Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. We had the classic Stan Lee/Jack Kirby years, and we had the exciting new directions John Byrne took the characters years later. In between those two eras, though, we had the “middle years.”
Many fans dismiss the middle years as the time in Fantastic Four history in which nothing happened, but is that true? On one hand, we get Franklin’s emerging powers, new romances for Johnny, a truly epic confrontation with Dr. Doom in issue #200, and more. On the other hand, there are foolish new villains like Air-Walker, Ternak, and Mahkizmo. Even worse, there’s a lot of merely repeating the same stories Stan and Jack did, without trying anything new. So, I’m mixing up the format for the time being, as we’ll burn through the middle years on our road to Byrne.
Issue #103 picks up where the last one left off, with Namor and Atlantis declaring war on the surface world, but Namor is secretly being manipulated by Magneto, who wants to humans and Atlanteans to wipe each other out so mutants can take over the Earth. Reed contacts President Nixon (!) who gives Reed one chance to confront Namor before the U.S. military retaliates.
Magneto uses his powers to further convince Namor that the FF are attacking him instead of trying to reason with him, and then he (of course) takes Sue hostage. After several pages of fighting, Namor and the FF finally compare notes and realize that Magneto is playing them against each other. Then they learn he’s taken both Sue and Namor’s girlfriend Dorma hostage. Shouldn’t Magneto be smart enough to know that this won’t end well for him?
Issue #104 begins with a full-blown battle over the skies of New York, with Magneto using his powers to control all the missiles and ships from a distance. Fearing for Dorma’s safety, Namor switches sides again, helping Magneto conquer New York. Reed continues to argue with Nixon, who wants to launch the military. Reed promises to come up with a strategy to take out Magneto, and Johnny makes a similar promise to Namor.
Magneto, meanwhile, is mad with power, sitting on a big throne outside in New York, surrounded by Atlantean soldiers. Then there’s more fighting as Atlantis soldiers attack the Baxter Building. Reed finishes building a new device while the others fight off the soldiers. Reed’s device is an electric converter, which reflects Magneto’s powers back at him, trapping him in his own magnetic energy cage. (Science!) Magneto’s handed over to the military, the Atlanteans return to the sea, and Reed makes a big speech about peach and brotherhood.
Issue #105 begins with Crystal having a fainting spell just as an earthquake rocks New York. Reed obsesses over finding a cure for Ben, which leads to a flashback repeating the group’s origin story. Sue is out shopping when another earthquake hits, and she runs into a Dr. Zoltan Rambow (!) a scientist that she apparently knows from somewhere. The cause of the earthquakes is a strange glowing man roaming the streets of New York, and Rambow urges the FF not to destroy it. Reed gives Crystal the once over in the lab, and discovers that her DNA could be the key to curing Ben. The bad news is, Crystal has to return to the Inhumans, because staying around humans might mean her death. Where this development came from is never explained, but it leads to a lot of tears and heartache.
Crystal sends for the giant teleporting dog Lockjaw, says her teary-eyed goodbye to Johnny, and she’s gone. Johnny flips out, but comes to his senses long enough to help Sue and Dr. Rambow. Reed starts to heal Ben in a risky procedure, and then learns Sue is in danger. If he leaves Ben in mid-procedure, Ben could die, but if doesn’t go to help Sue, Sue might die. What to do? Cliffhanger!
Issue #106 has Sophie, um I mean Reed making his choice. He runs off to help Sue, leaving Johnny with Ben, instructing Johnny to absorb all the heat from Ben’s procedure. (Science!) This goes on for several pages of Johnny struggling to keep all machines hooked up to Ben from reheating. Reed joins Sue in the fight against the monster, who is still lashing out and destroying parts of New York at random. Dr. Rambow continues to plead that the monster shouldn’t be destroyed. Reed deduces that monster is Rambow’s son (hey, Son of Rambow, I saw that movie).
The monster, whose name is Larry (!) was part of an experiment that went horribly wrong, of course, and now he’s out of control. There’s several pages of fighting as Reed rushes Rambow to his lab in hopes of recovering a failsafe device. It works, and Larry is human again. The cliffhanger then is, what has become of Ben?
Issue #107 begins with a lot of drama over whether Ben will survive. Not only does he live, but he’s successfully turned back into a human! Even better, he can transform from human to the Thing and back again. Alicia shows up, conveniently, and doesn’t know what to think of the new Ben. Then there’s lots of soap opera stuff with Johnny whining about Crystal leaving, and Sue grousing about Reed spending more time in the lab instead of with her and the baby. Ben and Alicia enjoy a day out in New York, but he’s now very short-tempered and his newfound anger worries Alicia.
Sue goes to visit Franklin who’s with his supernatural nanny Agatha Harkness. She’s surprised to learn that Franklin can see her while invisible. Then, in Reed’s lab, a guy named Janus shows up, and even though this is his first appearance, he has some kind of history with the FF. He makes dire warnings about the Negative Zone, but it’s all a trick, as Janus’s whole plan is to enter the Negative Zone himself, and… to be continued!
Unstable molecule: Reed is really the super-scientist in these issues, especially devising the long-lost cure for Ben.
Fade out: Despite Reed worrying about Sue in danger, she holds her own battling Larry, her force fields holding up to his energy blasts. She puts up a pretty good fight against Magneto as well.
Clobberin’ time: Ben’s transformation promises new developments for his character, although there’s still a little of the old self-pitying Ben, as he frets over whether Alicia liked him better as a monster.
Flame on: There’s another new use of Johnny’s powers as he absorbs excess heat from Reed’s machines. This takes a lot of out of him, and he has to fly to space to release the excess flame he’s built up.
Four and a half: Franklin is able to see Sue while she’s invisible, the first hint of his powers. The colorists still can’t decide what color his hair is.
Fantastic fourth wheel: After Crystal and Johnny split a few issues back, now they split up again. Here’s an example of the “let’s just redo what was done before” stories of this era.
Commercial break: Would you trust this guy with your money?
Trivia time: Not surprisingly, Larry Rambow did not go on to be a Marvel icon, but he did appear a few other times, under his new villain name, simply “The Monster.”
Fantastic or frightful? Already we see the contradictory nature of the middle years. We have exciting new developments for Ben, which promise some exciting stories in the near future, but there’s also a lot of lazily repeating what had been done before. It’s only going to go on from here?
Next week: Negative Zone crazies, and a slugfest for the ages.
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