Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Super Blog Team-Up - The Frightful Four (Are Brains Required for this Outfit?)

Doug: Welcome to the third Super-Blog Team-Up, the second in which the Bronze Age Babies have participated. If you're landing here from one of the other participants, we sure hope you'll like what you see around this space -- be sure to come back again soon! To our regulars, we always appreciate your participation and know you'll happen by our other "partners" in the next day or so.

Doug: If there's one major thing we do around here, it's discuss comic books! Today we're featuring the Frightful Four, that collection of do-badders that menaced the Fantastic Four in the Silver and Bronze Ages (and perhaps beyond, but we don't deal in that sort of thing).

Karen: The Frightful Four -the "other" FF! What can one say about these guys (and gals) other than - they really never could match their counterparts, could they? They were never direct copies of the Fantastic Four, as far as powers go, but their set up typically revolved around a brainy leader (the Wizard), some muscle (Sandman usually), the requisite female member (Medusa or Thundra), and then, well, the Trapster! Both the Wizard and the Trapster had started out as opponents for the Human Torch in his solo adventures in Strange Tales, although the Trapster went by the charming nom du crime of Paste-Pot Pete at the beginning of his career. The Wizard first showed up in Strange Tales #102 (Nov. 1962), and PPP came along two issues later. The two would team up and take on the Torch in Strange Tales #110 (July 1963), and be soundly beaten by the blazing teen alone. But obviously this defeat didn't deter them from thinking bigger- and adding a little more help. In Fantastic Four #36 (March 1965), Pete would escape from prison with help from former Spider-Man foe the Sandman. In a bizarre set of circumstances, the two of them run into the Wizard. The Wizard, with his very healthy ego, believes that with the addition of a super-powered female, they could be the equal of the Fantastic Four. He happens to know where to find such a woman (amazingly) and soon Madam Medusa has joined the ranks of the newly christened "Frightful Four." This was obviously at a time before Medusa's Inhuman origins had been worked out. The group goes after the FF but the fight is a draw essentially, and the villains escape.

Doug: The Wizard's finest attribute may be that massive ego! I think these blokes from the beginning were simply bent on attention-getting behaviors. If there's a line between Marvel and DC villains in the Silver Age, it may be the fact that the DC guys were always out for some sort of personal gain, while at the House of Ideas it seemed to be all about expressing one's machismo. And as we'll see throughout our brief survey, the Wizard "always had a weakness for skirts".

Karen: In issue #38 (May 1965), the Frightful Four return, and they've made a few changes. Paste Pot Pete has switched to his Trapster name, reflecting a more serious threat by the group. And Medusa has a redesigned uniform that gives her a sleeker, sexier look. The bad guys grab Sue Storm and use her as bait to lure the rest of the Fantastic Four to a Pacific atoll where the Wizard plans to detonate a "Q-bomb" that will kill the FF (and anything else in a large radius). The two teams battle on the atoll and the Frightful Four actually get the upper hand, managing to escape before the bomb goes off. The FF survive within one of the Invisible Girl's force fields, but lose their powers...but that's a whole different story. The Frightful Four actually seemed pretty dangerous at this point, having nearly accomplished their task. There was a certain level of ruthlessness to them that was rather scary, particularly given the era.

Doug: In the "interesting" department, raw beats schtick every time. There has to be a true sense of danger for an antagonist to be acceptable.

Karen: The third appearance of the Frightful Four was the most exciting -and for me, the most memorable! Originally appearing in Fantastic Four #41-43 (Aug-Oct 1965), I first read this tale in the pages of the 70s reprint title, Marvel's Greatest Comics. By this point, many things had come together for the World's Greatest Comic Magazine, not the least of these being the art - Kirby's work had begun to take on the qualities we would associate with his FF run, despite the fact that these issues are inked by Vince Colletta and not Joe Sinnott.  But the story is the real key -it's a terrific thriller where the villains manage to kidnap the Thing and brainwash him into attacking his friends. This was a tale with emotional heft, and it definitely made the Frightful Four seem like an A-class threat for the FF.  We also get some tantalizing glimpses of internal conflict, as there is jostling for leadership of the group between the Wizard and Medusa. Sadly, this would never be developed. Despite this encouraging start, the villainous group would disappear for five years, not showing up again until the lackluster Fantastic Four #94 (Jan. 1970), which was the last time we saw the original line-up together -although Medusa only rejoined so she could warn the FF, who were now her good friends. It's truly puzzling that this team was left out to hang for so long, but when you look at all of the other concepts introduced by Lee and Kirby immediately following the Frightful Four's introduction -the Inhumans, Galactus, the Silver Surfer, Black Panther, etc. - perhaps there simply wasn't room for them! They got much more mileage in the Bronze Age.

Doug: We know Stan could turn on a dime with an idea; Medusa's changing allegiances would be a prime example. While a capable villainess, she became equally acceptable later on as a noble ally. And I think you're right about the succeeding years, truly the Fantastic Four's golden age. With all of the heavy hitters the Lee/Kirby juggernaut created, the Frightful Four became small-timers quickly.

Doug: The next set of issues shown below brought the Frightful Four into the Bronze Age with a line-up change. Gone was Madam Medusa, replaced by a new character created by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway and first depicted by the art team of John Buscema and Joe Sinnott. Thundra was a champion for women, calling Medusa "sister" in FF #129 (Dec. 1972). Possessing super-strength and seemingly limitless stamina, she was brought on board to handle the Thing (so who would the Sandman shift to fighting?). Problem is, she took a shine to ol' Ben Grimm and that sort of complicated her membership in the Frightful Four. But oddly enough, her infatuation with the Thing was not all love-based -- no, in fact her attention seemed to be focused on kicking Ben's butt in a one-on-one throwdown. Yet Thundra could be harsh to women as well, as she spoke in no uncertain terms to Medusa when the Inhuman used her living tresses against the Femizon.

Doug: And how about that cover by Jim Steranko for FF #130 (Jan. 1973)?

Karen: Thundra was certainly an interesting addition to both the Frightful Four and the title. Her motivations always seemed to make her less of a team player though. 

Doug: While Fantatic Four #148 (July 1974) has a great Rich Buckler/Joe Sinnott cover, the adventure inside leaves a little bit to be desired. This is temporally an odd issue in that it falls in between a larger story involving Sue's leaving Reed for the Sub-Mariner. But, I suppose in real life we bounce from one vignette to another... Anyway, upon losing Round One to Namor, Ben, Reed, Medusa, and Johnny return to the Baxter Building to find that the Frightful Four have again infiltrated it (I don't know who the doorman was at this point, but he was doing a rotten job!). There's a nice battle between the Sandman and Reed, and also Johnny and the Trapster. But this was a done-in-one tale, so there really wasn't too much drama. The Wizard is able to use his anti-gravity discs to put Medusa and Reed out of the battle, but it's Thundra's deus ex machina appearance that wins the day for our heroes. When the straits are at their most dire, the 7-foot beauty mysteriously materialized right in the thick of it all (in a Buckler/Sinnott image that would adorn the first series of the 7-11 Slurpee cups) and took the fight out of the evil FF. She didn't have any trouble being accepted by Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Medusa, either. In fact, on the issue's closing two-page splash of Namor announcing a new war against the surface people, Conway's script refers to five "friends". Oh -- and we're never given any rationale for this latest attack by the Frightful Four. We're left to deduce that they a) just wanted a scrap and/or b) the Wizard continued to pine for Reed Richard's technology files.

Karen: The revolving door on the fourth member had started and wouldn't stop. While the original three baddies now had every reason to hate the FF, it was getting harder to make sure that fourth member matched their fervor. I would also say that this is when the Frightful Four started to feel like a second rate group -they can't maintain any cohesiveness and their plans are now far less successful. A far cry from the team of the Silver Age.

Doug: I think you're exactly right. As I read over these 1970s appearances, there just didn't seem to be any motivation. If nothing else, I thought it was a broken record that the Wizard wanted to steal Reed's tech, the Sandman seemed to have an inferiority complex against the entire FF, and the Trapster... well, he was the Trapster. How many super-villains have been in as high-profile a magazine yet disrespected more as an adversary? So add in a fourth member -- any fourth member -- and the right chemistry should have allowed this thing to take off. Yet, it seemed formulaic to have the Frightful Four implode on themselves, never seeing any of their machinations through to any sort of hard result.

Doug: One of the stories we've discussed reviewing in 2014 is the Frightful Four 2-parter that trailed the very fun Impossible Man tale from FF #176. In Fantastic Four #177-178 (Dec. 1976-Jan. 1977) the Frightful Four has taken control of the Baxter Building (again) and is holding auditions for a fourth member! And even that gets wild and woolly, as a new character named the Texas Twister shows up (we'd see him again against Johnny in FF #192) and literally blows everyone away. He wouldn't be a good fit around the Sandman, however. Captain Ultra had a costume only Wonder Man could appreciate, but had a pathological fear of fire. Uh, no. So after some time of interview/audition/failure -- including Thundra and Tigra, each of whom immediately turns on the three main FF members, a new candidate presents himself and makes a strong case for himself. As Thundra and Tigra wreaked havoc on their would-be suitors upstairs, the Wizard was able to commandeer a microphone and broadcast to the applicants in the lobby to send help immediately. Careful what you ask for... On a sidenote, the art by George Perez and Joe Sinnott is striking during this period.

Karen: Boy, there were some real stinkers that showed up for those try-outs... talk about desperation!

Doug: Not being a regular reader of the Warlock mag, I had no idea that the Brute and his alter ego -- the Reed Richards of Counter-Earth -- were characters in Warlock #6-7. This guy is particularly nasty: as large as the Hulk, way smarter, and just as aggressive. He makes short work of Ben in their first encounter, tossing him into the Negative Zone! And that's how he's exposed as an alternate-Reed -- how in the world could the Brute have known just which switch to throw to jettison Ben into the abyss? Later, our Reed also gets tossed into the Zone, but that's after the Frightful Four portion of the story is over. And what of the Four fiends? They are used pretty typically in this tale, although Roy Thomas adds quite a bit of humor to it. I'd have to say that there was more characterization here than we'd seen before. By the end of #178, the Fantastic Four, along with their allies Thundra and Tigra, make relatively short work of the Wingless Wizard, Sandman, and the Trapster.

Karen: At the time, my knowledge of the Brute was limited like yours. I don't think Warlock had great distribution! But after picking up the Warlock Marvel Masterwork volume 1 and reading through all of those early issues, I have a greater appreciation for him. I do like the idea of Counter-Earth, and the duplicates that live there. It's a great "What If?" On that world, our four heroes made their spaceflight, but did not receive super-powers, and so the Fantastic Four was never born. Further, Sue Storm went into a coma upon crash landing on Earth. The stress of causing Sue harm, and some manipulation by the satanic Man-Beast, gave rise to Counter-Reed's alter-ego. Having him become a Hulk-like creature is a nice twist. Although we know any Reed from any universe could never stand playing second fiddle to the Wizard!

Doug: So there you have a brief synopsis of this cadre of knuckleheads from your friends at the BAB. Now it's your turn! What did you like/dislike about the Frightful Four, which were your favorite stories, and how might they have been better used across the Marvel Universe -- not just as antagonists for the Fantastic Four? There were later iterations of this FF, past the Bronze Age, with a myriad of members (including Hydro-Man, Klaw, and Man-Bull) -- does anyone have feelings positive or negative toward those stories?

Doug: And now that you're done here, be sure to check out the other 11 writers participating in this round of Super-Blog Team-Up:

Longbox Graveyard -- Thanos: Love & Death

Between The Pages -- Two Villains Rule The World of Cakes: Darth Vader & Boba Fett

Superhero Satellite -- Legion Of SuperHeroes: The Great Darkness Saga

Fantastiverse -- Green Goblin: The Art of Villainy and Madness

Chasing Amazing -- Carnage: How I Helped Create This Monster

The Daily Rios -- JLA: Beasts storyline

The Unspoken Decade -- Godkillers: Doomsday and Bane


Anonymous said...

Great post guys!! Very informed and well written! Got to go pick me up some Warlock issues now!!

Chasing Amazing said...

I still maintain that Paste Pot Pete/Trapster is the best bad villain Marvel has ever created.

Fun post!

Doug said...

Mark, I think I smell a post idea coming on! Shoot, we've probably covered "best lame villains" before but what the heck -- we'll do it again soon!

Thanks for the comments, guys.


Dr. Oyola said...

C'Mon everyone knows Stiltman is the best worst villain! ;)

Nice post. I always liked the Frightful Four, but agree, generally speaking they were never much of a challenge. In fact, unlike the original FF, they seemed weaker by their team-up not stronger. Sandman by himself was more of a challenge!

Speaking of the Frightful Four I wrote a bit about their latest (if brief) incarnation in the pages of FF (Future Foundation) vol 2. - in which they consisted of Wizard, Blastaar, a mind-controlled Medusa, and he tries to recruit his own young clone, Bentley-23 to finish forming their "family."

You can read it here.

I am looking forward to checking out the other blogs in the team-up.

david_b said...

Speaking of ol' Stilts, I had to give CA&F 191 another glance recently, I had forgotten that he made a baddie appearance in that ish, probably the 1st appearance since DD 102.

As for a lineup of 'best lame villains', you could typically start with DD's Emmisaries of Evil. I'll put a pre-emptive vote in for either Leap Frog or Matador.

Doug said...

Am I crazy in thinking there's an issue of Thor where he tangles with the Stilt-Man?

But man -- when I got a coverless copy of DD #102 at a garage sale, with Stilty and the Black Widow, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven!

So, would the Frightful Four have been better off if they'd steered that fourth member slot away from females? Did that just become a trope that led to their inevitable downfall in each adventure?


Pat Henry said...

I seem to recall a Byrne-era FF where the Frightful Four had their keisters handed to them by the Baxter Building's auto defenses alone. The FF weren't even at home (away in the Negative Zone IIRC).

Talk about a hoomiliating pasting.

Doug said...

So given Karen's posit that this group was indeed menacing at the start, and shortly thereafter, when it's all said and done is their lasting legacy just as a team that showed up with no chance at all to win?

I'd like to see a treatment of the Frightful Four akin to the reworking of the Masters of Evil in the "Under Siege" storyline that ran in the Avengers.


david_b said...

Doug, I'd checkout Thor 269.., found on a similar-thinking blog..:

Ah, yes, 'THE MELTER'..

I shudder at the very whisper of his evil name.

Doug said...

In other news...

Official title: Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

Not sure how anyone feels about that. Or why Cyborg will be a founding member of the JLA for that matter.


Doug said...

David --

That's the one. I think I'll review that mag some time.

Thanks for the link!


Dean Compton said...

Medusa and Sandman are two of my favorite characters, and it is somehow easy to forget that Sandman had a connection to the FF. Awesome reading.

Wizard always bugged me when I was young b/c he was not a wizard at all. When I was 13, I thought that was awful.

Humanbelly said...

That Baxter Building story (yep, Byrne era) actually just had the Trapster getting snagged as he attempted to break in on his own. Another memorable failure of an outing for our own Peter Petruvich (IIRC).

I've always enjoyed the FFL4, too-- although those first 3 appearances really gave us TOOOOOO much of helping all at once. . . sort of like Enchantress/Executioner early on in the Avengers. But they simply can't escape seeming hokey, because. . . what's their reason for existing? What purpose is served by their becoming a team? Was it simply to make fast cash by committing crimes? While that certainly suits the likes of Pete and Sandy. . . it's so ridiculously mundane and pedestrian for the comically vain and egomaniacal Wizard. I feel like they were always particularly bad when it came to clearing the plausibility hurdle. I mean, NO SuperVillain "team" of self-servers is going to function with the discipline and precision and easy camaraderie of your basic super-team.

That last team pictured, w/ Wiz, Klaw, Hydroman & Titania is indeed a legitimately formidable bunch. . . except that Ulysses Klaw was even more of an arrogant, self-worshiping hard-science nut-job than the Wizard ever has been, and it's awfully hard to imagine them both existing in the same room. . .


Edo Bosnar said...

The Baxter Building story ... do you guys mean FF #218, the one that continued from an issue of Peter Parker SSM, in which the Trapster gets Johnny to let him into the building because he's disguised as Spider-man? In that one, they broke with their usual practice and made Electro their fourth member. Anyway, I loved that story!

And as I mentioned in the comments to yesterday's post, the Frightful 4 also fought Spider-man (ASM #s 214-215). That wasn't a bad story, either - although I haven't read since way back when. And the fourth member that time was again a woman, this time Llyra.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Karen & Doug. Now I've got to go read some of the others...

Anonymous said...

The only, and I do mean "only", drawback to SBTU is finding the time to read through all those great blogs. There is only so much one man can do. As it is, my day is taken up with planning world domination, ensuring the trains run on time, meeting with execs at Fox and Sony, folding spindling, mutilating and removing mattress tags, I mean, COME ON, give a guy a break!!!

The Prowler (knows a hustler's work is never through).

PS I forget to mention proving I'm not a robot......

ZIRGAR said...

23Fantastic Four #177, the comic that got me hooked on superhero comic books. I was just a tot and I was home sick from school and my mom called to ask me what she could get for me on her way home from work and I asked her to get me a comic book. She didn't know any different so she grabbed the one she thought I would think looked the coolest. And she was right. Before this I had always gone for the monster/horror/fantasy/science fiction comics, but from that moment onward I was hooked on superhero books. Thanks, mom!

Anonymous said...

Edo mentioned my favourite, where Electro got in the Baxter Building disguised as Spidey, but with the real Spidey's help it didn't take long to beat the bad guys.

There was also the Amazing Spider-Man story where Llyra joined the Frightful Four and they "stole" Spider-Man's spidey-sense and put it into Namor to drive him nuts. That story wasn't as good as the Electro one, in my opinion (although Llyra looked pretty good disguised as Peter's mysterious neighbour!).

Mike W.

ZIRGAR said...

Thanks, Google, for also posting the captcha on my previous comment!

Fred W. Hill said...

I hadn't realized I inadvertently prepped for today's post with my response to yesterday's post! Anyhow, I've enjoyed most of the Frightful Four stories I've read from the Silver & Bronze ages, although some of them were a bit lame. The first time the Sandman took on the FF by himself, he was pretty impressive but by the time Kirby drew his last evil FF yarn, in the same mag that introduced Agatha Harkness, they were becoming more like the Fretful Three. BTW, I only got one issue of Warlock's original run off the stands, but that just so happened to be issue #6, featuring the Brute! And Thomas' & Perez' induction of the evil Reed Richards into the evil FF was one of my favorite FF Bronze Age stories (I just wish Thomas & Perez could have stuck around long enough to complete the storyline).
Personally, I look at the initial run of Frightful Four stories that concluded in issue #43 as really one long story with a few side trips. As the Sub-Mariner and Dr. Doom dominated the first 3 years of the FF, the Frightful Four dominated the 4th, and note that their first attack coincided with Reed & Sue's engagement party, while their wedding took place just after the good FF decisively defeated the bad FF, with the Thing thrashing the Wizard so thoroughly he had to be hospitalized, and this was just a few issues after rampaging Ben nearly crushed Doc Doom's hands (Lee & Kirby were emphasizing it's not healthy to get on Ben Grimm's bad side!). Aside from when they had the Brute on their side, the Frightful Four were never quite as frightful again.
With issue #44, Kirby started the Fantastic Four on one of their wildest tours, starting with the lone free member of the bad FF on the run from what would turn out to be her family, the Inhumans and coming to a conclusion with the introduction of the Silver Surfer and Galactus. Yeah, after that the Wizard, who I recall was a mega-wealthy but bored genius who took on the Human Torch just to entertain himself, was just small potatoes. He keeps gathering up whoever he can and taking on Reed Richards and company simply out of injured pride, and even at that he's just a minor-league Dr. Doom. He's hopelessly outclassed but he keeps on trying!

Comicsfan said...

One more story of the original Frightful Four that bears mentioning takes place a bit before the Whisper Hill showdown--an issue of Marvel Super-Heroes, where Medusa is coerced into rejoining the team as part of a ruse by the Wizard. It has an interesting element to it where she's ambivalent about returning to her life of crime, even when it might help Black Bolt. It looked like artist Gene Colan had her dressed somewhat like a female version of the original Captain Marvel for the story--though thankfully without the helmet, which definitely would have cramped her style. (Why in the world did the Wizard give a helmet to an operative who depended on her hair for her power, I wonder?)

Redartz said...

Very nice look at the history of the Frightful Four! While some of their stories were a bit light, they always seem to get good covers.

Speaking of light, I really love the humor in issue 177. The parade of applicants, the Wizard and his ego, and the presence of the Impossible Man all make for a fun story. Then the Brute shows up, and things get pretty serious pretty quickly...

Edo Bosnar said...

Mike W., it was definitely Trapster, and not Electro, who was disguised as Spidey in that Baxter Building home invasion story. Trust me, back then I read that story over & again quite a bit. I also seem to recall - anyone who actually has the issue now can maybe confirm this - that Reed actually used a vacuum cleaner to catch Sandman (like Spidey did way back when). I think Spidey even makes some kind of crack about that.

And I agree about that later story featuring Llyra. Not nearly as good. Although yes, Llyra did look good disguised as the mysterious neighbor - as I recall, that was the point wasn't it? She was trying to seduce Peter as part of the FF's nefarious plan...

Anonymous said...

@Edo You're right it was's been a while since I've read those issues! As for your other comment, yeah I seem to recall they introduced the "sexy neighbor" a few issues beforehand and she turned out to be Llyra, setting up Peter.

Mike W.

Anonymous said...

I have always loved the Frightful Four. They are my favorite villains. However, they have been little more than a joke in recent years. The evil FF need a female member powerful enough to break through Sue Storm's force field and then they will have a real chance at success.

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