BHOC: FANTASTIC FOUR #102

I’ve spoken before about how the very first comic shop I ever encountered, the Heroes World outlet in Levittown, New York, was situated in the same shopping complex where my father worked for Chase Manhattan Bank. What this meant practically is that I could occasionally prevail upon him to stop by the store on his way home from work and pick me up a comic or two. I would give him these ling, detailed lists of issue numbers that I wanted, and he would dutifully comply–although not all that often, so as to not spoil me or treat me better than my brothers. In this manner, this issue of FANTASTIC FOUR came home with him one night. These were actions I didn’t think twice about as a self-absorbed, self-centered child, but which make up good memories for me now as an old adult.

This, as it turned out, was the last issue of FANTASTIC FOUR penciled and plotted by its co-creator, Jack Kirby. Jack had been unhappy with his position at Marvel for some time–the manner in which all credit for the success of the firm was accorded to Stan Lee, and the fact that he couldn’t get a contract to save his life. Having worked his ass off to turn things around at Marvel, Kirby was discouraged, and he had been holding back on adding any new ideas to his series for several months as he sought out other opportunities within the small field. Having secured a deal with Carmine Infantino, DC’s new publisher, Kirby phoned in his resignation to Lee shortly after sending in the pages for this final issue. Reportedly, Lee and the small staff were stunned by this turn of events–John Romita thought they’d have to cancel FANTASTIC FOUR, that nobody could do it but Kirby (and was dismayed when Lee gave the assignment to him.)

FANTASTIC FOUR was a series that was struggling in that final year of Kirby’s tenure. Not only was Jack doing the bare minimum possible on his end (which was still a lot better than most guys at full bore) but a mandate from Marvel publisher Martin Goodman calling for an end to continued stories meant that the expansiveness of Kirby’s imagination that once fueled the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine had been curtailed. Jack had to not only set up a premise every issue, but he needed to bring it to a definitive conclusion. So the stories became thin. They still moved a certain number of situations and subplots forwards, but the readers of the era could sense the difference. And in fact, after Kirby’s departure, when simultaneously the ban on continued adventures was lifted, sales on the title rose, especially when John Buscema began to pencil it a few issues later.

And, in fact, this issue was created as the first part of a multi-part adventure, a sure sign that Kirby didn’t know precisely when his new deal would be ready and when he’d be jumping off. It’s a fun issue, but sparse. Kirby’s compositions feel a bit more open and empty to me than usual–this splash page, for example, while nice and dramatic, feels a bit undercooked. And Lee followed suit. His scripting on this last collaboration, like the issue immediately prior, was a bit underdone as well. It felt as though he too was putting in the minimum amount of work on the story. Now, these are observations from my present day self, but the younger me loved the issue and thought it was great, so it’s not like the end product was a failure in connecting with its intended audience. But it’s a pale shadow of the greatness of the series only a few years earlier.

True to Kirby’s conviction, this issue doesn’t introduce any new characters or concepts. Rather, it revisits ideas he’s already contributed. So it is that the Sub-Mariner (despite the fact that he had his own series running concurrently at that time, where he was fighting Hercules) comes across the almost dead figure of Magneto in the Savage Land where he fell in his last appearance and takes him back to Atlantis. Thereafter, Magneto attempts to gin up a conflict between the Sub-Mariner and the surface world by causing attacks remotely using his magnetic powers, attacks which cast suspicion among both sides of the impending conflict. Why Magneto singles out the Fantastic Four for attack here, when he’s never dealt with them before, really just comes down to them being the stars of the comic book. And it’s worth mentioning that this is the classic Magneto, the out-and-out villain, rather than the more nuanced figure he would later become. It was appearances such as this one that made it difficult for some readers to accept his later sympathetic turn.

A good deal of the issue is given over to the Sub-Mariner rather than the title characters, as he’s inveigled by Magneto into an alliance against the surface world, and as he defends his kingdom from attack from above–attack that was secretly orchestrated by Magneto himself (though the Thing did fire a retaliatory missile at Atlantis following a similar assault on the FF’s Baxter Building headquarters.) In the end, Magneto is able to gin up the conflict that he wants, one that he’s hoping will end with him ruling whatever is left of humanity, sub-aquatic and otherwise. I can remember being particularly impressed by the color choices on that Magneto face in the final panel, stylized as they were.

And so, the issue builds to a climax, where it’s going to be war! To Be Continued! That is, for everybody other than Jack Kirby, who was off to greener pastures (that wouldn’t prove to be all that much greener once he got there) to inaugurate his sweeping Fourth World epic, finally realizing a herd of ideas that he’d been stockpiling for many years so that they didn’t wind up getting separated from him at Marvel, as had happened to the Silver Surfer. Some pundits have read into the fact that the final image of this issue (and the final panel of SILVER SURVER #18, which came out around the same time) involved a declaration of war, as though proclaimed by Kirby towards Marvel. But I suspect it was all a coincidence. As mentioned earlier, I don’t know that Jack would have started a multi-part story unless he didn’t realize at the start how soon he’d be departing.

And sure enough, on the truncated Bullpen Bulletins page, Stan devotes his Stan’s Soapbox column to announcing Kirby’s departure to Marveldom, assuring them that the institution will survive, just as it had previously weathered the departure of Steve Ditko, who is mentioned here for what feels like the first time since he too left. Much of the page is dedicated to a biography of John Romita, the artist who was going to be forced to step into the breech on the flagship title he following month–in part because replacing Kirby was going to set off a round-robin of shifting assignments in a domino effect, and so very little would then have been certain to report. And as the half-page ad that makes up the lower portion of the page indicates, Kirby’s departure also coincides with the launch of CONAN THE BARBARIAN as a Marvel series, a title that was of special prominence in the 1970s. So this is very much the moment when the Silver Age ended for Marvel and the transition into the Bronze Age to come began.

9 thoughts on “BHOC: FANTASTIC FOUR #102

  1. I got that issue new off the racks the month I turned 8 years old. Although at that time my comics collecting was still very sporadic, such that only very rarely did I get even two issues in a row of the same title, the Fantastic Four was my favorite comic, although I wasn’t yet playing close attention to the names of the creators. With the FF in this era, I actually did get several issues in row, issues 101 through 106 (but missed nearly everything over the next year and a half), and I don’t recall even taking notice that a new artist took over during that run. It was still the FF and I still loved it.
    And actually even looking back on this issue from an older perspective, this seems more of a return to form for the title with the cliffhanger ending after nearly a year of done-in-one stories, many of which were rather dull. This one has a lot of humor mixed in mounting drama. And it didn’t bother me that no new characters were introduced — particularly in a title that’s been around over 100 issues, it’s good to focus on further developing the characters already introduced rather than to keep building up the cast until there are so many that hardly any of them can be made interesting or adequately developed at all. Of course, in this instance, Magneto is new to the FF and Kirby hadn’t used the character in about 5 years and it had been about six years since Namor had last appeared in the FF, after having been a regularly recurring foe during their first 3 years. Kirby also left The Mighty Thor on a cliffhanger. My younger self was seeing big shifts in comics history 52 years ago but I was essentially oblivious to it at the time.

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  2. I was 16 during this transition, and a regular reader of the “Fantastic Four.” I was also a huge Kirby fan. But, as you pointed out, it was clear to people like me that something had changed in the year or so prior to FF #102. It was obvious that the creative enthusiasm was gone, and that the Lee/Kirby team were just “mailing it in,” so to speak. That said, Kirby’s departure was a seismic shock to this fan, and a short time later, when Kirby’s Fourth World plans for DC became public kniwledge, I waited for it with great anticipation. But when the books came out, while the art was great, the storylines, and especially Kirby’s weird, stilted dialogue, were a big turn-off — especially the Goody Rickles arc. I stopped buying the titles after a number of issues, and was not at all surprised when Fourth World died.

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  3. Question- what’s the best “last issue” of someone leaving a significant Marvel run? It has to be Peter David’s last Hulk book (at least before he came back for a year later), doesn’t it? Dan Slott’s last FF book was also really good- I think he nailed the ending with the intro to Reed’s other brothers and sisters.

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  4. I can think of other “last issues” that are notable. My own reflections tend to be artist-oriented rather than with scripters. Steve Ditko’s last Dr, Strange story is one that was especially powerful, but so was Barry Windsor-Smith’s last (color) Conan story, “The Song of Red Sonja.” Michael Golden’s last Micronauts story deserves a mention. You could perhaps add Jim Starlin’s last Captain Marvel story if you choose to include “The Death of Captain Marvel.” Certainly his conclusion to his first Thanos epic, the double-issue Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2, combined to create a finale that stood out as significant comics event and a career highlight.

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  5. Of writers, I’d include Alan Moore’s finales to Miracle Man and Swamp Thing, Frank Miller’s to his 2nd Daredevil run, and Neil Gaiman’s to Sandman. Steve Gerber closed out his Man-Thing run fairly well, although there were several story strands I wished he’d been able to expand on before closing out. All too often, with writers in particular, they leave without any sort of proper closure either due to quitting or removed from a mag or the series being cancelled in the middle of a storyline too big to be adequately finished up in one comic.

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  6. I’ve actually heard it suggested that the reason why Jack Kirby’s final issues of both Fantastic Four and Thor ended on cliffhangers was as a middle finger to Stan Lee, with Kirby in essence telling him “Okay, Stan, so you say that you’re the real writer here, and not me? Well, fine, write yourself out of this!” No idea if it’s true, but it’s an interesting theory.

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    1. I don’t believe that’s true at all. That seems to me like angry fans projecting after the fact. Jack wouldn’t have started multi-part stories if he’d realized that he would be departing so quickly thereafter,

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