Thursday, June 26, 2008

Fantastic Four # 48: The Galactus Trilogy

Fantastic Four 48-Galactus Silver Surfer Watcher
Fantastic Four #48 (1966)
Doug: I don’t recall exactly when I read this entire story. I know that as a kid I acquired a fairly decent copy of FF #49 and absolutely loved it. But, as Marvel’s Greatest Comics had moved past this chronology in their reprint scheme, it was not accessible to me in that magazine. I am somewhat puzzled as well that this story never made it into any of the Treasury editions (although the near-equally magnificent Galactus story that took place over FF #’s 120-123 did, and I owned that one), nor the “Origins of Marvel Comics” series of trade paperbacks that were published in the mid-late 1970’s – although the there are no origins to be told in this arc. So, perhaps it wasn’t until the early 1990’s when I actually purchased FF #48 and #50 at the Chicago Comicon that I read the entire trilogy in one sitting. And am I ever glad that I did! )

It’s interesting to me that a story that has become so historically significant actually begins as the ending of the previous arc! And non-stop action at that – these days it’s nice to have resources like the Essentials and the DVD-ROMs, which enable the reader to instantly backtrack and get up to speed on prior events.

Karen: The beginning of this issue, with the end of the Inhumans story, just shows how differently things were done back then. More than anything, it just seems like there is a ton of stuff crammed into each issue. Most of the time, that works for me, although I felt differently with issue 50. The one thing I felt worthy of comment in this finish to the Inhumans story is when Medusa talks about how the Inhumans are still really human, and “One day we shall rejoin the human race – and it is Blackbolt who shall show us the way!” This sounds a lot like some of the rhetoric we heard in the X-Men. This theme of the outsider is one that Stan really liked using.

Sharon: I came across this issue decades ago; I found it among a bunch of old magazines (like Life and Look) a neighbor had discarded. This issue didn’t have a cover, so it was not until recently that I knew what the cover was like—and that the cover featured not the FF and the Inhumans, but the FF and the Watcher…signaling the switch in the story.

I know we’re talking about the Galactus trilogy here, but the Inhumans were such a huge part of this issue for me (and hopefully we’ll discuss the Inhumans saga at another time). I really liked the bleeding of one story into another. In a way this whole arc began back with the return of the Frightful Four back in #38, but #48 represents the first time (I know of) that the first part of an issue was devoted to one crisis…while the rest of the issue focused on another, separate crisis. The Maximus threat, the impenetrable dome, the separation of Johnny and Crystal—this took up many pages of the issue (and was not just filler, obviously)…and then we’re plunged into an entirely different story. Masterful.

I’m not aware of too many Marvel books that did this prior to FF #48, though it kind of reminds me of Avengers #16, which featured one story at the start and then segued into another story (the new team).

Rather than dwell on the end of the Inhumans story, I’ll get right into the new material. I thought Jack did a great job with the slow reveal of the Silver Surfer and Galactus. Making no bones about their names, we nevertheless see the Surfer gradually, at first in a couple of images really too small to be detailed. It’s obvious that he is able to engage in interstellar travel unshielded from the elements. The panel with the Skrulls, showing their disdain and even fear of the Surfer, is an early hook.

Karen: Yes, this was a masterful job of building suspense and apprehension. As always, Kirby is able to put across a feeling of mystery and power. Seeing some of the previous issues, the art just seems a bit off. Joe Sinnott showed up a few issues prior to this one. Sinnott’s inks were like the final piece needed to bring everything together. This is the classic Fantastic Four, in all its majesty.

Doug: The suspense builds as Ben sees two suns in the sky, followed by the sky itself becoming flame. Of course, the reader believes it to be the doing of the Surfer, even though he is off-panel. What a thrill this must have been for the first-time reader – to encounter these great new characters with this layered reveal!

Karen: You know, it’s been a few years since I read this story, and it took me a few minutes to recall that the fire was the Watcher’s doing, not the Surfer’s! So I guess Stan knew what he was doing with that.

Doug: The scene where Johnny is blamed for the pandemonium brought on by the fire in the sky is pretty standard Stan Lee “the public hates their heroes” angst, and Ben’s leap into the fray is good. Interesting, isn’t it, that with all of that was required of this issue – the Inhumans wrap-up, the introduction of two new characters, the Watcher, and the general FF family squabbles, that Jack took the time to spend two pages on Johnny’s and Ben’s “battle”.

I love the FF’s jet cycle. When Toy Biz made the “First Appearance” Thing action figure, the smaller version of that vehicle was a great pack-in.

The first close-up of the Surfer’s face is somewhat ominous – very alien, not necessarily sinister, but I guess determined in his task…

Concerning the scene where Reed is in the lab (what exactly was he going to determine from a scenario with fire in the sky – fire that did not actually burn and did not give off heat?): How in the world did he grow so scruffy in the space of the hour or two since they’d left the street scene?? Seems that Jack wanted the timing one way and Stan dropped the ball on it!

Sharon: Reed’s five o’clock shadow was silly. One of the perils of compressed storytelling? And, just as you state, Doug, probably due to miscommunication between Stan and Jack.

Karen: Yeah, you definitely get the impression that there was some miscommunication between them. I do love some of the details Kirby puts in – like the Thing on the phone to Alicia. As much as I hate smoking, there’s just something quaint about seeing the Thing with an old-school phone, smoking a cigarette! And why not a cigar?

Sharon: Yeah, Jack considered Ben his doppelganger…and Jack smoked cigars…

Doug: And Sue – how superficial is she, bellyaching about being taken to dinner? They just come off the Inhumans adventure where the Great Refuge is encased in a “negative zone” and there’s no telling if or when the Inhumans can be freed, they’ve encountered a sky with two suns and a sky enflamed. And she’s concerned about dinner? In her defense, at some point all of the adventure has to break somewhere for normalcy. Whatever that is when it’s the FF.

Karen: Unfortunately, Sue often came off as a bit self-absorbed and superficial. Really, this characterization of her is not all that different than how Stan wrote the Wasp over in Avengers. I think it is part and parcel of the times, and how men viewed women. She’s incapable of grasping the big picture, she’s only concerned about her needs, or when she’s portrayed more charitably, the needs of her immediate family. It’s odd how at the beginning of that scene, Sue is going on about her needs –wanting attention, going out to dinner – but when she confronts Reed, she suddenly is concerned that he needs to eat and rest. I don’t know if that was a slip up or intentional on Stan’s part.

Sharon: Sue was not depicted as deep thinker back then (neither was Johnny). To be honest, this is the Sue I grew up with, so her present incarnation of her as being so capable and confident and wise is jarring to me.

I guess her behavior here (and the aforementioned Johnny-Ben interlude) was basically Stan’s way of injecting some down to earth “realism” into the story.

Doug: The Watcher’s appearance was a surprise (yes, I saw the big galoot on the cover, but I am speaking more to flipping the page and wham! -- there he was). I’m impressed at times that the art is organized in relation to the advertising pages. I suppose, although I’ve never really paid any attention, that the layout of a book is standard in regards to the one- and two-page ads. Knowing this, it certainly gives the artist an opportunity for drama from page to page.

When the Surfer appears, negotiating the Watcher’s meteor storm, we get an idea of his prowess (this scene is played out even more dynamically by Alex Ross in Marvels), as well as his speed. The panel where he flies upside down is a “wow” moment.

How do you feel about Kirby’s use of photography in his splashes?

Karen: After seeing those collages in the Fantastic Four and Thor, I’ve come to the conclusion that Kirby just didn’t have enough ways to express his creativity! Those collages really vary –some are effective, some aren’t. I would say this one is not so great. It’s just such a mish-mash –I know this was the beginning of psychedelia, but this looks sort of junky.

Sharon: I’m not a fan of this method. I always felt shortchanged. One of the few times I felt it worked was in FF #62, a two page spread, when Reed is in the Negative Zone and Johnny, Crystal, Sue and Ben are watching him on a large screen monitor.

Doug: Galactus’ first appearance is impressive, although I must say the solid purple wins out over this garish display of forest green and red/brown and brown. Wow. Who gets “credit” for this fashion train wreck (as colorists were not credited in this era)? Note, too, that the Big G has pants on in his first public showing.

Karen: As much as I love and revere the early Marvel creations, about the only positive I can say here is, “Nice helmet!” Really, that suit is just so terrible. It got better when they went with the purple and blue, but it just isn’t all that magnificent. Not what you would expect for the world-devourer!

Doug: In the panel immediately before the Galactus appearance, the Watcher makes a comment that “He is whatever he wishes to be – he is Galactus!” I recall reading, most likely in the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe, that Galactus visually takes the form of whatever race/species/etc. sees him. Also, his height and weight are variable. I don’t know if the Watcher’s comment is the source for this material, but it has seemed to be true since this first appearance in 1966 nonetheless.

Sharon: I think the notion of each species seeing Galactus in its own form was put forth by Bryne (not sure if he originated it or just expanded on it), during Byrne’s run on the FF.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Celestial Madonna - Giant Size Avengers # 4 (conclusion)

Giant Size Avengers 4 Mantis Vision Scarlet Witch
Giant-Size Avengers #4 (1974) Nuptials! And plenty of 'em!

Doug: Yuck.
Lame conclusion to an otherwise fun story…
Other than that, what else can I say?? Don Heck’s art was atrocious – it is just hard for me to look at his 1970’s work and believe he was the same penciller who brought us the Kooky Quartet. The characters were flat, the motion was stiff and unnatural, and it was just overall bad.

Karen: I agree completely about the Heck art. It really does look terrible. It has a stiff, scratchy feeling to it. I recall back at the time this issue came out, there were two artists that I absolutely dreaded finding in a comic: Don Heck and Frank Robbins. I’d pick Heck as the lesser of two evils, but not by much.

Sharon: It’s obvious Heck needed help here so where was the inker? Yes, I know John Tartag/Tartaglione is no Joe Sinnott, but he was no slouch either…he was a veteran who’d inked Steranko on those X-Men issues, for goodness' sake! But here it looks like he put no effort into enhancing the pencils, which looked extremely rough. Heck’s work looks so unfinished here…especially the female faces…it looks like he just did outlines or breakdowns in some places. Some of it is so bad that I can’t believe Marvel let this go to print like this, but(obviously) deadlines had to be met.

Sad, because Heck’s work in the early-mid 60s was quite good, particularly his character faces. But by the 1970s he’d (reportedly) been having personal problems that affected his art, so as mentioned, I think it’s a shame that Marvel didn’t put a more conscientious inker or finishing artist to work here.

Doug: Englehart’s conclusion to the origin of Mantis was, to say the least, a strange resolution to what had been a very enjoyable read. The “parallel lives” of Mantis and Moondragon came at the reader out of left field. Neither was a character with enough history in the Marvel Universe such that this revelation carried any weight or made me care at all (and that’s reading it now, over 30 years after the fact, although I did try to come to the story with a sense of newness).

Karen: The story took a number of turns that didn’t seem right – particularly the whole Dormammu sub-plot. All the attention on Mantis and Moondragon was somewhat tedious. I thought it amusing that Englehart has Thor say to Iron Man, “This day, old friend, it doth seem that e’en the mighty Thor, son of Odin, shall encounter wonders undreamt of in Asgard! While he and the mighty Avengers do naught but observe!” I guess even Englehart realized he had put his stars on the back-burner.

Sharon: Yep, even more additions to the story…why not throw Dormammu into the mix?

Doug: Can you imagine, in an era when mixed-race marriages were still fodder for the Archie Bunkers of the world, publishing a comic book where two human women marry a) a plastic man and b) a tree??? And then Couple #1 talks of going off on a honeymoon to supposedly consummate their marriage, while Couple #2 talks of breeding the perfect child?? Whoa… Englehart must have been “recovering” when he wrote this stuff. It is certainly out there.

Sharon: When you mentioned a “plastic man” I thought of the old Jack Cole hero! I was kind of surprised no one ever questioned the legality of Vision and Wanda’s marriage. And unfortunately, back then it was less controversial for women to marry trees and androids, than it would have been to, say, have Wanda wed T’Challa.

I know we all joke about the tree, but what a wild element for a comic book (it’s “out there”, as you said, Doug). I mean, I’m used to such things in Greek myths, such as Daphne turning into a tree to escape Apollo’s advances. Kudos to Englehart for pushing the envelope. Yeah, maybe he flew too close to the sun ;) , but what he did here was on another level...and kind of poetic. 

Karen: While much of this story seems out there, I have to admit I enjoyed the sense of freedom that Englehart exhibits, to try something new, maybe a bit preposterous, but daring and exciting too. I may be a softy, but I enjoyed the Vision’s proposal to Wanda. Knowing what comes later for these two made it a very bittersweet moment.

Sharon: I love how Wanda refers to herself as the "first girl" Vision ever met- -ummm, what about Jan? Well, no one’s memory is perfect and perhaps Wanda was not really aware of the composition of the team before she—Wanda—rejoined the Avengers. But that’s why she’s a character in a story and not an omniscient narrator.

Doug: Kang’s reappearance was also out of left field. It didn’t seem to fit into the story and was not effective at all in light of how well he’d been handled in the first half of this story.

Karen: The Kang stuff just seemed underwhelming. It didn’t have any of the impact of his previous appearances.

Doug: So, to stop belaboring the point, this issue left me dissatisfied. Period.

Karen: The single biggest obstacle to my enjoyment of this issue was the art. But the story also seemed somewhat scattered. I would agree that it is not nearly as satisfying a read as the issues that preceded it.


Doug: I really like the Celestial Madonna arc. I love the huge Kang battles, the intrigue of the Kang/Rama-tut/Immortus schizophrenia, the Legion of the Unliving, the origin of the Vision, and the first 2/3 of the origin of Mantis. The writing in the first 90% of the story, while not perfect, is very good. And as I’ve said, the art by Sal Buscema, Joe Staton, and Dave Cockrum is for the most part quite good and very pleasing to the eye. But I think, in recommending this to a friend I would almost feel compelled to tell them something like “don’t judge the story by its ending – it’s better than that!”

Karen: It’s a 70s classic, that has to be accepted as part of the times it came from. For the most part it is quite entertaining, although things tend to bog down towards the end. But it has a level of creativity that is not often seen –then or now.

Sharon: As you’ve both said, very imaginative saga- -so many twists and turns, and an attempt to meld universal and personal truths. Not everything works but you really get a sense of Englehart’s exhilaration, his curiosity, and passion throughout this storyline. He bites off more than he can chew (in my opinion), but there’s rarely a dull moment.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Celestial Madonna - Avengers 135

Avengers 135 Mantis Moondragon
Avengers #135 (1974)
Gotta love the floating heads, they look very concerned 

Doug: This issue’s cover was a nice bounce-back from my complaints of the previous few issues. However, Tuska’s interiors were a major step down from the fine pencils we’d been treated to in the first eight installments of this tale. Tuska got better as the book went on, but it was still such a departure.

Sharon: See, for me, I had no quibble with Tuska’s work here—and I am not a major fan of his. He’s always seemed serviceable to me, an able storyteller but not a superstar like Adams or Buscema (John). For me Tuska’s art is on a par with the Cockrum work; and I like Tuska’s faces here more than I liked Cockrum’s.

A couple of panels really stand out for me; one is with the young Moondragon (three quarter facial close-up); she looks very childlike and open, not an easy task for a comic book artist (even Neal Adams drew kids with mini-adult faces!). The other panel I really liked is a page later, when the Vision is observing Ultron standing over the Torch’s body. The Vision’s expression, the set of his head, his stance…I really got a sense of the emotions that the Vision must have been experiencing in his role of "captive audience."

I also thought Tuska’s art was effective in the sequence when the newly created Vision still has his Torch memories…very good job.

Karen: The thing that immediately jumped out at me was the “floating Romita heads” on the right hand side of the cover! It seemed like every other book out in the mid 70s had some sort of Romita ‘correction’, whether on the cover or inside. Jim Starlin, who appears to have drawn this cover, was a frequent victim.

Sharon: I liked the beautifully angled sharpness of Mantis’ face and the athletic rendering of Vision’s body.

Doug: Retcon, or merely filling in the gaps? Steve Englehart, in my opinion, does a very good job filling between the panels (so to speak) of many Silver Age stories. While I’ve never been too keen on the whole Ultron Oedipus complex deal with Hank Pym, and then the wanting a son aspect of his relationship to the Vision, I did feel like Englehart handled Ultron well through all of his machinations (no pun intended) with the Thinker, Horton, and the Vision. Of note was the scene when the Vision first sprung to life still possessing the Torch’s personality and memories. That was very cool, and for me enhanced the origin that Roy Thomas had begun several years earlier. If I have a beef with the conclusion to the Vision’s origin, it was when Ultron obtained the device that would make the Vision as he wanted – a recording device that was labeled “Wonder Man’s Brain Patterns”. If that wasn’t a flashback to the 1966 Batman TV show!!

Karen: I don’t consider this a retcon at all. We never actually saw how Ultron created the Vision, so this story does indeed fill in the gaps. I’ve actually always liked Ultron’s Oedipal complex; it gave him more flavor, and made every fight with the team so much more personal.

Sharon: The scene you mention, Doug, about the Vision retaining the Torch’s memories—was very affecting. It was terrifying a minute later when Ultron simply wiped those memories away.

Englehart is at it again, when he comments that the Vision is a Virgo—Yeah, we get it, Steve…nudge nudge, wink wink.

(Actually, Englehart did his homework here; the Virgo astrological sign spans mid August-mid September, so the “birthday” reference is in synch with the fact that the Vision made his debut in Avengers #57, cover dated October 1968 but on sale a couple of months earlier.)

Doug: Moondragon’s origin, while I cared less simply because I don’t like her, was also well-done.

Karen: The one thing I do like about Moondragon is her origin! I enjoy seeing Englehart weave more ‘cosmic’ threads into this tale. At this point, at least, she doesn’t seem quite so annoying as she would later be.

Sharon: I had no exposure to Moondragon before this storyline. Again, I wondered—why is this person here? What is her connection to the Avengers? I felt like Englehart was tossing in everything but the proverbial kitchen sink.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Celestial Madonna - Avengers 134

Avengers 134 Englehart
Avengers #134 (1974)

Doug: The covers have begun to suffer somewhat as Gil Kane took over those art chores. That, however, is nothing compared to what awaits us in the interiors of the last two issues. Sigh…

Karen: I’ve always thought Kane was very hit or miss. I’d agree that this cover is fairly pedestrian.

Sharon: I liked the way the Torch figure was drawn and I believe it's a reference to a Golden Age Torch image.  Kane imbued it with a nice fluidity. Iron Man’s mask looked distorted.

Doug: I felt the first two pages of this issue were wasted space. I wonder if the story was drawn and looking ahead to the end of both the Vision’s and Mantis’ origins the spacing wasn’t going to come out right so they went back and did the two-page recap.

The Kree/Cotati story continued to move along – no real complaints nor compliments at this time.

Karen: My only complaint is that they didn’t color the Kree correctly! They are shown as pink-skinned, but referred to as blue-skinned. This mistake was seen in the previous issue as well.

The idea of the pacifist Kree was another good one by Englehart. I’m sure the influence of Eastern religion and martial arts was a big factor in this. But it works in this story.

Doug: Wanda continues to creep me out. But I will say, if she’s going to creep me out while kicking Moondragon’s butt, then it’s all good.

Even though my next comment is really about FF Annual #4, I’d like to ask: Don’t you think Reed was callous when Ben asked if they weren’t going to bury the Original Human Torch’s body? I mean, at this point in Marvel continuity Reed and Ben were still considered WWII vets, so they’d have probably admired and been thankful for the Torch’s involvement against the Axis. That, coupled with Reeds’ constant quest for knowledge just screams to me that they should have taken the body with them. But, water under the bridge, I guess.

Karen: Yeah, it always seemed awfully cold of Reed to just leave the Torch’s body unceremoniously stashed in that cave. But then, this is the guy that would later shut down his own son’s brain, so anything goes.

Sharon: I think Reed’s reasoning was that the Torch’s body would not decompose, so why bury him in the ground? But once again Ben shows he’s the most compassionate of the FF.

For me, this issue was all over the place—too many strands of stories, most of which felt forced to me. The only sequence that seemed real to me was the Torch said goodbye to Toro and then went nova: very touching.

Doug: Englehart concludes the issue with a nice cliffhanger.
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