Sunday, August 12, 2018

Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 17 -- A Review and Celebration

This past Wednesday, 2018 August 09, marked the 57th anniversary of Fantastic Four #1 hitting the stands.  To celebrate, Marvel, after a publishing hiatus of the series, released the much anticipated Fantastic Four #1 (2018).  While I won't go into the details here (since Jim's copy probably isn't in the mail yet and it's not the focus of this post), I liked it and the ending of the first story actually left me slightly verklempt.  Plus, Scottie Young's Impossible Man one-page feature was really nice to see too (for reasons soon to be revealed).

You see, the new relaunch already had a positive effect on me since it influenced what I took to read on my second week of Summer Vacation: Marvel Masterworks (MMW) Fantastic Four Volume 17, which covers issues #176 thru #191.  And I actually had time to read the entire thing while staying at my Aunt's (formerly my Grandmother's) house in Kansas that has been in the family over 65 years.  Of all the Fantastic Four tales I could have picked, why might you ask, did I pick this collection?  Simple, it contains my first issues from 1977 and includes some stellar storytelling by Roy Thomas, the late great Len Wein and George Perez with Joe Sinnott among others.  Find out more after the break...

Now with all Masterworks HCs there is often a debate on the message boards about the selected cover.  I couldn't disagree more with the choice for this volume.  Firstly, beyond the iconic Thing and Human Torch figures the rest of the Kirby cover falls somewhat flat for me.  Worse still is the strange trivia fact that this particular cover for a dreaded deadline doom reprint story (not included) was published on a non-reprint issue while the reprint issue (#180) had the cover that went with this story. Crazy, right?

I guess the Thing and the Torch are everyone's favorite members
 of the team, they certainly were mine as a kid as you can
see from my much loved but still relatively intact MEGO figures.

And there are so many more worthy covers that could have been used.  For one, it should have been a George Perez one (I'll tell you which candidates I would have considered later).  But if you wanted to use Kirby (and I can appreciate why), then why not the cover for #176?  It's a better image and actually features a key character central to the entire volume -- "Impy" the ever lovable, Impossible Man!!!

If anyone has access to Marvel's digital library, I highly recommend checking out this issue. It's very funny.  Impy returned at the end of #175 for the first time since his debut back in issue #11.  Apparently, fans weren't too keen on him so he was essentially banned from the series. Fortunately, Roy, as he recounts in the foreword, was able to finally use him and boy did he ever.

The main plot of the story is that the FF crash land in Central Park and are trying to get back to the Baxter Building.  Unfortunately, the cabs won't take more than a certain number of passengers, which leads Sue to turn invisible and sit on Reed's lap. What's his nickname again?  Ben has just turned back into the Thing (again in the previous issue -- all explained via 70s recap or dialogue), instead of wearing the Thing costume exo-suit and in a clever development is now bigger and stronger than he was previously.  So, when the group gets caught in traffic and Ben goes to open the door, he takes the whole thing (pun intended) off!  Impy gets bored and finds himself in the Marvel Bullpen and that's when it really gets good.  You know what else is cool?  The cover by Jack influenced the story.  It was Jack's idea of Impy using Marvel "weapons".  Roy told George who hadn't started that part of the story yet.  Talk about kismet.

Oh boy, I'm really going down the rabbit hole in this post.  How am I ever going to adequately cover (pun unintended) the rest of the stories?!  Let's try a quick synopsis of various issues:

#177 -- The Frightful Four are recruiting for a new fourth member inside the Baxter Building. It features the debut of the Texas Twister, a funny knock-off version of the Martian Manhunter called Captain Ultra, and two attractively drawn women: Tigra and Thundra, who really want to make it with the rock-hard Thing. (Sorry, I just cracked myself up and couldn't resist.)  The member they select is the Brute, he's a bald hulking purple figure with green briefs and...(spoiler) he's also the Reed Richards of Counter-Earth!

#178 -- Ben's tumbling through the Negative Zone at the start of the issue, but the bad FF (you know who) bring him back.  Uhm, why would you rescue the strongest (pre-John Byrne issues) member of the good FF?  Anyway, George is great at drawing shackles for our heroes.  I guess it was because the Frightful Four are trying to ransom the FF for "One. Billion. Dollars." (pinky sucking sound).  Come to think of it that is pretty Eee-villll.  Impy is no help at all because he's to busy discovering the joy of 70's television.  There's even a cameo by Jimmy Carter, President Ford, and Governor Ronald Reagan.  Impy finally does helps when he blows a fuse (figuratively and literally) due to seeing a test pattern (meaning no more TV for the kiddies out there), which frees the FF.  The Brute can't bring himself to harm Sue, because she reminds him of his Sue still in a coma back on Counter-Earth.  Reed seeks to engage him while Brute's distracted, but..."My STRETCHING POWER is GONE!!"  This is a major thread throughout the whole volume.  The twist ending has the evil Reed switching places with the real Reed now floating in the Negative Zone.  And we've come full circle.

#179 -- Ron Wilson does the art this ish and it's quite good, especially with Joe Sinnott's inks to keep the look consistent.  Some of the characters are getting suspicious of impostor Reed.  While the real Reed has to eat a bat-creature. "Hate to DO this, Bruce old buddy---But it's ME or YOU!" {WONK!}"  While Tigra is flirting a bit with bashful Benjy, the Mad Thinker's Metalloid is attacking a bank. A really creepy scene is when Sue starts to doubt Reed in her partially see-through nightgown (sheer cover over black bikini).  Where she can "hopefully cleanse my MIND of the terrible suspicion that the MAN I just left (sleeping rather blissfully) NOT the same Reed Richards I MARRIED!" Gulp.  Did she or didn't she?  And worse yet, poor "real" Reed is convinced that Sue will be sure to know the truth.  He may not like finding out how!!! Who said comics were for kids?  Oh, Annihilus shows up at the end reaching for Reed menacingly.  It sure is easy to find people in the Negative Zone.

#180 -- The aforementioned reprint issue with only the cover included.  Whew, I needed the break.

#181 -- Another great Ron Wilson drawn issue.  I'm looking forward to rereading Ron's (super nice guy by the way) Marvel Two-in-One issues. His storytelling is superb here.  This is primarily a character piece. Johnny's trying to get Frankie (yes, that one - the future Galactus herald, even way back then) to date him.  Sue is convinced now that this Reed is a fake and Reed knows it.  She confides in Alicia, but unexpectedly Agatha Harkness steals away Franklin right before her eyes.  Ben battled the Metalloid on earth, but Reed and "Annie" are facing a Mad Thinker controlled giant monster in the Zone.  With that Mr. Thomas departs the series.

#182 -- Len Wein starts plotting (with help) and Bill Mantlo scripts.  Sal Buscema is the artist with ever-dependable Joe.  Stuff happens and Brute throws Sue out the window.

#183 -- Despite a great Perez cover, the first-one by the way in the volume, Sal is still doing the art. More stuff happens and evil Reed sacrifices himself to save good Reed.  Gee, it most have been a swipe (cough cough), I mean homage to FF #51.  Len did not do this issue, Bill did.

#184 -- George is back and better than ever.  Len is the brand new writer/editor.  And we have the start of a short, but memorable run (one of my favorites).  This cover should have been MMW cover.  Tigra and Thundra leave when Ben asks them to help clean up.  He ends up stomping the debris under the floor.  Sue tells Reed about Franklin's abduction.  He has doubts of his worth in the effort since he's powerless, but she encourages him wifely to get [his butt] moving.  The detail is absolutely amazing, a turning point in George's work I think -- he used his time-off well.  The FF go to Whisper Hill to investigate (Johnny was missing -- he was attacked earlier.)  As they approach, the Fantasti-Car is ripped apart.  They find Johnny inside Agatha's creepy house, where they are set-upon by the Goliath-sized ELIMINATOR -- very cool character design.  Lots of great action and in typical Star Trek II opening scene style the FF are defeated.  Only it was a ruse of Reed's to trick the Eliminator into self-destructing himself.  Whisper Hill blows up and possibly their chance to locate Franklin too.

#185 -- My first issue of the FF, which hit the stands in late May 1977!  Reed is stretching again with mechanical, extension, "go-go-Gadget" limbs under his old uniform.  Now, I really had to study to see what the difference was between the old and new uniform.  Near as I can tell the collar is thicker and the circle around the "4" is filled in black instead of double-outlined.  That's it, I think.  Maybe the boots and gloves are supposed to black, instead of dark blue too. But with comic coloring, how can you tell?  The FF travel in their pogo plane to Colorado, tracing the origin of the Eliminator's "egg", which was outside Whisper Hill.  His objective was to destroy all evidence of  Agatha's presence.  They land and Johnny builds a car from boxes.  They disguise themselves, yet enter a town  (New Salem) with the only car for miles!  They meet Nicolas Scratch, the mayor.  After a futile search, they start to leave, but Agatha who had been watching nearby creates a "wall'a flames" to get their attention.  End illusion and the mountain town is revealed to be a dark castle area with everyone cloaked in robes.  The FF shed their disguises as well and the battle ensues.  The FF are defeated for real this time with the town's supernatural powers from witchcraft. Love, Love, Love and it get's better, but I'll have to finish tomorrow, it's time for bed... (my time, not yours -- keep reading already)

#186 -- We finally learn the reason for Franklin's abduction.  Agatha hoped his powers (she didn't know they had been "turned off") would protect her from the citizens of New Salem.  These citizens, especially Scratch, wanted to put her on trail for violating their most sacred law, revealing their existence to the outside world.  She's being railroaded by Nicolas, who wants her dead. 

The two-third's page six-panel interlude with Impy getting ambushed by next issues mystery villains is an awesome example of great storytelling:

1 - exterior shot/traditional scene change.
2 - establishing shot with flavor (nice pop culture reference).
3 - close up/reveal - shadowy menace.
4 - extreme close-up.
5 - sound effect with Kirby Krackle.
6 - mid-range shot and a clue, giving the reader something to wonder about until next month.

Folks, you could analyze this for nearly every page! Thank you, Dave Gibbons.  (I just realized that I may need to search for an Impossible Man action figure [if one exists] later today.)

Sue's starting to use her powers in a more innovative way, which aids their escape.  I really like how everyone is getting a subtle upgrade.  This makes the characters able to deal with more dangerous threats and gives the writers cover from fanboys charting their every move with religious devotion.  Salem's Seven is the group the FF have to fight and I really like the character designs here.  The most important part of the fight is when Brutacus shatters Reed's mechanical arms -- it will lead to one of my most favorite moments of all in FF comic history.  When the New Salemites realize they've been duped by Scratch, they banish him, much to the sorrow of Agatha (his mother).

#187 -- This would have made a worthy cover too, but it reveals a tad too much for the casual internet-ordering HC fan that's never read these tales before.  Home, sweet, home for our Favorite Family, but the Baxter Building has been invaded again!  Impy and Ben's "best COLOR TV" (as seen above) are found smashed.  The three powered members go and search for the cause (stepping up their game doing tasks Reed would typically), leaving Reed emasculated and feeling useless, despite Sue's words of encouragement. Klaw is revealed. I really hope Serkis returns in the next Black Panther film as this living-sound version.  Thing fights a sound creature, but then gets turned to glass by the Molecule Man!  Reed uses his smarts and a weapon of his devising to help in the fight, but is rendered unconscious by Klaw's "mind-shattering ultrasonic force".  We get a nice flashback sequence explaining how a Bowery bum became the Molecule Man -- the conscientiousness of the wand possessed him -- after Klaw dropped into Man-Thing's swamp.  In a surprising turn of events, Impy imploring a mimic of Klaw's powers defeats Klaw.  Meanwhile the Molecule Man is trying to permanently take over the bum's body by entering Richard's Psi-Am devise (the whole reason they were there to begin with).  But something is wrong and it's acting in reverse due to Reed cutting the cord, which causes the wand to be dropped.  Reed immersed in his thoughts, deprived of his abilities, considers the possibilities of the wand and carelessly reaches out for it to examine in his lab.  "Reed -- NO!!" shouts Sue.

Sorry for the extra synopsis up there, but the MMW has this scene as a page-turner, not the two-page spread from the actual book.  It works both ways in my opinion and is the great moment I alluded to earlier, explaining why I chose to include this Reed in my Fred Hembeck commission from last year (which you can see here).

#188 -- "The Rampage of Reed Richards" -- A testimony of Marvel's "World's Greatest Comic Magazine" tagline for the Fantastic Four! 

Reed's body is now controlled by the wand, but Reed's consciousness is now inside the wand, fighting to get out and preventing MM from harming his family. But he's really ticked that they had destroyed the Psi-Am device.  He surrounds them in a cube (sans floor) of adamantium, which the Torch uses his Nova intensity to super-heat the air to force it off of them (while Sue protected everyone else).  Before the team can go and search for Reed, ye-old Uatu, the Watcher, shows up portending a great disaster...but not the one you think.  Ben is none-to-happy with his Switzerland stance of silence.  It certainly ups the drama though. 

With the Fantasi-Car destroyed out comes the old sky-cycle (Len has brought back some key elements from FF's glory days).    Meanwhile, Reed has just turned a small skyscraper into a walking monster with people still inside!  It's a battle-royale with Impy's help until he gets miffed at the team for trying to stop him from hurting Reed.  Now that Reed's consciousness is unconscious (how does that even work) from a blow to the head, Molecule Man is now in complete control with no more inhibitors and strikes out at the team to "transform you all into so much COSMIC DUST!"  It backfires.   The wand drops into a smokestack and Reed plummets to earth.  Torch grabs him, but wrenches his arm in the process, forcing him to drop Reed again. Fortunately, Ben is there to catch him.  Crisis is over, right.  Wrong.  The Watcher still stands silently.  We quickly find out why.  Reed is resigning.  After being overpowered by two menaces, he can't continue. Sue will leave to be with him.  "NEXT ISSUE: The story you never thought you'd see -- as our stalwart heroes all go their separate WAYS!  Be here for "FOUR NO MORE!" We promise you won't REGRET it!"

Another MMW worthy cover.
Or maybe not, because that masterpiece doesn't come out for another two months...

#189 -- Reprint time again (cover only, story not included).

#190 -- "All-New Album Issue", meaning Clip-Show in the TV vernacular.   Ben relates to Alicia all the times the FF has nearly disbanded in the past.  I would have preferred Joe Sinnott's bold finishing inks over Sal's layouts this issue, instead of Tony Dezuniga's more sketchy style.  Marv Wolfman pens the retrospective in preparation of his take-over of the title by issue #195, because Len is leaving Marvel for DC (sob) to edit some of the greatest comics of the 1980s (Swamp Thing and Watchman)!  This was the beginning of a major shift in talent to DC that would reach it to new heights of Marvel-like greatness.  Len still has his Goblin saga to finish up over in Amazing Spider-Man, but the end is near.  It's worse than the FF breaking up.

#191 -- Knowing of Wein's impending departure from Marvel (as a long time fan today), this story is especially poignant as it seems to be Len saying good-bye through the story.  There's still a lot of action to be had though as the Plunder and a gang of thugs, disguised as SHIELD agents, attempts to steal Reed's equipment.  This brings the team together to defeat him, but alas it is too little too late.  "You'd best note the DATE [1977 Nov 22], effendi, for a LEGEND died here this day...And the world may never see its like AGAIN!!" (or maybe we'll rehash this again and again over the next 40 years).
The final worthy cover contender.

Len does explain what he had hoped to do with the story in the second forward of the HC -- there would be a series of solo spotlight tales, before something eventually brings the team together.  That plot approach is pretty-much followed by Wolfman who culminates the family reunion in the blockbuster Fantastic Four #200 penciled by Keith Pollard.  George and Len have one more interior issue to go (#192) and Perez has five more covers.

The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!, indeed and a most excellent Marvel Masterworks volume.

Nuff Said!


  1. Nice - makes me want to get the Masterwork and reread it myself

  2. Thanks. It's still a reasonable price right now. The sad thing is I bought it new, but only now just got around to reading it. I checked some of my originals and while I love to hold the actual issue in my hands, Perez's detail become obscured on the newsprint (especially #184), meaning the MMW format is essential to seeing it at its best.