Friday, 10 January 2014

Essential Fantastic Four volume 2

Essential Fantastic Four volume 2 contains issues #21-40 and Annual #2, plus, as a bonus in the earliest editions, the Human Torch and Spider-Man team-up from Strange Tales Annual #2. Everything is scripted by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, continuing their astoundingly long uninterrupted run.

After the intense creation in the first volume it's unsurprising to find this volume contains a lot of consolidation, with many existing foes returning and the emphasis being placed on different types of encounter rather than new faces. Having said that there are some new foes and menaces, including the Hate-Monger, Diablo, Gregory Gideon, Attuma, the Infant Terrible and Dragon Man, though the last two aren't really menaces in their own right There's a couple of teams of foes assembled as well. Doctor Doom's team appears only once, though the other three members - Bull Brogin, Yogi Dakor and Harry Phillips - would go on to plague the Human Torch and the Thing in Strange Tales. In return the Frightful Four would draw most of its members from the Torch's strip - the Wizard and Paste-Pot Pete had both debuted there and the Sandman had also clashed with the Torch though he originated in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man. A new villain is introduced as the team's fourth member - Medusa, although she bears limited resemblance to the monster of mythology.

The Hate-Monger was a pretty daring creation for 1963 by designing him with elements of the Ku Klux Klan uniform and then revealing him to be Adolf Hitler. For the era, linking contemporary racism to the Nazis was a bold statement against hatred and bigotry, but from a modern perspective it succumbs to the clichés of Nazis having fled to South America to continue their plans and of Hitler having survived the end of the Second World War. I've often found such tales to be rather crass that almost trivialise one of the most evil men in the history of the real world by reducing him to a stock villain's role, and the suggestion that the Hate-Monger may have actually been one of the Führer's doubles doesn't reduce the impact.

The other new foes are generally fairly forgettable - Gregory Gideon is an early example in comics of the tycoon who uses his wealth and influence to bring down his foes; here he targets the Four purely because he's made a bet with rival businessmen in the hopes of driving them out of business. The Infant Terrible is just an alien child with incredible powers and no sense of control over them, whilst Dragon Man is an artificial being brought to life by Diablo who subsequently rebels. Diablo and Attuma are the most prominent of the additions. The former is a nineteenth century alchemist who found success with chemicals but has been sealed in a castle for a century until he tricks the Thing into releasing him. Attuma is an undersea warlord and leader of a tribe of barbarians; he seems to have been created in part to release the Sub-Mariner from the role of the main undersea villain in the Marvel universe so Namor could be used more as an anti-hero or even a hero.

Coming from a period in which the Marvel universe was steadily growing, there are a number of guest appearances. Nick Fury makes his first present day appearance in issue #21, in return for an appearance by Reed Richards in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #3. Now holding the rank of Colonel and working for the CIA, Fury enlists the aid of the Four in preventing a revolution overthrowing a democracy in a Latin American country and dealing with the Hate-Monger's operations, noting "...we couldn't interfere in another nation's affairs!" That's an interesting take on the CIA's role and actions. There's a return encounter with the Hulk spread over two issues that also brings the Four's first meeting with the Avengers; with the two teams getting in each other's way at times. Oddly the battle is resolved by the Avengers with the Four not doing much in the last few pages, as though somebody forgot whose series it was. Similarly the first meeting with the X-Men sees the Beast break the Puppet Master's hold over Professor X, who in tun brings down the Mad Thinker's Awesome Android. Between these two encounters comes an issue guest starring Doctor Strange but fortunately his role is limited to finding where the Sub-Mariner has taken Sue and transporting Johnny and Ben there. That's four consecutive issues worth of guest stars, an early sign of how the balance could be tipped from an integrated universe to endless plugging of other series. Daredevil also appears in two issues at the end of the volume. Only Spider-Man (plus the western and soap/comedy characters) is left out of the Fantastic Four issues and even he gets a one panel cameo when he swipes a sandwich at Reed and Sue's engagement party, plus a slightly larger alter ego cameo as Peter Parker is on an open day at State University when the Four visit Reed and Ben's old stomping ground. And of course there's the bonus story.

Such a heavy use of guest appearances is a sign that this volume shows a series starting to stumble about a bit, as the novelty and initial burst of creativity wear off, resulting in a somewhat mediocre period full of returning foes, rather weak new ones and lots of guest appearances. There seems to be very little direction or progress until some way into the second half of the volume and instead it all feels rather bitty. There are some attempts to flesh out all four heroes' backgrounds through first an encounter with Sue and Johnny's father and then with a visit to Reed and Ben's old university, but it's rather piecemeal. The one existing character who gets substantial development is Doctor Doom, with the annual carrying a substantial story recounting his youth and origin (oddly despite feeling like a back-up feature it's printed before the main one, a mistake dating back to 1964). However the later issues show signs of development and improvement, starting with Reed and Sue's engagement and a succession of adventures that test whether or not the team will last.

One of the oddest moments comes in the annual when Doctor Doom encounters Rama Tut, the time travelling Pharaoh who believes he is a descendant of Doom. During their encounter the two ponder the possibility that they are somehow the same person at different points in time, with no certainty as to who came first. But there's very little to support such a notion, not even the coincidence of Rama Tut arriving at just the moment to save Doom from suffocating in space. Rather than adding mystery to either character it just creates more confusion, especially given that Rama Tut would go on to become the Avengers foe Kang the Conqueror, and his later encounters with Doom often ignored the issue or even contradicted its implications outright. Nor is there anything suggesting Doom was an amnesiac time traveller in Doom's origin recounted in the same annual. All this shows is how easy it is to get confused when time travel is involved and how what might seem like a cool idea can rapidly turn into incomprehensible nonsense.

There's one idea that was long overdue when it finally arrives in issue #22 and that's an enhancement of the Invisible Girl's powers. Sue retains the ability to turn herself invisible but she can now also turn other things invisible or even generate an invisible forceshield around either herself or others. However at this stage she's only able to utilise one manifestation of the power at a time and her role in battles is still largely defensive. There's also a lot of sexism on display, particularly from Reed who is over protective and dismissive of her usefulness at times. In spite of this the two have strong feelings for each other, even though Reed tries to restrain them out of fear acting on them would turn Sue into a hostage target, but at the end of issue #35 he takes the plunge and proposes. For a superhero series less than four years old to make such a move past the endless "will they/won't they" state of affairs then common to the genre must have been a real shock to readers at the time. Aquaman had only just tied the knot but he was never the highest profile of heroes whereas Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Girl were Marvel's first couple. The proposal is almost the moment it becomes clear the series is getting back on track.

In the meantime the series has largely meandered through a succession of foes in rather forgettable adventures. Amongst the few really memorable ones from this era are the annual in which Doctor Doom is established as the "monarch" of a tiny European country, Latveria. I'm not sure Lee and Kirby quite understood the use of the term "monarch" at a time when a number of countries were getting dictators-for-life. The position gives Doom diplomatic immunity as a head of state, allowing him to act without fear of arrest though in his second appearance the police and the Four don't show any restraint on those grounds when seeking to retake the Baxter Building. Also of note is the storyline in which Sue and Johnny's father Franklin Storm reappears, having sunk low after the death of his wife in a car accident and then having spent many years in jail after a struggle with a loan shark let off a gun and killed a person. He is impersonated by the Super Skrull who in turn poses as "the Invincible Man" and uses his powers to defeat the Four, leaving them subject to hostile public opinion in the belief they've held back against their own relative. Finally the Skrulls try to use the real Franklin to deliver a bomb to the Four, but he instead takes the blast and sacrifices himself, achieving redemption in death.

The biggest drama comes at the end when the Four are caught in a nuclear test and lose their powers, with Ben reverting from the Thing to human form. This leads to some bizarre attempts to duplicate the powers with technology, ranging from a flame suit for Johnny to a radio-controlled robot for Ben. In the meantime Doctor Doom captures the Baxter Building and the Four, plus Daredevil, have to fight to regain it. The story shows the determination of the team even when they don't have their powers to save them, but has a slight cop-out at the end when Reed grabs a device and uses it to restore everyone's powers, declaring that the only reason he didn't use it before was because it was still recharging. It feels very much a deus ex machina solution to the problem, though it brings drama of its own when Reed feels forced to use it on Ben against his will, forcing him to become the Thing again because his strength is needed. Doctor Doom is defeated in one-on-one physical combat,  but the Thing's anger at being restored to his form causes him to declare he's leaving the team. And there the volume comes to close. Well almost.

The Human Torch/Spider-Man team-up from Strange Tales Annual #2 is included as well. When this volume originally came out this was the first time in many years that the story had been reprinted (hence the appalling quality in the earliest edition, looking like a direct scan of the original published comic, with the colour coming through as a lot of greys) and it made for a nice bonus. Now, however, the full Human Torch strip has been collected elsewhere and so the story's inclusion here feels superfluous, especially as the volume could have instead carried a further issue of Fantastic Four which follows on issue #40's cliffhanger.

Overall the art in this volume is generally suitably fantastic and really conveys both the action and the drama, but there are a handful of pages in various issues that try to use real photographs, some straight singles, some collages of multiple images, in order to show space and individuals and captions are added on top. When used today this technique can deliver wonders but 1960s' printing technology just wasn't up to the task and the result is the photos look awkwardly out of place and pixelated. It's surprising that the technique was tried so often. The individual issues are well written and keep the team as distinct characters. However overall most of this volume feels like it was done on autopilot, with the creativity of the first twenty issues largely transferred to other series, leaving the title to start going through all too familiar motions. Fortunately the last few issues show a real uptick in direction, putting the tension back into things. This is the classic problem the Essentials have with rigidly collecting a series in order - the weaker periods come with the strong and often the dividing points produce individual volumes that are an uneven mixture of the two.

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