Sunday, April 23, 2006

I usually tell people that Fantastic Four Annual #6 was the first comic book I ever read. I even stated as such for all the world (at least the portion of the world that still appreciates short stories) in an autobiographical tale I published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (“The Odyssey of Everyman” AHMM March 1995). But it’s not true. FF Annual #6 was probably the first Marvel comic I ever read, my first superhero comic. It changed my life. But it was not the first comic I ever read.
Actually, I don’t remember the first comic I read. It was probably a Dennis the Menace. They were around, and I have a dim recollection of a panel where Dennis is shocked by his father’s use of the word “helmet” and tells him he should say “heckmet” instead. (This sticks in my mind cuz it was undoubtedly pretty racy for early 60s Richmond, Virginia.) I also sorta remember a Classics Comic or a Classics Junior adaptation of “Beauty and The Beast”. And I saw some frighteningly-compelling Spider-Man covers in Johnny Snider’s room like this one in particular.
(Johnny Snider was a borderline bully, but he had the hands-down coolest bedroom in the neighborhood, maybe even the world. He had an electric train set-up that went all the way around the room. He had that football game where the little men actually ran and kicked a tiny cotton ball around, and he had it years before it was advertised on TV. And he had a huge stack of comic books, including one called The Amazing Spider-Man which I always wanted to read, but I was too low on the neighborhood pecking order to actually touch anything that belonged to Johnny Snider. Shoot, I was lucky just to be allowed entrance into his august shrine at all. Johnny Snider had a rule that you had to be at least in kindergarten to go in his room. This was specifically to exclude my pre-school brother. When my brother came home from his first day of kiddygarden (as Dennis the Menace used to call it) he passed on the milk and cookies, and marched right over to Johnny Snider’s house, only to find that – you guessed it – the rule had changed and you now had to be in at least first grade. Today my baby brother is 46 years old, and I don't think he ever got over this disappointment. And who could blame him? Like Moses, he’s been close to the promised land but not allowed to actually enter.)
1968 was a scary time. The Summer of Love was dead, and it was looking like the Age of Aquarius was stillborn. Every night on the news I watched people killing people in Vietnam and in places closer to home. Detroit. Watts. Memphis. Los Angeles.
I was 10 years old, just becoming aware of the world outside my back yard and not really liking much of what I saw.
That summer, as was our habit, we packed up and went to Myrtle Beach for a week’s vacation. We played on the beach all day , and then at night my parents would take me and my brother and my sister out for ice cream or to play some of that big-pink-dinosaur Putt-Putt that Myrtle Beach is so famous for. One night though, my parents went out with another couple to do some grown-up thing, and left us at home. It had rained that day, cutting short my beach time – and the time I was trying to make with a cute little 9-year-old blonde named Carrie Anne – and I was acting pouty.
That never worked for me at home, but everything’s different on vacation. I guess my dad must have felt either guilty or sorry for me or something. Anyway he brought me this Fantastic Four comic book. He brought my brother a Rawhide Kid comic. (I still remember that Rawhide Kid comic too. Some old coot is telling folks how the Kid bought the farm in a gunfight – and it turns out the Kid is listening to the story, paid the guy to tell it to people, so they’d leave him alone. Good stuff – but not great stuff. And considering our introductions to comics I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my brother never really got into them. Oh, he tried, but he could never tell a good one from a bad one – he used to buy Charltons, for God’s sake! Poor guy, once again close enough to peer over the gates into the land of milk and honey but not allowed to get wet and sticky.) I don’t remember what he brought my sister – probably a pony. Dad always favored my sister, but that’s another story altogether.
And it doesn’t matter cuz I wouldn’t have traded with her. I was entranced by this epic of “the glory of birth ‘neath the shadow of death”. (A synopsis of the saga can hardly do it justice but basically Sue is giving birth, but Reed, Johnny and Ben must first go to the Negative Zone and retrieve some cosmic McGuffin from the murderous metal insect Annihilus or Sue and the baby will die.)
I forgot how the movie I saw last week ended, and I have no idea what I had for breakfast this morning. But no matter how senile I get I’ll never forget Fantastic Four Annual #6. I can tell you all about it from the first page with a scowling, snappish Reed Richards peering into some wild-ass Kirbyscope to the birth of Franklin Richards 47 pages later. From the truly-frightening Annihilus to the hilarious bits in the hospital waiting room. The sense of wonder I felt as Reed explained about the Negative Zone and its inhabitants. The science was over my head – still is. The closer I’ve ever come to understanding anti-matter was when I was a teen-ager and nothing really mattered. (Groan. . . sorry.)
Jack Kirby has been justly praised for his ability to draw intricate machinery, and there’s plenty of that here: Annihilus’s “gunship”, the gyro-saw and the sonic sponge. But the truth is he excelled at drawing just about everything. Check out the cosmic radiation in Sue’s blood and the various creatures that live in the Negative Zone.
There are lines in this story that still crack me up. Reed is touched when Johnny and Ben insist on risking their lives and accompanying him into the Negative Zone, but Ben tells him it’s because he’s the only one who’s got a Diner’s Club Card. There are lines that inspire me – “Rag dolls maybe. . . ! But powerless never!!”. And lines that I’m hardly embarrassed at all to admit can still choke me up. And here I’m referring to Reed’s worries about the ugliness and unfairness of the world this little innocent has been born into. I felt the same way when my children were born.
I said before that this comic changed my life, and that’s not just because I fell under the spell of comic books like a powerless rag doll and have happily remained there ever since. I was looking for a role model, someone to emulate to get me through those scary late 1960s. And I chose Ben Grimm. Page 21 in particular made a big impression on me. That’s the one where he is nearly crushed to death by a gigantic boot (more Kirby equipment) but tells his partners he was just resting because “It’s no fun makin’ like a full-time hero if there ain’t no one ta see ya! But now that I got an audience I can start makin’ with the muscle” and then he does.
This wisecracking in the face of adversity was a trait that I have adopted for my own. I don’t face crazed metal-moth monsters like Annihilus, and this propensity has cost me a couple of jobs, a couple of relationships before I realized when to use it and when not to. It also landed me a couple black eyes I could have easily avoided.
But it’s helped me to make sense of the world sometimes – or at least to parry some of the senselessness. I’d say it was definitely worth it.

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