Fantastic Four #4

Unless you were living under a rock in the 1940s, you’ll know Namor, but if you aren’t living under a rock you probably aren’t reading this blog, so I can’t judge.

Namor the Sub-Mariner was one of the original Marvel characters, alongside the likes of Captain America and the Human Torch (no, not our Human Torch, a different one that’s a robot whose parts and brain patterns, alongside those of future actor/scientist-villain-turned-hero Wonder Man, were used to build android Avenger Vision – you know what, forget I said anything) back when they were Timely Comics. Namor was the king of undersea empire Atlantis, and frequently came into conflict with both sides of the second World War. He had a few run-ins with the Human Torch and a couple of team-ups with Captain America and the other World War II-era heroes, then faded away until a brief resurgence in the 1950s. There were even hopes and plans for a live-action television series. I kinda want to track down those stories just to see what they were like; I assume he was fighting commies and the like. But he’d been gone from comics for about 7 years in 1962. The company had changed names twice since he was created.

Who cares? Well, he’s back!

May of 1962, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

Note they’ve finalized the “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” slogan. Also, there are notes in the margins throughout this issue about “What is the Hulk?” “Who is the Hulk??” and “The Hulk is Coming!” A little guerrilla house marketing for you to chew on.

Trigger warning: there is a lot of ridiculousness in this issue.

If you recall from last week, Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, fed up with Thing’s constant grumpiness and combativeness, left the team after defeating the Miracle Man pretty much single handed. This issue opens with the Fantastic [Three] in their “secret skyscraper hideout” (it actually says “a” secret hideout, implying more than one, but that seems unlikely to me). Thing is grousing good riddance, but Reed finally tells him off in a series of completely inaccurate flashbacks about the previous few issues.

Our first editor’s note!

– That first panel is from their escape from the Army’s prison in issue 2, when the Skrulls had tricked everyone into thinking the FF had gone bad. But by the end of that issue, it was all cleared up. There’s no reason for the police or Army to be after Johnny, unless it’s for destroying that poor person’s car for no damn reason in issue 1.

– Yes, we remember that monster, Reed. We also remember that it wasn’t actually real, and the great heroic feat you spend three panels describing was really just a hallucination-inspired case of arson.

-It was an atomic tank, not cannon.

Reed has a worse memory than Stan Lee. Maybe there’s a connection there I don’t know how these things work.

You know nothing, Reed Richards.

Thing assents to help search for the Torch, though he strongly hints that he’s only doing it to get in a homicide attempt. Reed assures Sue that it’ll be fine, with no evidence whatsoever to back up this claim.

So our team splits up, taking off in the Fantasticar, which inexplicably disappears in the ensuing pages, leaving our heroes to search on foot. This is, obviously, a terrible idea. Thing has, at this point, tried to kill with his rocky fucking hands every single person he comes across who even slightly irritates him. For Reed to just let him loose in the city, even just to run to the store for milk, much less on a mission to find someone with whom he is quarreling, is massively irresponsible at the least, and accessory to manslaughter at worst.

It’s clear that Ben is still coming to grips with being the Thing. It’s possible that Reed is doing all this to give him something to focus on, something other than his condition. But it feels a lot more like he’s giving an alcoholic a bottle of 151 and the keys to a car.

I’m not really sure why Stan and Jack keep splitting the team up. Every issue so far has had scenes of each member of the team searching for something or making their way across town. Maybe to increase the general feel of divisiveness that they wanted the characters to feel? It does amp up this general mood that these are people forced together by circumstance more than by any shared ideology, mission, or goal.

First we have Sue. I get the feeling there’s a running gag involved here, as there have been several bits like this already in the series.  I imagine it is easier for Sue to get around while invisible, being a celebrity and all, but, maybe just change your clothes instead? They’re pretty funny, though, and let Jack stretch the goofy cartoonist inside every illustrator, so I let the silliness slide.

Obviously sick with worry about her brother.

This next bit…look. I’m a big fan of Mister Fantastic. But these early issues make it really hard to defend him. Stan has yet to figure out a way to write him as smart or likeable, even if Jack has got a good handle on his powers. Then there are scenes like this that just make him look completely clown shoes.

Also pictured: a shot across the bow in the great and bloody “hyphenate teenager” war.

Yes, Reed, how else could a celebrity super hero possibly get anyone’s attention? You should definitely just grab passing motorists off moving vehicles completely at random to interrogate them about a guy they may not even believe exists. That seems both completely safe and totally efficient, and you definitely don’t come off as a complete lunatic here.

I would not assume he had tested out this stunt before doing here.
I would not assume he had tested out this stunt before doing it here.

Meanwhile, Johnny has basically just gone back to the life he had before.  So we find him in his old garage, tinkering on cars and showing off how his new powers can help him weld far better than he could with a welding iron. I’m actually not sure how much welding you need to do on cars outside of an assembly line, but I’m not the car guru that Johnny is.

Unfortunately, Thing shows up to ruin his day. Ben is the only one to whom it has occurred to actually check on Johnny’s old haunts and friends. They aren’t detectives, okay? Ignoring the fact that the establishing shot of the garage showed at least two doors and a huge, open carport, Thing makes a new entrance and immediately puts the lives of everyone in the shop in danger.

Seriously, there’s an open door like right over there.

Thing proceeds to smash some poor sod’s car through another wall (how is this place still standing?) and generally threaten Johnny. But their confrontation is interrupted!

While Ben is distracted, Johnny makes a break for it. Grimm’s relief is short-lived, though, and by the end of the page he’s returned to the rocky form of the Thing.

That third panel! So good. Though generally undermined by the dickishness he displays toward the guy who was clearly the fan favorite of the book at the time, Ben is painted as an immensely tragic figure. I’m looking forward to seeing how they shift him from this angry thug into the loveable galoot he’ll become. This early in the book, though, it’s all still pretty understandable. Ben is dealing with it no worse than anyone would, probably.

Some of us live here, pal!

Johnny flies off and seeks refuge in the Bowery. The Bowery is one of Manhattan’s oldest neighborhoods, near the southern end of the island by Chinatown and the Manhattan Bridge. Originally just farmland, it enjoyed some time in the 19th century as one of the fancier areas of town until it descended into a slum after the Civil War. By the time Johnny wanders onto Bowery Lane in the 1960s, it was a real skid row for homeless and unemployed men. The implacable forces of gentrification have been squeezing the Bowery over the past decade or so, but you can still find a few of the seedy old flophouses if you look. Kirby often skimps on the background illustration in these issues of Fantastic Four (artistic choice to focus on character? or maybe he just didn’t have time, given his workload?), but these street scenes in the Bowery are quite richly detailed, which makes me wonder how much time Kirby spent down there.

Oh, I bet sis was talking about him, Johnny.

Johnny settles in on his rented cot to plan his next move and finds an old comic someone left behind. It’s an old issue of Sub-Mariner! Johnny reads it like its a documentary, a concept that has been backed up a few times through the history of the Marvel U – the most recent example I can think of was in a story arc of Dan Slott’s She-Hulk run, where they’re used as evidence, legal documents, in a court trial. He mentions how this Sub-Mariner was as strong as ten men, and lived underwater. I’m sure this is all for the benefit of an audience that was likely still in diapers the last time a Sub-Mariner comic saw print. Most interesting about this to us, though, is that he’s using the book to confirm what his sister had told him about the Sub-Mariner. This will be important later.

Some of the other guests of the hotel spot Johnny’s interest in the Sub-Mariner and point out that there’s a mysterious stranger in that very flophouse who makes the historical Sub-Mariner look like a chump. They introduce him to a shabby, bearded gentleman, whom they then gang up on just for the hell of it. The stranger makes short work of several before stopping to complain that he can’t recall who he is or how he got there. Johnny steps in to stop the brawl and then, yes, he uses his powers to burn away the beard and reveal…

Nobody noticed the smell of burnt hair, which is not an endorsement for the Bowery hospitality management industry.
Nobody noticed the smell of burnt hair, which is not an endorsement for the Bowery hospitality management industry.

This moment must have been pretty damn cool at the time, especially if you were in, say, your mid- to late-teens and had been following Timely/Atlas/Marvel for some time. It would be like, I dunno, Sarah Michelle Gellar showing up in Avengers 2 or something as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Pretty awesome.

While Johnny is uncovering a living legend, Reed is still out fucking around.

GodDAMMIT Reed.
GodDAMMIT Reed!

Anyway, Johnny does what anyone would naturally do if they’ve found an amnesiac king of an undersea kingdom: flies out over the bay and dunks the guy in the fucking ocean. He does this with the assurance that he’ll dive in and rescue the guy if it doesn’t work. Sure, why not. I mean, it’s not like the Human Torch, whose whole schtick is flying and being on fire, would be a bad choice as a lifeguard.

Luckily, it works out, and Namor’s memory returns. Evidently during his land-bound exile he never noticed that he had pointed ears, unbreakable skin, scaled swim trunks, or tiny wings on his ankles. I suppose if he was stuck in the Bowery this whole time maybe he never took a bath. If he remembers how he came to his previous sorry state, he never reveals it.

Namor swims off into the ocean, returning to his kingdom. But while he was away, the unthinkable happened!

That was my favorite arch!

Atlantis is in ruins! The idea that it was destroyed via atomic testing is interesting, but wonky. Atlantis must be fairly close to the US east coast – the book suggests that it only takes “minutes” for Namor to get from Atlantis to New York. Even allowing that Namor is swimming with superhuman strength and probably knows some strong currents to ride, it only gets you so far. The only atomic testing (that we know of) the military conducted in the Atlantic was Operation Argus in 1958, in which the Navy fired missiles into the upper atmosphere in an attempt to create artificial radiation belts that could destroy incoming rockets, satellites, and irradiate passing space crews. Yes, we did that. Those launches were all over the South Atlantic, though, well away from where Atlantis surely must be.

But the fact that Atlantis is actually in ruins and not just rendered uninhabitable suggests a more malevolent explanation than even Namor is suggesting – that Atlantis was deliberately targeted by the military with nuclear weapons.  It’s never explained how Namor ended up stranded in New York with amnesia. Namor and his people were, even in the original ’40s comics, as much at odds with the United States as they were allies. It’s not unlikely that, after the war, with guys like Captain America out of the picture, top brass decided to take Atlantis out. I’m genuinely fascinated to know whether anyone ever followed up on this. There have been stories where Nazi scientists have captured and experimented on citizens of Atlantis, but it would be interesting to see similarly illicit operations performed on the behalf of the Allies.

Anyway, Namor is pissed and returns to New York, bent on revenge. Namor excels at righteous anger. If there’s anyone I enjoy watching wreck New York, it’s this guy. Johnny swallows his pride and summons the FF to fill them in on the danger.

Namor, though, has gone for reinforcements.

My wife says the same thing about me.
My wife says the same thing about me. Which part? A gentleman never tells. The horn.

Giganto is a pretty good monster design. He’s about the size of the Pacific Rim Kaiju and looks kinda like a blue whale with legs. He crashes into the city and the FF are at something of a loss as to what to do. The military response is ineffective. Reed comes up with a plan nevermind actually it’s Ben.

We just hand these things out to anyone.

The plan is for Ben to walk this bomb into the beast and set it off, because we have learned absolutely nothing from anything. Giganto obliges Ben by taking a nap in the middle of his rampage, his mouth conveniently agape.

This is a pretty cool shot, though, and as Thing advances deeper into the beast, he sees sunken ships and other, smaller sea monsters. It’s a pretty awesome sequence.

Thing delivers his payload and it works. Giganto is dead! Ben barely manages to get out alive. His teammates talk about how he’s just saved the city, but every shot of the city for the rest of the issue is a New York that’s just in rubble with no sign of life. Giganto must have an incredibly tough exterior, as its body is actually still intact. You’d think the city would be covered in monster viscera, but the beast’s epidermis managed to completely contain the nuclear blast. I guess we can assume it also held in the radiation? I’m starting to think the average citizen’s understanding of atomic weaponry was a bit limited back in 1962.

Ben got a bit of a power upgrade. In the last issue, he barely managed to withstand a few rounds from the Miracle Man’s tommy gun.

No, I will not make a joke about whether there’s a horn in his pocket.

As Reed and Johnny recover Ben and heap upon him unappreciated praise, Sue has managed to sneak up on Namor. She takes his horn in an attempt to prevent him from summoning more sea monsters. She fails to make the horn invisible along with herself, however, and Namor quickly…oh. Well. Hello there. First catch of th-damnit, he’s already made the “catch” joke.

 

…she asked, gazing longingly at his broad shoulders.
Given that there is a character named Namora who is Namor's cousin, this is actually super creepy. What happens in Atlantis, I suppose.
Given that there is a character named Namora who is Namor’s cousin, this is actually super creepy. What happens in Atlantis, I suppose.

Okay. So we know from earlier that Susan was up on her Namor trivia. She would have been a teenage girl around the time that Namor was gallivanting around the world being a war hero with Captain America, Bucky, and the other members of the ’40s boy-band equivalent known as the All-Winners Squad. She’s into it! And who can blame her? She probably had this guy’s poster on her wall.

I mean, other than the fact that he’s just leveled her city and probably killed thousands of people. She reluctantly caves when he paints a bloody picture of a humanity conquered by Namor’s aquatic hordes.

While you what, Reed? While you what?
While you what, Reed? While you what?

But Johnny won’t have it! We’ve seen the Human Torch shout his signature “Flame on!” a few times, but this is the first time where it really carries weight, and I it’s the first time he’s using it as a battle cry. It’s a pretty great fist-pump moment. Shit just got personal. He’s stepping up to defend his sister as well as the rest of humanity. Johnny flies up and around in a circle, creating a vortex that sucks up both Namor and the bloated corpse of Giganto and sends them all back out to sea. Fortunately, Namor is separated from his sea trumpet, depriving him of his potential reinforcements. The Sub-Mariner shakes his fist at the surface world, promising to return.

The scale of this story is absolutely epic compared with the others. Giant monster wrecking the city! Namor, their first really powerful opponent who can lay them out without much effort, with a strong personality to match, and once again far more sympathetic than the heroes. His cause is completely understandable, though maybe he should have approached the embassy first?

Reed is a mess, though. He’s beyond useless in this issue, and in general they obviously haven’t figured out what to do with him yet. His engagement to Susan hasn’t been mentioned once since the first issue, even in this issue where someone makes a play for her right in front of him, which makes me wonder if they were considering dropping the romance between them altogether.

The Namor/Sue Storm relationship has always been a delightful bit of Fantastic Four lore. This beginning, though, is incredibly problematic and casts the whole thing in shadow. He sees her, wants her, and then threatens to murder billions if she doesn’t come with him. She does look genuinely horrified when he does, and I feel like at that moment he loses her forever. You can see the childhood illusions swept away in an instant. It’s also the moment where he loses the reader as well, I think. He’s so furious and bent on revenge…but willing to set it aside for some tail? It’s not as if he really knows her. If the story had been arranged so that Sue, instead of Johnny, had found Namor, and they spent a bit of time together before everything fell apart, it would have worked much better.

Still, it’s pretty bold to make Namor such a villain. He’d been an anti-hero before, but still a hero. Maybe this was a calculated move to distance him from the more propaganda-ish comics of the ’40s?

Ben’s brief return to fleshy human status is, I believe, probably Stan and Jack toying with the idea of giving Ben the option to go back and forth. I spotted a couple of letters in the letter columns in which people suggested that he should be able to switch back and forth. Ultimately they’ll choose not to give him that ability, thankfully, but I think they were setting up to go either way here, or at least give the appearance of that.

But it’s obvious that the Human Torch is the fan favorite right now. They make a point throughout this book that he’s young (not much older than the readers), that he likes the same stuff they like, and that he’s tough enough to strike out on his own. All things that would have appealed to those ’60s kids. It’s a bit confusing that some parts of the book seems to think Johnny is on the run. Really all that happened was that Johnny told them to take a running jump and went home. For some reason the rest of the team decided to make a manhunt out of it instead of sitting down and working out the issue like grown-ass adults would have.

In the spirit of last week’s hypnotist ad, this made me laugh. I was originally just going to snap the shot of this buff dude yelling “Boys! Men!” while surrounded by women, but the text alongside actually speaks pretty well to some of the themes this issue.

Next time: DOOM!

One thought on “Fantastic Four #4”

  1. Keep it up. I love these. I love the little details like the background on the Bowery and the atomic tests. And the glimpses into the Marvel creative process. And of course BOYS! MEN! Gonna steal that.

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