Fantastic Four #119 (February 1972)
"Three Stood Together!"
Writer: Roy Thomas
Art: John Buscema
Inker: Joe Sinnott
Karen: Ah, get ready for a classic, kids! At least, a classic to me. This was one of the first FF's I ever had, and boy did it have an impact on me. The earliest issue I had was #113 -yes, I missed the Hulk-Thing fight by one issue -but this issue had a story that puzzled me as a wee lass and only made sense as I got older. Still, its message left a real impression on me at a very early age.
Doug: I envy you, as this certainly would have been a formative tale for a youngster. Published when I would have been a 1st grader, in the era of busing and integrated schools, I do think this would have resonated with me. But I didn't come to this story until really only several years ago, whenever I acquired the Fantastic Four dvd-rom.
Karen: We begin with the Thing and the Torch engaging in some typical (for the times) rough-housing, although we get the impression the Torch is truly steamed this time. Now when these two go at it, it's not just a couple of punches tossed, and maybe a lamp gets knocked over. No, it's more like a huge chunk of the Baxter Building gets launched out over the city, only to be melted down into molten material that falls harmlessly (?) into some smokestacks. The Torch returns to the FF's headquarters, fuming, and decides to blast ol' Benjy, but his fiery attack is stopped by an invisible barrier. At the same time, as the Thing is about to smack the Torch upside the head, he is tripped by an elongated blue-sleeved arm. Of course, it's the more even-keeled members of the team, Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl, doing their part to make sure no more destruction ensues. Sue chastises the Thing - "Benjamin. J. Grimm!" - for knocking out a piece of the wall and putting civilians in jeopardy, but Ben says he knew Johnny would stop it, and besides, it's the kid's fault for starting it by giving him a hotfoot. Johnny jumps in, saying there wouldn't have been any fight if Ben hadn't been putting down his girlfriend, the Inhuman, Crystal. Reed tells them to pipe down, and then pulls out a doohicky that summons his latest robotic creation to come clean everything up. Scenes like this, with Johnny and Ben (despite Ben being the same age as Reed) playing "the kids" and the married Richards' acting as scornful parents, hammered home the family concept of the FF.
Doug: I often think what a pain in the butt it would be to have a window broken by vandals, or hail stones. How about a 20-foot wide hole gaping in your skyscraper living quarters? You think it might get a little breezy? I think property destruction is the single area of comic book reading where we suspend our disbelief. I tend to focus so much on the action going on, that Reed's "Auntie" invention (by the way, which acronym took longer to concoct -- this one or H.E.R.B.I.E.?) would be beyond my consideration. I do think the Thing/Torch battle served as sort of a jumping on point for new readers, as each of them fully display their powers, as do Reed and Sue (at least how powerful her force fields could be). And you're spot on about the family dynamic -- it's truly what separates this magazine from all others.
Karen: Reed tells Ben and Johnny to follow him, as he had just received an important "vizeo" call while the two were going at each other. It's from the Black Panther's second in command. When everyone is gathered around the screen, Reed apologizes for the delay and asks him to please speak. It's always been interesting to me that the the Wakandans are depicted as technologically advanced, yet (like here) wearing traditional, or perhaps even stereotypical African garb. Both Taku, the adviser, and the guard behind him are wearing large headdresses, and the guard even holds a spear! Even in later depictions of the Panther and Wakanda, much of this continued. Some writers did discuss it as holding on to their cultural heritage, but part of me wonders if initially it was just a short-hand way for artists to say, 'These people are African!'
Doug: The depiction of the Wakandans certainly doesn't do much to weaken African stereotypes held by Westerners. Between this and Ron Ely's Tarzan on the television, as well as reruns of the Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe Tarzan films, I know my mind was made up. Teeming cities, in Africa? Nah... You could argue that the costuming on one of the baddies was white-guy-in-Africa stereotypical as well.
Karen: The Panther's adviser, Taku, explains that a few days prior, a small plane crashed in Wakanda, carrying two men, Jeth Robards and Nathan Kumalo. T'Challa (the Panther) had the men brought to their city to recover, but the two responded by stealing a device called a vibrotron, which can increase the energy-absorbing capabilities of vibranium, that metal which is Wakanda's greatest natural resource. The two men fled but a guard overheard them say they were to meet a buyer for the device in the neighboring nation of Rudyarda. T'Challa went after them himself, but they haven't heard a word from him in two days. Ben asks why they haven't gone after him themselves, considering all the technology at their disposal. Taku responds that Grimm wouldn't ask such a thing if was up on his history - Rudyarda is a nation of white supremacy. Ben lamely replies, "Oh yeah...I forgot." Taku responds, "You can afford to forget. My people cannot." I sort of felt like it would have made more sense for the younger Johnny to be the one to be ignorant here of Rudyarda. It's not something I would expect of the older and more worldly Ben. Taku's response is properly chastising. And Rudyarda? From Rudyard Kipling? Interesting choice by Thomas. I wonder if he had to dissect the poem "White Man's Burden" in college or something.
Doug: Well, we've now entered the DC Universe of made-up nations and cities. I suppose I never questioned Wakanda, but later in some Avengers and X-Men stories I felt that the fictional locations (Genosha, for example) seemed out-of-place in a Marvel Universe set squarely in New York City, San Francisco, etc. Taku's response to Ben's brusque ignorance of the nature of Rudyarda was concise and without the preachiness of Denny O'Neil's Green Lantern/Green Arrow scripts. Roy just delivered the line, and the message was clear. There was no need to create an angry confrontation as a point of emphasis; if the reader is empathetic and socially aware, he/she will "get it".
Karen: Reed asks Johnny and Ben if they can travel to Rudyarda to look for T'Challa, as he is in the middle of an important experiment. They agree to bury the hatchet and go look for the Panther. After they leave, in a scene worthy of Stan Lee's schmaltziest writing, Sue tells Reed she's worried about Johnny, because of what's happened to Crystal (she can no longer live in our polluted atmosphere and had to return to the Inhumans' Great Refuge). She asks Reed if he couldn't tell Johnny about his experiment. Reed says he dare not -if his experiment fails -it's the last hope for Crystal to be able to live among human beings again! She'd be lost to Johnny forever!
Doug: I felt like Reed's efforts for Johnny again reinforced the family aspect of this team. However, I almost felt like his fear of disappointing Johnny was exclusive of his failed attempts to have "cured" Ben through the years. A nod to those efforts might have been nice, and again -- particularly for newer readers. Is it interesting to you that in the Johnny/Crystal dynamic it was just peachy for her to leave her family to live near him, but the flipside was never even considered?
Karen: You make an interesting point sir, one that relates not only to gender relations but of course to who was starring in this title!
Karen: On a plane headed towards Rudyarda, Johnny and Ben, dressed in civilian attire (that must make you happy, Doug) (YES!! Finally!! -Doug) are sitting back, relaxing, Ben ready to have a steak -boy has air travel changed -when they hear shouting. It's a skyjacking. Skyjacking? Does anyone use that term any more? The hijacker holds a gun to the flight attendant (or stewardess if you prefer) and says the plane is going to Cuba. Johnny approaches him calmly and says let's talk this over, but the man is having none of it, so Torchie melts his gun before he can fire a single bullet. The man, although startled, quickly recovers, and pulls out his ace: a grenade. Johnny is shocked, but in a second a huge orange mitt comes out and grabs the man's hand. Unfortunately he drops the live grenade. Johnny realizes he can't do much against that -he'd likely blow a hole in the plane trying to melt it before it blew up. But no worries -Ben has the situation in hand. Well, two hands. He grabs the grenade between his two massive paws and it detonates harmlessly. It looks like Ben's about ready to pop the guy one but Johnny talks him out of it. When they get off the plane, the flight attendant thanks Ben profusely.
Doug: The FF's track record on commercial airliners is about as good as the X-Men's record on any aircraft! Did you wonder why the hijacker, who gave no indication of Cuban descent to me at least, wanted to go to Cuba? I wonder if that's just where Roy picked - country out of a hat?
Doug: In regard to Ben's strength, and that of his hide, I'm going to jump the gun (pun intended) on a scene coming up shortly: He can smother the grenade in his giant mitts and absorb not only the concussive force of the explosion but is not harmed by any of the metal pieces that would be ejected. He seems to just absorb the force. Yet Johnny comments later that Ben cannot withstand a barrage of bullets due to the fact that it might chip his skin away or could even be lethal if a bullet were to strike in the gaps between the scales (rocks if you will). Raise your hand if you know anything about this.
Karen: That did seem confusing, now that you mention it. Once in the Rudyarda airport, our two heroes are immediately displeased with what they find: separate lines for "Europeans" and "Coloreds." Ben looks around and says, "I'm sure glad we're here to save the whole blamed world and not just some place that divides its own people into 'Europeans' and 'Coloreds' -or I think I'd just fergit the whole thing!" When they go outside to get a cab, taxi after taxi zips past Ben, frustrating the big orange galoot. There's some interesting dialog between Ben and Johnny here:
Ben: "That's the third empty cab that's passed me by like I wuz a plague case or else maybe -"
Johnny: "Maybe a black man trying to get to Harlem, Mr. G?"
Ben: "Yeah... Sumthin' like that."
Karen: Ben finally resorts to grabbing the rear bumper of a cab and lifting it up to stop it. The startled driver realizes that he recognizes him as a member of the American Fantastic Four. "Hop in, Sir. Sorry I didn't stop at first, but I took you for... I mean..." Disgusted, Ben tells him to shut up and take them where he tells him. Now I don't really buy that someone would mistake a hulking orange rock-skinned man for a Black man, but I appreciate what Roy Thomas was doing here, and Ben's obvious anger and loathing of the whole situation is well-handled.
Doug: Roy did a nice job of setting the table for the plot in this part of the story - again, it's there but somewhat subtle. No club-wielding here, and none necessary (but agreed on the line the cabbie spoke). And Big John Buscema and Joe Sinnott do a nice job on the art in showing the dichotomy of housing in the "white" section of the city as compared to the "colored" part of town.
Karen: The Thing and Torch head into a run-down part of town on a tip from Taku. They're told that Nathan Kumalo lives in a decrepit apartment building here. Looking around at the destitute surroundings, they start to wonder if the deal could have gone down. They do find Kumalo upstairs. He doesn't want to let them in, but Ben forces the door and gets rough with him. Kumalo, frightened, says he'll tell them everything. Wondering why he's giving up so easily, he says it's because Robards turned on him -took the device and left him to rot here -the only thing a Black man like himself can do in this country. Kumalo doesn't know the name of the buyer, but knows they were to meet him at an abandoned metal works tonight at midnight. Johnny asks if he knows where T'Challa is, and he does indeed: he says the King of Wakanda is locked up inside the city prison! While Ben and Johnny begin to discuss whether to believe Kumalo or not, he turns around and grabs a pistol from a dresser and threatens them, but Ben says his place is so dusty he's going to sneeze -and he does, blowing Kumalo across the room! OK, this was goofy. As the two turn to leave, Kumalo asks with surprise that they aren't going to put him in prison? Johnny coolly says to him that he's already in one. Ouch.
Doug: A super sneeze, have we? I guess I wouldn't bat an eye if it were the Hulk, but Ben's never been that, er, strong.
Karen: In the city prison that evening, T'Challa sits and ponders his situation when he suddenly hears gunfire. He wonders if his subjects (would he use this term in modern comics? I think not) have come to free him. Nope, it's his two pals from the FF, the Torch and the Thing, and I'm sure nobody recognizes them! Now you know if Reed had been along on this mission, this half-baked jailbreak would never have happened. He would have probably gone to the president of Rudyarda or some other important person and worked things out. or maybe, since time was of the essence, he would have created a device to put everyone to sleep, so he could free T'Challa. But it would have been something very subtle and quiet. But not these two. They come in blazing, ripping apart gates and breaking into cell blocks. To give him credit, the Torch does flare up bright enough to blind the guards for a short time, so they don't have to physically engage them. After a brief search, they find T'Challa's cell and the Torch quickly melts through the bars (couldn't Ben have ripped the door out quicker?). The three head down the hall and T'Challa takes out a couple of guards, proclaiming himself to be the Black 'Leopard'. Ben asks what that's all about, and T'Challa explains (as he recovers his black outfit and puts it on) that the term 'black panther' now has a political meaning in America. "I neither condemn nor condone those who have taken up the name -but T'Challa is a law unto himself." Now as an aside here, I think this name change lasted all of this issue. I know by Avengers #105 (November 1972) T'Challa is back to being called the Panther, and writer Steve Englehart gives an explanation along the lines of "the people using the name Black Panther don't represent me, I'm my own person" and that's that.
Doug: That was one old-school prison, wasn't it? Wow -- what a fortress! Hey, every team needs a straight guy -- for the FF it was Reed, the X-Men, Cyke. But Cap didn't always play that way, did he? Anyway, the break-out was cool from the standpoint that Ben and Johnny were spitting on this Rudyardan form of justice and just playing out their own. Seemed appropriate for the circumstances.
Karen: Oh, no argument there!
Doug: I was certain that Stan addressed the issue of T'Challa changing his name, perhaps in one of Stan's Soapboxes, but a quick leaf through my copy of Stan's Soapbox: The Collection didn't turn up any information.
Karen: The three split the prison and make it out onto the city streets. The Panther explains that his vibrotron not only increases the range and power of vibranium but it will disintegrate any metal it is aimed at. It is a game-changing weapon for any nation that has it. Too dangerous to fall into the wrong hands. If that's the case, Johnny wonders, how come the officials didn't help T'Challa track it down? The Wakandan king explains that he left without forging a Rudyardan ID card, something every Black person must carry at all times in the country. When he was stopped by police, he had no card to show, which was an automatic 30 days in the hoosegow. He couldn't convince them of his identity, even though he was wearing his panther suit under his trench coat (what is it with these super-types?). Not wanting to start a fight and possibly injure nearby civilians, the Panther went along with things, waiting for his chance to break out.
Doug: The entire time I was reading this scene, I kept wondering about T'Challa's diplomatic immunity and ability to avoid local laws and customs due to his status as basically a world leader. Rudyarda certainly seemed to be setting themselves up for some real negativity on the international stage.
Karen: They arrive at the deserted metal works, only to be faced by a tall wall and two doors, one for 'Europeans' and one for "Coloreds.' Johnny flies over, wondering why the white people of this land still think of themselves as Europeans after centuries of living here. "They are shackled Torch, nearly as much as we," the Panther says, as he leaps over. Once inside, they quickly find Robards and the vibrotron. He's scared out of his wits by them and easily gives up. Moments later, a strange green helicopter comes in for a landing. T'Challa realizes who the buyer must be: his long-time enemy, Klaw! Sure enough, the red-faced super-villain comes out of the ship, blasting away. He quickly downs the Torch, then, seeing Robards trying to hide in his helicopter, blows up the ship! Klaw is not messing around. The Thing comes after him but is soon buried under a pile of concrete. The Panther leaps to the attack, landing on Klaw's back, but the master of sound brings his sonic disruptor right up to the Panther's head, blasting him off. As the Wakandan king lies momentarily stunned, Klaw moves in to finish him off, but a great orange hand comes up from the ground and knocks him over. The Thing grabs Klaw's metal blaster, crushing it. Klaw freaks out -the device was a part of his altered body! But he soon recovers, and tries to use the jagged edges of the smashed limb to cut the Panther. However, the Panther puts him down for the count with a solid fist to the face, and the threat is over.
Doug: At this point in MU history, T'Challa had such a paltry rogues gallery, you could have bet that Klaw would be involved somehow. Hey, I'll be honest -- at this point of the story I had to look to the lower right corner of the page to see if I was reading a giant-size mag! Man, this story was dense! As we've said over and over in the past, this single issue would fit into a six-issue encompassing trade paperback today!
Doug: I thought that Klaw's sonic doohickey was a part of his body was weird. And his four-page appearance in the story may rank as one of the shortest supervillain showings of all time!
Karen: Well wasn't Klaw's body supposed to be made out of sound? At some point, I think it was just prior to the Project Pegasus saga, his whole body got sucked up into his metal hand or some such thing. And people think the Vision is weird...
Doug: You're right about the "hand"; I do remember that now that you mention it.
Karen: Police arrive on the scene and take Klaw into custody. After some explanations are made, they thank Ben and Johnny. "What about T'Challa?" Johnny says. Perhaps being older and a little more tuned in, T'Challa simply says he wants no thanks, he's just glad the vibrotron was destroyed when Klaw blew up Robards and the helicopter. One of the policeman hesitantly says that actually, T'Challa shouldn't be in this part of town after dark, but he won't ask him for his ID card. Ben cuts him off and tells Johnny and T'Challa it's time to go. But when they turn to leave, they're faced with that stupid wall with the two doors again. "Beautiful! Ya break yer back savin' the whole gol-dang world... then you gotta walk out... thru separate-but-equal doors!" Ben's had enough. He tells Johnny he knows they're in trouble for the jailbreak but he has to do this. Johnny tells him to go ahead. Ben reaches down and digs his huge fingers under the wall. He brings them up, slowly tearing into the wall, then breaking the whole thing into pieces.
Ben: "There! Y'know, somehow I feel a little bit better about everythin' now. Not much, though."
T'Challa: "Ben Grimm... I don't... know how to..."
Ben: "Fergit it T'Challa. I didn't do that for you, I did it for me."
Karen: With that, the three walk off, trampling over broken boards that read 'Europeans' and 'Coloreds' and leaving Rudyarda far behind.
Doug: That single panel of the three men walking on the segregation signs is wonderful. A white man, a misshapen man, and a Black man, stepping all over the divisive rules of those who think they can play God -- it's a great message.
Karen: The comics I had as a little kid I read over and over. With each reading, as I got older, I would get more out of the story. When I first read this, I didn't know about South Africa. I only knew a little about the racial divide in my own country. But even the first time I read it, I could sense the stupidity and injustice of racism. This story was just reinforcing the things I'd learned from my parents -like so many Marvel Comics did. I think this was a great way of moralizing without hitting the reader over the head with it. The instances of bigotry that are revealed come through easily, without the need to over-dramatize them. This issue was also one that helped shape the way I viewed Ben Grimm, and I think his utter disgust with the prejudice he sees is an essential part of the character. In many ways, who better to understand prejudice, than a man whose appearance has lead people to make countless judgments against him, and at least in the beginning of the FF's career, to treat him with disdain. The scene with the cab was smart and funny but certainly one that you could see happening to Ben, and not just in Rudyarda. So perhaps he can relate a little better than most super-heroes to the many instances of bigotry that minorities face. I'd love to know what compelled Thomas to write this issue. Whatever the reason, I'm glad he did it. It's a winner.