I bought this issue of MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS on one of my regular weekly 7-11 runs, and I can remember having it with me and being over at the house of my neighbor and sometimes-friend Charles Grella down the block. As usual, it reprinted an issue of FANTASTIC FOUR from a few years earlier (9 in this case) and so it was an automatic-buy for me. This cover, while it resembles that of the original which ran on FF #96, is a recreation by Jack Kirby and his inker of preference, Mike Royer. I assume that either somebody couldn’t locate the original cover in the stat library or else with the need to accommodate the UPC box and the larger masthead, it was simpler to have the piece redone than the amount of adjustments that would have needed to be made.
This issue reprinted another story from Kirby’s final days on the series, a point at which he was largely trying to hold back his ideas, marking time, and largely phoning it in. Even with all of that, it still exhibits the command of design and detail that Kirby was renowned for. One thing that I don’t think people give him enough credit for is the manner in which his characters act. In particular here, Reed’s stance is very specific and casual. Kirby’s characters would sometimes over-emote, like silent film stars, but he could do more subtle stuff as well, and he was really excellent at establishing the particulars of environment. Here, there are tons of little background details that make the FF’s living room come alive and seem like a real place.
As with FF #93 a few short months ago, this story and the next would be embellished not by regular inker Joe Sinnott but rather by substitute Frank Giacoia. While that previous issue had seemed like a rush job, here it feels as though Giacoia had a bit more time to complete his work. He was one of the most faithful Kirby inkers of this period, so he captures Jack’s pencils precisely. And yet, both as a young reader and now, I still miss Sinnott’s hand here. His slick finish, the way he would render the Thing’s rocky epidermis, and a million other details had really become hard-wired into my brain as the proper look for an FF story. Giacoia’s work was a bit harsher, rougher. The sharp corners hadn’t been rounded off in the manner that Sinnott typically would do it. And as such, it gave this story, for me, a sense of disquietude, a feeling that something was subtly wrong. Which kind of helped the ambiance as the FF are replaced one by one by the Mad Thinker’s android copies of them.
While Kirby may not have been deeply engaged in a story sense by this work, he was going all-out on the artwork itself. This issue contains a bunch of pages and panels that are little masterpieces of design. I’ve always loved the first panel on this page, for instance, in the way that it immediately gives a complete sense of the environment of the store and the manner in which Kirby attires each of the different fashionable lady shoppers who are on the premises. This issue is also noteworthy in that none of the FF appear in costume within its pages, not even once. So this is kind of what the series would have felt like had Lee and Kirby stuck with their original impulse to put the FF in regular street clothes. That doll-eyed android in Panel 3 feels pretty creepy as well. This was the era of the Fembots on the Bionic Woman and the Six Million Dollar Man, and this moment had echoes of that for me. I was always a little bit creeped out by the notion of sinister doppelgangers.
This story was also created during a period in which publisher Martin Goodman had laid down an edict to keep all of the stories to a single issue, a restriction that most of teh creators of this period struggled with. So much of what made Marvel Marvel in those days was the soap opera, the sprawling epics. In particular, Kirby’s expansive imagination was difficult to restrict to only a single issue. But between Goodman’s push for self-contained adventures and Jack’s overall malaise, he and Lee went for it on their titles quite a bit, and the results tend to be underwhelming. I’ve held off on describing the plot of this adventure in anything other than the broadest details so far because there’s so precious little of it. What the story does have is ambiance, and some great action sequences. The page above is a master class in how to display kinetic action in an exciting manner even within a regimented grid structure. The way Kirby creates compositional shapes and the manner in which he shifts his camera placement for maximum impact is really incredible. That top panel also showcases something that Kirby would often do in a long horizontal panel like this one: the action on the far right of the panel is taking place a split second after the action on the left–so that, as the reader scans left-to-right, like in a film pan, there’s a progression of time as well as space. Very few, if any, other comic book artists have successfully employed this technique.
Anyway, getting back to the story: it opens with the FF enjoying a lazy weekend, with Sue heading out shopping and the Torch off at an auto race somewhere. But one by one, the members of the FF are attacked by sinister duplicates of themselves created by their old foe the Mad Thinker to overwhelm them and take their places. As always, he’s computed his plan down to the smallest detail. But he’s failed to take into account the x-factor that will undo his scheme: when assaulted by his android doppelganger, Reed Richards is able to outfight the android copy and deactivate him, due to his greater skill and technical know-how. Taking the android’s place, he returns to the Baxter Building to turn the tables on the Thinker. He’s able to roust the anesthetized Thing, leading to a big battle between two stony behemoths.
From there, it’s just a run-and-gun as Reed and Ben tear through everything the Thinker and his creations can throw at them, uncover the secret tunnel he was able to build in the Baxter Building while they were away, and rescue Sue and Johnny. It’s a fast-paced action wingding–but the story is just a little bit unsatisfying somehow. Readers at the time felt it as well–some essential ingredient had been taken out of the mix. Most chalked it up to the single issue story restriction, but the reality is that it was Kirby’s investment in what he was doing. He still functioned as a capable professional doing his job, but as much as possible he was keeping his idea-spawning brain in check while working on these stories, using as many old creations as possible, determined not to hand over another Silver Surfer to Marvel before he could manage his exit.