continued, and concluded, from here:
Perhaps the most radical aspect of 1961’s Fantastic Four #1 was the way in which the comic’s super-villain was framed as even more of a victim than a menace. Rejected and mocked by American society for his looks, the Mole Man’s assaults upon the USA carry with them the air of tilts against an evil empire. If he is clearly presented as a miscreant who needs to be stopped, the Mole Man also stands as an implicit criticism of Western culture. In its obsession with beauty rather than morality, with status rather than competence, America is ultimately the source of all evil in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s epochal tale.
Even now it seems remarkable that Lee and Kirby also showed the Fantastic Four themselves as being regarded with fear and detestation when they finally broke free of cover and appeared in the streets of Central City. To be different is to be dreaded, shunned, scorned, attacked: this is a truth that Fantastic Four #1 absolutely takes for granted. In the context of the age, it was a truly challenging assertion. That the Mole Man had opted to steal atomic power plants and the Fantastic Four had chosen to stop him wasn’t an illustration of a conflict between traditional comicbook depictions of “good” and “evil”. Between light and darkness didn’t wait a terrified, benevolent society dedicated to unadulterated good. Instead, both the Fantastic Four and the Mole Man were outcasts, casualties of a fundamentally unfair social system. The Mole Man chose to accept the logic of America’s underlying value system and pursue his self-interest without reference to any cant about the Republic’s virtuousness. In essence, he learned how to treat human beings as human beings had treated him. In a similarly unconventional twist, the Fantastic Four decided to protect the very same society not because it was inherently just, as it would have been portrayed in the likes of Superman or Batman, but because the greater good demanded it. In essence, the Fantastic Four’s heroism was grounded in the rejection of taken-for-granted norms. They chose to defend a society which had rejected them. For the Mole Man, Reed Richards and his colleagues held a genuine kind of pity. If he was clearly a danger of some considerable magnitude, he was also a product at least in part of the cruelly excluding society he was born into.
In short, there are no easy answers in that first Fantastic Four tale. Set in a meaningless existence in which human beings are forced, in the absence of any absolute authority, to negotiate their own standards of right and wrong, Lee and Kirby’s tale suggests that virtue is subjective and empathy a necessary component of any moral judgment. Without that, neither the Fantastic Four or its readers can truly understand the Mole Man’s actions or even begin to pass judgement on what his punishment ought to be. Indeed, does he even require punishment in any traditional sense of the word? At the tale’s end, the Mole Man is by accident trapped in his underworld kingdom and Reed Richards appears to believe that that is sentence enough, declaring, “There was no place for him in our world … Perhaps he’ll find peace down there”. It is a remarkable sentiment, which throws responsibility back at the very place and people that the Fantastic Four were seeking to defend, and which expresses a profound sympathy for the tale’s nominal antagonist.
There are no heroes and villains in Fantastic Four #1 as there had been in the vast majority of superhero tales before it. There is instead a godless universe, a corrupt society and the monsters who either opt to protect or prey upon humanity. Even for those who plump for the first option, there is no guarantee that their sacrifices will be either recognised or rewarded. In the classic-model Marvel tale, it is often the truth that Doing The Right Thing comes at considerable cost. Ostracism rather than ticker-tape parades is the return that superheroes must learn to expect.
Marvel’s initial storytelling choices put it on a collision course with reactionary beliefs about how right and wrong should be presented. To sympathise with The Other is by the very exercise of empathy to stand in opposition to those who’d reduce the world to Them and Us, wherever they may place themselves on the political spectrum. It was in this uncertain space, in which morality was complex and society dangerously flawed, that Marvel’s characteristic quality of angstful storytelling flourished. For the misery and befuddlement that a typical Marvel lead suffered was rooted in two levels of conflict. The first was the obvious, immediate conflicts presented by the plot, the soap-opera and the heroic melodrama. But the second level was ethical and, by implication, political, and whenever the personal and the social lined up, Marvel’s comics could appear remarkably intense and questioning. By contrast, when soap opera was played solely for the sake of soap opera, then the result was frequently tedious.
In short, angst in the best of Marvel Comics wasn’t simply about the suffering of individual characters. It was rooted in questions of fairness, of the relationship between private need and public reward, between the world as it’s experienced and the meanings that are imposed upon that. Key to that was a system of conflicts in which the super-villain was only part of the challenge facing the superhero. Antagonists could be defeated, if only temporarily, but society’s failings were in essence permanent. (The very fact that super-villains nearly always returned and returned again worked to underscore that something is profoundly wrong with a system that continually throws up the same confrontations and debates over and over again.)
This is an ideal, and idealised, reading of what made the Marvel Revolution so enjoyable and successful. Of course it is. And like all ideal types, individual examples can only ever be more or less like the qualities being listed. What’s more, I’d certainly agree that there are very well-regarded Marvel tales from the period which only vaguely match up with the above criteria. But in my defence, they do tend to be stories told by storytelling giants, such as Kirby and Lee’s Nazi-fighting Captain America tales from Tales To Suspense, in which a World Two setting is used to play out tales of absolute good and evil. I’d argue that those are exceptions rather than the rule, and that any creators seeking to channel those particular examples of Marvel’s Sixties strengths need to be able to match Kirby’s genius. Because it’s only Kirby that elevates those deliberately nostalgic tales of Captain America taking on Hitler, as he brilliantly did. In the absence of such genius, a more subtle grasp of Marvel’s typical practise would most probably be the most sensible way forward. (Some of Steranko’s more straight-forward SHIELD tales would fall into the same category, being visually thrilling even when fundamentally traditional at heart.)
So how did the creators of Phoenix: Man Of Tomorrow #1 portray the conflict between protagonist and antagonist in their comic’s pages? It seems absolutely obvious, as we’ve discussed, that Phoenix was intended to capture a significant degree of Marvel’s traditional approach to character and competition. And so, Ed Tyler is an angstful character with an exaggerated sense of his own worth given to vainglorious declarations of defiance. Those qualities sound as if they would be perfect for a Marvel anti-hero, but Phoenix wasn’t presented as such. Instead, Tyler was front and centre a traditional superbloke, completely in the right and absolutely to be trusted. And after the same fashion, his alien opponents were painted as Tyler’s moral and physical opposite: analytical rather than passionate, manipulative rather than straight-shooting, furtive rather than public. In Phoenix’s pages, this conflict between undiluted good and evil produces an unconvincing excess of teeth-grinding and brow-furrowing, of declarations of undying effort and laments for comforts lost. But none of it convinces, because none of it is earned on anything other than a facile level. If, as discussed before, Phoenix’s opponents fail as Silver Age super-baddies, lacking in visual appeal and individual distinctiveness, they also fail as protagonists in the tradition of the Marvel Revolution. They say nothing about anything beyond this party being admirable and this party very much not so. They tell us not a whit about society’s beliefs and practises, let alone about the way in which they limit individual freedom and inspire unconventional thinking. (Indeed, Phoenix appears to insist that humanity as a whole is an entirely innocent victim and its opponents the exact opposite.) They promote not a trace element of empathy, because they are nothing but cardboard cut-outs of super-things to be defeated. What can we learn from them, when all that we’re told is that they must be entirely defeated? What do they challenge, and why should we care?
They are simply Bad. Bad and Boring. And those are two qualities which anyone seeking to emulate the glories of the first few years of the Marvel Revolution would surely be wise to avoid. Marvel was most certainly about super-people punch-ups and misery-saturated private lives. But it was also, typically, about far, far more. Without the underpinnings of moral relativism and the obligation to be empathetic, all the city-flattening brawls and tearful declarations of woe are little more than saccharine froth.
and so, in tomorrow’s post in the 31 Days Of Atlas series, away with Phoenix: The Man Of Tomorrow and hello to, er, Vicky?