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A Fantastic Chore

Allen Christian reads through every Fantastic Four comic book ever and has way too much to say about them.

A Fantastic Chore: Year 2, Part 1

Allen Christian

Welcome back, True Believers. It's time to dig into another full year of the Fantastic Four. Well, I guess it's actually time to dig into a third of a year of Fantastic Four (I'll be breaking this one up into three parts), but I'm treating this as an intro for Year 2 in its entirety. Year 2 his a pretty important year for the magazine. Really the first five or six years are what shape this book, and pretty much the best it ever gets. But Year 2 holds some pretty special events. Primarily, after that atrocious Planet X story in the last issue, we've finally put the monster comic elements to bed. For the next year, this actually feels a lot like a superhero comic. That might sound a bit obvious, but I don't personally consider Fantastic Four to be a superhero book. Sure, they have super powers, but this is a sci-fi adventure magazine. There's a fair amount of that in Year 2 as well. Truthfully, I think years 2-3 are both pretty similar, without being stagnant. There are clearly things shaping up in the book. Ideas are taken and passed over again and again. The quickly rotating villains might seem repetitive at first glance, but they're really just building on ideas more and more with every pass. If this sounds tedious, I'm not here to tell you that it isn't. But the formative nature of years 2-3 are undeniable, and you'll be glad they get to where they get to. Lets go ahead and jump into the books.

 

Fantastic Four #8 (Nov. 1962)

While, yes, you can call the Mole Man and the Miracle Man from our previous year "super villains," and they do recur throughout the series (though I believe Lee and Kirby are done with Miracle Man and likely never intended to use him again, either Roy Thomas or Gerry Conway fully display their lack of imagination when they bring him back to terrorize some Native Americans in about 150 issues or so), the only original character really worth that title in our first year was Doctor Doom. Namor doesn't count, he's an old anti-hero that debuted in 1939. But here, we get our next continuous supervillain who will stick around for the entire history of the FF. Enter, the Puppet Master!

This issue starts off with Reed in the lab tending an experiment. Ben comes home and wants to take a peek at what Reed is doing, but Reed has Sue and Johnny shoo him away. That pisses Ben off and he scuffles with the Torch. Reed tries to explain, but Ben takes off anyway, stating that he's done with this outfit. Then, per the suggestion of Reed Richards, Sue turns invisible to follow Ben. He doesn't suggest she turn invisible so that Ben can't see her following. That would make too much sense. No, he suggest she turn invisible because her "costume would attract too much attention." This only serves to draw more attention to Ben, as a big orange monster having a conversation with an invisible person is slightly out of the ordinary. Fuck Reed Richards. While Sue is trying to convince Ben to come back, they spot a man climbing a bridge to jump off. We see in a word balloon that the man does not know why he's doing this, that some outside force is compelling him. Since neither Sue nor Ben can do anything useful in this situation, they instead opt to use a signal flare. Reed and Johnny see, but Reed can't reach the man, so Johnny flies off to save him. Save him he does, as we cut to a strange little bald man playing with a model set of the bridge and the man. The bald man gets his finger burnt as Torch saves the man. If you haven't guessed, this bald weirdo with creepy eyes is the Puppet Master!

Phillip Masters is a strange little man, and is probably one of the most visually unsettling villains in the history of comics. This dude ain't cool. He's little just creepy. Like, a dude that looks like this couldn't just not be a criminal in some way. As part 2 opens, we see him with his blind step-daughter, Alicia. That's right, this is the introduction of the Thing's long-time girlfriend, Alicia Masters. Now, Alicia is his step-daughter, which he repeatedly emphasizes when she calls him her father, but she also has his last name, which implies that, at some point, Phillip adopted her, making her his legal daughter, even if they share no blood. But Phillip Masters is a fucking idiot, as this and every other subsequent appearance of the Puppet Master will prove. So this weird little man has radioactive clay that will control whoever the clay is formed to look like. Look, I'm with you on this. Yawn. Was this idea dumb and cliche in 1962? Maybe not. Is it now? Absolutely. But let's press on. 

So ol' Pups uses some of this magic clay (I think it is actually later called magic clay, because subsequent writers didn't just take the three or four science terms they heard in anti-communist propaganda ["nuclear," "atomic," "radiation," radioactive"] and make them catch-alls for any convenient science beat. Stan Lee is a joke.) and he carves a little statue of the Thing. He uses that statue to bring Ben to his apartment, but Sue follows. Alicia is able to tell that Sue is there, because she's pretty much Daredevil. Luckily, Pups has a convenient ether panel installed into the wall of his apartment, so her gives everyone else gas masks and knocks Sue out. Then, inexplicably (I use this term a lot, but it's true every time, and I have a poor vocabulary), Sue apparently looks exactly like Alicia in the face, so Pups dresses Alicia up like Sue and sends her and Thing to the Baxter Building, while he works on his play set of the local prison, having the guards release the prisoners for... reasons. Crime reasons. Ben and Alicia bust up into the Baxter Building and Ben attacks Reed. Reed lures him to the chemicals that will change him back human (the secret thing he was working on), and Pups loses control, since his puppet no longer looks like Ben. They finally realize that Alicia isn't Sue, and Alicia loves up on Ben as Reed Richards fails for to change Ben back for the first of many thousands of times. 

Prisoners are now free, but Sue manages to shoot off another flare to bring the FF to Pups's hideout. They come, there's a big robot, they fight him. They go after Pups, who absconds with Sue on his "greatest puppet of all," a winged flying horse. Life-sized. And it works. I don't think I understand this clay anymore. Reed grabs Sue with his stretch hand, and PM flies off. Conveniently, the radio is on to reveal the prison break, so the FF go fix that. It takes several pages, but it's boring so let's move on. The book ends when Puppy Man reveals his "greatest puppet of all," so I guess he lied about the horse. This puppet is of him! In a regal robe and crown.  This puppet couldn't possibly serve any purpose at all. He's an idiot. It's not like dressing in in this regalia is going to make him a king. But he reveals that he now has the power to rule the world, and we get a sequence showing his really lame fantasies about of ruling the world. Alicia tries to take the puppet, but he knocks her down, flinging the puppet in the process. Alicia reaches for it, and in his haste, Puppet Master trips over her arm and goes hurtling out the window. He clearly dies. They are very high up. Whatever. The Fantastic Four burst in just in time for Thing to comfort Alicia. "What made the Puppet Master fall?" Sue asks. "I wonder if we'll ever really know?" Reed replies, with an unnecessary question mark, as we see the fallen puppet at his feet. We end with a feature page on how the Torch's powers work. 

I've mocked it a bit, but really, this is the first well paced issue. The ending comes naturally and isn't shoved into the last three or for panels, and it's a fun story. Yeah, it's definitely stupid, but it's not the stupidest story we've read so far, or that we'll read this week.  So let's just enjoy it for a minute.

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Fantastic Four #9 (Dec. 1962)

Oh my god, you guys, this is both the best and the absolute stupidest issue we're going to cover this week. We start off with Amor watching his underwater TV where it is BREAKING NEWS! that the Fantastic Four are now broke. He finds that interesting. FORESHADOWING! We catch up with the Four and Reed is distraught because it's all his fault, because of course it is. He invested all of their money in failing stocks. Idiot. He shoves off bill collectors in the first panel of the page, one of which is asking for this month's rent. Odd, because we already knew Reed owned the building, which he reiterates when he says they have to sell the building on the last panel of the same page. Maybe he has a storage unit. The other three volunteer to monetize their powers, but Reed refuses to let them sell themselves to freak shows just because he lost all their money. Wow, Reed is actually caring about other people. Don't get used to it. Thing gives him a bunch of shit for being a shitty manager (rightfully so) before cutting out to go see Alicia. The Four receive a letter from "S.M. Studios" for one million dollars in cash to make a film. Thing shows up and they all agree to do it. Only problem is, they have no money to get to Hollywood, so we see the Fabulous FF out on the freeway hitchin' for a ride. They make it, and we get some Hollywood caricatures throughout that Kirby seems to be having a good time with, but I'm not sure I even get most of the references. Anyway, we find out that the head of "S.M. Studios" is, of course, Namor, the Submariner. He gives them a ton of money and they all go live it up. Sue goes to dinner with the Submariner and wonders why he's being so generous. He responds that he'll let her know after the picture is finished.

Okay, remember when I said we were done with the monster comics? Well, I might have lied a little. The first day of "filming," Reed is sent to an actual island guarded by an actual cyclops. He defeats him by tripping him into a pit. Johnny, who wonders how this movie is being produced with no script, is dropped into a village of "savages," which is about as insensitive as that sounds. These unnamed natives of an unnamed land can't be hurt by fire and they want to cook and eat Johnny. He busts out and kills them all by causing a volcano to erupt. Wonderful. Ben's "scene" is a fight with Namor. They're on the shore of the ocean, so Namor whips Thing's ass pretty handily. For no real reason, Ben turns back human just in time for Namor to deliver the final blow. Now Namor goes back to Sue, tells her he defeated the others, then asks her to marry him. Sue rejects him because of his deception and they have an altercation. The rest of the FF shows up as Namor finally gains the upper hand, and they try to beat his ass. Sue stops them, saying they've "never ganged up on anyone before," which isn't even true in issue #9. Sue says that they lived up to their part of the bargain and Namor promises the movie will be produced and that they will get their money before walking off into the sea. Sue states that "Whatever he did-- he did for-- Love!" Okay, whatever. In the final panel we see that, again I say, inexplicably, the movie was produced.(Out of just those shots? Were there shots? Were they not just traps?) Not only was the movie produced, it's a huge hit and the FF are now rich celebrities. Great.

Yes, this is really stupid, but it's also a really good time, and my favorite Namor appearance so far. Maybe by far. We end with a feature page showing how the Torch flies. It's not very cool. The letters page features a letter by Paul Gambaccini, who was an American that went on to be a top broadcaster in the UK. He has nothing good to say about any of the FF run so far.

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Fantastic Four #10 (Jan. 1963) 

 Oh my god guys, this is my favorite. Of all the early, silly issues of the FF, this one takes the cake. The quick synopsis is that Doctor Doom manages to swap bodies with Reed Richards. Ridiculous as that sounds, it is easily the most sensible and serious thing in this comic. Before we get into the, one of the most noteworthy things here is that this is the first issue, and maybe one of the first comics, where we get actual credits for who did what on a comic book. Sure, we’ve had lines before, and both Stan and Jack had there names signed at the beginning of every chapter in previous issues of FF, but this is the first, honest-to-god credit line, at least in a Marvel comic. However, this mixes me up a bit, as the listed inker is Dick Ayers. While I’m certain this is true, Ayers has credit on as inker on several books before this, according to Marvel Unlimited. I can only imagine he did covers, while the also-credited George Klein and Christopher Rule handled interior work, because the enteriors here are so strikingly different than the book has been before.

Fantastic Four #10 is genuinely funny, and I think it was meant to be. It’s hard to tell in these early issues, but it’s easy to believe this was devised to be more of a comedy issue. Both Stan and Jack were funny guys. But the levels of ridiculousness here aren’t too far off base from the issues that you can tell weren’t supposed to be so ridiculous. Let’s start with the first panel:

Cracks me up

Cracks me up

Oh my god, Stan, start reading some scientific periodicals, for Christ’s sake. “Radioactive film”? Fuck you. The Torch making the room too hot because he forgot to flame off is gold. So right off the bat everything is silly. Right after this, they see a 4 flare outside the window. They have to puzzle out that it must be the Thing, since he’s the only one that isn’t there. These people are dumb. Even Reed. Then, they can’t get out the building because the “nuclear locking mechanism” on their big door is stuck. Again and again, fuck Stan Lee. “Nuclear locking mechanism.” What even is that supposed to be, other than something that makes your door radioactive. Reed stops Johnny from burning through the door because of how sensitive a nuclear locking mechanism is to heat. We get a dumb sequence of Reed stretching through the building, trying to get the Fantasticar to fly out and up to their window. I’m not even going to pretend I understand why that’s a thing. He fails, because his plan was stupid, and Johnny once again attempts to burn through the door. This time, without heat. What? I’m not sure how much longer I can go on critically analyzing Stan Lee’s complete lack of any scientific knowledge. It works, I guess, and they manage to get out. Down on the street, Johnny nearly inflicts severe burns on a small crowd of people, Reed is flocked by admirers and wriggles away. Gross. Sue is accosted by a creepy man who looks like he’s trying to hug her and asks for a smile. She turns invisible and calls the man repulsive. Whoa. Stan handled a woman reasonably and denigrated a creep. Wild. That good will is immediately undone when Sue is once again shown to be incredibly stupid, as she darts out into traffic, forgetting she just turned invisible. She turns visible as she’s almost hit, and the guy wrecks into a fire hydrant.

Cool. We're up to page 4 now. Thing actually sent out the flare because he wanted everyone to see the little statues Alicia made of the FF's previous foes. They aren't out of the magic clay or anything. They're just pretty cool statues. Sue is a little upset that Namor is among them, which prompts Reed to refer to what was apparently an engagement as "an understanding." Which, I guess is an apt descriptor, but Reed sucks. Sue doesn't want to hear is and Johnny is glad to not have such mushy stuff to deal with.

Next, we get a bizarre sequence where Doctor Doom visits Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Thought Grant Morrison's ending to his run on Animal Man was innovative? Whatever, here's the guys that make the comic getting threatened by the supervillain. Doom has Lee call Mr. Fantastic in to discuss plots for the comic book. When he arrives, Doom gases him and kidnaps him. Thought Doom died out in space?! You're in for the worst surprise. We get a page or so about how he was rescued from his asteroid by blue jean wearing aliens who swap into new bodies when they die. Thank god that was covered. Otherwise, I'm not sure how I could have believed in Doom's capabilities to pull of the main plot of this issue. Dramatic speech, dramatic speech, bodies are swapped, Doom-as-Reed beats up Reed-as-Doom, the rest of the FF show up and pile on. Ben and Johnny come up with really boring ways to imprison Reed-as-Doom, but Doom-as-Reed just throws him in a bubble cell with limited oxygen. When the next chapter opens up, we see a bunch of small animals fleeing Reed's lab. Curiously, Thing is also holding a newspaper with a headline about animals being stolen from the zoo. Thing gives him shit for being a lawbreaker, then Reed let's him know that he did it to test the reducing ray, which he wants to use on them. He tricks these dopes into letting him with maybe the two greatest panels in all of comics:

Cracks me up

Cracks me up

He then explains that in shrinking the others down, they would maintain their same powers at a smaller size, so that when he enlarges them again, their powers would be proportionately stronger. It's stupid, but hey, these three are stupid. They jump at the chance. Instead of going ahead and doing it, Doom leaves enough chance for his whole plan to fuck up. Reed-as-Doom goes to visit Alicia, presumably to try to explain what happened, but Sue happened to be there and knocks him out. She calls the others. Ben tries to pulverize Reed-as-Doom, but can't. They take him back to the Baxter Building and he interrupts Doom's plans to use the reducing ray. Johnny and Ben just now notice that Reed doesn't sound like Reed, and Johnny decides to create a "heat mirage" from dynamite being used down on the street. Whatever. Reed-as-Doom jumps on it, while Doom-as-Reed tries to escape through pipes. The jig is up. That the FF learned of the swap somehow magically reverse the swap. Okay. A scuffle ensues and Doom accidentally activates the reducing ray, shrinking himself to a sub-atomic level. We get a Sue pin-up and an uneventful letters page and we're out.

I love this one, you guys. It cracks me up. It's a really funny book. And that's one thing that people miss about this book very often. It's often supposed to be funny. In fairness, it's easy to miss, because quite often it's funny without trying to be, and it's also occasionally just bad. This book is uneven, folks. But that's the name of the game. You want issue after issue of heavy hitters, comics that are undeniably good? Go read Lee-Ditko Spider-Man. You want comics that are often goofy, occasionally bad, but twist, shape, expand, and even transcend the medium, and the science fiction genre in general? That's what we're here for. Let's do another.

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Fantastic Four #11 (Feb. 1963)

Well, this is certainly an issue. First of all, the most important thing to address is that I'm fairly certain this is the first full issue where we can see that The Thing is discernibly made of rock. It's been hinted at in some of the artwork previously, but I think it's become very apparent here, and we see this beginnings of his signature brow-ridge as well. There are actually two "stories" in this one. The first, we see that the Fantastic Four are genuine celebrities. It opens as they stroll down to the newsstand to pick up the latest issue of their comic. The stands are packed and people are grabbing up the issues, so they decide to come back later. You'd think they'd get a comp copy, but whatever. They see some kids playing at being the FF on the street. They stop for a moment to suck all the fun out of it. They go back to the Baxter Building, and are greeted by postman Willie Lumpkin, come to bring them a huge, heavy bag of fan mail. He's not happy about it. They FF bring the mail upstairs to read it. Thing gets a boxing glove punch to the face from a package sent by the Yancy Street Gang, then Reed shoves a serum on him out of nowhere, and Ben turns normal again just long enough to get us through a couple bits. Johnny leaves to go down to the garage. Reed and Ben reminisce about college and being in World War 2, then we get a slightly altered version of the FF origin, before we find out that people have been sending in letters about how useless Sue is. Instead of doing anything to actually address this very valid criticism, we get this:

ff11.1.png

Rad. Reed then goes on to detail the once or twice Sue has been useful as a character before Ben starts to change back to the Thing. Sue snaps out of her sadness to try to comfort the thing. And alarm goes off, so they go check the spaceship they got in the shitty Planet X issue. Johnny's inside with a cake for Sue. It's her birthday! Happy Birthday, Sue, from all of us at FourColorFilm.com. That wraps "story" #1. Let's get on to #2, which I'm not sure qualifies as a story anymore than this one did.

As seen on the cover, this antagonist of this issue is the Impossible Man. If it sounded like I was down on it a second ago, I'm really not. This is a breezy story, and it's a good deal of fun. The Impossible Man is pretty much to the FF what Bat-Mite is to Batman or Mr. Mxyzptlk is to Superman. He's nutty, he can turn himself into anything, and he's just trying to have a good time. He accidentally robs a bank because he can and he's pretty sure he'll need this "cash" while he's here. He goes around causing all sorts of chaos before the FF come to investigate. They find him eating in a restaurant and try to confront him. He tells the story about how he's just like everyone from planet Poppup. He continues to cause mischief, and the FF and the army tangle with him, to no avail. Eventually, Reed Richards decides that the best course of action is to simply ignore the Impossible Man. This mandate is spread around the world, and everyone ignores him until he gets bored and leaves.  We get a pin-up of Namor and we're out. This is a great issue. It's a silly good time and I love it.

I feel like that's the theme of all of the issues in this post. They're all ridiculously silly, but they all seem to want to be that way. Yet this isn't a spoof book. It's just Lee and Kirby having a good time with it. I enjoy these issues tremendously. The next eight this year are wildly uneven, and occasionally dip into the completely boring, unfortunately, but when they're on, they're far more on than anything we've seen thus far. So be back tomorrow as I take a look at issues #12-15, and Monday as I take us through #16-19, plus Fantastic Four Annual #1! It'll be a time!