Old Marvel Review Part III: Fantastic Four 6, 7, and 8
I really, really need a better name for these things than “Old Marvel Review.” “Everything Was Better Before I Was Born?” “All You People Dissing On Stan Can Suck My Left One?”
I am not good at titles.
Anyway, here’s the thing where I talk about the first handful of issues - One Marvel Masterworks Volume Worth – of the major Marvel Comics franchised: Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Avengers, X-Men, Daredevil and Captain America from a critical and historical perspective, with an eye towards discovering why they resonated so darn strongly for so darn long in popular culture. Part One (covering Fantastic Four # 1) is here. Part Two (covering Fantastic Four # 2, 3, 4, and 5) is here.
Fantastic Four # 6 (“Captives of the Deadly Duo/When Super-Menaces Unite/When Friends Fall Out/Trapped!/The End.. or the Beginning?” (Spoilers: It was the end.) by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (artist) Dick Ayers (inker), although I read somewhere that Joe Sinnott did a teeny little bit of the inking, Glynis Oliver (re-colorist), and Art Simek (letterer). $.12, 24 pgs, FC, Marvel.
Historical? Yeah, we got that. here we have One Hugely important and obvious development in Marvel history, and one even more important that’s a little more subtle.
Firstly: This is the one where Doctor Doom, in his second appearance meets the Sub-Mariner in HIS second appearance. Or second Silver Age appearance. Or second appearance of the rebooted Stan and Jack version of the character - You can see how these reboots get a little bit complicated.
Now this ain’t a completely original idea. Supervillain team-ups occasionally appeared in the DC Comics prior to this issue’s publication, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find ‘em in other comics, s’well. But here we get Doom and Subby together almost immediately after their ‘birthin’ and that suggests a different attitude. DC supervillian team-ups seemed born of desperation in a “What can we do with Luthor?” “Turn him into a giant koala with a kryptonite tail?” “Did it. two months ago.” “Pair him with the Toyman and the Prankster?” “Sure, what the hell, we’ve tried everything else” kind of way.
Meanwhile, over at Marvel “Let’s smuch ‘em together and see what happens” damn near becomes the company motto. The Fantastic Four are smushed into Spider-Man # 1. The Angel is smushed into Iron Man. Dum Dum Dugan is smushed into Godzilla. Eventually, everyone’s smushed into everyone in a completely separate series, and we have Contest of the Champions or Civil War. And this was the first sign of that propensity to smush characters together, just to see what happens…
Strange, then, that the story begins so quietly. Well, relatively quietly - Nobody is jumping down a monster’s gullet with a nuclear bomb strapped to their back in the fist six pages. But # 6 opens with the Fantastic Four stone chillin’. Reading their mail. Hanging out.
And that, to my mind, is MORE important to the future development of the Marvel style than even the nascent beginnings of the “universe.”
In the last couple of articles, I talked about the early Fantastic Four stories as genre pastiche. They’re trying to be all things to all people. Throw in some giant monsters, some romance, some superheroes, some Archie style teen stories, stir, and VOILA! Comics!
But in the beginning of # 6 the Fantastic Four are just just hanging around at home, conveniently recapping their powers and relationships for the new or forgetful reader. Mister Fantastic visits a kid in the hospital. The Thing gets mail from the Yancy Street Gang, and sends ‘em a bent-up steel girder back. For the first time, the story is completely driven by the characters themselves just being themselves. Which is a M-A-J-O-R step forward., and one that require a heck of a lot of trust.
Remember, Lee and Kirby were writing for ADD rugrants with extremely limited attention spans. (I may be interjecting some of my own opinions here.) Which explains the tempo of these stories- something interesting HAS to be happening ALL THE TIME or you’ll lose your audience. So, to trust that you can hold your audience with an epic! mail! reading! scene! requires that you believe in the inherent strength of your characters, and you believe in your own ability to turn a humble domestic drama into an event capable of wresting your audience away from the Mickey Mouse Club.
And this “Characters FIRST” approach defined Marvel comics more than any other element.
Of course, comparing this scene to the “A” plot with Doomsy and the Sub-Mariner suggests some interesting secondary subtext… That the minute that you start to relax, your enemies will find each other and conspire against you, screaming “Revenge…. REVENGE!!!!” Ah, let us shed a nostalgic tear for the good old days when children’s entertainment taught paranoia-as-survival-technique rather than namby pamby lessons about sharing.
So this issues is IMPORTANT. One of the four or five most historically important comics in the company’s history. And the Doom/Sub-Mariner scenes are great. The introverted, cat-who-ate-the-canary Doom from last time is gone, and the raving, third-person talking meglomaniac we all know and love is starting to emerge. The Sub-Mariner is fleshed out more, too. He’s driven by pride, revenge (Revenge…REVENGED) , and love, in the most stalker-iffic sense of the term.
(Side-Note: The Invisible Girl and the Sub-Mariner have MATCHING portraits of each other. Sue keeps hers hidden behind the bookshelf Awwww…cute.)
And then we get to the actual meat of the issue, and it’s good, but….
There are three things I want to see in a Fantastic Four/Sub-Mariner/Doctor Doom story.
1) The Fantastic Four fighting the Sub-Mariner. CHECK!
2) Doctor Doom betraying the Sub-Mariner for his own nefarious purposes. CHECK!
3) The Fantastic Four fighting Doctor Doom….errrr….
Well, I won’t argue with the almighty Meatloaf.
But three outta three is better.
Which doesn’t make this a terrible comic by any means. Rene even likes it more than # 5, despite it’s unfortunate piratelessness. (Shock! Horror!) This contains the “Doom launches the Baxter Building into space” sequence, which might be the single most famous plot in the history of the series. (That or Galactus and the Ultimate Nullifier.) And it is a GREAT sequence: Natural enemies, who second before were tryin’ to kill each other, are smushed together in a very small area indeed and have to work together to survive, while a crazy psycho in a metal mask pulls them into space to die of asphyxiation, giggling like a schoolgirl. This is a prime example of “how to ratchet narrative tension up to INSANE levels” that should be taught in film schools everywhere. (And it’s written for eight year olds! Lord!)
Still, I’m a little disappointed by the fact that this is 96% a Sub-Mariner story - He’s the only guy with any character progression, he’s the one who gets to stop (and, as far as we know here, kill) Doctor Doom, he gets the cool-ass throne room complete with pimpass jelly-fish-in-a-crystal-ball. Meanwhile Doom does villain things, and the Fantastic Four react.
I don’t want to complain TOO much - it’s still a great story, but it really would have worked better as a two parter, ala the second(?) Human Torch and Sub-Mariner fight from the ’40s. On the other hand, it could be worse….
Fantastic Four # 7 (“It Came From the Skies/Outlawed!/When Friends Fall Out/Bound For Planet X!/Twenty Four Hours to Zero/the END of Planet X” (Much less Spoilery spoilers: It was the end.) by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (artist) Dick Ayers (inker), Glynis Oliver (re-colorist), and Art Simek (letterer). $.12, 24 pgs, FC, Marvel.
See this guy? His name is Kurrgo and he sucks. “Why the hostility, MarkAndrew” you ask? Because two-thirds of the way through, a perfectly good Fantastic Four story turns into THE KURGGO SHOW! STARRING KURRGO AS KURRGO! FILMED ON LOCATION AT KURRGO-LA STUDIOS. NOW WITH 17% MORE KURRGO. I bitched about too much Sub-Mariner last issue, but Namor is 1.8gigaKurrgos in terms of interesting. But the sub-title of this ish should be “Kurrgo does stuff/The Fantastic Four react.” Kurrgo turns an anger ray on the earth to lure the Fantastic Four to his home planet. (Really, Kurrgo’s plans make about as much (non) sense as Doctor Doom’s, but he scores about a “1″ for style while the good Doctor is bringin’ home three “10s” and mackin’ with the judge in the locker room after.) Kurrgo sends a giant red robot which fights the Fantastic Four. Kurrgo tries to recruit the Fantastic Four to save said planet. As opposed to, y’know, ASKING. But the sensible way is not for Kurrgo. He’s too busy being terrible. Kurrgo nurses secret plans which serve his undoing. Kurrgo has a giant furry head. Kurrgo, Kurrgo, Kurrgo. And I’d be FINE with the Kurrgo show, if he was more than the 1,000,000th alien conquerer to attack the earth in comics this month. He’s generic and he sucks. Luckily he dies at the end. And then his stupid dead body sucks.
How much does he suck? Think of the number of appearances of other characters that first appeared in the Lee/Kirby FF run. Doc Doom? He’s showed up how many hundreds of times… maybe a thousand? the Silver-Age Sub-Mariner - He’s gotta be damn close to the 1 K mark himself. the Silver Surfer, the Black Panther, Galatcus, the Watcher, the Inhumans - Multiple hundreds of appearances all. Hell, even B-Listers like Agatha Harkness and the Impossible Man score several dozen. Even fairly marginal characters like the Wizard – who first appeared in the Human Torch solo series in Strange Tales, but whatevs – show up a couple of times a year. Kurrgo, after this story, appears exactly twice. He’s, like, 1/47th of a Paste Pot Pete.
So I’m not a particularly huge FAN of this issue.
(Note: This is an edited version, I stole from the nifty Marvel Genesis blog - The original panels weren’t directly beside each other.)
One of the major appeal of these books for me is the inconsistency of the craft. Even here, amidst all the crap and the Kurrgo, there are sequences like this where my jaw just drops.
The set-up: Kurrgo has commissioned a hostility ray to drive the Fantastic Four off earth - Basically, he’s turning the entire planet against the FFs, in order to get them to come to HIS planet and save it. (Look, let’s just go with it.)
So we cut away to these two panels - And this strikes me as some particularly sophisticated storytelling. First of all - I know comedy is subjective, but the LOOK on the dude’s face made me laugh. It’s hard to call Kirby “underrated” given results like these but he tends to get most of his props for his cosmic epic and soap-opera-style drawings, while his cartooning tends to get ignored. SECOND, Lee and Kirby are using this comedic sequence to illustrate a planetary level threat, and trusting the audience to make the mental connection “Ha, that’s pretty funny. But that ray is aimed at the entire world and … ohhhhhh shit.” (Smushing suspense and drama together.) Third, let’s notice the degree of characterization here. Two characters are created. Their relationship is cleanly and clearly established - And then there’s a significant change in their relationship depicted in such a way that it’s both shockingly funny but horrifying in it’s implications. Then the characters go away forever.
All this in two panels. TWO PANELS you guys! That just about makes up for eight pages of Kurrgo!
Fantastic Four # 8 (“It Came From the Skies/Outlawed!/When Friends Fall Out/Bound For Planet X!/Twenty Four Hours to Zero/the END of Planet X” (Much less Spoilery spoilers: It was the end.) by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (artist) Dick Ayers (inker),, Glynis Oliver (re-colorist), and Honestly I can’t find out who did this anywhere (letterer). $.12, 24 pgs, FC, Marvel.
SPEAKING of stories I had some problems with, here we have Fantastic Four # 8, which I’d very charitably call “uneven.”
On the upside, it introduces the Puppet Master who looks like Howdy Doody’s evil cousin and that’s freaking great.
On the downside, there’s
Alicia Masters, soon-to-be girlfriend of the Thing and the Fantastic Four’s most prominent background character. In the but on FF # 1, I talked about how the characters “worked” in their first appearances. So, based JUST on Fantastic Four # 8, here are the characteristics of first appearance Alicia.
1) She’s blind.
2) She has blind woman magic radar hearing powers, sufficient to allow her to detect the Invisible. Because blind people are basically superheroes.
3) She looks exactly like Sue Storm. Enough so that her stepfather makes her do Invisible Girl cosplay to gain access to the Fantastic Four’s headquarters. (Note that her stepfather had (A) the means to control the actual Invisible Girl, and (B) the ACTUAL INVISIBLE GIRL held captive.) I tend to let the silly plot points go in these books ’cause they’re not trying for “realism” – It’s written for children and full of surrealistic absurdity, ala Warner Brothers cartoons or Doctor Seuss. Generally, I’m fine with that.
But, c’mon. This swims right past “charmingly goofy” and sinks somewhere in the middle of the Sea of Idiocy.
4) The Thing thinks Alicia only cares for him as the Thing - And he’s pretty much right! I don’t think it’s TOO much of a stretch to point out that Alicia’s apparently has a sexxy fetish for the Thing’s rocky skin. And she’s a professional sculptress. Let’s let THAT sink in for a minute. Three thoughts: (A) I’m a little shocked by this level of forthcoming about a character’s sexual picadillos in a mainstream Marvel comic. (B) It does give Saint Alicia a desperately needed dark side (C) C’mon, that’s hilarious.
4) And this is the real problem. She’s really quite naive – And by “naive” I mean “Dumb as a post.” I don’t CARE if you’re blind. If you live with your stepfather and don’t realize that he’s a supervillain with serious plans for world domination until page 21 of 23 then, sister, you are riding the idiot train non-stop to stupdville.
Flash-forward: And I’m not sure how much she’s improved over the years. Between the writing of this post and part two in the series I did read the entire run of Marvel Two-In-One (So it’s not like I’m wasting my time or anything) and while she doesn’t come off as staggeringly stupid, she’s never really a particularly interesting character in her own right. The sum total of her personality is “Really, really loves Ben Grimm” and “tolerates his temper tantrums with Saint like patience.” Basically, she’s there as a way to enhance the Thing’s characterization (and give him someone to talk to, ala Robin and Batman) and she never comes off as a fully fleshed out character on here own.
It’s not that I hate the character – She’s too bland to hate. I’d just rather see her replaced with someone (anyone!) more interesting. And they could’ve started with this story.
As for the rest of this issue, I’d give it a hesitant “C” for choppy. There’s a fairly clever running motif where the Fantastic Four are virtually never conscious, in control of their facilities, and in the same place as the Puppet Master, which provides an interesting counterpoint to the “Heroes meet villains and bash each other” style ‘o story.
But it’s not that good, and I want to talk about that - And broaden this to talk about what makes a successful early Marvel comic, circa 1962, and what makes an unsuccsseful one from a writing standpoint.
A few thoughts: (A) These books were phenomenally successful for the time they were in - And not just flash in the pan successes either - They’re still highly relevant to pop culture today. So they must have done SOMETHING right.
But judged as conventional narratives they mostly flat-out fail. I’ve posted some examples of very good scenes, but there isn’t much in the way of “Traditional Narrative arc” with climaxes and resolutions here.
Again, though, Lee and Kirby were writing for eight year olds. Eight year olds. Eight year olds who need constant stimulation or they’ll get bored and play with their shrinky dinks and Mr. Potato Head made of a real potato or whatever-the-hell else kids played with in 1962. So set-up doesn’t really work in these type of stories. Everything has to be gripping and involving.
And, honestly, call me an eight year old at heart - I’d just as soon see ten really exciting scenes as one really exciting scene at the climax surrounded by a bunch of progressively less exciting scenes. Just dump a bunch of cool crap onto the page, folks! (This is the philosophy at the heart of many of my favorite modern comics as well - I’d recommend the Goon and King City, both of which follow a similar philosophy.)
So here’s my basic critical philosophy for these books - The good ones consistently maintain narrative tension. One scene might not follow another ala our earth logic, but there’s always something interesting happening and the stakes the characters are playing for are worthwhile and important.
By this standard, # 5 was a huge success - The Fantastic Four were always fighting for their own lives, or to rescue the Invisible Girl, or to gain a sense of acceptance. # 7 was much less successful, as the inherently interesting Fantastic Four story gave way to the sucky story about sucky Kurrgo and his lameass corpse. Meanwhile, # 8 plays like a round robin game of Cool Thing! boring thing
On the upside, we got giant joystick-headed puppet creatures, (KirbyMonster!), the Puppet Master’s insane attention to detail, and THIS scene… Sue’s nasty sense of humor went away as the series progressed, and
On the downside, we have the Fantastic Four spending a lot of their time fighting off a relatively uninteresting jailbreak, the above mentioned riiiiiiidonkulous plot points, and a climax that just isn’t that exciting - The Fantastic Four foil the prison break, and that’s where THEIR story ends. The Puppet Master has some wild fantasies about what hes’ GOING to do, and then he trips over Alicia and falls out a window the end.
Now I’m not a fan of retcons in comics – The whole “Sins Past” revealed information plot that recasts other people’s work in a new light seems like cheating to me. BUT, if I had my way, I’d make a couple small changes to the last page of FF # 8.
Puppet Master: “NYAH! I’m going to roll the world! I’ll eat quail and the Fantastic Four will pull me around in a cart while I wear a pink hat that’s larger than my body!”
MarkAndrew: Swear. To. God. I’m not even going to scan this panel. I trust your imaginations are equal to the task.
Alicia: “Oh, but father, before you do that, you have to go to your appointment.
Puppet Master: Crap, I always forget those damn things. Lemme check my Iphone… Nah, I didn’t even jot it down. Who was I meeting again?
Alicia: Oh, father, you remember. Mr. W. Glass and Mr. S. Walk.”
Puppet Master: “What appointment! I don’t even know who…”
*Tinkle, Crumble, other various noises of defenestration*
Puppet Master: “Oh. Now I get i..
Now I’m not, in general, pro step-fratricide in comics. But I DO think that, over the years, an Alicia that started out like this would’ve proved vastly more interesting as a character-unto-herself than the Alicia we got.
Okay. Enough complaining for now. Next time I’ll FINALLY finish with the Fantastic Four. Probably.