I think this might be my favorite issue so far. This story feels like the Fantastic Four we know and love today.
This cover has a great “This Island Earth” / “The Day the Earth Stood Still” vibe to it, and for good reason. This story pays a lot of homage to the classic ’50s sci fi movies. Shout-out to letterer Artie Simek for that snazzy Planet X font.
There is nothing in this image I don’t love. That alien design! He’s an egg with a furry patch of face pasted on the front! His lounge chair! His projection TV! A robot servant waiting in the wings! His apparent fondness for juice boxes! His geodesic belt buckle that looks like something your eccentric geology professor in college would have worn! My only complaint here would be the “Prisoners of Kurrgo” title, as this is actually the third time in a row the team has been prisoners or captives of some villain.
Kurrgo kindly spends a few panels explaining the problems of his home, Planet X – though they are a thousand years more advanced than Earth, all their technology is no good against an asteroid (later in the issue revised to an entire rogue planet) that is plummeting toward their planet. Kurrgo’s people never cared for space travel, so they have only two space ships, making evacuation impossible. They dispatch one of their ships with Kurrgo’s personal robot aboard to enlist the Fantastic Four’s help. By enlist I mean of course capture, because what kind of asshole just asks for help?
We find our heroes in their skyscraper headquarters, squabbling over whether they should attend a government banquet in their honor. Reed finds his teammates less than enthusiastic.
We get a series of excuses from them – Johnny is scared of maybe being put on the spot for a speech, Thing is worried that he’ll lose his shit and wreck the place (the most reasonable excuse of the bunch), and we get another great Sue-invisible-in-public gag.
Reed tells them how ridiculous they’re being and insists they all get ready (though when they leave they’re all still wearing their uniforms, so I’m not sure what the hell Reed was talking about).
Before they head out, though, we get two more vital character moments. First up is Thing finally getting a little payback on Johnny. The back-and-forth between these two is massively improved this issue, where they finally seem like guys who really do like each other and like busting each other’s balls. It’s fun to read, and Jack hams it up pretty well on the illustration side of things.
The other big moment is holy shit Reed is doing science.
As the team makes it way to their fancy schmancy dinner date, Kurrgo’s sinister agent arrives on Earth! This is a pretty obvious homage to The Day the Earth Stood Still. (Until I started writing and researching for this, I’d forgotten that there was a remake of that movie and now I kind of regret ever starting this series.) Kurrgo’s robot quickly locates the FF using some of its fancy alien technology.
I like this shot and you see this kind of panel periodically throughout superhero team books. The Avengers, in particular, would have a scene like this every time the lineup changed. This reminds me of the “Cap’s Kooky Quartet” (my personal favorite incarnation of the Avengers) press conference very much, also drawn by Kirby just a couple of years after this. The only thing I don’t like is that Sue doesn’t get a thought balloon like the others; she just stands there with that vacant expression.
Kurrgo’s robot swoops toward Washington in its flying saucer, activating…the hostility ray!
Side note: I don’t think I’ve seen a woman yet who wasn’t a blonde with Sue’s exact same hair cut (even the 18th century serving wench looked basically just like Sue). Some Marilyn Monroe effect, maybe? Monroe died right around the time these books were being written and drawn, and had spent the previous decade or so defining what it meant to be sexy in America, so it seems likely she was the basis for Sue’s look. I remember a gag in Kurt Busiek’s Marvels where women are coming out of a hair salon advertising that it could give you the Sue Storm or Janet Van Dyne hairdo, and Busiek, being the comics nerd he is, wouldn’t surprise me if he’d made this same observation. I also have no doubt that in the ’60s there were lots of ladies walking in asking for the Marilyn Monro or Jackie Kennedy cut.
Our heroes manage to escape the angry mob that forms, and Kurrgo’s robot intercepts them to explain their dire situation.
This is such a classic Fantastic Four moment. Reed is amazed and distracted by some gadget (in this case, an incredible portable TV) and Sue has to snap him out of it. At last, we get a healthy dose of absentminded-professor Reed in this issue, and it feels good. This won’t be the last time we see him express incredulity at a piece of technology that is both commonplace today and not as amazing as some of the gadgets in his own lab (I’m looking forward to when the he gets into the Black Panther’s house and marvels at the bad-ass cassette deck).
Kurrgo’s robot explains to them how their situation is hopeless – everyone around the world has been turned against the Fantastic Four, and will not stop until they’re dead or imprisoned. Their only hope is to go to Planet X! They reluctantly agree, and we get a couple more nice, team-defining moments here between Ben and Reed. Thing agrees to go along because he believes the others are idiots and will need him to protect them, and Reed goes along because he can’t help himself. This is all setting up a team dynamic that will last all the way up to their present-day adventures. It reminds me of a lot of the McCoy/Spock/Kirk interplay we’ll get in Star Trek a few years after this.
They reach Planet X, which is actually the first alien planet the Fantastic Four visit.
It’s a pretty standard (read: great) Kirby alien city, with all these towers and bulbous buildings and lots of depth. I like the way he’s positioned the heroes in this shot: Reed has his head held high, gracefully exploring this new environment; Thing is just sort of tumbling in, uncertain of his place; Johnny is out of control, too, but in a way that suggests he’s having fun with it; Susan is cautious, but dignified and curious.
The FF meets their host, Kurrgo, who explains the situation. A runaway planet is bearing down on Planet X, meaning certain doom for their entire species. The danger is already so close that the gravitational forces of the rogue planet are damaging Planet X, wrecking coastlands and setting off volcanoes. Worse still, the people of the planet are, in their fear and panic, rioting and fighting among each other. They have but two space ships to transport five billion people. Now that they are stuck there as well, Kurrgo expects the heroes to save themselves and his planet at the same time. And they only have hours in which to do it!
Thing and Human Torch spend a couple of pages revolting against the idea, uselessly pitting themselves against Kurrgo’s robot. Johnny even tries (for the first time) to go super nova on it, but Sue stops him before he can incinerate them all. Finally, Reed and Sue manage to calm them down and agree to help.
Reed comes up with a plan and the team gets to work. We get to see them all working together on one of Reed’s science projects. Thing lugging around the heavy equipment, Torch getting some welding done, Sue…nagging. Bonus: big Kirby machinery!
Reed soon reveals his plan to Kurrgo!
Pym Particles! They weren’t named such at the time, but Hank Pym had invented his enlarging/reducing serum earlier in ’62 in the pages of Tales to Astonish, so this wasn’t out of the blue. We have to assume Pym had published a paper on them, or that they met off panel sometime, and Reed was able to recreate them here in a gaseous form.
So the plan is initiated. Once shrunken down, the entire population of Planet X will fit inside their largest space ship. Once they’ve reached a new home, an enlarging gas will release as they disembark, returning them to their normal size. In return, the FF will board the saucer and escape back to Earth.
They swiftly enact the plan, firing rockets full of the gas across the planet and bringing the tiny refugees to the rocket launch pad. The FF make their way to the saucer and manage to get away. But Kurrgo has other ideas for his own people!
Bastard! This is certainly in keeping with his character up to this point. He’s stated a couple times that he doesn’t give a shit about the planet or its people, as long as he’s still in charge of them. He is undone by his own scheme, though, as the burden of lugging around the (apparently only?) canister of enlarging gas proves to be too much for the would-be tyrant!
Why didn’t he just have his robot carry it? I have to wonder what was going on inside the ship, too. Don’t his people want the enlarging gas? And wouldn’t they at least attempt to save the guy who was responsible for bringing their saviors to the planet and saving them all? It doesn’t matter, though, as Reed reveals next.
I’m sure “size is relative” will be super comforting to them when they emerge on a planet where the dominant life-form is a species of 1-foot tall carnivorous lizards, Reed! (Also you’ll notice the lettering blunder there in Reed’s dialogue – obviously he meant “There was no enlarging gas”.)
The ending feels a bit rushed. We don’t actually see Planet X’s promised doom or Kurrgo’s presumed death. We also just have to assume that the FF make it back home in one piece, and that the effect to the hostility ray has been eliminated. If they’d cut down on some of the chaff from the middle part of the book (the FF eluding the mob took way too long) they could have made a little room to tie some things up.
Overall, though, I enjoyed this story quite a bit just for the character moments, and it feels like the prototypical Fantastic Four story. We finally get a proper Reed Richards, doing science things. This was the first time Sue felt particularly useless, though, and that’s a bummer.
Speaking of whom, this was in the letter column and confirmed a suspicion of mine:
“Mr. Fantastic (Reed) had been a good friend of Sue’s…” A friend? A friend! Apparently the editors also missed their own first issue. The engagement mentioned there is gone, which explains a lot about how they’ve been writing Sue ever since. From a creative standpoint, I don’t think it’s a bad idea. This way they can actually develop that romance and have it bloom organically on the page. I’m curious to see how they start developing that relationship, or if they just dump it in there again as though it had never gone away.
NEXT TIME: Prisoners (yes, again) of the Puppet Master!