Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #13

"The Fantastic Four Versus the Red Ghost and His Indescribable Super-Apes!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko
(April 1963)

Now this one's a doozy!

There's a lot of action in this story, so it starts off right away, setting a fast pace, first with a lab explosion, and then Reed's breathless description of his new experiment: a rocket fuel composed of energy matter found in a meteor crater that's so powerful it might win the space race for America. Reed being Reed, he plans to make the test flight himself rather than ask the others to come along--which, considering how things went the first time, makes sense. (I like that, despite all the good they've done, Reed still feels guilty about turning his friends into the Fantastic Four. You almost get the sense that he urged them to become science heroes and fight monsters so that they'd feel positive about their powers instead of falling into despair.) Ben, of course, won't hear of it, and the Fantastic Four are off into space! (With a ship shielded against the cosmic rays this time!)

Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, the villainous Ivan Kragoff, Soviet scientist, is also going to go into space. He's taking with him three apes--a gorilla, a baboon and an orangutan--that have been trained to push buttons, pull levers... er, fire tommy guns... and can run the operations of his rocket for him, apparently so that he doesn't have to take anyone into space with him. Where Reed is trying to protect himself from the cosmic rays, Kragoff wants to bathe himself in the radiation so that he can gain superpowers like the Fantastic Four did. In fact, he's built his ship out of transparent ceramic plastic to make himself more vulnerable to the radiation.

The FF see Kragoff's rocket headed toward the moon from their own, and send Johnny to investigate. Reed has invented an "atmo-web suit," which chemically creates an atmosphere around Johnny for a limited time, allowing him to flame on and fly around in the vacuum of space, presumably until he burns out all of the oxygen inside of it. Okay, okay; Johnny remembered that there's no air in space, so I guess I have to stop making fun of him about that. (Though he does stay out in it too long, nearly choking himself, but I'll be a pal and chalk that up to it being experimental.)

What Johnny sees through that transparent rocket is Kragoff and his three apes, all of whom have been altered by the rays and given powers. The gorilla is super strong; the baboon can shape shift; and the orangutan can control magnetics, using magnetic rays to repel the Human Torch. Kragoff himself can become invisible and intangible, and now calls himself the Red Ghost. So it's a race to the inevitable showdown on the moon.

Both ships land in the "blue area" of the moon, which turns out to be the ruins of a long-dead civilization (and there's breathable oxygen) and one ultra-modern house that's currently in use. But by whom?

THE WATCHER!

The Watcher is a giant being, remote and stern, with powers which aren't clearly defined--and shouldn't be. The element of mystery only makes him more fascinating. The Watcher explains that he's from a race that lives on a planet that is in fact a vast computer. He and his fellow Watchers travel the galaxy, simply observing the histories of civilizations on other planets. They never interfere, they only watch. He doesn't say exactly why they do this--for knowledge, for observational experimentation, to record the history of the universe--but his mission reminds me of DC's Oan Guardians or like a less sinister Brainiac. (I guess there's some of this later when Jack Kirby goes back to DC and creates Metron, isn't there?)

The Watcher has only been moved to interfere now because the Fantastic Four and the Red Ghost are right outside his home, fighting almost literally on his doorstep, and has decided that they will now fight each other over who gets the moon.

The ensuing battle is pretty neat; Stan and Jack make sure to get really scientific with this one instead of just trading blows. (Although the super strong gorilla simply tossing the Thing over his shoulder is pretty magnificent. Let's face it, superheroes fighting apes are always gold. Always.) I love how Johnny and the Thing use some of the technological ruins to create a simple rocket that's powered by the Human Torch himself, generating enough heat to keep it floating and propel it. You won't see that in any other comic, folks!

I could do without Sue always being the one to express fear. I mean, I understand that part of what sets Marvel heroes apart is that they react to situations like people, but it doesn't always have to be the woman who becomes fearful, does it? And though she does (surprise, surprise) end up getting captured, at least it puts her in position to stop everyone from getting killed by the Red Ghost's disintegrator ray--the thing is set with an electric eye to detect movement, meaning she stops everyone from walking into a trap because it can't detect her: she's below the visible spectrum. (She also arranges her own escape, thank you, by disabling the cables of the Red Ghost's force field, which also allows his super apes to escape, which will become important in a moment.)

Sue's heroism and quick thinking go a ways towards making up for last issue's "Well, you're not very useful, but you can be pretty and keep morale up for the real heroes" condescending head-pat.

In the end, it's assistance from the Watcher that helps the FF win the day. When the Red Ghost dares to enter the Watcher's home, the Watcher demonstrates his powers by sending Kragoff far into the past and far into the future, then dismissing him as a flea, and in the confusion, Reed leaps out and zaps the Red Ghost with something he's made from the ruins of the ancient civilization's tech: a paralysis ray. The Watcher congratulates Reed on his victory, but removes himself from the moon to watch from further away, while the super apes, the Red Ghost's mental control over them broken, come for revenge of their own. We last see him fleeing, while the FF return home.

That issue was packed, but never confusing or cumbersome. I'm not a huge fan of the Red Ghost (though superpowered apes are always good news), but the character work was great (especially on Sue) and the introduction of the Watcher is appropriately momentous.

Stray observations:

:: Though he doesn't reference it by name, Reed's idea to mine a meteor crater for energy is inspired by the Tunguska event, one of the twentieth century's most fascinating mysteries. (I recently read a novel where the Tunguska event was a cataclysmic side effect of one of Tesla's energy experiments; one of my favorite things about it is the fiction it inspires.)

:: I love how FF always has something like this:

Fan letters are usually split on whether or not they like it when Steve Ditko inks Jack Kirby, but except for that one time Rick Jones looked creepy, I dig it. (For the record, my favorite inker for Kirby so far in the Marvel Universe is Dick Ayers, but I think my all-time fave Kirby inker is Vince Colletta.)

:: Before leaving the moon, the Watcher tells Reed "Space is your heritage--see that you prove worthy of such a glorious gift." He also reminds Reed that there are Watchers in the universe, and that "no matter how far you travel, you will never be alone."

Pal, so far in the Marvel Universe, we've seen Skrulls, the Toad-Men, the Stone Men from Saturn, Kurrgo (the Master of Planet X), the Impossible Man from Planet Poppup, the Metal Master from Astra, and the Xartans. And those are just the ones from other planets and not, say, the future, other dimensions, or deep inside our own planet. Alone? It's more like a traffic jam up there!

Becca wonders if the Watcher was meant to be a recurring character from the start, or if this was just a one-off appearance meant to herald the arrival of humanity to the stars. It is a nicely hopeful moment, despite my snarking, with an appropriate majesty to it. (Confession: when I read the Watcher, I hear Carl Sagan's voice.)

:: This month in the letters page, there's a letter from a fan from Rockford, Illinois, which isn't too far from where I'm currently sitting. Also, Stan teases the return of Doctor Doom (who will next be seen in Fantastic Four #16), and Mike Tuohey of Detroit inquires about original art being for sale and particularly praises Joe Sinnott's inks in Fantastic Four #5. Also, the fan poll regarding adding another member to the team is three to one against.

Stan also gets into a bit of an argument with Wayne Orlicki of San Diego about whether the Torch could really burn flame without heat.

Science! I guess. I'm a science idiot, remember?

And I think Marty Ross of New York speaks for a lot of readers when he changes his mind about Sue Storm. That's a nice letter.

I love that the fans are taking these characters seriously as people.

And then there's a letter from that sourball Paul Gambaccini, who does that irritating thing of asking a disbelieving question with three or seven or ten question marks after it, which... look, I see that online all the time, and just... just don't do that, okay, because it automatically makes you an asshole. It makes me think you're just being a histrionic dick to be as condescending as possible and it makes me not want to take you seriously. He does ask for a solo book for the Sub-Mariner, which I'm all for. (Gambaccini, by the way, became a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, and then a BBC presenter and pop culture historian. You can read about him here and here. Fascinating guy with quite a bibliography to his name.) (Also, I agree with his letter here that giving space over to little nitpicking letters--and there is one in this issue, pointing out that Doctor Doom fires from the wrong finger in a previous issue--is silly and boring.)

Another indispensable issue of Fantastic Four from Stan and Jack! This is still the flagship title for the line, and what Stan and Jack are pulling out of these characters and their science adventures is just pure joy.

Next Marvels: Thor gets a new power and tangles with mischief, magic, and the United Nations building.

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