Beginning today, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Nick Fury will begin battling the Skrulls, the shapeshifting alien race, on the Disney+ series Secret Invasion. Like most MCU characters, the Skrulls are by no means a new threat for comic book readers, dating back as they do to a 1961 issue of Fantastic Four.
For those interested in tracing the Skrulls and other MCU characters back to the comic book pages where they were first introduced some 60 years ago, this September will provide a good opportunity with the release of the second wave of the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection featuring issues from the first decade of Marvel’s initial superhero teams: Fantastic Four, The Avengers and the X-Men.
Each edition contains an informative introduction, forewords by contemporary authors and contextual guidance between the reproductions of the comics. For the uninitiated, it’s an educational introduction to the Marvel Age of Comics; for fans and true believers, it’s an additional way to appreciate the material and its history.
The Penguin Fantastic Four edition contains the team’s origin story, the first appearance of the Silver Surfer and the introduction of such villains as the aforementioned Skrulls, Dr. Doom, the latest MCU super-foe Kang the Conqueror and Galactus. As Marvel’s first family, the Fantastic Four contain a dynamic that was unprecedented in early 1960s comic books, consisting of equal parts love and bickering, allegiance and independence.
The selections in the Penguin FF edition capture the evolution of the comic book title most effectively. The 1950s style of sci-fi narrative by writer Stan Lee and artwork by Jack Kirby dominates the early issues in the collection but, by the mid-1960s, Kirby’s panels take on a much more elaborate scheme to accommodate more complex, cosmic storylines.
It can be said that the Avengers are also a Marvel family, if not by blood, then by purpose. But the very nature of the group was tenuous from the beginning, a sometimes uneasy yet necessary alliance with its share of ego and dissension occasionally on view in the Penguin Avengers anthology.
Most of the selections here follow the adventures of a core lineup that heralds a roster of Captain America, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and, later, Vision, with original members of the team periodically reappearing. And the edition’s lineup of villains includes some of the most formidable foes during the team’s first decade in the form of Baron Zemo, Kang and Ultron, all of whom have already found their way into the films.
Like Fantastic Four, the Avengers title, both intentionally and unintentionally, offers a view of the extremes that comprised 1960s life. Its early depiction of the Wasp’s alter ego, Janet Van Dyne, as a shallow, fashion-conscious shopper juxtaposed against her presence in the feminist-centered issue #83 provides a glimpse of a comic book industry reshaping and redefining itself, a task that would take until the 1980s before Van Dyne would become a fully developed character.
Because of the inclusion of issue # 74, with Black Panther battling the militant intolerance of the Sons of the Serpent, there is a through-line to the Penguin X-Men collection as the selection of X-Men issues in the anthology pit the team not only against high-stakes villains but a society that fears them. As a mutant team of superheroes, the X-Men experience the alarm and anger engendered by their difference from what is considered “normal.”
At its most basic, the narrative of X-Men tales is about the student learning from the master, in this case seven students training under the mentorship of Professor Xavier. It’s also about good vs. evil. But ultimately, like the FF and Avengers, it’s about family. As the collection notes in its overview of issue #66, the final panel features all original members of the team surrounding Professor X, “conveying with eloquent visual symbolism that the X-Men are not merely a group of students but a family.”