Story I Read: The Fabulous Fantastic Four "Defeated by Doctor Doom" (Fantastic Four #17 Aug 1963)
Fantastic Four can be used as a kind of metronome for the Marvel universe. It was the first serialized superhero comic of the Marvel Silver Age and therefore most of what is invented, was later applied to the other heroes. In this issue there is not only firsts in story telling but also in the narrative. This issue is a direct sequel. That is not to say this is the first issue that is shaped by past events, many publications recall their individual histories and mythologies, but it is the first issue to continue an arc established by another directly preceding issue. Doom is still at large having broken out of Micro-Atomica and the Four are looking to end that threat.
The Four are different in this one. The group dynamic is much different then even in the last issue. That abusive tension that used to permeate the group, especially the relationship between Torch and Thing, is gone, replaced with a campy yet witty joshing. Torch is no longer punishing Thing for his looks. They now tease each other like brothers. How absolutely charming.
Charm, however, doesn’t run through the group. With joviality and camaraderie flowing throughout the penthouse Reed looks all the more like a stick in the mud. He is cold, standoffish and unpleasant to the other members of the group. Fantastic is certainly no leader. The glimpse at this side of Reed serves to make his character quite compelling. To have such an unpleasant man forced to be the brains of a group of rag tag and juvenile superheroes is a fascinating choice. A counter to the unpleasant aloofness of DC’s Bruce Wayne. Marvel likes to tout its heroes as existing in the ‘real world.’ Reed parodies the unpleasant arrogance of that DC character and is in turn not afraid to be unlikable, whereas Bruce still has streak of desperation to be liked. It is wonderful to see the characters so raw like this and especially in the whitewashed Silver Age.
When the dialogue is really good, it becomes extremely easy to buy the sometimes tough to swallow Silver Age science. Though not even wildly funny dialogue can save gross oversteps in logic. Reed attempts to find Dr. Doom by creating a detector that only looks for human flesh covered in steel. Clearly this is a problem as every welder would suddenly become a mortal enemy to the Fantastic Four. Something utterly campy like this could kill a well thought out plot if it weren’t for Torch’s self referentialism. He makes fun of Reed’s idea and even points out the fact that the detector would not be in anyway accurate. A brilliant moment that shows even Reed can be wrong sometimes.
There are other moments of hasty writing. For instance, Dr. Doom’s flying automaton plot is not as well thought out as I’d like. Reed looses a degree because one of the elevated plush toys appears flying above him. Why would someone lose a degree because a flying robot appeared above him? This makes no sense. Perhaps, Stan couldn’t think up a better way the robot might interfere with Richards’ life.
The plot, however hokey and incomplete, manages to spin a new angle on Doom. It isn’t just enough for Doom to execute the Four, he also wants to destroy their reputation. A fascinating motivation. There is a compelling glimpse into the tortured mind of Victor. Doom turns to a mirror and bemoans his deformity, exclaiming “he wishes he understood humanity.” This is where the meat of the story really is.
Dr. Doom’s plot to destroy the Fantastic Four stems from his feeling of being outsider. Doom’s a metal bound man who is wildly intelligent and equal to Mr. Fantastic in his cleverness but is also marginalized because of his looks. Although this is derivative of deformed vice stock character, a character that is prevalent right on back to Shakespeare’s Richard III, it adds a long lasting dimension to a character who until now had been painted with the broad evil brush. There is also a parallel with the Thing. These two are in the same position. Ben feels marginalized as well because of his stony facade. Yet he has Alicia who loves him just for being him. Alicia is the catalyst of the whole revenge plot and it is out of Dr. Doom’s jealousy that he kidnaps her. Would Ben be Dr. Doom without Alicia? He certainly becomes irrational when she is captured and has to be reigned in by Torch.
On top of all this detailed expansion on the Doom, Thing dynamic: Sue Storm does something! She saves the day in the final act though her powers still seem largely pointless. Let’s recognize a stride when their is one and this one is a stride. There’s even a point being made about the role of women. Thing’s irrationality nearly is the downfall of the Four. His love for Alicia leaves the Four vulnerable and infighting starts when Thing’s sorrow and worry over the kidnap get the better of him. Irrational love, as a weakness, has often been a theme in Fantastic Four. Sue constantly brings the team to danger when she allows her feelings for Namor over come her. The triangle with Reed has often been a moment of contention within the Four. Men can also can be irrational and the irrationality of Thing is far more dangerous and violent then any moment with Sue. Is love impossible for a superhero? Another theme that will rear its head many times in later Marvels.
There’s many fascinating and great things about this story but it is not without it’s faults. Jack Kirby’s art is still really simplistic and vague, but why moan about it yet again? Torch’s powers are still totally out of control. Now he not only has the power to create fire doubles but also exact doubles of other people and objects that are not built of fire. He can make perfect copies of Sue Storm or Thing. How does this make sense? Leaving all these things aside this story is a solid 4 out of 5. A really great early Fantastic Four story. No bones about it.