Thursday, December 2, 2010

JULY 1962

  • Fantastic Four #5
  • The Incredible Hulk #2
Fantastic Four #5
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
"Prisoners of Doctor Doom!"

After last issue's run-in with the Sub-Mariner, it looks like the FF have their plate full yet again with the arrival of Doctor Doom. From the very opening page Kirby lets us know that Doom is someone to be reckoned with, not only because of his intimidating armor, but he also has a vulture by his side and books called Demons and Science and Sorcery on his desk. This is an interesting departure from our previous antagonists, particularly from The Miracle Man of issue 3. If you remember, that was the first story to insinuate that there was magic in the Marvel Universe, only to reveal in the end that all the miraculous things Miracle Man did were the product of hypnotic hallucinations.

Well, here we are getting actual references to "Mystic Rites," "sorcery," and "black magic." And while we don't actually get a taste of Doctor Doom's sorcerous side, he clearly believes he has dark skills to balance out his scientific genius. How do we know he's a scientific genius? Well, not only does he have a giant, electrified net, a time machine, a flying harness, death traps, and robot doubles, he also went to school with Reed, who recognizes his voice! Interestingly enough, Reed knows all about Victor Von Doom and his tragic, disfiguring accident; knows enough to realize that he's the real deal and maybe their "most dangerous adventure" yet.

As for the reader, we don't really need to know all that, because we can already see that he's got an awesome Shark-Faced Helicopter, which, where I come from, says "most dangerous adventure" without all the melodramatic exposition.

Have I mentioned that I don't really trust Reed?

Anyway, I'm not sure I buy the way the Fantastic Four interact with Doom right from the start. They give up Sue as a hostage without any real argument, and then promise not to attack him while they ride with him in his Shark-Faced Helicopter to wherever the hell Doom's Castle is. Did he provide magazines for their enjoyment during the ride, or did they all just sit beside each other not talking?

Then, once there, they keep their promise despite Ben's urging to rush him. Granted, Doom has a tiger crouched next to his chair, but come on! This is the Fantastic Four; The stars of "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!" But as usual for Reed, "standing around doing nothing while stuff happens to them" is the plan.

Luckily, the story doesn't really revolve around Reed at all, instead giving us a time-traveling adventure where Ben takes the forefront. Doom sends them after Blackbeard's Treasure Chest, which, we find out, contains magical gems that originally belonged to Merlin! And for the first time in the series, we finally get to see the Fantastic Four cut loose and knock the crap out of somebody other than each other.

The pirate adventure is honestly the most entertaining sequence in the series so far, and even though the team again just stumbles into the action (they're shanghaied after drinking drugged grog in a pirate tavern), once out at sea they commandeer the ship and Johnny and Ben do most of the heavy lifting, while Reed just figures out a way to double-cross Doom when they get back.

But this is where we get another glimpse into just what's going on inside Ben's head. His grip on reality really isn't very firm. Once the pirate crew begins hailing him as their leader and calling him "Blackbeard," he realizes that he's the Blackbeard from history and in an instant flips sides, ordering the pirate crew to capture Reed and Johnny. He rants like a madman and is in the process of having his "friends" put over the side in a lifeboat when a giant water spout appears, destroying the boat and scattering Merlin's magical gems across the bottom of the sea.

Ben also comes to his senses once his Blackbeard disguise is washed away and it looks like he, Reed, and Johnny are the only survivors of the wreck. Funnily enough, neither Reed nor Johnny actually accept his apology before they are brought back to the present by Doom's time machine. Nobody's concerned about the rest of the crew, either. Sure, they were pirates and all, but come on.

In the end, Sue saves the day, mainly by being forgotten so she can hit a "cut-off switch" which naturally causes Doom's machinery to explode in his face, much like his time at college. I can only imagine the traumatic stress flashback that might trigger. It's nice to see Sue actually doing something this time around, after her obligatory stint as Hostage #1, of course. And in this issue's letters page, it's kind of nice to see that Lee was getting letters asking for Sue to be more involved in the action. Hopefully we'll see more of that in the future.

Anyway, Doom escapes, since the FF are pretty much useless when it comes to their Endgame, and Johnny demonstrates a new talent. He tries a trick he's been thinking about for months, and gives his flame "the intensity of atomic heat" and turns water to glass, allowing the team to escape without fighting the crocodiles that fill Doom's moat. This doesn't seem like the safest experiment, but it's inventive. I'm pretty sure it's sand that turns to glass under atomic heat though, not water. Wouldn't the water just evaporate, leaving the moat empty?

Even though there are some problems with the plotting and characterizations, this issue holds up pretty well, as did the previous one. I remember reading these stories when I was a kid in one of the numerous reprint collections Marvel published all through the mid-Seventies, and this was always one of my favorites. One of the best parts about this issue, from both a fan's perspective and as someone with an interest in self-referential postmodern fictions, is a callback of sorts to last month's scene with Johnny reading the Sub-Mariner comic.

This time around, rather than make a connection to the publishing past of Marvel, Lee and Kirby find a moment to slip in a plug for their other new ongoing comic, The Incredible Hulk, by once again making Johnny the character most relatable to the audience. In the Marvel Universe, Marvel Comics apparently publishes The Incredible Hulk, and Johnny is reading it during their downtime at the beginning of this issue. He compares Ben to the Hulk (a comparison Ben takes offense to), and ends up destroying the comic during his roughhousing with Ben. The clever bit is that the cover of the comic is the actual cover of The Incredible Hulk #1, which in a Borgesian-style mind twist subverts the perceived reality of the reader, conflating it with that of the fictional characters.

It's a fun and creative way of reinforcing the idea that The Fantastic Four takes place in the real world, as opposed to those fictional realms of other comics publishers. Somewhere in New York, Johnny Storm is reading the same comics we are. The question is, how will this blow your mind when The Hulk actually shows up in the story somewhere down the line, like I'm sure he will. Trippy, man. I'm a sucker for that kind of thing.

The Incredible Hulk #2
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inker: Steve Ditko
"The Terror of the Toad Men!"

Oh my. This issue is pretty weak all around. Not only are the villains of the piece literally Toad Men from beyond our Solar System, intent on invading earth, their weapon of choice is "Magnetic Power." Only it's not really magnetic power, but instead has something to do with increasing and decreasing the Gravitational Force without affecting the mass of their targets. Now this isn't a bad idea and it's used consistently throughout, only it is repeatedly called Magnetic rather than Gravitational. Maybe that's just a geek critique, but it bugs me.

That and the design of the Toad Men. They're Toad Men with Metal Bullet Caps. Not the most impressive design, Mr. Kirby.

On the plus side, however, Steve Ditko joins the Hulk art team this month and the difference is amazing. Last month, Hulk just looked like a big, overgrown man. Sure his brow was a little heavy, but in some panels he was downright normal looking. Well, Ditko adds some heavy shading to Hulk's eyes that make him look both monstrous and just plain evil. Once again, Lee and Kirby do a good job contrasting Hulk's character and personality with Banner's, as Banner is again the hero who repulses the threat of alien invasion.

Not before becoming suspected of treason, of course, but that's kind of to be expected with the heavy dose of Communist paranoia that this book was founded on.

I'm still concerned about the portrayal of the Hulk in this comic and how it's going to go over with readers. There is literally nothing heroic about the character at all. When he does do something beneficial, it's for purely selfish reasons and it's with brutal violence. In fact, after he defeats the Toad Men on their ship, his first impulse is to take over and use their weaponry to conquer the Earth himself!

I appreciate that Lee is staying true to the idea of making this a Jekyll and Hyde story, and he's doing a good job making Hulk a creature of pure Id, but there's definitely a creepy, rapist vibe this issue as Hulk confronts Betty Ross. Sure, he's going to the Ross home to find, and probably kill, General "Thunderbolt" Ross, but when he finds Betty alone he goes from being a rampaging monster to a sexually threatening predator.

He slips in quietly and closes the door behind him before Betty hears him and screams for help. And thanks to Ditko's villainous inking, it seems pretty clear that Hulk has some bad intentions.

And then, when he's interrupted by Rick Jones, he immediately decides that murder is the way to take care of the intruder.

Now, I said that I was concerned about the reader response to all this, but I'm loving it, personally. Of course, I'm not the average reader of these comics in 1962, but then again, maybe I'm just overthinking it. Part of the thrill of The Incredible Hulk is the fact that our title character is, quite literally, a monster. And not the misunderstood Man-Child that is Universal Pictures' Frankenstein. Hulk is a dangerous monster and it's hard not to see the Army's side in this book. As much as I'm enjoying the characterization, I wonder how far they can take it and for how long.

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