This month’s column will run from Thanksgiving through Christmas, and since many of you will be spending time with family and friends, I thought I’d do something fun this month. Let’s take a look at Fantastic Four Annual # 6, the book featuring the birth of Franklin Richards. My thanks to the owner of the original art in this book, Tod Seisser, for posting several pages from that story at comicartfans.com, and thanks to Tod for recently taking the time to scan a few more images from the book so that I can show them to you here. The Kirby scans at Tod's comicartfans page were cleaned up using photoshop so the margin notes have mostly been digitally removed; the image above is from the original artwork without retouching so you can make out Jack’s directions for Stan Lee. Unfortunately in a lot of the late-60s art most of the notes were chopped off during production, so all we have are partial-notes like these. I could have titled this column “Let There Be Life,” but I chose “And the Danger’s Even Larger…” because that is what it says in the fragment of Jack’s directions underneath the final panel of the story.
Let’s go back in time a few decades. In the summer of 1967 the Vietnam War was raging across television screens across America. While middle class families sat in their comfortable living rooms and watched the turmoil unfold on the battlefields of Southeast Asia, across the ocean far from home over 58,000 American soldiers would end up losing their lives. On the other side, according to RJ Rummel in his book America in Vietnam, there were over a million North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong military deaths; estimates for the number of North Vietnamese civilian deaths resulting from US bombing range from 50,000-65,000.
Back in the United States things were a bit different. On the one hand you had “the long hot summer” where over 150 race riots broke out around the country, and tensions were high over the Vietnam War resulting in nationwide protests, but hundreds of thousands of Americans were celebrating – they were enjoying “the summer of love.” In June of ’67 The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album that would become the soundtrack for that year: the cover captured the colorful potential of the psychedelic era and the music was full of optimism and experimentation. Here’s an outtake from the famous photo session for the cover. In this era of Photoshop, don't they all look like digital cut-outs?
This iconic image featuring a crowd of famous personalities behind The Beatles is visually similar to what Jack Kirby had done in his Fantastic Four run, creating a parade of characters marching past -- you could do a parody of this cover featuring the four members of the FF in front of the hundreds of creations Jack had introduced in the book between 1961 and 1967. John Byrne did a piece in 1984 that captured that spirit.
In July of 1967, the Beatles released the single “All you Need is Love,” a song that must have provided a stark contrast to the war footage, war protests, and race riots flickering across the screen every night on the Nightly News. Despite the hell being unleased around the world and at home as a result of American imperialism, for millions of Americans 1967 was a high point in American history -- most of the World War Two vets had gotten married, many had a good job, a nice home in the suburbs, and their children were grown up and beginning to spread their wings. The baby boomers would have been about 15 - 20 years old in 1967, so a new generation of young people was coming of age -- it was a chaotic time for the country and the world, but many middle class families in the US were living the American dream.
In January of 1968, the Tet Offensive began in Vietnam. The My Lai Massacre took place in March. On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot dead. James Earl Ray would be arrested for his assasination in June. Race riots and Vietnam protests continued to explode all over the country. On August 8th, The Republican National Convention nominated Richard Nixon for U.S. President and Spiro Agnew for Vice President. On September 23, The Tet Offensive finally ended in South Vietnam. This period in American history had been anything but a summer of love. It was into this paradoxical mixture of political and social chaos that Marvel released Fantastic Four Annual # 6 in September of 1968 (cover-dated Nov 1968).
Obviously the book didn’t have as much cultural impact as the hippies or of the civil rights movement, but it was a shining example of American comics-making at a time where traditional superhero comics were beginning to lose their relevance. In many ways the comics of the 1960s were still frozen in the 1950s, limited by the comics code, mainstream comics were becoming predictable, boring, and repetitive. That’s one of the reasons Jack Kirby was successful -- within the structure of the traditional superhero genre, starting in the early 1960s Jack’s innovative designs, unique drawing style, and unpredictable, roller coaster style of storytelling attracted millions of new readers to the Marvel Comics line. Jack may have stolen a half a million readers or more away from the DC brand. Throughout the 60s Jack continued to experiment and his illustrations and stories continued to evolve, keeping readers along for the ride even though many of them were starting their own families and moving away from the escapism of 4-color newsprint comic books.
There’s much argument in comics circles as to what the first graphic novel was. I’ve half-jokingly argued it was the Egyptian Book of the Dead (1500 BCE), the original Egyptian name for the document was The Book of Coming Forth by Day. Here is one part of the papyrus scroll, the weighing of the heart ceremony.
You can read this Wikipedia article here to see some of the graphic novel debate, but I’d also argue Jack’s 100 issue marathon on Fantastic Four could be considered the first superhero graphic novel if looked upon as a single work. Surely Disney-Marvel could publish the whole Kirby run in one thick volume if they thought they could make a few bucks, although a 2000 + page book would be quite unwieldy. You could also argue Fantastic Four Annual # 6 was one of the first early graphic novels. Weighing in at 48 pages with no pin-ups or short stories, it is an impressive self-contained piece of work. How Jack was able to crank that whole story out in between his other monthly assignments is beyond me. He must have been working at least 60 hour weeks, if not 80.
I wasn’t able to read the original book when it was published, but when I was a kid growing up in the late-70s and early-80s, I did find a reprint at a local yard sale. Giant-Size Fantastic Four # 6 (Oct 1975), Kirbyesque cover by Ron Wilson and Joe Sinnott. Why didn't Marvel simply didn't re-use the old cover; maybe they hoped they could trick readers who already had the issue into buying it again?
It was refreshing to find a re-publication where I saw the whole story. The Marvel’s Greatest Comics reprints on the newsstand at my local 7-11 were always missing at least one page, and you would have a credit box plastered on the front page of the story with the name of a “reprint editor” whose job was apparently to cut content out of Jack’s stories to make room for more advertisements – a great “editor” gig if you can get it. How many thousands of people have made billions of dollars merely repackaging Jack's stories. The reprint of FF Annual # 6 was complete so as a kid who couldn’t afford an original printing it was a thrill to see a whole 1960s Marvel story for a change.
The entire Fantastic Four epic had begun in 1961: four challengers of the unknown rocketed into outer space and crashed back to Earth, transformed into heroes determined to serve mankind. In the 80 issues leading up to FF Annual # 6, the FF family grew up along the way. Reed and Ben would quarrel early on, but they always remained close friends, the adversity strengthened their bond. Ben and Johnny would fistfight, but it was all for play, like two kittens scrapping. At first Reed and Sue’s relationship was a bit rocky: Sub Mariner could have conceivably stolen Sue’s heart. But Reed and Sue were destined for one another so eventually they were engaged, and when they got married the whole Marvel pantheon showed up for the festivities in Fantastic Four Annual # 3 (1965). And what was the inevitable result of a marriage in the late 1960s? A baby of course. So in Fantastic Four Annual # 5 (1967) Sue announced she was pregnant. You can see some of the artwork from the book here.
A lot of fiction storylines tend to “jump the shark” when either an actress or a character gets pregnant because the writers have to handle the situation with care. For example, right before giving birth, Sue Storm usually only gets one page of screen time per issue, and she’s mostly in bed. Here are single pages from Fantastic Four # 77 (Aug 1968), and Fantastic Four # 78 (Sep 1968).
One minor criticism I've had of Jack over the years is that he does have his female characters hold their hands up to their faces a lot, visually suggesting they are under stress, or uncertain, or worried. You can see in the first page above, Crystal is doing that in 2 of the 5 panels; in the second page above, 3 out of 5. I think that was just a visual shorthand technique Jack used to show emotion, but you could argue that this does make the female characters seem more afraid, more apprehensive than their male counterparts. Not to say Jack didn't have great female characters, he did, but I do think this visual motif is something that would have been better suited to 50s romance comics full of overwrought melodrama.
Having one of your main characters pregnant has always provided action story authors with obstacles, but Jack handles Sue’s pregnancy with grace. Here’s an image from a a full-page splash of Reed and Sue from Fantastic Four # 79 (Oct 1968). Incredibly non-traditional image for a brawling superhero comic book.
One has to wonder if Lee's blurb at the top of the panel is true: did readers demand an entire page with Reed and Sue's face, or was this just another image Jack drew up, and Lee couldn't resist inserting his own self-propaganda into the narrative. I think most will agree the dialogue in the thought balloons is pretty awful, but I think this is a very powerful image taken within the context of the entire 100 issue FF fun. There is a sweetness and a tenderness in the artwork that even the worst dialogue couldn't ruin. If Reed and Sue were real people you could see this being a photograph they would have on the mantle, and I think that kind of stylized Hollywood beauty shot is what Jack was after here.
Over the years plenty of writers have discussed Jack’s work from a feminist perspective, many criticizing what they consider his lack of strong female characters. Hundreds of articles have been written about the role of fictional women characters in comics so I don’t want to go off on a long tangent, but I do want to say although I understand Sue not running around beating up bad guys when she's 9 months pregnant, I am disappointed that Crystal doesn’t take a more active role in these books and in FF Annual # 6, it would have been great to see her kick some ass in the Negative Zone. It is also noteworthy that around the time of the birth, Alicia Masters all but disappears, and Crystal is relegated to the sidelines, standing by Sue’s side worrying. It’s a strange decision: here’s an online conversation where the topic is touched on.
Here’s my guess as to why Jack did this: I think Jack wanted to make FF Annual # 6 about the four original members of the team. There was no X-Men to save them, no Avengers to save them, no Hulk, no Thor, no Nick Fury -- the FF had to rely on themselves to get out of this jam. That’s why Crystal is pretty much nothing more than a cheerleader. It keeps the story simple, and it shows you the stability of the Fantastic Four family unit – the core of the team is still the same. Crystal can’t replace Sue. The story ultimately is about the four adventurers who started the journey together. Everyone else is a minor supporting player. You could also argue FF Annual # 6 is just another stereotypical testosterone-driven superhero story where the men do all the fighting and rescue the damsel in distress, but as soon as the baby is born Crystal takes a far more active role in the stories while Sue spends time with the newborn.
I’m sure at some point Disney-Marvel will make a 3rd Fantastic Four film, then the inevitable “4.” If they make an FF 5 movie, I suggest they use FF Annual # 6 as a template, but give Crystal a bit more action. Let her battle some evil army in the streets of NYC who want to take advantage of Sue Storm’s condition (Jack might have done that himself if he had 200 pages to work with). No need for Marvel to credit me for that idea, although it would be nice if they credited Jack as a writer on the story since I think we’ve established beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jack Kirby wrote books like FF Annual # 6 with visuals and directions in the margins, Lee added captions.
Let’s dive into the book. Based on fair use laws, my rule of thumb is to look at a maximum of 3 pages from a 20-page book so as not to violate Marvel’s copyright of the material. This book is 48 pages, I count 176 images, so I think pulling 24 panels from the book is reasonable, and I’ll cheat by including links to some pages of original art from the book at comicartfans and there are other pieces of art from the book sprinkled out all over the internet.
On the cover of FF Annual # 6 the three male members of the Fantastic Four are lying helplessly on pieces of space debris, they’re being sucked into a red vortex. Is there any kind of birth symbolism here? A red whirlpool can represent the source of birth, and going down a red tunnel can symbolize the birth canal, but it’s probably unlikely that was Jack’s intent considering the comics code, although it is an image that visually suggests what the POV of a child being born might look like (sans the superhero figures), so you do have to wonder if Jack chose this imagery because he was writing and drawing a story about birth.
The tale begins with a close-up of Reed Richards gazing into a complex microscope: FF Anual # 6, page 1. His teeth are clenched so he is uncharacteristically angry. Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm stand by wondering what’s wrong. Reed pulls out an image full of swirling energy that reveals Sue Storm still has cosmic energy in her blood, so she and their unborn child could die.
A pretty hardcore development -- if any of you have ever known someone who faced losing their wife and child during childbirth, you know how extraordinarily traumatic that experience can be. So Reed is understandably frustrated here, shaken, he’s been pushed to his limits. Plus the situation is his fault – he’s the one who initiated the journey into space that transformed all of them. Now the death of his wife and unborn child could be on his hands. For many men, there could be no greater loss.
Reed tells Ben and Johnny there’s only one way to save Sue, he has to retrieve anti-matter from the Negative Zone. Reed wants to go it alone because he doesn’t expect Ben and Johnny to risk their lives on what in all likelihood could be an impossible task that could result in certain death, but his brother-in-law and best friend insist on going along for the journey. Time is of the essence, so they put on anti-matter harnesses and prepare to enter the Negative Zone.
Jack cuts to the Negative Zone where a sinister, insect-like space vehicle is savagely shooting at a fleeing crowd of helpless aliens; the ship unleashes bomb blasts, the streets erupt in explosions. The winged ship glides over the carnage, the entire city reduced to smoldering rubble; no life remains. A metallic, gloved hand opens the hatch of the ship, and the murderer of all those innocent lives is revealed: Annihilus, a character who no doubt symbolizes total annihilation.
He announces that only by destroying life can he be reborn, so clearly you have the dichotomy here of the FF trying to protect life, nourish life, create life; Annihilus’ goal is to obliterate life, eradicate life, abolish life.
As Stan Lee tended to do in many of Jack’s 60s stories, Lee sucks all the tension out of the scene by inserting an arrow between panels that says: “And on that cheerful note, we once again switch scenes.” Not only is the arrow unnecessary because Jack left Lee plenty of room for a caption at the top of the next panel if Lee felt his readers couldn't figure out when a new scene starts, but Lee’s invasive attempt at humor turns what could be a genuinely intense moment into kitsch.
Despite Lee’s unnecessary intrusion, Jack forges ahead. The three members of the FF stand in the final chamber before they enter the Negative Zone. Mr. Fantastic activates the gateway, energy crackles at the doorway, the men leap into the parallel universe like Olympic divers jumping into a swimming pool.
Jack’s Negative Zone was a great place for him to experiment a bit with surrealism: you can see a dash of Salvador Dali, a pinch of Picasso, probably bits and pieces of all the modernist art Jack had been exposed to in his life in the distortion area of the Negative Zone, which I think was Jack’s excuse to introduce his own version of colorful psychedelic visuals into the narrative.
The next two pages feature a famous double-splash where cut-outs of the FF are on top of a Kirby collage: FF Annual # 6, pages 6 and 7. I wonder if Sinnott got his whole page-rate for these pages -- he sure deserved a bonus for his impeccable work on this entire book. I’ve taken a lot of heat on this over the years from some Kirby fans for this, but I don’t think the collages in FF are all that effective. The photographs are muddied in the publication process and here they are presented in black and white. I think if Marvel could have photographed the actual collage in color and published that, the image would have been far more impressive. But because of the limitations of the comic production process I think collages like these are not visually successful. I don’t think they have anywhere near the power that the pen and ink illustrations have in this book. But there were many fans who were blown away by this image as well as all of Jack's collage-work, plus you have to love Jack using this sequence as an excuse to investigate new ways of using photographic imagery in comics.
Suddenly Reed is attacked by some green bat-like creature. The Torch tries to help, but Reed warns him to stay away -- he wants to find out what the strange creature wants. The predator takes Reed to a planetoid where a circular device flies out of the surface. A magnet trap sucks Reed down a long red, cylindrical cavern, right to the core of the planetoid. Once again (as on the cover), Jack (and the colorist) are either consciously or unconsciously using birth canal imagery.
At the bottom of the long tunnel, Reed finds himself a prisoner surrounded by an army of bizarre, diverse creatures. The look on his face is one of extreme terror.
Jack cuts to the gorgeous Crystal sitting in the hospital, she is understandably concerned.
She can’t bear the wait any longer so barges into the Doctor’s office. The Doctor gives her the bad news, Like Reed Richards, he sees cosmic impulses in Sue’s blood which could mean the death of mother and child.
I don’t know how readers reacted to this in 1967, but to me this is fairly powerful stuff. This isn’t another cheesy story about Batman saving Gotham City from The Joker, this is a heartfelt story told on a real human level about characters many readers probably cared about -- they had grown up with the FF family and followed their adventures for half a decade. Now the readers see Johnny Storm’s girlfriend Crystal, the newest member of the FF family standing by and watching Sue Storm facing death. Sue is helpless, Crystal is helpless, the Doctor is helpless -- this is the type of pivotal moment that happens in every life where everything one holds dear could be mercilessly ripped from you and your loved ones forever.
But Stan Lee isn’t going to allow his readers to feel any real emotion. In the next panel, Lee injects this blurb: “But, Marvelites all… take heart! If there is a way to save Sue Storm… you can bet our boys’ll find it!” Once again, Lee tears the reader back into the Mickey Mouse world of “Merry Marvel.” Instead of this being a serious, somber, powerful moment in the narrative where the spectre of death is very real, and frightening, Lee makes it clear this is another fun romp presented by your pal, Stan “The Man."
To be fair to the Fearless Leader, I don’t think these types of captions ruin the story, but they definitely create the sense that Smilin’ Stan is your fun-lovin’ narrator (sort of like Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone but Lee is there for the entire story, popping in at random). Lee’s interloping prevents this from being a story where the reader is actually worried about the outcome -- Lee has pretty much told you the ending of the tale in that caption, so no need to fret. And I realize many comics fans loved Lee’s self-promotional banter -- and you could argue as editor Lee didn’t want this comic to be scary because the parents of The True Believers might get angry and deluge the House of Ideas with hate mail -- my point is that there is no doubt in my mind that Jack did not want that type of nonsense in this story. I think Jack is approaching this story as a real struggle between life and death, and Lee’s inappropriate interruptions at times turn the story into a farce.
On the planetoid in the Negative Zone, The Torch sends up flame flares to try and find Reed. Ben begins to literally tear the planetoid apart. Jack was always great at having the characters use their powers logically, and they complement one another. There’s a great close-up of Ben screaming, he hears something coming -- a glass globe captures them both. Jack cuts to a terrific close-up of Annihilus, his mouth opened wide. Annihilus isn’t like your typical super villain, he’s not a human in a goofy bad guy suit, he is wholly alien: he looks like a metallic insect, made of biotech, his massive iron mouth open wide: laughing, ready to voraciously consume all life he can devour. Using the spatial contrast of foreground and background, visually it looks like Annihilus is about to eat the captives.
Annihilus tells the reader he is immortal because of the power he has collected and stored in his cosmic control rod. Once again, Jack introducing all sorts of fascinating science-fiction concepts into the story: using energy and technology to live forever, the cosmic control rod a kind of flashdrive that holds unlimited life-giving universal energy. Is the phallic shape of the cosmic control rod another visual motif symbolizing the process of birth -- the cosmic control rod a kind of portable technological life-giving device?
I usually try and keep my Kirby-articles rated-PG, so I hope this next comment doesn't offend anybody, but let's state the obvious: the cosmic control rod looks like a big yellow dildo. I'm surprised Disney-Marvel hasn't already started marketing Stan Lee's Cosmic Control Rod Sex Toys, why not make every penny possible off of Jack's, I mean Stan's, ideas. The cosmic control rod is literally a sexual device: it takes life and it creates life. And such is the nature of existence: all life is created by consuming other life. The cosmic control rod encapsulates all of that.
Now, if I could interview Jack and ask him: was the cosmic control rod a conscious move on his part to introduce a phallic device into this story about birth? Chances are he would laugh and say that wasn't intentional, or maybe he'd wink after that. Regardless, this type of imagery in a story about the creation of life is significant because it's either there by design, or it's an example of this type of iconography welling up from the deep recesses of the unconscious mind.
Annihilus goes to view some of his prisoners: he feels the need to enslave all living things to maintain his power: classic dictatorial, totalitarian, fascist behavior. There is a great image of Reed Richards standing there behind all the alien prisoners. The fate that awaits anyone rounded up by the storm-troopers and thrown into detention camps, you lose all sense of individuality and freedom, you're just a part of the poor, huddled mass.
I love the image because how many times have you ever felt like this in your life: packed like a sardine in the back of a room, tons of people (in this case aliens) in front of you, all around you, the mob keeping you from your objective, the crowd itself a prison. This has to be the last thing Mr. Fantastic wants to deal with as his wife is about to give birth. Is anything in life ever simple?
Mr. Fantastic takes immediate action -- he attacks. Jack has a powerful image of Reed stretching, making a gigantic fist and slamming the hell out of Annihilus: the leader of the free world is not going to let that tyrant hold him prisoner! And this is one of the reasons people liked superhero comics in the early 20th century (and still like them, especially the films), everybody would love to have some “power” like the ability to stretch and just kick the ass of all the evil bastards in the world who want to destroy you and your family. Despite the genre's critics, right now there are billions of superhero fans.
Mr. Fantastic stretches forward; he’s going to fight Annihilus face to face. Annihilus blasts him with the cosmic control rod, and Reed realizes by a stroke of astronomical luck, he has stumbled on the one thing that can save his wife and baby: the energy in that device. There’s a great image where Jack visually shows you the power of the cosmic control rod – Annihilus’ evil face and upper body are bathed in radiation. As a show of force Annihilus points the energy of the device at all the poor pitiful slaves in a prison cell, and Annihilus casually and brutally murders all of them in an instant, emphasizing his ferocity in this caption: “Only in the elimination of other life can Annihilus find his immortality.” Wanting to save life and create life, Reed rushes forward, hoping to grab the cosmic control rod. But Annihilus blasts him and sends him into another part of his labyrinthian complex, this area is called The Arena of Execution, similar to the famous Roman Coliseum, but underground.
Jack presents an awesome POV splash where Jack makes you a fly on the wall: FF Annual # 6 page 17. You are standing there in the Arena of Execution behind the FF, you can see the danger they face from their perspective.
The FF waste absolutely no time, and that is a theme in most, if not all of Jack’s stories: characters don’t sit around and wonder what to do, they act immediately. Decisively. And they work together, as a team: Ben uses his strength to smash the wall, Reed stretches out to block Annihilus’ view, the Torch blasts the wall and discovers it’s made of fireproof “anti-matter plastic.” Then there’s a great image of Annihilus with a Kirby contraption that looks like a gigantic joystick – the ultimate video game in 1967. Human beings as the prey.
Annihilus causes a massive boot to emerge from the ceiling to crush the FF. Fascist iconography -- a boot-machine to crush opponents under its heel, specifically the Thing whose power is brute strength. Then a spinning wheel with razor edges called a gyro-saw spins out of the wall and Mr. Fantastic is barely able to stretch over it. A “sonic sponge” emerges, clearly designed to smother the Torch’s flames. Notice Reed's stretched-out legs flying out of the left side of the panel, the Thing way in the background, looking tiny under the weight of that boot.
Let’s take a moment and reflect on this scene. Now I realize this type of thing is fairly common now, millions of video game designers around the world spend millions of hours coming up with crazy scenarios like this where the hero has to survive a gauntlet of trials and tribulations to get to the end of the adventure, and that’s a major part of the plot of most action adventure stories (and dreams), but I still find myself impressed with Jack’s imagination in this book. He is always coming up with clever twists and turns, he never fails to disappoint. In all likelihood Jack didn’t plan this story out beforehand, he’s doing it on the fly, so I love when Jack introduces stuff like the sonic sponge. No, the character doesn’t have the staying power of, say, Silver Surfer, and I don’t even remember the character from when I read the book at 13-years-old, but revisiting the book now, I love sonic sponge.
I love the look of it with that sort of circular antennae on its forehead, the lack of eyes, the yawning maw, wonderful delineation of the surface texture by Sinnott, cosmic crackle in the mouth, a kind of electric blob -- looks like a cosmic serving of mashed potatoes. If Marvel ever pays Jack’s Estate 100 million bucks and starts treating him with respect, and they want to hire me as a writer working on one of Jack’s properties, give me Sonic Sponge. I love it. And I love the freewheeling, wacky imagination of Jack Kirby.
Unfortunately for Sonic Sponge fans, he (or she) doesn’t last long, the Torch deduces that it has a weak spot, a blind sonic eye, so he blasts it into cinders. So long Sonic Sponge (unless it was a Skrull). Free of this particular adversary, the Torch spectacularly melts the Gyro-saw (Annihilus should have built it out of the fireproof anti-matter plastic mentioned earlier in the story). The Thing takes the gigantic jackboot and tears it to pieces, he rips it out of the ceiling with debris flying everywhere.
Ben Grimm sends it smashing through Annihilus’ observation room window, glass shatters and machinery flies through the air. Annihilus lies on the ground in a daze, Reed rips the Cosmic control rod off his neck. he raises the device into the air, like a conquering soldier raising the bloody sword of the fallen King.
The three friends rush off, finding an underground rail-plane they commandeer to help them escape. Annihilus rages: he’s been outsmarted and his source of immortality has been stolen. So he releases the beasts: The Borers, a minion of monsters who are a combination lizard/ground hog -- they chew through the subterranean rock and then the underground railway tunnel to attack the rail-plane which is a glorified flying subway car: FF Annual # 6 page 27. Great example of how Jack makes it look like the Borers are emerging right out of the rocks and dirt on the comic book page into your living room. Looking at this underground tunnel, once again, we can ask: is Jack using birth canal imagery here? I’d guess probably not, Jack just has the characters go underground and you have to have tunnels underground, but such are the visual motifs that sometimes well up from the collective unconscious when storytellers ply their craft, specifically when they explore birth and death.
The descent into the underworld is a common theme in ancient mythology and religion, the result usually being the hero returning with an object or with a loved one, enabling them to bring a boon to mankind -- the journey demonstrating eschatological themes such as the power of life over death, and the cyclical nature of all existence in the universe. In western mythology, one of the most famous stories features the Greek Heracles. Here is an image of Heracles bringing Cerebus out of the underworld to Eurystheus (530 BCE).
Hercules also descended to the Underworld to rescue Alcestis by wrestling her from Thanatos (Death). Hercules and Alcestis (1862) by Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix.
Orpheus went into the underworld to win back his beloved Eurydice. Theseus went there to try and abduct Persephone. Odysseus went into the underworld to meet with the blind Teiresias. Dionysus rescues Semele from Hades. Hermes rescues Persephone from Hades. The list goes on and on, and the same stories occur in all the mythologies of the world hundreds if not thousands of times. There are even ancient texts that have Jesus entering the underworld, in the Gospel of Nicodemus (425 CE) written by the Roman Ananias, in the section called the Acts of Pilate, Jesus journeys into the underworld after his crucifixion so he can bring salvation to the souls of the dead who are prisoners there. This story was not included in the King James Bible, but it appears in art all over Europe. For example in this 16th-century painting Jesus is rescuing Adam and Eve from the underworld.
The most famous journey to the underworld story is probably Dante Alighieri's 14th-century epic poem the Divine Comedy where Dante travels through the Nine Circles of Suffering in Hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil in search of his lost love Beatrice. The event is depicted in the Barque of Dante (Dante and Virgil in the Underworld) by Eugene Delacroix (1822).
So does Kirby's story belong in this long mythic tradition of heroes traveling to the underworld to either save a loved one, or find an object that will save a loved one? Beats me. That's for you to say. FF Annual # 6 certainly does have some of the elements that made the earlier stories resonate with billions of people over the centuries, so whether Jack meant to put those elements there or not, they are there and so I think this book belongs in that long epic tradition.
Back to Kirby's story: unsurprisingly the Borers rip the rail-plane to smithereens. The Thing smashes two of their heads together. The Torch tries to use his flame to stop them, but they’re too powerful so Mr. Fantastic must unleash some energy from the cosmic control rod to stop them. Next, Reed reverses the energy of the cosmic control rod and uses it to catapult them through the interior of the planetoid itself, up towards the surface. Another example where whether intentionally or not Jack is using another birth motif, the fact that life emerges from the earth.
Annihilus jumps into his gun ship, determined to stop the FF from fleeing.
Here we have a panel scanned from the original artwork. This fragment of Jack’s directions for Stan Lee says, “Villain is relentless – he swoops for “gun ship.”
As you can see, Stan Lee follows Jack’s directions in his captions -- Lee mirrors Jack’s concept in the margins that this is called a “gun-ship.” Not a major revelation but it once again proves the main ideas and concepts in the stories were coming from Kirby. There is at least one more if not two or more lines of directions for Lee underneath that – there is a good chance Lee also incorporated those concepts into his captions. Jack simply calls the character “villain,” so unless the name “Annihilus” is in another margin note fragment in the book, Lee may have made up the name.
Sinnott’s inking of Jack’s famous Kirby-tech is gorgeous.
You could put that zoom into a frame and hang it on a museum wall. Note how closely Joe sticks to Jack’s original pencils. Here’s a rare example where Sinnott missed a few lines.
You can see three, then four uninked pencil lines in that square. Above that you can see how Joe (and other inkers from that period) used white-out to break up straight lines, this was a visual shorthand technique to suggest a glass surface.
Lee probably had someone in the Bullpen do some editing on Annihilus’s face. You can make out some blue lines and white-out, covered with some new inked lines.
Lee probably felt Jack wasn’t keeping Annihilus’ face consistent throughout the story, which is something Kirby commonly did – I’ve seen examples where characters’ costumes change on one page – Jack was more concerned with story and art than with costume continuity.
Back to the story: Annihilus blasts into space piloting the gun-ship, when he gets the FF in his gunsight, he fires a powerful energy blast at the threesome that sends them sprawling: FF Annual # 6 page 32. Annihilus then shoots a missile at them but Reed uses the cosmic control rod to deflect it. Unfortunately because of the fight, the FF end up at the most dangerous place in this bizarre universe, a place where space is transformed into anti-matter. If they are sucked into the vortex they will die. To make matters worse because ot the interference created by this part of the universe, the cosmic control rod is now useless, they are helpless. Not only will they die, but so will Sue and the baby.
I swear to god I didn’t mean to criticize Lee in this article, I had not read this story since I was thirteen so I really didn’t remember that much about it other than I liked the art, but I have to sadly point out that once more Lee cannot prevent himself from tearing the reader out of what is a powerful, dramatic moment with his self-promotional narration. After Ben mentions Reed almost died the last time he came to this place, instead of letting the story move forward, Lee writes in a superfluous caption box, “And we nearly forgot which ish it was, till we looked in the old Forbush Almanac! FF 51, right? Starry-eyed Stan.”
Again, I don’t think this ruins the story, and I’m sure many True Believers loved hearing from Lee in the stories over-and-over, and they loved Irving Forbush non-sequiters, but I do think this material adds a level of absurdist silliness to a story that had the potential to be a dramatic masterpiece. At this point in the story, Jack is still building momentum, the challenges keep growing exponentially -- and that is the hallmark of any successful epic. A woman, her baby, and her whole family could die! Was it really necessary to insert an Irving Forbush reference there? The Lee narration is like sitting in a move theater during an dramatic film next to some annoying jerk making lame wisecracks.
The FF are doomed but they are determined not to panic. Jack introduces a wonderful flashback sequence where Reed reflects on the science of negative particles. Jack shows us a world in the Negative Zone that is the polar opposite of ours because it is composed of these negative particles. Then Jack briefly shows us the history of that world in a few panels – vegetation grows out of the cracks and crevices of the landscape, alien life forms similar to the dinosaurs evolve on the planet competing for life, then a human like creature grabs a tool to fight off the evolving animals. Jack cuts to an incredible technological civilization that evolved on the negative planet. There are massive skyscrapers and vehicles. But if the FF were to come in contact with a being from that world made of negative energy? The mixture could result in an explosion that could destroy the entire world. Maybe even the universe.
Now obviously this is standard science fiction fare based on the concept of positive and negative charges we all learned in elementary school, and parallel universes are a common sci-fi motif, but the thing that’s great about this sequence is that not only does it once again up the ante in terms of the danger-level, but it puts the whole story in context. This is a story about the birth of a single child, and it’s wonderful for Jack to weave the birth of an entire parallel universe into the story as well. It’s only a few pages, but it’s amazing how much information Jack can convey in a few panels, and it adds to the overall tapestry of the story -- it places the microcosm in the macrocosm, a few humans trying to survive in an awesome and incomprehensible set of innumerable universes, and I think this type of interlude makes FF Annual # 6 a true example of a classic epic comic storytelling.
Jack rips us back to reality – he cuts away from the hypothetical explosion that would result if positive and negative men shook hands to Annihilus riding an armored vehicle, firing a weapon at the Thing. Annihilus almost blasts all three of them off of a rock they are hanging onto by their fingertips, but Reed makes a lasso out of his arm and grabs the weapon out of Annihilus’ hands. Annihilus screams! For the first time the tide seems to be turning.
Jack cuts to a press conference where Sue’s Doctor lets the panicked group of reporters know the patient and child could die unless an antidote is found. Jack has repeatedly hit this theme several times in the book. Sue could die, the baby could die -- this page adds to that tension which is reaching a crescendo. Back in the Negative Zone, Reed and Annihilus reach an interesting compromise. Reed learns he can extract some energy from the cosmic control rod, then he can give it back to Annihilus who will allow them to escape. And that’s what they do. Jack is running out of pages, he has to wrap this story up somehow.
Reed charges up a little gizmo that looks like a little ipod with the cosmic control rod, extracts some energy from the device, and he throws the cosmic control rod into oblivion where Annihilus chases after it like a dog after a bone.
Like a lot of endings in superhero comics, this is an abrupt end to the battle. The bad guy simply flees to fight another day. I realize this is a common theme in the genre because you never want to kill off a good character, but Annihilus is a mass murderer so it is a bit uncomfortable to see the FF simply let him go, no doubt to murder more innocents. But they have to worry about their own family, and this is a paradox anyone dealing with war criminals has to deal with: when, if ever, do you sacrifice yourself and your family in order to crush someone responsible for genocide.
At the last second before being sucked into the orbit of the negative world, the FF leap into space and their backpacks propel them to safety. Jack illustrated a classic glorious splash page of the 3 men flying through the Negative Zone before these types of pin-up images were commonplace: FF Annual page 43. They pass through the distortion area and through the portal back into our universe.
This is also an abrupt turn of events. Jack wastes no time. In a few panels the FF are back on Earth and in the hospital waiting room waiting to see if Sue and the baby make it through.
Stan Lee is frequently given the credit for the humor and personality in the Fantastic Four books, but I argue that the humor and emotion are in the imagery. We see great examples of that in the conclusion of this story. Ben and Johnny are in the waiting room reading a magazine and a newspaper respectively; a nervous father-to-be asks if anyone has a light. The Torch takes care of that, lighting the cigarette with is hand, shocking the guy. A bit of comic relief in an intense situation. Jack cuts to an image of the Torch clearly worried, distraught, Ben Grimm puts his hand on his friend's shoulder, a rare quiet moment where there is no friendly playfighting. Reed walks in the room, all of them feel totally helpless. The way anyone feels when a loved one is giving birth: anything could go wrong, it's all up to the mother.
On the next page Reed, Ben and Johnny sit with the other new father-to-be. Johnny juggles fireballs to take his mind off the stress; Reed has his arm stretched out and he taps his finger on the ground, Ben rips open a phone book – once again, the humor, the emotion, the pathos are all in Jack’s illustrations. The Nurse walks in the room. She has news for the other father-to-be. Mr. Smith had twins! Then the Nurse tells him to “Wake up,” apparently off-panel he has collapsed. Reed is really worried now, what if he brought Sue the antidote too late, the implications are too terrible to consider. Ben Grimm comforts him. Then they all hear something. Ben thinks he hears a baby crying. The door opens.
Crystal, Reed, Ben and Johnny all rush to Sue’s room. Reed slowly creaks the door open, not wanting to wake Sue and the baby.
And there they are, Sue and the baby, alive and well -- the ultimate happy ending for any parents and all their family members and friends.
I realize a lot of you out there probably hate these types of stories; many modern readers seem to prefer “realistic” comics, (what I call pseudo-realistic comics) full of angst, pain, suffering, some containing depravity, and violence; so to many, this FF story may seem like a sappy, hokey, hackneyed, outdated, utterly unrealistic anachronism. But I think stories like this have value. I certainly enjoyed reading this in the late-1970s: the Fantastic Four family reminded me of my own family. Our lives weren’t perfect, but at least we were all together.
By the time I stopped reading comics in the mid-1980s, the FF had changed. The team was a turnstile -- there were always new characters coming in and out; I think the She Hulk of all things was a member of the team when I bought my last issue of FF, and the only way to know how that even happened was to buy the awful Secret Wars books, which I was not going to do. If I’m not mistaken, in the mid-80s Johnny Storm was screwing the blind Alicia Masters, so any vestiges of the original family concept in the Kirby run were thrown out the window. And I understand readers want change, and they consider the disintegration of the family more realistic and more relevant to modern times than a happy superhero family. But to me making arbitrary changes to the FF family mythos was more about new comics writers wanting to reserve their own place in the history of the Marvel and FF mythos – they wanted to insert themselves into the history of the Fantastic Four characters, so all the changes to the FF family are nothing more than silly soap opera theatrics. The early books worked because they were about the original four members, so when that dynamic was destroyed by new writers wanting to be the next Stan Lee meddling with Jack's concepts, I personally lost total interest in the franchise. And I think that's one of the reasons the recent Hollywood films were a disappointment, they weren't able to capture the spirit of camaraderie and family in Kirby's run, leaving the movies themselves hollow and phony.
Fortunately for me when I was reading comics, I was able to find stuff like FF Anuual # 6. Some might see it as a superhero version of a lame episode of Leave it to Beaver, but I see it as Jack Kirby giving us a glimpse into the psyche of middle class America in the late 1960s. You had the patriotism and idealism of Jack Kirby representing the World War Two Generation fused together with the optimism and potential Kirby saw in his own children and their friends -- the baby boomers; mixed in with the spirit of experimentation and innovation sweeping across the globe in new technologies, new philosophies, and the new renaissance in self-expression fueled by global communication. FF Annual # 6 hit the stands when the space race was in full force -- the future seemed to offer limitless possibilities. But there will always be obstacles to progress, and in this book Jack touches on the main thing that can destroy freedom and liberty: authoritarianism and genocide symbolized by Annihilus. The FF overcome that evil, and the result is the birth of a child. Life can emerge victorious over death but the struggle will always be fierce.
If you've ever read the work of comparative mythologist Joesph Cambell, you'll know that Jack's FF Annual # 6 story follows the archetypal journey of the hero Campbell wrote about in his famous book The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949). Here is a basic visual depiction of the stages of the monomyth:
There are all sorts of different versions of this chart, and you could argue any story goes through these kinds of phases, but in FF Annual # 6, we have what I'd call a technological journey into the underworld. Unlike the heroes of old who traveled into Mother Earth to encounter demons and the devil, the FF used Reed Richard's technological portal to the Negative Zone to help them enter the shadow realm, where ironically they then actually do descend into the underworld of the planetoid to endure a host of tortures and hardships before emerging back into our world with the magic elixir of anti-matter. Jack's story hits so many of the roadmarks in the classic archetypal hero journey monomyth, Campbell easily could have included Jack's FF Annual # 6 story in his book as a prime modern example.
Did Jack read The Hero with a Thousand Faces? Was that an influence on this story? Kirby might have read it, but I think it's more likely that Jack was simply playing with the same toys all storytellers have played with throughout history. Love him or hate him, Kirby was one of the greatest modern myth-makers of his time (and his creations still resonate with billions in the 21st century) so he was able to craft a story like this that had an epic scope because he was, simply put, good at his job. He had about 40 years of experience creating stories like this, so I think in many ways FF Annual # 6 was just another story he cranked out to meet a deadline. But it may be one of his greatest achievements, along with his entire 2000 + page FF run. I think that's one of the reasons you see a poster of the FF hanging in Jack's studio space -- the FF family was loosely based on the Kirby family, and that concept of the family unit being important shines through in Jack's FF.
In this last panel of the story, we can only read part of Jack's directions for Stan Lee. Jack's text says: "And the dangers even larger -- for then..."
I think I can make out the top half of the word "world" in the second line of text, and another word might be "sinister," but I think it's always important to be careful when reading any partial text on any document.
We can see here in the image that the baby is at the center of the composition, surrounded by family. Very similar to many depictions of the Nativity Scene featuring the birth of Christ, and I'm sure there are millions of family photos like this. Lee's caption mirrors Jack's visual and textual directions: the FF reflect on how the child lives in a world full of dangers -- they will take care of the child. Jack has the family visually protecting the baby, they stare at him in awe, but introspectively. Sue closes her eyes, exhausted, she is the real hero of the story. The goddess, the creatrix, the generator of new life.
I think Stan's addition of the text "Amen" is noteworthy because I don't recall seeing that ever said at the end of a traditional superhero comic (and in our increasingly crazy PC world some might even be offended by such terminology nowadays), so I do think ending the book like that is important to think about -- that text does give the story bit of a religious feeling. Something sacred has taken place here.
I don't ever remember reading a comic book as a kid where anything really significant happened. I guess one of Spider-man's girlfriends Gwen Stacey fell off a roof and died and that was sad, and Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy did some drugs and that was sad -- that material was considered "realistic" by some comic fans and comics historians. But to me this panel in FF Annual # 6 is one of the first "real" moments in a comic book where something genuinely important took place. The birth of a child is a life-changing event. This is a rare moment where comics move from the realm of escapist corporate entertainment into the realm of transcendental mythology.
FF Annual # 6 is a memorable moment in the history of comics. This book (and much of the art of that era) captures a spirit of hope and optimism that may seem naive today, but back in the late-1960s anything seemed possible and those unlimited possibilities are what artists and readers wanted to explore -- like Jack's FF exploring the Negative Zone. This book symbolizes the beginning of a new life: Franklin Richards represents the creation of a new generation of comics heroes. But it also marks the end of an era in comics -- Jack would stop giving Stan Lee new characters he could take credit for creating after this book. Kirby and Lee would fight a kind of cold war over the remaining years of the 1960s, Lee refusing to give Kirby credit and compensation for his role as a writer, Kirby holding out hope he could get a writer credit on his books and promised royalties on his creations from Martin Goodman. After FF Annual # 6, the FF stories are still fun, and the artwork is great, but that long parade of new characters grinds to a halt. Because of that, I think you could argue this story represents the pinnacle of Kirby's Fantastic Four story arc. This is the high point, and Jack may have planned it that way.
FF Annual # 6 is a story about family, friendship, loyalty, sacrifice, and love. I could think of no better story to share with you as we all spend time with family and friends during the holiday season. I usually end this column reflecting on Jack's service to his country during the Second World War, but I don't want that aspect of the column to become redundant and in this case anti-climactic, so I'll simply wrap this one up by wishing you all a happy holiday season.
“God bless us, every one!” ― Tiny Tim, from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843)