Fantastic Friday: Marvel pre-history

Rereading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. We’re 271 issues into this comic, and it’s not until now that Reed Richards gets a proper backstory.

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We begin with a birthday party! Sue, Johnny, She-Hulk, Franklin, Wyatt, and Alicia (who is of course Lyja the Skrull in disguise) all surprise Reed with a cake while he’s working in his lab. We get a return of the excuse-for-them-to-use-their-powers-for-the-first-few-pages as Reed stretches his lungs to generate a huge gust of air to blow out the candles, She-Hulk tosses Reed around playfully, and Johnny reveals he used his powers to light the candles. It’s all fun times, but Sue can tell something is troubling Reed. She takes him aside, and he admits, “I can’t remember my mother’s eyes.”

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Reed goes on to explain that his mother died when he was seven, but he’s always remembered her eyes. Until now, that is. This and other small gaps in his memory have him concerned. He suspects it has to do with that time his brain was transferred into that alien computer when the FF was in the Negative Zone. Reed says he’s traced the memory loss back to a specific memory, a time shortly before he and the others went to space and got their powers. Reed remembers this as “That terrible day when I battled Gormuu!”

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From there, a big chunk of this issue is a flashback told in the style of a 1950s monster comic. Young Reed and Sue are dating and living in Central City, California. When out for a drive on night, a spaceship crash lands near them, and out walks Gormuu, a giant green alien. The Air Force is immediately called in, but all their missile attacks just make Gormuu grow larger. While the U.S. and the Russians debate whether to nuke the monster, Reed goes back to the crash site and explores the inside of Gormuu’s ship. He gets an idea.

Sue and Ben catch up with Reed, who is making a giant energy weapon. (The caption gives “The Rocket Group” as this location.) Ben says the energy beam will just make Gormuu stronger, and he thinks Reed is crazy. Reed punches Ben out (!), and he fires the weapon. It works, and Gormuu gets larger and larger. Instead of getting stronger, though, it makes him weaker, as his mass gets stretched out farther and father, until he’s little more than a disembodied phantom out in space. Reed says he’s even more invested in getting his space rocket completed, that now it’s more important than ever for mankind to explore the stars. He asks Ben to pilot the rocket.

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Back in the present, Reed shows some guilt about Ben being trapped as a monster, and additional guilt about Ben staying behind on Battleworld after the Secret Wars ended. He says he lied to Ben, and Sue knows this, but we’re not told what this lie was, exactly. Returning to the matter at hand, Reed says there’s only one way to restore his missing memories. The whole extended family suits up and heads for California, to Reed’s childhood home.

The Fantasticar arrives at the Richards Estate, a gigantic modern-looking mansion. Everyone comments on the warmth and sunshine. Our heroes are greeted by Mr. and Mrs. Peacock, the “family retainers” who keep up the house (a butler and maid, basically). Everyone gathers around for dinner, where Reed explains that his father mysteriously left for parts unknown three years before the FF got their powers. He left Reed a substantial inheritance, which he spent on the first FF rocket, and a separate self-perpetuating fund for the mansion, in case he returns. Mr. Peacock says everything is fine at the mention, “Except for the ghosts, of course!”

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Yes, Peacock has occasionally seen ghosts in shapes of Old West cowboys over the years, with the most recent just a few days earlier. Investigating means breaking into Reed’s father’s lab, which has been sealed since he left. Sue turns part of the high-tech door invisible, and Johnny precision-burns through it in just the right spots to open it. Inside, they find a time machine almost identical to Dr. Doom’s time machine (the one we’ve seen on and off since issue #5). Reed theorizes that his father somehow invented time travel before Doom did, and that this explains Peacock’s “ghosts.” Reed further theorizes that his father intended to travel into the future, but instead traveled sideways, landing in an alternate Earth. Reed then announces he’s going to find this other world and bring his father home.

To be continued!

Unstable molecule: For the first time, we learn about Reed’s parents and his upbringing, not to mention a long-winded description of his family’s finances. The rocket that sent the FF on their fateful first flight cost $2 billion. Additionally, there are forty candles on Reed’s birthday cake, but the Marvel Wiki insists that Reed’s age is “a matter of interpretation.”

Fade out: Sue debuts her new, shorter hairstyle in this issue. Allegedly, the comics reader who won “Sue’s Coiffure Contest” never left a name, so Marvel couldn’t contact him or her. It’s the great mystery of our time.

Clobberin’ time: In the flashback, Reed punches Ben in the face during their fight. They make up later on when Reed asks Ben to pilot the rocket.

Flame on: Johnny bemoans how the surgeon-like precision burning is “absolutely no fun” and that he was tempted to hit the beach instead.

Fantastic fifth wheel: She-Hulk mentions that she’s been tanning on the roof of the Baxter Building. That’ll come back to bite her a few issues from now.

Four and a half: Upon arriving in California, Franklin runs off by himself and immediately finds his way to a cookie jar in the kitchen. Some readers have theorized that this might mean a return of his psychic powers.

The Alicia problem: Alicia/Lyja mentions “foliage,” “plants” and “flowers” in one sentence. Could this be Lyja still figuring out the English language? She can’t be using a translator device, or else Reed and company would know it.

Commercial break: The original!

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Trivia time: This issue changed Marvel continuity in a big way. Prior to this, continuity officially began with Fantastic Four #1. After this, however, all the monster tales and other comics from the 1950s are considered Marvel “pre-history” and part of the Marvel Universe. A bunch of the old monsters have later shown up again, including giant dragon Fing Fang Foom and Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. In fact, several panels in this issue’s flashback are faithful recreations of Groot’s first appearance in Tales to Astonish #13, way back in 1960.

The Gormuu flashback would later be revisited in a Marvel miniseries called Conspiracy, retold from the point of view of the character General Hamilton.

Fantastic or frightful? The flashback scene is retro fun, and writer-artist John Byrne does a superb job of meshing his style with ‘50s comics style. The rest of the issue is also great, no action but a ton of character moments that really make the heroes feel like family.

Next week: Adios, space cowboy.

****

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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