This was the third of the three issues of FANTASTIC FOUR that I pulled out of the big bin of after-market comics at my local drug store on my first intentional foray into the world of the Marvel Universe. And in truth, it was the issue that I liked the least, though in aggregate I (clearly) liked the whole of them. This one wasn’t quite as polished as the preceding issues had been–you can tell that the deadline situation is growing a bit dire (the next issue after this would be an unscheduled reprint.) 

But the big difference here is the absence of George Perez. Which isn’t to say that pinch hitter Ron Wilson and the ever-dependable Joe Sinnott did a poor job; far from it. It’s just that George, being George even in this early stage, packed in so much more story, so much more character, into his pages. Even then it was hard for other artists to compete.I realize that I should probably also say something about Roy Thomas, who wrote these three issues (apart from the opening three pages of this one.) After a number of years in which FANTASTIC FOUR had drifted away from its classic format, Roy was really focused on bringing things back to center once again, a task he performed very well. His may not have been the most innovative run on the series, but it evidenced much more of the DNA of the classic 1960s spirit of the book than a lot of what had come before it had.

This issue opens up where the preceding one left off, with a powerless and costume-less Reed Richards floating helplessly through the Negative Zone. A flashback taken from Reed’s POV shows us what we skipped over last time–how the Brute laid him low, stripped him of his uniform and cast him adrift in this hostile environment, intending to take Mister Fantastic’s place. I don’t think I quite understood what the Negative Zone was when I initially read these issues, but it was clearly a dangerous place, and like the Thing last time, Reed is attacked by the strange creatures that dwell within the Zone and is forced to defend himself.

Back in the material world, Evil Reed’s impersonation of his counterpart is proceeding smoothly enough, though the cracks are beginning to show: he doesn’t know about the meeting his counterpart called for this afternoon (and when Good Reed would have had time to do such a thing given that the FF spent all of yesterday strapped up to a giant fan I couldn’t tell you ) nor what the meeting was meant to be about. But he’s so delighted to have a Sue Storm around him that isn’t in a coma that he continues to think that he may be able to get away with this impersonation. Meanwhile, the Impossible Man’s obsession with Earth television continues–and both Thundra and Tigra make their romantic interest in the Thing known, to the consternation of Ben Grimm.

Back in the Zone, Reed manages to start a fire, which both provides him with warmth and keeps the Neg Zone creatures at bay–and which he uses to kill and even cook one of them so that he’s got some manner of sustenance. Reed also makes a reference to having served in World War II, one of the last such references the series will ever have, and even at this point a bit unbelievable in terms of Reed’s apparent age. Back on Earth, the Thing has gone to dinner with Tigra, and he makes a comedic scene in a restaurant while batting away both Tigra’s interest in him and his own growing suspicions about his best friend maybe not being who he appears to be.

But before Ben can act on his suspicions, he and Tigra are startled by the appearance of a steaming giant robot lumbering down the street carrying a safe torn out of a nearby bank. Reckoning that it’s action time, the two heroes pursue the superheated titan and give battle, with Benjy doing most of the heavy lifting here. As the fight progresses, not only the Police but a column of army tanks show up in response to the damage being caused by the robot. But they get there too late, as the Thing knocks the invader into the east river and then puts it out of action with one shattering punch. For all that DC heroes like Superman were undeniably strong, none of them exhibited the sort of unrestrained joy of fisticuffs that the Thing evidenced.  

Back at the Baxter Building, Sue walks the halls, troubled by the same suspicions as everybody else. And, still adrift in the Negative Zone, Reed’s plight becomes even worse, as he’s confronted by the appearance of Annihilus. I didn’t know who Annihilus was, couldn’t quite make out how his head worked, and I couldn’t even pronounce his name correctly (I read it as Anni-HILL-us). But I knew a bad guy when I saw one, and things looked pretty dire for Reed at that moment. So the upshot here was that I quite enjoyed these three FANTASTIC FOUR issues, maybe more than I had anticipated that I would. They definitely had a different flavor and style than my beloved DC titles. And so I was interested in sampling further–which I did, as we shall see.

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