Seven Marvel Comics Every Fan Should Read
More than just super-heroes
Marvel Comics is known for producing some of the best super-hero comics to hit the stands for over forty years. The Amazing Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Mighty Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and the X-Men are just some of the characters created by Marvel legends Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Many of the most successful motion pictures of the last decade were based on Lee and Kirby creations, but there was much more to Marvel Comics than these iconic characters from the sixties. In the decades that followed, Marvel launched several imaginative titles created by talented and innovative writers and artists. The following seven comics are a few of the more offbeat offerings from Marvel.
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Seven "must-read" Marvel Comics
1. Warlock. Roy Thomas and Gil Kane placed the artificial life form called “Him” on Counter-Earth, renamed him Adam Warlock and transformed him into a Christ-like figure. Warlock strove to save Counter-Earth from the Man-Beast, who masqueraded as a prophet. The series hit its stride when Jim Starlin took over as writer and artist and pitted Warlock against the Universal Church of Truth and its mysterious ruler, the Magus. Starlin also created memorable characters such as the In-Betweener, Gamora and Pip the Troll. He reintroduced Thanos of Titan as Warlock’s scheming ally in his duel with the Magus, and Thanos became inextricably linked to Warlock and his adventures. Adam Warlock was eventually killed by the evil Titan, but his soul was captured in the Infinity Gem Warlock wore on his brow, making his eventual return inevitable.
2. Howard the Duck. Writer Steve Gerber teamed first with Frank Brunner and then Gene Colan to offer one of the most unique comic characters of all time. Howard was “trapped in a world he never made” when he fell through the cosmic nexus and landed in Cleveland. There he met Beverly Switzler and encountered strange adversaries such as the Hellcow, the Deadly Space Turnip, the Kidney Lady and Dr. Bong. Howard fought his own demons as often as he battled these eccentric villains, but this comic was most famous for its social commentary. Gerber made Howard the voice of the common man and used the duck to speak out on a wide variety of topics including mental illness, presidential campaigns, the art world and even Star Wars. No other writer could bring the same mix of wit, satire and introspection to Howard’s exploits, and the series floundered when Gerber left.
3. War of the Worlds featuring Killraven. Roy Thomas conceived an alternate ending to H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds. One hundred years after the Martians failed to conquer Earth, Thomas brings them back for round two—and this time they win. Set in the distant future of 2001, this comic tells the story of an escaped gladiator named Killraven who leads a band of rebels in an effort to free humanity from their Martian captors. Keith Giffen’s artwork was raw and unpolished during this early period in his artistic career, but indications of his immense talent were there to be seen.
4. Kull the Conqueror / Kull the Destroyer. Robert E. Howard’s “other” barbarian hero was King Kull, a warrior from Atlantis who became ruler of the nation of Valusia after slaying its king. Kull was more thoughtful and refined than Howard’s Conan, and the tales had a philosophical tone lacking in Conan’s adventures. Kull’s stories pondered death and the nature of existence while still offering an ample portion of combat. The artwork followed suit, with a less “barbaric” look than Barry Smith or John Buscema sought when illustrating the Conan comics. Stories were written by Roy Thomas and lavishly illustrated by Marie and John Severin, Ross Andru and Wally Wood, and Mike Ploog. The series never caught on with fans the way Conan did, but except for Conan art by Barry Smith, Kull was every bit as good.
5. The Eternals. Jack Kirby’s final significant creation for Marvel after his return from DC was the Eternals. Eons ago, gigantic space gods called the Celestials visited earth and conducted genetic experiments on ancient man. These experiments created two distinct human mutations: the Eternals, an immortal race mistaken for gods in ancient times, and Deviants, a hideous race who inspired tales of devils and demons. Similar experiments were conducted on the Kree and Skrull home worlds. Celestial activities also indirectly led to the colonization of Uranus and Saturn’s moon Titan (home of Thanos), and the creation of the Inhumans. Eternals and Deviants remained in conflict while awaiting the return of the Celestials, who resolved to eventually return and judge the worthiness of their creations. The Eternals was complex and broad in scope, and added the final chapter to Jack Kirby’s legacy.
6. Marvels. Writer Kurt Busiek and painter Alex Ross offered a gorgeous look at the early years of Marvel Comics, from the creation of the original Human Torch to the death of Gwen Stacey at the hands of the Green Goblin. This look back at the early adventures of Marvel super-heroes is seen through the eyes of photojournalist Phil Sheldon, who documents the exploits of the “Marvels” that fascinate him so. It captured perfectly the innocence and charm of early Marvel comics while sadly demonstrating that this look back was better than anything else Marvel had going on at the time. The painted comics were breathtaking in their beauty and rife with references to television and movie figures from the past. The Beatles, Rob and Laura Petrie from the Dick Van Dyke show, and Bea Arthur all attended the wedding of Reed Richards and Sue Storm. Reed even resembled the Professor from Gilligan’s Island. Marvels ran for only a few issues, but Alex Ross’ wonderfully painted illustrations set a new standard for comic book storytelling.
7. Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. For approximately two years in the mid-sixties, Jim Steranko transformed a weak spy-comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby into something slick and gorgeous. Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD cast World War II vets Nick Fury, Dum Dum Dugan and Gabe Jones (from the Marvel Comic Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos) as counter-espionage agents. Joined by La Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine, Jasper Sitwell and Clay Quatermaine, SHIELD battled terrorists such as HYDRA, the Yellow Claw and the Zodiac. SHIELD was innovative in both story and art, and Jim Steranko’s vision of comics was so distinctive it has never been equaled.
A different era
Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin and the others saw the potential comics held for creative storytelling, and sought to realize it—each in their own unique way. None of the comics featured here were traditional super-hero titles, but the experimentation their creators embraced represents much of their considerable charm. They were part of a different era in comics and embodied the growing pains associated with Marvel’s expansion in the late 60’s and 70’s. Howard the Duck, Killraven and Nick Fury were not cornerstones of the Marvel Comics universe, but they were bold and original. Their place in the Marvel pantheon cannot be disputed.
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