The other issue of MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS that had turned up in my drug store’s big bin of slightly-older comics was this one, the start of a four-part Doctor Doom sequence inspired by the television series The Prisoner. I hadn’t seen the Prisoner at the time when I first bought this issue, so it seemed like a strong and compelling story to me apart from any influences. And it was my real introduction to Doctor Doom, probably the best villain in the Marvel canon.
This period on FANTASTIC FOUR is generally regarded as the “cool down” of the Lee/Kirby era as Jack decides to hold back on creating any further new characters for Marvel after the Silver Surfer series (and origin) is done by Stan and John Buscema without his knowledge. Maybe it’s because these were some of the first FF stories that I read, but while I can certainly see the difference between this and what Lee and Kirby had been producing just a few months earlier, I still have a lot of love for this era. It’s really not until the book goes down to single-issue stories right at the end of Jack’s tenure that I feel like it hit truly rocky ground.
The story opens with the FF making their way home after last issue’s adventure with the Inhumans in a weird Gyro-Cruiser lent to them by Black Bolt. It’s the sort of ridiculous Kirby design that only he could make work–but it looks awesome on that splash page. But before they get out of Europe, they’re flagged down by a squadron of S.H.I.E.L.D. jets led by Nick Fury. Meanwhile, we cut to Latveria, where an old man is attempting to make his escape from that closed-off country. But to no avail: Doctor Doom catches him before he can make his way across the border to freedom. Here, Kirby does another one of the extraneous splash pages he was using to pad out stories at this point, but it’s still about the most impressive image of Doctor Doom ever drawn, so we can give him a pass.
Meanwhile, Fury and Dum Dum Dugan are meeting with the Fantastic Four, filling them in about an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who’s gone missing while investigating rumors of a secret robot army being constructed in Latveria. Before he was lost, the agent managed to smuggle out a robot hand–and the hand springs to life, attacking the assembled heroes before the Torch can destroy it with a bolt of flame. Fury wants the FF to infiltrate Latveria and put this robot army out of action, as it presents a threat to the world.
And so, with forged papers provided by S.H.I.E.L.D., the Fantastic Four make their way through Communist-occupied Europe posing as tourists on their way to Latveria. They go through the border checkpoint fully intending to be discovered and captured–and indeed, their car is suddenly dismantled by a magnetic ray in the tarmac, and they are set upon by a squadron of Doom’s robotic guards. A spectacular Jack Kirby fight takes place, but one by one the Fantastic Four are overwhelmed and defeated.
But rather than finding themselves in captivity, the FF members regain their senses to find themselves ensconced in a quaint little Bavarian-style inn, where they are treated as honored guests. They struggle to make sense of this development–but a cut-away to Doctor Doom tells the story. While they slept, he used a powerful hypnotic agent to prevent them from using their powers–and now as just ordinary people, they are as helpless to escape the confines of Latveria as the erst of the population is.
These sequences are more chilling to me today than they were when I was a kid. Doom has decreed that all of his citizens must be happy and productive, and so the population strains to show how contented and overjoyed they are. It’s what you imagine living in someplace like North Korea must be like, where the population is monitored around the clock and absolutely no dissidence is permitted. To prove this, Reed make a quick run for the border, and is felled by one of Doom’s robotic sentries. It’s true–the FF are now the prisoners of Latveria, and they have to remain happy, or die! And on that note, the story is To Be Continued. It’d be a little while before I found out how everything turned out in this one.