Monday, August 10, 2009

The Essential Fantastic Four - Vol. 1

Essential Fantastic Four – Vol. 1
By Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

(covering issues 1-20, Annual 1)

It wouldn’t be entirely true to say the Fantastic Four hit the ground running. In fact, the opposite is true. Unlike the Amazing Spider-Man, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were clearly trying to find their way in the first days of this legendary book. The concept and characters were works in progress. Ideas were being tweaked right there on the page. What we have here is a book in an embryonic state, with some characterization – the Thing especially – a far cry from what would later be established as “real.”

But flawed as they are (and they are), they’re sure a heck of a lot of fun to read.

Stan and Jack took a good 10 issues or more to really hammer into place what would be the core of the book. It wasn't even clear at first that they had something decent on their hands. Lots of adventure and imaginative ideas right off the bat, yes, but some of them were laughable -- The Thing as the historical Blackbeard the Pirate made me groan -– plus ugly inks and an unrefined Kirby make the silly stories visually unappealing. It’s not until the end of this volume that you begin to see Kirby’s strengths show themselves (though his storytelling skills are strong from the start) and the book itself to begin to gel.

But even with the uneven quality of the initial stories, he and Stan tossed out some terrifically fun ideas, mixing pulp science fiction with the early 1960s version of “realistic” superheroes. These early FF books exist in a nice place where they can be unabashedly pulp, with a dose of the grandiose, and plenty of good-natured fun. Sure, some of the stuff is downright goofy but taken in context and with a grain of salt, you could also argue that they’re a hoot.

Some things to note: Ben Grimm betrays Reed and Johnny, casting them into the sea to drift away and die, and the Thing uses a nuke – a NUKE! – to destroy a giant monster right in the middle of a populated city!

If it sounds like the Thing is different than the one you know, it's true. He is. And what a jerk! One of my favorite Marvel characters, so boy was it eye-opening to see how different he is here. Scheming, plotting, and full of honest to god disdain for his teammates. I was pretty surprised at how humorless and mean he was in his first appearances. A totally different character. Not even likable in the slightest. Rather than being the huggable curmudgeon we know and love, he was ... well, a creep.

It's hard to call the very first stretch of Fantastic Four essential reading. I had fun with them. As a historic curiosity they're certainly of interest. But if the truth be told, Stan and Jack don't starting hitting their legendary stride until partway through the second volume of these black and white reprints.

Read my regular, everything-and-anything (usually on writing and music) blog right over here.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Essential Amazing Spider-Man – Vol. 1

The Essential Amazing Spider-Man – Vol. 1
By Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

(covering Amazing Fantasy #15, Amazing Spider-Man #1-20, Annual #1)

The Amazing Spider-man is one of the world's most recognizable characters, matched in comics books only by the likes of Superman and Batman. He is an icon. An icon that has lasted for over 45 years and shows no sign of losing popularity. But was he cool even when he was introduced way back in 1962? The Essential Amazing Spider-Man – Vol. 1, which collects the original issues in an affordable black and white volume, is a great way to find out.

The answer? It was genius from the start. I wasn’t sure how well this would hold up, but it’s a home run, plain and simple. There is nothing not to like. (Except the Enforcers.)

Unlike the Fantastic Four, which in 1961 got off to an awkward and unsteady beginning, the Amazing Spider-Man hit the ground running and was a fun read from the very first issue. Sure, Peter Parker is kind of a jerk in the first two issues (his fight with the Vulture in issue #2 happened because Peter was trying to snag some money), but that’s part of what I like. From the start, Spider-Man and Peter Parker were evolving as characters, and they evolved in a very natural way.

It’s interesting to see this embryonic version of Spider-Man, having previously read only the origin and first issue, maybe a few others. Some core elements, like Flash Thompson and J. Jonah Jameson, are in place from the start, but other stuff we now consider essential – Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane, the Osbornes, etc. – are absent. Nifty, that. Goes to show you that Spider-Man is a character built upon an ever-changing status quo. Much more so than any other Marvel title at this time, Spider-Man was built as an ongoing saga that continued from issue to issue. Such is the case even today.

Though out of date by today's standards, Stan Lee’s writing is whimsical and fun. As much as I want to groan at it, I get a real kick out of the constant “the Marvel Age of Comics!” hype. Rather than off-putting, it's charming and endearing.

Adding to this is Steve Ditko’s art, which was a delight. I hadn't taken real notice of his work before, so this was eye opening. His quirky figures and expressive characters make Spider-Man stand out from the cookie-cutter comics of the era.

The steady stream of classic villains helps this collection reach great heights of totally awesomeness. So many iconic characters in just the first batch of issues! (Well, okay, there was a dud or two. I could do without ever seeing the Enforcers again. GOOFY!)

Aside from some really silly diversions, like the awful “Living Brain” issue, this stuff holds up remarkably well. It’s easy to see why readers were so excited by it and why Spider-Man was (allegedly) an instant hit. I LOVE the way Ditko lets the action unfold, and LOVE the way Lee gets us right into Peter's head.

It's a multi-generational hit, too. I gave my copy to my son after I was finished reading it, and he devoured the stories – in random order, of course, just like a kid should – and has since read it two or three times.

Even forty-five years later, this is top shelf fun.

Read my regular, everything-and-anything (usually on writing and music) blog right over here.