Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Cold War Xenophobia and The Fantastic Four

The Story I Read: “A Skrull Walks Among Us!” (Fantastic Four #18, Sept 1963)

The Super-Skrull in action.
When I first saw the title of this issue, I held out little hope for a good story as the dreaded word ‘Skrull’ was in the title. The Skrulls made an earlier appearance in the Fantastic Four (issue #2) and it is etched into my mind as a hokey pathetic story that had all the wrong kind of camp. With expectations low, I dove in and, happily, I was surprised. This issue, while no means Earth shattering, is a hilarious little romp that plays with the major weaknesses of the Four. Namely, their egos.

Skrulls are pathetic looking creatures that are reminiscent of frogs and strike me as a fairy tale remnant of the penny dreadfuls Marvel used to create in the Golden Age. Stan Lee attempts to shake that reputation by coming up with a very smart plan for them to beat the Four at their own game. The masters of ‘Skrulldom’ create a Super-Skrull that possesses all the Four’s individual powers in greater quantities. It is established the Skrulls possess some sort of malleability so they seem to create this Super-Skrull in some earlier experiment not discussed. When the fun begins I didn’t care much that I had no clue how the Super-Skrull was created. The fight begins and as is standard Fantastic Four battle strategy each character launches themselves individually to face the extraterrestrial villain. One by one they are all predictably defeated and run back to the penthouse to come up with a new strategy. The plan turns out to be to fool the Super-Skrull into a live burial.  Long story short, they team up, fool the ‘ultra-Frog’ and leave him to die in a hole.  If it weren’t for all the laughs this would be a terrible story. 

Campiness aside this story does have an interesting theme; a theme that has reared its head countless times in these issues. Aliens seem to invade Earth on the regular. Ignoring the fact that highly idiotic normal folk continue going on with their simple lives pretending aliens do not exist and gods aren’t tossing their hammers around New York, it’s astounding that every alien race seems to come to Earth in a petty attempt to destroy superheroes and not, you know, rape the Earth of its resources or resettle the planet. What does this say about the mindset of the 60s sci-fi reader and writer? There is a belief prevalent in which every foreigner and alien wants to destroy the American way of life. This is an expression of Cold War xenophobia which permeated the Red mad West of the time. These stories open a glimpse to the anxieties of the common bread eating full blooded 60s American. Their lives were not all about going to the department store and getting an ice cream float. While they were happy, perhaps the happiest in American history, they lived under the constant threat of dominance and destruction from the Soviets (real or invented, it’s what they believed). It is the duty of every American super hero therefore to destroy or torture anything that doesn't belong. I’d love to see a positive alien force in one of these issues  because the invasion story line is really getting tired. 

As I mentioned before, there is some great moments of humour in this issue. The Four go on a hilarious shopping trip that descends into chaos when they become bombarded with fans.  I laughed as each character in their own way escaped what must surely be a burden to public personalities. The metahumour is many times the best part of the Fantastic Four. By this point Fantastic Four have almost become parodic; less like a series and more like a comment on comics as a medium. 

The art is improving. Detailed backgrounds have become de rigueur and there is a cleanliness to action that was not there even two issues ago. Jack Kirby’s Reed Richard’s facial features have become soft and it looks like he is attempting to shave some years and harshness off his formerly forbidding persona. Maybe in an effort to make the relationship between Reed and Sue more believable. 

This issue is a 3 out of 5. A mundane storyline with a great sense of humour and not a lot to moan about. I remain curious as to the future of the buried Super-Skrull.   
A Cartoon Showing the Irrational Fear of Communism

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