BHOC: FANTASTIC FOUR #170

Another older issue of FANTASTIC FOUR that showed up one day in the drug store’s big bin of slightly-older comics. This was the oldest issue I had found to date. Reading these stories, particularly in this sequence, was a little bit like putting a puzzle together. There’d be some bit of information presented in one of them (Reed has lost his stretching powers! The Impossible Man is back! The Thing is wearing an armored exo-skeleton) and then the earlier issues would give me some context as to how this all happened and what it all meant. It was tremendously exciting, this sense of an ongoing continuity from issue to issue–very different from the manner in which DC was handling their storytelling at the time, for all that I liked it.

This was also a pretty decent time for me to delve into the world of the Fantastic Four. After several years where writers (notably Gerry Conway) tried to push the series in different and challenging directions (Reed and Sue separate! Medusa joins the team!) this was right at a point where returning writer Roy Thomas attempted to bring the series back to first position again. So you had the four mainstay characters, all attired in their matching blue uniforms, in what would be considered even then as their classic status quo. It was also all drawn great by the young George Perez, supported ably by master inker Joe Sinnott.

So what’s going on? Ben Grimm, the Thing, had lost his monstrous form after an encounter with the Hulk. Because of their new incorporation, the Fantastic Four needed to have “four super-powered members” on the team, so they brought in Luke Cage as a replacement for Ben, much to his chagrin. But last issue, Cage went nuts, attacked the others and took off in the Fantasti-Car. As this issue opens, Reed reveals that hiring Cage was only a temporary measure while he finished the construction of this exo-skeleton for Ben.

Proving that you can get what you want but still not be happy, Ben complains that he doesn’t feel like s super hero anymore, despite the fact that he can now still be the Thing with the team and return to his Ben Grimm life whenever he wants to. But there are bigger fish to fry, and Reed and Ben head out in the old spare Fantasti-Car (Sue stays behind to tend to the injured Torch) as they’ve doped out where Cage is likely going. The Thing’s blind girlfriend Alicia Masters has also figured this out, and she’s already at the prison where her step-father, the Puppet Master, is incarcerated.

Alicia’s worked out that the Puppet Master must have used his radioactive clay to make an image of Power man and take control of him, and with the warden’s help, she’s able to locate it hidden in his cell. But it’s too little too late, as the Puppet Master grabs the figure and Luke Cage smashes his way into the prison, freeing the Puppet Master. The two of them take off in the Fantasti-Car with Alicia.

At this point, the letters page shows up, featuring in this instance a note from Marvel writer Bill Mantlo, praising Roy’s work on the series up to this point. I’d like to assume total sincerity on the part of Mantlo writing this piece (and Roy running it, for that matter) but I’m also well aware that, during this era, there was a lot of backstage drama going on between rival factions, a lot of office politics–and I’m afraid that colors my reading of it today.

But now, it’s action time, as Reed and Ben have caught up with the rogue Fantasti-Car and the resurrected Thing hurls himself across the void at Power Man. Given the difference in their established strength levels, you’d think this would be a pretty quick fight, but maybe Ben’s suit doesn’t make him quite as strong as he was before, because Cage is able to hold his own, even though he doesn’t want to be fighting with the Thing, and is being compelled to do so.

This leads to a lady-or-the-tiger moment as Ben and Luke collide with one another, causing the F-Car to buck. The Puppet Master loses his hold on his Cage figure just as Alicia begins to fall over the side, and he’s got a split second to decide which one he’s going to grab. Whether he means to or not, the Puppet Master lunges for Alicia–and Reed is able to catch them both before they crash to the surface. And with the radioactive figure out of the Puppet Master’s grasp, Cage comes back to his senses and the fight ends.

On the Bullpen page, Stan fills his Soapbox with a name-dropping account of that year’s San Diego Comic Con. It was reading summaries like this one that made me want to attend, though I wouldn’t for more than a decade yet. And the version of the SDCC described here wouldn’t take up but a small corner of the sprawling week-long bacchanal the event has grown into in the years since. Stan also talks about meeting Captain Sticky, which is when this photo would have been taken:

Anyway, back at the story, it’s loose-ends-wrapping-up time, as the Puppet Master is returned to prison and Power Man is dropped off. Alicia’s pretty depressed as she and Ben fly back towards the Baxter Building, leading the Thing to wonder if the time may have finally come for him to propose to her. That wouldn’t happen for many, many years yet, but I did finally get to preside over the wedding of Ben and Alicia this past week–something that would never have occurred to me as being a possibility when I first read this issue.

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