Thursday, April 4, 2013

1981: The FF Forays Into The 80s part VI: Legacies Of A Forgotten Run (or: Where's My Stygorr mini?!)

By Jef Willemsen (

With only one issue of their run left to review, the final part of this retrospective will mainly focus on the Moench/Sienkiewicz Fantastic Four as a whole. Was it really all that bad? Why have we never seen any of their original creations again? Will I ever stop asking questions and just get on with it?

John Byrne was scheduled to take over next month, so Moench and Sienkiewicz had just one issue left to put all the toys back in the proverbial box. Easier said than done, considering Reed Richards had just shifted the Baxter Building and several blocks of New York city to the Negative Zone, with no clue how to bring everyone home again.

"...Heaven help us... we're stuck here, trapped in the Negative Zone... Perhaps forever."

Talk about being in a pickle... But things were about to get even worse, as the team faced two seperate threats in Fantastic Four # 231. First, the natives were getting restless. Getting transported into the middle of a negatively charged universe where everything is lethal can really put a crimp in your day. A mob of ticked off New Yorkers, led by one Lew Shiner, made their way to the Baxter Building to get some answers...

Shiner was more concerned with meeting his deadline than, well, actually dying... or standing atop a bulldozer that's clearly hovering for some unknown reason. And unbeknownst to him, everyone might as well end up dead, courtesy of the second threat... that sensational character find of 1981...

"Stygorr the Night Lord shall repulse the invasion! All shall die!"

It's hard to argue with a purple pink villain wearing a pair of glasses the size of a greenhouse. That wouldn't stop the FF from trying, though they first had to listen to Reed explain their escape plan. 

"The mass of our floating island is just great enough that it will probably bounce off the distortion area, unless we can figure out some way to force it through. 

In other words: they were too heavy to fit through the hole home. And now they had to fight this Stygorr character as well. 

"The power of Stygorr is unconquerable! Know that I am the equal of Annihilus and Blastaar, those petty Negative Zone upstarts... perhaps even their superior..."

Well, at least he has their style of grandiose villainous patter down... But Stygorr does have a point, unlike those two classic FF foes, he can actually alter his body from positive to anti-matter, making him a threat in either universe.

And speaking of purple clad bad guys with weird headgear...

Lew Shiner and his demolition crew were headed for the Baxter Building, armed with bulldozers and explosives, planning to invade their headquarters and force the FF to return them home. Officer O'Roarke tried to stop them, but was overrun by the crowd. His gun was delivered to Shiner, who fired at the Human Torch during their confrontation with the FF, almost killing the young hero.

Shocked by his actions, Shiner's men abandoned him, which caused a maddened Lew to retreat to his construction site to plan anew. Speaking of plans, Reed just had one.

Yup... it's real simple. Still too heavy to pass through the distortion area, they just have to destroy the abandoned construction site, conveniently located near the end of the island. The explosion will propel them all to safety... and Stygorr's attacks are even causing the island to slowly spin around. Just wait for the right angle, blow up the lot and we're home free.

"With a massive effort, Susan Richards expands her force-bubble and the building breaks free... rushing out into sub-space"

Nice going, Sue! But you know Stygorr will just phase shift his energies and revert that debris to harmless rubble, right? Wait, he'll tell you himself...

Yeah, the conveniently color coordinated Lew and Stygorr meet, merge and cause an incredible FA-BA-BA-BOOM in the process, despite the fact space, negative or otherwise, is a soundless vacuum. But an explosion powerful enough to be heard in a space without sound is more than sufficient to push the island out of the Negative Zone and have it appear, how miraculous, in the exact same spot it disappeared from.

Everyone is safe and sound, which throws a real monkey wrench in the newscasters' reports who were rather busy reporting on the Fantastic Four's demise... So much for that eulogy.

"The black stuff's gone..."

I'm sure quite a few readers yelled the same thing a month later when Byrne's arrival spelled the end of Sienkiewicz's overwhelming, heavy inks and needlessly pitch black backgrounds. Moench meanwhile tied up all his ongoing storylines, even breaking up Johnny and his most recent girlfriend Lorrie... Anything to make sure the book was status quo.

Reading these final pages, one can't help but feel everyone was ready for the Byrne era to begin... A fact this fan letter from # 231's Fantastic Four Fan Page stated rather eloquently.

"You have to be the best artist on the FANTASTIC FOUR since John Byrne"

So, looking back... How bad was Doug Moench's Fantastic Four really? Not too great, if you ask the man himself.

Interviewed by Tom DeFalco for 2006's Comics Creators On The Fantastic Four, he already claimed his idea for Marvel's first family never quite gelled with Bill's artistic vision. Moench wrote stories in the vein of the Lee/Kirby days and expected his tales to be drawn by a Jack Kirby like artist. What he got was Sienkiewicz, who was actually channeling the far more realistic style of Neal Adams at the time.

"The funny thing was that Rich Buckler was doing a great Kirby riff at the time. Bill was my friend and doing a great job on 'Moon Knight', and I didn't want to sabotage him or ace him out of doing 'Fantastic Four'. But I was always tempted to call (FF editor) Salicrup and suggest Rich Buckler for the book. I never did it because I had too much respect for Bill."

Loyalty is an admirable trait, but it does make one wonder how Moench's run would have looked had Buckler been allowed to draw it...

Rich Buckler's rendition of the mid-70s Fantastic Four

As for the stories... Moench admitted to being a major fan of the early Lee/Kirby days, citing FF # 21, 25 & 26 as his early personal favorites. Yet, apart from the Sub-Mariner, he never used any of the classic FF villains in his stories,  relying instead on new creations like the Brain Parasites, the Samurai Destroyer, Franklin's temper tantrum fueled Ego-Spawn, not to mention the Ebon Seeker, Firefrost and Stygorr.

There was a reason for that.

"They (the classic foes) had been overused and I was told to stay away from the established guys for at least a year. I couldn't wait to get to them, but Salicrup kept putting me off and telling me to wait. I remember looking forward to doing every one of the classic villains, but I ended up leaving the book before I ever got a chance to use any of them."

Can it really be Fantastic Four without their famous rogues gallery?

Moench tried his best to compensate, casting new creations in the roles of old, familiar foes. The Ebon Seeker from issues # 228 & 229 was a Galactus-level threat. Much like the world eater, he was more than capable of defeating the team and destroying Earth. The FF were only able to defeat him by by persuading his companion, the serene and calm Firefrost, to take action on behalf of Earth... Much like the Silver Surfer was moved to rise up against his master during the first Galactus story.

Stygorr the Night Lord, while certainly possessing an original look, was little more than a stand in for either Blastaar or Annihilus... He fulfilled his purpose in the story as Negative Zone baddie and was never heard from since, a fate shared by most of the Moench-era FF foes. Only the Ego-Spawn would resurface, years later in... of all places... the early 90s FF-spinoff title Fantastic Force.

"Great Kronus!"

So, Moench made the best of a less than ideal situation. Not having the artist or art style he wanted, being denied the classic canon of baddies, it's safe to say he was dealt a pretty crummy hand. Yet, he persevered for almost a year. And while the works of Stan and Jack were his main source of inspiration, Moench broke new ground... he was the first to actually do something with Franklin.

In fact, Franklin was the focal point of most of the Moench run.

Getting possessed by Nicholas Scratch in # 222 and 223, unknowingly inspiring his father to devise a way to take down the Samurai Destroyer in # 226, not to mention finally using his powers in a conscious way to kill brain parasites left and right in # 227... Franklin took central stage, which caused the further investigation into his abilities in # 228, which lead to the creation of the Ego-Spawn.

But Moench was also responsible for a surprising act of feminism. When he started out, the Invisible Girl was little more than a cipher. Moench himself stated he saw Sue's role on the team as Reed's dutiful wife and cheerleader. She was only there to make him look good.

A statement he backed up in the opening page of # 219, his first issue, which saw Sue struggling with the simplest of tasks...

"My invisibility powers may be limited, but there's no reason I can't apply more imagination to them. Still, even with these forcefield tongs, I can barely lift this chair off the floor."

Under Moench, Sue acted like a typical Stan Lee female with a dose of 1970s feminism mixed in for good measure. Above all, she was still the doting mother and housewife, yet also ready to ferociously snap at anyone who threatened her family or even said something remotely disparaging.

Ben, Johnny and Reed all got an earfull at one point or another. By the end of Moench's run, Sue's inherently antagonistic personality hadn't changed all that much... but her power level certainly did...

From barely being able to move an office chair to shoving a whole block of office buildings into the Negative Zone... Sue came a long way, baby. John Byrne would pick up on this thread and finally have her adopt the nickname 'The Invisible Woman'... An overdue and welcome change considering she'd gone through a marriage and two pregnancies at that point.  

Original enemies, a renewed focus on Franklin, the classic disfunctional family feel applied to a new decade... Doug Moench's Fantastic Four truly wasn't all that horrible. If joined by a more fitting artist, Moench might have carried a kind of retro 70s feel into the 80s for quite a few more years.

So why did he leave the book?

"(The reason I left was) Largely because I didn't think I was doing a good job and I was offered another assignment, something I wanted to do even more than 'FF'.  I really loved the FF as a reader, but they didn't work as well for me as a writer. I guess I just couldn't see the FF being done by anyone except Stan and Jack, and that included me."

A frank and honest admission, even though other creators didn't exactly share Moench's sentiments. His successor John Byrne for instance is famous for his mission statement: "Do what Stan and Jack did... and if you can, improve upon it."  

Moench's FF isn't without its supporters, though... Marvel Universe Appendix founder Jeff Christiansen is a fan, stating: "I think Moench's run is one of the high points of the series." The Fantastic Four fansite FF: The Great American Novel praises Moench's run too, even though the writer probably wasn't aware his stories would fit so well in their overall narrative. 

In the final analysis however, the success of a writer in the comic book business is... how is he good for business? Sean Kleefeld compiled a list of Fantastic Four sales that tell just how well received the Moench/Sienkiewicz run truly was...

After a brief spike around # 200, the title slowly bottomed out below the 200.000 copies line, consistently remaining there for much of Moench's run. Only after Byrne took over, the figures started to climb again...

Yet. when all is said and done, the old adage holds true... Sometimes, you do have to take one step backward to take two forward. Without Doug Moench semi-retro touch guiding the Fantastic Four into the 80s, John Byrne might never have been able to take over and skyrocket the title the way he did.

But I'm still waiting on that Stygorr and the Ebon Seeker reunion mini... Make it happen, Marvel!


  1. Great write-up; thanks for doing this. It was interesting to read a summary of a run on FF that - as I noted in a previous comment - I had skipped after reading the first few issues.
    And I have to add, I still see no reason to take a dim view of the art here: like I said before, based on the issues I had and the examples you've posted here, Sienkiewicz's art was just fine. If something was truly off in this run, it was Moench's storytelling (which is odd to me, since I so enjoyed his work in almost everything else he did).

  2. Thanks again for tackling these reviews, Jef. I remember seeing the Stygorr issue on the spinner racks in 1981. Based on his helmet, I got excited and thought it was Magneto, only to be disappointed when I thumbed through a few pages. I didn't buy it, never read it, looks like that was a good non-purchase.

  3. I'll agree w/ Edo above -- you can't blame the failure on Sienkiewicz.
    Admittedly, his layouts (at least early on) were pretty boring -- hardly a trace of "dynamic" drawing style. But still the art was beautifully rendered and more than enough for any decent writer to work with.

    Problem was the storylines were Sooo weak -- and sooo boring. even if they couldn't use the rogues gallery, he could have come up with some more interesting conflicts - and better characterizations.



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