It was always the most exciting thing when a new batch of 3-Bags would show up somewhere, and you’d suddenly have access to issues that you had missed. In those days before there were comic shops, this was the only way one could find back issues (apart from mail order–and I was never confident enough in that practice to attempt it.) I remember that I got this book at the Kay-Bee Toy Story in the Smithhaven Mall, and filled in one more little bit of the gap in my FANTASTIC FOUR reading collection. As FANTASTIC FOUR was then my favorite title, this was a momentous occasion.
This issue was the wrap-up to the long-running plotline in which the Brute from Counter-Earth had replaced Reed Richards on the Fantastic Four, consigning the real Reed to the Negative Zone. Unfortunately, it’s a bit on the perfunctory side, due in part no doubt to the fact that writer Roy Thomas, who had begun this plotline, was now long gone from the title, and over the past few issues a bevy of other stalwarts attempted to complete and wrap up his storyline, without any particular investment in it. The letters page for this issue reveals that this final chapter was group-plotted by Len Wein, Jim Shooter, Roger Slifer, Roger Stern and Ralph Macchio, with Bill Mantlo doing the script and dialogue. That’s a lot of people just to write a 17-page story.
Okay, so the previous issue ended with the Brute having hurled Sue Richards out of the top of the Baxter Building. Rather than having her save herself, the creative braintrust opts to cut to Tigra, Thundra and the Impossible Man on the street some distance away–they’d been sent off by the Brute in his Reed Richards guise last issue. Seeing Sue’s plight, Thundra hurls the Impossible Man across the city towards her, and Impy transforms himself into a flying shape with which to catch Sue before she can go splat. The brute is dismayed at this turn of events, and prepares for what he knows will be the coming siege on his Baxter Building stronghold.
Meanwhile, in the Negative Zone, the trapped Reed, Torch and Thing get a byzantine history lesson from Annihilus. The Super-Android that the Mad Thinker is now using to threaten them it turns out is not only the one unleashed on the FF back in #70-71, but upon finding it adrift in the Negative Zone, Annihilus himself transformed it into his loyal Scavenger, first seen in his initial appearance in FF ANNUAL #6. Since then, though, the thing has stolen Annihilus’ Cosmic Control Rod and transformed yet again into the monstrous form that now threatens them. It’s the sort of needless continuity that was at once a point of interest for the Marvel Universe and also its bane.
Back at the Baxter Building, Sue, Tigra and Thundra have begun their assault. The Impossible Man, however, is bored of fighting, and wanders off–presumably this happened so as to not make the coming battle too easy for our heroes, as Impy’s powers would have made short work of the obstacles they will face. Mostly this amounts to Thundra battering her way through things. Elsewhere, though, the Mad Thinker has sent a summoning signal to his old Android, drawing him back from the Negative Zone to the Baxter Building so that the Thinker can loot it in the absence of the FF. But while the Android feels the call, in is newly-evolved form, he does not wish to be subservient, and he lashes out at the brute after barreling through the Negative Zone gateway, mistaking him for the person who sent the homing signal.
In the Negative Zone, the FF have negotiated with Annihilus for the use of one of his ships in order to catch the Android before it can reach Earth. In return, Reed promises to return Annihilus’ Cosmic Control Rod to him. They give chase, but are almost immediately set upon by the Borers, ravenous all-consuming creatures that live in the Negative Zone. Knowing him as I do, the inclusion of the Borers here from that FF ANNUAL feels like a suggestion that Ralph Macchio would have made. In te Baxter Building, the Android uses the Cosmic Control Rod to bombard the Brute with Cosmic Rays, transforming him once again into his powerless human form. But at this point Sue, Thundra and Tigra show up to carry on the fight in his stead.
In the Neg Zone, the Borers have destroyed the FF’s sip, but Reed is able to bodge together a directional navigation device from the wreckage, and the three heroes make their way back to the Baxter Building just as the fight is heating up. There’s a fun moment in here were the Mad Thinker finally arrives, expecting everything to have gone according to his precisely-calculated plan–only to stumble across a veritable army of characters he had not taken into account in his planning. Taking the better part of valor, he exits immediately–heading for the story then currently running in MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE.
And in a matter of pages, the Fantastic Four triumph over the Android. The Thing goes to destroy the Cosmic Control Rod, but Reed stops him–they promised to return it to Annihilus and that’s what he’s got to do, even though Annihilus will certainly kill him immediately thereafter. But as night follows day, the Counter-Earth Reed leaps forward, seizing the Rod and leaping for the open Negative Zone portal. The concussion that had turned him evil has worn off (either that or losing the power of the Brute) and since the FF recently saved his homeworld of Counter-Earth, he’s ready to make the ultimate sacrifice on Reed’s behalf. he blasts the controls as he goes so that nobody can follow him–and so, all of the assorted threads are now tied up, and a new writer can start cleanly next issue. It was a fast-paced if somehow unsatisfying issue–I had been very much invested in the story of the Brute, and having him duplicate the sacrifice of the scientist at the end of FANTASTIC FOUR #51 felt cheap to me. Still, now I knew what had happened, so there’s that.