5 Aug 2015

Do You Remember The First Time? FANTASTIC FOUR #92

In Do You Remember The First Time? we take a nostalgic trip back in time to discuss a seminal purchase that introduced us to a character, title, creator, or even a hobby.

Rob N: Despite it being labelled 'The World's Greatest Comic Magazine' I didn't initially pick up the Fantastic Four during my weekly trips to the newsagent. I was going by the covers in the early 1970s and around about '71, '72 all the most enticing covers were DC ones. When I did pick up Marvel titles they tended to be Avengers and various solo books. I think I was put off Fantastic Four by the fact they all wore the same costume... that and the fact they were very small 'c' conservative in a 1950s wholesome Midwest American way. Reed Richards seemed to be the same age as my dad and Sue Storm seemed to simply dream of being a housewife with a life spent baking, hosting coffee mornings and swapping tips for exciting new cleaning products that can cope with stains that ordinary bleaches fail to remove. As for Johnny Storm, if he was a teenager, he certainly wasn't like any teenager I'd ever seen. Somehow you just knew he didn't like King Crimson. If the Fantastic Four were a family, then they were a Don Draper 1950s family, and that felt very outdated by 1974 when I did eventually pick up some second hand copies of the title. Even then there was another problem in that I'd sort of promised to not buy the Fantastic Four in a detente agreement between the kids on my street who collected Marvel comics - an agreement that was every bit as formal as U.S./Russian missile treaties were at the time.

What it came down to was a matter of supply and demand. Although the shops in the UK were awash with imported Marvel comics in 1973, everyone you knew was buying them, and in the days before you could arrange a standing order with Andy H from Paradox it was simply a case of first come, first served. If some kid got to the best titles that month before you did, then tough. It took one of the older kids on the street (Steven Small, who unlike the rest of us was in secondary school already) to propose a solution. There would be a 'Gentleman's Agreement' in place where we'd all promise to not touch certain titles, in return for which our preferred titles would also be left alone. Negotiations took place on some barren wasteground with us all sitting on Chopper bikes, like rival motorcycle gangs in Sons Of Anarchy. We swigged cans of fizzy Cresta soda and made our demands. I wasn't going to back down on Avengers - that one was mine, and recognising that, Steven got the other Chopper-mounted kids to agree. Being at least two years older than all of us he carried the weight of authority. He of course got the X-Men - we all knew that was going to happen, and personally I didn't care because it was all reprints by then anyway. Carl got the Fantastic Four and Steven made me swear on my Chopper to leave those comics if I came across them. As other titles were divvied up (it was perhaps a sign of the times that DC comics remained a free for all - no one particularly cared about them) the solemn summit was concluded with the sharing of 3p Curly Wurly bars and packets of shake-in-the-bag ready salted crisps. No one, but no one, was to break this pact, warned Steven ominously.

I have to confess now that like a character in Game Of Thrones I didn't stick to my side of the contract, especially when I came across a batch of late period Kirby illustrated issues of Fantastic Four in a seedy used magazine shop that sold second hand comics. "Carl's not going to know, and what he doesn't know can't hurt him!", I reasoned as I paid 21p for seven back copies of Fantastic Four and slipped them under my anorak as I left the shop because I was paranoid that a stern looking Steven Small might be standing outside the front door with an 'I'm very disappointed in you, Robert' look on his face. And so began my (secret) Fantastic Four collection!

Back home I opened the cover of the oldest copy in the stack and began to read issue #92: 'Ben Grimm, Killer!' It is, from the word go, an unusual instalment of Fantastic Four, almost exclusively focussing on the Thing alone. The shape-changing Skrulls have apparently taken him prisoner in a previous issue and transported him to their homeworld to fight as a gladiator in the arena. But for reasons that aren't particularly clear, the Skrulls have all shape changed to look like Prohibition era gangsters. I can only assume that this was due to Jack Kirby wanting to draw the Roaring Twenties as a few years later when he left Marvel for DC he tried launching an ambitious but ill-fated title set in that same period. Made helpless by a Hypno Glow machine, the Thing is forced to train against various alien gladiators who have also been seized against their will ahead of the 'Great Games', where the Skrulls will pit them in a fight to the death against one another. "In a pig's eye I will!" is Ben's response until the fiendish Skrulls unveil their, surprisingly small for what it does, 'Sonic Disruptor' - a weapon capable of tearing any planet out of its orbit, destroying its inhabitants to a man, and this they will use on the home planet of any slave who rebels. Even at the tender age of 10 I was asking myself why the Skrulls haven't used this doomsday weapon before and conquered the universe, but such was the bizarre logic of 1960s Marvel when doomsday devices were ten a penny to be referred to once for plot purposes and then promptly forgotten. And apart from a small cameo by the remaining members of the FF preparing to launch into space in search of Ben (though Sue has to stay behind because it's too dangerous for a girl) that's about it. Not much happens but it has a certain style and it may actually have been my introduction to what 1920s America looked like, so once again Marvel comics were proving educational.

Carl to this day has probably never ever read it. Sorry, Carl, wherever you are. What can I say? As a 10 year-old I was about as trustworthy as Walder Frey when it came to Marvel comics...

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