Join APPS-O-MATIC for FREE unlimited downloads

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Did you ever see the recent film Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer? There is a reason I bring this up. That is, there’s a reason besides the fact that I think the film suffered from a problem that afflicts a lot of comic-book movies: it tried to take on too much story in the too brief time allotted to it. (And really, it should have been about half an hour longer than it was.) I mean, they took three of the most influential stories in comics history--the wedding of Susan Storm and Reed Richards, the coming of the Silver Surfer and Galactus, and Dr. Doom’s thirst for the Power Cosmic--and crammed them all into one movie. By rights, that should have been two films at least. However, the reason I wanted to talk about this is that there is a detail of this film that has been a recurring subject of debate on a Listserv that I belong to; namely, the portrayal of Galactus. Or, as the case may be, the non-portrayal of him.

By way of explanation for those of you who may be strangers to comics (in which case you must be reading this Blog just because you like the sound of my words, for which I can fault neither your taste nor your patience for long-windedness), Galactus, a character introduced to us by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at the end of Fantastic Four #48, is a creature of infinite power, older than the universe. He feeds himself by converting the elements of life-bearing planets to energy and assimilating them. He generally employs a being called a Herald who scouts ahead for planets suitable for his consumption. The first and most famous of the Heralds is the Silver Surfer, who rebelled against Galactus and threw in with the human race and the Fantastic Four.

Now, it bears mentioning exactly how Galactus and the Surfer came about. As Stan and Jack were approaching the 50th issue of The Fantastic Four, they thought they had pitted the world’s greatest heroes against every pulp-science-fictional threat imaginable and were hard-pressed to come up with the Four’s next challenge. The story has it that the Lennon and McCartney of comics decided there was nothing left for the FF to face but God himself. So they came up with a comic-book plot that would be an allegory about the nature of God. Representing the “benevolent, loving higher power” aspect of God would be an already established character, the Watcher from FF #13. For the “wrathful, punishing destroyer” of the Old Testament, they invented Galactus, who would come to consume the Earth and destroy all terrestrial life in the process. The Silver Surfer would represent an angel, rebelling against his master and taking the fall for it. (The Surfer is stranded on Earth for standing up for humanity, a reversal of the story of Lucifer, who so loved God that he refused to serve mortals and was cast out for it. I learned this from Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth.)

Anyway, for a further understanding of this story, we must look at the way Stan and Jack worked. Such was Jack’s skill, power, and inventiveness as a storyteller and creator of characters that Stan didn’t have to give Jack a script from which to work. They would simply discuss what was going to happen next in The Fantastic Four or Thor or whatever, and one of them would tell the other where the story was going, then Jack would go home and draw twenty pages of story for the next issue with notes in the margins. It was from these notes that Stan would write the dialogue and captions. So, as Jack was drawing Fantastic Four #48, which built up to a last-page reveal of Galactus, he came up with the idea of the Herald who would presage Galactus’s arrival, and made this character a near-featureless being like a silver Oscar statue, riding through space on a surfboard. Stan saw Jack’s unilateral creation and fell in love with him, and voila, the Silver Surfer was born.

(In some other posting, we’re going to have to discuss Stan and Jack’s storytelling methods a little more, and go into the pitfalls of working that way when Jack had no control over what was done with the things that came off his drawing board. Stan, as Marvel’s Editor in Chief and head writer, had--and used--the power to do things with the Silver Surfer that Jack never intended. This contributed to Jack’s departure from Marvel Comics at the beginning of the 1970s, an event that continues to send aftershocks through comics to this day.)

All of the foregoing was by way of background. What we really need to understand about Galactus is that the character was Jack Kirby’s solution to a particular design problem. Galactus was meant to represent all the things in the universe that are bigger, more powerful, more awesome and mysterious and scary than humankind. He was also Jack’s answer to the question, “If you express ultimate cosmic power as an anthropomorphic being, what does it look like”? For Jack, the answer took the form of a space giant in elaborate armor, with a high-tech helmet that made him look like some mighty elk from the forest of the universe, morphed into a cosmic predator. One reader, in a letter printed on the Fantastic Four Fan Page, took one look at Galactus’s first appearance and said the title of the book ought to be changed to “Oh Earth! Poor Earth!” This was exactly the effect that Jack had in mind. Galactus, who also seemed to express our anxieties about the increasing power of technology (this was 1966; the Cold War was on) was power and death descended from the sky.

To get back to the recurring discussion on the Listserv with some of my comic-book-reading peers, we roll forward to Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the second FF movie. (And the last one for now, though I understand that the FF movie franchise is going to be rebooted with a more dead-on-serious tone. That should be interesting.) In this cinematic depiction of the Galactus story, the Surfer comes and sends for his master, and what arrives to feed on the Earth is not so much a cosmic colossus of technology as it is...a cloud. An immense, planet-sucking parasitic nebula. Now I’ll grant you that, like V’ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the cloud that comes to devour our planet appears to have an intelligent life form at its center. At the climax of the picture, if we look fast and carefully, we see the Silver Surfer flying up into the cloud and facing the silhouette of Jack Kirby’s Galactus, rendered in crackling energy such as Jack himself might have drawn. (“Kirby Krackle” hits the big screen!) And that is all we get to see of the character that Jack created, which is hardly a “character” at all. As someone who has immersed himself in Jack’s work in general and his Fantastic Four work in particular, I was offended at the whole thing. To me, it changed one of Jack’s most important creations from a character to a Rorschach test. I thought it was wrong.

Now there were some people--including some of my Listserv mates--who had no problem with this, ah, “reinterpretation” of Jack’s work. To some people, there was nothing wrong about it. There were a number of arguments for it. Some things work better in a comic book than they do on film, they said, or Galactus is not so much a being as a force. My response to this is that the actual Kirby concept wasn’t even attempted beyond that crackling energy silhouette. They didn’t even try to do the actual character; they just assumed it wouldn’t work. To me, this spoke of a distrust of the material, which is one of my overall complaints about both FF movies. “We’re working with the best material ever created for any comic book, which influenced all the comic book storytelling that would follow it, and we’re not even going to attempt to represent it for what it is. We can’t trust it, and we can’t trust the audience to buy it.” I found it all a little insulting.

Not, however, as insulting as I found some of the other arguments. There were people who actually characterized Galactus as, I’m paraphrasing, “a silly-looking character in a goofy-looking helmet”! One gentleman recently went so far as to refer to Jack Kirby’s design for the character as “tacky”. TACKY, if you please! A profound and powerful concept from the drawing board of the single most influential creator and storyteller ever to work in comic books, and this person describes it as TACKY! I didn’t even bother to respond to that post, for it would surely have resulted in a flame war to rival the upheaval of Galactus’s feeding. No good would have come of it. “TACKY...” I’m frowning at my computer just writing about it.

And do you know how my Listserv mate who thinks Kirby’s classic Galactus is “tacky” would have solved the design problem of “ultimate cosmic power as an anthropomorphic being”? Oh, I really love this: He would have made it some Neil Gaiman-type image of a black-clad Goth girl. Right: An alien being of infinite power and infinite hunger, older than the universe, comes to Earth to feed on the energy of our planet, destroying all life it harbors, and it comes looking like some pasty-faced, body-pierced New York City nightclub crawler with a vampire fetish, a nihilistic attitude, and a taste for bad music. If I had ever seen the Fantastic Four pitted against such a thing (led to Earth by the elegantly angelic Silver Surfer, no less), I might well have thought it was the most monumentally stupid thing I had ever read. And yet, the real Galactus is supposedly “tacky”.

What this comes down to is another of my “Pet Peeves,” the first one we’ve had here in quite some time, and this one specifically about comics. As an overwhelming rule I don’t like people taking it on themselves to redesign and reinvent the creations of Jack Kirby in just any way they see fit. Jack’s work is the history and heritage of comics, and the foundation of everything that is Marvel in particular. I don’t mind people coming up with new things to do with those creations (e.g. the work of Mark Waid on The FF a few years ago), but I do have a problem with people just tossing out the concepts and replacing them with new things for the sake of newness alone. This is especially true of Jack’s Fantastic Four creations. I think the new Thor is truly beautiful, but that’s just what it is: the “new” Thor. When I think of the God of Thunder who is a part of what made me love comics, the imagery that flies across my mind is Kirby imagery. And the Fantastic Four all means, come up with new applications for the old ideas and don’t be a slave to the 1960s in terms of sheer story, but the aesthetics of it need to be based on the work of the King of Comics and the design standards present in the classic first decade. (Remember what I told you about the current work of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch.) John Byrne understood that, and found ways of playing with it that didn’t violate it. So did Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo. People these, they don’t quite seem to get it.

I say the above, however, with just one caveat. Even Stan the Man and his collaborator the King didn’t get everything absolutely right. Not quite everything. (Look at their first pass at Dr. Doom in Fantastic Four #5.) In a future post, we’re going to have a serious talk about Sue Richards, the former Invisible Girl, as she was in the original stories. And next week, I’m going to go into what I think may be the only two exceptions to the “Don’t Muck Around with Kirby” rule. One of them goes back to the character that one of my online mates called “tacky”. The other one deals with Jack’s last great creation for Marvel. On just two occasions--just two--someone managed to do Kirby as well as or perhaps better than the King. That’s because the changes weren’t just gratuitous revisions or changes for the sake of change alone. They weren’t difference just for the sake of difference, and didn’t callously discard what Jack laid down. They were thoughtful and purposeful changes that honored and evolved what Jack created. The first time it was John Byrne. The second time it was the aforementioned Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr. Come back for the next Quantum Blog and we’ll chat them up.

No comments:

Post a Comment