Heroes Never Rust #36 by Sean Ironman
The third issue of Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules switches things up, and, instead of the point of view character being a member of the Fantastic Four, the point of view character is Johnny Sturm’s best friend, Richard Mannelman. I’m a fan of stories where the protagonist is not the point of view character, and this is no exception. In the regular Marvel Universe, Johnny is popular with women and enjoys the team’s popularity in pop culture. People look up to him, so it’s fitting to see Johnny through the eyes of Mannelman.
The two are pretty normal boys for the 1950s. They get bullied. They try desperately to see sexualized women, regardless of whether they are nude or not. They search for something new. The difference between the two is that Johnny is lost but still has something going for him. He’s bored with the town, but he could easily be one of the popular kids. “Johnny could have been popular—he could fix cars and girls thought he was cute. And yet he hung out with me.” Mannelman, on the other hand, has nothing. He has no other friends, no real skills to speak of, no real family. It’s a sad life, and because of it, he clings to Johnny, hoping that when Johnny makes his way in the world that he’ll take Mannelman with him.
In the end, Johnny has the turning point, not Mannelman. Johnny decides to split town, to “escape for good.” He doesn’t quite make it this issue due to some bullies catching up with him. The issue ends with Mannelman and Johnny getting beaten on the beach. But Mannelman isn’t upset about the scuffle. “If they broke all of our bones then Johnny couldn’t go. He’d have to stay. Stay with me. In Glen Cove.”
Reed and Ben don’t appear this issue, and Sue’s only in it briefly. But that makes sense, even in the regular universe, because Johnny started as a person more concerned with goofing off and with the fame then whatever serious things the others were going through. This issue also heavily features an old boyfriend of Sue’s named Joey King. A beat poet, Joey is back in town briefly and ends up convincing Johnny that he needs to leave town.
At the end of each issue, the writer, James Sturm, includes fictional information about his research. This issue features spotlights for Joey King and Mannelman. Joey’s writing is described as a pale imitation of Jack Kerouac and that he was “a minor beat poet at best.” James Sturm was unable to find Joey for an interview. Turns out (although fictionally) that Mannelman wrote a book called Hot Times and Hot Rods, My High School Years with the Human Torch. That book was his claim to fame. In a way, he did follow Johnny out of Glen Cove. James Sturm did try to interview the now fifty-two-year-old Mannelman for the comic and describes a scene in Mannelman’s New York apartment where Mannelman refuses to answer questions ,and then Mannelman’s mother calls from the other room. It was a sad scene, and made all the sadder with the photo accompanying the article of Mannelman as an adult overweight and with glasses. He looks like the cliché comic book nerd.
Mannelman and Joey King wanted fame. Mannelman focused on Johnny. King focused on Kerouac. Both became blips on the cultural landscape. King published a few poems and started a failed artist’s commune. Mannelman became an author, although his only book was about his old friend. Johnny became the famous one—the basis for a member of the Fantastic Four. But even with that, no one gave a shit about Johnny Sturm, other than someone using him as a superhero. In Joey King’s section at the back of the issue, James Sturm wrote, “King’s lasting contribution was the inspiration he provided for others.” That seems to be the case with everyone. Johnny inspired Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to create the Human Torch and Mannelman to write his book, which added to this James Sturm’s tale. Joey King inspired other artists and beatniks. Perhaps the only escape a person can really have is through inspiration.
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.