Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Essential Marvel Saga volume 2

Continuing the 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 2 contains issues #13 to #25, continuing to retell 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 apart from one issue by Peter David, and drawn by Keith Pollard, Ron Frenz, James Fry, Al Milgrom, Tom Morgan, Steve Buccellatto, Bruce Solotoff, Phil Lord, Steve Geiger, José Marzan Jr, Hector Collazo and Keith Williams.

This volume continues the practice of summarising key storylines from Marvel's Silver Age, aided by reproducing many panels and using text captions and the occasional piece of new art to accelerate the retellings. Once again the origins are enhanced by later additions to the mythology such as Daredevil's debut including his history with Elektra and Stick as well as the original story. There's also some good tying together of stories to show their impact, such as the Crime-Master launching his attempt to take over the New York underworld at a time when the Fantastic Four are powerless and in hiding, Thor has departed for Asgard for the Trial of the Gods and Captain America is still making his way home through the South American jungle following his final showdown with Baron Zemo. Such a placing goes well beyond a mere wish to have a reading order and helps to show the Marvel Universe as a more integrated whole than it was realised at the time.

The choice of which characters to devote space to retelling their first adventures is a surprise, such as the many pages given over to the debut of Diablo compared to single panels each for the likes of the Grey Gargoyle, Kraven and the Owl's first outings. The cliffhangers to each issue aim to end on a dramatic point midway through a key story but occasionally the story in question is underwhelming or the foe has rather declined in stature since the 1960s. Issue #20 ends with the Frightful Four invading the Baxter Building and the final panel is the Wizard holding the Human Torch hostage. It's a reminder that the Wizard has rather plummeted off the A-List of foes since the Silver Age, his participation in the Prime Movers of the "Acts of Vengeance" crossover not withstanding, making the ending rather underwhelming.

Issue #22 sees a change of approach to the series (and a new editor - Adam S. Balustein succeeding Danny Fingeroth) and is devoted to Peter Parker and Mary Jane's relationship, as the Spider-Man wedding was close. So we see the whole course of it from Aunt May's first matchmaking through other girlfriends and the failed first proposal up to the wedding day, all in one issue. It's a different pace from before and also notable for being about the first place to suggest Mary Jane knew Peter was Spider-Man right from the outset. But there's also an odd moment at the end as a page from the Spider-Man vs. Wolverine one shot is reproduced to try to support the two being made for each other, yet it shows Peter crossing the lines of friendship before realising his mistake - almost as though it was intended to support the two not being together. Whilst it's nice to see an entire issue devoted to the background to one of the biggest events in Spider-Man's life, it would have been much better off as a stand-alone special rather than slotted into the regular series.

The remaining few issues see the saga focus in on specific events for the Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer, rather than the broad approach of showing all the key events across the whole universe. Did the new approach kill the series or was it an unsuccessful attempt to save it? Either way it's a rather unsatisfactory change of course and all the momentum of the first twenty-one issues is lost as we get a narrow focus on the wedding of Reed and Sue, the discovery of the Inhumans and then the coming of Galactus and the Silver Surfer with their origins retold from later issues, showing in particular how the Surfer's past influenced the feelings Alicia reawakened within him. It's unfortunate as the wedding annual was the first significant time almost the entire Marvel universe was caught up in the same story and where it fits into the various series's continuities is something that isn't particularly well explained. We get the origins of Galactus and the Silver Surfer but surprisingly not the Inhumans.

The defeat of Galactus is presented as "a turning point in the history of the cosmos... [the] day humanity's representatives first proved themselves more than equal to the task of mastering the great challenges set them by the cosmos", and thus the point on which to end the series with a three page coda describing some significant events to come, ranging from Spider-Man's famous triumph in the remains of Doctor Octopus's headquarters to the battle between Dormammu and Eternity through to the Dark Phoenix Saga. There's a bit of a "and they triumphed and lived happily ever after" to some of the summaries such as Thor facing off against a witch doctor with the last of the Norn Stones or Namor rescuing Dorma and recovering his throne. Finally the Watcher reveals himself as the narrator of the whole series

Overall this volume shows the misfortune of the change of direction, abandoning the integrated tapestry of the Marvel universe in favour of retelling individual stories with additional backstories added in. That said, the latter approach could be a way to bring new readers up to speed on key characters, without having to subject them to expensive trade paperbacks (in the days before the Essentials but even with them it can take a lot of time and money to build up a complete run and the Epic series's habit of jumping about isn't conducive to chronology) or lengthy and controversial retellings. In the early 1990s this approach was followed with a couple of mini-series including Spider-Man Saga and Wolverine Saga, and there have been some more recent one shots in a similar format.

But that would be individual histories and not really worthy of the title "The Official History of the Marvel Universe" which should have been restricted to a total history across the line rather than segmented sections. The original broad concept of the series is a good one though in an era when so many of the original comics are easily available in reprint form it can now feel a little overlong in its retellings. But even with the issues available the big picture is lacking and this series set out to provide it. It's a pity that got abandoned when it did but the first two thirds of this volume maintain the original aims and good standards.

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