Sunday, September 6, 2015

Fantastic Four #600

I am making an ambitious commitment. Last weekend I decided to begin plowing through all my stacked-up issues of Fantastic Four, which run all the way back to the end of 2011 and the "100-PAGE 50th ANNIVERSARY 600th ISSUE EXTRAVAGANZA" (a scan of the cover appears above).

It is odd how little fanfare Marvel mustered for the golden anniversaries of its seminal titles -- Fantastic Four, Thor, Amazing Spider-Man, Avengers, X-Men -- titles that built its corporate brand. Marvel, I imagine, having recently been gobbled up by Disney, didn't want to accentuate the datedness of its stable of characters. Disney didn't want Marvel because of Marvel's comic-book subscribers; Disney purchased Marvel to puts its superheroes on the big screen and sell movie tickets to young people; to do this, it is best not to spotlight the rich heritage and long history of your fictional property. Young people are interested in the new and novel, not what was paradigm-shifting in the 1960s.

The Fantastic Four represented a new era in comic books (superhero group as a bickering, dysfunctional family) and helped usher in the Swinging Sixties when it first appeared at the end of 1961. This is the conventional wisdom among aficionados, and it helps explain why Marvel maintains the title despite its apparent lack of substantial contemporary appeal. (A new film version bombed at the box office this summer.)

The fact is that during the 1960s, when Marvel replaced DC as the top comic-book publisher, two titles were at the heart of the Marvel revolution: The Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man. It is hard to imagine today when Avengers and X-men are so clearly at the top of the heap, but Kirby's Fantastic Four and Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man essentially spawned the Marvel Universe and captured the Zeitgeist of the Sixties.

One drizzly Sunday morning around the time of the release of Fantastic Four #600, I saw Reed Richards and Sue Storm.

I was on the back end of an eight-mile run. A young married couple -- how I know they were married I can't explain; it has something to do with the harshness of silence in the manner they interacted with one another -- got out of a Subaru. The Subaru was parked in front of a hipster breakfast nook in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that is home to Amazon's campus (though, at the time, four years ago, the Amazon footprint was not as large as it is today). On top of the Subaru were snowboards. The young married couple were attractive -- hip, without being bohemian; solidly bourgeois, without being square -- in other words, an ideal manifestation of the fundamental building block of American society.

Right then and there it dawned on me, as I ran by and up the hill in the gray wet mono-climate of the Pacific Northwest, that I was looking at Mister Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, the foundation of the Fantastic Four.

The following day at work, against my better judgment, I tried to explain to a coworker how by happenstance while out on a run I stumbled upon Reed Richards and Sue Storm of the Fantastic Four, and how this allowed me insight into the idealization of our consumer-oriented, bourgeois American society. My coworker gave me a confused, somewhat frightened look, and that was that. But I will always remember the moment when Sue and Reed were revealed to me.

That the Fantastic Four is no longer a popular title says a lot about the loss of optimism in the middle class. The solid bourgeois family with stable values and material prospects is a faerie tale of the post-WWII past. The middle class is cracked and crumbling, disappearing among the horde of working poor.

Marvel tried to juice interest in the comic book by killing off the privileged puer aeternus, the Human Torch, Johnny Storm, in Fantastic Four #587. (Johnny Storm, the prosperous teenage hot head, was so popular in the 1960s that he had his own series in Strange Tales).

The central feature of Fantastic Four #600 is "Whatever Happened to Johnny Storm?" by Jonathan Hickman and Carmine Di Giandomenico. The Human Torch is forced to fight in a never-ending series of gladiatorial battles in a Negative Zone arena for the pleasure of Annhilus. He invariably is killed; then he is resurrected by centipede-like surgery creatures. Eventually, Johnny triumphs over Annhilus and escapes from the Negative Zone reborn.

Below you will find 18 scans from the beginning of "Whatever Happened to Johnny Storm?"  I went overboard because I am such a fan of Di Giandomenico's art. Here it has a real Roger Dean vibe.

There is no finer superhero slogan than the Human Torch's "FLAME ON!"

UPDATE: I ran by the cafe this morning where four-years ago I saw the young married couple who conjured up in my runner's mind Mister Fantastic and the Invisible Woman. The restaurant is still there. Butting up against it is some of the new commercial construction sprawl associated with Amazon's octopus-like expansion all over the Denny Regrade and South Lake Union area.

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