By Cap10nate 8 Comments
Welcome back to the second volume of The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine Through the Years, Volume 2 covering the remainder of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s run of the Fantastic Four including issues 51 through 102 and annuals 5 through 7. Volume 1 of the review can be found here. The first fifty issues of the book sets up much of the Marvel Universe that is still present today. There were some uneven moments in the beginning, but Stan and Jack really started hitting their stride with compelling and exciting stories that culminated with the defeat of Galactus. This second half continues the momentum as the team pushes out some of the greatest comic stories ever written. PS. There are 45-50 year old spoilers ahead.
Stan and Jack start out the second half of their run on a high note. After completing a run of stories including escalating threats from Dr. Doom, the Frightful Four, the introduction of the Inhumans, and the coming of Galactus, they do a tremendous job of bringing the story back down to a personal level. Four of the next five issues after the repulsion of Galactus are absent of a real villain. They start with a deeply personal tale that is one of the most celebrated issues of the run; This Man, This Monster. The issue focuses on a man that feels slighted because his achievements are not celebrated and feels contempt towards Reed for all his fame and fortune. He manages to turn Ben back to human and takes his place as the Thing with plans to destroy the Fantastic Four. After he spends time with Reed though, he sees the compassion and bravery that Reed displays. He has a change of heart and sacrifices himself to save Reed from imminent death in the Negative Zone. The following issues take the Fantastic Four to Wakanda to introduce the Black Panther, follow Johnny and his new friend, Wyatt Wingfoot, on a search for his love, Crystal, and the rest of the Inhumans, and have a misunderstanding battle between Ben and the Silver Surfer.
By this stage in the run, Stan and Jack are expanding their issues to include multiple story lines. Each issue has at least two or three story lines so the main story only takes up half the issue while the ancillary stories which they use to set up future stories like the Inhumans take up the rest of the issues. These scene changes do not hinder the progress of the story, but to the contrary, add an additional level of suspense to the action due to where Jack puts the cuts in the story. This becomes very evident in another one of the most famous story arcs of this era in which Dr. Doom steals the power of the Silver Surfer in issues 57 through 60. The main story of Doom attacking the FF is cut with Johnny and Wyatt trying to train Lockjaw to take them back to the Inhumans and the Inhumans trying to escape their dome culminating in the first use of Black Bolt’s voice to destroy the negative zone barrier around their city. The action scenes are cut so that each fight has several climaxes and cliffhangers that wouldn’t hold near the weight if the scene cuts were not in place.
The book continues strong for another fifteen issues or so with inventive stories that introduce more new characters to the Marvel Universe including Blastaar, Kree Sentry, Ronan the Accuser, Psycho Man, Annihilus, as well as Adam Warlock who is only referred to as Him in this first appearance. Crystal and Johnny are also reunited and spend much of their time fawning over each other. The pregnancy of Sue and subsequent birth of Franklin Richards in Annuals 5 and 6 respectively add a unique plot point to the story. They do start to fall upon their own tropes though as the book proceeds through the latter half of the run. Alicia Masters is used for a third time to provide comfort to the misunderstood powerhouse after Ben, Silver Surfer, and now to Adam Warlock. Ben is changed back to human a few more times only to return back to the Thing. There are several instances of the team turning against each other as well as a frequent use of hypnosis. These stories might not be as original as the ones that came before, but they are still entertaining and exciting.
The book does decrease in quality over the final twenty issues of the run. Some of the arcs are entertaining, but do not reach heights of that they achieved in the middle of the run. However, there are some stories that are quite bizarre. There is an arc that includes Ben being captured by Skrulls and taken to one of their planets to fight as a gladiator. That is all well and good until they show the planet and all the Skrulls look like they are Prohibition era American gangsters. They even talk with the stereotypical style of the old gangster movies. It is all explained away, but still extremely bizarre. Also in the same arc while they are searching for Ben, Reed deduces that he must have been captured by Skrulls because he was last seen in a cab with a man that looked like Reed and they haven’t been able to find him in the few hours since they started looking. Therefore, it had to be a shapeshifting alien that took him off planet. Then, to find the enemy space craft, Johnny is somehow able to flame on and fly in the vacuum of space until he crosses over the path of trail and it flashes for some unknown reason. This arc is also preceded by one in which Reed and Sue purchase a random house in the woods that no one knows how it go there and just so happens to be controlled by the Mole Man who is in the process of trying to make everyone in the world blind.
Throughout the second half of the run, the usage of Sue and Crystal becomes exceedingly frustrating. Sue is barely utilized in the first fifteen issues or so after the Galactus Saga with the notable exception of keeping Dr. Doom off balance with her force field spheres in issue 60. After it is announced that she is pregnant, she is a total bystander and most everybody’s job when they are around her is to not let her get upset, so they hide things from her like the potential imminent destruction of the world if the Silver Surfer cannot find a new planet for Galactus in time before he has to resort to eating Earth. Then, after Franklin is born, she still has a limited role and barely goes on missions with the exception of a trip to Latveria in issue 86 where she appears just in time to place a force field around the rest of the team and some villagers just as Dr. Doom blows it up. Her being out of commission is a completely understandable and justifiable story line due to the pregnancy, and would have been great had they decided to use Crystal properly. After the Inhumans were able to free themselves from Attilan, Crystal was reunited with her love, Johnny. This could have been a great opportunity to add a new dynamic to the team while Sue is out of commission. Instead, Crystal is usually left behind with Sue. She utilizes her elemental powers more times on Johnny in the series than she did on villains. Anytime she does utilize her powers on villains, especially issue 81 against the Wizard, she does so with devastating results. She does not seem like the person to be left behind when entering the unknown. In issues that she is present in the fights, she is often not even on panel. During the fight in Latveria in issue 86, it has to be explicitly stated by Reed that he sent her off to help villagers as a way to explain why she is nowhere to be seen.
Reading the Bullpen Bulletin at the back of each issue provides a great look at the inner workings of Marvel at the time. It’s also nice to see they listen to their readers. There are several instances where they will make a decree in the Bulletin and then take it back a month two later citing a barrage of angry letters. This is expanded with Stan’s Soapbox that premiered in issue 63. These provide insights into the Marvel way of producing comics, continuity, Comic Code Authority, price increases, as well as Stan’s opinion on bullying and bigotry. Sadly, in issue 102 published in September 1970, the Stan’s Soapbox announces that Jack Kirby has “unexpectedly announced his resignation” from Marvel Comics ending an era of a near decade run of amazing and innovative stories that shaped the Marvel Universe that still uses that foundation today. Per the Kirby Museum, Jack left after receiving unfavorable contract conditions from Marvel after they were purchased by a conglomeration that barely even knew who he was. There were most likely many factors, including the much documented rift between Stan and Jack that led Kirby leaving for DC.
While this seminal run might not have ended on a high note, it is still one of best comic book runs ever produced. The middle fifty issues are without a doubt, some of the best put to paper as they put together masterful and memorable stories one after another. One of the important things not discussed yet in this review is the addition of Joe Sinnott to the team as inker starting in issue 44 and through the end of the run. His inks provide a consistency that was not present before and produced the same impeccable lines to Kirby’s layouts and pencils that made the book stand with such consistent quality. Inkers may not always receive a ton of credit, but his work should not go unnoticed.
Thank you for sticking around for another edition of this review. As of right now, I am not sure how the next review will be broken out. There are 130 issues between the end of Kirby and the start of John Byrne’s run. In addition to Stan continuing on the book for a little while longer, there are smaller runs by Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Len Wein and Marv Wolfman before it turns over to Byrne. I do not know if the next edition will be one giant review for the whole 130 issues or broken up into two or three if deemed necessary. It will all depend on the quality of the issues and if there is anything that really stands out as demanding to be reviewed. One of the things that will be interesting is to see how similar the art looks to Jack Kirby’s work, especially since Joe Sinnott stays on the book as the inker for the entire time up to the start of Byrne’s run.
If you want to check out more on the Fantastic Four, go see Chris Tolworthy’s website that documents that book as the Great American Novel. Also, the Wait, What! Podcast team is doing a read through of the series and publishes a new edition of the Baxter Building Podcast each month and provides a great insight to the book.