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

Marvel’s Top Ten Stories: 1961-1965

Presenting, just for fun, Marvel Comics’ ten best stories from 1961-1965!

Why only a five-year period? For proper apples-to-apples comparisons, firstly. The comics medium has changed quite a bit over the years, so it’s hardly fair to compare, say, ten-year-old comics to fifty-year-old comics. Plus, the shorter period is more manageable and allows me to highlight more great books over time—sometimes complete storylines, sometimes standout single issues, whatever is merited. (I’ll get to later periods…eventually. And note that these are grouped by release date, not cover date.)

So we begin at the dawn of the Marvel Universe. True, many books from this era don’t hold up particularly well, not to the adult reader. They are dated indeed. But in the foundation of each series are strong, enduring concepts and flawed but heroic characters that people of varied backgrounds can relate to. Plus, the old comics offer plenty of charm with their fast-paced displays of free-flowing imagination. Looking back on these early issues, it’s not hard to see why the characters have survived the decades.

(Spoilers ahead, but these came out over five decades ago, so…)

Let’s get to it. As Stan Lee would say, Face Front, True Believers! Make Mine Marvel! Excelsior! ’Nuff Said!

Wait. Not ’Nuff Said yet. We need the list…

10) The Amazing Spider-Man #3 (by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko)

The superhero genre has a simple but effective formula: The hero almost loses to the villain but ultimately prevails, often improving him or herself along the way. Doctor Octopus’s debut shows an early example of that formula in action, back when flawed superheroes were still a fresh idea. As the book opens, Spider-Man is feeling supremely confident in his crimefighting abilities, and he’s itching for a challenge.

And he gets one, and he gets clobbered, leading Peter to wonder if he’s even cut out for this superhero lifestyle after all. So he’s got a choice: quit, or try again but do it better this time.

Peter Parker is still growing into his role at this stage, and that’s part of what made this series so novel—the superhero was actually growing as a person.

And we haven’t seen the last of Spider-Man on this list. The Amazing Spider-Man was easily Marvel’s strongest series of this era. Continue reading

Today’s Super Comics — Fantastic Four #67-70, 500 (2003)

Doctor Doom finally figures out how to one-up Reed Richards in Fantastic Four #67-70 and 500. And yes, those numbers are correct. Marvel likes to have it both ways with numbering—reboot for a new #1 to designate a jumping-on point, then revert to the original numbering for anniversary issues.

Anyway, there’s one subject area where Reed is in over his head. He can’t comprehend magic. The world’s smartest man is an idiot when it comes to sorcery. But Doom understands the fundamentals, and as the son of a gypsy, it’s an established part of his heritage. So in his ongoing quest to humble Mr. Fantastic, Doom rejects science in favor of magic and strikes at the Fantastic Four through their children.

There are no higher stakes than imperiled children. Not even saving the whole world or universe reaches that level, because the scale is too grand to remain relatable. But your kids are in trouble? We can all understand that terror.

The script by Mark Waid nails the characterization of both Doom and Reed, particularly how arrogant they can both be. The storyline shows how they’re perfect antagonists for each other. They reflect each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and their conflict has always been personal. Appropriately for an anniversary issue, there’s history here, and the feud escalates to the next level.

Marvel has published many superb Fantastic Four stories over the decades, and this is in the top tier. And it begs the question—why isn’t Marvel currently publishing Fantastic Four comics?

Writer: Mark Waid

Penciler: Mike Wieringo

Inker: Karl Kesel

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Fantastic Four by Waid & Wieringo Ultimate Collection, Book 1 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 11 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Fantastic Four #64 (2003)

Love and mathematics save the day in Fantastic Four #64, and that’s basically the Fantastic Four in a nutshell.

One of the reasons why Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo’s Fantastic Four run works so wonderfully is because they focus on the FF as a family, and they do so without skimping on the imaginative action/adventure. Other super-teams might be like a family, but the FF legitimately are one.

And in this issue, the family dynamic plays into the plot. Reed and Sue’s young son Franklin accidentally creates a sentient mathematical expression while fiddling with his father’s advanced computer because he was trying to make himself smarter so his parents would love him more. The sentient expression wants to use Reed to create a balanced equation, so it attempts to “subtract” everything and everyone from his life until they are equals.

Math is not for the faint of heart.

Yes, it can be a little goofy, but it’s also genuinely heartfelt and relatable. That’s the balance a great Fantastic Four story strikes (and one none of the movies managed).

Writer: Mark Waid

Penciler: Mike Wieringo

Inker: Karl Kesel

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Fantastic Four by Waid & Wieringo Ultimate Collection, Book 1 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 9 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars #1 (1984)

marvel_super_heroes_secret_wars_vol_1_1This is one that works much better with kids. When I first read Secret Wars as a middle schooler, I thought it was among the coolest things ever. When I reread the miniseries as an adult, I was far less impressed, but it’s not without its charms.

The concept is simple. An infinitely powerful entity called the Beyonder summons a bunch of superheroes and a bunch of super-villains to a distant galaxy and plops them onto a bizarre patchwork planet. He tells both sides they must slay their enemies, and all they desire will be theirs.

The appeal, then, is also simple. It’s like playing with all your favorite toys at once. You get to watch the Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and Hulk all interact over the course of 12 issues as they face some of their more well-known foes. It’s like Battle Royale or The Hunger Games, but with superheroes and far less bloodshed.

Writer Jim Shooter made some good choices with the set-up that’s outlined in #1. He has the Beyonder group Magneto among the heroes, because in Magneto’s mind he is a hero to his fellow mutants. Doctor Doom quickly asserts himself as the chief antagonist, putting himself above the mandated fray to embark on his own personal quest for power. And the world-devouring Galactus, who has often been portrayed as a force of nature above personal conflicts, is present among the villains as a powerful wild card.

Marvel also made a good call during the original execution of this miniseries in 1984. The participating characters ended an issue of their respective regular series by entering a mysterious portal. Then Secret Wars #1 came out. Then in the next issue of those regular series, the characters return to Earth, and some changes have occurred, big and small. For example, Spider-Man has a nifty black costume made of an alien material, and She-Hulk has replaced the Thing in the Fantastic Four. So what exactly happened between issues? Read the rest of Secret Wars to find out! I was too young to read in 1984, but I imagine it sparked a fun How did we get here? type of curiosity.

So, yeah, it’s basically just a fun wild ride for kids, but I absolutely ate it up when I was the right age. Marvel team-ups are often great, and this is a super-sized mega team-up.

Writer: Jim Shooter

Penciler: Mike Zeck

Inker: John Beatty

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Secret Wars (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 8 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Fantastic Four Annual #1 (1963)

Fantastic_Four_Annual_Vol_1_1Marvel’s early Silver Age was in top form in the Fantastic Four’s first annual.

The story, the FF’s longest-ever at the time, builds on elements previously established, such as the attraction between Namor and Sue Storm. Namor has finally found his Atlantean race, and they declare war on the surface world.

What’s most interesting, and groundbreaking for the era, is how Namor meets his defeat. (I’m going to spoil the ending, but this story is 53 years old, so…) The FF don’t succeed in overpowering the Sub-Mariner, but when the Invisible Girl is seriously hurt, Namor drops everything to get her to a hospital. The Atlanteans see this as a betrayal and abandon him, leaving Namor ostracized both on land and in the sea.

The issue represents what ‘60s Marvel was all about—epic action and big sci-fi ideas, all grounded in character. Sure, it’s dated, but it remains a fun time nevertheless because of the colorful characters inhabiting this imaginative world.

As a bonus, we get a short back-up story that expands a scene from The Amazing Spider-Man #1, in which Spidey crashes in on the FF’s home. And we all know what inevitably happens when 1960s Marvel superheroes meet for the first time…

Writer: Stan Lee

Penciler: Jack Kirby

Inker: Dick Ayers

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in The Essential Fantastic Four vol. 1 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 8 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Fantastic Four #258 (1983)

fantastic_four_vol_1_258Since I reviewed John Byrne’s portrait of Lex Luthor yesterday, it seems appropriate to bookend it by reviewing Byrne’s portrait of the Fantastic Four’s greatest enemy, Doctor Doom.

The FF don’t appear in Fantastic Four #258. This is Doom’s book, and he carries it so well 30you don’t even notice the absence of the title characters. While the issue sets the stage for the FF’s next threat, it spends ample time showing us a day in the life of Doctor Doom—how he rules over the country Latveria, sincerely believing himself to be a benevolent dictator to his people; how, in his own twisted way, he seems to genuinely care for his young ward Kristoff, even allowing the child to stand by his side as he tends to his monarchial duties; how constantly aware he is of people who plot against him; and how enraged he becomes if anyone or anything dares to question his supremacy.

Without ever explicitly telling us so, Byrne portrays Doom as a man who’s living in a constant state of fear. It never looks like fear, though—it looks like ego, suspicion, rage, and a desire to control or destroy all enemies. Doom has lots of power and resources, but no real human connections to draw strength from. And holding on to power, without support, takes considerable and constant effort. One slip-up, and it could all be gone—and he’d have nothing.

This issue shows us why Doom is the perfect foil to Marvel’s premier family (even if that family is taking the issue off).

Writer/Artist: John Byrne

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Fantastic Four by John Byrne Omnibus Volume 1 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 9 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Fantastic Four #267 (1984)

Fantastic_Four_Vol_1_267Not all comics have happy endings, and this one’s is absolutely tragic.

Fantastic Four #267 doesn’t initially seem like it will go that way. Sue is suffering from complications in her pregnancy, but Reed and friends have identified a potential solution, and a very comic booky solution at that. The leading expert on the radiation that afflicts Sue and their unborn child is none other than psychotic felon Doctor Octopus, of course, so Reed must appeal to the villain’s better nature and recruit his aid.

Naturally, a fight breaks out, and it’s a great one. The images of Mr. Fantastic’s elastic limbs fending off Doc Ock’s lengthy mechanical appendages are visually spectacular, but this isn’t a normal battle. Reed isn’t fighting to save the world or a bunch of strangers—he’s fighting to save his family. For the aloof scientist, the stakes have never been so personal. All he has to do is reason with this one unstable man, they’ll put their gifted brains to work solving the problem, and everything will turn out okay, right?


Excuse me…got something in my eye…

Writer/Artist: John Byrne

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Fantastic Four by John Byrne Omnibus vol. 2 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Fantastic Four #60 (2002)

FantasticFourV2n60The movies don’t do the Fantastic Four justice, which is a shame because when done right the concept facilitates pure, unbridled fun.

Writer Mark Waid and artist Mike Wieringo kicked off an exceptional run on Fantastic Four with a promotional 9-cent issue that encapsulates what makes the FF great. It reads almost like a mission statement, though it’s done in a thoroughly entertaining manner.

Reed Richards hires a PR firm to reinvigorate the FF’s celebrity brand…which is of course odd that he would care about such a thing, thereby providing interesting subtext to the issue. So a publicist shadows the FF for a week, observing not only their wild adventures, but also how they relate to each other as a family. And the publicist learns what the real-world movie producers apparently never did.

The Fantastic Four aren’t actually superheroes, not primarily. They’re explorers who pioneer the unknown and chart the new. Reed’s scientific genius will result in the discovery of a new dimension, and his family will have his back as he explores it, hoping to glean new knowledge that can help build a better tomorrow. And the adventures are frequently crazy and colorful, and always starring four people who care a great deal about each other (even despite tendencies to bicker). This issue glimpses several wild situations, whetting the reader’s appetite for the fun to follow in subsequent stories.

And at the end, the reveal about why Reed would care about his family’s celebrity status shows a perfect understanding of the character.

Judge the FF on this, not the movies.

Writer: Mark Waid

Penciler: Mike Wieringo

Inker: Karl Kesel

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Fantastic Four by Waid & Wieringo Ultimate Collection, Book 1 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 9 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules #1-4 (2003)

Fantastic_Four_Unstable_Molecules_Vol_1_1Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules is not a typical Marvel comic, nor is it even a superhero story.

The covers bill it as “The True Story of Comics’ Greatest Foursome,” but it’s based on a true story in the same way the movie Fargo is based on a true story—not actually, but it commits to pretending it is.

So this miniseries pretends that the members of the Fantastic Four are based on real people from 1950s America, and it presents them in all their dysfunctional glory. We meet a Reed who’s trying to stretch his mind to achieve a scientific breakthrough, a Sue who feels invisible, a Johnny who’s a hotheaded angry kid, and a Ben who can be a bit of a jerk. Each one corresponds to their FF counterpart, but none are heroes. They’re just deeply flawed people going about their lives and getting caught up with the Cold War, societal expectations, Beatniks, or their own worst impulses.

And it’s all fascinating, particularly the second part, which focuses primarily on Sue. She’s 26, orphaned, struggling to raise her teenage brother, dating a much older scientist who’s too wrapped up in his work to notice her, and subjected to the judgment of the older women in her neighborhood. A comic within the comic that Johnny reads depicts a ‘50s-style super-heroine, and its panels convey Sue’s state of mind as she endures a rough day in a generally unhappy life.

James Sturm, the founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, has written a truly unique Fantastic Four book, one that feels much more indie than Marvel. And it’s a nice change of pace indeed.

This is a comic that has things to say, and it’s worth a look even if you couldn’t care less about the Fantastic Four.

Writer/Layouts: James Sturm

Artist: Guy Davis

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 17 and up