Friday, July 12, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #3

"The Menace of the Miracle Man!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Sol Brodsky
(March 1962)

In their short history, the FF have faced monsters and aliens. Now they face hypnosis. I'll let you decide if that's a downgrade or not.

The villain in this issue is the Miracle Man, who uses his powers of hypnotism for evil, mainly by making people believe he has amazing powers and by appearing to bring the statue of a monster (a piece of movie publicity) come to life. I'm not really buying that anyone's ability to hypnotize a crowd is so incredibly good that even people wandering onto the scene from somewhere else or see it happening on television (as the Fantastic Four do) will instantly be caught up in the illusion. It seems more likely that they'd wonder what everyone was freaking out about it. Or maybe the Miracle Man really is so good that he doesn't even have to have eye contact with you at all. Hypnotism can work that way, right?

It's all rather silly, but this is also an important issue of Fantastic Four for a number of reasons. First, Sue Storm designs their classic costumes in this one (Thing even gets a full uniform with a helmet, though he discards those rather quickly in favor of just wearing the pants, and later just trunks). No talk of unstable molecules yet, but Reed does pay Sue the compliment that she should work for Dior. (I kind of like that compliment just as one of the little touches that remind the reader that these comics take place today, right now, in your world, rather than in some fantasy version of New York. It's what set Marvel apart.)

The FF also have their own headquarters now, inside the Baxter Building, which gives us this little gem.

They've put some thought into this thing, rather than just giving Reed a lab and an office. I think you could possibly argue that it's this kind of thing--the willingness to explain how and why things works in the embryonic Marvel Universe--that has conditioned fans over the years to expect adherence to continuity and in-canon explanations for everything, but at the same time, it also shows that Stan and Jack have thought about people who would ask questions and are having fun with it.

This is also the first issue where we see the original Fantasti-Car, the one that looked like a floating bathtub. I like that one better than they one they have later. It's just weirdly charming. Love the explanation that it's air-powered.

At this point, one of the things I find kind of sweet about these early issues is the naive idea that the key to power is in external force--and not only that, but in a small, self-contained external force. The Skrulls sent four spies to one city to scope out an invasion. The Miracle Man just has hypnotism and a tank. It's simple, but not simplistic, and going back to this time period in comics, a time when superheroes were much less cynical, can be really refreshing.

This one's a mite silly, but it's still fun.

Other observations:

:: This issue has my favorite cover in the history of Fantastic Four.

Third issue in, never got better.

:: Ben seems especially short-fused in this issue, ready to beat up anyone and everything at the slightest provocation. He needs to be restrained, as usual. He also reminds us again how humiliating it is being the Thing.

:: Johnny, on the other hand, decides it's time to go out on his own, mainly because he's sick of Ben digging at him all the time. It's a set-up for the next issue, but it's interesting that this time it's someone other than Ben talking about walking out. Johnny is, pardon the pun, hot-headed. His temper can be just as short as Ben's, but it's nice to see a realistic teenager. Hey, sometimes they have to walk off and blow off some steam.

:: Reed seems downright paranoid in this issue, even for a Cold War-era scientist. Right away after catching the Miracle Man's act, Reed worries what could happen if the Miracle Man ever decided to use his powers for evil. (At this point, no one realizes it's just hypnotism.) Then, when Johnny flies off, he wonders aloud how dangerous the Human Torch would be if he ever turned against his friends. Jeez, Reed, let the kid calm down for a couple of days before you suspect him of becoming evil, he's just a kid. You could argue, probably rightly, that since Reed suspected the Miracle Man and the Miracle Man turned out to be evil, Stan and Jack are just building up the tension in a cliffhanger, though.

:: Sue gets something to do! She becomes invisible and tracks the Miracle Man to his junkyard hideout. She's given away by a dog that senses her. There's also the suggestion that without Sue around, the three men in the group quickly deteriorate, fighting among themselves. Reed even laments how they don't get along.

:: It's established for sure here that the Fantastic Four are known celebrities. They don't have secret identities; everyone knows who they are. There's almost a sense that they work for the city, but that's not entirely accurate.

:: I love that the Miracle Man actually sends a letter to the police commissioner that reads "I, the Miracle Man, declare war on the whole human race! I intend to conquer the Earth!" Seems only fair. No internet yet.

:: Since this only the first-ever letters page in Fantastic Four, Stan can be forgiven for a little padding...

Letter by Marvel freelancer (and this issue's inker) Sol Brodsky, puffing up the boss a bit. In 1964, Sol Brodsky would become Marvel's production manager and basically Stan's right hand man.

:: Ironically, the ad on the back of the front cover is for a book called How to Hypnotize.

Not my favorite issue, but a real turning point in cementing the look and feel of the burgeoning Marvel Universe and the series itself.

Next time: the return of a Golden Age comics character.

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