Wednesday, April 7, 2010

44: Fantastic Four #13

Fantastic Four #13
January 3, 1963

  • After last issue's disappointing turn, this comic is crammed SO full of ideas that you wonder why it isn't regarded as more of a classic than it is. (Probable answer: The Red Ghost and his Super-Apes.) For instance, for the first time since the first issue, we once again get a sense of the four as determined explorers, set on conquering new heights and discovering the unknown just because they can. Reed tells us of a meteorite from outer space that recently crashed in Siberia, has been harvested as a new source of fuel, and which suddenly makes space exploration possible again in a way it hadn't been before. In any other comic, this might have been the story, but here it's just one more intriguing detail in a lunar sea of ideas.

    And speaking of lunacy....

  • However, this was during the height of the Space Race, so when the FF prepare a mission to the moon we shouldn't be surprised to see a parallel endeavour entered into by the Soviets. Strangely, scientist Ivan Kragoff is planning his launch not with fellow humans, but with three apes whom he has painstakingly trained: the gorilla has been taught to operate Ivan's space ship, the orangutan has become the ship's mechanic, and the baboon is now skilled with a gun. But while the FF has smartly shielded their rocket from the cosmic rays that gave them their powers back in FF #1, Ivan has made his craft transparent and with as little shielding as possible, in the hopes of duplicating the FF's accident! (This same trick would be performed by Hulk villains The U-Foes years later.) When this does in fact occur, Ivan finds he can now fade away like a ghost; the gorilla has become a super-strong powerhouse; the baboon can mold and change its shape at will; and the orangutan has become "magnetized" somehow. And if you're thinking that most of these approximate the powers of the FF, you'd be right.

    How wonderfully eerie!  And the mystery of who built this city
    never even comes into it.

  • One of the things that makes this issue such a gem is the sense of mystery and wonder that's conveyed in every page. When the FF rocketed into space in their very first issue in 1961, the original intent was a flight to the moon; however, this was changed in the finished comic to a vague trip "to the stars" because Stan feared that by the time the issue saw print, mankind might have already achieved such a thing, making the first issue immediately outdated. Think for a moment about what that means: that the advances in space exploration were so exciting to the public consciousness that new events seemed to spring forth with dizzying speed! But a year and a half later, we still hadn't reached the moon (and wouldn't for another six years after that), so Stan felt comfortable again with the idea. And why shouldn't he? It may seem blase to us now, but in a time of such unknowns, the idea of an extraterrestrial object - a new celestial landscape - being so close must have been fascinating! What could be found there? Who might live there? H.G. Wells' 1901 novel The First Men in the Moon found great success in these tantalizing questions, and it should be no surprise that a big-budget motion picture, adapted by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, would hit theaters just a year after this comic came out.

    Jack Kirby's Watcher is a sight to behold: Similar enough for us to recognize,
    but different enough to be unsettling and weird.

  • The Red Ghost and his Super-Apes may have (rightly) faded into obscurity, but an impressive number of other concepts were introduced in this issue that would later become important to the Marvel stories of the future. The Blue Area of the Moon, with an atmosphere all its own, is seen to house the remains of a long-dead civilization, and years later would become the new home of yet another exotic race. Most notably, however, the FF first meet The Watcher, member of an immeasurably long-lived race that has been witnessing and recording the myriad pockets of the universe for eons, sworn never to interfere. A reading limited only to a perspective of geek culture could see this as the progenitor of Star Trek's Prime Directive, but it's so much more than that. The members of the FF may have been to other worlds when abducted by this or that alien dictator, but it's notable that when we first see the four successfully exploring an uncharted world of their own volition, we also get an iconic, living reminder of the ideal of self-determination. It's pointing out to us that were we to encounter higher forms of life out in the heavens, we needn't take that as sign of our smallness or insignificance in the vastness of the cosmos; the time of Galileo's famed persecution for suggesting Earth was not the center of the universe is long past. After all, it's mankind's ambitions and accomplishments alone that would take us to such heights and beyond, and nothing should diminish that sense of self-actualization, regardless of who or what we were to find there. Standing on the cusp of space exploration, these were undoubtedly fears deeply rooted in the public's minds, whether they were aware of them or not, and it's astonishing how well - and how subtly - Stan was able to address them, and turn such fears into hope and inspiration.

    Was Stan Lee strongly in need of a thesaurus?  Or was this his sly hint
    that there was another "Voice of Doom" on the stands that selfsame week...?