Monday, July 9, 2018

Fantastic Four #374

Superhero vs Superhero
Fantastic Four #374
Four vs. Four?

Didn’t we just do this one…?

“Suddenly…the Secret Defenders”
Writer – Tom DeFalco
Penciler – Paul Ryan
Inker – Danny Bulandi
Letters – Jack Morelli
Colors – Gina Going
Editor – Ralf Macchio
Editor-in-Chief - Tom DeFalco
March 1993

Here we are roughly three years after writer Steve Englehart left the FF in a climactic battle against themselves, doing the same tagline again, to a much different story result. Walt Simonson took over after Englehart vacated the spot, and for over a year we had some great tales as he applied humor to the Acts of Vengeance crossover, crafted tales of the troop traveling the timestream, and had them captured by skrulls, which created the need for a New Fantastic Four. More on that in a bit.

Sadly, Simonson’s tenure didn’t spread out as long as his time helming the thunder god Thor and the mantle passed to then Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco and artist Paul Ryan. Ryan’s a great penciler and DeFalco can turn in a decent tale now and again. Unfortunately, aside from some of the bigger “surprises” Defalco threw in, most of his handling of the four lead us further down the 90’s-extreme rabbit hole.

I mean that in a bad way.

The group ceased feeling like a family and more like a bunch of squabbling kids. Alicia was revealed to be a Skrull warrior named Lyja, which is a twist I like, had they only made Johnny deal with it like an adult and not a butt-hurt teenager. Lyja ended up imprisoned, then pregnant, then dead, then alive again and mad at Johnny for spurning her. Alicia was rescued from the Skrulls and a triangle developed between Ben, Alicia and now non-She-Thing Sharon Ventura. Sue made herself a slutty superhero outfit after embracing her inner Malice because of male sales targets more than character development. She also adopted a very combative and aggressive tone with Reed. Franklin reacted to the growing hostility between his parents with more frequent manifestations of his power, all of which were clamped down by governess Agatha Harkness before the child could alter reality…but they seemed to be getting MUCH stronger.

Most of these sound like intriguing story elements and many were okay additions to the FF canon. Some I felt less enthusiastic for, specifically Johnny running around like a sad sack, Reed and Sue’s frequent flare ups, and Ben cowardly running away from telling Sharon his feelings for the woman he’d loved for decades of FF history. These story beats just felt wrong.

I can’t rightly say that Simonson’s year was the last GREAT period for the FF. I haven’t invested the time in reading all 40 years of FF history I have amassed on that FF DVD I bought some time ago. But I can state that I haven’t read any single issue from any period thereafter that makes me think the FF book ever ascended to that level of storytelling again.

A true shame, because I grew up in a time when the torchbearers for the FF had been Lee/Kirby, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, and the stupendous contribution of John Byrne. To find the book stripped of all its magic is a shame.

At least there are a few things here to love, beginning with the appearance of two of the recently departed Steve Ditko’s best loved Marvel firsts taking a meeting together: Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.

Spider-Man is worried about his friend Johnny Storm, who is a wanted man at present. Three issues ago he was attacked by his ex-wife Lyja and two other alien baddies. While attempting to defeat them, he kinda accidentally blew up a university campus. Now he’s been on the run for two issues, mostly considering turning himself in and then finding reasons to break custody and bolt. In this issue Spider-man has decided to call on Doc Strange to see if there is a way to help his friend Johnny Storm, as Spidey and Torch have shared bunches of adventures.

He finds the mage a bit preoccupied…

…and while that house of cards building doesn’t seem very “sorcerer supreme”-ish, Doc Strange is using them to focus his dwindling magic reserves. I missed this era of Strange, so don’t look to me to explain what’s happening here.

However, the cards quite clearly show the Death card, which my Tarot friends will all point out means CHANGE not actual death, but Strange interprets it to mean DOOM! Which, this being a Fantastic Four book, isn’t that odd of a connection to make.

What follows is Strange’s astral form reassembling the “new Fantastic Four” from Simonson and Art Adams FF’s modern classic in issues 347-348 and sending them out to track down Johnny because the Torch’s fate is wrapped up in matters of cosmic import. I like this as a way to pull these disparate characters back into the book. I believe their original team-up to be a devilish mixture of Simonson’s wit and Marvel’s higher-ups looking for a way to boost the books sales figures by having every popular and hot character of the moment show up in the FF’s pages. Whether or not they hit their sales targets, the arc was pretty choice, it was fun to watch these characters interact, and Arthur Adams can make any book look good.

And not to say Paul Ryan can’t, we switch back to a scene that doesn’t look good – but it isn’t because of the art.

We have pee-a-boo Sue wearing possibly the most uncomfortable version of any costume ever while getting into a war of words with Reed over who is to blame for Johnny getting in trouble. Their backbiting and sniping rings like nails on a chalkboard for me.

As does Ben ducking out of giving Sharon Ventura a straight answer about how he feels about Alicia and her. This is called dragging a plotline out, and like in soap operas it can become frustrating since the audience already knows what his answer should be. Either subvert my expectations in a good way or just get on with dumping Sharon. Don’t drag your feet, DeFalco!

Franklin overhears his parents arguing and goes all “Damien” on Agatha Harkness. She’s barely able to contain the boy, but does citing that she can’t continue to do so. Perhaps it’s time to speak to his parents, woman?

Meanwhile, in Latveria…

Doc Doom has decided he wants to be all spikey and shiny because it’s the 90’s. Gray metal and classic Jack Kirby costumes don’t cut it in the 90’s, everyone has to be clone of Stryfe. We’re just lucky he didn’t end up changing his handle too. I can see a 90’s influenced Dr Doom deciding to call himself Doktar Duum! Because misspelling a word makes it cooler.

After his workers are finished, he casts them out so his Doombots can strap him in, although a full body reveal won’t happen until next issue which is the book’s 375th anniversary issue.

He also chit-chats (to no one) that he is going to take on Earth’s Watcher because apparently his suit uses Watcher power like batteries.

Back in New York, the three remaining members of the FF and Sharon Ventura take out the ol’ flying bathtub to search for Johnny. While hiding in a deserted tenement building, Johnny spots Reed scoot past overhead through the boarded up windows. He thinks of calling out to him, but he’s too mad at himself for screwing things up and burning down Empire State on accident.

Close by, the New FF troop plus the astral form of Doc Strange are hot on Johnny’s tale. A bit of a disagreement pops up as it seems of these four only Spider-Man is looking out for Johnny’s best interests. The others just want to bring him in. Even if that’s in a much battered and bruised state.

Their progress is being monitored by Lyja, still obsessing over her ex-husband. It’s right about here that things get interesting as the New Fantastic Four catch up with Johnny and he has to make a fateful choice about surrendering to them, or alerting his teammates to his whereabouts.

Which might be a wise course of action as it appears the New FF can pretty easily capture the youth. Heck, maybe the combined version of Hulk with Banner’s intellect could do it all by himself.

…except for the fact that it looks like he’s about to go ten rounds with his old sparring partner the Thing as the Fantastic Four finally make an appearance.

Here we have some interesting matchups. For one: Wolverine takes on Mr. Fantastic. The weird part is that Logan pops his claws and threatens to slice Reed to ribbons. That’s quite bloodthirsty. Reed isn’t a “bad guy” and he’s saved New York and the world many times over. For Wolvie to threaten to kill him doesn’t jive with how he’s written in the X-Men. Wolverine CAN be driven to berserker rages, but that isn’t his default setting. He doesn’t start out on “crazed killer” mode and it’s a bit insulting that the book portrays him that way. 

Sue steps in to help out and due to come coloring issues, looks like her costume is getting EVEN SKIMPIER. Sheesh, people. Leave her with some dignity.

Not to mention that she starts sniping at Reed in the middle of the freakin’ deadly serious battle. Worse yet, Reed trades sarcastic insults back at her, which is NOT REED’S CHARACTER AT ALL. Shame on DeFalco for writing this mess and turning Reed and Sue into semi-intelligent jilted lovers. I don’t need one of the smartest men in the world and the woman who has stood by him over the years to act like middle-school children.

Send them to off-panel couple’s counseling and bring back a Reed and Sue that works TOGETHER against menaces, please?

Johnny tries to blast Ghost Rider, which does bupkis to a demon with a human skull surrounded in flames. At the same moment, Sharon is trying to connect a blow with Spider-Man, who is easily evading her. All of which leads back around to the “main event” as it were.

Hulk and Thing. Only now the Hulk is talking sense and asking Grimm to let them take Johnny in without any more violence. He still has it where it counts, and in an odd panel sequence bashes Ben through several floors before turning his attention to the brains of the FF.

A pity those top two panels couldn’t have been combined into one so that Ben appeared to be bashed through the floor directly over the top of panels showing him slamming through the floors below. That would have made a neat transition. I might be asking too much given the number of word balloons DeFalco is throwing into this.

We skip out on the battle at this point to a nice static one page of the Eternals on the blue area of the moon, looking all poster-rific. Then we turn to Uatu’s house next door, as he appears to contemplate the body of his late son Aron…when all of sudden! Spikey Doom arrives! (cue next issue lead in cliffhanger).

Back to our smackdown, Sue bounces still over-reacting Wolverine off her invisible force shield, making the pointy scrapper even MORE enraged and emotionally unstable. You’d think the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel would realize you need to make characters act consistently across titles. This is poor writing and lazy storytelling. No other excuse for it. All of it a setup just so that DeFalco can somehow justify Wolvie doing THIS to the Thing:

Yeah, that’s not Wolverine’s MO.

Thing bats him through a wall, but the damage is done (and all so we can go through several issues with Ben covering his face and saying he’s even MORE hideous than before). Also note that I was wrong up there: that middle piece of Sue’s costume is actually bare skin. Who dreamed this crazy piece of costuming up again?

And now we have Ghost Rider using his penance chain to knock Johnny out. 

He’s about to deliver a swift punch to the face, when from off-screen and to the right comes…

…a blast from Lyja the Laserfist! The new nickname of Johnny’s ex, who has gotten some upgrades from Paibok. She's decided to stand with her husband and the Fantastic Four.

This little reunion gets cut short, however, as the surrounded FF and Lyja are poofed out panel and away from Strange’s Secret Defender FF. Off they go to issue 375, where they are fighting Doom on the Moon, with guest appearances by the Eternals and the Watcher. That next issue had a shiny cover and sits unread in the Crapbox for another time.

I’m intensely saddened by this issue. DeFalco is a competent writer and his FF is a mess of bad characterizations and weird, contrived plot occurrences. I have to believe that being EiC had to have something to do with it. Either that, or he just didn’t get the vibe of the book. The FF isn’t that hard to figure out as a team book. It’s about family, and Marvel knew that formula. They had perfected it over decades by this point.

No sense in changing things that worked, which I though had been his post-Shooter mandate. Appears he should have stuck to it.


  1. Boob-Window Sue Storm! It's the Sue Storm I love the most. Too bad The Thing left his helmet at home. That was a strange time for the Fantastic Four and Longbox Junk at its finest indeed. Great review, as always!

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