Fantastic Friday: Cosmic grandeur vs. assistant editors

Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Here we have the landmark issue #262, “The Trial of Reed Richards.” It’s a tale of cosmic significance with the fate of the entire universe on the line, yet it also takes place during the silliest, goofiest crossover in Marvel history.

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To recap: In outer space, survivors of worlds destroyed by Galactus have abducted Reed and want to execute him. This is because Reed saved the life of Galactus, and Galactus went on to destroy the Skrull homeworld. Lilandra of the Shi’ar Empire showed up to further the “kill Reed” cause. This issue, however, doesn’t begin in space, but on Earth, with writer-artist John Byrne on the phone with Fantastic Four assistant editor Mike Higgins. Byrne reminds Higgins (and the audience) that Marvel Comics in the Marvel Universe are based on the real exploits of the superheroes. The FF, however, have been out of touch, so Byrne says he might be forced to make up a story.

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Okay, we just have to take a moment here to talk about Assistant Editors’ Month. Here in the real world, the official story is that for one month, all of Marvel’s editors were away at conventions, leaving the assistant editors running all the comics by themselves. The assistants took advantage of the opportunity to publish all kinds of crazy comics that their bosses would otherwise never let them get away with. This story was bogus, obviously, and was just a crossover stunt, with a lot break-the-fourth-wall comics. This FF issue is one of the more normal Assistant Editors’ Month entries, and it’s still pretty insane.

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Back in the Marvel Universe, John Byrne hangs up just in time for the Watcher to appear inside his house, and whisk him off to space. Byrne’s wife Andrea shows up just in time to see them vanish. Committing to the bit, the Watcher says Byrne must accompany him because Byrne is the official chronicler of the Fantastic Four and their heroic exploits. (Just keep telling yourself, it’s Assistant Editors’ Month…) They arrive at a giant alien arena of sorts, where the Watcher announces that this is the trial of Reed Richards. Byrne meets up with Sue, Ben and Johnny, who catches up him up to speed.

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The trial begins. An alien explains to Ben that the “jury” is a cluster of globes called the M’Ndavian Procedures, which somehow render a guilty or innocent verdict based on the emotions of everyone present. When all the globes turn white, Reed will be found innocent. The first witness is Karan Karr, a Skrull politician, who recounts the story of Galactus devouring his homeworld. Lilandra further argues that Reed knew what he was doing — that Galactus would kill again. She calls a bunch of other witnesses, who tell their Galactus stories. While this is happening, the Watcher takes Johnny aside and teleports him to deep space, saying he must run an errand for the defense. The Watcher then takes center stage as Reed’s makeshift defense attorney, asking Reed how he pleads. Reed says he has no choice but to plead guilty.

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While some of aliens call for immediate execution, Reed further says that the charge is saving Galactus’ life, and that is exactly what he did. He then says the real question is whether that can be considered a crime. Reed argues that Galactus is neither good nor evil, but an act of nature, like a storm. Johnny then returns with the Watcher’s next witness, Odin the king of Asgard. (Hilariously, Odin shows up holding a goblet. I guess he just came from Ye Olde Viking Tavern.) Odin retells the origin of Galactus (as a card-carrying god, Odin knows this stuff). He says Galactus is a test, and planets that pass his test are strengthened for it. Just before returning to Asgard, Odin says Reed’s actions were not criminal, punctuating this with, “So speaks Odin!”

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The FF think they’ve won, but Lilandra points out that the M’Ndavian Procedures are still not all white. They are then destroyed by a blast of fire. It’s Nova, the new herald of Galactus, with Galactus right behind her. The aliens all freak out at seeing Galactus. Xxan Xxar, the survivors’ leader, uses his jetpack to fly right up to Galactus and aim his gun at the big guy. Xxar chickens out at the last minute, though, and flies away not having pulling the trigger.

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Galactus says Reed an honorable mortal, and one that he considers a friend. Lilandra rejects Galactus’ testimony, so the Watcher steps in. He and Galactus combine their powers to summon yet another witness. It’s Eternity, a single living being who represents the sum total of all things in existence. Galactus calls Eternity “father,” and says Eternity’s knowledge is needed. Eternity says he will, just this once, let the unknowable become knowable. Then, for an instant, everyone present learns the cosmic truth — the one purpose and destiny of the universe itself.

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We cut to hours later, with Byrne back on the phone with Higgins. Byrne says that although the specifics of the cosmic truth have faded from memory, the acceptance of that truth have stayed with everyone. The Watcher brought Byrne and the FF back to Earth, and all the aliens went on their way. (X-Men readers will remember that Lilandra was also living on Earth at this time, but that’s not mentioned in this issue.) The Watcher says Galactus will go on destroying planets, and the inhabitants of those planets have the right to fight back. This is because they have free will, but Galactus’ hunger means he does not. The Watcher then adds that someday Galactus will find a planet that will truly satisfy his hunger. “On that day, Galactus shall perish,” the Watcher says. “On that day, let the universe mourn.”

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Unstable molecule: Reed is bound in futuristic-looking manacles throughout this story, and never once tries to use his stretching powers to escape. I guess he really had faith that he’d get a fair trial.

Fade out: Sue says that although she’s met Thor several times, she never put it together that the ancient gods of Asgard actually exist in this universe.

Clobberin’ time: Ben does not like John Byrne, accusing him of not getting the FF’s stories right. This is likely a reference to The Thing #7, which celebrated Assistant Editors’ Month by having Ben barge into the Marvel offices and complain about how Marvel misrepresents him.

Flame on: Johnny’s trip to Asgard and back recalls the galactic journey the Watcher sent him on back in issues #49-51, when the team first encountered Galactus.

Fantastic fifth wheel: Johnny goes ga-ga when he sees Nova, exclaiming, “It’s Frankie!” Sue holds him back, reminding him that the woman who was once Frankie Raye has now fully given herself over to the power cosmic.

Commercial break: Lots of us had an Atari or Nintento growing up, but who the heck ever owned a Probe 2000?

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Trivia time: The same month as this comic, Galactus made it to Earth in Marvel Team-up #137, where he temporarily turned Spider-Man’s Aunt May into his new herald. Again, it was Assistant Editors’ Month. (EDIT: I just went and checked that issue, and the whole thing was a dream, so May was never really a herald.)

Other notable Assistant Editors’ Month stunts include the Avengers teaming up with David Letterman, the all-words-no-pictures issue of Alpha Flight, the Fred Hembeck-drawn issue of Spectacular Spider-Man, and everyone from Dazzler to the Hulk to the X-Men joining the Thing in visiting the Marvel editors in person. Marvel’s licensed comics, including Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Micronauts, Rom: Spaceknight, and Crystar also had Assistant Editor Month stunts.

The best of the bunch, though, was “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man” in Amazing Spider-Man #248, one of the best (and most heartbreaking) Spider-Man stories ever written.

Fantastic or frightful? This issue more or less created what we think of when we think of the “cosmic” part of the Marvel Universe. Characters like Eternity existed before this, but bringing them together and emphasizing the shared universe nature of Marvel made it feel like a bigger, more expansive place than it ever was. The assistant editor wackiness is just gravy.

Next week: Days of thunder, sort of.

****

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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