Last time on Journey with Jack, we stepped into the world that many consider Jack Kirby’s best work… New Gods. This time, we’re going on an adventure with a work that many others consider to be the man’s greatest creation. Can you guess who we’re talking about? There’s four of them, one of them is orange and surly, another is literally on fire, there were two… uh, let’s go with memorable film franchises made about them. It’s the Fantastic Four, and we’re starting with the 51st issue by Kirby and Stan Lee. I’ve read a few issues from this run in the past and even wrote about them here at Blastoff, but Scott specifically selected this issue – so let’s see what makes it a standout in Kirby’s catalogue.
This was actually my favorite – so far – of this month. I enjoyed the sheer scope of New Gods, the invention of Mister Miracle, the oddness of Kamandi, and the classic good versus evil of Thor, but this is the first one where I felt the character drama was the primary focus with the world-building taking a backseat. And listen – Kirby is amazing at world building, but I liked how this one felt fresh and different for him. Stan’s writing here is also the best of his that I’ve read. I’ve found in my Marvel Firsts series, where I’ll examine first appearances and #1 issues of iconic characters, I generally like Stan Lee’s basic concepts more than his execution – don’t kill me for this hot take, you guys – but now that Stan has been rolling with the Fantastic Four for so many issues, he’s working with more depth of character than I’ve seen before. Again, a terrific surprise. I went in hoping for another fun Lee and Kirby mash-up like Thor, but ended up with an experience that was among the most interested and tenderly written one-shot stories I’ve read in comics.
The basic story is that the Thing is walking around in the rain, sad as all hell that he looks the way he does. He’s feeling like a total misfit, so he’s in a vulnerable state when perhaps the single most evil looking dude this side of goddamn Voldemort invites the Thing into his home. Listen, this guy looks like Lex Luthor with a brow that protrudes maybe six solid inches out of his skull. He looks like he’s cooking baby soup to feed to the people in his torture chamber. Dude looks outright malicious. But the Thing is bummed out, so he ignores this clearly duplicitous guy. He comes in, drinks some poisoned coffee, and passes out.
Here’s when things get interesting. Evil guy, who is a scientist who wants to prove he’s superior to Reed Richards, uses a duplication invention to turn himself into the Thing, and turn the Thing back into his normal human self: Ben Grimm. Normally, this kind of story would focus on the Thing trying to prove that he’s been replaced, but Ben himself isn’t actually the focus here – I mean, he is, thematically, but the lead character of the issue is definitely the Imposter Thing. We follow him as he plans to get close to Reed Richards as the Thing and kill him, only to be moved to change when he finds himself able to tap into the Thing’s heroism. The guy who, just one paragraph ago, I described as a baby-soup-maker ends up sacrificing himself to save the exact man he sought out to kill in a moment of emotionally moving, and visually stunning cosmic action.
Also, there’s this page:
The issue ends with Ben Grimm returning to his rightful place in the Fantastic Four, transformed back into the Thing once again, but when they reunite… things feel a little different. Even in this standalone issue, something big happened to these iconic heroes. And listen, I’ll be honest, when it comes to Marvel teams, I’m an Avengers guy all the way. I liked the X-Men well enough, but I never really connected with the Fantastic Four – until now. This is by far the best argument that I have to get on with it and read the entirety of the classic Lee and Kirby run… because this was a damn good issue.
(Also, pretty great: Stan Lee writes an introduction to say that this issue doesn’t need an introduction… and then goes on to introduce it!)
Gotta love it.
NEXT TIME: On our final Journey with Jack, we take flight with Falcon with Captain America #208