Saturday, September 14, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #9

"The End of the Fantastic Four!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(December 1962)

There is a lot of stuff going on in this issue, so this is probably going to be a lengthy post!

Right away in the splash page, a TV newsman announces that the Fantastic Four have gone bankrupt! Not a problem you see in a lot of superhero books. (I have been a critic of Batman's limitless money supply in the past, you might recall.) Things are so bad that the FF are selling off a lot of their equipment. Interestingly, Reed takes the blame on himself (as he often takes the blame on himself for Ben's unhappiness); apparently, he invested in some bad stocks and lost all of their money. The Fantastic Four, he concludes, must officially disband.

I actually had a question as to why Reed's not making any money from patents, but the Thing answers that one for me right away:

Man, you don't see Reed this angry very often.

Ben is the one taking this the hardest, perhaps because he worries he doesn't fit in anywhere outside of the Fantastic Four. He's especially angry about having to sell off their pogo plane, which he (as a test pilot) seems to have had a big hand in designing. Ben, as will happen in the pages of Fantastic Four, stalks off and leaves, but what's different now is that he's got Alicia to cheer him up. I love their little half-page together. In just three panels, we can feel the depth of their relationship. She's made him a White Knight puppet that represents him, and then this:

No one nails the expressive Ben Grimm like Jack Kirby. No one.

But, then: salvation! Something called SM Studios wants the Fantastic Four to come out to Hollywood and film a movie, which should take care of all of their financial problems. It would have been nicer if there had been some plane tickets involved or something, as the FF are actually so broke that they have to hitchhike to California!

But perhaps it's an extra bit of humiliation, as the head of SM Studios turns out to be: Sub-Mariner!

Hollywood Subby comes complete with cigarette holder, ascot, smoking jacket, and air of casual luxury.

Apparently Namor has access to the wealth of history from sunken pirate and trading ships, and "out of boredom" (jeez, I love this character) he decided to buy a movie studio and hire the FF to make a movie. He starts doling out money right away. Everyone goes out to buy some nice new threads, and of course Johnny buys a car while Ben hangs out on the beach. But Sue is torn between her love for Reed and her growing attraction to Namor. When he's handing out the first part of the FF's payment, she actually gasps to herself over how masterful and confident he is, and then has dinner with him at "a fashionable Hollywood nightclub."

To Namor's credit, he doesn't push Sue to make up her mind. He's simply out on a date with the woman he hopes will choose him.

But then, of course, Namor's real plan starts to fall into place, as he tricks the men of the FF one by one.

First, of course, is his rival, Mr. Fantastic. Namor sends Reed off to Hidden Isle, where he is to fight a giant mechanical figure of the Cyclops of Greek myth. In actuality, though, the Cyclops is the actual, immortal Cyclops, and Namor simply leaves Reed on the island to die in combat. He then abandons the Human Torch to an African tribe that drinks a magic potion that makes them somehow immune to fire.

But it's Namor's battle with the Thing that's truly epic. Namor takes Ben out on the beach, where their respective strengths will be easily matched (since simply standing in the water enhances Namor's already superhuman strength). Sub-Mariner pummels the Thing to the point where you really are starting to wonder if the Thing's had it, but then Ben realizes the water is strengthening Namor and drags his opponent out of the surf. For a single panel, it looks like Ben has the upper hand and is about to land a final blow, but then, out of nowhere, Ben is struck by lightning! (That wasn't just dramatic lighting, after all; there was a storm blowing in.) The lightning transforms the Thing back into plain Ben Grimm, and in the confusion Namor knocks Ben unconscious with a final punch--though he admits to himself that if that hadn't done the job, that would have been it; all of Namor's strength was used up in the fight.

Now Namor has a free path to Sue, or so he thinks. His arrogance returned, he tells Sue the truth: that all of this was a deception that he came up with in order to prove himself master of the Fantastic Four so that she would be his bride. I love Sue's honorable reaction: she refuses the Sub-Mariner and decides to show him that as long as she's able to fight, he hasn't mastered the Fantastic Four at all. It's an excellent, dramatic way for her to not only remind an increasingly skeptical readership that she's an integral element to the team, but it also strengthens her character as a superhero and as a woman. She even says she might have agreed to marry him if he'd been honest with her from the outset, but instead he lied to gain their trust and then betrayed them all.

Sue puts up a decent fight, too. Namor has to use some of the powers of other sea creatures to beat her, like the electric eel and the cave fish's radar sight. It's actually kind of a let-down that the rest of the FF rush in to save her, because I think it would have been an even stronger finish if she had defeated Namor herself.

Still, I do like the moment when she stands between Namor and the FF, unwilling to let them gang up on the Sub-Mariner unfairly. And then Namor accepts his defeat, agrees that the movie will be produced and released, agrees to pay them the rest of the money he agreed to, and returns to the sea.

It's like the end of a Godzilla movie. Mixed emotions. Stan and Jack really do know how to give that guy wounded dignity.

Namor, a man of honor, keeps his word, too, and the film is released and the infusion of cash allows the Fantastic Four to keep going.

This is a great issue. It has a bizarre premise that seems silly by today's standards, but damn if Stan Lee and Jack Kirby didn't work some great action showcases and genuine emotions into this one. We've had a couple of real high points, but this is certainly my favorite issue so far. One year later, Fantastic Four continues to be the crown jewel of the Marvel Universe.

Stray notes:

:: Is this TV newsman supposed to look like Richard Nixon, or is it just coincidence?

:: I love seeing Hollywood caricatures in old comics. Some great stuff on this page. (Click to make it bigger.)

Namor's studio must have established itself as the real deal pretty quickly in order to have someone like Hitchcock working there.

:: There's a feature page in this issue that shows how the Human Torch's powers allow him to fly (the heat makes his molecules lighter than air) and the limits of his powers. Again, I just love how Stan and Jack have decided to really try to make this plausible science fiction in some way.

:: The letters page features a couple of things I wanted to mention. First, Stan addresses my own lingering concern about the effects of the hostility ray in issue 7; he says the effects wore off when Kurrgo's robot left the Earth. I'll take it.

Second, we get the first in a series of hate letters from Paul Gambaccini, whose letters become a bit of a focal point over several issues. (Here, he calls the letters page "asinine," Kirby's artwork "horrible," and feels the emotions are fake and unrealistic. Stay tuned.)

Third, Stan acknowledges the growing amount of letters coming from neighborhood fan clubs devoted to the magazine. It's interesting to see Stan thinking about the fan community and offering to print in a future issue the various rolls. He even openly wonders if they should divide the groups into chapters of some kind of official club, which seems like the beginnings of the Merry Marvel Marching Society.

Fourth, Stan points out that the fans seem to consider Fantastic Four the Marvel Comics HQ (though we're still not calling it Marvel Comics yet) and that they get a lot of letters to this mag commenting on Ant-Man, Thor, Hulk, etc. On the one hand, I think of the comics I've gone through up to now the same way: FF is the wellspring, and then there are other comics that are not exactly ancillaries, but not exactly their own books, either. (I probably feel this way because the other books don't really have the same quality as Fantastic Four, because the characters and their worlds don't feel fully realized yet.) But on the other hand, where else are they going to write? Strange Tales, Journey Into Mystery and Tales to Astonish don't have letters pages, and even though no one knows it yet, The Incredible Hulk is only getting two more issues before it's canceled.

Still, those heroes are going to grow and get better.

In the next (25th!) installment of Marvels: Thor faces more communists.

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