Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Making our way through the “middle years,” after Jack Kirby but before John Byrne, this batch of issues takes up to the historic issue #200. Issue #197: In the previous issue, Sue, Ben, and Johnny learned that Reed’s mysterious new employer is really Dr. Doom. Reed doesn’t know this yet, though. As this issue begins, Reed is preparing to take a test flight into space, which might restore his missing super-powers. He’s told he has to take the flight, or else his teammates will be destroyed. Making a few last-minute calculations, Reed flies through the cosmic rays and it works! He can stretch again. Unfortunately, this somehow reconstitutes the Red Ghost, who also gained his powers from the cosmic rays. In Latveria, Doom has Sue, Ben and Johnny attached to death traps that negate their powers. He brings Alicia into his palace, parading her in front of his captives. Doom wants her to create a sculpture of him… without his mask! Because she’s blind, she can sculpt the “real” him. Doom then reveals that Reed’s new employer is none other than his own long-lost son! In space, Reed and the Red Ghost fight, until the Red Ghost traps Reed between two floors, and then threatens to burn up their ship in re-entry to orbit. The Red Ghost escapes, because the vacuum of space can’t harm his immaterial form, and Reed barely manages to get the damaged spaceship through the atmosphere for an ocean landing. He’s rescued by Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D., and somehow deduces that Dr. Doom is behind all this. Issue #198: Reed flies the FF’s pogo plane, which S.H.I.E.L.D. had in storage for some reason, straight to Latveria, where he launches a one-man assault on Doom’s fortress. There are several pages of Reed fighting wave after wave of Doom’s henchmen (I guess Nick Fury got called away on other business). Reed is finally knocked out when a Doombot self-destructs. Doom gloats, because that’s what he does, and he’s preparing a huge celebration in his own honor. Turns out the guys who captured Reed aren’t working for Doom. They’re with Zorba, a one-eyed man with a scarred face. He is leader of Latveria’s secret freedom fighters, who want to restore the country’s rightful king to throne. They’ve recently learned that Doom has an heir, which accelerates their plans. In the palace, Alicia works on the sculpture, and Doom announces plans to transfer the FF’s powers to his son, which he believes will humiliate Reed. Reed, Zorba, and Zorba’s men infiltrate the palace, confronting Dr. Hauptmann, the brother of the man of the same name Doom killed back in issue #85. Reed uses his stretching powers to disguise himself as Hauptmann, but Doom sees right through it. He blasts Reed with knockout gas, and begins the transference. He also reveals his son’s name is Victor Von Doom Jr. Issue #199: While the transference process continues, Doom addresses his subjects, only to be booed and yelled at. Zorba is now among the crowd outside, saying he’s read Doom’s diary (!) and knows the truth about Doom Jr. Doom fires on the crowd, but then apologizes. Reed wakes up and interrupts the transference by smashing up all of Doom’s equipment. Ben proclaims, “We’re a team again!” and newly-reunited FF raise hell as the fight Doom’s henchmen and Doombots for several pages. Doom holds Alicia hostage, stopping the battle and ensuring the FF’s compliance. Doom addresses the angry mob again. He says he knows the people think of him as a dictator, so he’s turning the throne over to Junior. Zorba, whose artificial eye shoots laser beams, gets back inside and frees the FF. Everybody confronts Doom in front of the mob and Zorba reveals that Junior is not Doom’s son, but his clone! Junior flips out and attacks Doom, using the combined powers of the FF. Doom fights back, using his armor’s “electro-magnetic amplifier” to kill the clone. Furious about having to do this, Doom then attacks Reed. Issue #200: Doom blasts the FF with a wave of energy and retreats into the castle, with the clone’s body. Doom prepares his backup plan, which is to send troops to the United Nations and take it by force (!), but he’s interrupted by Zorba, still leading the angry mob outside. Doom fires a vortex machine at the crowd, sending everyone flying. Doom puts Alicia’s statue on board his private plane, and then he flies off. (Doom’s plane has a big “D.D.” painted on the side.) The FF and Zorba find a scroll (!) with Doom’s master plan on it, and Ben frees Alicia from Doom’s dungeon.
The FF fly to Doom’s laboratory in upstate New York, where Doom has already landed. They fight through Doom’s defenses, and Reed ends up in Doom’s lab, confronting Doom face to face. Doom takes the time to re-tell his origin, emphasizing that his main goal in life is to destroy Reed, his most hated foe. There are several pages of Doom and Reed fighting, where Reed uses his powers to counter Doom’s many weapons and deathtraps. Doom talks a big talk about being superior, calling Reed inferior. It’s not just talk, though. Reed starts to struggle against Doom’s might, barely able to hang on when the floor opens under him revealing a fire pit underneath.
Then we go to the United Nations, where there’s going to be a vote on whether Latveria is guilty of “gross negligence in the field of human rights.” The Doombots interrupt the vote, wheeling the statue into the main hall, saying it’s a gift from Doom. This action distracts Doom from tormenting Reed, allowing Reed to escape the fire pit by squeezing himself through a gas nozzle, pushing his powers farther than he ever has. Doom enters his “Solartron,” the room full of mirrors we saw back in issue #196. There, he learns that Sue, Ben, and Johnny followed the Doombots to the U.N., where a fight has broken out. Reed has a device which can short-circuit Doom’s armor (Why’d he wait until now to use it?), and he zaps Doom with it. Powerless, Doom fights Reed with naught but his two fists. The two of them just pound on each other, but the real battle is in their words. Reed chides Doom on using his genius for vengeance instead of bettering the world, while Doom says it’s not about revenge, but about claiming a birthright that has been rightfully been his all along. Doom says Reed is a scientific genius, but lacks understanding of “human motivation.” Doom gets his refrigeration weapon running, and freezes Reed. At the U.N., the statue’s eyes glow with an eerie light. This is Doom taking over the minds of the world leaders, and he convinces them to attack the FF.
Doom proclaims that he has finally conquered the world, when Reed breaks free of the ice and they start fighting again. Doom beats the CRAP out of Reed, insisting that Reed admit that Doom is superior. Doom finally breaks down and reveals that his hatred of Reed is because he blames Reed for the accident that scarred his face, back when the two of them were students. With Doom’s hands around Reed’s neck, Reed insists he never sabotaged Doom’s work, and he was only trying to help. Reed then undoes the locking mechanism on Doom’s mask, pulling it off. Doom looks up and sees his disfigured face in all the mirrors, staring back at him. The sight of his own face drives him mad, and he falls into a catatonic state. This frees everyone at the U.N. from his control.
Later, Zorba takes control of the Latverian government, promising to institute democratic elections. The comatose Doom is locked up in a padded cell, and the FF return home. The last few panels show the Doom statue crumbling back into clay.
Unstable molecule: The ongoing subplot of Reed losing his powers has been going on for more than 40 issues, only to be wrapped up abruptly in these issues. To this day, it has never been revealed where the power loss came from. Some fans say it was stress, others say he got it from Annihilus, but the text has never been clear.
Fade out: Before Reed runs off to confront Doom, Sue insists that he take a minute to give her a kiss. It’s actually a cute moment for them.
Clobberin’ time: After almost a year’s worth of comics in which the Fantastic Four had broken up, it’s Ben, not Reed, who officially gets the team back together again.
Flame on: Johnny uses his incredibly powerful nova flame to get through the missiles Doom fires at the team when they approach. This wipes him out so much that Sue has to catch him in one of her force fields before he drops to the ground.
Commercial break: This ad was everywhere in late ‘70s comics:
Trivia time: Although Dr. Doom takes off his mask in front of the FF in these issues, later issues will retcon this so that they never actually saw his face, despite what it looked like. Later comics will also establish it wasn’t just the sight of his reflection making Doom comatose, but the radiation in the room as well.
The Red Ghost was dissipated into non-corporeal form out in space back in Iron Man #83 (the infamous story in which Tony Stark’s pal Happy Hogan wore the Iron Man armor).
Zorba was named after the classic novel Zorba the Greek, later adapted into a hit film in 1964 and a Broadway musical in 1968. I haven’t read/seen any of these, so I don’t know whether the original Zorba had a cyborg laser eye.
Issue #200 was Marvel’s first-ever double-sized regular issue. Jack Kirby ended his short-lived ‘70s return to Marvel by drawing the #200 cover, uncredited. It was the last thing he drew for Marvel.
Fantastic or frightful? Issue #200 really divides fans. Some think it’s epic action, but others think it’s hokey and overwritten. Me? I love it. The battle between Reed and Dr. Doom starts out with plot, over stopping Doom from taking over the U.N., then it becomes about their differing philosophies, until finally it becomes personal, so that the whole fight is, on its deepest level, their old school rivalry — and all this while they’re brutally beating on each other. Not only is this one of the best FF comics of the “middle years,” but one of the best FF comics of all time. This sort of high adventure and big emotion is what we need to see in a Fantastic Four movie.
Next week: Homecoming.
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