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The Fantastic Four #108 – The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

Jack Kirby is one of the defining comic book creators of the twentieth century. He started out working in the medium during the Great Depression. He was a major force during the Golden Age of comics, creating the character of Captain America in 1940. However, Kirby displayed an incredible ability to evolve and adapt over time. In the 1970s, for example, Kirby would move towards crafting cosmic odysseys and epic god-like conflicts. However, during the 1960s, he played a huge role in the development of Marvel Comics during the 1960s. With a flair for science-fiction story-telling and a knack for crafting iconic characters, Kirby came to be one of the talents who defined the period known as “the Silver Age.” Working with Stan Lee, Kirby created characters like The Fantastic Four and The X-Men, who defined not just Marvel, but the entire medium.

I think it’s fair to cite Star Trek as a major influence on Jack Kirby’s work in comic books, particularly his later work on The Fantastic Four. I know that his fans can be very protective of their idol, and he certainly deserves a lot of the praise heaped upon him. I know that Kirby’s possible influence on Star Wars remains a massive bone of contention. That said, I suspect that Star Trek made quite an impression on Kirby.

A smashing time...

A smashing time…

According to Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and the American Comic Book Revolution, Metron from Kirby’s Fourth World saga was explicitly modelled on Leonard Nimoy as Spock. Although the name could easily be rooted in the angel Metatron, it’s also worth noting that the Metrons appeared as an alien species in the Star Trek episode Arena. In The Jack Kirby Collector #28, Kirby conceded that the appearance of the Metrons there was a major influence on the appearance of Adam Warlock in Fantastic Four.

It has been argued that Kirby even based a late 1969 Fantastic Four story (the arc in #90-93) on three episodes of Star Trek which aired early in 1968, A Piece of the ActionThe Gamesters of Triskelion and Bread & Circuses. In those stories, the Thing was taken to an alien gangster planet before being forced to compete in an alien gladiatorial arena. Any of these elements alone might invite comparison to Star Trek, put placing all of these plot points within the same story seems rather conspicuous. It suggests an intentional and affectionate homage.

Details are sketchy...

Details are sketchy…

Of course, this isn’t to suggest that the influence was purely in one direction. It has been suggested that Kirby’s adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey may have been an influence on the Genesis Wave in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Some early Star Trek episodes, in particular Charlie X, seem heavily informed by the comics that Marvel were printing at the time. Although not a Jack Kirby creation, Submariner #6 cites Namor the Submariner as a major influence on the creation of Spock.

Among Kirby’s prolific work at Marvel in the 1960s, his collaboration with Stan Lee on The Fantastic Four stands as one of the highlights. It’s a mammoth extended run, running from 1961 through to 1970. Lasting 102 issues, it was the longest collaborative run of a writer and an artist on a Marvel title. Indeed, this record was unbroken until Brian Michael Bendis and artist Mark Bagley managed a 111-issue run on Ultimate Spider-Man over forty years later. The run is one of the cornerstones of American comic book history, and one of the most respected and highly-regarded collaborations in the medium.

That's a nega-tory, good buddy...

That’s a nega-tory, good buddy…

It was bold, it was clever and it was experimental. A lot of that came from Kirby, who seemed to have a taste for sixties cult culture and his finger on the pulse. The Fantastic Four was book where anything could happen, but it was also a vehicle for Kirby to express his own interests and passions. While Stan Lee’s influence on The Fantastic Four might have occasionally tempered Kirby’s more fringe interests, you can really see the artist and writer embracing counter-culture in his later work for D.C. (including Kamandi and O.M.A.C.) and even on his return to Marvel in the seventies (with Captain America and The Eternals).

However, it’s quite clear that Kirby’s last few years at Marvel were not happy. He and Lee were frequently disagreeing. Some Kirby enthusiasts suggest that a disagreement between Lee and Kirby over Fantastic Four #66-67 in late 1967 was the point at which their creative collaboration was strained past breaking point. Kirby had originally intended for the story to feature a critique of Objectivism, and to craft a relatively morally ambiguous tale, while Lee wrote dialogue that offered a far more conventional “good vs. evil” comic book narrative.

Flame on you crazy diamond!

Flame on you crazy diamond!

Either way, it seems fair to argue that Kirby’s work towards the end of his Fantastic Four run seemed to incorporate less new iconic creations, and instead featured more conventional plots and characters, and more overt homages and inspiration from other pop culture influences. For example, it’s clear that Kirby was a massive fan of The Prisoner, perhaps one of the few pieces of sixties television as iconic and influential as Star Trek. Not only was Kirby working on an adaptation of the show at one point, it has been argued that some of his Fantastic Four work (in particular #84-87) owes a large debt to the television series.

Anyway, towards the end of Kirby’s run on Fantastic Four, the writer and artist pitched a story which seems quite similar to The Alternative Factor. The story featured the character “Janus the Nega-Man.” Kirby’s adventure opened with the team contemplating a bust with two faces – one monstrous and one gentle. The villain of the piece was a character who found himself split in two by a scientific experiment. One side was relatively normal, while the other was an insane villain. While this isn’t the exact predicament of Lazarus in The Alternative Factor, it’s close enough.

Lost and found...

Lost and found…

We are, after all, dealing with one character who is really two – one ordinary half and one insane evil half. Of course, this is a common enough story convention, but there’s more to link The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man to that not-so-classic Star Trek episode. The pseudo-science of the story seems to resemble the theory of matter and anti-matter, a key part of The Alternative Factor. As a side note, The Alternative Factor also makes a reference – albeit in a distinct context – to “anti-life”, a phrase that would become the cornerstone of Kirby’s Fourth World saga.

Kirby’s story, like the Star Trek episode it resembles, has a troubled history. Apparently Kirby had planned to use the story at some point prior to the end of his lengthy run on the book, at issue #102. That obviously never happened. After Kirby left, Marvel attempted to salvage Kirby’s work for issue #108, The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man. Stan Lee and artists John Buscema and John Romita Sr. decided to incorporate Kirby’s half-finished art by writing a framing sequence around it.

Face-off...

Face-off…

The result, in many ways, mirrors The Alternative Factor. There’s a sense that the story has been hacked together in a manner that is less than graceful, because not all of the necessary material was available during production. So The Alternative Factor tries to make up for an entire deleted subplot with lots of pointless planet-side wandering, while The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man gives us a strange mish-mash of art, with a framing story that sees Reed recounting a the story of his encounter with the Nega-Man to Johnny and Ben… who were present at the time. It’s not the most graceful plotting ever.

Still, Kirby’s work on the story arguably received a finer treatment than The Alternative Factor ever did. Indeed, in 2006, it was announced that Marvel planned to publish Kirby’s sketches and notes for the story, giving an expanded view of what Kirby might have intended for the story. In 2008, Marvel released a one-shot featuring “updated” artwork and story, Kirby’s original notes and a copy of Fantastic Four #108 as a bumper issue (Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure #1). It’s a testament to just how important Kirby was that even an incomplete story could garner this much attention over a decade after his death.

Not a lot to draw on...

Not a lot to draw on…

It still doesn’t do Kirby’s vision justice, but it does give a sense of the story Kirby wanted to tell and how he wanted to tell it. That’s more than The Alternative Factor ever got, a cobbled-together Star Trek episode that stands as the weakest of the otherwise quite strong first season.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

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