Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Tales to Astonish (1959) #27


Cover Date January 1962
On-Sale Date 28 September 1961
Cover Price $0.10 US
Pages 32 (23 comic story pages, 2 text story pages)

Cover Credits
Pencils: Jack Kirby. Inks: Dick Ayers. Colours: Stan Goldberg. Script: Stan Lee. Letters: Artie Simek.

Story Title
The Man in the Ant Hill! (7 pages)

Story Credits
Plot: Stan Lee. Script: Larry Lieber. Pencils: Jack Kirby. Inks: Dick Ayers. Colours: Stan Goldberg. Letters: Artie Simek.

Plot Summary
Scientist Henry Pym, after being mocked by his peers for his outlandish ideas, invents a serum that can shrink objects and decides to test it on himself.  He shrinks faster than he had expected, and after a panicked flight he finds himself trapped inside an ant hill.  It is only with the help of a friendly ant that he is able to make it back to his lab and use the antidote to return to normal size.  He flushes his serums down the drain and vows to only pursue practical projects from now on.

Flashback 1
At a science convention several months before the main story, Henry Pym is mocked by his peers for his ridiculous, impractical theories.  He vows to become a greater scientist than any of them, and begins work on a shrinking serum.

Other Stories
Tales of Suspense is an anthology, and contains several other stories that have no bearing on the Marvel Universe (even though most of them could easily fit within Marvel continuity).
  • Mirror Mirror, On the Wall... (7 pages; Larry Lieber/Don Heck; a housewife falls under the sway of the necromancer inside her mirror)
  • The Talking Horse (5 pages; Larry Lieber/Bob Forgione; a crooked jockey gets into all sorts of trouble when he meets a talking racehorse)
  • Dead Planet! (5 pages; Stan Lee/Steve Ditko; an alien warrior dies of loneliness on a planet where he can find no-one to conquer, not realising that the planet is home to a race of sentient rocks)
  • Trouble Bubble (2 text pages; reprinted from Journey Into Unknown Worlds (1950) #49; writer unknown; a boy invents a formula for creating unbreakable bubbles, and traps his father's boss inside one by accident)

House Ads
The final page of "The Talking Horse" has ad copy running along the bottom, and reads as follows: "You've never read a comic like "The Fantastic Four"! Get your spine-tingling copy today!"  There's a similar ad for Amazing Adult Fantasy elsewhere in the issue.

CHARACTERS APPEARING

HEROES
 
Henry Pym (1st appearance)
From the outset, Henry Pym is a conflicted character.  He only wants to use his scientific abilities on projects that appeal to his imagination, despite the mockery of his peers.  He claims that he wants to use his shrinking serum for the good of mankind (although he probably means the USA given that he fantasizes about transporting shrunken armies), but he also openly declares that his motivation is to become a better scientist than those who ridiculed him.  He's never outright villainous, but there are a number of panels that depict him with in ways that Kirby would typically use for bad guys.
  Upon finishing the serum, Pym displays some prudence by first testing it on a chair.  Said prudence is cast aside when he tests it on himself immediately thereafter.  The experience of shrinking throws him into a panic, but he proves to be incredibly resourceful once he has gathered his wits.
  After regaining his normal size he destroys his serums, claiming that they're too dangerous to be used again.  He also returns to his fellow scientists to admit that they were right, and that he plans to stick to practical projects from now on.  Pym displays remarkable compassion towards the ants, vowing to never knowingly step on an ant-hill for the sake of the lone ant that saved his life.
  Background: Pym has studied science in the past (presumably involving some sort of chemistry), and has learned the martial art of judo.  He has established a reputation in his local scientific community for impractical theories that never work.
  Powers and Skills: Pym displays remarkable scientific skill, particularly in the field of chemistry.  His judo skills are sufficient that he is able to flip an ant that is larger than himself.


Friendly Ant (1st appearance)
This ant saves Henry Pym from a pool of honey, and also helps him climb the wall to reach his laboratory window.  The ant is intelligent enough to understand Pym's basic gestures, but it's motives for helping him are unknown and inscrutable.


VILLAINS

Hostile Ants (1st appearance)
These ants live in Henry Pym's backyard.  All but one of them are hostile to the tiny human invading the vicinity of their ant hill, and they pursue him relentlessly.  Their nest has an area that contains honey, which they store for food.  (Honey ants are a thing in the real world, but they store their honey in their abdomens rather than in large pools in their nest.  In a world where men can shrink down to ant-size, however, this is a difference that shouldn't be all that hard to accept.)  They are afraid of fire, and susceptible to judo.


MINOR CHARACTERS

Henry Pym's Scientific Peers

LOCATIONS

Henry Pym's House and Laboratory (1st appearance)
Henry Pym's house has a scientific laboratory with a window and door that open into a grassy backyard (populated by ants, of course).  The house appears to be made of bricks.

OBJECTS

Size-Changing Serums (1st appearance)
Henry Pym invents these two serums for the first time: one to shrink objects, and an antidote to return them to their normal size.  The serums work on a wooden chair, and on Pym himself.  Pym fantasizes about using them to shrink food, and an army.  Although the serums are only shown to affect organic matter in the story proper (unless Pym's clothes can be counted as inorganic), Pym seems to believe that they'll work on just about anything.  (They don't work on Pym's test tubes or his sink, though.)  A few drops of the shrinking serum are enough to reduce Pym to the size of an ant.  The antidote restores him to his regular size, but is not shown to be able to grow an object past that point.
  Both serums are destroyed at the end of the story, but Pym will recreate them between this story and Tales to Astonish (1959) #35.



Pym Particles (not yet named) (1st appearance)
These special particles are the key to Henry Pym's size-changing powers, and as such they make their first uncredited appearance here.

WHO'D WIN?

In a one-on-one contest, man vs. ant, Pym proves that his power of judo is enough to win out.  Against multiple ants, he runs away, recognizing that he would have little chance of survival.

CHRONOLOGY

The main story happens an unspecified amount of time before Pym becomes Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish (1959) #35, naturally.  Flashback 1 takes place months before the main story begins.

CONTINUITY

This story doesn't have any links to later stories, aside from being the first appearance of Henry Pym and his Pym Particles.

FIRSTS

It's the first appearance of Henry Pym, though as a mad scientist rather than a super-hero. Pym will later adopt a whole slew of super-heroic identities, the most significant of which are Ant-Man, Giant-Man and Yellowjacket.  (At the time of writing, he's had five different identities, having been Goliath and the Wasp in addition to the previously named three.  He also had a recent stint as Ultron, apparently)  Even though he never had much success as a solo star, as a founding member of the Avengers he's been an integral part of the Marvel Universe for decades.
  Pym Particles also make their debut here, although they're not named in this issue.  These are the particles that grant Pym his size-changing powers, and here they are represented by a shrinking serum and its antidote.  Pym will use them extensively in his super-hero career, as will his partner the Wasp, and a bunch of other heroes and villains.

THINGS THAT MAKE NO SENSE

Pym is  incredibly careless in testing the shrinking serum on himself, although this is more a flaw of the character than a flaw in the story.  His decision to hide from ants inside an ant-hill must also rank as one of the all-time dumbest decisions in comics history.
  It's not clear how a solitary match with no other flammable materials nearby could create as much flame as is seen here, but that can be chalked up to artistic license.
  As alluded to earlier, there's no explanation given for the ant that aids Pym's escape and saves his life.  The rich inner life of this solitary ant is understandably not the focus of this story, but as depicted it comes off as incredibly coincidental and fortuitous.

IS THIS ONE IMPORTANT?

It's the first appearance of Hank Pym, aka Ant-Man aka Giant-Man aka Goliath aka Yellowjacket aka the Wasp aka who the hell knows these days.  On the other hand, it really isn't.  There's nothing to distinguish this from any one of dozens of Marvel stories from this period in which a mad scientist's invention backfires on him. You could safely skip ahead to Pym's debut as Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish (1959) #35 without  missing anything of genuine importance.

IS IT ANY GOOD?

It's a standard Lee-Kirby mad scientist/giant monster story, of the sort they churned out by the cartload in the early 1960s.  They're very good at this sort of thing, but it's not going to set your world on fire.  It also has a rather dubious message, ending as it does with Pym renouncing scientific creativity in favour of practicality.  That said, it also has Pym judo-flipping an ant, which is pretty great.

BEHIND THE SCENES
  • Interviews about the creation of Ant-Man are scarce, but here are Stan Lee's customarily vague recollections from 2008: "I did one comic book called 'The Man in the Ant Hill' about a guy who shrunk down and there were ants or bees chasing him. That sold so well that I thought making him into a superhero might be fun."
  • Stan's brother Larry Lieber (who scripted the story) has a much better memory, as evidenced by this excerpt from his deposition in the 2011 Kirby Family vs. Marvel lawsuit (go here for some lengthy highlights):

    Q: Let's talk about Ant-Man.
    LARRY LIEBER: That was another one I wrote, and I came up with his name too.
    Q: What was Ant-Man’s name?
    LARRY LIEBER: Henry Pym, P-Y-M.
    Q: And how did you come up with his name?
    LARRY LIEBER: I think I probably — in the back of Miriam Webster somewhere there was somebody Pym. And I thought “Henry” sounded like a scientist and “Pym” made it catching and different and exotic. So I came up with that.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Fantastic Four (1961) #2


Cover Date: January 1962
On-Sale Date: 28 September 1961
Cover Price: $0.10 US
Pages: 32 (24 story pages, 1 pin-up)

Cover Credits
Pencils: Jack Kirby. Inks: George Klein. Colours: Stan Goldberg. Script: Unknown (but almost certainly Stan Lee). Letters: Artie Simek.
  It was originally believed that Dick Ayers inked this cover, but current fan consensus attributes the work to George Klein.

Story Titles
The Fantastic Four Meet the Skrulls from Outer Space! (6 pages)
Prisoner of the Skrulls (8 pages)
The Fantastic Four Fight Back! (5 pages)
The Fantastic Four... Captured! (5 pages)

Story Credits
Script: Stan Lee. Pencils: Jack Kirby. Inks: George Klein. Colours: Stan Goldberg. Letters: John Duffy.
  Previous speculation credited the inks to Dick Ayers or Art Simek, but George Klein is now the current fan consensus. See Fantastic Four (1961) #1 for further discussion of the source behind crediting Artie Simek as the inker.

Plot Summary
A race of shape-shifting aliens known as the Skrulls are planning an invasion of Earth.  Four Skrull agents are sent to impersonate the Fantastic Four, to frame them for crimes and turn mankind against them. The FF infiltrate their ranks by pretending to be Skrulls in disguise, and Mister Fantastic tricks the Skrull commander into ordering a retreat by showing him clippings from the comics Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery. After the remaining Skrull agents are defeated and captured, Mister Fantastic hypnotises them into believing that they are cows.

Flashback 1
The Fantastic Four reminisce about their origin story for half a page. The final panel shows Reed catching the attention of a passing plane with his stretchy arms, a scene not shown in Fantastic Four (1961) #1.  The original version of the flashback had the FF trying to beat the USSR into outer space, but here Reed claims that they were attempting to make a trip to Mars.

Pin-Up
This issue contains a pin-up of the Thing in his original lumpy form (with an inset of Ben Grimm before the transformation). He’s shown mangling a lamppost, and described as “the strongest man-like creature on the face of the Earth!” This pin-up was pencilled by Jack Kirby, inked by George Klein, lettered by John Duffy, coloured by Stan Goldberg and scripted by Stan Lee.


CHARACTERS APPEARING

HEROES:

The Fantastic Four
The team is now famous. People all over the USA recognise them on sight, and are familiar with their powers. Even the Skrulls have heard of them, and fear them enough to want them out of the way before launching an invasion of Earth. The team seems to be well respected, but it doesn’t take much for the government to declare them as public enemies.  Indeed, between their first appearance in Central City and the beginning of this story, the US government has constructed special cells designed to hold them captive. When the story begins the team is hiding out in a hunting lodge (possibly as a means of escaping the publicity of their new-found fame). They apparently have many secret apartment hideouts. By the end of the story the team has proved its innocence, and is back to being respected by the authorities.
 Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1

The Human Torch (aka Johnny Storm)
The Torch is his customary hot-headed self throughout this issue, though he does show some genuine resourcefulness and intelligence.  He's seemingly not concerned about thinking of a solution to deal with the Skrull impersonators, as he's convinced that Reed will think of something.  Once the plan has been formulated however, he's the quickest to volunteer.
  Johnny displays his intelligence by quickly discovering an escape route from the military holding cell, and he also figures out Reed's plan to infiltrate the Skrulls without needing it explained.  Despite this, he also shows some remarkable ineptitude when it comes to undercover work: "If I didn't know better, I'd swear you were Susan Storm and Reed Richards, two of the Fantastic Four!" he exclaims upon meeting the Skrull impersonators, which is hardly the best way to allay their suspicions.
  His animosity towards the Thing is on full display in this issue.  When the Thing loses his temper upon learning of the Skrulls, Johnny says that they will soon “have to do something about him” (although he quickly drops the idea on Reed's say-so). He later dismisses the Thing’s opinion, telling him to "shut up and let us think". When the Thing reacts angrily Johnny flames on, but once things have calmed down he claims that he doesn’t hold a grudge. He doesn't hesitate when it comes to stopping the Thing from murdering a Skrull prisoner.
  Powers and Skills: Johnny claims that his flame can't burn walls made of asbestos, but he has no trouble melting through walls made of other substances. He also melts a rocket launch platform into slag, and can fly fast and low enough to evade gunfire. After a collision with the Skrull that is emulating his powers there is an explosion, and Johnny’s powers are temporarily negated for a few minutes. The Skrulls are unable to withstand the heat of Johnny's flame, even when in a monstrous bullet-proof form. He looks very comfortable handling a hunting rifle, though he’s not seen firing it.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1


The Invisible Girl  (aka Susan "Sue" Storm)
Sue is known and respected enough that a store owner lets her handle a diamond worth ten million dollars (it's really her Skrull impostor, but the shop owner doesn't know that). The public know that she is both Sue Storm and the Invisible Girl.
  Sue believes that eventually the Thing will run amok, and that none of the team will be able to stop him.  She's horrified when he tries to kill a captive Skrull.  Even so, she has an obvious empathy with him, and is able to calm him down. She is genuinely happy for Ben when he reverts to his human form, and tries to keep his spirits up when he changes back into the Thing.
  She carries a mirror with her, even into battle (because she’s a girl, you see).
  Powers and Skills: Sue tricks the US military prison guards by simply walking out through the door of her cell while invisible, and later uses her invisibility to help trip a Skrull.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1


Mister Fantastic (aka Dr. Reed Richards)
Reed is famous enough that a workman is able to identify him simply from the sight of his stretching arm (again, it's really a Skrull's arm, but the point stands).
  Reed displays a calm intelligence and resourcefulness throughout this story.  He immediately deduces that the FF are being impersonated after hearing the radio reports of their crimes, and starts formulating a plan. He advises patience in dealing with the Skrulls, and also when asked what should be done about the embittered Thing. He surrenders without a fuss rather than fight the US army. It’s Reed’s plan to impersonate the Skrulls, but he doesn’t object when Johnny volunteers to carry it out. It only takes him minutes at most to cook up the scheme to fool the Skrulls with comic book clippings, and he pulls it off flawlessly. He’s calm and collected during the whole thing, but obviously relieved when it works.
  Reed is now blaming himself for the rocket crash that created the team, and specifically for the Thing’s condition.
  He threatens captive Skrulls at gunpoint to get information out of them (most probably a bluff), but stops the Thing from killing them. He’s willing to take responsibility for the captured Skrulls from the police, and the Skrulls believe that he might kill them. Instead, he chooses a merciful and ironic fate.
  Powers and Skills: Again, Reed’s stretchy arms are strong enough to restrain the Thing. He is able to squeeze his entire body through the tiny hole left by a loose rivet. He can stretch fast enough to catch a fleeing vulture (actually a shape-shifted Skrull). He’s also able to hypnotise three Skrulls into believing that they are cows, and believes that this conditioning will hold for the rest of their lives.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1


The Thing (aka Ben Grimm)
The Thing is bitter and angry about his condition throughout this story, as he was last issue.  He becomes enraged at the news of the Skrull impersonators, and takes out his frustration by throwing a stuffed bear's head through the nearest window. He says that he's more than willing to fight back when the US military come for the team, and he doesn’t want to wait to find out who’s behind the impersonations, preferring to smash things. For all his talk, however, he surrenders quietly when the army comes, even taking the time to put on a coat before they arrive in order to hide his body. After escaping from the military he says that he’d rather stay and fight, but instead he flees with his teammates.  He threatens to fight the police, and claims “There ain’t anybody on Earth doesn’t know the Thing when they see ‘im!”  He seems more than willing to kill the captive Skrulls, making as if to strike them with a large chest of drawers held over his head; only the intervention of his teammates stops him.
  Ben is scornful when Johnny volunteers to draw out the Skrulls, dismissing him as a kid, and the two of them almost come to blows. When Sue shows sympathy for him, he lapses into self-pity, saying that maybe the world would be better off without him.
  He has a panic attack when returning to Earth through the “radiation belt”, and is initially unaware that he has reverted to Ben Grimm. He’s overjoyed at becoming human again, but despondent upon turning back into the Thing.
  Powers and Skills: He’s able to batter his way through walls made of thick battleship steel, though it takes him some time repeatedly punching the same wall to break through. He claims that he never gets tired. He’s staggered by the sudden heat of Johnny flaming on. Returning to Earth through the radiation belt reverts him to his human form, though he turns back into the Thing after a few minutes. (Why didn’t he transform when heading towards the Skrull mothership, though?)  He also wrestles a Skrull in the form of a giant snake.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1


VILLAINS

The Skrulls (1st appearance)
Skrulls are small green humanoid aliens with tall pointed ears and wrinkled chins. Their goal is to conquer Earth, and their invasion fleet is contained within the Skrull mothership that is hovering in Earth's orbit. Before they can invade, the Skrulls believe that they need to get rid of the Fantastic Four, and to achieve this end they dispatch four advance agents to impersonate and discredit the team.
  The Skrulls are more than ready to kill Johnny once his disguise is penetrated. They seem to be more frightened of the Thing than they are of the other members of the FF.
  The Skrull commander is absurdly gullible, believing that some clippings from comic books represent Earth's defenses.
  When captured by the FF, the Skrull impersonators promise to live in peace rather than be killed. They claim to hate being Skrulls, and want nothing more than a peaceful, contented existence.  Despite these displays of cowardice, the Skrulls must value courage, as they have a medal for bravery that is unknowingly awarded to the FF.
  Background: When the Skrull commander calls a retreat, he says that the Skrulls must "leave this galaxy", implying that they come from a different galaxy to Earth.  Other than this, the origins of the Skrulls aren't given any detail at all.
  Powers and Skills: All Skrulls have the ability to change their form. They can use this power to grow and shrink, to disguise themselves, and even to take a form capable of flight. The forms they are seen to take include: all four members of the Fantastic Four; a giant snake; a vulture; and a spike-covered, bullet-proof monster.  The Skrulls seemingly can't take a form that is immune to Johnny's flame.
  Skrull Johnny doesn’t know how the other Skrulls replicated the powers of the FF (which seems unlikely, but I guess that exposition had to get in there somehow), but the others are quick to tell him. Skrull Thing destroyed an oil rig with a concealed electronic detonator (even though one panel depicts him tearing it apart with his bare hands; though it seems they can increase their strength when shapeshifting, they may not be able to do so to the Thing's level). Skrull Sue made herself "invisible" by shrinking to a few inches in height, an ability that seems to be a part of natural Skrull shapeshifting. Skrull Johnny simulated the Torch’s flame and flight with an anti-gravity harness powered by a chemical cylinder, and a low velocity thermal bomb. Skrull Reed’s natural shape-shifting ability allowed him to simulate Mister Fantastic’s stretching powers.
  As odd as it seems, the Skrulls don't automatically recognise that Johnny is an impostor when he tries to infiltrate them. Likewise, the Skrull commander doesn't realise that the FF are not Skrulls.
  Equipment: In addition to the technology described above that is used to impersonate the FF, the four Skrull impersonators wear blue uniforms with skullcaps, and they each carry a pistol. (These pistols are never seen to be fired, so their effect is unknown.) The guards on the Skrull mothership seem to be dressed similarly to the impersonators (the art and colouring are unclear), and are armed with rifles. The Skrull commander wears a red crested skullcap, a blue cloak and yellow gloves.


MINOR CHARACTERS

Central City Police Chief
(The police chief in this story may or may not be the same character from Fantastic Four (1961) #1, but he seems to be a visual match.  It's close enough that I consider them to be one and the same.  See the post on that issue for a visual comparison.)
  The police chief of Central City is waiting to arrest the FF when they return from the Skrull Mothership: he has a job to do and he's more than prepared to do it.  He's skeptical when Reed tries to explain about the Skrulls, but he is nevertheless willing to accompany the FF to their apartment to see the proof.  Upon seeing (and fighting against) the Skrulls, he readily believes Reed's story, and claims that he would trust the FF with anything.  He doesn't recognise the Thing in his human form.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1


Others: Oil rig workers, a jewellery store owner, jewellery store security guards, presenters and crowd at a memorial unveiling, a workman at a power plant, soldiers in the US military, military policemen, personnel at a rocket launch site, some policemen

LOCATIONS

Central City
The city is never named during this story. In lieu of other evidence, and taking into account the likelihood that the police chief seen in this issue and the last are probably the same character, it will be assumed that this story takes place in Central City.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1

The FF's Secret Apartment Hideout
This hideout is apparently one of many. Little of the interior d├ęcor is shown, aside from some curtains, a lamp and a small table. From the outside it appears to be a small penthouse. It's not stated, but the apartment is most probably in Central City, and could very well be the same one shown in Fantastic Four (1961) #1.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1 (assuming it's the same apartment)


OBJECTS

Asbestos (1st appearance)
The walls of the cell that the US military designed to hold Johnny are made of asbestos. (It may seem odd to note the use of asbestos in this issue, but we're going to be seeing a lot of it.  And while the use of it here is quite practical, as we progress into the 1960s there are going to be some increasingly absurd applications.)


Comic Book Clippings (1st appearance)
The clippings that Reed uses to fool the Skrulls are taken from issues of Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery.  (As far as I can tell, the images used are new, and not taken from any specific issues of those comics.)


Cosmic Rays
The FF once again pass through a field of cosmic rays, here referred to as the "radiation belt" and the "cosmic belt". The rays are not seen, but they temporarily return the Thing to his human form. Why they have no effect on the rest of the team is a mystery (although one that could be explained by the later revelation in Fantastic Four (1961) #245 that Ben is trapped in his monstrous form due to a mental block.)
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1

Fantasti-Flare (not yet named as such)
Johnny uses the flare to signal the rest of the team. This time it shows the number 4 straight away, not the words ‘The Fantastic Four’ as it did in issue #1.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1


Reed’s Test Rocket
The rocket is shown exploding in Flashback 1.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1


Skrull Mothership (1st appearance)
The mothership is hovering above the atmosphere, unseen by the people of Earth. It is the size of an Earth city, and must be capable of intergalactic travel. A Skrull invasion fleet is also repeatedly mentioned, though only the mothership is ever depicted.  Perhaps the fleet is housed within the mothership? It’s probably big enough.


Skrull Space Ship (1st appearance)
This ship is disguised as a water tower, and was presumably used by the Skrull impostors to fly back and forth to the mothership.


Skrull Bravery Medal (1st appearance)
The medal given to Reed by the Skrull commander is their highest award for bravery. It's shaped like a starburst and stamped with the image of a ringed planet (not the Skrull Throneworld of Tarnax IV, which was never shown to be ringed as far as I'm aware). The medal appears to be blue, but given the limitations of comic book colouring at the time it may be meant to be silver.


Daily Bugle (1st appearance)
The Daily Bugle appears as one of a number of newspapers showing headlines about the fugitive status of the FF.  The Bugle's headline reads: "Dragnet Out For Fantastic Four!"  (Do newspaper really do headlines with exclamation points?)

Daily Globe (1st appearance)
A copy of the Daily Globe appears in the same montage as the Bugle, with the headline "Fantastic Four Declared Public Enemies".  The Globe makes another appearance later, when Johnny reads a story in it about a new rocket test.


WHO'D WIN?

The only fighting in this comic involves the Fantastic Four against their Skrull impersonators, and it's a thrashing in favour of the heroes.  There's surprisingly little of the Skrulls using their fake powers against the FF, just one moment where the two Torches collide and snuff each other out.  Otherwise the Skrulls use their natural shape-shifting abilities, and prove to be no match for the real FF.

CHRONOLOGY

Rather obviously, this takes place between Fantastic Four (1961) #1 and #3. It must be at least a couple of months since the team tackled the Mole Man, as there has been time for them to become national celebrities, and for the US government to prepare cells specially designed to contain them. (Although now that I think of it, there's no reason that the government couldn't have been aware of the team before they faced the Mole Man.)

CONTINUITY

Those Skrull cows, you guys.  They just keep on coming back.  Their first reappearance is in Avengers (1962) #92, where they impersonate Captain America, Iron Man and Thor in the opening stages of the Kree-Skrull War.  In Fantastic Four Annual (1963) #17, milk from the Skrull cows infects an entire town with Skrull DNA.  In Skrull Kill Krew (1995) #1, the poor old Skrull cows are slaughtered for beef, and the resultant hamburgers gift several people with shape-shifting powers (and a hatred of Skrulls).  Finally, a second Skrull Kill Krew miniseries in 2009 revealed that the Skrull cows mated with regular cows, and produced hybrid offspring.
  (I thought I was done with this, but apparently at some point Reed Richards also hypnotised a Skrull into believing that it was a duck.  Said duck was eaten by a girl called Tara Tam, who gained shape-shifting powers and became Howard the Duck's girlfriend.  I've no idea if this connects to the Skrull cows in any way, but it happened in Howard the Duck (2015) #5 if anyone is interested in finding out.)

FIRSTS

The major debut here is that of the Skrulls, who are the first alien race to appear in the modern Marvel Universe.  Despite their depiction here as generic shape-shifting baddies they will be major players in the future, not just as enemies of the Fantastic Four but for Marvel as a whole.  They're central to a number of important later storylines, most notably the Kree/Skrull War (from Avengers (1963) #89-97) and Secret Invasion (the central story of which was told in Secret Invasion (2008) #1-8).
  The Daily Bugle and the Daily Globe are both seen for the first time. The Bugle is, of course, best known as the newspaper that will employ Peter Parker as a freelance photographer. The Globe crops up in several stories down the line, the most notable probably being the origin of Eddie Brock (aka Venom).  It's generally used as the chief rival to the Bugle.
  This issue has the first instance of the Thing reverting to human form, albeit temporarily.  Given that the Thing's loss of humanity is one of the book's most important ongoing stories, this is something that we're going to see a whole lot of.
  The Human Torch utters his immortal catchphrase "Flame on!" for the first time, just before tackling a Skrull in the form of a bulletproof monster. The rather less well-known phrase of "flame off" is also said by Mr Fantastic.
  The Invisible Girl is first named here as "Sue Storm".  In the first issue, she was always called "Susan".
  This issue features the first evidence of the existence of the Marvel Comics company within the Marvel Universe, in the form of clippings from Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery. It will eventually be established (in Fantastic Four (1961) #10) that the Fantastic Four licenses their adventures to the fictional Marvel.

THINGS THAT MAKE NO SENSE

If the Skrull impersonating Sue Storm simulates her invisibility by rapidly shrinking, what happens to the diamond it’s attempting to steal? It’s not apparent that Skrulls can alter the shape of objects they are carrying, so it’s most likely that said tiny Skrull would have been running out of the store carrying the full sized diamond over its head. I suppose nobody noticed the priceless diamond scooting across the shop floor and out the front door.
  Johnny claims that his flame can’t burn through the asbestos walls of his cell, but after he finds the air vent and flames on he does exactly that. Unless, perhaps, he burned his way out through the floor? Or maybe the air vent itself?
  The scene where Reed Richards fools the Skrull commander with clippings from comic books is either thunderingly stupid or utter comedy genius. Either way, it makes little sense that anyone would be fooled by a bunch of illustrations. It’s possible that Reed treated the clippings to make them appear as photographs, but it’s still an implausible scenario.
  Reed's plan to draw out the Skrull impersonators relies on the Skrulls not all being together when Johnny attacks the launch platform.  If all four Skrulls had been in contact with each other, they never would have fallen for it.
  There are (naturally) four Skrulls in the group sent to impersonate the Fantastic Four. All of them are captured and tied up, but when the FF return from the Skrull ship only three Skrulls are present. Reed claims that the fourth is leaving Earth with the invasion fleet. It’s a highly unlikely story. Not only is there very little opportunity for said Skrull to make it back to the fleet, but if he did he would blow Reed’s deception right out of the water. There’s no reason that he wouldn’t tell all to his commanding officer, and then the fleet would be getting ready to invade within days. As this isn’t the case, that Skrull must be hiding out on Earth somewhere.  (Indeed he is, and he will resurface posing as politician H. Warren Craddock in Avengers (1963) #92.

IS THIS ONE IMPORTANT?

The Skrulls are kind of a big deal as far as Marvel alien races go. Not only that, but the whole thing with the hypnotised Skrull cows comes back, over and over and over again.  For all of its silliness, this is a foundational story of the Marvel Universe.

IS IT ANY GOOD?

The answer to that depends upon the reader’s threshold for Silver Age absurdity. There's a deep vein of silliness that runs through this story, to the point where it almost crosses the line into self-parody. If that's not your thing, you'll have a hard time with this story. For the rest of us, it's great.
  There's a a lot to be said for creators sticking with what they know. In the FF's debut issue Lee and Kirby did a story about giant monsters. For the second installment, it's shape-shifting aliens. It's all in keeping with the types of stories they were already telling in books like Journey Into Mystery and Tales of Suspense. Kirby and Lee are good at this sort of thing, and they produce an enjoyable yarn.
  That's not to say that they're just regurgitating old material, however. The familiar alien/monster tropes are used as the base on which they quietly reinterpret the super-hero genre. The bickering and drama of the FF are brought forward from last issue, as is the notion that they might be at odds with the establishment. There's a darkness and a sense of danger lurking behind the silliness, and a groundedness that other superhero titles at the time were lacking.
  Not that this story is without its flaws. Most notable of these is the disappearance of the fourth Skrull at the end (possibly due to an artistic error, though there's no way to know for sure). Reed's assertion that the fourth Skrull fled to the mothership can't be right, as that would have foiled his plan to stop the Skrull invasion. (This is a mistake that was fixed by later stories and different creators, but it's a problem when reading this issue in isolation.) Thankfully, there's enough charm in this story to overcome the flaws. Reed's use of comic clippings to trick the Skrull commander is undoubtedly hokey, but it's also funny, as is him being awarded a Skrull bravery medal right after. The crowning moment, when Reed hypnotises the Skrull impostors into believing that they are cows, is deservedly legendary. There's a good reason that it keeps being referenced in stories, even to the present day.

BEHIND THE SCENES

  • It's difficult to find interviews with Stan Lee or Jack Kirby about the creation of the Skrulls. Lee did a podcast interview in the run-up to the Skrull-centric 2008 event Secret Invasion, but he talks about their creation in a frustratingly broad sense, and denies that they had any real-world inspiration. You can listen to it here; Lee may have nothing to say, but at least he says it entertainingly.
  • The letterer of this issue, John Duffy, is something of a mystery.  It's difficult to figure out exactly what he worked on without extensive research, as he's often mixed up with contemporary letterer Jon D'Agostino, who went by the pseudonym Johnny Dee (and who also worked for Marvel).  This is further complicated by the fact that both men worked on the first few issues of Amazing Spider-Man.  From what I can gather, Duffy's career started circa 1951, and he worked for a large variety of publishers throughout the next decade.  In the early 1960s he was primarily working for Dell Publishing.  Fantastic Four (1961) #2 seems as though it was his first work for Marvel.  He did some sporadic Marvel work from 1961 to 1963, then again from 1968 through to the mid-70s.  While Duffy never had a solid run as a letterer at Marvel, and the bulk of his work was done for other publishers, he contributed to some hugely significant comics.  It's odd that there are no details of his personal life that can be easily found.