Sunday, August 9, 2015

1980 - 1989: The Failtastic Four part II: The Fairly Foul Final Foursome*

By Jef Willemsen (

Continuing our look back at 1980s Fantastic Four stories that are as big a bomb as the newly released F4 movie. Sure, the team members weren't teenagers and in those days Johnny 'n Sue were still blood relatives... But even tradition doesn't guarantee success.

As we move on to the final four entries, perhaps it's prudent to point out this listing isn't intended to mock the creators. Well, not too much anyway. Like anything else, producing comics is a job. Some days you're golden, some days you stink up the place so bad you fear you're five minutes from fired. Or, to paraphrase Robert Burns: "The best laid plan o' mice an' men often go wrong". That having said, let's dig in.

4) Bye Bye Byrne (Fantastic Four I#293, August 1986)

Or: Who knew Under The Dome had an 80s prequel comic?

In the Summer of 1986, John Byrne ended his 5 year Fantastic Four run, citing the increased and overly critical scrutiny of Marvel's editor in chief Jim Shooter as one of the main reasons for leaving both the book and the company. He left mid-storyline, forcing veteran writer Roger Stern to jump in and finish the story based on John's plot. It wasn't pretty.

When Reed's old hometown Central City is suddenly trapped underneath a weird, black dome, the FF and their friend Wyatt Wingfoot rush out to help. The matter becomes even more urgent when they learn that time goes by a whole lot faster inside: one second equals well over a month. When She-Hulk is sucked inside, the FF mount a rescue mission though they fear she might already have died of old age.

Still, they dove in only to discover something far worse than a geriatric She-Hulk. Because of the time difference, Central City has become an almost alienlike citystate filled by an inbred population that worships the Fantastic Four as gods.

Yes, that's the last Fantastic Four panel John Byrne ever drew in the actual comic. To be fair, it's a telling and fitting final image from a creator who truly revered the FF and did all he could to put them on the proverbial pedestal. And sure, as cliffhangers go, this is a more than intriguing teaser.

What followed a month later was a horrible let down. The new Central City turned out to be a police state governed by a mysterious man known as the Coordinator. As his enforcers he had genetically engineered, horriby mutated inbred troops based on the team.

                           "She-demon staggers Head-Brothers! Press attack... She must fall!"

In the end, they manage to meet the Coordinator who actually turned out to be Harvey Jessup, an old scientist friend of Reed's who was so scared about the Cold War he created a device that would shield Central City, keeping it safe in case of nuclear armageddon. However, he hadn't factored in the time difference, actually believing it had been thousands of years since he activated the black dome. That's why when his followers briefly took him out of suspended animation to see the FF he didn't believe they were real.

                                                                    "J-Jessup... why..."

Yeah, why *did* you pick that hot pink outfit... Is this in vogue after 10.000+ years of fashion?

Needless to say, the team survived the attack and Mr. Fantastic succeeded in disabling the dome generator. He even sent the actual city 10.000 years into the future using a degree of technobabble not seen this side of Star Trek: Voyager reruns). Underneath the city, they discovered She-Hulk and all of the original inhabitants of Central City who were being held in suspended animation. They woke up to find their entire life was gone, with the FF having to offer very little comfort other than "but at least you got your health!"

3) My Father The Warlord* (Fantastic Four I#273, December 1984)

Or: On Golden Bomb...

Remember the old saying "too many cooks spoil the broth?" Who knew the same could be true when the writer, artist, inker ánd letterer are the same guy? Yes, John Byrne handled everything but the colored crayons in this three part storyline that finally established Reed's family background.

In truth, it should have been a smash. After suffering some minor memory lapses following an encounter with the brain draining priest of Mantracora, Reed Richards decided to visit his family's estate in Central City, California. There, he discovered that his father Nathaniel had invented a functional timeplatform in a hidden lab years before Doom. This finally offered a clue to Nathaniel's mysterious disappearance a few years before Reed and the others became the FF. Of course, it wouldn't be the Fantastic Four if they didn't jump at the chance to visit the platform's last recorded location to look for Papa Richards. They arrived on an alternate Earth and began their search.

"It all seems so utterly preposterous..."

I hear you, Reed. What should have been a fascinating exploration of the father/son relationship quickly devolved in a slugfest with weird, jarring science fiction elements. For instance, this Earth had never experienced the Dark Ages, giving them 500+ extra years of scientific development. This led to elements like gunmen who dressed like early 19th century cowboys who fired heat seeking projectiles and rode on mechanical horses, giant tripods straight of War of the Worlds and a band of valkyries riding equally robotic dragons into battle.

                                                                          "Good grief!"
In his attempts to make this Other-Earth seem cool, weirdly different and challenging Byrne lost track of the plot. For the better part of two issues, all the FF knew was that Nathaniel had somehow become a violent oppressor called the Warlord (creator of the aforementioned tripod warmachines,  piloted by neanderthals whose intelligence was artificially increased because hey, why not?).

But all these outlandish concepts had very little emotional impact, especially because halfway through the adventure it became clear the cruel Warlord wasn't Nathaniel but his "loving" wife Messalina. The old man spent most of his time caring for their young son, totally oblivious to the fact she was committing genocide in his name. Luckily, Wyatt Wingfoot was on hand to stop her plans.


Thank heavens for high school football.

With the Warlord defeated, Nathaniel Richards finally showed himself. Stunned and surprised to encounter his son for the first time in well over a decade, they talked and laughed and shared their most intimate feelings. Reed introduced his wife to Nathaniel who was thrilled to find he had a grandson while Mr. Fantastic had trouble wrapping his head around the fact he had a half brother even younger than his own boy. They even had a painful but necessary heart-to-heart about the fact Nathaniel pretty much abandoned Reed when he was barely out of his teens. And slowly, very slowly, the much desired, vital bond between father and son was restored, with both men looking forward to once again being a new and welcomed force of good in one another's life...

Hah! Had you going there, right? Nah, don't bet the farm. After three issues of set up, this is all we get as far as the highly anticipated Richards family reunion is concerned.

"Son, it's good to see you. No, no, sorry I really can't go home with you. I have stuff to do here. Bye now."

And that's the last we saw of Nathaniel until Tom DeFalco brought him back during his early 90s run on the book. Oh, and as an afterthought, Byrne revealed that this Other-Earth was the alternate reality that would eventually give birth to Kang the Conqueror. In fact, the villain was rumored to be a distant descendant of the Warlord himself.

Gee, thanks dad.

2) Malice In Beyonderland (Fantastic Four I#281, August 1985)

Or: Suck it, Jim Shooter!

Back when John Byrne and Chris Claremont were collaborating on Uncanny X-Men, they had intended for Jean Grey to survive the Dark Phoenix saga. However, because "Jean" had snacked on an alien sun, indirectly causing genocide on a global level, Jim Shooter vetoed that idea and demanded that Grey had to pay the ultimate price for her dark deeds. This didn't sit well with Byrne, who was forced to make radical last minute changes to the already finished Uncanny X-Men I#137.

So, lo and behold a few years into his Fantastic Four run he decided to have another crack at the aborted Dark Phoenix storyline. This time it wasn't Mastermind who subtly turned the noble heroine evil, but the far less insidious team of Hate-Monger and the Psycho-Man. Using his trusty though decidely bulky FEAR-DOUBT-HATE handheld device, he turned the love Sue felt for her family and friends into hate. As a result, she became Malice, a sneering and cruel dominatrix, complete with spiked leather collar and a face mask.

Using her powers in new, creative and devastating ways she almost defeated the FF and Daredevil.

Luckily, Mr. Fantastic knew how to handle this uppity upstart. You just have to use a bit of reverse psychology and put the little lady in her place. Go on, she'll thank you for it later.

                                                                 "Susan, I said SHUT UP!"

Sheesh, when Reed hits his wife, it's considered a stroke of (a) genius but when Hank Pym does it we're talking career ending offense. Guess that's why they call him Mr. Fantastic.

To make matters worse, Shooter once again interfered. Right in the middle of the Malice storyline, Fantastic Four had the first of its mandatory crossovers with the Shooter penned Secret Wars II. The Beyonder showed up moments after Reed had slapped his wife straight. Seeing the omnipotent being made Reed forget about the emotionally frazzled Sue in a move so blatantly dickish even Karen Walker would call it rude.

Byrne would hit the trifecta a year or two down the road when he wrote Avengers West Coast and launched his Dark Scarlet Witch storyline. I'm not saying there's a pattern, but if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and turns evil and ready to destroy all she ever loved... It might be a duck.

1) Victor von Doom Is Kidding Around (Fantastic Four I#278, May 1986)

First off: the travesty that became known as "The Kid Doom Saga" could have been a wonderful arc... if the creators had been allowed to finish what they started.

John Byrne planted the seeds back in 1982's Fantastic Four I#246 when Doctor Doom forced the FF to help him retake Latveria. In the process, one of his loyal followers was killed which led to Victor taking the woman's young son Kristoff Vernard under his wing.

Doom took a liking to the lad and even started to groom him as his unofficial heir apparent. What he had neglected to tell Vernard was that he would only succeed Doom when he was Doom. Y'see, a select group of Doombots were instructed to brainwash the boy, replacing his personality with a copy of Doom's, along with all the memories and experience. That particular contingency plan kicked in when Doom seemingly perished during the FF's battle with Tyros.

Now believing he was Victor von Doom, Kristoff aborted the transferal process prematurely because he had a genius idea. He improved on an old strategy and successfully rigged the FF's headquarters to explode before launching it into space. Because he didn't have all of Doom's memories, Vernard wasn't aware of Sue's forcefield powers which manifested some time after the original Doom's attempt. Using Sue and Johnny's powers to get back to Earth, Mr. Fantastic led the team to Castle Doom where they fought and faced the new 'n improved Doctor Doom.

                                      "Unhand me! None may touch the person of Doom!"

Hoping to undo the damage to his psyche, the FF took Kristoff into protective custody until Reed could figure out a way to restore him to normal. However, life and other adventures got in the way so the team kind of forgot about Kristoff. He was eventually relocated to a padded cell in the newly constructed Four Freedoms Plaza. In his next appearance in Fantastic Four I#291  he was as pleasant as ever.

                                                              "I AM DOCTOR DOOM!"

Had Byrne continued on the book, he would have turned the dangler that is Kristoff into a year long "Doom War". Y'see, thanks to the Beyonder, the Secret Wars and some rather convoluted transtemporal shenanigans a version of Doctor Doom was now also running around, raising the question who was Latveria's one, true monarch.

For a brief moment, it seemed like Steve Englehart would get to resolve this plotline and do his own version of "Doom War". He eventually had Kristoff escape and return to Latveria just as the time tossed Doom was getting ready to reclaim the kingdom as well. That confrontation ended with Kristoff firmly in charge of the country while it was very strongly suggested that this new/old Doctor Doom running around might well be a malfunctioning Doombot.

To Englehart's credit, he did his best to play up the Doom vs Doom storyline. Kristoff was ruling Latveria while "Doom" travelled the world in hopes of garnering support and allies for his eventual counter attack. However, Englehart would depart the book as well before the Latverian subplot could play itself out. He did, however briefly, offer a possible solution in a dream-like sequence that saw both Dooms recruiting small armies of supervillains to fight on their behalf. That confrontation ended with them accidentally destroying Earth.

No, it would take until March of 1991 for Walter Simonson to finally resolve the matter in Fantastic Four I#350. But when he did, Walt only needed three pages to put a button on half a decade of uncertainty.

                                                  "At long last, I've returned home to stay!"

Rather cleverly, Simonson refused to pick sides and simply announced the two Dooms were both phonies. He revealed that the real Doctor Doom had been off planet for an extended period of time, searching the universe and dimensional plane for sources of power, new technology and all the other fun stuff that makes a tyrant's heart beat faster. He would return for brief visits, but was mostly content to leave behind Doombots to oversee Latveria and maintain the illusion he was still around.

Simonson planned this to allow his fellow creators the opportunity to write off any of Doom's less than flattering past appearances as "simply the work of a faulty Doombot". He even went so far as to hint the real Doom hadn't faced the FF since the classic "Battle for the Baxter Building", dating back to July 1965's Fantastic Four I#40. That thread was never really picked up again and even seems unworkable (if not a tad disrespectful to 25+ years of established history), but this particular Doom still had what it took to resolve the story.

"I'm most proud of you, greatest of my Doombots
I will save your head."

He then moved his attention to Kristoff...


Heh, who knew the magic word was the name of the mythical snake monster who ate its own tail? With Kristoff released from his programming and basically himselfagain, Doom turned his attention to destroying the FF once again (and failing, of course).

So, why is the saga of Kristoff "Kid Doom" Vernard no. 1? Well, out of all these storylines, Kid Doom would really make the worst possible movie. After all, if the general public won't buy a Doctor Doom who's an evil genius/Eastern-European teenage hacker... Imagine how they would respond to a tin plated tyrant too young for pimples? And how ticked off would movie goers be if the actual villain showed up halfway during the credits?

We can't all be Thanos of Titan, eh?

*Erm, yeah. While the initial plan was to do two entries with 5 stories each, yours truly apparently still hasn't mastered the fine art of counting down from ten. Still, to end a FF retrospective with four instead of five seems rather fitting... And hey, a blunder like this gives new meaning to the title of the piece, so we all win!


  1. I loved that Doom two-parter with Kristoff. I loved the retelling of the origin, Byrne-style, I loved how the group use teamwork and their powers to survive space, and enjoyed the idea that young Doom arrogantly shut off the programming before it got to the part about force fields. And it was yet another Byrne-induced status quo trauma at the end, with the Baxter Building destroyed (you knew when tragedy hit the FF 'cause Byrne always ended those stories with a panel with a big black border around it, see also "Sue loses baby").

    But following the paramters of "would make a bad movie" then okay, this story might qualify. Certainly wouldn't hold a candle to "sleazy magazine photographs She-Hulk: the Movie."

    -david p.

  2. David, what I was trying to point out is that I loved the idea of Kristoff as Doom while the real (allegedly) Doctor was still around. It would have made for a wonderful story arc, but both Byrne and Englehart were unable to carry out their ideas before they "left".

  3. I actually liked the Malice story. I think Reed knows Sue really is the strongest of the 4, and that there is no way to beat her without actually hurting her (physically).

    I think this gamble also works because it takes her by surprise. She, as Malice, also realizes she is the most powerful member, so she would never expect her targets to say these things to her. If she had been given a moment to stop, think and then react, she would have simply killed the team right there.

    Also, I know first hand that these types of open hand hits to the face have little physical power, BUT what they lack in strength they more than compensate for their ability to anger the receiving party. One of those and you will not stop to think if the hit actually hurt (most likely, it didn't), but you will surely be almost blinded with rage after someone hits you like this. Even worse if it is someone whom you would not expect to do it.

    I guess when I saw this I thought more about the way people in television hit others' faces when they get hysterical, and less about the type of hit Hank Pym threw at Janet: stronger, with real anger and trying to get her out of the way.

    When seen as similar to the "stop being hysterical" hits, where the purpose is presented as to help the person and stop a bad situation from getting worse, it is not that bad.

    1. Shooter had Yellow Jacket become a chauvinistic douche and backhand slapped Jan, knocked her to the floor, talked down to her and his manhood was hurt when Jan save him. Shooter has a history of heroes slapping their teammates, Cosmic Boy slapped Light Lass. The blog already said it was reverse psychology and a gamble as Cesar said, but the blog turned into buzz word like a NY Post article: REED SLAPPED SUE. Thor slapped Sif during Simonson run... is that going to become, Simonson was a misogynist? The Malice part of this blog was trying to hard not to get it when you already got it.

  4. John Byrne's Fantastic Four run is what sucked me in to the world of Marvel comics and I will always love it for that, but I don't disagree with anything you wrote in these two articles, Jef. The Malice story is especially awkward not just for the slap or the hideous costume but also Johnny admiring his sister's figure ("Shapeless she ain't"). Sure, he doesn't yet know it's Sue, but that didn't make it any less cringeworthy.

  5. Interjecting super-late to remind anyone who might see this that A) Byrne left Marvel not because of anything Jim did but because he wanted to write/draw Superman, full stop, and B) monetary incentives Jim fought to institute at Marvel made Byrne a ton of money. A TON of money. Oh, also, C) it was Byrne's idea to depict the dark Phoenix blowing up that sun, so Byrne created the problem this blogger complained of, and degraded the value of Jean Grey as a heroic intellectual property. Jim had the right idea, and was acting within his capacity as steward of these intellectual properties.

  6. Referring to the comment about Johnny's ogling the masked Sue, a theory promulgated by Chris Tolworthy, apparently on fairly solid grounds, contends that Johnny was secretly Sue's SON rather than brother. Google "Fantastic Four Great American Novel" to see Tolworthy's site & hypotheses.



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