Tuesday, January 12, 2016
MYTHCOMICS: FANTASTIC FOUR #48-50 (1966)
The so-called "Galactus Trilogy" appeared about a year after John Broome's "Secret Origin of the Guardians." Both FANTASTIC FOUR and GREEN LANTERN had featured numerous stories about aliens and extradimensional entities, but fans esteemed both of these mid-sixties stories in particular because they revealed greater depths to the Marvel and DC universes than one got from the average SF-tale. However, it would take many years for professionals spawned from comics-fandom to celebrate some of the qualities of the Guardians' origin-tale. Within the decade of the sixties, the Guardians tale had no palpable effect. In contrast, Marvel, thanks in part to being a smaller operation, was positioned to sing its own praises for having redefined what kiddie comics could do.
I won't go into great detail here about the plot of the Galactus Trilogy. In contrast to that other famous '60s trilogy, these three issues of FANTASTIC FOUR are not a unified story, since #48 starts off by resolving the Inhumans saga from the previous issues, and #50 concludes by introducing a new menace and playing catch-up on the heroes' mundane activities. In truth, the heroes come close to playing second fiddle to the "coming of Galactus" and his surfboard-riding herald.
As a concept Galactus wasn't stunningly original. The 1957 film KRONOS dealt with a gigantic alien mechanism sent to Earth to plunder it of its resources, and just one year before Galactus appeared, DC created an almost forgotten beastie, "The World-Destroyer Creature," who menaced Adam Strange in MYSTERY IN SPACE #99.
Lee and Kirby, however, presented Galactus and the Silver Surfer with far more pomp and circumstance than they'd allowed, say, to super-powerful aliens like 1964's Infant Terrible (FF #24). When the relevant plot begins, the heroes are bemused to see weird aerial phenomena like floating rocks and curtains of flame in the sky. The local New Yorkers, despite having seen weird phenomena on a regular basis, react to these displays as if they're the "signs and wonders" of the Apocalypse itself. The FF's cosmic buddy The Watcher shows up, revealing that he created the sky-marvels in an effort to distract the Silver Surfer, herald of the insuperable destroyer of worlds, Galactus.
The Surfer is not fooled by the Watcher's deceptions; having determined that the Earth is a viable planet for his master to devour, the Surfer sends his master a signal. The Thing punches out the shiny alien, sending him flying off the Baxter Building, though we don't learn until issue #49 that he lands near the apartment of the Thing's girlfriend Alicia.
Galactus descends, and Kirby frames his stature against that of the Watcher. Kirby offers a strong visual contrast between the Watcher's usual garb-- a free-flowing toga-like garment-- with the high-tech armor of Galactus. Both are described as aliens with the powers of gods, but whereas the Watcher is an "angel"-like presence forbidden to intervene in any direct manner, Galactus is given the gravitas of an otherworldly deity. Lee frequently describes him in terms resonant of the King James Bible: the Watcher's first description of Galactus-- "He is what he wishes to be-- He is Galactus"-- is patently a borrowing from the phrase "I am that I am" in Exodus 3:14.
After the Fantastic Four fail to make any real impression on the super-alien, the Watcher enlarges on the threat he presents: that Galactus plans to use his machines to drain Earth of its "elemental force," which is the only substance on which Galactus can feed. By making Galactus's depredations a matter of survival, Lee and Kirby render him as beyond the scope of comic-book villainy.
While all this transpires, Alicia befriends the Silver Surfer. Strangely, given that the Surfer's existence is devoted to making sure his master is fed, it strikes him as strange that other entities feed by consuming organic matter. Lee and Kirby do not provide any background for the Galactus-Surfer relationship, but I'd hypothesize that Kirby's original intent was that the Surfer would have been, not an alien being in his own right, but an emanation from Galactus's own being, in much the same way that the Judeo-Christian God created his angels, according to non-canonical speculations.
The Surfer's lofty indifference soon yields-- perhaps a little too quickly to be credible-- when\Alicia pleads on behalf of the human species. The Surfer's soulful rebellion against his master remains one of the best-known moments in the history of Silver Age Marvel.
However, in point of fact, his rebellion only provides a delay to Galactus, just as do the efforts of the Thing and Mister Fantastic. The solution to the problem of an almighty planet-eater is provided by the efforts of the Human Torch, who, acting with the Watcher's direction, gets hold of a miniscule weapon capable of cutting off Galactus from future meals, by destroying the entire universe.
It's impossible to resist comparisons between the Ultimate Nullifier and the Bomb, and there's a good chance the storytellers saw the likeness themselves. When Galactus swears to leave Earth alone, he takes his leave, but not before speaking for the authors themselves: advising the barely emerged race of human beings to "be ever mindful of your promise of greatness," which has the equal potential to take humans to the stars or bury them "within the ruins of war." At the same time, the narrative doesn't dwell much on other moral issues-- such as the fact that if Mr. Fantastic used the Nullifier, it would not only provide a pyrrhic victory, since Earth would perish with the rest of the cosmos, but it would involve dooming a host of other alien worlds if Galactus chose to let everything go to hell.
For all that the Surfer is not integral to the conflict's resolution, he combines some fascinating Judeo-Christian motifs. It's hard to say whether or not either Lee or Kirby drew any conscious parallels between the Surfer and the Christian Son of God, not least because the latter does not rebel against his heavenly father. Rebellion is more the department of Satan/Lucifer, who is generally characterized as being opposed to the good fortune of humanity. Nevertheless, I think it possible that Lee and Kirby's collaboration brought a fortuitous confluence of ideas, possibly one that neither creator could have pulled off alone. In the Surfer's later appearances, the character became more visibly an Imitatio Christi, though Kirby still tended to emphasize his inability to comprehend human mores. Kirby's idea for the Surfer's origins did not appear in the canonical Marvel universe, though arguably the 1978 SILVER SURFER graphic novel may recapitulate the original idea in altered form. Lee, of course, co-opted the character and gave him a more "relatable" origin-- but that's a story for another essay.