MINI-SERIES REVIEWS...

#1 - cover by Alan DavisMarvel Selects: Fantastic Four

(2000 - six issues, Marvel Comics)

Script: Stan Lee, and Gerry Conway, Robert Kanigher. Pencils: John Buscema, with Jack Kirby and Kurt Schaffenberger. Inks: Joe Sinnott, and Chic Stone, Frank Giacoia.

The "Marvel Selects" series was an odd project (there were two, this one and a Spider-Man series), reprinting a consecutive run of old comics starting in the title's low 100s, circa 1970. Marvel used to do reprint series like this all the time (these same FF issues -- #107-112 -- had already been reprinted in a series called Marvel's Greatest Comics in the late 1970s), but in this age of TPB collections, single issue reprints are uncommon. In the 1980s, Marvel and DC both produced limited run reprint mini-series of classic eras, on high end, expensive paper, and with corresponding higher prices...but they all featured extra pages, so each comic reprinted two or three issues -- not just one as the Marvel Selects did.

So the idea of releasing a glossy expensive reprint ($2.75 US at a time when most new comics were $1.99) seemed a bit of a marketing gamble. The first issues was literally a facsimile reprint, right down to the old ads. The subsequent issues tried to sweeten the pot by adding in a short back up reprint -- an enjoyable FF story from Giant-Size Fantastic Four #2 (by Gerry Conway, Buscema, and Chic Stone) was serialized through issues #2-5, and issue #6 featured an old Romance Comic reprint...noteworthy mainly because it was by Robert Kanigher and Kurt Schaffenberger -- guys usually associated with rival DC Comics. But it had no connection to the FF themselves, and builds to a kind of odd resolution.

And it was a gamble that didn't pay off, apparently, as both series were advertised as being 12 issues...but were both cancelled after only six.

And one wonders if there was a behind the scenes struggle at Marvel, between those who pitched the project...and those who were hoping to kill it!

As I say, expecting fans to pay extra for an old reprint seemed, itself, risky -- perhaps indicating Marvel didn't expect them to sell well, but hoped to recoup the cost from those who did buy. And the periods selected might've seemed at bit unusual -- not necessarily seminal eras, and coming near the end of Stan Lee's long tenure on both series -- in the case of the FF just after long time collaborator/artist Jack Kirby had left.

But it's the reproduction itself which is, in a word...awful.

Oh, the first issue is okay. But many of the issues look as though instead of reproducing the comics from the original printers plates, Marvel dug up some old copies from someone's damp basement, slapped them on a photocopier well past its warranty, and ran off a few copies. It's even worse than DC's later hardcover TPB, Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore! There's even a page or two that's blurred, as if the photocopier started shimmering while copying! (Strangely, the back stories are better quality than the lead stories).

Why release it in an expensive format...and then do such a shoddy job? Maybe it reflected conflicting forces, some editor who pushed for it, who admired Lee's old stuff, and who saw it as a great idea...and another editor who didn't, and refused to okay the proper money to do it right. Maybe even an editor who wanted to kill it just to "prove" that old comics suck. Paranoid? Go ahead, surf the web and you'll be surprised how many newer "fans" get really annoyed when people suggest old comics might have some entertainment value.

Which is funny, because the one redeeming thing about these comics...is the actual issues don't suck. In fact, with the loss of Kirby, the common wisdom is that the FF hit a creative nadir from which it didn't recover for many, many issues. But actually, Lee flying solo (or rather, with "Big" John Buscema as co-pilot) still delivers a lot of entertainment. Sure, he's recycling ideas (as some accompanying editorials point out -- one of the series' few concessions to providing extra value for the reprint is the editorials, but even they seem a bit perfunctory and half-hearted), but recycled storylines are common, even today. I wasn't familiar with some of those recycled stories, but even where I was, like with the Negative Zone, Lee still keeps it exciting even if we've seen it before.

Part of the appeal, particularly in contrast to modern comics and story arcs, is the sheer mass of material, so that the stories are brimming over with plot threads. The underlining sub-plot is that Reed manages to "cure" Ben -- at least so that he can change from himself to the Thing at will. But it seems to trigger a personality change, as he becomes meaner, even sociopathic. Meanwhile, a scientist acquaintance of Reed's shows up, and breaks into the Negative Zone, which brings Annihilus into things -- there's enough going on that old Annihilus is really more a peripheral menace (the heroes barely exchanging any blows with him). Oh, and spooky old Agatha Harkness crops up, too. This then segues into a sequence where the Thing goes on a rampage...eventually leading to a smack down with the Hulk. And that's perhaps the series' weakest part, as the final issue is really just an extended fight scene.

Along the way, yeah, there's dated dialogue, corny exclamations, and a few suspect plot developments (though, regarding the latter, it's no worse than a lot of comics published today!). But there's also a lot of affecting, genuine emotion, Lee able to write the FF as real, flesh and blood people. A scene of Sue getting momentarily hysterical on the phone is quite effective, or the whole sub-plot with Ben is quite creepy, particularly when he starts being brusque with girlfriend Alicia. Say what you will about Lee, but some of those scenes get under my skin in a way a lot of modern, supposedly "better" writers don't.

I'm a fan of John Buscema in general, and his art here is effective. Coming on the heels of Jack Kirby's long run, it maintains a certain consistency (aided, no doubt, by the same inker -- Joe Sinnott), a dramatic bombast...but married with a more realist, human approach to figures and faces.

It's a mostly enjoyable run, rocketing along, even when recycling ideas it is capable of human drama and excitement (like Reed plunging toward the anti-matter atmosphere in the Negative Zone). And, ironically, because Annihilus is more a theoretical threat than an actual one, as the heroes worry he'll find the doorway to our dimension, he actually seems more menacing, more chilling than he has in appearances where they just duke it out.

As mentioned, the Marvel Selects were hyped as running 12 issues, but ended at 6. And the final issue sort of resolves matters...and sort of ends on a cliffhanger. It's one of those cliffhangers where the battle is over, but one member lies near death. As such, since we know they'll get better, it's perhaps less of a cliffhanger than if it was in mid-fight where we're wondering how they'll triumph. So, it's not a bad end -- particularly since it then led into yet another multi-part arc anyway.

So, it's a decent run of enjoyable page turners...but hurt by shoddy reproduction. You could save up for the Essential volumes which reprint theses issues -- but those are black and white. If you want these issues in colour and can't find back issues of the old Marvel's Greatest Comics (which usually edited out a page), and if you can get these Marvel Selects cheap...well, they're still worth a look.

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