Marvel Masterworks Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD Volume One

This is a review of Marvel Masterworks Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD Vol. 1. Marvel put out a lot of material in the 1960’s. We all know the classics, but there are comics that aren’t as good. And then there are the stinkers. I try to be positive, but if you look through past reviews you can see what I’m talking about.

The Lee/Kirby run of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD is a classic. The stories are twelve pages long, but aren’t one-shots. Instead we have a meta story that goes on for over a year. Contrast this with a title like Iron Man, which produced a number of one-shot stories featuring a series of dopey villains (Mister Doll, Jack Frost, etc.).

Jack Kirby’s influence is plain to see. Stan Lee wrote a lot of stories, and the quality is variable. A lot depends on his co-creators. Daredevil wasn’t great until Wally Wood. Sometimes it’s a character. The Avengers didn’t find their groove until Captain America joined.

Sometimes you have synergy, where a creator and a character mesh. Nick Fury is a man of action, the type of character Jack Kirby loved. Captain America, The Sub-Mariner, Nick Fury. Fury has no powers, but he’s got plenty of good ole’ fashioned grit. He’s also the head of the most powerful spy organization in history, and has their resources at his disposal, so there’s that. Lately, characters like Nick Fury have become problematic, but not back in the 60’s.

Fury spends the first story arc fighting Hydra, a secret organization bent on world domination. Every issue you feel the actual stakes, mostly nuclear annihilation. There are lots of cool, exotic-looking weapons; Kirby gets to play with his toys. SHIELD and Hydra are evenly matched in terms of smarts, organizational know-how, and tactics – two sides of the same coin. Sometimes Hydra gets the upper hand, but they never win.

Series influences would be The Man from UNCLE and the 007 movies. I’m a bit embarrassed I didn’t know this series existed. In my defense, my prime comic reading years were the 1980’s. Anyhow, great stuff.

Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 2

This is a review of Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four Vol. 2. This volume continues Jack Kirby (artist/plotter) and Stan Lee’s (plotter/writer) run of The Fantastic Four. Standout villains Doctor Doom and The Sub-Mariner return, coupled with appearances by newcomers such as The Super Skrull, The Impossible Man, and The Red Ghost and his Super Apes. There’s also the first of many fights between The Thing and The Incredible Hulk. The Thing comes out on top (with a little help), but I believe it’s the last fight he ever wins with The Hulk.

The characters continue to develop in interesting ways, with the creative team sanding the rough edges off The Thing and making him more like a big ole’ lovable lug. Ben Grimm can still be a nasty customer, no doubt about it, but getting a girlfriend has mellowed him out. Reed Richards’ judgment is as bad as ever. In one issue, he and the FF time travel to ancient Egypt to find a cure for Alicia Master’s (the Thing’s girlfriend) blindness, only to be imprisoned by Rama-Tut, the Pharaoh from the Future (actually Kang the Conquerer). For a guy with such a high I.Q., Reed has serious impulse control issues.  

Johnny Storm is still Johnny Storm, brainless teenager, and Sue Storm still can’t decide whether she loves Reed Richards or The Sub-Mariner. This is a head-scratcher, because whenever Sue and Namor meet The Sub-Mariner is either a) trying to destroy the Fantastic Four; b) trying to conquer humankind; c) using her as a hostage object to accomplish goals a) and b). To me, this seems stupid, but I’m no Sue Storm.

Anyway, this is the good stuff. Highly recommended.

Marvel Masterworks The Inhumans Vol. One

This is a review of Marvel Masterworks Inhumans Volume One, a graphic novel featuring great art by Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, and Gene Colan. FYI, The Inhumans are a group of human beings genetically modified by the alien Kree. When mankind was still in diapers, the Inhumans lived in great cities.

Let’s get this straight. The Inhumans aren’t mutants. Inhumans are genetically modified by the fabled Terrigen mists. They aren’t mutants. I don’t believe the Inhumans are even on earth, anymore, but am not sure. When the Inhumans TV series was cancelled, the Marvel powers-that-be went back to not caring about them. In the Marvel cinematic universe – the only universe that matters – the most famous Inhuman of all, Kamala Khan, is a mutant.

 The Inhumans made their first appearance in the Fantastic Four, and made cameos in that series on and off for years. None of the Fantastic Four issues are reprinted here, not even the first appearance. Instead we have a bunch of back-up stories which makes it hard to get any sense of the characters.

Jack Kirby did a few of these stories. They’re okay. His Inhumans make grand proclamations, explain their powers, and sing hosannas to their leader, the Wondrous Black Bolt. Mr. Bolt cannot speak, because to do so would destroy a city. He’s got Nuclear Mouth, that Black Bolt.

After Kirby’s departure, The Inhumans jump the shark. Here’s a short summary: Black Bolt flies into the world of humans (San Francisco) to learn more about them. Since the Inhumans have lived in wondrous cities since men huddled in caves, you’d think they’d have television, or be able to reverse engineer a television. But no.

Black Bolt leaves his brother Maximus the Mad locked in an enormous iron coffin. The other Inhumans, suspicious that Bolt has killed Maximus the Mad, open the coffin. The Mad One breaks out wielding psychic powers and gives Black Bolt total amnesia. This happens right after Black Bolt changes clothes with a thug he knocked out in an alleyway in San Francisco.

Stay with me, here. Black Bolt is picked up by a man who has lost his hand to cancer and wants Bolt to destroy San Francisco, because reasons. Then Magneto kidnaps Black Bolt, because reasons. This isn’t the noble, silver fox Magneto we’ve all come to love; this is the psychotic, sneering Magneto who sinks nuclear submarines and looks like he enjoys eating boogers.

There’s more, involving the Avengers, but I won’t go into it. Suffice it to say that at no point during these issues – which I painstakingly read for YOUR benefit – do the Inhumans show any agency at all. The art is wonderful, but the story just isn’t very good. The last couple of issues are from Not Brand Ecch, Marvel’s humor magazine. Unfortunately, the writer can’t write humor.

Bottom line: I spent $1.99 for this graphic novel, so it’s all good, but don’t spend more than that unless you are an Inhumans fanatic.

Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four, Volume One

Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four, Volume One

When I was a kid, Marvel published a series of mass market paperbacks that featured the first six issues of their most popular titles. I bought the first three Spider-Man paperbacks along with the first volumes of the Hulk and the Fantastic Four. My favorite title was and continues to be Spider-Man, but rereading the first volume of Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four years later, I was surprised at how good these comics are.

The first ten issues of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four run feature a hodgepodge of classic heroes and villains, including Alicia Masters, Doctor Doom, The Mole Man, The Puppet Master, The Sub-Mariner and the Skrulls. Each issue is a stand-alone, with no two-parters or trilogies. It feels like effort went into the creation of these stories.

Whatever the reason, this volume has juice. Maybe that’s because, like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four are created when someone messes up. That someone is Reed Richards, who decides it’s a good idea to sneak into a military base with his fiancée and her teenage brother so that he can steal a rocket and blast off into outer space. When Ben Grimm, the ship’s pilot, points out that the rocket has no protection against cosmic rays, he’s shamed into coming along. Of course, Grimm is the guy who wins the booby prize. While the others gain cool powers, Ben transforms into a pile of orange rocks. His reaction to this development is realistic: he’s pissed off at everyone and everything, but especially his teammates.

Reading these comics gave me the impression that the members of the Fantastic Four are like a big, dysfunctional family whose members hate each other, but will stick together in a crisis. Grimm, who is dubbed The Thing by his loving teammates, gains super strength and is a danger to everybody. The only reason his teammates put up with him is because they made him.

The other members of the team aren’t quite as interesting as Ben Grimm, but they’re all flawed in interesting ways. Reed Richards, aka the Human Rubber Band, is heroic, but has a habit of making stupid decisions. Johnny Storm, who can burst into flames, is a typical 60’s-era teenager whose powers fluctuate depending on whatever the plot requires. His sister, Susan Storm, is the least interesting of the bunch. She has a weak power set (invisibility) and is too passive, but later gains the ability to project invisible force fields.

The stories are a blend of superhero action and 60’s era science fiction. The standout supporting character of the first volume is the Sub-Mariner, who appears in three of the first ten issues. Unlike Doctor Doom, who is the prototype of a moustache-twirling villain, the Sub-Mariner is more than a two-dimensional character. He’s a villain with sympathetic qualities, just like The Thing is a hero with villainous qualities. In one of the issues, he even saves the day; this after he betrays the Fantastic Four and is double-crossed by Doctor Doom. 

The first volume of Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four is well-worth a read, and shows why the Fantastic Four used to be Marvel’s flagship title.