Monday, October 15, 2012

Finished first 200 issues of "Fantastic Four" by Marvel Comics

Marvel heroes felt real - Lee, Ditko and Jack Kirby created a world that fulfilled both fantasy and reality - enough references to the world out your window to keep the stories grounded, with an unbridled imagination that created stories that are staggering in their scope - Dr. Doom (a monarch of a small mid-European country, Latveria, with designs on world conquest), Galactus and the Silver Surfer (Galactus is a being that survived the Big Bang that created our Universe, so is from the last one - he required the energy of living worlds to survive - he "eats" the life-force of worlds, and of course, visited Earth and ran into the FF; the Silver Surfer is a being who bargained with Galactus to spare his own world, and was "rewarded" by servitude to Galactus, required to seek out worlds to feed Galactus' hunger), the Watcher, a being of a race who watch and record reality, and, though powerful, have sworn to not interfere with that which they watch. Marvel also revived (literally) Captain America, the identical WWII hero, who was lost in the North Atlantic near the close of WWII, and remained in suspended animation to be revived by the Avengers, a team of new Marvel heroes, and the Sub Mariner, another Timely character who was a hybrid between humans and sea-dwelling Atlanteans, who is unnaturally long lived, so he has survived naturally from WWII to now.

Used an iPad to read the first 200 issues of Fantastic Four (Marvel Comics flagship comic).  Tablets are great devices for comic reading, by the way - iPad renders comic pages at almost exactly the same size as the original pages.  Phones or smaller tablets don't work as well, though if you are OK with zooming and scrolling, they can be used as well.

I started reading comics in the mid-1970's, about 10 years or so into Marvel Comics rebirth.  Marvel existed as Timely Comics and Atlas Comics and had a publishing history from pre-WWII.  However, comics really dropped off in the post-war era, with only Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman surviving to the current era.

In the late 1950's, DC Comics revived the super-hero genre and launched the Silver Age of comics by creating new versions of the wartime heroes Flash (changing to the Silver Age Barry Allen, from the Golden Age Jay Garrick) and Green Lantern (changing Golden Age Alan Scott to Silver Age Hal Jordan), in about 1959.

The success of DC's experiment caused Marvel/Timely/Atlas' Stan Lee to experiment with the final issue of Amazing Fantasy, with a short story about a nerdy high school student bitten by a radioactive spider, becoming "The Amazing Spiderman".  In response to DC's team book "The Justice League", Lee created "The Fantastic Four".

The Fantastic Four were adventurers (astronaut wanna-be's) who went into space and were exposed to cosmic rays.  Upon crash landing, they found out that they had fantastic powers - the leader, Reed Richards, could manipulate his shape, stretching arms legs and for some reason, his neck  to become "Mr. Fantastic", his girlfriend, Susan Storm could turn invisible, became "The Invisible Girl" (later on she could project forcefields, moving from monthly hostage to arguably the strongest member of the team over many years); Susan's brother Johnny could burst into flame and fly, becoming "The Human Torch", who was a re-visioning of a WWII-era Timely character of the same name, and the fourth member was Reed's friend Ben Grimm, who became an orange,  rock-skinned, strongman called "The Thing".

One of the genius-level additions to the comic world was the concept of continuity in comics - the new Marvel world (now Marvel Universe) was based in the "real"world - New York, not Gotham or Metropolis, and the characters in different books interacted, and there was a growing history - the characters remembered past encounters, and both the main characters and their antagonists learned from earlier encournters.  Team-ups, of both heroes and foes was a regular feature.

Fantastic Four was one of the first Marvel comics I read (I read a mid-seventies Spiderman, where he encountered a villian called "Smasher" or something, and bought Amazing Spider-Man #129 where the Punisher was introduced).  I also purchased Fantastic Four #143, the first of two issues with Doctor Doom (not his first appearance, Dr. Doom has been in many comics, but this was my first introduction).  I had remembered the FF from the odd cartoon caught in the '60's, only fragmentary memories remain.  I also purchased #144 and read my friend's #145, which was my first introduction to the sequential storytelling of comics - the storyline carried on over several issuses, moving from New York to the Himalayas without any break in the basic narrative.  I didn't know at the time, but this was during a difficulty time in Reed and Sue's marriage, and she was away with their son Franklin, contemplating a permanent breakup.

These stories resonated in my mind - they seemed "real", much more-so than the Superman comics I had read for competing DC comics, which seemed much more fantasy-like.  Superman was a much-too-powerful hero, perfect and beyond in any measurable aspect (super strength, faster-than-light flying/running, super brain, super breath, no need to breathe so he could go into space or below the sea, invulnerable ...).  As I understand now, it would have been quite a challenge to create any sort of realistic storylines for this type of Superman - his multiple powers made any story tension to be a reflection of his inability to problem solve effectively (e.g. why not go back in time and stop Luthor, now that you know what he has planned?  Why not just move faster-than-light and stop villain X from pressing the trigger on his Doomsday device?  Why not use your laser eyes - Super-vision - to blast the enemy-of-the-month from the comfort of your recliner at your Fortress of Solitude at the North Pole?)

The scope and majesty of the world Marvel created is seen most clearly in the first 100+ issues of the Fantastic Four.  Lee and Kirby were at their best, each issue feels fresh, and had a unique family dynamic with Sue and Reed (friends to spouses), Johnny (brother to Sue, later bro-in-law to Reed) and Ben, friend to all - older brother-figure to Johnny, and confidante to Reed, (and at times, a man who pined after Sue, but never acted due to his friendship with Reed).

Many of the characters and stories of the first 100 FF are classic, and have been repeated, either verbatim in re-prints or annuals, or recalled in subsequent visits of characters in the intervening time between the initial publication and current time.

What is most pronounced in reading these classic issues is the LACK of similar character development in current Marvel titles.  Even the same characters (the FF, Spider-Man) aren't handled with the deference given them by Lee, Kirby and Ditko (and later Romita, Byrne etc.).

The new crowd at Marvel, many of whom have grown up and become successful on their own creations, don't have the interest or time to maintain the continuity which differentiated early Marvel from the larger, more established DC Comics.  Part of the problem is the sheer volume of issues required to be read and understood to make sure you don't violate some commitment or outcome from an earlier (maybe much earlier) story, and the feeling that most of the consumers are not old enough to have a working knowledge of old stories.
I buy part of the argument - writing a single issue, or storyline, of a Marvel character should not require a graduate school diploma in each character's history.  However, given that it is this sense of continuity that makes the 2-dimensional renderings into seemingly real characters, there should be some attempt to keep things in line.

One of the gimmicks that Stan Lee used was the "no-prize" where readers who identified continuity problems were tasked with finding a way to explain it in the context of the Marvel Universe, if successful, were acknowledged with a mythical "no-prize" and an acknowledgement in the letters column of the comic.  This served a dual purpose - to take responsibility for errors, and to include the fan base in the identificaton and solution - the outcome of this model was that there was no lingering "issues" to failed continuity.

What the current group tends to do is to create storylines which specifically are designed to ruin some historical continuity, in order to focus readers on the present version of the characters (e.g. the horrific storyline "Sins Past" which takes Peter Parker's first serious romance, a character killed by the Green Goblin in perhaps the most famous story arch in comics, and create a new history where all of the key events remain, but where she had a consensual sexual encounter with the man behind the Green Goblin mask, which resulted in two chidren, shortly before her murder; or even the "erasure" of Peter Parker's long time marriage to Mary Jane Watson, by a deal struck between Peter and the devil-substitute in the Marvel Universe, Mephisto).

The fear Marvel was trying to address was that the characters had "too much" history, and that there was an expectation of readers to know that history.  I personally didn't feel any "obligation" as a reader to know the history of the characters in the comics, as any key knowledge was conveyed through the storytelling, but certainly felt privileged and "in the club" when I had read enough to recognize repeated characters or having  had read the original story where the current-issue reference originated.

I think Marvel should think long and hard about killing their golden characters.  Much of the money gained from the characters is no longer in the comics themselves, but in the movies/TV/Toys that are generated from them.  Marvel has to recognize why the characters resonate, and why readers care about the characters, before they find that people are losing interest, and not making the movies/TV/Toys as profitable in the future.

Compare a character like Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four to an equally well-known character such as Tarzan or The Shadow.  There are great Tarzan and Shadow stories told, and there is certainly new stories to be told with those characters.  What is missing in these characters, but exists in Marvel, is that there is an agreed continuity and history to the Marvel characters.  Anybody can write a new Tarzan story - it is unclear how (or if) that would fit into the existing continuity or be creating a new one would also be diffident to identify who can say what is the "true" characterizaiton and key events of a Tarzan character (outside of the kid orphaned in the jungle, raised by apes).

Long-term Marvel and DC characters (DC has adopted some of the Marvel continuity) have a history, which frustrates new writers, but makes the characters "live" in a way other types of characters don't).  It seems that the current Marvel crew either fails to understand this, or is determined to kill this idea purposefully.  What they seem to be creating is a world of six or eight-issue story arcs that are very amenable to publishing as "graphic novels" (e.g. bound into a single volume, generally on better paper, and sold as a unit), and may also provide the opportunity to illustrate future movie or TV stories in the comicbook format.  The downside of this strategy, if continuity is not maintained, is that the characters will become disjoint, and become much more Tarzan than Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four.  Once the "extra" dimensionality is gone, it is unclear whether you can get it back (I have not returned to Spider-Man, even though "One More Day"/"Brand New Day", the storyline where Peter makes a deal with the devil to dissolve his marriage of 20 years or so,  was in 2007 - 5 years ago).

To be fair to Marvel, it was not only "One More Day" which killed my attachment to Spider-Man,  I started to lose attachment to the Spider-Man character when they had a spider-totem storyline where Peter was just the most recent incarnation of a mythical spider-based, quasi-religious manifestation of spider-powers, and of course, the infamous, horrific "Sins Past" storyline, which illustrated quite clearly that Marvel was trying to alienate older readers by having the sexual interaction between the beloved Gwen Stacy and the evil Norman Osborn, a.k.a. The Green Goblin.

The first 100 issues of Fantastic Four (and I assume I would feel the same way about the first 100 issues of Amazing Spider-Man) really show Marvel at its finest - good art and storytelling, with a real feel and respect for the characters.  Current issues really feel like a series of one-offs, with the characters really being treated as money-makers - there doesn't seem to be any depth or reverance for the characters - they feel much more two-dimensional than they did during earlier times.  Pick up any of the first 100 issues at random - you'll immediately feel that you can handle the "history", and you'll immediately feel part of something larger, not part of "this year's amazing event" which will be followed by "next year's amazing event", none of which lead to greater depth of character or anything beyond short-term maintenance of, or artificial increase of, sales figures.

The reason I read the first 200 issues, is that 1/2 way through the second 100 issues (at 143, 144 and 145) I came into reading Fantastic Four, and I have a fondness for these issues.  In my world, these are the ultimate comics of the run - objectively they probably aren't (they certainly don't have the amazing creative force of the Galactus-Watcher-Silver Surfer-Inhumans periods of the first 100).  As such, I'll refer to the first 100 for people to understand what the big deal Marvel was - I'll keep the mid-100's as my boyhood.

I'm curious to see if current readers will have such a strong attachment to the characters that I did growing up.  My son is reading Amazing Spider-Man, even though I don't find them particularly compelling (and not compelling enough to actually read, in most cases).  Part of that would be I'm no longer 10 years old, but I'm curious as to whether my son feels as strongly about the characters written in six-story arcs, as I did with a character that felt like it was embedded in the real world.

Marvel, DC - if you aren't looking at whether these kids are attached like they used to be, you certainly should be.  I must have spent 10's of thousands of dollars on comics, action figures and movie admissions over time - you want these numbers in the new readers as well (adjusted for inflation, of course).

1 comment:

  1. One of the things I didn't mention was that in interviews, Stan Lee was quite forthcoming in saying they had no idea that the characters they were creating would have such a long life. They were under the gun working for deadlines, the amazing longevity of their work is amazing, particularly when you see how much time they really had to create/write/draw and get out the door. The characters might have differed if they were designed from scratch to "live" for 50 years or more - might have slowed down key events (such as the Gwen Stacy death or marriage to Mary Jane) knowing that these were "permanent" changes in the character.