Sunday, September 30, 2012

Home Is Where The Fantasti-Car Is

One of the things I appreciated in John Byrne's stint on Fantastic Four was his occasional nod to the Lee/Kirby gift for connecting fans to the FF in ways other than just the stories. The fan mail. The "rogue's galleries." The pin-ups. The various inserts which told you a little more about the characters.

Going back through those issues, you'll find that Byrne duplicated some of the original pin-ups of the team--in his own style, yet borrowing from the Lee/Kirby presentations. For instance, have a look at this side-by-side comparison of the FF group pin-up--originally published in Fantastic Four #15, and recreated by Byrne in Fantastic Four #250. Byrne's more contemporary presentation still can't help but remind you of the original:

Instead of a dynamic "charging into action" pose that we see so often in team art spreads, each of these pin-ups is presented in a family snapshot pose that comes across as more inviting to readers/fans. You feel like you're a part of the FF's world, rather than just looking at it by turning pages. That's helped a great deal by the simplicity of the room the FF are gathered in--and also the fact that they're looking directly at you in greeting, as well as including their personal autographs to you. They were unexpected treats to a kid reading comics--you felt like part of the adventure.

Byrne obviously, and interestingly, interprets the characters differently in his rendering. Kirby, for instance, sees Reed as a bolder figure, the unquestioned leader and decision-maker, with a build to match his drive. In Byrne's portrait, Reed is far less built, more cerebral--and he tends to blend with the other members of the group, rather than stand out. Sue portrays a picture of loveliness in both portraits, though seems more animated and engaged in Byrne's drawing. Johnny, all of 16 in Kirby's pin-up, is still Sue's kid brother in Byrne's, but seems more of age than the boy that Kirby presents to us. And the difference in Ben is striking--larger, more protective in Byrne's pin-up, his stature more in line with the kind of power he's been shown to possess.

Byrne also gives us individual messages with the autographs, where Kirby felt signatures would suffice. And the addition of Franklin was a nice touch, though of course that's no oversight on Kirby's part.

Being the close-knit, mostly related group that they are, I suppose only the FF could get away with this kind of "welcome to our home" pose. Since they've had more than their share of action shots, these pin-ups were a good change of pace, and served to add a little dimension to the team.

The Family That Battles Together...

Dissension In The Ranks

When resentments and disagreements boil over,
even allies can turn against each other in fierce battle that can bring the house down.

(And often does!)


The Fantastic Four

I'm not sure when a writer on Fantastic Four first called the team a "family"--but I do know that it was an observation that went unspoken for quite awhile. It's an observation about the FF that was hiding in plain sight. After all, dissension in families crops up often, though "dissension" can often be an understatement in describing family arguments. Add that kind of simmering powderkeg to a "family" with super-powers, and someone storming out the door can be acted out almost literally.

For instance, we've all had family disagreements where push comes to shove--but did you ever have one like this?

So the FF are what you might call a special case as far as family disagreements are concerned--a case that even Dr. Phil would probably steer well clear of. Because while these four are well known for their intra-team bickering at times, there are often instances when things reach the boiling point.

Take Johnny, who struggles sometimes to be seen as more than a hot-headed kid. Johnny is practically the poster boy for growing pains, depending on who's writing him. On the one hand, he likes indulging in his youth in being the spectacular and famous Human Torch; but on the other hand, he broods or acts out when it seems no one takes him seriously. For instance, there was the time when Johnny was ready to commit to Crystal, his first love, by joining her in the Inhumans' Great Refuge, half a world away. Unfortunately, Reed, who sometimes tends to overthink something when there's no need to do so, makes a tense situation worse:

It's clear that Ben isn't on board the rush to restrain Johnny. But after Sue uses her invisibility power to help her brother make his escape, we see that things aren't all that rosy with her and Reed:

Reed's heart has sometimes been the hardest nut to crack when it comes to personal matters within the team. We've seen throughout the publication of Fantastic Four that he indeed has one--but there have been times when his head gets in the way. One such instance was when he and Sue separated, because he couldn't reconcile that fact that the mother of his son, Franklin, was also a full-fledged member of the team. Things finally come to a head after a heated battle, where she'd opted to stay and fight after refusing Reed's order to take their son and flee:

And go she does. Nor is her return to the team of her own choosing. Annihilus kidnaps both her and Franklin in order to tap into Franklin's powers. But doing so sends Franklin into critical mass, and Reed is forced to shut down his mind in order to save the world. And it's the final straw, as far as the FF is concerned:

In both of these instances, Reed is caught between a rock and a hard place--the tactical vs. the human. I know which way the respective stories are tugging me--but I can't invalidate his point of view in either instance. I suppose that would disqualify me from FF membership if it were up to Sue, Johnny, or Ben.

Nor is Ben without his disagreements with his teammates, being the most blunt and the one who speaks his mind the most often. Much of the time, we've seen Ben's resentments and anger manifest as a result of experiments to return him to human form gone wrong, or being otherwise manipulated by outside forces. Take this case, when side effects from one of Reed's experiments begin to affect his personality, making him turn on his friends and even Alicia, his girlfriend:

Alicia is often Ben's Achilles' heel where his judgment is concerned, so there are those times when no experiment is needed to make him lose his temper. His epic battle with the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four #55 is one such example, where his jealousy gets the better of him. But there was also this instance, where his underlying anger at Reed's failure to make him human again causes him to lash out in frustration:

It's probably a good thing these four had the multi-floored Baxter Building as their headquarters--look at all that space they had to get away from each other when they needed to. But despite the portrayal here, the flare-ups between members of the FF have been the exception rather than the rule. Whatever arguments they've had have helped them to understand each other better and pull together more strongly. I remember an old segment in one of the FF annuals called "Questions and Answers About the Fantastic Four," where each team member had their own short Q&A list--and one of the questions about Johnny was, "Does he really hate the Thing?" And the answer, short and sweet, was "He'd risk his life for him without question!" That sentiment may not always hold true in our real-life families, but it's one of the qualities that made Fantastic Four one of the more memorable teams in comic books.

It's Good To Be The All-Father

Among the many full-page portraits that artist Jack Kirby devoted space to in the comic books he pencilled, his most detailed often involved those he drew for Thor. And among those, who better to dote on than Odin, whose status as ruler colored practically his every mood and expression? Yet there were other artists who found Odin irresistible for full-page coverage--most notably, John Buscema and Neal Adams, the latter having only a short tenure on Thor but who left a memorable impression.

Here, then, is a comparative look at the lord of Asgard, as seen through the eyes of those best able to interpret him--Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, and John Buscema, respectively, giving him the full-page treatment. And you'll probably agree that even an entire page can barely contain him.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Not So Frightful

Before Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-In-One came along and milked the concept for all it was worth, Marvel would occasionally concoct unlikely match-ups between its characters within their own titles--meetings which would make you scratch your head and wonder whatever made the writer think of having these two characters meet at all, much less fight. But your curiosity got the better of you--you wondered how the battle would play out, no matter how mismatched the characters were in abilities.

Would might or power triumph? Or would cunning and tactics win the day?

We'll find the answers in a series that could only be called:

I was thinking about all of these meetings there are to choose from, and I thought we might as well start with this unlikely pairing:

No, you're not seeing things. Spider-Man--humbled by hair. Like life wasn't already kicking him in the shin.

Beware The Green Monster

Brawl of the Gods

A Series Profiling the Battles between the God of Thunder and the Prince of Power

As relatively tame as their first conflict was by comparison, this second meeting of Thor and Hercules will have you thinking that all-out war has broken out between them. That's probably due more to marketing than their own temperament. This issue marks the point where Journey Into Mystery, the title that had introduced Thor and continued publishing his stories as a series, formally shifts its name to The Mighty Thor, with the issue number picking up where Journey Into Mystery left off.

Not giving Thor his very own #1 issue would later come back to bite Marvel from a marketing standpoint, but I think I can see the thinking here in wanting to retain regular readers of Journey Into Mystery while simultaneously bringing them on board the Thor title; also, for whatever reason, it may have seemed a little odd to them to "restart" Thor at #1 when he's already had a run of over thirty issues. In any event, with Thor's "first issue," Marvel no doubt wanted it to explode onto the comics racks with a bang, which was billed as a "clash of titans." And, indeed, that's just what artist Jack Kirby delivers in this cover-to-cover brawl.

So how in the world did it get to this point? When last we saw these two, they were shaking hands and declaring their friendship. Well, you can thank Thor's mortal girlfriend at the time, Jane Foster, whose common sense was out to lunch when she decides to make Thor jealous because she's feeling neglected:

Hercules, of course, had no way of knowing that he'd thrown the wrong punch at the wrong time. Thor had just undergone the Asgardian "ritual of steel," where Odin basically sics the entire complement of Asgardian warriors on a subject who's displeased him--in this case, Thor, who has kept from Odin the fact that he's revealed his secret identity to Jane and declared his love for her. (Yeah, I know--most fathers don't hurl armed legions against their child when they don't agree with what they've done--but Odin isn't exactly your typical poster father.) Nor is Jane entirely blameless here. Despite pulling an often-resorted-to mortal tactic used with inattentive boyfriends, she forgets she's dealing with--let me see if I can say this clearly--GODS. So chances are, things aren't going to end at macho threats being hurled. In fact, Jane, things just might end with a large part of New York City being reduced to rubble around you. Nice going, dear. Astonishingly, you actually have the nerve to look shocked in that last panel.

And this is where you came in. Better give these guys some room, because the battle quickly moves away from the soda shop (what's left of it):

You may have noticed that Thor has become more clear-headed as the fight has progressed, given how frazzled he was at having escaped Asgard and fighting his way back to Jane's side. At that time, Hercules had basically pushed him too far after all he'd been through--and in addition to Jane's manipulation, Thor probably found responding to Hercules the perfect way to release his pent-up anger at Odin's pig-headedness, if only subconsciously. Yet now he's come to see a lot of himself in Hercules--before he'd found his center as Donald Blake, before his time as an Avenger, before he'd become so endeared with mortals and their circumstances. Unfortunately, Hercules' persistence isn't allowing his own thirst for battle to subside.

That last page is yet another of Jack Kirby's beautiful full-page portraits that he often inserted into his later work at Marvel. This would be the last Thor-Hercules battle that he would ever illustrate before his departure from the company (aside from a cover illustration here or there). The difference in pacing between this battle and the earlier one is remarkable--though some of that is due to the battle taking place not on a grassy field, but in the midst of contemporary building structures, the shattering of which is more conducive to displaying pacing. It's regrettable that the battle now begins to draw to a close--because Odin, in his often-questionable wisdom, has decided that now is the time to punish Thor for his transgressions, by removing half of his power. And the tide of battle instantly turns.

It takes awhile--and cannily, on Marvel's part, more book sales--for things to be resolved with Hercules and Thor in terms of wrapping up this situation between them properly. Everyone at this point wants Thor back at his peak and gunning for a rematch--which, in the beginning, is exactly how things start out with Thor and his reconciliation with Odin. Yet when Thor finally finds Hercules again, he discovers that the Olympian is in dire straits--and we're shown, through Thor's actions, that it's more important to have a sense of honor than it is to carry a grudge. In helping Hercules, Thor redeems himself in a way far more lasting than a thrown punch would grant him--and he forms a better relationship with Hercules as a result.

Though if that gives you the impression that these two will never have reason to clash again--well, you haven't been reading comic books very long, have you?

Friday, September 28, 2012

Man Of Some People


Name This Marvel Villain??

Man Without Peer

A little over a year ago, we lost one of the true greats of comics art:

Gene Colan
1926 - 2011

Have a look at some of this artist's memorable work and style.

The Avengers


Tomb of Dracula

Iron Man

Dr. Strange

And a personal favorite: the definitive image of
The Watcher