Friday, 30 August 2019

Separated at Birth 2 - another comic covers interlude

HERE'S SOMETHING A LITTLE MORE LIGHT-HEARTED than my more recent posts ... another look at the many tropes, cliches and chestnuts that show up over and over again in the cover designs of our favourite comics. I'd barely scratched the surface of this subject on one of my every early entries in this blog, so I'm giving the subject another outing.

I should clarify that Marvel and DC comics took quite a different approach to how they created their covers. DC had always traditionally created their covers first, often using the idea behind a "grabby" cover to drive the plot of the story inside the comic. Both Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz took this approach with the DC books they edited. Marvel, though, did exactly the opposite, creating their covers after the interior art was completed. This meant that Marvel would often create symbolic covers that might not illustrate a scene from the story inside. But you'll see what I'm getting at as we go along ...


IDENTICAL TWINS

I think it's fair to say that Julie Schwartz was the king of recycling when it came to re-using old cover ideas. During his run as editor of DC's revived superhero titles, he'd regularly plunder the cover gallery of his 1950s science fiction comics for ideas.

Uncanny, isn't it? It's almost as though Schwartz was cynically re-using cover ideas from the previous decade, wasn't it? "Ah, what the hell ... the kids'll never know." Click image to enlarge.
The above 1960s cover concepts are absolutely identical to their 1950s antecedents ... but this is hardly unusual in the comics industry.


CLOSELY RELATED

It wasn't just Schwartz who liked to dredge up old ideas and trot them out for further airings. DC's Dark Overlord Mort Weisinger also loved the economy of using an old idea instead of thinking up a new one.

As before, the top row is the copycat covers and the lower row is their original inspiration. You could argue that the Jimmy Olsen 110 infinity cover is an homage to the 1946 Superman 38 cover ... but who except for the editor and artist would have known that?
Here's a bunch of Superman Family covers enjoying a second roll of the dice. The Superboy covers are just 18 months apart.


MARVEL MIMICRY

I wouldn't want you, dear reader, to presume I'm picking on DC as unprincipled purveyors of parallel portrayals. Marvel have also displayed ill-judged moments of imitation - admittedly, not as many, though.

Is this deliberate? How would John Romita, Gil Kane and Sal Buscema all manage to draw a comic cover featuring The Tarantula in pretty much identical poses? It's a mystery to me.
The first few times Spider-Man villain The Tarantula appeared on Marvel covers, it might have seemed as though the production department were just sticking the same drawing of the character against slightly different yellow backgrounds. But those really are different covers by three different artists.

Over on the Hulk comic, iconic portrayer of the Angry Green One, Herb Trimpe produced a run of covers that were ... well, pretty much the same, really.

Is it Herb Trimpe who loves a low-angle shot? Or might Stan have been telling him that this point-of-view makes for more powerful covers? It's striking how similar these covers are ... they could almost be different versions of the same cover.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a massive fan of Trimpe's work, and of course, it may not be poor ol' Herb who's to blame for the sameness of the above covers. It could be that Trimpe was being given cover direction by Stan ... but it's interesting that the first seven covers of the Hulk's 1968 run - by Marie Severin - all show The Hulk much larger on the page than the Trimpe covers that followed.

See? Marie Severin, who was pinch-hitting for Stan as Marvel's in-house corrections artist and was also laying out covers before John Romita took on the role officially, took quite a different approach from Herb Trimpe on how her covers looked.
Researching hundreds of covers to this blog entry, I was struck by how some themes kept coming up. It's as though certain types of subject matter call out to comics editors ... "use me, use me!" Here's some of the more common ones.


YOU SHOULDA PUT A RING ON IT

I have no idea whether Mort Weisinger was a fight fan, but he sure used a lot of boxing and wrestling themed covers on the Superman family books.

Look at this collection of ringside covers ... whether it's Jimmy Olsen getting KOed, or Jimmy knocking Superman out. Or Superman being beaten up by unlikely antagonists, they all share a certain sameness. You'll never see anything like this on a Marvel cover.
I would guess that Weisinger's thought process was, "Two boxers on a comic cover is dull. Put a superhero in a boxing ring, that's interesting." Having heroes in unusual but slightly mundane situations was a constant theme in DC covers from the 1940s right the way through to the 1970s. There were other examples ...

Superheroes in a boxing ring? I can't imagine Marvel would ever
dream of going down that route, would you?

THEY OUGHT TO BE LOCKED UP

Something else Weisinger liked to do was to lock his heroes up in jail. It's astonishing that he didn't add a speech balloon to this type of cover to have Superman say, "Aw, not again!" Here's a small selection of just some of the convict Superman covers I was able to uncover ...

A lot of the time, it was Clark Kent banged up so as to reveal his secret identity (incidentally, I never understood how it was that people even realised Superman had a secret identity. He must've told them, right?) Sometimes, it was Superman imprisoned, taken for a criminal. The World's Finest 156 cover with the bizarros freeing the Joker I included because it's just so goofy.
But it wasn't just Superman who found himself wrongly (or rightly) imprisoned. Other DC superheroes also got in on the act.

"I'm innocent, I tell you. Innocent!" In all fairness, it should only take Batman about ten seconds or so to free himself from a standard jail cell. So why were we so worried?
OK, mostly Batman ... but you get the idea.

DC GIANTS - BUT NOT 80-PAGE

Another common DC cliche is turning their characters into giants. It happened so often that you wondered why any of the supporting characters might be surprised. 

Ooh, a giant Batman in a Giant Batman comic. This was a reprint of Detective 243 from 1957 in which Batman became a giant. Later in Batman 177 (Dec 1965) he became ... a giant. Jimmy Olsen also became a giant in JO 53 (Jun 1961), in a cover that looks awfully close to a cover of the pulp Thrilling Wonder Stories, merely a remarkable coincidence, I'm sure. A very similar image also showed up on the cover of Superboy 30 (Jan 1954). What are the odds?
I think the idea started out in Julie Schwatrz's old DC mystery stories of the 1950s, then somehow made its way into the Weiseinger edited superhero titles during the Sixties. These covers must've sold books, or they wouldn't have done them ...

GIANT-SIZE MARVELS

Over at Marvel Comics, Stan avoided all the DC-style body dysmorphia madness, though he did like covers that depicted his characters as giants, though in a metaphorical way. So you'd often have the huge figure of Doctor Doom towering menacingly over the Fantastic Four, or Magneto and his Evil Whatchamacallems looming threatening over The X-Men. But that didn't mean that they were actual giants, okay?

The trope of showing characters, especially villains, as giants on the covers of Marvel Comics was started by Jack Kirby. Perhaps this was some kind of hangover from all those monster covers he drew for Strange Tales and Amazing Adventures. The thing is, we kids knew that Dr Doom and the Mandarin weren't actually 50 foot tall ...
This trend would continue throughout the 1960s and even into the 1970s, though once Stan was no longer involved in the day-to-day running of Marvel, the figuratively colossal characters tailed away. And strangely, it wasn't really a look that DC went for. The closest I could find to this was in an old Justice League cover which is almost - but not quite - depicting the characters as giants for dramatic effect.

... and though Kirby might have started the trend, it continued with other artists, so we'd get giant Spider-Men as well as big villains. Look how similar that later Avengers cover is to the Justice League artwork below it. And how about those two brilliant Steranko covers on the right hand side?
Here's a whole other bunch of cover tropes that loomed large during my favourite period of comic ... The Silver Age.

CATALOGUE OF CLICHES

That's right, there are many different themes for comic covers that would crop up more than once. Because of the way DC worked - identifying ideas that they knew would sell books, then building their stories around that - it was more frequent to experience deja vu if you were a DC reader. Stan did it too, as we've seen, but was strangely less formulaic with his covers than you might imagine, given the notorious lack of imagination on the part of his publisher Marty Goodman.


Still ... try some of these out for size.

Holy gurgle: Batman enjoyed this deadly water trap in Batman 166 (Sep 1964) so much that he tried it out again just four years later in Batman 207 (Dec 1968).
Up periscope: It's a a pretty arresting image, so it's not too much of an assumption to suggest that cover artist on Sub-Mariner 11 (Mar 1969) Gene Colan may have - consciously or unconsciously - swiped Jack Burnley's cover idea from Superman 23 (Jul 1943).
Gone fishing: As a kid, I hated fishing. Yet I clearly recall that the House of Mystery 94 on the right is the very first American comic I ever saw on a newsagent's counter some time during 1960. My mum wouldn't buy it for me.
Between Two Worlds: This is unusual. More often the superhero comic borrows an idea from an old mystery title. This time it's the other way round. The Adam Strange cover on Mystery in Space 82 is dated March 1963. The Strange Adventures 181 is October 1965. Weird couple of worlds, isn't it?
I'm a Robot: Here's one so odd, you wonder why DC used it twice. You wake up one morning and find that you're a robot. It first turned up on Action Comics 282 (Nov 1961) and returned on Green Lantern 36 (Apr 1965).
I have literally dozens more examples of comic covers that were separated at birth, more than enough for an additional post, so I think I'll leave the rest for another time.

Next: Something Inhuman this way Comes ...



Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Women of Marvel: Sue Storm Part 3 - Invisible No More

THE EARLY 1960s WAS A TIME OF GREAT CHANGE ... especially for women, though the origins of this change go back to the World War II years. The conflict with Nazi Germany and their allies brought about two big transformations in society. First, with the domestic workforce being drained by volunteers and conscription into the armed forces, women began to take on jobs, formerly reserved for men, in manufacturing and service industries, leading to a change in way women saw themselves and their role in society. As the war ground on, women took a step further, actively participating directly in the war - driving ambulances, operating ant-aircraft guns and even piloting war planes from one airfield to another in order to free combat pilots. Almost half a million women were enrolled in the British Armed Forces, and societal resistance to married women taking jobs faded. In the Soviet Union, nearly a million women served as medics, radio operators, drivers, snipers and even combat pilots. In Germany, women of the League of German Girls assisted the Luftwaffe as anti-aircraft gunners and as guerrilla fighters in Werwolf units behind Allied lines.

Though the "We Can Do It!" girl is often referred to as Rosie the Rivetter, the real Rosie was first depicted in a Saturday Evening Post cover by legendary American illustrator Norman Rockwell (yes, the "we're looking for people who like to draw" guy). Click on images to enlarge.
So when the war ended, it's hardly surprising that many women had little ambition to return to their traditional role of home-maker and unpaid domestic servant, even as their men returned from the War looking to pick up their old lives again. 

Seriously? This is how advertisers in the 1950s saw women? Talk about poking the tiger with a stick ... is it any wonder that as the Sixties rolled around, there would be a feminine backlash against this kind of this nonsense?
During the 1950s, advertisers simultaneously targeted women as the new consumers while at the same time, reinforcing their stereotyped roles as homemakers. Sociologists even conducted research they said "proved" working women were harmful to the growth of their children. These ill-advised attempts to put the genie back in the bottle resulted in what was called "second wave feminism", where women sought to address the issues of cultural inequalities, just as first wave feminists had battled political inequalities such as suffrage and property ownership.

Betty Friedan in 1960.
Betty Friedan - probably the catalyst and focus for Second Wave Feminism - had been active in both her high school and college newspapers. Graduating in 1943, she first worked as a journalist at the Federated Press, then as a writer on the United Electrical Workers EU News. She was fired from UE News in 1952 because she was pregnant with her second child, a common enough occurrence at the time. She began a freelance career and contributed to a range of magazines, including Cosmopolitan. For the 15th Annual Reunion at Smith College in 1957, Friedan was asked to conduct a survey of her fellow alumni, looking at their post-graduation experiences and satisfaction with their current lives, and started publishing magazine articles about what she called "The Problem That Has No Name", and received many responses from housewives who realised that they weren't alone. Encouraged by the way her articles were received, she reworked and expanded the topic into a book, The Feminine Mystique, which was published in 1963.

Betty Friedan's ground-breaking book, The Feminine Mystique (1963), would forever change the way women saw them selves and how they wanted to be seen.
"The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women," Friedan wrote in the early pages of the book. "It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning [that is, a longing] that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question - 'Is this all?'."

Friedan asserted - quite correctly - that women are as capable as men for any type of work or career path, countering the assertions by the mass media, educators and psychologists that working mothers are bad mothers. The book became a bestseller, which many historians believe was the impetus for the "second wave" of the women's movement in the United States, and significantly shaped national and world events.

My point in describing all of this is that Stan and Jack were creating the Fantastic Four comic against this very background. Where they may have started out simply wanting to characterise Sue Storm as being no helpless female victim, as so many other comic heroines were, as 1963 rolled over into 1964, we'd see Sue Storm becoming more assertive about her role in the team and in her relationship with Reed Richards.

Though initially, it seems all Sue Storm has to do is act as surrogate mother to her unruly family, it later turns out that yet again, she is key in defeating this issue's seemingly invincible super-baddie.
Fantastic Four 18 (Sep 1963) pits the team against a foe who had all their powers, The Super-Skrull. The opening pages have Sue Storm shown as the sensible voice of reason, scolding Ben Grimm for his childish display of temper when a news broadcast cut to commercial rather than showing b-roll of him in action against Dr Doom.

It's still not perfectly formed yet, but Fantastic Four 18 has another instance of Sue - rather than Ben or Johnny - being key to defeating the team's current menace.
But later on in the tale, when Reed figures out where the Super-Skull's power is coming from, he devises a miniature scrambler and reasons that only Sue, as Invisible Girl, can get close enough to the Skrull to plant the device. Yes, it has Reed master-minding the plan to beat their enemy, but once more Stan and Jack demonstrate that he can't do it without Sue.

It must be pretty humiliating for Sue to be transformed into a female plaything for despotic ruler Rama-Tut, though Stan's copy doesn't give any indication of that. It's a fairly standard threat, familiar to most fictional heroines of the period. Yet Stan and Jack allow Sue her revenge when she defeats the tyrant by freeing her team-mates ... though could made more of Sue's triumph.
The following month, Fantastic Four 19 had the team travel back in time to the era of the Egyptian Pharaohs in search of a cure for Alicia's blindness. There, they're subdued and enslaved by fellow time traveller Rama-Tut, who may be a descendant of Kang or Dr Doom or both. And yet again, it's Sue who frees the team from captivity to defeat the slightly slimy villain who had ear-marked her for a lifetime of emotional and physical slavery. Given the catharsis of the moment, I'm a little surprised that Stan doesn't give Sue some harsh words to say ... or maybe Sue's just too classy to gloat.

At the climax of "The Hate Monger" it's up to Sue storm to deflect the aim of the villain's Hate-Ray so that it strikes his minions and turns them against him.
Though Sue doesn't have a great deal to do in Fantastic Four 20 (Nov 1963), Stan and Jack have her as the catalyst in the defeat of another baddie, The Hate Monger, in Fantastic Four 21 (Dec 1963). This was the first instance I can think of that Stan and Jack openly address the issue of racism and bigotry in a Marvel comic. Both men were Jewish and both likely would have experienced comments like "Go back where you came from" during their lifetimes. Putting it in a comic book story was pretty ground-breaking, especially against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, which would also have been gathering pace at the time.

It's not clear who speaking the line "They're actually agreeing with his un-American sentiments", but my guess is that it's Sue - Ben would have called him "Stretch", and the line doesn't sound grown-up enough for Johnny. It might seem surprising to many today that this scene was inconceivable to readers back in 1963.
The end of the tale has the shocking revelation of The Hate Monger's true identity ... at least it shocked me as a ten year old reading this issue. And, true the form of recent FF issues, it's Sue once again who thwarts the enemy's plan and causes him to fall victim to his own weapon. But we had reached the point where this didn't seem to be enough for Stan and Jack any more. Repeatedly showing Sue rescue the others issue after issue wasn't driving the message home that not only did Sue think more quickly than her companions but often acted more decisively. Something else had to be done. So why not make Sue the most powerful member of the team by extending her meta-human capabilities?

While running some tests on Sue's super-powers, Reed suspects that Invisible Girl might have abilities beyond simple invisibility. Within a few minutes, Sue spontaneously generates a protective force field, though no one in the room realises the full implications of this new development.
Fantastic Four 22 (Jan 1964) was on sale in early October 1964, around a year after Reed Richards' impassioned defence of Sue's membership of the FF in Fantastic Four 11. The issue opens with Reed Richards running some test to determine the extent of Sue's abilities. Unexpectedly, in response to Ben and Johnny's horseplay, Sue generates an invisible force field to save herself from being splashed with chemical foam.

Stan and Jack weren't creating these comics in a vacuum and here, they include a sly homage to the popular contemporary tv show, Car 54 Where Are You, that starred a pre-Munsters Fred Gwynne as Officer Muldoon. In Stan's dialogue, the police officer even makes reference to his partner waiting downstairs in the car.
Just as quickly, the FF are besieged by angry neighbours complaining about the Fantastic Four's disruptive behaviour, and are visited by a police officer, who looks suspiciously like Car 54 Where Are You's Officer Muldoon, about their storing an ICBM in midtown Manhattan.

Though it's done in quite a comedic way, Stan and Jack are using these scenes to establish the full extent of Sue Storm's newly-discovered abilities. The annoying complainer and his lawyer are swept down the hallway and into the elevator in a style that resembles the telekinesis powers of X-Men's Marvel Girl.
Then it's back to more exploration of Sue's new powers. The team establish that Sue can also make other objects or people invisible, but can't maintain her own invisibility at the same time. And then the story switches back to more complaining neighbours. This back and forth takes up the first half of the issues 22 story pages.

I always thought The Mole Man was a pretty weak villain, and he's easily thwarted by Sue, using her force field power. Stan and Jack also reveal an additional ability when they have Sue force invisible objects to become visible.
When we do find out what's going on, it turns out to be nothing more complicated that the FF's old Foe, the Mole Man, looking for revenge. And it's Invisible Girl's force field power that saves the day.

As the saga of the Fantastic Four unfolds over the next couple of years, Sue's increasingly sophisticated abilities play key roles in saving the team from disaster. In the climax of their battle with evil counterparts The Frightful Four, in FF 38 (May 1965), it's Sue's force field that ensures the survival of the team.

If this had happened just a year earlier ... bye bye, Fantastic Four. But incredibly, Sue Storm's force field power shields the team from even a nuclear detonation. And she's unconscious, as well! Tell me again how Invisible Girl is the weakest member of the FF ...
It's Reed and Sue's engagement in Fantastic Four 35 (Feb 1965) and their marriage in Fantastic Four Annual 3 (Nov 1965) that turns the team into a proper family, but it's Sue's humanity and empathy that remains the moral compass of the team across the years that followed.

Around this point in the Fantastic Four saga is where Stan should have accepted the obvious and changed Sue Storm's superhero name to Invisible Woman. However, opportunity missed, it was left to John Byrne to make that change nearly thirty years later in Fantastic Four 234 (Nov 1985).
And though Invisible Girl took maternity leave in Fantastic Four 83 (Feb 1969) and was replaced by Crystal of The Inhumans, then later by Medusa in Fantastic Four 130 (Jan 1973), and again by She-Hulk in Fantastic Four 265 (Apr 1984), she would always return to take up her role as the most grown-up member of the Fantastic Four, and eventually became leader of the team in Fantastic Four 382 (Nov 1993).


Next: Separated at Birth II



Sunday, 23 June 2019

Women of Marvel: Sue Storm Part 2 - Fade In

WHEN I WAS TEN, back in 1965, girls were just pests. They didn't like playing football or war. They didn't climb trees, or draw on walls or commit other acts of senseless vandalism. They were, well ... kind of annoying. Certainly that's what the DC comics editors seemed to think as well. Just about every DC female supporting character was simply a thorn in the side of their respective superhero. Queen of the bunch was Lois Lane - though Lana Lang  gave her some competition. I think what I liked least about Lois Lane that she was often depicted as, at best, selfish and, at worst, downright spiteful.

Really ... this isn't the kind of behaviour I'd expect from a grown woman. Lois clearly doesn't care about anyone - not Superman, not Lana - except herself. What a completely ghastly human being. No wonder us ten-year-olds didn't like girls much.
In other parts of the DC universe, other supporting females seemed every bit as snoopy and as suspicious as Lois. Even Iris West, Barry (The Flash) Allen's girl friend - also a journalist - sometimes accused Barry of being the Scarlet Speedster.

It's a common comic book trope ... but why would a supporting character, usually female, be so hell-bent on uncovering the identity of a superhero? These guys fight some pretty scary dudes. Knowing such information puts both the supporting character and the hero in genuine danger.
Was this an insight into the minds of the men who created these stories or simply a reflection of the times? Probably a bit of both. So how refreshing it was when Stan Lee's Marvel Comics came along and actively worked to dispel this stereotyped female supporting character. We never saw Betty Brant use an elaborate hoax to blackmail Spider-Man into marrying her, nor Nurse Jane Foster trying to uncover Thor's secret identity to ruin his life. And although Sue Storm and Janet Van Dyne were held hostage by some baddy or other more often than I would like, they still managed to battle in the front line with their male counterparts, giving as good as they got.

As it turns out, in Fantastic Four 12 (Mar 1963), it is, once again, Sue Storm that saves the day during the climactic showdown with the mysterious commie saboteur, The Wrecker, on the missile base where Dr Bruce Banner works. That's right, the same month that The Hulk was battling the Metal Master in the last issue of his own book, The Hulk was guest-starring in Fantastic Four.

That's a terrific bargain for just 36c, right there. The same month that The Hulk's regular title was cancelled, he encountered The Fantastic Four. And they also crossed over into the first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. I think I'd happily pay 60c for that trio of issues. 
And once again, Sue Storm was playing a pivotal role. Admittedly, there were a couple of lapses on Stan's part about just what sort of character he saw Sue as being. For example, early in the story, while the Four are being briefed by General Ross about the "menace" of The Hulk, Sue has a nervous episode and involuntarily fades from sight. It's not Sue's finest hour.

We might just about be able to wave it off as a "sign of the times", but really? After all the good work Stan did in issue 11 of Fantastic Four, he gives us this? That's a pretty shoddy way to treat Sue Storm. However, Stan and Jack do try to balance it out later in the story. 
Then, at the end of a testosterone-fuelled bragging session from the rest of the FF, Sue wonders what she can contribute to the battle. General Ross suggests that "a pretty lady can always be of help ... just by keeping the men's morale up." Stan can almost be forgiven for that, because you could infer that it's Ross' personal view. But then Stan ruins it by having Reed agree with him. Dear, oh dear ...

Anyhow, the story rumbles on, Reed Richards and Bruce Banner meet, Rick Jones discovers the saboteur's communist party membership card in his wallet and is captured, and The Thing tests a rocket sled and discovers more of the The Wrecker's handiwork. The FF battle the Hulk for three and a half pages before Ben and Sue stumble across The Wrecker's lair.

Despite their earlier lapses in judgement in this story, Stan and Jack allow Sue Storm to redeem herself by disarming The Wrecker and saving Ben from his "Atomic-Powered Ray".
The tale closes with the Wrecker captured, The Hulk missing again and a hint that Reed Richards may suspect The Hulk's true identity, though I don't think Stan went anywhere with that idea ... there definitely wasn't any mention of it the next time the FF met The Hulk (Fantastic Four 25, Apr 1964).

The next issue, Fantastic Four 13 (Apr 1963), has Sue saving the day again. Battling The Red Ghost and his super-powered apes in the mysterious Blue Area on the Moon, while the equally mysterious Watcher looks on, it's Sue who once again drives most of the plot. Though she's captured by The Red Ghost and imprisoned behind a force field - interesting choice of prisons given what lay ahead for Sue Storm - she uses her own ingenuity rather than her invisibility power to escape. She sabotages the force field device, freeing herself as well as the Red Ghost's super-apes.

It's telling that Sue uses her brain rather than her powers to escape The Red Ghost's force field prison. She also gives an uplifting speech about how the Communist masses are enslaved by their evil leaders. Stan's commie bashing was legendary during this period. But to be fair, I remember being terrified of the Russians when I was a kid.
Then, at the end of the story, she fearlessly walks into a deadly disintegrating ray to save her brother. Johnny explains for the benefit of the readers that the ray doesn't "react against anything which is below the visible spectrum of light", which is lucky, I guess. Finally, it's the super-apes that chase the defeated Red Ghost off, so I suppose it's Sue who's responsible for the villain's ultimate fate.

This is pretty brave of Sue ... she knows it's a trap though she doesn't know that the trap won't affect her ... but she walks into it anyway. As it would later develop, that is the essence of Sue Storm's character. Always ready to sacrifice herself for another.
Were Stan and Jack making a deliberate point here? I think so. By this stage in the Fantastic Four's evolution, I think both creators were looking to move beyond the comic book cliche of having the female character portrayed as either a hostage or an assistant. I don't think they had yet figured out how to do it. Though there's flashes of Sue being portrayed as a strong and non-dependent woman, there are as many instances of the old tropes re-surfacing, with Sue depicted as doing something daft and "typical woman"-ish.

Fantastic Four 14 (May 1963) begins with the FF returning from the Moon. This is unusual, because other comics of the time rarely - if ever - made any reference to the previous issue at all. FF14 carries straight on from FF13 like they were chapters in a continuing story. They're treated to a heroes' welcome and slightly surprisingly, it's Sue who seems the least unable to cope.

The opening scene from Fantastic Four 14 ... the FF touch down in their mooncraft and are immediately mobbed with well-wishers and opportunists. When you read the dialogue, it doesn't seem as thought Sue's actions match the words in the balloons. Sue's distress continues throughout the scene and manifests itself with the impatient gesture in the final frame.
Now that does seem at odds with what Stan and Jack had been doing with the character up till this point. It does indicate to me an example of perhaps Jack intending one thing with the art and Stan taking the story is a slightly different direction with the dialogue. Take a look at the body language in the above (edited) sequence. A couple of hucksters are trying to get Sue to endorse their products and she holds her head in her hands like she can't cope. Even after The Torch's drastic rescue, Sue still seems stressed and anxious. Her attitude in the final panel of the scene appears more like exasperation than the resignation the dialogue suggests.

I'd love to know what the original intention of the story was. I'm pretty sure it ties in with Sue seeking out the Sub-Mariner in later scenes. Perhaps Namor represents an escape from the pressure of fame and the constant demands on her to be mother to three child-men.

So Reed's finished his report and he's going to get Sue to type it up? Wassamatter, Richards? Your fingers broken? Do it yourself! This again reads to me like Stan was taking the story in a slightly different direction to what Kirby drew.
The very next scene has some pretty insensitive behaviour from Reed, when he goes looking for Sue - not to check she's okay, but to give her some menial, meaningless task. He catches her red-handed, gazing dreamily at the oceans depths, her mind on Prince Namor. Again, all Reed can think about is himself. Then, just as Sue's giving up on ever finding The Sub-Mariner, coincidence takes a hand and The Puppet Master influences Namor to influence a "hypno-fish" to influence Sue to be drawn to a riverside pier.

It's said that you can't be hypnotised to do something that would be against your unhypnotised will, so it's no great surprise that Sue Storm is susceptible to Namor's hypno-fish. What's harder to believe is that the hypno-fish can project an oxygen-filled membrane from its belly and that Sue can be placed inside without tearing the skin ...
Under the control of The Puppet Master, Namor then holds Sue hostage to draw the rest of the FF into a trap. As it pans out, I think The Sub-Mariner treats Sue slightly better than Reed does, as at least by the end of the story, he trusts Sue's own free will to lead her to the right choice - Namor or Reed.

"Et tu, Ben?" The Thing expresses surprise that Sue is "a female who could keep her mouth shut so long." Then adds, "One side, Sue. We got us some mopping up to do." Yet Sue stands her ground and protects Namor because he hasn't been responsible for his actions.
Even as the tale draws to a close, Johnny suspects that the Sub-Mariner wasn't acting of his own free will, while Reed remains broody and silent, probably fretting over Namor's taunt that he should hold on to Sue, if he can.

I'm sure that by the mores of the times, Stan and Jack were doing something quite revolutionary with Sue's character. A world away from the manipulative unpleasantness of Lois lane and the featureless monotony of Flash and Green Lantern's girlfriends, Sue Storm at least had a life beyond Reed Richards. But in retrospect, it still seems a bit clumsy and unfocussed. And reading these stories now, it does seem like Stan and Jack were pulling in slightly different directions, though both were bound by the prevailing contemporary attitudes towards women. 

The following issue, Fantastic Four 15 (Jun 1963), didn't give Sue Storm a great deal to do. In fact, her role was mostly confined to fulfilling her dreams of becoming a famous actress.

Stan and Jack seem uncertain as to whether Sue Storm will be starring on Broadway or going to Hollywood. Either way, Sue never really voiced any ambitions to get into show biz up until Fantastic Four 15 ... so I guess Stan wasn't thinking too much about continuity at this point.
This was a bit of a surprise to many readers. Back in FF9, when the team was broke and the only way to make money was to star in a movie produced by The Sub-Mariner, Sue didn't seem that excited about becoming a famous actress.

Back in Fantastic Four 9 (Dec 1962), Sue and the team were offered the chance to star in a Hollywood movie, playing themselves ... but Sue seemed more interested in the money than the lure of fame.
But by Fantastic Four 15, it's apparently all she's ever wanted to do. It's not Sue's finest hour, and Stan's making her out to be a bit of cliched "vain girl". Worse, that's her sole contribution to the story. OK ... I agree it's not reasonable to expect that Sue Storm should always drive the plot of every FF tale. 

And perhaps Stan, or Jack, or both, were thinking that Sue should be longing to be a regular girl rather than a superhero with an obligation to constantly bail out her teammates and the rest of the human race ... but I don't think they were quite that clear in how they should go about that in these early stories.

The contradictions in Sue's character show up again in the very next issue, Fantastic Four 16 (Jul 1963). For a moment - possibly due to the proximity of Ant-Man (Hank Pym) - Sue Storm turns into Janet Van Dyne, and makes an inappropriate and, frankly, sexist comment ...

So Sue Storm declares Ant-Man innocent of any involvement in their current plight based on how attractive he is? Maybe Stan was trying to lighten the moment, but ascribing Janet Van Dyne style dialogue to Sue Storm doesn't seem appropriate in this context.
Despite the momentary lapse, Sue goes on to distinguish herself during this adventure by once again placing herself in danger and saving the day. However, along the way there are a couple of strange lapses in logic and in Marvel's internal technology.

For example, in this issue we're given to believe that this is the first time Reed Richards and Henry Pym have met, despite both being distinguished scientists.

Reed Richards gives no indication that he's ever met Ant-Man or Hank Pym. Sue Storm even goes so far as to question Ant-Man's existence ... not entirely unbelievable, as this would have taken place a couple of months before the formation of The Avengers.
Yet, back in Tales to Astonish 35 (Sep 1962), an editorial footnote explains that Ant-Man's costume contains unstable molecules. The technology is mentioned in Fantastic Four 6 (also Sep 1962) - but on sale a week later - and Richards is usually credited with inventing, or at least discovering, the phenomenon. So how come Hank Pym's costume is made of the material?

Then, when The FF use Hank Pym's shrinking formula - gas when Ant-Man uses it, liquid when Reed deploys it - the test tubes containing the formula shrink with them. Are the test tubes also made of unstable molecules?

The mystery of the shrinking test tubes. Is the glass made of unstable molecules,
or did Jack just make a mistake that Stan didn't spot?
OK, maybe I am nitpicking a little ... but another interesting thing in this issue is that we get to see Sue in the lab working on a formula to mask her smell from dogs and other animals. We've not had any indication up to this point that Sue is a scientist,  and I don't think it was ever mentioned again, but it's an interesting notion.

Sue Storm quite correctly observes that even while she is invisible dogs can still locate her by her scent, so she's working on a chemical which would mask her presence even from animals with a sharp sense of smell ... it doesn't work, though.
Later in the story, though, Sue comes up with an idea that gets the rest of a the team out of a tight spot. Imprisoned in a capsule beneath a lake of acid, only Sue has the presence of mind to devise an escape plan.

It's Sue's moment ... her plan to escape the acid prison is pretty smart. Then Ben messes it up with some more of Kirby's dodgy science. Taking a deep breath of the available air will do nothing to increase the buoyancy of the acid-proof capsule. Only jettisoning weight would achieve that.
Not only that, but she somehow manages to get ahead of the rest of the FF and free Ant-Man so that she and Dr Pym can defeat Doom, leaving Reed, Johnny and Ben with just mop-up duties.

Not so much the Fantastic Four, more the Fantastic Two ... Ant-Man and the Invisible Girl defeat the deadly Dr Doom, while the rest of the Fantastic Four play catch-up.
Sue pretty much does the same thing in Fantastic Four 17 (Aug 1963) ... the story continues straight on from FF16 and once more, it's Sue's invisibility power that defeats the bad guy. Gaining access to Doom's high-altitude hideaway, the Fantastic Four split up to divide Doom's attention and to free his hostage Alicia. While the other three are defeated and captured one-by-one, Sue finds Alicia, frees her and takes her place. 

In Fantastic Four 17, Stan and Jack once again have Invisible Girl turn out to be the most effective member of the FF, by outsmarting Dr Doom several times before her stronger teammates arrive to give her a hand. Even I'm starting to think by this point, Lee and Kirby are overdoing it ...
For some reason, Doom doesn't realise his hostage's hair has turned from red to blonde - I noticed at least one other instance of someone referring to Alicia's hair as blonde, so it seems both Stan and Jack were still a little confused over this - and is surprised to encounter Sue Storm, instead. The Invisible Girl then makes Doom look like a clumsy clod, evades his ingenious "Invisible Person Trap" and finally tosses him around with her judo moves before the rest of the team shows up. Realising the jig is up, Doom jumps from his airborne stronghold and disappears ... again.

It does seem that both Stan and Jack are trying very hard to counter the early criticisms of some readers that The Invisible Girl is the least interesting member of the team. Issue after issue, they've had Sue disarming baddies and freeing the others from traps. This may partly be because of the nature of her invisibility powers but I think there's also an element of a conscious effort to show a female as a strong and vital member of the team, something that hadn't really been done in comics up till this point.

It's interesting, too, that this was all happening in 1963 - the same year that Betty Friedans' ground-breaking book The Feminine Mystique was released. It's possible that Stan and Jack hadn't actually read the book, but they could hardly have been unaware of it, as it sold over one million copies and would have been endlessly discussed in newspapers and on television.

As the rest of the year unspooled, Lee and Kirby would continue to push a female agenda in the next few issues of "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine", and I'll be looking at the amazing transformation of Sue Storm from the weakest member of the Fantastic Four to the strongest ... 

Next time: The problem that has no name