They had done monsters; they had done aliens. What could Stan Lee and Jack Kirby offer in the third issue of their smash-hit new superhero comic?
Not a lot, as it turns out. This issue features a pedestrian villain called the Miracle Man (not Miracleman as we know him today – the former Marvelman of legendary lawsuit infamy who is now owned by Marvel anyway). He’s just an ordinary guy with fabulous powers of hypnosis, who convinces the world (it seems) that he has brought a giant model of a movie monster to life in order to wage war upon the entire human race.
Phew, what a loonie!
It seems clear that both creators knew their main story element wasn’t particularly strong (the Miracle Man never returned for a rematch) – so this issue included a whole bunch of features to distract readers from this perceived failing.
First was the cover strapline. Fantastic Four was now “The Greatest Comic Magazine in the World!” according to a banner above the logo. This would be adapted into “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine”, and would appear on the cover of almost every future edition of the title.
Next: gadgets! This issue introduced a load of ’em, starting with the Fantasticar – an airborne bathtub, capable of dividing into four separate sections to provide the team’s members with a way of carrying out swift reconnaissance (while, presumably, having a wash at the same time).
Also introduced were the Pogo Plane and the Fantasticopter, with more to follow. In the future we shall see whether any of them ever took flight.
All were housed in the third innovation in this ground-breaking issue – the FF’s “secret” headquarters. Secret? The identity of the Baxter Building as the team’s home and hideout was blown pretty quickly, but for this issue, at least, it was hidden from other tenants toiling below the top five floors of the tower.
Next came the FF’s brand-new uniforms: team seamstress Sue Storm stitches up a series of blue overalls with the number “4” emblazoned boldly on their chests – and the Thing rips his to shreds on its first outing, saying he needs to be able to move. He reappears later in what must be a duplicate, but the shirt, long trousers and helmet were not long for the comics world and he was set to spend the following half-century in nothing but a pair of blue shorts. Chilly!
Finally, this issue saw the arrival of the techno-jargon that would become a hallmark of 1960s Marvel. It seemed as though every title would introduce a new, bizarrely-named item. The “atomic tank” mentioned here is a remarkably low-key example – but was just a taste of what was to come.
The story begins at a theatre where the FF are singled out for attention by a stage illusionist calling himself “The Miracle Man”. He subjects them to ridicule – particularly the Thing, whose strength is mocked to the point where Ben’s temper snaps and he almost starts a fight.
Public humiliation of heroes as the starting-point for a story is a quite well-established plot device, used here for the first time in the Marvel Age – but certainly not for the last!
On the way home (in, yes, the airborne bathtub), Reed states that “It is fortunate for us, and for the world, that the Miracle Man is not a criminal! For if he were… he might be the one foe we could not defeat!”
Of course, Miracles is a criminal – although no motivation is given for his desire to conquer the world. Perhaps he was bullied as a kid… anyway, the next we see of him is on the televised premiere of a new movie, The Monster From Mars, at which he appears to bring a giant statue of the movies eponymous monster to life – and then magically teleport it away. He leaves a note: “I, the Miracle Man, declare war on the whole human race! I intend to conquer the Earth!” We’re talking serious psychosis here. He needs medical help!
There follow a series of encounters with the monster that end with the Torch melting him down into his component parts – plaster and wood – leaving Johnny asking: “How did the Miracle Man make him move? How?” It’s a good question – and one to which we don’t get an answer. Miracles appears to have tricked everybody, including TV audiences, into believing that the dummy could move, in order to distract them while he stole the atomic tank.
But its location does change, and the FF do interact with it. No explanation is given for this huge hole in the plot – we just scoot on at breakneck pace to the next problem: the tank.
Tracked to his hiding place by the Invisible Girl, Miracles hypnotises her into summoning the other team members so he can “defeat them forever – here and now!” There’s a fight (of course), and Miracles is defeated – by accident, when the Torch emits a blinding flash of light, erasing the villain’s hypnotic powers.
Reed delivers an explanation: “He is no miracle man! He has no magic powers! He is merely a clever hypnotist, a master of mass illusion!” But if that’s true, how did that monster statue move? And how did he convince everybody that he had brought it to life?
The story fails because it doesn’t make sense; it doesn’t provide an explanation for the events we are shown. It’s amazing that Stan and Jack got away with it! Perhaps readers in the 1960s were more forgiving than nowadays.
Or perhaps they were more interested in the story’s final revelation – an argument between the Torch and the Thing that results in Johnny quitting the team and flying off – another story element likely to become common in Marvel Comics.
As he flies away, Reed displays evidence that the Miracle Man isn’t the only basket case in this issue. Having prophetically displayed concern that Miracles might be a wrong ‘un earlier on, he closes out the issue by saying about the Torch: “What can we do if… if he should turn against us?!!”
Was Reed turning paranoid? Had he started seeing enemies in every dark corner?
That would have been a worthwhile line to pursue – but possibly a bit too heavy for Marvel’s audience of the time.
What would happen next? Would the Torch become the team’s next enemy? Would the Thing take control of his temper? Would Reed end up in a padded cell? And would Sue break out of the sexist pigeonhole she seemed to have been dropped into?
All of those questions would be answered in the next issue, along with one more: Whatever happened to the Sub-Mariner?