Fantastic Four Epic Collection volume 7: Battle of the Behemoths 1970-1972


By Stan Lee, Archie Goodwin, John Romita, John Buscema, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, John Verpoorten, Frank Giacoia, Jim Mooney & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2913-8 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Fantastic Fight Fuelled Fun… 8/10

It’s still 60 glorious years of the team who changed comics forever, so let’s revisit some more Mighty Marvel Magic…

Cautiously bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, Fantastic Four #1 (by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) was raw and crude even by the ailing company’s standards: but it seethed with rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on its dynamic storytelling and caught a wave of change starting to build in America. It and succeeding issues changed comics forever.

As seen in the groundbreaking premier issue, maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancée Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s annoying teenaged brother survived an ill-starred private space-shot after Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding.

All permanently mutated: Richards’ body became elastic, Sue became (even more) invisible, Johnny Storm burst into living flame whilst tragic Ben shockingly devolved into a shambling, rocky freak. After the initial revulsion and trauma passed, they solemnly agreed to use their abilities to benefit mankind. Thus was born The Fantastic Four.

Throughout the 1960s the FF was indisputably the core title and most consistently groundbreaking series of Marvel’s ever-unfolding web of cosmic creation: a forge for new concepts and characters. Kirby was in his creative prime: continually unleashing his vast imagination on plot after spectacular plot, whilst Lee scripted some of the most passionate superhero sagas ever seen.

Both were on an unstoppable roll, at the height of their powers and full of the confidence only success brings, with The King particularly eager to see how far the genre and the medium could be pushed… which is rather ironic since it was the company’s reticence to give the artist creative freedom which led to Kirby’s jumping ship to National/DC in the first place…

And then, he was gone…

With this collection from “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” a new style develops. Without Kirby’s restless imagination the rollercoaster of mind-bending High Concepts gave way to more traditional tales of characters in conflict, with soap-opera leanings and super-villain-dominated Fights ‘n’ Tights dramas.

This blockbuster bonanza compendium – also available in digital editions – gathers issues #105-125 (spanning December 1970-August 1972) and opens with The Monster in the Streets!’

Scripted by Lee and illustrated by John Romita & inker John Verpoorten, this is a low-key yet extremely effective suspense thriller played against a resuming subplot of Johnny’s failing romance. When his Inhuman girlfriend Crystal is taken ill – preparatory to writing her out of the series completely – Reed’s diligent examination reveals a potential method of curing the misshapen Thing of his rocky curse.

Tragically, as Ben is prepped for the radical process, a mysterious energy-beast starts tearing up the city. By the time ‘The Monster’s Secret!’ is exposed in #106, the team strongman is almost dead and Crystal is gone… seemingly forever.

Veteran inker Joe Sinnott returns in #107 for ‘And Now… the Thing!’ as John Buscema assumes the illustrator’s reins over Kirby’s other masterpiece (he had already been drawing Thor for four months – starting with #182).

Here and now the unfortunate man-monster gains the power to become human at will. It seems the best of all possible outcomes but something isn’t quite right…

However, before Reed can investigate an old foe pops up again. Sort of…

Fantastic Four #108 was something of a surprise to fans. ‘The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man!’ “reintroduced” a character never seen before.

This was done by recycling large portions of a recently-rejected Kirby & Sinnott tale and adding new framing sequences illustrated by Buscema and Romita. The mysterious Janus had tapped into the antimatter power of the Negative Zoneonce before and “now” resurfaces to steal more by crashing through the portal in Reed’s lab. Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of extinction-event predator Annihilus, who had long sought entry into our life-rich universe…

Forced to follow the utterly mad scientist, Reed, Ben and Johnny once again face ‘Death in the Negative Zone!’ (Lee. Buscema& Sinnott) before FF #110 sees – thanks to a little arcane assistance from sorceress/babysitter Agatha Harkness – Reed escape doom in the anti-cosmos only to realise that “cured” Ben has become lethally sociopathic: a threat to all humanity in ‘One from Four Leaves Three!’

Able to switch between human and monster forms, ‘The Thing… Amok’ rampages through New York, with Mr. Fantastic and the Human Torch desperately trying to minimise the damage their deranged friend inflicts on the city even as increasingly marginalised Sue Richards is packed off to tend baby Franklin beside eldritch governess Harkness…

With all of New York apparently against them, the embattled heroes are on the ropes when the Incredible Hulk joins the fracas for #112’s Battle of the Behemoths!’.

As Sue finally and rebelliously returns, The Thing seems to have perished in the brutal battle that ensued when the monsters met, but once again Reed saves – and cures – his best friend just as another menace materialises…

‘The Power of… the Over-Mind!’ reveals another insidious cosmic menace, presaged and prophesised by an ominous warning from omniscient alien spectator The Watcher.

The psionic super-menace further incites civilian antipathy towards the FF in But Who Shall Stop the Over-Mind?’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) before manifesting and physically trouncing the team.

With #115,  Stan Lee surrendered scripting to Archie Goodwin, who promptly revealed ‘The Secret of the Eternals’ (not the earthly proto-gods and blockbuster movie icons created by Kirby, but an entirely different ancient alien race) in a visually stunning sequence limned by Buscema & Sinnott, culminating in Reed being taken over by the Over-Mind and turning on his erstwhile comrades…

The saga concludes with double-sized Fantastic Four #116’s ‘The Alien, the Ally, and… Armageddon!’ as the defeated, embattled heroes – unable to access any superhero assistance – recruit arch foe Doctor Doom to lead them in final battle against the seemingly unbeatable Over-Mind. They are nonetheless crushed and only saved at the crucial moment by a most unexpected saviour in ‘Now Falls the Final Hour!’

Having helped save the world – and with time on his hot little hands – the heartsick Human Torch heads for the Himalayas and a long-delayed rapprochement with lost girlfriend Crystal in FF #117.

Months previously she had been forced to abandon human civilisation because modern pollutants poisoned her system, but when blazing mad Johnny battles his way into her hidden homeland in ‘The Flame and the Quest!’, he is horrified to discover that she had never arrived back in the Great Refuge of Attilan

Flying back to New York, Johnny consults part-time nanny and career-sorceress Agatha Harkness who traces Crystal to the Central American dictatorship of Terra Verde. Arriving there exhausted and expectant, Johnny finds his love is the mesmerised slave of arcane alchemist Diabolo.

The mystic has convinced the populace – and Crystal herself – that she is a reborn goddess he needs to seize control in ‘Thunder in the Ruins!’ (inked by Jim Mooney). He would have succeeded too, if not for that flaming kid…

The issue included an intriguing vignette starring the Thing: ‘What Mad World?’ (Goodwin, Buscema & Mooney) finds the Tragic Titan afforded a glimpse of an alternate Earth where an even greater mishap occurred after the fateful spaceflight which created the team…

The Black Panther – cautiously renamed Black Leopard for contemporary political reasons – guest-starred in #119’s ‘Three Stood Together!’ as inker Sinnott returned and Roy Thomas scripted a damning, if shaded, indictment of South Africa’s apartheid regime.

When the heroic ruler of jungle wonderland Wakanda is interned in white-ruled state Rudyarda, Ben and Johnny fly in to bust him out and clash with old enemy Klaw who is attempting to steal a deadly new super-weapon…

Fantastic Four #120 heralded an extended and somewhat overlong epic by Stan Lee which began with ‘The Horror that Walks on Air!’ as a seemingly omnipotent invader claiming to be an angel scours and scourges Earth before declaring humanity doomed.

The tale vividly yet laboriously continues in ‘The Mysterious Mind-Blowing Secret of Gabriel!’ with the recently reunited, utterly overmatched quartet saved by the late-arriving Silver Surfer before facing off against world-devouring ‘Galactus Unleashed’. The end comes and humanity survives another day thanks to Reed who again outsmarts the cosmic god and prevents the consumption of ‘This World Enslaved!’

Although beautifully illustrated, the hackneyed saga was a series low-point, but Lee was back on solid dramatic ground with #124’s ‘The Return of the Monster’ and concluding episode ‘The Monster’s Secret!’, wherein the mystery menace Reed once dubbed ‘the Monster from the Lost Lagoon’ resurfaces to haunt a Manhattan hospital, steal drugs and kidnap Sue… but only for the best and most noble of reasons…

His depredations are soon halted and explained, concluding this tome on a rare quiet note but more calamity was still to come…

Did I say concluding? Not quite; as there’s still room for the Romita/Verpoorten cover to all-reprint Fantastic FourAnnual #8 plus the Kirby & Vince Colletta cover to 1971’s Annual #9; a stunning house ad; original art pages by Romita and Buscema, uncorrected cover proofs; the rare misprinted pink-&-green cover for FF #110 and 6 previous collection covers by Alan Davis & Steve Buccellato to delight and enthral…

Although sacrificing spectacle and wonder for simple continuous conflict, the Fantastic Four remained at the heart of the Marvel Universe for decades, offering furious Fights ‘n’ Tights thrills to delight and beguile. Why not check out how and why?
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