One thing I wanted to point out that I missed in the last post was that the letters page started in issue #3. Nothing too interesting or revolutionary there, except that one letter is clearly fake, having been signed by "S. Brodsky," who is clearly Sal Brodsky, who was (I think) Lee's production manager at the time. The letter just asks if they're the same people who make all of the other comics that they make and asks how they do it. Stan's response is simply, "With great difficulty!" Many of the early letters were written by Lee in an attempt to drum up reader participation. We'll see some interesting information from the letters pages as we go on.
In the next few issues, we'll see an incredible amount of firsts. As I've said before, while the books doesn't immediately become a great books after the status quo is mostly solidified in issue #3, the next few issues ramp up the pace considerably, and bring us many more things that will be staples of the book for years to come. Starting with...
Fantastic Four #4 (May 1962)
Quick Synopsis: If you'll recall, we ended issue #3 with Johnny Storm getting pissy and leaving the team. (That's actually another status quo. Someone is going to get pissy and leave at least once a year from this point on. It's pretty much always Ben and Johnny, but there are certainly times when Reed and Sue go, or just Sue. Maybe Reed leaves alone once or twice, though I think he disbands the team when he does, because Reed Richards, as I aim to prove, is an absolute dick.) Anyway, we start off with the team wondering where Johnny may have gone to. Ben doesn't miss him, but the other two are worried. Page 2 is a quick recap of last issue, but at the very bottom of the page we are given maybe the laziest house ad ever, with the simple out of place text "THE HULK IS COMING!"
The search for Johnny is as stupid as anything else in this book. Reed yanks a guy off a motorcycle to question him, because he looks like the kind of guy that would know Johnny. Sue thinks turning invisible will somehow help her find him, but the she gets thirsty, and we're treated to this beautiful sequence:
Thanks for the help, Sue. Of course, Ben is the only one who actually knows where to find him. Of course he's down at the garage hanging out with his friends. Why his sister doesn't think to look there is beyond me. Maybe it's because she's too busy doing the ghost soda thing. Upon being discovered by the person that made him leave to begin with, Johnny takes off again. This time, he runs to the bowery and finds an old flop house to stay in. This flop house inexplicably has a Timely Comic from the 1940s featuring: Namor, the Submariner. Say, seems like he's the guy what who we saw on the cover of this magazine. That's because, even more inexplicably, Amor is staying in this very same flop house! He has a beard and shaggy hair, so no one recognizes him. Not even himself. He has the tried-and-true genre affliction of amnesia. After he beats down a bunch of the other flop house tenants who were harassing him, Johnny stops the whole thing and comes to his defense. He uses his flame to give him a trim and a shave, because I guess the smell of burning hair can't be any worse than a flop house already smells, and he's revealed to be the Submariner. He still doesn't quite have his memory back until Johnny takes him against his will and drops him right into the goddamn ocean. Namor's clothes then disappear. The bottom of this page sees the second tag of "WHAT IS THE HULK?" It's a book that's going to be cancelled within the year because it's not very good. Leave me alone.
From here the books goes about the way you think it would go. Namor remembers who he is and goes back to Atlantis, only to find it has been devastated by nuclear tests. Upon this revelation, Namor vows revenge against the entire human race. He uses his little horn hoohodilly to to summon all the creatures of the deep to attack New York. The Four fight him in some fairly predictable ways, and in a scuffle with Sue, Namor falls in love and says he'll spare the entire human race if she'll just marry him. Trading one form of condescension and emotional abuse for another doesn't really do it for Sue, so she declines. More on this in later issues. Things are pretty comic book normal, until the BIG PLAN of the issue involves fighting Namor's forces by having Ben take a NUCLEAR FUCKING BOMB into the heart of a giant whale creature, cleverly named "Giganto!" Ugh. Let's bring this one in, boys. It's time to go home. Namor swears revenge, and Reed swears to be there when he returns. Our final page is a pin-up of Reed Richards stretching up a building to a man pointing a gun at him. The Hulk is coming, but who the Hulk cares?
I've had my fun with it, but this issue is mostly a good time. Too much of it is playing for time and page space, but this is the first FF story with a good villain, even if they had to drag up an old anti-hero to fill the role. Namor works very well as a foil for the Fantastic Four, and we'll be seeing him again before this post is over. Next.
Fantastic Four #5 (July 1962)
The real classic, Fantastic Four #5 brings our first true original, classic supervillain to the show. Not just an original, not just a classic, Doctor Doom is arguably the greatest villain in all of Marvel Comics, which certainly puts him in the running for greatest villain in all of comics, which pretty much guarantees him a slot on the list of greatest fictional villains of all time.
That said... meh. I mean, this is a good issue. It's certainly the best so far. We start off with a nice title page of Doom playing with some FF statues, before we get into the typical FF horsing around in the Baxter Building. Johnny is reading the first issue of The Hulk. Whatever. Kirby's art steps up to another level here, looking a lot closer to what most people think of as the classic FF look. There's a reason for this besides the fact that Kirby is clearly getting more and more interested in the direction of the book: This is the first appearance of Joltin' Joe Sinnott on inks! If you don't know who Joe Sinnott is, his name appears in more Fantastic Four bylines as an actual credited creator than anyone else. You have "Stan Lee presents" on a lot of them, but Lee didn't touch this book at all after the 120s. Sinnott doesn't leave the book until John Byrne takes over all writing and art duties at issue 232, and works on more than 30 odd issues past that. Sinnott won't be on this book again until issue #44, but he will go on to shape this book's look more than any other artist.
But what's this issue about? Well, Doctor Doom throws a big net over the Baxter Building, forcing the FF to accompany him to his upstate castle by first taking Sue Storm hostage. She goes out and allows him to take her, simply because he put a big, electrically charged, indestructible net over the building. I'm not saying they shouldn't have done something about the net, but I can't believe they don't even try to wait it out a little. Ridiculous. Once she's held hostage, the rest of the Four come willingly. Doom's plan? He needs Reed, Johnny, and Ben to go back in time and bring back Black Beard's treasure. What follows is a really mediocre pirate tale. They get to the past and take some clothes. Everyone grabs pretty normal pirate clothes. Ben puts on a wig and a fake black beard, and Reed wears a powdered wig, because even in the past he's a haughty milksop. Either way, Pirate shenanigans ensue, and they eventually find the treasure. Only it turns out that Ben is actually the Black Beard of legend. He thinks about staying and living out his monstrous life as a legendary pirate and captures Reed and Johnny. A rogue twister puts an end to this plan. They'd already dumped out the treasure and replaced it with heavy chains to fool Doom. It doesn't for very long, and Ben gets in a fist fight with a Doctor Doom that turns out to be a robot. They're captured, but then, holy shit, Sue actually uses her invisibility to free them. Ben and Reed create a hole in the wall, then Johnny tries to smoke Doom out. Doom straps on his fancy jetpack and rockets off to the next issue. We don't really learn anything about him in this one.
FUN FACT!: We see our first noteworthy piece of fan mail in this issue, from none other than Mr. Roy Thomas! I'm fairly certain we'll see more letters from Roy as the magazine goes along, until he finally joins Marvel as the first writer of the era that isn't Stan Lee or his brother. He'll go on to achieve many great things, such as writing amazing run on Avengers, becoming Stan Lee's successor as editor-and-chief, and boring me to tears as the writer of this very magazine! Welcome to the game, Roy!
Fantastic Four #6 (Sept. 1962)
"What are we gonna do with the Fantastic Four this issue, Jack?" "I dunno, Stanley. Maybe the same thing we did last issue?" "That won't do at all, Jack. We've gotta come up with something new!" "Well, Stanley, what if we took what we did last issue and what we did in the issue before that, and we put them together?" "Brilliant. Do the whole thing, please. Excelsior."
For the record, my plan has not been to meticulously catalogue every page of every issue of the FF. The enormous amounts of detail present in most of these entries has been in service of the fact that this is the very beginning of the FF, and so much foundational work is being laid in these early issues. But the story in this one is basic supervillain team-up stuff. Now, this is the first supervillain team-up of the Marvel Age, and it's honestly a good book. But it's still pretty basic.
So let's discuss what is important in this book: Fan mail! (No, not the letters pages. The only thing interesting in there is that we find the letters page for an issue cover dated September of 1962 was assembled on March 24, 1962, even well before the cover date of issue #4, the subject of the exchange in which we learn this information.) No, I'm talking about the fan mail that the Fantastic Four themselves receive! An ongoing bit, the FF often read mail that they've received from their admirers and detractors around the world. Most notably and most often, Ben receives heckling letters and booby-trapped gifts from the Yancy Street Gang. We later find out that Ben Grimm grew up on Yancy Street and is being heckled by kids from the old neighborhood. Reed gets a letter from a young boy in a hospital he can see out the window. Reed makes minimal effort and stretches over to the boy. This is a fun little interlude before our adventure starts. Let's move on to that.
We see Namor, the Submariner out swimming with dolphins. What a cool guy. Doom, having escaped the FF in issue #5, is out prowling the seas in a pink plane. Rad. He finds Namor and convinces him that they should work together. Namor agrees with some hesitation, before we find out that the pink plane is also a pink submarine. Rad. Namor invites Doom to Atlantis. We see that creepy Namor somehow has a framed headshot of Sue in his living quarters. How this is a characterization that persists to this day, I do not know. Anyway, Doom gets Namor all riled up, reminding him of all the bad the surface world has brought on him and domain. Doom shows off some magnetic device that latches on to even huge things that Doom can then control magnetically with a remote. Hard yawn. Namor goes to New York and struts. Meanwhile, back at the Baxter Building, Johnny finds Sue's hidden headshot of Namor! Oh, geez. Sue tries to get it back, but Johnny burns it. The ruckus attracted the others, and Reed is not very happy when he finds out about the picture. Irrelevant! The Submariner is here! He talks to the FF and states that he's on a mission of peace, and that he'd prefer to be friends. It's a ruse, of course. He planted the device in the building, and Doctor Doom lifts the entire Baxter Building into the air with another pink plane. This time, it's a space plane. Rad. When they're dragged to space, it becomes evident that Doom's plan is simply to leave them all to die, Namor included. This doesn't sit well with Namor, so he puts a helmet on and leapfrogs across some asteroids to The Doctor Doom Hot Pink Space Wagon. He tosses Doom onto an asteroid and takes control of the wagon. I guess he sits the Baxter Building back where it belonged. Sue coos over the somewhat heroic Submariner, and they find and remove the magnetic grabber. The grabber returns to the plane, which Namor crashes into the ocean before returning home. The End.
Fantastic Four #7 (Oct. 1962)
The comic is monthly now! Other than that, there's really only one thing notable about this book, and that's The Thing. On the cover, we see a clearly rock-like Ben Grimm. Not in the rest of the book. He's still a smoosh on the interior page, but this is out first look at The Thing to come. Likely drawn after the fact, the cover looks to be inked by Joe Sinnott, though I have no confirmation of this.
The story itself is pretty atrocious. The worst so far, in my opinion. Thankfully, it will be a quick recap. We start off seeing Kurrgo, Master of Planet X, monitoring the FF and learn that his planet is facing impending doom. They send off ship piloted by a robot that is clearly a knock-off of Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still. This should send all of the obvious signals that this is just a boring 50s sci-fi comic. We get some clowning around the Baxter Building before the Four attend a ceremony in Washington acknowledging all the good they've done. The ceremony is interrupted, as some stupid "hostility ray" on the space ship starts making everyone shitty, and makes the government turn on the Fantastic Four. This is all to draw the FF out and into the captivity of Gortish. He takes them back to "Planet X" where it takes an extraordinary amount of time for Kurrgo to let them know that he really just needs their help saving his people. Reed helps by creating a reducing gas so that everyone on the planet can fit on the one ship they have for evacuation. Kurrgo holds the canister of "enlarging gas," but rants to himself about how he has no plans to share it when they reach the new planet. However, in trying to carry the canister, he trips and misses the rocket, stranding him on the doomed planet. In the final two panels, Reed lets us in on the secret that there never was any enlarging gas. He only told them there was so that they would agree to his plan. But that's okay, because size is relative, and since they'll all be the same size, it will all be okay. Not really sure that's how it works, Reed, you massive dickhead. But hey, they were captured and forced to help against their wills. Fuck 'em.
This one sucked, guys.
That brings us to the end of the Fantastic Four's first year. Honestly, it's incredible how much of the status quo of the series is already established in these first seven issues. As unrecognizable as issues #1-2 are from the established FF, issues #3-7 lay a lot of groundwork remarkably fast. Join me back here on Friday, May 25th, as we dig into six more issues in part 1 of our look at the second year of the Fabulous FF, from November 1962 through October 1963. Plenty more FF foundations to be laid in issues #8-19.
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