Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Marvels: Fantastic Four #17

"Defeated by Doctor Doom!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(August 1963)

The Fantastic Four's previous adventure left us with a cliffhanger; the FF drove Doctor Doom out of Sub-Atomica and back to his normal size, and while things ended happily for Princess Pearla and the rest, the FF still have the specter of Doom hanging over them. Where has he gone and hidden himself, and how will he try to exact his revenge?

Even though this is a kinda sorta two-parter that kinda sorta left us in the middle of the action, I love how Stan & Jack set up this second half with their tried and true FF formula. After bidding Ant-Man farewell and thanking him for his help, and after a flashback recapping the events of the previous ish, we get a lot of the usual banter and science experiments and fighting back and forth. Naturally, Reed wants to start searching right away for Doctor Doom, and his response to that is to turn on radar system that's "extra sensitive to human flesh covered by steel." You're reaching with this one, Stan.

Johnny attempts to use sonar heat waves to track down Doom, and Sue follows some shady characters only to found out that they're testing out a children's toy. Ben, meanwhile, falls in a manhole chasing a caped figure on the street, only to find...

That is a beaut. Every time some wacky super villain heads out on the street and starts pontificating or a monster shows up and stands around, some bystander asks if it's publicity for a movie... and this time, for once, it was! Ya been robbed, Ben!

(Side note: Ben Grimm and Anastasia Steele use the same expressions.)

Well, the search is pretty fruitless, so the Fantastic Four do what anyone would do in their situation: go back to their social calendars.

Yes, Sue, we "might as well." A technothriller version of Hitler is running around on the loose, but we might as well all get back to our lectures, dates, concerts and dinners. I admit, you look pretty gorgie in that dress, and your hair is fab. But Johnny... aren't we all glad kids don't dress like that anymore?

The Four are mobbed in the Baxter Building by fans, so a janitor takes them out a back entrance, and that's when Doom strikes. Doctor Doom is actually the old janitor in disguise, and in shaking hands with each member of the FF, he's managed to place tracker "idento-discs" on them so he can harry them with these truly creepy robots that float and are apparently also intangible. The robots don't actually do anything, they just float around, being annoying and disrupting things with how annoying they are. It's the FF equivalent of tying a balloon to a cat's tail. Reed figures it out and finds the idento-discs, destroying them. Doom, monitoring them from a hidden location, declares phase one of his plan complete. At first, it seems like the lamest thing in the world to gloat over, but this is Doctor Doom! Of course there was more to it than that.

First, though, Doom decides to strike at the FF through their weakest link: the Thing! Well, technically he says it's Alicia Masters; he kidnaps her and carries her off to his newest hiding place--a floating laboratory hidden by clouds generated from the vehicle itself.

With Alicia prisoner, Doom has effectively hamstrung the Fantastic Four; they're fighting among themselves as Doom makes demands of the White House to surrender the country to him. Once again, Doom stands on the precipice of victory, and it actually seems attainable. This is why he's the greatest comics villain of all time; Doom isn't so powerful that he's unbeatable, but he's smart enough that the reader can't always see through his plans.

For example: those floating robots. They seemed like a really lame prank, right? Turns out they were actually transmitting a printed circuit of the exact atomic and molecular body structures of the Fantastic Four. And why? As part of an elegant defense system for his floating lab. See, he knew he'd never be able to keep his lab concealed from Richards forever, so he rigged up a defense made of disintegrator rays that are tuned to the FF's very bodies. If any one of them tries to breach the lab, the disintegraor rays detect them and zap, it's all over.

So what didn't Doom count on this time? Benjamin J. Grimm.

That's right; Doom doesn't know that it's possible for Reed to produce one of his serums that, however temporarily, will turn Ben back into a normal human: the disintegrator rays are programmed to recognize the Thing. And in a very nice bit of plotting, the team member that Doom used to put the Fantastic Four on the sidelines is the exact same team member who is the key to victory.

The scene where Ben, in a magnetically-powered one man plastic bubble (just go with it), sails past Doom's defenses is one of the best pieces of storytelling we've seen in the Marvel Universe so far. Ben begins to revert back into the Thing before he's reached Doom's lab, and you can almost feel the struggle as Ben, with all of his strength, seems to will himself not to become the Thing for as long as he can hold out.

And when he does land, he is pissed.

He's madder than we've ever seen him, and he proceeds to tear Doom's ship apart. The rest of the FF gets on board and, in typical Stan & Jack fashion, each go their own way to face Doom's death traps. Reed stretching thinner and thinner to navigate through oxygen pockets inside wet cement is an especially nice touch. Doom also attempts to use energy spheres to surround the FF and literally transport them to another dimension! He is not mucking around this time!

It's Sue, however, who finds Alicia and frees her, and then faces Doctor Doom on her own. She holds her own well, and it's a thrilling moment to see her finally fighting back! After all of the book's protestations that she was integral to the team, it's nice to see her actually get a moment where we're being shown her value. She gets in a few good hits, and Doctor Doom has to pull out a heat gun to stop her, before he's interrupted by the others. Doom's on the ropes but good, and, defeated, opens a hatch and literally jumps out his floating lab, plummeting towards the ground... and he disappears in the clouds. Hey, he survived jumping onto a meteor to escape the FF once, this is nothing. We'll hear about how he survived next time.

But for now, that was one hell of a great issue.

Stray observations:

:: Sue was heading out in that red dress to pose for a US savings bond poster ad. Reed, meanwhile, was getting an honorary doctorate. What's their status? I mean, are they actually together or is she still making up her mind? I figure if she was his girlfriend she'd want to be with him at his ceremony, but maybe not. She does have her own life.

:: This issue features cameos by Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy's hair.

I love that these comics take place in the real world.

:: In the letters page, Donald Markstein (he of the indispensable Toonopedia) is glad that there are no teen sidekicks in the Marvel Universe, active fan Ron Foss (whom you may know from the original Alter Ego and The Cartoonist) echoes the feelings of a number of readers that Al Hartley wasn't the best artist for Thor, and former FF hater Paul Gambaccini, in another long letter, proclaims "The Fantastic Four vs. the Red Ghost and His Indescribable Super-Apes" no less than "the best comic book story ever printed."

Stan also teases the return of the Hulk (by fan demand!), a Strange Tales annual that will team Spider-Man and the Torch, and announces that Fantastic Four Annual #1 is coming. In fact, that's the next FF story I'll talk about here, and brother, is that one of my all time favorite comic book stories. "So, till next ish, read our mags, read our competitors' mags, but READ! It's one of the greatest pleasures of all!"

Especially when the comics are as good as this one is!

Next Marvels: Thor vs. Thor! You'll be Thor-y to miss it!


MC said...

Io9 just posted a story discussing George R.R. Martin's letter to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby re: this issue.


SamuraiFrog said...

I just covered the issue with that letter recently, too. Once again, I influence all of the events of the internet.