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Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
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for Wednesday, July 7, 2004

Fantastic Four Annual 1

FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #1 [1963] changed my life. I have told this story so many times before that I hope you'll forgive me for relating it once again.

I was not quite twelve years old. My parents were taking us - sister Carrie, brothers Ernie and Ray, and me - to Oneonta, New York, a small city of roughly 14,000 people, some of them related to my father. It was boredom incarnate and the only way I managed to get through it was by using my meager vacation savings to buy a comic book or two at every rest stop. It was - thank God - a time when there *were* comic books at every rest stop.

My parents were annoyed by my purchases. In Oneonta, at the cigar shop owned by my dad's Uncle Peter, I made a beeline for the comics. One of my parents - I've clearly repressed the memory of which - told me that whatever comic book I bought was going to be the last comic book I bought on this trip.

Defiantly, I bought FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #1, which cost me a quarter. It had 72 big pages and I planned to savor each and every one of them. It was only when we were on the way to the creaky old hunting cabin where we would be staying that realized I had read a Fantastic Four comic before...

...and hadn't really liked it at all.

That earlier comic book was FANTASTIC FOUR #7, which I wrote about in Monday's TOT. If you didn't read it, you should go back and do so. This month's columns are telling an epic story of one young boy's journey into comics fanaticism and you dare not miss a single thrilling installment.

I don't remember exactly when I first read that annual during the trip. There were hardly any lights in the cabin, so it had to have been the next morning. Early the next morning.

My dad used to have to get up at four in the morning to load his bakery truck and make his deliveries. As quiet as he was, I always heard him. I always heard him and I never told him because it was my little secret. Even today, I hear nearly every sound in or about my house. I like to think of it as the instincts of the protector. When they come for us, I'll know it.

Odds are good that I first read the comic by the early morning light, sitting on an old chair on the cabin porch. I would read it a dozen more times before we got home.

There was scarcely an open area on the cover. If Jack Kirby (pencils) and Dick Ayers (inks) left any space unadorned with their dramatic illustrations, then Stan Lee (editing and script) filled it with his excited descriptions of the wonders waiting within this annual. And wonders there were.

"Sub-Mariner Versus the Human Race" was the longest comic-book story I had ever read. In its 37 pages, there was action and drama a'plenty. The squabbling between the Human Torch and the Thing was no longer distasteful to me; I'd finally figured out that they were acting like the brothers they truly were. Having started noticing girls a year or so earlier, I was both alarmed and intrigued by the passion shown by characters like Dorma and Namor over loves denied to them. I was thrilled by the vast scope of the story's elements: the centuries-spanning history of Namor's people and the invasion of New York City by the Atlanteans. I was stunned by the courage of Sue Storm, the deadly price she seemed likely to pay for it, and Namor's willingness to sacrifice all to save her. By the time the Sub-Mariner returned to his now-empty kingdom, abandoned by his own people, I was mentally exhausted.

How could a comic book story be that good?

The second half of the annual issue wasn't as mind-blowing as the lead tale, but it was still amazing. I didn't know who Spider-Man was, but I got a kick out of the six-page "The Fantastic Four Meet Spider-Man" by Lee, Kirby, and Steve Ditko...and intrigued by the idea that it was an expanded version of their original meeting. I think that's where it hit me that there were real people making comic books, that they could tell the stories any way they liked, and that making comic books and telling stories was an actual job. Maybe not like my father's job, but a job nonetheless.

The feature pages were also a thrill. Seeing the "Gallery of the Fantastic Four's Most Famous Foes" gave me a sense of history. And it wasn't as intimidating as the history of Superman and Batman and their fellows, which stretched back all the way to when my dad was my age. I wanted to know more about these villains.

There was a two-page section giving personal information about the individual members of the Fantastic Four. That really made the heroes come alive for me.

Digression. When I reprinted these two pages in the British weeklies I was editing for Marvel - circa 1972 and 1973 - I changed one of the Invisible Girl's interests from reading "romance novels" to reading "historical romances." It was my small way of trying to make her less of a stereotype.

However, as much as I loved the annual's Sub-Mariner story and its special features, it was the reprinted "Origin of the Fantastic Four" that truly changed my life. Because it wasn't nearly as good as the Sub-Mariner story. It was clearly done by the same people, but they had gotten a whole lot better in just a couple of years. This Lee and Kirby were - presumably - adults, but they were still improving on their skills. That was as big an eye-opener as any of the issue's fictional thrills.

If making comic books was a job, then people were hired to do it. If those people could get better at their jobs as they worked at them, then maybe even a kid like me - a kid who loved to write - could learn how to make comic books and get good enough at it that someone would give me a job making comic books. All of a sudden, I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up.

I wanted to make comic books.

I grew up to do just that. I think some of the comic books I made were really good and most of them were pretty good. The ones that weren't pretty good, well, I still gave them my best possible effort at the time I made them. I never phoned it in and I never didn't care. I'll never be on anyone's hall of fame list, but, all things considered, the comic books I made represent a body of work of which I'm generally proud...and I retain the hope that I'll be able to add to that body of work in the future.

FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #1 changed my life...and definitely made me a Marvel Comics fan. When my family returned from our vacation, I started searching out other Marvels at the drug store where I had been buying my other comics.

Marvel's distribution was spotty in those days, despite their being distributed by the same outfit which distributed DC titles. In addition, I hadn't yet figured out that the store got new comics every Tuesday and Thursday, so some issues sold out before I could buy them. Oh, yeah, and I didn't always have enough money to buy every Marvel I would see. Baseball cards were still eating up some of my scarce spending cash, though that hobby would soon fall by the wayside...with the once-treasured cards being traded for comic books and monster magazines.

Even so, within a matter of months, I was buying all Marvel's super-hero comics on a regular basis. Before long, SGT. FURY and the company's western titles were also beginning to make their way into my growing comics collection.

This "My First Marvels" series will continue tomorrow, likely alternating with a look at the DC comics I was buying at the same time. Now let's see what else I have for you today.



A most valuable testing ground for my youthful writing skills (or lack thereof) were the fanzines of the 1960s. Decades later, even with all the professionally-produced books and magazines about comics that are readily available to me, I still get a kick out of checking out home-grown zines.

Comic Effect 39

COMIC EFFECT #39 (Paloma St. Publications; $3.50) is a Julius Schwartz tribute issue with a baker dozen's articles and features on the legendary editor's career. Editor Jim Kingman contributes several of the pieces with my favorite being his spotlight on the Atomic Knights series which ran in STRANGE ADVENTURES. The issue's other writers: Steve Chung, Jason Sacks, Gene Popa, John G. Pierce, and Michal Jacot. For ordering information, go to:



Sam Gafford of Excaliber Press sent me a trio of fanzines, the most impressive of which is DCU: THE MAG FOR THE DC FAN #1 ($3.95). This premiere issue is dedicated to the Doom Patrol in all of its various incarnations. This one really put me in mind of the zines on which I'd labored so lovingly and I recommend it, especially an article in which Kevin Breen compares members of the Doom Patrol to a list of super-heroic archetypes.

CTHULHU ARCANUM ($1.50) offers the first chapter of a 21-page comics serial with so many nods to KOLCHAK THE NIGHT STALKER I was actually getting annoyed by them. Sadly, outside of an undeniable "fannish energy" to the writing and drawing, there's nothing here on which I can hang a recommendation.

PHANTASCAPE #0 ($1) is an ashcan edition featuring a preview of Jim Main's and Gafford's new "The Chronicles of Reverend Moore" series. There's something here - a minister dabbling in the occult to save his daughter from that which possesses her - but I didn't think the writing or the artwork were very good.

If you'd like to sample these Excaliber Press works, you can find more information about them at:


Mad Scientist 9

Martin Arlt's MAD SCIENTIST is one of my favorite fanzines of recent years for two reasons:

The Crawling Eye 1. Martin is an entertaining writer and artist.

2. He likes the same kind of stuff I like.

The current issue (Spring, 2004) has Martin's list of the top ten robots of film and television, his look at the Ray Harryhausen "War of the Worlds" that might have been, his reviews section, and an Arlt-produced comic strip revealing the origin of his fanzine. In addition, Iain McLachlan contributes a fascinating filmbook on THE CRAWLING EYE, a spooky UK thriller from 1958.

MAD SCIENTIST gets my enthusiastic recommendation. For more information, visit the zine's website at:


Popeye Fanzine

Its long moniker does not drop trippingly from the tongue, but fans of a certain legendary sailor man will doubtless want to sign up for the OFFICIAL POPEYE FAN CLUB NEWS-MAGAZINE, the publication of the Official Popeye Fan Club. Each quarterly issue - a year's membership in the club costs but eight bucks in the USA - features articles on Popeye cartoons, collectibles, comic books and strips, as well as news on the club and the annual Popeye celebration held each year in Chester, Illinois, the hometown of Popeye creator E.C. Segar. The 32-page zine delivers considerable spinach-powered bang for your bucks. Definitely recommended.

You can find the OFFICIAL POPEYE FAN CLUB at:



Have you voted on this week's TONY POLLS questions yet? I've got four questions on SPIDER-MAN 2 for you...and a fifth question asking you to choose your own favorite from Entertainment Weekly's list of Hollywood's top ten most beloved and bankable characters. You can cast your ballots at:

I have the final results of previous TONY POLLS questions and I'll be bringing those to you later this week.



The new magazine-sized COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE allows for more and varied page designs than the previous format. Wanting to take advantage of that, I've come up with sidebars to appear within my column. Hoping to get some friendly back-and-forth going between CBG columnists and the readers, I came up with this feature, which will run occasionally within my column.

...Steve Ditko pencilled and inked both stories in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #8 (January, 1964). That error slipped past Craig "Mr. Silver Age" Shutt in his ASM "Retroview" for CBG #1595. Ditko did pencil and ink the 17-page lead story, "The Terrible Threat of the Living Brain," but it was Jack Kirby who pencilled "Spider-Man Tackles the Torch." Ditko did ink the 6-page tale, one of the mere handful of times the two titanic talents were teamed.

Do you think I'm wrong about something? Whether you're a CBG columnist or reader, don't be shy about telling me. I'll make room for the comments in future "Tony's Tips" columns.
Thanks for spending a part of your day with me. I'll be back tomorrow with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

<< 07/06/2004 | 07/07/2004 | 07/08/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Message Board. Also, read Heroes and Villains: Real and Imagined and view my Amazon Wish List.

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Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.

Please send material you would like me to review to:

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