Friday, July 6, 2018

Fantastic Four #333

Superhero vs Superhero
Fantastic Four #333
Four vs. Four?

Part 7 of “Stop Hitting Yourself!”

“The Dream is Dead, Part Two”
Writer – John Harkness
Penciler – Rich Buckler
Inker – Romeo Tanghal
Letters – Bill Oakley
Colors – George Roussos
Editor – Ralf Macchio
Editor-in-Chief - Tom DeFalco
Mid-November 1989

1990 was a great year for the Fantastic Four. They got Walt Simonson on as writer for the entire year and penciler for a large majority of it. The few issues that he couldn’t draw were picked up by Rick Buckler, who produces consistently great superhero art and that last issue of the year was part one of a two parter with Art Adams drawing a bit different take on the famous foursome.

And they deserved to have such great writing talent working on their books because the prior years had seen such a downhill slide. Since Byrne left the title, a majority of the writing workload had fallen on Steve Englehart’s shoulders. He produced one of the worst versions of the FF by banishing Reed, Sue, and Franklin off to domestication and raising Ben Grimm to the role of leader. Ben was never the science whiz and his more direct approach to problems was indicative of the group’s new brainless manner of dealing with threats. 

Crystal joined the group as did Ben’s girlfriend of the moment Sharon Ventura (a/k/a the second Ms. Marvel a/k/a She-Thing) to round out the foursome.

The title became like a rudderless ship tossed about on the sea. Ben’s leadership amounted to a lot of “hit stuff hard”. Johnny was dating Ben’s old flame Alicia which made for at least once an issue the topic of how working on a team with Crystal, Johnny’s old flame was affecting him and how Ben was struggling with losing Alicia. Sharon had been assaulted and possibly raped by a bunch of men prior to joining, and every issue was a PTSD meltdown for her character. THEN things got weird as Ben mutated into a Sandslash spikey version of himself and Sharon got zapped into being a She-Thing…

What I’m saying is Englehart tried a lot of ideas out on the FF and none of them really worked. Too much muscle, too much relationship drama, not enough “family exploring the wilder side of science with their amazing superpowers” is what I’m getting at.

I cut off about five issues into his run. It just got too blamed silly.

What I didn’t know is that Englehart’s run would get so much worse. Issue 326 Englehart was ordered to bring back Reed & Sue returning the book back to status quo, which in his words were “the exact thing that had dragged the book down in the first place.” I see it more as being ask to undo all the crazy changes he had done to mess up the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine. Rather than put his name on these stories, Englehart opted to write them under the pseudonym of John Harkness. He then used a knocked out FF to explore through dreams what he had planned in the next few years arcs on a very small scale. Those ideas were also super dumb.

I find it odd to think that Englehart could get a comic book property so incredibly wrong and then ignore the sales numbers showing how disinterested the public was in his take on the team. I remember buying the FF at the time and recall my local shop’s back issue bin being full of his run while current copies cluttered up the shelves. He did a great disservice to the FF, but saw that putting it right wasn’t something he wanted associated with?

Well, there’s no accounting for taste.

The sad part of this is that Rich Buckler’s and John Buscema’s generally decent pencils went to waste on pages of story that were in service of characters emoting one-note cliché plot points every issue, when the book could have been doing…well, pretty much anything else.

This is the ending issue of Englehart’s mess, as he brought in a rogue Watcher named Aron as the heavy to complete his final eight issues. Aron is the son of Utau, Earth’s Watcher and the FF’s friend. He’s not content with just watching, however and decides to mettle in the FF’s affairs, first by organizing the Frightful Four against them and then by…

(Oh, this idea is so incredibly stupid)…

…knocking out the real Fantastic Four, placing them in tubes so he can watch their dreams, and replacing the five of them with evilish versions of themselves.

Yeah, he cloned the FF. And it turns out as badly as you’d expect that to go. His clones start to act like buttholes, pushing around New Yorkers to the point that we get these guys to come gunning for them…

That’s correct! Those are the Avengers of this era and they appear pretty peeved at the famous foursome. As the FF dismount their hidden elevator, let’s listen in and see if we can determine why…

Generally, they are being big buttheads. And even though Cap states they didn’t come to fight, we all know that’s where this is going to end up. You can consider this issue a bonus on top of a bonus. The FF versus the Avengers and the FF versus themselves. What a treat!

But first a few words from our clone troop that makes the Avenger’s collective lower jaw drop…


Follow this up with Sue brushing them off with a force field, and you can tell tempers are going to start to rise a bit. Dr. Strange doesn’t get an opportunity to finish his thought about what is wrong with the four, because…

…Cap finishes it for him and through the power of bad writing he guesses exactly what is up with them. Meanwhile the FF team is acting smugly superior to everyone,…

…which means they are asking for a Herc-led beatdown – starting NOW!

It’s not long until the battle is joined by the other Avengers, some of the results of which are a bit “out there”. I mean Thor would hand Reed his head if he tried that on him, even with Sue’s help. The jokey bit at the end about how gods reproduce and the rest of the dialogue could be written off as the clones not having fully developed. Or it could be Englehart’s limited writing skill. I’ll let you determine when the real FF finally enter the picture.

Which is about to happen, as abruptly as this battle ends because in the middle of punches being thrown all the FF clones disappear mysteriously.

And then, because this was possibly plotted on a cocktail napkin in the midst of a drunken revel, one of the FF’s ships takes off from the top of Four Freedoms Plaza…and the last two panels in this strip are reversed. By that I mean Cap says I(sic) “Don’t know why they’d need one after vanishing like that, but we can easily bring it down!” and then everyone looks up and She Hulk says “A Ship!” 

And why is a ship taking off from the FF’s building? The next scene is them appearing outside this mysterious cave in Canada. So who took off in the ship? We'll find that out much, much, Later!

Bah, it’s an Englehart story. Don’t attempt to apply logic or you will end up with massive headaches. Let’s just jump to finding out what has made the Fantasti-Clones gasp in shock?

It’s THEMSELVES! Fighting what appears to be the Frightful Four! And Dragon Man! In a cave! WTF?

These are the ACTUAL FF so at this point I’m going to have start calling our clone Four something to differentiate them once the inevitable battle starts. How about I just start each of their names with the word “Clone” so we can keep score?

So the FF pauses in battle enough to notice their clones have made an appearance in the cave. An important note: Ben Grimm has been transformed back into a human, so if you have trouble telling Things apart, just remember the REAL Ben Grim is the human guy.

And now begins one of the most confusing battles I have ever had to narrate. Let’s just take it slow okay?

We start with the real She-Thing punching out Titania and we learn the FF stuck the rogue watcher Aron into one of the freezing tubes they had been trapped in to put his evil plans on ice, as it were.

His pawns, the clone Four, appear to have a mind of their own, as evidenced by the clone Thing trying his best to kill She-Thing.

All I’ve got to say is: You KNOW we are in weird and unfamiliar territory if the Human Torch is the voice of reason in the crowd. (Chris Evans joke acknowledgement given)

Then we get this bit, where Torch said he freed himself form Aron’s freezing tube, then “arose” the others in the Fantastic Four (no, not a word when used that way), and then “afroze” Aron (I assume since we are making up our own words at this point in the story I can make up my own too.) What he’s getting at is that Aron was controlling the clone FF in part and now that he isn’t, they have free will. Given that they have free will, don’t they want to… you know, …be good guys?

Except the clone Reed doesn’t want to give up being Mister Fantastic, apparently.

And then the Wizard attacks and all hell breaks loose. First for a pair from the Frightful Four…

…and then fore everyone as Four versus Clone Four. And if you think you’re going to need some kind of scorecard, I’ve got news for you: you better make that thing in Excel because you’ve to so many punches being thrown by people from both sides that you’ll need a spreadsheet to keep track of it all.

Beginning with CloneThing trying to tear RealReed in two…

 …but is saved by the RealShe-Thing, who RealReed pull back after she clock’s CloneThing one in the noggin. RealReed tries to warn RealBen to watch out for CloneReed’s powers…

…but he’s a little late. Then we have CloneShe-Thing stepping to RealShe-Thing with what looks like CloneThing in reserve as RealReed dodges out of the way. No way that the battle starting here will get complicated. Nuh-uh. No way. (sheesh)

CloneTorch now flies at RealTorch, who let’s go with one blast while lecturing him. And in that bottom panel are three of the villains watching this horrible conflict (while possibly sitting in camping chairs and munching on popcorn, because why the heck not? As a villain, this would be like your most favorite day ever.)

But no! The Wizard steps in (for some very strange and unexplained reason) and gives RealShe-Thing an assist. Which results in CloneShe-Thing floating away like the worst party balloon ever and it allows RealReed to take out CloneThing and Clone Reed in a series of one panel maneuvers.

RealShe-Thing sees her opportunity and nabs floating CloneShe-Thing by her foot and hurls her at CloneTorch, taking him out of the fight. This leaves only the two Sues to fight to the finish, but this one could already be written off. The odds are overwhelmingly in RealSue’s favor.

And that's pretty much it.


So with that mess all tidied up, the only last bit is to stop the escaping villains (who helped immeasurably in their win) from getting away. Way to show gratitude, you guys.

And not to be one that argues with Mr. Fantastic here, but he states that both he and the Wizard are better than any of the CloneFour because the are both human. Uh, Reed. Your clone is genetically identical to you. Just because it was grown in a vat doesn’t change it’s DNA. Even someone of my intelligence level knows that.

Reed Richards is just a Clone Racist!

Anyway, Aron pops out of his tube and the real FF learn he was never helpless at all. He just wanted to watch the show between them and their clones. He was … (wait for it)… cloning around!

Get it! CLONING. Around.

Okay, I’m done now. You can come back.

So Aron sends the villains off one direction and the FF back to Four Freedoms Plaza, deciding to keep the clones and watch their dreams instead. 

While the FF wonder if their lives will get back to normal now (which…I’m just sayin’ here: isn’t this sort of tom-foolery normal for them anyway?), the East Coast Avengers finally catchup to the FF’s spaceship that took off. As it lands, a quinjet arrives carrying the West Coast Avengers and with this much power in one place, we the audience are sure there is going to be a big battle when the door of the FF’s transport opens…

…only for it to turn out to be Alicia Storm and Franklin Richards. Which is plenty odd since Alicia is blind and Franklin is around six or seven here. Also why are they flying out to Oakland, California…which is basically the middle of nowhere.

UGH! So we get trolled by Englehart as he exits the book. 

I remember how sad I was dropping the Fantastic Four book after Englehart started writing it. I grew up on them, having their first few adventures in one of those Pocket paperback books. I knew his ideas on how to change up the team were losers. I watched as they became hollow shadows of what they once were. It broke my heart to cancel it.

Englehart never got the heart of the FF. He didn’t understand why his changes didn’t work and he understood less when he was told to put those changes back. He couldn’t figure out the FF is a series of pieces that make a whole story. That every character balances out the others. He threw some random stuff at the wall and hope it stuck.

It did. It stuck out as the worst run up to that point in the FF’s long and storied history.

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