Okay, True Believers, it’s time to go back in time to when comic books were subtly racist, bigoted, and controversial, but oh-so fun, wild, and inexplicable! Welcome to the Fantastic Four Essentials Volume 5 omnibus in all it’s black and white glory.
The stories collected in this volume are from issues 84-110 of the original series run, and mainly follow the adventures of the First Family of Comics as told by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (with some help from John Romita and John Buscema).
These collected reprints are marvelous (pun intended) as they make older and expensive issues of rare comics available to everyone. Through them one gets to learn the origins of their favorite characters and villains. But. In doing so, one can also end up wondering what the writers and artists were smoking back in the day!
Continuity? Who needs it! Plot holes? Plenty! Inappropriate behavior? Always! Let’s have a look at a few panels that will highlight some of the strange things you will encounter as you flip through the pages of these 1960s stories.
First: Continuity. By definition, continuity is a state of stability and the absence of disruption. Or to the writers and artists of Marvel Comics in the 60s, a non-essential part of storytelling. Let’s have a look at a case in point:
The first panel (top, left) establishes that Ben Grimm, The Ever-lovin’ Blue-eyed Thing, has not come to the dinner party. He stayed behind with his girlfriend, Alicia. In panel two (top, right) we see the complete company of guests being Crystal, Johnny Storm, Reed Richards, and Sue Richards. Nowhere is the Thing to be seen. The next panel shows only these four characters being struck blind (above) by the Mole Man. The issue ends with the four being helpless as they are attacked.
With that cliffhanger in place, we go ahead one month to the opening splash page of the next issue. And how many characters do we see, blind and helpless, before the might and malice of the Mole Man?
Five! Out of nowhere and with no explanation is Ben Grimm, the Thing. Also blind. Also helpless. As you read on in the issue, the Thing is used extensively in the plot to defeat the Mole Man. So because he was needed to work out the story, he appeared! Why not? Continuity is highly overrated.
Second: Stating the Obvious. If you were being attacked by a mugger, would you cry out: “Oh my! It’s that mugger from the papers, with a gun, wearing a mask! And he’s got me by the throat!” No. No you wouldn’t. But in comic books, every time a villain shows up, the hero has to yell at the top of his lungs who it is, what he’s doing there, and how horrible it’s going to be.
Case in point:
In any given issue, this will likely happen several times. But just to shake things up a bit, once in a while the villain will unnecessarily mention his name while striking a pose. It’s dramatic, but seriously, if the Fantastic Four doesn’t recognize you when you kick in their door, then you can’t be much of a villain. So shut up and attack already!
Third: Plot Convenience. Then we have the thing that is used only to drag out the story to fill up all 20 pages of the comic. Someone, or usually everyone, totally forgets the one simple thing that could end the threat until the very last moment, when all is about to be lost.
Have a read of the text in the panel below:
For two issues, a strange menace has been rampaging through New York City and the Fantastic Four can’t stop it. But the man who ‘didn’t think of it’ knows what it is, but doesn’t bother telling anyone. Ah, but now it’s do or die time and Reed Richards suddenly remembers something important. The man has a device back in this laboratory that can end the threat in seconds. And after a little more contrived drama, the trigger is pulled and it’s over. Just like that. A few moments of clear thought could have saved millions of dollars in damages and the possible loss of lives! Sheesh!
But the plot needed to drag on over two issues so this device couldn’t be introduced until it was needed. Convenient for the storytellers but not so much for the poor citizens of New York!
And that’s not all of the tropes you’ll find in a Fantastic Four comic. Here is a list of what else you can expect in almost every issue:
Misunderstandings leading to conflict between heroes or heroes and villains
Arguments between the characters over silly things, misunderstandings again, or just bad manners
Someone going off halfcocked and getting their butt kicked because they didn’t wait for the team
Sexism, as the female characters react in horror to threats * and are basically useless
The heroes being blamed for everything even though they just saved everyone
Breathing and talking under water and in space when this is clearly impossible
Brilliant people being stupid and doing incredibly stupid things
And that’s just the short list! I had mental whiplash after reading this omnibus. So many inexplicable things coming at me from all directions! But it was fun. Stan Lee definitely created memorable characters that have endured over time and Jack Kirby is the undisputed King of Comics! His artwork is dynamic and detailed, and dare I say, in your face!
But both men fell into the traps of the times they worked in. Lee was writing to a younger audience and so favored splash over sense, and Kirby just packed as much action and carnage into his artwork as he could to make an impact. Later writers and artists developed a more subtle approach that can be appreciated by a more mature audience. That said, no one can deny the contribution both men made to the world of comics today.
* For an example, see Sue Storm’s (The Invisible Girl) over-the-top reaction from the cover of the omnibus itself (first image, above). It says it all!