growing feeling she is developing for her team mates. There are even a few bona fide laughs along the way.

Faithful to the manga style, Girl Got Game still manages to provide a few entertaining surprises for the general reader. You don’t even need to love sports or be a girl…

© 2000 Shizuru Seino. All Rights Reserved.
English text © 2003 TOKYOPOP Inc.

Essential Daredevil, Vol 2

Essential Daredevil, Vol 2 

By Stan Lee, Gene Colan & various (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-905239-1462-9

Marvel Comics built its fan base through strong and contemporarily relevant stories and art, but most importantly, by creating a shared continuity that closely followed the characters through not just their own titles but also through the many guest appearances in other comics. Such an interweaving meant that even today completists and fans seek out extraneous stories to get a fuller picture of their favourite’s adventures. In such an environment, series such as ‘Essential’ and DC’s ‘Showcase’ are an economical and valuable product that approaches the status of a public service for collectors.

This particular edition, reprinting the exploits of a very different Daredevil to the one popularised by Frank Miller and his successors from the 1980’s onwards, covers the period of March 1967 (#26) to January 1969 (#48), and includes the first Annual and Fantastic Four #73 where a long running storyline concluded (see what I mean about cross-collecting?).

The adventures are fairly typical 1960’s action-fodder. Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer whose other senses over-compensate, making him a formidable acrobat and fighter, and a human lie-detector. Very much a second-string hero, he was nonetheless a popular one, due in large part to the wonderfully humanistic art of Gene Colan. He fought gangsters and a variety of super-villains, and even the occasional alien invasion. He also joked and wise-cracked his way through life, unlike the grim and moody quasi-religious metaphor he’s been seen as in latter years.

In short order then, you will find here such foes as the Stilt-Man, Masked Marauder, sight-stealing Aliens, cheap hoods, The Cobra and Mr Hyde, The Beetle, and from the Annual, the Emissaries of Evil – that’s Electro, Leapfrog, Stilt-Man, Gladiator and the Matador. After some “Secrets of DD” information pages and lots of pin-ups the crime-fighting continues with the Trapster and Doctor Doom, which all concludes in the aforementioned Fantastic Four #73, drawn by Jack Kirby and inked by Joe Sinnott.

The Unholy Three and the Exterminator are next, followed by a prolonged battle with the Jester only interrupted by a brief tiff with Captain America. A well-written change of pace featuring a blinded Viet Nam soldier shows a more human side to the adventurer and the book ends with the return of Stilt-Man for one last hurrah. Other guest stars include Thor and Spider-Man.

This is a good place to end as Stan Lee would hand over the scripting to Roy Thomas soon after this and the social turbulence that marked the end of the decade would begin to alter DD into something closer to his current archetype. But that’s another volume…

© 1967, 1968, 1969, 2004 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq

Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq 

By Karl Zinsmeister, Dan Jurgens & Sandu Florea (Marvel Comics)
ISBN 0785115161

It’s always good to see Marvel venture outside its self-constructed ghetto of Proprietary Characters, rather than endlessly re-hash the names it’s already trademarked, and doubly so when it is to venture into genres that it has previously abandoned. Sadly, in some cases the question then becomes one of seeking new markets as opposed to simply looking for new resources to exploit. Comics have had a long and chequered history when it comes to militarism, ideological witch-hunting and band-wagon hopping.

Combat Zone features the “real-life accounts” of US combatants in the 2003-2004 Iraq War, although “some incidents have been combined to make for a more condensed read”, and of course names have been changed to protect, etc. etc. …

Writer Zinsmeister was an embedded reporter during the conflict so I’m sure the events are as true as he saw them but the overall feeling after reading the book was one of tedious detachment. Maybe the modern military life is one of immense boredom, spent talking to buddies and telling everyone how cool your ordnance is, interlaced with the occasional skirmish, but if such is the case it shouldn’t be in a drama-oriented comic-book.

It’s hard not to compare this series with the excellent Real War Stories produced in the late 1980s by Eclipse or even such personal visions as Sam Glanzman’s A Sailor’s Story or Don Lomax’s gruelling, compelling and, above all, informative Viet Nam Journal, perhaps because all of these take the part, and the authorial voice, of the ordinary man, and there is an implicit understanding, that though necessary, the job at hand is neither easy or fun. Even Robert Kanigher’s Sgt. Rock tales had greater verisimilitude than what’s on offer here.

In Combat Zone even when a character eventually dies, the response is so anodyne that we know nobody really cares. There is more than the hint of the Press Release about it. Often it feels like the entire comic has passed through the same Pentagon ‘fact-checker’ that news reports do. A far cry, then, from Real War Stories #1, which the US government actually attempted to suppress.

On a purely dramatic level, the problem is one of heroic stature. When two desperate guys give their lives in a dramatic, doomed attempt to stop an onslaught of high-tech juggernauts from crushing their homeland, with nothing more than an old pick-up truck and a machine gun, those ought to be the heroes, not the bad guys!

There’s nothing but platitudes in each character’s mouth here to show the reader how justified the war might be, and no mention of the disastrous early days of allied blunders or numerous friendly fire incidents. ‘Those didn’t happen where I might see them’ is not an excuse in a documentary which has been subjectively edited “to make for a more condensed read”. You don’t get to pick and choose between Dramatic Authenticity and Journalistic Veracity at will, and not expect a few hits for it.

With lacklustre art masquerading as realism from comic super-star Dan Jurgens adding to the overall dullness of the mix (is it me or are all US soldiers darned good looking fellers?) the overall response to this is one of disappointment. It felt as if the neither the creators nor the characters were in the least bit emotionally engaged. I certainly wasn’t.

© 2005 Marvel Characters Inc. All Rights Reserved.

A History of Violence

A History of Violence 

By John Wagner & Vince Locke (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-212-6

Once again Vertigo reaps the benefits of the experimental exploits of DC’s all but defunct Paradox Press venture when another barely noticed graphic crime thriller got the big-time Hollywood seal of approval. Following on the heels of Road to Perdition, David Cronenberg’s film adaptation furthered the trend away from flashy superhero spectacular movies with this tale of small, brave people who can only be pushed so far. The film itself was nominated for a Palme D’Or at Cannes where it premiered.

Veteran British comics writer John Wagner continues his life-long explorations of human nature with the tale of an ordinary guy who loves his family and runs a diner. When two thugs try to rob the place he manages to subdue them, but that’s where his troubles begin. Seeing his picture in the news, a team of New York Wise Guys turn up, claiming that he’s someone they used to know and they’re disturbingly not keen on taking “no” for an answer.

In typical Wagner tradition, there’s as much action as mystery before the startling and grisly denouement, and the vital, edgy drawing of Vince Locke reinforces the mundane nature of the characters and settings whilst capturing the shock and disorientation as these normal lives of ordinary people are permanently disrupted.

In a time where not one comic-based blockbuster movie has materially increased the readership of the core material, perhaps a few more creators might be enticed to make comics that are to the tastes of the wider world rather than a dwindling die-hard group of unreconstructed post-adolescents. Only so many consumers can handle that fetishistic costuming and power-tripping, but any reader can be sucked in to great story-telling, as long as they’re not put off by ludicrous trappings.

A History of Violence is a tight, dramatic crime-suspense thriller, with subversively sharp visuals, strong but accessible characterisation and a memorable climax. I know, because I read it, and I might even see it eventually. That’s an order of events I urge all comic fans to emulate.

™ & © 1997 John Wagner. All Rights Reserved.
Art © 1997 Vince Locke. All Rights Reserved.

All Star Superman Vol 1

All Star Superman Vol 1 

By Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely with Jamie Grant (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-326-2

Older readers of the Man of Steel remember an age of weirdness, wonder, charm, hope and above all, unparalled imagination. Grant Morrison obviously remembers them too, and must miss them as much as we do.

When dwindling sales forced comics down certain editorial paths, the US mainstream went for darker, grittier tales and heroes, and a policy of following trends became mandatory. Ninjas, cyborgs, younger incarnations – all the old heroes put on new clothes as fashion dictated, abandoning their own mythologies whenever it seemed most expedient. The saddest thing is that sales kept falling anyway, and by recanting all the appurtenances of a long-lived character, they removed points of reference for any older readers who might contemplate a return.

So ‘well done’ to those companies that have repackaged their classics (such as DC’s ‘Greatest Stories’ line) for the nostalgia market, and especially for those editors that have eschewed slavish continuity as the only option and opened up key characters to broader interpretation.

When I was a nipper, Superman had outlandish adventures and was still a decent bloke. His head could be replaced by a lion’s or an ant’s and he loved playing jokes on his friends. His exploits were routinely mind-boggling and he kept a quiet dignity about him. He only shouted to shatter concrete, and not to bully villains. He was cool.

And in All Star Superman he is again. Morrison and Quitely have produced a delightful evocation of those simpler, gentler times with a guided tour of the past redolent with classic mile-markers. Superman is the world’s boy scout, Lois has spent years trying to prove Clark is the Man of Steel, Jimmy Olsen is a competent young reporter dating Lucy Lane and all of time and space know they can count on the Man of Tomorrow.

But don’t believe this is just a pastiche of past glories. Kids of all ages are better informed than we were, and there’s a strong narrative thread and sharp, witty dialogue, backed up by the best 21st century technobabble to keep our attention. A plot to kill Superman carries this tale along and there is drama and tension aplenty to season the wonderment. I can’t wait for the next volume, and that’s how it should be. It’s how I felt at the end of each issue all those years ago.

© 2006, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.