Rereading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. In issue #233, John Byrne is already trying some experimental storytelling, with this only his second issue as writer/artist.
The issue begins with some dark atmosphere as we’re introduced to Deeden prison, a “hellhole” that most people have never heard of. Inside, George David Munson is on death row, and about to be executed. He’s all emotional, saying that although he’s done terrible things in the past, he’s innocent of the crime that put him in jail. Just before going to the chair, Munson talks to a priest, and leaves behind a letter addressed to Johnny Storm, the Human Torch.
The priest later arrives at the Baxter Building, to deliver the letter in person. Sue meets him in the lobby, and walks him through the building’s security to get up to the FF’s headquarters. Once there, they’re interrupted by Ben and Johnny bickering. They fight for a couple of pages, for an old-fashioned “excuse for the characters to show off their powers for new readers” thing. The priest, who we finally learn is named Father Vito, gives Johnny the letter. In it, Munson explains that he knew Johnny back in high school and now he wants Johnny to clear his name. Johnny remembers being bullied by Munson, and says he’ll look into it.
Johnny travels to Glennvile, which is where we’re told he went to high school. He checks in with the local courthouse, and goes over the facts of the case. We get a flashback to Munson’s crime, told wordlessly in black-and-white panels. It was a robbery that went wrong, and Munson was accused of killing someone as he fled the scene. There were fingerprints and eyewitnesses saying he did it, but Johnny can’t figure out why a two-bit thug like Munson would have used a silencer.
Johnny investigates at the liquor store where the crime happened, but the store manager refuses to cooperate. When the manager sneaks away to a pay phone at night, Johnny corners him. The man tries to burn a piece of paper he has on him, but Johnny controls the fire and saves the paper. He takes it back to New York, where Reed’s high-tech, futuristic computer can identify the number. (Reed invented caller ID!) The number leads to a warehouse in NYC’s Garment District, where Johnny attacks a bunch of crooks. Johnny “interrogates” one of them by burning off half of his hair, until the guy gives up an address.
Johnny flies to the address, a fancy skyscraper penthouse. It’s owned by the Maggia (a.k.a. the Marvel Universe’s version of the mafia) and inside is weirdly-disfigured crime boss Hammerhead. He has a plan to unite all the Maggia families under his leadership. Johnny interrupts, demanding info about Munson. Hammerhead has a bunch of death traps in the room, but they’re designed to trap Spider-Man and not the Torch, so Johnny easily escapes them. Hammerhead then reveals that he’s wearing an exoskeleton that gives him super strength. He and Johnny fight for a few pages. Johnny has him overpowered, but Hammerhead escapes in the end.
The police arrive and arrest all of Hammerhead’s Maggia pals. A detective praises Johnny’s detective work, but Johnny says he “fudged up,” because he still has no evidence to clear Munson’s name. The detective says Daredevil recently gave the cops all of the Kingpin’s criminal records. Because, in the Marvel Universe, the Kingpin somehow benefits from every single crime in New York. We abruptly cut to an epilogue, where Johnny meets Munson’s mother at Munson’s grave. Johnny explains that the murder was really committed by the liquor store manager, a man with Maggia ties, who killed the former manager so the Maggia could take over the store. The manager has been arrested, and Mrs. Munson tells Johnny he is a hero.
Unstable molecules: Reed has installed new security measures at the Baxter Building, including voice recognition and bio-scans of anyone in the building, to confirm that visitors don’t match any of the FF’s known enemies.
Fade out: Sue debuts a new, shorter hairstyle in this one. Sue’s hair will continue to be an ongoing minor controversy throughout Byrne’s run.
Clobberin’ time: Ben is mad at Johnny because Johnny snuck a photo of Christopher Reeve in his room, with a note saying that’s what heroes are supposed to look like. So, DC Comics and/or the Superman movie exist in the Marvel Universe?
Flame on: At the courthouse, Johnny verifies his identity by demonstrating his powers with fire tricks, instead of, say, showing a driver’s license. Perhaps Tony Stark really was onto something with that whole registration thing.
Commercial break: I wonder why more advertisements aren’t this obviously hand-written:
Trivia time: This issue follows up on two other Marvel stories. Hammerhead was presumed dead after his helicopter crashed in Amazing Spider-Man #159, and Daredevil stole the Kingpin’s financial records in Daredevil #172. When Hammerhead next appears, in Power Man and Iron Fist #92, he’s already been apprehended by police and headed for jail.
More importantly, this issue’s Bullpen Bulletins page is the first appearance of… Puzzle Man! He was supposed to be the “star” of the Marvel Fun and Games comic, which, to my knowledge, was never released. So we never got to see Puzzle Man in his full glory. I like to think he’s running around somewhere in the Marvel Universe, solving cruciverbalist-related crimes.
Fantastic or frightful? I get it, mysteries are tough. Writing a mystery is both a specific skill and a specific mindset. This is a good attempt at a mystery, but it’s just that — an attempt. Still, it shows how a good writer can come up with challenges for a super-powered main character. These fights are no sweat for Johnny, but solving the case really tests him in ways we’ve rarely seen. The artwork is where the issue really shines, from the super-creepy prison opening to Johnny using his powers in creative ways. Overall, we can file this issue under “interesting experiment.”
Next week: Hey, where’s Jack?
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