Tuesday, December 18, 2012

1987 - The New But Not Too Improved Fantastic Four (Part Two of Four)

Steve Englehart’s New But Not Too Improved FF Part 2: 
She-Thing Death with Sharon Ventura
By Jef Willemsen (clarmindcontrol.blogspot.com)

Steve Englehart gave the Fantastic Four a make over by replacing Reed and Sue with Crystal and Sharon ‘Ms. Marvel’ Ventura. Even after their first adventure, it was obvious the team dynamics were somewhat… strained. And that was even before the appearance of… Fasaud.



When Fasaud was introduced in # 310, fans mocked this new super villain for his goofy looks and rather silly backstory. Granted, having Saudi oil sheikh Farouk Al-Fasaud turn into a living digital signal after he accidentally struck a television camera with a knife is an origin straight from the silver age… but his powers of intangibility, electrostatic shocks and the ability to instantly appear anywhere in the world made him a formidable opponent.



Ignoring his admittedly gaudy appearance, Fasaud is somewhat of an avatar of things to come. Nowadays, in a post 9/11 world, Englehart seems like a borderline visionary when he had the FF square off against an intangible Arab enemy capable of terrorizing anyone in the world in the blink of an eye.

Fasaud almost managed to beat the FF during their first confrontation, if it wasn’t for the Thing short circuiting his signal, causing the villain to explode. Ben decided their new foe warranted further investigation and the trail soon led to the Arab nation of Aqiria.

He ordered the Human Torch and Crystal to stay in New York in case Fasaud would return there looking for revenge, while he and Ms. Marvel travelled to the Middle East on a fact finding mission. Ben’s reasoning for picking M.M. was sound: he wanted to keep an eye on Sharon because during their initial battle with Fasaud, she’d been dropping the ball … quite literally.


Johnny was knocked out after facing Fasaud and fell to his death. Sharon jumped to rescue him, but froze in mid-air when she realized the Torch was in fact a man, just like all the men that had raped her during her imprisonment. She had an anxiety attack and Crystal was forced to save Johnny at the last minute. Ben chewed her out over that, but decided to give Sharon one last chance in Aqiria.



Having a women deathly afraid of all things male climb an obviously phallus shaped rocket is always good for a snicker, but lets focus on the story at hand. Arriving in Aqiria, they were treated with great inhospitality  but Sharon soon realized it was all a ruse and within seconds the other shoe dropped when a resurrected Fasaud popped up to knock them out. When they came to in # 311, we’re treated to this scene.

 
Poor Sharon… Forced to relive the most traumatic event of her life again, chained up and helpless before a horde of men. The anxiety in her eyes was striking, especially when the American ambassador touched her and she lost it completely. Shary lunged at him and while her restraints held, everyone was sufficiently impressed to leave the two heroes alone.

This gave Ben the opportunity to go all out and, in a supreme effort, break free.  Ms. Marvel tried to follow his lead, but failed … Fortunately, a little team work goes a long way and soon they were tearing through the complex looking for trouble.


It is an interesting yet saddening situation. On the surface, Ms. Marvel appears to be a capable and quick witted heroine who is ready to throw down with anybody and their uncle… Yet she completely shuts down the second a man tries to show her any kind of affection. This is especially heartbreaking for Ben, who had slowly been developing feelings for her. See how she handled that…


Despite the obvious tensions, Shary and Ben never lost sight of the mission at hand. Aqiria is about to launch a space shuttle that will drop a satellite into orbit allowing Fasaud to dominate the entire world. They managed to board the shuttle just before launch and soon found themselves in outer space where they faced yet another Fasaud avatar.

After destroying both the communications satellite and Fasaud himself, Sharon was so overjoyed they actually shared a quick kiss… But their moment of joy didn’t last long: the shuttle’s controls were damaged during the fight and the vessel was plummeting towards Earth without sufficient shielding… And we all know what th├ít means…



The ever familiar rak-tac-tac-tac should have been a clue. Cosmic rays strike again, the same form of radiation that gave the Fantastic Four their powers in 1961. Overcome by the bombardment, Ben and Shary are helpless as the shuttle crash landed somewhere in the African jungle. Surviving the crash, Ben quickly released another helping of cosmic rays had further mutated his Thing form and made him even stronger. But what had happened to Shary?



Yeah, that’s what I asked too.

In a move that stretched all laws of common sense, Sharon had undergone the exact same mutation as Ben Grimm… Just how this gazillion-to-one freak occurrence came about is never explained, but nevertheless... She turned into a Thing and, as  # 311 proved, that proved to be kind of a thing for her.



I WANT TO DIE!

Seldom was an entire issue so concisely summarized. After realizing she had become a She-Thing, Sharon spent the better part of # 311 trying to off herself. As shocking and off putting as this might sound, it actually feels like something a sane person would do when he or she discovered they’d transformed into a pile of rocks with legs.

In retrospect, when Ben changed in Fantastic Four # 1, he uprooted a tree and angrily swung it around a couple of times before calming down and suggesting that being turned into a mound of super strong orange pebbles was, naturally, a sign he had to become a superhero. Sharon, warped as she was, had a more human and dare I say it, rational response. She wanted to die. Now.



Ben frantically tried to calm her down, but the suicidal Ms. Marvel didn’t want to listen to reason and grasped any available opportunity to end her suffering.




Yet, (un)fortunately for her… nothing in the jungle seemed quite powerful enough to end her existence. That is, until they ran into a robotic warrior that absorbed kinetic energy and used it to become stronger. Quickly realizing the possibilities, Ms. Marvel kept hitting the construct, in hopes of sufficiently powering it to kill  her. But just as the contraption hit critical mass, the Black Panther showed up and shut it down.

As it turned out, the shuttle had crashed in Wakanda. T’Challa the Black Panther was delighted to see Ben and Sharon, despite their accident. And then, T’Challa’s other house guest showed up to say hello.



In a plot thread set up by John Byrne, Doom had only recently been forced from his homeland Latveria by Kristoff Vernard, a child that had a back up of Von Doom’s own memories and personality forcibly downloaded into his own head. The prepubescent lad became convinced he was the one true Doom and the actual Victor von Doom was nothing more than a vile impostor, or maybe even a Doombot that had gone haywire.

Before he decided to leave the book, Byrne had planned a year long ‘Doom War’ storyline in which the two Dooms would duke it out. Englehart picked up on this with the outed Doom busy establishing a power base of his own, first requesting support from other royal rulers. Despite their obvious differences, Black Panther couldn’t help but recognize Doom as a fellow king and provided him sanctuary.  But it goes without saying that Von Doom seized an opportunity when he saw one.



Doom actually gave the shell shocked Sharon a bit of an unexpected pep talk. If anything, he was the first to get through to her after all of Ben’s well intentioned platitudes fell on deaf ears. By calling her a weakling and comparing her to Hank Pym who had only recently tried to commit suicide in the Englehart penned West Coast Avengers # 17, he gave her the proverbial splash of cold water she needed. If only he’d quit while he was ahead…



Much like the leopard that can’t change its spots,  Doom couldn’t help but try and turn this to his advantages. His offer to cure Ms. Marvel if she’d only help him destroy the FF actually re-affirmed her loyalty to the team and this is where Ben and the Black Panther stepped in to put Doom in his place.



And with the end of # 311, there also came an end of sorts to the Englehart era of the Fantastic Four. While Steve would be largely responsible for the direction of the book through # 321, it was nowhere near where he had planned to go.

On his website, Englehart stated his uncompromised, initial vision for the Fantastic Four was limited to # 304 through # 311, # 313 and # 320 & 321. But even in those issues, Marvel editorial demanded Englehart incorporated whatever crossover event or character that was in need of a plug that month…  This meant guest stars galore, as we’ll see in part 3 of Englehart’s New But Not Too Improved Fantastic Four: Cross-eyed Crossover Country. 

1 comment:

  1. I have always liked Crystal. Crys should return to the Fantastic Four as soon as possible. As for Ms. Thing, it was kind of interesting having two Things on the team and watching the interplay between Ben and his female counterpart.

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