Sunday, December 2, 2012

Always Remember To Tip Your Guards

Fantastic Four Annual #5 was, in a word, crammed. Crammed with almost 60 pages of new material. Crammed with pin-ups (including the first double-page pin-up of the FF). Crammed with guest-stars. Crammed with ground-breaking news--the pregnancy of Sue Richards. Crammed with a new Silver Surfer story, the title of which inspired the naming of this humble blog:

Heck, even its cover was crammed:

Yes, this puppy was packed. Yet despite the wealth of content to feast on, what tends to catch your eye when you look over its cover is the blazing caption, "NOT A SINGLE REPRINT!" You didn't often see that on a Marvel annual; and as any fan can tell you, the words "reprint" and "annual" should never meet as one.

If I were to pick one part of this annual that I enjoyed above the others, though, surprisingly I wouldn't pick either the FF or the Surfer story; instead, I'd vote for the dazzling pin-ups of the Inhumans featured afterward. It's not simply because they're the first full-page renderings of the members of the royal family that I recall coming across--I suppose it's really because artists Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott seemed to take it up a notch with these characters and really do them justice.

Let's start with the two most prominent of the family, brothers who seem destined for lifelong conflict with each other:

The character of Black Bolt, as a ruler, is both impressive and intriguing. He strikes me as more of an out-of-the-ordinary man who became a ruler, rather than one who felt he was destined to be King. We know Maximus took over rule of the Inhumans from Black Bolt after an "accident" had rendered Black Bolt mute, and that Maximus subsequently sent Black Bolt into exile (the details are unclear--Maximus probably manufactured a reason or trumped-up charge so as to remove his brother and thus prevent him from regaining the throne). When Black Bolt returns and is able to seize the crown, it's really only because Maximus' guards have abandoned him (with others prevented from coming to his aid by Karnak and Gorgon). Yet the copy on the page, with its exalted language, would have us believe that Black Bolt was, is, and will be the greatest King the Inhumans ever knew, despite the fact that he's retaking the crown by force:

However, I think that Black Bolt is more the sum of his parts, rather than someone necessarily born to rule. A mute monarch who uses gestures in a way that makes them as imposing as his spoken word might be. Above-average strength, supplementing his ability to harness electrons by means of a device on his costume. Obviously an ability to inspire loyalty (though loyal guards don't exactly stand by while your brother sends you into exile). An excellent fighter with athletic gifts. A glider membrane built into his costume that allows him flight. And of course his destructive voice, which he must always struggle to keep in check. You don't see most of these attributes in Kirby's pose of him here--but because we're aware of them, the pose comes across as more impressive even though this could be any Inhuman standing with his arms raised.

As for Maximus, frankly I was expecting Kirby to picture him as a sort of ruler-in-waiting--yet I think this pose represents his state of mind (or lack thereof) and sense of stymied ambition beautifully.

So now that we've seen the brothers, perhaps it's time to have a look at the two sisters of the family:

Oddly enough, the first thing to catch my eye in the Medusa pin-up is the replacement of her old "Madam" title with "Magnificent." I'm guessing it was thought that the former term might associate her too much with her days with the Frightful Four, which her appearances since have struggled to divorce her from. And yet, in these latter appearances, as well as for some time to come, Medusa continues to wear a mask. Masks didn't even make sense on the Inhumans when the royal family was in exile and was trying to keep a low profile because of the Seeker's pursuit--after all, their costumes alone would still make them stand out for him like a sore thumb. But once the Inhumans returned to the Great Refuge after doing reconaissance amongst the human race, what was the point of wearing masks? Ceremonial cowls are one thing, but identity-hiding masks? If you want "Madam" Medusa to be a thing of the past, "magnificent" Medusa needed to retire her mask (which Queen Medusa finally had the good sense to do).

Take Crystal, for example. If anyone suggested she should wear a mask, her first response would probably be "Why?" Interestingly, Kirby's rendering of Crystal takes a very subdued approach, even though the copy makes a point of describing her impressive abilities. I can only imagine how amazing a more dramatic pose of Crystal might have looked under Kirby and Sinnott's skilled hands. But it's a nice page nonetheless--though Kirby sometimes can make a woman's face appear older than the character actually is, as seems to be the case here.

Rounding out the pin-ups of the royal family are the Inhumans' version of the Warriors Three:


It's really Gorgon and Karnak who are usually seen fighting and bantering together the most often, though. Triton, as we've seen since day one, tends to act independently of the others, and with a more clear head.  His independence is perhaps partly due to his ability to exist underwater; but even though that segregates him in stories to an extent, he paints a very impressive picture in or out of the water in the hands of the right artist (with Kirby and Neal Adams coming to mind).

Karnak is naturally less impacting than the shockwave-producing Gorgon, who made an impressive showing against the entire FF (to say nothing of an enraged Dragon Man) at one point. But how cleverly it made sense to make his fighting form that of a karate master, since we normally associate such displays with disabling an opponent or destroying a blunt object. After all, Karnak's power--being able to sense the weakest point in his target--can't do much for him on its own. He also needs to possess the strength and skill to take advantage of it. The Empire State Building must have a weak point somewhere--that doesn't mean I can just walk up and take it down with one chop.

Kirby and Sinnott did a wonderful job with this annual, and these pin-ups in particular.  At some point I'm really going to have to get into the Inhumans in depth, since their portrayal under Stan Lee glosses over a society that's a little less dazzling when you take a closer look under those masks and cowls.