I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
By the time I found my way to superhero comics, I was exactly the sort of little sucker that the publishers, particularly Marvel Comics, thrived on exploiting. I was helpless to resist any of their hooks, falling sway to all the breathless excitement that practically sparked off the “Bullpen Bulletins” page like exploding firecrackers. Crossovers, guest appearances, sensational character finds! All of them were sure to lure me to part with hard-begged nickels, dime and quarters to get my hands on the awesome adventures of Marvel’s terrific titans. But nothing grabbed my attention more forcefully that the double-sized anniversary issue. Something about the bigness, the spectacle and the grand self-regard of those issues represented the pinnacle of storytelling in the Mighty Marvel Manner to me.
As I’ve noted before, the Fantastic Four immediately became my favorite characters when I picked up an issue of their title with my first batch of Marvel purchases. I doggedly pursued everything I could find with the bickering family settled into a routine of saving the planet in universe-spanning adventures. I was especially lucky with relatively recent back issues, finding inexpensive copies of comics that told of Power Man’s brief stint replacing The Thing, a stretch when the quartet went their separate ways and most of the storyline that introduced Terrax the Tamer while three of the Four prematurely aged. But there was one issue I had trouble finding at a price I could afford given my meager means. I wanted Fantastic Four #200. When I finally did get my hands on it, it was not just a thing of beauty–a three chapter dynamo behind a staggering Jack Kirby cover–but it’s mere acquisition represented a important step on my road from comics reader to comics collector.
The story begins with the Fantastic Four inside of Doctor Doom’s Latverian castle. Outside, there’s a rebellion raging against the armored dictator’s despotic rule, while our heroes are trying to extract information from him about the whereabouts of the Thing’s beloved girlfriend, the blind sculptress Alicia Masters.
Everything I adore about those two characters in right there in those two panels. No one ever reached the delightfully purple-prosed genius of Stan Lee during the many years he guided Fantastic Four to ever more dizzying heights of brazen imagination with Jack Kirby, but Marv Wolfman does a fine job capturing both the straightforward barroom wisecracking of Benjamin J. Grimm and the constantly enraged imperious pronouncements of Victor von Doom. These characters have distinctive, colorful voices, built to stand up to the improbable, action-packed extravaganzas they shared space with on the page. Current writers have a bad habit of forgetting that as they wedge the characters into self-consciously ambitious and “important” storylines built to satisfy their own fandom-fueled urges. When Fantastic Four #200 came out, the heights of Marvel in the nineteen-sixties were still recent enough that the scribes were committed to getting it right rather than putting their own smudged stamp on the titles.
Also, Ben Grimm had an appreciation for classic horror films that indicated he would make a fine blogger.
So the Fantastic Four have extricated themselves from the trap Doctor Doom placed them in and managed to rescue the lovely Alicia. They jet back to their home base of New York City in pursuit of Doom, who has gone there to manipulate a crucial United Nations vote on Latveria. The Invisible Girl, The Human Torch and The Thing all head to that venerable institution to head off whatever Doom has planned while Mr. Fantastic, also known as Dr. Reed Richards, confronts the man himself at his “Solartron Complex.” The two engage in brutal hand-to-hand combat.
It is the most appropriate battle that an anniversary issue could possibly have, as arguably the most clearly defined adversaries in the Marvel Universe–though Captain America and Red Skull could make a fine claim on that designation too–face off against each other. It is a classic fight scene of the sort that Marvel made their name on, going on page after page yet never becoming tiresome. Finally, Reed Richards achieves victory. He doesn’t deliver a devastating body blow or otherwise knock his foe into unconsciousness. He simply pulls of his mask.
Doctor Doom’s armor was originally donned as a reaction to his face getting scarred in an accident. His enormous vanity caused him to hide his face away from the world. When confronted with a multitude of reflections of his ravaged visage, that same vanity drives him mad. It is a conclusion of dark poetic justice, genuinely Shakespearean as Victor von Doom is undone by the narcissism that is his fatal flaw. To the youthful version of me, it was mind-blowing. As a true believer, I had to face it: this one had it all.
As if Doctor Doom weren’t busy enough in the main story, he also had to take time out to shill for Milk Duds right in the middle of the issue.
That’s Doctor Doom for you: always playing all the angles. If he wasn’t going to achieve victory through the U.N., maybe there was some way to leverage globby little candies into world domination.
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series