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From the Marvel Comics Archives!

February 23rd, 2011
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Over the past few years, Marvel has been reprinting many famous and well-thought-of story-lines from years past in a series of gorgeous Premiere Edition hardcovers.  Many of the story-lines being reprinted are ones I’ve already read or own, and there are some that just don’t interest me, but there have been quite a few of these Premiere Editions that have collected old comics that I’ve always wanted to read.  The idea of finally having a chance to read those old stories — reprinted in handsome hardcover collections — is very appealing to a hard-core comics fan like myself!  Here are some of the ones I’ve read recently:

The Death of Captain Marvel — Despite being a momentous event in the history of the Marvel Universe, and despite my having read and loved quite a lot of Jim Starlin’s cosmic stories from the ’70s and ’80s, I never actually read The Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel (Marvel’s very first graphic novel ever published!).  This hardcover not only reprints that famous graphic novel, but also several earlier Captain Marvel comics whose events play a part in the Death of Captain Marvel story.  It’s really cool to see those older comics included.  They’re certainly not critical to understanding the Death of Captain Marvel, but they’re fun samplings of Captain Marvel’s long history of outer-space adventures.  It’s interesting to read them, and compare them to the more mature, somber story-telling of Jim Starlin’s epic The Death of Captain Marvel.  It’s easy to forget, today, just how ground-breaking that story was, when it was originally published back in 1982.  Not just that a prominent character was being killed off, but also that he would perish not as the result of some super-hero/super-villain slugfest, but as a victim of cancer.  I applaud Mr. Starlin’s boldness in incorporating such real-world drama into the stories of his cosmic characters.  While this does lead to some narrative silliness, in which Mr. Starlin has to come up with some not-quite convincing reasons for why none of the Marvel Universe’s array of geniuses (Reed Richards, Tony Stark, etc.) can cure or at least staunch the spread of the cancer affecting the Captain, it’s a forgivable sin.  I can suspend my disbelief enough to be able to invest in the drama of the story Mr. Starlin was crafted.  (Anyways, those scenes aren’t nearly as weird as the one in which the dying Captain Marvel suggests that his womanizing buddy, Eros, “look after” his girlfriend Elysius once he’s gone…)  Over-all, the story stands up quite well, and I particularly enjoyed the final fourteen pages, everything that happens after the caption “midnight.”  It’s a very clever way to end the story, and a fitting climax to the life and adventures of Captain Marvel.

Marvel Universe: The End — After reading that classic 1982 story written and drawn by Jim Starlin, I decided to jump ahead a few decades to read this reprint of Mr. Starlin’s six-issue mini-series from 2003.  Marvel has periodically published installments of its “The End” series, in which creators strongly associated with a specific character reunite to tell the “last” story of that character.  Since Mr. Starlin had earned fame as the architect of many of Marvel’s universe-encompassing cosmic story-lines, his “The End” series wasn’t dedicated to any specific character, but rather to the entire Marvel Universe itself!  In my mind, Mr. Starlin’s cosmic stories reached their peak with the the Infinity Gauntlet series from 1991.  That series blew me away when I first read it, but I found the Infinity follow-up series to be of decreasing interest to me.  So when Marvel Universe: The End was originally published, I took a pass, but I was always a bit curious to see what Mr. Starlin’s climax to all of his cosmic story-lines would look like.  Unfortunately, reading this series now, I was disappointed.  The main villain, Akhenaten, is fairly uninteresting, and I felt that the whole heroes-and-villains-unite-to-combat-a-cosmic-menace had been done many times before, and better (often by Mr. Starlin himself!).  This just seemed like yet another regurgitation of a familiar story.  There was a neat twist, about two-third of the way through the series, in which the mad Titan Thanos gains access to omnipotence and defeats Akhenaten, but what follows isn’t much more interesting or dramatic than what had come before.  There’s something intriguing about the idea of a universal cancer — and I like the parallels with Mr. Starlin’s Death of Captain Marvel story — but that idea doesn’t really go anywhere.  Most disappointingly, the whole story ends with a massive reset-button, so that this story ISN’T really the least story of the Marvel Universe after all.  Pretty weak.

Hulk: The End — Right after finishing Marvel Universe: The End, I saw on the shelves of my local comic store a copy of Hulk: The End.  This was a softcover edition, rather than one of the snazzy Premiere hardcover editions, but I decided to pick it up.  After reading one “The End” story, I was interested to read another, and I was pleased to see that in addition to reprinting Hulk: The End (the “last” story of the Incredible Hulk), this edition also reprinted Hulk: Future Imperfect, a glimpse at a future version of the Hulk that I remembered getting a lot of acclaim when it was published back in 1992. Peter David wrote The Incredible Hulk comic for an amazing twelve years, and I knew that Future Imperfect was considered a highlight of his run.  It did not disappoint.  The story is a fascinating, horrifying what-if tale in which the modern era Hulk/Bruce Banner gets a glimpse of an apocalyptic future world ruled by The Maestro, a tyrannical, self-indulgent despot who is none other than The Hulk himself.  The story is pretty brutal and graphic (the method the Maestro uses to “torture” the captured present-day Hulk is not the type of thing you expect to see in your every-day Marvel comic), and the hyper-detailed artwork by George Perez ranks, I think, among that master of the comic-book form’s greatest work.  The actual Hulk: The End story, also written by Mr. David and illustrated by Dale Keown (whose work on The Hulk with Mr. David made him a star) is pretty great, too.  In this story, set in the far future, nuclear war has eliminated all life on earth, except for The Hulk.  Bruce Banner is desperate to take his own life and end his suffering and his loneliness, but his indomitable alter-ego won’t permit him to do so.  It’s a great story, and (unlike Marvel Universe: The End), truly the “last” Hulk story.  Mr. David’s writing is sharp as always, and Mr. Keown’s work has never been better than when illustrating the Hulk.

Avengers: Under Siege — The final Marvel Premiere hardcover that I read, recently, was this reprinting of Avengers #270-277, Roger Stern, John Buscema, and Tom Palmer’s classic tale of the Masters of Evil’s take-over of Avengers Mansion and near-victory over Earth’s mightiest super-team.  This story is mostly famous for the shocking-at-the-time brutal beating that the Avengers’ butler, Jarvis, suffers at the hands of the villain Mr. Hyde, but there’s much more to the story than that one event.  Originally published in 1986-87, this is a classic Avengers story.  It has the innocence of Marvel comics in the ’80s, in that the heroes all act incredibly heroic, and one has no doubt that, in the end, they will triumph.  But it also demonstrates some of the growing sophistication that was entering comics at the time, and in the newly reconstituted Masters of Evil, Roger Stern created a group of villains that presented a true threat to the Avengers.  I love Roger Stern’s Avengers — he had a great handle on the characters and their personalities, and I enjoyed the changes made to the team under his stewardship.  John Buscema and Tom Palmer’s work on the art is, to me, even more classic.  When I think of The Avengers, this is the art team that I think of.  A large part of this is because these were the years when I started getting into comics, and although I missed this particular story-line, I did read a lot of Avengers comics of the time illustrated by this team.  But I don’t think it’s just nostalgia that leads me to praise their work.  Every panel of their illustrations demonstrates a strong eye for detail and characterization (each character’s facial features and body posture are very distinct), but also the powerful dynamism that the best super-hero artwork incorporates.  When the mighty Hercules throws a punch in this comic, man does he throw a punch!  There are aspects of the story-telling that do seem quaint when read today, but over-all I think this story holds up quite well.  It was a lot of fun to finally read it!

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