Fantastic Four #8 (November 1962)

Fantastic Four #8 is my favorite FF story yet. If you’re keeping track, this one is MUCH better than #7.

While the Puppet Master, aka “Philip Masters”, is not the most exciting villain in the Marvel catalogue, he makes for an interesting one here. His appearance on the cover is instantly off-putting, with his creepy looking face looming overhead. He isn’t the towering figure you see depicted here, instead he’s short and with an odd physicality. He’s the type of man you assume has led a tough life because of the way he looks. While they never delve into that, it makes perfect sense for him to want to be so in control of everything around him.

The cover intrigued me as soon as I saw it. The point of this cover is to make the reader wonder how the heroes could possibly escape a situation like this. Unfortunately, the scene shown here never takes place within the story. The good news is that by the end I didn’t even care. Many of these Fantastic Four stories are stuffed with filler to pad out the page count that it often hurts the narrative pace. Those types of stories are tough to get through (see Fantastic Four #7). The brilliance with this issue is that the narrative padding actually serves a purpose to the overall Fantastic Four’s character development.

For anyone following along, I had some major gripes with how the team treats Ben. The first page continues this trend with Reed exclaiming “THE THING!” as Ben attempts to walk into his lab. We finally get to see Ben call this out, which makes for a sad moment of truth:

Ben: they’re Grade-A assholes. You’re better off without them.

It’s compelling stuff, especially if you’ve been reading these issues in order. I wonder if this was planned all along or if Marvel was getting fan letters that forced them to finally do something about it. The thing with “The Thing” is that he’s portrayed in the most lovable way possible. You can’t help but sympathize with him, regardless of how he looks.

Anyway, Reed doesn’t want him in his lab for some reason, and Ben gets pissed. He storms out and decides he no longer wants to be around these people.

Only behind his back does Reed refer to him as “Ben”.

Sue chases Ben to see if she can persuade him to return. While out and about, Ben dons a trench coat, sunglasses, and hat, which will become his trademark “blending in” disguise. It makes me think of Raphael in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film.

Not at all conspicuous.

In the midst of this, and Ben getting into a scuffle with a few guys, Sue somehow notices a man climbing high atop a bridge.

I have to keep writing this blog, but I don’t know why! Hrm…

Sue is too far to save him, so she fires off her Fantastic Four flare gun, aka the Fantasti-Flare, in order to alert the rest of the team.

The sky is only red for dramatic effect…I think.

I’ve always wondered how it could be possible for the flare to draw out the number “4”. Well, luckily Marvel decided to explain it with a diagram in one of their Official Marvel Handbooks:

The flare has three stages that break apart and fly in different directions to draw the “4”. Ok, I’ll buy it!

We also get (what I think is) the first instance where Reed stretches as far as he possibly can.

They’re really heightening the drama here, as one-by-one each FF member fails to save this guy.

Johnny then flies out and saves the day (of course), and notices that the man looks as though he must be in a trace. From there we get our first glimpse at the Puppet Master, who has orchestrated the entire thing.

The Puppet Master is able to make miniature figures of people which he uses to control them. The link between figure and real-life are immediately seen, as the Puppet Master actually burns himself on the figure. Putting two and two together, this could ONLY mean that the Human Torch must have saved the man!

To get back at the FF, the Puppet Master creates a clay figure of Thing. The secret to the Puppet Master’s powers lie within the radioactive clay he uses to sculpt his figures. The Cold-War era was ripe with powers derived from radioactivity, and this is no different. While it’s true that these powers are akin to how we perceive voodoo dolls in pop-culture, it would have gone against the Comics Code to include references to voodoo.

The only thing about the Puppet Master’s power is that it all feels very labor intensive. Not only does he need to carve the likeness of the person, but he also needs to build a miniature model of different places he wants them to go.

For example, the Puppet Master needed to build a replica of the Queensboro Bridge in order to get the man to jump from it:

For his figure of Thing, the Puppet Master wants to lure him into his apartment…so he builds a replica of his apartment. He builds this down to the details, including window drapes and picture frames.

We discover in the middle of playing with his toys that the Puppet Master has a beautiful blind daughter, and she happens to slightly resemble Sue Storm. For anyone familiar with the FF, his daughter is Alicia Masters, the eventual romantic foil for Ben. When The Thing makes his way to the apartment, Sue realizes he’s entranced, deciding to follow him. Once in the apartment, Alicia senses “another heart-beat”, which leads the Puppet Master to realize that the Invisible Girl must be there with them.

Alicia’s powers rival Daredevil’s. Maybe it’s a side effect of playing with radioactive clay as a kid? Maybe it’s also the cause of her disfigured right hand.

The Puppet Master does some split second thinking to get rid of the Invisible Girl, pumping ether into the room in order to knock her out.

Most apartments I’ve lived in have had one of these units installed in the wall, but until now I didn’t realize what it’s used for.

With Sue out of the way, he gets the ingenious idea of dressing his daughter up as the Invisible Girl, and sending her along with The Thing to infiltrate the FF.

You begin to realize that his sense of control knows no bounds, and that he treats his daughter not unlike another of his puppets. There’s a darkness under the surface here that hasn’t really made its way into the previous FF issues.

The Puppet Master tells Alicia that he just wants her to play a harmless “prank”, but then goes on to test The Thing’s strength. In the middle of this, Alicia comes across Ben, and runs her hands across his face.

This is their first connection. It’s also the first time that Ben’s physical features are described as something other than monstrous.

While Ben and Alicia head over to the Fantastic Four headquarters, the Puppet Master has other plans. He uses a new puppet, the “Personal Trustee of the State Warden”, to steal a set of keys to the prison.

Again, it’s a heck of a lot of work being a Puppet Master.

When Ben and Alicia finally reach Reed and Johnny, hell breaks loose. I believe this is the first time where we learn Johnny can’t “flame on” because he has to wait a certain amount of time for his powers to come back. From here on out, this will happen quite often, and it makes sense that he can’t indefinitely burn.

While Ben kicks some ass in his zombie-state, he stumbles into Reed’s lab – remember, the one at the beginning where Reed didn’t want him to come in? At this point, Ben crashes through a table of scientific glass vials.

Oooooh…THAT’S what Reed was making.

Suddenly Ben is back! Notice that his in-between face is VERY similar to the Hulk?

Still, this doesn’t explain why Reed was secretive about the whole thing. Why didn’t he just tell Ben what he was working on???

Ahhhh. Man, they’ve covered everything!

This was a plot twist that I hadn’t seen coming, but also one that is leaps and bounds ahead of anything we’ve seen in other stories (aside from Amazing Fantasy #15). The ability to weave pieces of the plot together like this is mature for the era, and treats the readers a little more intelligently than many of the contrived elements I’m used to seeing. It’s far from being high-brow – just believe me when I say it’s a welcome breath of fresh air.

Unfortunately, Ben’s transformation is short lived. Over the years it will be revisited as a way to remind us that there is still a normal man underneath that golem-like face. The three panels above, as Ben becomes “the Thing” again, really display the “at odds” attraction which will come to define Alicia. Sure, she’s attracted to Ben…but Ben as “the Thing” is the man she loves. This dichotomy helps carry Ben along, never allowing him to become a total “down in the dumps” figure. Alicia being introduced this early in the FF run is the best thing to happen to his character.

We cut back over to Sue slowly waking up inside the Puppet Master’s apartment. The next layer of his plan is to stage a prison revolt. It’s staggering to see the number of figures he has needed to create for this, as well as the entire prison block.

There’s another moment meant to remind us that what happens to his figures also connects to real life. As cheesy as these moments seem, they’re slowly foreshadowing the end of the story by reinforcing the effects of his powers.

Eventually the rest of the team comes back to rescue Sue, and the Puppet Master uses a giant red robot as his defense. We saw an evil villain use a red robot last issue, and to be honest, this one is lame, acting only as filler for four panels. During this, the Puppet Master escapes on a flying horse puppet.

When “outside the box” is too much of a good thing.

The Pegasus-Puppet really comes out of nowhere. Up to this point (and aside from the red robot) all of his puppets have been based on real-life things, so it’s very jarring to see him escape this way. This was the only part of the story that I felt should have gone another direction.

We get the second instance of Johnny’s powers being consumed within a single issue, and the moment is made highly dramatic as his flames go out while in mid-flight! Reed even has to save him!

The team then makes their way to stop the prison riot, which the Puppet Master has carefully orchestrated. We’re treated to this badass giant panel of The Thing ripping down a wall, in a similar fashion to how he ripped down a wall in the previous issue. Here you can see why I was confused in issue #7 – the Thing doesn’t merely rip a wall down…he demolishes it. This would make it damn near impossible to put the wall back up and hide behind it (again, see issue #7 for the scene I’m mentioning.

Moments like this are EXACTLY why people were clamoring to see Thing encounter the Hulk. Don’t worry…IT HAPPENS SOON (IN FANTASTIC FOUR #12 and again in #25)

Normally I’m not really into the FF battles, but this issue changed me. It’s a lot of fun to see Kirby and Lee come up with new gags, finding creative ways to use the powers of the team. Here’s an entire page worth of the battle:

How long would it take Ben to build that cage? Ahhhh…Sorry. I forgot to turn my brain off again.

I’m already used to Lee’s writing. Any time you see a page like this, feel free to completely ignore the words, as it really only serves to state what they’re doing in the drawings. Kirby’s art is the magic. Even Reed, who comes off as a pretty stale character, is completely awesome here. I never once as a kid heard anybody say “I want to be Mister Fantastic!” Seeing him ricochet the bullets back at his assailants is too cool to ignore though. Like any of these comics, you have to try your best to turn your brain off and just enjoy it. As tough as it is to understand now, this was super imaginative and amazing stuff to see realized for its time.

Ok. Now to my favorite part: the end. So many of these stories have had terrible endings thus far. I was just expecting more of the same. A deus ex machina and maybe a bit of hypnosis? Nope. This one actually has a clever ending because it uses information we’ve been given and ties it together for a FANTASTIC twist.

We learn that the Puppet Master has a final puppet he’s created – one of himself! With the powers he’s tested, he knows that he can use the puppet to turn fantasy into reality. His goal now is to place his figure in a position of power, and the real world will follow suit. I love that his figure is dressed in the stereotypical regalia of a King.

We’ve been provided some really great insights throughout the issue regarding how these figures work. There’s been enough foreshadowing now to realize that this is could be a potentially dire situation for the Puppet Master:

You know it’s a good issue if Kanye stole lyrics from it.

Kirby has this thing he does where he emphasizes the action by deciding to not even draw a background. In these two panels, colorist Stan Goldberg transitions the action by beginning with a pale blue, then moving darker. The second panel has this strange effect where the dark blue almost freezes the action, and makes the reader hang on the moment in suspense. Almost like a snapshot has happened at a pivotal instance. What’s going to happen next?? Keep in mind, readers with the physical comic in their hands know they are on the last page…the end is close.

We get what seems like random closeup shot of his foot transitioning us even further between events. This is sequential storytelling at its finest!

The brilliant thing is you may ask yourself “now where did that window come from?” Because Kirby removed the background during the lead up to falling out the window, Kirby also removed our spatial awareness of the situation. We were surprised by the window as much as the Puppet Master was in the moment. It also allows us to go with the story, and not try to really figure out how he managed to trip and fall out the window. There was a similar event depicted in a Twilight Zone episode, but the tension relied on you knowing the window was there. The decision to remove that background was crucial for this twist to work as well as it does.

Twilight Zone episode “A Most Unusual Camera”, 1960.

For any reader caught off guard or confused, the last panel of the issue ties it back together one last time.

Long live the King.

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