Geez, I just realized that it's been nearly a month that I've been doing this new blog, and I have yet to write anything about a Marvel comic.
Well, I suppose it's time to rectify that oversight, and if I'm going to write about a Marvel comic, I might as well pick one of the greatest single issues they've ever published, as well as my personal favorite story from the seminal Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run on Fantastic Four.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Fantastic Four Annual #6, featuring a story entitled, with typical Stan Lee bravura, "Let There Be...Life!"
Stan the Man himself sums up the story this way in a blurb on the splash page: "Featuring: The Glory of Birth, 'Neath the Shadow of Death!", which neatly distills the essence of the tale into a handy catch phrase. From a continuity and historical standpoint, it is notable for including the first appearance of Annihulus, the Living Death That Walks, and the birth of Franklin Richards.
Sue, whose pregnancy was revealed in the previous year's annual, is in the hospital preparing to give birth, but there are complications. It seems that the cosmic radiation in her blood that granted her and her three teammates their fantastic powers is now endangering the lives of both her and her soon to be born child. Reed is frantic with worry, but he has discovered that there is a rare element that can save his family, though it exists only in the treacherous anti-matter realm known as the Negative Zone. Dismissing Reed's entreaties that this is something he must do alone, the Thing and the Human Torch join him on an excursion into the Zone to retrieve the element, which, they soon discover, just happens to be in a vial which the evil Annihulus just happens to wear on a chain around his neck.
Reed and his companions now must defeat Annihulus, retrieve the precious rare element, and get back to their own dimension in time to save Sue and the baby.
What makes this my favorite FF tale is that it epitomizes the very quintessence of the Fantastic Four concept. When The Comics Journal listed its choices for the Top 100 Comics of the 20th Century as that century drew to its close, Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four was the highest ranking super-hero comic on the roster, and this issue demonstrates why it deserves that honor. If FF isn't the best super-hero comic ever, I'm at a loss right now to tell you what is.
For all the cosmic bluster of such apocalyptic stories as this one and the Galactus Trilogy, Fantastic Four was, and to this day remains, at its heart, the story of a family. While the threat of Annihulus is a menace on a cosmic scale, the real stakes here are personal: Reed battles Annihulus not to save the universe, but the people he loves most. This juxtaposition of the everyday against the outlandish; the perfect balance of the human and the cosmic, is what made Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four stand out not only from the books of the "Distinguished Competition", but the other comics in the Marvel line as well. Only here was that delicate balancing act acheived. Thor by this point was a full-on cosmic tale of gods and demons with the human elements provided by Thor's human identity of Don Blake and his hopeless lusting after nurse Jane Foster having long since fallen by the wayside, and The Amazing Spider-Man offered tales of an all too human young man struggling with the realities of supporting himself, dating, and taking care of his frail old aunt, who just happened to put on a costume and fight super powered nutsos every once in a while.
Another thing that's interesting about this story is that it was published during what is generally considered a fallow period in Kirby's creative career. According to most accounts, the King was really unhappy with how Stan had mucked up his original concept for issues #66 and 67 and was simply marking time by this point until his contract with Marvel was up. Despite that, here he gives us some of the finest work of his career, and a true high point of the Silver Age.
The best, and cheapest, way to read this story is by picking up Essential Fantastic Four Volume Four, which contains not only this tale, and the earlier annual announcing Sue's pregnancy, but the controversial issues #66 and 67, as well as many others, which, even if Kirby was "hacking it out" during this period, as the conventional wisdom would have it, still stand head and shoulders above the other super-hero comics of the day.