It Came from the 1990s: The Power of Shazam part two

I’m continuing my retrospective of the fantastic comic book series The Power of Shazam published by DC Comics from 1995 to 1999. You can find the first part here.

Today I’m looking at the second year of the title. The regular creative team is the same as before: writer & cover artist Jerry Ordway, penciler Peter Krause, inker Mike Manley, letterer John Costanza, colorist Glenn Whitmore, assistant editor Chris Duffy, and editor Mike Carlin.

Actually, this is where I first came in.

Yes, it’s true, I did not read the graphic novel when it originally came out in 1994, or the first 13 issues of the ongoing series. But I kept hearing such positive things about the series, so when issue #14 came out with guest pencils by the legendary Gil Kane, I decided to give it a try.

Freddy Freeman, aka Captain Marvel Junior, was a popular guy and a jock before he was crippled by Captain Nazi and then received powers from Billy Batson and Mary Bromfield, the two Captains Marvel. So when Freddy starts showing some interest in Mary in issue #13, Billy becomes extremely overprotective. Billy and Freddy end up coming to blows, and Freddy leaves Fawcett City.

Issue #14 picks up on Freddy, who has arrived in New York City. He encounters Chain Lightning, another teen metahuman, although she suffers from some form of multiple personality disorder, which makes her very dangerous & unpredictable.

Ordway did a great job writing a story that was simultaneously a stand-alone tale, and which also brought new readers such as myself up to speed on what had happened before. That sort of skill has unfortunately become rare in mainstream superhero comics. I found #14 a really engaging issue with great artwork by Kane, so I came back a month later for #15, and I was hooked. I subsequently sought out the graphic novel and the previous issues.

Thinking about it, I was probably also intrigued by the clever “cereal box” house ad that DC ran featuring Ordway’s cover painting for the upcoming issue #16 to promote the Mister Mind storyline. Now that is how you promote a comic book!

Mister Mind was the “big bad” behind the lengthy “Monster Society of Evil” serial that Fawcett Comics published back in the 1940s. Eventually revealed to be a tiny, cartoony-looking worm, Mister Mind’s cute appearance belied the fact that he was a cold-blooded killer. Nevertheless, I really don’t think the character would have worked in that form in the 1990s. Ordway reimagines Mister Mind as the vanguard of a race of millions of telepathic worms from Venus which possess a shared consciousness.

Just like his Golden Age namesake, this modern “Mister Mind” and his race plot to take over the world. The worms have a plan that manages to be simultaneously brilliant and ridiculous, specifically taking over the mind of Billy’s miserly uncle Ebenezer to build a giant casino in Fawcett City, and then have Captain Marvel’s arch-enemy Doctor Sivana teleport the worms from Venus to Earth where they can take over the people who come from across the country to visit the casino. In a tip of the hat to the original Captain Marvel stories, the casino’s mascot is the original cartoony version of Mister Mind.

The worms all speak in an alien language which could be translated via a decoder card that readers got for free by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to DC Comics. Yes, I sent away for one, and yes, I still have it. Maybe it’s no Captain Midnight Decoder Ring, but it’s still pretty cool.

Mike Carlin informed me on Facebook that John Costanza is the one who lettered the Mister Mind Alphabet.

Also in these issues, much to Bill Batson’s chagrin, the Wizard Shazam decides to leave the Rock of Eternity to once more live among humanity… which means posing as Billy’s grandfather and moving in with him.

The Power of Shazam #17 features one last flashback sequence penciled by Silver Age legend Curt Swan, who had previously contributed to issues #8 and #11. This segment reveals exactly how Doctor Sivana and Mister Mind came to be working together. Issue #17 was released in June 1996, the month Swan passed away, making it among the last art he drew. It demonstrates he was doing solid work right up to the end.

I’m glad that Ordway included this sequence, because it helps fill in the gap between the graphic novel and the first issue of the ongoing series. Billy Batson and Sivana barely interact in the graphic novel, but when the monthly series begins four years have passed and Sivana is now Captain Marvel’s arch enemy, as well as one of the few people who know he’s actually Billy. So this segment gives some info on how they became such bitter adversaries, and how Sivana went from being a shady tycoon to a mad scientist on the run from the law.

Another highlight of this four issue story arc is Captain Marvel donning a Wallace Wood-inspired spacesuit for the journey to Venus… where he discovers that Sivana has obviously been raiding Tony Stark’s wardrobe!

Krause & Manley do their usual superb work on issues #15-17, with Manley stepping up to contribute both pencils & inks for the wrap-up in issue #18.

Around this time a couple of other books related to The Power of Shazam came out. The first of these was Showcase ’96 #7 (August 1996), a team-up between Mary Bromfield / Captain Marvel and the vigilante Gangbuster, who Ordway created with writer Marv Wolfman in Adventures of Superman a decade earlier. This enabled Ordway to continue the storyline of Gangbuster being on the run from the law that had been set up in the Superman books and continued through a previous issue of the Showcase anthology. It also allows Mary to again step into the spotlight and demonstrate she is just as much a hero as her brother.

Looking at this story again in 2022, it was a pleasant surprise to see journalist Cat Grant also appeared in it. I miss how Cat was written back in the 1990s as an intelligent, caring person. I really didn’t like how she was depicted when she was brought back in 2008 with a completely different, and very ugly, personality.

Art on the Captain Marvel / Gangbuster story was by penciler John Statema & inker Mike DeCarlo, with letters by Ken Bruzenak and colors by Dave Grafe. Will Rosado & Klaus Janson drew the dynamic cover which shows Mary and Gangbuster facing off against the superhuman pyromaniac the Arson Fiend.

Also released was The Power of Shazam Annual #1 which… hey, wait a minute! I’ve never read this one before! What gives?

Seriously, all these years later I can’t remember why I didn’t get the annual when it came out. It’s possible I never saw it. Or maybe, since it was around the time that I was deciding to start reading the series, I skipped it to focus on the regular issues.

Of course, it’s equally possible that I simply didn’t get it because of the whole “Legends of the Dead Earth” theme of stories set in the far, far distant future that ran through all of DC Comics’ annuals in the Summer of 1996. At the time 17 year old was me was unfortunately hung up on continuity, on whether or not stories were “real” and “actually happened,” and it seemed to me that Legends of the Dead Earth was Elseworlds in all but name, and therefore “didn’t count.” Which was pretty damn silly of me, because years later I read several of those annuals and found them to be entertaining mash-ups of superheroes, pulp sci-fi & fantasy. What can I say? I was a foolish teenager back in 1996.

And, ironically, The Power of Shazam Annual #1 actually “did count” as it introduced teenager CeCe Beck (named after the first Captain Marvel artist C.C. Beck) who transformed into Thunder, an incarnation of Captain Marvel over six thousand years in the future, and who went on to make several more appearances. She even hung out with the Legion of Super-Heroes for a while. Shows what I know!

Since I was doing this reread of the entire series, I finally tracked down this annual and, wow, it’s really good! Writer & cover painter Ordway does a superb job of really subverting a familiar formula. The “plucky rebels fighting an oppressive evil empire” trope gets upended as we see that the resistance has committed some morally questionable acts, with one of their leaders being responsible for the deaths of Beck’s parents. There are people living in the regular society who are perfectly happy with their existence, so simply overthrowing the existing order is only going to make a bad situation worse. Inspector Javert, despite being named after the antagonist from Les Miserables, turns out to be a reasonable authority figure. Beck realizes that both sides need to find a way to co-exist.

Regular inker Mike Manley here turns in some really nice animated-style pencils, neatly balancing the fun and dystopian elements of Ordway’s story. Manley is effectively inked by John Nyberg. John Costanza and Glenn Whitmore once again turn in quality letters and colors.

So, yes, this one was definitely a very unexpected gem!

Returning to the ongoing monthly series, we now get to The Power of Shazam #19. I only have one issue from this series autographed, and it’s this one.

Following up on the Captain Marvel Junior story from a few months earlier, issue #19 sees Freddy Freeman visiting S.T.A.R. Labs to check up on Chain Lighting, and to receive treatment for his own injuries from Dr. Caitlin Rousso.

Caitlin accidentally lets slip that Captain Nazi is being held at S.T.A.R. Labs until he can be transported back to Europe to stand trial for war crimes. Freddy, seeking vengeance, busts out Nazi and takes him to an abandoned industrial area, only to realize that, as much as he wants, he cannot bring himself to kill his enemy in cold blood. Unfortunately Nazi takes the opportunity to escape, and now it’s up to Freddy, working alongside middle aged superhero & World War II veteran Minute Man to recapture the superpowered fascist.

Gil Kane, who penciled issue #14, returns for this story. Regrettably this time Kane was only able to complete the first half of the issue. Joe Staton, another great artist, as well as a personal favorite of me, stepped in to pencil the second half. Around this time Staton was also helping Kane complete the pencils for the graphic novel The Life Story of the Flash, which was published in 1997.

I got this one autographed by Kane the one time I was fortunate enough to meet him, and subsequently had Ordway and Staton add their signatures. Hopefully one of these days I will also get the opportunity to also have this issue signed by Manley.

The first year and a half of The Power of Shazam was pretty much self-contained. Ordway understandably wanted to take the time to introduce Billy Batson, Mary Bromfield, Freddy Freeman and the rest of the cast, to tell his own stories. Fortunately DC allowed him the opportunity to do just that. Yes, Captain Marvel popped over to the Underworld Unleashed event in-between issues, but it was done in such a way that if you didn’t read that crossover you really wouldn’t have missed anything.

Starting with issue #20, though, Ordway starts linking The Power of Shazam with the rest of DC Universe. A tie-in with The Final Night crossover brings in guest star Superman, a character Ordway is, of course, very familiar with. But even here Ordway uses the crisis of the Sun Eater as the impetus to have Captain Marvel Junior return to Fawcett City and bury the hatchet with the rest of the Marvel Family, and to engage in some nice character development.

Issue #21 features a wacky guest appearance by Plastic Man. The artwork by Krause & Manley is really well-suited to the oddball humor of Pas and his sidekick Woozy Winks. There were some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments in this one.

Then in issue #22 Batman stops by Fawcett City to investigate organized crime. Billy’s already got gym class and homework and a school bully on his plate, but when the Dark Knight tells you he expects you to meet up with him, well, what can you do?

Issue #23 sees Ordway introduce another post-Crisis revamp of an old Captain Marvel enemy, the radioactive robot Mister Atom. The story also once again showcases how the series has become an ensemble piece. Billy and Mary are pretty much equal co-stars, and both of them are referred to as Captain Marvel. “Mary Marvel” is only a nickname that Billy calls Mary; everyone else refers to her as “Captain Marvel Lady” or “the Lady Marvel” or variations thereof. Even the opening narration refers to Mary as Captain Marvel.

Speaking of the opening, the double page spread on this issue by Krause & Manley is gorgeous.

I do have to admit, on first reading issue #23 did feel like somewhat of a throwaway story… but about 15 months down the line it turned out to be very significant to the series. Ordway did a good job of setting up plotlines & character arcs on this series that would pay off later.

Oh, yeah, among the various mindless missives printed in this issue’s lettercol is some inane drivel by a Ben Herman of Harrison, New York. I think I heard that guy later moved to Queens, NYC and started writing long, rambling blog posts 😼

The second year of The Power of Shazam came to a close with issue #24. It has a gorgeous pulp-style painted cover from Ordway. Krause & Manley do a fine job illustrating the flashback adventure within.

The now-retired costumed hero Spy Smasher is recounting to Billy & Mary an incident from back during the Cold War when he worked with their late father, archaeologist Clarence Charles Batson, to retrieve an ancient artifact known as the Scorpion from East Germany. Once the property of the Wizard, the Scorpion has the potential to be an incredibly powerful weapon, so naturally both the Communists and a group of Nazi war criminals also want to get their grubby mitts on it.

After several very close calls, including a fight with the armored Baron Blitzkrieg, CC and Spy Smasher at last escape from behind the Iron Curtain with the Scorpion. Spy Smasher wraps up his tale… just in time for Billy & Mary’s father to arrive and tell them it’s time to come home, because their mother is making dinner.

Holy moley! What in the name of Shazam is going on? Aren’t Clarence & Marilyn Batson dead? How can any of this be happening? What a cliffhanger!

I’ll be looking at what happens next in an upcoming post when I cover the third year of The Power of Shazam. I hope you’ll come back for it!

It Came from the 1990s: The Power of Shazam

Last month I started doing a re-read of The Power of Shazam comic book series that was published by DC Comics for four years between 1995 and 1999. One of the reasons why I like to do this “It Came from the 1990s” feature here on this blog is because the decade as a whole tends to get a bad rap among comic book fans. There were some great comic books published during the 1990s, and The Power of Shazam, which was written by Jerry Ordway for its entire run, is among the very best.

The Power of Shazam features Billy Batson, the original Golden Age version of Captain Marvel originally published by Fawcett Comics from 1939 to 1953 before DC Comics ultimately litigated them out of existence, with the character subsequently being acquired by DC itself two decades later. Ordway’s run is often regarded as the best incarnation of the character since the original Golden Age version.

The Power of Shazam actually started out as a standalone graphic novel written, drawn & painted by Jerry Ordway, with lettering by John Costanza, that DC published in early 1994. Coming off the Superman family of titles, on which he regularly worked in the late 1980s and early 90s, Ordway set out to tell the definitive post-Crisis on Infinite Earths origin of Billy Batson / Captain Marvel.

The graphic novel initially opens in the Egyptian desert several years in the past. Husband and wife archaeologists Charles Clarence Batson & Marilyn Batson are excavating a previously-undiscovered tomb. With them is Theo Adam, an agent of the expedition’s financier Thaddeus Sivana. In a hidden chamber the trio discovers a sarcophagus with a beautiful scarab necklace. The thuggish Adam becomes strangely fixated on the scarab. He brutally murders C.C. and Marilyn, but not before Marilyn hides the scarab inside her daughter Mary’s stuffed Tawky Tawny doll. Adam kidnaps Mary and flees back to America.

Some months later the Batsons’ other child, ten year old Billy, is living on the streets of Fawcett City, his inheritance having been stolen by his miserly Uncle Ebenezer. A ghostly figure beckons to Billy one rainy night, leading him into a subway tunnel which is connected to the other-dimensional Rock of Eternity, the home of the ancient Wizard Shazam. The Wizard bids Billy to say his name. Calling out “Shazam!” Billy is transformed into the super-powered adult form of Captain Marvel.

The understandably confused & angry Billy takes some time to adjust to this new body and its amazing powers, but he soon finds himself on a collision course with Theo Adam, who is revealed to be reincarnation of Black Adam, the Wizard’s original champion from ancient times who was corrupted by his awesome powers. Finally locating the mystic scarab, Theo transforms into Black Adam for the first time in the modern age.

Billy defeats Adam and resists the temptation to exact vengeance against the man who murdered his parents. The Wizard robs Adam of his powers & ability to speak. The figure who led Billy to the Rock of Eternity is none other than the ghost of Billy’s father, who drops enough clues to cause Billy to realize his sister Mary is still alive somewhere.

Ordway did a superb job updating the concept of Captain Marvel for the 1990s while still retaining much of the charm & whimsy of the original stories. Ordway’s painted artwork on the graphic novel was stunning.

The graphic novel was a huge success and DC greenlit an ongoing monthly series which made its debut in early 1995. Leaping forward four years to the “present day” the series features the now 14 year old Billy still attempting to juggle the life of a teen with the powers of Captain Marvel. Complicating matters, Billy continues to hide the fact that his uncle threw him out on the streets, because he doesn’t want to end up in foster care or an orphanage.

In addition to writing The Power of Shazam series, Ordway created gorgeous painted covers for each issue. The new art team was Peter Krause on pencils / layouts and Mike Manley on inks / finishes. John Costanza returns as letterer, with coloring by Glen Whitmore. Rounding things out were assistant editor Chris Duffy and editor Mike Carlin.

The first 12 issues of the monthly title formed a complete story arc. Billy at last discovers his long-missing sister Mary, who has been adopted by her mother’s cousin Nora and her husband Nick Bromfield. Mary is prompted by the magically animated Tawky Tawny stuffed animal to call out the magic work “Shazam” also gaining the Wizard’s powers.

Billy and Mary are reunited and befriend fellow teen Freddy Freeman. When Freddy is crippled by the superpowered fascist Captain Nazi, the Batson siblings share the powers given to them by the Wizard with their friend, enabling him to become Captain Marvel Jr. With the intro of first Mary as a second Captain Marvel, and then Freddy Freeman as Captain Marvel Jr, The Power of Shazam quickly became an ensemble title.

Just as he did with Bill Batson, Ordway does fantastic work with the character of Mary Bromfield. In certain respects Mary actually makes a better Captain Marvel than Billy, with the Wizard telling her:

“You have shown an intuitive grasp of my powers, Mary… in many ways, using them better than your brother had, when he first received them.”

It actually makes sense that Mary has that ability, as she was adopted by the Bromfields and given a loving, stable upbringing, whereas poor Billy was thrown out by his greedy uncle, forcing the young boy to survive by his wits on the streets of Fawcett City. I like that Ordway shows the siblings having very different approaches to crimefighting. Ordway also did a superb job rendering Mary on the book’s painted covers.

I definitely want to acknowledge the work of Peter Krause. I’d classify Krause as one of those good, solid artists who can turn in clear, dynamic pages on a deadline. I think if Krause had been around 20 years earlier he probably would have been one of the top artists of the Bronze Age. Regrettably by the mid 1990s his sort of art style had mostly fallen out of fashion. Fortunately this series was the perfect venue for Krause’s work.

Krause perfectly balanced the action & drama with the comedy & whimsy. He was equally adept at drawing dynamic action sequences as he was at bringing to life the humorous characters & moments in Ordway’s stories such as all of the really fun Tawky Tawny scenes. Manley’s finishes superbly complemented Krause’s pencils. They made a top-notch art team.

Silver and Bronze Age legend Curt Swan penciled a flashback sequence in The Power of Shazam #8 featuring Bulletman, Minute Man and Spy Smasher mixing it up with the diabolical Captain Nazi and his goosestepping lackeys during World War II. Swan’s lovely traditional style is a good fit for this segment, and Mike Manley’s inking complements his work really well.

Ordway himself pencils a pair of flashbacks in issue #10 and #12, which reveal the origin of the Wizard Shazam and his role in the history of Fawcett City and the Batson Family. We discover the Wizard had an origin very much like Billy, when as a young boy his family was murdered by bandits thousands of years ago in the Middle East. Entreating to the gods for the power to fight against injustice, the future Shazam became a champion in the region, protecting the innocent, allowing civilization to flourish.

Unfortunately, much as would one day happen to his successor Black Adam, the Wizard became overconfident, and his arrogance led to him being seduced by a beautiful demonic temptress. The inhuman seductress then gives birth to twins, the diabolical siblings Blaze and Satanus, who had previously been introduced in the Superman books during Ordway’s time on them.

Much of the events in the first year of The Power of Shazam revolves around Blaze’s efforts to undo the good works of her father the Wizard Shazam, and her brother Satanus’ own machinations to prevent his sister from becoming the ruling monarch of Hell.

The graphic novel and first 12 issues of The Power of Shazam were collected together by DC Comics in 2020 in the hardcover In the Beginning. There are tentative plans for a second collection, which I really hope will materialize, because it would be great if eventually the entire series got reprinted.

In any case, I’ll be looking at the second year of The Power of Shazam in a future blog post. Maybe I’ll do one post for each year of the series? I guess I’ll see how it goes. Anyway, I’m really enjoying this reread, and I hope those of you who follow this blog will enjoy my retrospectives of this great series.

Looking back at the Fantastic Four’s 25th Anniversary

This year Marvel Comics is celebrating their 80th anniversary with the release of Marvel Comics #1000 and a number of specials reuniting older creative teams.  The occasion prompted me to take a look back at 1986 in general, and at Fantastic Four #296 in particular, when Marvel celebrated their 25th anniversary.

Fantastic Four 296 cover

I’m sure at least a few people are wondering “How in the name of Irving Forbush could Marvel have celebrated their 25th anniversary in 1986 and then only 33 years later be celebrating their 80th?!?”

The fact is Marvel Comics actually has two anniversaries.  The first is for late August 1939 when Timely Comics, the company that would one day be known as Marvel, released their very first comic book, Marvel Comics #1 (with an October cover date).  The second is for early August 1961 when the first issue of Fantastic Four was published (with a November cover date) ushering in what is now known as the “Marvel era” or the “modern Marvel universe” that has been in continuous publication to the present day.

Marvel Comics 1 cover 1939 smallThis, of course, is very convenient for Marvel Comics, as it gives them not one but two historic anniversaries to celebrate every few years with high-profile specials and reprints, as well as the accompanying publicity.

In any case, back in 1986 it was the 25th anniversary of the debut of Fantastic Four #1 by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.  Marvel made a fairly big deal of it, with Marvel Saga and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition offering in-depth explorations of the characters’ histories (in the days before trade paperbacks and the internet both of these titles were invaluable resources to young fans such as myself).  Marvel’s then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter also launched the New Universe with much fanfare, but due to various behind-the-scenes events that line ultimately did not last long.

Another part of the celebration was that all of Marvel’s comics released in August 1986 featured cover portraits of their lead characters, surrounded by a border of character illustrations, the latter of which were drawn by longtime Marvel artist John Romita.  A gallery of these covers can be viewed on Sean Kleefeld’s blog.

This finally brings us to the main subject of this post, namely Fantastic Four #296, the big 25th anniversary issue commemorating the birth of the Marvel era. This 64 page story was plotted by Jim Shooter, scripted by Stan Lee, lettered by John Workman, colored by Glynis Oliver, and edited by Mike Carlin.  It was drawn by a very impressive roster of artists: Barry Windsor-Smith, Kerry Gammill, Vince Colletta, Ron Frenz, Bob Wiacek, Al Milgrom, Klaus Janson, John Buscema, Steve Leialoha, Marc Silvestri, Josef Rubinstein, Jerry Ordway & Joe Sinnott.Fantastic Four 1 cover small

The set-up for “Homecoming” is a bit on the convoluted side.  A couple of years earlier, during the lengthy run by John Byrne that immediately preceded it, Ben Grimm aka the Thing had been written out of the book, and She-Hulk had come onboard the fill his spot.  In recent issues the Thing had been lurking at the periphery, as Byrne was setting the stage for him to finally return to the team in their 25th anniversary story.  But then Byrne abruptly departed Marvel, going over to DC Comics to do a high-profile reboot of Superman.  This left Shooter and Lee sort of scrambling to pick up the pieces, to tell a story that makes sense with what Byrne had recently been doing.

As FF #296 opens, the Thing is despondent.  His ex-girlfriend Alicia Masters is now dating Johnny Storm, the Human Torch.  The Thing, who resembles a large pile of orange rocks, feels more disconnected from humanity than ever.  After brooding in the rain at the site where Reed Richards’ rocket ship crashed years before, and the team all first gained their powers, Ben decides to exile himself to Monster Isle, home to the FF’s very first foe, the Mole Man, who himself has been ostracized by humanity.

Days later the rest of the team learn from pilot Hopper Hertnecky where their friend & teammate has gotten off to.  Hopper reiterates to them the Thing’s longtime frustration that while Reed, Sue and Johnny all gained amazing powers from the cosmic rays that bombarded their spaceflight, Ben was horrifically mutated.  Reed once again begins to beat himself up over his role in his best friend Ben becoming a monster.  However this time Sue bluntly states that this time Ben is unfairly taking out his frustrations on Reed, that whatever Reed did or did not do, he has attempted on numerous occasions over the years to help Ben, to find a permanent cure for him.

Motivated by Sue’s words, Reed decides he needs to see Ben one last time, to settle their argument once and for all.  Sue and Johnny insist on accompanying him.  She-Hulk and Wyatt Wingfoot, however, choose to remain behind, realizing that this is a family matter, and as close to the team as both of them are, they haven’t been there since the very beginning.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 9
Artwork by Kerry Gammill, Vince Colletta & Barry Windsor-Smith

Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Woman and the Human Torch journey to Monster Isle.  They are quickly attacked by the Mole Man’s army of strange monsters.  They are brought before the Thing, who has taken to dressing like the Mole Man.  Ben tells the others they shouldn’t have come, this is his home now.  He tells them that he is going to help the Mole Man create a safe haven for outcasts of society.

Ben is convinced of the Mole Man’s altruism, but he begins to experience doubts when Alicia unexpectedly arrives.  The blind woman coerced Hopper into flying her to Monster Isle, so that she can make her peace with Ben.  Learning that Alicia has broken up with Ben, and that Ben has been showing the rest of the team around the subterranean domain, the Mole Man’s bitterness & paranoia inflame.  He has his servants kidnap & disfigure the Human Torch as punishment for Johnny “stealing” Alicia from Ben.

As upset as Ben is about Alicia being with Johnny, this nevertheless shocks & disturbs the Thing’s confidence in the Mole Man.  Ben’s faith is further shaken when Reed explains that the earth-moving device the Mole Man intends to use to create an island refuge for humanity’s freaks & outsiders will cause devastation to the mainland.

At long last Ben realizes that no matter how noble Mole Man’s motives might be, he is nevertheless a disturbed, dangerous fanatic.  The Thing joins with the others to wreck the Mole Man’s machines, and to restore Johnny to normal.  As the subterranean headquarters beneath Monster Isle crumble, they make a break for it.  The issue ends as they are rescued by Hopper in a rubber raft.  A grumbling Ben reluctantly admits that his place is with the team, and at long last the Fantastic Four are reunited.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 19
Artwork by Ron Frenz & Bob Wiacek

The plot by Jim Shooter is a solid one, in that it achieves two primary goals: It commemorates the anniversary & history of the Fantastic Four, and it gets the original line-up back together for the first time in two and a half years.  Perhaps it’s not the best FF issue I’ve ever read, or the most imaginative, but it’s entertaining.

The script by Fantastic Four co-creator Stan Lee is also good.  In later decades Lee sometimes became almost a parody of himself, with his whole “Face front, true believers!” bombastic, tongue-in-cheek style of prose and promotion.  Some of that is certainly on display here.  However, as the editor and the main writer / scripter at Marvel throughout the 1960s, Lee was largely responsible for giving most of the company’s characters their distinctive voices & personalities. Looking at this story it is apparent that he had remained capable of poignant, dramatic writing, especially if paired up with a talented artist / collaborator.  Lee’s opening narration and dialogue for FF #296 is very effective and combined with the art by Barry Windsor-Smith results in a genuinely moody, atmospheric scene.

Speaking of the artists, there are some distinctive choices on display in FF #296.  The aforementioned work by Windsor-Smith immediately set the tone.  On several pages the story cuts back & forth between his art and a flashback of the FF’s origin drawn by Kerry Gammill & Vince Colletta.  It definitely offers an interesting contrast.

In general I am not overly fond of Colletta’s inking.  Nevertheless, back in the mid 1960s he did ink several of the Lee & Kirby FF issues, and his work on this story in conjunction with Gammill’s pencils evokes a Silver Age feel that is very well suited to a retelling of the events of the team’s first story.

There are several pages by the team of Ron Frenz & Bob Wiacek.  Frenz is a very solid, effective storyteller, so he is certainly well-suited to dramatically render scenes that feature a significant amount of exposition and character moments.  Wiacek is one of the best inkers in the biz, and his finishes complement Frenz’s pencils.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 26
Artwork by Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson

I also enjoyed the pages by Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson.  They are two artists with very different styles, yet the combination works very well.  Milgrom’s super-hero oriented penciling is very effective for rendering the team fighting the Mole Man’s weird, wacky monsters, and Janson’s inking gives it a darker, gritty feel.

The next pairing, John Buscema inked by Steve Leialoha, is a bit odd.  Both are incredibly talented artists, to be certain.  In addition, Buscema was the first regular penciler on FF after Kirby left the title, doing really good work during the early 1970s, so he’s an appropriate choice to contribute to this issue.  Nevertheless, I do feel Leialoha’s inks sort of subsume Buscema’s characteristic style.  Of course, it is possible that Big John was only contributing layouts, something that became more prevalent for him in the 1980s, leaving it up to Leialoha to do the lion’s share, and resulting in more of his style coming through.

I think that under any other circumstances the team of Buscema & Leialoha would have been very effective.  It’s just that here, on this particular story, a somewhat more traditional inker might have been a better fit for Big John.  But that’s purely an emotional, sentimental judgment on my part.  At the very least, this does demonstrate once again just how significant an impact the inker can have on the finished artwork.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 36
Artwork by John Buscema & Steve Leialoha

The next segment is by then up-and-coming penciler Marc Silvestri and established inker Josef Rubinstein.  This was a year before Silvestri would begin his well-received run on Uncanny X-Men, but there’s definitely a lot of potential on display, with solid action & effective storytelling, and it’s apparent why he soon became a hot artist.  Rubinstein’s inking ably supports the young penciler.

Rounding out the issue is Jerry Ordway on pencils and Bob Wiacek & Joe Sinnott on inks.  It was certainly very appropriate to have Sinnott involved in this issue.  He had a long, acclaimed association with the Fantastic Four series.  Sinnott inked the second half of Lee & Kirby’s long FF run, and is generally regarded as one of the best inkers ever paired with Kirby.  After Kirby left Marvel, Sinnott continued as the book’s inker for over a decade, working over John Buscema and several other pencilers, right up until the beginning of Byrne’s run.

That said, in my mind Ordway inked by Sinnott was another unusual choice.  Sinnott is an inker whose work is almost always recognizable, no matter who he inks.  Ordway, however, is one of those pencilers whose style is so strong & distinctive that, no matter who inks his pencils, the finished artwork basically looks the same.  To my untrained eyes Ordway inked by Sinnott does not look much different that Ordway inking himself, or Ordway inked by Wiacek or Al Gordon or Dennis Janke or anyone else.

Of course, this may also be down to Ordway and Sinnott having similar styles.  Ordway has cited Sinnott as one of his major influences.

Oh, well… I’m probably quibbling.  The pages by Ordway, Wiacek & Sinnott look great, and that’s the important thing.  Ordway has stated that growing up in the 1960s he was a huge Marvel fan, so it must have been a thrill for him to work on several issues of Fantastic Four around this time, especially this anniversary story.

In any case, the back cover artwork is by John Buscema & Joe Sinnott.  It’s a really nice image that showcases both artists’ styles, and really evokes the early Bronze Age era of the title.  So that gives us a really good example of “traditional” FF artwork.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 43
Artwork by Marc Silvestri & Josef Rubinstein

However, there are two individuals who were not involved with Fantastic Four #296.  The first is Jack Kirby.  The second is John Byrne.

Kirby is, of course, the co-creator of Fantastic Four.  He co-plotted & penciled the first 102 regular issues of the series, as well as the first six annuals.  Kirby’s role in the creation & development of the Marvel universe cannot possible be overstated.

Unfortunately in 1986 Kirby was involved in a protracted battle with Marvel’s owners over both the rights to the characters he helped create and the thousands of pages of original artwork he had drawn for the comics.  This made his participation in this anniversary issue impossible.  Even if Marvel had asked him to contribute, given how angry he felt at his mistreatment by the company I am sure he would have refused, and I certainly would not have blamed him.

As for Byrne, he is often credited with the revitalization of the Fantastic Four title.  The writing on FF throughout the 1970s is generally regarded as uneven.  Byrne came onboard as writer & artist with issue #232 in 1981, and very quickly made the FF into an exciting, popular series.  His time on the book is frequently compared to the original Lee & Kirby run.

However, once again real-world events intruded.  By 1986 Byrne and Shooter were not on good terms and, as previously mentioned, this led to Byrne abruptly leaving Fantastic Four.  His last full issue was #293, released just three months earlier.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 64
Artwork by Jerry Ordway & Joe Sinnott

I doubt that back in late 1986 any of this impacted on my reading of Fantastic Four #296 in the slightest way.  As I said before, this was pre-internet, so I had no way of easily finding out about all of these events.

Nowadays, though, I have a much greater knowledge of the history of the Fantastic Four series, and an awareness of what was going on at Marvel in the mid 1980s.  So when I re-read this issue a couple of weeks ago, the absences of Jack Kirby, who co-created the first decade of the book, and John Byrne, who had just come off a five year run that saw a creative renaissance, felt especially conspicuous, as well as exceedingly unfortunate.

Not to jump on an anti-Marvel bandwagon, but I certainly understand why over the past three decades so many artists & writers have chosen to go the creator-owned route.  After all, if Marvel can screw over Kirby, the guy who created many of their characters, well, they’re certainly not going to hesitate to kick anyone else to the curb, either.  Far better to retain ownership of your characters and benefit fully from their success, no matter how modest, than to create a runaway hit for Marvel (or DC Comics, for that matter) and see other people make millions of dollars off your creativity.

Having said all that, I do still enjoy a few Marvel and DC books, such as Fantastic Four (the current run written by Dan Slott is the best the book has been in a long time).  I just believe that it’s absolutely crucial for anyone who wants to work for the Big Two to go in with their eyes open, to know exactly what their rights are, and to be fully aware of the history of the industry, so that they do not find themselves in the same position that Kirby and so many others unfortunately did.

Fantastic Four 296 back cover
Artwork by John Buscema & Joe Sinnott

One other note:  Back in 1986, I was 10 years old, and the idea that Marvel was celebrating its 25th anniversary was a little difficult to comprehend.  To me 1961 seemed so incredibly far in the past.

Contrast this to a couple of years ago, when Image Comics celebrated their 25th anniversary.  My first reaction was that there was absolutely no way Image could be 25 years old, and it was impossible for 1992 to have been a quarter of a century ago.

I guess it’s just one of those matters of personal perspective.  Anything that happened before you were born is automatically ancient history, and anything that happened during your lifetime, even if it was decades ago, still feels like the recent past because you were there and experienced it firsthand.