Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Origin of the Inhumans

Stan Lee & Jack Kirby The Origin of the Inhumans (1968)
I assumed this would be material from what I vaguely remember as being an Inhumans comic, reprinted in the UK in black and white in a peculiar landscape format some time around the mid-seventies; but actually it predates that stuff. The Inhumans rose up through the caped ranks in supporting roles in issues of the Fantastic Four before proving so popular as to warrant their own title, and this book collects all of that earlier material. To be specific, it doesn't actually collect a stack of old Fantastic Four comics so much as mainly the Inhumans material, sometimes just a couple of pages an issue, interludes whizzing off to the Great Retreat to explain how our heroes are still trapped and that we haven't forgotten about them. This makes for slightly disjointed reading as we conclude one issue with Galactus promising impending doom, only for it never to arrive because said doom apparently failed to endanger any of the Inhumans and therefore didn't make it into the collection.

Still, fuck it - I'm not complaining.

The Inhumans were a race of super types who somehow evolved separate but parallel to the rest of us, creations of Jack Kirby just as he was entering the weirder stages of his career in comics, and you can really see how the Inhumans ultimately led to the New Gods and all that peculiar cosmic stuff. In fact you can actually watch Kirby getting weirder and weirder just in the course of this collection as it runs from 1965 through to 1968. By the half way point, my eyes were hurting and I experienced dizziness when standing.

Fantastic Four in 1965 was mostly talking whilst fighting, usually with a page or so explaining how the fight kicked off and what the bad guys hope to achieve. This was where we met Medusa, our first Inhuman, as one of the Frightful Four, one of those bad guy teams which actually knows itself to be evil and revels in the fact. Medusa has a lot of hair which she is somehow able to use in tentacular fashion, and she's teamed up with the Sandman, amongst others, who is essentially Bluto from the Popeye cartoons with the ability to turn himself into sand. The Sandman is both fucking stupid and yet somehow brilliant. So, hokey though they may well be, these strips appeal to me for the same reasons as do many of A.E. van Vogt's novels - the concepts are big, dumb, funny, and just weird enough to keep it interesting, ideas jammed together like lumps of plasticine in the hands of a toddler. Admittedly, the narrative becomes a lot more interesting once we're past the talking whilst fighting and learn who these Inhumans are, but Kirby's artwork is fucking astonishing throughout - just so gorgeous it would make a grown man cry - which more than compensates for uneven storytelling or disconcertingly abrupt leaps from one issue to another.

Whilst we're here, Stan Lee clearly deserves credit. I'm not sure what quota of the concepts involved came from him, because it sure feels like there's a lot of Jack Kirby in the mix, but Lee obviously had something to do with the success of the book and these characters. I get the impression he's better remembered as an entrepreneur than a master storyteller, which I think is possibly because of how simple he made it look, or rather read. It's easy to miss just how well he keeps it moving along, pages heavy with the verbose Marvel Shakespearean of yonder and behold which somehow feel quite light; and the extraordinarily repetitive motif of talking whilst fighting, over and over, page after page without getting dull or losing its wit; and let's not forget that this was very much a kids' book and is as such crammed with characters over-explaining their own motives and actions, and with the bleeding obvious pointed out in more or less every other panel; which is done with such charm and obvious love for not only the material but also its readership that I'm still able to enjoy this thing at the age of fifty-one without reservation.

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