Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Time for more alchemy, dream-sharing weirdness, and possible Northern Exposure references in issue #526.
Recap: After an adventure in the Microverse, the Fantastic Four had an encounter with Diablo, the master alchemist. Diablo has recovered the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, and he says he will turn all the lead in New York into gold unless the FF allow him use of their time machine so he can go back and stop the Spanish Inquisition. Diablo gave the FF a few days to think about his demands, during which the heroes started having each other’s dreams, making them irritable and uneasy.
We begin with a flashback to the Inquisition, where Diablo (who is immortal, remember) being captured for blasphemy and buried alive as punishment. We then see that this is Alicia, having one of Diablo’s dreams. She was sleeping in a machine in Reed’s lab, helping him determine that this “dream fever” is spreading and infect the entire Earth in a matter of days (!). Ben and Johnny argue, while Sue says that Diablo’s deadline is in the morning. If he succeeds, it’ll cause a frenzy in NYC.
In Diablo’s apartment (hotel room?) he wakes from a dream about Reed and Sue’s children. He sheds his skin like a snake (!), which he calls his . He monologues to himself about the Philosopher’s Stone, which he says can do much more than turn lead into gold.
At the new Baxter Building, Ben suspects General Quark, the unseen enemy they fought in the Microverse, is the cause of the dream fever. Reed says there’s no way Quark will talk to them. Sue interrupts and asks Reed to turn on the external cameras. This reveals that the entire exterior of the building is now gold. While the FF are worried about looters coming after the building, Diablo shows up on a flying carpet. He tells them accept that he’s already won their conflict.
A short fight breaks out, with Diablo turning his flying saucer into fiery snakes. Reed breaks up the fight, deducing that Diablo has the dream fever as well. Diablo uses the Philosopher’s Stone, which reveals the infection. Dibalo then uses the stone to cure himself, but he won’t use it to cure everyone else unless Reed lets him use the time machine. They fight some more, with Johnny and Reed getting the Philosopher’s Stone out of Diablo’s hands and into theirs. Sue surrounds their HQ with a force field. Stuck outside, Diablo warns, “You forget you’re dealing with Diablo! You’re dealing with the devil.”
Reed attaches the Philosopher’s Stone to a device and activates it, turning the Baxter Building back to normal. The FF are thrown back by energy as it does this, and then Diablo appears in Reed’s lab, saying “It worked perfectly.” Reed deduces that once the stone was activated, it acted like a doorway, allowing Diablo to bypass all the building’s defenses. There’s another fight, with Diablo using smoke to confuse the heroes. Ben, still acting erratic thanks to the dream fever, inadvertently leads Diablo to the time machine. With the stone in hand, Diablo enters the time machine, ready to change history so he becomes ruler of the Earth.
It looks like the Fantastic Four have lost, but Reed then explains that this is not the time machine, but the interdimensional portal. Diablo has ended up not in the Microverse, but in an unknown dimension that has survivable living conditions, but it is completely uninhabited. Sue remarks that Diablo finally got to rule a world, one with himself as the only subject.
Later, Sue and Johnny have a heart-to-heart chat. She reveals that she was seeing his dreams. In his dream, Johnny is surrounded by several of his ex-girlfriends. He loses control of his powers and burns them all, crying, “You don’t understand what I can do to you!” Sue says this is a part of Johnny that he never shares with anyone, that he never had a girlfriend for long for fears that he might harm someone he cares about. Johnny says his power is like a gun, in that no matter how careful he is, there’s always a danger. He tells Sue she’s lucky to have someone like Reed in her life, and that he loves her more than Johnny will ever be able to love anyone.
Reed and Sue then have a heart-to-heart, establishing that Reed managed to cure the dream fever with the stone before Diablo disappeared with it. Reed says he doesn’t know who had his dreams. Sue wonders if this means someone out in New York dreamed of blackboards with endless equations. Reed says dreams aren’t just stress and worry, but also wants and desires. Sue asks Reed what he wants, and he tells her, “Only you!”
Unstable molecule: How strong is Reed? He stretches his arms around a lamppost, pulls it out of the street, and uses it as a huge club against Diablo.
Fade out: Sue is getting stronger. During the John Byrne years, she struggled in surrounding just the top of the Baxter Building with a force field. In this issue, she surrounds the entire building with one without breaking a sweat.
Clobberin’ time: Diablo uses his alchemy to trap Ben in the floor of Reed’s lab, leading to jokes about how he’s now shorter, or like a piece of the furniture. Johnny then frees him.
Flame on: What to make of Johnny’s feat of burning a loved one paralleling the temporary nature of his relationships? I’m not sure. I’d argue that’s an aspect of Johnny’s character, but not one that explains everything.
Our gal Val: Baby Valeria shows up in a few panels. She looks like she’s back to normal and has overcome having Ben’s nightmares.
Fantastic fifth wheel: Crystal appears in Johnny’s dream, asking if he ever truly loved her. He says he loved her more than she’ll ever know. Frankie Raye is also in the dream for one panel.
The Alicia problem: Lyja shows up in Johnny’s dream as well. She reminds him that they were once married, and she asks him if that meant anything to him. His only response is, “You don’t understand.”
Trivia time: In addition to Crystal, Lyja, and Frankie, the other ex-girlfriends in Johnny’s dream are Dorrie Evans, Cole from the new Frightful Four, and the Valeria of the fifth dimension (unrelated to Valeria Richards, or Dr. Doom’s lost love Valeria). Johnny romanced this Valeria back in the Strange Tales days.
Diablo’s timeline is a little off compared to the timeline I set for myself on this blog, but that’s okay. After this, he appeared in the Marvel Knights 4 spinoff, in that unfinished story involving Nicholas Scratch. Then he was one of several cameos in that supervillain gathering in Fantastic Four: Foes. He’ll be back in issue #551.
The Microverse villain Captain Quark is only mentioned and never seen, and the story of his conflict with the FF has never been told. That’s expected, but the real question is what became of Quark? In this issue, he and his soldiers are being held prisoner in the new Baxter Building, and that’s the last we hear. Have they been there all this time? (No word on whether this is related to the Ratchet and Clank character of the same name.)
None of the comic fan sites I frequent have mentioned this, but I feel it’s worth noting that this story arc bears similarity to the 1994 Northern Exposure episode “Mr. Sandman.” That one featured the townsfolk of Cicely, Alaska experiencing everyone else’s dreams, and wrangling with knowing each other’s private thoughts.
Fantastic or frightful? Kind of a simple story, and I’m not sure the dream stuff gels with the Diablo plot. But there’s a lot of fast-paced action and nice character moments, in the classic Marvel style.
Next: Our last, best hope…
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