Let’s be honest. Almost no-one gets into comics without harbouring at least some affection for the super-heroes that make up the bulk of the industry. Even the most artistically-credible, naval-gazing, human condition-exploring indie cartoonist probably has an idea for a Spider-Man story tucked away somewhere. On some level, this anthology represents a benevolent attempt by Marvel to shine some light onto the same black-and-white brigade that superhero comics routinely marginalise. At the same time, it’s an attempt to co-opt the cool of those creators, like watching an ageing uncle trying to dance to Crystal Castles at a wedding. It has the potential to be massively embarrassing for all concerned.
However, there’s one main reason that it’s forgiveable, and that’s the fact that it works. In 1997, I was new to US comics and read nothing but X-Men spin-offs. And along came the Generation X Underground Special, a Jim Mahfood-penned indie take on Marvel’s youngest mutant team. It was the first “indie” comic I picked up, and let’s face it – I wouldn’t have done so were it not being published by Marvel. 12 years on, there’s room in my life for both The Avengers and Adrian Tomine, and we can trace it all back to that one purchase. These comics serve a purpose beyond their mere entertainment value.
Of course, it helps that Strange Tales is massively entertaining too. Paul Pope opens with a Lockjaw story, and his art almost justifies the fairly hefty cover price alone. John Leavitt and Molly Crabapple turn the She-Hulk concept into a lavishly embellished comedy-of-manners. Junko Mixuno shows an oft-overlooked side to indie manga with her cute, dark Spider-Man story. Nick Bertozzi’s Modok strip is fantastically warped, and it’s a joy to finally read Peter Bagge’s Incorrigable Hulk, even in a forcibly-serialised way. However, it’s Dash Shaw’s Ditko-esque Dr. Strange story that wins the day, offering a story that manages to be quirky and inventive, yet recognisably Strange. The writing is jokey and melodramatic, but the artwork… it practically spins you headfirst into the page. Shaw’s art made me understand exactly what Ditko’s must have felt like in the 60s.
Compared to such strong competition, some of the others can’t help but feel a bit pedestrian – James Kochalka’s stream-of-consciousness Hulk story is nothing special for the creator or character, Jason’s Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus strip is a bit by-the numbers, and Johnny Ryan’s one-liner “embarrassing moments” illustrations are based on weak jokes and weak images – though he redeems his work with a hilarious Punisher two-pager. Indie-darling Michael Kupperman turns in a good Sub-Mariner, but it suffers by comparison to the Marvex strip from All Select Comics that he recently provided for Marvel’s 70th anniversary edition, and Nicholas Gurewitch’s one-pagers, while amusing, aren’t quite up to the standard of PBF at its best.
Of course, your opinions may differ. There’s no denying the talent on display here, though, and with so many fantastic names it’s almost hard to imagine who’ll turn in the following issues. One thing is certain, though: you’d be a fool to miss out on this one.