#22: The Return of the Mole Man! (***),
#23: The Master Plan of Doctor Doom! (****), #24: The Infant Terrible! (***),
#25: The Hulk vs. The Thing! (*****), #26: The Avengers Take Over! (****),
#27: The Search for the Sub-Mariner! (****), #28: We Have to Fight The X-Men! (***),
#29: It Started on Yancy Street (***), #30: The Dreaded Diablo! (***),
#31: The Mad Menace of the Macabre Mole Man! (****), #32: Death of a Hero! (****),
#33: Side-by-Side with the Sub-Mariner! (****),
Annual #2: Origin of Doctor Doom!/Prisoners of Doctor Doom!/The Final Victory of Dr. Doom! (****)
Perhaps due to the increasing hostility of the world outside, the 1964 run of the Fantastic Four took its gaze away from reality and focussed internally upon itself. Gone is the "Red menace" fear of the book; the only mentions of the ideology being a co-tenant accusing the FF of being Communist spies, and an underwhelming rehash of the first Red Ghost story. America was still in a state of shock over the assassination of John F Kennedy in November 1963, and the changing world is one that the title refuses to comment on. The sole inference comes in Issue #31, where Reed describes a street scene below to the rest of the team. Ben references the CBS anchor who broke the news of Kennedy's assassination, with "you're beginnin' to sound like a regular Walter Cronkite!"
The 1964 issues were inked by two men, with #22-27 the work of George Roussos and #28-33 , plus the annual, inked by Chic Stone. Appreciation of art and inking are of course wildly subjective, but it's fair to say that neither man truly brought out the best of Kirby's art, although Stone, at least, managed to make Johnny more defined. Although inkers that followed them elevated the standard, it wasn't until Joe Sinnott took over in 1965 that the book really began to achieve its maximum visual potential. Roussos (under the psuedonym George/Geo Bell) is particularly scrappy in this regard, yet he still has a good reputation, so it must be assumed that his Golden Age work dating back to the 40s is what kept his stock so high.
Comic book writer (and Jack Kirby assistant/biographer) Mark Evanier spoke on a messageboard in 2005, stating that Stan had constantly tried to get Sinnott to ink the title, but that Marvel's page rate was still far lower than what he was receiving for inking Archie. In Mark's own words, "For a long time there, Stan worked with a very limited talent pool. He got the best people he could get and he assigned them where he thought they were most needed." Sadly, it effected the product, and while the 14 issues inked by Dick Ayers weren't great, they were a step above the somewhat rushed and undetailed brushwork on show here. Kirby's real contribution to the issues was the introduction of photo collages, lending a real pop art sensibilty to the title. First trialled in #29, it occurs again in #32, and in #33, both in the strip and on the cover.
The powers of the group are somewhat redefined in the run, with Sue's invisible force field appearing in the first issue of the year. Although the rest of the FF seem to be bizarrely be able to see it, it's a vital part of the character, as it means she can become more physically involved in their adventures. The character had received so much reader criticism that they even remarked on it in the strip itself during 1963, and this is clearly a forced addition to elevate her standing. The same issue also features her being able to turn other objects and people invisible, which feels a little rushed in terms of her development, but is worthwhile. Another hugely notable first is that the same issue (#22) also introduces one of the medium's most-enduring catchphrases as Ben finally gets to say "it's clobberin' time!" While Johnny got his own catchphrase way back in issue 2, it took over two years for Ben to catch up. Stan clearly knew he was onto a good thing right away, as there's talk about "clobber" in other stories that follow, as well as the exact phrase being repeated in four other issues. Add to this talk of his then seemingly ficticious "Aunt Petunia", and the character has finally become fully-formed, even if he's lost the edge he once had.
One more than welcome element of the run is the title's long-overdue refinement of the Doctor Doom character. The second annual tells of us Latveria for the first time, located in the Bavarian Alps. Described as a "tiny village", there's no initial reason to suppose that it isn't just a small town in Germany that he happens to be a Lord of, rather than, as later suggested, as a ficticious country of its own standing. However, the second story in the annual (after a reprint of Doom's first appearance) takes this further, revealing that a President is the acting face of Latveria's rule, and that Doom is a diplomat, and is often in America due to visits to the Latverian Embassy. Most significant of all, it shows his first meeting with Ben and Reed, back when they were in college together, although the modern-day FF have still yet to realise this association. What's refreshing, considering the modern age where the character became ubiquitous in the title, is how Doom gets to be rested. Although the dates are difficult to tell for the annual (it contains references to Issue #30, but has a cover date of January 1964), the character didn't appear again until June 1965. The character continued to be sparingly used, not even appearing at all during 1968. Look out for Johnny racially abusing one of Doom's henchmen in these very different times.
Perhaps the biggest event of the year was the long-awaited decisive clash between Ben and the Hulk. The Hulk is far nastier than before, even threatening two truck drivers with the term that if they give him a ride he'll "let them live". The first genuine two-parter the title ever did (although 1963 had a continuing story with Doctor Doom, each had a tale that concluded within the same issue, whereas #25 is a true "to be continued....") it sees Ben categorically defeated, but unwilling to quit. For such an early part of the Hulk's career, he's shown as virtually unstoppable, with not even the Avengers able to subdue him, even with Giant Man hitting him with rabbit punches. With the Avengers making two guest appearances throughout the year (giving the FF just "24 hours" to resolve a situation in #32 otherwise they'd take over) there's a real rivalry presented here, with the team almost arrogant in their behaviour. An early sign of the problems surrounding a "shared universe" of characters occurs when Reed tells Iron Man he's "heard of you Avengers" in the Fantastic Four title... despite the fact that Iron Man had already appeared to him as a projection in The Avengers #3 (****).
The Reed-Sue-Namor love triangle is quickly resolved this year, as Sue realises during the Hulk-Thing clash how much she truly loves a virus-stricken Reed, and then, upon meeting Namor, realises that she felt a confused mixture of sympathy and affection. However, Reed still has doubts, which leads to some hilariously sexist "female" dialogue from Stan, as pictured. A better emotional tale for Sue is the return of her father. After her mother was killed in an automobile accident, her father had a nervous breakdown which eventually led to him being jailed for manslaughter (really self-defence) and her keeping the knowledge that he was still alive from Johnny. He returns, and is used by the Skrulls, eventually facing the blast of a bomb and dying rather than risk harming his children. It's an unusually dark note for early Fantastic Four, and one that adds emotional weight to another Super Skrull story in what is a year of returns.
Actual original stories were few, with "The Infant Terrible!" a likeable yet unmemorable virtual retread of The Impossible Man, and "The Dreaded Diablo!", despite being a decent enough issue, was the lowest-selling of all the Stan and Jack FFs according to some sources. Stan himself wasn't keen on Diablo, slating him as his only failure while speaking at a Dallas convention in 2011: "Kirby and I had to do a Fantastic Four book. And there was a deadline approaching, and I hadn't given him any plot at all. Now I only gave him the very simplest plot and he would expand on it and add a lot of things, but we usually started with whatever simple little thought I would give him. And I had no plot, and it was deadline time. And the big thing you need with a new book is a villain, who's the villain going to be? So I thought of a name, I said 'what about a guy called Diablo?' [...] to this day I don't remember what the story does, or was. I think it was a horrible story [...] It's the one thing I did that I wish I hadn't done, because I can't remember what it was." Stan's memory is probably faulty, as he brought Diablo back just five issues later, but it's a notable admission of how the Lee-Kirby working relationship operated... of which more is discussed under the entry for 1967.
The Marvel output had increased during 1964, with twenty separate titles being released, including non-superhero fare like Millie The Model and Two-Gun Kid. With Stan working on around ten books a month during this period, there's naturally some mistakes that creep in, such as the Hulk's alter ego inexplicably being called "Bob" throughout his appearance. Then there's Sue telling Namor he should have realised she was using her invisible force field... despite him never having met her when she's had it, a criticism that can also be laid at the feet of the Super Skrull.
However, for sheer number of errors in a single issue, the so-so slugfest of We Have To Fight The X-Men! takes some beating. First there's Cyclops talking about being ordered not by Professor X but by The Thinker, then there's descriptive text that has a puppet being crushed by the Thing (and not, as really happened, crushed by the Beast). Or look out for Sue saying that the X-Men had fought The Space Phantom... an enemy of the Avengers who had fought them in Avengers #2 (***) but had never faced the X-Men. But perhaps the biggest goof of all is everyone, including Reed and the Thinker, talking about the Thinker's android being created by Reed and stolen from him... whereas the reality was, the Thinker built it from Reed's notes.
In terms of trivia, then Sue spends the year with an unflattering bouffant-cum-bob style, more Loretta Lynn than Jackie Kennedy. Also look out for Johnny thinking that Ben is even better at romancing women than Rock Hudson, a line that is retrospectively amusing. Then there's revelations surrounding Ben: he cites Johnny (not Reed) as his "best friend", and remarks, in an issue set in Yancy Street, that he's never seen a member of the Yancy Street Gang before. Not only that, but after teasing Reed about his education, Reed answers back that Ben has a couple of degrees of his own.
Some basic knowledge of The X-Men, Doctor Strange and The Avengers is possibly required for their appearances, but The Avengers #3 (****), where the Hulk attacks the group with Namor, is specifically referenced in Issue #25. The same issue also features a page's cameo from the FF, as they're contacted by Iron Man, who is looking for the Hulk.
What's notable about the title is that the Avengers were brought together after Hulk's friend Rick Jones attempted to radio the Fantastic Four for help... Loki diverts the radio waves to try and entrap Thor in The Avengers #1 (***), an issue that also has a two-panel cameo of the FF.