Essential Human Torch Vol. 1

Essential Human Torch Vol. 1

First Published: January 2004

Contents: Human Torch stories from Strange Tales #101 (October 1962) to #134 (July 1965), and Strange Tales Annual #2 (1963)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, Larry Lieber, and Bob Powell

Key First Appearances: Wizard, Paste-Pot Pete, the Eel, Dorrie Evans, Plantman, the Beetle, the Fox

Overview: Welcome to the solo stories of Johnny Storm, the teenage member of the Fantastic Four. We are quite familiar by now how Johnny gained the fantastic ability to ignite himself on fire to become the Human Torch. Now we see how the youngest member of the FF deals with teenage issues, like finding a girlfriend or getting a car.

One of the key introductions in these stories is Dorrie Evans, who would become Johnny’s regular girlfriend for the early years, at least until she disappeared into limbo and was replaced by Crystal from the Inhumans. Many longtime FF villains started out as foes of Johnny, including the Wizard, the Eel, and Paste-Pot Pete. (It’s hard to strike fear in citizens with a name like Paste-Pot Pete, so he eventually changed his name over to the Trapster.)

In Strange Tales #120, the Human Torch teams up with Iceman from the X-Men, the first meeting between these two characters. This would lead to an ongoing argument within the comic community that has lasted for 50+ years as to who would win a fight between them. My feeling is they could each win in the right circumstances in a neutral setting. But generally, the edge always goes to the titular character.

Beginning with Strange Tales #123, the Thing comes on as the regular co-star of these stories with the Human Torch. This helps build the friendship between the two characters. The stories seem to repeat a lot of the friends and foes seen during Johnny’s solo stories, so we get second appearances by the Sub-Mariner, the X-Men, Paste-Pot Pete, the Wizard, and others.

What makes this Essential?: These stories could be considered as the first spin-off book from Marvel Comics. Even though the Human Torch is the title character for this run, these really are a secondary set of Fantastic Four stories. Reed, Sue, and Ben appear in nearly every story in this run. These stories start just 11 months after Fantastic Four #1 and served as a way to help get the characters more exposure, in particular, the teenage member of the foursome. A side benefit had to be increased sales on an anthology book that was quickly being surpassed by the popularity of the super-hero titles.

Hindsight being 20/20, maybe it would have been better to include these stories chronologically within the Essential Fantastic Four run. This Essential Human Torch came out nearly six years after the Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 1, during the early days of this collection line. With most of the stories in this volume done by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers, you could almost consider this volume to be Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 1.5. If you own the early Fantastic Four Essentials, then you should also own this one.

She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!: In Strange Tales #130, Stan Lee decided to team up the  Fantastic Four with the Fab Four. Dorrie Evans and Alicia Masters invite their boyfriends to attend a Beatles concert. When they arrive, the concert venue manager announces that they were just robbed, and would be unable to pay the Beatles. Johnny and Ben step up to recover the money. Even though these are just normal crooks, they lead the Human Torch and the Thing on a six-page chase before being captured. Johnny and Ben return the money to the box office, right as the concert ends.

The Human Torch and the Thing return the stolen box office receipts.

The Human Torch and the Thing return the stolen box office receipts.

This appears to be the first appearance of the Beatles in a Marvel comic, but not their first appearance in a comic. In 1964, Dell Comics released an oversized one-shot that was more magazine than comic.

Footnotes: Strange Tales was an anthology title that started back in 1951. When the Human Torch joined in issue #101, that began the “Marvel Universe” takeover of the title. Dr. Strange joined in issue #110. When the Human Torch (and the Thing) left the title, they were replaced by Nick Fury.

In 1974, Marvel launched an eight-issue Human Torch series. It featured reprints of Golden-Age Human Torch stories featuring Jim Hammond, as well as reprints of the early Strange Tales stories featuring Johnny Storm. Each issue had a new cover, done by the likes of John Romita, Sr., Marie Severin, and Gil Kane. It would have been nice if Marvel had included those covers in this book.

The Human Torch story in Strange Tales #127 was reprinted with a new framing sequence in Fantastic Four #154, which was reprinted in Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 7.

If you like this volume, try: the Spider-Man/Human Torch miniseries from 2005. Written by Dan Slott and drawn by Ty Templeton, this five issue series spotlights moments shared between the two characters over their five decades in comics. This is a funny yet touching look at two friends who grew into adulthood fighting villains and aliens. This has been reprinted in the digest format and as a hardcover, but the individual issues can still be found in quarter bins. This is a must read for all ages!

Essential Daredevil Vol. 1

First Published: October 2002

Contents: Daredevil #1 (April 1964) to #25 (February 1967)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee, Bill Everett, Steve Ditko, Joe Orlando, Wally Wood, Jack Kirby, John Romita, and Gene Colan

Key First Appearances: Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Franklin ‘Foggy’ Nelson, Karen Page, Battlin’ Jack Murdock, Leland Owlsley/the Owl, Purple Man,  Stilt-Man, Ani-Men, Plunderer, Marauder, Gladiator, Leap-Frog

Story Continues In: Essential Daredevil Vol. 2

Overview: Following a freak accident that doused  him in radioactive waste, young Matt Murdock finds himself blind but with enhanced senses of hearing, smell, touch, and taste (not often showcased). Matt’s father, the boxer Jack Murdock, pushes his son to study hard so he doesn’t have to follow in his footsteps. When Jack refuses to take a dive in a fight, he is killed by the mob boss that had bet heavily against him. Matt vows to avenge his father, and trains his body to reach it’s peak perfection. Despite his blindness, Murdock dons a costume and takes to the rooftops of New York City as Daredevil, the man without fear!

We see that Murdock has become a successful lawyer, sharing a firm with his best friend from college, Foggy Nelson. Add in the adorable secretary Karen Page, who has a crush on Murdock, and our cast is set.

Daredevil battles a mix of villains from issue to issue. Some are one-and-done hooded thugs, and some are costumed criminals. We see Daredevil go up against some of Spider-Man’s foes in Electro and the Ox. He even gets his own set of rogues, with introductions of the Owl, Stilt-Man, and the Gladiator.

What makes this Essential?: Daredevil is a very unique comic character created by Stan Lee and friends. A blind super-hero goes against everything we imagine a hero should be. Sure, having the enhanced senses helps make it easier for Daredevil to do what he does, but he still remains a blind man swinging between buildings in New York City.

The problem I have with endorsing this as an Essential edition is that there are a dozen different story arcs and runs of Daredevil that are much, much better than the stories in this volume. This is a case where the Silver Age stories do not hold up against the Bronze Age and modern stories. Read this only if you are a Daredevil fan.

Footnotes: Daredevil’s original costume was a red-and-yellow garish combination that could only have been designed by a blind man (pun intended!). Beginning in issue #7, Daredevil converted over to his traditional all-red costume. In the issue, Daredevil’s thoughts on the new costume read, “I’ve secretly worked for months to redesign my fighting costume – – to make it more comfortable – – more distinctive!” Yes, very distinctive, and we’ll take Matt’s word on the costume’s comfort.

Daredevil #7 is also reprinted in Essential Sub-Mariner Vol. 1.

If you like this volume, try: Mark Waid’s ongoing run on Daredevil. Marvel rebooted the series in 2011, bringing in veteran scribe Waid to re-invigorate the character. Waid brought in a fresh take on the characters that harkens back to the early issues of Daredevil from the 1960s. The art team (Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin, Chris Samnee, and others) have been nailing the art each time out. In this current run, Murdock finds himself barred from serving as a trial lawyer, so he sets up shop as a consulting counselor, advising clients who need to represent themselves in court. This title has won multiple Eisner awards over the three-year run of the book. The entire series is collected in multiple formats (trade paperbacks, hardcovers) so it should not be hard to find. This current run will becoming to an end with issue #36, but will start over again the next month with a new #1, still led by Mark Waid.

Essential Ant-Man Vol. 1

Essential Ant-Man Vol. 1

First Published: February 2002

Contents: Ant-Man/Giant-Man & Wasp stories from Tales to Astonish #27 (January 1962), and #35 (September 1962) to #69 (July 1965)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, and Bob Powell

Key First Appearances: Dr. Henry ‘Hank’ Pym/Ant-Man/Giant-Man, Egghead, Janet Van Dyne/Wasp, Porcupine, Human Top (Whirlwind), Nathan Garrett/Black Knight

Overview: Doctor Henry Pym is a research scientist looking to find a way to miniaturize objects. After proving that it works on objects, Pym tries his formula on himself, shrinking down to the size of an ant. Unable to defend himself from the attacking ants looking to defend their home, Pym runs for his life until he can get back to his lab to retrieve the antidote. Putting aside the formula for months, Pym revisits his project as he learns more about the ants. He converts the formula to a gas, attaches the gas canisters to a costume, dubs himself the Ant-Man, and a new hero is born.

In the issues to come, Ant-Man develops a decent rogues gallery. While many opponents in these issues were one-and-done, some of his foes such as Egghead, Porcupine, the Human Top (later renamed Whirlwind), and the first Black Knight would have long-lasting spots in the Marvel Universe.

In Tales to Astonish #44, we meet Janet Van Dyne, the daughter of a fellow scientist. When Janet’s father is murdered, she seeks help from Pym. Donning his costumed identity, Ant-Man rescues Janet and reveals his identity to her. Pym uses his current research to mutate Janet’s body, giving her the ability to shrink down to insect size while wings sprout from her back. Taking on the name of the Wasp, the duo avenges the murder of Janet’s father, and a new partnership is formed.

Shortly after joining the Avengers, Pym feels inadequate in comparison to his other teammates in Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk. Pym theorizes that what can be shrunk can also be enlarged, and Giant-Man is born. This is the first of many costume identity changes that Pym will make over his career.

What makes this Essential?: There are very few original ideas in comics. Everything is inspired by what has come before, or as an unapologetic attempt to duplicate success at a rival publisher. DC had found success by resurrecting the Atom identity with Ray Palmer in Showcase #34 (September/October 1961). Henry Pym first appeared in January 1962 and dons the Ant-Man costume and identity in September 1962. Over at DC, the Atom joined the Justice League in Justice League of America #14 (September 1962), and Pym (with Van Dyne and others) found the Avengers in November 1963. So whether Lee & Kirby were directly trying to duplicate DC’s success, or just wanting to have their own size-changing hero, the timeline that Henry Pym follows seems to mirror that of Ray Palmer, just one year behind.

Despite being founding members, Ant-Man and the Wasp often get pushed to the side in modern retellings of the early days of the Avengers. These stories help justify their place on that team. Pym is a brilliant scientist who gets overshadowed in other comics by his contemporaries in the Marvel Universe. The Wasp was not a sidekick, but a truly equal partner with Ant-Man. She earned her own ongoing backup feature, which may have been the first female-led super-hero stories at Marvel. Lee and Kirby do the bulk of the stories in this volume, but they get overlooked by all of the other legendary stories that were coming out in this era. This volume is worth taking a look!

Footnotes: Henry Pym was just one of the tenants in Tales to Astonish during the 1960s. Initially, the book was a science-fiction anthology title. When the super-hero movement took off, Pym became the lead feature each month with various backup stories. Starting in issue #50, the Wasp was given her own solo story feature, giving the book two super-hero stories per issue going forward. With #60, the Wasp feature ended and her space was given their former Avenger colleague, the Hulk. In 1965, the Giant-Man feature was replaced by Namor, the Sub-Mariner, beginning in #70.

If you like this volume, try: the Mighty Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest collection, available as both a hard cover or a trade paperback. Following the events of Secret Invasion, Henry Pym has once again adopted a new costumed identity, this time as the Wasp. Pym’s ex-wife was believed to have sacrificed her life in stopping the Skrull invasion of Earth, and Pym wants to honor her memory by keeping the Wasp name alive. A new Avengers team is formed, by what appears to be the long missing Scarlet Witch. Can this new team of Avengers come together to help save the Earth? This is one of the best story lines involving Henry Pym and the Avengers. Pym is confident in his abilities, he steps up as a leader of gods and warriors, and he proves that his intellect is just as great as Reed Richards and Tony Stark. Over the last 10 years, this was the one Avengers title that felt most like the Avengers of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Essential Captain America Vol. 2

Essential Captain America Vol. 2

First Published: January 2002

Contents: Captain America #103 (July 1968) to #126 (June 1970)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko, and Gene Colan

Key First Appearances: Dr. Faustus, Madame Hydra, Sam Wilson/Falcon, Redwing

Story Continues From: Essential Captain America Vol. 1

Story Continues In: Essential Captain America Vol. 3

Overview: Captain America bounces back in this second Essential volume from Marvel. We see the transition of the character in this book, as Lee & Kirby take their final run together with Steve Rogers, before handing him over to next wave of creators in the Marvel Bullpen.

While these stories feature a healthy dose of classic villains like the Red Skull and Batroc the Leaper, new villains are added to the mix that expands Cap’s rogues gallery. First up is Doctor Faustus, who uses drugs and mind-control techniques to fight Captain America in psychological battles. The other addition is Madame Hydra, the new leader of the criminal Hydra organization. Complete with her Hydra-green lipstick, Madame Hydra (later known as the Viper) becomes the female antagonist that can tempt Steve Rogers with her body, or lead Hydra in an attempt to take over the world.

Rick Jones tries donning the Bucky costume and serves as Cap’s partner for a few issues. While it does not work for either one, it does show that Cap excels with a partner. Enter Sam Wilson, Harlem social worker and the high-flying Falcon. Captain America and Falcon would partner for many years going forth, and their strong friendship continues to this day.

What makes this Essential?: Captain America starts to expand as a character in this volume, as new creators move in to take over for Lee and Kirby.  While Steve Rogers still pines for the world he left behind, he starts to accept living in the (then) modern world of the late-1960s. The creative teams start realizing the possibilities of the character, whether serving as an agent for the government or S.H.I.E.L.D., or as the leader of the Avengers. The creative art advances by Steranko and Colan make this a worthwhile edition to pick up.

Footnotes: While the Black Panther is considered to be the first black superhero, he is a prince from the African nation of Wakanda. The Falcon, who debuts in this Essential, is considered to be the first African-American superhero, created by Lee and Colan.

If you like this volume, try: the Jim Steranko run on Nick Fury, which ran in Strange Tales and in the early issues of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. These stories have been collected numerous times (but not in an Essential) so it should not be difficult to track these down. Steranko came in and took over the art duties from Kirby, and then the writing duties from Roy Thomas. Steranko’s run was part James Bond, part Andy Warhol’s pop art, and pushed the limits of the Comics Code Authority numerous times. Our perception of what S.H.I.E.L.D. should be came from these issues. Truthfully, this is a story better read in color, so pick it up any way you can.

Showcase Presents Challengers of the Unknown Vol. 1

Showcase Presents Challengers of the Unknown Vol. 1

First Published: September 2006

Contents: Showcase #6 (January-February 1957), #7 (March-April 1957), #11 (November-December 1957), and #12 (January-February 1958); Challengers of the Unknown #1 (April-May 1958) to #17 (December-January 1961)

Key Creator Credits: Jack Kirby, Dave Wood, Bob Brown, Wally Wood, Ed Herron

Key First Appearances: Rocky Davis, Prof Haley, Red Ryan, Ace Morgan, June Robbins, Multi-Man

Story Continues In: Showcase Presents Challengers of the Unknown Vol. 2

Overview: Four complete strangers, each an expert in his chosen field, are brought together after walking away unharmed from what should have been a fatal plane crash. Realizing that they are now living on borrowed time, the four men – Rocky Davis, Olympic wrestling champion; Prof Haley, master skin diver; Red Ryan, circus daredevil; and Ace Morgan, war hero and fearless jet pilot – don matching purple outfits and ban together to form the Challengers of the Unknown.   

After four appearances in Showcase over a one year period, the Challengers moved over into their own bi-monthly title. Most issues featured two stories – one featuring the four original “Challs” (as they often were referred to as) and one featuring them with the honorary girl Challenger, June Robbins. The Challengers took on a variety of cases which brought them face-to-face with killer robots, alien races, and oversized animals. While most of their opponents were one-and-done, one long-time DC Universe villain makes his appearance in this volume: Multi-Man debuts in #14, and returns many times over, with a new power developing after each resurrection following his death.

Why should these stories be Showcased?: The Silver Age DC stories are difficult to recommend compared to the modern comics of today, and even against the Silver Age Marvel stories. For the most part, these stories are very forgettable once you close this book. The one reason I see to pick up this book is for the groundwork that Jack Kirby put in developing his story-telling techniques. While most issues have a writing credit, researchers believe that Kirby was doing most of the writing/story-telling himself on this title. Kirby re-used much of his work here when he helped create the Fantastic Four for Marvel with Stan Lee: the matching uniforms;  the character designs for Reed Richards (Prof Haley), Johnny Storm (Red Ryan), and Ben Grimm (Rocky Davis); and a team surviving a crash that unites them with a common purpose.  Read this if you are a Kirby fan; otherwise, look for a different challenge.

Footnotes: Showcase #6, #7, #11, and #12 are also reprinted in Showcase Presents Showcase Vol. 1.

If you like this volume, try: the eight-issue 1991 Challengers of the Unknown series by Jeph Loeb and Time Sale. When it was collected as a trade paperback, it was titled Challengers of the Unknown Must Die! This was the first comic story by Loeb, who had spent many years as a Hollywood screenwriter. This series is also the first of numerous pairings of Loeb and Sale, who would team up for award-winning works such as Batman: The Long Halloween, Superman: For All Seasons, and Spider-Man: Blue. Loeb stays true to the Challs origins while freshening up the concept for a modern audience. Sale’s art looks simple on the surface, but is very complex and breathes new life into this 1950s concept.

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 3

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 3

First Published: August 2001

Contents: Fantastic Four #41 (August 1965) to #63 (June 1967), and Fantastic Four Annual #3 (1965) and #4 (1966)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Key First Appearances: Gorgon, Black Bolt, Crystal, Karnak, Lockjaw, Inhumans, Atilan, Maximus, Alpha Primitives, Silver Surfer, Galactus, Wyatt Wingfoot, T’Challa/Black Panther, Wakanda, Klaw, Blastaar, Quasimodo

Story Continues From: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 2

Story Continues In: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 4

Overview: Sit back and enjoy the ride, True Believer! The Fantastic Four enter an eventful two-year ride that does not slow down. These issues fully live up to their cover billing as being “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!”

This volume starts out with another battle against the Frightful Four, with more clues dropped about the mysterious background of Medusa. Following that, we get the wedding of Reed Richards and Susan Storm in Annual #3. This issue features cameos by most of the Marvel Universe, as the other heroes such as the Avengers, Spider-Man and the X-Men work to keep the villains from disrupting the ceremony.

While on their honeymoon, the Fantastic Four are led to the Hidden Land, where we meet Black Bolt, Gorgon, and the rest of the Inhumans living in Atilan. The Inhumans are a race of people that have been exposed to the Terrigen Mists, which mutates their bodies to give them some incredible power. Johnny Storm falls in love with Crystal, one of the Inhumans and the younger sister of Medusa. Over the next few years, Johnny and Crystal’s story would loosely echo that of Romeo and Juliet, as two lovers who cannot be together due to their respective families.

Following their return to New York City, the Fantastic Four faces their greatest threat to date, as they encounter the Silver Surfer, a cosmic-powered herald for the world-consuming Galactus. With the help of the Watcher, the Fantastic Four overcomes Galactus and saves the planet, but at the cost of the Silver Surfer being banished to Earth.

The remainder of this volume includes the introduction of the Black Panther, a prince from the African nation of Wakanda and considered to be the first black superhero in mainstream American comics. We see Johnny enroll in college, where he meets Wyatt Wingfoot, an American Indian who would be a loyal friend to the Fantastic Four for many years. The stories revisit the Inhumans often, and we see the Silver Surfer try to adapt to his new home. And no volume of the Fantastic Four would be complete without an appearance by Dr. Doom.

What makes this Essential?: This is THE volume to have in the Essential Fantastic Four.  These stories reflect Lee & Kirby at their collaborative creative peak on the title.  You cannot read these comics and not get caught up in excitement and energy coming off of the pages.

And while I remain an advocate for the Black & White collections, I could make the argument that these stories should be read in color — via the original issues, the Marvel Masterworks collections, or the Fantastic Four Omnibus collections.  During this time period, Kirby started using illustrated collages with images to visually depict the cosmic scope of the situation. For example, see Fantastic Four #48, page 19, where we see Galactus’ ship opening up, or Fantastic Four #62, pages 4 and 5, where we see a two-page spread of the Negative Zone. The reprint quality of these pages in the Essential volume is rather poor, and you would be better off reading these in color.

Footnotes: The two annuals provided Lee & Kirby the chance to bring in some familiar characters. With Annual #3, two of the guests attending the wedding were Patsy Walker and Hedy Wolfe, stars in their own right from various girl comics and romance comics of the 1940s & 1950s. This was the first time that these characters appeared in a Marvel Universe comic. While the character of Hedy has been pushed to the sidelines as a reference character, Patsy Walker has enjoyed a long life in Marvel Comics, becoming the Hellcat in the pages of the Avengers and by being part of the Defenders for many years.

In Annual #4, Lee & Kirby brought in the original Golden Age Human Torch (Jim Hammond), and his creator, Phineas T. Horton. Both had been dormant characters for the previous decade. With their re-introduction into the Marvel Universe, both would be revisited in the years to come.

If you like this volume: take a look at the Kirby4Heroes Campaign, which raises funds for the Hero Initiative. Organized by Jack Kirby’s granddaughter, Kirby4Heroes was established to honor the legacy of Jack Kirby by giving back to the comics industry. On the Kirby4Heroes Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/kirby4heroes), Jillian Kirby spotlights her grandfather’s artwork from all eras of his long career and encourages events each August to celebrate Jack Kirby’s birthday.

The Hero Initiative is the first federally recognized not-for-profit that creates a financial safety net for comic creators who may need emergency medical aid, financial support for essentials of life, and an avenue back into paying work. The Hero Initiative has raised funds to provide needed support to over 50 creators in times of need. Along with my friends, I have volunteered many hours over the last 10 years at local comic book conventions working a table for the Hero Initiative, raising funds and public awareness. For more information, visit www.heroinitiative.org and consider making a donation today.

Essential Thor Vol. 1

Essential Thor Vol. 1

First Published: February 2001

Contents: Thor and Tales of Asgard stories from Journey Into Mystery #83 (August 1962) to #112 (January 1965)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Larry Leiber, and Don Heck

Key First Appearances: Dr. Donald Blake/Thor,  Jane Foster, Loki, Odin, Balder the Brave, Heimdall, Tyr, Asgard, Zarrko the Tomorrow Man, Frigga, Radioactive Man, Merlin Demonspawn, Ymir, Surtur, Cobra, Mr. Hyde, Haag, Hela, Lady Sif, Enchantress, Executioner, Grey Gargoyle, Karnilla, Laufey

Story Continues In: Essential Thor Vol. 2

Overview: Donald Blake, an American doctor vacationing in Europe, finds himself being chased by the Stone Men of Asgard. Hiding in a remote cave, Blake finds an ancient walking stick. Tapping that stick on the ground transforms the weak doctor into the mighty Thor, God of Thunder and Prince of Asgard. Armed with his hammer Mjolnir, Thor sends the Stone Men back to their planet, and establishes himself as the protector of Midgard (Earth).

Over the next two years of stories, we are introduced to Blake’s nurse Jane Foster, who is in love with the thunder god. We meet the royal family, such as Thor’s father Odin, King of Asgard, and his step-brother Loki, god of mischief. We see his friends who stand by Thor’s side in battle and in celebration, like Balder the Brave, Heimdall, Tyr, and the Lady Sif. And any hero is only as great as the villains he battles, and Thor battles humans to aliens to Asgardians.

While this title develops it’s own story and mini-universe, it does crossover into the mainstream Marvel Universe. Thor’s teammates in the Avengers make multiple appearances, and Thor even battles Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. The final issue in this collection features a battle between Thor and the Hulk, the first of many such bouts.

This volume also includes the Tales of Asgard stories that were a back-up feature beginning in Journey Into Mystery #101. These stories gave readers the back-story of the Asgardians, telling tales of Thor and Loki in their youth, and exploring the nine realms. Many familiar characters, such as Lady Sif, Hela, and Surtur, were introduced into the Marvel Asgardian universe through these features.

What makes this Essential?: This is a decent introduction to Thor, Loki, Odin, and the other Asgardians, but these are not great stories. When I think of “Thor”, I associate words such as “Epic” and “Mighty” and “Grandeur”. I don’t think these issues give me that. Thor does not stand out against other humans, Asgard looks small, Loki comes across as more annoying than evil. Lee & Kirby will have much better stories collected in later Essential Thor volumes. Other creative teams will have even more impressive runs with the Thunder God. This volume is a good way to introduce a reader to the title character, but I don’t think this is the volume to make someone a fan of Thor.

How many Executioners does one god need?: In Journey Into Mystery #84, Thor battled the Executioner, a pro-Communist warlord trying to wrest control of the nation San Diablo. Thor helps the democratic forces stop the revolt, and the Executioner is, well, executed by his troops as he tries to escape. Whether is was his desire to re-use a good name or an oversight on his part, Stan Lee used the name Executioner again in Journey Into Mystery #103, when he introduced the Asgardian/Storm Giant who is often partnered with the Enchantress.

Footnotes: In his first appearance in Journey Into Mystery #93 (June 1963), Radio-Active Man’s name is spelled with a hyphen. In his next appearance in Avengers #6  (July 1964), the hyphen has been lost, giving us the more familiar spelling of Radioactive Man’s name.

If you like this volume, try:  the 2007 relaunch of the Thor title by J. Michael Straczynski and Olivier Coipel. Thor and the other Asgardians had been dormant in the Marvel Universe since the end of the previous Thor series in 2004. In this story, JMS and Coipel bring Thor back to the land of the living, as he seeks out his fellow Asgardians and looks to rebuild Asgard, which now hovers over a small town in Oklahoma. This is a great story to be introduced to the entire concept in a more current time-frame. This has been collected multiple times in paperback and hardcover editions, so you should have no troubles finding this.

Essential Captain America Vol. 1

Essential Captain America Vol. 1

Essential Captain America Vol. 1

First Published: March 2000

Contents: Captain America stories from Tales of Suspense #59 (November 1964) to #99 (March 1968), Captain America #100 (April 1968) to #102 (June 1968), and a story from Captain America Comics #5 (August 1941)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Key First Appearances: Batroc the Leaper, Sharon Carter/Agent 13, Peggy Carter, Super-Adaptoid, Agent Axis, M.O.D.O.K., Fourth Sleeper, Exiles

Story Continues In: Essential Captain America Vol. 2

Overview: Following his triumphant re-introduction to the Marvel Universe, Captain America leaps into an ongoing feature in Tales of Suspense, sharing the book with his fellow Avenger, Iron Man.  After issue #99, Iron Man left for his own monthly book, and Tales of Suspense was renamed Captain America, continuing the numbering from Tales of Suspense.

As with many Silver Age stories of the era, familiar plot points are brought up issue and issue. Steve Rogers is a stranger in a strange land, trying to acclimate himself into a new era. Memories of his deceased sidekick Bucky haunt Captain America, not only in his dreams but also in the real world with his encounters with Rick Jones. And while evil has advanced to new levels, the faces behind them remain the same, with arch foes from World War II such as Baron Zemo and the Red Skull.

There is a stretch of issues in the first year of the Captain America feature that re-imagine the Simon & Kirby Captain America stories from the 1940s, giving the new comic readers of 1964 a look back to the early days of the character. As the storyline progressed, new allies and threats were introduced that would become mainstays for years to come. The blonde beauty Sharon Carter was introduced, who at the time was the younger sister of Peggy Carter, one of Captain America’s wartime associates. As we got to see more of S.H.I.E.L.D., a comparative rival organization sprung up by the name of A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics). From the A.I.M. labs come the living computer M.O.D.O.K., and the first appearance of the Cosmic Cube.

What makes this Essential?: It’s hard to say anything negative about a Stan Lee and Jack Kirby story. These are decent stories, but not exceptional stories. There are many issues that felt like a repeat of the previous issues – whether that was intentional or accidental, I don’t know. I think the best way to read this would be concurrently with Essential Avengers Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. The first story in this volume came out the same month that Avengers #10 did, so pick up there and alternate reading the stories between the two volumes. Both sets of stories make references to events in the other book, and the Avengers make numerous appearances in the Captain America stories in Tales of Suspense.

Footnotes: In the credits for this book, the Golden Age Captain America story is attributed to Captain America Comics #10, written by Stan Lee and art by Joe Simon. However, the ComicBookDB website and the Grand Comics Database website both attribute the story to Captain America Comics #5, written and drawn by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.
The family relationship between Peggy Carter and Sharon Carter has changed over the years, as the stories moved further and further away from the fixed time-point of World War II (1939-1945). Initially, Peggy and Sharon were sisters. Later revisions made Peggy an aunt to Sharon, to allow for the greater difference in age if Peggy was to have served during World War II.

If you like this volume, try: the two Captain America: Winter Soldier trade paperbacks, that collected the first year of the 2005 relaunch of the Captain America title by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting. Brubaker and Epting took Captain America back to the 1960s feel with a political espionage storyline with the Red Skull controlling things in the background. The Soviets have obtained a Cosmic Cube, and Captain America is brought in to clean things up. Along the way, Captain America comes face-to-face with the Winter Soldier, which turns out to be Steve Rogers’ worst nightmare come back to life. The Brubaker-Epting run on this title is one of the best Captain America story-arcs, and it all starts with these volumes. With the upcoming Captain America movie in 2014, these stories will become very popular to track down.

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 2

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 2

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 2

First Published: October 1998

Contents: Fantastic Four #21 (December 1963) to #40 (July 1965), Fantastic Four Annual #2 (1964), and the Human Torch story from Strange Tales Annual #2 (1963)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Key First Appearances: Hate-Monger, Diablo, Skrull Emperor Dorrek VII, Attuma, Glorian, Dragon Man, Medusa, Frightful Four, Trapster

Story Continues From: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 1

Story Continues In: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 3

Overview: Continuing on from where Volume 1 left off, the Fantastic Four remain at the center of the Marvel Universe. Familiar foes make re-occurring appearances – Namor returns many times, still  seeking the love of Susan Storm; and Dr. Doom returns many times, still seeking the destruction of Reed Richards.

New villains are introduced that become mainstays in the Marvel Universe, such as Dragon Man, Diablo and Attuma. The mysterious Medusa with her mentally-controlled hair makes her debut as a member of the Frightful Four, but her Inhuman background remains secret for another year.

What makes this Essential?: My initial reaction to this volume was to say that it is not as important to have on your shelves, compared to the other volumes in the Fantastic Four line. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like the Marvel Universe really started with this volume.

Up until the late 1950s, comic-book super-heroes did not cross over into other character’s books. Yes, Superman and Batman would team up in World’s Finest, but Superman did not make appearances in Batman or Detective Comics, and Batman did not make appearances in Action Comics or Superman. If Superman went to Atlantis to see Lori Lemarls, Aquaman is never seen or even mentioned. Characters and titles were treated as stand alone silos, so that there would be no mixing of brands.

DC broke this trend with the creation of the Justice League of America. For some reason, DC executives feared over-exposure of Batman and Superman, so they limited their appearances for the first two years of the JLA title. But this opened the idea that all of these heroes were on the same world and could interact with each other.

Jump ahead to 1962. Fantastic Four has been around for a year, and was an early success. New characters, such as Thor and Hulk, were introduced in other titles, and from the very start Stan Lee made it clear that they were all part of the same world. By 1964, with so many new characters debuting every month, it was natural for Lee, who was still writing the majority of Marvel Comics at this time, to use these characters in all of the books. It was natural that these characters would appear in the  Fantastic Four, as the first heroes of the Marvel Universe were Lee’s primary focus.

In this volume, we see the Fantastic Four team up with the Avengers to stop the Hulk; work with the X-Men to stop the Mad Thinker and the Puppet Master; and work with both Dr. Strange and Daredevil on separate encounters with Dr. Doom. The Fantastic Four even travelled to the Skrull throne-world, thereby truly creating the Marvel UNIVERSE. So yes, give this a look!

Footnotes: In issue #25, Stan Lee made a key mistake that got added to the Marvel mythos. He makes numerous references to the Hulk’s alter-ego as Dr. Bob Banner. When readers pointed out that his name is actually Bruce Banner, Stan Lee explained it away that the character’s full given name is Robert Bruce Banner, and that he prefers to go by his middle name.

If you like this volume, try: Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross.  Every few years, the right combination of story and art merge to tell a breath-taking story. Plenty of stories have been told about the early years of the Marvel Universe. Comics have been painted before. But bringing these two elements together created the amazing Marvels series. Busiek weaves a story where the common man, in this case newspaper photographer Phil Sheldon, captures the key moments of the Marvel Universe with his camera. From the debut of the Human Torch to the arrival of Galactus, Busiek shows how the numerous comics all weave together into one large story. Speaking of large, Ross’ art gave us a realistic peek into how heroes would really look like in the world, such as his image of Giant-Man walking through the streets of New York City. This is a must-have in any comic collection!

Essential Uncanny X-Men Vol. 1

Essential Uncanny X-Men Vol. 1

Essential Uncanny X-Men Vol. 1

First Published: June 1999

Contents: The X-Men #1 (September 1963) to #24 (September 1966)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Werner Roth

Key First Appearances: Charles Xavier/Professor X, Scott Summers/Cyclops, Jean Grey/Marvel Girl, Hank McCoy/Beast, Warren Worthington III/Angel, Bobby Drake/Iceman, Magneto, Vanisher, FBI Agent Fred Duncan, Blob, Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver, Jason Wyngarde/Mastermind, Toad, Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, Unus the Untouchable, Lucifer, Kevin Plunder/Ka-Zar, Zabu, Savage Land, the Stranger, Cain Marko/Juggernaut, Bolivar Trask, the Sentinels, Master Mold, Mimic

Story Continues In: Essential Classic X-Men Vol. 2

Overview: In 1963, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko were reaching new heights with their comic creativity. In that year alone, Marvel Comics introduced Spider-Man, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, the Avengers, and the Uncanny X-Men. That last title featured a group of teenagers with mutant abilities that set them apart from the rest of humanity as freaks. Professor Charles Xavier enrolled these kids into his private school. In addition to normal school studies, the teenagers learned to use their abilities and talents for the good of mankind. Wearing matching uniforms, these teens were named the X-Men, and from these humble beginnings would grow a legendary saga.

The original X-Men (Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Angel, Beast, and Iceman) would remain the core line-up throughout the 1960s. In the very first issue, the team faced off against Magneto, who would threaten the teens and the world over and over in the first two years of the book. In issue #4, Magneto brought in a Brotherhood of Evil Mutants — Mastermind, Toad, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch — to go one-on-one with the X-Men. (Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch would later reform and leave this team to join up with the Avengers.) We saw the introduction of Charles Xavier’s stepbrother, the rampaging Juggernaut, followed by the mutant-hunting Sentinels.

What makes this Essential?: These are fun stories, but not great stories.  The better line of X-Men stories came a decade later, which have been collected in Essential X-Men Vol. 1 and subsequent volumes. With these issues, all of the key parts to the X-Men mythos are introduced, but it took the next generation of writers and artists to propel the X-Men franchise to the stars. If you are a fan of the X-Men, this should be in your collection.

Footnotes: This volume was first published as Essential Uncanny X-Men Vol. 1. When it was time to release the next book, Marvel renamed the title to Essential Classic X-Men Vol. 2 (and later Vol. 3). Subsequent new printings of this book now show the title as Essential Classic X-Men Vol. 1. Despite the title changes, the contents remain the same in all editions of the first volume, X-Men #1-24.

If you like this volume, try: X-Men: First Class by Jeff Parker and Roger Cruz. This 2006 mini-series (collected as both a trade paperback and a hardcover) retells the early days of the X-Men with a more modern sensibility to it. There have been multiple continuations of the First Class line of stories with mini-series, one-shots, and ongoing series. (Although it shared the same name and similar concept, this series is not connected to the 2011 X-Men: First Class movie.)