Jack Kirby Collector Edited by John Morrow Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.

The (UN-?)Forgettable FF #15

Lumpy Grey Androids, Monkeys With Matches, and Crystal Baxter Buildings: These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things

by Glen Gold

From Jack Kirby Collector #33

For those of you who grew up in the late '60s and early '70s, the Fantastic Four was just young enough that you could read the current issue (the first one I read was #150), and then find the back issues you needed to explain what the heck was going on. I recall finding issues from the #140s and #130s and feeling like I was slowly unraveling a story that I wouldn't know all the ramifications of until I finally read my way back to #1. This was the brilliance of continuity and cross-overs; The House of Ideas made sure that kids like me needed to buy everything they'd ever put out so we could follow huge multi-generational stories.

This was how I found out that the Hulk, whom I loved, was once grey (as was Iron Man), the Avengers didn't always have the Vision as a member, and, most importantly, the Fantastic Four used to have a different flavor entirely.

The '70s were a time of socially relevant stories- Reed and Sue almost divorce; Harry Osborne trips on acid; Howard the Duck runs for President. It was a shock to see that in the early '60s, the Fantastic Four had a lot of fun with their powers, and it was obvious that the people who created them had fun, too.

Fantastic Four #15 is a benchmark of loony storytelling; I imagine Stan and Jack plotting it at 3:00 in the morning. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure: Our tale begins in the evening-Johnny Storm has taken "Peggy" to a "quiet lane in Central Park" to neck under the "moon above." Unfortunately, Mr. Fantastic signals with the flaregun, interrupting the date. (And, by the way, the moment he reveals this, it's "exactly 12:42 PM"; apparently Johnny's date went really well.)

Mister Fantastic has also interrupted an experiment, something like the spontaneous generation of goldfish in a Chanel perfume atomizer, because the police department reports that "top mobsters" are flocking to New York. Granted, the illustration is of a car driving away from NYC, but those mobsters are tricky, especially the top ones. They're doing the bidding of the Mad Thinker! His insane plan is... to proclaim New York an independent state! Fiendishly, he adds, "I shall even appoint ambassadors to other American cities! I will sign treaties with the rest of America and negotiate trade and foreign-aid pacts!" Huh... that's it? No murder, or theft, or... well, okay. Perhaps this pre-NAFTA, states-rights, Republican-to-the-Max plan lacks some of the panache that, say, Galactus' plans had, but hey, Galactus didn't have the Thinker's "greatest array of thinking machines ever assembled," with big disks labeled "weather," "wind velocity," "tidal pull" and "sun spots." Woe to the adversary who's relying on the Farmer's Almanac.

At this point, the story goes from silly to positively giddy. The Thinker tells the gangs about a million dollar heist which succeeded because "I knew a hot dog vender [sic] would pass by at just the right split-second," and, better yet, "it was part of my plan to know that an organ grinder's monkey would accidentally start a fire in a deserted shack, thereby burning some valuable papers which contained enough evidence to send me to jail for years!" A lovely touch is that before, during, and after this account, the Thinker is striking Rodin's "The Thinker" pose. (Though if Rodin believed his Thinker was thinking about an organ grinder's monkey, I'll eat my fedora.)

The Thinker won't trust a mere circus animal to defeat the Fantastic Four. Instead, he entrusts the circus itself! Yes, Johnny Storm's "cousin Bones" shows up, a lanky man in a Curious George-man-with-the-yellow-hat hat, offering Johnny a job with the circus. Never mind that we've never heard of cousin Bones before, and will never hear of him again, or that if Johnny's his cousin, so is Sue, and Bones doesn't give Sue the time of day (hey, invisible juggling and lion taming would be cool). Johnny, never the most reliable member of the FF, decides to leave town and join the "Bones and Bailey" circus.

Nothing so frivolous could get Reed out of the way. General Electronics, Ltd. needs a scientific genius to head their research division, and they find him the way most high-level recruitment is done. That's right, a careless janitor leaves a comic book on a desk and Cartright, Van Dorn, and Roger realize Mister Fantastic is the man for the job. (Note to self: General Electronics IPO? I'm glad I missed it.)

The Thing is much easier meat-hanging out at a local gym, he's offered a chance to wrestle Fatal Finnegan, idol of the Yancy Street Gang, and before you can say "riverrun past eves and adams," he's punched out a wall, and hung Fatal's manager on a hook. The Invisible Girl is located playing for no discernable reason with children at a local orphanage, where a man running auditions declares her perfect to star in his new Broadway show. Broadway. Remember that, Sue: B-R-O-A-D-W-A-Y.

It takes all of a page for the FF to decide to separate, during which Jack indulges in some bizarre drawing-their headquarters is apparently decorated with busts of Caesar (which the Torch puts a flaming Napoleonic hat on top of) and statues not unlike the MTV awards. Anyway, they leave at 16:03:00 (just as the Thinker predicted! Scary!) and at 16:03:15, a hurtling meteor plunges into New York's lower bay, knocking out all electrical power, leading to "numerous small fires and explosions." One of those helpful Kirby on-lookers is scripted as saying, "Look! All the street lights have gone out-and there are flames in Central Park!"

Now, given that the FF left their headquarters only fifteen seconds ago, you'd think they might be, oh, standing in the foyer, alert to the meteorite that disabled the entire blamed city. But no, the building is already deserted, the FF apparently elect not to pay much attention to the mayhem (hey, they're on vacation), and the Thinker is free to plunder Reed's laboratories.

Okay. Three days later, the Torch is performing in the circus. Sue is in a movie ("Okay, Miss Storm, this is the final take! Remember, you're the first female in space, lost on an unknown planet! Roll 'em! More SCHMALTZ, baby! Give it more EMOTION! C'mon-look SCARED!"), proving she's even more of a dingbat than we knew, since she was supposed to be in a Broadway play. Reed is wrapped up in his work (literally stretching through machinery, and, in a disturbing monologue, reveals, "I like to examine my apparatus from the INSIDE"); and the Thing is in a fixed wrestling match. When Finnegan hits on Alicia, Ben wraps him in a "Do Not Open Till X-mas" sign and, in Finnegan's wake, elects to return to the Baxter Building-which has, in the FF's absence, turned into a gigantic crystal. Huh?

Oh, don't worry, I'm sure that will be explained. But first, we learn that the Thinker has also used a hypno-ray so that passers-by (except the FF) don't notice it. (Actually, having spent time with New Yorkers, I'd say none of them gave a hoot-"giant crystal building, gotta be some Trump thing, ehhhh.") He lets the FF in, but turns their own weapons against them, proving once and for all that Doctor Doom is a second-rate, non-innovative villain. First, there's the vibra-guns, then gas that "affects your sense of balance-and of vision"; then and only then, the Awesome Android.

A word here about the Awesome Android. Even when I was a kid, I knew it wasn't that awesome. Its awesome power: Mimicry! On the playground that could at least get another kid to cry, but it's used here to become like the Thing. The Awesome Android doesn't flame on, and he doesn't stretch or turn invisible (I think the Thinker skimped when stealing the plans from Reed). And the design-like the third runner-up in a Kruschev-era android design contest! Grey, lumpy, lumbering, it has a head like a stick of butter, and purple Fin Fang Foom shorts.

Sue turns invisible and finds the Android's "motor nerve terminal," leading Reed to say "You DID it, Sue! Your sensitive touch knocked out the android," which I suspect he whispered in her ear again hours later, when they were alone.

So, with just over a page left, the Thinker is about to wipe out the FF with anti-matter shells (and a separate chemical gun on the Torch, just for the hell of it), when everything goes "Bzzzz Zzzt!" The Thinker is defeated! But how?

As Reed says, "You overlooked ONE thing in your plans, THINKER! There is always an X-FACTOR to prepare for-the UNEXPECTED! Not knowing what we'd find when we invaded our building, I contacted Mr. Lumpkin, our postman, and told him to ring a special downstairs bell at exactly four o'clock."

Thanks, Reed. So-

"I had previously set up an electrical circuit breaker which rendered all my equipment useless when that bell is rung."

Great, Reed. That explains it. So-

"-As a precaution against any enemy taking over my lab."


This causes Ben to say, "BAH! You talked so much that I got over my anger!" Reed ends by saying it's four minutes after 4:00 (if you look closely, you can see someone re-lettered this part, which suggests that Stan screwed up the continuity) and with the Thinker led away in handcuffs (oh, and he's tied up with ropes, too-when you're the Mad Thinker, there's no such thing as too much precaution), the FF is free and the menace is over, and no one mentions that their building is still made out of crystal, and New York is still recovering from a meteor strike, but that's okay. The End.

There are other delights in this issue-a nice pin-up of the Foursome, a letters page with a really pushy letter from some squirt named Roy Thomas, a few spot illos that look like Brodsky aping Kirby-but I want to talk for a minute about page three of the book, a simple page. I've always loved the feeling behind it-the Invisible Girl turning invisible because... uh... because... well, who knows? And 'The Thing is a Sissy' panel (as Richard Howell points out, "Hey, the Yancy Street Gang draws just like Jack Kirby!"). And the tractor-over-the-head defense against cabbages and noise-makers. And how the Torch, even when he's just standing around indoors, is aflame.

But what amazed me when I saw the art in person is that it gave up some unexpected secrets. In the second-to-last panel, there are heavily-erased pencils showing a crowd fleeing the Thing. Normally I'd frown on that kind of alteration, but I think it was a good call in this case-it would have made for a busy panel on an already-busy page.

More importantly, two of the panels are paste-ups, over pencil art! It looks like Kirby originally had the Thing looking towards the rooftop in the center panel of the middle tier, and he would be called away from his tractor in the last panel before he got a chance to pick it up. The change is for the better. What a nice shot to have, in action, instead of him simply looking for trouble.

Under the final panel, wherein the FF meet up again, there is something spectacular: A full face shot of the Thing, fist raised, mouth agape, frustrated and ready for action. Besides the small spot illo for Alter Ego (reproduced in TJKC #9), this page contains to my knowledge the earliest surviving pencil versions of the Thing.

And he's rocky. Ayers was giving him rounded scales, still, but he's definitely a pile of rocks, with shadows and high contrast on his plates. Seeing this, it's hard to figure out which inker best captured the way Kirby was actually drawing Ben then. He looks in fact the way no one ever inked him (weirdly, whatever else his shortcomings as an inker, Bell/Roussos seems to have come close in his first couple of FF books).

The original art to FF #15, page 3. Kirby pencils are still there under the pasted-up inked panels, showing a more "chiseled" Thing was taking shape than the soft Ayers inks would indicate. © Marvel Characters, Inc.

I've always thought the Thing was one of Jack's bravura creations. Who else would put together a character made up of bricks that had to be drawn in every darned panel (trying to draw the Thing when I was a kid is what convinced me to stay away from art as a living).

Seeing this page has increased my appreciation for the whole nutty story of FF #15 all over again. I can imagine Kirby at the board, with a cigar, drawing it out and laughing. It reminds me how, before it was Saturday morning cartoons, and video games, and billions of dollars, it was just a couple of guys in an office, trying to entertain themselves. I hope somewhere, in some office, someone is still doing that.

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