The Great American
                Novel Act 1:
                the danger Act 2: rising action Act 3: the ball Act 4: crisis Act 5: triumph the Franklinverse part 2, act 1:
                the new danger

1964: Act 2: the first defeats (the end of "Camelot")


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Summary
In November 1963 John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the idealistic era known as "Camelot" came to an end. Things become more serious. We start to see Reed's weaknesses more clearly: his arrogance that parallels Doom, and his unintentional belittling of those around him, both signs of elitism, the opposite of the American dream.

The first half of Act 2 belonged to Reed, the second half belongs to the Storm family. All their major turning points are here:

Issue by issue: civil rights

Issues 21-28 are about civil rights, and 29-42 show how this impacts the individuals and family. This is all part of the wider theme of alienation:



25
Issue 25: Sue chooses Reed

...but that's not why this is one of the most popular issues of all time.

Fantastic Four 25
The response to the death of Kennedy
FF25 was written around November 1963, when president Kennedy was killed. Jack Kirby reported that this affected him deeply, and affected his stories. Kirby is a fighter, so how did he react to this body blow? He fought! He released his anger in the first two parter, the longest battle in the history of comics. Just as with Kennedy, the authorities are powerless, and the hero seems overwhelmed, but like America he fights. Among comic fans this is one of the most popular FF stories of all.

Reed and Kennedy
Usually overlooked in this issue is that Reed almost dies (like Kennedy). This is when Sue knows in her heart that she truly loves him. before this, she had decided on him with her mind in annual 1, when he finally took her on holiday and proved that he would try (and when it became clear that life with Namor could never work). But it was not until she held Reed's dying form in her arms, when she thought she might lose him, that she knew she loved him with all her heart.

Honesty in fiction
The front cover to FF25 contains more claims than any other issue:
This was not hyperbole. In the 1960s, before the policy of "the illusion of change" was instituted at Marvel, there was no reason to exaggerate: writers were free to write what they wanted, restricted only by the two rules of storytelling: be as exciting and realistic as possible (see "how to make the bets stories"). The whole purpose of the superhero genre is to allow the biggest possible stories, so in the best comics the hyperbole is real! Compare annual for similar claims that were perfectly true: "collector's item" etc.

The big story: Sue's absent father issues
As pointed out by the excellent "Wait, What" podcast, even when Reed is in a coma, Sue defers to him. Sue has massive Daddy issues: she wants a strong male figure (despite being strong herself). In issue 31 we will discover why: her father is a mess. This sheds new light on annual 1, where she says all men are beasts -  men have always failed her, but she is still like a child, wanting a man to direct her. In issue 31 we see why, that he had to raise her brother by herself, so she never had a childhood. And in FF291 we finally realize the depth of her anguish: a man took advantage of her, and she was never allowed to talk about it. She feels so vulnerable, and longs for her dream man, a man who is strong and reliable, and not the train wrecks she sees around her. But the bigger story is how she must grow up and create a mature relationship with men: first by rejecting Namor's superficial appeal (yet remaining his friend), then by becoming an equal with Reed (by issue 159), and finally (in act 5) by guiding Reed gently, not through pleading and not by force, but as an acknowledged equal.

Ben's fundamental theme: identity

In this issue Reed continues to undermine Ben. It's clear that Ben is mixed up. By now he is convinced that his appearance made him unlovable, so he wants to be human. But he recently almost lost Alicia, so he wants his strength! His pride tips the balance. Reed insults him. Reed then tells him he is much weaker than the Hulk (this is not true, though Reed might genuinely believe it).

Later, in FF30 Ben has the possibility of a human appearance plus strength, but this depends on a man he is forced by duty to oppose. Such inner torment! By FF32 Ben is back to his desire to be human, but neither state is ideal. The name, "the thing" is all about a question of identity, just as the name "Mr Fantastic" is all about ego.

The accidental formula
Why was Reed so sure that his formula was accidental and could not be repeated? Why was Ben so upset - yes, he wanted to stay for Alicia, but he never reacted like this before or after. And why was Reed sick? Sue says it's a virus, but she is not a biologist, and this is just how Reed would have explained it. But when we look at the progress of Reed's technology we see an explanation.

The last time we saw Reed using biological chemicals was his experiments with unstable molecules in FF15, experiments that led to creating an android. Two issues before this one, in FF23, Reed saw some other advanced robots, including one designed to behave exactly like the Thing. According to evidence in the notes to FF23 and FF39, this robot was probably controlled with the help of demonic power, and Reed just came into possession of it. A few months after a demoniacally controlled Thing robot. We see in FF30 that Reed suddenly decided to "accidentally" have a holiday near a man known for using chemicals to control demonic powers. Chemicals would be the only way that Reed, a physical scientist, could think of to control demons. Apparently his efforts to understand the Thing robot led to an accidental certain cure for Ben, but being demonic it could not be duplicated and had to be used quickly. Ben was too sensible top take that risk, but touching the liquid caused Reed to become very sick. None of this is certain, but it is based on Occam's razor: do not assume there are two robots or two biological experiments when one will do.

FF25-28: a guide to the Marvel Universe
FF25-28 acts as a guide to Marvel's output in 1963, the company's most creative period. These issues feature:

 The other titles were all created to cash in on the success of the Fantastic Four: e.g. in Spider-man 1, Spidey tries to join the FF, and the cover to X-Men issue 1 announced it was "in the sensational Fantastic Four style!"

Other points to note


26
Issue 26: Ben's personality defined

Fantastic Four 26

The super hero genre is unique in its ability to examine inflated egos. Mr Fantastic is the classic example, made all the more interesting because despite his huge ego he is a genuine hero who sacrifices himself for others. But with Dr Doom, the Sub-Mariner, Gregory Gideon, etc., etc., we see other huge egos for comparison. It is then inevitable that we will see the Hulk, the biggest ego of all, and contrast it with The Thing. The Thing is practically as strong, but thinks he is weaker, yet will never give up; not because he thinks he will win (as the Hulk does) but because he believes his duty to others is more important than his own life. Ironically the story where we see them do nothing but hit each other is the one where we finally see the deepest inner feelings of both characters.

In this story we see the Hulk's hidden weakness, his vanity: he wants to believe that the Avengers cannot survive without him, and is angered and embarrassed that he can be replaced so easily by Captain America, someone the Hulk sees as little more than "an acrobat." Even the world's greatest ego, the being who fears nothing, has his hidden doubts and fears. Compare this to Reed Richards who cannot believe the team can function without him, and must finally lean that lesson. Notice that the Hulk is finally defeated by a kid, Rick Jones, just as Dr Doom is finally neutralized by the child Kristoff, and Gregory Gideon finally sees that his son is more important than his work,  just as Reed Richards does. In this family centered story, every massive ego is deflated by a child.

Unless credited, quotes are from the excellent review by Commander Benson

"Perhaps the purest comic-book story consists of a single brawl between two super-powered heavyweights.  For fans of this kind of story, you won't find any tale better done than 'The Hulk Vs. the Thing'. ... If someone were to ask me what the big deal was about the early Marvel Age of Comics, these are the two issues [FF25 and FF26] I would show him." (Benson)

Ben's personality: the defining story

"Ben Grimm’s wisecracks during the battle not only hit that right note necessary for comics-dialog humor, but it underscored the Thing’s courage.  It invests Ben with a true sense of valor.  His determination and refusal to quit come across as genuine human qualities, rather than just because it’s in the script.  As a character, it is Ben Grimm’s finest hour." (Benson)

At the end the team holds hands: they are tired of fighting. They have no heart to defy Reed any longer, after Ben proved his worth and Reed almost died. They won't question Reed's leadership again... until act 4 when his patriarchal style proves not to work.

On realism:

"One of the aspects rarely seen in a Hulk story is the effects of one of his rampages on the public at large. ...But here, we see the full force and effect on a city terrorized by the Hulk.  Citizens react in varying degrees of horror, some scattering in wild panic, others rooted to the spot by fear.  We see city authorities responding---marshaling forces, setting up barricades, directing an evacuation, establishing first-aid stations.  The military, when called in, are shown as more than just gun-crazy soldiers.  We witness the planning, the weighing of options, the discussion of how much force can be brought to bear against the Hulk without causing more death and destruction than the menace they have been called to defeat. [...] The effect of [the] interludes is a cinematic one.  It gives 'The Hulk Vs. the Thing' the feeling of a superior B-movie from the 1950’s, not that far removed from a minor classic like 'Them!'  Stan Lee’s script accurately portrayed a city as it would respond if such a menace as the Hulk and such heroes as the Thing existed. Nothing is incidental." (Benson)

One of the most important Hulk stories ever:
Apart from the issue of the Hulk's deepest feelings, this story is crucial to the Hulk in other ways, illustrating again that the Fantastic Four was the flagship title for Marvel Comics.
Other points to note



27
Issue 27: The Big Story changes: from Global to personal

Fantastic Four 27

A landmark issue in several ways
There is a rule with the FF: the worse the issue appears at first, the more powerful and important the story is on closer examination. This issue is a perfect example. On the surface it' "oh no, not another Namor story", with a confusing premise (is Namor in charge of his people or isn't he?), a pointless cameo (why is Dr Strange here, except to advertise his comic), and yet another "Sue as hostage" story. Most readers dislike it. but look closer, true believer. This is a landmark issue in at least three ways:

  1. This is the issue where global superpowers give way to personal stories
  2. This is where Reed finally snaps and shows his emotions
  3. This is where Sue finally makes her choice

Why Atlantis again?
The Great American Novel tells the story of America via a single family. But occasionally we also need to show an actual global superpower. Atlantis fills this role, literally filling the gap between America and Europe. Note that Atlantis, like the other communist metaphors (Mole Man, Red Ghost, etc) only dominates in the early 1960s. By the mid 1960s it was clear that America could win the space race, and Russia was more advanced scientifically as it had briefly appeared when it got the first man into space. So from the mid 1960s the focus is not on America versus Russia but on science: so stories about Atlantis (the superpower), the Mole Man (underground dangers) and the Red Ghost (Stalin/Khrushchev) are gradually replaced by stories about computers (the Mad Thinker), dangerous scientists (the Wizard) and technology itself (the Negative Zone). This issue is the turning point, where Namor's attempt to kidnap Sue (representing ends)

Global politics of the 1950s and early 1960s
The last time we saw Namor, he was reinstated as king. But now he has lost his followers again. Why do they seem fickle? The reason is not hard to see: Namor is half human, and in love with a human woman. But the humans destroyed Atlantis. He has a technical right to the throne, but has to work hard to persuade them that he is on their side. This suggests that the "war against the human race" in issue 4 and annual 1 were largely to persuade the Atlanteans of which side he was on,

There are obvious parallels wit the political polarization of both Russia and America in the 1950s. Under Stalin's and McCarthy's witch hunts, only the most extreme political positions were allowed. The only question in politics was, "do you sympathize with the other side in any way?" and nobody was above suspicion. Any hint of sympathy for socialism in America or capitalism in Russia was not tolerated.

All of this is represented by Namor: he has impeccable credentials, as the rightful ruler, yet his own people do not trust him: he is half human, and in love with a human: and it was humans who destroyed Atlantis (probably deliberately: see the notes to FF 4). very few of Namor's subjects really trust him, and when he visits Earth he has to do so in disguise: he did not hide his identity from the FF (he immediately announced he was Namor), but he could not risk any Atlanteans knowing that he was visiting Sue.

FF  27-35: the great transition

Fairy tales
FF 27-35 is the transition period between the global and the persona. It is dominated by fairytale symbolism. Here we have the innocent girl and the handsome prince. In the next few issues we have the evil wizard in Transylvanian forests (Diablo), the troll king and his underground monsters (Mole Man), the bad parent who becomes good (Gideon), the dragon who's heart is softened by love (Dragon Man), and so on. This is all about the story of the kingdom focusing down to the story of the princess (Sue). is is where Sue gains her handsome prince. It is no accident that in order for this to happen Sue must first gain her invisible forcefields, much as the fairy tale pauper must obtain magical help in order to move forward in the story and win the prince.

Why Sue as hostage?
The fairytale motif demands that the innocent girl must be taken hostage, so in three of these six fairy tale issues Sue fills that role.

But there is a bigger reason too. Throughout history America has presented itself as Columbia, the innocent maiden (ironically for the most powerful nation on Earth, just as Sue is the most powerful member of the FF). Whenever action ids required, pure hearted Columbia makes the call. For the Great American Novel to move on, Reed must be aroused to passion, to show once and for all that he is greater than Namor, and for that Sue must be endangered. So it is that in this issue the Reed-Namor question is finally resolved, and Reed wins.

Columbia
(Of course, Reed does not glory in winning, he is too noble for that, he simply does what has to be done because of his red blooded morality: the final image does not show him triumphant but stoic, showing by his simple naivety that he has the moral high ground.)

Why Dr Strange?
The fairy tale nature of this story requires magic, but it goes beyond that. The importance of the brewing Atlantean civil war (see the events of this issue, annual 1 and FF33) cannot be overstated. There are strong hints throughout the 28 years story that higher powers are watching, and the interface between these higher powers and our world is what we call magic. So when something of the greatest danger occurs (and it does not directly involve a higher power who would outrank him, such as Galactus or the Watcher) then Dr Strange is the one to call.

Global and personal relationships

This issue compares and contrasts the risk of global war with personal relationships. The rest of this review is about the personal angle, particularly Sue's feelings.

The best review of this landmark issue is by Chrissy on Adventures in the Marvelous Zone. All I can do is summarize her excellent piece, and add my own defense of the ending.

The real point here is Thing’s immediate comment: “Whataya know?! So his brain AIN’T just a mess of test-tubes and six-syllable words!” That phrase pretty much sets the stage for the rest of the story. Our mild-mannered scientist, who almost never reveals his true feelings, is about to go nuclear!
Reed announces to Thing and Torch that he’s going shopping…for an ENGAGEMENT RING! I guess in Fantastic Four #1, when Sue describes herself as Reed’s fiancée, it was only wishful thinking on her part. Or maybe it was a carefully crafted plan to fluster him into allowing her to join that fateful space flight into the cosmic rays. Or, maybe there’s another explanation. We already know Reed is much more comfortable using six-syllable words to talk about test tubes than he is in making declarations of love. Perhaps in his failure to communicate, Sue has gotten a completely erroneous idea about the state of their relationship.

[When Sue is kidnapped:]
Now Reed is in a rage. And such a rage we have never seen before! Yes, I guess our stoic scientist does have emotions, and he gives a good display of them now, flinging his elongated limbs all over the lab, as he vows to make Namor “PAY for this…with his LIFE!” Even Johnny and Thing are surprised by Reed’s outburst, reminding him to simmer down because “it’s shamefully undignified!”

[When Sue demands to be freed]
At this point, Sue is not communicating, either. When Namor says he wants 24 hours “to tell you how I love you…to ask you to be mine!!” Sue responds with “But Reed will find you! And when he does…nothing can save you!” It probably would have been better if she chose this moment to deliver her wonderful “Let’s be friends” speech from page 22, but give the girl a break. She’s been knocked out, kidnapped, held prisoner in a glass bubble at the bottom of the ocean. Certainly, she does not consider Namor a rational being who can be reasoned with, so it’s not surprising that all her thoughts are focused on what Reed will do when he finds her.

[This is where Reed and Namor finally learns to respect each other]
When he [Namor] observes that “Mr. Fantastic can explode in a fit of rage like anyone else,” he gains new respect for his rival. “Perhaps now,” Namor taunts him, “you can understand MY feelings,” citing his distress when the accursed humans caused him to lose his kingdom, his people, everything he holds dear. Are these two finally connecting on some deeper emotional level? Might they finally be coming to the realization that the other is not “the bad guy,” but that he’s also fighting, with equal conviction, for that which he holds most dear?

[Namor as a mirror for Reed]
Namor’s problem is that he thinks he’s the center of the universe. He thinks everyone has to conform to his way of thinking. And I hate to say it, but that’s Reed’s problem, also. As a rule, Reed functions from a place of science and logic, and when that’s your foundation, why would you look any further for explanation and meaning about how the world works? Reed thinks he has all the answers, and he doesn’t have patience for any mindsets that are not as enlightened as his.

[The ending]
“Sue, darling,” Reed begins, “about what you said back in Namor’s palace…”  Dot dot dot. He’s handing her the ball. And what does she do with it? “Please, Reed! I-I’d prefer not to discuss it now! I’m still so shaken!” [...] How does Reed feel about that? We may never know. Because the lunkheaded Thing decides to butt into something that’s none of his business, asking Sue, “Hey! You didn’t just say what you did in order to prevent any more fighting, did you?” Huh? What? Why?? WHY? Why couldn’t he just keep his big mouth shut!

WHAT is going on here in the less-than-fantastic thought processes of Mr. Fantastic? Earlier in the story, he felt confident enough to buy Sue an engagement ring. He was ready to give it to her before the interruption of this little fiasco…which, by the way, ends with Sue confessing her love for him in front of EVERYONE. Now, he should feel more confident than ever, but instead, he develops feet of clay and retreats back into a place of “uncertainty and anguish,” gripping the wheel of the submarine with knitted brow.

Okay. I started out saying this was all about men’s inability to communicate, but my girl Sue, in the next to the last panel, establishes herself as the third lunkhead in this scene. “Oh, Reed, you blind fool!” she thinks, “Of course it’s you l love!! But how can I ever CONVINCE you?”

Crissy makes the perfectly reasonable suggestion! Sue should tell him! And keep telling him until he understands! Why doesn't she? Here are my thoughts.

Reed and autism
I argue elsewhere that Reed is probably autistic. he has trouble understanding human relationships. If so, this story suddenly makes a lot more sense.

Why did Ben interrupt at the end?  I wonder if his final interjection was calculated? My theory is that Reed is autistic (I can give a long list of reasons). I don’t mean that in a bad way: I am diagnosed on the spectrum myself, and Reed is my hero. I think Reed finds relationships confusing and exhausting, and FF 27 is where the stress reaches unbearable levels. I imagine his mind as a swirling maelstrom of confusion, overwhelmed with too many data points. Being overwhelmed pretty much defines autism.

Neuro-typical (NT) minds are tuned for social situations. Social situations are far more complex than most people realize: every new variable doubles the complexity, and pretty soon you have thousands of “what if”s. What if Sue does “this”? What if “that” happens? What if “X” then happens? What if, at that point, “Y” happens? NT minds quickly discard the unlikely scenarios and focus on the ones that are likely to matter. So they can carry on an emotion-laden conversation in real time, and even enjoy the stimulation! But to an autism-spectrum (AS) brain, the experience is VERY different.

To understand how Reed is feeling at the end of FF 27, imagine the opposite situation. Imagine you were the only NT in a group of AS people who were all electronics experts. Imagine you had a ticking bomb, and had to defuse it in the next five seconds. (The ticking bomb for Reed is loneliness without Sue: he cannot survive without her, as we shall see in the 1970s, which culminates again in the oceans) To the AS experts the bomb is absurdly simple: any child could stop it. Isn’t it obvious? The task is fun! “Can’t you see that resistor and that NAND gate? Just disconnect wire A”! Obviously!!! It’s so simple, just do it!!! And you stare at the mass of wires and hear the ticking and you reach a blind panic and have a meltdown. I think that’s how Reed feels at the end of FF 27. He knows that his mental survival depends on saying the right thing to Sue, he knows it is obvious to everyone else, he has to say the right thing RIGHT NOW and he can’t cope!!!

To the AS mind each data point has equal weight until all possible scenarios are calculated, and it becomes overwhelming. Worse, when surrounded by NTs who can easily keep up, AS people have a desperate feeling of other people can see things you cannot. And they need love just as much as other people.

Ben's character development
From issue 1 to issue 13, Reed put Ben down at every opportunity, and didn't realize he was doing it. In issue 8 Ben sincerely believed that Reed hated him. But now that he has seen Reed out of his depth, he begins to feel compassion for the friend he once saw as his enemy. This is a turning point for Ben as well as for Namor and Reed.

Reed then drives home in silence. I find driving in silence is so therapeutic. The problem with autism is the feeling of being overwhelmed. Not knowing if you are doing the right thing, not knowing how to respond. But when driving a car everything is well defined and relatively simple. As long as you focus on the road (and people on the spectrum are very good at focusing) you can forget everything else and know you are doing The Right Thing for the duration of the journey. Driving is very calming. Big hearted Ben just saved his best friend, which is all the more poignant given how Reed had (unintentionally) hurt Ben over the previous two years.

The water metaphor.
Life is like an ocean, and love is like air. But when NTs swim and frolic, AS people drown. Ben threw his friend a lifeline.  The water metaphor in Fantastic Four 27 is absolutely inspired. And of course water is Freudian imagery for sex. At the start Reed jumps in with both feet and buys a ring. But he is out of his depth, and when things go wrong he panics. At the end he is out of his depth for a different reason, Ben sees him flailing, and throws him a lifeline, giving Reed a get-out. At this point Reed just needs time, a way out of the conversation. Reed was panicking inside and Ben saved him.

Sue and "I love you"
As for why Sue does not just say “I love you” I think that reflects the beautiful, powerful depth of the story. Yes, she could say “I love you” enough until he gets it. She could led him by the hand her whole life. But is that what she wants? To be married to an emotional two year old? Is that the marriage and future she wants? She desperately needs Reed to do something to show he is not emotionally crippled. She needs him to be able to recognize her love without her acting like mother and spoon feeding a toddler. She loves him, but that life would be too much. Sue spent her life since her early teenage years raising Johnny. She does not want another child. She wants to be a child herself! She never had a proper childhood: emotionally she cannot cope with being a child, then raising a child then marrying a child. She wants a man!!!

With Sue’s looks she could get any man she wants (note the recurring motif of Hollywood producers wanting her). No wonder Sue was tempted by emotionally strong Namor. (It is no accident that Namor has his own movie studio, seen in FF 9 and FF 195: it is sending the same message, instead of spoon feeding babies her whole life, Sue deserve to be pampered, to be a babe herself, to finally have a childhood and girly things: what choice will you make, Sue?). But in FF 27 when Namor stalks and kidnaps her, Sue has to face the reality: Namor could never be her husband. That leaves Reed, but he can be such a helpless child – is there no way out?

Reed's personal triumph
I love how, in this trapped under the sea story, Sue, Red and Ben are all trapped in their minds in different ways. (And Johnny as well, but that’s another topic.) I love the subtlety and depth, the oceans of drama below the surface. Thankfully we the readers are not tormented forever. In the following issues Reed shows he can be more than a child, emotionally. It is no accident that he proposes when at his old school, where he feels emotionally most confident.

Reed's triumph is not that he can snag a wonderful gal like Sue, but that he can triumph over his limitations. Reed is a billionaire, probably the smartest man in the world, a superhero and a national hero. He could have girls queuing up to marry him for his money and fame. but the real triumph is that he becomes the man that Sue would marry even if he was not rich. He conquers himself. Fighting your own weakness is a returning theme throughout the 26 year story. Usually it is shown through doppelgangers, but sometimes it is more subtle, as here, or in Doom's inner battle in issues 199-200.

Why was Sue ever attracted to Namor?
The boys, in their shallow way, think that Sue is attracted to Namor because he looks great in tight trunks. But there is much more than that. From the start she sympathized with her plight. She is also attracted to strong men (Reed is an alpha male, son of a billionaire and smartest man on earth, remember), and Namor is the strongest: he is massively strong when in water, and rules more than half the surface of the planet. But Sue is not a nobody either: her beauty is often noted, and was enough to make a movie producer stop the car when he didn't know who she was. But she is not shallow. Her whole life is devoted to duty. As a teenager she raised her brother, and when she became an adult she devoted her life to saving the world, even though (before her forcefield developed) she was extremely vulnerable. her desire for pretty things is purely because that is what she lacks, she spends almost every moment helping others!

Sue's attraction to Namor should be seen in the context of her life devoted to (1) service and (2) following instincts. She is smart enough to know that a life of luxury with a powerful man must be balanced with living in the dark depths of the ocean, cut off from everyone she loves. She also knows that Namor can be violent and selfish. Sue is not stupid.

Namor is a lonely man, caught between two worlds. His mother was human, much of his adult life was spent with amnesia, and he shows some sympathy for humans, which alienates him from his people. This appeals to Sue's instinctive need to do good. In addition, as a calming and positive influence on the world's most powerful leader, Sue could do untold good. She could do far more good at his side, helping to guide his people with their advanced technology, then she could ever do with the Fantastic Four (at this point Franklin is not in the picture). If things go wrong she also risks being trapped at the bottom of the dark ocean with a violent man, never seeing a human or fresh air again. This is a serious and heavy choice with planetary consequences.

Her final choice is based on nobility. Though Namor can have has great nobility, he can also be selfish. And while Reed suffers from a huge ego and the need to control others, his conscious motives are always pure.

Other points to note

28
Issue 28: "We Have To Fight Minorities"

civl rights

This issue is entitled "We Have To Fight The X-Men". The X-men represent alienated minorities:

"The conflict between mutants and normal humans is often compared to real-world conflicts experienced by minority groups in America such as African Americans, Jews, various religious (or "non-religious") groups, Communists, the LGBT community, etc.[...editor Ann Nocenti said] 'their powers arrive at puberty, making them analogous to the changes you go through at adolescence - whether they're special, or out of control, or setting you apart - the misfit identity theme.' Also on an individual level, a number of X-Men serve a metaphorical function as their powers illustrate points about the nature of the outsider." (Wikipedia)

The splash page shows Ben holding up a statue of himself. Ben of course always represents ordinary America: non nonsense, blue collar workers.

splash page
The statue is made by blind Alicia, who, like the statue of blind justice, is the only one who always sees clearly (see notes by FF 50, FF200, etc.). Ben and Alicia both come from poor backgrounds and have pure, simple tastes: to create things with clay, or enjoy a good TV show. In the background are the ones from privileged backgrounds, showing their interests: fame. So we can already guess: this issue will be about the greatest of all American themes: equality.

The story proper then starts with Reed (billionaire, son of a billionaire) supporting the military.

military

Recall that for the first year the Fantastic Four represented alienation (see notes to issue 2). But since issue 12 (and especially issue 14) the Fantastic Four represented mainstream America, and the place of "alienated minority" was taken over by the X-Men.  In this image the elites use taxes to build big expensive guns, but Cyclops' eyes are more powerful than guns. While the air force looks down on people, Cyclops is an alienated kid, one of the people. Also in this image, the kid on the FF (Johnny Storm) has been co-opted to support the people who oppress him. The symbolism is laid on thick, but I love it.

The minorities are innocent
The X-Men have always represented youth, minorities, or anybody who has great potential but must live in hiding: the name "X-Men" suggests not just the unknown, but targeted or unacceptable people. At first this story fits ultra-conservative fears in the 1960s that minorities are controlled by our enemies. But in the end the bottom line is that these people are our friends. We are all in this together.

What makes a healthy family
Now that marriage is likely, we move to the topic of family. In later years (especially in Byrne's run ion the 1980s) it became common to say the Fantastic Four is "all about family". That was not always true, but it starts here.

In the last issue Sue chose Reed because of his ability to care for others. But she also knows he has the tragic flaw of needing to control everyone. That is not healthy for a family, and this issue illustrates the fact. One family (the Fantastic Four) battle another sort of family (the X-Men). The X-Men's fatal weakness at this time is that they rely on a single person to make all their decisions. This makes them vulnerable to misunderstanding and bad decisions: in this case professor X succumbs to the Puppet Master. A healthy family needs to be led by example, but not micro managed. Now that Sue has accepted Reed as not just her leader but her future husband, this will become the defining conflict of her life. He always thinks he knows best.

Criticisms

Other points to note

Chic Stone

cover homages

29
Issue 29: how Ben's life has changed

Fantastic Four 29


What started on Yancy Street?
This issue is about Ben's life. Ben was raised there (just as Jack Kirby was raised on Delancey Street). That is where Ben's character started: as a fighter, also a joker, and a man without money, someone who understands injustice. But thanks to Reed he has lost his leadership position, his looks and his confidence. Here we see Ben at his saddest, his most tragic, most pathetic. He wants to end the only thing that gives him any happiness, his relationship with Alicia, because he thinks being near him can only make a person unhappy. And the story stars by him taking the team to the street where he was raised, where he knows he will be humiliated in front of them. This cannot be his conscious intent, but it is desperately sad.

The story then moves to the moon, where Reed's dominance is challenged and once again he triumphs, showing that Ben has no chance.

Is this just a copy of FF13?
This issue has been criticized as just a copy of FF13, but it is instead its mirror: it has to cove the same story to show literary closure. In FF 13, Russia and America battled it out for the moon, and Russia lost.That was Reed's great triumph. Here Russia leaves the picture. The nation still claims to be America's superior, and to prove it, the Red Ghost obtains a superior space ship, and drops Reed into the scene of his triumph to die. But Reed triumphs, Russia loses its space ship and is dispatched to oblivion. This is the end of Russia as an ideological threat. Russia will still be a military threat until the end of the cold war, but it is clear now that only America can win the space race.

In short, in FF13 Russia physically entered the picture, and in this issue, her next appearance, Russia leaves. (There will be one more brief appearance in annual 13, in what is effectively a montage of all the threats that America has vanquished)

The anti-FF: the Red Ghost will be replaced by the Frightful Four
Issues 27-35 are the transition from a story about global politics to a story about a family and science (see the notes to FF 27). It's also the period in Americna history when they began to realise that the Russians, while still dangerous, they are no longer the greatest threat: the greatest threat is now America itself going bad. So the anti-FF must change as well.

Up until this point the anti-FF represented Russia: the Red Ghost and the Super Apes. From this point, beginning in issue 36 where Reed and Sue celebrate their engagement, the anti-FF is a group led by an angry American scientist. The Frightful Four is the more personal, American version of the Red Ghost and his Super Apes:


Other points to note

Jack Kirby's art

This is as good a place as any to comment on Jack Kirby's skill as an artist, even though working at great speed. I cannot do better than quote from "ff1by1.com":

ff25

(FF25) "For those interested in panel composition, learn here from the master. The Hulk as a focal pivot between the event of defeating The Torch, and The Thing issuing his challenge, all with a fluid, graceful flow that is easy to read and where all elements are identifiable, even though two of the characters' faces are hidden."

ff29
(FF29) "Advanced panel composition 101. Note the framing of this panel: the other-worldly spacecraft which the FF are entering as prisoners, and just inside of that, the ordinary urban street scene that they are leaving behind."

ff29

(FF29) "The Red Ghost disappearing into a spinning, scarlet void. Look especially at how the line weight compliments foreshortening. Those are some heavy blacks the inker is laying down, and it works the better for it."

ff36

(FF36) "The FF and Alicia about to be killed with anti-gravity. Creative and visually compelling."



30
Issue 30: Ben's tragedy

Fantastic Four 30

Ben's name, "the Thing" reflects his 28 year search for his identity: is he man or monster? Is he a rough hewn street fighter or the idol of millions? In FF29 we saw how Ben's identity had taken a battering since Reed Richards became top dog. Here we see his downward slide continue as he attempts to be normal again. This is like when somebody from one race tries to change their skin color to belong to another. Te skin was never the problem, the inner beliefs are the problem. Or it is like when somebody joins a criminal gang just to be accepted: Ben is joining Diablo in the same way that he joined the Yancy Street gang when he was a poor kid. He lacked confidence and wanted to get respect from somebody else. Diablo treats him with the respect he doesn't get in the team, making it easier for Ben to partially change. But this is tragic for three reasons.

  1. First, changing a look just to be accepted is embarrassing for a man who just three years earlier was a handsome test pilot and war hero.
  2. Second, Diablo's "cure" will end in disappointment (note how Ben hides his unhappiness by adopting his "I don't care" clownish persona in the last frame.)
  3. Finally, Ben does not need to be "cured" of anything. His problems are in his head, not his body. As long as Ben believes he is a monster who needs to be "cured" then he can never accept himself and no cure will be permanent. But when he finally accepts himself (as he does in Battle World in the 1980s) then he will be free to change at will.

Criticisms

Other points to note



31
Issue 31: sometimes it's hard to be a woman

Fantastic Four 31

In FF27 Sue chose a life with Reed and we got a glimpse of the hard choices in her life. Now we see just how bad it can get.

The Fantastic Four is the American zeitgeist, and issue 31 is about the American woman. It can be seen as a metaphor for the struggles of being a woman before feminism: a roller coaster ride through every threat or fear a woman might face.

Why is Sue the victim here? Because in Act 1 through Act 3 she plays by Reed's rules. Sue lets Reed run the team his way (top down micromanaging), until (in Act 4) it becomes obvious that his way does not work. This reflects the mainstream image of women pre feminism (this is of course a huge generalization: there are always many exceptions). They accepted the male role as dominant in the home, until it was obvious that it failed, then in the 1970s mainstream culture embraced feminism. We will see this in Act 4.

Unused art
I just discovered this on the excellent Kirby Museum blog: an unused Kirby page, apparently from this issue: Sue met her father and did not recognize him!!!!  Let that sink in for a while.

unused art

It is possible that this is actually the Skrull impersonator from FF33, but the Kirby Museum think s it's 31, and they are the experts.

No wonder Sue feels so alone.

Now onto other topics from this issue:

Why doesn't Sue use her force field?
Sue's mind is constantly on her father escaping from prison: in the next issue we will learn why it is such a big deal. This also explains why she was hit by shrapnel: the only time this has happened. Sue is emotionally wrecked this whole issue. For why her childhood may be especially devastating to her, see the notes to FF291.

Reed undermines Sue
We have seen already how Reed unconsciously undermines Ben. In this story it appears that he has unconsciously undermined Sue. He states that her force field will be useless against the Mole Man, and so Sue does not use it until the end. Presumably Reed has told her this before, and Sue believes it.

Why does Reed think the force field would be useless?
The Mole Man has massively advanced technology, including force fields that can lift whole city blocks: Occam's razor suggests these are the same kind of force field that Sue uses. (Why have two kinds of force field when one will do?). Reed concludes that the Mole Man can easily subvert that power so there is no use in using it. This is just Reed's opinion, and is almost certainly wrong: Reed assumes that the Mole Man is a great scientist, in order to create his technology, but this is not true. The Mole Man almost certainly found pre-existing technology and barely understands it himself. The image of the "zeta waves" suggests they may in fact be a form of the cosmic rays that gave the team their powers, but he is seems unaware of this.

The Mole Man in context
For how the Mole Man's ten appearances reflect racism and the underground in America, see the notes to issue 1.
Mole Man


science
Stalker technology

The Mole Man has a detector that can track Sue Storm through miles of rock, and Reed has a similar detector. Perhaps they could track anybody, but we only see them tracking Sue. Both men are technological stalkers. It is possible that the injury to Sue's head (at the end of the story) was caused not by a lump of rock, but by the shock of the scanner being destroyed while still connected to her mind.


A history of brain wave scanners
The Mole Man's technology, and the whole story, reminds us of FF22, his previous contact with the FF (his first since issue 1). The Mole Man had been planning to trick the FF, and knew the best way to do it, so presumably he used the same surveillance technology. Also in FF22, Reed used a similar head set to detect Sue's power. It is possible that FF27 is another parallel: here, Namor scans for Sue, and Reed uses a similar head set, but this time it displays the person the user thinks of. All of these are ultimately brain wave scanners and visualizers. Occam's razor suggests a common origin to the technology, but we have insufficient clues to do more than guess.

But there is one intriguing possibility. The previous issue to FF22 saw the Hate Monger: a man who created or discovered a mind altering ray. At the end of the story Reed and SHIELD both had access to the ray. SHIELD went on to develop a brain wave scanner in time for FF annual 3, and Reed developed a brainwave scanner in FF22. So the Hate Monger is the obvious source of the technology. But if so then he did not understand its potential: he was certainly no scientist.

Where did the Hate Monger get the scanner? We know almost nothing about him, but a clue is in his transport: he creates tunnels for traveling deep under the earth: he appears to use Mole Man technology. The Mole Man is then the common source, but he is no great scientist either. Where does he get the technology? Later parts of the Marvel Universe trace his technology to an underground race called the Deviants, who in turn gain their technology from the Kree who first appear in FF65. All super technology ultimately has alien origins.


A brief guide to FF family relationships



32
Issue 32: Sue and Johnny's family

Fantastic Four 32

After exploring Ben's past, and seeing the struggles that Sue faces, it's time to look at Sue's past. Why is she so keen to do the right thing, yet also so keen on shallow, pretty things when she gets any time alone? And why, over the next few years, will she be so quick to obey Reed, almost as if she needs to please a father figure?

Here we discover why Sue so longs for superficial things: never had a real childhood. Her father accidentally killed their mother, and spent the rest of his life in jail. She then had to raise her own brother. This explains Sue's obsession with doing the right thing, her hatred of violence, and why she longs for a superficial life of clothes and the family life of a mother making dinner, the things she never had. it may also explain why her power over cosmic energy manifests itself in the need to hide (invisibility) and to protect (force fields). Life for Sue has always been hard, forced into places she does not want to be. It also explains the apparent contradiction that she loves society friends (see the start of FF1) but hates to be the center of attention (see the start of FF7). She values friendship, but always feels inadequate due to being forced into such great responsibilities when so young.

Reed's arrogance
This issue has a reminder of Reed's leadership style. This will eventually be his downfall leading to numerous failures and great personal pain in act 4.
blind obedience

Ben's identity
Following from Diablo's partial "success" in allowing Ben to change (FF30), this issue starts with Reed having another idea. Ben's physical condition is tied closely to his mental condition. As we will see again in the future, most notably in FF106-113, the simplest way to let him change at will is to remove his moral feelings, or in this case to dampen his memory so he does not remember his psychological pain.. Unfortunately that also means he forgets Alicia.

This story is the first to note that unconsciously Ben is afraid of being "cured" so fights against it. Reed does not realize the significance of this until Franklin points it out in FF245. Reed is emotionally blind to Ben, just as he will be emotionally blind to Franklin. Some have suggested that Reed is autistic: he can see complex physical relationships easily, but find emotional relationships much harder to process. For more about Ben's psychology: see the page on "how strong is The Thing."

The zeitgeist
Note the reference to the 1964 New York World's Fair. Also note the early 1960s fashions - compare the late fashions, e.g. the curvy modern styles in 1969. A comic can uniquely reflect the zeitgeist: this is not a retrospective, this is the real thing, reflecting the world around it at the time.

Foreshadowing
"I should have gone to Dr Doom" - Doom develops compassion over the years. By the end of the big story his process is complete. In the Franklinverse period Doom goes further and often helps the team - in FF350 he even cures the She-Thing, and in Claremont's run Valeria respects and loves him. but the Franklinverse involves so may parallel versions, including some very evil (see Waid's Doom) that we cannot be sure which Doom is which.

Franklin sacrifices himself for his children. Like Reed must ultimately do, sacrifice the thing he cares about most, his role as leader, in order  to let his family grow. The death of one Franklin reflects the eventual death then coming of age (literally, by being able to grow up) of another Franklin. See "Fantastic Four; The End" for young Franklin's apparent death, and the next generation for how this fits into continuity. Also, the first Franklin appears as "the invincible man", foreshadowing his grandson, the other Franklin, the one who really will be invincible.

Parenting

These issues, leading up to the engagement, are about proper family relationships:

We also begin to learn that every member of the team had dysfunctional parents

The message then is that we can rise above our circumstances:the American dream!

If Johnny is really Sue's child (see notes to FF 291) then he is the only one to be fully raised by a loving parent: he is the one who will naturally lead the new team.

How Sue and Reed met

Here we learn that Reed didn't know much about Sue's background.

orphans

And yet in issue 11 we learn that they lived next door and Reed thought of her constantly.

Sue's age

What's going on here? We can work it out when when we consider some other details:

So "living next door" means like rich people live next door: there could have been half a mile between their houses.

So we have two people who seldom go out. But occasionally Sue would catch glimpses of this handsome billionaire genius down the lane, and Reed would catch glimpses of this stunningly beautiful girl. But when did they actually meet? I think issues 1 to 35 give us the answer:

So any understanding was very strong, yet unspoken. From this we can draw some conclusions.

How Sue and Reed met
I see them as two lonely kids who had so much in common that they always spent time together. Then during the separation (World War II) they realized they loved each other. And when they came back they didn't need to say it. I see this as a natural result of their unusual childhoods: both were rich, both got far more attention than they ever wanted, both had parents who disappeared when they were young. I think they would just gradually grow together, and see each other as allies.

I doubt they went on formal dates. My guess is that Johnny was probably the unintentional match maker. Johnny was obsessed with cars, and the guy next door made rockets! I bet he dragged Sue over to meet Reed just so he could watch Reed in his engineering shop. I can imagine Sue sitting in the lab for an hour or two, and barely talking, but these two lonely souls (Sue and Reed) just felt right together. I bet most of their dates were just Reed in the lab or garage and Sue watching. Reed would focus on his work, but like having this very beautiful girl around, and Sue would feel safe around this handsome, confident, brilliant, gentle young man,
 
Then the time would come when Reed had to go to college (at a young age), and then to war. Only then would he realize that he missed Sue and really liked having her around. And when he came back he was thrown into his rocket work for the government, and barely had a moment to himself. I would not be surprised if they never had a formal date, but the love just grew because they were natural soul mates.

Sue's aunt's guest house
As for Sue's aunt's guest house, I don't think that was Reed. Reed was living on campus, not in a guest house. but Namor at that time was in New York, living in a guest house, and he routinely wore disguises at this point. Byrne describes a "shy, bookish college freshman" and obviously intends it to be Reed. No doubt that is what Sue wanted him to think when she described that fateful meeting. But the picture and behavior looks nothing like the square jawed confident Reed of the 1940s: it does however look exactly like a disguised Submariner. For more detail see the notes to FF 291.


33
Issue 33: Civil War: soft power versus hard power

Fantastic Four 33

The larger story structure
The loss of Sue's father naturally leads back to Namor: all these issues follow, they are not random! Sue was reminded of her childhood and felt vulnerable again. For why this draws our attention to Namor, see the notes to FF 291.

The meaning of this issue
This issue continues the examination of Sue Storm by focusing on soft power (her willingness to make allies) versus hard power. (Reed's preference for conflict). Reed's harsher approach is not because he is a violent man, but because he;s a very male man: very good at solving specific narrowly defined problems, but not so good at relationships.

In FF27 Sue decided in her own mind that Reed was the man for her. But Reed is very bad on picking up emotional clues - see the last frame of this issue, where he still thinks she might love Namor. For Reed's possible autism, see the comments to the previous issue, where Reed cannot see why Ben is unable to change. Speaking of Ben, it takes Reed until FF297 before it occurs to him that maybe he might have had a negative influence on his old friend. Sue, in contrast is emotionally more mature. Now that she has rejected Namor she is very keen to help him as a friend and ally. Reed is more hesitant at first, even though turning the world's most powerful empire from enemies into friends would be extremely valuable. Reed's hesitance will later (FF 103) leave room for Magneto to persuade Namor that humans cannot be trusted.

The zeitgeist

Other points to note:


34
Issue 34: a father's duty

Fantastic Four 34


Gideon foreshadows what will happen to Reed, and also warns the team of the need to be closer. The Fantastic Four is about family, and about the dangers of Reed's domineering style. In another four years this will crystallize around Reed's inability to connect with his son. This issue foreshadows that problem, showing another man with similar issues. But this man learned his lesson: will Reed?

Gideon is also a warning to Sue: Gideon's wife is so accepting that she has zero influence on him.

The main point of this issue though, as the title "A House Divided" suggests, is a warning against a divided family.  Along the way Gideon also demonstrated how quick the Fantastic Four are to distrust each other. This is no doubt because Reed still wonders if Sue loves Namor, and Ben and Johnny are aware of Reed treating them as inferiors. In later issue we will see the team forced to rely on each other far more: first Reed and Sue will become officially engaged and get to know each other even better (no I'm not talking about sex, I mean the natural interest that loves have in each other). Then the team will lose their powers and have to rely on close coordination just to survive. Reed will take on board the need for unity, but he will do it the wrong way, Gideon's way, by strict control from the top. The real message is that a man at the top needs to listen to his wife and also put his children first.

The zeitgeist

Other points to note

Realism: the problem with reading other comics

The Silver Age Comics blog criticizes FF34 severely: "The panel where we see exactly how rich he is makes him out to be a Scrooge McDuck; a bunch of security guards are carrying mail sacks apparently full of money, but one of them says 'We've gotta take this billion dollars back to the mint, boys. Mr. Gideon wanted only new bills!' That works with McDuck because he's intended to be a parody of a rich miser, but Stan is not playing this for yucks."

This illustrates the problem with judging the FF by other comics. If you think in terms of comics then your point of reference for "extremely rich person" may be Scrooge McDuck. So you may assume that Gideon wanted new bills for vanity reasons. But if you judge the story by a higher standard, the real world, there is a more likely explanation. In the scene where Gideon sends back the money he is shown providing financial services to banks. In the real world wealthy people do not use piles of dollar bills but banks do. They have apparently ordered dollar bills through Gideon, they specified new bills, and the supplier mistakenly supplied used notes instead. The purpose of the image, with its realistic and detailed location, is not to show Gideon's vanity, but his power. Banks go to him for help, and he deals with billions of dollars every day.

The same blog complains that "the whole premise that wealthy men would turn over their fortune to him provided he defeat the Fantastic Four is absurd." But again we have to judge the story by the standards of the real world, not the standards of other comics. In the story, Gideon's competitors expect to be bankrupt in three years. They have nothing to lose. They are desperate. Meanwhile, Gideon is showing signs of insanity. His employees say he sounds insane, and his competitors say he sounds mad, and his behavior supports this view: what he suggests is irrational. The pressure of wealth is affecting his mind, just as it affected Howard Hughes. (Hughes ended his life as a paranoid recluse, and when he died they found broken needles under the skin of his sickly body). Why did the other businessmen agree to the deal? Because it gave them a way out. It is clearly an absurd gamble, and whatever happens it gives them breathing space. Gideon has promised to give up his plans if he fails, and that's a legally binding promise that could be enforced in court. Simply making the offer can be held as proof of insanity, and allow them to question his other contracts. Even if it is take seriously, something as nebulous as "defeat the Fantastic Four" will keep the lawyers arguing for years. By making that insane offer Gideon has already lost and his enemies know it.

All of this illustrates a common problem with reviews of the Fantastic Four. Most comics do not stand up to scrutiny, and reviewers treat the FF in the same superficial way. But the FF is different. It has real depth, and if you dig a little deeper you will not be disappointed.


35
Issue 35: Sue and Reed get engaged

Fantastic Four 35

This is just a beautiful issue, from the first frame (Reed's old ivy covered university) to the last (they get engaged). Regarding the longer story, the engagement is a perfect moment to emphasize the difference between Reed and Sue: When faced with Dragon Man, Reed's immediate response is to treat it like a threat, but Sue realizes he can be a friend. This difference will eventually lead to the breakdown of the marriage.

Dragon man: symbol of the long term

Dragon Man appears when Reed finally proposes. Namor’s love is represented by monsters of the sea, so rocket scientist Reed’s love is represented by a monster of the air: a terrifying dragon who has the mind of a child and loves Sue. Dragon man’s appearance in FF 35 foreshadows the three future possibilities in marriage:

  1. Will marrying Reed be like marrying a dragon? This was the early 1960s when plenty of women were trapped with angry men they regretted marrying.
  2. Or will Reed be an emotional child? In FF27 we saw how Reed has trouble with emotion.
  3. Or will he be the third iconic image of Dragon man, the symbol of power who soars in the sky, carrying Sue (and in FF 134 her baby too) in his arms?

Dragon man always accompanies marriage crisis: he appears when Reed and Sue get engaged, he has his greatest moments in the honeymoon, he takes Sue and the baby when they separate, and finally he appears when Johnny marries Alicia.  
Dragon Man

"Dragons can be thought to symbolize the ability to see the “big picture” as well as the ability to see far off danger or future circumstances." (source)

Other points to note:



36
Issue 36: celebrity culture, and celebrity ego

Fantastic Four 36

The Fantastic Four were celebrities as early as FF2, but the engagement is when they really hit the magazines. Apart from moving forward the family saga in real time, this issue presents another warning: after the warning against being a bad parent (FF34) and a warning against seeing every other person as a threat (FF35, dragon man) we now have a warning of a super team gone wrong. The Frightful Four are a dark mirror of the Fantastic Four. The Wizard's, like Mr Fantastic, has a huge ego (note the huge sized helmet emphasizing his brain). His ego prevents his team from ever being effective, and in particular the female member leaves.

All three moral warnings (bad parenting, insecurity, ego) are failings that plague Mr Fantastic and doom his otherwise exemplary life. Regarding the Great American Novel as allegory, they are also issues that a free nation must address if it wants to avoid angry youth, unnecessary wars and a slide toward despotism.

Medusa's origin
Medusa appeared in 1965. Since then the idea of prehensile hair has become common in fiction (see TVTropes for examples). But apart from an obscure short story by H. P. Lovecraft, nobody in over two thousand years had ever thought to use the legend of Medusa for more than just snakes. So why did Medusa suddenly appear in 1965? The official answer is of course that Stan Lee (or Jack Kirby) suddenly came up with the idea from nowhere. So the fact that a fan had just suggested it in a DC letters page, and a similar character (Sussa Pakka) made a brief appearance in DC comics in 1964, was complete coincidence. After all, fans who wrote to DC never wrote to Marvel, right? And Nobody in the Marvel offices ever read any DC comics, right? 

sussa
Except... we know that the Fantastic Four was inspired by the Justice League of America, because Stan told us. Over on the FF message board, "DaveyM" made some other observations:

"You do have to wonder how influential Adventure Comics might have been to Stan - Polar Boy made his appearance a few months before Iceman did, could Magneto spring from Cosmic Boy? Is Jean Grey based on Saturn Girl at all?, I have always wondered if Elastic Lad might have fed into the conception of Reed Richards, but is it possible that the original Invisible Kid also inspired the introduction of Invisible Girl...? Or Sun Boy fed into Johnny Storm perhaps? It may all be coincidental after all, and yet it is generally agreed that the original X-Men owe a debt to The Doom Patrol (created a few months earlier), that the Fantastic Four are a tip of the hat to the challengers of the Unknown, Doctor Strange is without a doubt a thinly disguised Doctor Fate, Daredevil is very similar to Doctor Mid-nite... You can go on and on."

But put it into the context of Stan having to set up a new line of comics featuring a wide array of new characters and of course he is going to look around him for starting points. The demands to *create create create* were too high for him not to look for ideas and inspiration. And it works the other way of course. Sussa Pakka in the original appearance didn't look much like the early Medusa, but soon they both had very similar uniforms and similar red hair. And of course DC eventually did everything it could to look like Marvel, because Marvel was overtaking them in sales. There is a saying in the arts: "Talent borrows. genius steals." And there is another saying in the Bible, in the book of Ecclesiastes: "There is nothing new under the sun."


Paste Pot Pete
This is the highest point to which Peter Petruski will ever rise: this is the start of his decline. See his own page for more about the character.

Paste Pot Pete

Note how Spider-Man disappeared before Paste Pot Pete arrived. For more parallels between Spider-Man and Pate Pot Pete, see the notes to FF 218.



Other points to note


"Strange Tales" and criticism of the Frightful Four

The Wizard, Trapster and Sandman previously fought the Human Torch in the book Strange Tales. Many readers treat that series with disdain. For example, the Wonder Years book condemns the entire series:

"total dross. ... Marvel continuity was totally abandoned because the Strange Tales Human Torch had a secret identity which was known to the world in Fantastic Four. Besides this, in Fantastic Four Johnny and Sue lived with Reed and Ben in New York. But in Strange Tales, they lived by themselves in 'Glenville.' It was moronic."

The author of Wonder Years seems unaware of the backup features in FF annual 5, where it is explained that Sue and Johnny commute from the suburbs.
commuting
No doubt this was why Johnny adapted the fantasti-car into four independent sections in FF12. it could cover even a hundred mile commute in just a few minutes.

A close look at Strange Tales reveals a charming and fascinating collection that, while it would win no awards for writing, reflects the innocence and enthusiasm of youth. It was the place where new and inexperienced characters learned their trade. Regarding the claim that Johnny has a secret identity this was explained in the book itself: Johnny wanted to live a normal life and his friends respected that. Naively, young Johnny thought they did not know who he was, but in fact they were just respecting his privacy by never mentioning the FF.  For an analysis of the Trapster (a typical Strange Tales villain) and whether he is really "moronic," see Paste Pot Pete.

The title "frightful four"
As we saw in his Strange Tales debut, the Wizard delights in feeling superior, and the outward signs of intellect, so he would enjoy the subtle meanings of "frightful":
1. terrifying: people fear what they do not understand.
2. shocking: in his original career as a magician he enjoyed shocking people by appearing to defy the laws of nature.
3. Extreme: "frightfully good, old chap."
4. Not good enough: he considers his team mates to be pathetic.
5. originally it meant easily frightened - a way to insult his comrades without them realizing. When they later meet Agatha Harkness they are all scared witless.

The real Wizard: John Carradine

The Wizard had a very long face in his first appearance in Strange Tales. At first he looks different in this issue. But when we look at the actor who was probably the model, both images are correct. Kurt F. Mitchell wrote:

The Wizard, like the Ringmaster and a number of other long-faced Kirby villains, is almost certainly modeled after John Carradine.

"MNG" replied:

"My mother told me there was a period in the late 40s when she would be walking to Grand Central after work and always pass John Carradine on his way to a show he was in. He wore a big black cape and waved it around to make sure people would notice him."

John Carradine



37
Issue 37: closure.

Fantastic Four 37

Thoughts of the approaching wedding lead Sue to miss her dead father. There is nobody to give her away at the altar. Reed has become the new center of her life, and she needs emotional closure with her old life before the wedding. This is also an opportunity for Sue to test whether Reed will understand her feelings. If he won't understand or help now then there is still time to call off the engagement. Thankfully, after she persuades him, he is completely on her side.

This may not be about revenge. Sue feels empathy for all people, and cannot bear the thought that the Skrulls might kill somebody else.

The title
The title "Behold! A Distant Star" probably refers to the phrase "Behold a pale horse" from the Book of Revelation: it refers to death and the desire for revenge. Sue is, in effect, saying "How long must my father go unavenged?"

"And I looked, and behold a pale horse:
and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.
And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:

And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?
" (Revelation 6:8-10)

Note that Franklin Storm died because of his testimony: he refused to defend himself in court, and that set in progress the events that eventually led to his death as a hero and innocent man. Why choose a relatively obscure reference and then change it? Because the year before (1964) it was not obscure, but was used as the title of a movie covering similar themes, of death and revenge.

Behold a Pale Horse

Other points to note


38
Issue 38: Sue's finest hour. And then... the greatest defeat.

Fantastic Four 38

With closure on her past, and her future assured, Sue can finally relax and have fun. In this issue we see the full range of her magnificence. She can be playful but is also capable and self assured: whens kidnapped as a hostage, she can free herself. Then when the boys fail she acts to protect her family like nobody else can:

"'Buffeted by the shock waves, dazed by the noise and force of impact, the unconscious quartet is nevertheless safe, protected by the fantastic power of one girl… a girl whose will to survive is so strong that her force field remains even though she is unconscious'… This was Sue Storm’s finest hour." - Mark Alexander, "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years"

And as the Great American Novel, there must be the greatest dramatic contrast: the greatest triumph (Sue at full power) and the team's greatest ever defeat.

The zeitgeist was changing

The not-spanking scene marks a change for the better in American culture. Notice the shading on Ben's left arm (the one suspiciously doing nothing) and the slight gap between the lines of lettering in Sue's word balloon. They both indicate that this page was changed, almost certainly as a result of the Comics Code rule against showing a woman being hit. This was a loving family, and purely playing, with nothing erotic or violent intended, and Kirby came from a age when spanking as a joke was acceptable. But the public mood in America was changing. The Comics Code, invented just a few years earlier, banned it. For details see http://www.chicagospankingreview.org/articlespage/effect_of_the_comics_code_on_spanking_part3.html

Other points to note


39
Issue 39: Technology: Reed's methods versus Sue's

Fantastic Four 39

Two approaches to solving problems: Empathy versus technology
This is the start of the last story arc before the wedding. It provides a warning to Sue: one of Reed's flaws is his male need to do something when the best thing to do is often nothing. In doing so, Reed puts his family at risk, and also never has time for his family, resulting in further bad decisions (like not understanding their potential and treating them like idiots). Sue might do well to heed the warning: the same problem comes back at the end of Act 3, and helps her to decide to leave him. Time and again at the end of act 3 Reed will jump into a problem and use force, endangering his family, when a peaceful solution or even doing nothing at all would have been better. (See the creature from the lost lagoon, or when the Maggia buy the building.) The danger to the family is made obvious here because they have no powers.

What could Reed have done differently? He could have kept quiet and let his enemies think they were out of town. The solution was to wait for the Skrull power ray to recharge. If that didn't work then it is possible their powers would have come back on their own, and if not then it would give Reed an idea for getting the powers back some other way (just as he would get his own powers back when he lost them prior to FF197). One thing was sure: the temporary fake powers were not good enough. This was a bad decision.

The four great technologies
Note that empathy is a form of technology: it is a tool for managing complex systems 9the most complex systems of all: society and politics). It steps back and sees the bigger picture: not just the technology itself, but the people who control it. Empathy is the fourth and greatest great technologies in the Fantastic Four:

  1. Unstable molecules: at a quantum level all possibilities, all time and space, are superimposed. Unstable molecules use this fact to make molecules perform seeming miracles. These are first seen in issue 2.
  2. The sub space portal: massive computing power brings the power of unstable molecules to a human scale. This is mastered in issue 51.
  3. The cosmic cube: extending this power into a "do anything" device. This is first seen in issue 134 (the shaper of worlds) and explained in issue 319
  4. Empathy. Alt the technology in the universe is useless if your enemies have the same things. The greatest, ultimate power is being able to work with enemies, to find agreement.

Electronic technology
We are twelve issues (one year) away from Reed perfecting the subspace portal, so this issue focuses on Reed's technological research. Technology in the Fantastic Four always builds on previous technology: it does not just appear when needed like in a bad comic book.

Massive computing power is the keys to progressing from unstable molecules to the sub space portal. The previous issue began with Reed studying photographs of Skrull technology, and of course he already has a captured Skrull ship, so he just needs to figure out how the skrulls use their machines. His experiments with controlling air show he is beginning to master their computers. Doom, the mirror of Reed, also studies any technology he finds. In this case he doesn't study Skrull tech, he studies Reed's tech. By FF 199 we see that Doom has his own version of the vortex machine installed in Latveria to control his subjects.

Other points to note

collage Dr Doom

40
Issue 40: Ben's tragedy: his greatest and most tragic moment

Fantastic Four 40

Here Reed once again turns Ben into The Thing: but this time he does it deliberately. This is one of the defining tragedies in Ben's life, and his subsequent crushing of Doom's hands is a major event in the life of the Latverian monarch. It's a powerful, powerful moment.The unthinking cruelty in Reed's action, the proud man crushed one time too often.

"Throughout his lifetime, Kirby created several characters whose souls would switch bodies, or whose bodies would simply transform. This transformation was usually accompanied by a wonderful visual display of cosmic forces at work. [Ben's change back to rocky form in this issue] is arguably one of Kirby’s most powerful and moving examples of this metamorphosis. What is most striking here is the situation in which Reed Richards feels compelled to transform Ben Grimm seemingly against his will. One can see the resentment and weary resignation in the Thing’s expression as he rises from the floor. [...] As he begins to rise in panel two, he no longer appears to be a sentient being, but a sort of mindless primordial reptilian entity from the dawn of time. His right hand is moving forward mechanically and gesturing just above the level of the Thing’s head in panel three, focusing the reader’s eye on that grim visage." (source)



Ben's life

Ben was finally free, and Reed innocently destroyed his life again.

This issue is another warning to Sue of what is to come: the man she is about to marry really does not understand feelings. This fact will lead to great pain and sorrow in act 4.

Reed finds it convenient to give Ben back his strength even though Ben does not want it. Reed's excuse is that they need every superhero. This is no longer true: with the existence of the X-Men (FF28) they are no longer the only super team. Also, the Thing Robot could simply be improved, as it will be for FF170. But Reed cannot see past the immediate problem, and this leads him to acts that from the outside appear at best misguided and at worst cruel.

Note the irony: Reed says that Ben is irreplaceable, and by doing so he lets Ben defeat Doom single handed. Thus proving that Reed himself is replaceable, as it seemed that Doom's intelligence meant only Reed was a threat. Finally in act 5 Ben will indeed replace Reed as leader of the team. Another irony is that Reed thinks defeating Doom will help Ben's self esteem. But Ben's self esteem problem comes from feeling powerless before Reed, and once again he has to obey Reed against his will and suffer great pain in the process.

Bottom line: Reed is a great scientist and has the best possible motives, but he is not a good leader.

Powerful literature
As the excellent "Wait What" podcast points out, this should be Reed's triumph. He beat Doom on Doom's turf in annual 2, so Doom comes back to Reed's turf to use Reed's own technology against him. But instead it betrays Reed's weakness: his need to be number one means instead he undermines his team. He betrays Ben Grimm. Then even while Ben is having his greatest triumph, Reed is calling from the next room telling him not to: Ben's greatest strength (his courage, and he does not give up) is paralleled by Reed's greatest weakness (his need to be number one).

Ben's teeth

This is the point where Ben's self misery turns to bottled up self anger. But in doing so he regains his teeth. This time when he changes he has teeth for the first time since Reed destroyed his confidence. The last time we saw his teeth was FF12, just before Reed completed his triumph in FF13. Since then Ben has been toothless, both literally and metaphorically. But now he is literally murderous. Ben's recovery is still a long way off, but here the seeds are sown. Ben is no longer the baby we saw rocking on his heels in issue 15.

teeth

Note the parallel in FF42 where he literally bottles up Reed: the bottling up representing Ben's incredible internal pressure, his mental hell. Ben did that one other time: in FF13, the story of Reed's greatest triumph, where Reed tried to make the others stay home so he could do it all on his own.

Other points to note

41
Issue 41: Reed has betrayed Ben; also, the Great American Novel passes the Bechdel test

Fantastic Four 41


The prelude to act 3
This is the last arc of act 3, the build up to the golden age of the wedding and the team's greatest triumphs. But all the problems are here to see, and they will eventually lead to Reed breaking down in act 4. As Reed weakens, Ben will begin to regain some self respect, but instead of moving forward will continue to blame Reed. Here we also see Ben's weakness: just as Reed's strength (his brilliance) is his weakness (he has to be number one), so Ben's strength (the stubborn determination) is his weakness (it can block out everyone else). When he left Reed he should have gone to Alicia. That would have solved his problems,. But instead he wandered in a self obsessed stupor. This weakness will torment Ben long after he escapes from under Reed, until Alicia fixes everything at the end of act 4.

This issue completes an arc where enemies cause the loss of the team's powers, symbolizing their powerlessness as long as they ignore Sue. In a dramatic reversal, in act 4 Reed loses control but has nobody to blame except himself.

A feminist view of the FF

One way to see the 28 year story is as the story of Sue Storm, the metaphorically invisible woman. She is the most powerful member, the one they just need to listen to, yet year after year she is ignored or treated like a child. All of the women in the FF are like that: they are usually more powerful than the men, yet are dismissed as merely girlfriends or helpers. This reflects the nature of the Great American Novel: the Fantastic Four is about the conquest of space and other frontiers. It is a book about pioneers. Pioneers are historically very male, with the women treated as silent, fragile things to be pampered. but as feminist critiques show, this goes hand in hand with denial of reality and often genocide (e.g. the destruction of native American nations through broken promises and violence, all in the name of freedom and progress.

Passing the Bechdel test
The FF, particularly in the 1960s, is often dismissed as sexist. This is a misreading of the deeper message, that the women are all alienated from their environments, and so cannot behave naturally but must fit into a violent men's world. But is this just an excuse? Is there an objective measure for whether a story is feminist friendly? yes there is, the Bechdel test:

"The Bechdel test asks if a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man." (Wikipedia)

The superhero genre is about testosterone rather than nurturing: it's more Moby Dick than Jane Austen. Also, a major theme of the FF is alienation, particularly the alienation of women: all the women tend to be outsiders, from different social worlds, unable to relate to each other. So it would be very surprising if in the middle of all the action the women sat down to talk, and even more surprising if the topics did not involve the men who surround them. But having said that, the FF is a Great Novel, and features many women, so we should not expect it to fail such a simple test. In this issue, the prelude to act 3, the test is passed: Sue talks to Medusa, and not about men.
the Bechdel test
Longer examples of the Bechdel test are given in the final discussion on feminism, in the notes to issue, 321

Sue's thoughts
On this page we also get a rare glimpse into Sue's thoughts. The extremely efficient comic book writing style quickly covers three major areas:
  1. Her emotional reaction to the events (it's like a nightmare),
  2. her duty to protect the weaker men ("I've got to help Reed and Johnny"),
  3. and her astute assessment of danger (the Frightful Four are the only ones who have defeated the FF). This shows Sue's modesty, as she does not mention that the FF only survived because of Sue's own power.

The second half of the page
This issue is the poster child for feminism. It is often used as proof that Sue was indeed weak: some say she fainted after just a tap from Ben. But critics neglect to mention that a tiny nuclear bomb just hammered her brain and she kept fighting. For more about this incident and Sue's amazing power, see Sue's own page. For more about feminism in the FF, see the notes to the final issue, 321.


Medusa and feminism

Medusa is the most obviously feminist character in the whole novel: a woman of great physical, emotional and institutional power. She literally tosses men around with her hair, and drives them mad with desire when she wishes (see how she poses!). Although she is queen (and not the king) of the Inhumans, she is effective ruler, as her husband is severely limited in what he can say. She gets to speak for him: in effect he is merely a figurehead. This foreshadows the FF after the half way point, FF 159: after that point Reed is still nominally in charge but he realizes he is entirely dependent on Sue.

On the surface, Sue's gentle methods contrast with Medusa's violent ones. Yet below the surface Sue ands Medusa have the same broad goals, and neither are what they appear. Both are women of invisible power. Medusa is not what she seems: here she does not reveal her royal Inhuman identity, or her personal agenda: whereas Sue follows her genius Reed, Medusa has no intention of continuing to follow the genius Wizard. She is merely using him, hiding from The Seeker (see FF53). Later Medusa will appear to replace Sue in the FF, which we might expect to create a rift between them, but in fact she secretly arranges to save Sue's marriage. Both Sue and Medusa are woman of great hidden power, women who appear to be the opposite of what they are.

Hair symbolism
Note the use of Medusa for dramatic contrast, and particularly the symbolism of hair. (And color symbolism again: feisty red head versus, at first glance, dumb blond.) Concern over hair is a cliche for superficiality. Medusa interacts with Sue violently, via her hair. In the following arc, the honeymoon, Sue travels to Medusa's home and uses hair as a passive form of power: she uses a new hairstyle as a way to get the boys talking about something other than their problems. Sue uses hair as a tool for beauty and understanding: Medusa uses it as an offensive weapon.

Hair styles symbolize personal confidence. Note that Reed's hair is gray at the edges, hinting at his slight lack of confidence, and Ben loses his hair completely (a  point mocked by the Yancy Street gang in issue 34 with their gift of a Beatle wig). For the symbolism of Sue and Johnny's later hair styles, see the notes to FF 277

Reed's effect on the team
In this three part story before the wedding, and especially in this issue,  we see the effects of Reed's leadership style on the team. Ben is plunged into despair, and wanders the streets. His is emotionally ready to be mind controlled and turned against Reed. This pattern of wandering the streets, self hatred and hatred of Reed will last ten issues until the classic FF51 when he hits his lowest point. Johnny sees how bad Ben feels, realizes they are all at fault, and feels pretty low himself. Reed talks down to Sue, and like many an naive bride she believes that her good example can change him (she sees her job as getting him out of his grouchy mood). She will fail.

 

42
Issue 42: sex and violence

Fantastic Four 42

This is the last adventure before Reed and Sue marry. It's charged with sexuality. The Comics Code (and the desire to create a story for all people) prevents anything explicit, but it's all there as metaphor.

"Madam Medusa is the agent provocateur of the evil FF—the matrix for most of the group’s discord. She inaugurates sexual tension into the storyline; a disruptive element of jealousy that incites conflict between the Trapster, the Sandman and the Thing, all of whom are vying for her attention. She’s also responsible for some erotic undertones in the tale. As the unconscious Mr. Fantastic lies prone, helplessly glued to a table, Kirby depicts the titian-hared tigress eying him with delight as she declares 'he’s almost too handsome to harm!' Reed’s state of bondage seems decidedly appealing to the Frightful Four’s evil dominatrix." - Mark Alexander, "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years"

Reed resists the temptation and saves himself for Sue. The sequence that follows this is probably just a coincidence, but the thesis of this web site is that when something feels right to an experienced writer and artist then it probably reflects something much deeper even if they aren't aware of it:

Readers may draw their own conclusions. And note Ben's anger. He wanted to be with Alicia, but Reed forced Ben back to be the Thing. Ben then walks out and does not even contact Sue: eh cannot cope. He then bottles up Reed, reflecting how his own desires are bottled up. The sexual tension is only exceeded by the tragedy and pathos.

The title and the Zeitgeist
The ironic title, "To Save You, Why Must I Kill You?" reflects the mood of the time: growing discontent due to unpopular wars and unpopular laws: to do good, why must we do bad? It was summed up two years later in the famous quote from the Vietnam war, regarding the people of the town of Bến Tre:  "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."

Vietnam map
The twin themes of this story, (1) sexuality and (2) violence in a noble cause are closely linked: critics say that many wars are simply male posturing, and much of what is called love (in this case Reed's romantic love of Sue, and his brotherly love of Ben) is more oppressive than loving.

Other points to note

For more about Reed changing size, see his own page.


43
Issue 43: "Lo, there shall be an ending"

This issue marks several major endings:

  1. The end of Reed and Sue's single status: after this they marry and the golden era (act 3) begins.
  2. The end of Ben's angry phase. Reed has everything he wants and Ben's rebellion has failed. Ben has nowhere to go. In act3 is he simply resigned to his place... and depressed.
  3. and hence, this is the end of act 2

Ben

Reed wins again. Ben knows when he is beat. The hatred of Reed is over, forever.

Deep down Ben will still blame Reed until FF296 (the 25th anniversary issue and start of Act 5), but the hatred and rivalry has gone for good. Act 2 is over.

"Jack and Stan’s Fantastic Four always focused on the Thing more than anyone. ... 'Lo, There Shall Be An Ending' saw an ending to much of Ben’s bitterness, resentment and pathos. ... Despite the occasional relapse into self-pity (see FF #51 and 55), from here on he’ll play the FF’s grumpy but endearing wise guy; a best friend to Reed, a protector to Sue and a big brother to the Torch." - Mark Alexander, "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years"

Fantastic Four 43

This milestone issue, the end of Act 2, also focuses on Johnny and looks both backward and forward: backward to the days when he was able to defeat the Wizard on his own (in Strange Tales), and forward to the time when will again be his own master. It also looks forward to his future with Crystal. He doesn't yet know she exists, but just looking at her sister makes his heart beat faster and he doesn't know why. Crystal is The One.





Next: act 3, wedding, honeymoon, and greatest triumphs


The Great American Novel