Saturday, June 26, 2010

Making Marvel Mine: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 1 (#1-20 and Annual #1)

It’s not exactly a secret that I’ve been into comic books basically forever. If you haven’t seen the collection, it takes up four bookcases and is in need of a fifth, and that’s just the stuff on display. I’ve always been a big Spider-Man and Batman fan, and I’ve dabbled in just about every major team or hero over the years. The Avengers, The JLA, X-Men, the Flash has the most fun group of villains outside Bats and Spidey- but I’ve never been a big FF fan. Oh, sure, I loved Grant Morrison’s "1234", every comic book fan did, but a few particular FF stories aside… Meh. I didn’t really care. They were the Fantastic Four, they went on cosmic adventures and fought Dr. Doom, two things that SHOULD have been awesome, but somehow it always rang hollow for me. The FF was always a cooler idea then their actual stories were, it seemed.

But no one can argue about the historical importance of Fantastic Four #1, a book pretty much unanimously considered the beginning of the silver age renaissance of Marvel Comics. And so when I decided to start reading the Marvel Universe from the beginning on up- basically as an excuse to keep buying Essential Marvel trade paperbacks and to keep putting my favorite comic book storeowner’s children through college- I dutifully started with Essential Fantastic Four volume 1, promising to give it an honest go of it.

And holy crap, I get it now. The Lee-Kirby FF were friggin’ awesome! I wasn’t completely sure at first, but by the end of the third issue, I was sold. There’s an energy and enthusiasm even in these early stories that is often missing from comics today. One of the things I love about silver age comics is the pacing of the stories- it usually doesn’t feel rushed, but something is ALWAYS happening! (Screw you, comics decompression) And that’s definitely the case here. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s FF is part pop art, part science adventure, part soap opera- all without ever spending way too much time on any of it or getting boring.

All of this, and Ben Grimm hasn’t even called out “It’s clobberin’ time!” yet.

Obviously, the book begins with the creation of the Fantastic Four: Dr. Reed Richards, his girlfriend Sue Storm, his best friend and test pilot Ben Grimm, and Sue’s teenage brother, Johnny. The four of them board a secret untested rocket ship, clearly not with NASA’s blessing, and attempt to be the first humans in space, winning the space race for America! This was 1961, remember. But when the rocket enters what I assume to be the Van Allen radiation belt (Wikipedia it), it’s bombarded by strange cosmic rays- something Ben had warned Reed about, but hey, Reed’s got to impress his hot little blonde somehow, right? Luckily, instead of killing them outright or giving them all cancer, the cosmic radiation gives our team superpowers. Reed gains Plastic Man-like elastic skin, Johnny becomes able to control fire in all sorts of ways, Sue gains the ability to become invisible, and Ben gains super strength and invulnerability with a rocky exterior.

Along the way in this book, Lee and Kirby introduce a host of villains, many of whom are still around today, fifty years later. The Mole Man, the Silver Age rebirth of Namor, the shape changing Skrulls, the I-still-don’t-understand-how-his-powers-work-but-whatever Puppet Master, the time travelling dictator Rama Tut (and boy, what a back-story he’ll develop as I read more of these books), the all-powerful Molecule Man, and of course the greatest supervillain in the entire Marvel Universe: Dr. Doom.

It’s amazing to see how quickly refined this series became, especially since they were just making it up as they went. The only real complaints I have with the book all basically stem from the attitudes of the times it was written in. Having the only female character in the book given the ability to literally turn invisible… well, there’s a subtext to it that’s undeniable. I’m rather thankful that her powers have been expanded since these early days so that she can generate force fields and other semi-telekinetic powers, arguably making her the most powerful member of the team. But while lines like “I’ve never heard a dame go so long without talking” are undeniably sexist, at the same time it seems obvious that Lee and Kirby very much felt that Sue’s character was one of, perhaps the most important character in the book. In issue 11, the Fantastic Four read and respond to some fan mail they’ve seen, including letters asking why Sue’s even on the team. Reed and Ben become considerably upset, and remind readers how often the team has only won the day thanks to the Sue’s help.

Particular highlights of the book for me… Well, Fantastic Four #5 is awesome, but not because it’s the first appearance of Dr. Doom (though that’s cool too). After capturing Sue, Doom makes a demand of the other three members of the team- travel back in time and steal the pirate Blackbeard’s treasure for him, or the girl gets it. Over the course of the adventure (SPOILER ALERT), we discover that in the Marvel Universe, Blackbeard is Ben Grimm, thanks to the miracles of time travel! I totally want to see a comic now where Ben goes on a time travel vacation to have other adventures in the past as Blackbeard. (Dear Marvel Comics: If you like this brilliant idea and want more, feel free to call me and offer me a job any time)

Also, FF #10 has Dr. Doom visiting the Marvel offices and meeting Stan and Jack, which is great fun. Issue 13 introduces the Red Ghost and his Super-Apes, they’re an evil Communist team that also gets its powers from the same cosmic rays as the FF, only three out of the four of them are monkeys! It’s a well known law of comic books that monkeys make any book better. Also in that issue, we meet the Watcher, a nigh-omniscient being who lives on the moon, and, well, watches the Earth. He never interferes with history, though… except for all the times he does. For an omniscient dude, you’d think he would have heard of the Observer Effect…

For me, though, my favorite issue in the book is issue 17, “Defeated by Doctor Doom”. More than any other story here, the team feels not like a group of misfits, but a real family. Admittingly, Dr. Doom’s plot involving floating Michelin Man lookalike robot things is, well, downright bizarre, but fuck it man, it gets results! Because those robot things allow Dr. Doom to trap the Fantastic Four in a… well, I won’t spoil this one for you. But the team really gels so well here, you really need to go out and read it for yourself.

So yeah, this book rocks, and I’m stoked that I’ve got another 82 issues of Lee and Kirby’s run to go (I think it’s 82. It might be a little more than that). So if you want some fun 60s comic books, go buy this. Its 15 bucks for 20 issues and an annual. How are you going to beat that?

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Sparrow With a Machine Gun: Batman (1966)

In anticipation of the upcoming July 27th release of the latest Batman movie, Batman: Under the Red Hood- and as a flimsy excuse to give me something to do- I have taken it upon myself to review all 14 previous Bat-films (14! For reals!), including the one that I have never seen before! That’s right, there’s actually a Batman film I haven’t seen, and no it’s not Batman and Robin (if only I were so lucky).

We begin with the very first Batman film ever, the much beloved and similarly much denounced Batman (1966), Bat-Shark Repellent and all.

The Plot: When Batman and Robin are nearly killed responding to a phony distress call, the two piece together clues to discover that four of their greatest villains- the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman- have all teamed up to take over the world and destroy them once and for all! Hijinks, kidnappings, and bombs all ensue as the dynamic duo fight for their lives and try to stop a villainous plot to hold ransom the United World Security council!

My short take: Fuck the naysayers. This film (and the TV series it ties into) has received a whole lot of flack over the last forty years, and some of it is probably deserved. Yes, to the general public, this movie helped solidify the idea that superheroes were a bit ridiculous, and a lot of “serious” superhero people are always pissed off about that. But here’s the thing: superheroes ARE ridiculous. And I can say that, because I love superheroes. Superheroes have been, and always will be about escapism. It’s not supposed to be real, people! This movie is far from perfect (there are fight scenes that are painfully obvious about just how fake they are), but I bet that the kids in 1966 who watched this loved it, and I bet kids today who have watched it love it too.

The Good: This is Batman as 60’s camp awesomeness! You can tell that right off the bat (bad pun) from the title sequence, a darkly silhouetted chase scene of Batman and Robin chasing a criminal, lit only by varying colored spot lights. It’s actually pretty cool. Batman as pop art! The script is far closer to an actual Batman comic script than most Batman movies, though it’s a Batman comic out of the 50s and early 60s. Throw in a spot on parody of the United Nations and Adam West and Burt Ward’s deadpan seriousness about all the zaniness around them? Golden.

The great thing about the West and Ward Batman and Robin was the comedy. The villains are really the main characters, Batman and Robin ever the straight men to their villainous, comedic acts. Cesar Romero rocks the Dick Sprang era giggling, Joker, laughing at anything he thinks is funny, but mostly harmless in his own right. Burgess Meredith IS the Penguin, and if you want to know why a fat man in a tuxedo with a big nose is still popular in today’s world of a dark, brooding, “serious” Batman, you have only to look at Meredith to see why. He made the character, just as Frank Groshin made the Riddler. Few realize that the Riddler only had appeared three times in the 25 years of Batman comics before the TV series began, but Groshin’s interpretation of the Riddler made him one of Batman’s most famous villains. And Lee Meriwether is all kinds of 60’s sexy goodness, both in and out of her Catwoman costume.

There are so many good bits in this movie, it’s hard to lock them all down. Why wouldn’t the Penguin have a submarine? In fact, Batman’s utter disbelief at a Navy Admiral’s total stupidity in selling a military surplus submarine to a Mister P.N. Guin is one of the funniest parts of the movie. Batman gets a bunch of new toys thanks to a movie budget, and using them all manages to make sense. Which, let’s face it, is more than we can say for some Batman movies.
And for the record, NO ONE who’s ever played Batman has rocked their inner James Bond as much as Adam West does when he (as Bruce Wayne) meets ‘Kitka’ for the first time.

The Bad: On the other hand… well… a ballpoint banana and Bat-Shark Repellent. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the current Grant Morrison “Batman thinks of everything” Batman, but Bat-Shark Repellent? Sigh. Obviously the effects are dated, but when people compare the rubber shark chewing on Batman’s leg to a bad Star Trek special effect, I think they’re doing a grave disservice to bad Star Trek effects everywhere. And why, oh why, couldn’t Cesar Romero shave his mustache? Putting make up over it might have worked for the TV series (though I’m not convinced of that), but on a movie screen? It’s painfully obvious in every scene he’s in.
I have to admit, as much as I defend this movie, there are a number of times when the coincidences and leaps of logic confuse me. I’m honestly not sure how much is supposed to be just campy fun and how much is plain out sloppy writing.

Another thing that seriously bugs me: the costuming department needed desperately to get rid of that one piece Riddler suit. Groshin’s Riddler looks AMAZING in his three piece question mark costume- it’s a phenomenal costume. Honestly, it’s probably the best costume in the movie! So why did the costumer keep taking it away from him and putting him back in the spandex? Maybe because it made Romero’s Joker costume look so boring and flat by comparison. Whatever the reason though, that spandex should never have been brought back, that suit is awesome.

Conclusion: This isn’t today urban vigilante Batman by any means- in fact, Commissioner Gordon states early on in the movie that this Batman is a deputized agent of the police. The logic behind that may seem odd to modern viewers, but in context with the setting of the movie, it works. This is still Batman just as much as Michael Keaton or Kevin Conroy’s Batman are Batman, it’s just a different interpretation. And it’s pretty fun, all around. Plus, a porpoise jumps in front of a torpedo and saves Batman and Robin’s lives. Which is awesome.
And don’t complain about the jetpack umbrellas. Much stupider props have shown up in Batman comics before.

Best line:
Commissioner Gordon (Reading a riddle left by the Riddler): What weighs six ounces, sits in a tree, and is very dangerous?
Robin: A sparrow with a machine gun!

Pretty much sums up the feel of the entire movie, right there: ridiculous, crazy, and kind of awesome. :)
Next time, on Reviewing Batman! The Joker gives a name to his pain! Batman tells a nice girl to shut up! And this town needs an enema! Same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel!