The Twin-Faced Gatekeeper

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Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure, out this week, reconstructs the last FF story by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, never published in its original form, but chopped up and combined with artwork by Johns Buscema and Romita in FF #108, which went on sale the same month as Jack Kirby debuted for his new publisher, DC. Neither version of the story — both are printed in the comic, along with what remains of Kirby’s original, uninked pencils — is one for the ages; Lee’s reconfigured version makes a little more sense and works better dramatically, but is also more banal, while the original as reconstructed here is an uninspired mess built on a rather good idea, and with a couple of standout moments from both Lee and Kirby. For more on this, see this critique by Craig Fischer (as well as this reply to it by Charles Hatfield) and this analysis by Sean Kleefeld.

Transcending all that, however, is the splash page. Testament to Kirby’s instinctive feel for fascinating visuals, he decides to open with the FF clustered around a two-headed bust of Janus, the Greek god of beginnings. His pencils, unadulterated by Joe Sinnot’s admittedly wonderful inking, best showcase the gruff texture of his rendering and sets the scene wonderfully with a view of the characters in depth. But it is that bust’s expressive duality, which engages us the most. Young Franklin, only a few years younger than most of the intended readership, reaches out enthusiastically towards it from the background, despite the worried faces of the grownups. The page is an eminent example of what a splash should to — it draws in the reader and kicks of the story. And it holds such promise.

On a more speculative level — and I owe this observation to Danish Marvel-specialist extraordinaire Morten Søndergård — the bust can be taken as a condensed reflection of the two-headed animus behind the FF, Lee and Kirby. Lee, the witty and sleek showman, leers knowingly on the left, while Kirby, the unpolished creative force, snarls unsettlingly, and unsettled, at his surroundings on the right. Kirby’s creativity was fueled by his rage, a rage which at the time this story was plotted and drawn was aggravated by dissatisfaction with his working conditions, while Lee’s was always channeled by his charm, his wit and his canniness. It is only fitting that Kirby, in this the last of their FF stories, would — knowingly or not — put this, the heart of what made those stories so great, right there in the page. Inviting us in, one last time.

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