Comic book review: Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4

Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4

It’s another “Fantastic Four Friday,” with a look back at Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4! Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are really rounding into form here, and the characters and supporting cast are becoming more and more fleshed out.

What is it? Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4
Who did it? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
When did it come out? 2003 (revised edition)
What does it collect? Fantastic Four #31-40, Annual #2

Fantastic Four Annual #2 might just be Stan and Jack’s finest work on the series so far

Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4 opens with Fantastic Four Annual #2. It’s a fascinating book. It starts out with a 12 page Dr. Doom origin story in which the Fantastic Four do not appear, except for flashback cameos of Reed and Ben; goes in to a pin-up gallery; then a reprint of issue #5; then another pin-up gallery; then finally, the “feature” story, “The Final Victory of Doctor Doom.”

Let’s talk about “The Fantastic Origin of Doctor Doom.” It’s a masterpiece. This is the story where we are finally introduced to Victor Von Doom’s home country of Latveria, and his rule over it as monarch; his faithful servant Boris; his deep love of his sorcerer mother, who died when he was an infant; the tragic death of his father; the Tibetan monastery where he fashioned his armor; it’s all here. And it’s glorious. I feel confident saying that no other comic book villain had ever received an origin story like this, with such tragedy and pathos; and, it hasn’t really changed, in the 50+ years since. Amazing.

As for Doom’s “Final Victory,” it is of course not that, but it is his best master plan yet (he’s had some kooky ones) with him inviting the FF to a state dinner, turning the FF against each other, and then agreeing to an honourable battle of the minds with Reed; which Reed wins, and Doom will eventually chalk up to trickery (of course). And we are introduced to the concept of Doom’s “diplomatic immunity” for the first time.

The whole thing is brilliant. Well, except maybe for one thing…

Sue is still battling 1960s stereotypes

I should probably stop writing about this, because I suspect it’ll keep popping up in the next, oh, 8-10 volumes… but man, does it suck seeing Sue treated so poorly throughout. In Annual #2, Sue chastises Reed because of an illusion Dr. Doom plants in her head (where she sees Reed kissing another woman); after she snap out of it, she apologizes to Reed, who dismisses her by saying she’s “merely a female” and couldn’t have reacted any differently. Then he doesn’t want to let her fight Dr. Doom in the same issue. Next, the Mole Man takes her hostage in issue #31. Then you might think, hmm, maybe they’ve given up on the Sue-as-hostage trope… but no, the Frightful Four do it again in issue #38. Sigh.

Sue's "just a female" - from Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4
First, Sue’s “merely a female” (from FF Annual #2)…
Sue's one of the team - from Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4
…think Reed gets it now? (from FF Annual #2)
Sue's taken captive again... and again - from Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4
The Mole Man and The Frightful Four didn’t get the memo (from FF #31 and #38)

Speaking of repetitive tropes, Stan and Jack sure do go back to the well a lot

“Sue gets taken hostage” isn’t the only thing that we see over and over and over… and over… again in these early issues. I know it’s easy for me to judge this now, when I’m binge-reading the book as an adult when it was really written for 11-15 year olds who were reading it at most once a month… but then again, the Lee-Kirby FF is hailed as an unending stream of creative genius. I really should’ve been keeping a tally of the amount of times:

  • Sue gets taken hostage (twice in this volume)
  • Ben turns human momentarily, only to turn back in short order (twice in this volume)
  • Johnny’s flame burns out, and Reed has to stretch to save him (twice in this volume)
  • Reed act like a jerk instead of a leader (only once in this volume; he must be mellowing)
  • The FF turn against one another (twice in this volume)

Enough with the Mole Man already

Issue #31 is the Mole Man’s third appearance, and each time, his plot is basically the same (cause some underground calamity that destroys something above ground), the FF go underground to fight him, defeat some monsters, then defeat the Mole Man himself. And the Mole Man is just a sad, pathetic little man, not much of a villain. I think even Stan and Jack got bored with him in this issue; he only appears in 2 panels on the final 8 pages and the FF defeat him, essentially, off-panel. Other than a cameo in Annual #3, he won’t appear again for another 57 issues!

The other villains in this volume fare much better. The Super-Skull returns in issue #32, ultimately causing the death of Franklin Storm, and sending the FF off on a revenge mission to the Skull galaxy in #37; we get Namor and Attuma (in an ultimately forgettable tale in which the FF help Namor defend his throne) in #33; Gideon, one of Stan’s classic offbeat not-really-a-villain villains (who might just be a precursor to Donald Trump; check out the man’s desk!); Diablo, and the brilliant King Kong-like Dragon Man, in issue #35; and finally, the Frightful Four, in issues #36 and #38, who very nearly defeat the FF each time and will menace them again in the next volume.

Oh, and of course, Dr. Doom returns in issues #39-40, for the all-time classic “Battle of the Baxter Building.” This two-parter is tense, fast-paced and fun (even if it has a pretty lame deus ex machina), and culminates in a Thing vs. Doom fight that is one of Jack’s highlight fight sequences.

Real character growth and progression is starting to happen

For the first time we meet a family member from outside the FF proper: Sue and Johnnny’s father, Franklin, and learn more about their backstory: their mother, Mary, was killed in a car accident; Franklin, a famed and brilliant surgeon, was driving, and blamed himself, and his career went off the rails. He got into gambling debt, and killed a loan shark who came to collect. Even though it was self-defence, he allowed himself to convicted of murder because he thought his children were better off without him. Hardly your typical super-hero origin story! Of course, Franklin is killed in this volume, but we see Ben’s fears about leaving Alicia behind, we see Johnny finally mention Dorrie Evans, his girlfriend from Strange Tales, and of course, we finally—FINALLY!—see Reed and Sue get engaged and begin wedding preparations.

This issue also ends on a true cliffhanger, as we see Ben finally succumb to the reality that he’s trapped in the body of a monster and he leaves the FF in a grief-fuelled rage.

—–

There’s no doubt this is the best volume of the FF Masterworks to date, bookended as it is with two all-time classic Dr. Doom stories and the introduction of Dragon Man, the Frightful Four and Johnny and Sue’s father in between. Stan and Jack are truly hitting their stride, and I already know the next volume is going to reach even greater heights!

(Though one has to wonder if anything can top this:)

Ben thinks about joining that other Fab Four - from Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4
Ben thinks about joining that other Fab Four (from FF #34)

Television review: Netflix’s The Punisher

Netflix's The Punisher

I finished up Netflix’s The Punisher the other day, and wanted to put a few thoughts down, because I really enjoyed it. There will be SPOILERS in the following review! So stop here if you haven’t finished watching it yet. Come back later! I won’t be offended.

What is it? The Punisher Season 1 (13-episodes)
Who made it? Netflix; Steve Lightfoot, Executive producer
Who’s in it? Jon Bernthal (The Punisher); Ben Barnes (Billy Russo); Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Micro); Amber Rose Revah (Dinah Madani)
When did it come out? November 2017

Netflix’s The Punisher might be their best Marvel show yet

From top to bottom, I think this is best overall thing Marvel and Netflix have done. Every other Netflix show, with the exception of the much shorter Defenders, has really struggled to hold its story together for 13 episodes. They felt like they all should have been 8-10 episodes. But The Punisher doesn’t. The story is compelling and has enough layers to it to keep it interesting and engaging over the entire run. And it has a truly compelling hook, that of examining the challenges that veterans of combat face integrating back into “regular society” following their service. I mean, that’s not new—we’ve been seeing it since The Deer Hunter and Rambo—but we certainly haven’t seen it in a comic-book based television show, and it’s truly impressive how well thought out this backdrop of veterans dealing with PTSD is.

Now, I’m not saying it’s my favourite Marvel Netflix show—I think at the end of the day, I still found Cage the most entertaining, and Daredevil Season 2 the most thrilling from a comic book fan standpoint—but I think it’s the most well-made. And I think when you factor in the difficulty of translating a character like the Punisher to a television show (or movie), I think Steve Lightfoot and his team deserve a ton of credit—this show is really good.

… but is it really a Punisher show?

The thing is though… this interpretation of the Punisher doesn’t really have much basis in the comic book character. (At least in my view of the Punisher through the years.) Frank Castle came back from Vietnam a broken man and then his family was killed and it shattered him, never to be put back together again. He’s a remorseless, relentless killing machine who has no desire to stop putting bad guys in the ground. Yet in this show, we see him trying to escape his life of violence right in the beginning. He shows a gentle side, a family man side, with Micro’s family (and even Micro himself) and especially Karen Page that I don’t think the (comic book) Punisher really has; he doesn’t make human connections like that. Netflix Frank Castle doesn’t even reclaim the Punisher mantle until episode 11; and even in the second last episode, when it seems like he leaves his memory of his dead wife behind and accepts his life of violence… he comes back from that edge at the end of the last episode. (He even lets Billy Russo live, which I don’t think the Punisher would ever do.)

So with all of that in mind, I don’t really think of this character as the same one I see in the comics. He’s not really the Punisher. But… I’m OK with it. In fact I love the choices they made. Because I honestly wasn’t sure I wanted to watch 13 episodes of an unsympathetic character like Frank Castle. What would be the point? Comic book Frank Castle has no real character arc; there is no coming back for him, there is no growth for him. That would be difficult to do on TV. And although it doesn’t ring true to the comic book character, the final scene is truly fantastic, and it could only have been done with this version of the character.

The cast is excellent…

I would also say, expressionless killing machine Frank Castle would be a waste of Jon Bernthal’s talents. He is really great in this show. I wasn’t a big of his on The Walked Dead, but looking back, maybe that’s because his character was such a dick. Here he shows the range complete from loving and caring father figure to… well, to expressionless killing machine, when he has to. He was a great choice for the role in Daredevil and he erased any doubts anyone may have had about him carrying his own show. Meanwhile the supporting cast is also damn good. Ben Barnes almost veers into snarling villain territory a couple times, but the conflicted soldier who still holds the bonds of brotherhood is still there. Ebon Moss-Bachrach is perfect as the frantic, nebbishy Micro, who’s uncomfortable with guns and killing but willing to let Frank do the dirty work. He also manages to balance the line where he’s the nerdy tech guy, but he’s also not a coward—he did a lot of brave things to protect his family, and his anguish at seeing them suffer without him is true. Daniel Webber is great as Lewis, the vet who goes off the rails, and Jason R. Moore provides a strong, steady hand as Curtis, Frank’s confidant.

And how about the recurring guest roles? You’ve got C. Thomas Howell, Shohreh Aghdashloo, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio—a great range of character actors. You’ve also Deborah Ann Wall reprising her role as Karen Page, and she’s joined by Rob Morgan and Royce Johnson as Turk and Officer Mahoney, respectively.

… but Amber Rose Revah’s Dinah Madani is the weak link

All right, so part of this is on the character; Madani is often clueless and seems to make one bad decision (or non-decision) after another. (Example: why she didn’t call for backup/first aid during the raid in episode 8 until Stein was stabbed (and all the bad guys were dead or escaped)? About 10 other officers were shot before that!) She’s also a terrible cop (how the heck did she manage to get herself shot in the last episode after sneaking up on two guys hell-bent on beating the shit out of each other?) Meanwhile, there were just a few too many scenes that Amber Rose Revah drifted through with a blank stare. Maybe that was the character, maybe that was the actor, I don’t know. But I thought the character left a lot to be desired.

The show seems to have an odd relationship with the violence it portrays

The show’s only real misstep was in the gun debate that spanned episodes 9-10. It seemed out of place in a show where the main character’s claim to fame is his proficiency with guns, and how many people he’s killed with them. It was also presented so lightly, that it did the entire debate disservice; this isn’t something that can or should be debated in three scenes of a television show. It was also, frankly, one-sided; pro-gun Karen is a character we know and love, whereas pro-gun-control Senator Ori exists only to (weakly) present the other side. What was the point? And the thing is, the debate seemed out of place in the context of the show; the character who sparked it, Lewis, was using bombs, not guns, in his attacks. That was a potentially interesting debate—at one point, Frank says he hates bombs and prefers guns—but it wasn’t really followed up on.

—–

All of that said I highly recommend Netflix’s The Punisher to comic book fans and action fans. It’s violent—gruesomely so, at times—so it’s not for everyone. But I think it’s got a compelling narrative, a great cast, and some fantastic action pieces.

Review: Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 3

Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 3

My Fantastic Four re-read continues with Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 3! There are some definite ups and downs in this volume, with fun crossovers but overly wordy action scenes.

What is it? Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 3
Who did it? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
When did it come out? 2003 (revised edition)
What does it collect? The Fantastic Four #21-30 (1963-1964)

These are good issues, but creatively they suffer a bit

Around issues #25-26, Jack’s art drops off quite a bit. Faces aren’t consistent, the linework isn’t as detailed, figure poses are a bit awkward. Meanwhile, Stan’s dialogue and captions get wordier and wordier, and become a bit of a slog to read;  it gets to a point where he’s often describing (or has characters themselves describe) in detail exactly what you can see in the art. Even in the middle of fight scenes! Which robs them of their intensity. But, no wonder these two titans were suffering! In the May 1964 publishing month, Jack drew FF #26, Avengers #5, X-Men #5, Journey in Mystery (Thor) #104, Sgt. Fury #7, and the Human Torch story in Strange Tales #120. Stan wrote all of those plus Amazing Spider-Man, Tales to Astonish (Ant-Man), Tales of Suspense (Iron Man), Kid Colt, Two Gun Kid and Millie the Model. It’s amazing these two didn’t burn out completely.

The “soap opera” elements continue to be highlights

At various points in this volume we see Ben and Alicia nearly break up (because neither of them thinks they’re worthy of the others’ love); Reed buy an engagement ring for Sue, only to doubt her feelings over Sub-Mariner; Sue finally choose between Reed and Namor, but still leaving Reed unsure; the team complain about Reed’s leadership; Ben and Johnny bickering; the public admire Sue as a sex symbol; Ben tussle with the Yancy Street Gang; and more. These moments really help humanize these characters, and I often find myself breezing through the action scenes, hoping to get back to more “down time” with the characters. The early Stan Lee-Steve Ditko Spider-Man issues were the same way; Stan clearly had a gift for balancing these soap opera moments with traditional comic book storytelling!

The Marvel Universe really expands in this volume

Let’s see, we get Nick Fury in issue #21, the Hulk in #25, the Avengers in #26, Dr. Strange in #27 and the X-Men in #28. Stan and Jack were fully embracing the idea that all of these characters existed in the same universe! (Of course, having the X-Men or Dr. Strange guest star in the most popular title surely couldn’t hurt sales of those books, right?) The Avengers and FF getting in each others’ way while battling the Hulk is totally goofy, but entertaining; the fight with the X-Men is a little more successful as an action set piece (although I could have done without them kidnapping Sue, which continues to happen all too often).

The Hate-Monger story is a doozy

Reading the first few pages of issue #21 is an uncomfortable experience; the hatred, racism and bigotry hits a little too close to home here in 2017. If only we could blame it all on a reincarnated Adolf Hitler and a hate ray… anyway, this story establishes that Nick Fury is still around in the then-current Marvel Universe, and that he’s working for the CIA, which is all the background needed to turn him into the director of SHIELD in a couple of years.

Stan and Jack finally give Sue more power

Presumably responding (again) to the criticism that Sue didn’t bring much to the team, Stan and Jack considerably upped her power levels in issue #22. Now, in addition to her ability to turn invisible, she can turn other people and objects invisible (though not at the same time as herself, a caveat that would fade away over time) and she can generate invisible forcefields. Naturally, she puts these abilities to use in this very issue against the Mole Man, preventing him from activating his doomsday device with a forcefield, and then protecting her teammates from a radioactive wall with another forcefield. All told this was a welcome addition to Sue’s character; no, she’s not defined by her powers, but it allows her role within the team to expand significantly. Of course, they still had her get kidnapped by Namor in #27 and the X-Men in #28. Sigh.

—–

Although at times I found this volume a chore to read thanks to Stan’s verbosity, it was still entertaining. Now on to Volume 4, which features (among other things) the origin of Dr. Doom!

Review: Batman/The Flash: The Button Deluxe Edition

Batman/The Flash: The Button

Before I read Doomsday Clock #1, I figured I should read Batman/Flash: The Button, the crossover that preceded it (and bridged the gap from DC: Rebirth #1). Luckily, it went on sale last week as part of DC’s Black Friday digital sale—some damn good timing there!

What is it? Batman/The Flash: The Button Deluxe Edition
Who did it? Joshua Williamson, Tom King, Jason Fabok and Howard Porter
When did it come out? 2017
What does it collect? Batman (Rebirth) #21-22, The Flash (Rebirth #21-22

Batman/The Flash: The Button is ultimately a disappointing read…

There are some really cool things about this book, that I’ll get to… unfortunately, I’m not sure what the point of this story really is. The Reverse-Flash gets resurrected… only to be killed again. Jay Garrick, the original Flash, returns… only to disappear again. And they lose the titular button, without ever finding out anything about it, other than it has an odd reaction to Psycho Pirate’s mask. I get that they’re trying to save all the good stuff for Doomsday Clock… but give us something!

… and I’m not even sure what relevance this story has to Doomsday Clock

At least not yet. It sure seems like the only thing this story accomplishes is returning the button to the Watchmen universe, or at the very least, the hands of Dr. Manhattan. Which in itself is kinda weird… presumably it was Manhattan who resurrected the Reverse-Flash to retrieve it for him, and kills him after he does? He’s “God,” though—surely he could have just grabbed it himself? And as I said earlier, Batman and Flash learn virtually nothing, and lose the button. So I dunno. Hopefully we’ll learn that the story, or at least the button itself, has more relevance in Doomsday Clock.

Thomas Wayne’s message for Bruce almost makes the story worth it

This is by far the best part of the story—that Bruce Wayne briefly meets his father, the Batman of the Flashpoint universe (and the guy who originally killed the Reverse-Flash). Thomas Wayne has a message for Bruce: To give up being Batman, to live life, to be a father to his son Damian, to be happy. And at the end of the story Bruce is actually considering it. So many people, from Alfred to Leslie Tompkins to Selina Kyle, have implored Bruce to do the same, and he never does… but of course, his father saying it makes him think twice. It’s a moment that really works. And I’m definitely curious to see how it plays out from here.

The Batman vs. Reverse Flash fight is the highlight sequence of the book

The story starts with a bang—Batman examines the button, then the Reverse Flash appears and spends one minute brutally beating Bruce (though Bruce briefly gets the upper hand, because, hey, he’s Batman). It takes up almost the entirety of the first issue and it’s done in the familiar Watchmen-esque nine panel grid. Batman knows he only has to survive the one minute—that’s when The Flash will arrive—and he barely makes it. It’s a brutal sequence, brilliantly choreographed, and a small countdown clock in the corner only heightens the tension.

The art throughout is pretty damn solid

I’ve been a Howard Porter fan since his JLA days, and I know not everyone was a fan back then, but I’m pleased to see how he’s grown and his style evolved over the years. He’s also inking himself now so I feel like this is a more pure Howard Porter experience. and it doesn’t disappoint. That splash page where Jay Garrick returns is wonderful. Meanwhile, Jason Fabok (who handles the Batman side of the crossover) is one of the best artists in the DC stable right now. Batman is one of only two books I’ve been reading since Rebirth (Wonder Woman being the other) and he’s a big part of the reason why.

—–

Having read Doomsday Clock #1 I can say that the button doesn’t feature at all in that first issue, except in a teaser at the end where it appears to be in the hands of Lex Luthor. So its fate remains unknown… for now. As for this story, I recommend it if you’re up for the cool sequences noted above (and can grab it for cheap); but if you’re looking for some deep connective tissue between Rebirth #1 and Doomsday Clock, you’ll probably be disappointed (especially if you have to pay full price for it).

Review: Doomsday Clock #1

Doomsday Clock #1

I can’t remember the last time I bought a single, physical issue of a comic book. Age of Ultron, maybe? Regardless, the buzz around Doomsday Clock, DC’s maybe-sequel to Watchmen that maybe integrates the Watchmen universe with the DC Universe, inspired me to visit Silver Snail on New Comic Book Day last week to get a copy of Doomsday Clock #1 for myself.

Here are my thoughts (minor spoilers where noted):

What is it? Doomsday Clock #1
Who did it? Geoff Johns and Gary Frank
When did it come out? November 22, 2017

Doomsday Clock #1 exceeded my expectations

I’ve mostly enjoyed the comics I’ve read by Geoff Johns; some I’ve loved, in fact. And I like Gary Frank. In fact, I am a huge fan of the work those two did together on Superman. That, combined with the positive early buzz, set my expectations for this book pretty high! And it exceeded them thoroughly. It’s gorgeous. It’s written in such a way that is more than homage to Watchmen, and that could have easily derailed it, looking like a copy or a mockery… but it actually works. It put my right back into that universe. And the story drops you in the middle of a crisis (that I won’t spoil) and then tension is ratcheted up, and you really feel it. Furthermore, much like Watchmen #1, enough hints of several mysteries are dropped that you definitely want to read what’s coming next.

I probably shouldn’t love the overt Watchmen homages, but I do

That this is a continuation of Watchmen is right in your face; much like Dr. Manhattan’s giant blue penis in the big-screen adaptation, you can’t miss it. The cover layout is the same. The cover acting as the first panel of the story is there. The nine-panel grid, of course. The lettering and fonts, the colors, the titles, the quote at the end… the end pieces! I mean, this should feel hokey, or cheap, but… it just doesn’t. It works.

Let’s talk about Rorschach

(SPOILERS IN THIS SECTION)

It’s not a spoiler to say that Rorschach appears in this comic, since he’s all over the previews. But (another SPOILER ALERT, in case you ain’t paying attention) this isn’t the same Rorschach that we saw in Watchmen. It would appear that Walter Kovacs was indeed, annihilated in the snow by Dr. Manhattan, and another gentleman—an African-American gentleman—has taken up the role. It’s not clear why, or how he got the mask, but he’s clearly a bit… deranged, like the original. He has peculiar eating habits (likes his syrup, apparently), is oddly forgetful, lives in his car… yeah, he’s got issues. It’ll be interesting to see if he’s someone we know; as far as I can recall, the only black characters in the original Watchmen (Rorschach’s psychiatrist and Bernie the newsstand boy) were killed when the creature materialized in New York. (Although looking at those pages now… it’s possible young Bernie was shielded enough by old Bernie to survive…) (END SPOILERS)

I’m not up on current DC continuity, such as it is…

… so I was surprised to learn that, in the current DCU, Clark Kent’s adoptive parents were killed in a car crash when he was 18. I was even more surprised to learn that I had, in fact, read the stories where that continuity change was introduced: Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run. (That should tell you how much that run stuck with me… man, what a disappointment that was after Morrison’s brilliant All-Star Superman.) Clark’s nightmare about their death clearly means that night ties into this story somehow (assuming of course, Johns and Frank follow the track of the original Watchmen, where every panel and page meant something). Are we meant to think that continuity change happened because Dr. Manhattan manipulated the DCU? Or is it even more sinister than that? Can’t wait to find out!

I don’t want to get my hopes up too far

This issue did remind me of the first issue of Infinite Crisis, another Geoff Johns book that was a sequel to a legendary 1980s comic (Crisis on Infinite Earths). And I loved that first issue as well; I loved the ideas it presented (that the DC heroes had gotten away from what made them special), why it needed to tie into the original Crisis (the purpose of that event was to “clean up” the DC Universe and get their characters back to basics) and the way it brought back the original Earth-2 Superman and Lois and the Earth-Prime Superboy. It all worked! Unfortunately it fell apart by the end of the series. Editorial changes and delays plagued the book and the ending felt hollow. Let’s hope the follow through is better on this one.

—–

So the question is: Will I end up going to the comic shop next month to get Doomsday Clock #2? Will I settle for a digital copy? Or wait until the inevitable collected edition? Time will tell…

Review: Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four Volume 2

Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 2

I continue my Fantastic Four re-read and review with a few thoughts on Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 2!

What is it? Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 2
Who did it? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
When did it come out? 2003 (revised edition)
What does it collect? The Fantastic Four #11-20 and Annual #1 (1963)

Issue #13 is Stan and Jack at the height of their zaniness—and brilliance

There is so much crammed into this issue! First, you have the FF being the first humans to walk on the moon (using an experimental drive Reed just whipped up from a meteor, NBD). Then the Russians being right behind them. Oh, and not only that—the Russians deliberately flew a copycat of the FF’s first spaceflight, in the hopes of gaining similar powers! That’s a brilliant idea from Stan and Jack, co-opting the space race into a super-powers race. Hey, and did I mention the Russian crew was one man and three apes? Yep. How about the Watcher? Yes, this is the first appearance of the “man in the moon” who watches over us. There’s also the little mystery of the “blue area” of the moon—an ancient city abandoned eons ago by some spacefaring race.

I only recently caught on to the “giant, floating Dr. Doom” cover trend

On the cover of his first appearance, a giant Dr. Doom looms over the FF on a view screen. In his next two appearances he’s on equal ground with the FF, but on the cover of #16, a giant Dr. Doom looks at a miniature FF in a magnifying glass. And thus the trend is born: Dr. Doom appearing far larger than the FF, either looming over the background or dominating the foreground. Look at the covers to #23, 39, 57, 84, 86 and Annual #2—giant Dr. Doom looms over the FF in each! And that’s only during the Stan and Jack days; future artists like Rich Buckler (#144), John Buscema (#198), John Byrne (#247, 259, 278), Ron Frenz (#320), Walt Simonson (#350) and Paul Ryan (#361) would all do the same. It’s a pretty awesome through line for  30+ years of Dr. Doom appearances!

The Thing’s gradual transition from angry to grumpy to lovably grumpy is so heartwarming

I’m not sure what prompted the change from Stan and Jack, but over the course of these issues, you can really see the shift in Ben’s personality. He’s not just angry all the time anymore, and before long, he actually starts joking around, using more slang and contractions, being joyfully dismissive of the Torch instead of annoyed by the Torch… basically he’s on the road to becoming the Thing we know and love. Johnny even comments in 17 you’re turning into Bob Hope! (Storywise, although I’m not sure this was Stan and Jack’s intent, you could very easily pinpoint this change on Ben’s relationship with Alicia.) Another gradual transition: The Thing’s appearance, from one big “lumpy” rock to a hide of sharply defined rocks. Check him out on the cover to #18; that’s pretty much how Jack would go on to draw him for years.

Stan and Jack’s treatment of Sue Storm ranges from progressive to medieval

In issue #11, Stan and Jack seem to be talking directly to the readers when the FF answer fan mail from fans who don’t think Sue contributes to the team’s adventures. Reed and Ben angrily defend her and Stan and Jack illustrate her value by recalling issues #2 and #5. All seems good! But then look at this panel in the very next issue:

Sue Storm from Fantastic Four #12

I mean, yikes.

Fantastic Four Annual #1 is the highlight of this volume

Issues #16 (featuring Dr. Doom and another brilliant, zany idea: The Microworld) and #18 (featuring the Super-Skrull) are both great; full of action and new characters. But it’s Annual #1 that closes this volume out, and it’s a corker: The Sub-Mariner has finally found Atlantis and reclaimed his throne; the history of Atlantis and Sub-Mariner’s origin is recounted (at the United Nations, no less!) and Atlantis declares war on the surface world. Yet even as Reed pushes back the invasion with an invention, Namor’s love of Sue Storm causes friction in his ranks, and his troops—and entire kingdom—abandon him. It’s a poignant climax that leaves you feeling pity for Namor for perhaps the first time. Meanwhile the backup story features an expanded version of the FF’s encounter with Spider-Man from Amazing Spider-Man #1; and the whole issue features pin-ups, diagrams and more. It’s truly a great package. Undoubtedly worth the 25 cents it would have cost in 1963!

—–

Next week we’ll move into the FF’s third year with Marvel Masterworks Volume 3, featuring the team’s first meetings with the Avengers and the X-Men!

Top Five: 1990s Marvel Comics

1990s Marvel Comics

A few weeks back on one of the comic book-related sites I visit, some of the guys were discussing their favourite 1990s Marvel comics. As you may know, the 1990s were not exactly a high point for quality comics; stylized art, big guns, big shoulders and big boobs were what seemed to sell, and variant covers and special bagged issues with trading cards and other gimmicks ruled the stands. Still, I read a lot of comics, so some of them must’ve been OK… right?

I think so. Here are five 1990s Marvel comics I enjoyed from 1991-1998 when Marvel, in my mind, righted its ship. (Note—I’m only considering ongoing titles, rather than mini-series like Marvels).

Namor, the Sub-Mariner by John Byrne (1990-1992)

This series didn’t look like much when it came out. Sub-Mariner, in his own comic? Even with John Byrne at the helm, didn’t seem like Namor was really a character that could carry his own book. And maybe he couldn’t, really, since Byrne filled it with guest stars! But either way, this was and is an excellent read, and some of Byrne’s best art in the 1990s. Byrne brought a lot to the character – while he’s often known for his “back to the basics” approach, it seemed to me that here, he was firmly taking Namor into the 1990s (they even declared it on the cover!), in bringing him out of the water, starting up a business, curing his “rages,” and having him fight for environmental causes.

The New Warriors by Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley (1990-1992)

Man, did I love these stories! They’re pretty dated now—they’re very 1990s, and the dialogue is… well, it’s tough to read sometimes. But the 25 issues by Nicieza and Bagley are super-fun, they did a solid job capturing what it must be like to be a late teen with super-powers, and they dealt with some very real consequences too; the story where Marvel Boy loses control of his powers and mortally injures his abusive father is—while very comic-booky—still very affecting.

Fantastic Four by Tom DeFalco and Paul Ryan (1991-1996)

I’ll admit I haven’t re-read these issues since they came out. So I have no idea if they hold up. But, I was not a fan of Walt Simonson’s run on the title (that preceded the DeFalco-Ryan run) or the end of Steve Englehart’s run (that preceded Simonson) so DeFalco’s back to the basics approach, alongside Ryan’s solid, workmanlike illustration, was just what I needed. (Also, their first issue featured the aforementioned New Warriors. So that was a good start!) Sure, they did some of the most 1990s things ever—they had the Human Torch lose his mind, had Wolverine slice up the Thing’s face, put Sue in a skimpy costume and “killed” Reed—but I remember eagerly awaiting each next issue to see what was going to happen!

Avengers by Bob Harras and Steve Epting (1991-1994)

Ah, the forgotten era of Avengers! This run is, again, pretty 1990s—it’s got fancy foil covers, the Avengers started wearing jackets with straps and pockets all over them—but it’s entertaining and enjoyable. The highlight is the “Gatherers” story, that runs for about 2.5 years; it actually starts right before the most 1990s Avengers crossover ever, Galactic Storm. In Avengers #343-344, the Swordsman seemingly comes back from the dead, clamouring for revenge. But all is not as it seems; as the story unfolds (on and off) over the next 30 issues of Avengers, we learn Swordsman’s from an alternate dimension, where the Avengers—specifically, Sersi—destroyed the world. And he’s got friends too – alternate dimension versions of various Avengers – and they’re led by the mysterious Proctor. Maybe this doesn’t quite reach the pantheon of great Avengers stories, but it’s well worth a read and I look forward to it finally being collected, one day!

Thunderbolts by Kurt Busiek, Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley (1997-2001)

This series… I mean, it’s been 20 years and I still can’t believe that they managed to keep the ending of the first issue a secret! Everyone knows the gig by now, about how the newest super-hero team, The Thunderbolts, turned out to be villains in disguise. And about how Marvel eventually took the series away and ran in a different direction—twice. But those first 50 issues, plus Avengers cross-overs and annuals, are excellent. They’re straight-up page turners, and you never know what’s going to happen next. And the characters ring completely true, in how acting the hero changes each of them over time.

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A few honorable mentions: Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America run; David Michelinie’s Amazing Spider-Man run (this was hard to leave off the list); and Kurt Busiek’s Untold Tales of Spider-Man, which, truthfully, might be the best comic on this list, but was so hard to find in the 1990s thanks to its minuscule print runs, that I didn’t actually read most of it until the omnibus came out a few years ago.

Anywho, that’s 1990s Marvel Comics for you. I didn’t read much DC in those days, so that would be a much shorter list! Pretty much just Ron Marz’ Green Lantern, starring Kyle Rayner, and Grant Morrison’s JLA. Tough times for DC in the 90s!

Review: Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four Volume 1

Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four V1

Continuing my Fantastic Four Fridays, I’ve decided to (try to!) go back and actually read the entire Fantastic Four run (of volume 1, anyway) from the beginning. I have no idea if I’ll actually complete this—I know slogging through the 100s will be tough—or how long it’ll take, even if I do finish it! But let’s give it a shot. I’ll be reading this in the Masterworks format, so let’s start at the beginning…

What is it? Fantastic Four Masterworks Volume 1
Who did it? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
When did it come out? 2003 (revised edition)
What does it collect? The Fantastic Four #1-10 (1961-1962)

The characters are fully formed right from the start

Sure, they’re fairly thin in the first couple issues; Johnny’s the hothead, the Thing is angry, Reed is steady, Sue is the mom, etc. But they’re consistent throughout these 10 issues. Reed and Johnny would be immediately recognizable today. Sue has obviously evolved significantly as society has become more egalitarian; in these early issues, she’s often little more than a hostage. But I’d say it’s The Thing that is the most different; for one thing, no one calls him Ben when he’s in his orange, rocky form; the rest of the team refers to each other by their first names regularly, but Ben is only ever The Thing. Which I found so… odd? Cold? Dehumanizing? And he’s just grumpy all the time—understandably so, given his situation, but he is definitely not the lovable Ben Grimm he would grow into. And yet, even so, the introduction of Alicia Masters in issue #8 sets him immediately apart from the rest of the team, as he’s actually the first team member to have some semblance of life outside the team.

The complexity of Alicia Masters is incredibly impressive

Alicia is by far the most unusual and unique recurring character introduced here. The complex relationship with her stepfather, the Puppet Master, is unusual for the time, as is, obviously her relationship with The Thing. And the fact that she’s blind is one of those strokes of pure brilliance; you’re left to wonder if she only loves the Thing because she’s blind and can’t see his hideous face, or if she loves him because her blindness allows her to see through his exterior to the person inside. (Also, make note of her “Is it you… you’re different…” comment when The Thing turns back into Ben Grimm… followed by her “Oh, it is you, the same wonderful man” as soon as he turns back into The Thing. John Byrne would pick up on this moment, tragically, years later.) And the relationship blossoms immediately; she first appears in issue #8, and then Ben is seen spending time with her in each of the next two issues.

These issues are relatively crude by the standards Stan and Jack would go on to set

That’s not to say there aren’t standout issues and brilliant ideas to be found. I mentioned Alicia’s appearance in issue #8. Returning Namor, the Sub-Mariner to prominence in issue #4 was another stroke of genius; notable here were both his “villain but not really” status, as well as the romantic was the dynamic introduced between him and Sue, and Reed as well. In issue #6 we get the first “super-villain team up” as Dr. Doom and Namor launch the Baxter Building into space; here, we get an even better since of who Namor really is when he realizes Doom is a true villain. In issue #2, shapeshifting alien Skrulls were petty cool on their own, but this issue stands out by showing us the first “world hates and fears superheroes” story, a staple that Stan and Jack would go back to again and again (Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men). And how about the Fantastic Four living in New York City, rather than a made-up locale, as established in issue #3? And going broke in issue #9? All brilliant ideas. But all of that said: There’s a sort of goofiness in some of the plots (Blackbeard?) and Kirby’s art is nowhere near as refined as it would soon become.

Dr. Doom and the Sub-Mariner obviously made quite an impression

Namor appears in issue 4; Dr. Doom first appears in issue #5. They team up in issue #6. Namor returns in issue #9, and Doom returns in issue #10. In other words, they’re the antagonists in half of these issues! Stan and Jack may have been winging it, but they clearly knew when something they created struck a nerve. It’s also interesting to note just how steeped these early issues are in the monster-comic era; the FF fight giant monsters in issue 1, 3, 4 and 9, and monstrous aliens in issue 2 and 7.

Dr. Doom’s first appearance is a bit… underwhelming

There are hints of the Dr. Doom we’d come to fear and respect in his debut issue: his college connection with Reed, his robot double, his ostentatious castle, his obsession with black magic and desire for the mystical gems of Merlin (found, oddly, in Blackbeard’s treasure chest). (I’m also a big fan of his tiger enforcer/sidekick!) But you gotta wonder: he’s smart enough to develop a working time machine and this is best plan he can come up with? I dunno man. And Reed, Ben and Johnny’s trip to the past is completely hokey, as is Reed’s “we’ll just bring back an empty chest!” trick. (Next issue, his plan to launch the Baxter Building into space is much more Doom-like.) I will give this issue credit for this, though; the Thing wants to stay behind in the past because he’s feared and respected in his make-believe role as Blackbeard. He eventually realizes his error, but note how, just three issues later, Stan and Jack give him a reason to alter his viewpoint: Alicia.

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I can’t imagine what it must have been like to read these comics in 1961. There are a ton of bold new ideas here, and refinements of older concepts, that had never been seen before. And for the most part they still hold up as fun, entertaining comics today!

Movie review: Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok's Cate Blanchett

Took in a screening of Thor: Ragnarok over the weekend, and wanted to share a few thoughts:

It’s good! (But come on. Not that good)

It’s currently 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and has gotten rave reviews. But I didn’t find it worthy of quite that much praise. Yes, it’s fun, entertaining, the action scenes are solid and the performances are great. And that’s all I ask for in a movie! But it’s a formula film. It’s incredibly similar to Guardians of the Galaxy, trying to mix the humor with the space-faring zaniness. It ends with a “heroes vs. giant CGI army of nameless, faceless foes” which we’ve seen way too many times now (Iron Man 2, Avengers, Iron Man 3, The Dark World, Age of Ultron, Days of Future Past…). It had some great twists—Odin dying, Thor losing Mjolnir (and an eye). Some great moments —the Thor-Hulk battle, Thor channeling the lightning. The plot, dialogue, directing—all just fine. Overall it’s a very entertaining, fun and enjoyable two hours to spend at the movies. But I’m not ready to crown it.

It was funny, but, maybe it tried too hard to be funny?

I get that Marvel’s trying to balance out the tone in its films; you’ve got your Captain America films, which seem to be very serious; Iron Man and the latest Spider-Man, which are kinda wise-crack-y; Guardians and Ant-Man which were more outright comedies. Thor was always kinda lost. (As was Hulk, and part of the reason I think they never made another Hulk movie; and I think Dr. Strange too.) I’m not sure outright comedy was the way to go. I would have leaned more to the serious side; Thor, in the comics, was always very serious and I think Cap could have used another more serious franchise to balance it out.

Also I think the film should have been a little more careful not to make fun of super-heroes. It’s a fine line, and they crossed it a couple times, most notably with the incredibly predictable “Banner jumps out of the plane but doesn’t turn into the Hulk” bit.

I think the CGI Hulk is finally there

It’s been a long, slow process. The Ang Lee Hulk was definitely too cartoony. The Ed Norton Hulk was better, but still a little “off” in his movements. Avengers Hulk was much, much better but he still felt… flimsy? Like, he moved too softly and quickly to be the most powerful being on the planet, you know? This Hulk, in addition to having the best facial expressions of all, felt (mostly) big and powerful. There were a couple times he still moved too fast (think of an elephant or a rhino; they just can’t move that much mass that quickly) but overall—they nailed it.

The cast is uniformly excellent

Not a single weak link in the this one. Hemsworth has come into his own as an actor, and, even though I cold have used a less comedic bent to the film, kudos to the filmmakers for recognizing his comedic gifts. Mark Ruffalo and Tessa Thompson were excellent; Ruffalo’s franticness at becoming Banner, two years and a galaxy removed from the last time we saw him, was picture perfect. Thomson plays disaffected, then interested, then all-in very well. Tom Hiddleston simply owns that role as Loki now; he looks utterly comfortable in it. Jeff Goldblum is, well, Jeff Goldblum. And Cate Blanchett looks to be relishing every minute of her villainous turn. I would have liked to have seen more rom Karl Urban as Skurg, but, you can’t have everything!

Over the course of three movies, Thor actually had a real character arc

It’s easy to overlook this, because the first two Thor movies aren’t that memorable (I personally really liked the first one, though I hated the second) but Thor has gone on a real character-defining journey through his three films. He starts out, if you’ll recall, about to be named king at the beginning of Thor. But then he chooses to run off and fight the Frost Giants, breaking Odin’s trust and getting banished until he can learn some humility. Which he does, by willing to sacrifice himself for his friends and admitting that he still has a lot to learn to be king. Which he spends the Avengers and The Dark World doing, finally getting his chance to ascend to the throne at the end of that film; and he turns it down, again understanding that he’s not yet ready. In this one, he learns that Odin had to make tough choices as king—achieve rule through bloodshed, than banish his own daughter. Thor then has to make equally tough choices—sacrifice Asgard itself to save his people (and losing an eye). And that’s what makes him worthy to be king, finally.

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I have admit, I’m much more looking forward to the next two Marvel movies—Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War than I was to Thor: Ragnarok. Early trailers for Black Panther look awesome, and—though I’m skeptical that Infinity War will live up to the hype, with its dozens of main characters—finally getting the Thanos payoff will, hopefully, be worth the wait.

The Fantastic Four: A few highlights from my collection

The Fantastic Four "Galactus Trilogy"

This is three Fridays in a row blogging about The Fantastic Four. I might have to start calling these Fantastic Four Fridays! Today I wanted to take a look through my collection and share a few memories about actual issues that I’ve bought. My previous posts were about why I enjoy the Fantastic Four, and my history of reading Fantastic Four comics… today it’s about collecting them.

The three issues of the “Galactus Trilogy” are the most important in my entire collection

Featuring the first appearances of Galactus and the Silver Surfer, you can’t go wrong with Fantastic Four #48-50. I acquired #49 first, around 1990, at 1,000,000 Comix at South Common Mall in Mississauga. It was $19; that was definitely a couple of weeks worth of allowance, and (by far) the most I’d ever paid for a comic at the time, but even in its pretty beat up condition, I felt (still do!) it was a bargain. I remember seeing it up on the wall, behind the counter, and thinking, wow, I gotta get that! And just hoping it would still be there when I’d saved enough to get it. Thankfully it was. #50 was a 16th birthday present from my friend Ali, without a doubt a very thoughtful and considerate gift. Ali was not a huge comic book reader so I have no idea how he knew how much I coveted these silver age FFs or how he knew I needed this one, or if he knew how important this issue was… and I am certain it wasn’t cheap. By condition alone he definitely paid more than the $19 I paid for #49. Thanks Ali!

Fantastic Four #48 was my “holy grail” for many years

I acquired #48 many years after #49 and #50 – in 2004 to be exact, at FanExpo in Toronto, on the Sunday. Every year at FanExpo I looked for an affordable copy; I could never find one that I felt was the right price for the condition. In 2004 I’d decided I wasn’t going to do FanExpo again as the crowds and general mismanagement of the event had exasperated me for the last time, so on the Sunday I said if this is it, I’d better get my copy of FF #48 now. The vendor was selling this for $130. I tried to talk him down to $100 as that was my (self-imposed) limit; I got him down to $110 and he wouldn’t budge further, so, close enough! I very much felt like I’d acquired the holy grail. The first appearance of The Silver Surfer! And Galactus! And it was mine at last: The “Galactus Trilogy” complete.

Fantastic Four #15 remains the oldest comic book I own…

…but I’m not sure it counts because it’s missing pages. If my memory serves me right, I bought this one at the Toronto Comics and Sequential Art show in 1991. It was clearly in rough shape—I wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise—but I didn’t realize it was missing pages until I got home of course. Incredible bummer. And shitty to have to think about replacing it one day, ‘cause it ain’t gonna be cheap! (If you don’t want to count FF #15, as my oldest FF, then the honor goes to FF #22, another one-time birthday gift from Ali!)

Collecting today isn’t quite the same as it was 25 years ago

Before the internet, and before the days of collected editions, back issues were the only way to read these stories. So if you were missing an issue—like, say, issue #85, the second part of the Doctor Doom story from issues #84-87, you had no alternative way of catching up other than hoping you found the issue at a local comic shop. (That story, where the FF “invade” Doom’s home country of Latveria, remains one of my all-time favorite. I acquired #84, #86, and #87 early on, but it took me years to get #85 and get the full scoop on Dr. Doom’s killer robots!). I would guess about half of my Fantastic Four collection came from me spending my weekly allowance at 1,000,000 Comix; the other half comes from the various other local shops (Grey Legion at Square One mall; Grey Region/3rd Quadrant on Queen Street and Yonge Street; Altered States in Clarkson; Dragon Lady on Queen; and of course, the Silver Snail) and then the local conventions. You never knew what you might find, in what condition, for what price. Nowadays it’s much easier to search eBay or one of the online sellers to find what you need. And even the local shops have a social media presence that can give you a heads-up when back issues come in!

Although I’m down on Facebook, I wouldn’t be writing this post without it

I follow the comic shop closest to me, Paradise Comics, on Facebook. When they acquired a massive collection of Silver Age books over the summer, they shared photos of it on Facebook; that’s what renewed my interest in my own Fantastic Four collection and brought this wave of FF nostalgia forward. A few weeks later they posted about their back to school sale, and that’s what made me go visit them and buy a few of those old FFs! I bought about 20 issues, most notably Annual #1 (July 1963, which now that I think about it is actually older than the aforementioned #22). Now that I had the bug, and the gaps on the checklist were getting smaller, I set out to find a few more issues online, and bought about 20 more, including the first appearances of Ronan the Accuser and Warlock, from issues #65-67, which I’ve long worried would be out of my price range, for a decent price. I did have to pay more than I would have liked for issue #112 (July 1971), which features a Hulk vs. Thing fight and always seems to go for premium prices. All told though – I now have every issue from #31 (October 1964) through to the end of volume 1, including every annual and Giant-Size special.

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That means that I only need to acquire 28 issues of Fantastic Four to have a complete run (well, and aother copy of #15)—. Of course, they’re the most difficult to find and most expensive issues. Paradise had a copy of issue #1, in poor condition, for $5,000. I spend a lot of money on books and comics and toys, but spending that much on one thing… I can’t even imagine. But maybe one day!!