Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Fantastic Four's greatest adventure

There is a new Fantastic Four movie coming out soon, and it shows an impressive willingness to shake up the core concept a bit, messing around with the FF formula in a bid to create something new.

This has inevitably led to the usual tedious debates about what the one, true FF actually is – many are adamant that the stunning work Lee and Kirby did for the first 102 issues remains a high water mark that nothing else has come close to, while others prefer the cosmic/domestic craziness seen in later comics by Byrne or Straczynski or dozens of other creators.

The arguments are all pointless, because everybody has their own subtle idea of how the FF works, and what their greatest period was, and what the general theme of the comic is. And as far as I'm concerned, the only one, true Fantastic Four is the one that creeps through strange haunted houses and battles their ultimate foe – the mighty Doctor Weird.

I never had much of a connection to the Fantastic Four. I've really only bought it regularly every month twice. Once was during the interminable DeFalco/Ryan run, and my only excuse for that is that it came out at a time when I was buying every single comic I could find. (link to the driving story) The other time was when Mark Millar was writing it, and there is no excuse for that.

The Lee and Kirby comics were well before my time, and I was shamefully late in falling for their charms. I have, at times, been interested in later efforts on the comic, but have only ever read them in back issues and collected editions.

When I was much younger, a cousin of mine had a brilliant Fantastic Four collection which he would let me read. But they were always just a little too clean and white-bread - I was always more of an X-Men or 2000ad kid – and the claim of being the World's Greatest Comic Magazine felt a little arrogant.

But I did have one story featuring the Fantastic Four at their most fantastic, and I've still got it today. It's the Big Little Book adventure called The Fantastic Four in The House Of Horrors.

The Big Little books were these strange little paperbacks, thick and tiny, with a prose story and a full page of cartooning on every other page. They were around for decades, and were a useful stepping stone in childhood reading habits – I totally used them as a step between things like Noddy books and the more sophisticated reading of, say, a Terrence Dicks Doctor Who.

They usually featured cartoon or TV tie-in characters – the Lone Ranger and Dick Tracy had multiple books, and I still have a crazy Goofy adventure stashed away somewhere in the cupboard.

And sometimes there was a superhero one - a primary school classmate once made me insanely jealous by bringing 'The Cheetah Caper', starring Batman, into school. But I got my own back, because I had the Fantastic Four one, and it was brilliant.

It was called The House Of Horrors, and it featured a freakishly powerful illusionist named Doctor Weird who could turn into literally anything, no matter how spectacular or boring. He could be a bead curtain of snakes, or an elemental force, or a tiger, or a lamp. Nobody knows!

So he calls out the FF, says he’s going to take over the world, and challenges them to come to his house on the edge of town, (which is also pretty weird, because I’m pretty sure Manhattan doesn’t have spooky old houses standing in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the city). They go there, split up, get defeated by Doctor Weird, team back up again, and defeat the bad guy, whose powers bounce back on himself, and he disappears himself, forever!

The Big Little Book is full of illustrations by Herb Trimpe at his ultra-simple late sixties best, and they tell a story full of mundanely surreal moments, like Reed Richards tying himself in knots, or empty rooms full of odd death traps.

The fact that it’s not actually a comic book – it’s an illustrated novelette – means there is also a weird disconnect, with the characters shouting in silence, their dialogue taken away and bolted down into prose on the side of the page.

It actually gives the book a spooky vibe, in a way that very few other FF comics ever managed. The team is boldly venturing into the unknown, into a world where nothing is real, and where a broken chair with a rusty spring can take down the mighty Thing, or the FF are literally chasing smoke.

It's so awfully dorky, it's kinda charming. There are some other nice touches – The Invisible Girl is the only one of the team not to fall victim to one of Doc Weird's evil traps, while the boys tie themselves up in knots, which is pretty progressive for a sixties superhero story.

It's not the most awesome adventure they ever get into - Doctor Weird really isn't of the same level as Doctor Doom, or Galactus, or even the Mole Man - but it is an easy-to-read and slightly addictive taste of the Fantastic Four's adventures, and that's enough.

Doc Weird really did disappear himself, forever. He never appeared in any of the comics, and I doubt the Big Little Books fully fit in with modern Marvel continuity, so this one strange little story is as far as he goes.

I don’t expect this FF to be the definitive version for anybody else, but this will always be the real Fantastic Four to me, in a way that psychedelic craziness of the very best FF comics never really will be. Who needs to save the universe, when you've got a spooky haunted house to roam around in?

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