Happy 100th birthday to the King of Comics. We are still catching up to where you were!
I hope my American readers are enjoying their holiday!
Fantastic Four feast by Bryan Hitch
My All-New, All-Different Marvel rolling reboot reviews return tomorrow!
Welcome back to The Dollar Box, my irregular feature where I review single-issue comic stories with an original cover price of a dollar or less. To help dispel the stench of the most recent Fantastic Four film misfire, I thought I’d take a look at the Fantastic Four Annuals of the Stan Lee & Jack Kirby era. This column looks at the first three Annuals, with a review of Annuals four through six to follow at a later date.
While modern Annuals would sometimes seem little more than jumped-up fill-in stories, the early Marvel Silver Age Annuals were a delight, featuring bonus-length feature stories, original back-up tales, reprints of relevant issues from the past, and page after page of pin-ups highlighting adventures or enemies from the year gone by. The art might sometimes look rushed (with these Annuals amounting to the thirteenth or fourteenth issue that had to be drawn in a twelve-month period), but this was offset by the sheer size of the story that you got for your quarter, and the big, must-read events at the center of the best issues.
Fantastic Four Annual #1 (1963)
One of those must-read events was front-and-center in the first Fantastic Four Annual — the Sub-Mariner’s attack on the human race! Newly restored to his throne, Subby doesn’t waste any time before throwing his weight around, delivering unreasonable terms to the Fantastic Four, to the effect that surface men must have nothing further to do with the sea, on pain of conquest! Reed relays Namor’s terms to the United Nations, but it doesn’t take long for everything to go pear-shaped, and the invasion is on.
Namor’s troops conquer Manhattan without firing a shot. Perhaps the New Yorkers were overawed by Jack Kirby’s imaginative underwater war machines …
I always thought that the coolest thing about Subby’s undersea legions were the bubble helmets full of seawater that they wore, so they could breathe on land. It’s such a wonderfully ridiculous idea — literal fishbowls for helmets. Unfortunately for the Sub-Mariner, Reed instantly divines the weakness of this scheme, and concocts a device that evaporates their helmet water from a distance, putting paid to the invasion.
After that, it’s all downhill for the Sub-Mariner. The invasion is doomed, and when Subby shows compassion for Sue Storm, his own subjects turn on him, leaving the Sub-Mariner abandoned in his palace, a king without a kingdom.
The Sub-Mariner’s invasion of New York sounds like a dynamite idea for a story, but it doesn’t quite come together here. More space is devoted to scene-setting and getting our heroes out to sea in a cruise ship than to the invasion itself, and Dick Ayer’s inks look hurried and muddy in places (over what may well have been hurried pencils from Jack Kirby). If the story had lived up to that splash page, this would be an all-time classic, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
But I do have some favorite moments, like Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table while Reed informs the U.N. of the Atlantean threat …
… and Subby being Subby …
… and one of the pinup features (of which there are several!), where we learn that Reed’s hair turned white at the temples because of some unspecified terror when helping Allied prisoners escape from the Nazis. Was that story ever told? I have to know.
There’s also a backup story: a sort of remastered telling of Spider-Man’s first encounter with the Fantastic Four, originally shown in two pages by Steve Ditko in Amazing Spider-Man #1, but here expanded into a fight scene of several pages by Kirby that is just … OK.
While laps better than any Fantastic Four movie, this first Annual is the weakest of the Kirby era — big concepts that are just adequately executed, earning a Longbox Graveyard score of 6/10.
Fantastic Four Annual #2 (1964)
The second Lee/Kirby Annual outing is a considerable improvement over the first, featuring the origin of Doctor Doom, in the first of two new Doom stories in this volume (to go along with another reprint, and a great new batch of pin-ups).
We are introduced to the future Doctor Doom when he is still a boy, howling for revenge after his father — a Gypsy healer — is killed by a vengeful noble after the elder Doom failed to heal the royal princess.
Doom takes the revenge business seriously, learning sorcery after discovering his mother was a witch. Grown to adulthood, Doom plays tricks on the cruel nobles of Latveria, stealing them blind or humiliating them by selling them enchanted treasures that backfire on their owners. He becomes a thorn in the side of the ruling class — a kind of Romani Robin Hood — and when he is caught and put before a firing squad, we get our first glimpse of the kind of high-tech robotic shenanigans that would prove Doom’s trademark through the years.
(How Doom becomes a high-tech robotic genius working from out the back of a Gypsy wagon is not addressed!)
I liked this nearly-heroic Doom … he could be cruel, but his victims were crueler still, and as an orphan Gypsy in a hostile land, Doom was an underdog (almost) worth rooting for. But Doom’s odious nature would soon assert itself. Winning a scholarship thanks to his scientific prowess, Doom leaves his home behind, and when he returns, he will be a very changed man.
No sooner does he land in the United States for school than Victor Von Doom becomes Victor Von Dick. His megalomania in full bloom, Doom wants nothing to do with the good-natured Reed Richards, who makes every effort to befriend the brilliant Doom.
Doom is expelled from school when a lab experiment nearly blows up the school (and definitely blows off Doom’s face). Doom, through twisted logic, blames his failure on Reed Richards, and does what any self-respecting supervillain-in-training might do — he sets off to Tibet to learn the black arts, and forge armor and a mask that will let him project a frightening image to the world that did him wrong.
Who needs a college diploma? Only Doom is qualified to confer a doctorate on Doom! In short order, Doom returns to Latveria and becomes its ruler, leading to the wonderful ironclad despot that we know and love today.
The “back-up” story is anything but — the return of Doctor Doom and his latest diabolical plot to destroy the Fantastic Four!
The tale commences with Doom’s rescue from outer space, and a tongue-twisting face-to-face with Rama Tut, who may (or may not) be a future version of Doctor Doom. Or something.
The whole Doom/Rama Tut thing made my head hurt when reading Bronze Age tales, and it is oddly reassuring to see that things were just as muddled in the Silver Age!
Doom’s plan hinges on luring the Fantastic Four to lower their guard during a reception at the Latverian embassy. With Doom believed dead, our heroes see nothing sinister in this set-up, which is an acceptable bit of storytelling chicanery, especially when it affords us the opportunity to watch Ben Grim cut up the dance floor with a Margaret Dumont-style grand dame.
Doom’s plan is to set the Fantastic Four against each other, spiking the “fruit juice” served in champagne glasses at the embassy, then spurring the hallucinating heroes to beat the tar out of each other. Doom’s scheme is well on its way to success, when Doom unaccountably undermines himself by gazing at his face in the mirror. It’s a wonderful bit of melodrama, but it really makes no sense in the context of the story, and lends credence to reports that Stan Lee & Jack Kirby were sometimes not on the same page when plotting/drawing/writing these stories.
Doom’s plan quickly unravels, and the villain is put to flight. The denouement is notable largely for confirming that Reed Richards is the world’s dumbest smart guy …
That kind of exchange was common for Reed and Sue in the Silver Age, when it seemed that Stan Lee was constitutionally incapable of writing female characters — Sue Storm, the Wasp, and Karen Page (among others) were all doormats and feather-heads on Lee’s watch. But you take the good with the bad, and this story has far more good than bad. Besides, who can resist the ridiculous machinations of … Doom!
Overall, Annual #3 is a great little romp — fast-paced and action-packed — and the Fantastic Four are never better than when battling their arch-nemesis, Doctor Doom. Your Longbox Graveyard score: 8/10.
Fantastic Four Annual #3 (1965)
You can judge the quality of a hero by the villains he fights, and you can especially judge the standing of a hero by the quality of bad guys that attack their wedding! Remember when the Circus of Crime attacked the wedding of the Wasp and Yellowjacket? I rest my case!
For Marvel’s wedding of the century — between Reed Richards and Susan Storm — nothing less than an attack by practically every villain in the Marvel Universe would do. In a plot orchestrated by Doctor Doom, villains from the Fantastic Four’s past (and even villains they had never before met) were mobilized to strike at our heroes on their day of joy.
The bulk of this story is a parade of heroic cameos and chaotic fighting in the streets of Manhattan. If you ever wanted to see Kirby’s original X-Man battle the Mole Man, then here is your chance. You also get Thor vs. Super-Skrull, Daredevil vs. the hordes of Hydra, and Hawkeye vs. Mr. Hyde. It’s like a superhero Wrestlemania!
With the fisticuffs finished, the blessed moment arrives …
a nice bit of meta-story, as Stan and Jack can’t get into the wedding!
It is a silly story, but with the star power on display it should be a great one. Unfortunately, that reckons without considering a menace greater than any that assaults the Fantastic Four in this tale — Vince Colletta’s inks! With trademark indifference, Colletta renders much of Kirby’s pencil work inert and amateurish, which is a real shame, as this single issue might otherwise be the go-to guide for Kirby’s rendition of nearly every character Marvel has. It’s still a fun book, but with better inks it might have been so much more, reflected in my Longbox Graveyard score of 7/10.
All three of these Annuals carried a cover price of twenty-five cents, but of course they will set you back a lot more than that now. Still, with the original run of the Fantastic Four so completely out of reach, collecting the first Annuals is a worthy alternative for fans wishing to own a little Silver Age Marvel magic. You’ll pay hundreds of dollars for an Annual in superior condition … but that beats the thousands that the first issue of the series itself will set you back.
Share your memories of these first three Fantastic Four Annuals in the comments section below, then join me later when I finish my review of the Lee/Kirby FF Annuals!
NEXT MONTH: #152 Dark Genesis
With the most recent Fantastic Four picture shaping up as one of the all-time superhero bombs, I’ve been thinking about how I’d reboot the franchise, were I suddenly granted power over time, space, and dimension (or at least a Hollywood studio!). Drawing upon the elements I outlined in my Core of the Four blog post, and fortified by a re-read of the original Stan Lee and Jack Kirby run of the Fantastic Four, I’ve cooked up a scheme that’s just crazy enough to work! Fear not, Fantastic Fans — we may have hit bottom, but that only means there’s nowhere to go but up!
Just for fun, here’s how I’d re-re-re-introduce the Fantastic Four to today’s film audiences!
(This particular bit of fanboy fantasizing assumes that the Fantastic Four reverts to Marvel Studios from Fox.)
First, I’d introduce the characters as a subplot in an already-scheduled Marvel movie. Take any upcoming Marvel film that might plausibly have a scene set in outer space — Avengers 3 or 4, Captain Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, or maybe the Inhumans. Somewhere in the Solar System, our film heroes discover an old space capsule …
… Incredibly, it’s the Baxter-1, a privately-funded spacecraft that blasted off for space in 1961! Contact with the craft was lost shortly after launch, and she — and her crew of four intrepid adventurers — were thought lost forever!
Discovery of the Baxter-1 is a worldwide sensation … it’s like Amelia Earhart has been found! Even more sensationalistic is that the crew is alive, in a state of suspended animation! And what a crew they are …
Super-genius Reed Richards (Jon Hamm), a celebrity-scientist that shared the stage with Albert Einstein and popularized science for a generation of impressionable school kids!
Susan Storm (Emma Watson), America’s sweetheart, cover-girl for innumerable glamour magazines, spokeswoman for a score of progressive international charities, best friends with both Jackie Onassis AND Marilyn Monroe!
Johnny Storm (Josh Hutcherson), the original teen heart-throb … he was bigger than Elvis when he went into space, and his disappearance haunted a generation more than the death of James Dean!
Ben Grimm (Michael Shannon), ace pilot, who flew wingtip-to-wingtip with Chuck Yeager and was fast-tracked for the Gemini Space Program before he gambled his career on Reed Richard’s experimental wildcat space launch!
Suddenly, after more than half a century, these Fantastic Four are back … and they haven’t aged a day. All they can remember is launching into space, being knocked off course by a strange bombardment of cosmic rays, and then … nothing, until they are recovered in the present day.
The four instantly become the biggest celebrities on the planet … and the story really explodes when they manifest strange super-powers!
Fans of course can fill in the rest … and the stage is set for the Fantastic Four to headline another blockbuster film, but THIS time they’ll be free to actually be the Fantastic Four!
What I like about this idea is that it inserts the Fantastic Four into the contemporary Marvel Universe while retaining much of the charm of the original comics. Our heroes get to be celebrities — which is critical to the FF experience — in a way only this kind of return-from-the-past story can permit in a Marvel Cinematic Universe that already has an Avengers full of heroes that largely have public identities. With Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Sue hailing from 1961, the movie can enjoy some of the man out of time/fish out of water humor and humanity that worked so well in Marvel’s Captain America and Thor pictures. And by being the very same personalities that we remember from the comics — personalities very much part and parcel of the early 1960s — our heroes can retain the optimism, heroism, spirit of adventure, and very deep flaws inherent in their original conception.
For our enemy, of course, there is only one choice — Doctor Doom (Ian McShane … who would also make a great Mole Man)!
But this time Doom isn’t an internet rage case or some guy with a skin condition or whatever dumbass nonsense Hollywood has foisted upon Doctor Doom in his past screen appearances. Nope, he’s Doctor Freaking Doom, the reclusive and terrifying dictator of the rogue state of Latveria, a frightening nuclear power every bit as mysterious and unpredictable as North Korea.
(and yes, Doom is lonely, too!)
Doom has ruled Latveria with an iron hand for over half a century … no one has seen the face beneath Doom’s mask, which must be impossibly ancient by now (unless the dark rumors that Doom has used bizarre science and dark sorcery to retain his youth are to be believed). The return of the Fantastic Four puts Doctor Doom back in the limelight, resurrecting long-dormant conspiracy theories about a secret link between Doom and Reed Richards, that Doom might somehow have been involved in Reed’s mysterious space project, and may even have been responsible for its failure.
And so our Marvel Cinematic Universe is immeasurably enriched by reinstating the Fantastic Four as Marvel’s First Family, with their greatest foe ready to battle them — immediately a part of the larger story but also reasonably partitioned off into their own unique story, coming to terms with their superpowers and with a world that has advanced by immeasurable leaps and bounds in the subjective hours that they have been away.
Our heroes have plenty of external threats to battle — Doctor Doom! Mole Man! Galactus! But more importantly, they have key internal threats to wrestle with, too …
How does Reed Richards’ genius translate to this brave new world, where his “cutting edge” inventions are bulky and outdated next to the cell phones carried by school kids? Can the old dog learn new tricks?
How will the fame-hungry Johnny Storm cope in a world that has moved past wholesome teen pop idols in favor of reality TV stars and YouTube celebrities? Can the teen idol reinvent himself for a new generation?
How will Sue Storm evolve as a person in a world that expects women will do more than wear designer gowns and smile sweetly for the camera? Can America’s Sweetheart overcome her insecurities and prejudices to master the opportunities that would never have been open to her in the era of her birth?
How does Ben Grimm fit into the world now that he is a rock-skinned monster, no longer qualified for a space program that has lost its vision and sense of generational imperative? Can an aviation hero from the Cold War adopt to a new era where black and white have been replaced by shades of grey?
I don’t know about you … but I’d be first in line to see a Marvel Studios movie about that Fantastic Four. Heck, I’d even shell out for a 3D showing!
What do you think? Would you green light yet another Fantastic Four movie based on this take, or has the FF become so toxic that a John Carter reboot looks like a better idea by comparison? Sound off, True Believers, in the comments section, below!
These are tough times for the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine. The Fantastic Four are conspicuous by their absence from Marvel’s next big reboot, and their new movie is supposed to stink (putting it in good company with the ones that have come before). While the series has enjoyed signature runs under creators like John Byrne and Jonathan Hickman, you could argue that the Fantastic Four went into decline when Jack Kirby left the book with issue #102 in 1970 (if not earlier).
Classic heroes. Great villains. Galaxy-spanning adventures of lasting importance. A sprawling supporting cast that’s better than the headliners of many other books. And yet, today the Fantastic Four feels like a second-tier property (and maybe that’s giving them too much credit). How can Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Sue regain their mojo?
I’m far from an expert on this series, but on the eve of their bound-to-be-disappointing third (fourth?) film outing, I thought I’d look at key aspects of the Fantastic Four — the things that make them special, and the things I think need to be front-and-center in any interpretation of this property. I’m certain I’ll miss a few things (and overstate others), so be sure to give me your impressions, additions, and push-backs in the comments section, below.
But without further apology … here’s what I regard as the Core of the Four!
There is a special magic in the partnering of Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and the Thing. They’re primal elementals … brains, heart, charisma, and brawn … husband, wife, brother, and best friend.
From time to time a member will leave the group, but the Fantastic Four just don’t feel like the Fantastic Four without their four founding members front-and-center. The team has had its share of membership changes and roster shake-ups, but while I like She-Hulk as much as the the next guy, for me the Fantastic Four has to center on the original four canonical characters. The book can and should have a robust supporting cast — but Ben, Reed, Johnny, and Susan have got to hold the center stage. Without these guys, you don’t have the Fantastic Four.
Not Just A World — A Whole Universe
The Fantastic Four shouldn’t feel like a part of the Marvel Universe — they ARE the Marvel Universe. Actually, they’re bigger than the Marvel Universe! Anchored by their Baxter Building HQ, the Fantastic Four enjoy the same New York City playground as most of Marvel’s other characters … but they also have the limitless reaches of outer space, strange alternate dimensions, and hidden enclaves like Attilan, Latveria, Atlantis, and Wakanda as their domain.
One of the great charms of this series is that it is as at home on Yancy Street as Ego the Living Planet, and everyplace in between. From month to month, a reader shouldn’t be able to guess where an adventure is going to start, or where it is going to lead. This series should have the broadest canvas in comics.
The Fantastic Four can tackle serious threats — you don’t get much more serious than Galactus trying to eat the planet! — but this is a sunlit series long on adventure and … well … fun. It is a rational world where science can solve anything (and cause a few problems along the way); it’s a trivial world where the Fantastic Four are celebrities at the heart of the world’s biggest reality show; it’s a childish world where the Thing and the Torch wreck their headquarters over some silly prank; it’s a flexible world where characters like Doctor Doom and the Impossible Man can share the same stage.
At the core, the Fantastic Four is an unapologetic Silver Age adventure story, a kitchen sink of space gods, bank robbers, killer robots, villainous landlords, mad science, and romantic melodrama. There is angst, disappointment, and heartbreak along the way, but the Fantastic Four isn’t grim, miserable, or violent — it is the story of four optimistic souls who love each other and love having superpowers (even Ben Grimm, who over time has evolved from a wretched man trapped inside a monster into a wise old brawler who is — most of the time — comfortable in his own skin). The Fantastic Four should have fun on their adventures, and their adventures should be fun to read.
It’s not such a dirty word. Say it with me, now — FUN!
The Beating Heart of the Marvel Universe
The Fantastic Four are Marvel’s First Family — they can and should be at the center of everything that happens in the Marvel Universe. Over the decades, the X-Men and (more recently) the Avengers have grown into Marvel’s go-to teams when disaster threatens, but really, it is the Fantastic Four that you want when it is time to get things done. They’re the team with the unimpeachable reputation, with connections around the globe (and around the universe!), with the cutting-edge tech, and the unmatchable reserve of experience and talent for tackling any problem.
They can be diplomats, they can be scientists, they can be explorers, and they can be a wrecking crew with equal aplomb. They’re privately funded and committed to the public good in ways that less organic super teams cannot match. The biggest events of the Marvel Universe — from dimensional rifts to alien invasions to the wedding receptions of super-spouses — really only feel big if they happen to or with the Fantastic Four. That the Fantastic Four have been pushed to the margins of the Marvel Universe is a tragedy for the title, and an even greater loss for Marvel, as it denies the larger part of the heritage that makes Marvel great. Get this book back on the schedule! Free the Fantastic Four!
That’s your core — big adventures with intimate characters. A legacy of heroism and adventure. A sense of destiny and duty. Unbreakable family bonds. Fun! Give me those things, or you’re not giving me the Fantastic Four!
It might seem that I’m advocating for a strictly Silver Age Fantastic Four — and those hundred-odd Silver Age issues by Stan and Jack are still tops in my book — but this needn’t be the case. Sure, I’d love to see a 1960s-era Fantastic Four movie with a Mad Men visual sensibility, but there are some core elements of the original series (like the Cold War competition with “the Reds,” or the sexist portrayal of Sue Storm as a weak and superfluous member of the group) that are best forgotten.
The wildest excesses of the Silver Age can and should likewise be tempered for contemporary audiences. But the soul and spirit of that era should proudly remain at the heart of the Fantastic Four. This is a great property … a great series with a great heritage. All that really remains is for the Fantastic Four (and Marvel!) to recognize that greatness — and embrace it. Depict the Fantastic Four with confidence and swagger and prove they aren’t a relic of a bygone age, and that their greatest adventures are yet to come.
I’m ready to join them! How about you? Give me your own reboot ideas in the comments section, below!
NEXT MONTH: #151 Fantastic Four Annuals #1-3