Friday 25 February 2011

Fantastic Four Annual #5. "I will not 'av Psycho-Men in my Jungle!"

Fantastic Four Annual #5, Psycho-Man, the Inhumans and the Black Panther
So it's 1975 and I'm on a coach headed for that Las Vegas of the north; Blackpool. Before the journey's over, I'll be reading Barry Smith's first ever Avengers story while Don Estelle and Windsor Davies "sing" Whispering Grass on the coach radio. It probably doesn't reflect well on me that such a song can be the highlight of a coach trip but I don't care. The phrase "Guilty Pleasure" is unknown to me, as I refuse to feel guilt.

But, before that moment arrives, I'm reading this week's Mighty World of Marvel and, within it, the Fantastic Four's first encounter with a deadly new peril known only as Psycho-Man.

Psycho-Man is good. Psycho-Man can control the emotions of mere humans and thus have total power over them. Psycho-Man's smaller than the smallest germ and can only be seen because he's inside a human-sized robot he controls with the power of his will.

But there's something wrong. While Psycho-Man's head has a teeny tiny man inside it, inside my head there's a tiny voice that says this story isn't as good as I'm used to from the Fantastic Four. I don't know why - I'm only eleven, I have few critical resources - but it feels like a 100 watt bulb's been suddenly replaced with a 40 watt bulb.

A zillion years later, I read the tale again, as an adult, in Essential Fantastic Four Vol 4  and it has exactly the same effect. To my adult self, it's like virtually every Fantastic Four tale printed in the three years preceding this tale was a classic and virtually everything in the three years following it was no better than mediocre. The feeling's so stark I can practically point to the exact panel in this story when the Fantastic Four's Silver Age golden age ended.

At the risk of being daring, I'll say it's either panel three of page four, or panel one of page nine. The first instance is where a trio of totally unnecessary lackeys are introduced for Psycho-Man to boss around - including one who's dressed as a cowboy(!). In the latter, it's where the story suddenly goes off at a tangent to introduce the Black Panther's first ever encounter with the Inhumans. In both cases, you're left in no doubt that Jack Kirby's now being left entirely to his own devices by Stan Lee when it comes to plotting the strip, and we find the tale being driven along by what seems to be a random flinging together of ideas and action, rather than coherence and planning.

A large part of the problem is that, although it's advertised as a Fantastic Four tale, they're barely in it. This is the issue where we learn that Sue Richards is pregnant. As a result, she and Mr Fantastic are in no mood to go adventuring. Instead, with two of the FF out of commission, we suddenly get the story veering off to Wakanda as the Black Panther and the Inhumans have a fight before teaming up to take on Psycho-Man who, by total coincidence has set up base under an island off the coast of that kingdom (even though we were told three pages earlier that his base is in the Caribbean). Kirby's lack of interest in characterisation's thrust in our faces in this segment as the Panther and the Inhumans team up, despite neither party making any attempt to introduce themself to the other.

Once inside the villain's lair, the heroes are confronted by Psycho-Man's irrelevant lackeys and defeat them. Now, from nowhere, the Human Torch, the Thing and Triton suddenly arrive without explanation, and our veritable army of heroes find themselves confronted by Psycho-Man's creations drawn from their worst nightmares.

With that fight going nowhere, Gorgon shows up from wherever it is he's been and, handily, it turns out his foot-stamping power's the only thing that's effective against Psycho-Man's handiwork, before the Panther, who's been forgot about, launches himself at the villain to stop him. Suddenly, and without warning, from being arguably the greatest American comic book of the 1960s, the strip's lurched into a valley of mediocrity and redundancy it'll rarely escape until after Jack Kirby leaves. So, for some of us, the tale of Psycho-Man represents a minor watershed in comic book history.

Still, not everything was negative about that coach trip. I loved and still love the Barry Smith Avengers yarn and, to my eternal surprise, I still love Don Estelle and Windsor Davies' version of Whispering Grass. The Fantastic Four may have changed on that fatal day but it seems some things will always remain the same.


Simon B said...

I've always thought that story was verging on the incomprehensible. Glad it wasn't just me. However, I can forgive Kirby a lot for the great artwork, even at this late stage in his FF career.

I had a couple of great holidays in Blackpool in the '80s, one of the highlights being finding a market stall that sold loads of Silver Age Marvels - back when they were still affordable :-)

Steve said...

I couldn't comment on the 1980s but in the 1970s Blackpool felt like a mecca for American comic books. It seemed like every shop and indoor market you went in was knee-deep in them.

Lazarus Lupin said...

It's a shame the story was set on "puree" the Psycho Man had potential for great villainy. I love the idea of an itty bitty man in a human robot. For one thing if you catch him how do you know he hasn't sliped out some pore sized back door?

Lazarus Lupin
art and review

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve - I remember reading that in MWOM and finding it incomprehensible to the point where I was sure that it had been printed in the wrong order! The plot just jumps. Many years later, I read the original and it didn’t seem so bad, but by that time my MWOM’s were vacuum-sealed in the attic. Clearly, you have FF Annual 5 there, do you have the MWOM anywhere to hand? I would love to know, after all these years, if it was mis-printed.

Steve said...

Sadly I don't have either the annual or MWOM. My version of the tale's in Essential Fantastic Four Vol 4, so I couldn't say if MWOM reprinted the pages in the wrong order. I remember commenting elsewhere that they reprinted the Captain Marvel story in Titans #1 in the wrong order, so Marvel UK certainly had form when it came to such things.

Yatz said...

Reading my essentials, nowadays, it's hard to get over how corny Lee's writing was. But, say what you will - the man knew how to tell a story, and, teamed-up with the mighty King Kirby, one of the greatest graphic story-tellers in history, this was awesomeness that very much holds to this day (specifically the run bookended by the introduction of the Inhumans and this story). One of my greatest regrets is that Kirby never got a partner who could help channel his Fourth World creative explosion into a coherent story.

Dougie said...

I'm pretty sure a couple of the latter pages in the first half of the MWOM reprint WERE in the wrong order. However, I haven't looked at it in years.

My earliest FF memories are of Kirby's last year and a half. I know he's breaking virtually no new ground (apart from the Prisoner homage, maybe) but they're so beautiful!