Review by Graham Johnstone
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s phenomenal run on the fantastic Four spanned most of the 1960s. At 536 pages, this third ‘phone book’ is the mid-point.
These are innocent fun adventures. The draw for most will be Jack Kirby’s energetic, inspired art work, and this volume includes some iconic stories, and introduces supporting characters that remain lucrative properties fifty years later. By this volume it’s commonplace for storylines to continue across issues, complete with cliffhangers.
It starts with three episodes about evil FF, the Frightful Four. It’s essentially a sixty-page fight scene. Normally this would be fertile ground for Kirby’s dynamism and visual imagination, but Vince Coletta’s inking is completely wrong on Kirby. It cancels out the fluidity, and looks weak, stiff, and stilted. With less dazzling visuals, we’re more aware of the story’s absurdity: the infinitely malleable genius Mr Fantastic trapped by being glued to a board, and the Human Torch by attachment of a sprinkler… ?
After this it improves. Johnny, (The Human Torch), lets Madame Medusa escape. Perhaps noting his concern, she reappears in the next episode, this time seeking his help to evade what turns out to be the Inhumans fetching her to their hidden city. The following two episodes go from international to extraterrestrial, with the arrival of the planet devouring Galactus, and his herald the Silver Surfer. It remains imaginative and thrilling, and rightly one of the most famous stories of the series.
The next two issues introduce the Black Panther- the first black superhero in mainstream comics, named that before the political organisation. By this time Kirby was conceiving most of the stories, with Lee simply scripting the final pages. Presumably Kirby was too in demand for them to waste his time re-drawing pages, and alert readers can spot where Lee is trying to explain, or ‘spin’ things. Here, through the sarcastic Grimm, he mocks the familiar cliches of jungle stories, in the Panther’s backstory. Still, Kirby’s effortlessly brilliant artwork carries it along. Known for kinetic action – he’s also a master of epic interiors, here combining futuristic Kirby with traditional African.
Perhaps sensing their gradually maturing readership, there’s an increased focus on romantic relationships. Reed and Sue try to continue their interrupted honeymoon. Ben clashes with lofty extraterrestrial the Silver Surfer over his connection with Alicia. Lastly, the Torch, with college room-mate Wyatt Wingfoot, begins a quest to find and free his crush Crystal – trapped with her fellow Inhumans in their hidden city.
Several issues centre on Dr Doom, despotic monarch of a fictitious European country, who’s tapped the Silver Surfer’s reality-changing power. He turns the sky black, terrifying ‘his’ people, and freezes a Mediterranean island, just to see if he can. He casually destroys attacking fighter planes by transforming the air around them into corrosive gas. Even the Fantastic Four are forced into a humiliating surrender to buy some time.
The extended multi-issue action sequence at the start seemed overlong, a chore to read, but here it is genuinely gripping. Team members in turn bravely and resourcefully stand alone against Doom. Lee and Kirby have an impressive ability to hook the reader in, and convince you the protagonists are strained to their limits.
Kirby’s art here is the best yet. Joe Sinnott’s fluid yet precise inks preserve his distinctive style, while adding greater naturalism, and the stories do what they do with humanity and panache, and they’re at times iconic.