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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