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.

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.