MARVEL MASTERWORKS: ATLAS ERA STRANGE TALES VOL. 4 (Marvel, 2011; Hardcover)
Collects Strange Tales Nos. 31-39 (cover dates August, 1954- October, 1955)
Writers: Paul S. Newman, Carl Wessler, and other unidentified writers
Artists: Sid Greene, Bill Benulis, Bill Savage, Art Peddy, Paul Reinman, Al Eadeh, Bob McCarty, Jim McLaughlin, Joe Maneely, Carl Burgos, Paul Tumlinson, Ed Winiarski, Chuck Winter, Werner Roth, Mort Lawrence, Joe Sinnott, John Romita, Sr., Dick Ayers, Ernie Bache, Vic Carrabotta, Bob Powell, John Forte, Jack Katz, Bob Forgione, Jack Abel, John Forte, Kurt Schaffenberger, and Norman Maurer
Marvel might have done better to juggle the contents of the first three volumes so that the Pre-Code stuff ended with Volume 3 and Volume 4 started with the post-code material. The quality takes a nosedive with issue 35, when the Comics Code Authority kicks in. The writing was B-level before the Code, and sunk down to abysmal levels once the Code was implemented.
The artwork is good and sometimes even great. I really appreciate the ink and brush artists here in this modern photoshop era of comic book artwork. These guys were good because they had to be. Making a mistake was costly to a comic book artist back then.
All of the stories in issue 31 are great, but it's The Strange Ones! that really takes the cake. We find a group of scientists who, as mutants, help humanity and search out for others of their kind to help keep the world safe. This is, in a nutshell, the premise of the X-Men nearly a decade prior to their debut. They even use the word mutant for chrissakes! Paul S. Newman should have sued Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Marvel for stealing his idea.
Issue 32's Harley's Friends is a tale of an old miser who buys an old abandoned lodge in the woods...the better to hide his money! In an attempt to find a safe place to hide his loot, he pries up some floor boards, and that's when he finds them. Three corpses. Rather than, I don't know, scream or call the cops, he instead chuckles how they won't steal his money. As he further descends into madness, he begins sitting them at the table, at the fireplace, even putting them in his car as he drives into town. The man who murdered them goes to check on the bodies. He has a heart attack due to the shock of them having gone missing and falls into the hole in the floor where the bodies were stored. When Harvey returns to the cabin he puts his friends back in the floor he is delighted to find another “friend” waiting for him. The killer comes to, banging on the floor, but Harvey assumes it's his imagination playing tricks on him and allows him to suffocate.
While issue 34 is the final pre-Code issue collected in this book, it is the first watered down one as well. Gone are all macabre elements, gone are all shock endings, and gone was my enjoyment until issue 38. While there are some okay stories in 34-37, they pale by comparison to the issues that came before and after. Issue 38's No Escape! plays like an episode of The Twilight Zone. In it, a disenchanted married couple come to an agreement that they should have never been married. Then there is a show on television showing them all of the different outcomes that could have come if they didn't meet. As it turns out, all of them end up with them being married, so they decide that they were meant to be. Awwww. I won't give away the twist ending.
Issue 39 is better still, as we get stellar Bill Everett artwork in Karnoff's Plan! Also in this issue, Blind Spot!, with artwork by the incredible Sid Greene, is a riff on the age old beauty is in eye of the beholder cliché, but done with a space alien bent. UFOs and the fear of Communist infiltration factor high in these stories, just like they did in most entertainment of the day.
This is a decent, albeit incredibly uneven read. It's worth owning for the artwork and historical significance alone.
Junk Food For Thought rating: 3.5 out of 5.
The OCD zone- I love the Marvel Masterworks line. I haven't been giving them enough love lately, letting my backlog languish in favor of other things.
Linework restoration rating: 5 out of 5. Think of these Masterworks as Blu-Ray releases of comic books. Painstakingly restored and presented in “high definition”. These books are expensive but they are the gold standard in terms of presentation.
Color restoration rating: 5 out of 5. Some folks like the high resolution restoration found here. Others enjoy the warts and all approach of the high resolution scans found in books by publishers like PS Artbooks and Fantagraphics. Which approach do I prefer? I prefer properly restored material like this but love well done scans too. I'll put it to you this way, though: I'd rather have a well done scan than a poorly restored book. My love of well done scans and properly restored material is nearly equal, and for entirely different reasons. Both ways have their pluses and minuses. Maybe I'll write a blog entry about this sometime. Would anyone be interested in such a dry technical read?
Paper rating: 5 out of 5. Ahhh, the pleasant aroma of Chinese made books. The toxic ink on the thick coated stock paper sourced from virgin Amazon rainforest trees. The sweet aroma of broken asbestos tiles, mercury from recalled thermometers, lead paint chips, and Godzilla knows what other industrial and toxic Chinese waste, mixed with the tears of the children working the sweatshop printing presses makes huffing these books a joy.
Binding rating: 4.5 out of 5. This binding is somewhat stiffer than Masterworks of similar vintage. It lays flat for 90% of the book, but modern Masterworks tend to lay flat for the entire book. For Marvel this is a disappointment. This binding is on par with a mid-2000s DC Archive. Solid but stiff and durable. I can live with it...this time.