Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Issue #374 continues an ongoing arc with multiple plotlines and numerous guest stars — and this one has all the guest stars!
Recap: During a fight with villains, Johnny accidentally destroyed part of Empire State University, so now he is a fugitive from the police. Spider-Man got involved, hoping to find a way to help Johnny. Meanwhile, Dr. Doom has stolen the powers of Aron the rogue Watcher.
Spider-Man sneaks into Dr. Strange’s sanctum. (It appears that Doc merely left a window open. I guess he predicted Spidey would show up.) Spider-Man asks for help in looking for Johnny. Strange has a vision of Dr. Doom, and says Johnny’s disappearance has far-reaching, cosmic significance. Spider-Man asks Dr. Strange to contact three other superheroes who filled in for the FF with him a while back. Using his astral form, Strange reaches out to Wolverine, the Hulk, and Ghost Rider. It’s the return of the New Fantastic Four (with a capital N.)!
Back at HQ, Reed and Sue get into a huge argument about Johnny’s predicament, with Sue’s new take-no-prisoners attitude not helping. In the next room, Franklin is upset about the argument and his psychic powers manifest for a moment before he calms down. Supernatural nanny Agatha Harkness fears what Franklin might be turning into.
In Latveria, Dr. Doom has transferred Aron’s stolen cosmic powers into a special battery back, and he checks in on his tech guys, who are building a new suit of armor for him. As he dons his new shiny silver armor, Doom comments about how the Watcher is always up there on the moon, with seemingly godlike power that he never uses.
In New York, the FF split up, flying the four-part Fantasticar over the city, looking for Johnny. Johnny is hiding out in an abandoned tenement, looking all grizzled and homeless. Johnny says he can’t face his teammates after the mistakes he’s made. Nearby, the New FF has already assembled, with Dr. Strange’s astral form tagging along. Wolverine’s heightened senses are able to track Johnny with ease. Spider-Man just wants Johnny to turn himself in, but Wolverine, Hulk, and Ghost Rider are out for blood. Up in space, the situation is being monitored by Paibok the Power-Skrull, Devos the Devastator, and Lyja — the three who started all this. Lyja is having second thoughts about taking revenge on Johnny.
The New FF confront Johnny briefly, and then the original FF show up, and of course it’s a superhero misunderstanding fight. Ghost Rider knocks out Sue and then burns Johnny, because he has supernatural hellfire and not earthly fire. Spider-Man webs up Sharon before she can swing a punch. Reed makes his body so malleable that Wolverine has nothing to cut with his claws. Ben and the Hulk exchange a few punches, only for Wolverine to break free and slash Ben across the face. (!) This happens pretty quick, but it will have big consequences in issues to come.
Cut to the moon, where the Watcher has placed Aron in suspended animation. Dr. Doom, in his new armor with the cosmic battery attached, teleports into the Watcher’s home to pick a fight. We don’t see the results of because we go straight back to Earth, where Lyja appears, breaking up the fight between the two FFs. In space, Paibok sees this and declares that Lyja has betrayed him. We then see that Devos is also planning to betray him. On Earth, Lyja and the FF vanish, leaving the New FF behind. Dr. Strange, who’s still hanging around, says he fears they’ve finally seen the last of the Fantastic Four.
To be continued!
Unstable molecule: It’s worth noting that Reed has started wearing his brown adventuring vest during this arc. In true ‘90s comic book style, the vest has tons of pouches that we never see being used.
Fade out: When Ben’s face is slashed by Wolverine, Sue reacts compassion, showing that her new attitude during this arc doesn’t have to be all rage monster all the time.
Clobberin’ time: Ben is still struggling with his feelings for Alicia. Sharon keeps confronting him, wanting to talk to him about it, but we don’t see them have that talk in this issue.
Flame on: I’m not sure what to think of Ghost Rider being more powerful than Johnny. We can chalk this up to Ghost Rider’s huge popularity in the early ‘90s, but still.
Fantastic fifth wheel: Sharon knows how to fight and she has some superhuman strength, but she doesn’t stand a chance against Spider-Man.
Speaking of Spider-Man, this issue finds him at the end of the Return to the Mad Dog Ward story arc, which introduced the laughable Captain Zero to the Marvel Universe. He’s also dealing the mystery of whether his parents have returned from the dead.
The Hulk recently left his long-running Vegas mob enforcer role, and now has a new headquarters called the Mount, and new teammates in the Greek mythology-themed Pantheon. This issue, however, still references Las Vegas, so maybe it’s just before that change.
Wolverine came to this issue after experiencing a lot of trauma in his solo series. His love Mariko died, and then he descended into madness while trying to recover some of his lost memories. Maybe that’s why he’s so bloodthirsty in his fight with the FF.
Ghost Rider was all over the place in Marvel during this time, appearing in Shadow Riders, Midnight Sons Unlimited, Spirits of Vengeance, and Nightstalkers in addition to his own series, all doing the usual demon fighting stuff.
Four and a half: Agatha Harkness uses magic to help calm Franklin down, and she chooses not to reveal what she knows about Franklin to Reed and Sue. Why did they hire her?
The Alicia problem: Lyja once again mentions her and Johnny’s “unborn child” pretty much confirming that her pregnancy was not a hoax, but a tragic miscarriage. (EDIT: I just did a little bit more research, and this plot hole will be explained in a weird way coming up in issue #390.)
Commercial break: I don’t know if I can handle this much coolness:
Trivia time: The reason Dr. Strange hangs back and doesn’t join the fight is because his powers were severely weakened in Dr. Strange #50. This led to him recruiting other heroes to help him fight evil, which was the premise of The Secret Defenders. Because of this issue, the New Fantastic Four also count as members of the Secret Defenders.
It was also this month that Fantastic Four Unlimited #2 was published. Black Bolt and Medusa have a son, Ahura, who gets caught up in a fight between good Inhumans and bad Inhumans. The FF show up and join the good side. It ends with the Inhuman royal family relocating to a new home on Earth, leaving the Inhumans on the moon without traditional leadership.
Fantastic or frightful? The New Fantastic Four may or may not have been a cash grab the first time around, but they certainly are this time. This could have been any four guest stars. On the plus side, this issue serves to tie together some of the parallel plotlines of the last few issues, making it feel less random and more like one cohesive story.
Next: Ooh, shiny.
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