Donny reviews that classic, comedic tale about the end of the world.
Fantastic Four 48-50
Stan Lee & Jack Kirby (story)
Jack Kirby (art)
Prepare yourself for… The Coming of Galactus!!! With lots of exclamation points!!!!
This arc is notable for being, really, the first cosmic villain in the Marvel universe – and I think just in superhero comics in general. (Yeah, like Mister Mxyzptlk is cosmically powerful, but he never tries to just outright destroy the whole Earth.) I’m defining “cosmic villain” by the fact that he can take out a whole planet pretty much with just a thought. It’s definitely notable for that… but this trilogy is also often praised because it’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at their Silver Age best.
There are different versions of how this trilogy came about, in part because Kirby and Lee later had a bad falling out and each tried to take all the credit for their co-creations. As best as I can tell: Kirby came up with the idea of having the heroes “fight God.” He was reading the Bible and wanted to do a story where a divinely powerful entity comes to Earth to bring about the end of the world – the seas boil, the stars fall from the sky, and all that stuff. Stan Lee has always focused on claiming credit for the idea that Galactus wasn’t like any other villain because he was “beyond good and evil.” He’s not out to conquer and kill, he’s just having a meal. To him, we’re like ants. He has no malice for us; we just don’t really matter. It’s like he’s eating an apple and we’re just trace amounts of harmless bacteria crawling around on the apple’s skin, is all. As for the Silver Surfer, Kirby wanted his space god to have an angelic herald (but a fallen angel) and came up with the look of the character. Lee focused on the idea of making him into this tragic “cosmic philosopher” who would think deep and noble thoughts.
Plot summery: Galactus is a space “god” who is older than the universe. He’s the only survivor of the last universe that preceded our Big Bang. He lives by feeding off the “life energy” of planets that can sustain life, leaving them dead, lifeless husks. His herald (really more of a scout), the Silver Surfer, leads him to Earth. The Fantastic Four knock the Surfer off a roof but can’t hurt Galactus. The Surfer lands in Alicia Master’s (the Thing’s girlfriend) apartment. She awakens the Surfer’s conscience and the Surfer attacks Galactus to defend Earth. Meanwhile the Watcher (this cosmic dues ex machina who has taken an oath to only watch and never interfere, but every time he appears he interferes) sends the Human Torch to find the only weapon in the universe that can drive off Galactus.
The first half of issue #48 has nothing to do with any of that. It’s the final part of the first story to introduce the Inhumans, Blackbolt, and Maximus the Mad. So I’m sure when a lot of people pick up collections of the famous Galactus Trilogy they are probably very confused for the first twelve pages.
The next thing that hit me: I had forgotten that the Marvel universe spans multiple galaxies. This starts with the Skrulls and the Silver Surfer in the Andromeda galaxy… and then the Surer travels to the Milky Way and Earth between panels. Star Wars and Star Trek and everything else are all confined to a particular galaxy, so I forgot that in Marvel, the Skrulls and Kree and Shi’ar and everybody is hopping around several galaxies. That just surprised me. I guess, in Marvel, inhabited planets are not as common and really, really far apart (that, and I don’t think Stan Lee really understood or cared how big galaxies are and how far apart they are). Anyway…
The next thing that strikes me is how much of an arrogant dick Silver Age Reed Richards is. The whole beginning scene where Ben is trying to tell Reed that a second sun just appeared in the sky and Reed is like, ‘You’re an idiot; shut up.’ And he’s even worse to his wife! He’s always yelling at Sue and telling her to shut up, leave him alone, and to “follow orders.” At a key point he orders her to just stay home. I was really surprised by Sue. I’m used to John Byrne’s Bronze Age Sue Richards who is this fierce “momma bear.” Stan Lee’s Sue is like a 1950’s housewife… or a poorly treated Dr. Who companion.
And then there’s Johnny Storm, grand prize winner of the most dickish superhero ever award. In the previous adventure, the one that introduces the Inhumans, Johnny’s girlfriend gets trapped in the Negative Zone, he says he’ll rescue her… and then he promptly gets over it. Seriously, he’s basically like, “Oh, no! My girl got trapped in the Negative Zone! … I wonder what’s on TV? Anybody want to call out for pizza?” She’s not mentioned or in his thoughts at all for the next 3 or 4 issues. He’s such a shallow jerk! Johnny Storm has the emotional depth of a spoon. But of course, that’s the whole idea. He’s 16 years old in these stories. A lot of good-looking, 16 year-old jocks are shallow, morally-immature dicks.
Of course, this is what really set Marvel apart from DC – especially in the ‘60’s. Lee, Kirby, and Ditko created these wonderfully flawed characters, so different from DC’s two-dimensional boy scouts. They fight amongst themselves, they act like dick-heads a lot of the time, and they can, at time, be morally flawed. In the ‘60’s Marvel stood out by turning heroes into bickering jerks with all the same flaws as your schoolmates and coworkers.
Ben Grimm is easily the most likable character. He is a delight! He talks like a 1930’s era gangster. “Now take off before I bat ya all the way from here to Yancy Street!” All of the Thing’s dialogue is outstanding. “He didn’t even feel it! My extra-special Sunday-punch… and it was like nothin’ville!” And: “I had it… right up to my baby-blue peepers!” God, I hope Jack Kirby actually talked like that! Lee always said that Reed was based on himself (especially his tendency to talk too much and over-explain everything) and Ben Grimm was based on Kirby: a tough talking, cigar chomping, short tempered, streetwise, brawler with a heart of gold – and later it was even made explicit that the Thing was Jewish; he’s like Benjamin Grimminski. (Stan was really Stanly Leiber and Jack was Jacob Kirbiwitz.)
This arc introduces the Silver Surfer and Galactus… and also the World Ship (a space ship so large that planets fall into its orbit!) and the Ultimate Nullifier (a weapon that can erase an entire universe – WHY? Why would anyone build that!? WTF?).
[John’s note: For the same reason people would build enough nukes to wipe out the human race. It’s just natchy!]
The last 8 pages of part three actually introduce a totally new story: sending Johnny off to college and introducing a new villain. This is a style of writing that isn’t really used anymore: where stories finish and begin 8 or 12 pages into a book. But this next story actually turns out to be “This Man, This Monster,” (issue # 51) which is yet another one of the most famous FF stories. So it’s not just the Galactus Trilogy that’s great, but a couple of issues to each side of it give you the first Inhumans story and then “This Man, This Monster,” so this really is Stan and Jack at the absolute top of their game.
The dialogue in these books is just bonkers! Harrison Ford famously said to George Lucas, “You can type this shit but you can’t say it.” Well, Lee’s dialogue is even battier than Lucas’s. Listen to this exchange between Alicia and the Surfer and try to imagine two people actually talking out loud like this: (Punctuation exactly as Stan Lee typed it)
Alicia: Perhaps we are not as powerful as your Galactus… but we have hearts… we have souls… we live… we breath… feel! Can’t you see that?? Are you as blind as I??
Surfer: Never have I heard such words… sensed such courage… or known this strange feeling… this strange new emotion! There is a word some races use… a word I have never understood… until now! At last I know… beauty!
Alicia: Then you are not just a soul-less monster! You too have emotions! I knew it! I felt it! I felt it from the first!
What is going on with all those exclamation points? I searched the whole comic. There aren’t any periods. None. Not one single sentence anywhere ends in a period. I actually cracked myself up because in my head I started imagining everyone shouting every line at one-another. Like, for no reason everyone is just always SHOUTING! Once I started “hearing” it that way, I couldn’t stop, and the comic became incredibly funny to me…
The insufferable abuse of exclamation points aside, Lee’s dialogue is fun in a whacky 1960’s way. It’s such over-the-top melodrama that it really cracks me up a lot. It’s been said that superhero comics are soap operas for boys, and Lee really wrote them that way. You can just imagine this really intrusive, melodramatic music playing to punctuate every scene. Dun-DUN-DUUNNNNNN!!!!!!!!!!!
The interaction between Alicia and the Surfer is a great strain on the reader’s credulity. The idea that she can talk to him for all of three or four panels and instantly bring out this buried, moral nobility is pretty goofy. But there is one thing at work here that is kind of interesting. Alicia is a blind sculptor, and she’s dating the Thing – who is basically an animated stone sculpture. But now she’s attracted to the Surfer who is this animated, beautiful, metallic statue. And the Thing of course is this rough-hewn, rocky, lumpy guy – both physically and in character. The Surfer is this smooth, angelic, heavenly, gleaming kind of personality. So it actually does set-up an interesting love triangle here.
And on the subject of appearances, Galactus looks great! He’s one of those classic designs – classic Kirby – that hasn’t changed in almost 50 years. He looks like a giant, Flash Gordon version of a Roman gladiator, as even his name suggests. I also love the FF’s flying motorcycle and all of Galactus’ crazy looking machines – all, again, classic Kirby designs. There’s also a cool page in here that uses a photo collage technique that Kirby sometimes experimented with, prefiguring artists like Jim Steranko and Dave McKean.
Yes, it’s dated. Sure, a lot of modern readers are going to prefer the Ultimate Galactus re-boot from 2004-06 by Warren Ellis. But if you measure it against what else was coming out in the mid-60’s, it really is very good, and it has all the tropes that made Silver Age Marvel so wild and exciting. I love this book and hope many modern readers give it a chance.