Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. We’re still butt-deep in the “middle years,” after Jack Kirby but before John Byrne, getting pretty closer to the landmark #200.
Issue #184: We begin with several pages of housekeeping after the last few issues, with all the characters messing around in the trashed Baxter Building lab. Reed is in a coma, and still without his powers. Ben rejects the flirtations of both Thunrda and Tigra, saying Alicia is the only woman for him. Johnny flies off, hoping to reunite with Frankie Raye, but he’s shot down by a mysterious sniper. Reed wakes from the coma, and Sue finally tells him that Franklin was abducted. She gives him his old uniform back, and says he doesn’t need powers to lead the team, just his genius.
Reed, Sue and Johnny visit Whisper Hill, home of Franklin’s supernatural nanny Agatha Harkness. The place has fallen into disrepair without Harkness’ magic keeping it up and running. They find Johnny inside, and then they’re attacked by a giant red guy, the Eliminator. He says his “masters” have taken Franklin. Everybody fights! The Eliminator succeeds in defeating the FF. Then, with his directive concluded, he sets himself to self-destruct. Just before he goes boom, it’s revealed that the FF faked their deaths with the help of Sue’s invisibility. Whisper Hill is destroyed, and Reed promises to keep searching for Franklin.
Issue #185: Back in Reed’s lab, which is now completely rebuilt, he tracks the clues from Whisper Hill to a remote spot in the Colorado Rockies. Sue worries that he’s coming apart at the seams, and Reed uses the artificial stretching arms he invented back in issue #39 to recreate his lost powers. The FF travel to Colorado, to a town so small and remote that it’s not on any map. The town is New Salem. The FF, dressed incognito, are greeted by Mayor Nicholas Scratch. Harkness is inside a nearby building, held captive along with Franklin. The FF try to leave town, but are blocked by a huge wall of flame.
The town’s residents reveal themselves to be hooded wizards, and that they’re holding Franklin and Harkness captive. They summon a bunch of stone gargoyles to attack our heroes and… more fighting! The wizards — oh, sorry, they call themselves “witches” — use their magic to take control of their powers. The issue ends with the FF defeated.
Issue #186: The FF are in a big jail cell, where they’re finally reunited with Franklin and Harkness. Harkness says she took Franklin in the hopes of keeping him safe from Scratch, but she was too late. Scratch shows up and says Harkness will be executed for treason. His people teleport Franklin away again, so the FF will comply. Harkness’ crime is that she revealed the existence of New Salem to the outside world. The FF decide to escape, with Sue using her powers to overcome their guards. This puts them in the path of New Salem’s superhuman protectors, Salem’s Seven!
Roll call: 1) Brutacus, the big hairy guy. 2) Hydron, the water/fish guy. 3) Thornn, the yellow spikey guy. 4)Vakume, the robotic walk-through-walls guy. 5) Gazelle, the acrobatic jumping lady. 6) Reptilla, the crazy snake lady. 7) Vertigo, the dizziness-causing lady (who is different from Marvel’s other dizziness-causing lady named Vertigo). There’s several pages of fighting so these new characters can show off their powers. Reed’s artificial arms cause the Salem’s Seven to lose their powers, because they can’t fight anything artificial. The FF then interrupts the execution ceremony, where Reed tells the people of New Salem that Scratch is the real traitor, in that he orchestrated the whole thing by abducting Franklin in the first place. They zap him with the “spell of eternal banishment,” and they let Harkness and the FF leave. Harkness reveals that Scratch was really her long-lost son.
Issue #187: The FF return home to find the Baxter Building has been trashed, and they have an intruder. It’s Klaw, the master of sound! He fights Ben, and Ben discovers Klaw is not alone. He’s working with the Molecule Man, who defeats Ben. Klaw has infiltrated the building to get his hands on Reed’s psi-amplifier, or “psi-am,” so he can transfer his brain into the Hulk’s body (he had just recently fought the Hulk). There’s a flashback explaining how Klaw and Molecule Man met and how M.M.’s powers were restored, and then the two villains fight and defeat the rest of the FF.
Impossible Man, who is still living with the FF for no reason whatsoever, helps fight the villains. While he defeats Klaw singlehandedly, Molecule Man hooks himself up to the psi-am. It looks like it doesn’t work at first, but then we’re shocked to learn Molecule Man’s brain is now in Reed’s body!
Issue #188: Molecule Man goes nuts with power, rampaging all over the place, all while Reed’s brain is trapped in M.M.’s wand. (I don’t even know. Just go with it.) The Watcher shows up, but doesn’t say or do anything. He’s just there to… watch. Molecule Man brings a skyscraper to life, transforming it into a giant monster. There’s a lot of fighting and running around. Reed’s personality starts reasserting itself, and the Molecule Man’s power burns itself out (or something like that, it’s confusing) and Reed is himself again.
Then there’s a lot of drama as Reed announces that he’s officially resigning as a member of the Fantastic Four. “I’m just a man like any other,” he says. Sue leaves as well, saying she’s not going to abandon her husband. Ben and Johnny are left behind, not sure what will happen next.
Issue #189: The issue reprints annual #4 in its entirety, with no new material.
Unstable molecule: Way more drama about Reed losing his powers. First he tries to cope with mechanical arms, but ultimately quits the team. The point is made over and over that it’s not the powers, but his great mind that makes him a hero, but he doesn’t seem to take it at heart.
Fade out: Sue continues to develop new uses for her powers, and manages to single-handedly defeat the Eliminator by faking him out with her invisibility.
Clobberin’ time: After several issues of other women chasing Ben, he turns around this time and says Alicia is the only woman for her. (Does Alicia know this?)
Flame on: Johnny keeps flying off to check in on Frankie Raye, no matter how many times she keeps brushing him off. This perhaps foreshadows the FF breaking up, with everyone feeling pulled in separate ways.
Four and a half: Franklin only exists in these issues so he can get abducted over and over, so the FF can have something to chase after. Agatha Harkness is apparently no longer officially his nanny, as Alicia was watching Franklin the whole time the FF were on Counter-Earth.
Fantastic fifth wheel: Impossible Man keeps walking off and saying he’s never coming back, only to reappear in later issues still living with the FF. He’s more “comedy sidekick” than he is an alternate member of the team, but he defeats Klaw easily enough.
Commercial break: Own a Texas ranch! (Sort of.)
Trivia time: Future comics writer Kurt Busiek had a letter published in issue #186, where he argued that Sue’s force fields could be used as an offensive weapon, and not just to defend her and her teammates from trouble.
Fantastic or frightful? The series continues to improve, mostly thanks to some great artwork from a young George Perez. Here we can see him transitioning from the Marvel house style to the meticulously-detailed work he’s known for today.
Next week: The big break up.
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