“What’s happening to me? Why do I change so often? Why can’t I control the changes?”
Ben and Reed are having a fight about a formula Reed discovered to change Ben back, but he refuses to take it. Meanwhile, the Hulk is on the run from the Avengers after their disagreement in Avengers #3. The are tracking him down with the help of Rick Jones, the Hulk’s former confidant. When the Hulk finds he has been replaced in the Avengers by Captain America, he stars to rampage across New York. Just then Reed mysteriously collapses and as they are taking him to the hospital, they run across the Hulk. The Human Torch tries to waylay him but he is quickly defeated. The Invisible Girl comes to his aid just in time, but she also becomes exhausted at Hulks attempts to break through her shields. The only member left standing of the Fantastic Four now is the Thing. The dual between the two powerful protagonists begins, with each alternately gaining the upper hand. During this, the rest of the FF starts to rally, and it is when Ben realizes that he can never beat the Hulk, but that he has to keep trying, that the issue ends.
Now, this — THIS — is the Fantastic Four’s first multiple issue story. Also, we are told that the story begins after the AVENGERS issue 3, who also appear here, so that makes this technically the first inter-title FF adventure. It’s the start of a run of guest-appearance issues, and it’s probably the most exciting story to date, mixing emotion, character, and action perfectly. The creators manage to go from a standing start to a full-on action romp with true character almost immediately.
The issue starts with a typical roustabout in the Baxter Building, but with a slight twist. The Thing is violently refusing a cure for his condition that Reed has stumbled on and may not be able to duplicate. There are two reasons for his refusal, one is that he doesn’t want to give up his responsibilities as part of the team, and also he’s unsure of whether Alicia will still love him if he becomes human again. He’s found love, which he values more than everything else in the world, even his humanity. It’s only the fact that this has been such a constant and familiar part of his character over the decades that this moment is not more profound.
This set-up scene also very neatly parallels The Hulk/Bruce Banner emotional arc. Banner is now finding that he doesn’t have the control over the Hulk as he did previously, and he is uncontrollably losing his humanity as the Hulk appearances become more frequent and violent. It’s a very subtle point, but one which is beautifully illustrated by Kirby’s portrayal of a haunted, semi-silhouetted man in the back of a truck.
Throughout the entire issue, the FF are caught on the back foot. Reed is out of the game even before it has started and the group is divided by the need to get him to help and safety, and also deal with an irate Hulk who has never been more powerful in the Marvel Universe up to this point.
There is a penetrating immediacy to this story. We know that the Avengers are on their way, that it’s a matter of minutes and not hours. And when Sue arrives to confront the Hulk, it’s not so that she can attack him, it’s all that she can do to stop him from killing her brother — that act of protection literally takes all of her strength, in the few brief moments that it take for the Thing to close the gap. She is literally being carried off of the scene unconscious as Ben Grimm approaches, the Hulk still swinging Johnny like a rag doll.
What follows is a twelve-page full-on toe-to-toe smack-down between two of the Marvel Universe’s strongest heroes that ranges from Manhattan island, the Hudson River, and ends up on Washington Bridge. It’s a romp that even the army and the Yancey Street Gang get involved in, but what makes the bout worth it, and saves it from being just gratuitous violence, is that the entire fight hinges on the character of The Thing. The Thing is not as powerful or as fast as The Hulk, but he is smarter. He still has his humanity and intellect, which is exactly what the Hulk is starting to lose at this stage. However, he doesn’t immediately realize this fact and he keeps trying to overpower and out-skill Hulk, and thus routinely fails. The tension of the fight is created in wondering how many times The Thing has to fall against the ropes to find this out, and if he can do it before The Hulk lays him out for good.But that’s a question that we don’t find answered here. The last page shows a Hulk triumphant over the defeated Fantastic Four, leaping off to find The Avengers. And the last three panels show a battered, beaten Thing painfully rising to his feet and chasing after The Hulk, saying that “the only way he’ll stop me now.. [is] by killin’ me!” He knows that they are beaten, but he is willing to sacrifice his life in the face of the Hulk’s mindless destruction.
Perfectly plotted. A playbook on pacing and how to involve character in action. Although void of some of the otherworldly weirdness that typifies Lee/Kirby greatness, this story is faultless.