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Monday, July 27, 2009

FOURTH DEGREE BYRNE

The continuation of the Star Trek/Hollywood saga that was scheduled for this post will appear next time. For this post of The Quantum Blog, something else is on my mind, for which, see below...

Of late, I think I have mystified and puzzled some of my mates with my decision not to return to buying The Fantastic Four when the new writer/artist team takes over next issue. But I stand by my decision. As I’ve stated in the past, I have made a promise to myself that I will not support people doing things of which I can’t approve with this book. There are those who don’t understand my disapproval. Frankly, I wonder how many of them are following The FF; indeed, how many of them have ever followed Marvel’s first and finest. (Well, I know a couple of them have, at least.) Why, they wonder, should I so disapprove of the redesign of the cover trade dress and the makeover of the team uniforms? (“Trade dress” is publishing-industry talk for the logo and other indicia on the covers of a magazine or periodical.) Now you understand, we’re talking about comic-book-reading gays here. If it were The Legion of Super-Heroes or Wonder Woman or Supergirl that were being tampered with in a manner that met with someone’s disapproval, there are some people in gay comic-book-reading circles who would scream bloody murder, and others who would join the chorus. But evidently it’s okay to screw around with The Fantastic Four and I shouldn’t care what Marvel does with this book’s visual standards. The FF are not, after all, gay comic-book-fan icons.

But anyway, with variations on image from month to month as the story changes, obviously, what you see here at the top of the cover of Fantastic Four #509, drawn by Mike Wieringo, is what we should see at the top of any new issue of The FF. Observe that at the very top is the bold and very audacious caption, “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” It takes a lot of nerve for any comic book to call itself that. Stan Lee did it with The FF on the THIRD issue. Over time, during Stan’s collaboration with Jack Kirby, it proved a defensible claim. How well it has continued to deserve that caption over the years is open to debate, but for decades it has been part of the “magic” of this book. We also see a particular version of the original FF logo designed, I believe, by Sol Brodsky for the very first issue in August 1961. It is a somewhat more sophisticated, computer-enhanced version of the classic. I think it’s a truly gorgeous graphics job. This logo and that caption, in one form or another, have fronted some of the finest works of visual storytelling in this medium.

Why should The FF’s trade dress not be replaced? It’s been changed and redesigned before; for instance, during the Mark Waid/Mike Wieringo period, which I generally loved, there was a logo that I truly detested, that looked as if it should be on the label of a bottle of Fantastic Four Beer or rotating on the roof of a Planet Fantastic Four Restaurant. God, I hated that! (But Waid had the perfect approach to this book: Don't bother screwing with the way it looks, logo notwithstanding; let's just do some fresh and different stories!) Changing the trade dress was a mistake on those occasions when they did it in the past and it’s a mistake now. I’m going to coin a new term for my thinking on this matter. I’m going to call it a matter of visual and graphic identity. And I’m going to give a couple of other examples of what I mean, from outside of comics. I direct your attention to the covers of two magazines that everyone should know: Time and the National Geographic.

Month after month, year after year, decade after decade, there are two things in the publishing world that you can count on. The cover of Time magazine every week will have a red border around it (when they don’t use it, it’s for an exceptional reason), and the Time logo will be of a certain typeface and a certain design. Similarly, the National Geographic will have a cover with a gold border and a logo of a certain typeface and a certain design. You expect these things. You know these things. These things are part of the visual and graphic identity of those magazines. Now, imagine that you go to the newsstand (or your mailbox, if you subscribe) and waiting for you there is a Time magazine with no red border on the cover and a different logo. Or a National Geographic shorn of its gold cover border and sporting a non-traditional new logo. And further, imagine that you go inside and all the type is of a different font, laid out in a different way. The content hasn’t changed, but the way it is presented to your eyes has been radically altered. Maybe it’s still a good magazine. Maybe it’s still well-written and carries top-quality photographs and illustrations. But does it still feel like Time or the National Geographic? Or do the changes feel arbitrary, random, and gratuitous?

Some of my friends don’t get me not wanting to buy and support a Fantastic Four with different trade dress lacking its “World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” banner, and our heroes sporting “new, cool, 21st-Century” uniforms. There was nothing uncool about the version of the trade dress and the FF uniforms that you saw above on the cover of FF #509. There was nothing wrong with it. It wasn’t broken and didn’t need to be fixed. The only problem with them is that someone decided they didn’t appeal well enough to people who spend their lives Instant Messaging and Twittering. Someone thought it needed to be made over for the No-Attention-Span generation. What I don’t want to spend my money on is a Fantastic Four that has been stripped of its visual and graphic identity. I stopped buying it earlier this year and, from what I’ve seen of the changing of the guard next month (a preview was appended to The Mighty Avengers #27 the other week), I’m not coming back any time soon. Perhaps I’ll never come back. Certain of my friends don’t get that. I can’t explain it any better than I have.

(The Four’s outfit, by the way, really was never meant to be flashy in the way of a super-hero costume. Stan and Jack originally intended the FF to wear regular clothes. For their mission in the first issue they wore plain jumpsuits in the fashion of their DC Comics predecessors, the Challengers of the Unknown. But fans rightly and reasonably wanted their super-heroes to look super, so Stan and Jack compromised and created a uniform of spare, utilitarian design, the original version of which appears in Fantastic Four #3. It is this basic ensemble, a variation on the Challengers suits, which has had some modifications over the years, that has been the standard--and should still be in use, but...)

The Fantastic Four
is a classic creation, like Superman, like Captain America, like Spider-Man. (And of these, the second owes his revival to the FF and the third owes them his existence.) As I have asserted before, a classic is "something timeless and immune to style." It’s not just any comic book, but people insist on treating it as if it were, and as if you can do just anything with it. I find it a bit insulting to think that a comic book that has always been about science needs to be “brought into the 21st Century”. This was “a 21st-Century comic book” before there was a 21st Century. I want to read “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine”. They’re not giving me that book, so not a dime of my money goes in that direction. Sorry.


Now, for someone who did understand that The Fantastic Four is not just any comic book, I give you British-born Canadian artist and writer John Byrne.


Above you see the Fantastic Four battling the Fantastic Four, as depicted by Byrne. The images you’ll see for the remainder of this post are taken from the Byrne Robotics Website. One FF in the above image is the FF as they became during the wondrous period of the 1980s when Byrne was writing and drawing the book. The FF they’re battling are the Four as they appeared in their very first issue. This is a wonderfully clever drawing that someone commissioned, and hang on for the others that await you below!

These are some truly magnificent pieces of work by a man who understood the FF in a way that very few other people working in comics do. (Stan Lee himself, Mark Waid, possibly J. Michael Straczynski.) I only wish I had the time just to sit down with my markers and color all these puppies. This next one, which I’m presently using as the desktop image on Black Beauty, my MacBook, is one that I’m definitely going to have to color. In it we see Earth’s greatest heroes battling their nemesis, Earth’s greatest villain, Dr. Doom. The sight of it almost makes me want to weep. Check this out. This is the FF and Doom in their full and best glory.

And here are the FF and Dr. Doom again, this time in a tableau in which the deadly Doc has abducted the Thing’s erstwhile girlfriend, Alicia Masters. (Doom actually did grab Alicia in FF #17, but the story didn’t unfold quite like this.) It’s another stunner.

And here’s the man himself seated on his throne, the villain who gets fan mail from other bad guys. (“...and I loved how you used your Molecular Intensifier to bombard the Thing with dust particles grown to the size of boulders! Mind if I borrow that sometime to try out on Superman? Keep up the bad work! Love, Luthor.”)

This shot of our foursome battling their very first adversary, the melancholy Mole Man, was used as the cover of Modern Masters: John Byrne, a tribute book from Two Morrows Publications.

One of the most dramatic Marvel battles unfolded in Fantastic Four #25 and 26, in which the many-splendored Thing slugged it out with the ever-incredible Hulk in the streets of New York, and the Avengers, who were chasing the Hulk, pursued him from their own book into The FF! This clash of the monsters and historic first meeting of Marvel’s most important teams is portrayed in this amazing piece that shows us the cover of FF #26 from a different angle.

One of the greatest of all classic Marvel stories took up the back end of FF #48, all of #49, and the first half of #50, the equivalent of two issues, but is colloquially called “The Galactus Trilogy.” It’s a story we discussed when we talked about people mucking around with the work of Jack Kirby; the tale that introduced us to the planet-consuming Galactus and his angelic herald, the scintillating Silver Surfer. It is easily one of my top three favorite comic stories, and one that I go back to again and again for inspiration. It doesn’t get any more awesome or wondrous than this. Here’s Byrne’s rendition of the unforgettable first coming of Galactus. (See that nasty little cyborg battling the Thing in the foreground? That’s Galactus’s watchdog, the Punisher. The original Punisher!)

Directly after the intro of Galactus and the Surfer, Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, initiated an exploration of sub-space that led to the discovery of the dread antimatter universe, the Negative Zone. And waiting for our Fantastic Four in the Zone were two of their most nightmarish foes, the insectile, bat-winged Annihilus, “He Who Annihilates,” with his all-powerful Cosmic Control Rod; and the bestial Blastaar, the Living Bomb-Burst. These two creatures have always hated each other, but in this piece they’ve found common cause against our heroes.

Cosmic, science-fiction-type adversaries of world-shattering power are part of the FF’s stock in trade. They’re not simply crime fighters; they’re more what the comic-book writer Alan Moore called “science heroes”. This spectacular drawing has them facing Galactus, Blastaar, Annihilus, and Byrne’s own creation, Terrax the Tamer, with the Silver Surfer flying in like the cavalry. Spectacular!

At various times, members of the Fantastic Four have stepped down or left the team, and other characters have stepped up to replace them. Sue Richards, the Invisible Girl/Woman, appears here with Crystal of the Inhumans (the Human Torch’s first great love), who replaced Sue during her maternity leave with son Franklin; Medusa, Crystal’s sister, who filled out the Four while Reed and Sue were estranged; and She-Hulk, who was a long-term substitute for the Thing. It’s a great shot of the women of the FF.

Another of my favorite stories is one that I call “Galactus Trilogy II,” from FF #242-244 by Byrne himself. In it, the rebellious and evil Galactian Herald, Terrax, tries to blackmail the Fantastic Four into murdering his master! Before all is said and done, the Avengers and Dr. Strange have entered the battle (with Spider-Man and Daredevil as spectators!) and Frankie Raye, the sensational She-Torch--lover of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch--has made a decision that will break Johnny’s heart. The drama of that story is captured in this shot.

Now, remember when I told you that Byrne demonstrated one of the best understandings of what to do with the FF? This is a drawing that reminds me of how true that is. In FF #256, Byrne did something that should have been considered sacrilegious (I was a little put out by it myself at first) by changing the colors of the Fantastic Four uniform from blue and black to black (or Navy blue) and white! He didn’t actually change the design of the outfit, the way people have done lately; he just swapped the colors. The reason this worked is that it wasn’t a random, arbitrary change for the sake of difference alone, coming out of left field. It was a well thought-out, purposeful change growing organically out of the story. (The FF had been stuck in the Negative Zone and couldn’t get back the usual route through the Distortion Area that serves as a buffer between that universe and ours; they had to rig a way to make the jump directly. The “unstable molecules” of their costumes reacted to the jump by changing colors!) I grew to accept the FF uniforms in “Byrne colors” because, as I said, it wasn’t a left-field change; it was a story-driven change. My only problem was that most other artists wouldn’t go to the time and effort to make the new suits as dark or black as they were supposed to be, and over time, depending on who the artist was (or the animator, as in the dreadful first season on The FF on The Marvel Action Hour), the Byrne colors were often watered down into a medium-blue and white scheme, which totally lacked the “punch” of what Byrne did. It only goes to show that change can be good, but sometimes you just have to stick with the classic. Here’s a gorgeous shot of the FF in Byrne colors with the Fantasticar, Franklin, and one of the HERBIE robots. It evokes the same feeling as the cover of FF #3 and is another one that I should color.

(The uniform color-change was not the only “radical” thing John Byrne did with the FF. He also replaced the Thing with She-Hulk, had the original Baxter Building destroyed, and put Sue through some emotional crises that led her to change her call sign from the Invisible Girl to the Invisible Woman. But again, these were things that grew out of and worked naturally with the stories. I accepted all of these changes because they weren’t just foisted on us from left field and weren’t random and arbitrary. Is there actually a storytelling reason for the present and recent FF uniforms except that someone thought kids with no sense of history would find it “cool”?)

This story never actually took place, but you’ve got to love this shot of the guys and the Silver Surfer squaring off against Galactus and Terrax.


This drawing is a variation on a story that actually did happen and is another one of my favorites. In FF # 258-260, Byrne had Dr. Doom give Tyros the Terrible (who was Terrax until Galactus took back his powers and let him fall from the top of the World Trade Center!) a charge of artificial Power Cosmic and try to use him as a weapon against the Fantastic Four. Here, the Four have their hands full with both Doom and the fully powered Terrax!
For many years it was believed that the Avengers’ arch-foe, Kang the Conqueror, was some descendant or relative of Dr. Doom. One of Byrne’s FF sagas revealed that Kang in all his identities (FF villain Rama Tut, the Scarlet Centurion, Immortus) is actually a descendant of Mr. Fantastic himself! Kang is not a Von Doom; he’s a Richards! Had he been able to stay with The Fantastic Four long enough, Byrne might actually have given us an epic clash such as we see here, in which the First Family of Adventure must battle their very own “black sheep!” The Fantastic Four vs. Kang, with Reed confronting the “bad seed” of his own bloodline--just imagine...

And finally, a shot of Galactus and his Heralds. Clockwise from top left: Gabriel the Air Walker, the Silver Surfer, Firelord (who first appeared in The Mighty Thor), Terrax, and Nova (who was the flame-powered Frankie Raye until she pulled a “Silver Surfer” and became Galactus’s Herald to save Earth, much to the Torch’s sorrow).
All of the above are just such inspiring pieces. They remind me of what made me love comics. I would still get that feeling from The Fantastic Four if people would just remember that it isn’t just any comic book. It almost causes me physical pain to look at The FF in its present state. The whole thing reminds me of a line from another comic book. In The Avengers Vol. 3 #1, Moondragon says to the Sub-Mariner (who was revived in FF #4):

“Standards fall, Namor. It’s the way of the universe.”


NEXT POST: Back to Hollywood for more of my voyage with Star Trek!

16 comments:

  1. Great post, great art, though Byrne without terry Austin is never as good as Byrne with terry Austin...

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  2. I think the thing that made certain of us develop an abiding love for the FF and Jack's work in general is that we grew up when they did. Look at the cover of FF 29, you can't see us but we're there, there's a generation of us behind the FF as they take their faltering steps into an unknown future. It wasn't just them, it was all of us together. There are some of us from whom you cannot take away the FF; back in the day, we were there.

    BB

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  3. If the FF were like JB's pics again I would sign up in a flash. As they are now I'm afraid I feel the same as you. I usually put this down to being a grumpy middle-aged fool for whom comics are no longer published so it's nice to see someone have the same opinion :)

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  4. Thanks for the remarks; they are appreciated. I'm glad I'm not ENTIRELY a voice in the wilderness on this issue. Have you seen the earlier post on the work of Kirby to which I was referring? Go to http://the-quantum-blog.blogspot.com/2009/04/king-still-rules.html.

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  5. Goodness, this is huge and I'm on my lunch, so I'll post in bits. Firstly, Joe, Joe, you seem to be saying that us LSH, WW or Supergirl fans never moan when cosmetic changes are made. Come on! I whine constantly ;) I'd still like to see Kara in her Seventies puff-sleeve costume, with that gigantic-looking logo rather than a Superman-style masthead, but does it stop me giving the comics a try? Nah, and I'm glad it doesn't or I'd miss the currant sterling work by Sterling Gates, Jamal Igle and co.

    As for National Geographic, would it kill them to lose that sickly yellow border? Why would it be so wrong for Time to try tweaking its fonts - they could always go back to the old style if people hate it. Even Reader's Digest refreshes its look every now and then.

    I'm with you, I hated the Waid/Weiringo FF logo, but I'm not awfully stuck on the original. Yes, it looks like an old friend, but that's not to say I'm not happy to make new ones - I actually prefer the curved logo from the Seventies, it's more unified. The original is a bit random in the letter relationships to me. Mind, I like the similar effect of the original Avengers logo.

    I guess you're not talking to me now . . .

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  6. OK, finished it - some lovely artistic memories. I really don't get why you're not giving the new run a chance basaed on a tiny preview. Who's to say costume tweaks won't arise 'organically'. I don't enjoy Jonathan Hickman's Secret Warriors but his current FF mini is wonderful stuff . . . have you read it?

    As for the 'World's Greatest Comic Magazine' line, I never liked that, from being a little kid. It was too boastful, too bombastic, and I knew those Marvel people likely hadn't looked at non-US comics. Yes, that's awfully literal minded and stubborn of me to still feel the same after all these years - I guess that if you're the original costume, I'm the unstable, reversed version.

    I do, though, like to see it on the book - it's just so FF, Mr Fantastic and all that. But I don't care if it's not.

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  7. Of course I'm talking to you. My actual point was that gay Legion/WW/Supergirl fans DO "scream bloody murder" when those characters/books are tampered with. It's screwing with the FF people don't seem to mind.

    I've put up with a lot where the FF are concerned. They've made over the book and put it back, and made it over and put it back, time and again. After all these years of watching it, I just can't do it any more. There's a look and a style that says "Fantastic Four," and people just will not stick with it. Sorry, it's just tiresome and depressing.

    Still friends,

    Joe

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  8. And if they do come up with a reason for the uniform change now, it will be, as my late father would have put it, "closing the barn door after the horse has gotten out."

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  9. Oh yeah, sorry, got the point mangled there. But I did moan at length when the big 4 FF logo came in, and you must recall my disdain for the Godawful magaziney look brought in for Miller/Hitch. I dropped the book when the stories proved as bad.

    So, what sartorial look says 'Fludd'?

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  10. I believe the word you used for the Millar/Hitch makeover was "dire". Ha-ha...

    As for my fashion sense, broadly speaking, it could be summed up as "strong, solid colors emphasizing warm hues (warm colors look especially good on African-American people) played off of darker colors and blacks". Except lately the International Male Catalog is defunct, merged with Undergear, and the selection is vastly reduced! It's as bad as the 1980s when all men's fashion was co-opted by the TV series Miami Vice. Pastel colors and whites--*shudder*. What's a fashion-loving gay guy to do?

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  11. Just so long as you avoid Gap - why is that shop so popular: drab stuff, overpriced?

    And if you're looking for interesting new undies, try James Tudor.

    Er, I may be straying off the subject. Hang on . . . Ben Grimm would look great in James Tudor!

    Now, HAVE you read the Hinkman FF mini?

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  12. You mean that "Dark Reign" thing? I've given it the flip-through at the store. I do like Sean Chen's art. Too bad he didn't have the classic FF to work with.

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  13. Blogs are so informative where we get lots of information on any topic. Nice job keep it up!!
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    Graphic Design Dissertation

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  14. I'd think a so called professional artist,could Doctor Domms head proportions right-but then again John Byrne-whose ego is bigger than the Planet Ego might think being such a great Mister Fix genious doden't get things right-just in print

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  16. I briefly wrote for a college paper writing service, but I had to quit because I couldn't deal with the five-minute deadlines and the sourcing demands that required having access to, or being able to find, specific books or specific kinds of articles, then reading them and putting the research together in a paper under those five-minute deadlines. This was something that was supposed to pay me well and reduce my stress, and it wound up worsening my stress instead. If you can actually make a thing like this pay off for you, my congratulations, friend.

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