Something really amazing happens this issue, as the book and its characters take over the book in the last half and start to run away with it, leaving behind a pretty pedestrian plot.
It’s also interesting to note that this was not the original cover. The rejected one — reproduced in a lot of places, including the second Marvel Masterworks volume of Fantastic Four — was more in line with the monster-hunters, investigators of the unknown vibe of the first two issues. There also are original, inked pages that show Sue and Reed wearing masks as part of their costumes, which sported a different logo with a stylized “FF” instead of the numeral 4. (You can see those images here.) These images make it clear that there was a lot of back and forth going on about how far to take Fantastic Four into superhero territory.
Of course, Stan also may have just realized that the team ran around their first two issues with no masks and their identities known to all and decided it was too hard or silly to try to ret-con that out.
On to the story itself, which immediately introduces The Miracle Man as the villain of the piece. Of all the early villains, Miracle Man made the worst impression. It took until Fantastic Four #138 for him to reappear, and he met his eventual end at the hands of Scourge, who killed a ton of deadweight villains in the mid-1980s.
What’s unusual in retrospect is how obviously bad a villain he is and how unimportant a role he ends up playing in this issue. He starts off by using his magic act to embarrass the Fantastic Four, especially Thing, as he shows the audience he can transform into a giant, a gas cloud and a wielder lightning. Even such acts, meant to terrify and astonish, mean nothing to the reader when compared to the interesting dynamic between the members of the Fantastic Four.
The Fantasti-Car gets a pretty low-key debut, as Kirby just integrates into a scene featuring the heroes returning home from the theater. In today’s comics, it would get not just a splash page but also some fancy display lettering.
Comparatively, the Baxter Building gets a huge introduction, complete with cutaway diagram that includes a great caption in which Lee urges fans to clip and save the panel “for future reference.”
The second chapter opens with more Miracle Man, but even on page 6 of this issue, he’s becoming irrelevant to the story. Where the developments with the heroes are convincing and real, the plot in which the Miracle Man threatens a televised movie premiere (did they ever really do that?) by bringing a display of a giant monster to life is pointless. What Miracle Man hopes to gain from this is never made really clear. You would think having a snazzy and impressive stage show would be enough. But no, he’s going to throw away his already successful show biz career in an ill-conceived criminal plot that has no chance of succeeding.
Anyway, the cool stuff is all happening back at the Baxter Building as Sue unveils the groups costumes, though they are better described as uniforms. I think this was another rebellion against the superhero status quo. Lee has recalled that fans really wanted the costumes and the secret headquarters, so he delivered. But giving the team uniforms rather than individual costumes just makes a bit more sense considering that these outfits are functional and practical for people with the Fantastic Four’s abilities as much as anything.
When the group jumps into action to stop the Miracle Man’s rampaging “monster,” it’s again the heroes that seize the imagination of the moment with the inventive splitting up of the Fantasti-Car into four smaller cars that can operate independently. The battle ends with Susan stowing away on the Monster Man’s getaway vehicle, prompting lots of anxiety and blame laying among the others.
In these early issues, Sue is actually a slightly stronger character and integrated into the action better and more convincingly than she is later on. It’s long been a problem with the character that she’s defined pretty much solely by her relationships with the others (Reed’s girlfriend-fiancee-wife, Johnny’s sister, crushing on Namor, etc.). Throw in that her power is to become invisible while the other members of the group are so flashy and she becomes a very easy character for creators and fans to ignore. But a lot of those relationships hadn’t yet been nailed down by this point, and Susan is put again to good effect her using her power for the obvious purpose of stealth.
Sue’s disappearance is a great plot point because it brings out and highlights the emotions of Reed, Johnny and Ben. It’s a lot like the original Star Trek episode “The Naked Time,” which was a key one in that series for exposing the inner conflicts of the series characters.
In the end, defeating the Miracle Man is pretty easy for the group. The final sequence in which the guys jump on an old racing car to chase after Miracle Man and a flat forces Reed to become a tire is padding and not very good padding at that. It seems as though Kirby hadn’t quite figured out yet how to set these characters apart.
The issue ends on a really strong note as the Human Torch gets fed up with all the squabbling and quits the group. In their 1985 book The Comic-Book Heroes, Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs write that this was unconvincing because Lee failed to set it up well enough with foreshadowing. I get the point, but don’t really agree. The Torch is already well established as a hothead and the constant squabbling establishes the tensions that make this point work. Sure, Lee and Kirby could have given it a little more space, but I still think it works.
This is an issue that looked at strictly from a modern critical standpoint comes up as something of a disappointment. But it also is clear that this issue is a major turning point in the series and that somehow the whole is really starting to add up to something much greater than the sum of its parts.