Monday, December 10, 2012

Terrifying Trumps Frightful


Let's say you're the Frightful Four (three of them, anyway), and you've just effectively trapped the Fantastic Four in a strange house and are preparing to dispose of them once and for all. (There's something about the Frightful Four and houses--they seem to go together so well.) The last thing they probably expected to impede their revenge is the home's mistress and her hissing cat:



But the sharp-eyed among you know something the Wizard doesn't--that this is actually Agatha Harkness, and her cat's hackles are not to be taken lightly. A lesson the Wizard learned the hard way:



At the time, all that we knew of Agatha (I wouldn't call her "Aggie," if I were you)--and all that the Fantastic Four knew--is that she was a retired "child-rearing specialist" whom the Richards sought out by reputation. Most importantly, Agatha lived in a secluded area known as Whisper Hill, which was perfect for a famous family who sought to keep their child off the radar. Though for the Thing, who could only be humbled by a well-written ghost story, Whisper Hill--and Agatha--didn't make the best first impression:




Yet apparently, the locale wasn't secluded enough, if the Wizard and his partners in crime had already scoped out the place and were ready and waiting for the FF, right under Agatha's nose. But I suppose the issue is moot, since the Sandman and the Trapster had their own surprises waiting for them:




The twist to this odd introduction to Agatha Harkness is that, even finding the Wizard and his cohorts completely and mysteriously incapacitated, the FF remain blissfully unaware of this woman's abilities. Nor is Agatha in any frame of mind to enlighten them:



Of course, we can't let Ben off the hook quite so easily:




There's something oddly satisfying about Agatha's secret completely slipping by not only the Fantastic Four in general, but Reed Richards in particular--a man who's been known to investigate just about anything that doesn't quite add up. Yet he, along with the rest of the FF, seem to be in no hurry to ask too many questions here, content with simply acknowledging how well Agatha is suited to watch over their child. Writer Stan Lee handles the whole situation quite adeptly, satisfying the Richards and us at the same time. (Though frankly, I'd want to know if my child's caretaker was packing a piece--or in this case, deadly skills that can deal with threats like the Frightful Four.)

We get another glimpse at this status quo arrangement when Sue drops Franklin off at Whisper Hill while racing to avert a crisis with the FF. Apparently Reed and Sue have yet to have a sit-down with Agatha in order to obtain full disclosure (I mean, come on, they're no dummies), since Agatha again portrays herself to be nothing more than an elderly caretaker:



But in a later issue where Reed becomes trapped in the Negative Zone and his moments of life seem numbered, Agatha finally shows her hand. And the FF, grasping at straws, scrambles to comply with her wishes:




The spell creates a distraction in the Negative Zone, which not even Annihilus and his army are prepared to cope with:



Reed makes it back to his lab--and though he's told that it was Agatha who was responsible, there's so much jubilation at his safe return (as well as an imminent situation with the Thing to deal with) that there's neither the time nor the inclination to pursue the matter further. Yet soon afterward, Agatha again takes her place as Franklin's caretaker, with the Richards and the rest of the FF quite content to let sleeping dogs lie. And that's really a little harsh--it seems clear that the FF have come to accept Agatha's special abilities as they have with so many others.

And it seems the perfect arrangement where Franklin is concerned. At some point in the near-future, we know that Agatha will be taken out of the picture--first, enigmatically, by writer Roy Thomas, and then later by Gerry Conway in a development which will render her further services moot. Yet now, she's a handy resource to have around in a pinch. Take, for instance, when Galactus returns, and Reed needs her help to further one of his plans:



When she leaves the pages of Fantastic Four, we'd see Agatha in other appearances in other magazines, though she would occasionally cross paths again with the FF.  Yet now in the "open," so to speak, those appearances never quite recaptured the fascination we had with Agatha Harkness, living in seclusion on Whisper Hill, quietly watching over her famous charge.  As understated as it was, I thought her introduction was one of Lee's and Jack Kirby's coolest stories.


2 comments:

Kid said...

I always liked that first Agatha Harkness story. I think I first read it in a British FF comic Album (in black and white) by World Distributors, but later got the original U.S. issue while on holiday in Blackpool in 1973 or '74. Classic stuff.

Comicsfan said...

The cover draw of course was the implication that Medusa had returned to the Frightful Four--but even thought that turned out not to be the case, I think readers were treated to a good story.

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