This issue. Oh man. I kinda just want to stick the whole issue in here for you guys, this one is so great. And it introduces so much that will become hugely important to the Marvel mythos later.
I should note that none other than Steve Ditko inked this issue, and it looks so incredibly good. Sometimes you forget just what an inker does, but this is a case where the inks really elevate the pencils to a whole new level. This issue is crisp and detailed in ways some of the previous issues haven’t been. Ditko was active all across the comics industry at this time, having worked at Marvel and its predecessor, Atlas Comics, since the early 1950s. He also worked over at Charlton Comics, which would later be purchased and absorbed by DC, whom he also worked for. He co-created Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and other Marvel greats, and the characters he worked on over at Charlton would eventually become the raw ingredients that Alan Moore would harvest for Watchmen. The man himself is a bit of a mystery, living as a recluse and refusing interviews. He’s one of the greatest pop artists of the 20th century and we know virtually nothing about him.
We open on a stunning scene!
I assume he’s talking of the Tunguska event of 1908, in which a massive something exploded over Siberia, laying waste to everything within about 800 square miles of forest. Probably it was an asteroid or comet (meteors generally being very small objects – by today’s classification system we’d probably call it a fireball), or Tesla’s death ray.
There actually is some hard science here. Though rare on Earth (at least in places we can look), meteorites are full of iridium. Part of the platinum group of the periodic table, iridium is extremely hard and and extremely resistant to heat and corrosion. It can be used for various kick-ass alloys and whatnot, but it’s coolest use has been around since the late ’50s as a vital component in spaceship thermocouples. That’s right, we use space rocks to power our space ships.
So Reed is ready to go to the moon! He seems way more excited about this than a guy who recently visited the alien world Planet X should be. Also he still has that flying saucer in his basement. But anyway, this is the ’60s and the height of the space race, so I guess we’ll just forget that.
The Blue Area of the moon goes on to become one of the great set pieces of the Marvel Universe. Future home to the Inhumans. Site of the infamous trial by combat of Jean Grey by the Shi’ar Empire. Location of a temporary SHIELD holding facility for the Kree Empire’s Supreme Intelligence. The list goes on. This is super exciting!
Reed is worried the trip might be dangerous, but the team won’t hear of it.
As the team preps for their flight, another team of intrepid adventurers are preparing their own moon shot! Meet Ivan Kragoff, Soviet super scientist! Before you criticize his fashion sense, this is one of the best outfits he’ll ever wear. This is his pilot, a gorilla with excellent taste in footwear.
It’s weird that Kragoff considers the orangutan to be the most brainless of the trio, when orangutans are actually roughly the same intelligence as chimps, the smartest non-humans on the planet. Baboons fall much lower on the scale (but still pretty smart). I don’t know what state ape and monkey research was at in 1963, though, so you can’t be too hard on him. None of the apes get names in this issue, so I suppose that comes later.
The Soviets didn’t actually use monkeys in space flight until the early 1980s. They favored dogs (specifically, lady dogs), because they expected dogs were cool with just hanging out in a spacecraft a long time without getting too bored. The United States, though, we fucking loved sending monkeys to space, and had been doing so since the late ’40s.
Most of the time it was a one-way trip.
But the Moon is not Ivan’s only goal for this mission!
The apes move about in their surprisingly roomy rocket showing off their new powers. The gorilla has become immensely strong. The baboon can change shape! The orangutan has magnetic powers! We don’t know yet how Kragoff has been affected by the cosmic rays. Orangutan uses his new magnetic powers to rappel Johnny from his snooping, which works out because Torch was about to run out of air and die anyway. He reports his findings to the team, but they arrive at the moon before they can take any action.
Still, this is pretty awesome! An ancient, abandoned (mostly?) city on our own moon! This is a pretty cool mystery that, I think, won’t be answered until the Kree/Skrull War event in the early ’80s.
They discover that the Blue Area has atmosphere and they can breathe just fine. I guess it also has Earth-like gravity, since they’re not bouncing around, but there’s no mention of it. Then again, this is pre-moon landing, so Kirby wouldn’t know what it would look like to walk around up there.
Johnny spots what appears to be new construction, and he and Reed and Sue head that way, leaving Ben to walk on his own. A rock seems to roll into his path, and when he goes to kick it aside, he gets a shock!
Their fight is abruptly interrupted! Suddenly!
The mother-effin’ Watcher! The Watcher will go on to become an integral part of the Marvel U, mostly in the cosmic line of books. His people roam the galaxy, recording everything they see, from the birth of life on new worlds to the collapse of civilizations. Normally they don’t interfere, but apparently Ben Grimm fighting a bunch of apes was too much for this Watcher. The Watcher has made the moon his home as he observes Earth, and he doesn’t need any of those shenanigans in his back yard, thankyouverymuch.
It seems like the Watcher is throwing down a Metron-style Gorn v. Kirk on Cestus III challenge here, but it’s unclear what will happen to the winner or loser, or what the larger stakes are. Subsequent explanations from Thing suggest that the winner will get to “claim the moon”, but how will the Watcher enforce that?
In case you’re wondering, claims over outer space real estate were dealt with by the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the Outer Space Treaty), which prevents nations from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies. That won’t be drafted until 1967, though, so this is a fair concern for our heroes.
(Incidentally, the Treaty also has an article that compels nations to return recovered astronauts to their home country, so I guess that means I have to trash my script about a dashing Soviet spy going to space in order to defect to the United States and the beautiful, no-nonsense CIA agent racing to retrieve him before the KGB oh gods this started as a joke but now I want to write it.)
The aggressive parties are suddenly transported!
The Red Ghost hypothesizes that longer exposure to the cosmic rays made him and his apes far more powerful than the heroes, and it seems to be an accurate assessment.
With Sue in tow, literally, Red Ghost makes his escape! Kragoff has been quick to use the ancient technology of the dead city to his advantage – I’m sure that’s where he got the freeze gun.
I’m not sure why he doesn’t just finish things here – with Reed frozen and Torch helpless, he could easily kill off at least half the team right now, leaving Ben to fight alone against a superior force. We’ll chalk
this mistake up to Kragoff being a mad scientist first and amateur super villain second.
Johnny thaws Reed, who realizes they can’t handle the Red Ghost through brute force. Johnny and Ben move out in pursuit of the villains while Reed starts looking for a way to use the ancient technologies all around them.
Meanwhile, Red Ghost is busy setting a new trap, using Sue as bait. This wouldn’t have been necessary if he’d just killed them when he had the chance but whatever.
We learn a bit of crucial information here – to keep control of the apes (somehow mentally – I guess Kragoff has some low-level psychic powers?), he keeps them hungry. You’d think that would also make them weaker and less capable for fighting, but I guess not.
Sue won’t have it!
This is a great Sue moment, even if it’s a result of yet another kidnapping. She’s showing compassion, taking a huge risk by letting these animals free, and demonstrating some technical savvy. There’s more character in these three panels than we’ve generally seen of Sue, who has spent large amounts of her time up to this point cowering in fear, clobbering bad guys from behind, and drooling at Namor. She gets a little preachy here vis-à-vis communism; the word she’s really looking for is fascism, but okay.
Her plan works, and the apes bust them all out of the prison cell. She somehow manages to intercept Johnny and Ben before they blunder into the Red Ghost’s concealed disintegrator ray.
His dumb plan foiled and apes nowhere to be seen, Red Ghost escapes back to the surface of the moon. Not just the surface, but into the Watcher’s fancy home! Red Ghost is hoping he can steal some incredible technology that will win him the day, but what he finds within is beyond his capacity to even recognize! The Watcher gets extra pissy!
The Watcher subject Kragoff to a variety of potential horrors!
It is at this ignominious moment that our heroes catch up to Kragoff, and Mr. Fantastic whammies him with the gadget he’s cobbled together from the ancient ruins.
But wait! Did Sue and the Watcher speak too soon?!
Betrayal most bitter! This is a pretty classic science fiction ending — the arc of the universe turns toward justice (for once).
I love this issue. The villain is dedicated and threatening, even if he does suffer from some debilitating incompetent-villain syndrome, letting the good guys go when he shouldn’t. The story starts off small, with a simple moon race that was topical for the period. Things escalate when they discover Kragoff’s plan to use the cosmic rays, and then escalate twice more when they reach the moon, finding there both a mysterious ruined civilization and a cosmic being of unfathomable power. I love the escalating battle of scientist super-rays. Every member of the team gets to shine. Reed has a much stronger voice lately, sounding like a man who is confident of his intellectual prowess rather than someone’s disapproving dad who just walked in off the street. Also, there was no contrived effort to split the team up like there often is. There are moments when a member or two are separated from the others, but they feel organic to the story rather than arbitrary excuses to show off someone’s powers or something.
By this point in the series it’s starting to become obvious when Stan phones it in (like the Namor/movie issue) and when he’s really firing on all cylinders (this issue, any Doom story).
It’s not perfect, though. There are two big problems with this story for me.
The first is that the Fantastic Four have been in outer space before. Not just their first, disastrous flight that gave them their powers, but light years away to visit an alien planet in Issue 7 (which is where it was first revealed that Reed was working on a new rocket fuel). They hung out with an alien species, helped save their civilization. They have an alien space ship still in their garage that they should reverse engineer for reactionless faster-than-light space drives. That issue should have changed everything! But it can’t, because there’s a status quo and whatnot. Still, it seems almost petty for them to still give a crap about getting to the moon in time, and in such primitive technology compared to what they know is out there. But I can understand why Stan and company wouldn’t want to go there.
The other, bigger, problem is the Watcher and his contest. If you remove the Watcher from this issue, nothing particularly changes. The race is still on, there’s still a big fight on the moon between the two groups, and the end is still the same. Though the Watcher claims in his final panels that his mission is at an end, it’s not really — all he’s doing is moving further away, like to Pluto or something. I kid of course, nobody goes to fucking Pluto.
Normally when you have these “omnipotent cosmic being forces mortals to fight” stories (see almost any episode of Star Trek), there’s something at stake for the two parties, depending on how the cosmic being judges the match. If Kirk wins, he and his ship goes free, with an option to wipe out the Gorn; if he loses, the Enterprise and its crew all die. But here, there are no stakes. The Watcher has no jurisdiction or interest in who gets to claim the moon, and no practical way to enforce a decision in any event. He never threatens to kill anyone, or strip away their capacity for space flight. He doesn’t even force Kragoff and his apes to leave — at the end of the issue I assume they’re still running around up there. After everyone leaves, Kragoff could easily plant the hammer and sickle flag and start up a research station. More like RED Area of the moon, amiright?
I still like the Watcher here, as his presence expands the scope of the Marvel Universe, and his final words to Reed promise of more to come. We’ve met two alien races so far, the Skrulls and the denizens of Planet X, but those guys have been chumps. The Watcher promises a grander scale of cosmic being, which is exciting. But for this particular story, his inclusion is weak and the basic premise unfulfilled.
Next: The Sub-Mariner returns! The Puppet Master plays matchmaker!