In addition to buying a handful of new comics that hadn’t yet reached my area during my trip to the Heroes World outlet in the Levittown Mall, I also stocked up on a few classic back issues. As I was working with a very limited budget, a real boon to me was reprint titles such as MARVEL COLLECTORS’ ITEM CLASSICS. This was the series that would be renamed MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS a few issues later, and it was still running at that time, reprinting the early adventures of the Fantastic Four, something that I was very keen on. It also included other characters’ reprints at this time as well, specifically Iron Man, Doctor Strange and, of all people, the Watcher. So I wound up taking home two different issues, of which this was the first. Because these were reprint books and thus “not worth anything” in the common wisdom of the time, they were very affordable. And I made my selections based on covers I had seen in my George Olshevsky Official Marvel Index to the Fantastic Four and was curious to read.
The Fantastic Four story contained in this issue had originally been published in #28 of their own magazine, an represented the first time the team had any contact with the then-newly-launched X-Men. Well, most of them, anyway–as the Human Torch reminds his partners a page or two in, he’d already met Iceman in his solo strip in STRANGE TALES by this point. This story was part of an extended run that paired up the new characters from throughout the Marvel Universe with the FF, whose title was the best-selling in the line and considered the flagship. In this way, the hope was to entice young readers to drop their dimes and pennies on X-MEN and the like. What’s interesting to see here is just how accepted and popular the X-Men were depicted as being to the general public in those early days. While the theme of mutant persecution was baked into the series concept, it would only occasionally turn up in the narrative in this initial period. And it really wasn’t until the strip was brought back as the All-New, All-Different X-Men of the 1970s that it really became the driving concept of the series. The artwork by Jack Kirby is a bit more polished here than in earlier issues of the series thanks to the precision inks of Chic Stone, who would embellish the King’s work for about a year before moving on.
The story itself is relatively straightforward. Having partnered up for revenge against the Fantastic Four, the Mad Thinker and the Puppet Master use one of the latter’s radioactive creations to control Professor X–the Thinker having deduced that the X-Men must have a secret leader. In their power, Xavier sends the X-Men to attack the Fantastic Four, labeling them as enemies to mankind. The X-Men are a bit skeptical, but Professor X hasn’t steered them wrong before, so they go along with this. A fight breaks out between the two teams in the Baxter Building, and, overpowered by the cosmic quartet, the X-Men retreat, taking Sue Storm along with them. The remaining members of the FF pursue the mutants, who inadvertently lure their adversaries to a butte booby-trapped by the villains. But the Beast is able to kick the Professor X puppet out of the Puppet Master’s hands and destroy it, feeing Xavier’s mind. As a last ditch ploy, the Mad Thinker unleashes his power-copying Awesome Android against the two teams, who are able to cope with it, but not without allowing the two villains to get away. Everybody parts as friends, and that, as they say, is that.
The next story up was the Iron Man adventure, a reprint from TALES OF SUSPENSE a few years earlier. It also featured both the formative Black Widow as well as Hawkeye prior to his good guy turn and joining the Avengers. This Don Heck splash page was very striking, with the image of Iron Man’s mask rendered to resemble a skull making an impact. Following suit from the Hulk series, Iron Man had begun to introduce more issue-to-issue continuity and running subplots to shell-head’s adventures in an attempt to make him more popular. So by this point in his continuity, Iron Man had sustained an injury that forced him to remain within his full armor in order to survive, causing Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts to worry about the sudden disappearance of their boss, Tony Stark. Most of Iron Mans’ problems in this period would simply go away if he just told the people around him that he was really Stark, but he refused to do so–and thus, the specter of suspicion fell upon him from every quarter. Even Thor questions the armored Avenger concerning the whereabouts of the team’s benefactor when Iron Man begs off from attending that evenings meeting.
The actual plot concerns the Black Widow seeing the disappearance of Tony Stark as a good opportunity to send her lovelorn lackey Hawkeye to steal critical defense secrets from Stark International for her Communist masters. As was her way, Pepper Potts gets caught in the crossfire as Hawkeye infiltrates the Stark plant, causing Iron Man to race to her rescue. Meanwhile, unhappy with her performance as their operative, the Commies forcibly drag the Black Widow away to answer for her failures. Like the Thinker and the Puppet Master in the first tale, Hawkeye makes a clean getaway in this adventure–the Marvel heroes of this period weren’t too great at bringing their adversaries to ground, a way of resolving a story without permanently resolving it that worked under the strictures of the Comics Code(which prohibited criminals from getting away with their crimes.) So the story is another zero-sum game, and Iron Man is still trapped within his armor, making people belie at the end as well.
The back of the issue included two shorter stories to round out the package, The first of these was an entry in the Tales of the Watcher series. This had started out as a way of dressing up the one-off fantasy stories that had been Marvel’s stock-in-trade during the pre-super hero days by having the already-established Watcher narrate them. But in its last couple of installments, the Watcher began to take a more active role in the proceedings, limited as he was by his central concept. This outing is a simply potboiler involving an alien being who lands on Earth’s moon in order to steal the Sun, as his home planet’s own star is dying out. The Watcher assures the alien that, no matter his plans, he cannot interfere with what is about to take place–but he does keep the alien talking long enough that his ship and all of its equipment sink forever into the bog in which he accidentally landed. The doomed alien pleads for the Watchers assistance in saving his life, but the big bald-headed Watcher simply reiterates that he cannot take a hand, no matter what has happened. Stan Lee’s brother Larry Lieber was the king of being drafted in for secondary stories such as this one, and he both scripted and illustrated this tale.
The final story in the issue was an adventure of Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, which had originally seen the light of day in STRANGE TALES. This was a bit of a throwaway installment for the sorcerer, who contended with Tiboro, an extradimensional sorcerer who had been granted access to our world through an enchanted idol during a television broadcast. Doctor Strange had to kick the guy back to his home dimension, while also wiping all memory of the broadcast from the minds of all who saw it, so that they wouldn’t know that Black Magic was real. As usual, artist Steve Ditko’s spells and mystic gestures and general spooky ambiance carried the day. This particular story was scripted not by Stan Lee, but rather by another face from Marvel’s golden age past, Don Rico. Rico had been a regular contributor to the books years earlier, and he was one of those people whom Lee tried out as a scripter hoping to build out the company’s talent pool in the Marvel Age. As Rico didn’t do much of anything further for Marvel, he was clearly another person who couldn’t quite deliver what Lee was looking for.