BHOC: MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS #50

This is yet another book that I got in trade from my comics-reading buddy Donald Sims, and it was a welcome addition to my collection. FANTASTIC FOUR was at this moment my favorite comic book series, and so any opportunity to experience another story from its long history was greatly welcome by me. And in particular, the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby issues of the series really resonated with me–I liked the modern day stories just as much, but it was the Lee/Kirby FF’s moments that tended to stick with me the most. And this story was no exception.

There’s a bunch of history involved with this story, not all of which is god. To start with, it was the final issue of FANTASTIC FOUR that Jack Kirby drew at what was then the standard twice-up size, before the original art boards were reduced to only 1 1/2 times print size. This meant both that the artwork tended to be more expansive and polished–Kirby and inker Joe Sinnott had hit a truly great rhythm starting around issue #60, where each issue was especially sparkling–and also that, because of the greater reduction, Lee could fit more copy onto a page (and typically did.)

In addition, though, this is one of the key stories that helped to fracture the working relationship between Lee and Kirby. In plotting the first part of this two-parter, Kirby drew his inspiration from the philosophies of Ayn Rand, whom Steve Ditko had become an advocate for. Kirby saw flaws in the philosophy of Objectivism, and he was interested in rebutting those flaws, which is what this story was all about. Unfortunately , editor and scripter Lee disagreed with Kirby’s approach, and not only scripted the first half contrary to Kirby’s wishes–turning the scientist of the Beehive into typical world-conquering science villains rather than the benign scientists Kirby had envisioned, who would attempt to create a perfect being and then be hoist on their own petard when their creation had no use and no sympathy for its imperfect creators–but also telling him that the second half of the tale needed to be adjusted on the fly as Kirby was drawing it as well. So Jack lost control of the story he was trying to put across, and its central meaning was reversed under him–a point that was still a sore spot years later.

But I knew none of this when I sat down to peruse this issue for teh first time. The story opens on a slow boil: Alicia Masters has been spirited away by a mysterious figure using a high-tech teleportation bracelet. She’s been taken to the Beehive, a super-secret citadel of science whose Enclave of inventors needs her help. They’ve been attempting to create a perfect being, but at a key point, the entirety of Lock 41 where their subject had been grown was flooded with radiance, keeping them from seeing how their specimen has evolved. They want Alicia to go down into Lock 41 where, using her sightless sculpting talents, she will be able to craft a model of the being they all only refer to as “Him.” Meanwhile, back at the Baxter Building, the Thing is frantic over Alicia’s disappearance, and Reed works tirelessly to duplicate the teleportation technology Alicia’s abductor used to convey her away, so that the Fantastic Four can go after her.

The first half of the issue takes its time getting to the action, with the other members of the team forced to sit around and wait while Reed attempts to crack the secrets of the citadel’s technology. This allows for a number of sequences of comedy characterization–one in which the Human Torch flash-fries a piece of toast Crystal has made for him, surprising her, and another in which the Thing downs a full stack of Sue Richards’ pancakes in a single swallow. These domestic moments were balanced against the backdrop of the astonishing, as we journey with Alicia and her chaperone Hamilton descend deeper into Lock 41, coming closer and closer to Him, while the other members of the Citadel of Science prepare a failsafe device with which they can destroy the Lock and its contents should it prove to be too dangerous for them to harness. Alone, Alicia manages to make her way to the strange creation, which proves to be a colossal cocoon in which Him is gestating like a butterfly waiting to be born.

But them, the preliminaries are done, and it’s time for things to kick off. Reed has finished his work, and he’s managed to build a duplicate of Hamilton’s bracelet which will allow him, Ben and Johnny to access the Enclave’s teleportation grid. Sue and Crystal are left behind–this was during the time that Sue was pregnant with Franklin, but this really has as much to do with the fact that they’re women as anything else. A bit of late-60s chauvinism. The three heroes emerge from the Grid, surprising the Citadel members, and begin to annihilate their way through the ranks of the Enclave’s private army in search of Alicia in spectacular fashion. They’re able to make their way to Lock 41–but not before Him begins to emerge from his cocoon, his energies reaching out to devastate the Beehive even without the FF’s intervention.

As the whole place begins to detonate, the FF grab Alicia and race back to the teleportation grid, making it out before it blows up too. And in the end, the remaining three scientists of the Enclave are confronted by Him, who passes judgment upon them for their crimes before himself departing. Kirby, of course, had intended that the scientists had committed no crimes apart from creating a perfect self-actualized perfect being who had no empathy or interest in fallible beings such as them. A is A, after all. I must also relate that, as a kid, I didn’t realize that this was the end of the story. I assumed that the next issue blurb (“Mission: Destroy the F. F. !”) referred to Him, and that there’d be a mighty showdown between the team and whatever Him became in the following issues. I would eventually figure out my mistake, but I felt a bit cheated by it nonetheless.

11 thoughts on “BHOC: MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS #50

  1. This is super interesting! Adam Warlock has evolved so much over the years (and can still be a hard one for me to pin down), and learning the genesis of Him and the Enclave is a real treat!

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  2. Kirby drew Reed thicker, more muscular, than he’s mostly been shown to be since. You could say Dr. Richards was “Jack’ed” (Kirby!). Sorry. Despite that, but because of his facial features, George Clooney 10-15 years ago would’ve been my choice for Mr. Fantastic. Get John Krasinski & Emily Blunt while you can.

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    1. Yes, for me, Kirby’s FF are the definitive look, and the only artist that came after Kirby that really seemed to capture that was Rich Buckler, though I do like it when anyone mimics Kirby on the book, like Laddronn could for example. I remember the fanfare prior to Byrne taking the book on, but it never really did much for me.

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      1. That’s interesting. I think I’m drawn to a more slender Reed because Reed’s value isn’t about brute force; elastic power sets “feel” more compatible to slender, wiry physiques; and I’ve been culturally trained to see brainiac, bookworm types as skinny people. Beyond this, the athletic “standard” physique for superheores is SO ubiquitous, I think part of me liked the slender frame to help provide a little bit of physical diversity into the mix.

        Did you like Dale Eaglesham’s Reed from Hickman’s run?

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    2. To bserum: I understand why a skinny type may seem more apt, and that brainy people are usually less muscular etc, but Kirby defined the look so for me, that’s how those people should look. Changing the look makes them different people a bit like getting a different actor/actress into a tv show when someone has left. If you started reading a lot later so Kirby wasn’t your introduction, you may feel differently of course.

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  3. Romita said he often shared a cab with Lee and Kirby, and would hear them plotting the next issue of the FF, but when the pages came back, Kirby had ignored Lee’s input – how often that happened I don’t know, but maybe that’s what happened here and Lee had to rescue it. Didn’t something similar happened with the last story Kirby did for the FF and Lee had to get Buscema to fix it because Kirby had left by then?

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    1. No, that’s a bad interpretation of the final story. It was too much of an insult to Stan, so they butchered it and hacked it to pieces. The result is an inconsistent mess.

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      1. In what way an insult? I heard that Stan couldn’t add dialogue to what Kirby had drawn so couldn’t use it as is. The later reprint with most of Kirbys’ artwork restored didn’t seem insulting to Stan as I remember.

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  4. Two things used to irk me about these reprint titles (which were otherwise great reading)…

    1) they were originally twenty page stories, but under the then Marvel standard were eighteen or nineteen pages, which presumably meant something had been cut out somewhere (unless they joined two half-pages together)

    2) the quality of the printing looked slightly muddy compared to books containing new material. Was it a case of shooting old printed artwork for the printing plates, since the original artwork had presumably flown the coop years before? It probably wouldn’t concern me these days, but the teenage puritan that I was was annoyed 🙂

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