We have reached a momentous moment in my personal comic book history at long last: the point at which I started to buy a Marvel comic. It was a dull day in the summer, I had nothing going on, and so, desperate for some attention, I finally broke down and decided to read the Marvel-related segments of Jules Feiffer’s GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES volume and the Marvel-related segments of THE STERANKO HISTORY OF COMICS Vol. 1. And I liked the Human Torch story printed in the former. I had picked up enough from books like the MARVEL SECRET CODES volume I showed a few weeks ago to know that the Torch was these days a member of the Fantastic Four. So when we went to the drugstore later that week, I determined that I would dig around through that big bin of Marvel books and check out some FANTASTIC FOUR comics.
Digging through the bin, I turned up three consecutive issues, #177, 178 and 179. Total cost: fifty cents. They were by this point almost a year old, but that didn’t matter for my purposes. I can remember getting back to our house, stretching out in our living room, my legs extending back underneath our coffee table, and reading through these three comic books sprawled out on the floor. For the next hour or so, I was inside the Marvel Universe, really for the first time.
As these things go, I picked a pretty good place to come in. This issue is the first half of a two-parter by writer Roy Thomas and artist George Perez, embellished by my all-time favorite inker Joe Sinnott. And it was at once more serious and intense than most of the DC books I’d been reading while at the same time just as silly and goofball. George Perez was still a young artist at this point, but a few years into his career he had figured out how to maximize his skill-set, and Sinnott’s polish always made him look good. Reading this comic book and the next two were a bit like trying to solve a mystery, in that it picked up in mid-stride and contained references to other books along the way–on Page 2 there’s an editorial note referring back to FANTASTIC FOUR #11, which seemed impossibly distant to me.
The issue opens with the Fantastic Four returning to their Baxter Building headquarters after a number of issues away in space. In their absence, their villainous counterparts the Frightful Four have moved into the place, taking it for their own. There are only three members of the Frightful Four at this point: the “wingless” Wizard, the Trapster, and the Sandman. But they’ve put out a call for applicants to interview for the job of becoming their fourth member. A fight breaks out, and the good FF winds up on the losing side. They awaken to find themselves trussed to a gigantic fan that Reed had laying around in his lab for some reason.
What follows is a multiple page sequence that’s pure comedy, and the Frightfuls interview applicants for their open position. Among those who try out are the osprey, who possesses no super-powers (”But if you could just give me some kind of super-power, I’m certain I could–”) and whom the Wizard sends flying, the Texas Twister, a huge John Wayne-esque cowboy with the ability to spin like a whirlwind but whose services are also in demand from another unnamed party (”Reckon ah’m all yor’n, long as yuh match the startin’ salary that another buncha fellas offered.”) and Captain Ultra, who is super-powerful but passes out in the presence of an open flame, a true deficit when battling the Human Torch.
Also turning up along the way were Thundra, the previous fourth member of the Frightful Four, who had turned against them and who was romantically interested in the Thing. She comes in attempting to both rescue the FF and bust the Frightfuls’ heads, but she’s quickly taken out by them. Finally, the last applicant is Tigra, the Were-Woman. But Tigra is also not a villain, she had teamed up with the Thing a few months previous in MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE, and she’s also come to help the FF–though she’s only able to pull the switches that will release the Torch and the Thing.
At this point in the comic came the letters page, Baxter Building Bulletins, which was like reading dispatches from some foreign land. Not only were the letters talking about stories that I hadn’t (yet) read, they were also referring back to issues and events from years before. The tone was jovial and playful and snappy, much more so than any DC letters page I’d encountered. But I didn’t bother with these pages until I’d finished the issue (and the other two in my stack.)
The Fantastic Two and Tigra tear into the three villains, and in desperation, the Wizard announces over the loudspeaker that any applicant who can help take out the Torch and the Thing will be granted automatic membership in the villainous group. The thought of facing these two heroes causes most of the applicants to scatter in fear–all but one, who shimmers and grows, transforming into an over-muscled creature calling itself the brute. The brute heads upstairs to throw in with the Frightfuls.
Just before the issue wrapped up, I hit the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page, which was chock-a-block full of plugs, gossip and information, most of which was confusing to me at this point. It also included Stan Lee’s Soapbox, where the then-Publisher would spiel and sell and gap with the readers. I had seen Jenette Kahn’s Publishorials in the DC books, so i recognized the form–but here again, this was all so different from the kind of promotional hype that I was used to, including wedding announcements and the box scores of recent softball games between the Marvel and DC editorial staffs.
As the issue wraps up, the Brute enters into a frantic slugfest with the Thing, while the other Frightfuls dispatch the Torch and Tigra. They’ve been reduced to joke characters in recent years due to some of the silliness of the concept, but in these days, the Frightful Four were formidable adversaries–this is the third time this issue that they’ve won a fight and come out on top. Meanwhile, the Brute lures the Thing in front of the gateway to the Negative Zone (whatever that was) and opens it, causing Ben Grimm to be sucked within. As he floats off into the inky distance, the other Frightfuls want to know ow the Brute knew how to do that, and the monster transforms back into his human form–which turns out to be that of Reed Richards, but the Reed Richards of Counter-Earth! There was a reference to two earlier issues of WARLOCK in the next issue blurb (!!!) but I’d read enough Earth-Two stories at this point to get the gist of the character. But what would happen next? I went directly into the next issue immediately, but you’ll have to wait a day.