Monday, July 4, 2011

Giant-Size July: Fantastic Four Annual #11

Happy 235th Birthday, America!

Fantastic Four Annual #11 (June 1976)
"And Then the Invaders!"
Roy Thomas-John Buscema/Sam Grainger

Doug: It seems only fitting that on the day the United States celebrates her independence we'd bring you a review of a story not only from our nation's bicentennial, but rife with American patriotism during the Second World War. Capitalizing on the success of The Invaders, scribe Roy Thomas brought together his two favorite Marvel teams and weaved a tale befitting the Annual format. This is a long but never drawn-out story -- a real gem from my 10th summer!

Karen: I'm going to say right up front: I really enjoyed this story! Nine super-heroes, Nazis, time travel - what's not to like?

Doug: We open in the Baxter Building with our heroes under attack. A page-turn later we understand why -- they are being put through their paces by technology provided by Professor Charles Xavier; in effect, the FF has opened up their own Danger Room! After much duress, Bashful Benjy's had enough -- his cries to Reed that's it enough already aren't met with the answer he'd like, so in a tantrum befitting his size and strength, the Thing pounds his way to freedom through the floor. Reed tries to get him to stop, as the drill has only 26 seconds remaining, but Ben's having none of it.
Once the dust settles, both Sue and Reed chastise Ben for his outburst, and harp on the financial situation of the team. Ben's response is to get on Doc Doom's time machine and seek wealth in the past, just before the California Gold Rush of 1849! Ben likens that mission to their first time travel expedition when they nearly had Blackbeard's pirate treasure. I'd comment that Roy Thomas, through all of his footnotes, has really woven a true jumping-on story. A new reader would feel very comfortable with this magazine in hand, as Thomas links this story to recent and "ancient" FF history, as well as describing each team member's powers and showing us his/her personality. I was just really struck by how accessible the first several pages of this story are.

Karen: Agreed. A nice little action sequence right up front to draw you in, with plenty of dialogue that really fleshes out each character.
Doug: On the way to the chamber where the time machine is stored, Ben and the others are shocked to find Nazi troops in the room! Of course a brouhaha breaks out and the overmatched soldiers are quickly subdued. Reed begins to speculate how they came forward through the time stream. Johnny wonders why there's such a hurry to return them and Reed explains how delicate the time stream is, and that the men must be returned to exactly the precise instant they left. Trouble is, he doesn't have that time stamp. Suddenly, Reed's also aware that a cylinder of Wakandan vibranium is missing from a table beside the time platform. Speculating that in the melee with Luke Cage just days earlier (or in reality, in the events chronicled in FF #'s 169-170 [April-May 1976]), the cylinder may have been dislodged and fallen onto the platform, thus activating it. But what's even more worrisome is that the vibranium must have materialized in Nazi hands.
Karen: This is a very talky book, even by Roy Thomas standards! But I loved it, then and now. It felt like a real science fiction story, what with time travel and alternate realities.

Doug: As Reed investigates further, he does find some information on a modification he'd made to Doom's original machine -- a time stamp of his own, but which will require further study. However, puzzling right from the get-go is the year: 1946! And as that weirdness sets in, the King of Weirdness arrives -- the Watcher! Seriously, that guy gives me the creeps. I cannot imagine what it must have been like in the "real" four-color world to encounter this big dude! The Watcher says nothing, but his mere presence clues the FF in pretty quickly that they're onto something big. Reed heads to another lab and rigs up a viewer set to the time on the time travel platform. The team is able to view images from 1946 -- images of Cleveland, New York, London, and Moscow -- all under the Nazi flag! These soldiers have come from a timeline where the Axis won WWII!

Karen: I love the old continuity. This story takes place after the trial of the Watcher from over in Captain Marvel, so Uatu is prohibited from actively helping or even speaking to the FF. But his presence here does indeed denote a serious situation.

Doug: Naturally, the FF hop on the time platform and Reed sets it for 1942 -- early enough that the team can stop the Nazis from getting the vibranium. And wouldn't you know it? Rather than re-materialize in the forests of Europe somewhere, the FF emerge right smack in the middle of an Allied intelligence meeting -- with the Invaders! You know Roy just did it that way because every superhero team-up must first start with the obligatory misunderstanding. Ben gets loud, Namor gets mad, all the Torches light up, and it's just game on! Reed tries to get things slowed down, and Cap overhears some of the chatter from our guys. Eventually the mess is put down and everyone agrees to play nice. Once listening, our stars are informed by the representative of the Free French that their mission will be to invade Castle Cherbelle and take down Baron Zemo!

Karen: Even Roy makes light of the contrived nature of the situation as he has Reed think, "I should have known it would be like this! If there's one thing I've learned in dealing with a bunch of super-heroes, it's that they can usually be reasoned with, but first you have to get their attention!" He follows this up by spraying the Torches with water. The Invaders seem to accept the FF's story a bit too easily, but on the other hand we didn't need more pages of the two teams fighting.
Doug: Namor supplies an Atlantean cruiser for transportation and the nine heroes land quietly in a forest outside the castle. It's really no sweat for them to get inside, and once there they break into three teams: Reed, Sue, and Namor (yeah, how dumb is Reed? And Roy does a nice job of playing up old storylines here), Cap, Bucky, and Johnny, and Ben and the Torches. Each team has it's share of stumbling blocks, but nothing they can't handle. Of course it's Cap who encounters Baron Zemo, and very similarly to Avengers #56, when our same creative team brought us the last moment's of Bucky's life, we see Cap strike the vat of Adhesive X and forever disfigure Zemo.
As long as I've mentioned the creative team of Thomas and Big John Buscema, we may as well comment on the effectiveness of inker Sam Grainger. I'm surprised as we've gone through all of our comics reviews at how often Grainger's work pops up. As I've said in the past, I rather enjoyed him working over Sal Buscema on the Avengers in the late 1960's; lately it seems we've remarked that he's serviceable in the 1970's, but a favorite of neither of us? I'd go so far as to say he's pretty inconsistent in this story -- overall the art is nice, but the character faces seem to oscillate between fully-Buscema to Buscema-under-the-influence. What sayest thou?

Karen: I thought Grainger was acceptable, but this was far from his best work. Honestly, I miss Sinnott here.
Karen: I also thought it was pretty funny to see Namor already hitting on Sue, and Reed having him with them on their team -dumb! But the scenes of Namor cutting loose in the castle were some of the most exciting in the book. I think Big John must have enjoyed drawing him.
Doug: Once fully-infiltrated, the Castle can't hide it's true purpose: as housing for the enhanced V-2 rockets, now fully-equipped with guidance systems containing vibranium. The Torches manage to destroy all of the rockets but one, which is launched! The Thing manages to hang on and ends up with the ride of his life. Ben claws his way to the control panel and is able to manipulate some of the wiring, turning the missile around and steering it back toward the castle. While his teammates watch from afar, the rocket explodes, destroying Castle Cherbelle.

Karen: I couldn't help but flashback to "Dr. Strangelove" and Slim Pickens' Major Kong riding the nuclear bomb. That was a pretty spectacular explosion of that castle.

Doug: We then see Ben awaken back at the Baxter Building with his friends. Reed fills him in, they see the Invaders on a viewer, mysteriously waving at the FF in a big "thank you". Reed explains that their adventure had taken place in a divergent timestream, and so their presence in the War was not a problem. And this strikes me as odd, and here I go off again into the discussion of real time and Marvel time. Roy Thomas is insistent throughout this story that it is indeed 1976 (any doubters, shame on you -- the splash page reference to Chico and the Man should have been enough proof). While in Europe during WWII, Reed comments to Ben that they enlisted just shortly after 1942. So let's say they were 20 when they enlisted in 1944 or so. They would have been born in 1924, which by 1976 would have made them 52? Uh uh. Unless those cosmic rays de-aged everyone...

Karen: The divergent time stream is very convenient for explaining why neither the modern Cap nor Namor remember meeting the FF back in WWII!
But it's a legitimate idea, in the vast grey area that is time travel. But yes, it is hard to reconcile the idea that Reed and Ben, in 1942, were old enough to enlist. Even if they snuck in and lied about their ages -say they were 16 - they'd still be 50! Already, just 14 years into the Marvel Age, we begin to see the 'real time' aspect of it unravel. Of course, now the only war they might have been involved in was the first Gulf War -even that, being 20 years ago, is probably too far back for them!
Doug: The end of the story sets up our next review, which will be Marvel Two-In-One Annual #1: The Thing and the Liberty Legion! It seems that Reed was only able to come up with half of the cylinder of vibranium, and assumed that the other half was destroyed with the cache of rockets was destroyed. Ben doesn't buy it, and when the Watcher appears again... well, trouble must still be afoot. See you in a week!

File this under "Say what? Why, we had no idea!" Guess what? Every issue in this series we're running, plus the first appearance of the Liberty Legion, is available in a Marvel Premiere Hardcover edition that ships this Wednesday. You can read more about it and even order it here. How about that?


dbutler16 said...

This looks like a fun story. Even though time travel stories are fun and open up a lot of possibilities, part of me is always bothered by them and the paradoxes they present. Anyway, I think Roy would have been better of not having Reed & Ben serve in WWII. Even if this took place in 1961, that would make them in their mid-30s when the FF was formed, and I'd always gotten the impression they were in their mid-20s or thereabouts. It reminds me of Lucas trying too hard to shoehorn in every character from the original trilogy into the prequel trilogy.

david_b said...

I got this one last year while in Kuwait.. I ALWAYS loved John Buscema on FF, but as with his tenure with Stern on Avengers, his drawings could have used some better inking to smooth things out as like ol' Joe Sinnott provided, but all in all it was a welcome treat to see his mastery of character faces.

Story-wise, it definitely was an easy-to-read comic to bring new readers in, and I haven't picked up the second part in MTIO yet, but should someday soon.

The Watcher aspect was done really, really well. I don't know all of his appearances in the Bronze, but his appearances took a really subtle, watchful approach (no pun intended..).

An excellent issue all around!

Inkstained Wretch said...

I read this one in Essential Marvel Two-in-One and yeah, it is fun, though that image of Ben's human head on the Thing's body is a bit of a shock. Apparently at the time in FF he was "cured" and wearing special Thing armor. Obviously, that didn't last ...

Regarding the Ben and Reed's military careers, as late as Marvel Two-in-One #77 in 1981 Ben was still (!) officially a WWII vet. Obviously, the advantage of having orange, rocky skin is that you don't wrinkle or have gray hair ...

Britt Reid said...

From FF #1 on it was stated that Reed and Ben served in World War II (Ben as Marine air ace "The Grimm Reaper" in the Pacific, and Reed in the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) in Europe, where he ran into Sgt Fury and the Howlers.
Since Reed was greying at the temples, it seemed reasonable until the 1990s.

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