Penguin Marvel Classics collection

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

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.

Black Panther

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.

Marvel: The Silver Age 1960-1970

20200407 Marvel 1At this time of lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus I needed something completely escapist to read and also to take me back to happier times. This magnificent set is part of the 2020 Spring collection from The Folio Society and is a follow up to the 2019 offering entitled Marvel: The Golden Age – 1939-1949. Although I enjoyed the first set, what is regarded as The Silver Age encompasses the comics and characters I remember reading as a child, even if in the slightly later UK editions of the comics rather than the hard to track down American imports. As Michael Moorcroft says in his introduction

these new titles were hard to come by in the early 1960’s. Marvel had yet to have a national distribution in Britain. Two powerful and puritanical chains then owned or controlled UK newsagents in every high street, every railway station and airport. Other distribution through independent suppliers was patchy and erratic. US distributors frequently sold mixed bundles of American returns through UK distributors after they came off sale in the US

Patchy distribution, usually on wobbly racks in obscure corners of the shop meant that sometimes an issue of the Avengers would arrive two weeks after the following issue had just appeared, leading to somewhat surreal story lines.

Living in a small market town in England finding these comics was a real challenge so I treasured the ones I did mange to track down but even then it was rare to be able to find all of a multi-part story. You needed a lot of imagination to fill in the gaps until the later UK printed licensed editions finally came out in the 1970’s. Interestingly the UK versions were larger than the standard US comic book although from memory not as big as the reproductions included in this book which are considerably over size. The original comics were 10 inches tall by 7 inches wide whilst each page of this volume is 13 inches by 9 inches.

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The book itself includes fourteen complete comics ranging from The Fantastic Four number 5 from July 1962 to The Silver Surfer number 3 from December 1968 but includes several important issues such as the one illustrated above which sees the first appearance of Spiderman. Also making their debut in the book are Iron Man (in his incredibly clunky original suit) and The Vision and we also get the first re-appearance of Captain America after he was apparently killed off back in the 1940’s. The pages are quite heavy paper-stock and very glossy making the book pretty heavy. The comics are beautifully presented with black separating pages and the quality of the printing is superb.

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The Avengers issue included is from March 1964 as this is where we see not only the return of Captain America but also another long standing character, Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner. He has been running in his own comic for decades by now, having been one of the first characters featured in their comics before Marvel even existed as a name and they were known as Timely Comics, but also had a habit of appearing in the comics dedicated to other characters, usually as the bad guy. In truth he is normally more misguided and misunderstood then actually evil and varies from being an antihero combating The Avengers and others (see below) to for a while being part of both The Avengers and also The Defenders which was a similar group of heroes.

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Daredevil is the first blind superhero and here in issue 7 he is combating The Sub-Mariner but this is also a highly sympathetic portrayal of Prince Namor. Daredevil is a good example of Marvel’s creation of heroes with failings, in fact pretty well all their characters have their own problems, there is no all powerful hero who is just too good to be true and that is one of the reasons why I liked their production so much. That strong character development was unusual in the genre at the time and the need to have a back story rooted them in their environment and made them more than just throwaway ciphers you felt you could get to know them over a run of comics.

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There is one comic in the fourteen selected that stands out as it looks so very different to the others, Nick Fury was written and drawn by Jim Steranko and this issue was clearly inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. The artwork is completely unlike any Marvel Comic I have seen. Nick Fury completely passed me by as a youth so this was the first time I had read anything featuring him. This is much darker in tone and style with full page and even double page illustrations alongside the normal comic book cells. This looks more like an illustrated book in places rather than a comic and I really need to find more work by Steranko.

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There is also a magnificent facsimile version of the first Fantastic Four comic which includes their origin story although confusingly The Human Torch had been a regular character with his own comic since 1940 as android Jim Hammond with his sidekick Toro so he was completely re-invented to go with the others. Number 5 of The Human Torch comic from 1941 is included in the Golden Age book and makes an interesting contrast to his relaunch as part of the Fantastic Four as the two characters despite both being called The Human Torch have almost nothing else in common. The facsimile (like the one included in the Golden Age set) is scanned from an original and printed on as close as they could get to the right paper. The one in The Silver Age is considerably more successful as the 1939 comic has serious ink bleeds and blurring which makes it quite difficult to read whilst the newer version is very clear.

All in all the unlikely collaboration of The Folio Society and Marvel to produce these books must be regarded as a success and I’m glad that both of them are in my library. As you can see from the picture below the first one has a blue embossed cover with red page edging all round in a gold foil box whilst the latest book has a red embossed cover with blue page edging in a silver foil box.

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All images are taken from the Folio Society website and at the time of writing both books are still available and are priced at £150 each.