Fantastic Four #16

It’s ant time, baby!

coverJuly of 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

This is another issue that opens with a splash page that is pretty useless from a storytelling perspective.

page 1If you recall, the last time we saw Doctor Doom was back in Issue 10, when his ill-fated attempt to shrink-murder the FF backfired on him. It’s no surprise that he’s back, but the way they bring him back introduces some pretty cool ideas! Too bad this issue is at least 50-percent filler, even more than usual. I like this opening splash page more than the cover – the team doesn’t look so helpless, and there’s just generally more going on. It reminds me of some of the Galactus action we’ll get to in about 8 or 10 months. Maybe they felt this was too busy for the cover.

Anyway: Ant-Man! I’ve always liked Ant-Man, I don’t care what everyone says about him. The size-changing schtick makes for some fun stories and interesting visuals. Something I don’t think many people realize is just how important Ant-Man is to the Marvel Universe. Attempts to have him carry his own series in these early days of Marvel didn’t work out, but he sticks around. He and the Wasp are more responsible for the formation and continuation of the Avengers than any other character, and their relationship, for better or worse, shaped numerous stories and villains over the decades. Without this guy, there’s no Ultron, no Vision, no jacked-up Scarlet Witch/Vision children, no Wonder Man, no West Coast Avengers, no Avengers Disassembled or M Day. It’s a whole domino effect. On top of all that, he has one of the most interesting set of psychological issues of any character in the publishing line. All of this is in the future, of course. In this issue, he’s pretty much the standard-issue lantern-jawed scientist adventurer that was common in the day.

This issue starts with Johnny racing to the Baxter Building, concerned because none of the others are answering his signal (signal for what is never explained). What he finds is most distressing! johnny homeJohnny swiftly welds the (unusually strong?) air duct shut, saving his teammates. They immediately revert to their normal size, and stunning revelations are shared!

confessions
I can’t tell if Sue is embarrassed or posing for a lingerie shoot.

They’ve all had incidents of temporary shrinkage! And now they’re hearing mysterious voices! Our heroes quickly tell each other of the problems they’ve had. Johnny shrank while working on a car and nearly got sucked into the engine. Ben shrank while in the gym and hung out in a guinea pig cage until he grew large again (I don’t know either). Reed shrank while piloting the Fantasti-car and nearly crashed. Sue’s story is notable, but not for good reasons:

sue interview
Stan delivers on the rarely seen triple-aliteration!

Sue is on a talk show, but only to discuss the male members of the team. Note the way the host seems to be more fixated on Sue’s hair than on anything she’s saying, though in all fairness that’s a pretty accurate satire of American journalism.

Reed is completely stumped by the phenomenon. It is kind of bizarre that he can’t even imagine what this might be, given that just a few issues ago Doctor Doom was hit by a shrinking ray right there in Reed’s own lab. Reed ponders that the astonishing Ant-Man, whom Sue says they’re not even sure exists, might be the only one who can help (again, despite the fact that Reed owns a shrink ray and has previously invented a reducing serum). This is the second guest appearance in the pages of the FF (after the Hulk in Issue 12), and the second time they’ve doubted that other super heroes actually exist, reinforcing this idea that the FF are a different kind of super team thanks to their status as highly visible celebrities.

Unbeknownst to our heroes, someone is listening in on their conversation!

all ant alertIt’s all-ant alert! I have all of the questions. How many millions of ants does Ant-Man have combing how large an area for any mention of his name? Does he respond to every single one? Do ants have the mental capacity to distinguish between something that’s alert worthy and casual mentions? Do ants speak English? Are these ants relaying via actual speech somehow, through tiny radios, or are these speech balloons actually giving us the benefit of translating their chemical signals into English for us, the lowly non-pheromone-speaking human reader? Do ants even have a word for “Fantastic Four”? Did they judiciously leave out the mildly insulting bit about how Sue doesn’t even think he’s real? Does Ant-Man direct his spy ants to hang out in particular places or just let them roam wherever? Do the inevitable territory disputes that ants regularly engage in disrupt his network? Regardless, I love it. Am I the only one who played Sim Ant as a kid?

ant man intro
Just type something, will ya?

I have unfortunately not read the early Tales to Astonish adventures of Ant-Man and the Wasp, but I absolutely adore this era of the duo (which overlaps with their early time with the Avengers). This is my favorite Wasp costume after the black-and-yellow outfit that she wore until just recently. She had just been introduced the month prior to this, which is the only explanation I have for why Ant-Man would leaver her behind here – maybe she’s too new to this superhero gig for him to trust bringing her along on a mission with the Fantastic Four, which will surely be extraordinarily dangerous. That or Stan and company are holding her in reserve for a later rescue ?

ant chariotHow do you not think this is the greatest thing ever? I completely freaked out when I saw Paul Rudd flying around on an ant in the Ant-Man trailer. This has always been one of my favorite superhero modes of transportation. (Again, I can’t be the only one who played Sim Ant.)

momentAnt-Man gives the FF some of his shrinking/growing fluid and then takes off to go investigate the matter from his lab. After he leaves, Reed starts to have an interesting moment, suggesting that Ant-Man himself might be behind their troubles, that gets interrupted by a reminder that Sue is a girl, with lady parts and everything. This kind of behavior becomes standard for Wasp and Scarlet Witch over in Avengers (which will be starting up not too long after this issue), with the ladies swooning over how handsome Captain America and Thor are. It’s sad to see it starting to crop up here (her troubled and troublesome relationship with Namor aside).

Equipped with Ant-Man’s shrinking and enlarging serums, the team leaps into action to root out the source of their trouble goes about its business. Johnny goes to a picnic with some friends. Reed tests out a new cure on Thing, which Ben is mostly just annoyed by, thanks to his relationship with Alicia. She likes him as Thing and doesn’t want him to change!

no changeBen accidentally refers to Alicia as Sue here. I’m sure it’s just a typo, but damned if it isn’t more interesting as a slip of the tongue. The writing of the day wasn’t subtle enough to pull this off, though, so you can continue to keep the Sue/Ben slash fic to yourself.

sue scienceHoly crap, where did this come from? This is the first time we’ve seen Susan do any sort of science. It’s great! She’s identified a weakness in her powers that enemies have exploited a couple of times in the past and is working to overcome it. This is a great moment for Sue, and if we assume that this is normal behavior from her we can conclude that she’s a chemist of some sort, right? That she probably went to college. That a shared love of science and exploration are what attracted her to Reed to begin with. And since most of the high tech gadgets and stuff we’ve seen in the series so far has been aerospace engineering applications, that would explain why we’ve never seen or heard much from her with regards to science – there just hasn’t been a good chance to highlight her skills yet–

And why does the Baxter Building have a kennel full of dogs?

Oh. She loves playing with perfume. Okay, well. Never mind I guess.

vortexAs they go about their day, the team keeps hearing voices. One sinister and another, a woman’s voice, warning them of Doctor Doom. The team reconvenes to discuss the voices and decides to go after Doom. Since the last time they saw him was when he was shrinking away, they quaff Ant-Man’s shrinking formula and dive into the microverse!

Microverse probably isn’t the correct term, strictly speaking. It can’t just be a super-tiny place, right? I have to assume that it’s actually a parallel reality that can be accessed by shrinking down so far that you enter into some kind of quantum state where Newtonian physics no longer apply, and you slip through the barriers between dimensions. That would explain why they don’t just look up and see their own lab, and how people in the microverse can communicate with people on Earth universe no matter where they are physically. My own Big in Ak-Sar-Ben (sadly no longer available online) features some ideas similar to this.

Anyway, they find themselves in a position most dire!

throne roomI love that Reed immediately owns up to what he’s done, putting them in this situation. I’m not sure what else he would have done, though, or how he could have prepared for this. Will we ever see, as a consequence, Reed taking off on an adventure on his own, so as not to endanger the others? It wouldn’t work out of course, and Reed would have to learn to rely on his teammates for support. This is a real opportunity for some character growth that I hope they take advantage of.

I wonder if Ant-Man knows about the microverse? Have his experiments carried him that far? Or has he been cautious and not just gulped a whole vial like some science noob? It strikes me that, had Ant-Man been told the full story of what happened to Doom, he might have been able to conclude that this was what happened, and he could have led them here in a safer, more controlled way. It would have also made his guest appearance far more relevant than it has been so far.

Doom fills them in on how he came to be the ruler of the microverse, as Doom is wont to do.

Dude, we’re standing right here.

Like the peacenik aliens of Issue 10, the denizens of the microverse are super gullible.

doom charming
Dude, we are still standing right here.

I love that whenever Doom is charming and winning over strangers, he’s still a complete asshole.

Once he’d earned their trust, he used his gadgets to shrink the king and princess and imprison them — a stunt he then pulls on our dear heroes! They awake to find themselves in a prison cell that’s been submerged in acid, populated by robotic fish that act both as deadly guards and spies! This is A-level death trap stuff right here. The former king and princess are trapped in there as well.

prisonjohnny charmingJohnny lays the charm down to soothe the fears of the royals, and Princess Pearla reveals that she had been one of the mystery voices they were hearing before, at times when she managed to sneak access to Doom’s machinery (I assume this was prior her imprisonment).

She also explains that Doom wants to marry her. This isn’t mentioned anywhere else or explained, but given Doom’s history I have to conclude that this was a political move to consolidate his power. Pearla apparently wasn’t so charmed by Doom’s telescoping lens, though, and she’s refused his demands. In response, Doom has called in The Tok!

TokThis cruel race of  space lizards will enslave the Fantastic Four, turning their powers to their brutal war efforts!

FF enslavedBut all hope is not lost! Back on Earth, Ant-Man has returned to Reed’s lab, only to discover the broken glass from the vials of shrinking formula he gave them. Ant-Man bravely goes after them, with no hesitation, and seems completely unsurprised when he shows up in the microverse, which makes me think he was aware that this sort of dimension-hopping was possible. Ant-Man is then bravely, immediately captured by Doom.

ant capturedI particularly like that second panel, the point-of-view shot as Poor Ant-Man gets slugged by a micro-goon. I don’t recall seeing any panels like this previously in the series.

ballastBack in the micro-prison, Sue has come up with a plan to bust them out. Using the inner walls of the prison itself, they fashion an acid-proof escape pod, provided ballast by Ben’s super-strong lungs. Johnny uses bright bursts of flames to blind the robotic scanner fish, and they’re free! Simple as that. Luckily, Doom didn’t bother to put any guards beside the wading pool he’d stashed the prison in, and even more luckily there’s an enlarging machine right there for them to get back to normal (for microworld) height.

It feels like some of the panels are out of order at this point, with a scene of Sue freeing Ant-Man before showing the rest of the team climbing free of the escape pod. Apparently she got free of the pod, turned invisible, scouted out the palace, and happened upon the tied-up Ant-Man and his guards in the time it took the Reed and the others to climb free and enlarge. Regardless, the team is just in the nick of time to spot the incoming Tok warship! batter upAnt-Man and Sue make their move!

doom foiled
This is what happens when you stop using the third person, Doom!

His plans falling apart around him, Doom makes his escape back to Earth. (Sue is a crummy shot with a blaster.)

doom escapeswrap upThe team makes quick work of Doom’s goons, and in no time the king is returned to his throne. It’s curious that the king plays practically no part in the story. He has like three lines of dialogue in the whole issue, one of which is to give Doom a job. Is he a weak monarch, and that’s how Doom was able to secure the throne so easily? Is there a segment of the microverse population that’s just champing at the bit to turn into violent bullies over the rest of the citizenry? If this place is such a push-over of a civilization, why haven’t the Tok invaded before? Is the team leaving this weakling in charge just to get overthrown again by factions emboldened by Doom’s failed coup?

the endThanks to Pearla’s crush on the Torch here, I have a feeling we’ll be seeing the microverse again, sooner rather than later, and with any luck the ramifications of Earth’s interference will be seen.

Fun issue, but another that feels padded when it didn’t need to be. There’s very little world building on the microverse, and none of the politics of that setting that we really need to understand, for example, why Doom would want to marry the princess. Ant-Man is largely unnecessary in this script and comes off as little more than an advertisement for his own series (which he is). Maybe he’ll have more to do next issue, which I’m sure will just pick up where this one leaves off. Maybe we’ll see the Wasp get in on the action, too! (Edit after glancing at next issue: Nope.)

Next time: Doctor Doom! Again!

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