Monday, April 15, 2019

Mission: Destroy The Fantastic Four!

There's probably no lack of consensus in the assertion that Reed Richards expended no small amount of man hours toiling away in his lab in his efforts to cure his friend, Ben Grimm, of his monstrous state as the Thing--the only member of the Fantastic Four unable to revert to his human form following the group's aborted space flight that infused them with cosmic rays and made them something more than human. Having met one failure after another, Ben naturally became more despondent, even reaching the point where he regarded each new attempt with skepticism and doubt going in, while not allowing himself to build up his hopes. But there was an instance when his perspective changed, following the team's rescue of Alicia Masters from her encounter with a group of scientists who sought to create the first in a new race of perfect human beings--and with anguished fervor, he again approaches Reed and pleads with him to renew his efforts on his behalf.

To that end, Reed requests the help of renowned chemist Dr. Santini, who just happens to have developed a substance which will undo the effects of cosmic radiation.* What Reed doesn't realize is that Santini has been intercepted and imprisoned on arrival by an evil figure in shadows, who subjects him to hypnosis and learns the details of his project with Reed. Consequently, it isn't Santini who arrives at the Baxter Building, but our villain in disguise.

*The good doctor seems to have a lot of time on his hands--has there been an outbreak of cosmic radiation poisoning among humans that we're all unaware of?

It's admittedly almost heartbreaking to realize, as a reader, that Ben's hopes are about to be dashed once more, though Santini plans to go much further than having the experiment merely fail. And the cover to the first issue of this blockbuster four-part story from 1967-68 unfortunately seems to be a portent of, er, "things" to come.

I'd first read this story in 1974 when it was published in the FF's reprint mag, Marvel's Greatest Comics--and as is often the case, you may notice there have been some slight changes made to artist Jack Kirby's original portrayal of the characters and the setting. But aside from the obvious differences in color choices, what struck me as curious are the subtle alterations made to the Thing's face on the MGC cover which have him appearing more enraged--while the shading and detailing in his harness have been lessened, presumably to draw more of our attention to the Thing rather than the contraption holding him. Both the foreground and background have also been noticeably enlarged for greater shock value. All things considered, it's a change for the better in terms of presentation and its impact on the buyer.

But let's return to the procedure itself, where we find both Reed and "Santini" suited up and busy with their (respective) preparations.

To his credit, Reed has noticed with some alarm a certain degree of carelessness in Santini's preliminary work and adjustments; consequently, he's insistent on double-checking every step from that point on, to which Santini has no objections. Santini realizes that Reed's anxiety toward helping the Thing is too strong at this stage to call a halt to the experiment--while for his part, Reed realizes that anyone can make a mistake, though he doesn't hesitate to emphasize that Santini exercise more caution.

But the only caution Santini has exercised has more to do with making sure that the measures he's taken to sabotage this experiment have gone unnoticed. And by the time the final step is taken, his timing is such that his plan executes perfectly. (Now what villain does that sound like?)

It's clear now to Reed what this experiment has truly accomplished--a result designed to have Ben register anger this time rather than disappointment, and lay the blame for this latest failure at the feet of the man he holds responsible for his suffering. But the Thing isn't interested in merely lashing out at Reed--he's consumed with this man's death, and his rage will extend to the rest of the FF as well.

In a desperate bid to defend himself, Reed grabs a hi-voltage discharger and fires on his friend, to negligible effect; but in turn, Ben seizes the unit and turns it against Reed, and any who seek to come to his aid.

With three of the FF in utter turmoil, Santini has done his work well. But this amounts to more than a simple plot of revenge; now that he has unfettered access to the R&D sections of the FF's headquarters, our villain can lay his hands on all the secrets and formulae that Reed has on file. And so it's time that this man who has accomplished so much, and with virtually minimal effort, stands revealed at last.

I don't know how you "hastily" grow a thick handlebar moustache--but if anyone could manage it, I suppose it would be the Thinker.

While normally it would take a publicity blitz for the Thinker to rebrand himself as "all-powerful" in villain circles and the general press, if he manages to actually pull off destroying the FF then his profile will be considerably raised in the eyes of those who once might have underestimated or outright dismissed him. Kirby and writer Stan Lee chose their villain well for this story--with the Thing doing most of the heavy lifting here, the Thinker makes the perfect villain to have executed this scheme, and to continue to further his plot from the sidelines now that he's achieved the means to do so without interference.

As for the rest of the FF, Sue's pregnancy and seeing to her safety are foremost in Reed's mind, and so he orders the Torch to see both Sue and Crystal to a police precinct, while he faces the Thing pending the Torch's return. The resulting battle takes the two beyond the confines of the Baxter Building and into the city, where Reed and Johnny attempt in vain to take down the Thing without injuring him. The stakes are raised when the police send in jets to handle the threat (police precincts seem to have friends in high places)--and even Sue is forced to face the reality of the situation, as the dramatic cover to Part 2 of the story helps to bring into focus.

Back at the Baxter Building, the Thinker has hit the mother lode with the discovery of Reed's work with the entrance to the Negative Zone. But upon reflection, he realizes the clock is ticking on the possibility that Reed will deduce the real identity of "Dr. Santini" and will conduct a search for the real McCoy--and so he gathers what he's plundered and departs for his hideout, with the intention of disposing of the incriminating evidence (i.e., Santini).

Meanwhile, Reed indeed puts two and two together--and the FF's real enemy is named.

Back at the site of the battle, the Thing, having survived the onslaught of the police, the FF, and the jets, decides to lay low and plan his next move to confront and destroy Reed (as well as Johnny and Sue). It's interesting to note that Lee, in scripting Ben's diatribes in regard to the fate he has in store for his former friends, never has Ben directly come out and say he's going to fatally deal with Sue by name, but groups her with "the FF" when issuing his threats. Whether that's in consideration of her pregnancy or simply the fact that she's a woman is unclear--though given Lee's general regard for Sue as a capable FF member albeit one to be shielded and protected nonetheless, it's likely a little of both.

At any rate, it comes as no surprise that she won't be part of the raid on the Thinker's hideout. Fortunately, however, Reed, Johnny, and the police arrive in time to save Santini's life--and in gratitude, he'll return the favor.

The battle to invade and secure this hideout is more severe than these brief scenes depict, given that the Thinker has left a number of his deadly androids as a reception committee for the FF and their police backup. Yet we see that both the Thinker and his vaunted predictions have failed to win the day--and so the FF now turn to the more grim task at hand.

As if on cue, the Thing, having learned of the battle at the Thinker's HQ, arrives and tears into Reed and Johnny, even after being told of the Thinker's role in what's happened to him. Ben's rage is such that neither the Torch nor Reed make any headway against him; but on the verge of exhaustion, Reed at least manages to force him back to the Baxter Building, in the slim hope of using a special device to counteract the Thinker's procedure.

And speaking of the Thinker--the police have been considerate enough to not confiscate anything he'd been wearing at the time of his arrest. In other words, can we say "Plan B"?

Say what you will about the Thinker, but he's as ruthless as they come. Even being reasonably certain that the FF will meet their deaths at the brutal fists of the Thing, he nevertheless unleashes his deadliest android to make sure the deed is done. (Personally I would have had the android see to my own freedom first before proceeding to the target.) Though the way things are going for the FF against the fighting-mad Thing, the android might be overkill.

While Sue, investigating the ruckus, walks in on both a shocking scene and severe danger.

Has the Thinker managed to put the final nail in the FF's coffin?


Fantastic Four #s 68-70

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Artie Simek


Anonymous said...

Comics fan-thanks for covering this story arc! I remember reading the MGC reprints as a young'un.

Comicsfan said...

My pleasure, Anon!

Anonymous said...

Lotta Klassic Kirby imagery here, but I love that image with the robot stomping up the side of the Baxter Building. "THOOM! THOOM!"


Comicsfan said...

Loads more fun than that private elevator, M.P. ;)

Big Murr said...

One feature of this era of FF stories that rolls my eyes is Crystal. In the three issue arc of this tale, she uses her formidable powers once, to reprimand Johnny and his lunkhead pals. With a rampaging Thing and killer robots all around, all she does is gasp in bubbleheaded confusion. Even if we left the spotlight to the official Fantastic Four, the story could have had her helping firefighters and first responders with all the property damage.

It wasn't until FF #81 before we finally saw what she could do.

Comicsfan said...

Well, Murray, this would be the last battle that the "official" Fantastic Four would log before Sue is taken off the active duty list due to her pregnancy, so it's admittedly gratifying for Lee and Kirby to have sidelined Crystal for the fight's duration while Sue is given a well-deserved spotlight for her contribution in the next issue. We will see more of Crystal then, who does offer her help but is, er, FF-blocked by Lee with some clever dialog that deals with her for the time being. (Though, later, we learn that apparently she's more valuable to the FF in running an errand to the drug store than being drafted in a crisis situation.)

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