Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. This is the big one, people: Galactus!
At the end of the previous issue, the FF had made peace with the Inhumans, and Johnny had reunited with his new romantic interest, Crystal. At the last minute, though, the evil Maximus unleashed his secret weapon. Issue #48 opens with human and Inhuman alike being flung through the air thanks to powerful vibrational waves. Maximus’s device creates these vibrations that fling humans off the surface of the planet, without severely affecting the Inhumans. (Wasn’t this a Pinky and the Brain plot?) Black Bolt takes out Maximus with a single bitch-slap (nice!) while Medusa explains that the weapon didn’t work on humans, thus proving that humans and Inhumans are, in fact, the same.
Just as it seems all is well again, Maximus whips out yet another secret weapon (I guess his super power is having lots of backup plans). This one puts up an impenetrable dome around the Great Refuge (the first person to accuse Stephen King of plagiarism does not get a prize). It all happens so fast that Johnny and Crystal are separated again, on opposite sides of the dome. He’s absolutely distraught at the thought of being cut off from her, possibly forever.
We go from that scene to outer space, where a mysterious figure is zipping through the cosmos. The caption reads, “A being we shall call the Silver Surfer, for want of a better name.” The Surfer flies by a Skrull warship, who react to him in fear, knowing that wherever the Surfer goes, Galactus is to follow.
On the flight back to New York, our heroes are alarmed to see two suns in the sky. One of them grows larger, into a wall of flame covering the entire sky. The city panics as Johnny flies over head. People attack him, thinking he’s to blame. The action slows down just enough for some comedy shtick as Ben takes out Johnny’s attackers with just his finger. The sky goes back to normal, and our heroes return to headquarters, with Reed concerned that this incident means a greater threat than any they’ve ever faced. Back out in space, the Silver Surfer flies through an exploding supernova without being harmed (!) and then discovers Earth.
Back at HQ, life is settling down to reasonably normal. Johnny pines for Crystal, and Ben keeps trying to get a hold of Alicia on the phone. Sue is upset because Reed hasn’t left his lab in days. He’s barely eaten or slept and he’s looking all haggard and unshaven. Then there’s another strange phenomenon, as the sky is now covered with giant rocks, which have surrounded the entire Earth, like a giant shell. Sue can’t take it any more and barges into the lab. She discovers Reed is in there with the Watcher, who has put up the fire and rocks with his “matter mobilizer.” He’s broken his vow to never interfere because the Earth is in that much danger.
The rocks provide no challenge for the Silver Surfer, who surfs right through them. He conveniently lands right on top of the Baxter Building. One punch from Ben sends him flying over the side, but not before he sent a signal out to space. The Watcher explains that the Surfer is the advance scout for Galactus, who drains entire planets of their elements. “Of all those who inhabit the known universe, only Galactus has power enough to match my own!” he says. The Watcher says to ignore the Surfer, because Galactus is the real threat.
Galactus’s ship, a giant dome, appears in the sky. It opens to reveal a bunch of other ships, just so artist Jack Kirby can do another one of those funky full-page photo panels. All those ships go back inside the dome, which then lands on the roof of the Baxter Building. Out steps Galactus. Yes, he’s dressed all in purple. Yes, he has a huge hat with two big ol’ antennae looking things on it. Yes, he was what looks suspiciously like the letter “G” on his chest. Nonetheless, the staging of this scene is dramatic and ominous, thanks to Kirby’s staging and posing of the character. Now, that’s how you do a cliffhanger!
That takes us to issue #49. The splash page is not Galactus, but our heroes reacting to Galactus with looks of shock and wonder on their faces. We turn the page for another splash, in which the Watcher tries to reason with Galactus. Galactus is normally portrayed as the silent, mopey type, but here we get a sense of his philosophy. The Watcher argues that Earth has intelligent life, but this doesn’t sway Galactus. “It is not my intention to harm any living being, but I must replenish my energy,” Galactus says. He adds that the Earth has the energy to sustain him. “I am supreme unto myself,” he says. Many writers and artists over the years, most notably John Byrne, have argued that Galactus is neither good nor evil, but a force of nature, like a hurricane. We see the first seeds of that here.
While Galactus and the Watcher talk, there’s some more comedy shtick with Ben, where he keeps trying to get Galactus’s attention, only to be ignored. He finally punches Galactus in the foot (remember, Galactus is a giant, towering over humans). Galactus dismisses this attack by dropping a small gas capsule which burns Ben’s eyes. Johnny tries attacking next, only to have Galactus use eye beams to smother his flames (just go with it). In both cases, our heroes remark that Galactus is merely swatting them away, as casually as one might swat at a bothersome insect. The Watcher says, “There is nothing more you can do here,” and with that, our heroes head back downstairs. This leads to another humorous bit where Johnny finds Reed shaving and Ben taking a bath, and scolds them for both being so casual about all this. Ben says they’re really taking time out to come up with a plan.
Elsewhere, out in the city, the Silver Surfer is unconscious after having landed on a rooftop skylight. It opens, and wouldn’t you know it, this is Alicia’s apartment. (How many of the FF’s adventures head through the city straight to her place? People say Spider-Man’s Mary Jane is a danger magnet, but I wonder if Alicia has her beat.) The Surfer comes to, and dismisses Alicia’s questions. Alicia, however, can sense a nobility and loneliness to this alien stranger. She nurses him back to health, of a sort. She serves him what appears to be pancakes (wheatcakes?) and he says, “The mysteries of the universe are truly without limit!”
At the Baxter Building, Galatcus has been busy, constructing a gigantic machine on the roof. “This guy makes Dr. Doom seem like a Piker!” Ben says. Reed starts to lead the charge to battle, but the Watcher stops them for some exposition. He shows our heroes a vision of what will happen once Galactus fires up the machine. It will drain the Earth of all living energy, leaving it nothing but a big rock. Galactus has a great hunger for this energy, and the Earth is what will finally sustain him. We see oceans drained, cities overturned, and even the planet’s core sucked lifeless. “What we need is power!” Reed says. The Watcher says he knows of a device of great power that might defeat Galactus, but only the Human Torch can get it.
Back at Alicia’s place, the Silver Surfer turns the meal into energy, drawing it into himself. He says that Galactus will do the same for the entire planet. Alicia makes her case on behalf of humanity. She says the humans aren’t as powerful as Galactus, but we have hearts and souls, and that should count for something. Her words start to reach him, and he says he’s never encountered such courage or such beauty. Yet, he insists that he must serve Galactus.
We get a glimpse of onlookers on the street outside the Baxter Building, and news crews trying to make sense of what’s happening. Up top, Galactus announces that the machine is finished. But, when he tries to ignite it, nothing happens. That’s because Ben is around back, smashing up the device. While Galactus is distracted by this, Reed stretches into a huge ball and bounces Galactus over the side of the building. This is not a problem for the big G., who of course comes with his own anti-gravity device. He’s not about to lower himself to fighting the FF himself, so he sends for the Punisher. No, not the guy with the skull t-shirt and all the guns. This Punisher is a big cybernetic frog monster. It leaps out from Galactus’s sphere ship and jumps down over the city, heading straight for our heroes.
Cut to inside, where the Watcher chats with Johnny. The Watcher again says there is a device that may stop Galactus, but it is located on a distant world. Now things get crazy psychedelic as the Watcher opens a space-time distortion and sends Johnny all the way back to the center of infinity. Johnny appears to be screaming in pain as this happens. Now out in space, Johnny is guided by the Watcher’s voice, which is still with him. “The distance you are traveling is so great that your language holds no words which can describe it!” the Watcher says. Johnny passes through something called “the celestial barriers of un-life,” after which he reaches Galactus’s homeworld, depicted as a metallic figure-8 planet.
Back on Earth, it’s time for some action. The Punisher takes on Ben and Reed. Despite its comical appearance, little froggy is incredibly fast and powerful, beating Ben and Reed senseless. They retreat behind one of Sue’s invisible force fields. Back to square one, our heroes have no idea how to get close to Galactus, let alone defeat him.
At Alicia’s place, she’s had the radio on and been caught up on what’s happening. She thinks the Surfer might be the one to stop Galactus, but he still thinks defying his master is unthinkable. She then gives him the ol’ reverse psychology, saying, “I thought you possessed compassion!” This works, as the Surfer says she’s not totally wrong. He hops on his magic flying surfboard (he has a magic flying surfboard, did I not establish that?) and he takes off in hopes of fighting and defeating Galactus. “Perhaps for the first time in memory, I have found something worth protecting!” he says. The issue’s cliffhanger happens as Watcher is (what else?) watching all this, and fretting that the Surfer’s action might disrupt his own plan and thereby lead to the destruction of the Earth.
Issue #50 kicks off right in the middle of the action, as the Surfer flies up and calls for Galactus to stop. “For the first time I realize the dreadful enormity of what you plan to do!” he says. Galactus is as dismissive to him as he is to anyone else, so Surfer attacks, proclaiming, “I too am a creature of the cosmos!” Energy blasts go flying between then, and then the Surfer seals up Galactus in an solidified cocoon. It appears to work for a few moments, but then Galactus breaks free. They fight some more, throwing around a lot of wonderfully crazy sci-fi terms like “absorba shield” and “solar destructogen.” It’s also a battle of ideologies, as they talk while zapping. Galactus says the Surfer is nothing compared to all infinity, while the Surfer says he’s not betraying Galactus so much as he’s betraying himself for not making this choice sooner.
We check in with the FF and the Watcher, who urges them not to attack until Johnny returns. We then follow Johnny as returns through sub-space and returns to his own time continuum. (I’m going to assume this all flawlessly accurate science) He’s back, and completely worn out, dazed as to the enormity of what he’s seen. He’s also brought the mysterious device with him. Reed, ever the scientist, takes a look at it while the Watcher cautions him not to turn it up to full power, because doing so will destroy the entire galaxy.
The Silver Surfer and the watcher continue to battle, with the Surfer, er, surfing around a bunch of obstacles Galactus placed on nearby rooftops. Galactus is about the deliver the killing blow when Reed interrupts, aiming the strange device at him. Galactus immediately recognizes it as the Ultimate Nullifier. Reed demands that Galactus leave Earth or else he’ll destroy the galaxy, Galactus along with it. Galactus doesn’t dare take the bluff. The Watcher tells Galactus that the seed of grandeur exists within humanity, and there are other planets for Galactus to absorb. Galactus agrees to surrender, and Reed gives him the Ultimate Nullifier. Galactus then removes the Surfer’s space-going powers, stranding him on Earth permanently.
Before departing, Galactus gives humans their due with a big, dramatic speech: “At last I perceive the glint of glory within the race of man! Be ever worthy of that glory, humans. Be ever mindful of your promise of greatness, for it shall one day lift you beyond the stars or bury you within the ruins of war! The choice is yours!”
Galactus then disappears in a dimensional displacement (more impressive than just flying away, I guess), and the FF are alone on the rooftop. Alicia shows up, showing more concern for the Surfer than for Ben, and this has him playing the jealously and “poor me” games again. The Surfer then leaves, saying that if he cannot explore the stars, then he will explore the skies.
With this, the story should be over, but there’s another seven pages of subplots for us get through. I’ll try to keep this part short. First, a mysterious bald man swears that he’ll be destruction of the Fantastic Four, and they’ll never see him coming. Next, Reed has returned to working in the lab all day instead of spending time with Sue, and Sue declares she’s had enough of it. Then we get a page and a half at Metro College, where arrogant football star Whitey Mullins clashes with weary, verge-of-retirement Coach Thorne. (I’ll assume this sets up future stories.) Ben then accidentally frightens a woman out on the street, and he again mopes about he’ll always be a monster.
The issue ends with an important story point, as Johnny shows up at Metro College, where we learn he’s just enrolled. He meets the dean and a fellow new student, a tall, musclebound Native American named Wyatt Wingfoot. In the dean’s office, the dean does a big speech about why the two of them are so unique. While the dean talks about who Wyatt is, Johnny daydreams about everything he’s seen, from falling in love with Crystal to traveling the whole of the cosmos to defeat Galactus. He wonders just how he can just sit in an ordinary classroom after all that. He comes out of the daydream and realizes he didn’t hear what it is about Wyatt that’s so unusual. The issue ends as they learn they’ll be roommates in the dorm.
Unstable molecule: Reed spending more time in the lab than with his wife continues to be a distressing theme in these issues. Seeing him unshaven and haggard trying to find out what’s threatening the Earth is a big shock, though.
Fade out: When her teammates are beaten back Galactus and the Punisher, Sue is right there to rescue them with her force fields.
Clobberin’ time: The Thing won’t stand for any of this talk about cosmic beings. He punches Galactus, smashes up his machine, and gives it his all against the Punisher. To matter how beaten he gets, he keeps coming back for more. His jealousy over Alicia and the Silver Surfer will be the basis of a future issue.
Flame on: It’s really Johnny, more than his teammates, who is at the center of this story. He matures considerably. Yes, it’s kind of a stretch that he’s this in love with Crystal after barely meeting her, but she gives him something to fight for. Seeing the whole of infinity gives him a new outlook on life.
Trivia time: Issue #48 has the first appearances of the Silver Surfer and Galactus, and issue #50 is the first appearance of Wyatt Wingfoot, who becomes a fixture in FF lore from here on.
The story goes that in an attempt to dream up more and more powerful villains for the FF to take on, Stan Lee decided to go one further and create a super god for them to battle, someone whose powers far exceeded their own, on a cosmic scale. The more pragmatic Jack Kirby was allegedly quoted as saying Galactus’s creation was merely to keep selling comics.
In the books’ original printings, there were all kinds of problems with Galactus’s outfit, with a green/red one, a yellow/brown one, and then finally the purple one we all know, which is consistent for the rest of the story. These errors are usually corrected in reprints.
Fantastic or frightful? It’s easy to nitpick. I could wonder about the many impossible conveniences in the plot, or how the heroes spend most of the story merely reacting to what happening instead of taking action, but none of that really matters in comparison as to how much fun all this is. The buildup to Galactus’s arrival is great, with a ton of apocalyptic imagery. Thanks to Kirby’s art and Lee’s wordplay, there is a real sense of power to Galactus, so you really believe he’s this all-powerful, godlike threat. Add to that Johnny’s intergalactic journey, some humorous bits with Ben, and talk of humanity’s potential for greatness, and you’ve got one of the greatest stories in comics history.
Next week: This man, this monster
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