Wednesday, July 06, 2005

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” (Part 1): Perverse and Diabolical Families in Fantastic Four #186

It’s Fantastic Four week here at Double Articulation. Tim Story’s Fantastic Four movie opens this Friday, and in the spirit of mustering up some enthusiasm for a film that is being greeted with trepidation by many fans, I’ll be posting some pieces on great FF stories of the past 44 years, dealing with different aspects of the FF mythos, and speculating on what makes the FF “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.” Today, an old personal favorite...

There are three issues of the Fantastic Four from Len Wein and George Perez’s magnificent run in the late 1970s that occupy a privileged place in my personal archaeology: #184 (“Aftermath: The Eliminator!,” which I wrote about here), #187 (“Trouble Times Two,” featuring Klaw and Molecule Man’s ambush of the FF in the Baxter Building, which I’ll write about in a future column), and a story that falls between them: #186 (“Enter: Salem’s Seven”), which is my focus today.

I picked that comic off the magazine rack back in 1977 because of the Perez cover, which brilliantly showcases the FF’s frightening antagonists by framing them between the cover title and the carefully positioned bodies of the surprised members of the Fantastic Four, whose point of view we share. At age five, I already knew that I liked the FF, but as the cover shows, this issue was all about a group called Salem’s Seven--and they were the scariest, weirdest, neatest group of super-villains I had ever seen. They combined monstrosity, magic, and spandex in a way that reminded me of my favorite witchcraft-oriented super-villain, the Green Goblin, from the 1967 Spiderman cartoon that I watched religiously in re-runs. Not to mention that their sheer grotesque diversity contrasted enticingly with the relative “uniformity” of the FF’s own blue-clad family unit.

But as I look at it now, some twenty-eight years after the fact, I wonder, what sort of confrontation is actually taking place on this cover? Who are “Salem’s Seven” to the Fantastic Four? And why, even all these years later, does the image still seem to capture something elemental about the nature of the Fantastic Four, both as a team and a comic book?

In a perceptive chapter of his recent book on superheroes, Danny Fingeroth supplies some suggestive clues...

In Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society, Fingeroth identifies three types of “thermonuclear families” (i.e. superhero teams) in comics. The first type is a meritocracy, epitomized by the exclusivity and prestige of the big guns of the JLA. The second type is a “forced together” “family of freaks,” whose paradigm is the persecuted team of mutant outsiders, the X-Men. The third type is a superhero team for whom “family” is not just a metaphor, but a reality—and a reality realistically presented at that. The archetype of this team is, of course, the Fantastic Four: “Neither as aloof and regal in bearing as the Justice League, nor as ragtag and extreme as the X-Men…[they] are the family down the block, neither perfect enough to be role models, nor extreme enough in their neuroses to be romantically tragic but, nonetheless, all too human in their super-humanity” (117).

If Fingeroth is correct that the Fantastic Four are “perhaps the most realistic fantasy family unit,” that they are a superfamily distinguished by the normalcy* of their interactions with each other, then their most archetypal villains are arguably the disturbing doubles of this realistic (yet still highly idealized) fantasy family that reflect its relatively harmonious normalcy “through a glass darkly.” The Wizard’s “Frightful Four,” a criminal (and unstable) thug-family that travesties the FF’s alliterating name, is perhaps the most obvious of such inversions. But “Salem’s Seven”--whose alliterative name recalls the FF’s without directly repeating it--is in many ways a superior example of the type of demonic counter-family that has symptomatically plagued the FF throughout the years.

Salem’s Seven were explicitly and self-consciously designed as diabolical doubles of the Fantastic Four’s “thermonuclear” family, for they are a team whose very existence and composition are predicated on the Fantastic Four and their powers.

When the FF first encounter them after breaking out of a cell in New Salem, where they had been imprisoned by head warlock Nicholas Scratch, Salem’s Seven are simply a group of human beings, clad in matching green tunics, looking very much like extras from what a 1970s version of Eyes Wide Shut might have looked like. Immediately, however, Johnny’s observation that “They’re not even armed!” is belied by the group’s transformation. As the man who will become “Hydron” warns, “One does not require weapons of the flesh...when one possesses weapons of the soul!!” And the man who is now “Vakume” helpfully informs them: “We have become a supernatural squadron, created solely to defy your own inhuman powers.”

What follows is an enjoyable fight sequence in which each member of the FF fends off a series of amusing, sexually symbolic threats: Johnny is wrapped in the seductive coils of serpentine femme fatale, “Reptilla”; Sue must deflect exploding missiles launched from the body of “Thornn” with her invisible force shield (note: she is only partially successful in this!); she also helps Reed extricate himself from an attack by the high-kicking “Gazelle,” a sort of deadly Rockette; the Thing, meanwhile, is taken for a spin by the dignified, quietly powerful “Vertigo,” an African-American beauty whose ability to destroy her foes’ “equilibrium” is a suggestive sexual, but also political metaphor to say the least! (In a different world, she’d be the lead in her own comic book, and a hero rather than a villain. Still, this is a start.)

The sexual threats to the FF that are deftly avoided in this fight sequence emphasize the symbolic stakes of the battle: this is a war between the FF as a family and the forces that threaten to tear that family apart. What is at stake, moreover, are two different versions of the family: one that is “normal” and one that is “monstrous.” But what exactly is the difference between them? Is the “monstrous” family unequivocally “bad,” and is the “normal” family (our heroes) unequivocally “good”? The answer turns out to be surprisingly complicated, and quite unexpected.

What complicates the relation between the two teams--the ostensibly heroic and demonic families--is that “Salem’s Seven” are not, strictly speaking, super-villains at all. They are at best glorified, magically-powered security guards, whose explicit orders are not to harm the FF, but merely to “prevent [their] escape.” (Moreover, the witches of New Salem as a whole turn out to be a rather reasonable bunch by the end of the story where they are persuaded by Reed to turn on their malevolent leader, Nicholas Scratch.) This built-in limit to the violence of the two teams’ conflict softens the opposition between the two “families,” and it is not the only or even the most important thing that does so.

Also important is the fact that the transformation spell that gives Salem’s Seven powers (and by extension appearances) that are designed specifically to counter those of the FF also links them to the FF in an inseparable way. Although they appear to be monstrous “opposites” of the FF, the strange interconnection of the two teams--the dependence of Salem’s Seven on the FF for the very shape of their “monstrosity”--ironically and significantly points to the monstrosity of the FF themselves. The most obvious parallel is the one between Brutacus and the Thing. Not only are Brutacus’s powers a straightforward duplication of Ben’s strength (albeit in reduced form), Brutacus himself is a bulky orange brute! More subtly, perhaps, the two other most monstrous members of Salem’s Seven--the amphibious-looking fire hose Hydron and vampy snake-woman Reptilla--both embody very drastic (and elemental) transformations of the human body akin to Johnny’s ability to radically transform his body into a “human torch,” and of course both are designed as antagonists for Johnny specifically.

It is this element of monstrosity within the FF that Fingeroth sees as “foreshadowing” the more extreme valorization of (so-called) monstrosity within the X-Men--a team book that has an ideologically progressive vision precisely because the X-men themselves are a metaphor for all minority groups and outsiders (defined by the dominant social order as “freaks”). What the FF are confronting in issue 186 is, in a certain sense, the monstrosity within themselves and a potentially “monstrous” development of their family unit. Or, to put it another way, they are confronting an archetypal version of the X-Men, the type of freak-family they anticipate, but do not fully embody because they remain at least partially anchored to the more conservative nuclear family model of the 1950s.

In other words, Salem’s Seven are true “doubles” of the FF, and not simply opposites or antagonists, for they embody something that is partially obscured or repressed within the FF themselves, within the “normalcy” that appears to define them.

For this reason, the real diabolical family on FF 186 is not Salem’s Seven, but Nicholas Scratch and his mother, the persecuted witch/nanny Agatha Harkness. In the deranged Norman Bates-like warlock, Nicholas Scratch, one glimpses the true perversion of the FF’s nuclear family values: not the superficial monstrosity of Salem's Seven, but a son whose desire is turned dangerously inward, who will not let his mother go, and seeks to keep her bound permanently within the strange closed community of New Salem over which he presides. Nicholas Scratch’s invisible city of New Salem is a “Satanic” space of private fantasy (he presides over it adorned with a purple, horned crown!), a sort of Freudian nightmare in which a perverse Oedipus positions himself as a punishing patriarch, displacing his desire for mother into matricide, punishing her for the “transgression” of revealing the existence of this “secret” family of witches.**

Of course, Agatha Harkness is guilty of no transgression whatsoever, not even “transgression” as it is defined by the paranoid standards of New Salem. As Reed Richards reveals at the climax of the issue, it is Scratch himself who has “transgressed,” having revealed the secret of the coven’s existence by kidnapping young Franklin Richards. This “transgression,” one suspects, is itself a comic-book displacement of the psychosexual dynamics that Hitchcock explored so memorably in Psycho. The “trial” of the mother, Agatha Harkness, like all witch trials, is thus a sham and a fraud designed to protect a precarious patriarchal authority that is fraying at the edges and about to go up in flames itself. Nicholas Scratch is one of the most astute Freudian characterizations in comic books: his fatal commingling of Oedipal desire, disavowal, and displacement is a real “witch’s brew” that illustrates very precisely how the perverse family--the family in which desire is inwardly focused because it cannot find an object beyond its borders--becomes not only destructive but implosive.

To put the matter all too crudely, the Fantastic Four’s journey to New Salem is “about” the family’s confrontation with incestuous desire, even though nothing could seem farther from the manifest content of the story. It is very intriguing, to say the least, that what leads them to New Salem in the first place, is the abduction of Reed and Sue’s own young son Franklin, the centre of that Oedipal story who is a sort of absent centre in this story--motivating the entire action, and yet never really present, always a ghost. Is there another displacement here, I wonder...? Nicholas Scratch and Franklin Richards, the boys who are always crying for mother...

Let us bracket these speculations and simply propose that the perverse family of Nicholas Scratch and Agatha Harkness is the real distorted opposite (or nightmare version) of the nuclear family of the Fantastic Four. It is the excessively insular, implicitly incestuous family that the Fantastic Four successfully wards off and represses. And it is here that the crucial presence of “Uncle Ben” within the team is perhaps the most plainly evident. For Ben Grimm’s “Thing”--the good “monster” of the team, the “family friend” who earns the designation “uncle”--is precisely what saves the FF from being a claustrophobically insular collection of blood relations. Ben’s “monstrosity” is literally and figuratively the FF family’s greatest “strength” because it is a monstrosity that signifies the difference that Ben (as neither a Richards nor a Storm) brings to the potentially insular family unit. Ben’s “difference” is the difference of the outsider, the difference from outside that Nicholas Scratch tries at all costs to prevent from “tainting” the isolationism of New Salem, a despotic Neverland where he is free to follow the dictates of his own unpoliced desire.

Significantly, this welcome symbolic “difference” that Ben introduces into the Richards-Storm family is also the decisive factor in the FF’s defeat of Salem’s Seven. I mentioned earlier that the relation between Salem’s Seven and the FF is ambiguous. I began by arguing that Salem’s Seven are doubles of the FF in the sense that they are the latter’s antagonistic, demonic opposites. Then I argued that the relationship was more complicated than it seemed because Salem’s Seven could be seen as embodying a certain kind of productive monstrosity within the FF itself, a kind of monstrosity embodied in Ben Grimm, and reinforced by the strong similarities between the teams and by the fact that Salem’s Seven turn out not to be straightforward villains in the end at all. I’d like to give this interpretation of Salem’s Seven one final twist by arguing that, to the extent that they initially do represent a simple demonic opposite of the FF (in other words, throughout the duration of their battle), their defeat is accomplished by the sudden revelation of difference within the FF’s family unit.

This revelation happens when Brutacus is surprised by the unexpected shattering of Reed’s prosthetic arms, devices Reed constructed because he has temporarily lost his stretching powers. With the shattering of the arms and Brutacus’s cry, “His arms—they’re artificial!,” the “spell” transforming the witches into Salem’s Seven is abruptly broken, and the seven who had referred to their own powers as “weapons of the soul” revert to their human forms to face the Thing’s inevitable announcement that it’s now Clobberin’ Time! As a now human member of the seven explains, “The spell that transformed us could work solely against the natural powers of the Fantastic Four. By utilizing artificial means against us, you have returned us to what we were!” This defeat of “weapons of the soul” (dependent upon the FF’s use of “natural” powers) by Reed’s “artificial” arms establishes a suggestive new opposition between the two types of family that are engaged in battle until this point.

For what we have in the resolution of this conflict is the defeat of a “natural,” “metaphysical” version of the family by an “artificial,” “unnatural” one. And it is the Fantastic Four who are now unexpectedly revealed as embodying the latter. In short, suddenly, all the terms of the previous argument seem to have been reversed. The “monstrous” family of Salem’s Seven turns out to be bound by some conception of “nature,” and the ostensibly “natural” or “normal” family of the FF has become disarmingly “artificial,” even “monstrous.” How appropriate that it is Brutacus--the obvious orange double of Ben Grimm--who shatters the family patriarch’s limbs and breaks the spell, shattering the twin illusions of patriarchal authority and the “natural” nuclear family in the process, presaging Ben’s own symbolic (and welcome) “clobbering” of the would-be “natural,” “normative” family unit. The FF may not quite be the X-Men yet, but this could, with some justice, be called an “immanent” critique of the nuclear family.

As we might expect, this intensely psychological pop-examination of the family, where everything we normally assume to be stable seems suddenly ambiguous, confusing, and haunted by its own repressions, takes place within a non-space--a city that appears on no map and seems to exist both outside of time and place. And the story’s ending reinforces the sense that all of the story’s revelations must, in a sense, remain outside the realm of the everyday world. Ultimately, Nicholas Scratch is in effect executed by the New Salemites, who cast upon him a “spell of eternal banishment,” making him suffer the fate he had intended for his mother. Once the FF are reunited with Franklin and Agatha Harkness, and safely aboard their Pogo Plane flying away from the city, they see a glow on the horizon and watch the city disappear. “If you listen carefully over the Pogo plane’s whine,” the narrator intones, “perhaps you might hear the doleful chanting and thus know that those of New Salem have considered how much they might contribute to the world of mortal men... And considered too what mortal men might offer them in turn... And they have at last decided that there is no place for them in a world such as this!” At this moment, Agatha Harkness reveals the crucial piece of information that has been withheld throughout the story (but not this article)--namely, that Nicholas Scratch is her son.

When I was five, I felt the sting of this disclosure very powerfully: a mother forced to endure the evil intentions of her own son, and then left to mourn him as he receives the blow he intended for her. This was Marvel melodrama at its best.

Today, I see it somewhat differently. What strikes me now is not so much the personal story of Agatha Harkness’s suffering and stoicism, but the disappearance of the New Salemites and their conviction that there is “no place for them in a world such as this.” This rings true, psychologically. What this ending shows is not the “choice” of a groups of witches, but a parable about the “truth” of the unconscious. What we watch, as the glow of the vanishing city fades from the mountaintop, is the “eternal banishment” of Oedipus, the necessary repression of antisocial desires that is necessary to living in “a world such as this.”

And yet, there is something even more melancholy about this ending. For another way of understanding what disappears with New Salem, is a certain archetype of the family. A more gloriously monstrous and polymorphous archetype of family. I have tried to show, following Fingeroth’s wise example, that the Fantastic Four are not as “square” or even as symmetrical as they seem. They may be rooted in the nuclear family model of the early 1960s, but, with the presence of “uncle Ben,” they strain towards the radical diversification of definitions of the family that animate the present: the blended family, the racially diverse family, the gay family, the single parent family, the ragtag mutant family, the family of misfits, family of one... They strain towards this, but do not go all the way--at least, not yet. And as the Pogo plane streaks back towards Manhattan, towards the Baxter Building, I catch myself feeling nostalgic...for Salem’s Seven.


* Clearly there are many problems with seeing the WASPy Richards clan as embodying any sort of “norm” of the family—although perhaps not as many as one might initially suspect. They may not be “the family down the block” for every reader, but as Fingeroth points out, the emphasis on the monstrosity of the family’s powers (especially in the original Lee/Kirby run) and the way in which “uncle” Ben’s presence complicates the nuclear family model are two important ways in which the FF “foreshadowed” or “paved the way” for more self-consciously subversive ad hoc “families” of outcasts and freaks like the X-Men (see Fingeroth 115-17).

** These are really intelligent scripts. Throughout his run as writer, Len Wein had a clear interest in probing the psychical essentials of the Fantastic Four concept—something that is evident in his run’s intense thematization of the family as a location of pleasure, conflict, repression, and identification—particularly through the motif of doubling and duplication, which is a hallmark of these stories. (Reed and Ben are constantly confronted by sinister doubles of themselves in these tales.) His legacy to the FF is a subtle and revealing examination of the family. And he was certainly not alone in bringing a high level of sophistication and perceptiveness to the scripts of "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine." Roy Thomas's brilliant metafictional issue #176 dealing with the Impossible Man’s visit to the Marvel Comics bullpen is of the same calibre. I’ll review this issue in a future column. (Thanks to Dave Fiore of Motime Like the Present for the save!)

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