Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Marvels: Fantastic Four #22

"The Return of the Mole Man!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & George Roussos
(January 1964)

The Mole Man was the first villain the Fantastic Four ever faced, way back in the first issue. Back then, I didn't think he was much of a villain, but I liked that he was in the grandiose tradition of movie serials. This time, he proves much more capable of menacing the Four.

But before we get there, let's talk about this issue's big development: Sue's expanded powers!

Finally, Sue has more active powers. I've been impatient to get here, because we've really explored the limits of Reed and Ben's powers, and the various writers have been really creative in exploring what Johnny can do just with heat and flame. But Sue has only had this ability to turn invisible so far, which comes in handy more often than not, but when it doesn't, she barely has anything to do (awesome judo flips against Doctor Doom aside).

Now she can create invisible force fields which are hard enough to stop the Thing and can totally withstand the Human Torch's flame. She can also turn other objects (and people) invisible. The only limit is that she can't do all of these things at once, but it's exciting watching her grow.

Stan & Jack have a lot of fun with this one; the first third of this issue is people coming in and complaining about the Fantastic Four and the various dangers and nuisances they create (having an ICBM on the premises, experiments with radioactivity, destruction of public property), and being driven off by Sue's new powers. The complaints get so irritating that Reed starts to consider moving their headquarters out of the Baxter Building, only to find an island for sale off the coast of New Jersey.

The island itself turns out to be little more than a rocky outcropping surrounded by a barrier reef. And, anyway, the whole thing is just an elaborate trap set by the Mole Man!

Still hungry for revenge on the world, the Mole Man has been spending the years since we last saw him building huge hydraulic platforms under the largest cities on Earth. How? Shh, never mind. The Mole Man's also been ruling an underground race of creatures who must be incredible engineers. I'll allow that, but where is he getting his resources from? It's just... what? Doctor Doom, sure, but the Mole Man? Guy living underground because he's so ugly and with no super powers of his own? I just... let's move on. I'm just saying, if you saw it in a movie and they never answered these questions, you'd be frustrated.

Anyway, he plans to pull New York City and Moscow underground at the same time so that both the US and the USSR, thinking it was a "sneak A-bomb attack" by the other side, will start World War III and decimate the population. (Trust me, guys, if it was an A-bomb, you'd have heard something.)

Mole Man is smarter this time, separating the FF into a series of traps designed to kill them. Mr. Fantastic is trapped in a room with walls made from non-porous plastic, so he can't thread through them. Invisible Girl is stuck in a room where everything is a hologram illusion. The Human Torch is in a cold environment with ice growing around him, and the Thing is dropped onto a gigantic cotton mound that he can't punch his way out of.

Of course, they all find creative solutions--Mr. Fantastic expands his body until the walls are smashed, Invisible Girl uses her new powers to make the holograms invisible and finds the door, the Torch smashes a circuit panel with an icicle, and the Thing finds an outlet tunnel where cotton was being piped in to suffocate him--and then have to rush around in the dark trying to reunite, defeat the Mole Man, and escape. While being chased through the tunnels and back to the surface, Reed has time to rewire the Mole Man's circuit board so that when he tries to destroy New York and Moscow, he actually destroys his own island.

And once again, Reed leaves Mole Man to die in an explosion.

Stray observations:

:: See this guy?

No one uses his name, but that's Officer Francis Muldoon, Fred Gwynne's character from Car 54, Where Are You?

:: One of the groups that comes to the Baxter Building to complain is the Women's Canasta and Mah Jong Society. I love Reed's harried "I tell you what, ladies! Why don't you write me a letter?"

:: The Mole Man's minions are the Moloids, though they're not called that yet. They have a neat, very Kirby design. I remember in the story "Beauty and the Beast," back in Incredible Hulk #5, underground ruler Tyrannus had minions that looked a little similar. The design was just too good not to use again.

:: This is the first time the Thing yells "It's clobberin' time!"

:: The letters page is a goldmine of future professionals. Future X-Men artist (my personal favorite X-Men artist) Dave Cockrum especially likes the Angel and the Sub-Mariner. John Lasruk says he has 500 comics, and I wonder if it's the artist John Lasruk. His bio says he was born in Toronto, and the letter is from Downsview, Ontario, so maybe. If so, that's pretty neat. Wayne Howard from Cleveland writes a poem praising Marvel, and I'm pretty sure that's this Wayne Howard, the legendary African-American comic artist who mainly worked at Charlton and also got a "created by" credit on Midnight Tales that set an industry precedent. Jack Harris praises Kirby's art but doesn't care for Dick Ayers' inking and thinks the Fantastic Four are cosmic heroes, not superheroes; I'd love to think that's Jack C. Harris, the DC writer and editor who wrote Wonder Woman and edited two of my favorite late-seventies books, Firestorm and Black Lightning. And there's another letter from Roy Thomas, who complains that he's spending $1.95 a month to keep up with Marvel's great comics. Wow, you couldn't even buy half of a comic for that nowadays.

:: Stan also takes the time to reassure one reader that Thor is a legendary god, not a god in a religious sense. I'm kind of surprised, given the time period, no one's brought that up earlier.

:: There's also some more talk about just how many readers don't like X-Men. Stan thinks it will be Marvel's most popular book within a year. Would you like to try for several more than just one, Stan?

This was a, pardon the wording, fantastic issue of Fantastic Four. Yeah, it's still clinging to the formula, but the formula allows for a lot of character development, and developing Sue's powers is an exciting (and necessary) change. I still don't think much of the Mole Man, but he proved a much more effective villain in this one.

Good stuff, man. Good stuff.

Next time: Thor's showdown with Mr. Hyde.


Roger Owen Green said...

I've mentioned getting a still-wet X-Men Chronicles cover from Dave Cockrum on only the second, and last, time I was ever in Marvel's offices.

bliss_infinte said...

This has always been one of my all time favorite FF issue. I love the slow pace and character development, and I'm a big fan of the Moleman and his minions. Plus, this is one of the first time thE Thing has more of a "rocky" look. I think that has more to do with the inker,Paul Reinman, I think. It's short lived though as it gets softened up again in the next couple of issues and the Chic Stone takes over and makes him all round and cartoony.

Nathan said...

I realize this post is two and a half years old now, but I just read this story. My question is what would have happened if anyone other than the FF had responded to the "island for sale" ad. Someone else in New York would probably want to buy an island, right?

SamuraiFrog said...

Marvel was so weird and naive at the time, I wonder if it would have held up in court if Mole Man claimed to legally own the island. But part of me pictures a delightful story where someone buys the island from him, tries to build something, and then suddenly the right government office notices and now the Mole Man is a white collar criminal. Then he just moves naturally into real estate fraud and probably ends up becoming President.

Nathan said...

But is the Mole Man a natural-born citizen?

These attempts to lure someone into a trap always seem unreliable. A direct message is one thing, but a classified ad? How could anyone be sure the FF would read it and no one else who might be interested would?

SamuraiFrog said...

Sometimes it's kind of charming how naive Stan Lee's characters could be. He just has so much fun with the silliness, but the characters are still grounded.

Per Marvel's official biography, Mole Man is American. I guess he technically could qualify to run. Plus, he has monsters on his side. I'm afraid to look up whether SHIELD classifies monsters as weapons of mass destruction, because I'll bet there are actually notes on that somewhere...