Heroes Never Rust #34 by Sean Ironman
In 1961, Marvel Comics released The Fantastic Four #1, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby. That comic changed the comic book industry. In the first issue, the Fantastic Four wore no costumes. Instead of having their abilities from birth, or gaining them through hard work, or finding some piece of alien technology, the Fantastic Four gained superpowers by being reckless. They defied the U.S. government and tried to beat the Russians in the Space Race. They crashed landed on Earth and succumbed to the cosmic radiation due to the spaceship’s weak shielding. The comic began the Marvel Age of Comics and new characters became more and more human. The Fantastic Four succeeded not just because of the wild ideas presented in Lee and Kirby’s run, but also due to the relationship between the four characters. It’s the same reason why most stories succeed.
In 2003, James Sturm wrote Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules, a historic fiction about the “real” Fantastic Four. Unstable Molecules is a four-issue miniseries that tells the story of the people who formed the basis of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s The Fantastic Four. There were no such people. Sturm is making it up, even going so far as to have a “Notes and Sources” section in the back of the comic with fake resources such as Harvey L. Beyers’s The Fantastic Four: The World They Lived In and the World they Created. Imagining people who may have formed the basis of the superhero team is an interesting idea, but the comic is one of the strongest Fantastic Four stories because nothing is in the way of studying the characters. This might as well be a literary short story written by Raymond Carver. It’s a study of the relationship between these four individuals and how alone they truly are.
The first issue isn’t really about anything. In 1958, Reed Richards is working with sub-atomic particles and is called in to help the U.S. government on a project to beat the Russians. Sue is alone at home, waiting for Reed, waiting to be rescued from nothingness. Johnny, Sue’s kid brother who she takes care of, masturbates to Vapor Girl comics and wanders around with a friend on his way to school. Ben, an aged boxing coach, is about to celebrate his one-month anniversary with a twenty-three year old. Characters talk, or in Sue’s case listen. Johnny masturbating in his bedroom is about the only “action” scene we get. But their mundane lives are fascinating.
Each issue focuses on a different character, although the others play a role. The first comic opens with Reed looking at particles through a microscope. “If anything, I know far less now than when I began. The closer I look, the greater my confusion. I’ve succeeded in isolating the sub-atomic particles but after months of research they defy any predicable behavioral patterns. There has to be a stable pattern.” Reed is brilliant and dumb at the same time. He’s one of the nation’s leading scientists, but he knows nothing about people. He doesn’t understand emotion, only logic. Later, he realizes he forgot about a cocktail party he is supposed to attend and calls his girlfriend, Sue. We watch this conversation from Sue’s point of view. We don’t get his words, only her responses, which are short and mostly consist of “Yes, Reed.” Halfway through the conversation, she sits and folds into herself while still on the phone. Reed misses everything.
Sue yells at Johnny to get up and get to school. Johnny seems depressed, maybe angry about his life. He barely says anything in the issue, a far cry from the fun playboy in The Fantastic Four comics. Sue doesn’t see it, doesn’t care to see Johnny for who he is. She is responsible for him and he needs to go to school. What he’s thinking or feeling doesn’t matter to her. Ben is distant from the other three, never actually interacting with them in this issue. At one point, he heads into the city. People greet him. He’s well liked, but he has no real conversations with anyone. When he’s in bed with his girlfriend, she’s talkative, but he only wants sex. When he’s coaching a boxer he speaks a bit more, but it’s nothing personal, just to hit harder, to push his athlete. A man working at a newsstand greets Ben and introduces his son. We don’t get the rest of the conversation, probably wasn’t much of one, if any. The newsstand man tells his boy, “Ben and I fought together in the war, Marty. Ben as a real hero, yes sir!” Ben walks into a dark porn theater.
Except for Reed’s phone call with Sue, and Sue yelling at Johnny to get to school, the characters are never in the same scene together. Instead of ending scenes at the end of pages, the comic begins scenes at the end of pages. Many of the scenes overlap. It gives the comic unity even though characters are apart. It’s all happening at the same time. There’s still movement even though little happens here. The scenes bleed into one another. Like what Reed opens with, the characters defy any predictable pattern. It’s life. It continues from one thing to the next, mostly consisting of small moments instead of those big ones everyone is waiting for. That’s what’s going on here. People waiting for something to change. Reed waiting for his big discovery to break. Sue waiting for Reed. Johnny waiting to grow up, get a girl, get a life. Except for Ben. Like in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s comics, Ben Grimm is the monstrous one, the different one. Ben’s not waiting. He’s given up. In a contradiction of his rocky state in the superhero comics, Ben is alive on the outside, the guy everyone wants to talk to, but he’s destroyed on the inside. He’s succumbed to waiting for his life to mean something. All the characters want their life to be more than what it is. It doesn’t seem like it will happen. It’s up to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to give them a fiction of being superheroes so that they break free of their lives and be in the spotlight where everyone can see them, where they reach beyond what they imagined they could do.
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.