Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. You like drama? Issue #79 has all the drama!
At the end of the previous issue, Reed succeeded in turning Ben back into a human. Ben groused about not being able to help his teammates in a fight, but Reed cautioned him, saying that if he turns back into the Thing, there’ll be no chance of ever being human again. This issue starts with everyone more jovial, as Johnny and Crystal are happy to see Ben back to his old self, and Ben wondering what Alicia will think of the “new” him. There’s a funny bit where Crystal plants a kiss on Ben, with Johnny getting jealous. A little bit of Stan Lee’s Peter/Gwen/Mary Jane romantic comedy stuff from Amazing Spider-Man seems to be crossing over into Fantastic Four. I know John Romita Sr. was Marvel’s “good girl” artist, but it’s hard not to fall in love with Jack Kirby’s Crystal in this issue.
To further this point, the next several pages are Johnny and Crystal leaving the Baxter Building and hitting the town. There’s really no point to this, except to show that they’re still a couple, and they still love each other. For all their declarations of romance, we’ve rarely seen Johnny and Crystal spend any time together, so it’s fun to see them in action, doing the “flirty banter” thing.
Ben is in a taxi, on his way to see Alicia. He’s terribly nervous, wondering what she’ll think. So nervous that he brought the high-tech gloves the team took from the Wizard last issue. (Foreshadowing!) Reed, meanwhile, is at the hospital, talking to doctors about Sue. They reestablish what we learned last time, that the cosmic radiation that gives the FF their powers might affect the baby. Reed visits Sue in her room, but he can’t bring himself to tell her what he knows, instead saying he’s the luckiest guy in the world, etc. The scene ends on a splash page, used for a moment of quiet drama instead of huge action, which shows that despite the sci-fi/superhero trappings, the characters and their development are a priority.
The next scene is at police headquarters, where a bunch of cops have confiscated equipment from one of the Mad Thinker’s hideouts, while the Thinker is still in jail. They find a body inside one box, frozen in stasis. It’s another one of the Thinker’s androids. The android wakes up and attacks. He overpowers the cops, and he is bulletproof. One of the cops calls him “a powerhouse” with “powerhouse” in bold letters. Was that supposed to be this character’s name? Either way, he escapes the police and is now out on the street. He rampages through the streets of New York, destroying everything he sees, saying he’s looking for “the guiding signal.”
Ben is at a restaurant with Alicia. They’re making small talk, not really addressing how he’s changed. She does that thing where she touches his face to “see” what he looks like. She says he’s handsome, but he thinks that she’s really disappointed. Then, of course, the android shows up. A caption refers to him as “android man” in bold, so maybe that was supposed to be his name? He’s being drawn to the Wizard’s gloves, whose circuits are giving off a signal. The android throws Ben across the room. Alicia picks up the box with the gloves, and the android grabs a hold of her. Ben fights back, managing to separate her from the android, only to have the android beat the crap out of him. The whole time, the android speechifies about why androids are so much better than humans.
Desperate, Ben decides that only the Thing can defeat the android. He puts on the Wizard’s gloves. The science is perhaps a little iffy: Ben says that a sudden surge of energy turned him into a human, so a similar surge can turn him back into the Thing. That’s awfully simplistic, but it actually works. We don’t actually see the transformation, just the Thing’s fist coming into frame, punching the android.
Johnny hears about the fight from a radio news bulletin, and he flies off, leaving Crystal behind with the car. (Hey, you don’t suppose they were at makeout point?) He arrives at the restaurant to find the fight over, the cops hauling the android away. Johnny reveals to Alicia that this means Ben can no longer be human again. She reacts with an, “Oh, no!” but Ben says he planned it this way. It’s a melancholy ending, where Ben walks off alone, saying, “Why should I be a nowhere nobody like plain Ben Grimm, when I can be… the Thing… forever!” Note that there’s no caption saying “The end” or any hyperbolic “Coming next month.” It just concludes on the strength of this last panel, for a very modern comics feel.
Unstable molecule: Here’s an interesting take on Reed’s character. He’s always the one to jump into action and think his way out of any situation, but he’s too afraid to be honest to his wife. Some might not like this, but I like that this otherwise stalwart hero has some genuine human flaws.
Fade out: Although being kept in the dark, Sue shows great inner strength, thinking to herself that no matter what happens, she won’t be frightened.
Clobberin’ time: In the ‘80s, writer/artist John Byrne revealed that Ben’s inability to turn human again wasn’t biological, but a mental block. Some part of his subconscious wants him to be the Thing. This issue makes a lot more sense in that context, and it has me wondering if that’s what Stan and Jack where going for the whole time.
Flame on: Johnny’s car in this issue is a 1968 red Corvette Stingray convertible. Did Reed buy him this car? Does Johnny have a job?
Commercial break: “In just seven days, I can make you a ma-a-a-a-an!”
Trivia time: In this issue, we meet O’Hoolihan, the Baxter Building’s doorman and gross Irish stereotype. He’ll become a very minor recurring character, with his next appearance not until issue #191.
Fantastic or frightful? Ben’s big decision just doesn’t have the weight it needs. This random android character is just too much of a chump to be the villain for such a serious turning point for Ben. Now would have been the perfect time to bring back the Hulk, which would have really increased the stakes. Still, the issue has its positives. The Reed/Sue drama is interesting, and Johnny and Crystal’s date is huge fun.
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