“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 22

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Fantastic Four 22
“The Return of the Mole Man”
Published: October 1963
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Pencils: Kirby
Script: Lee
Inks: George Roussos
Letters: Sam Rosen
Cover: Kirby and Dick Ayers

Synopsis

As Mr. Fantastic experiments on the Invisible Girl, she reveals two new powers: the ability to summon force fields, and to make other objects invisible. Meanwhile, the FF are besieged by complaints from neighbors about the noise and disruption they cause, so the team flies to investigate an island off the coast of New Jersey where Reed can conduct experiments and launch the team’s ICBM.

Once on the island, the team is trapped by the Mole Man, who lured them by instigating the complaints. To get his revenge on the FF from their first meeting in issue 1, he announces a plan to sink the earth’s major cities, provoking a nuclear war. The team is surrounded by a radioactive wall, but they surmount it with Sue’s new force field. The team is then trapped individually in cells designed to counter their powers (much like with Dr. Doom) but through ingenuity they each escape. Reed then hustles them off the island, and when the Mole Man initiates his plan to skink the cities, it’s revealed that Reed rewired the circuits, so only his island sinks.

What’s going on here

The story is a pretty conventional one: Hijinks in the Baxter Building, confronting a foe who traps them, then a frenzied finish. The issue, however, is notable for a few reasons: A big one is Sue’s new powers. Eventually, it appears, Stan and Jack realized the story-telling limitations of invisibility—there was only so many times Sue could use it to sneak up on a bad guy—so they added a few new wrinkles.


Initially Sue’s force fields were entirely a defensive power and it wasn’t until decades later that she began to wield them offensively, and use them to travel. They’ve effectively become a powerful form of telekineses, leading many to consider her the most powerful member of the FF.

While John Byrne traditionally receives credit for her transformation from weakest to strongest—which culminates with the symbolic adoption of the name Invisible Woman in issue 284—“The Great American Novel” blog makes a compelling case that lots of earlier writers had Sue deploy her force fields in creative, non-defensive ways. That said, I believe it’s fair to note the Byrne made it a project to expand Sue’s arsenal and was deliberate about powering her up.

He was, for instance, the first to have her “fly” on her force fields, an idea which may have come from reader (and author) Carol Strickland:
FF 232 (1981), Byrne

And Byrne has her consistently use her power as a battering ram, something rarely depicted before:

FF 236 (1981), Byrne

FF 22 also debuts Sue’s power to make other things invisible

While not as potent as her force fields, it has come in handy over the years, and maybe is best used here, when she shows the Wizard what his heart looks like:

FF 549 (2007), Written by Dwayne McDuffie, art by Paul Pelletier and Rick Magyar

It’s Clobberin’ Time!

The other big debut in FF 22 was the Thing’s signature phrase (“Yay Bo!” didnt seem to catch on in the same way). “It’s clobberin’ time” quickly becomes as much part of Ben’s identity as his orange rocky appearance. It would be absurd to try to find every use of it, since he says it in virtually every issue, but here are some memorable covers:

Not only does it to become closely associated with Ben, but it becomes one the handful of comic book phrases that have escaped the genre and become part of pop culture. (“It’s a bird, it’s a plane…” “Up, up and away!” and “Hulk Smash!” are maybe the others). There’s no shortage of clobberin’ time merchandise available:

And it’s apparently been adopted / stolen by pro wrestler CM Punk:

Aunt Petunia

Lastly, FF 22 marks the first reference to Ben’s Aunt Petunia, another recurring catch phrase.

For more than 200 issues readers heard about, but never met, Ben’s Aunt Petunia, and it was assumed she was a prim older lady, not unlike Peter Parker’s Aunt May. So Byrne naturally subverted expectations by make her a young-ish country doctor.

FF 239 (1982), Byrne

What year is it?

Topical references abound in FF 22, with children’s comedian Pinky Lee and folk artist Grandma Moses among those getting name-dropped.

Oops

Looks like Stan is covering for Jack here to explain how this stranger wandered past the FF’s vaunted security system

Red menace

The Cold War is again evoked

This is the end?

Even by Stan and Jack’s standards, the ending of FF 22 feels awfully abrupt. The story could have used another page at a minimum instead of cramming all that exposition into the last panel.

They’re fighting again

Aren’t they always?

Dig that Kirby Krackle

This is just a great splash page that captures the personalities of all the members, plus shows off some cool gee-whiz science stuff. George Roussos returned to ink this issue, giving it a different look than most of what came before.

Here’s some other fun stuff from The King (note Reed’s face, and that he’s talking to Mrs. Frobush, a possible precursor to Marvel mascot Irving Forbush):

For Sale

FF 22 in mint condition (9.8) should cost you around $18,000

Next issue: The return of Dr. Doom!

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 21

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Fantastic Four 21
“The Hate Monger
Published: Sept. 1963
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Pencils: Kirby
Inks: George Roussos (credited as George Bell)
Letters: Art Simek
Cover: Kirby and Paul Reinman

Synopsis

The Thing startles the rest of the Fantastic Four by lashing out at a punching bag; the cause of his frustration is newspapers articles about the Hate-Monger, a rabble rouser peaching hatred. Taking a walk, the team quickly stumbles across a Hate-Monger rally on a New York Street. When they confront him, he turns his “H-Ray” against them, causing them to fight amongst each other.

Mr. Fantastic, under the Hate-Monger’s influence, declares himself free of the rest of the FF, and, on returning to the Baxter Building, is greeted by Nick Fury, a former colleague from WWII and now a spy and CIA agent. Fury has come to recruit the FF to confront the Hate-Monger in the South American country of San Gusto, a US client state where he is whipping up a rebellion. Reed decides to go himself, and leaves in the FF’s Pogo Plane. The rest of the team, still under the effects of the H-Ray, are goaded by Fury into pursuing him in their ICBM.

Once in San Gusto, Reed takes on the rebel army before he is captured by the Hate-Monger. He is rescued by Fury, who forces the Hate Monger to administer the antidote. The two then capture the rest of the team and restore them to normal, before confronting the Hate Monger. After his H-Ray is turned on his henchmen, the Hate-Monger is unmasked and revealed to be Adolf Hitler (or a clone there of).

What’s going on here?

Fantastic Four 21 marks the first issue where Stan and Jack get anywhere near contemporary social issues. Wearing what looks like a purple Klan hood, surrounded by henchmen dressed like Nazi brown shirts, the Hate-Monger is as close to a real-world villain as exists in early 1960s Marvel. His presence also gives the FF an opportunity to call out the evils of prejudice and “unamerican sentiments” (with a gratuitous swipe at Sue).

The story, unfortunately, doesn’t got much farther in exploring the issues of hatred and bigotry. There is an opportunity there for Stan and Jack to examine why the Hate-Monger’s message is able to find purchase in the American psyche, but instead the story rumbles on in classic FF fashion. The Hate-Monger becomes just another FF villain, with a secret headquarters and zany gadgets. The twist at the end, that he is actually Adolf Hitler, is essentially shrugged off. Future stories reveal him to have been a clone created by Arnim Zola, and he pops up over the decades, but never as a major FF villain.

The story is also notable for the first appearance of Nick Fury as a modern spy. Fury, who debuted in his own World War II comic a few months earlier, is brought up to the present here as a CIA agent and soon goes on to star in his own stories as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Strange Tales (and later his own book). Notably, he still has two eyes, since he doesn’t begin to wear his eye patch until Strange Tales 135.

He becomes a central figure in the Marvel universe (and Marvel cinematic universe) often serving as a mastermind moving chess pieces, but in this early appearance in the FF, Fury is still more of the WWII brawler. On the cover, he’s dressed as Sgt. Fury, complete with torn Army fatigues.

The issue also establishes a shared history between Nick and Reed in World War II, with an editor’s note plugging Sgt. Fury 3, conveniently on sale, and an early example of marvel using guest stars to promote new books. Here’s their encounter at Massacre Mountain:

Fury’s appearance also launches a long tradition of him showing up early in Marvel comics books to set the story in motion. It’s an exceptionally convenient way to drop heroes into stories without a lot of build up: Fury just sends them on a mission and off they go. Often, he summons the heroes to the SHIELD helicarrier, where they confer around a big table that lights up, like here with the Avengers:

Or here with the FF:

(FF 241, art by John Byrne)

Sometimes he just appears on a monitor, like here with the X-Men :

(X-Men 1, 1991, art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams)

And to prove the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, Nick Fury Jr. is up to the same plot-speeding-up tricks decades later:

(Invisible Woman 1, 2019, art by Mattia De Iulis

About those inks

FF 21 was inked by George Roussos, who is credited in the comic as George Bell. Roussos had a remarkably long career at Marvel, with credits stretching from 1941 to 1995, spending his last three decades as a colorist. His style is very distinctive here, and Kirby’s FF take on a very different appearance, looking more like they did in their first issues.

They’re fighting again

This time, at least, it’s with good reason.

Going underground

Instead of flying to San Gusto, the Hate-Monger burrows his way there, using a device that Stan assures us in an editor’s note is *very* plausible.

Speaking of San Gusto

This is the first and only appearance of San Gusto (future Marvel writers tend to use the imaginary country of San Marcos when they need a banana republic) but it does show up in the Marvel Atlas between Colombia and Venezuela.

Mid-centry Modern

The FF’s unique taste in decorating shows up again

The sexist sixties

Sue relaxes by trying on wigs and dresses

The incredible Mr. Fantastic

More creative stretching

Dig that Kirby Krackle

For sale

FF 21 in mint condition (9.8) will cost you about $13,000.

Next issue: The return of the Mole Man!

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 20

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Fantastic Four 20
“The Mysterious Molecule Man”
Published: August 1963
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Pencils: Kirby
Script: Lee
Inks: Dick Ayers
Letters: Art Simek
Cover: Kirby and George Roussos

Synopsis

As the Fantastic Four help Mr. Fantastic in his lab, a glowing ball of energy appears on the streets of New York. The team is eventually drawn within it, and it’s revealed to be a gateway sent by the Watcher, who violates his oath of non-interference (again) to alert the team of a new threat to earth. An employee of a nuclear plant suffered an accident, he tells them, and was transformed into Molecule Man, a villain capable of manipulating matter.

The team returns to New York to find the Baxter Building has been moved to Times Square, where the Molecule Man declares he is now ruler of the earth. After a long battle, the FF is unable to subdue him. They retreats into hiding after the Molecule Man announces he will hold Manhattan hostage unless the FF are delivered to him. The FF are rescued by a member of the Yancy Street gang, who delivers them to the apartment of Alicia Masters. There, Reed is inspired by Alicia’s sculptures and devises a trap for the Molecule Man. Deducing he can’t manipulate organic molecules, Reed and the team cover themselves in plaster and pretend to be statues. After he is lured to Alicia’s by a flare, the Molecule Man is overcome with feedback after trying to alter the “statues.” Then the Watcher reappears, and after determining the FF defeated the Molecule Man, he disappears with him after returning the Baxter Building to its normal location.

What’s going on here

Fantastic Four 20 repeats the same basic plot points of earlier issues, such as FF 16, when they battled the Super-Skrull. As in that issue, after an unsuccessful battle with an overpowering villain, the team relies on Reed to outwit the bad guy.

Owen Reece, as the Molecule Man is later identified, goes on to occupy an interesting niche in the Marvel Universe. Although he made occasional appearances as a standard-issue bad guy, he really is too powerful for normal comic purposes and is instead deployed in Marvel’s big events, like Secret Wars and its various sequels, where his power matches the magnitude of the stories.

Here he is in Fantastic Four 188 (written by Len Wein), one his last appearances as an ordinary bad guy (he has taken over Reed’s body in this issue):

FF 188 (1977), art by George Perez and Joe Sinnott

In the first Secret Wars, where earth’s heroes confront the all-powerful Beyonder, writer Jim Shooter writes him as a neurotic nebbish who’s true potential is revealed to him by Dr. Doom (who at this point as stolen the Beyonder’s power):

By Secret Wars II, the almost-unreadable sequel about the Beyonder’s sojourn on earth, Reece is now living comfortable in suburbia when he realizes he must confront the Beyonder.

Three decades later, in a new Secret Wars, Johnathan Hickman redeploys the Molecule Man, this time as a human battery powering Doom’s Battle World.

Secret Wars (2015, art by Esad Ribic

Weird science

Throughout FF 20, Stan and Jack toss around various notions about molecules, some of which may surprise chemistry teachers:

I guess newspaper ink contains zinc and lead, but mostly I think they’re paper, ie., carbon (this may be Stan working around Jack’s pencils, since later in the issue it’s revealed that the Molecule man can’t affect “organic” molecules, which presumably includes carbon).

We also have this odd moment of Reed finding proof of life in outer space, as if they hadn’t been to an alien plant in FF 7, much less encountered Skrulls and the Watcher.

The Watcher, insult comic

Uatu doesn’t hold back about the Molecule Man

Pals

I love this bit of back-and-forth between Ben and Johnny. It captures their relationship perfectly.

The strange and terrible power of the atom

Once again, nuclear energy is the one-size-fits-all bestower of powers of the early Marvel universe

The incredible Mr. Fantastic

More creative stretching from Reed

Nu Yawk, Nu Yawk

The FF take the subway

The sexist sixties

Sue wilts under pressure again

Dig that Kirby Krackle

A cool sequence

For Sale

A mint (9.8) copy of FF 20 will run you $33,000, three times more than last issue. Go figure.

Next issue: The Hate-Monger!

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 19

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Fantastic Four 19
“Prisoners of the Pharoah!” (sic)
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Pencils: Kirby
Script: Lee
Inks: Dick Ayers
Letters: Sam Rosen
Cover: Kirby and Paul Reinman

Synopsis

Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl and the Human Torch search New York for the Thing and Alicia Masters. Once they’re all back at the Baxter Building, Reed informs them of his latest discovery: When looking at Egyptian hieroglyphics, he unearthed evidence of a radioactive cure of blindness which could be used to treat Alicia. The team then travels to Dr. Doom’s castle (in the Adirondacks, not Latveria) to find the time machine Doom used in FF 5.

Sent back by Alicia to ancient Egypt, the FF are attacked by local warriors. The FF have no trouble subduing them until they mysteriously lose the use of their powers. Captured, the team is brought before the pharaoh Rama-Tut who reveals himself to also be a time traveler, but from the far-distant future. Bored with his easy life, he traveled to the past (in a vessel that resembles the Sphinx) and set himself up as ruler. Using his future mind-control technology, he makes the FF his slaves, saving Sue to serve as his queen.

The Thing, working as a galley slave, mysteriously transforms back to human form (more on this later), and slips free of his shackles. He then frees the rest of the team before changing back to the Thing. The FF pursue Rama-Tut, who escapes in his time machine. Before returning to the present, Sue discovers the optic nerve treatment for Alicia. Unfortunately, a flaw in the time machine prevents the transport of radioactive material, so the treatment doesn’t make it to the present, leaving Ben distraught.

What’s going on here?

Along with being an entertaining adventure that also contains some nice character building, Fantastic Four 19 has had an out-sized impact on the Marvel universe, primarily because of the introduction of Rama-Tut. Initially conceived as a stand-alone bad, writer Steve Englehart revealed he was actually an earlier incarnation of Kang the Conquerer, a time-traveling Avengers villain.

Avengers 129 (1974), art by Sal Buscema and Joe Staton.

Eventually he was later revealed to also be the Scarlet Centurion and Immortus, and he features in numerous time-twisting stories. It is far beyond the scope of this blog, or the reasoning power of this blogger, to unravel Kang’s complete timeline, but suffice to say he’s a major part of the Marvel firmament.

More specifically, FF 19 also features in a handful of stories when other heroes venture back to the same place and time in ancient Egypt.

First, Dr. Strange is sent back in time by Nightmare (for reasons way too complicated to get into here). Captured by the automated defenses in Rama-Tut’s time machine, he uses his astral form to explore and discovers the captured FF.
Dr. Strange 53 (1982), art by Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin

In this telling by Roger Stern and Roy Thomas, it was Dr. Strange that changed Ben back to his human form, setting off the events that allowed the FF to return to the future.

Here’s Stan and Jack’s telling of the events

And here is Stern and Thomas’s

Artist Marshall Rogers also has fun mirroring Kirby’s great sequence of Ben escaping the galley:

Not to be out-done, Englehart has the West Coast Avengers also travel back to the same moment (and also for reasons way too complicated to get into here). In that story, the team encounters both Strange and the FF.

WCA 22 (1987), art by Al Milgrom and Kim DeMulder

In Englehart’s story, the WCA are desperate to hitch a ride back to the present, but just miss the FF.

Here’s Stan and Jack:

And here’s Englehart

Both the Dr. Strange and the WCA comics are the sort of intricate, multi-layered story telling that rewards fans with obsessive knowledge of their Marvel characters and history, but also represents the fan-as-creator tendencies that left new readers (and some editors) cold. These are the kinds of story helped inspire projects like the New Universe and the Ultimate Universe, where there was no deep past for writers to play in and no fear of convoluted stories losing readers

Pals

FF 19 also featured some nice moments between the team, particularly this panel, where Reed and Ben’s friendship is obvious. We’ve had some many examples of Reed scolding Ben that it seemed Stan forgot they are former college roommates and best friends.

The Amazing Mr. Fantastic

We get some great stretching action in this issue. First:

and then here:

Spalling iz hard!

“Pharaoh” is consistently misspelled “Pharoah” throughout the issue.

They’re fighting again

It’s pretty mild, compared to other issues

The sexist sixties

Once again, Sue is singled out by the FF’s captor for special, creepy treatment.

Fun time

I loved this sequence

Kirby Krackle

There are a lot of great images in this issue, but this might be the single best panel in the first 19 issues of the FF.

These are also great

For sale

A mint (9.8) version of FF 19 is just $11,000. A bargain!

Next issue: The Molecule Man!

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four Annual No. 1

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Fantastic Four Annual 1
Published July 2, 1963

“The Sub-Mariner versus the Human Race” (main story)
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Pencils: Kirby
Script: Lee
Inks: Dick Ayers
Letters: Art Simek

“The Fabulous Fantastic Four Meet Spider-Man” (second story)
Story: Lee
Pencils: Kirby
Inks: Steve Ditko
Letters: Ray Holloway

Cover: Kirby and Ayers


Buckle up everyone, because we’ve got a lot to cover in the Fantastic Four’s first annual. It features two stories, both loaded with historic significance, a gallery of pin-ups, and a handful of assorted extras, all of which are worth looking at.

But first, the main event:

Synopsis

The story begins under the ocean, in Atlantis, which Namor the Sub-Mariner has finally rediscovered and where he is now crowned as ruler. We meet Dorma, his love interest, and Krang, a rival. Meanwhile, in New York, the Fantastic Four plan a cruise vacation in part to investigate the sighting of sea monsters. While at sea, the team is captured by Namor (the sea monsters were a lure), who informs the team the surface world can no longer encroach on his ocean kingdom, and releases the FF to spread the word.

Reed summons an emergency session of the United Nations, and introduces Dr. G. W. Falton, who explains the history of homo mermanus, the water-breathing off shot of humans, their civilization, and the birth of Namor. When Reed declares humanity must fight Atlantis, Falton reveals himself to be Namor in disguise, and then launches an invasion of New York.

New York is soon overwhelmed by Atlanteans, but Reed invents a device that evaporates the water in the their helmets, sending them back to the sea. Defeated, Namor abducts the Invisible Girl after a scuffle with the FF, and brings her to Atlantis. The rest of the FF pursues, and while Namor and the team battle, Dorma realizes Namor is in love with Sue and floods her chamber. Sue nearly drowns, and Namor calls off his fight with the FF to take Sue to a hospital on land. When he returns to the ocean, the city of Atlantis is deserted as his people have abandoned him.

What’s going on here?

This is the first annual of the modern Marvel era, but apparently not Marvel’s first annual. While investigating the history of Marvel’s annuals is an exercise in frustration, the lack of explanation in this issue suggests readers were used to them. Initially Marvel used its annuals to tell big stories or for big events like Reed and Sue’s wedding (spoiler!). Later, they became used for Marvel’s interminable cross-over events. While they were once reliably published one a year (annually, you might say) they’ve since become much more erratic. The FF reached 27 annuals before the first series was rebooted in 1998 (though some were reprints).

This first story has a lot going on. Most importantly it tells the story of Namor, his people, and his birth to an Atlantean princess and a human sea captain. Namor has now appeared in five stories in the FF’s first two years, as many as Dr. Doom, and with this annual he’s given more dimension and background. Notably, he’s also identified as by G.W. Falton (really Namor in disguise) “the first known mutant,” a tag line which Marvel used to advertise Namor’s solo book in later, mutant-crazed years.

The story also moves Namor from villain closer to hero, or at least, anti-hero. Despite his new-found leadership of Atlantis, it doesn’t appear his heart is really in the invasion of earth, and he’s still clearly smitten with Sue. And while Sue remains Namor-curious, she seems to realize her future is with Reed and the team.

The annual just has a ton of action as Stan and Jack take advantage of the extra space to stretch out. The regular jokey fight between Ben and Johnny, usually just a panel or two each issue, covers more than two pages. The team also battles Namor twice, each time for several pages.

They’re fighting

As noted above, this is a big brawl.

The sexist sixties

The real victim of Ben and Johnny’s fight? Sue’s dresses.

The Amazing Mr. Fantastic

Reed gets to show off a bit while fighting Namor

Operator

Reed never wrote down the number for the United Nations.

Red Menace

Khrushchev makes his second appearance in the FF. For those keeping score, that’s Khrushchev 2, JFK 1.

Vacation!

Ooops

Very odd drawing of Ben here by Jack. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he looked like Pepe the Frog.

Kirby Krackle

Kack makes up for his stumble with all sorts of cool images, particularly in this double-page spread of Atlantis, the only double-page spread in the FF to date.

Also this is a pretty excellent view of Namor. A swimmer’s body, indeed.

But wait, there’s more!

The second story is an odd one – it’s an expanded version of the FF’s first meeting with Spider-Man, which appeared as part of a larger story in Amazing Spider-Man 1, published a few months earlier.

There’s not much to it: Spider-man, very new to the super-heroing business, breaks into the Baxter Building and fights the FF, hoping to prove his value with the expectation they will hire him. When he finds out there’s no money in being an FF member, he sulks off. While the version in ASM 1 was drawn by Ditko, this one was drawn by Kirby with Ditko’s inks. The dialogue and the layouts are basically the same, but the art is very different. See for yourself:

Spider-Man tried the same trick decades later with the Avengers, breaking into Avengers Mansion and asking for a job. It didn’t work out then, either. (Much later, of course, he ended up as a member of both teams).

Avengers 236 (Milgrom/ Sinnott)

While Spidey’s initial meeting with the FF was an inauspicious one, it was the first of many encounters that led to a deep friendship between Peter Parker and the FF. They have appeared in so many issues together it would be impossible to list them all but here are some notable ones:


From Marvel Team-Up 17

Art by Gil Kane and “many hands”

From Marvel Team-Up 100

Art by Frank Miller and Bob Wiacek

From Amazing Spider-Man 258

And much more recently, from 2011 ‘s FF 1, when Peter joined the team after Johnny was believed dead:

We’re still not done!

Fantastic Four Annual 1 included a series of pin-ups of the FF’s foes. Interestingly, while many—like the Mole Man and the Mad Thinker— had only appeared one, their presence in the gallery suggested Stan and Jack had long-term plans for them.

The annual also included a cutaway drawing of the Baxter Building, the third such illustration of the FF’s headquarters so far. Each one is a little more detailed, and this one includes an interesting tidbit about Sue and Johnny still living at home and commuting in from the suburbs.

Lastly, each of the FF was the subject of a Q&A section that attempted to answer readers’ questions about the team. For example, we learn why Reed is grey at the temples, that Johnny is just 16, and that while the Hulk is stronger than the Thing, Ben is a more wily fighter. Alas, much of Sue’s Q&A is dedicated to her love life.

For sale

A mint version (9.8) of FF Annual 1 should cost you around $46,000.

Next week: Introducing the Rama Tut!

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 18

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Fantastic Four 18
“A Skrull Walks Among Us!”
Published June 1963
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Script: Lee
Pencils: Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
Letters: Art Simek
Cover: Kirby and Paul Reinman

Synopsis

As the Fantastic Four recuperate from their recent adventures, on the home planet of the Skrulls—”in the fifth quadrant of the Andromeda Galaxy”—the Skrull Emperor plots an attack on Earth. He reviews his latest weapon, the Super-Skrull, who possesses all the powers of the Fantastic Four and then some.

As the FF contend with a horde of shoppers in a department store, the Super-Skrull lands in Time Square and announces his dominion over the Earth. Soon the FF arrive and after a furious battle, they are overpowered by the alien and retreat. Mr. Fantastic surmises the Super-Skrull is receiving his power from an external force and builds a device to block the signal. After luring the Super-Skrull to fight the FF on a volcanic deserted island, Reed, Ben, and Johnny distract him while Sue attaches the device. No longer receiving his power from the Skrull home world, the alien is weakened. The Human Torch then seals the Skrull in a crater by fusing sand into glass.


What’s going on here?

Another whiz-bang issue—that’s three stellar issues in a row, for those keeping track—that introduces another major villain to the Marvel universe. Fantastic Four 18 follows a now familiar pattern: The FF loaf around the Baxter Building or New York, often showing off their powers among civilians, before they’re drawn into an adventure. The pace then quickens and the second half of the comic is non-stop action, usually culminating with the villain’s defeat on the final page, or even final panel.

FF 18 reintroduces the Skrulls, not seen since issue two, and adds a bit more context to the alien. We visit their home world and meet their emperor, later revealed as Dorrek VII. He goes unnamed here but eventually he and the Skrull royal family become significant characters in their own right, particularly his queen, R’Kill, and their daughter, Princess Annelle.

The comic also introduces the Super-Skrull, Kl’rt. He, too, isn’t named until later issues, and has a long and tangled history in the Marvel Universe. I’m partial to his appearance in John Byrne’s Alpha Flight 10, when he battled Sasquatch.

His most recent appearance came in the 2020 Empyre crossover, when he was found responsible for the genocide of an alien race. To punish him, the hero Hulkling—the new Skrull Emperor—makes him a diplomat, forcing him to make peace instead of war. (Empyre was a bit of a mess, but it was steeped in deep Marvel history and it had its moments).

Empyre Aftermath: Avengers (Writing: Al Ewing and Dan Slott, art by Valerio Schiti)

Go Gadget Go

FF 18 was a big issue for cool space-age vehicles and gizmos.

First, Reed unveils the team’s new passenger ICBM for a quick trip to Hawaii with Sue.

Ben and Johnny have to make do with the Fantasticars.

Later, the team takes off in the Pogo Plane, presumably named that because it can take off and land vertically. (Why they need both the Pogo Plane and the ICBM goes undiscussed).

And lastly, Reed deploys a “remote control orbital public address system.”

The sexist sixties

Sue spends the initial battle with the Super-Skrull “nursing” Johnny.

Later, even after she uses her powers to attach Reed’s device to the Super-Skrull, she’s still helpless.

Comic relief

There’s a particularly silly sequence depicting the FF escaping what appears to be Macy’s. Sue’s dress is either not made of unstable molecules or the colorist didn’t get the memo.

Feats of strength

As he has done in almost every issue thus far, Ben shows off his strength by destroying property. As we shall see elsewhere in this issue, the Skrulls claim Ben can lift only five tons, a figure significantly revised upward in later issues and in the Handbook to the Marvel Universe.

They’re fighting again

This time its over what’s on TV.

Kirby Krackle

Jack really comes alive when he gets to draw alien technology. This issue is no exception.

This is a pretty amazing sequence, too (undiscussed is Kl’rt’s fondness for how tunes, particularly from Annie Get Your Gun)

For sale

A mint (9.8) edition of FF 18 will set you back $47,000.

Next: The first Fantastic Four Annual!

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 17

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Fantastic Four 17
“Defeated by Doctor Doom!”
Published May 9, 1963
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Script: Lee
Pencils: Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
Letters: Art Simek
Cover: Kirby and Ayers

Synopsis

After last issue’s adventure, the Fantastic Four bid farewell to Ant-Man and begin searching for Dr. Doom on the streets of New York. Doom, disguised as the Baxter Building’s janitor, implants tracking devices on the team, who are soon followed by floating, immaterial robots. Doom then abducts Alicia Masters to use as a hostage, and blackmails the US government, disrupting the nation’s electronics in order to gain a seat on the president’s cabinet (!).

The FF launch a plan to rescue Alicia and defeat Doom but Reed recognizes Doom’s floating headquarters are protected with disintegrator rays. The rays are keyed to the team’s unique molecular structures, which were scanned by the floating robots. To bypass the rays, Reed gives the Thing a serum that changes him back to Ben Grimm, rearranging his molecules and foiling the disintegrator rays. Once aboard Doom’s ship, Ben—now changed back—destroys the ray device, and the other team members join him. Doom briefly detains the team members with individually designed traps (again) but the team escapes (again). Finally, Sue switches places with Alicia, getting close enough to Doom to stall him until the rest of the team arrives. Doom, however, escapes.

What’s going on here

Another satisfying, action packed issue, and one that helps establish both the characters of Doom and Ben. Like last issue, the story starts slowly, with comedic bits as the team tries to live normal lives in New York, before building to a crescendo aboard Doom’s ship.

While this is Doom’s fifth appearance, it’s the first where his motivations are revealed. He’s not just a power hungry villain, but an insecure man, tortured by feelings of inadequacy tied to his disfigurement.

But unlike future issues, where Doom’s plans involve world domination, here all he wants is a cabinet seat. (Which one is left unsaid: Secretary of Housing and Urban Development? Postmaster General?)

Meanwhile, after Reed changes Ben back to human—something which happens with regularity in these early issues—we learn that Ben’s heroism isn’t a function of his monstrous form. After spending much of the FF’s first year serving as the team’s comedian and hot head, we get a glimpse of the inner strength that helps define him and make him one of Marvel’s most beloved characters.

Heroic Sue

The Invisible Girl also gets some more dimension in this issue. One consequence of the introduction of Alicia to the FF’s world is Sue is no longer the most helpless woman, and she is replaced by Alicia as the designated hostage. But Sue also is toughened up a bit (although she attributes her fighting prowess to Reed’s tutelage—even when she triumphs it’s because of a man).

Byrne Baby Byrne

John Byrne references this issue at least twice in his subsequent comics. First, there’s this cover:

There’s also this great Kirby sequence of Sue evading a trap of rods…

…which Byrne homages (or swipes) in Alpha Flight 3:

The Incredible Mr. Fantastic

Some cool Reed action here:

They’re fighting again

Ben is understandably upset Alicia has been captured by Doom.

Geo-politics

In this issue we meet JFK (or at least his hair) as he drops some identifying verbal clues, like “vigor” and his daughter’s name (and speaking of Carline Kennedy, it appears the First Lady is lecturing the future Mrs. Schlossberg in silhouette). The rocking chair may be a reference to Kennedy’s back problems.

We also meet Khrushchev, here identified as Comrade K.

All dressed up

The FF looks pretty spiffy here:

Believe the hype

This issue features more the than the usual bombast from Stan. On the cover, as well as inside. The second feels like a direct attack on the Justice League of America.

Kirby Krackle

Lots of outstanding art from Jack in this issue. Like this:

… and this …

… and this …

and this.

For sale:

In mint condition (9.8) FF 17 is worth $31,000.

Next issue: The Super Skull!

Very Short Review: Superman & Lois (2021)

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The problem with Superman, most writers discover, is that he’s just too powerful. Unlike human-scaled heroes like Batman and Spider-Man, there are few opponents that can challenge the Man of Steel, and secret-identity hijinks can only go so far. Eventually, storytellers realize the best stories are ones where the conflict isn’t between Superman and a bad guy, but between Superman and Clark Kent. Reconciling the thoroughly decent and very human Clark with the power and responsibility of his god-like alter ego lies at the heart of Superman & Lois, a CW show now available on HBOMax.

In this iteration of Superman, he’s married to Lois Lane and they’re raising twin teenage boys, Jonathan and Jordan. The boys are very different—Jonathan is a jock, Jordan has emotional issues—and a central point of tension is whether he’s available for his family. It’s clear the show will be as much about Clark’s parenting as his world-saving.

I confess the last time I checked in on the Superman comics, about a decade ago, he had an adopted son named Christopher, but this premise works, too. The legend of Superman is so potent that the particular details aren’t all that important so long as the main beats of the characters are there. But this shows gets a lot of the details right, too. Lois (played by Elizabeth Tulloch) is tough, sexy, and whip smart, Lana Lang is still stuck in Smallville, and media mogul Morgan Edge looms as a real-world bad guy. The writers know the source material, and the show succeeds in part because they trust our familiarity with these characters and their world. It’s confident enough to be subtle.

Perhaps most importantly, the show gets Superman, right. As a hero, he’s immensely powerful, but measured. As a dad, he’s visibly struggling. As a reporter, he’s recently unemployed. Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman isn’t as muscled as Henry Cavill’s and his Clark Kent isn’t as awkward as Christopher Reeve’s, but he manages to make both sides of the character convincing. It helps that he resembles Superman as drawn by longtime comic artist Gary Frank: soulful and pensive.

I’ve only seen the pilot, so the show may deteriorate, but it seems unlikely. Even its weaker moments—when the story follows the moody teenage boys doing moody teenage things—are thankfully brief. Tipping too much in that direction risks turning Superman & Lois into Riverdale with kryptonite, but so far it’s balanced with enough action and humor to offset any emo sulkiness.

After watching a few dreary episodes of The Flash and Arrow, I pretty much wrote off the CW’s foray into DC comics. Too much talk, too little respect for the comics that created them. But early on, Superman & Lois seems to get it all right.

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 16

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Fantastic Four 16
“The Micro-World of Dr. Doom”
Published: April 1963
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Script: Lee
Pencils: Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
Letters: Art Simek
Cover: Kirby and Ayers

Synopsis

The Human Torch arrives at the Baxter Building to find the rest of the Fantastic Four have shrunk to a tiny size. After they recover their stature, they reveal they each had separate shrinking episodes. They summon Ant-Man for a consultation, and he leaves them with a shrinking potion so they can find the source of their affliction.

The FF resume their lives, but hear a mysterious woman’s voice warning them about Dr. Doom. Recalling Doom was last seen shrinking into nothingness (in issue 10), they connect him to their shrinking and pursue him using Ant-Man’s serum.

The team arrives in the Microverse (in later issues, revealed to be a separate universe accessed through shrinking), a feudal society where Doom has placed himself on the throne. Doom shrinks the FF further and, after a brief battle with his henchmen, the team is captured and imprisoned with the world’s king and his daughter Princess Pearla. It was Pearla’s voice they heard. Back in the larger world, Ant-Man discovers the team has shrunk, and travels after them, only to be captured by Doom as well.

The FF escapes their prison, free Ant-Man, and defeat Doom, who escapes capture. The team then returns to their world with Ant-Man, in pursuit of Doom.

What’s going on here?

This is one of the more satisfying of Stan and Jack’s early issues. It’s a fun, well-structured story that starts with a slow boil with the team puttering around New York before picking up speed and turning into a science fiction adventure. FF 16 introduces some cool new concepts—the Microverse, and a medieval society that live in it—while including a guest star in Ant-Man and offering a plausible explanation for what happened to Doom. It also gives Jack an opportunity to have fun drawing the shrunken FF fighting larger villains.

This issue was an obvious inspiration for the now classic FF 236, written and drawn by John Byrne, where shrunken versions of the FF (actually, tiny clay copies of their bodies molded by the Puppet Master) are trapped in a tiny town. Compare this panel from FF 16 …

…with this one from FF 236

Or here, where Doom captures Sue in a jar …

…and, 20 years later, a glass

The issue is also referenced by Byrne more overtly in FF 282, when the FF shrink down in pursuit of the villainous Psycho Man.

Doom’s plot in FF 16 to sell the FF to the Lizard of Men of Tok, where Ben will become a slave in their diamond mines…

… is recalled when She-Hulk is captured (no lizard men, though).

FF 283 Byrne /Ordway

And Princess Pearla, introduced here …

… reappears in FF 284, where she helps rescue She-Hulk.

Ch-ch-changes

Ben turns human again. I’ve lost track of how many times so far, but about every other issue he changes back. That slows down pretty significantly over the years.

The Wasp

Janet Van Dyne—who will eventually spend a big chunk of time in the Microverse, both in the comics and the movies—briefly makes an appearance, just a month after her debut in Tales to Astonish 44.

Good grief!

Johnny’s jacket seems to be from the Charlie Brown collection

The sexist sixties

Sue just loves perfume

In fairness to Stan and Jack, Sue steps up is surprising ways in this issue, disarming Doom and coming up with a plan to escape their cell.

Kirby Krackle

Lots of fun stiff in this issue, including the Thing taking a swing at the Lizard Men’s space ship


And a fun bit of perspective

For Sale

In mint condition (9.8) FF 16 will cost you about $17,000, quite a bit less than the last issue. Go figure.

Pin-up!

Reed gets the pin-up treatment here. By now, Jack has settled into drawing youthful, muscular version of Reed (compared to the elderly, almost wizened version in issue one).

Next issue: In pursuit of Doom!

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 15

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Fantastic Four 15
“The Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android”
Published March 1963
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Script: Lee
Pencils: Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
Letters: Art Simek

Synopsis

In an echo of the first issue, Mr. Fantastic uses a flare gun to summon the team, and informs them he’s been alerted by the police that gang leaders from around the country are assembling in the city. Meanwhile, we are introduced to the Mad Thinker, a genius scientist, who has convened the crime bosses. He debuts his plan to use the predictive powers of his computers to defeat the Fantastic Four and become king of New York.

Putting his plan in place, he arranges for the FF to be drawn away from the team to pursue other goals: Johnny joins his cousins’ circus, Ben become a pro wrestler, Sue makes a movie and Reed becomes a research scientist. All are dissatisfied with their new careers, however, and return to the (newly named) Baxter Building only to find it turned to crystal by the Thinker. The team fight their way in and overcomes a series of traps and obstacles laid by the Thinker, who uses Reed’s own inventions against him. The last is an android, which adapts to its foes, that Reed designed by the Thinker built. The Thinker is finally defeated after Reed prearranged for the building’s power to cut out, shutting down the Thinker’s weapons.

What’s going on here?

A fairly straight-forward issue that introduces the Mad Thinker to the FF’s rogues gallery. While never a first-tier bad guy, he reappears fairly steadily over the years, often teaming up with other villains. He’d often included a in run-down of the smartest characters in the Marvel Universe. The issue also features the first time their headquarters is named the “Baxter Building,” 12 issues after its first appearance in issue 3.

Those guys

FF 15 also marks Ben’s first actual visit to Yancy Street, where he is of course harassed by the Yancy Street Gang. While the fictional Yancy Street is understood to be a stand in for Delancy Street on New York’s Lower East Side, here it’s intersecting with 10th Avenue.

Crime does pay

It seems strange now that the FF would be involved in a story with mafia-type criminals but Marvel had’t fully yet separated its “street-level” books like Spider-man and Daredevil from its more cosmic type comics like the FF and Avengers. So in this issue we get both mob hoods in pin-stripe suits and toothpicks and the Thinker whose ambition to become king of New York is surprisingly literal.

Rasslin’

On his short sabbatical from the team, Ben becomes a pro wrestler and fights Fatal Finnegan.

That foreshadows Ben’s foray into grappling as part of the Unlimited Class Wrestling circuit in his own series in the 1980s (a pretty forgettable story line, to be honest).

Thing 29 (1985) Art: Ron Wilson & Paul Ryan

Life and times of the Human Torch

Jack Kirby again displays his questionable fashion sense, dressing teenage Johnny in a fedora while on a date.

We also meet Johnny’s cousins from the Bones ‘N Bailey Circus (presumably they are also Sue’s cousins but that goes unaddressed).

Johnny signs up, in part because can’t wait to meet those “cool circus chicks.”

They’re fighting again

The sixties are sexist

Sue just isn’t cut out for super-heroing

Kirby Krackle

These two panels are about as Kirby as it gets

These are fun, too.

For sale

A mint copy (9.8) will run you about $70,000.

Pin up time

A rather odd-looking Kirby pin up. I’m guessing it was drawn earlier and saved until this issue.

Next issue: Dr. Doom and the Ant-Man!