Rereading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. We’re still self-flagellating our way through the mediocrity of the “middle years,” after Jack Kirby but before John Byrne.
Issue #177: The FF return from their previous adventure in space, with the Impossible Man tagging along for no reason, only to find that the Frightful Four have broken into the Baxter Building and are waiting for them. The Wizard, the Sandman, and Paste-Pot-Pete um I mean the Trapster all fight our heroes while promising that their new fourth member will soon arrive. After several pages of fighting, the Frightful Four takes the FF hostage, and announces tryouts for a new fourth member. A whole bunch of villains are waiting in the Baxter Building’s lobby, all wanting to audition for the part.
The candidates: Osprey, who can fly. Texas Twister, who has wind/tornado powers. Thundra, returning from issue #153, who is super-strong. Captain Ultra, who has tons of powers but faints at the sight of fire. Finally, there’s future Avenger Tigra, who pretends to be a criminal only to rescue the FF. The FF fight all the villains, including a big purple Hulk-like guy named the Brute. Ben fights the Brute into the room with the Negative Zone portal. The Brute opens the portal and sends Ben into the Negative Zone. The Brute transforms into a human, revealing that he’s really the Counter-Earth version of Reed!
Issue 178: Ben confronts a snake monster in the Negative Zone, only to be abruptly returned to Earth, held captive with the FF, Tigra, and Thundra. The Brute gives his origin, in which he, like Reed, traveled into space and was exposed to the cosmic rays. He and the Frightful Four announce that they’re going to hold the FF for a $1 billion ransom. Then, real life bleeds into the comic, when NYC mayor Abe Beame contacts then-president Jimmy Carter, former president Gerald Ford, and, presciently, future president Ronald Reagan, in hopes of saving the FF.
The Impossible Man has been watching TV all this time, fascinated with Earth pop culture. When the TV goes out, he starts running around the Baxter Building causing trouble, which frees the FF. Everybody fights! In the middle of the battle, Reed discovers he’s completely lost his stretching powers. With Thundra and Tigra’s help, the remaining FFers capture the Frightful Four, with the Brute falling through the Negative Zone portal. The FF agree that powers or no, Reed is still their leader. But, there’s a twist! That’s the Brute, who took the real Reed’s place during the battle.
Issue #179: Alone in the Negative Zone, Reed manages to fight off some monsters and seeks shelter on a floating asteroid. The Brute, who had no alternate Sue on Counter-Earth, plots to keep impersonating Reed long enough to dispatch of the FF and run away with Sue.
Ben and Tigra go out for a fancy dinner (!) only to run across a robot, the Metalloid, robbing a nearby bank. The U.S. Army is called in, just for Ben and Tigra to fight the robot in the water out on a garbage barge. The Coast Guard takes away the robot. At home, Sue suspects something is up with Reed. The real Reed, meanwhile, wakes from his Negative Zone slumber to find that Annihilus has found him.
Issue #180: This one merely reprints issue #101 in its entirety, with no new material except the cover.
Issue #181: Annihilus says he wants revenge on Reed, but, after some fighting, Annihilus discovers Reed has lost his powers and offers to help him. The FF, with continued help from Tigra, Thundra, and Impossible Man, helps the Coast Guard look underwater for the Metalloid. At the Baxter Building, Sue confronts Reed and is convinced that it’s not really Reed, so she leaves. She visits Alicia, who has been watching Franklin this whole time. While they have girl talk, Franklin’s supernatural nanny Agatha Harkness teleports into the room and abducts Franklin.
Johnny visits Frankie Raye, only to find her on a date with another guy. She says she can’t stand fire, and that she wants him to leave her alone forever. Back in the water, Ben and company have succeeded in bringing the robot to the surface, where they’re refusing to turn it over to the Coast Guard. A cop interrupts them, saying the robot wasn’t robbing the bank vault, but escaping from it. In the Negative Zone, Annihilus explains that he’s lost his cosmic control rod, so he’s enlisting Reed to get it back. Reed and Annihilus are then attacked by a giant monster, only to learn it is being controlled by… the Mad Thinker!
Issue #182: The Brute, still disguised as Reed, sends Johnny and Ben into the Negative Zone, by tricking them into thinking the robot’s origins are there. At Agatha Harkness’ house, she and Franklin are attacked by mysterious strangers. Sue and Alicia arrive only to see the strangers teleport Harkness and Franklin away. In the Negative Zone, Ben and Johnny catch up with Reed and Annihilus, and everyone fight’s the Mad Thinker’s monster, which is actually a new android of his. Ben and Johnny aren’t convinced that this Reed is the real Reed, and they discover that they’ve been cut off, unable to return to Earth.
At home, Sue tells the Brute that Franklin has been kidnapped. When he doesn’t react, that’s when Sue calls him out, saying she knows he’s not really Reed. The Brute transforms into his monstrous form and attacks Sue. She puts up a good fight, but he overpowers her, and throws her out a window.
Issue #183: Tigra, Thundra, and Impossible Man, who are out and about in New York, save Sue from falling. In the Negative Zone, Annihilus explains that the Mad Thinker’s android absorbed all the power from the cosmic control rod, thus robbing Annihilus of his immortality. Reed proposes working together, using Annihilus’ ship to fight back. In New York, the Mad Thinker says his calculations have shown that all this would happen, and he’s using the fight against the Brute as an excuse to steal all of Reed’s inventions. Impossible Man wanders off, leaving Sue, Thundra and Tigra to storm the building.
The android comes through the Negative Zone portal and attacks the Brute. The android bombards the Brute with cosmic rays, turning him human permanently. In the Negative Zone, Reed fashions a device to find the way back to Earth. They make it, and the FF are reunited. By working together, our heroes defeat the android. The Mad Thinker, who’s been watching all this from a distance, frets about too many x-factors throwing off his calculations, and he runs off. The Brute, who says he’s no longer evil, enters the Negative Zone to return the cosmic control rod to Annihilus, because Reed gave his word to do so.
Unstable molecule: Reed loses his stretching powers, with the argument made that his genius is his “real” power, so he never needed the stretching to begin with.
Fade out: Sue is well on her way from transitioning from damsel to toughest member of the team. First, she’s the one who deduces the Brute’s plan. Then, she fights the Brute by herself, and later leads the fight through all the Brute’s deathtraps in the Baxter Building.
Clobberin’ time: Ben is quite the ladies’ man! In addition to his still loosely-defined relationship with Alicia, both Thundra and Tigra put the moves on him.
Flame on: Johnny’s romantic interest Frankie Raye is now afraid of fire, instead of people with super powers. Many have argued that Frankie’s storyline changed dramatically from what she was originally intended to be, and here we see a sign of that.
Four and a half: Poor Franklin gets kidnapped twice! He’s also being drawn less like a toddler and more like a young kid.
Fantastic fifth wheel: It’s the Fantastic Seven! After the fight with the Frightful Four, Thundra, Tigra and Impossible Man all start living at the Baxter Building and joining the FF on their adventures for no reason whatsoever. It’s reminiscent of Steve Gerber’s then-recent run on The Defenders, in which the “team” consisted of whoever was hanging out in Dr. Strange’s house at any given time.
Commercial break: Bionic battle!
Trivia time: Tigra had recently had a short-lived solo series in Marvel Chillers, and editorial wanted to keep the character around, hence her appearance here. She’d later become a mainstay in various Avengers comics.
This is actually not the first time the Brute appeared. He was previously introduced in an issue of Warlock.
The Mad Thinker’s android is in the Negative Zone, because the FF stranded it there back in issue #71.
Captain Ultra is one of those obscure characters who keeps popping up from time to time in the Marvel Universe. It’ll later be revealed that Captain Ultra is a plumber whose innate superhuman potential was unlocked by an extraterrestrial hypnotist. During Marvel’s “Initiative” storyline, S.H.I.E.L.D. assigned Captain Ultra to be the official superhero of Nebraska.
Osprey doesn’t have as many appearances in Marvel Comics, but for some reason he’s prominently featured in the late ‘80s Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game.
Fantastic or frightful? While still not the best, these issues are another step in the right direction, with a lot of action and twists, and some nice character growth for Sue.
Next week: Lords of Salem.
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