Prisoners of the Puppet Master: Fantastic Four #7-9

Welcome to Marvel Librarian. Having missed out on comics in my formative years, I’m reading Silver Age Marvel comics for the first time, and writing about their highs, lows, and general weirdness.

Humanity seems to turn on the Fantastic Four a lot, doesn’t it? So much so that they had this giant billboard with detailed pictures of their faces all ready to go.

First off, this onion-headed alien is a great design. It’s vaguely menacing and otherworldly without being over the top.

Secondly, if I had a Future Lazy Susan like that one, I’d never leave my couch.

Kurrgo delivers this issue’s exposition. He is the leader of Planet X, a planet whose technology levels are “a thousand years more advanced” than Earth’s, except in one area: space travel. Apparently their species had no interest in space travel, and only possess two working spaceships on the entire planet. This is a problem because there is currently an asteroid hurtling towards their planet, and they have no means to escape. Kurrgo decides to send one of the spaceships to Earth to capture the Fantastic Four, and have them solve the problem.

If their science really is a thousand years more advanced, it seems like they could come up with a better solution faster than anyone on Earth. They don’t need spaceships to evacuate everyone, they could come up with a way to use their one spaceship to destroy the asteroid, for example. However, I can kind of believe that Kurrgo here is just lazy enough that he wants to make this someone else’s problem.

Meanwhile, on Earth, Reed springs a sudden state dinner on the rest of the team. That’s extremely rude, and I’m fully on the side of the rest of the team here. Also, I’m sure that Sue’s objection is meant to be shallow, but it actually takes significant time and effort for a woman – especially a famous woman known for her fashion sense – to get prepared for a public event like this.

Johnny says that he hates public speaking, and if he’s forced to do it, he might get nervous enough to burst into flame, and honestly, who can’t relate?

Ben points out that he’ll either have to wear a full disguise or risk frightening everyone there, and if his disguise slips, he could cause a panic. Again, this is a pretty sympathetic fear to have. Sue notes that she’s also nervous to meet important people, and may vanish out of embarrassment.

Reed, you colossal asshole, way to completely invalidate your teammates’ feelings. At the very least, you’d think he could be sensitive to the fact that his old friend has a giant complex about his now-monstrous looks.

Or, I guess he could double down on his assholery. For context, Ben turned Johnny’s shower up to the highest heat, causing him to flame on and for the building to fill with steam.

Ben: The accident we were in permanently scarred me so that I’m no longer recognizable as human. Children on the street scream in terror when they see me. People flee at the sight of my face. I don’t want to go to a highly public dinner because I’m extremely insecure about this.

Reed: Yes, but have you considered that I’m being mildly inconvenienced?

Meanwhile, the ship from Planet X touches down on Earth and starts scanning for the Four.

Reed’s insistence that they absolutely all have to go becomes funnier when you see that it’s apparently a dinner to honor Reed. Also, that is one hideously gaudy trophy.

The Planet X alien ship uses a kind of hate ray to make everyone turn on each other, such as this woman who suddenly flips on her husband. What was she serving him, anyway? Ice cream? A big bowl o’ pink sauce?

The people at the banquet start denouncing and attacking the Four. Given the non-specific way the ray seems to work, you’d think the Four would also turn on each other, especially given how often they normally do that, but they stick together and escape as the military is sent after them. They fly back to the tower in the Fantasticar, pursued by the Planet X spaceship. The spaceship lands and sends out a robot.

Sue’s had enough of Reed’s shit. Also, is a portable TV receiver really something that would impress Reed? Maybe a normal person from the real life 1960s, but this technology is downright quaint compared to what the Four see on a daily basis.

The robot tells the Four that no place on Earth will be safe for them and describes how they might be captured. This plan for a radioactive armband for Sue seems like overkill considering you could also pretty simply just contain her in a prison cell for normal humans.

The robot offers asylum to the Four on Planet X in exchange for one favor. Ben believes that it’s a trap, but Reed decides to go along with it anyway out of curiosity. And, okay, I get it, but maybe clear it with the rest of the team first?

Along with labeled diagrams, fantastic future cities are the other kind of panel that I never want to pass up. Really cool perspective here, too.

So anyway, we’ve got a real Majora’s Mask situation here on Planet X. It’s less than twenty-four hours until the rogue planet impacts the surface. Kurrgo tasks the Four with either figuring out a solution to save the planet, or perishing alongside them. Ben and Johnny try to fight, but are thwarted.

I would criticize Kurrgo for waiting until there’s only a day left to go get help, but then I see how we deal with emergencies in real life, and I think, yeah, that sounds about right.

So anyway, Reed independently invents the reducing gas from Ant-Man. His plan is to shrink the entire population, load all of the microscopic people into the single spaceship available to them, and fly them off planet. Once they arrive on the new planet, they’ll use enlarging gas to return to their normal sizes.

And yeah, logistically this does not work. How could they possibly spread the reducing gas to all five billion people and get them to the ship in just a few hours? But it’s reasonably clever enough that I’m willing to go with it. At the very least, Reed’s solution saves a much larger portion of the population than would otherwise be rescued.

With their problem apparently solved, the Four are free to leave in the ship that got them there. You’d think they’d want to hang onto their only other spaceship, but okay.

With the Four gone, Kurrgo decides to keep all of the enlarging gas for himself. This way, he can rule over a tiny population with an iron fist. Of course, he is outdone by his greed: as he attempts to carry the large tank to the spaceship, he nearly gets killed by the planet breaking apart, and he misses the departing spaceship entirely.

Maybe I’m being too hard on Reed, but man, is he ever being an inconsiderate jerk here. Despite what he says, they didn’t properly consent to his plan when he straight up lied to them about it. And sure, you could argue that there wasn’t enough time and this was their best shot at survival anyway, but why not just tell them and let them make their own decisions.

Also, Reed says their size won’t matter because they’ll all be the same size, completely neglecting to think about the native flora and fauna of the planet where they’ll eventually land. They’ll be like insects at best. How do you expect them to effectively have agriculture? What if predators simply eat the bounty of tiny creatures? Again, maybe it was still their best option under the circumstances, but geez, Reed.

This is just a great cover. I love the Halloweenish color scheme, the perspective of the Four as puppets on a stage, and the incredibly creepy Puppet Master leering down at them from above.

Why is every other story during this era called “Prisoners of – insert villain’s name -“? The last story was called “Prisoners of Kurrgo.” Last week we had “Prisoner of the 5th Dimension” and “Prisoner of the Wizard.” And now “prisoner” doesn’t even look like a word.

At the beginning of this issue, Reed is keeping Ben out of his lab for reasons he won’t explain, and Ben’s fed up with it. If you’ve been reading these comics at all, it should be obvious that Reed’s working on another cure for Ben, but Ben doesn’t see it that way. He decides to leave the Four, again.

Seriously, though, Reed should just tell him. I get that he doesn’t want to get Ben’s hopes up, but Reed’s habit of never telling people things that he thinks they can’t handle is a horrible character flaw. I can totally get why Ben would be through with it.

“That’s why you treat me like Dracula’s brother” is a great turn of phrase.

As Ben argues with an invisible Sue on the street, some guys mock him for talking to himself, and Sue kicks their asses. The fun is cut short when they see a man on the Brooklyn Bridge, preparing to jump.

Me, reaching for snacks on the couch.

Johnny flies to save the man, realizing that he’s in a trance. It’s revealed that the man on the bridge is being controlled by a mysterious Puppet Master by means of a magical doll. As Johnny saves the man, the Puppet Master burns his hand on the doll, and he realizes what must have happened.

This is Alicia, the Puppet Master’s step-daughter, whom he seems to hate. We never see her mother, but this implies that someone voluntarily married the Puppet Master, which raises a lot of questions.

Alicia will go on to become a long-term recurring character / professional damsel in distress. Honestly, I kind of like the concept behind her character, and I keep wanting her to be written with more depth.

The secret to how the Puppet Master can control people is radioactive clay, because of course it is. I do appreciate that the Puppet Master is one of the first characters we’ve seen who has actually bothered to shield himself from radiation in any way.

The Puppet Master uses a puppet of the Thing to take control of Ben and force him to come to his lair. Sue notices Ben’s strange behavior and follows him, but she is discovered when Alicia, who is blind, hears her heartbeat.

The Puppet Master puts gas masks on himself, Alicia, and Ben, and fills the room with ether. So is Sue just standing around watching them while they put on gas masks? Apparently so.

The Puppet Master disguises Alicia as Sue using a costume and a wig, and explains to her that they’re going to play a prank. You know, the kind of prank that involves knocking someone out with ether and then disguising yourself as her. To be fair to Alicia, it’s implied that she’s been under Puppet Master’s abusive thumb for some time and is scared to question him.

Here we get the classic trope of the blind woman being able to see the true beauty behind the monstrous exterior.

Meanwhile, the Puppet Master stages a prison break by having a little puppet of the warden pull the prison keys out of his desk drawer in a miniature model of his office. I love how elaborate all of this is. I’m making a little tiny greenhouse model right now and I can just imagine Puppet Master building fiddly little wooden furniture.

Mind-controlled Ben, Alicia at his side, arrive at the Fantastic Four HQ. Ben fights with Reed and Johnny, but Reed tricks him into crashing into one of his tables. Ben’s doused with the formula Reed was working on, and turns back into his human self, which also breaks the Puppet Master’s spell.

At least Reed acknowledges here that Ben had a right to be mad at him.

I like Johnny’s reaction here.

Predictably, Ben changes back as soon as the chemical dries off him. The twist this time is that Alicia prefers him as the Thing. This begins a romantic relationship that will last off and on for many real world decades.

I like how this panel combines the Puppet Master’s manipulation of the jail break with the actual jail break.

Sue wakes up and tries to make a break for it. The Puppet Master trips her up using a doll he made of her, but not before she can launch the Fantastic Four signal flare. When the Four arrive, they’re confronted with this giant, monstrous puppet. I love the design here, with its oversized limbs and cartoonish pin-head.

What are Alicia and Reed doing here? This looks like it originally was supposed to have another word balloon that was excised.

The Four pretty easily stop the prison escape. Some of the convicts have seized automatic weapons. Reed using his elastic body to ricochet the bullets back at them, killing dozens just kidding, everyone’s fine.

Poor Alicia. You’d think the Four would have at least brought her to a safe house or something, somewhere where the Puppet Master couldn’t immediately find her.

The Puppet Master returns, of course, and this time he has a puppet of himself as King. He has an elaborate fantasy of how he’ll rule the world by making puppets of anyone who would oppose him. Honestly, in terms of rule-the-world schemes in Silver Age comics, this one rises to the level of “plausible.” He imagines having the Four pull him around on a litter.

Alicia decides to stand up to her evil step-father. She grabs for the puppet and they struggle. Alicia accidentally flings the puppet to the floor. Reaching for it, the Puppet Master trips over Alicia’s hand and falls out of the window, leaving it ambiguous as to whether his death was an accident, or if it was caused by the magic properties of the puppet. The Four arrive, and Ben comforts Alicia.

I really enjoyed this one! The Puppet Master has a great superpower and an impressively creepy design to boot. We have some good character dynamics, the introduction of Alicia, and some appropriately wacky action.

Bonus page! I bet Johnny’s bedroom smells great considering he has to hose it down with chemicals every day. Also, in an example of “comic book writers have no sense of scale,” Johnny can burn as hot as an exploding sun. Yeah, it’s a good thing he doesn’t try that one too often.

Everything about this is amazing.

This seems a bit more quaint now that “heroes deal with mundane life problems” is a staple of popular entertainment, but at the time stuff like this was very fresh. You didn’t see a lot of heroes having to pay rent or being evicted from their headquarters. Heroes having to deal with mundane problems is one of my very favorite sorts of superhero stories. It’s a great opportunity for creativity and character development.

How could they even afford five floors of rent in Manhattan in the first place? Especially given the dangerous experiments, missile silo, etc. wouldn’t it be better for them to have set up shop somewhere more remote with cheaper real estate? Most heroes that need to remain in the city are those that fight street crime directly, but the Fantastic Four are not that kind of hero team. Threats come to them more often than not.

Maybe they just liked the views.

In addition to being a lot of fun, the colors and framing of this cover are very eye-catching, with the setting sun and the Four surrounded by hostile people.

We return now to Namor’s swinging bachelor pad. When you’re the ruler of Atlantis, you can’t just have a chair and a TV; no, you have to sit on a big seashell and surround your TV with… seaweed?

Note the picture of Sue on his table just in case you forgot about that love triangle.

Anyway, you may be asking why the Fantastic Four are bankrupt. After all, they have both scientific genius and unique skills on their side, not to mention all of the discoveries they’ve made.

That’s right, Reed lost all of their money on the stock market.

If this comic were being written today, Reed would definitely be all-in on cryptocurrency.

The others offer to get jobs with their skills. Reed frames this as renting themselves out to a freak show, which… it really doesn’t have to be? There’s completely respectable jobs they could take? Hell, Reed, since this is your fault, why don’t YOU go get a job in a lab?

But no, their only options are apparently freak show or crime – or selling off all of their stuff, which is what they’re actually doing. That’s at least a reasonable way of dealing with the problem.

Ben sees a crew dismantling their plane, and flips out. He points out that they designed the plane and that no amount of money is worth selling it off. Y’know, if they designed the plane, wouldn’t it be more lucrative to just make more of them instead of selling the only one they have?

Ben totally has the right to chew you out for this, Reed, so you can hush up and take it.

Ben tries to hail a cab out of there, but the cab driver has heard the Four is flat broke and won’t even pick him up. He has to get Johnny to pick him up in the still-remaining Fantasticar so he can crash on his girlfriend’s couch.

Alicia, at least, seems to be doing pretty well for herself after the events of the last issue. She also enjoys making puppets and sculptures – non-evil ones, unlike her step-father. She calls Ben a white knight and says that he won’t abandon his friends in their time of need, which makes him ashamed of how he acted (even though I still really can’t blame him for yelling at Reed).

This is often Alicia’s contribution to the team (other than being a damsel in distress) – softening Ben’s rough edges.

Reed gets meta, with an extra dose of the creators patting themselves on the back for coming up with an original plot.

Just then, a mailman comes by with a message: a filmmaker is offering one million dollars if the Four agree to start in his movie. This is incredibly suspicious, but everyone’s so happy about their good fortune they don’t seem to consider that. The only problem is that Ben will never agree to it.

At least, not unless he’s had a sudden change of heart.

Okay, they do have one more problem: how are they going to make it to Hollywood when they’re so broke even a taxi driver won’t pick them up?

Well, it’s the 60s, so hitchhiking is still a thing.

I love how much fun they’re having with the concept of the Four being broke.

The gang arrives in Hollywood. I’m assuming that some of the faces seen on the next few pages are caricatures of Hollywood stars, but I’m not well-versed in movie stars of the 60s so I’m not even going to try to guess. The Western costumes are definitely a sign of the times.

The producer’s office is filled with midcentury decadence. I love everything about the decor here.

But who could this mysterious benefactor be?

YES. AMAZING. I love everything about this issue.

Namor explains that money is nothing to him, because all of the wealth of the sea is his, as well as all of the treasures from shipwrecks.

I just love that his plan to defeat the Four is this convoluted scheme to buy a movie studio and trick them into thinking he’s making a movie of them. It fits perfectly with the character that he doesn’t just want to defeat the Four, but totally humiliate them first.

With their new wealth, the Four aren’t really focused on, say, paying off their debts or restoring all the things they had to sell off. Instead, they’re living it up in Hollywood. Apparently, they’re all bad with money, not just Reed.

Johnny buys a fancy sports car and uses it to attract the ladies. This stunt with paving the road with his fire seems like it’d end up with melted tires. Meanwhile, Ben is trying to relax on the beach, but he keeps getting disturbed by posing musclemen.

Sue goes on a fancy date with Namor. That dress is just stunning.

Have we seen her go out on a date with Reed yet? It’s kind of weird that Namor is the only one of the two who actually seems interested in romancing her, but I guess that helps sell the angle of why she’d even consider a guy who wants to kill all surface dwellers.

To her credit, Sue asks the obvious question of why Namor is doing all this. He is evasive.

They start “filming.” Reed Richards, scientific genius, actually falls for this incredibly obvious trap.

“My archenemy wants me to go alone onto an island to fight a robotic monster so he can film it. Sounds simple enough.” — Reed Richards

WHO COULD POSSIBLY HAVE SEEN IT COMING

Anyway, Reed defeats the Cyclops pretty easily, first by using his stretchy body to slingshot a rock at it, and then by stretching himself across two rocks and tripping it into a hole.

Next up is Johnny. He is sent alone to an island where he’s supposed to do a pretend battle with natives. To be honest, I was kind of reluctant to screenshot any of this. The “natives” are exactly the sorts of caricatures you might imagine would exist in a comic from the 60s. There’s no excusing these racist depictions.

Anyway, the natives have a potion that makes them immune to fire. They capture Johnny, but he breaks free and sets off a nearby volcano. The caption helpfully tells us that the volcano somehow destroyed the natives’ potions without killing any of them, so that Johnny isn’t a genocidal maniac.

It’s unclear why the natives were even fighting Johnny in the first place. Unfortunately, it just seems to be a given that a native tribe would attack a stranger on sight for no reason.

The plan for Ben is more straightforward. Namor takes Ben to a beach and then straight up fights him, man-to-man, with no real pretense of anything else. Ben realizes that he’ll never beat Namor as long as they’re in the water, and drags him away, nearly defeating him. However, Ben suddenly changes back into his human form for no reason whatsoever, and Namor easily knocks him out.

You’ve probably guessed Namor’s plan for Sue.

Hell of a marriage proposal, Namor.

Sue implies that she actually would have considered it if it weren’t for the whole “leave my friends to die” part.

Never trust a man who calls women “females.”

There’s some gross stuff here about how Namor likes it when she fights and struggles, before she’s rescued by the rest of the Four barging in. Ben is back to being the Thing again, of course.

I… what? The Four gang up on villains all the time, in almost every issue. That’s why they are a team. What is Sue even talking about, other than a flimsy excuse to protect the guy who, minutes before, was forcing himself on her?

Y’know I’m pretty sure Doctor Doom and the various aliens you fight also live by a different “code,” but you don’t just let them get away with trying to murder you.

Also, that’s not love. That’s lust at best and stalkerish obsession at worst.

The narration tells us that Namor actually makes the movie using the footage he got of the Fantastic Four, which is kind of amazing. What would that movie even look like?

It might be better than the Fantastic Four movies we’ve gotten in the real world. Maybe Kevin Feige should take this as inspiration for the FF’s introduction into the MCU.

We get a bonus page of the Human Torch explaining how he flies. By comic book standards, the physics here is at least plausible.

You can tell that Lee and Kirby were pouring their heart and soul into this comic over some of the other issues coming out around the same time. The premise is a hoot, and they really make the most of it.

Next time on Marvel Librarian! Ant-Man battles Eggman! No, not Dr. Robotnik.