Friday, 5 September 2014

Essential Fantastic Four volume 3

Essential Fantastic Four volume 3 contains issues #41 to #63 and Annuals #3 & #4. All the issues are credited to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, though it's noticeable that approximately the earlier half has credits that split the tasks between Lee on writing/scripting/"story" and Kirby on art/pencils, but the latter issues just jointly credit them as co-producing before listing the inkers and letterers. Was this an attempt at the time to acknowledge that Kirby was contributing far more than just the pencils?

Whoever is responsible for which idea, this volume continues to show a stream of creativity. In here we have the first appearances of the Inhumans - specifically Gorgon, Crystal, Karnak, Triton, Black Bolt, Lockjaw, Maximus, the Seeker and the already existing Medusa - Galactus, the Silver Surfer, the Punisher (not that one), Wyatt Wingfoot, the Black Panther, Klaw the Master of Sound, Prester John, a version of the legendary mediaeval explorer, Quasimodo the sentient computer and Blastaar. There are new places as well, such as the Great Refuge, the home of the Inhumans hidden in a mountain range (which seems to move between the Andes, the Alps and the Himalayas depending upon which caption you read), Wakanda, the little known African country that has developed advanced technology to rival Reed Richards's, or the Negative Zone, a strange sub-space environment containing hidden threats and fears. There are also return appearances by the Frightful Four, with the Sandman increasingly used solo and getting a new costume with extra abilities, Dragon Man, the Watcher, Doctor Doom in his most audacious scheme yet, and the Mad Thinker.

The art also shows some growth and experiments with an increased use of full page spreads and even double-paged spreads but the latter can be a pain to reproduce. In the first edition at least, there's a spread in issue #62 as Johnny, Crystal, Sue and Ben watch Reed drifting away in the Negative Zone - but the spread is split between the front and back of a single page. I don't know how it appears either in the original issue or in later Essential editions (or for that matter in other reprints over the years). The series also continues to use some real photographs and collages to represent space and weirder dimensions but these continue to suffer from 1960s printing just not being up to the task asked of it (and without the original photographic images there's only so much that latter day remastering can do).

The series is also more experimental in story structure with some stories taking place first over three issues then four and others start to seed themselves with subplots that run over many issues before being resolved. This is a series that is increasingly confident about itself and committed to being here for the long run now that the "Marvel Age of Comics" has proved to be more than just another few years long fad. Unfortunately some of the story structures feel less like bold experiments and more like bad planning and pacing. This is most prominent with the Galactus story that doesn't even begin until a third of the way into issue #48 (with the Inhumans saga wrapping up in the meantime) and then resolves itself midway through issue #50, leaving the rest of the issue to show Johnny going off to college. This must have caused problems for later reprints, especially dedicated collected editions, and even here in a long sequential run it feels as if either a decision to do something big for issue #50 crept up on Lee and/or Kirby and suddenly they had to rush to get it in, or else the Inhumans storyline was plotted on the hoof and ran out of things to do.

That story also shows vague signs of at least one of the creators starting to tire of the series, even though this volume only covers the middle part of their amazing 102 issue run. But with the Inhumans it often feels as though the Fantastic Four are largely observer on the sidelines with much of the action driven and resolved by the Inhumans themselves. Reed may save Triton's life and Johnny may have fallen for Crystal, but a lot of the story including the later escape from the dome imprisoning the Great Refuge could have been told in a dedicated Inhumans series without the Four's presence at all. Were the Inhumans originally planned to be stars in their own series? The leading characters in the Royal Family are far more individually developed than the members of the average lost or alien civilisation and each comes with a distinct costume. And this was the period when both The Addams Family and The Munsters were running on television so it wouldn't be surprising for Marvel to have its own weird family that lives detached from the rest of the world and generating a lot of comedy based on the culture clash. But this was the period when Marvel's distribution arrangements still restricted the number of titles it could publish and there simply would not have been room for a new title or anthology strip. So instead what looks like a planned debut storyline has been dropped into Fantastic Four without stopping to better integrate the regular characters into the strip. One consequence is that later on Johnny and Wyatt spend many issues trying to get Lockjaw to teleport through the barrier that seals of the Great Refuge, only for it to eventually be shattered by Black Bolt and Johnny only learns of this when Crystal reaches him. As subplots go, this one rather fizzles out. Also left unaddressed is the fate of the Frightful Four with Medusa abandoning the group to return to her family, leaving a team whose name doesn't allow much flexibility in membership size.

The Black Panther also feels like he may have been planned for his own strip from the outset, but his introduction makes a much better use of the existing characters as he invites the Four to Wakanda first to fight them as a test and then they help him against an invasion by Klaw and his mercenaries. The Black Panther's name slightly predates the political group but it's not hard to see his creation as a response to developments in race relations at the time. And rather than presenting a stereotyped noble savage or an angry man from the American streets, the fantastical series gives us a strong ruler of his own country, the hero king archetype. In the 1960s there was great hope and optimism about Africa as most of it was decolonised and the newly independent countries set about making a mark. There's no indication of Wakanda having been a colony itself but otherwise it represents this confident optimism with a paradise that has utilised its resources to produce advanced technology which the Panther is willing to lend or give to the Fantastic Four for the greater good.

Also reflecting developments of the era is Wyatt Wingfoot, Johnny's roommate at university. A Native American with a proud heritage he does not fall into the stereotypes at all, instead showing intelligence, talent and articulation. He may lack powers of his own but he proves a loyal friend to first Johnny and then the rest of the Four, helping them in several of their adventures without concern for the risk to himself. In a number of ways the series was reflecting progressive developments of the time well.

Unfortunately this wasn't always the case. When it comes to the series' portrayal of women the pattern isn't so fantastic. Medusa is a strong character able to hold her own whether amongst the Frightful Four or the Inhumans but Crystal isn't developed too well and comes across a bit too much as a weak younger sister rather than as a being with strong powers in her own right. But it's Sue who gets it the worst. She and Reed get married in Annual #3 but her husband doesn't seem keen to spend some time on his married life, instead forever rushing back to the laboratory and getting annoyed with Sue. She in turn continues to often be portrayed as a weak defenceless thing, often cowering and needing rescued even though her powers are growing to the point that on some occasions she deploys both her forcefields and the ability to make other objects invisible with bold effect. She's also willing to risk her life but overall she still feels like she's being treated as a weak and fragile thing.

The wedding annual is one of the first big event moments in Marvel history and there are no end of guest stars and foes as Doctor Doom uses a mind control device to get almost every known villain in the Marvel universe to attack. Fortunately a lot of heroes are around, either as guests or they happen to be in the neighbourhood, and the villains are picked off one by one. The guest appearances aren't limited to superheroes either, with Patsy Walker and Hedy Wolfe showing up on panel in search of Millie the Model, whilst Jack Kirby and Stan Lee get turned away from the church by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Even the Two Gun Kid makes it onto the cover. The issue is a snapshot of the wider Marvel universe after several years of intense development but as a story in its own right it feels a little too close to a checklist hiding under a weak plot with a whole succession of incidents as one or more foes show up to get taken out by a group of heroes until the Watcher gives Reed access to a device to dispatch all the foes and give them amnesia. All in all it's a rather poor celebration of the then-present Marvel universe.

Annual #4 contains a celebration of past Marvel glories with the first Silver Age appearance of the original Human Torch. But he gets revived only long enough to fight the modern Human Torch before being killed, seemingly forever (if that can happen to an android), by the Mad Thinker. On the face of it seems to have been produced to answer enquiries by the early generation of comic fans - within the story itself Ben and Reed discuss one such letter. But give that it was almost 28 years since the character's creation, was this Marvel's way of reasserting ownership? (The one thing I understand clearly about the old US copyright laws is that not much was clear, so I don't know if actual recent publication was needed for renewal at the 28 year mark.) But whatever the reason, the result is an all too inconsequential story that doesn't really give the old hero one last great adventure to go out in spectacular glory and certainly doesn't compare to the revivals of the Sub-Mariner or Captain America.

More spectacular is the Galactus storyline as the Four try to save Earth from being consumed by an all powerful being. However, as noted above, it has some problems with pacing due to being squeezed by the overrunning Inhumans storyline and also by taking Johnny off to university. But it also offers both great spectacles and close, human moments as the Silver Surfer discovers the nobility of humanity through his encounter with Alicia and opts to turn on his master. This confines him to Earth but within this volume that turns out to be more of a problem for Doctor Doom whose attempt at world domination by stealing the Surfer's powers comes to an end when he's lured into the barrier around Earth. This latter story shows the series growing in confidence as it continues to mix and match elements to create an evermore ongoing saga.

But it also maintains the smaller, personal human moments. Issue #51's "This Man... This Monster" has long been applauded for its personalised tale as an embittered scientist steals the Ben's monstrous form as part of a plan to dispose of the Four and prove himself superior, but he subsequently comes to respect Reed's selflessness and sacrifices his life to save him. After a run of dramatic big idea storylines it's good to get some smaller, more character based moments and this one works as both that and also to show the series can pace well when it needs to.

In general this volume seems a mix. It has some spectacular creations and stories, but it's let down by both the pacing and an excessive focus on the Inhumans without really integrating the Four into their adventures. The book is still experimenting with artforms and story structures but doesn't always get these right, and this is the main problem with an otherwise solid book.

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