Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. When the Heroes Reborn reboot fell below expectations, Marvel was quick to re-reboot it. Time for the FF, the Avengers, and more to reenter regular Marvel continuity, and it was decided that the FF’s own Franklin Richards as the reason for it all, hence the notorious Heroes Reborn: The Return.
By now, everyone knows the story – everything that happened in the Heroes Reborn Universe (hereafter called “HRU”) took place in a pocket universe created by Franklin Richards’ reality-bending powers. When a bunch of superheroes sacrificed their lives to defeat supervillain Onslaught, Franklin subconsciously created another universe for them to live, where their lives began anew with no memory of their previous lives in the Marvel Universe (hereafter “MU”). We the fans already know this, but how did this play out in the actual comics, exactly?
After Onslaught, Franklin spent a short amount of time as a supporting character in Cable, where it looked like Cable might become his new father figure. Franklin next showed up, however, in Generation X, finding a new home at the Xavier School. When the school was attacked, he and a bunch of others fled to the nexus of all realities, home of Man-Thing. There, they formed their own super-team, the Daydreamers. That’s all well and good, except that through this all, Franklin can be seen carrying around a blue sphere, which he’s had since the last issue of the Onslaught event. This sphere contains the HRU, but for the life of me I can’t figure out when this was officially revealed. After a while, it’s as if readers are just meant to pick up on it. If anything, it looks to me like the fact that Franklin created the HRU wasn’t revealed in a story, but in all the ads for this event. Whatever. Let’s just get on with the story.
Every issue of Heroes Reborn: The Return begins with the same four-page text piece catching new readers up to speed. This is a little awkward for the first issue in that it summarizes what we’re about to read, but whatever. The issue begins with Franklin Richards alongside a mysterious woman as a storm hits NYC. The woman tells Franklin his parents are still alive, “elsewhere and elsewhen.” Franklin is teleported away from her to the Florida swamp, home of his new Daydreamers teammate Man-Thing. Back in New York, Peter Parker and Aunt May watch a news report recapping Onslaught and the first appearance of the Thunderbolts. Then we see the Hulk is also in New York, wandering the back streets in his anger. Remember that Onslaught separated Bruce Banner and the Hulk into two individuals. The Hulk stayed in the MU, while Banner was in the HRU where he of course transformed into a second Hulk. (You getting all this?)
Back in the swamp, Man-Thing fights an alligator (he always fights alligators), while Franklin looks into his sphere and sees a vision of Bruce Banner and not one but two Hulks. He then sees images of the HRU where Ben and Thor are fighting the Hulk. The mystery woman reappears and fights Man-Thing, burning him with his own fear (dang). She tells Franklin her name is Ashema and that they have to talk. She tells Franklin that when his father was done with an experiment, he cleaned up afterward. Now, she says, Franklin has created an experiment that he has to clean up. Ashema teleports Franklin to the HRU, explaining that this is a universe he created. She says Franklin has a choice. Only one of the two universes can survive – either one that’s his home or one where his parents live but don’t know him – and he has to choose.
Issue #2 begins with Franklin astral-projecting to his parents’ room (hey, the comic remembers his “Tattletale” powers from Power Pack). He warns them the “Cestials” are coming before he vanishes. Sue says she feels like she knows him somewhere, and the FF agree to find him and help him. In the MU, Dr. Strange is contacted by Loki, who warns him about another world where powerful beings are trapped, and that Strange must find a “nexus point” to deal with the upcoming crisis. Ashema appears and takes Loki from the scene, saying he is not to interfere with the Celestials’ business. In the MU, Spider-Man learns about the Hulk wandering the streets during the storm, so he swings off to investigate. Outside of a Broadway theater (!) the Hulk fights Doc Sampson, the Thunderbolts, and Thor, all of whom are trying to get him to calm down. The street is torn open in an earthquake, allowing the Hulk to escape while Thor rescues some civilians. Dr. Strange travels to Man-Thing’s swamp and finds Franklin’s sphere. He too sees an image of the Hulk in it, and considers showing it to the Hulk.
In another wilderness, Franklin and Ashema talk some more. He doesn’t want to destroy an entire universe full of people’s lives. They find a wounded bear cub, and Franklin insists Ashema use her powers to heal it. She does, but then turns around and kills it right in front of him. Angered, Franklin lashes out at her with his own power. She says that Franklin can’t make his choice, the Celestials will make it for him.
Back in New York, the Hulk is now fighting Spider-Man, Hercules and the Thunderbolts in Central Park, when Dr. Strange appears. Spidey and the Hulk are both drawn into the sphere, teleporting themselves to the HRU, where the Hulk is confronted by… another Hulk!
Onto issue #3. In the HRU, Reed and Iron Man work in the lab, discovering two giant fireballs headed toward the Earth. Sue interrupts to say she can somehow sense Franklin is in danger. Then there’s additional science talk as Iron Man has been getting strange readings from rocks at the Earth’s core (how’d he get those?) and he flies into the Negative Zone to test them. Reed, meanwhile, considers asking Dr. Doom for help, since Doom recently helped them fight Galactus.
The MU Hulk thinks the HRU Hulk is Bruce Banner and attacks, with Spider-Man caught in the middle. The Hulks fight their onto the Brooklyn Bridge and then down into the water. Spider-Man follows them there, wondering what to do, when the Avengers show up, along with Ben and Johnny. Spidey is relieved to see they’re all alive, but they have no idea who he is.
In the MU, Franklin runs off and accidentally falls off 100-foot cliff (!). Ashema is willing to leave him for dead, but then she receives a telepathic message from the rest of the Celestials, telling her to bring Franklin back to life. She does, and in doing so she experiences what it means to be human, through his experiences and through the experiences of all humanity who are connected through Franklin’s reality-bending powers. Now emotionally transformed, Ashema agrees to help Franklin.
In the HRU, Iron Man returns from his test, which determined that the Earth’s core is only one year old. He and Reed are baffled by this, while Sue insists that Franklin and the Celestials hold the answer. Franklin then appears in the room, and runs into Sue’s arms. Elsewhere in New York, a giant ship flies out of the water near the Brooklyn Bridge, having captured both Hulks. Spider-Man, and the HRU heroes jump into action, learning that Dr. Doom is piloting the ship. Doom flies the ship to FF headquarters, saying he’s discovered transdimensional energy leaking from another world into theirs. The heroes and Doom all regroup, and Reed says Franklin, Spider-Man, and the Hulk all reveal the existence of another world, and that they should take Doom’s ship there.
Ashema is also there, and she says Franklin has made his choice. Franklin admits he has, and that he couldn’t allow everyone in the Marvel Universe to die. At that moment, the group alerted to activity from outside. They look to see a Celestial appearing in space, looming over the Earth.
Issue #4 begins with the rest of the HR heroes also on the scene, including Iron Man’s Hulkbusters team, and Rikki Barnes, a.k.a. the new Bucky. Also, everyone has now been clued into the fact that the HR universe is only a manifestation of a young boy’s imagination. Rikki is not happy about having to stay behind. Then things get complicated when Ashema says the heroes will return to the Marvel Universe, but not with Franklin. Franklin is coming to space with her to fulfill his destiny. The heroes aren’t having this, saying that whether they remember him or not, Franklin should stay with his parents. Ashema is about to start to fight, but Franklin talks her out of it. She demonstrates her power, though, by temporarily transforming Thor into… Thorg! This is, of course, the frog Thor from back in the Walt Simonson days.
Dr. Strange takes Franklin’s sphere to outer space, where he speaks with an unknown power. He says this unknown being has always refused to help in the past, but Strange urges them to help just this once. Strange hands the sphere over to the mystery figure. In the HRU, Iron Man takes some time to say goodbye to Pepper Potts, knowing what’s going to happen. Everyone then boards Dr. Doom’s ship, where Reed explains that they must first take the ship into the Negative Zone, and from there to edge of this reality – in this case, the edge of Franklin’s imagination. The ship takes off, with Ashema flying outside, alongside it. She transforms into some sort of energy being and says it’s time for the heroes to “see the light.”
The ship enters the Negative Zone, and that’s when Doom makes his move. He abducts Franklin and flees the ship, with the intent of stealing Franklin’s powers for his own. Doom plans to rule over both universes as a god, believing not even the Celestials can stop him. They’re in the distortion area of the Negative Zone, where air breathers can fly around in space with no problems. Reed and Thor pursue Doom and Franklin. Reed rescues his son while Thor beats up on Doom. Thor says his hammer has the power to tap into dimensional energies to create a rift between universes (could Thor always do this?). Iron Man takes the controls of Doom’s ship, to ensure that everyone enters the rift at the same time, as per Ashema’s instructions.
Then it happens. All the Heroes Reborn characters get their Marvel Universe memories back. Sue remembers her family. Bruce Banner remembers his traumatic childhood. Iron Man remembers his addictions and his anger. Captain America remembers a lifetime of battles. Then there’s a whole two pages dealing with Bruce Banner and Hulk reintegrating, becoming one person again. The caption reads, “To put it simply, the heroes return.”
Somewhere on Earth, the Fantastic Four regroup in a forest. Ashema appears before Sue, and Sue is done putting up with Ashema. Sue asks, “Who are you to decide that Franklin has been ruined by us?” Ashema responds, “Someone who has also been ruined by you.” Ashema disappears, telling Sue to take care of her “precious cargo.” There’s a quick glimpse of the Heroes Reborn universe, still existing, with Rikki watching over it. Then we see Ashema having returned to her Celestial form on the Celestials home planet. She is asleep, surrounded by the other Celestials. The captions say that granting Franklin the power to create this other universe was an experiment on the Celestials’ behalf, and that is how they learn and grow. When Ashema experienced the human condition, she too was transformed. As she sleeps, she dreams.
On the last page, we see the stranger Dr. Strange spoke to earlier. It’s Eternity, the living embodiment of reality itself. Eternity is now the keep of Franklin’s sphere. Eternity muses whether the dreams of a Celestial could be figment of someone else’s imagination. Perhaps we all are.
Unstable molecule: Reed rescues Franklin by stretching from Doom’s ship and out into space to grab hold of his son. His teammates then reel him back into the ship as if he’s one big fishing line.
Fade out: Sue’s certainty that she has a long-lost son she doesn’t remember is more or less the inciting incident that kicks off the whole adventure.
Clobberin’ time: We don’t see how Ben’s fight with the Hulk ended, except we’re told that the Hulk merely ran off. Later, the comic remembers that Ben is a pilot when Ben grouses that he should be flying Doom’s ship instead of Iron Man.
Flame on: Johnny barely appears in these comics, his only function is to look cool when standing next to his teammates.
Fantastic fifth wheel: Where is Crystal?!? Previous issues made the point that Crystal in Heroes Reborn was the same on from the Marvel Universe, but she doesn’t appear in this miniseries. The Marvel wiki insists that her and the Inhuman Royal Family were aboard Doom’s ship, but just in the lower decks where we couldn’t see them. The HRU versions of the rest of the Inhumans were merged into their MU selves, the wiki says.
She-Hulk and Spider-Man act all flirtatious with each other, with Spidey making the most of how this version of She-Hulk has no idea who she is. Since when was there romantic inklings between these two? Also, the Marvel wiki says the HRU She-Hulk also merged with her MU self.
Four and a half: Using Franklin’s powers to fix comic continuity might be convenient, but it’s also consistent, as there’s been a fear from the beginning that his powers represent a potential threat to reality itself. Throughout his appearances in Cable, X-Man, Generation X, and Daydreamers were all about Franklin coming to terns with his parents’ deaths, only for him to turn a corner in Heroes Return, where he succeeds in bringing them back.
Commercial break: Each of these four issues concludes with a tiring eight pages of ads for the upcoming Fantastic Four, Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America reboots.
Trivia time: This is not the final word on the HRU. Rikki Barnes, the new Bucky, later crossed over into the MU where she fought crime as Nomad for a while. Then the HRU got one last chance as superstardom with the miniseries Onslaught Reborn where Heroes Reborn did its own take on the Onslaught event that created it, courtesy of controversial artist Rob Liefeld.
Why is a Thor a frog? It’s a reference to a famous Walt Simonson Thor comic in which Loki transformed Thor into a frog, only for Thor to fight back after transforming again into a half-Thor, half-frog form. Since then, Marvel keeps coming up with ways to bring back “Throg” as his own character.
Fantastic or frightful? This whole thing is a mountain of Marvel continuity, with sole purpose of streamlining said continuity. Yet, somehow, writer Peter David finds a way to break through the editorial mandates and find the human story beneath. The debates between the all-powerful Celestial and the kid who just misses his parents are great moments, enough to make this worth reading.
As for the entire 16-month Heroes Reborn experiment, it was a disappointment overall. At its best, Heroes Reborn: Fantastic Four was familiar stories retold with some nice Jim Lee art. At its worst it was overly confusing writing with plots that never needed to be so confusing. I wanted to deep dive into Heroes Reborn hoping to make some great discovery, but there’s just nothing there. It was swept under the rug for a reason.
Next: Davis squared.
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