Picking things up where we left off last week, above is the cover of FANTASTIC FOUR #186, the second of two issues that I bought on an unexpected trip to Heroes World in 1979. With the acquisition of this and the previous issue, my run of FF now stretched unbroken back to #181. #180 had been yet another emergency fill-in reprint, so discounting that story, I could follow the book solidly back to #176. Which I thought was something of an achievement especially in those days when comic book back issue stores were thin on the ground. I also felt as though I was learning more and more about my now-favorite comic as the issues piled up and I began to have a better sense of the overall history of the characters.
I once again need to sing the praises of the creative team here. Artist George Perez was fast becoming my favorite artist at this point, his attractive and detail-oriented pages rich with both incident and character. In FF he was, as always, ably assisted by inker extraordinaire Joe Sinnott, who made him look even more polished and fully-formed than he maybe always was. George was still developing, still working out how to do what he was doing at its best, and Sinnott helped him to close that gap on these FF issues nicely. Writer Len Wein is sometimes overlooked, but when I think back over the books that helped to make me a comic book fan, his work turns up time and again. It didn’t hurt that he did so much of it in the 1970s, always with a high level of craft. As a kid, I preferred Len’s buddy Marv Wolfman, but from this vantage point I’m a bit more certain that Len was more polished during this period.
Picking up where we left off last issue, the captured Fantastic Four find themselves reunited with Agatha Harkness and her charge, Little Franklin. But they’ve been imprisoned in a cell by Nicholas Scratch and his cover of New Salem witches, who intend to execute Agatha for the crime of venturing into the outside world and compromising the secrecy of their existence. In order to prevent the FF themselves from getting involved and trying to save Agatha, Scratch magically teleports Franklin away to be held as insurance–leaving the team stymied as Harkness is led out of the cell to her fate.
After a brief interlude back at the Baxter Building in which the television-ensorceled Impossible Man is ambushed by shadowy attackers who will turn out next issue to be Klaw and the Molecule Man, the FF determine that they need to act, and they liberate themselves from their cell. But waiting for them is an octet of magically-powered defenders, Salem’s Seven. I really thought that Salem’s Seven were cool, and I’ve been surprised that more hasn’t been done with them over the years. Each one is empowered by magic in a different tangible manner, so they outnumber the fighting FF two to one as the battle is joined.
It’s a pretty cool fight sequence that takes up a lot of the issue–especially since there are eight all-new bad guys whose powers need to be introduced. Eventually, though, Salem’s Seven are undone when their big muscle-guy Brutacus crushes the artificial auto-extenders that Reed has been using to mimic his now-lost powers. Turns out that spell that empowered them was cast to make them the superior of the Fantastic Four’s natural super-powers. By using technology against them, the spell is broken, and they are transformed back into regular old ordinary witches and warlocks–who are no match for the rampaging Thing.
The FF make their way to the town square where Agatha’s execution is about to be carried out, and they bring a halt to the proceedings. Reed insists that Agatha is innocent of the charges against her, that he and the rest of teh FF knew nothing of New Salem before coming here, and that they wouldn’t have come here at all had Scratch not made off with Agatha and Franklin. In true super-villain fashion, Nicholas Scratch loses his cool when one of his followers wants to hear more of what Reed is saying, and he cuts the guy down with a mystic blast. Wrong move as it turns out, as this convinces the assembled coven that Scratch isn’t behaving on the up-and-up, and they turn on their former leader. A fickle bunch, those of New Salem–ready to commit murder one minute and to be called to action by it the next.
The New Salemites chant the Spell of Eternal Banishment and Nicholas Scratch fades away, calling for help from Agatha Harkness all the while. The Fantastic Four are allowed to depart along with Agatha and Franklin, and once they do, all of New Salem disappears in a swirl of mystic energies–relocated to some other plane of existence. And Len leaves his last beat for the very final panel, wherein Agatha reveals that Nicholas Scratch was her own son. This was a very solid outing from all concerned.
The letters page in this issue includes a communication from future Marvel writer Kurt Busiek, who pens here in support of the powers and ability of the Invisible Girl. Sue still wasn’t really being used to spectacular advantage in these times–this was true of many of the 70s Marvel heroines, though Chris Claremont was beginning to change that over in X-MEN. But Sue wouldn’t really step up and become a force for another couple of years, when John Byrne took over writing and illustrating the series. Even today, she’s perhaps a bit too defined by these early years in terms of what she does and how she does it.