“A Visit with the Fantastic Four” and “The Impossible Man”
Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Dick Ayers
Letters by Art Simek
Another, much more successful experiment than the previous issue, this is a rare issue with two FF stories that is refreshing, fun and entertaining. Interestingly enough, Stan Lee writes in the intro to the second Marvel Masterworks volume of Fantastic Four stories that this issue was extremely unpopular at the time. Fans in particular disliked the Impossible Man as being too “silly” for so “serious” a comic book as The Fantastic Four.
Meet Willie Lumpkin, who Stan played in his cameo in the 2004 Fantastic Four movie
This issue starts off with the behind-the-scenes story that Lee writes was inspired by the many fan letters Marvel had been receiving on the title. It has a lot of really fun little moments, starting with fans lining up at the newsstand to get the most-recent issue of the FF comic and a kid running down the street thrilled that his letter got published on the fan page. This great little story offers lots of fun bits, including the introduction of Willie Lumpkin and a lot of background on the FF themselves.
That background offers some particularly interesting tidbits, including details of Reed and Ben’s service in World War II. This book has them in college together before the U.S. entered the war, so that would mean Reed and Ben would have have roughly been born in the early 1920s. That would have made them both about 40 in the comic – roughly the same age as Stan and Jack themselves were when they did this story. Not sure how old Sue’s meant to be, though she can’t be too much younger than Reed as it’s said they have known each other since childhood and grew up as next door neighbors. Johnny, of course, is supposed to be about 16, which makes it unlikely he cheered on Ben during his football years, as the story says. I also liked the detail of Reed having worked with the O.S.S. in the underground behind enemy lines in Europe, which is not a detail that had registered with me.
Don’t dis Sue in front of Reed and Ben — you don’t want to make them angry.
Then there’s the best part of the story, which is the defense of Sue from the critical letter writers. For some reason, fans have always wanted Sue out of the book and I remember it still being an issue when I was reading the book in the 1980s. I like this idea of having the characters defend her, rather than Stan doing so in a letters column — it just has a bit more weight and is more effective at pointing out the idiocy of such comments.
I suspect this story was pretty much all Stan’s idea — it’s light-hearted, heavy on the dialog and very character-centric. Maybe it was just an idea that didn’t lend itself well to the kind of blowout splash page that Kirby has done in the past, but it is a very well written and well drawn story that demonstrates just how far the comic has come in its short lifespan.
The Thing hanging off the side of the Fantasti-car is perhaps the only panel in the second story I really like.
The second story, introducing The Impossible Man, is a little more standard but still goofy enough to make it a good pairing with the first tale. The Impossible Man himself is fairly annoying — kind of an impish character similar to Bat-Mite or Mr. Mxyzptlk. And the way the story pans out isn’t exactly the most innovative thing ever put on paper. But, like the first tale, it does demonstrate the overall improvement in the book. There’s a lot more consistency in how the characters look from issue to issue, the dialog is better and fits better with the overall pacing and storytelling. The silliness of the Impossible Man is mitigated by this being a short, 11-page story — a full issue of this guy would have been way too much.
Lastly, this issue wraps with a regal pin-up of the Sub-Mariner in his underground lair. It may also be of interest to note that this issue was previously presented with the stories in the opposite order in older editions of the Marvel Masterworks series. I think the order is significant in this case — the genial nature of the fan visit tale makes the Impossible Man story go down a bit more smoothly.
All in all, this is a surprisingly satisfying issue, and truly off-beat. I wonder if the reaction fans had been more positive, if we might not have seen more two-story issues and visits with the team from Kirby and Lee.
It appears that Batgirl #1 by Gail Simone, Ardian Syaf and Vicent Cifuentes is the surprise hit of The New 52, becoming the first book to sell out in many stores. It’s no surprise that Simone writes a great Barbara Gordon, but I was especially impressed by the artwork. Not only was it attractive looking and nicely polished, but the coloring by Ulises Arreola really added to the tone of the book without sacrificing clarity. I keep harping on this point, but coloring has been a real weakness at both Marvel and DC in recent years and it’s nice to see DC make a concerted effort to improve the coloring in their comics. The story was very engaging, though I missed exactly how Babs got the use of her legs back. The new outfit is very cool and the book is overall just a good bit of fun. I’m not sure why this particular book is so in demand — it could just be pent-up demand for seeing Barbara back in the cape, but I think there’s more going on here and I hope the book continues to be as much fun to read as this first issue.
OMAC #1 was a book I thought had potential right from the start. This was a great concept for the character when Kirby came up with it back in the 1970s, but its original run was cut short and no one has ever quite found the right mix. But Keith Giffen, getting back into the Kirby mode he exhibited years ago on Legion of Super-Heroes, really delivers a story that gets the Kirby spirit right. Working with Dan DiDio as co-writer and Scott Koblish as inker, this is another action-packed and fun comic book that evokes the King’s work in every panel and twist and turn of the story. That it does so without seeming dated is an impressive feat that few other Kirby imitations have succeeded in doing. This is exactly the sort of book I was hoping to find in the New 52 — an unexpected surprise that delights and entertains.
Detective Comics #1. The last time we saw a Detective Comics #1 on the stand was March 1937, and this is the title from which the company derives its name. (Yes, DC Comics does mean Detective Comics Comics, and trying to correct that lack of logic is just as pointless as trying to get people to stop saying ATM machine.) So, this is one of the titles that changed the least, with writer and penciller Tony S. Daniel moving over to ‘Tec from the same job on the just-concluded run of Batman. Daniel does raise the bar here. The storytelling is better, the color is better and the scripting is better than his recent Batman run. He’s also telling an especially intense story with a conclusion that is already getting a lot of shocked responses online. I admit that it surprised me, by being both unexpected and particularly gory for a Batman comic. But it does make me want to read more.
Green Arrow #1 is another example of the kind of book I was hoping to find in the New 52. Now, Green Arrow has never been a character I’ve been especially fond of. He is, after all, a guy with a bow and arrow. I walk my dog in Lower Arroyo Park in Pasadena, and see archers there almost every day at a public range down there. Archery just isn’t threatening to me in the same way that firearms would be, even in a safe setting like a shooting range. As a character, Green Arrow has always been a bit of a caricature, going all the way back to his role as the voice of hippiedom in superhero comics when he teamed up with that square dude Green Lantern way back in the early 1970s. This new Green Arrow keeps Oliver Queen as the hero, but updates him to be much more modern and less one-note. Gone is the goatee, and Queen is like a young Steve Jobs who runs a major tech company as a side job to playing superhero. He’s assisted by tech girl Naomi and skeptic Jax. The book is, again, heavy on the action and it plays like vintage late 1980s DC, courtesy of writer J.T. Krul, penciler Dan Jurgens and inker supreme George Perez. The art really helps sell this book, as both Jurgens and Perez are veteran superhero artists who seem to relish the opportunity to revisit a more fun take on this character. This book would have easily fit into the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths relaunches of 1986-1989, which makes me very happy because that’s perhaps my favorite era of DC Comics.
They might have titled this story, “Lo, There Shall Come — A Stinker!” The previous nine issues all saw improvements of one kind or another, but this issue is truly weak in every respect. This issue is, in fact, so bad that all I can really do with it is do a quick run through and make some snarky comments about it, so here goes.
This issue begins with Reed trying to figure out how Sue’s invisibility power works, using a big machine that looks like a cross between a howitzer and a vintage camera. Far from Kirby’s best splash page, it’s made even weirder by the fact that the Human Torch is assisting Reed by taking notes while in full flame mode. It’s so odd, that it gets a mention in Sue’s dialog, just before the “4” signal appears in the sky and the trio assume Ben’s in trouble and rush off to help.
And it just gets weirder from there.
Someone needs to tell Reed nukes are
unsafe to keep around the house.
There’s a two-page sequence in which Reed, Sue and Johnny all rush to the scene of the signal that is perfunctory and embarrassing in just about every way. It starts with Reed stopping Johnny from using his flame on a jammed “nuclear lock mechanism” because it’s so sensitive to heat. I’d love to know what was going through Stan’s head when he came up with “nuclear lock mechanism” and exactly how making a lock nuclear would be a benefit in any fashion. Especially since it doesn’t seem to work. Then Reed tries to stretch his arm under the door all the way to the Fansti-car hangar, only to instead get his hand all the way to the Pogo-Plane hangar instead. Exhausted, his arm snaps back to him like a rubber band.
The trio finds Ben at the apartment of Alicia Masters, now officially dubbed Ben’s girlfriend in a caption, and find he just wants to show them the statues she’s made of their villains.
Then we get to what I’m sure was the scene that most motivated this issue, as Lee and Kirby themselves appear for the first time in a Marvel story. Doctor Doom shows up at their studio and uses them Reed to a trap. Lee obviously loves this scene, giving himself some crackerjack dialog. Kirby, meanwhile, shows enough restraint to not even show his (or Lee’s) face in the scene.
That’s the corner of Stan Lee’s head on the left. I wonder if Doom’s destroying one of the famous
FF ashtrays that was produced in the 1960s. And I still think Stan Lee needs to appear on Mad Men.
Having captured Reed, Doom recounts an unconvincing and rather silly rationale for his return from space. Having been last seen in issue six plunging into deep space, he found a race of aliens that are stereotypically very advanced yet totally naive. They hook up Doom with their body transfer technology and return him to Earth. Using the alien technology, he switches bodies with Reed. They fight and the rest of the FF show up and, naturally, help restrain the body of Doom and put him in a prison made of impenetrable plexiglass.
Returning to Reed’s lab, Doom starts making — of all things — a shrink ray that he tests on some animals he stole from the zoo. He somehow talks the trio into thinking that the shrink ray is the answer to all their problems, though his explanation for why makes absolutely no sense. Of course, the ray won’t do what he says — instead, it’ll shrink the FF into nothingness. Nice.
Back in the cell, Reed of course finds a way to escape and goes to Alicia’s apartment. Sue just happens to be visiting and whacks him over the head. Ben and Johnny come over and they take the body of Doom with Reed’s mind back to the Baxter Building.
Just thinking about how this might
work makes my head hurt.
Logic completely leaves the story as Johnny uses his power to project a heat mirage of a stick of dynamite being used at a nearby construction site into the lab. The Doom mind in Reed runs, while the Reed mind in Doom tries to save everyone. Convinced the mind switch is real, Doom is shocked enough that the switch somehow reverses itself. The FF then turn the shrink ray on Doom and he dwindles into nothingness.
The transfer is undone.
This is not Kirby’s most dramatic work
As you can see, nothing makes sense in this story and nothing of importance seems to happen. We learn little about Doctor Doom, and almost nothing happens among the FF either. Kirby’s art lacks the scope and innovation of recent issues, and Lee’s script only hampers any potential for salvaging anything decent.
This reminds me of those lame clip-show episodes TV series used to do when they had no decent script and the season was ending and it was a lame way pad out the episode. Lee and Kirby are lucky that their lackluster handling of Doom in this particular issue didn’t undermine future stories that would secure his position as the series’ premier villain.
I don’t have nearly enough books in the category that this post covers: Books about the art and lives of specific artists. I think there are a lot more out there, but for some reason I don’t have as many of them as I thought I might.
I’ll start with The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino, which I bought at a convention directly from the publisher and it was an autographed copy. I only met Carmine once, and it was at a convention and I simply said how much I had enjoyed his art on the old Marvel Star Wars series. That series was the one that got me reading comics and I had, as a kid, mixed feelings about the art. First, the comic was a lot better as soon as Infantino came aboard with writer Archie Goodwin. The stories were cool, fun to read, easy on the eyes and had some very clear storytelling. On the downside, none of the characters in the comic looked like the actors from the movie. That part bugged me enough — especially after seeing the bang-up job Mike Vosberg did on Star Wars Annual #1 — to write a letter to Marvel about it. All of which digresses from this book, which is an amiable recounting of Carmine’s career as he remembers it. That’s both a good and bad approach — there’s lots of good little anecdotes and plenty of cool artwork throughout the book, but there’s not much criticism. That leaves a few areas of comics history — especially during Infantino’s tenure as top editor at DC Comics during the late 1960s and early 1970s — no closer to any kind of definitive history than we were before. Still, fans of Infantino’s artwork should get a real kick out of this volume.
Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier is a very solid and enjoyable read that attempts to cover the life and work of Jack Kirby in a single volume. Given the sheer amount of writing that Kirby’s generated over the years, it’s obviously not going to be possible for any such book to cover every single thing Kirby did in the detail his fans would like. (For that, I always understood Evanier also was working on a much more detailed biography of Kirby that, I assume, will be published at some point in the future.) But this is a very solid account of Kirby, packed full of his amazing artwork and photos and well worth the time of die-hard and casual fans alike.
If you can’t get enough Kirby, then there is always TheCollected Jack Kirby Collector. I have four volumes of this series, and expect a few more have come out I don’t own. These are terrific for getting into not just the specifics of Kirby’s career, but also his impact on the field and fans. The articles range from scholarly examinations of Kirby’s work to vintage interviews the artist gave over the years to recollections from people who either worked with Kirby or were just huge fans of his. Each volume also is generously illustrated with Kirby art, often photocopies of his original pencils. Reading this much about a single artist can be a bit overwhelming, so I read through these somewhat slowly, taking my time between stints to avoid Kirby burnout.
Mythology: The DC Comics art of Alex Ross is a beautiful art book packed full of Ross’ amazing paintings. No one really captures a sense of how classic superheroes would look in the real world quite the same way Ross does, with his extensive use of models, photo reference and an amazing talent for producing finished art that looks photographic. I think in a lot of ways, Ross’ art is better suited to being displayed in this kind of glossy format than in actual comic book stories, where painted art can slow down the reading process because it demands to be looked at. I bought my edition at a signing Ross did to promote its release a number of years ago at Meltdown Comics in Hollywood. Putting on my Variety hat, I asked him what his favorite comic-book movie was. His answer: RoboCop.
Tim Sale: Black and White is a lovely art book produced by Richard Starkings’ Active Images. Printed in stark black and white on glossy paper, this book really shows off Sale’s atmospheric art to great advantage. The dark, inky pages are easy to get lost in, and there’s a career retrospective interview in there to boot. I think this particular book was released around the time Sale’s art was making a big impact on the TV series Heroes, back in its first season when it was quite the hot property.
Last on this list (for now) is Brush with Passion: The Art and Life of Dave Stevens. This was a gift I received from a fellow comics fan on my 40th birthday and really loved digging in to. I had long known Stevens’ work from various pin-ups and, of course, The Rocketeer. But this books goes a lot deeper and shows some of his contributions to many other projects, including such great films as Raiders of the Lost Ark and the long-form music video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It is a satisfying portrait of the artist, written mostly as autobiography but, unfortunately, finished by other hands after Stevens died from cancer a few years back.
One other volume that springs to mind is another TwoMorrows project, the Modern Masters series. I picked up the John Byrne volume at least in part because of some of the sketches from Byrne’s days at Charlton and later on X-Men. I also was pleasantly surprised to read Byrne talking about his days as a kid in Edmonton, Alberta, which is my hometown, and recognizing a couple of the places he described. In particular, I remember the newsstand at the downtown Eaton’s department story, which was right inside the front door and well-stocked with magazines, newspapers and paperbacks, though not too many comics by the time my teen-age collecting years kicked in. I also enjoyed Byrne’s brief recollection of Mike’s, a famous newsstand on Jasper Avenue that always had several spinner racks stuffed full of comics. I once made my father trudge over there on his way home from work to pick me up a copy of Star Wars #1 that I had seen there the day before but not had the 35 cents to pay for at the time. Here’s a story on Mike’s, which went out of business just a few months before my family moved to the States, complete with a photo of its distinctive neon sign.
I think I have one more post for this series, this one on comic book movies, including my own tome, Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen.
Another big leap forward for the series in a story that’s as off-beat as anything done in Fantastic Four previously.
There’s a lot to like in this story. I love the idea that the group loses its fortune on the stock market and has to sell everything off. Namor’s oddball idea of buying a movie studio and tricking the team into making a movie is just plain weird, but it gives Kirby in particular a chance to draw in some real-life movie stars. The fight between the Thing and Namor is particularly good, and the overall results are good enough to overcome some huge holes in the plot.
The cover to this issue is one of the best to date, giving a terrific tease for the story inside. Namor’s confident pose and the rundown Baxter Building, complete with broken and boarded up windows, are perfectly executed details. I also love the coloring — I don’t know if anything could properly recreate that lovely shade of reddish orange used for the background.
Page one of this issue — an excellent example of good comics.
Almost any class or advice on writing includes the point of beginning your story as late as possible, and the first panel of this issue is a great example of why. In a single page comprised of three panels, Lee and Kirby establish that the FF have lost their fortune, plan to sell all their possessions to pay their debt, and that Namor sees this as the perfect opportunity for revenge.
The second page is equally cool, as Reed tries to fend off a crowd of debt collectors and the heroes’ powers and personalities are set up for new readers.
Ben doesn’t play with dolls.
Alicia Masters returns in this issue as Ben’s “friend” when he takes a break from the FF and heads to her apartment. It’s not explained how she’s handling life after the death of her father in the previous issue. Their relationship is not stated as romantic, but it’s implied as she presents Ben with a gift of a white knight puppet doll. I find it hard to imagine that Ben ever played with dolls, so his acceptance of the gift is a sweet bit of characterization.
The movie idea is an interesting one, but it’s full of weird moments and plot holes, starting with the FF hitchhiking from New York to Hollywood in just a few days.
Jack Kirby does Bob Hope (and Bing Crosby) well enough to rival Dave Thomas.
S.M. Studios’ lot is packed with real life stars, including James Arness, “Miss Kitty.” Charles Bronson, Alfred Hitchcock, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Jack Benny. This sounds like an idea Lee would have come up with, but Kirby does a very nice job of making the stars identifiable. Lee has said many times he always wanted to be in the movie business and moments like Ben’s run-in with Jack Benny foreshadows the success Marvel found on the big screen thirty-odd years after this issue was published.
The reveal of Namor as the studio head is another interesting moment, as he’s shown wearing a green suit with a yellow ascot that would be very much in style today. He’s also smoking with a cigarette holder, which is an odd habit for an underwater king to have picked up.
Yikes. This is bad.
Lee and Kirby show they’re getting the balance right on this book between action and character, with a series of fun moments including Johnny blowing his advance on a cool car and riding around town with some hot chicks; Ben showing off at Muscle Beach; and Namor wooing Susan at a fancy nightclub.
The shooting of the movie is the strangest part of this story. For one, the locations make no sense. We’re told Reed’s shooting in the Mediterranean, Johnny in Africa and Ben on the beach near Hollywood. I like the way Reed uses his powers on an otherwise unremarkable foe. And there’s all kinds of wrong in Johnny’s sequence as he fights a tribe of primitive Africans who use a magic potion that makes them flame-proof. The fight itself is OK, but the portrayal of the Africans is just embarrassing. For some reason, the natives are colored with a kind of grayish-brown color in the Masterworks edition I’m reading. I don’t know if that was the color used in the original comic, but three’s all kinds of weird and uncomfortable in this segment.
Some thoughtful superhero action from Jack Kirby.
Namor’s fight with Ben, however, is easily the coolest part of this issue. The sight of Namor jumping up and down on Ben’s shoulders to drive him into the ground is cool enough. But then Ben gets hit by lightning and reverts for a moment (yet again) to his human form. Namor easily clobbers the human Ben and returns to claim Susan’s hand in marriage as his prize. Namor, obviously, knows nothing about women, as he’s surprised when she tells him there’s no way that’s ever going to happen.
So Namor and Sue then fight, with Namor pulling out all kinds of new powers from electric shocks to radar vision. The last panel of page 21 gives us what I think is the first real panel of Kirby crackle in this series, and it rocks.
When the three male members of the FF show up, Sue wins the day by defending Namor from her comrades and also demanding that he live up to his end of the bargain and pay them for the movie. He agrees, and once again walks off slowly into the ocean.
The final panel shows the triumphant FF attending the premiere of the movie, which can’t have been any good considering there was no script and the movie is in theaters only “weeks” later.
But the flaws in this story matter less than the overall tone and feeling of the tale, as the series is starting to really find its groove and get comfortable enough with itself to take some risks and experiment with some funky new ideas that no DC hero comic of the era would have attempted.
It only took about forty years for this scene to come true.
I wrote a lot about the copyright case between the family of Jerry Siegel and DC Comics over Superman, but I have a lot less to say about the recent ruling against Jack Kirby’s children. Read the ruling here.
From a legal perspective, nothing should have surprised anyone about either of these cases. The facts in the Siegel case make it an ideal candidate for copyright termination while the Kirby case always depended on making a convincing argument that Jack didn’t work under work for hire rules. The depositions posted at 20th Century Danny Boy a few months back were fascinating for the details they mined about how Marvel operated in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But nothing in that testimony did anything to refute the idea that Kirby was a freelancer doing work for hire.
I wish this had at least gone to trial, so that we could hear the arguments the Kirbys’ lawyer, Marc Toberoff, planned to make in this regard. But Kirby’s life and work have been pretty thoroughly documented by this point and there appears to be not even an inkling of a smoking gun document somewhere that would turn the tables.
The Kirby and Superman cases are similar in at least one way: Neither would have been necessary had the corporate owners of DC and Marvel simply stepped up to the plate and done the right thing by giving credit to and sharing even a sliver of the wealth these artists generated for them.
Comics artist Stephen Bissette has written a lengthy post at his blog urging comics fans to engage in a boycott and stop buying any Marvel products derived from Kirby’s work. He’s picked up this idea from the success of one DC fan’s efforts to ask DC creators and execs at Comic-Con why they haven’t hired more female creators or publish more female characters. It didn’t take much — she asked the questions at several panels and it got some buzz in the comics press — but it did result in a statement from Jim Lee and Dan DiDio saying they would hire more women creators. I don’t think most fans will stop buying FF, Thor, Hulk or X-Men comics on those grounds. But bad publicity helped put some pressure on Marvel during Kirby’s art return dispute with the company in the 1980s. It also helped Siegel and Shuster get a deal in the mid-1970s for an annual stipend and health benefits. Maybe it could work again.
It would be the right thing, the moral thing for Marvel to honor Kirby’s contributions with credit and a share of the immense profits it generated.
I’m also interested in this argument Bissette has linked to that questions the legal basis of corporate ownership of copyrights and the entire work for hire concept. The United States is a very friendly place for corporations, so I expect we’ll never see corporations lose their rights to own a copyright. In fact, the opposite is likely — that corporations will get more rights and extend copyrights even further beyond the limited terms called for by the Constitution.
The best lesson for comics creators to take away from all this is to create your own characters, your own comics and don’t sell them to the first publisher that offers to put out your book. Comics as an art form and as an industry needs new ideas and new books. Much of the malaise many fans feel comes from the fact that the market is so dominated by Marvel and DC characters that are, in most casts, between 50 and 75 years old. They’re great characters, but it might be time to make some new ones, or the industry and the art form risk dying off along with the audiences that are still hanging on to ideas that increasingly struggle to be relevant to the lives of readers living in the 21st century.
Some of the formula that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had figured out for the title was starting to settle in at this point, with the opening argument between the Thing and the Torch being both familiar and executed very well. The argument this time begins when Reed asks Johnny to keep Ben out of his lab. Ben throws a temper tantrum worthy of a 2-year-old and storms off, followed by Sue.
While they argue, they spot the first act of the mystifying Puppet Master, who uses his ability to make people do anything he wants by making little puppets of them from radioactive clay and then making them act out his wishes in miniature play sets. His first act is to make an apparently random man jump from a bridge to his death.
So, yes, the Puppet Master is one of the silliest villains in all of Marvel. Nothing about his power makes sense. Neither does his oddball physical appearance, or the fact that he was married at one point to the mother of beautiful blind sculptor Alicia Masters.
Alicia is the most significant new element introduced in this issue, and she takes on a fairly major role in the life of Ben Grimm and in the Fantastic Four comic book. In this issue, we really don’t learn too much about her, other than that she looks a lot like the Invisible Girl and is blind. And in Stan Lee’s typical melodramatic fashion, the blind girls sees the man behind the rocky visage of the Thing and falls in love with him — just as Reed has made progress on a way to reverse the Thing’s transformation.
This guy is a few years too early for the Gwen Stacy auditions.
The plot gets quite silly. In addition to creating puppets, the Puppet Master can create giant robots and a mechanical flying horse that can outrace the Human Torch. There’s also a prison riot before a simple matter, uh, trips up the Puppet Master, who falls to his death very much like his first victim. That leaves Alicia behind to be consoled by the Thing.
Excellent compostions, lettering —
and no background, but who cares
Reading this issue for the first time in ages, Kirby’s art makes it seems better than it really is. Kirby’s work is more confident on this issue. He has a better grip on who these characters are and what they look like. At the same time, he’s getting better at drawing them using their powers and putting them into action sequences. The Thing in particular gets some nice sequences in which he gets to tear a huge armored door out of the wall and builds a cage around rampaging inmates. Kirby’s chapter splash pages remain particularly compelling, and its worth noting how well he composes these panels.
You can see Kirby get a better grip on techniques like this in this issue.
These three panels sum up a lot of the appeal of early Marvel comics, and shows a lot of heart.
I have no idea what the reaction was to this issue when it came out, but I would think it would be somewhat reassuring to see the quality hold in most areas because so many comics that start out promising hit a wall about eight to 12 issues in and never recover from it.
Excellent storytelling in just three panels! This sequence would fill an annual these days.
The last thing I’ll say is that the cover to this issue is surprisingly weak. It’s very cluttered and uses an unusual shade of orange (at least it’s orange in the Marvel Masterworks version and looks like orange on comics.org). It also has some of that line-thickening that happens when the stats of the original art get a few generations too removed from the original. For example, the issue number and the white copy at the top of the page just turn into block shapes without good definition. That’s a shame considering how much Masterworks cost to buy, but I don’t know how much Marvel could do to fix it without access to the original art or hiring an artist to do some touchup or a re-creation.
Another great splash panel that delivers a sense of both power and scale.
Jack Kirby was always a powerhouse comic book artist, but his work in the 1970s is among the most amazing of his career as well as the most divisive. I say divisive because Kirby’s work in that decade took some often strange turns — sometimes producing amazing classics and sometimes producing fascinating failures.
I have to place Devil Dinosaur in the latter category. This short-lived series only ran eight issues in 1978 and, according to Tom Brevoort’s introduction in the Devil Dinosaur Omnibus edition I just finished reading, it was an attempt by Kirby to capitalize for Marvel on some interest an animation studio had in the Kamandi series he created for DC.
Kamandi itself was an oddball series, reportedly inspired by the Planet of the Apes movies, the first issue of that series prominently featured a destroyed Statue of Liberty and was set in a post-apocalyptic future full of mutated half-animals and, of course, the titular last boy on Earth. Even though Kamandi borrows its premise at least partly from a popular movie series, that comic book’s storyline had somewhere to go.
Not so Devil Dinosaur, which flounders partly because it’s a pretty thin concept to begin with and partly because there’s not really any place to take the story. For those who’ve never read this series, Devil Dinosaur is a T-Rex style dinosaur living in prehistoric times who is burned by a mad mob of early human “small folk” and emerges bright red in color. He teams up with a young “Dawn-Man” named Moon-Boy, and together they defend their valley home from various threats.
A typical panel from Jack Kirby’s Devil Dinosaur.
The first problem is that Devil Dinosaur is not human and can’t speak. Kirby constantly attributes human emotions to Devil, both in the narration and through Moon-Boy’s dialogue, such as loyalty and a willingness to fight. But in the end,he’s still a dinosaur drawn so that even Kirby can’t get any kind of expressiveness into his fang-filled face. And Moon-Boy’s habit of shouting out plot points and talking to himself may be in the good tradition of comic book heroes, but it’s also very strange with a partner who can’t even add a “Great Scott!” to the discourse.
The first three issues concern threats from various beasts and tribes of ape-like men attacking Devil and Moon-Boy, and in each case Devil’s too strong and strong-willed for anyone to beat for more than a moment.
The next few issues concern aliens coming to prehistoric Earth, forcing Devil and Moon-Boy to evade alien weapons and such, followed by an attack from the “Dino-Riders” and a final issue in which Devil falls through a time portal to 1978 Nevada.
Devil visits modern Nevada in Devil Dinosaur #9 (Dec. 1978), written and drawn by Jack Kirby, inks by Mike Royer.
Reading these stories, I can’t help but think there’s not too many more ideas that were going to really work with this series had it managed to continue beyond its meager nine-issue run. Unlike Kamandi, where all kinds of strange things could be invented and thrown into the plot, the prehistoric setting of Devil Dinosaur left the only believable opponents to be other beasts and cavemen.
Despite those limitations, Kirby’s scripting on the series is, I think, pretty good and on a par with a lot of the better-regarded series he did in this era.
It’s also interesting to note that there are no connections of any kind to the Marvel Universe — something that would just not happen anymore given the corporate demands for synergistic universes in comics.
An example of how Kirby could compose the hell out of any panel, courtesy of Devil Dinosaur #1 (April 1978).
The strongest element in the entire package is — no surprise, I’m sure — Kirby’s artwork. The early issues particularly have some fantastic compositions, designs and that distinctive Kirby design style. Every issue has a double-page spread right after the splash page, and each of the is worth soaking in and enjoying. Early issues also have some fantastic panels and sequences in which Kirby shows more command of composition and style than any dozen of today’s comics artists put together. The effort does seem to slack off a bit in the last couple of issues, however, perhaps because Kirby knew at that point that poor sales was about to claim yet another of his comic series.
In the end, these are some pretty-to-look-at comics that offer only a fleeting — if strangely satisfying — thrill.
While issue #6 is one of the best early issues of Fantastic Four, issue #7 is one of my least favorites. While the previous issue had a complete and compelling story featuring villains we’ve already met and care about, this was an episodic mish-mosh of old ideas and clichés that doesn’t add up to much. Despite those flaws, it’s not a horrible issue — it just feels like filler. Perhaps this had to do with the series going from a bimonthly to a monthly publication schedule, and Lee and Kirby had to crank this issue out quickly.
This one starts with Kurrgo, who’s the sort of character that populated a lot of the pre-hero Atlas series. An alien whose planet faces destruction from an asteroid on a collision course, he thinks the Fantastic Four can save his people.
Then we cut to the banter-filled intro of our heroes, who this time are quarrelling over a “government dinner” being held in their honor that no one except Reed is interested in attending. The strange reasons they all have for not wanting to go prompt even stuffy ol’ Reed Richards to roll his eyes in one panel. This sequence segues into a scene where Johnny takes a shower and Ben cranks up the hot water as a joke. Johnny flames on and turns the water to steam, setting off alarms. Reed uses his powers to check all the vents before he puts two and two together and realizes the junior members are horsing around again. Finally, they all head off to the dinner in the Fantasti-car, waving at folks on the road below. All this is a kind of fun character bit, though it also feels like definite filler and a scene that goes nowhere. It also lacks the polish similar scenes in the previous issues have.
When Kurrgo’s ship finally arrives, Lee and Kirby have a giant robot emerge using images ripped straight out of the classic movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. The plot gets even more weirdly complicated as the robot sends out a “hostility ray” that turns everyone on Earth against the Fantastic Four. The heroes themselves see the effect take hold in the midst of their “government dinner” with members of Congress and have to escape the Capitol building and get back to the Baxter Building. Kurrgo’s robot awaits them at their HQ and tells them the only way out is for them to go with him to Planet X and help Kurrgo save it. They agree, and head off into space.
Up to this point, Kirby’s art this issue is serviceable but lacking the impact that the previous issue did. The fourth part of this story, however, changes that with a great splash on page 15 with the Fantastic Four floating toward the ground in a futuristic city using and anti-gravity device of some kind. The splash for part 5 of this story is another great one that foreshadows the kinds of compositions and designs that would define Kirby’s amazing work in the late 1960s and 1970s.
The story remains a bit of a mess as the Fantastic Four meet Kurrgo for some exposition about how Planet X only has two spaceships and needs to save its 5 billion inhabitants from the asteroid that’s going to hit in 24 hours. There’s an obligatory and strange fight scene that ends as Reed agrees to help. The solution is a pretty good comic book plot twist, as Reed develops a shrinking ray to reduce the size of Planet X’s inhabitants to the point where they can all fit on a single spaceship, with the Fantastic Four free to return to Earth in the other. This works great for everyone except Kurrgo, who tries to keep a non-existent antidote for himself only as a way to enslave his people only to miss the flight and presumably die in the asteroid collision.
A lot of the ideas in this issue are interesting, but they aren’t well developed because the issue flits from one unrelated idea to the next too quickly to cohere into a solid narrative. The result is a story that’s underwhelming in comparison to the previous issue in particular, but still had some charm and wit for the casual reader.
This was one of the stories adapted with some significant changes for the first Fantastic Four animated series that aired in the late 1960s. I saw this episode of the show in reruns sometime around 1992 or 1993, just before I read the comic book version for the first time in the Marvel Masterworks edition. Based on what I recall of my reaction, that episode did little to improve on the comic book version.
This issue sees a big improvement, as Lee and Kirby create a story that reads naturally and fills out the entire 24-page issue without resorting to the episodic chapters that marked the earlier issues. It’s also got some stunning artwork from Kirby, who seems to have become comfortable with the characters. Everything just clicks — the characters feel like they belong in this story and the way everything unfolds makes sense (at least in a story logic way) and the resolution is satisfying.
This issue starts off with a terrific splash panel in which Kirby draws New York City like a real place. The buildings have just the right amount of detail to sell this version of New York as a real city full of different types of architecture and the little details that make everything work from the water tower to the vents and the awnings. And it completely grounds and sells the entire scene, making the appearance of the Human Torch dramatic and believable.
I also like that Lee and Kirby fill the city with real people walking around, seeing this stuff happen and talking to each other about it. The reactions are varied and add to the believability of the story, even though it’s not really clear why Sue likes to hang out invisible in crowds.
The Baxter Building itself is impressively real in a way that few other comic book heroes’ headquarters were. The hapless mailman is a precursor to Willie Lumpkin, who shows up shortly as the building’s regular delivery man. Kirby delivers another cutaway of the Baxter Building, and does something simple that the book’s young readers must have loved: he made it completely consistent with the cutaway in issue #3. This is a slightly expanded version, but everything is in the same place and shows an attention to detail that few other comics at the time would have bothered with.
Lee varies up the introductory banter here, so instead of Ben and Johnny fighting we get Reed stretching across the city to visit a sick boy in the hospital. (As a complete side-note, Reed refers to the poor kid as a “shut-in,” which was the term that was used every week on Hockey Night in Canada when I was a kid. The commentators used to send out a special hello to the shut-ins and other folks who couldn’t get to the games in person but enjoyed the weekly broadcast.) Reed answering the boy’s question about the stretching of his costume is a nice touch, though I can easily imagine it being Stan’s way of settling the issue in some way to avoid having to answer the same question over and over. This also is the first mention of Yancy Street and the Yancy Street Gang, whose members take special pleasure in teasing and tormenting The Thing.
Kirby does some really nice acting in this issue, which is something I wish more comic book artists paid attention to. On page 6, you need no dialog to understand Ben’s anger, Sue’s sadness or that subtle little smile on Namor that conveys his enjoyment of swimming with the porpoises.
Doctor Doom, who appears to have dropped the shark theme for his aircraft, makes a surprisingly subtle entrance. He makes a logical plea to Namor, arguing that their mutual interest in eliminating the Fantastic Four is not typical supervillain behavior for 1962. Lee’s talent for dialog comes out strongly in the discussion between Namor and Doom, with Doom making a very compelling case. Kirby also nails it, giving Namor a cool elegance as he lounges in his shell throne that melts away under Doom’s argument to anger. All of this makes Namor’s character surprisingly sympathetic, as even the youngest reader surely had a sense that Doom would betray the deal in some way.
That’s emphasized by the next scene, in which Johnny discovers Sue’s hidden photograph of Namor and destroys it. It’s the kind of blockhead move that only a brother could get away with. Sue suffers a lot in later years of the series as the least developed character in the group, but in this issue she’s the most conflicted and interesting member of the group. Her conflicted feelings for Namor and her inability to put them into words works especially well with, again, Kirby’s excellent portrayal of her.
The entrance of Namor is another interesting scene as he challenges the Fantastic Four to accept his word that he’s a on a mission of peace. Sue, of course, buys it; the others refuse — and they’re right to not trust Namor despite their reasons for not trusting him being pretty off base.
The lifting of the Baxter Building into space, and pretty much everything that happens plot wise in space, should stretch plausibility more than it does. I recall a column former Marvel editor in chief Jim Shooter wrote in which he wrote that all buildings in comics had flat bottoms and the heroes had no problems before the Marvel Age brought some reality to the medium. Of course, in this story, the Baxter Building does have a flat bottom and it can be lifted as a whole into outer space. What’s really odd, though, is that the story still works and works really well. Plus, the splash panel of page 16 of the heroes looking down on Manhattan with the fighter jets flying underneath is, in a word, awesome.
It gets a little clunky in the next section, with the Torch’s flame failing in space. I do like the bit where Reed tries to grab Doom’s ship as Kirby spaces it out over five or six panels before Doom blasts him with a rocket. Namor’s leap to Doom’s ship is similarly cool, with Kirby zooming in on Namor’s face.
That it’s Namor, a nominal villain, who saves the day is pretty unusual for a comic of this vintage — the conventional wisdom of the time seemed to be that the hero was the star and he or she had to be the one who won the day. The Fantastic Four really do little to help Namor defeat Doom, who is last seen spiraling away into the void after ejecting from his ship. Namor even disposes of Doom’s grabber device and ship.
The last few pages are classic denouement. The Baxter Building is magically put back in place as though nothing ever happened, and the future of Namor — is he friend now, or still a foe? — remains more up in the air than ever.
Again, this is far away a big step forward in terms of Lee and Kirby finding a way to create big, exciting fantasy stories without chopping up the story into unrelated episodes and also in building a world and an ongoing storyline that’s bigger than any one issue.