Fantastic Four #19
Way out in Oklahoma (where the wind comes sweeping down the plain), the Keewazi Nation has mobilized against the drilling of the Roxxon Oil Company on their land. Remember Roxxon Oil from the stories of Stainless Steve Englehart in Amazing Adventures, Captain America, and The Avengers, which were later carried over into the original Marvel Two-in-One by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio? Remember “Project Pegasus” and all that business with the Serpent Crown of Lemuria? It’s never good news when Roxxon is around. Fossil fuels and world conquest; that’s their business. The Keewazis may not be aware of all the trouble that Roxxon has caused for super-heroes like The Thing and The Avengers, but they still want nothing to do with these perfidious petroleum peddlers, and rightly so. As the protest is heating up, along comes the hereditary leader of the tribe, our friend Wyatt Wingfoot, flying in on a Fantastic Four airbike.
Now Wyatt, who enjoys (almost) universal admiration within the tribe, is here to get this whole thing sorted out, as is geologist Sara Heart, who reveals that Roxxon has been drilling too deeply into the land and is disturbing subterranean structures in the Earth’s crust. Right on cue, the ground rips open and the dark space beneath is filled with eyes—then grabbing hands that reach up to the surface. Wyatt just has a chance to whip out his Fantastic Four comm signal—the kind of thing, like the airbike, that you get to have when your best friend is Johnny Storm—and send out an SOS.
Unfortunately The Fantastic Four are not available just now. They’re still 44 light years away on the planet Spyre, where a battle between The Thing and the planetary ruler, The Overseer, has knocked down the Tower of Over-Site, ruined much of the planet’s capital, and left The Overseer knocked flat amid the rubble. The people of Spyre, to put it mildly, are not pleased at this seeming fulfillment of the prophecy of “The Four-Told,” which they now know The Overseer himself fabricated to keep himself in power. (Isn’t it funny how people can look right at the blatant misdeeds of their leader and support him anyway? Not like real life at all, is it? AHEM!) Even Sky, whom the planet’s intelligence system selected as The Human Torch’s soulmate, wants The Fantastic Four gone, to Johnny’s chagrin.
And now he’s been exposed like the real “man behind the curtain” in The Wizard of Oz, what do you think The Overseer does when he gets back on his feet again? He calls out Reed Richards to answer for “his crimes!” Do you think Reed is impressed with that? Remember whom you’re dealing with. This is the leader of The Fantastic Four, Bucko! And he is a gent who has spent the last six hundred and sixty-three issues blaming himself for everything that ever happened to his best friend and his family—which now turns out to have been The Overseer’s fault! No, Reed is not impressed, and he lets the Overseer know it, right upside the head! And still The Overseer doubles down, holding Reed responsible for The Overseer’s own reaction to Reed wanting to explore planet Spyre. To him, it’s Reed’s fault that The Overseer tried to murder Reed and his partners with cosmic rays, and when that didn’t work, he used the cosmic rays on his own people, turning some into super-beings and others into monsters who were cast down into the wretched depths. The would-be murderer blames the intended victim for his own actions!
It’s only when Reed points out the unpredictability of the cosmic rays that their battle ceases and they both realize that they’ve been subject to powers beyond either one’s control. Only then do they stop and think perhaps they might try to work together instead of battling each other. Reed even offers the people of Spyre the treatment that enables The Thing to become Ben Grimm for one day every year, which would give them all back a little bit of their humanity. Scrum, the leader of the monsters, at first thinks Ben is a hypocrite for this, but he and everyone soon comes around.
Some interesting things come out of this. Remember the origin of the misshapen Scrum, who was once a Spyrican named Krumson who lost the chance to see his daughter grow up when the cosmic rays made him a monster? Guess who the daughter is. It’s Kor, the Unparalleled member whose partner is Kaylo. Guess who objects to The Unparalleled and the monsters taking the “Almost Cure.” Surprise (not really): it’s the haughty, conceited narcissist Elementa, who argues that this is the real fulfillment of the prophecy of how The Fantastic Four will “destroy” Spyre’s “perfect” society. It just goes to show, even an imagined Utopia—which Spyre never really was—must have its flaws. And lest we forget, Sky turns out to be Sidearm’s daughter, a surprising fact we learn when Sky decides to return to Earth with The Fantastic Four—and her “soulmate,” Johnny. This time there’s no “Negative Barrier” storyline where the two lovers are forced apart. (Which is just as well, because The Unparalleled doesn’t have a Lockjaw.) This time the girl from the alien super-civilization goes home with Johnny (there’s even a panel about Sue’s “Crystal” analogy being blown out of the water), and The FF have another super-powered Human Torch girlfriend on their hands!
Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Keewazis have come into possession of a “diamond” that is really a communications device, though which The Mole Man threatens to attack if “his people” are not returned to him. The tribe may still need The Fantastic Four’s help, even if they weren’t available when Wyatt last tried to call them. Obviously some other things have happened between the opening scene and this one, as Wyatt now asks the opinion of three Subterraneans who seem to have “gone native” living on the surface instead of underground. And that whole story awaits us…next issue!
As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve been with The Fantastic Four since the middle of the Lee/Kirby collaboration and I’ve seen just about everything. What I don’t believe I’ve ever seen, though, is an FF adventure with so much in it to unpack. I don’t know if Dan Slott meant to do this, but he seems to have crafted in six issues a storyline that hits on many of the major themes and storytelling tropes of the series. He’s thrown in everything but Dr. Doom and the kitchen sink. Let’s open this puppy up and see what’s in there:
Superhuman mutation by cosmic rays: The FF and The Unparalleled.
Cosmic rays creating monsters: The Thing and the mutates of Lowtown.
Monsters living underground: The monsters and Subterraneans in Mole Man stories; the mutates of Lowtown.
Hidden/alien super-civilization: The Inhumans and the planet Spyre.
Isolationist “Utopia” with an abusive monarch: Latveria/Dr. Doom, Spyre/The Overseer.
Glittering, beautiful super-society with a monster underclass: Attilan and the Alpha Primitives/Spyre and the mutates of Lowtown.
Technology turns citizens into superhumans: Attilan and the Terrigen Mist, Spyre and the induced cosmic rays.
Human Torch and Girl From Hidden/Alien Civilization become lovers: Johnny and Sky.
Fantastic Four First Battles, Then Befriends Hidden/Alien Civilization: The Inhumans and planet Spyre.
See what I mean? This has been a lot of stuff we’ve been accustomed to seeing all along, with some different spins on it. The story of Spyre is “Fantastic Four” to the core. And yet…
Some people are not happy with this at all. Last time I was telling you my own boyfriend, who is a bigger FF super-fan than I am, doesn’t like this story. And he and others are not any happier with it now. I’ll bet you can guess their biggest problem with it. I can sum it up for you, fittingly, in four words. As of this story, IT WASN’T REED’S FAULT.
Oh yes, die-hard Four fans are very displeased with the overturning of hard-wired Fantastic Four canon that has always made Reed Richards responsible for everything because he miscalculated the strength of the shielding on the Marvel 1 (or overlooked that it was insufficient) and rushed ahead with the experimental spaceflight anyway. It was supposed to have been Reed’s fault that Ben is The Thing and can’t live a normal human life. It was supposed to have been Reed who made his best friend a monster, and that was meant to be Reed’s constant reminder of his one costly moment of arrogance and his own fallibility. For almost sixty years, Reed’s mistake has been his “feet of clay,” as Stan Lee would have put it, and it was the thing that humbled Reed and made a sore, bitter spot in his friendship with Ben. And everyone accepted that because it is a defining Marvel story.
(But consider the irony between this and another key relationship: Reed caught Victor Von Doom’s mistake when they were in college, but Doom couldn’t accept that he was wrong and went ahead with his experiment and scarred his face and became Dr. Doom anyway. Later, Ben warned Reed about the shielding and the cosmic rays, but Reed didn’t listen and made a monster of his surrogate brother. Reed, if you look at it a certain way, kind of did the same thing Doom did! And Reed and Doom have been at each other’s throat all these years! A wonderful irony, that.)
Now, however, along comes Dan Slott and says that’s not how it was—it was all really The Overseer! To some fans I know, this has cut the legs out from under one of the core conflicts and central characterizations of the book, and at least some FF fans are as mad as Annihilus about it. Listening to some of my Four-fan mates—including my boyfriend—about this, I think I should be angry too. But I’m not. What I am is…curious.
As a storyteller, I want to know what kind of “long game” Dan Slott is playing here. He has deliberately and deeply violated canon with this story. Is he going to “fix” what some fans think that he’s broken? Just what is he going to do? Because as a storyteller myself, I don’t think Slott went to all the thought and effort of creating this world and these characters—and sending one of them home with The FF—just to use them in one six-issue story arc. That’s something I wouldn’t have done, and if Slott is the kind of storyteller I think he is, he hasn’t done that either. No, I think there are things we have yet to learn about Sky and where she comes from, which are going to play into further adventures of The FF, and I think everything that’s been going round in these six issues is going to come round again with some other twists and turns and reveals. To have it any other way would be a waste. This, I am compelled to believe, has all been done for a reason. And I want to know what the reason is.
I also want to know how it’s going to affect Reed and Ben’s friendship, now that the one thing that has been such a source of deep-seated guilt and pain between them has been revealed to be not really true. How does Reed act, now he is free of that guilt? How are Reed and Ben going to be with each other? Ben has made a kind of peace with it—however you want to define “peace” when you’ve lost your humanity and it’s your best friend’s fault—especially since he’s been able to marry Alicia. But that responsibility on Reed’s part has always been there, and the fact remains that Ben became The Thing because he was helping Reed. The reveal of Spyre and The Overseer is going to have to shift the dynamic between the two friends. So what comes next? I get that hardcore FF fans resent this whole thing. But I, for one…am just really curious about what it’s all really going to mean.
Another thing that people have complained to me about, and not without some validity, is the very abrupt ending of the showdown between Reed and The Overseer, which brought things to a head going back for many years with both characters. Considering that this battle was about Reed’s whole life going back to the very first issue of the series, and The Overseer’s high-handed, paranoid actions in holding onto his power, I would have expected this battle to be more than a two-page slugfest leading to a moment of epiphany in which the two characters find common ground all at once. This was a battle over everything that the respective combatants are about, an I would have thought it would be longer and more bitter. Instead, it ended after two pages with this complete 180.
On a certain level I can appreciate what happened, at least on Reed’s part. At least part of the process of science—of which Reed Richards is the living embodiment—is about “flashes of insight” that lead to breakthroughs; leaps of intuition outside of logic that bring concrete ideas. The trouble is—and I think this is why some fans that I know objected to it—that what makes good science doesn’t necessarily make great drama. What I expected the outcome of this storyline to be was the basis for an ongoing antagonism between Spyre/The Overseer and The FF, with The Overseer becoming a new recurring villain. But on further reflection, this probably would not have been practical and consistent. Spyre, as a civilization, has always been both isolationist and disinclined to conflict; a rather passive world whose only aggressive citizens were The Unparalleled, whose main function was to preserve the status quo. And the status quo was what The Overseer was all about. It probably would have been out of character for him to become a revenge-seeking villain; that would have meant a profound change of character for someone whose whole character was defined by resisting change. It may be that the outcome we got here was the only realistic outcome we could expect.
As for Johnny… He’s another interesting case. Marvel Comics has always been about super-powers not necessarily making your life better and possibly making your life worse. Marvel super-heroes, by and large, are not necessarily always happy about their “super” status. There have been a few notable exceptions, characters who loved being super and were happy with themselves just as they were: The Wasp, generally speaking. The Angel before they made him The Archangel; his problem was with anti-mutant bigotry, not with being a mutant. She-Hulk as she was written by Roger Stern and John Byrne. And, for the most part, The Human Torch. Except that his romances always “flame out” on him, Johnny has been a relatively happy-go-lucky hero. And it’s that very thing of the failed romances that has most weighed on Johnny’s heart.
Looking back, Slott had already set up Johnny’s longing for the kind of true and lasting love that Sue has found with Reed, and Ben with Alicia, which has always eluded him. He had this in place even before the “Dr. Doom and Victorious” story. Our Torch has the reputation of a playboy and a sleep-around, but in his heart of hearts he’s been longing to find The One. Check out his heart-to-heart with The Thing in FF #5 where he’s depressed about being “Johnny Storm, the perpetual bachelor” whose life is just “one failed relationship after another.” This is the other side of Johnny, the sadder and more serious side that doesn’t often show. In FF #14 we learned that Johnny needed to be a part of the Marvel 1 mission because he felt something in space calling to him. What we now know is that that “calling” was his heart’s desire, the thing he’s wanted all along. Johnny needs Sky to be that for him, the piece of himself he’s so long been missing.
Which tells us, of course, that what actually awaits him is a heartbreak as great as what he went through with Crystal and Frankie Raye. As for the form that this heartbreak will take…well, remember what Sky herself said this issue. “There is a lot that you don’t know about me, Johnny Storm.” That returns me to my earlier point of the long game that I think Dan Slott is playing here. To paraphrase a favorite classic movie, “Keep watching Sky. Everyone, everywhere, keep watching Sky.”
The other thing that people have been bringing up to me is quite a valid point. The question people have been raising is, If The Fantastic Four are the result of The Overseer’s attempted murder of the crew of the Marvel 1 with cosmic rays, what happened when other people went up into space and duplicated The FF’s flight and came through it with super-powers of their own? The Overseer couldn’t have been trying to murder them too! And further, what about that J. Michael Straczynski/Mike McKone storyline (FF #530-532) in which we learned that the character of those cosmic rays was actually affected by a nameless alien Entity, and by Reed’s own time-traveling observation of what the rays were doing to him and the others? The account of Reed and “The Entity” being the cause of The FF’s powers is directly at odds with what The Overseer supposedly did. And if The Overseer wasn’t increasing the intensity of the cosmic rays when The Red Ghost exposed himself and the Super Apes to them (FF #13), or when the villains who became The U-Foes did the same thing (The Incredible Hulk #254), then how did those characters acquire their powers? And honestly, when Reed took the flight again in FF #197 to restore his powers after losing them, how did he reacquire his powers without The Overseer’s involvement? This entire storyline seems to contradict several key points of Marvel history. From the look of those past stories, Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben should have become superhuman without any intervention from paranoid alien rulers. On the surface, it looks as if Dan Slott has failed to take history into account, and his editor didn’t interrogate him about it. Keep watching; we’ll see.
A couple of quick last notes: For a refreshing change, this entire issue has been drawn by ONE ARTIST! JUST ONE! No “gang-drawing” for FF #19; from start to finish, it’s all the work of Sean Izaakse, who actually does a good job with The Thing and everyone. There’s no shifting of the way the characters look from scene to scene or from page to page, and all of The FF look essentially like themselves. And Izaaske also draws a fine Johnny Storm, having him as the proper young leading man/heartthrob that he ought to be. This is what we should be getting in the way of art in this book all the time. This and, of course, a good, close SHAVE for Reed, to get rid of that bloody beard.
As The Grateful Dead sang, this past six issues has been “a long, strange trip” in which we’ve seen the foundations of Four lore shaken and transformed. And I think this has been only the intro story for Spyre and The Unparalleled. Speaking as a storyteller myself, I would not have created all this just to spend six issues on it, and I don’t think that’s what Slott had in mind either. From the looks of things, The Unparalleled are the new “Inhumans,” and we’ll be returning to this story in months yet to come.
Fantastic Four #19: The Wrath of Reed Richards!
Writing - 8.5/108.5/10
Storyline - 8/108/10
Art - 9.5/109.5/10
Color - 9/109/10
Cover Art - 9/109/10
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