Fantastic Friday: Bye, bye, Byrne

Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Here we are, folks. John Byrne’s final issue. The story goes that he had one too many disagreements with Marvel editorial, so when DC offered him Superman, he went for it. He writes and draws issue #293, gets a plotting credit for #294, and a “special thanks” credit in #295, and that’s all we get. No finale, no big goodbye, no thanks for reading, nothing.

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Some time has passed since last issue, as we begin with several pages of catching up on subplots. She-Hulk is traveling across the country in search of Ben, who mutated into a new form and then disappeared in The Thing #36. She has enlisted the West Coast Avengers — Iron Man, Tigra, and Wonder Man specifically — to help. Meanwhile, at Avengers Mansion, where the FF are temporarily living, young Kristoff is living in a padded cell (the mansion has those?). Kristoff still believes he is Dr. Doom, and Reed says the brainwashing is so permanent that there’s nothing left of young Kristoff, just Doom’s personality. She-Hulk calls, saying that Central City has disappeared.

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Central City, the home of the FF for the series’ first few issues, is apparently located in California. A giant black dome has covered the entire city. The FF and Wyatt Wingfoot (he and She-Hulk are still a couple) take off in their new long-range Fantasticar, breaking the sound barrier on the way. At the dome, we’re told that nothing can penetrate it, not even light (hence the blackness). Iron Man tries to break inside the dome with high-tech doodad. He enters the dome and then emerges right back out with damaged armor, saying that he was trapped in there for two weeks. Wonder Man takes Iron Man to get medical aid, and to prevent anyone from learning his secret identity.

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She-Hulk goes ahead and touches the dome, only for it to start absorbing her. Her awesome strength is no help, and the dome swallows her. The FF and Wyatt arrive, and Reed deduces that the dome is a “temporal interface,” with time moving faster on the inside than the outside. After much discussion of the danger involved, it’s decided that Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Wyatt will enter the dome, with Tigra staying behind to keep the Avengers informed. Our heroes disappear into the dome. Tigra then sees something come out of the dome, but we don’t see what.

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The FF float through darkness for a while before arriving in a huge underground chamber. Sue recognizes it as the remains of Central City. They make their way up through the structure and find a futuristic city built on top of the old one, with buildings made of a glass-like substance that Reed can’t identify. Upon further investigation, they find a building that’s an almost exact replica of the Baxter Building, and then a giant monument made to the four of them — the Fantastic Four!

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Let’s go ahead and wrap up this arc. In issue #294, after a multi-page recap, our heroes grouse about how much time has passed inside the dome and whether She-Hulk could still be alive. They travel farther into the city where they are attacked by hideous freaks with similar powers to theirs. The FF is captured and taken to the dome’s leader, Princess Livia. She declares that this is the one true Fantastic Four, and inside the dome, the FF are worshipped as gods. Livia explains that the dome was created back in the ‘60s by a Dr. Jessup, who was inspired by the FF to create to a deterrent to nuclear power (it’s confusing). Jessup is still alive, now an old man calling himself the Coordinator. He declares the FF to be frauds and fires at them with his weapon, the Ultimate Adjudicator. The FF appear to disintegrate right in front of everyone.

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Issue #295 begins by revealing that Sue turned everyone invisible layer by layer, to make it look like they were disintegrating. An old woman with “second sight” is able to see the team in hiding and offers to help them. The woman, Murna, is old enough to remember the time when She-Hulk invaded the city and was jailed for being a heretic. Wyatt insists on finding out what happened to her, so the team fights their way into the temple in the center of the city. Reed and Sue confront Jessup and try to convince him that there have been no nuclear wars outside the dome.

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Wyatt and Johnny find She-Hulk in stasis, along with the entire original population of Central City. Murna links Reed’s mind with Jessup’s so Jessup can see the truth. Reed then reverses the temporal interface, returning the FF and the city’s inhabitants back to the present, with a warning that the Jessup and the city will reappear thousands of years in the future. Reed then learns that Ben has vanished, and wants to find him.

Unstable molecule: Reed says the supersonic Fantasticar is “nothing” compared some of his other inventions. He builds giant flying vehicles by hand, people.

Fade out: At one point, Sue creates an invisible staircase for her teammates to walk up. Seems like this would be tricky if they can’t see the steps, but maybe they’re used to her doing stuff like this.

Clobbering time: What’s the deal with Ben disappearing? In The Thing solo series, he took some superpower-enhancing pills which mutated him somehow (we don’t see exactly how, because he hides in the shadows). He wandered off, saying he’ll go to a place far, far away where he’ll finally find peace. This is where we’ll meet up with him next time.

Flame on: Johnny’s equivalents inside the dome have lava based powers. The lava doesn’t burn him, but it weighs him down so he can’t fly, and that’s what got him captured.

Fantastic fifth wheel: There’s another reference to She-Hulk being just as strong as the Hulk, so the writers were definitely attempting to build her up as one of Marvel’s most powerful characters.

Four and a half: Reed and Sue have another discussion about how they can be there for Franklin when they’re always going off on life-threatening adventures. What they don’t know is that while this story was happening, Franklin was in space for the epic finale of the Snark Wars storyline in Power Pack.

The Alicia problem: When viewing Kristoff, Alicia, who is really Lyja the Skrull in disguise, says she can’t imagine replacing one person’s identity with another. The irony writes itself.

Commercial break: Whatever happened to The A.I. Gang?

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Trivia time: Iron Man is wearing the red and white “centurion” armor during this period. This is the armor he developed to defeat Obidiah Stane when Stane became the Iron Monger. I love that this era of Iron Man so heavily influenced the first two Iron Man movies.

The Marvel wiki puts a lot of FF guest appearances happening between the previous issues and this one. Reed helped Iron Man befriend a young mutant, Johnny teamed up with Captain America to fight the Yellow Claw, She-Hulk helped save the Hulk’s life, and, weirdest of all, Sue attended Iron Fist’s funeral — by herself! (Does she and Iron Fist have some history I don’t know about?)

Fantastic or frightful? This story is a total mess, full of big ideas that go nowhere. It’s a sadly unceremonious end for John Byrne, who brought so much talent and care to these characters, breathing new life into them and securing their place as Marvel’s top heroes. At least for a while.

The real question is what will become of the Fantastic Four moving forward. We’re into the late ‘80s now, on the verge of insanity of ‘90s comics. Most fans believe the FF lost its way during this time, but we do get heavy hitters like Walt Simonson and Chris Claremont taking a stab at our heroes. So I’m hopeful this blog will unearth some hidden gems in the months to come.

Next week: The all-star game.

****

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Fantastic Friday: Springtime for Hitler

Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. We’ve time traveled back to the 1930s in issue #292, so let’s fight some Nazis why don’t we?

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To recap: Reed is dead after a battle with Annihilus. That same battle flung Sue, Johnny, She-Hulk, and special guest star Nick Fury back in time to 1936. Fury took off to murder Adolph Hitler to prevent the horrors of World War II. Now the FF must stop him in order to preserve the timeline/space-time continuum/butterfly effect, et cetera.

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We begin with some perhaps-questionable physics in which Sue has created an airplane-shaped invisible force field, while Johnny uses his flame as jet propulsion, so that the team can quickly cross the ocean from NYC to Germany. They’ve also picked up a stray, jazz musician Licorice Calhoun, who claims to have dream-based superpowers.

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After three pages of recapping the events of previous issues, we catch up with Nick Fury in Germany, who has easily snuck past the guards at Hitler’s gigantic mansion. He rounds a corner and runs right into ol’ Adolph himself. Fury opens fire, but Hitler’s bodyguards fight back, shooting Fury in the chest.

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The FF arrive at the mansion and they hear the gunfire from outside. (How’d they find it? Fury has a tracking device on him that She-Hulk was somehow able to follow.) There’s a bit where She-Hulk easily destroys a door by barely touching it, showing her powers going haywire. In the mansion, the FF discover not Hitler, but a giant robot! The Nazi scientists power it up, and we get a couple pages of fighting as the FF take it down, including She-Hulk ripping open the bot’s cockpit and taking out its human pilot.

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In a darkened room, one of Hitler’s scientists reveal that Fury’s suit is bulletproof. Hitler and a bunch of Nazis torture Fury, trying to find out where he came from. Sue rescues him, chasing off all the guards invisibly. Fury picks up a gun and goes after Hitler again. Sue tells him that changing the past would destroy the present. It looks like he’s about to believe her, but then he changes his mind and goes ahead and kills Hitler. (Dang!)

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Turn the page, and our heroes wake up inside a S.H.I.E.L.D. lab, as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent says “Espers, break contact.” What’s more, Reed is there, alive and well. In more perhaps-questionable physics, Reed explains that the explosion that destroyed Annihilus flung him into the vacuum of space, where his cells expanded into a spherical shape to keep him alive. That seemingly-random line from issue #290 about the weather balloon? The “weather balloon” was really Reed. Sue is of course glad to see him.

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Reed then takes everyone to meet Calhoun, now 84 years old, who has been in a coma for 50 years. Reed explains that Calhoun is a mutant, whose dreams do indeed alter reality. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ESP agents (the “espers”) have had him under watch for some time. The FF and Fury weren’t flung back in time, they were flung into Calhoun’s dream world. Fury killing Hitler provided the mental shock needed to jolt everyone back to the real world. Johnny speaks for the audience, upset about the whole “it was all a dream” thing, but Sue, happy that everything’s back to normal, insists on calling it a day.

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Unstable molecule: Reed’s return from the dead is played with as little drama as his “death” two issues back. Really, it was just an excuse to get him out of the way so the other three could have a time travel adventure without the benefit of his science genius.

Fade out: Sue says the force-field-as-airplane is something she had Reed had been experimenting with for a while.

Flame on: Despite being alongside his teammates this whole issue, Johnny does almost nothing but provide exposition during the recap and a make few hokey jokes.

Fantastic fifth wheel: This issue has a few mentions of She-Hulk getting stronger, with her saying she’s almost as strong as the Hulk. Is this because they’re in a dream world, or were they trying to set her up as one of Marvel’s heaviest hitters?

Commercial break: What, exactly, is this an ad for?

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Trivia time: While discussing those lost in World War II, Nick Fury mentions Pam Hawley and Junior Jupiter. Jupiter was the only one of the Howling Commandoes to die in battle, and the first Marvel character to permanently die. Hawley was an English medic who once romanced Fury, only to die in an air raid.

The Marvel wiki informs me that Calhoun never appeared again after this. I wonder why no other writer ever used his dream-universe for other stories.

This issue never mentions the fact that the original Hate-Monger was secretly a still-alive Hitler, but because it’s all in Calhoun’s head, there’s no way Calhoun would have known that.

Fantastic of frightful: The cop-out ending means this has been less of a story and more of a here’s-a-bunch-of-stuff-that-happened. We do get She-Hulk trashing a giant robot, though, so that’s something.

Next week: Bye, bye, Byrne.

****

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Fantastic Friday: Great depression

Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Just like one of Jack Kirby’s last stories on the comic was a throwback to 1930s gangster action, John Byrne’s last full arc on the comic also takes us back to the ‘30s, in issue #291. Synergy!

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In the previous issue, Reed tragically yet heroically died while closing the Negative Zone portal and defeating Annihilus. This also caused temporal weirdness to happen, sending Sue, Johnny, She-Hulk, and special guest star Nick Fury back in time to the year 1936. We begin the team landing the S.H.I.E.L.D. flying car in an alley, and Fury again informing us it’s 1936. He was a kid growing up in NYC at the time, and that somehow makes him know the exact date. Sue tries to maintain her strength while grieving for Reed, saying the Fantastic Four must go on without him. She turns the team invisible so no one sees them and changes history, etc. Fury then turns on the car’s hologram projector so it looks like a beat-up UPS delivery truck, which fits right in with the old-timey NYC cars.

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They discuss where to go. Fury says S.H.I.E.L.D.’s “granddaddy organization” won’t be of much help, and he considers leaving for Germany to do something about “a certain paper-hanger.” They’re interrupted when cops begin chasing them, because of the UPS truck’s modern-day license plates. They drive through a distortion of some sort, and end up back in the present. Johnny flies off to visit Alicia (who is really Lyja the Skrull in disguise), wondering if she too was trapped in 1936. He finds her at their loft apartment, and she has no idea that time is warping. Then it warps again, and Johnny finds himself returned to the past.

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The rest of the team doesn’t fare much better, having driven right into a wall that was supposed to be S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, but in ’36 was just a wall. Fury suffers a blow to the head, knocking him out. Sue turns invisible and wanders off to find help, leaving She-Hulk behind to watch Fury, under orders not to interact with the locals. Alone in the city, Sue’s thoughts dwell on Reed.

And then this happens:

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This hugely uncomfortable panel has, as you can guess, been the source of much controversy over the years. To Marvel’s credit, they retconned this during the 2012 Matt Fraction Fantastic Four series, establishing instead that Reed and Sue are the same age, having met when they were both in college. Marvel even re-ran this panel on an editorial page with a “what was (or not?) innocent then is not appropriate now” explanation.

Back to the story at hand, She-Hulk is contacted by the S.H.I.E.L.D. satellite, reporting that time is fluctuating wildly between the past and the present, and they’re caught up in it. She-Hulk is then distracted by a man being chased by a car full of armed thugs. She wrestles with whether to get involved or let history play out as it always has, but she can’t help herself. She steps in and rescues the guy.

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The thugs run off, but the man sticks with She-Hulk. He’s a jazz musician named Licorice Calhoun (sheesh). What’s more, he explains that he has magic dreams that somehow come true when he wakes, and a local club owner/mobster wants to use this power for his own gain. She-Hulk is skeptical, saying maybe his dreams are just coincidence. Nick Fury has awakened, and is listening to a report on the radio about a German leader involved in peace talks. He says “the nightmare” is about to happen again, and it’s up to him to stop it. He fires up the flying car and takes off.

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Sue meets up with She-Hulk and Calhoun. Sue figures out what Fury is up to. He’s flying to Berlin to assassinate  the one and only Adolf Hitler. In order to protect history, the FF must stop him.

To be continued!

Unstable molecule: We don’t learn much new information about Reed from Sue’s flashback, except that they met while he was a boarder at her aunt’s house. The Marvel wiki informs me that this aunt’s name is “Marygay Jewel Dinkins.”

Fade out: Sue can’t keep her teammates and the car invisible for very long, even though we’ve seen much greater use of her powers in previous issues. I suppose this is because she’s under serious emotional distress.

Flame on: Johnny says this doesn’t feel like any of the other adventures where the FF has ime-traveled, showing how he’s grown, learning from past experiences.

Fantastic fifth wheel: She-Hulk dives into action to save a life, no matter the consequences, which speaks a lot to her character. She’s also very lawyer-y in her skepticism of Calhoun’s powers.

The Alicia problem: Many have wondered over the years how Lyja faked Alicia’s abilities as a sculptor. In this issue, we actually see her in the process of making a sculpture. Is it possible she studied how to recreate the sculptures in her preparations to infiltrate the FF?

Commercial break: Style.

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Trivia time: Nick Fury says the 1930s was before the existence of any superhumans, predating Captain America and the original Human Torch. Later comics would show this to be inaccurate, introducing a whole slew of ‘30s-era heroes, such as the Night Raven, Dr. Nemesis, Achilles, and the hilariously-named Asbestos Lady. Going back further, the Runaways met a whole slew of superhumans when they went back to 1907, including the Wonders and the Abjudicator. Not to mention that the Marvel universe has always had immortals of various kinds hanging out on Earth since ancient times. Also, Wolverine.

The inker for this issue is P. Craig Russell, who went on to have huge success as an artist, mostly with DC/Vertigo comics.

Fantastic or frightful? Yeah, that Sue/Reed flashback is unfortunate, and the depiction of a 1930s African American is also kind of unfortunate. Mostly, though, this one is just a set up for the next issue, with some wacky car-related hijinks.

Next week: Springtime for Hitler.

****

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Fantastic Friday: Dead… or not

Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. We’re in writer-artist John Byrne’s final full arc on the series, and we’re blasting off for some outer space action. Oh, and someone dies.

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To recap: The FF and Nick Fury investigate the Negative Zone portal opening in Earth’s orbit. Inside the portal, our heroes fight and defeat Blastaar, only for him to trick them and restore Annihlus to full power. This issue begins with Annihilus standing triumphant over the unconscious Fantastic Four. He and Blastaar start to fight, as Sue and She-Hulk wake. Sue explains that Annihilus’ only desire is in his name — to annihilate.

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Sue wants to help Reed, but Reed reminds her that he didn’t properly transition into the Negative Zone, and if he comes into too much contact with anything, there’ll be a major explosion. Nick Fury manages to contact Sue, informing her that Blastaar’s ship has been joined by hundreds of other ships. Blastaar proudly announces that his personal armada has arrived.

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Annihilus takes the ship’s controls and fires on the armada. Aboard one of the other ships, there’s some Star Trek-style talk among the aliens about following the chain of command, with the captain, Tanjaar, saying he has no love for his leader Blastaar. Back in the main ship, Johnny wakes, and he and She-Hulk fight Annihilus. Blastaar tries to stop the fight so his ship won’t be destroyed. Tanjaar and his crew board the ship, but the attack Blastaar instead of following his orders. Annihilus stops the fight by unleashing the full force of his cosmic control rod, zapping everyone and breaking apart the ship. He then flies out into space, heading straight for the Negative Zone portal, towards Earth.

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Reed comes up with a plan. If he comes into contact with Annihilus, the resulting explosion will stop him, even if it kills them both. Sue won’t have it, saying there must be another way. Reed says he’s put his life on the line to save humanity before, and if it’s the only option, he’ll do it again. Sue reluctantly agrees, knowing that Annihilus can and will destroy the Earth if not for them. Sue, She-Hulk, and Johnny regroup with Nick Fury’s ship, and he flies them through the Negative Zone portal, back towards Earth. Reed broadcasts a message, saying he’s caught up to Annihilus and is about to make contact. He tells Susan he loves her, and then there’s a massive explosion.

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Back aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. space station, Fury announces that it worked, and that the Negative Zone portal is permanently closed, Sue is in tears, knowing that Reed is dead. Fury won’t give up, though, ordering the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to search outer space for any sign of Reed. An agent says there’s no sign of Reed, only an old weather balloon floating in orbit.

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Sue toughens up and says they must accept that Reed is gone forever, and that they must get on with their lives — it’s what Reed would have wanted. Fury flies the team back to Earth aboard the retro S.H.I.E.L.D. flying car, while Sue wonders how she’s going to break the news to Franklin. She’ll have to wait, though, because Fury announces something is wrong. The explosion has caused temporal weirdness to happen, and somehow New York has reverted back to the year 1936!

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To be continued!

Unstable molecule: A lot of fans believe that, on some deep psychological level, Reed is suicidal. I believe this issue fuels a lot of that fire, with him so quick to sacrifice himself rather than search for alternate way to save the day.

Fade out: Sue toughens up so that she insists mourning will have to wait until after the crisis is over. Also, she’s gotten so good at using her powers that it’s just a given that she keeps everyone alive in space with her force fields after the ship falls apart.

Flame on: Johnny manages to hold his own against a fully-powered Annihilus, keeping the big guy at bay during the fight long enough for his teammates to regroup.

Fantastic Fifth Wheel: She-Hulk asks again who Annihilus is, even though she was there the last time the FF fought him, and she was reminded who he was last issue as well.

Commercial break: Ahh, the New Universe. It was not a success, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for it. D.P.7, Psi-Force, Nightmask… those were good times.

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Trivia time: What’s the deal with the flying car? It was originally designed by Stark Industries, who offered it to S.H.I.E.L.D. for use. The make and model of the car has changed over the years, but it is usually a Porsche or an Aston Martin. It’s often called L.O.L.A., which stands for “Low Orbit Levitating Automobile.” We saw it briefly in the first Captain America movie, and it’s shown up a few times on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show.

Fantastic or frightful? Reed dies, but without any fanfare or without this being a major event, practically telegraphing to readers that he’s not really dead. Not to mention that this comes just after Jean Grey and Dr. Doom just came back from the dead, and Annihilus is back from the dead in this very issue. Beyond that, there is some fun to be had here, especially with Byrne riffing on Star Trek.

Next week: Great depression.

****

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Fantastic Friday: Mighty orbits

Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Here’s issue #289, and writer-artist John Byrne’s legendary run on the book is coming to a close. Before he leaves, he brings back a couple of classic villains.

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We begin at the construction site for the FF’s new headquarters, where there’s an old-fashioned excuse-for-our-heroes-use-their-powers-for-a-few-pages thing as Reed, Johnny and Sue work together to save a construction worker from falling. (Every time we’ve visited this site so far, someone has almost fallen to his or her death. Surprised the city hasn’t shut this place down.) Another worker, Danny, takes the FF on a tour of the new building’s sub-basement, fifteen stories down, 150 feet below the street. He mentions some cracking on one wall, but then Reed gets an emergency call from S.H.I.E.L.D. and the team takes off. Just after they do, some mysterious hands break through the cracks.

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Those hands belong to the Basilisk, a green-skinned villain who was last seen buried deep beneath the city in Marvel Team-Up #47. He blasts Danny with deadly eye lasers, and speechifies about reaching the surface. Just as he does, setting himself up as the main baddie for this issue, he’s shot in the back by a man whose face we don’t see, saying “Justice is served!” This guy is the Scourge, who had been running around all over the Marvel universe killing of B-list villains. The Scourge storyline was eventually (and disappointingly) resolved in a multi-part Captain America story. None of this has anything to do with anything else that happens in this issue.

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The Fantastic Four are teleported (beamed up, one might say) to a S.H.I.E.L.D. space station in orbit over Earth. Nick Fury is there, and he shows the FF an accretion disk, an astronomical phenomenon that forms around black holes. Only this is not a black hole, but the Negative Zone portal, left behind in Earth’s orbit after the destruction of the original Baxter Building. (Got all that?) Reed dons a gold spacesuit (!) and flies out into space to get a closer look at the disk. He fears that if something isn’t done about the Negative Zone portal, it might expand and devour the entire universe.

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Cut to a high-tech room somewhere (we’re not told where), where Blastaar the living bomb-burst gloats about Reed falling into his trap. He speaks to an unseen prisoner in a cage, gloating about he has (again) stolen Annihilus’ cosmic control rod. In space, Reed is pulled into the disk by some sort of tractor beam and disappears. The FF wants to go rescue him, but Fury cautions against taking unnecessary risks without knowing what’s happening out there. Sue, Johnny, She-Hulk and Fury take off in a space shuttle-type ship, into the disk, and then into the Negative Zone, complete with an old-school photo montage splash page.

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Inside Blastaar’s headquarters, now revealed to be a spaceship of some kind, he has taken Reed captive, and he continues gloating some more. Reed warns that he entered the Negative Zone unprotected, so if too much of the Negative Zone’s antimatter touches him, it’ll cause a massive explosion. The FF smash into the room, and there’s a big fight between them and Blastaar. He holds them off easily, until Sue invisibly snatches the control rod away from him. With a wide grin, Blastaar tells Sue not to throw the rod into the nearby atomic disintegrator. Johnny actually falls for this, and tosses the rod through the door. Blastaar gloats even more, saying even though he’s defeated, he’s still come up with a way to defeat the FF.

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The “disintegrator” is really the cage with Blastaar’s prisoner. It’s really Annihilus, now at full power with him reunited with the cosmic control rod. He easily knocks out the Fantastic Four. Back aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. satellite, we learn the Negative Zone portal is growing, and will destroy the earth in less than five hours.

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To be continued!

Unstable molecule: Where did Reed’s gold space suit come from? Is this S.H.I.E.L.D. tech or is it something he whipped up on his own?

Fade out: Sue’s new haircut is nearly identical to her brother’s, which is… odd. On the plus side, Sue is so awesome that she wield the unending power of the cosmic control rod.

Flame on: How on Earth does Johnny fall for Blastaar’s trick? It makes him look pretty dumb.

Fantastic fifth wheel: Continuity error! In this issue, She-Hulk says she’s never heard of the Negative Zone before, but she was there at the end of the last Negative Zone story, complete with a final confrontation with Annihilus.

Four and a half: This issue is referenced in Power Pack #22. Franklin is staying overnight with the Power family while his parents are in space.

Commercial break: Is this legal?

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Trivia time: Who’s the Basilisk? He’s a thief who got his powers after stealing a powerful alien Kree gem. Before this, he had only appeared off and on in Marvel Team-Up. He will later come back to life, along with a bunch of Scourge’s other victims, in a Punisher comic. As for the Scourge, he’s one of those characters whose origin gets rewritten every time he appears, and I’ve given up on trying to keep track of the Scourge really was.

Fantastic or Frightful? Kind of a slim issue, feeling more dumbed-down than the series has been. Many believe John Byrne had one foot out the door at this point, and I wonder if that’s true once this issue comes along.

Next week: Death! Or is it?

****

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Fantastic Friday: Time loopy

Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. As Secret Wars II comes to an end, here’s issue #288, our third and final (or is it?) visit from the Beyonder, and we’re just resetting continuity and bringing characters back from the dead all over the place.

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To recap: Dr. Doom is still alive, having switched his brain with an innocent bystander at the time of his “death,” with his reappearance and death again during the first Secret Wars remaining a question mark. Now back in action, Doom has taken on the mantle of the Invincible Man, attacked the Latverian Embassy, taken Sue hostage, and is luring the rest of the FF into a trap. The issue begins with Johnny arriving at the embassy and fighting Doom’s security robots. He finds the neighbor lady from the previous issue, who fills him in what’s going on, and then he catches up with She-Hulk and the Wasp, for more robot fighting.

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Reed joins the fight, and everybody confronts Doom. He’s ready for them, knocking them all out with some sort of gravity machine. Our heroes wake up, each in a cage doom has designed for them. Reed and the Wasp are in a porous sphere that lets air in but no physical objects out. Sue is in an energy field precisely tuned to her force fields. Johnny submerged in “inert fluid,” which lets him breath but suppresses his flame, and She-Hulk is surrounded by invisible molecular chains that will slice through her otherwise impenetrable skin if she tries to move. Doom takes off his mask to reveal (again) that his mind is in the body of Norm the innocent bystander.

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Doom explains that when he died in the fight with Terrax, his original body was destroyed, broken down into subatomic dust and cast upon the solar wind. To re-form his original body, he says he must go beyond traditional science and into the realm of black magic. Down in the basement of the embassy, Doom has contained the Flames of Falroth, a source of ancient magic. Even this can’t restore his body, though. All it can do is summon to this place the most powerful being in existence. The FF immediately know what this refers to. It works, and Beyonder shows up, pulled into the room against his will.

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The Beyonder is not happy about this, asking who dares to jerk him around like this. Note that the Beyonder has gone through tough times since we last saw him, so he’s no longer the kind, altruistic Beyonder from a few issues back. Doom starts in with the arrogance, calling the Beyonder his “slave.” The big B is ticked off, making a speech about all the darkness and despair he’s found inside human souls. He says he’ll end that despair by killing all humans, starting with Doom. Reed stops the Beyonder, asking him why he doesn’t recognize Doom. Reed recaps the events of the first Secret War (in which Doom stole all of the Beyonder’s powers for a short while), but the Beyonder swears he has no memories of Doom. Doom, meanwhile, swears he has no memory at all of the Secret War.

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Reed asks the Beyonder to “look beyond this mortal form,” and only then does the Beyonder remember Doom stealing his power. The Beyonder is ready to kill Doom, saying he intended to banish Doom somewhere far out in time and space. Reed interrupts, deducing that when the Beyonder gathered all the heroes and villains for the Secret War, the Beyonder summoned Doom from a point in the future — this point in the future, in fact. Reed pleads with the Beyonder not to kill Doom, because if he does, it will sever the time loop the Beyonder initially created. Doing so would destroy all of time itself, an event that not even the all-powerful Beyonder could survive.

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The Beyonder then goes into “fix continuity” mode, restoring Doom’s original body, giving Norm the bystander his own brain back, and then sending Doom back in time to fight in the Secret War. The Beyonder vanishes, and Reed frees the FF from their cages (the Beyonder freed him during their talk). Reed says they’ve got to escape the embassy, because the time loop is about to complete, with Dr. Doom returning from banishment in time and space to fill the absent space he left behind at the start of all this. (Or something. It’s real confusing.) To protect the innocent bystanders, the FF leave seconds before Dr. Doom rematerializes. Reed promises that the next time the Fantastic Four faces Doom, it’ll be on their terms.

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Unstable molecule: Reed is so badass that he schools the all-knowing Beyonder on advanced physics.

Fade out: Sue’s hair is still all messed up and spikey from her interrupted haircut last issue. We’ll see how that turns out next time.

Flame on: I’m real curious about this “inert liquid” that suppresses Johnny’s fire, now that it’s been established that he’s powerful enough that getting him wet no longer renders him powerless.

Fantastic fifth wheel: A big deal is made about how this is the first time Dr. Doom meets She-Hulk (Secret Wars happens after this in his personal timeline, remember), and he describes her as “beautiful.” I wonder if writer-artist was setting up some future story here.

Commercial break: The Captain America Broadway musical! It never got made. I wonder if this ad had something to do with it never getting made.

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Trivia time: Whatever became of the Beyonder? In Secret Wars II #9, he tragically died while attempting to transform himself fully into a human. It was a sad yet somehow appropriate end for such a goofy character. It wasn’t truly the end, though, because every so often some writer at Marvel tries to bring him back, re-writing his origin each time. (Freakin’ Marvel.) We’ll eventually reunite with him in issues #318-319.

There’s no mention of young Kristoff, or all the trouble he caused while pretending to be Dr. Doom. Kristoff will return, though. Oh, boy, will he.

Fantastic or frightful? For someone who allegedly didn’t want to play ball with Secret Wars II, John Byrne writes the Beyonder better than most, making the character feel truly powerful and godlike, as opposed to jokey and childish. Other than that, though, the return of the one true Dr. Doom should be a lot bigger and more epic than it is. Instead, the whole thing taking place in a basement, with a lot of info dumping and not a lot of dramatic stakes.

Next week: Fury road.

****

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Fantastic Friday: Down on Embassy Row

Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Issue #287’s cover features a housewife looking afraid of something, and we have to read the comic to find out what. None of today’s comics would ever do this cover, right? Today’s comic covers all have to be wannabe movie posters. Also, Dr. Doom is back.

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The other big deal about this issue is that Joe Sinnott, one of Jack Kirby’s regular inkers, provides inks over writer-artist John Byrne’s pencils, giving the entire issue a definite old school look. Way to go, Joltin’ Joe! We begin with Reed in the Avengers mansion science lab (The FF is still living at the mansion after the destruction of the Baxter Building.) Reed and the Wasp have a chat. Reed says recently seeing Jean Grey come back from the dead has him thinking about all the times Dr. Doom has come back from the dead. Therefore, he’s whipped up a device to scan for Doom’s specific brainwave pattern, as a contingency plan if/when Doom reappears. But enough supervillain talk, because Sue shows up announcing that she’s changing her hairstyle again. She, Wasp, and She-Hulk are off for an afternoon of styling and girl-talk at the hair salon.

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We spend an entire page with the three ladies at the salon, a super-fancy one located in NYC’s Embassy Row. We spend an entire page with the Wasp going on about the finer things in life, until there’s an explosion outside. It’s the Invincible Man, in all his pink-and-yellow glory, firing energy blasts at the Latverian embassy. Sue is quick to point out that there is no Invincible Man, that it was just a disguise once used by the Super Skrull. Sue, Wasp, and She-Hulk fight the guy, who then reveals that he’s attacking because Dr. Doom has come back from the dead. Inside the embassy window, Sue sees what appears to be Doom, just standing there. Invincible Man says Doom has kidnapped his wife and young daughter. This is all She-Hulk needs to hear, willing to risk an international incident by storming the embassy for a rescue.

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We then cut to somewhere in the suburbs where the housewife from the cover, Peggy, is commiserating with a neighbor, talking about how strange her husband has been acting. The husband, Norm, was present the day Dr. Doom died in the FF’s fight with Terrax, and has since basically kept Peggy prisoner in her own home since then. A news report of the current fight comes on the TV, and Peggy recognizes Invincible Man as the costume her husband had been making.

Back at the embassy, there’s a lot of fighting and action as the heroes fight those purple Latverian guard robots. Invincible Man runs off by himself, and Sue follows invisibly. Peggy and the neighbor also show up at the embassy (how’d they get there so fast?) with Peggy saying she has to find Norm and help him, at any cost. Sue encounters Doom inside a room, but deduces quickly that it’s really a Doombot in disguise and she destroys it. She brags that this proves Doom is still dead, only for Invincible Man to attack her from behind, saying “Doom never dies!”

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Sue turns Invincible Man’s mask invisible, to show that this is Norm. He and Sue fight some more. Peggy interrupts the fight. She knocks Sue unconscious by hitting over the head with a vase, and then she reveals a Dr. Doom mask under Invincible Man’s mask. (I don’t know why Sue didn’t see this.) “Norm” claims that he is the real, original Dr. Doom. We then flash back to Dr. Doom’s death in issue #260. Remember that guy in the crowd who was rude to Aunt May? That was Norm from this issue. Dr. Doom used the ol’ mind switch technique from way, way back in issue #10 to take over Norm’s body at the last minute. Poor Norm was the one who died in Doom’s body. Doom steals Sue’s signal device and says he will contact her teammates, drawing them into his trap.

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Cut to Johnny and Alicia (who is secretly Lyja the Skrull in disguise) enjoying a horse-drawn carriage ride in Central Park. Alicia/Lyja says she’s never been happier, but still feels some sadness for Ben, who is out there somewhere all alone. He gets the signal that Sue is trouble and flies off. Alicia/Lyja says there is nothing she can do now but go home… and pray.

To be continued!

Unstable molecule: Reed says he managed to make a recording of Dr. Doom’s brainwaves some time ago, but we’re not told when, exactly, this happened.

Fade out: Sue gets another new haircut, super-short this time. The big question is whether her hair is all spikey and messed up because she was interrupted mid-styling, or if her hair is that way because it’s the late ‘80s.

Flame on: Just before Johnny is called away, he says there’s very something important he wants to ask Alicia. I think we all know where this is headed.

Fantastic fifth wheel: She-Hulk uses Ben’s “It’s clobberin’ time” catch phrase in this issue, with Sue joking that it just doesn’t feel like the Fantastic Four without someone saying it.

The Alicia problem: Lyja says her nostalgic feelings about Ben are nostalgia for something “that never really was,” which has new meaning now that we know she’s a Skrull. Also, there’s a reference to the Skrull empire collapsing in a recent Avengers action epic, so it’s a safe bet that whatever superior officer Lyja may have once reported to is no longer around.

Commercial break: Star Comics! I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the way Lion-O is holding that sword next to Misty. Misty, by the way, is not a ripoff of The Wizard of Oz, but “the soap opera superstar who’s setting the world on fire.” Good for her.

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Trivia time: Interesting how Invincible Man is not a character, but a costume worn by a variety of characters for whatever reason, including the Super-Skrull, Dr. Doom, and even Reed. Years later, Marvel would introduce Ronin, a similar concept, with Hawkeye, Moon Knight, and Echo all taking on the Ronin costume and persona at different times.

Wait, does New York City have an actual Embassy Row? I just did some surface-level googling, and could only find the one in Washington D.C.

Fantastic or frightful? You have to hand it to John Byrne for setting up this issue 30 issues back, but Dr. Doom’s big return feels kind of rushed. Beyond that, the rest of the issue is set up for the next one, so brace yourself for one more go-around with the Beyonder.

Next week: Time loops and paradoxes, paradoxes and time loops.

****

Want more? Check out my book, CINE HIGH, now available for the Kindle and the free Kindle app.

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Fantastic Friday: I dream of Jean

Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Issue #286 finds a big X-Men crossover getting in the way of our FF action, something that’s probably going to happen a lot once the ‘80s start becoming the ‘90s.

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We begin with the FF in space, returning to the Earth after several weeks away. We’re not told why they went to space, only the detail that they’ve had some unexpected detours on the way home. (A lot of Marvel fans have scoured the comics to try to find what issues these space adventures have occurred in, with no luck. I for one like the idea that these unseen stories are just another day in the office for our heroes.) There’s an entire page of dialogue devoted on whether to land the spaceship at JFK airport or LaGuardia airport. The FF must land a LaGuardia because the Avengers have JFK on lockdown due to a crisis. The FF land and take a NYC cab (!) to Avengers Mansion.

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Captain America and Hercules are the only Avengers present, and they fill the FF in on what just went down in Avengers #263, where, after preventing a plane crash, they recovered a mysterious pod from the bottom of the ocean. The pod is impenetrable, but Sue turns it invisible to reveal a human redheaded woman inside. Later that night, while Reed, Cap and Hercules stay up late to research the pod, freaky stuff starts happening with objects and then people floating around in the air. The pod breaks open, and the woman inside unleashes telekinetic fury on everyone, spouting angry gibberish about “X-sentinels” and a S.H.I.E.L.D. Even though it takes the characters some time to figure it out, I’ll spill it right now: This is Jean Grey, back from the dead.

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A short-ish history: Jean Grey, formerly Marvel Girl of the X-Men, once saved her teammates by crash landing a space shuttle into the ocean in Uncanny X-Men #100. This event transformed her into the all-powerful Phoenix. The power corrupted her, though, turning her into the mass-murdering Dark Phoenix. Jean purged the evil from her system, and then sacrificed her life so that Dark Phoenix would never again endanger the universe. The death of Jean Grey in Uncanny X-Men #137 is considered by many to be one of the greatest, and most tragic, comic books ever produced. And now Jean is back.

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Jean freaks out with confusion, fighting Reed, Cap and Hercules. Sue stops the fight because Jean’s telekinesis has no effect on Sue’s force fields. (!) It finally dawns on the heroes that this is Jean, who hasn’t been seen or heard from in years. Jean offers a flashback to the space shuttle crash, saying she doesn’t remember anything that happened afterward. Reed wants to call the X-Men, but Cap cautions against that, because at this time Magneto was serving as headmaster of Xavier’s school. Jean does not like this information (Cap’s not thrilled about it, either) and refuses contact with the X-Men. She asks to visit her parents’ home. It takes some convincing, but the heroes agree to it.

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The FF and Jean arrive at the Grey house, and no one is at home. (Jean is still wearing her torn-up evening gown from the shuttle crash, because of ‘80s-era comic book sexiness.) Inside, they find a Shi’ar crystal where Jean, as Phoenix, left behind some of her psychic essence. Reed says this could unlock Jean’s missing memories, but Jean is too nervous to try it. We get a scene of Captain American talking to the Beast on the phone, so Beast call tell him (and the readers) about the whole Dark Phoenix/death of Jean story. Back at the house, Jean tries out the crystal, and all her memories come flooding back.

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We then get the full story of what happened during the space shuttle crash in Uncanny X-Men #100. At the last second, an alien called the Phoenix stepped in and took over Jean’s life, with the real Jean sealed in a pod, ending up in the ocean. Note that the alien wasn’t merely impersonating Jean, it became her, fully and completely. Jean is distraught to learn all this, but then Captain America shows up and gives her a pep talk. He says that when Jean/Phoenix died in noble sacrifice that was the influence of the real Jean’s goodness and humanity and whatnot.

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Back at Avengers Mansion, there’s a brief mention of how Jean is now only telekinetic and no longer telepathic (this breezed over pretty quick, but would go on to be a big deal with the X-books). Jean says she doesn’t want to contact her friends or family yet until she sorts out what’s become of her. Reed says he knows just the right person to call, and that’s the issue’s cliffhanger. (I’ll spoil it: He calls the Defenders, who get the next chapter in this crossover. It all leads up to Jean reuniting with the original X-Men in the historic X-Factor #1.)

Unstable molecule: Check out the cool watch built into Reed’s glove!

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Fade out: After having gone through hell and back in the last 20 issues or so, Sue is more or less back to her old self, being flirty with Reed and awesome in a fight. She does stand up for Jean, though, by reminding all the men that she too had just gone through some traumatic experiences.

Flame on: Johnny makes a joke about not telling comic publishers about the FF’s space adventures, saying the publishers told him “Cosmic doesn’t sell.” This has got to be a meta thing, right?

Fantastic fifth wheel: She-Hulk is really, really flirty with Hercules, but she says it’s just flirting and that she and Wyatt Wingfoot are still a couple. Her solo comics hinted for years about a possible relationship with Herc. They eventually got together, but only for a short while, with She-Hulk deciding that the fantasy of being with Herc was better than the real thing.

Commercial break: This was a deluxe 30-page comic… with no ads!

Trivia time: Yes, this sets the stage for X-Factor, which was the hottest, most-talked-about Marvel comic when it debuted, and again a few months later under writer Chris Claremont and artist Walt Simonson, who delivered big action and big, big soap opera drama.

Speaking of soap operas, this issue’s writing credit is, “You know who.” There’s a whole lot of he-said-she-said going on about how this story came about behind the scenes. The gist of seems to be that Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter wanted to bring Jean back and reunite the original X-Men. John Byrne and Claremont were against this, but Shooter was the boss. The issue was written, allegedly with help by up-and-coming writer Kurt Busiek, as a way to bring Jean back but not have to deal with all the people she murdered as Dark Phoenix. Some sources say writer Bob Layton also allegedly had a hand in writing this issue as well. Whew.

Fantastic or frightful? Does this lessen the impact of Jean’s death in Uncanny X-Men #137? Maybe a little. But dying and coming back has since become a big part of Jean’s identity, what with the whole “Phoenix” name getting thrown about. Sure, every comic book character comes back from the dead, but for Jean it’s a bona fide character trait. This issue is one of those big ones where everything in the Marvel universe changed, so it’s worth reading for that alone.

Next week: Not so invincible.

****

Want more? Check out my book, CINE HIGH, now available for the Kindle and the free Kindle app.

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Fantastic Friday: Tommy doesn’t know what day it is

Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Issue #285 is the second of the FF’s three Secret Wars II crossovers. Secret Wars II is oft-hated for how goofy and cheesy it was, but this issue is one of the event’s high points.

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We begin in an office, where a woman named Janet is writing what appears to be a death certificate. The victim is Tommy Hanson, age 13, and the cause of death is third-degree burns. (So, a different Tom Hanson than the one from 21 Jump Street, then.) She then tears the paper out her typewriter and says this won’t be easy. We then flashback to earlier, to meet 13-year-old Tommy Hanson at school. He’s shorter and chubbier than the other kids, and he has a ton of photos of the Human Torch inside his locker. A bunch of (of course) bullies come up with an issue of Celebrity containing an article about the Torch. The bully lets Tommy have the magazine in exchange for doing all his homework until Christmas. A teacher later confiscates the magazine and asks Tommy to stay after class.

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The teacher, Miss Welch, and Tommy have a heart-to-heart. She says his hero worship of the Torch is a form of fantasy, and that he needs to focus on the real world. Tommy argues that the Torch is the greatest hero ever. Miss Welch asks to talk to Tommy’s parents, but he says they’re so busy that they’re practically never home. Then things get really sad when Tommy goes home. It’s a couple of pages of just him being alone at home, with nothing to do and no one to talk to. He actually calls Avengers Mansion, where Jarvis the butler answers the phone (!) while serving lemonade to Hercules and the Wasp (!!). Tommy leaves a message for the Human Torch, saying, “I just wanted him to know my name.”

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After some time, Tommy hears a noise and goes up to the roof, where we meet a hippy-type guy named Joss. Joss has a remote control model airplane that he’s souped up with some special jet fuel he has concocted. He warns Tommy not to mess with the fuel because of how flammable it is. He adds, “It could turn ya into another Human Torch.” Uh oh…

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Cut to later, where Johnny and Reed are at the construction site for the FF’s new headquarters, on the site of the former Baxter Building. They talk some about the all-powerful, godlike Beyonder, still wandering around on Earth. Reed says that although the Beyonder acts childlike, he is above good and evil and should not be judged by human standards. The woman from the opening scene, Dr. Janet Darling, comes clumsily walking into the construction site and nearly falls to her death, only for Reed to save her. She says she works in the burn unit at Children’s Hospital in Queens, and she wants to Johnny visit a fan of his there. He agrees to this without any hesitation.

Johnny flies Dr. Darling straight the hospital, and, as you can guess, the patient is Tommy, burned from head to toe. Tommy is amazed to meet the Torch in person. He says, “I only did it to be like you.” Then he dies, right there in front of Johnny. Tommy’s parents flip out, blaming him for their son’s death. Johnny walks, not flies, out of the hospital. He calls for a cab home instead of using his powers.

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At Johnny and Alicia’s apartment, Sue, She-Hulk and Alicia (who is really Lyja the Skrull in disguise) are admiring Alicia/Lyja’s statue of She-Hulk. Johnny enters, emotionally devastated. He tells them about Tommy, revealing that Tommy poured the fuel all over himself and lit a match, in the hopes of becoming another Human Torch. Taking this death seriously, Johnny says he’s decided to give up using his powers.

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Then the Beyonder appears, saying he sensed Johnny’s distress, and such strong emotions caught his interest. At this point in Secret Wars II, the Beyonder is going through an altruistic phase, running around Earth attempting to do good deeds for people. Sue and She-Hulk don’t know that, though. She-Hulk grabs the Beyonder while Sue surrounds them both with a force field. The Beyonder doesn’t bother with either of them, teleporting himself and Johnny out of there.

From here, it’s a variation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as the Beyonder shows Johnny Tommy in the past. Johnny and the Beyonder are like ghosts, able only to observe. Johnny is again wracked with grief, but the Beyonder encourages Johnny to see how much joy he brought into the lonely kid’s life. “He did not die because of you,” the Beyonder says. “It was through you that Tommy Hanson lived.”

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Cut to later, where Dr. Darling has turned in her report. She says Joss is in jail for his illegal jet fuel concoction, and she and her boss are both perplexed as to who this Beyonder character is. She concludes with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Show me a hero, and I’ll show you a tragedy.” The final page is Johnny, flying through the air, having grown from this experience.

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Unstable molecule: Reed says his plans for the FF’s new headquarters will go down three times deeper into the Manhattan bedrock, and will be three times taller than the previous Baxter Building.

Fade out: Like almost every Marvel character during this time, Sue dumbly thinks brute force can stop the Beyonder, believing that Reed will be impressed once he sees she’s one who successfully caught him.

Flame on: This story calls back to the urban legend about the Human Torch not appearing in the ‘70s FF cartoon for fear of children lighting themselves on fire to imitate him. This story has been proven false many times over the years (it was really a licensing issue).

Fantastic fifth wheel: She-Hulk mentions losing the ability to turn back into a human, with a convenient footnote reminding readers to go buy the Sensational She-Hulk graphic novel.

The Alicia problem: Alicia/Lyja suggests giving Johnny a cup of tea, “black with two sugars.” Is she confusing tea and coffee because she’s really an alien in disguise?

Commercial break: M.A.S.K. worked better in theory than in execution, really:

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Trivia time: The Marvel wiki alleges that this story was never revisited, in the way that Spider-Man writers kept coming up with excuses to revisit “The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man,” by bringing in the kid’s siblings and whatnot. It’s probably for the best.

Fantastic or frightful? This really is one of the best uses of the Beyonder character. Most of his appearances were comedic, with him learning to roller skate or some crap, but in this one he actually comes across as this all-powerful reality-bending alien. So, even though there’s a lot of sadness in this issue, there’s also a lot of Spielberg-style sense of wonder, making this one work terrifically.

Next week: I dream of Jean.

****

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Fantastic Friday: All about the stats

Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. It was right around this time in the re-read that The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition was published, so let’s take a look at how what it has to say about the FF.

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This deluxe edition is a longer, more detailed version of a previous Handbook published a few years earlier. The Deluxe Handbook is the one most fans are familiar with. Each issue was 62 pages with no ads, and had a huge amount of text describing Marvel characters both famous and obscure. Allegedly influenced by role-playing game manuals, there’s a lot of space devoted to each character’s “stats,” and convoluted explanations for how superpowers work. One of the best things about the series is a meta-narrative going in the inside-back-cover editorials, where writer-editor Mark Gruenwald and his team frantically tries to get this insane amount of text researched and written on a monthly comic’s schedule. Also of note to FF fans is that writer-artist John Byrne is all over the Handbook, drawing all the covers, and providing a lot of the interior art. So, what does the Handbook have to say about our heroes the Fantastic Four?

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Mr. Fantastic

Reed’s birthplace is given as “Central City, California.” He is 6’1’’, and 180 lbs. Reed started attending college at age 14, earning multiple science degrees from the California Institute of Technology, Columbia University, Harvard University, and New York State University. The Handbook explains in detail the whole incident with Reed’s father becoming the Warlord, and then the spaceflight that gave the FF their powers. As for his powers, he can stretch a body part as far as 1,500 feet before it becomes painful, and he can assume a shape of no greater than 1.7 cubic yards. He can assume a thinness relative to typing paper (which was different from regular paper, kids). The Handbook states that it is unknown how his organs and circulatory system operates when in this paper-thin state.

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Invisible Woman

Sue’s birthplace is Long Island, New York. She’s 5’6’’, 120 lbs. We’re told she first met Reed when he was staying at his aunt’s boarding house in NYC (!). Sue later moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career (!!) where she reunited with Reed and their relationship began. Her history is then just the FF’s origin, followed by one paragraph about her transformation into Malice and back. A lot of writers over years have struggled with how to explain Sue’s powers scientifically, and the Handbook is no exception. The writers just shrug and say “energy” is what turns her invisible and gives her force fields. Then there’s an exhausting ten paragraphs describing all the sizes and shapes of her force fields over the years.

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Human Torch

Johnny was also born in Long Island. He’s 5’10’’, 170 lbs. We’re told that his mother died in a car crash at a young age, and the book hints that this has something do with his interest in race cars. His solo adventures in Strange Tales gets a mention, and then it repeats the FF’s origin again. There are a lot of interesting tidbits about Johnny’s powers. We’re told that he draws his fire from ambient heat in the atmosphere and from plasma, which the book describes as “a super-heated state of matter that exists in the atmosphere of stars.” When he is flamed on, he burns at 780 degrees Fahrenheit (isn’t that, like, a lot?). His light output when flamed on is only 10 percent, which I guess explains why people can stand near him without having to shield their eyes. The shapes and constructs that he creates with his flame will disperse after three minutes without him giving them more energy. Johnny’s entry is the only one that describes how his costume is made of unstable molecules, even though the whole team wears them.

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The Thing

Ben’s occupation is “adventurer, pilot, and wrestler.” (His teammates just get “adventurer.”) He’s 6 feet tall, and 500 lbs. (A lot of artists draw him really huge, in the 7-foot range, so who knows?) We get a long description of Ben growing up in poverty and his family, a lot of which was established in the early issues of The Thing solo series. Then it’s the FF origin again, followed by Ben’s time in Battleworld, his quitting the team, and even a mention of his membership in the very goofy Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation. Ben can lift or press 85 tons, putting him 15 tons beneath the Hulk’s 100-plus category. There’s a description of his great endurance to physical harm, with quick mentions of his piloting skills and hand-to-hand combat training.

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She-Hulk

Here we learn that She-Hulk’s father is a sheriff, Morris Walters, and her mom Elaine is deceased. Through her cousin Bruce, she also has an uncle Brian and a deceased aunt Rebecca. She graduated from law school at the University of California in Los Angeles. Then we get the whole blood-transfusion-with-the-Hulk that gave her powers, and summaries of her times with the Avengers and the FF. She is 6’7’’, and she weighs 750 pounds — 150 pounds more than the Thing! She can lift or press 75 tons, and she can jump to height of 600 feet and a distance of 1,000 feet. There’s also a description of her invulnerability, specifying that she is immune to all known diseases.

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Tattletale

Franklin is a full-time member of Power Pack now, so the Handbook insists on calling him by his rarely-used and hugely unfortunate superhero codename “Tattletale.” He’s 3’10’’, and 40 lbs. His occupation is “occasional adventurer” while the other Power Pack kids get “student” occupations, suggesting that Franklin is not yet enrolled in school. There’s a lengthy description of Franklin being born amid Annihilus’s first appearance, and the psychic dampers put on his powers. Then his time with the Pack is summarized. By now, it seems, the writers are giving up on the scientific explanations, flat-out saying it is unknown how Franklin’s new dream-based abilities work, except to specify that his astral projection is not the same method that Dr. Strange uses to astral project. Also note that while John Byrne drew all the FF’s portraits, Franklin was drawn by Power Pack artist June Brigman.

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Fantastic Four

There’s an entry on the Fantastic Four as a team, which once again repeats the origin, followed by a description of the Baxter Building and how it was recently destroyed. Alicia, Franklin, Wyatt Wingfoot, and Agatha Harkness are listed as “allies” while She-Hulk, Crystal, Power Man, and Medusa are listed as alternate members. (By my count, the alternate members not mentioned are Tigra, Thundra, Impossible Man, and, on rare occasions, Dr. Doom.) Agatha Harkness is designated “deceased,” because in the Vision and Scarlet Witch miniseries, she burned to death at the stake! She’ll later return from the dead in West Coast Avengers. As for Alicia, she gets a lot of mentions in the Handbook, each time referring us to see her entry in the Handbook’s appendix, except that the appendix was never actually published.

Fantastic or frightful? What to make of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition? Despite its intention, it is not the definitive resource on all things Marvel. The Marvel Wiki isn’t even that. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, though, to flip through it and read about all the various Marvel characters, and the unintentionally goofy descriptions of their powers. It’s a perfect snapshot of Marvel in the late ‘80s, and a great nostalgia item for those who think regular comics just aren’t nerdy enough.

Next week: Ooh, sick burn!

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