So, back in the ’60s, the comics industry was very different in terms of distribution, obviously. It took months for the publishers to get back any real information on how much a book was selling. They would have no idea that a series was successful until the letters and sales figures rolled in and would just have to tentatively keep publishing until they got confirmation of their hopes or fears.
Well, I think Fantastic Four Issue 3 marked the post-sales figures version of the book. A lot of stuff comes together with this issue.
The cover alone marks such a drastic difference for the book. Costumes! Gadgets! The lettering for the title is still the same (solid choice there), but they’ve now appended the first-draft version of the “Greatest Comics Magazine” boast. Johnny gets a big visual upgrade to the lined version that will become the definitive version of him for at least a couple decades. Also, the price went up by 2 cents!
Who is the mysterious Miracle Man? And what moment of this issue elicited a literal laugh out loud moment from yours truly?
A note on the “chapter” markers. All three issues so far have had these sort of pages marking a new arc of the story – a big impressive splash image that dominates the page, with a row of regular-sized boxes below. Issue 2 randomly marked one of these as “Part 2” but none of the others have been so delineated. This issue, though, makes an effort to organize the book into these chapters, clearly marking each one, though even in that there’s some inconsistency, as all but this first one use Roman numerals. I don’t think I’ve ever seen other comics (even others of this time) do that, but maybe I just didn’t notice.
So. Miracle Man! This one shot fills us in pretty fast. He’s a stage magician, and an incredible one at that, according to the audience. I’m sure it’s a coincidence, but it’s funny that his stage assistant’s color scheme bears a strong resemblance to a certain other miracle-themed hero that Jack Kirby would create a few years after this.
Miracle Man spots our heroes in the crowd and begins taunting them and showing off some amazing feats and generally trolling Thing until Ben loses his shit and charges the stage. Miracle Man quickly makes a fool of Thing, and Reed has to restrain him once again.
We’re then treated to a one-panel, rather anti-climactic first shot of the Fantasticar, and then Reed muses some deep musings.
This issue reminds me of some behind-the-scenes I read years ago about Star Trek: The Next Generation. The producers knew if they wanted certain sets to be built for future episodes, their best chance to get the money to make them was to feature them in the pilot. After that, they could easily use them whenever, since they were already built. So in the first episode of TNG, they made sure to write in things like the shuttle bay and engineering and other parts of the ship even if they didn’t really need them for the story.
There’s so much greatness here. Fantasticar and Fantasticopter! We don’t get to see the Pogo Plane in action, but it’s there! Giant…map room…? Photo analysis room, which is the biggest room in the joint? Less exciting. Maybe it’s for astronomy photos, since it’s at the base of the observatory? Or maybe Reed runs one of those Photoshop mistake websites in his spare time. The rooms full of equipment beneath the hangers are unmarked, so I suppose that’s where Reed’s labs are.
The idea that this could possibly be secret is hilarious, though. Not only are the Fantastic Four not a secret group, it’s a huge futuristic tower perched atop what is otherwise an ordinary apartment building, out of which fantastic vehicles operate on a regular basis. These are the asshole neighbors who don’t realize or care that their dog is barking all night long.
The next couple pages are a lot of fun:
First off – that monster! It’s great!
There have been a couple of Bijou theaters in New York’s history. There is currently a Bijou, some sort of combination gay bar and theater with a secret entrance and everything. But the one referenced here was one of the old Broadway stage houses back before there was a Broadway, waffling between owners and alternating between films and plays for decades. Most fascinating, about a year after this comic was written, the Bijou was turned into a Japanese film house by Toho. Yes, totally Toho! If you know me at all you know I’m a massive Kurosawa fan, so this bit of history was quite delightful to uncover. Anyway, that whole area descended into scum and villainy through the ’70s, and all those old theaters, including the Bijou, were demolished to make room for a hotel. Curiously, the theater Jack drew here looks a lot more like a Los Angeles movie theater to me than something you’d find in New York.
Secondly, Johnny there is sporting the first smile we’ve seen from anyone on the team yet. I dunno, just seemed like something to note, even if Johnny’s smile looks suspiciously like a Skrull putting on what someone told him a smile should look like.
On to the costumes! Sue comes up with them, of course, because lady parts. I’ve always liked the clean, simple FF costumes, and they look remarkably like the space suits the team wore when they went into space. Some nice follow-through with that, overall. They also look comfortable, something not many superhero costumes can lay claim to. They’re not tight, and they’re practical, and the uniform nature of them makes them seem like they’re…a family, I guess. Like they’ll stick together through anything, a united front. It’s nice. They also remind me of how Darwyn Cooke draws Superman and other heroes. They have creases and the bodies beneath them feel real.
(Reed’s hair is the sloppiest damn color job I think I’ve ever seen. His graying temples periodically disappear, then shift around, then move back to where they’re supposed to be.)
I still have a major problem with them calling Ben the Thing all the time. You know he’s not a monster, and that he’s sensitive about his appearance. It just feels like the dick thing to do.
So Johnny spots Miracle Man on TV and the game is afoot! Miracle Man animates the aforementioned movie monster, which starts rampaging through the streets of the city.
The monster quickly vanishes, thankfully before the cops manage to kill too many onlookers.
The FF go to the police to report what they know and offer their help. It’s actually a little weird to see this, just because the direction of the book turned away from this petty crime-fighting stuff long before I started reading it. I think of the FF as explorers and scientists, not as crime fighters. But it’s understandable, these are the genre conventions of the time. Superheroes fight crime.
My favorite part of this note is how Miracle Man knew in advance where the reader’s thumb and the camera were going to be so he could place the text properly. You don’t find quality typesetters like that anymore.
So our heroes split up to search for the mastermind. The monster from the movie theater reappears and starts…robbing jewelry stores! This was Alexander the Great’s first step to conquering the world, too.
This is my favorite part of the book, right here.
Mister Fantastic spots the monster, and dives into action!
This is a legitimately cool showcase of Reed’s powers. This is impressive! He’s not a traditional flying tank like Superman, so he has to come up with neat things like this to stop big threats. It’s pretty awesome!
Then this happens and I had to take a break for laughing so hard.
Sucker punched by a brick to the head! Goddammit, Reed, if a superhero has one job, it’s not to get beaned with a fucking brick. The modern incarnation can take a hell of a beating and bounce back, but this is a rookie Mister Fantastic, so I guess you have to cut him some slack. Happens to the best of us, I guess.
I would kill for the silhouette in the third panel to be a sitcom, of Miracle Man and his monster walking off into the sunset. It’s so adorable! Hollywood, call me.
Mister Fantastic is out of the action for a while, leaving the others to carry on. This would make sense if, literally in the very next panel after this, we didn’t then see Reed, perfectly conscious, being chewed out by the police commissioner for letting the bad guy get away. “The others are still on patrol!” he says, as though there is something preventing him from joining them when there’s really not. Nice leadership skills there, Reed.
Luckily, the others are still on patrol, and the Human Torch quickly finds the monster. It’s attacking an Army ordnance depot to steal a new atomic tank! This is another really cool showcase of ability, and totally cinematic. The otherwise unremarkable Fantastic Four movie captured a scene just like this in the only watchable scene in the film.
Johnny makes short work of the monster, burning it to ashes. Turns out the monster was really just made of wood and plaster! The victory is short-lived, however, and Miracle Man strikes from the shadows again, taking Johnny out with a fire extinguisher. Thing rushes to help, but finds that the ground opens up beneath him, swallowing him up, at a wave of the Miracle Man’s hand.
Look, these guys are new at this, okay? Luckily, it’s not an all-boys club.
It’s during this encounter that Thing sheds the helmet and the top half of the uniform Sue made for him, so he “can move!” The shirt reappears for a bit in the next scene, but then vanishes again for the last part of the story. (Fortunately, the pants stay on.) You might have noticed that all of their costumes have no trouble interacting with their powers – Reed’s suit stretches with him, Johnny’s doesn’t burn away, and Sue’s turns invisible along with her. Sue’s is totally understandable, as she could be unconsciously extending her power to cover her clothes. But the others really don’t make sense, other than as an artistic convenience. I expect in the next few issues we’ll get the invention of the unstable molecule to explain all this away.
Anyway, Susan has stolen away on the atomic tank while her teammates return home to await her signal. We get another recap of the origin story for new readers, this time by an unusually verbose and as-usually bitter Ben Grimm. Reed tries to cheer him up a little, but it backfires and we end up with another barely averted scrap between Thing and the Torch.
Couple things going on in here. We have a slight evolution of the Ben-Johnny relationship, with Johnny teasing Ben in a way that is totally understandable for a brother to react to someone who’s apparently crushing on his sister. Johnny even manages to end the confrontation without a third party getting involved, by storming out before things go too far. It’s tough to take sides on this love/hate relationship. On the one hand, Johnny is often a total jackass. On the other, Ben flies off the handle at even the slightest provocation. Neither one is particularly in the right. Either way, their relationship is one of the unique aspects of the Fantastic Four and the book is better for it.
The other big thing in this scene, of course, is the continued plot point that Ben has a thing for Susan. That Reed never comments on it is a testament to how guilty and conflicted he feels over Ben’s condition. He lets Ben get away with a lot.
Meanwhile…Miracle Man has driven the atomic tank to a junkyard at the edge of town. As Sue prepares to signal the rest of the team, disaster!
Miracle uses an (as yet) unexplained mind control trick on Susan and has her signal the others. Which she was about to do anyway.
I have to wonder why he didn’t use this power earlier, on the men. He had Reed dead to rights and could have done it then, but I’m not gonna lie it was probably a lot more fun to just hit him with that brick. Johnny may have been too far away, moving too fast to catch while he was flying. Ben, though, he could have gotten Ben. A more brutal age would have seen him seize control of Ben and have Thing snap Johnny like a toothpick. But this is the Silver Age. So instead this just feels kind of useless, especially given that Susan was about to signal the FF anyway. This mind control bit doesn’t really add much of anything, but has disturbing implications of the sexist variety.
The signal is sent! Reed and Thing rush to the Fantasticopter. Johnny, if you recall, had fled the scene of his impending murdering at the hands of Ben Grimm and has gone off to brood.
This scene is something you saw a lot back in these ’60s Marvel books. Every hero seemed to have a little gang of kids who constantly wanted to join in on the adventures. They were always sticking their noses where they didn’t belong to tip off heroes, calling in crimes on CB radios and whatnot. Rick Jones, of Incredible Hulk and Captain Marvel fame, was one of these kids who sort of hit it big and managed to stick around to be a permanent part of the Marvel universe. They mostly fade away at some point, but you still see little things here and there that are callbacks to that period. For example, Brian Michael Bendis, in Alias, had a teenage kid who’d show up at Jessica Jones’s office periodically to annoy her and ask for a job. Johnny blows them off here, so I don’t know if we’ll see more of them in the pages of Fantastic Four.
Besides that, though, John is clearly worried about Ben and the implications of their constant feuding. What does this mean for the future of the FF?
Despite his misgivings, his sister is in trouble, and so Johnny is away. Our heroes converge on the junkyard for the final battle. Miracle Man bizarrely tries to kill them with a mere machine gun, and when that fails he leaps in his shiny new atomic tank to make a getaway. The FF give pursuit in…listen, this is almost too ridiculous for me to even put in here. But I must, gentle reader. I hope you know what you’re making me do. Here we go.
Reed and Thing move to the Fantasticopter to pursue, but Human Torch warns them off – somehow in the middle of this fracas the Miracle Man manage to sabotage the chopper. You can practically hear Stan sitting in his office bitching about the ridiculous things Jack has drawn that he now has to try to cobble together dialogue for.
And they’re off! Miracle Man, being in a tank, opens fire and somehow manages to destroy only one wheel of this antique car. He hasn’t had a chance to read the manual, yet. There’s no Haynes Atomic Tank edition I suppose, which seems like an under served market to me. So then this happens.
Finishing things his way, Johnny flies out ahead of the tank.
I guess I can buy this, since tinted windows won’t really be invented until a few years after this. Still, seems like a machine built to operate in places where it is likely to encounter a lot of bright explosions might have some built-in defenses against this. Maybe this is why we don’t see an atomic tank in every SWAT team today.
Thus blinded, the Miracle Man is defeated. Thing, per standard procedure, is about to practice his murdering skills, but Reed stops him. Miracle releases the Invisible Girl from his mind control and surrenders. Reed reveals his secret:
He was just a hypnotist all along! I actually like the Scooby Doo-style ending here. We’re presented with something supernatural, and Reed correctly deduces a scientific explanation for it (well, sort of, he just kind of leaps from being skeptic to the solution, but still, nice effort guys). It’s like a bad episode of Scooby Doo, though, in that some of the feats he pulls off aren’t particularly believable via hypnotism. How did he tote that big monster construct around? How did he hypnotize people who were watching TV at home? It all falls apart unless he genuinely does have supernatural powers. The one thing that he actually could have done with hypnotism – mind control the team – he inexplicably limits to the weakest member of the group.
One final note on the hypnotism. The very first page of the book, on the back of the cover, we have this.
Yes, a full-page ad for a how-to hypnotize book. There’s also a couple of other small hypnotist ads on the classified-style ad pages, which I believe are new this issue. The ads in general in the comics of this period are probably worth an entry by themselves. Taken as a whole, the advertisers thought comics readers to be mostly boys who liked to collect stuff, do-it-yourself science experiments, play asshole pranks on adults, and badly needed to beef up and defend themselves. Probably it’s not too far off. There are also some weird, obvious pyramid scheme ads that I’m not sure had any idea who was buying these things, though maybe get-rich-quick ideas were popular with adolescent boys in the ’60s (maybe they always have been and I’m just weird in that I’ve never given much of a shit about money?).
We’re not quite done! Reed makes an offhand remark about how the Miracle Man’s power was broken by Johnny’s blinding flash, and Thing gets pissy even though, yeah, Johnny did almost all the work this issue.
So there we go. Miracle Man is a pretty low-rent villain of the week, especially compared to the Mole Man. We’re not given his real name, or any particular motivations for him. There’s nothing sympathetic about him. What happened to his assistant from the first page, was she in on this or just an innocent girl doing a job? Did he really want to conquer the world? Why didn’t he just walk into the jewelry stores and banks and just hypnotize the clerks into giving him what he wanted? I would say it was just the showman in him, that the note about a war on mankind was all just flash and theatrics. That he just needs an audience, and to be recognized for this amazing skill. But then what the hell was he going to do with that atomic tank?
All questions that I doubt we’ll ever get any answers for. Still, Miracle Man makes a few more brief appearances in the Marvel universe, even some fairly recent. He seems ripe for a modern day reboot, or at least a deconstruction. I know where I’d start.
Next time: The coming of the Sub-Mariner! I’m sure that’s definitely not a double entendre, but only Sue Storm knows for sure!