Saturday, June 11, 2016

1983: Fantastic Fouryage part II: Fade To Black 'n Blue

By Jef Willemsen (

John Byrne spent most of 1983 having the Fantastic Four explore the Negative Zone. A kinda fun field trip, though things were about to go horribly wrong. Well, they were already pretty bad for Alicia and Franklin who were being abused by Annihilus while the FF played tourist.

By the time Fantastic Four I#254 rolled around, in May of 1983, the team had spent an equivalent of two months charting the Negative Zone (even though only a day or so had passed on Earth). Reed eventually led them to a primitive world when his scanners picked up an energy source far too advanced for that world. Eager to investigate this mystery, they decided to go native.

 "I'm not sure why we have to get all disguised anyway, Reed"

Johnny has a point, even with those disguises they barely resemble the local population so getting to the citadel where those weird readings come from will be cumbersome, even if the Thing wasn't hiding underneath a pile of rags in the back of the ox cart.

Susan Richards could have easily scouted the place by herself or at least have made Ben invisible. But, this was back in the early days when she still acted like her codename. Needless to say, the second they came to town, they were spotted and reported to the local religious leader Taranith Gelstal. The high priest of the Mantracora took an immediate interest in Reed Richards and planned to "surprise" him.

But first, Reed and Sue enjoyed a little alone time at the local motel. 

"What in..."

Without becoming too crude, judging from that first panel we all know what was just in what. In all likelihood, this intimate encounter led to Sue's second pregnancy, but that's a story for another time. The intruders who got a glimp of the bare chested Fantastic Two were actually servants of the Taranith who had come to invite these strange alien visitors to his citadel. It almost sounded too good to be true, but as always Reed's insatiable curiosity got the better of him. 

"We've blown our cover! These people know we're aliens!"

Ya don't say Johnny, ya don't say...

The Taranith hosted the FF for dinner at his place. But it soon became obvious what Gelstal was really after when Mr. Fantastic fell unconscious sipping from his spiked drink. The other FF members were knocked out as well, but Reed awoke as part of a Christmas tree of horrors that actually looked truly terrifying.

"Since you are the final key which forever unlocks my prison house,
you should know your fate before it befalls you"

Here's the classic bit where the villain takes his merry time explaining the plot to the benefit of the readership. It's a bit of a cheat and an easy to deliver exposition, but it got the job done. Y'see, Gelstal himself is an alien, stranded on this primitive world when his ship crashed. Its machinery gave off the energy signatures the FF had come to look for. Gelstal's ship runs on psychic energy and Gelstal had found a way to prey on the brightest minds available to him. By prentending to be the Taranith, he selected the smartest among his flock who thought they were about to receive a great honor when in reality they wound up as living batteries. Reed's massive intellect would the final bit of mental fuel he needed. 

But there was one final reveal...

"The masked role of Taranith seemed suited to the deception I felt I must practice"

Yours truly must have been around eight years old when he first read this scene and it blew his mind. Sure, in retrospect it's a bit like seeing three midgets standing on each other's shoulders in a raincoat... And yes, Byrne had basically did this before when he revealed the Emperor was little more than an empty golden armor. Ow, and he'd do a similar reveal with Gilded Lily in Alpha Flight, but I digress.

Also, the Taranith's name is Gelstal, which is awfully close to the word gestalt that means "a structure, configuration, or pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit". How fitting, because that was what the whole tree of dying aliens minds was: the gathered up psychic remains of dozens of people now forced to serve a single purpose.

With Reed's brainpower as the final catalyst, Gelstal activated the controls and the citadel was revealed to house his spaceship that finally was ready to head to the stars. By then the other FF members, who were on board too, freed themselves and caught up with Gelstal only to find Reed's mindless form. One heck of a cliffhanger.

An issue later, they tried in vain to stop Gelstal when we learned where Reed's mind had gone.

"Alright friend, I have control of the vessel now"

In one of those not too rare instances of "eh, don't wreck your brain over it" science, Reed was able to actively assume control of Gelstal's psychic ship. He forced the intrusive alien into a corner until it fled to a faulty escape pod and seemingly perished when it exploded. The FF then decided they'd better head home while they assembled a helmet shaped device that allowed Reed to house part of his consciousness into his body again so he could control it.

On a relatively unrelated sidenote... This whole "evil alien plans cause a hero's mind to gain control of a living space craft" does sound a tad familiar. I'm not saying John Byrne was inspired by the way Chris Claremont saved Storm by having her become the "brains" of the infant Acanti Prophet Singer in Uncanny X-Men I#166... But that issue came out in February of 1983 and in FF I#254, cover dated May of that year, Byrne essentially winds up with the same deal.

So, how *are* things going back on Earth? Not too well. As we established, Annihilus had managed to slip from the Negative Zone to Earth just as the FF were passing through. And with a name like that, you can't just stop by for a courtesy visit. Nope... Annihilus was dying and had come to have his final revenge on both the negative and positive realities by creating two null(ification) fields that were slowly becoming one. 

"A-Annihilus... Why? WHY??"

Why, Alicia? Cos he's the living death that walks! That's why.

And here's where the story takes an interesting turn and shows the level of comraderie between Marvel's various creators in the early 80s. John Byrne had been friendly with newly minted Avengers writer Roger Stern for years. They agreed to turn what had strictly been a Fantastic Four tale into a mini-crossover, simply by remembering that New York City is home to more than one superhero team. So, when Annihilus activates his null field, driving every living thing out of the Baxter and forming an impenetrable dome around the building, people will take notice.

"I hit... I'm not sure what I hit..."

Also, there's this scene: Johnny Storm's friends Sharon Selleck and Julie Angel got concerned when they called the Baxter Building and a weird sounding man answered (if you buy the notion of Annihilus even bothering to answering a phone). They decided to pay the FF a visit, but couldn't even reach the Baxter. It doesn't get more dated than hearing the news from a man who conveniently happened to be carrying a boombox around on his shoulder

"You're kiddin'! Gimme a listen..."

So that's where the "crossover" really kicks off: Avengers I#233 and Fantastic Four I#255 both told the same story, only from the perspective of the different teams. The FF were still in the Negative Zone, working on a way to get home while Earth's mightiest were trying to deal with the, to them unknown, menace of Annihilus. They were having difficulties penetrating the barrier that kept expanding. Thor's hammer passed right through it, Cap's shield couldn't halt its advance, the magic of the Scarlet Witch proved useless. Worst of all: when Vision phased through it, he immediately shut down.

And then the villain of the piece revealed itself.

"People of the Earth... Hear now the words of Annihilus!"

By then, thanks to the scientific genius of their newest member Starfox, the Avengers knew what Annihilus was up to. The second null field was forming and all of existence had less than 30 minutes of life (which is still at least a long weekend in the Negative Zone). Luckily, they'd figured out a way to breach the barrier: have Captain Marvel slingshot around the sun so she can rocket her way back to Earth like a rather radioactive gamma laser. 

"I'm activating the primary frequency modulator... NOW!"

And this is where it all comes together...

Annihilus gets distracted by the FF who have been busy in the Negative Zone rebuilding the gateway he destroyed when he came through. At the same time, in both FF and Avengers, Captain Marvel appears in the Baxter Building after breaking through the barrier.

To me, this is still the crossover gold standard. All the books involved still told their own stories. The Avengers read like a typical issue of the book, advancing several plotlines that had nothing to do with this and even Fantastic Four set up a number of new plots. They are in the same story, but they simply tell it from their perspective. That's fairly unique and almost non-existent these days. Ever since the 90s, Marvel forces creators to drop everything they're doing to "participate" in a crossover, whether they like to or not. That's disruptive and ultimately detrimental to the books.

Anyhoo, just as Annihilus throws the switch to destroy all that is, the FF return and Captain Marvel breaks through his null barriers. The result is an explosive decompression event that ends with Annihilus caught in a devastating feedback loop that sucks him back into the Zone just as the FF arrive home.


Wow indeed... Feast your eyes on the new FF costumes, folks. A good year and a half before Spider-Man got his black costume, Byrne decided to go dark. He redesigned the iconic light blue jumpsuits the team had been wearing since Fantastic Four I#3 by having them turn "negative" or whatever that means. The wardrobe change was well received and stuck around until 1996. However, Byrne later admitted he mostly did it because having them wear darker colors saved him time drawing the various wrinkles and creases of the costumes.

The darker costumes also seemed a symbolical sign of the times. In a few short years books like Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen would turn the industry grim and gritty but this story first showed that in the 80s even carefree adventures could have devastating personal consequences. Case in point...

"The woman he loves lies like a broken doll in the midst of the destruction"

And what about Franklin?

"Can't look for Franklin when the whole building could blow up!"

Yes Reed, yes you can. And you should have. There's no reason why Johnny Storm, who's just standing there, couldn't have put out those fires. Heck, he doesn't even need an extinguisher, controlling open flame is one of his superpowers! It's yet another subtle example of Mr. Fantastic not putting family first. Still, let's give him a pass, five minutes ago his mind was still stuck inside a Negative Zone warship, remote controlling his body like a drone.

Sue eventually finds Franklin and brings him back up, a shocking scene seen in both Fantastic Four and Avengers. 

"Good lord."


Comparing the two, it's tough to pick a favorite. While Joe Sinnott's inks over Byrne's breakdowns make the Avengers version a lot cleaner, that also takes something away from the emotional impact of the muddier FF (Byrne inked himself here). The look on Sue's face in the Avengers version is more gripping, yet in FF the limp, beaten body of Franklin Richards really tells you all you need to know. 

This tragic homecoming ended the Fantastic Four's six month field trip in the Negative Zone. They saw a heck of a lot, but had very little to show for it. After all, they left their exploratory vessel behind on Mantracora when Gelstal abducted them and that contained all their research data. And to literally add insult to injury, their little adventure left two of the people they loved the most at death's door. 

1983 was a watershed year for the Fantastic Four. The ramifications of their trip would be felt for years to come. Franklin's recovery would take months, prompting Reed and Sue to move out of the Baxter Building and Ben would feel so guilty over Alicia's injuries it was part of the reasons they'd break up. Add to that Sue's second pregnancy that would end in another tragedy.

They might have journeyed into the Negative Zone, but their journey into truly dark territories was about to begin...

1 comment:

  1. John Byrne pretty blatantly ripped off two Doctor Who serials in FF #254. "The Krotons" plus "The Masque of Mandragora" equals "The Minds of Mantracora."



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