This issue of FANTASTIC FOUR, #31, was another book that I got in my Windfall Comics purchase of 1988, in which I wound up buying a long box of about 150 Silver Age comics for the dirt-cheap price of $50.00. I had read this story previously in its later MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS reprinting, but it was nice to be able fill in another hole in my FANTASTIC FOUR collection (within another couple of years, I would complete the entire run.) By this point, most of the rough edges had been sanded off of the series, and FANTASTIC FOUR was a precision machine, the flagship of the new Marvel line. The inking of chic Stone, while not to every reader’s tastes, gave the look of Jack Kirby’s artwork a completeness that it had been lacking up until his arrival. Stone had wanted to pencil, but editor Stan Lee convinced him to ink Kirby’s work, though he’d only stay in that job for about a year.
The cover promotes the appearance of a fascinating new character, but the story clearly went through some changes along the way, which we’ll discuss when we get to them in a couple of pages. But it’s clear that Jack Kirby’s original story plan for that character winded up changing after some feedback from Lee. The story opens with this wonderfully colorful splash page of the Fantastic four being buffeted as their building, and indeed, much of Manhattan, is rocked by seismic tremors. Given that we’ve already seen the Mole Man on the cover, and his name is in the title of the story itself, it’s no great secret who is behind these events.
The FF intend to head out in their Fantasti-car and see if they can figure out what’s causing the earthquakes. But Sue Storm is brought up short by an item in the newspaper concerning a jailbreak committed by a wanted and dangerous convict. This upsets Sue for reasons that she will not disclose, and she chooses to remain behind and investigate the escapee. Reed richards is suddenly concerned that the man in the picture may be some former boyfriend of Sue’s–and he may have been right, at least when these pages were initially drawn.
Because there’s a page that was drawn for this issue that was discarded at some point, likely along with a few others. A copy surfaced some years ago. And it depicts Sue seeking out the convict, who is in the process of putting the moves on what appears to be a wealthy dowager. becoming visible in front of the man, he is quick to embrace Sue joyously, but she’s not so welcoming to his affection. Based on context clues, it’s entirely possible that Kirby did intend this to be some former beau of Sue’s who had gone bad–we knew precious little about her background at this point. But for whatever reason, Lee had Kirby change the trajectory of the story, throwing out this page and altering the identity of the escapee significantly. (There’s a note in Lee’s handwriting on this page, which is the sort of thing he’d make to himself while talking through the story with Kirby, that indicates SHE DOESN’T REVEAL WHO HE IS. A few of Kirby’s border notes are also half-visible, but not to the degree where any of them can be made out.)
Meanwhile, as we’ve already surmised, it is the Mole Man who is behind the tremors, the overture of his latest attack on the surface world. Having been bested by the Fantastic Four twice, he figures that he could use a hostage to keep them at bay, and wouldn’t you know it, Sue Storm has gone off on her own. The Mole Man abducts her by transporting the entire city block she’s in down below the surface of the Earth. (It’s clear that the escapee is there along with Sue as one of the captured people, he’s clearly seen in panel 4. But Lee gives him no dialogue so as to avoid drawing attention to him. My guess is that the excised page came before this, though it may have been penciled as part of the same sequence and still used.)
A pause here for one of those compelling Marvel house ads that displayed the covers to four more upcoming contemporary issues. These ads, with their copy-laden covers, were always a draw for me, and I expect for a lot of other readers as well. Who could resist trying to track down these books in order to read the stories within?
Meanwhile, the rest of the Fantastic Four have gone and gotten their Pogo Plane, which they use to descend into the massive crater left behind by the Mole Man’s theft of the surface city blocks. They fight their way past the Mole Man’s subterranean defenses. But old Moley is ready for them, with Sue held at gunpoint. Unable for no real convincing reason to attack the Mole Man and save Sue (Stan unconvincingly tries to add a balloon from Reed explaining why Sue couldn’t use her force-field to defend herself, but this just doesn’t work.) the FF are air-jetted back to the surface with a warning: should anybody from the surface attack the Mole Man’s realm, Sue’s life will be forfeit. Arriving at the surface, the discombobulated FF are greeted by the mighty Avengers in one of those cool cameos that you’d occasionally get in the Marvel titles of this time. They’re looking to get to the bottom of what’s causing the earthquakes in Manhattan, too, and they’re ready to descend into subterranea to do so. With no other choice, the FF attacks the Avengers to drive them back to the surface.
With the Avengers rebuked, Reed richards can get down to cases, and he works up a massive detector that he hopes will be able to enable him to determine Sue’s exact position from the surface. Once he locates it, the Human Torch uses his flame to burn his way down into the cell in which she’s trapped, while Reed and Ben follow in a modified hovercraft. The text indicates that the only portion of Sue’s cell that wasn’t guarded was the ceiling, which doesn’t really make a lot of sense when you’re defending against enemies from the surface, but whatever. Johnny busts Sue out of stir, and the Fantastic Four begin to go to town on the Mole Man and his subterranean hordes.
A pause here for another House Ad, this one for a trio of early Marvel Annuals. These things were almost entirely all-new, and were maybe the biggest value in comics at that time. They set a very high standard. The MARVEL TALES book, of course, was entirely reprints a Marvel equivalent to DC’S SECRET ORIGINS Annual. But those stories were so much in demand by fans, even after only a couple of short years that it didn’t matter.
And now it’s time for the wrap-up. Moving like a well-oiled machine, the Fantastic Four blow up the Mole Man’s underground base, escaping themselves by the skin of their teeth. (Everybody seems to have forgotten about all of those other people that the Mole Man captured within that city block–oops!) Only Sue is not so lucky, and she’s injured in the explosion. At a nearby hospital, the Doctor tells Reed that the only person who might be able to save Sue is a surgeon who had gone to prison years before. This, of course, is the mystery man from the opening part of the issue–who is also revealed to be Johnny and Sue’s father. He shows up in time to perform the procedure that will save Sue’s life, trading away his freedom at the same time. It’s a nice ending, but it really doesn’t entirely add up. If that figure was Johnny’s father as well as Sue’s, why was there no reaction from the Torch upon seeing that same news story? And if Franklin Storm is a repentant man serving out his time in prison, why did he risk a dangerous escape (especially knowing that his children were part of the Fantastic Four and would no doubt track him down?) I suspect this is all a holdover from portions of the discarded version of the plot. But it made for a memorable ending here nonetheless, filled with shmaltz in the manner of a Warner Brothers B-picture of the 1940s.
Finally, teh issue closes out with the usual tow-page Fantastic Four Fan Page and Special Announcements Section. This particular edition includes a letter from Mike Friedrich, who would soon become one of the new young generation to break into comics,and who would eventually found Star*Reach in teh 1970s to publish creator-owned stories. The Announcement Section includes one notice that didn’t come to pass; Dick Rockwell never did wind up illustrating the Giant-Man feature, which is something that we talked about here: