Thursday, December 05, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #14

"The Merciless Puppet Master" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(May 1963)

One of the great ongoing entanglements of the early (and best) years of Fantastic Four is the simmering passion between Sue Storm and Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. I don't want to call the whole Reed/Sue/Namor development a love triangle, because I'm burned out on love triangles. Love triangles feel manufactured for drama; when Sue is torn between the heroic man she's known all her life and the troubled undersea ruler who stirs her sympathy, it feels born out of the character rather than the need for pointless drama.

In this issue, we finally get Reed's take on the whole situation, and it's surprisingly touching. Again, I know I gave Mr. Fantastic a lot of flack at first, but I've really come to like this character. Sure, he can be clueless and tactless, like a lot of scientists (concerned with greater things and all that), but when he walks in on Sue using his "roving-eye" television receiver to scan the bottom of the sea in an attempt to locate Namor, he's clearly hurt. Up until now, he's been quietly angry (notice how every time they fight the Sub-Mariner, Reed never holds back even a little), but he hasn't pushed Sue to choose because he wants her to make the decision for herself. Forcing her into a decision would be to never really know her heart. But here we follow Reed as he thinks about all of the great things he can do, all the things he's accomplished, yet "I am unable to win my most cherished goal! I am unable to completely conquer the heart of the girl I love!"

I once again admire how much time Stan and Jack take to really present these characters as human beings with dimensions, pulling us into them so we accept them as people. It's not until page 6 that this issue's villain enters the picture: the Puppet Master. Having survived his seemingly fatal fall to the ground in Fantastic Four #8, he's apparently been convalescing in a sanatorium ever since. (Even he says the FF thinks he died in the fall.) Immediately upon release, the Puppet Master sits down on a bench and starts carving a puppet, intending to take revenge on his would-be killers through one of their old enemies. And, of course, he settles on the Sub-Mariner.

Namor is still searching for his people, perhaps getting closer, when the Puppet Master takes mental control of him. Namor reaches out to Sue, calling her to the docks where he immediately takes her prisoner. Projecting a challenge to the FF, the three remaining team members head under the sea to face Namor at his always-cool mid-century modern style palace.

Where this book really has it over the others is in its book-length style of storytelling. Thor, Ant-Man, Iron Man and the solo Human Torch stories are just lead-in shorts to anthology books, maybe a third of the total issue space. Spider-Man's had two issues featuring multiple stories. But here, with an entire issue's space, Stan and Jack not only have room to explore the characters, but also to set a mood and a tone. I love the eerie trip down into the depths of the ocean, where they have to run a gauntlet of undersea traps just so they can be captured by Namor, just so they can fight him one by one, "as is the custom of my people." And all the while, Sue is being held inside an air bubble inside a giant water tank guarded by a giant octopus.

This... this is beautiful.

Each member of the team gets their own page of fighting Namor--another round for the Torch/Sub-Mariner rivalry--but in the end, Namor is defeated in large part by Namor himself. The Puppet Master, clearly underestimating the power of the Fantastic Four, orders Namor to use a deadly poison gas on the Fantastic Four. But Namor--who is troubled and driven and processing a trauma but never truly evil--feels conflicted and can't bring himself to murder them. Eventually, he does release the gas, but Reed has had enough time to put Flex-O-Gen packets--basically small, flexible gas masks--over everyone's faces, saving them.

I love that it's Alicia who figures out, just by hearing Namor's voice, that he's not responsible for what's happening, but is most likely under the control of her stepfather, the Puppet Master. And when the Puppet Master loses that control, even Namor has no idea what's going on or how the FF even got into his palace.

And then there's this painful emotional moment where Namor asks Sue if she's finally come at last to be with him, and she says no: "Much as you fascinate me, my loyalties are still with Reed! As for my heart--perhaps one day it will be able to make a final choice--but not yet!" Namor reacts with anger and bluster, vowing to find his people and then battle the surface world for control of the planet... but he still lets the Fantastic Four go, a man of honor and nobility, and seeing them off. When Sue says she hopes that one day they'll all be friends, Namor promises "Friend? That is too mild a word for the Sub-Mariner!"

I love this character. He's a good man in a lot of pain, and I hope to see that pain taken away one day.

If I have one real complaint about this story, it's that the Sub-Mariner appearances--as much as I love and treasure them--are becoming a little formulaic. Stan and Jack manage to imbue this one with a sense of drama, of course, but for the most part these stories have become a sort of showcase where Namor defeats each of the three men in turn, kidnaps Sue, and then Sue stops the others from ganging up on Namor for a big battle. I know it's Sue who makes the others see reason in these stories, but it's always after she's been captured and needs to be rescued. Sue has a mind, but I don't like it when she's reduced to damsel. How about Reed getting captured for a change?

Still... I love this issue. I love the Sub-Mariner. And when they next cross paths, it's going to be a different story...

Stray observations:

:: I love how this issue keeps going from the last issue. If you recall, last issue, the FF landed on the moon. Rather than just being a sort of one-off spectacular feat, this issue opens with the FF landing in New York (at Idlewild Airport!) to a crowd of onlookers and news cameras. This is 1963, and these four--as the dialogue reminds us--are the first Earthlings to return from a round trip to the moon. This is a real triumph for America, and it only grows the celebrity and the reputation of the Fantastic Four. This is a momentous event in the real world, and not just a comic book feat. That bit of realism is what sets the early Marvels apart from the Silver Age DC books, where anything and everything happened with no consequences and no drama. It's a big achievement--in the real world, we wouldn't land on the moon for another six years--and I'm glad Stan and Jack take time to acknowledge it.

:: Speaking of FF celebrity, the four are immediately mobbed by the crowd. Fan clubs, businessmen wanting endorsements, Hollywood agents offering contracts--everyone wants a piece of these four. Guys, they just got back from space, rein it in! It does lead to two great moments, though:

Previous panel featured a soldier complaining "I can't hold these nutty females back!" Also:

Ha! I love Ben. Happy Hanukkah, Ben!

I've said it before, I'll say it again: this book works because of moments like these. It's about recognizable, relatable people.

The mob scene is so bad that the Human Torch quickly creates a vacuum funnel out of warm air and pulls his teammates up to the top of the Baxter Building, just so that they can get a little peace, quiet and rest.

:: Sue's first thought upon returning home from the moon? "I think I'd better do a little housecleaning." Reed doesn't come across as very sympathetic with his admonition: "Just so long as you do it silently!" No wonder the first thing she does is look for Namor! You done messed up, tiny man.

:: My favorite Human Torch insult hurled at the Thing this issue: "Why don't you go get a job as a food tester in a poison factory?"

:: Continuity error I noticed: when the Puppet Master is musing over which of the FF's old foes to send to fight them, he briefly thinks of the Skrulls, even though their existence was never made public, so he can't actually know about them. (He also considers the Mole Man, who I'm surprised has yet to make a return appearance.)

:: Reed attempts to use a ten ton iron bar to test, once and for all, the real limits of Ben's strength. Ben gets annoyed and easily bends it in half.

:: The Puppet Master watches the undersea proceedings from his one man sub. Reed has built an experimental bathyscaph, which my spell check doesn't recognize, but which is very much of the time period. This was just a few years after the bathyscaph Trieste went down into the Marianas Trench, something my Mom was always fascinated by.

:: The tone of the lead-in to battle is very interesting. These aren't three hotheads rushing to enjoy a fight. There's a fatalistic feel in the air. Reed leaves the key to his secret files with the police commissioner in case he doesn't come back alive. Ben spends a couple of pages saying farewell to Alicia. He feels so bad that she's crying over the possibility of his not returning that he actually takes her along for the ride!

:: Sadly, we never see the mento-fish or the hypno-fish again. I kind of love them, but I'll admit a large part of their appeal is that they're named mento-fish and hypno-fish.

:: Meta!

:: My favorite bit of Stan's in this month's letter column is when a reader calls him out on the flare gun which used to spell out the words "Fantastic Four" and now only shows an image of the number 4. Before copping to it just being a goof, Stan jokingly says "The FF saves a lot of smoke with each shot by only using one numeral--and with the high price of smoke today, every little bit counts!" Dad joke.

He also responds to a reader who wonders how the Impossible Man could turn into the Old Man of the Sea--how would an alien know that legend?--by responding that the Old Man of the Sea was the Impossible Man's second cousin from the same planet. Another dad joke.

And he laughs off someone who points to a continuity error--Sue remembering facing the Skrulls in her uniform, even though the FF didn't wear uniforms then--by saying "As far as all our mistakes are concerned, we make 'em while we're being real careful! Can you imagine if we ever got CARELESS??!"

Ah, the days before every continuity error and mistake was a lingering story thread that needed to be addressed in-universe...

:: Judging by the letters, no one really liked the Impossible Man. I don't know... I thought the Impossible Man was funny. And what Matt Fraction is doing in the current run of FF with his son Adolf Impossible is wonderful.

Stan also draws attention to the corner boxes that have started appearing as Marvel's trademark, and says to keep your eyes open for a possible Fantastic Four Annual. He also teases a new title, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, which I will be reviewing here, since it takes place in the Marvel Universe (and is awesome).

But now... why not make an already-long post even longer?

Since this is my fiftieth Marvels post, I'm going to to take some time out here to rank my 20 favorite Marvel stories so far, just for the silly hell of it all:

1. "The End of the Fantastic Four!" (Fantastic Four #9)
2. "The Master of Flame vs. the Monarch of the Sea!" (Strange Tales #107)
3. "Prisoners of Doctor Doom!" (Fantastic Four #5)
4. "The Fantastic Four Versus the Red Ghost and His Indescribable Super-Apes!" (Fantastic Four #13)
5. "The Merciless Puppet Master" (Fantastic Four #14)
6. "Captives of the Deadly Duo!" (Fantastic Four #6)
7. "The Coming of... Sub-Mariner!" (Fantastic Four #4)
8. "The Return of Doctor Doom!" (Fantastic Four #10)
9. "The Incredible Hulk" (Fantastic Four #12)
10. "It Came from the Skies!" (Fantastic Four #7)
11. "The Vengeance of Loki!" (Journey Into Mystery #88)
12. "Duel to the Death with the Vulture!" (Amazing Spider-Man #2)
13. "The Fantastic Four!" (Fantastic Four #1)
14. "Spider-Man!" (Amazing Fantasy #15)
15. "The Impossible Man!" (Fantastic Four #11)
16. "Trapped by Loki, the God of Mischief" (Journey Into Mystery #85)
17. "The Fantastic Four Meet the Skrulls from Outer Space!" (Fantastic Four #2)
18. "A Visit with the Fantastic Four" (Fantastic Four #11)
19. "On the Trail of the Tomorrow Man" (Journey Into Mystery #86)
20. "Prisoners of the Puppet Master!" (Fantastic Four #8)

No surprise that the list is so FF-heavy; it's still the flagship, even as the Marvel Universe is only starting to get stronger. There's a lot of great stuff coming in the next 50 issues, and I sure as hell don't feel like stopping just yet! Stay tuned, true believer!

Next Marvels: Thor and Loki once more!


bliss_infinte said...

50 Marvel posts already? 'Dem's a whole lots'o comic book readin'! I love following these posts! Keep up the great work for another 50!

SamuraiFrog said...

Thanks! I'm really enjoying this trip to the past.