Wednesday, December 30, 2009

7: Fantastic Four #5

Fantastic Four #5
April 10, 1962

  • As Batman has his Joker, as Superman has his Lex Luthor ... so too does the Fantastic Four have their archvillain, Doctor Doom. Arguably one of the most recognizable menaces of the Marvel Universe, and pointed to by many as the visual inspiration for one of the other great villains of the 20th century, Darth Vader, the creation of such a hit - only five issues in - has to be seen as another major milestone in Stan Lee & Jack Kirby's continuing efforts.

  • Of course, as we're seeing quite a bit in these early issues, this initial conception is still a ways off from the Victor Von Doom readers would come to relish. His costume is a bit off in this first appearance - full-length sleeves, and a medieval-tunic cut - though this would be corrected to his permanent look by his very next appearance. When he kidnaps the FF, he takes them to his castle - but as nothing indicates that he's dragged them to a small, Eastern European country, we're left to believe there's a large booby-trapped castle in upstate New York. Finally, when we first see him the comic plays up the "dark magic" angle - he's surrounded by books that say things like DEMONS, or SCIENCE AND SORCERY - but his time machine was scientifically invented, the captured Doom at issue's end is actually shown to be his first Doombot, and every threat in his stronghold is of a mechanical nature.

  • And it must be said: Like the schemes of so many over-the-top bad guys, Doom's master plan is a bit ... insane. Doom decides he wants the gems once owned by Blackbeard the Pirate, said to have mystical properties - so he sends the FF (minus hostage Sue Storm) back in time to fetch them. Because they'll clearly just do that. And when they get back, with Blackbeard's treasure chest filled not with jewels, but iron chains - seriously, this was their plan? - they only get away because Sue turns invisible and manages to hit the cut-off switch on Doom's machine. Which then blows up in his face. Maybe next time he'll contract for union labor?

  • Finally, what the reader can't help but notice is that, due to the extended time-travel quest, Doctor Doom's first appearance doesn't actually have much Doom in it. He kidnaps them at the beginning, they escape at the end (with Doom's castle burning down instead of bombed, for a nice change of pace), and ... that's it. But Stan and Jack must have realized in the crafting what a great villain they'd come up with, because he would be back with the very next issue....

Monday, December 28, 2009

6: Fantastic Four #4

Fantastic Four #4
February 8, 1962

  • And so we get to FF #4, and the return of Namor, the Sub-Mariner - and in tracking Stan Lee's gradual realization of the world-building possibilities, this is a big one. The Sub-Mariner first appeared in 1939's Marvel Comics #1, back when the company was known as Timely Comics, along with the first, android Human Torch - because, yes, even when creating his new comic The Fantastic Four, Stan Lee was open to pilfering from the greats of Marvel's past. Subby and the Torch, along with Captain America (first published in 1941), were the "Big Three" around which Timely's successful Golden Age superheroes were built, and although they were almost totally absent from the '50s, there had been enough adventures during the 1940s to create a mostly-consistent world.
  • As Stan had started working at Timely almost from its very beginning, this meant he had seen firsthand the ways in which the 1940s superhero comics had succeeded, and how having solo characters sometimes pop up in each other's strips had excited the readers. By bringing back one of Marvel's very first heroes after a virtual ten-year absence, he sought to both legitimize this new comic by attaching it to something once remembered (even if only by your parents), and instantly broaden the scope of the world that the FF lived in. But, Stan must have wondered, will it work?

  • Other changes were afoot as well; in fact, this issue is rife with them. As last issue had the first cliffhanger ending, this issue was thus the first one to have an opening page that utterly depended on what went before. Remember, this was a huge risk: Would readers accept it? Or if they'd missed the previous issue, would they put the comic back on the rack in disgust? After an almost-but-not-quite-there attempt on last issue's cover, this one bore Stan's trademark hyperbole proclaiming it "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!" - which would grace every cover for the next thirty years. Of course, some changes were still being figured out: While the Torch had evolved to his famous red-outline form after #2, as of this issue Ben Grimm is still experiencing the occasional change to human, then back to The Thing. I don't recall this running subplot ever going anywhere; was this just a random instance of ideas tried out then abandoned?

  • But the biggest change was that of location. While the FF had moved into their Baxter Building headquarters with issue #3, it's here for the first time stated to be in New York City. Remember that Marvel's main competition had their heroes live in fictional Smallvilles, Gotham Cities and the like; by choosing to set his new comic in not just a real-world location - but the very place in which Marvel itself operated - he cannily reinforced the sense of realism he hoped to convey with these new heroes.

  • In fact, when Johnny comes across Namor halfway through the tale, he's living as an amnesiac bum in a dilapidated Bowery flophouse. Recalling how well Subby had worked in the original Bill Everett comics - more often than not declaring war on the human race - Stan quickly reestablished him as a hotheaded, antagonistic character. This time, he even gave Namor a tragic turn; Atlantis was shown to have been destroyed while he'd been away, and though his people were sure to be alive, he was again homeless - and all alone.

  • And so his first act upon reawakening is to again declare war on the human race - hey, when you've got a shtick, go with it! - and thus for the issue's climax he summons "the largest living thing in all the world... the deadly Giganto!" Which allows for the striking image of Ben Grimm saving the day by walking into the belly of the beast, carrying a -- wait, what?! Again?! I mean, come on! I know it was the early '60s and all, but by this point you start to think Stan had a severe paranoiac fixation going on....

Friday, December 25, 2009

5: Incredible Hulk #1

Hulk #1
March 1, 1962

  • Today, publishers will restart an old comic with a new #1 issue just to boost sales. It's a far cry from the old days, when a brand-new comic book title was looked on with caution! A higher issue number told the newsstand owner that the comic had been around a while, and so was a tried and tested commodity. But a brand new comic? Why, that could be money down the drain! Best to play things safe. Yet here, just a few months after launching Fantastic Four #1, Stan & Jack launched another new comic, gambling further. Was Stan feeling cocky and confident after that first warm reception? Or was it more a matter of throwing a billion things at the wall to see what might stick?

  • Perhaps inspired by the success of The Thing over in FF, Stan here made the monster/hero the main feature, and a classic monster mix at that: In countenance, Frankenstein's creature; in manner, Jekyll & Hyde. Something most comics fans know is that in the first issue, Hulk was not green, but gray. Well, that was the intent ... but the printing process had a bugger of a time with gray, and the Hulk ended up being various colors depending on which page he was on, including green - which Stan went with from then on. Also note that though the monster is more instinct than intellect, he's a far cry from the dumb "Hulk smash!" state he would later devolve to.

  • And, of course, we also meet the unlikely sidekick, teenager Rick Jones. Already an orphan, his attachment to Bruce Banner is instantly cemented with the bonds of self-sacrifice and guilt, when he realizes that it was the act of Bruce saving Rick - during a stupid prank, no less - that ended up cursing Banner with his burden. If such a tale were being written today, the guilt of such a thing would probably consume Rick, turning him into a tragic figure. Fortunately, Stan must have realized that the monster was dark enough on his own, and needed some lightness and relief.

  • In fact, there are some surprisingly heavy themes at work for an early '60s comic. Bruce's genius came up with the devastating gamma bomb - and was punished for it accordingly. And that's not all: Earlier, when warned of the consequences if his theories were wrong, his arrogance is staggering: "I don't make mistakes."

  • Strangely, the last segment - in Soviet Russia - just doesn't fit. By all rights, it sounds like it should have worked: The Gargoyle reveals he once had been a brilliant scientist, one who was turned into a misshapen monster because of his government's bomb tests, and thus proves a fascinating counterpart to the Hulk - and in the very first issue, to boot. But that's part of the problem; as interesting as it is on a thematic level, it just doesn't fit in with the earlier, darker stuff. Still, it gives Stan & Jack an excuse to end a first issue with a mushroom cloud, for the second time in three months...!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

4: Fantastic Four #3

Fantastic Four #3
December 12, 1961

  • Stan has talked many times how the FF was his last stab at "doing superheroes right", and a large part of that was realism (relative to the time). So he avoided the genre trope of secret identities, and likewise avoided giving them costumes. But after the first two issues, the readers wrote in to say they weren't having any of it - and Stan, quick to respond, had Kirby give them the blue suits they're known for, their Fantasticar - aka "the flying bathtub" - and their famous headquarters, the Baxter Building. No more meetings in "secret apartments"!

  • Also noteworthy is the FF's first letters page. Stan's style of engaging the reader, and fostering the appearance of a real dialogue, is evident from the start. "So let's hear from you other readers. What types of covers do YOU prefer, and how do you feel about the name Mr. Fantastic?"

  • Character conflicts are taking center stage more and more. When Sue is kidnapped, Ben loses his temper and takes a swing at the Torch, who flies off. Reed yells at him: "Why can't you control yourself, Thing? Why must we always fight among ourselves? What's wrong with us?" It's commonly understood now, but this really was Stan's biggest innovation, and what's largely pointed to as what quickly turned Marvel Comics into the powerhouse it would become.

  • Also the first "I quit!" as Johnny again flies off in a huff. Not only the first cliffhanger (albeit a character-based rather than plot-based one), it's evident from the "next issue" tease that Stan already knew where this was going, and which star from Marvel's past he'd be bringing back in #4. Three issues in, and we're already seeing that he's begun to glimpse the long-term possibilities....

  • Goofy Silver Age writing: This is really too rich to let pass without comment:

Monday, December 21, 2009

3: Tales to Astonish #27

Tales to Astonish #27
September 28, 1961

  • If you asked most comic readers who the next Marvel Silver Age hero was after the Fantastic Four, I've a feeling very few would peg Hank Pym. But this came out the same month as FF #2.

  • As Tales to Astonish was one of Marvel's ubiquitous anthology mags, so this first Hank Pym story was only 7 pages long. Other stories in the issue were "Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall..." (6 pages), "The Talking Horse" (5 pages), and "Dead Planet!" (5 pages). None of which were ever seen again.

  • But then, Pym was clearly never designed to have a long future either! At the end of the tale, having narrowly escaped his harrowing experiences, Pym deems the shrinking formula too dangerous and dumps it down the drain. On its own, it reads as an enjoyable (though not terribly special) pulp story of the era - so what made them resurrect the character some eight months later? Did sales figures and letters indicate the story had really struck home?

  • I thought I'd read this before, but if so then I can't imagine how the Alice in Wonderland connection never leaped out at me. I mean, it's pretty blatant: His troubles begin when he starts shrinking much faster than expected, and realizes that he left the antidote sitting on top of the table now towering above him....

Friday, December 18, 2009

2. Fantastic Four #2

Fantastic Four #2

September 28, 1961

  • FF was originally bimonthly, so #2 came two months after #1. As far as we know, it's their second adventure. And yet, the story begins with the FF already famous for their super heroics, both to the general populace and would-be alien invaders - hence the Skrulls' elaborate plot to discredit them by committing crimes disguised as the FF.

  • As the creatures on Monster Isle in issue #1 clearly came from Marvel monster mags of the time, Skrulls are just as clearly of the ilk seen in Marvel's sci-fi comics. (Unintentional foreshadowing?) As is often the case with the early Marvel stories, it's surprising to see that from such kooky beginnings would come a race that has returned to plague the characters again and again. And check out those crazy jester collars!

  • This is the first time The Thing is shown to transform back into Ben Grimm. It only lasts two pages, but reminds us of the pathos of the character (especially in these early years), and the barely-contained anger and misery he constantly feels as a result; far from the gruff-but-friendly Marvel mascot he would eventually become, this early Thing is a monster, and one that the rest of the team - and the readers - expect to fly into a rage at any moment.

  • Goofy Silver Age writing: Reed defeats the aliens by showing their leader atrocities from Marvel monster books Strange Tales and Journey into Mystery. (Nice in-story promotion, Stan!) Not only does the leader take Reed at his word - Skrulls should never play poker, it seems - but he also apparently can't tell the difference between comic book art and photographic evidence.

  • At the end, Reed famously hypnotizes the remaining Skrulls into transforming into cows, then leaves them in a field. Leaving aside the question of whether Reed ever used this ability again, over twenty years later John Byrne would revisit this point in 1983's Fantastic Four Annual #17 - the very first comic book I ever bought, at eight years old - in the infamous tale of the town that grew up on Skrull milk. For a genius, Reed could sure be dumb....

  • Thursday, December 17, 2009

    Sidebar: Maximum Fantastic Four

    "When I saw each frame as a unit I remembered something from my youth: as a young person I could completely concentrate on each frame of the comic book. I could see every line and gesture as if it were part of a sole painting hanging in the center of a blank wall. This, I thought, might be what separates me from my younger self. Now I look at the whole page, read far too quickly, and move on before seeing what Jack Kirby saw when he set down his images forty years ago.

    And so I increased the size of each frame and I printed them, as large as possible. The result was a return to my childhood. In isolating the drawings of Jack Kirby I was able to see them with clearer, if not childlike, eyes."

    A few years ago I picked up Maximum Fantastic Four, an impressive and fascinating comic book experiment.

    The idea was conceived and shepherded by author Walter Mosley, as excerpted above, in an attempt to rediscover what it was about comic books - specifically the early Marvel Comics of the 1960s, and even more specifically the earliest issues of The Fantastic Four - that so affected him as a child. I think we can all relate: Whatever we may think of, and to whatever degree we may enjoy, the comics we currently read, it's usually not with the same sense of magic and wonder with which we read when we were young.

    Part of this is certainly due to us being older, and wiser, and less easily open to the wild, magical charms of these tales; when asked about the Golden Age of Comics, Mark Waid's famous answer is that the Golden Age is the comics you read when you were twelve years old. But Mosley also hits the nail on the head when he brings up the issue of relative size. When we were children, lying on the floor, the comic book spread flat in front of us, the pictures seemed huge. And every picture, every frozen moment in time, seemed an entire world ... if you just looked closely enough.

    This is also why I can't help but scoff when someone invariably complains about how short comics are these days; that they can read through an entire comic book in five minutes. News flash: Your reading speed is up to YOU. I picture these same goons making a speed run through an art gallery or museum, only glancing at each work to get the barest needed data: "Good. Good. Eh. Good. Weird. Lame. Fine. Good."

    I can't say I'm never prone to the same behavior, and you can see why; it is in fact possible to make the words in comic books your focus, only glancing at the pictures to give us the necessary context - who, what, where, when - in which to frame those words. And a convincing argument could be made that's as it should be; that, like the rhythm section in a band, the art works best when it's acting in service to the whole without calling attention to itself.

    But then, I enjoy listening to the bass line in a song, and I find a masterful drummer - one with a great beat, and the occasional interesting fill - exciting and energizing, something to pay attention to while still enjoying the whole. And when reading a comic - any comic - I always try to keep that in mind, and remember that each panel is in fact its own piece of art. Mosley's analogy of panels being paintings is accurate and insightful, because every frozen moment in time, every panel, was conceived as a unit by its artist. A unit as part of another unit (the page), and part of another unit (the comic book), and another (the series), and on and on ... but each picture, each box, is the smallest discrete piece in the work. And when the artist was first conceiving that, sketching that, drawing that ... it's certainly the world that he lived inside.

    And that's what makes this book an innovation, and an experiment that succeeds, and a treasure. Because this comic book story, which was originally told in 25 pages, is now displayed in over 200 pages. Giving the comic the space to breathe that it hasn't had since we were young, every panel is larger than life, and commands our attention accordingly. Most panels are blown up to the size of an entire page of this coffee-table book, with some taking up the double-page spread - or larger than the book itself, as in the couple of four-page gatefold scenes. One of these is the tableau of the giant, green, burrowing monster attacking the French African installation, which in the original comic took just over a page and is really a very small part of the overall story. But here, with the moment of attack shown as one oversized, four-pages-wide display of ferocity, you feel the rumble of the earth, you hear the guardsmen's screams, and understand the terror in their hearts in a way you never have before. In a way you'd always just skipped past.

    When Maximum Fantastic Four came out, I suspect it flew under the radar for many; after all, as massively important as Fantastic Four #1 was to the development of comics, and the seismic shift it left in its wake, I can imagine even the hardiest of fans scoffing at the thought of paying $50 for a single comic book "blown up real big". What I would like to convey, though, is this:

    It's absolutely worth it.

    Partly for the experience of reading this seminal comic book slowly, hugely, poring over every panel, and taking in the story at the measured pace it was meant to be read.

    And partly for the lesson that this is how we should always aim to read them.

    Wednesday, December 16, 2009

    1. Fantastic Four #1

    Fantastic Four #1

    August 8, 1961

    • Fantastic Four #1 is cover-dated November, 1961. At the time, Marvel was constrained by their newsstand distributor in how many titles they could have on the stands, so their output that month was decidedly paltry:

    • Reading slowly, one is impressed at the enormous economy of storytelling shown: We start off with 8 pages of prelude / "gathering the team" in which to build the suspense and immediately show off the powers & wonder of our cast; a 5-page flashback illustrating their origin; 3 pages setting up the threat of the Mole Man, the FF's inaugural villain; 3 more pages bringing the fight to, and then under, Monster Island; and a final 6 pages of villain origin, climax, and resolution. Whew!

    • Kirby was clearly still figuring out the characters, as they're all a bit "off-model" to what they would become. Most obvious are the Human Torch, as only a vaguely-humanoid jet of flame, and the Thing in his early "oatmeal" form. But Sue also may have been initially intended as more of an upper-class socialite (when we first see her she's "having tea with a society friend", and check out the style of her hair and clothes) and Reed Richards seems more serious and ominous than he would later become - in fact, he looks like nothing so much as Reginald Tate's Professor Bernard Quatermass:

    • Goofy Silver Age writing: Excited at the call to arms, Johnny unthinkingly melts through the car he and his mechanic buddy have spent the afternoon working on; spooked by the appearance of the Torch, the US government sends fighter jets AND A NUCLEAR MISSILE, which Reed throws "far from shore, where it explodes harmlessly over sea" (Y'know. As nukes do.); and in a similar theme, the story's end sees Monster Isle being destroyed in a giant mushroom cloud. Wonder if that's brought up the next time the Mole Man makes an appearance?

    In The Beginning...

    If you've been reading comics for any amount of time, you know that continuity can be a funny thing. In the wrong hands it can be off-putting, with story developments and shock revelations dependent on events which came years - sometimes decades - before those of the present. But when done right, the shared world concept can make the stories we're reading feel more real; events build on each other, and add to each other, to form a real sense of history and flow.

    My first exposure to the shared world of Marvel Comics was in 1983. As I gradually started to experience this world, and come across references to the past - that first comic was a sequel of sorts to 1962's Fantastic Four #2, for Pete's sake! - I found myself enthralled. Here was an entire universe I'd never known, with countless stories I'd never heard of. Far from being driven away, I found such an idea exciting!

    Here's the thing though: At the time, that history seemed as if it stretched backwards forever, rich and deep and vast. But at the time, the Marvel Universe was only 22 years old. Which means I've now been reading Marvel Comics for longer than the MU had existed before I encountered it. And while today scores upon scores of new Marvel comics come out each and every month, for the first 10-15 years they were still constrained by limits which precluded them having more than a handful of titles on the stand at any given time.

    Yes, the Marvel Universe has a rich history. But it didn't start out that way.

    Back in the Golden Age of comics, and going right through to the '50s, most comic books - like their pulp magazine cousins - were mainly anthology books, featuring collections of short stories that were almost always one-offs; the more popular mags might have leading characters who were the star of every issue, but continuing stories of any sort were the exception rather than the rule. When did this begin to change? What made Stan Lee start to bend those rules? What were the first burgeoning steps after Fantastic Four #1 towards the shared world concept that would prove such a hit? Who was the first guest star from another comic? What was the first crossover?

    For years, these are questions that I've wondered about without really having any idea of the answer - not with any sort of appropriate scope, at least. To do that, one would have to start reading those early Marvels one at a time, in the order of publication, to get a sense of what readers at the time might have experienced - though with the added knowledge of what we know is to come.

    So that's what I'll be doing here. For the first time I'll be watching the Marvel Universe grow from its humble beginnings - one step at a time - and making some notes here and there as I do. It will be fascinating, I think, to watch it slowly coalesce, piece by piece by piece.

    I hope you'll join me on my journey. It's sure to be an enjoyable ride!

    A few points:
    • Updates will hopefully be Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. For a brief time I thought about a daily schedule, but that went beyond "ambitious" and into "stupid".

    • An invaluable resource here has proved to be The Marvel Database Project, and the (best guesses as to) dates of publication come from the Marvel Comics Group 1939-1980 website. Also worth noting is The Unofficial Handbook of Marvel Comics Creators. And a nice handy glimpse at the early Marvel issues, by month, can be found here, hosted at the fantastic Marvel Masterworks Resource Page. Check them out!

    • And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention G-Mart Comics, which has been selling comics online since 1995. We may not have much in the way of early Silver Age comics - most of our stock is from the 1970s on up - but we've got a lot of everything else. And with 35% off of all new Marvel Comics - including the Marvel Masterworks and Essentials that reprint all these stories - it's a deal that's hard to beat! If you've got any questions, just drop me a line at

    • You can use a newsreader, browser or other devices to automatically import the feed for this site via the RSS feed, and the livejournal feed is marvelgenesis.

    • Finally, I'm interested in hearing what people think as this goes along, so please feel free to introduce yourself in the comments section! I'd love to hear from you.