Recontextualizing FF #1

By | Wednesday, March 30, 2022 Leave a Comment
I don't recall how long it took bewteen reading my first Fantastic Four comic and when I read their origin. I'm pretty sure it was a reprint of FF #1 in either the 1970s' Fantastic Four Pocket Book that I picked up at a local comic shop or the copy of Fantastic Four: The Secret Story of Marvel's Cosmic Quartet that was at our local library. Probably the latter. Those two reprints are significant because they present very different contextual information about the origin, despite both being ostensibly the same story.

In the case of the Pocket Book, it includes reprints of the first six issues of the series in their entirety. It's a Pocket Book, so the art is obviously much smaller than a standard comic book (roughly half the size) but it was still eminently legible. And of course the origin leads right into their battles with the Mole Man, and then the Skrulls, Miracle Man, Sub-Mariner, and Dr. Doom. We see the team's headquarters and costumes and, while not as fully fleshed out as they'd later become, we get a good sense of who the characters all are for their first year. (The title was bi-monthly until issue #7.)

The Secret Story reprint is different. It doesn't include the Mole Man battle from the first issue, but does include reprints of issues #82 and #203 so we get more established, somewhat more contemporary versions of the characters with art by different artists. (Although only the three issues -- two of which are by Jack Kirby -- are reprinted, there are several spot illustrations throughout the book as well.) Additionally, author David Anthony Kraft provides introductions and codas to each story. Although those texts are still fairly superficial, they do point to some key elements that are note-worthy about the stories. So while the Pocket Book does indeed show that the FF don't get uniforms until issue #3, for example, Kraft relays that a superhero not having a costume right off the bat was unheard of prior that first story.

So which is the better way to read about the FF's origin?

Or what about the next time I read the origin in Thing #1? It's not a reprint, but a new retelling. It includes many additional details about Ben Grimm's life prior to his becoming the Thing. What about the truncated version in Fantastic Four #296 that came out a few years later?

I've noted before that, unless you bought the issue off the newsstand in 1961, you can never really experience the "proper" context for reading it. You've got the additional "baggage" of whatever else you've seen/heard/read/experienced that simply was not available in mid-1961. John F. Kennedy was still in the White House. Star Trek wasn't a thing. Man had not yet set foot on the moon. Home computers weren't available to anyone, much less portable ones, much less ones that are small enough to fit in your pocket and also include a phone, a camera, a GPS, hundreds of hours of music, and access to the largest interconnected network of knowledge mankind has ever created. Even if you get your hands on an original copy of Fantastic Four #1, you can't get the same experience or have the same context as someone who read it in 1961.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, just an statement of fact. But what's interesting now, decades later, is that there are several ways to try to address different types of context to reading FF #1, several particularly interesting versions of which came out last year in conjunction with the anniversary.

First is the Fantastic Four Anniversary Tribute which reprints (sort of) both FF #1 and FF Annual #3. The "sort of" comes into play in that every page has been redrawn by contemporary artists, some who've worked on the book before, some who haven't. While it's technically a retelling since it's not what Jack Kirby put down on paper originally, they're using not only Stan Lee's wording and dialogue but, in most cases, the artists lean very heavily on Kirby's layouts if they don't copy them outright. At both the page and even the panel level. When Lee was breaking in new artists at Marvel, he sometimes would have Kirby do rough layouts for their stories first, until the artist got the feel of the type of staging and pacing they were looking for. This feels much like that in a lot of ways.

Normally, I would think this type of approach -- having a different creative team with their own illustrative styles on literally every page -- would be jarring and hard to read. It might well be if you've never read the original story before, but I'm so familiar with it now that it was more of a visual exercise in seeing how different artists work (or don't work) in the same manner that Kirby did. Particularly with the artists that I'm more familiar with, it was interesting to see how much their style actually jars with what Kirby did. To be fair, I expect Kirby himself would lay out the story differently if he did even just a few years later (or if, as we learn about in the next collection, Lee hadn't mandated any layouts of his own) but this helps highlight how much Kirby's own illustrative style was integral to making that first issue work. These layouts, in many cases, simply don't work with many illstration styles, emphasized further by modern coloring techniques. That's the context to find here -- how much of Kirby's approach to drawing makes the story work, in a way that just doesn't for others.

Fantastic Four No. 1 Panel by Panel from Chip Kidd and Geoff Spear is a compartively massive tome in which they've taken a high-resolution photo of each page of an original copy of FF #1, and blown up each and every panel to a full page. Naturally, most panels don't conform to the exact dimensions of the book itself, so sometimes portions are cropped slightly or, more frequently, show some of the surrounding panels as well. While this does inherently mean that you're not seeing the page layout and the story flow is interrupted with having to turn the page much more frequently, it does afford the reader the ability to study the art in much more detail. At this scale, you can more readily notice irregularities that might indicate corrections or shortcuts that would normally be too small to notice.

Personally, I find this a little hard to go through. If there's an individual panel I want to study for some reason, that can be interesting, but going through the whole issue at this scale at this pace gets tiresome for me real fast. The design approach... well, I see what he was going for, but I think it only works for studying the details of a single panel. If you try to look at much more than that in a sitting, it becomes overbearing. What strikes me as more interesting is Tom Brevoort's page level analysis at the back, where he goes through and speculates on where Lee may have "influenced" page layouts or where someone like Sol Brodsky may have made corrections after Kirby turned the art in. While it is speculation, it's very much informed speculation. I believe he posted this on his blog at one point, but this version has been tightened up a bit and flows more smoothly with the art. Even though I did read this on his blog previously, I found his analysis here the most useful part of the book.

Brevoort also includes notes on the official Marvel house stat of the cover, compared against what was printed, which is an interesting read. Mark Evanier weighs in on how he thinks Lee and Kirby would have collaborated on the issue, before adding some oft-overlooked kudos to letterer Art Simek, colorist Stan Goldberg, and presumed inker Goerge Klein. Both Brevoort and Evanier reference Lee's original script (also reproduced in this volume) and then the entire issue is reprinted "normally" from the same photos. This provides the most 'academic' approach to context for FF #1 that I've seen outside acutal academic journals.

Another volume Marvel put out last year was Marvel: August 1961 which reprints every issue Marvel published in that same month as Fantastic Four #1. Although, unlike the previous book, this one presents all the stories in a "cleaned up" state. Though they use largely the original color palettes, they've all been recolored and had the linework smoothed out so they print nicely. Here again, Brevoort provides a little context in an introduction, summarizing the predicament the company was in at the time, going so far as to say that most of the titles being published then weren't very good. Not that they were outright bad, just pretty forgettable. Reading through this entire volume, you can see very directly how Fantastic Four stood out from everything else Marvel was publishing at the time.

This is actually an approach I tried independently many years ago, but many of the stories simply weren't available in any format. I think this type of context makes a great deal of sense because it shows readers of today essentially what choices a reader of 1961 had. Would the Fantastic Four stand out to you on a news rack that also showcased Orrgo, Sserpo, Kid Colt, and Millie the Model? Certainly your genre preferences would come into play here, but would Giganto breaking through the pavement on Fantastic Four catch your attenton over the giant spider on Journey Into Mystery or the creature from Krogarr on Tales to Astonish? The context here is certainly very company-specific; this is only what Marvel was doing and doesn't speak to any social or cultural reactions any of it may have been in regards to. Nor does it touch on any competitors' work that would likely have shared space on the newsstand. But it's insightful to see how far Lee and Kirby were taking things in Fantastic Four relative to what they themselves were doing at that exact same time!

Any and all of these provide some measure of additional context for reading Fantastic Four #1. Completely different contexts from any other reprintings or retellings. Personally, I find them all very useful to read through. Because I can't replicate that just-purchased-off-the-newsstand-in-1961 reading, I like bringing in as much as I can in as many different ways that I can. Not all of these are meant for everybody, of course. Some will have a context that speaks more specifically to one person over another for whatever reason. But as I'm more interested in the Fantastic Four than any other comic book characters ever created, I find trying to examine them and their origin story from these different vantage points offers me glimpses of how other people see and read them. And that gives me a better appreciation of what they respond to. Which, in turn, gives me a better appreciation of what I respond to!
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