Friday, 26 June 2015

Essential Fantastic Four volume 8

Essential Fantastic Four volume 8 contains issues #160 to #183 (#180 is a reprint with only the cover included here) plus Annual #11 and the crossover issues Marvel Two-in-One #20 and Annual #1. Most of the writing, including the annual and the Marvel Two-in-One issues, is by Roy Thomas with one issue co-written with Gerry Conway and another scripted by Bill Mantlo. The penultimate issue is co-plotted by Len Wein, Jim Shooter and Archie Goodwin, and scripted by Mantlo who writes the final issue. The art is by a mixture of John Buscema, Rich Buckler and George Pérez, with Ron Wilson and Sal Buscema each contributing a couple of issues at the end. John Buscema draws the annual and Sal Buscema both the Marvel Two-in-One issues.

This volume covers a period in which the Thing now had almost a solo series in the form of Marvel Two-in-One, yet apart from the odd mention of one or other of his team-ups it's barely noticeable in the regular series. Instead the series operates as though this is the only place where significant developments happen to him. This is most noticeable when a succession of issues see Ben first temporarily ally with the Hulk against the rest of the team and then the result of prolonged exposure to the Hulk's gamma radiation causes Ben to revert to human form. Ben's loss of powers leads to his temporary replacement by perhaps the shortest lasting official membership of the team ever as Luke Cage, Power Man is taken on. Cage is around for such a short period of time, part of which is spent under the control of the Puppet Master and the rest with Ben still hanging around on the scene as the Four battle the Wrecker, making it impossible to assess either the new member's potential or the overall dynamic of the team. It's tempting to see this as just an extended advert for Power Man's own series, which often showed signs of being in danger saleswise. Meanwhile Ben finds being fully human again is not all he was expecting, with reduced strength and many people only interested in his monstrous form. However he is soon restored to active duty courtesy of a special exo-skeleton designed to mimic his rocky form, finally giving him a way to have both forms when he needs them without the awkward mental side-effects. Sadly for Ben this doesn't last too long with Galactus blasting him with a special energy that turns him fully into a monster once more. The only long term side-effect is that Ben's strength has been enhanced, as part of a general upscaling of the powers of some of the Four. He does start thinking about marrying Alicia, and there are hints that she wants children, but it doesn't come to much.

The main area where Marvel Two-in-One makes its presence known is in a crossover between both titles' annuals, even spilling over into an issue of the regular series. The whole piece is a convoluted epic built around time travel as a canister of adamantium is accidentally sent back in time to the Second World War, resulting in changes to history as the Germans win and conquer the United States. The canister gets cut in half by a time wedge, resulting in the whole Four first going back in time to team up with the Invaders and then Ben travelling back solo where he allies with the less well-known Liberty Legion. Both adventures present a variety of foes from the 1940s set titles, including a clash with Baron Zemo as we see how he was stuck under his hood whilst the Liberty Legion bring conflict with Master Man, U-Man and Brain Drain plus new foes Skyshark and Slicer. It's a good idea in principle and allows each half of the saga to stand more or less on its own. But the whole thing is let down by an ability to explain or understand just how time travel works with some of the saga implying that the events of the adventure has changed actual history albeit temporarily, other moments suggesting that it depicts part of what was always in the original history and other moments still suggesting that the 1940s elements actually took place in an alternate timeline and so explain why Captain America and Namor the Sub-Mariner in the present day have never remembered what happened. Any one of these approaches to time travel would be fine but when all three are thrown together it creates an incoherent mess that undermines a good attempt to bring together the heroes of different eras.

The other tale to noticeably indulge Roy Thomas's enthusiasm for pre-Silver Age Marvel characters is a curious two-parter in which the Four take on the Crusader, who turns out to be the grown up version of the early 1950s hero, Marvel Boy. But rather than a straightforward revival of the character to allow him to be used as a hero in the modern day, we instead get a strange story that instead turns him into a zealot driven by anger and revenge upon a bank that denied him a loan when the Uranians needed medication, thus preventing him from returning to Uranus in time to either save the civilisation from natural destruction or else to die with it. It seems that Thomas was aiming for a tale to contrast the black and white simplistic morality of the Golden and Atlas Ages with the more complicated superhero ethics that were developing strongly by the mid 1970s, as well as a more general look at fanaticism in the name of one's "father". But the problem is that he has never been one of the best polemical writers and so all the subtleties about the Crusader's approach to fighting crime in contrast to the Fantastic Four's (and they're far from the best heroes to use for such a contrast anyway, being more adventurers) are completely lost in favour of a tale of a seemingly indestructible fanatical foe. Marvel Boy's original adventures were only published for about a year, though were reprinted in the late 1960s and so he's not a hero whom it's easy to get excited about making it odd that he gets brought back this way only to be immediately killed off. It's also surprising that no effort is made to reconcile the civilisation on Uranus with the greater scientific knowledge of the planet that had developed in the intervening quarter of a century since the original tales. In 1950 it was possible to present other planets in the Solar System as being inhabited but by 1975 this was no longer credible.

One recurring theme in this volume is alternate Earths of one kind or another. At the start of the volume is a convoluted tale of Earth and two separate alternate dimensions that are all being pushed into a three-way conflict with each other by Arkon. One world is the Fifth Dimension, allowing Johnny to meet with Valeria once more, the other is the world where Reed became the Thing instead of Ben. It's a rather convoluted piece more notable for characterisation than for the conflicts, and presents a clear attempt to create a new Silver Surfer when Ben is travelling through space and encounters Gaard, an intergalactic ice hockey player complete with skates, stick and a puck, who serves as guardian of an interdimensional portal. The revelation that he is actually the Johnny Storm of the Reed-Thing's dimension, albeit unaware of his own identity, is an attempt at adding tragedy and familiarity but the character as a whole feels half-baked and it's easy to see why he is quickly forgotten.

A more substantial epic comes with an unusual starting point as a highly articulate golden gorilla called Gorr lands on Earth and lures the Four onto his spaceship to take them away. We soon learn he has solicited their aid because Galactus is seeking to consume Counter-Earth on the other side of the Sun, with only the High Evolutionary offering any meaningful resistance. Battling both Galactus himself and his current herald the Destroyer yields no ground until he accepts an offer to find an alternate populated world to consume providing that either its inhabitants voluntarily offer themselves up or the Four will select it for destruction. This leads to exploration of three possible alternate worlds, one being inhabited by a race of robots led by Torgo, the Thing's sparing partner from the world where the Skrulls operated like a 1920s gangster movie. Another world appears to be a parallel to medieval Earth as knights battle dragons but it turns out to be the Skrulls again, this time driving out the last of the indigenous population. Finally the third world appears barren and deserted but instead turns out to be Poppup, the home of the Impossible Man and his people with a single group mind, thus making the rest of the race willing to offer themselves up. But all is not well and Galactus suffers indigestion, and is then accelerated evolved into an energy form that no longer needs to eat. It's a curious twist to end the epic with but it shows an attempt to move forwards.

The return of the Impossible Man is the big surprise, since the original story had been exceptionally silly and it seemed as if all were trying to forget it. But now we get a somewhat slapstick issue as "Impy" roams through New York, eventually invading the Marvel Comics bullpen in the hope of starring in his own comic. It's a wonderfully anarchic piece that allows a tongue in cheek look at the Marvel office. However the Impossible Man then hangs around the Four for the rest of the volume in a tale that also sees both Thundra and Tigra show up and never really depart. The Impossible Man is best kept for one-off stories rather than an ongoing element.

The last issues in the volume put the team through multiple wringers as the Baxter Building gets taken over by the Frightful Four who are trying to recruit a new fourth member. They eventually find one in the form of the Brute - the Reed Richards of Counter-Earth who has inadvertently stowed away on the Fantastic Four's journey home. The rest of the Frightful Four are soon defeated but the Brute takes Reed's place and confines the real Reed to the Negative Zone. Reed's stretching power has been weakening before vanishing completely and so he is forced to survive by his wits and make a deal with Annihilus against a giant android controlled by the Mad Thinker, who has bizarrely found the ability to extend his power into the Negative Zone. Meanwhile the other Reed is trying to keep up the pretence on Earth but Sue has her doubts and they're confirmed by the different way this Reed kisses her. Sue has been growing ever stronger as a character, learning to use her forcefields for effective offensive action and seeing her power steadily increase in strength. It is thus a surprise only to the Brute that she proves the hardest of the Four to subdue. Reed's own nobility also triumphs through in the climax, impressing even his counterpart.

In general Johnny is the least used of the Four throughout this volume. After seeing Valeria a final time he tries updating his hair style and fashion sense in order to hit the singles bars, but the results are almost painfully comic. A long running though occasional thread sees him dating new character Frankie Raye but she is fearful of flame and panics whenever he flames on to go into action. There are hints at some great reason for this but she appears so infrequently that it becomes an irritation and with Thomas leaving just before the end there's a strong possibility it will not be resolved at all.

Apart from a few slips towards the end, this volume is quite strong. It demonstrates that it is possible to find new ways to handle the characters and their large ensemble cast whilst also adapting to the spirit of the times. This is the series at its best so far since the later Lee-Kirby years.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Essential Fantastic Four volume 7

Essential Fantastic Four volume 7 is made up of #138 to #159, including #154 which contains a reprint of a Human Torch story from Strange Tales, plus Giant-Size Super-Stars #1 which morphs into Giant-Size Fantastic Four #2 to #4 and Avengers #127. Bonus material includes early versions of the covers for issues #141, #155 and #156. Approximately the first half of the regular series plus the first two Giant-Sizes are written by Gerry Conway. The rest of the regular series is mainly by Roy Thomas with individual issues by Len Wein and Tony Isabella, the reprint by Stan Lee with a framing sequence by Wein, the remaining Giant-Sizes by Gerry Conway & Marv Wolfman and Len Wein & Chris Claremont, and the Avengers issue by Steve Englehart. The art on the regular and Giant-Sizes is nearly all by John Buscema, Rich Buckler and Ross Andru with the reprint by Dick Ayers with the framing sequence by Bob Brown and the Avengers issue by Sal Buscema. That's a lot of creators and so there's a separate post for some of the labels.

This volume contains the first four issues of Giant-Size Fantastic Four although the first comes under the awkward full cover title of Giant-Size Super-Stars featuring Fantastic Four. These are mostly written by the contemporary writer on the regular series but none of them tell particularly critical adventures and instead we get a series of standalone tales. Given the nature of the contemporary comics market with nearly all distribution still being via newsstands where not all titles were carried this may have been a wise choice in 1974 (indeed I've heard it claimed that none of Marvel's Giant-Size issues made it over to the United Kingdom back in the day), and even today Marvel's digital releases on Comixology are often very patchy when it comes to both annuals and Giant-Size series. But in a collected edition with them all contained together it feels like an opportunity missed. We get another fight between the Thing and the Hulk, an odd tale in which the Fantastic Four's postman Willie Lumpkin stumbles into a time machine and accidentally changes the course of history under the machinations of the mysterious Tempus, and a battle with the alien Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (nothing to do with a later group by the same name). The final issue in this volume seems to be an attempt to introduce a character who will go on to be a big star in some other series, and even has Professor X show up at the end to use his powers to bring about a resolution. However Jamie Madrox the Multiple Man doesn't come across as a very interesting character in spite of a back story that establishes him as the ultimate loner, forced to grow up in isolation and trapped in a full body suit designed to contain his powers. It's easy to spot the influence of Chris Claremont on what I think is his earliest ever work on any of the X-Men characters and concepts, although it's a rather indirect link given that Multiple Man wouldn't make it into the All-New X-Men and would stay on the periphery for many years. Overall these Giant-Sizes show themselves up as glorified annuals by another name and at a greater frequency.

The issues in this volume covers most of the period of Medusa's membership of the Four. And it can't be truthfully be said she makes the greatest impact. Part of the problem is that her powers operate in a way that is far too similar to Reed's, thus rendering her somewhat redundant at times. She shows a strong sense of daring and character and is clearly a far cry from the weak shrinking violets that so many of the female heroes of the Silver Age had been portrayed as. Yet for all this and her friendliness with the rest of the Four she just never quite feels as though she truly belongs. Part of it is the lack of a direct history with the others that makes her a natural part of the family. She may be the sister of Johnny's ex (although in one story she's relegated to being one of the many cousins) but that isn't a particularly direct link and not much is ever made of it. Nor is her role as an emissary for the Inhumans in the humans' world. Instead she's left as someone who may care for the others - in particular she is quite supportive of Reed throughout his marriage difficulties - but doesn't really seem to fit in with them. When at one point she declines to free the others from a prison and instead rushes off it actually feels like she could have turned traitor, but this doesn't feel like it was the plan all along. All in all her presence doesn't make the greatest of impacts and it's easy to see why her time in the Four is so easily forgotten even though she is around for nearly thirty regular issues, only leaving in the final pages of this volume.

In terms of character development Johnny and Ben are left largely to their own devices for much of the volume, perhaps because both were appearing regularly in team-up books that gave more scope for in-depth exploration. Johnny does get a little attention here as he faces up to fears about being increasingly outdated in his look and chat-up lines, but right at the end he's reunited with Valeria, a lady from the Fifth Dimension whom he met in one of the earliest of his 1960s solo tales back in Strange Tales.

But it's Reed and Sue who have the greatest development throughout this volume. It begins with them still separated but with the hope that they might reconcile soon. However hope is dashed when Annihilus captures not only the current Four but also Sue, Franklin and Agatha Harkness. In the course the adventure the insect (who is now given an origin) tries to use Franklin to tap into a great power source but it goes wrong and Franklin's power levels start building up towards dangerous levels. Facing the prospect of a psychic blast that could wipe out all life in the Solar System, Reed grabs an untested device in the form of a gun and blasts his own son. The effect turns off Franklin's power and his mind, rendering him a vegetable.

To say Sue is furious is an understatement. She is not convinced by all Reed's talk about the danger. All she sees is a man who treated his son with the same indifference that he might treat a gas leak. And she's not alone, with both Ben and Johnny also turning away in disgust though both are soon drawn back into the Four when Doctor Doom kidnaps them all as part of his scheme to destroy almost all free will on the planet. Then the two plus Medusa encounter yet another race in the Himalayas that are the supposed basis for the myth of the Yeti, with a would-be tyrant called Ternak seeking conquest. But Sue is not part of this and continues her absence from the team. Instead she finds shelter with Namor the Sub-Mariner and files for divorce from Reed. The moment when the others find Reed sunk into a chair holding the formal court summons is a chilling opener to a tale in which they think they're out to rescue Sue from being held against her will, only to find she has chosen Namor instead. The Frightful Four minus one provide a distraction before Namor summons sea monsters from the depths to seemingly attack the surface world once more. In battle Sue slowly realises how she and Reed truly feel about one another and reconcile. Unbeknownst to either of them the whole thing was staged by Medusa, Namor and Triton to get the couple back together, with Namor having no real intention of conquest.

Although she is back with Reed, Sue does not immediately rejoin the Four. Franklin is cured when at the wedding of Crystal and Quicksilver Ultron attacks through the body of Omega the Ultimate Alpha and uses a weapon to try to destroy minds but instead restores the child's who immediately destroys the android. It's a bit contrived but works to make issue #150 a happy ending issue all round as Crystal marries the man of her choice (hence the crossover with Avengers) and Johnny accepts it all. But Sue doesn't truly return until another adventure with the Inhumans when the Human Torch's old foe Xemu from the Fifth Dimension conquers the Inhumans as a launching point for wider conquest and destruction. Reed tells Sue to stay behind and the others rush to free the Inhumans. But salvation comes only because Sue stores away and shows great initiative in using Xemu's equipment to her own advantage, making a striking return to the Four as a much stronger and more powerful character than before. But just as one returns another leaves with Medusa opting to return to the Inhumans and especially Black Bolt.

Elsewhere we get another Silver Surfer saga that follows up on threads from his own original series with the revelation that Shalla Bal is on Earth and under the control of Doctor Doom. Once more Doom seeks the Surfer's Power Cosmic only this time he transfers it into a new Doomsman robot. The tale has a bittersweet ending as the Surfer leaves believing "Shalla Bal" to only be a Latverian woman who looks like her and was given false memories, but we learn that in fact those are the false memories and Mephisto has once again used Shalla Bal to torment the Surfer. With the story ending with Shalla Bal on Earth with false memories and nobody out of her, the Surfer, the Four or Doom any the wiser, it's a surprisingly downbeat ending and the story is not followed up here.

Other past characters return in various tales with the Miracle Man attacking Wyatt Wingfoot's tribe and gaining power beyond mere hypnotism, or an epic exploring Thundra's origins in rival alternate futures, one dominated by women called Femizons and the other by men under the rule of Mahkizmo, with the male members of the Four dismissed as week and "effeminate". The two worlds are soon set to rights but in the process Thundra is left in our time as an anomaly. Deadline problems lead to an issue with a substantial flashback to an old Strange Tales adventure in which Johnny and Ben battled the "Mystery Villain" whose identity was painfully obvious (maybe the real mystery was why anyone thought it would fool any readers). Now in the present day someone else has adopted the identity.

Overall this volume is a mixed bag. It may show a lot of the Bronze Age traits such as trying to introduce The Next Big Thing and instead debuting a rather forgettable foe, rehashing earlier adventures, having auxillary issues that are unnecessary to the main saga or the dreaded reprint fill-in, but there's more as well. There's actually a real sense of direction to Reed and Sue's story as they come to learn more about both each other and themselves. There's also a real attempt to actually mix up some the main ancillary elements of the series to present strong new takes on them instead of just retelling the same old tales. Although it's by no means a rise to past glories, this volume shows the series making a concerted effort to pull itself forward.

Essential Fantastic Four volume 7 - creator labels

Once again we have a volume with lots of creators so here's an extra post to carry the labels for some of them.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Master Edition volume 1

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Master Edition volume 1 collects... entries in a different manner from before. The Master Edition opted for a loose-leaf partwork format with individual issues containing entries to be inserted into a binder in alphabetical order. For this collected edition, the entries from across all thirty-six editions have been included for the Abomination through to the Gargoyle. Where relevant the volume also includes the action sheet and supporting cast page for big name characters and team action sheets that were included in later issues. Also included in this volume are the covers of all thirty-six issues plus some of the original introductions. The entries are mainly drawn by Keith Pollard and researched & written by Len Kaminski, Jamie Tost, Mark Gruenwald, Glenn Herdling, Murray Ward and Peter Sanderson. The whole thing is edited successively by Mark Gruenwald, Kelly Corvese and Tom Brevoort.

The standard entry for a character has a full-page shot of the character from the front, side and rear. Then there's a page of text with the following pro forma:
  • Biographical Data
  • Real name
  • Other current aliases
  • Former aliases
  • Dual identity
  • Current occupation
  • Former occupation
  • Citizenship
  • Legal status
  • Place of birth
  • Marital status
  • Known relatives
  • Known confidants
  • Known allies
  • Major enemies
  • Usual base of operations
  • Former base of operations
  • Current group membership
  • Former group membership
  • Extent of occupation
  • Physical Description
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Eyes
  • Hair
  • Other distinguishing features
  • Powers and Abilities
  • Intelligence
  • Strength
  • Air speed
  • Stamina
  • Durability
  • Agility
  • Reflexes
  • Fighting skills
  • Special skills and abilities
  • Superhuman physical powers
  • Superhuman mental powers
  • Special limitations
  • Source of superhuman powers
  • Paraphernalia
  • Costume specifications
  • Personal weaponry
  • Special weaponry
  • Other accessories
  • Transportation
  • Design and manufacture of paraphernalia
  • Bibliography
  • First appearance
  • Origin issue
  • Significant issues
Occasionally a section will be followed by a "Note", clarifying some point or other. Sometimes there is no space left for "Significant issues". The entries and art are all printed in landscape format. The first appearances for characters who originated in the Golden or Atlas Ages include both a "historical" and "modern" entry.

The partwork nature of the original means that from time to time the order is wrong. Most notably the entry for Deathlok III precedes that of Deathlok I. Sometimes a character gets two entries such as Crystal, who changed her costume during the original release run. Each entry displays a different costume and the later one adds in a few recent key issues but otherwise the two are much of a muchness, with errors repeated such as listing Quicksilver as her "cousin by marriage" instead of as her husband.

Groups and organisations are listed differently with this pro forma:
  • Organization
  • Full name
  • Purpose
  • Modus operandi
  • Extent of operations
  • Relationship to conventional authorities
  • Base of operations
  • Former bases of operations
  • Major funding
  • Known enemies
  • Known allies
  • Membership
  • Number of active members
  • Number of reserve members
  • Organizational structure
  • Known officers
  • Known current members
  • Known former members
  • Known special agents
  • Membership requirements
  • History
  • Founder
  • Other leaders
  • Previous purpose or goals
  • Major campaigns or accomplishments
  • Major setbacks
  • Technology and paraphernalia
  • Level of technology
  • Transportation
  • Standard uniforms
  • Standard weaponry
  • Standard accessories
  • Bibliography
  • First appearance
  • Origin issue
  • Significant issues
Teams usually have a Membership Roster that details each member's time with the team as follows:
  • [Identity]
  • Real name
  • Current status
  • Membership record
  • Note
The entries for the Avengers and the Avengers West Coast operate on the principle that the New York based team are THE Avengers and the Los Angeles based team is a spin-off rather than the alternate position that they were respectively the east coast and west coast branches of the organisation on an equal footing. The exact status of the west coast team in relation to the east coast was a live issue for many years but here the Handbook comes down on the side that effectively dismisses the west coast team as inessential.

As well as the teams there are also occasional entries for the supporting casts of high profile characters such as Daredevil or Captain America, with the image page showing the hero in action. The entries for each cast member list:
  • [Name]
  • Current occupation
  • Relationship [to the hero]
  • First appearance
Some of the entries stop short in covering a character's history, such as the one for Captain Marvel II. The significant issues listed only covers the first few years of her career and feels the need to include a Marvel Team-Up story which left her temporarily trapped in her energy form, but conspicuously absent are the issues covering her tenure as chairperson of the Avengers, her massive energy loss in battle and her subsequent recovery with altered powers. It's as if a longer list was prepared but it became clear there was insufficient space for all of it and so it was simply chopped short rather than carefully edited down. Another odd case is Dazzled, whose early battles with Lightmaster and the Hulk wind up as being presented as more significant than Dazzler: The Movie. At the other end of the scale some characters have such brief entries for the rest of the form such that it makes Fandral appear to be the most active character included here.

There's still the occasional attempt to use entries to "correct" information given in stories such as the declaration that Ego the Living Planet does not meet the criteria of the Elders of the Universe and thus cannot be considered to be one of them despite having been shown to be part of one of the most exclusive groups in all the Marvel universe.

At the rear of the volume is a collection of covers, introductions and guide pages. Some of the introductions use the same text and the pages chosen seem to be used only because some of the credits are reused. The single page guide to power levels and the single page special glossary are both useful but would have been better place at the start of the volume. Otherwise the introductions talk about the philosophy and vision of the series, addressing a number of comments from readers. Big debates were held about whether the covers should also be printed on durable pagestock for binding; eventually they were but at the expense of a character sheet in each issue. The action shots proved unpopular for being out of line with the project and were dropped. Otherwise the later introductions also carry a number of corrections, plus a few extended bibliographies for characters whose entries ran short.

"Its modular nature will enable us to update this indefinitely without having to start all over from the beginning of the alphabet" claims the first introduction. It's clear the project had vision to go on for a long time with regular updates but after thirty-six issues it was cancelled due to low sales and the introductions admit as much.

This edition of the Handbook has the best format for mapping an ongoing fictional universe prior to the growth of the internet with online updates for encyclopaedias and downloadable updates for file based ones. It's a sensible move to reprint it in alphabetical order rather than recreating the disparate order of thirty-six separate packs. However the format has some failings. To read this the volume has to be turned on its side and there's an emphasis on lots of art and brief information at the expense of extended detailing of the story. In a way it's very representative of some of the worst trends in early 1990s comics. The Master Edition is now timelocked to the early 1990s and so it is no longer current; nor does it have the benefit of being a historical curiosity that the original is. With very few of the Essential series having reached this period there is little need for a supporting guide from the era. Once again it is hardly necessary to reprint.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Essential Fantastic Four volume 6

Essential Fantastic Four volume 6 contains issues #111 to #137. Bonus material includes the cover of the reprint Marvel Treasury Edition #21 and early versions of the covers for issue #130 & #131. The writing starts off with the tail end of Stan Lee's run with a brief interregnum by Archie Goodwin before runs by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway. Most of the art is by John Buscema with individual issues by Ross Andru and Ramona Fradon.

This volume sees the final regular work on the series by Stan Lee but it's a somewhat stunted exit. His continuous run ends at issue #114 midway through the Over-Mind story with issue #115 being scripted over a Lee plot. Then after a very brief run by Archie Goodwin there's an issue by Roy Thomas that seems to be the start of his run, only for Lee to return for another six issues to produce sequels to one of the best known stories and one of the least known. It's all rather tame for the ending of the last of the Four's creators. This volume shows the series in the early years of the 1970s when the onus was on the book to find a way forward in the new decade rather than simply rehashing old glories. It also had to demonstrate it could survive without either of the creators though there's an element of the original run remaining in the form of inker Joe Sinnott.

What is particularly noticeable throughout the volume is an increase in the soap opera element of the series with concerted attempts to not just retell the same old stories but to also move forward. Ben and Alicia may still remain an item throughout, but Reed and Sue's marriage reaches such strains from his overprotective attitude that midway through she leaves him, taking Franklin with her. Later she's inadvertently reunited with the others due to Dragon Man kidnapping her and Franklin on the orders of Gregory Gideon, but Reed is knocked unconscious and Sue refuses to stay around until he recovers, lest it causes more problems. The word "divorce" may not appear but it's a pretty bold for the series to take two people who at this time are not just the leading couple of the Fantastic Four but the first couple of the whole Marvel universe and risk breaking them up for good. It's clear that Sue and Reed still mean a huge amount to each other, with Sue shown thoughtful and pensive in every glimpse of her during her time away whilst Reed takes the loss badly and is almost permanently saddened by it all. But it's also a move that exposes the risks of having too much soap opera in a title that is still nominally aimed at children, even though a good chunk of the readership was now growing up with the title. Here comes the clash of realism and escapism. Relationships fail. Marriages don't always last. Parents do split up. Some children have never known their parents to be together (Franklin looks young enough to fit this). All these are clearly true and a part of modern day life. But does that make it wise to explore them in escapist literature? It's easy to see why some readers were alienated at the time - future FF writer Mark Waid has spoken of how close to home this hit. I'm lucky in that I've never experienced this myself but within this volume at least it feels like a souring of the fairy tale of Reed and Sue. The volume ends with them still apart so there's no great triumph of hope or attempt to show there is light for children in the same position as Franklin.

Also broken up in this volume, though it's not as advanced, is the relationship between Johnny and Crystal. She has been back amongst the Inhumans for some time now due to her lack of immunities, but is briefly reunited with the others when Diablo uses her to pose as a goddess to conquer a Latin American country, Terra Verde, but it's only a brief reunion as she must soon return home. When Johnny eventually tracks her down to the Great Refuge he discovers that she has since met Quicksilver and fallen for him. Johnny's initial reaction is anger and fury but after he and Quicksilver have been forced to work together to save Crystal's life he takes her final decision calmly in a strong scene that shows how he has matured from his days as a young hot head. Also underlining how things are moving on is a scene where he tracks down his old girlfriend Dorrie Evans in the hope of resuming things, only to discover that she is now married and has two children. It's all a reminder of how life marches on and people are not like toys who can simply be put down and picked up from the same spot years later.

Ben starts the volume having stormed out in anger having seemingly had his personality altered by the latest attempt to restore him to human form. For a time he can change back and forth at will, but after the process is reversed by Reed with the intention of getting it right this time, Ben instead smashes the machinery and stays in his monster form, perhaps having decided he prefers this form as it is accepted by Alicia. A brief visit to a parallel universe reinforces the situation for him as he sees a world where it was Reed and not him who became the Thing and is even lonelier. The Four gain a new member for the time being in the form of Medusa, who takes Sue's place on the team and quickly slots in with her power to manipulate her hair proving a more visually noticeable power than invisibility. There's clearly a period of unseen time in which she trains with the others so that they're often able to co-ordinate with one another at critical moments.

On a more mundane level is the ongoing conflict with Walter Collins, the owner of the Baxter Building who is getting ever more angry with the Four's activities and the dangers and damage that they attract. He keeps threatening eviction but the Four repeatedly evade his attempts to serve notice on them, often with humorous results.

As for the adventuring, there's some revisiting of old themes but time and again they feel like diminished remixes of former glories. Early on we get another fight between the Thing and the Hulk but it isn't as spectacular as before. Stan Lee's great final epic is another Galactus story which this time features his new herald, the angel-like android Gabriel the Air-Walker. The Silver Surfer is also involved in what feels like an attempt to have the final word on Galactus but when the main battle comes in an amusement park it's all too clear how far the ambitions of the series have fallen. Lee's final story sees the return of the mysterious Monster from the Lost Lagoon but again it's a morality tale about not judging by appearances. It feels a very strange ending for his writing.

The first issue after the very final Lee one sees a retelling of the Four's origin, leading into another confrontation with the Mole Man who has now subdued and enslaved his rival Tyrannus. It's a rare attempt to give the Mole Man a more humane side with a partner, Kala, but she turns out to have her own plans. The Frightful Four return with a new fourth member in the form of the warrior woman Thundra, who twice proves a match for the Thing. Another Inhumans storyline seems to be breaking beyond tradition and offering a new menace in the form of an uprising by the Alpha Primitives of the Great Refuge, with their guilt powering the android Omega, but the whole thing falls down with the revelation that Omega was created by Maximus. Is it not possible to tell another type of Inhumans story? One of the more surprising returns is the businessman Gregory Gideon who is now dying of radiation poisoning and seeking a radical cure for both him and his son, utilising the android Dragon Man to capture the Four. A more curious tale comes in the aftermath as one of Gideon's subordinates is empowered by first an energy wave and then by the Shaper of Worlds from the Incredible Hulk. Slugger Johnson's imagination feeds the Shaper who transforms the world into a bizarre version of 1950s culture and politics with the Four split up amongst the various factions in this strange new world.

The big new foe of the volume is the Overmind, whose mental powers steadily take control of many figures of authority in order to undermine the Fantastic Four and conquer first the planet and then the whole universe. At one point even Reed succumbs to the control of the Overmind and the rest of the Four are left searching for another brilliant mind to fight him with. They find it in the form of Doctor Doom, making for a memorable extra sized issue which also supplies this volume's cover.

One of the more politicised stories comes in issue #119 as Ben and Johnny go to the fictional African country of Rudyarda to rescue T'Challa, who has briefly adopted the name of "Black Leopard" due to the political connotations of the name "Black Panther". Rudyarda itself is a thinly disguised blend of South Africa and Rhodesia - fictional parodies from this era often did not stop to separate out the two countries - where they clash with Klaw. But the real villain is not the master of sound but the country's racial segregation, shown starkly. The story ends with a message of hope as the three face the separate exits to the prison and Ben simply tears down the wall so all three can walk over the signs together, in a moment that seems to have impacted on the prison guards. It's certainly a bold story for its era but it shies away from explaining just why the Four aren't stopping to overthrow the entire system of apartheid.

Overall this volume shows some signs of promise but not many. There's too much willingness to wallow in concepts from the Lee-Kirby run with both Lee himself and other writers at times presenting almost reruns of old stories instead of trying to take them forward. On the other hand there's a real conscious effort to move the characters forward even though the decision to push Reed and Sue's marriage into separation is somewhat questionable given both their status as Marvel's first couple and the traditional target audience in this era. Still the volume shows the series trying to haul its way forward into a new era and for that it must be commended.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Essential Fantastic Four volume 5

Essential Fantastic Four volume 5 consists of issues #84 to #110 and Annuals #7 & #8 although these are all-reprint issues represented by the covers. Bonus material includes some pencils of individual pages and a gallery of photographs of Marvel staffers. The first two thirds are by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, still credited on the actual issues as co-producers and on the contents page with Lee as "Writer" and Kirby as "Penciller". The last issues see Kirby succeeded by first John Romita and then John Buscema, with issue #108 being a Kirby drawn issue from file with modifications by both Johns.

And so we come to the end of the Lee-Kirby run, with the final nineteen issues occupying the first two-thirds of this volume. But this is far from the most memorable part of their run. Instead much of it sees a return to some of the most familiar foes for more of the same but without a great increase in excitement that ramps the adventures up to the greatest ever battles. With one notable exception the new characters and situations remain fairly unimpressive and it's easy to see why they rarely feature on lists of the Four's greatest foes and adventures. And at times the stories feel extremely drawn out, decompressed far beyond the length they would have had in earlier years.

It starts with a multi-part saga in which the Four are captured by Doctor Doom and held in a part of Latveria where they are treated as guests amongst a group of hippies whilst being conditioned to think they have lost their powers as a prelude to their destruction. Then back home Sue has found a new home isolated from other dwellings, but it's a trap by the Mole Man. Afterwards Ben is kidnapped by Skrulls and taken to a bizarre planet where the local Skrulls have based their civilisation on Prohibition era gangster movies. Whilst there Ben is forced to fight the robotic man Torgo, appearing for the first time. Back on Earth comes an attack by the Frightful Four, having seemingly recruited Medusa once more. Then we get one of the few new foes introduced at this stage, the spy known as the Monocle who stands out because of his, you've guessed it, eyepiece. His attempt to start the next World War by attacking a United Nations summit seems a rather bizarre way to trigger it. After this we get the resort to the standard cliché of the identical duplicate story, here in the form of androids built by the Mad Thinker. Then there's a misunderstanding with an alien monster just trying to repair its ship and return home. Other aliens have different plans for Earth as a Kree Sentry tries to prevent the Apollo Moon Landing. Then there's a misunderstanding with the Inhumans, a team-up between the Puppet Master and the Mad Thinker as they unleash a whole range of robot duplicates of old Fantastic Four foes for the anniversary issue #100, followed by an odd issue as the Maggia try to defeat the Four but get divided between those who wish to use corporate warfare and those who prefer the physical methods. The last issue of the Lee-Kirby run begins a multi-part saga in which Magneto is manipulating Namor the Sub-Mariner into launching another war on humanity.

The encounter with the Frightful Four also introduces the baby's new nanny, Agatha Harkness and her cat Ebony. It rapidly becomes clear that she is more powerful than she is letting on, but is also a benign witch who helps the Four on more than one occasion throughout this volume. But her introduction is a sign of the imagination starting to run thin as magic ranks second only to mutation as a convenient short cut for a source of powers. Also there's something a little off about its appearance here as the series has hitherto been primarily an exaggerated science fiction fantasy which has steered away from such themes. Still the introduction of a nanny for the baby, now named Franklin Benjamin Richards after a seemingly inordinate amount of time, does fit into the family themes of the title that remain at its core.

The series is finding the real world catching up with it, most notably in issue #98 which is set around the Moon landings despite coming out over six months after Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. In the real world this was a moment of great excitement. The issue reflects some of that, showing people the world over rushing to televisions and radios to keep up with the news. But in the context of this series it's all nonsense. The Fantastic Four have already visited the Moon on multiple occasions and gone out to other planets on many others. Numerous aliens have visited Earth and many have been seen by the public at large. And it's hard to envisage a scientist such as Reed keeping all his discoveries in this field a secret from the broader scientific community. The result is that this is one of those times when real life brings up awkward questions about just how different the Marvel universe is from our own and how this has impacted upon society at large. It would doubtless have been better to simply ignore the situation rather than addressing it, especially as this issue originally came out far too late to have been in any way a topical tie-in to boost sales.

Issue #102 is the final one in the continuos run by Jack Kirby. Long runs are rare in comics, unbroken ones even more so but to have the same artist and scripter on a run of this length with the title on a regular schedule is almost completely unheard of. Adding in the six original extra large annuals which were done without taking any time out of the regular series and the achievement is even more extraordinary. It's a testament to the dedication of both Kirby and Lee that they lasted the course for so long on a title that was originally created just to jump onto the latest fad in comics with the twist that they would go for a more human and vulnerable cast than traditionally found in superhero comics. I doubt anyone realised just how long the title would last and that it would get to this point with both creators still on it. But for all the great achievements of the run as a whole, with a revolutionary approach to the genre, flawed but likeable characters and a great stream of imagination that produced the universe around them populated by such memorable allies and enemies, it cannot be denied that this volume covers the fag end of the run. I've written quite a bit about the dropping off in imagination during the contemporary final days of their run on Thor (over in my review of Essential Thor volume 4) so I won't go over all of the same ground again. But as with the last days of their run on that title, these ones too seem to be running on a deliberately near empty tank of imagination, with very little actually added to the mythology of the series. Again Kirby departs on the first issue of a multi-part saga, though it has to be said that the team-up between Magneto and Namor is infinitely more interesting than the conflict with the Maggia in the preceding issue. Once again it's a pity that he seems to have been holding back whilst working out his contract, but equally to blame is Stan Lee for not filling the gap when he is still credited in an equal role.

Kirby does make a brief return of sorts with issue #108 but this comes "with last-minute revisions, deletions, and addenda by S. Lee, J. Buscema and J. Romita", suggesting this was an early example of the stand-by fill-in issue that was dug out of the files, modified to match the current cast and given an addition preceding issue to lead into it. "The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man!" is nowhere near as mysterious as the title suggests, with the Nega-Man himself one of the least memorable of all the foes the Fantastic Four have faced up until now. This is far from a final hurrah for Kirby and instead betrays itself as literally leftovers. Kirby's art is, however, still on top form throughout the volume.

The last third of the volume may be post Kirby but Lee is still around and it's clear that for now the series is going to be building on the lengthy Lee-Kirby run rather than moving forwards. As most of the issues are following up on storylines begun by one Kirby storyline or another this is not surprising. The Magneto and Namor story is soon resolved with John Romita once again taking over on one of the leading Marvel titles and producing art that matches the existing style and holds up well. There's a forgettable two-parter with the strange "Monster in the Streets" that is more notable for cast developments than the actual foe. The Nega-Man story is built on to produce another trip into the Negative Zone where the Four face Annihilus, with Reed nearly lost there until Agatha Harkness works magic and provides a deus ex machina solution.

There's some small changes to the line-up during this run, with at one stage the number Four feeling a little inaccurate. At other times there's a strong sense of sexism, affecting Sue more than Crystal. Indeed at one point Sue tries to call Reed out on it and gets told to not be so "feminine". Sue drifts back into the team as she returns from maternity leave but it's never too explicit at just what point it's formalised. Twice Crystal leaves to return to the Inhumans, once for reasons she fails to explain to Johnny, once because she lacks the immunities necessary to live in the humans' world. The impact on Johnny is devastating. Meanwhile Ben seemingly achieves his dream when Reed performs a bold experiment that results in Ben being able to change between human and rocky form at will. But it seems to be having bad side effects on his personality, to the point that the volume ends on the cliffhanger of Ben storming out of the team in anger.

Overall this is a rather dull period in the team's history. There are no great storylines or much in the way of memorable new characters and instead we get a regurgitation of existing concepts both before and after Jack Kirby's departure. The end of the legendary Lee-Kirby run is far from the greatest part of it and what limited sight we get of the series after that suggests that for now it's going to carry on wallowing in the memory of that run.
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