In addition to picking up a flight of new comics off of the racks at Heroes World in Levittown, New York, I also did a little bit of diving into the back issue bins. I didn’t have a heck of a lot of money to work with–my grandparents were only going to indulge me so far. But I had a sense as to what my limitations were, and so I worked judiciously to find some treasures to take home that would fit within my imaginary budget. One such treasure was this issue, FANTASTIC FOUR #165. It was not only an issue of my current favorite series that I had missed, but it was also the second part fo a two-part story I had begin several months ago, one I was dying to read thanks to the information about it contained in the late George Olshevsky’s first Official Marvel Index to the Fantastic Four (which I had purchased at that same Heroes World outlet months before.)
The issue was written by Roy Thomas, who was using it to indulge his interest in the comic books of his youth, in this case a short-lived series from the early 1950s called MARVEL BOY. In this tale (spoilers who don’t already know this) the villainous Crusader turns out to be Marvel Boy grown up, him having declared vengeance on the banking industry that denied his people, who lived in a colony on Uranus, economic support. When the colony was wiped out due to a lack of resources, Marvel Boy rechristened himself the Crusader and returned to Earth to take down the evil economic institutions that had he blamed for his people’s demise. It was all very Namor in its way, but the revelation–gleaned in that Index, of all places, struck me like a thunderbolt. It seemed astonishing to my young mind that a former hero could go bad like this, and the implications sent my head spinning.
It’s worth taking a moment to spotlight the artwork in this issue, as it’s an early job from future superstar George Perez–his first time working on what was then considered the flagship series. George only got the job because this story hadn’t been intended for the main FF title at all, but rather the quarterly GIANT-SIZE FANTASTIC FOUR, which had suddenly gone to an all-reprint format, thus pushing the story into two issues of the main FANTASTIC FOUR title. George was inker here again by the great Joe Sinnott, and to hear him tell it, Sinnott really saved his bacon, making him look a lot better than he was at that moment. Still, the story goes that when the issues were published, Stan Lee made it a point to call George to his office in order to both meet and praise the young artist. He had made an impression. And he did the same for me–most of my earliest issues of FANTASTIC FOUR had been drawn by George, and his involvement is a big reason why I connected with the series so strongly.
Anyway, having battled the Human Torch in the previous issue and soundly defeated him before making good his escape, the Crusader continues his war against the fat-cats whose greed causes them to step on others. In order to make him mor eof a match for the full Fantastic Four, Roy goosed up the Crusader’s powers from his Marvel Boy days, making his wrist-bands capable of doing a lot more than flashing light. In later years, Mark Gruenwald would reveal that they were actually the Quantum Bands, created by Eon to empower a Protector of the Universe, in that case Quasar. But that was still a ways away. (And, yes, Jeff Parker would eventually reveal in AGENTS OF ATLAS that this wasn’t the true Marvel Boy at all, but a demented clone. Having read these stories formatively, I choose to ignore that revelation, although your mileage may vary.)
Having been a few steps behind the Crusader for over a week, the Fantastic Four finally catch up to him in the midst of another attack on a bank, and are finally able to engage him in combat. But along with the fighting came dialogue, and it’s here that we learn Marvel Boy’s full tale, as well as his identity. It turns out in the telling that he wasn’t denied the medical supplies that he had been seeking on Earth long ago, only that the process took long enough that, when Marvel Boy was able to return to Uranus, his people had already perished in a natural cataclysm. So his obsession with punishing and destroying the banker who had delayed him is a bit of facile justification on his part. Clearly, the crusader is not in his right mind.
But enough talk. This is a 1970s Marvel comic, and that means it’s time for multiple pages of fighting! Reed has deduced that the Crusader is solar-powered, his wrist-bands storing up energy from the sun in order to empower him. So Reed creates an artificial cloud bank above the battlefield to cut the Crusader off from his source of energy. The angry former hero still has enough juice left to go toe-to-toe with the Thing for awhile, but his blows are rapidly losing their strength as he eats through his reserves of power. And meanwhile, we get to enjoy a Thing brawl, always an entertaining portion of a FANTASTIC FOUR issue.
Eventually, though, the Crusader is confronted by the entire Fantastic Four all at once–and in order to face their combined power, he sets his wrist-bands past their safety limits to gain maximum absorption of the sun’s rays. Unfortunately, the cloudbank that Reed had set up is drifting away by this point, and so the Crusader absorbs more solar energy than the bands can process. he promptly blows up, ending his rampage for good (while keeping the FF’s hands clean in his demise.) And the issue ends with the sort of cute bit that used to be common in the Marvel books, where the irate Thing, having been hassled by the owner of the bank for all the damage the fight had been causing throughout the issue, buries the man under the contents of his own vault, and tells the bank employees that nobody had better dig him back out until closing time.
This issue’s letters page includes a lengthy letter from Peter B Gillis, who would go on to become a writer for Marvel in the years to come, on such series as DR. STRANGE, WHAT IF and his co-creation STRIKEFORCE: MORITURI. And the Bullpen Bulletins page announced the short-lived Fantastic Four Radio Show. Copies of those shows are easy to locate today–just check on YouTube–but it would be decades for me before I’d be able to experience them. (A buddy of mine was foresighted enough to have recorded a number of them when they aired in Boston, and he made me copies of his tapes at some point in the 1990s.) The big thing everybody remembers about that radio series was that the Human Torch was portrayed, believe it or not, by a young Bill Murray.