This is another comic book that I got out of a 3-Bag, and almost certainly the reason why I bought it in the first place, given that I was obsessed with the Fantastic Four at that point. I have a dim recollection that it was bought in a local Two Guys department store that my Mom liked to shop in, and which would stock 3-Bags in their relatively meager toy department. Regardless of what else might have been in the bag with this issue (likely some of the other books we’ve looked at recently) I was taking this one home.
This particular issue reprinted a story from eight years previous, the beginning of what would wind up being the last multi-part story that the creative team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would produce on FANTASTIC FOUR. From here on out, thanks to a new rule implemented at Marvel, every issue would be self-contained. By this point, Jack Kirby was pretty well checked out–he had recently moved to the west coast, his attempts to negotiate a new and equitable contract for himself had failed, and he was looking for another option, any other option, really. But he still ha a family to take care of (and was also still driven by his need to tell stories) and so he soldiered on. This multi-parter represents more or less the last time on the series where it felt as though Jack was puting some emotional elbow grease into the work.
And much in the same manner that the first Inhumans story wrapped up halfway through an issue, giving way to the Galactus story that followed it up, so too is this a transition issue between the previous plot and the next one. I had read portions of both already, so having this handy bridge was helpful to me. Last time, Reed and Sue had purchased a mysterious house out in the suburbs, where they thought they’d be able to raise their child. But by a fluke, the house actually belonged to their old enemy the Mole Man, part of an apparatus he was intending to use to render the entire world blind as he was. Despite their sightless condition, the FF were able to win out over their hapless foe. But now, the question of what to do about him and his strange house loomed.
At the same time, subplot sequences had shown us that a Skrull had descended to Earth in search of a super-powerful slave that he could sell into the great Skrull gladiatorial games. This Skrull had targeted the Thing, and made preparations to locate and capture his quarry. Back at the house, the Torch and the Thing find that, even with the Mole Man a captive, the House’s mechanisms are still deadly, so they attempt to lean on him to disarm them. But the Mole Man takes this opportunity to escape, fighting his way past the heroes as they attempt to capture him until he can reach a tube that extends deep into his own subterranean lair. In the end, rather than grabbling him back, Reed Richards allows him to retreat.
This is perhaps not the wisest decision ever made, even though it is fueled by compassion for even an enemy. Because it’s not long afterwards that the walls of the house begin to vibrate and scream, and the Fantastic Four are forced to run for their lives. Turns out the Mole Man has self-destructed the place from his underground headquarters, and the fabulous quartet only barely makes it to safety before teh entire place is consumed. Fortunately, they hadn’t finished moving in just yet, so most of their possessions weren’t incinerated as well. It’s worth noting that, for all that he was running on fumes creatively, Kirby still packed his pages with power. It feels as though, if only to maintain his own interest, he began to focus even more on overall page and panel design. This is a good-looking comic book, both teh action sequences and the always-welcome quiet moments. Inker Joe Sinnott was entirely in synch with Kirby, having regularly inked the series for close to fifty issues, and as always, he gave the title a polished finish that was incredibly appealing to me.
I always really adored pages such as this one, where Kirby shows off his grasp of then-contemporary fashion and delivers some wonderfully subtle body language. His sense of environment is great, too–he was the whole package. Anyway, having returned to the city, the Thing has set out to go visit his girlfriend Alicia. He’s in a funk as usual, despite the passers-by who praise him and want his autograph. At the same time, having adopted the likeness of a passing motorist he had waylaid, the Skrull slaver finally locates his target and begins his hunt. He assumes the form of Reed Richards and tells the Thing that he is needed to help prevent an invasion from outer space. Not detecting any subterfuge, the Thing heads off with what he thinks is his partner and friend.
And indeed, “Reed” does lead Ben back to where he’s parked his saucer before dropping his purloined features and resuming his own identity. The Thing is, of course, ready for a fight, but the would-be battle is mercilessly brief, as the Skrull whips out a Nerve Gun that puts Ben on his backside instantly. With his captive now anesthetized, the Skrull makes preparations to take him back to the stars–and that’s where this issue wraps up. The whole thing feels pretty substantial given the fact that there are two plots happening quais-simultaneously. Of course, it’s also easy enough to look at this and see Kirby padding out his issues a bit, trying to conserve his story material so that it can last longer and he won’t be put in the position of coming up with more ideas that the unappreciative Marvel will then own. But even in this lackluster state, FANTASTIC FOUR was still one of teh most entertaining comics in the market, and certainly one of the most sophisticated at the time this story was first coming out. By 1978, when it was reprinted, the rest of the field had caught up to it and even surpassed it in some places. But even then, it was very effective entertainment.