Rereading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. We’re still clawing our way out of the creative black hole that was the “middle years,” after Jack Kirby but before John Byrne.
Issue #164: We begin with talk about how Sue’s powers have gotten stronger, after which Johnny heads out for a night on the town, in search of a new girlfriend. He has a blind date set up with a lovely redhead named Frankie Raye. (Get used to Frankie. She’s going to be around for a while.) Their date, a stroll through hippie-infested Greenwich Village, is interrupted by a super-powered guy named the Crusader. He says he’s on a one-man holy war to end all corruption in society, and he starts by destroying a bunch of buildings. Johnny uses his powers in front of Frankie, and she’s terrified to learn he has fire powers.
The Crusader is after a seemingly-normal man named Calvin McClary. Johnny tries to save the man, but Crusader uses his light powers to temporarily blind Johnny. With Johnny out of the fight, Crusader goes ahead and murders McClary. (Harsh.) Johnny reunites with his teammates, and Reed says he’ll search for Crusader alone while his teammates get some rest. (What?)
Issue #165: Reed is walking over NYC, his legs stretched into giant stilts, so he can look for the Crusader. (Doesn’t Reed have a lab full of high-tech scanning devices he can use?) Reed meets McClary’s widow, who says the Crusader spoke with the voice of McClary’s old science lab partner, Dr. Grayson. The Crusader runs around New York, destroying banks for their corruption, with the FF not able to catch up with him.
The Crusader attacks another bank, but this time the FF are ready for him. The Crusader tells us his origin. (I hope you’re sitting down.) Dr. Grayson was his father. During WWII, Grayson built a spaceship and flew him and his son to the planet Uranus. The boy grew up, and returned to Earth in the 1950s with super-powered wristbands. He fought crime under the name “Marvel Boy.” A corrupt bank denied him a loan to provide medical supplies to the people of Uranus, and the Urianians all died. Now, he’s renamed himself the Crusader and he’s back for vengeance. While Ben and the Crusader fight, Reed figures out that the Crusader’s powers are solar-based, so he clears the sky of all clouds, causing the Crusader to overload on solar energy. This makes him deteriorate, right in front of everyone. Only his wristbands are left behind. (Holy crap, Reed killed a guy!)
Issue #166: This one begins with the FF aboard a luxury 747, where Ben mopes about being a monster, and Johnny hopes he hasn’t screwed things up with Frankie already. The team is flying to Nebraska, where Reed hopes his new “Psi-Amplifier” can cure Dr. Bruce Banner, so he never turns into the Hulk again. The Hulk then attacks, apparently by coincidence, and there’s several pages of action as the FF use their powers to get the plane safely to the ground. Our heroes then meet with a Col. Sellers, who has been tracking the Hulk. They find the big green guy in the snowy mountains.
The FF and the Hulk fight. Sue uses a force field to cut off the Hulk’s oxygen, which weakens him just long enough for Ben to knock him out. At Sellers’ base, inside a hollowed-out mountain (!), Reed uses the Psi-Amplifier to transform the Hulk back into Banner. Ben, who has been wallowing in pity and snarking at Reed the whole time, decides that he’d rather be on the Hulk’s side, so he interrupts the process. This transforms Banner back into the Hulk, and now both the Hulk and the Thing are about to attack the rest of the FF.
Issue #167: Ben and the Hulk fight together, against Reed, Sue, Johnny, and a bunch of soldiers. Ben and the Hulk escape in a helicopter (why the Hulk just goes along with this, I don’t know). They fly to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, where Ben suffers a dizzy spell. The soldiers find them, and they start a fight with the Hulk. Reed shows up as well, and tries to reason with Ben. Reed uses a tranquilizer on the Hulk, only to have the Hulk attack him. Ben sees this, and fights the Hulk, standing up for Reed.
While Ben and the Hulk pummel each other, Ben gets another dizzy spell, and he transforms… back into a human! The Hulk is bummed that his new friend the Thing is gone, so he runs off. Reed explains that Ben’s prolonged exposure to the Hulk’s gamma radiation is what brought on the transformation. Ben, Johnny, and Sue are happy to have human Ben back, but Reed wonders if this means the end of the Fantastic Four.
Issue #168: Back in New York, Johnny is bummed out because Frankie won’t date him on account of his being a superhero. He asks for a leave of absence from the team, which upsets Reed even more. Ben, meanwhile, takes Alicia out on the town, and is glad when more people recognize her for her art than they recognize him. Back home, Reed says Ben has to be replaced, because the team’s charter (!) insists that there must be four members at all times. Reed already has a replacement ready — Luke Cage, Power Man!
An alarm goes off in the city. It’s a bank robbery, so the new FF jumps into action. Ben tags along as well, still hoping to prove himself. It’s the Wrecker, one of Marvel’s favorite go-to superpowered thugs. The fight moves to a nearby construction site, where Ben keeps getting in the way, forcing the FF to keep rescuing him. Cage defeats the Wrecker, and Ben wanders off, feeling worthless.
Issue #169: Ben wallows in self-pity, getting drunk and starting barroom brawls. Johnny finds Ben at a bar and takes him home. Back at headquarters, Sue and Cage get to know each other, until he flips out and starts trashing the place. Reed and Johnny join the fight, assuming that Cage is under some sort of mind control.
Cage fights his way into Reed’s lab, accidentally switching on Dr. Doom’s old time machine. He then escapes in the Fantasticar. Reed says Cage was never meant to be a permanent replacement for Ben. He then opens up a secret door, where Ben is shocked to discover another big rock monster just like he used to be — a second Thing!
Issue #170: No, it’s not another Thing. It’s a robo-exoskeleton made to look just like the Thing. Ben can wear it and use its strength to fight evil. After testing out the suit, the team turns its attention back on what happened to Cage. Cut to Alicia, who is visiting her father, the Puppet Master, in jail. She suspects he’s behind Cage attacking the FF. Alicia can sense that the jail cell’s walls are made from Puppet Master’s radioactive clay, and he’s using it to make his mind-control puppets. (How’d he set up all this ahead of time?)
Cage, still under mind control, shows up with the stolen Fantasticar to bust Puppet Master out of jail. Cage, Puppet Master, and Alicia take off over the ocean. The FF then arrive, and… fighting! During the fight, the Fantasticar is knocked to the side, and Puppet Master has to choose whether to save his puppet or to save Alicia. He saves Alicia, letting the puppet fall into the ocean. This frees Cage from the mind control. Puppet Master is hauled back to jail, and the issue ends with Ben questioning whether he should ask Alicia to marry him.
Unstable molecule: There are a few more hints here and there about Reed slowly losing his powers. The fact that Reed flat-out murdered the Crusader is pretty much swept under the rug.
Fade out: Sue manages to help take out the Hulk, and she helps land a crashing plane, all with her force fields — both signs that she’ll eventually emerge as the team’s most powerful member.
Clobberin’ time: Turning human again lets us see Ben in a new light. Although happy at first, he’s quick to return to his self-pity. Here we see that Ben’s wallowing in misery was not because he was transformed into the Thing, but it’s something that was always there.
Flame on: Johnny begins his romance with Frankie Raye, except she dislikes superheroes and she doesn’t know he is one. Comics fans who know what will later become of Frankie can already smell the whiff of irony.
Four and a half: Sue reminds us in one scene that Franklin no longer has super-powers, because he might destroy all of reality if he did.
Fantastic fifth wheel: We’re not given the exact circumstances of how Luke Cage joins the team as Ben’s replacement. He just shows up. The answer would appear to be in how he describes himself as a “Power Man for hire.” (As opposed to the more well-known “hero for hire” he usually goes by.) Issues 168-170 contain Cage’s entire run as a member of the FF.
Commercial break: Could this ad be the secret origin of Batroc?
Trivia time: There actually was a Marvel Boy comic in the early 1950s, which the Crusader is based on. You might think that the Crusader looks a lot like Marvel hero Quasar. You’d be right! It’ll later be revealed that the Crusader’s wrist bands are in fact Quasar’s quantum bands. The bands were created by Eon to be worn by the protector of the universe, but the Uranians didn’t know this when the found the bands and gave them to the Crusader. This Quasar stuff is some seriously complicated mythology.
Fantastic or frightful? These issues are… not bad. Definitely a step up in quality from what we’ve been seeing. There is genuine character development for Ben, letting us see him in a new light, and that alone makes this batch of issues worth reading.
Next week: Not just any gorilla.
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