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.



david_b said...

This was a VERY dramatic and disturbing story arc for me, masterfully done by the writers, stretching it out in a nice underlying subplot. My parents had just divorced as well the year before, and having just started collecting around issue #138 (STILL one of the great stories in my collection for the memories), I had just come on the tail-half of the arc.

I LOVED the Medusa character and had hoped that a Medusa/Reed relationship would have formed at least temporarily. Reading both the reprints and the current stories at the time, I actually preferred Medusa to Sue for team dynamics and action sequences.. Just a new dynamic 'faucet' of the FF, rather than the more subdued/passive support member (remember the reprints were going through issues #64-68 at that time..).

Thanks for the SUPER reviews!

Sharon said...

David: thanks for the feedback.

And I too would have loved to have seen Reed and Medusa hook up, or at least have one or both of them acknowledge an attraction and then fight against it, because you know Reed would never act on it, and Medusa was/is chained to Black Bolt. This sort of complication would have provided an interesting undercurrent of tension back then. As I mentioned, Medusa was attracted to Reed back in her Frightful Four days, so this kind of development would not have seemed forced.

I'd love to see Medusa with another guy. Hey, maybe now that BB's presumed dead Medusa will marry his brother Claudius--I mean, Maximus!

John said...

I vote for Reed Richards to divorce Sue Storm and then marry lovely Medusa. After all, Medusa was attracted to Reed many years ago. Such a smashing event would allow Sue a chance to finally get together with Prince Namor.

Sharon said...

Hi John! Thanks for stopping by.

Another vote in favor of a Reed-Medusa hook-up. Medusa has been a stone-cold bitch since the (presumed)death of her husband Black Bolt, but a few months ago in Avengers #8 (in which she, Reed and the Illuminati appeared) she lets her guard down when talking to Reed--he's the only one who can reach her. Medusa and Reed still have that connection.

Yeah, let Sue have Namor, especially since Sue is now the queen of some underwater empire!

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