Thursday, June 28, 2018

55 Summers Ago: Fantastic Four Annual #1

At this time of year my thoughts often drift back to an afternoon in late June and a classroom in Brooklyn, New York. As I sat at my desk I stared longingly at the outside world through an expansive open window - a perfect day in my mind’s eye. The semester was dwindling down, final exams were concluding, and the months of July and August beckoned, when the days seemed endless. Summer meant exploring parks, back yards and city streets with friends; baseball and stoop ball, collecting gum cards, flying wooden airplanes and rushing to purchase Ice Cream from the Mr. Softee truck when its familiar melody wafted through the air. Sometimes it was an immense pleasure just to stare at the clouds above as time stood still. 

Trips to local candy stores (for those too young to know, those establishments sold loose candy, soda, rubber balls, newspapers, magazines and, of course, comics) offered numerous surprises: June, July and August brought an array of 25 cent, triple-length Annuals comprising Marvel’s top titles: Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Journey into Mystery with Thor (there was also the popular Millie the Model, but I didn't pay attention to it back then). The Bullpen Bulletins' page and Marvel checklist told us what Annuals to expect each month during the summer, but we didn't know what week they would arrive, so anticipation was high with each visit to the newsstand.

While most superhero fans paid little attention to the teen/humor titles they were best sellers at Marvel for many years. Millie the Model starred in 12 Annuals, from 1962-1975, a pretty strong run. Patsy and Hedy were not as fortunate, headlining a single Annual, but it was on sale the same day as FF Annual # 1, so I featured it here. Al Hartley cover-art. Sam Rosen lettering and Stan Goldberg colors.     

Sgt. Fury King-Size Special # 4, August 1968. Dick Ayers pencils; John Severin inks; Sam Rosen lettering; Marie Severin possible coloring. 

Strange Tales Annual # 2. Jack Kirby pencils; Sol Brodsky possible inks, Artie Simek lettering; Stan Goldberg colors.  

Strange Tales Annual # 2, on-sale in July, 1962, was Marvel's first 25 center to showcase superheroes. The Human Torch, who headlined the monthly comic, was teamed with Spider-Man in an 18 page story that failed to live up to expectations - even with the considerable talents of Lee, Kirby and Ditko (the remainder of the issue featured reprints of pre-hero monster tales). Fantastic Four Annual # 1, which debuted the following month, was a superior product in both content and presentation, and is deserving of a closer look.

My first encounter with FF Annual # 1 took place when it was reprinted in its entirety eight years later, in September, 1970 (cover-dated December). John Romita pencils; John Verpoorten inks; Sam Rosen lettering.  

 The iconic corner insignia depicted head or full figure drawings of Marvel's characters, with the company logo and price underneath it; this allowed consumers to easily identify a favorite title on the crowded newsstands.It was Steve Ditko who suggested the idea to Stan Lee, which was approved by publisher Martin Goodman and implemented across the entire line on comics dated May/June 1963. It may be surprising to some in the modern era of corporate titles and specific duties, but the small-time operation that was 1960s Marvel allowed for innovations such as Ditko's. The informal approach was akin to a group of musicians who contribute in various ways that are often unknown but add immeasurably to the finished product.The first Fantastic Four Annual utilized the same images of the quartet that adorned the monthly comic. Jack Kirby pencils and possible inks. 

Who else to feature in the first FF Annual other than their primary antagonist, the Sub-Mariner? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby upped their game considerably, crafting a special 37 page extravaganza with Namor waging war against the surface world. Lady Dorma returns from the 1940s Timely era (originally Namor's cousin, the character was reinvented as love interest and rival to Sue Storm for Sub-Mariner's affections), Warlord Krang is introduced as an antagonist, lusting for both the throne and Lady Dorma. Namor's origin is retold and expanded, with his homeland (never named by creator Bill Everett) now established as Atlantis. Lee and Kirby are admirably supported by Dick Ayers, whose inking brought substance and personality to Kirby's pencils. Artie Simek's stylish lettering and Stan Goldberg's effective coloring added the finishing touches.    

A close examination of page 37, panel 4, reveals that the top portion of Namor was redrawn, most likely by production assistant Sol Brodsky. Kirby's original illustration apparently had Sub-Mariner knocking citizens around a little too forcefully for the Comics Code.The sloppy movement lines and some of the bystanders, including the woman in the background, are clearly touched up.  

                                           The Skrulls. Kirby inks?. Ray Holloway lettering. 

 .                                    Dr. Doom. Brodsky inks? Ray Holloway lettering. 

The Mad (quite honestly I think he looks more perturbed) Thinker. Dick Ayers inks. Artie Simek lettering.  

                                     The Puppet Master. Kirby inks?. Ray Holloway lettering.  

FF Annual # 1 included a plethora of special features, such as the 11 page "Gallery of the Fantastic Four's Most Famous Foes!" Every villain up to FF # 15 appeared, with sensational Kirby artwork and dramatic copy by Stan Lee. To my eye it appears that Kirby inked the majority of illustrations, although Ayers clearly inked "The Mad Thinker" and possibly "Dr. Doom." Sol Brodsky's inking bore similarities to Kirby's own (what I've termed) "sparse" style; he may have inked The Sub-Mariner illustration. Stan Goldberg is believed to have colored the entire issue.

(for a detailed analysis of Kirby's inking techniques see my earlier post, "Kirby inking Kirby":    

  Other special features in the Annual include a two page "Questions and Answers about the Fantastic Four," which revealed heretofore unknown facts about the powers and personal lives of the FF, and a schematic of the Baxter Building. 

"The Fabulous Fantastic Four Meet Spider-Man!" is an expanded retelling of the FF's first encounter with Spidey in Amazing Spider-Man # 1. Inking Jack Kirby's pencils, Steve Ditko kept Spider-Man's look consistent, fixing errors in costuming that often occurred when Kirby drew the character, such as incorrect web-lines, lack of underarm webbing and a missing spider symbol on his chest. Ray Holloway lettering.  

The Annual concluded with a truncated reprint of Fantastic Four # 1 (the first twelve pages), published just two years earlier. A number of alterations were made in order to maintain consistency with their present-day incarnation. The Thing and Mr. Fantastic were slightly redrawn, but the biggest change was in the depiction of the Torch. 
The Human Torch was originally drawn as a featureless blob of flame, as seen in Fantastic Four # 1, November 1961 (as reprinted in Marvel Masterworks Volume 2, 1987). Stan Lee script, Jack Kirby pencils, George Klein inks, Artie Simek letters. 

For the 1963 reprint Lee had the Torch redrawn (Sol Brodsky being the likely culprit) conforming to a more human appearance familiar to readers since issue # 3.     

This was the first of many exciting annuals. In future years, special events in the FF alone included the origin of Dr. Doom, the wedding of Reed and Sue, the re-introduction of the Original Human Torch; the announcement of Sue's pregnancy (although, like early television, the word was deemed unsuitable; it was simply stated that Sue "is going to have a baby") and the child's birth the following year. 

While page lengths and special features changed from year to year depending on time constraints (new stories became much shorter, with reprints filling out the 1965-1966 specials) from 1963-1968 Marvel's Annuals (or "King-Size Specials" as they were sometimes called) showcased the work of numerous talented craftsmen, including  Lee, Kirby, Steve Ditko, Roy Thomas, Don Heck, Gary Friedrich, Dick Ayers, John Buscema, Gene Colan, Larry Lieber, Al Hartley, Stan Goldberg and Marie Severin. 

John Romita's stunning cover to Amazing Spider-Man King-Size Special # 5, Summer 1968. If you were a kid staring at this image in a candy store would YOU pass it up??

By 1969 Marvel's Annuals consisted almost entirely of reprint material and were even withdrawn from the schedule for several years. When they returned in the mid-1970's many  were lacking the imagination, excitement and creative punch that exemplified their earlier efforts. I'll always be grateful, though, for those magical moments when I walked into a candy store and discovered a brand new Annual awaiting me - a clear sign that those precious days of summer had not yet come to a close.            

What better way to conclude this post than by showcasing the cover of that magical first FF Annual? Kirby and Ayers art; Artie Simek letters; Stan Goldberg colors. It went on sale at most newsstands on July 2, 1963. Were YOU there??