“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 31

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Fantastic Four 31
“The Mad Menace of the Macabre Mole Man!”
Published: July 1964
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Script: Lee
Pencils: Kirby
Inks: Chic Stone
Letters: Sam Rosen
Cover: Kirby and Stone

Synopsis

Earthquakes rock the Baxter Building and New York City. The Fantastic Four investigate, but as they rush out, the Invisible Girls sees a newspaper article about a man escaping from prison that gives her pause, and tells the rest of the team to go without her.

At the scene, the team discovers a city block has disappeared, leaving only a deep hole. Unbeknownst to the team, the Mole Man is responsible. The team returns to the Baxter Building to find the Invisible Girl has been take hostage by the Mole Man. The three use a Pogo Plane to descend to the Mole Man’s subterranean kingdom, avoiding obstacles along the way. There, the Mole Man demands the FF stand aside as he conquers the surface world, or risk losing Sue.

The team ascends to the surface to find the Avengers preparing to attack the Mole Man. After a brief scuffle, the FF convinces the Avengers to let them handle it and Mr. Fantastic invents a device that allows him to pinpoint Sue’s location. He then directs the Human Torch to blast a new tunnel down to the Mole Man’s kingdom, and Reed and Ben follow. With Johnny’s help, Sue escapes and the team returns the city blocks to the surface. But as the team ascends, Sue is hit by debris and is rushed to the hospital.

There, the doctors say only one surgeon can perform the necessary life-saving surgery, and he just escaped from prison. That man just appears, announces he is Sue and Johnny’s father, and successfully operates on Sue. He and Johnny have a moment at Sue’s bedside before the police arrive to return him to prison.

What’s going on here?

Fantastic Four 31 is notable for a few reasons, One is that Jack Kirby’s art seems to reach a new level of dynamism and creativity in this issue. Really, starting in issue 28, the Kirby’s art has been notably stronger, and FF 31 is a new peak. Some of that is Chic Stone’s inks, but it’s mostly Kirby who is using bigger panels, and more inventive perspectives and angles. Check out this page, for instance:

Or this one:

It seems light-years more sophisticated and interesting than the first few issues of the FF. I don’t know exactly why his art made a leap in 1964, but one idea may have been the increased popularity of the FF, and the sense that he and Stan were creating something special. Jack was famously overworked, so it’s to be expected that he would rush through most of his projects. But it also makes sense that he would take his time on a comic that he knew was being widely read and appreciated.

Also, FF 31 is marked by the appearance of Sue and Johnny’s father, Franklin. This is the first time any of the FF’s family has appeared in the book, and perhaps, after the lengthy unveiling of Dr. Doom’s origin in the FF Annual 2, Stan and Jack realized we knew more about Doom’s past than the FF’s. Even Reed claimed he didn’t know about Sue’s father, and assumed she and Johnny were orphans (or maybe he just didn’t pay attention when she told him). Over the years, we’ll meet more and more of the FF’s family and learn much more about their backstory.

Of course, Franklin Storm’s initial appearance is milked for maximum melodrama. First comes the foreshadowing in the newspaper:

then the deus ex machina revelation at the hospital:

and finally the reunion at Sue’s bedside:

But even while it’s clear Stan and Jack were building up to the conclusion, Sue’s injury and Franklin’s dramatic appearance seems strangely shoehorned into the story. We never actually see Sue get hurt, and the whole business with her hospitalization and operation is stuffed into the last two pages of the story.

Stan and Jack clearly thought introducing Franklin Storm was a big deal, though, teasing his appearance both on the cover and the splash page. But the story has a weird rhythm to it, and feels like an episode of Perry Mason or some other show where all plots are wrapped up in 22 minutes.

We will learn more about Franklin Storm in the next issue, but he doesn’t become as significant character as reed’s father, Nathaniel. He is, of course, the namesake of Franklin Richards, who gets his name in FF 94 (the B is for Benjamin):

Lastly, FF 31 includes a brief appearance from the Avengers. While from an in-universe perspective it’s not particularly surprising—if city blocks started disappearing in New York, the Avengers should show up—but at this point in the Marvel Universe, super teams weren’t routinely crossing paths. The encounter, which of course includes a brief fight, only lasts about a page, and doesn’t even warrant a mention on the cover.

The sexist sixties

I’ve lost track of how many times Sue has been kidnapped or taken hostage in the first 31 issues (and I don’t have the heart to count) but I’m sure it’s approaching double digits. And if it isn’t Sue who’s taken hostage, it’s usually Alicia.

Snappy banter

The brawling between the team has been replaced by witty repartee, at least for this issue.

Krazy Kredits

It’s Clobberin’ Time!

For sale

A mint (9.8) copy of FF 31 should cost around $26,000. An issue in fine condition (6.0) is about $120.

Next issue: The return of the Super-Skrull!

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four Annual No. 2

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Fantastic Four Annual 2
“The Fantastic Origin of Dr. Doom” and “The Final Victory of Dr. Doom”
Published: July 7, 1964
Stories: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Scripts: Lee
Pencils: Kirby
Inks: Chic Stone
Letters: Sam Rosen
Cover: Kirby and Sol Brodsky


This is a big one! Strap yourselves in, because a giant-size comic book means a giant-size blog post.

The Fantastic Four’s second annual contains three stories. One is a reprint of Fantastic Four 5, the first appearance of Dr. Doom. The other two are new, and both contain major contributions to the story of Dr. Doom, the Fantastic Four’s (and arguably the Marvel Universe’s) most significant antagonist.

First up is Doom’s origin story in a 12-page retelling that expands greatly on this brief, five-panel origin in FF 5:

In Annual 2, we learn that Doom was a gypsy, the son of a sorceress and and healer. As a child, the cruel local Baron demands Doom’s father heal his ailing wife. When he can’t save her, the Baron vows revenge, and Werner Von Doom flees with young Victor, eventually dying of exposure while saving his son. Now an orphan, Victor discovers his mother’s magical artifacts and devotes himself to learning her secrets.

As a young man, Doom becomes a sort of con-man Robin Hood, selling inventions like a self-playing violin to the wealthy before they fell apart. He (somehow) attracts the attention of the dean of Empire State University, who offers him a scholarship. At ESU, Doom meets Reed Richards, and haughtily rebuffs his offer to be roommates. Doom spends his free time working on a device designed to “contact the nether world” and arrogantly dismisses Reed when he warns Doom about his miscalculations. The device explodes, scarring Doom’s face, and he is expelled from ESU.

Still seeking occult knowledge, he travels to the Himalayas and joins a hidden order of monks, eventually becoming their master. He commands them to build him a suit of armor, and he leaves as Dr. Doom.

The story wraps up with Doom striding through Latveria, where his subjects seem to both love and fear him.

What’s going on here?

A lot. For the first time we learn about Doom’s sorceress mother, the tragic death of his father, and the origin of his armor. Notably, FF Annual 2 also introduces Doom as monarch of Latveria, one of Marvel’s most important fictional nations (Wakanda, Atlantis, and Genosha are the others). Remember, up to this point, Doom’s castle was in the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York. Making Doom a sovereign—giving him both diplomatic immunity and threats from coups and insurgencies—opened up dozens of story angles for FF writers over the years.

While Annual 2 expands Doom’s origins, it’s hardly the last word on the subject. Given Doom’s centrality in the Marvel universe, it’s not surprising his story has been continually revisited, tweaked, and retconned. While the same basic elements are always in place, over the decades writers have played with the specifics.

For example, here’s the scene where Reed tries to alert Doom to his miscalculations. First, in Annual 2:

Here’s how John Byrne depicted the same scene 20 years later, in a flashback in FF 278 (inks by Jerry Ordway):

And here’s how Ed Brubaker treated the same scene in 2006’s Books of Doom, a six-part series that expanded Doom’s origin at even greater length (art by Pablo Raimoni and Mark Farmer):

And finally, in 2013’s Fantastic Four, vol. 4, issue 9, Matt Fraction has a host of interdimensional Dooms visit what Doom here calls his “nativity” (art by Mark Bagley and Mark Farmer):

Interestingly, “dimensional warps” appear in all four tellings.

Here’s the various tellings of another critical scene, when Doom first puts on his mask.

First, in Annual 2:

Then, in FF 278:

Books of Doom:

And FF Vol. 4, No. 9 (Ben and Reed are also revisiting Doom’s origin):

The second new in Annual 2 story is a more straight forward FF adventure, with Doom as the villain.

Synopsis

The story opens with the Fantastic Four barely managing to land a balky Fantasticar on a New York City street. After some hijinks with the locals, we turn to outer space, where Doom, last seen drifting in the void in FF 23, is rescued by Rama-Tut. There, they discuss how they may in fact be the same person in different times, and they agree they must defeat the Fantastic Four.

In a spacecraft borrowed from Rama-Tut, Doom returns to Earth and Latveria’s embassy in New York (technically, it should be a consulate since the embassy would be in Washington, but we’ll let it slide) to launch his plan. Meanwhile, the Fantastic Four are back in the Baxter Building, clowning around, when they are invited to a state dinner at the Latverian embassy. There, they are served a berry juice which causes hallucinations, leading the FF to fight with each other. Doom, however, attracts their attention when he breaks a glass mirror (after looking at his unmasked face), and the team pursues him to the Baxter Building. There, after a scuffle with the rest of the FF, Doom is challenged to a duel by Reed. After drinking a toast, they square off using the “encephalo-gun,” a device that will send the one with the lesser brain power “to a timeless limbo.”

Doom appears to win as Reed disappears, and walks off in triumph, only for Reed to reveal he tricked Doom into drinking the Latverian berry juice, and Doom only hallucinated defeating Reed.

What’s going on here?

The whole business with the berry juice and encephalo-gun make this one of the sillier FF stories in a while, but there some interesting nuggets are revealed along the way. One detail is that while the earlier story established Doom is ruler of Latveria, it’s apparently not common knowledge outside the country, which is why the FF wouldn’t be suspicious of an invitation to the embassy. Stan and Jack have a bit of fun with this idea here:

The story also helps establish the weird relationship between Doom and Reed, where they are enemies but have a grudging respect for one another that at times get very close to a friendship. We see that in the toast scene (which also suggests Doom is far stupider then we think if he falls for that trick):

FF Annual 2 also gives us an early glimpse into the time-twisting storylines featuring Rama-Tut/Kang/Immortus so beloved of later Marvel writers like Steve Englehart, Roger Stern and Kurt Busiek. Like most of those stories, I found this exchange between Rama-Tut and Doom completely baffling. Maybe in a future blog post I’ll try and unravel it all.

We also get a bit of drama about Doom’s face. We are told this is the first time in years he has taken off his mask.

But his discomfort with his unmasked face seems to fade over the years, since he removes his mask to play the piano in FF 236 (by Byrne):

Krazy Kredits

Two stories means two opportunities for goofiness:

and

The sexist sixties

After a few issues where Sue was coming into her own as an effective member of the team, this story seriously back-slid into embarrassing sexism. First, there’s a return to Sue’s obsession with clothes:

Then this painful dialogue:


After Sue has proven her worth in about a dozen issue, Reed still wants to shunt her aside. Johnny, of all people, comes to her defense.

Then, after Sue battles Doom to a standstill, Reed intervenes to say:

It’s clobberin’ time!

I believe this is only the second time we hear Ben use his signature phrase:

Weird science

Not the Encephalo-Gun!! Not that!!

They’re fighting again

The juice made them do it.

Mid-Century Modern

Doom also has a creative decorator.

Speaking of art

A bystander pays Ben to destroy a car to create a piece of modern art:

This would be just another example of Stan and Jack making fun of the excesses of 60s culture, expect artist John Chamberlain had a successful career making sculpture out of demolished cars:

Pin-ups!

FF Annual 2 has a collection of run-of-the mill pin-ups of villains, and some exquisite pin-ups of the FF (and Alicia). Kirby put a lot of attention to detail in these, particularly Reed’s and Johnny’s (and despite Ben only saying “it’s clobbering time” once before this issue, it’s already identified as a catch-phrase in is pinup).

Dig that Kirby Krackle

Check out this panel, of the party at the Latverian embassy:

And this is a great sequence:

For sale

A mint (9.8) copy of FF Annual 2 could cost you $50,000. An issue in Fine (6.0) condition is about $800.

Next issue: The return of the Mole Man!

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 30

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Fantastic Four 30
“The Dreaded Diablo”
Published: June 1964
Story: Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
Script: Lee
Pencils: Kirby
Inks: Chic Stone
Letters: Art Simek
Cover: Kirby & Stone

Synopsis

The Fantastic Four, lost while vacationing in Transylvania (don’t ask), stumble upon the castle of a centuries-old alchemist, Diablo. Before they enter, a local Baron warns them away, and invites the team to stay with him. In the middle of the night, the Thing is entranced, and frees Diablo from his crypt. The next day, the rest of the team discover Ben has been transformed by Diablo to something closer to his human form, and he has pledged his service to Diablo for a year. After a scuffle, the rest of the team leaves to plot its next move.

Soon, news of Diablo’s powers have reached the outside world, and he performs amazing feats, such as making barren deserts fertile. Meanwhile, Reed analyzes the formula Diablo used to transform Ben and realizes he’s a fraud. Ben, too, has a change of heart once he has reverted back to his old rocky self, but Diablo subdues him.

The FF launches an attack on Diablo’s castle, and after a battle with Diablo and his henchmen, discover Ben trapped in a glass-like cylinder. Unable to free him, the team is then captured by Diablo and also sealed in cylinders. Ben, however, finally escapes and defeats Diablo, chasing him back into his crypt. As Ben brings the castle down, the vibrations shatter the glass holding the rest of the team, and the four escape back into the Transylvania wilderness.

What’s going on here?

Fantastic Four 30 is pretty much wall-to-wall action. Like last month’s issue, it opens in media res, with the team already lost in Transylvania, and the entire issue takes place there. There’s no Baxter Building, no Alicia, and none of the normal set pieces. To the extent there’s any character building, we see Sue become more accomplished at using her powers in combat, and Ben, although tempted by the offer to return to normal, quickly comes to his senses and regrets his disloyalty.

FF 30 also marks the debut of Diablo, a second or third-tied FF villain whose appearances are always fun. By making Diablo an alchemist, Jack and Stan are reaching back into the bag of quasi-historical tricks that sustained so many horror and mystery stories. Stuff like alchemy, fabled lost cities, mythic creatures, ancient heroes etc. consistently pop up over the years in the FF and elsewhere as creators hunt for stories. Diablo wasn’t the first villain to practice alchemy (here’s a list) but he’s one of the more prominent.

Interestingly, Diablo was the first villain John Byrne used in his landmark FF run of the 1980s, in FF 232, as a not-too-subtle signal that he was embracing the FF’s Lee/Kirby past (and if Diablo didn’t convince you Byrne was looking backward, the issue’s title should have).


Also interesting is the version of the Thing Ben is transformed into by Diablo: essentially human in appearance, but with orange, rocky skin. Of the many various forms Ben has taken over the years, I’m only aware of seeing that specific one once, in The Thing 8, when Ben is transformed into the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian warrior.

Krazy Kredits

They’re fighting again

At least this time there’s a reason for it.

Read all about it

Print definitely isn’t dead in 1964.

Great lines in villainy

Bah!

The incredible Mr. Fantastic

I like the way Reed sort of oozes out of the hole in the ceiling.

Weird science

This is bizarre sequence. Ben grabs a suit of armor Diablo says weighs more than a ton (who can wear armor that weighs more than a ton?) Then, after smushing into a sphere, Ben manages to bounce it like it’s a tennis ball.

The sexist sixties

After telling Sue to shut up so she doesn’t distract the Torch, Reed yammers on while mansplaining.

Dig that Kirby Krackle

This is pretty awesome:

And so is this sequence:

And this one:

For sale

A mint (9.8) condition FF 30 is worth $23,000. A copy in fine (6.0) condition is a more reasonable $170.

Next issue: Time for FF Annual No. 2 and return of Dr. Doom!

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 29

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Fantastic Four 29
“It Started on Yancy Street”
Published: May 1964
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Script: Lee
Pencils: Kirby
Inks: Chic Stone
Letters: Sam Rosen
Cover: Kirby and Stone

Synopsis

The Fantastic Four, visiting Yancy Street to investigate a rise in crime, are assaulted by the hidden Yancy Street Gang. The team escapes, pursued by a drone. Once back at the Baxter Building, Ben and Alicia come close to breaking up before reuniting. The team then turns to its fan mail, when Ben opens a package from the Yancy Street Gang, which explodes after he opens it. The package contains a note daring the team to return to Yancy Street.

But back on Yancy Street, the team is attacked not by the gang but by three apes with super powers, who are eventually revealed to the Red Ghosts’s super apes. The Red Ghost, last seen in FF 13, who vowed revenge, used a ruse to lure the FF to Yancy Street. After a battle, the apes take the Human Torch hostage—for once, it’s not the Invisible Girl—and the Red Ghost orders the FF onto a spaceship and they return to the moon.

He jettisons the team on the moon (surely there was a simpler way of killing them) but the Invisible Girl creates a force filed around the team containing enough air to save them until they reached the Blue Area and the home of the Watcher. Mr. Fantastic uses the Watcher’s technology to draw the Red Ghost’s ship back to the moon, where the team defeats him but his apes escape. The FF are then returned to Yancy Street by the Watcher.

What’s going on here

Fantastic Four 29 is a fun combination of old and new elements. There’s a lot that’s familiar: the Yancy Street schtick, the drama between Ben and Alicia, the hanging around the Baxter Building, the opening of fan mail. But there’s some new stuff as well. The issue opens in media res (fancy-talk for in the middle of things) rather than the slow build up to the action that’s customary. There’s the continued expansion of Sue’s powers, which prove indispensable in this issue. And there’s this amazing photo collage by Jack, the first (but certainly not last) that he will deploy in the Fantastic Four:

I was unable to find the source of the photo used by Kirby. It’s likely it was taken in 1959 by Luna 3, a Soviet satellite, since the first images of the moon from a US spacecraft didn’t appear until July of 1964, several months after the issue appeared.


It’s what’s inside that counts

FF 29 is one of the earliest issues I actually own, and so I was able to read it as Stan and Jack intended. That means I got to see awesome ads like this:

and letters like this:


Krazy Kredits

These are becoming a fixture.


Mid-century modern

The FF haven’t lost their decorating touch.

Those crazy kids

Ben and Alicia pour on the melodrama.

Oops

Looks like Stan is writing away a goof by Jack here

Weird science

The Watcher has some cool gizmos

Dig that Kirby Krackle

Some great stuff in this issue.

For sale

A mint (9.8) copy of FF 29 should sell for $46,000. A 9.6 copy sold for $11,000 in 2018.

Next issue: Diablo!

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 28

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Fantastic Four 28
“We Have to Fight the X-Men!”
Published April 1964
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Script: Lee
Pencils: Kirby
Inks: Chic Stone
Letters: Art Simek

Synopsis

At the Baxter Building, the Fantastic Four discuss the exploits of the X-Men, whom they read about in the newspaper. Meanwhile, the Mad Thinker summons the Puppet Master, and enlists him in a plan to defeat the Fantastic Four. Following the Thinker’s instructions, the Puppet Master creates a replica of the X-men’s leader, Professor X with his “radioactive clay,” then uses it to control Prof. X, who orders the X-men to attack the FF.

The X-Men fly to the Baxter Building in their “jetcopter,” and are welcomed by the unsuspecting FF. They then launch an attack and the teams battle until Mr. Fantastic, unable to understand the X-Men’s motives, orders the FF to surrender. The X-Men take the Invisible Woman as a hostage (of course they do), and the FF pursue the X-Men to a desert mesa, where the Mad Thinker and Puppet Master reveal themselves.

Still under the sway of the Puppet Master, Prof. X orders the X-men to battle the FF until the Puppet Master’s clay figurine of Prof. X is destroyed. The two teams then join forces to fight the Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android until Prof. X, still in Westchester, uses his telepathic powers to shut down the android. The villains escape before they can be captured, and the two teams of heroes part as allies.

What’s going on here?

A fun issue! Yes, the fight between the X-Men and FF is contrived, and yes, it is clearly designed to promote Marvel’s new X-Men title—FF 28 is published between issues 4 and 5 of the X-Men—but it still delivers. The action is dynamic, the story moves along, and Kirby particularly is on his game. It might help that Chic Stone inked this issue, after a run by George Roussos, giving Kirby’s pencils a crisper look than what we’ve seen in the last few issues.

The big development is the appearance of the X-Men, marking the first of many meetings between the teams. The X-Men, of course, go on to become a global phenomenon, but in these early days, they were very much a work in progress (Cyclops fires “power beams” and not optic blasts, for instance, and Prof. X’s powers work on an android). However, as Austin Gorton notes, in his always X-cellent blog, X-amining the X-Men, the X-Men more than hold their own against the FF and it’s Prof. X, not Reed, who saves the day.

Tracking down all the joint appearances between the teams would be exhausting, but here the covers from some notable ones:

The teams interacted in less splashy ways over the years too. One of my favorites came in Uncanny X-Men 522, when the X-Men have relocated to San Francisco and are in one of their periodic us-against-the-world phases. Magneto is using his powers to pull an enormous, bullet-shaped rocket carrying Kitty Pryde from deep space, and Cyclops doesn’t want anyone on earth to know about it. Reed isn’t having it:

Read all about it

Once again, the FF use the strange and awesome technology of the newspaper to keep up with events. They are also surprisingly up to date on the activities of the X-Men.

Kooky Kredits

Stan is at it again

The sexist sixties

Would it be an issue of the FF if Sue wasn’t taken hostage?

Oops

Cyclops references the Mad Thinkers plan here, although at this point, he is unaware of the Thinker and Puppet Master’s control over Prof. X and thinks he’s merely following the professor’s inscrutable orders.

Dig that Kirby Krackle

There’s a ton of great Kirby art in this issue, but here are a few highlights:

For sale

A mint (9.8) issue of FF 28 will set you back around $22,000.

Next issue: The Red Ghost returns!

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 27

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Fantastic Four 27
“The Search for the Sub-Mariner”
Published: March 1964
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Script: Lee
Pencils: Kirby
Inks: George Roussos
Letters: Sam Rosen
Cover: Kirby and Chic Stone

Synopsis

At the Baxter Building, Reed experiments with a new thought projector, then tells Ben and Johnny of his intentions to propose to Sue. Meanwhile, under the ocean, the Sub-Mariner stews in loneliness, then declares his plan to wed Sue.

While Reed is out shopping for a ring, Namor uses new technology to subdue Ben and Johnny and abduct Sue. When Reed returns, he is overcome with rage and insists Ben and Johnny remain behind as he pursues Namor. Unsure of how to find Namor beneath the ocean, Johnny contacts Dr. Strange, who uses his mystic powers to locate Namor’s citadel, where he watches Reed fight Namor.

Dr. Strange then uses his to magic to transport Ben and Johnny to the fight, where Johnny frees Sue. After a battle with Namor and his henchmen, Sue ends it by telling Namor she loves Reed. Before Namor can react, Dr. Strange whisks the Fantastic Four away to Reed’s submarine, where Reed worries that Sue only pledged her love to save him from Namor.

What’s going on here?

FF 27 falls in the middle of a busy run of Marvel cross-promotion. Starting with a guest appearance by Ant-Man in FF 16, then with Nick Fury in FF 21, the Hulk and Avengers in FF 25-26, and with Dr. Strange in this issue, it’s clear Stan is leveraging the popularity of the Fantastic Four to introduce readers to other Marvel heroes. (The X-Men will also appear soon). But while those other appearances tended to have some internal logic to them, Dr. Strange doesn’t add much to this story. It’s not obvious why the Torch contacted him to find Namor, given the FF had just battled him in Atlantis in the first FF annual. He mostly serves as a teleportation device, moving the FF from place to place. He does, however, manage to unleash a full arsenal of Dr. Strange-y oaths, invoking the Vishanti, Hoggoth and Dorammu, as he does.

The more significant development is the further evolution of the relationship between Reed and Sue, which has sort of lurched along for the first few years of the FF. Now, finally, we’re on the verge of progress: a proposal! Reed is uncharacteristically exuberant about the idea and (understandably) distraught when she is adducted.

Stan and Jack really lean into the melodrama of the Reed-Sue-Namor love triangle in this issue, even though it feels like all of this was settled in the annual. As a result, none of it feels pareticularly suspenseful.

The denouement, however, does create a bit of uneasy tension, as Reed is agony about Sue’s true feelings.

The issue is really devoted to Reed, and features several pages of him in combat with Namor. Here’s a cool one”

Secret agent man


Namor, who previously appeared as a movie mogul to entangle the FF, is now dressed like a James Bond villain.

The sexist sixties

Sue is imprisoned for about the 12th time in the FF’s first 27 issues.

Weird science

Namor has all sorts of technology. Where does it come from? No idea.

Then there’s Reed’s underwater breathing pills.

The incredible Mr. Fantastic

Lots of creative stretching in this issue.

Dig that Kirby Krackle

This splash page is amazing

For sale

A mint condition Fantastic Four 27 (9.8) will cost about $21,000.

Next issue: The X-Men!

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 26

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Fantastic Four 26
“The Avengers Take Over”
Published Feb. 1964
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Script: Lee
Pencils: Kirby
Inks: George Roussos
Letters: Art Simek
Cover: Kirby and Sol Brodsky

Synopsis

Fantastic Four 26 picks up right where the last issue left off. As the Hulk rampages through New York looking for the Avengers—who he feels abandoned him—the Thing again tried to stop him. The Human Torch, injured in the last issue, leaves the hospital to rejoin the fray, but the Hulk overpowers them both and eventually make his way (by subway!) to Avengers mansion. There, he tangles with both the FF and the Avengers but escapes with his erstwhile sidekick Rick Jones to a skyscraper under construction. There, the Hulk battles most of both teams individually until Jones gets him to swallow a “Gamma-ray treated capsule,” which turns him back to Bruce Banner.

What’s going on here?

Action! FF 26 is really just a prolonged action sequence, with almost no breaks for character development. There’s none of the shenanigans in the Baxter Building, no squabbling between Ben and Johnny, no pontificating by Reed. In fact, Reed is almost entirely sidelined in these two issues with an illness, and when he does appear in FF 26, he’s mostly ineffectual. It’s Rick Jones, with an assist from Bruce Banner, who saves the day.

The issue does give us an extended look at the Avengers, and we get the same character beats that have lasted 60 years. Iron Man is arrogant, the Wasp is ditzy etc. Notably, this is just Captain America’s second appearance since he was unfrozen from the ice in Avengers 3 (FF 26 came out between Avengers 3 and 4) so in some ways Stan is still feeling his way around Cap’s character.

About that cover

Something about it looks familiar ….

Alert the media

Throughout FF 26 radio and TV reporters pop up to narrate the action, acting as a sort of Greek chorus and helping magnify the stakes of the battle.

While it’s a device used in lots of movies and TV shows, it only occasionally is used in comics as well. In the Dark Knight Returns, the TV news features prominently, both to provide commentary on the events and a comment about the role of media in society. But I most associate the device with the “Fall of the Mutants” storyline in the Uncanny X-Men from 1988, where a TV crew becomes part of the storyline:


They’re fighting again

In the grand tradition of all superhero team-ups, the FF and Avengers first must fight with each other before tackling their common foe

Weird Science

Transistors were still a novel technology in the early 1960s, and Iron Man was really into them.

More sixties technology: Iron Man has a built-in short-wave radio, complete with a shoulder antenna. Incredible!

Also, asbestos were a thing back then. Apparently even pajamas were made out them.

The sexist sixies

This time is Jane Van Dyne who gets written like a dingbat

Dig that Kirby Krackle

Great sequence here:

These panels, too:

For sale

A mint edition (9.8) of FF 26 will run you about $22,000.

Next issue: The return of the Sub-Mariner (plus Dr. Strange)!

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 25

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Fantastic Four 25
“The Hulk vs. The Thing”
Published: January 1964
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Pencils: Kirby
Script: Lee
Inks: George Roussos
Letters: Sam Rosen
Cover: Kirby & Roussos

Synopsis

In a lab in the Baxter Building, Mr. Fantastic tries to persuade a reluctant Thing to try a formula that will revert Ben back to his human form. Just then, Alicia Masters walks in with news that the Hulk has left the Avengers and been replaced by Captain America.

Meanwhile, in New Mexico, the Hulk returns to the lab of Bruce Banner (called Bob Banner here) and, discovering a newspaper article about Captain America replacing him, vows to destroy the Avengers. Leaping across the US, he arrives in New York as Reed falls ill from the experimental microbes he used to make the formula for the Thing.

As the Hulk rampages through the city, first the Human Torch, then the Thing try to subdue him while Sue tends to the ailing Reed. After a lengthy battle, the Hulk escapes Ben, who vows to stop him or die trying.

What’s going on here?

Fantastic Four 25 is probably most notable for the scale of the fight between Ben and the Hulk. At about 12 pages, it takes up nearly half the comic, and is significantly more dramatic than their first fight, in FF 12. Here, we have a sense there are real stakes involved: With Reed out of commission, only Ben can stop the Hulk from destroying Manhattan as he pursues the Avengers. It’s another example of Ben rising above his wise-cracking, goof-ball persona and showing the heart of a true warrior.

FF 25 is also the first real cliffhanger in the comic’s short history. While a few stories have carried over from one issue to the next, in all previous cases the main story was resolved. But after more than two years of publishing the FF, Stan and Jack must have had enough confidence in their readers to trust them to come back for the second half of a story. In other words, they knew their readers were no longer causal buyers but fans invested in the FF for the long haul.

In another first, FF 25 marks the Avengers’ debut in the Fantastic Four, although it’s only for a brief few panel and they don’t interact with the FF (I assume we’ll see more of then in FF 26). As with the previous guest appearances of the Hulk, Ant-Man, and Nick Fury, the Avengers appear here shortly after the launch of their own comic (Avengers 3 was published the same month as FF 25), and it seems clear Stan was hoping the leverage the FF’s popularity to juice sales of a new comic.

Lastly, FF 25 introduces the gag credits that became a signature Marvel feature. We’re not yet at the nickname state, but those are coming.

Ben and Alicia

Ben makes it pretty explicit here that he doesn’t want to revert back to his human form because he fears Alicia is only attracted to him as the Thing

That makes the big reveal in FF 245—in which John Byrne discloses why Ben can’t return to human form (as discussed here) — a bit less surprising. It is, however, further evidence of how deeply Byrne mined these early FFs for plot points.

FF 245, art by Byrne

Who’s Bob?

Throughout FF 25, the Hulk’s alter ego is referred to as “Bob Banner,” years after he was introduced as Bruce Banner. As Brian Cronin helpfully explains, Stan simply forgot his name and retroactively changed his name to “Robert Bruce Banner” to cover his goof.

A new ‘do

Sue Storm reveals yet a new hairstyle in FF 25, in what appears to be a bee-hive or bouffant.

Sue’s hair in the first few years of the FF is like a catalog of women’s hair styles from the 1960s. Here are some other looks:

Dig that Kirby Krackle

We get lots of examples of Jack’s Hulk in FF 25. Maybe because we’re used to a different, more stylized Hulk as drawn by artists like Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema, but there’s something particularly monstrous about this more human-like Hulk of Kirby.

We also get a lot of cool action sequences as Ben and the Hulk tussle.

For sale

FF 25 in mint (9.8) condition will cost you about $66,000, a lot more than FF 24 but not unexpected given Hulk-Thing battles are always popular.

Next issue: Part 2!

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 24

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Fantastic Four 24
“The Infant Terrible”
Published: December 1963
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Pencils: Kirby
Script: Lee
Inks: George Roussos
Letters: Sam Rosen
Cover: Kirby and Roussos

Synopsis

While posing for photographers from Life magazine, the Fantastic Four are drawn away by a commotion in Times Square (because all such events take place in Times Square in this comic). There, the FF are befuddled by strange phenomena: a giant bottle, an enormous spinning top, giant robots that multiply. Eventually Reed deduces they are created by a childlike but enormously powerful alien he dubs “the Infant Terrible.”

As the FF retreat to the Baxter Building to plan their next move, word gets out and gangsters under orders from Big Joe lure the Infant Terrible with candy and entice it steal an armored car. Meanwhile, the FF appreciate what disasters could befall Earth if the alien isn’t restrained and Reed orders the rest of the team to locate it while he conducts an experiment.

The team find the alien outside the city just as the gangsters lose their patience with its antics, and after subduing the criminals, the FF (minus Reed) attempts to corral the alien. Instead, the alien imprisons them in an energy bubble and returns to New York, causing a panic that stampedes Alicia Masters. As the Infant Terrible solidifies clouds, bringing them to earth, the now-escaped team rescues Alicia. By this point, Reed’s plan has worked: He has summoned the alien’s parents, who come to collect their child.

What’s going on here?

This story feels like a throw-back to earlier, pre-superhero science fiction comics, where rampaging aliens are defeated through some twist. As a Fantastic Four story it works well enough. There are the usual plot beats: antics in the Baxter Building, a confrontation with a bad guy, the FF is trapped, and Reed saving the day. Even though Reed (and Stan) insist the stakes have never been greater, they don’t feel particularly dire. Maybe because the Infant Terrible looks so ridiculous it’s hard to accept that it’s a real threat.

This story doesn’t have much impact on future FF stories. The Infant Terrible reappears a few times over the years, as a character in Power Pack, which makes sense, and in FF Annual 19, where he comes to warn the FF about a Skrull invasion (and yet more evidence of John Byrne’s deep love of these early FFs).

FF Annual 19 (1985), art by Byrne and Joe Sinnott


Then, implausibly, in the 2006 Annihilation mini-series he reappears. There, he is re-named the Delinquent and fights alongside Terrax, Paibok, and other baddies as an agent of Annhilus. This turn of events can be viewed as a metaphor for Marvel’s evolution if you are so inclined. Here, he’s being stabbed by Drax:

Annihilation 2 (2006) Art by Andrea Devito

One to grow on

Stan and Jack offer a little homily at the end, via Reed

The incredible Mr. Fantastic

An almost-yoga like pose on this splash page. Note the even more hyperbolic blurbs than usual:

They’re fighting again

This time it’s Ben chafing under Reed’s leadership

The sexist sixties

Poor Alicia

In what’s becoming a regular occurrence, Alicia is in a pitiable situation

Dig that Kirby Krackle

A nifty panel of the chaos caused by the Infant Terrible

For sale

Fantastic Four 24 in mint condition (9.8) will run you an almost-reasonable $9,750.

Next issue: The return of the Hulk!

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” Fantastic Four No. 23

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Fantastic Four 23
“The Master Plan of Dr. Doom”
Published: November 1963
Story: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Pencils: Kirby
Script: Lee
Inks: George Roussos
Letters: Sam Rosen
Cover: Kirby and Roussos

Synopsis

A small dinosaur escapes into the Baxter Building from Dr. Doom’s time machine, leading Mr Fantastic to berate the rest of the team for their inattentiveness. Frustrated with Reed’s brusque leadership, the Human Torch, the Thing, and the Invisible Girl decide to vote on a new leader, and when all three vote for themselves, a fight breaks out which ends only when Reed asserts his command over the team.

Meanwhile, three criminals are bailed out of jail by a bald man revealed to be a robot controlled by Dr. Doom. The three have been assembled because of their special talents—strength, superior hearing, and resistance to flame—which are augmented by Doom, and they become the Terrible Trio. The trio use their new powers to capture the Human Torch, Thing, and Invisible Girl, while Doom uses a Thing robot to lure and attract Reed.

The four heroes free themselves from their shackles, then battle Doom only to find he has imprisoned them in a warehouse coated in ionic dust particles, making it vulnerable to a “solar wave” that is transporting the room into outer space. The team is able to escape the room, but Doom plunges into the void.

What’s going on here?

Honestly? Not much, particularly after all the big developments in the last issue. This is fairly inconsequential issue, both for having very little impact on future stories, and for a fairly banal plot, even one involving Doom. If anything, while FF 23 further cements Doom as the team’s primary antagonist, it weakens his impact by dragging him into such an uneventful story. There is a some character building, mostly involving Reed being a jerk and then getting a bit of comeuppance, but it’s not a subplot that is really developed. We do get almost two full pages of Ben and Johnny fighting, though.

The Terrible Trio

The only new characters introduced are the Terrible Trio, a bunch of D-listers who make a handful of appearances over the years. Here they are in Marvel Two-in-One 60, where they crash Alicia’s art opening:

Marvel Two-in-One 60 (1980), art by George Perez and Gene Day

They don’t appear again for almost 40 years, when they show up in Fantastic Four: 4 Yancy Street

4 Yancy Street (2019) Art by Mark Bagley (I think)

Reed Richards is a jerk

He is extra-unpleasant in this issue

He kinda, sorta apologizes after Johnny rescues him after Doom’s freezes him solid.

They’re fighting again

Are they ever

The sexist sixties

Weird science

The ionic dust/ solar wave business is completely perplexing. I have no idea what Stan and Jack were doing here

The incredible Mr. Fantastic

Some cool stretching action.

You call that a trap?

After several issues where Doom builds individual cells to counter the FF’s powers, here he just chains them to a wall (and puts Reed in a box, which Ben smashes. Not even Doom can bother to try very hard in this issue.


He’s a bad man

Doom flexes his bad-guy muscles in disposing of his henchmen

Dig that Kirby Krackle

Jack does get to draw some outer space stuff, so that’s a plus.


Also, this cool sequence:

For sale

A mint issue (9.8) of FF 23 will run you about $21,000. At least that’s what it says here.

Next issue: The FF confront the Infant Terrible!