In December, 1970, after four months of whetting fans’ appetites with Jack Kirby’s first three issues of Jimmy Olsen, DC Comics at last published the debut issues of two brand new titles by Kirby, Forever People and New Gods.
And in that same month, Marvel Comics published Fantastic Four #108, containing the very last new work by Kirby for that title, some six months after the last issue fully drawn by the artist had shipped.
Some fans are of the opinion that the concurrence of these events was not coincidental; that either because Marvel wanted to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Kirby’s new DC titles, or because the company wanted to steal a bit of Kirby and/or DC’s thunder concerning their launch, or perhaps for some other reason entirely, Marvel purposefully contrived for this issue — a patchwork put together months after Kirby’s departure from the House of Ideas, featuring a combination of his pencilled art with additional work by John Buscema and John Romita, all inked by Joe Sinnott and scripted by Stan Lee — to reach spinner racks around the same time as the debut issues of the King’s highly anticipated new projects.
Frankly, I’m rather dubious of this notion, primarily because it seems to me that if Marvel really wanted to call attention to the presence of new Jack Kirby artwork in FF #108, they did a pretty lousy job of it. The issue’s cover uses no art by Kirby, nor does it feature his name anywhere amidst its copious amount of copy. Not even the Mighty Marvel Checklist entry for the book, appearing in all of that month’s Marvel comics, mentions Kirby’s involvement. Perhaps some fanzines of the time had offered their subscribers a heads-up, but if you were the kind of comic book reader my thirteen-year-old self was in late 1970 — the kind who perhaps had a friend or two who also liked comics, but who was in no meaningful sense plugged into “organized fandom” — it’s unlikely that you’d have any idea that there was Jack Kirby art behind that John Buscema-John Verpoorten cover until you opened up the book and saw his name in the credits.
For that reason, I’m inclined to agree with Marvel’s own Tom Brevoort that the incorporation of Kirby’s art into FF #108 simply “represented using up inventory that had already been paid for”, as Tom put it on his blog a year or so back. Of course, we could both be wrong; there’s no way any of us can truly know for sure. And even if we allow that the concurrence of Marvel’s publication of Jack Kirby’s “last Fantastic Four story” with DC’s release of the first issues of his new Fourth World titles was most probably a coincidence, it’s still a striking one; one which helps make “The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man” a unique artifact of its era, a story that can even be conceived of as a sort of “last gasp” of the Silver Age of Comics, arriving in the early days of the Bronze.
It’s just too bad that it’s not a better story.
Before we dive into the comic itself, it might be advisable to take a brief look at how it came to be in the first place. Why did Marvel have a fully-pencilled Kirby FF story in inventory, anyway?
By all accounts, the story (originally titled “The Mystery of the Mega-Man”) had originally been intended for Fantastic Four #102, but when Lee received Kirby’s pencilled pages, he had some problems with them and set the story aside for the time being — something he could do fairly easily, as Kirby had been working some four to five months ahead of the comics’ on-sale dates. (What were those problems? Again, no one really knows for sure, although we’ll have some thoughts to share later in the post.) The next FF story Kirby delivered — his last, as it turned out — was slotted in for issue #102, rather than for #103, as the artist had expected. That tale was the first chapter of a trilogy featuring the Sub-Mariner and Magneto, which would be completed (sans Kirby’s involvement, obviously) by Lee and John Romita in issues #103 and #104.
Kirby had produced his pages for the “Mega-Man” story at the tail end of Marvel’s short-lived “no continued stories” policy; by the conclusion of the Sub-Mariner/Magneto trilogy in FF #104, however, that policy was basically dead and gone. The next two issues (produced, as the last two had been, by Lee and Romita) found our heroes going up against a mysterious “Monster” in the main storyline, while also introducing a subplot involving the latest efforts by Reed Richards (aka Mister Fantastic) to “cure” his teammate and best friend, the Thing, by restoring him to his original human form of Ben Grimm. By the end of #106, the Monster had been fully dealt with, but the issue nevertheless ended on a cliffhanger, as readers were left to wonder for a month’s time whether ol’ bashful Benjy would survive the experimental process intended to fulfill his greatest desire.
Well, some readers were left to wonder. My thirteen-year-old self either passed on these issues or just plain missed ’em on the stands, because the next Fantastic Four which I purchased following #104 was #107, featuring John Buscema’s debut as the title’s new regular penciller. This issue, incidentally, ended up being the one that would get me back into reading Fantastic Four on a consistent basis, something that hadn’t been the case since my subscription had run out early in 1970; from this point forward, I wouldn’t miss another issue for the next 7 1/2 years.
“And Now… the Thing!” might have started in medias res, but I don’t recall having any trouble picking up on the storyline. That may have had something to do with the fact that the first issue of Fantastic Four I’d ever bought had featured an earlier variation on this perennial theme; in any case, I quickly became invested in the latest chapter in Ben Grimm’s ongoing quest to return to a normal human life.
As already noted, the issue begins with the Thing in danger of perishing in the course of the scientific experiment meant to reverse his transformation. This crisis is quickly resolved, however, and the process continues on to its successful conclusion: Ben Grimm is human once more. But that’s not all, as Reed explains:
Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, it soon becomes evident that something has gone wrong, as Ben begins to exhibit uncharacteristically callous and even cruel behavior, suggesting that the “cure” has had the unintended side effect of altering his personality, at least temporarily.
This subplot will be further developed over the next several issues, eventually taking over as the main storyline; in the meantime, however, it’s time to set up the main action of the very next issue, with the introduction of its antagonist, Janus:
As we’ll see, it’s necessary for Lee and Buscema to present Janus as someone already known to the Fantastic Four, as the still-unused Kirby artwork for “The Mystery of the Mega-Man” will ultimately be incorporated into issue #108 as a flashback sequence to a previously unknown adventure; Janus is (or was) the antagonist of that tale, the very “Mega-Man” of the original title.
Before that, however, we readers need to be brought up to speed about what the mysterious Janus is after right now — which turns out to be access to the mysterious and extremely dangerous anti-matter universe called the Negative Zone, the only known gateway to which exists within FF headquarters. As the story progresses, Reed attempts to dissuade Janus from his impossible quest — first by showing him some fearsome-looking Neg-Zone beasties via a viewscreen, then by recapping the FF’s most recent adventure there (originally presented in 1968’s Fantastic Four Annual #6), where they’d fought, and only narrowly escaped from, the villainous Annihilus…
When Reed comes to, he rushes to locate his two teammates presently on site, Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm, aka the Human Torch. (Sue Richards, the Invisible Girl, is away visiting her and Reed’s son Franklin, who has been under the care of a governess, Agatha Harkness, since FF #94.) He informs them that their HQ is currently under attack by Janus — a name that they immediately recognize.
And that brings us at last to our main order of business for this post, Fantastic Four #108:
The first page’s credit box presents “The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man!” as being “by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby”, with no particular fanfare offered concerning Kirby’s “return” to Fantastic Four. It also acknowledges “last-minute revisions, deletions, and addenda by S. Lee, J. Buscema and J. Romita” — which, as we’ll see, are quite considerable.* They begin in fact on this very page, as the dominant image here is the work of Buscema and Romita, while Kirby’s art is featured only in the small panel in the lower right corner — a panel that serves to initiate an extended flashback sequence into which Kirby’s original “Mega (not Nega) -Man” story has been repurposed.
Page 3’s editorial footnote from “Sincere Stan” humorously acknowledges the awkwardness of the storytelling here, which is a smart move, in my opinion. Because it is irreducibly awkward; even to me as a thirteen-year-old reader, unaware of the whys and wherefores of this story’s haphazard construction, this material felt shoehorned into the primary ongoing narrative.
Janus, the Nega-Man, may be surprised to find the Thing inside the bank vault, but he’s hardly daunted by the prospect of fighting him. He sets his “control module” thingy to fire a blast at Ben, and when the Thing shrugs that off, he quickly adjusts his strategy, using the module to increase the mass of his own “atomic structure”:
Due to the restructuring of the original story by Lee and his collaborators, Kirby’s artwork isn’t sufficient to completely carry the narrative even in the flashback sequences. On page 7, the top tier of three panels is all Kirby, but the next two panels are by Buscema and Romita. That’s followed by one more Kirby panel, before Buscema and Romita return for the page’s final image.
The artistic back-and-forth continues on page 8, where what was originally drawn by Kirby as a three-panel sequence (see reconstruction below) has been chopped up and redistributed among three new Buscema-Romita panels.
Of course, Joe Sinnott’s sleek inking over all three pencillers helped the published art maintain a remarkably consistent look, all things considered. I very much doubt that my younger self spotted all of the “hand-offs” between artists on these two pages when I first read this comic, back in 1970; indeed, I may not have caught any of them.
After a Kirby panel showing the three male FF members recovering from the explosion of Reed’s “visi-phone”, Sue Richards finally shows up for the first time this issue, as Buscema and Romita return for another handful of panels:
We follow Ben and Johnny into a 1 and 2/3 page sequence, drawn completely by Kirby, which has the two heroes taking the team’s Pogo Plane soaring over the Manhattan skyline, where they soon find evidence of the Nega-Man’s proximity — as unlikely as that seems:
The last Kirby panel of the Ben-and-Johnny sequence takes us out of the flashback and “back to the present again”, to quote Reed in the next-to-last, panel above. Presumably, this Buscema-Romita-produced here-and-now interlude has been included simply to help fill up space, since it serves virtually no narrative purpose, and if anything, just accentuates the overall awkwardness of the storytelling. As Ben quite rightly points out, all Reed has done so far is rehash events his teammates experienced with him; if Janus’ unauthorized entry into the Negative Zone is indeed the crisis Reed says it is, this doesn’t really seem like the best use of anyone’s time.
There is an imperative narrative reason for Reed’s recap, of course; it exists so that we, the readers, can get up to speed on events the book’s characters already know about but we don’t. But the clumsiness of this fifty-year-old comic’s transitions from present to past, and vice versa, makes a rather strong argument for the utility of modern comic-book storytelling conventions, which would allow for prefacing the flashback sequences with a big, bold “THEN” caption, and the present-day scenes with a countering “NOW” one, and leaving it at that.
Of course, when you get right down to it, the real real reason that we’re getting the flashbacks in the first place is because that’s how Stan Lee decided to use up some unused, inventoried Kirby FF pages back in late 1970. But we’ll have to set that aside, at least for now…
After that two-point — or should we say two-feet? — landing (one of the niftiest bits in the whole book, if you ask me), the Torch heads out to try to locate Janus, but is unsuccessful. All he finds is a ransom note, attached to a wall, in which the Nega-Man demands that New York City turn over its entire treasury to him within twenty-four hours “– or perish!”
Meanwhile, Reed and Sue arrive at Janus’ Midvale home. At Reed’s suggestion, Sue turns invisible prior to his landing the Fantasti-Car, so that Reed’s old classmate will be unaware of her presence.
Janus greets Reed cordially, but Mister Fantastic has no patience for pleasantries, and so he cuts right to the chase: “How did he tap the power of — the Negative Zone?”
There’s plenty more artistic back-and-forth between Kirby and Buscema-Romita in the climax of the flashback storyline — which makes plenty of sense, once you know that Lee and co.’s reworking of the story has drastically changed the original ending. (More on that in a tick.) But the third-from-last panel of page 17 is the last Kirby art we’ll see in the issue; from here on out, it’s all Buscema and Romita.
On page 19, Reed finally gets around to telling his teammates something they don’t already know — and underscoring the awkwardness of the whole issue’s flashback-based story structure, he does so only after the flashback is over and done with. And, yeah, Sue — who was at Agatha Harkness’ place in the Adirondacks the last time we saw her, in issue #107 — appears to walk in after her husband’s painstakingly exhaustive recap, and catches on to the situation immediately. So what was the point of all that, again?
Oh, well, never mind. Ben, who thanks to his recent “cure” has become even more impetuous and stubborn than usual, tries to go charging off into the Negative Zone without a protective harness. Reed moves to restrain him, and then…
Yikes! And on that cliffhanger, “The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man” concludes — although the full story of Janus, the Nega-Man, is obviously far from over.
So, we’ve now come to the end of Fantastic Four #108, and the question remains: why did Stan Lee reject Jack Kirby’s Janus story as originally plotted and drawn, and intended for FF #102?
That’s not a question that can ever be definitely and completely answered, to be honest; and for the first couple of decades following FF #108’s publication, even speculation on the topic had to be largely conjectural, as all we had to go by was the printed comic, and perhaps a few anecdotes from people who were around at the time. But then, comics art dealer Mitch Itkowitz discovered some of Kirby’s unused pencilled art for the story in Marvel’s files, and arranged for it to be returned to the artist. This made it possible for John Morrow, publisher and editor of The Jack Kirby Collector, to assemble an almost complete reconstruction of “The Mystery of the Mega-Man” by combining those previously-unseen pencils with reproductions of the Kirby art inked by Joe Sinnott and published in FF #108. The result was published in 1996, in the ninth issue of TJKC.
About a decade later — by which time another page of Kirby’s “lost” art had resurfaced, as had copies of Kirby’s uninked pencils for some of the art that was published in #108 — Marvel editor Tom Brevoort got the idea to ask Stan Lee to script, and Joe Sinnott to finish inking, the original, Jack Kirby version of “The Mystery of the Mega-Man!”. They both agreed, and with Ron Frenz coming on board to draw stand-in sequences for the still-missing panels and pages, the results were published by Marvel in 2008 as Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure.** This one-shot also included an updated version of John Morrow’s “raw” reconstruction of the story, and a reprint of FF #108. (Sans the reprint, the whole package was also incorporated into the 10th volume of Marvel Masterworks – The Fantastic Four, where it served as a coda to Lee and Kirby’s run on the series.)
While the reconstruction of Kirby’s original story doesn’t in and of itself can’t tell us why Lee rejected it, it does provide us some clues. The title page is especially interesting in this regard:
The page borders include not only Kirby’s original notes, but ones made later by Lee, as well.
Kirby’s top-of-page note describes this opening scene (which has no equivalent in the published FF #108) as follows: “Famous archaeologist has dug up statue of twin god Janus — wants to verify its date with Reed Richard’s equipment –” Another note from Kirby, this one in the bottom right-hand corner, says: “Why should statue have been unearthed at this particular time? Strange!”
On the next page, Reed dates the statue to 4000 B.C., and Sue has a line that reads, “That fierce face — thank goodness we’ve progressed today” (see right). Then the scene shifts to the arrival of Janus’ aircraft in the middle of Manhattan, per the first Kirby panel in the published FF #108 — and the Janus statue is never seen or referenced again in the material we have access to, neither in art nor in text.
Was Lee unsatisfied with this opening, which thematically links the mythological Janus with his modern namesake, but doesn’t establish a clear causal connection between them? It’s quite possible that Kirby intended there to be a direct connection — at least, that’s what the page 1 note questioning the timing of the statue’s discovery suggests to me — but if so, there’s no direct evidence of what it would be. And while there may be “room” left by the gaps that remain in the original story for Kirby to have presented and explained the Januses’ relationship, it’s difficult to see how it could have been all that significant to the plot.
Whatever Kirby had intended — or even delivered — Lee’s reluctance to follow his lead is evident in the notes he wrote in the left-hand border on page 1: “Art dealer – Why did Alicia do that strange statue?” (“Alicia” refers of course to Ben Grimm’s girlfriend Alicia Masters, a blind sculptress.) “Reed – It represents one of our greatest cases” Clearly, Lee was thinking in terms of this opening scene taking place in the “present”, with the intention of framing the bulk of the story’s action as having occurred in the “past” — which was pretty much what he ended up doing anyway, in the reworked version of the story published in FF #108. And Lee also appears to have decided that the bust of Janus should be a contemporary sculpture by Alicia, rather than an ancient artifact.***
Beyond this opening scene, among the most significant differences between Kirby’s original tale and the Lee-Kirby-Buscema-Romita version is the very nature of Janus’ duality. In the original, the “evil twin” is, quite literally, the biological twin of the more benign scientist Reed is acquainted with (presumably, both men share the surname “Janus”), rather than a dark replica formed from “nega-power”. The two versions also vary greatly in how the climactic scene in Janus’ house is resolved; in Kirby’s version, as in the published comic, we see the “good” Janus pull a revolver out of his desk drawer — but then, instead of shooting his evil duplicate…
In FF #108, Sue has been lurking around invisible through this whole scene, but nothing comes of it. She simply turns visible once the shooting stops, so that Reed and Janus can explain to her (and us) what’s just happened. It’s a striking contrast to the original version, in which Sue’s action prevents anyone from getting shot. Kirby’s story then wraps up with Reed demonstrating to “good” Janus that “evil” Janus has been manipulating him for a long time, by using the latter’s “mega-power” device to heal the former’s legs.
These and other differences between the “Mega-Man” and “Nega-Man” versions of the Janus story may simply reflect changes that became necessary once the decision was made to incorporate the existing material into an ongoing storyline — but Lee’s overruling Kirby’s notes regarding the Janus statue on page 1 of “Menace of the Mega-Man!” seems to be clear evidence of at least one problem Lee had with Kirby’s story from the very beginning. Could this have been the main issue that led to the story’s being delayed several months, and then extensively revised? Once again, there’s no way we can ever know for certain; but, thanks to the publication of Kirby’s “lost” art pages, comics historians at least have better grounds on which to speculate about the matter than was previously possible. Perhaps the remaining missing art will come to light one day, allowing for even more well-informed guesswork by future scholars and fans.
Near the beginning of this post (if you can remember that far back), I offered my opinion that for all of Fantastic Four #108’s historical significance, “The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man!” really isn’t all that great a story. So, you may be wondering by now, how do I rate it in comparison to Kirby’s “The Mystery of the Mega-Man!” Does the revised version of the tale best the original, or is it the other way around?
It’s a reasonable question, but before I address it, I think it’s only fair to take a quick look at how the rest of Janus’ story played out in the issues of Fantastic Four that followed #108. After all, Kirby’s original version was intended as a standalone adventure, while the published rendition was just one installment in a longer narrative; therefore, it’s hard to compare the two without considering the latter in its overall context. And besides, you know how I hate to leave you hanging, and since I’m not planning to devote individual blog posts to either FF #109 or #110…
Lee, Buscema, and Sinnott all returned for #109’s “Death in the Negative Zone!”, which opens with Janus and Annihilus confronting each other in the Negative Zone. The finale of #108 — which, if you’ll remember, had Reed exclaiming, “Something in the Negative Zone has found the entrance in our lab! It’s heading this way! It’s — Annihilus!” — turns out to be a wee bit of a tease, as we quickly learn that while Annihilus is awfully close to finding the gateway into our dimension, he’s not quite there yet — and, indeed, the whole plot of the next two issues will focus on the necessity of preventing him from doing so.
I feel fairly certain that Lee wasn’t intentionally misleading us readers fifty years ago; that, rather, he simply forgot precisely what he’d scripted for the final page of #108 when it became time to start working on Buscema’s freshly pencilled pages for #109. And, of course, it’s the kind of small detail that most readers would have forgotten about in the month in between issues, as well — as I imagine my thirteen-year-old self did.
The megalomaniacal Janus — who, for all intents and purposes, has now become his own evil twin thanks to his ill-advised quest for nega-power — figures he can face down Annihilus. He starts by transmuting his ordinary street clothes into his Kirby-designed green jumpsuit (hey, this is a comic book, after all), then lays a nega-whammy on the Lord of the Negative Zone. To nobody’s surprise but his own, the latter has no effect; and Annihilus soon has the impertinent invader on the ropes. But then, in the finest super-villain fashion, Janus cravenly attempts to strike a bargain…
Meanwhile, back at the Baxter Building, Reed and Ben suit up with their protective harnesses (which allow them to fly in the Negative Zone), and then, with Johnny, fling themselves across the dimensional barrier. As for Sue — well, naturally, she’s relegated to stay behind and monitor the action on a view-screen, because, you know, gurlz.
The guys reach Annihilus and Janus just as the latter is about to take off in craft provided by the former (with two underling pilots included), intent on journeying to the center of the Zone, where he can absorb all the nega-power he can handle. Annihilus, meanwhile, plans to sit tight until Janus returns; only then will Janus show him the way to Earth, fulfilling his half of their deal. (Considering that Annihilus knows that Janus will be flying into life-threatening danger — he even warns him of such — I’d say that the Living Death That Walks is a pretty lousy negotiator.)
The Thing and the Torch immediately engage Annihilus in battle, while Reed flies off in pursuit of Janus, who soon reaches his goal — or thinks he has, anyway:
Believing that Annihilus’ hench-creatures are trying to turn the ship back, so that he won’t be able to become more powerful than their master, Janus blasts them both — but before they perish, they manage to take their revenge…
And that’s all she wrote for Janus, the Nega-Man.**** For all his build-up, he didn’t really amount to all that much, did he?
Reed hustles back to where Ben and Johnny are still battling Annihilus — and getting the worst of it. Luckily for them, however, Reed’s packing heat:
Um, Reed? Maybe you could have asked Ben and Johnny to share a gyro homing device? I’m pretty sure they’d have been cool with it.
Of course, if you had done that, then we couldn’t have had this intensely dramatic cliffhanger at the very end of the issue:
So, moving on to FF #110: The opening pages of “One from Four Leaves Three!” (which was, once again, by the regular creative team of Lee, Buscema, and Sinnott) find Johnny and Ben, having successfully escaped the Negative Zone and returned to the Baxter Building, wringing their hands alongside Sue as, via view-screen, they watch poor Reed drift inexorably towards the “exploding atmosphere” which is sure to do him in. Or, rather, Johnny and Sue are wringing their hands; Ben, due to the ill effects of his cure-gone-wrong, is actually being an ass about the whole thing. (“None of us ever figgered to live forever!“)
For his part, Reed decides that where there’s life, there’s hope, he won’t go down without a fight, etc.. This leads directly into something exceedingly unusual for one to find in an issue of Fantastic Four not drawn by Jack Kirby — a full-page photo collage:
In his book Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said! (TwoMorrows, 2019), John Morrow notes the similarity of the image to Kirby’s pencilled depiction of the Microverse in FF #75 and #76, and suggests that this collage could have been produced by Kirby for one of those issues, but then went unused for whatever reason. That seems to me to be a reasonable hypothesis, since to the best of my knowledge there are no other examples of photo collages credited to John Buscema.
Back at the FF’s HQ, Johnny has hit upon the idea of trying to get one of the gyro homing devices to Reed. He creates a “cocoon of intensified flame” to shield the device without melting it — and then forms a human chain with Sue and Ben so that he can reach into the Negative Zone without losing his mooring in our positive-matter dimension. (It seems to me that this gambit would run a significant risk of giving away the location of the Neg Zone/Earth gateway to Annihilus, who’s still hanging around, but what do I know?)
Sue takes down her force-field from around Johnny just long enough for him to lob the shielded device in Reed’s general direction, and then Ben pulls everyone back to the safe side of the distortion zone before Annihilus can spot them. As it turns out, Johnny’s got pretty good aim — which is a lucky thing for Reed:
OK, so we’re not out of the woods (or anti-matter dimension) yet. Annihilus is indeed watching, and soon he and his nasties are coming after our Mister Fantastic. But it looks like this is Reed Richards’ lucky day in more ways than one, as Agatha Harkness has just now brought little Franklin by for a visit. (Of course, Sue just left Miss Harkness’s place in the Adirondacks, as shown in issue #107 — surely not more than a couple of hours ago in “Marvel time” — so the timing of this visit seems a little off. But, whatever.) And as readers of Fantastic Four #94 know (though the FF themselves, with the exception of Ben, don’t), Agatha Harkness is much more than she appears:
And what’s the result of all these sorcerous shenanigans where it counts, in the Negative Zone?
Reed doesn’t seem all that surprised to find out that Miss Harkness is a proficient caster of magic spells, which implies that maybe he knew more than he let on back when he and Sue first chose her for their son’s governess. (Though if that’s true, it’s rather odd, to say the least, that he’s kept that information from his wife all this time.)
Within moments of Reed’s escape, Alicia Masters comes by to check on Ben; and we learn just how far gone the Thing is now, as he callously dumps his longtime girlfriend (“I can do lots better now — dig?“) — and then goes storming out of FF HQ:
The Nega-Man/Negative Zone plotline may have reached its conclusion, but in the classic Marvel fashion perfected by Lee and Kirby in the mid-’60s, the overarching saga of the Fantastic Four just keeps on goin’ on. Some interesting stuff would be coming up in the next couple of months, including your humble blogger’s very first Hulk-Thing slugfest; I look forward to telling you all about that one, come April, 2021.
But first, of course, I still owe you an opinion on the burning topic of which is the better version of the Janus story — Kirby’s original “The Mystery of the Mega-Man!”, or the published take by Lee, Kirby, Buscema, Romita, et al?
Um, would you believe me if I said I think it’s pretty much a toss-up?
As I’ve already attempted to convey in this post, I don’t think we’re talking about one of the all-time great Fantastic Four stories here, in any of its iterations. From the evidence on hand, if Marvel had published “The Mystery of the Mega-Man!” in FF #102 as originally intended, most of us would probably see it today as just another in a series of disappointing done-in-one tales turned out by the Lee-Kirby team in the last year of their FF run. By most accounts, the disaffected Kirby had decided not to provide Marvel with any more of his best ideas back in late 1967, or thereabouts; as a result, Fantastic Four was already in decline prior to Marvel’s move away from continued stories in mid-’69, which simply made matters worse. As far as I’m concerned “The Mystery of the Mega-Man!” is typical of its underwhelming era; and beyond the “evil twin” theme, there’s really nothing to distinguish Janus from any number of other mediocre Marvel villains created around this time.
And as for the published version — I’ve already discussed the sheer clumsiness of the original story’s incorporation into the series’ ongoing narrative as a flashback. Beyond that, the duality theme on which the original tale was founded — the theme that, after all, justifies Janus’ very name — turns out to have virtually no significance as far as the Nega-Man’s later actions are concerned. (Janus destroyed his evil duplicate? Well, he’s turned evil himself now, so it’s no big deal.) And in the end, the villain turns out to be not much more than a plot device to get our heroes into the Negative Zone, and to raise the possibility of a disastrous invasion by the much more formidable (and interesting) menace, Annihilus (probably the last great FF villain created during the Lee-Kirby run, incidentally). That plotline in itself comes across largely as an echo of earlier, better Negative Zone stories; save for its climactic “outing” of Agatha Harkness as a witch, its events have had little lasting impact on the FF’s later history.
All that said, low-end Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four is still, y’know, Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four. There are numerous things to enjoy in this story, without question, and the majority of them (at least for me) — the fight scene in the bank vault, for example, or Ben landing the Pogo Plane on his feet — appear in both versions. Even if I think the difference between the two versions comes down to a wash, I’m glad they both exist; and I also hope that the last few missing pieces of Kirby’s art for “The Mystery of the Mega-Man!” will yet resurface, so that some day we might see an even more complete presentation of the original story than that offered in Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure (as estimable a project as that was, and is).
But I’m also glad that we have better comic book work to enjoy and discuss from this period from all of the primary creators involved, including John Romita, John Buscema, Stan Lee, and — of course — Jack Kirby. I mean, it’s been fun and all to research and write this blog entry, but what I’m really looking forward to discussing this month is New Gods #1, coming up in… (checks calendar) …three days?!
Damn. I better get busy.
*The precise breakdown of the art duties between Buscema and Romita isn’t entirely clear, but Romita appears to have provided layouts, as well as redrawing a few faces and figures here and there.
**Ironically, a copy of one of the still-missing original Kirby pages surfaced only a few weeks after Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure went to press, making the project slightly less complete than it might have otherwise been. Said page has since appeared in The Jack Kirby Collector #53 (Summer, 2009) and elsewhere.
***Lee’s thinking apparently hadn’t changed much by the time he wrote the script for the “finished” version of the original story published in Fantastic Four: The Last Adventure. There, he kept Kirby’s identification of the bald, pipe-smoking gent on pages 1 and 2 as an archaeologist, rather than making him an art dealer; but the Janus bust itself is presented as a work of sculpture owned by Reed, with no hint of it having ancient origins.
****This being the Marvel Universe, where nobody stays dead forever (well, except maybe Ben Parker), Janus was inevitably brought back, during a 2001 storyline that revealed he’d somehow faked his demise in the Negative Zone, and then had returned to Earth to continue his researches into nega-power. But honestly, he might as well have saved himself the trouble, because after appearing in a few brief scenes over multiple issues, in Fantastic Four (1998 series) #44 Janus died again. His death certainly appeared to be for real this time, with a corpse shown on-panel and everything; but even now I wouldn’t take a bet on the Nega-Man being gone for good, this still being the Marvel Universe and all.