NEW: 1973

August 8, 2016


#130: Battleground: The Baxter Building! (*****), #131: Revolt In Paradise! (****),
#132: Omega! The Ultimate Enemy! (****), #133: Thundra At Dawn! (***), 
#134: A Dragon Stalks The Skies! (****), #135: This Eternity Machine (****), 
#136: Rock Around The Cosmos! (****), #137: Rumble On Planet 3 (****),
#138: Madness Is… The Miracle Man! (***), #139: Target: TOMORROW! (**), 
#140: Annihilus Revealed! (****), #141: The End of the Fantastic Four! (****),
Annual #10: Reprint: Bedlam at the Baxter Building; The Torch That Was! (N/A)


1973 saw the book’s youngest-ever writer come on board the title, the prodigious Gerry Conway, who had only just turned twenty years old. With Roy Thomas leaving due to a heavy workload, the direction of the book was discussed between the two men in advance, with Roy even plotting the first Conway issue, a Thundra vs. Thing battle. The story of “The Wild Man” in Issues #136-137 was also Roy’s plot, as he had graduated in 1958 and wanted to recapture his youth… an era that took place when Gerry wasn’t even six years old.

The pressures on Gerry for being so young weren't something lost on the writer. In 2009 he kindly gave an interview to the site, and revealed that "Precocity is a well-known curse; most of the pressure I felt as a younger writer was self-imposed. I wanted to be accepted by other writers and artists as an equal, which put me in some awkward situations -- pretending to be more mature than I was, emotionally, and professionally. As it happened, I was pretty good at faking a maturity I didn't have, which had advantages and, obviously, some disadvantages. I think people often forgot how young I was, and expected me to perform at a level that was actually beyond me. The result was, I was pretty stressed for most of my early career as a writer, and I often felt like I had no idea what I was doing -- which was true."

There are more adult themes in the 1973 issues than before, as Reed and Sue, still estranged, find divorce hanging over them, and the year concludes with Reed shutting down Franklin’s mind rather than let Franklin’s latent powers run out of control. It’s to Conway’s credit that, while some of the tales aren’t quite classics, and the tone is a little gloomy as the entire team is suffering from mild depression, he always keeps things eminently readable and is, way ahead of his years, more than capable of capturing the voices of characters more mature than himself.

With Medusa replacing Sue throughout the year, she’s perhaps not as successful a replacement as some that followed, and in this commendably “straight” era of The Fantastic Four, she doesn’t get the benefit of the slightly post-modern take that, say, the She-Hulk (or even Medusa herself, in the FF spin-off series) were to benefit from. While a decent enough character, one element holding her back is that the plot dictates her actions, rather than her own motivations. It’s never made clear particularly why she desired to be a cold-blooded killer as part of the Frightful Four, and her return to the Inhumans never really saw an explanation of why she turned 180 degrees in her sense of morality. Such unresolved plot points don’t end there, either – the character went on to have a cameo in 1979's Issue #207 where she was captured by mysterious, shadowy forces.... and, due to the changing creative teams, the situation went completely unreferenced for almost three years. While Gerry Conway does a fine job at trying to integrate a woman with living hair into the team as a viable member, he too wasn't overly keen on having her as part of the group. In the site's interview he noted that "I always preferred the original FF -- but the Medusa storyline was one that Roy put into place, and as it happened, that's what I worked with."

Notable during the run is that Johnny gets a new red and gold costume during Issue #132, a costume popular enough to last over two years, until being phased out in Issue #159. Racial parables litter the year, as Roy's last story sees the Inhumans get a living totem of their racial hatred, and later Roy's plot about The Wild One sees Gerry script the end of American segregation. Such elements may seem a little "on the nose" by modern standards, but were reflective of a time where segregation in south America had only just recently been revoked by the Nixon Administration. As Gerry noted, "The late 60s and early 70s were a very progressive time in comics, and reflected the (overwhelmingly) liberal perspective of the writers and editors working at the time. We were just reflecting the popular attitudes of the time."

The only really odd choice for the year is in bringing back villains of yesteryear, and particularly obscure ones, with Gideon and the Miracle Man. There's perhaps no great desire to see the Miracle Man transformed into a genuinely super-powered foe who learned new-found skills from the ancient ghosts of the Indian Cheemuzwa tribe, yet much of what surrounds it is very good. In dedicating time to a comic book review site, personal tastes may change, and circumstances may affect judgements. When the write-up of 1973 was originally published a decade ago, the ratings for nearly every issue were far lower than those now present, suggesting either the issues improve with age, or just that ten years ago fatigue had set in.

The most out-of-character return is a suddenly eloquent Annihilus, who gives us the worst line of dialogue in a year that's otherwise very well written: "Clouds exhaled by the towering volcanoes which dotted the planet’s surface, like boils upon a leper..."  Intriguingly, Gerry believed that at least one of the final two issues of the year were written full script, as he recalled: "Almost everything I did at Marvel was written "Marvel-style," in collaboration with the artist. I wrote a handful of scripts in advance, one or two for the FF. (I don't recall which, off hand, though I think one of them featured Annihilus.)"

The increase in adult humour in the comic can be witnessed with the Thing's "ya look about as happy as a preacher at an orgy." (The following year Ben would get his first solo title with Marvel Two-in-One, the first issue of which had Steve Gerber's script making him say the word "porno").

Art-wise, then the book looks tremendous, and notable is that John Buscema took a couple of issues off for a holiday. Filling in were Ross Andru (mainly known in Marvel circles for a fine run on The Amazing Spider-Man) and Ramona Fradon. It's somewhat fitting that Fradon was the first female artist to work on the series, as the "battle of the sexes" bout between Ben and Thundra is helped by her sympathetic pencils, even if there are a couple of panels where Ben's chest looks... less than manly. An artist of some distinction who had recently come out of retirement, Fradon admitted in an interview with "Talking About Tigra: From the Cat to Were-Woman" that she'd struggled with the Marvel method of artists plotting their own stories without a script, and soon left the company to return to DC.

Trivia, and how does Thundra recognise Johnny Storm as “the flaming one”, when he’d been out of town the first time the Frightful Four attacked? The same scene sees Johnny claim that Reed told him he could raise his body temperature to 1000 degrees. There’s also Sue’s background being revealed a rural Pensylvania, a place that’s been “almost ten years” since she last visited. How this configures with Reed and Sue being neighbours as children is not known. In fact, the concept of time is distorted throughout the run, as Johnny notes that it’s been “almost three years” since he last saw Dorrie Evans... the girl he last heard from, our time, in 1965. Then there's the September issue, which is set four years after Wyatt Wingfoot first attended Metro University… which of course happened in our time in May 1966, less than twice the length away. Add to this the frequent references to the date and the ageing of the foursome and you have in some senses a realistic ageing timeline, in others one that's slightly confused. The only upshot of all the talk about Metro U is that it highlights yet another Johnny subplot that was thrown on the scrapheap when they couldn’t think what do with it, and a narrative deadend with the curious Lee-Kirby subplot of Wyatt's non-existent American football career... 

Lastly, Issue #133 contains a letter from reader Cameron Bastedo, who states that he’s calculated Ben’s win/lose/draw record in fights, including his appearances in other titles. After 129 issues, Ben’s record was calculated at 75-40-61, meaning he’d won less than 43% of his battles. After twelve years in the Marvel Universe, Ben’s standing as a strong man had begun to drastically plummet, with 1973 seeing him as slipping out of the dozen strongest Marvel characters in just the FF title alone. Other characters introduced in other titles, such as Hercules, had also begun to push the once-premier strongman down in the pecking order, and it was a situation that would only continue as the years went by. Perhaps the one saving grace of 1973 is that it's a rare chance to see Ben use his skill, actually blocking punches from the Miracle Man and boxing with him. Unfortunately 1974 had further indignities to bestow upon the group's strongman...

Required Reading:

The referrals to other Marvel titles seem to increase as the 70s progress, with multiple tips of the hat to comics such as Ben and Spider-Man’s adventures in Marvel Team-Up #7 (#133), the origin of the Shaper in Hulk #155 (#137), the Dragon Man’s previous escapade in Sub-Mariner #15/16 (#135/#136) and Maximus the Mad’s dethroning in Avengers #95 (#131). Add to this a reprise of Quicksilver’s battle with a sentinel in Avengers #104 (#131) and another “occurred between the narrative” tangle with the Sub-Mariner from #67 of his own mag (#140), as well as all the references to the original Human Torch from #132. None of these are particularly essential in order to appreciate the continuing narrative of the Fantastic Four, but they do give a telling sign to how the range was being promoted at that time.

However, probably the most interesting spin-off which has no real impact on the title came with Marvel Feature #11. Cover dated September 1973, it allowed the Thing to take over what had been a 10-issue Ant Man title, teaming up with the Hulk. Issue #12 had Ben team up with the Man-Thing, while what would have been issue #13 became Marvel Two-In-One, a series of Thing team-ups that was so popular it ran for 100 issues until June 1983. Ben was then given his own solo series from July 1983 - June 1986, lasting 36 issues. A couple of mini series for Ben were published in the early 2000s, though a third attempt at his own book in 2005 was met with low sales and cancelled after eight issues. It's the aim of this site to one day do a complete catalogue of these spin off issues for Ben, too. In the meantime, you'll have to satisfy yourselves by reading the article on Strange Tales.

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