1-4. Essential Spider-Man Vols. 1-4
Stan Lee's self-hyped "Marvel Age Of Comics" began with the publication of Fantastic Four #1, but it didn't really get its pizzazz until Lee and artist Steve Ditko created teenage nerd Peter Parker and his alter ego, the more confident and charismatic Spider-Man. While Lee milked the high-school soap opera and indulged his passion for slangy dialogue, Ditko created strikingly spare and often cartoony designs for Spider-Man's gallery of grotesque villains. The collaborators got up to speed quick in the 20-odd issues reprinted in Essential Spider-Man Vol. 1, and by the period represented in the second volume, they'd mastered the series' pace and tone, balancing white-knuckle action with slow-burning serialized adventures. Ditko was long gone by the time Spider-Man swung his way into the late '60s, in the stories reprinted in volumes 3 and 4, but those collections are almost as vital for the way they show Lee and artist John Romita engaging directly with their growing college audience, throwing in hipster references and amping up the fun. Re-reading all four volumes–the most essential of the bargain-priced, black-and-white Marvel Essentials book series–is like watching a pop-culture revolution unfold, month by month.
5. Essential Dr. Strange Vol. 1
6-7. Essential Fantastic Four Vols. 3-4
8. Essential Silver Surfer Vol. 1
9. Essential Howard The Duck Vol. 1
10. Essential X-Men Vol. 2
The '60s version of The X-Men never found a consistent theme, but when writer Chris Claremont and artist Dave Cockrum helped revive the team in the mid-'70s, they picked up on the industry-wide trend of heroic outsiders, and made their merry band of mutants not so merry. The "New" X-Men were angrier, moodier, and more harried, as they zipped from one life-threatening adventure to the next with few breathers. They were also just as middlingly popular with readers as the original X-Men, until Cockrum left the book (about midway through the issues collected in Essential X-Men Vol. 1) and was replaced by the more polished and dazzlingly detail-oriented John Byrne. Claremont and Byrne went on a white-hot run, the bulk of which is captured in the second Essential X-Men volume, as they tied the "outcast hero" trend to Lee and Ditko's relentless, cliffhanger-heavy Spider-Man pacing. The duo created a zeitgeist-capturing juggernaut that, for better and worse, was to quirky early-'70s superhero comics what Jaws and Star Wars were to pensive early-'70s American movies. There have been some worthy new Marvel series in the decades since, but with the Claremont/Byrne X-Men, the Marvel hero arguably mutated to its final, superior form.