Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. It’s time for relationship woes and more small-town weirdness in vol. 3 #45.
Where were we? After a fight with the Grey Gargoyle, Ben has developed the ability to turn human and back whenever he wants. Also, ever since the FF returned from the Heroes Reborn universe, Ben has been receiving letters from Alicia, which he keeps refusing to open. This issue begins with human Ben driving to the town of Sunshine City, Florida, saying he must get up the nerve to do what needs to get done.
We then flash back to days earlier, with the FF dealing with the fallout of their recent adventure in the Negative Zone. Johnny absorbed too much heat, and now he can’t flame off. Reed, Sue, and Johnny’s girlfriend Namorita are in Reed’s lab working on a cure. Johnny is inside a giant fishbowl looking thing, and it appears to work at first, but then the glass shatters as Johnny can’t control the flame. Johnny insists Reed cure him, but Ben tells him, “Listen Junior, stuff happens.”
In Sunshine City, Ben transforms back into his Rocky form and knocks on a door. Alicia answers, and they give each other a hug. Then there’s a short scene in Kansas, where Sue meets with Noah Baxter’s wife, to console her after Noah disappeared after the Negative Zone story. Noah’s wife, Abigail, says she doesn’t believe he’s dead. Sue returns to the Baxter Building, where Reed has constructed a suit of armor for Johnny to help control his flame. Sue receives a package from Ben, saying Ben has quit the team. Johnny doesn’t buy it, but Reed says Ben has the freedom to go off on his own if he wants. But, Reed adds, he wants to look Ben in the eye when Ben calls it quits.
Reed and Johnny arrive in Sunshine City, with Johnny’s new armor hidden under a big trenchcoat. They find Ben driving a tractor (!). A fight breaks out, with Ben saying he wants them to leave him alone. Ben throws Johnny around, ties Reed in a knot, and deduces Sue is alongside them invisibly. Alicia tries to break up the fight, but Ben won’t have it, punching away at Sue’s force fields. Sue tells him to change back to human, to prove that he’s there of his own free will. He does, and then is disoriented, not knowing what’s going on.
Reed suspects Alicia’s stepfather the Puppet-Master has a hand in what’s going on. Just then, the townsfolk gather around, chanting “You won’t take us from here.” The FF travel across town to find the Puppet-master, who says “I’m protected.” Then two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents show up, saying that this whole town is a variation of the witness protection program, in which supervillains can volunteer to opt out of life prison terms and instead be reprogrammed for a normal life. Letting Ben and Alicia be a part of Puppet-Man’s artificial town is a concession, the agent says. “Clearly a bad one,” he adds.
Cut to later, as Ben and Alicia have a heart-to-heart on a nearby hilltop. Turns out all those unopened letters weren’t from Alicia, but from the Puppet-Master, hoping that Ben and Alicia would become a couple again. Alicia argues that Puppet-Master is not a bad man, and his town full of puppets is a place where he’s loved. Then Ben tells Alicia that he’s changed, and that he doesn’t love her anymore. She admits the same about him. But they agree to be friends, and give each other a hug. All while Johnny watches from a distance.
Unstable molecule: When Johnny makes a Leave it to Beaver reference, Reed admits he’s never heard of it. You know, because a scientist of his stature has no time to watch TV.
Fade out: Once again, we see that Sue’s teammates know her so well that they can tell when she’s invisible near them. Ben is quick to figure out just where she is.
Clobberin’ time: While this would appear to the end of Ben and Alicia, we all know it isn’t. The two will later become a couple again following the events of the 2015 Secret Wars.
Flame on: This subplot about Johnny’s powers going haywire will last for at least another 10 issues. And, again, Johnny and Namorita’s romance is occurring almost entirely off-panel.
Fantastic fifth wheel: When discussing Ben leaving the team, Johnny suggests replacing him with Namorita. Reed tells Johnny to stop joking… but is he?
Sue-per spy: The 2019 Invisible Woman miniseries revealed that Sue has had a double life as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent all this time. In this issue, she threatens the two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents by going over their heads when they tell her their mission is classified. After hearing this, the agents fess up.
Commercial break: Gross.
Trivia time: Tracking the history of the Puppet-Master throughout this time should not be this difficult of a task. Before this issue, while Alicia was a regular in Silver Surfer, Puppet-Master (who the Marvel wiki insists on calling “Phillip”) got hold of some clay infused with the Power Cosmic. He later created a puppet with godlike powers called the Cosmic Messiah. That somehow led to this issue. Then, after this, he’s back to being a criminal in Spider-Man: Tangled Web, when he tried robbing Macy’s Department Store in NYC at Christmastime.
Fantastic or frightful? I don’t know. I’m not sure why they felt the need to have a definitive ending to Ben and Alicia’s relationship, when they haven’t really been a couple since the early days of the Thing solo series. The Puppet-Master/creepy town stuff has the makings of a cool Twilight Zone type of story, but it’s not given much exploration. This is supposed to be a big emotional payoff story, but instead feels inconsequential.
Next: Was that Shazam or Kazam?
* * * *
Want more? Check out my new book, MOM, I’M BULLETPROOF, now available for the Kindle and the free Kindle app. It’s a comedic/dramatic/romantic superhero epic!