#154: The Man in the Mystery Mask! (**),
#155: Battle Royal! (***),
#156: Middle Game! (***), #157: And Now - - The End Game Cometh! (****),
Giant-Size Fantastic Four #4: Madrox The Multiple Man! (***),
#158: Invasion from the 5th (Count It, 5th!) Dimension! (****),
#159: Havoc in the Hidden Land! (****), #160: In One World - - And Out The Other! (***),
#161: All The World Wars At Once! (***), #162: The Shape of Things To Come! (***),
#163: Finale! (**), #164: The Crusader Syndrome! (***), #165: The Light of Other Worlds! (**)
1975 marked another period of stability on the book, with Roy Thomas returning to writing duties. While it does often feel that the title was being passed around in quick succession during the 1970s, Roy's second take on the title lasted for 25 issues, two years of the run.
It wasn't always completely consistent, as the first few issues here were either written or co-written with a guesting Len Wein, and further into the run there's the odd issue where Bill Mantlo has to step in and take over, or a 1977 issue where they miss a deadline and go with a reprint, but, generally speaking, the title was being steered under one man's vision once more.
Perhaps what detracts is that the status quo of the title is reset. Roy was the one to instigate Sue leaving, and Medusa taking over, but by the end of #159, Medusa returns to the Inhumans, Sue rejoins the FF after 31 issues away, and Johnny even ditches the red and gold uniform to go back to his original costume. The fabulous website The Great American Novel imagines the world of the FF as one continuous storyline, and, while there are some awkward stops and starts with the passing of different creative teams, it's easy to see it all as one continuing tale, for its first few years at least.
The late 70s seem to put an end to this somewhat, as the book begins to drift into an era where Franklin can still be just 8 years old in 2015, and the team, in contradiction, remark on how they're getting older. Suddenly the vitality of the book is more in doubt, and although John Byrne's run, for all its arguable detractions, gave the book a sense of direction again, generally the FF began to feel like yesterday's heroes, when newer, "cooler", more explicitly violent creations took over their standing. The Thing still had his own team-up book that would run until 1983, but his status as Marvel's cigar-chomping, "dangerous" anti-hero became neutralised the more "cuddly" Ben became, and the more popular Wolverine became.
Issue #160 sees a new beginning, of sorts, as a new logo is introduced, and with Sue rejoining the team, they prepare to take on fresh adventures. Sadly, a lot of those adventures are pretty corny, as the comic promises a "full-fledged foray into fantasy" and dispenses with any real attempt at commenting on modern society. It's open to debate whether a comic book should comment on the times, but it's something that the Fantastic Four had done, to greater or lesser degrees, since its very first issue. Instead the plot changes into a tale of dinosaurs on modern Earth, and the Thing doing battle with an intergalactic ice hockey player. (Ben's thought of "Sonja Henie -- where are you now that I need you??" is particularly hard-hearted, as the figure skater had died of leukaemia six years earlier).
With a story of an alternate Earth the title may have produced its all-time most convoluted plot. In fact, it's so convoluted that there's even a two-panel diagram to explain what's going on, and self-mocking remark about "unlikely coincidence" in the descriptive text. With a parallel Earth where Reed is the Thing, and Ben is the Torch and Mr. Fantastic, the tale revisits what was a brief filler tale in 1972, even having fun with jokingly calling our world "Earth-1" before finishing with "Oops! Wrong Comic-Mag!" (A humorous reference, of course, to DC Comics' "Earth-Two", created in 1961.)
One of the few political references comes with Ben visiting a parallel Earth where Vice President Nelson Rockefeller is President. In the real world, Gerald Ford had become the President in August 1974 after FF advisor Richard Nixon resigned in the aftermath of Watergate. Clearly not impressed with having a President who was not elected, Ben notes that he didn't vote for the alternate Earth's "Rocky" and "or Ford either, far as that goes." Adding to this is the somewhat distasteful revelation that alternate Johnny's battered corpse was taken from a Vietnam field and resurrected as a supervillain.
There's also the book's first reference to drugs, with the Thing asking Alicia "you been puffin' on bananas, sweetie?" (The notion of bananas having hallucinogenic qualities when smoked was a hoax first printed in the underground magazine The Berkeley Barb, but became so well-known that many, including Benjy it seems, believed it was a fact). There's also a bit of stock market discussion, as Reed remarks on how he told Sue several months ago that he'd created "The Fantastic Four, Inc." for the four of them, with himself as chairman and principle stockholder... despite the fact that this was never mentioned in the title previously. Though Reed's status as one of comicdom's all-time incorrigible jerks is cemented by his demanding Sue make up her mind whether or not she's going to rejoin the team... despite the fact that it was him who kicked her out in the first place.
Then finishing the year is the tale of The Crusader, a villain hailing from Uranus(!) who gains his powers from the sun and ends up burnt to a crisp due to overload. Yet it's not just the adventures from August onwards that can be a little corny. Invaders from the Fifth Dimension try to use a "Thunder Horn" to amplify Black Bolt's already destructive voice and lead to World War III. Attacking Chinese installations, they hope to provoke a nuclear strike, which wasn't impossible as China had recently engaged in the aftermath of Vietnam during January 1974's Battle of the Paracel Islands.
The January issue sees a reprint of an old Strange Tales story surrounded by bridging material in order to make up for Rich Buckler missing a deadline. It was the first time that the Fantastic Four had missed a deadline (though not, sadly, the last) and the issue was originally slated on this site when this overview was written a decade ago. However, it possesses some kind of charm, and it's a nice memory of just how much of a jerk the 1960s version of Reed could be, as he deliberately humiliates his friends - disguised as a supervillain - just to show them who's boss.
The art by Rich Buckler is, while very "broad" (all of his male characters appear to have muscles which defy both logic and the laws of biology) once again fun and engaging. As always, detractions can be made on its source inspiration, but when polished by Joe Sinnott, it gives an appealing vibrancy. Buckler himself was only too well aware of Joe's worth, stating in this site's interview that "Joe Sinnott's "secret" (if he has a secret!) is that he is a terrific artist! He's known for his inking, but the guy's drawing ability is amazing. Anyway, I remember from those days when inked pages of mine would come into the editorial office, I would photocopy them and I was always amazed at what magic Joe had worked on them! He didn't just trace over my lines in ink--he literally improved everything!"
With the October issue, Rich leaves the title as a regular penciller (his one-time assistant, George Perez, takes over as a "guest"), but would return for three issues the following year. However, the most notable change in the artwork is that Jack Kirby had returned to Marvel, and from 1975-1978 would go on to pencil 13 FF covers, along with one of the annuals. While he would never again draw The Fantastic Four on the inside, he and Stan would later work on a Silver Surfer graphic novel in 1978, the year that Jack left Marvel for the second time.
In terms of character development, then Sue ironically gets next to nothing to do when she returns to the title, and only really Ben and Reed see any advancement. The subject of Ben's psyche is under scrutiny, as his alternate counterpart is shown to be strong enough to break through Adamantium chains, but only when encouraged by Reed, suggesting that it's possibly lack of confidence, rather than strength, which limits Ben's power. (Though this alternate Thing is Reed, note... confused?) Along the same lines is Issue #163, which sees the real Ben inexplicably consider quitting in a fight to save the entire Earth, until Reed appears to him and inspires him to continue. (The same issue also sees Ben use the odd Americanism of "could care less", which does, of course, means he cares).
Reed, for his part, experiences problems with snapping back to his original shape after some particularly arduous stretching in Issue #157, and gradually begins to realise by Issue #161 that he's losing his powers. (It wouldn't be until #178 where they'd desert him altogether, and another 19 issues before he got them back).
In terms of the Giant-Size title, then the fourth edition, cover-dated February, saw John Buscema, Chic Stone and Joe Sinnott all get together for a work that was somehow beneath all of their abilities. Co-written by Len Wein and Chris Claremont, it saw the introduction of a new mutant, Madrox, who is taken away by Professor X at the conclusion. Although Claremont had a reputation during his 1998-2000 run on The Fantastic Four of repeatedly bringing in X-Men characters, this is one time it worked the other way, as he was still yet to begin his mammoth 17-year run on the mutant book. (Wikipedia cites Madrox's powers as merely "duplication", which adds to the humiliation of Ben, as he's knocked cold by Madrox and a few of his "dupes").
The issue also seems to present an alternate reality, as Johnny tells Ben that the New York Jets lost a game "49-27", which didn't occur in either 1974 or 1975, the time in which the tale is set. Perhaps more notable for American Football - and retrospectively blackly comic - is Ben's threat in Issue #157 of "Talk up -- fast -- or Benjy’s making like O.J. Simpson!"
For the first real time, a "Giant Size" issue had performed a real cheat, as just 21 of the cover's touted "68 big pages" was dedicated to the new story, the rest a reprint of the first Fantastic Four-X-Men meeting from back in 1964. The remainder of the Giant Size issues - cover-dated May and October - were due to feature stories that ended up in the actual comic itself. "Invasion from the 5th (Count It, 5th!) Dimension!" and the two-part Crusader story were both adapted from stories that were due for the Giant Size title before it was used to reprint Lee-Kirby issues and then cancelled. Although it can't help but feel a little like a cheat, the 50c cover price would put it at around $2.40 by 2015's standards of inflation... significantly cheaper than the regular-length Fantastic Four comics that were being brought out with a hefty $3.99 price tag. Although 1975 was by no means a classic year for the title, the readers were still, to a point, getting value for money.
For trivia, then the long-standing "Fantastic Four Fan Page" becomes the slightly unwieldy "Baxter Building Bulletins" from the November issue – a title the letters page was to retain until issue #201, when it reverted back to the original name. Reed also tells the group that he exchanges records with The Avengers as part of a reciprocal learning system. Lastly, obtaining accurate sales figures for the Fantastic Four is a difficult task, particularly before the 1990s. However, the letters page of Issue #162 cites "the quarter of a million people or so" who had bought a recent issue. Although Marvel was said to be in financial trouble during the 70s, it seems as if it was more related to the masses of titles being produced, and that the Fantastic Four was still a reasonably big seller. (Figures for the title are unavailable for its first five years, but from 1966-1969 it was averaging just over 336,000 sales per issue. Despite Stan's likeable promotional schtick, Marvel were never the biggest sellers in the 60s, and DC/Archie regularly outsold them, with the FF - Marvel's second best-selling comic after The Amazing Spider-Man - never troubling the top ten.)
Finally, the year saw the debut of Frankie Raye, a new love interest for Johnny so neglected that she only appeared in four issues over the next five years before John Byrne concluded her story in the 80s. As Johnny takes her on a date (pictured above), there's just one question... what IS he wearing?
There is perhaps the feeling that nothing particularly new is crossing the pages of the FF in 1975, with Arkon the Destroyer from the pages of Avengers #84, and the saga of Mephisto and his hatred for the Silver Surfer inexplicable unless you'd read the magnificent Silver Surfer #3 (*****).
Issue #158 also acts as a sequel to Strange Tales #103 (***), while, as mentioned above, Strange Tales #127 (**), was adapted and expanded to meet a deadline. Then there's Doctor Doom revealing about how his teaming with the Sub-Mariner didn't go according to plan (Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up #1), and Ben revealing Doom's castle got destroyed but was rebuilt (Astonishing Tales #3). Finally, the Crusader was originally a character called Marvel Boy, who featured for seven issues in a title written by Stan Lee in the 1950s, Marvel Boy (retitled Amazing from the third issue).