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Propp's Morphology and Comics: "The Fantastic Four #1"

Nathan Kiehn is the author of over 100 blog posts on his family website Keenlinks and "The Gray Guard" ebook fantasy trilogy on Amazon.

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Marvel's First Family

Marvel had Captain America. They had Namor the Sub Mariner. DC had Superman, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern—a bevy of superheroes littered the pages of comic books. But then in stepped Stan "The Man" Lee, who, alongside Jack "King" Kirby, brought to life Marvel's first family of superheroes—the Fantastic Four—ushering in an age of superhuman storytelling that has built worlds and constructed universes for over 50 years.

The FF kicked off a Marvel Age of comics, but how does their origin story hold up against a morphology that's been examining stories for more than double the time the team's been around?

Absentation: Research, Perhaps?

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We're going to tackle this issue slightly out of order, and for a good reason: FF #1 actually begins after our heroes—Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards), the Invisible Girl (Susan Storm), the Thing (Ben Grimm), and the Human Torch (Johnny Storm) already possess their abilities. So right away, we see Lee and Kirby finagling with the Proppian structure. However, I want to discuss the story chronologically. Once we're introduced to our heroes, we're given a flashback to a short time prior to the incident that gave the FF their abilities. Let's start there, as our human heroes prepare for a mission into the outer reaches.

Marvel Comics

Marvel Comics

In all honestly, it doesn't feel like something is "missing" or "lacking" here. If anything, Ben criticizes Reed's lack of research and the potential danger resulting from a planned manned mission to space without the proper precautions. However, the "absentation" phase is also good for introducing your characters and their intentions. Here, Lee and Kirby don't give us much to go on. Questions such "Why are these particular people going on this mission?" or "What's the specific purpose of this mission?" aren't answered or just glossed over. Later issues will fill out background of our characters and their intentions, but Lee and Kirby really don't offer much in the way of characterization at this moment.

Interdiction: Words from Ben and Reed

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In addition to Ben's warnings—which are eventually soothed when Susan calls him out for being a coward—Reed also delivers a warning of sorts to Johnny and Sue. Again, not much characterization is offered for either character. At the moment, we know Reed and Sue are engaged and Johnny is Sue's brother, which is all information given to us in the panel above. To his credit, however, Lee is already beginning to create a family dynamic between these four characters, even if Ben's place seems a bit murkier than the others'.

Thus, we can understand Reed warns Sue and Johnny out of care for both of them. Ben's words seem a bit more heated, angry. Reed seems genuinely concerned. While both men are worried for their lives and the lives of their friends, Reed's warning contains perhaps a hint more love in it.

Violation: We Have Lift Off

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Dispelling Reed's warnings, the quartet race by a stationed guard and board a rocket that Reed has "spent years constructing." Nowhere have the four really been given a command that they're now breaking, per se. All they are offered is the promise of potential danger. Keep in mind all this happens in the span of an entire page. Lee seems determined to move his story along and get readers caught up to the issue's beginning. Despite the pace, and even though we're not as familiar with our main characters as we could be, we at least know their general intentions by now: Reed is driven by the success of beating Russia to space; Ben feels the need to prove himself; and Susan and Johnny are remaining true to Reed and each other.

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Of course, fate rarely takes into consideration the nobility of one's intentions. Sure enough, just as Ben predicted, their craft is bombarded by radiation. Ben will ultimately crash the ship into the ground. Surviving the landing, the four undergo bizarre transformations.

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Reed stretches, Sue turns invisible, Johnny bursts into flame, and Ben becomes a craggy, orange rock monster. Their violation is not without consequences; not heeding Ben's warnings have left them with unalterable changes. Reed immediately suggests they use their newfound abilities to help the human race. This is a bit of a leap in logic on Lee's part, a quick way to turn his characters into superheroes. It isn't like they're avenging the deaths of their uncles or parents, y'know? Despite the weak premise, I at least like knowing Lee found a way for them to take the accident that made them different from others and employ that incident for something powerful and good.

Reconnaissance: The FF Form Up

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While it's usually the villain who does some research or preparation in this section, the "reconnaissance" bit is performed by our very own Fantastic Four in this issue. We don't get a glimpse of our villain until a little later, so Lee instead shows us how our altered cast of characters is drawn together by the command of one Reed Richards. These are the pages which open our story, letting Lee and Kirby play with the structure a little to give us a first, fantastic view of our superhuman protagonists.

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The FF, interestingly, don't just zip across the city to reach a bat-signal or harmlessly web their way through the concrete canyons of "Central City" (an invented metropolis; the team's location would soon change to New York City). Ben, in all his rocky glory, busts through the front of a men's department store...

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...Sue causes some havoc among pedestrians who think she's a ghost and freaks out a taxi driver when he can't see her...

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...and Johnny burns through some planes and is almost killed by a heat-seeking missile when a nearby military installation mistakes him for a UFO.

Immediately, Lee gives readers the sense that these are your typical superheroes. They're not beloved like Superman; they cause unintentional damage and panic; they don't seem to even be in complete control of their abilities quite yet. If the "reconnaissance" stage is a period of learning, it's the readers, not our villain, who do the learning. They're introduced to four individuals who want to be heroes but seem subject to human failings, as we all are.

Villainy: The Menace of...the Mole Man!

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After the Fantastic Four come together, readers are introduced to a startling sight. Some kind of "installation" in "French Africa," as the issue puts it, is suddenly swallowed up by the earth; from the pit rises a monster that terrorizes the soldiers and destroys their weaponry. Shortly before this, readers learn that the same thing happened to "an atomic plant behind the Iron Curtain" as well as an installation in Australia, so we know the Mole Man's been busy. Lee and Kirby devote a whole two pages to these scenes of explanation and destruction, drilling it into our heads that this monster—and its master, the mysterious Mole Man—are foes not to be taken for granted.

Mediation: Going After the Mole Man

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Reed discusses the Mole Man with the team and says "we've got to find out" why the subterranean supervillain has been swallowing military installations across the globe. That's really all the planning we see the FF do before they board a private jet and travel towards the Mole Man's Monster Isle.

The team's intentions really aren't elaborated on. You get the feeling that, well, they've got powers and want to help mankind, as Reed said, so it seems logical to deduce that they'll stop threats like the Mole Man. But Lee, in this issue at least, never comes out and says that. It's really up to the reader to fill in the gaps of the story, to work through Lee's assumption that readers will be familiar with the "people with superpowers who are good guys go up against people with superpowers who are bad guys" trope inherent in every comic book story. Part of me wants to commend Lee for not hammering readers over the head with tried and true tropes; a different part of me still wishes Lee had deliberately made that notion clearer.

Punishment: Battle with the Mole Man

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The FF's confrontation with their first foe takes place over several pages in the issue's final third portion. Multiple little skirmishes litter the page—Sue and Reed confound and defeat a three-headed monster; Ben keeps a rock monster from harming Sue; Reed and Johnny face the Mole Man in a battle of staves; the Human Torch confuses another, larger monster in the Mole Man's caverns. Action scene upon action scene build upon each other as Lee and Kirby lead their heroes into the depths of Monster Isle.

Marvel Comics

Marvel Comics

If anything, these scenes are further examples of the FF showcasing their abilities rather than elements of a more cohesive story. The action is certainly fun—Ben tussles with the monster and hurls it, Johnny uses his fire to keep some other beasts at bay—and Lee offers an intriguing look at the Mole Man's backstory, but I guess that's the most you can get out of this superhero yarn. Unlike Spider-Man or the Hulk, you don't get much a feeling the group is really suffering for their mistakes (though that comes a little later). They have a nice family dynamic, but little else in this issue.

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The FF do manage to catch the Mole Man, Reed's long arms grabbing the villain as he makes a break for safety. From there, our heroes flee the oncoming horde of monsters called by their master. As it appears, our villain may be facing some kind of punishment. Though Lee's backstory for the Mole Man offers a hint of sympathy towards the villain, the FF's first foe isn't someone you're meant to empathize with. He actually doesn't do a whole lot, but at least he seems to be put out of commission.

Reward: Wait, the Mole Man's Gone?!?

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Or is he? These final four panels reveal that, surprise, Reed left Mole Man behind on Monster Isle. My hunch is that Kirby just forgot to draw him in these last panels. In those days, writers and artists employed the "Marvel Method," where artists would draw the issue based on a general story outline and writers would follow up with dialogue once the art was complete. I assume that Lee then needed to fabricate a reason why, suddenly, the Mole Man no longer appeared in these issues. It doesn't matter much, as the villain still destroys his island and seemingly locks himself below ground.

Is it really a victory for our heroes? Ehhh, calling it a "victory" may be pushing it a little. I really wish the Mole Man had actually been incarcerated. Sure, the FF teamed together and stopped his nefarious plot, but now the guy is seemingly free to do whatever he wants. Reed hopes "he'll find peace down there," and Sue adds that she "hopes we have seen the last of him," but it's little comfort.

FF #1 is an interesting start for Lee and Kirby. We've been introduced to a courageous quartet of individuals who haven't quite embraced a superhero status. Lee really delivers home the point that the FF is, foremost, a family. Unfortunately, driving that concept deep into readers means some of the other story elements take a backseat in Reed's private jet.

© 2019 Nathan Kiehn