This issue of FANTASTIC FOUR was the last one among the box of 150 Silver Age books that I bought in my Windfall Comics purchase for $50.00 in 1988. It was a story that had already read years before in its MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS reprinting, which was one of the back issues I bought on my very first trip to my very first comic book store.
Still, it was always nice to have the original printings of these stories, the ones that were more prized and valued by collectors as a whole. I was still a couple of years away from working to complete my collection of FANTASTIC FOUR, but at the very least this issue brought me marginally closer to attaining that goal.
Jack Kirby was being inked at this point by Chic Stone, who would do so on pretty much all of the King’s output for Marvel for about a year. After some haphazard inking before this, Stone’s consistency of line solidified the Kirby look, at least at this time. His work was bold and open, with thick holding lines and few spotted blacks. But he also didn’t skimp as earlier inkers often did, and he appeared to attempt to hew to what Kirby put down on the page. Jack was beginning to push things forward as well, as witnessed by this incredibly complicated device on the splash page, which Reed Richards is attempting to use to cure the Thing of his monstrous form. This was the issue that caused a young John Byrne to quit reading the series–he figured out who the issue’s mystery villain was by page four and figured he’d had enough.
Kirby had also begun to experiment with including collages in his work. Collage was something he did as a recreation normally, his innate eye for design able to combine bits of photos of regular household items into something magical and magnificent. But these collages never reproduced well in the books–they would inevitably print dark and muddy. The technology (or its cost) wouldn’t allow them to be printed in color, so they’d wind up reproduced in black and white and then colored over, as is the case here. These pieces were inventive, and the originals are really a sight to see, but as pages of the comic book, they didn’t wind up adding a whole lot, cool as they were.
Hey, look! It’s one of those cool three-fer house ads that Marvel would run during this period, touting other releases the company had to offer that month. I always loved these things, and would pore over them, lusting after what were now expensive back issues that I’d want to read for myself. So they worked, even years after the fact.
So getting down to the story, after the opening in which Reed once again fails to cure Ben (he’s restored to human form, but loses all memory of who he is and his relationship with Alicia.) the action moves to a character that had been introduced last issue; Franklin Storm, the father of Sue and Johnny, who we’ve learned has been in prison for years. This was a change from Kirby’s original story concept, but one that he appears to have rolled with. The backstory given in this story doesn’t completely jibe with the earlier issue in which the older Storm had escaped from prison, but it’s a decent enough papering over. This time, though, Franklin Storm is replaced by a mysterious entity who assumes his form, claims that he’s somehow given himself incredible super-powers while in the joint, and breaks out again, much to the dismay of Sue and Johnny, who only just got him back behind bars last issue.
Adopting the identity of the Invincible Man, Storm goes on a rampage through the city, proving his power. The Fantastic Four turn up to confront him, but not only are his powers a match for theirs, but Sue and Johnny are conflicted at having to battle their own father, and Sue in particular intercedes to prevent Reed from landing a finishing blow on the Invincible Man. Accordingly, the Fantastic Four are disgraced in the public eye and are forced to withdraw, with their deadly enemy still at large. It’s a sad day in Mudville.
But being a smarty pants, Reed Richards figures out what John Byrne deduced pages earlier: the Invincible Man isn’t Franklin Storm at all–he’s the Super-Skrull, freed from imprisonment in the volcano the FF left him in at the close of their last encounter. The revelation of their subterfuge is all that it takes for the Skrulls to decide to take their ball and go home rather than directly fighting the FF. They teleport the Super-Skrull away to their waiting ship, and agree to return the abducted Franklin Storm to Earth. But they’ve got one more nasty surprise up their sleeves.
Another three-up house ad at this point. Admit it, you want to read these stories, too, right?
True to form, the Skrulls do send Franklin Storm back to Earth–but they strap an explosive device to his chest that’ll finish off the Fantastic Four as they approach him. In desperation, Storm rolls over on his chest, taking the full brunt of the explosion with his own body and saving everybody else. It’s a pure schmaltzy ending as he perishes a hero, having saved his children and redeemed himself. It’ll also be a plot point again in just a few issues, as Sue makes a condition of her engagement to Reed that they hunt down the Skrull responsible for this terrible act and get justice for her father. It seems a bit manipulative and obvious now, but at the time, it was a bit of a blockbuster of an ending–one of two surprise tragedies that Marvel put out this month (the other being the redemption and demise of Wonder Man over in AVENGERS #9.)
And the issue winds up with another wonderful two-page letters page overseen and answered by Stan. This one includes a letter from future author George R. R. Martin, who had written in previously to the magazine and whose comments were regularly erudite enough to be printed.
As compared to the competition’s letters pages, the dialogue here is so loose and so fun, it’s not hard to see why readers really responded to it. It does a great job of being jovial but salesmanly, self-aggrandizing while also self-deprecating. Lee’s talent as a writer and an editor is probably best displayed in pieces such as this and the eventual Bullpen Bulletins page that would grow out of it. The next issue blurb at the end tellingly doesn’t give any details about the story in the following issue, indicating that Lee and Kirby had likely not discussed it before this page was written up. This was a recurring issue in the Lee/Kirby titles, and a sign that Kirby was by this point doing the lion’s share of the plotting on his own, with only editorial input from Lee. Lee, of course, was free to change the direction of any story as he saw fit, either in his copy or by having Kirby throw out pages and go in a different direction (as he had done on #31.)