Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Issue #3 introduces a lot of what the comic is famous for, along with one of its more obscure villains.
The tale begins with the FF at a magic show. Because why not? The magician calls himself the Miracle Man, and shows his superhuman strength to be far greater than the Thing’s. Reed ruminates on how glad he is that the Miracle Man is not a criminal. Spoke to soon, because the next scene has Miracle Man saying it’s time to throw off his “mask of respectability” and make the world fear him. That’s his motivation, apparently, to demonstrate how powerful he is and make everyone be afraid.
From there, we get the debut of the flying Fantasticar, a great Jack Kirby invention that gives each member of the team his or her own section of the vehicle. We also get the first cutaway of the FF’s headquarters, showing, among other things, a projection room, a conference room, and a photo analysis room. Also at headquarters, Sue debuts the FF’s uniforms, with her saying, “we’re in this business of crime fighting for real!” Before this point, the characters just wore normal clothes. OK, so the story goes that in between the last issue and this one, the folks at DC had introduced the Justice League to great success, and the folks at Marvel felt the pressure to take the FF and make them more traditional superhero-y. I have no idea if that’s true, but the story is out there. (See also: Similarities between the Fantastic Four and DC’s Challengers of the Unknown.)
Back to the story, there’s a lot of hype in town over a new movie, THE MONSTER FROM MARS, and a life-size fake monster constructed outside the theater. The Miracle Man shows up and makes the monster come to life, and leads it on a rampage across the city. The monster destroys cars, steals diamonds, and gets caught up in Reed’s body when Reed stretches across to buildings to stop it. The monster then attacks the “local ordinance depot” to steal an atomic tank, only to be stopped by the Human Torch, who burns the monster to the ground, revealing it was made of wood and plaster the whole time. The Miracle Man douses Johnny’s flame with chemical foam (where’d he get that?), and stops Ben by making the ground open up beneath him. Sue, while invisible, sneaks aboard the stolen tank as Miracle Man makes his escape.
Back at headquarters, Johnny and Ben have a pretty nasty argument, ending with Ben wanting to hit Johnny. This isn’t the amusing family bickering that the characters are known for, but more like a “some things can’t be unsaid” type of argument. Elsewhere, At Miracle Man’s hideout, a junkyard, Miracle Man discovers Sue, hypnotizes her so she’s under his command, and has her summon the rest of the team as a trap. The big confrontation begins with a weird scene in which he aims a giant key at our heroes, only to transform it magically into a machine gun. Reed dodges the bullets as a bouncing ball, and the bullets just bounce off of Ben. The Miracle Man takes off in the atomic tank, and Reed, Johnny and Ben follow in an antique roadster which we’re told is stored at the junkyard “between exhibitions.” Your guess is as good as mine. The chase has a funny bit in which Reed stretches himself around one of the wheels as its tire, before Johnny blinds the Miracle Man with a burst bright light from his fire.
As the Miracle Man recovers his sight, Reed deduces the truth. Miracle Man has no supernatural powers, but instead accomplished all this through hypnotism. Wait, what? He hypnotized the entire city, including police and soldiers, into merely thinking they were seeing all this? What did Johnny burn down? What about that tank? Or the stolen jewels? Maybe in the early ‘60s, hypnotism was far-out science, but still. The big deal about the ending isn’t the Miracle Man’s reveal. It’s the comic’s first cliffhanger. As Ben continues to berate Johnny, Johnny up and announces that he’s quitting the team. He flies off, and the others wonder what will become of their little family dynamic.
Unstable molecule: Reed turns himself into a bouncing ball to dodge bullets (would that work?) and the bit where stands in for a tire in the middle of a chase (that’s gotta hurt).
Fade out: Sue does the stealth thing by sneaking into the Miracle Man’s hideout. Too bad she gets caught right afterward.
Clobberin’ Time: Ben pretty much gets his butt handed to him this issue, humiliated and then defeated by the Miracle Man.
Flame on: Johnny saves the day twice in this one, first by destroying the monster and then by blinding the bad guy. Then, after all that, Ben still gives him grief. No wonder he left.
Trivia time: The Miracle Man won’t be seen again until issue #139. He went on to develop actual supernatural powers, only to be killed by the Scourge (“Justice is served!”) and later brought back from the dead in a scheme to take out the Punisher, after which he went back to wallowing in obscurity. This is not the same Miracle Man from the Marvelman/Miracleman legal troubles that have been pockmarking the comic industry for the last couple of years.
Fantastic of Frightful: Nothing about the Miracle Man makes sense, and it’s no wonder he’s not considered a “classic” villain. The meat of the story, though, is the tension between Johnny and Ben, which drives Johnny to quit the team. Going back to those Justice League comparisons, the League of this era were all buddies, so this conflict among the FF must have been something quite surprising for readers of the time. Plus, the group breaks up only three issues in. It’s enough so that you can’t wait to pick up the next issue.
Next week: Here’s Subby!
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