Marvel’s Top Ten Stories: 1976-1980

I wasn’t born yet during this half-decade; nevertheless, I’m quite fond of many Marvel comics that came out of it. After all, this is the era that relaunched the X-Men and elevated them to greatness, with a long string of all-time classic issues.

It should come as no surprise, then, that X-Men stories dominate half this list. Really, the main question should be obvious: Will the top spot go to the Dark Phoenix Saga or Days of Future Past?

And the other question: What non-X books make the cut for the other half of the list?

(Please note: The 1976-80 time frame is by release date, not cover date, which makes all the difference for a couple of the honorees here … which I suppose foreshadows the greatness of the ’80s.)

10) Avengers Annual #7, Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2 (by Jim Starlin)

It’s like an early draft of the Infinity Wars, as well as providing the sequel to Captain Marvel’s Thanos War storyline and the conclusion to Warlock’s long-running saga. Thanos has collected most of the Infinity gems (known as “soul gems” at this point), and he sets out to destroy the sun in order to win the favor of Death herself. The Avengers, Captain Marvel, Moondragon, and Warlock, naturally, head into space to stop him. Great cosmic action ensues in an epic tale about life and death.

Spider-Man and the Thing join the action in the second part, and Spidey’s presence in particular brings the human perspective to the mix. He’s out of his league. He’s scared. He even panics at one point. And that makes his contributions all the more heroic.

9) The Avengers #164-166 (by Jim Shooter and John Byrne)

The Avengers vs. Superman! Well, not really, but it’s the Avengers vs. Count Nefaria with Superman-like powers!

The storyline features all-out action against an immensely powerful foe who craves nothing less than immortality. Defeating such a menace will require nothing less than the teamwork of Earth’s mightiest heroes. The problem—or another problem, rather—is the internal tension that puts the Avengers off their A-game. But it wouldn’t be a proper Marvel comic without feuding heroes.

This one has all the elements of a thrilling old-school Avengers storyline: high stakes, a formidable threat, fast-paced action, and—most importantly—interesting character dynamics. Add that all together and you’ve got pure fun for comics fans young and old.

8) Daredevil #163 (by Roger McKenzie and Frank Miller)

Daredevil was already recovering from years of mediocrity even before Frank Miller started writing the book (not to diminish Miller’s indispensable work at all). Issue #163 is a great example, with a very down-to-earth story that shows us the real measure of the title character.

The Hulk shows up in New York, and he’s confronted by … Matt Murdock, in formalwear. And ultimately, Matt just wants to help the Hulk, not fight him. He empathizes with the innocent man within the beast, and he understands how easily a Hulk situation can spiral out of control. If he can get the Hulk to calm down, and help Bruce Banner get out of town, great. And he almost succeeds.

Things go south when Banner hulks out again, and Daredevil realizes that he might be the only person who has a prayer of defusing the situation before it gets worse. Of course, one very human Man Without Fear is nowhere near the Hulk’s weight class.

As Daredevil tells himself after taking a beating: “Tried my best … to stop Hulk. Best wasn’t … good enough. If I quit now, nobody would blame me … nobody would even know. Nobody … except me. I’d always know that I backed down … that I ran …”

Pretty much everything you need to know about Daredevil’s character is shown right here in one excellent issue.

7) X-Men #98-100 (by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum)

The first great storyline of the X-Men’s “All-New, All-Different” relaunch. It begins as any good X-Men story should, with the team enjoying some downtime, just trying to live their lives, until the world’s fear and hatred get in their way … this time in the form of mutant-hunting Sentinel robots.

The Sentinels capture Jean Grey, Wolverine, and Banshee, who then must fight their way through bigots and robots. They’ve been abducted to a facility at an unknown location, which proves to be much farther from home than they thought.

Part of the X-Men’s success has involved mixing and matching great characters and watching them play off each other. The first issue gives an early example of that by pulling together three X-Men who had hardly ever functioned as a team, and certainly not with just the three of them.

This would have been a solid anniversary storyline to culminate in the 100th issue, complete with facsimile robots of the original team. But the final three pages bring it to the next level. The highly emotional scene, featuring Jean’s Big Damn Hero moment, portends just how amazing X-Men is going to get.

6) Daredevil #168 (by Frank Miller)

Frank Miller’s writing debut barely sneaks into this five-year period. True, the best comes later, but this is a strong start, a fantastic introduction to a pivotal new character, and a great example of a retcon that works. Matt Murdock’s first great love, neither mentioned nor even hinted at for 167 issues, suddenly emerges in issue #168. But who cares about such implausible oddities when said first love is as fascinating as Elektra?

Matt met her in college, when Elektra was the overly protected daughter of an ambassador. And, showing just how human he is, Matt threw caution to the wind and showed off his athletic prowess and hypersenses to impress the girl. Tragedy separated them then, but now Elektra reenters his life—by throwing her sai against the back of his head.

Daredevil’s ex-girlfriend has become a highly skilled bounty hunter. Further conflicts between the two are inevitable. But here’s what’s key: Miller’s script and art show how they both still care for each other, even after all these years. And the richer the emotions, the richer the conflicts.

5) X-Men #111-114 (by Chris Claremont and John Byrne)

The classic Claremont/Byrne collaboration began a few issues earlier, but this is where it really kicks into high gear, never losing momentum from here on out. Right off, we’re dropped into the middle of a mystery, with X-Man-turned-Avenger Hank McCoy serving as our very confused viewpoint character for part one. The Beast finds the new X-Men performing as carnival freaks and investigates.

And that’s merely our starting point. This little misadventure with Mesmero soon turns into a memorable confrontation with Magneto at his villainous best (or worst), a few years before actual character depth was retconned into him. He places the X-Men in a creative and cruel trap, leaving them physically helpless and babied by a robotic nanny day after day.

This merely sets the stage for a truly fantastic battle within a volcano, one that leads directly into the next exciting stories.

It’s pretty much all greatness from here on out for the Claremont/Byrne team. Comics as they should be.

4) Iron Man #120-121, 123-128 (by Bob Layton, David Michelinie, and John Romita Jr.)

Iron Man faces his most insidious foe yet: alcohol. This could easily have veered into “after-school special” territory, and it does come close toward the end, but the storyline succeeds by weaving the alcoholism plot throughout several issues of otherwise normal (and very strong) Iron Man issues. Tony doesn’t immediately become an alcoholic in part one. His drinking gradually escalates, as do the detrimental effects.

At the beginning of #120, a stewardess asks Tony if he’s sure he wants another martini, and Tony quips to himself that he’s drinking for two. While fighting the Sub-Mariner, he does wonder if he maybe should have had one less drink, but his Iron Man performance is more or less unimpaired. So far.

Issue after issue, stresses mount, cracks spread, and Tony’s drinking increases, becoming a problem without his realizing it.

Another plotline involves Justin Hammer seizing remote control of the Iron Man armor, which provides an appropriate metaphor for Tony’s internal struggle. And it’s fitting that regaining control of the armor proves much easier than regaining control of himself.

(#122 omitted because it’s a filler flashback issue.)

3) X-Men #125-128 (by Chris Claremont and John Byrne)

The X-Men confront their—and the world’s—worst nightmare: an immensely powerful mutant who lacks a conscience. To make matters even more tragic, this mutant is the son of the X-Men’s closest human confidant, Moira McTaggart.

Reality-warping Proteus pushes the X-Men to the limit. Even Wolverine is rattled. The tension never lets up until the end, and this gauntlet shows just how human, and strong, they truly are. Cyclops is in full leader mode, willing to do whatever is necessary to end the threat. Banshee, recently depowered, just wants to save his girlfriend. Colossus, confronted with pure evil for the first time in his young life, crosses a line he never thought he’d need to. And all along, Moira understands that despite her best efforts over the years, her son is beyond saving.

The story shows how evil doesn’t just come of nowhere, and sometimes, its origins are closer than we like to think. Proteus chose to focus on his father’s hatred rather than his mother’s love, and that tragic decision puts everyone in danger.

2) X-Men #141-142 (by Chris Claremont and John Byrne)

I’m somewhat biased against dystopian alternate-reality futures, and yet I still love this short two-parter (which really could have been three or four parts, easily, without losing steam). It avoids what I like least about such stories—everything feeling inconsequential because it’s ultimately an elaborate “what if?” scenario. But in Days of Future Past, events matter. That’s kind of the whole point.

Present and future run along parallel tracks throughout both issues. The future shows how everything has gone wrong, and the present is where a time-traveling visitor makes a last-ditch effort to set events on a better path.

Present-day X-Men face off against the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in a fun, conventional showdown, with an anti-mutant senator’s life in the balance (also featuring Storm’s debut as team leader).

“Meanwhile” … the few remaining future X-Men, with little left to lose, wage their desperate last stand against the Sentinels. Their deaths are all the more tragic because their world should never have reached such a bleak state in the first place.

Additionally, we see young Kitty Pryde’s untapped potential as her older self takes control in the present—demonstrating how even such a desolate future can bring out someone’s greatness.

These two issues make full use of the X-Men’s core premise to fashion a cautionary tale about how important the actions of today are.

1) X-Men #129-137 (by Chris Claremont and John Byrne)

The Dark Phoenix Saga isn’t just the best storyline of this five-year period; it’s easily one of the best comic book storylines of all time, showing off the medium and the superhero genre at their best. Superhero stories excel when they balance the epic and the personal, the fantastic and the mundane. Saving the world means a lot less if we neglect the characters populating that world.

These nine issues take us through an incredible run of comics. New characters: Kitty Pryde and Dazzler make promising debuts in the relatively quiet early issues. New villains: The Hellfire Club immediately prove themselves to be formidable adversaries. Old villain: OG Brotherhood of Evil Mutants member Mastermind comes into his own with his gradual corruption of Jean Grey. Ongoing subplots: Jean acquired cosmic-level power nearly thirty issues earlier, and the payoff is imminent. Romance: Scott and Jean are reunited after a long separation and are more in love than ever. Iconic solo action: Wolverine continues to solidify into the Logan we all know and love as he’s let loose against the Hellfire Club. And so much more.

But at the core of all this is Jean Grey and her struggle to avoid being corrupted by her newfound power. And she fails—worse than any Marvel character has failed before or probably since. In her power-fueled madness, she consumes a star and destroys a planet populated by billions. And irredeemable action, but who’s responsible? Jean or the Phoenix force?

The X-Men choose to believe in Jean’s inherent goodness, and they put everything on the line in order to save their friend. Saving their friend is saving the universe. But in the end, Jean herself knows what really needs to be done, and what only she can do. In doing so, she proves the faith her friends put in her.

There might be better comics out there, but if so, you can count them on one hand.

(Previous lists: 1961-65, 1966-1970, and 1970-1975)

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.

Daredevil and Perseverance

I encountered some technical difficulties while making this video, but I persevered.

See what great lessons we learn from superheroes?

The best ’60s Marvel battles featured the superhero as the underdog. The classic Daredevil #7 (1965) features a lopsided fight between Daredevil and Namor the Sub-Mariner, in which DD showcases one of his greatest attributes — perseverance. 

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

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 Comic — Iron Man #1 (1998)

Every so often, a long-running comic book series just needs to get back to the basics…and Iron Man definitely needed that by the late ’90s.

Marvel killed Iron Man a few years earlier and replaced him with a teenage version of himself from an alternate timeline. Then that teen version died along with the rest of the Avengers in the “Onslaught” crossover, leading to the Heroes Reborn stunt in which popular Image Comics creators reimagined and relaunched the Fantastic Four, Avengers, Captain America, and Iron Man in a separate, new continuity. Then a year later, after that had run its course, those characters were restored to the proper Marvel Universe and relaunched with new first issues.

Seemed like as good a time as any to have the real Tony Stark return. The details are sketchy as to why and how the adult Stark returned rather than the teen version…and I’m okay with that. Why dig the hole any deeper? The creative team had an opening to efficiently get back on track, and they seized it in the relaunched Iron Man #1.

Of course, Tony Stark can’t just waltz back from the dead and reclaim his company as if he hadn’t been killed and replaced by his younger self for a while. A competitor had bought out Stark Enterprises, so the big question for the first issue is…will Tony try to reclaim his company? Or will he start something new?

The script by Kurt Busiek gets at the heart of the character. Tony Stark is always trying to build both himself and the world around him into something better. Here, he needs to figure out how best to do it.

Oh, and an unseen old foe wants to kill him. Got to have that physical peril thrown in there, too.

A fine restart all around, and a much-needed one at the time.

Writer: Kurt Busiek

Penciler: Sean Chen

Inker: Eric Cannon

Publisher: Marvel Comics

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

Appropriate For: ages 11 and up

Today’s Super Comic — The Uncanny X-Men #201 (1986)

Many superheroes have lost their powers in various storylines, and that includes many X-Men. Usually, it’s presented as an obstacle interfering with an immediate goal, and it’s a solid trope—it shows the hero is more than his or her powers. But the best examples of the trope have also used it to further develop characters, to provide consequences beyond the immediate short story.

Storm lost her powers for a few years’ worth of X-Men comics. She took the bullet for Rogue and then had to figure out how to reinvent herself without the abilities that had defined her for so long. More than most X-Men, her powers affect her personality; in earlier days, she would often repress her emotions because of how her feelings affected the weather around her. She was already beginning to loosen up before this event (see the mohawk), but this pushed her further into new territory.

By Uncanny X-Men #201, she was ready to return to the X-Men, despite the continued absence of her powers. Meanwhile, new father Cyclops isn’t quite ready to leave the team. He obviously should leave to concentrate on his young family, but Professor Xavier’s recent departure and Magneto’s recent arrival as the New Mutants’ new headmaster give him an excuse to try to cling.

But Storm knows Cyclops is in no shape to lead the team at the moment, so she challenges him to a Danger Room duel, with the stakes being leadership of the X-Men. And she prevails, demonstrating the better wisdom, temperament, and physical fitness for the job, even without the aid of powers, and she reminds us why she’s perhaps the X-Men’s most formidable leader.

Storm’s power loss did prove her skills beyond controlling the weather, but it also humanized her. She could no longer be the aloof goddess of her earlier appearances, and her disconnection from the weather put her more in tune with the people around her. And when her powers inevitably did return, those lessons remained in effect.

The X-Men’s success isn’t hard to figure out. The characters grew over time, and their growth kept things interesting and fresh. The Storm and Cyclops facing off in issue #201 aren’t exactly the same people who first met ten years earlier in Giant-Size X-Men #1, but they’re10 consistent with everything that’s come before.

Writer: Chris Claremont

Penciler: Rick Leonardi

Inker: Whilce Portacio

Publisher: Marvel Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Essential X-Men Vol. 6 (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up

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