Saturday, August 8, 2015

1980-1989: The Failtastic Four part I: The First Five Not So Fantastic F4 Adventures...

By Jef Willemsen (

The new Fantastic Four movie is out and if the early reviews are any indication, it's a big ol' bomb. Most fans prefered the traditional comics version and rejected the reimagined FF on principle alone. But let's not kid ourselves: the "classic" Fantastic Four is also far from perfect.

For most of the 1980s it was a pretty good time to be a Fantastic Four fan. Big name creators like John Byrne, Steve Englehart and Walt Simonson enjoyed long and critically acclaimed runs that took Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben to new heights. But over the course of the decade the team also had quite a few adventures that makes the Josh Trank directed feature film look like The Godfather by comparison.

Let's start the countdown...

10) Kall My Killer Karisma! (Fantastic Four I#266, May 1984)

Or: what a way to coif up an inventory story!

You know you're in trouble when the main villain is a disgruntled beautician whose only weapon is a tube of radioactive face cream. Schmearing her face with the stuff and taking on the name Karisma, Mary Brown went on a crime spree. Eventually, she ran into the Thing who fell under her spell the second she lifted her veil. The Invisible Woman proved immune to Karisma's charms but was almost killed by her mind controlled teammate. In the end, Sue turned her head gear invisible which she figured would be enough to end the embarrassing confrontation.

With a few more pages to fill, it naturally had the exact opposite effect.

"Death to the Invisible Girl!"

Holding back the angry mob with a forcefield or two, Sue finally stumbled upon the solution and made Karisma's entire head invisible. No longer able to control anyone, the cosmetics criminal was quickly detained and hauled off by a squad of all female police officers. And that's that, a mediocre tale that reads like an old inventory story that would have been subpar even for Marvel Team-Up or Two-In-One.

What's worse is the timing and way the story is framed. The entire adventure is told as one big flashback told by Alicia Masters in a hospital waiting room while Sue is fighting for her life and that of her unborn child. To basically put the resolution of that heart rending storyline on hold for the unbearable lightness that is Karisma is almost unforgiveable.

9) Go Home Spinnerette, You're Drunk (Fantastic Four I#237, December 1981)

Or: How's that *not* for an encore?

Early in John Byrne's run, the Fantastic Four's 20th anniversary came up. To celebrate two decades of the world's greatest comic magazine Byrne dreamed up the instant classic Terror In A Tiny Town. In this Twilight Zone inspired thrill ride, the FF find themselves trapped in the appropriately titled Liddleville, a miniature town inhabited by semi-sentient marionettes.

Fans loved it and couldn't wait what epic saga John Byrne would throw at them next. Well, wouldja believe a space alien drunk on oxygen whose attacks make people really dizzy? Meet Spinnerette, a very confused, tall alien lady roped into helping a group of bums commit crimes. Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl were on hand to fight her.

                                                           "I don't think so Sue. Just do it!"

Ever the charmer, that Reed. When he at last has his universal translator working, they quickly learn "Spinnerette" is a Solon part of a crew of a spaceship that was forced to land on Earth because they ran out of fuel. However, because our atmosphere contained more oxygen than what they're used to, all Solons started to act drunk (as one does). With all that explained away, Reed offered to help Spinnerette and her crew get the fuel source they needed. And after 22 pages, Reed and Sue see their new friends off only to wrap up the story with a joke so groan worthy even Stan Lee couldn't fake a smile.

"All the Solons look exactly alike, while on Earth we all look very different.
                                           Simply put... They didn't think she'd be noticed

"... On Sol III, no human look like you! What a planet!" Thank you Yakob, I sure could use a Smirnoff after that ordeal.

8) I Sing Of Blind Gods and Biker Vikings... (Fantastic Four I#225, December 1980)

Or: Journey Into Meh-stery.

Fantastic Four
has always been a great vehicle to tell tall tales of hidden realms and outlandish outsiders. After all Stan Lee and Jack Kirby used that same formula and came up with the Inhumans, Attilan and of course Black Panther and Wakanda. So, the FF's encounter with Korgon, the blind god who wept tears of power should theoretically fit that tradition beautifully. However, writing a good story takes more than simply following a recipe. Doug Moench penned Fantastic Four during the early 1980s and this was one of his least succesful attemps at inventing new villains for the FF to fight.

Perhaps the story fell flat because Korgon wasn't really a villain at all. We've already covered this particular storyline a little while ago, so be sure to check that entry if you want to know more about him. Suffice it to say, the blind god is dying, which causes him to lose control over his energy tears that in turn wreak havoc all across the world. The sobs even mess with the FF's powers, causing the team to track Korgon down. Of course, they attempt to help him but there's evil, ambitious vikings. On motor bikes. In the Arctic. And Thor pops in too because, hey, vikings.

It's never a good sign when the one thing that makes an issue memorable is that single panel of Franklin and Alicia. It instantly proves why it's such an awfully irresponsible idea to have a blind person babysit a mischievous four year old who loves ketchup so much he wants the floor to have a taste too. Also, having her walk around with trays of scalding hot food on a slippery floor seems like a liability law suit waiting to happen... And you can bet your braille board Matt Murdock would take that case.

7) Steve Englehart Phones It In (Fantastic Four I#326 - 333 May - December, 1989)

Or: The man who wished he wasn't there.

By the time the 80s and his tenure on Fantastic Four drew to a close, Steve Englehart was so fed up with Marvel he took his name off the book. Englehart wrote the final few issues as "John Harkness", a pen name he'd occassionaly used for work he didn't want to be associated with. And oh boy, did it show. This is what Steve had to say about the experience on his website...

"I was ordered to bring back Reed & Sue - the exact thing that had dragged the book down in the first place - and undo the other changes in the book. I'm not the kind of guy to take such things lying down, so I wove a plot that put the real FF into suspended animation and sent bland replicas to take their place. Then the real FF dreamed all the plotlines I would have explored over the coming year. That provided a modicum of fun, but overall, this was one of the most painful stretches of my career."

It's a tragic ending to a run that really started out promising. Appointed to helm the FF after John Byrne left in 1986 (more on that next time), he was initially given free reign to take the book in exciting new directions we covered here. Reed and Sue left and were replaced by Crystal and Sharon Ventura. Ben became the leader of a completely new team with its own interesting challenges and inner discord. But Marvel editorial ended it all and brought Reed and Sue back before the decade was out... Finally choosing the illusion of change over actual, structural story development.

6) FFS: Nick Fury and the Fuhrer Walk Into A Bar... (Fantastic Four I#292, July 1986)

Late in his Fantastic Four run (though he didn't know it at the time), John Byrne decided it would be a neat idea to have the team go back in time to fight Hitler. Sorta. Kinda. Just an issue after seemingly losing Mr. Fantastic during a fight in the Negative Zone the Fantastic Three and Nick Fury find themselves in 1936 New York City. The premise was a wonderful excuse for Byrne to go wild and draw some gorgeously atmospheric vistas of the early 20th Century Big Apple.

But then Nick Fury decided to hop over to Germany to knock off a certain housepainter turned reichskanzler well before he could start a little conflict called Word War II. Figuring that the death of Hitler would irrevocably alter the course of history, the FF tried to stop Fury from frying the future Fuhrer... and failed.

In the end, it turned out the 1930s they'd  visited was actually a dream made manifest by one Joseph Calhoun, a  mutant reality warper who'd been comatose since the late 30s and somehow pulled Fury and the FF into his imagined reality. As a take on the tired "twas all a dream!' switcheroo, this two issue storyline already felt flat back in 1986.

Incidentally, these issues were never published in the Netherlands. At the time, the Dutch publisher of Marvel Comics Juniorpress felt that comics which prominently displayed swastikas, nazi memorabilia not to mention Hitler as a cover model sieging the heck out of his heil were in poor taste.

If only it'd been a dream.

5) Clash Of The Ghastly Gas Bags (Fantastic Four I#264, March 1984)

Or: Suck it, Neal Adams!

Even as early as 1984, John Byrne started to believe his own press. As a result, his ego grew to the size of the similary named planet. He also began to take petty potshots at his colleagues if he felt they had somehow wronged or offended him. An infamous example of Byrne's peevishness was the FF story he wrote after Chris Claremont used Doctor Doom in Uncanny X-Men I#146 & 147. Byrne went out of his way to establish that the Doom who appeared there wasn't just a Doombot (A-76, in case you were wondering), he also had the one, true Doctor Doom destroy the automaton because he deemed it to be faulty. 

In Fantastic Four I#264 & 265 he created Alden Maas, intended to mock both Neal Adams and Walt Disney in one fell swoop. Maas was the owner of Wally World, a wildly popular amusement park filled with all the cartoon characters he'd come up with. Maas held the belief that the planet was comparable to a gas filled ball. If you introduce sufficient energy to heat the gas, the Earth will expand. Wait, read it for yourself... 

Maas had his flunkies drill a giant hole all the way down to the planetary core. He then kidnapped the Human Torch and planned to use the heat of his nova blasts to reinfuse the core. Sounds like a typical, nonsensical supervillain plot, right? Well, yes and no... It does, but Neal Adams actually believes the theory and has been actively promoting it for over twenty years now. You'll note that "Alden Maas" is an anagram for Neal Adams, proving that Byrne was anything but subtle about his mockery.

In the end, Johnny is freed and Alden Maas' plan is stopped but not before we learn that Maas had actually died about 17 years ago from an incurable degenerative neurological condition that caused delusions of grandeur. Right before his death, Maas constructed an "animation chamber" that somehow prolonged his "life". Unable to leave the room, he ordered his personal staff around that consisted of intelligent but totally subservient robots. They were smart enough to know Maas' plan would never work, but continuted to obey his deranged demands nonetheless. And in case a beloved creator of children's entertainment cheating death sounds familiar, yes... That does sound a lot like the urban legend claiming Walt Disney had his head cryogenically preserved.

There was no such hope for Maas. He left his animation chamber when Thing, Torch and the Mole Man and his monsters attacked Maas Island to stop his plans. Once outside, the effects of reality caught up with him and he perished within moments. In the aftermath, we get this cheery conclusion

"C'mon kid, time ta head home. I feel like bein' depressed for a while.".

Maas' robotic staff walk the corpse of their creator to the bottom of the ocean until the pressure destroys them all. The heroes watched them all go off on their preprogrammed Bataan Death March... Aren't comics fun?

So much for the first five FF stories that would be fantastic failures at the box office. Next, we hit the top 5 in which we learn that less isn't always more when it comes to Doom... among other things! 


  1. I think that "an incurable degenerative neurological condition that caused delusions of grandeur" is actually what John Byrne himself suffers from!

  2. Great list.

    Just for the record, though, you already listed six stories, which I assume means there are only four more to come; that said, if you give us five more, I don't think anyone will complain!

  3. As Byrne, the inimitable jackass, often uttered in the old AOL message boards: "Your agenda is showing."

  4. Aah, Fantastic four in good old comics, man i love this !

  5. Karisma would be a good villain for Halle Berry's Catwoman 2!



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