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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

My Misspent Youth: Doomsday by Marv Wolfman

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.

ff doomsday

I can’t overstate how magical it was the first time I walked into a comic book shop. My age was barely into double-digits and it was an era when most comics were sold at supermarkets and drug stores, given plenty of real estate over by the magazines, so it was a strange notion, this whole storefront devoted to nothing but these colorful periodicals populated by super-powered beings.

Thrilling as it was to see the new comic books meticulous arranged alphabetically (as opposed to shoveled randomly into a spinner rack) and the piles upon piles of old issues, I think what impressed me most was the array of ancillary products decorated with popular superheroes. At the time, it was a humble lot. There were no bankbook-breaking statues or life-size replica character accouterments. Still, these were items that I’d never seen before and couldn’t imagine finding anywhere else.

On one of those first trips to the comic book shop, I picked up a slender and enticing paperback featuring my favorite characters: the Fantastic Four. It was part of the Marvel Novel Series, which gave some of the most prominent writers employed by the publisher an opportunity to try out some straight prose rendering of the wildly imaginative adventures that set the fictional universe churning. Written by Marv Wolfman, the book was entitled Doomsday. I can see with a slightly mortifying level of certainty that is the one novel that I have read repeatedly in my lifetime.

johnny

The story pitted Marvel’s first family against their chief adversary, the malevolent, megalomaniacal Victor Von Doom. The ruler of Latveria was known the world over by his shorter, more pointed moniker: Doctor Doom.

Wolfman’s tale was filled with details I loved from the Fantastic Four comics, including a pronounced sense of the shared fictional history (Doctor Doom’s staging of a college reunion figures into the plot, as does his fierce desire to retrieve his deceased mother from the netherworld) and a crackling commitment to the well-developed character, particular the familial foursome with a penchant for saving the planet from evildoers.

grimm

Wolfman was writing the Fantastic Four monthly title when this novel was published, in 1979. He structures the story with a welcome commitment to honoring who these characters are, teasing out what made them foundational to Marvel, even if they’d long since been overtaken in popularity by other denizens of the wondrous world.

As I noted, the Fantastic Four were my favorite characters, so the fully recognizable depiction of them was important to me. It gave me another avenue to connect with them, to revel in their heroics. And there was the added benefit that it was the written word rather than dialogue and narration layered atop drawn images. I’d get grouched at if I opened up a comic book in class, but this little paperback — simply by virtue of its format — represented acceptable recreational reading.

And read it I did. I lost count of the number of times I returned to the book, rereading and savoring every last bit of it. I eventually picked up other entries in the Marvel Novel Series from that same comic book shop, but none of the others commanded my attention — fully and repeatedly — like Doomsday.

back cover

The images for this post were found elsewhere and used with gratitude. 

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 Mighty Marvel Superheroes Fun Book

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’ve occasionally acknowledged, it took me a bit of time before I plunged into the world of superhero comics. As was my wont at that age, I clung to the kiddie material I loved longer than I probably should have. At different times, I’ve probably retrospectively tagged various comics as my gateway into the supposedly more mature fare populated by the costumed do-gooders of the Marvel Universe, but it’s probably fair to say my most robust initial exposure to the characters came from a somewhat unlikely source: The Mighty Marvel Superheroes Fun Book.

fun book

Published by Fireside Books, these were big floppy slab of books, with page after page of relatively easy puzzles themed around the various colorful characters who populated Marvel’s magnificent monthly mags. I was already a sucker for crosswords, mazes, and other mental challenges designed to wear pencils down to nubs. It only made them a little more dynamic when they were themed around super-powered beings soaring through the sky.

nova

“The answer called correct on page 116.”

Some of the puzzles were only tangentially related to the Marvel comics, but others ostensibly required a working knowledge of the four-color adventures that kept spinner racks handsomely stocked. The complete the Nova maze, I only needed to know how mazes worked. Playing fill-in-the-blank with Daily Bugle headlines was a different matter.

bugle

There’s no real reason to believe these sorts of exercises would have stirred my interest in the actual comics, but they did. I genuinely wanted to know the particulars of the story that would have gotten Daredevil identified as a killer by a major metropolitan newspaper, for example. There were similar head-scratchers that pulled panels straight from the comics or teased bygone storylines (back when there was a mere fifteen years of history to draw upon).

I know I wasn’t fully, properly connect to the Marvel Universe through these books, but the osmosis of my time lingering over the pages did its job. I wasn’t transformed into a devoted Marvel reader by these books, but, strangely, I can credit these books into priming me for the helpless fandom to come.

forbush

The images for this post were found elsewhere and used with gratitude. 

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 Thing by John Byrne and Ron Wilson

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.

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As I’ve confessed many, many times in this digital space, there was no character who held greater sway over me during the years that my time was most clearly monopolized by superhero comics than bashful Benjamin J. Grimm, also known as the ever-lovin’, blue-eyed Thing. The craggy colossus of the Fantastic Four, the first family of Marvel Comics, was a character I’d follow just about anywhere. I religiously purchased the title featuring the previously mentioned quartet, and I was even a devotee of Marvel Two-in-One, the monthly team-up comic in which the Thing took turns collaborating with other denizens of the Marvel Universe.

I don’t think there were too many others going out of their way to add issues of Marvel Two-in-One to their collection, though. Even at the time, I was somehow able to figure that out. So it wasn’t all that much of a surprise when word came down that it was getting canceled. There was quick conciliation in the news that the team-up title’s space on the spinner rack would be replaced by a new series simply called The Thing. I recall writer John Byrne, who was presiding over a stellar run on Fantastic Four at the time, arguing that there was plenty of opportunity to see the Thing playing off of other superheroes in the team book he’d been a part of since the very beginning of Marvel. The missed opportunity was in the lack of pages turned over to simply and solely exploring Ben Grimm.

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Teaming with Two-in-One artist Ron Wilson, Byrne didn’t quickly demonstrated just how serious he was about liberating the character from the circulating band of costumed do-gooders who shared a masthead with him in the previous series. The first couple of issues of The Thing basically plumb the history of Ben Grimm before he ever piloted the ill-fated, illicit rocket journey that resulted in him gaining super-strength and a rocky orange hide.

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That was a fine instinct, and it represented a welcome prioritization of character over spectacle, a creative ethos that more current superhero comics scribes would benefit from adopting. But it also, I will admit, got a little snoozy at times. There was an overabundance of pathos, which obscured the wry sense of humor that was truly Ben Grimm’s most distinctive trait. And, quite frankly, I could have used a little more time spent clobberin’.

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