Friday, July 21, 2017

The Second Coming of... Galactus!

Issue #77 of Fantastic Four concludes a story that was likely highly anticipated by FF readers in mid-1968--the first reappearance of Galactus in the book since the character's debut two years earlier. In that original tale, at "gunpoint" from the Ultimate Nullifier, Galactus agreed to spare the Earth from his ravaging and withdraw; and since his herald, the Silver Surfer, had renounced service to him, Galactus stranded the Surfer on our world with no means of returning to roam the galaxies ever again. Galactus had both praise and words of warning for the human race in the moments leading up to his departure, seemingly leaving our fate in our own hands--yet, now aware of our planet's existence, would he ever have cause to return and once again present a danger to all life on Earth?

Exactly what type of scenario storytellers Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would come up with in terms of the circumstances of Galactus' return to our planet--as well as what role the Surfer would play in the unfolding events--remained to be seen. For Kirby, who would essentially lay out the entire story for Lee to script, how Galactus evolved as a character from this point would depend on what details Lee supplied him for the plot, and how much Kirby could or would expand on them. If we flip through the pages of the entire arc, it's apparent that Galactus has returned for the Surfer, having become desperate in his search for a consumable world that would assuage his hunger and ultimately pressuring the Fantastic Four to surrender his former herald. Because of where the Surfer decides to take refuge, the FF also become involved again with Psycho-Man, the menace from Sub-Atomica; and there is also the continuing subplot of Sue Richards' pregnancy that's given minor attention here and there. In total, that comes to eighty pages of story for Kirby to hand over to Lee--and with expectations high for the second appearance of Galactus in Fantastic Four--particularly with the story serving to promote the debut of the new Silver Surfer title--that gives Lee eighty pages to hopefully turn into another FF classic on par with the original.

Whether or not Lee and Kirby succeeded in fulfilling those expectations is debatable, and perhaps barely at that. Galactus remaining at a considerable distance from Earth for the duration of the story and instead manifesting his character and threat in the form of bold and dramatic word balloons from "on high" doesn't inspire awe in either the FF or the populace so much as it does terror and dread, robbing Galactus of the one aspect that makes him a fascinating threat: the sheer sight of this alien casually preparing to destroy our world simply because he must, with all humanity helpless to do anything but gaze up at his preparations. Also, there is the lack of the unknown element to the story that changes everything--the equally new character of the Silver Surfer, whose interference was given not just in power, but in the words he used to attempt to sway his master from his course of action, arguments that were rebutted just as compellingly by Galactus. It was a drama that played out on many levels, tangents that Kirby and Lee attempt to duplicate in the newer tale but which appear to take considerably more effort to interweave and make relevant.

It also seems here as if Lee is having difficulty adapting to the story that Kirby has visually produced, difficulty that would continue to become more evident as this once-exceptional creative team steadily approached its dissolution. For instance, there's the announced return of Galactus and his need once again for the Surfer--yet things proceed confusingly from there, and many questions linger. Will the Surfer petition for his freedom? Will he rejoin his master? Why is the Surfer so skittish and reticent? Why involve the FF, instead of meeting directly with Galactus? According to the Torch, there's no real problem, for either the Surfer or Earth--but in the following scene, complications seem to arise out of thin air, and it's hard to determine just what crisis is going to drive this story.

"Starving"? The fact that Galactus has a voracious hunger should come as a surprise to no one, since this entity needs to consume entire planets on a regular basis--so we can conclude that, no matter what state of hunger Galactus arrived at Earth in, he would be a severe and present danger. In other words, the stakes aren't raised here any higher than they would be otherwise; the fact that Galactus has returned to Earth is cause for apprehension and alarm in itself. In any event, what difference would Galactus' hunger make to the Surfer? As the Torch points out in so many words, the Surfer can simply resume his task as herald and solve two problems at once--his desire to return to space, and sating the hunger of Galactus.

It's at this point the story takes a right turn when Galactus' servant, the Punisher, arrives to seize the Surfer, only to be attacked by the Surfer who then blends into the background while the Thing and the Torch take over. For all intents and purposes, the Surfer then just... disappears, courtesy of Kirby and Lee, with no explanation in either script or narrative. How and why he does so depends on which member of the FF you're asking, since they don't seem to be keeping each other in the loop on the subject--nor is it clear just when the members of the FF decided to keep the Surfer under wraps. Was it ever settled just what the Surfer was going to do? We still don't know at this point, and we won't be getting any help from the FF. The Thing, who decided to take on the Punisher to give the Surfer time to recover from his failed attack on Galactus' alien Rottweiler, seems to suddenly think the Surfer is missing rather than resting...

...the Torch suddenly upgrades the Surfer's status from M.I.A. to "hidden":

...while Mr. Fantastic, who's joined this fight after spotting it from another location and has no idea that the Surfer has returned, has that brain of his working overtime, since out of the blue he realizes the Surfer is not only involved but "hidden" as well, even though he hasn't been briefed at all on the situation by his two partners:

From here, it comes down to a waiting game, as the FF observe Galactus' efforts to search for the Surfer from his vantage point in space while they move to an isolated location off of Manhattan in case Galactus decides to pursue his grievance with them. We're left to assume that they're totally complicit with the Surfer's efforts to conceal himself, though they have no idea as yet as to where he might have gone. (At least you seem to know why he's disappeared, gentlemen--that's more than we can say.) Unfortunately, their loyalty to the Surfer and resolve to help him don't amount to much when they're sufficiently threatened--and presto, they fold like a tent.

Returning to Reed's lab, they discover that the Surfer has perused notes on an experiment Reed was working on to travel to the Microverse, and decided to take refuge in a universe that would escape the notice of even Galactus.

Reed obviously remembers a lot more from that earlier battle with Psycho-Man than he should, considering that he never took part in it. Instead, he was a little preoccupied with another matter at the time:

Be that as it may, the next installment of the story involves the FF's attempt to corral the Surfer and hopefully convince him to return--though it would be nice to know why the heck he went into hiding. Is it a simple matter of the Surfer not wanting to return to Galactus' service? Does he believe that Galactus wants to harm him? We don't yet know the Surfer's origin story, so we're working in the dark; it seems unlikely that the Surfer fears Galactus, though all indications point to that for some reason. Yet we do know that the crisis boils down to this: If the Surfer doesn't return, Galactus will be forced to consume the Earth. And after witnessing the FF's desperate attempts to apparently capture him (wasn't the Surfer the least bit curious as to why these men he considered his allies had done an about-face and were now coming after him and trying to subdue him?), he decides to return and meet with Galactus.

Again, the implication that the Surfer is facing an unknown fate with Galactus, that he's taking a chance in returning, when it's clear that Galactus' primary concern lies only in satisfying his hunger. And exactly what "sacrifice" does the Torch feel the Surfer is making? Contrary to Reed's response, the Surfer doesn't have any "sky-born freedom" to give up--he never did.

Regardless, off he goes, and this story finally comes to a head. But with the fate of the Earth in the balance, and the FF's loved ones perhaps facing their last moments, Reed Richards nevertheless decides that the Fantastic Four should stay and battle a super-villain--one who, up to this point, was minding his own business in Sub-Atomica and posed no immediate threat to Earth.

"There's nothing more we can do--up there!" Hold that thought for a minute, won't you?

Though it was an uphill, zig-zagging effort to reach this point, the final issue of this four-part story is an exciting climax to... to... whatever it was we've just slogged through. There are two plates that Kirby and Lee keep spinning simultaneously in the fourth installment--the situation with the Surfer and Galactus, and the FF's battle with Psycho-Man, with Lee doing a fair job of keeping the excitement going and keeping pace with Kirby's excellent visuals. It's admittedly disconcerting to find ourselves now reading a story of the FF vs. Psycho-Man, while the crisis involving Galactus and the Silver Surfer (Galactus and the Silver Surfer, mind you) takes a back seat and plays out in what feels like a "meanwhile" scenario--but to be honest, it feels good seeing the FF finally doing something substantive with their time, even if they're short a member. Since Sue's pregnancy, and until Crystal comes aboard as her replacement, a number of FF stories were forced to portray Reed, Johnny, and Ben going into action as a threesome--and while their own chemistry certainly wasn't lacking, it felt like some vital element was missing in their dealings with their foes. These three powerhouses didn't seem to miss their fourth partner, but the book as a whole did.

As for Psycho-Man, catching him unawares might have been interesting to explore. "Wh...? The Fantastic Four! What is the meaning of this? I've done nothing!" After all, the same argument the FF used to justify their attack on Psycho-Man could have been used against Dr. Doom, or the Sub-Mariner, or the Thinker, or any other foe they deemed to be a threat waiting in the wings. But the point is moot here, since Psycho-Man has been aware of the FF's presence in his world and now takes steps to expedite their meeting.

The scene is a reminder of the brief look we had at the Avengers' decision to become a preemptive strike force, though in their case it was due to being duped by the Scarlet Centurion. As for the FF, it's Reed's call all the way, and a rather shocking decision on his part.  What's the FF's exit strategy here? What exactly does Reed mean when he says their purpose is to "make sure our world has seen the last of you!"? Do they plan to take Psycho-Man prisoner? Literally cripple him? End his life? Destroy his lab, his base, his world? Where can Lee go with this?

It will be awhile before we find out, since Psycho-Man isn't going to go down easily.

Again, Reed, what exactly are you remembering? Psycho-Man didn't previously pull any trick on you, since you weren't a part of that earlier battle. But Ben indirectly raises an excellent point--why are the FF wasting time staying in the Microverse, when Galactus threatens the entire Earth? Wouldn't the Earth's destruction mean Sub-Atomica's? Ponder that thought for a few moments, as well--we'll circle back to these loose ends momentarily.

It's here that the story's pace noticeably increases, mostly thanks to checking in with the Silver Surfer and the clock ticking down as Earth faces its destruction.

It almost feels as if the Surfer's efforts to keep from rejoining Galactus amounted to nothing in the end. It all simply comes down now to Galactus needing the Surfer to find a suitable world for him, doesn't it? No dangerous "fate" for the Surfer... no loss of freedom... no dread for the Surfer to speak of at all. Galactus is "starving" and the fear is that he might attack Earth on sight? The solution is to meet him in space and swear to alleviate the problem. The Surfer is in exactly the same place now as he would have been when all of this started had he simply asked Galactus what he wanted of him.

Back in Sub-Atomica, Psycho-Man again takes the fight to the FF, and Lee is at his best--syncing with Kirby nicely while injecting the FF's trademark intra-team tension when and where needed.

As for the Surfer, he may not have found a world for Galactus--but in the time he had, he's found the next best thing.

With that climax accounted for, we rejoin the FF for their final face-off with Psycho-Man, who dishes out considerable punishment but ultimately learns that he's no match for the Thing, whose current mood isn't to be trifled with.

You might, with good reason, be wondering what the heck is up with Reed, who's now using words like "don't hurt him" and "set him free" in regard to Psycho-Man--sentiments completely to the contrary of his original intentions toward this foe. Given Reed's usual tendency toward quick-thinking in the past, it's possible that something has suddenly occurred to him here that might end Psycho-Man's threat, thanks to the villain's own short-sightedness or other gift-wrapped solution--in effect, a way to deal with Psycho-Man for good without crossing any moral lines. Instead, his rationale to suddenly cease hostilities is... well, "unbelievable" comes to mind.

In other words, Reed is now willing to settle for Psycho-Man's defeat in battle, since, whoops, the FF need his help to return home. Normally, a villain of Psycho-Man's temperament would back-hand the FF at the presumption that he would feel the slightest inclination to just drop the matter of their little invasion and help them get back. Fortunately, Reed's argument to him to cooperate is one that Psycho-Man can't argue with--but the scene only calls into question Reed's decision to pursue Psycho-Man in the first place.

And just like that, Reed is now of the mind that "We are needed back home to battle [Galactus]!", when previously he was convinced that the FF's contribution to that crisis would have been negligible. Despite Ben's friendship with Reed, it's no wonder the Thing shows impatience with him from time to time.

And speaking of that crisis, the Surfer's role in the drama was fulfilled without so much as a slap on the wrist from Galactus--his "fate" being unchanged from what it became when his former master first confined him to Earth.

From here, Lee and Kirby would turn their attention to Galactus in the pages of Mighty Thor in the following year, exploring both his dealings with the Thunder God and the details of his creation. Afterward, Kirby would never return to the character or to the Surfer; while Lee would have one last shot with both, when Galactus would return once more to Earth to claim the Surfer and the FF once again rising to his defense. (Hopefully the FF and the Surfer are going to be on the same page this time, hmm?)

Fantastic Four #77
(with scenes from issues 74-76)

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Sam Rosen (#s 74-76: Artie Simek)


Colin Jones said...

How interesting to see "The Punisher" and "micronauts" before those words referred to something else in the following decade !

Anonymous said...

Man, if this isn't a four-star genuine classic, I don't know what is! It blew my mind when I first read the reprint in Marvels Greatest Comics decades ago. This is what the F.F. is all about--cosmic action and drama. Great review!


Comicsfan said...

Much obliged, M.P.!

Colin, I caught that "micronauts" reference, too--you'd think that Mr. Mantlo's adventurers and fellow denizens of the Microverse would have heard of Sub-Atomica, right? (Or maybe they just gave it a wide berth.)

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