#166: If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be The Hulk! (***), #167: Titans Two! (****),
#168: Where Have All The Powers Gone? (****),
#169: Five Characters In Search of a Madman! (****), #170: A Sky-Full of Fear! (****),
Annual #11: And Now -- Then-- The Invaders! (***), #171: Death Is A Golden Gorilla! (***),
#172: Cry, The Bedeviled Planet! (***),
#173: Counter-Earth Must Die – At The Hand of Galactus! (***), #174: Starquest! (***),
#175: When Giants Walk The Sky! (***),
#176: Improbable As It May Seem – - The Impossible Man Is Back In Town! (***),
#177: Look Out For The Frightful Four! (****)
1976 is the year where Roy Thomas starts to rehabilitate the Thing. Now 15 years into his creation, the character had been used too often as a benchmark to show how "tough" other characters were by beating on him, and it had taken its toll. To this end, Roy sets about a chain of unlikely events that have the end result of Ben becoming a stronger, larger version of himself by the years' end.
It's often a bumpy ride in terms of logic, as Ben decides to turn on his team mates and befriend the Hulk, and finds that prolonged exposure to the Hulk's emitted gamma radiation changes him permanently back into Ben Grimm. Reed somehow manages to devise a zip-up suit that can replicate around 90% or more of the Thing's strength and can even breathe in space if he keeps the mouthpiece closed (presumably there's no nose or ear holes).
The suit was lambasted in the letters pages, but then, as punishment for defying Galactus, Ben is once more transformed back into his rocky self, only with a bit more power behind him. It was a valiant attempt to restore the credibility of a character who was still very popular (having his own team up series, Marvel Two-In-One), but had begun to get "safe" compared to the bezerker 60s model. Unfortunately Roy Thomas left the book in 1977 after just three more issues, and the idea of the Thing being stronger seemed to get lost in the mix of new creative teams.
After the Exo-Suit, then probably the most contentious element of this run is the presence of Luke Cage, a character who had debuted in his own struggling comic book, Luke Cage, Hero For Hire from June 1972. Strictly speaking, Cage’s first FF appearance was a two-panel cameo in #133, but by the time of his three-issue fill-in for the de-Thinged Thing, his own book and monicker had long been up/downgraded (your choice) to “Power Man”. In terms of mainstream success, then that’s something that has, to date, always largely alluded Cage in the comics medium. Although a favourite of many writers and artists and placed into various Avengers groups, even by 2016 a rebooted Power Man and Iron Fist fell out of the top 100 selling comics after just six issues.
Iron Fist was created in May 1974 by Roy Thomas-Gil Kane, and he would also go on to struggle, his own comic book being cancelled after just fifteen issues. Yet teaming Power Man with Iron Fist from issue #50 (April 1978) produced a reasonable hit, selling in excess of 100,000 copies and a fair critical approval to the issues crafted by Cage’s first black writer, James Owsley. However, the book, despite making money, was downgraded and eventually dropped in 1986, along with much of the lesser Marvel titles to make way for an unsuccessful experiment with the “New Universe” line.
Yet in terms of Cage’s appearance in this period of the FF, then he’s still very much an archetype, the creative product of white liberals who have developed a “black” superhero via an approximation of black media culture. Hence, Cage isn’t a character in his own right, but a third-hand Xerox of Richard Roundtree and Gordon Parks. Even his powers are quite generic, especially given that even though he’s strong, he’s not as strong as virtually any other “strength” orientated character in the Marvel Universe. (Though, to be fair, if he was, that could also be seen as inverse racism). That’s not to say that Luke Cage is a bad character per se, and if you like camp blaxploitation relics with chains for belts and flared yellow shirts that say things like “You KNOW IT, baby!” then Power Man could be for you.
But who am I, a white man from the UK, to suggest that Luke Cage wasn’t a valid representation of the American “black experience” in the 70s? For this purpose I researched Owsley’s website (now known as Christopher Priest) and – while it should be noted that this is a single man’s opinion - Priest’s fascinating write-up of the character thankfully ties in with my own, admittedly outsider, views on this controversial issue. Priest's write-up on Power Man and Iron Fist includes the belief that "the larger body of African-American characters bear not much resemblance to any real black culture. It seems to be what white people think black people are like." Interestingly, Owsley was to present Cage’s “loud angry Negro routine” (his words) as just a put-on in the March 1986 issue of Power Man and Iron Fist.
Cage has flittered around the Marvel guest-star circuit, including spots in a Iron Fist team-up revival and his own series, Cage (2001). After decades in the virtual wilderness, the last few years have seen his character become upgraded, and throw away the "sweet Christmas!" style catchphrases in favour of a shaven head and a more serious characterisation. This elevation of the character saw him guest star in the 2015 Netflix series Jessica Jones, played by Mike Colter. The character was so popular that Netflix went on to produce his own TV series, which was released in September 2016. But for 1976, then it was “Amen to that, sister!” While Luke doesn’t actually come over as stereotyped as you may remember (though when he steals the Fantasticar he still talks about “liberating” it), it’s safe to say that the worst excesses of this time are kept outside the Fantastic Four.
At the time Ben was significantly stronger than Power Man, with an exo-skeleton invented by Reed that gave him "at least 90%" of his previous power, whereas Reed's intention was merely to bring it up the level of around Power Man's. What this tells us is that at 90% power, Ben is still significantly stronger than Luke Cage... at least, until Cage got a second power up in 1992, after which he went on to be arguably stronger than Ben himself. A lot of the hypothetical match ups between Ben and Luke were actually brought up a couple of months before his appearance in the FF, when Luke guested in Marvel Two-In-One, but as the continuity there tied only loosely with the FF, it's a book that is looked at more in isolation on this site.
There's a lot of filler during the year, such as the group searching for planets for Galactus to find instead of consuming "Counter-Earth" (an Earth duplicate that exists on the other side of the sun) and wasting two issues with no success. An adventure with the Impossible Man harassing the entire Marvel bullpen was probably more amusing to the writers than the readers, and, while a passable indulgence if you're really in the mood, it does stretch credulity by presenting Jack Kirby as a keen member of the group, and not someone who had recently satirised Stan Lee and Roy in DC Comics as "Funky Flashman and Houseroy".
Yet the subject of Counter-Earth brings up an important point, in that it's arguably the first real time that fairly major Marvel mythology had been created outside of the Fantastic Four title. Throughout the 60s, the book was, after The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel's premier title, and certainly Stan and Jack's biggest concern. Not only did events grow out of it, but many major characters of the Marvel universe saw their debuts in the title.
As just one example, then most of the Counter-Earth set up had been established in Issues #6-#7 of Warlock... and its star, Adam Warlock, was what "Him" evolved into. "Him" was, of course, the creature who first emerged in "When Opens The Cocoon!" (see 1967), but then went on to get more development in Thor #165-166, before eventually getting his own title. Compare this to, say, Black Bolt of the Inhumans, who made 48 comic book appearances before the Inhumans got their own title in October 1975. Of those 48 appearances, 10 of them were in the split title "Amazing Adventures" (which featured an Inhumans strip for half the book) and half of the appearances were in The Fantastic Four, or Marvel Team-Up with Ben. Just 27% of Black Bolt's appearances occurred outside of his own strip, or away from the FF.
In contrast, when Adam Warlock made a return appearance to the FF with Issue #172, he'd clocked up 30 appearances, just one of which was in the FF's own mag. It might sound like a small point, but with events like a trial of the Watcher taking place in Captain Marvel #39, the Fantastic Four was beginning to take a back seat in developing the Marvel universe. In fact, it's possible to argue that with all the many, many "crossover events" that Marvel has since the mid 80s, after 1986 only Civil War and the 2015 Secret Wars have featured the FF as anything other than peripheral characters, a notable downturn for a title that used to introduce and showcase the rest of the Marvel universe.
In terms of the art, then the title passes from penciller to penciller throughout the year, with George Perez, John Buscema and Rich Buckler all taking turns to bring the group to life. Perez is a fine technical penciller, and his work is always pleasing to look at, but following on from three very action-orientated pencillers in Kirby/Buscema/Buckler he perhaps lacks their dynamism in his pencilling, opting instead for more naturalistic poses in favour of their ultra-vibrant and not strictly realistic stances.
Linking all the various styles together is the superb inking of Joe Sinnott, who keeps things in check for ten issues of the year, save for January (Vince Colletta) and October (Buscema inks himself). Keeping the title looking fresh is the fact that eight of the covers are pencilled by Jack Kirby, who brings some old-school values that aren't necessarily represented in the issues themselves. Most significant is that, as Sue's powers have been increased in the title (after she met with the Thunder Horn in 1975), Jack becomes the first person to show Sue using her force field for travel, on the cover of #173.
Lastly, there's the Annual, brought back for the first time in three years, and given an original story for the first time in eight. Pencilled by John Buscema, but badly inked by Sam Grainger, having a Boy’s Own plot with the FF going back in time to battle time-travelling Nazis should be terrible, but somehow is quite a lot of fun. Featuring the 40s versions of Sub-Mariner, Captain America and the Human Torch as "The Invaders" (a group retroactively created by Roy in 1969), the only thing keeping the Annual at an average rating is that its storyline is concluded in the Marvel-Two-In-One Annual #1 (**), which does seem a bit of a cheat for readers of the time, even though such things became de rigueur in the 90s.
Trivia, and Ben gives himself quite a few unintentionally humorous nick-names in the 1976 run, with “B.J.” self-explanatory. Then there’s the climax to #166, where he titles himself and the Hulk after the recent Elton John album, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown-Dirt Cowboy” – seemingly oblivious that that was John’s euphemism for homosexual lovers. Or maybe Roy did know, and was having fun, as the following issue sees Ben tell Reed "from here on, ol' greenskin an' me are an item!"
There's also Reed discussing army service with Ben in the Annual, revealing that they both signed up for duty in 1942. The same Annual also features the old logo, as if to distinguish itself from the regular comicbook, a tradition that would continue. Perhaps the ickiest moment of the year occurs with Sue. pictured right, assuring Johnny that Reed still regularly has sex with her.
Lastly, look out for the page count of the stories... from the start of the year the book becomes 17 pages, a situation that would continue until December 1980, when it would return to 22 pages per story. Shockingly, this also includes the reprint issues (#180) which are also edited to fit into 17 pages. Having 5 less pages per story produces a knock on effect on the title, whereby crafting a story with a beginning/middle/end becomes significantly harder...
Again, there’s a lot of external Marvel continuity effecting the Fantastic Four’s narrative at this stage, which is perhaps fine for readers of 1976, less so if you’re trying to write a website about the series four decades later. Amongst the line-up include the High Evolutionary, who debuted in Thor #134 a decade earlier, and created a counter-Earth in Marvel Premiere #1. This also takes in events in Hulk #176, Warlock #6-#7 and Thor #228, the latter of which introduced Galactus’s new herald, The Destroyer. Add to this Tigra from Marvel Chillers and Marvel-Two-In-One #19 (**), Luke Cage from his own title, and the annual, which references Captain Marvel #39, Marvel Premiere #30, Avengers #6 and continues into Marvel Two-In-One Annual #1 (**) and Marvel Two-In-One #20 (**). Not only this, but the Huk's appearance is said to take place between The Incredible Hulk #194-#195.
Name-checked, if far from essential to understanding the run, are Iron Man #81-82, or Marvel Two-In-One #13 (**), where Ben first met Luke Cage. Then the Annual features a nod to Marvel Premiere #30, in a year where keeping up with all the various cross-references becomes very complicated....