Sunday, 8 March 2015

COMICS SUCK! - Fantastic Four #36 (March 1965)

50 YEARS AGO - March 1965
Cover artwork by Jack Kirby
FANTASTIC FOUR #36 (Marvel Comics)
"The Frightful Four"
By Stan Lee (w,e); Jack Kirby (p); Chic Stone (i) & Artie Simek (l)
The crisp bold line at the top of the cover reads "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!" and for four or five years, it was true.

This issue marks the beginning of the greatest sequence of issues in superhero comics history. The standard of excellence established by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby on this peak era has never been matched. This is the issue where the Fantastic Four first meets Medusa the Inhuman, as a member of the team's newest, truest rivals, the Frightful Four. As plots and subplots develop, Medusa leads to the discovery of the Inhumans, which leads into Silver Surfer and the Galactus saga, which leads to Wakanda and the Black Panther, all three of which, it's worth pointing out have been or are being developed for the silver screen. The reign of excellence continued for another 50 issues after that, but this particular period is the one everybody remembers. This is where it started really cooking.

Medusa's First Appearance.
Jack Kirby transcends the medium of comics. Even non-comic book fans have come across his creations if not his artwork, there's just no getting around it. All comic fans know what Kirby hands are, what a Kirby crackle looks like and what Kirby-esque feels like. He's the greatest storyteller in superhero comics, this run on Fantastic Four is his finest hour and this issue begins his absolute pinnacle. Though he'd been Fantastic Four artist since issue #1, it took him about two years to truly find his voice on the book. There's no shame in it, it was a new series with a new approach to characters at what was essentially an all-new publisher (of superhero comics). It wasn't until around about this issue or just a couple issues before it that The Thing really starts to look like The Thing the way we remember him today. He'd gone through several "drafts" of doughy, craggy and angular before Kirby finally settled on the distinctive look he still carries to this day. Kirby's trademark Manhattan backgrounds started to look like Kirby backgrounds, detailed with clean lines (see bottom left corner of cover image above). It seemed that after three years of playing wait-and-see, it was safe to consider Fantastic Four a success and therefore, something to invest the full power of his talent into.

The Frightful Four.
In this story we meet the Frightful Four, a motley crew of chagrined and defeated villains from F.F. member Human Torch's solo adventures in Strange Tales magazine, opportunistic crooks and a mysterious new female baddie on the scene. Attention to detail in the continuity between issues is something that Marvel fans have always loved about the publisher, they were the first to take it seriously. One of the joys of reading Marvel comics was watching characters develop over the course of years and eventually, generations. When I was very, very young there was a comic called Marvel Saga which retold the whole history of Marvel Comics from the 1960's, issue by issue, including this one. So it took me years, decades even to trust Medusa as the heroine she has become. She was just so thoroughly evil in her early appearances. I guess first impressions really are important. I mean, she ran with a group called the Frightful Four, they knew who and what they were, they were the bad guys and proud of it. Strangely, Frightful Four member Sandman would go through a similar switch in allegiance, albeit much later.

After the Frightful Four crash the Fantastic Four's headquarters, the Baxter Building, a battle royal ensues. The action is intense, the wide-angle staging is classic Kirby and the bad guys nearly win. In the grand early Marvel style, only an incredible effort saves Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny from certain death, when they turn the tables the bad guys, they escape cleanly to return but two issues later and three issues after that for what would be the team's greatest story yet up to that point. The Thing, feeling depressed about his appearance quits the team and ends up a member of the Frightful Four. The fact that his conversion continues for more than one issue is a perfect example of what made Marvel great in those early years, readers truly didn't know what to expect, but the seeds had been planted for them expect any changes to be long term.

After being blown away by Stan and Jack the hipper of British audiences didn't walk, but ran to pick up the debut album of a band that were to the Rolling Stones, what the Rolling Stones were to the Beatles in terms of raunchiness:

If you have the world's most impressive memory or something close to it, you'll notice that both albums from 1965 featured in Comics Suck! so far (the first was The Zombies 'Begin Here') have kicked off with a cover of the Bo Diddley classic "Roadrunner". The difference is The Zombies album landed on shelves then sunk like a stone in their home territory while The Pretties debut placed a tidy #6 on the album chart.

Pretty Things on tour in New Zealand 1965 [Source]
I have an idea of why that may be. By the end of 1964 The Rolling Stones had established themselves as a dominant force in British music. Blues guitar standout Eric Clapton and his band The Yardbirds were making a name for themselves with a "heavier", rawer style of pop music, their seminal "For Your Love" was also released this month (more on that on a future edition). The world of British pop music was beginning to cycle in a gravitationally challenged direction. The Zombies, as high quality as their album was, represented old news. Those early Beatles, Gerry & The Pacemakers and Dave Clark Five sounds were so last year's scene.

For one shining, brilliant moment the rough and ready Pretty Things were on the cutting edge.

But they would never enjoy the same level of chart success in their careers again. Unlike most of their early peers however, they're still going. It was only two years ago that they appeared at the massive Roadburn Festival. Listen to the album above and re-discover why buzz remains so high for this band 50 years on.

But after devouring the Fantastic Four and Pretty Things it was time for some real gone retinal input, it was time for Die, Die My Darling.

I know the title from the Metallica song, which was a cover of a Misfits song, which was taken from this movie. Actually, the film was originally titled Fanatic in the UK, but given the campier title for the U.S. audience. The film was part of Hammer Films seeming monopoly on British horror of the time (Amicus was only just emerging and Tigon was years away from appearing on the scene). It was directed by Silvio Narizzano and starred Tallulah Bankhead in an unforgettable performance as the fantical Mrs. Trefoile buffeted and abetted by the equally wonderful performance of Stefanie Powers as Patricia Carroll. It also co-stars a young Donald Sutherland (that's two 1965 films in a row co-starring Sutherland, including the Amicus Productions's Dr. Terror's House of Horrors from last month) as the simple-minded Joseph.

In it, Patricia visits the mother of her now deceased former boyfriend (Steven Trefoile) against her current fiancee's wishes. Upon arrival she finds Mrs. Trefoile to be a critical, dogmatic tyrant. Mrs. Trefoile does her best to "correct" Ms. Carroll's behavior because she considers her to be Steven's wife and can't stand the thought of his memory being tainted. When Patricia has finally had enough and decides to leave, Mrs. Trefoile produces a gun and locks her in the attic.

It's an excellent film that captured the zeitgeist of the times swiftly a-changing and inter-generational tension, although it can be a tad preachy in its own right. You can watch it in all its over-zealous glory below:

Die Die My Darling aka Fanatic 1965 full movie by ursula-strauss


  1. Nice post on all genres - as you say, Kirby took a time to claim the FF as his but my god - the stories to come! For me it became perfect when he started to get inked by Joe Sinnot.

    1. Thanks Tony.

      Yeah, same deal with the Kirby - Vince Colletta team on the Thor strip. Each inker brought the right mood out of The King to suit the book.

      Personally, I always wanted to see more Kirby with George Roussos inks. That was the team on Avengers #4 and that issue has one of the most distinctive looks of the early Marvel years.

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