Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Wednesday Review: Fantastic Four Squared

New today, the Original Marvel Graphic Novel, Avengers: Endless Wartime by Warren Ellis and Mike McKone. Read my original advance review here.

In Marvel's long history of not keeping its long history in print, one of the most frustrating catalog holes was the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four. One of the undisputed masterpieces of the silver age of superhero comic storytelling and the very template from which the modern Marvel Universe was forged, THE Fantastic Four. The grand graphic statement of Jack Kirby, the world's greatest comic magazine, The Fantastic Four. The Fountain from which we all drink, Fantastic Four. The forge of Kirby the King, Kirby the Great, He, capital He, Kirby the alpha, the beta, the gamma, the delta, the epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, the kappa, the lamba, the mu nu xi, the omicron pi, the rho, the sigma, the tau, the epsilon, the phi chi psi and the omega. Out of print, some softcovers available, most of it in black and white, but out of print, out of bloody print in the glorious-when-they-can-bother-to-make-them omnibus format. And lo, what does the rising sun of this glorious early fall Wednesday portend but a new printing of The Fantastic Four Omnibus Volume 1! On any Wednesday, but especially a slow Wednesday where I just typed out the entire Greek alphabet to fill space, this is reason to celebrate.

Omnibus 1 collects the first thirty issues (or about a third, through 1964) of the Kirby-Lee run in all its manic glory. This is stunning superhero sci-fi comicbookery, with all the component atoms that would make the ingredients of the FF to come, Kirby's art and story, Lee's words and salesmanship. Here you are given the unstable molecule that was KIRBY, throwing spaghetti at the wall of reality and translating every symbol and cypher that showed, even the stuff that doesn't stick because he's got a job to do and like four other monthlies to plot and draw, damnit. Kirby wasn't born the King, but in Fantastic Four he created the Throne through blood and sweat and took it bodily from the gods of art and fiction who assumed it to be theirs and ascended to his blue collar high art mindbending emperorhood. It doesn't all work, but when Lee & Kirby strike out in these early issues - and boy, howdy, do they ever - they strike out swinging. What does work, where they hit the sweet spot of the bat, changes everything. Doom and Namor and Doom and The Watcher and Doom and Doom and DOOM. Mind you, it doesn't get really, really good until just after this volume when Joe Sinott comes in to ink Kirby and Stan & Jack refine their voodoo to crystal clear flawlessness, but that doesn't make the contents of this tome any less historically, artistically, culturally significant. If the Lee-Ditko Amazing Spider-Man of the same time represents a candidate for one of the Great American Novels of the graphic canon, this is the prequel to the next candidate, exhibit B in the archive of the Silver Age to pass down the eons.

But because Marvel assumes we all have deep pockets and don't have to pay rent or buy groceries and go state-mandated insurance shopping, they're also releasing another Fantastic Four omnibus, this of a modern run, a damn good modern run of which I am quite fond, the sexily named Fantastic Four by Hickman Omnibus HC Vol 01. A big hardcover collecting the first half of writer/designer Jonathan Hickman's definitive run on the First Family, this is a Fantastic Four of the big picture, big adventure, and pretty damned big ideas. A first blush of Hickman's impeccably designed, long-form superhero science fiction he's now weaving across the Avengers books, his FF is probably the best take on the team in many years. Utterly fantastic, Hickman and artists Sean Chen, Dale Eaglesham, Nick Dragotta, Steve Epting and more tell a huge universe spanning story that expands the FF family and world in entertaining and dramatic fashion. Reed and Sue both star equally, Johnny has a heroic turn unlike any he's had, Ben's heart fills the pages, and the kids and the family take center stage in the Future Foundation towards the end of this collection. Though the art becomes a victim of the modern trend of getting-the-book-out-on-time-visual-cohesiveness-be-damned mainstream attitude, the efforts of Eaglesham, Epting, and Hickman's current East of West co-creator Dragotta shine through. If I didn't already own all of this in Hickman's gloriously designed hardcovers (and if I didn't live in one of the most expensive cities on the planet) I'd pick this up in a heartbeat. But if you can spare the Benjamin, it's worth every penny.

Hey, new comics!

Three new anthologies were released today, each with a little bit to offer. First up, Liberty Annual 2013, always an entertaining hodgepodge of short stories benefiting the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Fabio Moon, Richard Corben, and Gabriel Hardman all have quality stories, but the best is the wonderfully over-the-top "What If Wertham Was Right" by Joshua Williamson and Ron Chan. Batman Black & White 2 has a Rafael Grampa story that is worth the price of admission alone. Finally, Witching Hour is the latest in Vertigo's line of twice-a-year genre anthologies. It's a lot less cohesive, and far more miss than hit, than the last anthology, Time Warp. Vaguely, though inconsistently, witch-themed, the best stories have nothing to do with witches. "Mars to Stay" by Brett Lewis and Cliff Chiang, about a one-way trip to Mars - funded by sponsors and crowdfunding - the mission spirals out of control in a wonderfully illustrated, packed 8-pager. The best story in Witching Hour is "Little Witch" by Ales Kot and Morgan Jeske. Completely devoid of genre trappings (despite leaping ahead in time), "Little Witch" tells the story of a soldier in Afghanistan who is forced to leave behind a small child he befriends, and the ways that decision haunts him. Surprisingly touching, this is a stunning short story and the best thing Kot has yet written.

Elsewhere, Trillium 3 and Lazarus 4 were both superb, and Fantomex Max 1 was an ugly mess that seemed like an excuse for pumping out Marvel's profanity quota.

Happy Wednesday, everyone.


  1. I believe you mean Joe, not George, Sinnott -- but at any rate, he actually did ink one of the issues collected in the first Omnibus. I think it's little coincidence that issue 5, which also introduces Dr. Doom, is by far the best issue in the series' first thirty issues.

    1. Ach, corrected, thanks!

      There's definitely good stuff to be had in this omnibus - a good friend who has every single issue of FF feels that the first Annual is one of the greatest comics ever made (it's right up there for me, too).

    2. I honestly feel that issue 5 is one of the three best issues of the Silver Age -- the other two being Amazing Fantasy 15 and Flash 123. FF Annual 1 is great too, of course...and much like FF 5, the Lee/Kirby fourth-wall-breaking is at its finest.