Yes, while the announcement has yet to be made official – David Gabriel even claims he was misquoted in a statement that would have confirmed it – Marvel’s ESSENTIALS line is coming to an end.
The ESSENTIALS collections were a line of black-and-white reprints, initially reproduced on newsprint but later upgraded to a higher quality paper, collecting 20-30 issues of classic Marvel comics in an affordable format. In addition to such Marvel stalwarts as Amazing Spider-Man, Claremont’s X-Men, and Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four, the line also included a number of buried treasures from the Marvel Vault – the complete first run of Ghost Rider, Wolfman and Colan’s Tomb of Dracula, and even the occasional oddball like Killraven saw print under the ESSENTIALS banner.
Like a lot of dedicated comic readers, I was initially reluctant to get into the line. The lack of color just to save on cost was a big turn-off, and the first prints of the books that the local library picked up were sub-reader’s copy in quality. The MARVEL MASTERWORKS line, while far more expensive and containing less than half the issues of its cheaper brethren, were hardbound with high quality color reproductions – more bang for your buck, presumably, especially if you were just checking it out from the library.
It was a complete ESSENTIAL collection of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck that swayed me. I was working at Waldenbooks at the time, and I couldn’t believe that such an esoteric piece of Marvel history was on our shelves. Howard the Duck was one of those comics whose major cultural impact had come and gone before I was born, and whose legacy had been tainted by a legendarily terrible film adaptation. But it was a book I kept hearing about, a comic so mythically subversive and controversial that even Wizard magazine (hey, don’t laugh, I was a kid) spoke about it in almost reverent tones. It was my chance to experience a pop culture time capsule, a heretofore unavailable link to the strange comics counterculture from before my time. Besides, it was just one book, I thought. Marvel would never do anything this cool again.
So of course, I ended up with more or less the entire ESSENTIAL line.
The sheer bulk of comics per volume were what ensnared me. There’s something almost seductive about having that much story in one place, watching characters, creative teams, and continuity evolve and change and grow from page to page, issue to issue. And the black-and-white format was not nearly the hindrance I had expected. The frenetic, timeless energy of a Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko or Neal Adams – or hell, even the competent professionalism of a George Tuska or Herb Trimpe – was neither diminished nor robbed of its efficacy without color, at least for me. Not to disparage the colorist’s profession, but going without gave these comics the same primal, punk-rock feel that set them so far apart from their Distinguished Competition in the first place.
My collection expanded as the ESSENTIALS amassed more of the offbeat, anarchic material that had saturated their 70’s output – the aforementioned Tomb of Dracula (which has, to date, my favorite Gene Colan artwork ever) and Killraven; Werewolf by Night, which means the first Moon Knight comic I ever read was his first appearance; Godzilla, King of the Monsters (to my knowledge, the limited run ESSENTIAL was the only time this material has been collected); Monster of Frankenstein, Man-Thing, and Luke Cage, Power Man. And as I became more comfortable with the format, curiosity led me to seek out the titles I had initially resisted. This was how I discovered the building blocks of the Marvel Universe.
The ESSENTIALS line was where I unearthed Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, where I fell head over heels for Kirby’s Fantastic Four and Thor. It was how I learned that Roy Thomas’ Avengers run really is a lot of fun, and that Steve Englehart’s follow-up is even better. I read Gerber’s seminal Defenders comics in a manic weekend binge, and devoured both volumes of Silver Surfer with absolute glee, complete tonal shift between the two books be damned. I finally, after years of making do with synopses and Official Handbook-style summaries, got to read the pre-Claremont 60’s era X-Men - comics that I can now say with authority are objectively terrible. But I read every single one of them, and gladly. Because good or bad, I had always wanted to chance to read them, and thanks to the ESSENTIALS line, I was allowed the opportunity.
The ESSENTIALS should also be noted for how well they collected extraneous material – if a story continued in another title, or in the main title’s Annual or Giant-Size, it was included and placed properly in the volume for story continuity. If that seems like a pretty common sense policy, that’s because it is – but a surprising amount of material sees print nowadays minus a key issue, or with the supplementary comics shoved in the back without regard for story.
Not that the line is perfect; Marvel made a few odd choices along the way. Both Fantastic Four volumes five and nine end on ridiculous cliffhangers – the latter is especially egregious, as it’s probably the final collection in the series, it ends in the middle of a six-part arc, and the FF are on a ship in space that explodes. Seriously, it obvious the team didn’t die or anything, but the audience deserves to know what happens next, I think. Some volumes also cut off in weird places – Amazing Spider-Man volume eleven, for instance, closes a mere three issues short of completing Roger Stern’s celebrated run on the book. But overall, the ESSENTIALS did a fine job of collecting stories to satisfy even the most voracious reader.
I feel it’s worth noting that Marvel isn’t permanently doing away with easy access to its own history. As I mentioned in my last article, the Marvel Unlimited app has a tremendous body of comics available, a goodly number of which were available as ESSENTIALS – and in color, to boot. Many of those same comics are available through the Comixology storefront, as well. For the print readers, Marvel has invested in the EPIC collections – full color reprints collecting twenty or so issues each, retailing at about twice the cost of your average ESSENTIAL. The EPIC collections are being printed out of chronological order, with the current emphasis on compiling never-before-collected material; the ultimate goal being to have an entire series assembled under one set trade dress. All of these are perfectly serviceable alternatives, but neither captures the beautiful simplicity and efficiency of the ESSENTIALS volumes. Time will tell if they have the same impact.
I’ve been collecting ESSENTIALS for pretty much the entirety of my adulthood. I’ve drug them all over Texas when I’ve had to move; I’ve kept a volume at work to read on my lunch break back before e-readers were a thing. They introduced me to some of the most superlative (and some of the most atrocious) superhero fiction ever committed to paper. They remain the bulk of my comics library, even as I look to finally pare down my collection in the face of the new digital age. Marvel’s ESSENTIALS line has been a big part of my life. I’ll miss them.