Marvel digests: about 40-odd years too late

Back in my comics reading heyday, meaning back in the 1970s and early 1980s, one of the many things I just loved were the digests. When I went through a brief Archie phase, the Archie digests were always my favorites, and when DC started churning them out in the late ‘70s, I was all over them. They were such a great source of reprinted stories from the ‘50s through the mid-‘70s, so, among other things, you could read up on tons of DC’s Golden (occasionally), Silver and early Bronze Age lore. All told, between its two main digest series, Best of DC Blue Ribbon Digest and Special Blue Ribbon Digest, plus the last 13 issues of Adventure that were in digest format, and the occasional issue of DC Special Series and a few other miscellaneous editions, up to the mid-1980s DC published around 120 or so digests. I didn’t even come close to having all of these back in the day, but I nevertheless had a pretty big stack of them (somewhere between 35 and 40).

Now, not so big (and it’s a bit of a cheat, too, because I slipped two Archie Super-hero digests under House of Mystery to make it look bigger).

 

But back then, and even later, I always wondered why Marvel never made a bid to get some of that sweet, sweet digest cash. And before anyone mentions it in the comments: yes, I know about the pocket books from the late 1970s; I had all but one (Captain America) back then, and even now I’ve managed to re-acquire most of them.

Not counting the six Conan pocketbooks, which had a slightly different format, this is almost the entire Marvel late ‘70s pocketbook library. Missing: Fantastic Four, Captain America and Hulk vol. 1.

 

In fact, back in 2014, this glaring lack of Marvel digests led to a series of posts at the now quite sadly defunct, Bronze Age Babies blog under the heading “Blue Ribbon Digest” in which one of the blog’s hosts, Doug, threw out a character or team and suggested possible issues for hypothetical Marvel digests that could have been published in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. Everybody had a lot of fun with those in the comments.

But now, finally, thanks to some kind of distribution deal with Archie Comics, Marvel is finally producing digests which can be purchased where comics used to be available. So you USians (and Canadians, too, I think) have the luxury of picking these up wherever you can find Archie digests (i.e., in the checkout lines of grocery stores, and also at bookstores like Barnes & Noble; but, I’ve been led to understand, usually not in comic book shops). They’re also available via Amazon, but it just seems more fun to me to snap them up in a check-out line.

The way I got my hands on these all the way over here in Croatia was rather circuitous: I asked my sister and brother-in-law (who live in Oregon) to keep an eye out for the first two, featuring Spider-man and the Avengers, and my brother-in-law, himself a former comics geek back in the ‘70s, came through. Then, one of my cousins who lives in Portland just happened to be going on a trip to Croatia this October so she brought them with her. And so voila!

Oh, yeah!

 

The new digest series was kicked off with a Spider-man digest, released that past summer to coincide with the movie. It starts off with a story from the classic Lee/Ditko run, in fact Ditko’s last issue ever, #38, with the story “Just a Guy Named Joe,” which has always been a personal favorite.

Here’s a classic brawl sequence by Mr. Ditko.

 

The next four are reprints of ASM #s 156-159, an extended Doc Ock story, from the often overlooked, and thus underrated, Len Wein run on that title. I already have these stories in some Panini digests I bought some years back (possibly the subject of a future post) and normally I don’t like to double-dip, but heck, it’s a Marvel digest. I had to have it!

One thing I don’t like about the Spidey digest is that the covers to the issue reprinted therein are on these single page galleries, meaning they’re shrunk down even more in the already shrunken digest format.

Really?! (Although I’ll admit that the upside-down hanging Spidey is a nice touch.)

 

Then we jump from the Bronze Age to material that’s all new to me. First, two Vulture stories from Marvel Age Spider-man that are adaptations of the first two Lee/Ditko Vulture stories in ASM, scripted by Daniel Quantz. I actually enjoyed these quite a bit, and really liked the art, by Mark Brooks:

Dealing with Manhattan’s avian pest problem the hard way.

 

This is followed by another, somewhat looser, adaptation of the first Sinister Six story in ASM Annual #1, from Marvel Adventures Spider-man #s 2-3, written by Erica David, with pencils by Patrick Scherberger and inks by Norman Lee. Like the preceding entries, quite enjoyable (even though, obviously, I still prefer the originals).

Sorry for the slant, but it’s kind of a pain stuffing these digests into a scanner.

 

The final three stories are from the Marvel Universe Ultimate Spider-man books that accompanied by the animated shows, specifically Ultimate Spider-man #1 and Ultimate Spider-man Web Warriors #8, which features a team-up of sorts with Deadpool. These I didn’t like as much as the stuff that came before, but they were still solidly entertaining, and I really liked the back-up feature from USM #1 by Dan Slott and Ty Templeton (in which SHIELD creates a mandroid body-double for Peter Parker). Also that final entry is the first Deadpool comic I’ve ever read.

A lot like the movie actually, without the R-rated dialogue.

 

Next up is the Avengers digest.

I repeat: Oh, yeah!

 

It starts off with the very first two issues, which I’m pretty sure everyone reading this knows all about. However, I just had to take this opportunity to reproduce what has to be one of the most bonkers panels in all of superhero comics:

Sure, just your average, everyday super-strong, green robot wearing clown make-up and performing at the circus…

 

Keeping with the format of the first digest, we now jump to the (very late) Bronze Age, for three issues, #s 235-237, from Roger Stern’s excellent run on the title. This doesn’t have the great art by John Buscema and Tom Palmer that marked the second leg of Stern’s run, but it’s still solid work by Bob Budiansky and then Al Milgrom, all inked by Joe Sinnott. The stories, are of course, quite good, but that’s a given when Stern’s the writer. Also, this digest corrects what I see as the major failing of the first one: the covers are reprinted in full page size:

That’s more like it.

 

After that, there’s a jump to the post-2000 period. First up are two stories from Marvel Adventures Avengers, #s 9 and 16. The stories are both by Jeff Parker, with art by Juan Santacruz and Raul Fernandez in the first story, and pencilers Steve Scott and Ronan and Cliquet and inkers Nathaniel Massengill and Amilton Santos in the second. Much as I hate the idea of X-men like Wolverine and Storm being Avengers, I really enjoyed both of these stories.

Not a bad cover (albeit not very original).

 

And again, the book closes off with a few stories tied to the animated features and the MCU, reprinting stories from Marvel Universe Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes #6 and Marvel Universe Avengers Assemble #s 1-2. These were my least favorite parts of the book, but they were still pretty solid. And, in fact, they could all serve as storyboards for some live-action Avengers shorts.

Not quite the Kooky Quartet – maybe the Trippy Trio?

 

So my overall assessment is that I really like these books. First and foremost, as noted above, I just love that there are Marvel digests. Sure, this should have happened ages ago, like back when I was a kid, but better late than never, I guess. Second, they’re really good all-ages books. No parent has to worry about handing one of these to their kids, and I think they’re a great starting point for any kid who wants to read some super-hero comics.

The third one, featuring Thor (again, and quite shrewdly, to coincide with the movie release), is already out:

Ragnorok’n’roll!

 

And the fourth one will feature the X-men.

By the way, for those of you who are fans of comics digests, I highly recommend the Digest Cast podcast. That’s one of my personal favorites from the many shows you can find at the Fire & Water network.

37 Comments

  1. M-Wolverine

    Wow, those Marvel Pocketbooks were the gateway to my early Marvel comic stories. I didn’t know there were two Doctor Strange too. I knew about Spider-Woman, but I’m not sure I got them because, girls ick, and even at that age you can tell a knock off. All great, but it’s still amazing (no pun intended) what that Spider-Man run entailed.

    Most of them are still available for purchase on the secondary market. But there was at least one more: The Avengers- Origin of the Vision one. Because that was my first exposure to Black Panther, and how cool he was.

  2. Rob Allen

    I picked up the Thor issue, the first one I saw, at a Fred Meyer supermarket in Portland a few weeks ago. I hadn’t read anything about these digests and was very surprised to see it in the checkout line. It has the same combination of Silver Age (the Mangog arc), Bronze Age (the annual with the Guardians of the Galaxy), and modern content as the first two.

    If you read the indicia, the digests are actually published by Archie with content licensed from Marvel. Half of the house ads are for Archie comics, which was jarring in a Marvel book.

    The weekend before last, I was at the Jet City Comic Show in Tacoma and found stacks of the first two digests at a dealer’s table. I bought one of each, and I’m going to keep my eye out for the X-Men issue next month. I have a complete collection now, and I’m going to try to keep it that way. 🙂

  3. Le Messor

    The small size of the digests always put me off, but I do like the idea of getting all those stories.

    So who *is* that offbeat supervillain in ‘Just A Guy Named Joe’?

    they’re really good all-ages books. No parent has to worry about handing one of these to their kids,
    We need more of those these days!

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Re: So who *is* that offbeat supervillain in ‘Just A Guy Named Joe’?

      Um, Joe. He’s not really a supervillain, either. Many years later, he appeared again in a really rather moving story in Captain America #246. But you should really read this one, too.

  4. I’m not at all surprised to learn that this is an Archie project licensed from Disney/Marvel. Marvel is too entrenched in their codependent death-spiral with DC, fighting tooth and nail for the majority share of the Direct Market, which represents about 3-5% of the Marvel movie audience, to even believe that it’s possible to sell a comic outside of a comic book shop. Archie knows where the customers are, what they want to buy, and how to sell it to them. A lot of people have criticized their corporate culture, employment practices, and general ethics, but nobody has ever said they can’t move books.

          1. Well, ironically(?), that’s the reason they can afford to print the digests so cheap, no? Because all of the Archie stuff is all paid for as work-for-hire at cheap ass rates, they can afford to put out 100-200 pages of stuff for just 7 bucks or whatever price.

            I wonder if that’s part of why the Marvel stuff reprinted so far has been the old stuff, no later than, say, ’84-ish, then a gap until the new kids line stuff from the last 10-15 years. I suspect a lot of the late ’80s-’90s stuff is tied up in certain contracts where royalties would make things onerous to reprint. From what I understand, DC’s contracts from that era are pretty generous (relatively…) to creators, and I would assume Marvel’s were as well.

            Of course, we can’t forget that a lot of the ’90s stuff was utter shit, too.

  5. Edo Bosnar

    Yeah, I realized I should have put more emphasis on how much these digests are an Archie affair. As Rob notes above, it’s reflected in the Archie house ads all through them (in fact, I think it’s more than half of them).
    However, as I was writing this, I was sort of channeling my younger self, who really wouldn’t have cared a bit about details like that.

  6. Marvel did at least produce some digests in the eighties – I still have four issues of The Transformers Comics Magazine from my childhood, each issue of which reproduced two comics and a bunch of Universe entries in digest size. Other Marvel digest titles from that period included Spider-Man, G.I. Joe, and a Star Comics digest.

  7. Jazzbo

    I had several of those Marvel pocket books when I was a kid. Read them so much they literally fell apart. Still kept them as long as I could even though they were missing covers and eventually story pages. I had the first Hulk and Fantastic Four books, and two of the Spider-Man books.

    Strangely enough, despite how much I loved those pocket books, when I later started collecting comics and became a big Marvel fan I didn’t collect Hulk, Fantastic Four or Spider-Man. Aside from Hulk I’ve still never really gotten into the other two. Kind of weird now that I think about it, since those were my introduction into the Marvel universe.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Read them so much they literally fell apart.

      This, so much this. The spines on all of the volumes I had as a kid were cracked, and many of the pages were loose or falling out (didn’t lose any of ’em, though). The Spider-man and Dr. Strange books were in particularly bad shape – just loved those stories and that early Ditko art.

      1. M-Wolverine

        Yes, I think a number of them because Vol 1.1 and Vol 1.2 as they would split and the front cover and X number of pages would be one side, and then the back cover and the rest of the pages would be another. Though I think I eventually went out and bought better condition editions of most of them when I got older.

  8. You can, indeed, find these at comic shops (that’s where I got mine), although I suspect that most stores aren’t getting these for the shelf, but just for pull customers. They’re a great starter set, though, so stores should be getting them.

    These are great, though, and I daresay that the Thor one is even better than these two, which surprised me as I have never exactly been a Thor guy. One word: Mangog!

    I didn’t like the second half of the Spidey one as much as you did, as I felt the retakes of the old stuff lag so much behind the originals, it seems pointless to have them in there.

    I must take you to task, though, sir, for not mentioning that one of the Marvel Adventures Avengers stories is the wonderful issue where the whole team gets turned into MODOKs! It wasn’t quite as much fun as I remembered from when I read it before, but I’m glad I own a copy now.

    Thanks for doing this post so I didn’t have to!

    1. Edo Bosnar

      I think it depends on what part of the country you live in; one of the guys who do the digest podcast I linked to in the post (who lives in Florida, I think?) mentioned that they can be found in comic shops where he lives. When I first asked my sister to look for these, she rather naively called up some local comic shops in Salem (OR) and they didn’t have them but offered to special order them – at which point I set her straight and told her to check supermarket/drugstore check-outs or Barnes & Noble (which is where my brother-in-law found them, I think).
      As to the stuff in the second halves of both books, maybe I came across as too gushing in the post, but given my general ignorance and/or frequent dislike of a lot of the superhero stuff produced from the early ’90s and after, I was just surprised that I liked the stories at all. And you’re probably right that I should have mentioned, and maybe included images, of the Modok Avengers story, as I thought it was really funny.
      As to the Spidey features, as I noted in the post, I still like the originals more, but I thought these were pretty good retellings. And it made perfect sense to me that they were included, at the least the two Vulture stories, because they tied in to this past summer’s movie and they have a more ‘modern’ look to appeal to those dern kids we have these days who just don’t have any appreciation for any of that classic stuff and – hey! There’s a bunch of those whippersnappers on my lawn now! I have to go chase them away…

      1. Re-reading my comment, I was too harsh on the second half/more recent stuff. It’s not bad stuff, but if you’re familiar with the originals, it will, of course, pale in comparison.

        And I wasn’t seriously busting you about the MODOK story. But it’s such goofy Silver Age DC type stuff it’s worth a mention and worth picking up the Avengers one just for that, if someone doesn’t have that story otherwise.

  9. Jeff Nettleton

    Marvel danced around digests; but, they went whole hog on the Treasury Editions and with Fireside and Pocket books, doing those reprints. DC had an advantage, in that Warner had their own book publishing wing. Still, before the digests became so widespread, DC had a line of black & white paperbacks, an area with which Marvel also flirted (going back to the days of Lancer). DC wasn’t quite as fast to jump on the larger format reprints, like the Fireside books, though Michael Uslan did put together the trio of America at War, Mysteries in Space and the romance collection (can’t remember the title). They did go into the Treasury Edition formats heavily, though.

    Back in the day, the Treasury Editions, Digests, Pocket Books, Fireside Books, etc were our trade reprints and graphic novels. You ad to hunt for them, as not all bookstores carried them and comic shops weren’t in every area.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      I think I mention this every time they come up on any comics blog anywhere, but I get hit with this wave of warm and misty-eyed nostalgia any time the Fireside books come up in conversation. For a few consecutive years, I always got one of those as a Xmas present (and once for my birthday if I recall correctly): Son of Origins, Greatest Superhero Battles, Superhero Women and Bring on the Bad Guys. I loved those books sooooo much and wish I still had them.
      Also, interesting that you mention the b&w DC paperbacks. I had two of those, one featuring Batman with Neal Adams art (one was the Two Face story from Batman #234) and other featuring Superboy and the Legion of Super-heroes. I never liked those as much, because a) they weren’t in color, and b) they didn’t reprint the stories in a page-to-page ratio, instead having two or three panels per page (i.e., basically half of the comic-book page), so you didn’t get as many stories per book. The Conan pocketbooks Marvel published later were like that as well, so each book only reprinted two or three issues, instead of 6 or 7 like the pocketbooks pictured in the post. But at least they were in color.

      You’re so right, otherwise: all of the special reprint books were the equivalent of the tpb and HC collections of today.

      1. Jeff Nettleton

        I had a Marvel paperback reprint of the Star wars adaptation, in black & white. featured all 6 issues of the story. They later did another Star Wars paperback, which I think was an original story, as I don’t remember it in the comics. I also had a b&w reprint of Giant Size X-Men #1. They played with it again in the 90s or early 00s, as I had one of some of the Byrne Avengers stories, which included the Wundagore sequence, with Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch and Mordred.

        They did some of their Marvel Adventure stuff in smaller reprints, as well as the Spider-Man/Human Torch mini, “I’m With Stupid,” from Dan Slott (the hilarious one that poked fun at the Hostess ads and the Spider-Mobile, in the 70s issue).

        1. Edo Bosnar

          Man, I love your comments – you keep on reminding me of stuff I had but had almost entirely forgotten: I totally had that b&w X-men book you mentioned. It came out in the early ’80s, and besides GS X-men #1 it also included X-men #117 (with the young Xavier in Cairo story). Thinking about it now, that was such an odd book.
          I also had the b&w Avengers book – that was one I bought from a comics dealer here in Zagreb some time ago, but then traded it off again when I upgraded to the Nights of Wundagore Panini digest (in glorious color). Otherwise, I just checked at Amazon, the b&w book was published in 2001.

          1. Jeff also reminds me that some of the ’00s stuff was also collected in digest form. The early issues of Spider-Girl, Runaways, I think that Emma Frost series may have been as well. Didn’t know the Spidey/Torch book was, I’ll have to look for that.

            I also have a DC Superman B&W pb from … mid-60s? that had been my dad’s. Some good stuff in there, as I remember.

          2. Edo Bosnar

            Yeah, I’ve seen those Spider-girl digests, I even have one from the Spider-girl universe that collects the Buzz and Darkdevil mini-series (found an ex-library copy for about 3-4 bucks some years ago). Those are, however, the slightly larger format digests, like the Panini Marvel books published in the UK. I actually like that format better, because as I get older I find them easier to read.

          3. frasersherman

            The ones I have real trouble with are the Savage Sword of Conan TPBs. Somehow shrinking them from magazine size to standard TPB makes reading the text … painful. Last time I read one I pretty much skipped most of the writing and just enjoyed the gorgeous artwork.

          4. Le Messor

            “The ones I have real trouble with are the Savage Sword of Conan TPBs. Somehow shrinking them from magazine size to standard TPB makes reading the text … painful.”

            1) I didn’t know there were any. Marvel or Dark Horse?

            2) I imagine shrinking the font would make it really, really hard to read.

          5. Le Messor

            I’m always impressed that Dark Horse (or IDW, for that matter) even can reprint the old Marvel works. I’ve found some of their omnibus editions very useful in the past (their Buffy and Aliens Vs Predator) for collecting serieses.

            Neither of which shrinks as much as a magazine would.

          6. frasersherman

            Two. An early seventies comic adapting some of the books (which is what got me to start reading Marvel again), which didn’t work at all — two issues per adaptation meant cutting way too much of the plot. The black and white one came a few years later, with new material, and worked a lot better.

          7. Edo Bosnar

            Interesting, I have the first two Conan phonebooks published by DarkHorse, and the Doc Savage book that collects the Marvel b&w magazine from the 1970s. I don’t have the best eyesight in the world, and I have absolutely no problems reading text in those.

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