Friday, October 12, 2007

In Living Benday--Fantastic Four Visionaries Volume 1

Unexpected delays prevented me from posting yesterday, but in keeping with my promised Geek Assignment, here are my initial thoughts on John Byrne's first nine Fantastic Four stories, as reprinted in Visionaries Volume One:

With Fantastic Four # 232, John Byrne plants his flag as the heir to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. I'm not overly familiar with the post-Kirby, pre-Byrne Fantastic Four, but I have read a handful of the Roy Thomas and Marv Wolfman issues, and other than a few Heralds-of-Galactus-related plot points (Terrax the Tamer, mostly), it doesn't seem like Byrne is very much interested in anything that followed Kirby's exit from the series over one hundred issues earlier.

Byrne launches his long, continuous run with a straightforward superhero smash-em-up, as the FF confront the maniacal alchemist known as Diablo. Actually, they don't so much confront him as defeat his elemental minions through the old superhero switcheroo (with the heroes swapping enemies to more effectively defeat each one--an old trick from Gardner Fox era Justice League comics). It's only at the end of the issue that they capture Diablo, with the deus ex magica help of a suprise guest--Dr. Strange! He shows up out of nowhere to track down Diablo and give the story closure.

With the elemental minions facing the team, Fantastic Four #232 draws attention to the idea that the Fantastic Four members are, themselves, based on the four ancient elements. I seem to recall Stan Lee mentioning somewhere or another (readers, any clue where I may have read this?) that he had the notion of the four elements in mind when creating the FF (not that surprising--he's probably on record somewhere claiming credit for inventing earth, air, fire, and water as well), but I'm not convinced that it was part of the original concept. Sue's initial powers weren't so much air-related as, well, straight invisibility (wouldn't an air-concept hero be able to fly?) and the Thing didn't start out as the loveable pile of rocks we know so well--he was more a pile of hardened dough. So even though the concept of a "family" probably drove Lee and Kirby's initial concept more than the idea of "elementals" did, the characters eventually developed in such a way as to make the elemental parallels more obvious. And that notion is what Byrne plays with in the first story in the reprint volume. Each FF member faces his or her elemental opposite, sort of. Air vs. the Human Torch. Water vs. the Thing. Fire vs. Mister Fantastic. Earth vs. Invisible Girl. Then they do the switcheroo and have some fun.

Even with the silly and all-too-easy wrap up with Dr. Strange, it's a great way for Byrne to begin his run. It clearly demonstrates the powers of the team, establishes their relationships and use of teamwork, and provides all of this at the expense of a lesser Lee/Kirby creation in Diablo. It was originally published in 1981, but Fantastic Four #232 is a Silver Age story through and through.

After that, the stories in the volume become a bit more bizarre.

The Human Torch basically solos in a twist on a wrongly-accused-murderer story. The Torch uncovers evidence which proves a falsely-accused man innocent, but it's too late to save him, and even the victim's mother thinks that her son was a bad apple anyway, and "got what he deserved." It reads almost like a repurposed Daredevil story, with Maggia villain Hammerhead, but Byrne includes enough Human Torch-specific character moments to keep it faithful to the FF. He probably envisioned it as a change of pace story, a street-level tale for the readers before moving to more cosmic altitudes.

In Fantastic Four #234, L. R. "Skip" Collins inexplicably wields the power to alter reality as he wishes. It's like one of those Eisner Spirit tales, the ballad of a pathetic minor character with some deep and powerful secret. Skip Collins's tale leads nowhere, though, and every change he inflicts on the world is reset in the end as he wishes everything back to normal and apparently loses his power forever. The story serves a larger-scale purpose, as it helps to get the FF off planet in a rocket ship. (Collins hadn't been causing most of the disturbances, as Reed tells us, it's being cased by a probe from SPACE!) The idea of a reality-shaping character must have interested Byrne, however, even though he didn't seem interested in pursuing the idea with Skip Collins. In a later volume, Byrne gives very similar powers to Franklin Richards, but that is a discussion for another post.

One the team gets into orbit, they confront none other that Ego, the Living Planet (another Lee and Kirby creation, from the pages of Thor), and handle the cosmic threat in an appropriately fantastical way.

But the real gem of Visionaries Volume One is the story from Fantastic Four #236, "Terror in a Tiny Town." The team members find themselves powerless, havig strange dreams about powers they can't quite remember. What is reality? The Puppet Master's lurking around, but nothing seems to make sense. Sue even has her old, mountainous hairdo. The truth is finally revealed, however, as they learn that the world they inhabit is not a virtual reality simulation, it's not a dream. Instead, they find that they are living in a miniature scale model town, their psyches inhabiting tiny little dolls. Their bodies are hooked up, via Kirbyesque machinery, to some contraption that keeps them physically in stasis while their minds inhabit these teeny, tiny little versions of themselves. Talk about a brilliant supervillain death trap! And to make it even cooler, Victor von Doom is not only behind the whole scheme, but he is playing along, having inserted his own psyche into Tiny Town as well, just to prove how AWESOME he is compared to the FF. He's living out his ultimate teenage revenge fantasy. "I'll make them very tiny, and make myself wicked cool so I can mock them," he probably thought. It's what I would have done when I was 13 (if I had a maniacally genius mind, an armored facemask, and a green hoodie).

Nicely done, John Byrne.

It's really a fun story--a tale that captures the mixture of scientific brilliance, egotism, and stunted maturity that makes up the core of Dr. Doom. Byrne's portrayal of Doom in later stories is more noble, more haughtily tyrannical, but I like this cruel sadistic Doom-with-the-goofy-plan so much more.

By the way, the FF defeat Doom's Tiny Town scheme by RECREATING THE COSMIC RAY EVENT (or an approximation of it), thereby giving their teeny, tiny little bodies FF powers, which they use to fly up out of the little model town and kick some normal size bad guy butt. And, they trap Doom in his own creation, which serves him right, the bully!

Great, great stuff. Once again, Byrne seems to be at his best doing these inspired Silver Age-style comics.

He does a few other things in the stories that follow--he estabishes Frankie Ray's flame powers, he returns the Thing to his lumpy form, he gives us a Twilight Zoneish story about a weird little town and a cute little girl with a secret, and he brings in Lee and Kirby's Inhumans for a story in which the FF just kind of stand around and watch how cool the Inhumans are.

But it's really "Terror in a Tiny Town" that makes this first collection worth picking up.

I haven't finished Byrne's entire run yet, but I'm working my way through the rest of the volumes, and I know that it doesn't get much better then "Terror in Tiny Town," at least not in any self-contained issue. What Byrne perhaps does best, once he gets rolling on the series, is develop a consistent, slow progression of a long-term narrative. We see the beginning of it here, as he sets up a few things with Doom and Frankie Ray and threats from outer space, but nothing can really beat itty bitty Ben Grimm tearing open a full-size computer panel with the words, "I majored in destruction."

Join me on Monday as I look at Byrne's second Visionaries volume (which, unfortunatly, has no tiny little Ben Grimms at all).


Elliott said...

Good stuff. I have nothing else to add.

Marc Caputo said...

My first issue of Fantastic Four was 170 (thank you, Mark Grdovic!) I read back to 150 or so and kept with the book until around 286 (the Jean Grey resurrection) - this, I believe, is Byrne's true legacy to comics, even more so than his collaboration with Claremont on Uncanny X-Men. However much of a "whatever" he has become (or even always was), they can't take this away from him.

Two things about 236 come to mind: you know how you'll wake up from a dream, particularly a good one, and then you'll spend part or some of that day responding and reacting to the world as if it were true. THEN you really wake up and you're somewhat bummed, even though your real life isn't all that bad? Byrne really gets that across here. Also, I love that plot device of how the mind-control is broken; fundamentally, they KNOW something is wrong, as if no matter what, the four of them are meant to be heroes, even if they weren't super-powered.

I'm going to have to "assign" myself these (I think there is an 8th volume on the way that will be the last one.)