As was discussed in last month’s post on Fantastic Four #102, that issue — featuring the final collaboration of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby on the title — also included a “Stan’s Soapbox” column informing Marvel Comics’ readers that Kirby was departing not just from FF, but from Marvel as a whole. Though I didn’t mention this fact in the earlier post, the same Marvel Bullpen Bulletins text page that featured that announcement also included a relatively lengthy biography of John Romita — a creator who’d been a Marvel mainstay since 1966, and had been either the full penciller or the layout artist for Marvel’s other top title, Amazing Spider-Man, for most of that period. By this time, then, he could hardly have been thought to be an unfamiliar figure to most regular Marvel readers; nevertheless, editor-in-chief Lee seemed to think it was a good idea to introduce (or re-introduce) Romita to the publisher’s True Believers in the wake of Kirby’s abrupt (and unexpected) exodus.
And then, in the the next month’s Bulletins (which appeared in FF #103, along with Marvel’s other comics cover-dated October, 1970), Lee followed up that “item” with this one:
For his own part, Romita was not nearly so confident of his ability to deliver a “greater-than-ever version” of Fantastic Four — a series which had been co-created, drawn, and largely plotted by Jack Kirby since its inception nine years previously. As the artist would tell interviewer Jon B Cooke in an interview for Comic Book Artist, almost three decades later:
Jack had sent in a half-finished story, and I went in to Stan. My first assumption was that Fantastic Four was finished; we wouldn’t do the book any more, just out of respect. I found myself saying to Stan, “Who the hell’s going to do FF? We don’t have anybody good enough!” He said, “You’re gonna do it,” and I almost fell down. I didn’t feel qualified to do it, and I sweated through four issues with Jack Kirby books surrounding me. [laughter] Every inch of my drawing table had a Jack Kirby page on it, and I did those four strictly from Jack’s stuff. I felt obliged to make it a seamless transition.
Romita elaborated a bit on his rationale for taking this approach in another interview, this one with Jim Amash for the book John Romita… and All That Jazz! (TwoMorrows, 2007), explaining that he was following the familiar precedent established by newspaper comic-strip artists when they took over an established property:
I was really raised in the syndicated artists ghost period. In other words, if you drew The Phantom, you drew like Sy Barry. When Sy Barry took over The Phantom, he started drawing like Wilson McCoy, but he changed it to his own style. During my young years, everybody who took over a strip did that.
Joining Romita on the art chores for the first few Kirby-less Fantastic Four issues was John Verpoorten, described in the Bullpen Bulletins item above as a “dynamic new inking sensation” — even though, like Romita, he was hardly “new” to avid Marvel readers, with inking credits going back to 1967 on titles such as X-Men, Not Brand Echh , and, most recently, the “Black Widow” feature in Amazing Adventures. (As of this time, however, he had yet to embellish a full-length “lead” story for Marvel, however, which may have been what Lee — or whoever wrote that particular Bullpen Bulletin — had in mind.) In retrospect, it seems a little odd that Verpoorten was brought in to replace Joe Sinnott, who’d been Kirby’s regular inker on Fantastic Four (excluding a bare handful of issues) ever since issue #44, in 1965. One wonders why Lee didn’t try to preserve FF‘s visual continuity by keeping Sinnott on the title — especially since the inker would return, as early as issue #106 (Romita’s fourth, and final issue as penciller) — and then would remain as the regular inker on Fantastic Four all the way through to issue #231, in 1981 (again, missing only a few issues along the way). But, of course, hindsight is always 20/20 — and in 1970, Lee seemed to think that Sinnott had enough on his plate right then with his inking of Neal Adams’ pencils on another title that had just been vacated by Kirby, namely Thor.
The first effort by the new team of Lee, Romita, and Verpoorten starts out right where Lee, Kirby, and Sinnott left off at the conclusion of FF #102 — with Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, about to go to war not just with our titular heroes, but indeed with the entire “surface world”, thanks mainly to the machinations of the malevolent mutant master of magnetism, Magneto:
Magneto presses Namor to the attack, but the Avenging Son of Atlantis is reluctant, stating that he doesn’t lightly regard the lives of his fellow Atlanteans, or the surface dwellers’, either. Which is pretty much what you’d expect from the July, 1970 iteration of the Sub-Mariner, who was up to issue #30 of his own solo title at that time — a title in which he was portrayed pretty unambiguously as a hero. (Not to mention the fact that he’d been shown expending considerable effort to avert a war between Atlantis and the surface world in the 21st issue of said title, less than a year before.)
That’s “Spiro”, as in Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, for all you young whippersnappers out there. Three years after this comic was published, Agnew would be forced to resign in disgrace after pleading no contest to a charge of tax evasion. Well before that, however, he’d be the recipient of a savage satirical takedown courtesy of DC Comics’ Green Lantern #83 (Apr.-May, 1971). (And yes, we will be discussing that issue on the blog when its 50th anniversary rolls around, just seven months from now.)
Time is pressing, for sure, but before Mister Fantastic can discuss the fate of the world with America’s Commander-in-Chief, he has one other, even more important bit of business to attend to…
“Miss Harkness” is of course Agatha Harkness, the extremely powerful witch Lee and Kirby had introduced back in FF #94 — though, at this point, the Thing appears to be the only team member who knows she’s anything more than an extraordinarily competent childcare specialist.
In July, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon was in the midst of his first term in office, and the Watergate scandal was on the radar of absolutely no one. But, as you’d expect, the nation’s chief executive still came in for plenty of comedic ribbing, and impressionists like Rich Little and David Frye were helping to make certain of his catchphrases, such as “Let us try to lower our voices”, and “Let me make one thing perfectly clear”, familiar to just about anyone who watched television, including my thirteen-year-old self.
“This is the last time — I will stay behind!” Gee, that sounds rather ominous — and that’s probably by design, as the inhuman elemental Crystal’s tenure as the fifth member of the Fantastic Four was coming to an end very soon, and scripter Lee was very likely already aware of that fact. (Although, interestingly, when Crystal does leave, in issue #105, it’s for reasons of health — her Inhuman physiology can’t cope with the polluted environment of our human world — rather than because she’s sick of being sidelined.) A long-time member of Fantastic Four‘s supporting cast, Crystal had joined the team in issue #81 as a temporary replacement for the Invisible Girl, who was then on maternity leave; but then, a mere five issues later, Sue had returned to active duty, and Crystal had been something of a fifth wheel ever since. One might speculate that Crystal was kept around as a full-fledged FF member as long as she was just because Jack Kirby was partial to her, since Lee seems to have taken steps to write her out of the series as soon as Kirby was gone; but, at this late date, we’ll probably never know for sure.
Once Reed has seen Sue and little Franklin off in a small “aero-car”, he boards the Fantasti-Car proper with the Thing and the Torch, and then they’re off to intercept the Sub-Mariner:
About this same time, Sue Richards arrives at Miss Harkness’ place in upstate New York. After dropping off little Franklin, she hops back into the aero-car and heads off to join the rest of the team; but then, as fate (or narrative contrivance) would have it…
Whether by the impact of the aero-car’s aquatic landing (SPLASH!) or by its subsequent striking against Magneto’s ship (KTICK!), the Invisible Girl is (rather conveniently) knocked unconscious, allowing the villain to take her captive with no further muss or fuss.
Upon reaching the surface, however, Namor is shocked to discover that his flagship isn’t where he left it. He lights out towards the rest of his fleet, while Mr. Fantastic extends an arm down into the deep and fishes around until he finds and retrieves the Thing. Then the two of them, with the Torch, set out once more in pursuit of the Sub-Mariner, catching him up just as he reaches one of his ships:
As that issue’s “Our World — Enslaved!” begins, Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Namor can only watch helplessly as Magneto sails the Atlantean fleet straight into New York Harbor, the United States Armed Forces all but helpless before him As Namor explains, the villain is utilizing the fleet’s dynamos to amplify his own, already formidable magnetic power, with disastrous results for America’s military:
Reed manages to convince Namor that their wisest course of action for now is for the Sub-Mariner to pretend to be Magneto’s ally, and so Namor, albeit reluctantly, heads back to the Atlantean flagship:
Yes, Sue’s still unconscious. That must have been some bump on the noggin.
Meanwhile, the male FFers return to their Baxter Building HQ, where they reunite with Crystal, and then put another call in to the President:
“This is a sad day for Amahrica!” I guess this must be what that Bullpen Bulletin had in mind with its reference to Lee’s “biting satire”. (See also the reference to “Tricia”, as well as a repeat of the “lower our voices” bit, on the very next page.)
“We’ve never lost a war before” is, of course, the kind of things American political leaders used to say all the time prior to the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, and hardly at all ever since.
The Torch locates the Sub-Mariner, who passes on the vital intel that “Magneto intends to make New York his base of operations!” (Actually, that seems pretty obvious, when you come to think about it, and not particularly helpful.) Meanwhile, back on the flagship, Sue finally wakes up. Does she immediately clobber Magneto with a barrage of force spheres, taking him down before he knows what hit him? Or project a force field out from her body to shatter her bonds? Nope. Rather, she simply taunts Magneto for being a coward, the better to goad him into freeing her himself:
I should probably acknowledge here that Lee and Romita’s portrayal of the Invisible Girl in this story as being largely ineffectual as a superhero (despite her arguably being the FF’s single most powerful member) is consistent with how she’d been handled throughout the Lee-Kirby era, as well as with how she’d be portrayed going forward for years to come by the majority of creators assigned to the FF title. Still, it’s a little jarring to be reminded just how poorly the first female superhero of the “Marvel Age” was often served in her first couple of decades of her existence, especially if one’s recently read a story that successfully presents her as the formidable hero she is (say, Mark Waid and Mattia de Iulis’ excellent 2019 Invisible Woman miniseries).
Meanwhile, back at the Baxter Building, we finally learn Reed’s strategy for defeating Magneto — and it’s the time-honored, quintessentially-FF gambit of Whipping Up a New Gizmo. Things get a little dicey when Magneto sends a contingent of Atlantean warriors to capture our heroes, but after several fight-filled pages, Ben, Johnny, and Crystal are triumphant — and then, with Reed’s newly-completed gadget in hand, the foursome boards the Fantasti-Car and heads to Central Park for the final confrontation:
The storytelling on page 18 seems a little shaky (at least to me). Romita’s liberal use of “Kirby Krackle” in the third through fifth panels suggests that it’s Crystal’s elemental power that’s providing the juice for Reed’s “electronic converter” — but Reed’s dialogue in panel 3 (added by Lee after the page was drawn) tells us that Crystal’s only contribution was to distract Magneto for a “split-second”. If Crys is in fact getting a bit short-changed here, it’s a shame, considering that this is the last action she’ll see as a regular member of the team.
Today, in 2020, it may be tempting to dismiss Sue and Reed’s closing reflections about war, peace, and brotherhood as trite platitudes; thus, it’s probably worthwhile to remember that Stan Lee wrote them in the spring of 1970, when the U.S. was in the process of extending the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Perhaps Lee was still working on his script on April 30 (when President Nixon announced the “Cambodian incursion” in a national TV address), or even May 4 (when protests of the action at Kent State University led to the shooting of unarmed students by members of the Ohio National Guard); but even if he wasn’t, there was still a prevailing national mood of deep concern over the war during that spring that would have informed his writing. That doesn’t necessarily make the sentiments he expressed profound, of course; but it does provide a context which, to me at least, suggests that they were genuinely heartfelt.
John Romita’s main goal during his short run on Fantastic Four was, as he told Jon B. Cooke, to make the transition from the Kirby to the post-Kirby eras “seamless” for the title’s readership. Was he successful? In my own humble opinion, he wasn’t — and that’s just fine by me. While Romita may not have managed to mimic Kirby perfectly, he did produce enjoyable, engaging visual narratives which had enough in common with Kirby’s work to maintain a sense of continuity, without completely subsuming his own style. To my mind, that made for better Fantastic Four comics than did the efforts of some later artists who were perhaps technically more successful in slavishly imitating (cough, swiping from, cough) the “King”.
That’s my opinion in 2020, at any rate. In the summer of 1970, I may have been somewhat less enthused, as I didn’t pick up the next two issues, #105 and #106. After that, Romita was off the book (apparently to the artist’s considerable relief), to be replaced by Marvel’s other remaining top artist, John Buscema. I bought Buscema’s first issue, #107, and his take on the foursome and their milieu seems to have clicked better with me (Joe Sinnott’s familiar finishes probably helped), as I once again became a regular Fantastic Four reader. Apparently, it proved popular with the rest of the readership as well, as “Big John” would remain the title’s regular penciller for the next three years.
Before Buscema could fully settle into his long run, however, Jack Kirby would make a surprising return to the pages of Fantastic Four in issue #108 — sort of, anyway. For more about that strange turn of events, be sure and check this space come December.