I bought this issue at my local 7-11, and some time later, my brother Ken also bought himself a copy for some reason. This was the second new off-the-racks issue of MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS that I purchased, having jumped on board the FANTASTIC FOUR/Marvel train not long before. This issue reprinted FANTASTIC FOUR #95, whereas the preceding issue had reprinted #93–unbeknownst to me, #94 had been reprinted in a Treasury Edition, and Marvel policy at that time was to not reprint a story twice. This confused me a little bit (as did Medusa’s sudden appearance in this issue) but I was able to roll with it.
This issue is a strong contender for the slightest release that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby produced together during their 102 issue unbroken run. There were a number of reasons for this. Primary among them was that Kirby was at this point at the end of his tether. His dissatisfaction at Marvel was at its peak and he was overtly trying to hold back on what new works he gave to the company. On top of that, this issue coincided with Marvel’s short-lived policy declaring an end to multi-part stories. While the soap opera was at the heart of what made the Marvel books of the 1960s so compelling, the haphazard distribution made it difficult for many readers to reliably find and purchase concurrent issues. So a decision was made to scale everything back to done-in-one adventures. It was a choice which led to a lot of underwhelming work being done.
Part of the issue here as well was that the switch to smaller sized art boards, which had happened a year or so before, also reduced the amount of copy that could comfortably be fit onto each page. The Marvel titles of, say, 1966 were positively wordy, with comments and asides crammed into every nook and cranny. But by this point, scripter/editor Stan Lee was growing a bit tired of the relentless grind of writing copy as well, and he’d dramatically scaled back on the amount of verbiage he was using in the books. This wasn’t a bad thing per se, but the combination of all of it led to simple-minded stories that didn’t have a lot of interest or incident to them and which wrapped up in a perfunctory manner. They were all eminently missable.
One thing the book still had in spades was Kirby’s dynamic visual sense, expertly embellished by series regular Joe Sinnott. They were a great combination, and once he’d adapted to the new art board size, Kirby would apply his design ethos to entire pages rather than simply individual panels or tiers within them. The whole board could now be seen at once, and this changed the way Kirby broke his stories down. At the same time, he was still trying to do less in terms of providing story, and so he took to filling his issues with splash pages, sometimes three in a single issue. They were always spectacular images, but they didn’t advance the story much (in many cases, there wasn’t’ all that much story to advance.) In this issue, for example, there were three full page images counting the opening splash. And because the Marvel books in 1977 were running fewer pages of story, two pages still had to be cut out of it to make it fit.
So what’s the story about? Glad you asked! There’s a big assembly scheduled at the United Nations to talk about the situation in the Middle East. A spy known as the Monocle has gained access posing as a news reporter, and his camera is actually a sophisticated Neutrak Ray with which e intends to assassinate the delegates and bring about World War III. The FF are in the area just kinda keeping their eye on things for kicks, and so the Monocle tests out his ray on them, shooing the Fantasticar out of the sky and causing a building to topple, forcing the Thing to hold it together. In this way, he hopes to keep the FF occupied and out of his way until he can complete his deadly mission.
Meanwhile, back at the Baxter Building, the Human Torch is trying to prevent his girlfriend Crystal from heading back to the Inhumans’ Great Refuge with Medusa, who has come to retrieve her on behalf of Black Bolt. As impassioned as he gets, Johnny can’t dissuade Medusa form her mission or Crystal from her duty, and he’s sullenly forced to watch as the two ladies disappear. He’s still depressed when Reed and Sue get back in after having dunked the disabled Fantasticar in the river, and he flames out in search of their attacker, looking for some action to get his mind off of his troubles. Like the Thing before him, Johnny finds himself being diverted as different structures collapse all around him.
Back at the UN, the Monocle is at last ready to make his move. But as he pulls the trigger on his camera-weapon it blows up in his face! Reed is on scene, and having identified the energy that destroyed the Fantasticar, he’s come equipped with a device that would reverse it. Kirby’s mastery of pace and visual storytelling is on full display here. Look at the way he moves his camera in this four-panel sequence, the manner in which he conveys the movement of the monocle’s gun in Panel 2, or Reed’s movements in Panels 3-4. All four panels are the same size, yet there’s an energy and a thrust to the action due to how Kirby frames it. For all that the story is thing, there are pages in this issue and the ones surrounding it that are worth studying by anybody with an interest in comic book storytelling.
At this point, while we get a few pages of action as the Monocle attempts to escape, the story is basically over–there’s no believable way that a lowly spy with a few gadgets is going to be able to get the better of the entire Fantastic Four. And the wrap-up is quick and unsatisfying. I’d imagine that this story was inspired by real-world events taking place around the time it was done, as so many of Kirby’s recent tales were and would be, so perhaps it had more relevance when it first came out. But to me, while it looked nice and read well, it was the first Fantastic Four story I’d read that felt like nothing so much as empty calories. Amazingly (though not unexpectedly–this is the Marvel Universe after all) later writers actually brought the Monocle back again, to no better effect.