Fantastic Friday: The “middle years” part 18

Rereading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. We’re nearing the end of the “middle years,” after Jack Kirby but before John Byrne. This week, we’re going to space, going to school, and hanging out with an Avenger.

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Issue #201: We follow-up to the previous issue, establishing that Latveria is now a democracy without Dr. Doom, and the people are celebrating. The FF return to the Baxter Building, to find that not only has no one purchased it since it went up for sale a few issues back, but no one wants it for fear of supervillains attacking the place. Ben basically bullies the landlord into letting them back in the building at a lowered rent, and our heroes are home again. We get another one of those great cutaways of the HQ:

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After moving back in, things get weird. An experimental microbe in Reed’s lab grows into a big blob that attacks Reed. A high-tech exercise device traps Ben, laser guns attack Sue, and Johnny gets trapped in some fireproof foam. After some running around and rescuing each other, Reed says that in order to stop the attacks, the FF must fight the way through their own security devices into the building’s central power core. These security devices include poison gas and killer robots. Sue and Johnny eventually make it to the core and blow it up, saving everyone. The FF celebrate being a team again.

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Issue #202: Reed tries to figure out why the Baxter Building’s computers went haywire, when Iron Man shows up. Without saying a word, Iron Man attacks, and there’s several pages of him fighting the FF. Iron Man throws everyone out of the building and makes his way to its “uncoupling lever.” He pulls the lever, and get this: The whole building transforms into a spaceship! It blasts off, stranding the FF in New York. Believing Iron Man to be Tony Stark’s bodyguard, the FF pay a visit to Stark, who says it’s impossible for Iron Man to have been there, because he was busy with other stuff all day. The FF leave, and it’s revealed that Tony actually is Iron Man. He suits up in the armor, meets the FF, and says the man who attacked them was an imposter.

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The FF and Iron Man use a “proton tracer” to find the Baxter Building, now relocated to a deserted tropical island. Inside, Quasimodo is waiting for them. Quasimodo, you’ll remember was originally a sentient computer created by the Mad Thinker, who was later given an indestructible body by the Silver Surfer. He says some nonsense about how his “salvation” is in deep space, and that he’s using a fake Iron Man because he’s lost the ability to move. Then, however, he’s able to move just fine, attacking the FF. Iron Man defeats his double, but Quasimodo manages to escape in the FF’s rocket. In space, he finds the coordinates he wants, to discover he’s not looking for a planet, but another ship. The ship is now long gone, leaving him alone.

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Issue #202: We begin with a family whose son was exposed to cosmic rays while in the military. (A cosmic ray bomb, specifically.) A doctor, who is one of Reed’s former teachers, asks Reed to consult. Reed puts the kid, Willie Evans Jr., into a device called a “comatron.” Willie is partially lucid, and he murmurs “Fantastic Four, Fantastic Four,” over and over. His eyes glow yellow, and four FF lookalikes appear out of nowhere, but with bizarre, twisted faces.

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While hanging out at home (I guess they flew building back to New York), the FF hear about the lookalikes. They jump into action, fighting their own doppelgangers for several pages. All the while, Willie struggles in his psycho haze. Just when the doppelgangers are about to win the fight, they disappear when Willie wakes up. Back at the hospital, Reed says Willie is a mutant, with “duplicate creation” powers. Reed gives Willie a business card with Professor Xavier’s number on it.

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Issue #204: This one begins with a lot of techno-speak as Reed thinks something in outer space is draining energy from the Baxter Building, and everyone wonders if Quasimodo is doing it. Reed fires up a “syphoning beam” which brings an alien woman to the building. She’s followed by a Skrull, who attacks. Reed knocks him out with a stasis ray. The woman, Princess Adora, says she’s from the Anrdomeda galaxy, where a Skrull intruder once destroyed her world to consume its natural energy. Her people started a new life in space. The invader strikes again, just in time for the planet’s scientists to find Reed’s ray. Adora’s lover, the heroic Tanak, is going to travel to Earth and seek help, but the Skrull attacks again. In the fight, Adora is the one sent to Earth.

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Johnny is out on a date with a girl named Lanie, who dumps him for being dull. He then runs into Frankie Raye, who still gives him grief about how she doesn’t want to date a superhero. He rejoins the team, but says he wants to stay behind while everyone else goes into space to help Adora. The story follows Johnny instead of going to space, where he bums around New York and considers going back to college. He gets a letter from “Security University.” He arrives there, just in time for disaster to strike the school’s science lab. Johnny saves everyone, not knowing that he’s being spied on by… the Monocle! (He was that D-list baddie with the magic camera from issue #97.)

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Issue #205: We join Reed, Sue, and Ben in space. They arrive at Adora’s world right in the middle of a huge battle. The FF drive the Skrulls back, angering their leader, Emperor Dorrek. He dispatches an army of Skrulls to attack. Back on Earth, Johnny gets settled in at his new school, while the Monocle reports to his mysterious employer (seen in shadow) that he has Johnny Storm. At night, all the students are put under mind control.

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In space, we get a very confusing back story about the war, and that it’s between the Skrulls and Xandar. The Skrulls are after the great computer of Xandar (so… is this planet Xandar or not? I don’t get it). The Skrulls attack, and the FF join the fight (are these guys the Nova Corps or not? I don’t get this either). After a lot of fighting, the Skrulls take Reed, Sue, and Ben captive. The Xandarians, who on the last panel finally confirm that they are Xandarians, say that without the FF, there is no way to defeat the Skrulls. To be continued in Nova #25.

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Issue #206: Dorrek gloats about having captured the FF, and he plans to put them on trial in front of the entire Skrull empire, in the center of huge arena. Reed and Ben are shot, and Sue fears they are dead. While the Skrulls continue their attack on Xandar, Xandar’s leader, Thoran Prime, communes with the computer, which transforms him somehow.

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Reed and Ben wake up in jail. They’re not dead, but were hit by an aging ray, with them rapidly getting older. They escape from jail and fight their way to an escape ship. Dorrek and Skrull Empress R’Klll argue for a few pages. Then Nova arrives, in his ship with a whole crew of super-sidekicks: Sphinx, Crimebuster, Comet, Dr. Sun, Condor, and Diamondhead. Thinking the FF’s escape ship is full of Skrulls, they attack, seemingly killing our heroes.

To be continued!

Unstable molecules: Reed predicts the omnipresence of cell phones in a big way when he belt radios, attached to each of the FF’s belts, so they can communicate with each other at any time.

Fade out: Sue, not Reed, is the one who powers down the Baxter Building’s malfunctioning computer, and then uses her force fields to contain the explosion.

Clobberin’ time: Ben wants to fly Iron Man’s Avengers Quinjet, but Iron Man won’t let him, saying the controls are “a bit shaky.”

Flame on: Johnny decides he wants to go back to college, but doesn’t know what to study. Aside from being a superhero, he says, the only thing he knows is how to fix up cars.

Four and a half: Franklin definitely graduates from “toddler” to “kid” in these issues. He goes through his always-wears-a-cowboy-hat phase, and he sneaks cookies even after being warned that they’ll spoil his dinner. Agatha Harkness is no longer is nanny but his tutor, stopping by on a regular basis to give him “lessons.”

Commercial break: This was the year that the Fantastic Four TV cartoon debuted on Saturday mornings, featuring H.E.R.B.I.E. the robot (we’ll get to H.E.R.B.I.E. soon enough). Also, how hot is Jana the Jungle Girl?

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Trivia time: The original Nova comic had just been cancelled, so his appearance in this story arc is meant to resolve all the dangling plot threads that had gone unfinished in his own book.

Willie Evans Jr. barely appeared in Marvel Comics after this, apparently never having gone to the X-Men. He is, however, prominently featured in the 1986 Marvel Super-Heroes roleplaying game, which includes him in several campaigns and goes into much more detail about how his “duplicate generation” powers work.

We’re not told in issue #201 how Reed defeated the alien microbe, so in issue #204 they drew a panel of him explaining how he did it, with instructions on how to cut out the panel and glue it inside your copy of #201 so the makes more sense. It’s interactive media!

Fantastic or frightful? After the excellent issue #200, we go back to confusing, frustrating stories. The interaction between the FF and Iron Man is quirky fun, but this space story with the Skrulls and the Xandarians is impossible to follow, constantly jumping around plot-wise, and with a ton of characters to follow — and it’s far from over.

Next week: You will never rule Xandar!

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Want more? Check out my book, CINE HIGH, now available for the Kindle and the free Kindle app.

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About Mac McEntire

Author of CINE HIGH. amazon.com/dp/B00859NDJ8
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