Monday, March 29, 2010

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #2 (Jan. 1962)



"The Fantastic Four
Meet the Skrulls From Outer Space!"

Script by Stan Lee 
Pencils by Jack Kirby 
Inks by George Klein (again, that’s the best guess from Mark Evanier, whose opinion in such matters is eminently trustworthy) 
Letters by John Duffy 


The second issue picks up pretty much where the first left off, developing and adding certain themes and motifs the series would repeat endlessly. It’s also a wildly uneven story, but one whose highs outweigh the lulls.

The Fantastic Four continue to be anti-superheroes in this issue — eschewing costumes and hanging out in everyday settings such as Reed’s apartment and a hunting lodge. Apparently, they are already quite famous by this point — the cops all know the FF on a first-name basis and, in an early scene, Sue is given high celebrity status by a jeweler who, frankly, should have known better than to let the Invisible Girl see his famous jewels. But at the same time, they’re also freaks that people are quick to turn against at the slightest provocation. (Apparently, the polarized opinions of 1960s Marvel Universe foreshadowed the current political discourse in the United States.) This dichotomy more than any other has come to define the Marvel style, from these early years through the present day.


This issue begins with the Fantastic Four having apparently gone bad. The Thing destroys an oil-drilling platform off the Texas shore; Sue steals a valuable gem; Johnny melts a marble statue; and Reed reaches into the power station and shuts off the city’s power. These latter two stretch plausibility. If Johnny could get hot enough to melt marble (more than 3,000 degrees), the crowd of onlookers would have been incinerated. And electric utilities are too complicated to just “turn off” with one switch. 



But the opening sequence does its job of making the reader wonder what’s going on. The reveal of the Skrulls is a bit clumsy, but it works and is actually quite creepy. And is it just me, or do I see a somewhat familiar face in the Skrull’s transformation?
It’s kind of easy to forget that these stories that are now so familiar to comics fans were meant to be contemporary entertainment for children in 1961. These days it’d be hard to imagine Reed and the gang wearing plaid, smoking pipes and hanging out in a hunting lodge, with Johnny checking out a rifle and Ben throwing a mounted bear’s head through the window in one of his tantrums. I’m glad the tantrum, the squabbling and the sudden make up are the precedent-setting part of this scene, because 500-plus issues of Reed and Johnny going hunting while Ben and Sue dressed the kill would not be much fun.

The next segment of this story sees the U.S. Army locate the hunting lodge and demand the FF surrender. And this is the first spot where the issue goes off the rails. Rather than a really cool scene of the FF resisting the Army’s attacks, repelling bullets, melting missiles, etc., the FF just go ahead and surrender. The Army sticks them in special cells designed to resist their powers, but it was all for naught as the FF escapes in the most obvious fashion possible in about five minutes. A scene like this makes me think that Lee and Kirby were avoiding a potential conflict with the Comics Code Authority, which required that “(p)olicemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” Either way, it’s the first sequence in the series that interrupts the build up of credibility and believability the series is really aiming for.

That the first scene after the escape sees the FF reconvening and picking up their argument where they lift off only confirms the filler nature of the escape. But it doesn’t necessarily get better as Johnny suggests they smoke out the imposters by attacking a rocket launch and hoping it’s confusing enough to allow the real FF to infiltrate the alien group. It only makes sense if the Skrulls are completely random in their attacks, i.e., they have no set plan whatsoever and don’t even know what they are doing.
Still, this being comics, it works – and Johnny infiltrates and exposes the alien group. The flare gun that creates the flaming “4” in the sky returns from issue #1.

And while I doubt Johnny Cash read Fantastic Four comics, I do like the idea that this panel might have influences the writing of his classic 1963 tune. Maybe in the Marvel Universe, Cash’s “Ring of Flame” was a major hit.

As we move into part three, the comic recreates the cover image inside the story again as the battle gets going. Sue and Thing obviously contribute less here than in the first issue. I do like the moody coloring in the panels of some of these early Marvels, such as this one, in which Reed and Sue look like Martin Landau and Barbara Bain from Mission: Impossible or Space: 1999.

The story goes a bit crazy again as the FF find the Skrull ship (in a water tower!) and go into space to bluff the aliens into not invading Earth. Reed does this by presenting comic book images as real, thereby proving that alien species can be dumb as rocks and still master interplanetary travel. It’s also one of the first signs of Stan Lee putting plugs for his other comics directly in the story — something that was common in some of the earliest Marvels before continuity, footnotes and Bullpen Bulletins pages kicked in and took line-wide promotion to the next level.

The poor Thing has had next to nothing to do in this story until the return to Earth causes him to revert to human form. This comes out of nowhere and is surprisingly touching — easily the best part of the book. Kirby does a great job of framing the transformation slightly off center and then of giving Ben a look of pure joy that turns to misery as he reverts in short order to the rocky Thing. This stuff is really good and the first sign that Lee, Kirby and Marvel were on to something substantial. Panel 7 on page 21 is particularly good, with the Thing’s head slumped in resignation as beautiful Sue and Johnny try to comfort him.
The story gets weird again as the Army trusts Reed enough to go back to his apartment and fight the three remaining Skrulls held there. It’s explained in the copy that one of the Skrulls went with the FF into space and is returning with the rest of the Skrulls, but none of this is actually seen. I suspect some much later issues found a way to explain this more fully. 
The issue again gets back on track just in time for a good twist ending in the EC tradition, as Reed hypnotizes the Skrulls into becoming cows and forgetting who they were. The word play, with the Skrulls asking for a “contented” existence should be lamer than it is. But somehow it works and gives the issue a good, upbeat finish

The issue wraps up with a pin-up of The Thing, who at this point had yet to develop his chiseled features and was more of a lumpy, scaly looking character.

I really like the pacing of these older issues and the breaking down of the story into chapters that run 5 or so pages each. Today, each chapter in this story would be an issue unto itself.

Again, there’s something very cool about the idea of doing the Fantastic Four less like superheroes and more like conventional adventurers. This was the last non-superhero story, as fans’ demands prompted Stan Lee to go in a more conventional and more commercial direction. I wonder if this was the first instance of superhero fans’ outcries altering the direction of a series. It certainly was not the last, but going for a more conventional superhero premise certainly was a major one for Marvel in particular and comic books in general.

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