Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Marvel's Essential series – an introduction

If you're already familiar with Marvel's Essential reprint trade paperbacks then this post is probably best skipped. However if not, here's the low-down on the main points about the series in so far as they apply to the Spider-Man titles I'll be reviewing. For those who want even more information about the series in general I'd advise reading the Wikipedia article: Essential Marvel.

The books reprint a large number of classic comics, nearly always in the original order, in black and white on cheap paper. (I believe the format originated in Japan for manga.) With about five hundred pages in each volume they represent some of the best value for classic comics – providing you don't mind black & white which in my opinion doesn't affect readability. The series began in 1996 and Marvel have since published about eighty different volumes, ranging from mainstream series such as the Fantastic Four and the X-Men to obscure ones such as Killraven and Tales of the Zombie. (DC have since followed the lead and produced an equivalent series entitled Showcase Presents.)

In general each volume reprints some twenty or so issues (the precise number depends on the original page counts) from a Marvel comic series, including relevant annuals and some of the short-lived companion series (such as the Giant-Size series that briefly ran in the mid-1970s). In order to maintain story cohesion the volumes sometimes include additional material such as the issues of other comics that set-up a character and/or team before they got their own title. Furthermore over the years there have been many crossovers between different Marvel titles and sometimes you need to read issues of two titles to understand what's going on. Often the direct crossover issues are included in both titles' Essential volumes.

As the series has been around for sixteen years there have been a number of modifications over the years. The cover design has changed at least twice, with many earlier volumes reprinted with the new designs. Also some original editions of earlier volumes either omitted material (such as the short-lived Spectacular Spider-Man magazine from 1968) or placed annuals and specials in an awkward place in the run. Later editions of these volumes have sought to correct the earlier mistakes by adding and re-ordering; however sometimes this means particular issues are moved from one volume to another. In general I'll be reviewing from the original volumes but will point out where modifications have subsequently been made. A more minor point of confusion can be the volume titles. The series initially titled "Essential Spider-Man" reprints Amazing Spider-Man, not the series launched in 1990 with just "Spider-Man" as the title (until #75). The later volumes and subsequent editions have modified this a little by using the full series name. (And this is far less confusing than the names used for the various X-Men volumes but fortunately that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

The Essential volumes don't come out at a strict frequency and sometimes readers have had to wait a few years before the next volume for a particular title. Spider-Man has been quite lucky in this regard with on average at least one volume from any of his titles coming out each year. A minor problem with the multiple titles is that sometimes the volumes covering one title can get ahead of others. At the time of writing the Amazing volumes (including the next scheduled to be out soon) are up to issue #248. However Marvel Team-Up is lagging behind, having only reached #75 which came out the same month as Amazing #186. Spectacular Spider-Man has reached #114, parallel to Amazing #276. Web of Spider-Man (which actually replaced Marvel Team-Up after 150 issues) is up to #32, the contemporary of Amazing #294 & Spectacular #132.

Marvel doesn't always own the rights to reprint absolutely all of its old comics. Over the years it has licensed many characters from novels, television, toys and other media, with time limits on how long it can print comics featuring them for. Once the contracts expire it is no longer possible to reprint their appearances without fresh negotiations (which can be too expensive for a series like this) and sometimes the characters are now licensed to other comic companies and so completely off limits. This only affects a handful of Spider-Man comics, mainly odd issues of Marvel Team-Up and Giant-Size Spider-Man. However where possible I may take a brief side-step to look at omitted material.

Finally there have been problems with the source material. Marvel has unfortunately not retained all the original film separations for all its comics. Back in the early 1990s many classic 1960s stories had separations recreated for the more expensive Masterworks series of reprints and these often mean good quality black & white prints are available. However there are many issues that have neither original separations not later recreations on file, and some others where the only available separations are from reprints that edited out pages, and consequently the missing material has had to be reproduced from the finished comics themselves, including the colour overlays now rendered as intrusive greys. Fortunately nearly all the Spider-Man issues reprinted so far have been lucky to have either original or recreation separations available and it's not as noticeable as in some other Essential runs.

Despite all the above factors, the Essential series are one of the best & most affordable ways to enjoy many Marvel series. Which is why I like them so much.

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