Prestigious reprints of comic books have been around for a long time, thanks to the surge of value for the first issue of Action Comics or whatever and the gradual evolution of culture as the kids who read comic books have become grown-ups who spend money on tickets to comic book movies and comic book video games and comic book toys. Those prestigious reprints are usually handled by the original publisher, though, making them tools for the companies to promote their characters or stories in the way that makes the most sense from a business standpoint (like if a movie is coming out or if they need to make sure that the rights never revert to the original author and guts a reliable revenue stream).
Penguin Classics’ new line of Marvel collections, at least in theory, are different. Rather than Marvel itself saying “these Spider-Man comics are important,” it’s Penguin Classics, which creates a fascinating new layer to what makes these new books “prestigious.” This is the company with the uniform cover designs and that make everything look nice on the shelf, the company that ostensibly has very high standards about what is worthy of being labeled a Penguin Classic. These books are a Big Deal and now Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Captain America are among them.
The books, available in standard Penguin Classics paperback format and stylish color-coded hardcovers with gold details (for the true snooty nerd), contain a handful of classic comics starring Spider-Man, Black Panther, or Captain America, starting with their debut and then mostly staying in that time period—meaning the Spidey book, for example, is entirely Stan Lee and Steve Ditko stories. You won’t see “Kraven’s Last Hunt” or anything with Venom or even Mary Jane Watson.
There are also varying amounts of supplementary materials in each book, with the highlight of the Spider-Man collection arguably (and incongruously, given the fact that it’s a book about Spider-Man) being the full reprint of Amazing Fantasy #15—including the non-Spider-Man stories—and a Lee/Ditko short called “Goodbye To Linda Brown” about an orphaned teenager with a mysterious secret being raised by her Aunt May and Uncle Ben (the story has nothing to do with Spider-Man beyond the names).
But you can read old comics anywhere, both in Marvel’s own prestige reprints and on the many digital comics apps, so Penguin Classics wisely set their books apart with interesting material that sets up context for the characters and why they’re important and worth showcasing in these books. Each volume has a foreword written by a famous fan of the character (or former writer on one of their books), with Gene Luen Yang writing about connecting to Captain America as the story of a child of immigrants and Jason Reynolds writing a lovely essay about his brother (capturing the time-honored tradition of passing on comic book knowledge as if it’s a modern mythology carried through generations).
One fascinating thing about these forewords is that they sometimes touch on subject matter that Marvel probably wouldn’t be as comfortable showcasing. Nnedi Okorafor’s intro to the Black Panther book, for example, talks about her being drawn to comic books as a kid but never feeling comfortable actually walking into a comic store due to the fact that she was always treated as an outsider by the overwhelmingly white patrons and owners—not to mention the distinct lack of women or Black people on the covers of superhero books.
Those essays add emotional context to the stories, explaining why they’re important to people and why they’ve lasted for generations, but the books also have a general primer on the history of Marvel comics (the same one is printed in each book) and a specific introduction to that book’s character, all written by comic book academic Ben Saunders. Those offer important historical context for the characters and why these stories in particular are important, but they also expose one (arguable) flaw with these collections and any collections like them: They simply cannot be comprehensive.
This in particular makes the Captain America book an odd duck. The old ’40s comics used as World War II propaganda are significant for a whole different reason than his subsequent Avengers stories, with only the latter really falling in line with The Point of these collections. The book has Captain America Comics #1 by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the one with Cap socking Hitler in the jaw on the cover (long before the attack on Pearl Harbor), but after that it jumps from the ‘’40s to the ’60s when Kirby and Stan Lee brought Captain America back for new stories alongside the Avengers and for flashback stories that retcon what Captain America was doing during the war.
So you’re not getting the first Captain America stories, you’re getting the first Captain America stories that matter, at least in regards to the character as we know him today. Saunders, in his intro, dances around the problem with this and introduces a new one by pointing out that Captain America has always been used to reflect change in society, filling whatever role a guy dressed like the stars and stripes might need to fill, which carries through to more recent iconic Cap stories like the “Winter Soldier” arc. Naturally, this collection does not include any of the “Winter Soldier” stories, despite Saunders pointing out how important and Earth-shattering they were for the character, which makes it feel like the book itself is acknowledging how incomplete it is.
But, again, being complete would be impossible, and each volume does helpfully include a list of books for further reading. It’s not really a problem that Venom isn’t in the Spidey book or that we don’t see Bucky Barnes get his metal arm in the Cap book (or any of Christopher Priest’s iconic Black Panther stories in that book), but it does reflect that the purpose of these books is a little muddy. Are they for hardcore fans who want something nice on a shelf? Are they for people who like prestige books and want to see what makes these superheroes a big deal?
The answer doesn’t seem to be “yes” for either one, but something closer to “sure, why not?” None of these books are the ultimate compilation of their heroes’ stories or even the ultimate compilation of their first stories, but from the covers to the high-minded introductory essays to the simple white title pages that just say Captain America or The Amazing Spider-Man or Black Panther in a plain font, they are at least very clearly high-quality and prestigious compilations of some stories. They look good on a shelf, which is the point of Penguin Classics anyway.