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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 3

Allen Christian

Today we have four issues that are honestly out-of-the-park good, and an annual that is well worth the read. I know yesterday I said that issue #16 was boring, but actually looking back over it, that’s not true. Ant-Man just sucks. Ant-Man is legitimately the shittiest Marvel character, which I think it the reason he’s Stan Lee’s favorite. We’ve seen continuity in this book before, but now we have our first honest-to-god two-parter with issue #16-17’s “The Micro-World of Doctor Doom” and “Defeated by Doctor Doom,” respectively. Issue #18 we see the first appearance of the Super Skrull, and issue #19 is the incredibly goofy, but still fun introduction of Rama-Tut. Let’s get right down to it, starting with the annual.

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Fantastic Four Annual #1 (1963)

Taking this page-by-page would be both tedious and unnecessary, as it doesn’t really bring anything new or groundbreaking, but it is a good story and it does further the saga of the Submariner.

We join the Submariner, who has found his kingdom and has been restored to the throne. This does not sit well with everyone, such as Warlord Krang, who had planned to marry the Lady Dorma, who is in love with Namor. She no longer agrees to this vow, as her love has returned. The loss of Dorma and a claim to the crown builds Krang into an enemy.

The FF aren’t really getting along with each other all cramped up in the Baxter Building, and Johnny’s teasing of Ben erupts into a spat that causes some significant damage to the building, including to Sue’s expensive dresses. Reed has an idea for a vacation, centered around investigating reports of large sea monsters. It’s time for the FF to go on a cruise, and Ben is bringing Alicia along. They’re all having a good time until a monster is spotted, so they go investigate and are captured by Namor. The whole thing with the monsters was a ploy to lure the FF, so that he could have them relay a message to the United Nations that the “seven seas and the skies above them” as his imperial domain. He launches them in a water rocket back to the Baxter Building. Reed relays the information to the UN. The UN has an expert on Atlantic come and speak, who tells of the history of the undersea domain and its problems with the surface world, and the story of Namor’s parentage. When Reed advises the UN that they must fight Namor, the “expert” is revealed to be Namor himself, which is hilarious, but I can’t get hung up on that right now. Atlantis invades New York and takes over. If that sounds like an oversimplification of a large plot-point, I assure you I give it as much attention as the actual book does. The Four and the army plot ways to fight the occupation, and Reed eventually devises an evaporation ray that blankets the earth and evaporates the water in the helmets of all invading forces. For brevity, we’ll ignore that this would have probably killed every human on earth as well, since Christopher Nolan got away with the same shit in Batman Begins. Namor then comes to tussle with the FF, and does a fair job before deciding to abscond with Sue. Ben, Reed, and Johnny pursue and fight Namor. Sue is left with Dorma and Krang, who surmise Namor’s intentions with Sue, and jettison her from the the submarine. The battle stops as Namor saves Sue and brings her back to the sub. He orders Dorma and Krang from the ship so that it can be light enough to get Sue to the hospital quickly. Leaving them in an “auxiliary lifecraft,” he takes off, saving Sue. As he leaves to return to the sea, he is mobbed by humans who hate him now. He brushes them off and returns to Atlantis, finding that his people have abandoned him because of his love for the surface girl. It’s a good FF/Submariner story and I like it a lot.

Next we have several pages detailing the entire rogues gallery and some factoids about the FF and the Baxter Building.

Then we get a retelling of the story from Amazing Spider-Man #1, detailing the events of Spider-Man breaking into the Baxter Building in hopes of showing that he’s worthy of being in the Fantastic Four. In my head this was a simple reprint, but the original took place over two pages, and this is a six-page expansion on the story, completely redrawn by Jack Kirby, and inked by Steve Ditko. I guess I was wrong about issue #13 being the only time that happened in the FF. This is a great looking story, and for my money the definitive version of these events, for whatever that’s worth. There’s clearly a lot of art correction to Spider-Man by Ditko, considering he looks very much on-model, and Kirby’s Spider-Man never looks this good. We get the great looking Kirby-Ditko Thing again, so that’s fantastic.

If you don’t know the story, Spidey breaks in and makes it through the building’s security measures devised by Reed. He battles the FF and tells them he just wanted to give them a demonstration so that they could know he was worthy of joining them, and tells them he thinks he’s worth their top salary. Reed lets him know that they make no salaries or bonuses, and the profits go into scientific research. I guess the Fantastic Four is just a scientific commune. Spider-Man leaves and that’s the end of it. We get a few more villain profiles and we’re out.

Fantastic Four Annual #1 is well worth your time. In fact, I think the six Lee/Kirby annuals are all key Fantastic Four issues. We’ll definitely cover each as we go.

 

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Fantastic Four #16 (July 1963)

One of the most notable things about this issue is that it is the first time we see the name "Marvel Comics Group" on the cover, though it had been batted around the office for some time before this.

I spoke of continuity between issues #16-17 earlier, but that’s not the only relevant continuity here, as we pick up on an actual dangling thread left a few issues back when Doctor Doom accidentally activated his own shrink ray on himself in issue #10. The issue opens up with what is actually our second full-page splash, but since issue #15 sucked and that splash wasn’t worth mentioning, let’s just consider this one to be it, because it rocks. We’ve got Doom looking down a microscope, shaking his fist at tiny versions of the FF with Ant-Man. It’s cool. This isn’t an in-story splash, though.

We start our story with Johnny rushing back to the Baxter Building because no one answered his signal. He arrives to find the other three in a tiny state, about to be sucked into an air vert. He welds the vent shut, because property damage is always the most sensible approach to any situation in the Baxter Building. Saved from the air ducts, the rest of the FF returns to normal size. They then regale each other with tales of how they’ve all been randomly turning small over the past few days, but didn’t find it worth mentioning until now. Reed determines that they need the help of Ant-Man.  

While this decision is ultimately really boring and this crossover is of no value, it does show that the Marvel Universe is growing. Already by this point we’d have seen the Fantastic Four appear in The Amazing Spider-Man #1, and we’ll only see more and more as time goes on, for better or worse. Avengers will hit newsstands two months from this point, with Iron Man having debuted in Tales of Suspense four months prior and Thor having debuted in Journey Into Mystery nearly a year before this point, and of course we’ve well documented the debut of the Hulk, with his book having already been cancelled after six issues the same month that he made his first appearance in the FF with issue #12. All this to say, the Marvel Age is well underway.

The FF are unsure of how to contact Ant-Man, but it’s entirely unnecessary. The goddamn weirdo has set up a network of ants to alert him any time his name is mentioned, so he blasts his tiny self out a cannon and onto the backs of a couple ants, leaving the Wasp behind. He shows up on the receiver as Ben Grimm picks up the phone. Ant-Man provides them with some of his solutions for growing and shrinking.

Cut-to: The next day, Ben is at Alicia’s house, lifting stuff for her to clean under. Jerk-ass Reed Richards comes tearing in and shoves some chemicals down Ben’s gullet while he’s lifting a piano. This changes Ben back to normal while he’s still holding the piano, and Ben of course drops it and it breaks. Pianos aren’t cheap, Reed, you piece of shit. So, there’s this ongoing thing across the entire run of Fantastic Four where it is surmised that maybe Alicia really only likes Ben Grimm as the Thing. I don’t know why it’s up for debate or used as psychological fodder for Ben Grimm to deal with in future issues, as it is stated pretty plainly here that that is absolutely the case. Ben also has a freudian slip and calls Alicia “Sue.” We’ll go with that since we are on the subject of psycho-analyzing Ben Grimm, and that’s way more interesting than just pointing out the Stan Lee is a lazy and inattentive writer again. They then hear a voice saying, “Flee for your lives! Beware of Doctor Doom!”

Next, we see Johnny at a picnic, showing off for his fellow high schoolers. He hears that same voice. Sue is in the Baxter Building trying to make a perfume that will make it to where she isn’t susceptible to the snoot of a dog when she’s invisible. For this purpose, she apparently adopted several dogs that we never see again. What happens to them? Sue Storm is an animal neglecting scumbag. Reed and the others walk in on her just as she is hearing the same voice. Reed deduces and reduces. He understands that it was Doom shrinking them down, since last they saw him he was reduced to a subatomic level. They shrink down and appear in the new throne room of Doctor Doom, surrounded by Doom’s micro-knights. This is technically the first appearance of what will later be referred to as “Subatomica” before finally being called the “Microverse,” so if you’re a big fan of Bill Mantlo’s comic adaptation for the Micronauts toy line, that lore finds its origins here. (Which, despite how ridiculous that sounds, is good by all accounts. I completely believe that, considering he did the same thing for Parker Brothers’ Rom: Spaceknight, and that’s one of my favorite latterday Marvel cosmic books. Bill Mantlo’s Marvel career is almost entirely a man making chicken salad of out chicken shit, for little reward.) Doom shows that he can change size at will, which is how he has come to take control of the Subatomica. He captures Sue and gases the others. They are imprisoned in a cell that seems to be underwater along with the old king and Princess Pearla, whose voice they were hearing before. According to her, it is not water outside, but “deadly acid.” She describes how Doctor Doom wants to marry her, and all of the ways he’ll used the FF as slaves. Ant-Man find the vials in the Baxter Building and shrinks down to try to save them. By the the time he gets there, the Four have built a vessel that will float them and the other two safely up through the acid. Ant-Man is captured, and attempts to fight his way free. Doom tells his guards that he’ll finish off Ant-Man with some gun, but invisible Sue takes the gun. Doom flees back to the regular macro-world. The Four wrap up with the restored monarch, and Pearla seems to be falling for Johnny, but he says he can’t stay. Ben reminds everyone that they still haven’t caught Doom, leading us into a cliffhanger of a last panel. We get a feature page about Reed Richards’ boring-ass abilities, and we’re out.

It’s actually a pretty fun issue, and a really worthwhile addition to the Doom saga. So far, I don’t think we’ve had any real duds with Doom. Issue #6 wasn’t amazing, but it was a decent second appearance and furthered the character’s ambitions. Rest assured, the Doom material has much higher heights to hit, especially next week when we get into Annual #2.

Fantastic Four #17 (Aug. 1963)

Getting back into the saga of Doom, “Defeated by Doctor Doom” is a hell of an issue as well. We open up with the FF waving goodbye to Ant-Man as he sails from a little launching platform Reed has for him. Johnny and Ben squabble, and conveniently recount the events of last issue in the process. Reed tells them to shut the fuck up and go somewhere else, because he’s using his radar that is extra-sensitive to human flesh covered by steel, because he’s trying to find Doom. The other three go out to search the city. Ben thinks he sees Doom and rushes towards him, only to fall in an open manhole. He emerges in the middle of the street, causing yet another car to crash into him, though in this case he’s saved a woman that was about to get hit, as the car’s brakes were jammed. He gets to the man he thought was Doom, only to see it’s a man in a knight outfit promoting a stage play. Sue pursues gangsters, thinking they’d lead her to Doom for pretty much no reason. But Doom is actually disguised as their janitor. Like, has a rubber skin mask and clothes and beard over his armor. It’s stupid. He then unleashes some balloon robots that target small discs that he placed on the Four’s hands during a handshake while he was posing as the janitor. The FF have resumed their daily life, and balloon robots find Johnny on a date in a car, Ben and Alicia on a date about town, a pink polkadot balloon robot finds Sue at a photoshoot, and one finds Reed while he’s accepting an honorary degree. They follow them all back to the Baxter Building, where Reed figures out that it’s the tiny plastic discs on their hands that have the balloon robots targeting them. It’s funny that I remember the last issue as being not so good, when this one is pretty lame. When they remove the discs, the balloon robots disappear.

It doesn’t matter. Doom abducts Alicia, for what reason I have no idea. I guess just to get at the Fantastic Four, but it really has no bearing on his overall plot, which seems to involve him having the ability to make electronics and automated systems go haywire. He sends a video reel of his demands to Washington, and JFK tells him to get fucked. Doom basically shuts down production across the country. We see some Russians gloat before Khruschev, or “Comrade K” reminding them that Doom isn’t doing this for them and might attack them next. This is never paid off, Stan Lee just wanted to mock some communists.

Anyway, somehow Reed surmises that Doom used those balloon robots to map their atomic structures and keyed the disintegrator rays around his ship to attack that structure. Why he wouldn’t just set them to kill any intruder is beyond me, but Reed gives Ben a serum to change him back human, thus altering his atomic structure and allowing him to break in to the fortress. He does and destroys the disintegrator, allowing the others to come on board. They navigate the security traps. Sue finds Alicia and hides her, and when Doom comes for her, Sue has a pretty good showdown with Doom and actually defeats him. She of course credits one of the world’s greatest judo experts for teaching her hand-to-hand combat. And that expert is: Reed Richards, of course! Fuck you, Stan Lee. You are the only one who really likes Reed Richards. I think this is because he thinks of himself as Reed Richards, a.k.a. Smartest Man In Any Room, but also a bootlicker beyond redemption. More on that as we go. Either way, after Sue confronts Doom, the other three come in and they corner him. Doom escapes by leaping from the flying fortress, only to disappear into the clouds, no signs of a parachute. Everyone is reunited for a happy ending, and we’re out.

It’s an okay issue, but it’s honestly the weakest of the Doom issues so far, and I’m including the one where he picks up the Baxter Building with a magnet. Let’s keep going.

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Fantastic Four #18 (Sept. 1963)

We get a really beautiful, very Kirby cover, with that dynamism previously discussed on full display. It introduces us to a fully flamed-on Super Skrull. We start the issue with the FF watching a news broadcast hailing them for their defeat of Doctor Doom, and just as the show is about to cut to a “candid shot” of the Thing, it’s interrupted by the sponsors. Thing gets pissed and almost breaks the TV in his stomping rage. After he calms down, Sue and Reed let the guys know they’re going on a date to Hawaii, and they’ll be there in half an hour because they’re taking a fucking intercontinental ballistic missile! What the fuck? Whatever. Ben and Johnny decide to cut out and go their separate ways in their parts of the Fantasticar. We get a few pages on the Skrull homeworld detailing the creation and testing of the Super Skrull. It’s a pretty cool sequence, but it’s not much to write about. The Super Skrull, of course, has every power of the Fantastic Four at his disposal all at once.

We meet back with the FF a week later, and they’re out and about at a shopping mall. They end up mobbed by fans, so they cut out as best they can when they hear of panic in the streets. They find the Super Skrull in Times Square, claiming the planet for the Skrull Empire. They confront the Super Skrull and we get several pages of action. They’re really good action pages, and I thank god that there’s nothing more to say about it than that. Dynamic and well put together, it might be the best action sequence we’ve seen so far. The Fantastic Four get their asses handed to them. Regrouping, Reed deduces that power-rays flowing from the Skrull homeworld are what energize the Super Skrull and provide his power. They devise a plan to confront him and distract him as Sue sticks a jammer on him. They do just that, then lure him into a crater and trap him there. The End.

Solid issue, fun issue, and a great introduction to a character that will be an ongoing threat. This is actually the first time we revisit the Skrull since issue #2, despite the fact that they’ve been mentioned and catalogued several times since. It’s a good second appearance. Don’t skip this on a read-through, for sure.

Fantastic Four #19 (Oct. 1963)

Dear lord, I thought we’d never reach the end of this year, but here we are. Another fantastic cover as we’re introduced to Rama-Tut, the “Pharoah [sic] from the Future!” They don’t spell Pharaoh right once in this entire issue. Go back to high school, Stan. For real. Or at least put a dictionary on your desk, jeez.

The whole plot here is that Reed has discovered a “radioactive” herb that only exists in the past, but can cure Alicia’s blindness. So they take off for Doom’s castle to use his time machine. Except they leave Alicia to operate the machine to bring them back. Whatever. Leave a blind lady to operate futuristic machinery in a strange castle. Brilliant. Whatever. They get to the past and get their asses handed to them and taken to the “Pharoah,” who explains that he’s from the future where civilization is great and peaceful and he hated it, and that the Sphinx is his time machine before using some rays to make them his unwitting slaves. Cool. Reed is a scout for Rama-Tut’s armies, Johnny is entertainment, Ben is sent to row on his ships, and Sue is, of course, going to be his queen. While rowing, the heat gets to Ben so much that he turns human again and slips his shackles. This also means the slave ray no longer affects him in this state, which is the second time in just this batch off issues that the same plot trick is used. Probably won’t be the last. He leaps from the boat, and they can’t catch him because he can swim faster than they can row the cumbersome boat. Not sure that’s how a rowboat works, but whatever. He escapes and frees Sue by hitting her with the ray again before he turns back into the Thing. Sue tries to go invisible, but she’s wearing clothes that don’t turn invisible with her, but she manages to free Johnny all the same. They get Rama-Tut on the run before freeing the Thing and rushing off to find Reed, who is being used as a shield against an opposing army. Once freed, Mr. Fantastic leads them on a pursuit of Rama-Tut. Thing threatens a guard who tells them Tut has fled to the Sphinx. They investigate and find him in a globular rocket, where he takes off, leaving no trace of his reign, save the Sphinx. They recover a vial of the “optic nerve restorative…” conveniently labeled in English. Though they earlier noted that Rama-Tut spoke English, so maybe that’s not too stupid. They go back to the present, but the herb did not make the trip with them. Reed explains that he was worried that something radioactive wouldn’t be able to travel through time, but vows that, now that he knows it existed, he’ll somehow recreate it in his lab. If you were worried about it, why the fuck didn’t you just bring Alicia back in time with you in the first place and give it to her there? Or why don’t you just grab her and take her right back to the moment in time you just left and give it to her? Reed Richards is a self-aggrandizing idiot. Amidst all of this, Rama-Tut mentioned that his ancestor had created the first time machine, leading us to believe he is a descendant of Doom. Which is cool, and later we find out that he is actually Kang the Conqueror, who debuts in Avengers about a year later. So this is technically the first appearance of Kang.

Overall a good issue, and definitely key for a Marvel fan, but still incredibly silly. We are falling ass-backwards into some of the most enduring and interesting aspects of the Marvel Universe. Speaking of the future of Marvel, the letters page features a letter from one of my absolute favorite 70s Marvel creators, Mr. Steve Gerber. Gerber never goes on to write this book. However, he’ll do a great deal of fun stuff with The Thing in Marvel Two-in-One. He is, however, most known as the creator of Howard the Duck and the man who shaped pretty much the entire mythos of Marvel’s swamp creature, Man-Thing in one of my favorite comic book runs of all time. He’s also popular for the best regarded run on The Defenders. He claims here to like Fantastic Four, but mostly goes on to shit on issues #13 & #15, while praising issues #4, #6, #9, and #14. Whatever, Steve. You might notice the common thread in these issues is the presence of the Submariner, whose solo series he’ll go on to write for nearly a year. Here’s the letter, if you’re curious.
 

That’s it for this week. When we reconvene, I’ll be approaching the next two years in one piece. It’ll still be multiple parts, and will quite likely still involve doing a year a week, but I don’t think we need the issue-by-issue format this time around, though it will certainly make its return when we get into years 5 & 6, as that’s certainly where each individual issue deserves a deeper look. I plan to have the first part of that up next weekend. Keep your eyes peeled for other content on the site, though. With any luck, we’ll see some new contributors in the coming weeks.