Friday, 16 January 2015

Essential Fantastic Four volume 4

Essential Fantastic Four volume 4 carries issues #64 to #83 and Annuals #5 & #6. All the issues are by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, credited on the actual issues as co-producing them and credited on the contents page with Lee as "Writer" and Kirby as "Co-Plotter & Penciller". The stability is further enhanced by everything bar a couple of back-up features in the first annual being inked by Joe Sinnott. Bonus material consists of several reproductions of art boards, mainly from issue #66, showing Kirby's margin notes for Lee. There's also an early version of the cover for issue #65.

By this stage the series has firmly settled into a clear pattern, though this volume shows that the complete status quo is not set in stone and developments for the characters can and do happen rather than sinking into a lazy inertia of just rehashing all that has come before. There's also a continuation in adding elements to the series's mythology as the Four's adventures continue to reveal new worlds, both in outer and inner space, and encounter new beings. The creative streak doesn't let up but there are also attempts to consolidate the existing extended character base and prepare some of them for their own series.

Annual #5 feels less like a special adventure of the Fantastic Four and more of a try-out for several other characters as the main focus is on the Inhumans and the Black Panther as they team up to battle new villain the Psycho-Man, with some help from Johnny and Ben but Reed and the just announced pregnant Sue stay behind. Adding to the Inhumans' exposure, they also dominate the gallery of pin-ups. The annual also contains a short Silver Surfer solo adventure plus a brief comedy piece showing Lee and Kirby larking around in the office as they try to come up with ideas for plots. With all three properties getting greater exposure in the near future, whether in solo series, back-ups in another title or just as a member of the Avengers, it's difficult to deny the annual was a success as a try-out piece but as a Fantastic Four tale it's severely lacking, particularly as it was the big special for the year.

Fortunately there's a return to form with annual #6 as it goes back to the core characters, with Reed, Ben and Johnny undertaking a desperate quest into the Negative Zone to find the thing necessary to save both Sue and the baby as she approaches labour. It's the first appearance of Annihilus and for once the story doesn't simply end with the obtaining of the item - in this case his cosmic control rod - but there's then a desperate race to shake off their pursuers and get out of the Negative Zone. The end of the story sees the birth of a son, later to be named Franklin, and the whole issue feels like a special occasion for the team and deserving of an extra large issue on a par with Sue and Reed's wedding in an earlier annual.

It is now impossible to discuss the birth of any child to the regulars in a comic without addressing the great debate about whether or not this damages the characters for the long run by making them seem "aged" and "difficult to relate to". By the logic of the naysayers the birth of Franklin would constitute a point at which the series becomes too remote from its readers. Frankly this approach to the Four is total nonsense. Right from the outset we've had not so much a team as a genuine family with loyalty and affection for one another mixed in with dysfunctionality. Reed has always been the mature father figure of the team and Sue has always long combined youth and vigour with a maternal approach to the others. That she is Johnny's older sister rather than his mother makes no real difference. For Reed and Sue to have a child is simply an extension of the existing family structure and as long as there are ways to combine parental responsibilities with work then it makes no difference. When you're reading the adventures of a scientist who excels at everything and has a rubber body to boot, a woman who can turn invisible and project forcefields, a teenager who can set his body on fire without hurting himself and a man trapped in the form of a rock monster, there's already a bit of suspension of disbelief. The idea that the birth of a child can damage the title and is a make or break affair for the audience is clearly ludicrous. In the long term there's the question of just how fast Franklin can be allowed to grow but there are any number of ways a fantasy series can handle this should it become a problem.

Where the pregnancy and birth does have a notable impact is in sidelining Sue even more than usual, with Reed becoming ever more protective and refusing to take her on journeys at times. Although there is concern for the baby it also plays into the prevalent sexism at the time. It's not until issue #81, after Franklin has been born, that the logical solution is found with Crystal stepping in to take Sue's place for the time being. She has to prove herself first but more than does so in battle with the Wizard. It's the first time there's been any change in the membership of the Four and there's a risk that such an approach will eventually lead to the group being treated as a team with a revolving door membership rather than a family with clear personal bonds between them. But Crystal has been hanging around the Baxter Building for pretty much the entire volume and is in a strong relationship with Johnny so she feels the natural choice to stand in for Sue. However it's a pity that before this issue she has been sidelined much of the time, rarely contributing to action or showing what she's made of.

More generally the series maintains its creative streak but it does so in some surprising ways. Issues #64 & #65 introduce the Kree, but instead of a visit to a grand empire or an encounter with part of an invasion force we instead meet them via a giant robotic soldier that has long been buried on Earth to monitor the situation but it has lost all contact with its army, like the real-life Japanese soldiers who stayed active on Pacific islands decades after the end of the Second World War. But the Kree empire is still around and the Four's defeat of the sentry attracts the Kree law enforcement officer Ronan the Accuser, with the Supreme Intelligence also making a first appearance. This is an odd way to introduce what would go on to be one of the main intergalactic powers in the Marvel universe but it also feels somewhat appropriate for a team of adventurers to stumble across one of the empire's outstretched tentacles instead of finding the core homeworld in all its glory.

Also introduced through a steady build-up is the artificial being known only as "Him" (later renamed as Adam Warlock), and his creators, the scientists grouped together as the Enclave. There's a real sense of build-up to the opening of the cocoon to reveal what the scientists hope will be the ultimate in human evolution. Somewhat undermining this is their inability to see Him due to the bright light and the odd solution of kidnapping Alicia in the hope that a blind sculptor will be able to get close enough to touch Him and then create a sculpture so the scientists can see what he looks like. Another artificial being to debut here is the Mad Thinker's android, which proves impossible to defeat outright and is instead exiled to the Negative Zone. But the real focus of these issues is upon Ben who has been brainwashed by the Thinker into turning on the Four. The Thinker's other artificial creation, the Android Man, also debuts in a Ben focused story as Reed once again finds a potion to cure him of being the Thing, but Ben discovers many, including Alicia, actually preferred his monstrous form and he undoes the transformation to save his friends even though he knows this change will be permanent. Less interesting an artificial being is the Tomazooma robot, impersonating a Native American living totem so that an oil company can drive Wyatt Wingfoot's people off their land.

Most of the stories are escapist adventure, rarely stopping to make overt comments about the state of the world. An exception comes when the Silver Surfer briefly decides that the problems humanity face could be overcome if they had to deal with a common enemy and sets out to be that enemy, embarking on a wave of destruction. It's a rare case of using the series as a mouthpiece for the creators and a forerunner of the commentary that would come in heavy doses in the Surfer's own series. But it also demonstrates the naivety of turning to quick fix solutions or outsiders imagining they can simply walk into a place with problems and put it all to rights. The Four and a missile eventually convince the Surfer of the error of his ways by showing there is good in humanity and that he was mad to even try and fix them all by his attacks on them. In his second appearance in this volume he returns to a more traditional role of conflict with Galactus as the world eater seeks to reclaim his herald, who in turn flees into the Microverse to escape and enjoy the freedom of a whole universe.

There are some odd moments in this run, particularly issue #73 which serves as the climax of a storyline in Daredevil in which Doctor Doom has briefly swapped bodies with Ol' Hornhead. Daredevil has now recovered his body but seeks help from the Fantastic Four who assume he's still Doom, leading to a battle with Spider-Man and Thor thrown in for good measure. The whole thing is resolved when Sue turns up and declares she's seen Doom live on television, as though a master of duplicate robots couldn't be in two places at once. All in all this is an odd issue that feels like an intruder on the series, crossing over with Daredevil for the sheer heck of it.

Despite the occasional misfire in general this volume shows the title still continuing to produce a strong mixture of fantastic and very personal adventures. Compared to earlier volumes there may not be many stories that have achieved a great deal of fame but nevertheless there is still a good level of creativity and development, both adding new elements to the series and enhancing the ones that have worked. We also get bold steps such as Sue's pregnancy and Crystal eventually taking her place on the team, showing that the status quo is not set in stone. This volume represents a series still at the top of its game and no let up in Lee and Kirby's astonishingly long run.

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