Oct 18, 2017

Fear, Guilt, and Anxiety: The First Year of the Fantastic Four

The first twelve issues of Fantastic Four stretch from horror to farce, body dysmorphia to power fantasy. It was a freaky book, released in a heady time, and our memories of it now, our received idea of the early issues, they’re often so off the mark that many people are convinced it was The Incredibles or Harvey Birdman. The first year of the FF was sick, weird, silly, middle-aged avant-garde.

Fear, Guilt, and Anxiety:
The First Year of the Fantastic Four
Travis Hedge Coke

That first issue has many potentially true origins. There is a pitch ostensibly by Stan Lee, which, if believed, promoted a far darker comic than we got, wherein Susan Storm was not merely inconvenienced by periodically uncontrollable invisibility, but constantly invisible and forced to wear a fake face, a mask and wig at all times, flesh-toned gloves. There is evidence, in the amount of paste up and collaging, that the first story may have been a mash of two or more distinct tales. Maybe, the publisher wanted a title to compete with National’s renewed interest (and success) with superheroes. What we got was freaky, bastard-strong, unpredictable, and exciting.

The “World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” above the title wasn’t only hyperbole or sell, it was a punk FU in a pre-punk world.

FF #1

In the opening eight pages of their first tale, the Fantastic Four aren’t cool, they’re not admired, they’re not funny or chummy or daring. They’re scary. People are frightened. They’re causing public damage simply by existing, by walking down the street or receiving bad news. They break stuff. They terrify people. Cab drivers, clothing store clerks, police, the United States Army. All terrified. And, deservedly so.

Yes, these four freaks will come to fight monsters who are deliberately attacking people; bigger, scarier monsters, maybe. But, this is not superhero versus monster. This is monster versus monster. This is throwing two sets of horror show creepies at one another and may the smartest set win.

The Four aren’t superheroes. They’re a response team for horrors. There’s no costumes. No heroics. Ben very quickly tells Reed to can it, when Reed tries to make a traditional superhero speech. They go to Monster Island to discover the root of a monster problem and stop it.

FF #2

It’s bad enough you’re invisible or a rock monster, that you burn things when you get excited or accidentally tear the door off a car because you got frustrated with the latch. Now, there are shape-shifting aliens specifically in conspiracy to mess with your life? What’d you do to them? Why you?

That’s the drive of the second issue, opening with four straight pages of these ring-eyed green aliens ruining the already tenuous reputation of our beloved Four. Getting them declared public enemies, setting them up to be hunted and despised. And, do the FF run out and make a press announcement? Do they suit up and punch the aliens? Nah, they hide out in a shack and Johnny, the youngest, comes packing. They’re on the run for their lives and that’s what’s going to get them through. A pipe; sunglasses; a rifle.

Then, they get arrested, escape, threaten each other, sneak up on the aliens, beat them up, and then defraud their masters on the mothership. So far, the most superheroic things the FF have done are surviving an earthquake and lying to aliens.

FF #3

Three issues in, they get costumes. A special vehicle. Headquarters.

But, the villain, the Miracle Man, is almost note-perfect, the terror of the 1970 cinematic bloodbath, The Wizard of Gore. Same look. Same powers. The Miracle Man is simply (exceptionally) less gory about it. Through chapters like, “The Flame That Died” and “In the Shadow of Defeat”, the FF are outshone by their enemy, mocked as frauds, belittled and threatened. The threats are not physical feats, but conviction. Belief. The Miracle Man hypnotizes people into believing he has incredible strength, into seeing giant monsters, into believing they are his slaves, completely under his control.

FF # 4

At the end of the previous issue, Johnny, fed up with the adult members of his group, has run away, and his now living in a shelter, hiding out a friend’s auto shop. We’re four issues in, and we’ve gone from giant monsters and alien imposters to the story of a teenaged runaway… who, when one of the adults find him, is threatened with being smashed under a car held overhead. The FF can’t stop breaking things or threatening people.

Four issues about losing yourself, losing your identity, your good name, losing hope. And, in the flophouse, Johnny discovers an amnesiac bum is… Namor, the Sub-Mariner, Prince of Atlantis, hero of WW2! Who, getting his memory back, his identity back, immediately declares war and brings on the giant monsters because, darn it! this is gonna be a giant monster book.

FF #5

Doom! Dr Doom! They have to be superheroes now, right?

They are kidnapping victims, hostages, pretend pirates, actual thieves, and they absolutely lose their fight with Doom, except inasmuch as they do escape his clutches with their lives.

It’s an awesome comic, but the opening illustration of Dr Doom with his Demons and Science and Sorcery books and his blood-red-headed vulture say it all.

FF #6

Doom and Namor! That’s how you keep things alive, half a year in. There’s more smiling in the book — Reed smiles! Namor! — and more grand relaxing - Johnny and Ben read hate mail for a laugh; Namor is the king of leaning back in his chair. But, the comic also starts throwing us for a visual loop. Panels draw our eyes up and down like tracking a game of table tennis. When the Baxter Building is lifted high above Manhattan, we look down on characters staring up out a window towards us, as jet planes zip below them, between miles of sky and the city dangerously, crazily far below. When Reed stretches far to grab Johnny and prevent his lethal descent, the Earth has receded so far it is only a tiny blue and green ball.

Even with a couple grins and gags, the comic insists on tales, not of humor or adventure, but anxiety. The heroes hate themselves, more often than not, and their allies, and the enemies who hate them even more, except when it’s Namor and he’s trying to sleep with one of them.

FF #7

What if aliens made us all assholes? Kurrgo of Planet X has a hostility ray that does just that, turning society upside down by removing our basic and our manufactured decency. Strangers assault one another in the street, a wife slams a hot dinner over her husband’s head, and once again, someone in power declares the Fantastic Four are a threat to the land.

FF #8

This issue introduces one of the longest-standing supporting FF characters, a romantic link for two of the FF and a dead ringer for another. But, that cover! That ain’t no romance cover. It’s not a superhero cover. That’s horror, baby. That cover is why early Fantastic Four is every sound clip in every Rob Zombie song you could ever hear.

The villain, the Puppet-Master, is making a guy commit suicide at the beginning of the issue, just ‘cause. The lulz. And, when Johnny and the FF stop him, he decides he’ll mess with them next. That’s the sort of comic that Fantastic Four really was, back then. It’s the book where, do a good deed, some psycho murderer starts destroying your life. And, he’ll dress up his blind daughter like your sister to do it.

Eight issues in, and identity hasn’t stopped being under attack once. There is no sanctity of self. There is no surety in identity or identification. And, everyone wants to hurt you, or even if they don’t, they will given the chance.

FF #9

The Fantastic Four get evicted on the cover! They are so broke, they’re selling their stuff and they are going to have to take straight jobs. Show of hands: Who thinks Superman or Batman got evicted ever before this?

And, like a true nightmare, they get their jobs, working for a movie mogul, who turns out to be Prince Namor. In a pinstripe suit, loaded with cash, smoking from a cigarette holder. Namor can’t just make money off them, either, he’s got to try to murder them as well. So, he’s taking this Hollywood producer schtick all the way.

Like Godzilla in so many movies, Namor, at the end, just walks back into the sea. No punishment. No gain. Namor just leaves and the FF have enough money to not lose their home.

FF #10

The FF haven’t begun to plumb the depths of weird, yet, as they introduce the writer and artist on the cover, making a shocking announcement for the readers. And, Reed’s all evil. What?

What’d I say, up above? You can’t trust anybody. They’re all jerks. Or, can be turned into jerks.

Dr Doom comes to the Marvel offices and threatened the makers of the comic, before he swaps bodies with Reed. Of course, the FF trust the face, not the person, as most of us normally would. Doom, as Reed, proceeds to lie to his apparent teammates, manipulating them into dangerous scenarios. Evil smart guy with the face and voice of your boyfriend? Your best friend? Father figure?

FF #11

Serious-looking cover? Check. Our first almost entirely comedy issue? Oh, yes, check.

I love both of this issue’s stories.

“A Visit With the Fantastic Four” is the FF seeing their fame up close. Kids imitating them in the street. People buying their comic. Fan letters. Ben gets a prank present that punches him in the face, and Sue gets some hate mail, but they handle it with aplomb. They also compare Sue, who so far has been fairly handy in actual fights, to Abraham Lincoln’s mom, but they mean it in a good way. And, the art shows her kicking ass while they say it, so basically, conflict between dialoguer and artist/probable-plotter.

The main tale, “The Impossible Man” is a straight gag run. Impossy is a pointy-headed green alien who can be or do whatever he seems to want. He comes from the planet Popup and he just wants to have a good time and be noticed. He turns to steel, eats watermelon, turns to flowers, eats cake, flies around and makes bad jokes. And, the FF are stuck with him until he leaves. Which, they accomplish by simply and aggressively ignoring his antics until he’s bored and goes.

FF #12

Having gone from thriller to horror to drama to farce over a dozen issues, they cap off the last year with a guest appearance by the Incredible Hulk and open by having the FF, once again, attacked by law enforcement because of something someone else did. They are famous now, though, and they have some money, and Ben has a girlfriend. Things are way better than they were in the first issue, or even six issues ago.

But, there’s a Hulk on the rampage, and they’ve got to stop him. We’re almost, genuinely, to superhero territory here. They’re going to put on costumes and fight for truth, justice, and the American way. It even goes the extra mile, when we and they learn… the Hulk is not the threat! The real threat is Soviet communism. (Isn’t it just always, though?) They still have to physically fight the Hulk, but they have to beat back communism and the international enemies of America. Ends with a salute and everything.

And, that’s that. That’s the arc done. They spent twelve issues largely upset, anxious, doubting themselves and being doubted by the public, attacked by law enforcement, blocked at every turn, constantly impersonated and maligned, and occasionally beating each other up or running away to live on the streets. Greatest Comics Magazine. The Fantastic Four.

1 comment:

DJ.N said...

This is a great post. I've gone Kirby-krazy over the past four months, and I've got both the Thor and Hulk Essentials Vol. 1s. It's astounding to me, the difference from where the characters started to the cultural assumptions about who they are now. Such a vast difference. They really let the concept find its own rhythm by experimenting. Good work, Travis. Thanks. Now I want to get FF vol. 1!

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