O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
Here’s the deal:
I’m talking about the very first couple of issues (one Marvel Masterworks volume worth) of each of the long-running Marvel comics franchises – Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Daredevil, Avengers, X-Men, and Captain America – in more-or-less chronological order by series. I’m attempting to provide (A) historical context on these damnnear 50(!) year old comics, and (B) terrible, terrible jokes. Fair ’nuff?
Here’s part one, covering Fantastic Four # 1 from 1961.
Whoo! Last time I promised my favorite Fantastic Four story of all time – and we’ll get there, but we got three more issues to blow through. Skrulls! Evil Wizards! And the most bad-ass take off on a Coleridge poem ever!
Fantastic Four # 2 (“Meet the Skrulls From Outer Space/Prisoner of the Skrulls/Captured(!)/the Fantastic Four Fight back”) by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (artist) prrrrrooooobbbbabbly George Klein (inker), Glynis Oliver (re-colorist), and John Duffy (letterer). $.10, 24 pgs, FC, Marvel.
Hey! A priceless statue! Gosh, I sure hope nothing happens to i!
Fantastic Four # 2 opens with our our favorite quartet basically tearing New York “Central City” apart. It doesn’t surprise me so much that this happens – As we saw last time, Fantastic Four # 1 opened much the same way. But it does surprise me that this guy is surprised…
See, just last issue, the Fantastic Four were clearly a privately funded group of adventurers who seemed to operate out of the public eye. NOBODY knew who they were. When the Torch flamed on to answer a distress call, the Air Force was alerted and they shot a nuclear missile at him. (The army in the ’60s Marvel Universe were really, REALLY pro-nuke. “Monster are attacking Ohio? Shoot a nuclear missile at them!” “Hey, some guy is on fire! Shoot a nuclear missile at him!” “I can’t open the catsup! Shoot a nuclear missile at i!! Nuclear Missile! Nuclear Missile! Nuclear Missile!)
In THIS issue, the Fantastic Four are clearly known and accepted. Well, until they start running off with priceless diamonds ‘n crap.
Side Note: Kirby the epic artist gets most of the face time, but I always enjoy givin’ Kirby the comedic comedian some face time.
In the last issue the Fantastic Four are out causing (semi-accidental) property damage and everybody freaks out because “OH Exclamation Point! there’s a guy on fire!”
In THIS issue everybody freaks out because the FANTASTIC FOUR are out causing (completely purposeful) property damage. In other words – Last issues set-up – heroic monsters against evil monsters and everybody else in the world – has been replaced by something a hell of a lot more traditional superhero-like.
And then switched BACK in time to start the new issue.
Which means that they’re still running around burning statues and smashing Oil Derricks and wearing furs that contain a whole Hundred Acre Woods worth of animals.
But there is an explanation.
See, The Fantastic Four’s renown has increased SO much in the space between issues that even aliens have heard of ‘em….
And not only heard of them. Said aliens consider the Fantastic Four the absolute numero uno major obstacle to their successful invasion of earth. Even moreso, apparently, than the fact that the military whips out the nukes every time there’s a woodchuck on the lawn.
Were *I* the captain of the Skrull invasion fleet, I’d adopt a “Wait fifteen minutes for them to see their shadows so they blow THEMSELVES up strategy.” But these guys have decided on something a little more “Let’s use our shape-shifting powers to imitate the Fantastic Four and hope Earth’s military kills them off with nuclear missiles.” Which works too.
Side-Note: A as with virtually every other Kirby-created-critter, I prefer the original Skrull designs to the modified and humanized versions that came later. (Did Kirby redesign them?) Let’s take a look at their most pronounced characteristics: Big heads. HUGE eyes. Onsies. They…they kind of look like giant, green babies! With gigantic ears! It’s a twisted parody of cuteness. I love that.
Luckily, the Skrull menace is defeated by… Okay, I’m gonna give you a minute to brace yourself. Let’s talk about the story structure of this comic instead.
Fantastic Four # 2 is technically a full story in a single issue, but in actuality – It really isn’t. There are four fairly distinct story parts here – The Fantastic Four cause property damage, the Fantastic Four hide out in the woods, get captured by the authorities, then escape, the Fantastic Four kicks the Skrulls off planet, and an epilogue where everything is explained and everyone walks away happy or at least gets turned into a cow.
Just how were they beaten? You REALLY ready for this?
See, Stan Lee has always had a reputation as a huckster, a man with an eye towards the bottom line, a shameless promoter of Crass Commercialism.
In other words: What is, quite possibly, the CLIMAX of the story doubles as an ad for Marvel product.
If nothing else, y’gotta give Stan credit for audacity. It makes today’s product placement-centric movies look relatively unobtrusive by comparison. Take a bow, Man (“Man”), take a bow.
And this ain’t the LAST time a house ad for Marvel comics is stuck into a Marvel story.
Side note: I really like these in-story ads – using a fairly serious alien invasion plot in one story to shell for other comics – That takes some cojones. And I’m wondering if this kind of using-the-stories-in-one-comic-to-advertise-another show up in Stan’s Monster/Western/Romance/Funny Animal comics? Anybody out there know? Anybody able to provide me with an issue number or (preferably) a Scan?
So I’ve pretty much exhausted # 2, except to point out that Marvel writers are STILL getting mileage out of the Skrulls, and that they were the focus of a decent-as-these-things-go giant event-wide Crossover not too long ago.
So let’s end with my favorite sequence in the entire comic which shows one of the greatest strength of these early Marvels – they could switch mood on a dime. Lee and Kirby’s stuff could be silly, but here they garnish the funny with a side of unbelievably freaking depressing.
“Yeah — A real funny joke!” still breaks my heart. I would admit this as exhibit “A” in the case of MarkAndrew vs. people who don’t think Stan Lee is a great writer/Kirby is a great artist.
Fantastic Four # 3 (“Menace of the Miracle Man/The Monster Lives/the Flame that Dies/the Menace of Defeat”) by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (artist)Sol Brodsky (inker), Glynis Oliver (re-colorist), and Art Simek (letterer). $.12, 23 pgs, FC, Marvel.
“Twelve cents?!?! That’s a twenty percent increase?” “I dropped all my Marvel titles! Right in the dumpster out back of the newstand I dropped them! “They’re never gonna stay in business with that kind of price gouging.”
Man, I really wish there had been an internet back in 1961.
And, Oh, hey. KirbyMonster!
I’m not gonna do much of a plot summary with this one –
Side Note – I’m not really doing (as you’ve probably notice) much in the way of plot summaries here at all. (A) They’re available elsewhere on the internet if you need ‘em. (B) These ain”t plot-centric comics so much. The appeal to ‘em – at least for me – is in the mood, character, cool Kirby designs and cartooning. If you want plot, go read DC! And (C) some of y’all might not have read these books, and I want to avoid spoilers unless I HAVE to give away the ending because it’s Mister Fantastic defeating the Skrulls with chopped up comics and rubber cement.
– But here especially, I don’t think a discussion of the plot is needed. The villain in this issue is the Miracle Man and he’s nothing but a traditional ultra-super-powered baddie with a secret-that-makes-little-sense-but-allows-him-to-be-defeated and, well, he’s not a BAD villain. (If you want bad villains, wait a couple months. Mister Doll and the Matador are coming. Oh yes. Oh, yes.)
But – MM is a bit of a one trick pony. Once Mister Fantastic blabs his secret there’s not much left you can DO with him, and outside of one spectacular appearance in Marvel Two-In-One the Miracle Man has only had a handful of minor and forgettable appearances over the years, despite his pimp-ass goatee.
And we got Doctor Doom and Willie Lumpkin just around the corner, so screw him.
On the other hand, overall, it’s a pretty good issue despite lacking historical significance in the villain department. It certainly serves up the US RDA of cool panels – Among ‘em there’s a great Kirby-monster. And Mister Fantastic as spare tire…
Aand this spectacular panel of a pissed off human torch.
And plenty more.
But historical significance-wise, the two things that strike me as most important about this issue have nothing to do with the main plot. In order, they are:
1) The cover
While Fantastic Four numero uno had the Monster front in center, and FF # 2 gave the FF and the Skrullbabies ’bout equal time, # 3 has THE CHARACTERS THEMSELVES plastered front and center and larger than life. And they’re in costume. (Well, two of them are in costume. And the Thing is wearing matching undies.)
For the first time, we have a comic that couldn’t pass, to the eyes of the quickly perusing newstand buyer, as an issue of one of Marvel’s concurrent monster comics.
And, heylookee, they’ve got got a VEHICLE – such at it is. Despite looking like a bathtub, this aligns the Fantastic Four with other such famous vehicles as the Invisible Jet or the ArrowCar or the Star Spangled Kid-Mobile. (I don’t know if their actually was a Star Spangled Kid-Mobile.)
In the comments to the last post Dean was arguing that the FF was a fairly traditional superhero book from the beginning.
And I don’t buy it.
Fantastic Four # 1 FELT like a giant monster book – And as Rene pointed out, Stan Lee’s original script was even closer to a monster book than what we saw. But now, as of # 3, our foursome are now loved by the populace, costumed, vehicled, and headquartered . And they’re not fighting aliens from space or giant monsters but one guy with special powers (who does MAKE a giant monster but still…) As of Fantastic Four # 3, and not before, this finally feels like a superhero comic to me.
2) The ending
It’s a continued story with a cliffhanger. Which means that the stories have not only moved past their “anthology” beginnings but are now too damn big for a single issue.
The story ends with the torch, STILL pissed off, leaving his teammates and the threat of Johnny potentially turning against mankind and his teammates hanging in the air. Which, considering the amount of shit that gets flambéd “accidentally” when the Torch is working WITH mankind and his teammates, is a frightening thought indeed.
Anyway, evil fire guy versus mankind… Looks like we still haven’t quite lost the “monster” vibe.
Anyway, let’s end with a cutaway diagram – ’cause all comics fans love cutaway diagrams – and move on to issue # 4.
Fantastic Four # 4 (“The Coming of the Sub-Mariner/Enter the Sub-Mariner/Let the World Beware!/Sub-Mariner’s Revenge/Return to the Deep”) by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (artist)Sol Brodsky (inker), Glynis Oliver (re-colorist), and Art Simek (letterer). $.12, 23 pgs, FC, Marvel.
Like every other nerd on the blogsphere, I’ve been following letterer-genuis Todd Klein’s Logo Study posts.
And hey! One of the really cool things about this buncha comics is that each and every chapter of each and every story has its own unique logo. Here’s one from each issue that I’m covering.
Below is a helicopter blade, ‘case you were wondering.
And sometimes you just can’t bring yourself to cut out the pirates.
Neat, eh? Anyone know who, specifically, did the logos here? Klein credits Sol Brodsky and Artie Simek with creating most of the character/cover logos – Was it the same for the inside logos?
Speaking of unique chapters, he transitioned, FF #4 reads as a collection of stories much moreso than the last few issues.
It starts out in C. C. Beck Captain Marvel-esque zany-superhero-humor mode as the Fantastic Four use their whacky powers to search for the Torch, who am-scrayed last issue.
Dunno what it is – Any panel which has any Fantastic Four eating or drinking something just comes off as hilariously awesome t’me. I keep hoping that “The Thing eats a sandwich” will be an ongoing series, but so far no dice.
This is followed up with some Archie-style teenage hijinks with the Torch and his pals. Then the Thing finds the Torch, and cure superhero battle. The Torch escapes, leading us to more”everyone searches for the Torch” story, except that the mood of the comic is now slightly less light and goofy than your average holocaust documentary.
And then the Thing carries an Atom bomb down a giant monsters gullet, there’s flashes of a MY LOVE style romance comic – a phenomenon that’s gonna show up in mostall of the Marvel books I’ll be looking at in the future, and was astutely nodded to by buttler in the comments to the last post –
Wait. What’s that.
Fine. Fine, fine, fine, fine, fine. Here’s the panel of the Thing jumping down the monster’s throat. Y’all happy now?
Two reasons suggest themselves for this constant shifting in genre and tone:
1) Lee and Kirby are desperately trying to find a successful storytelling engine for their weird-ass hybrid comic.
2) Purely commercial. In an age where most comics were anthologies, the Fantastic Four were trying to be all things to all people. You like the Justice League? Read FANTASTIC FOUR. You like Archie? Read FANTASTIC FOUR! You like Date With Debbie? Read FANTASTIC FOUR! You’re some kind of bizarre man-child who remembers comic characters that haven’t been published for seven(!) whole(!) years(!)? READ FANTASTIC FOUR! You like Giant tonsils? Who the hell doesn’t?! READ FANTASTIC FOUR, squirreldammit!!
I’ve said it before (in this post, even) and I’ll say it again. Stan might get dismissed as a huckster. But, for me, the sheer number and originality of his attempts to sell! Sell! SELL! are one of the coolest parts of these books.
So what else we got this issue?
Oh yeah. This dude.
It’s interesting to note that, continuing the patterns of both self sabotage and wanton property destruction established in FF # 1, the Human Torch – upon recognizing the amnesic Sub-Mariner – tries to restore his memory by dropping. him. in. the. freaking. ocean.
(Despite the fact that (A) Johnny isn’t completely sure that this guy actually IS Prince Namor, and (B) while it’s “good” that the Torch plans plans to “Dive in and save him” if he DOESN’T turn out to be the monarch of Atlantis, I’m not sure how effective the Torch is gonna be on. the. bottom. of. the. freaking. ocean.)
Luckily, the Human Torch is right. The dude IS the Sub-Mariner, and the dunking restores his memory. Not-so-luckily, after having been manhandled against his will, scared outta his skull, and damn near drowned, the Sub-Mariner declares war on the Human Race and summons up a particularly keen-looking KirbyMonster!
We were talking about the revolutionary-ness of Fantastic Four # 1 in the comment section of the last post. If I may be permitted to expand the discussion to include issues 2, 3, and 4 –
S far as I know, the FF were the first comics adventure team who CAUSE their own problems. The Fantastic Four are created through Mister Fantastic’s screw up. The FF attract the attention of the military by moving too quickly through the city while unsure of their powers. And the Human Torch “makes” the Sub-Mariner. One check for the “revolutionary” column.
Some background on Subby: The Bill Everett Sub-Mariner (arguably the first anti-hero in superhero comics) was distinguished by a wise-ass attitude and a Godawful nautical based sensahumor (“Suffering Shad!”) And, if I’m remembering his LAST appearances in “Young Men” comics correctly, a staunch good guy. At least THIS week.
Honestly, based just on this issue, the FF # 4 version of Namor is quite a but less interesting than the Everett version. He doesn’t come off much different than the Miracle Man in speech patterns and attitude, and his only real humanizing characteristic is that he immediately falls in love with Sue Storm. And I do mean immediately.. Dude is proposing marriage withing three panels of meeting her.
But in his defense, he’ll develop quite a bit as a character quite quickly. We got TWO more Sub-Mariner appearances when we take a look at Fantastic Four 6 through ten, circa next time.
The presence of the Sub-Mariner is interesting in another respect – It establishes that the Golden and Silver Age versions of the Marvel/Timely characters existed in (more or less) the same world. In other words – Marvel uses the same structure as POST Crisis DC. (Just 25 years earlier) rather than PRE- Crisis DC where the heroes exist in their own dimensions and only show up as comic book characters. I wonder if this wasn’t a major influence on Kahn and Wolfman et al. twenty some-odd years later when they reset the DC Universe?
So I promised you guys my favorite Fantastic Four story of all time, right?
Fantastic Four # 5 (“Prisoners of Doctor Doom/back to the Past/on the Trail of BlackBeard!/Battle!/the Vengeance of Doctor Doom”) by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (artist) Joe Sinnott (inker), Glynis Oliver (re-colorist), and Art Simek (letterer). $.12, 23 pgs, FC, Marvel.
Hey, you guys, it’s Joe Sinnott! And suddenly everything looks awesomer!
Just one of the reasons why this is my favorite Fantastic Four story.
# 5 retains some of the anthology-esque nature of Ff # 4. It’s basically a Doctor Doom framing sequence around a time travel story. But this isn’t JUST Doctor Doom. This is…
First Appearance Doctor Doom!
Lookit him up there! All confident, chin-stroking, keeps to himself, hell-of-a-poker player Doctor Doom with a helicopter and a pet vulture.
But what I most like about first-appearance Doctor Doom is that he always looks amused. There’s a private joke, and only Doom knows the punch-line.
If, theoretically, I was hired to write an Ultimate Style Fantastic Four book it would (A) have A LOT of eatin’ and drinkin’ and (B) feature First Appearance Doom all the way. The laid back cat-like Doom who isn’t afraid to give encouragement when it’s warranted. (“Good! Good!”)
Another reason I did this book: This is also the first time that the Invisible Girl gets a victory through daring and ingenuity, rather than saving the world via Namor’s lust-puppy nature. It’s a historically interesting footnote that the first member of the FF to knock Doctor Doom on his ass is L’il Susie.
But there’s ANOTHER reason I really like this book.
See, I really like pirates. And the time travel part of the story is all pirates, all the time.
But, y’know, that ain’t the ONLY reason I like this story so much. It might not even be the MAIN reason.
It’s also got some of the most mad-cap, way-over-the-top-an’-still-going cartooning I’ve ever seen from Kirby.
Ah, hell. How ’bout one more whole page.
Writing and drawing comics is a job like anything else – It’s gotta be stressful churning out a HUGE number of pages in a month, and then hoping they sell. I’m sure that most of the time it wasn’t a fun gig.
But here… I just gotta believe that Kirby had a big, goofy grin on his face when he was drawing it. I love comics where the creative team are straight out enjoying their jobs. And that all-too-rare feeling of palpable, uncalculated, visible-on-the-page FUN is one of the things that I most like to see in Mainstream comics.
I’ve read… eh, probably somewhere between three and four hundred Fantastic Four comics (in some form.) Some are grander in scope and ambition. Some are more experimental, and some are laugh-out-loud funnier.
But none of ‘em are as straight-ahead ENJOYABLE for me to read as this one. So it’s my favorite.
And next time we’ll finish up the Fantastic Four with issues 6-10. And then it’s onto the Hulk and either Thor or Spider-man. (They debuted in the same month, and I haven’t decided which one I wanna cover first.)
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