Year by year

Here's a rundown of the order in which each Essential volume was originally released plus my comments on each year's releases.

1996
At the time this selection wasn't too surprising. These three series/families had remained Marvel's best selling titles in a struggling market. Starting the X-Men from the All-New All-Different era meant that each of the Silver, Bronze and Modern Ages were represented. Had Wolverine been started later on then it's possible some of his earlier material like his 1982 limited series would have been included.

However some have since questioned the absence of the Fantastic Four, given its overall significance and pointing out that when the Masterworks began back in 1987 the first three titles were Spider-Man, the X-Men (starting from their original series) and the Fantastic Four (this was before Wolverine's ongoing series had started). The reason is probably down to events in the mid 1990s when the Fantastic Four was one of many titles to see sales slump amidst an industry recession and it had just been rebooted and relaunched as part of the "Heroes Reborn" experiment. As well as being a riskier choice to test the waters, reprinting the original adventures may have been detrimental to the sales on the new series.

1997
The series was still testing the waters and so sticking to the most tried and tested series.

1998
The range started to expand, with the other main teams now represented (the Avengers had been the fourth Masterworks). The Silver Surfer may now look a surprising choice to head the expansion of the line given that his ongoing series came to an end later that year; however this volume came out in a mini "Silver Surfer month" to tie in with the launch of his cartoon.

1999
No new volumes for the original three series, perhaps reflecting a desire to slow down and have a more diverse shelf. The Hulk volume tied in with a relaunch of the regular title whilst the Uncanny X-Men volume tied in with the launch of X-Men: The Hidden Years, a retroactive series set between the original and All-New eras.

2000
The programme now turned to cover some of the main outstanding long running series, whilst also continuing to slowly step forward. Since 1998 all the new series had been from the Silver Age so it was good to see another Bronze Age series started in the form of Conan. Unfortunately Marvel would soon drop the licence.

2001
This year saw a new cover design introduced and also a use of contemporary artwork for the covers. Thor finally arrived, reflecting just how weak things were for him in the late 1990s, but otherwise this was more advancement of existing series.

2002
A huge cluster of new series, including a mixture of the B-list Silver Age features, some of the most fondly remembered Bronze Age titles and a bold experiment with Ant-Man. Around 2000 an Essential Ant-Man was often raised on the net as the ultimate potential of the series but many of us never expected to see it, yet here we got an experiment with a rather obscure series being rescued for a modern audience.

2003
Unfortunately Marvel let the Essentials fall into oblivion for a while hence only two new volumes this year. However, as we'll see, somebody was clearly keen on getting the 1970s horror series back into print.

2004
After the trickle of earlier years here began a torrent. It's amazing just how fast the Essentials went through Tomb of Dracula - was there a now forgotten major vampire film released at the time or was this just riding the Buffy wave? We got some more short-lived series dusted off, whilst Essential Punisher represented an attempt to collect character appearances rather than a series, bringing together many issues of other titles.

2005
The Dracula surge only ended when the material ran out; however the other horror titles continued to be mined. Spider-Man's third title started to be collected despite starting a few years later than the material already collected in Essential Spider-Man and Essential Marvel Team-Up. Although the Defenders had had a brief revival around the turn of the millennium it was only now that their original adventures began to be collected. This was also the first time a volume was released with a female star, coming at a time when the original Spider-Woman was once more in the limelight.

2006
A whopping twenty-four volumes in the most intense year for the programme, so the release of no less than four Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe volumes was less noticeable. Two series that had been neglected for a while were now given some attention with the first new Wolverine volume in eight years and the first new Silver Age X-Men in seven. Note that the latter series's title had been changed. Also these years saw many of the earliest Essentials reissued with earlier problems corrected such as better picture quality, annuals placed in the correct locations, limited series and graphic novels included where relevant and even some issues transferred between volumes to make a better fit.

2007
The torrent of new series started to abate as fewer remained; however two more of Marvel's female stars were headlined whilst the Silver Surfer got a second volume after nine years, bringing his Modern Age series to a new audience. Essential X-Factor 2 introduced a new cover format but it was rapidly abandoned for the regular volumes.

2008
Somebody was clearly fond of Marvel's 1980s and 1990s reference material, as no less than five of the sixteen slots were given over to them this year. Otherwise we got another anthology as Essential Marvel Horror 2 collected a variety of short-lived characters. Essential Captain Marvel 1 saw a return to the Silver Age to rescue one of its more obscure heroes. This year also saw a new cover design, modelled on DC's Showcase Presents volumes, that has stuck to this day and given more space to artwork.

2009
The last of the Silver Age superhero features was finally given a volume, whilst the original X-Men run was completed. Otherwise the programme had now settled into a pattern, though the torrent of releases would soon reduce.

2010
The reduction may have been due to most of the shorter series being by now exhausted - other than the Hulk's second series being concluded, everything was now on at least volume 4 if not more.

2011
Again another thinner year, although some of the older volumes continued to be reprinted and re-editioned for the benefit of those who arrived late. I haven't seen hard figures but I suspect the volume 1s tend to sell the best, and this may explain the desire to start Web of Spider-Man a little early as well as the decision to dip into both the Western and war genres.

2012
A slight uptick in releases and the discovery of two more series previously uncollected. However it's again easy to see the problems the Essentials now had in that they were generally down to high numbered volumes of long-running series and not much else. Unless a high numbered volume covers a particularly acclaimed run then it's likely to only be of interest to long term collectors. The problems of keeping the earlier volumes in print may also play a role as it's harder to attract new readers to buy all the way up to a volume 4 or more if some of the earlier volumes are hard to obtain.

2013
This year and last had jointly had the most new volumes since 2009. Nearly all the longest running Marvel series had a new volume this year.

...and with that the line came to a close. Unfortunately there were still some of the shorter series that were yet to be completed and had been awaiting a new volume for a few years - e.g. Doctor Strange or Power Man and Iron Fist.

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