#10: The Return of Doctor Doom! (***),
#11: A Visit With The Fantastic Four/The Impossible Man (****), #12: The Incredible Hulk (***),
#13: The Fantastic Four Versus the Red Ghost and his Indescribable Super-Apes! (****)
#14: Sub-Mariner and The Merciless Puppet Master (***),
#15: The Fantastic Four Battle… the Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android! (***),
Annual #1: Sub-Mariner vs. The Human Race!/The Fabulous Fantastic Four Meet Spider-Man! (****),
#16: The Micro-World of Doctor Doom! (****), #17: Defeated By Doctor Doom! (***),
#18: A Skrull Walks Among Us! (****), #19: Prisoners of the Pharaoh! (****),
#20: The Mysterious Molecule Man! (****), #21: The Hate Monger! (***)
The 1963 run of the Fantastic Four is still largely motivated by fear of Communism, with even Sue slating the "evil leaders" who enslave the innocent "Communist masses". The group's first meeting with the Hulk sees the Wrecker involved.... yet, true to form, it's not the crowbar-wielding character who was created in 1968, but a "red" from a "subversive Communist front organisation." Such elements may seem heavy-handed today, particularly from an editorial that elsewhere preached understanding and an end to bigotry, but these issues were produced during very different times. It had only been October 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis had begun and ended, and the Vietnam war, backed by both sides, was still raging, with the Soviet-sponsored Viet Cong getting some of their first prominent victories.
It's in this historical backdrop that one of their most fun villains appears, the Communist Red Ghost and his Super Apes. Featuring the exploits of crazed scientist Ivan Kragoff and his three super-powered apes, it's left to Reed to be a sole voice of reason, and what seems like the only member of the FF who wouldn't have agreed with Joseph McCarthy: "This is wrong! Why should we battle Kragoff? Why can’t we leave our differences behind us? This is the first step to the stars - -and we should all make that trip together – as fellow Earthmen!" It's the kind of sentiment that you'd expect the Fantastic Four to have expressed from the beginning... though if the title had, Reed wouldn't have had the motive to decide that taking his girlfriend and her kid brother into space was a good idea. Note that while Ben acquits himself admirably against the Hulk in their first clash (which is interrupted, with no conclusive winner), he suffers his first defeat at the paws of a cosmic ray-induced gorilla. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev even makes an appearance during Issue #17 and the Annual, beginning an unfortunate tradition of bad fate befalling anyone who appeared as "themselves" in the title... he was ousted from power the following year, in October 1964.
Then there's a preacher who walks the streets of New York, stirring up racial hatred in a subtle manner by calling himself... the Hate Monger. A well-meaning but over-earnest story, its heart may be in the right place, but its anti-racism rhetoric sits uneasily with the constant Communism-bashing of the book, or Johnny's slating of an Asian character as "Gunga Din" just two issues later. Four months later one of the Human Torch's solo adventures in Strange Tales (see the 1965 entry for further details) would see an almost identikit villain, "The Rabble Rouser", who claimed to have invented the sub-surface vehicle the Hate Monger uses here. In an astonishingly unethical climax, the Torch defeats the Rabble Rouser by using his "mesmerizing wand" to brainwash him into being allegiant to America. Although such stories may seem to lack true subtlety, it's an example of Stan and Jack really putting themselves into the title, two Jewish man crafting a work about Hitler still being alive.
The Marvel Universe continued to expand, with Iron Man making his debut in March 1963, followed by the Wasp in June, Dr. Strange in July and The X-Men in September. The Avengers also made their debut in September, but were made up of previously-created characters. May 1963 saw the first issue of the WWII-set Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos , a character who turned up in the Hate Monger story as an old army buddy of Reed's. He asks the FF to go down and sort out a potential uprising in the fictitious South American country of San Gusto, which is almost certainly a proxy for Cuba, given that in the 60s Fury is working for the CIA.
Stan adds further to reader panic, by stating that the Russians are rumoured to be developing one of the underground rocket bores that the Hate Monger uses. The final words in the strip talk about the Stars and Stripes, and the enduring legacy of America.... an odd inclusion of patriotism in a comic that's also promoting world harmony. It's important to remember the times that these comics were produced in, and how much knowledge the American populace was being denied. When Russia agreed to pull out of Cuba, the United States secretly agreed to pull its own missiles out of Turkey and Italy, an event which was not disclosed to the public, and many of its operations in Vietnam were, at that time, covert. Such jingoism was not new to members of the creative team; the first issue of Captain America Comics in 1941 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby famously sold itself on Steve Rogers punching Hitler in the face; while Fury's comic of retro-WWII exploits featured American involvement at the height of the conflict.
In terms of the Fantastic Four themselves, then there are slight but significant changes throughout the 1963 issues. Previously it had been stated by Stan that he was worried readers would get confused if the Thing was called "Ben" in the issues, giving us the odd sight of everyone referring to him as "Thing". Although a couple of "Ben"s slip out in Issue #10, it's the following issue, with its mini story "A Visit With The Fantastic Four" that really phases this out. As it features Reed getting a temporary cure for Ben, it allows them to re-establish that the Thing is a result of the cosmic rays, and gives them ample excuse to have his teammates calling him, quite naturally, by his real name. The same story also features Reed and Ben talking for the first time about how they were both in World War II, and how Reed and Sue grew up as kids living next door to one another - all elements that have since been retconned out of FF history by future creative teams. It's of note that the war careers of both men - Reed was in undercover combat duty, but was more behind-the-scenes - reflects that of Stan and Jack themselves. Jack was drafted in 1943, and was a scout in the line of fire. Stan, for his part, was drafted a year earlier, but was part of the Signal Corps and then later given the miliary classifiction of "Playwright".
Unpinning the tales is Sue's confusion over her feelings for the Sub-Mariner, something referred to even in issues in which he does not appear. While issues of the late 2000s saw Reed and Sue express their love without really saying having anything to say to one another, here there's a definite tension. And Sue, despite having two separate cracks from Ben about how women never stop talking, is more proactive and intelligent than it may have seemed, at one point physically beating Doctor Doom... even if she is so demure that the sight of the Hulk on a projector screen makes her turn invisible through fear. This said, Sue's fixation with infatuated romance is incredibly patronising writing, as even Ant-Man gets drawn into the list of potential suitors.
While the retreads of previous years don't add a great deal to the title, the debut of new characters including the Watcher, the Molecule Man, the Impossible Man and the Thinker inject some intrigue into events. The Thinker's story is particularly unusual as, apart from his giant android, it involves gangsters, a rare "street level" excursion for the FF. Yet perhaps the most redundant question Stan ever asked in the strip was: "The Android... neither animal, nor vegetable, nor mineral! What is it?" Errrrr... is it an android, Stan?
While the book was generally strong at bringing in new characters, old ones got brought back, including the Puppet Master and Doctor Doom. At this stage Doom has still yet to mention either Latveria or his association with Ben and Reed, so his stories are more outrageous than they would later become. One small revelation is that he's scarred behind his mask, a fact he only discloses in a discussion with himself in Issue #16. (On a similar note, Ben has had four experiences with the Yancy Street Gang and mentioned them three times more without any indication that he grew up there). One of Doom's encounters begins when Sue is a guest on the Molly Margaret McSnide talk show (a less than flattering reference to popular radio show host Mary Margaret McBride) before being shrunk to microscopic size. This leads into the first two-parter in the book's history, where they chase Doom into a microworld, and then, the following issue, back onto the streets of New York.
One notable element is how much warmer Ben is in the these issues, insulting Johnny, but with much more humour, so much so that Johnny is given to sarcastically comparing him to Bob Hope, and muses on how he loves Ben. However, while the title veers towards the "teddy bear" era of the character, he still has enough venom inside him to give Reed a nasty left hook in Issue #17... even if he does apologise for it later.
While there's often a synergy between the work of Stan and Jack, Issue #10 does give us one of their weakest moments as Reed and Johnny, seeing the FF flare from The Thing, spend a whole page trying to get into the accidentally locked door of the Fantasticar hangar, only to decide that they don't need it anyway as Ben is nearby. Quite what Kirby intended with this page of non-plot is unknown, as any apparent purpose is glossed over. This sense of Stan writing against the art, rather than with it, continues with the following page, which has a man clearly trying to steal a kiss from The Invisible Girl, but is written in the dialogue as wanting a "smile".
Perhaps fittingly, the storyline of the issue is based around Stan and Jack having no new ideas for a Fantastic Four comic and being saved when Doctor Doom turns up. Doom gets three appearances throughout the year, and no matter how outlandish his adventures get - such as floating out to space on a meteorite and being taught to mind-swap by the alien Ovoids - he has still yet to be given his more serious backstory. The character's initial roles are not that of a dignified man of twisted honour, but are rather silly, pulpish tales. The inclusion of the writer and artist into the strip is yet more of the same indulgent plotting that they quickly grew out of. Characters like Spider-Man hit the ground running, but the FF took a little longer to find their true voices.
Johnny begins to get a love life in these issues, trying to arrange sleazy car kissing sessions with Peggy (Issue #15), Helen (Issue #17) and, in October 1963, finally got a sort-of steady girlfriend with Doris Evans in his own solo strip, Strange Tales #113. (See "Other Titles" for further details). Reed, for his part, is identified in dialogue as being the tallest (with Ben often drawn as taller by later artists), and these early issues have him being able to change mass, including turning his fist into a hammer, or shrinking his own head with no side effects. Such Plastic Man-style shenanigans were later discarded in future issues, certainly after the silver age, but it's nice to see Stan and Jack having fun with his powers.
Speaking of the powers, then we learn some new information regarding them, with the levels being much lower in these earlier issues. The issue that introduces the Super Skrull, for example (a Skrull with all of their powers combined) has the alien able to lift over 100 tonnes, whereas the Skrull Empire estimates Ben to only be able to lift over 5. However, #14 has Reed testing the limits of his strength by giving him a 10 tonne weight to lift, which Ben is able to easily bend in two.
Another comparison occurs where the Super Skrull is able to stretch over 100 miles (528,000 feet), whereas in a non-story bonus feature (Issue #16) Reed reveals that he's unsure of his limits as stretching over 500 yards (1500 feet) causes him pain. (This claim is contradicted by a feature page in the annual, which brings it down to "over 100 yards"... the same feature states that Reed's greying temples are not the result of age, but of his war efforts!) The concept of a villain that can ape the powers of the heroes is a potent one, and Stan did it again just three years later with artist Werner Roth when they created the X-Men nemesis Mimic.
One unusual recurring trope in these issues is the use of "flashforwards", where one or more characters will imagine what will happen in the near future, usually as the result of boasts or threats. It occurs in five separate stories, as well as the more traditional flashbacks occuring in all but two of the issues.
Trivia, and Johnny produces a plot convenient "heat mirage" in Issue #10, and experiments with blue flame. His "flame images" in Issue #17 stretch credulity, however, and his fire stethoscope in the annual is ridiculous. Meanwhile, in Issue #12 the Thing claims that his favourite kind of music is "low down New Orleans jazz", and the annual sees the first use of his "idol o'millions" catchphrase. Also look out for the use of the term "blanketty blank" to cover characters swearing (including Ben and foul-mouthed Willie Lumpkin, no less!) before the trend of using random punctuation marks took over in Issue #17... the first one to test the Code being Ben. Issue #14 was the first to discard the quaint notion of splitting the stories into "chapters", while #12 upgraded the Fantasticar first introduced in #3.
In terms of the creative team, then Dick Ayers (no childish sniggering at the back!) made his debut as inker with Issue #6 and continued to ink every issue up till #20, including the main story of the annual. Sole exception to this was Steve Ditko, who inked #13 and the back-up story of the annual. Ayers had been a regular inker for Jack Kirby since 1959, and it was a collaboration that worked well. Although not as dynamic as Joe Sinnott - when the book would really get its true visual sense - the inking worked fine throughout the year. Taking over with Issue #21 was George Roussos, who began a seven-issue run.
Finally, completing Ben's character progression, the "bah!" era officially ends with Issue #15, and is never uttered by him again, even though plenty of the villains borrow it as a catchphrase. Sadly, Johnny picks up the habit of saying "flamin' fireballs!"....
The Fantastic Four had been used to showcase other Marvel characters, but with Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #3 (***), we get a member of the FF appearing solo in another character's title. Major Richards blows up Nazis with a grenade and then passes on espionage information to Fury, an event which the two briefly reminisce over in Fantastic Four #21.
The series ran for 167 issues and 7 annuals, lasting until 1981. Reputed to be the result of a bet between Stan and his publisher (reasoning that the Lee-Kirby style could sell, even with a terrible title), the issue spotlighted here is fine if a little wearying; the one-dimensional depiction of Nazis and the gung-ho, "gag a second" dialogue of Fury and his crew somewhat draining over 22 pages. Note that Gabriel Jones, the black member of the team, is frequently coloured as white in this early issue.
While not an essential read to understand that year's Fantastic Four output, it is a curious item; the first story to truly show us a member of the group before their adventures began.