#336: Dark Congress! (****), #337: Into The Time Stream! (*****),
#338: Kangs For The Memories!!! Or Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner! (****),
#339: Visit to a Large Empire! (***), #340: Double Trouble (****),
#341: The Ultimate Solution (*****), #342: Burnout! (**), #343: Nukebusters!!! (****),
#344: NukebustersII (****), #345: The Mesozoic Mambo! (****),
#346: 70 Million Years BC… and then some! (****), #347: Big Trouble On Little Earth! (***),
Annual #23: When Franklin Comes Marchin’ Home…/Cast In Fire, Carved in Stone/
Beyond And Back (***)
Walt Simonson had a very unique voice in comics, with a mindset to left-of-centre concepts (infamously turning Thor into a frog while working on that title) and an abstract art style. For his first story as the artist on the book, Simonson brought over some unfinished plotlines from his time on The Avengers (#291-#300) and returned Galactus,
time and the Celestials to a truly epic scale. Simonson’s art on the title is all about size and scale, having our heroes realistically dwarfed by what faces them. Even though Simonson’s work is almost impossible to describe and is possibly an acquired taste, it is, in this writer’s opinion, the most suited to the Fantastic Four’s sensibilities of cosmic grandiose since Kirby left the book. Simonson spoke of building up his entire pages like a tapestry, and the visually compelling, innovative usage of panels as part of a greater whole combine superbly with his radical – yet consistent – take on the foursome. His first story proper (after his editorially enforced involvement in “The Acts of Vengeance” arc) sees a Galactus so large he has a black hole at his centre, and we even get to see the application of the ultimate nullifier after over twenty years.
Their return to Earth sees the FF in a parallel world where the 44th US Vice President of our world – the then-widely ridiculed Dan Quayle – is President, and Joseph Stalin is still alive (sort of…) and in command of Russia. The depiction of Stalin is a particularly interesting one, as Gorbachev’s introduction of Glasnost five years previously had ultimately resulted in a relaxed media, where even more of Stalin’s atrocities were unveiled to the public. However, while a fun story, it’s one of the least of Simonson’s plots for the FF – largely because the Soviet Union was no longer a real world threat to parody, and was in fact disbanded the following year. If satire was Walt’s greatest strength on the book, then this was a satire with no teeth, as even the start of pre-emptive strikes from America were shifted away from the real-life President (George Bush Sr. was somewhat distastefully described as having died from pneumonia) and onto a far easier target (the aforementioned Quayle). The stereotypical depiction of the “red menace” is arguably tongue-in-cheek, though does of course dovetail nicely with the very first issue’s anti-communist rhetoric. All that said, it’s still a fun, if throwaway story, as the high rating left attests.
Following this is a homage by Simonson to one of his favourite books as a child, Dangerous Island by Helen Mather-Smith Mindlin. The FF return to their Earth, only to find themselves without their powers on a prehistoric landscape. It wasn’t the first time the FF had lost their powers (including the classic #38-#39), but again it’s full of verve and earnest wonderment as the group find themselves in a hostile environment. Nearly 350 issues in and this was only the second time the group had encountered dinosaurs, three years before lowbrow blockbuster Jurassic Park would reinvigorate their popularity. Simonson originally wanted to be a palaeontologist, and draws his dinosaurs well, in addition to accentuating the sexuality of Sharon and Sue without detriment to their characters. Having first read The Fantastic Four back in 1966, Simonson had enough familiarity with the regulars to be able to install their “voices” immediately. However, he admitted to finding Sharon Ventura more difficult – she scarcely appears in the Galactus/Celestial arc – and it’s here where we and Walt first really get to rediscover her.
One of Simonson’s weaknesses while working on the title – though it can hardly be classed a “weakness” when the eventual product was so good – was his continual ability to miss deadlines. Danny Fingeroth steps in to write July’s one-off Torch story, while a climactic Reed-Doom battle in April of the following year had to be put back a month and a filler story put in its place. This dilemma reached its creative peak when Simonson asked Arthur Adams to do pencils for him on a three-part story beginning with the December issue. Asked what he wanted to draw, and with Simonson’s idea that he wanted to feature Spider-Man in the book, they (along with informal conversations with Kurt Busiek and Carol Kalish) devised a tongue-in-cheek “everything including the kitchen sink” plot. Rather unfairly, this is what many remember most about Simonson’s run (especially as it temporarily halted the unfortunate sales decline, the collector covers of #348 pushing sales back past the 41,000 mark) and see it as shamelessly exploitative. With the famous header changed to “The World’s Goofiest/Most Commercialest/Most Collectable Comic Magazine” over the course of the run, it hailed a brand-new Fantastic Four made of the Hulk, Spider-Man, Wolverine and Ghost-Rider. It says something of the lack of inventiveness of the time that what was composed almost as a spoof should be taken so seriously, and in 1993 a “Secret Defenders” group was launched with much of the same line-up, the line-up (with Dr. Strange) even crossing over from FF #374-#375. The trilogy is fun but shallow, with Simonson’s caustic wit seeming rather crass and overt when pencilled by Adams. However, the stories are superficially entertaining, and also act as a commentary on much of the crass commercialism that Marvel was indulging in at the time. Lastly, the 23rd Annual is beyond any kind of critical exploration, as while the opening story of three was written by Simonson (and illustrated by Jackson Guice/Geof Isherwood) it was another of the period’s shamelessly commercial efforts that saw the story continue into three other annuals. Of this, Walt must be held blameless, only working to the “dollar first, story second” ethics of his paymasters.
Simonson’s quirky humour often came out in the use of speech balloons on the covers – a practise he used for nearly a third of his run. “You’re kidding, right?” became the catch-phrase for the Acts of Vengeance trilogy, though my favourite has to be Ben’s simple “Uh-Oh!” when seeing the Black Celestial on the cover of the May issue. The last time this practise was touched upon was for the 1971 entry, where the letters page regularly featured complaints about what was seen as a tacky procedure. Nevertheless, it was seen a worthwhile sales device, and from 1972 to the end of the decade nearly 60% of issues (55 in all) had word balloons, from “Little Franklin is glowing -- like an atomic bomb!” to “He’s the one superfoe we can never defeat!” In contrast, the 1980s pre-Simonson dropped the practise almost in absolute, 85% of issues being speech caption free. Continuing the subject of trivia, then the hard science of issues #337-#341 is frequently attributed to “Leiber-Kurtzberg”… which is, of course, the real surnames of Stan and Jack. Lastly, as touched on above, Simonson also liked to play with the “World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” headline, such as titling it The World’s Most Confusing for the outstanding issue #352 the following year. In all, eight of Simonson’s issues featured alternate taglines.
Perhaps the most notable element of Simonson’s too-brief run was that he was more interested in exploring plots and stories than characters and powers. Other than restoring Ben back to Thing-dom and having Sue rise above water on her forcefield, there’s no development or even real attention given to their abilities. In fact, other than a single solitary panel in #353 and the cover of #344 the only part of his body that Reed stretches is his arms. The once aptly-named Mr. Fantastic is reconfigured as a voyager on self-perpetuated hard SF tales, his companions wonderfully recreated but locked in perpetuity as developing characters. The Simonson era was one of my favourite periods of the book to revisit for this site, but in terms of what could be dubbed the book’s three “core values” – interpersonal relationships, superpowers and child audience identification – it was perhaps lacking.
Required Reading: Much of Walt Simonson’s work is refreshingly self-contained. The time bubble plotline previously referenced in Steve Englehart’s run is again brought up here, though if you’re reading along on a year-by-year basis you’ll have read Avengers #296-#297 already, right?
As referenced earlier, the Annual’s main story continues into the following annuals: X-Factor Annual #5, New Mutants Annual #9 and Uncanny X-Men Annual #14. As for the regular title, then for the first time a UK comic is referenced, with Death’s Head #9 unfairly paraded before the majority US audience with a “good luck, collectors”. (#338). The Black Celestial – one of the few “big” Marvel villains of the Kirby period to not originate in the FF’s title – comes from The Eternals limited series and also look out for The Seekers in the sub-par fill-in issue (#342) who originally featured in Iron Man #214.
Finally, while not essential, then an intriguing short 12-page story featured in the 24th Spider-Man annual (****), featuring The Wizard and The Trapster escaping from prison and watching over the Sandman with plans to reinstate the Frightful Four. The Sandman story also featured him attending an ice hockey game with Ben...