Sometimes, it can seem like most of the introductory paragraphs I write for these blog posts are explanations (or apologies) for the posts I’m not writing — i.e., the posts about the classic comic books I can’t write about here (at least not directly), because I didn’t buy them new off the stands fifty years ago. That’s been especially true for the comics of 1968 — a year seemingly chock full of milestones, of which I seem to have missed at least as many as I caught. The latest example came just last week, when I had to explain in the introduction to my Avengers #58 post how I’d missed the three issues that led up to that landmark story. And this week, we have yet another one.
- If you’re a regular reader, you may recall that my first issue of FF was #78, which featured the first half of a two-part story in which Ben Grimm was cured (again) of being the Thing; unfortunately, I missed the next month’s issue, and by the time I got back on board, with #80, Ben was all orange ‘n’ rocky again, and he and the other guys were having a brief adventure way out West prior to the birth of Sue and Reed Richards’ child. But hey, at least I got to witness the return of one-time regular supporting character Wyatt Wingfoot, along with the awesome debut of a brand-new villain, Tomazooma! Still, that would soon prove small consolation for my missing the next issue of Fantastic Four to hit the stands — namely, the 1968 Annual, which featured not only the debut of a considerably more impressive (and durable) villain, Annihilus, but also the introduction of a brand-new supporting character: none other than Reed and Sue’s bouncing baby boy, Franklin Benjamin Richards.
Having thus missed out on Franklin’s arrival (as well as the harrowing Negative Zone adventure leading up to it), I might have felt completely out of the loop when I opened up my brand new copy of Fantastic Four #81, way back in September, 1968. Luckily, however, I was a regular reader of Marvel’s monthly Bullpen Bulletins and Mighty Marvel Checklist, so I had at least read the Annual #6 blurb heralding “It’s almost too much! …Sue finally gives birth to — WOW!” — and thus knew that the blessed event had occurred.
Though I might still have been a little let down about how that “WOW!” had ended up referring to just, you know, a baby:
Prior to this issue, I knew very little about Crystal — she was Johnny Storm’s girlfriend, and her hair was colored funny; that was about it. I did have some basic familiarity with the Inhumans by way of Amazing Spider-Man #62, which had featured Medusa — but that story hadn’t named any of Medusa’s fellow members of the Royal Family of Attilan, including her sister Crystal. Heck, I didn’t know enough at this point even to recognize the costume worn by the “Exquisite Elemental”‘ on FF #81’s cover as her standard Inhuman garb, since she’d been sporting regular ol’ American gal clothes the other times I’d seen her. And I for sure didn’t have a clue as to how or why she imagined she could replace the Invisible Girl on her boyfriend’s super-team.
Over the next page or so, of course, I (as well as any other newbie) got a demonstration of the young woman’s abilities — and every reader got the “superheroic action in the first five pages” that was de rigueur for Marvel comics in 1968:
Reed might not be convinced yet, but my eleven-year-old self of September, 1968 probably already was — even if I only had the vaguest idea what a “natural-born elemental” might be. (Note that so far no one has even so much as uttered the word “Inhuman”, which could have given me a little help.)
Anyway, it’s time now to bring on the bad guy:
Here, my thus-far limited exposure to the FF’s adventures (in comics, that is; I’d been a regular viewer of the Hanna-Barbera animated TV series since it first began airing, a year previously) actually came through and did me a solid, since the Wizard (aka the “Wingless” Wizard), had been the villain in my very first FF comic, #79. In that issue, he’d had the advantage of attacking the team when they were not only down one member (Sue), but when Ben had just been transformed back into his normal human self. They’d nevertheless soundly trounced him within ten pages, although the villain did manage to escape — if just barely, having to leave his much-vaunted “Wonder Gloves” behind. Not to worry, though — as indicated in the panels shown above, the Wiz has just baked up a new pair of high-tech hand-warmers, and is raring to take ’em for a spin:
My eleven-year-old self might have been forgiven for believing, at this point, that the Wizard was one of the FF’s foremost foes, rather than a villain who’d originally been introduced in Strange Tales #102 as a foe just for the Torch, alone, in the latter’s solo series. Prior to FF #78, the only times he’d fought more than two members of the team at once was as the leader of the Frightful Four, when he had three teammates backing him up (and they still lost). But here he is, making his second solo appearance in just four issues, and getting a full-page splash panel, to boot.
Of course, full-page panels weren’t unusual in Jack Kirby’s FF stories at this time — indeed, multiple splashes were the norm, as were pages with only four panels per page. This tendency has been variously attributed to the artist’s adjusting to a new, smaller original art size that had become standard in the American comics industry since 1967, or to his declining interest in his Marvel work as the Sixties wound down. Either reason seems just as likely; and perhaps the truest answer is some combination of both. In any event, it’s hard, from a modern perspective, to see this kind of splash — highlighting a not-that-visually-interesting character in the undramatic act of putting on his gloves — as truly justified in storytelling terms (though, of course, there’s no reason to complain about the quality of the illustration itself, as rendered by Kirby and inker Joe Sinnott).
On the other hand, my eleven-year-old self almost certainly thought that all of Kirby’s full-page panels were way cool. So, there you go.
Once he’s all gloved-up, the Wizard takes to the air (“Look, Ma, no wings!”) to test out his new tech’s capabilities:
Having drawn the Torch out from the team’s Baxter Building headquarters, the Wizard continues to show off, deftly avoiding his foe’s fiery blasts while leading him on a wild chase above the city — until, finally, he goes on the offensive:
Now there’s a full-page splash that works. (In my opinion, anyway.)
Having quenched the Human Torch by forcing a jet of water from a rooftop tank, the Wizard follows up by using the entire tank as an airborne weapon:
I’m not sure that “hey, we should probably wait until we’re over the river to knock that enormous metal object out of the sky” really counts as a brilliant stratagem, but OK.
The next several pages, in which Crystal singlenadedly just wipes the floor with the overconfident Wizard, are just as much fun today as they were in 1968:
Wow! I’m sure that my eleven-year-old self was almost as impressed by that display of power as the Wizard must have been. And I’m sure I was also grateful that scripter Stan Lee finally dropped in some “Inhumans” references to help me slot Crystal into her proper place in the Marvel Universe.
Johnny halts the Wizard’s flight by lassoing him with a rope of flame, after which Ben knocks him into the river by means of a propelled hunk of dock-post. But then, despite his abject failure to achieve his nefarious goals, the Wiz once again proves himself pretty good at the “escaping” part of the super-villain gig. He eludes Mister Fantastic’s groping underwater grasp, and just as he did at the conclusion of issue #79, ultimately manages to get away clean:
And there you have it. With Reed channeling the patter of “Smilin’ Stan” like never before or since as he welcomes Crystal “to the rollicking ranks of the fabulous free-wheeling Fantastic Four!” — and Johnny joining in with a gratuitously sexist “powder-puff” witticism — our tale comes to an end. Not one of the greatest Fantastic Four tales of all time, by any means, but pretty good for late period Lee-Kirby. I can well imagine that readers who, unlike my younger self, had actually read the intensely dramatic FF Annual #6 which preceded it appreciated the change of pace represented by this more lighthearted, done-in-one tale.
“Done-in-one”, that is, unless you consider it the prologue to the two-part story that follows, in which the FF’s newest member is kidnapped back to her exotic homeland, the Great Refuge. Which I kind of do. But if you want to know more about my eleven-year-old self’s proper, full introduction to all the Inhumans, way back in October, 1968’s FF #82, you’ll have to check back here next month.
Earlier in this post, I wrote about missing milestones. But, even though Fantastic Four #81 may not be as significant as Fantastic Four Annual #6, either in terms of individual creative achievement or of Marvel Universe world-building, the issue is still a landmark of sorts, in that it features the very first time that someone besides the original foursome of Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben becomes an official member of the team.
A couple of weeks back, someone posted to one of the comics-oriented Facebook groups to which I belong, commemorating the golden anniversary of “Enter — the Exquisite Elemental!”, just as we are here. Which is great — it’s not like I have (or would even want) a trademark on the notion of “50 year old comic books”, after all — but I was momentarily taken aback, not by the post itself, but to another fan’s comment on the post. I’m paraphrasing, here, but said comment was along the lines of “this set a bad precedent, where anyone could put on an FF uniform and claim to be a member of the team, and led to everything becoming generic at Marvel, with team books full of interchangeable characters.”
Well… I gotta say, I don’t see it quite that way. For my money, as long as the series’ creative personnel maintain a clear distinction between the original core team and any and all members-come-lately, I don’t have a problem with any of the temporary replacements that have been part of the book at one time or another — starting with Crystal, and continuing on through her sister Medusa, Luke Cage, Frankie Raye, She-Hulk, etc., etc. If the original team represent a nuclear family, then the expanded roster of everyone who’s ever been part of the FF could be considered a… let’s see, what would you call it..
An extended family. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Which is my way of telling you that I really got a kick out of the last page in the second issue of Dan Slott and Sara Pichelli‘s new Fantastic Four series, and that I’m eagerly looking forward to the next chapter of their story. But, having said that, I don’t want to imply that I believe the guy who thought FF #81 set a bad precedent was necessarily wrong. That particular issue was only my third issue of Fantastic Four overall, so I wasn’t as wedded to the sanctity of the “Core Four” as i might have been had I started reading the series with issue #1, or even with #61. We all come to individual comic books with our own unique perspectives, based on our own unique experiences. We all have certain lines we hope our favorite characters, and their titles, won’t cross.
Or, to put it another way — if that group shot in FF (2018) #2 had included all the members of the Nineties’ Fantastic Force, I might be singing a whole different tune.