Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Who doesn’t love a good “hidden underground kingdom” adventure story? In issue #314, the new FF — Ben, Johnny, Crystal, and the Sharon Ventura Ms. Marvel — find not one but multiple hidden underground kingdoms!
The issue picks up right where the last one left off, with the FF in an underground cavern, surrounded by the Mole Man’s Subterraneans, after failing to reach the Mole Man. After two pages of our heroes discussing the battle of the sexes (?), Ben decides to take the team on a tour of the Mole Man’s former kingdom… just for fun! There’s a little bit of talk about the FF being like astronauts, exploring an unseen world, and with that, they’re off.
After walking through some caves, the team finds themselves in an entirely different cave, discovering that the underground kingdom is full of teleportation portals (Cordelia: “There are portals now?”) which explains how the Mole Man and his people get around without a lot of vehicles.
In New York, Alicia (who is secretly Lyja the Skrull in disguise) is meeting with art critic, Frederick, and they’re both shocked to discover the sky above NYC filled with flames. Similarly, the FF come across an underground “firefall” which I guess is supposed to be like a waterfall but with fire. Johnny flies off to check it out, while Ben and Sharon have a heart-to-heart. Ben says that he never had someone he could relate to like he can with her, thanks to her transformation. “Ya really are still beautiful ta me!” he says.
Their moment is broken up when Johnny returns and notices Crystal is missing. Everyone assumes she went through another one of the teleportation portals. Sharon finds a hidden tunnel, leading to a huge underground castle. Johnny’s flame doesn’t work on the castle walls, leading him to deduce that the castle is magick (with a K!). Ben and Sharon use their awesome strength to bust into the place. Our heroes inside and find Crystal held captive by the demon Belasco.
Who is Belasco? He was originally a Ka-Zar villain, a one-armed demon always trying to seduce Ka-Zar’s ladyfriend Shanna. He later became a major player in the X-Men comics, by always trying to seduce Illyana Rasputin of the New Mutants. (Dude, she’s too young for you.) Now, as the FF confront him, he says he’s over Shanna and Illyana, and he plans to make Crystal his bride. A fight breaks out, in which Belasco transforms Johnny into a pig (!) before Sharon punches him out. This turns Johnny human again, with a “No more bacon!” wisecrack. The FF escape, seeing fireballs in the air not created by Johnny.
Johnny flies ahead, and then leads the team through some more portals until they run into yet another underground city. This one is the kingdom of the cat people, who Ben met during his short time with West Coast Avengers (or, as he calls them in this issue, the “Whackers”) when they were searching for a cure for Tigra. Ben assumes the cat people are still his friends, but they attack the FF on site. Then Belasco reappears, announcing that he is one of the sorcerers who created the cat people, and their loyalty is to him. Another fight is about to break out, but it’s interrupted one more burst of flame in the sky. We learn these fires are from a scene in Strange Tales #14, where Dr. Strange was battling Shuma-Gorath for the fate of the Earth. Belasco knows this somehow, and says he has to stop Strange and Shuma-Gorath, or else their battle will collapse all the nether-realms.
The FF escape down an underground river, which just happens to be right there, on a boat that also just happens to be right there. They think they’ve gotten away, but no. This is the “River of Oblivion” and it teleports them again, complete with a “teleportation” sound effect. They end up at the feet of Master Pandemonium, another demonic Marvel villain, who welcomes them to the “the fourth world of the star-sun Arcturus,” and tells them they will spend the rest of their lives in captivity there.
To be continued!
Clobberin’ time: Ben all but flat-out admits that he’s fallen for Sharon now. Action interrupts before she can give him an answer, though.
Flame on: Why does Johnny say that because he can’t burn something, it must be made of magick (with a K!)? We’ve seen him fly through fighter jets, instantly melting them into liquid, so maybe this isn’t too out of character.
Fantastic fifth wheel: Sharon continues to enjoy her newfound strength, and is now not so down on her appearance, saying it’s freeing not have men ogling her. Crystal kinda/sorta agrees with her, saying all women “tire of being put on display.” The whole battle-of-the-sexes debate that starts this issue is very confusing.
The Alicia problem: Alicia/Lyja says that being married to Johnny has helped inspire her to create new art. We can take this as another sign that Lyja has truly fallen for Johnny, and is not just faking it as part of a Skrull infiltration.
Commercial break: One hundred levels!
Trivia time: The West Coast Avengers eventually did learn that the cat people were really demonic monsters, but it wasn’t until well after Ben stopped hanging out with them. (You’d think the superheroes would compare notes on stuff like this. Maybe start a newsletter.)
Why does Dr. Strange have long blond hair in this issue? That happened after he absorbed the powers of Chaos Lord Arioch to help with the fight against Shuma-Gorath. (I guess absorbing Arioch’s powers also means absorbing his hairstyle.) As for Dr. Strange’s eyepatch, he lost the eye several issues earlier in a fight against a multi-dimensional being named Ghaszaszh Nyirh. (Dr. Strange eventually healed from all this, but only after coming back from the dead.)
X-Men readers are probably wondering what Belasco is doing with an underground fortress when he’s usually seen in the otherworldly Limbo. Back in his Ka-Zar days, though, Belasco’s base of operations was indeed an underground fortress, and his henchmen were the subterranean Children of Dis.
Fantastic or Frightful? With this issue and the previous one, it looks like they simply made a list of all the underground kingdoms in the Marvel Universe, and then decided to use them all in one story. I like digging into Marvel lore as much as the next dorknoggin, but there’s just no plot here. Other than Ben’s declaration of “it’ll be fun,” we have zero reason for any of this happening. This era of FF is supposed to when it gets quirky and weird, but I’m just not feeling it.
Next week: Panda (-monium) express.
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