Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fantastic Four - 1965

I happened to start looking at issues of the FF in 1965 a few weeks. I chose an issue (#36, the Frightful Four's first appearance) which someone swiped from me not long after I bought it. I've been reading issues forward and back from there and it turns out that this year was a watershed for Marvel. I realized at the time that the comics seemed to be getting better but I was only ten at the time. With lots more years or perspective I can see how this year changed comic books.

Several elements of Marvel were in place from the beginning. Stan Lee placed the characters in real cities and had them interact with the real world in ways that other superheros didn't do. For example, in issue #35, the Yancy Street Gang sent the Thing a Beatles wig. After brawling with the Torch over it, he admitted that he liked it and tried it on. The plot involved a billionaire who bet his rivals that he could destroy the Fantastic Four. His plot fell apart because his son was a fan (at one point he showed his father his Fantastic Four "magazines") and got caught in the trap that was supposed to eliminate the FF. The Billionaire repented while the Thing wondered how he would look in the Thing's Beatles wig. Between being self-referential and pop-culture references, it was the sort of story that gave Marvel its initial splash.

On the other hand, issues had a certain sameness. A typical FF comic started with a couple of pages of the FF then introduced (or reintroduced) the villain and set up for the fight. The fight itself was rather fast with a quick resolution in the last page or two.

This wasn't a formula as much as a convention. The assumption was that each issue should stand on its own in order to attract new readers. Accordingly, the heroes and villains were reintroduced every issue and plots seldom took more than a single comic.

I recently wrote about the Return of the Frightful Four. This is when things changed. This issue itself was typical enough except it ended on a cliffhanger - the FF were caught in a Q-bomb explosion and left floating in the open ocean.

The next issue picked up from there. A US navy sub rescued the FF. after a couple of pages of dancing around it, the four admitted that they had lost their powers (radiation giveth, radiation taketh away). Worried that they would be unable to defend themselves, Reed started trying to duplicate their powers with special suits. He also consulted with their attorney to be sure that his will was in order.

In the Marvel universe, every one's attorney is Matt Murdock who is also Daredevil.

In the meantime, Doctor Doom realized that he had been tricked in his last encounter with the FF and attacked the Baxter Building. It was empty but he took over Richards' equipment and located the FF in a warehouse. He then used Richards' own weapons to attack the powerless FF. They were aided by Daredevil.

This story took two issues with the FF finally reaching the Baxter Building in the second issue. While Daredevil distracted Doom, Richards retrieved an energy gun that he had used three issues earlier and used it to restore their powers (he explained that he had been letting it recharge and the suits were a stop-gap).

This is where it gets interesting. It is a cliche that the cursed hero will become normal then heroically become cursed again. This was in the Fantastic Four movie. It was in last night's season finale of Chuck. But that wasn't how it happened here. Beg Grimm was normal and didn't want to change back but Reed changed him anyway. They the rest let the Thing take on Doom alone.

This was an epic battle. Doom was pulling powers out of a hat and the Thing took everything that Doom threw at him and smashed up his suit, forcing him to flee.

Then the Thing quit the group. He had been normal and he was a monster again. He didn't like it one bit.

Cut to the next issue. The battle with Doom hurt the Thing more than he admitted. He snuck onto a pickup truck and fell asleep. Even falling out of the truck on a rough road didn't wake him.

The Wizard located him there and brought him to the Frightful Four's headquarters. He had a new device that would brainwash the Thing and put him under the Wizard's control. In the meantime we got a look at the team dynamic. Medusa was really in charge, using a combination of flirting and power to keep the others in line. The Wizard was too busy to notice. Sandman liked women who played rough, and the Trapster whined but tended to do whatever Medusa said.

The rest of the FF eventually tried to track down the Thing after his girlfriend, Alicia, shamed them into it. With the Thing's help, the other three were quickly overpowered and captured. The Torch and Sue were secured. Reed was glued to a board. Then the Wizard reminded the Thing that Reed had made him ugly and ordered him to kill Reed. End of issue.

The next issue took up directly from there. It was almost all fight. Reed got free of the board he was glued to but the Thing stuffed him into a metal bottle. Sue escaped with the bottle while the Wizard used him mind-control machine on the Torch. During a lull, Medusa flirted with the Thing and Sandman got jealous. Sue freed Reed and they counter-attacked using the Trapster's paste and the Wizard's flying disks to throw the EFF off balance. Reed and Sue fled, taking a floating Thing while the Torch and the Wizard tried to stop them.

It was an adrenaline rush of an issue. No introduction, no introducing the characters, just cover to cover action. Without the usual 3-6 pages of set-up there was a lot more room for action and characterization. The continued story was now the preferred way of telling a story.

My next post will discuss how other Marvel comics were changing at the same time and cover the wrap-up to the Frightful Four.

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