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 devote 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 Gorgon 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-1970s, 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.

Data from the Audit Bureau of Circulation reveals that Marvel overtook DC in total sales in 1967, much earlier than I would have thought. Other sources have suggested different points for Marvel's ascendency, but it's hard to argue with independently audited sales figures. Click on chart to enlarge.
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. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, Marvel overtook DC in sales in 1967.

Next: More covers to conjure with