Saturday, 23 March 2013

Essential Fantastic Four volume 1

I'm starting my look at the team books with none other than Essential Fantastic Four volume 1. This contains issues #1-20 & Annual #1 from the very original Fantastic Four series, right back at the start of the Marvel era of comics. Everything is credited to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, with issue #9 onwards breaking down the credits as written by Lee and drawn by Kirby. Much ink has been spilled and many a keyboard hit in debate about just how much each contributed to the stories, not helped by both of them having poor memories and frankly not realising at the time just how much this was going to matter to some people. Forthcoming posts will feature more Lee/Kirby collaborations so please take it as read that this reflects the credits given on the original comics and/or in the contents pages of the volumes but doesn't drill into the finer detail on a murky matter.

It's no exaggeration to say that the issues in this volume are the foundation stone of the Marvel universe. The company may have been publishing comics since the late 1930s, and the Sub-Mariner might be a revival of one of their characters, and the Human Torch a reinterpretation of another, but it was here that Lee & Kirby rewrote the rulebook and presented a very different style of superhero comic from that which had gone before them. The success of this title led to many others, and the concepts would go on to fuel decades of creativity. It's also amazing that both creators lasted so long on the title and without any fill-ins - occasionally a writer or artist lasts on a title for over 100 issues but rarely completely uninterrupted and almost never two together (Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley on Ultimate Spider-Man is the only other example I can think of). In some regards that could be a double-edged sword as Lee & Kirby left a very long shadow and many later eras did little more than rehash what the two had built. But that's a point for much later in the run. For now we're looking at the beginning of the house that Stan & Jack built.

From a perspective of over half a century later it's almost impossible to imagine what an impact this series had in 1961. Looking at Mike's Amazing World of Comics we can see the following other books were published by Marvel at this time. There were five monthly titles, all of which would later carry various superhero features:
  • Amazing Adventures (later Amazing [Adult] Fantasy)
  • Journey into Mystery
  • Strange Tales
  • Tales of Suspense
  • Tales to Astonish
And then there were eleven bimonthly books:
  • Gunsmoke Western
  • Kathy
  • Kid Colt Outlaw
  • Life with Millie
  • Linda Carter, Student Nurse
  • Love Romances
  • Millie the Model
  • Patsy and Hedy
  • Patsy Walker
  • Rawhide Kid
  • Teen-Age Romance
Science fiction, monsters, westerns, romance and teen comedy - it was a reasonable cross section of the wide industry though there were no war comics or funny animals, perhaps because of the limited number of titles due to the restraints of the distribution deal. Marvel's last real venture with superheroes had been a brief revival in 1953/4 when they brought back Captain America, the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch but it was a difficult time for comics in general and superhero comics in particular with hysteria whipped up by a crusade against them. DC had kept the superhero flame alight through the lean years of the 1950s with Superman & Superboy, Batman and Wonder Woman continuing to headline titles and Green Arrow and Aquaman surviving in the back pages of one of them. Now they were advancing with several new characters and others reimagined. Marvel (in all its guises) had a history of following the latest trends and it would have been so easy to put out just another superhero book. But instead what came was somewhat different from before.

Reading Fantastic Four #1 at a distance of fifty-two years, it's easy to pick holes in the issue. The origin is firmly based in the space race, even if it slightly evades just what the target is beyond "the stars", and the Four's motivation for making such a risky flight is merely to get there before the "Commies". The idea that a scientist, his fiancée and her teenage brother would ever even consider going up into space with no training at all, or that an experienced pilot would contemplate taking them even if he does want to show he's not a coward, just doesn't ring true. Nor is the idea that a rocket can be so poorly guarded that four people can sneak aboard it, or that it would be launched and operated all by itself without any help from mission control. And then given what happens on that flight it's a wonder that Ben Grimm doesn't sue Reed Richards.

At its core Fantastic Four is about both the characters and the amazing adventures they have. Often attempts to imitate them fail precisely because they fail to understand the importance of both elements - it's not just about the Fantastic and it's not just about the Four. We are presented with a group of characters who were all tied together even before the fateful flight but who now function as a family, helping and caring for each other but also having many a petty argument and fight. It was probably this presentation of heroes as almost ordinary people that gave the series its edge at the time and has sustained it for so long. It's a further sign that they don't bother with secret identities and indeed both their names are often used almost interchangeable - Reed Richards or Mr. Fantastic, Sue Storm or the Invisible Girl, Johnny Storm or the Human Torch and Ben Grimm or the Thing.

Each of the Four has a different power and personality and they can't be easily swapped around to perform each other's function in the stories. They may be archetypes and they may resemble various characters who had existed before - not only was the Human Torch a complete reinterpretation of a character who had previously appeared in the Timely and Atlas eras (though here there is no mention at all about the earlier version), but heroes who can stretch and reform their own bodies had been around for twenty years, most obviously Plastic Man and then Elongated Man. But there aren't that many original ideas at all - the key is in the execution. In this regard Lee and Kirby succeeded quite well, creating three powerful distinctive individuals and strong banter between them. There's a real sense of how they each approach things differently, ranging from Mr. Fantastic's scientific approach to the Human Torch's joy at being an all powerful celebrity to the Thing's tragedy at being trapped in a deformed body. Well not actually trapped as quite a number of issues see him temporarily restored to human form, whether because Mr. Fantastic has developed a formula or because of a second exposure to the cosmic rays or because of the excess heat in Ancient Egypt - they quickly forgot about that one.

But there is a weak link in the chain and here it's the Invisible Girl. Whatever was done with the character and her powers in later years, at this stage she is very much window dressing, largely serving to ensure the team has at least one female member. Compared to the other three, her power to turn herself invisible - and that's all she can do with it at this stage - is frankly defensive and rarely crucial in winning the day. Indeed the second story in issue #11 sees the team addressing a number of points raised by readers (more on this below) including the perceived useless of the Invisible Girl. The response is given that she's a critical inspiration for the others and that at times she has been crucial, particularly in their first encounter with Dr. Doom. Later on in issue #17 Sue takes on Dr. Doom one on one and holds her own quite well, although again there's acknowledgement of her perceived weakness. However at other times she's all too often used as a hostage or someone to be lusted after - Namor the Sub-Mariner carries a torch for her whilst Rama-Tut tries to make her his queen. By the end of the issues in this volume the character still seems somewhat redundant and in strong need of an additional element to put her on a stronger footing for when the Four encounter their many foes.

The issues in this volume introduce many of the Four's famous villains including the likes of the Mole Man, the Skrulls including the Super Skrull, the Miracle Man, Kurrgo the Master of Planet X, the Puppet Master, the Wrecker (nothing to do with the later Thor foe), the Red Ghost and his Super-Apes, the Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android, Rama-Tut and the Molecule Man. Now not every one of these villains has aged well, with some of the powers and motivations seeming a little silly. There are some familiar concepts that would be recycled in many of the Silver Age Marvel superhero stories, such as an early encounter with an alien race who are trying to conquer the Earth but are tricked into thinking the humans are far more powerful than they actually are, or the rampantly evil Communist foes. There aren't too many of the latter but we also get occasional panels showing reactions to events in the Kremlin (with Kruschev himself appearing in shot, which is more than can be said for a scene with President Kennedy) and are left in no doubt that Communism Is Bad.

And of course there's Dr. Doom. His first two appearances demonstrate the flexibility of the character. In his first appearance he goes to tremendous efforts to capture the Fantastic Four and send them back in time to retrieve Blackbeard's treasure (in part because some of the jewels belonged to Merlin), then on his second appearance he uses his latest invention to pull the Baxter Building into space and send it into the sun with the Four and the Sub-Mariner all inside. In a later issue he starts threatening the United States with ruin unless... he's made a member of the President's cabinet. For a man with such resources his schemes seem quite limited at times.

Doom's rival as the Four's archenemy at this stage is none other than the Sub-Mariner, though the character is presented as a noble being with a different set of values to humans and with a good side, such as his obsession with the Invisible Girl. The character represented the first step in bringing back elements from the earlier era of Timely and Atlas comics, and it's surprising that this begins as early as issue #4. The Sub-Mariner's revival is incredibly simple. Johnny picks up an old comic from the 1940s and reads about him, then shortly afterwards the strong amnesiac in the hostel turns out to be the Sub-Mariner himself. There's no attempt to infodump two decades worth of continuity or even to explain just how and when he lost his memory. Nor are we given his origin. All readers need to know is given in just a few pages and it works.

The Sub-Mariner isn't the only pre-existing creation to appear in the series at this stage. Less well known is that mailman Willie Lumpkin had previously starred in a brief lived newspaper strip in 1960, though again the strip isn't referenced at this stage. And we also get a number of guest appearances by the stars of some other Marvel comics. Considering that not that many had actually been created by the time of Fantastic Four issue #20 we actually get rather a lot. One issue sees the team called in to deal with the Hulk, though it soon transpires the real menace is elsewhere. Another issue sees Ant-Man called in to help with shrinking (even though Mr. Fantastic has previously developed his own shrinking formula...) with the Wasp getting a cameo, whilst a back-up feature in the Annual presents an expanded version of the Four's encounter with Spider-Man from Amazing Spider-Man #1. That issue came out the same month as the Four's encounter with the Hulk and so between the two issues the concept of an integrated universe in which heroes regularly crossed paths beyond just specific team-up titles was being laid here. (Even at the lesser level we get other surprising introductions, with the newspapers the Daily Bugle and Daily Globe both first appearing in issue #2.)

We're also get the beginnings of the Four's widespread supporting cast, with Alicia Masters, the Watcher and the Yancy Street Gang all making their debuts within these issues. The Yancy Street Gang aren't too well developed at this stage but are recognisable as a gang of taunting bullies, though they have redeeming features such as when they help the Four hide while fleeing from the Molecule Man. The Watcher is deliberately kept limited and mysterious and there's no explanation given for why his race just observe the universe and rarely interfere. But by far the most important addition is Alicia. If you're ugly, the unspoken message of these stories is that you'll only be happy with a blind person. Alicia is introduced in issue #8 and it rapidly becomes clear she's drawn to Ben as the Thing and even prefers him that way (she's present when a formula of Reed's briefly restores Ben to his human form before wearing off), with the result that by issue #19 Reed is less concerned with finding a cure for Ben than with restoring Alicia's sight. The Mole Man has also found it impossible to live in society looking the way he does, with everyone rejecting him, and so withdraws completely in search of another civilisation, but Ben is luckier in this latter day rendering of the tale of Beauty and the Beast.

The series doesn't just introduce us to incredible beings but also takes the Four all over the Earth and beyond to many fantastic locations, ranging from the underground world of the Mole Man to the lost kingdom of Atlantis to the abandoned city on the Moon to the far off Planet X to the wonders of Ancient Egypt and more. All in all this series shows a strong degree of imagination compared to contemporary offerings from the likes of DC and even today there's a real sense of energy and excitement in these tales. There's the odd miss such as the introduction of the Impossible Man, an alien shapechanger with the mentality of a restless fun seeking child who is driven away from Earth by Reed successfully advising the whole world to simply ignore the creature - and remarkably everyone does. Luckily, the story only takes up half an issue.

As I said above, this volume is the foundation of the Marvel universe. That's not just because of the characters and locations introduced but also because of the whole style and approach. The heroes are presented as ordinary, fallible people who've had extra-ordinary powers thrust upon them, whilst the series doesn't operate in a vacuum but instead works with the other Marvel titles around it, giving a much greater sense of coherence to the whole line. But there's another step with the series acknowledging its position as ongoing fiction. Issue #10 has a daring scene featuring Lee and Kirby themselves (albeit with their features obscured), showing how they interact with the Four to bring their adventures to life. The following issue devotes half its space to the Four directly acknowledging their fan mail and answering many points and questions. Later on reader demand is explicitly given as the reason for redesigning the Fantasticar to look less like a flying bathtub. This was a bold move but it made the readers feel an involved part of the process and added to the overall sense of community that drew readers in and kept them coming back. Perhaps it became over familiar in later years when creative disputes spilled over into fan media and could damage the standing of titles, but at this stage it was a largely positive thing.

There's no point in denying that these adventures have their occasional lapses - for example what happens to the fourth Skrull in issue #2? Reed claims the Skrull is returning to another galaxy, but it looks like an attempt to cover up an oversight by the artwork. And from a modern perspective after all the food scares over the years one has to wonder if it was really a good idea to turn the other three into cows and leave them to produce milk and beef that would go into the human food chain. But it's the sort of thing that just didn't matter in the early 1960s. These stories are a product of their age but they are very much products that took that age and used it as a leaping pad, rather than just churning yet more generic adventures. For all their faults they show a real sense of dynamism and optimism, pushing at the boundaries of the convention of the genre and creating something new. That was why this series succeeded so well in 1961, that's why Marvel went on to become such a big player in the market but also that's why even today this volume is a highly enjoyable read.

1 comment:

  1. i can think of four other long living titles with single ( and in two cases ) two creators on the title

    the first is off course cerebus with dave sim and gerhard
    300 issues straight from issue 1 in 1977 till issue 300 in 2004
    no fil in issues or artists every issues is by sim and gerhard

    the second is gold digger by fred perry
    he started the series in 1991 went through 50 black and white issues with v 1 then 149 issues in color with v2
    and then consolidated the two numberings in 200 ( ostensibly v2 150 ) and the series is curently up to issue 226
    perry has written and drawn all 226 issues as well as mini series and dozens of other anterior series
    but wait he has decide to GIVE AWAY all 199 issues of gold digger prior to 200 for free
    you can find it here
    and that link can be found on the inside of every cover of gold digger since 200

    the third and last creator that has stuck with his title for years is erik larsen with the savage dragon
    the title is now up to 212 and they are all written and drawn by erik larsen from 1993 til now and all published by image comics
    the anomaly is issue 13

    there was a crossover month in 1994 in image comics and all founders would write and draw somebody else's title
    jim lee and brandon choi got their hands on issue 13
    larsen wasnt really happy with the results as well as the fact that one of his main characters was hospitalized so he did an issue 13 of his own

    and finally
    robert kirkman and charlie adlard on the walking dead
    the series is up to 146 issues
    of which adlard pencilled 140 tony moore pencilled the first six

    those are the only other comic book creators i can think of that lasted for more then 100 issues

    there are other series off course
    garth ennis and steve dillon on preacher
    warren ellis and darick robinson on transmetropolitan
    mike grell on green arrow
    simon furman on transformers
    katsuhiro otomo on akira

    but akira transmetropolitan and preacher were finite series with an ending
    and furmans transformers run ha sbeen pucntuated by american intertwined ameterial so sadly it was not uninterrupted

    while grell's green arrow run was a respectable 88 issues
    but no 100+ marks


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