Thursday, June 16, 2005

On Debris: Fantastic Four #184

Fantastic Four was my favorite superhero comic before I "collected" comics, and this issue--Fantastic Four 184, "AFTERMATH: THE ELIMINATOR!" (1977)--holds a special place in my memory as one of the first FFs I ever read. And read... and read... and read... and read... So it came as no surprise that when I picked up the recent Marvel Visionaries TPB reprint of Perez FF from the late 'seventies last week, every lush Perez/Sinnott panel from issue 184 seemed practically to leap off the page in a way that the earlier issues in the collection--issues that I hadn't read as a kid--did not. All those readings and rereadings (how many? fifty? a hundred?) had somehow transcribed each panel of the story permanently onto the recording pad of memory, and in the process, the images themselves became fuller, richer, deeper, more three-dimensional, more tantalizingly real.

Everything I would later come to admire (okay, worship) about Perez's New Teen Titans work was all already present in this visually stunning issue: the emotional dynamism of his figures, the obsessive detail of his backgrounds, the density of his nine-panel pages, and of course, his penchant for Amazonian warrior women.

(At the beginning of this issue, Thundra and Tigra enact a deliciously reactionary travesty of second wave feminism, slyly leaving Ben Grimm to take care of the clean up from last issue's battle on the grounds that "housework is demeaning to women," only to end up in a cat-fight over him moments later. In retrospect, the seven-foot Grappler and the orange-furred cat-lady seem like two parts of Koriand'r's body that have yet to merge. There's an uncanny panel on page 4 in which the two women part ways on the street outside the Baxter Building; Perez will "reunite" them a few years later in DC Comics Presents #26 (1980) when an orange-skinned Tarmaranian princess blazes across Manhattan.)

Perhaps even more strikingly, there is the debris. No one draws debris with as loving a hand as Perez, and it is everywhere in this issue: it floats in the form of space rocks through the Negative Zone; it litters the floor of Reed's battle-shaken laboratory; it's showcased in a two-page spread when the Fantasticar is blasted out of the night sky; the house on Whisper Hill is a monument to it, and it's there in more subtle ways as well.

The disconcertingly organic-looking "metallic egg" that Ben finds in the grass on Whisper Hill from which the Eliminator has "hatched," for example. How appropriate that Ben should be the one to find it--for what is the Thing, but an embodiment of Perez's fetishization of debris? A walking pile of "orange rocks." It is of course Ben who is abandoned to the task of "sweeping up" in the opening pages of the issue: a task that becomes the basis for a visual gag that gave me such pleasure I've never entirely forgotten it.

Having gathered up thousands of pounds of wrecked equipment, Ben "sweeps it under the rug" by unrolling a giant wedge of floor and shoving all the junk beneath it. Faced with a giant lump in the middle of the floor, he (naturally) stomps on it, flattening the bulge, but also bringing Reed and Sue running, imagining yet another attack on their constantly besieged headquarters. Ben, the animated pile of rubble, becomes, inevitably, an "instant trash compactor"!

What is it about Perez's debris? What makes it such a source of pleasure? And why does it make such a lasting impression? The cover provides a clue, though not a pretty one. It's a shot of the FF's climactic battle with the Eliminator in the middle of a wreckage-strewn abandoned house. The Eliminator--clad in blood-red body-armour, his bald, veined scalp showing through the top of a matching head piece notable primarily for its slitted, cyclopean eye--is perhaps the most self-consciously (even parodically) phallic villain in the Marvel pantheon. On the cover, he towers menacingly over the decimated family team. An orange flare from an expended energy blast simmers in one outstretched palm, while pink energy crackles in the wrist of his hammerhead-tipped other arm. At his feet, the Invisible Girl lays unconscious or dead in the rubble. Johnny tries helplessly to "Flame On" in the background, while Reed, literally powerless in this issue, clings impotently to the Eliminator's leg. Only Ben faces the foe head on and looks like he might, in some way, be a match for the grotesque phallus that has destroyed his family.

This comic was published in 1977, at which time I would have been five years old--far too young to have any conception of the wry sexual subtext of a book like this one. But the multiple readings I subjected it to lasted well into my teens. Went on, in fact, throughout that entire nebulous period of my personal history during which Ben's ingenious "trash compacting" solution to getting rid of the "lump" in the middle of the floor of the family home might have begun to take on new connotations. Indeed, if there was ever a comic book that would have simultaneously excited and allayed a boy's anxieties about bodily transformation and "self-abuse" this is it. The plot of this issue turns on Reed and Sue's search for their young son Franklin, who has been abducted by a coven of witches associated resident good witch Agatha Harkness. The search leads the family to Harkness's gothic residence on Whisper Hill, where they encounter the terrible Eliminator, a cyborg-like being who has been sent by the coven to eliminate all evidence of Harkness's existence. For interfering with its destruction of Whisper Hill, the FF must of course pay the ultimate price.

The battle between the FF and the Eliminator in the gothic setting of the Whisper Hill house is--unwittingly, no doubt--an astonishing parable about the sense of danger and exhilaration that accompany sexual maturation, and masturbation in particular. When Reed, Sue and Ben (the adults of the team, though "uncle" Ben is only ambiguously so) are shot out of the sky and make their way to the house, they find Sue's kid brother Johnny Storm hanging limply from the balustrade: "It's the squirt al'right," Ben says, "Looks like somebody hung 'im up there ta dry!"

As soon as Johnny is retrieved, the grotesquely virile Eliminator bursts through the wall like some maniacal id and announces his mission of total destruction.

In a marvelously suggestive series of skirmishes involving the dousing of Johnny's flames with his boot-vents, blasting Sue with an "Omni-Beam" from his forehead, thrashing the Thing with his hammerhead "fist," and finally turning Johnny's flames against him, causing him to heat up uncontrollably and "go nova," the Eliminator appears to kill each member of the family.

Believing his mission to be completed, he opens his chest plate and, in an image whose autoerotic connotations still thrill me, inserts all five of his metallic fingertips into five waiting holes in his robotic chest to trigger his autodestruct sequence. Only at this point, does the team materialize from the shadows unharmed, having been protected all along by Sue's invisible force shield. In the end, it is the phallic Eliminator who "goes nova," destroying the gothic house he haunted, while the resilient family unit survives the climactic blast, shielded by Sue's force bubble.

Like much gothic literature, "AFTERMATH: THE ELIMINATOR" is about repressed or secret sexuality, about guilt, desire, anxiety, and about the place where all these things converge: the family. Its setting is the paranoid, debris-strewn domestic space of "Whisper Hill," and like the ancient castles of many gothic tales, this space becomes a realm for both the symbolic satisfaction, but also the symbolic management of forbidden forms of desire. Like much gothic literature, in other words, "AFTERMATH" is an incredibly ambiguous story, productive of both satisfaction and chastisement. It would be difficult, I think, to be a 10 or 11 year old boy and not to be unconsciously thrilled by the terrifying virility of the Eliminator, whose single-minded pursuit of his fulfillment shows "no mercy" to the family and the social restrictions it represents--a fulfillment that is also visible, in various ways, in the characters of Johnny and Ben. And yet, the story is not a simple wish-fulfillment. For its symbolization of emergent sexuality as simultaneously monstrous and unstoppable, and thus necessarily secret (the Eliminator's very raison d'etre is secrecy: "It is my solemn duty to eliminate all evidence that Agatha Harkness ever dwelt among your primitive race..."), very precisely captures the emotional confusion of the comic's target audience. The Eliminator is, as Ben (the "trash compactor") says, "ugly." Thus even though the FF family seems constantly to be cracking up and falling apart, it is, in this act of naming, as well as in many other ways, indestructible and ultimately triumphant over the pleasurable but anxiety-provoking forces that threaten it.

Perez's meticulously drawn debris, in this context, becomes a very complex and multivalent metaphor. It is, most obviously and most crudely, a tangible sign of surplus pleasure, the "waste" of Onan's "sin." How else to account for the incredible satisfaction it affords? But it is not only that, for its very status as debris--literally garbage--marks it as something that must, in Ben's phrase, be "swept under the rug," even if this act of "sweeping" is more like a cosmic boom that always threatens to bring the parents running, fearful of an attack on the family sanctum. Debris, waste, garbage: the double edged language of private pleasure.


SUPKEM said...

I am not much for comments so I'll just throw this one lout there and see where it gets me.

Funy how Perez' debris can be so compeling, and yet he is resposible for the Fozzie thing (at least as far as I can see.) That is the Thing with the least amount of jaggered edges.



Anonymous said...

It took me a long to figure out the name of the Eliminator in this one- I read it when I was about 10- and have never really been into comics- I think I had a 6 month subscription that I got a as a birthday present that year- so the grand total oc comics read is 6. I remembered the rough story and especially the manner where The Eliminator fired his jets into his chest- I guess that's a real testament to this particular issue- that a novice would remember it almost 40 years later.