Friday, August 23, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #8

"Prisoners of the Puppet Master!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(November 1962)

For the last few issues, we've dealt with Doctor Doom, Namor, and the alien threat of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X. The Puppet Master at first doesn't seem in the same league as those kinds of menaces, but Stan and Jack up the ante by portraying this new villain as dangerously unhinged and maniacally ambitious.

The Puppet Master aspires to no less than total mastery of the world, imagining himself as king of all nations with the Fantastic Four as his personal slaves. And he intends to get the whole thing done with puppets. He makes puppets of the people he wants to control, and because the puppets are made from a lump of radioactive clay (which he just "discovered" somewhere), he can become their masters... so... I don't know, it's kind of easier here to just say it's magic with a science word papered over it.

What's especially important in terms of future continuity is that the Puppet Master has a stepdaughter: Alicia Masters. She's blind, and is immediately fascinated with Ben Grimm when she feels his face, saying "This man--his face feels strong and powerful! And yet, I can sense a gentleness to him--there is something tragic--something sensitive!" There is so much to love about the way Alicia relates to Ben. She's not scared by his rocky exterior, because she can't see it. Without the visual cues, she is able to accept him instantly for what he is, and she finds a reservoir of emotion that she's not only attracted to, but that she feels safe with. It's just a beautiful thing that Stan and Jack have pulled off here. She doesn't feel sorry for him because of his accident or because of the way he looks, the very things that have made Ben feel trapped inside of himself this whole time. She sees who he is inside and falls in love with him.

In fact, much of this issue's character dynamics are influenced by Reed's attempt to create a formula to cure the Thing of his mutation. And it works, though only briefly. Alicia (who has been disguised as the Invisible Girl by the Puppet Master) is actually scared by the transformation!

It's touching and tragic and beautiful and amazing. There's a genuine complexity of emotions going on there. Speaking as a guy who always felt outcast because of his looks and weight, this touches me deeply.

(Also, Kirby killing me again with another Sad Ben panel. Hadn't had one for a few issues.)

The Puppet Master's plan involves a prison break and a giant robot, unfortunately not at the same time. It's  not much of a plan, either, since both are thwarted by the Fantastic Four and don't really even attempt to accomplish anything other than buying the Puppet Master some time. There's a nice ending, though, where the Puppet Master simply trips and falls out the window, and then we pan down and see the puppet he's made of himself (in a crown and royal robe) has fallen to the floor. In the end, as with so many grand villains, he's defeated by his own hubris.

The Puppet Master really does appear to die at the end of this story, but he comes back later, so I guess not. If he'd died, would we have missed out?

Other notes:

:: In keeping up with the way the previous issue made me change my opinion of Reed Richards, I love that in this issue he's so driven to try and "cure" Ben. It really took me the first seven issues to get the sense that Reed not only really cares about how unhappy Ben is, but blames himself for that unhappiness, and is willing to drive himself to fix what he's done. At the very beginning of the issue, Ben thinks that Reed just doesn't want him around at all anymore. But it turns out that he didn't want to tell Ben about it in case it didn't work. He didn't want to disappoint his friend again.

:: I like that there's a lot of focus on Sue in this issue. Unfortunately, she does still get captured, but at least it's in an interesting way. This is the time when they started getting letters from readers accusing Sue of being useless, so Stan and Jack do seem to make a point of proving those readers wrong.

:: Nice demonstrations of powers in this issue. Mr. Fantastic can absorb bullets and then snap them back like a rubber band; the Human Torch can burn so hot that he can tunnel through stone. (The Invisible Girl is largely useless during the prison break, which is kind of sad. Stan and Jack do even sort of call attention to that fact.)

:: There's also a neat page with the Human Torch describing to you, dear reader, how some of his powers work. It includes another explanation that his clothes and all of his furniture are chemically-treated every single day to be burn resistant, which... I mean, he has to have cancer, right? Like, a lot of cancer.

:: Someone in the letters page suggests a Fantastic Four movie starring Gregory Peck, Tuesday Weld, and Troy Donahue, with Steve Reeves in makeup as the Thing. Someone else in the letters page shares my annoyance with team members calling Ben "Thing" all the time.

But my favorite letter this issue:

Some encouragement from Stan. It makes a nice antidote to the bizarre number of comics writers who have been pushing the "Fake Geek Girl" meme this year.

So, Fantastic Four #8 isn't really a classic tale, but there's a lot of great character development, particularly regarding Ben, that really stands out as something different in the nascent Marvel Universe. None of the other characters right now are this rich and varied, with the possible exception of Rick Jones. Speaking of Rick...

Next time: the Hulk becomes Bruce Banner again and fights an alien menace!

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