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.