NEW: 1968

August 8, 2016


#70: When Fall The Mighty! (*****), #71: … And So It Ends… (*****), 
#72: Where Soars The Silver Surfer! (****), #73: The Flames of Battle - - (***), 
#74: When Calls Galactus (****), #75: Worlds Within Worlds! (***),
#76: Stranded In Sub-Atomica! (***), #77: Shall Earth Endure? (***), 
#78: The Thing No More! (****), #79: A Monster Forever? (****), 
#80: Where Treads The Living Totem! (***), Annual #6: Let There Be… Life! (****), 
#81: Enter - - The Exquisite Elemental! (****)


1968 was a year of counterculture, where the '67 "Summer Of Love" had given away to darker times. Resistance to the continued conflict in Vietnam was growing; civil war had begun in Ireland; the continued rise of the Black Power movement was further exacerbated by the assassination of Martin Luther King; a Soviet Pact invaded Czechoslovakia; Robert Kennedy was fatally wounded after a shooting; the military and police massacred up to 300 students and civilians in Tlatelolco, Mexico; the first interracial kiss was broadcast on US television; women's liberation protests increased, and the subversive musical Hair made its debut. 

With these events just a snapshot of the world of 1968, it's telling that the pages of the Fantastic Four fail to reflect them. The readership is clearly believed to encompass the movement, as the new album by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention was advertised within its pages. Yet for all his talent as an artist, Jack Kirby drew from a slightly old-fashioned perspective, where the city streets of 60s New York still possessed the fashions of the 1930s. 

City streets and public onlookers were almost an extra character in the book, the reactions from street level to super-powered goings on at a skyscraper regularly filling the pages. When John Romita took over the pencils, the fashions of the time became updated, though the metropolitan New York was still a Caucausian affair. It wasn't until 1971 and Issue #111 that John Buscema was able to present multi-racial crowds, working class people and street protesters.

To this end, Stan's writing tries to work against the art, giving vague allusions to the wider world outside, and the line “Whatever he’s after, it ain’t flower power!” one of the few direct references to the cultural upheaval taking place. Two characters who also get to buck the trend are Spider-Man and Crystal. Crystal, lying to a pregnant Sue in order to protect her, talks about overseas "war news", and talks of protest demonstrations (pictured above right). As for Spider-Man, then a  fun reference is him talking about Moishe (sic) Dayan when attempting to battle the FF, or calling Thor a "hippie".

It must also be noted that these issues were probably written and finished months in advance of the issue dates, though the notion of God begins to creep further into the title as a counterpoint to darker world affairs. God had been alluded to in the series before, with even the Watcher talking of his existence, but here the group begin to talk more about religion, with Sue even giving an "Amen" when her baby is born. One of Stan's most significant runs in his "Soapbox" column occurs in the last three issues of the year, which consolidates this religious belief. In October's Soapbox, he reveals that all of the Marvel staff have differing views and political beliefs, and so they make a note to never "editorialise" any views in the stories. The following month, Stan reports that they received a lot of reader letters asking him to rethink such an idea and be more expressive about views on modern society... which leads to December's Soapbox, featuring a plea for tolerance and an end to bigotry, and the assertion that all of mankind are God's children.

One odd element of the book is that Stan and Jack explore a micro-world, without ever once mentioning that they'd first discovered it way back in issue #16 when it was being manipulated by Doctor Doom. Although these later adventures are more sophisticated in their telling, the probable real reason was that Stan had forgotten, as this very much in an age where back issues weren't dwelt upon. This micro-world sees one of Ben's most humiliating defeats, where the Psycho-Man's indestructible android throws him around a series of poles like a pinball machine, then places him in a volcano until the eruption goes up Ben's backside and blows him into the air. 

Though perhaps the strangest Ben stories of the year are the tales that involve the Wizard's wonder gloves. Turned back into Ben Grimm, he gets cracked with special gloves hard enough to floor the Thing, but is not only still alive, but conscious. A similar fate befalls him the following issue, where an invincible android attacks Ben Grimm with no serious effect. However, the only reason why the android tracked him is because he's still carrying the Wizard's wonder gloves in a box instead of leaving them in the headquarters. While it's always easy to feel sorry for Ben, this is one time where contrivance urges a situation, and makes Ben the unwitting master of his own fate.

Faring much better during the year is Reed. Although the powers, personalities and appearance of the group have now settled down, Jack continues to have fun with the full range of Reed's powers, which were originally much more shape-changing than they became. Although he doesn't change himself into a manta ray or a bike wheel like he had in earlier years, there's still a scene where he compresses his entire head and body so that Wyatt Wingfoot can use him as a cannon ball, or the many, many panels where his hand becomes enlarged. This was a particular trait of Jack's that makes the character look powerful, and able to handle himself with the rest of the group. Later artists would see Reed's arms get thinner the more he stretched which, while perhaps more logical, took away the vibrancy of the character. Reed eventually ended up as something of a bystander in the title from a powers position, with 2014 seeing him look on impotently as his wife took on the whole of the Avengers single-handedly. What may seem a point of trivia becomes significant when the character evolved into a thinker whose stretching powers were seemingly regarded as an old-fashioned embarrassment in a more self-consciously "cool" modern age, a big brain with nothing to do in terms of the physical conflicts the group found themselves in.

One of the perverse highlights of the run is one of the few stand-alone stories, a wonder of racially misguided kitsch known as Tomazooma, the Living Totem. Once more the FF are plunged into a world where they tell a racial minority that they seem primitive but are somehow technologically advanced (and no offence is taken at the patronage) as Johnny brings back his "flamin' fire balls!" catchphrase. With the Soviets wanting to steal Native American oil, it's a superbly crazed instalment, where what should be awful can only entertain.

Far more substantial as a new villain is Annihilus, the creature from the Negative Zone who seeks to destroy all life in order to achieve immortality. He would be, sadly, the last classic character that Stan and Jack came up with for the title. Standout villain of the year was the Wizard, who, fresh from giving the Sandman an off-panel power up the previous year, invents his own super-powered gloves that enable hm to take on the entire FF single-handedly.

Stan's love of the Silver Surfer character was beginning to overtake the comic at times, with the Surfer appearing in five issues, often subverting the FF from the narrative.  It seemed as if Stan’s love for the character was forcing out the focal point of the series, an unsatisfying turn of events that sees the Thing say “sheeesh! We may haveta start collectin’ unemployment insurance!” It’s yet another of a revealing self-criticism that Stan seemed to revel in, a subconscious quality control that commented upon the validity of the work.

Although the character was entirely dreamt up by Jack Kirby, 1968 saw Stan launch the first Silver Surfer title, with John Buscema as penciller. Buscema had worked for Stan in 1948 under the Timely banner, and, after undertaking some commercial art jobs, returned to Marvel in 1966. Although a vibrant and brilliant artist, Buscema admitted he was never enamoured of the comic book field, particularly the superhero genre, which makes his art even more impressive. Cover-dated August 1968, the first issue of the Silver Surfer saw it launched as a bi-monthly title aimed at older readers, before becoming a monthly in September 1969. The run stopped with the 17th issue in June 1970, before a final, 18th issue, pencilled by Jack Kirby, came out in September 1970 and the title was discontinued. It's unknown what Jack thought of not being the penciller on the comic of a character he created, or whether he was even asked. Several interviews cite his bitterness and resentment at the way he was treated in the industry, most notoriously an interview with Gary Groth in a 1990 edition of The Comics Journal, where he describes Stan as both "a guy with a God complex" and "a pain in the ass." He left Marvel for DC in 1970, and in 1972 he was creating the Stan Lee parody "Funky Flashman".

In terms of trivia then there are constant assertions throughout the year that Reed and Ben are best friends. Previously it had been established that Ben and Johnny regard each other as their foremost pal, Reed's overbearing nature an indulgence they both partake in. Considering Reed and Ben both fought in WWII and are off a similar age, it makes more sense for them to be the "best pals" of the title, but it does somewhat downplay Johnny's role in the title, the teenage firebrand who once had the ultimate love-hate knockabout comedy relationship with the Thing. 

Talking of age, then Crystal, still referred to as a teenager (and a "minor" in the first issue of 1969), asserts that she's no younger than Sue was when the team was first formed, suggesting that Sue was around 17 when the group got their powers, much younger than suggested elsewhere. In fact, it doesn't quite make sense. While it's accepted as a general rule than Ben and Reed were probably in their late 30s/early 40s, and Sue was in her twenties, this wouldn't explain how Reed could have been a Major in the army during the 1940s, or how Sue, so much younger, could have been a "kid" at the same time as Reed when they lived next door to each other (see the entry on 1963 for further details). What the title presents us with is that a man in his early-to-mid forties has just had a child with a woman two decades his junior, which, while not completely immoral, is a little unethical to say the least. It's telling that this is one element of the Fantastic Four that has been retconned on more than one occasion ever since.

With the birth of Franklin (as he would be called), the book forces itself to slow down any real advancement. Although Spider-Man and the Human Torch both graduated high school in the 60s, it was around this period that Stan started devising the idea of "Marvel Time", whereby events would flow much more slowly for characters in the comics than they would for people in the real world. Consequently situations around such as Franklin being identified as seven in 2002, meaning that the three-and-a-half decades that followed this run took place in less than a quarter of the time they took to tell. Sue's recovery from childbirth leads to Crystal becoming the first replacement member of the FF, taking her position in the December issue.

Look out for Sue's legs being coloured blue for the new costume she wears (#70-#71), which is clearly the mini-skirt uniform she devised in #68. Either someone didn't get the memo, or the colourist was a prude. Also look for issue #79, with Mr. O'Hoolihan, one of the most outrageous Irish stereotypes in comics, to be sure. Lastly, while the panels-per-page rate again drops further (#81 averaging 3.8 per page, and the annual just over 3.7) the Thing's humour is still much in evidence. Although sometimes it can lean towards formula, a special highlight is the conversation between himself and Reed: "The one thing we won’t do… we dare not do… is panic!" "How’sabout if we just cry a little?"

Required Reading:

Perhaps as an indication of the quality of the year, for the very first time a run of Fantastic Four comics could not be properly understood without buying issues of another comic series. This had, arguably, happened before, but generally as long as you’re aware of who The X-MenThe Avengers or The Sandman were, for example, you could follow the storylines. But with the plotless FF #73 we begin halfway through a story, as Daredevil has been involved in a conflict with Doctor Doom through his own series, issues #37 (***) and #38 (****). It’s also arguable that you could do with picking up a copy of The Mighty Thor #150 as his battle there with the Wrecker takes place both before and after this particular storyline, but the basic narrative can be comprehended without it. The concept of crossovers has a clear financial incentive behind it. However, we must be thankful that, in this period at least, it was something The Fantastic Four never over relied on.

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