Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Things get crazy in issue 16, with the introduction of a whole new universe. (No, not 1986’s New Universe, that’s a post for another time.)
Both the cover and the splash page spoil that Ant-Man guest stars and Dr. Doom is back at the villain. But, wait. Doom was last seen in issue 10, when he got in front of the wrong end of a shrink ray and shrunk down to nothingness. How could he possibly return from that? Just you wait…
The action begins with Johnny flying toward FF headquarters in a panic, because his three teammates aren’t responding to his signal. (Why he signaled them in the first place is never explained.) Inside, it appears deserted, until a tiny hand stretches up from the floor. Reed, Sue, and Ben are tiny! They’ve been shrunk down to a few inches tall and are about to be sucked into an air vent. Johnny rescues them, and they return to regular size. The four compare notes, and everyone admits they’ve all had shrinking problems (heh) over the last few days. Thus begins the characters-have-an-excuse-to-show-off-their-powers-for-the-first-pages thing. Sue shrunk while appearing on a talk show, Johnny shrunk while working on a car engine, and Ben shrunk while weightlifting three tons. (Shrunken Ben also fights Reed’s pet guinea pig, to which I respond, “Since when does Reed have a pet guinea pig?”)
To solve their random-shrinking affliction, Reed says they must contact Ant-Man (or, as Reed calls him, “The Astonishing Ant-Man.”) Reed has no idea how to contact him, but, fortunately, a nearby ant hears him. Through a city-wide “secret communication network” known only to ants, word gets to Ant-Man that the FF needs his help. Ant-Man receives the message in his lab, where the caption describes him as, “A handsome, grim-faced, helmeted man.” The Wasp is there for one panel, as Ant-Man explains he’s leaving to help the FF.
Ant-Man shrinks down to ant-size, climbs into his tiny cannon, launches himself over the skies of the city, landing on the backs of two flying ants. (Ant-Man’s solo comic, also by Lee and Kirby, was filled with these wacky descriptions of the tiny Ant-Man getting from place to place with the help his ant pals.) At FF headquarters, after some wackiness of Ben thinking Ant-Man is an ordinary bug, Ant-Man gives our heroes a sample of his serum, which can return them to regular size should they shrink again.
This next part is very interesting: Ben and Reed are at Alicia’s apartment, where Ben is helping Alicia move her piano. This is the first reference we’ve had to Alicia showing any sort of musical talent. Reed announces that he’s developed a new cure for Ben. Ben takes it and, simply enough, he turns human again. Alicia freaks out, saying she doesn’t like the change. Ben says he loves her so much, he wants Reed to turn him back into the Thing. Before we can consider the further meaning of this, everyone hears Dr. Doom’s disembodied voice speaking to them.
With a simple declaration of “We’ll go after him!” the Fantastic Four takes Ant-Man’s serum and shrink down to nothingness, and somehow this allows them to follow Doom’s path. They fall through a vortex (just go with it) and they end up in “The Micro-World of Dr. Doom.” At least that’s what Doom calls it, as he’s sitting on a huge throne in front of them, surrounded by alien-looking armored soldiers. Ben starts to attack, but Doom activates a shrink ray, which shrinks the FF even more, bringing them up only to Doom’s ankle.
Villain speech time! Doom monologues that after being shrunk, he found himself in this new world, a peaceful and primitive place. Doom worked fast, developing new technology and earning the trust of the king and his hot daughter, Princess Pearla. He sneakily invented a “molecular ray apparatus,” which means he now has a shrink ray of his own. He used it on the king and princess, usurping them and taking over as ruler. And, yes, he was the one behind the random shrinking that started the issue. A fight breaks out, and the FF, although tiny, make short work of the guards. Doom was ready for this, and blasts the four with some knockout gas. (Why didn’t he do this to begin with?)
The FF wake up in an underwater prison, only it’s not water, it’s deadly acid. Locked up with them are the king and Princess Pearla. The princess explains that Doom wants to marry her, and that he has plans to sell the FF as slaves to aliens from the planet Tok. Also, she and Johnny hit it off big time. (Gotta love jailhouse romances!)
Back on Earth, Ant-Man returns to FF headquarters (guess they left the door unlocked), and deduces that the four have shrunk down to nothingness, and he follows them. He fights and is abducted by the guards, who bring him before Doom. Doom doesn’t recognize Ant-Man, but plans to sell him to slavery as well. Back inside the jail, our heroes devise a plan to use the acid-proof walls of their own cell as a tool for their escape, converting the walls into an airtight capsule to float to the surface, and to freedom.
Our heroes use the shrink ray to re-size themselves, not back to Earth-size but back to micro-world size. In an awesome display of strength, Ben uses a control tower as a giant baseball bat, swatting the Tok spaceship out of the sky. Invisibly, Sue frees Ant-Man. Reed, Ben and Johnny mop up the guards, but Doom escapes through the vortex back to Earth. Pearla asks Johnny to stay, but he can’t – though he promises to return to her someday. As the FF and Ant-Man return to Earth, Ben speechifies that they still have to nab Dr. Doom, which is where the next issue will kick off.
Unstable Molecule: The Reed/Doom rivalry is downplayed in this issue, so much so that they don’t even exchange dialogue. Reed helps out here and there, but this one is more about his teammates and the guest star, with him along for the ride.
Fade Out: Sue does quite a lot in this issue. She’s the one who comes up the idea for escaping the acid jail, and she rescues Ant-Man.
Clobberin’ Time: Ben rejects being human and decides to remain in his rocky, monstrous form, all for Alicia’s sake. This marks a major turning point for the character, one that we’ll see more of in the next issue.
Flame On: Johnny’s romance with Princess Pearla never went anywhere, although their love-at-first-sight meeting foreshadows how he and Crystal will later fall for one another.
Trivia Time: This is our intro to the Microverse, as it will later be known. It’s home to Marvel B-siders the Micronauts, and is often used as an excuse for any time Marvel writers and artists want to get all weird and trippy.
Sue is a guest on the “Molly Margaret McSnide Show.” I really hope someone brings this character back to Marvel continuity.
The Fantasticar gets another redesign, seen briefly in a few panels. This version is a single-seater, with fins and curved windshield. Very early-1960s.
Fantastic or Frightful: Dr. Doom’s history is fraught with him constantly coming back from the dead, but this is one of my favorite comebacks of his. The Microverse gives Jack Kirby another chance to go really nuts with the art, creating a crazy alien world from scratch. Even Ant-Man is good, coming across as helpful, and not totally useless. Fun stuff all around.
Next week: Dr. Doom strikes back… with floating, polka-dotted ghost things.
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