Avenging the Fantastic, Part 1: The Marvel Comics Universe Begins!

FF1Also posted at Smash Cut Culture!

The Avengers have been around since long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a mainstream pop culture juggernaut. In this new series, I’ll be reading the Avengers-related titles of the original Marvel Comics Universe from the 1960s through the present over the course of many, many months, and I’ll chart my observations here every two or three weeks.

I’ll include the Fantastic Four in this, since not only is their first (hopefully) good movie coming up this summer, but they’re also a major part of the traditionally super-heroic corner of the comics universe—as opposed to the feared-and-hated characters like the X-Men and Spider-Man or vigilantes like Daredevil, though Hulk gets included on account of being a founding Avenger. (If I included those other franchises, I’d never finish.) Between the Marvel Unlimited digital library and my own collection, we’ll be able to cover most (but not all) of the books starring Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the like. Special thanks to The Complete Marvel Reading Order for sparing me the hard work of keeping track of what to read next.

So face front, True Believers, as we begin our long-term tour of the evolution of Marvel with this extra-sized first issue!

Tales_to_Astonish_Vol_1_27Books Read

Fantastic Four #1-13, Tales to Astonish (starring Ant-Man) #27, 35-41, Incredible Hulk #1-6, Journey Into Mystery (starring Thor) #93-89, 91, Strange Tales (starring the Human Torch) #101-108, and Tales of Suspense (starring Iron Man) #39;  years spanned: 1961-3.

Fantastic Firsts

We’re at the ground floor here, so pretty much everything is new.

Though Marvel Comics had been around in some or another since the late 1930s, Marvel continuity officially begins with the introduction of Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, the Human Torch, and the Thing in Fantastic Four #1.

The next character we meet is Hank Pym (who will be played by Michael Douglas in this summer’s Ant-Man movie) in Tales to Astonish #27, which is more a sci-fi short story about a scientist being almost done in by his own invention rather than a superhero tale. Pym becomes Ant-Man in TTA #35.

The Hulk is next in the first issue of his own series, followed by Thor in Journey Into Mystery #83. A little while later, Iron Man comes along in Tales of Suspense #39. Perennial sidekick character Rick Jones first appears in Hulk #1, and Thing’s longtime girlfriend Alice Masters first appears in FF #8. The do-little Watcher shows up in FF #13.

Notable villains introduced include the Mole Man (FF #1), the alien Skrulls (FF #2), Doctor Doom (FF #5), the Executioner (JIM #84), Loki (JIM #85), the Wizard (ST #102), and the Puppet Master (FF #8).

Marvel’s first superhero, Namor the Sub-Mariner, gets reintroduced in FF #4, though he’s mostly a bitter antagonist in this era.

The first crossover happens in FF #12, when the Fantastic Four are sent after the Hulk.

Incredible_Hulk_Vol_1_1The Status Is Not Quo

–Back then, the Hulk didn’t need to be angry for you to not like him. Bruce Banner’s transformations are initially triggered by nightfall, and he’d revert to his normal self upon sunrise. That quickly changes in multiple ways during the Hulk’s initial six-issue run.

The Hulk’s co-star is insufferable teenager reader identification character Rick Jones, whose life Bruce Banner saved when the gamma bomb went off, creating the Hulk. In #3, a trip to space results in Banner being stuck as the Hulk regardless of the time, and because back on the ground Rick is operating controls to return the spacecraft to Earth, some radiation feedback gives him the ability to control the Hulk’s actions. Radiation was magical in the 60s.

Later, Banner creates a machine to manually switch himself back and forth between his personas, and he’s even able to gain control of the Hulk’s body for a little while, though Hulk’s rougher personality soon reasserts itself, and somewhere along the way Rick loses his influence over him. However, the Hulk’s still more intelligent than the traditional “Hulk smash!” characterization we’re used to.

–Thor isn’t just Thor. He’s also a physically weak physician, Dr. Donald Blake, who discovers Thor’s hammer in Norway. By holding onto the hammer, the “lame” man can become the Norse thunder god, but if he releases the hammer for more than sixty seconds, he reverts to mortal form. The whereabouts of Blake’s personality remain unknown. And whenever Thor’s in a jam, he just needs to think a message to his father Odin on Asgard, and it’s deus ex machina to the rescue!

–Everyone loves the Fantastic Four, unless aliens are framing them or they go broke and can’t pay their bills, but that’s usually resolved within twenty-some pages.

–Superheroes were a bit less super back then. The Thing is strong enough to break a thick log with his bare fists, but it’s a tiring effort, and even the Hulk seems less incredible than we see today. The Invisible Girl doesn’t yet have her force field power.

Journey_into_Mystery_Vol_1_83General Thoughts

These stories don’t hold up well by today’s standards. It’s not just that they’re dated, which they absolutely are, but they were intended primarily for elementary school–aged boys. Comics will grow up later.

The main appeal to reading these now is their historical value, not only to see the earliest versions of characters that have endured for so long but to experience facets of past decades through a pop culture lens. Nevertheless, these books have plenty of freewheeling imagination at play, unhampered by pesky little things like “scientific accuracy,” and that lends them a sort of innocent charm.

Fantastic Four is hands-down the strongest series at this point, and it was the most popular then—the first superhero book to derive as much conflict from the protagonists’ own personalities as from their evil foes. The Hulk starts out interesting enough with a “modern” Jekyll-and-Hyde premise, which gets somewhat lost in adventures with aliens and such after the first issue. And Ant-Man and Thor are pretty generic superheroes, not all that different from what DC had to offer at the time.

Iron Man’s debut issue shows some promise, though, as it reads like a very abridged version of the first half of the first movie, but with 100 percent more communism to fight and, sadly, 100 percent less Robert Downey Jr.

Culture Smash!

–Yeah, they fought quite a few commies back in the day. It was the Cold War, after all.

The quintessential Cold War issue is FF #13, which features a space race. Representing America, we have the Fantastic Four, and over in the Soviets’ corner is a maniacal Russian man and his three apes (in case young readers didn’t know communism was bad). Of course, the commie and his animals all gain super-powers as they travel through cosmic rays and become the Red Ghost and the Super-Apes. Both groups land on the moon—specifically the “Blue Area” where they find ruins of an ancient civilization and, conveniently, oxygen.

Tales_of_Suspense_Vol_1_39–This was also during the Vietnam War, so Iron Man’s origin story takes place in Vietnam.

–Comics from the 1960s are appallingly sexist by today’s standards, but the inclusion of Sue Storm/Invisible Girl in the Fantastic Four represented significant progress, even if she does get captured a lot and tend to pine away for bad-boy Namor. She’s still an active team member, though, who occasionally plays a key role in turning the tide against the FF’s opponents.

But then we have to endure lines like this, from FF #12: “Miss Storm, a pretty lady can always be of use—just by keeping the men’s morale up!” Granted, old-fashioned General “Thunderbolt” Ross says that, but Mr. Fantastic immediately chimes in to agree.

Jane Foster and Betty Ross fare much worse than the Invisible Girl. Unlike Natalie Portman’s accomplished scientist in the movies, comics Jane is a nurse who works for Dr. Blake, and her defining character trait is that she’s in love with both Blake and Thor—not knowing they’re (gasp!) one and the same!

Jane gets a cringeworthy but mercifully brief daydream sequence in which she, no joke, fantasizes about taking care of Thor. “Nonsense! Your hammer will look more impressive polished!” I bet it will, Jane. I bet it will.

Betty basically hangs around an army base with her father, General Ross, as she worries about Bruce and faints whenever convenient.

–All superheroes are Caucasian. Most of the bad guys are, too, except the Vietnamese in Iron Man’s debut.

–The Human Torch was exposed to a lot of asbestos, the poor kid.

Trending Then

Stan Lee loved him some hyperbole. “The Human Torch battles the most fantastic foe of all! Paste-Pot-Pete and his unbeatable super-weapon!” the cover of Strange Tales #104 boasts. Yep. Paste-Pot-Pete, the most fantastic foe.

Highlights

Fantastic Four #6 – In which Dr. Doom and Namor team up to create headaches for the team, and we learn the differences in how these bad guys function in the way they’re contrasted against each other. Plus, the FF’s skyscraper headquarters being rocketed into space is a memorable visual.

FF 12Fantastic Four #12 – The Hulk guest-appearance is the first time we’re explicitly shown we’re reading about a shared, expanding fictional universe, which makes the adventure a bit more fun than the standard fare of the era. And we witness the first Hulk vs. Thing fight.

Tales of Suspense #39 – Iron Man’s debut, though far from a work of art, holds up about as decently as it could have. Moviegoers will recognize quite a bit.

Lowlights

Pretty much the entire Human Torch solo run in Strange Tales, which reads like Human Torch: The Hanna Barbera Cartoon. The FF definitely work better as an ensemble.

The Quotable Marvel

“That lollipop stick—it’s my only chance!” –Ant-Man, TTA #37. The movie has a high bar to meet indeed—no, wait, it only looks high from Ant-Man’s perspective.

“Weeks later, all America acclaims a new motion picture hit, little dreaming of the amazing tale behind the film! The Fantastic Four once again have the money to carry on their unique work…” –a prophetic caption in FF #9 foreshadowing the 21st century relationship between comic books and movies

“Have to be careful! I absent-mindedly almost wrote Human Torch on a deposit slip!” –Johnny Storm, already forgetting his own name in ST #104

“Only a genius such as I, Ivan Kragoff, could have trained a gorilla to operate a spaceship!” –the Red Ghost, reminding himself of his own name in FF #13

“I would take my chances with them [the Super-Apes], rather than the Red Ghost, for they are like the communist masses, innocently enslaved by their evil leaders!” –Invisible Girl, FF #13, saving red-blooded American boy readers from the commie influence (but not red-red-blooded, of course)

To Be Continued…

We’ve got one more founding Avenger to meet—the Wasp—before the team assembles. Meanwhile, Captain America is sleeping in a big ice cube underwater somewhere, awaiting the exciting, modern world of the 1960s!