I can remember finding the 3-Bag in a Kay-Bee toy store in a mall outlet that my family didn’t typically frequent. It was an exciting moment, for there, wrapped in plastic, was one of the issues of FANTASTIC FOUR that I had missed between those found in the drug store’s bin of affidavit returns and the new issues I was picking up on the spinner rack. I didn’t even care what else was in the package with it, this was a must-buy item, and I got my Mom to put up the 89 cents-plus-tax necessary to take these books home.
I was incredibly interested in finding out how this storyline played out, having read the earlier set-up issues. Unfortunately, at this moment FANTASTIC FOUR was a title in transition. By #184, Len Wein would come on board as the regular writer alongside George Perez. But in the interim, the title was clearly running late, and somebody had to wrap up the assorted plotlines that outgoing author Roy Thomas had put into motion. This month, that meant it would take four creators to write this issue, and Sal Buscema, one of the fastest breakdown artists Marvel had, to illustrate it. But in 1977, I didn’t really care or even notice.
The big thing going on at the moment in the storyline was that Reed Richards had been replaced by his Counter-Earth counterpart, the Brute, with the rest of the FF none the wiser since Reed had lost his ability to stretch. As this issue opens, the Thing and the Torch come in with the robot Ben had defeated a few issues back, accompanied by Tigra, Thundra and the Impossible Man, who had been hanging around since the Frightful Four story. After sending the three non-family members off on a wild goose chase, Evil Reed convinces Ben and Johnny that the source of the android was the Negative Zone, and that they’ll need to investigate by entering the Anti-Matter Universe. This is, of course, a ploy to get rid of them once and for all before they can ferret out Reed’s true identity.
Meanwhile, over at Whisper Hill, Sue and Alicia have come in pursuit of Agatha Harkness, Franklin’s former nanny who had showed up and abducted the boy a few issues ago. But before they arrive, Agatha and Franklin are attacked by indistinct cowled figures–Agatha had hoped that Franklin’s powers would help to protect them, but at the moment he no longer has them. Agatha herself is no pushover, though, and she unleashes with mystic flames–for all the good it does them. By the time Sue and Alicia get there, it’s only to witness Franklin and Agatha disappearing again, this time the prisoners of their shadowy attackers.
Back in the Negative Zone, Ben and Johnny share their suspicions about Reed, prompted by the fact that he sent them into the Zone tethered only by long cables like the one Reed first used when he discovered the Zone. But before they can reach any conclusions, they come across another Reed and Annihilus, both about to be crushed by a colossal creature. Despite not knowing which Reed this is, Ben and Johnny leap to the attack, and manage to rescue Reed and Annihilus–and this is where they discover that their tether-lines have been cut, stranding them in the Zone. So this guy is their Reed, which means that the Brute is back at the Baxter Building with the unsuspecting Sue on the way.
What follows is a brief interlude with the Mad Thinker, who reveals that the beast which had attacked Reed and Annihilus was actually an evolved form of the Android he had attacked the FF with several years earlier, in FF #70-71. With the FF diverted in the Neg Zone, he plans to plunder the Baxter Building of Reed’s technology in their absence. Back at the Baxter, a distraught Sue shows up, wondering why no one has answered the alerts she sent from the Fantasticar. Evil Reed tries to maintain his cover, but Sue was already suspicious of him, and this cinches things–she knows he’s not her husband. And so, Evil Reed abandons his deception (and his desire to claim Sue as his own, his own Counter-Earth Sue having been languishing in a coma) and transforms himself once more into the Brute.
Sue puts up a good fight–or as good a fight as any female super hero would be permitted to put up in 1977–but she’s no match for the much more powerful Brute. The Brute smashes his way through her force-fields, knocking her unconscious. And then, in an attempt to bring the last of his problems to an end, he hurls her semi-conscious form through the window of the Baxter Building, to plummet to oblivion 35 stories below. I can remember thinking that this was a pretty good cliffhanger, and being frustrated that I wouldn’t be able to read the next part. I ultimately would, but it would take another month for that to happen.