Saturday, March 23, 2013

1980: The FF Forays Into The 80 part II: Retro Oh-Noes

By Jef Willemsen (

In the Spring of 1980, veteran writer Doug Moench teamed with neophyte artist Bill Sienkiewicz to produce the first Fantastic Four run of the new decade. However, their tales turned out to be firmly rooted in the murky depths of 1970s backwater continuity. 

The beloved 2011 movie prequel X-men First Class takes place in 1962, but as director Matthew Vaughn famously stated in an interview regarding the look and feel of the movie:

"1962 is far more grounded in the world of the 50s, I think it takes about five years for a decade to really start getting its identity"

That certainly holds true for Doug Moench's Fantastic Four. The pacing and content of his stories still have an unmistakable, late 70s feel to them. Nothing wrong with that, hindsight is 20/20 after all, but it's interesting to note how Moench's successor John Byrne essentially dialed the clock back to 1962 in his first year on the title and is somehow still regarded as the great genius who brought Fantastic Four into the 80s.

Anyhoo.. we last left the Fantastic Four in the opening page of # 219, that immediately established Moench's take on the characters. Reed was smart, Ben was strong, Johnny was the young one and Sue, well, she was Reed's wife so she was there. Essentially, their roles were as subtle as the intro to their 1994 cartoon show.

"Reed Richards is elastic, Sue can fade from sight, Johnny is a Human Torch..."

Darn, that tune is every bit as corny as it is catchy... How did it end? Ah yes, "the Thing just loves to fight", something Ben proves in the second page of this issue when a part of the machine he's been lugging accidently hits him on his head and he smashes the expensive piece of equipment out of spite...  

"Sue, must you always get in the way?"

Annoyed, Mr. Fantastic walks out on his teammates, which leaves Sue with ample time to stick up for her unreasonable, abusive husband. As Johnny wonders what's eating Reed, Ben is eating... a sandwich.

With all of this is going down at the Baxter Building, prince Namor the Sub-Mariner is surprised in his sleep by a group of divers who attack the royal palace at night (... isn't it always dark as night on the bottom of the ocean?) in order to get their hands on the Sub-Mariner's prized possession: the fabled Perseus Horn.

Guess who they deliver it to...

Meet Cap'n Barracuda, one of Lee and Kirby's not quite so memorable creations... A non super powered, one eyed submarine captain (which allows for super easy periscope peaking) who only appeared in three other stories since his introduction in 1964's Strange Tales # 120. 

Still, he could finally be a real threat, thanks to the Perseus Horn's ability to control all aquatic life, including the many sea monsters Namor himself loves to call up while invading the surface world. Barracuda didn't want to conquer however, his main goal for employing the denizens of the deep was to keep the police and the superhero community occupied while he robbed some banks.

A relatively sound plan, considering both the cops and the FF rushed out to fight the first Giganto approaching New York harbor. Everyone assumed Namor was behind it, until hie showed up.

In a refreshing change of pace, Namor and the Fantastic Four skipped the usual 'good guys battle it out for a few pages before they realise they're on the same side' cliche... And a positively Neal Adams-style Sub-Mariner agreed to join forces with the team to deal with... even more sea creatures?

While Namor and the Torch tracked down the source of the horn's vibrations, Reed, Ben and Sue were  left to deal with the masses of murderous, mind controlled sea life. Reed soon came with a way to break the horn's hold: cancel out its swaying tones with similar frequencies.

However, by the time Johnny and Namor found his sub, Barracuda had already taken both the horn and a squadron of goons to the main land to go a-lootin'... And the minute he noticed his control over the creatures was slipping away due to Mr. Fantastic's counter tones, he blew the Perseus horn for all he was worth, gaining the upperhand again. This minor victory really unhinged the already rather unstable villain.

"No use... I don't have enough strength or control yet!"

Poor Sue... Moench followed Stan Lee's example and consistenly wrote her as little more than a cheerleader to Reed Richards, despite the fact her invisible force fields potentially made her the most powerful one on the team. Instead of blowing her cover by trying to grab the horn, she could have just thrown an invisible force bubble around Barracuda's head so he would pass out, ya know... the same thing she did in Fantastic Four # 166... to the friggin' Hulk.


Still, she kept the horn out of his reach long enough for Mr. Fantastic's faux frequency to work and for both Namor and the others to 'rescue' her of sorts... Which was Namor's cue to wrap matters up as only the righteous fury of the one true Sub-Mariner can...

"For the love of filthy paper!"

With a decisive 'WOKT!', Namor knocked Barracuda out in his last Marvel appearance to date. Yes, this baddie is so lame even the late Mark Gruenwald wouldn't offer him up to be a victim of the Scourge of the Underworld over in Captain America. 

But just as he's about to return to Atlantis with the Perseus horn, Moench almost has the Sub-Mariner pay literal lip service to the long running, Lee & Kirby established, romance between him and Sue.

And with Namor's departure, all that's left is to wrap up that silly ol' argument the team had in the opening pages of the issue... So let's get it over with...

"Just thinking about how we were at each other's throats a few hours ago..."

Reed happily forgives Johnny for the fight and agrees with Sue, it's just like a family to have arguments... Doesn't anyone remember that none of them were actually arguing until Mr. Fantastic tripped, threw a tantrum and decided to curse out everyone else? Just like a family, alright... Although no one told me the Baxter building had been moved to a trailer park...

So much for # 219... And if you thought the sudden arrival of the Moench/Sienkiewicz team on the book was jarring, get ready for # 220 and 221, a two parter that featured John Byrne's first FF contribution as both writer and artist. This tale about mysterious aliens in the arctic circle causing worldwide electrical problems started out as a Coca-Cola commissioned oversized free comic book giveaway. However, as Byrne revealed, the story was deemed much too violent by the softdrink giant and subsequently rejected. 

Or, as Byrne himself put it:

"If you look at it, you'll see that the Thing hits a couple of robots. But, it was too violent for Coca-Cola and they rejected it, Jim (Salicrup -JW) suggested we cut it in half, add a couple of pages and turn it into two issues of 'Fantastic Four'. They're the two dullest issues of FF ever published."

Byrne had been Fantastic Four's regular artist for 8 months, garnering much praise before Sienkiewicz's debut. Having him return for those two issues only served as a painful reminder to faithful fans of what they had lost, even though Byrne would later admit he didn't feel those initial eight issues set the world on fire. Be that as it may, having this brief respite didn't exactly help cement the notion that # 219 was in fact the start of a new era of greatness.

Inevitably, issue # 222 rolled along, which saw the return of Moench and Sienkiewicz in a two parter that started out like this...

"Morning troops, now that I've slept so late and let my brain get fuzzy, I think it's time for an outing to the library!"

'Morning'? Just look to your right, Reed. Judging from the pitch black dark outside, I'd say morning has come and gone... Still, the opening page to this issue proves another thing: inker Joe Sinnott started to embellish Sienkiewicz's art more heavily than in Bill's debut issue. Back then, Sinnott had already inked over 150 Fantastic Four issues, starting with Jack Kirby in # 44, so he knew how an FF comic was supposed to look. In fact, writer Doug Moench recalled in Comics Creators On Fantastic Four that he specifically asked for Sinnot to ink his run, in hopes of emulating that fabled Lee and Kirby FF feel.

However, times had changed. Just as Sue was playing horsey with Franklin, Reed demanded her attention as he kissed her good bye, eliciting a rather surprising reaction from Franklin.

"Yaybo! Mommy and daddy are smooching'! Smooch er again, daddy!
 I like it when you smooch mommy!"

Yes, having a young boy cheering on his parents' intimate moments... nothing creepy or disturbing about that, right? Well, not compared to what's about to happen to the little guy, that is.

With Johnny and Ben out and Reed leaving to do scientific research at the New York library (ahh, the age of Google and Wikipedia was close to three decades away), Sue remained behind to look after Franklin. And what better game for the Invisible Woman to play with her 4 year old kid than... Hide and seek?

A grown woman turning invisible and forcing someone not even old enough to read  to look for her... Talk about child cruelty... especially when during the course of this game you stand by and watch your child fried in a room that contains the portal to the deadly negative universe.

Guess that's as good enough a reason to panic. Sue fires the good old FF flare gun, used to summon the team in the days before beepers, pagers and cellphones, and Reed, Johnny and Ben quickly come a'running...

"Do something, Reed... stop it... Help him!"

Sue's pleas have little effect, as her little boy suddenly speaks up but doesn't sound anything like the adorable child we all know and love. Luckily, a distraught Sue is comforted by Reed as only a husband can soothe his wife's understandable hysteria...

"Stop it, Sue! Snap out of it!"

Little over a year after this issue saw print, Hank Pym would hit the Wasp in Avengers, an act he'd never live down. But Reed Richards somehow avoided being branded a wife beater, even though he smacks her off her feet with an enlarged hand. There was no need for that, given that he was already restraining her. On a sidenote: apparently Reed also knocked Sue into her FF uniform on that last panel.  
Ah well...

Between slapping his spouse senseless and panicking, Reed figured out Franklin's been possessed by some being from the Negative Zone. With Doctor Strange unavailable for consultation, the FF suddenly realised Franklin's nanny Agatha Harkness is a witch... and don't they specialise in possessions and stuff like that?

So ho ho ho... it's down to Whisper Hill they go for something as inevitable as...

Meet Gabriel the Devil Hunter, a character Doug Moench created in 1974's Vault of Horror # 2. Gabriel, as his nickname suggests, is rather adept at hunting down demons. And boy, is Franklin possessed by one or what...

Much to Agatha's shock, the force possessing her young ward is Nicholas Scratch... her own son. Agatha can only banish the warlock from her base of power, the hidden witch community of New Salem... 

So that's where we'll pick up part III of The FF Forays Into The 80s: Salem's Sly Seven & The Blind God That Time Forgot

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to see someone reviewing this - understandably I would say - forgotten period of the FF. Back then, I was a regular reader of the title since a little before issue #200, but I recall dropping it right after this Salem's Seven two-parter (and then came back like a shot when Byrne took over).
    I couldn't have expressed it at the time, but I was really turned off by the characterization - esp. Reed as a complete jerk to everyone, but esp. Sue: the way he constantly puts her down, and even, as here, smacks her (!). Probably worse is the fact that Sue just takes it, in this sort of "my man knows what's best for me" fashion. So yeah, not Moench's best work.
    On the other hand, I rather liked Sienkiewicz's art - admittedly, he's not a good fit with the FF, but it's still pretty nice.



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