Here’s another of the books that I got in my Windfall Comics purchase where I bought a long box of around 150 Silver Age Comics for $50.00 in 1988–making each book cost a mere 33 cents. FANTASTIC FOUR was a favorite series of mine, and I believe this particular issue, #29, was one that I already owned. There were about six books in the Windfall purchase for which that was the case, and I wound up selling the extras to a guy I knew at work for the price I got them for: $1.50. This was the kind of a guy that I was. Anyway, by this point in its life cycle, FANTASTIC FOUR had settled into itself. The early, experimental days had crystalized into a set pattern, and teh characters’ personalities had become quantified. The final piece of this transformation had joined the creative team just a month earlier. But before we get into that, let’s take a brief look at this cover. It’s a bit of an outlier for this era. It’s more spooky and evocative than you might typically find on a super hero book, and it’s really playing to the dyed-in-the-wool Marvel readers to a certain degree, in that the image hinges on a viewer having some understanding as to just what Yancy Street is. It’s also devoid of the myriad of blurbs and copy that editor Stan Lee was still filling most covers with. So it’s a pretty striking piece, for all that it’s also quiet.
That final piece that I was talking about earlier was the arrival of inker Chic Stone. Stone was himself a cartoonist of some skill, who had showed up at Marvel looking for some work. After a successful job inking a Jack Kirby story, editor Lee put him on virtually anything that Kirby was drawing in the super hero line. Because Stone was himself an artist, his style came through as well, and he tightened up Kirby’s artwork in this period. The inking on FANTASTIC FOUR had been, charitably, haphazard under teh quick-fingered brush of previous inker George Roussos (then working under the pseudonym George Bell so that his DC editors wouldn’t find out about it) There are some issues in this run that Roussos just short of butchered–though it’s worth remembering that he probably had little time to work on them, and they also would have paid half what his DC work brought in. Anyway, the arrival of Stone made Kirby’s work feel more complete and fully realized. It wasn’t to everybody’s tastes, but it’s a look that I associate very strongly with tis era f Marvel’s development. Stone, however, wanted to pencil, and when Lee wouldn’t give him penciling work, he left Marvel for ACG, where he worked extensively on their short-lived line of super-characters on strips such as Nemesis.
Also crystalized by this issue was the particular mix of action, drama and humor that made up the Marvel style. Lee and Kirby had perfected their formula and were now beginning to go to town with it. So the issue opens with the fabulous F.F. having journeyed to Yancy Street on the Lower East Side. The Yancy Street Gang had been a running joke in teh series, constantly sending joke packages to taunt the Thing, and Bashful Benjamin has had enough of it. As usual, the Yancy Gang is never seen clearly in this story–but their out-of-frame attacks with garbage and sneezing powder and a bucket of water are enough to leave the F.F. running. On their way back to their Baxter Building headquarters, Reed conjectures that it’s possible one of their old enemies has been putting teh Yancy Gang up to these repeated attacks, but there are no clues in evidence. However, outside the building, a flying drone gets to watch as the Thing opens yet another package from Yancy Street which blows up in his face. Despite the routing the team got earlier, the irate Thing is ready to go back down to the Lower East Side and start knocking over buildings.
It’s midnight by the time the team gets there (which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense–what do the FF intend to do to their adolescent antagonists in the middle of the night?) As the Fantastic Four attempts to work out their next move, the Thing is set upon by a gorilla. Attacks follow in short order from a magnetic orangutan (words I never thought I’d write) and a shape-changing baboon, the last of which ensnares the Human Torch in a fireproof bag. This is clearly the work of the team’s old enemy the Red Ghost, and he appears from hiding to force the FF to surrender or else he will execute the captive Torch. The Ghost is still smarting for his previous defeat at the hands of the foursome on the moon, and he proposes a rematch on that celestial sphere. The whole cast piles into the Red Ghost’s nearby spaceship for a quick two-day jaunt to the moon–which kind of makes one wonder what the journey was like. Was the Red Ghost an amicable host/ How did they all pass the time, super hero and ape alike? Of note, Jack Kirby uses a collage here to depict the surface of the moon the first time it shows up. This was the first time Kirby used such a collage in a Marvel book, but it was a form he enjoyed and experimented with all through his tenure. Unfortunately, the printing technology of the era tended to not be able to capture the majesty of Kirby’s original collage creations. Still, this was another thing that helped to set the Marvel books apart.
Once the ship arrives above teh surface of the moon, all bets are off, though, and the likely-terminally-bored FF members immediately launch themselves at their Super-Ape foes. It’s a quick brouhaha, one that is brought to an unfortunate early conclusion when the Red Ghost and his Super Apes leave the room, and he then jettisons the whole thing out of an airlock, sending it crashing towards the airless moon below. Sue is able to protect the team with her force-field, which was still a relatively new development for her. But there’s only a limited supply of air inside her bubble, and it will soon be depleted. Undaunted, Reed remembers the strange Blue Area of the Moon that the team had visited on their first voyage here–it had a breathable atmosphere, and he sees that it isn’t all that far away. All that’s left is for the Thing to dig the team a tunnel to it before their available oxygen runs out, and they will be saved! Big Ben goes to work on the lunar surface.
It’s around here that the book pauses for one of those cool vintage Marvel ads spotlighting the covers of other titles then on sale. This one only shows two covers–later editions would go up to three and then four. But I was always fascinated by these, and the tantalizing glimpses they would give me of other stories that I’d be dying to read. Eventually, I’d get to do so. (And in this case, I believe that by the time I bought my Windfall Collection, I had already read both of these particular issues.)
Anyway, it’s a desperate struggle, but with his last breath, Ben is able to punch his way into the subterranean portion of the home of the mysterious alien being they met when last they were on the surface of the moon, the Watcher. The Watcher isn’t home at the moment, but his image appears before them, warning them that the assorted machines within his domicile are staggeringly dangerous and should be approached with caution. But Reed is savvy enough to work out which one of them might function as a tractor bean, and he uses it to pull the Red Ghost’s ship crashing down in the Blue Area. From there, it’s crazy battle time, as the two teams pit their cosmic ray-spawned abilities against one another. all across the lunar landscape. Kirby excelled at this sort of action sequence, and so as ridiculous as the proceedings are, they’re also very fun and exciting.
The Red Ghost himself is drawn to the Watcher’s home and the many super-scientific weapons it may contain. He leaves his three simian minions to fend for themselves, and it isn’t long before the FF send them running. But the Ghost gets the drop on Reed Richards, who can’t strike at him while the Ghost is in his unsolid form. But as he becomes solid in order to blast Reed with a weapon, teh invisible Sue Storm body-slams him into a nearby matter transmitter, which scatters his atoms all across the cosmos. This wouldn’t prevent the Red Ghost from coming back in a few months, of course, but it was good enough to put him away for this story. With the fighting now over, teh returned Watcher decides that it wouldn’t really be interfering with his oath against involvement if he were to eject the Fantastic Four from his home, depositing them back on Earth on Yancy Street where the story began. The Watcher was never a real stickler for the letter of the law. And so the adventure wraps up with a quick sign-off from Stan and Jack (penned in Lee’s hand, both names.)
And then finally, the book wraps up with the typical two-page Fantastic Four Fan Page letters page. Stan is his typical jokey bombastic-but-self-effacing personality on it–like the series, he’s by this point worked out his own persona to a significant degree. Reportedly, Lee tried to prioritize letters from older readers so as to help reinforce the belief that the new Marvel magazines were reaching a much greater college age and older audience than other comics. The Special Announcement Section, the prototype for what will eventually evolve into the Bullpen Bulletins page, contains a bit more hard information that it sometimes did. In particular, Stan plugs Diablo as the villain in the subsequent issue, indicating that he and Kirby have at least talked about it by the time this page was written. Often, Lee has no idea what the next issue will be about, and so he vamps semi-convincingly. That ability to seem to say a lot while actually saying nothing is one that is especially valuable in this business at some times, and is one that I’ve cultivated myself.