Fantastic Four Epic Collection: The Master Plan of Doctor Doom (2017)
Reprints Fantastic Four #19-32, Annual #1-2
Written by Stan Lee
Art by Jack Kirby
This collection continues laying the foundation of what the Marvel Universe would become. When Fantastic Four #19 was published in July of 1963, what did the rest of the Marvel Comics Universe look like? Amazing Spider-Man #5 just dropped, which pits him against Doctor Doom. Strange Tales spotlights the solo adventures of the Human Torch, with Doctor Strange making his debut as a back-up feature. Tales of Suspense is just a few issues into its Iron Man run, and he’s facing off against the Crimson Dynamo. Journey Into Mystery is about the ongoing adventures of The Mighty Thor. Nick Fury’s World War II-era stories are being told in his comic. Tales to Astonish continues its run of Ant-Man & The Wasp. The Avengers and The X-Men had their first issue debuts in July 1963. Beyond that, Marvel is still publishing plenty of romance and Western books from Millie the Model to Patsy Walker, The Rawhide Kid and The Two-Gun Kid. Captain America is still on ice somewhere in the Arctic Circle. In this next phase of Marvel, the cohesive shared universe begins to become a thing, and the Fantastic Four binds it all together.
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Fantastic Four Epic Collection: The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine (2014)
Reprints Fantastic Four #1-18
Written by Stan Lee
Art by Jack Kirby
I’m not quite sure what Marvel Comics is anymore these days. They have gone all-in on making their books just variants of variants at this point. There’s the stable of adjectives they slap on books that don’t mean much (Uncanny, Astonishing, Immortal is one now with the upcoming Immortal Thor). There’s also the spamming of popular IPs with Spider-Man, Venom, Spider-Gwen/Ghost Spider, and Miles Morales being used in multiple comics a month in a way that I think is less about storytelling and more about keeping brands in front of the consumers at all times. While comics have always been a business about finding ways to keep people handing over their money for another monthly installment, in the “old days,” there was a certain freshness & creativity to it. These were comics being dreamed up by weirdos who had yet to determine if they would be popular with a big enough audience to make them economical.
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Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: The Death of Captain Stacy (2021)
Reprints Amazing Spider-Man #86-104
Written by Stan Lee & Roy Thomas
Art by Gil Kane & John Romita with John Buscema
This was my least favorite of the four Amazing Spider-Man collections I read for this series. The art changes, but it’s not the art that made me dislike it; it is the writing. Stan Lee was clearly running out of steam with his ideas for Spider-Man. It also supports the claims that Lee relied on his artists to handle many plots to which he would add flourishes. I won’t say these are terrible stories, but you definitely get the sense he was reaching for ideas, and a lot of this doesn’t feel as powerfully written as the earlier issues.
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Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: The Secret of the Petrified Tablet (2020)
Reprints Amazing Spider-Man #68-85 & Annual #5
Written by Stan Lee
Art by John Romita & John Buscema (with Larry Lieber & Marie Severin)
One of the things I’ve noticed while reading through these issues of Amazing Spider-Man is how John Romita’s art style is what I think of when I imagine Silver Age art. There’s a cleanness to the linework, a certain way he draws textures, an overall simplicity compared to modern art, as well as development compared to earlier comics and the art happening over at the Distinguished Competition. However, this collection starts with a story illustrated by Larry Lieber, whose style is similar to Romita’s. Lieber served as a man of many talents while at Marvel. He scripted Stan Lee’s plots for Thor, Iron Man, and Ant-Man, with his first superhero work being the first appearance of Thor. Lieber is actually the younger brother of Stan Lee and thus has had a long-running relationship with the company. He illustrated the Spider-Man newspaper strip from 1986 to 2018, retiring at 86. He’s still alive today, having turned 91 in October 2022.
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Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: The Goblin Lives (2019)
Reprints Amazing Spider-Man #53-67, Spectacular Spider-Man #1-2, Marvel Super-Heroes #14, and Not Brand Echh #6,11
Written by Stan Lee (with Gary Friedrich & Arnold Drake)
Art by John Romita (with Don Heck, Jim Mooney, Ross Andru, Larry Lieber, & Marie Severin)
Once upon a time, superheroes were not the most popular thing in the media. In the 1960s, Stan Lee and his collaborators at Marvel were reinventing the niche genre that had been quite popular since the 1930s. Thirty years after their debuts, the familiar superheroes were quite stale. If you walked over to DC Comics, you would find stories with Superman acting as a father figure, mentoring children. Batman wasn’t much better.
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Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: Spider-Man No More (2018)
Reprints Amazing Spider-Man #39-52, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #3-4, and Not Brand Echh #2
Written by Stan Lee
Art by John Romita, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, and Marie Severin
Steve Ditko was gone and with him ended the first era of Spider-Man. This second era wasn’t going to be a downturn in quality, though. Stan Lee brought in artist John Romita whose style would become the standard for how Spider-Man was presented even outside the comics for decades to come. Romita’s art is different from Ditko’s. Where the former artist portrayed Spider-Man/Peter Parker as a spindly, almost spidery lanky fellow, Romita bulked the character up a bit. His muscle mass increased, but not too much, and the glasses disappeared. This wasn’t a Spider-Man who was a 90-pound weakling anymore. However, he was still an outcast to a degree. His dual identity was even more of a problem going forward as Peter tried to engage in serious adult relationships. The power and the responsibility that followed plagued every chance Peter had at happiness.
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Comic books, the poor person’s cartoons. I am kidding; if you’re purchasing comic books, there is nothing cheap about them.
This year, for me, was the year of reading more comics than books. Sometimes allowing your eyes to focus on beautifully penciled & inked art can be soothing. When the text gets to be a lot, you can look at the images to trick your brain into getting back into the story.
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2022 was the year I dropped reading monthlies. After decades of reading them, whether buying them myself, reading my college roommate’s copies, or consuming them digitally, I decided it was time to get off the ride. This happens to all comic fans when they reach a certain age. It comes from frustration with the cyclical nature of superhero books. Most of the best stories for a character have already been told, so everything between now and the next great authorial genius coming along is just spinning wheels.
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Immortal Hulk Book Five (2022)
Reprints Immortal Hulk #41-50
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose, Belardino Brabo, and Paul Mounts
No Hulk creative run is better than Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk. When I was a child, around 4 or 5 years old, I would religiously watch The Incredible Hulk animated series on NBC. I had to have been watching reruns as I was only one year old when it debuted, and I can’t imagine I remember anything from that period. This cartoon was my first exposure to the Hulk and the characters that make up his world: Betty Ross, Rick Jones, Ned Talbot, and General Thunderbolt Ross. As I got older, one of the first comics I purchased was Incredible Hulk #341, written by Peter David with art by Todd MacFarlane. At that time, I didn’t really understand what was going on. The Hulk was gray; he seemed to be on the run. He fought a villain named Man-Bull (who I later learned debuted as a Daredevil villain, odd). I just liked the power and fury of the Hulk. This character’s appeal to children comes from the same place as a love for dinosaurs. When you are small and powerless, it can be life-saving to imagine being something with more agency and the ability to crush anyone who messes with you.
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X-Men Epic Collection: It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn (2019)
Reprints Amazing Adventures #11-17, Amazing Spider-Man #92, Incredible Hulk #150, 161, 172 & 180-182, Marvel Team-Up #4 & 23, Avengers #110-111, Captain America #172-175, Defenders #15-16, and Giant-Size Fantastic Four #4
Written by Steve Englehart, Len Wein, Gerry Conway, Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, Mike Friedrich, Tony Isabella, & Chris Claremont
Art by Sal Buscema, Tom Sutton, Herb Trimpe, Gil Kane, Don Heck, John Buscema, Bob Brown & Jim Starlin
This is the easiest to pass up of all the original X-Men Epic Collections. It takes place in the gap between the initial run and Chris Claremont’s takeover in 1974, so we have a lot of short arcs with the X-Men guest-starring in other books. That was my mindset at first, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see this as a flame carried by people who loved these characters. It would have been easy to let the X-Men slide into obscurity like many other characters whose books got canceled. They could have fallen into comic book limbo, but because writer/editor Len Wein believed in the concept, he and other creators kept finding places for these mutant heroes to pop up.
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