Rereading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Generally speaking, fans divide the first 300 or so issues of FF into three eras, the Lee/Kirby years, the “middle years,” and the John Byrne years. Although Kirby is still with the book with this issue, #94, for me it always represented the beginning of the “middle years,” thanks to the introduction of one of the book’s weirdest, wackiest supporting characters.
The story begins with the FF at home, where Reed and Sue announce that they’ve chosen a name for the baby — Franklin, after Sue’s father. They further reveal that lil’ Franklin’s middle name is Benjamin, after the Thing. Ben gets all teary-eyed after learning this, the big softie.
We then catch up with the Frightful Four, who are still a team, but still bickering with one another. The Wizard is secretly spying on the FF, saying he wants his revenge on our heroes, while Sandman hesitates about putting the baby in danger. Then Paste Pot Pete, um, I mean the Trapster shows up with Medusa, so the original Frightful Four is back together. (Wait, isn’t Medusa a good guy now?)
Reed announces that he’s found a “child-rearing specialist” to help take care of the baby while the FF are having adventures. They fly the Fantasticar to the Adirondacks, to a big gloomy mansion that Reed tells us is the home of Agatha Harkness. Harkness, Reed says, has a world-famous reputation as a child specialist. We meet Harkness, a creepy old lady with a black cat named Ebony. She says she’s coming out of retirement, because she couldn’t say no to the famous Fantastic Four.
Harkness’s mansion is of course a big scary house with creepy antiques and paintings all over the place. She does the horror movie “I’ll show you to your rooms” thing. While horsing around in his bedroom, Ben finds a hidden door leading to a secret passage, where he’s attacked by the Wizard. Ben is lifted off the ground from one of the Wizard’s anti-grav discs, and then knocked unconscious by an energy blast. The Wizard and Sandman attack Johnny next, dousing his flame with Sandman’s sand. The Trapster’s paste gun seals the only door to Reed and Sue’s room.
The Frightful Four reunite inside the house, and the Wizard announces that now that the FF is trapped, it’s time to dispose of them permanently. That’s when Medusa strikes, attacking the Wizard with her super-powered hair. Turns out she secretly only joined them to protect the FF, if needed. (Fooled you!) It’s a short fight, after the Trapster traps Medusa in the paste.
It looks like the fighting is over, but Harkness appears at the top of the stairs. Ebony transforms from an ordinary cat into a giant panther. There’s a strange bit where Ebony chases the Wizard out of a window, and as the Wizard flies off into the sky, Ebony’s face fills the entre sky around him. (Magic, I guess?) Sandman tries to attack Harkness, but she transforms him into hard, solid rock. The Trapster runs for it, but a big demonic monster blocks the exit, and Trapster faints with fear.
We turn the page, and the “demonic monster” was really Ben, who didn’t even lay a hand on the Trapster. The sand, anti-grav disc, and paste have all disintegrated. Medusa is freed as well. They find Sandman and Wizard both paralyzed with fear. Reed and Sue are out of their room, and everyone rushes to Harkness’s room, where the baby is. They find everything is OK — the baby is sleeping and Harkness is sitting there, knitting. Ben sees a book in the room titled “Tales of Old Salem,” and he suspects that Harkness is a witch. She voices his suspicion before he can say it, suggesting that she read his mind, so Ben freaks out and runs out of the room, Scooby-Doo style.
Unstable molecule: It’s never mentioned how Reed learned about Harkness or why he decided she should be the baby’s nanny, but everyone goes along with it.
Fade out: Sue insists several times that the baby must be kept somewhere remote and distant, to keep him safe from the FF’s many enemies.
Clobberin’ time: Despite being a teammate to a genius, Ben is the only one who suspects there’s something supernaturally weird going on with Harkness.
Flame on: The villains’ plan is to take out Johnny fast, before he can summon up his flame. I wonder why more baddies don’t try this approach.
Fantastic fifth wheel: Although Crystal stays behind in New York in this issue, Medusa makes sure to ask how Crystal is doing, setting up the next issue.
Four and a half: The famously blonde Franklin has brown hair in this issue. A panel showing the exterior of the Baxter Building shows funky blue energy crackling all around it as the FF discuss Franklin’s future safety. Could this be foreshadowing Franklin’s powers?
Commercial break: Glo-Gloop?
Trivia time: This is actually not the first time readers learned Franklin’s name. So many readers had written into the letter’s page suggesting the name that Stan Lee more or less unofficially spilled the beans in the letters months earlier. Also, Sandman previously appeared in Hulk #114, where he was turned to glass. A line of dialogue in this issue says the Wizard turned him back to normal.
Fantastic or Frightful? As a comedic haunted house story, this is an amusing little romp, but the fact that so much stuff happens for no reason shows us that we’ve entered the directionless, meandering storylines of the “middle years.”
Next: They call him “One-eye.”
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