Back at the drug store, the big bin of somewhat-older comics continued to yield treasures. To my surprise, I came up with this issue of FANTASTIC FOUR, the oldest one I would find there–a good six months older than the previous earliest issue I had, and two years old in general. That doesn’t seem like much, maybe, but in a world in which back issues weren’t yet a thing that could be easily acquired, this was amazing to me, and I snatched the book up.
On the inside, the credits evidenced the presence of my favorite creative team at the moment on FF; Roy Thomas, George Perez and Joe Sinnott. There’s also a story tip-off in one of the lead-off captions that I didn’t understand at the time, because I didn’t have the proper background knowledge. And I’m going to need to spoil the story in order to talk about this, so be warned. It wasn’t until I got a copy of George Olshevsky’s Index to FANTASTIC FOUR several months later that I would learn that this issue’s villain, the Crusader, was actually a headlining super hero, Marvel Boy, back in the 1950s. That blew my mind, the idea that a hero from the Golden Age had been brought back as a bad guy. Floored me totally.
The issue opens with that staple of Fantastic Four adventures, testing one of the team’s powers. In this case, it’s Sue, who we’re told recently had an encounter with “Xemu’s Thunder-Horn”, whatever that was, which appears to have permanently increased the strength of her force-fields. They’re interrupted by Johnn who’s about to go out on a date–dressed in the most outlandishly 1970s civilian clothes ever. Really, that get-up is a huge eyesore.
This issue also introduces Frankie Raye, who would be the Torch’s on-again/off-again girlfriend for several years until John Byrne first turned her into another Human Torch and then the Herald of Galactus. Roy, of course, had intended for Frankie to be the daughter of the original Human Torch’s sidekick Toro–Raye being short for Raymond, Toro’s last name. But that never came to be. Anyway, while Frankie and Johnny are walking through Washington Square Park, their attention is pulled by a gleaming costumed figure declaiming at the top of the arch. The figure identifies himself as the Crusader and states that he’s come to wage war on the profiteers of society.
The Crusader’s target at the moment is one Calvin McClary, a bank president–and after smashing his way into McClary’s apartment, he hurls the man out across the skyline. Johnny hasn’t wanted to reveal his Torch identity to Frankie just yet, but this spurs him into action, and he Flames On (much to her shock and fear) and races skyward to catch McClary. After that, he moves to confront the Crusader, but the red and blue figure blinds him with a burst of light from one of his wristbands.
Unable to get any sense of his surroundings, the Torch shoots straight up in the air to avoid accidentally burning anyone or setting fire to anything, and he makes the FF alert signal in the sky with his flame before it gives out and he begins to plummet to the ground far below. Meanwhile, the Crusader finishes his grim mission, crushing Calvin McClary to death with a handy piece of cornice in what was likely the most gruesome murder I had yet seen in a comic book (for all that it’s really pretty tame.) The Crusader then disappears in a burst of light.
Across town in the Baxter Building, the rest of the FF notices Johnny’s danger alert–and comprehending the danger that the Torch is in, Reed painfully stretches himself halfway across the city in order to catch Johnny as he falls. Sue’s force-field helps to cushion the blow as well–and she and Ben are yanked to the site as Reed’s body suddenly contracts. In the aftermath, the Torch brings them up to speed on the Crusader, and Reed elongates his legs in order to go search for the escaped murderer while the rest of the group heads back to the Baxter Building. And that’s where this particular issue is To Be Continued. I wouldn’t get to read the concluding chapter of this two-parter for some time afterwards. But I liked it a lot.