Friday, January 30, 2009

Family Matters: The Fantastic Four's Triumphs and Tribulations, part 5

Part 5 – Marital counseling – Marvel Style

Fantastic Four # 148

July 1974

“War on the Thirty-Sixth Floor!”

Gerry Conway, Rich Buckler, and Joe Sinnott

Doug: Near the end of this story, Gerry Conway refers to this issue as an “interlude”, “a brief respite… between one tempest of emotions and the next”. Boy, would I agree! This story, while OK, just comes at the reader right out of nowhere. Not having read this in many a year, I’d forgotten that this was a part of our little Subby hate-fest!

Karen: I don’t know why this story was in #148. It makes no sense to me. If he wanted to do a Frightful Four story, why not put it in 149? I’d love to know why it was felt necessary to wedge this in between the parts of the Namor story, because it really feels awkward.

Doug: I guess the standout points in the story are the plot gaps. From the splash page on, I have several bones to pick – we don’t know why the FF left Namor’s undersea fortress, we don’t know how the sideplanes on the Fantasticar were restored (Johnny had intentionally wrecked one when attacking Namor), we don’t know how the Frightful Four infiltrated the Baxter Building, and we don’t know why or how Thundra shows up to rescue the FF (even though Reed specifically asked her). So while this book is a fun battle royale between the FF and some classic villains, it seems to be in the way of the greater, more pressing resolution of the Reed/Sue/Franklin/Namor situation.

Karen: Doesn’t it seem weird how Thundra keeps popping up during Conway’s run? Every time she shows up, she makes some statement about how she’s going to eventually beat the crap out of Ben, then helps the FF, and disappears! I wonder if Gerry or Roy really knew where they were going with her.

Sharon: It would have been interesting if the powers that be had developed a Ben-Thundra romance. I get a kick out of Thundra's attraction to, or fascination with, Ben. 

Doug: We’ve mentioned other writers’ “pets” – Englehart’s use of Mantis, etc. Perhaps Thundra was Conway’s pet character.

Doug: I thought the Sandman was done really well in this story. Conway did a pretty good job with the dialogue between ol’ Flint and the Thing. The Trapster and the Wizard, on the other hand – I just can never seem to take these two guys seriously. I just know that it is only a matter of time (and usually a short time) before they get their butts kicked!

Karen: Agreed – Wizard always came across to me as a third-rate Reed, and a whiner to boot. As for Trapster, I could never figure out how a guy with the apparent IQ of a honey dew melon could devise all those gadgets. The only time the Frightful Four seemed like a legitimate threat was when they brainwashed the Thing, which says a lot more about the Thing than it does about these villains.

Sharon: The inclusion of the Frightful Four just seemed like Marvel’s (Roy’s?) calculated way of evoking the “good old days”, back around FF #36: the intro of Frightful Four and Medusa…which led to the Inhumans, Silver Surfer, Black Panther, and so on…the timeframe which many feel were the glory days of the FF.

Doug: The ending 2-page splash with Namor was impressive, and I suppose more so because of the interlude. Maybe this was Conway’s method of allowing not only the team, but the readers, to recharge before the grand finale.

Karen: This issue doesn’t progress the Reed-Sue story at all; it’s basically one long fight scene. It’s a shame; I would have liked to have seen more introspection on the part of our fabulous foursome. Maybe some behind the scenes stuff with Sue and Namor too. All in all, this issue doesn’t have much to recommend it.

Karen: However, there is one thing, completely unrelated to our story, that I wanted to comment on. Near the back of the book is a full page about Marvel Value Stamps, those wonderful and horrible little treats whose removal ruined many a good comic (including so many of yours truly). The article says you could buy a Marvel Value Stampbook for 50 cents. If I can take a nostalgic moment here, I remember getting that stampbook, and the joy my little heart felt as I dutifully cut apart my comics and pasted the stamps in the book. I never did get all 100 though. If you were diligent enough to get all of them, you could get discounts on admission to the New York and San Diego comic conventions. I do recall seeing a photo of Roy Thomas with a group of stampbook completists at some con. Unfortunately though I think that was about all the rewards that were offered. I can’t help but wonder how many books were damaged by those of us seeking our golden ticket.

Doug: Marvel Value Stamps – the bane of many a Bronze-Agers existence! If you would like to further discourse on this and other ‘70’s defeats, I would be happy to engage you in that conversation, Karen! Sounds like a future topic!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Fantastic Four #147: Family Matters: The Fantastic Four's Triumphs and Tribulations, part 4

Part 4:1 – Do You Know Where Your Woman Is Tonight?
Fantastic Four # 147
June 1974
“The Sub-Mariner Strikes!”
Gerry Conway, Rich Buckler, and Joe Sinnott

Doug: As a bridge between the gut-wrenching story we’ve just taken a look at (albeit a long look – but it was fun!) and the story we’re next interested in (FF #’s 147-149), here’s a very brief look at events involving Reed/Sue/Franklin over the intervening two story arcs.

Doug: The issues from 142-146 are not without their significance in their own right – we see the introduction of Darkoth the Death-Demon on #142, the beginning of Rich Buckler’s tenure as penciller on the title (and his quick transition to a “Kirbyish” style), a great Doctor Doom entrance (copied (?) in The Empire Strikes Back) that leads into a mediocre two-parter in #’s 143-144, and Ross Andru as guest-penciller in #’s 145-146.

Sharon: Regarding the Dr. Doom entrance, it was copied all right—but not exactly in the way you think. This is a clear swipe of a Jack Kirby panel from Fantastic Four #87.  I’ll get to Rich Buckler’s—ahem—“homage” to Kirby later on in this entry, but as for The Empire Strikes Back—as many are aware, there have been theories and arguments raging for decades about whether Kirby’s work influenced George Lucas and his Star Wars films. But that is a topic for another day…

Doug: Issue #142 gives us a recap of the events at the end of the previous story, mostly as related by Ben. Johnny has interaction with an old classmate of Reed’s, who happens to coach football at Metro U. Sue drives Franklin back to the farm where she’d sought refuge some issues before (only to have been kidnapped by Agatha Harkness). Other than that, most of the issue is a battle royale between Ben and Darkoth, and further revelations on Alicia Masters’ attempt to have her eyesight restored. One might also question if Medusa wasn’t in romantic pursuit of Reed in this issue as well. Another thing: I found it odd that Reed’s classmate, Coach Thorne, when laying eyes up Doom, acted as if he’d never seen the good Doctor. Must never watch the news or pick up a paper…

Doug: Issue #143 really doesn’t address the Sue/Franklin subplot, other than to show a 3-panel shot of Sue lamenting that she can trust no one after what Reed did – NO ONE! By the way, Giacoia’s inks over Buckler in this book leave a lot to be desired as compared to Sinnott’s!!

Karen: I’ll second that – Giacoia’s inks look rough and unfinished compared to Sinnott’s.

Sharon: Agreed, Buckler’s work looks terrible here. His pencils usually need a lot of help in the inking stage, and while I think Giacoia’s is a very good inker, Giacoia’s linework is too delicate for Buckler. Buckler usually needs a “slick” inker like Sinnott—or even a Dan Adkins (in Giant-Size Avengers #1), both of whom really add a polish to his pencils.

Doug: And that’s about it… Issues 144-146 were basically throwaways if you ask me. For Conway having been on the top of his game in the story we reviewed over the past two weeks, and returning to the summit with our next arc, he sure took some creative “time off” over these five months.

Karen: That’s putting it kindly, Doug. These issues were mediocre. Even the Dr. Doom story was boring.

Doug: Personally, I’m really excited to discuss this particular issue – the arc, too, but more for this story. When I was a youngster we moved away from my hometown due to a change in jobs. I was fortunate that I was able to find some new friends who shared my budding interest in comics. I really hit it off with one friend in particular, and he had this issue. FF #147 had to be perhaps only the fourth or fifth issue of the magazine I’d ever read. So, with a limited background I was just wide-eyed at the emotion of this tale – even as a not-quite-8-year old, I knew that this was big stuff. The fight early on between Ben, Johnny, and Namor was captivating. We had a lot of Megos back then, and we would act out various scenarios we’d seen. I had a Tarzan, and the “newer” Megos had colored briefs under the costumes. A stripped-down Tarzan was our Sub-Mariner!

Doug: But back to the story… As an adult, I can only imagine how painful it must be to be served a divorce summons, as Reed received from Sue. Conway was treading on very mature themes as we head into this story.

Karen: Yes, as we discussed before, I believe these stories from the 70’s were the precursor to our modern day ultra-realism. While on one hand I can appreciate such things, I’m sort of sorry to see mainstream comics turn so unrelentingly negative now. Although perhaps with the change in administrations and the overall resurgence of hope (even in these grim times) we might see comics become more optimistic as well.

Doug: Although the battle scene between Ben and Johnny and Namor was well choreographed, I do find it a little strange that Namor was just lying in wait beneath the waters of that lake. I suppose the flight path to Sue’s friends’ place was pretty well known and even standard, but it was a bit of a stretch on Conway’s part. Too, the asbestos net? Where exactly had Namor hidden that? Seems his outfit lacks a utility belt!

Karen: The details of the story do not bear close inspection!

Doug: A comment on Rich Buckler’s art in this issue – in his first story, #142, either he took pains to emulate John Buscema or Joe Sinnott provided that as a service. In the succeeding few issues, Buckler took on more of the “Kirbyish” appearance; but by the time we roll into this arc I would say he’s walking more on his own two feet. While the Kirby look is still present, there really are some fine looking panels in this story and I think that’s a tribute to Buckler’s growing confidence in himself.

Karen: I always liked Rich Buckler’s work. He was part of a group of very talented young artists and writers- perhaps the second wave of Marvel? – who made their mark in the 70s. I think because he worked on both FF and Thor, the Kirby clone label was applied to him. I mean, anyone being inked by Joe Sinnott is going to look somewhat like Kirby! Look at his other work, such as Deathlok in Astonishing Tales. The guy was a great storyteller and could flat-out draw!

Sharon: Okay. Buckler. So I’m reading FF #147 for the first time, courtesy of Fantastic Four Essentials Volume #7, and I noticed something strange—the panel of Subby carrying Sue in his arms looked awfully familiar. (The FF Essentials #7 does not include page numbers, but for the record the panel I’m referring to appears on page 10, panel 4 of the FF #147 reprint.) I had a strong feeling of déjà vu, I knew I’d seen that panel before—I could vividly picture it in context in another story---and off I raced to FF Annual #1…and sure enough, there it was, in all its Kirbyesque glory, on page 36, panel 1 of the Annual! Buckler had essentially copied the Sue and Namor figures!
Sharon: And for those who'd like to see even more Buckler/Kirby Fantastic Four panels like these, feel free to check out my Panelocity blog! Now, back to the discussion. A tribute to Kirby? Perhaps. As I read some of the other Buckler-illustrated stories in FF Essentials #7, I noticed a slew of other such “tributes”, only more creatively done. For example, in #149, take the panel on page 2, panel 4, in which Johnny grabs Medusa by the hand. That’s taken from FF #79, only in the original it’s Johnny grabbing Crystal’s hand.
Buckler swipe
Sharon: FF #151: the male figure in the first panel on page 8 is based on the Galactus figure on page 2 in FF #49.

Sharon: FF #152: the first panel on page 10 is based on a panel of Crystal being carried off in FF #84.

Sharon: FF #153: the two middle panels on page 6 are based on two panels in FF #19. Also, in #153, on page 7, the middle panel is based on a panel in FF Annual #5. The figure of Medusa in the last panel on page #13 is based on Medusa in a panel from #47. Again, for those who want to see even more Buckler adaptations of Kirby, feel free to visit the Panelocity site--these Kirby tributes/homages/swipes are often very ingenious!

Sharon: There's also the aforementioned Dr. Doom swipe (in FF #142) from FF #87.These are just a few of the images I saw right off the bat.  Now of course I knew of Buckler’s reputation as a swipe artist but I’d assumed it just meant he was adept at mimicking styles on demand; certainly, he’s proven he can draw in the style of giants like John Buscema, Neal Adams and Kirby; and from what I’ve read, he was encouraged (by Marvel management) to do so. But I was amazed at the sheer number of very obvious, outright copies of Kirby’s panels.

Sharon: Since I did not read these Buckler issues back when they were first released, and because the Essentials do not contain the letter pages, I have to ask: back when these FF issues hit the stands, did readers comment on his tendency to use images/layouts from Kirby’s FF? Was there any sort of public acknowledgement by Marvel management of the legitimacy of this “method?” 

Doug: WOW!! Sharon, you have some memory! I really had no idea that the swipes were that extensive. You have inspired some research on my part!

Karen: OK...that's just ridiculous.

Doug: Once Ben and Johnny got to the Linders’ home, I felt like there was more to the story than we were being told – Conway’s tangled web, I’m sure. If you think back to Sue’s comment related above, from #143, Namor has been perhaps the only other person besides Reed whom she has had the trust of. It just seemed odd to me that he would have shown up out of the blue – and speaking of blue, why the devil would Sue have been in costume??

Karen: And speaking of costumes, why is that despite the fact Namor has had his blue suit for 30 + years, I still think of it as his “new” suit?! I guess it must have to do with first impressions and all that.

Sharon: This Namor costume was not one of John Romita’s finer creations. For one thing, what was the deal with those Black Bolt-like arm “membrane wings”?

Doug: That’s funny to me, Sharon – I have always much preferred Namor’s blue suit to the green trunks. I always found it odd that a king would walk about nearly naked. I think Romita’s design is very regal. I’ll give you the questionable functionality of the wings – but hey, can we really believe that he can fly on those little ankle wings?

Doug: Reed’s preparation was fun – vintage stuff. The big map, the radiation tracker, the oxy-pills, Johnny’s heat frame… Did anyone else think Namor’s fortress looked like Tomazooma (see FF #80)?

Karen: Much as I like Buckler, that thing was just goofy. It looked more like a giant robot than a fortress! Tomazooma is not far off.

Doug: Well, didn’t Sue drop a bombshell in the last panel? Wow. “You see, Reed – it’s something I’ve always suspected – and now know to be true: I love the Sub-Mariner, and I’m going to stay with him… forever!” I thought Namor’s charges against Reed were very callous, but they jarred Reed. One had to wonder if Sue really did hate Reed for what he’d done to Franklin and if Namor wasn’t the strong sanctuary she had sought. To follow-up on the recollections from my childhood, I have to tell you that I didn’t see issues 148-149 for decades. I personally had a smattering of issues through the #150’s and the first “new” issue I recall buying myself was #160. So by then I knew how this had all turned out. But what a cliffhanger!

Karen: Sue really doesn’t come off too well in these issues. Despite her frustration over not being treated as an equal, she comes across (to me) as a very dependent woman. She leaves Reed, and then turns around and runs off to her fantasy man, Namor. It seems like she was still looking for someone to take care of her and call the shots.

Sharon: As I mentioned when we discussed FF #141-142, during this time Sue comes across as whiny. And hello- - WHY would she put physical distance between herself and probably the only person in the world who could cure Franklin?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Family Matters: The Fantastic Four's Triumphs and Tribulations, part 3 (continued)

Part Three – Bringing Up Boys, Part II
Fantastic Four #’s 140-41
November-December 1973

“Annihilus Revealed!”
“The End of the Fantastic Four!”
Gerry Conway, John Buscema, and Joe Sinnott

NOTE: Continued from last week’s posting…

Doug: The build-up to the story’s climax was well-conceived, and Annihilus and the Negative Zone were the perfect catalysts. However, I was left somewhat flat with the last page of #141. It seemed like the tale just ended abruptly – like page 20 rolled around and “oops – gotta go!” We’d had a really well-crafted 2-parter with action, tension (lots of tension), great characterization, and then it just ended. Now, I know the fall-out continued over issues #142-149 (147-149 being a classic Sub-Mariner story that really stressed what the FF as a family is all about!), but to just look at these events – I needed one more page in the book, Gerry!!

Karen: I felt the abrupt end to 141 actually worked very well, because the reader is probably expecting Reed to save the day, as usual. When he not only doesn’t, but hurts his own son, it’s quite the shocker. The issues that follow are also worthy of reading, although I felt like Sue running off with Namor undercut her search for independence. I must say that these issues cemented my general dislike of Reed, and in many ways I would have liked seeing Sue dump him permanently for Namor! What woman wouldn’t be attracted to Namor – strong, confident, sexy, and so extremely attentive?
Sharon: It didn’t hurt that Namor was often nearly naked…or swathed in leather, with a bare chest…Karen: To be honest, I never really saw why Sue would be attracted to Reed. He always seemed far more interested in his latest experiment than he did in her.
Sharon: She was supposed to have been infatuated with Reed since she was a young girl, maybe not even a teen (he was already in college). I guess some people never outgrow their first crushes.

Indeed, the Reed-Sue relationship, at least in the early days, always stru
ck me a bit like the older man/younger woman scenario. She looked to him for guidance and to “take charge” of situations. This probably became less appealing to the general readership over the years. I don’t think they even mention this age difference at all now.

Doug: I find your (both of you) take on the Reed/Sue/Namor triangle interesting. Maybe it’s because as a male I always felt “threatened” by Namor. Although a monarch, he was brash, showy, flaunting of his strength… everything a guy who had a gal would fear. I guess sensing Reed was somewhat the underdog in that situation I always identified with him and not Namor. Perhaps as women, maybe you recall days when you or your girlfriends were infatuated with older men, or guys from a different school? Guys I knew were never digging that…

Karen: Doug, I had never thought about the Reed-Sue-Namor triangle in the way you mention. Reed just always seemed so focused on his work that his interest in Sue – particularly when she was asserting herself, like in these issues – just seemed more like possessiveness to me. But I can see where you are coming from. Namor would be very threatening to most guys. Although honestly, he would probably be a better lover than a husband! Another case where it is probably better to want than to have.
Doug: As one-hit wonder Aldo Nova once sang, “Life is just a fantasy, can you live this fantasy life?” Apparently Sue was trying…

But on to perhaps the crux of this story, the centerpiece around which all of this discussion has emanated – what do you think of Reed’s reaction to Franklin’s condition in the first 90% of the story, and then to his “dirty deed” at the conclusion of issue #141 (the zapping of Franklin with the anti-matter gun, as Karen stated earlier)?

My opinion is that Reed, in spite of his many faults (not enough quality time with Sue or Franklin, being inaccessible even to Ben and Johnny for extended periods, etc.), deeply loved his family – hence the intense mission to the Negative Zone which would place his own life at risk. Now, one could argue that this idea in itself was somewhat selfish, as his impending death would certainly leave Franklin’s condition in a potentially damaging state. Reed was never good at asking for help – but when you’re the smartest guy in the world that might just come with the territory. Reed was proactive here – the problem is perhaps not the mission, but the lack of communication to all parties concerned.

Karen: Reed’s absolute belief in himself, essentially to the exclusion of his family and their wishes, is probably his greatest failing. He was always making decisions for the team, and I think they typically accepted this because everything turned out all right. Well, except for Ben turning into a monster, but hey, other than that…but seriously, certainly in the early years he was portrayed as making the right choices. That began changing, particularly with this story. We still see this going on today in the books; he and Sue had another huge falling out over Reed’s work for the Pro-Registration forces in Civil War.Sharon: During this timeframe (basically the issues leading up to #140-141), I liked that Reed was becoming impatient with the others; it made sense character-wise. Ben has always been presented as the salt of the earth—loyal, brave, and principled. But Sue and Johnny did not come off well during this timeframe; both were prone to whine, and Johnny, in particular, seemed like he’d lost a few brain cells since the ‘60s (was he inhaling?) I guess the post-Stan writers were trying to emphasize Johnny’s immaturity.

Doug: Earlier I’d mentioned that I felt Conway rushed the ending of #141 – I’d like to clarify that point somewhat. Karen liked the stark finality to it – I wanted something more than just everyone’s kneejerk reactions (which were all in character – I have no problem with that). Had I written this, there might have been a few panels with just facial reactions, pensiveness, numbness – and then the reaction. I know I’ve ripped on today’s decompressed stories ‘til the cows have come home (Midwestern expression :) ), but I wanted this scene to be a couple of pages longer. I’m not unhappy with the final panel, but just wanted a longer bridge to the departure of the rest of the team – Reed’s abandonment.

Sharon: The ending is effective if overly melodramatic (and the last panel is basically repeated for the splash for the next issue). But I know what you mean about wanting to see more here, Doug; the ending seems like a sort of fait accompli. For me, the emotional impact compensates for that.

Karen: There is some initial rejection of Reed by Johnny and Ben, but ultimately, they wind up sticking with Reed rather than Sue. It almost seems as though they really have no other options – Reed runs the show after all. I guess the thought I’m left with is this: if a man could lobotomize his own child –and yes, he was saving the world by doing so – what else might he be capable of? If you were his wife, would you ever be able to completely trust him again?

Sharon: I just assumed Reed would be working on a way to reverse Franklin’s condition…and that Sue of all people would know that.

Doug: Funny that you say Ben and Johnny felt like they might not have had other options – they’d done OK by themselves through the Torch’s series way back in Strange Tales. I’ve always wondered just what the FF was? Obviously a family, sure. But through all of the line-up changes over the years (and there are quite a few when you reflect), there were always two members who stayed. So was the sum greater than the parts, or were any of the parts when combined good enough to create the essence of the team?

In answer to the question relating to Reed’s behavior in using the anti-matter gun on Franklin: I am really torn on this! I have no doubt that Reed’s behavior throughout this two-part story is sincere – his anguish, sense of desperation – these emotions have him wrought with fear. I am also convinced that he was using every ounce of his magnificent brainpower to try to find an aid or cure for Franklin’s condition. I really want to believe that Reed acted out of overwhelming anxiety – a desperation to save Franklin’s life, yes – but also to save the world. Reed’s altruism toward humanity cannot be overlooked here. And let’s give him the benefit of the doubt as far as lobotomizing his son. Do we know that the condition brought on by the anti-matter gun was irreversible? Also, while the reaction of the rest of the team was not out of character, it certainly showed little to no faith in Reed’s track record. Yeah, I know that Ben’s condition was caused by Reed (as Karen pointed out earlier) – but Ben was outwardly a freak; the other three were no less changed in terms of what they could now do. So while Ben “got it the worst”, everyone was different. But I’ve believed Reed over the years every time he’s said that he never stops looking for a way to change Ben back permanently.

Karen: It also occurs to me that Gerry Conway was responsible for stripping away a lot of the innocence of comics; he split up Reed and Sue AND he killed Gwen Stacy.

Sharon: And he introduced the Punisher! No surprise Conway went on to produce Law and Order: Criminal Intent. ;)
Doug: I think a great topic for the future would be to debate the ages that followed the Silver Age, which is generally linked to Kirby’s departure from Marvel in 1970 (roughly the same time Mort Weisinger turned over the reins of the Superman family of titles at DC). Just when did the Bronze Age end, and couldn’t we argue that this new realism and social relevance was the ushering toward a Dark Age (not creatively, but topically)?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Family Matters: The Fantastic Four's Triumphs and Tribulations, part 3

Part Three – Bringing Up Boys (part 1 of 2)

Fantastic Four #’s 140-41

November-December 1973

“Annihilus Revealed!”

“The End of the Fantastic Four!”

Gerry Conway, John Buscema, and Joe Sinnott

Doug: Now that we’ve visited the FF in two of the high points of not only the magazine, but in the lives of the characters within, it’s time to see how they handle adversity; adversity beyond even the maddest plot of Dr. Doom or the greatest threat posed by Galactus. How will they handle an immediate life-or-death situation directly involving one of their own, with no time for weighing options, no time for anything save definitive action?

Karen: This period of the FF’s history had a very strong effect on me. I was around nine years old when these issues came out and I recall being very disturbed by what seemed to be the disintegration of Marvel’s first family. Sue had already left Reed (back in issue #130) because she felt he was both neglecting his duties as a husband and father, AND treating her like an inferior. The team limped along without her, as Medusa came to fill-in for a time. It just felt really wrong. I had been reading the FF reprints in Marvel’s Greatest Comics at the same time and the contrast between the happy, stable family from the past and the fractured, miserable family here was shocking. As a child, it made me feel very insecure. So when Reed actually used his anti-matter gun to shut down Franklin’s mind, I remember being just stunned. This truly was one of those comics moments that had an impact on me.

Karen: I have to say that when I look at these issues now, it makes a lot of sense that Sue would leave Reed. Just as women in general in the 1970s were beginning to feel empowered, so was the FF’s female member. Sue’s desire to be seen as a full member of the team – not as “the wife” or “the sister” or “the mother” – was a sentiment felt by many women of the time. By incorporating this into the Fantastic Four, Marvel was again showing that they were a company that changed with the times.

Sharon: Marvel was playing catch up here. In the Silver Age, DC had a number of strong, fairly independent women, whether they were heroines (Batgirl, Saturn Girl, Crimson in the Secret Six) or supporting characters (Jean Loring, a lawyer). By contrast in the Silver Age Marvel had Sue or Jean Grey—who often had to be told how to use their powers--or secretaries like lovestruck Karen Page or Pepper Potts. Even warrior Sif was portrayed as more prone to being a hostage than Balder. Now, perhaps the Marvel depiction was more realistic for the ‘60s, but wow, Stan (and Roy) sure seemed to have a narrow view of women. This would change when other, younger (male) writers came aboard at Marvel, such as Conway and Steve Englehart; with more writers, we would get more than one or two points of view at Marvel. (And to Stan’s credit, he did produce female-centric superhero books in 1972 --The Cat, Shanna, and Night Nurse).

Karen: You’re right, the next wave of Marvel writers in the 70s did have a somewhat more enlightened view point. After all, that was the decade that gave us Chris Claremont, who seemed to actually favor female characters over male ones!

Doug: I think that Sue’s leaving was even a possibility at this point was reflective of the times – American television was dealing with the issue of divorce even in series as benign as The Brady Bunch! And ladies, you raise a great point about Sue’s (and others’) new independence – a far cry from the “Reed, what does it all mean?” days of FF Annual #3!

Karen: It’s amazing to go back to those early 60’s books and see just how much the women were little more than accessories to the men. Heck, on Avengers #1, everyone on the team got their name listed above the title –except the Wasp! And I recall some statement made in a later issue, basically comparing her to Rick Jones!

Doug: So to begin, issue #140 was a whole lot of Bronze Age entertainment!! Gerry Conway ably picked up where Roy Thomas had left off – the story is somewhat wordy (particularly by today’s standards), but every page is fraught with suspense and action. The characterization is very edgy, yet a realistic extension of everyone’s personalities. And the art team of John Buscema and Joe Sinnott – simply “Wow”. Buscema is a revered storyteller, but perhaps not often better than in this run and paired with Sinnott. We’ve remarked here as well as on the Avengers Assemble message boards that Sinnott could overpower a penciller – but it’s that consistency that Joe provided the FF through the years that makes it seem like one long narrative.

Sharon: I’m not a big fan of the Buscema and Sinnott team; to me, it’s like pairing Michelangelo with Norman Rockwell. Especially since here, on the FF, we get more Sinnott—who was now doing both finishes and inks—and less Buscema, who was just doing breakdowns for the FF—a far cry from Big John’s earlier, superlative work on, say, the Avengers or Sub-Mariner a few years earlier! But as you noted, Doug, Sinnott remained a constant on the FF and for many years he provided a cohesive look for the book.

Karen: These issues definitely had more of the Sinnott feel to me than Buscema, although it’s obviously John B’s work underneath it all.

Karen: One of the things I noticed right away is this was the time period with the “new look” Torch. Not only was he wearing his red costume, but he was now being drawn differently when aflame than Kirby had originally depicted him – we now saw more of Johnny’s features, including his hair, and he had a much more dynamic look, in my opinion.

Sharon: I get why the costume was changed (as an homage to the original Human Torch), but it looked too much like long johns! I was not fond of Medusa’s costume during this time, either; she looked clunky and chunky instead of sleek and sinuous and the costume didn’t help—I mean, buccaneer boots? Actually, now that I think of it, her costume is kind of similar to that of the 1940s character the Black Cat, what with the bare arms and legs, and yes—those boots!

Karen: Medusa’s costume certainly lacked imagination. I’d much prefer the green outfit she wore in Amazing Spider-Man 62 –as we discussed in a previous post.

Doug: Point taken about the Buscema/Sinnott pairing – but you can’t argue the dynamism of the page (any page). Can you imagine the Don Heck of 1973, or even George Tuska (who was much more dynamic/fluid than Heck) laying out these pages? As Sinnott added his outward touch to Kirby’s vibrant/violent/bombastic pencils, so he did for Buscema in this run.

Sharon: Buscema’s tableaux are always impressive—especially the scenes set in the Negative Zone.

Doug: Agatha Harkness just creeps me out – no matter where or when she shows up. How about that scene in the Avengers (ish #127, maybe?) where she’s training Wanda and makes an armchair spring to life? Weird…

Sharon: The issue you’re referring to is Avengers #133, which contains the scene in which Wanda makes a “chair walk like a man” under Agatha’s tutelage. Wanda began her studies with Agatha in Avengers #128 (published about a year after FF #140) but I never liked the concept of adding sorcery or mysticism to Wanda’s powers. As I’ve mentioned previously, I always preferred Wanda’s powers to be more scientifically based; if you look at her earlier appearances, her power could be said to induce changes in molecular structures or to cause chemical reactions (this theory was put forth by a fan in an Avengers letter column). But when Wanda started practicing witchcraft or magic, she became less like Chemical King and more like Zatanna. Marvel already had the Enchantress and Dr. Strange as Zatanna-analogues! As a result of this development, I felt Wanda’s powers were become less unique as they became more typically “witchlike.”

Karen: Kind of interesting that Ms. Harkness was involved with two Marvel women who were both trying to redefine themselves as individuals.

Doug: The origin of Annihilus was well conceived – not all that original if one considers such tales as Planet of the Apes, but executed positively nonetheless. Given that this is only his third appearance, he seems to carry the weight of a potential heavy hitter villain who might have a recurring role in FF bad guy-dom. Very interesting character – eye-catching as well.

Karen: It was a nice origin story, which to me had almost a “Twilight Zone” feel to it. The idea that Annihilus started as basically a sentient grasshopper is amusing. I like the way he was depicted here too, as frail and spindly.

Sharon: I felt sorry for the poor creature! Effective piece of characterization by Conway.

Doug: Conway consistently delivers foreshadowing and page-ending cliffhangers to keep the reader hooked. This method of storytelling was perfected by John Byrne, who ended up making it one of his faults if you want my opinion. But here Conway gives us just enough to make both of these issues page-turners.

Doug: Looking at these stories as self-contained, it’s interesting to see the dynamic on the team with Medusa. Conway does a nice job of separating her personality from the way Stan had handled Crystal years earlier. Although sisters, Stan, Roy, and now Gerry Conway have worked together over time to make them completely different people. The absence of any love interest between Medusa and her teammates also creates a dynamic new to the team, and that is NO dynamic. Medusa’s just kind of there – she’s an agitant, a nay-sayer, sort of a square peg in a round hole. Yet it works – her presence on the team only heightens the angst felt by all at Sue’s absence.

Karen: Was it just me, or in the later issues, did it seem like perhaps Medusa was developing an interest in Reed? Do you think that Gerry and Roy were considering having the two of them become a couple? Perhaps they were just seeing what the fan reaction was before really moving in that direction. How would that have altered the dynamics of the book – Reed off with Medusa, and Sue with Namor?

Sharon: Yes, during this time, Medusa was frequently drawn as hanging onto, or hovering over, Reed. Too bad nothing developed—I think it would have been interesting to see her with Reed, or even Ben or Johnny--but I guess a major part of her character is her unyielding, inviolate devotion to Black Bolt. Back when she was a member of the Frightful Four (and it’s been retconned that she was amnesiac during that time), she did express a fondness for the “handsome” Reed as she caressed his face with her hair! And Johnny seemed interested in her back in the Frightful Four days; both he and Reed acknowledged that she was an “extremely attractive female.”

Sharon: My reading of Medusa is that she represses her sexuality (reserves it for Black Bolt) but when she’s not in control – as when she’s been mind-controlled (by Maximus) or amnesiac – the defenses come down and she’s hot to trot. I see Medusa and Crystal as the two archetypes of female sexuality: virgin and whore (I don’t mean literally). But one is chaste, while the other is open to her sexual/romantic impulses. Also, talk about ironic imagery: Medusa, the reserved one, has all that resplendent hair (an the exaggerated female characteristic); while Crystal, the wild child, is normally shown with fettered hair--the famous headband, or the snoods she wears on occasion.

Karen: I never really knew what to make of Medusa’s relationship with Black Bolt. In fact, I think it was several years before I even knew they were a couple! At least now it’s much more obvious.


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Family Matters: The Fantastic Four's Triumphs and Tribulations, Part 2

Fantastic Four Annual 6 Franklin Richards
Fantastic Four Annual aka King-Size Special #6 (1968)

Part Two – The Birth of Franklin Richards
Fantastic Four Annual #6, 1968
“Let There Be… Life!”
by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Joe Sinnott

Doug: By 1968 the team of Lee/Kirby/Sinnott had reached its zenith, moving from one epic to another in the regular monthly Fantastic Four book – it was certainly deserving of its hype as The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine. And then along came the Annual for that year. I’ve read this story 3-4 times; the first time was only 5 years ago or so. But each time I re-read it, the scope of it, the grandeur, the characterization – this was truly a piece of literature that stretched the bounds of comic book fare of its day. The creators really outdid themselves with this issue – in my mind, it’s a story like “Let There Be… Life!” that really separated The House of Ideas from the Distinguished Competition.

Doug: The opening scene is just classic Lee/Kirby angst. I am amazed, particularly in reading the FF, how well Stan and Jack worked together. To think that around this time they were not on the best of terms, separated by many miles, and could turn out a scene like the opening 2 ½ pages. Blows my mind how well the pictures and words mesh.

Sharon: The art was astonishing and was perfectly complemented by the writing. To me, this was Kirby-Sinnott at their peak--you can start to see some coarsening of the art with the next issue (#81), or actually since #78 or so. Part of it may be due to Sinnott not making the characters so pretty (as he had tried to do previously)…though more than likely, Jack was not being as careful as usual, since it's been well documented he had been dissatisfied with Marvel for quite some time. There were a lot of things leading to Jack’s dissatisfaction (which we’ve discussed previously), but the straw seemed to break the camel's back was the recently completed Silver Surfer arc (#74-77), a few months earlier than this issue and Stan’s handing over of the new Surfer book to John Buscema. But the art here--just gorgeous and majestic.

Karen: I agree with you both, the art is spectacular. The cover is a beauty. Although I would say I detect more of Sinnott in this work than some of the older FF issues. Still, the book looks great - Annihilus’ ship, the Kirby crackle as they enter the Negative Zone, the edge of the Negative Zone, with its field of rocks –all of this leaves a strong impression. We even get yet another Kirby collage!

Doug: Although Reed had been to the Negative Zone in an earlier adventure, this issue marks the first appearance of the warlord/ruler Annihilus. Appearing first on the cover in a headshot, his actual first appearance in the interior of the book is startling, powerful, and terrifying (not only to the reader, but to the denizens of the Neg. Zone!).

Doug: I thought the scene where the vampire-gliding guy (for lack of a better description!) grabbed Reed and pulled him toward the asteroid was good – however, when Reed became magnetized, I was left wondering why a fellow so smart wouldn’t have just taken off his harness!

Doug: It was a little funny, given today’s patient confidentiality rules, that Crystal could just walk right into the hospital laboratory and get answers to her questions about Sue’s condition out of the doctor!

Sharon: In a couple of previous issues, Crystal had conferred with the doctors about Sue, so I guess they felt she could be trusted with seemingly confidential information like this!

Sharon: Speaking of Crystal, it bothered me as a kid in 1968 (when I first read this issue) that Crystal kept referring to Sue in Annual #6 as "Sue Storm.” Crystal had only known Sue as “Sue Richards”…and yep, this still bothers me today! Anyway, you can tell Kirby loved drawing Crystal; once she'd reunited with Johnny starting in #62, Kirby put her in as many panels as he could (except for #73, in which she did not appear at all). In fact, with the exception of #73, if you look at the span of issues from #72 through #85, she garnered more panel time than Sue did! And of course Crystal would join the FF in the next regular issue (#81) after this Annual.

Doug: The full reveal of Annihilus shows one of Kirby’s more inspired creations. This is one powerful, menacing, and UGLY dude! While it’s difficult to get a scale of his size initially, there is no doubt that he is going to provide one tough obstacle to whatever the FF needs later. Stan’s foreshadowing that it is the cosmic control rod, which rests on Annihilus’ chest, that will be that prize left me with a “can’t wait” feeling for the rest of the story.

Karen: An inspired design by Kirby. Even if he was beginning to tire of Marvel, you’d never know it based on the art in this annual. Annihilus just looks creepy – like the ultimate manifestation of all our fears of insects and bugs.

Sharon: He certainly scared me! One of the last great characters Kirby introduced in the FF-- well, along with (arguably) Franklin and a bit later, Torgo and Agatha Harkness.

Doug: In the prison scene, Annihilus displays his true brutality, not only in dropping Reed to the floor so easily – but the destruction of the remaining prisoners should not go unmentioned. Although it was certainly strongly implied a few years earlier that Galactus had decimated the life forms on innumerable planets, this in-your-face mass murder was somewhat bold for the Comics Code of the day!

Doug: When Reed was tossed into the large room where Ben and Johnny were being held, and then seeing Annihilus behind the glass enclosure with all of the control panels, I immediately thought of the X-Men’s Danger Room and Arcade’s Murder World. This is just a great scene, and largely because of Stan’s dialogue for Ben. I really love this period in the team’s history, and the characterization (although duplicated) has never been surpassed.

Sharon: Yes, the dialogue and characterizations were superb (and matched the flawless art, as mentioned). This was pure, unadulterated Ben, Reed and Johnny.

Karen: If anyone told me I’d feel a sense of menace from a giant sponge, or a giant boot, I’d laugh. But somehow, in this story, it works. Seeing Ben struggling with the crushing boot was a delight. More than any other Marvel hero, to me Ben has always exemplified the ideal of the hero who never gives up, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

Doug: Is there anyone more confident than Reed Richards? “The circuitry will have to be decoded… but I can do that later!” Yeah, right! I had a hard time getting through Algebra II/Trig, and he’s just going to decode some script from another universe about a device he’s only known of for an hour or so??

Karen: I always wondered who was smarter: Reed or the Professor from Gilligan’s Island. I mean, that dude made a radio out of coconuts! (I also thought it fitting that Alex Ross used the Professor (actor Russell Johnson) as the model for Reed in Marvels.)

Doug: The pages that follow contain a few minor twists and turns, but the suspense does manage to build without any real cliffhangers from page to page. The solution to the Negative Zone escape was reasonable and a nice set-up for future encounters with Annihilus.

Karen: For some reason, I really liked the press conference scene at the hospital. Back in the day, we were always reminded that the FF were treated like celebrities – people were interested in them and their lives just as if they were movie stars. I’ve always considered that a great take on the superhero genre.

Doug: The hospital scenes are so well-done. No action, but again – just great characterization and some funny lines here and there. The last panel of the story is a fitting end, and even though the dialogue is a little over the top, for the time it was written with all of the uncertainty in our nation it seems fitting.

Karen: One thing I noticed about this ish was practically every sentence ended in an exclamation point! I guess that was typical of the time, but it did seem a bit strained.

Sharon: Yes, exclamation points were de rigueur for the time for DC and Marvel. I remember when DC and Marvel started using periods a couple of years later- - well, that seemed strange to me! (And let’s not mention the strange, mercifully brief experiment –early ‘70s--when Marvel did not use any terminal punctuation at all for the dialogue, unless it was a question—then a question mark was used.)

Karen: But regardless, the final scenes in the hospital are moving. This issue really makes it clear that unlike other teams, the FF are a family. They are motivated out of love for each other, particularly in this situation.

Sharon: Sue looked like a serene, beatific Madonna…exquisite work by Kirby/Sinnott. But I felt Alicia's absence was a big hole; she'd always been shown to be close to Sue throughout the preceding years. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the addition of Crystal effectively reduced Alicia's role, which is a shame because it would have made dramatic sense to include Alicia here. A very beautiful, touching last panel, though.

Karen: That’s a great point, Sharon. Where the heck was Alicia? With all her history with the FF, it seems very strange indeed that she was not there.

Sharon: Franklin’s birth represents the first time (to my knowledge, anyway) that a mainstream comic book couple went through a pregnancy and had a child in anything even remotely resembled “real time.” Oh, sure, there was Aquaman and Mera, but Aquababy was conceived and born in the space of a single issue! Another example of Marvel’s realistic handling of its characters, which was ground-breaking in the ‘60s.
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