Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Some Fantastic Four previews

As is standard upon completing a full set of Essential volumes for a particular series, I now take a look at any later issues reprinted in other volumes. For the Fantastic Four there are actually quite a few such issues.

Fantastic Four #218 written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by John Byrne, reprinted in Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man volume 2

This is the second part of a crossover with Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man involving the Frightful Four, who on this occasion have recruited Electro as their fourth member. They have already captured Spider-Man and now the Trapster impersonates him in order to infiltrate the Baxter Building so the Frightful Four can take out the Fantastic Four one by one.

This is a fairly traditional plot but it was part of a brief fill-in run on the title. The Frightful Four have long offered potential for development but have always been somewhat constrained by the lack of a permanent fourth member. Electro may not be female but otherwise he fills the role quite well and has some history with the Sandman so more could have been done. However Spider-Man's presence in the story is almost needless as the Frightful Four are operating at night and could easily have impersonated him without his noticing it. The story is also noticeable for an attempt by Sue to evade capture by turning invisible away only to find her dressing gown doesn't disappear with her. Stories over the years have been rather inconsistent on how her powers affect her clothes when not made of unstable molecules. This issue is serviceable but very much a reworking of past stories.

Fantastic Four #286 written and drawn by "You Know Who" aka John Byrne, reprinted in Essential X-Factor volume 1

This is the second part of a mini-crossover with Avengers in order to set-up part of the new title X-Factor. The Fantastic Four (during this period the Thing had been replaced by She-Hulk) return to Earth where they temporarily staying with the Avengers and get caught up in the mystery of a capsule discovered in the harbour. Inside they find none other than Jean Grey, but with memories that stop several years earlier. Reed, Sue, Captain America and Hercules set out to try to find out what went wrong.

This is one of the most controversial issues in Marvel history, starting from an editorial rewrite that led to John Byrne taking his name off the issue and the controversy spread further due to a retcon rewriting one of Marvel's most famous stories, the "Dark Phoenix Saga". Adding to the mess was a conscious desire to keep X-Factor separate from the Uncanny X-Men for at least its first year and so the job of doing the heavy lifting to set up the new title fell upon other series. As a result an extra-long issue with no adverts feels less like a special issue of Fantastic Four and more of an intruder from another series; a point reinforced by the way both the Fantastic Four and Avengers know very little about the X-Men's adventures in recent years. There's the odd good moment such as Sue standing up to Reed in disagreement about taking Jean to her parents' home or using her invisible shield to neutralise Jean's telekinetic abilities without regard for those around her but overall this isn't really a Fantastic Four story. Its significance and controversy lies elsewhere.

Fantastic Four Vs the X-Men #1 to #4 written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Jon Bogdanove, reprinted in Essential X-Men volume 7

The Fantastic Four find themselves shaken to the core by the discovery of a journal suggesting Reed engineered the original cosmic rays accident to empower them by design. Reed suffers a major crisis of confidence and rejects the X-Men's pleas for help to save Shadowcat's life. Then Doctor Doom steps up and offers to perform the task.

This is very much the Fantastic Four's story with the X-Men largely serving a role that could have been performed by any group of heroes. We get a strong character focus that zooms in on one of the biggest holes in the four's origin, namely how could someone as smart as Reed fail to foresee the danger of cosmic rays and suggests it was all a plan, as well as exploration of Doctor Doom's ultimate goals. Reed's self-doubt and the others' uncertainties make for strong moments as the Four, including She-Hulk who tags along despite being in the Avengers these days, come to realise just how strong their bonds our. Franklin is used to maximum effect as his powers show a fear of what is to come whilst his innocence cuts through the suspicion and anger that rages amongst the adults. The story strains a little to credibly include She-Hulk, suggesting it originated in a period when it wasn't too clear just which four of the five regulars would be around for the long run, but otherwise it's a strong character study of Reed and, to a lesser extent, Doom. It's surprising that it took over a decade before Chris Claremont took on a regular run on Fantastic Four.

Fantastic Four Annual #23 (main story only) written by Walter Simonson and drawn by Jackson Guice, reprinted in Essential X-Factor volume 4 and also in Essential X-Men volume 10

This is the opening chapter of the "Days of Future Present" crossover that ran in the 1990 annuals for X-Factor, New Mutants and Uncanny X-Men, and serves as a sequel to one of the best known X-Men stories. The present day is visited by an adult Franklin Richards who is clearly undergoing some trauma and taking refuge in bringing happy childhood memories to life, including an earlier version of the Four living in the Baxter Building. After a confrontation with the alternate incarnation, plus an attack by robots from the future, the current Four track down the adult Franklin as he continues reliving his childhood. Meanwhile a mysterious robot is activated by his presence.

Here the focus is on establishing the adult Franklin and setting up the mysteries to be resolved in the later chapters so there's not too much plot advancement and a chunk of the chapter seems more concerned with contrasting the present day Four with the 1960s incarnation. The decision to do smaller annual crossovers was undoubtedly a good move for readers' wallets but a side effect is that the stories are now much tighter and so individual chapters are insubstantial on their own. This is very much the case here.

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