Marvel Librarian vs. the Skrulls from Outer Space

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

I was really surprised how fast the ideas started to flow once the floodgates opened on superheroes at Marvel. While not all of the ideas are winners, a surprisingly high percentage of the concepts from this time period have endured in some form to the modern day. Case in point: Here, in just the second Fantastic Four, we have the Skrulls, who recently appeared in Captain Marvel just a few years ago, and who likely will be a larger presence in the MCU’s second phase.

Last time, when talking about Amazing Adult Fantasy, I wrote about how Marvel’s superhero output owes as much to its anthology comics as it does to Golden Age superheroes, and this cover is an excellent example. With the FF in civilian clothes and the presence of hostile green men, this looks as though it could be one of the weird stories from AAF as anything else. And the Skrulls, aliens who disguise themselves perfectly as humans, are just another iteration of a concept that is used almost every book in AAF.

The Skrulls are also a great example of how Cold War paranoia informs even the books that aren’t explicitly about that. No longer do you have an enemy out in the open, as in the early 40s when Captain America could punch Hitler. Instead you have nebulous enemies who are not openly at war with the US, and stories of hidden communists and Soviet spies are the order of the day. Skrulls are the ultimate in paranoia-fueled enemies: they can perfectly imitate anyone, even the people you trust most.

This comic opens with vignettes of the Fantastic Four seeming to do terrible things — although the Johnny Storm impersonator is apparently just melting down what almost looks like a Confederate monument, so maybe he’s just getting way ahead of an important trend.

Going with an evil impersonator plot in your second issue ever is pretty bold, as your readers have barely gotten to know what the Fantastic Four are normally like. “Ben” destroys an offshore oil rig, “Sue” steals a priceless diamond, “Johnny” melts a statue being unveiled, and “Reed” snakes his elastic arm into a power plant so he can hit the literal off switch. You’d think that one would be easy to fix, anyway.

Meanwhile, the Skrulls conveniently explain their evil plans to each other. In order to imitate the powers of the Fantastic Four, “Ben” used explosives to take down the oil rig, “Sue” shrunk to a tiny size to make it seem as though she had gone invisible, “Johnny” used a jetpack with a “low velocity thermal bomb,” and “Reed” just used his normal power of shapeshifting. Their goal is to make the Fantastic Four hated and feared to get them out of the way for their impending invasion.

Meanwhile, the Fantastic Four are hiding out in a cabin. Ben shows off his characteristic restraint by freaking out that everyone considers him a monster — well, doubly monstrous now — and chucks a taxidermied bear head through the window, as you do. As the Thing has a bit of a mental breakdown, Reed admits that the entire thing is his fault. It’s just an excuse to a flashback of the team’s origins, but still good to see.

Before they can get very far in figuring out who is impersonating them, the army shows up to capture them. They go without a fight, and are put in special rooms meant to keep them from escaping.

They really don’t do a good job of it, though, because Sue’s escape method is… turning invisible and pushing past the guards when they go to bring her food, which seems like the first thing you’d guard against if you’re trying to keep the Invisible Girl prisoner. I guess they haven’t heard of putting a hatch in the door.

Ben escapes by pounding the same section of the wall over and over implacably until it gives way, and Reed stretches himself thin enough to fit through a hole made by a loose bolt.

Johnny has been put in an asbestos room — sorry about your future cancer, Johnny. He gets out by tearing the asbestos off the room’s air vent and traveling through the ducts.

They decide that their plan will be to have one of the Four commit an act of sabotage in the hopes of tricking the Skrulls — so the Four impersonating a Skrull impersonating the Four. Johnny and Ben squabble over who will be the one to get to carry out the plan, leaving Reed to be the voice of reason and Sue to do the emotional labor of breaking them apart.

The plan is successful. Johnny burns up an unused launch platform to make it look like he’s attacking a space base. The Skrulls show up with a getaway car even though this apparently wasn’t sabotage they were planning on doing, but whatever — Johnny ends up among them and sees that they’re aliens. They outnumber Johnny and nearly capture him, but he sets off a flare gun to summon the rest of the Four, and they come to his rescue, easily dispatching the Skrulls. Sue even gets something to do by turning invisible and tripping one of the Skrulls.

The Four decide that the only way to stop the Skrull invasion is to go to the Skrull mothership and pretend that they’re the Skrulls pretending to be the Four. They tell the Skrulls that the invasion of Earth will never succeed because the Fantastic Four can’t be stopped, and also that the Earth is filled with terrifying monsters. In a cute meta touch, Reed uses illustrations from Marvel comics. Thankfully, the aliens can’t tell the difference between actual pictures and cheap newsprint.

They succeed in stopping the invasion, but in order to get back to Earth, they have to pass through the same cosmic rays that turned them into the Four in the first place. (Why they didn’t encounter this on the way up is anyone’s guess.) Ben, very understandably, has a trauma-fueled meltdown at the idea of getting bombarded with cosmic rays again.

We get the first of what will prove to be many moments where Ben gets a moment to turn back to human, only to see it taken away.

Anyway, the police roll up to capture the Four, so Reed promises to show them the actual perpetrators of the crimes, and they decide to roll with it for some reason. They make it to the apartment where the Skrulls were just… chilling, I guess… and they immediately attack the police in monstrous forms. The Four manage to stop them, but they have another problem: how can you keep imprisoned something that can so easily change its size?

The solution is to hypnotize the Skrulls into thinking they’re cows.

You might have some questions, like, “When did Reed Richards learn to hypnotize people?” “How do they know it will work on aliens?” “What if it wears off?” “How do they know the aliens wouldn’t just be faking?” “Is anyone gonna monitor these ‘cows’?”

Sorry, Reed doesn’t have time for your questions. Off to the next adventure!

The last page of the comic is a “pin-up page,” which carries a different meaning than I would otherwise assume because the first one is of the Thing. Or maybe some people are really into that, I’m not judging.

One thing that seems like a bit of a waste is that they only really scratched the surface of what the Skrulls can do. For instance, because the Skrulls impersonated all Four of the members off the bat, they all knew that something suspicious was going on. Imagine if they had started just by impersonating Ben, who threatens to fly off the handle at least once an issue. The mistrust could tear the team apart.

I’m sure that’s a story for another day.

At this point, they apparently decided that superheroes could sell, because we’ve taken a swerve from a cover that looks like one of the anthology books right into obvious superheroics. New car! New costumes! New skyscraper hideout! THE GREATEST COMIC MAGAZINE IN THE WORLD!!

They’re still differentiated from other superhero teams like the Justice League in that they’re obviously meant to be a set — their costumes all match and they have that “4” logo on them.

Also, Johnny as the Torch starts getting drawn differently from this point on. Instead of being more clearly made of fire, he now looks like one of those wooden anatomy dolls surrounded by flame. I actually hate this change — I think it makes him look kind of weird and gross, like his skin burned off and you’re seeing his muscles underneath.

After battling fearsome underground monsters and shapeshifting aliens from outer space, the Fantastic Four will meet with another dastardly foe… a stage magician.

The Miracle Man sees the Four in the audience and challenges the Thing to a feat of strength, easily splitting a log in half with just his finger and not even flinching when the Thing punches him. “It’s a good thing he’s using these powers for good and not evil,” says Reed.

Whoops never mind.

The Miracle Man’s dastardly plan? He’s going to take a giant monster statue advertising a movie, and make it come to life. Okay.

But never mind that, we have diagrams.

I totally loved any kind of labeled diagram like this when I was a kid, and I would have definitely followed the instructions to “save this for future reference,” probably by carefully clipping it from the book and destroying its value forever.

The Fantastic Four laugh at notions of “zoning” and “public safety,” they’ll build a long range missile launcher right into the side of their skyscraper in New York City! Note that the anti-vibration wall protects their own base, but it looks like there’s no such protection on the outer walls. They’re at least doing one good deed here — lowering real estate prices for downtown NYC.

I love that they have a dedicated “photo analysis room” and that it’s even larger than their “missile monitoring room.” It’s crazy to think that even the most futuristic equipment Lee & Kirby could have imagined for photo analysis is probably not as good as what the average person has on their phone. I also appreciate the presence of a “giant map room.” I’ve always wanted one of those.

As a child I would have been bitterly disappointed that the image cuts off without showing the living quarters and laboratories. Hell, I’m disappointed now. Thankfully, the rest of the image gets printed in a future book.

As the Four enter their hideout, Ben comments that none of the tenants suspect the Four owns the top of the building. I’m pretty sure they’re either being polite or just not trying to get on your bad side, because the missile launch pad is probably a good indication of who lives on the top floors of the building.

While Johnny watches the news, Sue debuts the new costumes she’s made. I appreciate how she’s made a helmet for the Thing and only the Thing, the only member of the team that doesn’t need a helmet.

Anyway, the Miracle Man makes the giant fake monster at the premiere come to life, and starts menacing the population. He sends this extremely blunt note to the police.

The Miracle Man rampages about town, pursued by the Four. And how does Mr. Fantastic, with his amazing powers of stretching, fare against a man with the proportionate size and strength of a stage magician?

Oh.

Johnny fares better. He discovers that the monster is just a model made from plaster and manages to burn it to the ground before the Miracle Man takes him down with a gun that shoots flame-retardant foam. Meanwhile, Ben stops to rip off his new costume before going into battle, and ends up somehow buried beneath the Earth with a gesture from the Miracle Man. Sue hits on the not-terrible idea of turning invisible and following him.

I just like this panel, it’s good for making the Miracle Man look evil and crazy.

The men head back to headquarters to fret about Sue and complain about their lots in life. Ben takes a page to rehash the Four’s origin story again. He laments that, because of his ugly face, that Sue will never look at him like she looks at Reed, and thank goodness this plot point will be ditched soon.

Johnny teases Ben, taking it too far and causing the two to fight. Indeed, Reed, what is wrong with all of you?

Meanwhile, Sue, trailing the Miracle Man, gets caught in one of the silliest possible ways short of getting a bag of flour thrown on her — a dog smells her out. It turns out that the Miracle Man’s power is basically being a flawless hypnotist, so he hypnotizes Sue into setting off the Fantastic Four signal flare.

There’s a number of these mind controlling villains in the Silver Age books, and whenever they pop up I always think of how chillingly the subject was treated in the Jessica Jones Netflix series.

I believe this is the first time Sue has been captured in my coverage of Fantastic Four, and, spoiler alert: it will not be the last.

The Four confront the Miracle Man, and it turns out that he is…

…a Keyblade Master!

WHEN YOU WALK AWAY

YOU DON’T HEAR ME SAY

PLEEEEEEEEEEASE OH BABY DON’T GO

…sorry, reflex.

The Miracle Man turns the key into a machine gun, so I guess he was using his hypnotism powers to make the FF think he was holding a key, and it’s really unclear why. They fight.

I wanted to call out this panel, because it really looks like Kirby intended for the hypnotized Sue to sneak up on Ben and do… something. But nothing comes of it, and she’s not there in the next panel.

Anyway, the Miracle Man steals an “atomic tank,” and the Four end up chasing him in an antique car that happens to be sitting there for an exhibition. When the car’s tire is shot out, Reed replaces it with himself, which is a pretty clever use of his power. They catch the Miracle Man when Johnny flies in front of him and blinds him.

Reed very confidently explains that the Miracle Man’s only power is hypnotism. He simply mind controlled the population into thinking he did all the miraculous things he did, and now that he’s blind, he won’t be able to do that anymore. He specifically calls out the idea that the Miracle Man just tricked them into thinking the monster came to life, with hypnotism.

But wait. Wait wait wait.

Not only did the monster move, it did actual damage to the city, and ended up at this military base some distance away. So not only did he have to trick everyone into thinking the monster was alive, he also had to conjure up the damage to buildings, the car it crushed, and more.

Reed thinks this must be so because if he had actual miracle powers he could have simply conjured wealth. However, the obvious counterpoint is that if he had actual flawless mind control powers as he seems to, this plan with the monster and the Four calling tons of attention to himself is the worst possible plan he could have gone with, when instead he could have just walked into banks and shops and asked for money.

Reed says that since Johnny blinded the Miracle Man, his powers must be over forever and they don’t need to worry about him, because he sees there’s only a few more panels left and they gotta wrap this shit up. Johnny flies off, saying he’ll be better off without them, in a move that seems intended to follow from his and Ben’s argument earlier, but really seems more like a teenager throwing a tantrum. Significantly, this is the first time they’ve set up a plot point at the end of one book to lead directly into the next, as FF#4 begins with the rest of the gang looking for Johnny.

Bonus Comic!

Strange Tales is an anthology of short stories, very similar to last week’s Amazing Adult Fantasy. This book had a ton of really cool covers that I wish I could show off. I chose this issue from the others in 1962 on the strength of its cover, which is incredibly ominous. I love the rust-colored moon looming over the scene.

Anyway, this cover isn’t even remotely close to what actually happens in the lead story.

Well, are you prepared?

In this story, the Earth is slowly freezing to death as the sun is going out, in a setup that reminds me a bit of the twist at the end of my favorite Twilight Zone episode, “The Midnight Sun.” Considering that episode aired in 1961, that could have even been where the idea came from! A pair of mysterious figures watch the dying Earth.

The remaining humans alive decide to drill down into the core, where it is still warm, and build a civilization there, believing they have enough warmth to last humanity for a few centuries. They generate energy with nuclear power and make food “chemically,” thus averting the whole no-sun problem.

We’re introduced to Rackozo Roor, a character named from the world’s worst Scrabble hand, the villain of the piece, who has grown bitter about living underground. We also have Johnn, a heroic character who is content with his lot in life because he has blonde hair, a square jaw and a heterosexual relationship.

A planet approaches the dying Earth, and the population is split as to what to do. Some think that the planet may be hostile, or may contain life forms who want to take the Earth’s precious remaining resources. This faction favors blowing up the planet with a cobalt bomb, a reference that rang a bell. A cobalt bomb is a nuclear weapon designed to maximize the amount of fallout, thus “salting” the Earth forever, and the reason I had heard of it is because it is the weapon used in the Doomsday Device in Dr. Strangelove.

The majority of the population believes that they should not destroy the planet without provocation. They win the popular vote. Rackozo takes his faction and invades the missile command center to set off the bombs anyway, but Johnn storms the center and stops him just in time. The mysterious figures, pleased that the Earthlings have chosen the peaceful resolution (if on a knife’s edge), announce that the humans have passed their test. The incoming planet is revealed as a new sun, and things start to grow upon the Earth’s surface again.

The concept of aliens testing the Earth is an old but good one, but the conflict between the cliched central characters really brings this story down. Also, the aliens imply that even if the majority of humanity wanted peace, if they fail to stop this one guy and his tiny faction from setting off the missile then they will have failed, which seems pretty cruel to all the people who did nothing wrong.

It’s also disappointing that we didn’t get any cool shots of the ruined Earth like on the cover, but disappointment that the cover scene isn’t actually part of the comic pretty much goes with the comic book territory.

I ended up enjoying the next story more. This man gets lost in the thick London fog and ends up in the sixteenth century somehow, as you do. He makes the poor choice to immediately start yelling that he’s from the future, which results in him being locked up in a torturous dungeon-asylum. His plan to escape? He tricks the cruel warden into looking into his fountain pen, which squirts ink in his eye.

He runs, with the warden hot on his heels, and encounters a thick fog again, sending him back to the present. The warden ends up coming with him, and he panics to see the modern world. He gets arrested by cops who believe him to be a madman, and the protagonist says nothing as he gets dragged off, thinking he got what he deserved. I appreciate that the twist in this story is a logical one, given what occurred, and that the warden’s fate mirrors what he did to his prisoners, making the justice at the end satisfying.

The next tale is also fairly clever. Linda is a teenage girl confined to a wheelchair, who lives her Uncle Ben and Aunt May — yes, like the Spider-Man characters, even though this seems to be a product of the fact that Lee reuses names a lot. Linda loves the ocean and spends most of her days on the beach, hunting for shells. May and Ben suffer from sleepwalking, and when they find Linda out of her bed on the floor, they suspect she is beginning to sleepwalk too.

One night Linda manages to make it into her wheelchair while sleepwalking, and goes down to the beach. The next morning, she is gone. May and Ben say it was inevitable, and it’s revealed that Linda was a mermaid all along.

Not long after this issue, Strange Tales would move away from this kind of short story and instead feature the Human Torch as its main attraction. A shame, really — I’d rather read this kind of sci-fi story than read about the Torch, who isn’t really one of my favorites. Of course, post-Spider-Man, there’s a much bigger market for brash teenage superheroes than for superhero-less sci-fi yarns.

Next time on Marvel Librarian! We see the unfocused mess that is the first run of The Incredible Hulk.