Has there ever been a greater run of creative energy in comics than the four issues of Fantastic Four that begin with issue 48?
Geeks know that particular issue kicks off what has become known as the Galactus Trilogy. The three-issue series, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby and released in the spring of 1966, launched the Marvel Comics universe into the universe, literally, by expanding the role of “cosmic” characters like the Watcher and introducing the Silver Surfer and Galactus.
If you’ve seen the second “Fantastic Four” movie, you’ve seen a somewhat lackluster version of the story that played through issues 48, 49 and 50. For the purposes of ground-breaking drama and cosmic feel, I’m also throwing the next issue into this review as well.
The story, for those who don’t remember, follows the FF back to New York after they’ve had an encounter with the Inhumans at their isolated fortress.
The mood is somber. Johnny (the Human Torch) has been separated from his girlfriend, Crystal, one of the Inhumans, after the mysterious beings retreated behind an impenetrable barrier. Ben (the Thing) is dealing with the horrified reactions of New Yorkers who spot his rocky visage and feeling sorry for himself. Reed (Mr. Fantastic) has withdrawn into his lab. And Sue (the Invisible Woman) is complaining that Reed isn’t paying enough attention to her. Yes, I know. It was the 60s and women didn’t fair so well in comics. The treatment of Sue makes her out to be a fairly humorless harpy.
Anyway, the FF return to New York and find a series of strange happenings, including fire and boulders filling the sky from horizon to horizon. They quickly learn it is the work of the Watcher, the other-worldly observer of the Earth who isn’t supposed to get involved in the planet’s travails. But in this case he’s trying to hide Earth from the Silver Surfer, who, he explains, is the herald of Galactus, fearsome eater of planets. The Surfer finds suitable planets for Galactus to consume.
The FF battle the Surfer, who falls from the top of the Baxter Building and, coincidentally, into the apartment of Alicia Masters, Ben’s blind girlfriend.
As Galactus arrives and begins erecting the machinery of Earth’s destruction on top of the Baxter Building, Alicia helps the Silver Surfer learn the value of the people Galactus is about to kill. And the Watcher sends Johnny on a galaxy-spanning quest to find a weapon that can stop Galactus.
There’s a lot of plot, a lot of dialogue and a lot of action in these three issues. Lee and Kirby had a curious habit of beginning and ending plots in the middle of an issue, so Galactus is foiled before issue 50 ends and we get a hint of the next story – as well as Johnny’s first day at college.
Issue 51 follows the Galactus trilogy with a story that is both cosmic and personal and remains one of my favorites to this day. “This Man, This Monster” lets Ben Grimm (and readers) wallow in his grotesque appearance and substantial self-pity as he wanders the streets of New York in the rain. He encounters a man who takes him home, drugs him and hooks him up to machinery that causes Ben to revert back to his human form. The man – whose identity we never learn – gains the appearance and strength of the Thing. His plan is to infiltrate the FF and destroy Reed Richards, a man whom he considers a hated rival.
Reed is in the middle of an experiment, traveling to a cold and hostile parallel world and, thinking the stranger is Ben, asks him to hold his lifeline. The man does so, overwhelmed by not only the daring and brilliance of Richards but also the trust placed in the Thing.
Something goes wrong, of course, and Richards is lost in the parallel dimension. The stranger, with all of the Thing’s strength, goes in after Reed. Ultimately the man sacrifices himself to save Reed. When the stranger’s life is lost, Ben reverts to his Thing form. The timing is, as usual, awful for Ben. He had been standing at Alicia’s door, ready to share his life-changing news with her.
The bittersweet ending: Ben returns to the Baxter Building to find Reed and Sue mourning his loss. They’re overjoyed by his return, an affirming moment for Ben.
Tribute should also be paid to inker Joe Sinnott and letterers S. Rosen and Artie Simek, who made Kirby’s pencils come to life. Has the Thing ever looked better than during this period? I don’t think so.
Someday it would be cool to see a full-blown big-screen movie version of the Galactus trilogy, not the half-baked version we saw a few years ago. (Galactus as a cloud. Hrmmph.) Maybe someday we will.
By the way: The pop-culture impact of “This Man, This Monster” remains strong, as you can see from Jess Harrold’s art above.