Friday, March 28, 2014

Marvels: Fantastic Four Annual #1

"Sub-Mariner Versus the Human Race!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(September 1963)

Well: as you can see, things have certainly changed for Namor since we last saw him. He has at last found his people, the Atlanteans, and they have restored him to his throne. And so begins one of the greatest stories in the entire Marvel Universe!

This annual is epic; the main story itself is 37 pages long, longer than a typical Fantastic Four issue. And the story that goes with it justifies every bit of that length.

There is much rejoicing in New Atlantis, but not everyone is happy to see Namor return.

That's Lady Dorma, Namor's distant cousin and the woman who loves him. She's betrothed to Krang, the warlord, but will not be held to it now that Namor has finally returned. (Since we're still in real time and not on Marvel time yet, I assume Namor's been missing for eight years, just based on his comic ceasing publication in 1955 and his return happening in 1962.)

Dorma, by the way, is another Golden Age character returned to the comics, like Namor is.

She first appeared in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939, but her relationship with Namor then was more platonic. Anyway, he was in love with Betty Dean and not Dorma. And now he's in love with Sue Storm. He's got a thing for blonde surface dwellers, what can I say?

(Krang is not a returning Golden Age character, though the name is a reuse from one of Marvel's many monsters; a giant ant called Krang appeared in Tales to Astonish #14 in 1960.)

Namor's goal now is to lead his Atlantean army to victory over the surface world, in revenge for their unknowing destruction of the original Atlantis via nuclear tests.

Cutting over to the Fantastic Four themselves, Stan & Jack get in a few more pages than usual of the FF fighting with each other; Ben and Johnny get so out of control that Ben sprays a fire hose all over the living quarters (poor Sue's designer dresses are ruined) and Reed has to use experimental asbestos netting to cut the fight short. Tensions are running high and everyone needs a vacation. Reed's solution? Work, of course! Oh, that is so like you, Reed. His suggestion is to take an Atlantic cruise that goes past an area where sightings of sea monsters are being reported. Everyone agrees--even Ben's girlfriend Alicia--because hey, it's still a cruise, and I think everyone knows that it just wouldn't be a vacation for Reed if it didn't involve science, a mystery, and the probability of peril.

And peril comes! They're not at sea for very long when a sea monster appears (ruining Johnny's action, at that), and the Four are captured and brought down to Namor. He demands that the FF go to the United Nations and deliver a message: that Namor has declared dominion over all the seas and the skies above them, and that no surface ships may trespass. Immediately, Reed and Sue know that this will mean war between homo sapiens and homo mermanus (Stan Lee's term), and even Reed is worried that New Atlantis' technological advancements could mean the end of human domination of the planet. Namor sends the FF back to the Baxter Building.

An emergency session of the United Nations is called, and Reed addresses the assembly, admitting that he believes Namor is more than capable of carrying out his threat. He then calls on a Professor GW Falton, an expert on undersea life, to explain the origins of the Atlanteans and Namor himself. And now we get the origin of the Sub-Mariner...

Homo mermanus, it is explained, is a race of humans that returned to the ocean in prehistoric times, where they lived similar to Cro-Magnon. Their development paralleled our own--use of tools, domestication of helpful animals, building of cities, wars, civilization, sciences, only underwater. First contact came in 1920, when an icebreaker in the South Pole captained by Leonard McKenzie used depth charges to break up an iceberg. The blast took out some undersea buildings, and the King of Atlantis ordered his daughter, Princess Fen, to send a search team to investigate the source of the explosion. Highly curious and seeking adventure, Fen went on her own, where she made contact with Captain McKenzie and the two learned about each other. They fell in love and married, but the King sent troops to get his daughter back. Captain McKenzie was killed, but Fen gave birth to their son--"possibly the first known mutant of our time"--Namor.

(Aside: Namor McKenzie has never sounded right to me, but what do I know? Also, given this timeline, that puts Namor at 18 in his first appearance, and 42 now. I like that; it makes Namor's physicality and adventurousness plausible. It also makes Dorma a little tragic, since she's waited so long for Namor. I think age is something more comic books need to take into account in their characters. And no, I'm not saying a man in his sixties can't be Liam Neeson, I'm just saying that it makes it a little more believable that this amnesiac homeless man from 1962 could turn out to be a Golden Age superhero because, realistically, we're not that far removed from it. The gap between Namor's first appearance and his first Silver Age appearance is 23 years; the gap between his first Silver Age appearance and right now is 44 years. Characters who age are so much more interesting to me.)

Reed's conclusion: we must fight Sub-Mariner until he can fight back no more! Professor Falton reveals himself to be Namor in disguise, and in front of the entire assembly of the UN, declares war on the human race! His troops at the ready, his forces invade New York City within minutes and take control of it without a single casualty on either side. Soon, Atlanteans are attacking all over the globe, with only the Fantastic Four putting up a serious fight as Namor's troops try to hole them up inside the Baxter Building. Namor's conquest is peaceful, but forceful; the US Army doesn't even know how to retaliate, since any move against New York City could mean death to its citizens.

But the Fantastic Four aren't out of the fight; the Thing captures an Atlantean soldier, and Reed is able to discern that Namor is the only Atlantean who can breathe in the air. His troops all wear helmets with water inside of them. He ends up creating a machine that, when turned on, causes the water inside the Atlantean helmets to evaporate, and every Atlantean immediately retreats back into the ocean.

You'd better believe Namor is pissed, his conquest so easily turned back. The Avenging Son flies straight to the Baxter Building and begins beating the shit out of Reed, who has been weakened by an accident (his machine fell on him). Namor wants vengeance, which gives us this amazing sequence:

Johnny and Ben try to defend Reed, but Namor manages to rip the gas cap off of one of Reed's experimental jets, and the explosion that follows when it hits the Human Torch's flame is enough distraction for Namor to disappear. For good measure, he's captured Sue and taken her with him. Stealing her away in his imperial command craft, the FF have to come out to the sea to meet him and rescue Sue. The Torch finds them right away, and it becomes a rematch between the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch!

The fight only lasts a little more than a page, but in 1963, that's more than enough for an epic duel. Jack Kirby is a real artist; he doesn't draw a dozen splash pages because he doesn't feel like telling a story. Namor nearly defeats the Torch, but Ben and Reed show up in an experimental U-Car, and the fight gets even bigger.

He eventually sets three gigantic hammerhead sharks on the U-Car. The Sub-Mariner clearly has the upper hand; the U-Car is disabled, and they're too far out to sea for Mr. Fantastic to stretch to land. Even the Human Torch, now doused with water and exhausted, can't do anything.

But down in the command craft, things get very interesting. Sue pleads with Krang to stop the battle before anyone gets seriously hurt or worse. Krang is surprised that she's so concerned for Namor's safety, to which she replies "He isn't bad--he's just fighting for what he believes in, the same as we humans are!" Krang realizes pretty quickly that Sue has been captured for a reason: Namor is in love with her, and the two of them have some sort of bond. Lady Dorma is mortally offended by the notion of Namor loving a human. Though Krang immediately sees the positive--if Namor's heart belongs to another, he and Dorma can be wed--Dorma rejects Krang out of hand and smashes a portal, letting in the water so that Sue will drown.

Atop the U-Car, the battle continues. Interestingly, Namor is sort of begging the men to surrender, saying he has no desire to take a human life. The Thing, however, isn't holding back anymore, but as the two men fight in the ocean, they see Sue's limp, unconscious body tangled in clump of kelp. Namor gets her to the surface, but she's unresponsive.

Namor quickly orders everyone out of his imperial command craft so that he can get Sue to a hospital as quickly as possible. Of course Dorma is horrified by this idea, but now even Krang is offended that Namor would do something to aid the enemy. Nonetheless, they do as he commands; even the men of the Fantastic Four let Namor take off with Sue, knowing it's the only way. By the time they repair the U-Car and catch up to her, she's safe and sound in a hospital bed. She and Reed look at one another with love in their eyes. But what of Namor?

The Prince of Atlantis walks through the streets of New York, jeered at and threatened, until he reaches the water. But on his return home to New Atlantis, he finds it totally deserted. His people feel he has betrayed them by falling in love with a human, and have now abandoned him to himself. The loneliness stings; having finally found his people, they have left him behind. And, once again, our story ends in sadness for the Sub-Mariner, who is both human and Atlantean, a son of two worlds, belonging to neither.

Stray observations on this story:

:: Jack Kirby really outdoes himself with this issue. I feel like maybe I haven't been giving him enough credit lately, but his work here is amazing.

:: "Ben! Don't! That fire-proof vault door cost a small fortune!" "Who cares?!! We'll charge it to the Diner's Club!"

:: "Sea monsters are for comic books!" Meta! Also, shut up, Johnny: you fought a sea monster back in Fantastic Four #4!

:: The team's passage on the cruise is free; the captain is certain that with these celebrities aboard, the trip will be a sellout! (Aside: is the captain able to make that kind of decision? Shouldn't he have checked with the company that runs these cruises? Oh, wait: maybe the cruise line okayed it and the captain's just taking the credit to make himself look like a big man in front of the Fantastic Four. That's it. Okay, where's my No-Prize?)

:: Sue always looks so stylish.

I've said before that I love how every time Sue changes her hair, Kirby keeps it that way until her style gets updated. I love that; it's so much more interesting than what I usually see in comics, which is the default to long, straight hair. But also the way she dresses and even poses is so modern that sometimes she could be in a New Wave flick from the time period. That's part of what keeps these sometimes-dorky sometimes-goofy comics from being too square: they take place NOW. Really, every woman Kirby draws in Fantastic Four has a very hip, modern, 1963 style. I dig it.

:: Once again, we get to see neat fish and Namor's stunning technology. This guy's pretty cool. He's the one that spied the FF aboard the cruise ship.

There's also a fish that spits an air bubble at the FF, which envelops them and pulls them under the sea, so they can still breathe a pocket of air while being captured.

The real centerpiece, though, is when Namor sends the FF back to deliver his message to the UN. Namor calls it a transparent water rocket. Using concentrated water pressure rather than fuel, the rocket launches into sub-orbital space, enveloping the FF with water to protect them inside the capsule, then re-enters the atmosphere and ejects a membrane that acts as a parachute. The capsule lands softly atop the Baxter Building, then opens and evaporates. That's basically a whole page, but it's just so damn fascinating how Stan & Jack have really thought about this thing.

Later, Namor fights the Human Torch with the aid of sprocket fish (which shoot out a gummy substance to try and douse the Torch's flame) and some kind of weird giant lamprey or something that nearly sucks the Torch into it like a vacuum cleaner.

:: Though Namor tells Sue she will always be under his royal protection, she rejects it, choosing to stand or fall as a member of the Fantastic Four.

:: This is actually Nikita Khrushchev's third appearance in the Marvel Universe, but...
...it's the first appearance in which he bangs his shoe on a table, as the real Khrushchev infamously did during a UN assembly in 1960.

:: Namor's command craft is pretty damn cool.

Does Marvel still have the film rights to the Sub-Mariner, or are those at Fox with the FF rights? I wouldn't mind seeing some of this stuff in the MCU.

:: I just noticed that Namor is the only one who treats Johnny like a man. Sue begs Namor not to fight Johnny, pleading that he's only a boy. Reed's always calling him a kid, and Ben's always treating him like a pesky nuisance child, but Namor considers Johnny a worthy adversary. In a way, his not going easy on Johnny is a kind of respect. That's an interesting story point I'd never really thought about.

:: I may have mentioned this before, but I always picture Namor having Michael Ansara's voice.

:: After this excellent story, there are some excellent pin-up pages featuring villains the FF have faced: The Mole Man, the Skrulls, the Miracle Man, and the Sub-Mariner, all from the first four issues of the series. Except for Sub-Mariner, none of these villains have returned yet.

:: Then, a two page spread follows giving us some info on the Fantastic Four themselves. The hair at Reed's temples turned white during World War II when he was aiding Allied prisoners who were escaping the Nazis. His stretching limit is about a hundred yards in peak condition. Johnny Storm is 16, but in his senior year of high school. He can fly at 50 mph for about a half hour. Also, he loves sports cars, jazz records and girls, "though not necessarily in that order." Sue can turn any part of herself invisible, but is not intangible. And no one--not even Sue herself--knows for certain if her heart lies with Reed or with Namor. Stan says for certain that the Hulk is stronger than the Thing, and that Ben is too scared to propose to Alicia!

:: After that, a great Kirby diagram of the Baxter Building, and then some more pin-ups: Doctor Doom, Kurrgo, and the Puppet Master. And then our next story...

"The Fabulous Fantastic Four Meet Spider-Man" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko

Only four issues in, The Amazing Spider-Man has been exploding in popularity, so why not take this moment to sell him to any potential FF readers who haven't given the new book a chance? Or, conversely, why not make Spider-Man's appearance a little incentive for Spidey fans who may not be reading FF? Either way, that's some added value to this whole package, right?

This is basically a retelling of the first part of the second story in Amazing Spider-Man #1, where Spider-Man dropped in on the FF and tangled with them in an attempt to get a job with them--only to find out that they were a non-profit organization and didn't draw a salary. This expands some of the fighting and the interaction between Spidey and the FF, but it's also a chance to show off what Spider-Man's webbing can do. He nets up the Thing with it (and then plugs it into a wall socket, electrifying it!), webs up a gigantic fan, catches Mr. Fantastic in it and even manages to stop him with a web pillar when he steamrolls at Spidey, uses it as a thick shield to stop a laserblast, and even makes himself a web baseball bat to beat back the Human Torch's flame missiles. It's a fun little diversion.

Stray observations on this story:

:: The story is inked by Steve Ditko, possibly to cover for some reused panels from the original story. I'm not a hundred percent sure, but it looks like it, plus the Kirby version of Spidey is significantly different from Ditko's (Kirby's is more muscular and robust), and Ditko's FF is different, particularly the Thing.

:: After this, more of Kirby's pin-ups: the Impossible Man, the Hulk, the Red Ghost and His Indescribable Super Apes, and the Mad Thinker and His Awesome Android.

:: The issue is then rounded out with "Origin of the Fantastic Four!"--a reprint of the first chapter of Fantastic Four #1 for the benefit of new readers.

Stray observations on the issue as a whole:

:: This is the template for great Marvel annuals, and there will be some great ones. (I absolutely can't wait for Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, which features another of my all time favorite Marvel stories.) There's almost no filler here; I mean, even the filler is excellent: you have the great Sub-Mariner story, a Spider-Man story, a reprint of the origin, info pages, a great Kirby diagram, and all those pin-ups with surprisingly few ad pages (five! and two of those are house ads!) for 25 cents. A regular issue of FF or any of Marvel's other mags at this point costs you 12. That's great value for a quarter.

There'll be one more Marvel annual for 1963: Strange Tales Annual #2, coming in just a few installments.

:: It's just so cool that this was my 75th installment of Marvels.

Thanks for sticking with this one, if you made it this far. This was a long one, but this issue is just so good; easily my favorite issue of Marvel Comics so far!

For next time: it's the Fantastic Four again, as they battle the Super-Skrull!

1 comment:

Roger Owen Green said...

May have to reread this!