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




Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Women of Marvel: Sue Storm Part 1 - Fade Out

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 ...