Friday, April 5, 2013

Fantastic Four #1 - Analyzed

I've been wondering lately about who my favorite superhero really is.  After writing 16 pages just about the first two years worth of Captain Marvel stories for Hideouts & Hoodlums Supplement IV: Pt I: Ace-Fox, I'm convinced that Captain Marvel is my favorite Golden Age superhero.  But what about later superheroes?  Using how much I have to say as a rubric for how interested I am in the characters, I was curious how long I could go on writing about the Fantastic Four.  I'm nowhere near done yet, but I have written the two pages below just about the first 13 pages of Fantastic Four #1That, I think, is telling...

No one had heard of the Fantastic Four until one day in 1961, when the words “The Fantastic Four” appeared, burning in the sky, thanks to a special flare gun.  Reed Richards fired that gun, summoning his team together for the first time and, he prayed out loud, for the last time.  It was a curious prayer.  Surely Reed must have hoped that this one emergency would be the only time they would be needed, and yet, just in Oct. 1961 alone, the entire island of Tristan da Chunha had to be evacuated because of a volcanic eruption, there was the Paris Massacre of 1961, and Hurricane Hattie decimated Belize City, Belize.  The world of 1961 was a dangerous place, full of Cold War tensions as well, but The Fantastic Four would only be summoned for the gravest of threats (at least for now; later, the flare would be used to summon the others for even trivial things).
Susan Storm is having tea with a society friend when she learns of the summons.  Her friend seems to be staying in a hotel, given the presence of a doorman out front.  Or is Sue the one staying in the hotel, and her friend is visiting her?  It will never be clear where The Fantastic Four live in these first two issues.  Sue is at least two miles away from Reed, as she tips a taxi driver what appears to be a one-dollar bill and fares were then 50 cents per mile. 

Sue doubts her invisibility really works until she tests it on the taxi driver.  Apparently, The Fantastic Four have gained their powers so recently that they have not finished testing them yet.

How strong is Ben Grimm?  One of our first indications is when he breaks up concrete in his hands, which should require about 3-4 tons of force.  However, the casualness with which Ben does so suggests we have not come close to seeing his upper limit yet.

Ben causes considerable street damage while eluding the police who, admittedly, did start shooting at him on sight.  Ben accidentally wrecks a car later, but shows no concern for its driver’s safety and calls the man a “fool”. 

While Sue showed apprehension about her powers and Ben showed anger at how others reacted to his monstrous form, Johnny enjoys turning into flame (or covered with flame – how Johnny’s powers work has never been adequately explained) and flying through the air more than anything. 

When first turning to flame, his body burns yellow, which suggests a temperature of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (no wonder he melts the car he was fixing up with his friend!).  He can cool his body to red flame, which should be about 1,100 degrees, and still stay aflame.  But at this temperature, Johnny should be generating dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide and smoke and none can be seen around Johnny.  Later attempts to explain Johnny’s powers have posed that he is generating superheated plasma that sheathes his body, but where the plasma comes from has never been explained either.  If the plasma was coming from an extra-dimensional source, though, then perhaps the carbon monoxide smoke is shunted extra-dimensionally as well.

Next we see the mayor of Central City alerting the National Guard, assumedly about the sightings of an invisible girl, a monster, and a human torch in his city.  Nearly an hour later, the matter escalates to the U.S. Air Force’s attention and three jets are scrambled to intercept the “Human Torch”.  It is strange that Johnny takes a solid hour to fly across town to rendezvous with the others, while Sue and Ben were hurrying as fast as they could.  But then Johnny is clearly younger than the others and apparently less responsible.  He does know his missiles, though, recognizing the type of missile one of the jets fires at him on sight.

Where is Central City?  We know it is on the coast, because Reed stretches his arms up and deflects the missile into the “sea” (the narrator is clearly being poetic, though, and really means the ocean).  The area of Reed’s apartment has skyscrapers seven to nine stories tall in it and we already know the city is at least two miles wide, so “Central City” is a large city.  Later continuity will establish Central City is in California. 

When Ben is next seen in Reed’s apartment, he is wearing a hat, glasses, and overcoat much like the items he discarded earlier in the clothing store.  He had either stopped somewhere to acquire more, or borrowed these items from Reed upon showing up, suggesting he is at this time self-conscience of his appearance.  Later he will publicly parade around in just trunks.

In the flashback to their origin, it is hard to discern when it took place.  We earlier had a clue that Sue acquired her powers recently, but when they talk about being the first to pilot a ship into space, before the “Commies”, this must be occurring before Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in April 1961.  Hence, it is likely that the flashback takes place in March 1961 and the main story perhaps in April.  Although, this may all hinge on explaining what Ben Grimm means by “If you want to fly to the stars”.  Later continuity establishes that Reed’s ship has an experimental warp drive and he literally means to reach the stars, not just outer space.

Ben, the pilot, is concerned about a cosmic ray storm they will have to fly into.  The shielding on the rocket ship Reed has designed may not be strong enough.  But they must take off now, though, even sneaking into the military spaceport because they cannot wait for official clearance.  The reasoning seems to be Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, though later continuity will suggest the rocket program had run out of money and Reed had to produce results to keep it from being dismantled. 

This is also where we learn that Sue is Reed’s fiancée and Johnny is Sue’s brother.  Everyone has known each other for some time (Sue says to Ben, “I never thought that you would be a coward!”).  There is no reason for Sue and Johnny to be on board, but Sue convinces Reed to let them come, despite the risk.  How is never shown, but some likely arguments are, “if it is safe enough for you, it’s safe enough for us” or “if you don’t let us come, I’ll alert the authorities and stop you”.

The crew is incapacitated by the cosmic rays and the rocket lands safely only because of its auto-pilot program. 

Sue is the first to demonstrate being altered by the cosmic rays.  In a surprising turn from typical superhero conventions, Sue is not overjoyed to have a superpower, but horrified.  When she sees herself fading away she cries “Oh no!!  No!!”  Everyone is concerned about how long it will last until she suddenly becomes visible again.

Ben, famously, turns on Reed at this point.  Where superheroes have always got along in the past, Ben is ready to hurt Reed out of anger.  By coincidence, Ben transforms into something big, powerful, and monstrous, amplifying his ability to hurt Reed.  Reed suddenly finds his body is pliable and stretchable, helping him dodge Ben.  Or is it coincidence?  Johnny and Ben’s transformations were foreshadowed on the doomed rocket, but we do not see the results of their transformations until they begin to act after the crash.  Do the choices they make influence how their bodies are affected?  Johnny is terrified that everyone is turning into monsters, and so he turns into fire and flies away as a defensive mechanism. 

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