Essential Daredevil Vol. 1

First Published: October 2002

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

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

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

Story Continues In: Essential Daredevil Vol. 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential Doctor Strange Vol. 1

Essential Doctor Strange Vol. 1

First Published: January 2002

Contents: Doctor Strange stories from Strange Tales #110 (July 1963) to #111 (August 1963) and #114 (November 1963) to #168 (May 1968)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Roy Thomas, Denny O’Neil, Bill Everett, Marie Severin, Dan Adkins, Herb Trimpe, and Jim Lawrence

Key First Appearances: Dr. Stephen Strange, Ancient One, Wong, Nightmare, Baron Mordo, Victoria Bentley, Clea, Dormammu, G’uranthic Guardian, Mindless Ones, Eternity, Kaluu, Umar, Living Tribunal, Yandroth

Story Continues In: Essential Doctor Strange Vol. 2

Overview: Doctor Stephen Strange was a brilliant surgeon, whose skills in the operating room were only surpassed by his greed and ego. After a horrendous car accident, Strange finds that the nerve damage he suffered no longer give him the motor skills to perform surgeries. Strange burns through his fortune, traveling the world looking for a cure. One name keeps coming up in his search – that of the Ancient One. Tracking him down, the Ancient One is unable to heal Strange’s body, but does offer to train him in the ways of the mystic arts. Strange stops the Ancient One’s assistant, Baron Mordo, from stealing the power from his master, and he realizes that maybe he has a new calling in life. So begins the adventures of Doctor Strange, master of the mystic arts.

Stan Lee and Steve Ditko place the building blocks that will dominate Marvel’s mystical world. Besides Baron Mordo, Doctor Strange battles a cadre of mystical beings intent on defeating Strange so that they could take over the earth, such as Nightmare and Dormammu. With his faithful servant Wong, and the romantic interests of Victoria Bentley, a normal human with passing skills in magic, and Clea, a sorceress from another dimension, Doctor Strange is prepared to defend Earth from any threat, magical or otherwise.

What makes this Essential?: Doctor Strange has been one of the mainstays of Marvel Comics from the earliest days. Lee and Ditko were more than creators; they were architects, building the framework that would become the Marvel Universe. Any work by Ditko in this era is worthy of being collected as an Essential. Like many stories from this era, the plot points may not stand up, but they are still worth a read.

Footnotes: Doctor Strange  was just one of the tenants in Strange Tales during the 1960s. Initially, Doctor Strange shared the book with the Human Torch from the Fantastic Four. In 1965, the Human Torch feature was replaced by Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

If you like this volume, try: Marvel Visionaries: Steve Ditko. Nearly any comic book fan could tell you that Steve Ditko was the co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. A comic aficionado could tell you that Ditko left Marvel Comics in 1966, and split time between Charlton and DC Comics, with memorable creations like The Question, the Creeper, and Shade the Changing Man. It would take a die-hard Ditko fan, or a reading of this Visionaries volume, to know that Ditko returned to Marvel in the 1980s, with runs on The Incredible Hulk and ROM, and co-creating modern characters like Speedball and Squirrel Girl. For years, Ditko has declined interview requests, preferring to let his work speak for itself. Consider this a brilliant interview reviewing the many highlights of Ditko’s many years at Marvel Comics.

Essential Hulk Vol. 1

Incredible Hulk Vol. 1

First Published: February 1999

Contents: Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962) to #6 (March 1963), Hulk stories from Tales to Astonish #60 (October 1964) to #91 (May 1967)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, and Gil Kane

Key First Appearances: Dr. Robert Bruce Banner/Hulk, Rick Jones, Betty Ross, General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross, Ringmaster and the Circus of Crime, Tyrannus, Major Glenn Talbot, Leader, Amphibion, Secret Empire, Boomerang, Abomination

Story Continues In: Essential Hulk Vol. 2

Overview: Dr. Bruce Banner is a research scientist studying gamma rays for the government. During a test, Banner is caught up in an explosion of gamma energy while trying to save teenager Rick Jones. Banner finds that in times of stress or when he becomes angry, his body undergoes a metamorphosis into a large, muscle-bound rampaging monster, known as the Hulk. The Hulk is a mindless creature fueled by rage and only reverts back to his Banner identity when the danger has passed.

Banner struggles to control his inner-monster so that he does not put others in danger, like the love of his life, Betty Ross. Unfortunately, Betty’s father, General Thunderbolt Ross, is bound and determined to use the full power of the U.S. Army to bring in the Hulk. And competing for Betty’s hand is the general’s right-hand man, Major Glenn Talbot.

Several classic villains with similar gamma-induced reactions are introduced in this volume: the Leader, whose intelligence is the equal of the Hulk’s strength; and the Abomination, a Russian version of the Hulk created during the heights of the Cold War. Other notable foes first featured in these issues include the Boomerang, Tyrannus, and the Ringmaster with his Circus of Crime.

This volume consists of two separate story runs: Incredible Hulk #1-6, which was issued in 1962-63 before being canceled due to low sales; and in Tales to Astonish #60-91, which were issued from late 1964 to 1967. In between the two runs, the Hulk made numerous appearances in other books, such as the Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man, and was a founding member of the Avengers. The Hulk’s growing popularity inspired Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to give the Hulk another chance, with a feature in Tales to Astonish.

What makes this Essential?: The Hulk is one of the most recognizable characters from the Marvel Universe. The Hulk was the second “major” character to be introduced by Lee and Kirby, following the introduction of the Fantastic Four. Along with Spider-Man, he was one of the first characters to really break into the mainstream consciousness of characters, crossing over into numerous TV shows, movies, toys, costumes and other material. The stories in this book provide the foundation for 50 years of Hulk stories. These are not the greatest of Hulk stories, but they should be read if you are a fan of the Hulk or an aficionado of the Marvel Silver Age of comics.

Footnotes: In the first issue of the Incredible Hulk, the Hulk was colored as a gray monster. Beginning with issue #2, the Hulk took on his more familiar green look.

In the comics, the Hulk’s alter identity is Dr. Bruce Banner. In the 1970s live-action television show, he was called Dr. David Banner. According to one story, the producer of the TV show opted to change the character’s name so that it did not feel like a comic book series, by eliminating the alliterative name of the main character, a go-to move that Stan Lee loved to use (Peter Parker, Reed Richards, Susan Storm, Happy Hogan, and others).

If you like this volume, try: a classic book such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Both of these novellas provided inspiration to Stan Lee when developing the concept of the Hulk.

Essential Spider-Man Vol. 2

Essential Spider-Man Vol. 2

First Published: August 1997

Contents: Amazing Spider-Man #21 (February 1965) to #43 (December 1966), and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 (1965) and #3 (1966)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita Sr.

Key First Appearances: Princess Python, Spencer Smythe, Spider-Slayer, Mary Jane Watson, Mark Raxton/Molten Man, Harry Osborn, Gwen Stacy, Miles Warren, Norman Osborn, and Aleksei Sytsevich/Rhino

Story Continues From: Essential Spider-Man Vol. 1

Story Continues In: Essential Spider-Man Vol. 3

Overview: The adventures of the Amazing Spider-Man continue in this second Essential volume. Spider-Man was an early breakout star of the Marvel Universe and quickly started making appearances in other books during this era.

Peter Parker graduates high school and enrolls at Empire State University, where he meets a new cast of friends like Harry Osborn, Gwen Stacy, and Professor Miles Warren. New villains such as the Spider-Slayer, the Molten Man, and the Rhino are introduced. Most dramatically, the identity of the Green Goblin is finally revealed as Norman Osborn, the father of his new friend Harry.  And who could forget Peter hitting the jackpot when Mary Jane Watson showed up on his doorstep.

What makes this Essential?: One of the best story arcs ever runs from #31 to #33. As Peter begins his college classes, Aunt May is back in the hospital with a mysterious ailment. The doctors determine that May has absorbed a radioactive particle into her blood stream. Peter enlists Dr. Curt Connors to help develop a serum. Before the serum can be delivered to the hospital, it is stolen by the henchmen of Dr. Octopus. Peter must push himself to the limits to overcome obstacles and villains in order to retrieve the serum and get it to the hospital in time. This is the best work that Lee and Ditko did together, and it should be must reading for all Spider-Man fans.

If you like this volume, try: Marvel Visionaries: Stan Lee, which collects assorted from Lee’s legendary career at Marvel. There is nothing that can be written here that hasn’t been said before. I chose this book to highlight because the Essential volume sees the transition from Ditko art to Romita Sr. art. Other artists would come along, but Stan Lee was the writer/editor of Amazing Spider-Man for over 100 issues. Check out some of these other classics by Stan the Man!

Essential Spider-Man Vol. 1

Essential Spider-Man Vol. 1

First Published: December 1996

Contents: Lead story from Amazing Fantasy #15 (August/September 1962), Amazing Spider-Man #1 (March 1963) to #20 (January 1965), and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 (1964)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Key First Appearances: Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Aunt May Parker, Uncle Ben Parker, Liz Allen, Flash Thompson, J. Jonah Jameson, John Jameson,  Daily Bugle, Chameleon, Vulture, Tinkerer, Dr. Octopus, Sandman, Betty Brant, Dr Curt Connors/Lizard, Martha Connors, Billy Connors, Living Brain, Electro, Big Man/Frederick Foswell, Enforcers (Fancy Dan, Montana, Ox), Mysterio, Green Goblin, Kraven the Hunter, Anna Watson, Ned Leeds, and Scorpion

Story Continues In: Essential Spider-Man Vol. 2

Overview: Peter Parker, a nerdy high school student with few friends, is bitten by a radioactive spider, which gives Peter the proportionate strength and agility of a spider. Peter initially tries to use his new found abilities for profit but learns that with great power must come great responsibility following the death of his beloved Uncle Ben.

These stories follow Peter in his early days as Spider-Man. Peter remains a loner at school, but becomes quite popular as Spider-Man, becoming close friends with the Human Torch of the Fantastic Four. Peter takes a part-time job at the Daily Bugle, where he meets his first love, Betty Brant, and the bombastic publisher J. Jonah Jameson, who’s desire for the newspaper is to take down masked vigilantes like Spider-Man.

Re-occurring story points are introduced in this volume. Spider-Man is unmasked for the first time in public; Aunt May lays in a hospital bed at death’s door, forcing Peter to choose between being available as a loving nephew or to the world as the heroic Spider-Man; and Peter must sell photos of Spider-Man in action to the Daily Bugle, so that they may be used to discredit Spider-Man.

What makes this Essential?: These issues form the foundation for everything that is Spider-Man. For 50 years, thousands of comics have been published featuring the characters created in these 22 issues. I would consider these issues (either in the Essential TPB or the Omnibus edition) a must own for any comic fan.

Footnotes: Essential Spider-Man Vol. 1 was one of the first three volumes published by Marvel Comics in 1996. The other two were Essential X-Men Vol. 1 and Essential Wolverine Vol. 1.

If you like this volume, try: Untold Tales of Spider-Man by Kurt Busiek and friends. These stories were told in-between panels of the Amazing Spider-Man issues collected in this volume. Guides were provided in the series to show where each issue of UTSM fit in. Marvel has recently collected this entire series in an Omnibus edition.