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