You only have to glance through a bunch of comics covers in sequence in any one series to see how often boxed captions were used to hook you into buying an issue--particularly in the silver age books, where readership numbers for those early issues were important, and Marvel couldn't yet count on word-of-mouth to do the lion's share of its promotion. A few of them promised some sort of shocking development that was going to change a character in some way or otherwise have a startling impact on them--but those captions had to be used sparingly, otherwise the book would get to a point where it would come across as crying wolf. And you really can't have your characters go through life-altering moments every other issue. (Though that's never stopped soap operas, I guess.)
Since we recently touched on the "No! Not YOU!" hook, it seemed fitting to spend some time with its kid brother:
When you think about it, just about all of these "shocking" captions are cut from the same cloth. In one way or another, you're going to be hit with the unexpected--some development that's more serious than the norm and that you didn't necessarily see coming. Other such captions that come to mind would be:
But a shock ending was always so much fun because the damn thing practically dared you to flip to the end of the issue and find out what the bombshell was. So in this post, I'm going to be the bad guy FOR you, and actually show you what the shock endings are in the examples you'll see. And you won't have to worry about having any guilt whatsoever.
The years 1989-1993 were banner years for the X-Men--and I do mean "banner," since during those years the X-books were practically tripping over themselves with cross-title stories heralded with dramatic cover banners:
Around this time, the stories were absolutely out of control. Demons. Time paradoxes. Fragments of the Phoenix force. Clones. Blue and gold teams. Psylocke sports a cloak and a hood. The infant Nathan Summers skips his entire childhood and begins hoisting guns that look like they overdosed on Pym particles. Crises were life-altering and upending. And the X-Men were all over the place--all over the world, uprooted from the Xavier mansion due to one excuse or another. Smack dab in the middle of all this, the launch of 1991's X-Men spinoff threw this team into inexplicable turmoil, which spilled into New Mutants as well as another spinoff, X-Force. I can just imagine all the yelling that went on at story pitch meetings. They must have resembled an all-day traffic jam in Times Square.
But let's try to cut through the chaff and whittle down the essence of these particular story arcs. Then, if you want to try to track down all the pertinent issues and read them in sequence, godspeed. I wish I had a no-prize to offer you, but I don't think they make one for that level of bravery.
In the issue of Fantastic Four where Galactus first touches down on Earth and begins assembling his elemental converter, the FF battle to delay him while their youngest member, the Human Torch, flies to retrieve a weapon in Galactus' possession which may turn the tide and save Earth. It's also the issue where the Silver Surfer is swayed by Alicia Masters to turn against his master and side with the human race.
But only one of these two covers to the story seems to give any indication of these events. Which one do you think it is?
For me, it's the later Sal Buscema cover to Marvel's Greatest Comics which is more representative of the story within. If I were looking at the original Jack Kirby/Joe Sinnott cover on the comics rack, I wouldn't be sure what to make of the issue--though it seems to play off of the mystery of Galactus and the Surfer, still enigmas from when we last saw them in the prior issue. The FF seem overwhelmed by this larger than life threat; but other than that, if I were a new reader there wouldn't be much of a hook for me to buy the issue and find out what's going on. Also, for some reason the wasted cover space in the lower right corner keeps making me want to move the FF over until they're centered (ditto for Galactus' head)--and that's the last thing I should be thinking of.
The Buscema image has more of a "battle issue" feel to it, something which would look right at home in a collection of images representing the FF's classic fight scenes--whereas the Kirby cover seems to be going more for a "saga" feel. The problem with attaching that sort of label is that a story generally has to earn that description after it concludes, not when it's just getting cranked up. The Buscema cover puts us right where the action is, while still not spilling the beans about what kind of threat Galactus represents. The only thing we know from this cover is that the FF are confronting the threat--and while they initially retreat in the story, I'm going to be more excited by a cover that shows them fighting instead of turning tail.
It's not like we haven't heard this sort of comment from Ben before, when it comes to Reed's demeanor. Reed has generally been the in-control, analytical member of the Fantastic Four--human in his reactions, certainly, but more restrained than the others and not one to fly off the handle. So, with the two being long-time friends, Ben has probably always wanted to see Reed show a less serious side of himself, and lead more with his heart and a little less with his head. In that respect, Reed has always been a tough nut for Ben to crack:
So I thought it might be interesting to recall the times when Reed proved to be just as affected by a crisis as anyone else--when his control flew out the window, and it was up to others to rein him in.
I wish I could get a look at the alternate covers for Fantastic Four #54. I'm reasonably sure there might have been one or two of them. I say that because, in the course of the 100+ covers artist Jack Kirby drew for the book, his covers were some of the best examples I'd seen of representing what was actually happening in a given issue, regardless of how many things were taking place in it. For instance, this cover to FF #77:
We get a taste of practically everything that's going on in this issue--yet we have the impression that the story's focus will be on the FF's battle with Psycho-Man. And with a character like Galactus in the story, tucking him into a corner was an interesting choice; but if you read the issue, and see how everything falls into place, you see how beautifully the cover works.
And while Kirby could at times go about crafting a cover for an issue in roundabout fashion--such as FF #78, which only features the Wizard, the Thing, and Ben Grimm, and little else--most of the time you didn't have any problem getting an idea of what the gist was of the story you were going to read. It was a rare day when Kirby "phoned in" a cover--and by that I mean one that featured the issue's character(s) but did little if anything to represent the issue's story--yet there were still instances when you found one of these covers greeting you on the comics rack. I can think of a few offhand:
But FF #54 stands out for me in this regard. Because while you could argue that the covers above represented their respective stories in a more abstract sense, issue #54's cover is about as generalized as they come. We can get a better sense of that if we line it up with its companion cover from Marvel's Greatest Comics #41, where its story was reprinted:
The original cover on the left shows us that the Human Torch will be the story's focus. (I don't know who wrote that cover caption, but thanks for stating the obvious--I may be jumping the gun, but I'm already pretty sure that the Torch is going to be flaming and flying.) His battle is with Prester John, who carries a weapon that the Torch wants to borrow and use to free the Inhumans. A pro like Kirby could have thought of any number of appealing battle representations of that conflict to put on the issue's cover (including making the Torch "fighting mad"); instead, the cover that went to press, with its virtual explosion of floating heads, only tells you that the FF, the Black Panther, Wyatt Wingfoot, and the Inhumans will be featured, with seemingly only the Torch in action--doing what is anyone's guess.
The newer cover, drawn by Jim Starlin, also makes clear that it's only the Torch we'll see in battle, but tones down the floating heads significantly and puts the emphasis back on the Fantastic Four. Yet it also gives generous cover space to the Torch's foe, as well as providing symbolism that highlights the mysterious threat of the Evil Eye. (Though adding a skull was probably overkill.) Prester John may not have been the most attention-grabbing character, nor was he even really a villain--but this book is no stranger to those kinds of characters, and it's unlikely any harm would have been done featuring him on the cover.
So I can't help but be curious as to whether or not Kirby had prepared drafts of other covers to this issue--and if so, why they were rejected. Granted, even a substitute Kirby cover is still going to be eye-catching, even if the story within might have more suitable elements to catch your eye.
I hope that nice Alex Ross painting from an earlier post tempts you into taking a look at Marvels, the 1994 series that takes readers through a nostalgic tour of Marvel Comics' silver and bronze age stories from various titles, as seen from a man-on-the-street perspective. The series follows photographer Phil Sheldon, who decides to pass on an assignment in Europe and instead begins documenting the appearance of new super-beings, coming to terms with what their presence means for himself as well as others who are caught up in their lives and battles.
Phil, like his peers and fellow citizens, finds his opinions on the subject see-sawing as the years pass. In the beginning, he was like any other Joe who aspired to the American dream of having a wife, kids, "the little house in Queens, the white picket fence, the works!" And then the human race became virtual bystanders to the likes of the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and others who seemed to settle their differences and live their lives as if the world was theirs to build, or destroy. In those early days, Phil wasn't at all happy with his sense of helplessness:
"Look at us--just sitting here, waiting! There isn't a thing we can do--and this our city! Our world! Who gave them the right to just come in and take it away from us?!"
Of course, there would be bona fide heroes who would emerge, who humanity would rally behind and regard as their own; and there were those like the Sub-Mariner, who would battle alongside the Americans against the Nazis, and then inexplicably declare war on the human race. Sometimes it was difficult to keep a scorecard. Sometimes the only thing you could do was to look out the window or walk down the street and speculate on whatever sight greeted your eyes:
But the gems of this series are numerous--brought into focus through Phil, our eyes and ears, whose life at times feels as if it were our own. His reactions could be our reactions--his frustrations, his feelings of helplessness, his confusion, but also his eagerness and sense of anticipation in following the story playing out before him. He and the rest of the human race are there when the "Marvels," as he calls them, come on the scene:
And through Phil's eyes, the little touches of Marvel history that are sprinkled throughout the pages feel brand new to us, as if we're right there with them seeing everything for the first time:
Through Phil we see how the human race aligns itself with Marvels who are almost treated as trends. The Fantastic Four, for instance, are glamorous celebrities who always seem to be in the thick of the most dramatic threats. Of course, it doesn't hurt to be headquartered in a skyscraper in New York City:
Through their adventures and their visibility, the public take an interest in the FF--though as we've seen over the years, their mood towards the team changes depending on how direct the threat is to them and how successful the FF are at defending those they fight for:
Other super-beings in their midst who have a high degree of visibility are treated with varying degrees of familiarity, depending on the information available. Iron Man has the advantage of being associated with Tony Stark, a playboy celebrity if ever there was one--and with both Iron Man and Thor spearheading the Avengers, the super-group whose meeting place was Stark's townhouse on Fifth Avenue had a popular following, as well. Spider-Man, by contrast, was at the mercy of the Daily Bugle's constant and detrimental coverage of him. And the X-Men had the unfortunate distinction of being "mutants," not helping themselves with their appearances being so sporadic and usually shrouded in mystery:
Finally, as Phil is ready to retire, another invasion of New York by Namor as well as the death of Gwen Stacy have a profound effect on him and bring him full circle with those he's spent his adult life documenting with his camera. All in all, Marvels is a genuinely satisfying read, taking a break from the introspective point of view of Peter Parker or the grandiose Victor von Doom and instead putting you and I on the scene as the unexpected happens--sort of like the remake of War Of The Worlds, where we only learn about the events through hearsay or as eyewitnesses to the incredible. It's a story with a combined sense of wonderment and uncertainty, where the human race is along for the ride as their world goes through an astonishing and often overwhelming change:
As a comics reader who's already used to the idea of super-beings, I think I'd find that thrilling. But, honestly, if I were one of Phil's neighbors, trying to understand just what the hell was happening to the world I lived in? It wouldn't be a brave new world to me--it would be an uncertain one.
Fortunately, in this case we know what we're getting into--a good series that you'll find to be a real page-turner. You can find Marvels in its entirety in either TPB or hardcover.
I don't know if Dr. Strange is still making a big deal out of having the title "Sorcerer Supreme." It always seemed like a brainstormed title to me, given to the character to make him sound and seem a little more dramatic and powerful. When it was first trotted out, with the Ancient One's death, it was something to be bequeathed, as well as a title which meant that no other mortal magician was stronger. That's a little presumptuous, if the mystic arts are teachings and disciplines to be taught and studied. Strange may possess the Ancient One's collection of artifacts and tomes, and his library may be second to none, but he's surely not the only mystic bookworm. Yet apparently, the Ancient One's "power" and status were things that could be passed on to and absorbed by Strange after his teacher's death--which almost makes much of the time Strange spent studying as a disciple seem moot, as well as slamming the door on anyone else who feels like ascending to or surpassing Strange's level of mystic mastery.
"Master of the Mystic Arts" may not have given much fanfare to Strange--but I always liked it, because it was a classic and looked really cool below his cover masthead. But it also didn't elevate him to the point of exclusion. There could be other masters of the mystic arts, other "flavors" of sorcerers, if you will--while there can be only one "Sorcerer Supreme." For all the good that title did to its bearer. As we'd later see, being Sorcerer Supreme mostly made Strange a bigger target; but it was apparently also a way to make Strange more marketable. "Master of the Mystic Arts" was perhaps too enigmatic--while "Sorcerer Supreme" was bolder and certainly upped Strange's ante as far as the types of threats we could expect him to engage.
I just wasn't crazy about it.
Anyway, I thought you might like to see the earliest scenes of Strange as "Sorcerer Supreme"--spending nine days meditating in the Mexican desert, where Clea and Wong find him getting his bearings, so to speak. It's a brief scene, but it allows us to see Strange in the process of assimilating his new state of enlightenment and serves as a sort of transition between the man he was and the sorcerer he'll become:
Interestingly, with his new enlightenment, Strange also seems to have adopted an "eye for an eye" approach as far as dealing with his enemies:
Which almost makes you wonder if Baron Mordo would have met a similar fate.