Bruce Timm Leads A Worthy Anthology Celebrating Marvel’s 75th Anniversary [Review]
You probably haven't heard since they haven't really been making a big deal of it, but this year marks the official 75th Anniversary of Marvel Comics. Sort of. It actually marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Marvel Comics #1, which introduced the world to the Human Torch and paved the way for the company that would eventually become the modern Marvel Comics which really came about in 1961, but you know what? That's a good enough reason for a party.
To that end, this week saw the release of the Marvel 75th Anniversary Celebration, an anthology that caught my eye mostly because it features legendary and still hugely popular Batman: The Animated Series co-creator Bruce Timm adapting a Captain America story written by Stan Lee in 1941, and that is definitely something that I want to read. But with 55 pages in the anthology, there's a heck of a lot more in there besides, including the return of Alias by the original creative team of Bendis, Gaydos and Hollingsworth, and essays by comics journalists including our own Andrew Wheeler, making this one of those rare anthologies where it's all pretty good stuff.
The first story in the anthology comes from James Robinson, Chris Samnee and Jordie Bellaire, and was actually the biggest surprise of the book for me. I'm a huge fan of Samnee's, but Robinson's recent work has tended to be really hit or miss for me -- the dude wrote Starman and that's one of my favorite comic books of all time, but he also wrote Justice League: Cry For Justice, you know?
But that said, "Anniversary" is an extremely enjoyable and cleverly told look back at the history of the Marvel Universe. It's framed by journalist Ben Urich writing a piece about the anniversary of the Fantastic Four's journey into space, the event that kicked off the modern Marvel era, asking the simple question that you always get from think pieces on the anniversary of major events: "Where were you when it happened?" It's the type of thing that could easily come off as trite and full of poisonously winking foreshadowing, but it works, and works well. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of foreshadowing for the future in here -- it's the entire point of the story, after all, showing all these characters in the days right before everything changed forever -- but it's done with an incredible skill and fun that acknowledges both the history of the Marvel Universe and the numerous retcons and flashbacks that make it what it is in a really fun way. It's basically that scene from the end of Marvels where Phil Sheldon meets a nice, normal boy who turns out to be Danny Ketch, but expanded to nine pages.
"Anniversary" also does something that comes off as really strange, but that I really ended up liking, in that Urich likens the Fantastic Four's launch to Armstrong on the moon or the Kennedy Assassination, among other world-shaking events. That seems weird at first, but, well, in the world of Marvel Comics, that is the most important thing that's ever happened.
The second story is Timm's adaptation of Captain America Foils The Traitor's Revenge, and it's as awesome as I expected it to be.
The grumpy partisan part of me is a little bit annoyed that this is putting the spotlight on Stan Lee with a character that was actually created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, but it's literally impossible to argue that Stan Lee is not a massively important figure in Marvel history, and as a tribute to his work at Marvel goes, this thing is top notch.
In case you're unaware, Lee's first contribution to Marvel wasn't a comic, it was a prose story, something that most comics included back in the early days so that they'd qualify as magazines for second-class postage. It's a very simple story about a guy who gets kicked out of the army for being a jerk coming back to get revenge and getting a sound thrashing from Captain America and Bucky, and to my knowledge, it's never actually been adapted as a comic before. Timm, as you might expect, does a beautiful job with it, and while he's not exactly aping Kirby's art style, that square-jawed, exaggerated action is pretty fitting for it.
The original prose story is thrown in, too, in case you want to see what Timm was working from, or in case you want to see how a seventy-three year career in comics got started.
I was a big fan of Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos and Matt Hollingsworth's Alias when it was coming out in the early 2000s, one of the first mature readers MAX books and an integral part of what would become the Marvel we know today. It's nice to see the original creative team behind the book reunite for this one. The word that comes to mind the most is "charming," and while that's a little unexpected for a book that was as brutal and even controversial as Alias, which featured fairly graphic sex, violence drug use, and the first rated-R cursing in Marvel history. But this story manages to tie back to the very first day of the Marvel Universe without ever getting too schmaltzy. The biggest thing about it, though, is that it hints that future Netflix star Jessica Jones might be getting back into her previous line of work as a private eye specializing in super-cases, though one assumes that she probably won't be quite as foulmouthed this time around.
It's probably worth mentioning here that Bendis has another contribution that's spread throughout the book, a series of imaginary comics from various points in Marvel history called "Marvel Comics We Never Made," not unlike ComicsAlliance's own Great Comics That Never Happened, or Mark Waid and Ty Templeton's imaginary stories from DC Comics' famously pulped Elseworlds 80 Page Giant (which is where we stole the idea from in the first place). They're all pretty great, pairing up Bendis with a pretty impressive roster of artists including Maris Wicks, Mike Deodato, Alan Davis, Bill Sienkiewicz, Kevin Maguire, Joe Quinones, Francesco Francavilla and Sara Pichelli.
For a while there, Power Pack MAX wasn't something that seemed all that far out of the realm of possibility.
My favorite, though, was Licensed Contest of the Champions, for reasons that'll be obvious when you see it.
The next is "That Parker Boy," a quick one from Tom DeFalco and the late Stan Goldberg:
Unlike the other stories, this one doesn't tie into the history of the Marvel Universe on the page -- instead, it's a pretty straightforward story about Peter Parker having a lot of superheroic trouble that keeps him from meeting up with his friends. It's the creators themselves who tie things into Marvel's history.
While artist Stan Goldberg may be best known for his long years of work at Archie Comics, he was the original colorist for Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and other characters, helping design those now iconic heroes. Sadly, he passed away just a few weeks ago at the end of August. His name is included on a memorial page in this release, and it's good to see how skilled he was as an artist right up to the end. Writer Tom DeFalco is of course well known to Marvel fans for his decades of work at the publisher as both a writer and editor.
Set in the early days of the all-new X-Men (you know, just after Giant Size X-Men #1), this bizarre little tale finds Wolverine hanging out in the Australian outback, "giving himself over to the dreamtime" and hallucinating weird little bits and pieces of his past until Sabretooth shows up to pick a fight. I think the message here is that Wolverine and by extension the entire X-Men franchise is pretty weird, but it might also be Wein's tribute to Wolverine's inexplicable Australian accent from Pryde of the X-Men.