“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!”
Honestly, I have no idea why it took so long for me to buy my first issue of Fantastic Four. After all, I’d been watching their Saturday morning TV cartoon since September, 1967, same as I’d been watching Spider-Man, which had premiered at the same time. But while I’d started picking up Spidey’s monthly comic in January, 1968, it took me another five months to take the plunge with the FF.
As I speculated in last week’s post about Captain America #105, it may have been that I was a little leery of Jack Kirby’s artwork, which looked different than the art in any other comic I was reading. Or, possibly, I was waiting for the continued story that, thanks to the issue descriptions featured in the monthly “Mighty Marvel Checklist”, I knew had been running since issue #74 — involving Galactus, the Silver Surfer, and Psycho-Man — to wrap up, so that I wouldn’t be jumping in in the middle of a storyline. At this late date, I have no way of knowing for sure. But in any event, when I saw #78 on the spinner rack in June of 1968, I was ready at last to put Marvel’s claim of global preeminence to the test.
“The Thing No More!” — which, as I also explained last week, was either my first or my second comic book story drawn by Kirby — is indeed the first chapter in a new storyline; nevertheless, it picks up immediately following the previous issue, allowing Kirby and his collaborator, writer-editor Stan Lee, to open the book with action, as well as to provide the impression that you’ve just picked up the latest installment in an ongoing, never-ending serial — which, as I was coming to understand by this point, was all part of the Mighty Marvel Method of making comic books (and of hooking readers for the long haul):
Reading this for the first time in ’68, my ten-year-old self was probably appreciative of the assurances from “Straight-Talkin’ Stan” that I didn’t need to know about all that stuff from the last four issues in order to follow the current story.
In the next panel, anyone who, like FF-newbie me, might wonder about the absence of the fourth member of the team gets filled in efficiently via dialogue
Revisiting this story in 2018, I’m more impressed than ever at the range of human expression Kirby (with the assistance of one of his very best inkers, Joe Sinnott), was able to grant the craggy orange countenance of the Thing, Benjamin J. Grimm.
The story now takes temporary leave of Ben and the FFs leader, Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic), and follows their teammate Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, as he departs to (in his words) “head for the wild blue yonder’n give the natives a thrill!”
The unpleasant-seeming fellow reading the newspaper with the strategically placed headline “Wizard Released From Prison” is, of course, the Wizard himself — a supervillain of the “mad genius” variety, originally introduced in Strange Tales #102 as an opponent for the Torch in his solo feature in that title. As I’d eventually come to learn, he was always pretty much a “B” villain at best, and was probably used most effectively as the leader of the Fantastic Four’s “natural opponents”, the Frightful Four. (The “Wingless Wizard”, as he’s also been called, is also the only comics character I can think of offhand who’s less interesting than his own juvenile clone.)
Of course, my ten-year-old self knew not a bit of that in 1968. For all I knew, the Wizard was the FF’s deadliest and most powerful adversary this side of Galactus.
Over the next couple of pages, we readers follow Ben and Johnny as they give their multi-story headquarters, the Baxter Building, a top-to-bottom inspection:
Ben is feeling sorry for himself because he’s a human being trapped in an inhuman rocky orange body, and who can blame him? Fifty years ago, my ten-year-old self knew the Thing’s origin story from the animated series, and had probably seen an episode or two of that show where an opportunity for Ben to turn human again figured into the plot somehow — but even if I hadn’t, it was a pretty obvious idea for a kid to pick up on and to understand.
While Ben and Johnny are still checking out their rides, they’re summoned by Reed to come join him. Johnny hopes it’s in regard to his sister Sue (who also happens to be Reed’s wife), the Invisible Girl, who is in the hospital expecting her and Reed’s first child:
“Here we go again, huh kiddies?” Not quite seven years after the FF’s debut, Ben had already been through a number of failed attempts by Reed to cure him of being the Thing — a condition for which Reed naturally felt responsible, having led the mission into outer space that resulted in he, Ben, Sue, and Johnny all being bombarded, and physically transformed, by cosmic rays.
It was an especially frequent occurrence in the first couple of years of the series, when it seemed that Reed was attempting (and failing) to turn Ben human again almost every other issue. For example, there was this time, back in issue #8…
…and then this time, in issue #11…
…and also this one, in #16:
In all three of these cases (all from stories inked by Dick Ayers, by the way), Ben was back to his rocky self within a few pages — with the latter two instances pretty much following the template of the first, from issue #8:
That’s Alicia Masters that Ben is comforting there, incidentally, just a few minutes after their first meeting (she’s been dressed and bewigged to look like the Invisible Girl by her step-father, the villainous Puppet Master, for story reasons too convoluted to go into here) — and the fact that the blind sculptress appears to prefer Mr. Grimm in his more, er, unusually textured form will prove to be a key component in virtually all the “cure” storylines to follow over the next couple of decades.
Reed had ratcheted back somewhat on his efforts after issue #16 — at least, in terms of what readers were privy to — but it’s still easy to understand why longtime fans — or even newer ones who were catching up on older FF tales via the reprints in Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics (as my younger self would soon be doing) — might be inclined to sigh “here we go again” along with Ben.
Of course, Reed swears things are going to be different this time:
Just in case we might have forgotten about the Wizard, Lee and Kirby drop in on him long enough for him to brag out loud to himself about his spiffy new “Wonder-Gloves”:
And then it’s back to the Baxter Building:
The technology that Reed is employing this time around allows for a more dramatic transformation scene than some of the earlier ones, which relied entirely on formulations that were either imbibed or applied to the skin — and provides an opportunity for Kirby to deploy his famous “krackle”:
Of course, the Wizard would choose this exact moment to attack.
The scene now shifts away from the battle to the hospital where the final member of the team, Sue Storm Richards, appears to have developed some unusual complications to her pregnancy. — as one of her doctors proceeds to explain to Crystal, identified earlier in the story as Johnny Storm’s girlfriend:
I’m not sure if I had a clue at this point that Crystal wasn’t just a girlfriend — that she was, in fact, a member of the royal family of the Inhumans, with super-powers of her own, and the sister of Medusa, whom I’d recently met in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #62. Probably not, as none of Medusa’s fellow Inhumans had been named in that particular story, nor were any ever featured on the FF TV cartoon. So I suspect I just had to wonder what the deal was with that weird black pattern in her red hair. (I’m still wondering, come to think of it.)
In any event, with that bit of ominous business done with, it’s back to the battle at the Baxter Building:
Unfortunately, Ben’s still a little dazed, and doesn’t remember what was happening just before the Wizard struck:
The Wizard picks Ben up one-handed, and heaves him at the nearest wall:
Luckily, “Stretcho” (as some of the kids in my old neighborhood always insisted on calling Mister Fantastic, irritating my younger self no end) manages to save Ben — but, less fortunately, is himself knocked unconscious in the process.
But by now, the Human Torch has recovered from the Wizard’s earlier assault, and is ready to take the villain on again:
Reed quickly revives, and then he and Ben hurry off to find Johnny:
Unfortunately, the Wizard, though down, is not quite out. He activates one of his “anti-grav flying discs” and zips out the window, before any of our threesome can nab him:
And that’s how my first issue of Fantastic Four ended — with a cliffhanger! Will Ben Grimm embrace a “normal” human life, or will he choose to continue being a superheroic adventurer — at the cost of also being a monster?
Not that I recall feeling much suspense over what the outcome would be. Even fifty years ago, I’d read enough comic books — and watched enough series television — to know that of course Ben Grimm would remain the Thing. The (TV) show must go on, after all (not to mention the comic).
Still, I think I would have bought the next issue when it came out, just to see how Ben resolved this dilemma, if I’d seen it. But, as i didn’t pick it up — the next issue of FF I bought off the stands was actually #80 (featuring the debut of Tomazooma!) — I’m thinking that I never saw it for sale.
Or maybe I did see it, but only had enough cash on hand that day to buy some other comic I wanted more. Who knows?
In any event, I wouldn’t learn how the story ended until I bought #79 as a back issue, several years later.
But hey, that’s no reason to leave you hanging, gentle reader.
In Fantastic Four #79’s “A Monster Forever?” (produced by the same creative team of Lee, Kirby, and Sinnott). Ben heads out from the Baxter Building for his first date — actually, his first meeting — with Alicia Masters since his recent transformation:
Remember those high-tech Wonder Gloves that the Wizard was forced to leave behind at the end of issue #78, of which Reed vowed he’d “study every fiber of their makeup”? Well, since then, said study has at some point apparently involved placing the gloves in a nice, flat white container (that looks for all the world like a department store gift box), which has then been left lying around so that poor, “shook-up” Benjamin can absentmindedly pick them up and carry them with him on his date. Right.
One hopes that this issue’s original plot by Lee and Kirby — or Kirby’s development of it in the drawing stage — included a more rational explanation for Ben to have the gloves than the one provided in Lee’s dialogue. (The blogger “Comicsfan” at “The Peerless Power of Comics” suggests that maybe the original idea was that Ben would drop the gloves off at police headquarters for impoundment following his date, and hey, that works for me.) But, setting aside this wallopingly awkward and obvious plot contrivance, the interior monologue that Lee provides for Ben in these panels is pretty good stuff. Not only does Ben worry that Alicia’s feelings for him might change now that he’s no longer the Thing — an anxiety that goes back all the way to their first meeting in issue #8 — but he also wonders if his feelings for her might change, now that he is, quite literally, no longer the same man — at least not physically. This last insight in fact seems almost too psychologically astute for our Benjamin, who usually comes acrosss as having a sharp mind, but not necessarily a subtle one; but it’s such an intriguing bit of characterization that I’m inclined to give it a pass.
When Ben and Alicia are at last together, things go just about as uncomfortably as you might expect. “Somehow — everything seems different now!” Alicia says.
Ben doesn’t get around to examining his own feelings in this scene, to see if he, too, has begun to feel differently about Alicia; but that’s probably because the couple’s nice lunch is interrupted by the violent arrival of the “Android-Man” — a previously unseen but super-strong artificial life-form created by the FF villain called the Mad Thinker. The Android-Man has homed in on a signal that being transmitted by the Wizard’s gloves, mistakenly believing it to be a guiding signal originated by his master. He attacks Ben and Alicia; and Ben, though he fights valiantly, is hopelessly outclassed without the Thing’s raw power, and knows it. Ultimately, it comes down to one chance, and one choice:
It’s not super-clear how Ben intuits that a “sudden, giant surge of energy“, all by itself, will reverse Reed’s cure — or how he knows which control on the Wonder Glove to press to release such a surge. But hey, it makes more sense than the idea of Ben turning back to the Thing when the transformative chemical he’s been doused with dries, as depicted back in issue #8.
Of course, once the Thing is back in action, he puts the Android-Man down just as hard and fast as you’d expect. Only then does help — in the form of Johnny Storm, who’s heard radio news reports of the fracas while tooling around with Crystal in the “somewhat flamboyant, fire-engine-red sports car” mentioned earlier in the story — arrive on the scene, just in time for the mopping up:
It’s a sad ending, for sure; but the undeniable pathos is leavened at least somewhat by our awareness of Ben’s concerns over how his transformation back to normal humanity would affect his relationship with Alicia, and the evident impact it appeared to be already having just in the one brief interaction they shared before the Android-Man’s attack. It’s hard not to think that things may have turned out for the best, after all.
The search for a permanent cure for Ben Grimm’s condition would, of course, continue to be a recurring theme in Fantastic Four for the next several decades. The next major attempt came a few years after FF #78-79, in issue #107‘s “And Now… the Thing!”, by Stan Lee, John Buscema, and Joe Sinnott. In this story, it appeared that Reed had finally licked the last remaining problem — giving Ben the ability to transform into the Thing, and then back again to his “normal” human self, at will:
Of course, things don’t work out as planned. The transformation procedure affects Ben’s mind, causing him to become more and more angry and belligerent, until he becomes a menace. The storyline continues through multiple issues, climaxing with one of the more memorable battles between the Thing and the Hulk in #112, before things are finally set to right in issue #113. But then, when Reed tells Ben that there’s still a chance that he can fix the machine to allow Ben to transform without the negative side-effects, the Thing responds thusly:
I can recall reading this sequence as a thirteen-year-old in 1971 and thinking, “well, that’s that”. I assumed that this was Ben Grimm’s happy ending — we’d seen him come to accept and even embrace his status as the Thing, and therefore, we wouldn’t be seeing any more stories about him trying to be human again. Ever.
I was way off base about that, of course. The Thing’s co-creator Stan Lee may have meant issue #113’s happy ending to be permanent, but a number of writers who’ve followed him on FF haven’t been able to resist returning to the theme of the cure, and its potential for dramatic storytelling.
Writer-artist John Byrne, for one, in his “back to basics” run in the 1980s, certainly wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity. Byrne not only gave us another “failed cure” storyline — but also (in issue #245) provided an explanation as to why no cure would ever be completely successful, or permanent. As Reed informs Sue and Johnny at the story’s close:
It was a startling revelation — though one which, when you thought about it, made a lot of sense. It tied Ben’s inability to change physically directly to his attachment to Alicia — an element of his characterization that had been around since the first time Reed had attempted to cure his best friend, way back in issue #8. And in addition to its psychological aptness, it also provided a solid reason for why Reed Richards — supposedly the smartest person in the world — had failed time and time again to achieve a permanent cure, over more than two decades’ worth of stories.
The rub, however, is that not long after that story in FF #245, Byrne broke Ben and Alicia up. This was a seismic shift in the series’ character dynamics, and provided a lot of dramatic grist for that writer-artist’s creative mill. But Byrne eventually moved on, of course, as creators do — and while later writers would return to the “cure” theme on various occasions over the next three decades, following Byrne’s shake-up of the status quo their treatments rarely, if ever, achieved the same sense of dramatic, even tragic weight that the theme had possessed during the book’s Silver and Bronze Age eras.
Which is probably why it seemed slightly anti-climactic, though still essentially satisfying — at least to this longtime reader — when, in 2010’s Fantastic Four #580, writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Neil Edwards had the brilliant young minds of the Future Foundation (who happened to count the aforementioned juvenile clone of the Wizard among their number, coincidentally enough) come up with a permanent but partial cure for Ben Grimm — a solution that would allow him to become human for approximately one week of every year:
And that’s pretty much where things stand today. It’s difficult not to feel that a certain dimension to the Thing’s character has been lost with the apparent retirement of the “cure” theme — on the other hand, as Hickman and other writers have amply demonstrated in the years since issue #580 was published, there are plenty of other dimensions to the character of Benjamin J. Grimm that can still be explored.
And besides — we all know, deep down, and in truth have always known, that Ben can never be permanently cured of being the Thing. Not because of a subconscious mental block founded upon his attachment to Alicia Masters, but because of the requirements of his story. Who wants to read a superhero comic about an ordinary guy from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, after all? Not many, I’ll warrant — at least not on a regular basis.
Interestingly, back in 2004 two of modern comics’ most talented writers each delivered their own metafictional take on this very idea, publishedwithin a couple of months of each other. The first to be published was that of Neil Gaiman (working with artists Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove) in the pages of the seventh issue of Marvel 1602. In this tale of an alternate Marvel Universe coming into being some four hundred years too early, there are four heroes who sail the seas on the good ship Fantastick. They are led by the brilliant natural philosopher Sir Richard Reed, who, at a particularly bleak moment in the storyline, offers his companions hope based on his idea that they dwell in a universe that favors stories — “a universe in which no story can ever truly end; in which there can be only continuances.”
Unfortunately, that’s not entirely good news for Reed’s friend and shipmate, Ben Grimm:
“…so much more interesting and satisfying as you are.” Who could argue with that?
Mark Waid’s version, in Fantastic Four #511, was even more on the nose. This issue, part of a glorious four-year run by Waid and artist Mike Wieringo, found Reed, Sue, and Johnny in Heaven (yes, really) where they’d gone to retrieve the soul of Ben Grimm, killed in action a few issues earlier. In the course of the story, they meet God, who is Jack Kirby (who else?). God is about to send the whole foursome home — but before he can return Ben (whose soul has the aspect of a normal human being in the sweet bye-and-bye) to life on Earth, he feels compelled to make an adjustment or two. As the Creator puts it: “We’re all our own storytellers…”
“Plenty of stories still left”, indeed. Fourteen years after that divine pronouncement (and fifty-seven years since Ben Grimm’s debut in Fantastic Four #1) with a new Marvel Two-in-One series starring Ben and Johnny currently available to enjoy, and the imminent return of the FF in their own titular series to eagerly anticipate, that sentiment seems truer now than ever.
But to return to our main topic of discussion, FF #78, just briefly, before we close…
It appears to be generally accepted wisdom among comics critics and other fans that by the time I started reading the series, in Jun, 1968, Fantastic Four was already well past its creative peak.
For example, in his Lee and Kirby: The Wonder Years (aka The Jack Kirby Collector #54), Mark Alexander labels the era that includes issue #78 “The Age of Inertia”. This period, roughly corresponding with the years 1968 and 1969, is described as a time when the book’s authors, having reached an aesthetic pinnacle in the two years previous, entered a period of creative stasis. “The plots were becoming unadorned and uncomplicated,” writes Alexander. “The innovations were fewer, and the straight-ahead battle segments were beginning to dominate every issue.”
And looking back at the whole run of Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four from a contemporary perspective, it’s hard for me to argue with him. After all, the previous period — what Alexander calls “The Cosmic Era” gave us a plethora of extraordinarily original, endlessly fascinating characters and concepts. The Inhumans, Galactus, the Silver Surfer, the Negative Zone, the Black Panther, the Kree, Him (aka Adam Warlock) — all introduced within a little more than two years’ time
Compare that to the new characters who were turning up around the time I began reading the book — the aforementioned Android-Man and Tomazooma, for starters — and, well, you get the picture. I got it too, even as a kid — to some extent, at least. For as much as I was enjoying the new issues of Fantastic Four I was buying — indeed, within a few months of picking up #78 I had subscribed, to ensure I never missed an issue — I caught on pretty quickly to the undeniable truth that the stuff that had been coming out a year or two before I climbed on board had been really great. And thus, when I started buying old comic books through the mail a few month later, old Fantastic Fours would be among the very first back issues I’d buy. (And then cut up into pieces, so that I could arrange all the different issues’ “Inhumans” scenes into a single sequence I could put in a ring binder. No, I didn’t quite have the “collecting” thing down yet, back in those days.)
And yet — even in the summer of 1968, this was still Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four. Maybe Kirby’s incredible imagination wasn’t pouring forth the great new ideas at the impressive rate it had been (the consensus among comics historians is that the King was still having those great ideas, but was less willing to share them with Marvel due to his growing disaffection with the company), but the ones he’d generated and developed with Stan Lee over the past half decade or so still had plenty of life in them (and still do, of course).
Maybe Fantastic Four was no longer reliably “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” each and every month — but in any given month, it still might be. And sure, I might count myself luckier if I’d discovered the series in June of ’66, say, or even ’67, rather than ’68.
But you know what? I was still pretty damn lucky.