The Baxter Building bathtub
September is Cosmic Zap month here at Doctor Xaos Comics Madness blog, and this is the last one for the series. I’m including this post on a Tuesday because this year brought us a September woefully short on Sundays and Thursdays, and because I wanted to finish the formal series on a more hopeful note. Namely, reading Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four with my kids.
This post doesn’t have anything to do with the group’s flying machines. I’m talking about issues #48-50. A couple of months ago, I’d recently bought a collection including them, and realized I wanted the kids to know this story. So we piled onto the couch.
They instantly saw that this isn’t the same as all their franchise-superhero books and the movie ads. They spotted the Incredibles, were duly impressed that the makers of the film loved the Fantastic Four so much that they celebrated it with their own creation, and were interested to know that the story I was showing them was originally released when I was younger than they are now. They wanted to know what happens in this story.
The cornerstone concept hit them hard (at that time, Erik 7, Annika 7, Jonathan 6): that we ourselves dismiss little critters like ants, in terms of identity and experience of life, simply because they are smaller than our scale of energy acquisition and use. That we can’t assign moral status to an ant, either cognitively or conceptually, and that would probably still be true if they built ant-Babylons or wrote ant-Shakespeare and ant-Declarations of Independence. The analogy is explicit and repeated: Ben gets a dose of “cosmic insect repellent,” Johnny attacks proclaiming his non-insect status, but afterward stands in shock, “The same way I’d ignore a flea, after brushing it away!” Later the Torch gets this hammered into him via interdimensional journey: “We’re like ants … just ants … ants!!”
For bonus points, check out the famous “in your face” page, and watch the viewpoint travel upwards panel by panel, so that the moment Galactus suddenly realizes he has to take this seriously, is the first time we see him in a downward shot … diminishing his size relative to the reader.
They also got the Surfer plot, composed of Alicia’s and Ben’s relationship (the kids know there are “boyfriends” and “girlfriends,” whatever that might mean), compounded by Alicia’s blindness such that she is scared of neither, and to see them respond to the Surfer’s decision to rebel was to come in contact, briefly, with the joy of pure untrammeled story. They don’t know shit about the Marvel ‘Verse or fandom or geekdom as an identity. They only knew that Galactus wasn’t going to be beaten by a superpowered punch or even by a cosmic widget, but ultimately, by a blind woman’s truthful words.
Score another, too, for the points I raised about Lee/Kirby work in Fizzle. None of this would be possible without the clear, powerful, large-paneled pages, designed in the famous Kirby 6-panel scheme, and they hung on every word, absorbing the meaning, offering comment, and asking questions. They could read it. All words vs. pictures babble-debate among comics people can go fuck itself – Lee and Kirby wrote for the pictures, and drew for the words.
Galactus’ closing comments feel different when reading them aloud to kids, and when answering the spate of questions that followed.
[…] at last I perceive the glint of glory within the race of man! Be ever worthy of that glory, humans … Be ever mindful of your promise of greatness!
… For it shall one day lift you beyond the stars … or bury you within the ruins of war! The choice is yours!!
I’d read the story by myself (i.e. re-read for first time in decades) the day before, and especially enjoyed the brief scene in what appears to be the guys’ bathroom in the Baxter building purposed for communal use. It’s amusing, heartwarming, and historically thought-provoking that in designing the place, Reed thought in terms of the three of them pretty much just showering and bathing and shaving together, as if they lived in a dorm or barracks, and also to see them doing exactly that. It’s surprisingly obvious that they strip down in there without thinking about it; Ben is indubitably in the tub with bubbles and certainly not wearing his shorts, and they talk about Johnny showering in a “now that you’re here in the shower room” context. Again, very 50s manly.
The next day, the kids loved this page. Actually it started with their appreciation of Reed’s stubble – “He should shave!” – and being pleased when he did, but then, apparently you never saw anything funnier than “The Thing is in the bathtub! He’s taking a bath!” Pure identification in action, as I could see they immediately realized that if they had had a bad day trying to fight Galactus, they’d want one of those too. It also worked as a story moment, with Reed and Ben finally settling down and thinking about their situation, and Johnny coming in there all bent out of shape to be told, in essence, “oh come on, you’re in the guys’ room now, be a guy and take a shower like we did.”
This is a family comic in meanings which should be appreciated. A family can read it together. It shows a family living and working together. It offers events and topics which parents should discuss with their children, not because they’re trivial or safe, but because they’re important.
And that’s where I want to end the Cosmic Zap month posting (if not the continued occasional post thereof), because I can see here in my living room that it’s not dead after all. The morality of Galactus and the Surfer’s rebellion have entered family vocabulary. I blew Erik’s mind with Adam Warlock confronting his evil future self, and by telling him that this is a problem everyone has. I can see that this is different from getting them into a given franchise, like the cultish way dads all around me do with Star Wars – that this is about how stories work and how they’re made vivid, not about brand loyalty or geek identity or joining a going concern.
I hope you can see that too. I have discovered that the question is not whether Cosmic Zap is alive, but whether we are.
Links: Anatomy of a classic
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Posted on September 29, 2015, in Storytalk, The great ultravillains and tagged Alicia Masters, cosmic zap, Fantastic Four, Galactus, Jack Kirby, Silver Surfer, Stan Lee. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.
I just don’t know the material well enough to offer any direct comments.
But there is a blog post that might interest you. It offers a take on the old art theory concept of the “sublime” and its relevance to comics, esp. Kirby:
My two cents: what I saw in some recent comics is the panoramic 2-page spread dedicated to a massive battle scene, with a collision of fleet of planes or space ships of various sizes and a density of explosions. The cosmic vista of a person or group of persons voyaging through a space of unfathomable depths or the juxtaposition of impossible vistas, not so much. The spectacle of apocalyptic violence seems to dominate.
To go back to the ancients, the literary critic Longinus wrote “Great writing does not persuade; it takes the reader out of himself” and great illustrations could be said to do the same. (http://www.lukewhite.me.uk/sub_history.htm)
Longinus plucks out “let there be light” as an example of intense sublimity. It doesn’t always mean an overload of words or staggering complexity. A few very simple words are used to evoke the primal eruption of light into the whole cosmos, a few simple words are all the deity needs to evoke the creation that is so awesome and all-encompassing to mere mortals. That vertiginous proximity between a very finite and a near-omnipotent being is something I always associate with the Cosmic Zap. And the sublime.
The experience of the sublime includes caught up in wonder at the mind that could think THAT — that particular cosmic spectacle or freaky zap overwhelming my imagination. That a mind could imagine THAT is itself an astonishing surprise. “The image of greatness of mind” makes me aware of the limitations of my own mind just as much as the colossal objects and frightening vistas on the page make me aware of my finitude.
That experience of staring at the two-page spread — or the gatefold sleeve — and just staring, agape, is the earliest experience of the sublime I can recall. That and the “WTF?” moment of turning on the radio and hearing the orchestra grind through the concluding cadence of “A Day in the Life.”
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What especially interests me is how music, certain illustrations, and comics are better suited to access into this state than cinema or TV.
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that comics have become thoroughly subordinated to them, effectively storyboards for purported transfer or transcripts for what the screen is already showing. (There are productive crossovers – I’m thinking of the animated Batman of the early 90s and the comics that came out of them – but all too rare.) Therefore what comics can uniquely do, and what people want to do with them, or to see in them, have shrunk.
Hey I just remembered the FF bathroom shows up again, in Silver Surfer #5. It’s pretty much that same first panel, only a full page, and the Thing’s got a shower curtain around the tub this time (small favors, right?). Possibly Lee was charmed enough by the original page to keep tossing it in, who knows.
Post about any more sightings.