I was initially something of a champion for how Sue was handled, at least with regards to how useful she was in the action scenes. I may need to go back and track how many times she’s been kidnapped or held hostage, though, because it’s becoming a running thing (by my count this is number 5).
May of 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Sadly, no Ditko this issue. But! We do get our trademark box! That box at the top left that has the little portraits of the characters, the price, and, for the first time if I’ve been paying attention, the name Marvel Comics Group. The trademark box makes its debut on all the books out this month, and was henceforth on every book across the line for decades. It’s probably still there, right? I sort of gloss out that stuff now. I’ll have to check! It’s iconic, of course, and a strong branding move, even if it’s a bad choice from an artistic standpoint. This cover is cluttered, and I doubt Namor would agree that this is his best side (disagreement from Sue aside). The red band across the top is an odd choice.
This is the first issue we’ve had that picks up directly where the last one left off, and this is a great, cramped, claustrophobic shot. They do spoil the Puppet Master’s return here, though (they did it in the last panel of the previous issue, but whatever).
Another Sub-Mariner issue! If it weren’t for his problematic relationship with Sue, I’d be more excited. But as is I’m just cringing in expectation of fresh misogyny, and the issue doesn’t let me down. Something about Namor really brings out the patriarch in Stan Lee’s scripts, perhaps because Namor is literally a patriarch.
Our heroes make a nice, smooth landing and come home hailed as…er, heroes. They get mobbed as they disembark.
Reed as a sex symbol was super weird to see, since Johnny usually fills the roll of the teen heart throb. When I first read this I thought it was probably a commentary on Beatlemania, but Beatlemania didn’t actually happen (or was even seen in broadcasts) in the United States until early 1964, a good 6+ months after this was published. Not that Beatles fans invented the celebrity freak out.
If you’re a Thing fan at all you might remember the Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation, a Marvel U wrestling organization built around fighters with superhuman strength (including Ben Grimm). The UCWF makes its debut in Thing’s solo series in the 1980s, making this an amusing bit of coincidental foreshadowing.
As a few men close on Sue, pleading that she take a Hollywood contract or endorse their deodorant, Johnny takes the initiative and gets them all out of there by whipping up a funnel of warm air that carries them away from the airfield and back to the Baxter Building. Almost every issue features Johnny trying something new with his powers, this one being remarkable in how it could have easily killed everyone on the team. So, hey Johnny, maybe save the experiments for the test dummies in the lab?
The team settles in for some rest after their (sort of) momentous trip to the moon, and we get one less-than-great moment after another for Sue. She’s going to do some house cleaning. Reed wants her to type up his report on the moon adventure. She’s caught using a probe to search the ocean for Namor. Wait, what?
Reed lets her go about her business, but launches into the first extended bit of introspection that the series has had up to this point. We get several panels of thought bubbles as he expresses frustration that, despite incredible powers and scientific genius, he can’t attain what he wants more than anything else. “Completely conquer”? Come on, Reed.
Meanwhile, some distance away, an entirely different inner monologue conspires revenge against the Fantastic Four!
Gasp! It’s the Puppet Master! Somehow he survived the tumble he took out the window back in Issue 8, and he’s been laying low in a seedy sanitarium until everyone forgot about him. It’s the time to strike once again! He mulls over a few past Fantastic Four villains (Mole Man, Doctor Doom, Skrulls – that last one is curious because how would he even know about them, and if he did know about them surely he knows that they’ve permanently taken the form of harmless cows) before settling on his choice.
We have to assume the restrictions implied by Puppet Master’s previous appearance have been eased. There’s no believable way for Puppet Master to have, for example, replicated Namor’s headquarters, or know what resources the Atlantean monarch has at his disposal (see below). I have to think that Puppet Master sent a pretty simple command and is leaving Namor with enough consciousness to carry out the orders.
Now, it should be noted that Puppet Master is not compelling Sue to do anything here. She’s acting completely of her own will. Did Puppet Master even mention Sue in his orders? We don’t know how much micro-managing the villain is doing, but I have a feeling he’s given Namor considerable autonomy and that his only command has been “Kill the Fantastic Four” with the Sub-Mariner left to his own devices as to the method. There’s no way for Puppet Master to know about the mento-fish, so he can’t be keeping all that direct a control over the situation. It’s actually a considerable jump in power for the Puppet Master, who in his previous appearance had to control every aspect of his victims’ actions.
Sue slips away from her teammates to seek out the undersea prince. To her credit, she does initially approach invisibly, fearing it may be a trap – set by someone other than Namor. As soon as she recognizes that it’s him, she drops her guard.
Namor has the fish encase Sue within an air bubble and sweep her away to his undersea home. Nearby, the Puppet Master gloats that everything is going exactly as planned. I have to assume he’s taking too much credit for what Namor is doing under his bidding, because otherwise too much of the story just falls apart.
Namor proceeds with the Puppet Master’s next step: taunting the remaining members of the Fantastic Four. We find our heroes at home, running Ben through some tests of his strength using a comically large steel girder. Namor suddenly appears in the midst, and immediate attempts on his life reveal that he is in fact not actually there, just projected via an undersea image transmitter. He informs them that he’s taken the Invisible Girl prisoner and they better not try to rescue her! This works because our heroes are all 4 years old.
You can see where they’re going with this, of course — the Puppet Master is her step-father, if you recall, so having her as part of the adventure makes sense. But this move defies all logic, and basically amounts to a suicide pact. The “with no one to look after me” bit is pretty insulting to her, too. This is a grown woman and talented artist who seems to get along just fine despite being blind. She shouldn’t need Ben to survive.
The team boards a bathyscaphe (herein misspelled, missing the “e”) borrowed from the navy. Bathyscaphes are like submarines, but they have a crew cabin that’s specially reinforced to withstand the extreme pressures of the ocean deep. You’ve probably seen those old bathyspheres, the round little pod that would be lowered off the side of a ship to sink as far as the cable could reach. A bathyscaphe is basically a bathysphere but without the cable (it has a series of ballast tanks, similar to a submarine, to ascend and descend), and with battery-powered motors to propel it along. They’re pretty cool. The vessel the FF takes has a crew cabin that looks way larger than would seem practical (the necessary strength to withstand ocean pressures makes the crew cabin of any bathyscaphe extraordinarily heavy), but I suppose if you call it an “experimental” bathyscaphe you can do whatever you want.
They have absolutely no idea where they are going.Side note: you can add deep-sea bathyscaphe to your list of “places in which it would be highly inappropriate for Johnny to stand around on fire but he does anyway.”
Well, they’re in luck, as they evidently wander close enough to Namor’s domain that they spring a few traps, like an undersea “porcupine” (I guess they mean urchin?) and an underwater tornado. Johnny makes an ill-advised trip out of the ship to counter the tornado and nearly gets himself killed.
What’s fascinating about scenes like this is how Ben and Reed behave. Ben Grimm is often filling in as the protective mother figure, desperately trying to ward off potentially self-destructive behavior. We saw this as early as the first issue, when Ben was the only member of the team to balk at launching the flight. Reed is much more prone to letting people do what they will, and then picking up the pieces afterward. Both speak to the nature of the team – they’re a family who watch out for each other, and also daring explorers and scientists. Reed isn’t afraid to try things that might be dangerous, and leans on their powers (and his intellect) to see them through when things go wrong. It’s pretty brilliant and fascinating to watch. Remember, the 1950s and ’60s was an era where the most visible face of science was rocketry and the test pilots who died flying them. This was no time for timid scientists.
There’s a flashback moment from a few years ago, at the very beginning of Jonathan Hickman’s run, where his father chides a young Reed Richards for being afraid to try something dangerous, and that’s the Reed I see on subtle display in these early issues. Is this what Stan and company intended? I have no idea, but it works really well to create tension and drama between people who otherwise get along really well.
Anyway, Namor captures them with a giant clam.
The battle ensues, with Namor mostly using assorted fantastic sea life to battle the heroes. Johnny is rendered useless by a voracious flame-eater. Ben is temporarily immobilized by a fungus that engulfs and hardens into a living prison! Finally, Reed tangles up the Sub-Mariner. You’d think this would be a good chance for these two to talk man-to-man about their mutual affections for the Invisible Girl, but they just engage in the typical “You can’t stop me!” boasting.
Watching from a secret submarine nearby, the Puppet Master is not pleased.
Instead of just grabbing the Fantastic Four puppets that he has right there on the table, he exerts more direct control over Namor! Reed and the others pause to give reason a chance, and Alicia expresses doubts over Namor’s mental state, saying that she senses a sinister mental presence at play. Alicia has done this before, seeming to instinctively know when someone is acting out of character. I don’t think Stan is intending to give her any special powers or suggest that her blindness has accentuated not just her physical senses but also her mental ones (though that wouldn’t surprise me), but rather that she is just particularly empathetic to other people’s emotional states. Alicia wears her heart on her sleeve, and functions as a pure mental compass – if she likes someone, the audience can trust that this person is likeable and worthy of trust. Kaylee from Joss Whedon’s Firely fills a similar roll.
What’s super weird about all this is that Puppet Master, who is definitely watching the proceedings, takes no notice that his step-daughter is there. I don’t think it would make a difference, because the guy is a scumbag, but you’d think he would at least say something, maybe reveal himself through Namor so he could gloat a little. He has as much cause to hate her as much as he does the super heroes. The lack of that scene makes the contrived effort to include Alicia in the adventure that much more puzzling. Why go to such effort to have her there if you’re not going to use her dramatically?
Their hesitation gives Puppet Master the chance he needs to give his most extreme command yet!
Namor loses his battle of wills with the Puppet Master and fires off the gas. Given some of the things Namor has done in the past (like during his battle with Doctor Doom), this is an enormously impressive feat for the Puppet Master, who seems like such a mook otherwise. Luckily, Reed had time to prepare for the telegraphed attack, and the team is saved.
Mind control or not, Reed and the others are forced to attack. Namor is just too unpredictable. Sue won’t have it, though, and once again leaps to defend him.
This is definitely the best obscure death of the series so far. They’ll be hard pressed to surpass this one. I love it, the frantic attempts to carve a quick octopus puppet, and the revelation that his power doesn’t work on animals (though, octopi are actually pretty smart). Surely the old Puppet Master won’t get out of this one! (Spoiler: he totally will.)
With the Puppet Master octopus-murdered, Namor snaps out of his control and is thoroughly confused as to why these people are standing around in his living room. We get some confrontation of the heavy emotional issues at play here, but every time someone attempts to address the twisted love triangle or potential improvement in Namor/Fantastic relations, it gets undercut by the jokers of the group.
Kudos to Namor for keeping his dignity, I guess. Come to think of it, and looking back at Issue 4 confirms it, Atlantis has never been named. Namor’s domain is referred to generically as his undersea kingdom, the citizens merely as “his people” or “sub-mariners.” The mythology of Namor and Atlantis has a long way to come.
So yeah. This issue leaves a lot on the table in terms of drama and pathos. The team never confirms that Puppet Master was the mastermind, and there’s no dramatic confrontation between the villain and Alicia. Sue just barely chooses to stay with the team, and still hasn’t committed to Reed (or anyone or anything else) in any meaningful fashion. Alicia continues to be the most well-developed woman in the book. The sexism is particularly rampant in this issue and distracts from everything else.
I close out this edition with the most adorbs fan letter, which offers a fascinating glimpse into pre-internet, pre-convention fandom: