Marvel’s Top Ten Stories: 1971-1975

I ranked my favorite Marvel Comics stories of 1961-65 and 1966-1970 a while back, so it’s long past time I examined the next five-year period.

The early 1970s isn’t my favorite Marvel era, but it’s definitely a fascinating one, as well as an improvement over the late ’60s (which needed some shaking up). In a way, it’s almost like a proto-Marvel Cinematic Universe. The X-Men have been sidelined. The Fantastic Four have waned. Spider-Man’s still going strong. The Avengers are on top. Thanos is coming into prominence as one of the most powerful villains in the MU. Marvel’s original Captain Marvel is enjoying his heyday. And all sorts of interesting new characters are joining the mix.

It’s also an era of comics creators breaking free from past constraints, with new titles, new genres, new ideas, and bigger, longer storylines that occasionally delve into philosophy and social issues.

So, here’s what I consider the best of this bunch (45+-year-old spoilers ahead!) …

10) The Avengers #113 (by Steve Englehart and Bob Brown)

Vision and Scarlet Witch’s romance goes public, and while most people are excited for them, a small group of bigots decides this is the end of civilization as we know it—androids are going to replace us! So, like bigots do, they turn themselves into living bombs so they can blow themselves up and take the Vision with them.

In this straightforward, single-issue story, the Vision and Scarlet Witch represent the interracial couples of their day, the homosexual couples of the future—really, anyone whose lifestyle is met with unreasoning hostility in any era. Interestingly, the bigots depicted in the comic are a multicultural group; even though they’ve overcome their racial prejudices, they’ve latched onto a new excuse to hate someone for being different. And their hatred ultimately infects the Scarlet Witch, renewing the mutant’s animosity toward humans, even though the overwhelming majority of humans were supportive of her and the Vision.

The comic isn’t subtle, but rather than just preaching, it shows us that hatred is destructive, unreasonable, and, sadly, cyclical.

9) The Incredible Hulk #140 (by Harlan Ellison, Roy Thomas, and Herb Trimpe)

In quite a few early Hulk comics, Hulk was just looking for a place to belong. He was, in a way, undergoing the hero’s journey home—even though he had no idea what “home” was. With this Harlan Ellison plot, we get the best of this Hulk genre so far.

The Hulk is stranded in a subatomic world, where he inadvertently saves a kingdom of green-skinned people, immediately earning their adoration. Bruce Banner’s brain takes over Hulk’s body, and he becomes engaged to the queen of this world. He’s respected and admired, and he has much to offer. He’s not a monster here. So of course it’s all going to get ripped away from him.

The ending has a perfectly tragic touch. As the Hulk reverts to his usual brainless self, he’s vaguely aware of the happiness he had, and he bounds off in search of that place—unaware that it’s within a mote of dust clinging to his clothes.

8) Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #8-9 (by Steve Englehart and George Tuska)

One of the joys of the Marvel Universe is the never-ending opportunity to pair wildly divergent characters who have no business being in the same book. And one especially delightful example is when Doctor Doom hires Luke Cage to track down some runaway robots hiding out in New York.

The second part is where the fun kicks into high gear. After Doom stiffs Cage on the payment, Cage borrows transportation from the Fantastic Four and flies all the way to Latveria to collect his bill. He stumbles into the middle of a revolution already in progress, having no allegiance to either side—just his own values.

It’s a ridiculous scenario that paints a vivid picture of what kind of man Luke Cage is.

7) The Avengers #89-97 (by Roy Thomas, Sal Buscema, Neal Adams, and John Buscema)

The Kree-Skrull War makes a great bridge from Marvel’s Silver Age to its future. It’s a sprawling epic, at different times both micro and macro in scale, one that draws inspiration from recent real-world history as well as Marvel history. There’s a thinly veiled McCarthy figure over here and an android in love over there, plus a loose end from an old Fantastic Four story tied up for good measure—all that and more inside the framework of an interplanetary conflict, with Earth caught in the middle.

If anything, there’s too much going on, so much so that the Avengers themselves nearly get lost in the shuffle sometimes, but part of the charm is the unbridled imagination at play as Marvel breaks into new storytelling possibilities while respecting what has come before.

6) The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 (by Stan Lee and and Gil Kane)

Spidey fights drugs! The storyline’s main claim to fame is defying the Comics Code Authority to actually show drug use rather than just preaching against it. There’s still some preaching within, but the showing bolsters the message. And by weaving the message into exciting superhero action and relationship drama, Stan Lee elevates these issues into a classic.

The Green Goblin remains Spidey’s most compelling villain of the era. His knowledge of Spider-Man’s secret identity raises the stakes, and the fact that he’s the father of Peter’s best friend adds another layer of tension and gives Spidey the opportunity to appeal to the humanity beneath the garish mask.

5) Doctor Strange #1-2, 4-5 (by Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner)

An anti-magic zealot stabs Doctor Strange in the back and kills him. Or does he? Strange’s attempt to flee death itself plunges him into a surreal odyssey through “unreality.” He’s dying, and nothing makes sense anymore, as a guest appearance by the Alice in Wonderland caterpillar makes abundantly clear (or unclear?).

What starts as a struggle for survival takes on greater meaning, as Strange learns it’s not enough to merely continue living. To beat death, he must conquer his own fear of death. Death is inescapable, after all. And as Strange conquers this fear, the story highlights the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. This is Doctor Strange as it should be—juggling big ideas and memorably weird visuals.

(Issue #3 omitted since it’s mostly a reprint.)

4) Captain America #153-156 (by Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema)

Captain America vs. … Captain America? Marvel had previously attempted to resuscitate the character of Captain America (with sidekick Bucky) in the 1950s. It didn’t work out nearly as well as the next such attempt in the ’60s.

And out of this piece of Marvel trivia, writer Steve Englehart manages to simultaneously turn forgotten stories into canon and confront Captain America with his own potential dark side. Cap sees himself as he might have been—so consumed with blind patriotism that he descends into bigotry and madness.

Recasting the 1950s Captain America as a failed successor may be a retcon, but it’s a retcon with a purpose, one that shows just how exceptional the real Captain America is.

3) Captain Marvel #25-33, The Avengers #125 (by Jim Starlin and friends)

This wasn’t the first Thanos story, but it was the first Thanos epic and the first time he used a supremely powerful artifact to attain godhood. This also happens to be the best the original Captain Marvel series ever got.

Captain Marvel, at this point, is less a character and more an avatar of self-actualization. He’s linked with perennial sidekick Rick Jones; only one can exist in the universe at a time. Rick has long since been the young reader’s stand-in character, and Captain Marvel is, in a sense, his stand-in character, representing the stalwart superhero Rick and the reader have always yearned to be.

During the course of the Thanos War, Captain Marvel evolves, transcending his warrior past to become a universal protector with cosmic awareness. Thanos, meanwhile, uses the Cosmic Cube to elevate himself into a god, but he’s unable to leave his ego behind—and that’s his downfall. Both Captain Marvel and Thanos ascend, but only one does so with wisdom. It’s not so much a superhero story as it is a cosmic tale of philosophy, using aliens to explore human nature. And it’s all written and drawn passionately and exuberantly.

2) The Amazing Spider-Man #123 (by Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, and John Romita)

The runner-up is the follow-up to the #1 story. We spend an issue dealing with the consequences of Spider-Man’s failure, and Spidey works through the anger stage of his grief by battling Luke Cage, hired by J. Jonah Jameson to bring Spider-Man in, dead or alive, for the murder of Norman Osborn.

Superheroes meeting while fighting is hardly uncommon, but as a nice change of pace, this fight feels organic. Cage is just doing his job, and throughout the altercation, Spidey and Cage keep pushing each other’s buttons, escalating the conflict further. Meanwhile, various subplots brew. Previous comics on this list might be more ambitious in scope, might tackle bigger ideas, but this one excels all the more by focusing on character.

1) The Amazing Spider-Man #121-122 (by Gerry Conway and Gil Kane)

Remember on Seinfeld when they wanted to get rid of George’s fiancé, so they just casually killed her by having her lick toxic envelopes? The Amazing Spider-Man had a similar problem, and similar solution, but the execution was so much better (and devoid of toxic envelopes).

Peter Parker’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacey, wasn’t working out story-wise. There was nowhere for the character to go. She simply wasn’t that interesting, but Peter loved her and there was no plausible way to break them up other than to keep wedging Spider-Man between them.

So they killed her. But they made the death count, dealing Spidey his most tragic failure yet, one that would continue to haunt him as much as Uncle Ben’s murder. Gwen’s murder occurs during a climactic conflict with the original Green Goblin, a quarrel that brings Spidey right up to the edge and requires him to be strong and decent enough to step back from that edge.

And the final page, where Mary Jane awkwardly attempts to comfort Peter, is a work of beauty and says so much about both characters, using relatively few words to do so. A masterpiece of superhero comics.

The Avengers and the Cycle of Hatred

In my latest video, I examine Avengers #113 from 1973, written by Steve Englehart and drawn by Bob Brown. The comic uses the Vision and Scarlet Witch’s relationship as a metaphor for anyone who might be different, and it tells a strong story in the process.

(And this time, I tried out the pure voice-over approach. Still fine-tuning to see what works best. The learning process continues!)

Marvel’s Top Ten Stories: 1966-1970

At long last, round two! We looked at the top ten stories from the Marvel (Comics) Universe’s first five years a few months ago, so let’s move on to the second five years.

In that previous five-year span, everything was fresh, exciting, and unlike anything previously seen in comic books. The freewheeling creativity resulted in a wide range of quality, but certainly plenty of enduring ideas and memorable stories. In this second increment, the Marvel creators have settled into a more comfortable rhythm, achieving a more consistent level of quality. It won’t be every modern reader’s cup of tea, but the era definitely has its share of classics. Here’s ten of them:

10) The Amazing Spider-Man #65 (by Stan Lee and John Romita)

The police arrest an injured Spider-Man…right before the prisoners revolt. Spidey has to use his wits to navigate the situation—and save the life of his girlfriend’s father, Capt. Stacy. It’s a fun adventure that offers a different type of threat than usual, while ongoing subplots continue to simmer in the background. The issue helps strengthen the growing bond between Spider-Man and Capt. Stacy, giving Peter a much-needed friend and mentor, one who instinctively knows Spider-Man can’t be all that bad. Continue reading

Today’s Super Comic — The Avengers #144 (1976)

A former romance comic protagonist becomes a superhero in Avengers #144. Or she gets the super-powered costume, at least.

The Avengers, with tagalong Patsy Walker, had been captured by the Squadron Supreme (Marvel’s stand-ins for the Justice League, but evil). This issue sees them trying to escape the Brand Corporation complex—and being a fictional corporation, you can safely assume it’s up to no good.

The fun comes from the interplay between the characters, with the highlight being the casual camaraderie between Captain America and Iron Man. But the big development arrives when longtime superhero fan Patsy gets a chance to become one herself, despite the objections of her protectors. It’s a wish-fulfillment moment free of angst or melodrama, and it introduces an upbeat heroine to the Marvel Universe. You know right away that Hellcat will add something fresh to the mix. (And yes, Patsy is the comics version of the character we saw in Jessica Jones on Netflix.)

Meanwhile, other Avengers wrap up a storyline set in the Wild West. All sorts of craziness can peacefully coexist in Marvel Comics.

The issue is an excellent reminder about how innocently fun comics can be.

Writer: Steve Englehart

Penciler: George Perez

Inker: Mike Esposito

Cover: Gil Kane

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Essential Avengers vol. 7 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 8 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Captain America Reborn #1-6 (2009-10)

Of course Captain America wasn’t staying dead. We already knew that outcome, but what matters is how they get there. And Captain America Reborn nails it, using Cap’s long history to remind us why he’s such a great character.

Steve Rogers has become unstuck in time. He’s being flung back and forth throughout his past, reliving World War II battles, Avengers battles, family moments, his time on ice, etc., and he has to follow the script in every situation. He has some ability to act, but the wrong action could wreck the timestream. It’s quite the elaborate trap.

In the present, Bucky Barnes, Sharon Carter, Falcon, and several Avengers navigate the dual threats of the Red Skull and Norman Osborn (the latter leading a government-sponsored team of villainous Avengers at this point) as they try to save their friend.

This miniseries sustains strong momentum throughout. Ed Brubaker’s script keeps everyone in character at all times, and Bryan Hitch’s art provides a grand sense of scale. It’s all epic without ever losing sight of the individual actors within.

The essence of Captain America is this: He always finds a way, no matter the odds stacked against him. And that’s what we see here.

This isn’t the end of Brubaker’s run on Captain America. However, my year of daily reviews has only twenty-some days left, so this seems like a good stopping point for this particular series. But it’s definitely been worth rereading.

Writer: Ed Brubaker

Penciler: Bryan Hitch

Inker: Butch Guice

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; Captain America Reborn (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Runaways #12 (2006)

In which Wolverine gets punched out by an 11-year-old girl. And that pretty much sums up how fun this Runaways storyline is.

Issue #12 concludes a four-parter that brought the West Coast teens to New York City. Cloak & Dagger, Marvel’s original teenage runaways, need help. Cloak has been framed for attacking and hospitalizing Dagger, and the Avengers (I mean New Avengers) are after him for questioning. The Runaways (though they don’t actually call themselves that) pursue the actual assailant in a new-to-them setting.

Here, the Marvel Universe serves as a playground for the reader, but the book never neglects its main characters. Writer Brian K. Vaughan continues to deepen and flesh out each character while teasing future plots, building something new within an existing framework. He already did the hardest part by successfully introducing an entirely new cast of characters into the MU and getting readers interested. By this point, creative momentum is working in the book’s favor.

And it’s a joy to read.

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan

Penciler: Adrian Alphona

Inker: Craig Yeung

Cover: James Jean

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Runaways vol. 5: Escape to New York (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Black Panther #8 (1999)

Flexibility with continuity can be a good thing when done right, especially when characters are appearing in stories over the course of multiple decades. What made sense in the 1960s may not make as much sense by late 1990s, such as a sovereign monarch choosing to join an American superhero team.

Black Panther #8, which features Avengers guest stars and flashbacks inspired by the classic 1968 Captain America #100, makes sense of T’Challa’s counterintuitive decision to leave his throne to gallivant as a superhero, and it does so by adding context and motivation that rightfully put the Black Panther’s monarchial role in the forefront. (I’m about to spoil it.)

So back in Captain America #100, Cap was so impressed by the Panther that he invited him to join the Avengers. T’Challa accepted, and thus began the Wakandan king’s American adventures. In the fast-paced, make-it-up-as-you-go style of 1960s Marvel Comics…sure, why not? But in 1999’s Black Panther #8, writer Christopher Priest considers that moment with the benefit of hindsight and takes a more modern approach.

The Avengers were relatively new at the time—an autonomous, unsupervised, unregulated group of powerful individuals claiming to have everyone’s best interests in mind. But Wakanda already had a history of unwanted and destructive foreign interference, so how could T’Challa be certain the Avengers wouldn’t pose a threat to his nation? And here he had an opportunity to infiltrate their ranks and take their measure firsthand. Thus, he joined the Avengers thinking first and foremost of his nation’s security.

Sometimes, retroactive tweaks to continuity (retcons) wind up convoluting the backstory or muddying things up, but this is an example of a retcon that enriches and deepens what came before while creating tension for present stories. The revelation is true to the character and therefore credible. Exactly how to do it right.

Writer: Christopher Priest

Pencilers: Joe Jusko and Amanda Connor

Inker: Jimmy Palmiotti

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection Vol. 1

Appropriate For: ages 14 and up

Today’s Super Comic — All-New, All-Different Avengers #13 (2016)

This was an interesting way to tie into the Civil War II crossover. The larger storyline centers on a debate about using precognitive powers to prevent crime and disasters before they happen. All-New, All-Different Avengers #13 spins that off into a time-travel tangent.

The issue stars only one Avenger, the Vision, and the script reads like it could’ve been part of his solo series, putting us firmly in the artificial man’s logical brain as he works through a moral conundrum.

One of the Avengers’ greatest enemies, Kang, comes from the future. Whenever he strikes, he has the advantage of history on his side, thereby imperiling not only the Avengers, but also the entire world and future generations. So, Vision wonders, why not use time-travel against the time-traveler? Why not locate Kang as a baby and remove a tyrant from history? What’s one innocent life vs. millions?

The dilemma isn’t original by any means, but it’s a reliable one and it suits the Vision’s character. And it’s not resolved in this issue, so I’ll be curious to see how it plays out.

Writer: Mark Waid

Artist: Adam Kubert

Cover: Alex Ross

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: recent back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Avengers Forever #1-12 (1998-1999)

This was a fun idea for a time-traveling team book. In Avengers Forever, it’s not just an Avengers team traveling through time—it’s an Avengers team with representation from different eras, past, present, and future. A multi-temporal lineup.

And it’s an interesting lineup: Captain America at his most disillusioned, the present-day Wasp to provide leadership, an unhinged and untrustworthy Yellowjacket, a past Hawkeye from right after a classic story, and others.

The plot involves ones of the Avengers’ most prominent enemies, Kang the Conqueror (also a time-traveler, naturally), as well as Rick Jones, professional supporting character. Rick was around when the Avengers first formed, and he’s participated in several key moments in Marvel history, so he’s well utilized in a book that delves into large chunks of Avengers continuity.

The interactions between time-displaced Avengers make the book an entertaining read, but this isn’t a series for anyone new to comics. Given the density of continuity references at times, the book works much better for already-established fans. And I, as an already-established fan, enjoyed it tremendously.

All together, it’s an impressive feat from writers Kurt Busiek and Roger Stern (plotting it out must have been taken, well, forever), and artist Carlos Pacheco is in top form with his reliably dynamic pencilwork.

Writers: Kurt Busiek and Roger Stern

Penciler: Carlos Pacheco

Inker: Jesus Merino

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; Avengers Forever (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 11 and up

Today’s Super Comics — The Ultimates #1-13 (2002-03)

ultimates_vol_1_1The original Ultimates series basically asked, “What would the Avengers be like in the real world?”

They’d be really messed up people, apparently, and hardly straightforward heroes.

Written by Mark Millar, it’s a more cynical take on the team than I’d normally like, but as a change of pace, it’s excellent and full of interesting ideas. The reinterpretation of Thor is particularly amusing—it’s ambiguous whether he’s actually the son of Odin or just a delusional hippie who happens to have powers. Also, when the team battles the Hulk in New York City, collateral damage is shown to be a real concern; super-action has consequences. And at one point, Nick Fury suggests Samuel L. Jackson should play him in a movie, several years before Jackson cameoed in the first Iron Man.

Artist Bryan Hitch creates exactly the right visual tone for this down-to-earth series. The art is detailed, and people look like people rather than cartoons.

The series is easily the second-best usage of Marvel’s Ultimate Comics imprint (after Ultimate Spider-Man, of course). Let’s just be thankful these aren’t the Avengers of the proper Marvel Universe or even the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Writer: Mark Millar

Penciler: Bryan Hitch

Inker: Paul Neary

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; The Ultimates: Ultimate Collection (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 15 and up