Showcase Presents Bat Lash Vol. 1

Showcase Presents Bat Lash Vol. 1

First Published: July 2009

Contents: Showcase #76 (August 1968); Bat Lash #1 (October-November 1968) to #7 (October-November 1969); Bat Lash story from DC Special Series #16 (Fall 1978); and Bat Lash stories from Jonah Hex #49 (June 1981), #51 (August 1981), and #52 (September 1981)

Key Creator Credits: Sergio Aragonés, Denny O’Neill, Nick Cardy, Len Wein, Dan Spiegle, and others

Key First Appearances: Bat Lash

Overview: Meet Bat Lash, a well-mannered cowboy in an unmannered West. Bat Lash enjoys the finer parts of life – a succulent meal, a good card game, a fragrant flower, and a pretty woman. Really, he is a pacifist at heart, but he is not afraid to use his guns to protect himself from bandits or the law or sometimes both! Traveling the west on his horse Daisy, Bat Lash can show up in any town and instantly be in a mess of trouble.

Sergio Aragonês and Denny O’Neill worked together plotting out the main stories of the Bat Lash book, with superb art by Nick Cardy. As much as I love Cardy’s run on Teen Titans, I am now of the mindset that Bat Lash may be his best work.

Why should these stories be Showcased?: I really enjoyed this volume, and quickly breezed through this read. While the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns are attributed as the inspiration to for DC to do a new western comic, I was reminded more of the Bret Maverick and James West characters from Maverick and The Wild, Wild West, respectively. In particular, the opening title sequence for The Wild, Wild West (see below) feels like an animated short for Bat Lash. Nick Cardy’s art shines in the Black & White format, well worth the price of this volume. My only complaint is how small this volume is – just 240 pages. Given the fact that DC included stories from 1978 and 1981, I would have liked to have seen the Bat Lash appearances in Weird Western Tales from that same period included here.

If you like this volume, try: tracking down Showcase #100 (May 1978). This has never been reprinted, so you will have to do some searching. For the anniversary issue, writers Paul Kupperberg and Paul Levitz contrived a story of an odd group of heroes teaming up to save Earth from an alien invasion. Those heroes were all characters that had appeared at some point in the first 99 issues of Showcase. So they were able to use the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Atom, Lois Lane, the Challengers of the Unknown, Adam Strange, Hawk & Dove, the Creeper, and even Bat Lash, as well as many others. This story was drawn by Joe Staton, who in my opinion does not get enough recognition for his work at DC. Not to spoil this awesome read, but yes, the Earth is saved. This is a story that you just sit back and enjoy, and forget about continuity, in particular how characters from the past (Bat Lash) are interacting with current characters and even future characters (Tommy Tomorrow, Space Ranger). This is a true gem from DC’s Bronze Age.

Showcase Presents Blue Beetle Vol. 1

Showcase Presents Blue Beetle Vol. 1

First Published: January 2015

Contents: Blue Beetle #1 (June 1986) to #24 (May 1988); and Secret Origins #2 (May 1986)

Key Creator Credits: Len Wein, Paris Cullins, Ross Andru, Don Heck, Gil Kane, and others

Key First Appearances: Melody Case, Carapax, Jeremiah Duncan, Lt. Max Fisher, Angela Revere, Dr. Murray Takamoto, Catalyst, Overthrow

Overview: Stop me if you read this story before. Wealthy playboy oversees a large scientific company, but has a hidden life, where he dresses up in a costume, flies around in a vehicle that matches his motif and stops super-villains and other forms of crime. You’re thinking of Blue Beetle, right? Yes, one of the stars of the Charlton Comics’ Action Hero line jumps into the pages of DC Comics. Following his successful appearance in Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Blue Beetle becomes the first Charlton hero to get his own monthly title.

So let’s meet Ted Kord. He’s rebuilt KORD (Kord Omniversal Research & Development), Inc. after his father left it in ruins. He’s rich, good-looking, and mostly single — he’s been dating his girl Friday, Melody Case. Ted also has a secret identity – the Blue Beetle. With a hidden base located under the company headquarters in Chicago, Blue Beetle battles a mix of foes from the Charlton days (Madmen) as well as long-time DC foes (Doctor Alchemy, Chronos), and crosses paths with many DC heroes, such as the Teen Titans, the Justice League, and the Question.

We also learn that Ted Kord is not the first person to wear the mantle of the Blue Beetle. The original Blue Beetle was Dan Garrett, a university professor and archaeologist. Well before Professor Henry Jones, Garrett was exploring the Egyptian dig of Kha-Ef-Re where he discovers a mystical blue scarab. The token grants Garrett super-strength, turning him into the first Blue Beetle. Dan Garrett had many adventures, before finally meeting his fate on mysterious Pago Island. While on his death bed, he got Kord, a former student of his, to promise to carry on his secret calling. Unable to use the blue scarab, Kord develops gadgets, weapons, and a flying ship (“the Bug”) to allow him to carry on the mantle of the Blue Beetle.

As the story develops, Ted Kord finds himself spending more and more time as the Blue Beetle, and less time managing the work of KORD, Inc. This leads to Case reaching out to Ted’s missing father, Thomas Kord, to return and take over the reigns of the company, just as it all comes crashing down (literally and figuratively). The series ends with Ted Kord walking off into the sunset, content with becoming Blue Beetle full-time and leaving the corporate life behind.

Why should these stories be Showcased?: Much like the situation I found myself in when reading Showcase Presents Booster Gold, I was prepared to overlook this collection, having loosely followed the Blue Beetle run 28 years ago. With the re-read of this title, I’m a little more impressed with the stories. Len Wein did a noble job in integrating Blue Beetle and his cast into the DC Universe, with nods to his Charlton roots. But as with Booster Gold, it’s not the solo book that fans came to know these title characters – it’s the Justice League of the late 1980s that gave us the defining view of Blue Beetle, which right or wrong, is that of comedy relief. I find myself reconsidering my position on this. I really want Blue Beetle to be a more serious hero, along the lines (but not as dark) as Batman. But as I read this title, I found myself wishing that DC would publish a Showcase Presents Justice League Vol. 1 sometime soon.

Meet the Action Heroes: From 1946 to 1986, Charlton Comics published comics in a variety of genres, from war to romance to licensed books to super-heroes. In fact, in the mid-1960s, then Charlton editor Dick Giordano developed a line of characters dubbed the “Action Hero”, which included Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, the Question, the Peacemaker, the Judomaster, and Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt. These characters had varying degrees of success, but most of the titles were canceled by the end of that decade. Jump ahead to 1983, and Charlton was struggling to survive. Then DC Managing Editor Dick Giordano worked out a deal to buy the rights for the Action Heroes from Charlton. DC incorporated these characters into the Crisis on Infinite Earths mega-event, and then put Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and the Question into their own monthly books. In addition, Alan Moore used archetypes of these characters when he created Watchmen with Dave Gibbons. 

Footnotes: In terms of the reading order, jump to the back of the book and read Secret Origins #2 first. Look at the publishing dates – the Secret Origins issue came out the month BEFORE Blue Beetle #1. In addition, the early issues of Blue Beetle make reference to his origin story which is detailed in the Secret Origins issue.

If you like this volume, try: reading the Legends mini-series from 1986 by Len Wein, John Ostrander, and John Byrne. Following the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths, Darkseid plots to undermine humanity, sending Glorious Godfrey to Earth to incite riots and turn people against super-heroes. Blue Beetle had a featured role in this series, and the odd collection of heroes at the end of the series come together to become the new Justice League. DC also had other titles spinning out of the events of Legends, including Suicide Squad, The Flash, and a Shazam mini-series. Legends has only been collected one time in a trade paperback, back in 1993, so you might have better luck finding the original issues in a back-issue bin.

Essential Marvel Horror Vol. 2

Essential Marvel Horror Vol. 2

First Published: November 2008

Contents: Supernatural Thrillers #5 (August 1973), and #7 (June 1974) to #15 (October 1975); Brother Voodoo introduction from Tales of the Zombie #2 (October 1973), #6 (July 1974), and #10 (March 1975); Strange Tales #169 (September 1973) to #174 (June 1974), #176 (October 1974) and #177 (December 1974); Marvel Team-Up #24 (August 1974); Haunt of Horror #2 (July 1974) to #5 (January 1975); Monsters Unleashed #11 (April 1975); Marvel Two-In-One #11 (September 1975), #18 (August 1976), and #33 (November 1977); Marvel Chillers #1 (October 1975) and #2 (December 1975); Dead of Night #11 (August 1975); and Marvel Spotlight #26 (February 1976)

Key Creator Credits: Steve Gerber, Tony Isabella, Len Wein, Doug Moench, Mike Friedrich, Bill Mantlo, John Warner, Scott Edelman, Val Mayerik, Gene Colan, Tony Dezuniga, Sonny Trinidad, Billy Graham, and others

Key First Appearances: Living Mummy, Elementals (Hellfire, Hydron, Magnum, Zephyr), Asp, Jericho Drumm/Brother Voodoo, Daniel Drumm, Damballah, Black Talon, Gabriel/Devil-Hunter, Modred the Mystic, Chthon, Scarecrow (Straw Man)

Story Continues From: Essential Marvel Horror Vol. 1

Overview: Welcome back to more marvelous debuts of characters from the horror-themed titles of the 1970s. This volume features the first appearances of six characters of varying degrees of success.

  • First up is the Living Mummy. Awakened after 3,000 years, the Living Mummy finds himself adapting to the world of 1973, whether in the streets of New York City or in the deserts of Egypt.
  • Next up is Brother Voodoo, perhaps the most successful of the characters featured in this collection. Jericho Drumm returns to his home in Haiti. Caught up in a spiritual war, Drumm learns the secrets of the Loa and becomes Brother Voodoo. With the spirit of his deceased brother Daniel living in him, Brother Voodoo challenges zombies, ghosts, vampires, and villains.
  • Gabriel, Devil Hunter comes to us from the pages of the horror magazines. With one good eye, the former priest conducts exorcisms to draw out the demons inhabiting innocent souls.
  • Golem hearkens back to Jewish folklore, as a clay figure comes to life, powered by love. The Marvel Comics’ Golem has very few appearances. (If you are interested in reading a great story about a Golem, check out Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001.)
  • Modred the Mystic comes to us from King Arthur’s court. Modred was to become an apprentice to Merlin, but that tended to be red-shirt situation, if you catch my drift. He embarks on a path to explore the Darkhold, which casts him into suspended animation until he is revived in the 1970s.
  • Finally, the Scarecrow jumps out of a portrait to battle demons. (When he appeared later, he was renamed as Straw Man, to differentiate himself from the Silver Age villain known as Scarecrow.) I really want to write more about him, but there is not a lot to work with here.

What makes this Essential?: This is a book that can go either way — it’s a must-own book or it’s a do not own book. It’s all dependent on your personal tastes. I found that the Living Mummy and the Brother Voodoo stories worked the best, as we were given multiple issues to really dive into the characters. The other four characters each get 3-5 issues, which in most cases is not enough to really get a solid or favorable position on the character.

Personally, I might have preferred seeing more established Marvel Universe characters in this volume. For example, Greer Nelson debuted in the pages of The Cat in 1972. In 1974, she became Tigra in Giant-Size Creatures #1, followed up by a run in Marvel Chillers. She would later have stints in Fantastic Four and The Avengers (see the later Essential volumes of those titles), and has remained a fairly active character in the Marvel Universe since her introduction. This would have been a perfect showcase (pardon the use) for a female character, in a volume that is very male-centric to begin with. 

If any of the six featured characters interest you, then pick it up. If these characters do not interest you, stay far away from this book.

Footnotes: Marvel Two-in-One #11 and #18 were also reprinted in Essential Marvel Two-in-One Vol. 1.

Marvel Two-in-One #33 was also reprinted in Essential Marvel Two-in-One Vol. 2 and Essential Spider-Woman Vol. 1.

Marvel Team-Up #24 was also reprinted in Essential Marvel Team-Up Vol. 1.

If you like this volume, try: the 1980s Elementals series from Comico. The idea of characters with powers representing the basic elements is nothing new in comics. The argument could be made that the Fantastic Four is the best representation of this concept. In the Living Mummy stories in this collection, we see an actual team of adversaries called the Elementals. Over at DC Comics, a team of Elementals was introduced (but never used again) in the pages of Super Friends – see Showcase Presents Super Friends Vol. 1. But the greatest use of the concept came in 1984 at Comico, when Elementals #1 hit the comic book racks. The four characters that would comprise the Elementals (Vortex, Morningstar, Fathom, and Monolith) actually made their debut in the Justice Machine Annual #1 from 1983.  The basic set-up for Elementals is that the four element spirits find physical hosts (who have each recently died in that element) to help bring balance back to the universe due to the actions of the evil sorcerer Lord Saker. The book was written and drawn by Bill Willingham, many years before he became the grand storyteller of the Fables series. This is a really great series that sadly is not easily available today. Comico went through ownership changes and bankruptcy courts, and these characters have remained in limbo since the late 1990s. Comico released a trade paperback in 1988 collecting the initial story arc, but again, that is more than 25 years ago and its no longer in print. You might have to go to eBay or a really good back issue dealer to find these comics, but it’s well worth the hunt.

Essential Hulk Vol. 5

Essential Hulk Vol. 5

First Published: December 20086

Contents: Incredible Hulk #171 (January 1974) to #200 (June 1976); and Incredible Hulk Annual #5 (1976)

Key Creator Credits: Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Tony Isabella, Len Wein, Herb Trimpe, Sal Buscema, and others

Key First Appearances: Logan/Wolverine, Hammer & Anvil, Gremlin

Story Continues From: Essential Hulk Vol. 4

Story Continues In: Essential Hulk Vol. 6

Overview: (With apologies to Universal TV) Dr. Bruce Banner, scientist, searching for a way to tap into the hidden potentials of gamma energy. Then an accidental overdose of gamma radiation interacts with his unique body chemistry. And now, when Bruce Banner grows angry or outraged, a startling metamorphosis occurs. With that, I welcome you to the fifth volume in the Essential Hulk line. 

This is an interesting volume which can be divided up into three sections. Section 1 would be Incredible Hulk #171 to #179. These are your typical Hulk stories like we saw in the last Essential. There is an interesting story that ran over multiple issues involving the Hulk ending up on the High Evolutionary’s counter-Earth where he meets Adam Warlock. In fact, Warlock dies for the first time in issue #177 and is promptly resurrected in issue #178. It’s hard to keep a good Warlock down, I guess. The final issue of this section features the start of Len Wein’s run as writer on the title, which would last for 3 1/2 years.

Now, Section 2 is just two issues long, #180 and #181. Why just two issues? Well, the Hulk finds himself in Canada, where he goes up against the Wendigo. As if that was not enough for the Hulk to handle, we are introduced to Canada’s Weapon X, also known as the Wolverine! Yep, everyone’s favorite mutant makes his first humble appearance in these pages. Mind you, the Wolverine portrayed here is not as refined as the one we came to know in the pages of Uncanny X-Men and later his self-titled book. But he’s still short and hairy and feisty, and willing to cut anyone or anything with his adamantium claws. Eventually, the Wendigo is defeated, and the two heroes go their separate ways.

Section 3 picks up with issue #182 and runs until the end of the book. The stories here feel much like the stories in Section 1. We do see the end of one era and the start of the next era, both related to the art duties. Herb Trimpe ends his six-year run on the title and is followed by Sal Buscema, who begins what will be a nearly 10 year run on the title. One highlight from this run is the Incredible Hulk Annual #5, which features the Hulk battling six monsters from Marvel’s 1950s Atlas books. In fact, one of the monsters makes his second ever appearance in this book. Some guy named Groot. Wonder what Marvel ever did with that walking tree creature?

What makes this Essential?: I am amazed that Incredible Hulk #180 and #181 (first appearance of Wolverine) did not get reprinted in any other Essentials, such as in Wolverine, Classic X-Men, or X-Men. So for these two issues alone, this volume is ESSENTIAL. Outside of those two issues, the Hulk stories are decent, but not incredible (no pun intended) or memorable. Trimpe’s run on art duties comes to an end, and Sal Buscema takes over for a run that would last nearly ten years. I think a Hulk fan should definitely have this collection on their bookshelf.

Footnotes: Incredible Hulk #176 to #178 are also reprinted in Essential Warlock Vol. 1.

If you like this volume, try: the Planet Hulk collection, which collects Greg Pak’s story from 2006 & 2007. The Illuminati (Mr. Fantastic, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Professor Xavier, Black Bolt, and Namor) vote to exile the Hulk to another planet rather than allow him to roam (and damage) the Earth. (This is a very similar approach to the events of Incredible Hulk #300 when Dr. Strange exiled the mindless Hulk to an alternate dimension.) However, the rocket carrying the Hulk goes off track, and lands on a different planet, Sakaar, where gladiators battle in arenas for the amusement of the emperor. The Hulk unites with a band of gladiators, who look out for each other during the fights. The Hulk and his friends eventually escape and then overthrows the Emperor. The Hulk is named the new emperor, and he takes a wife and settles down into his role. However, the rocket that brought him to Sakaar explodes, destroying the capital city and killing the Hulk’s wife. Hulk vows revenge on the Illuminati and takes his fellow gladiators back to Earth. The only way to fully describe this book is “epic”. This is one of the all-time great Hulk stories and should be a must-read for all fans.

Showcase Presents The House of Secrets Vol. 1

Showcase Presents The House of Secrets Vol. 1

First Published: August 2008

Contents: The House of Secrets #81 (August-September 1969) to #98 (June-July 1972)

Key Creator Credits: Sergio Aragonés, Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson, Alex Toth, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Gerry Conway, Dick Dillin, Michael William Kaluta, Gray Morrow, and others

Key First Appearances: Swamp Thing

Story Continues In: Showcase Presents The House of Secrets Vol. 2

Overview: Do you dare enter the House of Secrets? It’s a strange house, filled with locked rooms, dusty corridors, a musty basement, and a mysterious attic. It also inspires a lot of stories of ghosts, demons, and witches.

Not to sound like I am repeating myself here, but the origins of this title are the same as The House of Mystery. In 1968, industry veteran Joe Orlando was brought in from EC Comics to take over the editor duties of numerous books at DC, including the horror line. The content took a darker tone, as Orlando introduced the EC-story style which was pushing the boundaries of the Comics Code Authority. The House of Secrets was revived as a title to serve alongside The House of Mystery.

The comic is hosted by Abel, the caretaker of the house, who introduces a lot of the stories and talks to his imaginary friend Goldie. (Abel’s brother Cain was the host for The House of Mystery.) The stories range from 4-12 pages, so each issue has 4-5 features each month. There is no continuity between the stories, so these can be read in any order.

The highlight of this book is issue #92 (July 1971), in which the Swamp Thing makes his first appearance in comics. This Swamp Thing is Alex Olsen; the more recognizable Alec Holland Swamp Thing would debut in 1972  in Swamp Thing #1.

Why should these stories be Showcased?: For these anthology titles, it’s hard to strongly recommend or strongly downplay this collection. Given the wide variety of stories, there is probably something in this volume that a reader will really enjoy and something in this volume that will bore a reader. It’s worth a look given the incredible talents working on this book. I don’t know that this is a must-own volume, but I don’t think you will be disappointed if you do own it.

Cover Girl: The cover to The House of Secrets #92 is used for the cover of this Showcase Presents. The cover by Bernie Wrightson shows the Swamp Thing approaching a young woman. That young woman was modeled by Louise Jones, who would later become the popular Marvel writer and editor Louise Simonson.

Footnotes: The House of Secrets was not always a home just for horror tales. In the issues prior to those collected in this Showcase Presents edition, The House of Secrets was an anthology title, including a long run of Eclipso stories from issue #61 to #80 (reprinted in Showcase Presents Eclipso Vol. 1). The House of Secrets was canceled with issue #80 in 1966 but was revived three years later, keeping the same issue numbering, as a horror title.

“The Day After Doomsday…” stories from The House of Secrets #86, #95, and #97 were also reprinted in Showcase Presents The Great Disaster Vol. 1.

If you like this volume, try: researching the career of artist Alex Toth, who has some stories collected in this Showcase Presents. Toth is a legendary artist from the Golden and Silver Age of comics but is perhaps more recognized for his work done with tv animation. Toth was involved in the creation of Space Ghost, the Herculoids, Birdman, and even Super Friends. His comic career spanned multiple decades, which included stops at DC, Marvel, Dell, Gold Key, Standard, and Warren Publishing. While Toth did do some superhero stories, the bulk of his comic book resume was spent working on horror, romance, war and other genres which interested him. Although Toth passed away in 2006, his art still lives on. IDW has been publishing a series of books (Genius, Isolated in 2011; Genius, Illustrated in 2013; and Genius, Animated in 2014) showcasing the legacy of Alex Toth. 

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 7

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 7

First Published: July 2008

Contents: Fantastic Four #138 (September 1973) to #159 (June 1975); Giant-Size Super-Stars #1 (May 1974); Giant-Size Fantastic Four #2 (August 1974) to #4 (February 1975); and Avengers #127 (September 1974)

Key Creator Credits: Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Buscema, Rich Buckler, Ross Andru, Joe Sinnott, and others

Key First Appearances: Darkoth, Mahkizmo,  Jamie Madrox/Multiple Man,

Story Continues From: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 6

Story Continues In: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 8

Overview: We are moving into the mid-1970s with the Fantastic Four. Not that things are ever normal around the Baxter Building, but there seems to be a set formula for most of these comics. We have the famous foursome of Marvel, with Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Medusa. Wait, what, Medusa? Don’t you mean Sue? Yeah, this is the Fantastic Four of the mid-1970s. Sit back and enjoy the ride in Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 7.

For starters, Sue is still caring for the youngest member of the family, Franklin Richards. There are times during this run where Sue goes multiple issues between appearances. Thankfully, Medusa of the Inhumans has stepped in to help the group live up to their team name. And speaking of the Inhumans, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers are invited to Attilan for the marriage ceremony between Quicksilver (former Avenger) and Crystal (former FF member and sister of Medusa). Sadly, there are very few Marvel weddings that go off without a hitch, and this momentous event is crashed by Ultron.

The other issues feel like echoes of the past. John Buscema and Rich Buckler both seem to embrace the Kirby style for the book, in terms of layout and characters. The writers give us a healthy dose of familiar foes, such as the Hulk, Doctor Doom, and the Frightful Four. And Thundra still shows up trying to convince Ben Grimm that they would make beautiful children together.

The highlight of the volume comes toward the end, with the final Giant-Size Fantastic Four, #4, in this collection. In a story co-written by Len Wein and Chris Claremont, Jamie Madrox (a.k.a. the Multiple Man) makes his debut. Madrox is a mutant who is able to create duplicates of himself when he is hit. The Fantastic Four was finally able to stop Madrox with the help of Professor Xavier from the X-Men. This FF comic came out right at the end of the reprint run in the X-Men book, and just three months ahead of Giant-Size X-Men #1 hitting the shelves. Wein would handle the re-introduction of the X-Men, before handing off the reins to Claremont, who would oversee the mutants for more than 15 years.

What makes this Essential?: I don’t want this to read as a negative judgment on the Fantastic Four. I have been a big fan of Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben for many years. There are times when you have the right creators on the book (Stan Lee & Jack Kirby or John Byrne comes to mind) and this is the greatest comic in the world. There are a lot of other times when you have creators on the book whose goal appears just to get a comic out each month. That’s exactly what I feel when reading most of these issues. The writers seem to have troubles scripting Sue, relegating her to motherhood and off of the main team, replaced by Medusa in most issues. There are very few new characters created during this run, as listed above, relying instead on retreading the same familiar characters from the Lee-Kirby years. Even as a die-hard FF fan, I don’t know that I would suggest other fans to grab this collection.

Footnotes: Avengers #127 and Fantastic Four #150 are also reprinted in Essential Avengers Vol. 6.

Fantastic Four #154 is a reprint issue, with a new framing sequence. The story was originally published in Strange Tales #127, which was reprinted in Essential Human Torch Vol. 1.

If you like this volume, try: the 2014 Fantastic Four series from James Robinson and Leonard Kirk. This series will be coming to an end in a few weeks, due more to senior editorial decisions than sales figures or story arcs. But there is still time to get caught up and finish the final story (for the foreseeable future) of Marvel’s first family. Robinson shakes things up, placing the team in red uniforms and breaking apart the group. (On a side note, if you were to read some of the actual comics collected in this Essential, you would see Johnny Storm sporting a red version of the classic Fantastic Four uniform. So take that everyone that complained about Robinson messing with the uniforms.) With the team splintered, the individual members find themselves slowly brought back together, as they find that their recent setbacks, as well as other moments from their past, have all been influenced by one person. Robinson is a master storyteller, and this has turned out to be a great run. This is one I look forward to re-reading in one sitting when the final issue comes out later this spring.

Showcase Presents The Phantom Stranger Vol. 2

Showcase Presents The Phantom Stranger Vol. 2

First Published: March 2008

Contents: The Brave and the Bold #89 (April-May 1970) and #98 (October-November 1971); Justice League of America #103 (December 1972); The Phantom Stranger #22 (December 1972) to #41 (February-March 1976); DC Super-Stars #18 (Winter 1978); and House of Secrets #150 (February-March 1978)

Key Creator Credits: Len Wein, Jim Aparo, Bob Haney, Paul Levitz, Arnold Drake, Gerry Talaoc, and others

Key First Appearances: Spawn of Frankenstein

Story Continues From: Showcase Presents The Phantom Stranger Vol. 1

Overview: This volume continues the supernatural tales of the Phantom Stranger. Many stories are stand alone tales that use the Phantom Stranger to introduce the issue and then makes a cameo at the end. Other stories cross over multiple issues, to provide an ongoing storyline, such as his battles with Tala and Nathan Seine.

During this era, most issues featured a back-up story. Dr. 13, a.k.a. the Ghost-Breaker, would star in many of them, and his character would often appear as well in the main Phantom Stranger story. Another backup story was the Spawn of Frankenstein, a then-modern retelling of the Frankenstein story written by Marv Wolfman with art by Mike Kaluta. In the final year of the title, the backup story was occupied by Black Orchid, but those stories are not collected in this Showcase Presents volume.

Other Phantom Stranger appearances are collected in this volume, such as his appearances in The Brave and the Bold and in Justice League of America. Those issues have been collected in their respective Showcase titles (see Footnotes), and it may not have been necessary to include them in this volume.

Why should these stories be Showcased?: I am a huge fan of Jim Aparo’s art style, which is why I purchased this book. While Aparo stayed on to provide covers for the title, he left the monthly art duties to a rotating list of artists, with most of the work done by Gerry Talaoc. Talaoc and friends do a serviceable job, but you would rather look at the Aparo covers. My other issue with this volume is that these stories do not carry any impact going forward in the DC Universe. Reading these issues is not critical to understanding what happens elsewhere in another title. I personally prefer the Phantom Stranger that makes the occasional guest appearance in other books over the Phantom Stranger headlining his own title.

Footnotes: The Brave and the Bold #89 and #98 are also reprinted in Showcase Presents The Brave and the Bold Batman Team-Ups Vol. 2.

Justice League of America #103 is also reprinted in Showcase Presents Justice League of America Vol. 5.

If you like this volume, try: tracking down old episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents via DVD or HULU. At the start of each episode, Hitchcock would introduce a story, dropping a joke or two, and a make a vague reference to the story you were about to see. At the conclusion, Hitchcock would return to wrap things up nice and neat. Rod Serling would later follow a similar format with The Twilight Zone. It’s easy to see how this format bled over into comic books, as the Phantom Stranger would often introduce the stories, then fade into the background until the very end to help wrap the story up. 

Essential Spider-Man Vol. 8

Essential Spider-Man Vol. 8

Essential Spider-Man Vol. 8

First Published: April 2007

Contents: Amazing Spider-Man #161 (October 1976) to #185 (October 1978); Amazing Spider-Man Annual #11 (1977); Giant Size Spider-Man #6 (1975); and Nova #12 (August 1977)

Key Creator Credits: Len Wein, Ross Andru, Marv Wolfman, and others

Key First Appearances:  Jigsaw, Dr. Marla Madison, Dr. Bart Hamilton/Green Goblin (III), Will-O’-The-Wisp, Rocket Racer, Big Wheel, Phillip Chang

Story Continues From: Essential Spider-Man Vol. 7

Story Continues In: Essential Spider-Man Vol. 9

Overview: Stop me if you heard this before. Bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker gains the abilities and powers to mimic said spider. Learning the hard way that with great powers comes great responsibilities, Peter dons a red-and-blue costume to fight crime, stop villains, and raise J. Jonah Jameson’s blood pressure as the amazing Spider-Man. So, let’s find out what’s going on in Essential Spider-Man Vol. 8.

As one of Marvel’s most popular comics, it was a natural place for characters to make a cameo appearance. Maybe you are a new character gaining popularity, but not quite popular enough yet to support your own book – Punisher, we’re watching you! Sometimes you need a crossover to help boost the sales of another book, as we see with a crossover with Nova. Sometimes you just want to introduce a new character, thinking that they will be the next big Marvel star, but they fall far short of glory. Let’s just say I will never be reviewing Essential Rocket Racer Vol. 1 for multiple reasons.

The core story from this volume is the return of Green Goblin. But this Goblin is not an Osborn! We find out that Harry Osborn had been undergoing counseling with Dr. Bart Hamilton. As secrets come to light during the sessions, Hamilton learns of the dark Osborn legacy, and uses his new-found knowledge to become the next Green Goblin, albeit without the strength-enhancing drug. The new Green Goblin starts a war against Silvermane, which leads Harry Osborn to put back on his Goblin costume. As for our hero, Spider-Man is caught in the middle of all of this!

The volume concludes with Peter finally graduating college, or so we think. Does a villain show up to disrupt the ceremony? Is Aunt May confined to a hospital bed fighting off death? What could possibly keep Peter from graduating? Read this volume and find out!

What makes this Essential?: This is a solid collection of Spider-Man stories, but I don’t know that I would say this is truly essential to read to understand Spider-Man. Len Wein finishes up his long run on the title with the introduction of a new Green Goblin, before handing over the reigns to Marv Wolfman. Ross Andru completes a five-year stretch on the title (see below). While this may have been Marvel’s flagship title of this era, I don’t think that this was the best that Marvel was putting out on the newsstand at that time. If you are a Spider-Man fan, then pick this up. For the casual Marvel fan, this may be one to pass on.

Footnotes: Amazing Spider-Man #161, #162, #174, and #175 were also reprinted in Essential Punisher Vol. 1.

Nova #12 and Amazing Spider-Man #171 were also reprinted in Essential Nova Vol. 1.

Giant Size Spider-Man #6 is a reprint of Amazing Spider-Man Annual #4, which was reprinted in Essential Spider-Man Vol. 3 or Essential Spider-Man Vol. 4 (depending on which edition you read). The cover to Giant Size Spider-Man #6 is included in this volume.

If you like this volume, try: looking at some of Ross Andru’s other books. Andru worked for nearly 50 years in comics, primarily for DC and Marvel. In the 1950s, he was one of DC’s go-to artists for the many war comics on the racks. In the 1960s, he had lengthy runs on Wonder Woman, Metal Men, The Flash, and others. The 1970s saw Andru move over to Marvel, where he helped bring about the Defenders and the early issues of Marvel Team-Up. That led to a five-year run on the Amazing Spider-Man, which that run concludes in this Essential. My personal opinion is that Andru does not get the recognition that he deserves, It’s is Andru’s version of Spider-Man that comes to mind when someone mentions the character to me.

Essential Defenders Vol. 2

Essential Defenders Vol. 2

First Published: December 2006

Contents: The Defenders #15 (September 1974) to #30 (December 1975); Giant-Size Defenders #1 (July 1974) to #5 (August 1975); Marvel Two-in-One #6 (November 1974) and #7 (January 1975); Marvel Team-Up #33 (May 1975) to #35 (July 1975); and Marvel Treasury Edition #12 (1976)

Key Creator Credits: Len Wein, Steve Gerber, Tony Isabella, Gerry Conway, Jim Starlin, Sal Buscema, Don Heck, and others

Key First Appearances: Supreme Serpent, Wrecking Crew (Bulldozer, Piledriver, Thunderball), Elf with a Gun, Starhawk, Aleta, Michael Korvac

Story Continues From: Essential Defenders Vol. 1

Story Continues In: Essential Defenders Vol. 3

Overview: Welcome back to the ongoing adventures of Marvel’s non-team of heroes, the Defenders! The team with no rules, no charter, no membership cards, and no matching uniforms.

Core founding members Sub-Mariner and the Silver Surfer have moved on in this volume to other adventures, but will return in later Essential Defenders volumes. In their place, Valkyrie and Nighthawk team up with Doctor Strange and the Hulk to form the core members of the team in this volume. Other heroes hang out with the Defenders for a few issues in this volume, such as Power Man, Son of Satan, the Thing, and Yellowjacket.

Two story arcs in particular stand out in this issue. For issues #15 and #16, the Defenders face off against Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, a group of characters that had not been seen much with the X-Men title on hiatus. This is followed up in #17 and #18 with the debut of Wrecking Crew – three super-powered construction working villains that work with the Wrecker. The Wrecking Crew have been mainstays in the Marvel Universe since then, fighting everyone from the Avengers to Spider-Man to Wolverine, among others.

The volume concludes with a long story arc featuring the return of the Guardians of the Galaxy. The Guardians made their debut in the late 1960s, but were unused for many years until Steve Gerber brought them back to the forefront in Marvel Two-in-One #5, The story arc in Defenders introduced Starhawk to the team.

What makes this Essential?: While there are still moments where the title feels like an extension of the Doctor Strange book, the Defenders start to come into their own as an individual title, albeit an unofficial team. Steve Gerber begins his long run with the team, and we start to see Gerber’s familiar story-telling techniques which will be more prominently seen in the pages of Howard the Duck. This is an interesting read, but I just don’t know if it’s essential to read.

Footnotes: Marvel Two-in-One #6 and #7 are also reprinted in Essential Marvel Two-in-One Vol. 1.

Marvel Team-Up #33-#35 are also reprinted in Essential Marvel Team-Up Vol. 2.

Marvel Treasury Edition #12 is also reprinted in Essential Howard the Duck Vol. 1.

If you like this volume, try: the Guardians of the Galaxy: Tomorrow’s Avengers trade paperbacks from 2013. We are given a taste of the Guardians of the Galaxy in this Essential Defenders volume. But to find the origins of the original Guardians, check out these collections. Originally created by Arnold Drake and Gene Colan, but fully developed later by Steve Gerber and Al Milgrom, the Guardians come together to help save the 31st Century. Vance Astro, Martinex, Charlie-27, and Yondu form the original core, and we see Starhawk join during the appearance in Defenders. Whether you view this as Marvel’s version of the Legion of Super-Heroes, or as a future version of the Avengers, the Guardians are a fun look at one possible future for the Marvel Universe. Given the success of the summer blockbuster of the same name (but different character line-up), fans should check out these volumes to see the roots of the original Guardians of the Galaxy.

Essential Marvel Team-Up Vol. 2

Essential Marvel Team-Up Vol. 2

First Published: August 2006

Contents: Marvel Team-Up #25 (September 1974) to #51 (November 1976); and Marvel Two-in-One #17 (July 1976)

Key Creator Credits: Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Bill Mantlo, Jim Mooney, Sal Buscema, Ron Wilson, and others

Key First Appearances: Jean DeWolff, Wraith

Story Continues From: Essential Marvel Team-Up Vol. 1

Story Continues In: Essential Marvel Team-Up Vol. 3

Overview: As a New York City-based character, Spider-Man continues to be the center of attention in the Marvel Universe, and in the pages of Marvel Team-Up, as seen in this second Essential volume.

As with the first volume, Marvel Team-Up partners the various Marvel characters with their most recognizable hero in Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man. While most of these stories are one-and-done, we do see some multiple-issue story arcs. Spider-Man moves from one team-up to the next, all as part of the same story. For example, see the Defenders story in issues #33-#35; a multi-part story focusing on the Vision and the Scarlet Witch in issues #41-#44; and the Iron Man arc from issues #48-#51. This last story arc introduced NYPD Captain Jean DeWolff, one of the few officers that recognize Spider-Man as a hero working with the police, and Jean’s brother-turned-villain, the Wraith.

The Human Torch makes the last of his appearances as the lead feature in Marvel Team-Up #36 in this Essential. However, the Human Torch would still cross paths three more times with Spider-Man in this title over the run of the book.

What makes this Essential?: Is this really an Essential title? Absolutely not, when looking at the significant moments of the characters’ life stories. However, this title, as well as the other team-up books from Marvel and DC, is the perfect way to introduce a new reader to a world of characters. From this volume, a reader could go explore the adventures of Iron Man, Thor, The Fantastic Four, The Defenders, The Avengers, Doctor Strange, Killraven, and many others. So give this a read and see what interests you next!

Who’s Who / Reprinted Elsewhere:
Marvel Team-Up #25 – Spider-Man & Human Torch
Marvel Team-Up #26 – Human Torch & Thor
Marvel Team-Up #27 – Spider-Man & the Hulk
Marvel Team-Up #28 – Spider-Man & Hercules
Marvel Team-Up #29 – Human Torch & Iron Man
Marvel Team-Up #30 – Spider-Man & Falcon
Marvel Team-Up #31 – Spider-Man & Iron Fist
Marvel Team-Up #32 – Human Torch & the Son of Satan / Essential Marvel Horror Vol. 1
Marvel Team-Up #33 – Spider-Man & Nighthawk / Essential Defenders Vol. 2
Marvel Team-Up #34 – Spider-Man & Valkyrie / Essential Defenders Vol. 2
Marvel Team-Up #35 – Human Torch & Doctor Strange / Essential Defenders Vol. 2
Marvel Team-Up #36 – Spider-Man & the Frankenstein Monster
Marvel Team-Up #37 – Spider-Man & Man-Wolf
Marvel Team-Up #38 – Spider-Man & the Beast
Marvel Team-Up #39 – Spider-Man & Human Torch
Marvel Team-Up #40 – Spider-Man & the Sons of the Tiger
Marvel Team-Up #41 – Spider-Man & Scarlet Witch
Marvel Team-Up #42 – Spider-Man & the Vision
Marvel Team-Up #43 – Spider-Man & Doctor Doom
Marvel Team-Up #44 – Spider-Man & Moondragon
Marvel Team-Up #45 – Spider-Man & Killraven / Essential Killraven Vol. 1
Marvel Team-Up #46 – Spider-Man & Deathlok
Marvel Two-In-One #17 – The Thing & Spider-Man / Essential Marvel Two-in-One Vol. 1
Marvel Team-Up #47 – Spider-Man & the Thing / Essential Marvel Two-in-One Vol. 1
Marvel Team-Up #48 – Spider-Man & Iron Man
Marvel Team-Up #49 – Spider-Man & Iron Man 
Marvel Team-Up #50 – Spider-Man & Doctor Strange
Marvel Team-Up #51 – Spider-Man & Iron Man

If you like this volume, try: the Ultimate Marvel Team-Up series from 2001 & 2002. The Ultimate universe was created by Marvel in the early 2000s as a way to tell stories featuring their most popular characters without the 40+ years of continuity weighing them down. The stories mirrored many of the original character stories but told to match the modern society. For example, teenage Peter Parker did get a job at the Daily Bugle, but he was helping out on the paper’s website.  For Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, the entire series (16 issues and one special) is written by Brian Michael Bendis, with art from a variety of artists. These issues serve as a way to introduce many Marvel characters into the Ultimate Universe, so the first appearances of Ultimate Hulk, Ultimate Iron Man, Ultimate Daredevil, etc. My personal favorite was issue #14, where Spider-Man crossed paths with the Ultimate version of Black Widow. The art is done by Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise) who was the perfect choice to show teenage awkwardness of Peter against the sleek beauty of Natasha. The entire series has been reprinted multiple times in multiple formats, so it should not be a challenge to track these issues down.