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.|
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.
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 ...
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.
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.
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.
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 ...
... 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.
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."
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.
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.
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!"
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.
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.|
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).
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 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.|
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 ...