Friday, 12 June 2015

Essential Fantastic Four volume 6

Essential Fantastic Four volume 6 contains issues #111 to #137. Bonus material includes the cover of the reprint Marvel Treasury Edition #21 and early versions of the covers for issue #130 & #131. The writing starts off with the tail end of Stan Lee's run with a brief interregnum by Archie Goodwin before runs by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway. Most of the art is by John Buscema with individual issues by Ross Andru and Ramona Fradon.

This volume sees the final regular work on the series by Stan Lee but it's a somewhat stunted exit. His continuous run ends at issue #114 midway through the Over-Mind story with issue #115 being scripted over a Lee plot. Then after a very brief run by Archie Goodwin there's an issue by Roy Thomas that seems to be the start of his run, only for Lee to return for another six issues to produce sequels to one of the best known stories and one of the least known. It's all rather tame for the ending of the last of the Four's creators. This volume shows the series in the early years of the 1970s when the onus was on the book to find a way forward in the new decade rather than simply rehashing old glories. It also had to demonstrate it could survive without either of the creators though there's an element of the original run remaining in the form of inker Joe Sinnott.

What is particularly noticeable throughout the volume is an increase in the soap opera element of the series with concerted attempts to not just retell the same old stories but to also move forward. Ben and Alicia may still remain an item throughout, but Reed and Sue's marriage reaches such strains from his overprotective attitude that midway through she leaves him, taking Franklin with her. Later she's inadvertently reunited with the others due to Dragon Man kidnapping her and Franklin on the orders of Gregory Gideon, but Reed is knocked unconscious and Sue refuses to stay around until he recovers, lest it causes more problems. The word "divorce" may not appear but it's a pretty bold for the series to take two people who at this time are not just the leading couple of the Fantastic Four but the first couple of the whole Marvel universe and risk breaking them up for good. It's clear that Sue and Reed still mean a huge amount to each other, with Sue shown thoughtful and pensive in every glimpse of her during her time away whilst Reed takes the loss badly and is almost permanently saddened by it all. But it's also a move that exposes the risks of having too much soap opera in a title that is still nominally aimed at children, even though a good chunk of the readership was now growing up with the title. Here comes the clash of realism and escapism. Relationships fail. Marriages don't always last. Parents do split up. Some children have never known their parents to be together (Franklin looks young enough to fit this). All these are clearly true and a part of modern day life. But does that make it wise to explore them in escapist literature? It's easy to see why some readers were alienated at the time - future FF writer Mark Waid has spoken of how close to home this hit. I'm lucky in that I've never experienced this myself but within this volume at least it feels like a souring of the fairy tale of Reed and Sue. The volume ends with them still apart so there's no great triumph of hope or attempt to show there is light for children in the same position as Franklin.

Also broken up in this volume, though it's not as advanced, is the relationship between Johnny and Crystal. She has been back amongst the Inhumans for some time now due to her lack of immunities, but is briefly reunited with the others when Diablo uses her to pose as a goddess to conquer a Latin American country, Terra Verde, but it's only a brief reunion as she must soon return home. When Johnny eventually tracks her down to the Great Refuge he discovers that she has since met Quicksilver and fallen for him. Johnny's initial reaction is anger and fury but after he and Quicksilver have been forced to work together to save Crystal's life he takes her final decision calmly in a strong scene that shows how he has matured from his days as a young hot head. Also underlining how things are moving on is a scene where he tracks down his old girlfriend Dorrie Evans in the hope of resuming things, only to discover that she is now married and has two children. It's all a reminder of how life marches on and people are not like toys who can simply be put down and picked up from the same spot years later.

Ben starts the volume having stormed out in anger having seemingly had his personality altered by the latest attempt to restore him to human form. For a time he can change back and forth at will, but after the process is reversed by Reed with the intention of getting it right this time, Ben instead smashes the machinery and stays in his monster form, perhaps having decided he prefers this form as it is accepted by Alicia. A brief visit to a parallel universe reinforces the situation for him as he sees a world where it was Reed and not him who became the Thing and is even lonelier. The Four gain a new member for the time being in the form of Medusa, who takes Sue's place on the team and quickly slots in with her power to manipulate her hair proving a more visually noticeable power than invisibility. There's clearly a period of unseen time in which she trains with the others so that they're often able to co-ordinate with one another at critical moments.

On a more mundane level is the ongoing conflict with Walter Collins, the owner of the Baxter Building who is getting ever more angry with the Four's activities and the dangers and damage that they attract. He keeps threatening eviction but the Four repeatedly evade his attempts to serve notice on them, often with humorous results.

As for the adventuring, there's some revisiting of old themes but time and again they feel like diminished remixes of former glories. Early on we get another fight between the Thing and the Hulk but it isn't as spectacular as before. Stan Lee's great final epic is another Galactus story which this time features his new herald, the angel-like android Gabriel the Air-Walker. The Silver Surfer is also involved in what feels like an attempt to have the final word on Galactus but when the main battle comes in an amusement park it's all too clear how far the ambitions of the series have fallen. Lee's final story sees the return of the mysterious Monster from the Lost Lagoon but again it's a morality tale about not judging by appearances. It feels a very strange ending for his writing.

The first issue after the very final Lee one sees a retelling of the Four's origin, leading into another confrontation with the Mole Man who has now subdued and enslaved his rival Tyrannus. It's a rare attempt to give the Mole Man a more humane side with a partner, Kala, but she turns out to have her own plans. The Frightful Four return with a new fourth member in the form of the warrior woman Thundra, who twice proves a match for the Thing. Another Inhumans storyline seems to be breaking beyond tradition and offering a new menace in the form of an uprising by the Alpha Primitives of the Great Refuge, with their guilt powering the android Omega, but the whole thing falls down with the revelation that Omega was created by Maximus. Is it not possible to tell another type of Inhumans story? One of the more surprising returns is the businessman Gregory Gideon who is now dying of radiation poisoning and seeking a radical cure for both him and his son, utilising the android Dragon Man to capture the Four. A more curious tale comes in the aftermath as one of Gideon's subordinates is empowered by first an energy wave and then by the Shaper of Worlds from the Incredible Hulk. Slugger Johnson's imagination feeds the Shaper who transforms the world into a bizarre version of 1950s culture and politics with the Four split up amongst the various factions in this strange new world.

The big new foe of the volume is the Overmind, whose mental powers steadily take control of many figures of authority in order to undermine the Fantastic Four and conquer first the planet and then the whole universe. At one point even Reed succumbs to the control of the Overmind and the rest of the Four are left searching for another brilliant mind to fight him with. They find it in the form of Doctor Doom, making for a memorable extra sized issue which also supplies this volume's cover.

One of the more politicised stories comes in issue #119 as Ben and Johnny go to the fictional African country of Rudyarda to rescue T'Challa, who has briefly adopted the name of "Black Leopard" due to the political connotations of the name "Black Panther". Rudyarda itself is a thinly disguised blend of South Africa and Rhodesia - fictional parodies from this era often did not stop to separate out the two countries - where they clash with Klaw. But the real villain is not the master of sound but the country's racial segregation, shown starkly. The story ends with a message of hope as the three face the separate exits to the prison and Ben simply tears down the wall so all three can walk over the signs together, in a moment that seems to have impacted on the prison guards. It's certainly a bold story for its era but it shies away from explaining just why the Four aren't stopping to overthrow the entire system of apartheid.

Overall this volume shows some signs of promise but not many. There's too much willingness to wallow in concepts from the Lee-Kirby run with both Lee himself and other writers at times presenting almost reruns of old stories instead of trying to take them forward. On the other hand there's a real conscious effort to move the characters forward even though the decision to push Reed and Sue's marriage into separation is somewhat questionable given both their status as Marvel's first couple and the traditional target audience in this era. Still the volume shows the series trying to haul its way forward into a new era and for that it must be commended.

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