I am enjoying working my way through these early comics. Funnily enough, I rather disliked the Fantastic Four as characters unlike the Hulk, who was tortured, an outsider, stuck living a dual life and managing two identities, both of which were feared and disrespected I think, in different ways. Bruce Banner the scientist viewed as tricky and effeminate by the general, the Hulk viewed as overly animal and brutal and terrifyingly strong.
The Fantastic Four fit right in with American society — so obviously I don’t really get them. They’re loved by the public — with some ups and downs of course, or where would be the drama? But mostly ups. The Thing has some of the existential angst of the Hulk (and there’s an interesting angle on race here, and how these two play into stereotypes about ‘the other’, especially Black men, you can read more on Mark’s post about the new Fantastic Four film) but here the Thing seems marginalized in his rather boring stupidity and crankiness and obsession with a few street thugs, while the Invisible Girl is out buying Dior dresses and the Flame is kissing girls in the latest model of Ford. Stretchy dude is just tinkering away with things that can destroy the whole world, and making occasional appearances which send red-blooded American women swooning.
But there’s a hell of a lot of urban and architectural geekery to be found here. I mean, only the second issue in, you get a secret headquarters! Complete with cut-away diagram! It even has a giant map room (3rd March, 1962, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)! I particularly love the note to save it for future reference…as the complexities of future stories might drive you back to the Gormenghastian reaches of this skyscraper…
Or maybe not. That’s the comic I would have written I guess. By the 5th of July (still Lee and Kirby, always Lee and Kirby fabulous tag-team that they are) the Fantastic Four have had to expand — they still have the missiles, but the living quarters are better explained, there’s a gym and a trophy room/weapons collection. Ammo room. Of course. It’s a pretty fascinating glimpse of what any super-rich superhero might want their building, along with some pretty awesome exposition explaining how the entrance is protected by a special elevator. This is probably all in response to questions from eager fans designing their own secret headquarters in their head and wondering how the plumbing works, and I rather love it.
The fantasticar (this is from 12th March 1963) gets similar kinds of explanation and exposition. It’s kind of sweet, especially as the early version totally did look like a flying bathtub.
Then there is this one time (6th Sept, 1962 Lee & Kirby) the whole skyscraper is picked up, fabulous adventures are had, and then returned safe and sound. So actually, scratch that about them giving any thought to the plumbing.
This is probably my single favourite frame — already, planning nerds of mine, we see the unnatural yet taken-for-granted logics of a downtown that empties out late at night, except for a handful of people subject to hallucinations. Not explicitly caused by drink or drugs (though I think that may be taken for granted, they just can’t say it out loud in something targeted at kids), but of ‘the anxieties that plague our nuclear society.’ Damn. I think I’m right there, that anxieties of nuclear war are seen as less harmful to America’s kids than alcholism and LSD, but I could be wrong.
But wait. It gets crazier. There’s that episode where the Fantastic Four lose their money, can’t pay their rent, and so out they go. Evicted! This leaves their incredible super base with its missiles and laboratories FOR RENT. To the highest bidder. I couldn’t imagine a better argument for rent control in all of literature. Thank god it was just Sub-Mariner behind it all, back from when he was just kind of evil.
Then, too, which I appreciate as a writer, there’s that crazy moment when the creators themselves pierce the veil and emerge as characters. It’s not as exciting as it sounds, but them it never is, is it. Not even when it’s Italo Calvino.
There’s a lot of interaction between writer, artist and fans — these are as much celebrity mags as comics it feels like (apologies to all of you who will hate me forever for saying that). But there are separate sections responding to questions about the Fantastic Four’s lives and their lifestyle and how they deal with fame and stress.
Sadly this opened up the opportunity to show just how lame female superheroes were drawn — and how fans called those responsible out on it not by demanding stronger women, but by suggesting they just fade away into the background. In this episode Sue breaks down after receiving a bunch of hate mail about how she sucks (11th Feb, 1963). Who knew trolls were roaming the universe in this way before the internet?
Yes, you say! Set the record straight! But what is the best they can think of? Abraham Lincoln’s mother. It is by being mothers that women contribute most. But wait, you say, Sue isn’t even married, much less a mother! True, so we’ll relate that time or two where she didn’t have to be rescued, but actually used her powers for something useful.
A huge thank you to all the ladies of the 1960s (and those before and those after), who complained and raised their voices and fought this bullshit so we could be awesome outside our roles as mothers and wives, by actually doing all those things we are awesome at, and so kick ass women superheroes like…like…yeah, comics still aren’t so good at that. Tank Girl, Hopey and Luba and the other awesome ladies from Los Bros Hernandez Love and Rockets. Those are a few I know and love.
This damn collection ends like this:
God, what would those guys do if Sue didn’t clean, in silence so as not to disturb them? I can’t believe the fans are complaining.
I don’t want to end on quite that note though. So I’ll give you one of the things I really love — Jack Kirby’s imagining of an ancient city on the moon (13th April, 1963). Pretty cool and one of the reasons to love comics, but maybe not this one quite so much.