Friday, 19 June 2015

Essential Fantastic Four volume 7

Essential Fantastic Four volume 7 is made up of #138 to #159, including #154 which contains a reprint of a Human Torch story from Strange Tales, plus Giant-Size Super-Stars #1 which morphs into Giant-Size Fantastic Four #2 to #4 and Avengers #127. Bonus material includes early versions of the covers for issues #141, #155 and #156. Approximately the first half of the regular series plus the first two Giant-Sizes are written by Gerry Conway. The rest of the regular series is mainly by Roy Thomas with individual issues by Len Wein and Tony Isabella, the reprint by Stan Lee with a framing sequence by Wein, the remaining Giant-Sizes by Gerry Conway & Marv Wolfman and Len Wein & Chris Claremont, and the Avengers issue by Steve Englehart. The art on the regular and Giant-Sizes is nearly all by John Buscema, Rich Buckler and Ross Andru with the reprint by Dick Ayers with the framing sequence by Bob Brown and the Avengers issue by Sal Buscema. That's a lot of creators and so there's a separate post for some of the labels.

This volume contains the first four issues of Giant-Size Fantastic Four although the first comes under the awkward full cover title of Giant-Size Super-Stars featuring Fantastic Four. These are mostly written by the contemporary writer on the regular series but none of them tell particularly critical adventures and instead we get a series of standalone tales. Given the nature of the contemporary comics market with nearly all distribution still being via newsstands where not all titles were carried this may have been a wise choice in 1974 (indeed I've heard it claimed that none of Marvel's Giant-Size issues made it over to the United Kingdom back in the day), and even today Marvel's digital releases on Comixology are often very patchy when it comes to both annuals and Giant-Size series. But in a collected edition with them all contained together it feels like an opportunity missed. We get another fight between the Thing and the Hulk, an odd tale in which the Fantastic Four's postman Willie Lumpkin stumbles into a time machine and accidentally changes the course of history under the machinations of the mysterious Tempus, and a battle with the alien Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (nothing to do with a later group by the same name). The final issue in this volume seems to be an attempt to introduce a character who will go on to be a big star in some other series, and even has Professor X show up at the end to use his powers to bring about a resolution. However Jamie Madrox the Multiple Man doesn't come across as a very interesting character in spite of a back story that establishes him as the ultimate loner, forced to grow up in isolation and trapped in a full body suit designed to contain his powers. It's easy to spot the influence of Chris Claremont on what I think is his earliest ever work on any of the X-Men characters and concepts, although it's a rather indirect link given that Multiple Man wouldn't make it into the All-New X-Men and would stay on the periphery for many years. Overall these Giant-Sizes show themselves up as glorified annuals by another name and at a greater frequency.

The issues in this volume covers most of the period of Medusa's membership of the Four. And it can't be truthfully be said she makes the greatest impact. Part of the problem is that her powers operate in a way that is far too similar to Reed's, thus rendering her somewhat redundant at times. She shows a strong sense of daring and character and is clearly a far cry from the weak shrinking violets that so many of the female heroes of the Silver Age had been portrayed as. Yet for all this and her friendliness with the rest of the Four she just never quite feels as though she truly belongs. Part of it is the lack of a direct history with the others that makes her a natural part of the family. She may be the sister of Johnny's ex (although in one story she's relegated to being one of the many cousins) but that isn't a particularly direct link and not much is ever made of it. Nor is her role as an emissary for the Inhumans in the humans' world. Instead she's left as someone who may care for the others - in particular she is quite supportive of Reed throughout his marriage difficulties - but doesn't really seem to fit in with them. When at one point she declines to free the others from a prison and instead rushes off it actually feels like she could have turned traitor, but this doesn't feel like it was the plan all along. All in all her presence doesn't make the greatest of impacts and it's easy to see why her time in the Four is so easily forgotten even though she is around for nearly thirty regular issues, only leaving in the final pages of this volume.

In terms of character development Johnny and Ben are left largely to their own devices for much of the volume, perhaps because both were appearing regularly in team-up books that gave more scope for in-depth exploration. Johnny does get a little attention here as he faces up to fears about being increasingly outdated in his look and chat-up lines, but right at the end he's reunited with Valeria, a lady from the Fifth Dimension whom he met in one of the earliest of his 1960s solo tales back in Strange Tales.

But it's Reed and Sue who have the greatest development throughout this volume. It begins with them still separated but with the hope that they might reconcile soon. However hope is dashed when Annihilus captures not only the current Four but also Sue, Franklin and Agatha Harkness. In the course the adventure the insect (who is now given an origin) tries to use Franklin to tap into a great power source but it goes wrong and Franklin's power levels start building up towards dangerous levels. Facing the prospect of a psychic blast that could wipe out all life in the Solar System, Reed grabs an untested device in the form of a gun and blasts his own son. The effect turns off Franklin's power and his mind, rendering him a vegetable.

To say Sue is furious is an understatement. She is not convinced by all Reed's talk about the danger. All she sees is a man who treated his son with the same indifference that he might treat a gas leak. And she's not alone, with both Ben and Johnny also turning away in disgust though both are soon drawn back into the Four when Doctor Doom kidnaps them all as part of his scheme to destroy almost all free will on the planet. Then the two plus Medusa encounter yet another race in the Himalayas that are the supposed basis for the myth of the Yeti, with a would-be tyrant called Ternak seeking conquest. But Sue is not part of this and continues her absence from the team. Instead she finds shelter with Namor the Sub-Mariner and files for divorce from Reed. The moment when the others find Reed sunk into a chair holding the formal court summons is a chilling opener to a tale in which they think they're out to rescue Sue from being held against her will, only to find she has chosen Namor instead. The Frightful Four minus one provide a distraction before Namor summons sea monsters from the depths to seemingly attack the surface world once more. In battle Sue slowly realises how she and Reed truly feel about one another and reconcile. Unbeknownst to either of them the whole thing was staged by Medusa, Namor and Triton to get the couple back together, with Namor having no real intention of conquest.

Although she is back with Reed, Sue does not immediately rejoin the Four. Franklin is cured when at the wedding of Crystal and Quicksilver Ultron attacks through the body of Omega the Ultimate Alpha and uses a weapon to try to destroy minds but instead restores the child's who immediately destroys the android. It's a bit contrived but works to make issue #150 a happy ending issue all round as Crystal marries the man of her choice (hence the crossover with Avengers) and Johnny accepts it all. But Sue doesn't truly return until another adventure with the Inhumans when the Human Torch's old foe Xemu from the Fifth Dimension conquers the Inhumans as a launching point for wider conquest and destruction. Reed tells Sue to stay behind and the others rush to free the Inhumans. But salvation comes only because Sue stores away and shows great initiative in using Xemu's equipment to her own advantage, making a striking return to the Four as a much stronger and more powerful character than before. But just as one returns another leaves with Medusa opting to return to the Inhumans and especially Black Bolt.

Elsewhere we get another Silver Surfer saga that follows up on threads from his own original series with the revelation that Shalla Bal is on Earth and under the control of Doctor Doom. Once more Doom seeks the Surfer's Power Cosmic only this time he transfers it into a new Doomsman robot. The tale has a bittersweet ending as the Surfer leaves believing "Shalla Bal" to only be a Latverian woman who looks like her and was given false memories, but we learn that in fact those are the false memories and Mephisto has once again used Shalla Bal to torment the Surfer. With the story ending with Shalla Bal on Earth with false memories and nobody out of her, the Surfer, the Four or Doom any the wiser, it's a surprisingly downbeat ending and the story is not followed up here.

Other past characters return in various tales with the Miracle Man attacking Wyatt Wingfoot's tribe and gaining power beyond mere hypnotism, or an epic exploring Thundra's origins in rival alternate futures, one dominated by women called Femizons and the other by men under the rule of Mahkizmo, with the male members of the Four dismissed as week and "effeminate". The two worlds are soon set to rights but in the process Thundra is left in our time as an anomaly. Deadline problems lead to an issue with a substantial flashback to an old Strange Tales adventure in which Johnny and Ben battled the "Mystery Villain" whose identity was painfully obvious (maybe the real mystery was why anyone thought it would fool any readers). Now in the present day someone else has adopted the identity.

Overall this volume is a mixed bag. It may show a lot of the Bronze Age traits such as trying to introduce The Next Big Thing and instead debuting a rather forgettable foe, rehashing earlier adventures, having auxillary issues that are unnecessary to the main saga or the dreaded reprint fill-in, but there's more as well. There's actually a real sense of direction to Reed and Sue's story as they come to learn more about both each other and themselves. There's also a real attempt to actually mix up some the main ancillary elements of the series to present strong new takes on them instead of just retelling the same old tales. Although it's by no means a rise to past glories, this volume shows the series making a concerted effort to pull itself forward.

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