Fantastic Friday: Not quite Smallville

Rereading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. This was the series’ 20th anniversary, so we get a double-sized issue and an… interesting backup story. We’ll get to that in time, but first here’s Byrne’s tribute to the comic’s history.

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We begin with a retelling of part of the FF’s origin, with them sneaking aboard their spaceship, taking off, and getting caught in the cosmic rays. Just as their powers start to emerge, Johnny wakes up — it was a dream! As Johnny goes about his morning for the next couple of pages, we discover that he, Reed, and Sue are not the Fantastic Four, and living in Liddleville, a quaint, old-fashioned small town.

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Ben is here too, as a human, where he is married to Alicia. They run the local café. Alicia can see, and her stepfather the Puppet Master is not an evil supergenius, but a loving father figure.

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The next night, Sue has a nightmare in which Ben transforms into the Thing. The next morning, Reed, Johnny, and Ben compare notes. Ben has been having the dreams too, imagining the four of them as superheroes. At the local university, where Reed teaches, he and a professor named Vaughn are working on a particle accelerator. Vaughn tells Reed is not qualified enough to work on the machine, and he sends Reed back to the classroom. Alone in the classroom, Reed nods off and has a dream about the Fantastic Four. He sees them at the Baxter Building, where a strange force takes over their minds. Possessed, they travel to a medieval castle in the Adirondacks (?) where the Puppet Master is waiting for them.

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Reed wakes, deducing the dreams are real, and their lives in Liddleville is an illusion. Thinking his consciousness has been transferred to a robot body, Reed cuts himself in the arm, only to feel the pain and bleed all over the place. (Harsh!) Reed reunites with his teammates/family at his house, still insisting that somehow the Puppet Master has their minds trapped in artificial bodies. They all confront the Puppet Master who, after Ben roughs him up, confirms that they are all puppets (or “synthe-clones” as he puts it). He says he did all for Alicia, so she could have the happy life she always wanted. Puppet Master says he needed help to do this. Cue Doctor Doom — a gigantic Doctor Doom who fills the entire sky over the town in a two-page spread.

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Cut to Dr. Doom’s lab, where he has the FF, Alicia, and Franklin catatonic and hooked up to a table with the miniature town of Liddleville on it. Doom says he will let the heroes live out the rest of their lives in Liddleville while he plots to retake the throne of Latveria without their interference. He also admits that he played the role of Vaughn, just to mess with Reed for his own amusement. Our heroes return to the Liddleville Puppet Master, who says he uses a transferal circuit in his ring to transfer his consciousness back and forth to his body. Reed swipes the ring, but discovers that Doom has already deactivated it.

There’s a lot of drama, as Reed tries to figure out how to return everyone to their bodies. Ben and Alicia don’t know what to make of this, not sure whether they want to go back to a life where she is blind and he’s a monster. Reed figures out that he can use the particle accelerator, which actually works, to recreate the cosmic ray storm that gave them their powers. Ben shows up and volunteers. The machine successfully turns him back into the Thing. Alicia remembers what Ben looks like because she had touched his face so often in the past, so she does not react to him as a monster, but instead kisses him on the lips. (wha-hey!)

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The FF get their powers back, and Doombots (Doombot puppets?) attack. After some fighting, the FF defeat them and then escape Liddleville. They’re now running around in Doom’s lab, all teeny-tiny. They use the water from the Liddleville river to flood the floor of the lab, and then Sue flies through Doom’s castle to find him. He’s seated as his piano, unmasked, playing a mournful tune.

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Sue sneaks a peek at Doom’s face (we don’t get to see it) and tries to fight him. He traps her under a glass, like a bug, and then returns to the lab. He doesn’t fall for the electrocuted water on the floor, and zaps one of the wires to shut off the power. This is all part of Reed’s plan, however. Johnny flies around Doom to distract him. With an especially powerful punch, Ben knocks Doom off his feet. He gets blasted by some energy, which I guess was from his laserblast earlier combined with whatever device Reed whipped up. It’s confusing. The gist of it is that this energy blast returns the FF, Alicia and Franklin to their bodies, while trapping Doom in Liddleville, his consciousness inside the Professor Vaughn puppet. Puppet Master’s real body is nowhere to be found. The residents of Liddleville, led the by the Puppet Master, chase “Vaughn” out of town.

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Then there’s the backup story. Although advertised as a new story by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, this is actually compiled by storyboards Kirby drew for the late ‘70s Fantastic Four cartoon. It’s a crude retelling of Fantastic Four #5, but with H.E.R.B.I.E. the robot in place of the Human Torch. It doesn’t look like Kirby art at all. (There are a lot of conflicting stories about how/why this backup came about. The gist of it is that Kirby didn’t want anything to do with this comic, or at least did not approve of using the storyboards. He was allegedly going to be included on the cover next to Stan Lee, but was taken out at the last minute. Whose decision that was depends on which version of the story you read.)

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Unstable molecule: Reed is definitely the hero in this one, figuring out Doom’s plan, and outthinking his enemy, even in this impossible situation.

Fade out: After “unofficially” seeing Doom’s face in issue #197, Sue sees his face for real for the first time in this one.

Clobberin’ time: It seems odd that Ben would open a café, since he’s not shown much interest in being a cook or a business owner in the past. The café serves pizza, so maybe that’s a reference to how he’s such a hardcore New Yorker. His past as a college football star gets mentioned.

Flame on: Johnny’s new life in Liddleville is as a mechanic. His car’s license plate is “HOT 1.”

Fantastic Four and a Half: Franklin takes seeing his folks in action in stride, referring to Doom as “the bad man.”

Fantastic Fifth Wheel: It’ll come to no one’s surprise that H.E.R.B.I.E. is totally useless during the backup story. All he does is fly around and say “My sensors compute [states the obvious].” Shouldn’t he have laser cannons or something? (And would you believe we’re still not done with H.E.R.B.I.E.?)

The cover features a bunch of Marvel heroes surrounding the FF. These include future alternate member She-Hulk, who is placed right between Reed and Sue, somewhat presciently. The cover also has appearances by former alternate members Power Man and Impossible Man, and future alternate member Storm.

Commercial break: This cost eight bucks?!?

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Trivia time: This issue later got a direct sequel in Micronauts #41, where it’s revealed that the Doom puppet turned around conquered Liddleville, and turned it into his own puppet version of Latveria.

Puppet Master previously appeared in Marvel Two-In-One #74, where he attended the FF’s Christmas party (!) and promised to heal his relationship with Alicia. That kinda/sorta leads into his motivation to create Liddleville.

A backup story in a previous Marvel annual explained that Dr. Doom’s servant Boris is the one who revived him after he was driven insane in issue #200. During this time, Doom also showed up in issues of Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Man, and even Dazzler, all scheming to take back Latveria.

Fantastic or Frightful? A really cool Twilight Zone-type story. John Byrne lets the story play out at a leisurely pace, so we spend a lot of time with the powerless FF just hanging out in Liddleville like normal folks, which offers a lot of nice character moments. This is probably the best Puppet Master story ever done, with a clever use of his powers. Here we have John Byrne pushing the art of comics in new directions, giving the whole issue a genuine cinematic feel.

Next week: Out for a spin.

****

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

cine-high_v3

****

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

cine-high_v3

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About Mac McEntire

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