Fantastic Four #20

Molecule Man! Yeah. Molecule Man. This guy.

I first started reading comics in the mid ’80s, when Marvel was in the throes of the original Secret Wars. Those were stories all about guys with omnipotent powers and Molecule Man was right there in the middle of it. I’ve always been a little ambivalent on him. At that time, he was kind of trying to be a hero, and was shacking up with a reluctant villain named Volcana who’d been given powers during the first Secret Wars. He came off as being very weak-willed and easily manipulated, a real schlub. It was a weird time for Molecule Man. Lets see how he was in the beginning!

coverStan and Jack, November of 1963. Not one of Kirby’s better covers. After reading the issue I can tell what he’s going for here, but it doesn’t quite work. The details that clue you in to how the street and the city is rippling up like a wave are all crammed to the edges of the cover. The perspective and background color palette are all wrong, though I suppose the team really does pop there.

We find our heroes in the middle of a tantalizing investigation!

meteorBored, Ben takes science into his own hands and snaps off a piece of the meteor, which thankfully doesn’t explode or anything. Inside, they find a mysterious object!

space acornJohnny’s remark struck me as interesting – when was the frozen pizza invented? Because 1963 seems early to be casually mentioning frozen pizzas. But it’s not so crazy! The history of pizza is surprisingly contentious and it’s kind of surprising we haven’t declared war on someone over it. As far as I can tell, the earliest claims to the invention of the frozen pizza pie only go back to 1957, to a company named Celentano. Totino’s introduced their frozen pizza around 1962, which would go on to become the best-selling frozen brand of the ’60s. Johnny was on the cutting edge of culinary innovation!

Also curious is Reed’s declaration that this proves life must exist in outer space. Reed knows that there is life in space already. We’ve met several space-faring, intelligent species at this point in the series. Perhaps he means literally in space and not on other planets? That this is the seed of a life form that lives not on a habitable world but in the black vacuum of space itself, roaming between worlds and basking in solar radiation? I have to assume that’s what he means. I think mostly this line is introduce the term organic and familiarize the readers with what it means, as will become (kind of) more clear later.

The study is interrupted!

commotionI love the promise that the mysterious space acorn will come up again in the future. Laying the groundwork for future stories, taking advantage of the serial format. It speaks to a grander storytelling scope.

Cops gonna cop.

cops gonna cop
The weird thing isn’t the shoot-first policy so much as they’re shooting at something that’s white.

reedtainerThe team moves to investigate, but nothing they do seems to affect the strange ball of energy. Reed tries to contain it, but it passes right through him. Ben tries to help, because what’s a day without some destruction of public property.

ben pipesThen Sue moves to examine it with a trusty inanimate carbon rod.

sue probesEgads! It’s swallowed her up! Turns out the mysterious energy ball is actually a portal. They’ve been summoned!

watcherjudgyI don’t recall seeing a layout like this in the book before. It’s pretty great, allowing for two panels to convey the action but still allowing room for The Watcher to impress the reader with his stature. They’ve changed up his color scheme a little from his previous appearance, but he’s still got those creepy glowing eyes. Strangely, he also has a clasp on his…toga…cape…thing, that looks startlingly like the Skrull Imperial sun symbol we saw in Issue 18, but I’m guessing this was just a generic cosmic icon that Kirby was sticking on anything from space. It seems unlikely The Watcher is a Skrull.

Despite his self-imposed isolation from the universe they observe, The Watcher has chosen to interfere just a little to warn the Fantastic Four of a grave menace that threatens not just Earth and not just The Watchers, but the entire universe. This will become the template for just about every future Watcher story.

(“small, puny, ridiculous-looking” Really, Watcher? Do you have to be so judgmental?)

Cue the origin montage music!

originIt’s weird how few of these original villains get actual names. This time it works, though, reinforcing the idea that our villain has been ground down to nothing by the omnipresent forces of wage slavery. His loss of identity to capital is reinforced by the next bit when he meets with the boss.

origin 2
Acme Atomics Corporation is a wholly owned subsidiary of Acme Electronics

I’m not gonna lie, I’m actually not feeling too bad for the scumbag president of Acme here. Our boy here has just been in a horrific accident and you’re firing him? This place is clearly not equipped with proper safety equipment or procedures, as evidenced by our villain working around this atomic machinery with not even a basic hazard suit — not even a helmet or eye goggles! A lot of people in Molecule Man’s position would have justifiably done much worse than give the guy a case of frostbite, like sue.

In any case, Reed immediately realizes the dangerous nature of the Molecule Man’s powers, and we get a quick little lesson in physics.

lessonThus equipped with some knowledge of their enemy, The Watcher returns the Fantastic Four to Earth, where they make a startling discovery!

headquarters missingThe entire Baxter Building has disappeared! Not only that, the city seems strangely devoid of life. Where has everyone gone?

times squareOh, snap! The Molecule Man yanked the Baxter Building right off its foundation and is now riding it around above the city as his own personal chariot. He’s got himself a new suit, a new ride, and some demands. He loses my sympathy here as he demands to be put in absolute charge. Did he learn nothing in his time at Acme?

demandsI’m a little baffled by his surprise that the heroes would show up. I have to assume he didn’t pick the Baxter Building at random, unless he’s just really dumb. Did he think they wouldn’t try to stop him?

There’s no explanation anywhere about the “molecular wand” he uses. I think probably it’s just a crutch, a thing he uses to direct and focus his own power. Probably Stan and Kirby thought he needed something visual they could use as a cue for his powers.

The poor FF don’t stand a chance. Molecule Man creates anything he can imagine out of thin air, from magnets to giant fan blades to impenetrable shields. He pulls bolts of electricity out of nearby buildings. He warps the fabric of the city itself to his will!

street attackReed and Sue try the trusty bait and switch routine they’ve done before. Reed distracts the Molecule Man while Sue sneaks around to try and snatch the molecular wand. It’s no use, though, as he proves too strong for her to get it out of his hand. Johnny whips up a quick wall of flame and the team makes a hasty retreat.

As powerful as the Molecule Man is, and as easily as he defeats our heroes, he’s definitely a rookie in the omnipotent powers game. There are moments when he expends way more work than necessary. For example, to put the Human Torch’s wall of fire out, he goes through an elaborate scheme to tip over a nearby water tower to douse the flames. Why not just use his power directly on the flames?

Cops show up to wave guns around, but Molecule Man easily fends them off and demands that the heroes be turned over to him as soon as possible, holding the city hostage until they’re found!

hostage cityOn the run, with ordinary citizens looking to rat them out to the Molecule Man, things look grim for the Fantastic Four. Fortunately, help comes from an unexpected quarter.

yancyTaking refuge at Alicia’s apartment, Reed finally has a moment to sit and give their problem some thought.

solutionaliciaReed puts Alicia to work on a mysterious plan that only she can accomplish. Then, Alicia signals the Molecule Man! The trap is set!

He quickly arrives, demanding that she turn over the Fantastic Four.

Alicia’s bravery here is as impressive as the team’s willingness to put her in immense danger.

statuesBeing something of a prankster, Molecule Man turns his wand on the work of art. Disastrous!

feedbackTurns out the Molecule Man’s powers don’t work on organic matter. Even trying to use his powers on something alive is too much for him, and the poor guy is laid out flat.

I suppose we have to try and work out exactly what Reed means by organic. An organic molecule is simply a molecule that contains carbon (and even then, the distinction or mostly one of convenience for organizational purposes) . If that’s what Molecule Man’s super weakness is, that super blows for him, because carbon is one of the most common elements in the universe, with millions and millions of compounds. If carbon is the Molecule Man’s weakness, he would barely be able to affect much of anything around him because it’s in just about everything to some degree. The carbon dioxide content of the air all around him, by itself, would probably hinder him to some extent. Earlier, he attacked an invisible Sue by wrapping her in newspapers, the ink on which would have been filled with carbon black. The various buildings he’s been warping, lifting, and toppling and likely full of steel beams and other carbon-filled metals and rocks.

So, probably, there’s something else about living organisms that makes them resistant to the Molecule Man’s powers. The presence of proteins, maybe? Or amino acids? We’re getting way beyond my science pay grade with this.

Setting aside that, our heroes are still covered in non-living plaster. His powers probably would have worked just fine on that stuff, and you’d think it would work as a buffer for him against their living tissue. It’s a little strange that this gamble worked for anything other than a momentary surprise.

Either way, Reed swipes the fallen wand before Molecule Man can retrieve it.

defeatAnd then a certain someone shows up to whisk our villain away for unilateral extrajudicial justice for vaguely defined potential crimes against the universe. Seems legit. Just be thankful you aren’t a Skrull, MM.

watcher againThen Sue adds insult to injury.

the endWhat presumption! There’s probably some term for this phenomenon where you assume that you would do better with power than someone else. Our entire nation suffers from this regarding nuclear weapons, for example. It could be argued that The Watcher is doing that through this whole issue — in the end there, he easily fixes everything that the Molecule Man did, clearly demonstrating a power level above and beyond that of this puny human. The Watcher presumes to be more mature and civilized, I suppose, and therefore trustworthy to hold such power.

Note that Reed is smart enough to immediately recognize that the wand is nothing more than a psychological crutch. What would our intrepid foursome had done if the Molecule Man had been a more stable sort, with greater imagination and less self-doubt? It probably wouldn’t have ended well.

Which is sort of the problem with these god-like characters. They  can do anything, so it’s difficult to come up with an interesting way for the heroes to defeat them, or even stay alive. Sometimes it works fine (see some of the Enterprise’s encounters with Q, for example, though I think Star Trek in general used this trope too often), sometimes it works okay in a cute, gimmicky sort of way (Superman’s Mr. Mxyzptlk), and other times you just have to come up with an arbitrary weakness to exploit, like we have here. There are certainly interesting issues to be explored with those sorts of characters, it’s just difficult to do well.

We close this issue with a new excerpt from the letters page. No doubt you’ve heard of the George RR Martin letter in this issue (which looks more sarcastic to me than genuine), so I won’t bother posting that one. There is this gem, though:

gruenwald letterOMG which is so damned adorable! Mark Gruenwald would go on to be a mainstay in the Marvel Bullpen starting in the 1970s. He worked as an editor, writer, and occasionally artist on various projects. Gruenwald was writing Captain America when I started reading comics as a kid, and I still have that incredibly fun issue. He created and worked on some great properties in the ’80s and ’90s, and by all accounts was a great guy who was a joy to work with and loved the medium. He died tragically young in 1996.

Next time: We wrap up 1963 with a bang with the return of a classic villain! And a certain grouchy super-spy makes his first appearance in the pages of the Fantastic Four!

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