Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Essential Marvel Saga volume 1

It's time a proper in-depth look at each volume of The Official History of the Marvel Universe. These posts rewrite and expand a previous brief effort.

Essential Marvel Saga volume 1 contains issues #1 to #12 of The Marvel Saga: The Official History of the Marvel Universe, a special series launched in 1985. It retells many old stories by copying & pasting panels and adding some additional text and the occasional pieces of new artwork to tell a coherent history. The order and new material is written by Peter Sanderson and drawn by Ron Frenz, Tom Morgan, Al Milgrom, Walter Simonson, Bill Sienkiewicz, Steve Geiger, Keith Pollard and John Buscema. Additionally each introductory page and rear "Classic Cover Gallery" are included.

Marvel and DC seem to have spent a lot of the 1980s either copying one another's projects or experiencing simultaneous ideas. Both did their first major company wide events in that decade (Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths). Both produced special encyclopaedic series devoted to detailing their characters (The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and Who's Who). Beyond the comics themselves, both licensed their characters for a series of action figures. And both produced their first "official histories", limited series which sought to bring order to the turbulent chaos of the continuity of their early years. DC's effort was the History of the DC Universe. Marvel's was The Marvel Saga. Who had the idea first in each of these cases isn't always clear as sometimes one company would learn of the other's plans and rush a project through to reach the market first. And I'm sure many of these ideas had originally been suggested by fans – "A story bringing all the heroes together" or "A guide to the heroes and villains" or "A history of the universe" are all pretty straightforward ideas and probably featured in fanzines long before the publishers took them up (but then fanzines didn't have to wait for the direct market that would make most of these projects viable).

The Marvel Saga sets out to summarise the key events in the history of the Marvel universe, showing how they fit together and illustrating them with panels from the original stories. After a few pages of introduction the series pretty much begins with the origin of the Fantastic Four and works from there through the early years of the Silver Age up until the revival of Captain America, explaining characters' back stories when they become relevant. This prevents the series from being bogged down in all the legends of Greece and Scandinavia and other material only relevant to a few, and instead allows a broad range of heroes from the outset. Unfortunately the habit of introducing the backstory only when significant characters debut can disrupt the flow of retelling an individual adventure, such as when the history of Odin is given in one go midway through the story of Thor's first battle with Zarrko the Tomorrow Man. It also means that the Golden Age of the 1940s isn't presented in a narrative order. It's always been somewhat ambiguous just how canonical the Timely and Atlas comics are in the Marvel universe and no answer is given.

What is clearer is the placement of events relative to each other. Thus Spider-Man's origin, which includes weeks of fame, is spread out and other adventures such as the origin and early battles of the Hulk and the Fantastic Four's first encounters with both Namor the Sub-Mariner and Doctor Doom take place between the radioactive spider's bite and the final showdown in the warehouse. A lot of fans have long taken to trying to work out the exact order in which stories take place, and even what order they should read and perhaps their entire collections in, and this is surely the ultimate realisation of such a chronology. But this doesn't just include the earliest issues themselves but also later revelations and retcons such as including much of Professor Xavier's history and the origins of the individual X-Men or including with Iron Man's origin his escape from the Vietnamese jungle and first meeting with James "Rhodey" Rhodes or showing Thor's youth and punishment by Odin at the point when Donald Blake is introduced into the history. This means the series doesn't leave latter-day readers in confusion as they try to reconcile the current state of affairs with the somewhat different status quo in the earliest days. Sometimes later retellings of origins are used as the source of panels and this is particular useful over cliffhangers as it allows alternate art to depict the reprises.

Early on the run it seemingly tries to summarise almost all of the adventures but it soon settled down and relegated many a lesser tale to a small text section entitled "The Continuity Corner" which puts issues in chronological order relative to one another. This most notably cuts down on a lot of adventures with obscure forgotten foes such as the Scarlet Beetle or the Acrobat and seems to hit the Ant-Man and Human Torch stories more than any other series.

Read all at once rather than over some two and a half years this series shows several common themes running rampant in the early Marvels. There seem to have been no end of obscure alien races visiting Earth in the early days of Marvel with most of the heroes encountering at least one. There was also no end of Communist enemies. When this series was first published in 1985-1987 the Cold War was still going on and it was just about credible (by the standards of the Silver Age) for there to have been so many Communist foes in then-recent history. But nowadays the Cold War finished over two decades ago and Marvel is more open about its floating timeline with the modern era of heroes starting anything from a decade to fifteen years ago. It's also surprising just how often the Fantastic Four fell out or how frequently the Thing regained his human form.

The saga is clearly aware of later stories as well which may have impacted the choices for inclusion such as showing the first battles with obscure foes like the Vanisher and Thug Thatcher. It also does its best to reconcile the early Silver Age adventures of Namor the Sub-Mariner and Captain America with what was revealed or restored to continuity later on, such as explaining why neither really recognises their old comrade in arms at first. The introduction of Captain America in issue #12 goes to some length to flesh out all his history prior to his release from the iceberg, with the various additions to the origin, the Invaders retcons and the immediate post war replacements all included in the details when the Avengers finally find him. Given his prominence on the cover of issue #1, reproduce as the volume's cover, it's interesting to speculate just how Wolverine's patchwork past would be handled.

Overall this first volume of The Marvel Saga is surprisingly fun and easy to read. The concept could risk excessive boredom whilst the widespread reprinting of even the more obscure parts of the Silver Age might have made it redundant for an audience who can easily access the original tales. But instead it offers its own distinct take on the events and makes an excellent effort to weave the tales together into a greater whole. The shared universe and overlapping characters was always a big part of Marvel's appeal and it's good to see this taken to the logical extent.

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