Friday, January 21, 2011

I cannot stop thinking about the Fantastic Four.

Though I've long been a Marvel Comics nerd, I have only recently read the first year's worth of the FANTASTIC FOUR, which essentially birthed the Marvel Universe as we know it. Though the series continues to this day, the first 102 issues were done by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, introducing not only Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, the Human Torch and the Thing, but also Doctor Doom, the Skrulls, Galactus & the Silver Surfer, the Inhumans, and in fact, a new approach to comic book storytelling. It was a treasure trove of titans what tussled, true believer!

In the beginning the FF were more like science adventurers than super heroes. Their familiar blue costumes weren't introduced until issue 3, and when they gain their super powers in the aftermath of a rocket flight gone awry, they all react with varying degrees of horror. Johnny Storm is terrified when his body catches fire for the first time as the Human Torch, and Ben Grimm lashes out in anger as he transforms into the rocky Thing -- seemingly irreversibly, although over the FF's first 9 issues he is changed back to puny Ben Grimm just about every other issue, if only momentarily.

Another early hallmark introduced in the first issue, and one of the things that set the Marvel Universe apart from other superhero books, were the heroes' tendency to fight one another just as much -- if not more -- than the villains.

The Thing and the Human Torch, in particular, bicker back and forth as a matter of course. I've been reading these as part of the Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer - Complete Comic Edition DVD-ROM you can still find on Amazon for about $40, which means all of the original ads and letters pages are included in the scans. And sometimes you can see the staples too! But the printed letters -- assuming they weren't all completely made up by the Marvel Bullpen -- love to point to this bickering as proof that the gang at Marvel were writing their heroes as real people with flaws, and not the interchangeable do-gooders you might find in other books. Superhero comics in 1961-62 didn't offer the same pacing and characterization you can find in comics today, but it was a radical change from what was expected on the newsstand. There's even one issue that asks the question, on the front cover no less, "What happens to comic magazine heroes when they can't pay their bills and have no place to turn?" Well, they get evicted, go to Hollywood and make an action movie, of course!

Today, Doctor Doom is considered to be the Fantastic Four's greatest villain, and while he does appear as early as issue 5 with a delightfully weird plot to force the FF into making him rich...

...I would be remiss in my blogging duties if I didn't point out that the best part of this issue was seeing the Thing, by way of a time travel paradox, actually BECOMES the source of the Blackbeard tales in first place.

(Spoiler alert! He gives it up on the very next page.)

But even though Doctor Doom seems tailor made to be the arch-foe of our brave heroes, there's no doubt to me that the breakout star of these early issues is Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Introduced in the very first issue of Marvel Comics in 1939, Namor is re-introduced to a 60s audience as a bearded amnesiac who the Human Torch awakens from a stupor when he throws him into the ocean. He goes on to become the FF's greatest frenemy, constantly tussling with the dudes and constantly kidnapping and/or proposing marriage to the Invisible Girl. In fact, he offers Sue Storm her best chance at developing anything close to a discernible character -- and probably makes her the most interesting of the title characters. Reed Richards is a scientist, Ben Grimm is a quick-to-anger lunkhead, Johnny Storm is a hip cat teenager -- but Sue Storm, whenever Namor is around at least, is a woman wrestling with feelings she isn't comfortable with. She's supposed to be true to her Fantastic Foursome, but her thought bubbles -- and, sometimes, her actions -- reveal that she has feelings for Namor that she can't quite reconcile.

Namor shows up in 3 of the FF's first 9 issues, and his issue 6 team-up with Doctor Doom is the first time where I was aware of Jack Kirby's artwork taking a step beyond workhorse storytelling. The pace of these FF issues is frenetic, with lots of action occurring off-panel and lots of captions used to explain what would otherwise be hard-to-decipher series of events. But when Namor is doublecrossed by Doom and left to perish along with the Fantastic Four in a skyscraper that is hurtling through outer space (just go with me here), Namor prepares to hurtle through the vacuum of space to confront Doom directly.

Seeing that image was the first time I was truly caught up in the dynamic visual storytelling of Kirby's FF run. By all accounts the powers of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby reach dizzying heights as the book continues, and I'm excited to read more. I don't know enough about the behind the scenes story of the 60s Marvel Bullpen to say why this 1940s character of the Sub-Mariner was brought back in the pages of this comic, but it seems to have ignited something in both Lee and Kirby that propelled the entire series to new heights. The Sub-Mariner is a Prince of Atlantis who awakens from a walking coma to discover that nuclear testing in the oceans have destroyed the undersea city that was his home, and scattered the people who were once his subjects. He becomes a lonely king, sitting in an otherwise empty undersea castle watching land-based television shoes and daydreaming of a girl who can turn herself invisible.

The Sub-Mariner goes on to sell the treasures of the sea his people had spent centuries gathering in order to buy a Hollywood movie studio, and therefore trick the Fantastic Four into what he believes will be situations of certain death -- all so he can have the Invisible Girl for his wife. She balks at the offer -- but also makes it clear that, had he simply adjusted his wooing for a land-based lady of the 60s, she might have been down.

Fisticuffs ensue, in which once again the Sub-Mariner's presence brings out the best in Kirby...

Those eyes! That forehead! It's no wonder Sue finds him hard to resist. Alas, the rest of the Four escape from the traps Namor had set for them, and he agrees to live up to his end of their contract.

FF #9 is the last issue with a 1962 date, and its ending is a fitting "season finale," wrapping up a trifecta of Namor appearances and establishing the team as a globe-trotting quartet of beloved superheroes. The Thing has started hanging out with Alicia Masters, the blind daughter of supervillain the Puppet Master, and though he seems to be force-transformed into a human state by things as varied as stress and thunderbolts, his desire to turn his powers off is a compelling through line of these early issues. The Human Torch has the otherwise most dynamic personality of the group, but that's really only because he's tagged with a teenage sensibility and a fondness for cars, pretty girls, and the superhero spotlight. That said? Sometimes he looks like a pug-nose Willem Dafoe.

But it's still Namor who comes across the strongest, and going by these 9 issues alone, I'd say he was the Fonzie to the Fantastic Four's Happy Days. Maybe the realities of comic book publishing in the 1960s made it hard to write a book solely about the longing of a misunderstood undersea king, but by making him the regularly appearing guest-star in a science-fantasy serial, Lee and Kirby managed to create a complicated, multi-dimensional superhero who sticks in my head long after I've finished the books in which he appeared. By flipping forward a few covers, I've discovered that I have to make it all the way to issue 14 before Namor makes another appearance -- but in the meantime I have more Doctor Doom, a guest-shot by the Hulk, and the introduction of the Impossible Man to keep me busy. I'll keep you posted.


Wednesday, January 05, 2011

BNB: men talking in the basement

Uncle John sits huddled in the basement under a heap of sweaters and blankets and many pairs of socks. His feet look bloated and too big. He waves me over. There's a coffee cup in front of him on the table, but also a bottle, black and gold-capped. He sits in front of his radio, but the radio isn't on.

"It's the women in this family," he whispers. "They do not speak."

I approach him and bounce from foot to foot. It's cold under the earth.

"I hear boys at work talking, right, Berto?"

I say "Yes," but of course I do not really know what he means. When Papa told stories he would watch you to see you were listening, but he didn't require you to nod or to agree. Uncle John needs to know that you know.

"Old boys, young boys, new married and long married. They talk about the mouths on their women. That they don't stop yappin, about their days and their jobs and the grocery store, and who said what and who cares anyway, this and that. And I sit and I wish, Berto, for some of it rub off on her." He points upward, to the first floor of the house above us, to Aunt Lydia up there unseen.

"Our women? They do not speak," he says. "They survive. Always moving. Never drowning. Like your Mama. I married into this family, but you? Berto, you come from shark stock."