Sunday, November 27, 2011

King-Size Special! Marvel Collector's Item #6!

The Best (and Worst) of the First Three Years

by The Staff and Faculty of The Marvel University

Well, it seems like only a few months since we launched our dissection of and dissertation on The Marvel Universe but, in Marvel time, it's been three years. Your brave professors have read and commented on over 300 comic books (and you know we really wanted to do the romance comics as well, but scarcity and good sense got in our way). We thought it a good time to stop and reflect on those first three years. What was good and what ...wasn't. One quick note. While we have a category for Best Artist, we chose not to provide one for Best Writer since Stan Lee wrote (or was credited with writing) about 95% of the titles. So, without further delay, here are our awards for achievement:


The Ten Best Comic Books (11/61-11/64)

    #1 Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #3 (September 1963) 
There are more involving storylines in "Midnight on Massacre Mountain" than in a dozen issues of Fantastic Four put together! Anyone who regularly reads my "More Highlights" section of Marvel University will find it no surprise that this is my favorite comic published by Marvel in their first three years. The dialog balloons are so dense they threaten to white out Jack Kirby's art. And Kirby was never better!
    #2 The Avengers #4 (March 1964)
Cap. Cap. Cap. Do I need any other reason? Marvel's greatest Golden Age hero splashes down at the dawn of a Silver Age, not missing a beat. He's still iconic and he owns any panel he walks or swings into. Pure genius this one.
    #3 Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962) 
Simply the greatest origin story of all time (yeah, that includes Bruce Wayne watching a bat fly through his window). It packs an emotional wallop in its very few pages, with its greatness cemented by Steve Ditko's "wobbly art." Peter Parker's selfish teenage outsider is a unique invention, one that Stan would threaten to run into the ground within a few years.
    #4 The X-Men #1 (September 1963) 
Stan Lee could get preachy at times and his political views weren't exactly veiled but this comic book look into the dark side of man and his prejudices somehow manages to avoid heavy-handed messages. Yeah, we know The X-Men stand in for all those suppressed but by golly, they're pretty cool. Even the dopey snowman in the galoshes.
    #5 Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #7 (May 1964) 
Nick Fury is threatened with court martial for insubordination when he disobeys a boyhood chum-turned officer.
    #6 The Hulk #1 (May 1962) 
Jack Kirby's energetic art has quite a lot to do with this issue's placement in my top ten but I'm also enamored of its obvious "homage" to The Amazing Colossal Man. The Hulk would not be this good again for a few years.
    #7 Daredevil #1 (April 1964) 
It's a downright crime that Bill Everett did one, count it, one issue of Daredevil. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the other professors like Joe Orlando's art and I like his stuff over at DC but Bill Everett... C'mon, we're talking Bill Freakin' Everett. It's not Stan's fault. Everett has acknowledged he just couldn't make the deadlines. I just wonder what a run of Everett DDs would have been like.
    #8 Gunsmoke Western #72 (September 1962) 
Think of this as a tombstone above all the crappy western comics Marvel pumped out between 1961 and 1964. "How Kid Colt Became an Outlaw" could also stand as a monument to all the great western stories Atlas produced during the 1950s before Stan ran out of Gunsmoke episodes to re-write.
    #9 Strange Tales Annual #1 (September 1962) 
76 pages jammed with Grottu... Shagg... Diablo... poltergeists, ghosts, stone men, and so much more! How can you go wrong for a quarter? You can't!
   #10 Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #6 (March 1964) 
Nick Fury must battle a foe he's never faced: a bigot within the Howlers ranks.

    Best Title: Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos
Unfortunately, this choice comes with a caveat: Jack Kirby left Sgt Fury after its seventh issue to concentrate on Fantastic Four. I'm in the minority who think that was a big mistake as he abandoned what was the best written and best drawn strip on the Marvel schedule. Unfortunately, his replacement hasn't measured up (nor come close) in his first handful of issues. Stay tuned.
    Worst Title: Strange Tales (featuring The Human Torch)
This was a tough decision. Do I go with Gi-Ant Man and The Wonderfully Worthless Wasp over in It's Astonishing They Can Sell This Crap or The Human Torch in Strange (But Boring) Tales? Well, unike my fellow professors, I found enough outre and goofy elements in Ant-Man's run to squeeze it out of this category. The Torch's "adventures" are only good for insomniacs and that's the sign of a really bad comic book.
Worst Single Issue: Tales to Astonish #37 (November 1962 - "Ant-Man vs. The Protector")
Most WTF? Single Issue: Fantastic Four #9 (December 1962 - "The End of the Fantastic Four")
Most Overrated Title: Fantastic Four
I'm sure this will pick up soon. At least I think I'm sure.
Most Underrated Title: Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos
Best Artist: Steve Ditko


The Ten Best Comic Books
   #1 Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962) (Also Best Cover!)
Of all the books we've read, Spidey's first appearance not only stood out; it remained unmatched by the rest of the output from the House of Ideas.
   #2 Strange Tales #116 (Dr. Strange) (January 1964)
Imagine my surprise that my next favorite story would come from one of my least favorite mags from Marvel's eary days. Turns out Doc Strange was doing stuff more interesting than most of his counterparts in the early days. This issue, introducing Nightmare, was my favorite of his early tales, and one of Ditko's finest, IMHO.
   #3 The Amazing Spider-Man #6 (November 1963)
Featuring the introduction of my favorite Spider-Man villain, The Lizard!
   #4 The X-Men #4 (March 1964)
This story struck a special chord as the introduction of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants laid the foundation for what would become some of my all-time favorite superhero comics in decades to come.
   #5 The Avengers #4 (March 1964)
Captain America's return from the past in this issue was the high point of the early run of The Avengers.
   #6 Strange Tales #110 (Dr. Strange) (July 1963)
The first appearance of one of my new favorite heroes - Doctor Strange!
   #7 The X-Men #1 (September 1963)
While in time I will rank the new crew above the originals, I can't deny that the arrival of the original X-Men provided an interesting breath of fresh air for the concept of a team book.
   #8 Journey Into Mystery #103 (April 1964)Thor was yet another character I wasn't particularly fond of growing up, and despite some consistent flaws, have grown to enjoy. This issue , featuring The Enchantress and The Executioner, was my favorite of the lot.
   #9 Tales of Suspense #50 (February 1964)
After being served up table scraps from the super-villain soup kitchen, Iron Man faced his first impressive foe this time out with The Mandarin.
   #10 Daredevil #3 (August 1964)
Though I'm not yet sold on Daredevil, his  encounter with The Owl was one of the most entertaining reads of the first three years.
Best Title: The Amazing Spider-Man
     Clearly the reader's ability to relate to one of the characters had a huge and lasting impact (I guess the really lame readers identified with Thor - no offense, Prof. Jim). But I'm also amazed that when we look at these early years, it seems like Spider-Man was also the best breeding ground for lasting villains. 
Worst Title: Tales to Astonish
     Perhaps unfair, in that this is based solely on the Ant-Man/Giant-Man tales within and not any back-up stories (at least Strange Tales brought in the Doc). 
Worst Single Issue: Fantastic Four #24 (March 1964)
     I didn't think it made sense to pick a story from one of the books that I felt rarely if ever offered a story worth reading. So drawing from a title that had something to offer, I thought it made more sense to show a low point relative to the peaks the series reached. Fortunately, it wasn't hard to award that distinction to Infant Terrible.
Most WTF? Single Issue: Fantastic Four #5 (July 1962)
     I still find this hard to believe. Perhaps forgivable for being so early in its run, but Stan actually thought it would work to show The Thing as a pirate???
Most Overrated Title: Fantastic Four
     Again, in all fairness, how could any title BUT the first Marvel Superhero title not become the most overrated. Perhaps time will prove me wrong, but I think before this experiment is over, the FF's reputation will be duly earned. 
Most Underrated Title: Journey Into Mystery
     I was pleasantly surprised to find so many interesting tales of the Norse God, particularly in that he was never a character I found interesting growing up. And the Tales of Asgard back up features were not useless filler! 
Best Artist: Steve Ditko
     Again, I chose to consider those artists that contributed enough to earn such a distinction which basically pitted Kirby against Ditko. As with my thoughts on FF, I expect that when we get a little further along, the scales will tip in Kirby's favor. But just considering what we've seen thus far, I don't feel it adequately reflects what I like so much about his work. Hence Ditko just edging him out of the top spot.


The Ten Best Comic Books
  1. Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962) (Spidey's origin)
  2. Fantastic Four #4 (May 1962) (Subby returns as a street bum!)
  3. Tales of Suspense #39 (March 1963) (Iron Man)
  4. The X-Men #1 (September 1963)
  5. The Avengers #1 (September 1963)
  6. The Amazing Spider-Man #6 (November 1963) (The Lizard)
  7. The Avengers #4 (March 1964) (Cap returns)
  8. The Amazing Spider-Man #14 (July 1964) (Green Goblin)
  9. Daredevil #3 (August 1964) (really great art and The Owl)
  10. Marvel Tales Annual #1 (January 1964) (so much cool stuff for a quarter!)
Best Title- The Amazing Spider-Man
Worst Title- Tales to Astonish (beats out Strange Tales by a hair, only because of the Dr. Strange stories)
Worst Single Issue- Strange Tales #121 (June 1964--Plantman returns and Dr. Strange uses a telephone)--so many contenders for this award
Most Overrated Title- Fantastic Four
Most Underrated Title- Journey Into Mystery
Best Artist- Steve Ditko


The Ten Best Comic Books

1. Fantastic Four #6 (September 1962) 

This issue has the first pairing of my favorite team-up in Marvel comics history.  While the alliance of Dr. Doom and the Sub-Mariner might not have went too smoothly the first time out, they would later go on to team-up several times down the road.  Pitting them against the world's greatest heroes was pure genius.
2. Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962) 
While his first series run would horribly tank, this origin tale stands out as one of the best in comic book history. 
3. Avengers #5 (May 1964)  
Some of you will surely scratch your heads with this choice, but it features my favorite line-up of team members for the Avengers, working as a well oiled machine against the Lava Men.  Just wished they could have left the Hulk on the roster for future stories.
4. Tales of Suspense #39 (March 1963)  
As others have agreed, this origin story for Iron Man is a classic that has stood the test of time.  Nuff said!
5. Amazing Spider-Man #4 (July 1963)  
I was never a big fan of Spider-Man.  I could take him or leave him.  His rogues gallery, on the other hand, are some of the best.  The Sand Man being one of my favorites, plus his origin, puts this issue in my top ten.
6. Amazing Spider-Man #6 (November 1963)  
Like issue #4, this one introduces another great bad guy.  The Lizard character comes off both creepy and sympathetic.  Good fight action with Spidey as well.  
7. Avengers #3 (January 1964)  
Even though I may rip on him on this blog a lot, there's no denying that the Sub-Mariner is an interesting character in his interactions with other Marvel characters.    Here you got him and the Hulk battling against the Avengers.  What more could you want?
8. Journey into Mystery #106 (July 1964)  
Just a very fun read with unique villains, action, and excitement.  
9. Fantastic Four #25 (April 1964)  
One of my all-time favorites.  A great slugfest between the Thing and the Hulk which was a precursor to Marvel comics getting more and more action oriented through combat in their future stories.  
10. Fantastic Four #26 (May 1964) 
A good continuation from the previous issue.  This issue really showcased the Hulk's awesome power.  It was wise for the creators to make him such a strong force that could take on multiple heroes.  

Best Title - Fantastic Four
The Thing has always been one of my favorite super-heroes so I'm kind of biased.  There is no debate though that this series introduced a lot of classic characters that are still around to this day.  Granted, so did most of the other titles, but this series was the forefather to the rest and it should be respected for that.
Worst Title - Strange Tales
Even the magic of Dr. Strange couldn't save this rotten turd, thanks mostly to the Human Torch and his Ed Wood collection of super-villains.  The Torch has zero charisma and the intelligence of a rock.  Instead of importing the Thing to save this floundering comic, they should have had Dr. Doom come in, spit in the Torch's face, then incinerate him with a ray gun.    Giant-Man was a guilty pleasure read for myself.
Worst Single Issue- Strange Tales #122 (July 1964-The Human Torch vs. The Terrible Trio!)
I can deal with half-assed super-villains in stupid costumes.  What I can't deal with is three losers that looked like they walked out of a community college campus for bad guys. Them facing the annoying Torch put me to sleep.   
Most Overrated Title - Fantastic Four
Way too many appearances and recycling of villains such as Namor and Dr. Doom.  Yeah, I'm a big fan of them but the constant use of them as protagonists made the comic stale sometimes.
Most Underrated Title - The Avengers
The stories were more consistently entertaining and above average for a title from this era.  The X-Men were close but I like the heroes in Avengers better.  
Best Artist - Joe Orlando


The Ten Best Comic Books

1)   Daredevil #1 (April 1964): I loved the more “ordinary man” hero concept, and the lengthy story allowed time to easily establish the background of the characters and setting. Well written!
2)   Amazing Fantasy # 15 (August 1962): Spidey was never my favourite, but he clearly is a true original, and the angst that Peter Parker feels is something generations of young people can relate to.
3)    Fantastic Four #1 (November 1961): I know, I know, we’re seeing lots of origin issues in my top ten, but they really do establish the potential of the characters, and the F.F. cover a lot of bases with such a diverse group, complete with lots of inner conflict, even if subsequent issues didn’t immediately live up to that potential.
4)   Journey Into Mystery #104 (May 1964): Finally, Thor makes an appearance (and he’ll make a lot more in the years 1964-67)! This one really connected the Midgard-loving Thor of the Marvel universe with some of the Norse legends—great cover too!
5)   Spiderman #6 (November 1963): This is a tale to remember! The Lizard is probably my top Spidey villain, and what a well-told tale; affording the bad guy with a lot of depth.
6)   Journey Into Mystery #103 (April 1964): Another JIM title that pits Thor against some foes of unearthly origin worthy of his power, and what a stunner the Enchantress is!
7)   Fantastic Four #18 (September 1963): This one got some mixed reviews, but I always loved the Super Skrull, and he certainly wasn’t overused, like say Prince Namor (or Loki, in Thor’s case) in these early issues.
8)   Daredevil #3 (August 1964): DD did quite a job in such a short time. This one surprised me on re-reading how much it drew me into the mystery and strength of character of the Owl. Nice Kirby cover, even if his style didn’t suit old DD like some of the other titles.
9)   Tales Of Suspense #39 (March 1963): Again, I never would have thought Iron Man would be in the top ten for me, but I really enjoyed his origin, and the cover is another smasher.
10)    Fantastic Four #5 (July 1962): Dr. Doom is such an integral part of the Fantastic Four, and over the years might well be the quintessential villain for the team. The costume, the ”good turned evil”, the basis is set here for years to come.

Best Title:  Spiderman
 Being a Thor guy, it was tough to admit that thus far, some of the other titles have been much more consistent, and have constructed a more complete picture.  The webslinger is perhaps the most consistent, and has had a great plethora of original villains.

Worst Title: Strange Tales:
 To be fair, I don’t have all of these titles on hand to read, so I have to base this on memory and careful consideration of my fellow professors' expertise. It just seems to me a title based mainly on the character of the hot-headed Human Torch is overkill; I’d rather see a series on any other number of characters.

Worst Single Issue:
Journey Into Mystery #87 (Thor: "Prisoner of the Reds")

Most Overrated Title: The X-Men
 On seeing the X-Men movies in recent years, I realize that the mutants are more interesting than I ever gave them credit for (and some of my fellow professors have suggested they really came into their own in the 1970’s). Still, I always found them too numerous and not especially interesting as individual characters.

Most Underrated Title: The Avengers
 Generally, in my opinion, a title with a bunch of characters gets bogged down from trying to take on too much, and not doing enough justice to anyone. However, The Avengers nicely ties together many of Marvel's leading characters, and answers some of the overlap questions I missed by not having seen all these issues before.

Best Artist: Jack Kirby
 This is undisputable for me; I grew up loving “the King”, and he influenced the way I looked at art, and visualized photography. I’ve come to respect the many Marvel artists we’ve seen so far, and Steve Ditko would be a close second for uniqueness of style.

Best Cover: Fantastic Four #29
  I know this wasn’t really a category, but I’ve certainly been struck by the beauty of the many gorgeous covers we’ve seen so far, and “It Started On Yancy Street” seemed especially mysterious and beautiful to me.


The Ten Best Comic Books (11/61-11/64; in chronological order)

Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962): Like FF #1—Ground Zero for the Marvel Age—another unforgettable origin story, even if his first book did more or less deserve to tank after a half-dozen issues.

Fantastic Four #5 (July 1962): The debut of Dr. Doom, not only the FF’s but also one of Marvel’s, and indeed comicdom’s, greatest foes. With its promise of things (haha) to come, this edges out FF#4, featuring the Silver Age debut of the Sub-Mariner, partly for the WTF coincidence of Johnny learning about Namor’s return when he just happens to be reading a Sub-Mariner comic book. Sorry, unh-unh.

Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962): Perhaps the best Marvel origin story ever. The epic tragedy of Uncle Ben’s death, which would haunt Peter forever, and the immortal “great power/great responsibility” line make this rival FF #1 as the true start of the Marvel Age.

X-Men #1 (September 1963): How many books introduce not only their heroes but also their arch-enemy in the very first issue? And how many super-hero teams are also schools with wise, super-cool mentors? See “Most Underrated Title” for additional ammo.

Avengers #4 (March 1964): Cap’s back! The debut of the Silver Age Captain America, who soon became the heart and soul of the team, makes this easily outshine Avengers #1.

Journey into Mystery #103 (April 1964): I felt morally obliged to include a Thor tale (less so with Daredevil, because he had so few issues in our target period). The debut of everybody’s favorite Asgardian tag-team, the Executioner and the Enchantress—edging out their Midgardian counterparts, the Cobra and Mr. Hyde—differentiated itself from Loki’s seemingly weekly schemes.

Fantastic Four #26/Avengers #5 (May 1964): Taken together, and primarily because they herald Marvel cross-overs when they were part of the solution rather than part of the problem (e.g., Secret Wars II, which pounded the final nail into my comic-buying).

Tales of Suspense #57 (September 1964): Supplanting Shellhead’s origin in TOS #39, because that armor was just way too clunky, and the debut of his nemesis, the Mandarin, in TOS #50, this introduced one of my favorite characters, Hawkeye, and enables me to slip in a little Don Heck love. And, like, Black Widow, hello?

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 (October 1964): Why agonize over weighing individual villains’ debuts (see “Best Title”) when you have a whole rogues’ gallery in the Sinister Six? Set the standard for annuals to come; Ditko’s Spidey apotheosis, with its poster-worthy full-page illos?

Strange Tales #126 (November 1964): So glad this slipped in right under the wire. It introduced Dormammu AND Clea and, even more than the previous issue, is a template for Doc’s soon-to-be serial greatness.

Best Title: Amazing Spider-Man. 
Okay, it had its share of off days like anything else, but no Silver Age Marvel book was as consistently good in this period, and the number of enduring villains introduced (several of whose debuts cancelled one another out among my Top Ten) was, well, amazing.

Worst Title: Tales to Astonish.
No title that (eventually) featured Dr. Strange on a regular basis is gonna get this award in my book, so—as much as I love the Pyms in their later Avengers years—I must reluctantly give this one to Gi-Ant-Man.

Worst Single Issue: Fantastic Four #11. 
If only for inflicting the ever-annoying Impossible Man (would that he were!) on Marveldom Assembled.

Most Overrated Title: Fantastic Four. 
At the risk of piling on, Marvel’s soon-to-be flagship title just didn’t hit its stride for the first few years. It’s no crime. Journey into Mystery was the runner-up, because the secret-identity silliness with Don “Lame-o” Blake (which I was glad they omitted from the movie) dragged it down to a, shall we say, ungodly level.

Most Underrated Title: X-Men. 
Like Amazing, this book found its feet faster than, say, FF or Avengers, and in this particular case, I respectfully disagree with the criticism about seeing the same villains too often. Magneto and the Brotherhood were kind of like the Dark Side of the Force, and their recurrence enhanced the feeling of the X-Men representing half of some sort of cosmic balance. This book was different—even for Marvel—and special right from the start.

Best Artist: Jack Kirby. 
Ditko’s Dr. Strange notwithstanding, this is a no-brainer for both quality (which was also dependent partly on his inkers) and quantity.

Nostalgic Representative Favorite Issue: X-Men #4. 
Like Professor Jim, I feel compelled to add my own category. I remember this (and Daredevil #3, which almost made it into my Top Ten just to include DD) from a coverless copy of Marvel Super-Heroes #23 that I got as a hand-me-down when I was a kid. Debut of the Brotherhood, international scope (Visit scenic Santo Marco!), excellent character dynamics, an ominous ending—even though you sorta knew things would turn out okay—two future Avengers…in short, Stan and Jack firing on all cylinders. This epitomizes the glorious reprints that introduced me to early Marvel as Silver changed to Bronze.


  1. Just waiting for some brave soul to tabulate all the votes and give us an aggregate Top Ten; I'd call AMAZING FANTASY #15 the heavy favorite.

  2. A brave soul comes forward, puts his comic books down and dusts off the abacus. Here's what I figgered out:

    #1 Amazing Fantasy #15 (by a wiiiiiiiiide margin)
    #2 (tie) Avengers #4 and X-Men #1
    #4 (tie) Hulk #1 and Amazing Spider-Man #6
    #6 Tales of Suspense #39
    #7 Daredevil #1
    #8 Journey Into Mystery #103
    #9 Daredevil #3
    #10 Avengers #5

    Mine was a very complicated method of deduction. I simply gave ten points to a #1, 9 points to a #2, etc. Of course that didn't work in the case of one professor who picked chronologically so I cheated a little on his. Number of appearances on the individual lists also weighted the final decisions. Not many surprises above though.

  3. Matthew-

    I'm not that brave. It looks like you are right about Amazing Fantasy #15 even though I was the lone man that didn't have it in my top ten. I'm a little surprised that Fantastic Four #25 wasn't in anybody's list of favorites besides myself.

    One thing I did tally up was that it's a tie between 'Tales to Astonish' and 'Strange Tales' for which of the two should burn in hell. Hopefully this won't start a civil war among the professors! Interesting choices all around.

  4. Pete: Sorry to throw my usual monkey wrench into the works. In these cases, I usually find it hard enough to get the list down to 10 (or 100 or whatever), let alone rank them within it.

    Tom: Agreed on your last point. I'd actually expected more unanimity, so it's fun to see the differences.

  5. Matthew; No problem at all. I think I was the only Professor with access to the early Sgt. Furys. I'm convinced that a few of these would have been on lists other than mine.

  6. Growing up in the Vietnam era with anti-war parents, I wasn't allowed to read war comics, so I never got in the habit of reading Sgt. Fury!