Before Marvel Comics ushered in what has come to be known as “The Marvel Age of Comics” in 1961 with such now-familiar characters as The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Hulk and The X-Men, their claim to fame was a seemingly endless array of science-fiction and fantasy themed comics such as Journey Into Mystery, Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish and Strange Tales. Each of these interchangeable, anthology comics were all more or less the same, each featuring fantastic stories about time-travel, outer space and most importantly – monsters!
How did the monsters come to such brief but memorable prominence at newsstands across North America? In the mid-1950’s outrage from concerned parents, spurred on by an inflammatory book about the dangers of violence in comic books entitled Seduction of the Innocent, resulted in the adoption of a “comics code”. The Comics Code Authority was a self imposed regulatory body that effectively banned explicit depictions of horror and violence. With superheroes deemed passe since the late 1940s, and horror now a forbidden genre, comic book publishers looked to new themes to exploit to keep their readers entertained. Pulp inspired science fiction/fantasy tales in the vein of the Twilight Zone seemed to do the trick and for comic buffs the brief period 1959-1961 has come to be known as “The Monster Age of Comics”.
Marvel was not the only publisher with tales of radioactive beasts and mutants hell-bent on mankind’s enslavement and/or destruction but Marvel’s Stan Lee (who went on to co-create just about every Marvel character of the 60’s) was at the helm and not only was he starting to hit his stride as a writer, he also managed to entice some of the greatest comic book artists in the business into providing the artwork. This has ensured that these virtually throwaway comic books have become nearly as legendary as the superhero comics that followed.
There is little questioning Marvel’s wisdom at publishing Marvel Monsters. This handsome 224 page hardcover collects five of the very best of Marvel’s “Monster Age” stories alongside several new stories by some of today’s top artists and writers including such talents as Steve Niles (30 Days of Night), Keith Giffen (Ambush Bug), Duncan Fegredo (Hellboy) and Tom Sniegoski (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
And what about the monsters? Fantastic! No one can fault the selection of classic monster tales on offer here. Titano The Monster That Time Forgot, Droom The Living Lizard and the renowned Fin Fang Foom are just three of the terrifying creatures featured here. And if their names seem less than inspiring, keep in mind many of these stories feature the artwork of Jack (King) Kirby. As the original artist of The Hulk, Fantastic Four, The X-Men and most Marvel creations of the 60’s, his ability to bring monsters to life on the printed page is truly uncanny.
Since many of the original stories have a rather dated quality to them (which can be charming) the newer stories in this volume do manage to keep things fresh and are hugely entertaining. In-jokes abound for Marvel comics buffs as do guest appearances by some of Marvel’s biggest names including The Hulk, The Fantastic Four as well as sundry Avengers and X-Men. The writing and artwork is top-notch and several of the stories are nearly as memorable as the tales that inspired them in the first place. An ad-hoc supergroup that includes the aforementioned Fin Fang Foom, called the Fin Fang Four is a ridiculous but very entertaining premise for a romp that literally pits monster against monster.
The icing on the cake is a 48 page overview of several dozen of Marvel’s most renowned monsters which is cleverly presented as a collection of files and emails belonging to Ulysses Bloodstone, Marvel’s famed monster hunter of the 1970’s. This gives readers the opportunity to get the background on 50 terrific beasts, from the pretty much forgotten Blip and Zzutak (both 1961) to the more renowned Groot (1960), Tim Boo Ba (1962) and Krakoa (1975). And yes – Fin Fang Foom!
While Marvel has recently been producing hardcover versions of many of the late 50’s and early 60’s series that these classic monster stories originally appeared in, this is an affordable and entertaining introduction into a rarely explored facet of Marvel’s publishing history. 9 out of 10 – Highly recommended!