Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Fantastic Four #94. Dare you enter....?

Fantastic Four #94, the Frightful Four, including Medusa, attacks the Fantastic Four at night, outside the house of Agatha Harkness who makes her first appearance this issue
Children. What a nuisance they can be, always getting in the way when you're trying to kick a super-villain in the nadgers.

Fortunately there're people in this world you can turn to, to look after your children while you're busy with such matters. And so it is that Marvel's answer to Mary Poppins - Agatha Harkness - makes her debut.

I've complained in the past that the last two years of Jack Kirby's tenure on the strip saw what for me was a marked decline in quality. But, in the interest of fairness, I should say that a quick glance at my battered old copy of Essential Fantastic Four Vol 5, suggests that, even during this period, there was a short-lived upturn, as that volume kicks off with The Prisoner-inspired Dr Doom tale before giving us the Thing's first encounter with Torgo and then this outing.

Admittedly, in between the Doc Doom and Torgo tales, there's a truly woeful Mole Man two-parter that makes no sense whatsoever but it's probably best we draw a veil over that one.

In Fantastic Four #94, Reed and Sue Richards decide that, as their lives are in constant danger, they should temporarily leave their baby Franklin with someone who can look after him.

During her first ever appearance, Agatha Harkness raises her arms and threatens the Frightful Four
That someone is Agatha Harkness who seems creepy and sinister enough on first appearance but, on closer inspection, turns out to be even more creepy and sinister.

To make matters worse, after God knows how many years' absence from the strip, the Frightful Four decide to make a comeback and attack the FF as they stay at Harkness's house.

The Thing, Mr Fantastic and the Human Torch are quickly taken out by the Frightful Four's sneak attack and deadly powers, while the Invisible Girl's defeated by their dramatic act of... ...locking her in her bedroom. No doubt the house promptly reverberated with cries of, "Help! Help! Let me out of my bedroom!" And to think people have accused Stan Lee and Jack Kirby of not being able to create empowered females.

Still, as General Thunderbolt Ross once remarked, the Invisible Girl was really only there to keep everyone's morale up by looking nice.

Fortunately, with the Fantastic Four helpless, Medusa's on hand to look nice tackle the villains, who've re-hired her without grasping she's the sister of sometime Fantastic Four member Crystal. Sadly, despite having a fair bit more spunk than Sue, Medusa turns out to not be much more use in a fight and is also captured.

This, of course, should mean our heroes are doomed. But the villains haven't counted on the presence of Agatha Harkness who promptly unleashes her sinister powers on them.

Fantastic Four #94, the Wizard flees a giant pair of cat eyes
Given that later Jack Kirby FF tales frequently seemed to have been based on whatever it was he'd just watched on TV, I suspect this issue may have been inspired by the classic 1950s horror movie Night of the Demon. Like the villain in that movie, Agatha Harkness has a cat that turns into a much bigger cat, a big creepy house in the middle of nowhere, and a demon to set on those who offend her.

Another clear parallel is how the tale's ending leaves it noticeably ambiguous as to whether the supernatural threats the Frightfuls face in her home are real or just products of their imagination - exactly the same approach Night of the Demon director Jacques Tourneur tried to take with his film before the producers decided such ambiguity was bad for box office, and added a bunch of decidedly unambiguous shots of a giant demon.

Fantastic Four #94, the Trapster is crushed by a giant demon
What's great about this tale is how atypical it is for a Fantastic Four adventure. We're used to seeing the FF inhabit a world of super-science, of men in high-tech armour, of big machines, big planets, big people and even bigger concepts. Seeing them plunged into a world of the strange and supernatural - and a claustrophobic setting - is a welcome change of tone and, while Kirby's celebrated for his technology, the issue does remind us he was equally adept with the occult as with the pseudo-scientific.

Of course, not all's perfect. There is the question of how the Frightful Four knew about the secret passages in Harkness's house in order to use them for their attack and, while Agatha Harkness can clearly defend her latest charge, you do wonder at any parents who'd happily leave their child with someone so blatantly involved with dark forces.

But we all know this blog likes to be so hard-hitting that even Frank Miller daren't look at it for fear of its controversy, and so I'll say that, in my opinion, Fantastic Four #94 was Jack Kirby's last genuinely outstanding Fantastic Four tale.

But then again, what do I know? You may have other ideas. So, here's your chance to share them. What do you think was Jack Kirby's last outstanding FF tale?

12 comments:

Kid said...

Funnily enough, I was just looking at my copy of this issue in the early hours of this morning, so I know you can't have nicked it from me. Indeed, this was a good tale, but #97 was quite good as well. (The Creature From The Lost Lagoon.) It's clear, 'though, that Jack was just treading water until he left for DC.

cerebus660 said...

Also funnily enough, I nearly posted about our Agatha ( or more specifically, her cat )in my FF Fridays feature last week, but then thought I'd written enough about moggies recently so didn't bother. I like your comparison with Night Of The Demon, Steve: I'd never thought of that before but it makes sense.

As Kid says, Kirby was definitely treading water in his last couple of years on the FF. For me, the last classic was the Doctor Doom / Prisoner storyline but I did enjoy the Thing's gladiatorial battles on that "gangster" planet, the Lost Lagoon story and that absolutely nuts Mole Man 2-parter. But when the FF were up against such useless villains as the Maggia and the Monocle (!) you knew the end was in sight...

Dougie said...

I like the Lagoon and the Moon Landing stories. But even treading water, Kirby has the ability to tell a cracking story in one issue. He also demonstrates that skill in Kamandi, the Demon, "The Pact"; "Himon", etc. Who can do that nowadays? Maybe Johnny DC's Sholly Fisch?
Modern comics seem infected by the fantasy novel paradigm: no "worthwhile" story can be told in less than three volumes of six hundred pages. I believe Marvel's "Fear Itself" is scheduled to end when I'm of retirement age.

Kid said...

Dougie, I was re-reading John Byrne's FF tale, Mission For A Dead Man, the other night, and was fair impressed with it. A tightly-plotted, intriguing, self-contained story - told in one issue. If only comics were still like that.

Dougie said...

Funy you should mention Byrne. Last night, on Dr. Who's birhday, I was thinking of the FF stories Byrne wrote and pencilled that homage (kaff!) Who episodes.

"Render Unto Caesar" ends with a reveal lifted from The Three Doctors. "Cityscape" (or whatever the landscape issue was called) owes a fair bit to Death to the Daleks. "The Minds of Mantracora" even echoes The Krotons.

Kid said...

Render unto Caesar...bought by me on Sunday 21st March 1982 (the day after the 1st issue of the new Eagle went on sale), in the newsagents where I used to buy my Power Comics from back in the '60s. Still got both of them too. Funny how comics become calendars to our lives, eh?

comicsfan said...

On the one hand, I like the fact that FF #94 leaves a few question marks hanging in the air, which any supernatural-based tale worth its salt will do. The FF seem content to leave with the knowledge that, with Agatha Harkness, their child is protected, even if they don't understand the hows or whys. Reed and Sue don't take Agatha into her parlor, sit down, and request solid answers as to how the frickin' Frightful Four was taken out under her roof without any of them lifting a finger; and by not delving into the matter further, they and Agatha strike up an informal bond of trust between them.

Yet the other point to this excursion was seclusion, not merely protection. The FF can arguably protect their child as well as anyone--but the goal was to make sure no one could find Franklin in the first place. If no less than the Frightful Four are already waiting on the doorstep of the place you've selected before you've even arrived, I'd say whatever your efforts to keep this nursery secret have already failed. If that's the case, and you still choose to leave your child there, you're probably going to want to know just how, specifically, he's going to be protected by one lone governess--not depend on one encounter for assurances, particularly when there are so many questions unanswered.

Anonymous said...

This classic tale was as much out of character for the Fantastic Four, as it was fun to read. The take-down of the Frightful Four in just one issue certainly belittled them, but it was a fun read, and really felt like a Halloween edition of the FF.
I didn't care for the Moon Landing, as it seemed to belittle the accomplishments of NASA and our moon landing, and the creature from the black lagoon seemed too much light Triton, as we had seen in Thor's back-up featurette. So, I agree this was the last gasp of creativity from Kirby, and the passion was gone. I wonder just how long it was before he had the nod from D.C. and knew that he was outta-here?

John said...

I so totally love your description of how the Frightful Four defeated the Invisible Girl by locking her in her bedroom! Your Fantastic Four reviews are terrific, especially in regards to Susan Storm. I hope you review some of the earlier Frightful Four sagas as well. Thanks much!

Steve W. said...

Thanks, John. :)

Nathan Adler said...

In Fantastic Four #94, Agatha Harkness speaks of “all her charges” so who besides Franklin Richards had she been governess to? It could’t be the Seven, since it’s unlikely she’d refer to her children as her charges!

Reed would never have entrusted his child to her if he didn’t know of her reputation!? So how did he come to know of her “reputation”?

However, being a witch would surely not be it, so it had to be in relation to her being governess to other important “charges” he knew of!

Did it have anything to do with her reputation as a governess being “world-famous”?

If so, what charges across the world had she governed?

Was she his, or his father Nathaniel’s, governess perhaps?

Who else in Marvel’s “world” had she been governess to?

Steve W. said...

I fear it's a question we shall never know the answer to.

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