I was wholly in the tank for the Fantastic Four by this point, and my interest in them led me to purchase a copy of this Big Little Books release from a local Stationary store. It had been issued several years previously, during the period when the first FANTASTIC FOUR cartoon was airing on Saturday Mornings, and had stayed in print since that time. It was aimed at a slightly younger reading level than I was at by this point, but I didn’t really mind–it was yet another FF adventure to devour.
The BIG LITTLE BOOKS line had been around since the 1930s and was as ubiquitous reading for kids of the era as comic books themselves. Dozens of releases had been based on the popular newspaper comic strips and radio programs of the day, as well as movies, television shows and original works. The line was massive in its time, but by 1977 it was pretty much on its last legs. The format was for each spread to alternate a page of prose text story and a full page illustration in a comic book style.
This particular book was written by William Johnston, who had a formidable career penning tie-in novelizations to popular television shows and movies of the era. A workhorse typewriter-pounder of the first order, he wrote tons of material even apart from his tie-in work–novels, articles, non-fiction. But it’s his tie-in novelizations, ironically, that are best remembered today. In many cases, Johnston hadn’t seen the shows or films for which he was writing–they weren’t completed yet–and so he worked from whatever scripts and bibles happened to be available to him. I don’t know how much familiarity he would have had with the Fantastic Four before penning this book, but at the very least there would have been at least 70 comic book issues to draw from, far more material than he would typically have been used to dealing with. That all said, the treatment of the characters within the story is pretty basic stuff.
Artwork for the book was provided by Marvel’s own Herb Trimpe, who would have been on staff at the time while also drawing INCREDIBLE HULK. Trimpe relied heavily on swipes from Jack Kirby’s work throughout the regular FANTASTIC FOUR series, to such an extent and with such success that some readers still believe that Kirby was responsible for the illustrations. So if nothing else, the characters looked like the characters, and Trimpe’s style gave the whole production a whiff of legitimacy, like this was truly a Marvel-sanctioned product.
The story opens with the Fantastic Four being challenged to combat by the mysterious Dr. Weird, who lures them to his secluded House of Horrors outside of the city. Searching for their would-be foe, the FF split up, each one encountering and overcoming a powers-specific death trap within the different rooms of the Gothic Mansion. (How Dr. Weird insured that the proper FF member went into the right room is glossed over entirely–they just do.) Regrouping after their initial mishaps, the FF make their way through the remainder of the structure, eventually coming face to face with their assailant.
After a few more escapades, Dr. Weird has had enough, and moves to finish off the FF with a powerful spell from his wand. But the FF dodge his attack, which ricochets off of one of the mirrors in the hall of mirrors in which they are battling, and disintegrates Weird himself instead. And tat’s it–there really isn’t any wrap-up beyond that. It’s a very simple story, aimed at the youngest emerging readers. But it’s still fun, and it’s one of the relatively few piece of tie-in merchandise that Marvel had out during its 1960s heyday. There was also an AMAZING SPIDER-MAN BIG LITTLE BOOK, but that one was produced later, and I never did pick up a copy of it.