Arthur Asa Berger

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1197

The machines and monsters found in The Fantastic Four have direct relevance to the relationship existing between technology and American culture, a subject of considerable importance. A glance at The Fantastic Four shows that the creators of these works are fascinated with large, hulklike creatures as well as fantastic machines. The pages abound with "Hulks" and "Things"—grotesques which are unnatural in shape and appearance—ugly, fantastic and incongruous.

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On the visual level alone the grotesque is significant. Its ugliness is an affront to society and suggests that something is wrong with the social order. Just as a caricature is an attack on an individual, by means of distorting some feature of a person (while keeping resemblance), so is a grotesque an attack upon society. The distortion and ugliness of the grotesque symbolizes all that is wrong and ugly in the society which created the grotesque. (pp. 199-200)

[The] various monsters we find in The Fantastic Four provide us with the means for working through our aggressions in a rather sophisticated manner. Comic books are not exactly like films, but they function in much the same way. (p. 202)

In Marvel Comics we find a curious tendency to merge the human and the machine into super-technological entities. The powers of The Fantastic Four tend to be natural: The Thing supposedly has the "greatest human force" in the universe; other members of the team can turn into fire, become invisible, throw out fields of force or stretch—though Reed Richards is himself a scientific genius and can come up with devices to counter the various mad scientists who appear from time to time.

The villains generally cannot match the natural power of The Fantastic Four and are forced to rely on technology. Such is the case with Dr. Doom, whose mother was a witch and who learned strange mystic secrets from Tibet as well as the scientific knowledge of the Western world. Quasimodo, a machine who is made human by The Silver Surfer, and Psychoman are further examples. (pp. 202-03)

Novelists and poets generally see science and technology as a threat to humanity and recoil against it almost in panic. Thus most contemporary utopian novels are dystopies which see societies of the future as totalitarian and antihuman.

This is due, in part, to a bias in our higher arts, which have traditionally looked toward nature for a source of inspiration and wisdom. The Fantastic Four reflect a much different attitude toward science. Although the various villains are able to use science and technology for their evil purposes, they are always defeated by heroes who are superior morally and technologically. Rather than refusing to see the possibilities opened by technology, literary forms such as comic books use science for their subject matter. The victories of the good guys express a fundamental American optimism and reflect an awareness of the potentialities for good and evil in machines and a belief in man's ability to control them. Thus, comic strips have a realistic awareness of the moral dilemma posed by science and technology. (p. 203)

But what relation do these machines and monsters have to the myth of America?… The idea that America represents a new start, where history, institutions, and complexity can be left behind seems to be the essence of our myth. An antithesis is established between what America stands for—innocence, hope, individualism, simplicity, will, equality, democracy, etc.—and Europe. How do the machines and monsters in The Fantastic Four relate to the myth of America? What do they tell us about this myth as far as the viewpoint of the millions who read Marvel Comics is concerned?

For one thing we find in The Fantastic Four a recognition of the inadequacy of innocence as a stance—and of its high social cost: namely paralysis. This means that nature is not seen as beneficent in all cases, and goodness is not to be measured solely in terms of closeness to nature. How can it, when nature can produce monsters or men who will create monsters? These comics reflect an ambivalent feeling about nature: it is the source of evil as well as good, it is necessary (the power of The Fantastic Four tends to be natural) but not sufficient (Reed Richards is a technological genius).

Second, these works are intellectual (to the degree that science fiction can be intellectual)…. A radical cube may be bad science; however, it reflects an attitude about science that is quite positive but not worshipful! Progress is a function of intelligence as well as moral character, and not simply a matter of rejecting European culture and society.

Third, we find a definite expression of optimism in these stories—both in the events which take place and in their very form. In Joseph Frank's celebrated essay, "The Meaning of Spatial Form," there is a discussion of the theories of Wilheim Worringer, whose ideas are relevant to this discussion. According to Worringer, there is a continual alternation of naturalistic and non-naturalistic art styles, which are determined by man's sense of his place in the cosmos. In naturalistic periods man feels himself part of nature and able to dominate it, and his art work reproduces the forms of nature. When man feels he is not in harmony with nature he develops nonorganic, linear, and geometric forms. If Worringer is correct, the comic books (as well as Pop Art, for instance) reflect a basic confidence in man's ability to dominate the forces of technology and industrialization. For every fantastic monster or problem we find an ingenious solution and hero. Despite the violence and terror in the comics they display an underlying optimism about man's possibilities. We may question, then, whether this really is an age of the antihero? It may be for many writers and artists, but it does not seem to be the case for millions of Americans. (pp. 204-07)

Arthur Asa Berger, "Marvel Comics: Machines, Monsters, and the Myth of America," in his The Comic-Stripped American (copyright © 1973 by Arthur Asa Berger; used with permission from the publisher, Walker and Company), Walker Publishing Company, 1973, pp. 199-207.

Marvel Comics, and more particularly their editor, Stan Lee, are assured a prominent place in American popular culture for their revolution of the comic book. Lee was the first to utilize contemporary and relevant themes in the stories; he created superheroes that were far more human than most, with realistic character flaws; he expanded the audience of comic books to include college students and, eventually, their professors. The impact of the Marvel line on the comic book industry was total. No one would seem to be better qualified to relate the history of this revolution than the man who started it all. Yet for all his protestations of seriousness, Lee was apparently unable to write anything above the level of the huckster's gush that characterizes the promotional "editorial" page of the actual comics. Any account of the actualities of the development of the unique stories is absent [from Lee's Origins of Marvel Comics]; the reader learns almost nothing of the effort that went into the revolution.

"General: 'Origins of Marvel Comics'," in Choice (copyright © 1975 by American Library Association), Vol. 11, No. 12, February, 1975, p. 1760.

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