Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Essential Fantastic Four, volume 6


Our book today is the sixth volume of Marvel Comics’ ongoing reprint series, ‘Essential Fantastic Four #6,’ collecting issues 111 through 137 of the Fantastic Four’s monthly comic book from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

The sheer number of you we lost just now with that little description is a sorry reflection on the cultural snobberies of our age, but we shall persevere, not only in the hopes of changing that status quo, but also because Kevin, Elmo, and all the other scattered faithful will appreciate the effort to level the playing field.

So: the Fantastic Four. For those of you languishing in ignorance (you know who you are, and you’ll need to be up to speed if you’re to take in the religious event known as ‘Fantastic Four - the Rise of the Silver Surfer’ in theaters as we speak), that means Reed Richards, the world’s smartest man, Sue Richards, his fiery and compassionate wife, Ben Grimm, his crusty old-school best friend, and heartthrob Johnny Storm, Sue’s younger brother. They go up into space in a stolen spacecraft, accidentally get exposed to cosmic rays, and get transformed into the Fantastic Four: Mister Fantastic, who can stretch his body like silly putty, the Invisible Woman, who can fade from sight and generate equally-invisible force fields, the Thing, rocklike monstrosity of enormous physical strength, and the Human Torch, a living firebrand capable of hurling flame.

They were Marvel’s flagship title, a super-group that was first and foremost a family, with squabblings and interpersonal dynamics that were, in the early ‘60s, virtually unheard of in comic books. Their identities are known to the public - indeed, they’re celebrities, and Stan Lee is a fine, funny chronicler of the ups and downs of that status. Far from a Fortress of Solitude or a Batcave (and we should remember that the Justice League originally hung out in a cave), our heroes make a Manhattan skyscraper their headquarters.

The list of Stan Lee’s innovations on this one title alone virtually defy tabulation, and they get taken for granted by today’s over-pampered comics-reading set, who think all the gritty givens that form the basis of every comic out there were somehow ALWAYS there. They weren’t. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby invented them.

This presents problems in an of itself, namely: what do you do when the creating ur-titans get older and want to retire, or seek out new pastures? How do you pass the torch on something so newly minted?

In the case of Marvel comics, the answer is: pretty bloody awkwardly. Stan Lee insisted on being credited as writer long after he’d lost interest in the title and ceded actual scripting chores (writing and re-writing dialogue, checking continuity, etc) to three of the greatest wunderkins ever to grace a comic book company: Gerry Conway, Archie Goodwin, and Roy Thomas. DC Comics, during their own transitionary period, could only have dreamt of caretakers so conscientious (well, OK, they had one - Julie Schwartz - but he was unique).

But first, we have to get through the dwindling of the old order, and in the case of the Fantastic Four, that was a long, protracted, severely depressing trough of truly terrible issues (the sack of crap collected in Essential Fantastic Four #5 is a thing you wouldn’t drop on the head of your worst enemy).

Luckily, thanks to the growing influence of the trio named above, by volume #6 some light is breaking through the clouds. Stan Lee is credited with writing a great number of the early issues collected here, but he didn’t; Thomas and especially Goodwin were generating every word of dialogue, altough often enough under Lee’s heavy influence.

It must be admitted right up front that this volume’s worst misstep is also a really, really big misstep: the second coming of Galactus is botched so badly we here at Stevereads challenge any of you to tell us how that particular story ends, or even what-all happens in it.

Galactus this time around is heralded by Gabriel, perhaps his lamest-assed herald (Terrax was bad, but perhaps not quite so bad) Galactus has had so far. Gabriel walks on air like an angel and signals the end of the world - i.e. the world’s being gulped down whole by planet-chomping Galactus - by blowing on his horn. Get it?

He fights the FF almost to a standstill, despite the fact that he ends up being a friggin robot who they should have trashed in about four panels of trying. But that’s not the worst of it: when Galactus shows up, he displays his awesome presence and power by ... well, by talking a lot of trash and hanging out a lot at Coney Island. Suddenly, Galactus is Vinnie Pastoranza, the bad boy of Our Lady of Perptual Grace in Brooklyn. The story is so bad that we don’t even care a) when the Silver Surfer shows up, b) why he shows up, or c) what the hell he does once he’s there.

No ultimate sacrifice this time around. No Ultimate Nullifier. Galactus wears shortpants and plays around with the Cyclone for a weirdly unseemly amount of time, and all through it, you get the impression that this whole thing went wrong for the exact same reason so many Hollywood blockbusters go wrong: too many cooks, too much creative interference, or, as my somewhat disturbed old friend Franco always said, too many hands down the boy scout’s pants. (in case you’re wondering, it was at that exact moment that this review got Beepy’s attention)

You’d think nothing could save a collection that manages to feature a bad Galactus storyline, but you’d be wrong: there’s some strong stuff here, beginning with the volume’s first story-arc, featuring a big, fat baddie named the Over-Mind and a wonderful, protracted Thing/Hulk battle that displays some of John Buscema’s finest penciling on the title (the crisp inking by Joe Sinnott works perfectly here, where it would have been disastrous on, for instance, Kirby’s pencils). In the course of that battle, and in the course of the Over-Mind battle that follows, the FF inflict a great deal of property damage on Manhattan - for which they’re threatened with eviction by their landlord, and for which they’re actually arrested by the police (Reed Richards writes out a check for their $20,000 bail) - today’s readers will be forgiven for seeing seeds of Marvel’s recent wretched ‘Civil War’ storyline, and yesterday’s readers will be forgiven for wistfully wondering what glories could have been wrung from that premise by writers like Thomas or Goodwin.

It’s in this series of issues that Johnny Storm loses his sometime-girlfriend, Crystal of the Inhumans, to none other than Quicksilver, who’s just mutie-bastid enough to rub Johnny’s face in it. This is also the period in which Medusa of the Inhumans joins the team, and re-reading these issues gave us a fresh appreciation for how she’s portrayed: mature, capable, with just a hint of the disdain that might come naturally to royalty (this volume also features a great little sequence where heartsick Johnny looks up his old sweetheart Dorrie Evans - and finds her to be a cheery, plump house-frau mother of two... at a time in American history when even the squarest melvin could get some groovin, Johnny can’t catch a break)

The highlight of this volume, though, is also one of the single-issue highlights of the Fantastic Four’s entire history. It’s a story called “Three Stood Together,” in which the Black Panther, traveling incognito to the white supremacist African nation of (somewhat disappointingly) Rudyarda, is thrown in jail for being black, and the Thing and the Human Torch go there to break him out (and stop the bad guy, of course)(who’s Klaw, of course). From the start, the two heroes are disgusted by the country’s separate but equal doorways labeled ‘Europeans’ and ‘Coloreds,’ but the story raises a broad spectrum of racial issues (like, for instance, when the Thing questions why T’Challa is temporarily calling himself ‘The Black Leopard’ and T’Challa answers: “I contemplate a return to your country, Ben Grimm where the latter term [Black Panther] has ... political connotations. I neither condemn nor condone those who have taken up the name - but T’Challa is a law unto himself”).

At the end of the issue, after the bad guy has been beaten and all set right with the authorities, our heroes encounter once again a stone wall inset with separate doorways for ‘Europeans’ and ‘Coloreds,’ and the Thing, steaming over the whole concept, abruptly tears down the whole wall, and the three walk out over the shattered labels. It’s a little hokey, but when you consider how many times apartheid or black power movements had been mentioned in comics prior to that (i.e. never), you recall the power the issue had when you first read it.

The next volume of Essential Fantastic Four will contain, by our reckoning, five real high points in the history of the title. But this volume has its share of nifty bits and is by no means despicable. Despite some notable missteps (cosmic bikers? a big furry creature with a WWII land mine for a head?), this volume is well worth your handful of fivers.

12 comments:

Aidan said...

i'm pumped for the movie friday!

steve said...

'pumped' doesn't begin to describe what I myself am feeling. I think of nothing else. I've taken a personal vow to forego all food, all drink, and all sex (sorry Beepy)(sorry Jeff) (sorry Reichmarshal) until I see 'Rise of the Silver Surfer.' I may even refrain from bathing until then.

Beepy said...

Aidan, I'm glad you're here and commenting but don't encourage Steve...

Jeff E. said...

While not wanting to speak for everyone, I can pretty much assure you that by refraining from bathing you will be nearly 100% assured of refraining from sex.

How the hell could there be an actual person named Archie Goodwin? Having read 43 of 48 Nero Wolfe mysteries (and the missing 5 being only due to a deficiency in the stock of the Book Barn) I can scarcely believe that there is such a person.

I'm glad there are 'Essential' collections that make it easy on those of you (Steve) who threw away your comics after reading them. If you ever come to NYC (ha!) you would be welcome to view the Eaton collection of every Marvel and DC comic produced from 1956 to 1972. I know for sure that right behind my head I have the first 100+ Fantastic Four nestled right next to the to first 100+ X-Men (two copies of each, actually, since my dad and his older brother took one each from the drugstore Grandpa ran during that time). I'm sure you, and others on this blog, are among the few people who would seriously appreciate this impossible to sell but utterly priceless collection of golden/silver age comics.

Kevin Caron said...

Ah, the famed Eaton Collection! I've dreamed of spending a week? A month? pouring over it since I first heard the legend a decade ago (a legend I've shared out here with my fellow comic book store managers around the campfire ((fueled by heaping on bundles of worthless 90's comics)))...

Thanks for the review, Steve - the post Lee/Kirby pre Byrne FF is one of those pockets of comic book continuity I know nothing about, but I'm filled with curiosity...

Where do you stand on the whole Lee/Kirby(/Ditko) who really had the good ideas? controversy? Out here, in the Rocky Mountain retailers community, we all tend to lean toward Kirby/Ditko (both of whom had a hand in character creation and plotting; Ditko was credited as co-plotter from early on, and copies of Kirby FF pencils clearly have the story written into the panel borders, including suggested dialogue, so all Lee seemingly had to do was add the ponderously purple prose...

steve said...

Beepy - what do you mean, 'encouraging'? Aidan and I are two peas in a pod - young, happening guys fresh out of high school, eager for the same movie - playahs, in other words. So what's this 'encouraging' business? Don't make me post another picture of myself ....

steve said...

Jeff - I wondered if anybody would catch the Archie Goodwin connection! Ah, though, mention of the Book Barn gets me all nostalgic ...

steve said...

Kevin - Stan Lee has been robbed by this whole 'the artists did it all' business. His 'ponderously purple prose' could also be at times quite good - and it was always spirited and slightly self-mocking. The clearest prooof that Kirby and especially the nutjob Ditko weren't the scribes behind the scenes is their own work as credited writers. Which uniformly stinks. Kirby's run on Black Panther? I'm surprised Malcolm X didn't get up out of his grave and bitch-slap Kirby for every word of it.

steve said...

oh, and Jeff? Your sex = bathing comment proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that you're a primate. 'Sex = bathing' has no truck in the canine world.

Kevin Caron said...

You make a good point, Steve - though Stan Lee certainly has his share of stinkers out there without Kirby or Ditko.

Personally, I think that Ditko and Kirby were an integral part of the creative process (both in creating characters and stories), but clearly Lee played a huge roll as well - in plotting, scripting, creating and weeding out some of Kirby or Ditko's less terrific character/story ideas.

It's a bit of a Lennon/McCartney thing, isn't it? Do you have an opinion on that creative team?

steve said...

Comic book artists! They ALWAYS stick together! Nevertheless, Kirby and Ditko's ideas almost always stunk - and need I point out your own design for a new Legion character? 'Ghetto Girl' indeed ...

Just leave the ideas to the writers, ya dad-blasted pencil-jockey!

(um, er, speaking of which, how's the whole Badger project coming along? Awk - ward ....)

Kevin Caron said...

Oh, you writers think you're so great. What a crock! "Medium shot of football stadium filled with stunned fans as a Blackhawk helicopter crashes into the teams mascot, a donkey with a mohawk, the collision tearing a hole in spacetime itself."

Not so hard to write, but boy will you bitch when the panel isn't drawn in 2 hours!

And let's not mention your attempt at a new Legionaire - I mean, "Gossip Girl"? Please.

*A-hem.*
The first new Badger is now coming out in November (delayed due to legal wranglings with the rights to the characters). I've drawn all of issue 2, and am starting issue 1 now (long story). We're looking at 7 issues, to start - from there, who knows?

Buy multiple copies.