Bonus Issue: Casual Sexism in early Fantastic Four

Note: Due to the images in this post, it is too long for regular emails, you may need to click through to read through to the end.

The Fantastic Four have some very impressive powers. Their leader, Reed Richards, can stretch across the city and is impervious to most physical attacks. The Thing is massively tough and strong. In addition to flying and controlling fire, the Human Torch seems to get new special abilities every second issue. One member is clearly different. Sue Storm can turn invisible.

In the early years Jack Kirby and Stan Lee struggled to make her ability useful. About two years into the run (issue #22) Stan and Jack gave her the additional ability to create and control invisible force fields (she would eventually become one of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe). But initially she was clearly the weakest member of the group. Add to that the casual sexism that Stan Lee used when he wrote the character, and many of the early issues are cringe-worthy when read by modern eyes.

Here are some of the panels that caught our eye in the first twenty issues.

Sue as hostage plot device

Like other women in the early Marvel Silver Age Sue often used as a plot device by being captured and held hostage by the villain of the month.

In the third issue Sue is kidnapped by Miracle Man and used as bait.

In the fourth issue the team encounters Namor, the Submariner. The merman demands Sue marries him or he will destroy the human race:

She demurs at first, but in the next panel:

(The boys defeat him anyway).

The Fantastic Four’s greatest antagonist is Dr Doom. In his first appearance in issue #5 he demands Sue come aboard his ship as a hostage (she does).

Doom uses his hostage to force the boys to go back in time and collect some pirate loot for him. Sue stays at his side and misses all the action.

Sue gets a reprieve for a few issues, before being kidnapped by the Puppet Master in issue #8:

In Fantastic Four #13 the team become the first Americans to go to the moon Unfortunately in this alternate history the Soviet scientist, “The Space Ghost”, gets their first. When the two groups encounter each other on the moon, the first thing the super-communist does is take Sue hostage:

The second time the team goes back in time (FF #19), Sue gets to go with them. But no sooner are they in ancient Egypt than Rama Tut (who later becomes Kang the Conqueror), decides to take Sue prisoner as his defenseless queen.

What does Sue do when she is not being kidnapped? Mostly the things that Stan Lee though of as “female activities”:

Dressing up with wigs…

…and trying out perfume:

In Fantastic Four #15 the team breaks up for a short time. The boys go off to have adventures, but the first thing Sue think about is how she won’t have to wear the team costume, and can “dress the way she always wanted to”:

She is regularly worried about her appearance:

At least she can turn invisible when she has curlers in her hair:

And she shares her sense of style with the rest of the team:

What might be the most offensive is the casualness of the sexism. When Reed finishes up some analysis, he knows it is time for Sue to type up his notes:

In Fantastic Four #11 the teams adventures slow down while they answer “reader questions”. The in-universe explanation is the team responding to in-universe fan letters, but it is clearly a response to real comic readers who have written in. And it seems many of the readers are not impressed with Sue Storm:

The team tries to make her feel better. Sure she has the weakest power set, she keeps getting held hostage, and she sits out the biggest adventures, but she is still important, right? Just like Abraham Lincoln’s mother…

In Fantastic Four #12 the Marvel Universe has its first modern “cross over”. The Fantastic Four are tasked with tracking down and stopping the Incredible Hulk. General Ross explains why the boys’ powers will be important to the fight, but leaves out Sue. When she asks if she is “just along for the ride”, the general responds: “A pretty young lady can ALWAYS be of help — just by keeping the men’s morale up”. Instead of defending her, Reed backs up the general: “That’s the way WE feel about Sue General”.

But maybe the general was right. When the general shows the team a film of the Hulk, Sue freaks out:

In Fantastic Four #16 the team meets their first super hero (Ant Man). While the boys discuss the nature of his powers, and whether he might be responsible for some recent events involving shrinkage, Sue is more interested in talking about how cute he would be (if he were taller):

It is all pretty terrible. But believe it or not the early Fantastic Four was “woke” compared to what was happening in some of Marvel’s other titles. Those panels will be for another day. Subscribe and follow so you don’t miss them!

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