Daily Archives: November 27, 2012

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” (Most of the Time)

21 Weird, Wild and “What the Fudge?” Moments From the First 12 Issues of Fantastic Four

1. That’s one mighty obliging cab driver. (Fantastic Four #1)
Some superheroes have been around for so long that it’s hard to imagine a time when they were fresh out of the box. But everybody started somewhere, and even today’s most iconic characters made a few stumbles out of the starting gate. Take the Fantastic Four, Marvel’s first family of adventure; before dozens of other writers and artists took a crack at them, it was just Stan and Jack producing a variation on the monster-of-the-month mag/questing quartet stories they had both churned out many times before.   And regardless of what Lee has said since, it’s very unlikely either one of them could have seen, way back in 1961, just how far their creation would take them. It’s evident in the writing for that first issue — slightly more ponderous and foreboding than later FF issues (“It is the first time I have found it necessary to use the signal!” Reed Richards says. “I pray it will be the last!”), and more in the spirit of the monster mags that were Marvel’s bread and butter at the time. Then there were the scenes that are downright goofy, like the  introduction of Susan Richards. Noticing the now-familiar FF flare while sharing tea with a “society friend,” she immediately turns invisible for no discernible reason, leaves her host wondering where she went, knocks over several pedestrians who mistake her for a ghost, then wordlessly hops in an empty taxicab that just happens to be heading in the direction she wants to go at that exact moment, and just happens to stop at a convenient location, without her ever uttering a word in the backseat. O… kay, then.

2. Behold the impenetrable disguise of upturned lapels! (#1)
Right after we meet Susan, we are introduced to Benjamin J. Grimm, though at this point he’s only known as a big trenchcoated dude in a men’s clothing shop. This is because his hat, glasses and coat work as an impenetrable disguise — until he takes them off, and then all hell breaks loose. “Holy smoke!! A– a– monster!” one of new York’s more eloquent pedestrians sputters as the Thing smashes through a wall (for no other reason than he decided he was in a hurry). Betcha if he had kept the trenchcoat on, no one would have batted an eye. Because those things hide everything.

3. “There’s only one thing that interests me more than cars, and that’s causing the fiery death of everyone around me.” (#1) 
With Reed, Sue, and Ben introduced, that left only one team member unaccounted for, and his first scene takes place in a “local service station,” where Johnny Storm and a buddy are fixing an old car. Until, that is, he sees the signal and “flames on” whilst sitting inside the car, leaving it reduced to a bubbling mass of melted rubber and metal. Let’s repeat that: while sitting in a car, inside a place where many explosive liquids tend to be stored, he generates enough heat to melt a car into molten slag in seconds, but somehow doesn’t so much as singe his buddy’s eyebrows while doing it. Uh-huh.

4. “A flaming flying object, you say? Over New York City? Fancy that. Nuke ’em all, people!” (#1) 
The first issue sets the FF up as a mysterious group of adventurers whose existence is unknown to the general public, so it makes sense that New Yorkers would be rattled by the sudden appearance of invisible women or monstrous wall-smashers. But the military’s response to Johnny in flight (or a “flaming flying object,” in the words of one military pilot) is somewhat alarming, given they launch a nuclear missile at him after he accidentally melts one of their planes (causing no jet-fuel explosions or injuring the pilots while doing so, natch). So… is this standard operating procedure for every UFO encounter over the Tri-State Area?

5. Someone’s publicist got a big bonus that Christmas, I’ll tell you what. (#2)
The rest of the first issue is what most people remember: a flashback to the fateful space flight that gave them their powers, followed by a visit to Monster Island and a mix-up with the Mole Man, the team’s first super-villain. Rip-roaring good stuff. By the second issue, someone clearly had a change of heart about our heroes’ relationship with the general populace, because reactions to the FF go from “AAAAH! A monster! Kill it kill it kill it!” in the first issue to “That shape off in the distance could only be the Thing!” and “Why, of course, Miss Storm, we’ll be happy to show you the big diamond in our vault because you’re so famous” in the second issue. For sure, Lee and Kirby had every right to fine-tune things between the first and second issues, but that’s a bit of a leap, concept-wise.

6. Dumbest. Prison Guards. Ever. (#2)
So the real reason why Susan wanted to see that big diamond above? Because it wasn’t Susan at all — it was a shape-shifting Skrull who was part of a plan to frame the FF for various crimes and send them to jail. Mission accomplished, only… yeah, you gotta love the sight of prison guards acting surprised that the prison cell for the publicly known invisible woman looks empty. “Something just pushed past us!” one yells when Sue makes a break for it. Yeah. “Something.” Morons.

7. “And they’ve also got talking ducks and sexy vampires! There’s no way our space armada could defeat them!” (#2)
Speaking of the Skrulls, we can only hope they aren’t real and planning to visit Earth any time soon, because they would be mightily pissed at how stupid they come across in this first appearance. When four advance scouts arrive on Earth and frame the FF for their crimes (as part of their eeee-vil plan to weaken Earth’s resistance to invasion), the FF overpower the scouts and pose as them so they can get board the Skrull mothership. There, Richards (pretending to be the Skrull pretending to be him) convinces the Skrull commander to call off the attack with images of fictional monsters and devices that he clipped from copies of Marvel’s monster books. A neat bit of meta-promotion on Lee’s part, sure — but it’s a little much to believe an advanced race would be fooled by hand-drawn images of monsters printed on newsprint. Besides: why didn’t any of the FF take Polaroids of the actual monsters they encountered just last month while visiting Monster Isle?

8. “Mooo!” (#2)
So remember those advance scouts the FF defeated? They couldn’t be allowed to go free, they couldn’t be sent back to their home planet, and the good guys couldn’t be shown disposing of little green bodies in the middle of the night. So Richards relies on his awesome-and-never-seen-again hypnotic powers to make the Skrulls believe they’re dairy cows, and then dumps their shape-shifting asses in a picturesque meadow, where no doubt a very confused farmer will wonder how he ended up with three extra heads of cattle. (Check out 1983’s Fantastic Four Annual #17 for a chilling coda to this dangling plot point that  serves to point out the truly stupid part of this plan for dealing with the Skrulls left behind.)

9. “Hey, who needs Triple-A when you’ve got me?” (#3)
While hot on the trail of the (snicker) Miracle Man, a puffed-up hypnotist who kidnapped Susan as part of his plan to make himself master of the world (or rob a bank; it’s so hard to keep track of what villains were after back then), the rest of the team give chase in a souped-up hot rod. And when they lose a tire… well, you can see what happens next.

10. “Hey! The guy from this 1940s comic book I just picked up in a flophouse is sitting right over there! What are the odds?” (#4)
The team’s fourth issue is notable for re-introducing the Sub-Mariner, who hadn’t been seen since the cancellation of his own series in the early 1950s. And how do they do that? Why, by having Johnny Storm leave the team in a huff, hang in a flophouse with homeless bums, casually pick up a comic from the 1940s that just happened to be lying around, read about the Sub-Mariner, grab the attention of someone else who jokes they’ve got their own strongman sitting nearby, give the so-called strongman a shave with his flame, and realize the formerly hairy drifter is none other than the Sub-Mariner himself! Imagine that — the very same superhero he was just reading about in a book he picked up five minutes ago was sitting near him all along! Maybe for an encore, we can show Johnny a picture of a pile of money and just follow him around…

11. Nice chess set, Vic. You make those yourself ? (#5)
This story was Doctor Doom’s first appearance, and let’s just say it wasn’t immediately apparent that he would become one of the pre-eminent super-villains in the Marvel Universe. Might have had something to do with his early penchant for playing with dolls — excuse me, action figures — of his enemies. (Also: the buzzard — stuffed or live? You decide! Either way, Martha Stewart does not approve.)

12. “Perfect! A whole bundle of suits and boots!” (#5)
Another reason why Doom’s first appearance isn’t a classic for the ages is the positively daffy storyline in this issue. After Doom flies over the FF’s tower and traps them inside with a super-scientific net(!) that covers the whole building(!!), he takes Susan hostage and orders the other three to go back in time via his time machine and steal Blackbeard’s treasure, which has jewels that will help him conquer the world. Or something. Just go with it. Anyway, the three FF men arrive in the 18th century, and the first thing they do is look around for disguises to help them blend in. And hey, will you look over there! Just paces away from where they materialized, there are two pirates arguing over a big pile of clothes (excuse me, “booty”) they had just stolen. And look! Right next to the suits and boots that fit our adventurers to a ‘T’ is a fake beard and eyepatch — exactly the kind of treasure you’d expect pirates to fight over, and just the thing for helping the Thing cover up his craggy facial features! That was in no way contrived by any means!

13. “I saw something hidden behind them! A glossy photograph!” (#6)
I don’t know what’s nuttier — the fact that Susan somehow found time to take a picture of a brooding Sub-Mariner during their last adventure (you know, back when he used a giant sea monster to level New York City) and kept it hidden away like some lovesick teenager… or the fact Johnny found the photo while poking around some books. Does Johnny strike anyone as the type who would notice something hidden behind books?

14. And remember, kids: your exact double is out there somewhere. Maybe even right around the corner and related to your future archenemy. (#8)
This issue introduces the Puppet Master and Alicia Masters into the Marvel universe, and the guy looked just as creepy then as he does now. When the FF interfere with his mind-controlling plans, he hatches a plot to destroy them by using a mind-controlled Thing and his blind, unsuspecting stepdaughter to access the Baxter Building. Alicia is able to get past security and make it all the way up to the FF’s living quarters — despite Johnny seeing her plain as day on security cameras — because she’s an exact double for Susan, and it’s only when Reed gets up close to her that he realizes she’s not Susan. That’s not going to go over well with Susan when she gets home.

15. “A welder? I’ll be damned if any future brother-in-law of mine goes down that God-forsaken path!” (#9)
This issue finds the FF heading to Hollywood to star in a movie that’s actually a trap conceived by one of their arch-enemies, but first Lee needed to come up with a reason for them to go. The answer: have Richards play the stock market and lose all the team’s money, making them desperate for cash. Okay, it’s possible even a super-smart guy like Richards would lose on the stock market, but… all of it? And couldn’t he, like, just invent something in his lab, score a quick patent or two, and make all that money back in a jiffy? Hell, I’m sure he could find a position at Harvard, if he’s really hard up for cash. But what floors me is his reaction to the idea that the other team members could find a way to make money off their unique abilities; according to Richards, “crime” and “rent yourselves out to a freak show” are the only ways to cash in on their “super-natural” (bu-huh?) powers. Psst, Richards. You’re a freakin’ scientist. Johnny’s an ace mechanic. The Thing is nearly indestructible. Susan comes from money if that mink she was sporting a few issues back is any indication. Clearly, “crime” and “freak show” aren’t the only options — hell, I’m pretty sure the government could find something useful for an invisible woman and a man who can squeeze through any opening to do.

16. Hitch-hiking to Hollywood. Lord almighty. (#9)
“Don’t be embarrassed. We’ll all laugh about this one day.” Oh, some of us are laughing already, Reed.

17. “Did someone mention my name?” (#10)
When last seen, Doc Doom was a tiny speck on a meteor hurtling away from the Earth; now he’s back, and his plan for revenge includes a stop at the office of Stan and Jack, who were at that very moment wishing they could write more adventures about “the greatest villain of all.” Making Marvel superheroes the star of fictional comic books published within the Marvel universe was a cute idea, and it gave Marvel writers plenty of excuses to put themselves in the middle of the action (as seen here), but… man, I’m just cracking up imagining Doom standing right outside the door, waiting for the exact right moment to swoop in with a well-timed “Did someone mention my name?” And when are we going to see the villainy of False-Face, gentlemen?

18. “Lincoln’s mother loved him”…? Seriously? That’s what you’re going with, Reed??? (#11)
Between the rampant paternalism that was a woman’s lot in the 1960s and her admittedly weak-sauce power of invisibility (which Lee must have recognized, as he added force fields to Sue’s skill set a few issues after this one), Susan did not start out as a fan favourite. In fact, some early fans even wrote in to Stan and Jack to complain she didn’t pull her weight within the team, with some going so far as to say she should be dumped from the team entirely. The two men, speaking directly through Reed and Ben (who was temporarily de-Thinged at the time, but he’ll be damned if he puts on a shirt), addressed the matter directly and spoke passionately in favor of… Abraham Lincoln’s mother. Seriously. In their words, Lincoln’s mother was an important figure in history because, as Lincoln once said, everything he was he owed to how his mother raised him. So instead of pointing out how useful Susan’s invisibility might be in a fight or praising the other qualities that Susan brings to the team — or even, God forbid, tell the fans upset by a skirt in the clubhouse to get a life, already — Stan and Jack’s response is, “Hey, someone’s got to inspire the men to greatness; might as well be the womenfolk! And what’s wrong with salutin’ the little dumplings for doing that?” Oy vey.   

19. So what does an illegitimate hobo look like? Is it someone whose battered top hat doesn’t have a hole at the top? Is there a hobo regulatory body that confirms an applicant’s hobo-ness before they’re allowed to sleep on the ground? (#11)
A strange visitor from another planet shows up in the middle of a hobo campout and demands sustenance after his long journey? Happens all the time to regular, legitimate hobos. A downright nuisance, in fact. Seems like some days they can’t open a can of beans in peace without some green-skinned moocher just dropping in and expecting a taste.   

20. “I’m not sure how I can help!” (#12)
What I said earlier about the paternalism and a woman’s lot in life? Yeah, more of that. “Don’t you worry about finding the big Hulk monster, little lady — just concentrate on keeping the men’s morale up.” And Reed? Take your “That’s just the way we feel about Sue!” and shove it up your elastic ass.

21. “That means — Karl Kort must be — a RED!” (#12)
This issue is the first to feature a classic brawl between the Thing and the Hulk, which happens because the U.S. military brings in the FF to find and destroy the Hulk. Naturally, Dr. Banner has something to say about that. But while everyone is chasing each other over some missile installations the Hulk allegedly smashed up, the Torch gives Rick Jones a wallet he found to return to the owner, a military base employee who’s actually a Red spy framing the Hulk for all the sabotage! And Rick discovers he’s a spy because the wallet contains a “membership card in a subversive Communist-front organization!” So… he’s a spy, right? And he keeps his “I’m a spy” membership card in his wallet? I’m pretty sure that violates one of the rules of spying. Like, say, the first one.