Friday, July 08, 2005

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” (Part 2): Making Superheroes Dis/appear in Fantastic Four #1

How do you make a superteam appear?

If it’s 1961 and you’re Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, acting at the urging of then-Marvel publisher Martin Goodman to create a superteam that would rival the success of National/DC’s Justice League of America, you do so with a combination of calculation and cunning. With a stage-magician’s sleight-of-hand, you conjure them by making them seem to disappear.

As Sean Kleefeld recounts in a fascinating article on the industry origins of the FF comic book, Goodman was constrained by a conflict of interest with his distributor, National, to avoid directly copying the format of National/DC’s newly revived superteam concept. As a result, he had Lee and Kirby design a family of non-costumed super-adventurers that would draw heavily on Marvel’s then-current reputation as a publisher of horror and monster comics--a strategy evident not only in the character designs for the Torch and the Thing, but also in the menaces of the first several issues of what Lee modestly dubbed, “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.” As Kleefeld notes, even the appearance of the FF’s team uniforms in issue #3 (a result of reader demand) represented a careful compromise on the part of the creators: “every member was given essentially the same costume and Goodman could claim they were uniformed heroes, not costumed ones like the Justice League.”

Given the deliberateness of this careful balancing act--a balancing act that tries to make the superteam concept disappear at the very moment that it announces the appearance of a new superteam--it is perhaps not surprising to find that the first issue of Fantastic Four is replete with motifs of appearance and disappearance. In fact, these motifs are integral to the characters themselves.

Susan Storm, the Invisible Girl, is in this sense an embodiment of the book’s conceptual dilemma: making its superheroes “visible” to readers, but “invisible” to its distributor. The first of the fantastic foursome to answer Reed’s smoke-signal summons and the first member of the four to display her superpower in the pages of the book, Sue is introduced as a “ghost” who is simultaneously present and absent, tangible yet unseen. Her ghostliness is first suggested by the opening scene where she is shown having tea with a “society friend.” Dolled-up in full pink “ladies who lunch” regalia, the lady vanishes while her companion isn’t looking and walks out the front door, looking more like one of the beautiful specters from Marvel’s Mystery Tales or Strange Stories of Suspense than a superheroine on her way to save the world. Two subsequent episodes, in which Sue frightens pedestrians into thinking that a ghost has rushed past them on a crowded sidewalk and terrorizes a cabbie by sneaking unseen into his cab and then trying to pay with a “floating” dollar bill, both evoke the comic book ghost-story tradition.

This introduction of the superteam through the presentation of Sue as material phantom is doubly significant. In the first place, the ghost motif itself establishes the horror comic context, providing Lee and Kirby’s superheroes with a plausible alibi for superheroics. Secondly, the visual ambiguity of Sue’s power (she looks like a ghost, but isn’t one), is a metaphor for Lee and Kirby’s “now you see them, now you don’t” superheroes themselves. Like the cab driver Sue spooks, a reader looking for superheroes might well cry: “I--I’m hearin’ things! Seein’ things! Or-or not seein’ them!!”

The counterbalance to Sue’s becoming-invisible is the Thing’s becoming-visible. And one is tempted to say that it is no coincidence that Sue’s disappearing act is immediately followed in the opening pages of FF #1 by an exchange between a heavily disguised, trench coat-clad Ben Grimm and a befuddled tailor who has nothing big enough “for a man your size.” As soon as Ben is made aware of Reed’s signal in the sky outside, he immediately throws off his trench coat disguise, revealing the rocky orange behemoth beneath.

Significantly, as with Sue’s invisible trip through the city, the Thing’s rampage is characterized in terms that would have been familiar to a 1960s Marvel audience. To one onlooker he is “a monster”; to the police he is an “it”; and to another fleeing bystander he is “a Martian.” Indeed, the Invisible Girl and the Thing are perfectly complementary figures in these opening set pieces, embodying figures from Marvel’s horror and monster publications respectively.

What is particularly striking about their complementarity, however, is that whereas Sue is constantly disappearing, Ben is constantly making himself appear by ripping off the trench coat that provides his monstrous shape with a momentary invisibility. Ben tears out of his trench coat three times over the course of the first issue, and the third time is clearly for effect only as he has preposterously put the coat back on between saving Sue from a rock-monster and launching an attack on the Mole Man to rescue Reed and Johnny a few moments later! The scenes of the Thing crashing through a wall and up through the street in the earlier “answering the summons” section of the story are simply concrete repetitions of this becoming-visible motif that doubles and balances the disappearing act of Susan Storm.

The other character who relates to this motif of appearance and disappearance is the issue’s villain, the Mole Man. As the FF’s first villain, the Mole Man occupies a privileged place in the team’s mythology, and given the degree to which visibility and invisibility inform the dynamics of the characters themselves, it is perhaps not surprising that the team’s first villain turns out to be an uncanny combination of the Thing and the Invisible Girl! Consider his origin (which he conveniently supplies in monologue):

“It all started years ago!! Because the people of the surface world mocked me! Finally, I could stand it no longer! I decided to strike out alone…to search for a legendary new world…the legendary land at the centre of the earth! A world where I could be king! My travels took me all over the globe… And then, just when I almost abandoned hope, when my little skiff had been washed ashore here on Monster Isle, I found it! [A strange cavern.] I soon saw where it led… It led to the land of my dreams: ‘Down there…below—I’ve found it!! It’s the earth’s center!’ But in the dread silence of that huge cavern, the sudden shock of my loud voice caused a violent avalanche, and when it was over, I had somehow miraculously survived the fall… But due to the impact of the crash, I had lost most of my sight! Yes, I had found the center of the earth—but I was stranded here…like a human mole!! That was to be the last of my misfortunes! My luck began to turn in my favor! I mastered the creatures down here—made them do my bidding—and with their help, I carved out an underground empire!... Now, before I slay you all, behold my master plan! See this map of my underground empire! Each tunnel leads to a major city! As soon as I have wrecked every atomic plant, every source of earthly power, my mighty mole creatures will attack and destroy everything that lives about the surface!”

The Mole Man is clearly a poster-boy for ressentiment, and his obsession with getting back at the world that mocked his ugly appearance is a rather transparent moral counterpoint to the dilemma of the Thing, who suffers the same prejudicial slings and arrows, without succumbing to the Mole Man’s desire for revenge. Significantly, though, Mole Man embodies the dialectic of appearance/disappearance filtered through monstrosity and spectrality that is represented separately in the grotesque Thing and the ghostly Invisible Girl. The Mole Man begins as a repellant Thing; then, like the Invisible Girl, he disappears—traveling alone, Frankenstein-like, across the ice-fields, and vanishing into a cave that plunges him into “the earth’s center.” His resulting blindness also recalls Sue’s invisibility, and his temporary blinding of Reed and Johnny with the glare from his (never explained!) “Valley of Diamonds” is a symbolic appropriation of Sue’s power (i.e. invisibility as the equivalent of blinding people to her presence). Finally, the Mole Man’s plans for revenge that will take the form of a sudden eruption of monsters onto the surface world would repeat Ben’s eruption through the street from the sewer system below in the opening scenes of the comic (an eruption, as I noted earlier, that is itself a version of Ben’s constant emergence from inside the trench coat throughout the story).

Whatever one might say about this strange synthesis of appearance and disappearance in the Mole Man himself, it’s clear that these twin motifs were never far from Lee and Kirby’s minds during the conceptualization and production of this issue. Moreover, in light of the backstory to the origin of the Fantastic Four provided by Sean Kleefeld, the conclusion to the FF’s first encounter with the Mole Man and the denizens of Monster Isle is filled with marvelous ironies that highlight and reinforce the comic’s mixed-message of a superteam that must appear and disappear, be present and absent simultaneously.

The issue ends with the Mole Man frantically summoning his “under-earth horde” to defeat the Fantastic Four. But no sooner does his “army of underground gargoyles” appear, than they are walled off by the Human Torch who creates a rockslide with his heat powers. The FF escape in their airplane as Monster Isle blows up, and Reed is confident that “[The Mole Man’s] sealed himself below--forever!” What I find so tantalizing about this dramatic conclusion is that it seems almost to have a self-conscious dimension, for the incarceration of the Mole man beneath the earth and the destruction of Monster Isle is, metaphorically-speaking, precisely what Lee and Kirby’s new group of superheroes is doing to the Monster and Horror comics of the 1950s that will soon be eclipsed by the prominence of the superhero genre. A revolution of spandex over scales, corpses, and protoplasm that the FF themselves will be instrumental in bringing about.

The final panel of FF #1 is thus, appropriately, an image of the Fantastic Four in their plane, flying straight towards the reader, with Reed eulogizing the Mole Man and (one likes to imagine) the comic book era his monsters represent. “It’s best that way,” Reed says, speaking of the Mole Man’s disappearance. “There was no place for him in our world…perhaps he’ll find peace down there…I hope so!” Talk about burying the past! And yet, there is an uncertainty here too, as there is in the issue as a whole, with whether or not this disappearance is final or decisive. “I hope we have seen the last of him!” says the ever-ambiguous Invisible Girl skeptically. And the narrator shares her uncertainty: “But whether we’ve seen the last of the Mole Man or not, we will see much more of the most amazing quartet in history in the next great issue of--the Fantastic Four!! Don’t miss it!!”

Appearance, disappearance. Visibility, invisibility. Monstrous superheroes, superheroic monsters. The superteam that’s there, but isn’t there. At least, not fully. Not yet...


  • Sean Kleefeld's contains a wealth of information on the FF, including an excellent selection of articles on FF history and lore.

  • No comments: