Incredibly, the saga would take over a year to play out - and there would be diversions and story-loops along the way. But play out it did, and I would slowly learn the secrets of The Inhumans.
The earliest issue of the Fantastic Four comic I can recall reading was issue 36. Though we didn't seen this in the UK until around spring or early summer in 1965, it went on sale in the US on 10th December 1964, so would have been in production August or September of that year. I suppose it's possible that Stan and Jack meant all along to expand the presence of Frightful Four member Madam Medusa into a whole secret race of genetically engineered metahumans ... but I kind of doubt it.
|There was something about the Wizard's explanation of discovering Madam Medusa hiding in a cave that reminded me of Magneto's description of how he found Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver hiding out in Europe, a year earlier in X-Men 4 (Mar 1964).|
The Wizard suggests that she may be the most powerful member of the newly-formed Frightful Four, but the story doesn't play her character out that way at first. What enables to evil FF to come very close to defeating Reed's quartet is the element of surprise and the Frightful Four's teamwork. In the end, Sue Storm saves the day by hosing Medusa down with Paste Pot Pete's glue-gun, and the Wizard's merry band make a hasty exit.
There's no mention of the Frightful Four or Medusa in Fantastic Four 37, but the following issue, they're back. In another masterful plan, The Wizard and his team kidnap Sue Storm as bait and lure the Fantastic Four to a remote Pacific atoll and leave them there as a "Q-Bomb" counts away the seconds to detonation. While Medusa is the catalyst in the abduction of Sue, she doesn't have too much to do beyond that, and we get no further insight into her character than we've had already.
Of course, the FF survive, but at great cost and the next couple of issues are taken up with the quartet's battle against Dr Doom - without their powers - with only Daredevil to help them.
Fantastic Four 41 (Aug 1965) brings back the Quarrelsome Quartet ... and there's an interesting shift in the dynamic within the team. Stan and Jack bring Medusa forward to centrestage. They even have her issuing orders to the rest of the Frightful ones like she's the leader of the team and The Wizard fretting slightly that she may wrest power from him. There's still no hint what might be in back of all this, and indeed, I suspect that Jack hasn't quite solidified his ideas on what Medusa actually is. At this stage, I think he may have been toying with the idea of having Medusa take control of the evil FF.
Whether it's Stan or Jack plotting here, it's clear from Jack's drawings that Medusa is issuing most of the orders as the Frightfuls get to grips with having The Thing and the rest of the Fantastic Four under their control. Yet, the idea isn't followed up in the next instalment of the story. Instead, Medusa seems to be once more just a member of the group under The Wizard's direction, though she's instrumental in defeating The Torch so that The Wizard can put him under the same mind control as The Thing.
In the following issue, Fantastic Four 43 (Oct 1965), we discover that The Torch isn't controlled by the Wizard after all. Medusa, however, is once more telling the Wizard what to do. And even though it's Medusa that figures out that Johnny's just faking being under the control of the ID machine and captures him ... at the end of the tale, as she makes her escape with The Torch in pursuit, Johnny simply lets her go.
Perhaps Stan and Jack were toying with the idea of having Johnny attracted to Medusa (even though she appears at least ten years older than him) ... but it indicates to me that even this late in the game, they still hadn't solidified her backstory. That would come in the very next issue.
When I was eleven, this lack of backstory didn't especially bother me. Medusa was just some weird woman with creepy hair that menaced my favourite super-team. If I'd been a little older, I'd probably have wondered whether she was a mutant like the X-Men. After all, The Wizard had found her hiding from angry villagers in a cave somewhere in Europe. Isn't that where all mutants came from?
Looking back at what was going on at Marvel during 1965, there are two possible reasons for this vagueness. The first is that when the Frightful Four were created - August or September of 1964, I'd say - Stan and Jack had no plans for Medusa beyond her role as a foe of the Fantastic Four. The second is that Stan and Jack did have plans for Medusa, and simply used her appearance in Fantastic Four to promote those plans. But, I don't think the timeline bears that out. I'll explain.
Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story tells that during 1965 - with companies like Archie and Charlton trying to emulate Marvel's success - Publisher Martin Goodman wanted to expand the Marvel line to take up more shelf space and instructed Stan to come up with a couple of ideas for new Marvel comic books. So he got together with Jack Kirby and between them they presented two new titles to Goodman - a black superhero, The Coal Tiger and another super-powered group, The Inhumans. I've come across this story from other sources, so it seems reliable.
However, when Goodman went to Independent News, he found he was still constrained by the agreement he'd made with Jack Liebowitz back in 1957 ... that Independent would distribute no more than eight Marvel comic books a month. Even so, this gradually crept up by a title or two a year, so that by 1965, Marvel had 12 books a month on the stands. So when he asked for another two books, head of DC Comics and Independent News Liebowitz, said, "No". Goodman had to shelf the books, a great disappointment to Stan and an even bigger blow to Jack.
Stan's solution was to fold first The Inhumans, then The Coal Tiger (revised as The Black Panther - though see also Two-Gun Kid 77, Sep 1966), into the Fantastic Four comic.
Based on the timing of the above, I think it's reasonable to conclude that Stan and Jack hadn't originally planned Medusa to be an Inhuman. But when the solo Inhumans book was shelved, the character was retro-fitted as a member of the new group. This would explain the strange personality change in Medusa when we see her again in Fantastic Four 46, alongside the other Inhumans. Her haughty manner has gone and she seems like a completely different person. And in Fantastic Four 44 (Nov 1965) Medusa's transformation from imperious super-villain to Black Bolt's far meeker love-interest would begin ...
|Johnny Storm was the last to see Medusa as she escaped at the end of Fantastic Four 43 ... and he's the first to see her when she returns in FF44. Stan and Jack sure liked a circular plotline.|
|You certainly got your money's worth in a Stan and Jack Fantastic Four comic. I'd argue that the inclusion of the Dragon Man in this tale made it perhaps a tad crowded, but why carp?|
|With his stylised horns and his goat-like feet, Gorgon was probably inspired by the Greek god Pan ... which in turn inspired the medieval Christian image of Satan.|
|It's a terrific cover, if a little sinister. There's some artistic licence by Jack, as he has Karnak hoisting about a ton of brick wall above his head when, in the story, there's no suggestion that Karnak has super-strength.|
It all kicks off when Johnny Storm is feeling a bit pouty because Dorrie Evans has another date. Wandering around a deserted neighbourhood near the Baxter Building, Johnny chances across a beautiful young girl sitting amid the rubble of a condemned building. When he speaks to her, the girl panics, a tornado springs up out of nowhere and the girl vanishes.
Unable to put the girl out of his mind, Johnny returns to the same neighbourhood the following evening and finds her again, sitting on a rockpile. When the girls sees Johnny Flame On, she takes him for one of her own kind and reveals her name is Crystal and that she has a giant antennaed dog called Lockjaw. Emboldened, she takes Johnny to meet the rest of her family, particularly their leader Black Bolt.
In the underground lair of The Inhumans, Johnny first meets Karnak ... then, when he claps eyes on Gorgon and Medusa, the penny drops. Medusa is part of a group who will stop at nothing to conceal their existence from the rest of the world. The group try to restrain The Torch, but he burns his way out of the lair and alerts the FF to the danger.
When Johnny returns to the area with his teammates, they're attacked by the Inhumans, but this is merely a diversion ... the real menace appears. Black Bolt.
|Fantastic Four 46 gives us our first proper look at Black Bolt. It's a strong central image and Jack Kirby again uses the technique of floating heads dotted around the cover to show the main players in the adventure inside.|
|Believing the Fantastic Four to be a threat, the Inhumans attack them, demonstrating that they're capable fighters, even against such powerful opponents as the FF.|
Meanwhile, The Seeker has realised that The Dragon Man is no Inhuman, but an artificial life form, and loses interest in the creature. So when Reeds Richards uses his technology to trace The Seeker's heat signature and catches up with the Inhuman-hunter, The Seeker has no reason to believe The Fantastic Four are interested in anything other than the sedated android. And not seeing the FF as a threat, explains that he is one of the race who created The Inhumans through genetic manipulation ... purely in the interests of scientific experimentation.
It all goes to heck-in-a-handbasket when The Dragon Man recovers from the The Seeker's tranquilliser and breaks free. In the ensuing melee, Triton's containment tank is shattered and the amphibian collapses to the floor, gasping for breath.
Fantastic Four 47 (Feb 1966) opens with the FF ingeniously saving Triton's life. While Johnny and Ben go after The Dragon Man, Sue envelopes Triton in a forcefield and Reed fills it with water from a handy hosepipe.
As this is happening, Black Bolt and his followers reach their remote home, The Great Refuge, where his brother, Maximus now rules as king. The sneering Maximus greets his brother, then proclaims his intention to wed Medusa. Really should have kept his mouth shut. Black Bolt's reaction is to snatch the crown from his brother's head and calmly place it on his own. If only all regime change could be that easy.
Not far away, the Fantastic Four have arrived in The Great Refuge and waste no time making the perilous descent into the city of The Inhumans. No sooner have they reached ground level that they're greeted by an excited Crystal ... and the rest of her family. Black Bolt wants nothing to do with the Human Race and orders Reed and the others to leave on peril of their lives. But Reed makes an impassioned speech, declaring that The Inhumans have nothing to fear from the Humans and that the sooner they emerge into the real world, the better. What none of them know is that Maximus has a secret weapon, the Atmo-Gun with which he plans to annihilate all human life, leave the Earth solely for The Inhumans. While no one's watching, he pressed the trigger.
|Fantastic Four 48 is rightly famous for introducing the terrible threat of Galactus and his melancholy herald The Silver Surfer. However, the first third of the book is taken up with the epilogue of The Inhumans saga.|
The irony is that The Inhumans and the Humans are not genetically different after all. Reed is right. There's no need for the Inhumans to keep themselves apart from the Human Race. Yet Maximus still has his final revenge, throwing up an impenetrable barrier that locks The Inhumans inside the Great Refuge and shuts the Fantastic Four out. Johnny is separated from Crystal ... and this sets up a future storyline of Johnny embarking on an epic search for his lost love later in the FF series.
From here, The Inhumans would go on to make many more appearances in the Fantastic Four and other Marvel series. Initially, Stan had planned to launch an Inhumans comic in 1967, but this was shelved and Jack's artwork was repurposed as a short run of back-up tales by Stan and Jack in Thor 146 - 152 (1967). They then battled the Hulk in Hulk King-Size Special 1 (1968), and finally get their own series in the second volume of Amazing Adventures in 1969 ... but that's a story for next time.
Next: The long road to solo stardom