The last time I did a comprehensive FF re-read I stopped with the last of the Kirby issues (or rather the first two of the four Romita issues that wrapped up the story). That brings me up to Fantastic Four #105. John Romita was as humble to take over Fantastic Four for the King in 1970 as he had been to take over Spider-Man from Steve Ditko in 1966. He didn't feel qualified in either case, as did his best to draw in their respective styles both times. Why Stan Lee didn't assign Joe Sinnott to ink I have no idea, but #103-105 were inked by John Verpoorten. 

#105 opens with the Thing, Johnny and Crystal enjoying some hot dogs from a street vendor, when suddenly the city is wracked by a series of explosions. Crystal unexpectedly collapses, and Johnny flies her back to the Baxter Building to seek Reed Richards' help. Meanwhile, Sue has been shopping and finds herself closer to the source of the mysterious explosions. She goes to the street to find Dr. Zoltan Rambow, a colleague of Reed's, pursuing an energy being.

Back at the Baxter Building, Reed has diagnosed Crystal as having an adverse reaction to the pollution she has no resistance to and says she must return to the Inhumans' Great Refuge or die. Reed has also discovered, in Crystal's DNA, what he thinks can be a cure to the thing's condition. Summoning Lockjaw, Crystal quickly says her goodbyes and departs immediately for the Great Refuge. Johhny flies off in frustration and soon comes upon his sister in conflict with the energy being. Sue cannot leave the conflict, but urges her brother to get Reed and Ben. Johnny returns to the Baxter Building only to find Reed at a critical juncture in his attempt to cure Ben.

CLIFFHANGER: Reed must choose between the life of his wife and that of his best friend.

It is widely accepted that Jack Kirby plotted most if not all of the Fantastic Four stories. I have generally come to the conclusion that if Stan Lee is credited with "script" that Jack Kirby provided the plot (or at least co-plotted). The credits for this issue list Stan Lee "story" and John Romita "illustration." #105 is one of the most densely-plotted and action-packed issues in a long time (the Sub-Mariner/Magneto conflict notwithstanding). Jack Kirby certainly didn't have anything to do with this issue. I think just because Stan Lee hadn't been regularly plotting Fantastic Four for some time doesn't mean he couldn't

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MARV WOLFMAN on #206: Issue #206 featured a rather lopsided trial of the FF. Needless to say you will never see a Tv show called Law & Order: Skrull World. Because we were dealing with the Skrulls, Judgement against the FF was decided long before the trial began, and their punishment of death was handed out in the most unexpected way possible." 

Specifically, ,they were shot with a "metabolic booster" which would cause them to age to death in three days' time. On the last two pages, Nova and a crew of his worst eight villains arrive in the Andromeda galaxy from the final issue of Nova #25 ("He's Gone! The Human Rocket!") just in time to blow up the ship the FF are on! #206 is also Keith Pollard's last issue as penciler.

MARV WOLFMAN on KEITH POLLARD: Keith and I worked together really well, which made each issue a delight to work on. In a universe-sized saga such as this one, where huge visuals were essential, it demanded that the artist be a clear storyteller. Keith was all that and more. There was virtually nothing that I could ask of him that Keith couldn't draw, and that allowed me to make the story even bigger and grander."

I just reread this story too, via a combination of Masterworks 19 and volume 1 of the John Byrne omnibus (which I'm still going through).  This is really the FF story I remember best from my childhood, though I'd read some issues before, and only picked up the story 3/4 of the way through. But the cliffhanger at the end of 212? Man, that sticks with you -- especially if it takes you months to find issue 213!

My opinion about Nova was that while Marvel was hoping for another Spider-Man, they would do nothing to promote him as such. Marv Wolfman pushed him into AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and MARVEL TWO IN ONE ANNUAL then used him in FF after his book got cancelled. But he was too generic to really hit it big plus they never had him join the Avengers which would have added so much to the character.

Then Wolfman left Marvel for DC so they wrote Nova out for awhile!

#207-208: These two issues are drawn by Sal Buscema before the FF's new regular penciler arrives. After the cliffhanger ending of #206, fans still had to wait another month to find out how the FF (minus one) survived the destruction of their spaceship because Marv Wolfman chose to prolong the suspense by showing what the Human torch was up to back on Earth. He threw in Spider-Man (whose title Wolfman was also writing at the time), but I still think #207 is an interruption to the larger story.

The villain of #208 is the Sphinx, who I was so coy about naming in FF Annual #12 (as if you didn't know who it was all along, anyway). The FF are beginning to show signs of aging as Johnny joins them by means of writer's fiat (the Xandarians turned Reed's ion ray into a transporter beam), but at this point Johnny doesn't know his teammates are doomed to die. Up until this point, the Sphinx had merely been seeking a "cure" for his immortality, but in this issue he gains limitless power, which also gifted him with new vision. He departs from the Andromeda galaxy with the intention of destroying the planet of his birth, Earth.

Reed Richards declares the only one who can save Earth is... GALACTUS.

#209: With this issue, like Rob, I will be moving from the Marvel Masterworks series to volume one of the John Byrne Fantastic Four Omnibus series, where the presentation is, if not better, then at least bigger. It's not really a great "jumping on point" as it occurs in the middle of an 11-issue epic, but it constitutes "Phase One" of John Byrne's tenure on Fantastic Four, or perhaps "Phase Zero." As I recently remarked on the "Post-Kirby Thor" discussion, when people refer to "Walt Simonson's Thor" they are probably not referring to issues #260-271; so, too, when people refer to "John Byrne's FF" they are probably not referring to issues #209-221.

Sometimes I look at certain comic books or TV shows from the point of view of a new character. If I were to do that for FF #209. the POV character would be H.E.R.B.I.E. the robot. Marv Wolfman has quite a bit to say about HERBIE in his Masterworks introduction but, in a nutshell, there was a Saturday morning FF cartoon show at the time. The network didn't want the Human torch on the show because they were afraid little kids would set themselves on fire to be like him. (Apparently these were the children of the kids who supposedly jumped off roofs with towels around their necks in imitation of Superman decades earlier.) 

HERBIE was the Torch's designated replacement, and Wolfman was forced ("ordered!" is the way he put it) to include HERBIE in the comic. the FF cartoon also existed within the MU, and the explanation given for the Torch not being in it was that he was "out of town when the contracts had to be signed." HERBIE stands for "Humanoid Experimental Robot B-type Integrated Electronics." 

#210: It occurs to me that this is the third time I have read this series of issues in the last 15-20 years, each time for a discussion on this board. That is because, like all of my favorite Marvel stories, it draws upon multiple threads throughout the MU. For the first discussion ("Galactus' Appetite") I was tracing all of the Big G's appearances in an effort to determine how often he needed to consume a planet based on the then-still-current thought that the FF took their initial flight "10 years ago"; for the second discussion ("Marvel's 'Cosmic' Comics") I was tracing Nova; for the third, this one, the FF. 

In order to secure Galactus' cooperation, Reed must release Galactus from his vow not to eat the Earth, but first the FF must help Galactus secure a new herald. 

#211: Galactus transports the FF to an unnamed moon orbiting a gas giant in a remote part of the galaxy. They soon encounter the indigenous population are are taken before the despot Tyros the Terrible in the city-state of Terran. Before too long, they have assisted in overthrowing the tyrant and have delivered him to Galatus. Having granted his former heralds, Silver surfer, Air-Walker and Firelord, powers based on three of the four elements, Galactus transforms Tyros into Terrax and gives him earth-based powers and a cosmic axe. Now, at last, Galactus is ready to defend Earth against the Sphinx.

#212: Now quite elderly, Sue is the first of the three to succumb to old age, forcing Reed to put her into stasis. The Sphinx's origin is recapped, then he restores Egypt to its former glory in an impressive double-page spread. Terrax goes up against him first to soften him up a little, then Galactus arrives. As he and the Sphinx prepare to square off, Terrax attacks Johnny and the rapidly aging Reed and Ben. 

I thought that the real reason for HERBIE replacing the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four cartoon was that some studio optioned the rights for a Torch solo movie.

Not according to Marv Wolfman.

#213: This issue covers two battles: the Kirby-esque conflict between Galactus and the Sphinx, and the fight between the three remaining members of the FF and Terrax. Terrax is defeated, but Ben finally succumbs to old age and must be placed into stasis alongside Sue. Galactus defeats the Sphinx soundly and returns him to the past to re-live his life in an endless loop. The Watcher appears (he says) to witness Galactus' defeat. Reed bluffs Galactus with a fake Ultimate Nullifier, but it is only due to writer's fiat that the ruse succeeds. Reed then finally collapses into Johnny's arms from extreme old age. 

#214: At last we learn the true (i.e., metatextual) reason for the Torch staying behind when the other three went off into space in #204. the issue begins with Johnny desperately racing to Stark International, Avengers Mansion and SHIELD HQ in hope of finding someone who can reverse the effects of the Skrull aging ray. He even contacts the Xandarians, but they are no help, either. Just then, he is attcked by Skrull X who had been hiding in the Baxter Building. (Wolfman didn't just pull this Skrull out of his arse; it's the same one Reed defeated in #204, and we were reminded he was stil there in #212.) 

Skrull X was a robot who, like the Super Skrull, had all of the FF's powers but, unlike the Super Skrul, could utilize them all at once. His mission was to age Johnny same as the others. Johnny ad to destroy Skrull X to get the weapon, then he unthawed Reed just long enough to examine the device in order to reverse the effects. After that, Reed went back into stasis and Johnny activated the cure. It didn't work... at first. The other three had been advanced to such an age that their de-ageing was delayed just long enough for Johnny to spend a couple of pages feeling sorry for himself. But the overall purpose of Johnny's character arc was for him to grow up, and that's what he did. 

This story was written at a time when Marvel was still written more-or-less to comply with real time. There were reasons why other heroes remained young and vital (Thor was immortal; Captain America had the super-soldier serum; Nicj fury had the Infinity formula; Dr. Strange's aging was retarded when he became Sorcerer Supreme), but the FF would be getting a bit long in the tooth if they had been around since 1961. When they were de-aged, the reversal left them not only stronger but younger than before. That's why Johnny could go with them initially and been struck by the Skrullian aging ray as well, because who would have wanted a Human Torch who was only nine years old?

This is a good spot to break for comments. 

Philip Portelli said:

I thought that the real reason for HERBIE replacing the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four cartoon was that some studio optioned the rights for a Torch solo movie.

I had heard that they were afraid that kids would set themselves on fire.

However likely or unlikely it was that kids would jump off roofs thinking that some kind of cape would give them the power of fight, a child would have to overcome our instinctual fear of fire to do this. If a child was capable of this, then cartoon shows were the least of that family's problems.

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