Wednesday, May 29, 2013

I own the first 30 issues of Fantastic Four...

Plus Annual #1 where Namor goes off on the human race and invades New York City with an army of blue dudes wearing fishbowls on their heads.  Not the print originals, of course.  How much is Fantastic Four #1 (November 1961) going for these days?  There's a graded example (CGC FN+ 6.5, white pages) online at Heritage Auctions with a recent offer of $18,500.  An 8.5 went for $52,000.  That's a little out of my price range, I'm afraid.  No, I own reprints.  Reprints, reprints, reprints.

I've had the Fantastic Four Essential collections for a long time, and I used to have the fat Fantastic Four Omnibus that was so heavy I couldn't rest it on my stomach while reading in bed or it would squeeze my dinner out of me as if I were a Play-Doh Fun Factory.  I gave that one away before I moved back the US following my first stint in Japan as an English teacher, otherwise I would have had to purchase a second seat ticket from Air Canada to take it with me.

Comixology is my current source for vintage comics.  Publishers have been putting out re-colored versions of various classics so long they have a nice back catalog of stuff they're adding to Comixology a little at a time.  They usually run you about 1.99 each, although sometimes you can find 99-cent sales or even freebies.  With the files available, there's no reason not to put the books online.  The hard work has been done, so overhead is minimal at this point.  Easy money for Marvel and DC.

I frequently find myself pondering the appeal of early Fantastic Four.  I'm not denying it exists; I love the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby era Fantastic Four, after all.  What is that appeal's substance, however?  That's what I think about, in search of a magic formula, I suppose.

When we look at Fantastic Four #1, we're looking at something fairly raw and even clumsy.  The plot mechanics barely stand up to close scrutiny.  Why in the hell would a top scientist take his girlfriend and her kid brother on an illegal rocket jaunt?  Even by the lax standards of comic book logic, that's pretty stupid stuff.  Kirby's art seems relatively timid, not at all the bold, bombast we've come to associate with the King, and it's poorly served by gloopy inks.

Perhaps we have to put it into context, stack it up against DC's contemporaneous efforts.  I know the talent were doing their level best to put out good product, and a lot of these guys and gals rank pretty high in my pantheon of greats.  Plus there was this little thing called the Comics Code.  The last time someone tried to do something truly interesting with comics, the government got involved and not to say, "Nice job you're doing entertaining the little chaps, Mr. Gaines!"

But despite a few stand-out stories and some awesome-- if a little mechanical and stiff at times-- art, the formula wears thin pretty fast.  DC comics of that era don't really seem to be about anything in particular.  Especially if it's an "Imaginary Story!"  Which might be more interesting than any of the so-called "real" stories because it dares embrace weirdness.  So if you ask me what issue was it where we saw Superman turn into a fat version of himself or when did he grow a long beard or turn into a gorilla or gain a whole new set of powers or whatever, I'm likely to answer, "All of them."  What does it really matter?

Now imagine you're a kid who's starting to feel a bit jaded by all of this and you see the cover of Fantastic Four #1 glaring out at you from the newsstand like a pugnacious new kid to your neighborhood.  A little loud-mouth with a dirty face.  It's rude, it's coarse, it's even a little ugly.  But you can't take your eyes off this newcomer.  You open it and the inside is more of the same. And look at that squashed orange guy ripping that tree out of the ground to hit his friend with it.  Immediately, you sense it's got something those tight-assed DC comics don't have.

Charisma.  That's it.  It's got charisma.  The plot isn't just some one-off that's essentially the same as last month's with the details changed.  You probably don't even question Reed Richards's poor decision-making process.  That might be due to the frantic pacing, but I like to think it's because Stan and Jack are going somewhere and taking us along with them.  It's not just a plot; it's an actual story.  It matters.  Or at least it does by comparison to its competition.

And it just got better and better until DC was forced to react and turn to new talent, style experiments and the like (I'd argue Marvel inspired DC to put out a lot of their cooler books, even if they didn't sell all that well).  By the time Doctor Doom shows up in Fantastic Four #5 (July 1962), things are really starting to cook.  From that point, issue-by-issue, you get to witness Kirby come into his own again, giving his career that huge push that made him the super-legend he is today and Lee develop the inimitable voice of Marvel, bizarrely made up of WWII-era slang and hyperbolic carnival barker come-ons.  It's captured there for constant rediscovery on Comixology, the same way recordings capture the exponential aesthetic growth of the Beatles from "Love Me Do" to "Carry That Weight."

My favorites, though, are the Fantastic Fours inked by Chic Stone.  They have the energy and slightly unformed quality of the earliest issues and a little bit of the structure of the later Joe Sinnott-inked issues, which leave me a tiny bit cold.  I like Sinnott's slickness, but his issues just don't have the energy of Stone's.  To carry the Beatles analogy a bit further, it's kind of the way I admire the heady pop craftsmanship of Abbey Road, but I end up listening to the peppier Help! and back-to-back self-topping albums Rubber Soul and Revolver more often.

Anyway, the first 30 Fantastic Fours are now available on Comixology and I own them.  I plan to keep buying these until they get just past the Galactus caper.  After that, a lot of the energy and charisma seeps out.  You get the idea Stan and Jack were looking elsewhere after that point.

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