I bought this issue of FANTASTIC FOUR on the Tuesday it came out from my local 7-11. Unfortunately, it represents a bit of a nadir in terms of the quality of the title during this period. Regular penciler George Perez was going through some personal crises at the time, and had blown his deadline on the previous issue, necessitating a reprint to be run in its place. This time out, George had once again failed to produce, and reasoning that running two reprints in a row would mark a finish to the book’s sales, writer/editor Marv Wolfman jammed this issue together in what looks to be about a week’s time.
Drafted in to get the job done under battlefield conditions were two of the swiftest artists in the Marvel stable of the time. Sal Buscema produced just basic breakdowns for the story, controlling the pacing and the dynamics, while the ultra-swift Tony DeZuniga turned those breakdowns into printable finished artwork. It doesn’t really capture the look of the series, nor is it either gentleman’s best. But it resulted in there being a book that could be printed. Jack Kirby was prevailed upon to pencil the cover, one of his last for a series that he helped originate. It, too, is not a great piece, but it does capture the flavor of the characters–Kirby couldn’t help but make them look right, after all, even with some inking that’s a bit primitive or rushed (likely the latter.)
The story isn’t really a story so much as it is a travelogue. Because he needed to keep continuity between the last published new issue and the one that Len Wein and George Perez were still working on, Marv couldn’t actually have anything happen in these pages. And so, much as Lee and Kirby had done when they produced an issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA in a similar amount of time when it looked as though Jim Steranko would miss a deadline, Marv made this an album issue, recounting an aspect of the history of the amazing quartet and hoping that would be good enough to skate by on for another month.
And here’s the thing: in my case, at least, it was. I was still a newbie reader when this issue of FANTASTIC FOUR came out, so I hadn’t read any of the stories that were being referenced here yet. So to me, this history lesson was invaluable–and also served to reinforce the notion that all of the Marvel stories still had a relevance on the newly-released issues, in a way that the comics I had been following over at DC didn’t. The fact that most of these stories were accompanied by editor’s notes citing the sources for the scenes being depicted gave me a start on mapping the history of the title and the characters. So I didn’t think this was the greatest issue ever or anything, but I also didn’t consider it a waste.
The narrative, such as it is, is pretty simple: at the end of the last new installment, the Fantastic Four had broken up, this time seemingly for good. So in this issue, Ben Grimm sits around and mopes with his girlfriend Alicia while flipping through his diary and recalling all of the other occasions throughout the team’s history when it seemed like it was going to break up, or one member or another parted ways or turned on their other partners. (Most often, this was the Thing himself.) The Fantastic Four breaking up was by this time a cliche, so Marv steers into that, laying out all of the other times something like this has happened and using them to say, “But this time is different–this one is going to stick!”
Even in this retelling, the switch-over from when Lee and Kirby were handling the strip and when other hands took it over is jarring. The early 1970s weren’t especially kind to FANTASTIC FOUR, with a running plotline in which Reed and Sue were filing for divorce. The folks involved were trying to follow in the footsteps of those who had come before them and do a story that was realistic. But it wasn’t what I would have wanted to see in the book, and a lot of others apparently felt the same way. The bits that are picked up here read shrill and nasty, as though the characters legitimately don’t like one another.
But that’s really all this issue had to offer, a brief interlude before the narrative could pick up once again. Everyone involved did yeoman service, and it was no doubt better than another reprint. But it also creaks with the conditions under which it was produced. This issue wasn’t meant to stand the test of time, it was simply creating product to send to market to keep the presses turning and the operation running. I can’t imagine that anybody involved with this issue thought for a second that they were making art.