6. (1968) Let There Be Life

Fantastic Four Annual Number Six 6

Annual Number Six

Lee and Kirby have maintained an immaculate standard of Fantastic Four annuals, and this would be their last. The next seven annuals following would only reprint stories from previous issues and annuals, until annual 14, which would rather appropriately showcase Franklin Richards.

Appropriate because this annual relays the circumstances of this character’s birth, which are truly thrilling. After an entire year’s lull in storytelling, the creators have produced a top-notch action adventure story. It is not complex and a little thin in character development, but its pacing and graphics are excellent. Kirby’s power and energy is unflagging after seven years and 80 issues on this title.

Fantastic Four Annual Number Six 6 AnnihilusAnother iconic villain is introduced in this issue — Annihilus the Annihilator. He is the owner of the Cosmic Control Rod, the unexplained MacGuffin of this issue. Reed needs the power inside of it to… do something with the cosmic radiation still coursing through her blood, and causing problems of some sort. The energy in the Cosmic Control Rod contains the antidote.

Fantastic Four Annual Number Six 6 AnnihilusWhere the fun is in this story is that the Fantastic Four rather quickly achieve their goal of attaining the Cosmic Control Rod, and the rest of the issue is spent trying to get back home. They must also evade an Annihilus that becomes maddened by his lack of power and pursues them with a crazed desperation, eventually being forced to stoop so low as to bargain with Reed to get it back.

Their mission resolved, they spend a tense (and actually rather humorous) few pages in a hospital waiting room. At long last they are shown in by Crystal to view a beaming and healthy looking Sue Richards and (an as yet unnamed) Franklin, underscoring the most rare and unique aspect of this title — that the Fantastic Four are not just a team, but a family.

EVALUATION: 8/10Fantastic Four Annual Number Six 6 Franklin

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5. (1967) Divide — And Conquer, etc.

Fantastic Four Annual Five 5

Annual Five

DIVIDE AND CONQUER

The first story of the three in this issue is just how a great annual should be written. Lots of guest stars, a good amount of (character driven) action, and an original threat. Also, the group dynamic of the Fantastic Four shifts slightly with the revelation that Sue is pregnant with who will turn out to be Franklin Richards. It’s not a huge shift, but even a few degrees trajectory alteration is significant over time. It’s a change that affects decisions in this issue, and we will see its effects in the normal series as well.

The antagonist of this first story has a plan so large and over-arching that it is stumbled upon not one but three superhero properties of the Marvel Universe. After a particularly powerful character introduction of Psycho-Man, we find that he has delivered the mysterious ‘Component Five’ to the apparently only blind girl in New York City, Alicia Masters. There’s absolutely no reason given for why he has done this, but it allows Ben to have a tussle with Psycho-Man’s minions and fall powerless beneath the strength of his own fear. Seeing him coiled on the floor in a fetal position is a profoundly disturbing sight — perhaps the most vulnerable we’ve ever seen him, even for all of his moping around.Fantastic Four Annual Five 5Absconding with the (mis-delivered?) package, the Psycho-Man and his three henchmen return to their Caribbean island hideout, which just happens to have been purchased by The Black Panther. Also, the Inhumans are nearby. Possibly not on the same island, but close enough for Gorgon to find them when he returns to see them gone.

Fantastic Four Annual Five 5The typical scuffle and misunderstanding takes place between these two and then they get down to the business of sorting out the Psycho-Man. This is actually done quite well. All the heroes are acting at full strength and keep getting thwarted by an enemy that they do not fully understand. The Psycho-Man’s emotional remote control continues to overwhelm them. More and more heroes join the fray until it’s the entire Inhuman royal family, the Black Panther, and Ben and Johnny (Reed has stayed behind with Sue due to her condition). Eventually one hero — the Black Panther — is able to penetrate Psycho-Man’s defenses and brings him down. It all seems to happen too fast, however. We get a very hurried (and very inventive) origin story from Psycho-Man before he vanishes.

EVALUATION: 8/10

IS THIS A PLOT?

This three page feature is both written and illustrated by Jack Kirby, but the influence of Harvey Kurtzman is palpable. There is no plot to speak of (hence the title), it just showcases a day in the life in the Marvel studio (as it was in 1967), more specifically, the offices of Stan and Jack. It is reported that Stan and Jack actually would act out scenes that they were working on, to the extent of climbing on the furniture and using props. Also, the conversational style of developing stories and characters is also very like how they worked. So, in the midst of the surreal lunacy of Kirby’s fantasy (homage to the early EC Mad Magazine, even?) there is a lot of truth. It’s interesting to see Kirby tackle a very different style to his usual superhero art. For its oddity, it’s well worth finding out and reading.Fantastic Four Annual Five 5

EVALUATION: 8/10

THE PEERLESS POWER OF THE SILVER SURFER

This last feature is a wonderful little moral tale featuring the Silver Surfer and an incidental character from last year’s annual, Quasimodo. After a rather silly scene in which the Surfer is shot at by hunters (apparently using explosive shells to fell ducks), the Surfer sails through New York, reflecting on the weakness of human character and ability.Fantastic Four Annual Five 5Apparently able to tune into the emotions of those around him, he becomes intrigued by a profound anguish and self-pity — that of the still-imprisoned computer intelligence Quasimodo. This computer was neglected by the Mad Thinker and unseen by the Fantastic Four and left running, feeling, profoundly miserable. Wanting to move and experience life, but imprisoned in a steel case. Using his power cosmic, the Surfer gives him a very powerful body, yet Quasimodo is disgusted by his face. With this shock, new negative emotions take over, as we see it, although it could also be said that he reverts back to his original programming — that of destruction.

Fantastic Four Annual Five 5A very brief rampage ensues, finally dealt with very capably by the Silver Surfer. But just as Quasimodo is about to be destroyed by the Surfer, he utters a very plaintive and human cry that he was only doing what was in his nature — what he was programmed and created to do. Why must he be punished?

But he is. He was the machine that was only created to feel, just as much as his namesake, and it lead to his destruction. The Surfer meanwhile, taking his first altruistic action since siding with the earth against Galactus — and being exposed only to more anguish — flies away into the clear blue sky.

EVALUATION: 10/10

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4. (1966) The Torch That Was

Fantastic Four Annual Four (4)

Annual Four

Annual 4 contains a new story, but also reprints issues 25 and 26 of the regular series (which were exceptionally well-written). The story falls in continuity between issues 55 and 56.

The  new material is also good, solid Fantastic Four fare. Nothing too stand-out, but very enjoyable. The original Human Torch appears, joining Namor and Captain America as resurrected Timely Comics heroes. However, unlike them, he “dies” at the end of his re-introductory tale. Perhaps the idea of two Human Torches in the still-burgeoning Marvel Universe was thought to be too confusing. And it would have been, with only five years of continuity and a still very small cast of characters. In modern times, among a base amount of literally hundreds of Marvel characters, there is enough support for many Spider-Persons, but in a time of fewer than 10 monthly titles, it would have been too much, especially with only small artistic flourishes to distinguish one Torch from another.Fantastic Four Annual Four (4)Nevertheless, we have the Thinker making a token appearance — token because he has opted for the universal standby character motivation of “revenge-destroy the FF”. Here, he uses the recovered android body of the original Human Torch and that makes sense, since Mad Thinker is the styled master of androids. That said, the Original HT’s motivation of “the Thinker said he’d dismantle me” is quite weak. It would have been better if he was able to formulate some sort — any sort — of plan in order to try to trick him. As it is, he finally realizes that he cannot kill, after 15 pages of fighting, and it’s nothing inspired.Fantastic Four Annual Four (4) Human TorchBut top billing on the title page rightly goes to Quasimodo, which is a real sliver of genius in this tale. Quasimodo is a created virtual intelligence created by the Mad Thinker, but confined to an immovable floor unit computer. He wants to break free, but his is entirely dependent on the good graces and whims of a sociopathic super-genius. All he is really able to do is follow orders, and the only thing his ability for free thought benefits him is moral conflict and existential torture. The last three panels are a pull-back of the monitor as his face beseeches an empty room (the Mad Thinker has escaped, and the FF have departed) to rescue him from his limbo. It’s eerie, poignant, and is an extra deft touch to an otherwise workmanlike story.Fantastic Four Annual Four (4) quasimodo EVALUATION: 7/10

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3. (1965) The Marriage of Reed Richards and Sue Storm

Fantastic Four Annual Three 3

Annual Three

The marriage of Reed and Sue is one of the milestones of comic narrative history, and I’m not saying that lightly, or just because everyone does. There are very few examples of comicbook characters who make such lifelong commitments to each other. For where comicbooks are now, which is still mostly a ‘return to status quo’ art form. There have been 43 issues and two annuals before this one and some attempt to create dramatic tension by creating a Namor/Sue/Reed love triangle, and some character conflict between Reed and Sue in his reluctance to express his feelings to Sue. It’s a great development and it changes the dynamic to one which isn’t present in any other superhero group.

As far as the story itself goes, it is rather fun. It’s remarkably like what a real wedding is like, emotionally speaking. Everyone you know is there (in this case, the whole Marvel Universe), and there are dozens of small crises that need to be handled, either by those closest in the planning of the wedding (Reed, Sue, The Thing, etc.), or just whoever happens to be around (Daredevil, the X-Men, etc.). True, not every wedding has a criminal mastermind genius trying to destroy it (not every wedding) as this one does, but at least it’s consistent with the Fantastic Four ethos.Fantastic Four Annual Three 3And that’s really all there is to say about this issue. It’s not as long a story as the last two annuals — the new material is only as long as a standard issue. Fantastic Four Annual Three 3Seeing the issues leading up to this one, 41, 42, & 43,  it’s fairly clear that Stan and Jack are pretty overworked, when you think that they’re also handling writing/art duties on X-Men, Jack is penciling about three quarters of all the covers that Marvel is producing, and Stan is probably writing half of the output as well as acting as editor-in-chief. So although this could have been a long epic in the scope of the previous two annuals, it doesn’t quite measure up. It is fun seeing all the Marvel U heroes together, however, and fighting different foes than usual. Have the X-Men ever battled the Mole Man since? Probably, but most likely without the same amount of exuberance.

EVALUATION: 7/10Fantastic Four Annual Three 3

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2. (1964) The Final Victory of Doom

Fantastic Four Annual Two 2

Annual Two

Annual 2 is another super effort from Kirby and Lee, and deserves to be more widely acknowledged than it currently is – it is very rarely reprinted. It really is a corker. Whereas Annual 1 was devoted to the Sub-Mariner, this one is devoted to another FF villain — Doctor Doom.

The origin of Doctor Doom, previously about three panels in issue 5 gets a twelve-page Kirby treatment, and it’s the extra dimension to his character that has been missing in the issues between this story and his first appearance. It’s a credit to the creators that they can make a 12 page issue with absolutely minimal action, and no straight elements of SF/F weirdness, absolutely captivating. The framing sequences are moody and suspenseful and the world of Latveria is one that is so different than any of the others we’ve been presented with (yes, even Planet X) and it comes into focus so sharply from architecture to clothing, that it’s a delight to view. It makes you want to live in the panels, and that’s what all good comics should do.Fantastic Four Annual Two 2

Fantastic Four Annual Two 2

This Annual was printed thirteen years before Star Wars: A New Hope, and decades before Revenge of the Sith. Lord Vader bears many similarities to this scarred man with twisted motives, trapped in a machine-like body.

It’s not all just down to Kirby, either. The dramatic rises and falls are well-conceived, with strong elements of tragedy, such as Doom’s father sacrificing himself for his child, Doom’s misunderstanding his father’s final words, and the discovery of his mother’s true nature. Seeing him as revenging trickster is also as compelling as his journey to the US is believable. The scene between him and Richards first meeting has remained in the FF cannon ever since. And then we are transported to a different environment to see Doom creating his armor, and that scene is full of no less drama as we see him placing a scalding mask on his face — so driven that he is unable to wait for it to even cool down from the forger’s fire.

Fantastic Four Annual Two 2

Kirby's response to the Pop Art movement, which is particularly interesting in the context of Pop 'Artists' like Lichtenstein, who aped comic art such as Kirby's.

It’s heady stuff, and deserves a resounding 10/10, except that the second part of this annual doesn’t live up to it. What there is instead is a rather unfocused storyline involving Doom, Rama-Tut, and an odd comedy of manners played out at Doom’s Latverian embassy in New York. The drama suffers from the FF acting rather stupidly in their mistaken assumptions of what they have hallucinated other members of the group doing. The case could be made that their judgment had been impaired do to their drugging, but still…

Turning the FF against themselves is such an improbably complicated tactic for any enemy to use, that it really only makes sense for Puppet Master, or Mad Thinker who have no real powers except misdirection. Doom has so much power and ability, not just in himself, but in the wider world, that it hardly makes sense for him to hide behind a curtain and slip something into a drink. He exists in a different class of menace and should behave accordingly.

Fantastic Four Annual Two 2The wrap-up of this story is interesting. What we have is a very similar ending to the famous Alan Moore Superman story The Man Who Has Everything. Doom is tricked into believing that he has defeated the FF, and leaves underneath a delusion. It’s a very creative way of finishing a story that deserves a better set-up than what has gone before.

All in all, a sterling effort. It needs to be read and enjoyed by any FF devotee. The first story is stellar. The second story is not great, but neither is it unreadable.

EVALUATION: 9/10

Fantastic Four Annual Two 2

I believe I've found it -- the single most sexist panel in FANTASTIC FOUR, or possibly any comic ever.

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1. (1963) The Sub-Mariner vs The Human Race

Fantastic Four Annual One (1)

Annual One

As close as I can tell, the publication date for the first FF annual is June 1963, and so I am reviewing it now. It’s a little difficult to judge within the context of the rest of the issues, and the development of the team in these first years. There is an information page featuring The Mad Thinker, so I have posted this after his first appearance and that of next issue’s Super-Skrull, who is not mentioned on the Skrull’s information page.

Somewhere between now and the last appearance of Namor in this series, he was reunited with his people, presumably in another comic, although that is not made clear. As the story opens, we see him organizing his people for battle — an attack on the surface world. Kirby very magnificently uses three splash panels on the first three pages in order to display the scene, and it certainly is striking to the reader in the context of what has gone before.Fantastic Four Annual One (1)

The action falls into roughly two parts. The first is the invasion of New York by the Atlanteans with the newly dubbed Prince Namor at their head, and the second is the defeat of Namor by the Fantastic Four.

Fantastic Four Annual One (1)The first part of this story is by far the most interesting, and whereas before we only saw NY attacked by “Gigantus” — an enormous whale with legs — in this 37 page adventure (the longest FF story to date) Kirby really has space to spread his pencils and he creates some truly compelling images easily on par with Windsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. Were I a kid in New York reading this issue, I would no doubt be seeing underwater siege engines around every corner and across every street for weeks after seeing these scenes.

This invasion also displays a surprisingly militaristic mindset from Reed Richards — perhaps not surprising for a revealed former OSS agent (see issue 11) and a society that was still in living memory of a global war, but is eyebrow-raising to a modern reader.

Fantastic Four Annual One (1)

Two words: Stone. Cold.

Reed takes a hard line against the Atlanteans and concocts what sounds like a potentially highly fatal solution to their occupation. Far from petitioning or negotiating for peace, as you would expect the intellectual scientist to do, instead we see Reed actually inciting the invasion by advising the United Nations to preemptively attack Atlantis. The final part of the story is the FF fighting Namor, one-on-one, which has become a fairly monotonous affair and nothing new is added into the mix right here. Sue is a prisoner yet again and Namor is only foiled when the rival for his affections, the Lady Dorma.

Lady Dorma adds a welcome dimension to Namor that does help to bolster him in this issue, and there is a profound twist on the continuing saga of Namor which reveals that while he has been fighting the FF and absconding with Sue Storm (again), his people have lost faith in his leadership and have deserted him — he returns to Atlantis to find it empty, and his people having deserted him.Fantastic Four Annual One (1) There is a second short feature in this annual that accompanies the main one, and that is an expanded retelling of Spider-Man’s first encounter with the FF, shown in just three pages of the first issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, here it is lengthened to six, with nothing more added than just an extra few panels of sparring with each of the individual members. Fantastic Four Annual One (1)It’s an odd curio, and Kirby doesn’t actually improve over Ditko’s original panels.

The last pages are dedicated to non-story summaries of previous Fantastic Four villains, including the Mole Man, the Skrulls, the Miracle Man, and so on, up to The Red Ghost. The readers are being reminded of these characters and the adventures that spawned them, but it is notable that so far, only Doctor Doom and Namor have had repeat appearances in the pages of the FF — perhaps too many appearances, with such a rich cast.

EVALUATION: 8/10

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