Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. In issue #405, we learn tha–OMG it’s Conan the Barbarian!
While on an adventure in Brazil, our heroes have uncovered an alien device that might be able to save Ben’s life after he took a beating, while also turning him back into a human as well. Kristoff and archeologist Robeson man the machine’s controls, while Sue, Lyja, and Namor the Sub-Mariner look on. It works, and Ben returns to his human form.
Ben assures everyone that he feels fine, and he’s overjoyed to be human again. Robeson says the machine’s purpose was to create an army unstoppable warriors, and therefore included an “automatic healing factor.” It’s not all good news, however. Ben sees himself in a conveniently-placed mirror. He sees the scars on his face, given to him by Wolverine in issue #374, are still there. Robeson says the machine only heals recent injuries, so the scars stay. Sue promises to get Ben to the world’s best plastic surgeon, but Robeson is on hand to offer even more bad news. The healing effect might only be temporary.
Kristoff suggests teleporting the machine aboard the FF’s ship the Stealth Hawk, so Ben and benefit from it whenever he wants. Robeson argues that it might stay where it is because it is a major archeological find. Ben says a machine that turns people into monsters shouldn’t be left behind.
Back in FF headquarters, we pick up the previous issue’s other cliffhanger, where Kristoff’s aid Boris was reporting to a mysterious figure. Ant-Man and his daughter Cassie caught Boris in the act, and Boris is now attacking Ant-Man with a laser gun. Ant-Man makes it to the science lab, where Kristoff had prepared his new Ant-Man armor. He dons the armor, hoping that Kristoff and/or Boris hadn’t tampered with it.
The Stealth Hawk flies back to HQ, with everyone wondering why Ant-Man isn’t responding. For some reason, Namor chooses this exact moment to make a move, saying he and Sue should finally be a couple now that Reed is dead. She says she’s accepted Reed’s death, but isn’t ready for a new relationship. Namor says he’ll respect her wishes… for now.
At HQ, Boris seals the door to the lab, thinking that will stop Ant-Man of all people. He contacts the mysterious figure, saying the building is secured and he’s preparing for the rest of the team’s arrival. The mystery man, whom we the readers know is the mega-powerful Hyperstorm, tells Boris to proceed at his own discretion. Ant-Man predictably shrinks to teeny-tiny size and jumps out at Boris from an air vent.
Now things get really weird. Ant-Man is struck by a broadsword. Turns out it’s Conan the Barbarian, who has randomly appeared in the room. Although he’s not named, the Marvel Wiki insists this is the one and only Conan the Barbarian. He’s joined by a futuristic Iron Man, revealed to be the Iron Man of the distant future of 2020. Boris says he’s pulling enemies from other timelines to fight Ant-Man, because all this time Boris has secretly been… Zarrko the Tomorrow-Man.
Who is this? Zarrko first appeared as a Thor villain way, way back in 1962’s Journey Into Mystery #86. He would occasionally pop in Thor comics over the years for various time-travel antics. The Marvel Wiki insists that Zarrko has been impersonating Boris since Boris appeared way back in issue #258, also the first appearance of Kristoff.
Back to the action, Zarrko says he was never loyal to Doom or Kristoff, but is instead working for someone the FF hasn’t even met yet. He summons more Marvel characters, the gimmick being they are either dead or from an alternate timeline. So, in the next few pages, Ant-Man is under fire from the original Green Goblin, the original Bucky, the android Human Torch (a.k.a. Toro), the Red Raven, the original Thor (who had died and been replaced with Thunderstrike during this time), Snowbird from Alpha Flight, the Melter, Union Jack, Omega the Unknown, the Rawhide Kid, the original Black Knight, Blizzard, Blackout, Skurge the Executioner and the unfortunately-named Whizzer. The rest of the team arrives and joins the fight against all the alt-timeline cameos. Zarrko is apparently mind-controlling all these guys, because all they want to do is fight the FF.
During the fight, Ben’s healing effect wears off, and turns back into the Thing, still with his facial scars. Ant-Man uses his new armor’s grappling hook to detach Zarrko’s time displacement device from his belt. This causes all the alt-timeline folks to disappear. Ben grabs hold of Zarrko. Zarrko offers Ant-Man’s daughter Cassie in exchange for the device, but Sue says Lyja already got Cassie to safety during the fight.
With the danger over, Cassie runs into the room and into Ant-Man’s arms before he can change out of his armor. He doesn’t know how to tell her he’s really Ant-Mat. She says it’s okay, because she’s always known. Zarrko tries to negotiate for his freedom, saying he knows what really happened to Reed. Before he can anything more, though, he is killed by an energy blast from an outside source. Kristoff says his sensors locked onto the beam’s source of origin and they can track it to its source — and, hopefully, to some real answers.
Fade out: We all know Namor is a jerk, but his pursuit of Sue takes “jerk” to a whole new level. Even as Sue considers making a new life for herself, I was glad to see her shoot him down like she does.
Clobberin’ time: Ben refers to Zarrko as “my old sparring partner,” but I can’t figure out where they might have met before. The closest I can come up with is when Johnny and Spider-Man used some of the FF’s tech to help the Avengers fight Kang in multi-issue Marvel Team-Up arc, which also featured Zarrko.
Fantastic fifth wheel: This issue ends the running gag of Ant-Man always trying to keep his daughter from learning his secret identity. We haven’t seen much of this in FF, but it happened a lot during Ant-Man’s many Iron Man appearances.
Kristoff shows little surprise or anger that his loyal servant Boris turned out to be a time-traveling supervillain. I guess his Dr. Doom-programmed brain means he can take these sorts of betrayals in stride.
Commercial break: This comic has not one, not two, but FIVE pages of ads for Spider-Man Fruit Roll-Ups!
Trivia time: It’s Conan the Barbarian! In 1995, Marvel not only still held the license to the character, but it was still publishing Conan comics on a regular basis. It wouldn’t be until a year later that the license changed hands.
As for whether the Conan character is canon to the Marvel Universe, that’s where it gets confusing. Conan only interacted with Marvel heroes in What If?, except for popping up in a few big group shots of heroes during big crossovers. The Marvel Wiki states that these cameos are the alternate-timeline Conan from What If? and not his regular comic. On the other hand, Conan’s barbarian kingdom of the Hyborian Age is established in his comic as being Earth before the Ice Age, peopled by descendants of ancient Atlantis. Marvel still owns a lot of characters created for Marvel Conan comics that show up from time to time, such as the wizard Kulan Gath. The X-Men villain Selene was born during Conan’s time, and the Terrigen mists that created the Inhumans also existed in the Hyborian Age.
And no, Zarrko isn’t really dead. He’ll later return during the Age of Ultron crossover where he’s enlisted to join S.H.I.E.L.D.’s time travel branch, simply called T.I.M.E.
Fantastic or frightful? Kind of a missed opportunity. If you’re going to re-introduce all these obscure characters, why not actually do something with them, rather than reduce so many of them to one-panel cameos? And after foreshadowing the Boris/Zarrko reveal for so long, Zarrko ends up being an underwhelming villain.
Next: It’s Hyper time.
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