Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Issue #350 begins a four-part tale that is controversial but also wildly ambitious.
This story arc is controversial for rewriting (or not?) Dr. Doom’s history. Also, Kristoff is prominently featured. Comic book fans often name Kristoff as one of the all-time worst Marvel characters, citing this story as one of the reasons why. It’s also been criticized for being too confusing, adding time travel and cosmic beings into the mix, while also being a major shakeup for the main FF characters. On the plus side, though, it’s writer-artist Walt Simonson pushing the limits of comic storytelling with some really experimental stuff. Just hang in there, we’ll get through this.
So, Kristoff is a child brainwashed to believe he is Dr. Doom. Wearing a Dr. Doom-shaped suit of armor (!), Kristoff succeeded in taking over the Latverian throne and convincing the world he’s actually Dr. Doom. The real Doom, meanwhile, has been running around the Marvel Universe with various plots to retake his kingdom. As issue #350 begins, Doom eschews all the sneaky plots and launches a frontal attack on the Latverian castle. It’s several pages of fighting between the two of them. They’re interrupted by a third Dr. Doom, wearing a new suit of armor. This is the real Doom, the attacker is just a Doombot acting on its own. (This new armor, by the way, is made of enchanted Promethium metal, which Doom got in an issue of Excalibur just before this.)
Doom says a code word, “Ouroboros,” which is the trigger that undoes Kristoff’s brainwashing. Doom takes off his mask and shows his scarred face to Kristoff (but not to the reader) to prove he’s the real one. Doom says he’s been far away for a long time. Now back in charge, Doom’s first action is to sit down at the computer and see what the Fantastic Four has been up to in his absence. He is surprised to learn that Johnny is married to Alicia, Ben is human again, and Sharon has joined the team as a Thing.
You might be thinking these are continuity errors, as Doom has encountered the FF several times since the wedding, and he’s faced off Kristoff a few times without using the code word. The explanation is that Walt Simonson wrote this issue to establish that past stories of a kingdom-less Doom trying and failing to retake the throne didn’t feature the real Doom, but inferior Doombots. But Simonson leaves it up to the reader to decide which appearances were the real Dr. Doom and which were Doombots, casting doubt on every Dr. Doom appearance from at least issue #278 to the present, if not earlier. Yeesh.
At FF headquarters, Ben has been hanging out wearing his Thing-shaped exoskeleton in the hopes of making Sharon feel more comfortable about being a Thing, now she’s developed a desire to be human again. It doesn’t work, as she feels even worse, demanding a cure from Reed. Reed says a cure might not be possible. Sharon leaves, and encounters a stranger on the street who offers her help. Intrigued, she follows him to a nearby hotel, where Dr. Doom is waiting for her. Doom offers to cure her, saying the knowledge of genetic engineering he will gain from doing so will help turn around Latveria’s economy. Sharon will not get any money, but she will be human again, so she agrees.
Days pass, until Doom is ready. Using a combination of science and magic, he finally turns Sharon human again. While Sharon is unconscious, Doom explains to Kristoff (who is his sidekick now, apparently) that the money talk was false, just to ensure Sharon’s trust. At headquarters, Ben is overcome with worry about Sharon. Desperate to take action, he sneaks into Reed’s lab and steps into one of Reed’s machines in an attempt to turn himself back into the Thing. He tells the others that he did it so Sharon wouldn’t feel so alone. A robot shows up out of nowhere, inviting the FF to Castle Doom, to meet with Doom and Sharon.
At the castle, the FF are attacked by Doombots, and separated into four rooms, each one containing a trip designed to negate their powers. Johnny is underwater, Sue is gassed into unconsciousness, and Reed is caught a corridor with shrinking walls, giving him no room to stretch. Ben reveals that he’s the Thing again, saying “I gave up my humanity for Christmas!” which I guess establishes that this isn’t his exoskeleton.
Ben finds Sharon still asleep. He is ambushed by Dr. Doom, and there are several pages of them fighting. Ben transforms from his rocky form to his stronger spikey form, and is about to defeat Doom. Then Sharon wakes up and electrocutes Ben, so he cannot harm Doom. Doom knocks ben out. Reed shows up, having escaped his trap. Doom challenges Reed to battle, with the lives of Ben, Johnny, and Sue on the line. He produces two time machines, small enough to be worn on their belts, which will allow them to time travel “between the seconds” where they will fight. The two of them disappear outside of time, and that’s…
To be continued!
Unstable molecule: Reed says he escaped Doom’s sealed room thanks to “old masonry and a sharp belt buckle.” Two issues from now, we’ll learn that was a lot more to his escape than that.
Fade out: Sue mentions that she trains “relentlessly” in the gym to be prepared for battles, which helps her against Doom’s robots.
Clobberin’ time: Before turning back into the Thing, Ben takes a second to look at his human hands one last time, a moment of genuine sadness among all the superhero action.
Flame on: Once again, Johnny is defeated by water, despite him having overcome that weakness several issues back. Maybe they’re drawing a difference between being wet and being fully submerged in water.
Fantastic fifth wheel: The comic remembers that Sharon is a budding scientist, so she is able to be persuaded by Dr. Doom because she admires his science genius.
Four and a half: In one scene, Reed performs tests on Franklin to determine what Franklin’s super-powers currently are. We’re not shown the results of those tests.
The Alicia problem: If Dr. Doom knows that Alicia is really Lyja the Skrull in disguise, he doesn’t say so in this issue.
Commercial break: I wonder who won this thing, and what it actually looked like:
Trivia time: The “Dr. Doom was really a bunch of Doombots for the last hundred issues” thing continues to be a controversy among fans all these years later. It’ll later be addressed again as being mere propaganda on Doom’s part, but that doesn’t seem to be the intent of this issue.
According to the Marvel Wiki, the robot who deliver’s Doom’s message to the FF is named “Message.”
Fantastic or frightful? This issue has a lot of action and a lot of big drama, but it’s brought down by the Doombot retcon, and by how the rest of the characters other than Ben don’t seem to care at all about Sharon’s disappearance. File this one under “good, but could have been better.”
Next: Time twisty.
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