Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #12

"The Incredible Hulk" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(March 1963)

This is the first big "Because You Demanded It!" issue, produced in response to fan letters. I don't think it was really a last ditch effort to boost the Hulk's popularity--after all, this same month, the final issue of Incredible Hulk was released, so it was too late to save the title--but Stan knew it would be a blockbuster issue of the flagship title and couldn't resist.

It's become a Marvel tradition now: the Thing vs. the Hulk. It's like how over at DC, the Flash and Superman have a race every few years. (Let's see that happen in the New 52, assuming someone ever surgically removes the stick of "edge" from up its ass.)

The story gets us in the mood right away when Ben Grimm--after coming out of a symphony concert with Alicia--gets into a fight on the street with a parading infantry division. Since Fantastic Four has lots of room for character development, Stan and Jack can throw in this scene just to show off and remind us how powerful Ben is. He even gets shot with a bazooka that fires a shell that wraps him up in steel cables; naturally, he breaks it easily. Gas ends up being the only thing that can bring him down. And after all of that, as he's understandably pissed off, we get to watch him rip out the elevator doors at the Baxter Building and climb 35 floors up the elevator shaft to get to FF HQ.

So, reminder: the Thing is powerful, resourceful, and easily angered.

Oh, and he does NOT like being mistaken for the Hulk.

Look at Ben's expression! That is absolutely wonderful work, Mr. Kirby, Mr. Ayers.

This first chapter has almost nothing to do with the story, which is one of the things I love about Fantastic Four. I know I'm going to get great character scenes in addition to the big science mystery and the colorful villains.

It's not until the end of this first chapter that we get to the plot: General "Thunderbolt" Ross has come to ask the Fantastic Four to help him stop the Hulk. Chapter two is mainly the FF showing off their powers and imagining how they're going to fight the Hulk.

I like that, when they get to the southwest, Reed Richards is both honored to meet Bruce Banner and excited to work with him. It's a nice new perspective, especially after a year of General Ross screaming about what a coward Bruce is; he's actually quite a respected scientist. Bruce has a theory that it's not the Hulk who's sabotaging the city defense ray he's building, but he can't say why. And then we also meet an assistant of his, Karl Kort, whom Ben and Johnny shove around for laughs. Johnny also meets Rick Jones, who immediately thinks Johnny's a hotshot asshole and doesn't like him. And since Johnny is trying way too hard to impress Rick, he's got a point. Teenagers.

Bruce and a lot of the men are referring to this unknown saboteur as "the Wrecker," which seems to imply that there are a number of people who don't think it's the Hulk. And, as we readers discover almost immediately after, it's not: it's this Karl Kort guy, who ends chapter three by taking Rick prisoner. Kort's not only a commie spy, but he's figured out (through the keen power of "listening while Rick is talking to himself") that Rick is in league with the Hulk.

It's 14 pages of story in, and Stan must be able to sense that the reader is getting impatient for some smashing, because chapter 4 is titled "The Hulk at Last!" And after some business with a rocket sled, we do get to the Hulk. The Wrecker has left a note for the Hulk ordering him to drive the Fantastic Four away in order to save Rick's life. Bruce finds the note, but can't bring himself to show the FF, and decides that only the Hulk can rescue Rick. Stepping on his gamma ray pad, Bruce changes into the Hulk and meets the FF head-on in an underground tunnel.

The battle between Hulk and the FF is epic, especially taking into consideration 1963 comics panels. No big "I'm Rob Liefeld and I don't feel like drawing a whole page of tiny panels" splash pages here. This fight is five pages of excellent Jack Kirby art as the FF try their damnedest to take the Hulk down. They destroy an Old West ghost town in their excitement! It's arguably the first real fight the Hulk's had with an enemy that could conceivably defeat him. Hitting the Thing actually hurts his hand!

In the end, it's only outside interference that stops the Hulk: he's hit by the Wrecker's atomic ray gun and knocked unconscious. It leads the FF to his location, though, and after the Thing handily dispatches the Wrecker's giant robot (love it), Invisible Girl knocks the gun out of his hand and everyone knows Karl Kort is the Wrecker. Rick is saved, the truth is revealed, and the Hulk leaps off to change back into Bruce Banner.

The adventure over, we end on this note:

It's the prototype for the best Marvel crossover stories: two heroes meet, beat the living hell out of each other, then work together and part as friends. We'll see more of that in the future.

I can't wait.

Other notes:

:: I like that this issue has taken giant leaps into world-building. Though we've had hints here and there of a larger co-existence--and, of course, there's Prince Namor, one of Marvel's Golden Age characters who was brought back (and so is Loki, kinda sorta possibly but later officially)--it isn't until this month, both here and in Amazing Spider-Man #1, that we know for certain that these characters all exist together in one fictional universe.

What I like about it here is that this issue sort of answers the question: If they all exist in the same universe, why wouldn't General Ross have asked the Fantastic Four to capture the Hulk? This is sort of my problem with the Marvel Universe in general. It was the question I asked earlier this year in the first issue of Matt Fraction and Mike Allred's FF #1: why is it so important for the Fantastic Four to put together a replacement Fantastic Four for the relative few minutes they'll be traveling through time? I mean, if Galactus shows up while you're gone, maybe one of the literally thousands of other superpowered characters crowded into the MU could take care of it? Sometimes it seems like there are 12,000 superheroes in the Marvel Universe, and 98% are based in New York City, and of those, 97% are in the Avengers. So, assuming Galactus shows up in New York (as if there were anywhere else), I think maybe a couple of those guys will be on it, you know?

(If you haven't been reading FF, though, it's really wonderful.)

:: Is it any surprise when Karl Kort, the only extraneous new character with significant lines, turns out to be the Wrecker? Sorry, but the Ant-Man stories have sort of led me to expect it. (You mean the one new character connected to the plot was the villain the whole time! Gasp!)

:: While watching a film of the Hulk before heading out to Ross' base, the three men imagine how easy it will be for them to fight the Hulk with their powers. Sue, though, is so scared by the footage of the Hulk that she turns invisible without thinking about it, and then basically admits that her powers are useless against him. And then this is the cherry on top of that:

Ugh. Men. This is seriously presented as though it should be a boost to Sue's self-esteem: "Well, at least you can always stand around and look pretty." Ew. And did you have to agree with him, Reed? "Yes, she's useless, but we like her pretty little face." Not doing such a great job of proving her use to the team and justifying her to the fans, Stan. (Granted, she does stop the Wrecker in the end, but setting it up like this does a little damage to Sue as a character.)

:: The re-designed Fantasticar:

I loved the old flying bathtub. This thing... meh. Whatever, guys.

:: I love that the thing that Ben does when he's being impatient and loud that really, truly pisses off General Ross and makes him blow his top is... ripping his bound set of phone books in half! I shouldn't laugh; it's not like people just had contacts stored on their smartphones back then. Things change, kids.

:: We get another of those scenes of invisible Sue being met with "This place is haunted!" Everyone in the early sixties is apparently quite superstitious.

:: In this month's letters page: fans are not happy with Paul Gambaccini's hate letter in FF #9, Tommy Jones of Maryland thinks Jack Kirby can't draw feet (wait 'til he gets a load of Liefeld), Fred Bronson thinks the FF should kick out the Thing, and Stan confirms that Namor kept his word and allowed the Fantastic Four movie to be produced, with the profits funding the Fantastic Four. Good guy, that Namor.

One fan letter is from Landon Chesney, an artist active in early comics fandom whom you can read about here. Another letter--one which argues for the teaming up of Miracle Man and those hypnotized Skrulls, as well as asking for the return of Mole Man--is from Steve Perrin. Is that Steve Perrin the creator of RuneQuest? Because that's pretty cool.

Also, Steve Utley of Trenton, NJ, thinks that when the Fantastic Four movie is made, the following actors should play the villains: Peter Lorre as Mole Man, Boris Karloff as Dr. Doom, Johnny Weismuller as Namor, and Yul Brynner as the Puppet Master. I have to disagree with Steve; Puppet Master is clearly a Peter Lorre caricature. I think Brynner would make a better Doom. Weismuller's good, but in 1963? Too old, I think. If we're going in that direction, why not Gordon Scott?


All in all, a landmark issue for both Fantastic Four and for the larger Marvel Universe. Lots of fun, lots of action, lots of character, and honestly it has a better grasp on the Hulk than Incredible Hulk does. Speaking of which...

Next time: the Hulk deals with the Metal Master, his feelings for Betty, and the art of Steve Ditko in the final issue of his comic!


Josh Rothberg said...

Stan and Jack's FF had such a whimsical yet engaging feel to it and it is one of the greatest silver-age reads. It is a shame how they portray Sue in the comic. The Wasp will get even worse treatment in the Avengers title. It's without a doubt the worst societal element of the 60's. It's why I can't get behind Sean Connery's Bond because of all the woman-smacking.

SamuraiFrog said...

I feel like Stan at least tries with Sue, even if he doesn't always get it. The Wasp is much worse. So is Jane Foster, especially depending on who's writing Journey Into Mystery at any given moment.

abc said...

Re the New 52: "...assuming someone ever surgically removes the stick of "edge" from up its ass..." -- hah, that's brilliant. Pretty much sums it up for me.

SamuraiFrog said...

This is the first time in a long time where I'm reading almost nothing from DC. Just Lil' Gotham and Batman '66, which are the complete opposite of what the mainstream continuity is attempting to do.