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.