Friday, May 15, 2015

Run Reader: Fantastic Four: The World's Greatest Comic Magazine (2001)

With this alliterative splash page we return to the Marvel Universe
circa 1970 care of Erik Larsen, Eric Stephenson, Bruce Timm,
Kieth Giffen, Al Gordon, Jorge Lucas and Joe Sinnott 
With the conclusion of James Robinson's "The End is Fourever" storyline in May's Fantastic Four (issue #15 of Volume 5 or #645 in the continuous numbering), for the first time in a long time, Marvel is not publishing a comic book with the phrase "Fantastic Four" in it. As a long time fan (my first issue was Volume 1, #202 with the second part of the "There's One Iron Man Too Many!",  written by Marv Wolfman and with pencils by John Buscema when I was ten years old), it is the very real end of an era. Though with little more finality than any of the many previous "End of the FF" arcs, this one feels a tad more permanent (though nothing is fourever forever in comic books, right, Bucky Barnes and Gwen Stacey?) as far as "official" comic book endings go.

FF: WGCM #4 cover by
Bruce Timm. 
Like many fans, I will, however, continue to have copies of the FF on my reading table thanks to multiple longboxes of back issues, including many of the mini-series and one-shots that have been published in the past 40+ years. One such series that I recently completed purchasing the entire run of was the 12-issue miniseries from 2001, Fantastic Four: The World's Greatest Comic Magazine. Published during one my my hiatuses from collecting, it was only in the last week that I was able to purchase the final three issues of the series, and reread the whole run in it's entirety.

Interestingly, despite being published in 2001,  Fantastic Four: The World's Greatest Comic Magazine fits canonically between issues #100 (July, 1970) and #101 (August, 1970) of the original Fantastic Four, Volume 1.

Because legendary penciler Jack Kirby's run was unceremoniously halted after issue #102, modern superstar comic book artist Erik Larsen enlisted others to produce what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby might have put together had there run continued for 12 more issues.  While this can be seen as Larsen's formal tribute to the original World's Greatest Comic Magazine, one can rightly argue that his work as creator, writer and artist of the Savage Dragon series stands as its own homage to the Kirby aesthetic. In essence, the miniseries is one possible answer to the question of "What if Stan Lee and Jack Kirby concluded their historic run on FF with one last wild adventure?"

From FF:WGCM #5, written
by Kurt Busiek with art by
Gordon Purcell and Bruce Timm.
With Larsen's FF miniseries, the original title's iconic banner line takes center stage. As if to emphasize the prominence of the characters' and title within the Marvel Universe, the series' traditional "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine" moves from the area above the title, into the title proper.  Great effort is taken to suggest the comic books of the time with attention to details such as titling of each issue and use of time appropriate costumes for certain characters such as The Falcon's green and gold tights.

Each issue's story title also reflects Stan Lee's own penchant for alliterative names: for example issue #1 "The Baxter Building Besieged!", Issue #4's "The Merciless Menace Of MODOK!", and issue #9s "Nightmare In The Negative Zone!" I've written previously about the impact my childhood fandom had on early vocabulary development feel, especially the professorial dialogue written for Mr. Fantastic. It was wonderful to see nods to this in the editorial captions provided throughout such as in the lower right hand corner of the panel to the right declaring a "Special Note to lovers of Onomatopoeia."

It's not an FF saga without
an appearance from the Big G.
The conceit of the series is that it's firmly planted in the Fantastic Four timeline of the Lee-Kirby years, but that does not dissuade from the using certain popularized characters, most notably the X-Men and the Sentinels, in a way different than if published in the early Seventies. The inclusion of such characters is made to seem common, though in the true historical context, such drop-ins by popular characters would probably have been promoted on comic book covers as "Special Guest Appearances!" This is not a complaint, but an observation, as the fun manner in which all are used make their inclusion seem "event" worthy. Never fear, True Believers, as those characters once strongly associated with the FF, such as Galactus, the Sub-Mariner and the Black Panther, also join in the proceedings. It is also unusual that the conflict is developed through the use of the Cosmic Cube, an artifact never as connected to the FF as Captain America.

While this trip back to the 1970's Marvel Universe is co-plotted by Larsen and Eric Stephenson, the list of scripters reads like a who's who of late-Nineties stars including Chuck Dixon, Jeph Loeb, Tom DeFalco, Kurt Busiek, and Bruce Timm. Even Fantastic Four co-creator Stan "The Man" Lee receives a story credit for the final issue of the series (Issue 12, "Victor Von Doom: Emperor of Earth"). The art is suitably bright, vibrant with clean lines and a clear effort being made by the many pencillers (including Keith Giffen, Erik Larsen, Ron Frenz, and Rick Veitch) to recapture that Kirby Krackle magic.

Fantastic Four: The World's Greatest Comic Magazine was originally envisioned as a kick-off to the 2001 40th anniversary of Marvel's First Family, but it also serves as an entertaining and worthy re-read suitable for the one-time flagship title's recent cancellation.

Emperor Doom versus Fin Fang Foom in issue #12 is almost worth the price of
admission alone!

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