The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine also featured the World’s Most Gullible Supehero Team, and other things I learned while reading this doorstop.
The first Fantastic Four comic I ever bought was #145. On the cover, the superhero quartet was battling some kind of giant purple heavy metal drummer. Gil Kane did the art, though at the time I probably wouldn’t have been aware of the names of any of the artists or writers. The year was 1976; I was 11. That issue of that comic started a life-long love affair with the medium, if not with superheroes themselves.
Naturally, I did what any pre-adolescent boy smitten by a crush would have done, which is to pay weekly visits to my local dealer, i.e. a corner drugstore. In those days, I mostly stuck to Marvels; they seemed way cooler to my younger self (and still do, to some extent) than the competition – DC, Archies, Gold Keys and the like.
Anyway, for some years I’ve had two big, mighty tomes sitting on my bookshelves. The first and second Fantastic Four Omnibus collections (originally published in 2005 and 2007, respectively) are hardbacks with 800-plus pages of glossy, four-colour (though digitized, I’m sure) adventures. Each collects 30 issues (along with supplementary materials and off-shoots, like annuals) of the seminal Stan Lee-Jack Kirby series. The two volumes (there’s actually a third as well, published in 2012) had followed me through two, possibly three, moves, from condo to condo, without my ever having actually read them. Yet there they sat, buckling my shelves, totems of a misspent youth.
So, spurred on my Mary Kondo and the desire to figure out why the hell I’ve been keeping them around all these years if I wasn’t ever going to read them, I decided it was time to actually read the things. This is what I learned from reading the first one over the course of about three weeks (1-2 issues per night).
- These comics are pretty sexist, mostly in a ridiculous way. Photographer to Sue Storm, aka Invisible Girl, in issue #24: “Would you show us how you turn invisible? Although it’s a shame to hide any of you… Even for a little while!” Sue Storm: “Now I’ll just have my legs remain visible! Can you see them boys?” (italics Marvel’s). Even early sixties-era Hugh Hefner might blanche at the treatment of poor Sue Storm. Invariably, whenever one of the comics opens with the FF just hanging out at headquarters (which was often), Sue is seen doing something typically “girl-y,” like modelling one of team leader/scientist/Mr. Fantastic’s devices as a hat. Although, considering the era and the audience, this shouldn’t – and doesn’t – come as a surprise.
- Stan Lee is kind of dick. At least, this is what comes across in (presumably) the writer’s answers to some of the criticisms lobbed at him in the letters pages (the original letters pages are included with each reproduced issue), mostly by 12-year-old boys. Lee – who, to be fair, was writing multiple stories for multiple titles per week, never mind per month – is defensive at best, and passive-aggressive at worst, especially when readers point out any of the gaping plot holes that litter most of the stories. Some of these letter writers, it should be noted, include Roy Thomas, Steve Gerber, and Dave Cockrum – all of whom would go on to become comics professionals themselves. George RR Martin of Game of Thrones fame is also here, though calling himself just plain George Martin.
- Sometimes, these comics are just plain weird. Now, I understand that Lee was working under tight deadlines, and having to come up with dialogue and plots basically around the clock. This leads to lots of weird moments, like in issue #24 (again). The team is trying to stop an infant alien with limitless powers that has landed on Earth (or, to be more precise, down the street in New York near the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building headquarters). Reed starts brainstorming to the rest of the team all the possible havoc the alien might visit on the planet. “Suppose he decided to obliterate an entire city? Or, what if the thought occurred to him to reduce everything on Earth to toy size…” And, a couple of panels later: “The sun! What if he tries to bring it closer?” Uhm, yeah, I can see where you might think that would be the alien’s next move.
- The art is disappointingly crude. Today, Jack Kirby is acknowledged as a master of comics art. And he is, I certainly won’t deny that. In fact, he probably peaks around issue #50 and up of the Fantastic Four. But the drawing in these early issues is crude. Still, it’s thrilling to watch his art improve issue by issue – until George Bell steps in around issue #21 for a five-or-six issue run. The inker makes Kirby’s inelegant figures even bulkier and homelier than they already are.
- Why use one word when you can use five? Lee’s scripts are awfully wordy, as though he’s run them through some kind of Exposition Additive Machine. (Lee would add the dialogue later, after Kirby had handed in the pages.)
- The Yancy St. Gang is a brilliant conceit. I don’t want to sound down on these comics – there’s definite magic in them, and occasional brilliance. One of the most inspired running gags is the Yancy Street Gang, a never-seen cadre of Lower Eastside New York misfits who go out of their way to annoy the Thing, often to great success. The idea of the Gang – kind of like a Marvel version of the Bowery Boys – is a bit of the kind of inspired Marvel Madness that Lee deserves credit for – that is, unless they were Kirby’s idea. Does anyone know?
- The Human Torch is, well, too torch-y. Even when he’s just standing around listening to Reed talk about his latest invention, Johnny Storm aka the Human Torch is in full flame-on mode. This adds to the general silliness of the stories, although, maybe that’s the point.
- Aunt Petunia. Here’s another bit of inspired madness – the Thing’s continual references to his Aunt Petunia. From issue # 27, “The Search for Sub-Mariner”: “Like my ol’ Aunt Petunia used to say, ‘It’s shamefully undignified!'”
- Communists. There’s a lot of anti-Red hysteria in these pages.
- The Fantastic Four are extremely gullible. Perhaps they should actually have been called “The Gullible Four.” My favourite example is issue # 22, when the FF receives a pamphlet advertising “a small deserted island for sale, off the coast of New Jersey!” Does anyone say “Hey, this sounds like it could be a trap?” Nope. But guess what? The island turns out to be… the lair of their arch-nemesis, the Mole Man!
- (Bonus) The Thing never believes Reed’s explanations. Even though, time and time again, Reed turns out to be right about something, Ben Grimm (The Thing) can’t believe what he’s hearing. Standing over a big clay monster that’s been defeated, Reed exclaims, “It’s incredible! It’s as though he was beaten by an invisible command – by a thought which struck out of nowhere!” Ben: “If ya ask me, Reed’s been readin’ too many fairy tales!” Yes, that’s right, Thing – even after all the Mole Men, Doctor Dooms and Puppet Masters you’ve seen, there must be another, more rational explanation.
Okay, that’s it – I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the list a little bit more than I enjoyed reading 30+ early sixties comics, and their letter pages. (The best way I can describe the process is as a fun slog.) Please feel free to leave comments about what you enjoy (or don’t) about those early Marvels. Until then, Make Mine Marvel!