Monday, February 22, 2016

Let There Be... Life!

The incredible 1968 Fantastic Four annual had all the makings of a momentous issue at the time, given the adventure packed into its bound pages as well as the turning point it may have represented for the FF reader--and all for a mere two bits. (By comparison, the Sunday edition of The New York Times around that time cost just about a nickel more.) It was also a milestone, since it would not only feature the birth of Reed and Sue Richards' child, but turn out to be artist Jack Kirby's final annual of original material for the title, as well.

By this time, readers had already become accustomed to the absence of Sue, by necessity on the inactive list, and become resigned to reading the adventures of the "Fantastic Three" for the duration.  (And perhaps for some time thereafter; it was all up in the air for readers as far as what direction the book would go in and how the team dynamic would change). Obviously, with Sue about to give birth, this 48-page story would be more of the same, with Reed, Ben, and Johnny going into action to deal with whatever conflict would be featured--or maybe just Ben and Johnny, since you'd think it would be a stretch for even Mr. Fantastic to find cause to leave his wife's side while she was about to go into labor. That's quite a large page count to have the Fantastic Four split down the middle and devote an annual's action sequences to only two of its members; on the other hand, Fantastic Four has often thrived around the ebb and flow of the lives of its characters and their real-world dilemmas and life changes, which gave them a lot of latitude with their readers and consequently provided fodder for the book's letters pages.

Fortunately, writer Stan Lee finds a way to meet readers halfway--or in this case, more than halfway, by necessitating Reed's involvement in the story outside of the hospital's waiting room, in a dramatic development involving complications that would see the lives of his wife and unborn child at stake. And the groundwork is laid in an earlier story, shortly before the annual sees print.

The ominous discovery isn't addressed further to any degree in the regular monthly title, as Lee reserves the annual's opening pages for meeting the crisis head-on--leaving Fantastic Four Annual #6 primed to take us on a tense and action-filled adventure from start to finish.

Ordinarily, the prospect of entering another universe--let's repeat that, another universe--in the hopes of locating a quantity of anti-matter in time to correct Sue's condition would be like launching into space in our universe and spinning an arrow on a dial to pick a direction in which to head to begin looking for it. But in Reed's case, he knows from prior experience that the Negative Zone contains immense areas of anti-matter, areas that appear to be so numerous that you're always in fear for your life at being drawn into one of them with each visit. The other half of the story's premise--that the lives of Sue and the baby are in imminent danger due to her irradiated blood cells--is less clear, since it's only natural to assume that any dangerous radiation would have had a fatal effect on either the mother or certainly on the child well before now, and wouldn't have waited nine months for the process of labor in order to manifest. The child would be born a mutant, yes--but examinations up to this point indicate that both Sue and the baby are in otherwise good health.

Nevertheless, Lee's story engulfs us in a time-is-of-the-essence, life-or-death scenario which we must accept if we're to enjoy this story, and there is certainly enough adventure and time-tested FF excitement here to do that. Key to the success of the FF's mission will be to overcome a brand-new villain to the mag--a ruthless murderer named Annihilus, who sweeps through the Zone --the universe, we must remember-- to cold-bloodedly lay waste to and eradicate any being(s) or species that he deems might pose a threat to his now-immortal existence.

Annihilus, like many dangerous and powerful villains, irrationally fights to protect and prolong what isn't really in danger or threatened--and given his longevity, he has the luxury of doing so on a universal scale. In essence, he's the embodiment of paranoia, determined to crush any perceived threat to his existence--and in the process, he's become a feared danger, in a universe of worlds that will likely rise up and become precisely the relentless aggressors that he dreads.

As for the FF, they pass through the portal to the Negative Zone and begin their journey, to--where? Reed speaks as if he knows where he's going--but if it's not the exploding anti-matter area, then where does that leave them?

Kirby seems particularly drawn to fashion these pages where objects or characters are superimposed onto graphics obtained from other sources; personally, I would have been interested to see him make his own attempt at three-dimensional art.  (I wonder if such an idea ever crossed his mind?) But as to the dialog being exchanged, there is some clarification needed--for while Lee would imply here and elsewhere that the team is wary of again encountering an exploding anti-matter area, neither Ben nor Johnny has ever had first-hand experience in that regard, since neither has ever been in the Negative Zone until this point.

As it happens, we'll never know what plan or destination Reed had in mind, because thralls of Annihilus appear to derail the team's mission and threaten their very survival.

One interesting (if still sadistic) thing we learn about Annihilus here is that he doesn't indiscriminately wipe out other species, at least before first coldly assessing their threat potential and weaknesses through study. Neither you nor I would likely wish to be subjects of his experiments, of course; and his holding cells are just that, with no regard for his captives' protests or pleas. He remains single-minded as to his chosen goal, but there is a method to his madness, however merciless.

In other issues featuring the "Fantastic Three," Lee and Kirby have always seemed to find the space to feature Sue, in whatever state she's in at the time--whether agitated, or worried, or despondent at Reed's absence, or simply passing the time. In this story, however, we never lay eyes on Sue until the very end--and even under the circumstances, her absence in a Fantastic Four annual seems conspicuous. Perhaps both Lee and Kirby felt it would be an unnecessary intrusion on the mother-shortly-to-be, with the doors of the maternity ward in the late '60s still being sacrosanct as far as the men (or in our case, the readers) not being permitted further. From the scenes we've been presented with, it's almost a certainty that Reed hasn't divulged to Sue the danger involved in her condition--but assuming her doctor would have felt duty-bound to fully inform her, it would be interesting to have at least a scene with her perspective on things. As it is, we're only provided with one or two scenes of the ongoing situation through the eyes of other people.

Meanwhile, in his resistance to being captured by Annihilus, Reed stumbles upon an alternate method for helping Sue, which from that point forward sets the team against this deadly enemy.

" incredible stroke of luck" is certainly a good way of putting this development; still, it comes at a point in the story where we're ready for the FF's luck to change. Though it might be stacking the deck with Reed being tipped off by a device that's blatantly called a "cosmic control rod." It's still unclear why Reed had placed his hopes in anti-matter as a solution, even at the point where he's deciding to shift his focus to a completely different approach; but a controlling method is admittedly a more viable option, thanks to whatever science that Annihilus seems to have at his disposal.

Annihilus puts the FF through the wringer in his brutal series of tests--but they prove to be up to the challenge, and their need to prevail provides them with the added incentive to overcome their foe. Nor does Kirby disappoint, giving us spectacular battle scenes which demonstrate how much Annihilus has underestimated his captives.

Given how driven Annihilus is at preserving his status and making sure that no one can rise to threaten him, his reaction at the theft of the one device he values and protects more than any other--the object that drives him to act as he does--comes as no surprise. It's a reaction that both Kirby and Lee hit right on the mark.

The day goes from bad to worse for Annihilus, as his captives go on to elude his pursuit (and his pursuers) and escape into space. But in their follow-up skirmishes with their enemy, the FF find that in crippling their foe, they may have lost the battle.

It's an appropriate moment to segue back to the hospital for an update on the situation. The scene really tells us nothing we didn't know before, and Sue still remains M.I.A.; but it serves to ramp up the story's tension by implying that, just as with the FF's situation in the Negative Zone, things have reached the critical stage, especially if something is happening in the delivery room as the doctor suggests.

It's a tightrope that Lee walks at this stage, since the timing in both segments of the story will be delicate. Reed and the others are on the verge of succeeding with their mission, but must escape what appears to be certain death, and quickly; while the story can't afford to have Sue go into labor before the crucial element has been retrieved to stabilize her condition, because by then it will be too late to help her. It's likely the reason Sue is being kept "under wraps" from the reader--though we can only hope her doctor isn't counseling her to do her best to delay the delivery of her child, since he may already be in hot water for withholding vital information from his patient. In any case, we're being kept too much in the dark to do more than speculate on the matter.

But first things first: extricating the FF from the Negative Zone. If ever we needed one of Reed's under-pressure, last-ditch plans, this would be the time--and it's Annihilus himself who inadvertently provides him with one.

As we can see, out of the blue we're now back to Reed expecting to use anti-matter as a solution, even though it's been made clear by both Reed and Annihilus that the rod houses cosmic energy. In addition, wasn't the whole point to secure the device, since it's the control rod that's designed to regulate cosmic energy? No wonder Annihilus goes a little nuts at the thought of losing this device--even he must still be trying to figure out just what it is, and getting no help from Lee.

At any rate, Reed seems to think the energy contained in the device is now self-regulating--and Annihilus is in no mood to belabor the point. The FF make their escape--and judging by the spectacle of Kirby's full-page display and the optimistic feeling that the story is sending our way, we can assume that the three would make it back to our world in time.

It's here, as the story reaches its conclusion and Sue has presumably received Reed's treatment, that Lee and Kirby provide us with some very human moments--because, when you come right down to it, there is no predicting the outcome where the miracle of life is in play, particularly in the case of Sue's condition and the extraordinary circumstances which brought everyone to this point. And an expectant father, nervously counting the minutes in the waiting area along with the FF, proves to Reed and the others that childbirth levels the playing field and can make nervous wrecks of just about anyone.

Poor Mr. Smith will mysteriously have a few bruises on his body by the time he wakes up, because he's about to be trampled by a horde or reporters who swarm in to shower the FF with flash bulbs and congratulations (in that order) at the good news which sends this annual over the top and, in one elated moment, sets the Fantastic Four on a brand new course.

(Good grief, Johnny--dial back your red carpet posturing in front of those rolling cameras, sport!)

While in hindsight we could easily rephrase Ben's closing comment to indicate that life with the FF is going to guarantee this kid will often find himself in horrific danger (and from Annihilus in particular), we shouldn't spoil the brief moment these people have to themselves to give thanks for his birth. It's a fine closing scene that brings to an end a storyline which was set in motion in the title's previous annual--a scene that in a way reaffirms the team with its readers, who can only be eager to see what happens next, given the firm roots that a child in the mix has forced the book to establish. It's a fairly bold thing that Lee has done here--either setting a precedent for the main characters in other Marvel titles, or becoming a cautionary tale, depending on how successful the FF book proves to be in making it work.

Fantastic Four Annual #6

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Sam Rosen

The tragic flipside to this story!


Anonymous said...

One of Marvel's scariest villains, who always reminded me of a giant armored humanoid bat with the head of a grasshopper. You'd think that would look ridiculous, but it's actually pretty scary! Nothing you'd want to see landing on your roof. You're gonna need a pretty big can of Raid for this one.
I've always enjoyed these Negative Zone tales (as well as the Sub-Atomica stories) although the apparent room temperature and breathable air requires a bit of suspension of disbelief. But I guess it wouldn't look the same if the F.F. were wearing clunky space suits.
One of the classics from the Lee/Kirby run!

Rick said...

Loved this issue Jack and Joe were really at that peak. Every panel is gorgeous.

Comicsfan said...

M.P., your thoughts on Annihilus will have some bearing in regard to the story of his origin, which will be featured here in due course. (We have a tad more annihilating to get through this week first!)

david_b said...


And WHAAAT a beautiful dynamic cover.

verkku said...

"Kirby seems particularly drawn to fashion these pages where objects or characters are superimposed onto graphics obtained from other sources."

That's Sibelius Monument it's in Helsinki, Finland