Friday, January 27, 2006

Astonishing Reading

At long last, Marvel has published the first Masterworks collection of pre-hero tales. To be honest, I never really thought I'd ever see a collection of this material; the reason that Marvel abandoned the monster-and-weird-fantasy genre to begin with was its decline in the marketplace, and that decline was already underway by the time Tales to Astonish first saw print. Kirby was back at Atlas/Marvel, and his best giant-monster work was to appear in the 1959-61 period; Ditko was turning out some fine twist-ending fantasy tales; the backup team was coalescing; but the superhero era was already blossoming over at DC, and Marvel didn't even know yet that the era of these stories was coming to an end.

There are some fine stories here, but there are also some of the less memorable potboiler tales that serve as a link to Marvel's mid-1950's output. Nevertheless, this is a superb volume to kick off the Atlas-era Masterworks line; the only choices I'd have preferred would have been Strange Tales #s 91-100 (but I suspect they didn't want to start with a 91st issue) or Amazing Adventures #s 1-6/Amazing Adult Fantasy #s 7-14 (but that brilliant line is so dominated by Ditko that they probably wanted a book whose mix more reflected the bullpen as a whole).

Since Marvel didn't have original stats for much of this material, they made use of what they could come by, including scans from copies of the comics held in private collections. They used a variety of restoration specialists, and the result is variable interior quality. Some issues are superbly recreated; others are a bit muddy and unclear. John Buscema's work is particularly poorly reproduced here; his fine, feathered line muddies up a bit, and the sharpness of detail seems absent. But overall, the quality of the reproduction is satisfying--and in some cases, the bold colors of late 1950's/early 1960's Marvel complement the art so well that it's... well, astonishing to see it on quality paper in a handsome hardcover edition.

If you've ever enjoyed this bygone period of Marvel history, then this book deserves a place in your collection. Let's hope it's the first of many pre-hero volumes!

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