When Marvel comics introduced the Marvel Graphic Novel series 35 years ago, it helped change the comics industry.
The series was a line of original graphic novel trade paperbacks published from 1982 to 1993, and was inspired by the success of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s The Silver Surfer: The Ultimate Cosmic Experience in 1978, said to be Marvel’s first true original graphic novel.
Marvel’s then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter envisioned a line of graphic novels published on much better paper stock, with cardboard covers, and in an oversized format (20cm x 27cm or 8.5 inches x 11 inches) similar to what the French comics industry was doing at the time.
The Marvel Graphic Novel series helped the rise of comic books with longer and more ambitious storylines, and also popularised collected editions and trade paperbacks that allow comics fans to read stories that they might have otherwise missed when they were released as single issues.
Today, buying graphic novels or trade paperbacks has become a norm, as the accessibility and convenience of getting all your favourite comic stories in one handy book has changed the way people read and collect comics.
In conjunction with the 35th anniversary this year of this format that impacted the industry so much, we revisit 10 of the best Marvel Graphic Novels released.
The Death Of Captain Marvel (1982)
The first Marvel Graphic Novel ever published, and a worthy debut for the series. This standalone tale by writer/artist Jim Starlin about Kree Captain Marvel, Mar-Vell’s Waterloo sets the standard for all subsequent heroic deaths.
Unlike the usual death-by-combat scenario, the greatest Kree warrior’s demise was rather unusual for a superhero: he died from cancer! Identifying the cause also raised a big question: can superheroes, with their scientific and mystical abilities, cure cancer?
While the combined power of Earth and Titan’s finest brains have scientific evidence explaining why they could not save Mar-Vell, it is the post-death reaction from the Kree (Mar-Vell’s home species), the Skrulls (his biggest enemies), and Thanos (his greatest enemy) that makes this one-shot such a brilliant masterpiece.
Thanos’ parting gift to Mar-Vell stands out especially as THE best “till death do us part” moment in comics, ever.
The New Mutants (1982)
Also written by Claremont, together with artist Bob McLeod, this Marvel Graphic Novel’s biggest contribution is the “X-Babies” who graduate from this graphic novel to star in regular series, and even went on to introduce big names like Cable and Deadpool!
Being granted a “graphic novel debut” implied that they were meant for bigger things, and it proved to be true, as Cannonball, Mirage, Karma, Sunspot, and Wolfsbane cemented their positions as a golden generation of the Children of the Atom.
X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (1982)
Created by writer Chris Claremont and artist Brent Anderson, this story is a milestone in X-Men mythology, as it marks the first time Magneto collaborates with his mortal enemies, the X-Men.
For decades, the Master of Magnetism had been portrayed as a megalomaniac, but this graphic novel highlights his dedication to fighting for the mutant cause.
United by a common enemy in Reverend William Stryker, the X-Men and Magneto join forces to manage an amplified surge in mutant paranoia. For the record, this story also formed the basis for 2003’s X2: X-Men United movie.
Daredevil: Love And War (1986)
Is there a writer whose style is more suited to the graphic novel medium than Frank Miller? With the regular Daredevil series not “big” enough to accommodate the growing Daredevil-Kingpin rivalry, this dedicated oversized and extra-long storytelling avenue gave the two rivals the perfect battleground on which to resolve their differences.
The “mature readers only” rating gave Miller the perfect excuse to go brutal in the script, while the high quality paper used was perfect to showcase artist Bill Sienkiewicz’s oil-based abstract illustrations.
Death Of Groo (1987)
Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier’s bumbling barbarian Groo is an iconic character for the ages. Having (at that time) proven himself in three comics universes (Pacific, Eclipse, and Marvel), Groo’s idiocy and ineptness gets a bigger stage with this Marvel Graphic Novel.
You can expect the usual combination of comic relief, poetic sarcasm, and quality bang for your buck in every panel – but what you wouldn’t expect is that there is actually someone who cares about Groo (and is NOT Rufferto)!
Emperor Doom (1987)
The one where writer David Michelinie and artist Bob Hall address the question “What if Doctor Doom ruled the world?”
The surprising thing is, many of us might actually like the answer! Under Doom’s reign, social ills and global challenges are a thing of the past, as his authoritarian approach ends famines, war, and unnecessary political bickering.
Thanks to the Zebediah Kilgrave, aka the Purple Man, Doom is able to exert his will globally and on our heroes. However, a rogue team – comprising Wonder Man, Captain America, Iron Man, and the Wasp – feels that free will is still better than Utopia on Earth. Spoilsports.
Iron Man: Crash (1988)
In the primitive days of computer-assisted art techniques, one man, Mike Saenz, took it upon himself to create the first graphic novel to be entirely drawn on a computer. Taking a whole year to complete, Saenz’s effort was state of the art at the time, and offered a glimpse into the digital future of mainstream comics.
Dr Strange And Dr Doom: Triumph And Torment (1989)
Monarch. Evil genius. World dominator. All terms associated with Dr Doom, the Fantastic Four’s greatest villain and the man who single-handedly bested the Beyonder. However, this graphic novel by writer Roger Stern and artist Mike Mignola (yes, THE Mike Mignola!) emphasises the one aspect of Doom seldom touched on: he’s actually a mummy’s boy!
While there have been occasional flashbacks to Cynthia Von Doom’s tragic past as a sorcerer whose soul is trapped by Mephisto, Doom has made little progress on rectifying the situation. That is, until this issue in which Doom indirectly “earns” a favour from Dr Strange and uses it to free his mother’s soul.
Despite the darkness generated by the presence of Doom and Mephisto, there are actually flashes of light from Doom’s unexpected sense of honour and Cynthia’s redemption.
Silver Surfer: Judgement Day (1989)
It takes something really special to unite the legendary Stan Lee, master artist John Buscema, the world-devouring Galactus, Silver Surfer, and Mephisto.
This Marvel Graphic Novel perfectly encapsulates the excitement of the Marvel universe during the 1960s and 1970s; and to make this more than just a nostalgic moment, you even have Buscema illustrating the entire book with one-page splashes only, beautifully capturing the cosmic essence of this adventure.
Swords Of The Swashbucklers (1984)
Writer Bill Mantlo and artist Jackson Guice’s Marvel Graphic Novel may seem an unusual choice for this list, but bear with me, as this happens to be my first ever graphic novel, and it came at an opportunity cost of 10 regular comic books! I was 10 then and owning an graphic novel was a luxury.
Looking back, I have no regrets on making this B-grade version of Guardians of the Galaxy my first purchase – they were a promising team and had cinematic potential (that has been borne out now, of course).