[Fantastic Four art by Jack Kirby (p), Joe Sinnott (i), Stan Goldberg (c), Sam Rosen and Artie Simek (l)]
For our last entry, see here for a Kirby Thor extravaganza—in another galaxy!
The strangest thing about Jack Kirby’s legendary 102-issue run on Fantastic Four isn’t any of his creations, which are of course mostly wonderfully bizarre and, well, wondrous—it’s that his raw creative energy peaked when both the series and his art were just fully coming into their own; both had started to kick into gear once the Inhumans were introduced (issue #44), but while things had already been going strong for a year or so previously, the storytelling really began to struggle to keep pace with the frenetic Kirby crackle (evidenced especially in the transition from the Inhumans to Galactus storylines, with both ending up frustratingly hyper-compressed and truncated). Of course, much of this was simply the tension between punishing deadlines and Jack’s urge to keep shaking it up every month, creatively.
After the Weird Science homage in issue #51 and the loosely epic introduction of Wakanda thereafter, however, there was a shift—probably only noticeable in hindsight for readers, if not for Stan and Jack themselves—as the pace of raw creativity began slowing. There wouldn’t be another debut in the title like that of Galactus, the Silver Surfer, the Black Panther and Wakanda, or even the Inhumans. Annihilus and the Kree are close-ish, but the Negative Zone ruler has always been a cool but ultimately B-list villain while the Kree Empire took a long time to develop into something really interesting and engaging* (granted, that can be laid at Roy Thomas’ misguided attempt at “humanizing” Kirby’s more cosmic or bizarro creations, which really meant making them bland and easy (i.e., unchallenging) for a new writer to run with quickly, without too much effort.) Even so, Kirby’s art remained an absolute treat to gush over. By and large, the rest of his time on the title gave us peak Kirby; all the same, that also means the third of his run feels like coasting.
*As for Adam Warlock, known in Kirby’s time only “Him,” he took quite a long time as well to become anything like the character we know today—almost all of which is thanks to Jim Starlin.
In other words, Kirby’s creative climax at Marvel arrives well before his departure and subsequent move to DC—a much-needed change of pace for his second classic period, with the creation of the Fourth World. And it’s sort of disappointing that his most famous FF classic, the so-called Galactus “trilogy,” is so compressed and comically ridiculous in its resolution.
However, in terms of overall storytelling quality, the real peak of Stan and Jack’s FF run is issues #57-60*, which I don’t think has a name as a story arc, but it was the first time Doom felt like a serious villain, something more than just a comic Ruritanian Phantom of the Opera type. It was here that he first stole (siphoned off) the Surfer’s Power Cosmic and thus his first grand expression of a desire for godlike power and a demonstration of his ability to actually take and hold such dangerous energies (he had become worthy of Milton’s Satan, or at least the closest thing to the Miltonic demon in a funny book; no small thing that). Of course, those four issues also have unrelated B-plots that keep it from being fully focused, but that was always a problem with Silver Age Marvel, especially with Fantastic Four.
I can’t recommend those issues enough if you’re a Kirby fan—but it’s not really part of the evolution of Marvel Cosmic, beyond Doom creating a device to steal the Surfer’s power and surf around on his board blasting stuff, though still unable to fly into space because of Galactus’ barrier (which we see here was meant to stop only those energized by the Power Cosmic). This time we’re looking at the stories that come after, each of them still significant as major introductions to all things Cosmic at Marvel, but something of a drop in quality after what we covered in the last two entries. So, yeah, I think Thor’s Rigellian/Ego quest was much cooler, and funnier, especially when topped off the High Evolutionary’s Dr. Moreau shenanigans. Looking ahead, though, we have throughout 1969 the third and most extensive Galactus saga of the era: Thor #160-170, where we’ll also see the second appearance of Him, in space!
*As an extended story, a rarity in those days, Galactus’ initial return, in Fantastic Four #74-77, is probably the runner-up for top spot in the Stan & Jack FF run.
We’ll also look in briefly at a title we haven’t looked at, Strange Tales, for a major cosmic creation from Roy Thomas and Marie Severin—the Living Tribunal!
I. Blastaar! (Fantastic Four #62-63, 5-6.1967)
Hey, y’all—never heard of Blastaar? Doesn’t that awesomely stupid moniker spark your imagination (“blaster” + “star”)? Think you’ve been missing out some blastin’ cosmic action?
[Reed marooned in the Negative Zone – again; always getting into trouble, that one]
Meh. Seriously, the coolest thing that can be said about this warlord of the Negative Zone is right here, or rather in just his very first scene, before he even rips out of his prisoner’s “adhesion suit.” That is, conceptually, there’s a lot of potential simply built around the idea that there’s a being so lethally powerful and dangerous that his fearful jailers feel the only way to deal with him is by leaving his unconscious body bound to an antimatter/Negative Zone space rock bound for an annihilating collision with Earth (except, really, don’t think about the cod physics here that Stan and Jack introed in FF #51). What kind of threat could be that frightening and nigh invulnerable?
[Note that Reed realizes intelligent life must exist in the Negative Zone.]
Well—once out of the bag, what we get is a shaggy, overgrown grey muppet in constant berserker mode, blastin’ explodey beams from his thick fingers, his blocky muscularity suggestive of inexhaustible brutality eager to be unleashed. Blastaar is one of Kirby’s classic primeval grotesqueries (always much more striking than his blandly beautiful leads who typically suffer from bland same-face, unless they’re yelling, which usually pushes them toward the unsettling Kirby grotesque).
Blastaar had a supporting antagonistic role throughout the 2000s Marvel Cosmic era, mostly under writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, which outside of two classic John Byrne FF issues (#289-290), gives you all the Blastaar content you could want—except when he shows up briefly as a berserker muppet gag in the likes of Spider-Man/Deadpool by Robbie Thompson and Black Cat by Jed McKay (both 2019). His role is simply that of an amped-up warlord with a brutal martial prowess backed up by brute inhuman physique, near invulnerability and finger-blastin’.
[Blastaar blastin’ free]
There have been a few rare attempts at expanding Blastaar’s backstory over the years, and they are all embarrassing misfires. When the Negative Zone spaceship drops off their mysterious prisoner in FF #62, we barely get a glimpse of the pilots, but while what little we see of them looks a bit strange, they definitely do not look like Blastaar. And there’s no indication that he was anything more on their planet than maniacal berserker violence personified. Later writers, however, try fleshing out something of a dynasty from which Blastaar descends, based on the planet Baluur, where everyone looks like a milder Blastaar; even his wife was a blond, bearded lady. Their son was … Burstaar.
So, really, outside Blastaar’s initial uniquely silly appearance and name, there’s 2000s Marvel Cosmic and some more recent and blessedly brief gonzo appearances. And his debut story is undoubtedly the weakest in Stan and Jack’s FF run since they started hitting consistent homeruns (relative to the era). But the art is still mostly really impressive, and Blastaar is so over-the-top here, it’s kind of fun just for that.
II. The Kree Supreme Intelligence and Ronan the Accuser (Fantastic Four #64-65, 7-8.1967)
With how central to the Kree will later become to Marvel Cosmic, their debut story is also pretty lame. Indeed, the first issue here is devoted entirely to the robotic menace of Kree Sentry 459, which has never been interesting, despite the potentially interesting sci-fi tradition it draws from (the robot berserker sleeping through the centuries since being left behind by a mysterious, long-vanished alien race). Maybe FF #64 is the Sentry’s most interesting single issue, though that’s not really saying anything.
The awakening and subsequent defeat of the Sentry leads into the debuts next issue of Ronan the Accuser and the Kree Empire’s Supreme Intelligence, so FF #65 is mildly more interesting, but it’s pretty bad too. I’d say these issues are weaker than the Blastaar/Sandman team-up because they’re just kind of boring, and Kirby’s art doesn’t come alive with the same savage energy that Blastaar seemed to inspire.
And guess what? The premise of an archaeologist nosing into Incan ruins and discovering evidence of advanced aliens in prehistoric times gets recycled with little change for Kirby’s Eternals maxiseries.
[Somewhat interesting to see the first use of a Kree beacon spire – these spires are utilized in Al Ewing’s Royals maxiseries]
Also, guess what? Maybe Kirby was just taken with the story potential for the crackpot sham “archaeology” of Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods (1968), itself drawing from dime-a-dozen sci-fi pulps, and not actual archaeological evidence—but think about the assumption behind such “secret histories:” They always fixate on non-Western/pre-Western cultures, trying to persuade their audiences that these (nonwhite) peoples could never have achieved anything magnificent on their own; no, instead, it was all due to aliens, and in modern times, anything advanced is all down to Europeans and their colonial offspring.
If any curious reader wants to correct such assumptions, which have existed for centuries without the likes of Von Daniken or anything, to modern eyes, glaringly crackpot, check out the recent masterpiece of archaeology and anthropology, a grand work of synthesis that works against globalizing metanarratives about the inevitability of (Western-led) “progress” and the (brutal) streamlining of humanity into a vast hierarchy of owners and consumers: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow.
Humans of all varieties have been brilliant and inventive for a very, very, very long time, without need of alien superbeings.
But what else do you need to know about the Kree’s debut? Eh. The Supreme Intelligence can give the FF nightmares across the gulf of lightyears; I don’t think he ever demonstrates that ability again—except maybe for Rick Jones once or twice; he’s always been the special-ist Silver Age fanboy, after all (And yes, unfortunately, we’ll have to address the eternal boy-man in the not-too-distant future as a bit cosmic player). The Supremor is upset that the Fab Four destroyed his empire’s useless tin man, so he’s sending Ronan after them; at least he’s giving them advanced warning! After all, they should have a lot of time to prep for an alien visitor from another galaxy. But as it turns out, they’re real slackers, getting caught out in civvies by the fearsome Accuser (though Reed’s casual suit is clearly self-tailored with unstable molecules); of course, they still end up serving that goose-steppin’ fool his own battle-gavel. One-and-done.
After Stan debuts the Kree Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell) in 1967’s Marvel Super Heroes #12-13, Roy Thomas takes the reins on all things Kree starting with the Captain Marvel solo series starting the next year—which even Silver Age fanboys can’t recall reading, not until Jim Starlin briefly takes over with issues #25-34, beginning with the famous “Thanos War” quasi-crossover event (a very early example of its kind, except that it wasn’t really planned ahead of time as such). To be fair, Steve Englehart then takes over for 12 issues, with an assist from a young Chris Claremont, some of which we’ll certainly discuss when we get to 1975.
III. Adam Warlock, or—Him! (Fantastic Four #66-67, 9-10.1967)
With Him’s debut (Him!), Stan and Jack are back on track with hyper-compressed sci-fi mystery and adventure stuffed with sufficient potential interest to leave readers wanting more on this new creation that will indeed ultimately enjoy the strongest development of any new character debuting in the pages of FF since the Black Panther (FF #52)—but that’s really all down to Jim Starlin’s later work on Adam Warlock, who provided a convenient blank slate for the young Starlin at just the right time in early Marvel history.
While the FF fought off Ronan, Alicia was kidnapped by a mystery man who can phase through walls. Now, we discover the man’s identity: Jerome Hamilton—and if you’ve been keeping with Al Ewing’s recent work with Marvel Comics #1000 and The Defenders, you probably recognize this name.
Ewing has done some very deft retconning, projecting the trio of scientists introduced in FF #66-67 (eventually known as the Enclave) into the very debut of the 616 Universe in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939.
However, there’s only tangential Marvel Cosmic in this reworking, at least until Ewing expands this story further. Still, the Enclave, originally part of an ancient organization known as the Scientists Guild, acquired in 1939 (per Ewing’s retconning) a piece of the cosmic entity Eternity*, then called the Eternity Mask. Again, check out last year’s Defenders mini; it’s great, especially for Silver Age buffs.
*And now, heck—just realized I haven’t mentioned Eternity in this series yet! Ah, it’s cool. He hasn’t exactly done anything cosmic yet. But Doctor Strange sought his help in 1965’s Strange Tales #132 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; nothing doing, though. He/They just stand around in the trippy Ditko scenery looking cooler than a crowded starry void:
A handful of further Strange Tales appearances keep him firmly in the mystic realm, surprisingly vulnerable to a brief kidnapping by Dormammu in issue #146.
So, why did the Enclave kidnap Alicia? Well, let’s see: They tell the surprisingly understanding abductee (she’s such a gentle soul, after all) their creation of the “perfect human” somewhat backfired one night when he burst from his womb-vat and unexpectedly radiated such power that not only was lab space destroyed but no one could actually see this sudden menace; he was just too damn bright with in-born puissance. Solution? Abduct a famous blind sculptress (she returns the recognition of genius in being gob-smacked by the secret continued existence of these three scientists who were said to have died in a terrible accident, which is revealed here to be a ruse); have her approach this fearsome being totally unarmed (unless counting the pureness of her heart); touch him all over—and come back to sculpt his likeness; huzzah!
Now, why would the creation of the perfect human necessitate such secrecy that these white-arts scientists would fake their deaths? That’s some serious dedication to the pure pursuit of science! Well, maybe they’re not so pure. After all, the goal of their project is “to abolish war, crime and illness,” for with this prototype the Guild will proceed to create a master race—although they make no explicit mention of what will become of the rest of humanity, which is pretty damn sinister!
Anyhow, Alicia is able to approach the being, still in an upright (self-generated?) cocoon; it’s been radiating “hatred” at everyone—except her. Why? Because everyone else is evil. Which, yeah, although what about those poor anonymous lab techs and the like? Alas, the wee folk are ever ground up between great powers. Even the FF, when they come to Alicia’s rescue*, callously shrug off the screams of the doomed workers as the vast Beehive science-city begins collapsing in on itself. And it’s not the Enclave attacking Him that ultimately brings the place down; it’s their (literal) golden boy, inexplicably triggering its self-destruction, followed by his equally unexplained escape from Earth itself.
*They track Alicia down after Reed figures out how to retroactively spy on recent-past her in her own home (which Jerome must’ve been able to do as well; yuck).
The havoc wrought by the newly awakened Him is echoed decades later in 2019’s Marvel Comics #1000, where Ewing has the Enclave mysteriously in possession of nefarious cosmic Avengers nemesis Korvac (check out my next CBH piece on “When the Avengers Ruled” for more on the OG “Korvac Saga”); refashioning the far-future nigh-omnipotent/omniscient post-cyborg with the same aim of “peace on earth,” they renamed him Adam-IV—but of course, he busted out unexpectedly and slaughtered a lots of lab coats before escaping (into Christopher Cantwell and CAFU’s excellent Iron Man ongoing).
Him next appears in deep space in Thor—Kirby’s 1960s cosmic blowout. We’re two entries away from that!
IV. The Living Tribunal (Strange Tales #157-158, 163, 6-7,12.1967)
[Doctor Strange Strange Tales art by Marie Severin (p), Herb Trimpe (i), Artie Simek (l)]
This strange, instantly recognizable cosmic icon has enjoyed blessedly few appearances (leaving him and us with more memorable impressions when he does show). After his 1967 debut, the Living Tribunal appears next in 1983 (in ROM, which nobody has access to anymore) and then 1985’s execrable Secret Wars II, but then he’ll reappear in the lead-up to Jim Starlin’s Infinity Gauntlet, followed by the Infinity War event.
But let’s not get carried ahead of ourselves on this cosmic gravy train!
In Strange Tales #157-160 (Roy Thomas and Marie Severin), the Tribunal’s role is simply to berate Strange for defeating the superfreak demon Zom, whose fall empowers all the black-arts sorcerers of Earth—which, oh yeah, must be destroyed, he claims, to stop the evil rot from spreading across the stars.
So, Strange teams up with the otherdimensional (small “o”) Nebulos to defeat the head of the evil sorcerers, Baron Mordo (already a much too familiar Strange villain in 1967)—and it all works out for Earth! However, once the Tribunal hears of this greedily powerful entity’s existence from Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme, he decides the entity’s home planet must be destroyed. Our hero of course proves crucial in snuffing out this cosmic evil (Strange Tales #162*); with this victory, an amicable Strange-Tribunal understanding is established, lasting decades. (This issue’s creative team, Jim Lawrence and Dan Adkins, is long forgotten, though Lawrence’s legacy, with his work on James Bond and Heavy Metal comics, may still be remembered in the UK.)
Issue #157 comes a year after Ditko’s departure, following a formative run on the title for many years—which didn’t just introduce Dr. Strange and his trippy worlds; it was also a pre-Silver Age anthology series, where Ditko had already been cutting his teeth as a horror artist since 1956 (and maybe that nugget of info will put a new light on that creepy BDSM design he did for that incel teen Peter Parker 😉). Anyway, let’s praise pioneering Marvel artist Marie Severin, until very recently a completely unsung professional woman creating some of the most beautiful comic art of the Silver Age and yet receiving very little recognition (much less due appreciation) even then. After Strange Tales, she drew Hulk, first in Tales to Astonish and then in the inaugural issues of The Incredible Hulk. Here’s another example of Severin’s artistry:
[Cover of The Incredible Hulk’s first issue by Marie Severin and Frank Giacoia]
Really the coolest thing here is that the artist on Pink Floyd’s 1968 Saucerful of Secrets album cover was perhaps inspired by this cosmical-mystical Marie Severin splash page: