Until the Champions set up in Los Angeles in 1976, Marvel superheroes operated almost exclusively in New York, so that was a novelty. Finding anything else remotely original or interesting over the first half of this collection is hard work. There are good intentions about a superhero team for the common man, but they’re never given more than passing acknowledgement, and opening writer Tony Isabella handicapped himself from the start by an eccentric team selection of Angel, Black Widow, Ghost Rider, Hercules and Iceman. There was little common ground, and neither Isabella nor subsequent writer Bill Mantlo could generate much in the way of comradeship beyond bickering. Ghost Rider especially is a fish out of water, his supernatural personality and essential motorcycle ill suited to bright superheroics.

All that is even before any contemplation of the art. If there’s any Masterworks edition with more pages of ordinary, uninspired and plain poor art, it’s something to stay well clear of. Sal Buscema displays his usual professionalism, but otherwise only John Byrne early in his career shows any enthusiasm, thinking about his layouts and making sure the action looks interesting. Bob Hall’s pages are poor fare compared with the house standard of the era, but beyond that Don Heck and George Tuska display no inclination to do more than the bare minimum necessary to knock out the story.

There is some progression over Mantlo’s run as writer, although he starts poorly with padding and melodrama. He expands the cast, features other Marvel heroes, throws in some interesting plot developments, and is blessed by Byrne’s contribution. However, in order to maintain a chronological presentation, the better material from toward the end of the Champions’ own comic is interrupted by lesser work, almost all also by Mantlo paired with poorer artists.

Barring Isabella’s introduction, most of this material had already been published over two paperback collections of The Champions Classic, subsequently combined as The Champions Classic: The Complete Collection. However, none of those include the related Hulk story included here, by some distance the most entertaining in the collection if allowances are made for it featuring the thought balloons and emotional exposition common to the era. In two years since he’d drawn The Champions Byrne’s art progressed tremendously, and he’s now in his prime, providing page after page excellently laid out superhero action in a story he co-plots with Roger Stern. It features Angel and Iceman, and while having a condescending attitude to women, the superhero content still thrills.

Isabella reports being asked to sign copies of the Champions’ first issue at every convention he attends, indicating plenty of people are fond of the series. For them, this is the best presentation on offer, hardbound and more complete, although the ‘Volume 1’ subtitle is puzzling as the book mops up all content connected with this iteration of the Champions.