WC: FANTASTIC FOUR #31

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:

14 thoughts on “WC: FANTASTIC FOUR #31

  1. Lee and Kirby did amazing schmaltz, like Gideon reforming after almost losing his son.
    As a kid I never registered how recent the stories in so many annuals were — one year, ten years, it was all from the dark time before comics gained me as a reader. Now when I look back at Silver Age stuff it’s really striking.

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  2. The Stan note doesn’t look like that’s the word KNOW, but I can’t figure out what else it would be.

    But your comments make me wonder — have we ever seen any of Sue’s old beaus? Yeah, yeah, I know she fell for Reed when she was like six, creepy backstory writers, but surely she didn’t spent the rest of the time just pining for him. We’ve seen a batch of Johnny’s high school friends, but aside from the Yancy Streeters, we never do see much of the people the other three would have known in their earlier years. I think there’s a lot of be gotten from assuming the characters have backstories full of people who could return…

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      1. If the word is REVEAL, and I agree that it almost certainly is, then I don’t think this page indicates a major plot change. If we assume that this is intended to be Sue’s dad, even here, then the page seems to show him selling a bottle of something to the wealthy woman, and getting a check. Then Sue snatches the check and reveals herself. The doc is surprised but glad to see her, and as they talk we see the earthquake effect happening outside.

        So her father’s busted out of jail and is going back to whatever illegal medical activity he went to jail for in the first place, Sue finds him (I don’t know how, but maybe that’s something from their shared past), and maybe he’s not only glad to see her because she’s his daughter, but because he wants her to ditch the FF, which he sees as a worthless endeavor that won’t make anyone rich. Then the Mole Man kidnaps the whole block, and at the end he comes back in part because he’s got to save his daughter and in part because he’s seen how important altruistic heroism is, so it’s this whole crisis that’s caused him to mend his ways.

        As for why Johnny didn’t recognize him in the paper, Johnny never looks at the paper.

        So why would the page have been cut? I can offer two reasons:

        1. Stan felt that Dr. Storm engaging in medical scams in front of our very eyeballs made him too unsympathetic.

        2. The issues before this one are mostly 22 pages long — some are 23. This issue and the next are 21 pages, and then the book becomes mostly 20-pagers. So maybe Goodman started pushing for cost-cutting, and Stan had to drop a page because of that. This page may simply have been the easiest to drop,

        In any case, I think Reed wondering if this guy was “someone she loves more than me?” is the perfect setup for “Oh, it wasn’t an old beau, it was her dad!” And that page doesn’t need to undercut that idea at all.

        kdb

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      2. Sure. There can be selfish or self-motivated heroism, heroic actions that are inspired not by an abstract desire to serve the public good but instead for some personal reason.

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      3. It also occurs to me that maybe Kirby would have intended for Dr. Storm’s identity to stay unrevealed until the last panel — Johnny could have been much less specific at the bottom of the pervious page, leaving Reed and Ben either confused or also non-specific, so readers are wondering who this guy is and why he’d save Sue, and we build up to Johnny saying something to Sue in the last panel that reveals that the doc is their dad.

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      4. >> I’d say acting with selfish motives isn’t actually heroism.>>

        This is a lot of discussion over an adjective in a blog comment, but…

        In superhero terms, I think that if Crackerjack (of ASTRO CITY) saved someone’s life, they’re going to consider it an act of heroism regardless of the fact that he’s doing it for the ego and fame.

        Similarly, police and soldiers may do what they do because they’re getting paid, or it’s a way out of poverty, or they want the educational benefits or whatever, but if they do something that saves a lot of lives, the fact that they were doing the job for other reasons than altruism doesn’t make those particular saved lives an unheroic act.

        Out of curiosity, I looked up “heroism” online, and while the definitions certainly don’t rule out altruism, they don’t require it, either.

        But certainly, different people can use words in different ways, and if you don’t consider an act heroic if it’s done for selfish motives, you absolutely don’t have to.

        And getting back to that issue of FF, Dr. Storm’s actions don’t have to be seen as heroic, since he’s saving a family member (even if it means sacrificing his freedom), but my point had been that he would perhaps understand the FF’s heroism better.* I see that deleted page as possibly similar to the point in the Dr. Strange origin where he’s praised. as a brilliant surgeon, and it’s clear all he cares about is the money. He learns to make a moral change in his life, and the same intent might have been going on here.

        *and while the FF’s heroism was presented as altruistic at the start, later stories gave Reed more personal reasons for setting them up as heroes, but we still certainly talk about them as heroes.

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    1. In the Silver Age we saw very little of anyone from the characters’ pasts. Bruce, Reed, Ben, Hank, Tony — with rare exceptions like Hank’s first wife, they had very little history.

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      1. I know. I’ve read it all.

        But it’s been 50 years since the Silver Age wrapped up. Plenty of time for these characters to have their lives fleshed out.

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