Stan Lee and the Drama of the Visible Self
The Three Faces of Bob
The title character of Milligan’s and Fegredo’s Enigma is basically a postmodern riff on Pinocchio, trying to teach himself how to be a real boy by treating 1970s comics as an instruction manual, a guide for self-transformation into a metafictional superhero. As a model for humanity, these comics are clearly lacking. Small wonder Enigma’s story is one that only a cranky lizard could tell.
But what if his touchstone were the Marvel comics of the 1960s? What would Enigma have been like?
Fortunately, comics seem to hold all the answers to all the questions, even if the answers are not entirely satisfying. In this case, Paul Jenkins, Rick Veitch, and Jae Lee at Marvel created their own oblique response to a query that they themselves may never have intended to pose, when they developed a nearly omnipotent hero with dissociative identity disorder: The Sentry1.
Cover of Sentry, Volume 1, Issue 1
The Sentry debuted in the year 2000 as a massive retroactive change to Marvel’s continuity (a “retcon”). Sad sack Robert (“Bob”) Reynolds used to be the heroic Sentry, but no one remembers him. The Sentry’s archnemesis, the Void, turns out to be a separate personality inhabiting the Sentry’s body, and all knowledge of both the Sentry and the Void had been erased from the world’s memory in order to prevent Reynold’s dark side from bringing on Armageddon.
The Sentry shares part of its premise with Alan Moore’s revamp of Marvelman/Miracleman, whose main character was a middle-aged man who had forgotten that he could turn into a superhuman by saying a magic word. The original character, along with Moore’s take on it, was rooted in the Golden Age comics of the 1940s, but The Sentry was firmly entrenched in what Stan Lee liked to call the “Marvel Age” of comics: everything about the Sentry’s origins, not to mention his “forgotten” early adventures, was a pastiche of the company’s 1960s output.
From The Sentry, Volume 1, Issue 1
As a teenager, Bob was yet another variation on Peter Parker, a bullied high school student who couldn’t catch a break. That is, until he drank the mysterious Professor’s super-scientific formula, which transformed him into the hero with “the power of a million exploding suns.” Jenkins and Veitch had intended to use the Sentry as a super heroic Zelig with untold adventures from Marvel’s past (Veitch even developed costume designs to match each decade’s aesthetic). Arguably, the Sentry is one of many attempts at giving Marvel its own Superman, a proposition that is certainly justified by the hero’s power set. But even though Superman established the secret identity as a primary superhero trope, it would fall to Marvel to begin exploring the ramifications of the dual identity. The Sentry’s schizoid premise, his early costume, and his troubled attempts at balancing the human with the superhuman are twenty-first-century variations on a familiar set of Sixties themes.2
From The Sentry, Volume 2, Issue 8
Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and the other prime movers of early Marvel did more than simply “update” or “modernize” the superhero for the 1960s. They filled the pre-existing shell of the Golden Age superhero (extraordinary powers in most cases, the secret identity, and an origin story) with the content it had sorely lacked. Lee would tell future Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada the secret of the perfect Marvel hero:
“So imagine Spider-Man in his red and blue suit. And he’s at the precipice of a building. And he’s looking out at the cavernous city ahead of him. And the wind is blowing. Maybe there’s some rain coming down. He Thwips! his web, and he swings across the city... That’s a pretty good scene. Right, Joey?”
And I’m like, “Yeah. That’s a pretty good scene.”
Then he said, “But tell me who is inside that suit. Tell me who he loves. Tell me who loves him. Tell me what he does for a living. Tell me what his struggles are. Tell me what his pains are, what he dreams of. Now, when he Thwips! that web and jumps across the city, our hearts are inside that suit and they clutch. Because we’re either him, or we know somebody just like him.”(https://www.marvel.com/oral-history-marvel-knights)
Lee usually framed his lessons about Marvel in terms of character, in that character is more important than plot. But his phrasing in Quesada’s recollection of their conversation is much more revealing: “tell me who is inside that suit.” Lee and his collaborators usually gave their characters a self, a sense of an inner life. Part of the formula was to emphasize the hero’s real-life problems, but even that is result of a more important development: exploiting the possibilities of the “secret identity” concept in order to posit a troubled, conflicted, non-unitary self.
This divided, and therefore somewhat complex, self would often be developed through metaphors of reversible transformation (the Hulk, Thor), permanent monstrosity (the Thing), the destructive role the masked identity plays in the unmasked life (Spider-Man), or entrapment behind a mask or within a suit of armor (Iron Man, Dr. Doom). Early Marvel made the drama of often-divided selfhood visible, an understandable choice for depicting the abstract and ethereal within a pictorial medium. The Sentry extrapolates from early Marvel’s attention to divided selfhood by treating it as mental illness (itself a problematic endeavor, but we’ll let it pass for now). The Sentry and the Void not only threaten the integrity and sanity of Bob, the original personality, but their conflict is always on the verge of the apocalyptic.
The only solution available to the Sentry involves repression and invisibility: using superpowers to make the entire world, including Bob Reynolds, forget his existence. Just as the Marvel Age secret identity expresses self through metaphor, the Sentry’s hypnotic retcon of his own “continuity” shows repression to be more than self-denial: it is denial of self.
The Sentry comics also remind us of Stan Lee’s equation of self-expression with constant verbalization. The "Marvel method” he developed with his artistic collaborators meant that Lee, faced with fully-rendered pages, overlaid them with excessive, often superfluous words. Lee clearly did not trust his audience to understand what they were seeing, since his characters so often described the action around them in obsessive detail. It is fitting, then, that Lee devoted at least as much effort to explaining what the readers could not see: the inner states of his characters, usually expressed in melodramatic dialogue, if not monologue. The Sentry does not adopt Lee’s style (indeed, its second-person narration would only be used by some Marvel comics in the 1970s), but it still functions as a variation on the impulse to create monologues.
Finally, if obliquely, The Sentry gestures in the direction of one of early Marvel’s constant preoccupation: the nature and value of humanity. Where DC’s Superman rarely portrayed the Clark Kent/Superman dual identity as a question of psychology or subjectivity, Marvel used the contrast between the human and the superhuman as both a source of personal drama and a brief in favor of Western humanism. Just as Lee portrays the heroic costume as the fancy, attention-getting wrapping around the much more important “character” of the person behind the mask, the juxtaposition of human and superhuman, while obviously based on the fantastic appeal of enhanced abilities, led to repeated encomiums on the nobility of “man.”
The Sentry reminds us of this dynamic by serving as its demonic parody: in the potentially world-shattering psychodrama of Bob, the Sentry, and the Void, it is a race to the bottom rather than to the top. The Sentry is unstable, the Void is pure evil, but it is Bob Reynolds, later revealed to be a juvenile delinquent drug addict, who wins the prize for ignobility. As an adult, Bob is the hollowed-out shell of a man, all of his drives channeled into his endlessly battling superpowers selves.
The Sentry is the Marvel superhero as abject failure.
Words vs. Pictures
It is fitting that Bob Reynolds becomes the Sentry by stealing a secret formula that complicates his relation to reality, since The Sentry comics themselves are a deliberate adulteration of the superhero formula that made Marvel comics a success. But who developed the formula in the first place?
The history of North American comics can be seen as a struggle for primacy between writers and artists, with the writer/artist as the conscientious objector who wins by default. What I have in mind is not the relationships between individual writers and artists (though they certainly play a role). Rather, at issue is the extent to which it is the writer or the artist who drives public conversation about comics (not to mentions sales). In the Nineties, when a speculator’s market coincided with the rise of the artists who would go on to form Image Comics, it was the artist who dominated (look no further than this new company’s name). In the next decade, writers became the hit ticket (although there is a very strong argument to be made for the unfortunate primacy of editors at the Big Two companies, setting their line’s direction with or without writers’ consultation).
I have already begun making my case for the importance of Seventies writers in the introduction, and I will continue that argument in the next chapter. But it is in the 1960s that the writer/artist dynamic is particularly complex, wrapped up as it is in a basic question of authorship. Who really was the prime mover at Marvel, Stan Lee or Jack Kirby? This is a question with legal, financial and moral ramifications. Stan Lee was undoubtedly the impresario, both as Editor-in-Chief and writer of record for nearly all of Marvel’s output before Roy Thomas’ arrival in 1965, by which point the majority of Marvel’s most iconic characters had debuted. Whether or not one accepts the maxim that history is written by the victors, Marvel’s history was initially written by its editor; while Lee heaped praise on “Jolly Jack” Kirby and “Sturdy Steve” Ditko, two of his main collaborators, he never let readers doubt his own role as Marvel’s creative genius.
Though Lee would cease his regular scripting duties in the early 1970s, his name figured prominently on every Marvel publication. By contrast, Ditko left Marvel in 1966, while Kirby stayed on until 1970 (with a brief return from 1975-1980). Kirby’s contribution to Marvel’s creation was consistently downplayed, and his fight to have his original art return to him led to the receipt of only 88 out of 8,000 pages in 1984 (Howe). In later interviews, Kirby would claim that he was the primary creator of virtually all the characters he worked on, and that most of the plotting was done by him.
This is not the place to relitigate the Lee/Kirby conflict; it has been explored thoroughly and effectively in Charles Hatfield’s Hand of Fire, Mark Evanier’s Kirby: King of Comics, and Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, to name just three prominent examples. However, because of the emphasis this chapter places Lee, I feel obligated to state my own views on the matter: given all the evidence, Kirby’s case is much more compelling than Lee’s. Forced to choose between the two, I would have no trouble naming Kirby as the genius behind Marvel.
Nonetheless, Kirby was not the sole author. Even when the plots came from Kirby or Ditko, the words were Lee's. And, while their style may seem clumsy or overblown to later readers’ tastes, they were an essential part of the comics success. All in all, Marvel’s 1960s and 1970s output appears excessively wordy in comparison to current trends, but the evolution of comics writing is not merely a matter of taste. At least part of it can be traced to changes in the visual layout of the comics page, and the relative importance of words for following the action from one panel to the next.
In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud identifies six types of panel-to-panel transitions:
Understanding Comics, p. 70
Movement-to-movement: that is, panels that show different stages of an action in progress
Action-to-action: following a specific subject movie through a sequence of actions
Understanding Comics, p. 71
Subject-to-subject: the panels describe the same scene, but showing different elements or using different perspectives
Scene-to-scene: the panels move between different scenes in time or space (such as in a flashback)
Understanding Comics, p. 72
Aspect-to-aspect: the panels show different aspects of a single event occurring simultaneously
Non-sequitur: no logical connection between the panels can be inferred
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, even the most mainstream comics were moving away from caption-heavy pages and extensive word balloons (with X-Men scribe Chris Claremont always a notable holdout). Both captions and thought balloons have fallen out of favor, reducing nearly all language on the page to spoken dialogue in word balloons Three possible reasons suggest themselves: first, the rise of the writer/artist (such as Frank Miller); second, the successful writing careers of writers who started out as writer/artists (Brian Bendis, Ed Brubaker); and third, the decline in the “Marvel Method” of comics creation in favor of full scripts that are completed before the artist ever puts pencil to paper.
The trend has been towards greater cooperation between the writer and artist from the very beginning and a better understanding of page layout on the part of the writer. The comics pages tended to slow down their depiction of action, with a greater emphasis on aspect-to-aspect, subject-to-subject, and movement-to-movement transitions. When the resulting “decompressed storytelling” is seen as a flaw, the writer is usually blamed, but the writer is letting the artist slow down and use the visuals as the primary means by which the reader gets necessary information.
With the noteworthy exceptions of comics narrated by one of the characters (one of the few instances in which captions have not fallen out of favor), the written word in mainstream comics has shed most of its responsibility for helping the reader move from panel to panel.3 But getting to this point has been a long journey. If we look at a middle-of-the road Golden Age comic published by National (the precursor to DC), we find pages that veer closer to the model of the illustrated story. Picking up any Justice Society of America story from the 1940s, we see very abrupt transitions from panel to panel, with the captions and the explanation heavy-dialogue doing most of the heavy lifting. Later, Jack Kirby would be credited with making superhero comics feel kinetic rather than static; while this is primarily a function of his movement of bodies through the space of the panel, it is greatly assisted by panel layouts that flow far more smoothly than those of most of his predecessors.4
At the height of his work on Fantastic Four and Thor (the mid-1960s), Kirby produced dynamic comics that were a model of clarity: virtually any one of his pages could be understood without any words at all. His skill as a visual storyteller made all the action crystal clear. Lee’s tendency to underline some of the action by having his character describe it aloud was most likely predicated on a lack of trust in his readers, rather than in Kirby or the other pencilers with whom he worked. It would take decades, along with a recognition that the comics readership was skewing more and more adult, for superhero comics to let go of the habit of overexplanation.
Even if we acknowledge the superfluous description that mars his writing, Lee’s scripts brought something to the page that his artistic collaborators could not: a focus on character (as Lee would put it) or selfhood (as I would). Through dialogue and captions, Lee developed his heroes’ inner lives while Kirby and Ditko so dynamically represented their outward actions and conflict. The point is not that comics artists cannot represent inner states visually; some of the best pencillers of the past four decades are past masters at combining facial expressions, body language, and pacing to give the reader a highly developed sense of mood and emotion. But that is not what Kirby did; his range of facial expressions was narrow, his emphasis was on motion and dynamism, and his confidence that his inkers would preserve nuance in the finished art was justifiably low.5
Lee’s 1960s scripts tended to fulfill four primary functions:
Addressing the reader in second-person captions, as part of Lee’s skaz-based efforts at fostering a sense of community between creators and readers;
Enhancing or reinforcing the panel-to-panel flow with dialogue and captions that moved the reader along the page;
Explaining what is happening on the pages (whether it needed explanation or not);
Documenting and interrogating characters’ motivations, states of mind, and inner turmoil.
Given the looseness of the Marvel Method, we might even consider Lee’s words to be interpretive or exegetical, the verbal annotations of Kirby’s and Ditko’s visual art. Lee told his readers both how the characters felt, and how they should feel about what the characters did and felt. He was simulating the consciousness of his heroes while stimulating the consciousness of his readers.
But what, in this case, does consciousness mean? Later writers and artists, who had the tools and the leeway to produce consciousness effects that were more subtle and evocative, gave their readers a sense of an inner world more consistent with the theory of consciousness as an emergent property: inner states are inferred or presented through actions, fragmentary utterances, and facial expressions. For Lee, the only way to demonstrate an inner state was to move it into the outer world. Consciousness had to be narrated, with interiority expressed primarily through spoken and unspoken monologue.
Peter Parker and the Monologic Imagination
Nearly all the personas Stan Lee co-created were hyperverbal. Even the Incredible Hulk, who mysteriously lost his mastery of personal pronouns within a few years of his first appearance, never stops talking. They do not all put their prolixity to the same use, however. The aforementioned Hulk, while repeatedly lamenting that the “puny humans” won’t leave him alone, does not engage in a great deal of soul-searching. Susan Storm Richards, the Fantastic Four's Invisible Girl, labors under the narrative burden shouldered by so many female characters in mid-century pop adventure dramas: like the female companions in Doctor Who, she asks questions so that a male genius (Reed Richards, aka Mister Fantastic) can answer them. She is also a past master at simpering exclamations, her go-to phrase being, “Oh, Reed!” They also serve who only stand and emote.
While all the members of the Fantastic Four engage in both internal and external monologues at various points in their Lee-helmed careers, one of the advantages of a team book is the greater opportunity for dialogue. The more a character is isolated or alienated, the more central the role of the monologue. And of all the Lee/Kirby/Ditko heroes of the Marvel Age, who is more isolated or alienated than Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man?
Yet Peter Parker’s tendency to narrate his own inner conflicts is not just a function of his role as a solo hero, or even of Spider-Man’s perpetual unpopularity with the people he serves and protects. Rather, it has to do with the way in which he exemplifies Lee’s ethos of “real heroes with real problems.” Guilt-ridden after the death of his Uncle Ben, anxious about providing for his frail Aunt May (who seems to have one foot permanently planted at death’s door for over a decade), and torn by the incompatible duties of his dual identity, Spider-Man is profoundly neurotic. Small wonder that he is so proficient at the monologue; agonizing over virtually every choice he faces, Peter Parker would be the perfect Hamlet if one could only imagine a radioactive spider biting a Danish prince.
Amazing Spider-Man 7
At times, Peter’s propensity for monologue is transparently functional, such as when he spends three panels describing the improvements on his web-shooters before going into battle with the Vulture (Amazing Spider-Man 7 (1963)). And, of course, his entire public persona is built on Spider-Man’s capacity for endless jokes at his enemies’ expense. In fact, Spider-Man’s facility at trash-talking points the way towards understanding his use of language. Differentiating between speaking styles was never one of Lee’s hallmarks as a scriptwriter; his characters fell into particular verbal types: gruff men from the “street” (Ben Grimm); noble, god-like beings (the Silver Surfer); hipsters (Mary Jane Watson’s cringeworthy early dialogue); scientific explainers (Reed Richards); linguistically neutral heroes (Captain America); and generic women (Susan Storm Richards, Alicia Masters, Jane Foster). But Spider-Man does not talk exactly like Peter Parker; there is a continuity of concerns, certainly, but Peter Parker rarely displays Spider-Man’s cutting wit. When he becomes Spider-Man, Peter adopts a verbal mask to go with his spandex disguise.
This distinction between hero and civilian makes sense in the Marvel comic that does the most to explore the tensions surrounding the secret identity. One of the recurring themes in Spider-Man’s monologues is the burden of his double life, a burden made irreconcilable by Spider-Man’s original sin. In his origin story, Peter puts on the Spider-Man costume in an attempt to make money, and is so preoccupied that he can’t be bothered to stop a burglar running right past him. That burglar, of course, is the man who kills Ben Parker. From this point on, Peter will be wracked with guilt, but not just for his inadvertent role in his uncle’s death; the very act of taking on the identity of Spider-Man was tainted by selfishness. So now he must move in the opposite direction, performing heroics as Spider-Man to the detriment of his life as Peter Parker.6
As a result, his monologues are unusually meta, since their subject is his dual identity. Before Spider-Man, DC comics exploited some of the potential of its main characters’ double lives, but rarely for emotional reasons; instead, the secret became a useful cog in the mechanics of plot, with both villains and vixens trying to uncover the heroes’ civilian identity. The shenanigans that punctuated the Superman stories of the 1950s function according to a psychology that could only charitably be called childlike: Lois Lane would try to prove Clark Kent was Superman, Clark would trick her, and the story would end with Superman’s smug satisfaction at pulling one over on her yet again.7
Satisfaction is rarely part of Peter Parker’s emotional repertoire. His monologues are about suffering, guilt, and a pervasive sense of inadequacy. The paradigmatic storyline comes in issue 50, when Peter comes back to his apartment after yet another successful fight with the bad guys confronts him with his ungrateful public (“No matter what I do, half the population is scared stiff of me! —And the other half probably thingk I’m some kinda full-time nut!”). His roommate tells him that his Aunt May is ill. Peter then engages in the version of multi-tasking at which he excels: moving forward in space (on his motorcycle) while ruminating over his own guilty: “I just pray I’m not…too late! / Aunt May must have had another attack! / And I was too busy playing super-hero to be there when I should have!”) It turns out that May had been calling for him, but no one could find him (“If I’d been at home—like any other normal guy—they could have reached me fast! / But no—I was out…flexing my muscles…trying to help the very people who fear me!”)
Amazing Spider-Man 50
The rest of the day is a disaster for him. He barely passes an exam (in “science”), and his teacher reminds him that his grades are slipping. Gwen invites him to a party, but he has to beg off. At home, he turns on the television to see Jonah Jameson offering a one-thousand-dollar award for Spider-Man’s arrest and conviction. He clutches his head, with sweat pouring down his brow (this during a time when superheroes were rarely shown to sweat), as he appears to be assaulted by Jamesons’s accusations: the words ”Menace!” “Egomaniac!” “Public Enemy!” “Fraud!” and “Mentally Disturbed!” surround his head, most of them coming from Jameson’s tirade, though one (“Fraud”) was never specifically uttered by the editor. Showing Peter succumbing to internalized negative thoughts, the panel could be an illustration for a cognitive behavioral therapy textbook.
Amazing Spider-Man 50
Peter’s monologue continues in response:
“But…what if he’s right? How … can I have been so blind…never to have realized..???
“Perhaps…only a madman would do what I do…taking the risks…accepting the dangers…and…for what?!
“After all these years…it’s suddenly clear…I must be a glory-hungry fool…or worse!”
Now the scene shifts. Peter leaves his apartment, and finally stops speaking aloud. The monologue continues in thought balloons:
“Being Spider-Man has brought me nothing…but unhappiness!
“In order to satisfy my craving for excitement…I’ve jeopardized everything that really matters…
“Aunt May…my friends…the girls in my life…
“And… for what??
“Can I be sure my only motive was the conquest of crime?
“Or was it the heady thrill of battle…the precious taste of triumph…the paranoiac thirst for power which can never be quenched??
“May heaven forgive me…the more I think of it..the more I feel that Jameson was right?
“In which case…for the sake of my own sanity…
“There’s only one thing left to do…”
The next page is a full-page spread, a device usually reserved for important action scenes. But here it simply shows Peter with his back turned, walking away from a trash can in which he has dumped his costume:
“I was just a young, unthinking teenager… when I first became…Spider-Man…
“But the years have a way of slipping by…of changing the world about us…
“And ever boy…sooner or later…must put easy his toys…and become…a man!"
Amazing Spider-Man 50
Naturally, his resolve doesn’t even last the entire issue. He remembers his failure to save Uncle Ben, and vows to continue his heroic career, “no matter how great my personal sacrifice."
Decades later, it might be hard to see the value in a story that has now played itself out so many times as to become a cliché, and Lee’s melodramatic language doesn’t help.8 But this story, told in an anniversary issue (comics whose numbers end in 50 or 100 are usually treated as special events), privileges inner turmoil over external conflict. In doing so, however, it is merely highlighting the convergence of inner and outer drama that is the hallmark of 1960s Marvel.
When Peter goes outside during his crisis of conscience in issue 50, the caption reads: “Like a man in a trance, the heartsick youth leaves his apartment, trudging listlessly through the night…his thoughts as dark and stormy as the skies above him…”
It’s a cheap simile, as well as a predictable indulgence in the pathetic fallacy, but it also points to the main artistic device that allows Lee and his collaborators to convey interiority: using the external world and external action as a metaphor for the character’s inner state. In one of the most famous scenes in all of Marvel Comics, Lee and Ditko showcase the perfect physical metaphor for the burdens under which Peter Parker constantly labors. Aunt May is in the hospital, and it’s all Peter’s fault: “In some mysterious way,“ the doctor tells him, “Mrs. Parker absolved a radioactive particle into her blood! And we’re unable to get it out!” (Amazing Spider-Man 32) After one of Aunt May’s previous brushes with death (near death experiences being something of a full-time occupation for her), Peter saved her with a transfusion from his (spider-irradiated) blood. It’s a classic example of the “Parker luck”: Peter did the right thing, saved the day, and yet he’s still on the hook for making things worse.
Thanks to the magic of mad science, Spider-Man and part-time villainous Lizard Curt Connors have developed a serum to save her, but it’s been stolen. A fight with Doctor Octopus leaves Spider-Man trapped under tons of heavy debris from metal machinery, with the serum just out of reach. Not only that: the room is flooding, and if Spider-Man doesn’t free himself, he’ll drown. The issue ends on this cliffhanger, with nearly half of the following issue (33) devoted to Spider-Man’s efforts to escape. Over the course of five pages, Spider-Man strains under the weight, narrating his dilemma all along:
“If she—doesn’t make it— it’ll be my fault! Just the way I’ll always blame myself for what happened to Uncle Ben…”
“The Two people in all the world who’ve been kinder to me! I can’t fail again! It can’t happen a second time! I won’t let it—I won’t!
“No matter what the odds—no matter what the cost—I’ll get that serum to Aunt May! And maybe then I’ll no longer be haunted by the memory—of Uncle Ben!”
As he says all this, he is framed by yellow-tinted faces of May, unconscious in her bed, and Ben, looking down on him beatifically. Obviously, they are not really there; Ditko is doing visually what Lee is accomplishing verbally: getting us into Spider-Man’s head. The action of the next three pages is nothing but Spider-Man trying to stand up and lift the weight (“I must prove equal to the task—I must be worthy of that strength—/“—or else, I don’t deserve it!”). Again, the words are clumsy, but they make Ditko’s visual metaphor perfectly clear: Spider-Man is defined both by the heavy weight on his shoulders (figuratively, in the case of Aunt May, literally, in the case of the machinery), as well as by his determination to bear the burden and keep fighting. This is where my earlier, facetious comparison to Hamlet instructively breaks down: Peter may constantly bemoan his fate, but he is ultimately a man of action. A Marvel superhero can be troubled and neurotic, but he cannot be consistently tragic.
Amazing Spider-Man 33
After all, Peter Parker is Spider-Man, not Underground Man. The nameless protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864) is, like both Hamlet and the average Marvel superhero, intensely hyperverbal, accustomed to speaking at great length to no one in particular. While putting Spider-Man and his ilk on the same spectrum as some of the most ingeniously imagined heroes of world literature might seem like overreaching of exactly the sort that Stan Lee himself was famous for, I would like to stay with it for a moment. Not in order to make claims about quality or greatness, but to demonstrate two important characteristics of the Marvel hero.
First is the question of self-narration and audience. The underground man, Hamlet, and Spider-Man can serve as examples of the challenge of portraying individual subjectivity and the endless ratiocination of the conscious self across three different media: prose fiction, theater, and comics. In each, there is an element of artifice that must be overcome. Here Dostoevsky has it easiest, since we can imagine someone simply sitting in a dank cellar writing endless notes for no one to see. But the underground man is still obliged to dream up imaginary interlocutors, responding to the non-existent reactions of his non-existent readers or conversation partners. Hamlet has the opposite problem; as a character in the theater, he truly does have an audience who has actually paid money to hear him. But dramatic convention has it that he is speaking aloud so we can here him while at the same time unaware that we are present; in his own world, that of the stage, no one else can hear what he is saying, since his speech is only uttered for those who live off-stage. Spider-Man, as a comic book character, speaks aloud like Hamlet, except that we don’t actually “hear” him—we read him, as if we were the imagined readers who argue with the underground man.
The audience question is thoroughly embedded in the medium, in this case, the medium of comics. But the second issue is rooted in genre: superheroes are supposed to take action. Hamlet spends most of the play dithering, until Act V, which functions as an efficient narrative machine for the production of corpses. The underground man turns inaction into both an art form and a moral imperative. He is so preoccupied with his own consciousness that he finds any action next to impossible. He thinks so hard about deliberately bumping into a man he hates on the street that he finds himself swerving at the last possible moment. The underground man considers consciousness to be a disease, a term which makes sense in that he sees the problem as communicable. But when considered in isolation (and the underground man is definitely in isolation), it looks more like a disability. According to the underground man, the man of action charges forth without thinking, able to accomplish both great and terrible things because he is unburdened by consciousness. The conscious man is so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he can barely move.
Such paralysis is unthinkable for Spider-Man, at least for more than a page or two (Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck, however, will be another matter entirely.). The Sixties Marvel hero is meant to balance external action and an inner turmoil, and therefore becomes what neither Hamlet nor the underground man can ever be: a multitasker. Lee’s characters compulsively narrate everything: their thoughts, their fears, the actions they are currently performing, and the events taking place around them. Here genre and medium converge. The superhero drama’s action requirements, when combined with Lee’s focus on his characters’ inner lives, necessitate a strange kind of narrative economy, where fighting and fretting must share the same panel. Yet the ability to combine the two is made possible by the peculiarities of the comics medium. The reader controls the rate of movement across the page, allocating as much time as necessary to take in both the feelings and the fights. This is the same feature of comics that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons would exploit so effectively in Watchmen (1986), where multiple “voice-over” narrators develop plot lines parallel to the events in the panels. The device is roughly the same; the difference lies in the sophistication brought to bear.
The resemblance between the Marvel hero’s narrative monologue and the Shakespearean soliloquy thus involves not just artistry and audience, but a particular understanding of time. In their study of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Caryl Emerson and Robert Williams Oldani differentiate between two different times in the operatic libretto: aria and recitative:
Recitative is the dynamic, social and dialogic component; it knows real duration and expects a response “within the story” from those who hear it, or are implicated in it, on stage. Aria, on the other hand, stops or marks time: it is often a meditation sung to oneself, or to the audience, outside the public bounds of the story. Its relative autonomy is marked by decontextualization, melodiousness and rounded musical form. When “heard” at all by other onstage characters, aria is heard “as a song.” (Emerson & Oldani, Modest Musorgsky & Boris Godunov 193)
Lee’s monologuing heroes fall into neither category: time does not always stop for them as they are narrating aloud. Nor do they fit Thierry Groensteen’s category of the “reciter,” whose voice is usually heard in narrative captions (Comics and Narration, Chapter 5). They are obliged to function in two worlds at once, as part of the action in the “real time” of the comics narrative, and as the subjective narrator of events and emotion. Where prose can move seamlessly from one mode to the other, essentially pressing “pause” on the action while we hear the narrator’s thoughts, the visual component of comics makes such a pause difficult. As a result, Marvel Comics readers internalize a set of conventions that allow them to follow both action and monologue without constantly being reminded that the hero’s thought process represented during a fist-fight is not “realistic” (the same way people spontaneously breaking into song in a musical also defies “realism”).
This Man...This Monster
We should not be surprised that so much of Peter Parker’s internal (and external) monologue is about his secret identity. Not only is it the axis around which nearly all his problems revolve, it is also a clear metaphor for the very problem of interiority and representation: to what extent can or does one’s external presentation match with the self for which the body and costume serve as a calling card? Semiotics teaches us that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary, but that only really holds for systems that cannot be seen as products of any kind of intent (such as language). Masked superheroes are deliberately setting up a barrier between the self they perform and the self they see as true, natural, or essential. Small wonder that the anxious and neurotic Peter Parker feels the need to talk about his identities all the time.
Peter Parker is far from the only Marvel hero to suffer (out loud) because of his divided self. But he is one of the few for whom the secret identity as a problem is not compounded by disability, monstrosity, physical metamorphosis, or entrapment.9
Like Peter Parker, Tony Stark spends the entire 1960s maintaining the fiction that he and his super heroic alter ego (in this case, Iron Man), are two different people. But Stark’s vulnerabilities are of a different source. Where Peter Parker is constantly strapped for money, Tony Stark is fabulously wealthy. Where Parker has to pretend that he is in two places at once, photographing Spider-Man during his battles with supervillains, Stark is in the even more paradoxical position of pretending to be his own bodyguard (somehow, the fact that one usually expects to see a bodyguard standing next to the principal he guards is rarely an issue).
One of Parker’s moral strengths is that he has a good heart: he cares for the people around him, frets about those he can’t save, and metaphorically bleeds over the suffering he inadvertently causes. Stark, initially an industrialist and weapons manufacturer, becomes a hero because his heart is literally failing him: a piece of shrapnel lodged in his chest initially makes it impossible for him to live without being connected to his armor’s chest plate.
Spider-Man's dual identity entangles him in a web of conflicting obligations; Iron Man’s very existence is a trap. Tony Stark, the soft, chewy center encased within the Iron Man shell, is the inner self that cannot let itself by glimpsed behind the mask. Nor is he the only one to face such a dilemma; the Fantastic Four’s arch nemesis, Dr. Doom, could remove his armor whenever he likes, but if he does, he is confronted with the hideously scarred face that he hides from both the world and himself.
The Fantastic Four, in turn, include two members whose metaphorical portfolio also includes the drama of the interior and the exterior. Sue Storm Richards, so often an afterthought to her friends and enemies alike, possesses the deeply ironic power of invisibility. But it is Ben Grimm, transformed by cosmic rays into the orange, brick-bodied monster known as the Thing, who suffers from profound depression and fits of rage due to science fictional dysphoria: the body he presents to the world is not the self he knows himself to be. In the early comics, both his mental and physical states are bipolar: his occasional, often inexplicable reversions to his human form cause bouts of euphoria that inevitably turn to depressive rage when his monstrous body returns.10
The Thing’s ongoing trauma complicates the relationship between the internal and the external, in part because of the general metaphorical power of monstrosity, and in part because of the character’s context as member of a team. Taken together, the Fantastic Four lend themselves to interpretations that are obvious, but nonetheless valid. For example, they represent the four elements (Reed is water, Sue is air, Johnny is air, Ben is earth). But they also are yet another superheroic example of art (which is at least partly the product of intention) functioning differently from natural semiotic systems (which arise on their own): in their case, the relationship between signifier (outer experience/power set) and signified (inner self/character) is anything but arbitrary. Numerous stories have reimagined the Fantastic Four and their powers over the years, including:
Having entirely different people gaining their familiar power set from cosmic rays (including even Lee and Kirby themselves) (What If Volume 1, Issue 11)
Having Reed, Ben and Sue gain entirely different super powers (What If? Volume 1, Issue 6, 1977)
Having all four gain the same power (What If? Volume 2, Issue 11 1990)
Having them fail to gain superpowers at all (What If? Volume 1, Issue 36)
Having them lose control of their powers (What If? Volume 2, Issue 89)
Having Russian cosmonauts gain the FF’s powers (What If Volume 4)
An alternate universe in which Reed Richards becomes The Thing (first appearance, Fantastic Four Volume 1, Issue 118, 1972)
A storyline in which Sue and Johnny swap powers, and then the superpowers of all four teammates begin hopping from person to person all over New York City (Fantastic Four 520-524, 2005)
A storyline in which Doctor Doom tortures the Fantastic Four by swapping their powers (Reed’s stretching ability becomes medieval stretching torture for Johnny, Sue is on fire and feeling herself burn) (Fantastic Four volume 3, Issue 70 (2003)
The wrongness of these scenarios only reinforces the rightness of the original power set distribution. Johnny is the Human Torch because he is a hothead, Reed’s mind is as flexible as his body, Sue is always in danger of metaphorically fading into the background, and Ben is strong and prone to anger. Thus the external manifestation of their powers ultimately renders their inner selves visible and legible to the outside world. No wonder they have no secret identities—the Fantastic Four, more than nearly any other Marvel character, are always essentially themselves.11
But where does that leave Ben? Does the monstrous body of the Thing reveal or belie Ben Grimm’s inner self? Unsurprisingly, the answer seems to be: both. Perhaps the gruff exterior does not simply mask a softer, gentler self; it enables it by being protective.
Fantastic Four 51
The key text for understanding the Lee/Kirby Thing is “This Man…This Monster!” A stand-alone story published in the first volume’s fifty-first issue, its placement in the history of the Fantastic Four is significant. The splash page is introduced by Lee with characteristic bombast “Quite possibly, this may be one of the greatest illustrated pieces yet produced” by the team behind the Fantastic Four. This is no small claim, as this story comes on the heels of the famed “Galactus Trilogy,” one of the most acclaimed storylines of the 1960s, whose themes center on the contrast between the human and the sublime (more on this below). At their best, Lee and Kirby kept their work delicately balanced between the cosmic and the mundane, often alternating approach and subject matter in order to keep both in view (something we will see again when we turn to their work on Thor).
Virtually no attempt is made to connect this issue with the previous ones (though when we last saw the Thing in issue 50, a young woman had just run away from him in fear). The first caption on the first page of the story proper tells us that “Occasionally, a tale needs no introduction! This is just such a tale!” If it weren’t for Ben’s reference to Alice abandoning him, this would be a story that could take place at almost any point in the the Lee/Kirby run, because it focuses on Ben in his default, depressive state.12 It’s a rainy night, and Ben rejects the offer of a ride from a friendly police officer. He is approached by a stranger, whose bald, beetle-browed appearance is frankly more off-putting in a Fantastic Four comic than the Thing’s rocky orange exterior. The man is a scientist who “knows how it feels to be scorned by others—to be mocked and ridiculed—because of my theories!” The man (whose name we never learn) drugs Ben into unconsciousness, and then uses a mysterious device to turn himself into a perfect copy of the Thing, leaving a now-human Ben asleep on the couch.
Having practiced his imitation of Ben’s manner of speaking, the faux Thing arrives at the Baxter Building, but is almost immediately confronted by Ben Grimm. Reed and Sue are both taken aback, but decide that the human Ben must be the fake, since he would be easier to copy than the Thing. Ben storms off in a huff, and Reed tells the faux Thing that he trusts him with his life. Inexplicably, nobody bothers to follow up on the supposed imposter who somehow managed to make his way into the Baxter Building.13
Reed is about to make his first trip into “sub-space” (soon to be renamed the “Negative Zone”), and needs the Thing’s strength to hold on to the cable that will tether him to our world as he explores this other dimension. The false Thing agrees, since this will be his chance to do away with the scientist he has long envied and resented. Reed enters subspace, only to realize that he is in danger of annihilation if he continues towards an anti-matter version of Earth. He tugs on the cord, the “Thing” contemplates letting go, but has a change of heart. He pulls on the tether, only for it to snap—he waited too long, and now it is too taught. He grabs the end of the broken tether, leaps into subspace, joins Reed, and then uses his monstrous strength to throw Reed back to the portal leading to Earth. He dies, just at the moment that Ben was about to greet Alicia in his human form. Ben becomes the Thing again, and flees. Back at the Baxter Building, Reed, Sue are elated to find that Ben is still alive, and Reed delivers a eulogy to the mysterious man who saved him: “He paid the full price—and he paid it—like a man!”
One of the reasons this story works as well as it does is that it strips down all the characters to their absolute basics: Reed, Ben, and Sue are very much themselves.14 Or at least Ben was himself; now that he is divided, his selfhood is about to come into question. Reed, on the other hand, is the embodiment of unadulterated scientific curiosity, impatient to stretch into new frontiers (how appropriate, then, that his near downfall comes when the line holding him can stretch no further). Sue constantly expresses concern, questioning or exclaiming about Reed’s plans, but being brushed off at every turn; she never becomes invisible in this issue, but she might as well be inaudible.
Reed’s project also allows Lee to be Lee and Kirby to be Kirby. Because the entire adventure is based on complex interdimensional pseudoscience, Reed has every excuse to narrate like there’s no tomorrow (“I’ve done it! The universe seems to be tearing itself open—falling apart—! / “I’ve shredded the very fabric of infinity—where all positive matter is transposed into negative form! / “And now I’m plunging thru the resulting void which I’ve created in the space-time dimensional barrier!!”) Once across, Reed’s narration also tries to bear some of the burden of conveying the sublime (“It’s almost more than human eyes can bear!”), but really, that’s Kirby’s job. While Reed chatters nonstop, Kirby provides trippy cosmic backdrops that far exceed the bounds of conventional comics art.
As so often happened in the best Fantastic Four and Thor stories, Lee and Kirby succeed thanks to the ongoing dialectic of Lee’s humanism and Kirby’s cosmism (more on this below). In depicting the Negative Zone, Kirby has created a new site not just for this issue, but for countless FF adventures over the years to come. It is cosmic adventure as uncanny, anti-human trap: in the Negative Zone, all travelers are subject to the inexorable gravitational pull of the Earth, but an Earth that, rather than familiar and mundane, is lethal because it is composed of anti-matter. The only way out for Reed is literally in the hands of his best friend: human bonds can conquer cosmic terror.
Reed’s life is saved not by Ben, but by the unnamed, jealous scientist who has transformed his body into a copy of the Thing’s. And not just his body: he has also taught himself to talk like Ben. This is key not just to the plot (his disguise has to be a success), but to the comic’s reception by the reader. What, after all, is a comic book character as experience by a reader? A set of familiar images and an assortment of words uttered in a way that is consistent with our expectations of the character. For the comics reader, if it looks like Ben and talks like Ben, then it’s Ben. With one exception: we get to hear his thoughts, which are not initially phrased in Ben’s characteristic style. As readers, we know the contrast between the inner and outer selves of this particular character, but to Reed and Sue, everything about him, up through his sacrifice of his own life to save Reed’s, is utterly consistent with their understanding of their old friend.
So why does the imposter have a change of heart? In a way, that change of heart happened the moment he assumed the Thing’s form, in that he now has the Thing’s literal heart. But the transformation of his self lags behind the transformation of his body. Two things happen that cause him to forsake revenge in favor of heroism. First, he is treated by Reed and Sue exactly as they would treat Ben. Reed repeatedly affirms his confidence in Ben: “Have faith in me—as I have faith in Ben”; “Only Ben can do it!”; “Remember, Ben—don’t let go of that line! My life is in your hands!” Meanwhile, Sue is also relying on him, literally leaning on him for support before declaring that she is going into the Negative Zone after her husband.
Second, he is confronted with the truth about Reed Richards: his selfless pursuit of scientific knowledge is no act. Uncharacteristically, the false Thing’s thoughts are conveyed in something closer to Ben’s own idiom: “I always thought he was just a glamorpants—out for all the dough and glory he could get! But he’s tacklin’ a job that won’t net him a plugged nickel—/ and he’s doing it without any fanfare—or any publicity!” That is, it’s not exactly how Ben would talk, but it’s not the neutral language the antagonist had before his transformation. Becoming the Thing externally has already begun to alter him internally: the outer metamorphosis is accompanied by an alteration of his own subjectivity.
The false Thing is both a physical and ethical hybrid, neither the beetle-browned scientist nor Ben Grimm. At this point, the issue’s portentous title starts to take on new meaning: he is both man and monster, but not in the most obvious fashion. He was a monster before he became the Thing; now that he looks like a freak, internally he has become a man.15 This recapitulates the implicit logic of comicbook characterization, in that the readers meet the character as an image before learning about them as a self. Once the antagonist is drawn as the Thing, he starts assuming Ben’s ethics and moral code as his own.
“He’s tugging! All I gotta do is ignore him, and I’ll have beaten the one man I’ve always envied—the one man no one else could ever defeat!
“But—all of a sudden, I don’t envy him any more. I—I never knew how brave he was—how unselfish—!”
“All these years—when I thought I never go the breaks—now I know the truth! It was my fault—nobody else’s! I wouldn’t work hard enough—I would make the sacrifices that a Reed Richards would—!”
‘I never saw things so clear before! It—it’s almost like I've really become the Thing—not just an imitation!”
“I never did a worthwhile thing in my whole life!! But now—I’ve finally got the chance! I can really be Ben Grimm!”
Appropriately enough for a scene involving brute strength, the antagonist’s interior monologue does most of the heavy lifting for the story’s redemption arc. Otherwise, his newfound admiration for Reed is simply too sudden. Though he starts out laying out the logical case for changing his mind, his subsequent observation that “it’s almost like I’ve really become the Thing” and resolution to “really be Ben Grimm” are what sells the story. His physical transformation is also a psychological and emotional one. His decision to enter the Negative Zone, save Reed, and make peace with his impending demise are completely consistent with what we would expect of Ben Grimm himself.
Though the Thing might seem to be a freakish distortion of Ben’s essential self, it turns out that the opposite is true: the Thing’s rocky exterior can no longer serve as a sign of simple monstrosity. Inhabited for 50 issues by the reliably moral Ben Grimm, it has been so thoroughly imbued with his “Ben-ness” that, at least in this story, taking on his physical traits inevitably entails adopting his morals. Despite the emotional suffering his form causes him, there is no real gap between Ben Grimm and the Thing. What we see is what we get.
The Secret Identity and the Divided Self
In the Marvel Universe of the 1960s, the Thing is inevitably linked with the Hulk, usually in some sort of grudge match, but occasionally on the same side. This pairing is obvious according to superhero fan logic at its most basic: don’t we all want to know which one of them would win in a fight? But as satisfying as it might be to scratch this embarrassing itch, the connection between the two characters has to be based on more than simple fan service. Juxtaposing two characters who, on the (literal) surface have so much in common, only highlights the differences that define each of them. The Thing, for all his understandable lamenting over his cruel fate, is always Ben Grimm. The Hulk of the 1960s is captivating precisely because of his ongoing insistence that he is not Bruce Banner.16
When Bruce Banner is exposed to the energy released by his Gamma Bomb, the profound and periodic changes in his body are not at first accompanied by as stark a change in his mind. The initial series ran for only six issues before its cancellation (1963-1964); it was only after his appearance in the first two issues of The Avengers, his guest stints in Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man, and his earliest adventures in Tales to Astonish (staring with issue 60 in 1964) that he somehow lost the ability to use personal pronouns and express complex thoughts.17 After Hulk settles into his childlike, cognitively limited persona, and after the mechanism for transformation from Banner to Hulk has become firmly associated with a loss of temper (as opposed to the early issues, when Bruce became the Hulk at sundown), the comic has wholeheartedly adopted the Jekyll/Hyde model. The Hulk is not so much Bruce’s dark side, since he is not evil, as he is the embodiment of Bruce Banner’s suppressed rage.
Thus the Hulk, who constantly professes to “hate puny Banner,” is both Banner and not-Banner. But if he is a part of Banner, he is not merely Bruce Banner’s secret identity, initially unknown to those who would hunt him; he is the part of Bruce Banner that Bruce refuses to recognize as himself. The tensions between Ben Grimm and the Thing nearly always resolve in the recognition of common identity: Ben and the Thing are one persona, occasionally alternating external form. The case of the Hulk is the opposite; no matter how many times we see points of commonality between the two, Banner and Hulk are fundamentally antithetical identities, nearly always in conflict with each other. In some ways, the characters are closer to Spider-Man: Peter Parker is always more or less the same person, even when masked (though he does become more extroverted when his face is concealed); most of his woes arise from the very fact of being one self maintaining two identities. Bruce and the Hulk are two different people whose troubles at least in part stem from the fact that they are forced into a dissociative time-share. To the extent that Banner and the Hulk are distinct, they are at least consistent in their self-presentation: the Hulk’s body is an appropriate form for reflecting his inner rage, while Banner is every inch the wimpy, repressed egghead.
Lee and Kirby provide yet another example of the divided self in the ongoing adventures of Thor, God of Thunder, initially in the preexisting series Journey into Mystery, and then in his own title. American surgeon Donald Blake, while vacationing in Norway, falls victim to an attack by the Stone Men of Saturn (an uninteresting variation on the aliens and monsters Kirby and Lee had created in the years before the superhero revival). Trapped in a cave without his cane (Blake walks with a limp), he discovers a stick with strange markings indicating that whoever is worthy to hold it will possess the power of Thor. Blake strikes the ground with the stick, which turns into the mystic hammer Mjolnir and transforms him into the Mighty Thor. Thor makes short work of the Stone Men, and a new hero is born.
Or is he? The dual identity set-up seems cribbed from the original Captain Marvel (little Billy Bateson becomes the world’s mightiest mortal when he utters the word “Shazam!”), not to mention Captain Marvel, Jr. (who walks with crutches when he is not in superhuman form).18 The original Captain Marvel comics did little to exploit the potentially fascinating ramifications of a dual identity involving a child and an adult; the transformation was simply a useful device. Initially, the same might be said for Don Blake and Thor. Though we do get other elements of Norse mythology featuring in some of the early plots (starting with the introduction of Thor’s antagonist and adopted brother Loki), neither Thor not Blake are developed enough as personalities for the contrast between the two to be all that interesting. Instead, we have a very conventional set-up with Blake in love with his nurse, Jane Foster, and Jane infatuated with Thor.
The situation starts to become more complicated once Asgard and its godly inhabitants play a larger role. At that point, the division between Blake and Thor develops as a function of a much more visible evolution of the comic’s plots. Thor is a superhero, of course, but when we have epic battles between gods and monsters, are readers really clamoring to watch the god of thunder fight the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime? Or are such stories inherently more relatable than a re-enactment of Ragnarok?
As the series progresses, Asgard becomes a much more thoroughly realized place, with more and more adventures unfolding in this unearthly setting. Kirby’s art appears to grow the more he explores his mythological setting; even the panels start to get larger, with frequent full-page spreads showcasing the grandeur of Odin and his enemies. When read in quick succession, a given year’s issue of Thor gives the impression of an unresolved duality, with months-long space epics or mythological sagas punctuated by Thor’s earthly battles with conventional super villains. It is not Thor himself who changes as he moves between worlds, except when he assumes the form of Don Blake, a persona who remains underdeveloped for decades. Rather, the familiar contrast between civilian and heroic identities is shifted from the self to the story. The Thor/Blake binary is a device that points to a split between genres.
It is a split that also appears to mirror the conflicting priorities of the comic’s creative team: Lee’s humanism and Kirby’s mythologism. Throughout the 1960s, The Mighty Thor is the most comfortable vehicle for Kirby’s interest in the cosmic and the numinous, just a step away from his Fourth World stories at DC in the 1970s. Even when the comics are not about Asgard (but still not about street-level crime), The Mighty Thor tells tales of failed or successful transcendence, such as the conflict with the High Evolutionary. The High Evolutionary is a human scientist who transforms animals into humanoids, but by the end of his encounter with Thor, he has become a godlike being of pure consciousness. Kirby’s vision has little need for the mundane to ground it, whereas Lee’s impulse is generally to use the superhuman as a lens through which to view the human.
The comic’s generic hybrid status, its tensions between the godly and the human, comes to a head in Thor 136 (January 1967), when Odin finally relents and gives his blessing to his son’s marriage to Jane Foster. Thor uses the dimension-spanning powers of his hammer to transport them to Asgard, a process that leaves Jane overwhelmed. Asgard itself is also a shock to her earthly sensibilities. Making matters worse, Odin grants her immortality and the powers of a God. Technically, she can fly, but she is terrified and nearly plungers to her doom. When Odin arranges a test of her courage (can she face the “Unknown”?), she collapses in terror and demands to be restored to her former self. Odin sends her back to Earth with her memories erased, and sets her up to fall in love with Dr. Kincaid, a convenient Don Blake substitute.
This story serves as a resolution for a plot line that was clearly going nowhere (the Thor/Jane romance), but it also tips a heavy hand on the cosmic side of the scale. Thor still returns to Earth periodically, but now accompanied by Sif, a warrior maiden he knew in his youth, set in Thor’s path by Odin just as conveniently as Dr. Kincaid was set in Jane’s. In The Mighty Thor 139 (April 1967), the thunder god has lost his hammer, and is about to be turned back into Don Blake (Odin’s enchantment requires Thor to hold Mjolnir at all times; if it is out of his grasp for a minute or more, he reverts to human form). The only solution Thor can imagine is to die and be transported to Valhalla, but Sif saves the day: she just happens to have the power to move them between time and space, shunting them off to Asgard. Where Jane threatened to keep Thor earthbound, Sif is the perfect girlfriend: not only can she follow him from one world to another, she can take him back and forth unaided.19
Food of the Gods
The clearest, most concise statement of the Kirby/Lee dialectic of the human and the cosmic can be found in the Fantastic Four storyline usually referred to as “The Galactus Trilogy,” which ran in issues 48-50 of the Fantastic Four (1966). The title is something of a misnomer.20 Though it would later become a touchstone for the ever-widening scope of the Marvel universe and the more “cosmic” storylines of the 1970s, it could not have been conceived as anything more than a sequence of issues of the Fantastic Four. A modern reader encountering the trilogy for the first time might be nonplussed to discover that the first half of issue 48 is devoted to the partial resolution of a storyline involving the hidden super-powered race known as the Inhumans, who otherwise play no role in the story of Galactus. The final installment (the 50th issue) bears a cover that features the Silver Surfer, the herald of the world-eating Galactus whose betrayal of his master is a turning point in the plot. But the bottom corner shows a picture of the Human Torch in civilian garb, with the label, “AT LAST! THE HUMAN TORCH IN COLLEGE! DON’T MISS JOHNNY’S FIRST DAY!”.
Yet everything about the “Galactus Trilogy” that detracts from its trilogy status is an important part of the story’s overall point. The superfluity is the message.
The Galactus Trilogy is best understood not in isolation, but as part of a longer sequence of issues starting with number 44 (November 1965), continuing through the aforementioned “This Man…This Monster!” in Issue 51, the introduction of the Black Panther, the return of both the Silver Surfer and the Inhumans, and a battle with Dr. Doom (ending in Issue 60 (March 1967) . Even these parameters are unsatisfying, because the Fantastic Four of this era did not function according to the logic of serialization as it operates in comics today. As Charles Hatfield puts it, "The ‘trilogy,’ […] has none of the formal separateness or claims to historic importance that we might expect in the marketing of “event” series in today’s comic books. Rather, the operative mode is that of a soap opera.” “Soap opera” is a term often bandied about during discussions of Marvel comics, usually to highlight Marvel’s emphasis on interpersonal drama set against the backdrop of clashes with supervillains. Hatfield reminds us of the formal dimension of the “soap opera” comparison. If today’s editors want to make sure potential readers know when is a good time to start reading a series already in progress (such as Marvel’s “Point One” program, indicating that a particular issue is a good “jumping-on point), neither mid-1960s Marvel Comics nor televised soap operas wanted to give their audience an easy jumping off-point. Both recall the storytelling strategy of Scheherazade: hook your audience on a new plot before wrapping up the old one.
Maligned as it may be, the temporality of soap opera has one advantage over that of the stand-alone story, in that it has a greater resemblance to ordinary life. We all function in multiple “plot-lines” at the same time, with little opportunity to feel a sense of overall resolution. For those of a more theoretical bent, a stand-alone narrative fits a Freudian pattern of presence and absence: it is either there or it is not. Soap opera is more like the Deleuzian notion of “flow”: it is story as an ongoing process, with a tap that can turn it on or turn it off. Flows are messier, but this fits with one of the points made by mid-1960s Fantastic Four: humans are messier, too. And this is a mess to be celebrated.
For the Fantastic Four, who are essentially a family of adventurers there is no clear demarcation between personal life and superhero action, or even between one adventure and another. In the mid-60s, Lee and Kirby produce a run of Fantastic Four comics whose connections are less a matter of plot dynamics than they are of theme.
This is clearly the case when it comes to the placement of the Inhumans storyline right before the introduction of Galactus, and it is telling that, when Marvel Comics outsourced some of its most visible heroes for a reboot by Image in 1996, creators Brandon Choi and Jim Lee chose to connect the Inhumans and Galactus in terms of plot (the Inhumans worship Galactus and are awaiting his arrival). Thirty years after the original stories, comics readers had a reasonable expectation of greater narrative economy.
The Inhumans, a superpowered offshoot of humanity hiding in their Himalayan Great Refuge of Atillan, were a Kirby creation that he had hoped to feature in a stand-alone comic. Instead, they were introduced in Fantastic Four, with the result that their mythos is strongly intertwined with the Fantastic Four’s world. One of the Inhumans royal family, Medusa, had previously featured in the Fantastic Four as a member of their villainous counterparts, the Frightful Four. Indeed, she and the Frightful Four were the antagonists in the story immediately preceded the Inhumans’ debut. But in issue 44, she seeks her enemies’ protection from the mysterious Gorgon (another Inhuman). The legitimate King of Atillan and Medusa’s beloved, Black Bolt, has been overthrown by his evil brother, Maximus the Mad, and Medusa had run away in order to avoid a forced marriage to the usurper.
Naturally, the Fantastic Four get involved, but not before Johnny meets a mysterious, beautiful young woman named Crystal. She, too, is an Inhuman (in fact, she is Medusa’s sister), and they quickly fall in love. The stage is set for a story of star-crossed lovers, but the stakes are much higher. Just how capacious is the definition of humanity? Or, for that matter, inhumanity? In issue 46, Reed somehow grasps the truth about these strange people he has just encountered:
Reed: “I realize now that they are a slightly different type of life which evolved without mankind knowing it—and they’ve combined all their inhuman powers for their mutual safety.”
Sue: "Then Medusa wasn’t some sort of freak—but rather part of a strange unsuspected race!”
Johnny: “Nobody can tell me that Crystal isn’t as human as any of us!”
Reed’s speculation is quickly confirmed by the Inhuman Seeker who was responsible for capturing Medusa: “You who dwell here are all the same! You think you are the only race inhabiting this planet! You never suspect that another—more powerful species might share your planet with you!”
The Seeker, like most of the Inhumans, is invested in his people’s separate identity as a species, while Johnny sees Crystal as only a beautiful young woman. But, whether by plan, accident, or due to the limitations of Stan Lee’s facility with characterization, the Inhumans and their human visitors are animated by the same concerns. Beneath the grandeur of Atillan we have familiar human drama (frustrated love, overarching ambition, pride), while the human Fantastic Four are struggling with the competing demands of superheroic adventures and fragile human relationships. While on their jet, Ben mopes about his monstrous body and his concern for Alicia, Johnny whines about Crystal, and Sue, disappointed that her new husband “has hardly been acting like a honeymooner” decides that a new hairdo will remind Reed to be more affectionate.
Later, Reed makes his case to Black Bolt: “All we want is a chance to talk to you…to make you realize that you and your people belong in the world of men!” In the next issue, after Maximus’s baroque scheme to destroy humanity using vibrations fails, Medusa proclaims:
“Richards was right! We are not the natural enemies of the human race! We are not inhuman! We are the same as they!!!”
“For years we have hidden here, in the Great Refuge, thinking the humans would destroy us because we are a different race. But we are human, too! It is only our powers that are different!”
Maximus refuses to listen, and uses one of his weapons to enclose Atillan within a “negative zone” barrier that covers the Great Refuge in an opaque, impenetrable bubble. The Fantastic Four’s message of common humanity has been temporarily thwarted by a retrenchment into separatism, isolation, and a rejection of humanity itself. All of this causes great angst for Johnny, who can no longer be with his beloved Crystal, and will only be resolved when Black Bolt manages to destroy the barrier in Issue 59 (February 1967).
The Galactus Trilogy itself is bracketed by two homologous adventures in hidden, isolated lands; after Galactus has spared the planet, the Fantastic Four make their first visit to the superscientific, isolationist African paradise of Wakanda, home of the Black Panther. Wakanda had been at peace until a group of (white) invaders led by Ulysses Klaw killed the Black Panther’s father and tormented its people with ongoing attacks by mysterious sound-based creatures. This time, the Fantastic Four’s were invited guests rather than captives or attackers, and the aid and friendship they give to the Black Panther prompt him to look beyond his country’s borders: “I shall do it! I pledge my fortune, my very life—to the service of all mankind!” (Fantastic Four 53, October 1966). Just as Star Trek, the television series airing during the same years as this run of Fantastic Four, extolled the virtues of both humanity as a species and the common cause of peaceful peoples throughout the galaxy, so too does Fantastic Four reject the divisions between earth’s human and superhuman populations, along with the racial strife that denies common humanity.
Humanity itself is put to the test during the Galactus Trilogy, both as a species and as a way of existing in the world. The Watcher warns the Fantastic Four that the godlike Galactus is on his way to earth in order to consume it, preceded by his herald, the Silver Surfer. Over the equivalent of two issues spread out over three, our heroes confront the futility of trying to operate on a cosmic scale, while the Silver Surfer learns about the beauty of humanity. The Watcher leads the Human Torch on a scavenger hunt in Galactus’s ship, allowing him to find the Ultimate Nullifer, a weapon that frightens even Galactus. Galactus yields, swearing never to try to eat the Earth again (like many a dieter, he will waver frequently in his resolutions). Before leaving, Galactus punishes the Silver Surfer for his rebellion, banishing him to Earth.
The fight against Galactus is a confrontation between two incompatible scales of existence: the human and the cosmic. Long after Galactus’ introduction to the Marvel Universe, he will serve as a shorthand for heroes fighting out of their league; one might argue that pitting him against Dazzler (a disco-inspired hero who makes light shows) and Squirrel Girl (who talks to squirrels) reduces Galactus’s impact, but the opposite is also true: holding their own against Galactus elevates the undergo hero, if not to godliness, then at least to a more exalted heroic status.
Douglas Wolk cites the Galactus Trilogy as a “defining moment” for the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four, introducing the element of the sublime that would become essential to subsequent “cosmic” events. Once the Inhumans are dispensed with, Lee and Kirby switch the scene to outer space, introducing the Silver Surfer by showing the terror he inspires in the hearts of the Skrulls, an aggressive alien race introduced earlier in the series. Then we see the cities of New York coping poorly with the apocalyptic omens that the Surfer (for reasons that are not entirely clear) sets in motion (the sky appears to be on fire). The FF can do nothing about the problem in the heavens, so they immediately set about cleaning up the mess provoked on the earth below, calming and occasionally fighting New Yorkers who have run riot. Kirby spends an entire page on a thug punching the Thing (to no avail, of course), and then collapsing into unconsciousness when Ben flicks one of his stony fingers at him. It’s a small moment, but that is probably the point: this is the last time Ben’s physical violence is going to be effective before the story is over.
Indeed, the Fantastic Four cannot succeed in direct conflict with Galactus. As the world-devourer and the Watcher debate each other in a full-page spread on the second page of issue 49, Reed remarks: “See how he ignores us…as though we’re of no consequence!” Ben tries and fails to get Galactus’ attention, eventually punching him in the shin; Galactus responds with a smoke bomb that Reed calls “a type of cosmic insect repellant!” Johnny trains all his flame onto Galactus, prompting him to extinguish Johnny’s flame as he remakes, “You puny human gnats can be more annoying than I had supposed!” Reed is too smart to bother attacking, while Sue is typically too passive to do more than ask questions (“Can it really be? Does he actually mean to attack the entire human race?”)
In the absence of any hope of a successful straightforward confrontation with Galactus, the Fantastic Four instead indulge in the kind of conflict at which Lee excelled: petty interpersonal sniping. In issue 48, before Galactus arrives, Sue is miffed that Reed is ignoring her, in a scene that could easily have been avoided if he had bothered to take his wife and teammate into his confidence:
“What does Reed expect me to do while he locks himself in his lab for hours on end?
“The flames in the sky are gone! The danger seems to be over! You’d think he’d remember this wife!
“Even Mrs. Reed Richards might like to be taken out to dinner once in a while.”
“Well, I’ve no intention of being completely ignored while he juggles those test tubes of his for the rest of the night.
“Reed! Look at you! You haven’t even shaved! And you must be starved!”
“For the love of Pete, girl! Is that what you disturbed me for?”
“Disturbed you??! All I wanted was—Oh! He broke the connection!”
But the very next issue, Sue’s approach wins out. Johnny returns from his humiliating defeat by Galactus, covered in the soot that somehow has formed after his flame was extinguished. Once again, one of our heroes laments his insignificance: “I just realized how a mosquito must feel when someone swats it! Galactus made a monkey out of me!” For the record, this is already the fifth and sixth times the FF have been compared to animals and vermin in the seven pages since Galactus appeared (“gnats”; “insect repellant”; “insects”; “gnats”; “mosquito”; “monkey”). Sue’s response to Johnny is typically maternal (“In the meantime, why don’t you get cleaned up?), but it is a sentiment shared by Ben and Reed. In the next panel, Johnny walks in on his two teammates in the bathroom (probably the first bathroom scene in Marvel Comics history). Ben is in the tub while a shirtless Reed shaves:
Johnny: “What’s with you guys?? Galactus is planning to tear our planet apart, and you’re makin’ like a TV shaving commercial!!!”
Ben: “Relax, Johnny! We been tryin’ to cook up a plan!”
Reed: “No harm in tidying up while we’re thinking, is there, lad? You could use a shower yourself!"
Reed has made a complete reversal from his unshaven, disheveled hermit’s desperation in the previous issue, and for good reason: in the absence of the raw power needed to defeat Galactus, these issues demonstrate that the only weapon in their possession (so far) is their basic, prosaic humanity.
This single page of grooming is followed by eight pages devoted to eating, using the contrast between the food habits of cosmic beings and the culinary rituals of ordinary humans as the lynchpin for the story’s argument about the value of humanity. Thanks to the power of comic book coincidence, the Silver Surfer, knocked off the roof of a building by the Thing in a previous issue, has fallen through a skylight into the apartment of none other than Alicia Masters, Ben Grimm’s blind sculptress girlfriend.
Alicia typically plays a similar role to Sue Richards—asking questions, emoting, and occasionally needing to be rescued—but her “superpower” is the perfect complement to that of the Fantastic Four’s sole female member. Where Sue can turn invisible, Alicia is blind, but in the quasi-mystical way that this disability is so often utilized in popular narrative: unable to perceive the visual spectrum, she nonetheless “sees” essential truths better than those without visual impairment. It’s a cliché, of course, and deeply offensive to real people with real disabilities, but it is a trope that serves double duty. First, it enables Lee’s worst narrating habits, providing yet another reason for a character to verbalize what is happening right before the reader’s eyes. Second, her insights spark a crucial transformation in the Silver Surfer.
Alicia spend much of page 7 telling readers how they are supposed to feel about this mysterious new character:
Alicia: “I’ve never heard anyone speak so…so strangely! And yet, there is a certain nobility in your voice!”
Surfer: “Nobility? The word has no meaning to me!”
Alicia: “Your face! Never have I sensed such unimaginable loneliness in a living being!”
Flustered, Alicia tries playing hostess:
Alicia: “Perhaps you are hungry? Let me give you something to eat, while I try to understand what you’ve been saying.”
Surfer: “Hungry? Eat? Can it be that you actually consume these foreign morsels?
“Galactus is right! The mysteries of the universe are truly without limit!”
While the Surfer contemplates the enigma of mid-afternoon tea, his master decides to serve himself. The last panel of page 7 is a picture of Alicia setting the table, while the first panel of page 8 show Galactus assembling a giant machine on top of the Baxter Building in order to turn the earth into his next meal: “Soon my preparations will be completed…. / And then the planet will furnish me with all the energy I need…until I have stripped it of everything!” Over the next two pages, the Watcher shows the Fantastic Four the fate that awaits their world. Galactus’s “elemental converter” will convert the oceans into “pure energy”, whereupon its ray will “reduce the entire globe to a lifeless, empty husk.”
Meanwhile, the Surfer is already consuming a similar feast, but on a much smaller scale:
“The process you call eating is far too wasteful!
“How much simpler it is to cover all those items into pure energy! For energy alone is…power!”
“And the objects in this room…pictures, bits of sculpture, decorations…they are all wasteful!
“Before the great Galactus is done, everything shall be reduced to sheer energy!”
The problem here is not that the Surfer is wrong, but rather that he misses the point entirely. Reducing everything to energy is efficient, but it also negates specificity, context, and pleasure. The only difference between the Surfer’s reduction of the food to energy and taking a gourmet meal and flushing it directly down the toilet is that the latter provides no caloric content. The Silver Surfer, and by extension, Galactus, are the epitome of the impulse to cut to the chase: why have matter when you can have energy? Why have the moment, when you can jump to the end point? And why have pleasure, when it is fundamentally irrelevant? The entire material world is reduced to an object of digestion.
It is telling that among the many objects the Surfer atomizes are Alicia’s sculptures: the Surfer’s world view has no room for art, or, indeed, for aesthetics of any kind.21 Alicia accuses the Silver Surfer of intending to destroy the earth, to which he responds: “Destroy is merely a word! We simply change things! We change elements into energy…the energy which sustains Galactus! For it is only he that matters!” Alicia’s protest is based on ownership ("This is our world! Ours!”) and emotion:
“Perhaps we are not as powerful as your Galactus…but we have hearts…we have souls…we live/..breathe…feel! Can’t you see that?? Are you as blind as I?”
Overcome by “this strange feeling… this new emotion…”, the Silver Surfer comes to a revelation: “At last I now…beauty!"
Alicia implores the Surfer to look out the window at the city below them: “Look at the people! Each of them is entitled to life…to happiness…each of them is…human!”
Surfer: “Human? What can that word mean to me?
“And yet, never have I beheld a species from such close range! Never have I ever felt this new sensation…this thing some call…pity!”
Lee’s incessant abuse of ellipses is Shatneresque, and Surfer’s transformation is given barely more than a page to unfold, but the basic argument is a more flowery corollary to the earlier Fantastic Four bathroom scene: the cosmic scale of godlike beings threatens to completely eclipse our own ordinary world (indeed, to swallow it whole), but the mere fact of the sublime must not be permitted to negate the mundane.22 The Lee/Kirby formula of Marvel comics is a delicate balance between the super and the human, with both aspects proving essential to the line’s success. The Galactus Trilogy, by confronting our fantastic heroes with a far more fantastic adversary, doubles down on the human in order to serve as Marvel Comics’ implicit thesis statement: Marvel functions best when it finds the balance between the prosaic and the extraordinary, between interiority and action, between the human and the superhuman.
If any story has earned the right to be resolved by a deus ex machina, the Galactus Trilogy is it. The storyline would lose its focus if the Fantastic Four could, on their own, prove to be credible opponents to a god from outer space. The Watcher, who functions on the same level of Galactus, sends Johnny on a hallucinatory journey through space, guiding him to Galactus’s ship so that he can steal a weapon. The Human Torch is out of his depth; when he returns, all he can tell his teammates is “I travelled through worlds…so big…so big…there…there aren’t any words!” Followed by the inevitable vermin metaphor: “We’re like ants…just ants!…ants!!” Following on the heels of the Silver Surfer’s own conversion to melodramatic humanism, it’s a statement that could be a step backwards. But the weapon Johnny brings back works by placing Galactus in the same position he has put humanity. Reed threatens his opponent with the “ultimate nullifier,” which makes Galactus recoil in terror:
“In the name of the eternal cosmos…put it down!! Your feeble mind cannot begin to comprehend its power!! You hold the means to destroy a galaxy…to lay waste to a universe!”
Now that Galactus faces the prospect of nullification, his insults take an intriguing metaphorical turn. He tells the Watcher “You have given a match to a child who lives in a tinderbox!” His rhetoric is still insulting, true, but a child is several steps above vermin and animals, and has the potential to mature into an adult. Which is the point the Watcher is trying to make: give humanity time to grow and evolve.
Like so many other aspects of 1960s Marvel Comics, the preoccupation with humanity now looks dated. But that is precisely the point: postwar American popular culture continually reasserted a naive humanism as a response to forces that, like Galactus, seemed horrifically indifferent to emotion, individuality, and life itself, from nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction to increasing bureaucracy and the advent of computers (a technology feared as widely as it was misunderstood). Whatever “human” was supposed to mean, it was under constant threat of metaphorical and literal extinction.
Science fiction (a genre from which Marvel Comics borrowed indiscriminately) was uniquely suited to playing out the drama of beset humanity, not only because it allowed the literal destruction of humanity to be part of a compelling narrative, but because it offered a possibility that “real life” does not: comparing humanity to some other form of sentience. On a literal level, there could be something underwhelming about affirming the choice to be human: as of 2020, earth people don’t have any other option. In science fiction and fantasy, alternatives abound. Humans encounter aliens, androids, elves, and orcs on a regular basis. By the 1980s, Jack Chalker would turn the transformation of humans into an almost endless variety of proudly alien species the big draw of his multivolume Well World series, and by the turn of the century, Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s comic series Transmetropolitian would feature humans who sought out alien DNA in order to become human/alien hybrids.
But human/alien encounters in popular science fiction of the 1960s (as opposed to the more cerebral and experimental works of what was then called the New Wave) still unfolded in the shadow of Golden Age science fiction editor John W. Campbell’s humanist challenge (“Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man”). Star Trek had the humanist approach to aliens down pat: Spock was the original series’ most fascinating character, but episode after episode reminded him and the viewers that being human was truly the highest value.
In the Marvel Comics of the same era, humanism and interiority were two sides of the same coin. The superpowered characters were made relatable to the extent that they had the same problems as ordinary humans, as demonstrated most effectively through interior and exterior monologue, emotionally-saturated narrative captions, and equally emotional interpersonal dialogue. Being human for the characters scripted by Stan Lee meant being messy and contradictory, ordinary as well as heroic. No matter how great their powers, the viewpoint characters (Thor as opposed to Odin, for example) had to be grounded, as though their fantastic exploits and amazing abilities needed the ballast of everyday humanity in order to keep the characters from floating too far away from the implied reader’s concerns.
In the 1970s, the emphasis on interiority would only increase, but the question of humanism would be asked and answered differently. At times the answers would be more cynical or jaded (Gerber), and at times they would constitute a call for transcendence (Englehart). Of all the writers examined here, only McGregor, with his heroic romanticism, would stay within Lee’s humanist framework. But nearly all of them learned the overall lesson of Lee’s emphasis on the characters’ inner life while improving on or simply rejecting his techniques for bringing the inner life into focus.
Veitch was instrumental in the early phases of the character’s creation, but was not part of the project when it was finally released. ↩
In the second Sentry miniseries (2006), however, writer Jenkins reveals that young Bob was no innocent. A drug addict looking to get high, he stole the formula that gave him superpowers. In other words, the Sentry went from a Sixties character to an Eighties character.↩
This is not necessarily the case in “art” comics or “indy” comics, particularly those that have come in for high praise outside the comics world. Both Lynda Barry (One! Hundred! Demons!) and Alison Bechdel (Fun Home) produce work that often reads as a hybrid of comics and illustrated stories; the narrative through line is carried by the words more than by the transition from panel to panel. ↩
The obvious exception here is Will Eisner, whose weekly comic, The Spirit, was a masterpiece of layout that emphasized movement-to-movement, aspect-to-aspect, and action-to-action transitions. It would take decades for Eisner’s influence to be truly assimilated by subsequent superhero artists, most notably Frank Miller. ↩
It should also be noted that the printing processes, color palette, and paper stock for comics in the 1960s and 1970s were of a much lower quality than the standards that obtain today. ↩
The exception here would be the money he makes photographing Spider-Man for The Daily Bugle, but this never brings him prosperity, and serves as a vehicle for his ongoing suffering at the hands of tyrannical editor J. Jonah Jameson. ↩
Nor does his vocabulary. In what way is a “thirst for power” “paranoiac”?↩
Disability and disfigurement in superhero narratives are the subject of Jose Alaniz’s excellent study, Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond.↩
For more on Ben Grimm’s bouts of hostility towards his comrades, see Alaniz, Chapter 3.↩
The connection between internal and external works both ways, particular in Sue’s case. Early in her career, she develops the power to project invisible force fields; this fits comfortably in the conventional gendering of the Invisible Girl as a passive, defensive character. Later writers, starting with John Byrne, start to deploy her force field power more creatively and aggressively: as a construct of invisible force, it can be quite destructive. Once Sue is possessed by the evil entity known as Malice, the spikes she wears on her collar are matched by the spikes (and potentially deadly) force fields she sometimes projects. The general trend in the past three decades to make Sue a more assertive and complex character are both dependent on new applications of her power and also symbolized by such applications. ↩
Of course, Alicia has done no such thing. Ben has completely misinterpreted Alicia’s concern for the Silver Surfer. ↩
Nor are we told how Ben, now in human form and wearing borrowed clothes, managed to gain access to the FF headquarters. Is it too late for me to ask for a no-prize? ↩
] Johnny, who has just started college, gets a three-page scene in which, separated from the rest of the team, he doesn’t act much like himself at all. Continually provoked by loudmouth students, Johnny is doing his best not to get into a fight and not to show off. ↩
Here I choose to be charitable and assume that Lee is using “man” in the old-fashioned sense of “generic human,” rather than a paragon of masculine virtue. In a pinch, however, both work. ↩
The Hulk/Banner relationship has taken multiple twists and turns in the nearly 60 years since the characters were created, ranging from fusing the two into one personality, adding additional Hulk personas, and revealing that the Hulk is the manifestation of Banner’s pre-existing identity issues resulting from abuse at the hands of his father. Since this chapter is about the 1960s, none of these later permutations is relevant here. ↩
According to Wikipedia, Tales to Astonish 54 (February 1965) was the last time Hulk spoke in complete sentences. This is accurate concerning the “classic” Hulk, but not some of his subsequent iterations. ↩
As Alaniz puts it, "“Blake and Thor by definition cannot coexist; each succeeds the other in a binary economy of opposing body types."↩
Later writers will complicate this scenario. Sif restores Jane from the brink of death by giving the human her godly life essence. Sif disappears, replaced by Jane. Eventually, the situation is reversed, and Sif takes Jane’s place. Years later, they will be separated, and eventually, Jane will even become the new Thor for a period of several years. ↩
Here I concur with Charles Hatfield, author of the definitive monograph on Kirby, Hand of Fire. Hatfield writes: "Tellingly, it isn’t so much a cohesive trilogy as three months’ worth of issues placed within a larger continuity. Fantastic Four #48 actually begins with the resolution of the Inhumans storyline launched several issues earlier, while #50, though titled “The Startling Saga of the Silver Surfer,” resolves the threat of Galactus halfway through, quickly ushers off the Surfer, and then concentrates on domestic happenings in the lives of the FF”↩
Why read a comic when you can read the Wikipedia summary ?↩
How appropriate, then, that the Silver Surfer’s next appearance will have him escaping from Galactus by shrinking to subatomic size. ↩