Friday, December 27, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #15

"The Fantastic Four Battle the Mad Thinker and His Awesome Android" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(June 1963)

This issue's villain is the Thinker (at least, that's how he's referred to by the other characters). As you can see, he's extremely smart and thinks he's got the rhythm of life figured out with his calculations. He's gathered all of the local crime bosses for a meeting in which he unveils a plan to make himself the king of the independent nation of New York. His plan is almost admirably elaborate; he even plans to appoint ambassadors to the US and other nations to open trade agreements and negotiate foreign aid. There's only one obstacle to overcome: get the Fantastic Four out of the way.

That proves to be exceedingly easy, probably because this is another one of those times when tensions in the group seem to be running hot. All the Thinker has to do is give them other opportunities to follow, and they all jump at the chance. When Johnny's cousin Bones asks him to put on a show in order to save his financially struggling circus, Johnny practically leaps at the chance to be a circus star. (And, honestly, if there was never a small part of you that wanted to be a circus star, you and I had wildly different childhoods.) General Electronics Ltd. wants Reed to head their electronic research. A wrestling promoter wants to make Ben Grimm "the biggest wrestlin' attraction since Strangler Lewis!" And a producer wants Sue to be the star of his new science fiction movie. Everyone gets an opportunity, and after a tense stand-off, the four say an emotional goodbye and agree to take a break from this super-heroing thing for a while.

So while they're all on their vacations, the Thinker is able to start a crime wave and take over the FF's headquarters for himself. None of the Four are really very happy with their new endeavors and cut them all short, returning to New York to find the Baxter Building covered in crystal, its elements transmuted. The Thinker appears before them as a hologram, challenging the FF to come in and take their home back, even opening the door for them. Then, the FF have to face weapons created from Reed Richards' own scientific notes, culminating in the Awesome Android.

The Android's pretty neat; again, this is something from Reed's own notes which he never put into effect. It's slow, but powerful, made from Reed's DNA experiments and unstable molecules, an organic body that can mimic some of the FF's powers (such as the Thing's super-hard skin) with a computerized brain. I can't wait to see more of this guy. (Also a nice touch: it's really Sue that defeats the Android.)

Everything is actually going according to the Thinker's calculations. Until he loses.

And I don't know... I feel like the way Reed wins is a little bit of a cheat.

See, earlier in the issue, the lone crime boss who didn't join up with the Thinker calls him a fraud: "Anytime somethin' happens, you say you expected it! You're just a phony!" (Which, incidentally, describes how I feel about more than a few Ant-Man stories so far.) But Reed's victory also comes out of nowhere. See, his inventions just stop working, and as Reed lectures the Thinker about not taking into consideration that every calculation will always have an x-factor--a random human element--he explains that he's "always" had a fail-safe in place. So he called Willy Lumpkin, intrepid mailman, and told him to ring the buzzer at exactly four o'clock, which would trip a circuit breaker that would turn off all of Reed's equipment ("as a precaution against any enemy taking over my lab").

So it feels like another one of those "I knew it all along" situations. To be fair, it also seems realistic, and it does seem consistent with Reed's explanation, but I'm not sure it's not a cheat. It feels a little like a cheat.

Stray observations:

:: The FF come running when Reed signals them with the flare gun in the beginning of the story. Johnny literally leaves his date by the side of the road to fly off. Sue has to run out of a hair appointment at "a chi-chi beauty parlor on Fifth Avenue." Ben wins, though, because he was apparently about to hurl a bulldozer at members of the Yancy Street Gang who were heckling him from a roof. It's actually hilarious ("I'll toss you a little bouquet!"), but Ben, being arrested for murder isn't as much fun as it looks on TV. (Reed, for his part, was in the middle of playing God--literally; he's been experimenting with DNA and has worked his way up to the creation of single-celled organisms.)

:: I do love Reed's attitude when he's trying to explain the emergency signal to a bickering, combative Ben and Johnny: "Suppose you both button up for a while and give me a chance to explain!" We don't stand on formality at the Baxter Building.

:: The Thinker imagines himself as King of New York.

This gettin' to be a condition with villains.

:: Sue says this will be her first major Hollywood role. But remember, she played herself in that movie about the FF that Namor produced, which is a real thing that happened.

Her movie looks kind of fun, though!

:: Speaking of Sue, her reaction upon being challenged by the Thinker is priceless: "Good grief! Another power-mad genius for us to contend with!" She's so over it.

:: I love the way the Awesome Android was later re-purposed as Awesome Andy, the office assistant in She-Hulk.

:: In this issue, Stan publishes a list of Fantastic Four fan clubs. I didn't recognize any of the names of the presidents, but I like seeing Stan reach out to the fans.

:: The letters page is mainly complimentary, though the responses to #11 are split: most fans seem to love "A Visit with the Fantastic Four" (though Ginger Church of Denton, Texas, thinks Reed smoking a pipe at 17 is ridiculous), but no one has any kind words for "The Impossible Man!" Ah, well, I loved it, anyway. Stan also gives a shout out to Ronn Foss' Comicollector fanzine (which will merge next year with GB Love's The Rocket's Blast and run until 1982, first under Love and then under James Van Hise), confirms that there will be a Fantastic Four annual, and announces the return of Doctor Doom in the next issue!

And there's a moment that's ironic in hindsight. In response to a fairly long letter from Roy Thomas (then 23, and his second letter published in the pages of Fantastic Four--the first letter being much more brief), Stan has this to say:

They'll be paying you for your words soon enough, Roy!

A very good issue of Fantastic Four, but not one of my favorites. That ending just felt a tad gimmicky, and the tensions between every one just made it a little bit of a drag. Still, small complaints for this one; it's still Marvel's best book.

Next Marvels: our 2014 begins with Thor and radiation.

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