It would have been shortly after Christmas that I found this next issue of what was then my favorite comic book title, FANTASTIC FOUR, on the 7-11 spinner rack. This is another issue that I’m sure my younger brother Ken also had a copy of–he would mimic my purchases a week or so later for some unfathomable reason. A minor but notable-to-my-eyes change happened with this issue–the logo heads had been changed, redone by artist George Perez to bring them more in line with the look of the series. I liked these better (spotty printing notwithstanding) but it is kind of ironic that this change was made just when George was about to run out his time on FANTASTIC FOUR. But nobody would have been aware of that when the decision was made.
Already in the wind was regular writer Len Wein, who had plotted this story but wasn’t around to dialogue it. Len’s departure for DC at this time was a messy thing, and it’s been covered elsewhere better than I can do it justice in this space. Te unfortunate thing is that he’d just set up a plotline intended to carry the series through to the big issue #200 in which the FF had disbanded and gone their separate ways after Reed had lost his stretching powers. That story would still play through these issues, but not exactly in the manner Wein had intended, and the title would once again lurch from creator to creator for the next couple of issues as it continued to try to get back on track schedule-wise.
It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the work of George Perez at this point in his career. He was well on his way already to becoming my favorite super hero artist of the era, and yet he was still in the formative stages of his abilities. is earlier shakiness had smoothed itself out at this point, leaving him with a strong style tat balanced Kirby-style power with John Romita elegance. He was also capable of squeezing way more onto a page and into an issue than anybody else–his seven panel pages, as the one above is, never looked crowded. In an era in which the stories were only 17 pages long, this was an invaluable gift, especially on a team title. As always, Joe Sinnott provided the sleek FF finish that had come to define the series–the inking by Frank Giacoia, a fine inker, on the cover of this issue, for example, looks clunky by comparison. Sinnott was able to smooth away Perez’s rough edges without losing any of his detail.
This issue focuses on the Human Torch, who has gone out west following the disbanding of the team to visit his old friend and supporting player Wyatt Wingfoot, and to drive in a cross-country race–Johnny’s interest in cars goes back to his very first appearance, after all. While arriving at the Keewazi territory, Johnny is spied on by a shadowy figure in a cowboy had and dark glasses, and he also has a contentious first meeting with Rebecca Rainbow, a rival race car driver from the Reservation who was clearly being set up as a potential love interest, but who never appeared again. Elsewhere, we check in on the rest of the team as well–the Thing engages in some comedy revolving around his nemeses the Yancy Street Gang, and Reed is headhunted by Cynthian Associates–a name that clearly evokes Doctor Doom’s mother, a fact that Reed should probably have immediately figured out.
The next day, the heavily-promoted race is set to begin, and the Torch is a celebrity draw, decked out in Fantastic Four colors. As the race begins, Rebecca Rainbow takes the early lead–but then things go sideways as a tornado touches down in the path of the racers, knocking their cars all over the place. This turns out to be the reappearance of one of the most unlikely Marvel characters to ever make a second appearance, the Texas Twister. Previously, the Twister had been a joke character who had attempted to join the Frightful Four when they held open auditions in the first FF comic book I had ever read. But here, Wein (who must have liked him) brings him back working for secretive bosses who want him to bring the Torch to them. Eventually, it would turn out in another series that the Twister was working for SHIELD–which makes his actions in this issue as well as those of his bosses a bit suspect. But such are the vicissitudes of a shared universe sometimes.
The rest of the issue is effectively a long fight scene, expertly choreographed by Perez, as the Twister and the Torch mix it up, the latter supported by Wyatt and Rainbow, who at one point drive a truck full of explosives into one of the Twister’s air columns in order to detonate it and free the Torch. In the manner of the era, rather than simply telling the Torch what he wants–that he’s come to recruit Johnny for his employers–the Twister instead engages in the kind of machismo that leads to action-packed fight scenes, as nonsensical as they might be.
Anyway, the fight ends up as a draw, with the Torch maybe slightly ahead on points when the Twister decides to exercise the better part of valor in response to the arriving authorities. Johnny, though, gets put on retainer by the race’s sponsor, who wants this kind of show on a weekly basis–so he’s at least got the beginnings of a regular gig worked out for himself. This was probably a set-up that Wein intended to do more with, but alas, that wouldn’t wind up happening.
The letters page this time out included our old friend the Statement of Ownership, which allows us to get a sense as to how well FANTASTIC FOUR was performing in the closing months of 1977. From it, we learn that the book was selling 185,479 copies on a print run of 399,656, giving it an efficiency of just over 46%. This is one of the best percentage rates we’ve seen so far, but it still means that a full half of the title’s print run was being printed, bundled, shipped, racked, pulled, stripped, returned and pulped in order to sell the copies that it did. As I always say at this point, the newsstand distribution model was woefully wasteful. (The SoO indicates that 211,337 copies of the most recent issue had been returned and destroyed. Think about just how many copies that is.)