The Fantastic Four Save Apollo 11

Cheap attention-grabber or respectful celebration? Baby we can do both!

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Frightened Sue. Could be from any FF issue, sigh.Eight months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (and Michael Collins and several thousand NASA geeks) wowed the world with a real-life moon landing, the Marvel Bullpen feels it’s time to tell the story of how the Fantastic Four helped make it happen. Treading the line between celebration and exploitation with exquisite care, Mr. Lee and Mr. Kirby reveal that that one small step couldn’t have been taken without a wham-bam robot fight being won back on Earth.

Fantastic Four #98

Date: May 10, 1970
(Hit newsstands in March of 1970)
Read on MU

Creative Team:
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby
Inker: Joe Sinnott

Story:

“Mystery on the Moon!”

We open up with a fine display of Silver Age chauvinism as Reed declares he’s too busy with SCIENCE to let Sue know what he wants for dinner. He’s just translated an ominous Kree transmission being beamed at Earth, and all he’s got is the word “Tranquility.” Now, the implications are obvious to us, especially since I’ve just written a hundred words about Apollo 11. It takes Mr. Fantastic three pages to puzzle through it and finally realize, after looking at Ben’s newspaper, that the Kree are making a play against NASA’s first moon landing. While all this is going on, Sue is busy telling her brother to wash up. Sigh.

Next up we check in with the Kree Sentry that received that message. It does a commendable job of shouting out its full plan while executing the first few steps:

Sexy Kree Sentry
THE SUPREME INTELLIGENCE SAYS I’M COOL
  • Use “Beta-Gun” to raise a mystery island above sea level.
  • Activate “Stimulator” device hidden thereon.
  • Rouse a horrible Kree monster called the “Nameless Mass” which has been hibernating under the moon’s surface.
  • Ruin mankind’s first moon landing and thereby discourage any future space exploration.
  • Moo-hoo-ha-ha (this step was implied).

Alicia drops by the Baxter Building and she’s a few minutes too late to wave bye-bye to the menfolk as they blast off into action. Sue is still there on babysitting duty (double sigh), and she tells Alicia that “space itself” is at stake on this mission!

Following the “source” of the Kree transmission routes the FF rocket to the island the Sentry just raised. (Yeah, that’s a plot hole.) Johnny fire-blasts a runway into the rocky moon-like surface of Stimulator Island, then Ben announces their arrival by smashing a giant rock spire into the ground. Subtle!

A pleasant afternoon's rocket launch

We cut to Apollo 11 blasting off and then to a respectable worldwide cross-section of eager radio listeners monitoring the news. This page that also manages to throw a couple lightning-fast jabs at the Russians and the French.

Anyway! The Sentry comes zooming out for the obligatory fight scene. This is only three pages long, but it’s a pretty nice piece of action. Reed grapples with the Sentry and gets in the way of Johnny’s flame, but he manages to position the opponent perfectly for some epic Clobberin’ Time. One proper Thing-punch is, surprisingly, enough to down the Sentry.Clobbering Time!

Ben keeps watch over the Sentry as Reed and Johnny descend into its subterranean base to deal with the Stimulator. Though at first they think shutting it down will be as easy as shouting “Flame On,” it turns out to be defended by invisible rays that weaken everything that comes close to it. (This is why the Sentry was such a pushover.)

A quick cutaway to the descending lunar module reveals that the Nameless Mass is writhing just below the surface of the Sea of Tranquility. It’s a gargantuan blob of pink Kirby Krackle – definitely not what you want to drop your LEM on.

Reed is too groggy to shut down the machine, so his final hope is shouting for Ben. Mr. Grimm comes through in epic style, scrapping the machine and then saving his teammates in a terrific Hulk-sized leap. The heroes pile into their rocket and scoot away, and the Sentry does likewise.

Neil Armstrong by Jack Kirby
Suitable for framing!

Up on the moon, the Nameless Mass dissipates just in time for Neil to land the Eagle and go for a little walk. Our story closes with the classic stepping leaping quote on top of some superb Kirby moonwalk panels and a vintage “Yay Science” use of “The Beginning” to end the story.

Discuss!

Let’s start by filling up the plot hole scoreboard:

  • As noted above, Reed explicitly says that tracking the source of the Kree transmission leads him to Stimulator Island. But wouldn’t those instructions come from the Kree galaxy? And the Sentry received them in a completely separate location before traveling to Stimulator Island.
  • Sue tells Alicia that the boys are leaving in a missile “on loan from NASA.” Which makes it odd that the rocket shown on the next page is tagged up with multiple FF logos.
  • Said rocket is also, according to Reed, nearly out of fuel when our heroes land it on Stimulator Island. This is conveniently forgotten by the end of the book when it’s time to leave.
  • The timing of this adventure doesn’t line up with the three-day transit involved in the Apollo 11 mission. This is a super-common and super-forgivable error made in lots of Apollo-themed fiction.
  • I’m becoming addicted to writing the words Stimulator Island (okay, not a plot hole, I know).

There are other obvious shortcomings you can pick on if you’ve a mind to. Even for a giant blob of Kirby Krackle, the Nameless Mass is a terribly lame threat. The name certainly doesn’t help.

Anybody who’s looking for chauvinism in Silver Age comics is gonna have a field day with the issue. Sue’s role is very small, but boy oh boy is it embarrassing. She talks her husband out of his important science man work to eat dinner, then pesters her brother about getting washed up for dinner, then literally picks up a baby while the men go off to take care of the important stuff. Triple sigh.

Okay, in combing the Internet exhaustively for info about this comic (I visited upward of two sites), I discovered something interesting. A lot of commenters/casual readers recall the FF fighting a Sentry on the moon in this issue. As I hope I made clear by mentioning Stimulator Island a thousand times, this is not the case.

There is absolutely nothing falling after the first panel of page 10 to contradict the statement that this book is set on the moon, though! And the lines which mention how Stimulator Island’s moonlike qualities seem a lot like last-minute additions. And, biggest of all, the cover looks 110 percent like a Fantastic Four moon landing. So, my crazy hypothesis: A significant fraction of this book was drawn prior to the decision to set the story on Earth.

Now, why make that shift? This is where I think things get interesting. If the creators’ intention was to straight-up exploit Apollo 11’s popularity, why wait eight months to release this comic?

No, I think the idea was to do a respectful tribute to the achievements of the Apollo program. And a big part of that was refraining from any implication that fictional superheroes’ achievements replaced those of genuine NASA heroes. For example, it would be mighty tacky if Reed Richards gassed Apollo 11 up with super-science fuel, right?

So how do you write an Apollo 11 story with this constraint and still give your fictional superheroes something meaningful to do? You introduce a fictional threat for them to take care of! I believe Mr. Lee and Mr. Kirby got this far and planned out a longer Sentry battle, set right in the Blue Area of the moon. (This might explain why the Marvel wiki page on Kree Sentries says the FF fought and destroyed this Sentry in the Blue Area when the comic contradicts those events.)

Nameless Mass. Deceptively descriptive!Before Mr. Kirby got too far along with the art, somebody pointed out that it was still a little disrespectful to NASA to show the FF duplicating their feat of flying to the moon and then having a full-on superhero battle while Neil and Buzz were just picking up rocks. Thus a last-minute revamp shifted the action of this comic to Stimulator Island. The Nameless Mass would be another last-minute addition – an ill-defined threat exactly one step up from undefined, existing only to give the Sentry a means of ruining the moon mission if he wasn’t defeated.

I also think Mr. Lee and Mr. Kirby deserve a little credit for staying miles and miles away from the fact that the Fantastic Four beat NASA to the moon by a full six years. None of the characters gloat about that or act smug or even think about it in this issue. Instead, they’re all equipped with the noblest of motivations. Reed feels responsible for protecting the Earth from the Kree – it’s his fault that the planet is on the empire’s radar, after all.

I like Ben Grimm’s motivation even better, though. He hardly cares about the heroics he has to go through; all he wants to do is get home in time to watch the landing on TV. That is exactly how a test pilot and Navy ace would act in July of 1969. Thing fans will be happy to see that Ben is the big hero from start to finish in this book, too.

If you’d like to check out the Fantastic Four’s original moon adventure, go to Fantastic Four #13 on your Marvel Unlimited account and then buckle the hell up. It is classic madness from the depths of the early Silver Age. It features the debut of the Watcher, the introduction of the Blue Area, and space apes. Evil space apes. Evil Commie space apes. All this and a proper moon adventure including Sue, too!

Art corner: This is some top quality work from Mr. Kirby from start to finish. The panel construction is a bit lazy, with layouts varying little from the five or four-panel grid. The action inside those panels is blocked out exquisitely, though, and the backgrounds are beautiful throughout. A little a-grade inking from Joe Sinnott really helps tie it all together.

Who Will Love Fantastic Four #98?

I’m hoping I’ve made a decent case for this comic being a little more loving and respectful than a crass publicity-grab. It’s a fine little adventure for all its faults. Folks who are plowing straight through the early Fantastic Four in order are going to be especially pleased to reach this oasis. It’s the last in a line of aggressively dumb one-shots that are hard to chew through, particularly #97 – a painful ripoff of Creature From the Black Lagoon that had little to redeem it. FF #98 gets my hearty thumbs up, sexist warts and all.

Special Plea!

Heyo, so comments and messages are always welcome here. Today I’d like to make a special plea – if you’ve got any ideas about the weird Marvel wiki entry – why it says this fight took place on the moon, why the Sentry got destroyed, or anything about a “secret Kree city,” please drop me a line and let me know! Did this whole story get bashed with the retcon stick decades later?


Images snipped out of Marvel Unlimited by yours truly.

Author: CMMIV

Reader of comic books. Semi-professional writer.