Filing Cabinet of the Damned

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Dirty Little Secret: Marvel’s “Essentials” Line

My bookshelves contain over a dozen of the paperback collections of old comics known as the “Marvel Essentials” line. I love ‘em. They reprint roughly twenty-five to thirty issues of an old comic in black and white, then price the books cheaply. This is genius. Marvel has a gigantic backlog of material that most modern readers have never seen, and they don’t have to pay royalties on this jazz. It’s all gravy.

I snapped up many of the volumes with delight. Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four? The best damn superhero book ever. Lee/Ditko Spider-Man? Magnificent. I even snagged a couple of oddball ones to see if the work lived up to the reputation. Howard the Duck and Tomb of Dracula certainly did; Conan the Barbarian and The Silver Surfer certainly didn’t.

Before buying any of the volumes, I perused them in the comic shop. Something lept out at me. Most of this stuff, this trove of Marvel history...

...was awful. The Avengers, Ant-Man, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Daredevil--it’s all crappity crap crap crap, with the odd bit of good stuff thrown in here and there.

The books proved the auteur theory of comics beyond a shadow of a doubt. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko made work that flew. Herb Trimpe, John Romita, and John Buscema didn’t.*

Not to say those three fellows weren’t talented; they certainly were. But they don’t reach out of the page and grab you by the nose as Kirby and Ditko did. Okay, Barry Windsor-Smith approached the nose-grab levels in his later issues of Conan, but left the book far too soon.

The past provides many great comics. It also produced an astonishing amount of boring twaddle. Worshippers of the past may not accept this truth. Open Essential Avengers Vol. 1 to the second half of the volume and judge for yourself. Yeek.

(Even the mighty Kirby didn’t always have it; most of Essential Thor Vol. 1 is tedious nonsense. “I’ve lost my hammer and have only sixty seconds before I revert to my human form! I must recover it in time!” What, again? You did that last issue. And the twelve before that. Once Kirby realized the potential of exploring the god side of Thor, the book took off. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen until after the issues contained in Thor Vol. 1, and it doesn’t look like Vol. 2 will see print.)

A pleasant surprise: the Essential Iron Fist, which contains the character’s first few appearances, his short-lived regular series, and his introduction into the eponymous series of his new partner, Power Man. Mostly written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Byrne before either had achieved much success in the field, the comics are a hoot.

Then again, I’m biased. As a kid, Power Man and Iron Fist was one of my very favorite books. Coupling two fading characters created to exploit seventies fads in an effort to keep them alive? Brilliant! Using the “Odd Couple” approach? Brilliant! Scripting by a young Jim Owsley (later known as Christoper Priest)? Brilliant!

*The role of Stan Lee in this is well debated elsewhere, so I won’t get into it much. Like many folks, I think of him as the McCartney to Kirby (or Ditko)’s Lennon. Neither Kirby nor Ditko reclaimed the heights of greatness in their later work that they had when working with Lee, nor did Lee ever produce great work without either of those two. They served as balances for one another, and it was that superb balance that made Marvel great. Kirby’s grandiosity and Ditko’s strong philosophical views needed the tempering of Lee’s humanity and wit, and Lee’s frivolity needed the weight and power of Kirby and Ditko.