Wednesday, April 6, 2016

George Washington, Speakeasies and a Wayward Mailman

Last week, I wrote about a Micronauts story that could be used as a working definition for the word "fun." But Giant Size Fantastic Four #2 (August 1974) could give the Micronauts a run for this honor. Written by Gerry Conway and featuring magnificent art by John Buscema, it tells a self-contained superhero story that follows a path of Comic Book Logic which starts in a Neanderthal-inhabited swamp, travels in time to the American Revolution, stops off in Prohibition-era Chicago and then takes us to a bizarre alien planet. And it all does indeed make sense.

Also, we get to see Reed Richards and Johnny Storm mug a couple of guys, which I think is awesome in its own way.

Someone sneaks into the Baxter Building and uses Dr. Doom's old time machine, causing reality to change. The Fantastic Four (at that time consisting of Reed, Johnny, Ben Grimm and Medusa) are test-flying a new space shuttle, so they are unaffected by the change. They end up crash-landing the shuttle in a swamp that now exists where Cape Canaveral should be. They are promptly attacked by cavemen.

Well, this is something that even the FF finds unusual. The Watcher, breaking his non-interference oath for the 532nd time, explains that an unknown person somehow access Doom's time machine and was mucking about in history, creating paradoxes which will eventually cause the Earth to cease existing.

The team divides up to change history back to where it's supposed to be. The Watcher zaps Reed and Johnny back to 1777, where they promptly mug a couple of Rebel soldiers to get period-appropriate clothes. Heck, in the next chapter, Ben and Medusa are going to steal clothes from a store in 1928 Chicago. But I'm not judging--they are trying to save all reality and they are following a precedent set by Kirk & Spock in "The City on the Edge of Forever."

Reed and Johnny find out that George Washington was captured after the mysterious time traveler
appeared in front of him and spooked his horse. So the two time-displaced heroes stage a quick rescue and get history back on track. I suppose you can argue that the rescue is pretty easy--the British weren't equipped to deal with superpowers. But Buscema makes it look too cool to allow any complaints.

Ben and Medusa head for Prohibition-era Chicago. It's here that some minor criticism regarding the plot structure becomes legitimate. Ben reverts to human so that he and Medusa can dress appropriately and down the mystery time traveler. He assumes this has something to do with the Watcher's "time gizmo," but then he reverts back later without explanation when he has to take out a gangster with a tommy gun. It's reasonable to assume that the Watcher is doing this--giving Ben the ability to blend in when he needs it, then raw power when he needs that. But it's never really explained. Also, they find their target pretty much by just randomly deciding to visit a speakeasy. Ben chalks this up to Medusa's woman's intuition, but that's a tad bit weak. I get the impression that Gerry Conway had to squeeze in a few plot points a little too quickly to hit the right page count.

But that is a minor criticism. In both art and characterization, this chapter is still a lot of fun. Medusa looks great in a flapper outfit, Ben gets to demonstrate that he can handle himself even when he's fully human, and 1920s cars & tommy guns are always a welcome sight. Ben's reaction when he changes back into the Thing is sincerely heartfelt.

Oh, by the way, the mysterious time traveler turns out to be Willy Lumpkin, the Baxter Building's mailman. He was giving some local gangsters stock tips about the upcoming Crash, which would have once again mucked about with history.

The final chapter has the FF and Willy all appearing on a Dali-esque planet ruled by Tempus, one of the many, many all-powerful immortals that hang around any self-respecting comic book universe. In this case, though, Tempus doesn't want to be immortal anymore ("Time itself has come to bore me"), so he compelled Willy to use the time machine, change history and destroy reality. It's the most complex method of committing suicide anyone has ever come up with, but if you're an all-powerful immortal, killing yourself probably is difficult.

Tempus is upset with the FF for foiling his plan, but the FF manage to take him down fairly quickly. You may be all-powerful, Tempus, but Reed Richards can still outsmart you!

Buscema's art in this last chapter continues to look great, switching from relatively realistic settings to cosmic-level weirdness without missing a beat.

I really miss stories like this. I slowly got away from reading modern superhero comics because I was rarely encountering this sort of fun anymore--stories that existed purely to entertain and inspire our sense of wonder. Stories that aren't padded to take up multiple issues when one issue will do. (Granting that in this case a few extra pages for improved plot exposition would have been nice.) I haven't read mainstream superhero comics regularly in some years now, so I won't presume pass judgement on them enmasse. But whenever I do try one, I don't encounter anything that touches on my sense of wonder. I'm not being reminded that in the end, superheroes exist to meld pure fun together with wild imagination. There's still room for deep characterizations and sophisticated plots, but these things should be a part of the wonder--not a substitute for it.

Next week, we'll follow along with an 18th Century hunter and trapper as he paddles a canoe into the ocean to try his hand at whaling.

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