Monday, 30 September 2019

The Inhumans: Part 1 - Meet Madam Medusa

IN 1964, SOMETHING HAPPENED TO JACK KIRBY'S BRAIN. After drawing a long run of self-contained, villain-of-the-month adventures in Marvel's Fantastic Four comic, the dynamic changed. It's as if some lightbulb went off in Jack's head and he stopped restricting the storytelling to 21-page units and began to spread out a bit. Perhaps it was Stan not giving Jack specific instructions about what he wanted to see in the next issue of FF ... or perhaps Stan gave Jack specific instructions to go wild. But whatever the reason, the Fantastic Four comic began to feature widescreen adventures and each new issue introduced startling, innovative concepts that boggled this ten-year-old's mind.

Fantastic Four 36 was my first issue of the comic. Though it used the age old trope of having a mirror image of the heroes as villains, it was a new idea to me in early 1965. Especially striking (and a little bit creepy) was the scary woman in the dominatrix mask with the snake-like living hair.
Incredibly, the saga would take over a year to play out - and there would be diversions and story-loops along the way. But play out it did, and I would slowly learn the secrets of The Inhumans.

The earliest issue of the Fantastic Four comic I can recall reading was issue 36. Though we didn't seen this in the UK until around spring or early summer in 1965, it went on sale in the US on 10th December 1964, so would have been in production August or September of that year. I suppose it's possible that Stan and Jack meant all along to expand the presence of Frightful Four member Madam Medusa into a whole secret race of genetically engineered metahumans ... but I kind of doubt it.

There was something about the Wizard's explanation of discovering Madam Medusa hiding in a cave that reminded me of Magneto's description of how he found Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver hiding out in Europe, a year earlier in X-Men 4 (Mar 1964).
There's absolutely no hint whatsoever in FF36 that Medusa is anything more than a super-powered human being that The Wizard found hiding out in a cave on a Mediterranean island - probably somewhere in the Aegean Sea, if Greek myth is anything to go by. She'd have had to have been there an awful long time if we're to believe that Stan and Jack's Medusa was any sort of inspiration to the ancient Greeks.

The Wizard suggests that she may be the most powerful member of the newly-formed Frightful Four, but the story doesn't play her character out that way at first. What enables to evil FF to come very close to defeating Reed's quartet is the element of surprise and the Frightful Four's teamwork. In the end, Sue Storm saves the day by hosing Medusa down with Paste Pot Pete's glue-gun, and the Wizard's merry band make a hasty exit.

Medusa's second appearance in Fantastic Four 38 (May 1965) is little more than a walk-on. She's used by The Wizard as the fake fashion designer that lures Sue Storm into a trap and that's about the extent of it. There's still no hint as to her true origins.
There's no mention of the Frightful Four or Medusa in Fantastic Four 37, but the following issue, they're back. In another masterful plan, The Wizard and his team kidnap Sue Storm as bait and lure the Fantastic Four to a remote Pacific atoll and leave them there as a "Q-Bomb" counts away the seconds to detonation. While Medusa is the catalyst in the abduction of Sue, she doesn't have too much to do beyond that, and we get no further insight into her character than we've had already.

Though Fantastic Four 38 was an unsettling read for my eleven year old self, the defeat of the FF was mostly down to The Wizard. The repercussions of this issue would reverberate for the next several months, beyond the revelation of who and what Medusa was.
Of course, the FF survive, but at great cost and the next couple of issues are taken up with the quartet's battle against Dr Doom - without their powers - with only Daredevil to help them.

The introduction to Medusa in this issue is a splashy affair. She gets an entire page to herself, showing her pushing her teammates around like she's the dictator of the group. And Stan's scripting complements this idea perfectly as The Wizard wonders how much longer he can control The Frightful Four. I get the impression Stan and Jack really liked Medusa, but hadn't quite formulated a plan for her yet ...
Fantastic Four 41 (Aug 1965) brings back the Quarrelsome Quartet ... and there's an interesting shift in the dynamic within the team. Stan and Jack bring Medusa forward to centrestage. They even have her issuing orders to the rest of the Frightful ones like she's the leader of the team and The Wizard fretting slightly that she may wrest power from him. There's still no hint what might be in back of all this, and indeed, I suspect that Jack hasn't quite solidified his ideas on what Medusa actually is. At this stage, I think he may have been toying with the idea of having Medusa take control of the evil FF.

Even if you didn't read Stan's speech balloons, there's little doubt from Jack's visual storytelling that it's Medusa directing much of the action in these pages. Then right at the end, check out the top panel on page 20 ... is that Medusa checking her makeup? What could Jack have been thinking of?
Whether it's Stan or Jack plotting here, it's clear from Jack's drawings that Medusa is issuing most of the orders as the Frightfuls get to grips with having The Thing and the rest of the Fantastic Four under their control. Yet, the idea isn't followed up in the next instalment of the story. Instead, Medusa seems to be once more just a member of the group under The Wizard's direction, though she's instrumental in defeating The Torch so that The Wizard can put him under the same mind control as The Thing.

Medusa's chief function in Fantastic Four 42 (Sep 1965) is to douse The Torch's flame so that The Wizard can subject him to the ID machine, and turn him against the rest of the Fantastic Four. Re-reading these today, it certainly feels like Stan and Jack are marking time with Medusa until they can figure out what to do with her.
In the following issue, Fantastic Four 43 (Oct 1965), we discover that The Torch isn't controlled by the Wizard after all. Medusa, however, is once more telling the Wizard what to do. And even though it's Medusa that figures out that Johnny's just faking being under the control of the ID machine and captures him ... at the end of the tale, as she makes her escape with The Torch in pursuit, Johnny simply lets her go. 

One minute Madam Medusa is riding high, effectively the deputy leader of the Frightful Four, influencing The Wizard's decisions, the next she's on the back foot, ditching her teammates and fleeing in The Wizard's magnetic ship, pursued by a strangely reluctant Human Torch. But we'd see her again ...
Perhaps Stan and Jack were toying with the idea of having Johnny attracted to Medusa (even though she appears at least ten years older than him) ... but it indicates to me that even this late in the game, they still hadn't solidified her backstory. That would come in the very next issue.

When I was eleven, this lack of backstory didn't especially bother me. Medusa was just some weird woman with creepy hair that menaced my favourite super-team. If I'd been a little older, I'd probably have wondered whether she was a mutant like the X-Men. After all, The Wizard had found her hiding from angry villagers in a cave somewhere in Europe. Isn't that where all mutants came from?

Looking back at what was going on at Marvel during 1965, there are two possible reasons for this vagueness. The first is that when the Frightful Four were created - August or September of 1964, I'd say - Stan and Jack had no plans for Medusa beyond her role as a foe of the Fantastic Four. The second is that Stan and Jack did have plans for Medusa, and simply used her appearance in Fantastic Four to promote those plans. But, I don't think the timeline bears that out. I'll explain.
Who's that girl? Even Medusa doesn't seem to know. Is she a powerful supervillainess, capable of wresting control of the Frightful Four from The Wizard, or is she the housefrau girlfriend of Inhumans leader Black Bolt? I don't think even Stan and Jack knew for sure.
Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story tells that during 1965 - with companies like Archie and Charlton trying to emulate Marvel's success - Publisher Martin Goodman wanted to expand the Marvel line to take up more shelf space and instructed Stan to come up with a couple of ideas for new Marvel comic books. So he got together with Jack Kirby and between them they presented two new titles to Goodman - a black superhero, The Coal Tiger and another super-powered group, The Inhumans. I've come across this story from other sources, so it seems reliable.

However, when Goodman went to Independent News, he found he was still constrained by the agreement he'd made with Jack Liebowitz back in 1957 ... that Independent would distribute no more than eight Marvel comic books a month. Even so, this gradually crept up by a title or two a year, so that by 1965, Marvel had 12 books a month on the stands. So when he asked for another two books, head of DC Comics and Independent News Liebowitz, said, "No". Goodman had to shelf the books, a great disappointment to Stan and an even bigger blow to Jack.

Stan's solution was to fold first The Inhumans, then The Coal Tiger (revised as The Black Panther - though see also Two-Gun Kid 77, Sep 1966), into the Fantastic Four comic.

Based on the timing of the above, I think it's reasonable to conclude that Stan and Jack hadn't originally planned Medusa to be an Inhuman. But when the solo Inhumans book was shelved, the character was retro-fitted as a member of the new group. This would explain the strange personality change in Medusa when we see her again in Fantastic Four 46, alongside the other Inhumans. Her haughty manner has gone and she seems like a completely different person. And in Fantastic Four 44 (Nov 1965) Medusa's transformation from imperious super-villain to Black Bolt's far meeker love-interest would begin ...

Johnny Storm was the last to see Medusa as she escaped at the end of Fantastic Four 43 ... and he's the first to see her when she returns in FF44. Stan and Jack sure liked a circular plotline.
When I first read "The Gentleman's Name is Gorgon" back in 1965, it confused me a little. Like all eleven year olds, I knew my European mythology quite well, perhaps better than others, as I loved anything with monsters and superpowered people. So I was aware that Medusa was the name of one of the Three Gorgons from Greek myth. And here, Stan and Jack were introducing another gorgon. Except this one was a gentleman.

You certainly got your money's worth in a Stan and Jack Fantastic Four comic. I'd argue that the inclusion of the Dragon Man in this tale made it perhaps a tad crowded, but why carp?
When we do get to see Gorgon, he looks more like a faun of Roman myth or the Greek god Pan than a gorgon. Was this deliberate, or was Jack just getting his mythology in a bunch? The story has Medusa (sometimes "Madame" and sometimes "Madam", in Stan's script), on the run from this mysterious pursuer. The FF investigate weird earthquake-like shock waves, and discover they're caused by the creature pursuing Medusa. Stan and Jack drag the Dragon Man into the tale, though this doesn't add much of significance to the story.

With his stylised horns and his goat-like feet, Gorgon was probably inspired by the Greek god Pan ... which in turn inspired the medieval Christian image of Satan.
By the time we get to the end of the 20 pages, The Dragon Man has carried Sue Storm off, The Gorgon has grabbed Medusa to return her to her own race (whoever they may be), and his final kick has caused the building under the FF to collapse as though flattened by a huge seismic event.

It's a terrific cover, if a little sinister. There's some artistic licence by Jack, as he has Karnak hoisting about a ton of brick wall above his head when, in the story, there's no suggestion that Karnak has super-strength.
Fantastic Four 45 (Dec 1965) finally reveals what all this sound and fury has been about. Medusa is part of a race called The Inhumans and, apparently, they're hiding among us. By 1965 standards, that's a pretty cool - if slightly unsettling - idea.

It all kicks off when Johnny Storm is feeling a bit pouty because Dorrie Evans has another date. Wandering around a deserted neighbourhood near the Baxter Building, Johnny chances across a beautiful young girl sitting amid the rubble of a condemned building. When he speaks to her, the girl panics, a tornado springs up out of nowhere and the girl vanishes.

The gradual reveal of Crystal and her backstory to Johnny Storm is nicely done. We know there's something very odd going on when we see Lockjaw for the first time - a dog, the size of a hippo, with antennae. Like me, Johnny ponders whether Crystal and her people might be mutants.
Unable to put the girl out of his mind, Johnny returns to the same neighbourhood the following evening and finds her again, sitting on a rockpile. When the girls sees Johnny Flame On, she takes him for one of her own kind and reveals her name is Crystal and that she has a giant antennaed dog called Lockjaw. Emboldened, she takes Johnny to meet the rest of her family, particularly their leader Black Bolt.

In the above sequence, revelation piles on revelation, as Johnny learns that Medusa is Crystal's sister, that karate-chopping Karnak and the scaly amphibian Triton are all part of the same odd family. In fact, Johnny even references The Munsters at the foot of page 16.
In the underground lair of The Inhumans, Johnny first meets Karnak ... then, when he claps eyes on Gorgon and Medusa, the penny drops. Medusa is part of a group who will stop at nothing to conceal their existence from the rest of the world. The group try to restrain The Torch, but he burns his way out of the lair and alerts the FF to the danger.

After an incredible seven issues and 140 pages, we finally get to see the leader of Medusa's family of Inhumans, Black Bolt. Yet at this point, the character doesn't seem fully formed. His forehead antenna isn't quite right, though it'd be fixed in the next issue. Later in the series, Lockjaw's standard insect style antennae would be replaced by a single device modelled on Black Bolt's. 
When Johnny returns to the area with his teammates, they're attacked by the Inhumans, but this is merely a diversion ... the real menace appears. Black Bolt.

Fantastic Four 46 gives us our first proper look at Black Bolt. It's a strong central image and Jack Kirby again uses the technique of floating heads dotted around the cover to show the main players in the adventure inside.
Fantastic Four 46 (Jan 1966) opens with a bruising five-page battle between the FF and the small group of Inhumans led by Black Bolt. Across these pages we learn that Black Bolt has super-strength - enough to give The Thing pause - but does not speak. We learn that Triton needs water to survive. And we learn that The Seeker is chasing down the Inhumans for some unspecified reason.

Believing the Fantastic Four to be a threat, the Inhumans attack them, demonstrating that they're capable fighters, even against such powerful opponents as the FF.
We don't meet The Seeker until page six of the story, but even then we're not really any the wiser. The Seeker's henchmen have subdued and captured the Dragon Man, thinking him to be another escaped Inhuman. Meanwhile, the battle between The Inhumans and the FF rages on, until Gorgon realises that Triton has been snatched by The Seeker. The Inhumans break off their fight and make a hasty withdrawal, leaving the area via Lockjaw's teleportation abilities.

With Black Bolt's power depleted during his battle with The Thing, the Inhumans realise they're no match for The Seeker and his goons and have Lockjaw teleport them away to who-knows-where. Johnny frets that he won't see Crystal again, but Reed assures him that he'll unravel the secrets of the Inhumans.
Meanwhile, The Seeker has realised that The Dragon Man is no Inhuman, but an artificial life form, and loses interest in the creature. So when Reeds Richards uses his technology to trace The Seeker's heat signature and catches up with the Inhuman-hunter, The Seeker has no reason to believe The Fantastic Four are interested in anything other than the sedated android. And not seeing the FF as a threat, explains that he is one of the race who created The Inhumans through genetic manipulation ... purely in the interests of scientific experimentation. 

Stan's dialogue makes it seem as though The Seeker belongs to the race that created the Inhumans. We would find out that this is not the case when the true creators of the Inhumans are revealed much later in the second issue of The Inhumans comic (1975).
It all goes to heck-in-a-handbasket when The Dragon Man recovers from the The Seeker's tranquilliser and breaks free. In the ensuing melee, Triton's containment tank is shattered and the amphibian collapses to the floor, gasping for breath.

There's no sign of The Inhumans on this cover. Usually, Stan wouldn't let something like this pass, as he was all about making the cover sell the book. I'm surprised he didn't have Jack add his trademark "floating heads" down the sides of the cover art.
Fantastic Four 47 (Feb 1966) opens with the FF ingeniously saving Triton's life. While Johnny and Ben go after The Dragon Man, Sue envelopes Triton in a forcefield and Reed fills it with water from a handy hosepipe.

I'd have thought it should have been a little more difficult for Black Bolt to wrest the throne back from his usurper brother, Maximum the Mad. Instead, it involves little more than grabbing Maximus' hokey hat. In the above artwork, the way Kirby's drawn Maximus reminds me quite a lot of Thor's dodgy brother, Loki.
As this is happening, Black Bolt and his followers reach their remote home, The Great Refuge, where his brother, Maximus now rules as king. The sneering Maximus greets his brother, then proclaims his intention to wed Medusa. Really should have kept his mouth shut. Black Bolt's reaction is to snatch the crown from his brother's head and calmly place it on his own. If only all regime change could be that easy.

When the Fantastic Four reach the city of the Inhumans, Reed feels it his duty to advise Black Bolt that they won't stay hidden from the Human Race forever. Despite their best efforts, their existence will become known eventually, and they'll discover too late that humans are not their enemy.
Not far away, the Fantastic Four have arrived in The Great Refuge and waste no time making the perilous descent into the city of The Inhumans. No sooner have they reached ground level that they're greeted by an excited Crystal ... and the rest of her family. Black Bolt wants nothing to do with the Human Race and orders Reed and the others to leave on peril of their lives. But Reed makes an impassioned speech, declaring that The Inhumans have nothing to fear from the Humans and that the sooner they emerge into the real world, the better. What none of them know is that Maximus has a secret weapon, the Atmo-Gun with which he plans to annihilate all human life, leave the Earth solely for The Inhumans. While no one's watching, he pressed the trigger.

Fantastic Four 48 is rightly famous for introducing the terrible threat of Galactus and his melancholy herald The Silver Surfer. However, the first third of the book is taken up with the epilogue of The Inhumans saga.
Now what I'd forgotten, until I re-read these stories recently, was that the epilogue of the Inhumans saga spilled over into Fantastic Four 48 (Mar 1966), a comic best known for introducing Galactus and the Silver Surfer to the Marvel universe. So the last few pages of the tale, with Maximus thwarted, and the Atmos-Gun - a weapon designed to destroy all non-Inhuman life - failing to work on the Human Race, takes up the first seven pages of FF48. Who knew?

The irony is that The Inhumans and the Humans are not genetically different after all. Reed is right. There's no need for the Inhumans to keep themselves apart from the Human Race. Yet Maximus still has his final revenge, throwing up an impenetrable barrier that locks The Inhumans inside the Great Refuge and shuts the Fantastic Four out. Johnny is separated from Crystal ... and this sets up a future storyline of Johnny embarking on an epic search for his lost love later in the FF series.

From here, The Inhumans would go on to make many more appearances in the Fantastic Four and other Marvel series. Initially, Stan had planned to launch an Inhumans comic in 1967, but this was shelved and Jack's artwork was repurposed as a short run of back-up tales by Stan and Jack in Thor 146 - 152 (1967). They then battled the Hulk in Hulk King-Size Special 1 (1968), and finally get their own series in the second volume of Amazing Adventures in 1969 ... but that's a story for next time.

Next: The long road to solo stardom


  1. I'm not sure why, but The Inhumans never really grabbed me - at least not as stars in their own mag, though I must confess that I quite fancied Medusa when she first appeared as a member of the evil FF. Perhaps it was Jack's idiosyncratic scripting of them in Amazing Adventures, and his art was beginning to look a little too cartoony for my tastes around this time, depending on who was inking his pencils. What did you make of John Byrne's revelation in The Thing's own mag (early '80s) that Lockjaw wasn't actually a dog, but an actual Inhuman who could speak? I don't think the idea was ever revisited, but it certainly was a surprise at the time.

    1. Whereas I loved The Inhumans ... mostly in their FF appearances. I'm not mad on the Amazing Adventures adventures. Like you, I think Jack was phoning in his Marvel work by that time. But I'm getting ahead of myself. So more on that next month ...