Essential Classic X-Men Vol. 3

Essential Classic X-Men Vol. 3

First Published: February 2009

Contents: The X-Men #54 (March 1969) to #66 (March 1970); Amazing Spider-Man #92 (January 1971); Incredible Hulk #150 (April 1972) and #161 (March 1973); the Beast stories from Amazing Adventures #11 (March 1972) to #17 (March 1973); and Marvel Team-Up #4 (September 1972)

Key Creator Credits: Roy Thomas, Werner Roth, Arnold Drake, Don Heck, Neal Adams, Tom Palmer, Steve Englehart, Tom Sutton, Herb Trimpe, and others

Key First Appearances: Living Monolith, Lawrence Trask, Karl Lykos/Sauron, Savage Land Mutates (Amphibius, Barbarus, Brainchild, Equilibrius, Gaza, Lorelei, Lupo, Piper), Shiro Y0shida/Sunfire

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

Story Continues In: Essential X-Men Vol. 1

Overview: Here we go, readers! It’s the final adventures of the original X-Men as members of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Angel, Beast, Iceman, Havok, and now Polaris go on a non-stop run of adventures that take them from the sands of Egypt to the jungles of the Savage Land to the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip.

The highlight of this collection is the Roy Thomas and Neal Adams all-to-brief run on the title. Adams had been doing work for DC for about two years when he came over to do some work at Marvel. (At that time, creators generally worked for just one company at a time. If someone did work for more than one publisher, one of their jobs would be done under a pseudonym.) At the time that he came onboard with X-Men #56, the book was floundering in the sales column. Adams came in and helped plot a wild adventure ride, introducing new threats to the mutants.

While this is the most creative peak in the title’s seven-year run, it could not stop the cancellation ax. The final issue with original content was X-Men #66. Beginning with issue #67, the title ran reprints of old X-Men stories. Let this sink in for a minute. There was a time when X-Men was strictly a reprint book. It was more profitable for Marvel to re-run old stories versus commissioning new stories. Unbelievable!

Now, the title may have been in reprint mode, but the characters still existed and became free game to use in other books. So Iceman makes an appearance in Amazing Spider-Man, and Havok & Polaris show up in the pages of the Incredible Hulk.

The volume concludes with the solo adventures of Hank McCoy, who finally graduated Xavier’s school and landed a job in a Brand Corporation research lab. McCoy works on isolating the chemical cause of mutation into a liquid solution. Trying to keep his work from falling into the hands of corporate spies, McCoy swallows the formula, and his body is mutated into a furry gray Beast. (In later issues, the fur would change permanently to blue, but that’s not important for this black & white collection.) The Beast finds that he is trapped in this further-mutated body. Despite attempts to hide his mutation, Hank finally embraces his blue-furred identity. These stories are written by Steve Englehart, and he would continue the Beast’s story in the pages of The Avengers.

What makes this Essential?: In my humble opinion, this really is an essential volume to own. First, the Thomas-Adams run on this title is the first “great” story-arc in the history of the X-Men. The Sentinels are more menacing, the Savage Land is more savage, and the introduction of Sunfire opens the door for the international approach to the X-Men in the mid-1970s. In addition, by collecting the X-Men adventures in the other Marvel titles of the 1970s, it highlights how a proper Essential should be put together. The books should be reprinting the character stories, and not necessarily just within a specific title. The solo adventures of the Beast would never have been reprinted in any other Essential volume, so including them here was perfect. While some of the characters’ appearances can be found in other Essentials (see Footnotes), having these stories in one book reads so much better for the X-Men fan.

Footnotes: Amazing Spider-Man #92 is also reprinted in Essential Spider-Man Vol. 5.

Incredible Hulk #150 and #161 are also reprinted in Essential Hulk Vol. 4.

Marvel Team-Up #4 is also reprinted in Essential Marvel Team-Up Vol. 1.

Amazing Adventures #17 reprinted the origin of the Beast, originally told in backup stories from X-Men #49 to #53 (see Essential Classic X-Men Vol. 2). The cover to issue #17 and new framing pages are included in this Essential.

X-Men #67 to #93 and X-Men Annual #1 & #2 reprinted classic X-Men stories from the 1960s. New covers were created for those issues, and the covers are included in this Essential.

If you like this volume, try: the X-Men: Hidden Years series by John Byrne from 1999 to 2001. This series was designed to pick up the story of the original team following X-Men #66, the last original issue of the series. Byrne begins his story with what should be issue #67, but numbered as #1, and continues the adventures. Over the next two years, Byrne told new stories set in the Marvel Universe of the early 1970s, so the mutants encounter a Fantastic Four with Crystal subbing for Invisible Girl. We meet a young Ororo before she has her official first appearance as Storm in Giant-Size X-Men #1. The problem with this book is that it was written and drawn by John Byrne. Not that he necessarily did a bad job with either, but more that Byrne became a very polarizing figure in comics by the early 2000s. A new leadership team took over the reigns as Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief and opted to cancel the book as the X-Men universe was too convoluted and needed to be streamlined. (Note that streamlining of the X-Men books lasted for about one month.) You can read into that the cancellation was due more to personality conflicts between Byrne and management, and not due to poor sales, poor stories, or a convoluted X-Men universe. This entire series was collected in two trade paperbacks in 2012, so it should be relatively easy to track down. If you are a Byrne fan, by all means check this series out.

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.

Essential Conan Vol. 1

Essential Conan Vol. 1

First Published: July 2000

Contents: Conan the Barbarian #1 (October 1970) to #25 (April 1973)

Key Creator Credits: Robert E. Howard, Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith, and others

Key First Appearances: Conan the Barbarian, Fafnir Hellhand, Thoth-Amon, Kulan Gath, Elric, Red Sonja

Overview: Meet Conan, a sword-for-hire from the land of Cimmeria. He wanders the southern lands looking for the next job or quest, which will pay him gold, which he uses to pay for alcohol and women. When times are tough, Conan is not against resorting to thievery to survive. But given his skills with a sword, he very rarely is looking for work – the work comes to him.

Most of these stories are based on the original tales from the 1930s by Conan-creator Robert E. Howard  and are adapted by Roy Thomas. The art duties were given to a relatively young artist, Barry Smith, who shot to fame based on this work. After two years on the title, Smith left the book, with the art being handed off to John Buscema. Smith would take a break from comics, trying to put himself into the fine art world. (It was at this point that he added Windsor to his name.) Windsor-Smith would eventually return to comics in the 1980s.

In the issues collected in this volume, there are two additional characters that stand out to me from their initial debut:

  • Kulan Gath was a magician who crossed paths with Conan. Because he was created by Marvel, and did not come from the work of Robert E. Howard, Kulan Gath was incorporated into the Marvel Universe. I first encountered Kulan Gath when he battled Spider-Man and the X-Men in Uncanny X-Men #189 to #191, which can be found in Essential X-Men Vol. 5.
  • Red Sonja was created based off of a Howard character, Red Sonya. Red Sonja quickly became the female counterpart to Conan, one who could stand on her own against the Barbarian. Red Sonja would later move into her own title, and eventually even be featured in a movie. While the Conan rights are currently held by Dark Horse Comics, the Red Sonja rights are held by Dynamite Entertainment. (And to make things even more confusing, a version of Kulan Gath has appeared in the current Red Sonja title.)

What makes this Essential?: OK, full disclosure, I am not a big fan of the sword & sorcery stories. Never. I remember a next door neighbor of mine growing up was a huge fan of the Conan comics and the Elric novels by Michael Moorcock. Steve was always trying to get me to read them, but I would politely decline and ask if I could read some more of his Iron Man and Avengers issues. Maybe I should have tried them back then, or maybe I was better off sticking to what I knew and liked then. Reading through this very-hard-to-find Essential (check out the Dark Horse Comics Chronicles of Conan reprint books if you can’t track down this Marvel book!), I enjoyed the art from Barry Smith, as he went by in those days. I know that a lot of these stories came over from the Marvel black & white magazines of the time (edited to hide the nudity, naturally), so their inclusion in the Essential series makes them look spectacular. I haven’t read the original stories from Robert E. Howard which Roy Thomas used quite faithfully to develop this book, but it’s my understanding he did well with the adaption. I think what makes this “Essential” is that the comic book look of Conan came to be the definitive look of the character going forward. Prior to the comics, the cover images from Howard’s Conan collection show a more fully clothed man holding a sword with short hair. The comic book look of Conan helped inspire the movie franchise of the 1980s. Anyway, this is worth reading for a Conan fan, and from a historical perspective. But for me, I would rather get back to reading about heroes in capes.

Footnotes: Conan the Barbarian #22 is a reprint of Conan the Barbarian #1. The cover to issue #22 is included in this volume.

If you like this volume, try: the 2013 Red Sonja series from Dynamite Entertainment. I recommend this solely on the basis that Gail Simone is writing it. A lot of people will say that Simone is the best female writer in comics. Other people will say that Simone is the best writer of female characters in comics. Personally, I say Simone is one of the best writers period. Do not define her by her gender. No one cites Kurt Busiek as one of the best male writers in comics, or recognizes Chris Claremont as one of the best writers of male characters in comics. Anyway, back to Red Sonja. This is a fun, adventurous romp featuring the early adventures of the She-Devil with a Sword. If you are a fan of good comics, you need to be reading this title.

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.

Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 1

Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 1

First Published: May 2008

Contents: Marvel Super-Heroes #12 (December 1967) and #13 (March 1968); Captain Marvel #1 (May 1968) to #21 (August 1970); and the Captain Marvin story from Not Brand Echh #9 (March 1981)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee, Gene Colan, Roy Thomas, Arnold Drake, Don Heck, Gil Kane, Gary Friedrich, Dick Ayers, and others

Key First Appearances: Mar-Vell/Captain Marvel, Una, Yon-Rogg, Carol Danvers, Mordecai Boggs

Story Continues In: Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2

Overview: Unbeknownst to most of the people of Earth, alien races have been keeping an eye on our home planet. One of those races, the Kree, has parked a spaceship in orbit to do a further observation of the Earthlings. Captain Mar-Vell is sent to the surface for further investigation, finding himself near a military base in Florida. Mar-Vell’s commander, Col. Yon-Rogg, despises his assignment and wants nothing more than to blast our planet to bits and return to the Kree home world. Finding himself at odds with his commander, Mar-Vell breaks ranks with the Kree and vows to protect the Earth as Captain Marvel!

Captain Marvel finds that the Kree are not happy with his decision, as he is forced to face off against Yon-Rogg and Ronan the Accuser. And given that the Kree are the mortal enemies of the Skrulls, of course, the Super-Skrull has to cross paths with Captain Marvel.

In issue #17, Roy Thomas returned to script the book and brought along with Gil Kane for the art chores. Captain Marvel was given his more familiar red and blue costume, and the story starting progressing in new directions. Rick Jones, the official sidekick of the Marvel Universe, joins up with Captain Marvel, and the two find themselves bonded via the Nega-Bands. Because of that, when one is on Earth, the other is transported to the Negative Zone. (And if you know your Marvel history, if Rick Jones is around than the Hulk will soon follow!)

One of the supporting characters created for this series was Carol Danvers, a security officer at the military base during the origin issues of our hero. However, in issue #18 (November 1969), Carol is caught up in an explosion with Captain Marvel. After she has fully recovered, she later finds out that her DNA has been fused with Kree DNA, and it has given her many of the same powers as Captain Marvel. Carol’s story will continue in the pages of her own comic, which have been reviewed in Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1.

What makes this Essential?: OK, full disclosure and SPOILER warning time. I never really got into the Captain Marvel character. Want to know why? Because the first time I ever saw the character was in Marvel Graphic Novel #1: The Death of Captain Marvel. He was killed off the first time I read him! And it was a shocking move by Marvel, having a heroic character die not in battle but in a bed from cancer. So given the dramatic finale to his career, I had not desire to go back and read his adventures. In all fairness, the early 1980s still was part of the era where characters that were deceased stayed deceased. Of course, Marvel would reuse the name Captain Marvel (to protect the trademark) with later characters. But in today’s era, sometimes the best characters to use are the dead ones, and a good writer finds a way to resurrect the dead.

So I read this volume only knowing the character’s end. This is a mixed introduction to Captain Marvel. I fully believe this is a book that got much better as the story progressed, so I am looking forward to reading Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2 sometime soon. (You can read into that if the book got better as the story progressed, then the early issues must have been a rough ride to get through.) The Gil Kane issues in the end of the book were my favorites, as the artist finds a way to make Captain Marvel feel more alive. (I’m still a big fan of Gene Colan, but these issues just didn’t do it for me. Thankfully I have plenty of Colan Daredevil and Dracula issues to enjoy!) Bottom line – I think this is worth reading, but I don’t know that this is worth owning.

Footnotes: Captain Marvel #20 and #21 are also reprinted in Essential Hulk Vol. 3.

Read my review of Showcase Presents SHAZAM! Vol. 1 to learn about the name battle between Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel.

If you like this volume, try: the Captain Marvel series from 2000 by Peter David and ChrisCross. This is a new Captain Marvel, Genis-Vell, who is the gentically-engineered son of the late Mar-Vell. Introduced in a 1996 Captain Marvel mini-series, the character went by the code name of Legacy. He rose in popularity when he was included in Avengers Forever maxi-series, as a future Avenger plucked from time to fight in the Destiny War. At the climax of that story, Captain Marvel finds that he must use the Nega-Band connection to save Rick Jones. Following that series, Genis-Vell moved into his own monthly book, still bonded to his father’s former side-kick. The series ran for 35 issues, before being rebooted in a Marvel promotion in 2002. The reboot, still written by Peter David, ran for another 25 issues. David is one of the best comic book writers, so any of these issues are a treat. Sadly, this is not a series that has been reprinted beyond one trade paperback, so you may need to dive into some back-issue bins to track this one down.

Essential Avengers Vol. 6

Essential Avengers Vol. 6

Essential Avengers Vol. 6

First Published: February 2008

Contents: Avengers #120 (April 1972) to #140 (October 1975); Giant-Size Avengers #1 (August 1974) to #4 (June 1975); Captain Marvel #33 (July 1974); and Fantastic Four #150 (September 1974)

Key Creator Credits: Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas, Sal Buscema, John Buscema, Bob Brown, George Tuska, and others

Key First Appearances: Nuklo, Bova

Story Continues From: Essential Avengers Vol. 5

Story Continues In: Essential Avengers Vol. 7

Overview: In preparation for this review, I consider some alternatives to make my point here. My first thought would be to increase the font size to a larger style, but I hate that when other sites do it. I CONSIDERED WRITING THIS ENTIRE REVIEW IN ALL CAPS, BUT I DON’T WANT TO COME ACROSS THAT I AM YELLING AT YOU, MY LOYAL READERS. Maybe I should attach a sound file with trumpets blaring, or I figure out a way to roll out a red carpet. See, the reason for these possible changes is to help convey just how EPIC is this collection of the Essential Avengers!

Writer Steve Englehart and friends put together a series of memorable runs over multiple issues. This really felt like a heavy hitters lineup for the team, led by Thor, Iron Man, and the Vision. In this collection, the Avengers have their first encounter with Thanos; in a crossover with the Fantastic Four, we see Quicksilver and Crystal tie the knot in a ceremony delayed by Ultron; and we discover the secret origin of the Vision, in a story that goes back to the very first issue of Marvel Comics in 1939.

The highlight of this volume is the story of Mantis. In the lead-off story where the Avengers battle Zodiac, Mantis discovers that Libra is her father. She learns that she was raised by the Priests of Pama, which takes the Avengers to Viet-Nam where they encounter the Star-Stalker. From there, long-time Avengers foe Kang kidnaps Mantis and Moondragon, as both have been identified as potential candidates to become the Celestial Madonna. That leads the Avengers to travel through time and space after their teammate. During the battle with Kang, the Swordsman is killed, and Mantis realizes that he was the love of her life and not the Vision. Mantis discovers more of her origins, and finally embraces her role as the Celestial Madonna. In a ceremony overseen by Immortus, Mantis marries a Cotati reanimating the body of Swordsman, and the couple merge and depart to space. (It should be noted that the wedding was a double ceremony, as the Vision and the Scarlet Witch finally say their “I Do’s”.)

The volume concludes as some new faces become probationary members of the team in Avengers #137. Having graduated from the X-Men and moved on to a solo career, the blue-haired Beast shows up for a series of adventures, but it won’t be until the next Essential before he earns his Avengers identification card. Also, Moondragon joins the team, making for a good consolation prize for losing out on the Celestial Madonna sweepstakes.

What makes this Essential?: This volume can best be summed up with one name – Steve Englehart. The writer had taken over writing duties on the Avengers in the previous Essential volume, and this collection sees Englehart work in all of the stories that he was really wanting to tell. He uses a core line-up of Iron Man, Thor, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Mantis. (It should be noted that long-time Avenger Captain America was knee-deep in his own book at that time, and could only make the occasional appearance in the Avengers. By the way, Captain America and Falcon was being written by Englehart.) Mantis, a creation of Englehart and Don Heck, becomes the focus of the Celestial Madonna story in this volume. Towards the end of the run, Hank McCoy (a.k.a the Beast of the X-Men) Joins up, but this is the blue-furred Beast. Hank McCoy had undergone a further mutation in the pages of Amazing Adventures, written by — wait for it! — yes that’s right, it was Steve Englehart. So long story short, you need to be a big fan of Englehart and his epic vision for the Avengers to really appreciate this volume. I first read these stories out of order, as I picked up the back issues to fill out my Avengers collection over the years. Being able to re-read this story in order via the Essential allows me to better appreciate what Englehart did here.

Footnotes: Captain Marvel #33 is also reprinted in Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2.

Avengers #127 and Fantastic Four #150 are also reprinted in Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 7.

If you like this volume, try: the first series of The Ultimates. Hot on the heels of the successful Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men, Marvel turned to Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch to develop an Ultimate version of the Avengers. Trimming the team down to it’s 1963 roster of Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Giant Man, the Wasp, and Captain America, Millar and Hitch created an EPIC spin on the historic narrative. Yes, changes were made to make the group more contemporary – most notable is Nick Fury portrayed as an African-American that happens to look a lot like Samuel L. Jackson, long before that actor was cast in any Marvel Studios role. Conversely, The Ultimates became a template that Marvel Studios could use as they began to shape the Phase One series of movies. This initial series ran for 13 issues, albeit over two years time, and has been collected in numerous trades and hardcover collections. There have been various sequels to spin out of this, but the original story remains the best by far.

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 6

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 6

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 6

First Published: May 2007

Contents: Fantastic Four #111 (June 1971) to #137 (August 1973)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee, Archie Goodwin, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, John Buscema, Ross Andru, Joe Sinnott, and others

Key First Appearances: Walter Collins, Overmind, Air-Walker, Thundra,

Story Continues From: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 5

Story Continues In: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 7

Overview: Let’s set the scene here. Jack Kirby has just recently left the Fantastic Four (and Marvel). If this had happened in the last 10 years, more than likely Marvel would have cancelled the book and relaunched it the next month with a new #1. But in the 1970s, the book must go on month after month, so welcome aboard to Archie and Roy and Gerry and John. You have big shoes to fill, so let’s see how you do in Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 6.

To ease the transition, let’s bring in a lot of familiar faces. With Sue still caring for Franklin, Crystal and Medusa take turns as members of the Fantastic Four. Of course, if those two are around, then the Inhumans cannot be far behind. (But why is Quicksilver hanging out with Inhumans, and seems to be quite close to Crystal…)

Let’s bring in some familiar foes. Doctor Doom? Check! Galactus and his new herald Air-Walker? Check! The Frightful Four? Check! Dragon Man? Check! Diablo? Sigh, check. But we also get some new challengers, such as the Overmind. But the most treacherous foe is finally shown in Walter Collins, the constantly irate landlord of the Baxter Building. (“Johnny, what did you do with the rent check?”) Thankfully, John Byrne was finally able to have Reed write off Collins years later during his fantastic run of the 1980s.

The most interesting introduction in this volume is Thundra, who comes from the 23rd century when Earth is ruled by Femizons. She travels back to the 20th century to fight the strongest man, who happens to be Ben Grimm. Thundra will become a familiar face in the pages of Fantastic Four, working as an ally of our heroes and as an enemy as a member of the Frightful Four. She eventually develops a romantic interest in Ben, much to his chagrin.

What makes this Essential?: I want to like this more, I really do. But this volume just feels like a let down after the Lee-Kirby run. Maybe it’s not fair to compare these issues against that run, but this is the situation. The stories are decent but not dynamic. The art is very good but never breathtaking. There are some moments that rise up close to greatness, but then I wonder how Lee & Kirby would have done it. Case in point, in Fantastic Four #116, Doctor Doom leads the Fantastic Four against Overmind and Mr. Fantastic, I loved the issue, but I wanted to see Kirby draw that issue. A Fantastic Four completist should own this volume, but it is not essential for a casual Marvel fan.

Footnotes: The front and back covers to Marvel Treasury Edition #21 (1979) are included in this volume. The treasury edition reprints Fantastic Four #120 to #123, which are collected in this Essential. In addition, early versions of the covers to Fantastic Four #130 and #131 are also included in this book.

If you like this volume, try: the Inhumans mini-series from 1998. Written by Paul Jenkins with art by Jae Lee, the 12-issue series was part of the Marvel Knights launch. Several story arcs are at work in this collection: Attilan is under attack from external and internal forces. The next generation of Inhumans debate their future before entering the Terrigan Mists. And the royal family shows that they are just as dysfunctional as any other family. The tale fills in the gaps in the Inhumans history, fleshing it out into an epic story. This is one of the best Marvel stories ever, and probably needs to be read multiple times to catch everything. This has been collected repeatedly in trade paperback and hardcover editions, so it should be easy to find.

Essential Ghost Rider Vol. 1

First Published: October 2005

Contents: Marvel Spotlight #5 (August 1972) to #12 (October 1973); Ghost Rider #1 (September 1973) to #20 (October 1976); and Daredevil #138 (October 1976)

Key Creator Credits: Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich, Mike Ploog, Tom Sutton, Tony Isabella, Jim Mooney, George Tuska, Frank Robbins, Marv Wolfman, John Byrne, and others

Key First Appearances: Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider, Roxanne Simpson/Katy Milner, Crash Simpson, Daimon Hellstrom/Son of Satan 

Story Continues In: Essential Ghost Rider Vol. 2

Overview:  Johnny Blaze is a motorcycle daredevil with a traveling road show. When the owner of the show, Crash Simpson, announces he is dying from cancer, Blaze seeks out and strikes a deal with Devil for his soul in an attempt to save Crash. The Devil accepts, but like any deal with Satan, the deal works against Blaze. Crash is saved from cancer but still dies in a stunt accident. As part of his deal, Johnny Blaze is transformed into a mystical servant of Hell, known as the Ghost Rider.

The early stories deal with Blaze trying to free his soul from the control of Satan. This leads to the introduction of the devil’s estranged offspring, Daimon Hellstrom, who would become an anti-hero in his own right as the Son of Satan.

Eventually, Blaze gets his soul released, but he still retains the Ghost Rider abilities. Early on, his transformations occurred at dusk, but now Blaze finds that he can now control the transition for anytime day or night. He can also extend his powers to create a flaming motorcycle out of the hellfire at his control.

In the later issues, Blaze starts working in Hollywood as a stuntman on a television show, where he meets the actress Karen Page. For longtime Marvel readers, you will recall Page as the one-time secretary of lawyer Matt Murdock. So it’s only natural that Ghost Rider would cross paths with Daredevil, the man without fear, which is exactly what happens as this volume concludes.

What makes this Essential?: I will be the first to admit that I have never been a Ghost Rider fan. I held off getting this book for as long as I possibly could, just out my general dislike for the character. What I found reading the early stories of Johnny Blaze is a far different Ghost Rider than the one that gained such popularity in the 1990s. This Ghost Rider seems more human, whose initial changes were brought on by the setting and rising of the sun. He’s a true anti-hero, never viewing himself as a super-hero; just much more interested in riding his bike at the next show. Based on his history in the Marvel Universe, the Ghost Rider is an important hero to read. But the Ghost Rider in these stories is much different than the Ghost Rider you picture in your head. 

Footnotes: Marvel Spotlight #12, and Ghost Rider #1 & #2 are also reprinted in Essential Marvel Horror Vol. 1.

Ghost Rider #10 is a reprint of Marvel Spotlight #5. The cover to Ghost Rider #10 is included in this volume. In the letter column in Ghost Rider #11, it was revealed that the cover for issue #10 went to press before Marvel realized that the issue would not be ready in time.

Ghost Rider #19 & #20, and Daredevil #138 are also reprinted in Essential Daredevil Vol. 6.

There are two early Ghost Rider appearances that are not collected in this volume, but they can be found in other Essential volumes. Marvel Team-Up #15 (November 1973) can be found in Essential Marvel Team-Up Vol. 1, and Marvel Two-in-One #8 (March 1975) can be found in Essential Marvel Two-in-One Vol. 1. In my opinion, both should have been included, given the number of references to those stories in the Ghost Rider title. In particular, the Marvel Team-Up issue features the first appearance of The Orb, who returns as a foe in Ghost Rider #14 and #15.

If you like this volume, try: Marvel’s first team of heroes in California, The Champions. Created by Tony Isabella to feature Angel, Iceman, and Black Goliath, it was retooled without Black Goliath and with the additions of Black Widow, Hercules, and Ghost Rider. Given the diverse line-up of the team, there were a lot of wild adventures during the team’s all-too-short 17 issue run. The Champions #1 (October 1975) debuted during the period covered in this Essential Ghost Rider, and several issues make references to his adventures with the team. While the entire series is collected in two Classic volumes, this is a series that shows up frequently in back issue bins. Make a point to track this series down!

Essential Man-Thing Vol. 1

Essential Man-Thing Vol. 1

Essential Man-Thing Vol. 1

First Published: December 2006

Contents: Man-Thing story from Savage Tales #1 (May 1971); Man-Thing stories from Astonishing Tales #12 (June 1972) and #13 (August 1972); Man-Thing stories from (Adventure into) Fear #10 (October 1972) to #19 (December 1973); Man-Thing #1 (January 1974) to #14 (February 1975); Giant-Size Man-Thing #1 (August 1974) and #2 (November 1974); and Man-Thing stories from Monsters Unleashed #5 (April 1974), #8 (October 1974), and #9 (December 1974)

Key Creator Credits: Steve Gerber, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Mike Ploog, Tony Isabella, Gray Morrow, John Buscema, Neal Adams, Rich Buckler, Val Mayerik, and others

Key First Appearances: Ted Sallis/Man-Thing, Ellen Brandt, Jennifer Kale, Andy Kale, Thog, Joshua Kale, Dakimh the Enchanter, Howard the Duck, F.A. Schist, Wundar, Richard Rory, Ruth Hart, Foolkiller

Story Continues In: Essential Man-Thing Vol. 2

Overview:  Ted Sallis is a research scientist trying to re-discover the Super Soldier formula, the long lost serum which led to the creation of Captain America in the 1940s. Working in a remote lab in the Florida Everglades, Sallis believes he has recreated the formula. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other people and governments that want that formula, some of whom would kill to get their hands on it. Confronted by spies, Sallis flees into the murk, and injects the formula into himself prior to crashing his car into the swamp. Between the formula and the swamp, Sallis’ body is transformed into what could best be described as a Man-Thing — it has the shape of a human, but made out of swamp material.

The Man-Thing has vague memories of who he once was, but nothing coherent. He reacts to the emotions of people around him, in particular fear. We quickly find out that whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch. He becomes the protector of the swamp, which also happens to contain a Nexus of All Realities, which allow travel between Earth and other dimensions. Man-Thing becomes the protector of the swamp and the Nexus, and encounters many Marvel characters passing through the Florida Everglades.

The bulk of this book is written by Steve Gerber early in his career, and the supporting characters introduced here would make numerous future appearances in later Marvel books written by Gerber. And in a book like Man-Thing, where the title character does not speak, a writer needs a good supporting cast to help advance the story. Howard the Duck is the most famous introduction made by Gerber, coming from Duckworld through the Nexus of All Realities. He would move into his own self-titled book of the 1970s. Richard Rory is a down-on-his-luck guy that can never seem to get the girl. Rory would travel with Gerber to The Defenders, before moving on to the various She-Hulk titles of the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, Jennifer Kale is a teenage girl with an affinity to magic, and makes appearances every few years in a variety of titles, from Howard the Duck to Ghost Rider.

What makes this Essential?: The release of Savage Tales #1 was Marvel’s first attempt to introduce a horror/monster book into the Marvel Universe proper. (Other appearances in that first issue of Savage Tales included Conan and Ka-Zar.) Debuting around the same time as DC’s Swamp Thing (see The First Thing below), Man-Thing remained a steady feature throughout the 1970s and 1980s. For that reason, sure these early stories could be considered as Essential. I do find that the best artwork in this volume came from the various magazines, and I will once again state my plea that Marvel should find someway to reprint the magazines in one collection. 

The First Thing: Man-Thing was originally conceived by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas; Thomas fleshed out the character’s story, then handed the story to Gerry Conway to plot. As a result, Thomas and Conway, along with artist Gray Morrow, are credited for the creation of Man-Thing in Savage Tales #1 (May 1971). A second story was done by Len Wein, but Savage Tales was cancelled after just the one issue. It was a year before the story saw print, incorporated into the Ka-Zar story in Astonishing Tales #12 (June 1972). Meanwhile, down the street at the DC Comics offices, the first Swamp Thing story appeared in House of Secrets #92 (July 1971). This Swamp Thing (originally Alex Olsen) took place in the early 1900s. The next Swamp Thing appeared in Swamp Thing #1 (October-November 1972), this time featuring Alec Holland becoming the Swamp Thing. Both of the Swamp Thing stories were written by Len Wein. While there are a lot of similarities in the origins between Man-Thing and Swamp Thing, Len Wein has stated in interviews that they are two distinct characters. The story paths for both characters have followed different paths, taking them further and further away from a very familiar origin story.

Footnotes: Parts of (Adventure into) Fear #19 and Man-Thing #1 are also reprinted in Essential Howard the Duck Vol. 1.

This Essential does carry a Parental Advisory warning, but it is buried on the lower portion of the back cover. This is definitely not an all-ages book.

If you like this volume, try: looking into the life and career of Gray Morrow, the artistic co-creator of Man-Thing. Over the course of his long career, Morrow did work in nearly every genre for nearly every publisher at some point – Classics Illustrated, horror magazines and comics, newspaper strip, among others – but he was most closely associated with the worlds of fantasy and science fiction. Start your search with the retrospective Gray Morrow: Visionary, which was released in 2001 as his career was coming to an end.

Essential Marvel Horror Vol. 1

Essential Marvel Horror Vol. 1

First Published: November 2006

Contents: Ghost Rider #1 (September 1973) and #2 (October 1973); Marvel Spotlight #12 (October 1973) to #24 (October 1975); Son of Satan #1 (December 1975) to #8 (February 1977); Marvel Two-In-One #14 (March 1976); Marvel Team-Up #32 (April 1975), #80 (April 1979), and #81 (May 1979); Satana stories from Vampire Tales #2 (October 1973) and #3 (February 1974); Satana stories from Haunt Of Horror #2 (July 1974), #4 (November 1974), and #5 (January 1975); Marvel Premiere #27 (December 1975); and Marvel Preview #7 (June 1976)

Key Creator Credits: Gary Friedrich, Herb Trimpe, Steve Gerber, Roy Thomas, Chris Claremont, John Romita, Sr., Gene Colan, Esteban Maroto, and others

Key First Appearances: Daimon Hellstrom/Son of Satan, Satana, Dr. Katherine Reynolds

Story Continues In: Essential Marvel Horror Vol. 2

Overview: Are you ready for something different? If so, then dive into this volume as we follow the adventures of the offspring of Satan.

First up is Daimon Hellstrom, a learned scholar who specializes in the occult. However, when the cases get dangerous, he changes into his Son of Satan persona. Armed with a trident and possessing the power of the Darksoul, the Son of Satan fights many of the lesser demons of Hell looking to gain favor with Daimon’s father. Daimon’s story ran through Marvel Spotlight before he graduated into his own short-lived title.

Also debuting at the same time is Daimon’s sister, Satana. The two siblings were separated as kids following their mother’s death and raised completely different. Satana embraces her heritage more than her brother. Satana feeds on the souls of men, which she absorbs by kissing them. When she finishes, the man collapses dead and a butterfly is released. Satana’s story jumped around between various Marvel/Warren magazines before it comes to an end in the pages of Marvel Team-Up. Is this the end of Satana? Time will tell….

What makes this Essential?: I’ve got mixed opinions on this book. Most Essentials follow a character through the run of their book, and will include any additional appearances in other titles. So while this is titled the Essential Marvel Horror Vol. 1, it could better be named as Essential Son of Satan & Satana. But I don’t know if that volume would have sold. So, for following the adventures of these two characters, this is a serviceable volume if you are fans of the characters. I found the Satana stories more interesting, being a mix of illustrated tales and prose pieces. 

But personally, after seeing the Satana stories from Vampire Tales and Haunt of Horror, I would much rather see Essential Marvel Horror collect the entire run of those magazines in a volume. There are a lot of Marvel/Warren magazines that have not been reprinted, and the Essential line would be the perfect place to present them again. 

Footnotes: Ghost Rider #1 & #2, and Marvel Spotlight #12 were also reprinted in Essential Ghost Rider Vol. 1.

Marvel Two-in-One #14 was also reprinted in Essential Marvel Two-in-One Vol. 1.

Marvel Team-Up #32 was also reprinted in Essential Marvel Team-Up Vol. 2.

Marvel Two-in-One #80 and #81 were also reprinted in Essential Marvel Team-Up Vol. 4.

If you like this volume, try: the Rachel Rising series from Terry Moore. For me, the highlight of this entire volume is ‘The Kiss of Death’ story from Vampire Tales #3. Gerry Conway’s script is good, but the artwork by Esteban Maroto steals the show. This story is breathtaking and worth the price of the Essential just to read this story. For those unfamiliar with his work, Maroto is a Spanish artist that did a lot of work for the various horror magazines of the 1970s. He helped design the metal bikini for Red Sonja with her debut. He also did an Amethyst mini-series for DC and a story in an X-Men: Unlimited issue for Marvel. Maroto’s female forms are exquisite, ranking up there for me with the likes of George Perez, Phil Jiminez, Adam Hughes, and Terry Moore. Since the early days of Moore’s Strangers in Paradise series, his female characters have jumped off the page, laughing and loving and living. In 2012, Moore launched his first horror series with Rachel Rising, about a young woman waking up one morning dead, but she remembers who killed her. Over the series, other friends die but remain alive; deals with the devil are made, and a mystery dating back hundreds of years is slowly revealed. This is some of Moore’s best work ever, and you are missing out if you’re not picking it up every six weeks. The early issues are collected in trade paperbacks to bring you up to speed with one of the best (and creepiest) books on the market today.