They might have titled this story, “Lo, There Shall Come — A Stinker!” The previous nine issues all saw improvements of one kind or another, but this issue is truly weak in every respect. This issue is, in fact, so bad that all I can really do with it is do a quick run through and make some snarky comments about it, so here goes.
This issue begins with Reed trying to figure out how Sue’s invisibility power works, using a big machine that looks like a cross between a howitzer and a vintage camera. Far from Kirby’s best splash page, it’s made even weirder by the fact that the Human Torch is assisting Reed by taking notes while in full flame mode. It’s so odd, that it gets a mention in Sue’s dialog, just before the “4” signal appears in the sky and the trio assume Ben’s in trouble and rush off to help.
And it just gets weirder from there.
Someone needs to tell Reed nukes are
unsafe to keep around the house.
There’s a two-page sequence in which Reed, Sue and Johnny all rush to the scene of the signal that is perfunctory and embarrassing in just about every way. It starts with Reed stopping Johnny from using his flame on a jammed “nuclear lock mechanism” because it’s so sensitive to heat. I’d love to know what was going through Stan’s head when he came up with “nuclear lock mechanism” and exactly how making a lock nuclear would be a benefit in any fashion. Especially since it doesn’t seem to work. Then Reed tries to stretch his arm under the door all the way to the Fansti-car hangar, only to instead get his hand all the way to the Pogo-Plane hangar instead. Exhausted, his arm snaps back to him like a rubber band.
The trio finds Ben at the apartment of Alicia Masters, now officially dubbed Ben’s girlfriend in a caption, and find he just wants to show them the statues she’s made of their villains.
Then we get to what I’m sure was the scene that most motivated this issue, as Lee and Kirby themselves appear for the first time in a Marvel story. Doctor Doom shows up at their studio and uses them Reed to a trap. Lee obviously loves this scene, giving himself some crackerjack dialog. Kirby, meanwhile, shows enough restraint to not even show his (or Lee’s) face in the scene.
That’s the corner of Stan Lee’s head on the left. I wonder if Doom’s destroying one of the famous
FF ashtrays that was produced in the 1960s. And I still think Stan Lee needs to appear on Mad Men.
Having captured Reed, Doom recounts an unconvincing and rather silly rationale for his return from space. Having been last seen in issue six plunging into deep space, he found a race of aliens that are stereotypically very advanced yet totally naive. They hook up Doom with their body transfer technology and return him to Earth. Using the alien technology, he switches bodies with Reed. They fight and the rest of the FF show up and, naturally, help restrain the body of Doom and put him in a prison made of impenetrable plexiglass.
Returning to Reed’s lab, Doom starts making — of all things — a shrink ray that he tests on some animals he stole from the zoo. He somehow talks the trio into thinking that the shrink ray is the answer to all their problems, though his explanation for why makes absolutely no sense. Of course, the ray won’t do what he says — instead, it’ll shrink the FF into nothingness. Nice.
Back in the cell, Reed of course finds a way to escape and goes to Alicia’s apartment. Sue just happens to be visiting and whacks him over the head. Ben and Johnny come over and they take the body of Doom with Reed’s mind back to the Baxter Building.
Just thinking about how this might
work makes my head hurt.
Logic completely leaves the story as Johnny uses his power to project a heat mirage of a stick of dynamite being used at a nearby construction site into the lab. The Doom mind in Reed runs, while the Reed mind in Doom tries to save everyone. Convinced the mind switch is real, Doom is shocked enough that the switch somehow reverses itself. The FF then turn the shrink ray on Doom and he dwindles into nothingness.
The transfer is undone.
This is not Kirby’s most dramatic work
As you can see, nothing makes sense in this story and nothing of importance seems to happen. We learn little about Doctor Doom, and almost nothing happens among the FF either. Kirby’s art lacks the scope and innovation of recent issues, and Lee’s script only hampers any potential for salvaging anything decent.
This reminds me of those lame clip-show episodes TV series used to do when they had no decent script and the season was ending and it was a lame way pad out the episode. Lee and Kirby are lucky that their lackluster handling of Doom in this particular issue didn’t undermine future stories that would secure his position as the series’ premier villain.
This issue sees a big improvement, as Lee and Kirby create a story that reads naturally and fills out the entire 24-page issue without resorting to the episodic chapters that marked the earlier issues. It’s also got some stunning artwork from Kirby, who seems to have become comfortable with the characters. Everything just clicks — the characters feel like they belong in this story and the way everything unfolds makes sense (at least in a story logic way) and the resolution is satisfying.
This issue starts off with a terrific splash panel in which Kirby draws New York City like a real place. The buildings have just the right amount of detail to sell this version of New York as a real city full of different types of architecture and the little details that make everything work from the water tower to the vents and the awnings. And it completely grounds and sells the entire scene, making the appearance of the Human Torch dramatic and believable.
I also like that Lee and Kirby fill the city with real people walking around, seeing this stuff happen and talking to each other about it. The reactions are varied and add to the believability of the story, even though it’s not really clear why Sue likes to hang out invisible in crowds.
The Baxter Building itself is impressively real in a way that few other comic book heroes’ headquarters were. The hapless mailman is a precursor to Willie Lumpkin, who shows up shortly as the building’s regular delivery man. Kirby delivers another cutaway of the Baxter Building, and does something simple that the book’s young readers must have loved: he made it completely consistent with the cutaway in issue #3. This is a slightly expanded version, but everything is in the same place and shows an attention to detail that few other comics at the time would have bothered with.
Lee varies up the introductory banter here, so instead of Ben and Johnny fighting we get Reed stretching across the city to visit a sick boy in the hospital. (As a complete side-note, Reed refers to the poor kid as a “shut-in,” which was the term that was used every week on Hockey Night in Canada when I was a kid. The commentators used to send out a special hello to the shut-ins and other folks who couldn’t get to the games in person but enjoyed the weekly broadcast.) Reed answering the boy’s question about the stretching of his costume is a nice touch, though I can easily imagine it being Stan’s way of settling the issue in some way to avoid having to answer the same question over and over. This also is the first mention of Yancy Street and the Yancy Street Gang, whose members take special pleasure in teasing and tormenting The Thing.
Kirby does some really nice acting in this issue, which is something I wish more comic book artists paid attention to. On page 6, you need no dialog to understand Ben’s anger, Sue’s sadness or that subtle little smile on Namor that conveys his enjoyment of swimming with the porpoises.
Doctor Doom, who appears to have dropped the shark theme for his aircraft, makes a surprisingly subtle entrance. He makes a logical plea to Namor, arguing that their mutual interest in eliminating the Fantastic Four is not typical supervillain behavior for 1962. Lee’s talent for dialog comes out strongly in the discussion between Namor and Doom, with Doom making a very compelling case. Kirby also nails it, giving Namor a cool elegance as he lounges in his shell throne that melts away under Doom’s argument to anger. All of this makes Namor’s character surprisingly sympathetic, as even the youngest reader surely had a sense that Doom would betray the deal in some way.
That’s emphasized by the next scene, in which Johnny discovers Sue’s hidden photograph of Namor and destroys it. It’s the kind of blockhead move that only a brother could get away with. Sue suffers a lot in later years of the series as the least developed character in the group, but in this issue she’s the most conflicted and interesting member of the group. Her conflicted feelings for Namor and her inability to put them into words works especially well with, again, Kirby’s excellent portrayal of her.
The entrance of Namor is another interesting scene as he challenges the Fantastic Four to accept his word that he’s a on a mission of peace. Sue, of course, buys it; the others refuse — and they’re right to not trust Namor despite their reasons for not trusting him being pretty off base.
The lifting of the Baxter Building into space, and pretty much everything that happens plot wise in space, should stretch plausibility more than it does. I recall a column former Marvel editor in chief Jim Shooter wrote in which he wrote that all buildings in comics had flat bottoms and the heroes had no problems before the Marvel Age brought some reality to the medium. Of course, in this story, the Baxter Building does have a flat bottom and it can be lifted as a whole into outer space. What’s really odd, though, is that the story still works and works really well. Plus, the splash panel of page 16 of the heroes looking down on Manhattan with the fighter jets flying underneath is, in a word, awesome.
It gets a little clunky in the next section, with the Torch’s flame failing in space. I do like the bit where Reed tries to grab Doom’s ship as Kirby spaces it out over five or six panels before Doom blasts him with a rocket. Namor’s leap to Doom’s ship is similarly cool, with Kirby zooming in on Namor’s face.
That it’s Namor, a nominal villain, who saves the day is pretty unusual for a comic of this vintage — the conventional wisdom of the time seemed to be that the hero was the star and he or she had to be the one who won the day. The Fantastic Four really do little to help Namor defeat Doom, who is last seen spiraling away into the void after ejecting from his ship. Namor even disposes of Doom’s grabber device and ship.
The last few pages are classic denouement. The Baxter Building is magically put back in place as though nothing ever happened, and the future of Namor — is he friend now, or still a foe? — remains more up in the air than ever.
Again, this is far away a big step forward in terms of Lee and Kirby finding a way to create big, exciting fantasy stories without chopping up the story into unrelated episodes and also in building a world and an ongoing storyline that’s bigger than any one issue.
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Joe Sinnot
Letters by Art Simek
One thing missing from The Fantastic Four until this issue was a good, original and unapologetic villain. And while today’s readers know for sure that Doctor Doom would go on to be the defining antagonist of the series, this first appearance only hints at what is to come from this character.
This issue is a very small step down from the previous issue. A lot of what happens in this issue falls back on some of the Atlas-style conventions that Lee and Kirby seem to be so intent on trying to escape.
We get our first look at Doctor Doom on the cover of this issue, which is nicely designed to convey Sue’s separation from the group but lacks the dynamism of the previous issue’s cover. The coloring also is weak — too much of that unusual gray shade that was common on Marvels of this era, plus the unusual choice of green for Doom’s mask and armor. I do, however, like the different colors for the word balloons.
Inside, Doom is introduced on the splash page playing chess with figures of the FF, with a couple of ominous-looking tomes titled “Science and Sorcery” and “Demons” perched nearby, along with a vulture of all things! Since it never came into play in the story, I always assumed it was a statue of a vulture. But Doom does have a pet tiger later in this issue, so maybe keeping exotic animals was part of the original idea for the character.
The Fantastic Four enter on page 2 with what is already becoming a typical intro scene with the Thing and Human Torch teasing and tormenting each other until a fight breaks out and Reed and Sue restrain them. It’s fun that Johnny is once again reading a comic in this issue. This time it’s a copy of The Incredible Hulk #1, allowing Lee the chance to indulge his penchant for self-promotion.
When Doom arrives, he throws a net over the Baxter Building and announces himself from a helicopter. I never noticed until re-reading this issue for this post that Doom’s helicopter is painted to look like a shark! That’s awesome.
What’s also awesome is that Reed explains Doom’s back story in a mere five panels! The emphasis in this retelling is on Doom’s interest in and talent for sorcery, which I never found as interesting as the idea that Doom is Reed’s equal in every way with darker, more selfish motivations.
It’s a good thing Lee explains all this so clearly, as Doom’s plan to take first Sue then the rest of the Fantastic Four hostage is rather silly. Even more strange is the idea that Doom needs the treasure of famous pirate Blackbeard badly enough that he has no choice but to send his enemies back in time to retrieve it. There’s a lot of holes in the plot, but it’s a good excuse to bring some pirates into the story, so it’s back in time we go.
Every time I read this comic, I’m surprised to find that most of the really good stuff comes from the Blackbeard segment rather than the Doom part. Jack Kirby really should have done a pirate comic book because the way he handles the pirate action mixed with superheroes is pure fun. I especially love the Golden Age-style splash panel on page 14, with the Human Torch soaring into battle. And it’s no wonder the Thing wants to stick around — it really is the most fun he’s had in the series so far.
Reed’s trick is a bit dishonest — not that he should play fair with someone like Doom — but Doom’s original request is for the treasure, not the chest. To be fair, though, Doom does specifically ask for the chest on page 8 as he presses the button to send the trio into the past.
My next funky thought in re-reading this is that the cool sequence in which Doom returns Reed, Johnny and Ben has the characters doing what looks like a dance — it has to be “The Time Warp” — in the middle panel.
Reed’s deception exposed, we start to get some cool stuff with Doom, who rolls out the first Doombot to get smashed to bits by the Thing. And again it’s the Invisible Girl who bails everybody out by taking advantage of Doom’s underestimation of her abilities to escape and free her colleagues.
Again the issue’s build up of steam seems to hit a wall as Lee and Kirby run out of room. So page 23 sees Doom abruptly escape via jetpack while Johnny’s power cuts out and prevents pursuit. I’m not sure how Johnny saved himself by grabbing that tree branch — Reed must have been too beat to do anything — but he does in time for a little heavy-handed foreshadowing about the next issue.