8. Prisoners of the Puppet Master

Issue Eight, Nov 1962

“I wish you could see it, Alicia! It is a small figure on me — but not as I am now! No, it is the Puppet Master — ruler of the world!”

SUMMARY
Reed is inventing in his lab and won’t let Ben see what he’s working on and so The Thing leaves in a huff, with Sue invisibly following him. Going out to look for him, The Torch rescues a man who is climbing to the top of the bridge, swooping in just as he is about to jump. It is revealed that the power that was compelling him to do so was directed by The Puppet Master, who uses radioactive clay to control small, scale models of his victims. He makes one of Ben and directs him to his apartment, where he and his blind step-daughter live. Using ether gas, he knocks the Invisible Girl out. Noticing the similarity between her and Alicia, he dresses the blind girl as Sue and sends her back with the still mind-controlled Thing. They infiltrate the Baxter Building and Ben begins to wreck the place, knocking into the lab where Reed was working on what is seen to be a cure for Ben’s condition. It restores him to his human form briefly, but enough to stop the Puppet Master’s mind control. Meanwhile, the Puppet Master has orchestrated a prison break. The Fantastic Four manage to get the prisoners under control and race back to the Puppet Master’s apartment, to find that he has fallen out of the window in a struggle with his blind step-daughter.

COMMENTARY
Issue eight is a very welcome return to form, and is probably the most enjoyable story since the debut issue. The Puppet Master is a terrific classical Marvel villain, with just the right amount of pathos and power.

Able to control anyone in the world through his “radioactive clay” (previously, this plot device might be ‘mystical’ or ‘magical’ — if Doctor Doom were using it, it would be), the Puppet Master also is the step father to a blind girl. This relationship is never fully explained, in this issue, and it’s all the more compelling for being a mystery. Had some explanation been given as to why Alicia Masters is his dependent, it very probably would have devolved into a sort of origin story with very contrived reasons for why the small, odd-looking man should keep her as his daughter. But no, it just is. And there’s something very touching about that relationship for being all the more matter-of-fact. This does a great deal to humanize him, as does his slight, oddball appearance. There is nothing about the Puppet Master that is imposing. He works from his own apartment which is now a sharp contrast from the grand landscapes of the last issues — even issue 4 which is the only other adventure so far to take place solely in New York, took place in ALL of New York. The scope of this issue is much smaller, with only three locations, and the intimacy is felt, just like the performance stage of the puppet theater.

The aims of The Puppet Master are another source of matter-of-fact pathos, in his wildly absurd ┬ánotion of being ‘king of the world’. It is a completely irrational desire that extends to little else to having meals being served to him by the other rulers of the world. He’s a man who is so small that he cannot even dream powerful dreams like Doctor Doom or Namor could. And still through all this, he cares for a girl who is not his daughter.

Alicia is portrayed as a rather credulous naif who goes along with her step-father’s machinations — to disguise herself as Sue Storm, for a “prank” — to no apparent effect. What is most compelling about her is that she senses The Thing’s “gentleness”, and senses in him ‘something tragic — something sensitive’. It’s a perceptive reading, and for once we are shown a Ben Grimm who is not frustrated and angry by his transformation… but also hurt by it. When Ben is briefly cured of being The Thing, Alicia is there and goes to him, she is disappointed to find him changed, and gladdened when he changes back. The Beauty loves the Beast more than the man. Incidentally, this is the first time that Reed Richards has successfully managed to “cure” The Thing from his “condition”. Previously Ben has changed back for mere, largely inexplicable, moments.

There is a largely unmotivated scene with a prison break-out which really only serves to showcase the FF’s abilities, and largely gets in the way of the character elements that are at play. The Puppet Master has a rather circular demise when he drops a puppet of himself and subsequently falls to his death — but could such a rich character stay off the stage for long? EVALUATION: 9/10

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