Tuesday, August 14, 2012



I was talking with my friend Eric about comics the other day. (Well, we were actually talking about superheroes, which are increasingly divorced from comics, but comic books are still my frame of reference for the characters.) He said that he was more of a DC guy (DC being the company that publishes Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) than a Marvel guy (Spiderman, the X-Men and the Avengers). I suppose I am too, but I've always loved a particular Marvel property, the Fantastic Four.

It's really more than the sum of its parts and there's so many little details that I love about them. Foremost, they're superheroes, but they're also a family. You don't see that dynamic a lot with superheroes. I mean, who's the next most famous family of Super-people? The Power Pack? The Bionic 6? (The Incredibles, as great as they are, don't count because they're so strongly influenced by the FF.)

The characters are Reed Richards, aka Mister Fantastic, Susan Storm Richards, the Invisible Woman, her brother Johnny, the Human Torch, and Ben Grimm, the Thing. I'm not going to go into exhaustive detail here, because they are fairly well known and those people who are interested in reading this are those who who are likely already familiar with them.

Mister Fantastic is the smartest guy in the universe. (Also, he stretches.) How smart is he? Doctor Doom invented a time platform in one his early adventures, and when the FF needed a time machine, they just stole Doom's. That's smart! He's also a loving dad and husband and a really nice, if somewhat preoccupied guy.

Sue Storm, aka the Invisible Woman is his wife. She turns invisible and projects force fields and it's generally agreed that she's the most powerful member of the Fantastic Four. She's the mama bear to the team, and the archetype of the super-mom.

Her brother Johnny is the Human Torch, but he's rarely called that. (In fact, I'm more likely to call each of the characters by their actual names than by their superhero names, but especially so in his case.) He's all into fast cars and showing off. He does have his hidden depths, though.

And Ben Grimm is the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing. I think he's everybody's favorite. He's probably one of two Jewish superheros most people can name (Kitty Pryde being the other). Lily likes to play him on Superhero squad. There's a model of him in a tuxedo, and each of the characters says something when they arrive on the map. Tuxedo Thing says, "I say ol' chap, it appears to be time for clobberin'."

"Thing-Ring do your thing!"

(Too soon?)

More than the fact than they're each unique personalities, they interact with each other in unique ways, in that Reed is very different when with Johnny than he is with Sue.I like that. They really feel like a family, people who might not like each other every minute of every day, but who love each other deeply.

I didn't like the grim & gritty Ultimates line (Doom's name is not Van Damme! Do you see him doing the splits?!) but I loved the Marvel Knights line, which told more personal stories that were still in mainstream continuity.

I thought the movie was terrible, but Chris Evans was great as Johnny Storm and I could certainly see why Ramona would go on to date him. Also, the Silver Surfer looked plenty neat.

I like how the series evolved. It recently celebrated its 50-year anniversary and back in the 60s, all the big Marvel heroes (the DD, Spider-man, the Hulk) received their power through exposure to radiation. Back in that era, radiation was essentially magic. (Kind of like nano-technology is now, and I think genre series dealing heavily with nanotech will age about as gracefully as the 50s and 60s radiation stories.)

 I think there have been attempts to explain this. The one with which I'm most familiar is that powerful aliens tinkered with mankind's genetic structure and it's not the radiation itself that gave these folks their powers, but instead it's the catalyst that causes the exhibition of the previously latent powers. Fine, whatever. That's as good a handwave as anything. I only bring it up because it gives me a chance to quote an unnamed research scientist who was interviewed by Marvel on the effects of radiation. "I've zapped a lot of bugs with radiation in the lab. Some of them lived, most of them died, but none of them ever shots laser beams out of their eyes."

Rather than ignoring the fact that it was a pretty careless mistake to forget radiation shielding, it's addressed in the comics and is even one of the more enduring arcs. (Doctor Doom forges a copy of Reed's journal, suggesting that Reed thinks the world needs super-powered protectors, so he'll intentionally mutate his friends through cosmic ray exposure in order to manufacture them.)

The 60s were a period of unparalleled creativity for the comics medium. Lee and Kirby were at the height of their power, and produced an incredible amount of material that went on to define the field. Yeah, not all of it was great, but most of it was, and they were so prolific. Unstable molecules, the Fantasticar (flying bathtub), the Baxter building, Roberta the robot receptionist, Franklin, Valeria, the Negative Zone, the skrulls, Galactus and his heralds, and their exhaustive array of villains of all stripes.

Everybody knows that a good villain can make or break a hero. They are, after all the yardstick by which the heroes are measured. I'm one of the biggest Superman boosters out there and even I admit his Rogue's Gallery is garbage. Yeah, Lex Luthor is iconic, and Braniac just keeps getting better and General Zod is all kinds of ruthless alien menace. And Darkseid is great, though overexposed, and he's not really a Superman villain exclusively.  And, um, well, Doomsday is there. And who else? Conduit? The Toyman?

The one thing I'll give Batman over Superman is that at least his villains are memorable.

(I didn't say they were good, Jer. I said they were memorable.)

And perhaps even eclipsing the FF themselves is their greatest adversary, perhaps even the greatest comic book villain period.

The Mad Thinker's "Awesome Android"!

I would assume the title was bestowed ironically

No, Paste Pot Pete!

(All right, I already admitted that Lee and Kirby had a couple stinkers)

Obviously, it's Doctor Doom.

"Doom: Eloquent in its simplicity — magnificent in its implied menace."

Stan Lee declared Doom his favorite villain, saying "[Doom] could come to the United States and he could do almost anything, and we could not arrest him because he has diplomatic immunity. Also, he wants to rule the world and if you think about it, wanting to rule the world is not a crime."

Stan Lee is rightly, a legend, but he occasionally says some stupid things. The problem with arresting Doom isn't because he has diplomatic immunity, but because he'll kill you with the death rays that shoot out of his power armor if you try it. And, yeah, wanting to rule the world isn't a crime, but he's probably going to commit any number of offenses in pursuit of that goal if he's really serious about it.

(Also, I thought he was exaggerating the protections given by diplomatic immunity, but they're really pretty comprehensive. Wikipedia has the following account of the Burmese Ambassador to Sri Lanka who murdered his wife, built a pyre to burn her in his back yard, and when confronted about this, told the local authorities that he had diplomatic immunity and slammed the door on them.)

Kirby's contributions to the FF have been overshadowed by Stan Lee's. However, Kirby contributed my very favorite bit of Doctor Doom trivia.

Doom was Reed Richards' roommate in college, and he had whipped up a machine to communicate with his dead mother, instead of, I don't know, playing beer pong. Reed happened to see some small errors in Doom's calculations and pointed them out, and Doom was all like "You're just jealous of my genius!"

So the machine explodes, and Doom claims Richards sabotaged it. He also says he's hideously disfigured for life, so he drops out of college, (That's right, "Doctor" Doom never earned his undergraduate degree, though presumably he at least has an honorary one from Latveria) finds a bunch of monks, has them forge him some armor to cover his hideously disfigured face and puts the mask on while it's still hot.

The kicker is that as far as Kirby was concerned, Doom only had a tiny scar on his face. And I think his inability to cope with that imperfection is the best insight anyone has ever had into the forces that drive him.

There have been a number of different interpretations of Doom over the years, and I'd like to talk about Mark Waid's for a little bit.

Waid didn't like John Byrne's interpretation of Doctor Doom, who, while a villain, had a veneer of nobility about him. Waid was tired of people saying that Doom was an honorable villain, so he wrote a story where he was a monster with no redeeming traits, so he could point to that story and say, "Look, he is a bad guy!" which I felt was something of a cheap trick.

I liked Chris Clairmont's run on the series. Not only am I the only person who seems to like it, I seem to be the only person who is willing to admit it happened. It was great, goshdarnit!

I personally like Jonathan Hickman's Doom. He's evil, yes, but not unreasonably (and perhaps not even irredeemably so) and while he's small and governed by his pride, sometimes that pride can push him to great deeds.

The World's Greatest Heroes cartoon on Netflix is kind of okay. Lily likes it a lot, though I'm not thrilled about the anime look to it.

Alicia Masters is African American, which is a departure from her comics appearance, but god knows comics won't be poorer with one less pretty blonde. Lily wanted to watch it all the time for a while.  She expecially likes the episode where Ben is restored to his human form, "The Cure" She's all like, "Can we watch the Cure?" and I'm like, "Young lady, in this house, we ask 'Can I listen to The Cure?"

I actually like that episode too, because with Ben as a human they need a new strong guy, so they hold open auditions, which is a trope I happen to like. They dig out one of my favorite silly Silver Age characters, Captain Ultra, who has this crazy panoply of super-powers, but who is deathly afraid of fire and faints at even the sight of a candle flame. Also, his costume has to be seen to be believed.

Lily really likes the Franklin Richards stories, which recount the misadventures of Franklin Richards, the son of Reed and Sue, done by way of Calvin and Hobbes. They are really pretty fun and I wish there were more all ages books like this.

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