Wednesday, 26 March 2014

On Stan Lee & Jack Kirby's Sue Storm, Super-Woman & Invisible Girl: What's To Be Done With The Fantastic Four? (Part 3 of 4)

In which the blogger continues TooBusyThinking's four-part look at the Fantastic Four, which began here and continued here;

      
9.


Sue Storm's character would be the most radically transformed. Such was the magnitude of the change that her original personality would be almost entirely forgotten. Though certainly no 21st century feminist icon, she was at first an admirably focused and doughty team-member, impassively impressive even when conscripted as the FF's first-choice hostage. Perhaps something of this came from her creator’s relative lack of interest. Notably less likely to be rewarded with word or thought balloons, and possessed of the least visually compelling super-power in the book, there was a tendency to use her almost as a supporting player. When the men of the FF travelled back in time in the comic's fifth issue, for example, she was left behind in 1962 as a prisoner of Doctor Doom. It wouldn't be the only time that she was so conspicuously sidelined. Yet that very lack of attention may well have resulted in her remaining relatively free of Stan Lee's typically misogynistic flourishes. Though Kirby was more likely to use her face as a vehicle for doubt and distress, he would also depict her as calm, determined and purposeful. The result of this mixture of Lee's disregard and Kirby's respect and restraint was at moments strikingly impressive. Taciturnity fused with self-possession and fortitude, and the regrettably named Invisible Girl would radiate courageousness and ingenuity. When imprisoned by the the Army, her thoughts revealed a phlegmatic, determined nature;

"So, they don't think we can escape? They think our powers aren't strong enough... Well, they may be right... .... but I doubt it!"

For all that she was portrayed as the least effective and impressive fighter of the four of them, she was undoubtedly a super-woman of substance. At times, as when her skills at covert investigation came into play, she was anything but a fifth wheel. Committed to supporting Reed Richards in (nearly) every possible circumstance, she was swift to defend him from criticism while striving to protecting him from disappointment. Both comrade and matriarch, she struggled to maintain a unified front while comforting the disaffected. It was, as we've discussed, an impossible task. With Richards disconnected from the everyday management of the team's relationships, the responsibility to maintain order as well as good-feeling devolved onto her. Echoes of the inequities of a woman's double-shift in an isolated nuclear family emanated from the page, and yet at first, the character herself retained her dignity. Constantly juggling a host of roles which no-one could be expected to fulfil, she struggled to be mother and lover, sergeant and super-woman, society woman and social icon. By the standards of the age's dominant culture, she was the women who had everything, and it was that which constantly threatened to undermine her exhaustive and exhausting efforts.

   
As with each of the team, there was a considerable distance between impression and reality. On the surface of things, Sue was Reed's rock, and yet she'd hidden a photograph of the Sub-Mariner away while carrying a substantial torch for the King Of Atlantis. That the moral and practical bedrock of the team was simultaneously longing for the arms of a charismatic super-villain was a masterstroke on Lee and Kirby's part. If living with Richards in the Baxter Building was a provocative business, then her fascination for a hostile undersea monarch who "wasn't even human" was downright shocking. It revealed a character who was sacrificing her life for one man and his causes while secretly longing for everything that he wasn't. Forever striving to sublimate herself to Reed's principles and ambitions, she was also longing for escape to a more carefree and expressive existence. (It would later be shown that she'd ached to be an actor.) The woman who, when captured by Doctor Doom, presented an entirely unruffled front while promising that her jailer would "live to regret defying the Fantastic Four", was also a profoundly unhappy individual. The frequent explosions of conflict between the FF's members could cut through her reserve and reduce her to desperation and the brink of tears. Once again, the strength of the set-up left her not as subservient homemaker or faithless betrayer, but as both of them and all at the same time. That Lee treated her dilemma at first with such sympathy is to his credit, although the triangular affair would forever tilt towards a conventional and disappointingly passionless conclusion. An affair with the machismo-sodden Sub-Mariner would have been highly unlikely to be a fair and equal one. Yet as a taboo-shattering experience, it may well have pointed the way towards a future based on satisfying her own needs rather than choosing between two extreme forms of traditional masculinity. 


10.

At moments, a far more carefree and unrestrained Sue Storm would manifest herself, though typically it would be far away from Pogo Planes and super-science labs and extraordinary teammates. Slurping down what was presumably someone else's milk-shake without making herself visible, and shocking a fellow diner, was just one of these impromptu and mischievous act.. Outraged by a bystander's mockery of The Thing, she even kicked a stranger to the ground while sneering;

“I’ll bet you’ve never been kicked by a gremlin before, wise-guy!”

Perhaps she and her brother weren't from such different social backgrounds after all, and perhaps the conventional and staid Sue Storm that tended to be featured had been a later self-invention.

 It's in these moments of playful spontaneity that Sue Storm appears the happiest. Sadly, there's never once a suggestion of ease and intimacy - let alone joy - in her relationship with Redd Richards. Without immediate threat of her suffering some terrible fate, Richards struggles to express the slightest fondness. By the same token, she's hardly more vocal or physical in return. Theirs is a chilly and formal affair that never promises anything but more of the same. Though constantly worried that Richards efforts might fail and his feelings be hurt, she's never shown laughing in his presence, or even once touching him. That she only ever speaks out against him once in public during these first few months suggests not contentedness, but a deeply repressed sense of alienation. (With Richards enchanted by the science informing Kurrgo's monstrous robot, she- at last - shouts "Reed! This is no time to study new gadgets!") Closer to his mother than his lover in so many worrying ways, the strain of being Richards' fulltime advocate, organiser and nurse must generate an appalling strain.  

As with the others, Sue Storms' presence in the Fantastic Four appears idyllic while truthfully being anything but. If the team is the one place where she can share her life with both Johnny and Reed, it's also the space in which her partner and her brother are constantly at loggerheads. If the Baxter Building allows her to express concern and support to Ben, he's also a furious and perhaps psychotically damaged man who dearly loves her. Worse yet, it was ultimately her words which drove him into space and the ruination of his life. Though Lee never has her mention her responsibility for Grimm's fate, it's impossible to believe that she is isn't guilty aware of it on one level or another.

In so many ways, it's guilt that appears to have kept the original take on the Invisible Girl in the ranks of the Fantastic Four, and the consequence is a life that makes Sue Storm anything but happy.

  
11.

With time, Lee and Kirby not only scaled-back Sue Storm's moments of stoical competency. Blighting the potential of their own creation, they overwhelmingly increased the degree of her personal weaknesses. The result was the removal of the greater part of the character's appeal and potential. The woman who'd once calmly told a threatening Thing to "save your breath for the climb, gruesome!" would be swiftly reconstructed as the team's hysterically unsure fifth wheel.  As early as the book's sixth issue, Sue Storm was the only character present in space to "almost" pass out due to a lack of oxygen. From then on, Lee's scripts would become more and more stepped in traditionally malecentric markers of a compliant and depressingly dependent personality. For all her occasional pluckiness, the Invisible Girl was becoming a model of vulnerable womanhood to protect rather than a equal member of the team. In A Visit With The Fantastic Four, she was shown shattered by the letters of children who'd complained about her apparently lackluster contributions to the FF. One month after that and the very sight of the Hulk on film frightened her into unwittingly becoming invisible. The woman who'd regularly faced down a furious Thing and challenged a host of super-villains was no longer able to cope with the moving image of a distant threat. Even worse was to follow, as the evidence emerged of her partner's contemptuous and patronising opinion of her worth;

Sue Storm: "Looks as though I’ll be going along for the ride (to find the Hulk)! I’m not sure how I can help!”

General Ross: “Harrummph! Miss Storm, a pretty young lady can always be of help - just by keeping the men's morale up!"

Reed Richards: "That's the way we feel about Sue, General."

Within the space of just over a year, Sue Storm's relationship to the pseudo-family of the Fantastic Four had almost entirely changed. As Lee slipped further and further into his habit of presenting women as largely subservient and inadequate bit players, the contradictions that had made her so compelling drained away. Even when single-handedly battling Doctor Doom to a standstill in FF#17, Sue Storm would credit all of her success to Richards' allegedly magnificent abilities;

"... don't forget that I was taught Judo by one of the world's greatest experts: Reed Richards! And in my book, anything you can do, Mister Fantastic can do better!"

No longer even a person so much as an expression of Richards' mental and physical accomplishments, the Invisible Girl was disappearing into the purest and least edifying of gender stereotypes. As she did so, the pseudo-family that had once been both trap and beguiling ideal become her all-consuming sanctuary and reason d'etre. Holy and devoted matrimony would arrive in the Fantastic Four pages, and with it went the book's capacity to debate many of age's tensions. Less a comment on the period's dominant values than an unambiguous expression in their favour, Sue Storm had become a perfect pod person.

 
to be concluded;
  
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12 comments:

  1. Sue rather unfairly comes in for criticism but real FF fans love her. When she was 'living' with Reed in the Baxter Building, she maintained her maiden status by still keeping her and Johnny's house in Glendale and commuting to the BB for official FF business. Her relationship with Reed was echoed rather spot-on by you, Colin., Theres a kind of Edwardian 'courting' going on between these two as theres no touching, seldom any affection, yet Sue still hangs on in there. Her middle-class principles [for she was the daughter of a doctor/surgeon] gave her the perfect 'hands off' approach that made her irresistible to all but the most injurious of her male suitors, whether as Reed;'s girlfriend, Namor's conquest, or the 'professional hostage' role she assumed in the first six years of the book. She had a stoisicm that is really remarkable, remaining calm under increasing pressure from Reed's aloofness, Ben and Johnny's infantile baiting of each other and the early constant sexual threat from Namor. Even the notorious letters page issue, where she was roundly criticised [surely Marvel's attempt at finding a way to deal with Sue and how fans truly felt about her] seemed another undue pressure. At any point in her early FF history she could've walked away and no-one would have blamed her.
    Of all the Four, Sue is the one who has drastically changed with the times, whilst the other three have barely altered at all.
    My pal John is a massive Sue fan and he will love this article of yours!

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    1. Hello Karl:- Thank you for your generous words, and for fleshing out what I've said about the earliest issues with your own knowledge. I'm grateful for that. As I'm sure you'll know, I was keen to focus only what appears in the main FF book itself, and not - unless it particularly caught my eye - to look beyond the Lee/Kirby title. In the main title, which is where I believe the Four's characters were actually made to shine, Sue's background, her and Johnny's living in the suburbs and so on were never mentioned - to my knoweldge - during that first year or so of the FF. As such, I've pushed it aside, since it didn't seem necessary to make the characters work. But you're of course absolutely right to do just as I have, namely, to use the available material to spin your own version of the character's lives. We all pick and choose what works for us, and it's nice to see that's there's such a significant agreement between us about what's worth paying attention to. (Being one of those folks who want to hold to EVERYTHING that's appeared on the page must be an exhausting and bewildering business.)

      Thanks again for the kind words and your own reflections. It's much appreciated.

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  2. Poor Sue. On the one hand I've always rather liked Sue...possibly because I can't stand Reed, and on the other, I've always despised her as well. Mainly because of the way that Stan Lee treated her, but then "Stan Lee" girls were always pretty pathetic. They existed, so that the men could rescue them. Their powers were never physical, they mostly stood on the outskirts and waved their hands a lot and fainted.

    Which is why I was always glad that Sue belatedly, became the MOST powerful member of the group, once the got a writer who would decide to play with her powers.

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    1. Hello Sue:- I too like Sue, although it's the Sue who's suggested by the book's first issues that I like the most.It's a point I'm working on explaining - for whatever little that's worth - at this very moment, as I'm writing the last post in this little series. (And my last blog ever too.)

      As the above will hopefully prove, I too loathe what she quickly became under Lee's well-meaning and yet deleterious hand. Though I don't think the long job of reversing Lee's poor choices has ended up with a particularly Sue Storm, I am VERY pleased that she's now a respected and powerful character in her own right.

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    2. Colin,
      I am intrigued by your descriptions of the Fantastic Four, as they were in the VERY beginning, because I've never read those books, with the exception of reprints of the first one. It is a very...different team from what they eventually became, and in all actuality a more interesting team as well!

      But egad, I am going to miss your commentary, more than I can say.

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    3. Hello Sally:- Thank you for saying you found this "intriguing". That's a lovely thing to say and it's much appreciated.

      I really ought to say that my analysis - if you'll forgive the word - of the earliest FF issues isn't one I've ever seen elsewhere, and I suspect that it's unlikely to ever become "standard". By which I mean, it reflects an odd POV, I'm sure, and yet, at least it might have the virtue of being different.

      Thanks again for your generous words.

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  3. Colin, I hope we get to hear your thoughts on the Human Torch; my message board pal Ian Watson once opined the mark of a great Fantastic Four writer lay in whether they could make Johnny Storm worth reading about. Considering Johnny was seemingly the initial most popular member of the team, it's quite something to see how the character has wobbled around over the decades, often reduced to a mere cipher - the vacuous member of the team who likes shiny cars and loose women. From James "dangerous to others" Dean to Justin "danger to himself" Bieber in a mere 50 years!

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    1. Hello Michael:- I hope there'll be something of some little interest in what I'll be chin-stroking about where the Torch is concerned. He's actually the most difficult of all four characters to make work, and his most obvious qualities aren't enough in themselves to hold an audience; a flaming crimefighter, a headstrong (late) adolescent .... On their own, these are unremarkable qualities, and so they've proven to be. As you say, the attempt to make them work has resulted in some disastrously uninteresting Johnny Storms.

      The trick, I suspect, would be the same for Johnny as it is for the others. He has to be despertely bound to the FF even as he's driven up the wall by the others. In the first year or so, we saw that process at work; he rebels against Reed's dictatorial, distanced authority while taking out his frustrations on the Thing. (And not always in a playful way at all.) I think there's a mechanism by which that scenario can still be made to work ....

      .... so I'd better try and make sure that I get something of that over :)

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  4. I've never been too worried about Sue being the 'Invisible Girl', pre-marriage and kids; back then women would call themselves 'girl' unironically. Of course, given that no one else on the team has a Man/Woman/Girl/Boy thing going on, she should have been Disappearo or Queen Invisibla or something.

    The Namor business is fascinating, in that a person falls for their kidnapper with no time for a Stockholm Syndrome explanation - Sue was either a bit bonkers, or liked a touch of danger in her men. Maybe both. Lord knows what she saw in Reed - much as I hate the Ultimates Universe, at least her being a genius, too, would give them something in common.

    Lee and Kirby married Sue and Reed off far too soon, denying readers the chance to see them grow into two people who could, and should, be together. Heaven knows, a mother in a superhero universe should be interesting, but with Sue nowadays she's either defined by her weird brood, or she comes across as bizarrely hands off, letting Franklin and the vile Valeria run around at will, even to the extent of letting the horrible Valeria live with Dr Doom.

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    1. Hello Martin:- "Queen Invisibla" is a phrase that you ought to apply to trademark immediately. It's a wonderful code-name and it ought to be being used at this very moment. A touch LSH, but then, what's wrong about that

      Your point about gender and sexism only raising its head in Sue's code-name, and not anyone else's, is well made.

      My own take on Sue's feelings for Namor is that they were rooted in two things; firstly, he offered everything that her cold, regimented private life wasn't. Two, he was a chance for her to test her own thoughts and feelings, and in that, he was almost a doorway to life without Mister Fantastic or the Sub-Mariner. If she could take such a daring step, then what measure of autonomy couldn't she achieve.

      In that, staying with Reed or leaving with Namor were both unacceptable options. But at least Subby brought with him lashings of romance and tiny, tiny shorts.

      I talk about the Ultimate FF in my last piece of these posts, although I didn't have the insight to offer the point you made above. The Ultimate FF reboot was a nice, polite and distinctly safe effort, and in being so, quite missed the point. So timid was it, and so lacking the original's tension and vigor, that it obviously doomed to splutter out. And so it did.

      And I agree with you about today's Sue. She's become the MU's soccer mum and she deserves a great deal more. The first issue of Fraction's Fantastic 4 simply took it for granted that she was the family's comforter and carer, which hardly encouraged me to read on. (I thought much more highly of the same writer's FF, mind you.) And if she is going to played as super-soccer mum - which she surely shouldn't - then the whole bit about Valeria being allowed to live with Doom is going to demand a remarkable explanation.

      It says a great deal about US 'mainstream/not-really-mainstream-at-all" comics that mothers in the super-book have rarely been written in an interesting way. Hickman certainly succeeded in infusing the FF with a touching degree of familial affection. But he did so at the cost of anything of the dark contradictions of Kirby and Lee's earliest work. Hickman's FF tends to be far more a symbol of privilege, of entitlement. There's certainly a plea for the embracing of difference, but I never once saw the idea of a rich, powerful, status-sodden class of super-people being challenged. These are harsh times for most of us, and the super-book's typical lack of interest in the age's ethics/politics actually undermines its appeal.

      Mind you, perhaps the Valeria/ Dr Doom sub-plot is going to suggest debates about over-liberal parents, entitlement-addled kids and tyrannical traditional values. I mean, I doubt it, and yet, THAT sounds interesting to me.

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  5. Ever read Fantastic Four vs. X-Men? I know it came out years after you lost interest in X-Men. It's one of my favorite FF comics. The plotting is a bit wonky, but 1980s Chris Claremont wrote some angst into Johnny Storm (of course he would) and it worked. Johnny accidentally burns an innocent's arm (Storm's), something his ridiculously dangerous powers had never (to my knowledge) done before. It acts like a splash of cold water on him and he sets about training and having a conversation with his wife Alicia (who turned out to be a Skrull eventually, but that's another story) and elects to go back to his family. While Claremont may have had difficulty writing the carefree version of the character (I never read his FF run), the Human Torch scenes stuck with me because he was suddenly serious, and for a good reason.

    Anyway, Sue: for all that I don't love Byrne's post-X-Men work, he did a good job elevating Sue to equal status in a comic that could easily been retitled Mr. Fantastic & The Thing. Not that subsequent FF writers treated her especially well, but she couldn't be ignored as easily.

    - Mike Loughlin

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    1. Hello Mike:- I haven't read FF V X-Men beyond its first issue, but you do make it sound interesting. It's something that's particularly helped by your honesty about the comic's weaknesses too. I think my local library has a copy of the series tpb. Inspired by your recommendation, I shall most certainly tracj it down :)

      I've just finished the last piece in this chin-stroking set of posts, and - great minds thinking alike - I too touch on the problem of What To Do With Johnny Storm. As you suggest, he really does seem to have lacked weight as a character since the FF's earliest issues, and I think that's helped to ensure that the Human Torch has never been a breakout property. His first series bored and crashed, and he's rarely been a front-rank star. I think that's very much to do with the lack of the FF's early tensionsl without them, he's just an unimpressive young man with super-powers. The best use of him I can recall comes in Slott/Templeton's Human Torch/Spider-Man series, but even there, he's a lonely, rootless loser. Sweet if none too bright, and hardly the stuff of solo stars.

      I would agree that Byrne deserves a great deal of credit for stripping away various aspects of the sexism that so often undermined Sue Storm's appeal. The problem for me was that he didn't make her character very interesting. Yes, she was far stronger, but she remained an essentially uninteresting stereotype. Brave, yes, and able and formidable. All of that was to the good. And yet, she expressed nothing of the social conflict that the early Lee/Kirby version of her did.

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