Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #1

I've been reading through the history of the Marvel Universe for a while, going back and re-reading where it all started in the 1960s. And, since I'm not doing much on this blog except for occasional bursts of energy, I'm going to be the umpteenth person to uselessly reblog it. It's just for myself, really, and there's no schedule, so it'll be either frequent or infrequent.

I'll just start at the beginning, then.

"The Fantastic Four!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule
(November 1961)

Pretty much the template for first issues in what will be the Marvel Universe. I had forgotten how initially the FF were sort of a shadowy group of mystery men (and one woman), sort of lurking a bit and trying not to draw attention (although the Thing does demolish a car just for getting in his way). Lee & Kirby set up a good format by first introducing us to the characters through their superpowers, then giving us the origin of these fantastic figures, and finally showing us their first mission as a team.

It's very much what I think of in 1960s science fiction, and in a very good way. The tropes of comic books are long-established, and here they're reinterpreted, modernized, and given a science fiction sheen. It's still superpowered heroes fighting monsters, but there are a couple of things that are different, the most important of which is that the characters are all flawed. That approach makes them more recognizably human. One of the constant complaints about Superman, for example, is that it's hard to relate to someone who, for all intents and purposes, is a god. (Not an argument I like, actually, but I've talked about that before.) The FF are easier to relate to because we can relate to their most basic problems.

As far as the characters go, Ben Grimm is easily my favorite. He remains to this day one of my favorite characters in the Marvel Universe. I can certainly relate to him: he's short-tempered and he's sensitive, he's quick to anger and he hates the predicament he finds himself in of being an ugly monster. I always imagined him as someone who felt a little alienated from society, and now that the gamma radiation has made him physically alienated as well, he's turned further inward.

Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, is a young, cocky hotshot. Reed Richards is very much in the B-science fiction movie professor sort of vein, right down to the pipe; he's a bit self-aggrandizing and pompous. And Sue Storm is... the girl. That really is kind of it for her in these early issues; it was only a little bit later when fans started calling for her to be removed from the book that Stan and Jack really took the time to showcase her as a character and give her moments when she proved invaluable to the team.

The first villain the FF face is the Mole Man (stylized Moleman here), a... well, they never say what he was, exactly. He was shunned by society for being ugly and unsettling (a fairly simplistic motivation), and he's supposed to be brilliant, but they never say if he was a scientist, but I kind of assumed he was... Was he a scientist? He's moved to Monster Isle and made himself king of the monsters there and intends to rule the world by crippling its defensive capabilities and its energy by wrecking every atomic plant. He's grandiose, but still in that sort of Flash Gordon serial tradition of being an angry megalomaniac.

Jack Kirby's art is great; the value of clarity in comic book art has been diminished over the years, especially by the awful 1990s trend of splash pages everywhere and cool poses over storytelling. It's always nice to go back and see Kirby from this time period just to remember that it used to be important. Stan Lee's dialogue is just the right shade of hyperbolic; it's hard to read the narration and not hear it in his excited voice.

Some other observations:

:: I absolutely hate the way all of the characters call each other by name except for Ben. Everyone is always calling him "Thing." Gee, wonder why he has such a chip on his shoulder... They even take his damn name away from him.

:: Something else silly: the cab driver who hears Sue talking but doesn't see her because she's invisible, and thinks his cab is haunted. Stan and Jack seem to get a kick out of it, because it happens a few times in the first couple of years of the mag.

:: Interesting call here to not have the FF in costume; they're just wearing their street clothes. It's interesting because we get to know them as people first. It's the opposite of DC, where the street clothes are the disguise and the costumes are the reality. The Marvel approach from the beginning seems to be that these are people first and superheroes second. People with extraordinary powers.

:: One way you can tell it's 1961: the reason the foursome fly a rocket into outer space--thus encountering gamma radiation that alters their bodies and gives them their powers--is to beat "the Commies" into space. Also, the gamma rays are just referred to as "cosmic rays." At the time, only one man had been into space--Yuri Gagarin--and there was genuine concern in 1961 about what effects being in outer space could have on the human body. So gamma rays were something science was concerned with at the time, though that fear later proved to be groundless.

:: The sequence in which we see Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny first experience the changes of the radiation is genuinely horrific.

:: I wish I could say that Sue did something useful in the fight with Moleman, but she doesn't.

:: I do like how the Moleman blows up Monster Isle on his own, sealing his own doom as the Fantastic Four escape. The FF are science heroes, not killers.

All in all, though, it is a great introduction that, intentionally or no, cements the approach to the characters of the Marvel Universe, and tells us what kinds of stories to expect in the future. Though tweaks will come, the issue is bursting with confidence and the characters are almost fully-formed from the get-go. Damn good stuff.

Next time: the Ant-Man, sort of.


Roger Owen Green said...

Good stuff.

randm said...

Absolutely right about the way everyone calls Ben Grimm "Thing" in the early issues. When I was a kid, I recall a scene where Reed tries to calm him down by saying "Easy, Thing, easy!" and thinking "Don't call him that. He's supposed to be your friend."

Jared said...

Fantastic Four #8...

Ben says (on the first page) "Bah! How come you only call me 'Ben' when you WANT something?? All the rest of the time I'm just the THING to all of ya!"

How much of this was a good line that one time or actually deliberate characterization by Stan Lee, though?