Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Barry Windsor-Smith, and the story is “That Night …” from Marvel Fanfare #15, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated July 1984. Enjoy!
In the annals of things in comics I don’t like very much, the fact that Johnny Storm torments Ben Grimm with practical jokes is one of them (there’s a lot about the FF tropes that I despise, which is why I’ve never been a big FF fan). This story in Marvel Fanfare is an absolute perfect example of that. It’s a waste, frankly, of Windsor-Smith’s skills as a storyteller. The fact that the art is fantastic makes it even more annoying. If you’re Windsor-Smith, and you have 19 (19!!!!) pages to tell a Fantastic Four story, why would you do a lame prank story? Gahhhhh!!!! But the art is very cool, so let’s focus on that!
On the first page, Johnny sets his traps for the next day, which he thinks is April Fool’s Day. In a stunning twist, we’ll see below that it’s 31 March and that Johnny is too stupid to read a calendar, another thing that makes me hate the FF (not that I have any affinity for Johnny, but if he were as stupid as some writers make him out to be, they would have dumped his ass a long time ago). This is terrific art, though, so we’ll just worry about that. Windsor-Smith shows the preparations in pain-staking detail, and as it’s done in the dark, he uses light very well (Windsor-Smith colored this himself). So in Panel 1, we get the curves of the balls colored just enough to give them shape, while in Panel 2, the silver of the coil makes it stand out beautifully against the black behind it. Windsor-Smith use blacks and blues really well in Panel 4, where we see more of Johnny than anyplace on the page, and we get his shadowed face and shadowed body, so we’re not quite sure what he’s doing but we know it’s prankish. Notice, too, the line work, which has become for Windsor-Smith very detailed and almost excessive. He gets away with it, I think, because it never looks haphazard, like some other crazy hatching we’ve seen – in Panel 4, the lines on Johnny’s glove adds shadows without the blacks, contrasting it to the rest of his body, while in Panels 5 and 6, the line work on his gloves gives it more texture, which may or may not be kosher with the idea of a costume made of “unstable molecules,” but adds a realistic touch to a superhero outfit, which is always interesting to see.
Windsor-Smith has become very good at body language, as he does really well with how his figures move and react to things. This is a small scene, but Ben’s sleepy stumble to the bathroom is excellent, as his foot gets tangled in the sheet and he tries to free himself. In Panel 1, he sticks his foot out and shakes it, and Windsor-Smith, despite showing him from the back, draws him with those hunched shoulders, so that and the trail of the sheet makes it easy to imagine a shuffle across the floor. In Panel 2, we get an overhead view, as Ben tugs on the sheet but can’t get himself loose. Panel 3 shows his impatience, as he shreds the sheet without even trying to disentangle himself, and Windsor-Smith does a wonderful job showing that Ben really isn’t in the mood for shenanigans (not that he ever is). Just that sequence gives us a lot of information about Ben that, if we didn’t know him, is useful – he likes to sleep, he doesn’t like getting up, he’s impatient, and he’s very strong. Windsor-Smith gives us a wonderful Panel 1, too, with the sunlight filtering in through the windows and the frame acting as a slide pointing right at Ben, in case we needed help moving across the page. I love the Beatles poster on the wall – Windsor-Smith, I imagine, is a huge Beatles fan, but a military man like Ben, especially one who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, would probably loathe the Beatles. It’s a nice example of a writer and/or artist putting their own artistic sensibilities into a place I’m not sure it belongs.
As we saw in the first scan, Johnny was rigging a spring, and it turns out he put it underneath his pancakes, so when Ben stole the ‘cakes, they exploded all over him. (Okay, here’s an aside: Back in college, I used to play a lot of hearts. I mean, a lot of hearts. Early in my college life, our RA was a dude who used to love the pancakes in the dining hall. Once, while we were playing one of our many games of hearts – this dude used to clean the younger dudes’ clocks regularly, because he was really good – someone asked him what he liked to eat for breakfast in the dining hall. Very seriously, he looked at the guy who asked him and said menacingly, “The cakes is good.” We, of course, adopted it as a semi-official hearts motto – we had several, as you’re going to find when the same group of about 10 people always get together to play hearts almost every day for four years – and today, if you meet anyone I happened to live with in college, all you have to do is say “The cakes is good” and you’ll be accepted into the tribe. You could also call the game of hearts “boats,” but that’s a whole ‘nother story. Basically, I was a huge nerd in college, just like I am today.) Windsor-Smith gives us a tremendous panel of the pancakes blowing up, as it’s a lot goofier than we usually think of when we think of Windsor-Smith – the way he draws Ben flying backward is terrific, and the details of the syrup spraying everywhere is very cool. He doesn’t get Ben’s face into the panel too well, because of the angle, but notice that he opens his mouth in surprise and keeps his eye open – Ben just doesn’t know what hit him. The composition of the panel is excellent, too, as Windsor-Smith places the spring in the center so that we focus on it, but because it’s a coil, it kind of spins us around the panel so we take in the entire scene. The look of rage on Ben’s face in Panel 2 is wonderful, too – Ben, it seems, is probably fairly easy to work with, as he has the giant brow ridge that can be moved with great effect, while his mouth is usually large and doesn’t look strange when it’s open really wide. Here Windsor-Smith covers half of Ben’s face with a pancake, but we can still see the angled brow ridge showing anger, and of course his mouth is wide. Windsor-Smith’s wide and flat fingers for Ben look wider and flatter than usual, and it’s an interesting look. Notice, too, the line work, which is again plentiful but not, I don’t think, excessive. The ring of lines on the pancakes make them look a bit like mushrooms, but that’s a minor complaint.
Ben thinks he’s chasing Johnny (and maybe he is), but when he turns a corner into a hallway, he steps on the many wheeled toys Johnny placed there during the night. Windsor-Smith does a really nice job with the way Ben moves on the page. In Panel 1, he’s stomping a bit, and Windsor-Smith manages to make it both impressive and awkward, as he begins to see that he’s about to step on a skateboard. So while we get a nice stride that makes Ben look even bigger than he really is, we also get a pose that shows him trying to stop in mid-air so his foot doesn’t come down, but his stomping has made stopping impossible. In Panel 3, Ben starts moving, and Windsor-Smith shows how unsteady he is and how off-balance his body is, while also implying the motion as his feet are, at that moment, moving faster than his torso. It’s really well done. Windsor-Smith, of course, doesn’t cheat us on the details, as he makes sure to distinguish each small toy. Ben’s face in Panel 1 is drawn well, too, as we get the rage as well as the sudden awareness that he’s going to be pranked again, as his mouth twists less in anger and more in surprise, even though the rest of his face shows anger. I’m actually a bit freaked out by Ben’s eyes in that panel, as the irises are looking in two different directions. I think that’s probably a mistake, but whatever it is, it’s kind of weird.
I don’t know if Windsor-Smith drew every single ball in Panel 1 or if he hired some Thai street urchins to do it, because that’s some attention to detail right there. Man. Anyway, here we see a pretty classic “Windsor-Smith face” – again, I don’t know if he had already gotten to this point before he left comics in the mid-1970s or if this was something that he developed during his years away, but it’s pretty much the face we’ll see on his characters from here on out. It’s not totally rounded off, but it’s also not angular, and Windsor-Smith, perhaps as a vestige of his Kirby aping, tends to give his characters fairly big chins. He gives them smaller eyes than we saw yesterday, but it’s kind of odd – his men often have a bit of line work around the eyes that makes them look a bit puffy, implying sadness or weariness. It’s not as evident with his females, but Johnny does seem a little sad in Panel 4. I could just be reading into things. Anyway, it’s still a Windsor-Smith Face. And look at that great coloring. Marvel Fanfare was on sturdier, glossier paper than most comics of the time, and it made shading work really nicely when done right, as we see here.
The twist in this story is that Ben rigs something over Johnny’s bed, then relaxes with a cigar, which, as we saw, Johnny sabotaged with explosives. So Ben lights up, and we know it’s going to go boom soon enough. Once again, we get superb line work from Windsor-Smith, as Ben looks very rocky and the cigars in Panel 3 look very tactile and rough, and really nice use of blacks, as Ben’s chair looks very luxurious and velvety. The coloring is still great, too. Windsor-Smith uses the yellow/blue complement well on this page, with the lighting giving us the yellow, popping off Ben’s robe, while his orange skin also complements the blue. The yellow of the lighter in the final panel is excellent, as the flame is yellow, but the area lighting Ben’s skin is white, which then fades to yellow, giving us a nice sense of illumination. Once again, the silhouette of the window frame comes into play, this time forming a backdrop to Ben’s satisfactory cigar-smoking. If I were a more introspective person, I might contemplate that Windsor-Smith has actually caged Ben, showing that he’s trapped in this cycle of idiotic prankishness with Johnny, much like the FF and superhero comics in general are always trapped in their stereotypes. CAN YOU HANDLE MY PHILOSOPHICAL MUSINGS?!?!?!?
Next: I have to do “Lifedeath,” don’t I? I mean, I would be crazy not to do “Lifedeath,” right? Maybe I’m just crazy, you ever think of that? See more craziness in the archives!
[dhole asked if I could post the cover of this issue. I’ve thought about posting the covers of the issues I take a look at, but of course I don’t always feature one issue and often the interior artist doesn’t even draw the cover! But I don’t have an objection to it, so here it is:
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