Fantastic Four #178
Fantastic Four #178
A goofy and wonderful tangle of story from Roy Thomas, with spectacular art by George Perez, pretty much at the top of his game for Marvel. It’s all wrapped up in the bizarre continuity of counter-earth, where there is a Reed Richards who doesn’t stretch and who is a maniac — and also The Brute! (Jonathan Hickman was only five when this came out, so you can’t blame him). The Fantasic Four have been captured by the Frightful Four, and they’re all strapped to a crazy-looking windmill while the bad guys — led by Reed Richards’ double, who is in his underwear and smoking a pipe — decide what to do with them! Smash ‘em? Hold ‘em for ransom? Hey, why not both?
Cool action in the back half of the book, when the FF inevitably break loose and kick butt. Thundra and Tigra are here, too, because why not? The “Four” in Fantastic Four was always advisory, not a hard and fast rule. The good guys win and the evil Reed is ejected into the Negative Zone, but our good Reed can never stretch again. BUT WAIT, IT IS ALL A PLOY … it is the GOOD Reed that got shot into another dimension, while the evil version has pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. Why wasn’t I reading this book in 1977? It’s a gas!
- Script: Roy Thomas
- Pencils: George Perez
- Inks: Dave Hunt
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Posted on May 21, 2018, in Marvel 1977 and tagged Dave Hunt, Fantastic Four, George Perez, Marvel Comics, Roy Thomas. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.
I tracked down an online version of this issue and the continuation of its saga through #183. Wow – it’s all over the place, from the Impossible Man, to George Perez’s absence from the artwork due to some kind of mysterious hand injury hinted at in the captions. What stood out to me was how Roy Thomas, born in 1940, handles female characters in a 1970s book.
He’s got Sue Storm, who alternates between moments of “damsel in distress” and totally kicking butt in physical fights. He has Tigra, who oscillates between being the Thing’s furry fantasy girl, and coming up with game-winning ideas when the chips are down. Then there’s Thundra, the ultra-feminist – I mean Femizon – who beats major ass and saves the day, but also has the weirdest, most possessive crush on Ben Grimm because he is… strong?
It’s hard not to see this story arc as having a subtext of “Roy Thomas trying to come to terms with women’s liberation”, given these attempts to characterize women in ways that both traditionally feminine and as powerful as the male characters. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it comes off as awkward as his handling of ethnic stereotypes you covered in your insightful discussion of his All-Star Squadron in other posts on this blog. It’s interesting to see these works of a man who clearly spent his formative years in our culture’s “Leave It to Beaver” years, but who took a stab at writing characters who were relevant to American cultural shifts decades later.
Roy came from a time that inspired iconic 1950s imagery such as Bob, the pipe-smoking mascot of the Church of the Sub-Genius, and this story arc’s portrayal of Counter-Earth Reed Richards could basically be a stand-in for Bob. This weird juxtaposition of 1950s sensibility with 1970s sensitivity makes this storyline a mindbender to read. It’s like we’re watching culture changing hands from one generation to the next, right on the page.
“Weird juxtaposition of 1950s sensibility with 1970s sensibility” might well sum up the entire Bronze Age at Marvel. (Steve Gerber might fall under the same description; Englehart too). I missed the Sub-Genius connection, but its entirely possible.
When it comes to portraying women in the mainstream superhero books of the day, I tend to err on the side of “Well, at least they tried.” Hard to find a Marvel or DC book of the era that wasn’t embarrassing or Dreadfully Earnest (thinking of early Ms. Marvel here). It was such a boys’ club in those days. Still is! And of course, as a young reader in those days, it went right over my head anyway. Chris Claremont is generally well-regarding for writing the ever-elusive “strong female character” in this era but I expect we could dig up some howlers from his work without too much effort.
(And that All-Star Squadron blog you mention was written by the excellent Dean Compton).
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After two years of workshopping with other fiction writers, I’ve found both men and women struggling with writing characters of the other gender. On one hand, we get men who write females as if all they do is have naked pillow fights while giggling. On the other hand, we encounter women who don’t understand basic male dynamics like the role of a wing-man in bar pick-ups. It’s been interesting, seeing men and women come together in a writing group and sharing their insights on character with each other. We were also fortunate to have a member of Chinese ancestry show up one week and make insightful comments on Chinese characters in someone’s stories, from the perspective of being more immersed in that culture than the author was. It’s always a challenge for authors to get inside the head of a character who is outside of the author’s real-life experience. It’s funny that you use Claremont as an example of a guy writing strong female characters, but then list his Ms. Marvel as a kind of failure in that area. There seems to be an expectation these days for men to write “strong” female characters, but it might be time to move past that and just write multi-faceted characters with depth. There’s nothing wrong with writing a weak female character; but there’s a lot wrong with that being the only type of female character someone can write. Gail Simone’s Red Sonja, for example, kicks a whole lot of butt – and she does it in chain mail bikini that carries a whole lot of “1970s exploitative cheesecake for guys” context. I think Roy Thomas was trying to do something similar – have his leading ladies kick butt yet still have characteristics he perceived as feminine.
For the “failed” version of Ms. Marvel I was thinking more of Gerry Conway’s original than the Claremont version, which came later … but even Claremont’s Ms. Marvel fell prey to plot developments that made me uneasy. Most specifically I am thinking of the MODOK storyline where the bad guy violates Ms. Marvel’s mind in a predatory and (it is inferred) sexual way.
The problem with this is that I’d read comics with male leads for years and never seen one of those heroes threatened in the same way. Yet here was a female hero suffering this fate, as if to say it was ONLY female heroes who could be thus threatened. (Or even to suggest that this is what female heroes might expect for being heroes in the first place). A line was crossed, to be sure, and it was the kind of line I didn’t perceive until it was crossed. It never entered my mind that superheroes might be sexually threatened when the bad guys got the upper hand, and I don’t think introducing that notion much improved the Bronze Age era books that I was reading. But once it was introduced — once that seal was broken — then I wondered why this should be something that threatened Ms. Marvel, but not Spider-Man or Captain America or whoever.
Maybe I’ll just go back to the Silver Age!
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You raise a really interesting point here, and one I never considered but which seems so obvious now that you’ve pointed out. When I try to think of exceptions to this trend, I can only come up with one or two adult-oriented indie comics. This trend also applies to movies, where these kind of threats to females have become almost as cliche as how superheroes and Disney characters all seem to have lost their parents – though I’ve read some interesting analyses on how the orphan cliche sets up a scenario where the character is free to become anything, because his or her primary socializing influence was removed. I need to think about this for a while, this persistent, overt sexualization of threats to female characters, and maybe find a way to address it in my own fiction. Maybe the women in my workshop group can give me some much-needed perspective.
There are a whole host of things about comics that readers never call into question … until the creators raise the issue. Once that seal is broken, it is hard to un-break it. Story assumptions establish group rules for readers and creators alike. It feels perfectly reasonable that no one recognizes Superman when he puts on glasses and combs his hair, and by extension it makes sense that Iris never recognizes Barry, and no one sees Bruce Wayne’s chin beneath the cowl. But admit one story into the canon where these assumptions are challenged and the whole thing falls apart. Creators violate tropes at their peril, and they’d better have a good reason for doing so. (Example: Identity Crisis, or “How To Grow A Tree For Seventy Years To Burn It Down In An Hour.”)
Sometimes that seal is broken indirectly, as in the Ms. Marvel example I cited, but for me it was just as jarring as thinking Bucky might have been sexually abused during any of the innumerable times when some Nazi bad guy had him kidnapped. In the context of a Golden Age story it doesn’t register — it is not part of that universe (I’m not sure Golden Age characters have genitals most of the time!). But in a revisionist world it seems like everything is fair game. Whether that is wise is a different thing. (You can guess what I would argue).
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Challenging the tropes might be more wise when done outside of flagship properties, whether that’s in unpopular or forgotten properties, or in “alternate” universe versions of well-known characters. Superman would naturally set himself up as a ruler of Earth given his godlike powers, but you can’t do that on the main title where his secret identity trope is central to the character. But you could do it an alternate reality one-off, like Millar’s Red Son. OR you could do it in Marvelman (a/k/a Miracelman), like Moore and Gaiman did. Or, make up characters for the purpose, like how John Byrne’s Next Men challenged tropes about super speed, super strength, and invulnerability to great effect. But I agree, with the main flagship properties, we sometimes just want to believe a guy can fly or put on a mask or run fast, and not get bogged down in questioning that.
Pfft, like Bashful Benjy would know the word “meerschaum”! (of which that wooden pipe ain’t)
Good catch. Ben totally gets that type of pipe wrong! Unless that meerschaum has been aged so thoroughly it’s as brown as briar now.
Forgot all about this one. Used to have it and loved it, think I bought anything Perez drew back then
Yeah, I love everything by George Perez. Something about every-superhero-in-the-universe-fighting-each-other inside a panel structure as orderly as Dutch tulip fields gets me every time.