Monday, April 20, 2015

The Man With The Power!

Looking at John Byrne's early Fantastic Four issues, you tend to notice how his presentation differs from other books that, like all comics, must deal in a crisis to sweep us into the action. As Byrne maps out his vision for the FF, he takes a very subtle approach to ease us into both his style of writing and his take on the team, which in some ways resembles the Lee/Kirby approach--but where the FF's creators would have spent only minimal time and development on the other characters featured in a story, Byrne has these characters interacting with the story and engaging the reader. For instance, in FF #232, I don't know if Lee would have spent time establishing Diablo's base of operations in a low-rent run-down apartment building with a nosy landlady, unless it had some tie-in with the story and Diablo's plans for the FF.

"Skip" Collins turns out to be another character that Byrne dotes on in such a way. And in his third FF story as writer, artist and inker, Byrne even gives "Skip" prominent cover exposure:

"Skip," as you might have assumed, is the character's nickname, which Byrne embellishes with quotation marks throughout the story. Once would have been sufficient, as such treatment is normally only given a nickname when it's presented with the person's full name; but Byrne's intention seems to be to use the technique to further highlight the character's ordinary and rather humdrum nature--something surely accomplished in the first five pages of the story, to say nothing of the exquisite splash page that Byrne renders:

It's perhaps my favorite page of the issue, given Byrne's attention to detail here as well as the fact that it can't help but make you wonder what this guy could possibly have to do with the Fantastic Four, aside from the ominous caption that he is somehow "the most powerful man who ever lived." Just look at all the nice touches in the room that are left for us to find, one by one. We see that "Skip" (see? now Mr. Byrne even has me doing it) and his wife don't really pick up after themselves, and we can assume that things are usually left in disarray. The bed appears comfortable, and likely queen-size, with buffers placed beneath the bed posts to preserve the carpet. Like many people prefer to do, the area under the bed is used for storage. "Skip" looks to have a bandage on one of his feet; and he'll have to look around for his other slipper. The lamp shade on his side of the bed is slightly loose and tilted. And the art bookending the main piece above the bed could depict one of their children when they were learning an instrument.

As for "Skip" himself, his expression and his slouch give us an idea of what kind of character is being introduced to us even before Byrne begins to describe him. No one special--no one out of the ordinary. Except that this man's life tends to be exactly how he wants it to be--a fact which "Skip" is blissfully ignorant of.

As for how "Skip" came to have this ability, we have to return to his stint in the Army in 1955 for the answer:

Now that we know much of what we need to know about "Skip," it's time for Byrne to bring the FF into this odd story--and since he's introduced "Skip" in a mundane way, he continues to let the story flow smoothly by doing the same with the members of the FF, by showing them enjoying their down time on a typical New York day. "Skip" has been asked by his boss to sub for him at a business meeting in the city--and before long (almost instantly, actually, since for "Skip" the wish need not wait for the passage of time), "Skip" is playing tourist and running into (whether accidentally or otherwise) some very famous celebrities:

Byrne's history for the Baxter Building is further demonstration of the style of storytelling that he brings to the book, building on what Lee had quickly put in place and giving the team more depth. In this case, it establishes the FF moving into the building and purchasing the tower space not long after its construction.

Despite appearances, "Skip" is the protagonist of this story but not its true focus. The FF are engulfed in a planet-wide catastrophe leading up to its encounter with Ego, the Living Planet. And "Skip" finds himself in the thick of more excitement than he had in mind:

We see each of the FF members in turn, as the destruction and death quickly spreads and the team strives to piece together and deal with the devastating events.

With the FF galvanized and spreading out to help, it would seem that "Skip" would now be in the background of this story, particularly since he's unaware of his abilities and has no real drive to devise any plan for himself beyond seeing to his family. So what happens with him from this point seems a flaw in Byrne's presentation of him, which so far has meshed smoothly with this story but now deviates from what we've seen of this character thus far. With death and ruin all around him, why aren't "Skip's" thoughts of his home, his family? If "Skip" is the type of character who prefers to keep a low profile, why become further involved in the FF's affairs, if only as an afterthought?

"Skip" then finds himself at the Brooklyn Bridge, where the Thing is involved in rescue efforts:

As we saw in the scene at Clancy's Pub when the shockwaves began hitting, Byrne seems to have an odd tendency to present shock and/or disaster by giving a panel's bordering spiked edges extending into the scene, when the disastrous situation might otherwise be presented and enhanced with a sound effect. With Byrne's method, it feels like we should be looking for word balloons to be attached to all those pointers.

It's here that "Skip" makes a timely appearance--and his casual thought leads to salvation for both the trapped freighter and the Thing, but perhaps not for "Skip" himself:

The Thing dives into the water, but his search for the man is unsuccessful. When he reaches the surface, he spots the FF flare signal, which assembles the team back at the Baxter Building where they hear shocking news of the source of the disaster:

As for "Skip," we find that he was able to make a split-second wish of escape from his fate. And the FF's departure serves as the impetus for him to set all to rights, without even realizing it.

From this point on, "Skip" will probably find his life to be a little more mundane than usual, given that he must now slog through time like the rest of us and will no longer find his inconveniences or annoyances taken care of while his mind was elsewhere. Of course, it's very possible that one or all of his four children are mutants--and given the surly and disrespectful tone of his youngest son, we might someday have a truly "Frightful Four" on our hands.

As for the FF, a curious part of the story with "Skip" is that Byrne provides no method for these final events to be reconciled with the FF upon their return from dealing with Ego. Thanks to "Skip," the deadly probe which reduced many of the Earth's cities to rubble and killed so many people never occurred, nor is anyone even aware that a disaster of such magnitude took place--but the FF, who do still recall the disaster, will return to find no damage, no ruins, no deaths, no evidence whatsoever of the events which ultimately forced them to pursue Ego in space. That's a development which Reed wouldn't just shrug his shoulders at--though clearly Byrne is content to do so, which perhaps implies that readers should do the same.

Fantastic Four #234

Script, Pencils and Inks: John Byrne
Letterer: Jean Simek


B Smith said...

Does Byrne point out a which part of the story "Skip" Collins's bow tie changes colour?

Also, in regard to the "odd tendency to present shock and/or disaster by giving a panel's bordering spiked edges extending into the scene" ol' JB has long professed his admiration for British artist Frank Bellamy, who used this effect (and variations thereof) quite often to distinct effect - I can't help thinking it's likely to just be a tribute/borrowing of that motif.

Comicsfan said...

Gosh, B, I took a look at a large sampling of Bellamy's work--and while his panel style and bordering are certainly distinctive, I didn't find any examples to the extent of Byrne's use in this story. That said, I must say that I find Bellamy's artistry awesome. This is my first exposure to his work--thanks so much for pointing it out.

As for that bow tie--maybe colorist Bob Sharen was having some fun at J.B.'s expense? :)

Kid said...

If you love Frank Bellamy, CF, you'll love Mike Noble and Ron Embleton - two names to Google right away. 234 was my first Byrne FF and I thoroughly enjoyed it. He really gave the series a shot in the arm. Nice review.

Colin Jones said...

I think I had the Byrne FF issues from the first one - as Kid says, Byrne really made the FF a "must-read". In fact, looking at the month-by-month Marvel comics on Mike's Amazing World Of Marvel from July 1981 to late 1983 it's only the FF covers that I remember (I stopped reading comics in late '83, not returning till 2007) - I must have been reading other ones but FF was by far the most important in my opinion :)

Comicsfan said...

Kid, much obliged for the recommendations. :D

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