Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Marvel Chronology - Fantastic Four v1 #4

Hey, the FF better listen to the Human Torch and not let the Sub-Mariner reach the water…oh, unless it’s actually the Human Torch who deliberately drops Subby in the ocean inside the comic. Oh…it is? Nevermind…

I’ve already referenced that the Human Torch owes his name and his initial appearance to the character of the same name who first appeared in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939. That comic was, essentially, published by Marvel Comics, although at the time the publishing company run by Martin Goodman was known as Timely. I won’t get into a lengthy debate on the canonicity of stories published by Goodman’s Timely and Atlas Comics prior to Fantastic Four #1, but it’s clear from Fantastic Four #4 that those comics were not only published within the fictional Marvel Universe, but they were regarded as being based on actual events. Now, by including the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four, Stan and Jack hinted at a longer history for what was to become the Marvel Universe, it imbued this new and very different kind of super-hero comic with a connection to the Golden Age of super heroes. However, this was very subtle, Johnny Storm is a fundamentally different character to the android Human Torch of the thirties and forties. With the introduction of the Sub-Mariner we see a direct connection to the Golden Age, and in case we’re left in any doubt, we have the Human Torch essentially point to the comics from the forties and say “Look, it’s the same guy!” It’s no coincidence that it’s the Human Torch who finds the Sub-Mariner, either, nor is it a coincidence that at the end of the issue it comes down to a fight between the two of them. Stan and Jack are clearly referencing the many, many fights that the two characters had in the forties, fights which would often see New York consumed by tidal waves as the two titans clashed.

Oh, wait, did I say New York? That’s right, with Fantastic Four #4 it’s finally revealed that we’re not in some vague “Central City,” but, instead, we are in the real world city of New York. This is one of the fundamental creative decisions that has, since Fantastic Four #4, set Marvel apart from DC. Where DC has always used fictional cities such as Metropolis and Gotham, Stan Lee chose to set his stories in real cities, in the real world. It’s hard to explain why this makes such a big difference, especially writing from a British perspective, as I am. I’m sure that for American readers it was thrilling to see their heroes battling against a back drop of real world landmarks that they could see every day. I guess from my point of view I’ve just always liked the idea that I could visit these places, whereas I could never go to Gotham City.

The issue itself follows what is already becoming something of a formula in these early issues – the Fantastic Four bicker and fight amongst themselves before having to come together to fight an external foe who has commanded an enormous monster to attack them. That said, it’s hugely ramped up here, the bickering is taken to such a degree that Johnny has actually quit the team and the rest of the group split up to find him. It is, of course, The Thing who finds him, and the two inevitably end up in a full on fight. The monster, too, has been taken to the Nth degree, as he’s not just big, he dwarfs New York, and is only defeated when The Thing straps a nuclear bomb to his back and walks deep inside the beast to set it off. Not only that, but The Thing has to fight huge sea monsters that are living inside the main monster. This is storytelling on an epic scale, and as absurd as it may be, nearly fifty years on it’s still quite thrilling.

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