Thursday, May 01, 2014

Marvels: Fantastic Four #19

"Prisoners of the Pharaoh!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(October 1963)

Just a few issues ago, Ben told Reed to stop trying to turn him back to "normal" and spend his time trying to restore Alicia's sight instead. In this issue, Reed's attempt to do so drives the plot. Gotta appreciate the guy's sense of duty to his loved ones.

While on a trip to a museum, Reed has interpreted some hieroglyphs to mean that a pharaoh from a relatively unrecorded Ancient Egyptian dynasty had his own blindness repaired by some sort of radioactive substance. Reed likes to make big leaps like that, just go with it. His big idea is for the Fantastic Four to go back in time using Doctor Doom's time machine. (Remember, the one that sent them back to Blackbeard's time, only to discover that Blackbeard was actually Ben Grimm all along? That one.)

The FF land in Giza, near the Great Sphinx, and are set upon by the local troops. There's a spectacular fight scene, but the Fantastic Four soon find themselves mysteriously weakened and unable to fight. Brought before Pharaoh Rama-Tut, they're surprised that he not only speaks English, but knows who the Fantastic Four are! Further, he's the one who sapped their resiliency with an ultra-diode ray from the year 3000. Rama-Tut is from the future!

Rama-Tut (whatever his real name may be) hated the peaceful, progressive, technologically advanced year 3000. Craving action and adventure, he visited the ruins of "an amazing ancestor of mine" and came upon plans and diagrams for a time machine. Building one in the shape of an ancient idol--the Great Sphinx itself--Rama-Tut came back to Ancient Egypt to make himself a ruler with his advanced scientific knowledge. Originally, he had planned to loot the riches of history from his Ancient Egyptian base, but his time machine was damaged upon landing. Rama-Tut had to settle for only making himself a pharaoh instead.

Reed, however, was right about the pharaoh whose eyes were repaired; Rama-Tut had been blinded by radiation from his damaged time machine, but his new subjects obtained a rare herb that helped restore his vision.

Rama-Tut has no intention of freeing the FF; he's bathed them in rays that have weakened their wills, and makes them slaves. Weirdly, the only way to reverse the effect of the rays is to be bathed in them a second time. Rama-Tut has the Thing chained to the oar as a galley slave, makes the Human Torch his jester, and puts Mr. Fantastic to work as an observer helping to clear the way for his armies. As for the Invisible Girl? What do you think you're reading and from what era? Sue is to become Rama-Tut's bride.

What happens next feels like a little bit of a cheat, but the story's so fun that I wasn't let down by it. Somehow, under the hot sun (hotter than our 20th century sun, apparently), the Thing reverts back into Ben Grimm. Since Ben was hit with the rays while he was the Thing, they now have no effect on him. (Okay?). Slipping out of his chains, Ben swims back to the palace and grabs Rama-Tut's ray gun, shooting Sue with it and freeing her just before he turns back into the Thing. Sue turns invisible, takes the gun, and gives Ben and Johnny their wills back as Rama-Tut flees through an escape chamber. Suddenly all hell breaks loose. (And it's fun as hell watching the Thing fight basically the entire populace of Giza with a broken column.)

After getting Reed back, the FF head into Rama-Tut's time machine, where Rama-Tut tries to kill them with his various booby traps. But, like Doctor Doom, Rama-Tut has one last escape clause: the Sphinx is merely a shell, and Rama-Tut has repaired the time machine inside, so he simply takes off in his small time ship and leaves the FF behind. (He says that all memory of his rule will simply disappear without him there, which, okay, why not, I guess? There are a lot of logic leaps/plot devices masquerading as science in this one.) But at least Reed finds the optic nerve restorative they came for! It was subtly marked, but Reed was somehow able to figure out where it was located!

Well, maybe it wasn't that subtle.

Still, it doesn't help. When the FF get safely back to 1963, the restorative is gone. Didn't make the trip. Apparently, Doom's time machine won't transport anything with radioactive properties. (Um, aren't the FF themselves full of radioactive properties? Isn't it radiation that gave them their powers?) Reed "should have guessed." (How? HOW? That is obvious to no one, Reed!)

It's a fun and action-packed issue, but as you may be able to tell from my not-so-lively description, the formula is starting to creep into the book. Formula can be a crutch, but taking into account how heavily worked Stan & Jack are right now, I think they'll pull out of it. It's still pretty high quality and still the flagship title of the Marvel Universe.

Stray notes:

:: Apparently, Ben's fans send him cigars. Is Stan trying to tell the fans what he'd like? (Alicia, for her part, worries they're exploding cigars from the Yancy Street Gang.)

:: Johnny remarks at one point that the FF have gone back in time a thousand years. I know he's just generalizing, but that doesn't stop the pedantic historian in me from pointing out that a thousand years before, 963, was the time when the Abbisad Caliphate ruled Egypt, just before they lost Egypt to the Fatimid Caliphate. So that was already Islamic, Arab Egypt. Also, the Great Sphinx of Giza was Rama-Tut's time machine. The Great Sphinx is most commonly thought to have been erected in the Old Kingdom under Pharaoh Khafra, some time between 2558 and 2532 BCE. So this is some Old Kingdom stuff and Johnny's off by a few thousand years.

:: Now, I don't know much about Rama-Tut, so I find the clue about his "amazing ancestor" tantalizing. Are Stan and Jack implying that Rama-Tut is a descendant of Doctor Doom? Or even Reed himself? Do you think Rama-Tut would have mentioned that, or kept that information close? And what does that mean that he decided to take Sue for himself? Depends on which fictional time travel theory you subscribe to, I guess.

:: In the letters page, Stan cops to Ben accidentally calling Alicia by Sue's name in FF #16 as a mistake: "so many characters to keep track of." When another reader calls him on a scene in Journey Into Mystery #93 where Thor's hammer doesn't return to him, Stan explains that Thor's hammer won't return if Thor orders it not to, then jokes "It's easy to explain these things when we make up our own rules!" Stan is xazzed to get a fan letter from Australia; Mrs. Jo Shelby of Wisconsin explains that her four year-old daughter has a hard time grasping the concept of the Thing and cosmic rays; and future Marvel writer (and Howard the Duck creator) Steve Gerber has a letter in which he lauds Thor, asks that the Sub-Mariner be a hero again, and hates on Fantastic Four #13 and #15. (Have to disagree, Steve; that Red Ghost story is a classic!)

Also, Stan announces the results of the fan poll to keep Reed Richards the leader of the FF (6,043 for, 422 against) and teases the return of Dr. Strange to Strange Tales, which I'm very much looking forward to.

Good issue; can't wait for more.

But first, next time: beginning one of my all time favorite Marvel features, Tales of Asgard!

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