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)

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: 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!

Fantastic Four: A Personal Recollection

Fantastic Four: The Secret Story

This is my second blog post on The Fantastic Four; in the first, I wrote about why the FF is my favorite comic. This time out, I’m tracing my history of reading FF comics, back to my early days of collecting comics in the 1980s. This post is written as an homage to “The Fantastic Four: A Personal Recollection” by John Byrne, which appeared in Fantaco’s Fantastic Four Chronicles in 1982.

I can’t remember the first Fantastic Four comic I ever read.

It was either issue #287 or #260. 287 seems somewhat more likely based on the timeline, as it came out in late 1985 (when I was well into reading comics thanks to G.I. Joe and The Transformers); 260 came out earlier (mid-1983), before I was really into comics full-bore, but then that might mean it was more likely to have been in a “blister pack” on the shelf at Toys “R” Us with other comics in 1985… either way, it’s 260 that stuck with me, because it has such an awesome fight scene between The Thing, the Human Torch and Tyros, plus appearances by Dr. Doom and The Sliver Surfer. Even Namor the Sub-Mariner shows up at the end! It was overload for my young senses, and I wanted more. (I’m certain the copy of #287 I have is the same, but I feel like I may have replaced #260 at some point—I remember that copy being really beat up.)

It was “The Secret Story” that really hooked me.

The thing that really cemented my love of the FF was a book called The Fantastic Four: The Secret Story of Marvel’s Cosmic Quartet, by David Kraft. Published in 1981 by something called Ideals Published Corp, I spotted this at the Erin Mills branch of the Mississauga Public Library in 1986 and checked out approximately 137 times over the next 2-3 years. It featured a reprint of the first half of issue #1 (the FF origin), the Inhumans story from #83 (these two stories representing my first exposure to Jack Kirby’s art) and the FF fighting evil doppelgängers of themselves from issue #203. #83, like #260, is an action-packed issue that I couldn’t get enough of. More importantly though, the book had text pieces on all the main characters, supporting characters and villains, so I was able to learn about the FF and their friends without reading 300 back issues. I recently snagged a copy of this book and it was quite the trip down memory lane!

My monthly collecting began with Ben Grimm’s “New” Fantastic Four.

The first new FF comic I bought fresh off the newsstand was issue #305 in mid-1987 (still have it!). This would have been at Smoker’s Corner in South Common Mall in Mississauga, the best place to buy comics in my ‘hood; issues #306-308 followed and then an actual comic shop, 1,000,000 Comix, opened up in the same mall. I continued reading The Fantastic Four  through the end of Volume 1 (#416), through the Heroes Reborn and Heroes Return era… until Volume 3 issue #19 (July 1999), when I gave up because I didn’t enjoy Chris Claremont’s writing on the book. I came back with the new writers (Jeph Loeb and Carlos Pacheco) at issue #35 (November 2000), and then stuck with the title through the end of Civil War (mid-2007) before I stopped reading monthly comics altogether. (The completionist in me is screaming to get those Claremont issues and fill that hole…!)

When did I first read the “real” FF?

It’s funny looking back on it, but those early FF issues I read never really featured the full team. Mr. Fantastic was missing in issue #260; the She-Hulk has replaced the Thing in #287; and in #305, Ben is putting together a new team, with Crystal and Ms. Marvel replacing the departing Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman, and that’s the team that I read for the next couple years. It was in back issues that I read the “classic” FF.

I became an early “Byrne victim”.

When it came to back issues, my main focus at first was filling in the gaps around issue #260—I wanted to know how that fight started, where Mr. Fantastic was, how the cliffhanger with Namor was resolved (it was years before I read that one, as it was an Alpha Flight crossover). I soon realized that John Byrne was the creative force behind those particular issues, and made it a point to seek out anything with his art in it. Meanwhile the first “vintage” FF back issue I ever bought was issue #106, from 1,000,000 Comix, for I think $2.75. I still have it of course. Other Silver Age FFs followed, and so began my quest to read every issue of FF ever published. There were only 350 or so at the time including annuals, so it seemed possible!

—–

Of course, with the advent of collected editions, reading every issue became much easier, and at this point, I have indeed read every issue of The Fantastic Four (volume 1). Collecting them all remains a challenge, of course, at least budget-wise; I’m still 28 issues away from having a complete run of originals… but more on that another time.