Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Issues #330-333 are writer Steve Englehart’s last word on the series. It’s a bunch of dream sequences that have nothing to do with anything, followed by a mean-spirited satirical jab at his bosses at Marvel. This one’s going to be a bumpy ride, people.
Issue #330 is Sue’s dream, but, oddly she doesn’t dream about herself. Her dream is all about Dr. Doom making a last-ditch effort to re-take the Latverian throne from the Doom imitator Kristoff. Doom assembles a team of the Hulk, the Hobgoblin, Absorbing Man, the Beetle, Dormammu, Attuma, and Master Pandemonium. They attack the Latverian castle, only to learn that Kristoff has assembled his own team, made up of Electro, Sandman, Mysterio, Annihilus, Rhino, and the Abomination. There’s a big fight, ending with Kristoff setting off a series of atomic bombs, eventually destroying the Earth. For if he can’t rule the Earth, no one can. Then we’re reminded that this was all a dream Sue is having.
In the real world, Aron’s clones of the FF still believe it is the 1960s. Because they think this is issue #2 and Skrulls are afoot, they refuse to help the U.N. during an international crisis.
Issue #331 is Reed’s dream. He imagines the newly-reunited FF just as they were before Aron abducted them, with Sharon and a human Ben on the team. The previous few issues have had a running joke about the genius inventor Reed being delighted with having an ordinary home computer. In the dream, the computer turns out to be Ultron in disguise, as part of a plot to take over the advanced machinery inside FF headquarters. Sharon is the one who defeats Ultron, deducing that he can’t still be made of Adamantium, but of weaker metal, in order to be disguised as a smaller computer. Reed is overjoyed to see the FF working as a team again, and then we’re reminded that this was all a dream.
In the real world, the FF clones attack a magician they think is the Miracle Man from issue #3. Clone Reed then announces he is instituting a “Fantasti-tax,” demanding that the people of New York pay the FF in exchange for protection.
Issue #332 is Johnny’s dream. He fantasizes about Crystal visiting HQ. She says she is unhappy in her marriage with Quicksilver and she wants to rejoin the FF. Everyone is good with this, even if it brings back temptation for Johnny, still married to Alicia. Crystal fits right in the team, making for a Fantastic Six for a while. Sue, however, asks Crystal to leave, worried that she’s there to break up Johnny and Alicia. Sue and Crystal fight. Franklin sees the fight, and this breaks down the mental barriers keeping his powers under control.
There’s a multi-page flashback to issue #245, in which Franklin’s powers went out of control, but he couldn’t turn Ben human because of Ben’s fears of losing Alicia. Franklin then admits that Johnny’s relationship with Alicia was not natural, but created by Franklin’s powers in an attempt to make everyone happy. Now that Ben is human, Franklin says he is free to “fix” everything, by restoring Ben and Alicia’s relationship and Johnny and Crystal’s relationship, for a big happy ending. Then we’re reminded that this was all a dream. (The clones don’t appear in this one.)
Issue #333 has the Avengers show up at FF headquarters. The Avengers have figured out that this isn’t the real FF, and a fight breaks out. After a few pages of fighting, the FF clones are teleported to Aron’s hideout in Canada. There, they find the real FF in battle with the Frightful Four. Johnny explains that his dream allowed his body temperature to rise just enough for him to wake up and free the others. The Frightful Four help the FF defeat the clones. Aron reappears with a new plan. He sends the Frightful Four off to jail and sends the FF home. He then puts his clones to sleep so that he can watch their dreams. He says dreams, not reality, are what excites him. Sue says they need to contact the government and the news media right away to inform everyone of the clone situation.
Later, the Avengers and the West Coast Avengers team up to investigate a mysterious craft flying toward Oakland, California. It’s one of Reed’s aircrafts, piloted by Alicia (who is secretly Lyja the Skrull in disguise) and Franklin. They’ve come to Oakland to meet with comic book writer John Harkness (a.k.a. real-life comic book writer Steve Englehart). Franklin asks Harkness/Englehart to write a comic book letting the world know that Reed is really a good guy and that “this was all a mistake.” Harkness/Englehart responds with, “It might take a better man than me to straighten out this mess.” And with that, the issue ends.
Whew. Nothing says “editorial interference” like these issues. It’s obvious that these stories weren’t meant to be dreams, but actual continuity. To what extent, though, remains unknown. The story goes that Englehart allegedly wanted to take the series in experimental new directions, but that Marvel editorial wanted to go back to the original, old-fashioned FF. Therefore, in these issues, the villains argue in favor of stagnation and returning to the past, while our heroes argue for change and personal growth. Here’s my question: If Marvel editorial was so against what Englehart was writing, why did they allow all these not-so-subtle satiric jabs at them in this comic? It looks to me like the bosses at Marvel were trying to be in on the joke. Without access to their side of the story, all we really know is that Englehart was out the door.
Then there’s Zak-Site. http://Zak-site.com/Great-American-Novel is a must-read website for Fantastic Four fans. It is a thorough and exhaustive analysis of these comics, making the case that issue #333 is the end of the Fantastic Four’s story, and the end of Marvel continuity. Further the site speculates that everything that occurs after issue #333 is “the Franklinverse” existing only in Franklin’s imagination. It additionally speculates that everything from here on is the dreams experienced by the clones at the end of #333. (Note, however, that the site lists a couple of times between issues #333 and #355 as the time continuity ended.) The site argues that the series has been about Reed learning to set his scientific pursuits behind and learning to put his family first, thereby opening the door for Ben to emerge as team leader and true hero of the story, which is partially what Englehart wrote. The site goes on to say that everything that happens after this, characters’ histories no longer matter and are often re-written, and that actions no longer have consequences. I’d argue that the changes in history and continuity represent characters and their world evolving over time. As for consequences, Sharon will still be with the team for quite some time, the Dr. Doom vs. Kristoff conflict is ongoing, there’s a big Galactus story coming up, and, most importantly, Valeria has yet to make her debut.
The next few issues find the FF in the middle of Marvel crossovers, after which the legendary Walt Simonson begins his run on the series, so I’m convinced good times are ahead.
Unstable molecule: Reed convinces the Wizard to help the FF by saying “You and I may be enemies, but we’re both human!”
Fade out: Sue says twice that her Doom vs. Kristoff dream is a parallel for the FF versus clones fight. Not buying it.
Clobberin’ time: Human Ben tries to jump into the fight, only to get knocked out by Reed’s clone just as the fight starts. (He gets better.)
Flame on: Johnny does not get along with his clone, referring to the clone as a “hipster façade.”
Fantastic fifth wheel: Sharon tells Reed that she’s developed an interest in science, and that she served as the brains of the group while Reed was away. I wouldn’t go that far.
She-Hulk is with the Avengers as they storm FF headquarters, but there’s no mention of her being a former member of the team.
Four and a half: Franklin tells the Avengers he used his dream-based powers to peek on the FF’s dreams to discover what was really going on. His powers are all over place during this time. He’s still insisting everyone call him Frank instead of Franklin.
The Alicia problem: Are we to assume that Lyja is able to fly the FF’s aircraft thanks to her experience as a space-faring alien?
Commercial break: “What hit me?”
Trivia time: Aron the Watcher will later return during the Infinity War crossover. I don’t believe we ever learn the fate of the FF’s clones. The best I can do is a fan-made wiki, which says the clones are “assumed to be still on Earth.”
Fantastic or frightful? The reason I started this series on the blog was an attempt to put into words why I was so disappointed with the Tim Story Fantastic Four movies, and what it is that makes the comics work that was lacking in the movies. Steve Englehart’s version of the FF has big ideas and big ambition, but is marred by clunky storytelling. The movies have had the clunky storytelling, but lack the ideas and the ambition. Therefore, I come to praise Englehart, not bury him. His version of Fantastic Four didn’t work, but he really went for it in an attempt to push the limits of what the series can be.
Next week: It’s hotter under the water.
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