On the 14th June 2022 Penguin Books embarked on a new series of titles with three books each simultaneously printed in hardback and paperback. The paperbacks, as can be seen above, were designed to look like the current iteration of Penguin Classics but noticeably larger at 252mm tall and 180mm wide as opposed to the ‘normal’ size of Penguin Classics which are 198mm tall and 129mm wide. This larger size makes the reproduced comic books in each volume far more legible. The hardbacks are larger still at 272mm tall by 198mm wide, their covers are very different and have gold page edges on all three sides. The hardback covers are illustrated below as each book is discussed in this blog. It isn’t the size of the books that strikes the reader as different when you pick them up though, it’s the weight. At getting on for a kilo each for the paperbacks and even closer to two kilos for the hardbacks, this is due to the high quality paper used in order to do justice to the full colour pages throughout the almost four hundred pages making up each book, these are clearly not books for reading in bed.
All the books have the same introduction to the new collection as shown below:
It’s an interesting idea to class early Marvel comics as Penguin Classics, after all that series concept began in 1946 and 1947 with translations of Homer’s Odyssey, Guy de Maupassant’s short stories, Sophocles’ The Theban plays and Voltaire’s Candide in the first two years, quite what E V Rieu (the original series editor) would have made of these comic books appearing in Penguin Classics can only be surmised but it probably wouldn’t have been positive. Having said that, the introductory essays do indeed set the comic art in it’s historical and cultural context so at least some attempt to hold to Rieu’s principles for the series has been made.
The Amazing Spider-man
I was interested to see how these editions differed from the Folio Society curated volumes currently being produced, see their Spider-Man launch video here. Penguin have gone for a very different approach to their selection of comics to the Folio Society as with Penguin you get an almost contiguous run of early comics rather than a selection over the years by former Marvel editor Roy Thomas which is Folio’s take on the subject. So in this volume you get Spider-Man’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy number 15 (August 1962) followed by the first four comics from The Amazing Spider-Man (March to September 1963). There then follows an essay about the characters development which also discusses comics five to eight and then the reproductions of the full comics continues with The Amazing Spider-Man comics nine and ten before another essay replacing issues then more reproductions and so on until the last comic included which is number nineteen from December 1964 by which time there have been twelve full reproductions. I actually really liked this way of doing it because at least you can follow story development rather than the more bitty Folio treatment and the three appendixes dealing with further aspects were really interesting as was the volume introduction by Ben Saunders. What you miss with the Penguin version rather than the Folio edition is a feel for where the character is going over the subsequent years however these are Penguin Classics after all so we should be looking at the early version of the character and even the hardbacks, at £40 are less than half the £95 of the Folio Society version.
Captain America takes a similar way of selecting comics but with one major difference to the Spider-Man volume as although we get a reproduction of Captain America number one (March 1941) the rest of his largely propaganda driven World War II comic book stories are skipped. Because we get number one though we do at least get the famous cover illustration of Captain America punching Adolf Hitler. Instead we leap to Tales of Suspense number fifty nine (November 1964) and take the Captain from his relaunch including Tales of Suspense number sixty three (March 1965) which tells the origin story of Captain America. This had to be done as an entire generation had grown up without the character so who was this guy in the stars and stripes outfit? There are in total twenty two partial or complete reproductions of the comics, all but the first being Tales of Suspense which tended to have two, or more, separate stories in each edition and only the Captain America parts are reproduced here and he also didn’t appear in every edition so the last one included is number 113 (May 1969). Again unlike the Folio Society version we are focusing on one period of the characters existence rather than a more rounded overview and we also get essays that cover comics not included and provide more developmental background.
Unlike the other two, Black Panther originally appeared in another series entirely and has The Fantastic Four visiting Wakanda, home of The Black Panther, at his invitation only for him to launch an unexpected attack on them. This takes place in Fantastic Four numbers fifty two and fifty three (July and August 1966 respectively) both of which are in this volume. Despite the initially unfriendly approach, Black Panther and the Fantastic Four end up joining forces to attack an enemy of Wakanda and them ultimately encouraging him to continue fighting for good as Black Panther. We then leap to his next appearance, which is Jungle Action number six (September 1973) and have an uninterrupted series of comics from there to Jungle Action number twenty one (May 1976) this time with no explanatory essays replacing the comics. The appendices are very different as well, this time we get the essay written by Don McGregor as his introduction to Marvel Masterworks: Black Panther volume one and the typewritten plot synopsis originally created for Jungle Action number seven also by McGregor. This is a very interesting document as it shows how stories were developed before any artwork had been started.
The first three volumes of the Penguin Marvel Classics collection are excellent and anyone interested in comic books or the booming graphic novel market should seek them out.