The Golden Age of Marvel Comics, Vols. 1 & 2 ($20 and $30). In the 1940s, when Marvel was called Timely, a legion of young subcontractors cranked out enthusiastic fantasies in modes ranging from art-deco elegance to bizarre whimsy. These volumes are a terrific primer to Jack Kirby and Joe Simon's Captain America, Bill Everett's Sub-Mariner, and Carl Burgos's Human Torch.
Masterworks Fantastic Four, Vols. 5 & 6 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee ($25 each). Kirby and Lee hit their stride in 1965. Perfectly balancing cosmic adventure, goofy humor, and eschatological angst, they rolled out the Inhumans, a superpowered family of exiled royalty; Galactus, an alien devourer of planets; and the African hero Black Panther.
Daredevil, Vol. 2 by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson ($30). Frank Miller's noir-infused Daredevil returned the superhero comic to its pulpy roots. And given the presence of the femme fatale assassin Elektra, it could be argued that these issues introduced American audiences to the concept of the ninja.
Masterworks Spider-Man, Vol. 4 by Steve Ditko, John Romita Sr., and Stan Lee ($25). Three years after co-creating Spider-Man, artist Ditko began plotting the stories without any input from Lee, who continued writing dialogue. The comic didn't suffer: Among the unlikely highlights here is an issue devoted to Spider-Man lifting a chunk of cast-iron rubble.
Masterworks Uncanny X-Men, Vols. 4 & 5 by Chris Claremont and John Byrne ($25 each). Claremont and Byrne excelled at blending soap-o pera drama and sci-fi grandiosity. In this context, it's no wonder that the beer-guzzling Wolverine became a star attraction — story lines about mind control and intergalactic genocide threw his tough-guy charm into sharp relief.
Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross ($25). Amid the humorlessness of many 1990s comics, Marvels was a throwback antidote — a simple story about a normal guy who'd spent his life watching superheroes from the sidelines. Busiek wove through decades of history with the skill of E.L. Doctorow.
— Sean Howe's book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a behind-the-scenes look at the comic-book publisher's rise from obscure pulp factory to cultural force.