Saturday, January 3, 2009

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



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.

6 comments:

  1. Another insightful post guy's. Visiting here is like visiting a favorite comic shop and just chatting comics with some of the old time regulars. Thanks alot for all you do

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  2. Thanks a lot, Mike!!

    If you want a head's up on what's next, you may want to scout out FF #'s 140-141. We're putting the finishing touches on what may stretch into two posts on those two issues.

    This particular series we're in the middle of has really been fun! We've also discussed plans to stretch it out with another few FF issues pertinent to our theme of "Trials and Tribulations".

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  3. Thanks Mike, and we're glad you enjoy the format of the blog. There's plenty of places where you can get reviews of new books, but very few if you want to discuss "the classics"! I like your comparison to us being like the local comics shop folks - that's sort of the vibe we're trying for. Your input is appreciated.

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  4. Of course our theme is "Triumphs and Tribulations", not trials and tribulations as I'd typed earlier. Proofreading really is a good thing...

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  5. Guys,

    I've just stumbled onto your site and greatly enjoy the format. You thoroughly discuss the comics as well as the creative teams, and you know your stuff. I particularly enjoyed your insights into the FF Annual. It really was a special issue for all the reasons you cited. You made a great point about Alicia's absence, which was likely an oversight by both Kirby and Lee.

    Keep up the great work.

    Nick Caputo

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  6. Nick, welcome--and thanks for the kind words.

    Regarding Alicia's dwindling appearances in the FF at the time: once Crystal became ensconced at the Baxter Building, Crys essentially supplanted Alicia as the series' "second" female character and as such, took over the role Alicia had previously played (friend to Sue, for example). Not sure why there was not room for both Crys and Alicia (as in FF Annual #5), other than Kirby really seemed to like to draw Crys and he included her in as many panels as he could!

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