Friday, December 14, 2012

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

By Jef Willemsen (

One of the most overlooked eras in the 50+ year history of the Fantastic Four has to be the Steve Englehart ‘New FF’ era from the late 1980s. Unfairly deemed the redheaded stepchild of FF continuity, it actually started out as a remarkably new and creative period. In this retrospective, we’ll try and figure where it all went wrong.

For starters, Englehart might have been fighting somewhat of an uphill battle to begin with. By the time he took over in 1987, the book had pretty much become identified with John Byrne who left the title after a seminal and beloved  five year and 61 issue run. A large part of its success was Byrne’s fondness for the early days. Especially his first dozen or so issues read like an open love letter to the works of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

Englehart did the exact opposite. Right out of the gate, he broke the status quo with a storyline that saw Reed and Sue take an extended leave of absence so they could finally look after Franklin. Englehart explained the reasoning behind this shake up on his website:

“The FF was always the "real life" adventures of superheroes, but as the series atrophied many people forgot about the real life part; growth and change went out the window. I identified the hermetically-sealed group of Reed & Sue & Ben & Johnny as a main reason the book has grown stale - and Reed & Sue had been saying for years that they should pay more attention to their perpetually 6-year-old son Franklin - so I let 'em.”

Of course, the Fantastic Four would carry on without them. Reed asked Ben Grimm  to take over as team leader, a proposition the Thing accepted after some soul searching. But once he said ‘yes’,  the search for new blood was on. In issue # 305, Ben was mulling over the selection criteria with Reed. Just  who would be capable of filling elastic or invisible shoes? Well, sometimes, opportunity just knocks on your door. Or window.

Asking Crystal to rejoin would prove to be a controversial decision. Johnny wasn’t too pleased about having to work with a former girlfriend who he’d really never gotten over. He figured Ben was acting out of spite because Johnny had recently married his old girlfriend Alicia Masters. Crystal’s own marriage to the mutant speedster Quicksilver had just hit rock bottom, after Englehart had her commit adultery with real estate agent Norman Webster in the Vision & Scarlet Witch limited series.

By adding just one character, Englehart had managed to change the entire tone of the book… Yet, also remained true to the spirit of the old Lee and Kirby FF. After all, bickering,  internal strife and resentment was what helped set the book apart back in 1961. And if you thought the addition of Crystal was controversial, check out who Ben’s final pick turned out to be.

Sharon Ventura was one of Ben’s old wrestling buddies back when he had quit the Fantastic Four and tried to make it as a super powered pro wrestler. Shortly after her last meeting with Ben, Sharon was captured by doctor Karl Malus, the man responsible for her enhanced strength and agility. When she was his prisoner, it was obvious from the flashback panels that she had been raped by Malus’  henchmen for a prolonged period of time.

By the time Captain America broke up Malus’ operation and freed Sharon, she was severly traumatized and genuinely hated men. She couldn’t even bear to touch one. Well, except for Ben who she didn’t regard as a ‘real man’ because of his rocky exterior.. Which, understandably, really hurt his ego as he saw his chances of getting romantic with her soundly trounced. But he still offered her membership in hopes of helping her sort out her many, many emotional issues.

Lets review this new and seemingly not too Fantastic Four: the old guard was pretty much at odds with one another. Try as he might, Ben still had trouble accepting Johnny and Alicia’s marriage and  also doubted he could lead the team. Johnny on the other hand resented Ben’s decision to invite Crystal back on to the team. He also felt the need to prove to Alicia he was better than Ben, as poignantly shown in this scene.

Crystal was feeling conflicted as well. While she enjoyed her new-found freedom and truly loved being part of the FF, she also noticed her presence was causing Johnny considerable discomfort. She didn’t want to be responsible for breaking up yet another marriage and even offered to leave the team if Ben felt that was for the best.

And as for Sharon? Troubled and borderline insane as she might be, she actually proved invaluable in the battle against the new team’s first enemy: Diablo and his elementals. In #306, Diablo had the old and new FF on the ropes before Sharon realized these forces of nature were actually controlled by their master, who intentionally kept to the shadows. She snuck up behind him and, in a fit of  blind psychotic rage, started beating ol’ Esteban into a bloody pulp before Ben calmed her down.

She still managed to break most of his bones, so Diablo was rushed to the hospital where he was put  in a full body cast. However, he was back to full fighting force in #307 and ready for revenge, transforming the hospital into his medieval castle and unleashin a horde of alchemically conjured demons on New York.
Once again it was Sharon who saved the day when she figured out the secret of Diablo’s miraculous recovery: he drenched his handlebar moustache with his potions, and sucking on a tip gave him access to his life restoring agent. Afraid to get clobbered again, the master alchemist  surrendered and the team headed home to Four Freedoms Plaza to celebrate their first victory.

Their victory celebration was observed by Franklin,  who used his invisible dream form to check in. Upon returning, he happily reported the good news to his parents...

Who is Fasaud, you wonder? The answer to that and more in part 2 of The New But Not Too Improved Fantastic Four: She-Thing Death with Sharon Ventura

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