Thursday, December 20, 2012

1988 - The New But Not Too Improved Fantastic Four (Part Three of Four)

1988: Englehart’s New But Not Too Improved Fantastic Four Part 3:
Cross-eyed Crossover Country

By Jef Willemsen (Clarmindcontrol.blogspot.com)

In the third part on this retrospective on Steve Englehart’s late 80s Fantastic Four run, the first effects of heavy editorial meddling start to show. Prepare for tons of gratuitous guest stars as the team stumbled from one farfetched crossover to the next.

It all started with # 312, which opened with Crystal and the Human Torch arriving in Wakanda and being shocked at how the Thing and Ms. Marvel had been mutated by the cosmic ray bombardment that hit the space shuttle which landed them there.

Ben was handling his new Thing form pretty okay. But, despite getting a spiffy new uniform out of it, mutating into a She-Thing really unhinged the already unstable Sharon Ventura.


After calming Ms. Marvel down, the team prepared to return to New York, accompanied by the Black Panther who vowed to help this new Fantastic Four settle in. Surprisingly, Panther’s other house guest Doctor Doom wanted to come along as well, since he claimed to have business in the US. 

Upon arriving , they ran into the first guest stars allegedly forced upon Englehart: the original X-Factor, who were being honored by the city with a parade for their work as alleged mutant hunters.

The FF and X-Factor teamed up, of course, to fight Doom for reasons too trivial to mention. But this forced crossover did allow Englehart to finish up the ‘poor ol’ Ms. Marvel wants to die’ arc after Sharon received a wake up call from the Beast and got her act together.  


While Sharon seemed comfortable with her new form, Ben still wanted her cured.  That’s why # 313 featured a visit to Subterranea via Project Pegasus to look for the Mole Man. The FF’s first foe had recently helped Ben when a mutation in his Thing form almost killed him, and he now hoped the same procedure would cure Shary.

Note to observant readers: another possible sign of editorial meddling is the next panel which features one Doctor Devere. A Pegasus scientist, Devere escorted the FF to the hole the Lava Men  burned to gain access to the Project in an old issue of Avengers (ah, continuity). 


Despite that ominous and promising caption, this is the first and only appearance to date for DeVere. Editorial influence of a simple case of dangling plot threads?  But lets focus on another annoyance that’s actually Steve Englehart’s fault: excessive lecturing.

He first exhibited this quirk during his 1970s Avengers run, best remembered for the beloved Celestial Madonna storyline that saw Englehart’s pet character Mantis evolve into a pivotal cosmic figure. But no matter how fondly one remembers this tale, it was also loaded with page after page of esoteric exposition and rambling flashbacks that had no real connection to the story and turned the entire comic into a dreadfully dry history lesson. 

And guess what happened in FF # 313 through 319? In the space of six months, Englehart dragged the lovelorn foursome all across the universe as he gave an ever expanding lecture on the origins of Limbo, aliens and demons… oh my. Perhaps it’d best to let Ben sum up their post-Subterranea adventures in this panel from 1988’s FF Annual # 21. 


For those of you keeping score: yes, in the space of a few months the FF had teamed up with Ka-Zar and Shanna, fought X-men hell lord Belasco and went up against West Coast Avengers baddies Master Pandemonium and the demonic Cat People… with special guest appearances by Morbius the living vampire, Dr. Strange during his fight with Shuma-Gorath and last but not least, that sensational character find of 1987: Comet Man.

Surviving all of that, the FF became aware of a Negative Zone race called the Beyonders. Intrigued, they decided to enter the Zone to seek them out. Yet, editorial stepped in once again and forced Englehart to have the FF participate in the 1988 summer crossover Evolutionairy War.

The High Evolutionary’s minions were attacking the Inhumans on the Moon for their terrigen mists and at the same time, the higher ups at Marvel tried to use this tale to stop the mutating FF as well. In FF Annual # 21, Crystal was supposed to reconcile with her mad mutant husband Quicksilver and move back to the Moon, in spite of Englehart’s pleas to the opposite.


So why was this mandate pushed through? By 1987, long term Marvel editor in chief Jim Shooter had been booted out and replaced with Tom DeFalco. A more than competent editor and writer in his own right, DeFalco was still hesitant to rock the boat in any way. He felt a classic form of storytelling was the best way of minding the store…

Which meant the new FF had to be rebooted, starting with losing Crystal. Englehart had never intended for her to leave the FF permanently. But, much to his chagrin, editor Ralph Macchio had the annual’s back up story completely rewritten to fit the required changes. It was by no means a perfect cover up, as the awkwardly added disclaimer to this pin up proved…



Yet, Steve stubbornly pushed on. The now Fantastic Three were still planning a trip into the Negative Zone when Alicia showed up with a rather unlikely fourth member in tow.




Rather understandably, Doom was offended by Ben’s mocking and took matters into his own hands. By using a time dilation device, he gained enough of a head start and entered the Negative Zone before the FF could follow him in… And once they did, they were ambushed by resident Neg Zone baddie Blastaar. If not for the timely intervention of Doom, the living bomb-burst would have defeated and killed the team right then and there.







After defeating Blastaar, Doom brought the FF on board the villain’s flagship, a vessel capable of navigating the dangerous Negative Zone, and bringing them to the realm of the Beyonders…

But whatever his original idea for ‘the Beyonders’ was, editorial forced Englehart’s hand once again when they demanded he used this storyline  to once and for all deal with the mess that was Jim Shooter’s pet character: the Beyonder.

Englehart actually liked the Beyonder and set out to give the one from beyond a proper send off. The FF travelled the crossroads of infinity to reach the universe created by the Beyonder’s energies at the end of Secret Wars II. This new reality looked an awful lot like Earth… except for one tiny little detail.

And here’s where Englehart stepped on his soapbox once more to talk about the universe, the origin of super powers and the role of the Beyonder in the grand scheme of things… Allow me to sum up over half a dozen pages of talking heads: The Beyonder is actually a cosmic cube that achieved sentience without actually turning into, well, a cosmic cube.

There, lets leave it at that, because nothing consequential came out of this tale, despite its many guest stars: Doctor Doom, the Molecule Man, his ladylove Volcana, the Shaper of Worlds and Cubic. And oh yes, featuring special guest cameos by the Silver Surfer and Reed and Sue Richards.

And the fun just kept on coming… Issue # 320 was part one of a crossover with Peter David’s Incredible Hulk and featured the umpteenth Thing versus Hulk fight which left Ben wounded. So, in  |# 321 Sharon the She-Thing beat down the She-Hulk’s door looking for her cousin and finding, among other things, the Dragon Man. 


Issues # 322 through # 325 must have been a delight to write, judging from the open letter Englehart sent to fanzine Amazing Heroes, shortly after his FF run had ended.

“ In the regular run, the forced changes began in FF #322, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place." #322 through #325 were plotted as Whacko stories and shoehorned into FF when West Coast Avengers was yanked from under Al (Milgrom – JW) and me--that's why the FF is fighting Whacko villains (…) I had to use it to kill Mantis with dignity, because she'd already been trashed behind my back.”

Ahhh, it just isn’t a Steve Englehart comic without Mantis showing up. The former Celestial Madonna came to New York looking for the Fantastic Four’s help in getting back the son she had with the leader of the Cotati. Her timing was a little off though, considering ‘this one’ arrived right in the middle of the Inferno  crossover… and hilarity ensued. 



But it would soon turn into old home week as Englehart had the FF fight a parade of his favorite Avengers villains. Before meeting Mantis, they had barely survived a run in with Graviton in # 322 and pretty soon Kang the Conqueror showed up to kidnap Mantis. Kang escaped with her in his timeship, but during his fight with the FF, she mysteriously vanished. # 324 revealed the culprit to be, of all people, Necrodamus the sorcerer, an obscure Avengers villain from early in Englehart’s run.


Because of the Inferno, Necrodamus had returned to life and with all the planets in the solar system about to align, killing Mantis would give him incredible powers. In the end, Ms. Marvel came up with a solution: have Kang use his technology to yank the planet Mercury out of alignment long enough for the ritual to fail and Necrodamus to fade away. So, yes, Earth was saved by a solution straight from 1950’s Superman books… but hey, whatever works.

The inane wackiness continued into  # 325, when Kang returned for a final offensive, aided by the Cotati and the Priests of Pama. As exciting as this might sound, the Cotati are trees. Sentient, yes,  but still firmly rooted trees. This meant that the FF essentially fought a floating forest and their pet ninjas.

And worst of all, after some more conversation they simply decided to leave, taking Mantis’ infant plant son with them. Desperate to get to her child, Mantis shifted to extreme measures as she explained to the issue’s special guest hero ├índ Mantis’ lover, the Silver Surfer.


Mantis ‘left her corporeal form’, essentially willing herself to death and a bereaved Silver Surfer leaves Earth while the Fantastic Three were left to ponder what’s next. The answer to that question in the fourth and final part of Engelhart’s New But Not Improved Fantastic Four: Harkness Gathers





2 comments:

  1. Wow, I subscribed to FF for most of the 80s, I remember Fasaud, She-Thing/Ms. Marvel, the "new" Frightful Four, but I somehow don't remember the stories that featured Mantis & Belasco. I love most of Englehart's run on the 70s Avengers, but I always found Mantis annoying. "This one" can go f*%k herself.

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  2. I have a soft spot for Ben's FF. I really liked Ms. Marvel. She had depth to her some characters didn't have. I prefer her in her human form instead of She-Thing, myself. I loved her first Ms. Marvel costume.

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