There’s a certain argument you’ll hear in comics circles that The Fantastic Four, after the famous Galactus trilogy (issues #48-50) , had nowhere to go but down. Think about it. Galactus, an all-powerful being who must eat and digest planets in order to live, has come to Earth and he’s hungry. The FF have to find a way to stop him, but it’s like your grandmother trying to stop a Terminator. (No offense to anyone’s grandmother.) Galactus is the closest Marvel – or any other comics publisher – has ever come to putting God on the page, and who can fight God?
Those issues were and still are part of a watershed moment in comics, dealing with huge concepts and ideas that most comics would never even consider addressing. The theological implications alone could fill volumes. The problem is, what do you do after you’ve battled God? Waltz around with the Mole Man? Easy. The Mad Thinker? Cake. Doctor Doom? Well, maybe, depending on the situation.
That was the problem Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had in 1966, and to be honest, that’s the problem every writer has had with The Fantastic Four ever since. Sure, many good stories have emerged post-trilogy, but the problem remains: who do you fight after Galactus/God and what’s really at stake? So what Stan and Jack had to do was to make the Fantastic Four vulnerable, to lessen their power so that a fight with a foe lesser than Galactus (which includes pretty much everybody else) becomes a fight whose outcome is in question.
(Theologically and technically, however, Galactus isn’t God. The Bible tells us that God is pure good. Galactus is neither good nor evil. Another discussion for another time.)
Lee & Kirby made the FF vulnerable in many ways, but mostly in having one member of the team absent or powerless for long or short stretches. Sue is gone having a baby, The Thing has changed back to Ben Grimm, the FF loses their powers, etc. Or if that doesn’t work, have someone in the group blow up at the other three and leave. These guys are always fighting among themselves. It seems like they destroy the Baxter Building in nearly every other issue. (If I lived in the Marvel Universe, I’d buy stock in construction companies. They’ll never go out of business.)
And then there’s the “getting away from it all” stories that take place in and around the Negative Zone and in the microworld. Interesting places, cool ideas, but they serve mainly to take us away from the “normal” world, because again, where do you go after Galactus?
This third omnibus shows the beginning of a slide that was pretty much inevitable. Visiting the Negative Zone, Reed and Triton (of the Inhumans) accidentally free Blastaar, sending him to Earth. A more tiresome villain I cannot imagine… We also get The Mad Thinker and his parade of androids, Galactus’s punisher, Maximus the Mad going nuts against the Inhumans, a really awful series involving the Skrulls capturing Ben for gladiator games, and a contender for the worst FF villain of all-time, Tomazooma, the Totem Who Walks.
On the positive side, we do get more Silver Surfer/Galactus stories, but do they really have the punch they had post #48-50? Annihilus is an intriguing villain, but there’s no depth to him. The best parts of this omnibus feature the emergence of Him (Adam Warlock) and a four-issue Doctor Doom arc that – despite several problems – still remains powerful, giving us a greater insight into the twisted mind of Victor Von Doom.
We also see in this omnibus what seems to be Kirby becoming either tired, frustrated or both. Although his art remains stellar, we actually begin to see less of it. Many of the later issues in this volume contain more than one splash page and even more standard four-panel pages. (Admittedly, many of these extra splash pages are spectacular.) We also don’t see the depth and richness of experimentation that made those issues in the #40s-50s range so memorable. It’s not so much going through the motions, but you can tell the spark has gone from Kirby (probably due to the crappy way he and other artists were being treated at Marvel).
What’s really interesting is seeing how even fans at the time the issues were published picked up on the problems. I didn’t read all of the entries in the letters section, but read enough to know that people were becoming dissatisfied. Kirby wouldn’t be around much longer and many readers apparently dropped off as well. I know that I stopped reading quite a bit later, somewhere around issue #140 or so and didn’t pick up the title again until John Byrne came along with #232.
As much as I was disappointed in this third omnibus, there’s still enough in it to recommend, but it’s a close call. The volume contains a few good stories and Kirby is still Kirby, a powerhouse regardless of the problems he was having with Marvel. Mildly recommended.