While we have seen The Fantastic Four a few times in other books, it’s been a bit since one of their own issues has shown up on the 616 reading list. This issue is notable as it introduces one of the most powerful and mysterious entities in all of Marvel 616.
The issue begins with a lab accident at the Baxter building. Reed Richards is working on a new kind of jet propulsion fuel and has so much success he more or less blows up the lab. Thing and Johnny Storm both try to jump into action and rescue Reed but Reed has on a safety suit and actually has to save Johnny. The Human torch was about to fly into some chemical fumes that likely would have killed him and/or exploded even worse.
This is going to be far from the last time Reed Richards nearly destroys his home and family in the name of scientific achievement. He’s pretty nonchalant about the whole thing.
Reed has apparently used some material components he found in a meteor crater and if he can harness this energy he’ll have, “discovered a booster fuel powerful enough to enable us to catch up with the reds in the race to the moon!”
At the time, this would have been seen as a major achievement by anyone in America so it’s understandable Reed is excited. He also suspects the “reds” had this thought before him and might be why they were ahead of America at the time. He seems to think they got this material somewhere in Siberia.
With this fuel, Reed decides he is going to go to the “mysterious blue area of the moon!”
The team is not about to let Reed go alone so reluctantly, Reed agrees to allow them all to join.
We next shift the scene behind the iron curtain where a scientist is training a gorilla to operate a space ship. He’s also training a baboon to shoot guns and an orangutan to use tools to repair the ship. This scientist is Ivan Kragoff and he’s training his “apes” to go to the moon so he can claim it for the communist empire.
However unlikely it may be, both Reeds ship and Kragoff’s ship launch at the same time. Kragoff, has another motive as well. He knows cosmic rays gave the FF their powers so he built his own ship in a way he will absorb some of those rays. He’s looking for some super powers.
On the way up, the FF see Kragoff’s ship. Johnny is itching to try out a special costume Reed made for him that will allow him to flame on and be in space because it, “releases an artificial atmosphere” around Johnny.
Johnny flies to the ship to see Kragoff and his apes. Kragoff is trying to figure out what cool new powers they all have. It looks like nothing until the gorilla demonstrates some super strength. The baboon seems to be able to shape change, the orangutan has magnetic powers and is able to push Johnny off course because of that.
Johnny makes it back to his ship and tells the team the situation. Reed is aware of Kragoff and they know a fight is coming once they land.
The FF’s rocket touches down on the mysterious blue area where they find what looks like an abandoned city. One thing to note here is at this point since man had not actually landed on the moon, this kind of story was somewhat more believable. For all we knew there really could have been an old abandoned city on the moon.
After they land the team realizes there is enough of an atmosphere here they can breathe and operate like normal. Reed starts to look for Kragoff’s ship but they notice a modern house with what looks like someone living in it. In the excitement to see that, the group leaves Thing behind. Thing goes to kick a rock but it turns out to be the baboon. Thing is soon surrounded by all the apes and Kragoff who calls himself, The Red Ghost. Basically Kragoff can turn himself, “unsolid” like a ghost so no one can hit him. His powers are reminiscent of what the Vision’s phasing powers will be.
As the five of them scuffle around, a mysterious being shows up and tells them all to just knock it off. He calls himself the Watcher and proves he is immensely powerful but just putting the apes in some kind of bubble.
Watcher calls out to all the earthlings and tells them he comes from a planet that is one vast, giant computer. He goes through a rundown of some of the things he has seen including entire civilizations destroying themselves. And he speaks about how he and his people have only ever observed and never before made their presence known.
The Watcher wants to save humans from their own savagery. He doesn’t care if we blow up Earth but now Reed and Kragoff have brought the fight to Watcher’s turf. He wants Thing and Kragoff to duke it out one on one and Watcher just sort of disappears.
Reed and the rest of the gang do find Thing and take him back to the house they were checking out. Seems like it’s probably the Watcher’s place according to Ben. Watcher then whisks everyone away to a battlefield inside a “dead city.”
As you would expect there is a fight between the FF and the Red Ghost and his apes. The fight goes poorly for our heroes at first. Red Ghost manages to capture Sue Storm and speed away in a car that goes underground. The rest of the FF regroup and Reed figures out they need to outsmart the opposition rather than use brute force. Reed sends Johnny and Ben to go after Sue and tries to make a weapon out of the technology he finds in the dead city.
Meanwhile, Sue is trapped with the Red Ghost who explains his apes obey him when they are at their hungriest so he keeps them locked behind a force field. Red Ghost then leaves and Sue says, “If I could only find a way to eliminate this force field– to free the super-apes! I would take my chances with them, rather than the Red Ghost, for they are like the communist masses, innocently enslaved by their evil leaders!” This quote stood out to me because so far, in almost all of the issues of Marvel 616 where communists show up, there’s not any mention of ordinary citizens. Instead, they all tend to be lumped together as evil but here Stan Lee really is making a distinction, although kind of a clumsy one with the moon as a proxy fight for democracy versus communism. It’s not a huge stretch to think this could have, in some ways, been intended to be a statement on the conflict in Vietnam. You know, just with super-apes on the moon.
Sue is able to free the apes and rather than attack her they go for the food. Then they break the door down, conveniently allowing Sue Storm to escape.
Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm chase down the Red Ghost but he has a disintegrator ray he found waiting for them. Luckily, Sue catches up to them before they can be harmed and she warns them it’s a trap. Johnny melts the ray and heats up the air around Red Ghost causing him to flee. Red Ghost gets to the surface and sees the house of the Watcher and figures there’s probably some pretty good stuff in there.
Unfortunately for the Red Ghost everything the Watcher has is just beyond human understanding (much like the character Uatu himself). Needless to say, the Watcher is not cool with someone breaking into his house. He tells Red Ghost he could send him to limbo, to the dawn of time, or to the end of time but he’s not worth the effort and just tosses the guy out of his house without even touching him.
As he gets tossed Reed hits the Red Ghost with a paralyzing ray he built. At this point the FF are pretty sure they’ve won but realize they don’t know for sure until the Watcher says so. The Watcher does show up and declares the contest over and the FF to have won. He also says his own mission is at an end. He says, “Now that mankind has reached the moon, I must go to a more distant part of the galaxy, to observe you mortals from afar! For we Watchers must be ever aloof– ever apart from other races!” We all know we’re going to see this character again and that he’s immensely important to the 616 continuity but it’s still a pretty impressive entrance and exit.
After the Watcher leaves the apes turn on their master. Reed and company head back to Earth ready for a rest and to give the new rocket fuel to the National Space Agency. At the very end of the issue we’re teased with a promise of an appearance by both Sub-Mariner and the Puppet Master for the next issue.
Overall this is a really fun issue, even if the idea of super apes is a bit ridiculous. The cosmic weirdness the Fantastic Four can achieve is beyond any other comic book heroes this side of Green Lantern and it’s always great to see a cosmic being introduced. Although he isn’t named in the issue this Watcher is Uatu who is a key component of tons of Marvel 616 stories. He’s also the narrator for some of the most fun stories Marvel puts out which are the What If comics. It’ll be a while until he’s a real regular but the Fantastic Four comics would not be nearly as fantastic without the influence of the Watcher, who is incidentally, the one guy who shouldn’t be influencing anyone.
Next up on the reading list we’ll be getting small once again as we catch up with Ant-Man in the pages of Tales to Astonish #42!