Monday, December 28, 2009

6: Fantastic Four #4

Fantastic Four #4
February 8, 1962

  • And so we get to FF #4, and the return of Namor, the Sub-Mariner - and in tracking Stan Lee's gradual realization of the world-building possibilities, this is a big one. The Sub-Mariner first appeared in 1939's Marvel Comics #1, back when the company was known as Timely Comics, along with the first, android Human Torch - because, yes, even when creating his new comic The Fantastic Four, Stan Lee was open to pilfering from the greats of Marvel's past. Subby and the Torch, along with Captain America (first published in 1941), were the "Big Three" around which Timely's successful Golden Age superheroes were built, and although they were almost totally absent from the '50s, there had been enough adventures during the 1940s to create a mostly-consistent world.
  • As Stan had started working at Timely almost from its very beginning, this meant he had seen firsthand the ways in which the 1940s superhero comics had succeeded, and how having solo characters sometimes pop up in each other's strips had excited the readers. By bringing back one of Marvel's very first heroes after a virtual ten-year absence, he sought to both legitimize this new comic by attaching it to something once remembered (even if only by your parents), and instantly broaden the scope of the world that the FF lived in. But, Stan must have wondered, will it work?

  • Other changes were afoot as well; in fact, this issue is rife with them. As last issue had the first cliffhanger ending, this issue was thus the first one to have an opening page that utterly depended on what went before. Remember, this was a huge risk: Would readers accept it? Or if they'd missed the previous issue, would they put the comic back on the rack in disgust? After an almost-but-not-quite-there attempt on last issue's cover, this one bore Stan's trademark hyperbole proclaiming it "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!" - which would grace every cover for the next thirty years. Of course, some changes were still being figured out: While the Torch had evolved to his famous red-outline form after #2, as of this issue Ben Grimm is still experiencing the occasional change to human, then back to The Thing. I don't recall this running subplot ever going anywhere; was this just a random instance of ideas tried out then abandoned?

  • But the biggest change was that of location. While the FF had moved into their Baxter Building headquarters with issue #3, it's here for the first time stated to be in New York City. Remember that Marvel's main competition had their heroes live in fictional Smallvilles, Gotham Cities and the like; by choosing to set his new comic in not just a real-world location - but the very place in which Marvel itself operated - he cannily reinforced the sense of realism he hoped to convey with these new heroes.

  • In fact, when Johnny comes across Namor halfway through the tale, he's living as an amnesiac bum in a dilapidated Bowery flophouse. Recalling how well Subby had worked in the original Bill Everett comics - more often than not declaring war on the human race - Stan quickly reestablished him as a hotheaded, antagonistic character. This time, he even gave Namor a tragic turn; Atlantis was shown to have been destroyed while he'd been away, and though his people were sure to be alive, he was again homeless - and all alone.

  • And so his first act upon reawakening is to again declare war on the human race - hey, when you've got a shtick, go with it! - and thus for the issue's climax he summons "the largest living thing in all the world... the deadly Giganto!" Which allows for the striking image of Ben Grimm saving the day by walking into the belly of the beast, carrying a -- wait, what?! Again?! I mean, come on! I know it was the early '60s and all, but by this point you start to think Stan had a severe paranoiac fixation going on....