This issue sees a big improvement, as Lee and Kirby create a story that reads naturally and fills out the entire 24-page issue without resorting to the episodic chapters that marked the earlier issues. It’s also got some stunning artwork from Kirby, who seems to have become comfortable with the characters. Everything just clicks — the characters feel like they belong in this story and the way everything unfolds makes sense (at least in a story logic way) and the resolution is satisfying.
This issue starts off with a terrific splash panel in which Kirby draws New York City like a real place. The buildings have just the right amount of detail to sell this version of New York as a real city full of different types of architecture and the little details that make everything work from the water tower to the vents and the awnings. And it completely grounds and sells the entire scene, making the appearance of the Human Torch dramatic and believable.
I also like that Lee and Kirby fill the city with real people walking around, seeing this stuff happen and talking to each other about it. The reactions are varied and add to the believability of the story, even though it’s not really clear why Sue likes to hang out invisible in crowds.
The Baxter Building itself is impressively real in a way that few other comic book heroes’ headquarters were. The hapless mailman is a precursor to Willie Lumpkin, who shows up shortly as the building’s regular delivery man. Kirby delivers another cutaway of the Baxter Building, and does something simple that the book’s young readers must have loved: he made it completely consistent with the cutaway in issue #3. This is a slightly expanded version, but everything is in the same place and shows an attention to detail that few other comics at the time would have bothered with.
Lee varies up the introductory banter here, so instead of Ben and Johnny fighting we get Reed stretching across the city to visit a sick boy in the hospital. (As a complete side-note, Reed refers to the poor kid as a “shut-in,” which was the term that was used every week on Hockey Night in Canada when I was a kid. The commentators used to send out a special hello to the shut-ins and other folks who couldn’t get to the games in person but enjoyed the weekly broadcast.) Reed answering the boy’s question about the stretching of his costume is a nice touch, though I can easily imagine it being Stan’s way of settling the issue in some way to avoid having to answer the same question over and over. This also is the first mention of Yancy Street and the Yancy Street Gang, whose members take special pleasure in teasing and tormenting The Thing.
Kirby does some really nice acting in this issue, which is something I wish more comic book artists paid attention to. On page 6, you need no dialog to understand Ben’s anger, Sue’s sadness or that subtle little smile on Namor that conveys his enjoyment of swimming with the porpoises.
Doctor Doom, who appears to have dropped the shark theme for his aircraft, makes a surprisingly subtle entrance. He makes a logical plea to Namor, arguing that their mutual interest in eliminating the Fantastic Four is not typical supervillain behavior for 1962. Lee’s talent for dialog comes out strongly in the discussion between Namor and Doom, with Doom making a very compelling case. Kirby also nails it, giving Namor a cool elegance as he lounges in his shell throne that melts away under Doom’s argument to anger. All of this makes Namor’s character surprisingly sympathetic, as even the youngest reader surely had a sense that Doom would betray the deal in some way.
That’s emphasized by the next scene, in which Johnny discovers Sue’s hidden photograph of Namor and destroys it. It’s the kind of blockhead move that only a brother could get away with. Sue suffers a lot in later years of the series as the least developed character in the group, but in this issue she’s the most conflicted and interesting member of the group. Her conflicted feelings for Namor and her inability to put them into words works especially well with, again, Kirby’s excellent portrayal of her.
The entrance of Namor is another interesting scene as he challenges the Fantastic Four to accept his word that he’s a on a mission of peace. Sue, of course, buys it; the others refuse — and they’re right to not trust Namor despite their reasons for not trusting him being pretty off base.
The lifting of the Baxter Building into space, and pretty much everything that happens plot wise in space, should stretch plausibility more than it does. I recall a column former Marvel editor in chief Jim Shooter wrote in which he wrote that all buildings in comics had flat bottoms and the heroes had no problems before the Marvel Age brought some reality to the medium. Of course, in this story, the Baxter Building does have a flat bottom and it can be lifted as a whole into outer space. What’s really odd, though, is that the story still works and works really well. Plus, the splash panel of page 16 of the heroes looking down on Manhattan with the fighter jets flying underneath is, in a word, awesome.
It gets a little clunky in the next section, with the Torch’s flame failing in space. I do like the bit where Reed tries to grab Doom’s ship as Kirby spaces it out over five or six panels before Doom blasts him with a rocket. Namor’s leap to Doom’s ship is similarly cool, with Kirby zooming in on Namor’s face.
That it’s Namor, a nominal villain, who saves the day is pretty unusual for a comic of this vintage — the conventional wisdom of the time seemed to be that the hero was the star and he or she had to be the one who won the day. The Fantastic Four really do little to help Namor defeat Doom, who is last seen spiraling away into the void after ejecting from his ship. Namor even disposes of Doom’s grabber device and ship.
The last few pages are classic denouement. The Baxter Building is magically put back in place as though nothing ever happened, and the future of Namor — is he friend now, or still a foe? — remains more up in the air than ever.
Again, this is far away a big step forward in terms of Lee and Kirby finding a way to create big, exciting fantasy stories without chopping up the story into unrelated episodes and also in building a world and an ongoing storyline that’s bigger than any one issue.
“The Coming of Sub-Mariner!” Script by Stan Lee Pencils by Jack Kirby Inks by Sol Brodsky Letters by Art Simek
A lot is happening in this issue, which improves significantly over the previous one in pretty much every respect.
Despite the cover, which is easily the best so far, the Sub-Mariner doesn’t show up until about halfway into this issue. I’d like to know if there were many fans who picked this up because they like Namor. At this point, he hadn’t been gone from comic book stands very long, having last appeared in a short revival attempt in the mid-1950s.
This issue starts off with Reed, Sue and Ben dealing with the departure of Johnny at the end of the previous issue, leading to a pretty effective page 2 recap of The Fantastic Four #3 that quickly brings readers up to date. I don’t know if Stan and Jack consciously decided to establish this kind of issue-to-issue continuity or if it just came about organically, but this kind of attention to details must have thrilled fans who took their comics seriously back in 1962.
The story’s weakest points come next as the FF searches for Johnny. It makes no sense for Sue to remain invisible while stopping for a soda other than that either Stan or Jack liked the idea of the guy freaking out at the mysteriously vanishing liquid. Plus, we’ve already seen this with Sue paying the cab driver in issue #1. Reed’s clumsy snatching of the motorcycle rider to question him about Johnny is equally nonsensical.
The story starts cracking when the Thing follows a hunch and finds Johnny hanging out at his favorite garage and instantly picks a fight with him. Again, there’s nice attention to detail as Lee uses the dialog to explain how Johnny’s control is so great that can use his flame to weld car parts without risking igniting the gasoline. The splash page to chapter 2 has the Thing lifting an old car over his head to drop on Johnny, evoking — maybe intentionally, maybe not — the cover to Action Comics #1.
The relationship between Johnny and Ben is surprisingly fully formed and involving even this early in the series, as exemplified not just by Ben knowing Johnny well enough to track him down but by Johnny realizing before Ben that his temporary return to human form is only temporary. Kirby does a great job on that sequence, putting some real surprise and joy on the face of the human Ben, and then finding just the right body language to convey his disappointment that it doesn’t last.
The story finally gets to the Sub-Mariner elements as Johnny heads to the “bowery” to hide out. Kirby’s establishing shot on this sequence is an odd one because he makes it look more like a foreign country than what I imagine a poor New York City neighborhood in 1962 looked like. Still, I have to give Kirby the benefit of the doubt given that he grew up in such a neighborhood and he would know.
I think it’s kind of funny that Johnny finds an old Sub-Mariner comic book in the flop house, which would suggest comics were popular with the downtrodden working class folks of the time.
There’s a great lesson in the last three panels of page 9 as Kirby shows the hirsute Namor defeating three attackers without showing Namor at all. Instead, we get consecutive images of the attackers being forced back by the power of his blows and it’s surprisingly effective.
Regarding the Torch’s “unmasking” of Namor, I’m not sure I’d want someone with a blowtorch for a finger using it to cut my hair — controlled or not.
After we catch up on Reed and Sue, who are still searching cluelessly for the Torch, Johnny drops Namor into the ocean and revives his lost memory. I really like the panels in which Namor strips off his surface clothes and revels in the moment — another really memorable Kirby moment in an issue full of them.
As with most of the early issues of The Fantastic Four, at some point the plot reverts to the monster genre that was popular at Marvel before the superheroes were revived. Here, Namor uses an ancient horn to awaken Giganto! and sics him on Manhattan, where the officials have time to completely evacuate New York City and deploy the armed forces — all in just three panels!
Realizing they’re overpowered, Ben steps up to play hero and straps a nuclear bomb to his back and walks right into Giganto’s mouth. This is where the story goes a bit off the rails in terms of believability, but by this point the whole thing has so much momentum going it just can’t be stopped. The splash panel on page 19 of the Thing shows off some of the excellent coloring that could be done even with the limited color palettes and poor quality printing of the era. The nuke goes off just as Ben escapes and the impact merely knocks him off his feet. Poor Giganto, however, is dead.
Back to the Sub-Mariner, Sue again uses her power to good effect by stealing the horn from Namor once he spills the beans that the horn controls the beasts. When he catcher her and she turns visible, he is instantly besotted with her — and she’s obviously somewhat interested in him. It’s all very soapy and pretty entertaining, though Sue’s character suffers a bit — especially later in the series — from her being pretty much the only woman in sight amid a bunch of crazy men. So of course all them — except Johnny — are in love with her and all Stan can think of for her to do is be all fussy and girly about the whole thing.
This is the point where Stan and Jack realize they’ve only got about a page left, and so they quickly have the Torch rather inventively creates a tornado that scoops up Giganto’s corpse, Namor and the horn and tosses them out to sea, where Namor swears revenge and the Fantastic Four talk it out amongst themselves in the last panel.
Overall, The Fantastic Four #4 is a lot of fun to read. It doesn’t all make sense when you think about and there are some rough spots, but things are moving so quickly and the cool stuff is so memorable that it just doesn’t matter.
Lastly, I’ve always found it interesting that fourth issues are quite significant in most Silver Age Marvel series. This issue re-introduced Namor, The Amazing Spider-Man #4 introduced Sandman, The Avengers #4 brought back Captain America, The X-Men #4 gave us the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, etc. That obviously wasn’t planned, but it does show how quickly Marvel was finding its footing in these series and then taking it to the next level with great results.