Tuesday, October 5, 2010

80: Fantastic Four Annual #1

Fantastic Four Annual #1
 July 2, 1963

  • Now this? This is one HECK of a package! The Strange Tales Annual came out just a few weeks ago and, like this comic, it too boasted a ridiculous 72 pages. The difference? The Spider-Man / Human Torch story which was the lead there was 18 pages long - still an upgrade from the standard 13-or-so that the Torch feature usually got - followed by ten short backup tales. In other words, what you'd expect an annual for Strange Tales to look like; its regular format, but more so. But here? The 72 pages is almost entirely new material - the only reprint being the Fantastic Four's origin from FF #1 - and kicks things off with a 37-page adventure! (In fact, a blurb on the front page proclaims it as "the longest uninterrupted super-epic of its kind ever published!!" Anyone know if that was true?)  So don't be surprised if this post is similarly gigantic...!

    The amount of information given in just two comic book pages is kind of stunning.
    Stan always said they read every letter and listened to the readers - and here's the proof!
    (click to enlarge)

  • So if the main story is 37 pages, and there's a 15-page reprint ... what else is left? Quite a bit, as it turns out! For instance, there's a two-page "Questions and Answers about the Fantastic Four", as well as a full-page cutaway diagram of the Baxter Building. And we also revisit the first meeting between the FF & Spider-Man, from Amazing Spider-Man #1 ... but rather than being just a reprint, the two-page sequence from the comic is actually retold and expanded into a six-page tale! (This isn't entirely without precedent; for instance, in Rawhide Kid #17, Jack Kirby illustrated the Kid's origin ... and one year later, in #23, he re-interpreted the exact same story, word for word! Here, you at least get to see the differences in how two greats - Kirby and Ditko - illustrate essentially the same scene.) And between all of these is the running feature "A Gallery of the Fantastic Four's Most Famous Foes!", in which every single threat the FF has faced thus far rates an entire full-page splash each, with accompanying text - the Mole Man, the Skrulls, the Miracle Man, the Sub-Mariner, Doctor Doom, Kurrgo, the Puppet Master, the Impossible Man, the Hulk, the Red Ghost and his Super Apes, the Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android - for an additional eleven pages. Remember, now, that a normal comic at the time cost only twelve cents. This annual was twice that - but you can't say the readers didn't get far, FAR more than their money's worth!

    This is how the story kicks off.  That's a lot of grandeur ... but deservedly so!

  • So, yes, starting things off with a bang: Namor has found Atlantis! And that's a major development in the evolution of this anti-hero, as for the first time since his return he once again has a people to lead, and responsibilities to consider. Don't go thinking he mellows out, however, as it doesn't stop his desire for revenge - though it perhaps tempers his recklessness somewhat. Even better, for the first time Namor starts to get a supporting cast around him in the persons of Lady Dorma, infatuated with Namor, and Warlord Krang, who is devoted to Dorma. (And note how this love triangle parallels and contrasts with the one involving Namor, Sue and Reed.) By setting this up, Stan Lee has instantly planted lots of story seeds for future Namor tales; was he already thinking of how soon he could launch the Sub-Mariner in his own mag?

    The story in this issue is SO immense, it can even digress for a few pages to give us
    a huge amount of background - and we don't mind!

  • We also, astonishingly, get an abbreviated yet broad anthropological history of the Atlantean race, stretching from antiquity up to the present day. For the first time, Stan & Jack are truly expanding the scope of their stories, and you get the sense that they're doing some real world-building as they lay in the foundations of Marvel's ancient past. And they don't just limit this to the beginnings of Atlantis itself, as we also get a full origin of Namor - for the first time since the Golden Age! When the Sub-Mariner was brought back in Fantastic Four #4, he was just given the most basic of introductions: Here's this character, used to be famous, been away for a while, and now he's back. At this point, however, we actually get to see the way his parents met: his father a human sea captain, his mother an Atlantean princess, and a star-crossed love that ends in tragedy!

    On the left, 1939's Marvel Comics #1.  On the right, the same scene in FF Annual #1.
    Note how much Stan & Jack have toned it down from the original!

  • Stan Lee tells the story of how he first planned on calling the X-Men "The Mutants", but was prevented by publisher Martin Goodman, who claimed that no one knew what a mutant was. Ever since the X-Men's meteoric rise in the 1980s, however, mutants have been a well-known and commercial concept at Marvel - so much, in fact, that when Namor received a new comic book in 1990, it quickly earned the tagline "Marvel's first and mightiest mutant"! This wasn't restricted to Namor, by the way; teenage runaways Cloak and Dagger, who had previously been determined to not be mutants, were rechristened as such with their 1988 series. Everyone wanted to jump on the mutant bandwagon, it seemed - and with the X-Men's sales, why not? And we see that even today, where Namor has just had a new series launch - Namor: The First Mutant - as, ostensibly, part of the X-Men line. I'll admit, all of this retroactive mutancy has always seemed a bit gimmicky to me, and to many others. But in reading this issue, I had a bit of a shock to find that he was referred to as a mutant as early as 1963!

    For the very first time, the kids in 1963 really knew where Namor had come from.

  • Sadly, not everyone gets the same much-needed developments to their character that Namor does. Case in point: Sue Storm. When we first open on the FF, Ben Grimm is dealing with the Yancy Street Gang while Johnny plays a prank on him. And what is Sue doing in her free time? Lounging about, reading a fashion magazine. Because, y'know ... that's all women do, right? Then, when her closetful of fancy dresses gets destroyed during yet another Thing-Torch brawl that's gotten out of hand, she breaks down in tears and rants about the beastly nature of "Men!" Although later on she displays empathy & understanding about Namor's motives, and tries to stop the fighting rather than continue the conflict, with traits such as these first on display it's not hard to see why a sizable percentage of the FF's readership were utterly bored by her.

    The first time we saw this cutaway, it was a couple of floors in one panel.
    This time, it takes up an entire page!

  • A defining characteristic of the FF that's often overlooked is their role as explorers, forever challenging the unknown (so to speak). Here, we're reminded of that in the wake of the Torch-Thing brawl, when Reed points out that they're all stressed - so why not take a vacation? Though he quickly follows this up by pointing out that there have been several sightings of sea monsters in the Atlantic Ocean, which could bear some investigating - so, okay, a working vacation then. The four promptly book a cruise on a luxury liner, and Ben's girlfriend Alicia comes along ... well, just because. As teenage Johnny bemoans the couplehood of both Sue & Reed and Ben & Alicia, we find we can easily dismiss any lingering doubts that the blind sculptress has been fully accepted into this unusual, created family.

    All the villains showcased in this gallery, and I choose Kurrgo???
    Well, what can I say - I've a soft spot for the fuzzy little freak.

  • On to the plot: Having found his people and been crowned Prince of Atlantis, Namor issues an ultimatum to the United Nations: The oceans belong to him! From now on, no humans will be permitted to travel through them - or, in fact, over them. Obviously this does not go down well, and when the assembled nations refuse, he instantly leads his undersea army on an invasion of New York! With insight and quick thinking, Reed is able to save the day by evaporating the water in the helmets of all the Atlanteans, driving them back into the ocean so that only Namor is left - but the Sub-Mariner then responds by nabbing Sue and escaping! All might have been lost ... but when the jealous Dorma divines that Namor's attentions are for The Invisible Girl, she throws Sue into the ocean to drown, and Namor immediately quits his fight with Ben, Reed and Johnny to rush her back to New York for medical treatment. As you might expect, this sudden nobility goes unrewarded, and when he returns to Atlantis he finds the entire population has abandoned it due to his betrayal, for saving one of the humans instead of destroying them. After waiting so long to be reunited with his race, he's lost them once again....

    On the left, Ditko's original scene from ASM #1.  On the right, the retelling by Kirby.
    Note how in the Ditko version, the Thing is still in his "lumpy oatmeal" form.