Sunday, 23 June 2019

Women of Marvel: Sue Storm Part 2

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




Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Women of Marvel: Sue Storm Part 1

COMICS ARE FOR BOYS. At least, that appeared to be the prevailing wisdom among comics publishers during the post-war years. Even in 1947, when comic creator superstars Joe Simon and Jack Kirby invented the romance comic and attracted a whole new female audience, the women in comics were depicted as either terrifying dragon ladies or as meek homemakers. There didn't seem to be anything in between. Except maybe for Wonder Woman. I'm still not sure where she fits in ...

OK, so Sue Storm was the final member of the FF to be awarded a pinup page (she had to wait till issue 10), and she's described here as "Glamorous" rather than as smart or resourceful or any number of more appropriate adjectives, but at least she's in the team.
Wonder Woman was created by DC's psychology consultant William Moulton Marston. Based partly on his wife Elizabeth and partly on his menage-a-trois lover, Olive Byrne, Wonder Woman was conceived as an answer to the testosterone-heavy heroes appearing in just about every other comic published at the beginning of the 1940s. Said Marston, "Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don't want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman."

Wonder Woman first appeared in All-Star Comics, first as a guest of the Justice Society, then as their secretary ... that's right, the most powerful being on the planet was in the Justice Society to take minutes and make coffee.
The thing is, it didn't really pan out like that for Wonder Woman. First appearing in All-Star Comics 8 (Dec 1941), as a guest star in the Justice Society Story, though she didn't take part in their adventures as a fighting teammate. She was shortly afterwards "promoted" to honorary member and then team secretary. Incredibly, Wonder Woman's response was, "I don't think I was so thrilled in my life."

The early Wonder Woman stories started off interesting, but before too long, Marston's kinks came to the fore and Wonder Woman was spending way too much time either tied up or displaying sapphic tendencies. Finally, by 1948, it had become so blatant that Marston was removed from the writing chores and Bob Kanigher took over.
When the character got her own series in Sensation Comics 1 (Jan 1942), she rapidly fell into oft-repeated cliches - Wonder Woman beating up men, Wonder Woman in a cat-fight and Wonder Woman tied up.

There had been other female comics heroines before Wonder Woman ... Sheena, Lady Luck and Phantom Lady (all created by Will Eisner), The Black Cat at Harvey and Marvel's reprints of the Miss Fury newspaper strip. But Wonder Woman was the most enduring and would later fare a little better as a member of the Justice League in the 1960s.

The first issue of Young Romance from Simon and Kirby managed to fit both female stereotypes on the cover. Miss Fury was an angry and violent character from the newspaper strips, collected and reprinted by Marvel in the early 1940's and Phantom Lady, along with Sheena Queen of the Jungle, was pretty much a pinup character.
So when Marvel publisher Martin Goodman instructed Stan Lee (and Jack Kirby) to come up with a version of DC's Justice League comic, the result was The Fantastic Four in 1961, which at least made some effort to bring some changes and put a female superhero on equal footing her male counterparts. Not that it was always successful ...

There's not much recorded about the actual creation of the FF, all those years ago. Any stories that have been told are apocryphal. So I certainly can't give you a definitive origin story here. But I have a couple of insights to share.

Firstly, there's the Stan Lee synopsis that turned up several years after the first issue of FF was published. Some have disputed its authenticity, but I have no reason to doubt it's the real article. It certainly reads convincingly. And it has Stan's tone ...

All the basic elements of the Fantastic Four are here in this synopsis by Stan Lee, though there were a couple of changes - Johnny Storm is not a star athlete and Sue is not an actress. And Ben Grimm is just some guy Reed Richards hired to fly the ship. The characters evolved very quickly over the early issues ... click to enlarge.
What's interesting - and adds authenticity, in my view - is that the characters and the basic principles of the team dynamic are not fully formed here. There's a reference to the idea that Johnny becomes the Torch when he gets excited. That didn't happen in the final comic book, but Stan would eventually recycle the concept and glue it to The Hulk when the original Kirby version of ol' Greenskin failed. There's also mention that Sue will have to take her clothes off to be fully invisible - Stan no doubt lifting that idea from the old Universal Invisible Man (1933) movie.

But, secondly, the underlying hook that I think many missed - including Stan and Jack, it seems - is that the members of the Fantastic Four embody the four elements of alchemy.
  • Sue Storm is Air - you can see right through her like she's not there
  • Ben Grimm is Earth - rocky, solid and immoveable
  • Johnny Storm is Fire, literally, and
  • Reed Richards is Water - able to flow, adapt to any shape and pass through the tiniest of gaps.
Yet I can't recall an instance in any FF comic where that parallel is mentioned ... and tellingly, Stan and Jack would work to ensure that Sue Storm was only invisible in the literal sense and not in the figurative. While there were occasions on which Sue was captured and held hostage, like the average female comic book character, there were many more times when she saved the day ... Indeed, in the very first issue of Fantastic Four (Nov 1961), Sue is the first member of the team we encounter.

Sue Storm appears on page 2 of the first Fantastic Four adventure. The idea of the Invisible Girl having to disrobe to be truly invisible has been abandoned, though there are some indicators that Ms Storm is known in high society circles. And it can't be any coincidence that it's also Sue who first manifests superpowers when the team return from that fateful space voyage.
In Fantastic Four 3 (Mar 1962), it's Sue that goes after the escaping Miracle Man when her teammates are defeated. And even though she's discovered and hypnotised by the baddie, she doesn't really fit the stereotypical comics-female template ... well, not quite. Stan and Jack do have her design the costumes for the FF. But this is more a sign of the times, I think, than any malice on the part of Lee and Kirby. If one of the male team members had shown a flair for clothes-design in 1962, it would have raised eyebrows.

Even though Sue's invisibility powers make her the perfect candidate to trail the Miracle Man to his hideout, it still takes pluck to attempt it without the support of her stronger teammates. It's just a pity that Stan and Jack relegated her to a dress designer in the first half of the comic.
With the introduction of The Sub-Mariner in Fantastic Four 4 (May 1962), Stan and Jack added another dimension to Sue's character. She finds herself drawn to one of the team's deadliest enemies ... and he to her. It's a much better story idea than having Ben infatuated with Sue (an idea Stan would put to rest a few issues in the future). In fact, it was such a good idea that it would surface several more times during the Lee & Kirby run on the title during the 1960s.

Despite being attracted to Prince Namor, it's Sue once again who saves the day by sneaking up on him and disarming him ... both literally and metaphorically. So taken aback is The Sub-Mariner that he proposes marriage to Sue right there and then. Even by the comic book standards of the day, that seems hasty.
But first, Sue had to be held hostage by Doctor Doom. Yes, in the fifth issue of Fantastic Four (Sep 1962), Sue finally met the fate of her contemporary counterparts. She was held hostage by a villain to force her teammates' to do as they're told. Up to this point it seemed that Stan and Jack were deliberately trying to avoid the trope ...

Though Sue has played important parts in each of the Fantastic Four's adventures so far, this is the first time she's actually rescued them from certain death. This is definitely at odds with how female characters acted in other comics of the period, and though it may seem quaint now, at the time, Stan was taking quite a gamble.
... the surprise twist comes when the tables are turned and Doom's hostage turns out to be the one who saves Reed, Johnny and Ben from the villain's deadly airtight trap. This was an uncommon occurrence during the early 1960s. Seldom did the women in comics play pivotal roles in the comics adventures, usually restricting their involvement to falling out windows to be saved by Superman and suchlike. Even more rarely did they save anyone.

First Doctor Doom questions Namor's commitment when he sees a portrait of Sue Storm beside The Sub-Mariner's throne, then later in the same issue, Johnny discovers a picture of Prince Namor hidden behind The Invisible Girl's bookshelf. It was actually quite a sinister idea - a bit like Lois Lane being attracted to Lex Luthor.
But before any of us could give that too much thought, the sixth issue of Fantastic Four brought back both Doctor Doom and The Sub-Mariner - and with that the spectre of the fatal attraction between Sue Storm and Namor raised its head again. Though at one point Sue has to protect Namor from her angry and hostile teammates, it turns out that The Sub-Mariner really has switched sides and saves the FF from Doctor Doom's deadly space trap. The finale of the tale has Sue make an impassioned speech about The Sub-Mariner ..."He isn't our enemy, I just know it," she tells Ben Grimm. "He's so full of pain and bitterness, that it blinds his better instincts. Sub-Mariner needs time ... time to heal."

Even grumpy Ben grudgingly wonders whether Namor is really their enemy. "I still don't if I'd shake his hand or try to smash him."

I don't think Stan and Jack do a thing to advance the cause of women in this scene from Fantastic Four 7.  We've been led to believe that Sue Storm is a confident debutante type, so this minor panic attack seems out of character. I'll put it down to Stan still trying to find the right tone of voice at this point.
In Fantastic Four 7 (Oct 1962), Sue's role is limited to expressing anxiety about have to attend a state dinner in the FF's honour in Washington. But it's not just Sue who seems to have wandered off the reservation. The whole story is pretty anomalous, even within the confines of the crude early FF tales.

Pretty much the entire plot of Fantastic Four 7 is recapped on page 19 of the story - so we have alien race in need of a smart Earth scientist (This Island Earth), aliens sending giant robot to Earth (The Day the Earth Stood Still) and a runaway planet threatening to destroy an inhabited world (When Worlds Collide). It's like a catalogue of 1950s sci-fi movies ...
The plot seems to be lifted from This Island Earth (1956) - alien race on the verge of extinction looks to Earth scientist to save them. It has more in common with the pre-hero MC fantasy tales in Journey into Mystery and Amazing Adventures, than it does with superhero stories. In essence, the Fantastic Four are unnecessary for this issue's plot. It would have worked fine if Reed Richards had handled the whole thing and left the other three at home. Which is why I think it's probably the least of the early FF issues.

The first seven issues of Fantastic Four had been a little directionless, due to Stan's leaving Jack to do most of the plotting. With FF 8, my view is that Stan asserted a bit more control over the story, resulting in a change in tone which Kirby may or may not have been on board with.
By contrast, Fantastic Four 8 (Nov 1962) was, by my reckoning, a deliberate change of pace. All at the same time, Stan marked the first year anniversary of the title, resolving the slightly odd Reed-Ben-Sue triangle by introducing a new love interest, who resembles Sue, for Ben Grimm. We also get a a new villain (albeit, one of the weirdest in Marvel's history), we see Reed's first attempt to cure The Thing, and the team start calling The Thing "Ben" for the first time.

I've noted before that it seemed a bit cruel and insensitive to me that the other FF members frequently refer to each other by their names during the first few issues of the series, while they constantly emphasise Ben's monstrous appearance by calling him "Thing" over and over again. By this time, Stan would have realised that The Thing was the team's most popular member and was taking steps to soften the character's initial angry persona.

There are some other strange and unexplained aspects to this issue, which I think were due to Jack Kirby trying to continue in the same direction as the first seven issues and Stan Lee trying to turn the course of the title to bring it into line with his evolving vision for what he wanted (the as-yet unnamed) Marvel Comics to be.

The things I find strange in Fantastic Four 8 are:
  • The Puppet Master looks like a ventriloquist's doll. Did Jack have the notion to make him non-human? An alien? A Pinocchio-type living mannequin? Stan's scripting studiously ignores his freakish appearance.
  • Whether he's human or not, how come he has a step-daughter? Who would marry someone who looks like that? Or did Kirby intend that Alicia was in fact also non-human, perhaps another creation of The Puppet Master?
  • Why does The Puppet Master need to have Alicia impersonate Sue? Couldn't he just send a controlled Sue back to the FF with the controlled Ben Grimm?
  • On page 8 below, Stan has Puppet Master saying, "Fashioning a uniform like hers and a blonde wig for you are child's play for the Puppet Master." Yet, Kirby's art shows the Puppet Master wielding a pair of scissors to cut Alicia's dyed hair into Sue's shorter bob.
  • Though Ben's been pretty angry and bitter the last seven issues, Alicia senses that, "His face feels strong and powerful ... and yet, I can sense a gentleness to him. There is something tragic, something sensitive." And when The Thing reverts to Ben Grimm, the first thing he says to the Torch is, "Johnny! Are you okay? I didn't mean to hurt you! Say something, Kid!"
A couple of things don't make a great deal of sense in these pages - having Alicia impersonate Sue is one. Stan tries to write around it by having Alicia respond to Puppet Master's order to go with The Thing on Page 9 with, "This is all so strange, I don't understand it." And on page 13, if Alicia's wearing a wig, why doesn't Ben take it off her instead of having her cuddle him as Sue. Bit creepy, eh?
There is a synopsis of this issue published online. Most sources agree that it's written by Stan. Why would Stan write a synopsis for this but not other FF issues? I think it's an indicator that he was trying to change the direction of the book and was giving Kirby written instructions to ensure there would be no misunderstandings. That said, there's definitely still some evidence of the two creators pulling in slightly different directions.

This is the synopsis (discovered after the fact) for Fantastic Four 8. As with the FF1 outline, the authenticity of this has been questioned. However, the counter argument is that Stan intended to assert more control with this issue and typed up the synopsis - possibly after a story conference with Kirby - to ensure the plot stayed on track. (I've retyped this to make it more legible.)
But overall, Sue plays a pretty pivotal role in this story and the contrast in character between the two women who look the same is actually quite striking.

Stan continues in this vein with the very next issue, bringing Sue into the limelight and making Sub-Mariner's fascination with her the driving force behind the plot.

In this issue of Fantastic Four, I find Namor a bit creepy and stalker-y. Why does he have a picture of Sue by his throne? What was Sue thinking of, going out to dinner with Namor unchaperoned. And why does Namor think defeating Sue's fiance, brother and her fiance's best friend will make her love him?
Fantastic Four 9 (Dec 1962) opens with a scene of Prince Namor brooding in his undersea throne room. Tellingly, there's a framed picture of Sue on his occasional table. Lucky for The Sub-Mariner, Reed Richards has made some poor investment decisions and the FF are on the brink of bankruptcy. In an elaborate scheme, Namor anonymously offers the FF a movie contract worth a million dollars and lures them to Hollywood.

Interestingly, Sue seems to be able to fight Namor to a standstill where the other members of the team were defeated. Even though Reed, Johnny and Ben show up to help, it doesn't really look like Sue needs much assistance.
One by one, he defeats the FF till only Sue is left standing and he reveals his sinister purpose to her. He wants to marry her! Yet while she calls Namor a fool for hatching such a daft plan, she does prevent the rest of the FF from handing him his ears.

To be fair, it isn't all one way. Sue also feels an attraction to Namor and this would be mentioned briefly in Fantastic Four 10 (Jan 1963).

For me, the whole "Sue is attracted to Namor" sub-plot didn't really work. It always seemed to me as though Stan felt he needed some kind of love triangle. And after figuring out that a Reed-Sue-Ben triangle was a bit weird, he tried the same idea with The Sub-Mariner. I don't think that worked, either.
Other than that, Sue wasn't given a great deal to do in FF 10. In fact, I'd have thought when the plot hinges on Doctor Doom inhabiting Reed's body to destroy the FF, the one person who should have picked up on the deception was Sue. Yet Stan and Jack write it so that Alicia uncovers the impersonation.

Though both issues show signs of Stan still trying to find the perfect tone for "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine", FF11 probably shows the most progress, both with the story development and with Sue's character.
The issue of Sue and Namor would come up again in Fantastic Four 11 (Feb 1963). It's an odd issue because the actual adventure is relegated to a back-up strip, "The Impossible Man", while the first 11 pages are taken up with a sort of documentary, "A Visit with the Fantastic Four".

The last three pages of "A Visit with the Fantastic Four" are pretty much entirely devoted to Sue Storm. Even if some of the readers thought she was a fifth wheel, Stan obviously didn't and takes a strong position in Sue's defence.
As a kid, I loved this docu-story. It was the 1963 equivalent of DVD extras, a look behind the scenes at The Fantastic Four as people instead of just superheroes. I think it's a pretty brave experiment by Stan and an interesting way for latecomers to the series (and there would be many, as sales were on a steep upward curve at this point) to be brought up to speed.

This is the point where Stan takes a conscious decision to soften Ben's character. Reed does call him Thing on page 2 - presumably to tell new readers Ben's superhero name - but after that, the entire team calls him "Ben".

Especially intriguing is the way in which Ben Grimm responds to a fan letter that suggests Sue Storm is just so much dead-weight. The scene indicates to me that Stan is trying - even if he's not always succeeding - to make Sue more than the standard damsel-in-distress we were familiar with from all the other comics. He uses Reed's and Ben's voices to robustly defend the inclusion of Sue in the band. It's a clear indication of how women were perceived during the early 1960s and of how Stan is reacting to that.

The evolution of Sue Storm would continue over the next year or so, culminating in Fantastic Four 22 (Jan 1964), where Sue's powers are expanded to make her - arguably - the most powerful member of the group. However, I'll cover that in more depth next time.

Next: Hear me roar ...



Sunday, 31 March 2019

Bullpen Bulletins: Stan Gets Political

BACK IN THE MID 1960s, just as I was in the process of becoming the Marvel Fanboy I remain to this day, we didn't have comics websites, or YouTube videos or even mimeographed comics fanzines to tell us what was going on. All we had was Stan Lee's ingenious "Marvel Bullpen Bulletins", giving us glimpses inside the Marvel offices and snippets of information about what we could expect to see this and next month from Marvel.

The very first published Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page, from Journey into Mystery 122 (Nov 1965). At the time, Stan was making announcements about various Marvel Comics in text boxes, often yellow, on the various letters pages. This would be replaced by the Bullpen page, but the earliest examples appeared to be a mix of the two.
The Bullpen page made its debut in Journey into Mystery 122 (Nov 1965), which was on sale on 2 Sep 1965. This was a week before the December issues of Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man, often cited (wrongly) as carrying the first Bullpen Bulletins page.

As with the other Bullpen pages of this early period, the Journey into Mystery page was customised for the title, showing an image of Thor where the other pages displayed different characters. For example, the Amazing Spider-Man Bullpen page in issue 31 gave us The Green Goblin. And, of course, it's a Thor tee-shirt in the merchandise section.

But more than that, the Thor Bullpen page appears to have been prepared so early that the corresponding letters page also carried a few announcements, boxed out in yellow, and not just about Thor. For example, they reveal that we can expect more Marvel merchandising in the wake of the tee-shirts and a "brand new gizmo that's sure to sweep the nation". I haven't managed to figure out what that is, yet. Stan also tells us that the last two Marvel bi-monthlies - X-Men and Daredevil - were moving up to monthly publication, and closes out the letters column with a lengthy teaser about the next issue of Journey into Mystery.

Meanwhile, in the adjacent Bullpen Bulletins, Stan reports that Joe Sinnott, whose inking work was last seen in Fantastic Four 5 (Jul 1962), has rejoined Marvel, working on "Agent of Shield", inking Fantastic Four (from 45 on) and "doing as many other features as we can straddle him with". I think you may have meant "saddle", Stan ... straddle is something else entirely.

Despite the Bullpen Bulletins page promise, Joe Sinnott managed few Marvel art assignments before becoming enmeshed in his regular inking work on the company's flagship title Fantastic Four.
As it turned out, Sinnott only contributed art to two issues of Strange Tales' Agent of SHIELD ... 139, where he provided finished art over Kirby's layouts, and 140, where he inked over Kirby layouts and Don Heck pencils. The other featured Sinnott was "straddled" with included just inks for the cover and interior art of X-Men 13 (Sep 1965), before embarking on his long run inking Fantastic Four from 44 (Nov 1965) onwards. What the Bullpen Bulletin story doesn't tell you is that Sinnott continued to pencil and ink for his long-term assignment Treasure Chest until issue 496 (Jul 1972), ending an 11½ year association with the title.

The second item in this first Bulletin reveals that Adam Austin, penciller on the Sub-Mariner feature in Tales to Astonish is not the artist's real name. This came as a shock to me when I retrospectively read this piece of news, as I had been comparing "Austin's" work with Gene Colan's and deciding that I like Colan's better. Of course, I was 12 at the time with little perception of how an inker can improve (or not) a penciller's work, so I was likely comparing the Vince Colletta inked Adam Austin work in Astonish with the Jack Abel inking of Gene Colan in Suspense.

Gene Colan "took over" from Adam Austin with Tales to Astonish 80 and Tales of Suspense 78 (both Jun 1966).

Compared to You Don't Say, the gags in Monsters to Laugh With/Unlimited were a bit lame. Stan was simply recycling one of his old ideas from the 1950s, but this time under Martin Goodman's shilling.
The fourth item plugs You Don't Say and Monsters Unlimited, both Stan Lee side-projects. I wasn't much interested at the time, but I did later pick up copies of both mags, probably during my early teens and, strangely, preferred You Don't Say to Monsters Unlimited (or Monsters to Laugh With, when I first read it). Both titles were a reworking of a Lee independent project during the 1950s, when he started up his own Madison Publishing company and put out two magazines of news and library photos with funny captions - Blushing Blurbs and Golfers Anonymous.

The best reproduction of Golfers Anonymous I could find was from the Stan Lee biography, Excelsior. My apologies for the poor scan quality.
According to Stan's biography, Excelsior, both titles sold out and made thousands of dollars for Lee, but as he was "not the shrewdest guy in town", by his own admission, he never reprinted to capitalise on further profits.

During the 1950s, Kirby would regularly ink his own pencils as this Dec 1959 issue of Young Romance demonstrates. As Marvel's chief penciller during the 1960s, Kirby would seldom be afforded the luxury of inking his own work, as Stan wanted to stretch Kirby as far across the line as possible.
The last item in the inaugural Bulletin page was the promise that Jack Kirby would ink some of his own pencils sometime. Of course, Kirby had very often inked his own pencils in the past, most notably during his late 1950s run at DC Comics, inking many fantasy shorts for Tales of the Unexpected and My Greatest Adventure and most of the Green Arrow adventures. Plus Kirby was also inking many of the romance stories he was still pencilling for Prize around this time. So hardly unprecedented. When Kirby became Stan Lee's go-to artist as the Marvel line of comics mushroomed, Kirby's time became to valuable to squander on inking. But to satisfy the Bulletin promise, Lee had Kirby ink the front cover art for Fantasy Masterpieces 4 (Aug 1966). I can't find any other examples, though maybe someone knows different.

The second Marvel Bullpen Bulletin page addresses more vital issues affecting Marvel fans across the spectrum. We also get the Mighty Marvel Checklist - a very important resource for Marvel readers in those pre-fanzine days - as well as the chance to buy Marvel merchandise.
The second Bullpen page addressed a landmark - to me anyway - decision that Stan had taken a few months earlier. Under the sub-heading "We Goofed Again Department" Stan admitted that the change in name from Marvel Comics Group to Marvel Pop Art Productions had been a mistake. As Marvelites everywhere were quick to point out, they didn't like it. So, the company's name was reverting once more. There follows some news about Artist Musical Chairs as Don Heck and "Adam Austin" switch around, and a plug for Marvel Collectors' Item Classics.

Far more interesting are the mini-items under "Didja Know? Department", which reveals the fact that Sol Brodsky is a "crackerjack penciller and inker" (no, I didn't know that at the time), that Flo Steinberg was winning popularity contest at colleges all over the country and that Martin Goodman was a top-ranked amateur golfer. Nope and nope.

Stan finishes off by telling us that every one of Marvel's titles are hitting the sales jackpot. This might just sound like bragging, but it's important to remember that - as I've mentioned many times here - Marvel's success was Stan's, not Martin Goodman's. For years Goodman had just been copying what other publishers put out. Stan somehow managed to convince Goodman to take a different approach in 1961 with Fantastic Four and the results paid off. Literally. So I am more than happy to allow Stan his "I told you so" moment. 

Matters covered in the Bullpen page for February 1966 included and explanation of why the year's Marvel annuals contained reprints, the arrival of newcomer Roy Thomas at the bullpen and the fact that Joe Sinnott would be the permanent inker on Fantastic Four.
I'm not going to go through the Bulletin pages month-by-month, but I do just want to highlight something in the third Bullpen page which appeared in the February 1966 dated Marvel comics (Fantastic Four 47, containing this Bulletin, would have been on sale 11 Nov 1965).

In the third item, titled "Strictly Personal", Stan addresses the question of his tongue-in-cheek credits in the comics, specifically why he always insults inkers Artie Simek and Sam Rosen with comedy credits. Stan stresses that these jibes are "strictly in fun" and goes on to say "we want to state here and now that we LOVE those two talented, hard-working, dependable letterers of ours". And I'm guessing that Sam and Artie always took that joshing just fine - after all, they lettered the gags into the comics themselves.

But in the final piece on the page, Stan mentions that most of the artists work at home (dispelling the fantasy that they all sit together in one big office swapping practical jokes and  ribald stories). The piece goes on to say that Jack Kirby "drops in, loaded down with a new mess of masterpieces, once a week. Poor Jack! He's so absent-minded that he usually goes home with someone else's hat, portfolio or train ticket. Stan wanted to put a label around his neck reading: 'If found, please return to the marry Marvel bullpen!' but he couldn't - Jack lost the label."

This is from Amazing Spider-Man 22 (Mar 1965), typical of the sort of joshing Stan regularly subjected Artie Simek and Sam Rosen to, the above gag would actually have been lettered by Artie. I'm sure Artie found it as funny as the readers did.
Now even as a kid, I took that to be just a bit of good-natured messing around. It's certainly no more insulting that a lettering credit that reads, "We'll try to pin the blame on poor innocent Artie Simek". Yet, for some reason, Jack wasn't taking this sort of heckling very well. Just a few weeks later, on 9 January 1966, the notorious profile in the New York Herald by Ned Freeland that made out Jack to resemble "an assistant foreman in a girdle factory" came out and Jack took if very much to heart and blamed Stan for the whole thing. This indicates, to me at least, that - for whatever reason - Jack didn't have much patience with Stan's informal tone, even at this early stage.

Also mentioned in this fourth Bullpen page is the real reason Stan took the A-listers out of Avengers, a mild rebuke to the Marvel copycats out there and a plug for the new reprint title Fantasy Masterpieces.
Yet despite that, amidst all the subsequent talk about Kirby and his colleague being robbed of their credit for the contributions they made to the formative Marvel Comics the fourth Bullpen Bulletin page gives lie to that assertion. Right there in black and white, is Stan telling us that the artists make up most of the stories themselves. "All Stan has to do with pro's [sic] like Jack 'King' Kirby, dazzlin' Don Heck and darlin' Dick Ayers is give them a germ of an idea and they make up all the details as they go along, drawing and plotting out the story." It's not like it was a dark Marvel secret, or anything.

The Bullpen Bulletin page would continue in this format for the next year or so. Highlights would be Stan revealing the true identity of Adam Austin in the June 1966 page, announcing the departure of Steve Ditko in the July 1966 titles and telling us that though the Bullpen page is typed on 14th July it won't be published until October 1967.

Amid the plugs for the Marvel Annuals and the mention of the MMMS newsletter "The Merry Marvel Messenger", was a new feature. Titled "Stan's Soapbox" - a reference to the wooden crate favoured by street-corner orators around that time - this first editorial column explained the "Marvel philosophy".
Then, in the June 1967 titles, the Bullpen page welcomed an important format change. The first Stan's Soapbox appeared. In it, Stan claimed that the "message" behind Marvel's stories was nothing more than an attempt to entertain. "And If we can do our bit to advance the cause of intellectualism, humanitarianism, and mutual understanding ... and toss in a little swingin' satire at to in the process ... that won't break our collective heart one tiny bit!"

In the Soapbox for the October 1967 Bullpen page, Stan tries to avoid the calls for a more defined political stance by throwing the matter open to reader opinion. Should Marvel comment on current affairs or not? Other items include a plug for the Fantastic Four cartoon show on ABC-TV, a plug for the Marvel Annuals and Marvel's new humour title Not Brand Echh.
There wouldn't be effort, at least for a few months, for Stan to move his Soapbox editorials beyond thanking Marvel fans for their support and debating wither Marvel should continue mocking the mags published by "Brand Echh". But then, in the October 1967 Bullpen page, Stan addressed head-on the calls for Marvel to make more of a stance on political issues of the day. "Many Keepers of the Faith," Stan wrote, "have demanded that we take a more definitive stand on current problems such as Viet Nam, civil rights and the increase in crime, to name a few." It's then left to readers to decide on whether Marvel should promote their opinions on these matters. "Should we editorialize more - or less - of keep things in their present fouled up form?"

The Bullpen page for October 1968 gave us Stan first stab at a political editorial. It's a bit vague but you can see he's trying to put across his mildly liberal viewpoint without making it political. Other items announce Arnold Drake joining the Bullpen and a plea for pen-pals for serving soldiers in Viet Nam. By this time, the Marvel Checklist is now talking up almost half the page!
Stan wouldn't return to the subject until October 1968, more than a year later. In his Soapbox, Stan writes, "Over the years we've received about a zillion letters asking for the Bullpen's opinion about such diverse subjects as Viet Nam, civil rights, the war on poverty, and the upcoming election". He goes on to say that there isn't one unanimous Bullpen opinion, but "we'd like to go on record about one vital issue - we believe Man has a divine destiny, and an awesome responsibility - the responsibility of treating all who share this wondrous world of ours with tolerance and respect - judging each fellow human on his own merit, regardless of race, creed or colour. That we agree on - and we'll never rest until it becomes a fact, rather than just a cherished dream."

... then this Stan's Soapbox, just a month later.
But that's not the end of it. The very next Soapbox reversed the position completely. "That sinks it," commented Stan. "From now on, whenever we have something to get off our chest, we'll assume we have a magniloquent mandate to sock it to ya, and let the chips fall where they may."

Preachy, perhaps, but this editorial from Stan was very much a product of its times, especially American times. And certainly no other comics publisher was printing  opinions like this during the late 1960s.
From there on, there was no stopping Stan, as the above Soapbox shows. It had never really occurred to me at this point (I would have been 14 at the time) that bigotry was a thing. At the time I was surrounded by casual racism. My family, my schoolmates. And like everyone else, I'd laugh at racist stereotype jokes. But I'd never have dreamed of actually hating someone because of their race or religion. That Soapbox would crystalise the concept for me and probably played a key part in focussing the liberal - and, I hope, tolerant - views I hold to this day.

More importantly, this tone would attract other like-minded comics professionals to Marvel ... Denny O'Neill had already joined Marvel a couple of years earlier. And in the future would come writers like Tony Isabella, Chris Claremont and later Larry Hama, who would also do their bit to instil Stan's liberal values into the stories they wrote.

And now, with the global reach of Marvel Production movies, we're seeing Stan's message reach an unprecedented audience - literally of millions - around the world.

Comicsgate is a tragic collection of comics "fans" who have singled out women, left-leaning liberals and people of colour in the professional comic community for attack, presumably because they simply don't like women and people of colour. It's a far cry from what Stan Lee wanted for the future of society, isn't it?
So the comicsgaters can have their sad rants about the recent Captain Marvel movie and the fact that some Marvel characters have been re-imagined as women or ethnic minorities, but I'm glad to say, they will be on the losing side of that argument and on the wrong side of history. Certainly as far as those of us who have grown up with Stan Lee as our guide are concerned ...

Next: Marvel's Women