The King and I
Happy Mother's Day, Sue!
By Desmond Reddick
11 May 2009 — Now, I've never been called sentimental, but over the past few days I have been editing home movies in order to provide my wife with a Mother's Day gift more meaningful than a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of Scotch — though Father's Day is just around the corner and poppa's thirsty. And, since I'm a true geek, after hours of looking at my lovely wife play with my awesome sons, only one thing came to mind: Fantastic Four Annual #6!
Six years and change into their run, the Fantastic Four were at their peak. History tells that Jack Kirby was as, or more, involved with the scripting of their adventures as Stan Lee was. An extending and revolving cast of guest stars brought the book a new freshness before the initial excitement even wore off. But I'm not here to talk about those new cast members. I'm here to talk about the reason for those new cast members: a certain bun in an invisible oven.
My name is Desmond Reddick and I am a Kirbyphile. In this column, I'll be breaking things down into three sections: the good, the bad and the Kirby.
Fantastic Four Annual #6, dated November 1968 and cover-titled as "King-Size Special Fantastic Four #6," features the first appearances of two important characters to Four lore: Annihilus (warlord of the Negative Zone), and, more importantly, Franklin Richards! Sue had been pregnant for months, but it took a 48-page "spectacular movie-length epic" to tell how he came to be.
The premise: For several months, Reed Richards has been hiding the secret fear he has had since finding out his lovely wife Sue is carrying his child. As we join the story, Reed, Ben and Johnny are in Reed's lab, though Sue is only moments away from giving birth. Reed explains that his fears of the cosmic rays that gave them their powers still reside in Sue's blood, and the only antidote is an element from the Negative Zone. The three men — who all love Sue in their own ways — must race against time to bring it home.
The good: In possibly the most consistent and enduring character trait in comic book history (next to Batman's love of punching people), Reed Richards has always seemed cold and (using period-specific language) square. For someone whose power allows him to stretch to almost limitless lengths, he is remarkably rigid. But in this issue, he has a reason. Reed's anger and passive aggressiveness is due to his fear of fatherhood being amplified by the likely death of the two most important people in his life. And take it from me, if your wife is having complications during childbirth, you have the right to be scared.
The venture into the Negative Zone — for only the second time in FF history — puts them at odds with one of the most intriguing villains yet: Annihilus. Though the battle includes jetpacks that work only in the Negative Zone, giant robot feet stomping on The Thing, some of the best collage work of the King's career, monsters built for burrowing through walls and more, the best of this issue comes in the last few pages.
Once the men return to the hospital, Ben and Johnny sit in the waiting room reading papers, while Johnny lights an expectant father's cigarette with his finger. In fact, this part is pure 1960s: men in suits in the waiting room smoking cigarettes while the women give birth. Reed never looked as exhausted after fighting Galactus as he does in the waiting room of the hospital, and that endears him to us. Even more, he tells the guys he's never felt this helpless. These are real moments in a wild sci-fi book with a character that never seemed as human as his friend made of rock.
What's more, the joyous moment arrives when Crystal (one of Sue's aforementioned replacements) emerges with the doctor: "It's a boy!" Johnny bursts into flames, and Ben looks so excited that he appears more Muppet-like than anything else.
The best part about this book is the humanity with which the story treats Reed. When he finally sees his son, he is speechless. And his closing quote encapsulates the joy / terror dichotomy of parenthood almost perfectly: "He seems so helpless... so tiny... in a world that's so gigantic... so filled with unknown danger!"
The bad: There is very little in this book I would consider "bad," but I do have some minor complaints. The battle in the Negative Zone is long. Very long. It could have been truncated slightly in order to give more time to Sue's toils. As it stands, we get a short press conference where the doctor relates that the antidote is the only thing that will save the baby and mother. But this is information we've already been told by Reed. It is clearly shoehorned in by Stan in an awkward attempt to give a basis for the battle and a break in it, but we still don't see Sue until the last page.
As with all Silver Age comics, the science is wonky. Sue can only be saved by an element from the Negative Zone — an antimatter element!
The Kirby: This issue, like virtually every issue of this run, is dripping with what makes Kirby great. Crazy architecture, outer space collage, crackle to spare and a villain who wouldn't have been out of place in one of the Atlas Age monster books if he was a little bit taller.
The issue encompasses all of the wonderment and power that Kirby is known for. He has a talent for making things that far exceed our imaginations and tells a convincing story around them. There is a lot of that in this issue, but it is all anchored in the realistic premise of a baby being born.
Final thoughts: While an issue I've set aside to celebrate Mother's Day is woefully devoid of female characters, I do feel like it still embodies the Mother's Day spirit. At its heart, this story is about the men in Sue's life doing all they can to try and protect the most important woman in their life: a mother. So, while no one expects you to go to the Negative Zone for your mother, the least you can do is give her a friggin' phone call!