Friday, 8 January 2016

Twelve recommended Essentials

For my final post, I have decided to pick twelve volumes that especially stand out. The only restriction is that there is no more than one from each series. These aren't automatically the best stories - and the nature of the beast is that there are times when the incredibly good is collected with the incredibly dire - but twelve cases of the Essential series at its best. And the order has been chosen by lot.

Essential Moon Knight volume 2

Contains: Moon Knight #11 to #30

Moon Knight began as a foe for the Werewolf and then developed in the direction of a Batman clone but also acquired his own themes and the unique feature of his multiple identities that started to take on lives of their own. It took a while but soon it had found its own niche and cult following. This was one of the first series to be sold only in the direct market and it took full advantage of the shift to offer varied length stories that are free of the Comics Code Authority restrictions yet never being puerile or gratuitous just to show off its freedom. This volume represents by the middle issues of the series when it was at its height.

Essential Captain America volume 4

Contains: Captain America and the Falcon #157 to #186

Captain America was originally created during a great wave of patriotism and revived during another. But by the 1970s the US was changing and Cap seemed a man out of time in more ways than one. Then came new writer Steve Englehart who, together with artist Sal Buscema, set out to explore just what Cap's role is in this new world where the old certainties are gone and it's no longer so clear just what "serving my country" means anymore. The height of this approach comes in the Secret Empire story as Cap discovers a conspiracy that goes to the very highest levels, which in turn leads him to abandon his costume and the Falcon steps up to the forefront as the country is still facing threats.

Essential Dazzler volume 1

Contains: Dazzler #1 to #21 plus X-Men #130 & #131 and Amazing Spider-Man #203

When this was first announced many declared "Essential Dazzler" to be an oxymoron. But the Essentials have brought attention to many obscure series and characters, allowing them to be assessed anew without listening to decades old myths and assertions. This volume collects the first half of her series, allowing readers to judge for themselves and see a series that isn't the disco chaser of myth but instead shows a strong independent ordinary character trying to get by in life with the added complication of her powers. The Essential volume is a well-deserved rescue from obscurity.

Essential Black Panther volume 1

Contains: Jungle Action #6 to #22 & #24 and Black Panther #1 to #10

"Panther's Rage" was one of the first comic storylines to be written as though it was to be collected as chapters in a book and this volume does that and more so. Very often the biggest developments in comics are made in obscure series starring less well-known characters, and here is almost the definitive example of a hidden classic plus the start of "The Panther vs. the Klan!", taking the character to further heights. Sadly the volume also demonstrates how the Essentials scoop up the bad as well as the good with the start of Jack Kirby's run on the title that might as well be from an alternate reality, but that doesn't detract from the majesty of the bulk of the volume.

Essential X-Men volume 2

Contains: X-Men #120 to #144 and, in later editions, Annual #3 to #4

The All-New All-Different X-Men burst forth in the mid 1970s, presenting a highly crafted team of strong, well-defined characters who were put through a variety of situations. This volume covers the latter part of the Chris Claremont and John Byrne run when the team faced a range of scenarios from Alpha Flight trying to reclaim Wolverine for the Canadian government to Arcade subjecting them to his funhouse of horrors, but the high points come with two of the most influential X-Men stories of all time, the "Dark Phoenix Saga" and "Days of Future Past" which explore the problems with controlling great power and the dangers of anti-mutant prejudice run wild respectively.

Essential Rawhide Kid volume 1

Contains: Rawhide Kid #17 to #35

Marvel have printed many titles in numerous different genres over the years but haven't reprinted too many of them in recent years. But when they do it's often an eye opener. This volume is the sole Essential representation of the western genre, offering a good set of done in one enjoyable stories that mix the adventures of the lead character with other generic tales of the west. Very much a representation of the Atlas style before the Marvel superhero revolution, this volume is nevertheless a good, light fun read.

Essential Ghost Rider volume 4

Contains: Ghost Rider #66 to #81 plus Amazing Spider-Man #274 and New Defenders #145 & a bit of #146

It's rare for a long running series to end in a truly satisfactory way but Ghost Rider got one of the best conclusions going, allowing him to ride out on a high in what almost feels like it was the long term plan. The Ghost Rider may have begun as a fusion of the horror and stunt fads of the 1970s but he outlasted the fads to become something much stronger. Here the long running saga of the battle between Johnny Blaze and the demonic Ghost Rider reaches its climax here but there's time taken to remind and reintroduce the key elements for readers who haven't been along for the whole journey before the final end.

Essential Thor volume 3

Contains: Thor #137 to #166

Thor was a title that took a good while to really find its feet and get a long term permanent creative team but once it did Stan Lee and Jack Kirby proceeded to produce an amazing run of tales that combine Norse mythology and cosmic space adventure, with occasional interludes on Earth. By the time of this volume they had found out what worked and defined the character, with the stories here representing the absolute peak of their collaboration, ranging from battling the Mangog in Asgard to the conflict between Galactus and Ego the Living Planet in deep space. Truly this is the definitive Thor.

Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 2

Contains: Marvel Team-Up #25 to #51 plus Marvel Two-in-One #17

There's a sense of fun to a team-up book, often allowing the chance to enjoy both the regular and guest heroes in some nice one-off tales that don't require too much familiarity with the guests to follow them. But when in the right hands they can be even more. This volume contains some of the best of all the team-ups, ranging from the silliness of a team-up with Hercules where he tows the island of Manhattan through the seas to the deadly grittiness of a time travel saga that takes Spider-Man back to Salem in 1692 for a dark battle against the backdrop of the witch trials. This is a book that knows how to put together an epic out of several different guest stars and put the leads, whether Spider-Man or the Human Torch, through adventures they'd be unlikely to have in their own titles.

Essential Punisher volume 4

Contains: Punisher #41 to #59 and Annuals #4 to #5

The Punisher has always been a difficult character to handle because the approach of a self-appointed executioner is often at odds with conventional superhero ethics whilst the high fatality rate amongst both his foes and allies leaves limited scope for character development. It took a long time before he received an ongoing series and then in turn it took longer to really flesh it out but by the time of this volume it was coming together nicely. Here we get a mixture of traditional one-off tales against individual foes done well along with steps towards greater development with the handful of foes who have greater lasting power, most notably "The Final Days" epic that puts the Punisher in a marathon of endurance under pressure from the Kingpin.

Essential Warlock volume 1

Contains: Marvel Premiere #1 to #2, The Power of Warlock #1 to #8, Incredible Hulk #176 to #178, Strange Tales #178 to #181, Warlock #9 to #15, Marvel Team-Up #55, Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2

Warlock was a highly experimental strip that routinely sought to push the boundaries of what was possible, most notably with its approach to religion. The volume collects the two 1970s epics that saw Warlock first go to Counter-Earth to drive out a dark force and redeem it and then into deep space to take on the corruption and hypocrisy of an inter-galactic church presided over by none other than his evil future self. The title character has no desire to be a hero and is merely a good man searching for himself but gets caught up in the horrors all around him. Twice the title was cancelled but each time the saga showed it could survive by resolving itself in another series with a spectacular climax.

Essential Spider-Man volume 1

Contains: Amazing Fantasy #15 and Amazing Spider-Man #1 to #20 & Annual #1

This volume encapsulates just why Spider-Man took off the way he did. It covers the single most creative period in the character's history, introduces most of the top villains and tells some amazing stories all at once. Spider-Man broke the mould in many ways and even today these tales stand up well as a strong set of adventures that need no replacement. Bringing big chunks of the Silver Age at affordable prices was one of the aims of the Essentials and it hit the ground running. This was the very first Essential I ever picked up and it's still great to this day.


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