Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Issue #296 was the big Marvel 25th anniversary issue. They pulled out all the stops for this one, with artwork from Barry Windsor-Smith, Ron Frenz, Marc Silvestri, John Buscema, and a bunch of others. Even better, the one and only Stan Lee came back to the series, co-writing this issue with then-EIC Jim Shooter. It’s also the issue that brings back the Thing as a main character.
We begin with Ben, still a fugitive, which is where we last left him in The Thing and West Coast Avengers. He’s returned to the crash site where the FF first discovered their superpowers, so we can have a flashback to the team’s origin. He says it’s just as he remembered it. Cut to later, where an old pilot friend, Hertnecky, is flying Ben over the South Pacific. Ben finds just the spot he’s looking for, jumps out of the plans, and swims to an ominous-looking island with an even more ominous-looking cave.
The Fantastic Four are visiting Los Angeles, where Reed fires their emergency signal flare over the sky. It’s an old fashioned excuse-for-the-characters-to-use-their-powers-for-a-few-pages thing as they make their way to the city back to Reed. Reed has arranged a meeting with Hertnecky in the hopes of finding Ben. Hertnecky says Ben has returned to Monster Island, home of giant monsters, and the original entryway to the Mole Man’s kingdom in Fantastic Four #1. Ben has decided he’s going to be one of the monsters, and he wants to be left alone.
Everyone returns to New York, where we get our first look at the FF’s still-unnamed new headquarters. It’s a huge skyscraper with big number fours on top, which, if I’m being honest, looks really cheesy. There, She-Hulk and Wyatt talk about how much they love the FF, but they just don’t have familial bond the original four have.
Reed frets about Ben, saying that although Ben asked to be left alone, Reed must nonetheless confront him, and settle things once and for all. It’s decided that Sue and Johnny will accompany him, with the others staying behind. Alicia — who is really Lyja the Skrull in disguise — insists on coming along to square things off with Ben, but She-Hulk holds her back.
The FF arrive at Monster Island, and there’s several pages of them fighting giant monsters, before they escape into the underground, complete with the giant cavern full of diamonds from the first issue. They’re attacked by even more monsters and are finally defeated. They are brought before Ben, who is dressed like the Mole Man.
Ben says he holds no ill will towards Reed or Johnny. He says he’s accepted that he is a freak, so he’s made the underground kingdom his new home, a place where freaks and monsters can live in peace. Ben is now friends with the Mole Man, and we learn M.M. is sick and dying, spending time in a “special chamber” for his health. Ben takes them on a tour of the subterranean kingdom, where the world’s ugliest people have not just found a new home, but have built a high tech utopia for themselves. This includes a massive and incredibly powerful earth-shifting machine.
Mole Man insists that the FF should leave, and they can’t be trusted. Ben knows the FF mean no harm. Before they can continue this debate, there’s word of an intruder. It’s Alicia (Lyja) who convinced Hertnecky to fly her there, only for her to abducted by the monsters. She and Ben have a heart-to-heart, where she says she gave him all the love she had, but it still wasn’t enough for him. Ben leaves Alicia, walking right into a fight between Reed and Sue versus the Mole Man’s Moloid servants. Ben takes the side of the Moloids for a few more pages of fighting. We eventually learn they were fighting because the Mole Man abducted Johnny. The Mole Man returns and reveals he’s altered Johnny’s face, making him horribly ugly.
Ben has the FF and Alicia/Lyja banished to surface, to return to Hertnecky. Reed doesn’t want to leave the island, fearing the earth-shifter is too powerful, and can be used as a weapon against the surface world. Elsewhere, Ben wants to confront the Mole Man about what he did to Johnny, so he breaks into the Mole Man’s special chamber. It’s a Holodeck-like room, where Mole Man has created a fantasy of himself at a posh party surrounded by beautiful people. He’s so mesmerized by the holograms he doesn’t know Ben is there.
The FF attack, and Reed tries to convince Ben that the earth-shifter is secretly a weapon. His loyalties divided, Ben sides with Reed, and fights the Moloids with a classic “It’s clobberin’ time.” Then there’s even more fighting as the reunited FF fights the Moloids and all the giant monsters, eventually making their way to the earth-shifter. The FF use their combined might to destroy it, but it starts destroying the entire subterranean kingdom in the process. The human inhabitants manage to evacuate, but the monsters and Moloids succumb to cave-ins. The Mole Man also suffers a cave in, still deluded in his hologram fantasy.
Reed and Sue escape to the surface, but Ben stays behind to heal Johnny’s face, holding up the ceiling from falling as he does so. They then reunite with Reed, Sue, Alicia, and Hertnecky. There’s some bickering before Ben comes around and admits that he loves his family. The four original FFers clasp hands, finally reunited.
Unstable molecule: Reed convinces Ben to return with the “I’ve never lied to you” argument. But, didn’t Reed lie about Ben’s cures, that it was really a mental block preventing him from becoming human? Reed came clean on that, though, so maybe it still counts.
Fade out: Sue begins the issue as a keynote speaker at a charity fundraiser. We don’t learn what charity, though.
Clobberin’ time: When we last saw Ben, he had mutated into a new, even more monstrous form. This isn’t mentioned in this issue and won’t be addressed until the next one.
Flame on: Johnny is considerably depowered in this issue, so that his flame keeps burning out and needing to “recharge.” Maybe this is the effects of being deep underground.
Fantastic fifth wheel: She-Hulk doesn’t accompany the FF to Monster Island, saying that this is something the original four need to work out among themselves.
Four and a half: Franklin appears in one panel, to let us know he’s still staying at Avengers Mansion. This frees him up to keep superheroing with the Power Pack kids.
The Alicia problem: Lyja talks and even thinks a lot about her feelings for Ben, making it hard to figure out how she could possibly be Skrull in disguise. The only argument seems to be that she’s really, really into character.
Commercial break: This is another deluxe-size 64-page issue, with no ads. There is this nifty back cover illustration of our heroes, though:
Trivia time: All of the Marvel 25th anniversary covers had the matching frame, with character head shots in the center. Marvel’s licensed comics like GI Joe, Transformers, Conan, and even freakin’ Heathcliff had the matching covers. This gimmick was disliked by many at the time, but we’ll get to real gimmick covers soon enough.
Fantastic or frightful? A sloppy mess of an issue, but it does the job of both paying homage to FF #1 and making Ben a member of the team again. It’s kinda/sorta a slap in the face to John Byrne by undoing so much of what he’d done, but that was Marvel at the time. It could have been a better anniversary issue, but it does the job.
Next week: Things in space.
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