GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE
PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


THE FANTASTIC FOUR - PAGE 4

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Marvel Knights 4: Divine Time 2005 (SC TPB) 148 pages

cover by Greg LandWritten by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Pencils by Jim Muniz. Inks by various.

Colours: Brian Reber. Letters: Dave Sharpe. Editor: Warren Simons.

Reprinting: Marvel Knights 4 #13-18 (2004) - with covers

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed April, 2011

Marvel Knights was an umbrella label used for various Marvel series -- ostensibly slightly grittier series (though pulling up short of "mature readers") yet still within regular continuity. The Fantastic Four depicted in Marvel Knights 4 are the same FF appearing in their regular Fantastic Four monthly...unlike the Ultimate Fantastic Four which is an alternate reality series. Yet the reason I say "ostensibly" grittier is because, at least reading this collection, I'm not sure I see much difference. The opening two-parter has a somewhat creepy vibe to it, but still not in a way that would be unacceptable in the main series. There's a cover (reproduced inside) by Good Girl artist Frank Cho with Sue' (fully clad) butt thrust at the reader...but hardly anything out of the ordinary in regular comics.

Anyway, the FF have apparently gone through -- yet another! -- bad patch, having had to rebuild themselves and their fortunes. But as such, this makes a decent jumping on point, since all that is behind them and they're just back to being the FF doing what they do best. This TPB is comprised of an opening two-parter, followed by a four part story from which the collection derives its title.

The opener involves old foe The Puppet Master engaged in, for him, a benevolent enterprise...attempting to restore the sight to his blind step daughter (and FF friend), Alicia Masters. Of course, the Puppet Master is a little off his nut (apparently from having handled radioactive clay all these years) so his good intentions are definitely heading toward Hell...particularly when he decides what Alicia needs is an eye transplant...from the Invisible Woman! It's a kind of low-key chiller, more creepy psychological thriller than bombastic FF adventure, but is okay.

I half wondered if that sedateness was the point of the Marvel Knights theme -- but then the four part story is much more, um, fantastical, involving time travel and alternate realities, as the FF are tossed out of their time by a time travelling Pharaoh, Ramades, who then proceeds to conquer the 21st Century. And it, too, is okay.

The problem with story telling is almost every story has been told. And the problem with long running series like the Fantastic Four, is that almost every story with them has been told, too. I mean, whether it be recurring foes like the Puppet Master, or even an (alternate reality) Dr. Doom, or a time travelling Pharaoh (who isn't their old foe, Rama-Tut, but might as well be) it all seems familiar, as does the situations they find themselves in. So in order to keep things fresh, it's in the details -- the niggly little scenes, the twists and turns. Yet the problem with so many comics, and Aguirre-Sacasa proves no real exception, is that the details are kind of glossed over. Despite a verbose, talk-heavy script (Aguirre-Sacasa is also a playwright and TV writer) like so many modern comics (with their decompression), the scenes can seem protracted...even as what's in the scenes can seem a bit...thin. I mean, three of the FF get tossed back to Ancient Egypt...and spend three issues just standing around dunes, discussing their situation! (Which sounds more boring than it actually is -- but it does indicate what I mean about it being a big, grandiose premise...but rather small in execution). I mean, we get a an overview of Ramades conquering the 21st Century earth as a kind of Reader's Digest synopsis, more than an actual story told in scenes.

Now, to be fair, the "Puppet Master stealing eyes" plot is certainly new (to my knowledge) but the execution still feels a bit thinly plotted for a two-parter. One of the ways to enfreshen a familiar tale is with guest stars -- I don't mean Spider-Man or someone, I mean original characters the heroes can interact with, with their own personalities and motives, like a TV series would do. Yet in both stories here, the few original characters are basically there to provide a plot point, existing only for a scene or two.

Just as an aside, the problem with trying to refresh an old franchise too often leads to "gimmick" stories -- heroes die, are reborn, the status quo is somehow changed forever (until the next sales boost). As mentioned, this begins with the FF having just recently recovered from various financial and personal set backs -- but how many eras of the FF have begun with the characters moving back into their HQ after a period of crisis? At the time I'm reading this (some years after it was published) apparently Marvel has announced it's killing off one of the FF in a quest for a sales boosting gimmick..and a sign of creative malaise. See, gimmicks are just that -- gimmicks. They don't tend to be very creative (over the years they've often shuffled the FF membership -- not realizing it's these specific characters, not the number, that is the team's appeal). When the key to fresher stories is just to write better, more developed plots, not to simply throw in a lame-o shock (___ dies!) while still giving us the same shallow, unevolved storytelling.

To be fair -- and to his credit -- Aguirre-Sacasa isn't going for anything gimmicky. No one dies, no hitherto unrevealed secret is meant to change our perception of the last fifty years of FF comics. He's just trying to entertain us with a couple of neat stories. And I applaud him for that. But it's still in the details.

Stories about time travel and Dystopian alternate realities are a dime a dozen -- contrast this tale with the classic X-Men saga, Days of Future Past. In half as many pages, that old X-Men adventure probably told twice as much story.

With all that being said, this is a perfectly agreeable read. Particularly if you hadn't read a similar story, it would have an eerie, affecting resonance -- but it still can seem a bit like a good outline for a much more interesting finished story that was never written. Aguirre-Sacasa has a general sense of the heroes' characters, and they're likeable enough, even if not as lively and vibrant as they can be (though there are some cute quips here and there, nothing really gets you chuckling out loud the way some of The Thing's wisecracks should). I've sometimes argued that the very decompression style, of long conversations of talking heads spread over multiple panels and pages, can actually bleed the energy -- and the humanity -- out of the characters, rather than enriching it. And, really, seven pages of Young Franklin at a Pee Wee baseball game???

Of course, credit and blame must also be laid at the feet of artist Jim Muniz. His style veers from some almost photographic faces, with soft lines and shadows, to a craggy, stiff-lined style (maybe a result of different inkers?) On one hand, there is some moodiness, and I tend to appreciate a more realist art style. On the other hand, his figures can be a bit stiff, his drawings at time looking too photo-referenced...in the way the characters look more like still poses as opposed to acting, and reacting, in a scene. Often their expressions not really conveying the emotion of a moment.

Like with the script, it's decent work, agreeable work...while suffering from a certain self-conscious pretension (and lack of detail -- his backgrounds are often quite Spartan).

I didn't remotely dislike this collection. And though it kind of draws upon FF history (both with old foes, or an -- apparently -- familiar time travelling organization, or an appearance by Mr. Fantastic's father) the plots are, nonetheless, completely self-contained, beginning and resolving in these pages, making this a nice book just to pick up and read for itself it you want an FF fix. And with its mix of a low-key two-parter, with a far flung four parter, it offers two facets to the FF's adventures. But it does feel a little stretched, the good ideas not always being served best by having to carry the page count, and just because there's a lot of dialogue, doesn't automatically make it better dialogue.

Cover price: $14.99 USA


Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four, vol. 1 2009 (softcover printing) (HC & SC) 264 pages

Written by Stan Lee. Pencils by Jack Kirby. Inks by Dick Ayers, others.

Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: The Fantastic Four #1-10 (1961-1963)

Additional notes: various commentaries by Lee; early sketches, cover designs, house ads; plot synopsis.

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed Nov, 2011

Marvel's Masterworks series collect old vintage series, sequentially, in hard cover on heavy paper -- prestigious and enduring (DC has its "Archive" editions). But they were pricey -- often more than twice as expensive even as a conventional comic book hard cover collection. Eventually, though, Marvel re-released some in cheaper soft cover editions. Which is all just a preamble to talking about the soft cover release of Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four, vol. 1 (or vol. 2 of the Masterwork series itself -- the Marvel Masterworks numbering is treated as one series, hence why this is vol. 2 -- volume 1 reprinted early Spider-Man issues)

Comics are, obviously, a niche medium -- as any comics fan knows when trying to tell a non-comics reader about them (cue the glassy looks and the rolled eyes). They are generally dismissed as juvenile, fit only for kids, illiterates, and those with learning disabilities. So how does an adult comics reader respond to these old FF issues -- from when the comics really were largely aimed at younger readers?

Surprisingly well, actually.

Yes, they're corny, and childish, and juvenile. Yet there's also something else going on, something bubbling and brewing beneath the surface of the simple, four colour antics. An artistic Revolution. With The Fantastic Four, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby (simultaneously with Spider-Man by Lee & Steve Ditko) were in many ways redefining a genre, and medium, that had been around for two decades. Or, at least the comic book version -- ironically, newspaper strips by the likes of Lee Falk, Will Eisner, Milt Caniff and others had already recognized words n' picture stories could straddle a young and older readership. But super hero comics were, by and large, still fairly juvenile, with little if any characterization, the comics themselves often comprised of short 8 or 10 page stories.

So with the Fantastic Four, the attempt was to try and spruce things up by giving the heroes personalities, having them bicker. You can almost take it for granted, but the fact is, even in these early issues, the heroes do have nuanced personalities in a way many of their contemporaries didn't -- you believe they exist as more than just a super power wrapped in a costume. And the stories were, arguably, more elaborate than was the norm at the time -- the first issue is comprised of two semi-separate tales...after which, each issue devotes the whole 23 pages to a single plot. A plot that can unfold and twist, and which can begin slowly, often allowing time for a few pages of the characters just hanging out at their HQ.

It's still all pretty light and goofy...yet it was the beginning of a whole new attitude.

Yet even beside that cultural context...these stories are oddly compelling, even for a modern adult. Sure, there's goofy plot ideas, and ludicrous scientific principals employed. But there's also a raw verve that's quite entrancing. Kirby's art is simplistic compared to his later style, but compelling, sometimes the very Spartaness of it lending an eerie power to the panels of the characters traipsing through Dr. Doom's spooky castle, or fleeing as asteroids pound down upon a doomed world. Perhaps it's partly resonance, putting one in mind of the 1950s horror tales Lee & Kirby used to churn out (a feel also evoked by the occasional "ironic" ending that likewise evokes a horror story). And though I'm a big fan of Marvel's cheap, black & white Essential books -- I do think the bold, primary colours add to the feel.

One could argue the appeal here is not unlike Japanese Manga -- in that I find a lot of Manga tends to be written in a very broad, childish way, even when adult comics dealing with adult themes. Yet, in a way, that's the effectiveness -- by distilling the storytelling into its basic essences, you can arrive at an inner art. So sure, the story telling and art is simple, the characterization same -- yet there's still an effectiveness too it, an emotional pulse. And the very simplicity also reminds you that, first and foremost -- this is meant to be entertainment. It's fun!

And the plots are likewise grand and outrageous. Some have suggested the FF was just a super powered version of Kirby's earlier Challengers of the Unknown, and that label suits the FF. While Spider-Man tended to prowl the streets of New York, anything went in an FF comic, from super villains, to aliens, from inner worlds to outer space, and time travel, too. All enlivened with a bit of an emotional undercurrent you didn't necessarily see in a lot of contemporary comics, particularly with the belligerent Thing. Sure, some stories are pure old fashioned cheese -- like one where a villain lures the FF into a trap by starring them in a movie, the heroes apparently unperturbed the fight scenes aren't being choreographed and there's no script! Yet even that begins with that trademark Marvel realism, as the FF are facing dire financial straits thanks to bad investments by Reed and forced to sell off their fancy equipment, and garnished with character bits, from Reed's falliability to The Thing grumbling "Next time I'll handle the money!"

These issues can also defy one's stereotypes of the era. At this point, Sue could only turn invisible (not yet having developed her force field) which seems like a passive power sexistly thrust upon the "girl" of the team. Yet, surprisingly, Sue is far more than the damsel in distress, proving herself as essential to winning the day as any of the guys in the stories.

Another way these stories are interesting is to see how the series started out and evolved even over these 10 issues. From early issues referring to their "secret" HQ, to the then unusual idea of making the FF public celebrities with their HQ well known. Ben Grimm, who would evolve into a crotchety, but loveable wisecracker, was originally envisioned as a much darker, more sinister character -- clearly meant to give the team a member whose loyalties were uncertain, and his frequent spats with the Human Torch are far from the playful affairs they would become. Yet he mellows even over these issues. Indeed, the use of continuity means that there is a sense the characters (and series) is evolving...not just changing to suit the whims of the creators. The introduction here of the blind Alicia Masters does seem to precipitate a mellowing of the Thing. Still, that original take does mean these issues lack some of the wit and humour that would be a hallmark of later issues.

Unlike Spider-Man, there's no real supporting cast -- not even Willie Lumpkin makes an appearance! -- the comic not going for the same Kitchen Sink reality of the web head. Yet a world does start to form around them with the introduction of the Sub-Mariner who ends up appearing in three tales here. The recurring Subby, and the arguably radical idea of introducing a foe who was a morally ambiguous figure, helps add to the sense of a comic pushing outside conventions. And these issues introduce key villains of the FF and, in some cases, the Marvel Universe in general, with the Mole Man, the Puppet Master, the Skrulls and Dr. Doom all marking first appearances (as well as a few antagonists that are refreshing...precisely because they didn't necessarily reoccur).

Other ways these early issues seem different from later ones, is the curious lack of romantic connection between Reed and Sue (indeed, in a couple of issues, it's suggested Ben has feelings for Sue). So much so that when Sue becomes a little smitten with the Sub-Mariner (an infatuation that would endure for years) the conflict is more because he is their enemy, rather than because it creates a love triangle...although Reed does at one point complain that he thought he and Sue had an "understanding", and does occasionally call her "darling". Aspects of the FF are so ingrained, that it takes a while to notice their absence in these issues...like that Sue doesn't have her forcefield powers, or that with Dr. Doom -- though clearly established as their arch foe, appearing in 3 stories -- there's no hint of what would surely become his defining, and most singular characteristic...that he is the leader of a country!

Corny and juvenile -- sure. But also bold and entertaining, even read by an adult some fifty years after the fact, with memorable tales including the first appearance of Dr. Doom (as much for its sub-plot involving time travel!) from FF #5 -- an issue which also shows why inker Joe Sinnott was later recruited for the comic, and seen as a catch, because it is arguably the best looking issue in this bunch. The alien world story from #7 and, well, quite a few of them, really, including the recurring, and evolving, use of the Sub-Mariner.

Reading these issues, you can appreciate why the FF was seen as the foundation of the modern Marvel Universe -- and essential in the evolution of super hero comics in general.

Cover price: $24.99 USA


Marvel Masterworks, vol. 6: Fantastic Four (vol. 2) 1988/2009 (HC & SC) 296 pages

Written by Stan Lee. Pencils by Jack Kirby. Inks by Dick Ayers, with Steve Ditko.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: The Fantastic Four (ist series) #11-20, Annual #1 (1963)

Additional notes: covers; intro by Lee; unused covers, vintage ads for the comic.

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed November, 2011

The second Marvel Masterworks collection to reprint early Fantastic Four issues collects Fantastic Four #11-20, plus the series' first-ever Annual. As I've mentioned before, reviewing such collections, which just reprint a consecutive run of issues, can be hard, since they're not devoted to a particular story arc or theme. (And Fantastic Four #1-20 are also available in cheap black & white as Essential Fantastic Four #1).

Still, what I've found is that these early Fantastic Four -- like with the early Spider-Man -- stand the test of time a lot better than you might expect for fifty year old comics mainly aimed at youngsters.

Marvel was engaged in a bit of an experiment at the time, to stretch the boundaries of the super hero genre, by telling consistently longer stories (whole issues devoted to a single plot, as opposed to squeezing two or three short tales into a single issue) allowing for more convoluted plots, and character development, allowing comics to get away from straight forward, blandly clean cut heroes. Sure -- the story telling is corny, the dialogue obvious, the science often ludicrous at best. But oddly, there is a raw humanity to these old comics that even a lot of modern "sophisticated" super hero comics fail to achieve -- an unself-consciousness. Lee & Kirby really do create a sense of four human beings, hanging out, bickering, bonding, and saving the day. By this point the series' humour is much more firmly established, the Thing's wisecracks genuinely amusing and providing an effective grounding to the histrionic action.

I'm also surprised at how "liberarted" the series is, in a sense, with Sue more than just "the" girl, but given her own emotion and feelings, and often just as crucial to the action as the guys.

Part of the fun reading these early comics is, of course, watching the series evolve. The previous ten issues already saw the establishing of the basic foundations of the Fantastic Four, as well as the start of their rogues gallery. And we saw the development of Ben Grimm from a surly anti-hero, in a sense as potentially monstrous on the inside as he is on the outside, to a more lovable curmudgeon, his monstrous exterior concealing arguably the most human of the team. So continuing that, these issues feature recurring foes -- like Dr. Doom and the antagonistic (but not quite evil) Sub-Mariner -- as well as the introduction of other foes that crop up to this day: the Red Ghost, the Mad Thinker, the Molecule Man, Rama-Tut, and the Super Skrull. And we get our first introduction of...Willie Lumpkin, the mailman!

And then there's the Impossible Man.

He appears in the first issue reprinted here (#11) and it's good start to this collection -- and establishes the new tone Marvel was going for. It's actually two shorter tales in one issue. The first is called "A Visit With the Fantastic Four" and conveniently tells you everything you need to know about the series, recapping their origin, etc. (hence why it's a good start for this collection) but it also demonstrates the new ambition of the Marvel line -- because it's basically just a light drama piece, focusing on the characters as characters with little action. Yet it remains entertaining, showing the series can exist outside of a rigid action formula. Then the second half of the comic gives us the team's encounter with the shape changing mischievous Impossible Man -- and though there's more action, it's all decidedly humorous and tongue-in-cheek -- again, showing the range of which the series was capable.

This is then followed by a story guest starring the Hulk...and demonstrates an interesting use of a guest star. Because, in a sense, the story works just as well (maybe better) if you read it from the mindset of not knowing the Hulk...as the team is called in to help investigate the green brute, and meet the mysterious Dr. Banner who seems to know more than he lets on. It actually works as an intriguing suspense tale...as well as giving us the first (of many) Hulk/Thing battles. This then is followed by the first appearance of the Red Ghost and his Super Apes...which is perhaps even more significant for its introduction of The Watcher. Again, though, it's surprisingly good. Somewhat dated, Red-baiting politics aside, it's a moody, exciting tale (perhaps the unusual use of Steve Ditko's inks over Kirby's pencils adding to the atmosphere).

And the list goes on.

Perhaps another tale worth focusing on for a moment is the first annual, which at 37 pages (for the lead story) was the team's longest adventure to date. Once again they are battling the Sub-Mariner, but despite that familiarity, it does a take on a certain grandeur, justifying the extra long presentation. The Sub-Mariner leads his people in war against the surface, and we learn details of his origin and background. Yet the tale is full of surprising subtleties and ambiguities -- arguably Reed Richards' own belligerence partially precipitating the crisis, and with the Sub-Mariner's own compassion being what foils his plans. Ambitious stuff for an early 1960s comic!

As I say, there's plenty of goofy stuff, childish aspects as befitting the comics and their intended audience...but there's a robustness to the storytelling, whole plots crammed into single issues (as opposed to serialized over multiple issues) and with a surprising effectiveness to the characters, and a genuine sense of them having personalities, and emotions above and beyond their union suits. All told with humour and humanity.

Cover price: $24.99 USA
 

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