Monday, August 28, 2017

Fantastic Four #1

The first comic I ever read

"The Fantastic Four”
Written – Stan Lee
Pencilers – Jack Kirby
Inker – George Klein and Christopher Rule
Colorist – Stan Goldberg
Letters – Artie Simek
Editor – Stan Lee
November 1961
Now before you begin thinking that the Crapbox contains a copy of the much sought-after first issue of The Fantastic Four, calm yourselves. It doesn’t. The printout you see above and the panels that follow are courtesy of Marvel’s Fantastic Four/Silver Surfer DVD collection that I picked up a few years ago.

However, I had read and committed to memory this story and the ones that followed it from reprints in paperback form that Marvel produced in 1977. Dubbed Marvel Comics Series, these sold for just under two bucks. And although the book bears the sin of omitting Jack Kirby’s name, his indelible penciling is showcased through-out its pages.

I have stated before that I owned a few of these, including Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. They became lost or thrown out years ago and until finding one at a comic book convention, I had no remembrances of having owned them. I knew I’d read the starter stories from somewhere, but for the life of me could not recall where. Some part of me passed it off as having read them out of the library, but that chance find at Dallas’s Fan Days jogged those memories right back.

This was my first comic, and I cannot think of a better place to have started.

Come with me, back to a time before the bickering over who did what, and jump into the head of a ten year old kid who cherished reading more than anything. A strange little boy who you could sit in the corner with a book and he would not move for hours, lost in worlds long ago and far away. A kid with few friends who felt like the people on the pages were real and their struggles were part of his daily existence. A time when things seemed a little more innocent, even if they truly weren’t.

A time for heroes.

It's a mysterious type of beginning, starting with a flare gun creating a cloud filled with the words “The Fantastic Four” over the city of New York. The police are baffled and rumors fly even among the boys in blue. A figure covered in shadow stands by a window. His hand holds the very gun that fired the flare, its smoke curling from the barrel as evidence of his deed.

And the world will never be the same again.

Likewise, the world outside those four-color pages would never be the same again either. The Fantastic Four kicked off the Marvel Age of comics. And even though Kirby had worked in the industry for nearly two decades, most of us would label this the Kirby Age of comics as well.

 Image courtesy of

Kirby began his career in comics working for the Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate in 1936. He was self-taught, having spent his formative years drawing and tracing images from the newspaper strips and editorial cartoons. He remained until 1939 and then joined up with Fleischer Studios working on their Popeye cartoons as an inbetweener (an artist who fills in the action between major-movement frames) but the repetitive work didn’t suit him. He exited Fleisher for something more his style.

His comic book work began with him writing and drawing form Eisner & Iger, a firm that created comics on demand for publishers. Kirby’s first published work, according to him, appeared in Wild Boy Magazine. Kirby used pseudonyms through much of his early career, settling on the name Jack Kirby only because it reminded him of James Cagney.

From there, he moved on to the Fox Feature Syndicate and for the first time started exploring the superhero narrative with The Blue Beetle. During that time he met Fox editor Joe Simon, and began a collaborative effort as freelancers for Timely Comics. For the house that would eventually be renamed Marvel two decades hence, the pair created the successful patriotic superhero Captain America. Simon became Timely’s editor and Kirby their art director until the war effort took Kirby into the European theater.

After a post-war success in creating romance comics allowed Kirby to purchase his first home and first home studio, Joe and Jack allowed Timely’s (now Atlas Comics) relaunch of Captain America in 1954 to produce Fighting American. The venture initially meant to outdo Atlas’s Cap, but soon devolved into satire of the current anti-communist McCarthyism in Washington.

In the years that followed, things would become strained between the pair, with Simon eventually leaving the industry for a career in advertising. Kirby continued to freelance, which lead him back to Atlas and DC and then finally back to Atlas again. For a couple of years Kirby contributed across all genres until November of 1961 served up a chance at the newly minted Marvel imprint in collaboration with current writer/editor-in-chief Stan Lee.

What followed was a decade of Kirby defining the Marvel house style and Stan Lee promoting artists as if they were rock stars, none being awarded higher praise than Jack “King” Kirby.

 image courtesy of

So settle back as we traipse through these digital leaves of the first ever story of the era of Marvel comics. While it may begin with smoke and mystery, it continues with a woman who vanishes.

Across town a woman notices the smoky words hanging above her head and exclaims to her friend Susan bewilderment at their discovery.

Yet she turns to encounter more shocking revelations as Susan has disappeared into thin air. Also Susan never to my knowledge ever called this woman back to apologize. Rude! But not as rude as knocking over people just because they can’t see you. Surely she could, you know, find a path that doesn’t involve pushing every single person out of the way.

And when knocking over pedestrians ceases to be fun, Susan then decides to give this cab driver a fright that possibly will lead to lots of psychological counseling. All of which begs the question: Why not wait until she was at her destination to turn invisible?

Feeling that a formula for introducing characters is at play here, we turn to Ben Grimm shopping for clothes. When tossing off his “this crap would not really conceal what I look like” trench coat to expose his Thing-ness, the clerk faints dead away. So far, the Fantastic Four are two for two at scaring the bejeezus out of people who don’t deserve it.

Grimm feels that Susan out did him however, so he destroys the storefront, rips up a manhole and thoroughly demolishes some poor motorist’s car. Remember when I said the FF was Marvel’s first family of dickmoves? Well, here you go.

It is plenty exciting, though.

Exciting to a pair of teenagers working in a garage on a vintage car, even!

Especially when the smoke words do things that are physically impossible, like form a number “4” in the sky before they dissipate. It excites one of the lads so much that his burgeoning hormones cause him to burst into flames. We lose more nice teenagers that way. 

Not to mention classic cars! Again, the FF are dicks since it would have been just as easy to step out of the car before melting it to slag. 

Just to be sure we are ramping up the assholery here, our human matchstick melts a few jet planes because they “get too close to him”. 

The military decides to shoot him out of the sky…

…but at the last second, he’s rescued by the one person who DIDN’T destroy any part of the city or mess with anyone’s head.

Who are these fantastical folk? What are they doing here? What does a twelve year old think of their destruction of property and infliction of mental anguish?

I can answer all of these. For that last one, that kid…he thought they were amazingly cool! I can recall the wonder and affection I had for Lee and Kirby’s tales right from the very start. It was the very start of that love affair with Marvel that last throughout my school years and beyond.

What follows is the pure 60’s Sci-fi version of a family trying to beat the Commies into space, daring even their own lives to make that jump. In five astounding pages, Jack and Stan created a legend that isn’t diminished to this very day. (Even if the assholes at Marvel don’t want to properly package and sell that legend anymore.)

The look of fear on these faces, the pelting with cosmic radiation, and the transformation sequences are rightly copied by others retelling this origin but never improved upon. Kirby kicked off the mythos of this quartet of adventurers with exactly the right amount of danger, thrills, and heart. That moment of hesitation before Ben throws in shows so much. We have Reed as the brains, Sue as the maternal instinct, Johnny as playful childish exuberance and Ben as the true heart. Their powers match their nature.

And if the reader thought that was all he was getting for his two nickels, he was happily mistaken. Jack and Stan weren’t done with us just yet. Now we enter the adventure proper, with Jack’s dramatic creatures and posing.

It is interesting to note a couple of things: First, no uniforms on our cast. The FF wouldn’t start wearing costumes until the mid-point of issue three. The idea was to make them more like people with powers rather than the underwear and capes set. It set the title apart in a very subtle but distinct way.

Secondly, much of what is depicted are things that Jack was already a master at drawing. Science fiction and monster stories were both genres that Kirby had been cutting his teeth on for decades.

The action sequences were what really grabbed us, however. Like this bit with Reed and Johnny.

Not to mention that Jack and Stan were at the pinnacle of their imaginative phase. As I’ve said before, I know there is a controversy over who authored much of these tales, the answer to which is only known between the two of them. And while Stan may have given very short descriptions of story directions and sketchy plotting, as Kirby has stated, there are still things that we can easily ascribe to Lee.

For one, he created a studio that put out a massive amount of characters in a very short time span that were bona fide winners. Whether he wrote every story himself or whether his “Marvel method” of giving the artist two sentences of story plot and letting them run with it, you should credit Lee with not hampering the creative flow of his staff.

Also Lee made the artists and writers household names. He was a promoter extraordinaire and from the lines of Bullpen Bulletins and Stan’s Soapbox, we loyal Marvel Zombies felt like we knew these people. He made them into kin or folk heroes or rock stars, imbuing each with an honorary title.

And in Kirby he found a fount overflowing with amazing visuals, astonishing plots and great characters. Like our Moleman here, whose origin Kirby spins out in our final chapter.


Then Kirby pulls out all the stops with a rock’em-sock’em finale that quite literally brings the house down.

And although the first of the FF’s adventures had concluded, they flew off into the sunrise of a new era in comics. An era that would be filled with more great characters and terrific action. An era that would cement Kirby’s genius as the model for over a decade as the official template for doing a Marvel comic the right way.

I’m going to shamelessly steal a quote from wiki attributed to Gil Kane from Dallas Fantasy Fair, July 6, 1985.

Jack was the single most influential figure in the turnaround in Marvel's fortunes from the time he rejoined the company ... It wasn't merely that Jack conceived most of the characters that are being done, but ... Jack's point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field ... [Marvel took] Jack and use[d] him as a primer. They would get artists ... and they taught them the ABCs, which amounted to learning Jack Kirby. ... Jack was like the Holy Scripture and they simply had to follow him without deviation. That's what was told to me ... It was how they taught everyone to reconcile all those opposing attitudes to one single master point of view.”

I owe my love of comics in large part to Kirby and his influence throughout the comics industry. My first books were Marvel and the first artists I followed were Kirby and those who adopted his style.

Today would have been Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday.

Many of my friends who blog are doing similar Kirby-themed articles today to honor his contribution. Feel free to check them out at the links below.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Machine Man #2

2001 spins out a superhero for the present-day

"House of Nightmares”
Written, Edited, and Drawn – Jack Kirby
Inked and Lettered – Mike Royer
Colored – Petra G.
Wiring? – Archie Goodwin
May 1978

The original Crapbox held a Machine Man. Not this one, but if we are lucky we might find it buried somewhere in here.

So I grew up with this itineration of the character. Beyond this, the Marchine Man character was evolved by Tom DeFalco with the assistance of Herb Trimp and Barry Windsor-Smith into a cyberpunk future version of himself in the X-51 miniseries. Later on, that would turn out to NOT be our favorite Living Machine. Sometime much later Warren Ellis would throw out everything about Machine Man but the Machine part and add him to his Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. series as Aaron Stack.

I have yet to read the X-51 series (I have them all, thank you Crapbox) so I have no feelings on that version of MM. Ellis’s version should upset me, but Nextwave is such fun-loving fluff that I can’t find it in myself to hold any malice toward either the Aaron Stack in it’s pages or Mr. Ellis.

But the guy you see here is MY Machine Man. He’s the one I grew up with and the one I’ll always remember. Issue Six was mine when I was twelve. My favorite part of Aaron was his extendable arms and legs. I don’t know why other than they always looked cool.

As I might of mentioned in my review of 2001: A Space Odyssey that Kirby created the Machine Man character in issue 8 of that book. Two issues later, Marvel would cancel the book, but give Kirby a monthly Machine Man title to further his adventures growing as a person and evading the Army.

Here Kirby copied some of his earlier formulas, that being the one for Silver Surfer. Now bear with me a bit because their origins couldn’t be more different. Dig deeper thought, and you’ll find the obvious character parallels.

Machine Man is a robot of the model X-51 type. All the other robots of that type gain sentience and go on a rampage to destroy humanity. The Army is called in and disposes of all of them. All of them except for the one owned by the scientist Able Stack, who has treated his X-51 with love and compassion. This X-51 encounters the 2001 monolith and the exposure allows him to transcend the malfunction that made his brother robots go all homicidal. However, the Army doesn’t realize that Machine man is any different and hounds him in a way not seen since the Incredible Hulk first came out.

All of this leads to Kirby’s Surfer parallel. Machine Man is an outcast who fights for humanity. He spends his hours split between brooding about his fate and being chased from place to place by a populace that fears him. Yet still, the good inside him makes him take up arms to defend the very group that vilify him.

The three issues in 2001 have Machine Man’s origin and his initial struggles with the Army. Issues one and two of his self-titled solo book has the same protagonist, although the end of this book brings in a whole new enemy who will vex Machine Man for the next four. Kirby has no heavy world building to do here, no spacegods to explain or wasteland to explore. So with the backstory out of the way, what we have is a bunch of time to get to know Aaron Stack and enjoy his adventures. This smaller, more intimate and focused character driven drama hits a home run for me. Let’s see if it does for you too.

We begin our little thrill ride with Machine Man strapped down and menaced by the hands of some unseen monster. Note the style Kirby and Royer use here is thick, Thick, THICK lines with tons of crackle. I think that’s one of the selling points of this book, not only is the story simpler but the art conveys that same message. It lulls you into sitting back and letting the story pull you along.

And where it pulls you is these demons removing Stack’s face, which is always a stand in for removing his humanity. The symbolism of forcing him to confront that which makes him stand apart from the humans he desperately emulates conveyed by machines like himself, yet demonic and murderous is a theme that runs through-out the series.

But don’t get to concerned, as this ends up being a dream. The nightmare itself something that points out the humanity trapped with Machine Man’s synthetic shell. This book is perfused with Kirby tech too. Gloriously rendered for those of us who love his wild engineering, Kirby delivers in every book.

So we watch as Machine Man hides from the Army desperately searching for what they believe to be a sentient engine of death dressed up in a purple painted casing. MM himself is unable to retreat, his flying unit having been damaged in last issues scuffle.

The relentlessness of Kirby’s shock troops is matched only by their anonymity. Aside from the eyepatched Coronel Kragg, we just have random dog-faces, which is fine. It keeps our focus on hunter and quarry, not cluttering the story with sub-plots.

To assist in affecting his escape, Machine Man approaches a pump jockey and mechanic at a local filling station. He wants to purchase some “wheels”, but not the traditional definition that implies. His manner of payment is rather unconventional as well.

Yes, we are using the old “turn carbon into diamonds” maneuver from the Silver Age Superman, but here Kirby spends an entire page and a third on the process before we get to the reveal. It’s all just showing off, which to me is like icing on a cake. How could you not fall in love with a book that feels like a throwback to the Lee-Kirby era of stories?

Aaron gets his tires and makes a promise we’ll see him keep in a grandiose sequence that is all Kirby showing off in just a moment, but first we go to this psychiatrist who aided Aaron last issue in escaping detection. He would be the only man on the planet that Machine Man might call friend and it appears one of his patients is causing a commotion.

This is the doc’s wacked-out patient…

…who appears to be talking in high-tech gibberish. 

As Doc Spalding sedates him, he muses absentmindedly to his aid about having met a man who was like a machine just that morning. The aid quickly excuses himself, to make a phone call to the army is my assumption. 

Not that they need any help, having cornered Machine Man at the gas station. Feast your eyes on this!

As much as I love those panels, I love these even more…

Isn’t that great! Machine Man’s head slightly inclined forward in panel one as he crashes through the wall! The graceful arc over ducking soldiers as he zooms away! The stances of the grunts as they try to get a bead on their fleeing quarry! And that bouncing off the boulder pile with such force! Such a fun page. Kirby brings action sequences together like few can.

We get some more cool driving moments as MM encounters a couple of bikers. (love the Dutch angle opening)

Which doesn’t work out well for them, as they are too distracted by his appearance to pay attention to the road. Since Kirby’s finished with this amusement, we end with a bang as Aaron discards the wheels in a flashy display.

And with that we turn back to our good Doctor, still pouring over the file of his deranged, tech-spouting patient.

When he receives a unexpected visitor.

And we get a genuine scene between these two that feels just like the old school Marvel. Sure, it’s a bit hokey, but I’m good with that. The cheese here is grilled just right.

But wait! What’s this?

Machine Man is intercepting some kind of signal from space! A signal that he projects on the ceiling for Doctor Spalding to see as well.

Ah…Kirby Cosmic. Ain’t nothing better. Of course this leads the Doc to the realization that his patient zero is also receiving this transmission and perhaps Machine Man can help him. What they will end up with is not what they expect…

However, that gets saved for next issue with the introduction of Ten-For, the Mean Machine!

Kirby digging back down to his silver-age roots and producing a small intimate tale that doesn’t bear the weight of the entire universe on its shoulders, that’s what we get here. It’s easy to love it. It is easy, at least for me, to shift back to a childhood mindset of reading early Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man and Doctor Strange books. Sure the feel is dated, and probably even more so to today’s audiences. There are ham-fisted segments that will break that fourth wall for some people. I get all that.

But for me, this was a return to greatness for Kirby. It is exactly the fun and frolic I enjoyed in his early tales. We have a few more of these to go, so we’ll see if Jack continues to deliver with Machine Man.

Epilogue: As a bonus, I’m including Jacks own words on Machine Man from the letters page of issue 2. I’m sure you’ll dig hearing from the King himself what he intended this book to be.