Axel-In-Charge: Facing the 'Divided' Marvel NOW! Future
Well, I’ve been sitting on this for, like, six years. Might as well hit “Publish”
So here’s the deal – I’m doing a critical/historical examination of the first ten-or-so stories from each of Marvel’s major franchise titles – Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man, X-Men, Avengers, Daredevil, Captain America, and Kid Colt Outlaw. Sorta. This is the fourth part examining the initial Lee/Kirby run on Fantastic Four.
Part One – Covering Fantastic Four # 1 – is here.
Part Two – Covering Fantastic Four # 2 through 5 – is over here.
Part Three – Dealing with Fantastic Four 6, 7, and 8 - this-a-way.
And Part four is down there somewhere.
Fantastic Four # 9 (“The END of the Fantastic Four!/Sub-Mariner Gives the Orders/The FURY of Mister Fantastic/The Flame of Battle/Vengeance is Ours” by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (artist) Dick Ayers (inker), Art Simek (Letterer), and Glynis Oliver (re-colorist), quite a few years later. $.12, 23 pgs, FC, Marvel.
Let’s kick this off with a round of Name The Early Sixties Celebrity! I think that’s Alfred Hitchcock second from the right…
So here we have the Fantastic Four go to Hollywood story, and I believe the technical term for works of this magnitude and significance is “a doozy.” First, there’s a plot that slides from near-realism into stupifyin’ goofy so smoothly that I barely even noticed how. freaking. NUTS this story really was. Until the Cyclops showed up.
But ALSO this is where the storytelling team of Lee and Kirby finally discover
the SECRET OF THE FANTASTIC FOUR. This is where they figure out the formula that turned the Fantastic Four… and by extension the entirety of their superhero line… into major hits.
Lissen. I liked the first eight issues of Fantastic Four. Heck, # 5 I downright loved. But there was a palpable sense of desperation fouling the air around ‘em. Says Mssr. Lee “Let’s try… say….Giant Monsters!”
Kirby: “Or mabye slapstick comedy!”
Lee,: “Or Archie style teenage comedy”
Kirby: Or heavy character drama”
Lee: (Jumping on table) “Oor team up the two main villains of the feature (who have had one appearance each!)”
MarkAndrew: More pirates! More p-i-r-a-t-e-s.
Kirby: “Jewelry store robberies and alien invasions and the Thing gets a girlfriend… let’s just try every damn thing we can fit into 25 or so pages.”
Lots of energy, lots of content, lots of cool stuff in these books. But they hadn’t quite figured out what would prove to be the cornerstone of Marvel style writing yet.
The plot is much less important than the characters. It isn’t what happens to the Fantastic Four that grabs people, it’s how they react. And while FF # 9 crams in a plethora – Heck, I’ll be generous. Two plethori! – of celebrities, monsters, betrayals, and interpersonal crisises – None of that feels more important than what the characters do.
And it starts with… financial drama? Basically: Mister Fantastic made a crap-load of cash patenting his inventions. Just like when your crazy cousin Roger tried to patent the amazing static powered mouse juicer, except not stupid. All that money was invested in stocks and…. whoops! (A) The bottom falls out of the stock market, (B) the Fantastic Four are rendered penniless, and (C) a hoard of creditors descend on the Fantastic Four, hollering “We want our money!”
This, of course, strikes me as quietly revelatory for superhero comics at the time – You’d never see Batman having a garage sale at the Batcave (GIANT PENNIES, FIFTY PERCENT OFF.) And it’s very much a product of it’s specific creators – For depression era kids Stan and Jack, a stock market crash is way more terrifying than the Mole people.
Unsurprisingly, the Thing reacts poorly to this turn of events.
I’m not sure I feel completely comfortable to comparing this sequence to trading solos in jazz, but what the hell. This sequence is kind of like trading solos in jazz. It’s all “Take it Reed, Ben, and Alicia” and all the plot stuff fades to the background and it’s pure character interaction for a few pages. The Thing leaves in a huff, Alicia convinces him to come back by comparing him to a white knight, and…. AH, OH MY GOD. There’s a giant tiki head just sitting there!
I love you, giant Tiki Head.
Anyway, somewhere in the middle of all this, the Fantastic Four get an offer to star in a movie, and the payoff is… one million dollars! Which is… lemme see…. 1961 dollars, measured against inflation, weighed against the falling value of the dollar… carry the three….
one million and eight dollars in today’s money. Give or take.
Which leads to another bit of near-giant-Tiki-head level of awesomeness. The Fantastic Four don’t have any money! They sold their pogo plane and their flying bathtub to pay off their creditors! And they have to get to Hollywood to collect their check! Ths solution….
This is solved when, and I’m not making this up, the Fantastic Four hitchhike to Hollywood. (The Thing has to hide in the bushes.)
I love you comics.
Then we find the guy makin’ the offer is none other than….
At your service!
Another point in this comic’s favor. The Sub-Mariner IS the bad guy here, but Fantastic Four don’t know this. Even at this early stage, there’s a depth of characterization that colors outside of the the clear cut “hero” and “villain” lines. And, logically, how could you NOT trust a guy in such a pimp-ass purple jacket!
Anyway, this is all a big plot to kill the Fantastic Four. Each of the three male leads shoot their scenes on some deserted island somewhere, and all of ‘em are traps. The Human Torch is hunted down by stereotypical African natives who happen to be fireproof. The Sub-Mariner himself chases down the Thing and then a stray bolt of lightning turns the Thing back into Ben Grimm without the Sub-mariner noticing he’s no longer big and orange and hey wait?! what?!oh what the hell let’s just go with it… and saves the Cyclops for his most hated of rivals.
Now Subby ain’t motivated by a desire for power and conquest here. He’s trying to get the Invisible Girl to like him.
Now, I grantcha Subby’s motivation seems downright silly. Basically “If I kill your friends and family, I will be worthy of your love!” But who amongst us hasn’t done some extremely stupid things (generally Cyclops-related) in the name of love?
Eventually, of course, the Fantastic Four are reunited, and return to deliver a extra large order of clobberin’ all up on the Sub-Mariner. But Sue stands up for the Sub-Mariner, saying “It’s three against one! You’ve never ganged up on anyone before!” And the Sub-Mariner heads back out to sea, with a “The movie WILL be produced as promised! You will get your money!”
(Which raises all SORTS of questions – Your movie has, like, three scenes. Did they shoot the rest of the movie? How did they hire a director? Did they use the scenes where the Sub-Mariner tried to kill them? And it might be in somewhat poor taste to say “And here’s where Mister Fantastic ACTUALLY ALMOST GETS KILLED BY A GIANT CYCLOPS!”)
In other words: Nobody gets clobbered, and the plot is resolved through character interaction.
Yeah, I admit this is a weird one. Stan and Jack have figured out how to make the Fantastic Four work, (Character, character, character!) but haven’t really hit the balance yet between “serious” and “surrealistic comedy.” But they’re gettin’ there….
Fantastic Four # 10 (“The Return of Doctor Doom!/Back from the Dead/The END of Mister Fantastic?/No Place to Turn!/The Real Doctor Doom” by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (artist) Dick Ayers (inker), Art Simek (Letterer), and Glynis Oliver (re-colorist). $.12, 23 pgs, FC, Marvel.
I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the things that tends to get lost in the Kirby discussion shuffle is how damned good a pure cartoonist he is. In this issue, Reed Richards and Doctor Doom switch places – And Kirby makes it completely clear that Reed this Mister Fantastic is, in fact, EEEVVVILLL. And he does this just through body language and some big ‘ol booshy eyebrows. Meanwhile, the terrified lookin’ Doomsy – surprisingly emotive, even from a weird angle and under a metal mask – has Mr. Fantastic’s intellect.
So here’s the backstory. Doom hit a few… snags in his last kill the Fantastic Four plan and he’s drifting helpless through space. So, OBVIOUSLY, he’s rescued by these yellow egg-headed aliens who teach him psychic magic, including mind transference.
Here’s the thing. I am not completely sure if the sheer goofiness of some of these plot points is a bug or a feature. It can be read as plot-based surrealism to highlight and concentrate the moments of emotional realism – The serious stuff works because the not-serious stuff is so far. the. hell. Out. There.
OR it could be read azzif Stan and Jack just didn’t have a lot of time to pay attention to the plot – There’s certainly some wonky science. (Dinosaurs “Grew themselves out of existence” because their brain to body ratio became too lopsided. According to Doctor Doom. Who’s a “genius.” Although the sort of genius who always ends up shot into space and vanishing into nothing, so maybe that’s different than the smart sort of genius.)
But… when they’re going for emotional realism, it works! The story hinges around Doom trying to BECOME Reed Richards – He’s incidentally trying to kill off the Fantastic Four (OH NO! That “power enhancement ray” that “Reed Richards” is aiming at you is actually a “shrinking down to nothing” ray) but he seems perfectly content to keep on bein’ a bushier eyebrowed Reed Richard for the rest of his life.
Which gives Doom an uncommon degree of psychlogical depth – He doesn’t want to destroy Reed Richards, really, he wants to BECOME Reed Richards, and adds all sorts of psycho-social-sexual undercurrents to their past and future relationship.
Now last post I complained (and complained, and complained) about Alicia, the Thing’s girlfriend. (My point: She’s just not a particularly interesting or developed character.) And while I still contend she sucks on her own and the strip woulda been way better if she was given some flaws and fleshed out, but the introduction of Alicia did serve to deepen the Thing’s character, and helped to transform him from anti-hero, always on the verge of going on a rampage against humanity to curmudgeonly but also loyal ‘n loveable hero.
Here, in another brilliant Kirby tryptich – A highly effective storytelling method which has sadly fallen out of favor in current comics – is where the Thing switches from the pseudo-villain of the strip to the Ever Lovin’ Blue Eyed Nephew of Aunt Petunia and Idol of Millions he remains to the present day. He’s quick to anger but he knows who his friends are. In the first Fantastic Four stories he was out for blood. Here he knows who his friends are, even if they’re walking around in another guy’s body.
And, okay, the fact that Reed-as-Doom stole a bunch of animals from the zoo illegally and shrunk them was probably a clue that SOMETHING was up.
Y’know, while quite a few classic Lee and Kirby ideas have graduated into their own series (The Silver Surfer, the Inhumans, the Black Panther, Adam Warlock) et al, there’s never been a “Gonzo: The Mini Sloth” comic. And that’s a damn shame.
And so eventually the evil Doctor Doom is defeated through the power of loyalty, friendship, and… um… heat mirages.
Doom-who-is-actually-Reed throws himself on the fake dynamite, see, trying to save his friends. And Reed-who-is-in-reality-Doom skeedaddles to save his own skin, thus letting the rest of the foursome know what’s up. And Doom ends up hit with the reducing ray, and “dies.”
Okay, enough plot. Here’s the part that REALLY blew my freakin’ mind, man.
STAN LEE AND JACK KIRBY ARE CHARACTERS IN THE FANTASTIC FOUR’S WORLD! I’m a huge fan of fiction that posits the existence of multiple levels of reality, and this.. this here… is one of my favorite intellectual post-modern brain-twisters in… not just comics… fiction in general. So if Stan and Jack are CREATING the book and are also CHARACTERS in the comic – Does that mean they have to create themselves to exist?
To repeat. I love comics.
And Doctor Doom turns up when Stan says his name!
… I think I just sprung a gasket here.
Remember the goofy plot point discussion a while back? Here, Lee and Kirby are content to acknowledge the Fantastic Four as a fictional construct – in fact, they go at lengths to point this out. Which defends my first “This is surrealism” argument – The goofiness of the stories might be ’cause Lee and Kirby WANTED the stories to be obviously fictional constructs. This runs counter to the prevailing trend of attempted total immersion in current superhero comics, but it does show an understanding of modernism (maybe even POST modernism – Although the encyclopeida of philsophy says that the term wasn’t coined until 1974.) and a hipness to current trends in art. And they were writing this stuff for eight years olds!
Bonus Link: The Fantastic Fans Blog likes this issue too. And I want to link to ‘em so you can ESPECIALLY check out the collage of all the Doom-in-Reed’s-body-with-EVIL-GODDAMN-EYEBROWS scenes towards the bottom. It’s a thing of wonder and beauty.
And, what the heck, let’s hit Fantastic Four # 11 real fast.
Fantastic Four # 11 (“A Visit With the Fantastic Four/The Impossible Man“ by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (artist) Dick Ayers (inker), Art Simek (Letterer), and Michael Keller (Color Reconstruction), quite a few years later. 23 pgs, FC, Marvel.
Starting with the second story…
Oh. Oops. SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING!
In the giant size MARVEL TREASURY EDITION – Side note: We’re not just talking giant size as in “number of pages.” We’re talking giant size as in “the physical size of the damn things was freakin’ huge – that reprinted FF 11, Roy Thomas notes that the younger readers HATED the green skinned star of this story, and that the older readers really dug him.
I’m with the kids.
After two excellent stories, this just ain’t ‘pecially good. It’s clearly been picked off the “TALES TO ASTONISH” reject pile, one of the watered-down EC type stories (complete with ironic twist) that Marvel thrived on back in the early ’60s.
The Impossible Man (pictured above) – the SECOND Green, shape shifting alien the Fantastic Four fight in eleven issues – annoys everybody with his whacky hijinks, and leaves when everybody ignores him. This was intended as a “change of pace/comic relief” style issue, but with a book that was still finding it’s footing and wasn’t quite sure what it’s REGULAR pace was, if just felt jarring and off-putting.
Although – I gotta say – I love dang near every other Impossible Man story but this one. “Funny Change of Pace” stories didn’t work at this point because nobody was quite sure what the “pace” actually WAS – Lee and Kirby were breaking new ground and clearly makin’ it up as they went along.
But, a couple years later, when the drama ‘an angst Marvel formula was solidified, Impy was a spiffy antidote to some of the whiny sturm and drang.
But what’s REALLY interesting in FF 11 is the first story. Both “Interesting” good and “interesting” bad.
For instance: This honestly doesn’t make much MORE sense in context.
Anyway, not content with obliterating the thin line between fantasy and reality last issue, in this issue is basically some a bizarre pomo dialog between the Fantastic Four. The Fantastic Four spend the story ostenibly answering their mail, but they’re actually filling in some backstory, answering reader complaints, and introducing Willie Lumpkin, the mailman. (And my absolute favorite member of the Fantastic Four supporting cast.) All of this without a super villain or fight scene of KIRBYMONSTER. It’s a pure character piece.
And, well, this is an issue better experienced than summarized, but I did want to make a note of one historically important fact. A lot of the success of early Marvel is credited to Stan Lee’s friendly-uncle approach to writing . Stan is always full of enthusiasm and he talks straight to the reader man to man (or boy.) He’s not the impersonal “ye editor” of DC comics or even the Old Witch or the Crypt Keeper who answered the EC comics letters.
And this here? This feels like the debut of conversational Marvel. The Fantastic Four are supposedly talking to each other (while answering the mail, no less!) but Mister Fantastic looks right AT us when he…
Well, he goes off the rails into cuckoo land, really.
No, no, you’re completely right to be confused. He’s defending the Invisible Girl’s value to the team. And managing to make damnear the worst argument I have ever heard until I started hanging out on comic fan forums on the internet.
Cronin posts the whole thing t’wards the bottom here if you wanna check it out in all it’s deranged glory.
I still contend, though, that the conversational, fourth-wall obliterating approach to the story is brilliant. Even if some of the actual content is from cuckoo nusto land.
And you’ll be glad to know that, within a year Stan and Jack realize that the readers were right and that the Invisible Girl was by far the least effective member of the FF. So they wise up and give the Invisible Girl her Invisible force shield power, making her as effective as anyone on the squad.
I might do a conclusionary comment round-up post on the FF, but I’m gonna start on the Hulk next. And hopefully it’ll be less than six months this time.
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.