Fantastic Four annual #16
Issue(s): Fantastic Four annual #16
Let's start with the art.
If this were a satirical story, not necessarily something from Not Brand Echh but just something with a jokey theme, this all might be fine. But the story is a serious tale about a man falsely accused of killing baby dragons and on the run from his dimension's law, and it's played straight. And the thing is, Steve Ditko can do good stuff when he gets more abstract, and especially when he's free to draw whatever's in his head instead of established characters.
The story here is that Ral Dorn, the second human dragon rider in the alternate dimension Rammatpolen, is accused of killing all the baby dragons, and he goes on the run. The real dragon killer, Skagerackrakor, leads the pursuit, but he is bound by the laws of the weird bush-headed creatures that rule Rammatpolen. Ral Dorn seeks out Dragon Man and tames him the way he would have done for a real dragon, and having done that, he claims the right to be tried as a Dragon Lord, which means a trial by combat instead of one with evidence and stuff. The FF are just along for the ride on this one. Sue is accidentally transported to Ral Dorn's pocket dimension where she gets to watch him train Dragon Man, and the rest of the FF fight Ral Dorn's pursuers and then everyone goes back to Rammatpolen to watch the "trial". The FF don't seem to have any problem with involving Dragon Man, who has been shown to have his own child-like intellect, in this, and indeed Johnny and Ben are pretty bored at the trial.
In the end, the Invisible Girl uses her powers to help Ral Dorn trick Skagerackrakor into making a confession in front of the bush-heads, and the story ends with "Want to see more of Ral Dorn and his friends? If so, Dragonfans, write and tell us!". Turns out that no one did, and the next we'll see of Dragon Man he's been captured by the Circus of Crime.
Rammatpolen apparently exists outside the timestream (or maybe in a different time) and the Dragon riders have the ability to traverse it, and Dragon Man, at least while piloted by Ral Dorn, exhibits the ability to do the same, and even better than regular dragons.
I don't have a better idea about how Marvel might have better utilized Ditko's talents during this period. The lack of interest in Ral Dorn shows that they really had to have him on established characters instead of just off doing his own thing (it's also interesting that a new Dragon Lord was created instead of using the one that was used in Marvel Spotlight #5). But that means that his limitations were very apparent.
Wikipedia linked to this 2008 New York Times article on Ditko.
By the '70s he was regarded as a slightly old-fashioned oddball; by the '80s he was a commercial has-been, picking up wretched work-for-hire gigs. Bell suggests that, following the example of Rand's John Galt, Ditko hacked out money-making work, saving his care for the crabbed Objectivist screeds he published with tiny presses. And boy, could Ditko hack: seeing samples of his Transformers coloring book and his Big Boy comic is like hearing Orson Welles sell frozen peas.
This isn't Bob's Big Boy. And i don't know if he was hacking here; i don't know what was in his mind (if i could look, i'd love to know what he thought about drawing these Kirby characters and even referencing and re-drawing some scenes from an old Kirby story - Dragon Man's first appearance). And i bet someone will even come along and say that they like the art here. As i said, i enjoy it as long as the focus isn't on the FF. But it's pretty clearly a far cry from what mainstream audiences were looking for in 1981.
Quality Rating: D+
Chronological Placement Considerations: Johnny Storm, bored during a family outing to a diner, says that he'd "rather be flying into action -- or making time with my girl, Frankie". So that places this after Fantastic Four #232, when Johnny and Frankie Raye get back together. I'll also note that i'm not worried about differences in Sue's hairstyle here compared to the main series since we're dealing with Ditko's unique style. I am assuming this is a pre-Fantastic Four #238 Thing, though.
Continuity Insert? N
My Reprint: N/A
Inbound References (1): showDragon Man, Franklin Richards, Human Torch, Invisible Woman, Mr. Fantastic, Thing
That panel with cartoony Thing and Reed poking his head from the top-right corner with him and Sue smirking is going to haunt my nightmares.
Posted by: Ataru320 | July 14, 2013 9:06 PM
Almost nobody likes this annual, but it's an absolute treasure trove. Dorn comes from a society that looks down on all time and space and tries to fix things: they have incredibly high standards of dedication to truth, and it's all about synergy, making things work together. I think the issue was just too advanced, too different for people to get a handle on. I do wonder how much influence Ditko (the artist) had on it, as it reads like something he wrote, yet is credited to Ed Hannigen.
Posted by: Nathan Adler | April 2, 2015 5:09 AM
I agree that the art is pretty bad here. I've never cared for Ditko's art, though like you say, he's pretty good with the abstract stuff.
Posted by: Dave B | April 2, 2015 3:40 PM
I really do think Ditko should get a pass. I do. This isn't terrible by any means, it's just very different from the regular-at-that-time Marvel style. What Marvel *should* have done is just have an inker reign it in to a more commercial style, but I think it looks great- while being aware people were going to mock it. At the time in the early 80s' that the link alludes to, Ditko asked Jim Shooter for work. Say what you want about Shooter, but he felt Ditko should be working so tried to give him as much stuff as possible.
Posted by: Wis | October 16, 2017 3:43 AM
Saturday I bought a hard cover of the Dr. Strange omnibus which reprints the Ditko work on Strange. I've already read all its stories many times over. After I flip thru it, I'll pass it on to my 2 cousins who turned me on to my first Marvel comic when I was 8 or 9. It was the 1st appearance of Kraven in ASM. I'd been a Superman fan since before I could read but Ditko gave us all something different. It's hard to emphasize enough how much impact Ditko had on our generation. We had never seen anything like it. Last week I spoke with my older cousin who had recently seen the Dr. Strange movie in 3D & was completely blown away by it. He still has the magic amulet which he made from a glass eye & a leftover jewelry box when we were boys.
Nowadays people compare Ditko's & Kirby's work with that of modern artists whose work is more adult-oriented & polished, in books with higher production values than comics enjoyed in the 60s. These artists were influenced by other artists who were influenced by other artists. Eventually most of it always seems to lead back to Ditko's & Kirby's influences.
They didn't aim their work at adult audiences. They targeted younger audiences, with stories aimed at juvenile fantasies. Marvel started moving the target age upwards during the 60s. I once read a Ditko interview taken after he became disillusioned, feeling that his more carefully detailed work in the 60s hadn't been appreciated or noticed as well as he had intended, so he simplified it.
Posted by: Holt | October 16, 2017 10:15 AM
I don't know how intentional that Ditko Transformers colouring book and Orson Wells frozen peas reference was intended to be, but Orson Wells final film before death was "Transformers: the Movie" in 1986.
First film: Citizen Kane. Last film: Transformers. Talk about a career arc.
Posted by: kveto | October 16, 2017 3:13 PM
For what it's worth... Welles increasingly had to find funding outside of Hollywood for his films, as they were too idiosyncratic and uncommercial for the studio system (and two of the films he did make for them, The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil) were hacked up by others, for the worse (though both are great, nonetheless).
Welles eventually resorted to doing things like frozen peas commercials, goofy pseudo-documentaries and Transformers in order to fund his films, and, hell, those later films (F for Fake, The Immortal Story, The Trial, etc.) are still damned great. That says more about Hollywood's ways of making films (at the time), and middlebrow New York Times journalism, than it does about Welles.
Ditko's situation was different, but it also costs considerably less to pencil a comic book than it does to make a movie. I think Welles was exiled unwilling from the American film industry due to their narrow-mindedness. Ditko, on the other hand, seems to have exiled himself from mainstream comics for various reasons.
Posted by: James | October 16, 2017 7:14 PM
I'm reluctant to examine someone's reasons for going into exile too closely, partly out of the fear that I might follow him there. Motivated by desires to follow their own muses, Ditko & Welles, & perhaps Kirby too, to a lesser extent, wanted to venture off in directions where it was much harder for them to promote themselves commercially. Don't know enough about Welles to really offer much opinion, but Ditko & Kirby both clearly felt cheated after seeing others profit more greatly from their creations than they did themselves. Everyone has to eat, & we often make compromises just to put food on the table. In Ditko's case, this FF annual might likely be just such a case in point.
Motivated by a strong, black & white sense of justice, Ditko might have been the most resentful of the three, but they all had reasons to be resentful of the industries in which they made their marks. Ditko's Randian self-image probably suffered greatly because of his lack of commercial success. Shooter, being a self-made man, might have been one of the few comics industry guys Ditko respected, and with whom he could make a deal.
Conflicted as he was, though, I don't think he put the same effort into this annual as he put into his own independent comics, and, as mentioned above, he had simplified his style anyway. I wish he had been paid enough to stick with the more detailed style he had started to develop in the early '60s, but nobody gets everything for which he or she wishes.
Posted by: Holt | October 17, 2017 3:49 AM
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