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 ...