Continuing on with comics I bought during my first trip to Bush’s Hobbies in Ronkonkoma. I was a huge fan of the Golden Age of Comics and the histories of the assorted characters that I was following–I wanted to know everything, to read everything. In particular, it had been the original Human Torch who provided my entry into the Marvel Universe. So when I came across this issue reprinting classic stories from the 1940s, I had to pick it up. That Gil Kane cover just demanded it. FANTASTY MASTERPIECES had started out as a way for Marvel to make a few bucks by reprinting some of their pre-super hero fantasy stories. But with the third issue, needing to reassert his copyright to the material, Martin Goodman instructed editor Stan Lee to begin reprinting the original Joe Simon & Jack Kirby CAPTAIN AMERICA stories (Simon was in the process of putting together a lawsuit to attempt to establish his copyright and trademark on the character.) From there, it was a short jump to also reprinting Human Torch and Sub-Mariner stories as well (though whether this had anything to do with Carl Burgos’ attempts to regain the rights to the Human Torch I do not know.)
Marvel had previously reprinted a golden age Sub-Mariner story in MARVEL SUPER-HEROES #1, a one-shot special. The story they’d chosen had a cameo from the Human Torch at the end of it–he had been following Namor’s trail of destruction across the city, and eventually caught up to him and forced him to withdraw back to the ocean. But that was only half of the story. This was the other half, a Human Torch tale written and drawn by his creator Carl Burgos in which the Torch, now a member of the NYPD, chases after Namor and is forced to contend with the carnage that he’s left in his wake. As in the parallel story, the Torch does eventually catch up to the Sub-Mariner and drive him back beneath the waves–but especially exciting to me was the final blurb on the story, which indicated that the next issue of FANTASY MASTERPIECES would be reprinting the full-length battle between the two–a battle I had read about and glimpsed in the STERANKO HISTORY OF COMICS. So FANTASY MASTERPIECES #8 immediately went onto my want list.
The next story in the issue was a reprint of one of those short 5-page fantasy tales that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko would do to close out each issue of the assorted mystery/monster titles. As was typical for these tales, the splash page is almost worth the price of the comic itself–Ditko was a master of the cool, creepy splash page, and the understated approach to the lettering was also a big part of the effect. The story concerns itself with the first manned space flight to Mercury, where the astronauts are menaced by colossal telepathic aliens. In the end, the aliens prove their good intentions by delivering a Christmas Tree to the astronauts–it’s Christmas back on Earth. So a nice little heart warmer about brotherhood among the stars.
Next came a reprint of the third Sub-Mariner story, the earliest one that would be reprinted for decades. This is due to the fact that originally the Sub-Mariner was slated for the black and white title MOTION PICTURE FUNNIES WEEKLY, and so creator Bill Everett did his pages for the first two installments using crafttint board that allowed him to achieve greytone effects. But these effects became murky once color was added to them, and the printing technology of 1967 didn’t allow Marvel to easily be able to get new reproducible stats. The reproduction on all of these golden age stories is pretty atrocious by modern standards, but it was only how bad this Namor feature looked that I truly noticed as a kid. (In the 1970s, we were used to crappy printing and reproduction, inured to it somewhat.) This is the story in which Everett introduced Namor’s regular gal pal policewoman (later reporter) Betty Dean.
Thereafter an undistinguished fantasy story illustrated by Don Heck was printed. The artwork was nice on this one–Heck was one of those artists whose approach was better utilized on westerns and romance stories and war comics than he was at doing super heroes, as he was forced to in order to survive. He was also one of those artists whose work never completely recovered from the switchover to smaller sized art boards. But here, his work looks really good. The story? A criminal on a utopian alien world is sentenced to six months exile on the worst prison planet in the universe for his crimes–a planet called Earth! Dun-dun-DUNNNN!
This was followed up by an absolutely beautiful shot Jack Kirby monster story. It took me decades to learn who it was who inked this story, but the results were a cut above just about anybody else who had been inking Kirby’s work during this period. And no wonder–the hand on the brush belonged to Russ Heath, himself a great master of the comic book form. It’s maybe the best-looking monster story that Kirby ever drew as a result–one wishes that all of his work during this period would have been handled with such care and craft. Titan is an advance scout from Atlantis come to probe the surface world to pave the way for his people to invade the surface. Big business high roller John Cartwright offers to sell out the world’s secrets to Titan in exchange for protection, and becomes the most hated person on the globe, even as the hostile nations of the world put aside their difference to come together to prepare for the invasion. And little do they know that Cartwright lies to the Atlanteans about the strength of the surface world’s defenses, preventing the invasion at the cost of his own life. Even for one of these “uneventful-guy-saves-the-world-from-monster-in-clever-fashion” stories, that’s an impressive final scorecard.
As the issue began to draw to a close, the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page ran. Perhaps Stan Lee’s greatest writing took place on these pages every month, where he made the efforts of the not-quite-a-staff into the stuff of mythology and so casually and effortlessly plugged upcoming releases and events that it didn’t even register on most readers that they were being sold to. I was especially interested in the Checklist for the month, as that gave me some insight into what was happening in issues of the otehr titles then on sale that I might want to try to track down as back issues.
The final story in the issue was an early CAPTAIN AMERICA job by a young Joe Simon and Jack Kirby–not that you could tell that by looking at it, because their names had been scrubbed from the splash page where they had originally appeared (as had those of Burgos and Everett on the other two golden age stories.) This is one of my favorite early Cap tales, I’m guessing largely due to when I read it. And it’s about as far from what you’d think a WWII-era Cap story would be about. Cap and Bucky go undercover as ballplayers to find out who is sabotaging the Brooklyn Badgers and killing off their star players. The culprit turns out to be a villain called the Toad, despite the fact that he wears a batlike costume. Fun fact: he was originally intended to be named The Bat (which fits in, in a way, with the baseball theme) but Martin Goodman got cold feet concerning what DC/National’s reaction would be to that legally and had it changed.
Even the back cover of this book was cool, showcasing as it did an ad for the newly-released Marvel model kits. The actual kits themselves were a bit of a horror show when it comes to the sculpts of the characters, but this was another example of how the Marvel characters were just starting to break through and become better known in the mainstream, a process that was continuing even in my present of 1979. The ad promised there’d be Fantastic Four models coming soon, and I wanted them, but they were never produced or released–apparently the three Marvel models that Aurora did didn’t sell well enough to warrant continuing on with the program.