Thursday, September 26, 2013

When Orderlies Attack!

We've come to Stan Lee's final issue, as writer of his flagship title of the Marvel line, Fantastic Four. In a two-part story beginning with "The Return of the Monster!", Lee brings back the "monster from the lost lagoon" he and artist Jack Kirby introduced in issue #97, a super-strong but misunderstood being from another world who was only attempting to repair his crashed ship and secure supplies so that he and his mate could get back into space. Yet now, he's returned and mysteriously kidnapped Sue Richards--and at the end of Part 1, Lee didn't exactly leave our heroes in much of a position to meet this menace.

In a way, this issue of Fantastic Four is an example of how the comic would lose its innocence with Lee's departure. Obvously it wouldn't "read" the same, with Roy Thomas and subsequent writers giving their own take on the foursome; but Thomas, Gerry Conway, et al. seemed so eager to bring Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Sue into contemporary times that in the process they compromised the strong foundation that Lee had given these characters. For instance, Thomas almost immediately had Sue and Reed experiencing marital troubles, which would only get worse and drag the book down like a lead weight; and while you'll get no argument from me that Sue needed much more dimension than Lee gave her, there are other, more intriguing ways of doing that rather than taking the easy road of sowing discord with a husband and wife, particularly given the relationship that's been built between these two for over 120 issues.

Lee, on the other hand, wrote comics, not novellas--and these characters were able to thrive within that world. The FF didn't have to struggle to conform to the "real" world that the rest of us lived in--they had their own world that we enjoyed escaping to. Lee had his dry spells, like any other writer--but he wrote some compelling scenes for the FF, a team that even in the worst of times pulled it together when they needed to. And he was a master of balancing the light-hearted with the drama, the human with the hero:

And so, where did Lee leave us, and these heroes--in this, his last story as regular writer of the book? Well, Reed was certainly in no shape to play hero:

And Ben and Johnny were only just beginning to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, finally making some headway in identifying their foe:

As for Sue, given the state she was left in, she'd be a natural for "The Perils of Pauline":

So Stan had better get busy, because he already has one foot out the door, remember?

First, we'd better deal with Sue--and that's easy, since she does have powers, right? It just probably never occurred to us that she'd actually use them. But she's very resourceful with them here, for a change:

Isn't it really annoying when Sue or anyone else refers to her force field as her "invisible force field" all the time? That would be like one of us saying, "I'll use my wrist-banned watch to check the time!" Why would you have to announce (especially to yourself!) that your force field can't be seen? "I'll stop you with my invisible force field!" How does announcing your force field's invisibility help you with your enemies?

Of course, the oxygen in the field--OMG, I'm sorry, the invisible field--is eventually exhausted, and things go from bad to worse when the monster reappears. But he surprises Sue by ramming a boulder into the cave's mouth to reseal it, which means that she'll have plenty of air to breathe once the water level drops. But it seems she's no closer to finding out just what this being wants with her in the first place:

Meanwhile, Reed has finally had it with his body's exhaustion, and decides--well, he decides he's just not going to be exhausted anymore. "I must be master of my body--not its slave!" he says. Gosh, I'll have to give that a try the next time I'm ill and can't get out of bed. (It probably won't work.) So after Reed suits up and he's ready to make a break for it, it's time for the epic battle you've all been waiting for:

A Clash of Titans!

See what I mean? Who else but Lee would detour for a bit and take the time and trouble to give us this kind of scene? And he's not done yet--because now that Ben and Johnny know who their foe is, they've deduced that he must be in the lake where Johnny last pursued him, and they take off after him. Only, in another great Lee scene, the Thing finds himself a little inconvenienced:

Finally, the two arrive at the lake and prepare to submerge. But a complication arises when a still-weakened Reed, seeing the direction they've taken, arrives and insists on handling it:

So Reed gets sent back to bedrest after all. Let's jump ahead to when Johnny finally spots the monster underwater and tackles him, though it slips his mind that he's not "the Human Torch" down there but just "the Human," pitted against a foe who's floored the Thing:

Once Johnny's clever maneuver has forced the monster to the surface, the battle now begins in earnest:

But, with only two pages before the story's end, Lee needs the voice of clarity to wrap things up and put this all together for us. I would have thought Sue would be the natural choice here, since she's mostly been M.I.A. throughout this entire story and with more questions than answers. But Lee has a history of giving the mic to Reed at times like this, and now will be no different (at least initially):

And at long last, we and the FF get the answers we've been seeking:

If you think the FF's reflections here seem familiar, you have a good memory. Because in their prior encounter, they were thinking along the same lines:

Maybe this time they'll listen to their own enlightened musings, hmm? Though it's still a nice Stan Lee wrap-up, once more bringing to light things like understanding and the importance of not fearing that which is different. In addition, as he sets down his pencil as writer on this series, Lee closes the story with a characteristic sign-off to his readers, as well as to the four characters who have inspired his imagination for almost eleven years:

And onward we go.

Fantastic Four #125

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: John Costanza

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Actually, C.F., I think you're right. I haven't read this particular issue for twenty years or so, and it's actually pretty good. The art by John Buscema is fantastic, that guy was a master. But the basic message of the story is worth thinking about...we all do have a lot more in common with each other than we remember sometimes. A nice statement for Stan the Man to go out on.
Also, it's always cool to see the Thing threaten to clobber somebody! My favorite character! M.P.