Monday, December 31, 2012

1989: Englehart’s New But Not Too Fantastic Four Part IV: Harkness Gathering

1989: Englehart’s New But Not Too Fantastic Four Part IV: 
Harkness Gathering
By Jef Willemsen (

In the fourth and final part of this retrospective on Steve Englehart’s much maligned Fantastic Four run, the storyline entered the homestretch as Englehart assumed the penname of John Harkness and things went from bad to worse.

After Jim Shooter was booted out as Marvel’s editor in chief, his replacement Tom DeFalco adopted a new policy for the House of Ideas: ‘give the readers the illusion of change’. This more conservative approach to storytelling was, of course, code for “Sweet Jesus… lets just stick to what works.” .

In the case of Fantastic Four, this editorial edict meant the forced return of Reed and Sue, who had only recently joined the Avengers (wearing their old FF costumes). Englehart dutifully did what was asked of him, but was so annoyed he took his name off the book. From # 326 on, it was ‘John Harkness’ who chronicled the team’s adventures. Harkness wasted no time in the opening pages of his first issue.

Reed promised Sue he wouldn’t interfere with the new FF, but who are we kidding, really? The man can’t help but meddle. Using the recent Inferno incident as an excuse, he flew over to Four Freedoms Plaza to check in on Ben’s FF. Unfortunately, when he entered the building, the defensive systems kicked in and nearly killed him before the FF could turn them off.

Upon inspection, Reed discovered the reason for his near death experience:  they had neglected his instructions and didn’t properly maintain his security systems. Surprisingly enough, Reed managed to bite his tongue, just making the proper adjustments and quickly moved his attention to other matters…  

Yes, when it comes to returning his teammates to normal, Reed Richards doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record. But he decided to try again, even asking Sue to come over and bring his personal computer, the Turino XL. Using this super computer of the 1980s, Reed was able to quickly whip up an elaborate device capable of returning Johnny’s flame to normal. But just as the procedure started… Wouldn’t ya know it: the Frightful Four attacked.

During the fight, the Thing was hurled into the machine just as Johnny’s transformation entered a critical phase. As a result, it didn’t just restore the Torch to normal, Ben was somehow turned human as well. Whoops.

In the span of one issue, ‘John Harkness’ had undone most of Englehart’s achievements. Ben didn’t only lose his powers, he also saw his leadership role automatically reverted back to Reed as he and Sue rejoined to ‘help out’.

The Frightful Four used the confusion to make their escape. But the ‘new new FF’ (Reed, Sue, Johnny and Sharon the She-Thing) quickly went after them, leaving Ben behind to be comforted by his old girlfriend and Johnny’s wife Alicia.

Busting in on the bad guys, the FF soon had their evil counterparts on the ropes but the Wizard had held the final member of his team in reserve: Aron, the rogue Watcher. With a mere snap of his fingers, he knocked everyone out. Ah, but how to explain Aron?

Well, fine, in a nutshell. Aron is the nephew of ‘our’ Watcher Uatu, the one assigned to observe the Sol- system. But while all Watchers adhere to a strict code of non-interference,  young Aron felt restricted by this and wanted to participate in events. And did he ever…

After the events of # 328 that saw the Frightful Four rebel against Aron, Ben Grimm showing up to successfully free his teammates and the inevitable defeat of the bad guys… Aron popped up again to capture everyone so he could set his grand scheme in motion starting in # 329. Lets have him explain this master plan  but be warned: it involves clones.

Aron’s scheme didn’t come out of the blue. Englehart had set up his presence back in  FF Annual # 21. Ever since then, he had been busy surreptitiously collecting the FF’s DNA so he could create replacements. He kept the original members around in stasis while he monitored their dreams. Hey, he *IS* still a Watcher after all…

And here’s where things really got interesting. Steve Englehart didn’t take the editorial meddling lying down. Instead, he concocted a wickedly clever storyline that allowed him to have his cake and eat it too. He got to do condensed versions of the stories he was actually planning to do, while also satirizing Marvel’s ‘no change’ policy.

Englehart’s idea for Aron’s clones was smart, to say the least. The ‘Faux Four’ acted like the actual Fantastic Four would have behaved circa 1962. Reed was back to being the dismissive, all knowing leader archetype, with Sue acting as the doting damsel of yesteryear, joined by an even more juvenile Johnny and a downright morose and anti-social Ben Grimm who yelled ‘bah!’ whenever he could. Added to the mix was Sharon the She-Thing who mostly acted somewhat confused as she tried to wrap her head around this odd situation.

To further hammer home the point of just how backwards the 1962 FF was, Englehart actually sifted through Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s first three issues and  ‘recycled’ an astounding amount of dialogue for his throwback team.

Marvel editorial seemed completely oblivious to this and instead expressed considerable interest in the clones, even to the point of planning to give them their own limited series. Laughable, sure… but the notion the higher ups at Marvel were getting excited over cold and sarcastic leftovers is indeed a sad statement on the condition of the house of ideas circa 1989.  

What brings the Faux Four to Monster Island, you wonder? Well, Englehart decided to take Marvel’s ‘no change’ policy a step further: he made the clones relive the team’s adventures from the very beginning. So, considering this was their first issue, it only made sense to them they had to fight the Mole Man… No matter what established continuity might dictate. This meant ‘Reed’ actually had to raise Monster Island off the ocean floor before the team could square off against an understandably confused Mole Man. And even during the fight, Englehart blatantly lifted lines from Stan and Jack.

As the issues went on, the ‘Faux Four’ systematically went out of their way to relive the original team’s published history. Unable to find the Skrulls (their enemies in # 2) they actually interrupted a magic show, believing the performer on stage was the Miracle Man, their foe from # FF 3. After a while, they strayed from the plot and developed delusions of grandeur… demanding to be paid for their good deeds and introducing the ‘fantasti-tax’.

Meanwhile, back in Aron’s Canadian lair, the real FF were dreaming the stories Englehart really wanted to tell. For instance, # 330 saw the Invisible Woman dreaming of Doctor Doom and Kristoff as they met in final battle for the throne of Latveria, backed by teams of super villains that literally chopped each other to pieces. This conflict soon escalated as both NATO and the Warschaupact (ahh, the 1980s) got involved and nuclear bombs exploded left and right, destroying Earth in the process… “But it was only a dream…”

Issue # 331 featured Mr. Fantastic’s dream, that mostly seemed to focus on Reed’s love for his Turino XL:

4096 colors, you say? Ahhh, the 1980s.

Still, this seemingly innocuous computer actually turned out to be Ultron XII (the name is an anagram). The robotic villain’s plot turned out to be charmingly dated, as he planned to take over all the personal computers in the world. The She-Thing put an end to all of this by crumpling up Ultron’s robot form into a little metal ball.

Issue # 332 isn’t just about the Human Torch’s dream, but Steve Englehart’s dream for his run on the book as well. Johnny imagines Crystal returns to the team, as it causes  the same old romantic tensions when she rejoined back in Englehart’s early days. Over the course of several months, Crystal and Johnny’s feelings slowly rekindle, much to the chagrin of the Invisible Woman. Sue wants to protect her brother’s marriage and actually has a catfight with Crystal to get her to quit.

All of this has an unexpected effect on young Franklin, who goes into shock when he sees his family fighting. When he comes to, Franklin reveals one heck of a stunner, by way of a flashback to when he was temporarily transformed into an adult in FF # 245.


That’s right, the reason Ben and Alicia broke up in the first place was a young boy’s simplistic ideas about fixing relationships and making people love each other. Ben could only return to human form without Alicia and Johnny was all alone, so Franklin figured the best solution was to pair them up.

With everyone released from their ‘love spell’, Johnny and Crystal finally got together just as Ben and Alicia also found love again… all the while the She-Thing saw Ben slipping away underneath her very eyes. But what could have been a monumental and long lasting moment of change, remained but a dream… A dream set up in the earliest issues of Englehart’s run.

This brings us to Englehart’s final FF issue: # 333. Its 36 pages of slocky wackiness that tries to wrap the entire ball of wax before Walt Simonson took over the tiltle. So, let us quickly recap: just as the Avengers and Dr. Strange invade Four Freedoms Plaza to confront the ‘Faux Four’ about their Fantasti-tax, the clones are teleported away by Aron. Yet, the Avengers also see one of the FF’s ships leaving the building and decide to pursue the vessel.

However, most of the issue is used up in extended fight scenes between the Faux Four, the Fantastic Four and the Frightful Four, with Aron the Watcher and Dragon Man thrown in for good measure. Y’see, the events of Johnny’s dream turned out to be so intense, the Torch subconsciously heightened his body temperature until he thawed himself out of stasis. Yeah, that makes sense, right?

In the end, Aron tired of all the pointless fighting, sent the Frightful Four back to jail and returned the real FF back to their headquarters while he put the clones in stasis so he could study their dreams, something he claimed to find infinitely more interesting anyhow.

Meanwhile, remember that FF airship the Avengers had been tracing? On the final page, it lands in California and we get this send off.

“It might take a better man than me to straighten out this mess”

And with that, Steve Englehart left the Fantastic Four after 29 issues and 2 annuals. While his earliest issues showed the beginnings of a remarkable, memorable run, most of Englehart’s ideas for the book were squashed before coming fruition.

And while his initial storytelling appeared to rely heavily on the soap opera elements of Crystal breaking up Johnny and Alicia, along with Ben and Sharon’s complicated love affair, it would have resulted in a decidedly new take on Marvel’s first family.  But it was only a dream…


  1. After reading this review, though not the actual comics themselves, I actually find it a relief that Reed and Sue come back. Not because I think that's NECESSARY for the good of the comics, but because the concept seems to have gotten zanier and wonkier all the time, and it's hard to tell that it had a clear outcome in mind OTHER than just restoring the "natural order" of things.

    Either way, thanks to Jef for yet another amazing series!

  2. Hi David, great to hear you enjoyed the FF retrospective. However, I don't quite agree with your analysis that Reed and Sue had to come back.

    Part of what made Stan and Jack's run so great was the sense their characters were growing and developing as if they were real people. Johnny went from being a reckless teen punk to a college student who eventually found first real girlfriend in Crystal. Reed and Sue got married and had a child. Stan Lee left the book before he could develop Franklin further and most other writers used Franklin as little more than a prop...

    John Byrne loathed the little guy so much, he wanted to kill him off early on in his run. Marvel wouldn't let him, that's where the idea for Sue miscarrying Valeria came from.

    Anyways, for my money Steve Englehart picked up the 'real people doing real things' thread when he wrote out Reed and Sue because they *had* been ignoring Franklin's needs for years. As parents, you have to do what's best for your children and provide them with a stable, nurturing environment. A superhero team's skyscraper headquarters isn't that at all.

    And who knew what outcome Englehart would have had in mind if Marvel editorial hadn't been so oppressive. Its tough to judge a man on the watered down versions of his work.

    1. Great set of posts, Jef. I'm working on my own posts on the same issues and stumbled upon yours. I emailed Steve Englehart some questions. We'll see if he responds.

  3. I love it when Wizard recruited Titania to join his Frightful Four. However, Marvel needs to quadruple Titania's strength, so she will be able to smash through Susan Storm's force field!



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