Every week on “Sunday Page” an author has to choose a single page from a comic book. It could be for sentimental reasons o for a particular technical achievement. The conversation could lose itself in the open water of the comic book world but it will always start with the question: «If you had to choose a page from a comic book you love, what would you choose and why?»
This Sunday I’m out with Geoff Klock, associate professor in the English department at the Borough of Manhattan Community College at the City University of New York. One of his most famous books is How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, which looks at comic books through Harold Bloom’s poetics of influence.
Given your works, one would expect that you would have picked up a page from some 80s postmodern comic book. What made you went with Fantastic Four 1 2 3 4?
It is quite a marginal miniseries. Vulture magazine ran a list back in April of the 100 most influential pages in comic books and you couldn’t do that without Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, and there would be no reason to include FF1234. What I like about your project is it is so much more personal — the word “influential” or “important” yields such different results than “favorite.” With “favorite” you get to see a personality. The page I picked is not important, I don’t think, but it is important to me. The reason I picked up the miniseries was simply because Grant Morrison was the writer, but that page lingered on in my mind long after I forgot all the other pages. We pick the works of art we want to experience, to a large degree, but the things we end up loving pick us. It’s why they call it falling in love, because it is irrational, like falling. Also, and this is a less satisfying addendum, but some of my favorite academics and creators seem to take every interview as a chance to repeat everything they have already said, they seem to have a script and just read from the script, and I didn’t want to fall into that trap — I wanted to tell you about something I never told anybody, so it would mean something.
Do you remember when and how you first encounter the comic book?
This is was a time for me, in grad school, when I was getting everything Grant Morrison was doing just on principle, a principle I still mostly hold to, as I still like the guy, though not as much as I used to. Jae Lee was someone I liked from earlier on when I was in high school, and more dark and goth, and his dreary but cool art really appealed to me, when I was listening to a lot of Nine Inch Nails, and wearing all black.
And why did you choose this particular page, then?
So the basic back story for this page is that, in the issues prior, Doom is coming after the Fantastic Four with some kind of Infinity-Gem-esque handwavium nonsense, and he has successfully ruined the Thing, the Invisible Woman, and the Human Torch one issue at a time, warping their reality in an oneiric way, to take them apart psychologically, giving them, for example, what they desire but to ruin them, to take them apart at the foundations. Mr. Fantastic has been in his laboratory all this time, all three issues, and is not allowing himself to be interrupted, and we are led to believe he has no idea what has been happening. In this splash page, the last pages of issue three (of four) Doom shows up with a giant Robot to gloat that he has won; he is here to take Mr. Fantastic out, figuring their fight as a chess match and this his checkmate.
Mr. Fantastic is an odd guy. He has a doctorate, but in a genre where everybody flaunts their grad school education — Doctor Strange, Doctor Fate, Doctor Death, the Doctor from the Authority, Doctor Manhattan, Doctor Psycho, Doctor Light, Doctor Mid-Night, Doctor Claw, Doc Savage, and of course Doctor Doom — he goes by Mister. Of course the New York Times style guide, and I agree with them here, reserves Doctor for medical professionals. (When I got my doctorate my tutor told me that the only Doctor of English Literature was Doctor Johnson). So at first it seems like maybe sort of humble to not flaunt his schooling, but then of course he gets to chose a superhero name and goes with FANTASTIC, when all the other Fantastic Four members are given descriptors that don’t evaluate them in any way, and more than one of which might be vaguely insulting. And while dropping “doctor” in favor of “mister” may seem humble, it is also the kind of performative dropping of privilege that is a power move for straight white dudes. He is often portrayed as inhuman, cold and aloof, and Professor X, my favorite superhero, is often portrayed the same way. FF1234 leans into him as inhuman, cold and aloof, but then undercuts that idea in a way I admire.
What do you like about this moment?
What I really like about this page is the way Morrison overturns a cliché, and upends something in the superhero genre, pitting an old style against a new. This is a theme he returns to again and again (in the Invisibles and New X-Men especially). Here the old is Doctor Doom, who can warp reality but decides to go with a giant robot in the shape of himself, swiping at skyscrapers and swatting helicopters, in the vein of King Kong, and the X-Men’s Sentinels, and to a lesser extent Galactus, all things we have seen before; he is in classic style here, with an overconfident villain monologue, dripping in archetypes and general badassery: “Richards. In one short night I’ve taken everything. The boy is blinded, crippled and enslaved. The Monster is shattered, lost, his lover now the Mole Man’s bride in his kingdom of filth. Your wife is drowning in the deep fathoms of her adulterous frenzy. And all that remains is DOOM.” The scenery chewing is the essence of the genre.
But what the Old cannot fathom is the NEW, and that is what Mr. Fantastic is here. Morrison plays off the cliché of the Ivory Tower academic, too pure for the things of this world, cloistered away and filled with useless knowledge. Morrison’s innovation here is to re-think Mr. Fantastic’s powers a bit. He can stretch his body like rubber, like DC’s Plastic Man. But he is also a genius, very much unlike the clownish Plastic Man. Morrison connects the two, the brain and the body, and wonders if Mr. Fantastic’s real power is the ability to stretch his brain, to think in new ways. The image of him hanging suspended in the tank, his body limp and rubbery, reminds us of his powers even though he isn’t really using them in the traditional way. His mind is so active he isn’t bothering to hold his body together. Holding his body into a normal shape is something he does for other people to make them more comfortable, but here he is in isolation.
The weird blue orbs and the tentacle-like wires give him an eerie look and I love that he starts talking without at first bothering to look at the giant robot that ripped a hole in his isolation tank many stories above the ground. And the main panel cuts diagonally across the page, but it disrupts everything, it causes your eye to travel from right to left — not the direction you go when you read. It sends you back in the direction of the earlier panels on the page (when you read the page your eye travels across the page in a Z pattern). This is not an accident. Because this is the moment you have to go back in time, back to those earlier panels, and rethink everything you thought — Mr. Fantastic is not at all surprised, and in fact this was his plan all along. He knew Doom was coming and went into isolation immediately, no time for explanation, to figure out what to do about Doom. Retroactively you discover that what appeared to be his weakness, his intellectual nature, his head in the clouds, was actually his strength.
That’s why the exchange is so powerful to me. Doom says “While you’ve been locked away, I’ve been destroying your life and the lives of your family forever, Richards, tell me, What have you been doing?” Reed finally turns his head over his shoulder and replies “Well, Victor, I’ve been thinking.” This moment is amazing because society puts action and thought in opposition, and generally prefers action — Americans have not chosen a very thoughtful person to be president for example, and many on the left see over-thinking as a serious weakness. We are told Hamlet, for example, cannot act because he thinks too much: the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pitch and moment their currents turn awry and lose the name of action. And superhero comics are so much better at portraying action than thought, and emphasize action every chance they get. But here THINKING is figured not in opposition to doing, but as a KIND of doing. THINKING IS DOING SOMETHING. As a person who thinks for a living, often with no clear goal in mind, this is something that matters to me a lot. I have often considered getting this page framed and put up in my office so students can see it when they visit.
There is by the way a very similar moment on one of my favorite movies, The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man: the lead character is having a meltdown and goes to see the rabbi for advice; he is told “the rabbi is busy,” even though he is clearly just sitting at his desk doing nothing. “HE DOESN’T LOOK BUSY!” Stuhlbarg yells, in hysterics; “he’s thinking” is the deadpan reply. I realize the scene is largely parodic, but I still like the idea in there.