Rereading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. We’re making our way through the “middle years,” after Jack Kirby but before John Byrne, several issues at a time.
Issue #117: We begin with Johnny, who has been all ticked off at everyone for the last few issues, flying to the Inhumans’ secret city in the Himalayas, in hopes of reuniting with Crystal. Crystal, remember, left abruptly several issues ago saying she could no longer live among human pollution. Johnny fights a bunch of Inhumans standing guard out in the snow, who reveal that Crystal never arrived at the city, and everyone believes she’s still with the FF. Also, Maximus the Mad has, through circumstances never revealed, taken over the city. Johnny, weakened from the fight, catches up with the rest of the FF at Agatha Harkness’s house. Harkness uses her (what else?) crystal ball to find Crystal, only to report that Crystal is no longer in “the normal world.”
In a flashback, we learn Crystal arrived in a war-torn alien landscape, where she is knocked out by evil chemist Diablo. (Dr. Doom stranded Diablo in this otherworld when they fought in Marvel Super Heroes #20.) Late at night in Harkness’s house, Johnny uses the Crystal ball again, and finds Crystal and Diablo emerging on Earth among Mayan ruins in South America. Diablo has possessed Crystal and dressed her in a super-sexy new costume. He’s using her powers to convince the superstitious natives to do his bidding. First, he will overthrow a local general, then take over the country, and then the world. Diablo’s followers start a revolution, with several pages of fighting and destruction. The issue ends on a weird partial-cliffhanger, in which Johnny flies over the battle, assuming that Crystal is not involved and deciding not to butt in.
Issue #118: So much for not butting in, because this issue begins with Johnny joining the fight and trashing a bunch of attacking airplanes. Johnny finds Crystal and tries to break the spell by kissing her, but it doesn’t work. She believes she’s a Mayan goddess and won’t have anything to do with him. She uses her elemental powers to douse Johnny’s flame and knock in unconscious. Diablo, meanwhile, succeeds in overthrowing the general, stating that he wants it for its natural supply of rare chemicals. He takes the general back to the Mayan ruins, where Johnny has woken up and is fighting Crystal.
The rest of the FF arrives, fighting their way through the revolution, and then facing off with Diablo. Diablo sics the giant Inhuman dog Lockjaw on them, and Ben gets to wrestle the big dog. Diablo’s chemicals start to wear off, and Crystal becomes herself again. Inside the ruins, Diablo fights the general, only to have the chemicals spill and cause a huge explosion. (We’re not told that Diablo is dead, but we’re not told that he survives, either. He’s just… gone.) Crystal of course says she can’t stay with Johnny, because she has to go back to Black Bolt and help the Inhumans defeat Maximus.
Issue #119: This one begins with Ben and Johnny bickering while Sue and Reed break them up. It’s another excuse for the characters to show off their powers for the first pages (been a while since we had one of those). Reed introduces his new household robot, AUNTIE, to clean up the Baxter Building. Then, our heroes get a message from Wakanda, from the Black Panther’s chief advisor. He tells them about two thieves, Jeth Robards and Nathan Kumalu, who stole an invention called the Vibatron (!) that can enhance the powers of Wakanda’s rare metal Vibranium. Black Panther has followed the thieves to a country called Rudyarda, a haven for white supremacists, where he’s disappeared.
If that’s not “real world” enough for you, Ben and Johnny take a commercial airliner to Rudyarda, only for it to get hijacked (!) in mid-flight. There’s a few pages of our heroes taking out the hijacker. They find Kumalu, who says the thieves are meeting with a mysterious buyer at midnight, and that Black Panther is locked up in a local prison. Ben and Johnny bust him out of the joint, and he reveals his new codename — the Black Leopard! He says he changed his name because “Black Panther,” he explains, has “political connotations.” They hurry to meet the buyer, who, it turns out, is sound-based villain Klaw. (Remember that Klaw was originally introduced as a villain for Black Panther.) Everybody fights! Ben destroys Klaw’s sound weapon and Black Leopard punches him out. Then we get the preachy ending in which Ben makes a political connotation of his own by destroying doors segregating whites and blacks.
Issue #120: Enough with the important social issues. This issue starts off in the middle of some action, with the Baxter Building under attack by gun-wielding masked men. After several pages of fighting these guys, the FF’s landlord shows up again, once more threatening to evict our heroes. Then Agatha Harkness appears in some kind of astral form, warning the FF of danger, but not saying what it is. We then get the comics version of a montage, where people all over the world react to a strange man walking in the sky above them. The FF investigates, luring the stranger, dubbed the “Air-Walker” by pedestrians, to the Baxter Building, where he just stands there in the sky, not reacting to them any further.
The Pentagon won’t have this, so tanks and missiles are launched to attack the Air-Walker, who blows them all away with awesome cosmic power. The Air-Walker summons a giant golden horn out of nowhere, and he says his name is Gabriel, here to announce that the end of the Earth is at hand.
Issue #121: The FF fights Gabriel, along with several strange lines of dialogue speculating on whether he’s an angel. Gabriel speaks to all the New Yorkers out on the street, telling them that the Earth can be spared if they kill the Fantastic Four. The locals chase the FF around for a few pages, until Reed leads the team to a TV station. All broadcasts have stopped worldwide, due to fear about Gabriel destroying them all. The FF heads back to the Baxter Building, and then starts another fight with Gabriel, who throws all their attacks back at them, flooding part of NYC while he’s at it.
In outer space just beyond Earth, the Silver Surfer takes notice of the battle, and he flies down to join the FF. The Surfer and Gabriel fight, while spouting a lot of serious dialogue about truth and destiny. The Surfer finally destroys Gabriel, revealing him to be a highly powerful robot. Just as our heroes ask who could have built such a robot, the answer appears in the sky above them — it’s Galactus, and he looks pissed!
To be continued!
Unstable molecule: Reed is shown inventing a brand-new fireproof plastic in one issue, but this is never brought up again. You’d think something like that would come in handy.
Fade out: Sue demonstrates all sorts of new uses for her powers in these issues, such as creating invisible parachutes and cushions to protect her teammates from falls, and confusing enemies by turning only parts of their bodies invisible.
Clobberin’ time: Issue #118 has a truly weird backup story in which Ben visits an alternate reality where there’s an entire village of Reed lookalike robots, built by an alternate Reed who got Ben’s Thing powers from the cosmic rays.
Flame on: Johnny is getting good at these long distance flights, traveling from New York to the Himalayas to South America in one issue.
Fantastic fifth wheel: Crystal doesn’t rejoin the team, but at least she and Johnny get to say a real goodbye this time.
Four and a half: Franklin’s nanny Agatha Harkness keeps showing up in the FF’s lives, but Franklin himself is oddly absent. Who’s watching this kid?
Commercial break: Fat track!
Trivia time: These issues have Maximus in control of the Inhumans’ city, but the Kree-Skrull war was happening at the same time in The Avengers, where Black Bolt was shown as sitting on the throne. It’s believed that these issues take place just before the war, and that the royal family made short work of Maximus after Crystal rejoined them.
The Black Panther’s new “Black Leopard” name didn’t last beyond this appearance. He next showed up in Daredevil #92, where he was back to calling himself Black Panther again.
The Marvel Wiki doesn’t have any entry I could find for the robot AUNTIE, but clearly she was a forerunner for the notoriously hated HERBIE the Robot. We’ll get to HERBIE soon enough.
Fantastic or frightful? Yeesh. The Diablo and Air-Walker stories are lesser retreads of what had gone on before, and the “realistic” Black Panther story is embarrassingly heavy-handed and preachy. The series is really hurting by this point.
Next: Monsters, Inc.
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