My Misspent Youth: Fantastic Four #191 by Len Wein and George Pérez

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Once I threw my heart into the fierce grasp of superhero comic books, there were certain older issues that I intensely coveted. Largely, my desired prizes weren’t the four-color publications that naturally set speculators’ hearts aflutter, like Action Comics #1, or Amazing Fantasy #15, or even the more recent landmark tales like the issue of The Incredible Hulk that introduced the world to Wolverine (though, as a true believer, I knew the cantankerous Canadian actually debuted in the final panel of the previous issue). I wanted to fill out my collection with a handful of comic books that simply caught my eye as I perused back issue stacks, promising little more than a rollicking or stirring story inside. One of the first specific comics I remember pining after was Fantastic Four #191.

Written by Len Wein and penciled by George Pérez, the issue held a special significance in the history of Marvel’s first family.  The issue’s cover said it all. It’s a close-up of the feet of all the members of the do-gooder quartet. They are walking away, a battered issue of The Daily Bugle on the pavement. The headline: “F.F. RESIGN.” Entirely uncharacteristic for the era, there’s no other promotional copy on the cover, promising scintillating adventures inside, the florid description finished with a bursting exclamation mark. That choice alone bestowed solemnity, finality, and class in my dewy eyes. Of course, I knew the break-up of the super-team wasn’t going to last, but it didn’t matter. I needed to read this comic.

ff 191 hug

I eventually got my hands on it, shelling out exponentially more than the thirty-five cents it went for off the spinner rack just a couple years earlier (which still means it only cost me a buck or two). It did not disappoint, providing everything I looked for in my superhero stories: melodrama, superhuman fisticuffs, wry humor, and a strong sense of place within the sprawling Marvel Universe.

The Fantastic Four were ceasing their operation as a going concern, largely because the team’s leader, Reed Richards, had lost his powers of exaggerated elasticity. Even as the various members are in the midst of the sorrowful trek away from their Manhattan skyscraper headquarters in the famed Baxter Building, the inevitable attack by an opportunistic supervillain takes place.

ff plunderer

Since heroes are always heroes, the portion of the Fantastic Four still equipped with heightened traits smashes into action.

ff191 fight

The issue’s villain, the Plunderer, is ultimately fairly weak tea when pitted against the might of the Fantastic Four, and he’s accordingly dispatched in quick order. That’s not the point, anyway. It’s Wein’s way to provide a brief fake-out, while also fulfilling the mandate of the time that, come on, there’s gotta be a brawl, no matter what other heavy drama is happening in the issue.

The Fantastic Four are back, but only for a moment. Despite the hearty hopefulness stirred up, the team sticks with the plan to hang up their uniforms, seemingly for good.

ff 191 baxter “YOU’D BEST NOTE THE DATE, EFFENDI, FOR A LEGEND DIED HERE THIS DAY … AND THE WORLD MAY NEVER SEE ITS LIKE AGAIN!!

There was a time when superhero comics were deliriously fun to read, built upon zippy ideas and filled with language that somehow intermingled luscious vocabulary with bounding chumminess. It was the Marvel creative voice, set a generation earlier by founding scribe Stan Lee. For a time, those who followed him took it as their duty to preserve that approach, even as they put their own stamp on the characters. Wein did so beautifully. And he had a unique skill at finding enticing hooks for his stories. There’s a reason the basic premise of the story, depicted simply of the cover with little of Marvel’s trademark showmanship, was enough to set me reeling.

Fantastic Four #191 was Wein’s last issue on the title. He jumped ship back to DC Comics, which was always his most natural home. That’s where he co-created Swamp Thing, presided over a beloved run of The Phantom Stranger, and served as a steadying editorial hand, especially with the combustible genius Alan Moore. Still, his plan for the next few issues of Fantastic Four were roughly followed, with each of the characters getting their own little showcase away from the now — and briefly — defunct team, all leading up to the momentous two-hundredth issue. It was a great idea, perfectly executed. I knew it then, and I know it now.

A special hat tip to the proprietors of the couple of websites which unwittingly provided me with images for today’s post.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth — The Fourth World saga by Jack Kirby

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

I hold a certain piece of comic book publishing in my memory with a specific narrative, and I don’t care to fact-check it. I like it the way it is.

Artist Jack Kirby was one of the primary creators of the Marvel Universe, taking an integral role in the development of characters who now dominate practically every sphere of entertainment. Even without getting into the persnickety particulars of whether Kirby deserves more credit than writer Stan Lee for the stories they spun — from the Fantastic Four to the Avengers to the X-Men, and a dazzling portfolio alongside those foundational figures — it’s undeniable that Kirby’s bold, forceful design aesthetic defined the Marvel publishing house when it was a scrappy upstart and then for the years of dominance that followed.

So Kirby jumping ship to the distinguished competition in the early nineteen-seventies was the biggest of big deals. DC touted the imminent arrival of Kirby with breathless house ads.

kirby ad dc

 

Legend says that Kirby told DC Comics leadership that he would take ownership of the lowest-selling title on the roster, in a simultaneous act of humility (feeling it would be inappropriate to oust other creators from a popular book) and hubris (feeling he could turn around the dismal sales numbers). And that’s how Jack Kirby was assigned writing and penciling duties on Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.

In prior hands, the series starring a the cub reporter supporting character to DC’s flagship hero was a repository for the loopiest ideas. In a way, that heritage suited Kirby perfectly. He possessed a wild imagination and an utter fearlessness about presenting the bizarre and fantastical as if it made perfect sense, or was at least an extension of the myth-making that was a hallmark of human storytelling from the beginning. Where other comics creators tried to spin similar yarns only to get mired in eye-rolling hokeyness, Kirby had the verve and panache to make such material archly cool and casually grand.

kirby robot

Jimmy Olsen was only the beginning for Kirby at DC. And it was a fraction of the fantastical vision he had. Within a few months Kirby was also presiding over a trio of brand new titles: Mister Miracle, The Forever People, and New Gods. At Marvel, Kirby participated in the sea change that led comic book storytelling from interchangeable larks from issue to issue to an ongoing continuity, rewarding regular readers and creating a more urgent incentive to pic up every issue. Miss an issue of Superman in the nineteen-sixties and all that was lost were a couple stories that would never be referenced again. Miss an issue of Fantastic Four in the same era and there would be a nettlesome gap in the big puzzle of the Marvel saga.

Kirby’s four titles — known informally as the “Fourth World” — took the mighty Marvel model the next logical step. They introduced a vast new internal mythos for the DC Universe, filled with Shakespearean evil, heroism, and familial strife. And the respective titles didn’t necessarily explicitly connect, but they all commented on each other, giving a sense of a whole by concentrating on the inventive minutiae of each individual segment.

And, since it was created by Kirby, there were plenty of fabulous monsters.

kirby monster

I didn’t read the Fourth World comics when they were published. I would have been too young for them. Even a few years later, I wouldn’t have been able to wrap my head around their beautifully ludicrous spectacle. Only years later, when I’d shed my defensive pretension that comics needed to be serious to be appreciated could I see the specialness of Kirby’s creativity at its most unguarded and unhinged.

More than any comic creator before or since, Kirby was able to render big ideas as zippy pop art infused with a childlike storytelling logic, invested in headlong progression rather than heady themes. His stories had weight because they were preoccupied with morality, but Kirby didn’t theorize or pontificate the way his former Marvel collaborator Lee did. Instead, there was a purity of purpose — a smashing delight in working in this dismissed art form — that carried the day. Anything was fair game to Kirby, from star-spanning wonders to a knockabout story teaming Superman with Don Rickles and a weirdo doppelgänger named Goody Rickles. The message printed across the top of a second issue guest-starring Rickles was the perfect credo for the romping Fourth World comics: “KIRBY SAYS: ‘DON’T ASK! JUST BUY IT!”

kirby tomorrow people

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

Laughing Matters — Bloom County: Hunting Wild Liberals

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

When I was still living in my humble little Central Wisconsin college town, in the first half of the nineteen-nineties, my favorite record store (which, it should be noted, is still my favorite record store), stocked print copies of Village Voice among its outlay of music magazines. Its newsprint meatiness was recognizable from the weekly alternative paper that I routinely picked up when I was a high schooler in Madison, Wisconsin, but it was mapping out a whole different cultural and political world. I bought Village Voice when I could, marveling at the wonders of New York City from a distance.

It’s been ages since I held a print copy, but I imagine it’s shrunk down the way that all newspapers have. Today’s news that the venerable publication isn’t all that surprising, but it’s heartbreaking, heralding an occurrence that somehow feels even more significant than the end of an era.

In a fantastic New Yorker piece on the rise and influence of Village Voice, journalist I.F. Stone is quoted in reference to the haphazard distribution scheme in the early days of the newspaper. “I’d like to read you, but I can’t find you,” he told one of the Voice columnists. Sadly, that sentiment is about to become even more true.

Also, it’s about to become much tougher to hunt liberals.

bloom county

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

My Misspent Youth: Batman and Captain America by John Byrne

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

I’ve read a lot of comics that were written and drawn by John Byrne. That sentence — or a close variant — has been typed out by me previously, I’m certain. His handwork probably accounts for a more sizable chunk of the previous entries in this feature than any other creator. In the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties, I was willing to follow him just about anywhere, even to the dreaded land of inter-publisher team-up comics.

While I harbor innocent nostalgia for a few entries in this strange comic book subgenre, the conceit of intermingling these fantastical universes usually results in wan storytelling, obviously constrained by corporate nervousness over which copyrighted property will come off better. Besides, the stories didn’t count. I was bound up enough in an eager embrace of official continuity that I was instinctively dismissive of those titanic tales that resides outside of the canon (with certain exceptions). But Byrne was behind one of these experiments in intermingling, so I was all but destined to buy it.

Batman and Captain America was published late in 1996, when Byrne was peddling his wares within the DC Comics stable. It paired the world’s greatest detective and the star-spangled avenger not in what was then the modern day, but reached back into history, positing that the characters got mixed up in one another’s exploits toward the end of World War II. The retrospective approach also allowed Byrne to ignore the gruesomely dark version of Batman who romped through the DC Universe at the time, opting instead for a more personable “old chum” characterization.

bca batman intro

As for Captain America, he was going through his own best-left-ignored era, albeit not one as grim the “Eh, let’s just make him a Nazi approach” that is currently soiling up the spinner rack. But by setting the story in 1945, Byrne was able to engage in other playful details, such as having Cap fight side-by-side with longtime DC war comics hero Sgt. Rock.

bca cap.jpg

The first several pages establish the tone and tenor of the comic beautifully, but there’s no doubt what most people plunked down their quarters for. They wanted to see Batman and Captain America throwing punches together.

bca fightin

Batman and Captain was one of the prestige format books that Marvel and DC both played around with in that era, meaning Byrne had plenty of pages to play with — around three times as many as the average comic book story. That gave him room to really explore the inner lore of the characters, mixing and matching with obvious glee. Since both superheroes have teenaged sidekicks around, which not have Batman partner with Bucky for part of the mission, and have Captain America do the same with Robin?

When it came to the villains, though, there was no question which sinister figures would be causing consternation for our esteemed do-gooders. If Captain America is in a major story, the Red Skull is sure to be there, too.

bca red skull

 

And although Batman has a more robust rogues gallery, the Joker is obligatory. The appearance of the white-faced and green-haired foe of Batman at least provides the helpful reminder that even murderous madmen known that Nazis are no good and deserve fierce condemnation without a nanosecond’s hesitation.

bca joker nazi

Despite the title of this feature, I was hardly a youth when I bought this comic, and I was going through one of my periodic spells in which I was seriously considering jettisoning the collecting habit that had once given me such joy. The reason was simple: most of the comics I was reading — superhero comics, anyway — were just plain bad.

Byrne’s Batman and Captain America restored my belief in the possibilities within these colorful adventures, at least a bit. As I once believed — as I once knew — comics could be fun.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

Great Moments in Literature

“None of us could stand it if every place were a grizzled Chicago or a bilgy Los Angeles — towns, like Gotham, of genuine woven intricacy. We all need our simple, unambiguous, even factitious townscapes like mine. Places without challenge or double-ranked complexity. Give me a little Anyplace, a grinning, toe-tapping Terre Haute or wide-eyed Bismarck, with stable property values, regular garbage pick-up, good drainage, ample parking, located not far from a major airport, and I’ll be the birds up singing every morning.”

—Richard Ford, The Sportswriter, 1986

 

 

“AS WE PART, JIM SQUEEZES MY SHOULDER AND GRINS. ‘YOU JUST NEED A WOMAN,’ HE SAYS. …WHILE IN MY GUT THE CREATURE WRITHES AND SNARLS AND TELLS ME WHAT I NEED… I LEAVE MY CAR IN THE LOT. I CAN’T STAND TO BE INSIDE ANYTHING RIGHT NOW. I WALK THE STREETS OF THIS CITY I’M LEARNING TO HATE, THE CITY THAT’S GIVEN UP, LIKE THE WHOLE WORLD SEEMS TO HAVE. I’M A ZOMBIE. A FLYING DUTCHMAN. A DEAD MAN, TEN YEARS DEAD…”

—Frank Miller, BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT, Vol. 1, No. 1, “The Dark Knight Returns,” 1986

The Art of the Sell: Moon Knight

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

moon knight

I’ve long held an affection for Moon Knight, both the character and the nineteen-eighties comic book series preside over by writer Doug Moench and artist Bill Sienkiewicz. And yet every time I’ve gone back and perused an issue or two — with an entry in the “My Misspent Youth” feature in mind — I’ve found it to be difficult sledding. Even though I read a bunch of those comics back in my heavy-duty collecting days, the old panels stir few real memories.

Strange as it seems, I wonder if my recollection of the amazing coolness of Moon Knight stemmed less from the comics themselves and more from the advertising that probably drove me to them in the first place. Just look at that copy. “CIVILIZATION ITSELF SEEMS TO BE ONE LONG, AGONIZED SCREAM.” How could that not rattle my young brain. And then there’s the promise at the bottom: “FIFTY CENTS. WORTH IT.” Of course I felt like the coolest kid at the comic spinner when I grabbed my copy of Moon Knight. Who wouldn’t?

 

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

My Misspent Youth: Stumptown by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

As I must on occasion, let me preface what follows by conceding that I am about to abuse the word “youth” in the title of this feature. Stumptown, written by Greg Rucka and drawn by Matthew Southworth, debuted in 2009, well past the point that I could claim any dewy upon mine eyes. My mild justification for highlighting it under this regular banner is that the series — while hardly a throwback — strongly reminded me of the independent comics I read while in high school, during the initial boom of upstart publishers challenging the so-called Big Two and their near pathological insistence that only superhero adventures could sustain a monthly publishing schedule.

The more accurate justification is that I just wanted to write about Stumptown today. So here we go.

Stumptown 1

The series follows Dex Parios, a privavte investigator in Portland, Oregon. In the manner of countless pulp paperback gumshoes before, Dex is beset by rough-edged flaws. She has a gambling problem, a way of blundering into trouble, and a tendency to hit the bottle hard enough that it is inclined to hit back. Rucka, who’s earned plentiful praise for his female characters over the years, doesn’t write Dex as particular remarkable of tragic. She’s not some facile “strong female character,” in place to prove something about post-feminist feminism or to upend genre norms or anything like that. Instead, she is just a complex person made up of fascinating layers — so the stuff of fine fiction.

While the fundamentals of the character and the storyline — involving a missing young woman, a batch of shifty individuals, and, of course, money that must be followed — are often deployed to fill up a lean detective novel, Rucka isn’t just transporting a story suited for a different format over to the funny pages. He knows full well that he’s writing a comic, which opens him up to other storytelling tactics in terms of staging. In particular, he and Southworth demonstrate an impeccable sense of timing throughout, taking advantage of the static progression of panels to deliver wryly humorous moments.

Stumptown 2

In addition to the jointly impressive commitments to character and plot, Stumptown is notable for its setting. More specifically, in placing the action in Portland, Oregon — Rucka’s home base — the creators deliberately tried to avoid any sort of generic rendering of the Pacific Northwest city, which would be inherently wobbly in its accuracy. As with everything other element, they wanted to get it right.

“It’s always a big disappointment to watch a movie shot in your hometown and find they’ve gotten it all wrong, that’s there’s no way that character can step outside that building and see that bridge or whatever,” Southworth noted in an essay printed in the first issue.

That conviction led him — a resident of nearby Seattle, at least at the time — to do meticulous research on the places Rucka spelled out in his scripts. There’s a general directness to Southworth’s art that can tip over into visuals that are thrilling into their detail and beauty.

stumptown 5

I had never ventured to Portland when I original read the series, but it didn’t matter. The verisimilitude of the storytelling — visually and narrative — carried its own weight that made the whole piece feel more authentic. Especially in an era in which superheroes rule the movie screen, the immediate cultural association with comic book stories is of the wild, the wondrous, the fantastical. Stumptown is a fine reminder that comic books are a medium and not a genre. There are a lot of different kinds of stories to tell in those stepping stone panels, including stories that feel as real as a gun barrel smacked across the bridge of one’s nose.

stumptown 4

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.