BANG FOR YOUR BUCK, 1: Essential Marvel Essentials

Credit: Marvel Comics

We’ll be blunt: Printing and distributing costs are always going up, and with so many extended stories and crossovers, there’s times where you can drop three or four bucks for a single issue and it seems like it’s all over before it’s even begun.

Now, we know it can be hard to get the scratch together to catch up on all those great reprint volumes out there – so we decided to go through dozens upon dozens of plus-sized compilations from different publishers to find the ones that reprint the best, most influential stories – at the most affordable prices.

Our picks are clearly subjective, but rest assured – if you check out these volumes, most of which are less than $20, you are guaranteed to get some serious Bang for Your Buck.

See how the title was in bold there? That’s BRANDING.

To start, we wanted to look at some of our favorite volumes of Marvel’s “Essential” series…which was just announced as ending in March. That’s a shame, as the “Essential” series truly lived up to its name. Though the reprints dropped color and were printed on cheaper paper stock, they provided a great, dense block of storytelling that sometimes represented the only collections of classic Marvel runs.

But which Essential volumes are most Essential? Here’s our picks for a few that feature some absolute all-time classic Marvel stories and creator runs, assembled in something vaguely resembling chronological order (not completely, but we tried).

Credit: Marvel Comics

Essential Fantastic Four Vol.3: When people talk about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s run on The Fantastic Four in awed tones, they almost always reference this particular segment of the run – where the book’s pioneering superhero soap opera was combined with some of the biggest ideas ever attempted in comics.

How big? We’re talking the original story with Galactus and the Silver Surfer, The Thing being usurped by an impersonator in “This Man, This Monster,” tales of Doctor Doom stealing the Surfer’s power…and that’s not even counting how Lee and Kirby incorporated a few ideas not-yet-approved as series into this one, bringing the Inhumans and the Black Panther in as part of the semi-regular cast.

The Fantastic Four in this volume goes from being a family to an extended family, and that’s not even getting into what Kirby brought to the book. Along with the high-pitched action and dialogue, his work goes into experimental places with collages incorporated alongside traditional drawn art, extreme close-ups of shouting faces, unforgettable designs like Galactus and the Surfer, and of course that great Kirby Krackle.

A standard was set by these stories that creators are still trying to live up to decades later. If you want the moment when the FF truly became “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine,” this is it.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Essential Silver Surfer Vol.1: Though the Surfer is one of Kirby’s trademark creations, the legendary artist only shows up at the end of the Surfer’s first solo series – though there’s plenty more to recommend. Stan Lee has some of his most lyrical (and sometimes histrionic) writing as he chronicles the Surfer’s origins and struggles on Earth, and John Buscema has a great time stepping in for the King, providing unforgettable designs of such characters as Mephisto in his initial appearance.

A true labor of love from the creators, it’s fun stuff despite ending on a cliffhanger right as Kirby finished out the series with the Surfer tired of whining and ready to kick a little ass.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Essential Captain America Vol.4: f you dug the conspiracy-tinged storylines of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and in Ed Brubaker’s long run on the character that inspired that film, here’s where that era of Cap started.

In the 1970s, writer Steve Englehart took Cap from near-cancelation to one of Marvel’s biggest sellers with a run that reflected the uncertainty many Americans felt in the Vietnam era. Sadly, this one starts just after his classic story pitting Cap against “The Captain America of the 1950s,” a continuity-plugging story that also ruthlessly satirized the “Commie Smasher” version of Cap from that era.

But what’s left is a story that plunges Cap into the time of Watergate with action-packed, ruthless storytelling.

The volume includes two of the all-time classic Cap arcs – “The Secret Empire,” where Captain America and the Falcon investigate abductions (including the then-cancelled X-Men), leading to their discovering a conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government.

The end of this story, with Cap confronting the mysterious “Number One” leading the Secret Empire in the White House, is one of the most shocking moments in superhero comics – and something modern comics could not get away with in the post-9/11 era. Seriously.

From there, it’s the equally-classic follow-up where Cap decides to abandon his identity to become “Nomad, The Man Without a Country,” as others try to take up his helm. By the end, Cap is forced to figure out if he can still represent a country whose ideals have become so corrupted by those in power – and what his future will hold.

All this and the first appearance of the modern Baron Zemo make this a perfect volume for those who were wowed by The Winter Soldier, and want to see the classic stories that helped set up Cap’s modern status quo.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Essential Black Panther: The shift in tones in this one might give you whiplash, but here’s a great compilation of two influential-if-underrated 1970s runs. First, there’s Don McGregor’s “Panther’s Prey,” one of the first extended superhero storylines at 13 issues – a length unheard of in the 1970s. The story pits T’Challa, the Black Panther, against Erik Killmonger, a revolutionary upstart in the Panther’s fictional nation of Wakanda.

The story makes Wakanda a character unto itself – an elaborate combination of African traditions, advanced technology and the occasional zombie and dinosaur. It also gives the Panther a unique rogues’ gallery and supporting cast, with even Killmonger’s bumbling henchmen coming across as fully-realized characters.

There’s some epic art by such comics legends as Rich Buckler, Gil Kane and the late Billy Graham (no relation to the evangelist), whose elaborate, illustrative designs from the backdrops of Wakanda (which occasionally contain the stories’ titles) to such grotestque baddies as the zit-headed Baron Macabre make this one of Marvel’s best-looking books of the era.

McGregor’s follow-up pitting the Panther against the Klan was abruptly terminated for a new Jack Kirby-headed Panther title, which is a stylistic 180 but includes plenty of the King’s amazing double-page spreads, relentless action, and oddball concepts such as “King Solomon’s Frogs!”

If only there was a second volume to conclude Kirby’s run and get the rest of McGregor’s work… but you get a powerful lot of entertainment for a mere $17 in this here volume – including some stories that have long deserved to come back into print.

Essential Howard the Duck: This one is a cheat, as it’s long out of print, and often shows up at inflated prices on Amazon and elsewhere, but for anyone interested in the writings of the late Steve Gerber, it demands a place on this list.

A cult favorite of the 1970s whose reputation took a dive thanks to the infamous, barely-related film of the 1980s, the tale of an anthropomorphic duck “trapped in a world he never made!” (read: Cleveland), is some of the most acid satire of the Me Decade.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Gerber takes such dark fantasy artists as Frank Brunner and Gene Colan and twists their more realistic styles to tales involving such foes as a “Space Turnip” and “Doctor Bong,” who had a bell for his head (Bong’s origin is a terrific parody of rock journalists, but provides absolutely no information as to how he came about his appearance and powers).

There’s even a hugely existential tale that’s simply Gerber mocking himself for being unable to make a deadline, years before such meta-tales were fashionable. It’s little wonder that Grant Morrison cited Gerber’s work as a major influence, along with such “literary” writers as Michael Chabon and Glen David Gold.

An omnibus edition from a few years back collects all these stories in color, but this loses nothing from the black-and-white treatment, and is even improved by not including the non-Gerber stories. Read these, and you’ll realize why Howard got thousands of votes when he ran for president (with the slogan, “Get Down, America!”)

Gerber’s work is all over a number of 1970s-era Marvel Essential volumes. Most recommended are Essential Man-Thing 1 and 2, where Howard makes his first appearances (yes, this includes the imfamously-titled Giant-Size Man-Thing).

We also recommend Essential Defenders 2 and 3, which in addition to co-starring the original Guardians of the Galaxy, feature such foes as the Headmen (a group of deformed scientists from old Marvel horror stories whose member Chondu briefly winds up stuck in the body of an adorable deer) and the deliberately unresolved running gag of the Elf With a Gun, who randomly shows up to assassinate analogues for the likes of John Denver.

And in colorized news, check out Omega the Unknown Classic, Gerber’s unfinished, highly personal tale of an alien connected to a boy genius in Hell’s Kitchen that was updated by Jonathan Lethem a few years ago.

Essential Conan the Barbarian: Another cheat, as the Conan license has been with Dark Horse for years and this often shows up at inflated prices, but well worth checking out for almost all of Barry Windsor-Smith’s adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s classic pulp fantasy, and a few original tales – without the often-gaudy recoloring that’s marred many other reprints

It also has the rarely-reprinted two-parter where Conan teams up with Michael Moorcock’s Elric, which is often left out of collections due to rights issues. Great fun, with stories filled with action, mood and gorgeous designs, and the reason the shirtless swordsman has been an enduring figure in comics for decades.

Next: The rest of Marvel’s best, from the top volumes of their classic characters to some rare (and awesome) obscurities.

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