Welcome back to The Dollar Box, my irregular feature where I review single-issue comic stories with an original cover price of a dollar or less. To help dispel the stench of the most recent Fantastic Four film misfire, I thought I’d take a look at the Fantastic Four Annuals of the Stan Lee & Jack Kirby era. This column looks at the first three Annuals, with a review of Annuals four through six to follow at a later date.
While modern Annuals would sometimes seem little more than jumped-up fill-in stories, the early Marvel Silver Age Annuals were a delight, featuring bonus-length feature stories, original back-up tales, reprints of relevant issues from the past, and page after page of pin-ups highlighting adventures or enemies from the year gone by. The art might sometimes look rushed (with these Annuals amounting to the thirteenth or fourteenth issue that had to be drawn in a twelve-month period), but this was offset by the sheer size of the story that you got for your quarter, and the big, must-read events at the center of the best issues.
Fantastic Four Annual #1 (1963)
One of those must-read events was front-and-center in the first Fantastic Four Annual — the Sub-Mariner’s attack on the human race! Newly restored to his throne, Subby doesn’t waste any time before throwing his weight around, delivering unreasonable terms to the Fantastic Four, to the effect that surface men must have nothing further to do with the sea, on pain of conquest! Reed relays Namor’s terms to the United Nations, but it doesn’t take long for everything to go pear-shaped, and the invasion is on.
Namor’s troops conquer Manhattan without firing a shot. Perhaps the New Yorkers were overawed by Jack Kirby’s imaginative underwater war machines …
I always thought that the coolest thing about Subby’s undersea legions were the bubble helmets full of seawater that they wore, so they could breathe on land. It’s such a wonderfully ridiculous idea — literal fishbowls for helmets. Unfortunately for the Sub-Mariner, Reed instantly divines the weakness of this scheme, and concocts a device that evaporates their helmet water from a distance, putting paid to the invasion.
After that, it’s all downhill for the Sub-Mariner. The invasion is doomed, and when Subby shows compassion for Sue Storm, his own subjects turn on him, leaving the Sub-Mariner abandoned in his palace, a king without a kingdom.
The Sub-Mariner’s invasion of New York sounds like a dynamite idea for a story, but it doesn’t quite come together here. More space is devoted to scene-setting and getting our heroes out to sea in a cruise ship than to the invasion itself, and Dick Ayer’s inks look hurried and muddy in places (over what may well have been hurried pencils from Jack Kirby). If the story had lived up to that splash page, this would be an all-time classic, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
But I do have some favorite moments, like Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table while Reed informs the U.N. of the Atlantean threat …
… and Subby being Subby …
… and one of the pinup features (of which there are several!), where we learn that Reed’s hair turned white at the temples because of some unspecified terror when helping Allied prisoners escape from the Nazis. Was that story ever told? I have to know.
There’s also a backup story: a sort of remastered telling of Spider-Man’s first encounter with the Fantastic Four, originally shown in two pages by Steve Ditko in Amazing Spider-Man #1, but here expanded into a fight scene of several pages by Kirby that is just … OK.
While laps better than any Fantastic Four movie, this first Annual is the weakest of the Kirby era — big concepts that are just adequately executed, earning a Longbox Graveyard score of 6/10.
Fantastic Four Annual #2 (1964)
The second Lee/Kirby Annual outing is a considerable improvement over the first, featuring the origin of Doctor Doom, in the first of two new Doom stories in this volume (to go along with another reprint, and a great new batch of pin-ups).
We are introduced to the future Doctor Doom when he is still a boy, howling for revenge after his father — a Gypsy healer — is killed by a vengeful noble after the elder Doom failed to heal the royal princess.
Doom takes the revenge business seriously, learning sorcery after discovering his mother was a witch. Grown to adulthood, Doom plays tricks on the cruel nobles of Latveria, stealing them blind or humiliating them by selling them enchanted treasures that backfire on their owners. He becomes a thorn in the side of the ruling class — a kind of Romani Robin Hood — and when he is caught and put before a firing squad, we get our first glimpse of the kind of high-tech robotic shenanigans that would prove Doom’s trademark through the years.
(How Doom becomes a high-tech robotic genius working from out the back of a Gypsy wagon is not addressed!)
I liked this nearly-heroic Doom … he could be cruel, but his victims were crueler still, and as an orphan Gypsy in a hostile land, Doom was an underdog (almost) worth rooting for. But Doom’s odious nature would soon assert itself. Winning a scholarship thanks to his scientific prowess, Doom leaves his home behind, and when he returns, he will be a very changed man.
No sooner does he land in the United States for school than Victor Von Doom becomes Victor Von Dick. His megalomania in full bloom, Doom wants nothing to do with the good-natured Reed Richards, who makes every effort to befriend the brilliant Doom.
Doom is expelled from school when a lab experiment nearly blows up the school (and definitely blows off Doom’s face). Doom, through twisted logic, blames his failure on Reed Richards, and does what any self-respecting supervillain-in-training might do — he sets off to Tibet to learn the black arts, and forge armor and a mask that will let him project a frightening image to the world that did him wrong.
Who needs a college diploma? Only Doom is qualified to confer a doctorate on Doom! In short order, Doom returns to Latveria and becomes its ruler, leading to the wonderful ironclad despot that we know and love today.
The “back-up” story is anything but — the return of Doctor Doom and his latest diabolical plot to destroy the Fantastic Four!
The tale commences with Doom’s rescue from outer space, and a tongue-twisting face-to-face with Rama Tut, who may (or may not) be a future version of Doctor Doom. Or something.
The whole Doom/Rama Tut thing made my head hurt when reading Bronze Age tales, and it is oddly reassuring to see that things were just as muddled in the Silver Age!
Doom’s plan hinges on luring the Fantastic Four to lower their guard during a reception at the Latverian embassy. With Doom believed dead, our heroes see nothing sinister in this set-up, which is an acceptable bit of storytelling chicanery, especially when it affords us the opportunity to watch Ben Grim cut up the dance floor with a Margaret Dumont-style grand dame.
Doom’s plan is to set the Fantastic Four against each other, spiking the “fruit juice” served in champagne glasses at the embassy, then spurring the hallucinating heroes to beat the tar out of each other. Doom’s scheme is well on its way to success, when Doom unaccountably undermines himself by gazing at his face in the mirror. It’s a wonderful bit of melodrama, but it really makes no sense in the context of the story, and lends credence to reports that Stan Lee & Jack Kirby were sometimes not on the same page when plotting/drawing/writing these stories.
Doom’s plan quickly unravels, and the villain is put to flight. The denouement is notable largely for confirming that Reed Richards is the world’s dumbest smart guy …
That kind of exchange was common for Reed and Sue in the Silver Age, when it seemed that Stan Lee was constitutionally incapable of writing female characters — Sue Storm, the Wasp, and Karen Page (among others) were all doormats and feather-heads on Lee’s watch. But you take the good with the bad, and this story has far more good than bad. Besides, who can resist the ridiculous machinations of … Doom!
Overall, Annual #3 is a great little romp — fast-paced and action-packed — and the Fantastic Four are never better than when battling their arch-nemesis, Doctor Doom. Your Longbox Graveyard score: 8/10.
Fantastic Four Annual #3 (1965)
You can judge the quality of a hero by the villains he fights, and you can especially judge the standing of a hero by the quality of bad guys that attack their wedding! Remember when the Circus of Crime attacked the wedding of the Wasp and Yellowjacket? I rest my case!
For Marvel’s wedding of the century — between Reed Richards and Susan Storm — nothing less than an attack by practically every villain in the Marvel Universe would do. In a plot orchestrated by Doctor Doom, villains from the Fantastic Four’s past (and even villains they had never before met) were mobilized to strike at our heroes on their day of joy.
The bulk of this story is a parade of heroic cameos and chaotic fighting in the streets of Manhattan. If you ever wanted to see Kirby’s original X-Man battle the Mole Man, then here is your chance. You also get Thor vs. Super-Skrull, Daredevil vs. the hordes of Hydra, and Hawkeye vs. Mr. Hyde. It’s like a superhero Wrestlemania!
With the fisticuffs finished, the blessed moment arrives …
a nice bit of meta-story, as Stan and Jack can’t get into the wedding!
It is a silly story, but with the star power on display it should be a great one. Unfortunately, that reckons without considering a menace greater than any that assaults the Fantastic Four in this tale — Vince Colletta’s inks! With trademark indifference, Colletta renders much of Kirby’s pencil work inert and amateurish, which is a real shame, as this single issue might otherwise be the go-to guide for Kirby’s rendition of nearly every character Marvel has. It’s still a fun book, but with better inks it might have been so much more, reflected in my Longbox Graveyard score of 7/10.
All three of these Annuals carried a cover price of twenty-five cents, but of course they will set you back a lot more than that now. Still, with the original run of the Fantastic Four so completely out of reach, collecting the first Annuals is a worthy alternative for fans wishing to own a little Silver Age Marvel magic. You’ll pay hundreds of dollars for an Annual in superior condition … but that beats the thousands that the first issue of the series itself will set you back.
Share your memories of these first three Fantastic Four Annuals in the comments section below, then join me later when I finish my review of the Lee/Kirby FF Annuals!
NEXT MONTH: #152 Dark Genesis