I have, prior to this, read exactly one story involving the villain of this issue, an arc of Ms Marvel that came out a few years ago. He’s kind of a classic villain I think? Based on this issue, I can’t imagine why, because this is by a considerable margin the worst issue of the series so far. It does, however, introduce one of the great characters of the FF, one I didn’t realize had appeared so soon in the series, so for that it gets some forgiveness.
Brace yourself for…the Puppet Master!
November of 1962, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Man, that guy looks creepy.
We open with our heroes in Reed’s lab, where Ben has interrupted a secret project that Mr. Fantastic doesn’t want him to see.
You can guess pretty quickly what Reed is up to, though it isn’t actually revealed until later in this issue. Thing gets mad and starts making threats, he and Johnny get into a little fight until Reed interrupts, all the usual stuff. Ben does, however, make an excellent point that I’ve brought up here before: it’s silly for the FF to call each other anything other than their real names. In the letters page of this very issue, the editors seem to be struggling a bit with the problem themselves, and ultimately came down on the side of sticking with the superhero conventions.
Now, Stan and Jack are given a lot of credit, this is brought up a lot with regards to the Silver Age Marvel books, for introducing angst and conflict between the heroes of comics (particularly here and in The Avengers). Watch any documentary about these early days and one of the big points that’s always made is how the heroes were always fighting among themselves and not getting along like their goody-two-shoes forebears. The letter columns in these issues support it – there is a lot of support for the rivalry and conflict. But from my perspective, reading back on it all these decades later, it’s gotten pretty tiresome. There’s rarely any significant reason for the arguments, and the scenes could pretty much be copy-pasted from
any issue. There’s a real sense that these feuds are shoehorned in to appease that demand, rather than something that happened as a result of any creative process. If this were some shitty cupcake bakery reality show, you would assume these were scripted to amp up the drama quotient and get ratings.
Ben rage quits the team and storms out. Sue follows him, invisible of course, because…reasons? Ben picks up the thread he started previously, about how he’s not treated with all that much respect by the rest of the team, and we get close to having a nice character moment between the two when they get interrupted by a couple jerks so that we can have the old “Sue screwing around with people while invisible” gag.
O what cruelty! Testing out his powers on some innocent bystander just to see if he can. I mean, at this point, just making the guy climb up there should be enough, right? No, just to be a dick you gotta make sure the guy will go all the way with it. Luckily, the Human Torch intervenes.
So we meet our Puppet Master! Puppet Master is the first Fantastic Four villain we meet who I feel really passes the Mr. Glass test, with a mug not even his own mother could love. Technically, the Mole Man was like that, too, but I felt in Mole Man’s case it made him a figure of tragic sympathy, who turned his condition into something greater than himself. The Puppet Master here is just an asshole. But more on that to come.
The bit where he burns his finger here is curious. The Torch is clearly protecting his passenger from the flames and probably the guy only heats up a little, so it’s weird that Puppet Master gets this sort of feedback. It also never comes up again in the issue, so the whole things strikes me mostly as a contrivance to get the Puppet Master to start directing his energies toward the FF.
Note: we never see the jumper again. Nobody bothers to follow up on why he was up there. Enter: Alicia! Long-time FF fans will know Alicia and her future with the FF. I’ll not spoil it for the outsiders! We’re introduced to her as the Puppet Master’s stepdaughter (he firmly makes the point that he’s not her actual father – yeah, this guy’s a real winner).
So the Puppet Master isn’t a genius – what he is, however, is incredibly handy with that carving knife. He’s created an incredible likeness of our dearest Thing, and done so before Ben and Sue have even finished…doing whatever they were doing wandering around the city harassing strangers for having legitimate concerns about a superhero seeming to carry on conversations with himself.
Puppet Master uses his Thing sculpture to seize control of Ben and bring him to his apartment (which seems poorly thought out, but whatever). Sue follows him there, but is given away by Alicia’s apparently superhuman hearing (it’s interesting to see this “blind so every other sense is super-amped” idea crop up in a Marvel comic a full 2 years prior to Daredevil’s premier). Puppet Master takes Sue out with some knock-out gas. This is basically the same thing that happened in Issue 3, with Alicia serving the same purpose as Miracle Man’s dog. Think of that what you will!
This leads to undoubtedly the creepiest scene in the book, as Puppet Master notes that his step-daughter and Alicia look remarkably similar.
Then we have a quick, tender moment between Alicia (dressed as Sue) and Thing (who’s just sitting there under, for lack of a better term, mind control) before Puppet Master sends them away. It’s actually the first time we have someone (including his own teammates) being nice to Ben. It’s also, of course, the classic Blind and the Beauty trope.
With the faux Sue on his arm, the controlled Thing returns to the Baxter Building and attacks Johnny and Reed. Why Puppet Master sent Alicia along is baffling. It’s not like Thing needed her to get into the Baxter Building, and they’re going to recognize that it’s not Sue. At best, he was getting her out from under his hair while he enacted the next part of his plan. I’d like to say you could find worse babysitters than the Fantastic Four, but quite frankly you couldn’t.
Jack is great at drawing Johnny tumbling in mid-air. It’s fun. This is actually not the first time they’ve put this weird limitation on Johnny – something similar happened during a brief fight with the Sub-Mariner in Issue 6. Johnny will burn out and lose his ability to flame on if he uses it too much. It’s completely arbitrary and comes and goes depending on what the story needs at that particular moment. If Johnny had access to his flame, Thing wouldn’t have been able to crash through Reed’s lab equipment, discovering the super secret project that was hinted at in the beginning.
Ben has just enough time to feel guilty about getting mad at Reed and about clocking Johnny a minute ago before the serum wears off.
That middle panel! Heartbreaking. It’s kinda weird she thinks he’s so wonderful when the only thing he’s done around her is try to kill his own friends, though. It’s also a little awkward that she looks so much like Susan, the girl who’s rejected him.
But where is the real Sue? Cue dramatic music crescendo and cut!
Our favorite Invisible Girl awakes to find the Puppet Master orchestrating a huge prison break. Since Puppet Master is great at extremely elaborate scale models and uncannily accurate sculptures but horrible at keeping actual prisoners, Sue makes an incredibly daring escape by waking up and standing, and gets a signal to her teammates. Puppet Master has a puppet of her ready, though, and quickly recaptures her as the other three arrive. It gets a little weird here, though, when, instead of just using puppets of the rest of the team (we can see one of Reed right there in his cabinet), he pits a giant robot-looking puppet against them. Much like the Miracle Man before him, Puppet Master has made the mistake of controlling the wrong member of the team.
How the Puppet Master managed to miss that he could have sold this mentally controlled strong-arm to the military for a bundle of cash is neither here nor there. During the distraction, Puppet Master manages to make his escape on the most predictable of conveyances.
Reed manages to grab Sue, but the Puppet Master eludes Johnny and escapes.
The Fantastic Four don’t get a chance to pursue him, though, because the prison break that the Puppet Master set in motion is still happening! They rush to the scene and we get a fairly ordinary action piece, though it does have this pretty bad-ass shot of the Thing.
While the FF wraps up the prison riot, a much more somber scene plays out elsewhere…
Cut from the action-packed brutality of the prison battle to the quiet, dark apartment. Alicia lost and afraid of this new world into which she’s been thrust. Finally, a moment of honesty between the father and daughter as he reveals his master plan.
Bastard! Puppet Master reveals that everything so far has just been a test of his abilities (or sweet pranks on superheroes), and that soon he’ll have everyone, including the Fantastic Four, as his slaves (while looking remarkably like a future Emperor Joker).
What a titanic ending! Then these guys show up.
It’s nice to get another touching moment between Ben and Alicia, but the others feel like an intrusion. This was Alicia’s moment. Great storytelling on Kirby’s part through this scene, though, using the doll as a proxy for the fallen Puppet Master (today I expect we’d just see the crumpled body in a puddle of his own intestines).
Reed is right, though, in that there soooo many unanswered questions in this story. Where did Puppet Master get that radioactive clay? What is the nature of its power? What the hell is his real name and why didn’t they give it so that I wouldn’t have to type Puppet Master a billion times in this recap (it is Phillip, of course, I know, but it felt like cheating to use it here)? Where is Alicia’s mother and what the hell was she thinking when she hooked up with this dude? In fact, we really don’t get an origin story at all for the villain of this issue. I have to assume he was always a puppeteer, but beyond that we really don’t know much about him.This isn’t even getting into the logistics of his talents, having to build detailed scale models of every location that he wants to affect and gathering all the intelligence necessary to pull off stunts like that prison riot.
However, at the end I don’t really care, because the last couple pages redeem this issue. This is Alicia’s story, more than anything else. She’s young and naive, and far too trusting and eager to please her total jagoff of a stepfather, and her loss of innocence is dramatic and painful. But there’s hope in the form of Ben Grimm, who is also coming to terms with dramatic change and loss. They make a great pair, and I look forward to seeing their relationship develop.
Finally, as a bonus this week, I leave you with this, from the letters page, the first fan casting of a Fantastic Four movie that won’t be made for decades yet.
All respect to Hercules, but Robert Mitchum was obviously the guy for Ben. Gregory Peck is the best Mister Fantastic in this or any other era or parallel universe, and I’m okay with legalized cloning if we could make that happen. Tuesday Weld is pretty dead on casting if I’ve ever seen it, though I might make a case for Diane McBain (hellooooooo nurse!), who worked with Troy Donahue on…I’ll just get my coat.
NEXT TIME: The Fantastic Four versus Capitalism!