Fantastic Friday: The middle years, part 20

Rereading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. We’re still potato-farming our way through the “middle years,” after Jack Kirby but before John Byrne. Byrne is here in parts, doing some penciling in these issues, but he’s not running the show yet.

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Issue #214: Reed and Sue are on the verge of death, after a Skrull aging ray turned them into old folks. Ben was critically injured in a fight against Terrax. All three are in suspended animation at the Baxter Building, leaving an angst-ridden Johnny all alone. Johnny tries contacting Tony Stark and then the Avengers, but they’re not home. He then flies up to the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, where Dum Dum Dugan says Stark is working on converting toxic waste into usable fuel. Back home and alone again, Johnny is contacted by Princess Astra of the Andromeda Galaxy, who the FF met back during the start of this arc. Nova is still fighting the Skrulls out in space, and Astra does not have a cure for Johnny’s teammates.

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Johnny feels helpless, and then a Skrull attacks. Turns out he snuck into the building some time ago and has been hiding inside since then. He’s another Super Skrull, with the combined powers of the FF. Fighting! Johnny and the Skrull battle out of the building, across the sky, and then down into the NYC sewers. Johnny thinks he’s killed the Skrull, but no — it was just a Skrull robot! He had the aging ray on him, so Johnny takes the ray to Reed. He wakes Reed up in the hopes that Reed can reverse-engineer the ray. At first, it doesn’t appear to work, but then Reed, Johnny, and Ben wake up, feeling stronger and younger than ever. They renew their oath to use their powers for the good of mankind.

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Issue #215: Reed is working in his lab with a scientist named Randolph, when it explodes. This crisis is another excuse for the characters to show off their powers for a few pages. The FF drop Randolph off at his house, where he’s attacked by street punks who think he’s rich. On the way back to the Baxter Building, where they are attacked by Blastaar the Living Bomb-Burst, who has emerged from the Negative Zone portal. They fight their way outside and into the sewers again, where Blastaar escapes.

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Randolph contacts the FF, telling them he’d been beaten up by the street toughs. Reed rushed to Randolph’s house, to discover that Randolph exposed himself to an “evolution accelerator” to cure his wounds. He’s now been transformed into a tall, golden, godlike being. He uses his new mental powers to turn the street thugs into rats, as Reed looks on in fear.

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Issue #216: Randolph walks on air through Times Square, shocking the crowds while on his way to the Baxter Building. Blastaar, hiding in an alley, wonders what he can learn from this new creature. Blastaar attacks Randolph, and then the FF when they arrive on the scene. Blastaar promises to reveal to Randolph the “truth” about the FF, and somehow the highly-evolved Randolph believes him. He freezes the FF in their tracks and takes Blastaar to the Baxter Building.

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Inside the building, Randolph knocks Sue unconscious while she tries to protect Franklin. Blastaar tries to (of course) blast his way back into the Negative Zone. Franklin’s eyes glow red and yellow, and he seemingly sends Blastaar through the portal back into the Negative Zone. Inspired by this, Randolph leaves Earth, saying he will “probe the supreme vastness of the universe.” It’s then not-so-subtly hinted that H.E.R.B.I.E. the robot was the one who originally let Blastaar out of the Negative Zone to begin with.

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Issue #217: After being invaded so many times recently, Reed works on repairs and reinforced security for the Baxter Building, while Sue is more concerned about Franklin, who is back with supernatural nanny Agatha Harkness. Johnny heads off to a nightclub, where he’s mesmerized by Dazzler, a mutant singer who can transform sound into light.

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Sue, in her bedroom, is attacked… by H.E.R.B.I.E.! The little guy proves to be quite the fighter, almost breaking through her invisible force fields. He also hacks into the building, using all of its tech to trap Sue. H.E.R.B.I.E. next attacks Reed and Ben, almost trapping Ben in the Negative Zone. H.E.R.B.I.E. says because he was built aboard Nova’s ship, his programming merged with the villain Dr. Sun, who was aboard the ship at the time. After more fighting, Reed and Ben manage to rid their computers of Dr. Sun’s influence, and H.E.R.B.I.E. is himself again. Then, darkly, H.E.R.B.I.E. commits suicide (!) by blowing himself up (!!) so this can never happen again.

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Issue #218: This one begins with Spider-Man climbing up the side of the Baxter Building. But wait… this isn’t Spider-Man! It’s Paste-Pot Pete, um, I mean the Trapster, in disguise as Spider-Man. His teammates in the Frightful Four have taken the real Spidey hostage, and are watching from a distance. We’ve got the Wizard, Sandman, and new member Electro. The Trapster pretends to befriend the Human Torch, only to knock him out. Trapster then fights Ben and defeats him by electrocuting him.

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The rest of the Frightful Four get inside the building. They chase Sue around, and then attack Reed. The real Spider-Man escapes and joins the fight. He and Reed take out the Frightful Four rather easily. Spidey remembers that, as Peter Parker, he was in the middle of talking to a lovelorn Debra Whitman when he was kidnapped, and he rushes off to be with her again.

Unstable molecule: Making Reed younger was allegedly a way to keep him in Marvel continuity without losing his history as a WWII vet.

Unstable molecule: The Frightful Four attack Sue when she’s in her nightgown. Because it’s not made of unstable molecules, it doesn’t turn invisible when she does.

Clobberin’ time: After constantly complaining about how much he dislikes H.E.R.B.I.E., Ben comes around in the end, saying “the little squirt was all right in the end.”

Flame on: Johnny has a real identity crisis when he’s alone, thinking that he’s the least useful member of the team. He uses his flame for precision welding on the Skrull weapon, which is what it takes to save his teammates’ lives.

Five and a half: Franklin’s potentially world-ending super powers make a huge return, with him tossing Blastaar into the Negative Zone. Sue is the only one who seems concerned about this. His “4 1/2” sweater makes its first appearance.

Fantastic fifth wheel: So H.E.R.B.I.E. the robot gets his brain hijacked and then kills himself. It’s pretty obvious that the Marvel writers weren’t happy about having to include the little guy in the comic to align with the TV cartoon. The joke’s on them, though, because this actually isn’t the last we’ll see of H.E.R.B.I.E.

Commercial break: Aww, look at them try to market Star Trek: The Motion Picture as if it’s Star Wars. Also, other than the Klingon, were any of these aliens actually in the movie?

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Trivia time: According the Marvel Wiki, Randolph’s superhero name is the Futurist. To date, he has only appeared one other time, in a 1990 Quasar story.

The Spider-Man story is a direct continuation from Spectacular Spider-Man #42, which goes into detail how Spidey was captured by the Frightful Four, not to mention Peter Parker’s friend Deb Whitman being all forlorn and lovelost.

Dazzler’s cameo was part of a big marketing push to introduce that character. Dazzler was allegedly co-created with a record company, so there was a lot of pressure on to promote her as the next big thing. As such, during this time she did cameos in Spider-Man, X-Men, and Fantastic Four before getting her own series. She later joined the X-Men and is currently a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.

A billboard in the Times Square scene reads “Epic.” This was a promotion for Marvel’s Epic Illustrated, another of many attempts by Marvel to break through to the apparently more lucrative magazine market. I looked, but I can find no evidence of a real Times Square billboard for Epic Illustrated in 1979, but if there was one and if anyone has a photo of it, send it my way.

Fantastic or frightful? I always dislike it superhero stories where the heroes are just hanging out at headquarters only for villains to show up at their doorstep to pick a fight, and that’s what keeps happening in this batch of issues.

Next week: Childhood’s end.

****

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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