With the 94th issue of Fantastic Four, Marvel Comics’ new single-issue story policy, first announced by editor-in-chief Stan Lee in a “Stan’s Soapbox” editorial three months earlier, finally caught up with the publisher’s flagship title — its implementation there having been delayed for a couple of issues while Lee and his collaborator Jack Kirby wrapped up their “Skrull gangster planet” multi-parter. Prior to that storyline, the book had featured another serialized tale, involving the Mole Man, that filled up two issues and spilled over into a third; that story had in turn followed a Dr. Doom epic that ran four issues; and so on. In fact, the last real “done-in-one” story to appear in Fantastic Four had been “Where Treads the Living Totem!” in #80 (Nov., 1968) — an issue which happened to be not only the second-ever FF comic I’d ever bought, but also my least favorite issue to date. Outside of reprints, prior to October, 1969 that was likely the only single-issue, non-continued Fantastic Four story my twelve-year-old self had ever read.
Was I concerned about this when my subscription copy of FF #94 arrived in the mail that month? Perhaps, though I doubt it. After all, I’d found Fantastic Four to be reliably above-average comic book entertainment for well over a year; that’s why I’d subscribed to the title in the first place. No, in the fall of ’69, I was probably just really curious to see if the setting depicted on the book’s cover (by Kirby and John Verpoorten) — the dark night, the full moon, the mysterious old house on a hill — portended a story within suitable for the Halloween season (spoiler alert: it did). And, too, I would have been eager to read about the Fantastic Four’s rematch against that other FF, i.e., the Frightful Four — in spite of the fact that at this point, I’d yet to read any of the stories featuring the two teams’ earlier engagements.
The reason for that, of course, is that the villainous FF hadn’t fought their heroic counterparts — at least, not as a group — since Fantastic Four #43 (October, 1965), which had come out a whole three years before I bought my first issue of the series. As for their earlier appearances, the group had had its debut just seven months prior to that, in FF #36 (March, 1965) — and while I was picking up the reprints of the Fantastic Four’s past adventures in Marvel’s Greatest Comics, that bi-monthly title had only gotten as far as FF #32 in its ongoing sequential presentation of those stories.
I was nevertheless familiar with the individual members of the bad-guy quartet — or, at least, three out of the four. I’d first made the acquaintance of Medusa in Amazing Spider-Man #62, of all places, and the Wizard had been the antagonist in my first and third issues of Fantastic Four itself (#78 and #81, respectively). As for the Sandman, I knew him from both the Spider-Man TV cartoon and from Marvel’s recent reprinting of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original “Sinister Six” extravaganza in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #6. The only one I hadn’t actually encountered in a story yet was the Trapster; indeed, it’s quite possible that at this point I didn’t even know that the guy had once gone by the embarrassing alias of “Paste-Pot Pete”.
Somehow, though — most likely from the Fantastic Four letters pages — I knew that these four characters had once been in a group, and that that group’s name was the Frightful Four. I don’t know if I had any clue as to how Medusa, the queen of the super-powered race called the Inhumans, had somehow ended up in this gang of super-criminals, though I seem to recall that I knew that she’d appeared as such before the rest of her family members, including the Fantastic Four’s own Crystal, were introduced. In any event, I was highly curious to see what circumstances could have possibly brought the Lady of the Living Locks back into league with these three lowlifes.
Yep, this was the issue in which Reed and Sue Richards’ bouncing baby boy — born in FF Annual #6, which had been published in August, 1968 — finally got a name. I don’t remember thinking at the time how weird it was that Mister Fantastic and the Invisible Girl had put off this most basic duty of parenting for so damn long — but it was indisputably weird, regardless of whatever allowances one might make for “Marvel time” advancing more slowly than time does in the real world.
Still, that delay had ensured that, now that the day had come, I actually had a context for appreciating Reed and Sue’s naming their kid “Franklin”, as well as for understanding Sue’s reference to how proud her and brother Johnny’s dad would be “if only he were alive, to be here!” That’s because I had just recently bought and read the latest issue of Marvel’s Greatest Comics, #24 — which, as I mentioned earlier, reprinted FF #32 (Nov., 1964). As it happened, this was the very story in which Dr. Franklin Storm had met his tragic fate.
As that story explained, Sue and Johnny’s parents, Franklin and Mary Storm, had been in a terrible car accident many years ago; though Franklin escaped unhurt, Mary had ultimately succumbed to her injuries. Blaming himself for his wife’s death, the despondent Franklin had first taken to gambling, then fallen deep into debt; his downward spiral reached its nadir when an altercation with a mobster seeking to collect on said debt turned fatal, and Dr. Storm was charged with and convicted of manslaughter. After many years in prison, the disgraced doctor was just beginning to reconnect with his now-grown kids when he was kidnapped from his cell and teleported to the Skrull Galaxy (!). Subsequently, the shape-changing Super Skrull took Storm’s place in prison, only to break out and then go on a super-villainous rampage as “the Invincible Man”. It took the FF most of the story to discover the ruse and defeat the Super Skrull; once they had, the other Skrulls sent the real Dr. Storm back to Earth, but with an explosive device attached to his chest. Storm then purposefully took the brunt of the blast intended to destroy the FF, heroically sacrificing his life to save his children and their friends.
So, yeah, it made sense to honor the man by naming his grandson after him; so much so, in fact, that you kind of have to wonder why it took Sue and Reed so damn long to decide. Maybe Reed was holding out for his dad?
Or maybe they were just having trouble deciding whether the name that went along with the initial “B.” should be the kid’s middle or first name. Yeah, let’s go with that.
Ben Grimm learning that baby Franklin shares his name makes for a memorably sweet and tender moment — exactly the sort of thing that reminds you why the Fantastic Four is so special among comic book super-teams. Unfortunately, the warm, fuzzy feelings it engenders are almost immediately undermined by the news that Reed and Sue are about to ship their infant son upstate, to live apart from them under the care of “a child-rearing specialist“. Um, I get the “lives of danger” concern, folks, but maybe you should have thought about that before deciding to bring a child into the world? Just sayin’.
Though the Frightful Four hadn’t battled the Fantastic Four as a group since 1965, they had in fact all appeared together considerably more recently, in Marvel Super-Heroes #15 (July, 1968). In that comic, which was published the same month as Medusa’s guest shot in Amazing Spider-Man #62, the Inhuman queen took the solo spotlight as she sought a technological means to help her husband Black Bolt control the destructive power of his voice. Tricked by her old partners in the Frightful Four into helping them steal a power source the Wizard said he would use to help Black Bolt (but which he actually wanted for his own nefarious plans), Medusa ultimately turned on the other three and foiled their scheme. While my twelve-year-old self hadn’t yet read this Archie Goodwin-Gene Colan story, anyone who had, and was now reading FF #94, must have been bemused to see the Wizard, the Sandman,and the Trapster all blithely welcome Medusa back into the fold, apparently ready to let bygones be bygones.
With the next page, we get our first look at the mysterious “specialist” to whom Reed and Sue will be entrusting Franklin’s care, Agatha Harkness*:
Reed notes that Johnny has recently “modified the Fantasti-car” — and, indeed, the version of the vehicle we see here, which appears to have no side compartments, represents a new take on the basic “Mark II” design that had been around since Fantastic Four #12. It’s frequently claimed that by this late date in his FF run, a disaffected Jack Kirby was operating entirely on autopilot; however, the fact that he was still tinkering around with established concepts in this fashion suggests that such a statement isn’t absolutely true.
The Thing’s invocation of “Barnabas” is of course a reference to Barnabas Collins, the breakout character from the then wildly popular daytime TV horror serial Dark Shadows. As for “Quasimodo”, although Marvel had introduced a “living computer” by that name in 1966’s FF Annual #4, the FF barely met him (and never heard him called by name); so I think it’s safe to assume that Ben is here name-checking the more famous Quasi from the Victor Hugo novel.
Miss Harkness ushers Ben and Johnny to the room they’ll share, then proceeds on with Reed and Sue. Once he and Johnny are alone, Ben begins to express his misgivings regarding “that old crow”, but then…
The Thing struggles to free himself, but then the Wizard hits him with “a double-intensity blast” from his “power glove“, and it’s lights out for Benjy.
The Human Torch attempts to come to his buddy’s aid, but is dispatched in similarly quick fashion:
Hearing the ruckus outside their door, Reed and Sue attempt to leave their room — only to find that they’ve been sealed in:
Hmmm. Y’know, it really does seem like the Invisible Girl’s force-field powers should be enough to knock out a glass window, if not a door or wall. But, sorry to say, Lee and Kirby were never all that big on letting Sue cut loose offensively.
Unfortunately, Medusa gets taken out of commission just about as quickly as this comic’s titular heroes already have been, courtesy first of some sand in her face via (who else?) the Sandman, then by way of the Trapster’s sealing the deal with his oh-so-potent paste:
One might protest that all of the heroes have been vanquished more quickly than seems entirely plausible; but this is a done-in-one story, after all, and the tale’s pacing requires getting our normally more formidable foursome (and their Inhuman friend) out of the way expeditiously, so as to leave room for the great stuff coming up on the next several pages:
Something that makes this issue of Fantastic Four stand out from most of the recent issues preceding it, as well as the next few to follow, is the lack of any full-page splash panels after the story’s opening page. Such panels had been part of Jack Kirby’s toolbox for quite some time, but his use of them had become considerably more liberal since the comics industry’s adoption of a smaller art board size back in 1967. In FF #94, he not only eschews them completely, but even largely avoids the 4-panel grids he’d taken to relying on at around the same time; very few of the pages in this issue have less than five panels. The reason for this may (or may not) be that Kirby would have otherwise found it a struggle to get the whole story into a single issue, but the undeniable effect is to make this issue feel like something of a throwback to the peak-period Fantastic Four stories of three or more years previous. More importantly, it also demonstrates that Kirby had by now made whatever accommodations he needed to to the new standard board size, and that his art no longer needed the large-scale presentation provided by full-page or other outsize panels to have an outsize impact (if indeed it ever had).
In 1969, my younger self was as yet unfamiliar with the eerie work Kirby had done in earlier decades for titles like Black Magic and Strange World of Your Dreams, while his contributions to Marvel’s Chamber of Darkness anthology — to say nothing of Kirby’s own creation for DC Comics, The Demon — were still in the future. This story therefore showed me a side of Kirby I’d never seen before (a side that, thankfully, Joe Sinnott is every bit as adept at finishing in ink as he is the more typical superhero action).
The caption-free transition from the bottom of page 16 (where we’re subject to the same illusory perspective as the hapless Trapster) to the top of page 17 (where we shift to an “objective reality” point of view) is a masterful little bit of comic book storytelling on the part of Kirby and Lee.
For any whippersnappers out there who are too young to remember, Ben’s “Aurora Plastics ad” crack is a reference to the advertisements for plastic model kits — many based on comic-book characters — that were all but ubiquitous in the comics of the Sixties, and continued to appear into the Seventies.
If I recall correctly, when I first read this story fifty years ago, I understood Ben’s last-page inner monologue to mean that he had just stumbled upon a secret regarding the FF’s new “child-rearing specialist” that Franklin’s parents, Reed and Sue, themselves didn’t know. Re-reading it today, however, I’m not certain that my original interpretation was correct; Ben’s musings could in fact be taken as his speculation that the Richards already know that Miss Harkness is a witch, and that’s why they’ve brought her to Whisper Hill in the first place. Lee’s script is a little more ambiguous here than it really ought to be**.
But even allowing for that failure to absolutely nail the landing, it’s still a great finale — with the Thing’s facial expressions providing yet another demonstration (as if one was needed) of the remarkable range of recognizable human emotion Kirby was regularly able to represent on the character’s orange brick countenance.
And while Agatha Harkness’ backstory would be considerably filled out in the years to come, during which time she’d also come to play a more expansive role in the Marvel Universe, she’d never again come across quite as creepy — or as charismatic — as she does in “The Return of the Frightful Four!”; a tale which, half a century after its original publication, stands as the last truly significant story of Lee and Kirby’s epic nine-year run on Fantastic Four. — and probably the last one that can readily be called good.
Fifty years ago, however, I didn’t have any inkling that we’d come to the end of the “good stuff” as far as the Lee-Kirby collaboration on FF was concerned. While I hadn’t been looking forward to the new “no continued stories” status quo for this title any more than I had for any of Marvel’s other books, this first go at a single-issue-story in Marvel’s flagship series had turned out pretty well. It would soon become evident, however, that #94 had been an anomaly. Whatever it was that had given Lee and Kirby that last infusion of creative inspiration which allowed them to produce “The Return of the Frightful Four!”, it was conspicuous by its absence in the next batch of issues.
Issue #95 brought us the debut of perhaps Lee and Kirby’s least memorable FF villain, the Monocle, while #96 echoed #94 in featuring the return of another old foe from the book’s glory days, this time the Mad Thinker. But without having a new character like Agatha Harkness on hand to spark interest, this particular return bout seemed essentially pointless.
Lee and Kirby followed this story with #97’s “The Monster from the Lost Lagoon!”, which gave the impression of having been inspired by something Kirby had recently seen on TV — the 1954 film The Creature from the Black Lagoon, in this instance — in the same way that #84-87’s Dr. Doom tale had clearly been a riff on The Prisoner, while the Skrull saga that concluded in #93 was based on various episodes of Star Trek and Lost in Space. This time around, however, the approach failed to generate a memorable comic book story.
That brought us up to February issue #98, which I remember my younger self rejecting at the time simply on the merits (or lack of same) of its basic premise: that, in a fictional universe where the Fantastic Four can skip off to the Skrull Galaxy (and back!) in a matter of days, the alien Kree Empire would nevertheless feel so threatened by the Apollo 11 Moon landing that they’d try to take violent action against the mission. Not only did I not buy into that idea, I didn’t even accept that Apollo 11 would be a big deal on Earth in the Marvel Universe. Why should it be, when the FF and other characters had visited the Moon plenty of times since 1962?
By this time, my subscription to Fantastic Four had run out — and so, it would seem, had my interest. I didn’t renew my sub, and I didn’t pick up the next issue on the stands, either. When the milestone FF #100 came out, I passed on it as well.
Yet, somehow, I did manage to find my way back to Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four — just in time for the bitter end. And if you manage to find your way back to this blog next June, I’ll tell you all about it.
*Interestingly, in later years original art would surface (and be published in the TwoMorrows magazine The Jack Kirby Collector) indicating that Jack Kirby’s initial visual conception of Miss Harkness was quite different:
Some have suggested that the original Agatha Harkness bears a striking resemblance to Kirby’s wife Rosalind — an intriguing notion, though I’ll leave it to others more knowledgeable than myself to argue the merits of that claim.
**Before someone jumps in to inform me that later appearances of Miss Harkness (scripted by Lee) made it pretty clear that Sue, at least, was unaware of her child’s governess’ unique abilities (at least up until issue #110, at which time Lee and artistic collaborator John Buscema let the metaphorical Ebony out of the bag for all concerned), please allow me to save you the trouble by acknowledging that this is indeed true. Nevertheless, that later clarification, as welcome as it is, doesn’t absolve Lee’s issue #94 script of having been ambiguous in the first place.