The Great American
                Novel Act 1:
                the danger Act 2: rising action Act 3: the ball Act 4: crisis Act 5: triumph the Franklinverse part 2, act 1:
                the new danger

1968: Act 3: think of the future (America's youth)

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The late 1960s were dominated by hope for the future: the summer of love, widespread opposition to war, student riots, experimenting with eastern mysticism, and of course the moon landing.

And so it was in the Fantastic Four. We have Johnny's romance with Crystal (the exotic easterner), the birth of Franklin (symbol of the future) and mankind finally reaches the moon (without the aid of alien technology!)

man on the moon one small step

Franklin and Kirby
By putting Franklin first Reed could solve all their problems. But instead Reed continues his old ways, thinking he could do everything himself. So this was the end of the happy, carefree period. These are also the last Jack Kirby issues. Kirby had the skills of a master, but the creatively of a child, always coming up with new ideas, bursting with enthusiasm and vision for the future. But this long term view was rejected in favor of business as usual. So Kirby left and a long term decline set in: for details see the page on 1968.

Once again this reflects America as a whole: in the 1960s it seemed that a better future would arrive quickly, but the 1970s showed that people are resistant to idealism: this would be a long hard struggle.

Annual 6: Franklin is born!

This is the big one. The 28 year story is built on Reed not putting his family first, and that central dilemma, is embodied by Franklin. Franklin also represent the next generation: the potential of mankind, and so much more.

Fantastic Four
      annual 6

The classic

Karl Disley writes about FF annual 6:

"Everything about this book is glorious...the thrilling ride into the Negative Zone, the debuts of both Franklin and Annihilus...back in the early 80s, a pregnant friend of mine was reading this self-same issue while she was in labor -62 hours! Don't worry, she had plenty of time for it to arrive - and listened to Nat King Cole's 'Let There Be Love' on her record player while waiting for her daughter to appear. Every time I read this comic and see that banner headline 'Let There Be..Life!' it always , always reminds me of Nat King Cole's song which she [and the rest of us waiting] were hearing."

"The dimension spanning puzzle"

FF140 begins to unravel the secret of Franklin's powers: a "dimension spanning puzzle" that Annihilus begins to understand.

The cosmic control rod has vast power, gives immortality, and is controlled by thought. Franklin combines this with Reed's physical and mental stretching and Sue's control of energy fields (if 400 is canon then Sue's power has Celestial implications). Together these allow him to dominate galaxies. Galaxies? Really? Do readers have any concept of how big galaxies are? FF Annual 23 explains how scale is all relative and not necessarily the barrier we think it is. The key is knowing how to control external energy, not in having that energy inside your body. Reed's power is all about manipulating and Sue's is all about hiding, revealing and controlling energy fields..

Franklin's power

Franklin gains his power from his parents plus the cosmic control rod. Franklin regulates cosmic power, thus acting as a gateway to alternate realities. For more about his powers, click here.

Drugs again

Note the context:

From this point on (1968), time for the characters begins to stretch and do weird things. It gradually becomes clear that Franklin is behind it all. Eventually the entire Marvel Universe will merge with Franklin's private universe and leave reality entirely. And thus the drugs motif comes full circle.

The historical zeitgeist

This reflects the American zeitgeist. This is 1968, the year of student rebellions. before the 1960s culture was more focused on the older generation. Now it's youth culture and everything has to be young. The child is is taking control.

The 1968 cultural zeitgeist

The movie Yellow Submarine was released in June 1968, around the same time that this annual was finishing being prepared, so Kirby would have been aware of the the general themes from pre-release publicity.

"After a leap through the distortion area and a double-page Kirby photo collage, the men encounter wave after wave of obstacles. Their tour is akin to the animated movie Beatles Yellow Submarine, a fantasy fraught with villainous Blue Meanies, Apple Bonkers, Butterfly Stompers, Flying Glove and Countdown Clown. Annihilus, the last great villain of the FF Sixties, employs a green bat scavenger, giant boot, gyro-saw, sonic sponge, flying gun ship, negato-gun and the Borers – green-scaled diggers with C-clamp choppers 'who only live to track… and tear…' They are all a part of what the splash page promises: a 'movie-length epic' of 'way-out wonderment'." (Robert Papetti, "Fantastic Four In The Silver Age Sixties: A Tribute")

The Great American Novel

The storytelling here is superb:
"By 1968 the team of Lee/Kirby/Sinnott had reached its zenith, moving from one epic to another in the regular monthly Fantastic Four book – it was certainly deserving of its hype as The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine. And then along came the Annual for that year. I’ve read this story 3-4 times; the first time was only 5 years ago or so. But each time I re-read it, the scope of it, the grandeur, the characterization – this was truly a piece of literature that stretched the bounds of comic book fare of its day. The creators really outdid themselves with this issue – in my mind, it’s a story like 'Let There Be… Life!' that really separated The House of Ideas from the Distinguished Competition. The opening scene is just classic Lee/Kirby angst. I am amazed, particularly in reading the FF, how well Stan and Jack worked together. To think that around this time they were not on the best of terms, separated by many miles, and could turn out a scene like the opening 2 ½ pages. Blows my mind how well the pictures and words mesh." - Doug in "Two Girls, A Guy, and Some Comics"
Of particular note is Annihilus, and the beautiful ending.
"Franklin’s birth represents the first time (to my knowledge, anyway) that a mainstream comic book couple went through a pregnancy and had a child in anything even remotely resembled 'real time.' Oh, sure, there was Aquaman and Mera, but Aquababy was conceived and born in the space of a single issue! Another example of Marvel’s realistic handling of its characters, which was ground-breaking in the ‘60s." - Sharon, "Two Guys..."

Reed's technology:
Why the negative zone?

Franklin was conceived in FF64-65 (see notes), just after Reed was trapped in the Negative zone (FF 61-63). That issue draws attention to FF56, where Reed studied one of the life forms that can survive extreme conditions: it lives in the area where matter and antimatter collide and release vast amounts of energy. After that Reed developed an energy dampening device that came in useful for Blastaar. Now he needs a more sophisticated energy dampening device, so he needs to go back to the Negative Zone to find something like the creature, but more advanced. When he sees the cosmic control rod, he knows that will do the job.


Other points to note:

Issue 81: Sexism? No, Power struggle? yes.

Please remember that this web site is pro-Reed Richards. He is perhaps the greatest human hero who ever lived. He saved the world more than a dozen times. This makes his story a Shakespearean tragedy: the great hero brought low by being unable to understand others.

Fantastic Four 81

This issue is the antidote to those who assume that Reed is sexist. Reed is not sexist: there is no evidence that he considers women to be weaker than men. (See the notes to annual 2 for more on this topic.)

Certainly he believes they have weaknesses unique to their gender, but he also believes they have unique strengths. Reed does not single Sue out to undermine her: he also infantalizes Ben. This is not sexism, he simply cannot stand a threat to his position as the smartest and the natural leader. Crystal is no threat to him so he welcomes her power as an asset to the team.

"Throughout the adventure, it is actually Reed who is most supportive of Crystal, which is odd because he has shown himself to be the most anti-feminist: the first always to tell Sue to stop acting emotionally, to keep information from her, and to exclude her from the team. But not so with Crystal, who Reed compliments as a strategist before telling Johnny that she doesn’t need his help. In fact, Johnny exposes both himself and Crystal to danger by being overly conscientious of her, staying to help her out of the Fantasti-car and taking a hit from the Wizard for his troubles." (source)

Note that Crystal and Johnny are social equals, and Johnny does feel threatened. Johnny is immature and sexist (remember the times when he sits down and lets the women serve him), and that is why he will lose Crystal. That will force him to grow up before he is worthy of her. threatened by reflecting an era when women were treated as inferior, but that is to miss the point: Sue is a threat to Reed's ego. Crystal is not. Crystal spent a year being subservient, and nobody could ever imagine that she has a claim to lead the team, so Reed is perfectly happy and supportive

Other points to note:

Issue 82: Americans and Asians

Fantastic Four 82

This is the issue where the Americans finally fight alongside the Asians in the Asians' own land. The parallel with Korea and Vietnam is obvious. Although Medusa and Gorgon suggest Greek roots, Greek culture spread via Alexander the Great to Asia. The Inhumans' location, the stopping off in Tibet, the family values, Karnak's power, etc., all place the Inhumans as Asian. Note that they appear in 1965: just 20 years earlier the Japanese were condemned as inhuman in wartime propaganda, and since then Asian leaders (Russia and China) was the great inhuman despots in cold war propaganda.

The Great American Novel, reflects the individualism of the west. The Inhumans, coming from the Himalayas, provide the contrast of Asian values. Crystal comes from a monarchy and is used to a rigid class system: this is made clear when her first act is to ask permission from her people to join the FF. The rigid patriarchy is made literally transparent when we see Maximus imprison all the male royalty in a glass box: he does not ant their defeat or death, he wants their humiliation. Control is everything to Maximus: most of his intellect is focused on hypnotic control of some sort. Once again we have a parallel with Reed's need to control. This theme is repeated again and again over the years because it is America's great challenge: how can you rule, except by force? Comics, like Hollywood, present the answer: soft power. A global love of American culture is more powerful than any armies.

Hayek and Capitalism versus socialism
The title, the "Mark of a Madman" applies to Maximus;' desire to control everything. Micromanaging is inefficient and therefore irrational. This is the underlying economic fact of the cold war. As pointed out by the free market economist Friedrich Hayek, planned economies are fundamentally weak because it is simply impossible to control everything. Note that the Inhumans, though physically miraculous and technologically highly advanced, have never been able to expand beyond a single city and are riven with endless internal conflict. This can easily be traced to their strict class system where one person decides everything, and those with royal blood (like Maximus) get a free pass to do what they want. Arguably Black Bolt's greatest strength as a leader is his silence: it makes him unable to micromanage everything (he is too proud to use a technological fix).

Other points to note

Issue 83: hard power versus soft power, continued

Fantastic Four 83

Critics see Sue as ineffective here, but look more closely: The men are just as ineffectual: the Inhumans' problem is solved by the Inhumans themselves) whereas Sue knows instinctively that bonding with her son is the most important thing she can do. Her son is master of the universe, and if only they would focus on him then all their problems would be solved. This is the ultimate family value: children are what matter. The men may go off on their adventures to distant lands but those are ultimately irrelevant. What matters is at home in the cradle.

This is Sue's first appearance after the pregnancy, and she's wondering what to call their son. This contrasts with Reed, who cannot even be bothered with that simplest task for more than a year! Reed and Sue's priorities were never more stark. Reed's lack of concern for the family will eventually cause Sue to leave, and serve Reed with divorce papers (FF147).

Phallic symbolism
Note the symbolism of Maximus' great phallus shaped gun (note the bulbous tip, the tubes leading to it, where Maximus sits...). This is destroyed by the girl: her ability to work with nature defeat his science and his hypnotic need to control nature. Heck, even his name, Maximus, is phallic. This contrasts with what appears to be Sue's weakest moment (confusion over a name) but it's actually her strongest (intuitively knowing that her bond with Franklin is more important than anything the boys might be doing).

Foreshadowing the turning point
This issue, about the girls treated as the weakest yet being the strongest, foreshadows the similar story in FF159. That issue features the "Thunder Horn" where again Sue is treated as weak. but it's the last straw: she saves the day in a dramatic fashion and that marks the half way point in the 28 year story. From that point on, Sue is quietly in control (see comments to FF159).


The topic of hard power versus soft power brings us to chess. Chess is the usual metaphor for power on the national stage, because a wise king tries to outmaneuver his enemies rather than wasting his resources on direct conflict. Maximus could not defeat Black Bolt in direct conflict, but outmaneuvered him. Which brings us to that cover image:

FF83 cover

The cover to issue 83 is very interesting. It makes no sense as a normal Kirby cover: there is nothing real about it, and the figures are very stiff. "the static figures and bad foreshortening make me think this one may have been rushed." (- Paul Benincasa) Perhaps it was rushed. But the stiffness reflects the story inside, where the characters are powerless. Look at the checkerboard pattern: the characters are like pieces on a chess board, controlled by Maximus. Perhaps this some other kind of board game, but the story is all about Maximus treating people like pawns.

It's a beautiful and powerful image. Maximus' size and weirdly extended arm reminds us that when you're around Maximus nothing is as it seems. A close look at Maximus' power shows his only real power is to manipulate minds, which in his case he uses in conjunction with his royal position. He wants to be the king on this chess board. Actually, chess is a fertile metaphor for the Inhumans:

The very next issue takes is to the greatest chess player of all: Dr Doom

Doom and Maximus compared
There are two examples of bad rulers in the FF: Doom and Maximus. They are both chess players in their own way, but Maximus uses deception whereas Doom uses his formal position. They symbolize the two kinds of political power in the world: power through maximizing one's image (Maximus) and the more overtly dangerous power to command others (Doom).

As Maximus works through deception, he is never seen actually playing chess. He is only ever seen in two states:

  1. When in power he pretends to be innocent and friendly, always smiling, apparently doing nothing dangerous.
  2. When he gains power he struts like a peacock, puffing up his image to the world.

In contrast, Doom represents power through using his formal position. He has no reason to smile or care what people think (or so he tells himself): he hides his face and uses his power openly and coldly.  They are both chess players, they are both geniuses who control those they consider beneath them, but in different ways.

Doom in control

And what happened to Maximus? He fled at the end of FF83, and was next seen in Hulk 119, in Central America, using Doom's new trick: advanced robots. Maximus' next appearance is in Silver Surfer 18. The surfer had just battled SHIELD and crashed into the Hidden land. Maximus tries to trick the Surfer, just as Doom does when the surfer visits Latveria in FF155-157. The Surfer is next seen in Central America (Sub-Mariner 34). At around the same time Crystal was brainwashed in Central America by Diablo (FF118). The repeated stories about Central America and mind control reflect American involvement in the region, which the public were beginning to suspect it was not always benign. In all this era we see Central America (representing American foreign policy), the surfer (representing idealism), SHIELD (representing the CIA), Doom (representing calculating rulers) and Maximus (representing those who influence our minds in the pursuit of power). It's all the same story: the Great American Novel is delving in international politics: a grand game of chess, where Doom and Maximus are the main players.

That next story begins with Nick Fury, reminding us of the recent Nick Fury-Doctor Doom story where Doom plays chess. (That was the classic Strange Tales 167, cover dated April 1968, the final story arc before Agent of Shield 1)

Nick Fury  Doom chess

Doom sees everyone as pawns, as we see later in the longest FF story of all, the half way story in the Great American novel (FF155-157):


Which brings us back to the Inhumans again. At the end in act 5 (in annual 21)Doom's game of chess is against Kristof, and his plotting involves the Inhumans once again.


So it's time to return to Doom:

Issue 84: true love

Fantastic Four 84

The big Fantastic Four story is about love. Sue shows love by submitting to Reed's requests (a policy she finally abandons when Reed proves unworthy of that love in Act 4). Reed shows his love by leading Sue. But is that really love? This issue gives a hint:

“Have I not told you how dearly I love my subjects? Do you think I would allow a single one to leave this realm?” - Victor Von Doom

Controlling other is not love, no matter what the good intentions. Controlling means you treat everybody like robots, hence the symbolism of this issue.

The genealogy of robots:

Appropriately for a story about controlling others (Reed's problem) and sense of identity (Ben's problem), the Fantastic Four features a number of robots. The story shows their origins and development over the years. Before this point the Thinker developed increasingly sophisticated androids (most recently in FF79), and it is likely that some fell into the hands of Doom, and the robot in FF80 was one of his.

Doom's robot development can be traced step by step over the years, and like Reed he makes the best use of whatever technology he can get his hands on. In his earliest days he merely animated simple tools using crude demonic possession learned from his mother (see commentary to annual 2). Doom gained advanced technology from the Ovoids in FF10, but Ovoids relied on direct mental control so their robots still had very little artificial intelligence: just a year before this (in FF73) Sue could be sure that Doom was in Latveria simply because she saw him there on the TV news. But in this issue Doom creates more advanced robots, probably based on the Thinker's tech, and soon after this we see him use robot doubles: Doombots. Doom's robots do not markedly improve after this. They may be refined in various ways, but are not as smart as he likes to pretend (see the backup story to FF358).

Where did the Thinker get his androids? His greatest creation was the Awesome Android, and all later androids were merely tinkering with that basic potential. He got this idea from Reed's notes on unstable molecules. The great breakthrough seems to be to stop thinking of a robot as a machine that is made to appear living, but instead to start with some form of unstable molecules and make them act like a robot. For where Reed got his unstable molecules, click here. For how the molecules work, click here.

Other points to note:

Issue 85: the importance of a home

Fantastic Four 85

The Great American Novel is ultimately about family, and this issue is about the physical home. Sue searches for a new home where they can raise Franklin: she must realize that Reed made a big mistake in coming back in FF72, but her way is not to cause confrontation so whenever says so. She just knows intuitively that the team will be at its strongest when Reed puts his child first.

The same principle is taught using Dr Doom: When Doom focuses on his homeland then he always succeeds, but when he neglects his people he fails. This arc is about Doom: The Great American Novel is six thousand pages long simply because it deals in depth with many characters and subplots, and each subplot has its own beginning, middle and end: some take 28 years to tell. We watch each character grow and change over the years, we see their triumphs and failures, and how they contrast with the core team. Dr Doom is a classic example: he grows and changes over the years and finally achieves peace.

This issue begins Doom's finest hour, where he achieves nobility. As with "nobility" throughout history, the word has two meanings: higher values (refined tastes, and the ability to rise above a situation as Doom does at the end of this arc) and social inequality that produces the grossest evils. Throughout history the nobility has often been anything but noble.

A tour of world cultures

With Crystal on board, the team expands its horizons. We focus on the globe as a whole rather than the individuals in the Baxter Building. The Crystal issues are a tour of the cultures that affect American culture and politics:

FF82-83 is Asia
FF84-87 is old Europe. The hypocrisy of the class system reflects the old Europe that the Great American Novel rejects.
FF88-89 is the white underclass (see commentary to FF89)
FF90-93 is slavery and oppression of different races

This is not a condemnation of America: in every case the elite Americans (the Fantastic Four) are the heroes, and show compassion. But it's tough at the top, and they often make mistakes without realizing it. Just as in FF84 where Reed barges into Latveria and is of course captured. In contrast, Sue in FF86 is able to quietly slip into Latveria undetected.

Criticisms (source) for

"What proves ultimately frustrating is that although 10 out of the issue’s 21 pages are dedicated to Doom, almost nothing significant is revealed about his character. He just marches around, barking orders at people and insulting them. It’s nothing that couldn’t have been conveyed adequately in a quarter of the space."  This may be an example of not seeing the forest for the trees. This is the definitive story in developing Doom's character. He began as an angry young man with some basic skill at demonic possession and very limited access to discarded alien technology. In FF10 he gained far greater tech, and in annual 2 he managed to gain a position in a tiny European nation. But still around that time he acted as an amateur. This is the story where he learns how to be a statesman,  publicly molding an entire nation into his image. The question of why he wants to control and humble Reed rather than kill him is answered in the notes to FF17.

The zeitgeist

Many commentators have noted close parallels with the popular 1967-68 TV series The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan. But this story goes much further. "Some readers compared the layouts of Doom’s view screens and central command chair to a TV series called The Prisoner. But to me, the FF defending the helpless village against marauding invaders – Doombots – on a quaint European stage was a World War II scene out of Combat. Likewise, the FF storming the castle in the finale was more exciting than trying to take back their own building in the big city." (Robert Papetti, "Fantastic Four In The Silver Age Sixties: A Tribute")

Issue 86: a turning point for Sue

Fantastic Four 86

In this issue the team's greatest defeat becomes their greatest triumph because of their most powerful member - Sue

The importance of this event cannot be overestimated: it's Sue's turning point. This is the first time she directly disobeys Reed in a major way. She is beginning to realize that obeying Reed is not always best, and if they all did things Reed's way they would all be dead. This undercurrent develops over the following year, and finally bubbles to the surface when Reed visibly and consistently fails. Reed will seem to be humbled in the early part of act 4, when Sue finally leaves, but when she comes back there is another event like this one in FF86: a similar disobedience saves the team in the Thunderhorn story (a phallic symbol of male ego). Reed's complete and genuine humility will take a lot longer to achieve.


This plot has been criticized because Doom keeps talking about the robots' Achilles heel and then left technology for Reed to find. But that is the whole point! Doom does not want to kill the team, he wants to make them look stupid. The irony is that in the end, after all of Doom's planning, it is he who looks stupid, because this master of control is  unable to control even his most loyal follower.

Issue 87: Reed's power and his pride

Please remember that this web site is pro-Reed Richards. He saved the world more than a dozen times. This makes his story a Shakespearean tragedy: the great hero brought low by understandable pride.

Fantastic Four 87

Just as the "Worlds Within Worlds" issue was apparently about the Surfer but really about Reed, so this "Power and Pride" issue is apparently about Doom but really about Reed. All the secondary characters in the Great American Novel are really there to tell us about the core family.

Doom is the mirror to Reed. Here is Reed's power and Reed's pride: Sue saves them, but Reed has power over the team and after Sue saves them he thinks the girls' role is to just act as bait for the boys!

Other points to note

The classic reveal of opening a door only to find Doom welcoming you at the head of a banqueting table: used in FF 142 and also the Empire Strikes Back (Darth Vader is basically an imitation Doom).

The unforgettable ending

85-87 probably the most popular Doom story, the height of his nobility, with the twist ending relying on Doom's childhood history rather than any simple battle. He grew up in poverty, displaced from his homeland, humiliated and belittled by those he considers his intellectual inferiors, so he now values art and heritage above any military conquest.

"When a weary Doctor Doom ultimately allows the FF to go free, it’s maybe a payback for them letting him sulk away at the end of #40." (Papetti)

The idea of just ending a battle without either victory or defeat is another parallel with Korea and Vietnam. Sometimes your heart just isn't in a battle any more.

Issue 88: Johnny and Crystal get engaged

the hero's

FF88 is the turning point. It's the start of "the hero's journey" (see Joseph Campbell's classic study of mythic structure, "The Hero With A Thousand Faces.") This is where they cross the threshold, they leave the superhero focus and begin the family focus. From here we see them in civilian clothes more and more. And this is where it all starts to go really wrong, because Reed rejects his new role: in FF94 he sands his son away to a nanny.

Observant readers may say "wait a minute, I thought that FF72 was supposed to be the turning point, when Reed left to focus on the family, and turned round? Yes, and here we see Sue at her finest: guiding Reed back to where he was supposed to be, without him realizing. Whereas Reed took an express train without any thought of where he was going, Sue prepares a house first sand gently eases the family into it. True, the first house doesn't work out, but that's normal, most young couples have to try several houses before they find one they like. But Reed cuts that process dead when he sends Franklin off to a nanny instead. Sue will then realize that the situation is even worse than she thinks. She will gradually begin to take a more forceful role, even leaving reed at one point. But gradually she will guide Reed to where he needs to be, and in FF304 he will try again, and next time it will take a bit longer before he gives up. Sue will take as long as it takes, but she will get her family where it needs to be. Sue will win eventually, invisibly, because she is the most powerful member of the Fantastic Four.

This is more than a comic

Time and again the Fantastic Four is dismissed because people assume it is just a comic and do not look any deeper (even though the title at the top of every cover is "world's greatest comic magazine" - that should be a clue). This issue is a classic example of that. E.g. Mark Alexander in "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years" criticizes Kirby for wasting space on two consecutive full page images, just to enter a doorway. To Alexander it's just a comic and therefore these images cannot possibly have significance beyond the issue in question. But when we stand back and see the bigger story it is so much more. Which is not to say that it only works at the deep level. The Fantastic Four works on every level: if you just want simple battles then you get that. Or if you just want amazing images you get that too: many critics who treat the issues as unconnected will still praise the entering the house image because the sixties fashions and architecture are so beautiful.

Crossing the threshold

This crossing off the threshold is rich in symbolism: 

Fantastic Four 88

Moving into the abstract

Although it won't be obvious until we stand back, the battles are all moving to the underlying unconscious. Until now, most fights have had decisive wins. But increasingly the wins will be pointless: the enemy will just come back unless they solve the underlying problem. This is why there are so few new characters from this point: they cannot move on until they resolve the underlying issues. These underlying issues will lead Reed to a nervous breakdown in Act 4.

This new deeper meaning was strongly foreshadowed by the previous story where Doom lets them go, just as they will now let the Mole Man go: the real battle is in the mind. From now on there are bigger forces, bigger priorities than the immediate battle.

This move to the symbolic began when Reed turned back in FF72. The battle with the Surfer was pointless, it was just a test that Reed failed. Reed and the team then fought themselves, and the boys descended into an inner world where it was uncertain what was real. Then Ben had a psychological battle, then the Tomazooma issue focused on the symbolic versus the "real." The battle with Doom had an ending that did not involve any victory or defeat, and now we have a story based on symbolic blindness. The stories are no longer about new threats to defeat. They are now about old threats and why the team cannot beat them permanently: because Reed is avoiding his destiny.

Other points to note

Issue 89: blindness as a metaphor

Fantastic Four 89

This issue is not about fighting, it's about blindness. Reed is blind to those he sees as below him: he is blind to Sue's needs (that he should put Franklin first), he is blind to Ben's needs (considering Ben to be childish), he is blind to Johnny's needs (he always takes it for granted that Johnny must stay forever in a a junior role:he can never leave home and start a family of his own). What better metaphor than the Mole Man? Note how the team stumbles over themselves - we might expect them to adapt, but it is important to the metaphor to show how badly they cope when they cannot see what is in front of them.

It's not just a metaphor. The Mole Man is almost blind, and unlike Alicia he is ugly, so people will not let him get close so he can understand in other ways as she does. So his blindness directly leads to his prejudice. Similarly, this is the first time the team have felt sympathy for him. They had to be blind in order to begin to understand that what they see as aggression and whining manipulation is just fear.

Note that Reed's blindness leads to his "death." (Specifically it was his blind firing of the Mole Man's staff: Freud would understand perfectly.) On one level this is a reminder of how much the team love each other, but as a metaphor it harks back to the cover of FF61: 

the end

FF61, you will recall, is where Mr Fantastic ceased to be fantastic.

We cannot discuss blindness without discussing Alicia

Ironically the one who sees best is blind Alicia. She isn't in this issue because she could so easily win that the danger would be over too quickly. But Alicia is the one who sees the emotional truth better than anyone even better than Sue. Alicia is the one who saved the world from Galactus, by showing the Surfer a better way. Alicia is the one who always tells Ben that he is handsome regardless of his skin color. Alicia is the one who will always have time for Franklin, even when Sue is too blind to see her own priorities. This will come to a head in FF251, which will lead Alicia to take action that will finally cause the happy ending that nobody else can achieve: Alicia is often accused of being passive, but when she leaves Ben for Johnny she forces Ben to finally take responsibility for his life. This in turn forces Reed to finally see the truth of how his actions have affected Ben over the years. And marrying Johnny will finally force Johnny to become emotionally mature, and ready for the return of Crystal. Crystal's return will break Alicia's heart of course, but the strongest women have always suffered for their quiet work and are almost never recognized. It is precisely their ability to work without recognition that makes them so strong, as they avoid the disastrous ego that brings the men down.

The zeitgeist: the disenfranchised

This issue is written in 1968, the year of assassinations and student revolts. It's a time when the younger generation are accusing the American authorities of ignoring the weak and marginalized. In this context look again at the Mole Man, the little ugly guy with his complaining and his personal weakness, with his countless millions of weak, forgotten people, always under our feet, always resenting and plotting. The Mole Man's people parallel the American elite's fear of the poor and marginalized who might one day rise up. No worker's union was ever as united as those Moloids, endlessly building things.

Criticisms (source)

"Luckily, one of Reed’s blind shots at the wall restores everyone’s sight (yeah…)" This was not luck. In the previous issue Reed examined the house, and while blind he had time to think about how the house worked. We are told that the house was a gigantic computer, so disrupting one part would disrupt it all. We are also told that the rays were designed to engulf the whole world, so we are not looking for some tiny device hidden in one wall: the entire house is the device. That would explain the strange shapes in its design. Destroying any sufficiently large part of it would disable its entire function. This also explains why it is in such a remote area: it's vulnerable so did not want to be found. But the Mole Man didn't anticipate the fame of the Fantastic Four: the local land owner would of course see it, and think of the FF as the natural buyers.

Other points to note

Issue 90: blow-back

Fantastic Four 90
In this issue Reed's decline continues. We see a major crisis that's a direct result of Reed's years of belittling Ben. Ben is nearly almost depressed and his confidence is always near rock bottom (his famous courage reflects his low self worth - he doesn't think his own skin is worth saving - rather than any high self image). As he says, the trouble with the team is that it's too dependent on Reed. Only Reed can do the thinking. Although Ben rejects that in his words, he no longer has the self esteem to fight back directly. So when Reed apparently pops up and tells Ben he must do something, Ben meekly obeys. The original Ben never let Reed order him around, no matter what the reason. The original Ben was not stupid he was a fighter pilot, and his time in the Fantastic Four gave him plenty of experience with tricksters and doppelgangers. Ben should not have fallen for such a simple ruse. But thanks to years of having his confidence destroyed by Reed all it took was a fake Reed barking an order and Ben obeyed, with disastrous results.

The story makes clear that Ben is popular: the women all love him. But faced with Reed he adopts his submissive response and his default position is depression.

Other points to note:
Fantastic Four 88

Criticisms (source)

Issue 91: slavery

Fantastic Four 91

In FF91 Ben is enslaved.  Note that the brain blast is needed to subdue Ben. This is a more extreme version of the depression that normally saps his strength, and allows us to see his true strength when the blast is removed. See "how strong is The Thing?" for details. But when Reed and company come back his depression returns, conditioned by years of Reed treating him as inferior: hence his surprise that anybody would want to rescue him. The key to subduing any person or race is to make them feel worthless. The contemporary "black power" movement is a reaction to this, focusing on telling people they are just as beautiful and intelligent as anybody else.

Hatred and intolerance is a running theme in the Fantastic Four. From FF2, where the FF are framed, to FF7, where there are Wanted posters, and FF9 where the cover shows them heckled and abused by the crowd. This eventually focuses on mutants, significantly Franklin (as in this promotional poster) and in the mutant themed X-books.

Mutant hunting

Why is the theme of racism especially important to FF91? Partly because the Skrulls enslave other races, and partly because in Black Panther volume 4 #33 (February 2008), we see that the gangster planet is still there, and is being opposed by an underground movement of freedom loving Skrulls. They model themselves on Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

Images and details courtesy of Bully's amazing blog.

The zeitgeist

Apart from the wider themes of racism, self esteem and slavery, and the use of 1930s gangster culture (essential for any book that can claim to be the definitive Great America Novel), the scenario is clearly modeled on the Start Trek episode "A Piece of the Action" that aired in January 1968 and was repeated in August 1968, a few months before Jack Kirby plotting this issue. It was also based on Star Trek's "The Gamesters of Triskelion," was a take-off on the 1960 film Spartacus. It featured Kirk in a restraining collar like the one Ben wears. Why base a story so clearly on a TV show? Partly it was a good show and fits the FF's themes, but at this point Kirby deliberately kept his more original ideas back from the FF. See 1968 for why. Also, “Napoleon G. Robinson,” has the face of Edward G. Robinson, star of many gangster movies.

Criticisms (source)

What happened to the other Skrull?

This is the only time we see a Skrull ship with just one occupant. If gathering slaves, many of whom are super powered, it would be crazy to send a lone Skrull, so what happened to the other one back in the 1930?


This may be the key to the most audacious fan theory of all: one that explains everything in the Fantastic Four at a single stroke.

A friend started the ball rolling with this wonderful question: "Is this the original telling of the Reed Richards - Sue Storm story? It certainly functions well as such on a symbolic level. Maybe someday Mr Fantastic shall finally turn to dust...."

This really got my mind racing. What if Reed des not age? That would explain a lot...  no, wait, that would explain everything.

Endless problems:

One simple solution:

So, sharpening Occam's razor to molecular precision, we remove all these intractable problems in one bold movement. Can you guess? Here's a clue: we all know how Reed's face changed drastically, especially over the first three issues. But look closer: it was also changing before the accident. Sure, we can say "artistic license" but my guide is what is actually in the final books.

Reed's face changes

Chin bones and the direction of hair growth are genetic: you can't change those. And look at Reed's body in the Gormuu adventure: compare it to the human bodies next to it. Reed's arms are too wide apart, and no human chin could extend quite that far.

skrull Reed

Who do we know who has a large chin and can change their face? Who, if trying to look human, might occasionally miss details like this? Who do we know who was visiting Earth in the 1930s, the time of the first reference to Reed? Who (according to issue 2), "hates being skrulls"? Whoops, gave it away there. Imagine you were a kind hearted, thoughtful skrull. You would not fit in, You would not be able to progress, but would remain a junior soldier.  You would hate being sent to kill and enslave innocent beings. You would be looking for a way to escape. Your advanced alien knowledge could give you a very comfortable life on earth, maybe working on Earth rockets. Why not? Sure, you might come across as cold to your fellow humans, you might seem secretive and obsessive, but hey, nobody would care if you could deliver the scientific goods.

This solves everything:

The Great American Novel
Perhaps my favourite part of this theory is that it makes Reed an immigrant, trying to fit in, and justifies the slight hint of the Statue of Liberty on the cover (the first thing immigrants would see). Reed is Marvel's Superman, created by two Jewish kids, an alien hiding in disguise.

But if Reed is  Skrull, how does he not lose his powers in annual 19 when all Skrulls are de-powered? But he does!!! After the Skrulls lose their ability to change, so does Reed! At the end of that story we do not see Reed stretching. Once back in the space ship home he stretches his arms, but we know that Red has fake arm stretching equipment for emergencies like this (see FF 184 for example). Once home he finds some way to stretch his legs as well (no doubt a variation on the mechanical arm stretchers), but he does not stretch his body.

Finally, in issue 287, we see Reed spending a great deal of effort on a very large brainwave scanner. Why such a large one? He has used much smaller devices before. And why take so many pages of the story to talk about it? And why does he need a head set when its results are displayed on a  screen? Its ability to scan so many brains from such a distance, including brains like Doom's that would naturally be well shielded, suggests extremely advanced technology: something like the hyper wave bomb in annual 19.  The hyper wave bomb must work on very similar principles; detecting and analysing nerve impulses at a very subtle and sophisticated level. So the brainwave scanner is exactly the equipment Reed would need to cancel the effect of the hyper wave bomb for himself. And sure enough, after using it he can stretch normally again.

That's about it. You can tie up the straight-jacket and return me to my cell now.

Other points to note

Issue 92: Ben and Reed: on confidence and strength

Fantastic Four 92

Foreshadowing battle world

Step back and see the big picture of Ben's life: the Skrull world is a critical experience. Note the numerous parallels with Ben's experience on Battleworld at the end of act 4:

  1. Getting away to think:
    Ben's psychology is dominated by Reed. Reed overshadows him. Without Reed, Ben was handsome, he was brilliant (he had advanced degrees in order to be a test pilot), he was a natural leader: he had everything. But Reed's brilliance makes him look unintelligent by comparison, and Ben can't even hate him because Reed is so sincere and self sacrificing. The only way that Ben can come to terms with his problems is to get far away from Reed s possible, so he can think. Fate offers him this chance twice: at the end of act 3 (here) and the end of act 4 (Battleworld).
  2. The timing:
    Both off-world experiences took place when Reed's control weakened. By the end of act 3 Reed's perfect veneer is showing cracks. By the end of act 4 Reed's influence on Ben has fallen to almost nothing.
  3. The nature of the world:
    Like Battleworld, the Skrull world seems designed around Ben's psyche. Perhaps it was an accident, but they chose an era, the 1920s, where Ben was born. They created a world based on street gangs and violence: the world where Ben grew up. 
  4. Entertainment
    In both worlds Ben is trapped to be exhibited for entertainment.
  5. Battles
    The most obvious parallel is that both worlds take Ben against his will and make him fight. The first time, Reed comes and rescues him. The second time, Ben chooses to stay behind. Half way in between (the period when Ben is human and wears a Thing suit) Ben returns to Torgo's planet, and that period is crucial to Ben's search for identity.
  6. Ben can do more when away
    On the skrull world Ben is able to perform feats of strength that his psychology will not let him perform on earth (see How Strong is The Thing). On Battleworld, near the end of his personal journey, Ben will go further and be able to change back and forth at will.
  7. The stone collar
    The stone collar can symbolize Ben trapped by his rocky form. On the skrull world he has to be rescued by Reed, but on Battleworld he can change and rescue himself.
  8. He cannot run from himself
    In both places he moves forward emotionally, but the ultimate answers are inside: he cannot run from himself.

Reedl: the cracks begin to show
This is the issue where we see most clearly the harmful effects of Reed's ego. He ignores his child, as if Franklin is just Sue's responsibility. He then sidelines Sue, as if she cannot make her own decisions. To illustrate how serious this is, we are shown what Ben can do when he is outside Reed's control. On a foreign planet Ben's natural confidence returns and he reverts to Hulk level strength. Ben's strength, and how it is a result of his confidence, is discussed on Ben's own page.

The Zeitgeist
This issue illustrates how confidence leads to strength, and arrogance leads to weakness. These are defining features of modern American history, as perhaps the most confident and definitely the most powerful nation on Earth. The crisis between confidence and arrogance was never more clear than in 1969, when the nation put a man on the moon yet was entangled in the Vietnam war and civil unrest, and Richard Nixon (or both China and Watergate fame) became president.

A family first, super heroes second
The family continues to evolve and develop. Gradually the costumed hero era is passing and the focus is moving to the family. Note the civilian clothes on the Skrull planet : "...a growing tendency for the FF to be seen out of uniform. Most of the final Kirby episodes show the foursome in their civilian clothes for the first half of the story. In other issues, like FF #94, 96 and 97, they don’t bother to suit-up at all. Could it be that Jack was sick of costumed superheroes at this point? Kirby historian Mike Gartland opined that since the birth of Franklin, the FF had become a more 'normal' family. As such, the King was portraying them in normal attire." - Mark Alexander, "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years"

Note that this natural progression is frustrated by Reed's desire to control everything: he won't let his family grow. This leads to years of stagnation and pain in Act 4, leading to eventual redemption in Act 5.

Criticisms (source)

"A substance that is diamagnetic repels a magnetic field. All materials have diamagnetic properties, but the effect is very weak, and is usually overcome by the object's paramagnetic or ferromagnetic properties, which act in the opposite manner. Any material in which the diamagnetic component is strongest will be repelled by a magnet. [...] As water is predominantly diamagnetic, this technique has been used to levitate water droplets and even live animals, such as a grasshopper, frog and a mouse. However, the magnetic fields required for this are very high, typically in the range of 16 teslas, and therefore create significant problems if ferromagnetic materials are nearby." (Wikipedia, magnetic levitation)

Generating a sufficiently high field is the easy part: it's a crude matter of supplying energy. The real skill is in distorting the field away from anything metallic. This explains why the magnet has two separate ends (for directional purposes) and is placed in the head (to minimize the delay in mental processing: neurons use chemical pathways that operate at far below the speed of electric current in, say, wire. So microseconds matter. The magnet guy's brain would have to respond to fields that fluctuate extremely quickly).

Other points to note

Issue 93: the end of the 1960s

Fantastic Four 93

This issue is cover dated December 1969 (although it would be on sale a few months earlier). It sums up the message of the 1960s for the Fantastic Four: family. These people would go to the other side of the universe to protect one of their own. They hug. They cry. They love each other.

Silver Age criticisms

This final 1960s issue prompted general criticisms of 1960s (Silver Age) Fantastic Four issues: "Because really, all the stereotypes that typify the comics of the 60s (and this issue is the very last of that decade) are here: overly verbose and transparent dialogs, contrived environments and antagonists, and a rather arbitrary denouement." Let's examine these claims.

Other criticisms of this issue (source)

Do the team have time to fit into Skrull society before rescuing Ben? Yes they do. As noted in previous comments, Skrull society is fast changing. They are used to the very weird. They are also used to shape changers. If they were not expecting you then pretty much anything would fit in.

The zeitgeist:

The Great American Novel covers all major periods of history. Lee and Kirby grew up in this era. For more about the 1930s, and also the wild west era, see the end of John Byrne's run (the 270s to 290s).

Other points to note:

Also in 1969...

The single issue stories

Issue 94: Franklin's name and fate

Fantastic Four 94

Franklin's name

In FF94 Franklin is named. The name Franklin means "Free Man," a name reminiscent of Paul Atreides (the man who became a messiah figure in "Dune," published 1965, and "Dune Messiah" in 1969). "Free man" is in the sense of "territory held without paying dues." Franklin manipulates whole planets (see Heroes Reborn), and can do anything he wants, without understanding the price that must be paid (see for example FF240 where galaxies are like toys to him, or FF245 where Franklin grows up, or annual 24 "Days of Future Present").

Benjamin means "son of my right hand" meaning heir. 

"Richards" means "hard ruler" -- how suitable for the entire family.

So his name - "free man, controls without paying the price, heir to the rulers - is perfect for the being who controls the universe without realizing it. Did Stan Lee know what he was doing? Absolutely not: but he channeled the culture around him, (including name suggestions from readers) and certain names and situations felt right.

Franklin's life is foreshadowed

Franklin is fated to be ignored by his parents. This will be the major underlying theme of the story from now on.

As soon as Franklin is named they abandon him to a stranger. Ben is right: the child would be safer with the team. Sue's forcefield, plus her ability to make things invisible, is perfectly designed protection. Sue is held back by Reed, but she will later learn to do more than one at a time.

When he isn't left with Agatha they leave him with blind Alicia (e.g. FF88, FF251). Does Reed secretly want Franklin to be attacked?

Is Agatha Harkness really so good? While she does protect him from the Frightful Four, she also gave him to Annihilus (see FF239-242). Then her own son (Nicholas Scratch) possessed Franklin (FF223)! And the Frightful Four knew about the "safe" house immediately, so it wasn't so safe. They could have been defeated anyway, as Medusa had joined them specifically to help the FF. Plus Crystal would have been there.

Did they have any choice?

Sure, in hindsight we know Franklin is a powerhouse even as a baby, but could Reed have known at the time?

Yes, they knew: Sue's intuition is never wrong, and it says to be with Franklin. They know that Franklin has cosmic control rod energy in his blood, so he is worth studying.
But instead Reed doesn't even care enough to give him a name at first, then gets rid of him at every opportunity. There are strictly controlled visiting hours and holidays, even when Sue wants to see him!

Dr... who?

FF94 is about how to raise children. This issue is the heart of the 28 year conflict: does Reed put his family first?

As a family drama, and the Great American Novel, child-rearing had to arise sooner or later. Sue's approach, as a stereotypical mother figure, is to be close to the child (she was shown by his cradle, holding him, playing with him, etc.) But Reed's approach is to be distant: to send him away to a nanny. The 1960s was a time of debate and conflict in this area as in s many others. Sue, like most mothers, deferred to the father's opinion. But in the 1970s (Act 4) all this will change.

Sue and Reed reflect the great debate over child rearing: Doctor Spock versus Doctor Watson. Doctor Benjamin Spock "was an American pediatrician whose book Baby and Child Care, published in 1946, is one of the biggest best-sellers of all time. Throughout its first 52 years, Baby and Child Care was the second-best-selling book, next to the Bible. Its message to mothers is that "you know more than you think you do.'" (-Wikipedia) Doctor John B. Watson was father of the behaviorist school of psychology. He wrote the book 'Psychological Care of Infant and Child' and argued for minimal contact between parent and child. As a lone scientist who lacked Sue's maternal instincts, Reed's views naturally follow Watson.

The power of metaphor
Note the power of comics over any other medium: subtle abstract ideas become very simple. Instead of saying "the father distances himself from the child, against the instincts of the mother" we show the father giving the child to a witch! And in Act 4, instead of saying "the child is psychologically damaged" we see the witch betray the child to the embodiment of death, and the farther shoots the child with a gigantic gun! Nothing does metaphor better than the FF.

Dr Who

The Doctor Who character Jack Harkness was named after Agatha Harkness. Like Agatha, he seems a pure hearted hero most of the time, but sometimes we wonder where his real loyalties lie.

Other points to note

Roz as Agatha
Mark Alexander, in "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years" published those pencils. He said that "some people" think the younger Harkness looks like Jack Kirby's wife Roz. It is important to note that, according to The Kirby Museum (see their notes on 1969), Jack probably decided this art was "too good" for Stan. So he changed the younger, more interesting Agatha and made her older and more witch like. What do you think?

Roz photo

Paste Pot Pete

Issue 95: Jack Kirby, summed up in one image

Fantastic Four 95

At first glance this story is about how Johnny's conflict of loyalty lost his true love. This is the central love story of the 28 year epic, and this is one of the defining moments. For the full story of how Johnny lost Crystal, and how they are fated to be together one day, click here

This story is also about the late 1960s zeitgeist: cold war spies sabotage the United Nations, almost causing World War Three. it also reflects popular cultural tropes of the time - James Bond, the man from UNCLE, etc.

But really this issue is about Jack Kirby, the man who co-created the Fantastic Four and plotted and drew their golden age.

Jack as The Thing, summed up in one image

This image from FF95 is sometimes used (correctly) as an example of why Jack Kirby was the king of comics. He's just drawing a building, yet it's beautiful. And also personal, dramatic, etc. At this point (since 1968), Jack was putting less effort into each issue, but still hits the ball; out of the park with pages like this.

Ben lifting a

Why is this particular image so good? Because this is a picture of the kind of run down neighborhood where Jack grew up. And at this point Jack probably felt like Ben: under intense pressure, and not planning to make this a lifetime job. Note that Kirby is often compared to Ben, and played the role in the "What If" story where the bullpen became the FF.  By he time of this story, 1969, Jack had a huge work load, drawing and plotting numerous books every month. He had been repeatedly promised better pay, but those promises, mainly from publisher Martin Goodman, were broken (see the Comics Journal or any Kirby fan site for details). This is despite Kirby creating billion dollar ideas that Marvel is still milking for hit movies fifty years later.

The man In the corner says "WE NEED HYDRAULIC JACKS!" As Bully said, "Sorry, Mister, but you only need one Jack: Kirby."

Jack's last issue was FF102.

Note also the parallels with Crystal being trapped, and Johnny promising to help her, but ultimately failing her.

Regarding the phrase "king of comics" Johnny Carson once saw the claim and mocked it, thinking it referred to an unknown comedian being called the king of stand up comics. When he learned that "comic" in this case refers to comic book, and that Kirby's status is universally acknowledged, Carson apologized. Note that Carson was a major celebrity but his creations are now consigned to history, whereas Kirby's creations, thanks to e.g. the Avengers movies, are now more famous than ever. In Mark Waid's run Jack Kirby's role is summed up: when the team meet God, God is Jack Kirby.

Other points to note

For the limits to Ben's Strength, click here.

Issue 96: film noir

Fantastic Four 95

And this story progresses the bigger story by reminding us that, even as Reed is slipping into a darker place (neglecting his family and treating adults like children) he still genuinely loves his wife. Sue of course wants nothing more than to have Franklin in her arms, but Reed just sent Franklin away to live with a governess. Note the irony that the forward thinking man of science has social ideas from the Victorian era.

Stories based on movie genres

This is the Great American Novel and these issues are homages to America's greatest cultural invention: the movie.
Issues 91-93 combined gangsters, Roman epics and sci-fi.
Issue 94 was horror.
Issue 95 was a cold war spy action thriller.
Issue 96 is film noir
Issue 97 is a 1950s B movie


The elements of film noir:

Issue 97: Reed's ego is exposed: the emperor has no clothes

Please remember that Reed Richards is perhaps the greatest human hero ever. His tragic human flaw must be seen in that context.

Alternate cover:
loss FF cover

Fantastic Four 97

The running theme of this 28 year Great American Novel is Reed's ego. He needs to feel he is in control, or terrible things will happen. In contrast, Sue wants to enjoy life, to have peace and harmony, and to focus on the family. Who is right? Pretty soon (as Act 4 begins) Reed will find his self imposed work load grows ever harder until he can no longer cope and everything falls apart. If we accept Reed's view of the world, one of endless danger and conflict, it seems that he has no choice. But if we step back and take the long view, we see that Sue's way is nearly always better. This issue drives home the point in the most dramatic way possible: unique among all their conflicts, this one can be solved by doing precisely nothing: and Reed cannot see it. Sue's intuition is always right, as Reed himself had admitted, and here she instinctively knows that they should spend the time on the beach with Franklin. And that is exactly what she does, while the boys run off in their testosterone filled way, convinced the world will end of they don't fix something.

They should have left alone. Sue was right. This can be seen as a comment on the Vietnam war, and of war and conflict in general. Reed's idea of a world filled with conflict is an illusion. Sure, there is conflict here and there, but the solution is understanding, not mindless fighting. Reed of all people should know that understanding is the key.

This is a turning point. The increasing use of civilian clothes and the appearance of Franklin indicates that the team should move on, and focus on the family. Leave the fighting to the younger generation as they learn the lessons that can only come from experience. There will always be battles to fight, we don't have to manufacture new ones. But Reed, like Don Quixote, has to tilt at windmills, and he will pay a high price for it.

This issue has been criticized for how long it took the "monster" to gather water. But we are told that he crash landed, so it would have taken most of his time to repair the ship. As to why he took a job instead of spending all his time repairing, he seems to be like Reed: he's curious. Also like Reed he feels the need to "protect" his woman, keeping her shut away. If only his woman had sat on the beach with Sue they could have become friends and started a new cross planet alliance. Ironically, the male scientific curiosity led to less knowledge than they would have gained from just letting the women chat.

Jack Kirby's alienation

The ever observant Sharon, of "Two Girls,a  Guy, and some Comics" noted that the "monster" looks like Jack Kirby, and this may not be a coincidence. Contrast John Buscema's taller, more conventional version two years later.

Kirby as the monster
At this point Kirby is about to leave Marvel, but has not told Stan Lee. He is leaving because he was not paid for his scripting contribution. In sociological terms, Kirby felt "alienated" from his work: that is, his work was treated like a commodity rather than part of him and he resented it. Here a Kirby-looking alien keeps silent, saying nothing: he is the misunderstood hero. This Kirby alien is about to blast off for a different world.

Other points to note 

FF97 by Paolo Rivera

Issue 98: the climax to the space race

Alternate cover:
los FF cover
Fantastic Four 98

The Fantastic Four began at the height of the space race, and this is its climax. As the story of America, this is America's proudest moment: they send a man to the moon.

As regards the ongoing family story, this is where Sue begins to turn. Reed is metaphorically on the moon: so distant from her. He ignores her intuition as if it is worthless. Look at her face: she is losing respect for Reed. After 98 issues of doing things Reed's way, and oping that he would see her value, she is beginning to think the unthinkable: maybe this marriage isn't working.

How would events have been different if Reed had listened? They could have talked about it, instead of going to dinner. He would have saved vital seconds, seconds that were needed at the climax to the story. Sue's intuition has never been wrong, and she may have added crucial insights. Sue was there the last time they encountered the sentry, she may recognize the clues. But instead Sue has come to accept that her only role is to make dinner.

The climax issue

This is not just the climax to the space race, it's the climax to the silent battle between Sue and Reed. For years Reed has treated Sue as inferior and ignored her, and put the family at risk because of it. With all his telescopes and instruments he cannot see what is in front of his face.

Just as Neil Armstrong was unaware of the island that rose from the sea (water and land: female metaphors; space and science: male metaphor) what was really going on, so Reed is oblivious to the seismic changes in his family. After this Sue's obedience will wane, her resistance will grow, until in Act 4 the strains grow to great and the family falls apart.

It's not sexism, it's about ego.

This is not about Reed disrespecting women, it's about Reed's need to treat others as inferior. It's directed at Ben as well. When Ben triumphantly defeats the sentry ("when ol' Benjy whumps 'em, they stay whumped! He's out cold!") Reed tells Ben to stay there in case the sentry wakes up again (leaving Reed and Johnny to get the glory of the deactivating the Kree device). Reed then gives his opinion that the sentry must have been weakened in order for Ben to beat him. But would the sentry really create a device that weakens itself? Reed cannot cope with the idea that Ben is as capable as he is. It is then ironic that Reed has to call for help from Ben, and Ben saves the day and rescues his comatose buddies. Johnny then worries that Reed is not strong enough to handle the space ship, even though Ben is a trained pilot.

Footnote: who were the first men on moon?

Didn't the FF reach the moon before Neal Armstrong? Only by a technicality. Consider the previous contacts between the Earth and moon:

This is the first space flight using human technology. Previous contact was due to freak luck. It is like Columbus discovering the New World: plenty of people discovered the new world before that (the people who lived there already, for a start) but the significance of Columbus is that showed it could be done routinely, and so opened the door to everybody else.

Issue 99: the next generation

Fantastic Four 99

As we come to the end of Act 3, the happy time, we get a glimpse of the next time the family will be truly happy: the next generation, when Sue and Reed spend their time exploring and building alliances, and when the action focuses on Johnny and Crystal. But tragically Johnny is still immature. Like Reed, he sees everything in terms of conflict. He is not ready for Crystal, and his behavior tragically drives her away.


Note that there are no villains in this issue. It is the family story at its purest: the next generation is struggling to make difficult choices, with love at the center.

"The emotive force of this one is quite surprising. Johnny cycles quickly and believably through a whole spectrum of emotions — frustration, disappointment, loneliness, loss, anger, surprise, rage, forgiveness, and, ultimately, love." (source)

Johnny's devotion is prophetic. He would have to wait many years, but nobody else will ever take Crystal's place: finally they will be together.

Reed and Sue

We continue to see the rift develop between Sue and Reed wants. Look at this panel, where the decision is made to follow Johnny. Some read this panel as Sue agreeing that it is right to look for Johnny, but that is not what she says. She still wants to spend the time with Franklin, but Reed overrules her. Look at her frustration in this panel. She can't take much more of this.


Did Sue want to save him? No. As with the creature of the lost lagoon, this is a problem that is best left alone. The next time that Johnny runs off in anger, in FF129, Sue reveals her own preferred strategy: that time she stops Ben and Reed from chasing the lad. He has to learn some things on his own. His sister knows best.

Did Johnny need saving? No. Although he was angry and could have harmed people, he was attacking a race of super beings with advanced technology. As Ben observed, the Inhumans are not in danger, Johnny is.  However, Johnny is pretty tough and the Crystal loves him, so he won't come to too much harm. He needs to sort this problem out himself. it's the only way to grow up. but instead Reed insists that they go and continue to treat him as a child. because of this, Johnny remains as a child and ends up losing Crystal.

Note that this is supposed to be the Fantastic four, but three of the family want to let Johnny alone. Reed is the only one who wants to follow him, and Reed always gets his way. but not for much longer.

Criticism (source)

"If Crystal was needed to aid her brother Black Bolt, why was she simply not told when Medusa came to find her, instead of being bodily dragged through a portal? And being there, why did Crystal not send some sort of message to Johnny in the intervening three issues where the FF apparently took two vacations? [...] And once before Black Bolt and demanding answers, why doesn’t anyone just tell him what he wants to know?"  This is one of the marks of realism in the story. The Inhumans are not a group of Americans, or even of westerners, or even humans. They are an alien culture. we know that they have extremely strict class system and that Medusa is not happy with her sister, considering her too free with her affection. No doubt the medical need, while genuine, was also a convenient excuse to teach her a lesson, that the royal family is in charge. They probably would not let her communicate with Johnny, and they would certainly not consider justifying themselves to him.

Other points to note

Issue 100: resisting the future

Fantastic Four 100

This issue is a journey by many vehicles, a symbol that it's time to move forward. The big message is that the new team will be in safe hands: Crystal is more than a match for any danger. From the first page, when Crystal protects them from a fall, to when Crystal defeats the hordes of Atlantis, to when Crystal defeats the Frightful Four (again), it is clear that Reed and Sue can leave the team in safe hands and concentrate on Franklin now. But Reed shows no sign of wanting to be with Franklin: he wants to run the team forever.

Criticisms (source)

Other points to note

Issue 101: "The F.F. are beaten at last"


This is Kirby's last cover. The image is powerfully symbolic: many fans consider Kirby's departure as the death of the Fantastic Four. This reflects the end of an era, the end of Act 3. The next story begins ominously and segues into Act 4 and a completely new artist with issue 103, and two decades of decline.

Fantastic Four 101

The only people who can defeat a strong family is the family itself.

This is the end of Act 3: the last all-Kirby story. The cover shows the team in coffins, and the statement "the FF are beaten at last." On the surface they are beaten by the Maggia, but they are really no threat: as the Torch says, "any one of us can take you -- with no sweat!" Even if it were a more dangerous foe, like Doom, even if some of the team were beaten, they are never really beaten because another member of the family can rescue them. The only way they can truly be beaten is the family becoming divided. This is what is happening, as Reed continues to drive a wedge between himself and Sue:

The symbolism of the home

This story, of losing their home, is a symbol of losing the family. Reed spends more time on building his house than on building his family. He relies on mechanical defenses, and they never really protect the family. In particular, invaders often enter the heart of the house through the negative zone at the heart of the building. This is a symbol of the negativity at Reeds heart: his need for conflict. He is often trapped in the negative zone, culminating in abandoning his child to Annihilus and descending into his personal hell in FF251. All this time Reed should have paid more attention to the family than the house. Franklin and Sue are powerful enough to repel any invader, if only Reed would let them blossom. 

Parallels with the wedding

The title of this issue, "Bedlam in the Baxter building" reminds us of annual 3, the wedding of Sue and Reed, titled "Bedlam at the Baxter Building." Annual 3 parallels FF99-100: in both they fight a horde of bad guys all at once, and it ends with Reed pledging his commitment to Sue. But in annual 3 the bad guys were real and the commitment was real. In FF99-100 the bad guys are fake and the commitment rings hollow. Reed is pledging something that Sue does not want (endless fighting, not love). 

Zeitgeist and cultural links

"In this story the FF battle gun totting hoods from 'the Maggia,' which was the Marvel Universe counterpart to the Mafia. In 1969, the Mafia had become a household name due to the success of The Godfather by Mario Puzo. Mario was Stan’s old crony from Magazine Management Company. In the early 1960s Puzo wrote for Goodman’s men’s magazines like Swank and Male under the pseudonym 'Mario Cleri.'" - Mark Alexander, "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years"

Other points to note

Issue 102: Reed causes World War III

Once again, please remember that this site is pro-Reed Richards. His tragic human flaws must be seen in that context.

Fantastic Four 102

Finally Reed goes too far. It's the end of the happy time The end of Act 3.

Namor, manipulated by Magneto, once again threatens the surface world. This parallels the events of Annual 1. Back then, Reed antagonized Namor so much that he almost caused WWIII. Now he does it again. In a monumental miscalculation he had a missile armed and ready, just in case. That was his first mistake, to attack every problem with violence. His next mistake is to have spent the previous nine years treating Ben like such an idiot that he now plays the role. Sure enough, Ben presses the missile button. If Reed had not destroyed Ben's self esteem years ago then this would not have happened.

Let us consider what would have happened if Reed was not so rash. Namor wanted peace and was only persuaded to invade the land because of Reed's missile. But there is another approach: Sue was always sympathetic to Namor. She always understood his point of view. If she had acted as ambassador then the whole misunderstanding could have been avoided. As for Magneto's power, we saw on the Skrull world that Ben is strong enough to withstand any magnetic forces. Sue and Ben could have solved the problem is not for Reed's ego.

Criticisms (source)

How could Magneto control the wires that attack Ben, when he is deep under the ocean? Namor has advanced technology, and Magneto says it can magnify his power. Perhaps he refers to the surface viewing device used in FF27. Whatever carrier wave it uses can presumably be used by Magneto, thus extending his reach across the globe.

The end of Act 3: foreshadowing the next 20 years

This issue is the end of an era. The last consecutive Jack Kirby issue.

"Jack [Kirby] soon after turned in his final FF story (which ended up going in #102) along with his resignation from Marvel, and the Marvel Age effectively came to an end,” explained the historian. “Without Kirby at Marvel, the company really took on a different feel, and Stan himself retired from writing comics soon after. The ‘House of Ideas’ was never the same after that.”  - Lisa Kirby

time line

(Technical details: 102 was originally supposed to be a story about the "The Nega Man" or "Mega Man", and the World War III story was to be issue 103. But Stan didn't like it, so the Nega Man story was finally reworked for 108, appearing the same month as Kirby's first work for DC appeared. Years later the original FF102 story was reassembled as "the Lost Adventure")

This final story ends by foreshadowing the emotions of the post-Kirby FF.

Fantastic Four 102

Fantastic Four 102

The team should focus on the family. Sue knows it. Ben knows it. By pushing Franklin away the team heads for disaster. That is Act Four in a nutshell.

Next: Act 4... Crisis

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