Deck Log Entry # 190 A Forgotten Gem: Fantastic Four # 39-40 (Jun. and Jul., 1965) (Part Two)

“The Battle of the Baxter Building”

 

Editor and writer: Stan Lee   Art: Jack Kirby (pencils), Vince Colletta (inks)

 

 

The first half of this forgotten gem left off with the individual members of the Fantastic Four---now powerless from the effects of the Wizard’s Q-bomb---closing in on the Baxter Building from different directions.  Their goal:  to reclaim their headquarters, presently usurped by their arch-foe, Doctor Doom, who has been doing his damndest to kill them with their own super-weapons.

 

The second part opens with a hiccough.  Daredevil, who was last seen making a solo assault on the F.F.’s home base in order to divert Dr. Doom’s attention, is back with Reed Richards at street-level.  The scripting gaffe affords us with another look at Daredevil’s resourcefulness, as he takes out a flying scanner that Doom has been using to track them---anticipating drones by about half a century.

 

The scene also gives Reed a chance to mention his electronic stimulator---the “one device up there which may turn the tide!”

 

Taking his cue, the Man Without Fear (once again) offers himself up as a decoy to draw Doom’s fire.

 

Taking advantage of the precious minutes provided by Daredevil, the F.F. regroups outside the entrance of the Baxter Building.  The New York Police Department has not been idle.  The streets are barricaded, the sidewalks have been cleared, and police snipers are in position.  A squad of officers armed to the teeth stands ready to assault the skyscraper.

 

Not yet, insists the leader of the F.F., it’s our fight.  Only if we don’t make it----

 

They enter the lobby, with Reed fully aware that the video cameras in the building are broadcasting their every move.  Thirty-four stories up, Doom notices their presence and activates the automatic defences installed in the lobby.  In a progressive pattern, rays of pure force criss-cross the space.  It is only Reed’s memory of the programming sequence which enables them to dodge disaster.

 

Ignored for the moment, Daredevil reaches an open window and slips inside, behind Dr. Doom.  An attempt to snare the armour-clad villain with his billy-club cable fails, but he succeeds in drawing Doom away from the controls that operate the lobby weapons.  The Fantastic Four uses the respite to reach the elevator banks.  They pile into a car and press the button for the thirty-fifth floor.

 

Dr. Doom employs more of Reed’s equipment to keep Daredevil at bay.  When an alarm warns Doom that an elevator car is on the way up, he reaches for a plunger-type device.  DD makes a desperate effort to keep his foe’s hand off that switch and gets smacked in the face by a blast of compressed air.

 

Doom hits the plunger and the elevator car lurches to a halt one floor below.  Putting their shoulders to it, Reed and Ben smash through the elevator doors, and all four of them dash out, two seconds before the car combusts into a fireball.  But there’s no time to stop.  Reed leads them up the stairwell when a section of it explodes in their path!

 

Doom is disturbed that his sworn enemies have managed to make it this far.  He’s done toying with them.  He grips a lever which will set off every explosive in the stairwell.  It’s now or never, realises Daredevil.  In the instant in which Doom’s back is turned, the Man Without Fear leaps upon his back.

Outraged at having his person sullied, Dr. Doom clamps his metal-shod hands around Daredevil’s wrists and squeezes with all strength in his gauntlets’ servo-motors.  The evil monarch tightens his grip, relishing the excruciating pain he is inflicting on the red-garbed hero.  Forgotten in the moment are the Fantastic Four, who clamber up the remains of the stairs.

Doom releases the nearly-unconscious Daredevil and turns to face them.  Ben and Johnny charge, but mere human strength is no match for the power of their foe’s armour.  Doom sweeps them away as if they were nothing.

 

Meanwhile, Reed Richards deserts his friends just long enough to recover his electronic stimulator.  (A thought balloon reminds the readers that he recently used this device to defeat the Skrulls, something that would require an awkward explanation shoehorned into a later panel.)

 

Reed turns the device first on himself, then on Sue, and then on Johnny---and, instantly, their super-powers are restored!

 

It’s a whole new ball game, now.  But you’d never know it by Dr. Doom’s reaction.  He’s just as confident that he can defeat the Fantastic Four at full strength.  As the battle rages anew, it’s seems that Doom might have something there.  He turns more of the F.F.’s devices against them, which gives Our Heroes some worrisome moments.  They escape their predicaments, but are unable to stop their foe from retreating to another section of their headquarters.

 

Reed knows full well what Doom is capable of committing and that forces him to make a fateful decision.

 

Just three of them---the Torch, the Invisible Girl, and himself---aren’t enough to stop Doom.  Richards points the stimulator at Ben.  They need the power of the Thing. 

 

Despite Ben’s protests---he’s finally regained his normal human appearance and he wants to stay that way---Reed activates the stimulator and discharges the remainder of its energy at his old friend.  The incredible, and tragic, transformation occurs.

 

 

Dr. Doom is determined to destroy the Fantastic Four one way or another.   He barricades himself in an engineering space and uses his scientific genius to convert a nuclear generator into an atomic bomb.

 

“By the time they realize what has happened,” he coldly calculates, “I’ll have destroyed this building, this block---and the entire city!

 

But before he can set the timer and duck out the back door, an orange-scaled fist smashes through the wall.  The Thing, bitter over being forced to lose his human form, charges at Doom like an enraged bull.

 

For five pages, Doom hurls everything in his armour’s arsenal at the advancing behemoth.  100,000 megavolts of electricity . . . A vertigo-inducing ray . . . .

 

Ben keeps coming. 

 

An energy-sapping gravity device . . . bombardment of enlarged molecules . . . point-blank concussive blasts . . . .

 

Ben keeps coming.

 

Until, finally, he gets his hands on Doom.

It’s only after Doom’s armour has been stripped and gutted by the Thing’s bare hands does Reed Richards call out “Enough!”  Their arch-foe’s pride has been broken and that’s sufficient to permit him to slink back to Latveria in shame.  (That, and that diplomatic immunity thing.)

 

The Fantastic Four rejoice over their close call with smiles all around.  Except for Ben, whose enmity over being forced to once again wear the misshapen body of the Thing boils over.  In bitterness, he quits the team, continuing the flow of the serial into the next issue.

 

But that’s a story for another time.

 

* * * * *

 

The most noticeable difference between this adventure and the Galactus trilogy is one of pacing.  In the Galactus saga, there is a slow build-up of drama.  Each new development adds to the hopelessness of the situation, closing off doors, one by one, until the reader sees no way out.

 

Dr. Doom’s attack on the powerless Fantastic Four, on the other hand, moves at a frenetic pace, with the heroes in constant motion, escaping each new attack by a hair’s breadth.  The reader is swept along as the events plunge heedlessly forward, like an out-of-control subway train.

 

Even the beginning of the tale isn’t static.  It doesn’t open up with the F.F. going about their usual day-to-day routine, waiting for unforeseen disaster to strike.  No, it starts in media res, continuing from the conclusion of the previous issue, which left us unsure of the team’s fate.  Still, this is the slowest section of the story, as it goes for three pages allowing the readers’ apprehension to build before confirming what they already suspect:  the Fantastic Four have lost their super-powers!

 

It is from there that the story’s wheels really begin to move.  The team’s return to Manhattan and Reed’s confirmation that their powers are gone for good are dashed off in a single page before moving on to their attempts to master the mechanical substitutes for their former abilities.  (Enough attention is placed on this, and the fact that none of them do too well at it, that we comics-savvy readers fully expect them to save the day with their artificial powers at the end; it takes us by surprise when they don’t.)

 

Things pick up steam when, in a page and a half, the villain is added to the mix.  The final element---Matt (Daredevil) Murdock---is introduced just before the plot pushes down on the accelerator when Dr. Doom launches his attack.  From this point on, events progress at a breakneck pace, with the fans kept on the edge of their seats by the F.F.’s constant ducking and dodging to stay alive.

 

There is no time for the reader to catch his breath---until the end of the first issue.  Waiting a whole month for Fantastic Four # 40 to hit the stands must have been torturous.

 

“The Battle of the Baxter Building” continues the headlong rush.  Even natural breaks in the action are truncated.  Reed’s interaction with the police surrounding the Baxter Building, something which ordinarily would get its own scene, is dispensed with in one panel.  From then on, it’s “move---move---move!” as Doom assaults the Fantastic Four with the very devices Reed installed for their protection.  The jump cuts between Daredevil, struggling desperately to keep Doom occupied, and the F.F., ascending floor by floor, adds to the suspense.

 

Stan Lee’s superb ear for dialogue adds to the sense of momentum.  He inserts a rising urgency into the words, but still gives each character his own voice.  You could black out entire panels, except for the word balloons, and still know who was saying what.  The same goes for the thought balloons. 

 

Thought balloons have been replaced in modern comics by captions containing inner monologue, and it’s not necessarily an improvement.  There’s something remote about narrative captions, like reading entries in a journal.  The old-style thought balloons presented a more in-the-moment look at a character’s thoughts, and in the hands of a master wordsmith like Stan, more personal.

 

 

 

Only at the climax do things finally slow down, to present the final tableau of single combat---Doctor Doom versus Ben Grimm.  What should be a chance for the reader to catch his breath actually ratchets the suspense even tighter.  But to get there, the moment that everyone knew was coming has to take place.

 

Throughout the adventure, Ben Grimm has made very little of finally regaining his human form.  In fact, he seems almost as dismayed as Reed and Sue and Johnny are when they realise that their super-powers are gone.  Even when Mr. Fantastic trains the stimulator on him, his protests sound a bit mild.  This is one of the things that suggest to me that Stan Lee wrote this tale at about as frantic a pace as the events of the story elapsed.  (The other indicators were showing Daredevil at Reed’s side again at the beginning of part two; and not mentioning the stimulator in the previous issue, only to cover it up with Reed's hasty excuse, "It needed another few days of recharging!")  It’s a slightly off-key note, especially given the fact that Ben’s bitterness and anger over being transformed into the Thing again fuel his determination to get his hands on Doom, no matter what the villain throws at him.

 

In a staggering sequence that extends for more than five pages, the Thing withstands the most potent weapons in the arsenal of Dr. Doom’s armour, things that would slaughter any dozen ordinary men, and continues to move toward his increasingly awe-struck foe.  Ben’s agony is palpable, but there is raw nobility in his courage, in contrast to Doom’s faux aristocracy.

Ben’s inexorable advance on Doom thrills even casual readers, but in particular, fans of the title.  In previous adventures, something always restrained the Thing from actually coming to blows with Dr. Doom.  Long-time F.F. fans had been waiting for the day when Ben finally let loose on the malevolent monarch.  And they are not disappointed.

 

After enduring the worst that Doom can bring to bear, the Thing gets his rocky hands on his steel-clad enemy, and no defence, no trick, no appeal, stops Ben this time.  He demolishes Doom’s individual weaponry and strips off plates of his armour as easily as pulling the ring tab on a can of soda pop.  Most satisfying of all, Doom’s arrogance is stuffed down his own throat.

 

Ben Grimm’s devastating defeat of Dr. Doom in this story leaves a lasting mark on the F.F.’s greatest enemy.  We will see that Doom's humiliation and resentment toward the Thing continues to burn, even years later.

 

The final battle between Ben and Doom would not have succeeded so dramatically had not Stan Lee so carefully constructed the individual tragedies which formed each man’s life.  Stan struck the perfect notes of pathos in Ben Grimm and Victor von Doom.  That’s why subsequent efforts to “improve” them---“Ben subconsciously doesn’t want to become human again”; “Doom’s face was marred by only a tiny scar”; and other such nonsense---just didn’t work.

 

By 1965, Marvel Comics was entering maturity, and one of the first places you’d notice it was in Fantastic Four # 39-40.

 

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But let's be honest here -- even if Reed had let Galactus die, or even pulled a switch to reduce Galactus to dust which was then scattered to the winds in the Negative Zone, within 5 or 10 years at most someone would still bring Galactus back to life, with an explanation that may strain credibility but most fans would still accept it for the sake of more Galactus stories.  

Fortunately in the real world going on 71 years this month, Hitler remains dead.  No clones, no last second transferring of his consciousness to someone else, no mass worship bringing him back, no somehow having escaped to South America and taking an Infinity Formula to keep relatively youthful a few weeks shy of his 127th birthday.  Just dead.  Too bad there are still too many louts who share his hateful mentality.

  yea, there are times comic book writers really can't leave well enough alone.

Fred W. Hill said:

But let's be honest here -- even if Reed had let Galactus die, or even pulled a switch to reduce Galactus to dust which was then scattered to the winds in the Negative Zone, within 5 or 10 years at most someone would still bring Galactus back to life, with an explanation that may strain credibility but most fans would still accept it for the sake of more Galactus stories.  

Fortunately in the real world going on 71 years this month, Hitler remains dead.  No clones, no last second transferring of his consciousness to someone else, no mass worship bringing him back, no somehow having escaped to South America and taking an Infinity Formula to keep relatively youthful a few weeks shy of his 127th birthday.  Just dead.  Too bad there are still too many louts who share his hateful mentality.

Commander, another splendid piece - as always. Can extraordinary be applied as a descriptor when it's the standard? Dunno. Just liked it.

Weighing in with a Silver Age Fogey point of view on Galactus... I don't think "alive" or "dead" can apply to Galactus. Points that I have noted including describing Galactus as a universal/cosmic force; Galactus' word may be the cosmic truth, but not to humans (any more than my promise to an ant that I wouldn't run over its anthill with a lawnmower could be reasonably maintained - although it's unlikely that my life would require running over anthills...); Earth was THE VERY FIRST WORLD with intelligent life on it that Galactus was going to devour (check FF #48); Galactus was, supposedly, a cosmic "test", to find that planet that could defeat and destroy him; and Galactus is a dick. (Why would he keep the Ultimate Nullifier instead of destroying it?)

So, I agree that, given the opportunity, Galactus should have been defeated and destroyed, to save uncounted trillions of lives in the universe. In no way did I ever see Galactus' actions as anything but murderous, selfish, and a threat to all life in the universe.

I know that Stan wanted to keep the "big gun" in his enemy arsenal, but considering the nature of Marvel Comics, I'm wondering how, in context, Galactus' returns never got the attention of the Avengers, the Defenders, the X-Men, etc. The first time - okay, you can use, "The Avengers are on another critical mission." But that falls kinda flat when the ENTIRE PLANET EARTH is threatened. Something was more critical than that? Shucks, Stan/Roy/<your favorite writer> seemed to kinda enjoy having the heroes and villains work together - what better opportunity?

As for dealing with Doom... notwithstanding killing him, the ultimate punishment would have been imprisoning him, without armor or mask, in a mirrored cell, with a caption posted in 'leventy-million point font saying, "WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS?"

Eric L. Sofer said:

I'm wondering how, in context, Galactus' returns never got the attention of the Avengers, the Defenders, the X-Men, etc.

Doctor Who defeated him with a "mighty bolt of steel" in the 1980 TV serial State of Decay, when the Big G was hiding out incognito in E-space. I assume it grounded his energy.

"Galactus is a dick. (Why would he keep the Ultimate Nullifier instead of destroying it?)"

That one I'd give him a pass on. Technologically he's as far beyond us as Reed is beyond Moon Boy or Anthro. It's quite possible the Nullifier has some legitimate use even though it seems to us like a terrifying weapon. As Fritz Leiber once put it, the fact you can turn a car into a bomb doesn't mean it's the primary purpose or cars to explode.

Reed sort of did that to Doom in an annual.  They had a big battle in a mirrored room.

In Walt Simonson's FF run, in a story culminating in #341 (spoiler warning), it was interpreted as a failsafe device. Galactus used it to nullify a future in which his hunger became, literally, all-consuming.

Thor and Iron Man were involved in that story, and the Avengers also fought him with the FF in Fantastic Four #243, during Byrne's run.

Mark S. Ogilvie said:

Reed sort of did that to Doom in an annual.  They had a big battle in a mirrored room.

That was Fantastic Four #200. (Spoiler warning.) Doom has a device with mirrored panels whose "solar-powered intensified reflections" can drive you mad if you look at them without goggles. Doom's are built into his mask, and Reed pulls it off at the climax of the fight. His sanity was restored in a back-up story in Fantastic Four Annual #15.

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