Having been told for so many years that the dawn of the Marvel Age of Comics was a renaissance of creativity in the comic industry, it came as a bit of a disappointment to see that Fantastic Four #1 was really just another monster comic, albeit with characters who were at least starting to behave like real human beings.
We see that writer/editor Stan Lee was still playing it safe with the second issue of his new toy. Having started out with monsters controlled by a human being, he moved on to aliens pretending to be human! Not much of a change, is it?
Still, baby steps can lead to great strides.
The story opens with a series of crimes apparently committed by the FF themselves. The Thing is seen attacking an oil rig; the Invisible Girl (as she was then known – those were sexist times) steals jewellery; the Human Torch melts a priceless statue and Mister Fantastic causes a citywide power cut.
Of course we quickly learn that the FF are being set up by a race of shape-changing alien goblins with deformed chins called the Skrulls. We know they’re aliens because their skin colour is a sickly pea-green. And they speak in pure exposition! Even though each of this group of alien infiltrators must know exactly how the others tricked the human population into believing they were members of the FF, using their powers to commit crime, they all go over it for the benefit of the reader. In terms of storytelling technique, these were still primitive times.
What of the Fantastics themselves? We catch up with them in a hunting lodge miles from anywhere, only able to find out about the impersonations from a radio news report. Typically, Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic) and Sue Storm (Invisible Girl) set about analysing the problem while Johnny Storm (Human Torch) says he’s not worried because Reed will figure out what to do.
Ben Grimm (the Thing) has a temper tantrum and breaks a window. That’s another count of criminal damage to go with all the similar felonies the FF caused in their premier issue.
It’s easy to see why Ben became the most popular character. He’s the liveliest of them – storming out to get some action while the others carry on talking. It gives Stan an opportunity to run a recap of the team’s origin from the previous issue (for latecomers) and to harp on about his guilt at being the cause of what they all consider to be Ben’s deformity.
Having set up the story so the authorities believe the FF responsible for the Skrulls’ crimes, story logic means there must be a confrontation with the police or army before the real villains are found – so Part Two: Prisoner of the Skrulls starts in formulaic fashion – with exactly that.
Except, there’s no actual fight. The FF (including Ben, who seems not to have gone very far) give themselves up and allow themselves to be imprisoned in cells specially designed to counteract their powers. Considering Ben’s short temper, this seems out-of-character for him; wouldn’t he be more likely to smash up a few tanks and run off into the woods to cause further havoc? It’s possible that this thought occurred to Stan, either at this point in the writing process or later, as he was soon to unveil a new character who would behave in exactly that way…
Of course, no cell is completely escape-proof and all four use their special powers to break out and escape. Of course they do – it wouldn’t be a superhero story if they didn’t.
Next we see more evidence that the FF must be rolling in money, because they make their way to one of their “many secret apartment hideouts”. How much does it cost them to keep these places up and running? The rent must be enormous!
Pausing only for another argument, the gang see a newspaper headline saying a new rocket is about to be launched (they were launching rockets willy-nilly in the early Marvel Universe so this should be no surprise) and conclude that their imitators must be planning to sabotage it. The Torch volunteers to head them off at the pass, pretending to attack it himself in the hope that he’ll attract the villains to him and away from the launch.
The plan succeeds, but – here’s a twist – instead of attacking him, two of the Skrulls pick him up in a car and drive him back to their base, thinking he’s their friend, the imposter. In a rare (for the early days) moment of realism, Stan throws a sense of suspicion into the dialogue: Johnny says, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were Susan Storm and Reed Richards, two of the Fantastic Four!” which is pretty dumb, considering he already knows these people are impersonating the FF. No wonder he gets the retort, “Well, that’s who we’re supposed to be, isn’t it?”
The gaff is well and truly blown in the very next panel – at Skrull HQ – when the boss takes just one look and explodes: “You fools! Why did you bring him? He is the real Human Torch!” It seems they don’t breed aliens to be clever.
There’s a good bit of action now: Johnny get to a window and sets off a flare gun, sending the “4” signal into the skies above the city (yet another crime? Or have they applied for a licence to set these things off?) to summon his friends. The Skrulls attack him but he seems to have them licked on his own – until his counterpart turns up and turns the tables.
The situation starts to look bad for Johnny – but at that moment, the Thing bursts through (characteristically) the wall. There’s another fight, but this one’s over pretty quick, as the Skrulls’ fake powers are no match for the FF’s genuine talents.
And that’s it, right? The aliens are vanquished and all’s well with the world? No! We’re only up to page 16!
It turns out the slime-coloured sneaks have been softening us up for a full-scale planetary invasion! That’s right! By concentrating on four (admittedly unique) individuals in a single city in the United States, and impersonating them in order to steal jewellery and destroy objets d’art, they were preparing to bring in the flying saucers, definite-kill cannons and u-bombs… Wait a minute! That makes no sense at all!
If they’ve got a whole space fleet out there, full of shape-changers, why not just infiltrate the whole planet, take over key political positions by stealth and then reveal themselves once they’re unassailable? Wouldn’t that be more logical?
Oh – they wanted to make sure the FF could not fight them “… for we know of your dread powers!” Hmm, not sure about that!
Even if the premise of the whole story hasn’t just been destroyed for you, the rest of the narrative becomes pure comedy anyway. The FF decide that turnaround is fair play – if the Skrulls thought they could impersonate the FF, the FF could flippin’ well impersonate the Skrulls.
They nip into the Skrulls’ handy space-hopper (disguised as a water tower atop the building they were using – Doctor Who‘s Tardis was not an original idea, it seems) and pop back up into outer space (what about all those nasty cosmic rays that nearly wiped them out just one issue ago? Oh, the Skrulls have better shielding? Okay, I’ll buy that) to confront the Skrull war chief…
… with images clipped from sister Marvel comics Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery!
Let’s be honest, this is a moment of self-reflexive, post-modern genius.
“Here are actual photos of what we would face if we invade Earth!” spouts Reed, showing him an image of some classic Kirby creatures. “These are some of Earth’s most powerful warriors!” He adds: “Earth has thousands of those hidden space mines which would destroy any invading army!” And the coup de grace: “Not to mention an army of giant monstrous insects ready to crush any alien invasion!”
“Incredible!” exclaims the war leader. “Unbelievable!” You said it, brother.
“We’ve got to leave this galaxy at once, before these terrifying creatures discover us!” he decides. That’s not good for Reed who, it seems, quite enjoys life on Earth. So he comes up with a quick plan: “We must stay behind and remove all evidence of our presence on Earth!”
For this “sacrifice”, the war leader gives him a medal!
The FF take their leave of the gullible Skrulls, and then – oh hey, remember those cosmic rays that didn’t seem to be working on the way up? Well, it seems they’ve switched right back on again for the way back – but they only affect the Thing, turning him back into boring ol’ human Ben Grimm.
There’s a good story reason for this: the team is still believed responsible for multiple acts of sabotage. The instant they land, the army surrounds them. Now, if Ben was still the Thing, there might be a massive fight in which innocent people were likely to be hurt. That possibility is negated by his reduction to human form.
It can’t last, of course. Reason prevails and the FF surrender again – although Reed demands that they return to captivity via his apartment because “it will explain everything that has happened”. With there being no narrative reason for him to remain in human form, Ben mutates back into the Thing. A future version of the character might greet this with the catchphrase, “Whatta revoltin’ development THIS is!” but that lovable blue-eyed boy was still a way in the future. This Ben was more prone to depression, as we see here.
Arriving at the apartment, the police open the door to be met by the Skrulls – in the form of monsters. This (again) makes no sense. Were they imprisoned in this place? How? As shape-changers, they could have slipped any bonds with ease, and there’s no reason to believe they couldn’t operate a door handle. Logically, they could have escaped and blended into the population at any time.
Still, it’s an opportunity for another conflict, and it’s not long before the FF overpower the greeny-meanies again. But now there’s a new question: what’s to be done with them?
Reed’s answer seems like genius – but is it? He decides they should shape change into cows – completely, which means they would lose their identity as Skrulls.
Problem solved, right? But what happens when someone drinks their milk?
That’s a question that would not be answered for more than 20 years.