Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. The splash page for issue #393 calls this “quite possibly the most haunting tale ever produced.” Yeah, let’s see.
The issue begins with a whopping seven pages of recap, in which Ant-Man makes a record of the FF’s activities, starting the whole Alicia/Lyja thing, up to Reed’s supposed death, and finally the team’s recent break-up, concluding that the Thing is currently going it alone as a “Fantastic One.”
We then catch up to Ben back in his old neighborhood of Yancy Street, where he’s responding to a mysterious summons. After scaring off a thug, Ben encounters the Puppet Master as the one who sent for him. Ben is immediately suspicious, as Alicia hasn’t been seen since Alicia ran off and/or disappeared way back in issue #376. Turns out Ben is right to be suspicious because the Puppet Master gases Ben into unconsciousness.
Then there’s a quick scene of Johnny applying to start school at Empire State University, but is refused because of the damage he caused in issue #375. He also is reunited with feisty coed Bridget O’Neil, and they flirt while a blond woman watches them from a distance. We cut from there to Latveria, where Sue sneaks into Castle Doom, investigating how Dr. Doom could be alive when it appeared he died fighting Reed. Rather than fight, Dr. Doom reveals that he’s really an imposter, Sue’s own father-in-law Nathaniel Richards. She slaps him (!) and accuses him of abducting young Franklin and not using his knowledge of the future (the past, now?) to save Reed. Nathaniel says he is on a quest to find Reed, and he asks Sue to join him.
Ben wakes up in what appears to be Alicia’s apartment, she makes a big speech about how much she admires his nobility and sensitivity, and it’s as if they are a couple again. The romance is interrupted by Johnny, for some 1960s-ish playful banter. Not only is there, but so are Reed and Sue, and it’s as if the FF are back together and everything is the way it used to be. Ben concludes, “Something’s real wrong!”
Ben wakes up again to reveal that Puppet Master has him hooked up to a machine. What he just experienced was the puppet version of him living in Liddleville, which you’ll remember is an entire town of miniature robot people last seen inside Castle Doom. Puppet Master says he only has the best of intentions, that in Liddleville, Ben and Alicia can have the happiness they’ve always wanted.
Ben smashes the Puppet Master’s mind control device (but he leaves Liddleville intact), saying “Ya can’t live in the past!” As Alicia starts to regain consciousness, Ben leaves, saying she and Puppet Master have a lot to talk about.
Unstable molecule: Sue initially assumes that Nathaniel is another Doombot posing as Doom, referencing all the times the FF has been fooled by Doombots in the past.
Clobberin’ time: Ben says a younger version of him would have clobbered the thug on Yancy Street, but now these days he’s mellowed out some.
Flame on: Johnny learns Bridget is a history student, and is heading out west for an archaeology conveniently setting up next issue.
Fantastic fifth wheel: Ant-Man says that although the FF has split up, he is still on their payroll, so he’s going to stick around as long as the checks keep coming in.
The Alicia problem: The blonde spying on Johnny and Bridget is secretly Lyja in disguise, so the soap opera is still soap opera-ing.
Commercial break: Power Rangers! But wait, did the Rangers ever actually use this sword on the show?
Trivia time: This is the last time we’ll see Liddleville in Fantastic Four, but not in the Marvel Universe. After one appearance in X-Force, the teeny town becomes a semi-regular fixture in various Hulk comics, where a puppet Bruce Banner gets to enjoy the quaint small-town life the real one never had.
There is no mention of where Puppet Master’s hideout is, or how he got Liddleville away from Dr. Doom. (Maybe they’re in Doom’s castle, but I find it highly unlikely that this is happening a few doors down from Sue confronting Nathaniel.) The Appendix of the Marvel Universe fan site suggests that Puppet Master built his own Liddleville just for this occasion.
Fantastic or frightful? Shrug. The long opening recap and the ongoing subplots mean we don’t have a lot of time to explore the Twilight Zone-ishness of the Liddleville concept. It’s not a bad comic, it’s just we’ve been here before.
Next: Cowboys vs. dinosaurs.
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