Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Marvel 1965

My last post left Reed and Sue escaping from the Frightful Four, towing a brainwashed Thing who had an anti-gravity disk glued to him. The Wizard and a brainwashed Human Torch tried to stop their escape. The rest of the EFF (Evil FF) team also had anti-gravity disks glued to them and were hanging on to the ground for their lives.

Reed and Sue made good their escape and Sue revealed that she had disabled the Wizard's ID machine so the Torch was only playing at being brainwashed. They managed to get the Thing to the Baxter Building and gave him a dose of sleeping gas.

The Wizard rescued his team-mates, figured out that the Torch was faking and captured him. Reed improvised an anti-brainwashing devise which half-killed the Thing before they shut off the main power.

The EFF broke into the Baxter Building and confronted Reed and Sue. The Wizard showed them the Torch, stuck to a large anti-gravity disk the Wizard controlled. The only way to save the Torch was for the three of them to submit to the Wizard's ID machine.

Just then the Thing woke up long enough to crush the Wizard's chest piece. This freed the Torch. Reed took advantage of the confusion and disarmed the Trapster. Medusa fled and the other three surrendered.

In a bit of 1960s humor, Reed called the police to collect the EFF but the desk sergeant thought it was a crank call. The Torch had to escort the three personally.

The Thing woke up again, back to normal and over his hard feelings from two issues earlier. The story ended with a promo for the FF annual featuring Reed and Sue's wedding.

This ended the FF's first three-issue continued story and a six-issue story arc on the Frightful Four. It marked a new style of story-telling. Single-issue plots would be the exception instead of the rule and the comic would never return to the formulaic stories of just a few months earlier. (It was also the last time the Frightful Four were a credible threat).

The same thing was happening across the Marvel line-up. The other Lee/Kirby comic, Thor, was into a lengthy plot arc that included a two-part fight with the Absorbing Man, the Trial of the Gods, a side-trip to Viet Nam, a two-part fight with the Destroyer, and another two-part fight with the Absorbing Man.

Several other titles had been revamped. The Sub-Mariner replaced Giant Man and the Wasp in Tales to Astonish and starting with a multi-issue quest. The Hulk in the backup-strip stopped changing into Banner for the next few years. Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD replaced the Torch and the Thing as the lead in Strange Tales with an epic fight against Hydra. Doctor Strange in the backup strip had a multi-part fight with Baren Mordo and the Dread Dormammu.

The X-Men graduated from high school and finally defeated Magneto (with the help of the Stranger).

The original Avengers quit and Captain America led a new team made up of reformed villains - Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.

Spider-Man also graduated from high school. In the next year or so his book would have major changes as he switched girl friends and artists.

This was an exciting time at Marvel but the fantastic Four continued to be ground zero. The next year would see a major expansion of the Marvel Universe as the FF met the Inhumans, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, and the Black Panther. Lee and Kirby also introduced Ka-Zar and the Savage Land in the X-Men and the High Evolutionary in Thor. The 1965 Thor annual featured a Thor/Hercules fight that intruduced other pantheons besides the Norse. With the introduction of the Kree Empire in the FF in 1967, the Marvel Universe as we know it was pretty much established.

Along with scope, the depth of the stories changed. The single-issue format only left enough room for a page or two of characterization. Continued stories meant that most of an issue could be spent on a single character as long as it led to the promise of action in the next issue.

1965 was the big dividing point for all of this. a sea change like this could never happen today. Back then the Marvel bullpen was a myth. The office consisted of Stan, the editor and main writer, a small office staff, and a bunch of free-lancers who only came by once or twice a month. Now each comic book has its own staff of assistant editors and major changes come from the board room.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fantastic Four - 1965

I happened to start looking at issues of the FF in 1965 a few weeks. I chose an issue (#36, the Frightful Four's first appearance) which someone swiped from me not long after I bought it. I've been reading issues forward and back from there and it turns out that this year was a watershed for Marvel. I realized at the time that the comics seemed to be getting better but I was only ten at the time. With lots more years or perspective I can see how this year changed comic books.

Several elements of Marvel were in place from the beginning. Stan Lee placed the characters in real cities and had them interact with the real world in ways that other superheros didn't do. For example, in issue #35, the Yancy Street Gang sent the Thing a Beatles wig. After brawling with the Torch over it, he admitted that he liked it and tried it on. The plot involved a billionaire who bet his rivals that he could destroy the Fantastic Four. His plot fell apart because his son was a fan (at one point he showed his father his Fantastic Four "magazines") and got caught in the trap that was supposed to eliminate the FF. The Billionaire repented while the Thing wondered how he would look in the Thing's Beatles wig. Between being self-referential and pop-culture references, it was the sort of story that gave Marvel its initial splash.

On the other hand, issues had a certain sameness. A typical FF comic started with a couple of pages of the FF then introduced (or reintroduced) the villain and set up for the fight. The fight itself was rather fast with a quick resolution in the last page or two.

This wasn't a formula as much as a convention. The assumption was that each issue should stand on its own in order to attract new readers. Accordingly, the heroes and villains were reintroduced every issue and plots seldom took more than a single comic.

I recently wrote about the Return of the Frightful Four. This is when things changed. This issue itself was typical enough except it ended on a cliffhanger - the FF were caught in a Q-bomb explosion and left floating in the open ocean.

The next issue picked up from there. A US navy sub rescued the FF. after a couple of pages of dancing around it, the four admitted that they had lost their powers (radiation giveth, radiation taketh away). Worried that they would be unable to defend themselves, Reed started trying to duplicate their powers with special suits. He also consulted with their attorney to be sure that his will was in order.

In the Marvel universe, every one's attorney is Matt Murdock who is also Daredevil.

In the meantime, Doctor Doom realized that he had been tricked in his last encounter with the FF and attacked the Baxter Building. It was empty but he took over Richards' equipment and located the FF in a warehouse. He then used Richards' own weapons to attack the powerless FF. They were aided by Daredevil.

This story took two issues with the FF finally reaching the Baxter Building in the second issue. While Daredevil distracted Doom, Richards retrieved an energy gun that he had used three issues earlier and used it to restore their powers (he explained that he had been letting it recharge and the suits were a stop-gap).

This is where it gets interesting. It is a cliche that the cursed hero will become normal then heroically become cursed again. This was in the Fantastic Four movie. It was in last night's season finale of Chuck. But that wasn't how it happened here. Beg Grimm was normal and didn't want to change back but Reed changed him anyway. They the rest let the Thing take on Doom alone.

This was an epic battle. Doom was pulling powers out of a hat and the Thing took everything that Doom threw at him and smashed up his suit, forcing him to flee.

Then the Thing quit the group. He had been normal and he was a monster again. He didn't like it one bit.

Cut to the next issue. The battle with Doom hurt the Thing more than he admitted. He snuck onto a pickup truck and fell asleep. Even falling out of the truck on a rough road didn't wake him.

The Wizard located him there and brought him to the Frightful Four's headquarters. He had a new device that would brainwash the Thing and put him under the Wizard's control. In the meantime we got a look at the team dynamic. Medusa was really in charge, using a combination of flirting and power to keep the others in line. The Wizard was too busy to notice. Sandman liked women who played rough, and the Trapster whined but tended to do whatever Medusa said.

The rest of the FF eventually tried to track down the Thing after his girlfriend, Alicia, shamed them into it. With the Thing's help, the other three were quickly overpowered and captured. The Torch and Sue were secured. Reed was glued to a board. Then the Wizard reminded the Thing that Reed had made him ugly and ordered him to kill Reed. End of issue.

The next issue took up directly from there. It was almost all fight. Reed got free of the board he was glued to but the Thing stuffed him into a metal bottle. Sue escaped with the bottle while the Wizard used him mind-control machine on the Torch. During a lull, Medusa flirted with the Thing and Sandman got jealous. Sue freed Reed and they counter-attacked using the Trapster's paste and the Wizard's flying disks to throw the EFF off balance. Reed and Sue fled, taking a floating Thing while the Torch and the Wizard tried to stop them.

It was an adrenaline rush of an issue. No introduction, no introducing the characters, just cover to cover action. Without the usual 3-6 pages of set-up there was a lot more room for action and characterization. The continued story was now the preferred way of telling a story.

My next post will discuss how other Marvel comics were changing at the same time and cover the wrap-up to the Frightful Four.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Return of the Frightful Four

Several days ago I wrote about the issue of the Fantastic Four that introduced the evil FF - the Frightful Four. It was an unusual issue. Panels were missing backgrounds and the comic book ended before the plot. The book looks like it was rushed out.

Two issues later the Frightful Four returned in what amounts to a do-over issue.

In the issue in between, the FF had gone to the Skrull homeworld to avenge the death of Sue's father.

The return of the EFF (Evil FF) starts with Reed examining some huge blowups of photographs he had taken the previous issue. Jack Kirby liked to incorporate unusual photographs into his artwork and used real photos.

This quickly degenerated into horseplay between Reed and Sue. The Torch left and spotted a flying man who quickly vanished.

This turned out to the the Wizard. He returned to the EFF's current hideout in upstate New York but was subdued by the Sandman then the Trapster (Paste-Pot Pete renamed himself and upgraded his weapons). The Wizard retaliated by using his anti-gravity powers to throw the other three around the cabin. This introduced the EFF to readers who missed their first appearance.

Cut to Sue who was looking at dress designs by a new designer. This turned out to be Madam Medusa. Sue was rendered unconscious and taken to a remote island where the Wizard had hidden a "Q" bomb (some sort of nuclear device).

Reed was frantic at this and used his technology to search the world. He found the EFF's ship right above the Baxter Building. The Torch flew up to investigate it but got too close and was also taken prisoner. The EFF led Reed and Ben to the island where their Pogo Plane was destroyed. The Torch was released and the two groups had a short battle.

In the meantime, Sue woke up and freed herself from the Trapster's paste bonds. The Thing heard her moving around underground and broke off the fight. While the FF was distracted the EFF left in the Wizard's ship. This left the FF trapped on an island as a nuclear device went off.

Sue's force field protected them as they were blown off of the island. The last panel showed them floating in the force field, unconscious, with the Thing turning back into Ben Grimm.

Structurally this was very similar to the earlier issue but the content was different. A lot happened here but nothing seemed rushed or glossed over. All of the panels had backgrounds, some of them ambitious. Kirby was expanding his scope, setting up for future "cosmic" issues.

This also started the era of multi-issue story arcs. The issue was self-contained but the story continued through the next two issues with a different villain (Doctor Doom).

This is an intersting structure - a three-issue arc where a villain defeats the hero in one issue followed by two issues where the hero fights a different villain. This structure had already appeared in Spider-Man. During a battle with the Green Goblin, Spider-Man heard that his aunt was sick and left the fight. In the next issue he met the Sandman but was afraid to fight him out of fear that Aunt May would be left without anyone to care for her. At the end of the second issue May gave a speech to Peter about not giving up. In the third issue he returned to crime fighting, defeating the Sandman and freeing the Human Torch who had been taken captive.

Both examples resolved the story arc but left things hanging with the original villain. This was a deft touch since it made the eventual rematch that much more exciting.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Minimalist Comics

I was re-reading an old issue of the Fantastic Four recently. Someone stole my copy of that issue shortly after I bought it so it has been over 40 years since I last saw it. Looking at it again was an interesting experience.

The plot:
The comic begins with Reed and Sue announcing their engagement and being surrounded by reporters. This takes up a couple of pages. It cuts to the Torch who is experimenting with a contraption that lets him change the color of his fireballs. He expands his test to full-blown fireworks.

Nearby the Sandman and Paste-Pot Pete are watching the display. They reminisce about how they came to be together - they escaped from jail, hijacked a small plane, then rescued the Wizard who was floating uncontrollably. They decided to form an evil counterpart to the Fantastic Four, the Frightful Four. The Wizard recruited Madam Medusa as their fourth member.

The Frightful Four landed on the Baxter Building in the Wizard's anti-gravity ship. Medusa used her prehensile hair and Pete's paste gun to immobilize the Thing. They quickly subdued Reed and Sue, rendering them unconscious with a spray. The Thing's girlfriend, Alicia managed to fire an emergency flare before she was captured. The Wizard attached anti-gravity disks to the four and let them drift into the upper atmosphere where they would die from lack of oxygen.

The Torch saw the flare and flew to the rescue. He grabbed the Wizard and forced him to fly his anti-gravity craft to rescue the others. The remaining Frightful Four stole the FF's Pogo plane and pursued. The Sandman tried to force the Wizard's craft down but could not. The Wizard landed. The Torch and the Thing faced off against the Wizard. Off-panel, the others escaped, blew up the Wizard's craft, and vanished.

I was surprised by the artwork, or the lack of it. Several panels were missing backgrounds completely. I don't know if this was done by Jack Kirby or the inker but.

That's a lot of plot to stuff into a single issue and it didn't quite fit. The confrontation between the two FFs never quite happened. The event that ended the fight happened off-panel. Someone from off-panel yelled a warning but we don't even know if it was Reed or Sue.

The pacing was also off. The story just trailed off as if Kirby miscounted his pages and had to wrap it up a page or two early.

I suspect that Stan and Jack felt constrained by the single-issue format. Two issues later the Frightful Four reappeared in a three-issue arc that saw the FF fighting Dr. Doom without their powers. From that point on multi-issue stories were the rule. Often a page or two would be spent setting up for future stories. This allowed much greater depth of storytelling and characterization.

A note on the villains:
The Sandman was a Spider-Man villain who had also fought the Torch. Paste-Pot Pete was a Torch villain who had a paste gun that could shoot quick-setting, unbreakable paste. He was later renamed the Trapster. The Wizard was a genius inventor who turned to crime until he was caught by the Torch. His specialty was anti-gravity. These villains appeared in the Torch's short-lived solo strip in Strange Tales. The Thing joined the Torch for a year or so before the feature was replaced by Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. The Frightful Four was probably Stan Lee's way of reusing some perfectly good villains now that the Torch's strip was gone. Medusa was a new character. Originally she was the coldest and most calculating of the Frightful Four but she quickly reformed once she was reunited with the Inhumans.