Monkeying Around On The Moon: The Fantastic Four and the Space Race

Only a genius such as I, Ivan Kragoff, could have trained a gorilla to operate a space-ship! – Red Ghost

Journey Into Marvel – Part 84

The Transparent Space Race

The Transparent Space Race

Extremites, I am obsessed with space; the idea of travelling beyond the clouds, into nothingness, enthrals me. I keep Apollo 13 on repeat. Glow in the dark stars bedeck my bedroom ceiling. The ingenuity of  the Space Race inspires me. I wonder what it felt like to witness the nightly news in 1963.  In today’s issue we get a glimpse into what that feeling was.

Fantastic Four #13 is another mile stone issue. It’s considered the first foray into space exploration which is what the FF stories would later become obsessed with.  It also features the enigmatic debut of Uatu, the Watcher, a character that holds great significance in the wider Marvel universe, as the stories begin to venture father from Earth. Uatu is shown as a distant creature who has settled on the moon who travels in a flying saucer. Uatu holds significance from the get go.

This issue is more significant then just the debut of a character. It also shows us the foundations of NASA.

Up until 1963 the Space Race had been dominated by the Soviets. This irked Red mad America. All sorts of resources were pumped into scientific exploration to make America’s dominance of the moon paramount.

The Fantastic Four have it easier. Reed Richards goes out where he discovers energy locked inside a meteor and blasts off into the wild blue yonder. If only real life worked like comic books.

Ivan Kragoff and one of his Super Apes

Ivan Kragoff and one of his Super Apes

The main antagonist is a Soviet scientist named Ivan Kragoff. He also has found meteor energy. With a trio of super smart apes he ventures off into space. When the Soviet mission crosses the same cosmic rays that gave us our favourite quartet of superheroes; Kragoff and his apes gain their own crude superpowers. They turn out to become a Soviet parody of the Fantastic Four.

The Fantastic Four know nothing of this parody quartet honing in on their space adventure. Reed uses this expedition as any scientific genius would and cranks out all sorts of scientific experiments like the ‘autoweb suit’ which creates an artificial atmosphere around the Human Torch’s body so that he can ‘Flame on’ in the vacuum of space. There’s all sorts of great Fantastic Four experiments and Ben Grimm/Johnny Storm riffing.

A couple questions come to my mind though.

Ivan Kragroff is presented much like the other scientist characters of Stan Lee. He is the lone mind in the Soviet Union to think about an expedition to the moon. Does this seem plausible to you, dear Extremite?

It’s just another piece in a long line of Marvel propagandist reductions of Soviet characters. The most blatant politicization to date is in this issue. Ivan Kragoff is called ‘the Red Ghost’ due to his new found ability to make himself transparent. Sue storm compares the tyrannical control he has over his ‘super apes’ to the “festering and scrawling masses of the Communist Empire.”

Wow, Stan. That’s harsh.

Uatu, the Watcher first appears!

Uatu, the Watcher first appears!

A main plot line of the issue is Uatu’s trial by combat between the Fantastic Four and Kragoff with the apes. The Watcher is holding these humans liable for all the grief and barbarism of humanity.

Sound familiar?

Trekkers will know this story from the iconic pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where omnipotent Q does the same to Captain Jean Luc Picard. There’s even hints of the later Original Series episode The Arena where Kirk battles the hissing Gorn for the pleasure of Alien gamblers.

Extremites, all these things are connected.

As usual there are negative bits of writing that remind me that Stan is not the greatest writer. For instance, the first tactic the Four use to defeat Kragoff’s apes is to attack with brute force. Of course they are blown back. They Four have used this tactic in every issue.  Mr. Lee makes sure to note the ‘emotionless voice of the Watcher.’ Yet, the Watcher spends much of this issue in an out right fit against Ivan Kragoff. This is an odd piece of writing that, given more time to edit, would have been removed.

Negatives aside, this issue is a great example of the sense of wonder that pervaded the zeitgeist of the time about space and the moon. The idea that there may be an atmosphere and even life on the moon was in very prevalent in 1963 America. This is one of those issues that explains why the company is called Marvel because there is a lot of marvelling at the majesty of the unknown.

Until next time, Extremites, I remain: Julian Munds.

Story I Read:The Red Ghost And His Indescribable Super-Apes!” (Fantastic Four #13 Apr. 1963)

Rating: 3 out of 5

Pros: Exciting story with whimsy. A detailed villain. Great political allegory and parody.

Cons: Thin convenient plot points like the meteor energy and the lack of Soviet will to go to the moon. The Watchers inclusion is out of place. He has no point but the ending seems to suggest that he has a significance that story does not establish.

Next Review:The Voice of Doom!” (Tales to Astonish #42 Apr. 1963)

Last Review:The Uncanny Threat of the Terrible Tinkerer” (Amazing Spider-Man #2 May 1963)

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About Julian Munds

I possess a degree in Theatre and Drama from the University of Toronto. I own my own theatre company called Snobbish Theatre. We focus our work on new versions of classics.

Posted on July 13, 2015, in Comics, Marvel, The Fantastic Four, The Watcher, Uatu and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I really like the art in this issue, with Jack Kirby inked by Steve Ditko. It is interesting to see a collaboration between two artists with very different styles. This result is some distinctive and unusual art which very much suits the odd tone of the story.

  1. Pingback: Young vs. Old Part II: Spider-Man and the Terrible Debut of the Tinkerer | THE EXTREMIS REVIEW

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