Friday, 2 October 2015

Essential Fantastic Four volume 9

Essential Fantastic Four volume 9 consists of issues #184 to #207 (#189 is a reprint with only the cover included here) plus Annuals #12 & #13. The writing sees the end of Len Wein's run and the start of Marv Wolfman's with other contributions by Roger Slifer and Bill Mantlo and the annuals are by Wolfman and Mantlo. The art sees the end of George Pérez's run and the start of Keith Pollard's with other issues by Sal Buscema and John Buscema and the annuals by Bob Hall and Sal Buscema.

This is a volume with quite epic ambitions but also one which seeks to explore just what the four's purpose is in sticking together and doing all that they do. It's a lofty approach that only grows once Marv Wolfman takes over from Len Wein but it reflects the problem this series has traditionally had in that too many creators can't find much to do and so retreat to the safety of rehashing things from the Lee-Kirby run. But a series has to look forwards not back and this one well and truly succeeds.

It's not always smooth sailing though. The series is hit by some especially bad schedule problems such that issue #188 ends on a dramatic moment and isn't properly continued until issue #191. In the meantime we get first a reprint (not actually included here) and then an "Album Issue" as Ben recalls some key moments in the four's history, including several past break-ups. Given the situation the four is currently in this retrospective feels more appropriate than the average recap fill-in issue but it's still treading water at a critical moment. Moreover, a two issue delay would have been extremely unhelpful when these were originally released but even here they contribute to a slowing of critical momentum. However once this problem is passed the series experiences an extremely smooth changeover of writers with Wolfman almost effortlessly carrying on from Wein and taking the four from a difficult break-up to an eventual reunion that feels natural and not at all forced.

The annuals are a sea of calm amidst the changes all around them though their placing does create a few small problems. Both are put between issues #201 and #202 but the first annual is presumably set earlier on during calmer times for the four - but there isn't an obvious place to put it despite it being written by the series's regular writer. The second annual is by another writer and so can be more forgiven for not quite fitting into the regular events - it does its best to explicitly set itself directly after the four reforms in issue #200 but issue #201 starts out in Latveria before bringing the four home and there isn't an obvious moment to detour into the events of the annual. It's an early example of the problems of a policy that tries to rigidly place all issues in publication order clashing with the aim of ongoing storylines in the regular titles. The annuals themselves are an interesting mix. The first one sees an adventure with the Inhumans where astonishingly the villain of the piece isn't Maximus for once. Instead the Inhuman antagonist is Thraxon, who has been given temporary powers by the Sphinx. What seems like a typical piece of annual inconsequentialness, although reasonably well written, will turn out to be more significant later on in the volume. The second annual is a more typical piece that almost could have come from file but for scenes showing the four getting themselves back into business. Otherwise we get a tame tale of the Mole Man kidnapping blind and ugly people and giving them an alternative life underground where they are accepted, a life that some actually accept. It's a reminder of how not everyone finds it easy in life but the option of just dropping out and setting up an alternate civilisation isn't a terribly enviable alternative.

Over in the regular series much of the first half of the volume is driven by events stemming from Reed's loss of his stretching powers and Franklin's & Agatha Harkness's kidnapping, both at the end of the last volume. It's quite a character arc for Reed as he faces up to situations in which he feels helpless but still has to find a solution, starting with an attack by the Eliminator, an armoured being who shows up at Agatha Harkness's mansion with the task of eliminating all traces of her time in the outside world. The search takes the four to New Salem, a settlement hidden in the mountains ruled by witches led by the fearsome Nicholas Scratch. Scratch has assembled a team of warriors known as Salem's Seven, made up of Brutacus, Gazelle, Hydron, Reptilla, Thornn, Vakume and Vertigo. Upon returning to New York we get another invasion of the Baxter Building, this time by Klaw and the Molecule Man, the latter trying to obtain a body of his own. In the process he possesses Reed's, to terrifying effect. Reed fights for control but afterwards feels that without his powers he has become a weak and inefficient member of the four who is vulnerable to being used by villains so opts to resign. Sue declares she will go with him and with no obvious replacements the four are dissolved.

As the album issue reminds us, this is not the first time one or more of the four have quit. But rather than someone storming off in a moment of anger or a misunderstanding driving people apart, this fracture has been steadily built upon. For all the apparent weaknesses of other team members, Reed's stretching powers have often seemed the least important part of the four with his intelligence being a much more significant role. Having him drop aside immediately upon being depowered would have felt odd and he does initially try to use science to compensate, reactivating his old metallic extensions from a previous time when he lost his powers. But overall he finds himself weakened in mind as well as body and ultimately chooses to not be a burden to the others. And critically the four don't formally reassemble as a group for many issues to come. A reunion is teased in what was clearly intended to be the next issue when Ka-Zar's old foe the Plunderer tries to steal the four's equipment when the Baxter Building is shut down, but despite everyone responding to Reed's flare it's only a temporary respite.

We then get a series of solo~ish tales of individual members of the team who gradually find themselves drawn back together. So Johnny goes car racing in the desert and catches up with Wyatt Wingfoot again, only to face off against the Texas Twister who has been hired to kidnap him by an unnamed person. Ben returns to space piloting, taking up a job with Nasa where the space shuttle programme suffers sabotage and interference by Diablo, who is using Darkoth, an old friend of Ben's who was framed and then mutated by Doctor Doom. Sue goes back to acting, getting a role in a Hollywood picture but finds the studio is still owned by Namor the Sub-Mariner, who has left Atlantis in horror at the way his people have virtually deified him but his kingdom deploys a group of robots called the Retrievers of Atlantis to take him home and the incident makes him reconsider his position. Reed takes up scientific work for the government without realising which one and that he's helping a foe with a plan to take over the world.

These tales allow each member of the four to shine some more without having to share too much space with the others, a particular useful period as the main focus of the storyline falls upon Reed. The others find themselves getting ever strong and more powerful, particularly Sue who is now really using her forcefields to maximum effect. It's all good character building in the run up to the anniversary issue. There are various humorous asides throughout the run, with the Impossible Man prominent at first as he pops up (sometimes literally) in a succession of issues as he tries to understand the world around him, most notably movies. Most of the time these are comical asides but they do reach a more serious point when confronting Klaw as the Impossible Man duplicates the villain's sonic horn and the use of the two weapons causes a sonic feedback boom. Otherwise the Impossible Man is generally an irritation and eventually he takes the hint, only to reappear in Hollywood and pester everyone until Sue reads him the Riot Act.

Reunion eventually comes but surprisingly it's staggered and facilitated by Doctor Doom. Capturing first Reed and then the others, he proceeds to demonstrate his perceived superiority by finding a way to restore Reed's stretching powers, but the inadvertent resurrection of the Red Ghost puts a spanner in the works. However the process allows for a minor modification to the four's origin to explain why only they and the Red Ghost have gained powers from cosmic rays and not the countless others who have now flown into space. Meanwhile Doom is planning a master plan to simultaneously gain Latveria greater diplomatic acceptance, take control of the United Nations and seemingly step away from ruling Latveria, leaving it to his previously unseen son whom he plans to transfer the four's powers to. With the other three captured, Reed embarks on a bold solo mission into Latveria where he joins with rebels following Zorba, the legitimist pretender to the throne, where they attack and discover the truth about Doom's son.

This all builds up to issue #200, one of the first anniversary issues to be double-sized. And appropriately it has a showdown between Reed and Doctor Doom, with the former demonstrating that stretching is no silly throwaway power that can't make a difference. It's a strong battle, augmented by the other three rushing to stop the rest of Doom's plan, and really gets into the heart of the hatred between the two men, showing Reed in all his glory. This issue set a marker for double-sized anniversary specials that contain big moments and by having the formal reunification of the four, a triumph over their arch enemy and the conclusion of a long-running storyline it certainly sets a high standard for everything that was to follow.

The remaining issues in the volume start off as something of an anti-climax, beginning with another attack in the Baxter Building almost as soon as they've reoccupied it, followed by a team-up with Iron Man as they confront the cause of the attack, Quasimodo. Then there's an encounter with a young mutant whose powers create twisted doppelgangers of the four but also showing how they help with the small problems as well as the galactic ones. Then the final few issues see an interesting split in the team as Reed, Sue and Ben go off into space but Johnny stays on Earth. Given the timing it's tempting to wonder if this was a reaction to the late 1970s cartoon that used the first three but replaced Johnny with a robot called Herbie as the rights to Johnny had been sold elsewhere. Herbie doesn't appear in these issues but otherwise it seems the most likely reason for the split. The first three go off into space to help Adora, ruler of Xander, to see off an attack by the Skrulls. It's a different angle to the same storyline from the last issues of Nova and once again an Essential volume ends partway through the storyline, with the three's spacecraft suddenly meeting that containing Nova, the Sphinx and other characters. Meanwhile on Earth Johnny feels he should complete his education but finds he no longer impresses women around him and is too much of a celebrity. Soon he is invited to study at Security College, apparently an institution for the children of the famous and important. However Johnny and a guest-starring Spider-Man soon discover sinister operations are being undertaken by the Monocle, using the students as tools.

This volume is slightly weakened by being open-ended at both ends, especially as it is now the final Essential Fantastic Four volume, but it shows both respect for what has come before and imagination to build upon the foundations for strong new tales. The build-up to issue #200 is carefully handled and allows the series to delve into the four both as individuals and as a group, reaffirming what holds them together. This is a generally good volume but let down by ending midway through a big storyline with seemingly no resolution.

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