As a practicing square peg, I have a long history of digging stuff that is…well, not so much outside the mainstream necessarily, but perhaps just slightly under the radar. A TV show like The Guns Of Will Sonnett, a film like Brain Donors, a terrific local band like The Flashcubes, for example–while none of these essential (to me) pop entities has ever enjoyed massive success and adulation, there are still many who share my enthusiasm for each of them.
But Marvel Super-Heroes, the late ’60s mostly-reprint anthology title from The House Of Ideas? Face front, True Believer: no one will join me in singing the praises of this minor comic book. Perhaps I shouldn’t even sing those praises myself, because it really wasn’t all that great, nor even all that good. But I tell ya: when I discovered this comic as an eight-year-old kid in 1968, it meant almost as much to me at the time as an Avengers King-Size Special or a Justice League-Justice Society team-up.
Marvel Super-Heroes was a follow-up to an earlier Marvel reprint book called (in Stan Lee‘s typical fluent hype) Fantasy Masterpieces. Fantasy Masterpieces had begun in 1966 as a regular-sized 12-cent book, reprinting monster and science-fiction stories from early ’60s Marvel titles like Journey Into Mystery and Strange Tales. With its third issue, it expanded to a 25-cent giant format, and added Captain America reprints in front of bogeyman tales like “Beware The Uboongi!” and “I Am Prisoner Of The Voodoo King!” Unlike Marvel’s other ongoing 25-cent superhero reprint anthologies (Marvel Tales and Marvel Collectors Item Classics), Fantasy Masterpieces reached back all the way to the 1940s for Cap reprints, as well as for reprints of Golden Age Human Torch and Sub-Mariner sagas in subsequent issues. Its final issue was Fantasy Masterpieces # 11 in ’67, at which point it changed its title to Marvel Super-Heroes.
Although Marvel Super-Heroes continued the series numbering from Fantasy Masterpieces (commencing with Marvel Super-Heroes # 12), there had been a previous Marvel Super-Heroes one-shot in 1966. That was another all-reprint book, starring The Avengers, Daredevil, and a Golden Age Human Torch versus Sub-Mariner story, but the new ongoing Marvel Super-Heroes series would differentiate itself from its predecessors with its embrace of that very word: new. While the back pages of Marvel Super-Heroes would still be filled with reprints, each issue would cover feature a brand-new Marvel adventure.
Marvel Super-Heroes # 12 and 13 offered the debut appearances of Captain Marvel, a new character created to capitalize on (and trademark!) the familiar name of the original Captain Marvel. The original Captain Marvel had been the most popular comic-book superhero of the ’40s, outselling even Superman and drawing the legal ire of DC Comics, who successfully sued the World’s Mightiest Mortal out of the comics biz entirely. Marvel Comics had no connection whatsoever to that original Captain Marvel, but Stan Lee and writer Roy Thomas recognized the potential value of the name, and ran with it. Marvel owns the trademark to this day.
After two issues starring new Captain Marvel adventures, Cap soared off into his own new title. Spider-Man starred in Marvel Super-Heroes # 14, the only time Marvel Super-Heroes would ever feature a new story with a character already starring in its own ongoing series. By now, we were approaching the summer of 1968. And that’s where I came in.
I’ve written extensively in my Singers, Superheroes, And Songs On The Radio series about comics I bought off the rack in the ’60s, and particularly of the comics I read while on vacation during that summer of ’68. I recall seeing Marvel Super-Heroes # 15 on the spinner rack at Ramey’s grocery store in Aurora, Missouri, staring back at me with its beguiling Gene Colan cover of the female Inhuman called Medusa. This was a book I perused at the store, but couldn’t quite bring myself to purchase. It was already a back issue by then–it wasn’t uncommon to see the occasional (slightly) older comic mixed with the new, depending upon how vigilant a store’s staff was at policing its comics rack–and I was drawn to the newer issue: Marvel Super-Heroes # 16, starring a brand-new World War I hero, Phantom Eagle.
Okay. This I couldn’t resist. Twenty-five cents later, it was mine.
I didn’t know that Phantom Eagle had previously been the name of a World War II hero published by Fawcett; with the success of the new Captain Marvel in Marvel Super-Heroes, maybe someone at Marvel figured, hey, why not scoop up some more discarded Fawcett names from the dustbin? If Marvel Super-Heroes had lasted longer, would we have seen new Marvel characters named Mr. Scarlet, Bulletman, Spy Smasher, or Ibis the Invincible?
Nonetheless, I loved this only starring appearance by Marvel’s Phantom Eagle, written by Gary Friedrich and featuring what’s probably my favorite work from veteran Marvel artist Herb Trimpe. I was disappointed that The Phantom Eagle never got another shot. The character did pop up subsequently in a time-spanning issue of The Incredible Hulk (with more outstanding artwork from Trimpe), but I was apparently The Phantom Eagle’s only fan, and further appearances were not to be.
I was just as taken with the reprints in Marvel Super-Heroes, mostly 1950s stuff starring Captain America, The Human Torch, and The Sub-Mariner, and often just drenched in the Cold War. There was also a reprint of the ’50s Arthurian hero The Black Knight, and a ’40s tale starring The Patriot. The stories from the ’50s were so different from Marvel’s contemporary comics in ’68, but I still dug them. I was especially fond of the Sub-Mariner stories; this was the first time I’d ever seen Prince Namor drawn by his creator, Bill Everett, and these stories were so energetic, so over the top, so great. I recall playing at my grandparents’ house in Missouri, and swimming at the public pool in Aurora, and repeating the line I’m Professor Zumbar, fool! in my head. Years later, I would learn a bit more about Bill Everett, and discover that my favorite Sub-Mariner stories were Everett stories (both from the ’50s and when he returned to the character in the ’70s). Everett drew the wildest action scenes, and some of the sexiest comic-book women this side of a Nick Cardy page.
I went back to Ramey’s and picked up Marvel Super-Heroes # 15, with the new Medusa story, backed by more ’50s reprints and a 1940s story starring The Black Marvel. Back home in Syracuse, I bought Marvel Super-Heroes # 17 (starring the Silver Age version of The Black Knight in his first solo story) as soon as it came out. Reprints in that one included the first few chapters of a story starring The All Winners Squad, Marvel’s short-lived (only two appearances!) attempt to copy the success of DC’s Justice Society of America. The All-Winners Squad reprint was continued into Marvel Super-Heroes # 18, cover-featuring the debut of something called The Guardians Of The Galaxy–wonder whatever became of those guys?–but I wasn’t able to find that issue until years later. I bought a coverless copy of Marvel Super-Heroes # 19 (with the jungle hero Ka-Zar), and finally Marvel Super-Heroes # 20, starring The Fantastic Four‘s evil arch-enemy, Dr. Doom. The concept of a villain starring in a solo story knocked me out, man. This was why Marvel called itself The House Of Ideas, right? Right…?
Alas, Dr. Doom was the final new feature to appear in Marvel Super-Heroes; the last page of that issue promised a new feature called Starhawk to star in Marvel Super-Heroes # 21, but that feature never appeared. The title went all-reprint with its 21st issue. Now, I loved reprints–I still do–but it was the end of a very brief era for me. Still, I continued to pick up issues of Marvel Super-Heroes when I could. The focus in its reprint selection shifted away from the ’40s and ’50s, and concentrated on the dawn of The Marvel Age Of Comics in the early ’60s. My Mom gave me a copy of Marvel Super-Heroes # 22 as a Christmas gift in 1969, and I was thrilled to read these early adventures of The X-Men and Daredevil.
Looking back, though, my allegiance to the memory of Marvel Super-Heroes clearly stems from that brief run in the late ’60s, mixing new trial features with, frankly, a goofy selection of reprints from before I was born. I eventually tracked down the earlier issues I’d missed, the ones with Captain Marvel, and Spider-Man, and The Guardians Of The Galaxy, and I even picked up a few issues of Fantasy Masterpieces, one of which included the first All Winners Squad story. Marvel Super-Heroes still holds a cherished place in my memory, even if I’m the only fan who thinks so.