Thursday, December 2, 2010

MAY 1962

  • Fantastic Four #4
  • The Incredible Hulk #1

Fantastic Four #4
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
"The Coming of ... Sub-Mariner!"

This issue opens shortly after the conclusion of the previous issue. Johnny is missing, Sue is worried, Ben is glad he's gone, and Reed not only tries to make Ben feel worse about himself, he seems to have built up Johnny's contributions a little more than they actually were. Granted, Johnny is the one who's been getting things done, but he's not all that. I don't think the burning down of the fake monster last issue was real, but Reed seems to think so. The search for Johnny is kind of silly, but we do get another Ben Grimm transformation scene. He only reverts to human for a minute or two, but if it keeps up, he's seriously going to lose his mind. Johnny, meanwhile, ends up in --- The Bowery!

Something strange goes on this issue, and it's something that, while hinted at in the Skrulls issue, is made explicit here. Comic books, particularly Marvel Comics and their previous incarnations, Timely and Atlas, exist in the Marvel Universe. It was one thing when Reed used monster pictures from Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery to fool the Skrulls, as those were clearly presented as fantasy comics. But this issue, Johnny is casually flipping through an old copy of a Sub-Mariner comic and then moments later, discovers Namor in the flesh. Sure, he's got amnesia and is living as a derelict bum, but it's him. A comic book character come to life.

Having been created all the way back in 1939, the Sub-Mariner was one of the very first superheroes in comics, debuting in the now presciently titled Marvel Comics #1 as a surface world-hating anti-hero. Although he had a brief revival for about a year in the mid-fifties, he really hadn't been seen since around 1949, and once he's awake and active here in 1962, other characters act as though they'd always known he was real, but assumed he had died long ago.

It's a brilliant move on Lee and Kirby's part, especially given that the Distinguished Competition have a clear line of history back to the publication of Superman back in 1938. Suddenly, in one fell swoop, Marvel isn't just a company with one Superhero title (with its second debuting this month). The inclusion of the Sub-Mariner in the story of the Fantastic Four, makes all of Timely/Atlas' history fair game. This means that not only are all of those old characters included in the world-building of the modern Marvel Universe, but by implication we can assume that even the other titles being published concurrently could be considered for possible inclusion, like the entire Western line of comics like Two-Gun Kid, Kid Colt and Rawhide Kid. And in May 1963, when Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos begins, the Marvel Universe will begin fleshing out the Marvel '40s for a new generation of readers.

So essentially, the retcon is introduced here and used to create a textured past for characters and concepts that are actually so new they're shiny. But, most importantly, these aren't just changes for change's sake. Lee pulls it off in a way that makes it seem as though this new information is naturally a part of this world. The Fantastic Four are no longer the only superheroes around. They're just the only superheroes around at the moment. With this creative move, the Marvel Universe has had costumed adventurers as far back as the 1800s, and superheroes played a big part in World War II. Given that Namor had attacked New York repeatedly in the '30s and '40s before joining the U.S. against the Nazis, I suppose there's some rationale for the paranoia and fear that the FF's first appearance sparked. This is a world where the first superhero wasn't a benevolent alien Superman, but a terrorist. That's got to do something to the collective psyche. And there's definitely something strange about the way Lee uses the idea of a mixed-race character "passing" for human before turning violently against the dominant culture. Is he consciously invoking racist anxieties or is that just an accident?

I wonder if we should consider the monster and alien invasion stories of the other Marvel titles of the time as representative of events that occurred in the "real" Marvel Universe. Granted, they would be filtered through the comics' creators much like the Sub-Mariner comic that Johnny is reading, telling "fictional" stories based on "real" events. That's essentially the premise of one of the greatest comics in recent years, Warren Ellis' Planetary, so it's impressive to see the idea, at least in some form, hinted at here.

Story-wise, the arrival of the Sub-Mariner provides the first real, personalized arch-nemesis for the team, even going so far as to crib a little of the motivations of Issue #1's Mole Man, only this time, instead of being hated for being ugly, Namor's actually got a valid reason to hate humanity. The Mole Man could be argued to be the first real arch-nemesis, but that's only because of the timing of his appearance. In that initial confrontation, neither he nor the FF actually do anything to create a distinctive relationship. Namor, however, makes things personal.

Upon getting his memory back, the first thing he does is head for home: his unnamed Undersea Kingdom. Is there a reason it isn't called Atlantis at this point? Is that an Aquaman thing? Anyway, thanks to, you guessed it, Atomic Testing, the kingdom is destroyed. Luckily, according to Namor, the radiation can't harm his people, but they've been scattered and Namor has little hope of finding them. So he decides to go back to his original ways and start attacking the surface world. This is no good, because not only is he super powerful, he has access to an array of undersea monsters, the first of which is named Giganto (and that's not an ironic nickname).

The authorities evacuate New York quickly and easily, just in time for Giganto, a giant whale with arms and legs, to come ashore and destroy a lot of property. There's not a lot of attention given to it, but this is massive damage on an incredible scale that's going to contribute poorly to that collective psyche I mentioned a minute ago. It looks like at least an entire neighborhood is destroyed before Ben has an idea: strap an Atomic Bomb to his own back and walk it down Giganto's gullet while it rests, detonating the bomb inside and killing the creature. Once again, no one seems to have a problem with firing or detonating atom bombs in the middle of New York City. It's no wonder there are monsters everywhere. I wouldn't be surprised if everyone in the Marvel Universe glowed softly in the dark.

 Ultimately what causes Namor to pause is a rush of hormones at the sight of Sue Storm. In a classic pick-up move, he proposes to her on the spot and says he'll stop trying to kill all the humans if she'll co-rule the Earth with him. Sue does the noble thing and agrees to marry Namor in order to save humanity, which he kind of takes as an insult. Understandably, I guess. Reed again has virtually no reaction to this on a personal level, which makes me wonder about him. He seems to take Sue for granted on just about every occasion, and it's hard to really get what she sees in him, especially when contrasted with Namor, who, while being an arrogant terrorist, is at least passionate and impulsive about her. Of course, he does have that mixed-race thing subtextually coming into play, as well, and there seems to be some repulsion built into the narrative here.

Then, Lee and Kirby seem to run out of pages, because suddenly Johnny steps up yet again, creating a giant tornado (?) that sucks Namor and the smoldering, radioactive corpse of Giganto up into the sky before dropping them over "the deepest part of the vast ocean." And that's that. Namor swears revenge, and the disembodied heads of the Fantastic Four swear to be waiting for round two.

Again, it's not a very satisfying ending, but if anyone was planning on making a Fantastic Four film, this issue has everything I'd pay to see on-screen. There's no evidence of it here, but it seems to me that Reed should start worrying about everybody wanting to make time with his girl. Granted, he doesn't feel threatened by Ben, but Namor's interest should make him think twice. If he ever finds his people and gets some Prozac, he could be a serious rival for Sue's affections. That would be a pretty easy way to add some interest in her character, even if it is just another variation on the "Sue as Captive" theme that Lee keeps falling back on.

Does he think girls don't read comics? Then who's Milly the Model for? Give them a character they can relate to in your superhero comics and you've got a whole new market share, Stan.

The Incredible Hulk #1
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inker: Paul Reinman

Finally, after nearly six months worth of Fantastic Four comics, Marvel introduces a new Superhero title. However, like the FF before it, Lee and Kirby have something different in mind when they design and create Marvel Superheroes. The Incredible Hulk stakes out narrative territory usually reserved for monster comics and gives us something not quite a monster, yet not quite a hero.

And again, radiation is at the heart of it.

This is essentially a cross between the split personality tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the misunderstood monster of Frankenstein. Although, to be quite honest, Frankenstein is much more sympathetic a creature. The Hulk is a big, gray bastard from day one.

Our supporting cast is loaded with potential, however cliche and over-the-top they are. Rick Jones is another cocky teenager sort of in the Johnny Storm mold, but with a much stronger sense of responsibility and a level head. General "Thunderbolt" Ross is a raging, blustering, mildly psychotic career military man, and his daughter, Betty, is pretty, nice, and finding herself drawn to our main character: Dr. Bruce Banner, super-genius. Even though he seems to be fairly timid and quiet ("Thunderbolt" calls him a gutless milksop right to his face), he nearly dies trying to save Rick, who has wondered into a Gamma Bomb testing range.

What's a Gamma Bomb, you ask? I dunno either, but apparently it's "the most awesome weapon ever created by man", and Banner created it.

Anyway, Banner gets a full dose of Gamma Radiation after tossing Rick into the safety of a ditch (?), and then finds himself transformed every evening when the sun goes down, into a huge, musclebound, gray sociopath with poor impulse control. While I'm not sure about the marketability of this character, I have to admit that the scene where Banner gets caught in the Gamma blast is very nicely done. Kirby gives us an iconic shot of Banner being hit by a blast wave as the explosion goes off behind him, followed by two panels that play with vivid contrasts of light and shadow. The idea that he is screaming for hours before coming to his senses is a powerful one, too, which immediately puts Banner in an even more positive light with the reader. This guy is clearly suffering physically before the psychological torture begins.

In another echo of subjects raised in the first issue of Fantastic Four, the fight against Communism is central to this story. Only instead of just being a paranoid fear, we've moved from the world of civilians and into the world of military science so the Communist bogeymen are real. In fact, Banner gets caught in the blast because a Commie double-agent doesn't postpone the detonation with the hope of killing Banner and then rummaging through his home for the Gamma Bomb secrets. It's not the greatest of plans, but it almost works.

Except for that pesky transformation into a super strong behemoth thing, anyway. I'm not sure that if I were Rick I'd be so calm and cool about watching the skinny scientist change into a bulgy, gray monster. Especially since he seems to be putting out a LOT of radiation during the transformation. That's not cool.

The Hulk is an interesting character. He's not heroic at all. His heroism is kind of a side-effect of being selfish, nearly invulnerable, extremely strong, and mildly retarded with a mean streak. If you came to this comic looking for a superhero story, you'll be sorely disappointed. Or maybe oddly surprised. I know I was surprised when at one point, if it wasn't for the sun coming up, it is strongly hinted that the Hulk was going to murder Rick Jones because he knew his secret. That's effed up, right there.

I really like the way that these comics are creating a sense of danger and anxiety rather than being reassuring, escapist adventures. Yeah, the protagonists are winning out in the end, but only just barely. And usually, when they win, they don't actually do much to make it happen and/or the endings are temporary at best. It creates a feeling that anything could happen, regardless of whether or not Lee could really get away with having the bad guys win. At least he's writing villains that, while they do evil things, we can understand their motivations; usually more than we can those of the heroes.

The villain of Incredible Hulk #1 is another variation on this theme: the hideous, but brilliant and deadly, Gargoyle. He's a Soviet scientist, transformed by his work on Secret Bomb Tests, and is "the most feared man in all of Asia." Just how this happened or why he's feared is never really gone into, but rest assured, he's dangerous and evil! Or maybe not so much. After a crying breakdown in front of a captive Banner, we find out that all he really wants is to be normal again. And maybe a puppy. Nah, just to be normal.

So Banner says he can cure him, and does, with, you guessed it, radiation! Then after allowing Rick and Banner to escape, the Gargoyle rants an anti-Communist rant at a portrait of "Comrade K" (who looks suspiciously like Khruschchev), then commits suicide by nuclear bomb, taking everyone in the base with him. This is another echo of the first issue of The Fantastic Four, but without the open-ended "he might be back" twist. We can rest assured that we won't be seeing The Gargoyle again.

Yes, as Banner says in the closing panel, in the light of a nuclear blast, "It's the end of the Gargoyle! And perhaps... the beginning of the end of the Red Tyranny, too!" Wow. That's not too heavy-handed, is it? Especially when The Gargoyle is essentially an alternate version of Banner/Hulk himself, which raises some interesting thematic questions about the Cold War. Clearly, on the surface Lee and Kirby are producing jingoistic, pro-America propaganda marketed specifically for kids. They're also pretty fast and loose with nuclear radiation without overtly moralizing over uses of atomic bombs and the perceived threats of Communism.

However, at the same time, nothing good is coming from these conflicts. On both sides, monsters are being created and "innocent" people are being used and manipulated by antagonistic government forces. And if they don't play ball, they are to be hunted down and killed. Hell, the public demands that they be destroyed if those headlines in Fantastic Four #2 are to be believed. Ultimately, in The Incredible Hulk, Banner can't rely on anyone but Rick Jones and their bond was only forged by accident. Nationalism is bandied about as a surface motivation, but the heart of this comic is harsh individualism and tortured isolation.

This is an interesting, if not actually entertaining comic. By that I mean that the sheer dread that permeates the entire story is a little overwhelming, especially given the nastiness of the Hulk himself. The whole book is a bit too awash with political propaganda, and while the supporting cast is colorful, I'm not sure if I really care about any of them. The premise is a good one, though. Not a Superhero comic by any means, but a good idea nonetheless. I hope to see more of the psychological elements explored and the political stuff put on the back burner. But I guess if you're emotionally involved with a raving psychotic general's daughter, you work for the government building weapons of mass destruction, and you turn into a WMD yourself, it's going to be hard to avoid the political.

I think the strongest part of the story is really that it's Bruce Banner who's the hero. He saves Rick from the Gamma Bomb and from the Gargoyle, with the latter occurring through an act of kindness rather than of violence. I suppose that's offset with the fact that the Gargoyle commits murder/suicide immediately after, but hey, our titular character really only serves to screw up Banner's life, and that's a daring socio-political statement to make, however veiled. It'll be interesting to see how long they can maintain this dynamic and keep readers. I'm not sure there's an audience for this type of comic, especially after seeing how The Fantastic Four had to change in order to broaden its market.

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