Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Time, Time, Time, See What's Become of Me: Walk Like an Egyptian

Fantastic Four #19Time travel stories! Who doesn't love 'em? Hitler, that's who...because they always spell yet another pesky assassination attempt on his life. Everybody else loves time travel stores, and if you don't, well, maybe you oughta stay away from this blog for the next handful of days, because like Dr. Sam Beckett, we'll be leaping forwards and backwards in time, reading about time travel stories. But not willy-nilly, no way...that's no way to go zipping through the fourth dimension! Nope, there's a schedule and a plan to this trip, and it'll all become more apparent as...hee hee...time goes by. So get your outdated clothing on and set your Wayback Machine for fall of 1963. No, we're not gonna save Jack Kennedy...all you need is twelve cents so you can step up to a newsstand and buy yourself a copy of Fantastic Four #19! (One per time traveler, please...no trying to corner the back issue market!)

This isn't the first time travel story of the Marvel Age of Comics (I think that must be Fantastic Four #5) but this is probably the second, starting a precedent of the FF as not only global-, galactic-, and dimensional- but chrono-explorers as well. And, in the best tradition of Marvel's First Family, the fantastic voyage is undertaken not for battle or even for exploration...but simply to help a friend. As the story opens, Mister Fantastic has been spending at day at New York's Museum of Natural History. And he ain't goin' there just to hit the gift shop! You'd wonder what a museum could teach someone with the big rubbery brain of Reed Richards, but that's the beauty of Reed: he never stops learning. He must be real fun when Sue wants to watch American Idol and he insists on keeping the big-screen Fantast-TV tuned to The Discovery Channel.

Anyway, in the Egyptian wing, Reed has made this amazing discovery:
FF #19 panel
All panels in this post (except those featuring Daredevil) are from Fantastic Four #19 (October 1963), written by Stan Lee, art by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers

How smart is Reed? Reed is pretty dang smart. He not only immediately realizes that that is a portrayal of a radioactive vial (as opposed to, say, an urn full of garlic), but he reads the hieroglyphs correctly. Big deal, you say? You could interpret those hieroglyphs as fast as the World's Smartest Man, huh? Well, did you realize that hieroglyphs are read, usually on alternate lines, from right to left instead of the usual left to right? No? I didn't either until I consulted Reed Richards' Big Book of Science Facts, Volume 12: Egypt (I got it through Scholastic Book Club!) Reed instantly knows that these four hieroglyphs paint the story of a pharaoh regaining his vision (left to right) rather than losing it (right to left) because the faces point to the left. Or, as Wikipedia, "The Encyclopedia That Tries to Be Smarter Than Reed Richards But Is Sadly Lacking In Its Entry on Skrulls," puts it (emphasis mine):
Hieroglyphs are written from right to left, or from left to right, from top to bottom, the usual direction being from right to left. The reader must consider the direction in which the asymmetrical hieroglyphs are turned in order to determine the proper reading order. For example, when human and animal hieroglyphs face to the right (i.e., they look right), they must be read from right to left, and vice versa, the idea being that the hieroglyphs face the beginning of the line.
So Reed instantly knows this is the tale of a cure for blindness, not a cause of one. Why? Because Reed Richards is smarter than you are. (I give bonus points to Jack Kirby too, for by design or accident, drawing the hieroglyphs in the correct orientation).

So, upon realizing there is an improbable but existent cure for blindness back in the age of the Egyptians, Reed's thoughts immediate fly to one person. No, not this guy:
DD #1 splash page
Splash page from Daredevil #1 (April 1964), written by Stan Lee, art by Bill Everett

Why? Because while Reed's smart, he ain't psychic: Daredevil would not premier in the Marvel Universe until March 1964, six months from now in our world (and probably a couple weeks later in the MU). No, Reed is thinking closer to home: The Thing's blind girlfriend, Alicia Masters. He theorizes that if the FF can journey back in time using the time machine of Doctor Doom (from FF #5), abandoned in the Adirondacks headquarters of ol' Tin-Face at the end of that book-length saga, then they can retrieve the cure for blindness and have Alicia wide-eyed and blinking in time for that night's showing of The Nutty Professor at the Yancy Street Rialto cinema. Given such an opportunity, d'you think The Thing cautions care and restraint? Think again, true bull-iever:
FF #19 panel

In less time than it takes Jack to draw it (and that's pretty darn fast), the Fantastic Four are at Doom's castle and firing up his time machine. Dumb Doctor Doom...he left the keys in it and everything! But while Reed is pretty dang smart as sussing out a cure, even kind-hearted little stuffed me has got to quibble with his choice of who will stay behind and run the time machine:
FF #19 panel

Yes, that's right...let the blind woman run the time machine. Maybe then you can put her behind the wheel of a bulldozer. That's right up there with letting Deanna Troi steer the Enterprise. But I'll forgive that slightly-silly sight for the very next panel. Get your hankies out now, this one's gonna make you tear up:
FF #19 panel

Ben Grimm and Alicia Masters: the Rick and Ilsa of the Marvel Universe.

Quicker than you can say "flux capacitor," the FF are standing on hot sands under a scorching sun, and they're not on Coney Island beach:
FF #19 panel

As Reed observes, the Sphinx is brand-new: not only is its famously Napoleon-chipped nose intact, it apparently still has the warranty tag attached. (Don't tear it off under penalty of law!) Reed doesn't mention the exact year they've landed in, but as the Sphinx is believed to have originated sometime around the third millennium BC, they've got to be almost five thousand years in the past. As we'll find out eventually, they're in 2940 BC. (And yet, that date is never given in this book. So how do I know that year? Stay tuned, gentle time-traveling readers...)

Because there's no way Stan 'n' Jack would tell us a story in which there wasn't some element of excitement, the FF are immediately attacked by Egyptian soldiers who don't seem to quite be who they should be...
FF #19 panel

Silly fake Egyptians! You can't beat the Fantastic Four and their amazing cosmic-ray spawned powers! Why, as long as those powers exist, there's no way they can be defeated...
FF #19 panel

Whoops. Sorry I spoke there.

The FF wake up, defeated and powerless, at the sandaled and no-doubt stinky feet of Pharaoh Rama-Tut (in his first appearance, kids! File this away under your "special origin issues!"):
FF #19 panel

And just to save us all on long introductions, it's handy that Rama-Tut already knows who the FF are:
FF #19 panel

Reed blurts out dramatically: "There is only one possible answer, incredible though it may be...you've looked through our wallets while we were unconscious!" Oh wait, no, that isn't the reason:
FF #19 panel

Rama-Tut is actually a time traveler from the year 3000, where he became bored sitting around all day, watching cheesy movies, the worst that he could find. He had to sit and watch them all, while they monitored his mind:
FF #19 panel

So he built a spaceship in the shape of...no, wait, Stan's going someplace with this, don't laugh...in the shape of a sphinx and traveled back to Egyptian times:
FF #19 panel

In the crash he lost his eyesight but was later cured by herbs irradiated by the crash of his Sphinx-Ship. Radiation! Is there anything it can't do in the Marvel Universe? What do you think, Daredevil?
DD #1 panel
Panel from Daredevil #1 (April 1964), written by Stan Lee, art by Bill Everett

Yes, it's true: no one ever dies of radiation poisoning in the Marvel Universe.

Not unlike the cruel and hard-hearted Yul Brynner (don't smoke!), Rama-Tut has some deliciously evil plans in mind for his captives. Kept under control with the will-sapping rays of Tut's Year 3000 stun gun, Ben is sent to row a slave ship, Reed becomes a high-headed spy, Johnny a flaming court circus clown.
FF #19 panel

And Sue? Why, the worst fate of all: Bride of Rama-Tut!
FF #19 panel

Say, what's up with that slave girl on the extreme right in that panel? How come she's not helping out? Hmmm, another mystery for another time...

Not as big a conundrum as what happens next, especially since the whole story hinges on it: The Thing is mysteriously transformed back into Ben Grimm when the hot desert sun shines down on him and "the molecules of his body begin to react in a startling manner.":
FF #19 panel

Wha...huh? How did that work? If that's all the Thing needs to cure his rocky life, why doesn't he just move to Tucson, Arizona? Well, Stan doesn't give us a second to think about this weird turn of events, because even back in the years of Ancient Egypt, it's clobberin' time! Ben Grimm is bustin' loose and bustin' teeth!
FF #19 panel

Freed from Rama-Tut's thrall, Ben breaks out Johnny and Sue, and together they rescue Reed: Four once more! (Didja ever doubt it?) Pursuing the fleeing Rama-Tut, they burn their way up into an abandoned control room inside the super-Sphinx:
FF #19 panel

...and search for him for the next few exciting panels. They search him here, they search him there, they search that Rama everywhere. (And I just love this panel of Reed stretching through conduits, don't you?):
FF #19 panel

...but despite having a time machine, and maybe because the Rolling Stones haven't recorded that song yet, time is not on their side. Rama-Tut escapes into space and time in his handy-dandy escape pod:
FF #19 panel

The seeds of a vast dynasty of time travelers is planted for the first, ahem, time, when Reed theorizes just who Rama-Tut's great-great-great-great-great- (etc.) granddaddy might be:
FF #19 panel

But no biggie, especially when they find what they're lookin' for in the first place: the radioactive optic nerve restorative, handily labeled in English:
FF #19 panel

They escape back to '63 just in time before Rama-Tut's defense mechanisms destroy the high-tech interior (but not the exterior) of the Sphinx:
FF #19 panel

Without even pausing to pick up some souvenir postcards, the FF return to their own time:
FF #19 panel

But surprise! The cure didn't come back with them! Butterfingers Sue has dropped the vial! No, seriously, I'm lying, and I'm not being fair to Sue. (Butterfingers!) In reality, Reed theorizes you can't transport radioactive materials through a time machine...huh?
FF #19 panel

Whoa, okay, Mister Pseudoscience, we'll take that at face value, if for no other reason than it means we don't have to read any Daredevil: Time Traveler stories.

Reed immediately vows he will not rest, he will not stop until he recreates the radioactive cure for blindness in his own lab. He will never cease working on this panacea to help his friend's girlfriend. He will work on it until he succeeds!
FF #19 panel

The hunt for this cure, of course, is never mentioned again.

Ah well. Don't blame poor Reed; he's got plenty on his mind. (Next issue: The Molecule Man! The Watcher! And more FF fan mail!) In the meantime, Sue counsels Alicia to comfort Ben, and Alicia kindly refrains from snapping back "But I'm the blind one here!"
FF #19 panel

Now that's a poignant hopeful heartwarming ending, a key mark of the Stan Age of Comics, and despite its slightly downbeat note, I'd easily term this as one of the Most Fun Comics Ever. But even if you give it some allowances for being an early Marvel superhero comic, there's still at least one major plot hole you could drive a Fantasti-car through: why would a hot sun make The Thing revert to Ben Grimm? For the mystic and mysterious reason, Marvel readers would have to wait nineteen years, but you lucky people you, you only have to wait until tomorrow. (Those of you who know it, don't give away the strange answer in the comments, 'kay?) See you tomorrow, time travelers!


Anonymous said...

Hey, remember when Reed figured out the Watcher's time travel doohicky in like five minutes?

Reed IS insanely smart.

And maybe he figured he should cure Ben before doing the blindness cure so Alicia doesn't leave Ben.

km said...

Ooh, harsh. But accurate.

semanticdrfiter said...

Or how about a few years later in FF Annual #2, where Rama Tut picks up Dr. Doom drifting through deep space and they totally blow each other's minds by thinking how they might actually be the same person, only in each other's future or past? It made no sense to any whose name doesn't rhyme with "Tan Tree."

Bill S. said...

Reed theorizes you can't transport radioactive materials through a time machine...

Wait... the Fantastic Four are radioactive materials!! What gives?

jayunderscorezero said...

He's from the year 3000 and he just sits around watching dodgy old movies. Seriously? That is scarily prophetic.

SallyP said...

Wait...they let a blind woman operate a time machine...by TOUCH. And then they let ol' butterfingers Sue handle the cure? These are Stan Lee Women! They are complete idiots. They are SUPPOSED to be complete idiots.

Obviously, Reed was secretly sabotaging the whole enterprise from the beginning. Yes, that's it.

Anonymous said...

To keep Ben's relationship intact!

It all fits!

(oh, and in John Bryne's run on FF, it turns out Ranma Tut is Reed's half sibling's great great etc. grandson. Weird.)

Brett said...

>>Or how about a few years later in FF Annual #2, >>where Rama Tut picks up Dr. Doom drifting >>through deep space and they totally blow each >>other's minds by thinking how they might actually >>be the same person, only in each other's future or >>past? It made no sense to any whose name >>doesn't rhyme with "Tan Tree."

I just read that story to my 4-year old kid. She was as confused as I was.