The titular subject of today’s post is the first full chapter in the final complete multi-issue storyline of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four. Along with that distinction, this story arc is well remembered for being one of the best examples of how Kirby, by this time deeply dissatisfied with his situation at Marvel Comics, was rather brazenly lifting his story ideas from stuff he’d seen on TV. Several months earlier, he’d “playfully parodied the theme of” (as an item in this very month’s Marvel Bullpen Bulletins put it) the British cult program The Prisoner for the main conceit of a four-part Doctor Doom epic. This time, it was an episode of Star Trek — or, more probably, two episodes of Star Trek. But before we get into all that, here’s a bit of background to help set the stage…
The “gangster planet” story arc had actually gotten going two months earlier, in FF #89. That issue (like the Doc Doom storyline that preceded it) had featured the return of one of the team’s oldest foes — in this case, their very oldest, the Mole Man, who, like the book’s stars, had first appeared in Fantastic Four #1. Having had his latest scheme for world-conquest accidentally discovered by the FF upon their buying a house in the country (yes, seriously), the short, squat, non-superpowered villain had, after blinding our heroes, proceeded to hold off all five* of them for the better part of an issue. (With a stick, as noted by comics historian Mark Alexander in 2012.) And yes, that does sound silly; but, for the record, it completely convinced me as an eleven-year-old reader in 1969.
The plotline slated to follow the conclusion of the Mole Man tale was introduced via a three-page sequence dropped a quarter-way into #89, which led off with a klassic Kirby Kollage:
When this issue hit stands in May, 1969, the world was eagerly anticipating the arrival of the first human beings on the Moon via July’s Apollo 11 mission; so this page’s reference to “a primitive Earth-type rocket” in orbit around our lunar neighbor was extremely timely.
The next page focused in on one of the saucers, teasing the extraterrestrial origin of its occupant by showing us just his hands, prior to page 8’s full-page reveal:
Like the Mole Man and Dr. Doom, the Skrulls were among the Fantastic Four’s earliest antagonists, having been introduced in issue #2. Kirby’s bringing back all three (and, in issues to come, other old-timers such as the Frightful Four, the Mad Thinker, and the Puppet Master) could — like the borrowings from television programs — be seen as a sign of Kirby’s increasing unwillingness to expend much, if any, effort coming up with worthwhile new concepts for Marvel. In the case of the Skrulls, however, he also managed to give the aliens’ latest return engagement a little extra juice by combining it with something “new” (to the FF, at least) that he’d picked up from TV — just as he had earlier with Doctor Doom and The Prisoner.
Fantastic Four #90 was a transitional issue, which spent about half its pages wrapping up the Mole Man story, and the other half on the new Skrull plotline — though the Skrull got the cover.
We followed the self-dubbed Slaver as he landed his spacecraft in a remote wooded area outside New Your City, then used his natural shapeshifting ability to pass for human. As such, he made his way into Manhattan — where, now disguised as Reed Richards, he approached his intended victim — the Thing, Ben Grimm:
Despite his reluctance — and, apparently, without asking any questions that you’d think might have occurred to him, like: “Where’s the rest of the team?”, or “Wouldn’t we get there quicker in the Fantasticar?” — Ben gets in the taxi, which, following “Reed’s” directions to the driver, takes them out of the city.
The new storyline finally took over the whole book with the issue that’s the primary focus of our discussion today, #91. Though, if you hadn’t taken a good luck at the cover before opening the comic to its first page, you might indeed be as confused as Stan Lee’s caption imagines:
Moments later, Lippy Louie himself shows up (with some muscle, natch) to assure his rival Boss Barker that his own fighting slave, Torgo from the planet Maarin, is more than a match for this “Thing” guy. Speaking of whom…
Struggling against the “slave-block” confining him, the defiant Ben actually manages to do it some damage — but the Slaver is well prepared for such a contingency:
But despite Johnny Storm’s confidence, Reed knows that something sinister must be afoot, because he’s found the cab driver that took Ben out of town — accompanied by someone who looked just like Reed.
More than one critic has noted the resemblance of page 8’s brick-tossing kids to the kid-gang characters created by Jack Kirby and his partner Joe Simon in the 1940s, especially the Newsboy Legion. And Kirby’s general affinity for the urban milieu of the first half of the 20th century, and his interest in the gangsters that thrived in that period, is well known. But those proclivities don’t appear to have been quite enough to have inspired the idea of an alien planet aping the culture of a Prohibition-era American city all on their own. For that, Kirby needed the spark of one of those Star Trek episodes mentioned earlier — specifically, “A Piece of the Action”, which originally aired on the NBC network on January 12, 1968.
In this episode, the USS Enterprise comes upon a planet whose alien culture is a dead ringer for Chicago in the 1920s, due to the inhabitants having very much taken to Chicago Mobs of the Twenties — a (fictional) book left there a hundred years earlier by another Federation starship. As we’ll see, the inhabitants of the Skrull planet Kral have done something very similar, although they’ve had something better to work from than a mere book.
For the record, I didn’t recognize this (or any other) Star Trek reference when I first read this story back in 1969 — since, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post or two, my local NBC affiliate didn’t carry the program during its original run, and I wouldn’t be exposed to any episodes until they began running in syndication in the early Seventies. Perhaps that’s one reason why my younger self was actually rather disappointed when the storyline took this turn, as I was a lot more interested in green-skinned, shape-shifting aliens than I was in human-looking gangsters who seemed to have stepped out of some old movie (though, for the record, the story did ultimately win me over).
But getting back to the scene at hand: Irked by the brick-throwing boys (“What do them punk kids think this is — Yancy Street?“), Ben makes a threatening move towards them — but then…
And here the potential second of our story’s Star Trek inspirations rears its head — “The Gamesters of Triskelion”, which, as it happens, originally aired precisely one week before “A Piece of the Action” did, on January 5, 1968.** The call on this one’s a bit less of a slam-dunk, since the story’s central conceit of “reluctant gladiators forced to fight” isn’t all that unique a storytelling trope (at least, not in comparison with “planet of the 1920s gangsters”).*** But the fact that it, like Kirby’s FF plot, features Earth folk enslaved by aliens and forced to fight other enslaved aliens on a distant planet, tilts it decidedly in the “direct inspiration” direction — and the Skrull “nerve collars” used to keep Ben (and the other “slaveys”) in line are so much like the “collars of obedience” used by the Gamesters to control Kirk, Uhura, and Chekhov, that this seems a really, really good bet.
Boss Barker shows up to handle the down payment to the Slaver (one “power stone” now, the other nine when the Thing is “trained”, and in the arena); meanwhile, Ben and his fellow captives are loaded into a “Slave Truck” (as the English-language sign on the vehicle helpfully states), and driven away to the training area — allowing a good opportunity for some expository dialogue to explain just what the heck is going on here:
If you weren’t around in the late ’60s, you might not recognize Ben’s “verrrry interestin'” crack as a reference to a recurring bit that Arte Johnson (who passed away just a couple of weeks ago as of this writing) performed on the TV comedy show Laugh-In, in the guise of a WW II-vintage German soldier. But in July, 1969, my twelve-year-old self most definitely would have caught that — just as he would have known that “the nutty Red Baron” was a reference to “World War I flying ace” Snoopy’s imaginary foe in the Peanuts comic strip. (Whaddya mean, there was a real Red Baron?)
The “slave-stealer ship” fires a weapon — a “neutralizer cannon” — never seen on an actual Albatross D.III fighter. But hey, no American-made 20th century truck ever defended itself against enemy fire with an invisible “force screen” either — or pulled off a trick like the Slave Truck does next:
The “Slave Keeper” — who gets a name, “Napoleon G. Robberson”, in the following issue — is Kirby’s take on movie actor Edward G. Robinson, who was probably best known for his gangster roles. For the record, Kirby was beaten to the punch here by about two years by artist Gil Kane, who’d already appropriated the actor’s likeness for the character “Al Magone” in 1967’s Green Lantern #55 and #56. (Though, of course, our shared cultural heritage of the classic Hollywood gangster film is so rich that no later “borrower” could reasonably claim to have an exclusive right to any part of it. Right?)
Even when my younger self didn’t understand Ben’s wisecracks (what the heck is a “23-skiddoo“?), I loved the way he consistently used humor in truly desperate situations; it was one of the main things that made him my favorite member of the Fantastic Four (and kept him that way, for five decades and counting).
At the Slave Keeper’s whistle, Taxtor — “a fighting slave from a jungle planet” — is released from his holding cell, and sicced on our hero. Ben is initially confident that he can quickly take down this furry foe; but then…
Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Human Torch has been scouring New York City without finding any trace of Ben. Returning to the FF’s Baxter Building headquarters, he discovers that Reed Richards has re-directed his own search away from our terrestrial sphere, turning his super-powerful telescope instead towards the far depths of outer space:
The previous issue’s final-panel “next” blurb had promised “Ben Grimm, Slave!” for FF #91 — a promise that turned out to be quite accurate, of course. This issue’s equivalent is even more ominous-sounding, heralding that issue #92 will feature “Ben Grimm, Murderer!” Perhaps scripter-editor Stan Lee felt he had to do the last issue’s blurb one better, but I doubt that either I or any other fan in 1969 actually believed that Marvel would let the Thing commit homicide. By the time #92 went to press, that title had been modified to the slightly less criminal-sounding “Ben Grimm, Killer!”, suggesting that Lee himself ultimately realized that the original version had been too much of a stretch. And, as will soon become evident, Ben doesn’t even come close to killing anybody over the course of the book’s twenty pages.
The cover for issue #92 is my favorite of those produced by Kirby and inker Joe Sinnott for this particular storyline, and perhaps one of my very favorite Fantastic Four covers, period. It’s a brilliant composition that conveys the Thing’s anger and frustration without actually showing us anything but his hand (while still managing to work in a representation of his face), and that effectively integrates the cover’s text into the illustration itself, providing for a wonderfully dramatic and silent tableau. All this — and it even manages to make the “Ben Grimm, Killer!” title make sense, by its use in the context of a promotional poster.
As the story resumes, we’re back on Kral, as the Thing’s captors move him into the next stage of preparing him to fight in the Great Games:
Unable to resist the “Hypno-Glow”, Ben acquiesces, and lets himself be led into the training yard:
The Thing’s first opponent is “a Skrull-bred Magno-Man“. Ben is briefly overwhelmed by his foe’s magnetic powers, but he quickly rallies, and eventually triumphs. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Mister Fantastic has been modifying a saucer that the team captured from the Skrulls way back in issue #2, getting it ready to take the team straight into the Skrull Galaxy to rescue their friend:
This scene of Sue Richards’ husband and brother dictating to her that she simply can’t accompany the rest of the team has aged quite badly — and even in the context of its time, it’s a somewhat surprising decision on Reed’s part, considering that Sue has played an active role in the FF’s last two adventures. On the other hand, Sue traveled to Latveria in issue #86 to rescue the others without asking anyone’s permission; and in the Mole Man tale, the team was attacked by the villain immediately after arriving at what they expected to be their new home. It may well be that neither Kirby nor Lee could imagine any husband “allowing” the mother of his infant son to accompany him on a dangerous mission to a faraway galaxy, given the opportunity to say “no”, and felt that the only “realistic” move would be for Reed to put his foot down. (And simply in terms of accurately depicting the attitudes prevalent in that era, they may not have been wrong.)
After these two bouts, Robberson apparently decides that the Thing is ready enough for a “real” fight. While Ben is returned to his cell, the Slave Keeper prepares to get the word out that the Great Games are about to begin:
Soon, all the gangland bosses and their respective entourages are en route to “an amazingly accurate replica of a gaudy, ornate movie palace of the 1930’s” — though not before someone (probably Lippy Louie) tries (unsuccessfully) to blow up Boss Barker in his office.
While all this is going on, the Slave Keeper’s muscle gets the “slaveys” out of their cells:
As each pair of future competitors is forced into individual stalls which together form a ring around the gladiatorial arena, Torgo tells the still-defiant Thing that no slave dares rise up against their masters, for to do so “means the death of his home planet!” As if to illustrate his point, he gestures towards something in the arena we readers can’t yet see. “What in blazes is it??” asks Ben.
Considering the efficacy of all the Skrulls’ other means of keeping their slaves submissive that we’ve already seen — the neuro-ray guns, the shock rods, the nerve collars, the hypno-glow machines — it seems that they really don’t need the capability to destroy any planet in the known universe to achieve this relatively modest objective. And, of course, once you’ve established that the Skrulls do possess such an incredibly powerful doomsday weapon, it raises the question of why we’ve never seen them use it against Earth, the Kree, or any of their myriad other enemies in nearly six decades’ worth of Marvel stories.
But regardless of the Sonic Disruptor’s credibility as a plot device, it does have the effect of bringing even Ben Grimm to the brink of despair, at last:
As promised by that final panel, the saga would indeed conclude in the next issue, #93, featuring “At the Mercy of Torgo!” But unlike the previous chapters — in fact, unlike any issue of Fantastic Four since #45 (Dec., 1965) — that issue would feature the inks of someone other than Joe Sinnott. Sinnott had requested a brief vacation from Stan Lee — his first in twenty years — and so was spelled here by Frank Giacoia. Giacoia was a fine craftsman, and usually a dependable choice to finish Jack Kirby’s pencils, but his work here comes across (to me, anyway) as excessively harsh. Maybe he was rushed; or maybe Sinnott’s smooth, clean style had become so much a part of the “look” of Fantastic Four by this point that anyone else’s inks just looked “wrong”.****
As the story opens, the remaining members of the FF (minus the Invisible Girl) are swiftly making their way through the Skrull Galaxy, in search of their kidnapped teammate. (Yeah, I think it’s pretty clear that Lee, and perhaps Kirby as well, really had no idea how big a galaxy is, because even if you posit a faster-than-light drive or hyperspace or whatnot, this makes very little sense in science fiction terms.)
Say, did you know that Johnny Storm can not only survive, but fly and use his other Human Torch powers in the airless void of space? My twelve-year-old self sure didn’t (though I doubt the revelation fazed me for even a moment):
And there’s more! The Toch’s flame can detect and highlight the radioactive trails of Skrull spaceships! (Does it work on other kinds of spaceships, too? I bet it does!)
But our heroes had better hurry it up — it’s already time for the Thing and Torgo to fight their match — and Torgo has made it clear that as far as he’s concerned, this is a fight to the death:
The fight continues for several more pages before the story returns to Ben’s would-be rescuers, still on the trail of the Skrull Slaver (whose skin and clothes are both colored a dark, non-Skrull-standard shade of green throughout this issue, for some unknown reason):
The Slaver quickly succumbs to the heat, even as his saucer’s circuits fry; and the FF swiftly board the ship to take the unconscious Skrull prisoner. Meanwhile, back on Kral, Torgo remains confident of his ultimate victory…
Boss Barker cries foul, based on the Thing not having Torgo’s familiarity with the weapon, but his fellow bosses aren’t having it. Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Benjy?
Based on the fact that Barker had 8 x10″s of both Reed and Johnny in his possession, back on issue #91’s splash page, our heroes should probably count themselves lucky that their “disguises” work as well as they seem to do to allow them to navigate Kral incognito.
These disguises are also an obvious nod to the similar subterfuge employed by Kirk and Spock, presenting themselves as representatives of the Federation “gang”, in “A Piece of the Action”.
Jack Kirby had a remarkable ability to portray easily recognizable human expressions on the faces of the nonhuman characters born out of his visual imagination. He did this month in and month out with the Thing, of course; and the anguish written on Torgo’s metallic countenance in the last panel of page 17, above, is another fine example.
Call this a sentimental scene, if you must. But the emotion felt genuine to me in 1969, and it still does. For me, it’s an exemplary expression of the sense of family that made the Fantastic Four stand out from all the other superhero teams I’d yet encountered as of that time, and that still makes them special today.
In later years, readers would learn that the slave uprising was indeed successful, and the gladiators were able to return to their homeworlds. Eventually, however, the surviving Kralians managed to rebuild their society, though with the new wrinkle of an additional cultural influence, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. (For the whole story, see Black Panther  #31 – 34.) As for our friend Torgo, he made it through the uprising and has subsequently popped up here and there over the decades, most recently in Drax and Asgardians of the Galaxy (two series that both ended way too soon, if you ask me).
But back in September, 1969, when Fantastic Four #93 was on newsstands, all of that lay far ahead. For now, all of the threads of Lee & Kirby’s last continued FF saga had been neatly — if, perhaps, rather hastily — tied up, and the series was ready to move into Marvel’s new era of “done-in-one” storytelling. If you’re curious to know how that went, please be sure and return in October, when we’ll be taking a look at FF #94’s “The Return of the Frightful Four!”
UPDATE, 7/13/19: Max Talley, over on the Facebook group “Jack Kirby!” has helpfully noted that my original post left out one very likely TV-based influence on the Kral storyline — namely, “The Deadly Games of Gamma 6”, an episode of Lost in Space that originally aired on the CBS network on November 2, 1966. Not only does the ep feature the “alien gladiators” trope, but it also includes the plot element of the fighters’ home planets being at risk — an element that I don’t believe appears in any of the relevant Star Trek episodes.
I’ll own up to being exponentially less familiar with Lost in Space than I am with Star Trek, but that’s no excuse. Especially since I read Max’s fine 2015 article for Back Issue #82, “The Twilight of Stan Lee” — in which he makes this very reference — just a month or two ago; and, at the time, made myself a mental note to follow up on it in my research for my FF #91 post. Which I then failed to do, obviously. I guess that should teach this aging fan not to depend on mental notes, huh? Anyway, thanks for the information (and timely reminder), Max!
UPDATE, 11/19/19. Per a note from Stuart Fischer (see comments, below), I’ve revised the summary of FF #88-89’s Mole Man story for accuracy.
*That’s including Crystal, the Inhuman elemental, who’d joined the team in issue #81 while Sue Richards, the Invisible Girl, was on maternity leave, and who had continued to stick around after Sue’s return to active duty in #86.
**It’s tempting to imagine Kirby first getting the initial germ of a story idea from the telecast of “The Gamesters of Triskelion”, and then building upon it after viewing “A Piece of the Action”, a mere seven days later. On the other hand, January, 1968 is pretty early for Kirby to have begun even preliminary work on an FF storyline whose first scenes wouldn’t appear in print until May, 1969. In his recent book Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said!, however, comics historian John Morrow suggests an alternative scenario, in which Kirby first got inspired by viewing “A Piece of the Action” when it was rerun by NBC on August 30, 1968. Morrow acknowledges that, according to Marvel’s normal schedule of production, Kirby would likely have been drawing Fantastic Four #86 at this time; but he speculates that the artist-plotter may well have been working ahead of schedule, in anticipation of his family’s planned move from New York to California early the following year. If Morrow is correct, then the proximity of the two Trek episodes’ broadcast dates is probably irrelevant, as the repeat airing of “Gamesters” occurred on May 3, quite some time before that of “Piece” at the end of August.
***Indeed, coerced (or at least semi-coerced) gladiatorial-type combat features into at least three other Star Trek episodes — “Arena”, “Amok Time”, and “Bread and Circuses” — all of which aired at least a year before any part of Kirby’s Skrull storyline appeared in print, and thus could have had some influence on it. (I owe credit for this observation to “mikronik” and “Chris”, two commenters on SuperMegaMonkey’s web page recapping the FF storyline.)
****Sinnott’s style would, of course, become even more definitive in setting the series’ look following Kirby’s departure in 1970. Over the next eleven years, Fantastic Four would be pencilled in succession by John Romita, John Buscema, Rich Buckler, George Perez, and others — the only consistent artistic element from one run to the next being Sinnott’s inking.