Monday, 21 December 2020

Giant Super Hero Holiday Grab Bag



Grabby Christmas

Giant Super Hero Holiday Grab Bag
by various writers and artists
Marvel Comics 1974-1976


Imagine, if you will, a young boy aged six years old, out in London with his parents at the tail end of 1974. There I was, in either Berwick Street in Soho or just down the road and around the corner in St. Ann’s Court (just off Wardour Street, depending on when the place I'm talking about moved) in what was my all time favourite shop, Dark They Were And Golden Eyed. This was the forerunner of such future shops as the short lived Eye In The Pyramid and, of course, Forbidden Planet (pretty much the only one of these types of stores which made it out of the late 70s/early 80s and which is still with us today, although there are some modern variants like Mega City Comics and Orbital, of course).

So, anyway, there I was in my favourite science fiction, fantasy, horror and comic shop gazing up at a huge (well, to me it seemed huge) tabloid sized, cardboard covered Treasury Edition called Giant Super Hero Holiday Grab Bag. There was a load of Christmas Holly with red berries on the cover forming a wreath and, bursting through all that rich greenery were Spider-Man, Thor, The Hulk, Captain America, The Thing and The Human Torch. And then, on the back, there was a reverse of the cover with the same scene but with a view of them from behind, doing the bursting. It was gorgeous and I was actually very surprised when my dad took the thing down from the shelf and said we could take it back home with us. Surprised because, honestly, it was an exorbitant amount of money for the time... a real luxury item. Yep! It was 50p (I believe the US price was about $1.50, which says something about the state of the pound against the dollar these days, I think). How could a comic be priced over what was five times the amount of a regular comic back then? Honestly, fifty pence?

Anyway, we took it home and it got a lot of love and, I still have this and both the other two ‘sequels’ to this tome to this day... and it’s those which are the subject of today's review, an excuse for me to read and hang out with the fond memories. I think it was the first Treasury Edition I’d ever seen. Both DC and Marvel did these tabloid sized Treasury Editions (as they were loosely known at the time) and, although there were a few which pre-dated this one by a matter of months, I believe this was the first year that the two big companies started releasing them. Not a huge amount of them have survived these days because they didn’t travel through the mail too well and their relatively cumbersome size meant they tended to get folded and bent quite a bit. Not mine though. I managed to keep most I had and, although some were given away, I managed to buy many of them back and a few others in the interceding years. Actually, there are two I used to have which I still wish I could get back but, for some reason, those ones seem to go for very big money. As it is they usually go for a fair whack if you’re lucky enough to see them about in the wild. I have maybe 30 to 40 of these things and I still think they’re great buys, with their oversized artwork reprinted at something almost as large as the original artwork might have been before reproduction and with a full colour, no adverts experience of around 80 to 90 pages in total. These were a great deal.

It’s actually now that I read them again that I realise that, although the covers really 'brought the Christmas', the stories inside (which were mostly reprints in the case of these particular editions), were mostly not seasonal tales.

Here is what lurked between the covers...

Giant Superhero Holiday Grab Bag
Marvel Treasury Special - 1974

First up we have what was pretty much the only Christmas tale in this one (honestly, these things feel much more Christmassy than they actually are) with a tale teaming up everybody’s favourite web slinger Spider-Man with the Silver Age version of The Human Torch, Johnny Storm of The Fantastic Four. This is Have Yourself A Sandman Little Christmas by Roy Thomas And Ross Andru and it’s a truly brilliant little tale which humanises the super villain and in which, for a little while, the two lead heroes turn a blind eye for a minute and let him keep his annual ritual of visiting his sick mother in bed on Christmas Eve. It’s a heart warming story and nobody is really worried that The Sandman gets away at the end.

The next, very non-Christmassy story is In Mortal Combat With... Sub Mariner by Stan Lee and Wally Wood. This is a tale of Namor seeking a lawyer to challenge mankind’s rights to be the ruling surface dwellers and, yeah, no prizes as to which legal team he goes for. It’s not long before Daredevil and Sub Mariner are locked in deadly combat in the streets of New York.

And then there’s... And To All A Good Night by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan. Along with the opening tale, this is the other strong story in this collection and, although it has a Christmassy title, it could frankly be set on almost any night of the year. This one shows Black Widow’s chauffer rescuing a suicidal young man from taking a plunge into the river, so he takes the kid back to Natasha to help him. Alas, when the hoodlums who are the cause of the boy’s troubles attack them all in Natasha’s building, the teenager goes to save her and ends up plunging to his death from the rooftop anyway... much to the upset of the teary eyed Black Widow. This one is pretty grim and depressing and really shows that Marvel could take themselves seriously with different kinds of stories when they wanted to.

The last two tales in this first Grab Bag tome, Battle Of The Century - The Hulk VS The Thing and The Avengers Take Over is a two part tale by the classic writing and art team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It does what it says on the tin and shows the first real meeting between The Fantastic Four and the fairly newly formed The Avengers, as they learn how to work together in the second part to end The Hulk’s current rampage. It’s made more than clear in this story that The Hulk’s alter ego is very much Bob Banner... that would change over time.

And that was that for this first volume. Dynamic and, much simpler but much more engaging somehow, artwork than a lot of comics today and certainly a lot of fun. However, this must have been a very successful experiment on the part of Marvel because, a year later there was...

Giant Superhero Holiday Grab Bag
Marvel Treasury Edition Number 8 - 1975

This one goes with the same format with only two actual Christmas tales but there’s also a New Year’s Eve story in here too... of sorts.

Twas The Night Before Christmas by Gary Friedrich And Frank Springer is a nice opening story about Nick Fury, Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D going up into space to defuse a world threatening bomb on Christmas Eve. But it’s a trap and Fury is face to face with a Ku Klux Klan style super villain called The Hatemonger, who straps him to a capsule with the bomb and sends him back to Earth. If it wasn’t for a serendipitous intervention from an unknown entity (it’s strongly implied it’s Santa and his sled) then things might have turned out badly. Nice idea and love that there’s a Sean Connery reference in this, paying homage to the original idea of resurrecting the star of Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandoes as a secret agent in the Cold War.

After this, there’s a reprint of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s classic Spidey Goes Mad story, where Mysterio posing as a psycho-analyst almost makes Spider-Man think he’s going off his rocker with his illusions... if it wasn’t for J. Jonah Jameson accidentally foiling his plans, much to the editor of the Daily Bugle’s dismay. Next up is the second Christmas story, Jingle Bombs by Steve Engleheart, George Tusca and Billy Graham. This one tells of a super villain visiting Luke Cage, Hero For Hire on Christmas Eve and attacking him as people from the past, present and future (in a nod to Charles Dickens) before finding him worthy enough to tie up in his lair so they can die together when he lets off an atomic bomb. This isn’t a great story but it has a certain atmosphere to it that makes up for the clumsy plot.

Then we have Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe’s Heaven Is A Very Small Place, which is... literally The Hulk in the desert reacting to a mirage of a friendly town before it fades out again. It’s... not got a lot of substance to it but at least it’s fairly short.

The final tale in this edition is Eternity! Eternity! by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan and is about Doctor Strange (back in the phase when he used to wear that blue face covering) and is about Nightmare and Eternity trying to destroy mankind on New Year’s Eve. It seems to be the first installment of a two parter because, just as the big fight is about to start, the editors obviously decided they didn’t want to go over the page count and instead have Doctor Strange reminding the readers that everything came out alright in the end.

So, yeah... that one was a bit of a cop out but it must have sold well because it once more paved the way for...

Giant Superhero Holiday Grab Bag
Marvel Treasury Edition Number 13 - 1976

Okay, so Marvel obviously never used to do that many Christmas stories (and I can sort of see why in terms of the long game and the age of the characters) because they manage to have their cake and eat it here. By that I mean, none of the reprints are Christmas themed in this edition but, to ease this and attempt to give the whole thing a seasonal feel, there’s a framing story of a bunch of completely new pages, called ‘Tis The Season, by Roger Stern and George Tuaka, which takes place during and after a Fantastic Four VS The Avengers charity snowball fight event... where various of these and other superheroes interact with the characters and each encounter has one or more of the characters reminiscing about a previous adventure... with a few pages of this popping up between each story and the bookends.
 
The regular stories start with ...As Those Who Will Not See! by Gerry Conway and Gill Kane, when Spider-Man turns up and we get a tale featuring him plus The Thing  and his blind girlfriend Alicia Masters teaming up to follow a thread created by Alicia’s step-dad, The Puppetmaster. It tries to be an emotional story of a father gone bad but, in the end, it’s not really a great story. The next in the volume reprints the story of The Vision becoming a member of The Avengers with the classic Even An Android Can Cry by Roy Thomas and John Buscema.

He Who Strikes The Silver Surfer
by Stan Lee and Marie Severin is next but, nothing much happens as two titans, Hulk and Silver Surfer, lock horns and trade fists. Marvel seemed to be good at having ‘nothing much happening’ while two characters are pounding on each other for the required number of pages. Something to note here though is that Robert Banner has now become Bruce Banner (later this was glossed over with the explanation that he’s Robert Bruce Banner, if memory serves).

The last story, Once Upon A Time - - The Ox! by Gerry Conway and Gene Colan is Daredevil VS The Ox who, if memory serves, was originally one of The Enforcers in The Amazing Spider-Man but now seems to be a dormant personality in another character. It doesn’t make much sense and is not a fun story, as far as I’m concerned.

And that’s me done with these for the forseeable future. They’re not what I remember them to be but it was nice to revisit these things and I’m surprised that Marvel haven’t gathered some of their more Christmas themed stories from the last sixty plus years of comics and released them under a money grabbing trade paperback reprint but, you know, that’s just what I’d do (and I’d certainly grab a copy for myself). The Treasury format is one of my fondest memories of comic book buying in the 1970s and, despite the weak content in some of these tomes, they will always hold a special place in my heart. Definitely worth tracking down if comic books are your thing.

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