Welcome to the seventeenth installment of Mondo Marvel. This time out, we’re going to take a break from our regularly scheduled programming, to take a look at the first two examples of Marvel’s superhero-centric Annuals.
We start with Strange Tales Annual #2, which is made up of a fairly routine Human Torch story and a heaping helping of other regular Strange Tales fare. The Torch story is the only superhero story in the oversized book, so that’s the only one we need to give any attention to, for the purposes of this column.
I’d recommend checking out these other stories, though. Every issue has artists like Ditko and Lieber (who’s got a very distinct and original style) teaming up with Stan Lee to tell Twilight Zone-esque tales of science fiction and fantasy, as well as a prose piece or two.
They’re pretty entertaining.
Then we take a look Fantastic Four Annual #1, and get to see a feature-length adventure as Namor declares war on humanity, and this time, he’s got an army to back him up. Plus there are two back-ups, revisiting a couple of exciting moments from the team’s past.
The Marvel Annuals are a strange breed of comic. I can understand why they’ve died out these days, given that the standard contemporary storyline runs around six issues and collected editions are all the rage. When these started, the standard story was over in an issue, and even though the following issue might start up moments later, the stories were still self-contained. Therefore there’s a market for a larger scale story; something with more of an epic tone; something that couldn’t be contained in a single issue of the regular series, and that, at the same time, could reprint stories that readers might not be able to easily find anymore.
If your basic story already runs six issues, what’s so special about a story that’s only a third of that size?
And while the Strange Tales story here isn’t all that, it’s still a little bigger than a regular adventure, and provides an opportunity to see a team-up as an event. The Fantastic Four, on the other hand, brings us a huge development in the continuity of the team and the MU as a whole.
So, without further ado, I bring you Mondo Marvel #17.
Strange Tales Annual #2
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Steve Ditko
This story really only serves to provide an opportunity to team-up Marvel’s two hot teen-age characters. They don’t even get a real villain to fight, instead going after an art thief who calls himself The Fox. Which is odd, because he doesn’t wear a costume and he doesn’t look anything like a fox. He looks more like a thin rip-off of DC’s The Penguin right down to the long nose and monocle, but sans tuxedo.
The story is slight at best, as The Fox frames Spidey for stealing a priceless Da Vinci painting. This leads, of course, to our heroes duking it out a couple of times before teaming up to find the real culprit. Lee and Kirby established this dynamic back in Fantastic Four #12, although there, the FF and Hulk never really helped each other out. They fought, then Reed figured out what was going on, and Hulk disappeared before the army showed up.
This Strange Tales story is our first real example of what will become one of the most pervasive of superhero clichés. Hell, entire series will be built around the concept.
The most interesting thing about the story is what it says about celebrity and public acceptance in the Marvel Universe.
Johnny opens the story bitching about how Spider-Man is getting more face time on the covers of magazines. There’s a slight indication that Spidey’s treated as a hero in these publications, based mainly on Johnny’s jealousy, but he does say that Spidey gets written about whenever he does anything. We can assume, I suppose, that Spider-Man’s adventures are getting positive press outside of The Daily Bugle and Now Magazine, where J. Jonah Jameson’s vendetta holds sway.
However, as usual, all it takes is the suggestion that Spider-Man might be guilty of thieving the Da Vinci painting and the papers go on the attack. This time it’s the Daily Chronicle declaring that Spider-Man is a criminal (surely they could be sued for that?), and the people reading are immediately hostile.
One man just accepts it without question and hopes the police catch him, while another declares that he never trusted Spider-Man, specifically because he always kept his identity a secret.
Anyone who thinks that the Marvel Universe superheroes have an easy relationship with the public isn’t reading closely. And even though by the end of the story, Spider-Man is cleared, this is just another example of how uneasy costumed vigilantes make the regular citizens of the Marvel Universe.
It’s almost getting to the point that bad publicity, whether it’s a hostile, libelous headline or an angry talk show host, is as much a recurring problem as Commies and alien invasions.
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
The typical Marvel comic at this time was running 22 pages. Before the launch of The Avengers and The X-Men, only The Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos were dedicated to issue-length adventures. Thor, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Human Torch, Ant-Man and Wasp were all sharing the rest of their books with multiple other stories each month.
With Fantastic Four Annual #1, Lee and Kirby are able to stretch their creative legs a bit with 37 pages of story. It’s not quite double-sized, but it is, as the bombastic title page declares, “the longest uninterrupted super-epic of its kind ever published!!”
Yes, that’s two exclamation points, thankyouverymuch.
In what is a very satisfying narrative choice, Lee and Kirby decided to devote these extra pages to expanding the Marvel Universe a little more by giving us extended time with Prince Namor, The Sub-Mariner. And he’s not alone this time, nor is he teamed up with double-crossing villainous rivals.
This time he’s found his people. And for the first time, his people have a name. They are Atlanteans. Namor is the King of Atlantis and Jack Kirby goes all out with the design of everything Atlantean.
From the ships to the technology, from the clothing to the weaponry, this is Kirby at his imaginative best.
I can’t help but think that some of the designs here will find their way into his “Tales of Asgard” with only minor alterations (wings and bird motifs rather than fish and scales).
Now, there’s been some confusion about who came first and who copied what from whom, so we’re going to set the record straight here and now (not like it hasn’t been set straight other places). Way back in 1939, Namor was introduced, as we’ve discussed in previous installments of Mondo Marvel. Two years later, DC introduced Aquaman.
Without question, Namor was introduced before Aquaman. The confusion stems from this declaration that Namor is the King of Atlantis. You see, up until this point in Marvel Comics, Namor’s home had not been named. He was from an “undersea kingdom” that we could assume was Atlantis, but it wasn’t until this issue, in October 1963, that it was made official. Even Namor’s creator, Bill Everett, had avoided naming Namor’s home.
However, Aquaman had started out in 1941 as a human with powers granted him by a mysterious undersea culture. It wasn’t until 1959, when Robert Bernstein (before moving on to write bad comics under the name R. Berns for Marvel) retconned that origin and revealed (in Adventure Comics #260) that Aquaman’s mother was an outcast from the fabled country of Atlantis, making Aquaman the first “official” Atlantean of the two. However, Aquaman wouldn’t be voted King of Atlantis until late 1964.
So when it comes to the contemporary versions of the two characters, Aquaman introduced the Atlantis concept four years prior to Namor’s taking of the throne, even though Namor was originally introduced two years before him. Then Namor gained and lost the crown of Atlantis a year before Aquaman would get his.
Anyway, Lee and Kirby finally decided to bite the bullet and declare Namor the King of Atlantis and with an army of water-breathing, blue-skinned soldiers at his command, he declares war on the surface world. And things go pretty smoothly at first. The surface world is no match for Atlantean technology and even the Fantastic Four are at a loss. Until Reed realizes that the Atlanteans don’t breathe oxygen, and are wearing helmets filled with sea water.
He quickly whips up a machine that evaporates all the Atlanteans’ life-giving water and they are forced to make a hasty retreat. It’s interesting to note that Namor takes New York with no casualties and later specifically says that he’s trying not to take any human lives, and the first thing Reed can think of to do is suffocate an entire invading army. Hell, if it weren’t for the civilians, the army is ready to drop nukes on NY.
Granted, the Atlanteans are attempting to conquer the planet, but that’s a pretty stark contrast in the willingness to use lethal force to achieve one’s goals.
Regardless, this issue is the epitome of what makes The Fantastic Four Marvel’s flagship title (although Amazing Spider-Man is surging). It’s a world threat and it’s not brawn and battle that saves the day, but brains. Reed’s in particular.
But then we get to the second phase of the story. Once the Atlanteans are repelled, the conflict gets personal as Namor kidnaps Sue (again), and the boys go up against him in hand-to-hand combat. And, as usual when Namor is involved, the FF find themselves on the receiving end of an ass-kicking that only stops when Sue is endangered.
It’s got everything that makes The Fantastic Four great, with the way it moves smoothly from the political to the personal focus of the conflicts. Then, to my delight, we also have the blatant acceptance and inclusion of evolutionary theory as an expert on Atlantis (Namor in disguise) presents to the U.N. the origins of Homo Mermanus, from their beginnings as water-breathing cave men, through the development of weapons, arts, sciences, and morals.
We even get a retelling of Namor’s origin; Princess Fen’s reconnaissance mission to the surface, where she fell in love with a human, married him, and was then separated from him when he was slain in battle with the Atlantean soldiers sent to find her. Their child, “possibly the first known mutant of our time,” is Namor.
But, and here’s the twist that makes this comic a great one, Namor’s coming into the Atlantean narrative almost as fresh as we are, reading it. He’s been gone for decades and things have been happening in that time. His Warlord, a fellow named Krang has been in charge and longing for Namor’s old flame, the Lady Dorma. But she’s only got eyes for Namor.
That is, until she and Krang both realize that Namor’s infatuated with Sue Storm, which makes him a race-traitor in their eyes. When he abandons the fight with the Fantastic Four to save Sue’s life, his people abandon him, leaving their cities empty and Namor alone as he ever was.
It’s brilliant and tragic and is everything that makes Marvel Comics different from everything else on the market at the time.
This is revolutionary work.
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Steve Ditko
“The Fabulous Fantastic Four Meet Spider-Man!”
What we’ve got here is a revisiting of a two-page sequence from Amazing Spider-Man #1, where Spider-Man visits the Fantastic Four, fights them for a bit, then asks for a job. According to the editor’s note, fans have been clamoring for an expanded telling of that historic moment, and Lee, Kirby, and Ditko provide it.
The original scene’s art was done entirely by Ditko, but this time out, Kirby does the pencils and Ditko provides the inks. There’s really not much to say about it, other than we have a few strange moments where Kirby gives us his versions of some of the original panels, which is kind of neat in concept, but they really lack the detail and character of the originals.
All this is, really, is a fight scene, extended from two pages into six. There’s nothing new here, conceptually, but it does open up an intriguing can of worms. This is one of the first moments in Marvel Continuity where we are explicitly presented with the idea that what we’re seeing on the page, isn’t always the full story.
This idea has kind of been present all along, or at least since we learned that Marvel Comics are published inside the Marvel Universe, telling the ad
ventures of the “real” superheroes. I like the subtle inference that the comics we’re reading are actually the comics that the “real” characters are reading, too.
It provides a built-in rationalization for editorial changes, continuity mistakes, and, as we see here, revelations of previously unseen experiences of the characters. It also opens the door for future retcons, large and small.
Speaking of which, the next story contains a small visual revision of what we’ve seen before.
Artist: Jack Kirby
“The Origin of the Fantastic Four!”
There’s nothing much to say about this that I didn’t say the first time around. It’s a straight-up reprint of the first chapter of Fantastic Four #1, stopping just before the team gets ready to go fight giant monsters.
The coloring is much better in this reprint, though, being crisper and cleaner than they were eighteen issues ago. Kirby also took this opportunity to redraw the Human Torch. Instead of the mass of fire that he was in that first issue, here, Johnny is the familiar red form with yellow flames around him.
I’m not sure of the reasoning for this, other than I guess The Torch is becoming more and more popular, and the creative team decided to give the readers the character they’ve come to know and love. It’s interesting to see how Lee and Kirby are already tweaking and refining the work of the previous two years.
Hopefully, now that Thanksgiving is over and done with I’ll be able to get back to a regular, full-sized column next time.
Don’t forget to stop by the message boards and share your experiences and adventures in reading the Marvel classics!
See you in two weeks, gang!