Monday, July 30, 2012

Giant-Size July: Fantastic Four Annual 19

Fantastic Four Annual #19 (1985)
"Summons From the Stars"
John Byrne- Byrne/Joe Sinnott

Karen: Last week we reviewed Avengers Annual 14, which sort of runs parallel to this annual and then meets up at the end with this issue. It's an interesting idea, although I'm not sure it's really successful, and I'll explain why towards the end of the review.

Doug: As a pledge to our readers, I'm playing this straight and not reading ahead to those comments, Karen. But know that I think we're going to share some misgivings. We'll see in a few minutes.

Karen: Our story opens with what looks like a space capsule blazing into the atmosphere from space. Byrne gives us six wordless panels, showing the spacecraft crashing into the ocean, a robot or space-suited being rising up out of the depths, and climbing onto a dock in Manhattan. The being approaches a hobo and frightens him. Next it wanders into the street and a car comes speeding towards it, only to slam into some sort of force field. A woman, who is dressed in what I assume is Byrne's idea of an 80s new wave-look, gets out of the car and runs and grabs a pay phone (remember those?) and calls the police.

Doug: I thought it was interesting how Byrne at first mislead us on the size of the humanoid creature. When he rises from the water there's a low camera angle, which gives us the sense that, "Uh oh -- this thing is as big as Terminus!" But by the time he's climbing out of the drink and then approaching the bum we see that he's just a little guy! And you know, actually Byrne didn't waste many words on the first five pages of the story! But good art can do that for a scripter. As to our Valley girl -- I didn't know anyone who dressed like that, unless she was on MTV. And since you brought it up, the best pay phone scene was in Superman the Movie (or was it Superman II?) when Clark runs to the street, only to find one of the pylon-mounted phones. Awesome.

Karen: The cops arrive on the scene loaded for bear. When they aim guns at the being, it fires energy from its head and the pavement is torn back, rolling up and knocking the cops over. Suddenly a ten foot tall green robot-like creature appears, seemingly to aid the alien. A policeman fires on it and all of a sudden we have three robots. (Funny, I realized our other FF Annual review this summer featured another multiplying character, Madrox.) One of the officers figures out the shooting is causing the replication. It all seems familiar to him, from when he was a rookie. He runs off to place a call, "An' it sure ain't to Ghostbusters!" Boy, we're really having a lot of unintended links in our posts lately!

Doug: In hindsight, the multiplying forms didn't make any sense to me, once this is all explained (wait for it, wait for it). I also thought the Ghostbusters comment was funny -- I think we ran an Open Forum ages ago where we asked our readers how they feel about comics being "dated" by then-pop culture statements. Shoot -- chime in here today if you have a feeling to express! I have a comment on the art in this sequence specifically, and that is the return of Joltin' Joe Sinnott's inks to Byrne's pencils. What an incredible performance! I don't think it's as noticeable later on throughout the story (although, as Karen will probably mention -- there are pages near the end of the story that are reruns from Avengers Annual #14; these look different because Sinnott inked them here, whereas Kyle Baker had inked them in the Avengers part of this story). There's just some real depth to the art; it's not that lean, scratchy style that Byrne had been employing in the regular FF mag at this point in time.

Karen: I was confused about that big robot -we never really deal with it again! We cut to a scene of Johnny Storm and Alicia Masters out to dinner. Or was she a Skrull? Ugh. I have to say, I absolutely hate the idea that Johnny and Alicia would be involved. It's just so ill-conceived. And speaking of ill-conceived, so is Johnny's haircut. I know, it was the eighties, but even then that looked dumb. Their meal is interrupted by a waiter, who points out the famous Fantastic Four '4' flare high in the sky. Johnny realizes it was probably fired from Avengers Mansion, where the FF has been staying since the Baxter Building was destroyed. As he flames on and flies into the night sky, he runs into Reed, Sue, and She-Hulk on one of Reed's flying gizmos. Reed tells Johnny about the police officer's call, and he has a hunch about who they might be facing. The FF lands at the standoff and Reed approaches the diminutive alien. The creature projects an image of Reed from an earlier time and then pulls off its helmet, revealing...the Infant Terrible? Yes, one of the dorkiest aliens ever, and certainly one of the more obscure FF foes. Johnny explains a bit to She-Hulk (and us) that IT is just an alien kid, albeit one with immense powers. Sue, with her even-more horrific mullet haircut, worries about IT, and wonders how they'll find out what happened, as his race has no spoken language.

Doug: You nail many of my same feelings about Byrne's handling of the FF in this era. A) When Ben returned, he should have killed Johnny. He just should have. Now I'm saying that a little tongue-in-cheek, but c'mon... Plot device? How about a little sense of reality. Is Johnny really that big of a snake that he'd do that to Ben? And what are we to make of Alicia? OK, maybe she got tired of Ben always holding back due to his feelings of inadequacy, but I also could just never take that whole storyline. To be honest, when Alicia was revealed to have been a Skrull, I thought -- "Take that, Johnny!!" B) Haircuts = awful. I think this aspect of Byrne's tenure is a misfire, as a tour through the comics of the previous ~50 years shows a marked consistency in hairstyles, with conservatism being the rule. Seriously -- should Superman have gone for a Beatles 'cut in and around 1964? I don't think so. So why is it that all of a sudden Johnny (who really should have been around 25 in these years) shows up like he's been hanging out with Danny Terrio and the Solid Gold dancers?

Karen: The relationship made both characters look horrible. And I don't care if such things happen in real life -it shouldn't happen in the FF!

Doug: What did you think of Byrne using She-Hulk as a cypher for us, the readers? I'd commented last week that I thought Roger Stern did a nice job of using the characters to tell us what was happening, background, etc. But in this issue I felt uneasy about it -- too much. It made me feel that She-Hulk was not very valuable, as she was missing so much backstory on some fundamental issues, like the Skrulls for example.

Karen: I suppose it can be a useful tool to relay the story, but to some extent it does make the reader-stand-in character look like a bit of a stooge. But I would say that She-Hulk has very little to do in this story in any case. IT starts projecting more mental images to show the FF what happened to him. We see his trippy homeworld, where everyone seems to travel in giant bubbles. A great spacefleet of Skrulls shows up, claiming they wish to establish trade with the planet. The Elan (IT's people) don't know how nasty the Skrulls are, and they use their great powers to create objects for them out of thin air. The Skrulls begin demanding weapons though, and the Elan, being peaceful, are incapable of even conceiving such things. This ticks off the Skrulls, and they bombard the planet. IT's parents send him off in a spaceship to Earth (shades of Superman).

Doug: Maybe Byrne was lobbying for the "Man of Steel" job! I applaud the art effort in this scene as well, as there is a tremendous amount of detail! I know we've complained about backgrounds (or lack thereof) in the past, but Byrne/Sinnott really pull out some stops in this section. And again (I keep getting ahead of myself), do you think this "flashback" ends up as really having been a true story?

Karen: I think the twist makes the whole first part of the book feel like a waste, rather than something clever. Reed goes into a long-winded speech to explain how, with their homeworld destroyed by Galactus, the Skrull Empire rapidly devolved into civil war, with every planetary governor trying to grab power. I'm actually thankful to see that Reed's hair looks exactly the same as it did in 1961. Of course the FF wants to help IT and his people, but how can they get to his world? All their ships were destroyed with the Baxter Building. Luckily, IT's ship can carry them, and they're off to Elan.

Doug: Reed's a blowhard, isn't he? Hey, royal blue FF suits, or this navy blue (Byrne insists they are black) version?

Karen: Royal blue for the win! So what about some of those Skrull despots? We get a look at one of them, a hugely overweight female. She's furious with her adviser, as she expected the FF to arrive and allow her the chance to be the Skrull who destroyed the Fantastic Four. Just as she's about to clobber the poor guy an alarm goes off, signaling the arrival of IT's ship. She yells at her subjects, and some assume the forms of the Elan. The trap is set. The FF and IT land and get out of the ship, with Sue telling the fake-Elan that they come in peace. But Reed, standing behind her, looks upset. Suddenly he begins shouting, urging the disguised Skrulls to attack. They blast him with a ray gun and as he passes out (or dies?), he reverts into a Skrull! What the heck? The remaining FF don't seem surprised, and they charge into battle. The Skrulls shift back into their normal forms, "just like Reed guessed!" The FF are doing well against the humanoid Skrulls, but then they come face to face with Skrulls in monstrous forms. As the battle rages, IT, completely encased in his little purple spacesuit, takes off and finds the Skrull leader. When she sees him she commands him to report. The suit pops open and we see -Reed. It turns out that little IT was actually a Skrull. Reed figured it out. He wraps the Skrull-lady up and she tells him that by failing to kill him, the universe itself is in jeopardy. What?

Doug: Another art comment -- Byrne is so adept at drawing the mouth such that his faces really seem to be uttering certain sounds. His art is quite individualized in this manner. And hey -- if Reed had been on the Minnow, they wouldn't have been on that uncharted island more than a couple of hours. At this point in the story, I was beginning to wonder if the plot was too large for the 35-or so pages that were allotted to tell it!

Karen: We get another long piece of exposition by Reed as the FF travels in a larger spacecraft. He figured out, based on IT's spaceships trajectory, that it had not come from the Elan. It was simple then to figure out that IT was in fact a Skrull. Reed then hypnotized the Skrull into taking Reed's form and you know the rest. I don't know why exactly, but this sort of annoys me. Anyway, the FF have the Skrulls on-board the ship with them, as they head for a colossal satellite power station. You might remember this from last week's review. As they fly towards the station they are blasted by energy beams, but Sue's force field protects them. They enter the station through an airlock and discover a battered Skrull. Near death, he tells them that the hyper-wave bomb will soon be detonated. Reed starts to question him, when they hear sounds of battle coming beyond a wall. She-Hulk tears open the wall and discovers the Avengers!

Doug: It takes me awhile to get my directional bearings when in a new city, but Reed can tell where a spacecraft originated. What a guy! There was one line of dialogue in the scene where the FF venture through the airlock between ships, and I want to throw this out to everyone to see what is known about Johnny's powers: Reed says, "Now, quickly everyone. Without Johnny constantly replenishing it, the flame cage holding our prisoners won't last more than an hour." What exactly would be the energy source? My gas grill may burn after I shut it off, but that's because there's grease somewhere that is burning off. How would Johnny's flame still burn if he wasn't there to be that source?

Karen: I wondered about that as well, but with all the other head-shaking stuff going on, I had to let it go! Now back in our story, the next seven pages are all identical to pages from that Avengers annual! Only the last page of this issue is different. So I'm not going to describe in detail what happened, as you just read it a week ago! Suffice to say, the bomb went off and imprisoned all Skrulls in whatever shape they were currently in. At the end -on the page of new material - the FF fly home, with more exposition from Reed explaining how every Skrull everywhere got hit by the bomb. Really? That's some range on that sucker. He says their genetic code was altered so that they can never change shape again. And that's it.

Doug: I really felt this story failed at the moment Byrne merged the two stories. As I said above, this seemed like too big a fish to fry in the pages allotted.


Karen: You can probably tell I was not a big fan of this issue. It just didn't do much for me, and the ending, which repeated a book I'd already read, seemed like a rip-off. Why couldn't we get the story told from the perspective of the FF in their annual, and from the Avengers in theirs? This just seems lazy. Now I'll admit some of my problem with the book is having to look at those awful hairstyles on the Storm kids. But even beyond that, this was a convoluted storyline that seemed to rely far too much on speeches and not enough on action.

Doug: Last week we'd parted ways to some extent, with me serving as an apologist for Stern's/Byrne's Avengers story. You won't get that from me here. Let me state first that I'm glad I read the Avengers half first. Karen and I had an offline conversation before we ran the Avengers post as to which annual should be read first -- we wanted to get it right. I think we did, as I'll hypothesize that if one had come to this FF Annual first the whole thing would have been senseless. The story builds out of the Avengers' battles with Nebula, and the entire movement to the power-asteroid is part of that plot. As Karen's used the word "convoluted", I'll agree with that. I'll also say that what I felt was a strong aspect of this story, Byrne's use of pictures instead of words at the beginning, devolves into endless exposition. That for me is a sure sign of a too-small page count. Lastly, I'll offer that there is a novelty to this idea -- had it worked seamlessly it would have been nice. But instead, and this was one of Karen's (and others among you in the comments last week) complaints earlier, it just smacks of requiring the consumer to buy into the crossover as a gimmick. And that's a nasty brand of capitalism.


david_b said...

Great review, some excellent points brought up. Yes, when I bought these back in the day, I thought it was a pretty innovative idea, scratchin' my head wondering why Marvel hadn't tried this before.. But the FF sister-annual had some issues, which I wasn't able to really describe until I read your comments..

A general feeling of 'anti-climax' permeates here. Once you get to the mirrored second-half with the Avengers, you do feel a sense that you were cheated out of what was building as a meaty FF Annual. With the reappearance of the IT, it was a nice harkening back to the old days alright, but somehow, I guess 'convoluted' is one good way to describe it, but the build-up never really 'grabs you' as the Avengers side did, perhaps due to the Avengers story arc building the scenario in their regular title. The Avengers Annual still works as a stand-alone story (with minimal explanation required..), but the FF one by comparison falls flat. Somehow the Sinnott inks didn't quite serve the facial closeups well, and both hairstyles of the Storm siblings were GAWD-AWFUL (even for that period..). I agree with folks that luckily Reed didn't end up with some punk mohawk or something...

Yeah, agreed on She-Hulk. I was growing to like her in the regular FF title (much more than her Avengers appearances..) but by this outing, the critism of her lack-of-depth at Byrne's hand really was apparent, making you really yearn for a Ben Grimm "How Revoltin'" remark or something to add some kind of spark. She added nothing as a team member; unfortunately, this was the brief time I started recollecting the FF in the '80s.

It was just a very flat, stale, shallow tale compared with the Avengers side. It's one of those 'For Completists Only' type purchases.

I do agree the cover art, if held side-by-side is nifty (especially the bolder FF colors.., and ok, Jennifer's backside) ~ Shame the stories don't nearly hold up as well.

Doug said...

There's another gripe that I forgot to make when Karen and I were tossing this one back and forth before publication, and it's a complaint we've made around here many times in the past. In the scenes at the end of the book, when the FF is winging their way back toward Earth, Johnny is in full flame-on mode while just standing there listening to Reed explain the facts of life. Uh, don't you think that might burn up the ship's oxygen supply a bit quicker? Just dumb.


Dougie said...

I had absolutely no recollection of this part of the cross-over, despite having read IT's first appearance as a reprint in Marvel Collectors Items Classics 18 in '69. Now I think I know why!

It's quite interesting to note the Lee/Kirby characters Byrne didn't revisit: Red Ghost, Molecule Man, The Wizard, Sandman and The Mad Thinker. I wonder why?

No love for Shulkie? I always liked her best in the FF.

Fred W. Hill said...

I never read this ish, but the review does bring up some points of interest about Byrne's run on the FF. Mostly it's regarded as the best FF run since Kirby departed in 1970 and in many aspects it is, certainly in large part due to Byrne's artistry. On the other hand, Byrne made many cockamamie story choices that left me scratching my head. I'd already abandoned ship before Johnny & Alicia became an item but that's by far the oddest choice Byrne made. It seemed he was just entirely disregarding every bit of characterization that came before his tenure in their regard (and I didn't buy that Frankie Raye would just up and go along with becoming Galactus' herald either, nor could I buy that Reed would save Galactus, knowing that Galactur routinely gobbles up inhabited worlds. I love Byrne's art, but when he's left to his own devices as a writer, he can be terrible as often as great (or somewhere inbetween).

Peter Enfantino said...

I just have to say that sheer amount of words on this site floors me! You guys (and gals) are doing an astonishing, amazing, uncanny, mighty, and incredible job of bringing back a slice of time I wish had never left.
Thanks much!

david_b said...

Just a side-comment for the ladies in our midst..

Besides Sue's mullet, how about those huge yellow eyebrows..?

Definitely hard to look at.., glad she didn't go 'unibrow' on us.

J.A. Morris said...

I generally loved Byrne's run on the FF, but this story never did much for me either. By 1985, it seemed like Byrne was getting bored with these characters, just like Kirby & Lee eventually did. But bringing back IT was a nice touch.

I didn't care for the Johnny/Alicia coupling (today they'd be "Jalicia") or the "80s" haircuts either.

Karen said...

Hey Peter, thanks for your kind remarks, especially regarding the size of our reviews. We take a lot of pride in trying to give our readers more than just some pictures or links. It's good to know it's appreciated!


drivingovercanaan said...

Always thought Byrne as FF writer never understood the characters. He wrote them all as, at best, one-dimensional cutouts. He did seem to "get" the Thing, but the rest were total losses. I got off that boat quickly and ceased reading the title before the abominable Johnny-Alicia hookup. Some GREAT short stories in 234, 237 & 239...outside of them I can't see why Byrne's tenure is highly regarded, much less considered second only to Lee & Kirby's. His SHE-HULK and NAMOR just a few years later are FAR superior.

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