Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


Fantastic Four Visionaries: George Perez

2005 - available in soft cover

Written by Roy Thomas and Len Wein. Pencils by George Perez. Inks by Joe Sinnott, with Vince Colletta, Dave Hunt.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: The Fantastic Four (1st series) #164-167, 170, 176-178, 184-186 (1975-1977)

200 pages

Published by Marvel Comics

Cover price: $19.99 USA

I was watching Ebert & Roeper's TV review of the new Fantastic Four movie when Roeper remarked that the Fantastic Four were like the Dave Clark Five to the X-Men's Beatles -- in other words, compared to the X-Men, the FF seemed square and staid. I'll be coming back to that in a moment.

Marvel's "Visionaries" books collect works of specific creators (usually artists) and, though some books have sampled work on various projects from throughout an individual's career, most tend to focus on specific titles and specific periods -- hence, Fantastic Four Visionaries: George Perez, which collects issues of the FF drawn by George Perez in the mid-1970s. But this isn't the entirety of Perez's art on the comic -- a few issues were left out, some presumably because Perez only drew the first part of a longer story, and to include it would be unsatisfying.

So was Perez a "visionary"? Certainly in the 1970s and 1980s, Perez was a jaw-dropping wonder for his often extremely detailed panels, with richly rendered backgrounds ranging from city skylines to the bizarre mechanics inside the Baxter Building (the FF's HQ). And his approach to people was in a realist and accurate (if coldly precise) style, eschewing exaggerated contortions, or anatomical inconsistencies. Plus, Perez evolved a style in which his use of composition, and how he broke down a scene into panels, could be eclectic. So, yeah, maybe he was a "visionary".

Of course, fans of his even more detailed contemporary work might be less impressed with this decades old art, and many of the things that made Perez so cool back then are more common place today. As well, even here Perez's art seems to evolve, with the earliest issues not quite as well drawn as the later, as he became more comfortable with the series and the characters (particularly the Thing). But it's still good work throughout. He's mainly inked by Joe Sinnott, who's inking over a succession of FF pencillers helped maintain a consistent feel to the title.

And yet, as good as Perez was, he was pretty evenly matched by the writers.

Roy Thomas writes the lion's share and -- you know what? -- there's a lot of fun and energy in these issues. The stories selected often tend to seem a bit more prosaic, a bit more run-of-the-mill super hero stuff than some FF adventures. This collection begins just after some epic adventure in an alternate reality, then skips over a saga set on counter earth involving the world-devouring Galactus. But those stories weren't drawn by Perez, so instead we get more down-to-earth battles with the Frightful Four and the Hulk. Over these issues Thomas, ever the nostalgist, resurrects a 1950s hero, Marvel Boy, as a tragic villain (whose costume and powers later inspired Quasar), throws in Power Man, the Marvel Comics bullpen, and recurring villains like the Puppet Master. Yet, though many of these issues don't rise to the level of classics...not one of them dips below the level of eminently readable as Thomas and company veer from super hero battles to silly, comic relief (as the Impossible Man is reintroduced into Marvel comics after some 12 year absence!)

Thomas clearly doesn't believe in taking things too seriously, so there are plenty of wisecracks and facetious captions -- yet neither does he forget the characters or the underpinnings of drama, particularly in regards to the grotesque Thing (the most human of the FF, though the most inhuman looking). Thomas makes the unlikely concept of the Thing siding with the Hulk against his own teammates surprisingly plausible as he subtly reminds us that the Thing, ultimately, can feel like an outsider, even among his friends. And the humour often stems from the Marvel Age concept of keeping it real, of creating gags by setting the adventures in a messy reality. The Frightful Four appear, looking to recruit a new member, and as the FF are held captive they watch as one inept applicant after another shows up -- the FF (well, the Thing and the Human Torch) heckling their foes. "Yer little idea's a real bust so far, ain't it?" mocks the Thing. A joke where the evil Wizard fumes that he couldn't restrict his want ad to just male applicants (his previous female allies had all betrayed him) because the newspaper in question had an anti-discrimination policy is goofy...but also has a ring of plausibility to it. Would-be super villains may rob banks and plot villainy, but if they want to run a personal ad, they have to obey the editorial edicts.

Even the Impossible Man is fun. Normally I dislike comic relief characters, but he's used sparingly, and there's a manic insanity to the character that makes him a personality in his own right, so that he still seems to fit into this ostensibly straight-faced reality.

Thomas also just has a nice sense here for keeping the stories interesting and even off beat, not relying too much on pointless fight scenes. When the fight scenes do ensue, because this is the Bronze Age of comics -- full of dialogue captions, thought balloons, and text boxes -- even these scenes seem rife with character nuance, and are more than just a lot of mindless thumping. In some issues, the crucial action scene is about rescue attempts (a plane knocked out of the sky) and testing the heroes' will, rather than battling a foe. Not that the fights with foes aren't fun but, as noted, enlivened with quips and some character shading.

Len Wein comes in for the final trilogy, and it's one of the best in the book. A little more sombre than Thomas' run, Wein's issues also reflect the more off-beat, fantastical nature of some of the FF's classic stories, as a quest for their kidnapped son and nanny, Agatha Harkness, leads them to New Salem, an eerie, isolated village in the mountains...all wrapped up with one of Wein's trademark ironic endings.

Although most of the stories are self-contained, plot threads carry over into issues that aren't reprinted, including one pretty major cliffhanger. But the advantage is that, since the comics pick up a few issues later, we can generally learn the resolution of such threads, if only through recaps. As such, we can still follow stories of the Thing reverting to his human, Ben Grimm form for a few issues, or a plot thread of an imposter infiltrating the group, even if we're just getting the Reader's Digest version. In fact, that's the fun of this collection. I had been toying with getting a TPB that reprinted a more diverse collection of tales...but decided I kind of liked the idea of getting something closer to a "run" of issues, precisely so I could enjoy the greater sense of continuity.

Of course, Marvel might have made the gaps between issues more obvious (such as inserting the cover galleries as demarcations). Else a fan, not realizing three or four issues have been skipped over, might wonder why there suddenly is a jump in the plot threads. There aren't a lot in the way of extras, just a cover gallery page. But they did think to reprint the editorial first printed in issue #176 which details the behind-the-scenes of that issue...and it's an enjoyable read.

Getting back to that Dave Clark Five reference I alluded to. The funny thing is, I'm not a huge Fantastic Four fan, per se, but I've enjoyed the group's adventures over the years. The Fantastic Four is largely credited with establishing the so-called Marvel Age of comics, when creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee first introduced character quirks and foibles into formerly two-dimensional super heroes. Comics writer and commentator Gerard Jones once claimed that most super hero comics published in the last forty years owe something to the Fantastic Four. And the funny thing is, even if comics have come along with more complex characters, more nuanced emotions, the core elements of the FF's various personalities and powers means that in a collection like this, they're still interesting and can keep you turning the pages. Sure, this is a team so conservative that when they talk about their "old" and "new" uniforms, it took me a while before I could even see the difference! And they rely on certain recurring hooks (how many issues have ended with one member or another threatening to quit and a someone bemoaning: "Is this the end of the Fantastic Four?!?") But I guess what I'm saying is, sometimes, being the Dave Clark Five isn't such a bad thing.

Many critics and fans argue the FF's greatest eras were the original Lee-Kirby issues (numbering close to a hundred) and then John Byrne's tenure as writer-artist in the 1980s. I agree with the former, though have mixed feelings about the later. But this collection shows there have been other entertaining runs as well. Now maybe Marvel should consider a TPB collecting the sagas that fell in between these issues, drawn by the likes of John Buscema and Rich Buckler.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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