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.

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