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Notes On A Book – Marvel: Rise of the Super Heroes

Published by DK in 2016.

I recently discussed two DK books chronicling the history of DC Comics and Marvel, which reminded me about another DK book I’d picked up for a few quid, so I thought I’d talk about it as well (the pandemic has provided plenty of time for rereading).

The inside back cover explains the book very succinctly: ‘Originally published as two separate titles. Contains content previously published in: Marvel Comics 75 Years of Cover Art (2014) and Marvel Year by Year A Visual Chronicle Updated and Expanded (2013)’. I didn’t know this at the time; I’d seen the cover art book but I’m not particularly bothered about the early years of Marvel comic books. The appeal of this book was the fact that it starts from 1986, which is more or less the time I started my collecting hobby, so is a significant year for me.

I’d hoped that the year-by-year chronicle material might have a slight refinement of focus – the title suggests that the aim of the book is to chart the increasing prominence of the superhero character through pointed discussion and examples. However, the content is identical to that in the book I reviewed in my previous post (with the exception of 2009 onwards because my version was published slightly earlier). Well, not identical – this book deletes the mention of the Ed Norton-starring The Incredible Hulk that was included in the Year by Year chronicle – is that some retroactive continuity on their part, trying to pretend it doesn’t exist?

[A side note on the use of ‘super heroes’ – I was under the impression that it was one word (superheroes), not two, which was a trademark of DC and Marvel. My spell check has no problem with the word ‘superhero’ or ‘superheroes’; the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary spell it as one word. So why have it as two words in a book specifically about superheroes, and, even more bizarrely, using uppercase initials for them? All through the book, in the middle of a sentence, ‘… and the Super Heroes …’. Incredibly illogical and counterintuitive. Had to get it out of my system.]

Avengers Classic #1 and Classic X-Men #1, drawn by Art Adams
Worthy covers included in Marvel: Rise of the Super Heroes

The focus for my purchase of this book was the cover art included – having a repository of classic comic book covers beautifully reproduced on quality paper and at a larger size was too much to resist. There is a reason why I have a Tumblr where I post mostly comic book covers and another Tumblr that specifically collates variant comic book covers that I like – a good cover is a thing of beauty, and the art has to do the job of selling the story and luring in a reader. The interesting thing from a fan’s perspective is seeing what comic books are chosen for this book: which covers are deemed sufficiently worthy of inclusion and which get the special reward of a full page?

It should be pointed out that only about half of the covers are on a single page. Nearly all the rest are two to a page, to increase the amount of covers provided (with a few rare instances of four on a page). Even then, the formatting is inconsistent: sometimes, there is a double-page spread of a close-up of a cover, such as The Incredible Hulk #379 by Dale Keown, with the whole cover as a small inset along with the accompanying text; with two covers on a page, some are side by side, with accompanying text below, and some are on top of each other (the latter are slightly smaller because of this). Why be inconsistent? It doesn’t make sense.

Each cover has the title and issue number of the book, the name of the artist who drew it and a little blurb explaining it. However, the blurb is usually rather generic and doesn’t necessarily explain why the cover was chosen. There are obvious choices for covers that were significant, such as Amazing Spider-Man #583, with Barack Obama on the cover, but it is more likely the cover of a book that is itself considered significant, so there are a lot of issue #1 titles.

Some warranted covers: seven of David Aja’s Hawkeye covers (they could have included them all); Captain America Annual #8 by Mick Zeck of Captain America and Wolverine; The New Avengers #1 by David Finch, with the characters in shadow (but certainly not the non-descript #2, with Luke Cage, Cap and Spidey); Avengers Classic #1 by Art Adams – love it; Avengers vs X-Men #1 by Jim Cheung – classic ‘heroes fighting each other’; The Incredible Hulk #340 by Todd McFarlane, with Wolverine and Hulk reflected in the claws; Fantastic Four #348 and #349 by Art Adams (the New Fantastic Four); the Mike Wieringo covers for Fantastic Four (they could have included more), as well as Alan Davis’ Fantastic Four covers; the collage cover for Amazing Spider-Man #700 by Mr Garcin; The Uncanny X-Men #268 (Jim Lee), with Wolverine, Captain America and Black Widow and the collected covers for X-Men #1; Classic X-Men #1 by Art Adams – be still my nostalgic heart; New X-Men #114 by Frank Quitely. And a special mention for including Nextwave #1.

The Incredible Hulk #333 by Steve Geiger and Captain America #405 by Rik Levens
Less worthy covers included in Marvel: Rise of the Super Heroes?

There are also understandable covers for their significance: for example, all four Marvels covers by Alex Ross; The Ultimates #1, Infinity Gauntlet #1 and Civil War #1 (for their impact on the MCU) are collected on two pages next to each other; Spider-Man #1 by Todd McFarlane; Marvel Comics Presents #72 (BWS Weapon X).

But there are covers that do not warrant inclusion. The first that really stuck out was The Incredible Hulk #333, drawn by Steve Gieger, from 1987 – why is this cover included in this book? I don’t think it is particularly amazing, it doesn’t really capture the grey Hulk, and it’s not a particularly innovative cover design. I know my knowledge is limited, but I’d never heard of Geiger before, and had to look him up to find out that he’d drawn some Hulk and Spider-Man books in the 1980s. It’s not as if shortly after there were the classic Todd Macfarlane covers for The Incredible Hulk (#340 is included on its own page, deservingly), so I’m rather bemused.

The strange selection process continues throughout. Why so many Secret Avengers covers by John Cassaday? Four fairly uninteresting covers for a forgotten title. Why all four covers for Hulk/Thing: Hard Knocks by Jae Lee? Not his best work by any stretch. Seven Annihilation-related covers? Why? Guardians of the Galaxy I can understand, but not Annihilation. I know that Spider-Man is the signature character but even he doesn’t deserve so many covers in this collection. And I have to say a hard ‘Hell no’ to Elektra #1 (2001) by Greg Horn – it does not warrant space in this book at all.

The Mighty Thor #366 by Walt Simonson and The Sensational She-Hulk #1 by John Byrne
Covers that deserve to be included in the pages of Marvel: Rise of the Super Heroes

Then there are the omissions. Why no Walt Simonson Mighty Thor covers? Most happened before 1986, but some were afterwards, such as #382 (300th anniversary) or the classic #380, which was all single-page spreads, or Throg from #366? Why include She-Hulk covers from the Dan Slott run, but none from the John Byrne issues, which started in 1989? The cover for #1 certainly warrants it. No Black Panther covers from Priest’s run? That’s downright offensive. There are many deserving Daredevil covers from the likes of David Mazzucchelli, Joe Quesada, David Mack, Alex Maleev, but not Bill Sienkiewicz’s Daredevil: Love and War? I’m sure I’m missing out on a large number of great covers, but I’m not a Marvel historian – I was kind of hoping that somebody else would be doing that job.

What is particularly frustrating for a book that combines portions of two separate books is that nobody seemed to go through and check that covers weren’t being duplicated. There is limited space, and there are so many covers to choose from, so why waste the precious real estate by having covers in both the year-by-year section and in the large collection? Even though they are at different sizes, it seems a lazy and stupid decision not to go through and be selective. I found the following as smaller covers in the first section and larger versions in the Covers part of the book:
All-New X-Men #1 (2013); Amazing Spider-Man #583; Amazing Spider-Man #700; Avengers #1 (2010), which is used as a double-page spread in the year-by-year section; AVX #1; Captain America #1 (2005); Daredevil #1 (2011); Daredevil: Man Without Fear #1; Elektra: Assassin #1; Hawkeye #1 (2012); Infinity Gauntlet #1; Inhumans #1 (1998); New Avengers #1; New X-Men #114; Spider-Man #1 (McFarlane); Thunderbolts #1 (2013), which is not a particularly great cover; Ultimates #1 (2002); Uncanny Avengers #1; Uncanny X-Force #1; World War Hulk #1; X-Men #1 (1999). This lack of scrutiny can be seen in a blatant error in the book: on p144, for the year 2011, the mention of Captain America #1 uses the cover for Captain America #1 from 2013 by John Romita Jr, which is used correctly on p152 for the year 2013.

After all of this, I cannot recommend this book to fans. If you’re interested enough, picking the two separate books will probably feel a better choice, and you won’t get the particularly grating feeling of so much repeated content in the same book. It’s lovely to have some of these covers at a larger size, but there should be more and the selection process should be more judicious. I’ll stick to collating better covers on Tumblr …

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