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
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
You may have heard there’s a new Marvel movie coming out this week — Ant-Man And The Wasp!
More so than any previous Marvel movie, the first Ant-Man was a tremendous risk. With the startling success of Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel proved they can turn C-Level characters into A-List stars … but Ant-Man seemed a reach even for a studio on such an unprecedented hot streak. Ant-Man had little name recognition; he was lampooned by Saturday Night Live long before superheroes were cool; the movie started as a passion project for a director who later left the picture; and the hero himself had a history so tortured even he can’t be bothered to keep up with it.
Remind me never to doubt Marvel! The first movie was a hit, and the character was a delight (practically stealing the show in Captain America: Civil War). So of course, here comes the sequel!
I will be there, of course!
To prepare myself for the film, I went back to read the original Ant-Man adventures — a task not so easy as it seems. Which Ant-Man was I to read, exactly?
Ant-Man as seen in the early days of the Avengers?
Ant-Man as the stolen identity of Scott Lang, the character at the center of the movie?
Only the original vintage will do for Longbox Graveyard!
I went all the way back to before Ant-Man was Ant-Man … when Hank Pym was the Man in the Ant Hill!
The original Ant-Man — as we would come to know him — debuted in Tales to Astonish #27, cover dated January 1962.
Tales to Astonish was a Marvel science fiction anthology mag, mostly concerned with monster-of-the-month stories staring creatures with names like Rommbu, Gorgilla, and Groot (yes, that Groot).
Those early issues of Tales to Astonish were obsessed with huge creatures running amok. In spinning a story where an ant-sized man was menaced by regular-sized insects, co-creators Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby might have been taking a break from giant-sized monsters … or they may have been co-opting another popular science fiction trope, explored to brilliant effect in the classic 1957 film, The Incredible Shrinking Man.
Or maybe they were sticking with the formula after all, aping Them, from 1954, where giant ants ran wild in Los Angeles.
hmm … that fleeing woman may have given Marvel the idea for Hydra’s catchphrase!
Ant-Man certainly works as a B-picture science fiction idea!
Whatever the origins of the idea, Ant-Man’s comic book debut wasn’t especially auspicious, save in hindsight. Like most issues of Tales to Astonish, this was at best a competently-executed high concept tale.
We began with an ambitious scientist who might have been whistled up out of central casting — a white guy laughed at by the establishment for his mad dream …
… in this case, a serum that could shrink items and then restore them to their original size. It worked on a chair, so of course the next step was for Hank Pym to conduct a human-trial-of-one …
… and given that this was Tales To Astonish, no sooner has Hank shrunk down to ant-size than he was locked out of his lab and menaced by (to him) giant ants!
(Sometimes I just love the Silver Age!)
There followed some B-movie derring-do, including anti-ant judo (!) …
… but then came the magic. Trapped outside his lab, and with no way to scale the wall to get back inside, Pym hitched a ride on the back of an ant that was mysteriously more friendly than the rest.
In short order, Pym was returned to human-size, and vowed never to step on an ant hill again!
That might have been the end for Ant-Man … before he was ever called Ant-Man! … but for two things.
One, that image of Hank riding an ant up the side of a building was very cool. I suspect it stuck in Stan Lee’s head.
Two, there was this thing called The Fantastic Four … which debuted two months before this tale, and proved to Marvel that superheroes — and not goofy monster books — represented the future of the company. Suddenly, creating new superheroes was Job One.
Insects would prove fertile ground for the newborn Marvel age of comics …
… and just a month after Spider-Man debuted, Hank Pym was back, now sporting a costume and called — for the first time — Ant-Man!
Tales To Astonish #35 provided a more full-featured superhero origin story for Ant-Man, recapping Pym’s previous tale, and adding to the character an entirely-reasonable newfound fascination with ants.
Even more interesting was Pym’s impossibly cool Ant-Man helmet, a classic Jack Kirby design that was quickly put to the test, as Communist agents intent on stealing research secrets took Pym and his colleagues hostage, prompting our hero to swing into costumed action.
Hank plunged into the ant hill again, finding that his helmet let him communicate with ants …
… and that he retained his human strength even while ant-sized, in a kind of inversion of Spider-Man’s famous “proportionate strength of a spider.”
And with that, Ant-Man was a superhero, and a part of Marvel’s nascent shared universe (there’s even a reference to “unstable molecules” as an explanation for why Ant-Man’s costume shrank with him, a concept that would be co-opted to account for the miraculous capacities of the Fantastic Four’s costumes).
Now all that remained was for Ant-Man to roll out his own super-heroic schticks, first by leading an army of ants to the rescue …
… then showing how an army of ants could muck up a gun, and swarm over a gunsel.
Add a secret identity and the promise of more adventures to come, and a superhero was born!
Living in the shadow of early Marvel hits like The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, Ant-Man would prove a modest success for Marvel, headlining a respectable thirty-issue run in Tales to Astonish (though he would share top-billing with the Hulk starting with issue #60, by which time Ant-Man had become Giant-Man in the first of many identity transformations for this star-crossed character). So significant a character was Ant-Man that he was made a founding member of the Avengers, along with his partner, the Wasp, and top-tier Marvel characters like Thor, Hulk and Iron Man (and in this case, I know that “top tier” = “anyone Marvel could round up that wasn’t Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four,” but still). In fact, while largely forgotten today, I’d argue that Hank Pym was the most interesting character in the first year or so of the Avengers, and with his many changes of identity, feelings of inadequacy, stormy relationship with the Wasp, and his creation of the mad robot Ultron, Hank Pym might be one of the most interesting characters in the Marvel Universe, full stop.
Marvel has shown they will cherry-pick this history for their films. Hank’s ever-changing, shades-of-grey personality veered into the black with his depiction as a wife-beating asshole in the Ultimates, and then his long-gestating solo movie project cost Ant-Man his charter membership in the Avengers, with Tony Stark ultimately usurping Hank’s semi-mad scientist role and letting loose the Age of Ultron. In every way that counts for modern audiences — that is to say, the people who go to the movies — it will be Scott Lang that is Ant-Man, with poor Hank reduced to a supporting character (however ably played he may be by the great Michael Douglas).
Ah, well, it is a modern miracle that we have an Ant-Man movie at all — it is churlish to complain that we aren’t getting the right guy. And on top of which, we get a sequel? With the Winsome Wasp? Truly, this is the age of Peak Geek!
I hope you like the move! Let me know what you think in the comments section, below. And maybe spare a moment to enjoy Ant-Man’s very first adventures, available in digital form via Marvel Unlimited.
- Title: Ant-Man (Tales To Astonish)
- Published By: Marvel Comics, 1959-1968
- Issues Reviewed: #27 & #35, January/September 1962
- LBG Letter Grade For This Issue: C-plus
NEXT MONTH: #150 The Core of the Four