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Penguin Classics Marvel Collection: The Avengers, Fantastic Four, and X-Men (review)

  • The Avengers
    By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Don Heck, John Buscema, Sal Buscema
    Introduction by José Alaniz
    Foreword by Leigh Bardugo
    Collects The Avengers #1-4, 9, 16, 26, 28, 44, 57, 58, 71, 74, and 83
  • The Fantastic Four
    By Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
    Foreword by Jerry Craft

    Collects Fantastic Four #1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 48, 49, 50, 51, and Fantastic Four Annual #6
  • X-Men
    By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Werner Roth, Don Heck, Neal Adams, Arnold Drake, Gary Friedrich, George Tuska
    Foreword by Rainbow Rowell
    Collects X-Men #1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 14, 15, 16, 38, 41, 42, 44, 45, and 46

Edited by Ben Saunders
Published by Penguin Random House
Available in both Hardcover and Paperback

 

A while back, I reviewed three volumes from Penguin that were clearly designed with the sole purpose of introducing new fans, who have discovered superheroes via the MCU, to the original, now-classic Silver Age iterations and stories of their favorite cinematic characters. These volumes offered a scholarly introduction, intelligent essays and background articles, and best of all, beautifully reprinted color comic book adventures. Those first three books tellingly highlighted Captain America, the Black Panther, and Spider-Man—21st century movie stars all! I liked the books and predicted we would soon see more.

And here we are. The three latest books in the series spotlight the foundational groups of the so-called Marvel Age of Comics—The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and the X-Men.

Unlike that other series of books being published to cash in on the success of the MCU, these are by no means a quick cash-grab just attempting to promote further sales of more recent graphic novel collections.

As before, all three of these volumes re-present Professor Ben Saunders’ learned general series intro which does an excellent job of succinctly explaining the rise of Marvel Comics and the Marvel Method, touching all the bases and not pulling any punches as far as the difference between Martin Goodman’s low-profit business having to churn out product monthly and Stan Lee’s carnival barker chatter that made the reader feel involved.

It’s in his 16-page Introduction to the individual Fantastic Four volume where Saunders really shines, though. Carefully walking the tightrope between Kirby supporters and Lee supporters, the Professor seems to my thinking to offer perhaps the best, most sensible descriptions yet of how Lee and Kirby worked as a team. Both men were, themselves, forgetful over time and each had a tendency to believe his own press. It’s rare to find such an even-handed view of what most likely actually happened in the so-called “Marvel Bullpen.”

In between those two intros in the Fantastic Four book is a nice, personalized Foreword by Newberry-Award winning author, Jerry Craft, outlining the importance of the FF to him growing up as an African American.

The Avengers and X-Men volumes present similar pieces by, respectively, New York Times bestselling authors Rainbow Rowell and Leigh Bardugo, each of those also followed by Ben Saunders’ intelligent thoughts and speculations on those teams and the stories chosen for those volumes. Therein, of course, lies the meat of each actual collection. How good is the selection of stories?

With so many four-color riches from which to choose in Stan and Jack’s 100+ issue run on FF, it isn’t a matter of which stories to include, but rather which gem would have to be excluded!

We have the origin, the first adventure, the first Skrulls, the debut of costumes, the re-introduction of Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, and the first appearance of Doctor Doom. That’s literally the first five issues right there, complete! We skip issues 6 through 9 and instead go to another solo Doom appearance, followed by issue 11’s short feature, “A Visit with the Fantastic Four.”

From there, we skip the Inhumans, the Daredevil crossover, and the Frightful Four and jump straight into all three issues of the Galactus trilogy—complete with his original weird color scheme, changed by part two. These also include the debut of The Silver Surfer.

“This Man, This Monster,” often chosen as the best Fantastic Four story ever, is next. It’s followed by an introduction to the FF annuals and then Annual #6’s main story in its lengthy entirety, with the birth of Sue and Reed Richards’ baby.

A nice little background piece on Namor follows that, followed by a complete reprint of his first ever adventure, from Marvel Comics # 1, printed here in the most impressive and lovely to look at version I have ever seen. A Lee/Kirby parody by Lee and Kirby themselves ends the book.

So, yeah. An embarrassment of riches and this is what was chosen. The Sub-Mariner story might be considered an odd choice but since it looks better than it ever has, I’m certainly not going to complain.

The choices in the X-Men volume seem a little sloppier.

After the first issue and perhaps one too many of the earliest issues, we do get the entire Sentinels trilogy, arguably the best of the original X-Men series. But these issues are followed by some of the 1968 backup series of origins, then both parts of the “Death of Professor X”, after which we jump jarringly to a few issues of the gorgeous Roy Thomas/Neal Adams run before ending with a brief Steve Ditko fantasy story just because a character is called a mutant in it.

The Avengers is a little more straightforward, starting out with issues 1-4, giving us the origin, Iron Man’s gold suit, the Hulk’s departure and return with Namor, and the all-important revival of Captain America. After that, we see the one-shot appearance of Wonder Man—important as he’s about to get his own MCU movie soon and also was one of the first major characters to die in a Marvel comic book. Yes, he got better. They all do in Marvel comics, but still!

After the new Avengers debut in #16, and then Wasp and now Goliath return in a two-parter, we jump ahead to get in the Black Widow and the Red Guardian, then the introductory Vision issues. After that we have the oft-reprinted time travel issue where three Avengers fight the not-yet Invaders in WWII. I might have skipped this one in place of Roy Thomas’s classic “Death Be Not Proud” issue.

A Panther issue is highlighted next, followed by the debut of The Valkyrie. Then we end with “The Man in the Ant Hill,” the original story that introduced Henry Pym and his shrinking, some time before Ant-Man himself would grow out of that.

So, all in all, some great reading, classic Silver Age art and stories, and a guided curator tour of same. I almost envy those who are experiencing all these adventures for the first time.

Bring on Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk, please.

Booksteve recommends.

 

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