At this late date I am uncertain as to which volume of the Marvel Fireside series was the first one to be gifted to me. I think the most likely candidate was 1976’s Bring On The Bad Guys. The third volume in the series focused on the arch-nemesis of the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange, Thor, Hulk, Spider-man and Captain America.
This volume is, in many ways, stronger than the origin-focused volumes that preceded it. Stan Lee selected the most powerful conflicts between the core Marvel heroes and their most popular and best known villains.
The first chapter starts with what is arguably Marvel’s best, most well-rounded and complex villain, Dr. Doom. The stories collected here, Fantastic Four #5 and Fantastic Four Annual #2 are two powerful stand-alone stories.
At the time I read, and re-read these as a child, I was captivated by the complex relationship between Doom and College rival Reed Richards. Reed, being the hero, just wanted to befriend Doom, whom he saw as an intellectual peer and potential collaborator. Doom was overwhelmed by petty jealousies, and insecurity masked by intellectual overcompensation and egotism.
The earlier of the 2 stories came at a time when the only other Marvel Age comics were the first 2 issues of Hulk. It really went far to set the tone of the complexity and nuance that Lee and Kirby were striving for with their creations. It was also the first big break from the Atlas Era template of heroes fighting monsters and aliens. Sci-fi tropes, such as time travel, were present but FF #5 was an action based story rich with a sense of menace and pathos. Doom seems unstoppable, with an ability to nullify the FF in their own headquarters, send them through time to seize pirate booty, and foil them at every turn.
In the end, of course, Reed and team out-think the new menace. However, the reader is left with a sense that this villain would return again- relentlessly, until he finally won the day.
The second story stands as what is possibly my favorite Lee and Kirby collaboration. In what was then a daring move, the second Fantastic Four Annual featured Dr. Doom’s origin as a key feature. The tale went far beyond the typical “something bad happened and turned a guy from the wrong side of the tracks to a life of crime”. Astonishingly, this story was a mere 12 pages that followed Doom from a hard life of persecution as a member of a traveling gypsy community through the ascension to rightful monarch of his Latverian homeland.
As a young man he masters the occult. As an adult, he heads to American and masters science. An accident, which he wrongly blames on Reed, leads to Doom’s face being scarred in an explosion of his own making. After the botched experiment, he flees to the far East and re-embraces mysticism. Monks fashion an iron armor for him, complete with a sinister metal face plate. Doom’s sense of ego pride, and mania result in him demanding the still hot metal be placed directly on his face before the it has cooled. If his face wasn’t already scarred, it certainly was now.
Strange Tales 126 and 127 debut Ditko’s dread Domammu, duke of a dark dystopian devilish domain daunted daringly by Dr. Strange. The tale initiates what some have argued to be the first serialized graphic novel. It is certainly a case of Ditko, abetted by scripter Stan Lee, stretching the medium and really going to new places of proto-psychedelia with the art form. It's nearly unbelievable that Ditko never sampled drugs, and rejected the occult. His vision of unseen worlds is second to none.
Thor 112, 113, and 115 detail the origin of Thor’s favorite anti-hero half brother Loki. Origin? They’re gods. Dude was born as the god of “super-mischief”. Anyway, the history of the two brother’s strife spends two chapters on the brother’s boyhood, and wraps up with a present day tale where Thor combats the Absorbing Man. True fact: this Thor story is the basis for the villain and the fight scene at the end of Ang Lee’s Hulk film. Seriously.
The Red Skull is next for a bit of revisionist history. Captain America debuted in 1940, before Pearl harbor. he was soon found kicking the living shit out of all kinds of Nazi agents, including the Red Skull. Post-war the patriot’s sales slowed down, and the series was finally cancelled in the 50s. When Kirby and Lee were expanding the Marvel line, they decided to revive Captain America in Avengers 4. The character proved popular, and soon he had his own feature again in the pages of Tale to Astonish.
The early stories were period pieces, and this is where we finally discover the secrets of the Skull. The true highlight of this story is Skull and Cap in a jail cell. Cap is tied to a chair, and the Red Skull sits in a char turned backwards, facing his prisoner, The Skull casually leans over the chair back as he tells his tale. In one amazing moment, the Captain mouths off and is summarily bitch-slapped by the Skull, who quickly resumes his tale. Needless to say, Cap doesn’t suffer many more Nazi backhands before breaking free and kicking ass.
Just as crucial in the history of Marvel’s villains, were the remarkable Amazing Spider-Man 39 and 40. These issues immediately followed the 38 issue Lee/Ditko run with John Romita stepping in for Ditko as artist. The two part epic finally revealed the identity of the Green Goblin, and found him discovering Spider-Man’s true self as well. As much as I prefer Ditko’s run to just about any series published, Romita and Lee are in perfect sync on this one. Stakes are high, and the story is a thrill even today.
One of the classic villain super-hero tropes is that of a hero facing their equal number. In Hulk’s case, that was a tough one. Still, by 1967, Lee knew a good plot when he saw it, and introduced the Abomination. Drawn by Gil Kane, the Abomination was a Soviet spy who bathed himself in gamma rays. It transformed him into a reptile skinned Hulk-like monster. Being the Hulk, they done beat on each other for 20 pages before the dirty commie lost. The book’s cast of military antagonists actually changed their tune after Hulk defeated the creature, at least for one issue.
Dormmamu suggested the lord of a demon realm. By the time the Silver Surfer was in full swing in the late 60s, Marvel took a risk on a full on devil. Mephisto debuted as a classic representation of a moody tempter of good men. The story, drawn by John Buscema, features a misunderstood Surfer being tempted by Mephisto, with estranged love Shalla Bal as the prize. The best part is Mephisto and Shalla in a spaceship.
Shalla Bal: A space ship! But— Why?? Surley you have the power to traverse any distance with but a thought!
Mephisto: My reasons are my own. Mephisto moves in devious ways.
This book is truly one of the most consistently solid collections of work collected from the 60s. It’s got a lot of great character work, classic stories, and amazing art. There’s really not a weak tale in the bunch, despite my occasional jokes.