Since CAPES, COWLS & COSTUMES’ last installment on novels based on big comic book stunts and events focused, by necessity, on DC Comics — as Marvel hasn’t adapted any of their big, company-wide events to prose — I thought I would even things up by looking at a handful of Marvel books this time around. Pulp publisher turned comics impresario Martin Goodman was one of dozens who leapt into the four-color parade after the initial success of Superman and, early on, achieved success with such characters as the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch and his flagship character of Captain America.
Goodman’s Atlas/Timely Comics (the name changed a few times over the early decades) didn’t usually lead the pack; he preferred publishing whatever was popular on the newsstands, whether it was superheroes, teen humor, funny animals, Westerns, horror or romance, all written or edited by Stan Lee, a cousin through marriage who had started as the office gofer and inherited the editorial seat when Joe Simon vacated it in a business dispute.
Stan plodded along for 20 years in the editorial seat, churning out whatever was selling before he and Kirby created what was to be the first legitimate revolution in comic books since their creation in the mid-1930s: the so-called “Marvel Age of Comics.” With heroes like The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor and The X-Men, Marvel introduced readers to comics that weren’t just for kids or tired twists on stale O. Henry stories, but — for the time and the medium — sophisticated continuing stories of characters whose real lives were complicated in real ways by the burden of their powers. It was soap opera, sure, but compared to the average Superman-tricks-Lois-Lane-so-she-doesn’t-uncover-his-secret-identity story of the day, it might as well have been Tolstoy.
In 1964, Lee and Kirby also resurrected Captain America, Kirby’s co-creation with longtime partner Simon, in THE AVENGERS #4, when Cap’s body is found in the Arctic, frozen in a block of ice, having fallen into the North Atlantic at the end of World War II. Lee and Kirby would also resurrect the other two Golden Age powerhouses, the Human Torch in FANTASTIC FOUR #1 in 1961 and the Sub-Mariner in FF #4 in 1962, but Cap was the first to get a novel … twice! He lead the pack with 1968’s CAPTAIN AMERICA AND THE GREAT GOLD STEAL by Ted White (covered in the second installment of CC&C), and then again with 1979’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: HOLOCAUST FOR HIRE by Joseph Silva, number four in the 11-book Marvel Novel Series published by Pocket Books between ’78 and ’79.
Silva is, in actuality, a “secret identity” of the prolific Ron Goulart, a comics expert and media tie-in veteran. His Captain America hews closely to the comic book continuity, his recap of the origin omitting the earlier novelized retcon by White that gave Cap metal bone implants and sticking to the party line. This fast-paced story* pits the Star-Spangled Avenger against his arch-nemesis, that gruff old Nazi rat bastard, the Red Skull.
Dr. Gregory Crandall, creator of a deadly sonic weapon goes missing, prompting Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (more on which below), to send Cap off in search thereof. And with the Red Skull involved, can there be any doubt that terror, mass death and destruction, and the Fourth Reich won’t be far behind? Like many of the Novel Series books, HOLOCAUST FOR HIRE features a lovely painted cover, this one by the late Dave Cockrum.
Go-to cover painter Bob Larkin provided the otherworldly image for 1979’s DOCTOR STRANGE, MASTER OF THE MYSTIC ARTS: NIGHTMARE by William Rotsler, number seven in the series. Doctor Strange (aka Dr. Stephen Strange, M.D., whose arrogance led to his downfall and redemption through the study of magic), has long been a favorite of mine. His early stories in Marvel’s STRANGE TALES were by Lee and (mostly) Steve Ditko — moody, atmospheric 10- or 12-pagers (don’t make me get up and look it up) featuring some of the best villains in comics, including Mordo, the Dreaded Dormammu and, of course, Nightmare. What made them “best” was their depictions by Ditko, who drew twisted fevered dreams as well as Graham “Ghastly” Ingels ever did.
Journeyman author Rotsler ties the nightmares of four people — the Rev. Billie Joe Jacks, light-heavyweight boxing contender Joe Peerson, an unnamed mob hitman and Hollywood starlet Michele Hartley — together into a warning that alerts the Master of the Mystic Arts to the return of his old foe, Nightmare, lord of the dark places we go to when we sleep. It’s Nightmare’s plan to use Rev. Jacks’ charismatic power of persuasion to unite millions of people in the single thought of his message, granting Nightmare access to their minds while they sleep … and open a rift between his nightmare realm and the waking world, allowing him to enter and conquer.
Doctor Strange began his run in STRANGE TALES, sharing the title with the Human Torch’s solo feature, but in ST #135, he was joined by a new strip: the MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E./James Bond-inspired NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. (originally Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division, then, by the time of the novel, the Strategic Hazard Intervention, Espionage, and Logistics Directorate, and, nowadays, something else that I don’t care to look up).
Fury — also the star of SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS, a Marvelized version of World War II — was brought forward to 1965 with a bump in rank to colonel, a history that included the OSS and the CIA, to be given command of the ultra-modern spy organization with its flying cars, lifelike android decoys and an airborne headquarters the size of about 10 battleships: the Helicarrier.
By 2000, S.H.I.E.L.D. was a Marvel mainstay and Byron Preiss Books had taken over the production of the Marvel novels, now published by Berkley Boulevard. For NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D.: EMPYRE, veteran pulp/comics expert and DOC SAVAGE and THE DESTROYER writer Will Murray was tagged. The cover is an eye-catching piece by Joe Jusko, and the book features illustrations by comics legend Jim Steranko, who shot to fame in the mid-1960s with his innovative artistic approach to the S.H.I.E.L.D. strip, which he took over after Kirby moved on. An elaborate scheme to unleash nuclear armageddon appears to be the work of the evil organization Hydra, but once the truth comes out, Fury and his agents are forced to work with their evil counterparts to prevent the whole world from going up in smoke.
This next 1998 entry has always tickled me; I don’t know why. STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION AND THE X-MEN: PLANET X is written by Michael Jan Friedman and is not funny, either accidentally or on purpose. It’s exactly what its title says: a team-up between STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and Marvel’s X-MEN. At the time of the idea’s conception, Marvel had the STAR TREK license to produce comic books, so this was not a great leap of tie-in crossover negotiation, but it does unite two disparate properties in a fun and unexpected collision of cultures and franchises, each playing nicely off the other, thanks to Friedman’s insider knowledge of both as writer of the regular STAR TREK comic book (among other things), as well as numerous TREK novels.
PLANET X starts in the NEXT GEN reality with the Enterprise being sent off to investigate a planet where people are mysteriously mutating into bizarre, super-powered creatures. The societal fabric of this world is being torn apart by the division … one not unfamiliar to the members of The X-Men, who conveniently cross over from their reality to the Roddenberryverse in time to lend a helping hand and adamantium claws. The situation escalates when evil aliens arrive on the scene to abduct the newly mutated aliens to use as weapons against the Federation. I mean, Wolverine and Worf, together for the first time. Who can ask for anything more?
Next time: a few from some of the other guys.
*They had to move fast; I wrote two of the later books in the series and, while 50,000 words sounds like a lot when you first start typing, they don’t stretch as far as you need by the time you’ve reached the end. My last media tie-in novel runs close to 85,000 words; many these days top 100,000. —Paul Kupperberg
OTHER BOOKGASM REVIEWS OF RON GOULART:
• CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN by Ron Goulart
OTHER BOOKGASM REVIEWS OF RON GOULART:
• CAPTAIN AMERICA AND THE GREAT GOLD STEAL by Ted White
OTHER BOOKGASM REVIEWS OF WILL MURRAY:
• THE DESTROYER #55: MASTER’S CHALLENGE by Will Murray
• THE DESTROYER #78: BLUE SMOKE AND MIRRORS by Will Murray
• THE DESTROYER #89: DARK HORSE by Will Murray
• THE DESTROYER #104: ANGRY WHITE MAILMEN by Will Murray