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FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #11 (Feb. 1963)

“A Visit with the Fantastic Four” and “The Impossible Man”
Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Dick Ayers
Letters by Art Simek

Another, much more successful experiment than the previous issue, this is a rare issue with two FF stories that is refreshing, fun and entertaining. Interestingly enough, Stan Lee writes in the intro to the second Marvel Masterworks volume of Fantastic Four stories that this issue was extremely unpopular at the time. Fans in particular disliked the Impossible Man as being too “silly” for so “serious” a comic book as The Fantastic Four.

Meet Willie Lumpkin, who Stan
played in his cameo in the 2004 Fantastic Four movie
This issue starts off with the behind-the-scenes story that Lee writes was inspired by the many fan letters Marvel had been receiving on the title. It has a lot of really fun little moments, starting with fans lining up at the newsstand to get the most-recent issue of the FF comic and a kid running down the street thrilled that his letter got published on the fan page. This great little story offers lots of fun bits, including the introduction of Willie Lumpkin and a lot of background on the FF themselves. 
That background offers some particularly interesting tidbits, including details of Reed and Ben’s service in World War II. This book has them in college together before the U.S. entered the war, so that would mean Reed and Ben would have have roughly been born in the early 1920s. That would have made them both about 40 in the comic – roughly the same age as Stan and Jack themselves were when they did this story. Not sure how old Sue’s meant to be, though she can’t be too much younger than Reed as it’s said they have known each other since childhood and grew up as next door neighbors. Johnny, of course, is supposed to be about 16, which makes it unlikely he cheered on Ben during his football years, as the story says. I also liked the detail of Reed having worked with the O.S.S. in the underground behind enemy lines in Europe, which is not a detail that had registered with me. 
Don’t dis Sue in front of Reed and Ben — you don’t want to make them angry.
Then there’s the best part of the story, which is the defense of Sue from the critical letter writers. For some reason, fans have always wanted Sue out of the book and I remember it still being an issue when I was reading the book in the 1980s. I like this idea of having the characters defend her, rather than Stan doing so in a letters column — it just has a bit more weight and is more effective at pointing out the idiocy of such comments. 
I suspect this story was pretty much all Stan’s idea — it’s light-hearted, heavy on the dialog and very character-centric. Maybe it was just an idea that didn’t lend itself well to the kind of blowout splash page that Kirby has done in the past, but it is a very well written and well drawn story that demonstrates just how far the comic has come in its short lifespan.
The Thing hanging off the side of the Fantasti-car
is perhaps the only panel in the second story I really like. 
The second story, introducing The Impossible Man, is a little more standard but still goofy enough to make it a good pairing with the first tale. The Impossible Man himself is fairly annoying — kind of an impish character similar to Bat-Mite or Mr. Mxyzptlk. And the way the story pans out isn’t exactly the most innovative thing ever put on paper. But, like the first tale, it does demonstrate the overall improvement in the book. There’s a lot more consistency in how the characters look from issue to issue, the dialog is better and fits better with the overall pacing and storytelling. The silliness of the Impossible Man is mitigated by this being a short, 11-page story — a full issue of this guy would have been way too much. 
Lastly, this issue wraps with a regal pin-up of the Sub-Mariner in his underground lair. It may also be of interest to note that this issue was previously presented with the stories in the opposite order in older editions of the Marvel Masterworks series. I think the order is significant in this case — the genial nature of the fan visit tale makes the Impossible Man story go down a bit more smoothly.
All in all, this is a surprisingly satisfying issue, and truly off-beat. I wonder if the reaction fans had been more positive, if we might not have seen more two-story issues and visits with the team from Kirby and Lee. 

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #10 (Jan. 1963)

“The Return of Doctor Doom!”
Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Dick Ayers
Letters by Art Simek

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.

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #9 (Dec. 1962)

“The End of the Fantastic Four!”

Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Dick Ayers
Letters by Art Simek

Another big leap forward for the series in a story that’s as off-beat as anything done in Fantastic Four previously.

There’s a lot to like in this story. I love the idea that the group loses its fortune on the stock market and has to sell everything off. Namor’s oddball idea of buying a movie studio and tricking the team into making a movie is just plain weird, but it gives Kirby in particular a chance to draw in some real-life movie stars. The fight between the Thing and Namor is particularly good, and the overall results are good enough to overcome some huge holes in the plot.

The cover to this issue is one of the best to date, giving a terrific tease for the story inside. Namor’s confident pose and the rundown Baxter Building, complete with broken and boarded up windows, are perfectly executed details. I also love the coloring — I don’t know if anything could properly recreate that lovely shade of reddish orange used for the background.

Page one of this issue — an excellent example of good comics.

Almost any class or advice on writing includes the point of beginning your story as late as possible, and the first panel of this issue is a great example of why. In a single page comprised of three panels, Lee and Kirby establish that the FF have lost their fortune, plan to sell all their possessions to pay their debt, and that Namor sees this as the perfect opportunity for revenge.

The second page is equally cool, as Reed tries to fend off a crowd of debt collectors and the heroes’ powers and personalities are set up for new readers.

Ben doesn’t play with dolls.

Alicia Masters returns in this issue as Ben’s “friend” when he takes a break from the FF and heads to her apartment. It’s not explained how she’s handling life after the death of her father in the previous issue. Their relationship is not stated as romantic, but it’s implied as she presents Ben with a gift of a white knight puppet doll. I find it hard to imagine that Ben ever played with dolls, so his acceptance of the gift is a sweet bit of characterization.

The movie idea is an interesting one, but it’s full of weird moments and plot holes, starting with the FF hitchhiking from New York to Hollywood in just a few days.

Jack Kirby does Bob Hope (and Bing Crosby) well enough to rival Dave Thomas.

S.M. Studios’ lot is packed with real life stars, including James Arness, “Miss Kitty.” Charles Bronson, Alfred Hitchcock, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Jack Benny. This sounds like an idea Lee would have come up with, but Kirby does a very nice job of making the stars identifiable. Lee has said many times he always wanted to be in the movie business and moments like Ben’s run-in with Jack Benny foreshadows the success Marvel found on the big screen thirty-odd years after this issue was published.

The reveal of Namor as the studio head is another interesting moment, as he’s shown wearing a green suit with a yellow ascot that would be very much in style today. He’s also smoking with a cigarette holder, which is an odd habit for an underwater king to have picked up.

Yikes. This is bad.

Lee and Kirby show they’re getting the balance right on this book between action and character, with a series of fun moments including Johnny blowing his advance on a cool car and riding around town with some hot chicks; Ben showing off at Muscle Beach; and Namor wooing Susan at a fancy nightclub.

The shooting of the movie is the strangest part of this story. For one, the locations make no sense. We’re told Reed’s shooting in the Mediterranean, Johnny in Africa and Ben on the beach near Hollywood. I like the way Reed uses his powers on an otherwise unremarkable foe. And there’s all kinds of wrong in Johnny’s sequence as he fights a tribe of primitive Africans who use a magic potion that makes them flame-proof. The fight itself is OK, but the portrayal of the Africans is just embarrassing. For some reason, the natives are colored with a kind of grayish-brown color in the Masterworks edition I’m reading. I don’t know if that was the color used in the original comic, but three’s all kinds of weird and uncomfortable in this segment.

Some thoughtful superhero action from Jack Kirby.

Namor’s fight with Ben, however, is easily the coolest part of this issue. The sight of Namor jumping up and down on Ben’s shoulders to drive him into the ground is cool enough. But then Ben gets hit by lightning and reverts for a moment (yet again) to his human form. Namor easily clobbers the human Ben and returns to claim Susan’s hand in marriage as his prize. Namor, obviously, knows nothing about women, as he’s surprised when she tells him there’s no way that’s ever going to happen.

So Namor and Sue then fight, with Namor pulling out all kinds of new powers from electric shocks to radar vision. The last panel of page 21 gives us what I think is the first real panel of Kirby crackle in this series, and it rocks.

When the three male members of the FF show up, Sue wins the day by defending Namor from her comrades and also demanding that he live up to his end of the bargain and pay them for the movie. He agrees, and once again walks off slowly into the ocean.

The final panel shows the triumphant FF attending the premiere of the movie, which can’t have been any good considering there was no script and the movie is in theaters only “weeks” later.

But the flaws in this story matter less than the overall tone and feeling of the tale, as the series is starting to really find its groove and get comfortable enough with itself to take some risks and experiment with some funky new ideas that no DC hero comic of the era would have attempted.

It only took about forty years for this scene to come true. 

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #8 (Nov. 1962)

“Prisoners of the Puppet Master!”
Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Dick Ayers
Letters by Art Simek

Some of the formula that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had figured out for the title was starting to settle in at this point, with the opening argument between the Thing and the Torch being both familiar and executed very well. The argument this time begins when Reed asks Johnny to keep Ben out of his lab. Ben throws a temper tantrum worthy of a 2-year-old and storms off, followed by Sue.

While they argue, they spot the first act of the mystifying Puppet Master, who uses his ability to make people do anything he wants by making little puppets of them from radioactive clay and then making them act out his wishes in miniature play sets. His first act is to make an apparently random man jump from a bridge to his death.

So, yes, the Puppet Master is one of the silliest villains in all of Marvel. Nothing about his power makes sense. Neither does his oddball physical appearance, or the fact that he was married at one point to the mother of beautiful blind sculptor Alicia Masters.

Alicia is the most significant new element introduced in this issue, and she takes on a fairly major role in the life of Ben Grimm and in the Fantastic Four comic book. In this issue, we really don’t learn too much about her, other than that she looks a lot like the Invisible Girl and is blind. And in Stan Lee’s typical melodramatic fashion, the blind girls sees the man behind the rocky visage of the Thing and falls in love with him — just as Reed has made progress on a way to reverse the Thing’s transformation.

This guy is a few years too early for the Gwen Stacy auditions.

The plot gets quite silly. In addition to creating puppets, the Puppet Master can create giant robots and a mechanical flying horse that can outrace the Human Torch. There’s also a prison riot before a simple matter, uh, trips up the Puppet Master, who falls to his death very much like his first victim. That leaves Alicia behind to be consoled by the Thing.

Excellent compostions, lettering —
and no background, but who cares

Reading this issue for the first time in ages, Kirby’s art makes it seems better than it really is. Kirby’s work is more confident on this issue. He has a better grip on who these characters are and what they look like. At the same time, he’s getting better at drawing them using their powers and putting them into action sequences. The Thing in particular gets some nice sequences in which he gets to tear a huge armored door out of the wall and builds a cage around rampaging inmates. Kirby’s chapter splash pages remain particularly compelling, and its worth noting how well he composes these panels.

You can see Kirby get a better grip on techniques like this in this issue.
These three panels sum up a lot of the appeal of early Marvel comics, and shows a lot of heart.

I have no idea what the reaction was to this issue when it came out, but I would think it would be somewhat reassuring to see the quality hold in most areas because so many comics that start out promising hit a wall about eight to 12 issues in and never recover from it.

Excellent storytelling in just three panels! This sequence would fill an annual these days.

The last thing I’ll say is that the cover to this issue is surprisingly weak. It’s very cluttered and uses an unusual shade of orange (at least it’s orange in the Marvel Masterworks version and looks like orange on comics.org). It also has some of that line-thickening that happens when the stats of the original art get a few generations too removed from the original. For example, the issue number and the white copy at the top of the page just turn into block shapes without good definition. That’s a shame considering how much Masterworks cost to buy, but I don’t know how much Marvel could do to fix it without access to the original art or hiring an artist to do some touchup or a re-creation.

Another great splash panel that delivers a sense of both power and scale. 

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #7 (Oct. 1962)

“Prisoners of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X!” 

Script by Stan Lee 
Pencils by Jack Kirby 
Inks by Dick Ayers 

While issue #6 is one of the best early issues of Fantastic Four, issue #7 is one of my least favorites. While the previous issue had a complete and compelling story featuring villains we’ve already met and care about, this was an episodic mish-mosh of old ideas and clichés that doesn’t add up to much. Despite those flaws, it’s not a horrible issue — it just feels like filler. Perhaps this had to do with the series going from a bimonthly to a monthly publication schedule, and Lee and Kirby had to crank this issue out quickly.

This one starts with Kurrgo, who’s the sort of character that populated a lot of the pre-hero Atlas series. An alien whose planet faces destruction from an asteroid on a collision course, he thinks the Fantastic Four can save his people.

Then we cut to the banter-filled intro of our heroes, who this time are quarrelling over a “government dinner” being held in their honor that no one except Reed is interested in attending. The strange reasons they all have for not wanting to go prompt even stuffy ol’ Reed Richards to roll his eyes in one panel. This sequence segues into a scene where Johnny takes a shower and Ben cranks up the hot water as a joke. Johnny flames on and turns the water to steam, setting off alarms. Reed uses his powers to check all the vents before he puts two and two together and realizes the junior members are horsing around again. Finally, they all head off to the dinner in the Fantasti-car, waving at folks on the road below. All this is a kind of fun character bit, though it also feels like definite filler and a scene that goes nowhere. It also lacks the polish similar scenes in the previous issues have.

When Kurrgo’s ship finally arrives, Lee and Kirby have a giant robot emerge using images ripped straight out of the classic movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. The plot gets even more weirdly complicated as the robot sends out a “hostility ray” that turns everyone on Earth against the Fantastic Four. The heroes themselves see the effect take hold in the midst of their “government dinner” with members of Congress and have to escape the Capitol building and get back to the Baxter Building. Kurrgo’s robot awaits them at their HQ and tells them the only way out is for them to go with him to Planet X and help Kurrgo save it. They agree, and head off into space.

Up to this point, Kirby’s art this issue is serviceable but lacking the impact that the previous issue did. The fourth part of this story, however, changes that with a great splash on page 15 with the Fantastic Four floating toward the ground in a futuristic city using and anti-gravity device of some kind. The splash for part 5 of this story is another great one that foreshadows the kinds of compositions and designs that would define Kirby’s amazing work in the late 1960s and 1970s.

The story remains a bit of a mess as the Fantastic Four meet Kurrgo for some exposition about how Planet X only has two spaceships and needs to save its 5 billion inhabitants from the asteroid that’s going to hit in 24 hours. There’s an obligatory and strange fight scene that ends as Reed agrees to help. The solution is a pretty good comic book plot twist, as Reed develops a shrinking ray to reduce the size of Planet X’s inhabitants to the point where they can all fit on a single spaceship, with the Fantastic Four free to return to Earth in the other. This works great for everyone except Kurrgo, who tries to keep a non-existent antidote for himself only as a way to enslave his people only to miss the flight and presumably die in the asteroid collision.

A lot of the ideas in this issue are interesting, but they aren’t well developed because the issue flits from one unrelated idea to the next too quickly to cohere into a solid narrative. The result is a story that’s underwhelming in comparison to the previous issue in particular, but still had some charm and wit for the casual reader.

This was one of the stories adapted with some significant changes for the first Fantastic Four animated series that aired in the late 1960s. I saw this episode of the show in reruns sometime around 1992 or 1993, just before I read the comic book version for the first time in the Marvel Masterworks edition. Based on what I recall of my reaction, that episode did little to improve on the comic book version.

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #6 (Sept. 1962)

“Captives of the Deadline Duo!”

Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Dick Ayers
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.

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #5 (July 1962)

“Prisoners of Doctor Doom!”  
Script by Stan Lee 
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.

FF re-read: The Fantastic Four #4 (May 1962)

“The Coming of Sub-Mariner!”
Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Sol Brodsky
Letters by Art Simek

A lot is happening in this issue, which improves significantly over the previous one in pretty much every respect.

Despite the cover, which is easily the best so far, the Sub-Mariner doesn’t show up until about halfway into this issue. I’d like to know if there were many fans who picked this up because they like Namor. At this point, he hadn’t been gone from comic book stands very long, having last appeared in a short revival attempt in the mid-1950s.

This issue starts off with Reed, Sue and Ben dealing with the departure of Johnny at the end of the previous issue, leading to a pretty effective page 2 recap of The Fantastic Four #3 that quickly brings readers up to date. I don’t know if Stan and Jack consciously decided to establish this kind of issue-to-issue continuity or if it just came about organically, but this kind of attention to details must have thrilled fans who took their comics seriously back in 1962.

The story’s weakest points come next as the FF searches for Johnny. It makes no sense for Sue to remain invisible while stopping for a soda other than that either Stan or Jack liked the idea of the guy freaking out at the mysteriously vanishing liquid. Plus, we’ve already seen this with Sue paying the cab driver in issue #1. Reed’s clumsy snatching of the motorcycle rider to question him about Johnny is equally nonsensical.

The story starts cracking when the Thing follows a hunch and finds Johnny hanging out at his favorite garage and instantly picks a fight with him. Again, there’s nice attention to detail as Lee uses the dialog to explain how Johnny’s control is so great that can use his flame to weld car parts without risking igniting the gasoline. The splash page to chapter 2 has the Thing lifting an old car over his head to drop on Johnny, evoking — maybe intentionally, maybe not — the cover to Action Comics #1.

The relationship between Johnny and Ben is surprisingly fully formed and involving even this early in the series, as exemplified not just by Ben knowing Johnny well enough to track him down but by Johnny realizing before Ben that his temporary return to human form is only temporary. Kirby does a great job on that sequence, putting some real surprise and joy on the face of the human Ben, and then finding just the right body language to convey his disappointment that it doesn’t last.

The story finally gets to the Sub-Mariner elements as Johnny heads to the “bowery” to hide out. Kirby’s establishing shot on this sequence is an odd one because he makes it look more like a foreign country than what I imagine a poor New York City neighborhood in 1962 looked like. Still, I have to give Kirby the benefit of the doubt given that he grew up in such a neighborhood and he would know.

I think it’s kind of funny that Johnny finds an old Sub-Mariner comic book in the flop house, which would suggest comics were popular with the downtrodden working class folks of the time.

There’s a great lesson in the last three panels of page 9 as Kirby shows the hirsute Namor defeating three attackers without showing Namor at all. Instead, we get consecutive images of the attackers being forced back by the power of his blows and it’s surprisingly effective.

Regarding the Torch’s “unmasking” of Namor, I’m not sure I’d want someone with a blowtorch for a finger using it to cut my hair — controlled or not.

After we catch up on Reed and Sue, who are still searching cluelessly for the Torch, Johnny drops Namor into the ocean and revives his lost memory. I really like the panels in which Namor strips off his surface clothes and revels in the moment — another really memorable Kirby moment in an issue full of them.

As with most of the early issues of The Fantastic Four, at some point the plot reverts to the monster genre that was popular at Marvel before the superheroes were revived. Here, Namor uses an ancient horn to awaken Giganto! and sics him on Manhattan, where the officials have time to completely evacuate New York City and deploy the armed forces — all in just three panels!

Realizing they’re overpowered, Ben steps up to play hero and straps a nuclear bomb to his back and walks right into Giganto’s mouth. This is where the story goes a bit off the rails in terms of believability, but by this point the whole thing has so much momentum going it just can’t be stopped. The splash panel on page 19 of the Thing shows off some of the excellent coloring that could be done even with the limited color palettes and poor quality printing of the era. The nuke goes off just as Ben escapes and the impact merely knocks him off his feet. Poor Giganto, however, is dead.

Back to the Sub-Mariner, Sue again uses her power to good effect by stealing the horn from Namor once he spills the beans that the horn controls the beasts. When he catcher her and she turns visible, he is instantly besotted with her — and she’s obviously somewhat interested in him. It’s all very soapy and pretty entertaining, though Sue’s character suffers a bit — especially later in the series — from her being pretty much the only woman in sight amid a bunch of crazy men. So of course all them — except Johnny — are in love with her and all Stan can think of for her to do is be all fussy and girly about the whole thing.

This is the point where Stan and Jack realize they’ve only got about a page left, and so they quickly have the Torch rather inventively creates a tornado that scoops up Giganto’s corpse, Namor and the horn and tosses them out to sea, where Namor swears revenge and the Fantastic Four talk it out amongst themselves in the last panel.

Overall, The Fantastic Four #4 is a lot of fun to read. It doesn’t all make sense when you think about and there are some rough spots, but things are moving so quickly and the cool stuff is so memorable that it just doesn’t matter.

Lastly, I’ve always found it interesting that fourth issues are quite significant in most Silver Age Marvel series. This issue re-introduced Namor, The Amazing Spider-Man #4 introduced Sandman, The Avengers #4 brought back Captain America, The X-Men #4 gave us the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, etc. That obviously wasn’t planned, but it does show how quickly Marvel was finding its footing in these series and then taking it to the next level with great results.

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #3 (March 1962)

“The Menace of the Miracle Man”
Script by Stan Lee 
Pencils by Jack Kirby 
Inks by Sol Brodsky 
Letters by Art Simek 

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.

But first, there is some interesting stuff to talk about early on in this issue, starting with the cover, which announces the arrival of both the Fantasti-Car and the superhero costumes. It also is the first issue to feature the famous slogan “The Greatest Comic Magazine in the World!!” And for some reason, I’ve always been aware of a major anatomical error in Jack Kirby’s drawing of the Human Torch that was mentioned in the Overstreet guide listing for this issue. Before I had a reprint or chance to look at a copy of this issue, I was always curious what it was and a bit unimpressed when it turned out to be that the Torch has two left hands. I’m sure this was just a mistake on Kirby’s part, not caught by him or Stan Lee due to the speed with which they were cranking out material at the time. 

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.

I have to say, regardless of whose idea it was or how last minute it was made, that abandoning the traditional secret identity was the right way to go because it really set Marvel apart from the DC comics of the era. Looking back at DCs from the late 1950s and early 1960s, it’s amazing how many stories centered on the hero’s fear of losing his secret identity. Superman in particular was less scared of any alien threat or supervillain plot as he was of Lois possibly finding out he was and — choke! — maybe even tricking him into marrying her! The absurd lengths to which DC often took this gimmick seems to have inspired Stan Lee in particular to just chuck it out the window with not just the Fantastic Four. Given Lee’s “circus ringmaster” public persona, it should surprise no one that he frequently says that if he were a superhero he would want to tell everyone. Outside of a character like Spider-Man, who was the first young hero, and the X-Men, who as mutants face threats from a prejudiced public, the need for a secret identity is very dubious. Iron Man is a good example of a character who in many ways benefits in terms of reputation and interest in his businesses by being in the public eye as a superhero.

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.

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #2 (Jan. 1962)

“The Fantastic Four
Meet the Skrulls From Outer Space!”

Script by Stan Lee 
Pencils by Jack Kirby 
Inks by George Klein (again, that’s the best guess from Mark Evanier, whose opinion in such matters is eminently trustworthy) 
Letters by John Duffy 

The second issue picks up pretty much where the first left off, developing and adding certain themes and motifs the series would repeat endlessly. It’s also a wildly uneven story, but one whose highs outweigh the lulls.

The Fantastic Four continue to be anti-superheroes in this issue — eschewing costumes and hanging out in everyday settings such as Reed’s apartment and a hunting lodge. Apparently, they are already quite famous by this point — the cops all know the FF on a first-name basis and, in an early scene, Sue is given high celebrity status by a jeweler who, frankly, should have known better than to let the Invisible Girl see his famous jewels. But at the same time, they’re also freaks that people are quick to turn against at the slightest provocation. (Apparently, the polarized opinions of 1960s Marvel Universe foreshadowed the current political discourse in the United States.) This dichotomy more than any other has come to define the Marvel style, from these early years through the present day.

This issue begins with the Fantastic Four having apparently gone bad. The Thing destroys an oil-drilling platform off the Texas shore; Sue steals a valuable gem; Johnny melts a marble statue; and Reed reaches into the power station and shuts off the city’s power. These latter two stretch plausibility. If Johnny could get hot enough to melt marble (more than 3,000 degrees), the crowd of onlookers would have been incinerated. And electric utilities are too complicated to just “turn off” with one switch. 

But the opening sequence does its job of making the reader wonder what’s going on. The reveal of the Skrulls is a bit clumsy, but it works and is actually quite creepy. And is it just me, or do I see a somewhat familiar face in the Skrull’s transformation?
It’s kind of easy to forget that these stories that are now so familiar to comics fans were meant to be contemporary entertainment for children in 1961. These days it’d be hard to imagine Reed and the gang wearing plaid, smoking pipes and hanging out in a hunting lodge, with Johnny checking out a rifle and Ben throwing a mounted bear’s head through the window in one of his tantrums. I’m glad the tantrum, the squabbling and the sudden make up are the precedent-setting part of this scene, because 500-plus issues of Reed and Johnny going hunting while Ben and Sue dressed the kill would not be much fun.

The next segment of this story sees the U.S. Army locate the hunting lodge and demand the FF surrender. And this is the first spot where the issue goes off the rails. Rather than a really cool scene of the FF resisting the Army’s attacks, repelling bullets, melting missiles, etc., the FF just go ahead and surrender. The Army sticks them in special cells designed to resist their powers, but it was all for naught as the FF escapes in the most obvious fashion possible in about five minutes. A scene like this makes me think that Lee and Kirby were avoiding a potential conflict with the Comics Code Authority, which required that “(p)olicemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” Either way, it’s the first sequence in the series that interrupts the build up of credibility and believability the series is really aiming for.

That the first scene after the escape sees the FF reconvening and picking up their argument where they lift off only confirms the filler nature of the escape. But it doesn’t necessarily get better as Johnny suggests they smoke out the imposters by attacking a rocket launch and hoping it’s confusing enough to allow the real FF to infiltrate the alien group. It only makes sense if the Skrulls are completely random in their attacks, i.e., they have no set plan whatsoever and don’t even know what they are doing.
Still, this being comics, it works – and Johnny infiltrates and exposes the alien group. The flare gun that creates the flaming “4” in the sky returns from issue #1.

And while I doubt Johnny Cash read Fantastic Four comics, I do like the idea that this panel might have influences the writing of his classic 1963 tune. Maybe in the Marvel Universe, Cash’s “Ring of Flame” was a major hit.

As we move into part three, the comic recreates the cover image inside the story again as the battle gets going. Sue and Thing obviously contribute less here than in the first issue. I do like the moody coloring in the panels of some of these early Marvels, such as this one, in which Reed and Sue look like Martin Landau and Barbara Bain from Mission: Impossible or Space: 1999.

The story goes a bit crazy again as the FF find the Skrull ship (in a water tower!) and go into space to bluff the aliens into not invading Earth. Reed does this by presenting comic book images as real, thereby proving that alien species can be dumb as rocks and still master interplanetary travel. It’s also one of the first signs of Stan Lee putting plugs for his other comics directly in the story — something that was common in some of the earliest Marvels before continuity, footnotes and Bullpen Bulletins pages kicked in and took line-wide promotion to the next level.

The poor Thing has had next to nothing to do in this story until the return to Earth causes him to revert to human form. This comes out of nowhere and is surprisingly touching — easily the best part of the book. Kirby does a great job of framing the transformation slightly off center and then of giving Ben a look of pure joy that turns to misery as he reverts in short order to the rocky Thing. This stuff is really good and the first sign that Lee, Kirby and Marvel were on to something substantial. Panel 7 on page 21 is particularly good, with the Thing’s head slumped in resignation as beautiful Sue and Johnny try to comfort him.
The story gets weird again as the Army trusts Reed enough to go back to his apartment and fight the three remaining Skrulls held there. It’s explained in the copy that one of the Skrulls went with the FF into space and is returning with the rest of the Skrulls, but none of this is actually seen. I suspect some much later issues found a way to explain this more fully. 
The issue again gets back on track just in time for a good twist ending in the EC tradition, as Reed hypnotizes the Skrulls into becoming cows and forgetting who they were. The word play, with the Skrulls asking for a “contented” existence should be lamer than it is. But somehow it works and gives the issue a good, upbeat finish

The issue wraps up with a pin-up of The Thing, who at this point had yet to develop his chiseled features and was more of a lumpy, scaly looking character.

I really like the pacing of these older issues and the breaking down of the story into chapters that run 5 or so pages each. Today, each chapter in this story would be an issue unto itself.

Again, there’s something very cool about the idea of doing the Fantastic Four less like superheroes and more like conventional adventurers. This was the last non-superhero story, as fans’ demands prompted Stan Lee to go in a more conventional and more commercial direction. I wonder if this was the first instance of superhero fans’ outcries altering the direction of a series. It certainly was not the last, but going for a more conventional superhero premise certainly was a major one for Marvel in particular and comic books in general.

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