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Fantastic Four: The Janus View

2011 August 8

So today is apparently the 50th anniversary of The Fantastic Four. (Or rather, what I’m guessing will be the first of multiple commemorations over the next few months.) I’ve written about the FF a number of times already, but I suppose that I should post something. This is probably going to be a busy week or so, but I can spare time for a few brief notes.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this anniversary, from my perspective, is that we’re now (nearly) as far removed from this as it was removed from the debut issue in 1961:

Cover of Fantastic Four #296

Main art by Barry Windsor-Smith

That is, chronologically at least, Fantastic Four #296 from back in 1986 is now a halfway point between then and now. Which feels odd to me, mostly because of my own chronology: I was eight years old when this issue was published, although I didn’t acquire it until several years later. I began reading comics in earnest in 1991, and as a result I have this perpetual notion of anything published since 1991 as more or less “contemporary,” anything from the 1980s as “recent-ish” and anything before say 1981 as “way back when.”

As the years have gone by, of course, I’ve been repeatedly confronted with the realization that various “contemporary” comics I bought as a teenager are now as far “back when” as were various back issues I purchased at the time. Sometimes I feel like arguing that well, there’s still more commonality among my more and more broadly-defined “contemporary” comics than between the oldest of them and the “back when” comics. And sometimes I can even sorta-kinda convince myself of this.

Regarding Fantastic Four #296, though, as a graphic artifact it’s probably very much the “halfway point” in the 50 years of Fantastic Four comics stretching from 1961 to 2011.

Admittedly, I don’t have Fantastic Four #1 here to examine, except in replica form, but there are a lot of commonalities between the two which are not shared with any of this year’s issues of the series. For one thing, FF #296 is printed on newsprint; take it out of its bag and you can smell the old paper. The paper is probably a bit better than they used in 1961, but still far different from the coated paper used today.

The coloring is another obvious link with the past. The color palette available in 1986 had advanced some from what was available in 1961, but since then coated paper and more importantly computer software have resulted in a quantum leap. In terms of visual production sophistication, an issue of The Fantastic Four from 2011 is like, say, Finding Nemo, while by comparison the 1st and 296th issues are both more like “Steamboat Willie.”

Issue #296 of The Fantastic Four has no ads, but if it did those would provide an interesting comparison as well. Issue #295 does include one photographic ad, on the outside back cover, but the interior ads basically use only line art illustration.

Consulting the Marvel Milestone facsimile of Fantastic Four #1, I see that there actually is some photographic artwork used in the ads, but only the coarsest of black and white halftones.

I also note, looking at FF #1, that the panel layouts are really just about as variable as in #296; in a typical modern issue you would really expect some borderless art, layering, or something like that. (Perhaps Kirby was really pushing it in FF #1, for the time, though; FF #5 seems to have more regular grids of six or nine panels.) A modern comic will also have full-bleed artwork available.

On the other hand, I think FF #296 definitely reflects the trend from relatively “cartoonish” art to, at least as a prevalent style, more time-consuming and finely detailed art. The opening pages by Barry Windsor-Smith do a good deal to give this impression, admittedly, but (FF #296 was a “jam book” with several artists) pretty much all of the book’s art is significantly more intricate than FF #1; more texture, far more panels with backgrounds, etc. I think this constitutes a very significant visual “distancing” from the series’ 1961 debut, while at the same time indicating a similar distance from today’s comics.

It’s also interesting to regard the cover of #296, which was part of a 25th anniversary celebration by Marvel as a whole; I believe all of their November 1986 comics featured the same star-character border surrounding a close-up of one character’s head. (I have the relevant issue of The Transformers, which always struck me as a particularly bizarre result.) Looking back over 50 years, today, this seems like a relatively modern idea, though of course nowadays there would probably be multiple covers rather than just one.

The typography in editorial and “house ad” pages from 25 years ago also looks neither prehistoric nor contemporary; by 1986 Marvel obviously had machine typesetting at its disposal as well as a variety of typefaces, marking quite some advance over the options of the early 60s. At the same time, the typography of FF #296, like the coloring, still screams its pre-computer origins.

On balance, then, the 25th anniversary of The Fantastic Four does seem quite a bit like a Janus figure, visually pointing at both 1961 and 2011 from a point in the middle.

I have no idea whether or not there will still be an ongoing Fantastic Four comic book in 2036, which would make the series 75 and make me 58; the idea seems kind of ludicrous, but then the idea of an active 50 years probably seemed ludicrous once, as well. If there still is an ongoing Fantastic Four comic in 25 more years, it may no longer be regularly appearing in print form. But then again, it might. Print or otherwise, it does seem likely that a 75th anniversary Fantastic Four story will be visually remarkable, at least, compared with what’s published at present. If I’m still around, I guess we’ll see.

One thing I’ll say on record, though, is that I wouldn’t recommend betting against Stan Lee still being around to write another teary-eyed anniversary essay in trademark Lee verbiage. 😉

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