School Daze With The Fantastic Four

We’re off to State U. Here be dragons! (Okay, just the one.)

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The good part of the coverIt’s time for our first peek at Reed and Ben’s alma mater, State U. Not to be confused with Empire State U. Although confusion seems inevitable. Good going, Mr. Lee!

Anyways, there are Shenanigans with Diablo, a b-grade Fantastic Four villain making his second appearance, and cameos by Professor Xavier and Peter Parker. And of course, the FF have to throw down with the Dragon Man.

About the Comic:

Fantastic Four (1961) #35

Date: February 10, 1965
Read on MU

Story:

“Calamity on the Campus!”

The Fantastic Four get straight to business, landing the Fantasticar on a university quadrangle and hopping out while also blaring exposition at us. Reed is back to deliver a lecture, but you can bet your little blue booties that something more exciting is in the offing!

Marvel's State U. compared with Princeton's Blair Hall
Why yes, I am proud that Jack Kirby chose to swipe a building from my alma mater!

Next up is a bit of a “Please read the X-Men” cameo from Professor Xavier. At this point, the FF don’t know Prof. X as anything other than a brilliant scientist with an interest in “training gifted youngsters.” The narrative can’t be bothered to dwell on State U. too long; we’re whisked off to Transylvania where Diablo, a nigh-immortal alchemist the FF thwarted five months ago, has just freed himself.

When we do get back to the campus, Ben and Johnny run into mild-mannered Peter Parker. Pete’s considering attending State U. soon, though he’ll eventually end up at ESU. The FF also don’t know that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, but they are admittedly relying on Johnny’s detective skills to figure that one out. Spidey attempted to join the FF in his very first self-titled comic, and more recently Peter Parker and Johnny Storm were vying for the same gal in Amazing Spider-Man #21.  (Spidey and Torch were fighting the Beetle, too, but I think we know where Johnny’s priorities were.)

Back to the story! After some gridiron hijinks that give Reed and Ben (and Sue, surprisingly) a chance to show off their superpowers, Sue spots a familiar-looking man speeding by in a car. She gives chase with her invisibility powers turned on but gets sidetracked by traffic. Yes, the mystery man is none other than Diablo, and he makes a beeline for Professor Gilbert.

Said professor has built the Dragon Man, a literally monstrous construct with flamethrower breath and super-strength and wings and no clearly-defined point besides being subverted by someone like Diablo. This is Marvel science in the 1960s – a man doesn’t need a point to build a super-powerful automaton that’s easily swiped by a villainous alchemist.

Ben Grimm gets bored with Reed’s lecture and wanders into Professor Gilbert’s lab. He’s just in time to tangle with the newly-awakened Dragon Man. This goes about as well as you’d expect:

 

The defenstration of Ben Grimm
Mr. Kirby sure does a hell of a job flinging the Thing around.

 

Next the Dragon Man sends the Human Torch packing. Reed jumps in, displaying more physical combativeness than usual, and then it’s up to Sue to finish him off:

Sue do what sue do

This is just the end of round one, though. The Dragon Man has enough time to imprint on Sue’s loveliness in a semi-creepy way before Diablo rolls up. He knocks the FF out with a gas pellet alchemical potion and absconds with his monstrous servant.

When the Four come to, they have no trouble tracking Diablo and the Dragon Man to Dead Man’s Lake. The battle resumes, and just when it looks like Diablo has the upper hand, the Dragon Man switches sides. The two of them take a tumble into the lake and get sucked into some convenient caverns by underwater currents. That’s the end of them – for now.

We have just enough time left for Professor Gilbert to act contrite about creating a nigh-unstoppable killing machine before Johnny and Ben pack up the family’s bags (they were only at State U. for a day; why’d they need all that luggage?). Lovebirds Reed and Sue are AWOL at the end of the book; they’ve snuck away to Lovers’ Lane. To close the issue with a little bit of important plot/character development, Reed proposes to Sue:

 

Reed and Sue talkin' in a tree
D’Awwww!

 

Discuss!

Well, let’s start off by addressing some Bullpen business: This is an early example of character crossovers. When an iconic Marvel character pops up in a different title, it usually gives a different artist a chance to take a whack at drawing him or her (this being 1965, let’s be realistic: It’s gonna be a him). In the case of Professor Xavier, we’re not seeing anything new; Jack Kirby is the established artist for both Fantastic Four and Uncanny X-Men at this point. Giving Mr. Kirby the opportunity to draw Peter Parker sends him into Steve Ditko’s territory, though. The result is a heckuva melon on the Parker boy:

 

Hydrocephaly!
That’s Kirby on the left and Ditko on the right. (And that’s not a political crack. I think.)

 

Da Leader

As noted by the caption above, Mr. Kirby’s version isn’t really that far away from Mr. Ditko’s. And Mr. Ditko may already be well aware that he’s serving up a seconds and thirds in the forehead department; this issue was published just a month after Mr. Ditko invented the handsome fella pictured at right ->

Moving on, this is one of those issues where Sue doesn’t do a whole lot to push forward the cause of the empowered woman. She forgets she’s invisible twice in three panels, and she explicitly notes she recognizes Diablo as a bad guy via woman’s intuition. This is opposed to, say, simply remembering that he tried to kill Sue’s whole family less than six months ago.

I once read an article that argued there’s actually a disconnect between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby over how independent and proactive female characters should be, and this issue was explicitly noted as one in which Sue’s actions become a lot less cringe-worthy if you cut out Mr. Lee’s text. (If anybody knows the article I’m talking about, please leave a comment and let me know where it is!) If you ignore the dialog and concentrate on the art Sue does indeed seem a lot more awesome. She’s also already proving to be the team’s heaviest hitter now that she’s using her forcefields.

This is the first appearance of the Dragon Man (or just “Dragon Man” without a “the,” I’m not clear on the proper terminology), who will reappear sporadically for decades to come. (Notably he plays a small but crucial role in the creation of Ultron several years later.) Like Awesome Andy, the Mad Thinker’s Android, Dragon Man will eventually be repurposed in a Millennial title to delight a new generation of Marvel fans. DM resurfaces in Fantastic Foundation – which is an excellent comic – and Andy was a fixture in Dan Slott’s She-Hulk – which is also excellent.

Finally, as noted at the start of this review, this issue shows that Stan Lee chose to name his first two colleges State U. and Empire State U., a confusing lapse of creativity that’s never really been rectified. It hasn’t come up too often, as Reed and Ben (and DOOM!) are the only notable State U. alumni in the Marvel Universe. (When Johnny’s college days do roll around he ends up attending Metro College.)

Time to Ask …

Who Will Love Fantastic Four #35?

I think this is a very solid choice for anyone who wants a taste of what the FF were up to in the early Silver Age. It’s a self-contained story, it features both memorable (Dragon Man!) and forgettable (Diablo) c-listers, and it has some historical cachet thanks to Reed’s adorably low-key marriage proposal. Two thumbs up, especially for dedicated students of early Fantastic Four comics.


Comic images snipped out of Marvel Unlimited by yours truly. The gorgeous photo of Princeton’s Blair Arch was taken and (I assume) is copyrighted by flickr user bobistraveling.

Author: CMMIV

Reader of comic books. Semi-professional writer.