Monday, April 29, 2019

Victory Once More for the Frightful Four!

While I've never made a top ten list of my favorite comics stories, I feel confident in saying for the record that I can place in my top five list the 1965 three-issue story arc which features the Fantastic Four in their third and final battle with the original Frightful Four, a masterpiece of storytelling by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Vince Colletta that cooks on all cylinders and would finally settle accounts between the FF and their evil counterparts who had defeated them in the past--and, in this no-holds-barred struggle, very, very nearly manage to do so again.

Over time, the Frightful Four would become less noteworthy as their ever-shifting lineup became a revolving door of villains in attempts to establish new chemistry between their members, their criminal endeavors countered by either the FF or others who were less impressed by their threat. But in '65 they were a formidable threat that became a dogged menace to the FF--a group of unsavory characters who really didn't get along under the same roof but were kept in line by the Wizard, whose ruthlessness could match their own and who provided direction and tactics that balanced their abilities and made them dangerous adversaries. Banded together, they were villains to the core, sniping at each other and jockeying for position, but who put their bickering aside when it was time to unite and take down their foes.

This story saw them at the peak of their powers and villainy--and the Fantastic Four were frankly in no shape to face them. The Thing, barely able to walk following a one-on-one battle with Doctor Doom, bitterly leaves the FF for good--which not only leaves his former partners at their most vulnerable.  And as we'll discover, that assessment might hold true for himself, as well.

For their part, the rest of the FF, understandably downcast about the circumstances of Ben's departure, turn their attention to picking up the pieces in the wake of their conflict with Doom; but following a visit from the tearful Alicia Masters, they begin a search for the Thing in order to make certain he needs no medical care. Unfortunately, just to show you how small a world it really is, another group happens upon him first--and what treatment they intend for him remains to be seen.

Obviously the Wizard and his cohorts have already learned that the Fantastic Four survived the explosion meant to destroy them in their prior encounter, since they register no outrage at the discovery of the Thing--which perhaps explains why they're laying low in New Jersey, rather than flaunting their threat openly after leaving the FF for dead.

If the Sandman has his way, though, it seems they plan to rectify the fact that the FF escaped their fate--but Madam Medusa, who has begun to assert herself and raise her profile considerably in the group, has other ideas.

It's interesting to note that the group's thinking turns immediately toward subjugating the Thing, instead of killing him outright. Prior to this point, they've never considered weaponizing the FF; on the contrary, they've carried out an agenda of aggression against them ever since the Wizard banded them together. Granted, they could deliver a crippling blow to the rest of the FF no matter which decision they made here--and it's conceivable that having failed to destroy them outright, they're willing to take a new approach, one that certainly has all the earmarks of villainy.

Meanwhile, with their Fantasti-Car wrecked, Reed and Sue join Johnny in his roadster to search the area--but given the scope of such a search, they're likely to be too late to halt the plans of the Frightful Four.

Of course, one of the hallmarks of the evil FF is their penchant for infighting, given their treacherous, impatient nature. As we've already seen here and in prior stories, each of them is short-tempered and easily provoked--and even down time is something to be careful of, though such moments are opportune for fleshing out their temperament for the reader.

The groundwork laid at last, it's time to kick this story into high gear--beginning with the other members of the FF making possibly the most unfortunate house call ever, and in so doing finding themselves drawn into the battle of their lives.

There's no doubt that the Frightful Four have taken their foes by surprise and established the momentum that has thrown the FF into disarray, ably taking and keeping the initiative and nicely holding their own. But with the addition of the Thing to their ranks, they completely overwhelm their victims, particularly since the rest of the Fantastic Four do not yet realize their former friend is fighting against them.

Nor does it help matters when one of their group goes down on her own, unable to cope with Ben's "betrayal." If Sue can so easily become a liability, it's fair to wonder if she belongs in the field.  Any of the FF would be shocked at this kind of news--but overwhelmed?

Ben's three strikes (well, two strikes and a threat, if we're being accurate) give the Frightful Four another clean victory, as the Wizard is quick to note. But once they secure the FF, the story takes a curious turn and goes somewhat off-track with two odd scenes--the first of which has the Wizard putting the Thing to sleep with a post-operative suggestion* that renders him unconscious, the reason for doing so at this point being unclear. There's no question that the Thing has more than proven his allegiance to his new team, showing no hesitation to take on and deal with his former partners--even being prepared to take Medusa down a peg for blatantly overstepping her authority where the Wizard is concerned. So why exercise that kind of control over the Thing when there's no cause for it?

*The Wizard phrases it as "post-hypnotic"--implying that he's also subjected the Thing to hypnosis, which seems like overkill in light of the purpose of his Id machine, no? We might assume for the sake of clarity that the machine also allows him to implant a fail-safe command into the Thing's mind in response to a trigger word like "sleep."

Following that, the Wizard then notes the unease both the Trapster and the Sandman feel at having a powerful figure like the Thing in their midst, and under the Wizard's control--at which point the Wizard invites them to dispose of the problem, which they're more than happy to comply with. The Sandman fails--but before the Trapster can pursue his own means, Medusa angrily intervenes and chides them for being manipulated by the Wizard while pointing out that the Thing can still be useful to them. (There's also a brief scene that makes it clear that the unconscious Reed Richards appeals to Medusa in a physical sense, though she dismisses the notion and sets her mind back to business--i.e., the destruction of the FF.)

And so while it deprives us of another delicious bit of infighting, let's instead stitch these scenes together a little more cohesively and look at the aftermath of the fight from the perspective of the Frightful Four keeping their eye on the ball in regard to using the Thing to their advantage.

And after the Wizard briefs his cohorts on their "parts," all that's needed is a mirror and the "truth" to enrage the Thing to the point of killing his former friends, which sweeps us like a brewing storm into Part 2 of our story.

Yet while it's true that Reed is literally stuck where he is, his orange-skinned attacker as well as the Frightful Four receive quite the surprise when he moves to defend himself.

(Jeez, Trapster, don't you carry anything like a stun baton?)

Elsewhere, the Torch blazes fast enough to defeat the device that holds him--and soon enough, he and Sue (providing that she can stay on her feet this time) are ready to demonstrate that the Frightful Four's fight with the FF isn't as settled as they'd believed.

(That caption, while convenient for giving Sue and the Torch the chance to put the evil FF on the defensive, seems like a load of hooey. In Round 1, it was obvious the Thing's "senses and fighting ability" weren't impaired in the slightest--quite the contrary.)

There's the temptation to think that, even without the Thing, the FF will pull together and swing things back in their favor, but hold that thought. The Frightful Four aren't out of this fight by a longshot--and they still have the three remaining members of the FF outnumbered. It's also a battle fought in very close quarters, given that it takes place in the rooms of a house--which gives the evil FF ample opportunities to take their foes by surprise. (And with so little room to maneuver, how does the Torch keep from setting the place on fire??)

While in another room, the single-minded Thing stays focused on releasing his rage on Reed, in what has become a grudge match for Ben in every sense of the word--and now that the focus is once more on the two of them, lo and behold the Thing's senses and fighting ability are again on display, to devastating effect.

With the Thing rejoining the others as they press the attack on Sue and the Torch, it seems like a losing battle the two fight--but watch how nicely artist Jack Kirby has this conflict see-sawing either way, with defeat only one misstep away. (Or in this case, misjudging the resourcefulness of your foe.)

And the FF go down in defeat again, for the most part. For what it's worth, the Sandman won't be successful in locating Sue. Discovering the fate of her fiancé, she escapes into the woods with his container and makes every effort to free him before he perishes from lack of oxygen--and she succeeds, with seconds to spare.

Yet inside the house, things are about to get even worse for the FF, if that's possible.

Good grief--are we ready for the Frightful Six? (And come on, Medusa--you're all mean and vicious.)

But unknown to those within, outside we find the last two remaining members of the FF rallying to turn the tide, at least enough to sow enough confusion and chaos to reclaim the Thing and hopefully reverse the Wizard's procedure on him. Yet Reed acts without knowledge of the Torch's fate--and their plan could literally go down in flames.

The situation admittedly looks hopeless for the embattled FF (or what's left of them). The Frightful Four are putting up one hell of a fight against their enemies, and have now stacked the deck against the FF so high that even Reed may have a problem stretching over it--assuming he gets the chance, given the danger of incineration that now faces his bride-to-be and his best friend. Of course, Sue could just throw up a force field, but she looks like she's in the middle of fainting in that last panel. Face it, folks--this could be the day when the FF buys the farm.

OR: This Isn't The FF You Were Expecting, Alicia...

Johnny's SS Excalibur roadster, as seen in real life!
(Not a bad way to search for your missing partner, eh?)

Fantastic Four #s 41-42

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Vince Colletta
Letterer: Sam Rosen


Anonymous said...

CF, I've just had a "fantastic" idea - you should list your top ten favourite comics stories!!!
Where do I get these amazing ideas? Just pure genius.

dangermash said...

As it stands, it's a good three parter.

But with Sinnott or Stone on inks it would have been great.

Comicsfan said...

Gosh, Colin, I'm a little intimidated at the thought of setting it in stone like that. The FF story came to mind easily--but I'd probably have to put on my thinking cap to sift through all the stories I've read and narrow down my ten faves. (That's not to say I won't give it a shot someday!)

dangermash, I'd certainly like to see what Sinnott could do with this story, out of curiosity's sake. Colletta wouldn't be a finisher who would normally spring to mind for working on Fantastic Four (I admittedly have some reservation regarding Chic Stone's work, as well), but I feel he did a fair job with this arc--well enough to help make it a memorable story for me, at least.

Anonymous said...

Geez, get a load of the choppers on Ben Grimm up there. He looks like an orange Gary Busey.
I didn't even know he had teeth!


Big Murr said...

Mr. Fantastic! Forget trying to cure Ben of being the Thing. Focus on some sort of mental protection so he stops attacking the F.F. every twenty issues or so! The Wizard, the Mad Thinker...yeesh!

Maybe Prof. X could do some telepathic voodoo to give Ben a mental defense screen?

Anonymous said...

That's a good point.
Personally, if I was Reed Richards (and let's all be grateful I'm not), I'd call in Doc Strange to put some kinda protective mental whammy on the Thing, so he doesn't go nuts every couple years.


B Smith said...

"I didn't even know he had teeth!"

That was how you could tell he was angry and *really* meant it.

This might have been the first FF I ever saw, in a weekly UK reprint ("Smash!" I think) just seemed impossibly exciting.

Comicsfan said...

It's a fair point that the Thing has all too often been turned against his partners (at times, even by his writers!)--though, honestly, if I were gunning for the FF and sought to use one of them against the others, I'd pick the bruiser who had the power and the temperament that would prove to be the most dangerous to them. In this case, we've seen here that Ben isn't the only FF member vulnerable to the Wizard's Id machine--when it's fully operational, that is. ;)

Kid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.