Continuing to go through the comics I bought during my first trip to my very first comic book store, the Heroes World outlet in Levittown, I also grabbed up these three consecutive issues of MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS. These were the rest of the story begin in issue #66, which I’d previously bought and represented good value-for-money, since, as reprints of recent vintage, they were all cheap. In this manner I maximized my buying power, even if it meant that I was going to be missing a few pages from the story. (The Marvel books of this period only ran 17-18 pages of story, so when 20 page adventures were reprinted, pages needed to be edited out of them.) And like the SUPERMAN story, this was another four-part saga, which really seemed like a big deal back in 1977.
This four-parter was produced during the latter day run of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby collaboration, when Kirby was very specifically trying not to give Marvel any new characters or concepts. It was fairly nakedly inspired by the television series The Prisoner, a fact that the letters pages and Bullpen Bulletins in the original printings made no secret of. But for all that he may ave been holding back on his imagination, Kirby’s graphics were still powerful and compelling. By this point, he’d mastered the new smaller original art size and used it to advantage. His compositions filled the page, and while he would now do fewer panels per page, those panels contained maximum impact. The slick inking of Joe Sinnott completed the package.
The plot to this point in an nutshell is that the Fantastic Four have been dispatched by Nick Fury and SHIELD to infiltrate Doctor Doom’s nation of Latveria, where SHIELD has evidence that he’s been building a battalion of all-powerful robots to attack and overwhelm his neighbors. But Doom is on his game, and his forces quickly subdue the FF, whom he subjects to hypnotic treatments to prevent them from using their powers. Now prisoners, the FF find themselves no different from the citizens of Latveria, who live under a Dictator who insists that they be happy and cheerful at all times.
This story gives plenty of screen time to Doom himself and showcases his particular mania in interesting ways. He’s egocentric and malevolent, but also cultured and charming. It was these sorts of dichotomies that helped to make him the most fascinating villain of the era. Here is a great moment where Doom’s henchman Hauptmann compares him favorably to the Red Skull and Doom goes off on him–because in Doom’s mind, he has no rivals, he’s better than everybody else.
By the end of this second part, we’ve seen Doom’s brigade of twelve deadly robots in action as they subdue a pair of escaping prisoners who’ve commandeered an armored tank, tearing through the behemoth as though it were nothing. But Doom has a further test in mind–he plans to unleash them upon the town in which the FF remain powerless. But he doesn’t even need to do this, as the robots are so deadly and uncontrollable that they run amok, heading for the town and ground zero where the FF stand.
Chapter three is an all-action extravaganza, opening with the inhabitants of the town becoming aware of the danger they’re in. Doom sends them a video message telling them that his robots have gone berserk and are headed their way, but that they’ll all be considered heroes of the realm for their sacrifice. He’s half telling the truth, too, as the robots have become an army without discipline–but he’s built a failsafe weakness into their design known only to him, just in case.
Fortunately, the hypnotic spell that’s been preventing the Fantastic Four from using their powers is wearing off, so the Thing and the Human Torch aren’t completely powerless when the first bunch of robots hit the village. But even when Ben tears one of his opponents apart, the robot’s individual pieces keep attaching him–they’re modular, which is why SHIELD considered them such a threat. Getting the worst of the skirmish, the Torch creates a smokescreen to cover their withdrawal as they fall back to a safer position.
This buys the team a bit more time for their powers to continue to return. In the battle which follows, the robots are inexorable, but Reed comes across a hidden control unit in the town which enables him to employ hidden defenses against the attacking robots, neutralizing them one by one. But this struggle is all in vain–as a final precaution, Doom has planted a pair of enormous explosives under the town, enough to wipe the whole thing off the face of the Earth should things not go his way. In his mounting mania, he triggers the bomb, expressing immediate remorse as Hauptmann reminds him of the Latverian citizens who will also be killed. (And whom Doom was willing to sacrifice just a few pages earlier–Doom isn’t the most consistent of monarchs.)
But it’s too late for remorse, the whole place goes up like a roman candle. But when the smoke clears, one small area remains unscathed, one in which the Fantastic Four and the townspeople all stand. It’s a deus ex machina ending as the Invisible Girl appears–she tells Reed that she was worried about them, and coerced Nick Fury into telling her where they’d gone. It was her force-field that saved this portion of the village and everybody in it. Now, with their powers restored and their numbers at maximum, the time has come for the FF to take the fight to Doom himself.
In the final chapter, the team wastes no time. They head for Doom’s castle, routing his forces along the way. The Thing hurls the entire top of a steeple at the castle–fortunately, this being a comics code-approved comic book, nobody is hurt in this attack. Hauptmann goes to warn his boss that the FF are on the doorstep, but Doom is unconcerned. This is his land, he’s got the home field advantage. And he explains to Hauptmann that he intends to finish off his foes with a concerto of hyper-sound after offering them an evening of art and culture. To speed them on their way, he opens up a trap door underneath Sue and Crystal, scooping them up as bargaining chips.
It has to be said that during this era, Kirby was doing everything he could to pad out his stories somewhat–and often, that took the form of full-page splashes that didn’t advance events very much. But so powerful was Kirby’s design sense that these pages weren’t simply wasted calories but rather some of the strongest images in the book. This full page sot of Doom is a classic, and yet it doesn’t do much to move the plot along at all. It’s also not the only splash Kirby does during the course of this issue, even setting aside the traditional opening splash.
While the rest of the FF battle their way inside Doom’s castle, the Lord of Latveria is playing host to Sue and Crystal in comic style. Kirby loved to have Doom chew the scenery in this manner, where he’d pretend to be civilized and cultured while waiting to stick the knife in. He’s got his piano gimmicked with his hyper-sound equipment, which he’ll use to annihilate his foes once they reach this room. Down below, the FF find themselves within Doom’s private plundered art gallery, where invaluable treasures from all around the world have been stored for his viewing alone. They also come across Hauptmann, who has determined that the artist tasked with painting Doom’s royal portrait is actually a spy for SHIELD.
Hauptmann moves to tun his flamethrower on the group and the SHIELD operative (which, let’s face it, wouldn’t have been much good given that the Torch is standing among them) heedless of the priceless works of art that will be damaged by his attack. But Doom is not heedless, and he strikes a single off-key note on his hyper-sound keyboard, murdering Hauptmann from afar so as to prevent these priceless treasures from being obliterated. And with that, the conflict is ended–Doom offers his guests safe passage to the border, as his designs have been ruined and he is weary of the struggle. It’s a pretty unconventional ending (one that was off-beat enough that Lee felt the need to cover blurb it as such) but again one that helped to make Doom more multi-faceted and fascinating than the run-of-the-mill comic book super-villain of the era.