Fantasy Masterpieces is one of the most interesting titles put out by Marvel in the 60s. It’s a strange mixture of Golden Age superhero stories and recent monster tales. Once upon a time, these stories were very tough (and expensive to track down). Over the years, Marvel has seen fit to reprint many of them – but those hardcover editions can make a real dent in your wallet. It still cheaper, and more fun, to track down some of these back issues.
Fantasy Masterpieces #1 is a true Silver Age gem. It’s a tremendous sampler of 5 pre-hero monster tales. The inside cover features a cheesy shot of Stan Lee with word balloons describing all fives stories. You’ll notice that the actual names of the Bullpen artists are highlighted all over the cover. This certainly wasn’t par for the course in the comic book industry, but evidences the importance Marvel placed on its branding message. Highlights here include Ditko’s “Those Who Change” and “I Saw the Other World” with Dick Ayers artwork. I’ve fallen out of love with Ayers over the years – exposed to too many substandard late 60s and 70s stories, but this one serves as a reminder that the man once drew with great depth. A VG copy of this book recently sold on eBay for $2.99.
Fantasy Masterpieces #2 is more of the same, although with fewer stories because of the longer Fin Fang Foom tale. Was FFF already a cult phenomenon by ’66? Once again the creators (Lee, Heck and Kirby) are noted on the cover – to the point of giving them full credit for the stories (not something Stan Lee did lightly). This was the final 12 cent issue, as the rest of the run would be in the giant sized 25 cent format. A VG- copy recently sold on Ebay for 99 cents.
There was a changing of gears with Fantasy Masterpieces #3, as the folks at Marvel decided that the world was likely ready for more Kirby drawn Captain America. I’m a bit surprised that they started with the “Hunchback of Hollywood” story from Captain America Comics #3, but I’m glad they did, as it features a thinly veiled Boris Karloff in the form of Ivan Barloff. The second Cap story is weaker, but the Plundering Butterfly serves as an interesting Butterfly/Moth villain prototype. Some great horror monster stories here – the real highlights are “I am Prisoner of the Vodoo King” with superb Gene Colan artwork and Don Heck’s “Beware the Unboongi”, a great cautionary space race tale. A VG/F copy recently sold for $2.99.
Fantasy Masterpieces #4 is proof that not everything from the ‘Golden Age’ was indeed golden. For a wartime (ok, still slightly pre-US involvement) patriotic hero, Dr. Grimm and Ivan the Terrible come across as very odd choices as villains. “Fake Money Fiends” is a lot of haunted house silliness. The horror selections in this ish really aren’t that strong, either – my favorite being “They Vanished Forever”, a seagoing tale featuring the Flying Dutchmen with very nice Dick Ayers art. A VG+ copy sold on eBay last week for $3.99.
Fantasy Masterpieces #5 reprints stories from Captain America Comics #5, and they are all quite a bit better than those featured in the previous issue, with “Killers of the Bund” be a real Nazi-smashing highlight. The monster reprints are so-so (and oddly Ditko-free), but the Kirby-drawn “It Fell From a Flying Saucer”. A VG copy recently failed to sell on eBay at $2.99.
Fantasy Masterpieces #6 features the return of the Red Skull, and has me wondering why they waited so many issues to feature him here. His presence helps to make up for stories like “The Phantom Hound of Cardiff Moor” (although Steranko must’ve liked that one. “Germ Warfare” should help quiet all those naysayers who claim that Paul Reinmann can’t draw. A FN+ copy sold a few days ago for $2.50.
The focus shifts slightly away from Cap with Fantasy Masterpieces #7. We’ve also got a new cover – beautifully designed, but poorly inked (IMHO) by Gil Kane. I don’t much care for the razor-thin line Kane used at Marvel in his early Marvel superhero days, and this one is a missed opportunity. This issue has the first part of the iconic (although not really all that great) Human Torch vs. Sub-Mariner battle from 1940 in a addition to a ridiculously hokey baseball-themed Captain American story called “Death Loads the Bases”. There’s still a sampling of monster fun, including Steve Ditko’s "Monsters on Mercury" (I think Stan and Larry had covered the entire solar system by this points – as the Unboongi were native to Uranus). A VG+ copy sold recently for $3.99.
Fantasy Maserpieces #8 concludes the Torch and Subby battle. I adore the claim on the cover that it was ‘exactly as it appeared in 1940’ – I haven’t seen the originals, but I wonder if a single panel is out of place – Marvel was never afraid to trim a reprint. We also get the very fun, Kirby-drawn "Man in the Beehive" – one of about a million Hank Pym prototype stories. It would also be the headliner in Where Monsters Dwell #34 in 1975. Also quite entertaining is Larry Lieber’s “Call Her Medusa”, but the turnaround time on reprints was getting ridiculous, as this one wasn’t even 4 years old. A VG+ copy failed to sell at $1.99 last week.
The superb Gil Kane cover is the highlight to Fantasy Masterpieces #9. Take away all of the crazy captions, and it may be one of the strongest Marvel covers of the era (I realize that’s saying quite a lot – but I think it’s swell). I think the Frank Giacoia inks help to add some real depth. In this one, you get the Torch’s origin story as well as a Cap story involves spies, which is much better than a baseball story. “Monsteroso” continues to lay claim to the best and worst Marvel monster name. After 9 issues, we also finally get a letters page. No recent low to mid-grade sales on eBay to report.
Fantasy Masterpieces #10 was likely the issue for which true Marvel zombies had been waiting. It features a reprint of All-Winners Comics #19, which I imagine was even tough to find back in 1967. I’m not sure why Marvel decided to skip 6 years of material to get to this one, but I’m guess a small handful of readers demanded it. It’s been reprinted at least once since then – but it’s nice to see this 60s version of the story. A couple of so-so monster stories filled out the issue, by Lieber and Kirby respectively. A VF- copy sold earlier this month for $4.99.
Finally, we’ve got Fantasy Masterpieces #11, which features a decent, if unspectacular cover by Larry Lieber. This one is a bit of an odd duck, as it features a 1940 Human Toch story, a 1942 Captain America story – but it jumps ahead to the short-lived Atlas revival with a 1954 Sub-Mariner story. Bill Everett was such an incredible artist! Another real treat here is Black Knight story – 10 pages of Joe Maneely at the height of his powers. Oh, yeah – you also get “Mister Morgan’s Monster” one of the best pre-hero Kirby monster tales. 99 cents would have gotten you a VG+ copy of this earlier in June.
So that’s Fantasy Masterpieces in a nutshell. As you can tell, with a little patience you could put together a run of the series for far next to nothing. You can’t say that about many Silver Age Marvel titles. This series would become Marvel Super-Heroes, a very interesting title in its own right, but that’s a story best left for another day.
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