Marvel Masterworks The Avengers Volume One

This is a review of Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers Vol. 1. I won’t bother explaining the Avengers, because everyone on earth has seen the movies. Instead I’ll talk about how it takes four issues for this title to find its legs. The first three issues aren’t great, but perhaps the creative team was figuring things out on the fly. The first issue introduces the team – Giant Man, The Wasp, Iron Man, Thor, and The Hulk – who band together to fight Loki, Thor’s evil step-brother. The Hulk quits next issue. I can’t recall the details, but it involves the Space Phantom impersonating various Avengers.

The Hulk sticks around for a few more issues, fighting alongside frenemy The Sub-Mariner and then aiding his former team against The Lava Men, and then he’s gone. The Hulk’s colors are green and purple, which are villainous (see: Kang the Conqueror) – make of that what you will. In this volume, he’s written as a carbon copy of the pissed-off Thing (see: first volume of The Fantastic Four).

The Hulk isn’t a good fit for The Avengers, but have no fear! Help is on the way when all-purpose villain Sub-Mariner unwittingly frees Captain America from a block of ice in the fourth issue. The title picks up when Cap joins the Avengers. Reading these issues, it’s obvious that Captain America was a favorite of the creative team. He’s a dynamic presence, and injects much-needed life into the title.

The newly formed Avengers fight The Masters of Evil, led by Captain America villain Baron Zemo, whose mask has been super-glued to his face. Thor villains The Enchantress & The Executioner check in next, along with Kang the Conqueror and Immortus, who are the same person. We also meet future member Wonder Man, who betrays and then saves the team.

Comparing this book to the first volume of the Justice League of America is an interesting exercise. The Avengers are less powerful than the JLA, but they act more like real people. They bicker all the time, and have personalities, and are thus a lot more interesting. Unlike other Marvel superteams of that era, The Avengers doesn’t have much in the way of a creative direction – the Fantastic Four are a family, the X-Men are outcasts – but it’s still a fun read.

Marvel Masterworks Daredevil: Volume One

This is a review of Marvel Masterworks Daredevil: Volume One. For those not in the know, Daredevil is a masked crimefighter who dresses up in a red devil costume and swings around town on a trick billy club, which he also uses to beat up muggers. Daredevil’s alter ego is Matt Murdock, attorney. His gimmick is enhanced senses – four of his senses are hypercharged and he has a ‘radar sense,’ like a bat. Daredevil got his powers when a barrel of toxic waste hit him in the face, blinding him but enhancing his other senses, thus continuing the Marvel tradition of radiation granting superpowers instead of cancer.

Unfortunately, the first two issues of Daredevil don’t come flying out of the gate. My biggest problem with the first issue is the tone. Reading Spider-Man’s origin story, it’s obvious that Uncle Ben’s death is one of the top three traumatic events in Peter Parker’s life – the other two being Gwen Stacy’s death and the death of his Aunt May, which led to Peter making a deal with the devil and retconning his marriage out of existence.

Or it might be Peter discovering that his arch-nemesis the Green Goblin had sex with the aforementioned Gwen Stacy when she was just a teenager, leading her to give birth to secret twins before the Green Goblin threw her off the Brooklyn Bridge. Years later, those babies grew up to become little Green Goblins who delighted in tormenting a 30-something Peter Parker (in 2023, Peter is now a decade or so younger). Or maybe it was the time Peter grew four more arms, or when he transformed into a lizard-man, or when he smacked his ex-wife in the face. All of which happened. Whatever. The point is, Uncle Ben’s death is shattering and forever changes the course of Peter’s life.

When Matt Murdock’s father is murdered in the first issue, he doesn’t react at all. His attitude is like, ‘welp, time to catch the gangsters who murdered my father.’ He actually kills the guy who murdered his dad, but does it in a sneaky way (heart attack), all the while musing how it’ll save the state the expense of a trial. Sounds like a guy I’d want as my lawyer!

The second issue wastes no time bringing in the guest stars, in this case The Thing of the Fantastic Four. The FF want Matt to do an inventory of the Baxter Building, even though he’s blind and can’t see anything. Coincidentally, Electro tries to rob the Baxter Building at the same time. Electro is a member of Spider-Man’s rogue gallery, another bad sign. It’s true that two heroes can share the same villain (read: The Kingpin), but it can also be a sign of desperation.

Long story short, Electro dumps Daredevil into a rocket and blasts him into space. Daredevil’s super senses enable him to reverse the rocket and land in Central Park. This is exciting when it’s happening, but falls apart when you think about it because Daredevil’s superpower isn’t piloting rocket ships. I also started to wonder why Electro didn’t just electrocute him or stick a knife in his ribs.

This graphic novel finds its legs in later issues, when we get appearances by other members of Daredevil’s rogue gallery, The Owl, The Purple Man, and Stilt-Man. Most of the villains are outright goofy, although The Purple Man is later retconned as a serial killer. There’s also a standout issue featuring the Sub-Mariner that’s the highlight of this volume. But my favorite villain is the Eel, whose superpower is lubing himself up so he slips out of people’s grasp.

Perhaps coincidentally, the addition of artist Wally Wood coincides with the jump in the quality of this graphic novel. Mr. Wood redesigns Matt’s costume, changing the canary yellow duds to the red devil outfit we’ve all come to love. He also gives us an in-depth diagram of Matt’s billy club/cane. I learned that Daredevil’s horns double as transmitters, which I didn’t know. You learn something new every day!

Matt Murdock’s personal life isn’t as interesting, featuring a puerile love triangle between Matt, his partner Foggy, and their secretary Karen Page. Matt and Karen are in love, but Matt doesn’t say anything because he can hear heartbeats and he knows Foggy is in love with Karen, and – in his words – that wouldn’t be right. Karen doesn’t say anything because she’s unsure if Matt loves her, which he doesn’t because they’ve never even dated. As far as I can see, the only person in the love triangle who acts like an actual adult is Foggy, who proposes to Karen. I mean, this is some teenager shit– which makes sense, because the book’s aimed at teenage boys.  

I can see Matt not wanting to crap where he eats, as the earthy old aphorism goes, but he’s the guiding light of the law firm. He doesn’t really need Foggy. I guess he doesn’t want to hurt his partner’s feelings? This is truly shocking, because modern Matt Murdock has been written as a horndog if not an outright misogynist. Here, he’s likable with an endearingly goofy rogue’s gallery. Bottom line: once this graphic novel finds its legs, its very good.

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.