BHOC: FANTASTIC FOUR #144

Don Sims was the first other regular comic book reader that I ever met, and we became fast friends for a few years–easy enough since we were in the same 5th and 6th grade classes. Like me, he not only read comics, but he made his own, a creative compulsion that united us once we were in contact with one another. Over the course of those two years, he and I traded a lot of comics to one another–all these years later, I have no way of remembering what in what order or precisely when. So I’m just going to plug a bunch of them in here as a catch-all. Don had a good assortment of comics from much earlier than I did which he’d inherited from a cousin or other relative who had outgrown them. I remember he had FOREVER PEOPLE #1 and MISTER MIRACLE #2, and a complete run of SHAZAM, which he let me borrow and read through. We were only a bike ride’s distance away from one another, and we would often meet at the 7-11 on Thursdays to peruse the new releases together.

I got this issue of FANTASTIC FOUR in a trade with Don at some point, and it was at this moment the oldest original issue that I had. (In those days, we tended to discount the reprint titles, as those were “worthless” as back issues.) It wasn’t really that old–I had been reading comics when it was first released, albeit DC Comics–but it truly felt like a product of a different era to me. Tiny details such as the font used for the cover price and the indicia and the bottom-strap ads for other Marvel books gave it a feeling of antiquity to me. Even Art Simek’s lettering on this issue seemed to belong to another age. (Art would pass away not long after this issue was released, sadly.) Even the style of the storytelling seemed different to me, with Medusa having replaced Sue Richards on the team, and Johnny wearing his short-lived red costume. And the different logo sealed the deal–I still tend to react to any issue with this particular logo on the cover as being “old.”

Artist Rich Buckler was trying his damndest to infuse the series with the spirit of Jack Kirby during this period, and this manifested in Buckler swiping from the King at almost every turn–the first 3 panels on this page, for example, were lifted from FANTASTIC FOUR #55–not that I knew this yet. What I did feel was the sense of artifice to the artwork, a feeling that everything was a bit too staged and unnatural. I never really warmed to Buckler’s work as a result (he was as adept at swiping from Neal Adams as he was from Kirby, and in a few weird instances he’d swipe from both in the same story, which wouldn’t work at all.)

So what was the story about? Well, it opens with Reed, Ben and Medusa escaping from Doctor Doom through the sewers, heading towards the FF’s Baxter Building headquarters. They’re accompanied by Darkoth, the Death-Demon, a cyborg creation of Doom’s who had now turned against is master and thrown in with the FF. The team is also strained because Ben hasn’t yet forgiven Reed from shutting down Little Franklin’s mind to prevent the child’s uncontrollable powers from destroying the world. Oh, and Sue was threatening to divorce Reed, breaking up the team. So nobody was very happy here. To get some action going, another Doom creation, the Seeker, attacks the foursome in the sewers, but is promptly beaten by the FF.

The Torch, meanwhile, is still the prisoner of Doctor Doom, as are Wyatt Wingfoot, Coach Thorpe and his wife from Metro College, and Alicia Masters–almost the whole FF supporting cast is assembled here. Doom’s intention is to launch a satellite that will allow him to blanket the world with his mind control ray, giving him domination over everybody on Earth. The FF make it back to the Baxter Building, but not in time to prevent Doom from launching his Vibro-Bomb into space.

With Darkoth’s help (and despite another fight breaking out between him and the Thing along the way), Reed is able to reprogram the Seeker to return to Doom’s stronghold and free the Human Torch. In the meantime, though, Doom has set his Vibro-Bomb into operation, and it’s begun to broadcast its will-deadening rays across the Earth. And when Doom attempts to destroy the Seeker, he’s stunned to discover that it’s actually Darkoth wearing the Seeker’s epidermis as a disguise. Then the Thing bursts in, and it’s pandemonium.

Doom knows when the deck is stacked against him, and he races to an escape craft disguised to look like the top of the building, launching himself skyward where he intends to dock with is satellite. But unfortunately for him, Darkoth is able to gain access to his craft before it launched, and he emerges from concealment to attack the one who made him into a monster. Far below, the FF see doom’s ship explode in the skies above and realize that the danger as passed. But Ben still feels sorry for himself, because Alicia was put in danger with the promise of being able to regain her sight because of er association with him. And so the issue ends on a downbeat note. Frankly, the whole thing was pretty downbeat, the defining trait of writer Gerry Conway’s tenure on the series, and as a result I didn’t like it much. Oh, I tried–I really wanted to like it because I loved the Fantastic Four so much at this point. But somehow, it just didn’t land for me.

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