Tuesday, 29 October 2019

The Inhumans: Part 2 - Stardom Beckons

THERE WAS NO PLAN FOR THE INHUMANS, at least not at first. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had introduced Madam Medusa - unheralded - as a member of the Fantastic Four foe group The Frightful Four. And for eight issues of the Fantastic Four comic - 36 (Mar 1965) to 43 (Oct 1965), Medusa haughtied her way through the stories, coldly collaborating with The Wizard and his team to bring about the defeat and/or demise of the Storm family.

Tea and antipathy - The Frightful Four's dislike of each other is obvious from the start. So why does Medusa hang out with a group of people she despises. In the end, Stan and Jack never really explained that.
While the other Frightfuls each had a clear motive for doing what they did - mostly being previous foes of Johnny (The Human Torch) Storm in numerous Strange Tales adventures - there was no such reasoning behind Medusa's enmity towards the FF. She was literally a character with no motivation. More importantly, Stan's scripts never even hinted that she had any reason whatsoever for fighting alongside The Wizard et al, something I discussed a little last time.

So when Marvel - still operating under DC honcho Jack Liebowitz's distribution constraints - was unable to add two new titles to the lineup - editor Stan Lee decided to include the concepts of The Black Panther and The Inhumans in the Fantastic Four adventures.

As the idea of a solo Inhumans comic wouldn't have been discussed and vetoed until the spring of 1965, I'm calculating that Stan would have told Jack that the characters had to be integrated into FF around June 1965 at the latest, when work on Fantastic Four 44 (Nov 1965) was beginning. Medusa first appeared in FF36 (Mar 65), which Kirby would have been drawing in August or September of 1964.

Folding The Inhumans into the Fantastic Four comic wasn't an especially easy task. Stan and Jack only had twenty pages a month to play with, so they could only devoted three or four pages an issue to their new characters. They solved this by having Maximus create an impenetrable barrier around the home of the Inhumans, The Great Refuge, so that Johnny (The Human Torch) Storm would be separated from his Inhuman love-interest Crystal.

Back in Fantastic Four 48 (Mar 1966), we left The Inhumans trapped behind an impenetrable barrier created by mad Maximus' Atmos Gun ... no way in and no way out. This allows Stan and Jack to play out the drama of The Inhumans separately from the adventures of the FF, with only the slightest overlap ... at least for the time being. 
This plot device allowed Stan and Jack to use up the ideas that they'd formulated for The Inhumans solo comic, by playing out the Shakespearian twin dramas of Black Bolt and his royal family trying to find a way to escape while combatting the mad machinations of Maximus and showing us Johnny Storm's quest to be reunited with his lost love Crystal.

In FF54, the Human Torch takes some time out from his Fantastic-Fouring to set out with his football player pal Wyatt Wingfoot, in a borrowed Wakandan air-ship, to reach his lost love Crystal of the Inhumans.
Along the way, we follow Johnny Storm and his friend Wyatt Wingfoot as they try to breach the barrier and reach the Inhumans - first meeting Prester John, whose Evil Eye weapon may just hold the key to breaching the barrier, then later encounterng Lockjaw, the Inhumans' giant, dimension-hopping dog. But neither of these story-loops really advances the plot, entertaining as they are. So ultimately, Johnny's quest is unsuccessful.

Inside the barrier, Medusa and the other Inhumans try to convince crazy Maximus to use his technological knowledge to free them from the negative energy prison separating them from the outside world.
In the meantime, on the inside, Black Bolt, Medusa and the other Inhumans try to persuade the hopelessly insane Maximus to raise the barrier. And when that fails, Black Bolt takes matters into his own hands and uses the uncontrollable power of his own voice to shatter the barrier, releasing the Inhumans into our world.

And that pretty much runs from Fantastic Four 52 (Sep 1966) until Fantastic Four 61 (Apr 1967), when Crystal and Johnny are reunited. From that point on, their own drama concluded, The Inhumans are relegated to the role of guest stars in the Fantastic Four's comic. But they're pretty good guest stars.

The saga of The Inhumans coils its way through ten issues of the Fantastic Four comic, mostly in the background and unheralded on the majority of the covers, but it's a significant presence nonetheless. Once the political conflict between Black Bolt and Maximus is done, Stan and Jack seem uncertain where to take the characters next.
In Fantastic Four 62 (May 1967), after Reed Richards is accidentally launched into the Negative Zone - a mysterious region not unlike one of Doctor Strange's mystical dimensions and not be confused with the Negative Zone that surrounded the Inhuman's Great Refuge - Triton of The Inhumans comes to his aid.

In FF62, it's the Inhuman Triton who enters the Negative Zone in an attempt to rescue Reed Richards ... in all fairness, Stan could have chosen any number of characters. Was he just trying to keep The Inhumans on the readers' radar?
Triton hangs around long enough to help the FF battle Negative Zone escapee Blastaar and his new-found partner-in-crime The Sandman. But being that this is the Fantastic Four's comic, they finally manage to defeat their enemies on their own.

We all think Stan and Jack are giving us a bit of a rest from the Inhumans for a bit, but with the introduction of The Kree - an advanced alien race who visited Earth millennia before - we're being set up for further Inhumans back story and a lot more besides
Fantastic Four 64 (Jul 1967) introduces a new - but related - foe for the FF. With Crystal increasingly present in the Baxter Building, Reed, Sue and Ben take off for a short vacation, leaving Johnny in New York. And on a remote desert island they meet an ancient Sentry robot, left on Earth eons before by an advanced race called The Kree.

The Sentry is awakened when a couple of archeologists stumble across a Kree base. In a startling coincidence, the very same location in the South Pacific is selected by Reed, Sue and Ben for their vacation spot and pretty soon a difference of opinion breaks out, only ending when The Sentry is trapped in the collapsing Kree base. Except that's not actually the end of it. The FF's victory sets off a series of events as The Kree are alerted to the destruction of their property on Earth.

Looking back, it seems extremely odd that Stan and Jack thought it was unremarkable that Johnny and Ben slept in the same bed. Probably unlikely to happen in a 2019 comic book. More innocent times, perhaps. Elsewhere in the issue, The FF clash with a Kree prosecutor and win on appeal.
The rather strange opening of Fantastic Four 65 (Aug 1967) has all four having a common dream about the Supreme Intelligence, leader of the Kree. What they don't know that this is a harbinger of the approach of Ronan The Accuser, who aims to make the FF answer for destroying the Kree base. Not unnaturally, The Fantastic Four have other ideas and pin Ronan's ears back for him.

For the next couple of issues, The Inhumans would take a back seat while Stan and Jack give us Him and the Mystery of the Beehive. Only Crystal hanging around the Baxter Building reminds us that The Inhumans haven't gone away. And that leads us into Fantastic Four Annual 5 (Nov 1967) ...

For the preceding four years, the Fantastic Four Annuals had always been an event, featuring The Sub-Mariner, the Origin of Dr Doom, the wedding of Reed and Sue, and the return of the original Human Torch. To try to top that, Stan and Jack give us a team-up with The Black Panther and The Inhumans against a new villain, The Psycho Man.

Not one of my favourite Annuals from Marvel ... though it did have the announcement of Sue's pregnancy, a bunch of cool Inhumans pinups and the first Silver Surfer solo story to recommend it.
Unfortunately, the Psycho Man is a bit forgettable, and the involvement of the Inhumans doesn't really shed any light on their own story, simply serving to include the characters without any purpose beyond fighting alongside the FF. I kind of wonder if they were only in there to promote Jack Kirby's Inhuman origins series that began in Thor 146 the very same month ...

When Jack Kirby finally got his Inhumans solo series, it was stuffed in the back of Thor as a replacement for Tales of Asgard. The series would tell the story of the origin of the species in 
I'm not really sure what the purpose of switching "Tales of Asgard" out of Thor and bringing The Inhumans in. It's true that Stan had been promising Jack an Inhumans series for a couple of years, but something always seemed to get in the way and block it. It's also possible that Stan was concerned that Kirby not be overstretched, putting two major Marvel books - Fantastic Four and Thor - as well as the Captain America feature in Tales of Suspense, in jeopardy of running late. But the resulting compromise - seven episodes at five pages a month - wasn't much of a consolation prize.

Jack Kirby finally had his Inhumans solo series, but at five pages per episode, there wasn't really a decent amount of space to actually tell the full history of the characters.
The first couple of chapters tell of how The Kree initiated the Inhuman genetic experiment on Earth during the Paleolithic era. Then we jump forward to (almost) the present day and look at the individual Inhumans, beginning with Black Bolt ... or so we think. There's an interesting scene where we see Black Bolt as a baby, and the inevitable situation of the destruction caused when the child's super-powerful voice almost destroys the Inhumanas' city of Attilan.

This section is sort of interesting. The idea of a baby with a super-destructive voice would definitely present its parenting challenges, but other than that, there isn't anything else we don't already know. How much better might this have been if Jack had had 20 or 40 pages to explore the formative years of Black Bolt?
Then we jump forward to a 19-year-old Black Bolt and his first meeting with his cousins and his first run-in with his mental brother Maximus. It does seem a bit rushed, but with only five pages to play with, there's only so much exposition Stan and Jack can manage. They do, however, devote 15 pages to Triton, to round out the mini-series.In reality, the Triton segment is not the origin of the amphibian Inhuman, but rather the telling of Triton's foray into the world of men to discover how The Inhumans might be received, should their existence become known.

This is where the "Inhumans" series goes off-piste. Triton goes swim-about and stumbles across a film crew remaking Creature from the Black Lagoon. It's not terribly original (Kirby would revisit this idea in a later Fantastic Four) and it's certainly not an origin story. Note that, by this time, Triton had acquired magenta gloves and booties ... which is probably about as appropriate as giving a fish a bicycle.
Fifty years on, it's hard to know why the Inhumans mini-series lasted only seven episodes. I couldn't have been because Stan - or more likely, Jack - didn't know what to do with the characters. It does seem to me though that Stan's brief to Jack was "Origins of the Inhumans" - it says so, right there at the top of the series' splash pages - and Jack had other ideas. We know by this time, Stan and Jack would have only the briefest of discussions about forthcoming plots and Jack would draw out the story for Stan to dialogue. I suspect that when the last couple of episodes of the Triton segment came back, Stan must've thought, "Hang on a second. This isn't the origin of Triton." Did Stan pull the plug on the series at this point? Why didn't we get the origins of Gordon and Karnak ... and more importantly, Madam Medusa? Who knows? But it would fit with the evidence that, by 1967, Jack was becoming a bit disgruntled with his lot at Marvel. 

I'm sure Vince Colletta has his fans, but I wouldn't count myself among them. I always felt the scratchy style didn't mesh well with Kirby's pencils. I'd much rather seen a different, perhaps more classical, inker on Thor ... John Severin, perhaps.
On the plus side, the artwork was gorgeous, enhanced by the always fabulous inks of Joe Sinnott. In fact, Sinnott's embellishment makes a sharp contrast to Vince Colletta's inking on the Thor art in the very same comics. But for the moment, Marvel's dreams of an Inhumans stand-alone series was over ... again.

The Inhumans would turn up in Sub-Mariner 2 & 3 (June-July 1968), but not drawn (or co-plotted) by Jack Kirby. This tale was told by Roy Thomas, John Buscema and Frank Giacoia - and rather good it looks, too.
However ... this wasn't to leave The Inhumans in limbo. Far from it. The month after Thor 152 (May 1968), Triton would guest-star in Sub-Mariner 2 & 3, drawn by John Buscema and Frank Giacoia. Roy Thomas' story has Sub-Mariner and Triton - a team-up made in heaven if ever there was one - combine their might to tackle The Plant Man. Even though the villain is strictly b-team, the Buscema art is glorious. Sub-Mariner was never a comic I followed back in the 1960s, but I did make a point of picking up issues 1 - 8. I kind of lost interest when Marie Severin took over as penciller ...

I like Romita's version of Medusa well enough, but I think she's just a bit too polished here and not quite scowl-y enough. And what's with the green costume (that we never saw again)?
Stan would also include an Inhuman - Medusa, this time - in Amazing Spider-Man 62 (Jul 1968), the following month. It's not really much more than a guest walk-on. The story's a bit of fluff, really. Medusa visits the big city to see whether the humans are still afraid of her and her people. Medusa then gets caught up with an unscrupulous purveyor of beauty products who tries to use her as a poster girl for his hairspray (really!). It all turns a little ugly when Medusa won't play along and is manipulated into a fight with Spider-Man. Lovely art by John Romita, though.

I like Gene Colan's take on Medusa's costume better than John Romita's ... I wonder what Stan was thinking here. Try out two different costumes and see which the fans liked better?
Curiously, Stan would star Medusa in a solo strip the same month in Marvel Super-Heroes 15, this time drawn by the eminently more suitable Gene Colan - but Vince Colletta on inks, Stan? Really? The story itself is once more a little insubstantial. Medusa visits the world of humans - this time in search of a rare isotope, Quadranium 99, that may be able to restore Black Bolt's voice. In an almost unfeasible coincidence, she runs into the remaining members of the Frightful Four who offer to help her in her quest. Suspecting treachery, Medusa plays along, yet fails to retain the isotope, barely escapes The Wizard and his cronies and has to be rescued by Black Bolt. Not Medusa's finest hour. Love the artwork though - Colan's pencils are so strong that even Colletta couldn't mess them up too much.

Marie Severin's artwork was always just a smidge too cartoon-y for me, so I sort of avoided the books she drew for Marvel during the 1960s. But she did a pretty credible job here. Perhaps the Syd Shores inking helps. Other than that, we don't really get to see too much of the workings of Inhuman society in this story.
It would be a few months before we'd see The Inhumans again, but back they came in The Incredible Hulk Annual 1 (Oct 1968), this time drawn by Marie Severin. At the time, Severin was the also the penciller on The Hulk's own monthly book, though while Marie was working on the Annual's mammoth 51 page story, Herb Trimpe was just beginning his pencilling run on the title. Gary Friedrich's story has The Hulk mixed up with some Inhuman exiles who had plotted to overthrow Black Bolt. Ultimately, this brings the Hulk into conflict with the monarch of the Inhumans. There's a big fight, then the Hulk stumps off, grumbling.

The art is great, but you can see the fatigue in Jack Kirby's plotting and pacing here. It's possible that Stan is to blame for trotting out the old reliable Inhumans plot where Maximus takes over the throne, then then gets spanked by Black Bolt. ... but it is beginning to wear a bit thin.
By the time we see The Inhumans again, they've returned to their familiar roles as guest-stars in Fantastic Four 82 & 83 (Jan 1969). Unfortunately, there's nothing new to see here. It's as though The Inhumans have only the one plotline. The most novel development is that Crystal had joined the FF the month before, covering while Sue takes some maternity leave from the team.

And that was it for The Inhumans in the Silver Age ... Maximus and his evil hench-inhumans did show up in Incredible Hulk 119 & 120 (Sep - Oct 1969), but that's not an appearance of The Inhuman Inhumans, so it doesn't count.

By the time Black Bolt and his family got their own series again, in Amazing Adventures 1 (Aug 1970), it was too little, too late. By that time, Jack Kirby was thoroughly hacked off with Marvel. He'd stopped creating new characters a couple of years earlier and most of his plots were - by this time - just re-hashing what had already gone before. Even Jack knew that he should have left Marvel a lot sooner than he did. But he didn't, and what we got was a lacklustre 40 pages of story, written and drawn by Jack Kirby, and edited by Stan Lee.

By 1970, you could tell that Jack's heart just wan't in his Marvel work. The pencilling is pretty much as good as it ever was - though Kirby certainly drew better when the artboard was twice up - and the Chic Stone inks also help here. But the stories are nothing to get excited about.
Though Jack was credited as writer, the script didn't really read a whole lot different from other Marvel Comics of the Silver Age. It leads me to wonder if Jack was really writing this stuff, or whether it was an honorary credit, with Stan doing his usual re-writing of Jack's words to smooth out the rough edges and add much-needed characterisation. This might explain why Kirby's dialogue on the Fourth World books just a few months later seemed so stilted and awkward by comparison.

There would be another attempt to get an Inhumans solo book off the ground during the mid-197s, but it lasted just 12 issues. I don't remember it especially well and I don't have copies, so despite Doug Moench scripts and (early) George Perez art, it didn't make much impression on me.

All-in-all, I think The Inhumans was a terrific concept crying out for a strong story treatment, something neither Stan nor Jack seemed able to provide. It's possible that later creators made a better job of making compelling Inhumans stories, but that's beyond the scope of this blog.

For my money, what the characters needed was a decent run in their own book by Stan and Jack, starting in 1965 as planned. But Jack Liebowitz robbed us of that in a futile attempt to stop the advance of Marvel Comics. Marvel overtook DC in sales in 1969.


Next: More covers to conjure with




Monday, 30 September 2019

The Inhumans: Part 1 - Meet Madam Medusa

IN 1964, SOMETHING HAPPENED TO JACK KIRBY'S BRAIN. After drawing a long run of self-contained, villain-of-the-month adventures in Marvel's Fantastic Four comic, the dynamic changed. It's as if some lightbulb went off in Jack's head and he stopped restricting the storytelling to 21-page units and began to spread out a bit. Perhaps it was Stan not giving Jack specific instructions about what he wanted to see in the next issue of FF ... or perhaps Stan gave Jack specific instructions to go wild. But whatever the reason, the Fantastic Four comic began to feature widescreen adventures and each new issue introduced startling, innovative concepts that boggled this ten-year-old's mind.

Fantastic Four 36 was my first issue of the comic. Though it used the age old trope of having a mirror image of the heroes as villains, it was a new idea to me in early 1965. Especially striking (and a little bit creepy) was the scary woman in the dominatrix mask with the snake-like living hair.
Incredibly, the saga would take over a year to play out - and there would be diversions and story-loops along the way. But play out it did, and I would slowly learn the secrets of The Inhumans.

The earliest issue of the Fantastic Four comic I can recall reading was issue 36. Though we didn't seen this in the UK until around spring or early summer in 1965, it went on sale in the US on 10th December 1964, so would have been in production August or September of that year. I suppose it's possible that Stan and Jack meant all along to expand the presence of Frightful Four member Madam Medusa into a whole secret race of genetically engineered metahumans ... but I kind of doubt it.

There was something about the Wizard's explanation of discovering Madam Medusa hiding in a cave that reminded me of Magneto's description of how he found Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver hiding out in Europe, a year earlier in X-Men 4 (Mar 1964).
There's absolutely no hint whatsoever in FF36 that Medusa is anything more than a super-powered human being that The Wizard found hiding out in a cave on a Mediterranean island - probably somewhere in the Aegean Sea, if Greek myth is anything to go by. She'd have had to have been there an awful long time if we're to believe that Stan and Jack's Medusa was any sort of inspiration to the ancient Greeks.

The Wizard suggests that she may be the most powerful member of the newly-formed Frightful Four, but the story doesn't play her character out that way at first. What enables to evil FF to come very close to defeating Reed's quartet is the element of surprise and the Frightful Four's teamwork. In the end, Sue Storm saves the day by hosing Medusa down with Paste Pot Pete's glue-gun, and the Wizard's merry band make a hasty exit.

Medusa's second appearance in Fantastic Four 38 (May 1965) is little more than a walk-on. She's used by The Wizard as the fake fashion designer that lures Sue Storm into a trap and that's about the extent of it. There's still no hint as to her true origins.
There's no mention of the Frightful Four or Medusa in Fantastic Four 37, but the following issue, they're back. In another masterful plan, The Wizard and his team kidnap Sue Storm as bait and lure the Fantastic Four to a remote Pacific atoll and leave them there as a "Q-Bomb" counts away the seconds to detonation. While Medusa is the catalyst in the abduction of Sue, she doesn't have too much to do beyond that, and we get no further insight into her character than we've had already.

Though Fantastic Four 38 was an unsettling read for my eleven year old self, the defeat of the FF was mostly down to The Wizard. The repercussions of this issue would reverberate for the next several months, beyond the revelation of who and what Medusa was.
Of course, the FF survive, but at great cost and the next couple of issues are taken up with the quartet's battle against Dr Doom - without their powers - with only Daredevil to help them.

The introduction to Medusa in this issue is a splashy affair. She gets an entire page to herself, showing her pushing her teammates around like she's the dictator of the group. And Stan's scripting complements this idea perfectly as The Wizard wonders how much longer he can control The Frightful Four. I get the impression Stan and Jack really liked Medusa, but hadn't quite formulated a plan for her yet ...
Fantastic Four 41 (Aug 1965) brings back the Quarrelsome Quartet ... and there's an interesting shift in the dynamic within the team. Stan and Jack bring Medusa forward to centrestage. They even have her issuing orders to the rest of the Frightful ones like she's the leader of the team and The Wizard fretting slightly that she may wrest power from him. There's still no hint what might be in back of all this, and indeed, I suspect that Jack hasn't quite solidified his ideas on what Medusa actually is. At this stage, I think he may have been toying with the idea of having Medusa take control of the evil FF.

Even if you didn't read Stan's speech balloons, there's little doubt from Jack's visual storytelling that it's Medusa directing much of the action in these pages. Then right at the end, check out the top panel on page 20 ... is that Medusa checking her makeup? What could Jack have been thinking of?
Whether it's Stan or Jack plotting here, it's clear from Jack's drawings that Medusa is issuing most of the orders as the Frightfuls get to grips with having The Thing and the rest of the Fantastic Four under their control. Yet, the idea isn't followed up in the next instalment of the story. Instead, Medusa seems to be once more just a member of the group under The Wizard's direction, though she's instrumental in defeating The Torch so that The Wizard can put him under the same mind control as The Thing.

Medusa's chief function in Fantastic Four 42 (Sep 1965) is to douse The Torch's flame so that The Wizard can subject him to the ID machine, and turn him against the rest of the Fantastic Four. Re-reading these today, it certainly feels like Stan and Jack are marking time with Medusa until they can figure out what to do with her.
In the following issue, Fantastic Four 43 (Oct 1965), we discover that The Torch isn't controlled by the Wizard after all. Medusa, however, is once more telling the Wizard what to do. And even though it's Medusa that figures out that Johnny's just faking being under the control of the ID machine and captures him ... at the end of the tale, as she makes her escape with The Torch in pursuit, Johnny simply lets her go. 

One minute Madam Medusa is riding high, effectively the deputy leader of the Frightful Four, influencing The Wizard's decisions, the next she's on the back foot, ditching her teammates and fleeing in The Wizard's magnetic ship, pursued by a strangely reluctant Human Torch. But we'd see her again ...
Perhaps Stan and Jack were toying with the idea of having Johnny attracted to Medusa (even though she appears at least ten years older than him) ... but it indicates to me that even this late in the game, they still hadn't solidified her backstory. That would come in the very next issue.

When I was eleven, this lack of backstory didn't especially bother me. Medusa was just some weird woman with creepy hair that menaced my favourite super-team. If I'd been a little older, I'd probably have wondered whether she was a mutant like the X-Men. After all, The Wizard had found her hiding from angry villagers in a cave somewhere in Europe. Isn't that where all mutants came from?

Looking back at what was going on at Marvel during 1965, there are two possible reasons for this vagueness. The first is that when the Frightful Four were created - August or September of 1964, I'd say - Stan and Jack had no plans for Medusa beyond her role as a foe of the Fantastic Four. The second is that Stan and Jack did have plans for Medusa, and simply used her appearance in Fantastic Four to promote those plans. But, I don't think the timeline bears that out. I'll explain.
Who's that girl? Even Medusa doesn't seem to know. Is she a powerful supervillainess, capable of wresting control of the Frightful Four from The Wizard, or is she the housefrau girlfriend of Inhumans leader Black Bolt? I don't think even Stan and Jack knew for sure.
Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story tells that during 1965 - with companies like Archie and Charlton trying to emulate Marvel's success - Publisher Martin Goodman wanted to expand the Marvel line to take up more shelf space and instructed Stan to come up with a couple of ideas for new Marvel comic books. So he got together with Jack Kirby and between them they presented two new titles to Goodman - a black superhero, The Coal Tiger and another super-powered group, The Inhumans. I've come across this story from other sources, so it seems reliable.

However, when Goodman went to Independent News, he found he was still constrained by the agreement he'd made with Jack Liebowitz back in 1957 ... that Independent would distribute no more than eight Marvel comic books a month. Even so, this gradually crept up by a title or two a year, so that by 1965, Marvel had 12 books a month on the stands. So when he asked for another two books, head of DC Comics and Independent News Liebowitz, said, "No". Goodman had to shelf the books, a great disappointment to Stan and an even bigger blow to Jack.

Stan's solution was to fold first The Inhumans, then The Coal Tiger (revised as The Black Panther - though see also Two-Gun Kid 77, Sep 1966), into the Fantastic Four comic.

Based on the timing of the above, I think it's reasonable to conclude that Stan and Jack hadn't originally planned Medusa to be an Inhuman. But when the solo Inhumans book was shelved, the character was retro-fitted as a member of the new group. This would explain the strange personality change in Medusa when we see her again in Fantastic Four 46, alongside the other Inhumans. Her haughty manner has gone and she seems like a completely different person. And in Fantastic Four 44 (Nov 1965) Medusa's transformation from imperious super-villain to Black Bolt's far meeker love-interest would begin ...

Johnny Storm was the last to see Medusa as she escaped at the end of Fantastic Four 43 ... and he's the first to see her when she returns in FF44. Stan and Jack sure liked a circular plotline.
When I first read "The Gentleman's Name is Gorgon" back in 1965, it confused me a little. Like all eleven year olds, I knew my European mythology quite well, perhaps better than others, as I loved anything with monsters and superpowered people. So I was aware that Medusa was the name of one of the Three Gorgons from Greek myth. And here, Stan and Jack were introducing another gorgon. Except this one was a gentleman.

You certainly got your money's worth in a Stan and Jack Fantastic Four comic. I'd argue that the inclusion of the Dragon Man in this tale made it perhaps a tad crowded, but why carp?
When we do get to see Gorgon, he looks more like a faun of Roman myth or the Greek god Pan than a gorgon. Was this deliberate, or was Jack just getting his mythology in a bunch? The story has Medusa (sometimes "Madame" and sometimes "Madam", in Stan's script), on the run from this mysterious pursuer. The FF investigate weird earthquake-like shock waves, and discover they're caused by the creature pursuing Medusa. Stan and Jack drag the Dragon Man into the tale, though this doesn't add much of significance to the story.

With his stylised horns and his goat-like feet, Gorgon was probably inspired by the Greek god Pan ... which in turn inspired the medieval Christian image of Satan.
By the time we get to the end of the 20 pages, The Dragon Man has carried Sue Storm off, The Gorgon has grabbed Medusa to return her to her own race (whoever they may be), and his final kick has caused the building under the FF to collapse as though flattened by a huge seismic event.

It's a terrific cover, if a little sinister. There's some artistic licence by Jack, as he has Karnak hoisting about a ton of brick wall above his head when, in the story, there's no suggestion that Karnak has super-strength.
Fantastic Four 45 (Dec 1965) finally reveals what all this sound and fury has been about. Medusa is part of a race called The Inhumans and, apparently, they're hiding among us. By 1965 standards, that's a pretty cool - if slightly unsettling - idea.

It all kicks off when Johnny Storm is feeling a bit pouty because Dorrie Evans has another date. Wandering around a deserted neighbourhood near the Baxter Building, Johnny chances across a beautiful young girl sitting amid the rubble of a condemned building. When he speaks to her, the girl panics, a tornado springs up out of nowhere and the girl vanishes.

The gradual reveal of Crystal and her backstory to Johnny Storm is nicely done. We know there's something very odd going on when we see Lockjaw for the first time - a dog, the size of a hippo, with antennae. Like me, Johnny ponders whether Crystal and her people might be mutants.
Unable to put the girl out of his mind, Johnny returns to the same neighbourhood the following evening and finds her again, sitting on a rockpile. When the girls sees Johnny Flame On, she takes him for one of her own kind and reveals her name is Crystal and that she has a giant antennaed dog called Lockjaw. Emboldened, she takes Johnny to meet the rest of her family, particularly their leader Black Bolt.

In the above sequence, revelation piles on revelation, as Johnny learns that Medusa is Crystal's sister, that karate-chopping Karnak and the scaly amphibian Triton are all part of the same odd family. In fact, Johnny even references The Munsters at the foot of page 16.
In the underground lair of The Inhumans, Johnny first meets Karnak ... then, when he claps eyes on Gorgon and Medusa, the penny drops. Medusa is part of a group who will stop at nothing to conceal their existence from the rest of the world. The group try to restrain The Torch, but he burns his way out of the lair and alerts the FF to the danger.

After an incredible seven issues and 140 pages, we finally get to see the leader of Medusa's family of Inhumans, Black Bolt. Yet at this point, the character doesn't seem fully formed. His forehead antenna isn't quite right, though it'd be fixed in the next issue. Later in the series, Lockjaw's standard insect style antennae would be replaced by a single device modelled on Black Bolt's. 
When Johnny returns to the area with his teammates, they're attacked by the Inhumans, but this is merely a diversion ... the real menace appears. Black Bolt.

Fantastic Four 46 gives us our first proper look at Black Bolt. It's a strong central image and Jack Kirby again uses the technique of floating heads dotted around the cover to show the main players in the adventure inside.
Fantastic Four 46 (Jan 1966) opens with a bruising five-page battle between the FF and the small group of Inhumans led by Black Bolt. Across these pages we learn that Black Bolt has super-strength - enough to give The Thing pause - but does not speak. We learn that Triton needs water to survive. And we learn that The Seeker is chasing down the Inhumans for some unspecified reason.

Believing the Fantastic Four to be a threat, the Inhumans attack them, demonstrating that they're capable fighters, even against such powerful opponents as the FF.
We don't meet The Seeker until page six of the story, but even then we're not really any the wiser. The Seeker's henchmen have subdued and captured the Dragon Man, thinking him to be another escaped Inhuman. Meanwhile, the battle between The Inhumans and the FF rages on, until Gorgon realises that Triton has been snatched by The Seeker. The Inhumans break off their fight and make a hasty withdrawal, leaving the area via Lockjaw's teleportation abilities.

With Black Bolt's power depleted during his battle with The Thing, the Inhumans realise they're no match for The Seeker and his goons and have Lockjaw teleport them away to who-knows-where. Johnny frets that he won't see Crystal again, but Reed assures him that he'll unravel the secrets of the Inhumans.
Meanwhile, The Seeker has realised that The Dragon Man is no Inhuman, but an artificial life form, and loses interest in the creature. So when Reeds Richards uses his technology to trace The Seeker's heat signature and catches up with the Inhuman-hunter, The Seeker has no reason to believe The Fantastic Four are interested in anything other than the sedated android. And not seeing the FF as a threat, explains that he is one of the race who created The Inhumans through genetic manipulation ... purely in the interests of scientific experimentation. 

Stan's dialogue makes it seem as though The Seeker belongs to the race that created the Inhumans. We would find out that this is not the case when the true creators of the Inhumans are revealed much later in the second issue of The Inhumans comic (1975).
It all goes to heck-in-a-handbasket when The Dragon Man recovers from the The Seeker's tranquilliser and breaks free. In the ensuing melee, Triton's containment tank is shattered and the amphibian collapses to the floor, gasping for breath.

There's no sign of The Inhumans on this cover. Usually, Stan wouldn't let something like this pass, as he was all about making the cover sell the book. I'm surprised he didn't have Jack add his trademark "floating heads" down the sides of the cover art.
Fantastic Four 47 (Feb 1966) opens with the FF ingeniously saving Triton's life. While Johnny and Ben go after The Dragon Man, Sue envelopes Triton in a forcefield and Reed fills it with water from a handy hosepipe.

I'd have thought it should have been a little more difficult for Black Bolt to wrest the throne back from his usurper brother, Maximum the Mad. Instead, it involves little more than grabbing Maximus' hokey hat. In the above artwork, the way Kirby's drawn Maximus reminds me quite a lot of Thor's dodgy brother, Loki.
As this is happening, Black Bolt and his followers reach their remote home, The Great Refuge, where his brother, Maximus now rules as king. The sneering Maximus greets his brother, then proclaims his intention to wed Medusa. Really should have kept his mouth shut. Black Bolt's reaction is to snatch the crown from his brother's head and calmly place it on his own. If only all regime change could be that easy.

When the Fantastic Four reach the city of the Inhumans, Reed feels it his duty to advise Black Bolt that they won't stay hidden from the Human Race forever. Despite their best efforts, their existence will become known eventually, and they'll discover too late that humans are not their enemy.
Not far away, the Fantastic Four have arrived in The Great Refuge and waste no time making the perilous descent into the city of The Inhumans. No sooner have they reached ground level that they're greeted by an excited Crystal ... and the rest of her family. Black Bolt wants nothing to do with the Human Race and orders Reed and the others to leave on peril of their lives. But Reed makes an impassioned speech, declaring that The Inhumans have nothing to fear from the Humans and that the sooner they emerge into the real world, the better. What none of them know is that Maximus has a secret weapon, the Atmo-Gun with which he plans to annihilate all human life, leave the Earth solely for The Inhumans. While no one's watching, he pressed the trigger.

Fantastic Four 48 is rightly famous for introducing the terrible threat of Galactus and his melancholy herald The Silver Surfer. However, the first third of the book is taken up with the epilogue of The Inhumans saga.
Now what I'd forgotten, until I re-read these stories recently, was that the epilogue of the Inhumans saga spilled over into Fantastic Four 48 (Mar 1966), a comic best known for introducing Galactus and the Silver Surfer to the Marvel universe. So the last few pages of the tale, with Maximus thwarted, and the Atmos-Gun - a weapon designed to destroy all non-Inhuman life - failing to work on the Human Race, takes up the first seven pages of FF48. Who knew?

The irony is that The Inhumans and the Humans are not genetically different after all. Reed is right. There's no need for the Inhumans to keep themselves apart from the Human Race. Yet Maximus still has his final revenge, throwing up an impenetrable barrier that locks The Inhumans inside the Great Refuge and shuts the Fantastic Four out. Johnny is separated from Crystal ... and this sets up a future storyline of Johnny embarking on an epic search for his lost love later in the FF series.

From here, The Inhumans would go on to make many more appearances in the Fantastic Four and other Marvel series. Initially, Stan had planned to launch an Inhumans comic in 1967, but this was shelved and Jack's artwork was repurposed as a short run of back-up tales by Stan and Jack in Thor 146 - 152 (1967). They then battled the Hulk in Hulk King-Size Special 1 (1968), and finally get their own series in the second volume of Amazing Adventures in 1969 ... but that's a story for next time.

Next: The long road to solo stardom


Friday, 30 August 2019

Separated at Birth 2 - another comic covers interlude

HERE'S SOMETHING A LITTLE MORE LIGHT-HEARTED than my more recent posts ... another look at the many tropes, cliches and chestnuts that show up over and over again in the cover designs of our favourite comics. I'd barely scratched the surface of this subject on one of my every early entries in this blog, so I'm giving the subject another outing.

I should clarify that Marvel and DC comics took quite a different approach to how they created their covers. DC had always traditionally created their covers first, often using the idea behind a "grabby" cover to drive the plot of the story inside the comic. Both Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz took this approach with the DC books they edited. Marvel, though, did exactly the opposite, creating their covers after the interior art was completed. This meant that Marvel would often create symbolic covers that might not illustrate a scene from the story inside. But you'll see what I'm getting at as we go along ...


IDENTICAL TWINS

I think it's fair to say that Julie Schwartz was the king of recycling when it came to re-using old cover ideas. During his run as editor of DC's revived superhero titles, he'd regularly plunder the cover gallery of his 1950s science fiction comics for ideas.

Uncanny, isn't it? It's almost as though Schwartz was cynically re-using cover ideas from the previous decade, wasn't it? "Ah, what the hell ... the kids'll never know." Click image to enlarge.
The above 1960s cover concepts are absolutely identical to their 1950s antecedents ... but this is hardly unusual in the comics industry.


CLOSELY RELATED

It wasn't just Schwartz who liked to dredge up old ideas and trot them out for further airings. DC's Dark Overlord Mort Weisinger also loved the economy of using an old idea instead of thinking up a new one.

As before, the top row is the copycat covers and the lower row is their original inspiration. You could argue that the Jimmy Olsen 110 infinity cover is an homage to the 1946 Superman 38 cover ... but who except for the editor and artist would have known that?
Here's a bunch of Superman Family covers enjoying a second roll of the dice. The Superboy covers are just 18 months apart.


MARVEL MIMICRY

I wouldn't want you, dear reader, to presume I'm picking on DC as unprincipled purveyors of parallel portrayals. Marvel have also displayed ill-judged moments of imitation - admittedly, not as many, though.

Is this deliberate? How would John Romita, Gil Kane and Sal Buscema all manage to draw a comic cover featuring The Tarantula in pretty much identical poses? It's a mystery to me.
The first few times Spider-Man villain The Tarantula appeared on Marvel covers, it might have seemed as though the production department were just sticking the same drawing of the character against slightly different yellow backgrounds. But those really are different covers by three different artists.

Over on the Hulk comic, iconic portrayer of the Angry Green One, Herb Trimpe produced a run of covers that were ... well, pretty much the same, really.

Is it Herb Trimpe who loves a low-angle shot? Or might Stan have been telling him that this point-of-view makes for more powerful covers? It's striking how similar these covers are ... they could almost be different versions of the same cover.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a massive fan of Trimpe's work, and of course, it may not be poor ol' Herb who's to blame for the sameness of the above covers. It could be that Trimpe was being given cover direction by Stan ... but it's interesting that the first seven covers of the Hulk's 1968 run - by Marie Severin - all show The Hulk much larger on the page than the Trimpe covers that followed.

See? Marie Severin, who was pinch-hitting for Stan as Marvel's in-house corrections artist and was also laying out covers before John Romita took on the role officially, took quite a different approach from Herb Trimpe on how her covers looked.
Researching hundreds of covers to this blog entry, I was struck by how some themes kept coming up. It's as though certain types of subject matter call out to comics editors ... "use me, use me!" Here's some of the more common ones.


YOU SHOULDA PUT A RING ON IT

I have no idea whether Mort Weisinger was a fight fan, but he sure used a lot of boxing and wrestling themed covers on the Superman family books.

Look at this collection of ringside covers ... whether it's Jimmy Olsen getting KOed, or Jimmy knocking Superman out. Or Superman being beaten up by unlikely antagonists, they all share a certain sameness. You'll never see anything like this on a Marvel cover.
I would guess that Weisinger's thought process was, "Two boxers on a comic cover is dull. Put a superhero in a boxing ring, that's interesting." Having heroes in unusual but slightly mundane situations was a constant theme in DC covers from the 1940s right the way through to the 1970s. There were other examples ...

Superheroes in a boxing ring? I can't imagine Marvel would ever
dream of going down that route, would you?

THEY OUGHT TO BE LOCKED UP

Something else Weisinger liked to do was to lock his heroes up in jail. It's astonishing that he didn't add a speech balloon to this type of cover to have Superman say, "Aw, not again!" Here's a small selection of just some of the convict Superman covers I was able to uncover ...

A lot of the time, it was Clark Kent banged up so as to reveal his secret identity (incidentally, I never understood how it was that people even realised Superman had a secret identity. He must've told them, right?) Sometimes, it was Superman imprisoned, taken for a criminal. The World's Finest 156 cover with the bizarros freeing the Joker I included because it's just so goofy.
But it wasn't just Superman who found himself wrongly (or rightly) imprisoned. Other DC superheroes also got in on the act.

"I'm innocent, I tell you. Innocent!" In all fairness, it should only take Batman about ten seconds or so to free himself from a standard jail cell. So why were we so worried?
OK, mostly Batman ... but you get the idea.

DC GIANTS - BUT NOT 80-PAGE

Another common DC cliche is turning their characters into giants. It happened so often that you wondered why any of the supporting characters might be surprised. 

Ooh, a giant Batman in a Giant Batman comic. This was a reprint of Detective 243 from 1957 in which Batman became a giant. Later in Batman 177 (Dec 1965) he became ... a giant. Jimmy Olsen also became a giant in JO 53 (Jun 1961), in a cover that looks awfully close to a cover of the pulp Thrilling Wonder Stories, merely a remarkable coincidence, I'm sure. A very similar image also showed up on the cover of Superboy 30 (Jan 1954). What are the odds?
I think the idea started out in Julie Schwatrz's old DC mystery stories of the 1950s, then somehow made its way into the Weiseinger edited superhero titles during the Sixties. These covers must've sold books, or they wouldn't have done them ...

GIANT-SIZE MARVELS

Over at Marvel Comics, Stan avoided all the DC-style body dysmorphia madness, though he did like covers that depicted his characters as giants, though in a metaphorical way. So you'd often have the huge figure of Doctor Doom towering menacingly over the Fantastic Four, or Magneto and his Evil Whatchamacallems looming threatening over The X-Men. But that didn't mean that they were actual giants, okay?

The trope of showing characters, especially villains, as giants on the covers of Marvel Comics was started by Jack Kirby. Perhaps this was some kind of hangover from all those monster covers he drew for Strange Tales and Amazing Adventures. The thing is, we kids knew that Dr Doom and the Mandarin weren't actually 50 foot tall ...
This trend would continue throughout the 1960s and even into the 1970s, though once Stan was no longer involved in the day-to-day running of Marvel, the figuratively colossal characters tailed away. And strangely, it wasn't really a look that DC went for. The closest I could find to this was in an old Justice League cover which is almost - but not quite - depicting the characters as giants for dramatic effect.

... and though Kirby might have started the trend, it continued with other artists, so we'd get giant Spider-Men as well as big villains. Look how similar that later Avengers cover is to the Justice League artwork below it. And how about those two brilliant Steranko covers on the right hand side?
Here's a whole other bunch of cover tropes that loomed large during my favourite period of comic ... The Silver Age.

CATALOGUE OF CLICHES

That's right, there are many different themes for comic covers that would crop up more than once. Because of the way DC worked - identifying ideas that they knew would sell books, then building their stories around that - it was more frequent to experience deja vu if you were a DC reader. Stan did it too, as we've seen, but was strangely less formulaic with his covers than you might imagine, given the notorious lack of imagination on the part of his publisher Marty Goodman.


Still ... try some of these out for size.

Holy gurgle: Batman enjoyed this deadly water trap in Batman 166 (Sep 1964) so much that he tried it out again just four years later in Batman 207 (Dec 1968).
Up periscope: It's a a pretty arresting image, so it's not too much of an assumption to suggest that cover artist on Sub-Mariner 11 (Mar 1969) Gene Colan may have - consciously or unconsciously - swiped Jack Burnley's cover idea from Superman 23 (Jul 1943).
Gone fishing: As a kid, I hated fishing. Yet I clearly recall that the House of Mystery 94 on the right is the very first American comic I ever saw on a newsagent's counter some time during 1960. My mum wouldn't buy it for me.
Between Two Worlds: This is unusual. More often the superhero comic borrows an idea from an old mystery title. This time it's the other way round. The Adam Strange cover on Mystery in Space 82 is dated March 1963. The Strange Adventures 181 is October 1965. Weird couple of worlds, isn't it?
I'm a Robot: Here's one so odd, you wonder why DC used it twice. You wake up one morning and find that you're a robot. It first turned up on Action Comics 282 (Nov 1961) and returned on Green Lantern 36 (Apr 1965).
I have literally dozens more examples of comic covers that were separated at birth, more than enough for an additional post, so I think I'll leave the rest for another time.

Next: Something Inhuman this way Comes ...