BHOC: FANTASTIC FOUR #178

Picking up where things left off yesterday, this was the second of the three consecutive issues of FANTASTIC FOUR that I bought out of the huge bin of affidavit-returns on sale at my local drug store, my very first legitimate Marvel purchases. I hadn’t stopped to think about or analyze my feelings towards what I had just read, I simply continued straight into the next issue. The cover by John Romita and Joe Sinnott is quasi-iconic, divided into four quadrants to show off not only the powers of the assorted FF members but also those of their Frightful Four counterparts. I really liked it, my favorite of the three.

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Like the previous installment, this issue was a lot more tongue-in-cheek than a typical outing for the Fantastic Four, and that may have been one of the reasons why I responded to it so much better than my previous encounters with Marvel books. Also, the artwork was just way better. Even here, without the powerful inking of Joe Sinnott, George Perez puts together a sharp-looking package. Inker (and colorist) Dave hunt rises to the challenge–it’s not quite as slick as a Sinnott job, but it’s still very appealing.

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The issue opens with the Thing, having been sucked into the Negative Zone last issue, tumbling end-over-end as various nefarious denizens of the Zone regard him with hostility. Without any way to brace himself to fight back, Ben figures that his number is up–but then everything goes black. And when he next opens his eyes, he’s back in the Baxter Building, having been retrieved by the Frightful Four and its newest member, the Reed Richards of Counter-Earth. George takes this moment to reintroduce us to that giant fan again, while also establishing all of the characters who are now in that room together.

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Counter-Reed takes it upon himself to explain to the assembled group just where he came from, a flashback that takes three mighty pages to get through. A few days ago, when Galactus and the High Evolutionary dueled over the fate of Counter-Earth (in a previous issue–I had no idea who these guys were, but I was intrigued by them) C-Reed embarked on a mission to infiltrate the Evolutionary’s asteroid stronghold in a bid to try to prevent Counter-Earth’s destruction. It turned out that the planet made it out okay even without his intervention, but along the way, he was both bombarded by cosmic rays which reactivated his earlier mutation into the brute, and also had a big hunk of metal clonk him on the head 1960s sitcom-style, which turned him evil. He stowed away on the ship the FF used to get home, then made his way to the Baxter Building in response to the Frightful Four’s call for new members.

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The Brute wants nothing less than to kill his counterpart, the actual Reed Richards, and goes a little bit berserk when the other Frightfuls tell him that that’s not happening, at least not right away. See, they have a better idea: they’re going to extort the city of Manhattan for ransom for the FF. And this idea, very contemporary in 1977, would play out in satiric fashion throughout the rest of the issue. Meanwhile, the Impossible Man, who had accompanied the FF back home and then disappeared during the fight, has been entranced by television, a new concept that he has never experienced before. So Ben Grimm’s hope that Impy might come to their aid seems futile.

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When I first read this story at the age of ten, I didn’t have much of an idea as to what was going on in the world of politics. Nonetheless, this page where beleaguered New York mayor Abe Beame calls in succession President-Elect Jimmy Carter, lame-duck president Gerald Ford and defeated presidential candidate Ronald Reagan was nonetheless funny to me–though in a way I couldn’t quite describe. But especially given that the Marvel books in this period only ran 17 pages of story, this is an extraordinary amount of space to devote to a dumb gag. And yet, it’s profoundly entertaining, so it works.

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Next came another letters page, this one with a letter writer talking about modern-day creators who had had letters published in early issues of the series. The fact that there were readers who had been with the book all that time stuck with me, as did the notion that those old stories were still relevant somehow–more than anything else, this was the secret of Marvel at a certain point, the notion that every story, good or bad, might have some unforeseen impact on a future saga, that it was all one big tapestry. 40 years later, it’s difficult to maintain that same sense of continuity.

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Back at the ranch, we’re running out of pages and the day is almost over, the Frightful Four’s deadline almost upon us. And then, the FF are saved by a fluke of the era (and something that wouldn’t at all work today): the broadcast day comes to an end, and the Impossible Man is faced with a test pattern and the end of his entertainment. He turns himself into a generator, trying to get the television to work again, and instead shorts out the power to the entire building–including to the giant fan that was keeping the FF prisoner. So in his way, Impy did come through in the end!

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The Fantastic Four and Thundra bust out and begin to whale on the surprised Frightful Four. It’s a bit of a massacre. At one key moment, the Brute turns to smash Sue, but his own world’s Susan Storm has been comatose on Counter-Earth for years, and he can’t bring himself to strike down the Invisible Girl. Which is good, because when our Reed attempts to use his powers to come to her aid, he discovers that his stretching power is gone. This was the climax to a long-running subplot about Reed’s powers diminishing, but to me reading this for the first time, it felt like more of a cop-out than it actually was. And hey, here comes Ben Grimm’s boisterous battle cry, the first time I’d have seen it used.

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Another Bullpen Bulletins page followed next. In this era, the pagination of the Marvel books followed a rigid structure, with every spread of two pages broken up by two pages of ads. The letters page always sat on the first page turn after the staples, and the Bullpen page ran right before the final spread of story pages at the end of the issue. That structure is still very much encoded into my reader’s DNA, for all that it hasn’t been a going concern for several decades (and the Marvel books would eventually increase their allotment of story pages.)

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Events raced towards their climax at this point, with the FF, Thundra and Tigra putting the big kibosh on the Wizard, Trapster and Sandman. But Reed and his counterpart the Brute wind up out of sight for a moment in the Negative Zone portal room. When the rest of the team makes their way there, they are relieved to discover that despite being now-powerless our Reed was able to trick the evil Counter-Reed into the Negative Zone. Everybody relaxes at this point, unaware of the obvious switch that’s taken place–it’s our Reed who now floats helplessly in the Negative Zone, and the evil brute who has taken his place among the team! What will happen next? I raced into the next book in my stack–but you guys will have to wait a week to get to that one, I’m afraid.

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