Marvel Librarian vs. the Fantastic Four

Welcome to Marvel Librarian, the new feature covering historic Marvel comics from the point of view of someone experiencing them for the first time.

In the spirit of comic books, it seems appropriate to kick off with questions we could have theoretically gotten from readers.

Q: What’s the point of this?

We’re thankfully past the age where you have to spend paragraph upon paragraph justifying superhero comics as a subject for media criticism. As a result, there’s no shortage of writing about comic books available — particularly covering the famous stories of Marvel and DC. So what’s one more?

When I looked into starting to read comic books, I found the resources on the web to be extremely daunting. The vast majority of writing on comic books is written by those who have been fans since childhood. Most of them read the famous stories of their day at a formative age, and then picked up stories they missed through collections.

I thought it would be a fun endeavor to start from the effective beginning of Marvel superhero comics, and write about these stories as I go. I’ve read some popular modern comics through Marvel Unlimited, but basically nothing written before the 00s. Apart from knowing some of the major beats through movies and cultural osmosis, a lot of these stories, even famous ones, are relatively unknown to me.

As I was reading through, I realized that these stories are still a lot of fun, even today. Not all of it holds up well — but those aspects are interesting too. Plus, there’s just some flat-out insanity that I feel the need to share with the world.

Q: So what’s the angle?

One thing I’m not going to do is cover the history of comic books and the people who made them. There’s plenty of writing on that topic produced by experts.

I’m also not interested in simply taking out-of-context panels and laughing at them. For one thing, most of these panels are way funnier in context. For another thing, while there is plenty of material that’s downright goofy — and I’ll definitely cover those aspects — I genuinely enjoy and respect the material. I want to at least try to meet it halfway, even when they’re trying to convince me that magnetism affects all sorts of things that are not even slightly made of metal.

My primary object is to write about the stories and the characters within, and how they evolve over time.

If you’re familiar with my Steven Universe recaps, this is going to be more informal coverage. For starters, if I wanted to cover the entirety of Marvel comics in that level of detail, we could be here until civilization collapses. Even taking a looser approach we’re probably still going to be here until civilization collapses, but really, can you think of a better way to spend your time?

Q: Which books are you covering?

I wanted to do a mix of the famous, important stories, representative comics of their day, and bizarre oddities.

For the important stories, the website Comic Book Herald has been an invaluable resource for reading lists. In particular, the lists from My Marvelous Year were very useful for identifying significant stories from each year, and I’ll be covering a lot of the same material.

For representative comics, I’ll be picking out comics from popular series that aren’t well known or well remembered. In many cases, this will be the surrounding comics around notable stories, which helps contextualize them. In some cases, I’ll just be picking out books that look interesting for whatever reason. I’ve found that reading outside the “famous” stories brings up comics that are both a lot of fun and provide important stepping stones in the development of characters and plot.

For oddities, well, I’ve just been browsing around Marvel Unlimited for weird and obscure series.

Each article will cover a handful of comic book issues. I’m going by year, so the first batch of articles will cover comics of 1962 — although there’s going to be spillover from year to year to keep sets of comics together. While Marvel produced superhero comics before 1962, the first issue of Fantastic Four is widely considered to be the starting point of the shared superhero universe.

Since we’re starting in 1962, you can expect Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor, Incredible Hulk, and Ant-Man in the first set of planned articles. We’ll also be talking about Marvel’s anthology-style and Western comics.

I hope you will be as entertained as I was.

Fantastic Four #1

So here we are, at the beginning. I’m guessing that most people bothering to read this are nerds who already know these characters, probably better than I do, but just in case…

The guy in the lower right corner who has somehow ended up in bondage ropes is Reed Richards, aka Mr. Fantastic. On paper, his main superpower is being able to stretch and bend his body as though it were rubber. In reality, his primary superpowers are mansplaining and being an enormous asshole.

I’m not saying this entire series of articles is secretly a one-woman crusade against Reed Richards, but the thought has crossed my mind.

The big orange guy in the lower left corner is Ben Grimm, aka The Thing. His superpowers are inhuman strength and endurance, owing partially to his rock-like skin. He’s the only member who can’t take on a normal human appearance to blend into general society, and this is an ongoing source of drama in the books. He’s here because he’s Reed’s old college buddy.

The guy on fire is Johnny Storm, aka The Human Torch. As you might guess, he has the ability to set himself on fire without harming himself. This extends to all sorts of other uses, from throwing fireballs to somehow being able to pick an atomic lock without blowing it up. Really, if they’re not sure how to get the FF out of a situation and “fire” is even a remotely plausible answer, Johnny is the go-to. He’s here because he’s Sue’s brother. He’s especially notable for being a teenage superhero that is largely considered an equal member of the group and not a junior member or a sidekick to an adult hero.

And last, but not least, we have Sue Storm, aka The Invisible Girl. Later on, she’ll get “upgraded” to The Invisible Woman. She’s here because she’s ostensibly dating Reed. As you can see from the cover, we are zero pages into the first Fantastic Four and she’s already been kidnapped.

No, this aspect doesn’t get better, at least not for a long time.

Her superpower is the ability to become invisible, and oh boy, is there a lot to unpack about giving your primary female superhero the power of invisibility. Note that her power is to become invisible, but she is in no way intangible. This makes her statement on the cover pretty nonsensical, as the monster has already grabbed her, so being invisible isn’t going to help unless the monster lacks object permanence. I guess it’s worth a shot.

You may also notice that her superpower is probably the least useful in a direct physical fight, which results in her effectively sitting out a lot. I’m going to have a lot to say about the gender politics here.

The primary draw of this team, and the reason they became immediately successful, is that they brought something new to the superhero table — soap-opera style interpersonal drama. This popular idea would soon go on to spawn Spider-Man, the teenage hero who must balance his personal life with his superhero identity, and would reach arguably its logical conclusion in the X-Men, the superhero team stocked almost entirely with angst-ridden teens and young adults.

The first issue of FF begins with the team in their civilian lives, as they spot the “4” symbol in the air and run off to their mission. Sue is “having tea with a society friend” and freaks out a taxi driver by turning invisible on her way to the headquarters. Ben is in a clothing store complaining that nothing fits him and manages to destroy half a city block on his way. Johnny is working on a car, one of his favorite hobbies, and he melts the car on his way out by not bothering to move several feet away from it when turning on his flame. All of this could easily have been avoided, really. Finally, Reed was the one who called them there because he has no life.

Roughly half the book is taken by their origin story. Basically, Reed has created a spaceship, and enlisted Ben to pilot it, but Ben is quite reasonably concerned about the effects of cosmic rays.

And what’s their incredibly important reason for needing to launch the spaceship before it’s fully tested? Why, to beat the “commies,” of course! It’s a bit of a stereotype that communism and atomic weapons are the two biggest societal fears of the 60s, and Marvel comics go full bore in that direction all the time.

Anyway, it takes an offhand comment from Sue that Ben is acting cowardly to get him to agree to this mission that will destroy his life as he knows it. That could make a good commentary on toxic masculinity if this era of comic books were prepared to grapple with that idea.

Another common element of the comic books of this age: top-secret scientific facilities have basically no security whatsoever. Our four manages to get to the rocket and launch it with the sophisticated plan of driving up and running before the guards can catch them.

In a totally predictable occurrence, the shielding for the cosmic rays is not enough and they all end up getting themselves killed — well, except that they thankfully live in comic book space where radiation gives you superpowers instead of causing your skin to melt. I love the wild colors in these panels, though.

They manage to land the ship and we get our first instance of Ben trying to murder his teammates. He’s pretty much straight-up homicidal in some of these early comics, and not all that sympathetic despite his predicament — this would be toned down later. This first issue seems to be floating a potential inter-team conflict by having Ben, furious at Reed for having nearly killed them, suddenly pivot into being jealous of his relationship with Sue, saying that she loves the wrong man. This aspect of the team dynamics seems to have been dropped shortly after in favor of a different, no less excruciating love triangle involving Namor, because really, how can we write an interesting plot for a female character without a love triangle?

After they’ve stopped fighting each other, Reed and Ben comment on how they obviously have to use these powers to help mankind, a clear predecessor to Spider-Man’s mantra “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Anyway, I’m just going to steal this tweet that sums things up quite nicely:

The back half of the book is far less interesting, a kind of generic adventure where Reed and Johnny are dressed in footie pajamas and are beaten up by an old blind man:

It’s the Moleman, and he has a super generic backstory where he was mocked and rejected for his ugly face, became an incel, ended up on an island full of monsters, became a mole person, took control of the giant monsters on the island with his… mole… powers…? Even though these early comics tend to feature text bubble after text bubble filled with tedious exposition, you still see a lot of bizarre leaps of logic.

In fact, I’d argue that their tendency towards constant narration makes the nonsensical parts of the plot stand out a lot more. Modern adaptations tend to just have a hand-waving line or two about “radiation” or “genetics,” just enough to convey the idea that this is super-science without making the audience think too hard about it. Everyone above the age of ten knows that getting superpowers from being bitten by a radioactive spider is silly, and no one who loves Spider-Man actually cares — it’s just a quick lampshade to allow us to get to the power fantasy and the metaphor.

In case you’re wondering, the jumpsuits actually do have an explanation — they’re meant to protect the FF from the blinding shine of the Valley of Diamonds where the Moleman lives:

We get a quick acknowledgement of the ongoing interpersonal conflict when Ben and Sue are separated from the other two, and Sue admonishes Ben for not forgiving Reed. You know, it might help if Reed showed the smallest bit of remorse for what happened to Ben. I’m just saying.

The issue ends on a noncommittal wet fart. The Moleman sends an army of monsters after the FF, Johnny causes a rockslide to trap them all, and the FF fly away. Reed literally says that they’re just going to leave the Moleman behind and hope he doesn’t trouble anyone ever again, even though you’d think that trapping the Moleman underground with all his monsters doesn’t really solve the problem in the slightest.

I do love this panel of one of the monsters emerging from the floor:

This panel also demonstrates another important quality of this era of comics: the action is constantly narrated, either by the characters or by text boxes. There are next to no instances of a wordless panel being allowed to stand on its own. In a more modern comic, this panel probably would not have that narration box — you might instead get a sound effect, an exclamation by one of the characters, or no words at all.

This is far from one of the worst examples — at least in this case, the narration adds some colorful commentary. In some more poorly written passages the characters are literally just saying what’s clearly happening in the art. It betrays a lack of faith in comics as the medium for telling these stories, which is a shame, because Kirby’s art, even at these early stages, is frequently excellent.

It probably sounds like I’m being pretty harsh on this issue. Certainly, the writing has a long way to go. But the concept is excellent, and you can see the potential that made these characters beloved mainstays. You can see the seeds of conflict that would later define them — such as Ben’s turmoil over his monstrous appearance and Johnny’s brash personality causing him to overextend himself. Even when these older comics aren’t great, they’re pretty much always fun, and have an addictive quality to them that makes it easy to read a dozen in a go.

Having read ahead, though, I can say that Sue’s characterization is going to be really rough for a long time. This is what happens when you don’t have any female creators on staff.

Bonus Comic: Rawhide Kid #26

1962 is smack in the middle of the fad for Westerns in America, so it’s not surprising that Marvel had a number of long-running Western comics at the time. This one, Rawhide Kid, ran until the 70s. Like most Marvel comics of the time, it’s an anthology comic, containing roughly five short stories — this is a format we’ll be seeing a lot of in the first few years, before they started transitioning to books that feature just one story.

This cover is misleading in two ways:

  1. While the bounty hunter does lay a trap for the Kid, the scene on the cover is not that;
  2. The actual scene doesn’t involve a bunch of other men standing on top of nearby mesas (?) shooting up at the kid. How would you even arrange something like that? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to have them all in one place?

Anyway.

The first story features the Rawhide Kid absolutely flipping his lid because there’s an unknown bounty hunter facing him, which is an understandable source of anxiety. One interesting thing about this comic is that, unlike the early superhero comics that constantly rehash origins and powers, this one doesn’t explain anything about the Rawhide Kid. He’s clearly some kind of outside-the-law vigilante, but at no point do they say why there’s a bounty hunter after him. The Kid repeatedly talks about how he won’t be “going back,” presumably to jail, but again, they never really say.

The bounty hunter’s trap involves dressing up as a dying man near the trail, and capturing the Kid when he stops to help. The scene on the cover is when the hunter and Kid are ambushed by a gang. The Kid immediately agrees to join the gang, and then one panel later objects to the gang trying to shoot the bounty hunter, and then teams up with the bounty hunter to kill them all. Or shoot their hands and shoulders. It’s deliberately unclear.

The bounty hunter decides not to recapture the Kid, instead leaving him in the middle of the trail with a wounded shoulder and his gun, which I guess counts as mercy. Honestly, this whole story was kind of a mess.

The next story is a little better, even if it’s mostly just executing on a cliche. The Kid comes to a town where there’s an old man who’s always going on about his son, who apparently doesn’t actually exist. When the townsfolk harass the old man, the Kid intervenes, causing the old man to assume he’s his long lost son.

Then, a random guy in the middle of the road draws his gun on the Kid because the Kid refuses to light his cigarette. My main takeaway from these old Marvel Westerns was that the Old West was a place where people are constantly trying to kill each other for petty slights at random.

The old man takes a bullet for the Kid, begs the Kid to say he’s his son as he dies, and the Kid obliges before walking off into the sunset.

The fourth story was probably my favorite of the group, at least partially because Cack Clugg is quite a name. Anyway, this asshole goes around roughing people up and harassing women because he’s apparently bulletproof. Whenever anyone shoots at him, he survives unscathed.

The Kid defeats him in a fairly logical way: by lassoing Clugg’s gun away and beating him with his fists. You’d think someone would have at least tried punching him in the face by now.

It turns out his trick was stealing people’s bullets and replacing them with blanks, which seems difficult to pull off without anyone noticing, but whatever.

I confess that I’m not a huge fan of Westerns, so all of this has a lot less appeal to me than the superhero stories. The story beats here are all fairly cliche, and the Western format allows for less of the wild creativity you see in many of the superhero tales. It does move along snappily, though, and I can see the purpose they served as light reads for Western-obsessed youth.

Next time on Marvel Librarian! Amazing Adult Fantasy #7-11. No, Amazing Adult Fantasy isn’t what you might expect — it’s more anthology comics, this time with a sci-fi bent.

The tagline is “the magazine that respects your intelligence,” and we’ll see how well that promise holds up.