Friday, April 28, 2017

Beware The Invaders!

One of the first Fantastic Four stories I read was thanks to its reprint in a March 1971 issue of Marvel's Greatest Comics--a power-packed and well-written tale that may also have been my first exposure to the Skrulls. In a way, I'm glad I caught it first in a reprint--because this is one of the rare FF issues where I feel that artist Jack Kirby provided a cover which seemed somewhat uninspired and may have even done a poor job of selling the issue on the stands. (Not that the FF mag wasn't practically selling itself to its faithful readers at that point.)

In contrast, the MGC cover, produced a few months after Kirby's departure from Marvel, dispenses with the mystery aspect of the FF travelling to another world, and instead bringing the FF front and center and putting them right in the middle of the action.

(Good grief, Reed--groping for a gun? Your opposition out-guns you at least 20-1. Why not instead put that stretching power of yours to better use?)

Yet in "Behold! A Distant Star!", a title resonating with adventure and discovery, Kirby succeeds in providing a story that is all a writer could hope for to script, a grim adventure that turns into a deadly outing for the FF. Its title caption certainly ups the stakes for a team which had, in 1965, become like a second family to its readership: "The Fabulous FF Actually Invade Another Galaxy!" At the time, that seemed a little far-fetched, even when we're talking about the Fantastic Four; but over time, this mission would help to establish an eerie pattern of behavior for the group. For example, the FF would one day invade Sub-Atomica on what became a mission of revenge for the Invisible Girl; and earlier, they also invaded the Negative Zone and seized a device from Annihilus in order to help Sue's chances of surviving her child's birth. And it's the Invisible Girl here who starts the FF down the road of invading other worlds, when she seeks justice on behalf of her father, murdered by the Skrulls.

Jeez--instead of flowers, maybe Reed should have brought this woman an assault rifle!

In Lee's story, it doesn't take long for us, at least, to discover who was responsible for the murder of Franklin Storm--the merciless Warlord Morrat, at the peak of his standing in the Skrull empire and engaged to Princess Anelle, the King's daughter, as well.

The sky's the limit for Morrat, the type of man who always seeks new conquests (and, it seems, new victims) and who is poised to attain incredible power as the consort of Anelle. It would appear that Morrat is the character this story will focus on, though we'll see it involve both of these Skrulls by the time this tale is over.

Meanwhile, the Fantastic Four decide on their course of action--though some sooner than others.

All kidding aside, the story leaves no doubt at this point that the FF, and Sue in particular, are seeking justice, not vengeance--so the invasion angle is only true insofar as the team encroaching on the Skrulls' territory to pursue an unsanctioned agenda. (Though at times we'll have cause to have second thoughts on the subject.)

To answer the other part of the Thing's concerns--just how the FF are planning to get to another galaxy--it seems that NASA and Reed have an informal quid pro quo arrangement which includes NASA coughing up $80 million for a launch as well as eating the cost of the rocket itself, though we can assume that Reed hasn't been entirely forthcoming with the agency on the particulars of their plan. ("No, there's no emergency--this is just a personal mission!" probably wouldn't have gone over well.) And so Reed adapts his new power-ray (which we've seen demonstrated above) to the ship's drive, and off they go--but Reed has another modification in mind which will be necessary to cover the distance involved and shorten their journey.

(Hmmmm... "And now for the Skrulls!" sure sounds like a bona fide invasion, doesn't it?)

There are a few things we'll find ourselves having to take for granted in the course of this story--for instance, Reed whipping up a way to travel through sub-space on the spot here when, later, in his initial experimentation in this area, it seems he's just getting his feet wet on the subject. There's also the fact that a ship from planet Earth (and a primitive ship, at that) could emerge in the Skrull-controlled portion of the Andromeda galaxy and make it to the homeworld of an empire without being intercepted well before its landing, running into no defenses whatsoever on its approach. And there's another surprise waiting for the FF:  something in this world's atmosphere inhibits the use of their powers, a development that only occurs for the sake of Lee's story here and (to my knowledge) never again with Earth super-beings travelling to the homeworld.

It's through the FF's incarceration that Lee brings the ambitious Morrat back into the story, who takes personal charge of the prisoners and sees them as a tool to his quick succession to power, in spite of the impression he gives of his loyalties to the King in the presence of Anelle. But before he can carry out his ruthless plan, a last-minute gambit by Reed might actually provide Morrat with even more leverage against the King than he was expecting.

But even as Morrat's plans are on the verge of being realized, words are being exchanged in the palace which could complicate matters for him considerably--though when all is said and done, he'll really have only his own duplicity to blame.

As for the FF's situation, Ben, Sue and Johnny aren't feeling too charitable toward Reed--who, in securing their freedom, has seemingly betrayed them by giving their enemies a device that would make the Skrulls even more dangerous and powerful. Yet soon enough, Morrat will find that the tables have been turned on him, using a tactic he's only too familiar with: deception.

And so the FF's battle against the planet's military might begins, though at present it's only Morrat's forces and weaponry they have to contend with. It's anyone's guess what the actual plan was for the FF once they'd arrived, as far as bringing Mr. Storm's murderer to justice--or, for that matter, locating him or even learning his identity. And were they expecting cooperation from the Skrulls? The Thing had made a valid point in the onset of this mission--in the end, this would likely come down to the FF against an entire planet, a prospect which the team is only getting a taste of as initial hostilities break out.

But the FF catch an unexpected break kwith the King's arrival, who is more concerned with Morrat at the moment than his former captives. The decisive action he takes against his warlord forces Morrat to show his true colors; but with his defiance, and the desertion of his men, Morrat forfeits his life, though this drama takes an unexpected turn in regard to the FF's mission.

Sue's words on revenge hang heavily in the air, particularly for the reader, and not simply because she's now using the word "revenge" instead of "justice"--or hadn't you noticed that she used her force field only to protect Anelle? Yet it's pointless to pursue this train of thought, since Sue and the others only discovered after the fact that it was Morrat who was responsible for her father's death; but to see Sue make the choice of life or death for Morrat is a bit of an eye-opener, nonetheless.

As for Reed, whether it's the Andromeda galaxy or the Milky Way, there's no way he's not using this encounter as an object lesson that gives hope to the human race, as it struggles to evolve from its own shortcomings.

"Everwhere in the universe" covers a lot of ground, Reed. Careful with your conjecture, Mr. Scientist!


The Skrulls might not have able to snag Reed's power-ray, but it's gotten a little mileage in FF stories through the years. How exactly does the thing work, anyway? With words like "unknown" and "somewhere" thrown in, we're not likely to know for sure, but Reed dumbs it down for you and I, as well as for his best friend.

How the power-ray reaches into outer space at a distance of over 4.67 billion miles (i.e., beyond Pluto) and just happens to find a power source to plug into for its juice would normally qualify this device for an entry into the PPC's weird science category--but then that would apply to just about anything originating from Reed's lab, so perhaps it's best to just take his explanation at face value.

The device reappears just a few issues later, when the FF have again lost their powers following an attack by the Frightful Four. Now called a "stimulator," it helps the FF get back in the game against their most deadly enemy.

But the question is: if it ties into a power source somewhere in space, why the heck does it become depleted and need recharging?

The stimulator goes on to be recycled into a brain-wave pattern tracer in a separate encounter with the evil FF, where it finally meets its end.

And you can bet NASA wasn't happy about it.

Fantastic Four #37

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Chic Stone
Letterer: Artie Simek

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