Fantastic Four #3

"The Menace of the Miracle Man!"

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby
Inker: Sol Brodsky
Letterer: Art Simek
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Cover date: March 1962
Cover price: 12 cents
Current value: about $3500

The cover screams "The Greatest Comic Magazine in the World!", a slogan, with some slight changes, which would appear on the cover for many years. And for many years, that was true. But not yet, definitely not yet. The Human Torch is drawn on the cover with two left hands, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the quality of what's inside the book.

The FF were becoming slightly more conventional. As the cover bragged, they acquired new costumes, the familiar blue tights with the '4' logo, as well as the Fantasticar. The cover also promised a look at the FF's "skyscraper hide-out", though I wonder how well one "hides out" if your "secret" HQ is a huge building in the middle of the city. The costumes, the Fantasticar, and the building (later named the Baxter Building) would become permanent fixtures in the book.

All well and good, but what about this issue's villain? You know he must suck ass if he doesn't even make it onto the cover. And he does. The Miracle Man is probably the stupidest villain the FF ever faced, and this about a team who fought the Impossible Man and the Infant Terrible.

The Miracle Man is a stage magician and the FF are attending his show. You can probably guess what's going to happen in the next 22 pages, can't you? MM points out the celebrities in the audience and mocks their puny powers. Always ready to fly into a sudden rage, The Thing threatens to pummel MM into submission but is convinced to merely accept MM's challenge of a test of strength. MM cuts a tree trunk in half with his finger, while Ben needs three blows to smash his. (Three? I thought the Thing was way stronger than this.) Then Ben's hardest blow fails to even faze MM. The FF fly the Fantasticar home despondent, fearing that MM "might be the one foe we could not defeat." Let me get this straight, they headed off an alien invasion last issue, but they're demoralized by the tricks of a stage magician? I bet the Avengers could take him.

But look, here's a kick ass diagram of the FF's headquarters, featuring our first glimpse of other gadgets like the Pogo Plane, their passenger missile, and the Fantasticopter.

"The Monster Lives!"

As if that wasn't enough, now we see the FF's new costumes, designed by the Invisible Girl. Reed, the faithful fiancee, praises her work to the skies, but Ben hates his "fool outfit" and accompanying helmet. The others kept their costumes permanently, but Ben would abandon his for a simple blue speedo next issue. They barely have time to put them on before MM shows up at the premiere of "The Monster from Mars", a televised event that Johnny is watching. The FF watches as the giant monster statue in front of the theater comes to life, and then vanishes.

MM has been considerate enough to send a note to the police commissioner which reads "I, THE MIRACLE MAN, DECLARE WAR ON THE WHOLE HUMAN RACE! I INTEND TO CONQUER THE EARTH!" It's good to have goals, I guess. The FF take the Fantasticar, which can separate into four smaller flying vehicles for each team member, and search different parts of the city for MM. Reed finds the monster, but MM incapacitates Reed by throwing a brick at him. If only Dr. Doom had thought of that.

While Reed is getting a well deserved castigation from the police commissioner, Johnny finds the monster stealing the Army's new "atomic tank". Maybe the army should have used that in 'Nam.

"The Flame That Died!"

Ben and Sue find Johnny fighting the monster. Ben strips off his "monkey suit" and charges into battle. MM takes down the Human Torch with chemical foam and makes the earth open up beneath the Thing. MM drives off with the tank but doesn't know that invisible Sue is tagging along.

"In the Shadow of Defeat!"

The rest of the FF is full o' angst about Sue going off into danger alone, and we are treated to yet another recap of their origin story. Johnny and Ben start fighting and Reed laments "Why must we always fight among ourselves?" Because, Reed, it's the only good thing about this book so far. Seriously, the squabbles of the FF have long since become a cliché, but back then infighting among a super team was a fresh and more realistic approach to super heroics.

At MM's hideout, a junkyard at the edge of town, Sue is undone. Her scent is caught by a junkyard dog, and MM makes her visible with his powers. Before she can signal for help, MM commands her to do exactly that, because he wants the FF to come to him so he can destroy them. The FF take the Fantasticopter and fly into action

"The Final Challenge!"

Reed and Ben arrive first, and MM faces them down by pointing a giant key at them. A giant key? Wait, now it's a machine gun. If you can't guess what's going on by now, there's no hope for you. Holding them off with a burst of bullets, MM and his hostage Sue take off in the atomic tank. The Torch shows up and the FF follow in pursuit in an antique racing car, number 35. MM shoots out a tire, but Mister Fantastic springs into action and forms himself into a replacement tire. Great, now we're in Plastic Man territory.

Johnny stops MM in his tracks with a blinding flash of light and Reed explains all, as he often would during the denouement. See, the Miracle Man has no powers, magic, super, or otherwise. He is a master hypnotist. No one points out the irony of the FF being hypnotized a mere issue after they hypnotized invading Skrulls. (From Outer Space.) But how did he guess, asks MM. "Because a true Miracle Man would not have needed to steal jewels…he could have conjured up all the wealth in the world!" But I guessed because he's a god damn stage magician, you idiot.

A job well done of course leads to squabbling between Johnny and Ben, prompting a fed up Torch to quit the FF and fly off in disgust. Reed is worried, not for Johnny, but for mankind. "What can we do…if he should turn against us?!!" I can't believe he just said that.

When you think about the glory that is the Lee/Kirby years of Fantastic Four, this is not one of the moments that you should think about. The hokeyness of many early issues can be excused because they were laying the foundation of greatness to come, because the characters haven't quite come into their own yet, because Lee and Kirby were experimenting, and because there were many moments of inventive glory which outshine the nonsense. But there's no excuse for crap like this, and it's almost enough to make you wish Stan and Jack stuck with the monster comics.

I had hoped that Miracle Man's first appearance would have been his last, but he turned up again in several comics, including Fantastic Four # 137, Marvel Two-in-One #8, and Defenders #120-121. He also appeared briefly in What If? # 11 (vol. 2), but since that's an alternate universe story, we can forgive that. MM was finally killed by Scourge in Thing #24. Thank goodness.

Incidentally, while issues one and two occurred in Central City, this one is obviously set in New York City. The familiar looking Baxter Building first appears here and next issue it's established that the building is in NYC. Having their adventures in real world cities was an important component of the more realistic Marvel take on superheroes, and perhaps readers identified more with adventures set in NYC than those set in Gotham City or Metropolis.

For an affordable reprint of this story, I recommend the Marvel Masterworks series, which reprints FF # 1-10 in color in one volume for $12.95. (ISBN 0760737959)

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