Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Instead of calling this annual #28, Marvel calls it annual 1999. We’re doing a lot of magic, introducing a new character, and saying goodbye to another new character.
We begin right in the middle of the action, with New York under attack by an ominous magical figure in the sky, blasting the city with magic energy. The FF fight back, along with the entire current supporting cast – Franklin, time-displaced teenage Valeria, super-genius Alyssa Moy, interdimensional swordswoman Caledonia, and alien teleporting dog Puppy. Alyssa is knocked out in the attack, and rushed back to Pier 4. Reed can find no signs of injury, and deduces that her unconsciousness is due to magic. Valeria says Alyssa was researching the Hellfire Club, a mutant secret society in NYC, currently led by the mysterious Selene.
Reed makes the rounds calling for help, but Agatha Harkness, Dr. Strange, and the Scarlet Witch are all unavailable. While Reed makes these calls, an unseen person in a barn in Texas is eavesdropping. Dr. Strange’s pal Wong suggests the FF contact sorceress Margali Szardos, who has conveniently popped up in recent Fantastic Four issues. She was last seen in France, when the Ruined tried to sacrifice her for her power. Then the French authorities took her into custody. So, it’s off to France.
Also in France, that’s where we meet Selene, as she seduces a man, steals his soul, and transfers a demon into his body. OK, what is Selene’s deal? She’s a mutant who has been around since ancient Greece, making her the oldest mutant, pre-dating Apocalypse. In addition to immortality, she also has telepathic, telekinetic, and “psychic vampire” powers. She’s also a mega-powerful sorceress, which she apparently learned in addition to her mutant abilities.
This jogger, now working for Selene, is a guard at Notre Dame, which turns out is secretly a prison for supernatural-powered individuals, including Margali. The FF arrive to negotiate Margali’s release. A fight breaks out because all the guards are now possessed by Selene’s demons. It looks like the FF are losing the fight, when an armored figure joins the fight – a person called the Mechamage.
There’s a lot more fighting, with Mechamage showing off soul-based superpowers. Margali is freed, and teleports everyone to her sanctuary, in the otherworld of Limbo. Margali says she can’t save Alyssa, as Alyssa’s soul is somewhere beyond her power. She and Mechamage agree that there is a major supernatural force loose on Earth, and it will take a lot more power to deal with it. There’s a few pages of “training montage” stuff where the FF learn to fight magic rather than science, and Mechamage is revealed to be a woman under the armor, but her face and real name are never revealed.
Cut to later, when Reed and Sue are in New York, attending the Halloween ball hosted by the Hellfire Club. Because Alyssa is a billionaire (!) she received an invitation, which Reed and Sue use to get inside. (I assume this is also why Alyssa was researching the club.) They are escorted to catacombs deep beneath Hellfire HQ, where Selene summons the demon Blackheart, the same giant monster who attacked NYC at the beginning of this issue. Blackheart is the son of Mephisto (!) who’s always plotting to overthrow his devilish dad. He transforms the party guests into his own personal demon army, with the FF, Margali and Mechamage fighting back.
Just when it seems like the heroes are losing the fight, Mechamage does some magic and summons Damien Hellstrom (another Marvel demonic-magic hero) to the scene. He combines his power with Mechamage’s tech to draw upon the natural magics of the Earth to banish Blackheart back from whence he came. Margali then teleports everyone out of there, leaving Selene alone and defeated.
Back at Pier 4, Hellstrom, Margali and Mechamage decide they work well together and decide to form a team of their own, which they call the Shadow Hunters. Alyssa has recovered from her magical injury, and then she announces she’s leaving Pier 4 to join the Shadow Hunters on their adventures. She leaves Ben the keys to her cool flying sports car, and says the car is his now. The Shadow Hunters teleport away (no mention of Clary or Jace) and the FF raise a glass of champagne in their honor.
Oh, and that 8-page Spider-Man: Fast Lane Part 1 anti-drug story is reprinted again in this issue.
Unstable molecule: During the training montage, Sue gets turned into a frog and Reed cures her by kissing her. They’re a cute couple.
Fade out: Most of the battle focuses on Sue and her force fields, putting her in a leadership role again, and making another case for her being the team’s most powerful member.
Clobberin’ time: During training, Ben is struck so hard by Margali’s magic he actually feels pain. Margali gives him some special runes to make him more resistant to magic attacks.
Flame on: Johnny says his least favorite part of any given FF adventure is sitting around waiting while Reed comes up with something in the lab.
Fantastic fifth wheel: When one of Valeria’s force fields comes in contact with one of Sue’s there’s an explosive effect that sends them both flying back. It’s unclear why or how this happens.
Four and a half: Valeria’s nickname for Franklin is “Sparky,” and now the rest of the family calls him that.
Our gal Val: Sue says she trusts Valeria completely, even though Valeria claims to be the daughter of Dr. Doom. But then Valeria admits to hacking into Alyssa’s private files. There’s also a short bit where she discovers Mechamage’s eavesdropping, and she promises “doom” in response.
SUE-per spy: The 2019 Invisible Girl miniseries revealed that Sue has had a double life as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent all this time. When she and Reed con their way into the Hellfire Club’s secret party, could this be her spy training at work?
Commercial break: Anybody know whether these things actually worked?
Trivia time: Unfortunately, this is the only time we ever the Shadow Hunters operate as a team. Hellstrom went on to have a bunch more solo adventures without any mention of the others. Margali and Mechamage were shown still working together in the Maximum Security miniseries, and after that Mechamage’s only other appearance was a brief mention in Civil War (on Iron Man’s side). Margali went on to be a regular character in Nightcrawler’s solo series. And Alyssa will be back in Fantastic Four sporadically.
While in Limbo, we see that Margali lives with a group of clowns (!) named Der Jahrmarkt. Remember that Margali is tied into Nightcrawler’s surprisingly convoluted origin story, and these clowns are from the traveling circus that Nightcrawler grew up in.
Fantastic or frightful? I’ve skipped a lot in my summary, because there is a lot that happens in this annual. Artist Jose Landronn draws most pages with ten to twelve little panels on each page, which makes for a lot of reading. Although maybe this is what it takes to get these dense Chris Claremont scripts on the page. Mechamage is given a big intro and a lot of personality, so it’s too bad she (he? they?) never went anywhere. There’s a lot to like here, but this could have been a seven-issue arc instead of one annual.
Next: The night before.
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