O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
So here’s the deal. A while back Bill Reed linked to a long-form essay by Colin Smith comparing the first eight issues of the Avengers from way back in 1963 to the current model.
I thought “Hey, that was fun!” After which I thought “I wish there was more blog-style writing on the earliest Silver Age Marvel superbooks.” And THEN I said “Oh, yeah. I’m part of a group blog. I could just get off my laziness and make it happen.”
So here’s what we’re gonna do. I’m going to do a critical/historical survey – with bonus added terrible comedy! – of the first issues of each of the major Marvel franchise books: The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Avengers, Daredevil, and Captain America. I’m planning on following Colin’s example and comparing the original model to what came after.
But I’m planning on discarding that plan if I feel about writin’ about other stuff.
And I figure what better place to start than with the debut of the Marvel Age of Comics?
So I’ve been reading this comic. It’s about giant, Godzilla-type critters menacing civilization. It’s about mad dictators planning terrifyingly destructive schemes that threaten our sanity and our very lives from their secret lairs miles under the earth. It’s about beings secretly wielding life-or-death magical powers, living amongst us in secret. And it’s about the steps a panicked population takes to defend themselves from this hidden threat.
Here’s the cover.
Fantastic Four #1 (of four-hundred sixteen) (“The Fantastic Four/The Mold Man’s Secret”) by Stan Lee (Scripter), Jack Kirby (artist), Art Simek(letterer), and Mark Evanier says George Klein so that’s good enough for me (Inker). $.10, 25 pgs, FC, Marvel (Formerly Atlas, soon to be Marvel Pop-Art Productions.)
Bonus Link: There’s some fun discussion of the cover in this Comic Book Urban Legends Piece.
Now, pretty much all of us here in the nerdiest corner of a nerd web-site have read SOME Fantastic Four, right?
Let’s ignore that. Wash it from our brains. Never happened.
Let’s pretend we’re reading this for the first time. It’s the summer ’61. We’re sticky-faced and dirt-besmeared moppets, who have just plunked down the princely sum of a dime for the above comic.
Presumably, we are fans of giant green monsters with huge mouths or incredibly prescient investors.
So. What do we find?
Well, let’s start with the characters.
MEET THE FANTASTIC FOUR:
Okay, fifty year old spoilers for those of you reading this who don’t know how the story goes and probably don’t exist.
The Fantastic Four steal an experimental rocket, are blasted out into space, get zapped by “cosmic rays” which bless/curse them with nigh-magical shape-shifting powers.
Real Name: Reed Richards.
Powers: Plastic Man style Stretching.
Role in the Team: Leader. (And let’s gasp in awe at that particular factoid once we’ve finished this entry.
Major Characteristics: 1) Greying Temples. 2) Oddly flattened head that resembles the top part of an exclamation point. 3) Constantly makes errors on a level that would make General Custer go “Damn dog…”, in potentia or in actuality ruining the lives of everyone around him .
No. Really. Let’s take a look at what “Mister Fantastic” actually accomplishes in Fantastic Four # 1: He falls down a hole. He Loses a stick fight with this dude…..
despite the fact that M.F. is, like, six feet taller and has super powers.
And, oh yeah, he illegally steals a spaceship. This spashesip presumably belongs to the US Government. This spaceship is headed for God know where (the comic actually doesn’t say.) If he’s got a good reason for doing so, the comic doesn’t let us in on it. He continues with his illegal and doomed-to-failure plan after best friend sensibly warns him that this is a truly bad idea.
Long story short, he ends up screaming “Ben was right!” as the ship is pelted with potentially deadly radiation and forced to crash.
It’s a miracle that nobody dies.
(It’s MORE of a miracle that they’re all mutated into superheroes, I suppose, but it ain’t like dude was planning on this.)
Which, in baseball terms, would give him an ERA somewhere around -.350.
“But he’s Mister Fantastic!,” you say. “He must have done SOMETHING right?!”
He does save the life of our next Fantastic Four member. Twice. But even that’s a bit of a mixed blessing…
Real Name: Johnny Storm.
Powers: Flying. Controlled spontaneous combustion.
Role in the Team: Teengage POV character, who combines the annoying-osity of the “kid sidekick” types throughout history with the oft-realized potential to send everything around him to fiery destruction. In the course of one issue he manages to burn up his car, several airplanes, and damn everybody else on the team while sparking up a major brush-fire.
Major Advantage: STILL Manages to come off better than Mister Fantastic.
Real Name: Ben Grimm.
Powers: Super Strength and Stanima, Hella Uggggliness, dawg.
Role In the Team: Lissen. The Fantastic Four? Pshaw. There’s only one of these yahoos with one iota of damn sense, and his name is Ben Grimm. In a twist of cosmic irony, he’s the ONLY one of the foursome (sounds dirty) who’s power doesn’t come with an “on/off” switch, meaning that he’s stuck as a hideous monster forever. Moral: God punishes you for hanging out with idiots by ruining your life while they get off scot-free.
Personality: Sensibly, his monster-transformation turns the Thing into a highly bitter individual. He also tries to kill the crap out of Mister Fantastic and the Human Torch. Now, granted, on any OTHER superhero team this would make him a murderous traitor, but in the context of their characters in F.F. # 1, this feels like basic common sense. As with the Torch, he causes vast amounts of property damage, but UNLIKE Johnny he always has a good reason.
The damn doorways are too narrow! Y’can’t blame a man for that!
Pooh Bear can relate.
The Invisible Girl:
Real Name: Susan Storm.
Role in the team: Token pretty face. Can identify a photo of Australia.
Also: Sue’s a chick and she’s not designated team secretary, which actually makes her a fairly progressive feminist role model amongst super-her0 and adventure-type characters of the day.
Personality: There’s really no way to say this delicately. She’s an E-N-O-R-M-O-U-S bitch.
Now this contrasts wildly with her later characterization, but the Sue Storm of FF # 1 is basically evil given human form with Donna Reed ‘do and a purple jumpsuit.
Within two pages of her introduction she takes palpable, malicious delight in scaring the crap out of the citizens of New York with her invisibility powers. In her first chronological appearance, she threatens Ben Grimm’s manhood in a fit of ill-begotten patriotism “Ben, we’ve GOT to take that chance… unless we want the commies to beat us! I — I never thougt that YOU would be a coward!” and later is the only one tactless enough to point out to Mister Fantastic what a screw-up he is. “But Reed..We failed!!! After all your work… your dedication… we failed!”
(“Damn those commies! I hope they get @#$%$%$^ by the #$%^*& in HELL! If you hadn’t been STUPID, #$%^- for brains, we could be drawing 100-foot tall charicatures of Lenin with a #$%^&*( #$%^ in his @#$% on the MOON right now” she continues, off panel.)
And the rest of the time she can be just a tad condescending.
Unfortunately, “the hot chick who insults the ugly dude” is pretty much the sum total of her value to the team. She doesn’t defeat the villain or save the world or get the treasure or get to do much of ANYTHING, really. She scares a cabby. The Thing saves her from a monster. It kind of looks like she catches the Thing’s sweet-ass hat before it hits floor in one panel, and she correctly identifies Australia and the fact that I have to mention that TWICE really shows you the magnitude of her accomplishments.
On the upside: She doesn’t destroy anyone’s life. Or livelihood. And she doesn’t almost burn down greater New York State.
So I’d say that on THIS team, being merely completely ineffective is the equivalent of being the MVP on the All-Star team.
So. In summary. The Fantastic Four. Not a buncha people you want to spend a lot of time with.
LOVE that panel. LOVE THAT PANEL!!!
But. But. But. As a story. On a catching-my-interest-and-making-me-want-to-keep-reading level… it works.
Our Fantastic Four may be surly. Or bitchy. Or crazy dangerous to themselves, their friends and family and everyone and everything within the greater tri-state radius.
But they’re interesting! Compared to the square-jawed and boringly forthright heroes from, say, DC’s Silver Age Justice League comics they’re downright fascinating.
Funny, then, how the folks at Marvel comics went out of their way to make these revolutionary characters seem like typical Marvel Product.
Here’s the cover again.
Compare to the giant-monster centric stories that Marvel was pumpin’ out in mags like TALES TO ASTONISH or STRANGE TALES.
Big-asssed monster front and center, bunch of smaller human figures milling around.
If we’re judging the book by it’s cover, Fantastic Four # 1 is a Marvel Monster comic that looks more or less like every other Marvel Monster Comic.
In fact: There’s nothing to establish that the Fantastic Four aren’t evil monsters until page 13 of FF # 1. The story STARTS with the Torch, the Thing, and the Invisible Girl on a rampage through the city to accomplish some unknown, mysterious, and by all indications sinister task.
EVENTUALLY, when the curtain’s dropped on chapter one and the origin flashback is done, the Fantastic Four talk about helping mankind.
But we spend twelve pages not knowing that.
Now, let’s take a look at the flashbactakular Fantastic Four-gain-their-powers-because-radiation-could-do-ANYTHING-in-1961 sequence –
Look at what Jack Kirby’s doing here. He’s whiplasheing back and forth between interior and exterior shots, close-ups and full figures. End result: Confusion and mounting horror.
What I’m trying to say is: Fantastic Four # 1is not a superhero comic. Giant monsters. Unlikeable, flawed protagonists with questionable motives.
It’s 90% horror, with maybe 10% traditional superhero tossed on top.
Not Nightmare or Friday style horror. Not EC 0r Geoff Johns guts-all-on-the-floor style horror.
But horror aimed at children, as was common in the movies of the ’50s and ’60s. Giant monsters and mad scientists and strange invaders from the stars.
And that’s even MORE obvious in the second story.
Here, the Fantastic Four fight the Mole Man in a story that’s SO traditional of Marvel’s then-current giant monster output that my buds over at the Classic Comics forum have theorized that it was originally written for one of the monster mags – with the Mole Man as the protagonist – and then cut up and re-pasted into a Fantastic Four tale.
1) The story contains a more than two pages of a giant monster versus the army sequence. This sequence doesn’t reference our heroes or contain information vital to the rest of the story.
2) Mister Fantastic and the Human Torch end up disquised in clumsy metal costumes that obscure their physical features for several pages. The reason given (They’re blinded by the suits to keep them from being blinded for real) makes no sense whatsoever.
3) This Jack Kirby guy is generally a pretty good artist, coming in at # 1 on the CSBG favorite artist poll an’ all.
And while he might occasionally have a somewhat laid back attitude towards anatomy and perspective, his panel composition skills are generally really, really, REALLY goshdamn good.
So what’s up with panels like….
It’s almost lke the FFs weren’t in the original version of this panel, and were magically inserted in pre-production via the 1961 version of photoshop. (Which I suspect invoved a ruler and scotch tape or glue.)
4) The story is, narratively speaking, kind of a mess. There’s the army flashback that doesn’t add anything, there are some downright clunky cuts between the two main narratives –
– and the whole she-bang ends with an “Oh crap we’re out of room let’s wrap everything up in three panels” of an ending.
Actually, never mind that last one. That describes damn near every Silver Age Marvel Comic. (I see this as much a feature as a bug, personally.)
But even if it was a copy-and-paste job (and I’m only about 50% convinced, myself) it’s still got at least got some major positives.
As Stan hisself points out in his ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS the Mole Man is a uniquely developed and sympathetic villain… (Possibly because he was the main character of the original piece)
How I love ‘em.
I’d put Kirby in the elite top two all-time comic illustrators in the “unearthly and bizarre” category. And I’d rate him as absolutely the best monster designer to ever work in American comics, as well as the best designer of awesome looking future-tech.
The other member of my top two “drawing weird shit” pantheon? Steve Ditko.
But we’ll get to HIM a couple posts down the road.
Speaking of which – That’s all I have to say about THAT. Next time I’m planning to hit up Fantastic Four # 2, 3, 4, and 5, a sequence which includes my favorite Fantastic Four story ever. The third part will cover F.F. # 6 -10, and then we’ll move on to the Hulk, Thor or Spider-Man (whichever came first, I forget) and so on.
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