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A Fantastic Chore

Allen Christian reads through every Fantastic Four comic book ever and has way too much to say about them.

A Fantastic Chore: Year 2, Part 2

Allen Christian

Okay, let’s go ahead and get into these. Today’s offerings are mostly thankless and unrewarding, but there’s a diamond in the rough amongst this stuff as well.

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Fantastic Four #12 (Mar. 1963)

There is a long and storied history of The Thing clashing with the Hulk. So much so that there have been collections put together chronicling he ongoing rivalry. Comic fans to this day question which of the two are stronger. I’m not quite sure why, since the Hulk wins every single bout and Ben Grimm survives only by his wits. Their first encounter is really no different.

We start the issue with Ben and Alicia, who seems to have gotten a nice haircut, outside of an orchestra performance of Beethoven’s 5th. When pressed, Ben admits that he’s more into “low-down, New Orleans Jazz.” The Thing is quickly mistaken by army troops for the Hulk, since they’re apparently only working off of a description that didn’t include “green.” They eventually gas him and get him down before their CO interrupts and tells them they’ve made a mistake. Ben huffs off to the Baxter Building. He forgot his belt buckle that opens the exclusive elevator to the top five-floor FF headquarters, so he instead rips the door off and climbs the cable 30+ floors. Ben gruffly relates the events to the rest of the FF before Reed informs him that their help has been requested by General “Thunderbolt” Ross. They get a briefing, then Ben, Johnny, and Reed have a pissing match about who could stop the Hulk first and how, but not before Sue pisses herself invisible in fear.

Next, the FF gear up for the task, and we are introduced to the “modified” Fantasticar. There is nothing modified about it. It’s clearly a completely new vehicle. We’re informed by Reed that fans wrote in to say the old one looked too much like a bathtub. Turns out, Reed Richards is a pushover sop similar to Stan Lee. Ross accompanies the Four to meet Dr. Bruce Banner and his associates. Banner argues that the Hulk is not the culprit Ross seeks, but agrees to help anyway, for whatever that’s worth. Banner’s associate walks out into the hall to see the rest of the FF just kinda chillin’, Sue invisible and Johnny on fire. Thing eventually gets impatient and burst into the room and rips apart Ross’s collection of bound phone books. Whatever. Somewhere amidst all of this, the guy who is wrecking things is nicknamed “The Wrecker.” Stay tuned for that name getting reused in eight years for Kirby and Lee’s Thor. (Side Note: Marvel has a history of reusing names, such as “The Punisher,” who is originally Galactus’s robot, or “Venomm,” originally a villain in Don MacGregor’s Black Panther series, but this might be the only instance I can recall where Lee and Kirby use the same name twice. I’m sure I’m wrong.)

Either way, Banner’s associate, Karl Kort, had dropped his wallet in the hallway and Torch gave it to Rick Jones to return to him. On his way to do so, Rick sees a little card sticking out of it. This card just happens to be a membership card to a “subversive communist-front organization!” Which of course means “Karl Kort must be— A RED!!!” He’s a communist spy out to sabotage Banner’s “Project 34” which is a dumbass fucking idea to protect American cities by blanketing them in electromagnetic waves to fend off a communist attack. Great idea, stop the commies by crippling your own cities yourself! I’m really not sure Stan finished high school. It was the Depression, after all. Anyway, Rick has this revelation right outside of Kort’s trailer, so Kort overhears him because nobody in this book can keep a fucking thought to themselves, so now Rick is a hostage. Wonderful.

Thing gets in some sci-if sled and they tear ass to confront the Hulk. Banner goes off to become the Hulk so they can brawl, I guess, so we finally see the Hulk on page 16. The Four fight him, and the Thing almost gets his ass kicked until some buried robot belonging to the Wrecker uses some ray to zonk him out. Thing uncovers the robot, wrecks it, then they catch the Wrecker. Hulk leaps off to become Banner again, which, even this and six issues of his own being his only appearances, is still out of character. The FF are celebrated, the end.

This one isn’t very well paced, is a bit over long, and ultimately is not that great, but it isn’t a ridiculous drop in quality. It’s entertaining enough to read in a run, but on its own isn’t really worth the revisit. Moving on.

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Fantastic Four #13 (April 1963)

Right up front, this issue is a little goofy. But also, I love it. It’s one of my favorites from the early years. The cover alone is fantastic, and a great precursor to the kind of dynamism Kirby will go on to bring to covers across the Marvel line, especially in this book and Thor. And while the dynamism isn’t present on every single cover from here on out, it recurs often. Even more compelling in this issue is the inker. I’m not certain if this is the only time Steve Ditko inked Kirby, but it’s certainly the only time it ever happened past the monster comics. It’s a fantastic looking book, with all the dynamism of Kirby layered with the Ditko grit. One of the most notable things is the Thing. He looks monstrous in a way that we haven't seen before, with Ditko shading the eyes in a way that we see mostly black, and no pupil.

Terrifying

Terrifying

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The primary antagonist of this issue is the Red Ghost, a Soviet scientist. The premise of this issue is a literal race to the moon, this having only been a few months after John F. Kennedy's "We choose to go to the Moon" speech. Reed has developed a new fuel that will allow the Americans to make it to the moon first, and he’s going to go. But he plans to go alone. This doesn’t sit well with Ben, who then slowly shoves Reed into a glass bottle until he agrees that the entire Fantastic Four will make the trip. We the get a page of the Red Ghost preparing his titular "super apes" for his flight to the moon. He's training them in lieu of having an actual crew on his ship. Amidst this montage, also get one of my favorite panels of all time, a gorilla with a Tommy gun. Who is apparently filled with hatred, I guess. Wild.

We then get a sequence that cuts back and forth between both crews as they prepare for launch. Once in space, the Red Ghost is bombarded with cosmic rays. The Four pick up on the other rocket, and Johnny gets out to have a look. He's able to do this through some Stan Lee pseudo-science that involves his suit creating an artificial atmosphere that allows him to flame on. Whatever. Anyway, Johnny checks out the Red Ghost's ship and notices that it is not only poorly shielded, it's actually transparent. Because of this, not only has the Red Ghost gained power, so have all of his ape companions! The baboon is a shapeshifter, the gorilla has super strength, the orangutan can control magnetism, and the Red Ghost himself can both turn invisible and phase through solid objects. 

Both parties land on in the blue area of the moon, a place familiar to most fans of Marvel as the grave of Jean Grey and the future home of Attilan, the city of the Inhumans, an event that happens in the pages of this very book in about 20 years or so. Everyone starts investigating things, and Ben is kind of left out. He wanders off and kicks a rock that turns out to be the baboon. This starts a tussle between Ben, the Red Ghost, and his super apes. The Watcher intervenes. He give us his whole spiel about how he's there to watch humans and can never interfere; a dictate he'll ignore many several times in the pages of this book. He pulls Ben and the Ghost aside and tells them that he won't have the Cold War bubbling over into his home and that the two of them will fight it out. Reed, having not been there, reaches over the rock and extracts Ben. This doesn't sit well with the Watcher, and he transports all involved to a lunar coliseum. There's a little bit of a scrap. Reed gets frozen and Sue gets magnetically attached to the orangutan, since Stan Lee is a confirmed Juggalo and has no fucking idea how magnets work (see: X-Men). The Red Ghost runs off, phasing through all sorts of walls until he stumbles into the Watcher's layer. This infuriates the Watcher, who then effortlessly flings the Red Ghost back and forward in time. When he stumbles back to the present, Reed hits him with his own paralysis ray. The Watcher declares the FF the victors. The apes reverse the ray, but only to turn on the Red Ghost. Reed mumbles off some feelings of inadequacy before they get in their rocket and return home.

This issue is actually a whole lot of fun, and it begins pouring the foundation for the cosmic side of the Marvel universe. That's one thing that FF goes largely uncredited for. This book, especially under the direction of Kirby, is where the modern Marvel cosmic universe is born. That's something we'll really start digging into in years 5-6, but right now, with the introduction of the Watcher and the blue area of the moon, both enduring Marvel cosmic elements, we are starting to scratch the surface.

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Fantastic Four #14 (May 1963)

This issue is titled "Once Again, the Fantastic Four Face the Threat of: Sub-mariner, and 'the Merciless Puppet Master.'" If that sounds like a trite rehash... Yep. The beginning is fun, though. We pick up right where we left off, as the FF prepare to land their rocket and receive a hero's welcome. Sort of. It's mostly like a B-list celebrity welcome. Reed is mobbed by the "Mr. Fantastic Fan Club;" the Clayville chapter, of course. The Thing is propositioned by a pro-wresting promoter, but dunks the guy's champion into a trash can. Sue is offered "a lifetime Hollywood contract." Whatever the hell that means. Johnny rescues his friends from the throngs by creating a suction vacuum with heat to transport them across town to the Baxter Building. That's soooooooome science! Back at headquarters, Reed finds Sue lost in thought about the Submariner, as she looks through Reed's "roving eye" TV apparatus, a roving camera searching the seas. Reed fusses off in a pout, and we get several panels of him trying to convince himself that he isn't inadequate. Cut-to: The Puppet Master checking out of a sanitarium, after many long months of recovering from a case of falling out a fucking window to his death. In his many months of convalescence, he has been hard at work on a plan far shittier than his last one: He's going to make the Submariner fight the Fantastic Four. Subs abducts Sue and the others go after him. Ben brings Alicia because he doesn't want to see her cry, and not at all because he step-father is clearly the villain this month. We get an aside from Puppet Master, saying, "My revenge will by much sweeter if I do not manipulate the Fantastic Four!" While he is, of course, holding puppets of the Fantastic Four. This is probably a pretty clear example of Lee and Kirby working at cross purposes, or at least just not being on the same page.

This is probably a perfect time to discuss the Marvel method, for those who don't know. Stan Lee did not write scripts. Not ever. At best, he would discuss the plots with Jack and Steve, and the artists would go off and create the whole story. Much of the original art for the Fantastic Four clearly shows that Kirby was writing much of the suggested dialogue in the margins of the panels.  This isn't the first time the copy and the art don't exactly sync up, but I think it's probably the most blatant case of it we've seen so far.

That aside, we see the Puppet Master follow the FF into the ocean in a submarine. Reed, Ben, and Johnny slug it out with Submariner for many several pages. It's actually a good action sequence, but there isn't really anything to write about here. Somewhere in the midst of it, Alicia lets the crew know that she senses the powers of he step-father at work. Puppet Master's submarine is caught but a giant squid. He tries to control the squid, but fails since squids don't have much mind to control. Submariner comes to his senses and takes his leave. Sue tells him she hopes they can be friends. "Friend? That is too mild a word for the Submariner! Farewell-- for now." Whatever, Subs.

This issue isn't shit. Like the Hulk issue, it isn't terrible as part of the larger tapestry, but it isn't really worth revisiting on its own.

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Fantastic Four #15 (June 1963)

The Mad Thinker. A Fantastic Four villain that persists to this day. God knows why. Oh, and don't forget his "Awesome Android." The giant frog-clam-anvil man. He is not awesome. Look, this guy sucks all around. He's a guy whose entire bit is that he can calculate every single minute detail, ever minor occurrence that will happen, and plans accordingly. It's shit.

The issue starts with the flare going off. Johnny has to leave a date, Sue has to leave her hairdresser appointment (leaving a distressed hairdresser to proclaim that he will destroy himself), and Ben has to cutout from Yancy Street, where he went to get harassed even further after receiving a drawing of himself in a too-too with the caption, "The Thing is a sissy!" Reed calls them back clearly to show them he's created life, according to the art. But according to Lee's copy, they're there because Reed Richard's really wants to do the bidding of the police. He doesn't want to stop what he's doing anymore than the other three, since he was creating life. He even created a primitive form of one-celled life which lived for a few second, he tells them as he holds up a fish-looking creature. I'm not sure Stan Lee really knows what a single-celled organism is, but's it's definitely not a fish. Jesus Christ, Stan, go back to high school. Anyway, now we get a montage of the Thinker, who is working with the Mob, fantasizing about being a king and destroying the Fantastic Four or whatever.

Look, this is where we get into the real format of this blog. Everything up until this point I feel needed a bit more fleshing out and explanation, since so much of it was setting the tone and building foundations for the series as a whole. And we still have plenty more of that. But it is not this issue. Not everything needs to be critically analyzed. Some of these are just shitty Silver Age comics.

Most of this issue is wasted. The Four are twiddling their thumbs doing nothing, despite being tasked to help with the mob, so they all decide to go their separate ways. Reed goes to work for an electronics firm, despite being rich and having his own projects, Sue goes off to be in a Broadway show, Ben does the wrestling thing, and Johnny joins his cousins' circus. They all hate what they're doing, so they quit and meet back up, just in time to see the Baxter Building crystalized? Why? Who give a shit? It's part of the Thinkers plan. They fight his "Awesome Android," which is defeated when Sue finds his off switch, and the Thinker's plan is ultimately foiled when Willie Lumpkin rings a doorbell. Reed explains to the Thinker that you can't calculate and prepare for everything, all while explaining that he himself calculated and prepared for this eventuality. It stinks. I have no love for this issue. Skip it, you'll be fine.

That wraps up this part. Overall, meh. They're okay. Issue #13 is great, but the others are fair to middling. This one took a little longer than expected, because a draft didn't save right and I had to redo a lot of shit that I didn't feel like typing about issue I don't care about in the first place. So that wasn't fun, but since tomorrow is Memorial Day, I'll have time to finish up Part 3 all the same. So be back tomorrow, and we'll cover a set of issues that is largely really good. Except #16. Issue #16 is fucking boring and Ant-Man sucks, but let's save that for tomorrow.