When the Fantastic Four‘s creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were on top form — specifically around the middle of their 102-issue run as a team — the comic truly was spectacular stuff, with scenes and storylines that have rarely been surpassed since. Not that the rest of their time together was ever less than stellar. The publishers frequently tagged it “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” and even in the hands of other creators, the comic has at times lived up to that claim: one of my own favourite storylines is “The Trial of Galactus,” written and drawn by John Byrne.
The Fantastic Four’s adventures have been translated into other media many times, but not always successfully: the four FF movies to date are, in order, cheap but fun and earnest (1994), enthusiastic and well-intentioned, but kinda tepid and inconsequential (2005), bordering on good with occasional steps towards majesty, mainly thanks to Laurence Fishburne (2007), and a bafflingly misguided and inconsistent misfire (2015).
The FF have also appeared in video games, cartoons, and even in a kids’ book… And yes, that’s the one we’re looking at today!
Marvel Chillers: The Frightful Four was published 1996 by Marvel themselves, and was adapted by Joey Cavalieri from Fantastic Four #94 (January 1970), “The Return of the Frightful Four” (written by Stan Lee, pencilled by Jack Kirby, inked by Joe Sinnott, lettered by Sam Rosen).
The plot: Shortly after the birth of their son Franklin, Sue and Reed realise that their adventurous lifestyle is not necessarily conducive to a baby’s health, so they pick a nanny, an old woman who lives up-state. Unbeknownst to the team, the evil Frightful Four — The Wizard, The Sandman, The Trapster and Medusa — have been spying on them, planning their next attack.
(Bonus fact that you didn’t need to know: When The Trapster first appeared on the scene he called himself Paste-Pot Pete. This is notably an even worse name than Mister Fantastic.)
The Fantastic Four travel to Whisper Hill, the home of Agatha Harkness, a decidedly creepy old woman who lives in the sort of house that would give Stephen King palpitations and a new best-seller. Forced to stay overnight because of a storm (they’re the Fantastic Four and own a flying car and have had adventures in space, fer cryin’ out loud: what care they for bad weather?), the FF are attacked by the Frightful Four.
But even though that tetrarchy of terror are able to subdue our awesome foursome, it seems they might have bitten off more than they bargained for, and [cue dramatic pause] perhaps not all is exactly as it first appears… [cue spooky music]
Heck, why be coy? No one who’s ever read a story is going to be surprised to discover that the old lady turns out to be a witch.
I first read this story when it was reprinted — in black and white — in the Fantastic Four Comic Album, published in 1975 by World Distributors, and I remember being pretty creeped out by it. The comic album also reprinted “The Thing… Enslaved!” from Fantastic Four #91 (October 1969, by the same creative team), plus lots of pin-ups, but what I most remember about it is realising that if you moved the “al” from the start of “album” to the end of “comic” then it becomes a “comical bum” which, when you’re nine, is absolutely hilarious. It’s still pretty funny when you’re in your fifties and you’re me.
But back to the Marvel Chillers book. It’s one of a series of at least seven books that were adapted from a Marvel comic into prose form. Info on the series is rather hard to find, partly because Marvel used to publish a comic called Marvel Chillers and every search brings up those issues. Below are the only other books in the series that I’ve been able to find…
- Spider-Man and the Mark of the Man-Wolf
- Hulk: Shades of Green Monsters
- The Pryde and Terror of the X-Men
- Spider-Man: The Saga of the Alien Costume
- X-Men: Blood Storm
- X-Men: The Thing in the Glass Case
Marvel Chillers: The Frightful Four has just about the same dimensions as a standard American comic book, with card covers, 96 pages, black and white interiors with blue spot-colouring: I figure it’s a safe bet that the rest of the series follows suit. Many of the books also came with free pull-put posters, and a previous owner of my copy removed theirs. Well, most of it: they didn’t do a very good job, judging by the ragged edges they left behind.
Inside the front cover we get the credits page…
The reference in the credits page to Fantastic Four #126 seems superfluous to me. I suspect it’s there because #126 briefly retells the origin of the team from FF #1. This book features a flashback to the origin, but the text is closer to that of #1, not #126.
Then it’s on to page 1, which I’ve helpfully provided here alongside the first page of the comic-book…
As you can see, it’s not wholly prose: it includes about seventy panels out of the original comic’s ninety-nine (the panel on page 14 of the book has been taken from FF #88).
In some cases, the panels have been shifted from their original place in the story and given a different context. Panel 4 from page 2, where Ben first realises that the sprog is middle-named after him, has been moved to a little later in the tale because that scene (where the FF ride the elevator to the aircraft hangar on the roof of their building) doesn’t appear in the comic:
As you can see above, this isn’t a direct translation from one medium to another. In some cases the text repeats or paraphrases the dialogue in the panels, making the panels little more than window-dressing, but in other cases the text relies on the readers reading the panels and doesn’t make sense if they’re skipped.
Here’s the scene in the comic where The Sandman and The Wizard attack Johnny storm:
The corresponding scene in the book takes place on pages 50 and 51…
In one glaring case, right at the end, someone’s made a big boo-boo… In the comic, Ben sees that Ms Harkness has been reading a book called Tales of Old Salem and wonders, “Now what would an old dame like her be doing with a batty old book like that?” After some pondering on the situation, he comes to the reluctant realisation that she’s a witch. In this adaptation, he sees the book, realises immediately that she’s a witch, and then he wonders what the “old dame” would be doing with a book like that, and realises all over again that she’s a witch.
The writer, Joey Cavalieri, has taken some liberties with the pacing and the dialogue, tweaking it a lot, and padding it, too. Some of the padding really doesn’t work — such as characters explaining words and phrases to each other in order to educate the readers — but in general it’s for the best because the book is aimed at a much younger readership than the comics who won’t necessarily have encountered the characters before.
The story’s broken down into eighteen short chapters of generally around five pages each. A quick count through one of the text-only pages (25 lines) yielded 200 words, which multiplied by 96 pages would amount to 19,200 words in total.
However, between most chapters we get the same full-page reversed image of a much more recent depiction of the Fantastic Four (right)… fifteen of them in total. That brings us down to 81 pages: 16,200 words. And of course most of the pages have illustrations, some very large… So my final estimate for the word-count is about 10,400, making it a novelette if we judge by the categories used for the Hugo Awards.
This is an interesting adaptation, but not a wholly successful one. It’s a strong introduction to the characters, but it’s hardly a good example of a typical FF adventure. I’m guessing that this story was selected for the series because the series is called Marvel Chillers and there aren’t so many spooky FF stories from which to choose.
The big question: should you buy this for a kid to introduce them to the Fantastic Four? Hmm… I’m gonna say yes. The FF has always been about the family dynamic more than anything else, and that comes across very well here. Plus there’s all that lovely Jack Kirby art to enjoy: you can never go wrong feed your kid’s imagination on a diet of Jack Kirby!
Bonus feature: That blue page looks like it’s a striking work of art, so it’s a shame that it’s a negative image. Luckily, your Unky Rusty — your best pal in the world: all donations gratefully accepted — has kindly and cleverly used a complex digital image processing device to reverse the image so you can see it more clearly…
(Judging by Sue’s costume, this is almost certainly from 1995/1996, around the time the Marvel Chillers book was published.)