Forgotten Comics: Fantastic Four

Oh, how in the world can Fantastic Four be a Forgotten Comic, you ask?

The answer is simple: when it’s Doeg Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz’s run from the early Eighties, that terminated when John Byrne jumped on board and took everything “back to basics”. Not that there was anything wrong with Byrne’s intentions! Indeed, for a little while his FF made for absolutely excellent superhero fare, and more importantly for Very Good FF.

However, one also wonders what might’ve been…

And yet also…one doesn’t.  I don’t know, wistful nostalgia for this run is a fun thing to play with, but if you were dissatisfied with Moon Knight you’ll probably hate this…!  Because it’s a rather strange book;  here, just halfway through their MK run, just as Marvel readers at large are starting to suspect that damn, something really special may be happening here (and if you keep reading through ’til MK #25 you’ll finally get to see it — but more on that later!), away go Moench and Sienkiewicz to do much more restrained work on the company’s flagship title, just now truly beginning to run out of steam for real

And you have to understand (well, actually you don’t, but let’s pretend) that at this point, even to a guy like me, the FF book was looking more than a little bit moribund:  it seemed as though almost everything that could’ve been done with the basic set of FF conventions left behind by Lee and Kirby, had been done…to the point where writers flailed, trying to find new places to grab at old loose ends.  What to do, after Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway and Marv Wolfman had gone over the business so thoroughly?  All kinds of crazy things had gone down in FF by the time the non-Lee/Kirby stuff started to count as the majority of the series’ total run, and progress had been made;  things had been changed around, more than a few times.  That, in some sense, was the problem.  In retrospect, Byrne’s solution to it all seems pretty obvious.  Start consciously repeating the Lee/Kirby stuff. Hmm, or maybe “revisiting” is a less loaded term, and I should use that since (as mentioned) I’m not going to call it a bad idea?  Well, how could I, when Byrne’s run started to go to pieces right around about the time his FF stopped looking like a straight-up homage…

And a dandy homage it was, too…

But as obvious as the “homage solution” looks to us now, at the time it was on nobody’s mind — nobody was interested in doing it, nobody thought it was the right thing to do, even though in a sense it was all anybody really wanted from the book, it was all anybody was asking for.  The FF comic, like all Marvel’s comics, was still operating in an environment where new and forward-pushing stuff was expected, where characters and situations and relationships were expected to change over time as the reader watched.  You couldn’t really go back.  And that’s probably why Byrne’s run ended up looking fresh instead of stale:  a lot of the new stuff was unsatisfying, readers wanted something really “new”, but they weren’t getting it, except in places.  Conway had done a lot of “growing-up” stories that eventually needed to be reversed, restored to a status quo instead of being allowed to spin off into the atmosphere;  Thomas had done a lot of distinctly Thomasian things that explored and explained the FF’s universe, which were hard acts to follow in part because they were just so darn silly;  Wolfman had taken sturdy old FF tropes and defamiliarized them, in order to do them again and really get done with them, clear the decks for those coming after.  But these were the good stories.  There was also a lot of slush, a lot of flailing, a lot of things that seemed very “un-FF”, because somehow “new” needed a strong component of “old” to work, and vice versa;  “forward” in some sense needed “backward” in order to maintain itself, and backward without forward (like forward without backward) started to creak pretty badly…sort of like the Star Wars Special Edition.

And so there was a certain feeling that focus was being lost, on occasion.  And I should be sure to say, it wasn’t necessarily because of any specific perceived flubs made by any specific writer or artist, regardless of how easy it is for a fan like me to make those judgements!  Rather, it was something endemic to the whole FF exercise:  something each writer and artist had to find a way to address, and deal with.  And sometimes they did, even quite effectively, but overall the trend seemed a downward one.  Reader interest was really seeping away, perhaps for the first time.  And always there was the sense that it didn’t have to be this way — that at any moment it could get not just better, but all the way better.  The FF book could be cured, if you will…and if you look at the post-Lee/Kirby issues, I think you’ll see a concentration on finding cures growing more and more pronounced as time goes on.  Not that “curing” wasn’t always on display in FF, pretty much from the beginning — in fact all the Marvel books spent a suspicious amount of time dwelling on the matter, mostly in order to show that every cure has a cost — but eventually all the anxiety about cures had to either come to a climax, or not, both within the books and without…and then, most terribly, somebody had to make up some other kind of story to tell.

And mostly, and not to be unkind, but…this just didn’t work.

Again, from the perspective of comics readers a half-century on from FF #1…it’s not easy to see how it all happened back then.  But at the time, when the Fantastic Four had been in existence for only (a letter-writer of the day reminds me) nineteen years, the question “so what happens now?” was a pressing one.  And maybe that can’t help but look absurd to us here in 2010, but…I mean, this was at a time when there could still be speculation Kirby might return to the FF one day, you know?  It was a whole other audience, and they were far less jaded.  If you could read the letters pages, you’d understand…in fact, Marvel, where’re my Essential Letter-Columns TPBs, anyway?  Do you even know how much money you could get me to plunk down for those…?!

…But as it is, you’ll just have to take my word for it:  that at the time, what the FF book was going to be like in the future was a hanging question that desperately needed an answer.  And soon enough Byrne would come along, to let his answer be “no, no…you’re looking at it all wrong.” But, just before Byrne made that particular scene…

There was also the answer of Moench and Sienkiewicz.

As I said, it’s a strange book.  It’s written strangely, and it’s drawn strangely.  Sienkiewicz’s moodiness flickers in and out, but mostly out…like a weird mimickry of Buscema and Buckler that can’t always maintain its shape, that collapses sometimes into “FF bits” that seem to explicitly test and strain against the very idea of “FF bits”.  For one thing, Reed Richards’ neck is always stretching, flaunting the long-held rule of Stan and Jack:  the art seems dissatisfied with itself in places, perhaps because it’s dissatisfied with other things it can’t get to as easily as it can get to itself.  The line goes incredibly thin, and the panels get incredibly small, and then every once in a while it opens up into a stretched or twisted perspective, some odd colouring, a slight brimming tension…and then it’s back again to the fine lines and the reassuringly pseudo-“classic” FF look, until things overcorrect in the other direction and generate stuff that really does look like Buscema, that seems solid and healthy and full of the genuine promise of novelty, despite its “reassuringly classic” quality.  To see it all in 2010 is to be confused about what it’s in aid of, perhaps…

And Moench’s scripts seem similarly distorted, according to the same scheme.  These aren’t quite “done-in-ones”, but they’re very, very close:  aggressively episodic, but then who the hell ever saw done-in-ones that seemed like they were begging for so many more pages?  Byrne would follow the same pattern of loose episode as part of his “back-to-basics” approach, taking quite some time to wind up back in the rush of Continuing Saga that had become such a trademark of Marvel storytelling…ditching the X-Men’s soap-opera style even to the point of giving up the steady, almost metronomic “A” plot, “B” plot, “C” plot cycling that had typified FF stories since Lee and Kirby first really lengthened their stride…but one thing Byrne wouldn’t do is wrestle with the problem of breaking new ground, and that’s just the problem Moench and Sienkiewicz seemed to concern themselves with overall:  how to get back to what the fans were clamouring for, the “real” Reed and Sue and Ben and Johnny — and given Byrne’s soft reboot, I think it’s debatable whether or not his versions can count as “real” in this sense, since there are so many reasons to think they aren’t continuously-connected with the previous twenty years’ characters — while at the same time retaining the forward-movingness established by all their predecessors on the title, that momentum that no one yet imagined they could simply discard and restart…in a soft reboot, or any other kind.  So it could not be too cozy a business, and indeed it wasn’t:  there’s a reason people remember this run as having a “horror vibe” that wasn’t (at least to 2010 eyes) really there…because at the time, the FF needed a push toward relevance, and the great thing about horror is that it’s always relevant.  The intrusion of the strange into the familiar, well, that’s what these comics were about from day one…and of course as we know, it was just the business of “horror” itself, monster comics, that got streamed into the stories at the House of Ideas in the first place.  Atom-Age stress, happily coincident with the necessity of not being seen to threaten DC’s superheroic monopoly;  eventually it made it a duopoly, and the horror got forgotten.  Because eventually the superheroes were strange enough on their own.

But by the time 1980 rolled around, the strangeness had been left behind too:  the superheroes were as passively, contemptibly familiar as the Hardy Boys, and with Kirby’s cosmos so well-explored as at last it was — as it had to be, since after Kirby left no one could really replace him, in the world-building department! — their characters had nothing to push against anymore, to keep them in close combat with the strange.  The characters themselves were still fine;  it was just that no one could make them work properly, in a world that had gotten so dull and repetitious.  Which is something they themselves could only afford to be, if their world wasn’t.  So the horror was what they needed, again, even though it doesn’t look so much like horror to us…but part of the reason it doesn’t look like it, is because the stories are so cramped that the horror can’t work its way out through the characterizations.

However…at the time, that didn’t matter so much as it might’ve.  Conditions were such that every FF reader was exceptionally sensitized to the problem, and to the tenor of the problem.  Moench in those days was at least as wordy as anyone, what today we would think of as an awful lot of telling, and not very much showing at all…but for the times, it was fairly briskly brought off.  Which was a good thing, because it pretty much had to be:  by the time Marv Wolfman moved on to greener pastures every issue just sounded like Beowulf, Stan-style sonority with no action in it at all, self-parody that just went on and on and on, begging for a completion of the round.  Marv’s written some great comics, even some pretty sterling FF comics, but #200 was probably as far as he was ever meant to go…after that it got palpably Caretakery, if not a little bit worse than that.  You can see Moench struggling here, slightly, with the need for compression — he knows he needs more space-and-time control to get things to a suitably “creepy” place, through the reestablishment of just who all these characters really are…but he can’t quite get his hands on it, because there’s too much exposition to do.  Nineteen years after FF #1, this book arguably needs more systematic exposition, because the Beowulf-speak and the characterization and the pure plot-point speeches have all gotten so thoroughly mixed-up over such a long time that for all the words in the air there’s no sense of what’s going on, no sense of what’s needful to know:  it’s a flock of words, a storm of words, and Moench gamely takes it upon himself to put them in some sort of order…but perhaps it isn’t just his own predilection for wordiness that stops him from just getting rid of half of their useless, prescriptive bulk, but it’s (again) the times too.  Sure, it’s back-to-basics stuff, but it isn’t retro, exactly — Byrne’s work will be the reconstructions of a very talented fan, but Moench and Sienkiewicz’s work is trying to visibly shift years and years of FF material around without changing it, to find some new and non-reconstructive storytelling space using basically the same tools they were left.  And as I said…it doesn’t quite work.  We have a “Namor Declares War” story and we have a “Galactus” story, and in these there are some genuine pleasures to be found, but they come out of a shift in intention more than they come out of a shift in style.  Sienkiewicz himself can’t be “looked like” in the same way Byrne could be, or Kirby was, or Buscema…some artists will never be “pace-setters” in this way, after all:  no one ever says “make it look like Steranko” or “make it look like Colan”, or even “make it look like Neal Adams”, because there’s no point in that — certain artists take their styles out with them the same way they bring them in, and thus can only be influences, never templates.  Well, and you can’t be “Gibbons-esque”, you can’t be “Williams-esque”, either!  Because there’s no such thing.  So Moench and Sienkiewicz, perhaps surprisingly, aren’t seen attempting anything like a stylistic shift on their FF run — rather, they’re trying to move the furniture around just enough to uncover new expectations for their readers to have from the same old floor-plan, the same old style, of the last hundred or so issues.  Which was a really awful mistake, actually:  I mean we’re talking about a set of conventions that allow third-person narration to ask the reader a rhetorical question and then reply to them with weird words like “Aye, ’tis true.”  We’re talking about stuff that’s horrendously confused, here:  disastrous hyperbolic overreach, a real desperation to enlist the reader’s assent to crap, that seems woefully dependent on enforcing the most luridly pathetic kind of “heroic” rhetoric imaginable…and the silliest kind of reading-logic, causation that starts in the caption-box and dribbles onto the panel like rancid mead because there’s nowhere else for it to come from.  Moench can give Claremont a run for his money, here, at times:  Claremont at his worst, most excessive “and then they all held hands and by the power of love the dragon was defeated, and the Elven village safe” kind of you-know-how-this-tune-goes level of pandering bullshit.  Likewise, Sienkiewicz actually manages to turn in ugly, rushed, and boring pictures:  how many times do you want to see the FF sitting around watching TV after dinner?  Fewer times than this, I think I can safely guarantee…and when the action comes, so much of it is purely programmatic that you wonder how low the bar can possibly have been set in those days, to make this sort of thing not just acceptable, but beloved in retrospect…

…And yet, though all that’s true — aye, ’tis true, yon reader!  Hearken thee well! — somehow there is still more to be said about it.  Because somehow Moench and Sienkiewicz do manage to find those new expectations for the readership…though at times it’s slow going, and tough slogging.  The “horror vibe”:  how to reintroduce it, without degrading the all-important superheroic conventions, even the bad ones?  The Moon Knight team is ahead of their time here, pop-culturally speaking, even though it looks shockingly fumbly to our latter-day eyes:  the FF start losing control of their world quite quickly under this guidance, possibly in a lantern-hanging echo of the desultory Tab A/Slot B business that had led up to the point of their waning relevance.  Their “family” dynamics get pulled on a little;  a tissue of distance seems to insert itself between them.  Sienkiewicz’ moments of distortion become moments of realization, in this reading, that our heroes are necessarily less confident than we’ve thought of them as being up ’til now — though this effect suffers from the cramped narrative probably to a greater degree than it is helped by it — and the agency of others becomes such a constant trial that they can’t help collapsing in on their uncertain core, to try and find resolutions.  But of course it’s what’s in the core that makes the uncertainty in the first place — as Gerry Conway’s brilliant stroke of making Franklin the supreme irritant to complacency is finally picked up on after all this time.  The FF’s family is sick in its heart, and may not get better:  that’s our theme, here, and that’s their challenge.  The cure:  but first you have to find the disease.  And everybody’s running out of time, as some dread psychological Galactus draws nearer.  Here in 2010, you’d be forgiven for not noticing that it works…due to, you know, the crapness

…But to the sensitively-attuned FF fans of the time, it was like a suggestion of rain, finally, after a long drought.  Not buckets and buckets of rain!  But at least the promise of a light drizzle, anyway.  And even today, if you can overlook the cringe-y bits, I think you can notice a heartbeat worth listening to.  Even through the expectational gauze laid down over the last thirty years (a surprisingly large amount of it derived from Moench and Sienkiewicz themselves, cliches they invented on the run), perhaps an interesting, protagonistic face can be seen.  Here in 2010, we seem to be revoltingly stuck on the idea that the FF are “first and foremost a family”, as the folks at Marvel are wont to put it — which is actually something they’ve hardly ever been (oh how I wish I’d had the foresight to title this post “First Family, Not Family First”!) — thereby overleaping and prematurely truncating all that is interesting about their family dynamic…but way back when that concentration on family began, it answered something, something very important, in the frustrated fan.  Maybe it’s part of the reason it so frequently reads a bit blah, now:  all that “family” stuff in FF, it really has gotten boring.  Contemptibly familiar.  But then that’s what these comics do for their readers, now:  they pat them on the head with internally-consistent cliches.  It’s the same now, as it was when Moench and Sienkiewicz first came along:  what can the Fantastic Four possibly be, in the future, that they aren’t already bloated parodies of?

Where else is there to go, but back to this already played-out mine?

Of course, as Morrison saw in his 1234 (oh, how I do keep going on about that!), the mine really isn’t played out at all:  in fact that’s practically the whole story in a nutshell, that it isn’t played out.  But Moench and Sienkiewicz saw that same thing first, thirty years ago, even though it looks distinctly icky to our eyes today.  Still, all that ickiness speaks volumes:  because the Fantastic Four are a little bit damaged, you know?  They can’t possibly survive all this;  they can’t possibly win.  We can’t possibly be interested in them at all, I mean for God’s sake just look at them…!

And yet, as all the Very Good FF creative teams have managed to get across to us — as, indeed, all the Caretaker teams have known very well themselves, even if they couldn’t always quite get it across the plate to the reader — in FF stories it’s always the attitude that determines the altitude, and they do win anyway.  What would the Moench and Sienkiewicz FF have turned into, if they hadn’t been fated to leave the stage so John Byrne could come on with his crowd-pleasing reconstructions?  It’s very hard to imagine it now:  so much of the storytelling exigencies and challenges of that time have been forgotten, to the point where it’s alarmingly tempting to believe that those comics would be just as good today, as they were back then.  Of course they wouldn’t be — not only were both Moench and Sienkiewicz yet to produce their best work together, this wasn’t even the best work they were producing at the time, and when each did start putting their very best out it wouldn’t even be as a team.  But still there remains something there, in those old bide-a-wee issues of theirs.  Something suggestive and strange;  something lost, perhaps.  Paths not taken.  The FF as an unhappy family, trying to save themselves from themselves…and we must imagine that if the Moench/Sienkiewicz run had kept on going, that they would’ve succeeded.  Because they never can, but then they always do;  just as though they suddenly remember that they want to.

Well, forgetting and remembering is half of what these stories were ever about, you know?  Recently an online pen-pal of mine asked me where I thought the “original narrative” of various Marvel comics had ended, which I found a very curious question indeed…not least, because I’d never realized before that I actually did think these “original narratives” had once existed, and that I actually did think they had all concluded at some point.  I guess predictably, I told him that I figured the original narrative of FF had terminated with #251…because, not that there weren’t good Byrne FF comics after that point, but it was there he entered his decadence phase.  Things started unravelling from there.  But I now realize that I set this boundary largely according to how faithfully “FF” things seemed in Byrne’s run:  tacitly acknowledging his work as pastiche, even as I accepted its nominal authenticity.  It could claim to belong to the original narrative of FF comics just as long as it remained an unbroken homage to the Lee/Kirby days…but once it gave that up, I wouldn’t count it anymore.

Which is not really fair, is it?  So these days I think I’d set the terminator at Byrne’s first issue:  what, suddenly they’re all wearing the old big-collared blue spacesuits, without a word of explanation?  It seems like a trifle, at first glance;  but when you consider that every other change of attire, not just in Fantastic Four comics but in every Marvel comic since 1961, had warranted at least a quarter-page mini-splash if not an actual cover blurb…I mean, remember:  these are superhero comics we’re talking about here, it is literally all about the costuming…once you consider that, I think that you have to find Byrne’s retro-stylings appealing and pleasant exactly in the same proportion that they are arbitrary and jarring.  Note that his own eventual new design for the FF’s uniforms came with a whole inter-title crossover’s worth of explanation and backstory to them, and I think the subtextual meaning of that first discontinuous change pops out — we aren’t looking at “real” FF (not to be confused with the one true Real FF that was the work of Lee and Kirby), we’re looking at a “post-Crisis” FF.  Only we are never told that’s what it is.

And that means the “original narrative” closed with Moench and Sienkiewicz’s last issue…went out just like “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow”, only with a squeak and not a fanfare.  A tiny trite panel at the bottom of a page, and the word “End”…as our heroes walk off into the sunset, to prepare for another day that will never come.  Walking off into the eternal suspension of memory that is the classic “deferred ending” of superhero comics…

…And so it turns out to be interesting after all, especially at so far a remove, to consider how it might’ve been:  “The Way It Didn’t Begin”, if you will.  With Wolfman’s best out of the way in #200, the last FF story by the last kid to have had Roz Kirby make him a sandwich while he looked over the master’s shoulder, with Doom finally dispatched and the FF back together after their final, ultimate breakup…yes, the question would’ve been whether or not the last thirty issues would see the lights start flashing on and off and the bartender coming out to take people’s drinks away, the rag-end of the evening, the Time You Stayed Too Late…or whether it would just turn out to be the mellowing pause before the next band took the stage.  In other words:  the question of whether the original narrative was going to terminate or not.  From our lofty position today, and looking at the Moench/Sienkiewicz issues that we have in hand, we might be well-inclined to assume the former…

…But maybe we’d be wrong about that.  Because by Moon Knight #25, just a year or so later, Sienkiewicz has finally lengthened his stride…and Moench seems to have fused his various influences and interests into something a little more portable, a little less messy and digressive and, well, purple.  Of course I can’t know the secret of his changing style, especially since unlike Sienkiewicz he was already a mature writer…but not for nothing does he become such a remarkably dependable shortstop in the next few years, and not for nothing does his FF run start to look peculiarly un-Moench.  So maybe it’s not quite radically nuts of me to imagine that a longer FF run by these two might’ve seen a pretty interesting metatextual development in it, as the Franklin problem gets worked through and the FF once again manage to fall together instead of apart…because what if the goofy, cringe-y writing faded away as they did so, getting tougher and more elliptical as the FF get more and more well-salvaged, and what if the pseudo-classic look of Sienkiewicz’s shapeshifting style slowly gave way to his own interpretations all the time? And what if the panels had gotten bigger and less crunched-down, what if the storylines crossed over issues at greater length, and the sprightly cycling of A and B and C plots once again picked up some steam?  Morrison and Lee’s work in 1234 might’ve been seen, then, as a conscious nod to the great, classic, Very Good run of Moench and Sienkiewicz in the Eighties:  the dark and slightly spooky Fantastic Four that we all remember from our youth, that nevertheless packed such a potent positivistic punch.

And then someone like me would’ve come along at some point and said:  “yeah, but don’t you remember how awful it was when it started?”

But of course every judgement like that is made in the context of some fond memory or other.  Isn’t it?

And anyway it didn’t happen like that.  And so I can’t really do the Moon Knight thing, and recommend picking up these comics if you’ve never read them before…as I surely would if John Byrne’s Very Good FF had never existed, and the MK team had stayed on.

But!

I’m sure glad I have ‘em here on my shelf, because otherwise all I’d have is memory’s rosy afterglow.

Or…do I have that backwards…?

23 responses to “Forgotten Comics: Fantastic Four

  1. Thanks for this — I’ve been waiting for you to talk about this FF iteration!

    About the lettercolumns — if you have (or can find) the 40 Years of FF DVD, it includes every page of every issue, including ads and letters. Not as easy to use as a book, I know.

  2. Shame on me — I’d never even read FF before the John Byrne days. :-( Up until then, I was a hard-core X-men fan — and that’s about all I’d read Marvel-wise. I still have a lot of catching up to do.

  3. My gosh, Sea…you mean you’ve never read the Lee/Kirby/Sinnott years of FF? (starts rummaging around for spare Essentials)

    And Tom, thanks for the tip! That would be extremely weird, I think…next I’m gonna do Star Trek, like superhero comics themselves I am all about the recapitulation…!

  4. He’s not the only one; I’ve been poking around to see if I can glom onto a stray copy of early Essential FF. The local library has let me down. I mean, I’m sure I’ve read _one or two_ FF comics at some point or other in my life…

    You know what I have read? You know the little square books that sometimes have the flip-book action in the top corner? I’ve got one upstairs, Spider-Man versus Mr. Zodiac. Anyway, I had one when I was little, with the FF in some kind of house of horrors or something; full of traps designed to counter their powers. I must have read that one twenty times.

  5. Years curtained the past and Texas grew, still lawless, still violent! Out of a bloody horizon of gunsmoke and death rose the legendary figure of a young outlaw, weaned on death, a black hatred smouldering in his heart, a memory of tragic violence still haunting his dreams! Still in his teens, the Cactus Kid blazed a trail of destruction with his jet-fast six-guns, ever searching … ever restless … ever waiting!

    (To be continued …)

    My apologies. Churlish of me not to have posted something for your birthday. I essayed a flash of whiskey though … good grief, I’d forgotten how quickly that stuff takes effect! And I’ve been sifting through the vinyls for old anthems (Albert Ammons, Yancey Street Stomp, The Fugs, Boobs-a-lot, J.J. Cale The Old Man and Me presently exposed).
    So I was there in spirit.

    You should take a look at the Fantastic Four right now, because Jonathan Hickman has gone over the edge with a battle-yell for scientific optimism. His last issue begins with three pages of Reed berating a Singularity conference for timidity. Then he returns to the Baxter Building where they are hosting some hyperintelligent Mole People children, Artie and Leech, a repressed clone-child of the Wizard and Alex Power … and these are Richards’ new school class along with Frankie and Val. Meanwhile Sue is being winning as ambassador to new fishy Atlanteans, dear old alien races have Inhumans of their own, and there is probably another bunch of Wundagoreans.

    What’s he got in mind? What’s he building in there?

    Just to show he means it, Hickman is also writing S.H.I.E.LD. in which there is a secret history where half the great scientists, like Galileo, were inventing at the Reed Richards level, and Leonardo da Vinci is the protagonist. In a direct parallel to Reed and his Singularity laggards, the stakes are unlimited human exploration versus a static utopia.

    What shall I do? Blood bathed my hands as the Cactus Kid … I washed them clean with years of study! I took a sacred oath to save lives! Must I now forswear that oath to take lives?

    (The writer is uncredited. Possibly it’s Stan Lee. From Atlas, Black Rider — Mystery Man of the Western Range, these pieces strike me as the best of formula writing: economical but vaunting, compelling and exact in their sentiments.

    Can you see the humility in this writing? There isn’t an unnecessary word: everything is directed to strengthening and heightening the effect. This is where Moench and McGregor would be, if we wrung out every bit of What literary risks I’m taking! See how clever I am being!. Like Stan, they could pile on the adjectives and formal rhetoric, but their choice of words was rarely as precise as what the writer pulls out of the formula toolbox here.)

    You’re in a rare position to evaluate what Hickman is audaciously doing with the FF just now, which is more than recycling, rather proposing what he considers the whole history of the Four has added up to, and where it has to go from there, on its own terms. The attitude is the altitude, as you say; and further, you know when you’ve solved the puzzle when you discover how it has solved itself.

    I’m not sure if Doug Moench could quite have done it. The current issue draws on a year or so of buildup, and even so I think it might seem confusingly convoluted (in the Marvel manner) if it didn’t have modern production quality for the crucial facial expressions and all the gosh-wow scenery. But then perhaps Doug could. Hickman does it all with dialogue, and he has a striking confidence. Just as Stan could phrase a sincerely-meant operatic declaration in Brooklyn street-talk for Ben, Hickman can stir a sense of super-scientific power on the wind, when, having steadily set Valeria up as a proper little smartass who just loves having an IQ five times bigger than anyone else’s, he has her exclaim, “Oh, Artie! Daddy’s going to love this!” And Hickman can take a leaf from Morrison, as when he has the Mole children talking together and just leapfrogging human concepts.

    The mighty charger shook off his practiced pose of indifference and antiquity in one quivering shudder of his power-packed muscles, as memories of past adventures coursed through his veins and electrified even his master!

    “Yahooo Satan, Onward!”

    (The guy’s horse has a secret identity! That sentence is made of cliches, and yet it isn’t dull. The unusual words like “indifference” and “antiquity” tell you that he means every word of it. Now I wonder whether you could read this comic straight on the radio.)

    I did indeed forget Moench’s run; I couldn’t have told you what was happening before Byrne, who was indeed a fresh start. Am I right in thinking that Doug was trying to extend his pallette of the personal, in order that he could tell more complex stories which would hinge on personality? Moon Knight stories? That’s not what the FF started out as, but they could have become that. The team was strong enough that it could handle Reed’s abstraction, and having a kid to raise, and Johnny wanting more from life and all, and then reassert itself at the right time. But I’d say that the right time would have to be some high-concept plot, conceived as the armature of long-term FF writing for a few years more.

    [Thinks] “Why was I so cruel to him? He seems so gentle, kind and thoughtful! I could almost like him … if he were like … like the Black Rider!”

  6. Oh, that’s a lovely post. I’m thinking quite a few of the original Stan Lee comics reached their natural terminating points in the late seventies and early eighties. Or maybe that’s just a generational thing.

  7. When Peter Parker became a high school teacher circa 2001, that seemed an appropriate enough endpoint for his story to me, at least.

    Of course, that totally IS a generational thing because I was born in 1984, and when I started reading Spider-Man comics, I’d missed all the other possible endpoints in the 70s and 80s so as far as I knew this was ALL NEW STUFF.

    I do feel Quesada and Jemas taking over ended (in a way) what I personally think of as the “real” Marvel Universe. Not in some sort of snotty way – I mean, that was an absolutely thrilling time to be reading superhero comics, and there’s nothing that would make me trade it for another however-many-years of Bob Harris being in charge. But Quesada and Jemas’ mission was very much to make the books very IMMEDIATE and play down the 40 years of continuity behind them. For the survival of the line, I think it was 100% the right move, but it’s one that you can’t really go back from.

    But they’re sort of trying, right? Because the fans miss it. I miss it too, a bit. But it doesn’t work; I think the shift in storytelling, art, tone, audience, media, and everything else that’s happened since the Jemas era has thrown up a wall. Again, there’s good stuff being produced, but as far as its connection to the “tapestry” of Marvel history (if this indeed something we should even consider important), it feels BASED on Marvel continuity, but it doesn’t really feel like it’s actually a PART of it. Some kind of weird apocrypha.

    Maybe it’s me, though.

  8. It isn’t you, Justin!

    I think we can map these things out — as I think the Jemas/Quesada era (damn, my brother’s computer sure LOVES SPELLCHECKING, how goddamn distracting is this?) merely makes a necessary virtue of the late Nineties status quo: either all this stuff “counts”, or we get to decide what’s worth caring about in it, and what’s worth jettisoning. So that was the chromatic detonation, if you will — the prismatic moment of the Mindless Ones, when we make the jump to hyperspace — and I think, for myself, it did “count”. Counted much more than Onslaught or whatever, I mean so little of Marvel’s Nineties is worth saving, that a true continuity-addict must at least have to grapple with the idea that either this universe got real sick, or it got real dumb — either way the historicity of it all has pretty much gone Humpty-Dumpty. So then the Jemas/Quesada time can do what it wants, that can be the CoIE of Marvel Comics, everything explodes, everything’s permissible, everything’s cured of its toxicity to the point you expect to see Alan Moore wandering around in the backgrounds…the meta-narrative works, with this in it!

    But then you kind of purely Quesadaize it, Johnsify it, and I don’t think the metanarrative holds up, anymore, once you toss away the necessities of your old continuity but then only replace them with lesser necessities more strictly enforced, and more aggressively synthetic. As though the point was to write a continuity instead of writing within one. A worthy enough effort someplace at some time, maybe, but not at Marvel where forty years of calculated twists and turns and revelations ensure that a reboot’s a reboot’s a reboot…and that, after all, you can’t both have it and not have it…

    Meanwhile, Jonathan, I think you have to look at the way these different pieces fit, when we’re talking about Moench. Certainly the man can always design like nobody’s business (you’ve been reading Rich Buckler’s Deathlok reminiscences, I trust?), and his fingerprints don’t change in that sort of artistic expression…but then what explains how darn weird he gets in the scripting, sometimes? I think by the time of Moon Knight and FF we haven’t yet seen Moench’s adaptability, only his versatility…Christ, I sound like the end of the second Matrix movie…by which I mean we’ve mostly seen him pursuing his own artistic fascinations, the growth of his own voice, ’til this point. Moon Knight’s his cross-genre love-letter to the pulps, Deathlok’s dissonant American New Wave SF for KIDS…and as far as design goes, ain’t it a peach? Don’t you get that electric thrill from the art, that makes you almost feel like you were there, right there when it came out? I can see I’ve got another Forgotten Comics featuring Doug Moench in me: re-reading Deathlok is actually quite interesting for the language, it’s, well it’s, it’s uh…of its time, I think I’ve got to say again, but for something so earnest and so innocent and so flawed, it’s still got a LOT of life in it, and a lot of that’s in the language as well as the art….

    But then we get to FF, and who knows what he might’ve wound up heading for, once he got the personalities straightened out? My own feeling is that he might well have drifted away from more overtly personality-driven stories once Franklin’s plot had concluded…maybe you could guess that Franklin would be to FF as the multiple personality/is Khonshu real business was to MK…something that at first serves as great texture, then is effective as plot-point, then gets refreshingly done with…then comes back once it’s apparent you can’t take one of your biggest bits of business and just chuck it out…or rather, you can, and that’s fine and good and even on occasions really great…but maybe it’s a bit wasteful of resources, eh? Still you sense Moench was a lot more interested in dealing with Franklin than Byrne was: Byrne just wanted the kid out of the way, didn’t he? But this was Moench’s kind of science, the Franklin stuff — Byrne loved Larry Niven, the nuts and bolts of the technophilic slant, the deference to authority, the appeal to authority…but Moench liked the more cartoony stuff, I think. I think we might’ve been able to expect to see a “science-driven” (that’s a post-2005 thing, right? Right?) FF after a time, a bit more Kirby and a bit less Claremont, a slightly more Fortean FF. I think we sometimes forget how educational these comics can be: you find out about genetics, you find out about astronomy…physics, chemistry…you may not know what you’re talking about from the comic, but you certainly know the topic is there when you’re finished with it! Byrne did not do a lot of this — of his many virtues, the ability to write adventure stories around a pedagogical kernel was not one — he was not “always on the lookout for the new”, though he was very good at refining the old. However Moench was interested in being a cutting-edge sort of guy, I firmly believe. I think he might’ve found FF a terrific place to store his moral and scientific lessons, a good way to keep ‘em right out of MK…not for Marc Spector the twist endings of the short story! But for Reed Richards, sure — you can bend this genre around as well, send it a love-letter: Lovecraftian plots with John W. Campbell-style “wee thinky bits” to close ‘em out on…

    Of course I could be way off base. One suspects this FF seems rushed in places because it was rushed in places, and it’s hard not to suspect, as well, the tiniest bit of editorial micromanaging from some source or other. Of course I might be totally wrong in that suspicion, too! But you kind of scent something funny here, from time to time, whatever it is I’m convinced it is there.

    And, Matthew: ha, I totally had that flipbook too! Still got it, somewhere…but now if you really want to read the old FFs, you’ve got to push on through until Sinnott joins up, and I hate to say it but they really are best in colour. It was always a colourful strip in its conception…

    And Clone, don’t you have a vote to register somewhere, hmm?

  9. Also on the “termination” bit…I mean it gets sort of interesting to compare the generational takes on it. X-Men: I say it’s intended to get done at the end of the Brood Saga, a nice close-out there for the All-New All-Different…my online interlocutor prefers the end of Inferno because he’s interested in the book as a story that weaves three generational narratives together. Funny thing about that is if you split the difference between us you can just say “when Byrne left”…no one was happier than I was when Cockrum came back, but it’s at this point where the original narrative ceases to be “unbroken”. One supposes this is a common feature of long multi-author stories, the same types of breakdowns, the same sorts of challenges…a long serial story like any of these comics titles eventually goes through something like psychotherapy, it seems, or something analagous to it…sort of like the meta-narratives of popular music, only perhaps a little bit clearer about their obsessions with youth, age, success, failure, boredom, reinvigoration, maturation, legacy, regret or integrity…and do people themselves ever get a “reboot”, soft or hard (or in Marvel’s case stupid), as comics franchises do? Can we judge comics reboots according to the standards of human beings’ psychological struggles? Has Marvel gone into a fugue state, did DC fall off the wagon, have either of them almost got to the point where they owned up to the face in the mirror but then chickened out?

    Hmm…dunno if that’s all that interesting, at least not compared with the question: so where did the original narrative of Iron Man end? Or the Avengers, or Thor, or Spider-Man, or whoever. Huh, I should really go fetch that guy and bring him over here, since it’s all his idea…

  10. Sorry, Plok. I’ve been watching so much football lately I’m a bit behind on stuff. I’ll do the voting thing, honest.

    Justin – I can see what you mean about Parker becoming a teacher being the end point of the original narrative, but the nineties Spider-Man’s were so confused and downright awful it’s impossible to think there was any coherent narrative. The obvious to put the end would be the marriage, but I’m thinking the end came a little earlier, when Peter bailed out of grad school (around #245, I think). Stan’s narrative always held the promise that one day teen genius Parker would become a great scientist, that he’d somehow find a way to be both Spider-Man and Peter Parker successfully. When Parker quit academia, he immediately became a man with a bright future behind him, and that wasn’t in Stan’s narrative at all.

    I see the X-Men’s narrative lasting a little longer than the brood saga, because the whole Westchester/family feel continued longer than that. I’d put the end point at the Mutant Massacre. After than, several of the original members are missing, they’re hanging out in the outback and Claremont was unsuccessfully trying to develop the team into a Legend with a capital L. Since then, every attempt to portray the X-Men as “Xavier’s dream” has been retro and retread and something was never in place again.

  11. Don’t get me wrong, although I was reading mid-to-late 90s Spider-Man comics regularly and eagerly as a lad, there’s not enough rose colored glass in the world for me not to recognize the goofy-ass, shortsighted stuff they were doing across the board.

    And yet, I still think those comics played by the old Marvel rules – “Everything happened and there’s no such thing as a mistake…and a shiny No-Prize to whoever can make it work.” So deep was their commitment to the great Marvel Universe “tapestry” that they ended up with the hideously unwieldly Clone Saga because they were trying to PLAY FAIR! “We can’t just make a clean break, so let’s bring back a clone from a 20-year-old story and some other plot points nobody cares about anymore, and…”

    Which was pretty much proof in retrospect that the whole tapestry thing wasn’t really built to withstand 40 years of use and that you needed someone as unsentimental as Bill Jemas to stick a fork in it and move on. Still, even though the tapestry was really threadbare and, yeah, sick and dumb in places, it was still honest. But the Jemas/Quesada method was also honest because they were usually pretty upfront about telling you to RELAX AND DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT, JUST ENJOY THE STORY.

    It’s the “Scarlet Witch depowers most of the mutants” and “Spider-Man sells his marriage to Mephisto” methods that seem dishonest to me, where they care enough to try to have some kind of in-universe explanation, but not enough to think of one that makes any kind of sense.

  12. Or: “Waah, Marvel Comics are bad now and were better when I was a kid and subsequently a young adult,” I know, I know.

    But one day I’ll do a post called “GOOD MARVEL COMICS OF THE LATE 1990s: I SWEAR THEY TOTALLY EXIST (IN ADMITTEDLY SMALLISH QUANTITIES), YOU GUYS” and you will all rue the day.

  13. Hmmm. “Good Marvel comics of the late 1990s” could be the shortest blog entry in history. I recall the period between the Age of Apocalypse and the Daredevil relaunch as an enormous existential scream of Marvel begging to be put out of its misery…

  14. Kurt Busiek: “Onslaught happens and I get to do the Thunderbolts; Onslaught ends and I get to do the Avengers. Onslaught is my friend.”

    And those were the Black Panther days, too.

    No matter how unhappy Marvel has ever become, there has always been something I’ve remembered fondly.

    I guess I mean, there has always been room to do something satisfying in terms of theme, sentiment or symbolism.

  15. >>My gosh, Sea…you mean you’ve never read the Lee/Kirby/Sinnott years of FF?<<

    Well, okay — I HAVE read a couple. I think I stopped after reading one in which Namor became a movie director, or something, to get to Susan Storm. I think I switched to Bugs Bunny comics after that. ;-)

  16. Hi, I’m that guy.

    I’m finding that a lot of original narratives peter out in the 200s for most things and is about the average momentum any title can reach before your wondering if there is anything left to do and usually no, not really and so, the 90s.

    Iron Man around the time of the Armor Wars, Spider-Man I would actually say between 250 ish to 300 ish, the X-Men somewhere between Inferno or when the X-Men go back through the Seige Perilous again, ummmm issue 300 was a good capper to a good long run of good Cap comics so thats like 200 issues on the dot from when it converted from Tales of Suspense. I figure that the Avengers lasts through Roger Stern’s awesome run.

    This is all very debatable though especially when you get into the re/de/constructionist takes of Byrne FF, Simonson Thor, and Miller/Born Again Miller/Nocenti Daredevil.

    This is impossible to apply to DC.

  17. The Lee-Kirby FF, along with the Lee-Ditko Spider-Man and DC’s Legion, are the only runs that I allow myself to buy–one lovingly anticipated volume at a time–in the hard-bound, full-color masterworks/archives format. I’m up to volume six in the collected FF, and it’s pure joy and excitement to me.

    I think the Essentials books are a great idea, but to me Kirby’s art–exploding with action and devices–loses a lot when color is removed. Now that the Marvel Masterworks are being released in paperback, I’d recommend them strongly over the Essetials. It breaks my heart to think that someone’s first exposure to, say, the Galactus Trilogy would be in black and white.

    The Lee-Kirby run ended just as I was starting to follow the FF regularly, and I remember greatly enjoying parts of some of the runs mentioned above…but most of that stuff is a blur to me now, like photocopies of photocopies of the Lee-Kirby source material. The Hickman issues look interesting enough that I’m waiting for the first trade volume.

    Let me also say that my 5th-grade daughter and I thought Namor as a conniving film mogul was awesome!

  18. Actually, I drifted out of comics for a bit after FF #200, where Reed regains his powers and confidence and fights the ultimate showdown with his most hated enemy, Doctor Doom. I guess I saw that issue as the logical conclusion of the “Golden Age” FF and – along with a then-growing interest in more popularly accepted obsessions like girls and rock ‘n’ roll – moved on to what seemed to be greener pastures.

    It didn’t last, of course, and by the time I returned John Byrne debuted what in retrospect is the “Silver Age Earth 1″ FF without the big “Crisis” cross-over.

    In retrospect, I wish more comics rebooted this way.

    Oh, and Avengers ended for me right after the Korvac saga where everybody was killed and got better …

  19. Heh. Marc, my dropping of each book was about the same time as yours. I recently reread those “Dr. Doom clones a son” issues…

  20. For me, X-Men ends with X-Men (vol. 2) 1-3, the final Claremont story. The team gains members, loses members, goes to Australia, comes back, and becomes a huge force in which its first members share the stage with its latest recruits. Magneto went from villain to semi-hero to villain again.

    Maybe the traditional Avengers ended when Hank struck Jan? The team seemed ruined after that, and the Wasp picked up the pieces and rebuilt afterwards. The additions of Captain Marvel, Starfox, Black Knight, and Namor and removal of several traditional members makes it a more natural Avengers Disassembled (then Reassembled).

    I kind of want to read the Moench/ Sienkiewicz FFs now. Kind of, although I’m not sure I’d enjoy them. They sound interesting, in a removed way. Divorced from context, i wonder if they’d have much impact on me.

    • It’s true Mike that Claremont’s X-Men run does essential end up like a snake eating it’s own tail with 14 or so X-Men flying away in a plane back to Xavier’s, reflective of the ending/beginning of GS X-Men/Uncanny #94. But that was only after 30-ish issues of spinning in place and a number of lousy plotlines (Asian Psylocke/Giant Polaris.)

      It just seems to me that his run hit its exit at a high note moment at Inferno, that final small victory of narrative over editorial fiat, that had been waging since Mutant Massacre, before the corporate mindset essentially put the whole thing into stasis?

  21. Guys, so great…and Daniel, thanks for appearing. Internet access not so convenient the last few days, so will reply at greater length soonest…

  22. Pingback: The Stranger’s Return « Anagramsci·

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