Tuesday, September 7, 2010

74: Fantastic Four #18

Fantastic Four #18
June 11, 1963

  • After the last two issues featuring Doctor Doom, it's something of a surprise to see this issue open on the Four gathered round a television broadcast about Doom being on the loose.  While this isn't strictly speaking a continuation of last issue, it is a deliberate reference to the adventure, and Doom's escape at its end.  This evolution is notable; previously, the early Marvel comics could largely be seen as individual and (mostly) unconnected stories starring the same characters, able to be read in (mostly) any order.  But in opening the issue this way, Stan is already heading towards the idea of superhero comics as ongoing stories akin to soap operas...
    Ben Grimm is uncomfortable with this "continuity as soap opera" analogy.

  • It's also worth taking a moment to note how Time is being handled in these stories. When Johnny talks about the FF having first fought the Skrulls "a year ago" (a year and a half, actually, but why quibble?), the implication is clear: These stories are being told in something akin to "real time", where a month between issues is, on average, reflected by a month between stories. By continuing to set the comics in the perpetual now, Stan subtly increased the realism being conveyed in these stories - because when the reader thinks back to when the FF last fought the Skrulls, it was a year ago, darn it! Of course, this couldn't last, and the "sliding scale" method would soon replace it. In fact, I'm reasonably sure the only ongoing superhero title to stick to "real time" is Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon, whose title character has - over the 18 years since its initial publication - grown older, had kids, and seen those kids become young adults themselves.

    Kirby is a master of this approach, using several panels in a row
    to show a progression through time. I'm stunned at every use.

  • So, yes: It's the return of the Skrulls! Alien invaders are a dime a dozen in this era, yet - of all of them - these are the ones Stan & Jack chose to bring back, and who would go on to be a continuing presence in the growing Marvel Universe. Why them, we might wonder? Did Kirby just have a soft spot for those green, crenellated chins? Regardless of the reason, they've learned from their previous defeat, when the Fantastic Four's powers were just crudely simulated by their alien impersonators (aside from the malleability of Reed Richards, of course). This time, their new creation, the Super-Skrull, actually has all the powers of the FF - and can use them at the same time, to boot! Regrettably, this does turn the actual story into a simple and somewhat tedious one, as we bear witness to the Super-Skrull using each of his different powers, against the same or different foes, each on its own or in different combinations. You can understand why Stan & Jack would want to take the time to fully show the threat of their new villain ... but it takes a bit longer than our patience would like.

    The Super-Skrull starting his publicity campaign in New York. 
    So of course he'll kick off in Times Square!

  • In addition to the powers mirroring that of the Fantastic Four, the Super-Skrull has one extra ability as well: that of hypnotism! Now, what the long-time reader may catch onto here is the fact that hypnotism is precisely what Reed used to defeat the Skrulls at the end of their first encounter ... but, strangely, this is never referenced or even hinted at in the dialogue itself. This kind of subtlety isn't exactly something Stan was known for - and recall the age range to which he was primarily writing - but, once realized, the parallel is unavoidable. Was this perhaps an explicit and intentional part of the plot, which Kirby then drew, but which during the dialoguing stage was simply forgot? Or was this just another case of Stan's unconscious motivations being sometimes more inspired than his deliberate ones?

    The Skrulls see their local postman approach,
    bringing with him the next ish of
    Strange Tales.