Fantastic Friday: The Middle Years, part 2

Rereading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. We’re making our way through the “middle years,” after Jack Kirby but before John Byrne. In this batch of issues, we get another trip to the Negative Zone and a killer superhero vs. superhero fight.

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Issue #108: In the previous issue some guy named Janus showed up, and it was clear he and the FF have some kind of history. This issue is mostly a flashback explaining just what that is. Janus was originally the “Nega-Man,” using “nega-energy” to rob banks, fighting Johnny and Ben in the process. Reed reveals that he knew Janus back in college, and he suspects something’s up beyond mere bank robbery. Turns out Janus once experimented with energy from the Negative Zone, splitting himself into two people, with his other self being the evil Nega-Man.

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In a surprising dark moment, Janus shot and killed Nega-Man, and Reed thought it was over. Only now, Janus has returned. He got into Reed’s lab, and flung himself into the Negative Zone. The Negative Zone portal then opens, and out comes Annihilus.

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Issue #109: Turns out Annihilus is not actually on Earth yet. He’s merely confronting Janus in the Negative Zone, as Janus could provide him a way to get to Earth. Reed, Ben and Johnny enter the Negative Zone with Sue staying behind to open the portal for them upon their return. Annihilus agrees to let Janus live if Janus takes him to Earth. These negotiations are interrupted by the FF, and there’s several pages of fighting. In his thirst for power, Janus flies into a “zone of anti-matter,” where he seemingly dies.

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Uncharacteristically, Reed uses a gun (!) to fend off Annihilus. Ben and Johnny make it back home, but Reed’s homing device was broken in the fight, meaning he’s stranded in the Negative Zone.

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Issue #110: Everyone frets about Reed still trapped. Reed makes his way around the Negative Zone, to hunt down Annihilus. Back in New York, Franklin’s supernatural nanny Agatha Harkness shows up, chewing Sue out for spending so much time away from the baby. Ben’s anger continues to be out of control since he got his shape-changing “cure.” He gets so ticked off at Sue that he threatens violence against her. After he storms off, Johnny decides he wants to go back into the Negative Zone with another homing device to get Reed home. He secures the device in a cocoon of intensified flame, and sends it to Reed. Reed gets it, but doesn’t want Annihilus following him home.

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Agatha Harkness casts a spell to make it look like the Negative Zone is filled with clones of Reed, and this is just the distraction he needs to slip away from Annihilus. Reed makes it home. It should be a cause for celebration, but Ben loses it. His anger is out of control. He trashes Reed’s lab and wanders off, saying he and Reed are now enemies.

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Issue #111: Out in the streets of New York, Ben is nothing but rage. He trashes a construction site, and is chased by the cops. He evades them easily by transforming back into a human. Reed whines about how the cure has affected his personality. Johnny flies over New York looking for Ben. Ben spots him, turns back into the Thing.

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Then there’s a weird bit where the FF’s landlord wants to evict them because of crowds out front protesting the Thing’s violence, and Reed throws the landlord out, rather violently. Ben defeats Johnny, and goes on to rob a bank. Reed has Johnny fly into the air and a write message in the sky for Dr. Bruce Banner, whom Reed says is the only person who can help Ben. Banner sees this, hops into a taxi, and makes his way to the Baxter Building. They drive right into Ben’s rampaging in Central Park. Banner (of course) loses it and turns into the Hulk.

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Issue #112: Ooohh yeah, time for a Thing/Hulk slugfest! The two heavy hitters beat each other senseless for several pages, using Central Park’s trees and statues as weapons. Reed has a pity party, and won’t let Johnny join the fight. Throughout the city, the fight has stirred up huge waves of anti-superhero sentiment with protestors all over the place, and the landlord threatens eviction again.

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As the fight leaves the park and out into the buildings, Alicia dares to go out into the city to try to talk some sense into Ben. A piece of stray debris hits her and knocks her out. When Ben sees this, he’s distracted just long enough for the Hulk to deliver the killing blow. Reed arrives on the scene just the Hulk turns back into Bruce Banner, but he’s too late for Ben. Ben is… dead?!?

To be continued!

Unstable molecule: What’s the deal with Reed using a gun all of a sudden? OK, sure, it’s a “stun gun,” but it’s still out of character. Later, the weight of driving Ben crazy weighs heavily on Reed.

Fade out: Sue doesn’t enter the Negative Zone, but she remains part of the action by monitoring the action from the Earth side. We see her striving for more of a balance in spending time with the baby and fighting evil with the FF.

Clobberin’ time: Although consumed with rage, Ben doesn’t seem full-on evil, and he’s not seriously hurting people, just kind of throwing them around. Still, it’s interesting character development on his part. He’s gone from accepting his status as a monster, back to being enraged by it.

Flame on: Johnny can protect sensitive tech by surrounding it in solidified flames. Science?

Four and a half: Even though he’s outside of the city with his nanny, lil’ Franklin can tell Reed is in trouble, more foreshadowing of his emerging powers.

Commercial break: The Bug Bomb!

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Trivia time: The Negative Zone issues establish a lot of what will be regular features of the Negative Zone from here on out, including those flying backpack things, and having to leave someone behind to bring everyone back home. Also, the statue of “General Forbush” seen in Central Park is an Easter egg, referring to Marvel in-joke character Irving Forbush.

Fantastic or frightful? The Negative Zone story is another example of why the middle years are so rarely talked about. It’s the comic spinning its wheels, doing the same sort of stories it had done before. Ben’s descent into madness and subsequent epic battle with the Hulk is excellent, however, with the big action and big emotion that Fantastic Four comics are known for.

Next week: Under over, over under

****

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

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About Mac McEntire

Author of CINE HIGH. amazon.com/dp/B00859NDJ8
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