You once stated the Fantastic Four were the actual best super team. Why is that?
Assuming there’s even a nominal need to explain it any further than “they were Jack Kirby’s main project for just shy of a decade,” or for that matter “it’s the team Ben Grimm’s on” or “they’re where Doctor Doom comes from,” it’s actually a little more complicated than it might seem, because it’s not quite a matter of them collectively being the best characters in comics. Ben’s right up there, and Reed’s great too in the right hands, but Johnny’s while fun still pretty one-note, and while Sue works in the context of the group, I still feel like after all these years people haven’t quite fully fleshed out her deal in the same way as the others. Pound-for-pound, they hardly match up to the Justice League. But a team is a lot more than the sum of its parts; it’s the dynamic, the context they’re framed in, and the scope of what you can do with them. And in those regards, no one else is even close.
Let’s cover the other major players. I like the Doom Patrol from what I’ve read (Morrison’s run and what there’s been so far of Way’s), but they seem really shifty in terms of lineup in spite of being a small group, making it tougher to build long-term stories around character dynamics, and most of their adventures seem to be them just trying to wrap their minds around what’s happening to them; like the Spirit, they’re the spectators, not the spectacle. The X-Men are…a whole piece in and of themselves, but long story short, as far as I’m concerned they’ve spent over 30 years coasting on a run that got by on trying *slightly* harder than its competition at the time and a strong if muddled central metaphor, with any attempts at doing anything actually interesting with them since then smothered as soon as they start to gather any steam. Ditto Teen Titans, without even the symbolic strength of the central concept; all they’ve got is the cartoon, and DC’s spent over a decade resolutely making sure absolutely none of what made that show work gets into the comics. The JSA is Fine, Just Fine, and Jay Garrick and Ted Knight are both great, but their integration into the main DCU was - aside from scrapping the multiverse - the biggest mistake DC ever made in terms of large-scale continuity reengineering, and aside from the pretty clearly failed Earth-2, everything with them for the last 30 years has been built on the back of that illusion that any of them are in any way anywhere near as important as Superman or Batman. I’ll cop the Legion of Superheroes might have more meat on the bone than I’ve seen, but I’m not willing to shell out however many thousands of dollars on archive editions I’d need to find out, and while I imagine the Defenders were great under Steve Gerber, that seems to have largely been it for them.
That leaves the big two. I’ve covered it before, so keeping it relatively short: the Justice League is the best team in terms of average character quality so long as we’re sticking to the Big Seven model, but because each of them is iconic and important enough that they all have their own stuff going on, the focus in their best runs is on big action, with character work necessarily taking a back seat. They try to shake it up sometimes with B-listers, presumably on the basis that that’s how the League was conceived of in the first place, but it never works; the minor characters in the beginning were elevated to the A-list by sheer dint of being on Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman’s team, and shortly afterwards the rules of that world and who was important in it were codified enough that you couldn’t really replicate that more than once in a blue moon with one or two characters. The Avengers meanwhile were originally more genuine B-listers - only truly elevated above that by the movies, or if you’re being generous Bendis - and as such the Avengers as a group was the most significant thing in any individual members’ life, turning it into a meaningful institution that made them more than the sum of their parts, while the Justice League has always been less than the sum of its own. But at the same time, while they can do more within the boundaries of being the big team than their distinguished competition, they themselves just aren’t as big a team, and can’t compete on those grounds. Maybe I’d have a different mindset if the Avengers were a big deal to me personally, but as far as the ‘classic’ members go, I maybe, generously, care about four or five of them at all.
The Fantastic Four on the other hand? For starters, they’re a pretty universally regarded perfect balance of powers and personalities - tough enough to get into some wild adventures but not so overwhelmingly so that they can’t be easily thrown in over their heads; arranged character-wise with personality quirks both complimentary and irreconcilable that let you just as easily show them hugging it out or at each others throats. But the deal-maker is that rather than a club, or a gathering of the big guns when they have time off from their solo adventures, or an after-school hangout, or a strikeforce, or a ragtag bunch of misfits, or about 938 backup dancers of varying degrees of quality lucky enough to have Wolverine and Emma Frost to carry them, they’re a family, both born and found, and moreover they’re a family of explorers. And that makes all the difference.
Obviously there’re other teams that work as families in reality or in spirit, but the FF work that way in terms of dynamic, even above their status as superheroes. Yes, if they hear about the Mad Thinker wrecking downtown they’ll go deal with that, so you can tell regular superhero stories with them. But at the same time, you don’t need any elaborate explanation to get them to the Savage Land or the Negative Zone, or even to Yancy Street; they’re as likely as not to head out there on vacation (or to stop Ben from tearing it down in the latter case). They’ll go do big, interesting things purely on the basis of going to do it together as a family, and when it’s a family that diverse in terms of interests and personal goals, that means you can organically throw them in a bunch of different directions. And because they’re science adventurers above all with superheroics as just one option on the table, that gives you all the justification needed to dish out any wild high concepts you like, on the simple basis that Reed’s interested and the rest will humor him if it means a fun afternoon. And when real danger finds them, they care for each other and argue with each other and worry about each other and keep each other on their feet the way family does, perpetually keeping the emotional stakes as high as possible.
So yeah. They play off each other perfectly, you can justify them going nearly anywhere and doing nearly anything, and at their heart they have the warmth and the bickering and the strength that comes with family. And Kirby threw everything he had at them, and they have Ben Grimm and fight Doctor Doom. That’s why they’re the best. And among Marvel’s myriad other problems at the moment, its world is always going to be the lesser and the lonelier for it whenever it’s missing The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine.
The very first Captain America comic has a release date of March 1941, so in order to celebrate the 76th Anniversary of our beloved Steven Grant Rogers, I have asked Tumblr users to submit their favorite Cap comic panels, art, quotes, pictures, meta, gifs, and/or write-ups on what Captain America means to them. And here is what Cap’s fans have to say… (please feel free to reblog and add your own favorite Steve Rogers moments, etc. to this post).
Victor needs 6 balloons of threats, a super powered suit, a laser pistol, and 3 robots to terrorize an unarmed human. Page from The Fantastic Four #84, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, and lettered by Sam Rosen.
Do you have any good recommendations for old comics? I would love to get into them but honestly I have no idea where to start.
The Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Fantastic Four was the towering
achievement of the 1960s and my favorite comic of all time. Their current
shabby treatment by their parent company is inexcusable; Marvel was built by
Fantastic Four. FF is my favorite comic ever because it is “hot” and “cold” at
the same time, a balancing act that is hard to do in science fiction. It has
far out scifi adventures like shrinking to explore a world inside an atom or
fighting Galactus the World Devourer, or a villain as melodramatic as Doctor
Doom…but we believe in it because of how grounded it is in a real world, with
wisecracking, warm characters we like. Every FF story ends in some far out way,
but we believe it because of how it starts with something everyday, like the
Thing buying hot dogs in Central Park while walking with his girlfriend. It’s like
Stan discovered the formula for Coca-Cola; it’s very, very, very hard to tell a
bad Fantastic Four story. Sure, FF is great, but it gets ultra-great starting
around issue 43, and has an unbroken string of the greatest stories ever for 40
issues: the Coming of Galactus, the introduction of the Black Panther, the
introduction of the Inhumans, Doctor Doom stealing the Silver Surfer’s powers
(what a shocker that was).
Joe Kubert’s Enemy Ace comic is maybe the best war book
ever written, about an honorable German flying ace in World War I. Hans von
Hammer had noble and chivalrous instincts: he saluted enemies even after he
killed them, and refused to shootan unarmed foe. He once
befriended a wolf in the Black Forest, because the both of them were killers, and that wolf was his only real friend. He was the ultimate example of
how war shapes even decent men into killers.
Russ Manning’s Magnus Robot Fighter is a crackerjack
action-scifi comic that has aged better, not worse since the 1960s, because it’s
all about the terror of a society that is overmechanized and under surveillance,
where you hate machines but also need them and can’t get rid of them. The fully
detailed, realized science fiction world of North Am is what makes it so
interesting. Magnus is the Defiant Man in a screwy world; I wonder why John
Carpenter never took an interest in making Magnus Robot Fighter as a movie, it
would so fit his sensibilities.
If you ask guys who were around for it what they like
about Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar, you get the same answer if you asked a wired
little kid why they like sugar and caffeine. It was one of the first and best
of the “creator owned, adult scifi comics” to come around in the early 1980s,
with Vance Dreadstar leading rebels against an Empire. There’s also some
bizarre Moorcock inspired mysticism at work. Best of all, Dreadstar is now
widely available and reprinted; you owe it to yourself to check it out.
Speaking of adult oriented scifi comics, check out Alan
Zelenetz’s Alien Legion. It’s about a futuristic French Foreign Legion made up
of convicts, drifters, cutthroats, and criminals from across the known planets.
The Legionnaires are expendable and are often sent on suicide missions,
political objectives are often at odds with military ones, and a lot of them
talk about desertion at times.
Star Brand by Jim Shooter is maybe the only comic that
ever did anything interesting with the dead end idea, what would a superhero look like
in the real world? It’s a comedy about how we never live up to our potential. When the
hero comes back to earth from space, he finds he gets incredibly lost and can’t
find his hometown. When he tries to stop a hostage crisis, he realizes that
even with powers, he wonders what he could really do that wouldn’t make things
worse or escalate the situation. It’s the people that make it worth it: our hero has conflicted feelings
about two women, one a single mom, and the other is a girl that loves him, but
so much that it doesn’t feel healthy.
Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer is a great retro comic, but the selling
point is something that never entirely made it into the film adaptation: it’s all about
the sex appeal of good looking girls. I once asked an art teacher of mine what it would take to make a living as an artist, and he told me, “draw good looking girls. If you can, you will never be out of work.” Well, Dave Stevens could, and he’d still be doing it today if not for his tragic passing.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to cry a lot (”sad is happy for deep people”), check out Strikeforce: Morituri, an early 80s comic with a fascinating premise. In order to fight off an alien invasion, a means of giving people superpeople is created, but it has a horrible cost: it gives you only a year to live. It’s all about mortality, nobility, and sacrifice and is really melancholic. Essentially, every single character has a terminal illness.
Doctor Doom's scars: genuinely horrific, a tiny cut to highlight his vanity, or a tiny cut *until*, for whatever reason, he slapped his metal mask on while it was still red hot?
Definitely the latter; I don’t know whose idea it was to combine Lee (horrific) and Kirby’s (tiny scar) ideas there, but it was straight-up genius (was it John Byrne? If so, that’s probably the literal best idea he’s ever had). That he’s so vain he’d consider his face being utterly annihilated no worse than a minor scar since the world has lost its perfection either way, and that he’d immediately put on the burning-hot mask because unimaginable pain means nothing compared to hiding away any evidence of human vulnerability on his part a few moments sooner? It’s all absolutely perfect for his character. If I had to pick between the first two I definitely prefer the tiny scar, but I think what we’ve actually ended up with over the years is by far the best of the possibilities.
Sunday marks 99 years since Jack Kirby was born on August 28, 1917. To celebrate the birthday weekend, I’ve assembled visual timeline of what Lee & Kirby looked like through the ages.
Note that Stan Lee didn’t start sporting the mustache until Jack Kirby left. Any depiction of Marvel in the ‘60s that shows Lee with a mustache is inaccurate.
When Colleen Doran was illustrating Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir, I don’t know whether Lee requested she draw the mustache during that period or if it was just down a lack of research materials, but it kind of complimented the inaccuracy of Stan Lee’s memories.