#142: No Friend Beside Him! (****), #143: The Terrible Triumph of Doctor Doom! (****),
#144: Attack! (****), #145: Nightmare In The Snow! (**), #146: Doomsday: 2000 Below! (***),
Giant-Size Super-Stars #1: The Mind of the Monster! (****),
#147: The Sub-Mariner Strikes! (****), #148: War On The Thirty-Sixth Floor! (***),
#149: To Love, Honor and Destroy! (****),
#150: Ultron-7: He’ll Rule The World!/The Wedding of Crystal and Quicksilver! (***),
Giant-Size Fantastic Four #2: Cataclysm! (**), #151: Thundra and Lightning! Part One (***),
#152: Thundra and Lightning! Part Two – A World of Madness Made! (***),
#153: Worlds In Collision! (**),
Giant-Size Fantastic Four #3: Where Lurks Death...Ride The Four Horsemen (**)
The mid-70s saw the concept of female equality really come to the fore in the Western world. The commonly regarded catalyst for the women's lib movement was Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. More books from Friedan followed, as well as Germaine Greer's infamous The Female Eunuch and the much-touted bra-burning of the late 60s. By 1975 things had progressed so much that the year was proclaimed "International Women's Year". And the year before? The Fantastic Four was running a story about a planet of women beaters for "satire". With Sue’s return her personal liberation is shown throughout the following issues, but she’s only taken more seriously when her powers are exponentially increased in #150.
A comically sexist attitude had already began to take hold in 1973, with Ben leaving the fabricated 1958 reality of the Shaper and ruing that it meant a return to riots, pollution and women's lib. That female equality could be listed alongside riots and the destruction of the environment is something which is very much open to question, more than forty years after the issue was written. Both writer Gerry Conway and new artist Rich Buckler were kind enough to be interviewed for this site, and both had differing takes on the matter.
Gerry observed that he would have second thoughts on the Mahkizmo storyline today, and that "I was working on instinct, and I guess my instincts for the FF weren't as on the mark as they might have been for Spider-Man. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't write the book the same way today." Rich disagreed, defending the decision for the character, with "That comment by the Ben Grimm of the 70's would probably be made by Ben Grimm today, even. But we're talking satire here, really. It was in Ben's character that he would perceive a strong woman as threatening. The other members of the FF, as I understood the characters, didn't necessarily have the same slant on things."
What's more shocking is that the three-part story is a far more sexual tale than the FF had ever presented before. With Franklin being conceived seemingly as the result of nothing stronger than hugs and kisses, it's a significant change in tone to see the suggestion of rape and the threat of rape being introduced into the title.
The year, while having its moments, is not as classic a display of Gerry Conway's writing as 1973, and he leaves before the conclusion of the tale, taking over Marvel Team-Up, while Tony Isabella stepped in to write the December issue. Conway's workload was enormous at the time, sometimes writing around eight titles a month, and his work on The Amazing Spider-Man, The Mighty Thor and The Incredible Hulk, to name just three, might be more memorable to some readers, even though his FF writing is generally fine. The following year Gerry would return to DC, where one of his most famous creations would be, ironically, Firestorm The Nuclear Man.... "The Nuclear Man" being the handle of Mahkizmo.
With Isabella concluding such an ill-considered story, the answer to domestic violence is given, with one of the "Femizons" (introduced in Stan Lee's Savage Tales #1 during May 1971) striking back her male oppressor. It perhaps fares far worse read today than it did forty decades ago, though it's a shame that gender politics isn't afforded the same level of respect given to the environment, race and war, all topics regularly covered earnestly in the title at this time.
With Thundra's breasts always prominent and shadowed, and her midriff constantly exposed, it’s tempting to suggest that the emtre creation of the character is an attempt at cartoon titillation. However, it must also be remembered that alpha males in Marvel also defined their purpose by means of exposed pectorals, and no one ever suggested that the Hulk was a victim of sexual exploitation.
It's not that the book hadn't been sexist in the past, and indeed several panels have been used to represent the 60s issues where Stan's fine but old-fashioned prose gave Reed, in particular, an amusingly kitsch nature of male superiority. But with writers like Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, far more "modern" and progressive in their writing, such moments don't get to feel like quaint relics of yesteryear, but comics that could be picked up and digested at face value today. Sadly, even Doctor Doom (for once, underused, making his first appearance, barring cameos in four-and-a-half years) has become something of a chauvinist, uttering lines like “You display a wit and skill I wouldn’t have expected in a woman“.
Perhaps what makes the issues of 1973 seem even more sexist than they actually are is the reaction of the team to Sue filing for divorce in Issue #147. Suddenly Ben and Johnny both believe that Sue is "wrong", and Sue even saying she's "sorry" to Reed... after he put Franklin in a coma. Such a subplot is perhaps a "no win" situation for the title, a narrative cul-de-sac... because, while it adds drama to the title and shakes things up considerably, it also spells the end of the team. In order to get the book still functioning, Ben and Johnny have to forgive Reed, which never quite rings true... which perhaps explains why Franklin emerges from his coma in a typically contrived, SF-style plot in Issue #150.
The real stinker of the year is the emergence of snow creatures and their "climate cannon" (Issues #145-146), an unusually flat story nevertheless ably illustrated by Ross Andru. Perhaps the only saving grace of a Johnny-Medusa story is that it finally renders Medusa as a viable member of the team, with her hair stretching much further than usual, and having the strength to hurl boulders. Nevertheless, being the only member of the team to be in possession of a truly human form (save for her locks) she always seems far more vulnerable to the various super-strengthed and gun-firing foes that they face in these issues, despite the book's constant assertions that this isn't the case.
Not much better was the 150th issue, which had technical limitations (see the "Required Reading" section), but also told the tale of Quicksilver and Crystal's wedding, something that the title expects the readership to engage with. Even taking away such trivial distractions as the fact that the Inhumans and Quicksilver never change their clothes (Blackbolt's body odour must be more devastating than his voice), the readers are expected to be heartwarmed by seeing a secondary support character marry another man instead of a member of the FF... and that other man is not a regular character, but a sometime nemesis who is more famous for appearing in two other titles. As the story also features Ultron as the villain - a character who had never appeared before in the Fantastic Four - it offers readers seriously short shrift.
Completing the sense of the title having a generally below-par year is that Jim Mooney is called upon to fill in as late replacement inker for #152. Although Mooney is usually a fine inker, the job was so rushed that there's even a panel apologising for it... which does explain, perhaps, how the opening splash page has Reed with a hand growing out of his foot!
Perhaps the most notable character development is that with an old college reunion, Gerry brings back the idea of Reed and Doom being personal rivals. Although very much a part of their characterisation for many years, it was an element that the Lee-Kirby years never really played upon. Reed recognised Doom as his old rival in their first meeting (Issue #5), but never discussed it with Doom, while Victor reminisced about the experiment that destroyed his face (Annual #2), but never involved Reed in those reminisces. The upshot was, Doctor Doom and the FF were enemies that seemed to clash due to Doom's schemes of world conquest, and not because he had any particular personal qualms with the team. This was the first time that Reed and Doom had discussed their past with one another, although Doom also knowing Ben at college was a retroactive continuity point for another day.
Sadly, the humiliation of Ben continues in the title, as he's decked by Darkoth in Issue #144, and ordered by Reed to stop when attempting to retaliate. Ben, who seems constantly in a state of submission to the passive-aggressive Richards, stands like a dutiful child, meekly accepting his beating just weeks after watching Reed shoot an energy gun at his own child. Perhaps the most undignifying moment of all comes when Ben is hurt by Mahkizmo with shots that don't even kill Johnny, and Mahkizmo is able to take Ben's best punches... but gets KO'd by Medusa hitting him over the head with a ceramic jug. Even as recently as 1971 Ben was capable of going toe-to-toe with the Hulk... but by 1974 his punches have less concussive power than a small vase.
Thundra's backstory is altered as she is revealed to be a time traveller from the future, showing men the need for equality by defeating the past's strongest man. While such a shaky motivation contradicts her first appearance, where the Wizard takes credit for bringing her to Ben, it also adds to Ben's humiliation as it's revealed that the Baxter Building had a "temporal field" around it, which caused her to latch onto Ben, rather than Thor or the Hulk.
The biggest oddity of the year comes with Issue #151, where Johnny says "you and I haven't been really close, Ben..." While it does tie in with the more recent years of Ben and Reed becoming the best friends of the title, it was originally Ben and Johnny who somewhat inexplicably shared this affectation, and in Issue #65 they even shared a bed and, later, a bath! All of which should have not gone lost on Gerry Conway, whose first printed work in the title was a fan letter in Issue #50. Despite this, there's a lot of hostility between the two, with Ben giving Johnny a particularly brutal smack in Issue #145.
Trivia, and in Issue #145 Johnny estimates that his flame usually lasts around "twenty minutes" under normal circumstances. Then there's the continuing mystery of how the team can see Sue's invisible force field, when in Issue #149 Reed rues the fact that he was unable to avoid crashing into it as it "appeared" so suddenly. The same issue also features a flashback (told, like all flashbacks during the year, with curved corners like an old 1970s photograph) that has the 60s Johnny incorrectly coloured in his red and gold uniform.
Lastly, there's the "Giant Size" Fantastic Four. During the mid 70s, rising paper costs and the need by Marvel's owners to turn a profit was causing the company to push out more and more content. An astonishing 64 titles were produced during 1974 alone, with the company surviving on the bank of horror titles such as Creatures On The Loose and Tomb of Dracula. The following year the company would begin producing a comic based on Planet of the Apes, and future Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter was adamant that the decision to produce Star Wars comics in 1977 saved the company at a time when the comics field was in a bad state across the industry.
The upshot of this method of mass production was that some of the regular titles got "Giant-Size" specials that ran alongside the regular issues. Before being retitled Giant Size Fantastic Four with its second issue, the second book began life as Giant-Size Super-Stars, with Ben and the Hulk battling in each other's bodies after a mind swap operation. Notable here is that it's the first time that homosexuality gets explicitly alluded to in the book, with Ben saying he wants to kiss Banner for finding a cure, but worries that he'll "get the wrong idea."
The opening issue also contains one of the wittiest references to Jack Kirby's art that Rich Buckler ever did. Although the art of the Fantastic Four in this period is often derided, with many sites listing examples of blatant "lifts" from Kirby panels, it's wonderful to see this being directly acknowledged in the comic itself. In Issue #68 Reed had failed in an attempt to restore Ben's human form... Giant-Size Super-Stars has Rich Buckler painstakingly recreate the original machine, only to acknowledge that Ben has been using it as a coffee machine. (Credit where it's due to Shar from Panelocity for spotting this one).
Although Buckler's art has its detractors, he was fairly open about his influences in this site's interview ("I can sure give it a good shot to try to capture those Jack Kirby dynamics!") and it must be noted that the version of the Thing that he draws is almost inarguably scarier and less "cute" looking than the talented John Buscema's. The second "Giant Size" edition, with a cover date of August, is notable perhaps solely for its topicality. With the end of Vietnam and, later, the Watergate scandal that would see former Fantastic Four adviser Richard Nixon resign in August 1974, the country had entered another recession. An oil crisis and a stock market crash added to America's woes, and so the second Giant Size issue opens with Johnny complaining about the increasing price of food in New York. There's also a topical reference to 7 foot NBA player Wilt Chamberlain, who had retired in 1973, when Ben is confronted with a gangster who's much taller than himself.
Sadly, for the rest of the issue it's very much a dirge, as mailman Willie Lumpkin accidentally goes back in time and changes history. Pencilled by John Buscema, it contains little of his usual flair as the inking is done by Chic Stone, a serviceable inker who lacks the real clarify of, say, Joe Sinnott. Marv Wolfman writes the third issue, with the departing Conway getting a co-plotter credit, and Buckler-Sinnott are back on the art. Featuring aliens as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalpyse, it features war in the African continent and the aftermath of America's involvement in Vietnam. Appropriating such real-life tragedies for comic book stories without the use of metaphor can seem distasteful, and Reed going to the aid of Vietnamese in a paddy field just two years after the publishing of the photo of Phan Thi Kim Phuc can be hard to take.
Although the specials were touted as "64 pages", the main stories were just a slightly longer 30 pages, the remainder of the issues padded out with reprints. The second featured a reprint of the first Red Ghost story, while the third was backed up by a reprint of the Hate Monger. Giant-Size Super-Stars perhaps fared even worse, where there were no extra pages, just a standard 24 page strip and no back up feature. Thankfully, it was the most satisfying edition of the experiment, an inessential Hulk-Thing fight issue that, while by no means touched by greatness, did have a sense of urgency that the others lacked. The final line has Ben regretting that he's going to have to apologise to Thundra for his body (controlled by the Hulk's brain) having punched her. The others laugh as Ben has second thoughts about apologising to a woman for hitting her, even though it wasn't his fault... which is kind of where this review of the troubling 1974 came in.
Avengers #127 (**) is absolutely essential in order to understand this run, featuring the entire first half of the story concluded in #150. The blurb in #150 unbelievably boasts “Possibly the greatest one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary issue ever!” What? By having a story with one half missing in it? The same issue also pitches much of The Avengers back catalogue, with #68, #95 and Giant-Size Avengers #1. For a celebration of 150 issues of the Fantastic Four it gives the readers short shrift, almost like buying a Beatles album only to discover that half the tracks are instrumentals by George Martin. (We’ve all bought the original Yellow Submarine, right?)
Also fairly important in order to understand the chain of events in 1974 is Sub-Mariner #67, wherein Reed saves Namor’s life, or, for the first of the Giant Size issues, The Incredible Hulk #122, where Ben first meets Bruce Banner. Other than that, there’s references to other issues, such as Marvel Team-Up #16, which featured a Johnny-Hulk meeting, but are inessential in order to understand the offerings involved here.