Here we go, yet another book that I bought in a 3-Bag at either a department store or a toy store, and definitely the reason why I would have picked up the 3-Bag in question. FANTASTIC FOUR was by this point my favorite comic book series, and so an opportunity to get in on this issue I had missed was a tremendous opportunity for me. I had previously read the beginning of this story (bought in an earlier 3-Bag) and the conclusion (picked up new off the spinner rack) but getting tis middle issue allowed me to put the pieces together. And while it’s a lesser effort in terms of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby team, it’s also their final multi-part story, and it was utterly compelling to me as a young reader. There was even stronger material for me to yet find, but this was still potent stuff, delivering the goods as far as I was concerned.
The major rap that this story has going against it is the fact that plotter and artist Jack Kirby pretty much lifted the concepts for it whole cloth from a trio of episodes of the then-newly-airing Star Trek series, which apparently he was a regular viewer of. This was right on the heels of him having based an earlier plotline on the British series The Prisoner. In both cases, fans of the time pointed this out, though it wasn’t seen as being an entirely negative thing. Behind the scenes, Kirby had hit his breaking point; unable to secure any sort of contractual guarantees for himself and his family and seemingly having been cut out of the creation myth of the Marvel Universe, he was determined to find something else, anything else, he could do to earn a living for his family. In the meantime, he was equally determined not to hand over to Marvel any more new properties that might be worth millions, and for which he might see no recognition as creator. Hence, he was pulling inspiration from anywhere that he could apart from his own imagination. That said, Kirby filtered all of these ideas through his own storyteller’s instinct, and the end result was hardly identical to the source material.
Picking up where the prior issue had left off, Ben Grimm, the Thing, was a prisoner about a Skrull slaving starship, having been hunted down as a potential gladiator to compete in the Great Games. His capture was requisitioned by “Boss” Barker on the planet Kral, who hopes to take over his rival, Lippy Louie’s, territory. But to do so, his fighter will need to best Louie’s champion, Torgo. Interestingly, it’s clear from the books themselves and from studying the original artwork that Kirby intended for the inhabitants of Kral to be a separate race from the Skrulls–one whose civilization mirrored that of 1920s earth. But in scripting these stories, Stan just went ahead and made them all Skrulls, and so this has been built upon in the years since, to where nobody thinks anything of it. Another small way that either Lee and Kirby weren’t communicating well, or else an example of Lee exercising his editorial oversight to make a change that he felt would improve the story.
This entire issue focuses exclusively on the Thing. And that’s due to the fact that, by 1978, the length of a new Marvel comic had been reduced from 20 pages to 17–18 if you dropped the letters page. So when these earlier stories were reprinted, they would need to have pages cut out of them in order to fit the space. In this instance, the scant pages dealing with Reed, Sue and Johnny becoming aware that Ben is missing were the sacrificial lamb–which made reading all four of these issues in sequence a bit baffling, as the FF head into space in pursuit of Ben without ever having realized that’s where he must have been taken. A casualty of editing. Anyway, this is the Thing’s show from end to end, and he’s a put-upon participant for the duration. Time and again, he attempts to win his freedom through brute force, and in each instance, the superior technology of his captors proves to be overwhelming.
Along with his fellow slaves, Ben is herded towards the arena where he will be forced to fight for his life. Along the way, he learns the history of the planet Kral. Years before, an escaped convince named Machine-Gun Martin happened across the space saucer of a Skrull slaver who had stopped off on Earth, and was taken prisoner by him. Martin was sold to Kral, and the inhabitants were so taken with his stories of his life back on Earth during the Roaring Twenties that they patterned their entire civilization upon them–very much in the manner of the Iotians in STAR TREK. Having lived through that period himself as a boy, Kirby had a lifelong fascination with the era, and with the gangsters who populated it. You can tell by just how much care he gives to the pages depicting faux-1920s gangster society just how invested he is in those sequences, almost despite himself.
Having failed to prevent “Boss” Barker’s purchase of the Thing, Lippy Louie figures on doing the next best thing, by preventing Ben from reaching the arena and the games. So the slave wagon (which looks like an old school pick-up truck despite being loaded with sophisticated futuristic technology ) is attacked by what appears to be a biplane, but is actually a similarly advanced craft. But Barker’s men are able to shoot down the attackers and get their prisoners to the Church on time. There, the stylish slave trainer takes issue with Ben’s bad attitude and has him tackled by another fighter, Taxtor, a brute from a jungle planet. The Thing’s spirit is willing, but his strength is still being sapped by his slave collar, and as a result, he gets knocked around by his assailant something fierce.
This, though, is merely an object lesson, and when teh Thing has been trounced enough, he is locked away for teh evening. Rising to his feed, Ben realizes that he’s got a cellmate. Unfortunately for him, that cellmate is the aforementioned Torgo, who will be the one to try to kill him when the games commence. To Be Continued! Well, To Be Continued here–in the original printing, there was another page after this one in which the FF figured out that Ben had been taken by a Skrull. But that page got cut. For me, I can remember what an impact this final full-page illustration of Torgo made upon me, even though I had seen the character already in later issues. He’s a great Kirby design, and he became a bit of a sentimental favorite as a result.