Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Civil War was right: The Fantastic Four are a bunch of jerks!

Here's a puzzle for you: why is it that today a character's origin might be rehashed and revisited over and over again, when the small pool of today's comic readers already know all that? You can tell the Fantastic Four's origin any number of ways from a myriad of different angles, like the Ultimate version, the Marvel Adventures all-ages version, the recent Joe Casey/Chris Weston First Family mini-series, and the movie continuity. Aside from maybe the movie version, did any of these bring in new readers? Or are they just telling the same old story, perhaps adding a new coat of paint or stripping dated references.

Fantastic Four#126 was not only a retelling of the FF's origin, with maybe a little barnacle scraping duty on the side, but it was also immortalized in a Power Record. (The link should be fixed, and a big thank you to Jason over there again. Check out his other stuff, and see what jumps out!) When I think of the Fantastic Four, these are the voices I hear. Well, OK, the guy from the 90's cartoon did a pretty mean Thing, and I hear Jessica Alba's voice a lot for no reason, but neither here nor there. As usual. Let's just go on: "The Way it Began!" Written and edited by Roy Thomas, art by John Buscema, inks by Joe Sinnott. The letters page notes this is Thomas' first issue as regular writer, after Stan Lee's last (regular) issue.

Perhaps because this is going to be a introspective clipshow of an issue, we start things off with a bang: Ben Grimm and longtime girlfriend Alicia Masters open a door in the Baxter Building, only to discover Doctor Doom standing over the murdered body of Sue Richards, the Invisible Woman. (Wait, she was the Invisible Girl back then. It's been 'Woman' for what, twenty years now, in Byrne's run? So I didn't notice at first.) Enraged, the Thing moves to attack Doom, only to jump right through him. As Ben picks himself out of the wreckage of a wall, Doom and Sue have both faded away.

Mr. Fantastic turns on the light, and explains he had been testing "the new, improved version of my thought-projector helmet" and that he had to concentrate on the most repulsive scene he could imagine. Why, I can't say. I would have thought repulsive scenes would leap to mind more readily and clearly than happy pastoral images, but then again the idea of projecting what's in my head onto a wall for public consumption is mildly terrifying. One stray thought about my Liz Phair fixation, and it definitely wouldn't be Comics Code Approved. This is another one of Reed's inventions that should be worth billions and revolutionize society, but I'm pretty sure most of Reed's money comes from 'kill fees' instead: The television, cable, and movie industries probably cough up even more for the helmet to never see the light of day. (Reed alludes to this in Mark Waid's run, when he gets the FF solvent again by inventing an acne cure, with which he more or less blackmails Revlon or Stridex or something.)

Nonetheless, Reed really needs to lock the lab door, or put up "Genius at Work" signs or something. He lights up his pipe, which is awesome: smoke 'em if you've got 'em, young scientists! Reed also seems to be mocking Ben a little; but then I guess Ben did demolish a wall there.

The Human Torch and Invisible Girl come charging in to see what the crash was, Johnny burning a hole and flying through another section of wall. Sue rips into Johnny for "stirring things up," then lets Reed have the other barrel when he defends Johnny; as they were supposed to be on their way to see Franklin right then. Perhaps forewarned by this scene, Ben takes this moment to tell Alicia that "maybe we should get to know each other a little better" before getting married. Wow. That's crushingly insensitive and ill-timed. The only worse thing I could think of is if Ben saw a slightly overweight woman and told Alicia he didn't think they should marry because she might get fat. In his defense, Sue is raging.

Since Ben made that little suggestion out in public with everyone, Johnny can't resist pitching him some crap, which quickly escalates into blows. Reed tries to separate them, and gets slugged by both. Sue then yells some more: "Are you trying to murder the finest man who ever lived?" Cherish that moment while you cough up your lungs, Reed, because I don't think you'll be hearing that again anytime soon.

Reed defends his teammates again, however, and suggests maybe they all need some time apart. He probably meant separate vacations for him and Sue as well, so he could finish that quantum spacedrive he'd been working on, while Sue would get to change Franklin's diapers and think about the Sub-Mariner. Reed and Sue head out to see Franklin.

Ben makes a crack to Alicia, then regrets using the word "see" to his blind girlfriend. Ben is weirdly sensitive about the damnedest things, I swear. Alicia doesn't mind that, but has too much class to be alternately insulted and condescended to, and excuses herself. Ben complains to Johnny that despite all his power, he can't restore Alicia's vision, and Johnny points out at least Ben has a girlfriend. Johnny's long-term girlfriend Crystal of the Inhumans was stuck back at the Great Refuge, as the Inhumans currently couldn't survive for extended periods in earth's pollution. Johnny flames on and storms out, looking for "someplace where I'm treated like a man--not just a kid with an all-over hotfoot!"

Left alone and feeling like a jerk, Ben decides to distract himself by playing with Reed's thought projector, which shouldn't fit but totally does: "Reed must be more swell-headed than I thought."

(From the record version: "Hey, whadaya know? It fits! Goodie.") Like Reed, he decides to test it on the most "revoltin' thing" he can think of: himself. He sees himself as the lumpy Thing he was in the FF's first issues, then the more common rock-like version, then as he used to look. Stricken by a "sudden urge to see the way it was", Ben starts our flashbacks with a meeting of the four as they plan to steal Reed's experimental 'Pocket Rocket.' Man, I'm glad they don't call it that anymore.

In this version, Reed plans to steal the rocket, which Ben refers to as "some harebrained scheme to beat the rest'a the world into space." Sue calls Ben a coward, and asks if he wants some foreign power to beat America to the moon. Ben responds with a crack about "cleaning up Harlem an' Watts," which is just as dated. This version is as Ben remembers it, at the time; but very much a period piece. The secret base, located "upstate," is described as "the base the Pentagon didn't even tell the boys at Cape Canaveral about!" Space flight as a national defense issue, which seems odd today but was probably very true back then.

"Mebbe if we'd had to wait fer Official Clearance, we might'a Sobered up, and the whole thing never would'a happened..."
Yes, Reed, Ben, and Sue were just hammered when they stole the rocket. And it's obvious Johnny lit one up from time to time.

So, the four are the first in space, which would make Ben's flashback circa March 1961 at the latest. Since that would make them too old, and getting into space isn't as novel anymore, this is usually retconned into testing Reed's experimental warp drive or something. My least favorite alteration was probably the Heroes Reborn version, which I haven't read in years, but I believe involved Galactus or the Silver Surfer irradiating the four somehow...

As the cosmic rays hit, Johnny starts to feel like he was burning up, and Ben feels so heavy he needs to lie down. Since I first heard that line on the record as a kid, I always pictured a little cot in the back of the rocket for that. Reed had installed an automatic pilot, which almost begs the question of why he had to drag Ben in on this, but honestly, it's not a great landing. The team lurches out of the crash, alive, but uncertain as to how the cosmic rays may have affected him. Sue has a terrible line here, since for the whole story she's relegated to either shrewing or complaining: "But Reed--after all your work, your dedication--we failed!" Don't rub his nose in it or anything, Sue. And what's this we business? One of the better changes in the Ultimate continuity is that Sue is just as much a scientific genius as Reed, albeit in different fields; as opposed to being the naggy team mom.

It's a sign of the times, but it struck me that after the rocket crash, the Four have time to talk about what just happened, and maybe get their story straight for the military; which is really not on the ball here. Back in the sixties crashing a rocket was a more private, leisurely affair: today there would be hazmat teams, the military, the press, conspiracy/alien fans, assorted gawkers...

Because there was no time to waste back then (tradewriting!) the cosmic rays start changing them right away: Sue turns invisible, and everyone freaks out a bit. Ben complains some more, and Reed finally gets fed up with it. Reed may have picked the wrong time to stand up for himself, though, as Ben starts changing into the Thing. Since Ben's using the helmet to watch this, that would explain why he looks like the 'normal' Thing (rocky, beetle-browed) here instead of the original lumpy, dinosaur-hide version, even though he pictured that earlier. Narrating, Ben admits: "It ain't pleasant rememberin' how I wuz then--Mr. Bad Temper of 1961--" then, in the flashback:

"Reed, darling, bull!"
Awkward. That must have been one longass ride (or walk) back home after that little outburst. It's often been painfully obvious Ben loves Sue, but that one was more overt than usual.

Johnny calls Reed and Ben monsters, then flames on and takes off, namechecking "that oldtime comic-book hero--the Human Torch!" A very Roy Thomas touch there, but Johnny must have been a hardcore fan, because most people bursting into flames wouldn't think, 'Hey, I saw this in a comic once,' they would think 'Ohnoesjebushelpme.' Except with more swears. In most retellings, it takes longer than two panels for the Torch to have any control of his powers, but even in the old Lee/Kirby issues, Johnny had enough control over his flame to shave Namor, and that was like the third issue.

Reed reasserts control over the group, although Ben steps on what would probably be a long and dry speech: super powers, help humanity, blah blah. Thomas does sneak in a line about telling the government what happened, which is quaintly trusting by today's standards. Most of you can probably see lots of possibilities for stories that would be fleshed out later: I believe First Family had a plot involving the aftermath of the crash and the government, for example.

Ben's mind then wanders to the first "do-badder" the Fantastic Four fought, the Mole Man. Even though Ben was just off-panel for this, he recalls Moley telling Reed and Johnny his origin, which means we're up to a flashback within a flashback. Nice!

Mole Man's motivation for leaving humanity behind, his 'Hell is other people' line, while not new, is uncut on the Power Record's version. Y'know, I would actually watch Ugly Betty if she did this. Moley narrates about washing ashore on Monster Isle (It's actually a peninsula...) and exploring a cavern, not five minutes later from the way it's laid out.

Even hampered by an inferiority complex and hung up about his looks (or lack of same...) the Mole Man was man enough to survive a fall of several hundred feet (as Ben pictures it), then conquer the Moloids and assorted monsters of his "legendary kingdom," while more or less blind and unarmed. Moley could have been a king, a regal presence of nobility, but he can't let go of the pain and cruelty the world gave him. So, he's a revenge-crazed loon. A guy with giant monsters, access to untold treasures both material and scientific, and an army of little yellow servants; should be able to get the respect he desires. Maybe the problem is you, Moley.

For some reason, probably faulty synapses, I keep thinking of Moley now as a disgruntled Pokemon trainer: "I choose you, Groot!"

As the Mole Man concludes his tale, we find Johnny again being insensitive: "What good's it (Moley's kingdom)do you--if you can't see it?" That's a pretty harsh assessment on the lives and achievements of blind people, Johnny. When Johnny says, "Come back with us--maybe we can help you," he doesn't mean "Reed can probably cure your blindness. And you ugliness. Possibly even your shortness." He means, "We can put you in a nice home for the blind. Or the ugly." And yet, he later married Alicia. Fake, Skrull Alicia. Whatever.

Not surprisingly for Ben's flashback, we linger for a moment on Moley then beating the hell out of Johnny with a stick: it demonstrates his powers, and it's fun! He then shows his tunnel map, and how his "mighty minions shall attack--destroy everything that lives above!" Ben decides he's heard enough, and it's time to make the donuts. Except he forgot about the army of monsters. Oh yeah.

You can see some more of the altered lettering there, but I still like that panel. I think it's a bit of a tip of the hat to the cover of Fantastic Four #1. Also, the Mole Man has awesome tiling.

Although they had thought that was the end of the Mole Man, he would return many times. Ben recalls the last time, which apparently involves real estate, and revisits that scene with his pilot light hat:

Sue manages to get Moley's glasses, leaving his over-sensitive eyes blinded; and somehow breaks his blindness ray thingee. The Torch...torches it, so it's never used against them again; and the Mole Man escapes again, blowing up the house in another failed attempt on the FF's lives. Ben wonders why he's been going over all this, then realizes if the Mole Man can cause blindness with a ray, then cure it, he might be able to help Alicia see again.

Ben resolves to get Moley to cure Alicia's blindness, or kick his ass trying; a point he underlines by punching Reed's countertop hard enough to shake the entire Baxter Building. Now that's an invention! I can't even slice cheese on mine...On his way out, Ben runs into the building's landlord, Collins. There's a slight jump there, as Ben was upstairs, then suddenly he's exiting the elevator on the ground floor, but still on the same thought. Collins starts to give Ben the hassle. Unwise.

On the record, it really sounds like Ben is this close to going ape all over Collin's face, and that the Mole Man had better watch his back. Maybe it's the residue of Civil War, but going over this issue I was surprised how angry, abusive, shrill, and insensitive the Fantastic Four was. Just like a real family! I didn't get the conclusion to this until almost thirty years later, so I guess we'll get to that one much, much later. (Spoiler: the Mole Man is no help to Alicia, or any blind people, anywhere. Surprise!)


Anonymous said...

dude, ya might want to get that power record link fixed.

and for the record, all the voices from ff i hear in MY brain are from the 20 episode t.v. show.

SallyP said...

Yes, Reed has always been something of a twit. I'm mildly fond of him (or WAS...until Civil War) but he really doesn't seem to have much a clue.

Fred said...

My favorite thing to come out of FF was the Marvel Two in One Series. Especially the annual where the Thing boxes the Champion. It's a must read for Ben Grimm fans.

Marc Burkhardt said...

Gad, I forgot all about this record. I must have listened to "The Way It Began" 300 times when I was a kid - although all I can remember now is the voice of the narrator saying "The Way It Began."