Fantastic Four #326-328
Issue(s): Fantastic Four #326, Fantastic Four #327, Fantastic Four #328
The issue opens with Reed and Sue on Avengers Island (it's snowing, for you season watchers), and Reed admitting that he's not happy as an Avenger.
Reed contrives a reason to go back to Four Freedoms Plaza (he wants to check up on things after Inferno)...
...but he promises Sue that he won't try to take the team back.
However, as soon as he's away from her, he starts complaining that she treats him like a child.
Some bitter commentary about the current state of the super-hero world (or the comic industry) and an accurate assessment that what makes him important is not his powers.
And then even some really insightful humor as Reed's keycard doesn't work and he wonders if he "didn't grab the wrong card while I was ruminating about not being absent minded".
In the Avengers #301-303 entry i wrote about how i think Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio write with an deep understanding and appreciation of Marvel's history, but they aren't exactly subtle scripters. And despite the fact that he's coming into so much conflict with them now, i'd put Englehart in that same category. If you look at his 80s West Coast Avengers and FF runs, they are defined by long excursions through the forgotten parts of the Marvel universe while character development is handled by having characters shout their one trait every few panels. But somehow here, with a character that he resented having to use, Englehart has managed to develop a complex outlook, showing the nuanced relationship he has with his wife, his high but perhaps justified sense of self-worth mixing in with his feelings about the johnny-come-lately super-heroes (making him look a bit like a cranky old man), and then bringing back his human side with some subtle self-deprecating humor. Leaving open the possibility that some of this was re-scripted by editorial (Ralph Macchio? Equally surprising.), it's some of Englehart's best character work.
Reed makes it into the building but is then attacked by its security system. Reed crankily assumes this is because the current team hasn't been maintaining it according to his instructions, and he only manages to partially bite his tongue about that. And it's only after he's made some "adjustments" that he notices that Johnny Storm is a constant white-hot ball of fire.
Reed makes a promise to the Thing similar to what he made to his wife, that just because he's going to try to help Johnny doesn't meant that he's coming back to the FF.
This emphasis on promises has me pretty confident that Englehart is doing some subversive metacommentary, channeling similar promises from his editors about the direction of this series.
It turns out that the security system didn't go haywire because of lack of maintenance (or because Reed basically hacked his way into the building, a possibility that isn't raised), but because the Wizard has infected it with a virus. Englehart anticipates the modern day arms race between viruses and protection software, but more interesting is the very subtle explanation for why Paste Pot Pete is not going to be a member of the new Frightful Four. In the past he "let personal decisions influence" the team membership but not any more.
The new team has a lot of similarities to past incarnations, with Hydroman easily filling the role of Sandman, and Titania playing the role of the rotating female member with physical powers (especially Thundra). Klaw replacing Petey isn't as direct a parallel, but that's the point; Klaw has actual powers that boost the overall strength of the team.
Some nice continuity minded team banter.
One thing that i'm surprised not to see mentioned is what Titania thinks happened to her partner, the Absorbing Man. We know that he thinks she's dead (thanks to Thor #376 and shown in Hulk #348, which put him out of commission for a while) but i wonder what she thinks happened to him.
Hearing that Reed is going to be staying at FF HQ to fix Johnny, Sue and Franklin head over there as well. Nice scene showing Sue able to enter Johnny's flame to give him some much needed human contact (although i question how others can stand so close to his flame).
Also notice that "Fra-ank"; that part of the conversation about Franklin, which harkens back to his comments from when he and his parents left in Fantastic Four #307.
While the other characters have their reunion, Sharon helps Reed set up the device he's going to use to fix Johnny, and Englehart shows that she has a technical side.
Sue seems to have accepted that it's inevitable that she's going to wind up back in the FF.
That line about super-heroes having "helped create" the world of villains is pushing an idea that always bugged me. Most villains would still exist even if the heroes never did, and the world would therefore just be overrun with super-villains. You can make the argument that some villains, perhaps Dr. Doom and the Wizard, have upped their game thanks to competition from their heroic rivals, but even those aren't great examples. The Wizard became a villain because he didn't like that the Human Torch was more famous than him, but who knows what else might have set him off. And a non-powered Reed Richards was in some way involved in (or just "around during") the experiment that blew off Dr. Doom's face, but that's far from the whole of Doom's origin. And most other villains' origins don't involve the heroes at all.
Ok, overreacting to a stray line; it's just one that comes up a lot.
On a more practical point, if you're wondering how Mr. Fantastic can cure the Human Torch, whose problems were caused by the magic of Inferno, it turns out that after his recent trip into the realm of magick with the Silver Surfer, he's been intrigued by magic and he's been studying it from a scientific point of view.
But the premise of the device is still based on the technology that Reed used to use on the Thing to try to cure him, before he realized that the Thing's problems were psychological.
It's while the cure is running on the Human Torch that the Frightful Four attack.
I've been complimenting Englehart's scripting, but let me say that these are some terrible puns. You can tell that Hydroman had really been hoping to work that one in some way and he finally decided to just set it up himself (You know how there's waves at the beach? Well, this is no day at the beach! Because, like, i have water powers, and water makes waves! But my waves are more powerful... oh forget it!). But there's really no excuse for Sue's.
Titania, meanwhile, is just lucky that She-Hulk isn't currently on the team (i'm just trying to get Kveto's goat).
And you have to admire Klaw's devotion to making cute animals while he's in the middle of a fight.
During the battle, the Thing gets knocked into the device that was curing the Human Torch. It had just successfully cured the Torch, and now Ben is "cured" too.
The battle continues without the Thing. Here's the scene that really had me wondering about what Titania thinks happened to the Absorbing Man.
The Human Torch, at least, has had enough of Hydroman's attempt at puns, and also demonstrates that Reed's cure hasn't removed his ability to go nova when he wants to.
Klaw figures a rhino might work where an elephant failed.
But Franklin gets into the fight.
Steve Englehart's previously had an opportunity to write Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman when he had them guest star in Silver Surfer. And one thing he did there that i like was have Reed accept and even utilize Franklin's powers, in contrast to his earlier days when he tried to suppress them. That continues here, even though Franklin's powers here are manifesting in a much more dangerous way than his passive precognition and dream-form abilities.
The Wizard realizes that his team is getting stomped, and he orders a retreat. Reed (who, remember is not a member of the team) orders the FF to not follow, saying that they need time to regroup.
In the "regrouping" scenes that follow, we have Sharon kind of being repulsed by Ben's human form...
That circle behind the two of them seems to be implying a romantic direction, as does this panel from a little later.
Ben tries on his old human-sized clothes (which i guess were not destroyed when the Baxter Building blew up) and finds that they are mostly way out of style. He settles on a pair of jeans and a button down shirt. He also tells Sharon (drawn by Marjorie Henderson Buell?) that he still wants to be with her if she remains in rock form.
Meanwhile, Sue broaches the topic of rejoining the FF, since Reed has clearly decided that it's already happened.
Whatever objections Sue might have had, they are shot down by a cheap appeal to team loyalty.
This is definitely the weakest part of this arc. Englehart put a lot of time into Reed's psyche, showing us his reasons for wanting to return. But Sue is just getting dragged along.
Reed makes up for it with some sexy talk.
But back to what i like about this series, here is Englehart devoting some time to the characterization of the Wizard.
To make up for the earlier defeat, the Wizard has a new recruit in the wings. So when the FF are done regrouping and go (without Ben) after the Frightful Four, they initially do well...
...but are knocked out in the end by the Watcher that's been observing them for the past several issues.
Aron the Watcher really just got involved so that he can collect cell samples from the members of the FF that he hadn't gotten yet, and after collecting those he tries to take his leave. Wizard doesn't leave good enough alone and tries to stop him (and force him to remain part of the team? Yeah, that's a good idea.). The only card the Wizard holds is that he can expose Aron to Uatu and reveal that Aron has been interfering in human doings, but as a Watcher Aron is powerful enough to easily deal with the Frightful Four.
When the Fantastic Four don't return, Ben Grimm goes to investigate and learns from the police that Dragon Man was spotted on the scene. He then contacts She-Hulk, who he remembers had a recent encounter with Dragon Man alongside Ms. Marvel. She-Hulk is distracted because the former Fantastic Four comics chronologer, Byrne, has been bothering her.
And i guess that's why she offers minimal protest when the non-powered Ben decides he's going to try to rescue the FF himself.
She-Hulk said that the Dragon Man attack happened near the Empire State Building, so that's where Ben takes Alicia to investigate. And it's good that he brought Alicia, because her super-blindness makes her immune to the Watcher's mind-warping defenses.
It's a fun scene.
Once he gets past that, he manages to hold his own against the Frightful Four long enough to rescue his former teammates.
The scripting kind of degrades as this arc progresses, and by the end people are back to shouting their basic motivations again.
And after that, the Watcher brings the lot of them to another dimension.
And reveals what he's been doing with those cell samples.
On his website, Steve Englehart talks about how the reversion to the original team in Marvels' "flagship" title (arguably it hadn't been that for a long time) was symbolic of the regression that was going on in general at Marvel at this time. There's a lot of truth to it. Stylistically, Thor, Speedball, and Gerry Conway's taking over of two Spider-Man titles can be seen as a regression, as may Roy Thomas' return to Doctor Strange. The Avengers line-ups are cleaned up, with Captain America playing a larger role. The X-titles may not really be considered part of this, but when Bob Harras took over that line, he forced the Inferno event to tie up long dangling plot threads and, most relevantly here, push the original X-Men team in X-Factor back together (e.g. Angel is back with the team, Beast is no longer dumb, Cyclops and Marvel Girl are free to have a romantic relationship). Even Alpha Flight engages in a four part story that similarly restores a status quo much closer to the original configuration of that team. It's at this point that Chris Tolworthy's interesting FF site says that, "Events stopped having consequences. Characters stopped having pasts."
I don't know if this was intentional or if all these examples are even in support of the same thing. Certainly Amazing Spider-Man and Hulk show very different directions, both in terms of art and story. And despite Inferno, Chris Claremont's X-Men continue down an independent path. I also take a different view than Chris Tolworthy in the sense that at least as long as Mark Gruenwald occupies the Executive Editor role, Marvel history still matters. But there's definitely a number of things converging here. The first is indeed Gruenwald's reverence for past stories and classic characters, which while admirable could be seen as too backward looking to allow for new development (my example, of course, is Gruenwald forcing Captain Marvel out of the Avengers' leadership role in favor of Captain America). The second is Tom DeFalco's reverence for Silver Age sensibilities, which is similar to Gruenwald's interests but different in important ways. And probably the most important point is that at this point Marvel is owned by people that have bigger expectations from the comics than to just make money (which is all Martin Goodman or even Cadence really wanted). These guys want to see year over year profit increases and, most importantly, want to be able to exploit (i don't necessarily mean that word in a negative sense) the intellectual property that they own in the large markets of film and television. And that's where their interests converge with DeFalco and Gruenwalds (especially DeFalco's), in the sense that the more the comics are in a classic status quo that casual fans and non-comic readers might recognize, the more it's possible to translate them into other media.
Again, is any of that really relevant to the changes that were forced on Englehart? Probably not explicitly, anyway. Despite the innovation that Englehart touts, changing the Thing into a weirder and harder-to-draw version of himself wasn't really all that big a change, and for the most part the stories in this book haven't been all that innovative. Fun explorations of the Cat People and other weird aspects of Marvel, sure. But instead of groundbreaking, i think it's fair to say the stories recall Englehart's past efforts from the 1970s like the similar continuity explorations of the Celestial Madonna storyline that consolidated all the aspects of the Kree and Skrulls. We know that sales on this title were plummeting, and that Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman returning to the group was inevitable. It also seems like Englehart might have had more latitude to innovate than he seems to have thought; for example, it may seems like we've fully regressed to the original Fantastic Four, but our "Thing" is a woman. If he had chosen to work with the editors instead of plotting out the poison pill of the upcoming storyline, he could very well have had free reign to explore the logistics of Reed and Sue trying to keep their promise to raise Franklin better while still being in the FF, for example. After using the John Harkness pseudonym on Daredevil #237 and abandoning his run on that series for what seems like a very minor slight, i'm inclined to think that he simply resents any changes from outside influences, and editors should have some say over the direction of the series.
In any event, though, regardless of all of the above, these were a fun set of issues. If i have any (more!) complaints it's that the Keith Pollard/Romeo Tanghal combination seems to result in some thin looking art. Good storytelling but sometimes some not-so-good looking characters and weak lines.
Quality Rating: B
Chronological Placement Considerations: The FF's cameo in Thor #405 can really only fit in during this run, and the MCP have it in #327 after the Frightful Four have fled. I'm not sure She-Hulk's comments about Byrne should matter for placement purposes; he could have been bothering her before he started the new She-Hulk series. Some time passes between this arc and the next one, but no generic FF appearances should appear in between.
Continuity Insert? N
My Reprint: N/A
Inbound References (4): showAron the Watcher, Dragon Man, Franklin Richards, Human Torch, Hydroman, Invisible Woman, Klaw, Lyja the Lazerfist, Mr. Fantastic, Ms. Marvel (Sharon Ventura), She-Hulk, Thing, Titania, Wizard
"Some time passes between this arc and the next one, but no generic FF appearances should appear in between."
Posted by: Michael | September 17, 2014 9:55 PM
I meant "Cap should know Hercules is alive".
Posted by: Michael | September 17, 2014 10:19 PM
The question of how Ben's clothes survived the destruction of the Baxter Building is probably resolved by a back-up story in one of the FF Annuals, which reveals how several of the FF's belongings survived...
As for the "Fra-ank" conversation, I didn't see that as Franklin not accepting the Ben/Alicia split--I saw that as Franklin hoping that Ben and Shary had gotten together. After all, the last time Franklin saw Ben (back in #307) he had basically blurted out that Ben didn't have to be sad about Alicia and Johnny anymore, because now he could love Shary.
Posted by: Dermie | September 17, 2014 11:58 PM
Dermie, you're right about the Fra-ank comment. I've revised my comments about that. This is all leading to the abandoned plot about Frank manipulating people's relationships that we'll see in a dream sequence pretty soon.
As for the FF's belongings, i thought it was just significant artifacts and i thought they were all returned in that issue, not secretly inserted beforehand, but we'll be getting to Fantastic Four annual #22 soon. Update: Oh wait, on the second point i see that the story takes place right after FF #299.
Posted by: fnord12 | September 18, 2014 8:07 AM
FNORD, you have Reed and Susan joining here as part of the FF. Did they ever officially leave the Avengers?
Posted by: clyde | September 27, 2014 8:07 PM
Your question about their Avengers membership will be answered when i cover Avengers #305.
Posted by: fnord12 | September 27, 2014 11:50 PM
"Reed crankily assumes this is because the current team hasn't been maintaining it according to his instructions,"
Wouldn't he assume that now that he is no longer a part of the FF that his card would be de-activated or at least not give him the same security clearance? That sounds exactly like something he would do in the exact same situation.
Posted by: clyde | July 9, 2015 2:52 PM
I love how Ben apparently had time to dye his hair blonde before talking to She-Hulk and then dye it back.
As for the Wizard, dude, you're not as smart as Reed or Doom. Get over it.
And I never realized that Uatu was well-known enough that the Wizard could threaten to tattle to him. I suppose there might have been an in-story part of these issues that I don't know about, not having read them. But Uatu watches all. Wouldn't he have already known? Or is he too busy hosting What If?
Posted by: Erik Beck | August 26, 2015 6:56 PM
It's explained that Aron has a way of hiding from other Watchers.
Posted by: Michael | August 26, 2015 11:03 PM
Ben becoming human again (fir an extended period of time) isn't "significant"?
Also Ben's "human" form seemed to have gotten a lot more handsome since the olden days.
Posted by: Jon Dubya | October 19, 2016 3:59 PM
One possible reason it's the Empire State Building: "Is this the top floor?" "Yeah, number one-oh-two!" As in: the end of the Lee/Kirby run...
Posted by: Douglas | March 28, 2017 6:56 PM
Comments are now closed.
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