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6 of Marvel Comics’ most underrated epics

Including the one where Captain America’s a werewolf

Captain America transforms into a werewolf, breaking the bonds that once strapped him to an examining table, in Captain America #405, Marvel Comics (1992). Image: Mark Gruenwald, Rik Levins/Marvel Comics

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Marvel Comics was built on long stories. It’s been that way since the very beginning, when the universe was constructed, issue-by-issue, around Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s 102 installments of Fantastic Four. It paved the way for a universe that felt like a cohesive whole, and encouraged a readership that followed creators as much as characters for the first time in superhero comics. Marvel’s ongoing, interweaving soap operatic sagas set it apart from its distinguished competition, which was, and arguably still is, built more around individual stories.

And what of the sagas themselves? Mixed in with classics like Chris Claremont’s 17 years on X-Men, or modern runs like Dan Slott spending a decade on Spider-Man, there are plenty of long runs that don’t get the credit they deserve. Whether they’re overshadowed by more famous runs on the same title, overlooked for being old-fashioned, or lost to time and the dollar boxes because they can never be reprinted, they’re still pillars on which the universe is built.

If you’re overwhelmed by lists of shorter series to read, and just want to settle down with one epic yarn, here are six Marvel long runs to dive into.

Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America

Captain America hangs his head below a banner that reads “Captain America No More!” on the cover of Captain America #332, Marvel Comics (1987). Image: Mike Zeck, Klaus Janson/Marvel Comics

Captain America #307 - 443, July, 1985 - September, 1995

Notable Collaborators: Paul Neary, Kieron Dwyer, Mark Bright

At any other company, and in any other era, Mark Gruenwald’s ten-year run as the writer of Captain America would stand out as the remarkable achievement that it is. Unfortunately, in a decade full of brilliant runs, it’s always been overshadowed by its more groundbreaking contemporaries. These days, it seems like it’s mostly remembered, and not that fondly, for stuff like the story where Cap becomes a werewolf for a hot minute, or the issues where he wears his suit of awkward-looking battle armor.

Here’s the thing, though: that stuff rules, actually. There is no question that Gruenwald and artist Rik Levins were 100% in on the joke of Capwolf — at one point, Cap gives one of his big speeches to rally a bunch of werewolves, but, because he’s half border collie at the time, it mostly comes out as growling and the word “freedom,” which is hilarious. And those issues with Cap’s ‘90s battle armor? It marks the end of Gruenwald’s run where Cap faces his own mortality, has a heart-to-heart with Batroc the Leaper because Batroc notices his old sparring partner is depressed, and claims that his epitaph should be “He Didn’t Do Enough.”

The whole run is full of stuff like that, where a deceptively over-the-top premise hides something deeper and more rewarding. That’s the run that pit Captain America against supervillains who organized themselves into a corporation, and gave the Red Skull his own private army in the form of Crossbones and the Skeleton Crew. It’s the run where Steve Rogers was forced out of his identity, and where we saw John Walker’s breakdown, prompted by a scene that’s shockingly violent by both 1988 standards and today’s. It’s pure superhero adventure that never really lost what made it great at its peak. Also, Diamondback is Cap’s best love interest in a walk. Don’t @ me.

Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil

Daredevil battles a demon-possessed vacuum cleaner on the cover of Daredevil #262, Marvel Comics (1989). Image: John Romita Jr., Al Williamson/Marvel Comics

Daredevil #236 - 291, November, 1986 - April, 1991

Notable Collaborators: John Romita Jr., Barry Windsor-Smith, Kieron Dwyer

Describing the best issues of Ann Nocenti’s run on Daredevil sometimes sounds like you’re talking about a dream you had that you can’t quite remember. There’s the one where Daredevil fights a vacuum cleaner that’s possessed by a demon (#262), or the one where Ultron builds a mountain of his own skulls and sits on top of it contemplating his own existence until Daredevil crashes into him with a pickup truck and beats him to death with a stick and also the Inhumans are there (#276). Or, my personal favorite, the one where Bullseye dresses up as Daredevil so Daredevil dresses up as Bullseye and then they fight each other as each other and Bullseye/Daredevil has a breakdown because he realizes that Daredevil always beats Bullseye, so he (Bullseye) can’t beat Daredevil, even though he’s Daredevil and Daredevil is Bullseye (#290).

It’s a wild ride, but that’s what’s great about it. Each of those issues described above is, at its core, a story about violence and how it fails us, told through the kind of heightened drama that superheroes are built for. Nocenti once called fight scenes “tumors on the storyline,” and her run treats them as things that only happen when everything has broken down. It’s a story of contrasts and the way there’s always a conflict between them, which is embodied in Nocenti’s best-remembered creation alongside John Romita Jr., Typhoid Mary.

I’d go as far as saying that Nocenti’s run, has a strong claim on being the best Daredevil run of all time, and yes, that includes the ones you’re thinking of. Even with a few strong contenders that dive deep into tragedy and the psychology behind Matt Murdock’s vigilante alter ego, there are few that do it with this kind of philosophical thoughtfulness. Also, to my knowledge, it is one of only two superhero stories where someone fights a vacuum cleaner, and the other one is an episode of Sailor Moon.

Gene Colan and Marv Wolfman’s Dracula

Dracula points at the reader, backgrounded by a skull moon and a creepy church. “Gaze into the eyes of Dracula, human fool,” he declares, “And see your death!” on the cover of Tomb of Dracula #55, Marvel Comics (1977). Image: Gene Colan, Tom Palmer/Marvel Comics

Tomb of Dracula #1 - 70, (April, 1972 - August, 1979)

The great thing about Dracula is that he’s been in the public domain for 120 years, which means that anyone can do their version of the character. The bad thing is that everyone has, so if you’re going to create one that stands the test of time, you need to do something special.

For Marvel, that “something special” was putting Gene Colan on their version, Tomb of Dracula, about four seconds after the Comics Code loosened its stranglehold on the supernatural in the early ‘70s, and then tossing the lord of the vampires headfirst into a world full of superheroes. Colan would give Drac one of his best looks in the entirety of pop culture, and stay on the book for its entire run. After he arrived in #7, Marv Wolfman would stick around for the next 63 issues, too, and in that time, they provided the definitive example of how to make adapting Dracula — a Draculadaptation, if you will — work.

The original premise was that the book would follow a group of CW-esque vampire hunters who were chasing after Dracula, but Colan and Wolfman quickly realized the problem with that: The person standing next to Dracula is rarely as interesting as Dracula himself. For most of the run, Dracula is the protagonist, and rather than keeping him confined in a horror-themed corner of the universe, Colan and Wolfman embraced the opportunity. Like, the dude fights the Silver Surfer in #50, and that’s the second-most Marvel Comics thing you can do.

Through it all, Colan’s lavish pencils would give the book its own unique character, and Wolfman’s bombastic dialogue — Dracula calls people “witless poltroons” so often that even Doctor Doom thinks he should chill — would make him a delight to read.

Bill Mantlo’s ROM

ROM, an armored space knight, holds a child aloft by its neck, as Wolverine battles him futilely. Storm and Colossus look on in horror on the cover of an issue of Rom Spaceknight, Marvel Comics. Image: Marvel Comics

ROM Spaceknight #1 - 75, December, 1979 - February, 1986

Notable Collaborators: Sal Buscema, Steve Ditko

The importance of licensed comics to Marvel’s history can’t really be overstated. Getting the Star Wars license pretty much saved the company during the lean years of the late ‘70s. In the ‘80s, though, there was one consistent, engaging title that was way more entertaining and sophisticated than it had any right to be, for a comic based on a toy for babies. And that comic… was Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe.

Oh, also there was ROM, in which Bill Mantlo, Sal Buscema, and Steve Ditko managed to take a toy line with exactly one toy, a bulky robot with glowing eyes and big ol’ metal mitten hands, and spin it into seven years of space-faring Marvel mythology. The fact that there wasn’t really much to ROM to begin with — the actual advertisements for the toy had suggestions on what kids could pretend he could do — gave Mantlo the freedom to just slide him right into the Marvel Universe, which is exactly what he did. The character’s backstory and adventures were woven through everything from the X-Men books to Shang Chi, just as though he’d been created for the comics, because everything about him essentially was.

That led to great stuff. The climax of the first 25 issues, in which ROM weaponizes the Marvel Universe itself by leading Galactus to the home of his enemies, is great. He even had Rick Jones as a sidekick for a while, which is the most Marvel Comics thing you can do.

Unfortunately, despite being tied into so much back in the ‘80s, ROM can’t be reprinted (or even mentioned these days), because Marvel no longer has the rights to the character, and even his guest appearances in books like Power Man & Iron Fist are left out of reprints. Those rights, owned by Hasbro, are currently over at IDW, where they’re in the rough position of only having the rights to ROM, not to any of the stuff that was created alongside him. Still, there’s a certain kind of magic to digging up those back issues and getting a look at the weirder side of ‘80s Marvel.

Mantlo’s career was tragically cut short when he was the victim of a hit-and-run accident in 1992 that left him with permanent brain damage and in need of care. There are ways to help him and his family out financially, but if you want to see how talented he was at spinning stories from almost nothing, you could do a lot worse than to check out what he did with ROM.

Roger Stern’s Avengers

Thor and the Avengers (Captain America, Pulsar, Black Knight, Doctor Druid) charge forward on the cover of Avengers #276, Marvel Comics (1977). Image: John Buscema, Tom Palmer/Marvel Comics

Avengers #227 - 287, January, 1983 - January, 1988

Notable collaborators: Sal Buscema, John Buscema, Al Milgrom

It’s difficult to imagine after 10 years of movies about them, but it’s only relatively recently that the Avengers have actually been a big deal. They’ve been there since the beginning, sure, but they were never at the center of the universe in the way that the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and Spider-Man were. For the first 40 years of their existence, the book might as well have been called Captain America and His Amazing Friends.

Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the ‘60s and Kurt Busiek and George Perez in the ‘90s, there’s a whole lot of blank space where I’m sure things happened but I can’t really tell you what they were. And there’s also the Roger Stern run.

Stern is probably best known for writing a perfect Spider-Man story, “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut,” in 1982, but the centerpiece of his five-year run on Avengers is arguably every bit as good. It’s called “Under Siege,” running from #270 - 277 with art by John Buscema, and it’s built on the simple premise of the Avengers being trapped in their own headquarters by the Masters of Evil. It’s the crown jewel of the run, but it’s far from the only good thing he did alongside

Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz, and Pat Oliffe’s Spider-Girl

Spider-Girl swings through the concrete canyons on the cover of Spectacular Spider-Girl #1, Marvel Comics (2009). Image: Ron Frenz, Sal Buscema/Marvel Comics

Spider-Girl #1- 100, October, 1998 - September, 2006

Spider-Girl was a comic that was about two months from getting canceled, every month, for about ten years. It’s notable for a lot of other reasons, including being the longest-running series with a woman in the lead role that Marvel has ever published, but looking at it in its contemporary context is downright fascinating.

It launched in 1998, when Marvel was clawing its way back from bankruptcy by throwing out whatever wild ideas they could come up with. Like, say, launching an entire imprint based around Spider-Man’s daughter from an alternate future who had appeared in one (1) issue of What If that somebody at Wizard really liked. The result was Spider-Girl, a comic that debuted just in time for the rise of comics fandom on the Internet, and was perpetually balanced between low sales and an incredibly vocal die-hard audience that managed to keep it going every time it started winding down to cancelation.

It lasted long enough for Marvel to change their entire publishing strategy, realizing that they could break into bookstores and reach a new audience if they ever bothered to put anything other than Secret Wars and The Dark Phoenix Saga into a paperback, especially if that book had a self-contained continuity. I have my suspicions that if they didn’t have Spider-Girl as a prototype, Marvel might not have put out Ultimate Spider-Man two years later — finding another long-running, continuity-lite hit with new readers.

Oh, also a bunch of stuff happened in the book itself, because, you know, there’s a hundred issues of it and DeFalco, Frenz, and Oliffe were actively pushing back against a superhero storytelling trend that favored slowing down stories to give the drama some room to breathe. Ultimate Spider-Man is probably the perfect example, expanding Spidey’s original eleven-page origin into a full six issues. Spider-Girl #1, meanwhile, has a recap of May Parker’s origin, a recap of Peter Parker’s origin, two costume changes, a conspiracy involving an ominous cameo from the Kingpin, and a basketball game where May literally dunks on her classmates, and still has room for two fight scenes.

It gets more impressive when you check the credits: DeFalco, Frenze, and Oliffe were involved with all but one of Spider-Girl’s 100-odd issues. After Spider-Girl ended, though, they came back two months later for another 31 issues as Amazing Spider-Girl. Then they came back after that for another ten issues as Spectacular Spider-Girl, then another four as Spectacular Spider-Girl Vol. 2, and then, finally, a one-shot that wrapped everything up.

All told, that’s 149 issues that, astonishingly, very few people ever seem to talk about or acknowledge for the towering run that it is. Then again, given the book’s history of prompting extreme reactions, maybe we’re in a Candyman situation. We’re all just afraid that if we say Spider-Girl three times, Tom DeFalco’s going to show up and start telling you why Thunderstrike was also an underrated gem.

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