Thanks, Craig, for a thorough accounting of the circumstances behind The Lost Adventure. You've gift-wrapped it in context. What''s more, I have to say (with a sort of bereaved sigh) that I share your critical take: The Lost Adventure is more a revealing artifact than a story worth the telling. What it represents, to me, is Marvel's growing willingness to stick crowbars into its carefully-tended official history and pry up interesting if not embarrassing bits from its past.
It's not a good comic. Nonetheless, Kirby devotees will likely want it as an object of study, a testimony of sorts.
Testimony to what? Well, Marvel has at last officially acknowledged something already established in the fan press and clearly demonstrated, Craig, in your post, namely, the disconnected nature of the collaboration between Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. I say this because The Lost Adventure is, before anything else, a telltale artifact of the Marvel method or Marvel "style" of comics production: plot and pencils first, scripting second. Actually, it could serve as Exhibit A for how Lee diverged from and adapted Kirby's plots, sometimes in ways drastically at odds with Kirby's original envisionment. I look at the book and all I see are seams.
What we get here is, in effect, an extended postmortem on a long-ago process. The reason it's so revealing is that the 64-page Lost Adventure is a generous package, giving us not only a (speculative) adaptation of Kirby's original breakdowns and a reprinting of what Lee, John Buscema, et al. eventually did with those breakdowns (FF #108) but also (and this is the great gift here, as Craig says) a nearly-full facsimile of Kirby's pencils and notes, annotated by John Morrow. What all this adds up to is a multi-stratal fossil record, the implications of which won't be shockingly new to readers of Morrow's Jack Kirby Collector: depending on your loyalties, it either dilutes Lee's claims to creative credit OR (as Sean Kleefeld argues) confirms Lee's sound instincts as an editor and storyteller. I'm with the former, myself.
It's, er, interesting to see this kind of analysis coming out under Marvel's own banner (times have changed, yes?). Indeed the most interesting thing about The Lost Adventure is the sustained behind-the-scenes look it gives us into Kirby & Lee's fragmented, assembly-line process. As Craig points out, there's nothing revelatory about the story, or rather stories, themselves.
There is, though, one perhaps-telling difference between them: In Kirby's original plot, it appears that the villain Janus is in fact two men, twin brothers, one well-meaning but weak and the other evil and manipulative. FF #108, on the other hand, is a Jekyll-and-Hyde riff, depicting Janus as one man whose alter ego, or shadow-self, is brought to life by scientific tampering with the energies of "the Negative Zone." As befits the name Janus, both versions are about doubling, but Kirby's more nearly anticipates the plot of Kirby and Steve Sherman's Kobra, with its Corsican Brothers premise: good brother and bad brother, symbiotically linked. Kirby is interested in the "good" brother's failure to stop the bad. The FF #108 version, on the other hand, revisits the familiar theme of scientific hubris, hearkening back to Frankenstein and of course to Dr. Doom (Lee's script in either version says that Janus was a college classmate of Reed's, like Doom). FF #108 also echoes the familiar idea of technology giving independent life to a man's dark side, or id, a popular theme in post-Jekyll SF (cue for example Forbidden Planet or Star Trek's "The Enemy Within"). In either case, though, the potential of the doubling theme is not explored very much, and the air of excitement that Kirby and Lee try to whip up around the story seems undeserved. This is not a "classic" among classic FF tales.
In short, what Kirby gave Lee originally was probably a poor-to-middling Fantastic Four story, typical of the kind of tepid, unadventurous work that he was submitting just before his departure for DC and the Fourth World. The tail end of Kirby's run, as Craig says, is no treasure trove; it pales alongside what Kirby would do at DC in 1970-71. What we get in The Lost Adventure is more of that.
Of course it's gratifying to see fresh Sinnott inks over Kirby once again; Joe Sinnott is still under-acknowledged, I believe, for his role in setting Marvel's house look (or house "Kirby" look) circa 1970. And, visually, there are a few tasty moments, such as the Thing's absurd nonchalance during his battle with Janus, the Torch burning his way through the door of a bank vault, and a particularly rabid closeup of Janus in full-on ranting mode:
These elements can be found in nearly identical form, though, in the old FF #108. And the continuity in the newly reconstructed version is nearly as patchy as in #108; the framing of the story still doesn't make sense. As Craig shows, the text/image relations are strained, bewildering. What's more, the reconstruction job in The Lost Adventure isn't perfect: a handful of fill-in panels (patches, as it were) are too obviously by penciler Ron Frenz, and new digital lettering (by Artmonkeys) is frequently combined in the same panel with lettering from #108 (by Sam Rosen), which makes for a poor match. This obvious fiddling is distracting, story-wise, and only made me want to flip back and forth so as to compare the two inked versions to each other and to Kirby's pencils.
Some will think of the version in #108 as an improvement, since it stitches the "Janus" story into FF continuity (the Negative Zone, Annihilus, all that), and indeed Janus, though never a major player, has shown up in FF since then. Me, I'm more interested in Kirby's brotherly morality play. But it's not well-delivered. Simply put, The Lost Adventure is no long-lost Orson Welles director's cut. Rather it's another case of reaching, wishing, for the impossible, that proverbial Lennon/McCartney reunion that ain't ever happening.
On the same day that I bought The Lost Adventure, I bought Fantastic Four #554, the first issue of a planned yearlong Mark Millar/Bryan Hitch run on the book. I haven't bought a regular issue of FF in a good while (since #500, I think), but recently a wave of, what?, nostalgia or curiosity has come over me, so I've sampled Unstable Molecules, The End, and First Family (I've even got The Last Fantastic Four Story and Isla de la Muerte). The fact that I haven't gotten farther than a single issue with any of these is probably a sign of how difficult I am to please as an FF reader. I will say, though, that the Millar/Hitch launch is more promising that I had expected, and that it's a much more readable comic than The Lost Adventure. Thankfully, Millar does not write Reed Richards as a dithering chickenshit or cold-hearted creep (I'm thinking here of Civil War), but rather as a scientific adventurer. Sure, he still a geek (of course), but he's also fearless and principled. Also, though the team dynamics are predictably strained, they aren't ugly; they're simply familial. And Ben Grimm, far from being self-pitying, is here the FF's moral reference point, its beacon of warmth and humanity. In short, the characterization distills the attractive qualities of the FF at their most typical (though, happily, Sue Richards promises to have more to do). Not bad for Millar, whose previous stuff, what I've read of it (parts of The Authority, The Ultimates, and Civil War), stands out in my mind mainly for its obviousness, brutality, and overt debts to Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis.
As for Hitch's artwork, it's masterful in a hyper-realistic SF-illustrative mode. It's also beholden to blockbuster movies. I'm impressed by it, though not sure I like it. Hitch's photorealism is, for my money, off-putting in a property like the FF; he seems to have trouble embracing the graphical freedom afforded by characters like Mr. Fantastic and the Thing. Dig the studied quality of the cover, which seems to go out of its way not to be dynamic:
Is Mr. Fantastic's hand supposed to be huge, or just close? Ugh.
What I miss in Hitch's hyper-realism is a sense of the comics page as something you can play with, graphically. This kind of play is not necessarily inconsistent with a hyper-realistic style; for instance, both Frank Quitely and JH Williams III balance photorealism with an understanding of the page as (in Paul Pope's memorable phrase) a design container, and this, for me, enlivens and offsets their realism. While the mature Kirby, post-Simon & Kirby, seldom played with page design this way, his work, even when lukewarm as in The Lost Adventure, has a graphic liveliness that comes from his violent linework, ugly/beautiful cartoon shorthand, and, as Craig's Kirbytech example from FF #67 shows, kinetic, eye-teasing abstractions. Kirby's designs represent a way of dreaming-by-drawing: drawing as invention, discovery, inspiration, inscription, graphiation. Kirby-derived comics that are rendered in tight-laced photorealism (for example, Steve Epting's Captain America) seem to miss the point.
To be fair, Hitch's characters' body english, gestures and expressions are all very clear, and the world they inhabit seems like a "real," habitable space. Settings like the Baxter Building are rendered particular, interesting, and credible. Obviously, there's a huge repertory of visual learning going into Hitch's work, and he seems eager to ground the fantasy in palpable things. It looks like he's busting his hump to pack visual information into almost every panel and page. Perhaps for this reason, he's got a thing for full-bleed panels and canted angles of vision. These are, I think, bids for intensity and deep focus: to get more perspective and more complexity into the images, views are tipped and "borders" are pushed right to the edge. The (as Groensteen might say) hyperframe of the page is continually broken, or, if you prefer, highlighted; Hitch's widescreen images are constantly running right to the margins, creating an intensive, immersive effect (and, disconcertingly, banging up against other images and ad pages). The pages appear to me to have been assembled digitally, from separate hand-drawn images, though this is perhaps just because the panels lack borderlines; in any case, gutters are wide and each super-detailed image is given plenty of elbow room. Paul Mounts' coloring lends solidity to the borderless panels. Side by side with The Lost Adventure, Hitch's layouts are radically different:
Clearly, Hitch is working toward Kirbyesque gigantism by way of photorealism. The old Kirbys are there as an inspiration, a can-you-top-this benchmark, but the whole artistic idiom of superhero comics has changed so much that Kirby's rough-hewn cartooning almost automatically says nostalgia. FF #554 is the better comic, but, beside it, The Lost Adventure points back (as if another reminder were needed) to something that has been, well, lost.
It's strange that something so manifestly unlike Kirby & Lee should have been inspired by Kirby & Lee. Maybe, as the old saw goes, you can't go home again. But I suppose you can carry home around with you, in your head, and use it
to inspire you to find new things. I’ll follow Millar & Hitch et al. long enough
to see if they do that.