So this was another issue that I got in a plastic 3-Bag at either a department store or a toy store, and it was the last part that I hadn’t read of this four-part Skrulls storyline–a storyline that I read entirely out of sequence, beginning with the concluding chapter. It was the last multi-part storyline that creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby produced together in the pages of FANTASTIC FOUR (though issue #102, Kirby’s last, does kick off another multi-part adventure) so it really is the last gasp of this combo playing at a heightened level. The succession of one-off stories that followed this were entertaining enough, but their truncated length (and the clear fact that Kirby was on complete autopilot, waiting out his contract term so that he could depart) meant that they were all slight affairs. Even this storyline isn’t spectacular when compared with the heights the series had previously reached, but coming to it as a kid, I thought it was terrific.
As we’ve spoken about when going over the other chapters of this storyline, Kirby drew his influence for this storyline nakedly from three different episodes of the then-new television series STAR TREK, which he was clearly watching. Specifically, the well-remembered episode “A Piece of the Action” in which Kirk and Company find a planet whose culture has been influenced by gangster movies became the foundation of this FANTASTIC FOUR storyline. If there’s one thing that Kirby liked writing about, it was gangsters of that age. Having grown up in the 1930s in not the finest part of New York City, Kirby got to see these figures up close and knew them intimately. So here, A Skrull slaver has abducted the Thing of the Fantastic Four and sold him into slavery to compete in the Great Games being held on the planet Kral, a planet that, like the one in that STAR TREK episode, has styled itself after the Roaring Twenties.
This issue, frankly, spends a lot of its time spinning its wheels, as though Kirby doesn’t want to let go of this story too quickly and move on to something else. The Thing has now met his opponent, the powerful Torgo, and he spends much of the first portion of this issue in forced training, battling weird aliens like the Skrull “Magno-Man”, who has a literal magnet growing out of his head. On Earth, the remaining members of the team have figured out that Ben has been taken into space by a Skrull, and so they prepare to follow after him. There’s a bit of a continuity glitch here that has been referenced ever since. That saucer that Reed is modifying wasn’t a Skrull craft initially. Rather, it belonged to Kurrgo, Master of Planet X. Kirby had occasionally drawn it into the background in the FF’s garage many times, but by this point, both men had forgotten where it had originated. So it’s been a Skrull saucer from FF #2 ever since.
And while there’s still half an issue left to go, that’s about all of the forward momentum that we’re going to get this time out. So what took its place? Largely Jack indulging himself with cool action sequences and insights into gangster culture. You can see how much fun the King is having depicting this odd melding of super-science and 20s-style gangsters. And it all definitely helps to get across the sense that, despite his massive strength, the Thing is really in the soup here. He can’t fight a whole planet, after all, and his captors have technology and weapons that can make even him a helpless prisoner–though Ben does get to destroy a couple of them along the way, just to give a good accounting of himself.
In particular here, Kirby spends some time setting up the twin bosses: Boss Barker, on whose behalf teh Thing will be fighting, and his rival Lippy Louie, who is the owner of Torgo. They really are both figures straight out of central casting–and, frankly, resemble each other enough so the question of which one comes out on top doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. Still, it was a chance for Kirby to dive into his morgue and use a bunch of vintage photo ref that he had–the last panel on this page, for example, feels like an image from the times that Jack has interpreted and repurposed for his own use. Nothing wrong with that, of course–it was industry standard to use reference for things such as this, and it helped to capture the appropriate period feel (even if the situation wasn’t literally period.)
As much as Kirby didn’t want to come up with any more characters which Marvel could exploit, once he was into a story, it was almost inevitable that some new faces would be seen. Here, it’s Torgo, who has a great little Kirby design–whether he’s a mechanical lifeform or not isn’t really touched upon in this story, though later ones would say that he definitively is. Torgo didn’t go on to do a whole lot, but he still became one of those recurring characters who helped to fill out the Marvel Universe. And he was something of an underdog favorite of mine, given when I encountered him. He’s a tragic figure here, just as much a slave as the Thing and having no desire to fight and kill his opponent. But to prevent the Skrulls from striking at his homeworld, he has no choice but to fight and to win. In this manner, a bond forms between Torgo and the Thing, even though they are going to wind up bashing heads with one another, and Torgo takes on enough of a personality to become distinctive and unique.
And that’s where things wrap up: with Ben and Torgo on the verge of their predestined confrontation and Reed, Johnny and Crystal on the way to the rescue. A bit of a nothingburger of an issue, to be honest. I had already read the wrap-up, and covered it here
in case you’re interested in how everything turns out. But all that said, at the time, I enjoyed it–and I wasted no time in then turning around and reading the four issues in their proper sequence. For all that this was the Lee & Kirby team operating on fumes, I still found it wildly entertaining–that combination of Jack’s wild visuals and Lee’s personality-laden and often funny prose. This was very much the last gasp of that particular style, much as others would spend the next decade on the series attempting to emulate it.