And another issue of MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS reprinting Fantastic Four stories from earlier in the group’s history, made its way to my regular 7-11 haunt. This era in which there were still monthly reprint titles for most of the major Marvel series was a godsend to me in terms of allowing me to get a better picture of Marvel’s publishing output and history as a whole. It also exposed me to the works of the great masters of early Marvel, among whom Jack Kirby and Stan Lee stand at the head. These weren’t just guys who had done the book years ago to me, rather they felt like contemporary creators given that I was buying and reading their work in real time. The same is true for John Romita and Gil Kane over in MARVEL TALES, and Don Heck and John Buscema in MARVEL TRIPLE ACTION. And so forth. The marketplace and distribution system has totally changed so I understand why books like this are no longer viable–but I’m glad that I was around when they were.

The first thing that struck me upon opening the book was that, as had happened on a couple of issues before this, inker/embellisher Joe Sinnott was not in residence. In his place was Frank Giacoia, a very good, very adept Jack Kirby inker. Honestly, Giacoia was probably even more faithful to the pencils that Kirby was producing than even Sinnott was. But Sinnott’s slick line and interpretation of the lead characters had become the standard for the series–it was more futuristic, more streamlined. It was the “brand” of FANTASTIC FOUR, both in reprints and the present day, and so I missed having him on the issue. With Giacoia on the finishes, Kirby’s work maintained its harsher edge–an edge that I associated with his present day works in 1978, which I had a tougher time choking down. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a very good looking book. But it didn’t quite have that usual Fantastic Four zing.

That’s more than can really be said for the story this time out. As we’ve spoken about several times in the past, by this point Kirby was in open revolt, looking for an exit from his situation at Marvel, and consequently, he was putting less and less effort into his plots–in particular when it came to creating new characters that Marvel might further exploit. Additionally, the then-recent decision made by publisher Martin Goodman to do away with continued stories meant that Kirby’s efforts could occupy no more than 20 pages (0r 18 in this reprint, where a pair of the original pages had to be trimmed from the story to make it fit.) As a result, most of the stories in this year’s worth of books are pretty lackluster–it’s only Kirby’s visual panache and command of the page that makes them of much interest at all. He was drawing a lot of inspiration from everything, anything, that he happened to be watching on television or read about–and so this story winds up being a riff on the classic monster film The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Lee and Kirby don’t even really try to file the serial numbers off on this one.

The story involves the three male members of the Fantastic Four searching at the behest of the Navy for a strange creature that has been causing havoc in the area of the Lost Lagoon. While Ben is skeptical that there even is such a creature, we the audience are allowed to see the thing, and follow it as it returns to an undersea alcove where it uses a serum to assume human identity. Lee makes an interesting choice here, deciding that the Creature (it’s never given any other name, including when it’s undercover as a performer in a nearby Aquarium’s dolphin show. In Kirby’s border notes, he’s given the name Eddie.) ) is unable to speak in its human form. Judging by Kirby’s border notes, this wasn’t something that he had in mind, but it leads to some awkward moments where the FF heroes need to be speaking from off-panel for several moments to help carry the action, since the individual we’re focusing on cannot reply.

The Thing faces on this page are a good example of why I preferred Sinnott’s finish. They’re all pretty precisely what Kirby drew. But Sinnott would have subtly straightened out Ben’s eyeline in that first panel, and he would have added more texture and differentiation to the scaly plates that cover his body. Consequently, the Thing feels a bit more flat and two-dimensional to me in this tale.

Despite the fact that Eddie is mute, Reed enlists him as the FF’s guide as they probe underwater in the nearby areas for the Creature. But as they are deep beneath the ocean, Eddie suddenly smashes his way out of their vehicle, leaving the three FF members to drown. Fortunately for all concerned, the Thing can hold his breath for quite a while, and so he’s able to carry his two oxygen-deprived partners to safety within an underground cave–sadly, the same cave we saw the Creature in earlier. So only Ben remains standing to halt the Creature’s attack when it shows up.

So it’s a fight with a silent opponent, a conflict very much in the vein of the first time the Thing encountered Black Bolt. And like in that instance, Lee has to keep all of the dialogue coming from the Thing’s mouth. (This despite the fact that we saw the Creature speak while it was on its own early in the issue–presumably, this was meant to be a translation of its own otherworldly language, which the FF members wouldn’t be able to decipher.) The battle goes on until the others regain their feet, and then the Torch is able to drive the Creature deeper into the maze of caverns with his flame.

But as the trio pursues him, we come to the twist in the story. The FF discovers the Creature’s crashed spaceship, which also contains his mate. The Creature’s been gathering the resources to make repairs for the journey back to their homeworld, and has only inadvertently become a menace. Reed intuits all of this without still being able to talk to the dude. Johnny, though, is still clueless, and wants to track down their guide, not realizing that Eddie and the Creature are one and the same. And that’s it! The Creature and his mate take off for the stars again, and everybody goes home. The end. Not really a memorable story or anything, but decently told with some strong visuals, and entertaining enough. But also a pale reflection of the FANTASTIC FOUR stories that Lee and Kirby crafted before this, when they were more in synch and both committed to giving it their all.

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