A new series is placing the Marvel Comics pantheon alongside literary classics such as Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist. For the first time ever, Penguin Classics is taking on some of Marvel’s most famous characters. The gorgeous editions collect iconic storylines from the heroes and amazing writers introduce each book. Nnedi Okorafor writes the foreword for Black Panther, Gene Luen Yang introduces Captain America, and Jason Reynolds takes on the epic task of doing the same for Spider-Man. It’s an impressive collection of writers who have shaped these characters.
To celebrate the collections, we talked with Elda Rotor (series editor and Penguin Classics publisher) and Ben Saunders (series editor and comics historian). They spoke to us about the project, its origins, its aims, and making comics accessible for everyone.
Nerdist: How did the project come about? It seems overdue. What was the process of bringing Marvel comics to Penguin Classics?
Elda Rotor: Sven Larsen at Marvel reached out and we discussed the publishing program of Penguin Classics and explored the idea of placing early Marvel comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others in the Penguin Classics canon, framed with the question we post to all our titles: what makes a classic? The idea of contextualizing Marvel comics as Penguin Classics was exciting and our intention was to treat these works as we would any other classic, with thoughtful curation of selections, a scholarly introduction, a foreword that explored the timeless and timely quality of the work, and suggestions for further reading.
Ben Saunders: My understanding is that both publishers thought it made sense to acknowledge the cultural status of such foundational Marvel titles as Lee and Ditko’s Spider-Man, but were considering a variety of possibilities as to the mode of presentation. Sven Larsen of Marvel Publishing was familiar with my work as a comics scholar and suggested my name to Elda Rotor at Penguin as a possible series editor. Elda got in touch and we exchanged several letters and emails about the idea.
I wanted to break from the “completist” model of pre-existing reprint collections and to cherry pick some of the more influential stories from the first few years worth of several key series, and to provide a genuinely scholarly apparatus—just as you would find in a Penguin Classics edition of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. I also thought we could find some interesting supplementary materials to include in the back of the books.
The goal was to create collections that would appeal to fans, but would also be useful to teachers trying to figure out how to take a historical approach to the genre—and perhaps even to a younger generation of creators who might be more familiar with recent comics, but not this older “classic” material.
To my delight, Elda liked these ideas, and endorsed this new approach from the beginning—as did Sven at Marvel. It has been great to have such supportive editors and collaborators.
When it came to curating the first three editions how did you come to choose the selected characters and comics?
BS: From the beginning, the focus was to be on “classic” Marvel. That is, material dating from the 1960s and 1970s, which is when the foundations of the modern Marvel Universe were first laid down.
But with certain characters, such as Captain America, I was able to reach back to the so-called Golden Age. It has always frustrated me as a teacher that I could not find a “one volume” collection that allowed students to read World War II Captain America comics by Simon and Kirby alongside the revived Cap tales of the 1960s by Lee and Kirby—and to compare and contrast the very different versions of this iconic hero. Now we have just such a book. And it even includes the [Jim] Steranko illustrated tales from the late 1960s, too!
We actually chose six different foundational Marvel titles for this series of books, with a view to releasing them in two groups of three. So the characters in the current volumes are not the only ones represented in the series. There are three more volumes to come. But the goal, as I say, was to provide accessible single volume collections devoted to foundational series from the 1960s (and, in the case of the Panther, the 1970s).
I can hardly wait for people to see all six volumes, and I hope we get a chance to do six more after that!
Panther’s Rage is such a foundational book. Previously, it had been hard to find reprinted until the last few years. Could you talk a little about its importance and the vital work of Billy Graham?
BS: The Black Panther volume will include not only “Panther’s Rage,” but the iconic origin of the character from the pages of the Fantastic Four by Lee and Kirby.
Lee and Kirby set out to reverse the cliches of the Tarzan movies and jungle adventure pulps with which they grew up. So, for example, instead of imagining Africa as “primitive” they decided to make it the site of the most technologically advanced nation in the world, Wakanda. As a result they kind of fell backwards into Afro-futurism!
But having made this remarkable leap, they perhaps did not fully recognize the potential of their own creative discovery. It would be writer Don McGregor [and artists] Rich Buckler, and Billy Graham—the first Black creator to work on Panther—who began the process of unpacking that legacy by setting the first Black Panther series in Wakanda. In so doing, McGregor, Buckler, and Graham made T’Challa’s relationship to Wakandan history, society, and culture exert central to their narrative. And this is something that almost everyone who has worked on the Black Panther since those days has been similarly compelled to do. It’s there in Priest’s groundbreaking work, and is the main focus of the first year of Coates’s run. But that extensive creative speculation about life in Wakanda really begins with McGregor, Buckler, and Graham.
You’ve got a really impressive selection of creators to introduce each of the books. Could you talk a little about them?
ER: When we commission contributors for Penguin Classics, we think about what it means to introduce a classic. These forewords are meant to be an invitation to something special and also an opportunity to share, from one reader to another, why the work they are about to read is particularly relevant. I decided to commission YA authors, because like the founding creators of Marvel comics, these authors are greatly influencing and impacting young people’s reading lives. They are introducing themes and characters that may very well be personally canonical in time, much like the superheroes that they celebrate in their forewords.
BS: I still cannot quite believe that my name is appearing along the names of Jason Reynolds, Nnedi Okorafor, and Gene Luen Yang. I admire all of them so much. I mean, American Born Chinese was among the first graphic novels I ever taught.
What’s wonderful about reading their introductions, though, is realizing that they feel the same way I do about these iconic characters. They write well—and often movingly—about how the comics of their youth inspired them and set them on the path to becoming the creators they are today. And that was my experience too, in a slightly different way. I don’t have their creative talent, but my early encounters with these comics also shaped me, and influenced my life choices. These comics also inspired me to read, to become a professor of literature, and a teacher of the comics form.
It’s just amazing to consider how these comics have shaped the lives of so many different people, have touched us all in similar ways. By writing about those experiences, Jason, Nnedi, and Gene help to demonstrate—if further demonstration is needed—the value of these classic Marvel comics as shared cultural touchstones.
Something that really excites me about these collections is how accessible they make these landmark stories. A big part of that is the low price point. Could you talk about that aspect of creating the books and why it was so important to the collection?
ER: Channeling the founder of Penguin Books, Allen Lane, Penguin Classics is committed to providing readers with the most authoritative, accessible, high-quality editions of the world’s classics. Having the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection available not only in gorgeous gift-worthy hardcover editions, but also in our signature black spine Penguin Classics paperbacks hopefully provides editions that will be appealing and affordable especially to students, and we encourage educators and librarians to use these editions in classrooms, book clubs, and reading groups.
BS: I wasn’t really part of that choice but having seen advance copies I can say I am *stunned* at how good the books look. The low price point has not meant any loss of quality. Iin fact, I think the books look even better than the old Marvel Masterworks, because the paper stock we have used is more suitable for the coloring techniques of these reprints.
What do you hope the Penguin Classics editions achieve?
BS: Well, the comics themselves have already achieved so much! But I hope that these Penguin Classics editions will introduce a younger generation of readers to the source material for the contemporary franchise that they enjoy. And hope that libraries, schools, and teachers will find them a useful resource here, too.
These comics are both the templates or Ur-texts for a huge swathe of modern culture AND potential gateways to literacy. If these collections can help these comics to continue to do what they have always done—to inspire readers, to inspire story-tellers, to inspire positive emulation—then their existence is justified.
The Penguin Classics editions of Black Panther, Captain America, and The Amazing Spider-Man hit shelves on June 14.