Strange Tales Anthology

Written and Illustrated by Various Folks, including Peter Bagge, Jeffrey Brown, Becky Cloonan, Jason, James Kochalka, Michael Kupperman, Tony Millionaire, Paul Pope, Perry Bible Fellowship, Jim Rugg, Stan Sakai, and Dash Shaw

A few years back, DC got a bunch of indie creators to come together and write stories set in their superhero universe. Calling it Bizarro Comics, it was enough fun to warrant two volumes. Now Marvel gets into the act, borrowing heavily from Fantagraphics and Top Shelf's staple of artists to redefine the Marvel Universe in ways that probably has Jack Kirby spinning in his grave (with laughter) and leaving Steve Ditko shaking his reclusive head.

Playing in Marvel's sandbox has to be incredibly fun, especially for folks like Jeffrey Brown, who grew up reading X-Men stories, though he tackles a playful Fantastic Four in this collection. Most folks go for the best-known heroes, such as Spidey or the Hulk, but other dip into more obscure waters, such as Paul Pope's great Inhumans tale that could easily be in continuity and still fits the spirit of this collection.

As with any anthology, there are highs and lows. Oddly enough, it was Jim Rugg's contributions that sagged a bit for me, riffing on 1970s tropes that felt just a bit too close to the source material to make for good skewering. Chris Chua's entry was completely unreadable, at least for me. Tony Millionaire tried to mix indie comix with Iron Man, and the results were a bit mixed.

On the other hand, when this anthology is one, it's great. The Perry Bible Fellowship shows how Bruce Banner deals with sealed pickles, a done-in-one that's perfect. I already mentioned Pope's awesome Inhumans story and Brown's gag strip. James Kochalka has three Hulk shorts, the best of which is Hulk versus the Rain, which first appeared in an Annual almost ten years ago.

The Hulk was good for one final great story in this collection, by Peter Bagge. The Hulk and Bruce Banner both try to get into relationships, with hysterical results. Crass, destructive, violent, and crude, Bagge's Hulk puts anything Millar has done in the Ultmate Universe with the character to shame. The nod to Young Frankenstein at the end is pretty inspired, too.

Bagge also has an extended Spider-Man skewering, including a hit on Ditko's Randian philosophy, a cruel irony for J. Jonah Jameson, and an interesting take on the problems of Peter Parker and Spider-Man as corporate icon. Like the Hulk parody, it's pretty gritty, but the whole thing worked for me extremely well.

I can't forget to mention Michael Kupperman's several shorts, where Namor raves about the surface world's pizza and Marvel's marketing might gets a gentle rap on the nose. I was actually surprised there weren't more references to the commercialism of capes comics, but perhaps they didn't want to bite the hand that was feeding them.

Sometimes, this anthology was worth just seeing interpretations of the characters. Jason doing Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus was a real treat (and had a great, very much in Spidey character gag) and Sakai's Hulk was both recognizable and distinctive. (I do think the story itself suffered from being too compressed, however, which was a shame.)

All in all, Strange Tales is for a very specific audience. Regular comic book readers aren't likely to enjoy this one at all, and Marvel doesn't help by having this at the too-high-for-a-trade-paperback $24.99. Those who only like indie comics aren't likely to jump at stories that reinforce Marvel's rich history more than revile it. But if you're a person who's just as happy to pick up Incredible Hercules as you are Incredible Change-Bots, this collection is definitely something you want to see. In some cases, Strange doesn't even begin to describe it.