Heroes Never Rust #20 by Sean Ironman
I keep coming back in my attempt to define a superhero to it being a person with superpowers who saves people. That is the most basic answer I can find. But what does “saving people” mean? Save them from what? In what way? Most superheroes seem to see a bad guy doing something bad, harming people or robbing a place, so the superheroes step in and put a stop to it. The end. It’s pretty easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys when a bad guy is riding a monster and smashing buildings in the middle of New York City. Where’s the line with protecting somebody? If a boulder is falling and you push a person out of the way, that’s good. If a robber fires a gun when rushing into a bank and you step in front of a someone so they don’t get hit, that’s good. Like I wrote about last week, there are actions that take away from a person’s choice and it becomes a gray area.
There are other ways that can save somebody though, outside of physically stopping some other force. A doctor may save my life by giving me suggestions on how to live in order to not have a heart attack. Whoever invented the seatbelt has saved lives. The D.A.R.E cop, from my elementary school, Officer Davis, may have saved lives. Really anybody who gives somebody else knowledge of any kind may save that person’s life. We live longer on average than people a thousand years ago because of the accumulation of knowledge in our society.
There are superheroes who are different from Spider-Man and Bat-Man. Those guys prowl for bad guys, street-level guys who are committing crimes in the moment, or possibly planning their next attack. But there are other types, like the Fantastic Four, who don’t seek out danger. The Fantastic Four don’t patrol at all really. They are more interested in gaining knowledge and exploring the possibilities of the universe, and beyond. But through their research, they will most likely end up saving more lives than all those street-level heroes put together.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the group in 1961, the beginning of the Marvel Universe as we know it. The roster has changed a few times throughout the past fifty years, but the classic team consists of the same four. Led by Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic) is a scientist who can stretch his body into any shape. By the way, a scientist in comics means the person has a mastery knowledge of electrical engineering, chemistry, aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, biology, and any other thing the writers need the character to know. Susan Storm (Invisible Woman) was introduced as his girlfriend and later became his wife. She renders light waves allowing her and others to become invisible, as well as create fields for defensive and offensive purposes. Her younger brother, Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) can burst into flame and absorb fire. And the final member is a pilot and old college roommate of Reed Richards, Ben Grimm (The Thing), who looks like he’s made of orange rock and shouts, “It’s clobberin’ time!”
What people forget about most of the Marvel heroes of the 60s is that their creations were usually warning messages about what was going on in America at the time. In the 60s, we had the space race against the Russians. In 1961, the Russians put a man into orbit, the first human spaceflight in the history of Mankind, with Vostok I. The Americans didn’t put a man into orbit until the following year. Lee and Kirby had Reed Richards, supposedly one of the smartest people in the world, get caught up in trying to beat the Reds and he spent his private fortune on building a spaceship. He rushed the test of his rocketship, along with Sue, Johnny, and Ben (who Sue called a coward when he initially thought it was too dangerous). The ship’s shielding did not prove enough to stand against the cosmic rays, which is what Ben warned Reed about.
The ship crashed to Earth, and the four passengers were mutated due to their exposure to the cosmic rays. Ben receiving probably the worst of it, being hideously transformed into the Thing. The film version sidestepped the big issue with the Fantastic Four that they get their powers, not trying to cure diseases or do something good, but trying to get around the government and beat the Russians. The Fantastic Four is part morality tale and part cosmic adventure.
The four represent the American family—Reed Richards and Sue Storm as parents, and Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm as the children. Even once Reed and Sue started to have kids, they had a boy and a girl, Franklin and Valerie. The American family. They squabble. The Thing and the Human Torch play pranks on one another and argue like two brothers. Most of it has very little to do with the cosmic rays accident. They are the American household, and even with their accident, they move forward. They explore and invent and discover the future. When Earth doesn’t hold what they want, they go to other planets, go to the Negative Zone or other realities. Nothing can stand in their way when they work together. If you want to see ideas, just crazy shit happening with comic book science and weird worlds, read The Fantastic Four.
It’s a book about the future. Look at the Thing. He’s seen worlds we can only imagine, yet he’s been deformed by a mistake. He should have fought Reed harder, not get so upset by Sue when she called him a coward, perhaps he’d have never become the Thing. But he uses that and does what we will never do. It’s the American dream, isn’t it? To disregard what has happened to make a life for yourself, a life of possibilities? Isn’t that why the team are superheroes? Not because they stop the Mole Man or Dr. Doom, but that they’ve taken the hand they’ve been dealt and they do the impossible?
Sean Ironman is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida, where he also serves as Managing Editor of The Florida Review and as President of the Graduate Writers’ Association. His art has appeared online at River Teeth. His writing can be read in Breakers: An Anthology of Comics and Redivider.