Comics Ate My Brain

April 10, 2006

The Hinge Panel (With Apologies To Ragnell)

Filed under: fantastic four — Tom Bondurant @ 1:47 am
Last week was pretty busy. The Best Wife Ever’s brother and his wife came into town for four days and three nights, and we went out every night they were here. At one point they asked me about the Fantastic Four movie, which they had just rented. Coming at it from a non-fan perspective, they weren’t too impressed with its lack of coherence, and they wanted to know what I thought about it.

This set me off on a dissertation about Jack Kirby expanding the frontiers of comics, yadda yadda yadda, and how no movie could be as cosmic as Kirby’s stuff warranted. Because their eyes hadn’t yet started to glaze over, when we got home I pulled out the Masterworks volume which reprinted FF #s 41-50.

I had been talking about a single panel from Fantastic Four #50 which I had first seen printed by itself, out of context, in the old World Encyclopedia of Comics. Gazing upon that panel some thirty years ago, I had no idea what story it came from, who drew it, or even who apart from the FF were represented, but the volumes it spoke fascinated me:

Because almost every person visible is in motion, the panel creates tension. We can’t see Johnny’s face, but we know from his posture he’s worn out. We can also tell from his dialogue he’s more than a little on edge — rattled upon his return, but glad to be back. Like Reed, we don’t know what he’s brought, but Johnny talks about “infinity” and “the other side of the universe,” so it must have been worth the trip. Something big’s going on, for sure. Who’s that flying in the background? my grade-school self wondered; and why isn’t the big bald guy doing anything?

What a great panel. I learned soon enough about the Silver Surfer and the Watcher, but I probably didn’t see that panel in its proper context for another twenty years. At that point, I know it lived up to my expectations. There were the Fantastic Four at their apex, hip-deep in the seminal first encounter with Galactus, desperately trying to prevent Earth’s destruction until their colleague could return. By then I knew the story before reading it, since it had been referenced so often throughout the years. In fact, I think I bought the Marvels paperback the same day as the Masterworks, and could therefore compare the original with the “documentary” approach — but Alex Ross only works in the literal, whereas Kirby was free to throw whatever he needed on the page to give the reader the proper scope. How indeed would a movie portray Johnny’s journey? Even 2001 used abstractions and false colors to traverse the infinite.

So when the grade-schooler of the ’70s saw that panel in the mid-’90s, the circle, as they say, was complete. My hunger to know had been replaced with the revelation that my imagination was on target. This panel was, in recruiting terms, a “hinge” — that is, the piece that allows the door to open. Rarely do we step through doors and find the new space exactly as we thought, but that’s what happened here.

My brother-in-law’s wife looked through the Masterworks volume for several minutes the other night. I think she got a little confused between Medusa being in both the Frightful Four and the Inhumans, and I don’t think she’s ready to convert to the Church of Jack Kirby, but who knows? At least she got to see what the original Fantastic Four was all about.


  1. No apologies necessary, Kirby’s work really is wonderful. You can tell he’s experimenting with positioning and posing and using the whole panel to tell a story.

    Comment by Ragnell — April 11, 2006 @ 8:47 am

  2. Awesome. I love the term “hinge” to describe that moment of being hooked.

    Comment by Jim Roeg — May 4, 2006 @ 11:08 pm

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