Fantastic Friday: Aunt-Man

Rereading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. To recap: Frankie Raye has powers similar to Johnny’s, and she has joined the team. Ben has reverted back to his original, less rock-like form. Get all that? Good. Writer-artist John Byrne builds on this set-up with another sci-fi standalone tale in issue #239.

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It’s winter in New York when a mysterious woman approaches the Baxter Building. She thinks, “I wonder if he ever thinks of me.” She’s greeted by rarely-seen doorman O’Hoolihan, who tells her the FF have a brand-new public reception area on the 30th floor. The woman takes the elevator up there, and his greeted by a receptionist who just says the same thing over and over. She’s the FF’s new robot receptionist (!) and Johnny is there trying to repair her. The mystery woman says she has urgent business with the Thing.

In the lab, Reed is distraught over not being able to turn Ben human again, as well as how Ben seemed almost relieved not to be human. In another part of the building, Ben lifts weights, explaining to Alicia and Frankie that he hasn’t lost any strength although his appearance has changed. The mystery woman enters the room and it’s revealed that she’s Ben’s oft-mentioned Aunt Petunia.

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Despite all of Ben’s jokes over the years that his Aunt Petunia was an old lady, the real Aunt Petunia was a student nurse of Ben’s uncle who later married him. Then she gets to the point, saying that she’s traveled to NYC from Benson, Arizona, where there has been a strange epidemic. People all over town are dying of fright.

Cut to the FF and Petunia arriving in Benson. Ben is greeted by his Uncle Jacob, who he hasn’t seen in years. Reed inspects the bodies, and agrees that people are unexplainably dying of fright. Then, a woman named Ruth Efford shows up alongside a young girl, Wendy. Efford is an occult expert working with the local Native American tribe, and she thinks she found something at a nearby archeological dig that can help with the investigation. At the dig site, the girl Wendy is upset, talking about how all of her friends are there, and she tells Ben that she has “the most wonderful friends.”

There’s an interlude with a pair of college students in the desert outside of town, who get swallowed by ominous shadows. Then another interlude in Attilan, the city of the Inhumans, Crystal is pregnant and in pain. An Inhuman doctor tells her husband Quicksilver that this strange illness is affecting all the Inhumans. Quicksilver, because he’s a mutant and not an Inhuman, might be the one to save them all.

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The next day back in Benson, the FF finds the bodies of the two students. Reed is perplexed, saying his scanners don’t show anything strange. Frankie agrees to fly little Wendy back to her home. Once there, Wendy’s scumbag father gets mad and hits her (!) and Frankie threatens to roast the creep. Wendy talks her out of it with what seems to be a pre-rehearsed speech, and Frankie leaves. That night, Wendy decides she’s had enough and runs away from home. Out in the desert, a strange mist surrounds her and creepy shadows lift her into the air.

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In the town’s rinky-dink hotel, Ben is awoken by dark, goblin-like monsters. They also wake up Reed and Sue (who were apparently sleeping in their FF uniforms) and chase them through the building. Outside, the strange shadows are swirling around in the sky, causing damage. There’s some action as the heroes use their powers to put out fires.

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The next morning, the entire town evacuates except for Petunia and a handful of others. Reed is down on himself again, feeling like he’s failed everyone. Wendy and her father are there. He’s about to beat her again, and Frankie threatens to burn him. Reed stops her, saying the FF shouldn’t “stand in judgment.”

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Then Reed makes this big speech about judgment, and how everyone in town is being tested by some higher power. Whatever supernatural force this is, he says, “I pray they will find us… worthy!” Then the FF up and leave, waving goodbye to little Wendy. Wendy then walks through the desert and down into a cave, where the goblin monsters are there. She sits among them with a big smile on her face. The captions tells us, “These, too, are Wendy’s friends.” With that, the issue just ends.

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Unstable molecule: Reed is at a real low point, blaming himself first for Ben’s transformation and then for not being able to help the townsfolk. His speech about worthiness and judgment would seem partially self-directed, then.

Fade out: Sue insists that Ben wear the full suit from way back in issue #3 so as not to scare the townsfolk, or else she’ll use her power to make him invisible the whole time. He says he doesn’t like it when she turns him invisible.

Clobberin’ time: Some family history for Ben. His parents died when he was teen, and he was raised by his Uncle Jake until he went off to college. At that point, Jake left New York for Arizona, where he married the much-younger Petunia.

 Flame on: Johnny is the one installing the new robot receptionist (named Roberta, of course) showing that he can put his mechanic skills to good use.

Fantastic fifth wheel: Frankie is all about getting her heroism on, trying to save a little girl from an abusive situation.

It’s not specified why Crystal is suffering so much. Either it’s because of this mystery plague affecting the Inhumans, or it’s because her kid is half-Inhuman, half mutant. It’s probably both, but the comic doesn’t come out and say that.

Commercial break: Marvel’s then-EIC Jim Shooter published this photo of himself to promote his appearance at the 1982 San Diego ComicCon. He’s stylin’!

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Trivia time: Petunia and her demonic friends were never seen again, which is too bad because this story could use a follow-up. That’d be perfect for a Runaways story. Aunt Petunia never appears again, but Ben’s Uncle Jake will come back for a cameo in issue #257.

A man with glasses and a mustache is seen checking out Petunia as she arrives in the Baxter Building. Anybody else think this is supposed to be Stan Lee?

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Fantastic or frightful? Some fans dislike this issue because they feel making Aunt Petunia a beautiful young woman goes against what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby established, where Petunia was referred to as a batty old lady. I will give John Byrne the benefit of the doubt, however, as I feel he’s being more playfully subverting expectations rather than angrily trampling over the classics. Beyond that, the issue is another attempt at a Twilight Zone-style story complete with twist ending. It doesn’t quite work, and our heroes don’t save the day, but the artwork gives the whole thing a terrific horror movie vibe. That alone makes the issue worth it.

Next week: City on the go.

****

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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