I did a ‘pick of the Trojan box sets’ over at ILM, which went down pretty well, then someone on I Love Comics asked for a similar view on the Marvel Comics Essential volumes (5-600 pages of vintage comics in B&W on cheap paper for about ’11, so extraordinary value when a 24-page comic costs around ‘2!), so since I’m even more familiar with them than with reggae CDs (and I freely admit to a bias towards the older stuff – I think Kirby and Ditko haven’t been equalled since)…
1. Fantastic Four #3 – Jack Kirby at his absolute peak, featuring Galactus, Silver Surfer, Black Panther, Inhumans, and a great fake-Thing story after the cosmic epic.
2. Howard The Duck – some of my favourite comics writing of all time, by Steve Gerber, and one of my favourite individual stories in ‘What Do You Do The Day After You Save The Universe’ – see above for FF parallels!
3. Spider-Man #1&2 – absolutely magnificent Steve Ditko art. The scene where he is trapped under some huge iron machinery with water dribbling down is one of my favourite ever series of panels.
4. Fantastic Four #1&2 – you’ll enjoy 3 more if you read these first, and even the early ones, stupid stories and all (sometimes more stupid than you would imagine possible, e.g. the Skrulls in original-issue 2), are fabulous.
5. Dr Strange – the stories aren’t all very interesting, but no one has ever drawn magic or weird other realms as gorgeously as Ditko.
6. Avengers (there are four so far), especially #1, for some more prime Kirby and the persistently undervalued Don Heck, and the very moving return of Captain America in original-issue 4.
7. X-Men #1 (original run) – very variable quality, but a lot of the foundations of much of the Marvel Universe today is here, and there are a few great issues. I love the Juggernaut’s origin in particular.
8. Captain America – the old WWII tales are pretty dull, but full of magnificent Kirby. The Red Skull origin, where he has Cap tied up, is some of his very best work, showing his mastery of quiet moments and body language as well as the action he is more usually praised for.
9. Thor – some of Kirby’s mightiest and most bombastic art, though warning: quite a lot from really limp artists and crap stories early on.
10. Tomb Of Dracula #1&2 – beautiful Gene Colan art, and hilariously wrong UK locations and lingo (“Come on you blithers!” being my favourite). Volume 3 is due soon, and will be as good.
I wish I’d had room for Ant-Man too – not one of their top stars, but a lot of this is terrific (some fine Kirby, and Heck’s best ever work, for me), and it’s material far less reprinted than FF, Spidey, X-Men and so on. I recently learnt that there is a Defenders (Hulk, Dr Strange and the Sub-Mariner team up, basically) one coming – if they start at the beginning, I’ll be buying it mostly in the hope of encouraging a volume 2, which could collect all of the fantastic Gerber run, probably my favourite superhero comics ever that weren’t by Kirby, Ditko or Grant Morrison.