Monday, May 21, 2012

173: Fantastic Four #30

  • Introducing Diablo, the Master of Alchemy - the latest in a long line of classic Lee/Kirby villains! This issue starts with the action in full swing, with the FF in the danger-filled woods of Transylvania, where Reed has decided to take the foursome for vacation. Given the odd choice of locale, you might be surprised to find that neither a Dracula nor a Frankenstein are anywhere to be found! (Not to worry; they'll show up in Marvel stories starting in the next few years.) Yet despite the lack of vampires, there's still a force that seems to hypnotize the Thing from afar, getting him to leave his bed in the middle of the night and trudge through miles of wilderness to a sinister castle, where he is compelled to open a certain tomb - and thus free Diablo from the prison he's been sealed within for over a hundred years!

    When far from home and in strange surroundings,
    it can be hard to find a bathroom in the middle of the night.

  • When the rest of the Fantastic finally awake, they note Ben's absence with alarm and quickly track him down to the castle in question. It's then that they receive their biggest shock, as they find the Thing's rocky form partially cured! This is a canny and economical bit of plotting, as it not only provides Ben with a heart's-desire bit of temptation, effectively separating him from the rest of the group, but also provides readers with a reminder of just how different Ben Grimm is from the others. Out of the four who journeyed in that same fateful rocket, Ben is the only one who came back as something which could understandably be deemed a monster, and is the only member of the group whose life has been consistently handicapped by the change (any advantages notwithstanding). For the Fantastic Four's first handful of issues, Ben was thusly characterized by a large degree of self-loathing; however, Stan soon lessened this aspect of the character, perhaps intuiting that while such a trait might lend itself towards a finite drama, it might grate on readers as time went by. But Reed had vowed to his friend to never stop looking for a cure - so it's a surprise to all to see the antidote come not from Mr. Fantastic, but someone new!

    If it's not one Thing, it's another.
    And Johnny looks positively gobsmacked!

  • As soon as Reed, Sue and Johnny see the Thing's significantly regressed condition, Ben tells them that in return he's agreed to serve Diablo for the following year. Reed, of course, is flabbergasted by this declaration, assumes the Thing is under Diablo's mental control - and instantly attacks! But is he? What's interesting here is that the situation, as presented, is subtle enough that we honestly can't tell; after all, the change of heart is a sudden and drastic one, but Ben doesn't come off as a mindless automaton or seem otherwise out of character. Accordingly, the reader is forced to wonder: Is Reed's leap to the attack the mark of someone saving a friend who's been brainwashed, and therefore unable to help himself? Or is it instead the sign of someone so arrogant and sure of himself that he presumes to know the minds of his friends better than they know themselves? (And further, given Diablo's apparent ability to succeed where all of Reed's researches never could, we might wonder if jealousy is part of his real motivation as well.) We often talk about Stan's startling innovation at creating a group of heroes who don't always get along, but having our heroes' brilliant leader sometimes show these less than admirable traits really illustrates what sets the Marvel heroes apart from the rest.

    "It's Magneto's helmet on a plinth!"

  • Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this issue, however, is the way the plot progresses at an almost dizzying speed. After Ben Grimm has freed Diablo, been transformed partway back to human and subsequently left the group, the remaining Fantastic Three depart - whereupon Diablo then begins dazzling the nations worldwide with his chemical wonders, offering instantaneous solutions to all manner of earthly ills. And this is only by page eight! There have been any number of issues where the tale has been hampered by its seemingly lackadaisical pace; after having written eight- or twelve-page stories for much of his career, Stan still seems occasionally troubled in his attempts to figure out the full potential of the feature-length format, and it's not been unusual to find the first several pages of a tale effectively stalling for time, possibly offering some enjoyable character moments but not much besides. Maybe Stan's finally begun to crack just how much plot can fit into twenty pages, and how many twists and turns can be offered when the material is condensed just enough. Everyone says these next couple of years are when Marvel really starts hitting its stride; if so, this might be yet another turning point down that road!

    Li'l Diablo's favorite game was always
    "light as a feather, stiff as a board".