Friday, 26 June 2015

Essential Fantastic Four volume 8

Essential Fantastic Four volume 8 contains issues #160 to #183 (#180 is a reprint with only the cover included here) plus Annual #11 and the crossover issues Marvel Two-in-One #20 and Annual #1. Most of the writing, including the annual and the Marvel Two-in-One issues, is by Roy Thomas with one issue co-written with Gerry Conway and another scripted by Bill Mantlo. The penultimate issue is co-plotted by Len Wein, Jim Shooter and Archie Goodwin, and scripted by Mantlo who writes the final issue. The art is by a mixture of John Buscema, Rich Buckler and George Pérez, with Ron Wilson and Sal Buscema each contributing a couple of issues at the end. John Buscema draws the annual and Sal Buscema both the Marvel Two-in-One issues.

This volume covers a period in which the Thing now had almost a solo series in the form of Marvel Two-in-One, yet apart from the odd mention of one or other of his team-ups it's barely noticeable in the regular series. Instead the series operates as though this is the only place where significant developments happen to him. This is most noticeable when a succession of issues see Ben first temporarily ally with the Hulk against the rest of the team and then the result of prolonged exposure to the Hulk's gamma radiation causes Ben to revert to human form. Ben's loss of powers leads to his temporary replacement by perhaps the shortest lasting official membership of the team ever as Luke Cage, Power Man is taken on. Cage is around for such a short period of time, part of which is spent under the control of the Puppet Master and the rest with Ben still hanging around on the scene as the Four battle the Wrecker, making it impossible to assess either the new member's potential or the overall dynamic of the team. It's tempting to see this as just an extended advert for Power Man's own series, which often showed signs of being in danger saleswise. Meanwhile Ben finds being fully human again is not all he was expecting, with reduced strength and many people only interested in his monstrous form. However he is soon restored to active duty courtesy of a special exo-skeleton designed to mimic his rocky form, finally giving him a way to have both forms when he needs them without the awkward mental side-effects. Sadly for Ben this doesn't last too long with Galactus blasting him with a special energy that turns him fully into a monster once more. The only long term side-effect is that Ben's strength has been enhanced, as part of a general upscaling of the powers of some of the Four. He does start thinking about marrying Alicia, and there are hints that she wants children, but it doesn't come to much.

The main area where Marvel Two-in-One makes its presence known is in a crossover between both titles' annuals, even spilling over into an issue of the regular series. The whole piece is a convoluted epic built around time travel as a canister of adamantium is accidentally sent back in time to the Second World War, resulting in changes to history as the Germans win and conquer the United States. The canister gets cut in half by a time wedge, resulting in the whole Four first going back in time to team up with the Invaders and then Ben travelling back solo where he allies with the less well-known Liberty Legion. Both adventures present a variety of foes from the 1940s set titles, including a clash with Baron Zemo as we see how he was stuck under his hood whilst the Liberty Legion bring conflict with Master Man, U-Man and Brain Drain plus new foes Skyshark and Slicer. It's a good idea in principle and allows each half of the saga to stand more or less on its own. But the whole thing is let down by an ability to explain or understand just how time travel works with some of the saga implying that the events of the adventure has changed actual history albeit temporarily, other moments suggesting that it depicts part of what was always in the original history and other moments still suggesting that the 1940s elements actually took place in an alternate timeline and so explain why Captain America and Namor the Sub-Mariner in the present day have never remembered what happened. Any one of these approaches to time travel would be fine but when all three are thrown together it creates an incoherent mess that undermines a good attempt to bring together the heroes of different eras.

The other tale to noticeably indulge Roy Thomas's enthusiasm for pre-Silver Age Marvel characters is a curious two-parter in which the Four take on the Crusader, who turns out to be the grown up version of the early 1950s hero, Marvel Boy. But rather than a straightforward revival of the character to allow him to be used as a hero in the modern day, we instead get a strange story that instead turns him into a zealot driven by anger and revenge upon a bank that denied him a loan when the Uranians needed medication, thus preventing him from returning to Uranus in time to either save the civilisation from natural destruction or else to die with it. It seems that Thomas was aiming for a tale to contrast the black and white simplistic morality of the Golden and Atlas Ages with the more complicated superhero ethics that were developing strongly by the mid 1970s, as well as a more general look at fanaticism in the name of one's "father". But the problem is that he has never been one of the best polemical writers and so all the subtleties about the Crusader's approach to fighting crime in contrast to the Fantastic Four's (and they're far from the best heroes to use for such a contrast anyway, being more adventurers) are completely lost in favour of a tale of a seemingly indestructible fanatical foe. Marvel Boy's original adventures were only published for about a year, though were reprinted in the late 1960s and so he's not a hero whom it's easy to get excited about making it odd that he gets brought back this way only to be immediately killed off. It's also surprising that no effort is made to reconcile the civilisation on Uranus with the greater scientific knowledge of the planet that had developed in the intervening quarter of a century since the original tales. In 1950 it was possible to present other planets in the Solar System as being inhabited but by 1975 this was no longer credible.

One recurring theme in this volume is alternate Earths of one kind or another. At the start of the volume is a convoluted tale of Earth and two separate alternate dimensions that are all being pushed into a three-way conflict with each other by Arkon. One world is the Fifth Dimension, allowing Johnny to meet with Valeria once more, the other is the world where Reed became the Thing instead of Ben. It's a rather convoluted piece more notable for characterisation than for the conflicts, and presents a clear attempt to create a new Silver Surfer when Ben is travelling through space and encounters Gaard, an intergalactic ice hockey player complete with skates, stick and a puck, who serves as guardian of an interdimensional portal. The revelation that he is actually the Johnny Storm of the Reed-Thing's dimension, albeit unaware of his own identity, is an attempt at adding tragedy and familiarity but the character as a whole feels half-baked and it's easy to see why he is quickly forgotten.

A more substantial epic comes with an unusual starting point as a highly articulate golden gorilla called Gorr lands on Earth and lures the Four onto his spaceship to take them away. We soon learn he has solicited their aid because Galactus is seeking to consume Counter-Earth on the other side of the Sun, with only the High Evolutionary offering any meaningful resistance. Battling both Galactus himself and his current herald the Destroyer yields no ground until he accepts an offer to find an alternate populated world to consume providing that either its inhabitants voluntarily offer themselves up or the Four will select it for destruction. This leads to exploration of three possible alternate worlds, one being inhabited by a race of robots led by Torgo, the Thing's sparing partner from the world where the Skrulls operated like a 1920s gangster movie. Another world appears to be a parallel to medieval Earth as knights battle dragons but it turns out to be the Skrulls again, this time driving out the last of the indigenous population. Finally the third world appears barren and deserted but instead turns out to be Poppup, the home of the Impossible Man and his people with a single group mind, thus making the rest of the race willing to offer themselves up. But all is not well and Galactus suffers indigestion, and is then accelerated evolved into an energy form that no longer needs to eat. It's a curious twist to end the epic with but it shows an attempt to move forwards.

The return of the Impossible Man is the big surprise, since the original story had been exceptionally silly and it seemed as if all were trying to forget it. But now we get a somewhat slapstick issue as "Impy" roams through New York, eventually invading the Marvel Comics bullpen in the hope of starring in his own comic. It's a wonderfully anarchic piece that allows a tongue in cheek look at the Marvel office. However the Impossible Man then hangs around the Four for the rest of the volume in a tale that also sees both Thundra and Tigra show up and never really depart. The Impossible Man is best kept for one-off stories rather than an ongoing element.

The last issues in the volume put the team through multiple wringers as the Baxter Building gets taken over by the Frightful Four who are trying to recruit a new fourth member. They eventually find one in the form of the Brute - the Reed Richards of Counter-Earth who has inadvertently stowed away on the Fantastic Four's journey home. The rest of the Frightful Four are soon defeated but the Brute takes Reed's place and confines the real Reed to the Negative Zone. Reed's stretching power has been weakening before vanishing completely and so he is forced to survive by his wits and make a deal with Annihilus against a giant android controlled by the Mad Thinker, who has bizarrely found the ability to extend his power into the Negative Zone. Meanwhile the other Reed is trying to keep up the pretence on Earth but Sue has her doubts and they're confirmed by the different way this Reed kisses her. Sue has been growing ever stronger as a character, learning to use her forcefields for effective offensive action and seeing her power steadily increase in strength. It is thus a surprise only to the Brute that she proves the hardest of the Four to subdue. Reed's own nobility also triumphs through in the climax, impressing even his counterpart.

In general Johnny is the least used of the Four throughout this volume. After seeing Valeria a final time he tries updating his hair style and fashion sense in order to hit the singles bars, but the results are almost painfully comic. A long running though occasional thread sees him dating new character Frankie Raye but she is fearful of flame and panics whenever he flames on to go into action. There are hints at some great reason for this but she appears so infrequently that it becomes an irritation and with Thomas leaving just before the end there's a strong possibility it will not be resolved at all.

Apart from a few slips towards the end, this volume is quite strong. It demonstrates that it is possible to find new ways to handle the characters and their large ensemble cast whilst also adapting to the spirit of the times. This is the series at its best so far since the later Lee-Kirby years.

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