Inventory: 10 Wonderfully Weird Moments From Fantastic Four Comics

Inventory: 10 Wonderfully Weird Moments From Fantastic Four Comics

1. The Thing becomes Blackbeard The Pirate (FF #5)

In the early days of The Fantastic Four, co-creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby fumbled about, trying to find a style that would be thrillingly new, yet reasonably popular. Before Lee and Kirby settled on the exact combination of cosmic crises and real-world stress—thereby changing the superhero comics formula for decades to come—the tone of the series shifted wildly from issue to issue and even page to page. Hence issue #5, which rivals the Silver Age Superman comics for near-stream-of-consciousness storytelling. New villain Dr. Doom forces Mr. Fantastic, the Human Torch, and The Thing to travel back in time and steal Blackbeard's treasure chest. Instead, through some kind of temporal anomaly, The Thing becomes Blackbeard, complete with eye-patch and fake beard, and he leads a pirate crew in an epic sea battle, all while barking out orders in flawless pirate-ese.

2. The FF battle ape versions of themselves on the moon (FF #13)

In an attempt to beat The Fantastic Four to the moon and replicate the cosmic-ray bombardment that gave them their powers, Soviet scientist Ivan Kragoff takes three of his test monkeys on a space flight. Kragoff subsequently becomes the ethereal Red Ghost, while Mikhlo The Gorilla gains super-strength, Igor The Baboon becomes a shape-shifter, and Peotr The Orangutan acquires mastery of gravity. The two super-quartets wind up locked in combat in the moon's mysterious "Blue Area," where they all run afoul of one of Lee and Kirby's coolest creations, The Watcher, a giant bald-headed non-combatant who lives in the Blue Area, taking notes on any major developments in the evolution of mankind. Or, presumably, super-ape-kind.

3. Black Bolt speaks! (FF #59)

When The Fantastic Four first encounter the super-powered Kree/human hybrid race known as The Inhumans, they're especially flummoxed by The Inhumans' strong, mute leader, Black Bolt. They eventually learn that when Black Bolt makes a sound, his voice levels buildings. When Lee and Kirby finally cut Black Bolt loose—almost a year after the character was introduced—he utters a grunt that destroys the Inhumans' city and the force field that had been imprisoning them all. It's a quintessential Lee/Kirby moment, combining an imaginative superpower with an element of tragedy, emphasizing how the man who wields an amazing talent has to remain constantly on guard, lest he slaughter the people he loves with a stray cough.

4. The Thing enslaved by gangster Skrulls (FF #90-93)

The shape-shifting alien race known as the Skrulls, influenced by '30s Chicago gangster "Machine Gun" Martin, model an entire planet after Prohibition-era mob life, and kidnap The Thing to compete in the gladiatorial arena that their multiple crime "families" use to settle disputes. (Gladiators! Just like in Capone's day!) Eventually, like an interstellar, mobbed-up Spartacus, The Thing leads a slave uprising, while behind the scenes, Lee and Kirby's friends disable their TV sets, so the duo can never watch Star Trek again.

5. Richard Nixon tells off Reed Richards (FF #104)

In the second issue of the post-Kirby era, Magneto allies with the Sub-Mariner's Atlantean army to invade New York City, after Mr. Fantastic has assured the president that The Fantastic Four can handle the crisis. "I should never have listened to you, despite what Tricia said," Nixon grumbles. "This is a sad day for Amahrica!" (Yes, that's how Lee tries to replicate Nixon's accent.)

6. Franklin fries H.E.R.B.I.E. The Robot (FF #244)

Introduced in the 1978 Fantastic Four cartoon series as a replacement for The Human Torch (whose rights were tied up), H.E.R.B.I.E. soon found its way into the comic books as a playmate for Reed and Sue Richards' son, Franklin. Hardcore FF fans balked, but they got their revenge when writer-artist John Byrne took over the title, and had Franklin's latent mutant powers manifest during a struggle to solve a Rubik's Cube. In a fit of pique, Franklin blows H.E.R.B.I.E. up, while the little 'bot meekly goes "Meep! Meep!"

7. The sideways comic (FF #252)

For the first several years of Byrne's run, he dramatically improved The Fantastic Four's storytelling and graphic design, borrowing what he needed from Lee and Kirby while sensitively updating the whole series. With sales at a new peak, Byrne was free to take chances, as he did with a four-issue journey into The Negative Zone that began with a story drawn 90 degrees off-center. Taking good advantage of the sideways story, titled "Cityscape," Byrne created "widescreen" action sequences that stretched across long rectangular panels, and made some people wonder why he didn't turn layouts on their ear more often.

8. Skrull cows give tainted milk (FF Annual #17)

Way back in the second issue of The Fantastic Four, Lee and Kirby concocted a story in which Reed Richards hypnotizes the first Skrulls to invade Earth, and they begin a new life as dairy cows. A generation later, the offspring of the Skrull cows and regular cows produce a strain of milk that gives the citizens of rural King's Crossing their own horrible shape-shifting powers. Yet another of Byrne's clever extensions of the Lee/Kirby mythology, this double-length issue is both a genuinely scary horror story and a neat self-referencing mystery, capped by an Invasion Of The Body Snatchers-style zinger in the final panel.

9. John Byrne witnesses the trial of Reed Richards (FF #262)

In issue #10 of The Fantastic Four, Lee and Kirby established that the super-family lived in the same New York City that the staff of Marvel Comics did, and that Lee and Kirby themselves were producing the comic as a kind of newsletter, recounting the team's real adventures. During one of the most dramatic storylines in FF history—in which Reed Richards saves the life of the planet-eating Galactus, and a universal court puts him on trial for aiding and abetting mass murder—Byrne revives the writer/artist-as-reporter concept, inserting himself into his own story, as the man assigned to tell the comic's readers about how the whole sticky issue gets resolved. (Answer: With a healthy dose of philosophical objectivism.)

10. The FF travels to "heaven" to "rescue" The Thing, and they all meet "God" (FF #511)

Since the end of the Byrne era, the fun, memorable Fantastic Four moments have been few and far between, though the recent run of writer Mark Waid has included the occasional highlight. This one is more wince-inducing than charming, though it's certainly unforgettable. Dr. Doom takes over The Thing's body, forcing Mr. Fantastic to kill his old friend, then travel to the afterlife to bring him back. After fighting through a series of surreal metaphysical challenges, the whole team ends up at God's doorstep, and finds that the almighty looks a lot like Jack Kirby. The Kirby-God restores everything to normal, and then, ever the gentleman, tosses off a quick sketch. Amen.

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