by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Ron Frenz, Joe Sinnott, Chris Sotomayor, John Morrow, John Buscema and John Romita Sr. Marvel Comics. $4.99.
Some folks have been waiting almost 38 years for this comic; Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure is comprised of the pages initially submitted by Jack Kirby to Marvel in 1970 for FF #102. According to Jack Kirby Collector publisher John Morrow, whose essay in Lost Adventure charts the history of this forgotten work, Stan Lee was dissatisfied with the quality of Kirby's #102 story (titled "The Menace of the Mega-Men!") and refused to dialogue or publish it. Lee put the rejected art in storage and ran the story intended for #103, "The Strength of the Sub-Mariner!", as #102 instead. FF #102 was the final issue by Kirby before he resigned from Marvel and went to DC.
After six months, Kirby's #102 art was published in radically altered form.
As Morrow writes: "The Bullpen eventually chopped Kirby's originals up, rearranged panels, had John Buscema add some filler art, changed the ending, sent the whole thing to Joe Sinnott to ink, and published it (not so coincidentally) the same month Kirby's New Gods #1 came out at DC Comics." Morrow's cryptic "not so coincidentally" phrase needs some explanation. As Morrow and others have argued in The Jack Kirby Collector (hereafter TJKC), Marvel dealt with Kirby's flight to DC by going into overdrive with Kirby reprints. By flooding the market with Marvel's Greatest Comics (FF reprints), Special Marvel Edition (Thor reprints) and Marvel Double Feature (Captain America Tales of Suspense reprints), Marvel forced Kirby to compete for spinner rack space with his own previous stories. It was not so coincidental that Marvel would poison the launch of DC's New Gods #1 by publishing "new" Kirby FF art in the same month.
Morrow again: "Comic art dealer Mitch Itkowitz came across many of the discarded pencils [for "The Menace of the Mega-Men!"] in the Marvel files a few years ago, and had them returned to Jack." Most of the pencils then appeared in TJKC, and both Morrow and Marvel thought it might be interesting to reassemble the original story, have it inked by Joe Sinnott, and then published as a final Lee-Kirby FF tale. Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure includes the original #103 tale with new dialogue by Lee and new inks by Sinnott; the essay by Morrow; copies of Kirby's original pencils before they were inked; and a reprint of the mashed-up #108 by Lee, Kirby and John Buscema.
Lost Adventure has been in production for a while--I read an announcement about the project TJKC #47, published in Fall 2006--and all along I've expected it to be terrible. Many fans, including me, adore the best Lee-Kirby FFs primarily because of the power of Kirby's visual imagination, but by issue #102, the quality of Kirby's art had plummeted precipitously from the wild Kirby machinery (called "Kirbytech" by hardcore fans) and craggy alien landscapes of the #44-66 run. By #102, Lee was underperforming too, a fact he flat-out admits in a footnote in the "new" story in Lost Adventure, where he confesses that "I guess Jack and I were just kind'a coasting at the time." So why the decline?
One reason was Marvel's 1968 decision to shrink the size of their original art. Throughout most of the 1960s at Marvel, the dimensions of Kirby's original pages were 12-and-a-half by 18-and-a-half inches, and they were shrunk down to almost half this size (7" X 10") when printed as a comic book. In 1967, however, both Marvel and DC switched to smaller original art (10" X 15") to save money in the engraving process. Smaller originals allowed the manufacturers of the printing plates to photograph four pages at once rather than two pages. My source for this information is Kirby scholar and confidant Mark Evanier, who discussed the effects of this original art shrinkage on Kirby in TJKC #37:
Since some books were ahead of schedule, not every comic went to the smaller size original art at the same time, but most Marvels changed within a month or two of the issues dated November, 1967. Jack's first work on the small size was the Captain America story in that month's Tales of Suspense (#95), and he didn't like it. He said, "The first time I finished a page, I picked it up and half the art was on my drawing table." You can see that everything on the pages in that story is bigger--bigger lettering, bigger heads and figures.
It took a while before he adjusted to drawing smaller people on his pages and he never got completely comfortable with it. The main change--for him and for many artists--was a tendency to do more full-page panels and to look at the composition of pages, more than at individual panels. (48)
There is a little debate in the pages of TJKC about when the original art shift occurs in the FF title, but I think FF #67 was drawn at the larger size and FF #68 is the first issue with smaller original art. Here are two panels to compare, the first from #67 and the second from #68 (and both actually from black-and-white Essentials reprints):
I picked panels from both comics that included intricate machinery, so we could compare how much detail is lost in the smaller originals. To my eyes, the #67 panel is full of lines with different widths. The Kirbytech diagram Reed scribbles on is composed of thin, lightweight lines, but Reed and Ben themselves--more in the foreground--have thick black outlines that make them pop out from the background. (Inker Joe Sinnott is terrific at indicating depth through line variation: the thinner the line, the further away an object is from the foreground of the panel.) In the #68 example, however, Kirby draws streamlined Kirbytech and line variation decreases; working in a smaller original art size, Kirby and Sinnott have been forced to simplify their art, losing the density of their earlier baroque style.
In addition to these original art shrinkages, 1967 brought an even more momentous change in Kirby's relationship to the FF title. I know there's nothing tackier than a writer quoting him- or herself, but in an article I wrote for The Comics Journal #258, I talked about a creative rift that opened between Lee and Kirby over the content of the stories published in FF #66 and #67. Let me quote myself (and the great Kirby researcher Mike Gartland) at length here:
In a fascinating piece published in issue #24 of the indispensable Jack Kirby Collector, Mike Gartland argues that Kirby's work on the two-part story "What Lurks Behind the Beehive?" and "When Opens the Cocoon" in Fantastic Four #66 and #67 was a major turning point--for the worse--in Kirby's career at Marvel. In the tale, the Thing's blind girlfriend, Alicia Masters, is whisked away from her apartment and brought to the Citadel of Science, a massive hidden laboratory run by four world-famous researchers. The scientists conduct forbidden experiments, and their most controversial work is the creation of a new life form, which is just beginning to emerge from a cocoon. The life form emanates energy preventing anyone from seeing it properly, but Alicia is a blind sculptress, and the scientists want her to touch the new being and then sculpt an accurate likeness. Alicia gets to briefly meet and speak with the cocooned life form, but the visit doesn't last long: three of the members of the Fantastic Four track her down and bring her back to New York. The story ends with the scientists finally having a face-to-face confrontation with their creations, who, now freed from his cocoon, turns out to be a golden-skinned Adonis. (In later Marvel comics, this being will be christened "Him" and Warlock.")
Based on evidence from the story and a talk with Mark Evanier, Gartland contends that the Citadel of Science two-parter was designed by Kirby as a critique of objectivism. Gartland writes:
"In Jack's original story, the scientists were well-intentioned, with no evil plans. They are attempting to create a being totally self-sufficient, intellectually self-reliant; not encumbered by superstition, fear or doubt; in short, a being based on [Ayn] Rand's absolutes. Of course such a being would be totally intolerant of those who created him; a truly Objectivist being would not cope with the flaws in others."
By this point in their collaboration, Lee and Kirby were distant. Lee would give Kirby a brief plot (if that), and Kirby would then flesh out the story, freely adding and embellishing characters and incidents. (As Lee writes in Origins of Marvel Comics, Kirby was the one who created the Silver Surfer and gave him the role of Galactus' herald.) So Kirby drew FF #66 as a critique of objectivism, and communicated his intentions through the extensive marginal comments he scribbled next to every panel of the penciled comic.
When Lee read the pages, however, he decided to alter Kirby's plot, turning the scientists into typical would-be-world conquerors and reducing the conflict between the Citadel and the cocoon to what Gartland calls the "Mad Scientist / Sympathetic Creature" plot. Gone was the commentary on objectivism, and Gartland speculates that Kirby was so pissed off by this tampering that afterwards he "wouldn't give [Marvel] anything new anymore, or at least anything that was to him substantial." Between November 1965 and November 1967, Kirby had churned out new characters and concepts for the FF as naturally as breathing, and his imagination was just as profligate in the other strips he was drawing for Marvel. Between FF #68 and #102 (September 1970, Kirby's final issue), however, only two new characters were introduced: Annihilus and babysitter-witch Agatha Harkness. Kirby's anger led him to intentionally shut off the spigot of his imagination and let the FF lapse into mediocrity. (100)
This is the moment when Kirby stopped caring, stopped creating new characters, and started planning his escape from Marvel. Kirby's frustrations were further compounded by his ever-increasing awareness that he wasn't getting a fair slice of Marvel's financial pie. As Evanier writes (in his column in TJKC #47), "Mr. Kirby was very unhappy at Marvel in the late sixties. Put simply, he felt that he was contributing more to the scripts than Stan lee was...but Stan was getting the writing fee and the credit. Jack also felt that the company's owner-publisher, Martin Goodman, had promised all sorts of bonuses and financial participation in the success of Marvel and was now pretending he hadn't" (20). Amazing but true: Kirby was never a salaried employee at Marvel and was never given a lucrative long-term contract. He was always treated like a dispensable freelancer, even though he was the central architect of the Marvel Universe. After all these indignities--the shrinking of his original art, Lee's meddling with his story ideas, his financial disenfranchisement--Kirby was finally ready to bolt for DC, and a month before he left Marvel he sent in the "Mega-Men" pages. Of course I didn't expect the work to be very good, and it isn't.
The major problem is that Lee was right on the money when he considered the Lost Adventure story substandard. The story, such as it is, opens with Reed, Sue, Crystal and Franklin, along with a family friend named Dr. Claymore, studying and talking about a bust of the head of Janus, defined by Reed as "the double-faced Roman god of beginnings and endings." (The Janus bust is two-faced, with one face smiling and the other enraged.) Lee's dialogue drops ominous portents: Reed calls the FF's battle with Janus one of the team's "deadliest adventures," while Sue makes mention of how close Janus came "to destroying the world!" Really? The rest of "The Menace of the Mega-Men" plays out like this, in flashback (and avoid reading further if you're worried about spoilers):
1.) Ben and Johnny clash with Janus as he robs a bank.
2.) Following a hunch, Reed and Sue visit an old classmate of Reed's, "Corwin Janus," who looks exactly like the villain Ben and Johnny battled. Sue turns invisible and sneaks a hidden camera into Corwin's house. At the end of the scene, as Reed and Sue fly away, it is revealed that Corwin has a twin brother, and the twin is the super-powered bank robber.
3.) Evil twin Janus discovers the surveillance camera and makes it explode, damaging some of the FF's equipment back at their headquarters.
4.) Evil twin Janus demolishes a city block, battles Ben and Johnny to a stalemate again, and demands by note that "the city has 24 hours to turn over the entire treasury to me--or perish!"
5.) Reed hides in the Janus household. As evil twin returns home, Reed steals from him the remote control device that provides him with his power. Good brother Janus, attempting to save his brother, almost shoots Reed; invisible Sue knocks the gun from his grip with a vase. The tale returns to the present in its final panel, where Reed indulges in a bit of armchair philosophizing:
If this is one of the FF 's "deadliest adventures," I can't imagine how they survived that kitten-up-a-tree caper, but you gotta love that scintillating Stan Lee hype, True Believer!
Compared to the multi-plot soap operatics of the mid-period run of The FF (For example, issues #57-60, with its braided, complex plots involving Dr. Doom, the Silver Surfer, and The Inhumans), "The Menace of the Mega-Men" is dull and simple. Again, though, this isn't a surprise, since most of the FF issues published in the last year of the Lee-Kirby run were an embarrassment. The four-parter (issues #90-93) about Ben enslaved as an intergalactic Skrull fighter takes its primary "inspiration" from those dopey episodes of Star Trek where Kirk and Spock visit alien planets inhabited by gangsters and Nazis, and the single-issue stories that finish off the Lee-Kirby run are ruined by rudimentary plots and lame villains (anyone remember The Monocle or the Monster from the Lost Lagoon?). Janus is just another example of this lousy crew.
One major symptom of Jack and Stan "just kind'a coasting at the time" is the disjunction between words and art in Lost Adventure. On page three, Janus flies his top-shaped aircraft straight through the front doors of a New York City bank:
Janus then charges into the bank's vault, discovering (in the final panel on page four) that the Thing is already there, putting some money in his safe deposit box. (Why Ben didn't run out of the vault to check on the bank employees wounded by flying debris is beyond me.) Predictably, Janus and Ben fight, and Janus, after switching his "control module to highest intensity," pummels the Thing into unconsciousness. Luckily, though, Johnny shows up at the end of page six to help his buddy out:
The first panel clearly shows Johnny running to Ben's rescue, but Lee's dialogue--identical to the dialogue in #108--indicates that Johnny was "supposed to meet his bestial friend" at the bank, and suddenly and unexpectedly blundered into the war zone inside the vault. Never mind that there's a space-age craft clogging up the entrance to the bank, there are gassed guards leading to the open vault, and Johnny can clearly see Ben sprawled on the floor, savagely beaten by Janus. Lee's words don't mesh with the pictures at all, and it says volumes about his investment in Lost Adventure that he didn't bother to do a rewrite of the original 1970 dialogue.
Most of Lost Adventure is little more than an historical curiosity, but there's one section of the comic that sings: the reproduction of Kirby's pencils for "The Menace of the Mega-Men!" After seeing hundreds of examples of Kirby's pencils in TJKC, I'm convinced that his pencil drawings were the real deal, and inking them (even when the inker was as talented as Joe Sinnott) diluted their power and impact. Even here, when Kirby's churning it out, in a rush to get to his DC gig, there's remarkable modulation in his pencil lines, as in the original opening splash page to "Mega-Men":
Note the range of textures in this drawing. The wrinkles and folds of Dr. Claymore's suit are grungy, complex lines--the pinstripe of the suit, the dark slashes across Claymore's legs, the shadows that fall on the left lapel and beneath the hem at the bottom of the suit coat--but softer surfaces, like Sue's flowing hair, curl gently and mix heavier lines with ones that Kirby barely drew on the page. Lost Adventure is full of the property destruction and sturm und drang of a Silver Age Marvel comic, but I was most moved by Kirby's wispy pencil lines, lines he knew would either be darkened or erased by Sinnott, but that he included anyway, just to be faithful to the flow of a woman's hair.
PS: All of us are, of course, Stan and Jack's children, or at least children of those issues of The Fantastic Four (or Thor or Avengers or Captain America or...) that convinced us that comics could aspire to art. Here's an exchange originally published in the letters page of Fantastic Four #19:
Dear Stan and Jack,
While the FF is undoubtedly one of the best comic magazines on the market, it has its failings. The worst part of that is that when you do a lemon it's a doozy! I'm speaking of issues #13 and #15. Both of these were really poor, especially when contrasted to your masterpieces (like #4, 6 and 9). Let me take #13. In the last panel of p. 12, we are informed that in the next issue the FF will meet "one of the most powerful super-villains of all." This turns out to be "The Red Ghost." Never in my wildest flights of fancy did I dream "red" would refer to the communists! Nor did I imagine that the tale would take place on the Moon. Both of these were disappointing. Also, the cover was horrible, cluttered up with all sorts of vital announcements. (Ha!) One more thing: I've never seen a worse artist combination than Kirby and Ditko. Both are great alone, but please, let's not team them up again. Between two lemons there was a peach--#14. Though the letters pages were pretty awful, the story was great. But may I say that your courage is to be admired. You're not afraid to try new ideas, and if a new idea DOES fail, you simply change it in a later ish. You can't lose. By the way, now that the Ant-Man (formerly your worst effort) has gained the Wasp for a partner, he's great. I also think highly of the Torch and Iron Man. But, undoubtedly aside from the FF your best hero is Thor. You broke the mold and came up with a truly unique hero. In the future I hope to see: Thor guest-star with the FF, Sub-Mariner turn hero, more F.F. adventures on earth, less of Dr. Doom. Finally, thanks again for a great magazine.
Steve would be a great letter writer if he wasn't so shy about giving opinions!