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

1965: Act 3: America v God (everything is turned upside down)

timechart issue 1 issues 2-5 issues 6-24 issues 25-43 issues 45-60 issues 61-80 issues 81-102 issues 103-125 126-132 133-149 150-175 176-200 201-218 219-231 232-250 251-273 274-295 296-303 304-321 322-333 334-355 355-569 570 to present
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In brief:
(Annual 5) Reed and Sue's wedding causes...
(FF44-47) the cultural awakening of the Inhumans, which causes...
(FF48-51) the arrival of Galactus, which causes...
(FF52-56) relationships to turn upside down (and a focus on equality) which causes...
(FF57-60)  the union of science and magic

The mid 1960s was an era when everything was questioned: God, war, the family, race, everything.
This era is the FF's greatest, and is dominated by one story: Galactus! We are promised "WONDERS WITHOUT END": we see the team, like America, being turned upside down.

F 48 splash page

Stan Lee famously told Kirby to "have the FF fight God". The story climaxed in 1966, a couple of months before Time Magazine (April 8th) asked, "Is God Dead"? 

Time magazine

Galactus was not about denying God, of course...

... it was about questioning everything (through euphemisms, to be within the bounds of the comics code). Galactus was about the growing anti-war movement; it was followed by the first black superhero; it was preceded by a story of hidden races and humanity versus inhumanity, which followed the main characters getting married. Everything in America was changing forever!

The mid point, story-wise
Act 3 in the five act structure is "the ball": this is the wedding of Sue and Reed! Everyone gets together to celebrate, and all seems to be going very well, before the inevitable crisis. It may seem strange that the period 1961-1989 had its middle in 1965-1969, but the timescale is distorted for two reasons: (1) In most plays the later parts are longer than the earlier: the introduction can be dealt with quickly while the final crisis is stretched out. (2) The rise of Marvel Time means the final three years took twenty years to publish.

Act 3 sees the greatest triumphs: the wedding, the defeat of Galactus, and the defeat of Doom with Galactus-spawned powers. The wedding is a kind of great council, where the Fantastic Four are publicly accepted (by the presence of almost all other Marvel superheroes) as the great defenders of mankind. This is where Reed becomes a true hero: the beautiful Susan Storm is a good influence on him, and he no longer undermines the team.

Act 3 is all about the negative zone portal
Act 3 is all about the portal. Just look at the motivation for every adventure. This list only includes the stories where Reed had a choice. Other events, like the appearance of Galactus, were thrust upon him and he just had to react.

Annual 3: the wedding of Sue and Reed

annual 3

This is a historical landmark, one of the greatest moments in comic book history. And if the Fantastic Four (1961-88) is as good as I argue it is, then this is one of the great moments in all literature. The original Marvel Universe is the largest single story ever told, and this wedding was the first time the story moved forwards in time in a major way. Unlike previous comic weddings or comic events, these were not minor characters, this is not a dramatic origin or death, this is a major permanent change to the status quo in a very successful story that then continues to even greater success.

This annual continues the development of Doom's character. In annual 2 we saw his pride leading to the illusion of victory, then when the truth was revealed Doom felt humiliated and launched an ill judged attack. Now in annual 3 he continues to act rashly, without proper planning. After this abject failure he begins to plan more carefully: his next appearance shows far more preparation (the development of robots, so much more obedient than people), and more maturity (the Latveria trilogy shows Doom at his most majestic). This indicates that, while Doom forgot the details of the plan, his mind retained the lesson.

Note the irony that Doom, the mind controller (see the discussion of robots in annual 2), had his mind controlled (this time via the Watcher's machine). Note the design of the machine, with the thin tube attaching to the forehead, is similar to the device used in annual 2. This is Reed's greatest victory over Doom, surpassing even the dramatic victory in FF200. This is because the annual 3 victory is permanent and is never detected: after shaming Doom though superior intellect in annual 2, Reed on his triumphant wedding day enjoys the delicious pleasure of defeating Doom again in the same way. And this time Doom never finds out: for an ego the size of Doom this is the greatest possible humiliation.

Other points to note

Dr Doom


Issue 44: why the Fantastic Four matters (a case study in great comics)

Fantastic Four 44

"With the advent of FF #44, the Cosmic Era is now underway. Thus begins the book’s most fertile and influential period; an epoch that may never be surpassed. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee would now take a bottom-rung art form— the comic book—and use it to create High Art; fantasy on par with the likes of Homer and Shakespeare. In doing so they would galvanize an entire generation of future writers and artists by proving that comics have limitless possibilities. Many of the characters from this period will prove to be as timeless and powerful as the Greek and Roman pantheon of mythological deities. The comic book medium is about to transcend." - Mark Alexander, "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years"

For more about this landmark issue, see the analysis in how to create great comics.

The zeitgeist is strong in this one: note the wild "anything goes" mood of the mid 1960s, the Sting Ray car, the reference to Ozzie and Harriet, etc.

However, this also shows the FF at its most creative. "The prodigious originality of the Inhumans was stunningly obvious. The Royal Attilans owed very little to anything comics had ponyed-up in the past. Their roots could be traced back to ancient mythology more than anything." - Mark Alexander, "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years"

What brought about this sudden burst of quality?

The Fantastic Four saw two great bursts of new ideas: at the very beginning (which led to other comics like the Hulk, Iron Man, X-Men and Avengers), and now with the year that saw the Inhumans, Galactus, the silver surfer and the Black Panther within a few issues. Both periods were caused by Stan Lee telling Jack Kirby "were in trouble!" and so Kirby put in an extra effort. In the early days the company was on its knees, and in 1965 it looked like the same thing might happen again: Archie comics created an imprint to rival Marvel, called "Mighty Comics Group." In response, Martin Goodman (Marvel's publisher) told Lee to invent some new characters. So Lee went to Kirby, the ideas man. Within a single week, Jack Kirby invented the Inhumans and the Coal Tiger (later renamed the Black Panther). Mighty Comics then flopped, they were just a pale shadow of Kirby's work. So the characters were added to the FF instead.

The role of money in great art

This is the first regular Joe Sinnott issue. More than anybody else, Joe's superb inking gave the FF its unique power and consistency over the years. He previously inked FF5, and Stan wanted him as the regular inker, but at the time Marvel paid the lowest page rates. Sinnott, who unlike Kirby had never offended or challenged anyone, but was perhaps the best inker i the business, could always get higher paying work elsewhere. "The wedding of Sue and Reed would prove to be Vince Colletta’s final farewell to Fantastic Four, and the images/misc/Colletta mismatch would have an ironic twist. Martin Goodman was so appalled at the way Vinnie was desecrating Marvel’s lead book that he agreed to disburse sufficient funds to lure Joe Sinnott into the fold. In an odd sense, if it hadn’t been for Colletta’s incompatible inking, Kirby and Sinnott may never have united." ... "In later years Joe would cite specific pages from Fantastic Four that he lost money on due to the amount of labor he put in." - Mark Alexander, "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years"

Sinnott was not the only one who benefited from the loosening of the purse strings. "Due to a pay raise, the King was able to cut his workload almost in half, and he began to delve deeper into his craft." - Alexander again

The new marriage: the significance of Gorgon?

This is the first marriage issue, and the marriage will be dominated by Reed's old fashioned attitude: he is the man, he makes the decisions. The phrase for a man laying down the law was "putting his foot down". Symbolizing this, the marriage issue begins with "the gentleman" called Gorgon, who literally "puts his foot down". Gorgon has a very male appearance, with craggy face, large sideburns and mustache-less beard, and thick hairy arms.

The name

At this point the only Inhuman we know is Medusa. The next one we meet is called Gorgon: in Greek mythology Gorgon was the class of person to which Medusa belonged. Medusa was the most famous Gorgon, just as the Inhuman Medusa is the most important Inhuman. (Technically Black Bolt is king, but Medusa generally speaks for him: she holds the real power.) In the story Gorgon is hunting Medusa: he needs her. But Medusa always gets her way in the end.

The masks
Why do the senior members of the Inhumans wear masks, when their identities are not secret? Theirs is a very class bound system, and presumably the common people are not allowed to gaze on the faces of senior royalty. Crystal, being junior, does not wear a mask.

More about male-female dynamics

The Inhuman men appear stronger but are actually weaker. The other two men in the royal family are Karnak and Triton: Karnak, while noble, is the shortest and thinnest, and always takes the least important role. As for Triton, in the early days he cannot survive out of water: in social situations he is literally like a fish out of water, and hides under a bag or in a giant fishbowl. When we say somebody is "in a fishbowl" we mean they are highly visible but have limited power because of it (Triton almost dies when the bowl breaks in FF46-47).  Triton's role will be to run errands (reaching Reed in the Negative zone, or running away in FF149 and FF244). His greatest triumph will be getting Reed and Sue back together. Compare the men's weakness to the women's strength: both Inhuman women become members of the Fantastic Four; none of the men ever do.

This male-female dynamic will be a theme throughout act 4, especially in the early parts, the middle section of the 28 year story: see Thundra and Makhizmo, Sue and Reed's near divorce, Johnny's dating failures, and so on. Female soft power is a defining feature of the Inhumans, and a constant theme in the Fantastic Four.

Issue 45: Johnny meets Crystal

Fantastic Four 45

This is the issue where Johnny meets Crystal. For details of their love story, see Crystal's own page. It's also the first appearance of Lockjaw, the world's greatest super hero (in my opinion).

What more can I say?
Sometimes I feel there is no point in writing these comments. This issue is just superb: if you can read it and not agree then maybe this isn't the web site for you. The humor, the romance, the action, the pathos, the character development, the historic events... it has everything. This is what it's all about.

Other points to note

Issue 46: advanced storytelling

Fantastic Four 46

Again, what can I add to perfection?
Here is another story that really needs to be read and enjoyed, rather than discussed.

"Here we have characters acting and their motivations are only explained several issues later. The story started two issues ago with Medusa on the run, and we found it was because Gorgon was chasing her. Now we find out why he was chasing her, which was because the Inhumans were all under the threat of discovery from The Seeker who has been hunting them in order to return them to The Great Refuge. Whether by accident or design, this is rather advanced storytelling. Even today with any writers’ six-issue arc story, you wouldn’t get such a restrained approach to character motivation, at least not without a whole lot of foreshadowing. In fact, it’s the lack of foreshadowing here that adds to the off-balance feel of the story, and which keeps the reader just like the FF — always trying to catch up and make sense of what is going on." -, emphasis added.

Note the differences in the individual Inhumans' personalities. This site already has separate pages on Crystal and Lockjaw. Let us compare and contrast Triton and Medusa instead. Triton explores - see Byrne's 240?? but Medusa distrusts the outside world. In FF45 Triton tells the Seeker: "You’ll never send us back to the Great Refuge! We want to remain here! We want to live free!” In FF #47, Medusa says: “We’re safe at last! In the Great Refuge where we belong!” Ironically, Mark Alexander, in "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years" condemns the Inhumans for all having the same personality, and then cites this difference of opinion as a mistake in continuity. You can't please some people. :)

Issue 47: Sue unites two worlds


The first page of this issue is arguably the single most important action of the entire 28 year story, and it generally goes unnoticed. By saving Triton's life, Sue turns them from enemies into allies. The importance of this cannot be overemphasized: a companion species to humans, but far more powerful and with far more advanced technology, was previously our sworn enemy, and Sue turns them into friends. The Fantastic Four are important because the world gained four super powered defenders: Sue has now turned that number into perhaps four thousand or four million.

This issue is the perfect example of subtle storytelling. So many people read this story and only see Reed criticizing Sue and Sue doing her hair. She does it for a reason: a way to distract the boys from their gloom. Throughout the story it's Sue who makes the wise decisions (becoming allies, leaving the Inhumans alone, counselling and encouraging the others), and the boys who ignore her and either want conflict or mope around depressed. But this is only clear if you look at what the people do, and the outcomes, and not what they say.

The Great American Novel

Reed and Sue parallel the modern and early American leaders. Once again in this issue Sue argues for non-intervention: the Inhumans have gone home, leave them alone. She has earned their friendship and gratitude, that is the best form of security. but Reed argues that they should invade the Inhumans' lands. The American founding fathers were generally like Sue: non-interventionist. They were tired of the wars in the old world. Modern presidents are generally like Reed: they feel the world would fall apart without America as global policeman.

Other points to note


Sinking into the Earth: science and realism

This is why the Fantastic Four is the Great American Novel. It's all about the real world, but bigger. Here's an example. They could focus on an amazing bit of science, but they don't. They focus on the reactions instead. And yet the science is mind expanding! Then mind blowing! Let's start: here we learn that the Great Refuge is in the Andes, and the art confirms the fact.

the Andes
Nothing can penetrate the barrier: not even enormous force (e.g. from physical weapons), or enormous heat (as tested by the Human Torch). Then Maximus has the city sink into the ground, so as to survive a Galactus attack (see the notes for next issue.) But that's just the beginning. The dome actively repels positive matter. So, once underground, being surrounded by matter on all sides, it will behave as if it is in a vacuum, floating feely. It starts moving down, and so it will simply continue, oblivious to the massive heat and pressure around it. That's just how physics works. And it's mind blowing when you think of it: a bubble slowly moving through the planet!

The bubble starts beneath the Andes mountains, moving and being repelled by the surrounding rock. It does not stop being repelled until it runs out of rock: on the exact opposite side of the planet, in the Himalayas. Just a minor detail, barely mentioned, yet an unavoidable conclusion! As "the days roll endlessly by" it begins in the Andes and ends up in the Himalayas. And why does it stop there? because it is no longer repelled, but sits on top of the surface. Why does it not float away? Because gravity still applies. The negative barrier repels matter only on contact, not at a distance.

This conclusion solves at least three problems:

  1. Names:
    Why do we have several names and events that sound the same? (Atlantis, negative zone, sinking etc.) because they all trace to the same events.

  2. Time:
    Why does so much time pass between FF 51 and FF 52? Most issues in this period are separated by just a few minutes. but here, Johnny enrols in college and studies long enough for his first series of exams and then vacation. Yet he is thinking of Crystal all the time. Why doesn't he keep pestering Reed to find a way to rescue her? Surely he must do, but Reed has a very good reason why he cannot try until months later. (According to FF 51, Johnny does not know about it sinking into the Earth, so he must learn about that later.)

  3. Location:
    Why does Johnny then know to look in the Himalayas, but does not now exactly where the city is? When he first visited they landed a plane right next to it. But now they have to "search" for it somewhere in the Himalayas, .


But.. but...
Why don't they just say "the city sank through the Earth and came out the other side?" For the same reason that we don't see the details of amazing science and races and all the other stuff the FF deal with daily. We know they live in an amazing world, full of amazing happenings. But most of it is not relevant to the story.

Applying the Skrull milk theory

This is not the first example of a dome sinking into the Earth. Kala does the same thing, in the original story drawn (and therefore probably plotted) by Kirby. She later features in FF 127-8.

Kala, Atlantis

Occam's razor means shaving off unnecessary details: why have two unlikely events when the same event would explain it all? Rather than two Atlantis cities (or three if we include Attilan, originally an island) there was just one. And instead of three unrelated sinkings there was just one, but three parts of the same city. And instead of two different kinds of negative zone we have one. The Skrull Milk theory explains it all. It suggests that Reed created armies to protect the Earth from Skrulls, and hid them under the water and under the Earth. His obsession with the negative zone would give them the ability to form protective bubbles as used by Maximus and Kala. Implanted memories would help them interpret their real history in a new and more dramatic way, but all the most dramatic events happened after 1930. The initial move of Attilan from the sea to the mountains, for example, took place not thousands of years ago but in the 1950s (see "Untold Tales" in "What If" issue 30).

I know this sounds crazy, but follow the logic on the Skrull Milk page. Unlike any other theory, this one accepts what the comics actually show us: for example, that Attilan was in the Andes first, then sank into the ground, then was in the Himalayas. other comic readers have to change the comics and say the Andes was a mistake. I don't change the comics. That's the difference.

Issue 48: the biggest battle of all

Fantastic Four 48

This issue is the high point of Act 3, the greatest triumph of all. it demonstrates the central theme that Reed's attempt to be Mr Fantastic does not work. They meet an enemy that Reed cannot beat, no matter how hard he tries. Johnny sill give the needed perspective: no matter how fantastic they may think they are, they are just ants. So ultimately Reed's method (be more and moper fantastic) cannot work, and Sue's method (be humble, need others, be sensitive to others' needs) is the only one that can work. In both FF48 and FF50 we see how Reed shuts Sue out of his life. This is the theme of inequality will cause the crisis at the start of Act 4 and will not be resolved until Act 5.

In contrast to Reed's strategy (planning) and Sue's strategy (sensitivity), Ben's strategy is to act now, talk later, and he saves the world at the crucial moment while Reed is busy talking.There is also a hint (in the following two issues) that one day the team will rely on Johnny. We see the most powerful being of all, the herald of the child Franklin (though they cannot know this yet), and the first major fissures in Sue and Reed's marriage. For the significance of Galactus, and why he changes, see the discussion by FF74.

The zeitgeist

At this point in 1966, Jack Kirby was pretty much creating the Fantastic Four on his own. Stan Lee would suggest a concept, then write finished dialog over the art, and that was it. The story goes that this story began when Stan Lee, seeing the ever increasing action in the strip, told Kirby to "have the FF fight God" (for more detail see Sean Kleefeld's article in the Jack Kirby Collector, referenced here) . This was straight from the 1966 Zeitgeist: nothing was off limits, everything was questioned, everything was new, anything was possible. This story is so much a part of the zeitgeist that to truly experience it we had to be there and see it the first time. Sean Kleefeld writes about this in his blog:

"Everything that was swirling around the collective social consciousness in 1966 informed how the Galactus Trilogy was created and how it was received. The further removed you are from that, the further you remove yourself from the original context. Even someone reading it in 1967 would have a slightly different context than anyone who read it the year before. Star Trek, for example, debuted a few months after the Galactus Trilogy concluded. So did The Monkees' first album. The Black Panther Party was created. Walt Disney died late in the year. Even within the span of a few months after the books were published, people were reading them in a different context because they had other things to contextualize the story against."

All we can do now is look back and read about the story, we cannot read the story is it was first experienced. This is particularly hard for experienced comic readers. Kleefeld again:

"Has Anyone Really, REALLY Read The Galactus Trilogy? [...] By the time I read the famous Galactus Trilogy -- even the original copies -- I knew who Galactus was, how he operated, and much of his back story. I'd already seen this world-eating giant physically beaten by Earth's heroes, saved by Reed Richards and legally defended by Odin! There was absolutely no way I could remove that context from my head while I was reading the character's debut. There was absolutely no way that I could experience seeing that character for the first time from his 1960s debut because I had already experienced him in the 1980s." [Emphasis in original.]

But we can read it and imagine, and let ourselves be transported back to when everything was new, and anything was possible.

Imperialistic themes
From "Imperialistic Themes in the Galactus Trilogy" by Mark Ginocchio:
“This planet [Earth] shall sustain me until it has been drained of all elemental life!” in many ways draws parallels with one of defining moments of the Cold War era, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. One would assume that the book’s “good guys,” the heroic Fantastic Four, would symbolize the United States in this allegory. But in many sections of this three-issue arc, that is not the case. This Silver Age classic is as much of a statement against American imperialism and hubris as it is about the “doomsday” scenario [of The Cuban Missile Crisis].
Galactus’ declaration of his intentions all but reads like the mission statement of Western imperialism: “This planet contains the energy I need to sustain me! I shall absorb it and will… as I have done for ages in countless galaxies throughout the cosmos.” Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the United States occupied territories such as the Philippines, Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Puerto Rico. [and add the Spanish American War and America's imbargo of Cuba] In effect, the United States absorbed these countries and their resources in order to grow and then sustain itself politically and militarily.
Ginocchio notes the balance of power: America had nuclear missiles in Turkey, so Russia wanted them in Cuba. Galactus would destroy the world, so the humans would destroy Galactus. But crucially, the FF here play the role not of America, but Russia:
“The thing is we were not going to unleash war,” Khrushchev told his advisors according to Fursenko and Naftali. “We just wanted to intimidate them, to deter the anti-Cuban forces.”
The Bay of Pigs fiasco was the year before Galactus: the Cuban government had good reason to fear America, just as the FF had reason to fear Galactus. This strange role reversal, the FF against a symbol of American power, foreshadows discontent with the government that would rise during the Vietnam war and reach its peak with Watergate. The American people and America's government are sometimes different entities.

Being trapped
Maximus traps his people. later Galactus traps the Surfer on Earth. This is the height of the iron curtain ear when being trapped was a high profile issue: "In 1966, Russia did not allow people to leave their country, even on a vacation.  Even during the Olympics, Russian athletes were heavily guarded. They, like the Inhumans, had to remain where they were born. The ability not to travel was definitely a cold war era concern." - Bill Hall, on the Daily Kirby

This issue is the first to have two major stories. Both stories illustrate a major theme of the 1960s zeitgeist, especially among the young: alienation from the human race.
  1. First we have the Inhumans isolated from the outside world: "One day we shall rejoin the human race - and it is Black Bolt who shall show us the way!" 
  2. The second story has ordinary people blaming the heroes for their troubles.

Global politics

This issue contains two case studies in global politics:
  1. a battle between two greatly unequal sides (Galactus and Earth)
  2. and a battle between two sides of great but roughly equal power (Maximus and the rest of the Royal Family).
In the case of unequal power, success comes by appealing to a third party (the Watcher, or the surfer). In the case of equal power, success depends on winning public opinion:

Inhumans and Galactus: the link

How did Galactus find the Earth?
The Skrulls have technology to hide their entire empire from Galactus. So clearly he can be fooled. The Watcher is far more powerful than any Skrull, and attempted to hide Earth, just a single planet. Yet the surfer found us? Why? We tend to think of this planet from a human perspective, but look at what had just happened: just a few months earlier the Inhumans had become known to the outside world. The Inhumans are the advanced inhabitants of Earth, both genetically and technologically, not us humans. As Nathan Adler points out, this was the start of massive changes in Inhuman society, after many thousands of years of being quiet (see the notes to FF241). It seems likely that Galactus was attracted by the Inhumans.

The purpose of the atmo-gun
The purpose of the atmo-gun is clear when we see Kirby's original art, without Stan Lee's dialog. Kirby plotted this issue (hence Lee did not know about the surfer), and the art shows that the "gun" is some kind of broadcasting equipment: when he turns it on the surfer notices and changes direction.
At the end of FF47, Maximus said his atmo-gun would set up vibrations "so delicate, so sensitive, that only Humans will be affected!" Yet the vibrations that we see shake up and destroy Inhuman buildings and appear to harm Inhumans just as much as humans. Yet Maximus then announces that "all human life on earth has been ended!" So what does he mean by "delicate" and "sensitive" vibrations? The answer is in the design of the gun: it is obviously not a gun in the normal sense, but a transmitter: it fires (transmits) vibrations, or in other words waves! Maximus is transmitting vibrations (waves) throughout the atmosphere. Humans are familiar with this concept: we use radio waves. These radio waves are modulated to carry information: the information is the "delicate", "sensitive" part on top of the larger carrier wave. Maximus of course won't use radio waves, he will use something faster than light. He knows about subspace (the negative zone is subspace, and he made a barrier from it) so this is not beyond his ability. What exactly is Maximus broadcasting that fills Earth's atmosphere? Why is mankind as good as dead once it is done? We find out within a few pages: the silver surfer discovers Earth! Maximus has turned the Earth's atmosphere into a beacon that draws the attention of Galactus to wipe out the humans!

The purpose of the negative Zone barrier
A negative zone barrier is impossible to break just by bombarding it with energy: it is literally another dimension. It can therefore protect Attilan from Galactus: no matter how much the surrounding planet boils and burns, the Inhumans will be safe. The city in its bubble was so disconnected from the surrounding planet that it began to very slowly sink into the ground, as we saw at the end of FF 47. Maximus had destroyed the humans while rescuing the Inhumans, and confidently expected to be hailed as savior of his people as a result. He could afford to give up the crown for now because he expected the people to clamor for him to take it once they realized he had given them the whole planet. Once Galactus had gone they could easily terra-form and rebuild the remains with their advanced technology. All he had to do was sit and wait. But gradually he must have realized that the outside world had not been destroyed, and somehow Galactus had been stopped. But that's another story.

How to survive a visit from Galactus
Maximus called Galactus, then sealed his city in an impenetrable dome that slowly sank into the rock.

How would that save you from Galactus? FF 49 shows Galactus' machine is effectively a gigantic sensor that seeks out the desired kind of energy one piece at a time: first in the oceans, then the cities, then anywhere else it can find, including the planet's core. It then leaves behind huge chunks of the planet (the planet is no longer a sphere, but a mass of drifting debris). The whole point of the negative zone barrier is to hide what was inside, and make it extremely hard to penetrate, so it would be safe from anything less than a targeted and specialized attack (such as Black Bolt later managed from inside). For that reason I think he barrier was specifically designed to avoid the energy seeking device, as well as protect from accidental collateral damage. It would appear to be completely inert and uninteresting to the machine (or perhaps entirely absent, a blank spot on the sensors), so would never be directly attacked, so would be among the fragments that survive after Galactus leaves. From the Inhumans point of view, Galactus would merely then have achieved what mankind later achieved: making the Earth unusable to Inhumans. So the Inhumans would relocate to the Moon a little earlier. I think this is definitely a case where Kirby's original art is the key: the machine was a seeker, a searcher, not a "boil everything" device. So Maximus' main objective would be to appear uninteresting to Galactus' searches, in the same way that the Skrulls and the Watcher were able to hide entire planets.

Readers may be confused by Byrne's later description of the destruction of the Skrull world where Galactus sinking into a bubbling inferno. Yet in MTIO 50, a story illustrated by Byrne, Galactus's attack on Earth was survived by regular people: it was more like a nuclear war than a planer-eating. This difference is easily explained: Galactus seeks out certain kinds of energy, and as the throne world to a galactic empire, the Skrull world had much more of that kind.

Why the seeker?
It then becomes clear why the seeker was to return the Inhumans to the Great Refuge: anybody outside the refuge when the barrier was raised would be destroyed when Galactus came. This also explains why Black Bolt and the others were unwilling to come back: the other Inhumans would never agree to this insane plan as long as their royal family were outside, in danger. But once the royal family were captured Maximus could happily give up the throne because he knew he had won.

Why the Watcher protected Earth
With this in mind we can see why the Watcher, normally passive, chose to protect Earth, Galactus was attracted by Maximus;' device. But why, after all these thousands of years did some Inhumans suddenly decide to kill everybody else? Because the outside humans had changed. Super powered mutations had begun to be triggered, which would make humans (in time) just as powerful as Inhumans. They were becoming a threat. These mutations were triggered by the Beyonders' plans (see the discussion to FF 319). So the higher beings caused the problem: it is therefore their responsibility to solve it. For links between tn Beyonders and the Watchers, see the page on cosmic topics

The story behind the story: Galactus v the Watcher
There are hints throughout the 28 year story that all the superhero stories are just incidental trivial details. The real story is the endless battle between the Watcher and Galactus. This issue is just the clearest example. Here is the evidence:
  1. Dr Strange
    Dr Strange comics show that massive cosmic powers are always battling, and the rest of us barely see them.
  2. Logic
    If these higher powers are so powerful, inevitably anything the rest of us did would be just minor details in comparison. They fight on levels we can barely comprehend. The more advanced fighters are, the more they plan ahead and use words, rather than simply hitting each other with sticks.
  3. All other superhero comics
    The Fantastic Four is not the only comic. On first glance other comics must be rejected because they cannot take place in our world: we would notice. Besides, having so many super powered beings would change the world beyond recognition. But this is not true of there are higher powered beings that keep resetting things. (We do see Galactus and the Watcher reset minds and events from time to time: e.g. in annual 3, or after Terrax steals Manhattan circa FF 243)
  4. It's all about the Watcher and Galactus
    See the page on cosmic beings for why all higher beings are on a spectrum from the Watcher (representing philosophical ideals of non-violence) to Galactus (representing raw destructive power).
  5. The Fantastic Four and all superheroes
    The FF gained their powers from the Beyonders (see FF319) who felt that mankind was ready for the nest step. So they are pawns in a bigger game.
  6. Franklin
    Franklin is the "beyond omega" being who controls everything: Galactus is just his herald. Though see the page on the cosmic for why such "who is more powerful than who" questions all depend on point of view. Once we get into the real of abstracts the idea of power struggles are like "is love stronger than fear" and "is thought stronger than violence".
  7. Agatha Harkness
    Agatha's people in New Salem are an entire race of Witches: people in tune with these higher powers. What are they doing hidden in that village? It must be pretty important. If Nicholas Scratch is indeed the physical face of The Overmind" (see notes to FF115) then this magical theme dominates the story for the middle hundred issues. And if the advanced beings are involved in a battle we barely understand, this could explain why Agatha had to appear to look after Franklin (even though she is disastrous for him), and why once she appeared (in FF 94) Crystal started feeling sick and had to leave (in FF105). Crystal was then attracted to the low level magician Diablo. None of this is conclusive, but it all hints of a much bigger magical story behind the scenes, throughout the 28 year story.
  8. The beginning and end of the story
    The big story ends with a rogue Watcher (FF321-333) and act 1 has magical undertones (magic is just advanced science, including advanced understanding of the mind: so issue 1 has Deviant technology, issue 2 has aliens, issue 3 has the Miracle Man who is later drawn to Native American magic, and of course issue 5 has the merging of magic and science through Dr Doom. We could also note the key moments when Diablo appears (at Reed and Sue's engagement, at the final attempt to make it work, and in Act 5 when Crustal appears). Really, the whole 28 year story can be interpreted as the surface of a much bigger magical story that most mortals do not understand. Possibly only Maximus and Dr Strange really know what's going on.
  9. Why Galactus comes to Earth
    And then we have the current order of events: Reed and Sue marry (this involves the Watcher), this leads to the Inhumans' cultural awakening, which leads to Galactus being attracted to Earth.
This is just a rough outline of a magical interpretation of the Fantastic Four. How deep does the rabbit hole go?

Other points to note

Issue 49: the greatest weapon is love

Fantastic Four 49

This is the center part of the Galactus trilogy.

"By now their adventures had grown to mythic proportions. FF #49 was the showdown of the gods. Comicdom’s collective consciousness was thunderstruck by Kirby’s full-page piece de resistance on page 2. It demonstrated an unprecedented sense of scale and an opulence befitting religious art. As they tower over the New York skyscrapers Galactus and the Watcher stand huge, ponderous and messianic, vying each other like rival gods on this Day of Reckoning. Meanwhile, the horrified denizens of Manhattan look on in disbelief, fear and awe. It was a cosmic spectacle of Biblical grandeur. It was a defining comic book moment, a defining Kirby moment. It was probably the crowning achievement of the entire Silver Age. More than anything, it epitomized what this magazine was all about." - Mark Alexander, "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years"

For most of the trilogy the humans are helpless, and only the watcher can make any real difference. But there is one person who does turn the tide by her actions: Alicia. By inspiring the surfer to higher things she turns him against his master, and turns the tide of the battle. Uniquely among super hero titles, the Fantastic Four teaches shows that love is more effective than conflict. In FF72 the Watcher states this explicitly.

Other points to note

Frankenstein homage

Issue 50: the story by which others are judged.

Fantastic Four 50

What can be said about perhaps the most famous story of all? The one by which all other superhero comics are judged? This is Mr Fantastic's greatest triumph, yet he just follows orders (a lesson in humility that he will refuse to learn until Act 5). The real hero who saves the world is blind Alicia, by touching the surfer's heart. The Watcher is the other key figure, and he helps because he is impressed by mankind's potential He is hardly likely to be impressed by our capacity for confrontation and violent solutions, so the Earth is saved because people like Alicia exist. (Note the parallel with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where God would have saved the cities from being destroyed by fire and brimstone, if only ten righteous people could have been found.)

From Anatomy of a Classic: 'Fantastic Four' #50 by Chris Sims (Sep 7th 2010)

"It all hinges on Alicia. In essence, she and the Surfer are the same character. She rejects her creator -- her father, of course, being the villainous Puppet Master -- to stand with the Fantastic Four, and despite being blind, she's the only one who can see the humanity within the monstrous form of the Thing, and love him for the goodness inside. It's down this exact path that she leads the Surfer, to embrace his new found compassion and reject his creator, regardless of whether his intentions are evil.
"[Galactus and the surfer have obvious parallels with a wrathful God and his son who intercedes on behalf of the world;] the fact that Galactus is explicitly identified as being both beyond good and evil and so far removed from humanity that we're entirely below his notice casts him not as a wrathful God, but as one that just doesn't care one way or the other. And in a lot of ways, that's more terrifying. Just ask H.P. Lovecraft.
"in punishment, [the surfer] gets what I think is the most interesting inversion. Where Christ sacrificed his Earthly life and ascended to Heaven, the Surfer is condemned to Earth and denied a return to the heavens:
"once the Surfer betrays him, Galactus's defeat is a foregone conclusion. When the Surfer sides with humanity, Galactus tells him 'for all who live, I have cherished you most of all,' and at that moment, he has lost. This is his one moment of weakness, and it's a very human one, and it recasts the battle in an entirely new set of terms. The official end may only come when Reed waves the Ultimate Nullifier... but at that point, it's irrelevant. In coming to Earth, he's lost the one thing in the story that he does seem to care about, and nothing he can gain from devouring the planet will replace it."

Alicia: the most powerful of all?

So we see that Alicia defeats Galactus. See the notes to FF199 for how she defeats Dr Doom, and annual 13 for how she turns the Mole Man into a friend. Then at the end of act 4 she solves all the team's problems. This reflects the wise Watcher's statement in FF71 that the greatest power of all is love.

Johnny at school: why now?

The Wait, What podcast consider the last few pages, where Johnny begins school, to be "filler". I have to disagree in the strongest terms. This is where we see the much bigger story. Galactus was called by Maximus: this is part of the battle between two species to rule Earth: the Inhumans and the humans. Johnny and Crystal are destined to be the couple who unite these two halves. The Watcher must know this: he and Galactus operate on levels we cannot even imagine, and time is nothing to them. They see it all. Part of Johnny's education was to experience the full cosmic truth - the experience that just blew his mind. After that  he knows that he must do better: he must grow up and move on. Starting school then unconsciously becomes his top priority. Johnny does not know why, he just feels he has to. There he will be guided by Wyatt Wingfoot to keep him in the right way (think of Luke Skywalker and R2D2). Then, once established at school he will go hunting for Crystal.

Now energized by his glimpse of eternity, Johnny will try to do it himself, finding the Evil Eye (a kind of small stand-in for the Ultimate Nullifier) and later trying to defeat the cosmically powered Doom single handed, but moth times he will not be ready. (Think of Luke Skywalker battling Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back). So Johnny will be guided by Lockjaw, in his dragon rider role. To cut a long story short Johnny will fail, but his destiny will remain, and one day he must take over the team, marry Crystal and unite the Earth's people, and a torch to light the way for mankind. I am getting ahead of myself here, but the point is that Johnny's development is key to Earth's future. Johnny is central to the plan. So Johnny must leave home and become a man. Johnny will then one day guide Franklin as he grows up. It is all part of the same story.

The Watcher must know this. Galactus must know this. Galactus did not leave because of the nullifier, but because he saw that the Surfer and Watcher were right: mankind does have a future, and that future is in Johnny.

Other points to note

Issue 51: the greatest story of all (in so many ways)

Fantastic Four 51

While the Galactus trilogy is the usual reference when people talk of powerful comics, "this Man This Monster" is the one people refer to when asked for a personal favorite. This is the one that most often tops the polls It is both a tiny, personal story, and the whole cosmic narrative in a nutshell.

FF51 is often considered to be a small scale story, after the gigantic cosmic Galactus story. The thinking is, "how can we do a bigger story than Galactus? We can't. So we'll do a small personal story instead." However, if we read this in conjunction with the final everything-cosmic-is-now-explained story at the end of Act 5 (FF319) we see that this story is actually the next step up from Galactus. This is why:

FF51 is a story about subspace. Subspace is the space between dimensions. Between is not somewhere we can stay, so we tend to pop into somewhere else. So Reed's radical cube that was designed to enter subspace actually flips you into the Negative Zone. Other kinds of portals might flip you into other universes (e.g. the Fifth Dimension or some parallel Earth). But what we call the negative zone portal is actually a subspace portal, it is not called the Negative Zone portal until later.

Subspace is a step upwards from Galactus. Galactus uses it as transport, but he always comes back to this universe: Galactus's role is in this universe (see FF262), so when he was once exiled in the Negative Zone he had to come back.

For how Galactus fits in with other cosmic beings, see the page on the cosmic.

If all these cosmic beings are confusing, all is explained in the backup story to FF Annual 23. The take home point is that scale is an illusion, and what matters is wherever we are. Hence the story told in its purest form in FF51: Reed goes beyond Galactus to explore subspace. An envious man wishes to become like Reed Richards, to gain his power. And finally realizes that to become like him he must give up all concern for himself: it is not really about power at all.

Great literature: in praise of Stan Lee
On this site I credit Jack Kirby for the plots, but sometimes Stan's dialog is just perfect, and better than anything Jack wrote. (Other times I feel that Stan detracted from Jack's superior ideas, but on balance I think he added more than he took). This is exhibit "A", thought he previous issue comes close. People who say Stan Lee cannot write natural language need to read the first few pages. Anyone who has been depressed will recognize the language style: cold and matter-of-fact. The unnamed scientists tries to sound important (in keeping with his self image), but Ben's dialog with him, and later with Reed, is just beautiful. My favorite line? "You sure come on strong, mister." It's the perfect line. There are nine frames on that page, but you can hear the pauses, and the tone, better than if they were spelled out over ten pages.

Great literature: Ben's tragedy
The worst part of being Ben is his lack of control. he grew uop as a self made man, a man who came from the streets to succeed in every area, and since meeting Reed he lost control of his life, uisually to Reed. Even here it is Reed who (inadvertently) causes him to lose being the Thing again. As son as ben is normal all he wants is to propose to Alicia, and the very moment when he knocks on the door he changes back. This is at first a comedic moment, but is really a tragedy of the most heartbreaking kind, an absolute triumph of writing.

Real science: why mesons?
Reed is building a portal to subspace, so he asks Ben (actually the impostor) to move a meson particle smasher. This is some real world science.


Mesons are the key to detecting time dilation. Stephen Hawking explains:

"Deep underground [at CERN], in a circular tunnel 16 miles long, is a stream of trillions of tiny particles. When the power is turned on they accelerate from zero to 60,000mph in a fraction of a second. Increase the power and the particles go faster and faster, until they're whizzing around the tunnel 11,000 times a second, which is almost the speed of light. But just like the train, they never quite reach that ultimate speed. They can only get to 99.99 per cent of the limit. When that happens, they too start to travel in time. We know this because of some extremely short-lived particles, called pi-mesons. Ordinarily, they disintegrate after just 25 billionths of a second. But when they are accelerated to near-light speed they last 30 times longer. It really is that simple. If we want to travel into the future, we just need to go fast. Really fast."

So if Reed Richards is studying faster than light travel, his first step is to understand particles that approach the speed of light  and experience time slowing and space compressing. Hence Reed needs to study mesons!

Other points to note:

Issue 52: the first black superhero

Fantastic Four 52

Away from home, away from all the reminders of the ways he is undermined, Ben talks with more confidence: nobody can defeat him. This is a guy who has fought the Hulk twice (and both battles were indecisive). Also Sue experiments with her powers: she is capable of so much more, but usually feels held back by Reed. She will continue to play things his way, allowing him to dominate, until his methods are no longer good enough, in Act Four.

Then Wyatt saves them: this is a major lesson in humility, that Reed cannot do it all himself. This is the great lesson of the 28 year story, one he would still resist until after FF300.

The zeitgeist
The Black Panther was introduced at the height of the civil rights era. There had been black characters before (such as Gabe Jones) but they were bit parts. This is the first major black superhero, and is presented as a man of high class and high intelligence. The name was chosen when the movement first appeared in the newspapers, but before it became controversial: showing how the FF was at right at the front of the zeitgeist. ("Neither could actually claim originality, however, since a segregated Black Panther tank battalion had already fought fascism in World War II."  - Robert Papetti, "Fantastic Four In The Silver Age Sixties: A Tribute")

Other points to note

Issue 53: Equality: comics as an artistic medium

Fantastic Four 53

Before discussing this issue, this may be a good time to pause and discuss the quality of comics as a medium. On the surface we see African warriors dancing: it's the old two dimensional trope of the hidden jungle city. But by showing that these people are more scientifically advanced than us the comic preaches equality without having to preach. And when we look close r we see that the message of equality goes far deeper. Perhaps more than any other medium, comics work on multiple levels.

Why T'Challa must follow from Galactus

Ben and Johnny are racially insensitive here, and this shows why these stories have to come at this point, after the Galactus story. They are about Ben and Johnny's progress (or lack of it).

Johnny grows up
In FF 48-51 Galactus was stopped by Alicia and the Watcher persuading Galactus that mankind had potential. That potential was represented by Johnny's mind expanding experience. After that he immediately realized (unconsciously) that he had to grow up and be a man, and enrolled in college as quickly as possible.

Ben must face himself
In the Surfer Ben saw somebody who was more handsome and powerful, and Alicia treated him with kindness. This became a test: would Ben see beyond that, that Alicia loved him as a person and not just because he was famous and could protect her? Ben failed the test. This led to him becoming just Ben Grimm again, so he had a chance to make up with Alicia - but the moment he became The Thing again he ran. He could not face her. Ben was weaker than Alicia.

Both stories were about racism
The Galactus story was about one group (Galactus and the Watcher) seeing the other group (humans) as inferior. Meanwhile the humans were themselves racist: the humans believed they owned the world, ignoring the claim of the Inhumans, the Mole Man's people, the animals, or anyone else. But Johnny went on a great journey and saw they humans really are ants. So all beings are equal. In FF62 we learn that Galactus himself is now a force of nature, like a storm or the seas: he is compared to elements that do not even have minds, so we consider them far beneath us: so none is greater than another. This point (that scale is an illusion) is emphasized in the summing up at the end of FF annual 23. And finally we learn that Galactus himself is but a herald to an as-yet unborn helpless baby, Franklin. The great cosmic truth of Galactus is that we are all equal. One day you are the masters (humans), the next day you are just somebody's meal. The only way to end racism is to understand that any such differences are trivial, and only the great eternal principles matter.

"This Man This Monster" is the same
FF51, "This Man This Monster" shows the same principle (equality, the core theme of the Great American Novel). The un0named scientist believes he is greater than Reed Richards, and proves it by doing what Reed cannot (curing Ben Grimm). Ben feels that in his human form he is superior to his rocky form. The scientists as Ben is actually just the same as Ben - equally noble. Reed is not in fact above others, but just a man trying to do the best. In the end everyone is equal: nobody is greater than any other and nobody is less, everyone is in the same great struggle of life.

So we come to T'Challa
The T'Challa stories take this to the next step: the reader has seen the principles of racism and now must apply them to actual racism. And we have to see that Ben and Johnny have not yet learned their lesson. (Note how the dancers focus on Ben: he is the one who still has to learn.)

The Inhumans
All of these issues (from FF 36 to the end of Kirby's run, the end of Act 3)  are about the struggle between humans and Inhumans: about seeing another group as "inhuman", as not fully human. it is about immigration and racism, about Americans and Asians, about whether we really believe in equality and friendship of whether we just want to fight like animals. (Note how the first time we see an Inhuman she is like an animal, and the most advanced Inhuman, Lockjaw, appears to be an animal.) it is all about learning wisdom: learning not to fight everyone who is different but to work with our friends and try to understand, to broaden our minds.

In short, it is about one of the core themes of the Great American Novel: equality. See FF 200 for more details.

It's all about respect
The Wait, What podcast argues that T'Challa changes greatly since the last issue: they say he was previously a villain, a cross between Kraven the Hunter and Doom, determined to prove his superiority, and now he is a friend. But I disagree. I think that conclusion is another example of seeing the FF as just another comic, with black and white heroes and villains. But if we look closer, T'Challa is all about respect.

To T'Challa respect is everything. Yes, a great hunter will kill a lion, but he also respects the lion and bears it no ill will. It is just the law of nature, and next time the positions could be reversed. The great hunter does not take any unfair advantage and does not feel above his prey. Similarly the ideal king is not above his people, but must rule by earning their respect. So T'Challa had to prove his superiority to these incomers in order to remain king. But in this case they each proved their worth and emerged with honor: the FF won, but only because they had extra help - were it just the FF then T'Challa would have won. All observers can see this, so honor and respect are maintained. They can then be the best of friends.

Racism and independence
The Wait, What podcast argues that this issue is racist because Wakandans must get their money from the west, and T'Challa must tell Reed that he studied in the west before Reed will respect him. But ignoring the fact that it is the westerners who are racist, is independence the only alternative to racism? Isn't that a form of racism itself, saying we can never be dependent on outsiders? Surely a wiser view is that we are all dependent?

America's technology is all dependent on other nations. Ever heard of Einstein? Von Braun? Maxwell? The paper on which comics are printed was invented in ancient China. Mutual dependence is how science and society advances. T'Challa is showing his moral and intellectual superiority in that he is not afraid of mutual dependence.

The dependence goes both ways: the first time we hear of Wakanda it is because Reed receives a ship that is more advanced than anything that could be made in America. Then in a couple of issues the FF will only survive because the Wakandans can deliver vital technology: even their delivery system is more advanced than ours. Interdependence is the basis of world peace. Being totally independent is the beginning of hatred: the outsider becomes expendable, and we do not understand them because we never have to meet them. Only primitive minds think that being totally independent is a strength. In my opinion.

The podcast also argues that it is racist to have a white man play the piano, as it might imply that a black man lacks the talent. But I disagree. I think it shows the opposite. The Wakandans were already shown playing drums and dancing, presumably with great skill. Why do we think that drums are inferior to the piano? Why should we think western instruments are a measure of sophistication?

The panther as a mirror of Doom
The Fantastic Four contains many parallels with Reed for comparison, but two stand out. They are surprisingly similar, but one is good and one is bad.

"In this issue we discover that T’Challa was born into an isolated African tribe in the land of Wakanda, which had no contact with modern civilization. T’Challa’s father was murdered by a Westerner named Klaw, who had come to Wakanda to plunder the rare metal 'vibranium.' Young T’Challa vowed vengeance, then went abroad to study science. On his return from the West, he survived a ritual that earned him the right to wear the mask of the Black Panther, Wakanda’s symbol of strength and nobility. In the above paragraphs, if you change the name 'T’Challa' to 'Doom,' and 'Wakanda' to 'Latveria,' you almost have the origin of Doctor Doom as seen in FF Annual #2" - Mark Alexander, "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years"

By showing an alternate version of Doom we highlight the differences: again and again the big 28 year story drives home the point about the choices facing Reed Richards

  1. T'Challa respects his people as equals, Doom does not.
  2. Doom uses magic, T'Challa does not. Why is this relevant to the question of ego? Because magic means the calling on higher powers. Magic means humility. Any user of magic who is arrogant is a fool, not admitting his real place. Similarly, Reed is unwilling to face the fact that he is standing on the shoulders of giants: using alien tech. This feeds his belief that he is more important than the others, just as Doom's use of magic leads him to contempt for the human race. in contrast, T'Challa openly admits that he owes his skill to his father and his wealth to vibranium. T'Challa is at peace with his world, he is emotionally healthy, whereas Doom and Reed are not.

The natural affinity is finally made explicit at the end of the 28 year story, in FF311, when despite their opposition, T'Challa assists Doom, monarch to monarch.

Vibranium and real world science
"Kirby modeled it on real-world uranium, with Los Alamos scientists finding through their x-ray and neutron scattering experiments random localized vibrations, called lattice solitons, in uranium crystals at high temperatures, possibly caused by strong electron-phonon interactions." (Ian Watson, quoting Nathan Adler)

Other points to note:

Issue 54: the Fantastic Four at its best: Johnny's road trip

Fantastic Four 54

In this issue Johnny finally takes matters into his own hands. He is 21 years old now, in 1966, the traditional age of becoming an adult. He's tired of being treated like a child. But he has never had an adult male role model: his father went to prison when he was young, and since then he's tagged on to Reed. Reed treats everyone as a child, even a WWII fighter pilot like Ben. So it's no surprise that his first adult action is to jump in a metaphorical Volkswagen and take a road trip.

"After FF #54 (Sept. 1966), there was a tacit understanding among the True Believers that the Torch had dropped out of Metro College (which he began in issue #50), to pursue Crystal with Wyatt Wingfoot. It was a 1960s cultural cliché—cut school and take a road trip. But in typical Kirby fashion, Johnny and Wyatt would forgo the standard big American car and take the Panther’s gyro-cruiser. Instead of driving to Tijuana, they would visit savage, labyrinthic landscapes inhabited by bizarre, otherworldly beings." (Mark Alexander, "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years")

"Like a lot of introspective young men in the Sixties, Johnny and roommate Wyatt Wingfoot dropped out of college, hopped in a Volkswagen van (a metaphorical brown one in the shape of Lockjaw, the Inhumans’ teleporting dog) and took a year-long road trip to alternate dimensions (FF #52-60, Annual 4)." (Robert Papetti, "Fantastic Four In The Silver Age Sixties: A Tribute")

Mind expanding

The role of a truly great novel is to expand the mind,. It takes you to places and emotions you would not otherwise see, and this issue has it all.

Prester John

Prester John's legendary empire:
Prester John's empire

Critics (such as  Mark Alexander in "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years") say there were no new memorable characters after FF53. Yet then in FF54 we have Prester John. It is hardly Kirby's fault that other comic writers lacked the experience to use such a magnificent creation. Kirby then reintroduced the original Human Torch and created Quasimodo and Tomazooma: characters who's depth was seldom appreciated, and other writers lacked the sophistication to use.

Other points to note

Prester JohnPrester John
There ever-wonderful Kirby Museum notes that in later years Kirby pitched an idea for a Prester John TV show (to CBS I think?). It wasn't picked up, but these Kirby sketches are great.

Issue 55: Ben's deepest fear

Fantastic Four 55

Stan Lee had this to say about this issue: "This is what the Thing has always feared more than anything else, that he would lose control and really clobber somebody." (Stan Lee, as quoted in a newspaper article. See the Lee and Kirby page for details.) But the Surfer is so powerful that he can let rip.

Ever since he gave up hating Reed in FF43, Ben has turned his hatred inward. Now he lashes out at the surfer, almost losing the only thing he had left: the respect of Alicia. And if he had killed the Surfer he would never have forgiven himself. The fact that the only person he can attack is the only pure and innocent being just heightens Ben's self hating tragedy. And at the end Reed can criticize Ben directly and this time Reed is right.

Criticisms (source)
Why does this interrupt the Black Panther and Klaw story?
These stories normally flow into each other, but this one stands out as a stand-alone. Let's look at why.

Before Galactus we have several; issues on the Frightful Four, then four issues on the Inhumans (FF44-7). After Galactus we have four issues on the Black Panther and his enemy Klaw (F52-54,56) then four on the cosmic powered Doom (FF57-60). These stories deal with large topics that flow into each other. But this one issue (FF55) stands out: the surfer story interrupts the flow. Why? See the Lee and Kirby page for details. Jack Kirby normally plotted these stories, with very little input from Stan Lee, but while planning this issue a journalist visited. So Stan made a bigger show of telling Jack what to do. Unfortunately Stan could not remember the recent issues (what he said either ignored or contradicted them). Jack ignored most of what Stan said, or did the opposite, but he could not ignore all of it, so we get this story parachuted in from nowhere.

Other points to note

Annual 4: US business and the rise of IP

Fantastic Four
      annual 4

The story begins with a comment on the reality of paying bills. it may not be clear on the surface, but that is the topic of the story: the Mad Thinker (like the mastermind behind Marvel Comics) has tracked down the original Human Torch after "more than twenty years" (as Reed helpfully points out), and the Thinker makes the original Torch serve his new owner with a revised story. And the Thinker's goal is ultimately money, as we saw in his early appearances where he runs organized crime.

The zeitgeist

The 1960s saw a massive growth in US business, and a growing awareness of Intellectual Property, or IP. The major debates took place in the late 1960s.

"The major contributions made by lawyers to the history of copyright date from the late 1960s when, within a year of each other, two American scholars, Benjamin Kaplan and Lyman Ray Patterson, published their works. Of these two books Patterson’s offers the most detailed account of the development of copyright." - (source: via Wikipedia, Bowrey, Kathy (1996). "Who’s writing copyright’s history?". European Intellectual Property Review 18 (6): 322–329)

The Fantastic Four is an expression of the American zeitgeist, and so it also reflected the growth of IP. Nowhere is this clearer than in FF annual 4.

The Human Torch and IP
Back in 1961 it seemed like a good idea to include someone called "The Human Torch" in the team, because the name "The Human Torch" sold comic books. In other words, it was valuable IP. But the Human Torch first appeared in summer 1939, and under the 28 year copyright law of the time it would become free for others to use in the summer of 1967. But in 1966 the Fantastic Four was licensed for use in cartoons and other merchandise, and the publisher (Martin Goodman) began to see how valuable they were. Before that he treated them as just another comic, and comics were a very unimportant corner of his publishing empire.

In 1966 (the date of this annual) Cal Burgos, the creator of The Human Torch, was planning to claim ownership of the original Human Torch when it expired the next year. So exactly one year before that, 28 years to the month since The Human Torch first saw print, Goodman instructed Stan Lee to include the original Human Torch in the Fantastic Four. To make it clear, the cover states the date explicitly: "you'll finally see the origin of the human torch, as created in 1939!!" 

The Torch only needed to appear for a single issue and be killed off, but this was enough to muddy the waters legally and make Burgos's claim much harder to pursue. As if speaking to Burgos, the Thing at the end of the story says "ya win a few, ya lose a few." No doubt Goodman was prepared to go further if needed. The Mad Thinker says "if the Torch fails me, throw the destruct switch!"

When Burgos saw that issue he knew he was beaten. His hopes and dreams were up in flames. He took every Marvel Comic he owned and burnt them in his yard in front of his shocked daughter. He made a legal claim in 1967 anyway, just in case, but of course it failed. Burgos then left comics forever. He later said "If I knew how much trouble and heartache the Human Torch would bring me, I would never have created him." For the full story and context see chapter three of Sean Howe's "Marvel Comics: the Untold Story."

Then who are the good guys?
This is a clear example of the FF as the zeitgeist in print. it is tempting to think of the creators of these comics as heroes (or sometimes villains) but in fact they are a product of their times. They have value to us today precisely because they reflect life as it really is, and not as we might like it to be. The irony is that on the surface they are the opposite: merely escapist fantasy. But dig a little deeper and we see all human life is here. There is no happy ending in the FF for Jim Hammond.  He is the good guy, like Carl Burgos, but cannot control his life and is destroyed. The story then ends with another unforgettably ambiguous sequence: the bad guy, Quasimodo, is presented sympathetically. He, like the fictional Hammond or the real Burgess (and the real Kirby), is a powerless victim of forces bigger than himself: all he ever wanted was his chance of life and it was denied him.

So is Martin Goodman the real villain? Is he the Mad Thinker? He owned Marvel Comics and made all the unpopular decisions, so it's easy to see him as a callous capitalist. yet without Goodman there would be no Marvel Comics. He created it, he paid the bills from month to month. Without him there would be no Marvel. While Stan Lee presented himself as the face of Marvel it is clear in his interviews that Goodman made all the big decisions. Lee was like Quasimodo, the Thinker's trapped servant.

As with Shakespeare, the Fantastic Four has no pure good guys and no pure bad guys, just three dimensional characters. No, not even Ben Grimm, the closest thing to a pure hero, is pure: remember his violent early days? And Sue has a point in 296 when she points out that he won't face his problems but prefers to blame others. All the characters are complex, and that's why we love them.

Why Quasimodo? IP and cyberspace
It is perhaps no coincidence that a story about intellectual property is followed by a story about cyberspace. Both are examples of abstract concepts that grow bigger than the people who created them: even bigger than some nations. For more about Quasimodo and cyberspace see the notes to FF 202 and FF212.

Other points to note

Issue 56: Sue begins to question the marriage

Fantastic Four 56

We are still in the golden age, but already Sue is seeing that all is not right with the marriage. The signs were all there before the wedding and things will only get worse. Yet no marriage is perfect, and Reed is still a hero. What do do? There are no easy answers for Sue.

Once again we see Reed doing work that is not needed. Reed's work is speculative: no immediate threat. Learning is good, but he could just as easily chose to learn from Sue. Note also that teamwork saves the day, and that is Reed's weakness: if he had spent more time getting to now his wife and encouraging her input then they might have been able to defeat Klaw without T'Challa (it was only luck that T'Challa was not busy!) Perhaps Sue's force field could be adjusted to work on Klaw? If not, she could at least keep him confused by tossing him around until Reed finds a better solution. Reed's time would be better spent on Sue than on trying to fix things alone.

Other points to note:

Issue 57: Sue's intuition has "never been wrong"

Fantastic Four 57

This issue is usually remembered for the unforgettable image of Doom standing triumphantly over the Surfer. But regarding the long term 28 year story the key point where Reed admits that Sue's intuition has never been wrong before. he realizes this yet will not act on that fact. Sue's intuition has proven to just as useful as Reed's inventions over the years: it enabled her compassion that turned the biggest empire in the world (the Atlanteans) into allies, turned the most powerful civilization (the Inhumans) into allies, will later save the world from Galactus (thanks to showing compassion to the Impossible Man in FF11), and has enabled her to do the right thing numerous times. Most important, it will guide her to put Franklin first. If only Reed would listen to her intuition he would solve all his problems. Worse than that, despite knowing that her intuition is always right, he withholds vital information from her!!

After this issue Reed has no excuse. He knows, but he does not act on that knowledge.

How could her intuition help? If they discussed it, what help could she possible be? Surely the only way to defeat Doom is with some technological solution, right? No, there is another way, and it's staring them in the face if only Reed would be humble enough to invite some brainstorming. Lockjaw is right there. Lockjaw is intelligent enough to trick Doom into a different dimension. But wait, Lockjaw isn't there: why? Because Johnny felt so frustrated with Reed that he stormed off. If Reed had listened to Johnny then Johnny would still be around, so would Lockjaw, and they could have defeated Doom. Reed's ego gets in the way.

The issue also has a mad king, a dimension traveling dog, and dinosaurs. There are three concurrent subplots, each with extreme drama, emotion, and conflict; and everything larger than life. This is why the Fantastic Four was the World's Greatest Comic magazine

The surfer's character development
"According to Kirby-historian Mike Gartland, 'It was Jack’s original intention for the Silver Surfer to enter mankind as a blank slate, absorbing new lessons about the human condition with every subsequent adventure.' Gartland’s remark was totally on-target. In FF #49 the Surfer learned the value of human life. In FF #55 he learned about human emotion through Ben’s jealousy. Here, in FF #57, he discovers human treachery." - Mark Alexander, "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years"

 This is exactly how it works in the pages of the FF, whereas in other comics (notably the Surfer series written by Stan lee alone) it may be different. In this web site the FF story is canon and all others are secondary.

Other points to note:

Issue 58: Ben's potential

Fantastic Four 58

In this issue we see Ben continue his battle with Doom, the one began in FF40. Reed acts like only his (Reed's) intelligence can defeat Doom, but Ben's method seems to work just as well. True, Ben was defeated and needed help, but teamwork is a good thing. More importantly, Lockjaw returns, precisely because he senses that Doom is back. Lockjaw could easily solve the problem by transporting Doom to some distant dimension and leaving him there, as he later does in "Fantastic Four: The End" but nobody thinks of the obvious. They all leave the thinking to Reed, and that's the real problem. In this issue we see that Ben, like Sue, has intuition. Ben has always felt close to Lockjaw, and if Reed would only get them together then somebody would see the obvious. But instead, Reed declares that Doom is unbeatable. Reed's pride is the problem here.

How does this move the big story forwards, apart from drawing our attention to Lockjaw? Because we see how action snaps Ben out of his depression, This is what he wants, and he's magnificent! How he instantly reacts to Doom's appearance, assesses the situation, leaps into the air and catches Doom, and keeps Doom disoriented. Superb! Reed always refers to Ben as "old friend" yet he has the power to make Ben feel great and does not see it.

Finally, Reed's character is made clearer this issue. Doom speaks truth at the end: the greatest torment for Reed is to feel helpless. Reed can cope with anything but that.

Issue 59: Reed's tragic flaw

Fantastic Four 59

In classic literature, a "tragedy" is a story of any great and noble hero with one flaw that brings him down. Reed is that hero. His flaw is that he wants to do it all himself, and if he can't he turns to self hatred instead of turning to his friends. Ben calls him on it, but he won't listen. Reed's ego will not let him ask for help.

"At the start of this issue, we see Reed talking to a military official and requesting him not to take direct action on Doom — assuming upon the FF full responsibility for his actions and defeat. That’s an interesting perspective since the FF had no part in Doom getting his powers. Why wouldn’t Reed want help, especially since this issue mentions a couple times that he is tired and at the end of his rope?" (source)

What could the army do you ask? They could negotiate with Doom. Keep him busy. Doom may have vast power, but he still has a human mind and has shown himself wiling to let people wait if it amuses him. He is in a good position to be stalled - he is in no rush. it would give Reed time to think and discuss the problem. But he won't. He wants to solve everything himself and do it right now.

Ben's identity
Ben's comedy persona (like last issue with being scared of a spooky house) is all an act. As the title "thing" suggests, the core to understanding Ben is to understand his real identity. Who is the real Thing? Reed has prevented him from being himself.

"Ben picks a fight with Reed to rouse his fighting spirit and shake him out of the defeatist stupor that we saw him in at the end of the last issue. It’s an emotionally brilliant act by Ben and it’s the sort of thing he’s best at – casting himself as a shallow character while actually being quite savvy and intelligent. Inside the clumsy, elephantine skin is a kind heart and a sharp wit, and that often gets overlooked by many writers."  (source)

Johnny's frustration
"Johnny has decided to defeat Doom all on his own, which is a strange decision to make, and no motive is given for his self-estrangement from his teammates." (source) The motive is in fact clear. He is lovesick and frustrated. He needs to know that Reed will help him find a way to be with Crystal, then he could relax an focus on the task at hand. But neither Ben nor Johnny are able to be themselves or rise to their potential while they are treated as little more than children.

The negative zone barrier

Its name
Some critics feel that confusing the "great barrier" and "subspace" and "negative zone" is a mistake in the story. But no, they are the same thing. The great barrier is here identified as a negative zone. The negative zone is made of antimatter. So breaching the barrier would bring matter and antimatter together, and annihilate everything. Note the similarity between the forming of the barrier and Reed's negative zone distortion zone. Same name, same thing.
negative zone

The science behind it
The barrier seems to be composed of a mixture of matter and antimatter. We have two clues about its design:
  1. Black Bolt's voice can break the barrier, but doing this is very risky and difficult.  Normal sound merely vibrates molecules. Black Bolt's voice vibrates molecules so much that they objects can disintegrate. By concentrating carefully he is able to move the negative molecules just enough to separate them, but without them touching each other, so there is no contact between matter and antimatter. By doing so he splits the barrier into discrete chunks (that we see lying around the ground afterwards) so it is no longer a barrier. The slightest error would of course bring the particles together and kill everyone.
  2. Lockjaw can cross it, but apparently he cannot take anybody with him. It must be more than simple matter and antimatter, or perhaps there is no such thing as "simple" when matter and antimatter are combined. It forms some kind of barrier that more difficult to cross than a regular negative zone barrier. See below for why Lockjaw can do it alone.
How Reed's mind works
In FF48 we see the negative zone barrier, and also faster than light travel. In FF51 Reed puts the ideas together to create the sub-space portal that becomes a gateway to a negative universe. This illustrates how Reed;'s mind works: his experience allows him to connect ideas that might seem unrelated to others. He realizes that a barrier made of antimatter and matter will have implications for different dimensions.

The barrier's significance
"Lornelb" wrote (on the comicboards forum):
"I don't think the Inhumans were necessarily so concerned with leaving Attilan as they were chafing at the notion of being confined to Attilan. I think the general Inhuman population as a whole, were content to remain separate from humans, as they felt the humans were too hostile and unaccepting. The only exceptions to we were shown were Medusa, because she was trying to escape a marriage to Maximus, and Crystal, because she wanted to be with Johnny. Other than those two, I've not really been aware of any of the other Inhumans clamoring to leave Attilan. In my opinion, the whole saga of breaking Maximus' barrier was more about Black Bolt showing the Inhuman community that he was capable and powerful enough to overcome any barriers placed before them. It was, both symbolically and actually, Black Bolt's Right of Passage as the Inhumans' ruler."

Why Lockjaw can't take people past it
The barrier is effectively a thin layer of the negative zone. To pass it we need to phase into the neg zone and then back again. In FF51 the distortion zone is quite wide. The barrier is just too narrow for a human body to enter and leave again: we cannot survive the compressed distortion. Lockjaw's body, however, is designed for dimensional travel so it can cope with the stress. Lockjaw can usually take people with him on his journeys, presumably by making the transitions as gentle as possible. But there is no gentle route through the very narrow negative zone barrier

An analogy may help. Think of the weird creatures in the negative zone: it's like the deep ocean. To enter this deep ocean a human diver needs a period of compression or decompression: this is like the distortion area entering and leaving the negative zone. Lockjaw is designed for the journey, he is like a whale or porpoise that can dive and surface quickly. When he takes people with him it's like a porpoise slowly pulling a diver down into the depths, and slowly taking the diver up again. But imagine if there was only a few inches between the surface and the crushing depths of the ocean. The whale could survive the journey but no human companion could manage it.

Or think of Lockjaw like the Hulk. The Hulk can survive trauma that puny humans cannot. The Hulk can protect and take humans with him on most journeys if he wishes. But there are some extreme journeys where the Hulk must go alone.

Issue 60: "If you can't be the hero, ya don't wanna play, huh?"

Fantastic Four 60

This section of Act 3 ends with a summary of Reed metaphorically hitting a brick wall.

Other points to note

Doom is Ben's mirror as well: he is frustrated by Reed, encased in armor, and disfigured. Ben humiliated Doom  in FF40 (by crushing Doom's hands), humiliated him again in FF58, and does so again here. Although Ben lacks Reed's genus level intelligence, he has the ability to get inside Doom's mind just as effectively.

At this point the long term story appears to have hit a wall as well: where can it go from here? We know the characters, we know the problems. Quo vadis?

It is time for the elder patriarch, Reed, to be confronted with a new element, a young girl who is every bit as useful as he is, but one who has confidence and fire and no loyalty to him. She will not be quietened down like Johnny. This young woman will crystallize Reed's problem. It's time for Crystal to enter the mix.

Next: Crystal

The Great American Novel