MARVEL COLLECTORS’ ITEM CLASSICS was an Annual sized regular title that reprinted earlier stories in the Marvel canon for the benefit of readers who came to the line later. Like me. It eventually changed its name to MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS and ran for a good long time. And for somebody like me, who was interested in reading earlier Fantastic Four adventures, it was a huge blessing. As these books were reprint, they never accrued much in the way of value as back issues, which meant that they were very affordable. During this trip to Heroes World after working in my Dad’s office, I picked up a pair of them in my haul to help supplement my knowledge of those early FF tales.
I had been interested in reading FANTASTIC FOUR #18’s story about the Super-Skrull (he had ALL the powers of the Fantastic Four, Plus MORE!) ever since I’d first seen its cover in the Olshevsky OFFICIAL MARVEL INDEX TO THE FANTASTIC FOUR which I had purchased on my first trip to Heroes World some months previously.
By this point in the series run, the early rough edges had largely been sanded off, and creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had a full command of what they were doing. The four main characters had settled into their accepted personalities. These early Marvel books were more dramatic and immediate than the competition’s offerings. And they were funny! Both Lee and Kirby peppered the stories with comedy to help create contrast for the dramatic moments.
The story concerned the Skrulls, the alien race whom the Fantastic Four had beaten back in one of their earliest adventures, striking back by creating a member of their race in whom all of the powers of the Fantastic Four were duplicated. The technology involved must have been super-dangerous or something, as they didn’t go on to mass-produce these guys (at least until we did it during SECRET INVASION many years later.) The FF lose their first bout with the Super-Skrull, but Red deduces that most of his power must come from an external source, and he builds a tiny jammer that the Invisible Girl is able to attach to the Skrull in their next meeting. Deprived of his powers, the Human Torch seals him inside a dormant volcano, and the threat is averted. Nobody questions how the Super-Skrull is going to eat or breathe sealed up that way–this wasn’t really a concern in the comics of 1963.
One of the benefits of MCIC is that it also contained other stories behind the lead FF feature. Pretty much the entire line’s output had been split between its pages and MARVEL TALES in terms of reprints. So I got a whole lot of additional reading for my purchase price. Next up was an Iron Man story by Don Rico (working under the alias of N. Korok) and Don Heck that was the second appearance of the Black Widow. The character is almost entirely unrecognizable compared to what she grew into–here, she’s just a generic femme fatale working for the Communists who steals a Stark prototype gravity manipulator and causes trouble for Iron Man for 13 pages. It’s solid if unspectacular, with Heck’s lovely artwork carrying the day. The early Marvel strips test-drove a number of writers besides Lee, and most of them really couldn’t capture the voice that he was after. It wasn’t until Roy Thomas arrived that Lee really had a second set of hands who could do what he did.
Next up was a short Doctor Strange adventure from the pages of STRANGE TALES. It was illustrated and largely plotted by Steve Ditko, who was just about the only person who could get me interested in Doc’s goings on when I was a kid. The modern Doc was too heady, too ephemeral for me, but the Ditko-era version was rooted enough for me to understand and care about the conflicts. And nobody drew mystic realms better than Ditko did. In this story, Strange falls asleep while poring over some spells, and is unknowingly trapped within the realm of his recurring foe, Nightmare. It’s perhaps not as good as it might have been thanks to some uncredited and seemingly-fast inking by George Roussos, who chunks up Ditko’s delicate lines unappealingly. In order to make him look more like the modern day version of the character, Doc’s formerly blue cloak is colored red for this reprint.
MCIC had also been reprinting the short Watcher back-ups that had run in TALES OF SUSPENSE, in a strange sense of completism. These were largely generic fantasy stories of the sort the company had done for years, with the Watcher as “host.” This one’s all about a dreamer who spends his time in unpractical pursuits like studying poetry and visiting hospital shut-ins, all of which causes his ambitious fellow men to refer to him as a failure. But an alien space ship shows up to whisk him away to another world–the aliens value these qualities, and want to make him their leader as a result. It’s a perfectly fine, perfectly forgettable story. Larry Lieber handled both the copy and the artwork, following a plot conference with brother Stan.
The final story in the issue wasn’t a complete tale at all, but rather the last bunch of pages from INCREDIBLE HULK #6, the last issue of the Green Goliath’s original magazine, which MCIC had serialized over the past couple of issues. I had already read this story in the INCREEDIBLE HULK POCKET BOOK, so finding it here wasn’t a big deal for me.
Regardless, it’s a weird story appealingly illustrated by Steve Ditko in which the Hulk battles an alien enemy who can manipulate metal with his mind. The Hulk defeats him, of course, by devising a face weapon made entirely of wood and plastic and which the Metal Master can’t dismantle or turn against him. It’s a typical brains over brawn ending, one that Stan had used before and would use again in the future.