An exciting day at the 7-11 when a new issue of FANTASTIC FOUR showed up. This one was the second half of a two-parter featuring Diablo and Darkoth the Death-Demon, and was set during the year when the FF had broken up, with each member going his or her own separate way. I didn’t believe for a second that the team wasn’t eventually going to get back together again, but I enjoyed the ride. This issue, as well as the next two, had one key deficit that held it back.

That key deficit was the absence of longtime Fantastic Four inker Joe Sinnott. I don’t know what caused Joe to miss these three issues of the series with which he was so associated, but I was overjoyed to see him return in #197, just in time for the ramp-up to #200. The book simply didn’t look like FANTASTIC FOUR to me without his sharp delineation. In this issue, for example, Dave Hunt tries his best, but he can’t close the divide between Keith Pollard’s open pencils (done that way, no doubt, with the belief that Sinnott would be finishing them) and the final inked pages. The art this time out seemed a bit too open, too unfinished. It was more like a coloring book in some places. I was used to FANTASTIC FOUR looking better than this, and while I liked Pollard’s work, the difference was measurable.

Here again, Bill Mantlo subs in for the departed Len Wein, producing the final dialogue for the issue. Mantlo was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades at this point, a utility infielder who was often thrown into play on random assignments when they simply had to get done. Those above him always felt confident that Mantlo would deliver as promised and that the work would be printable. I don’t think he was particularly anybody’s favorite writer at this point yet–he wouldn’t start really sparking in that way until ROM and MICRONAUTS, though he had gotten some notoriety from the White Tiger series. But he was a dependable known quantity, one that the schedule-challenged Bullpen would regularly call to the field.

Last time, while piloting a space shuttle for NASA, Ben Grimm was forced to dead-stick the craft out in the desert, where he was presumed killed in the crash. This was the work of Diablo and his minion Darkoth, who intended to use the satellite that Grimm was supposed to dock with in their combined war on their mutual enemy, Doctor Doom. Darkoth reveals that he’s under the thrall of Diablo and not entirely a willing partner–one of Diablo’s potions must be administered to him regularly or he will die. The pair have stolen the solar power they needed, but there seems to be a malfunction at their hidden installation. Diablo dispatches Darkoth to investigate the problem–but when Darkoth arrives, he finds the place completely trashed and the Thing is waiting for him, still alive, and fighting mad.

But Darkoth has a secret–one that Diablo’s potions have prevented him from revealing so far. He is in actuality Desmond Pitt, Ben’s supposedly dead astronaut friend, and the one who called the Thing last issue to warn him about the sabotage. Rather than killing Pitt for spying, Doom transformed him into Darkoth, a perfect minion–and now Darkoth wants revenge on the iron-clad fiend. But he doesn’t want to hurt his old friend Ben. The Thing is skeptical, but Darkoth is convincing. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, Sue Richards is working on the set of a movie alongside buttinsky the Impossible Man, and she can’t seem to get Reed on the phone at his new job. She’s also startled by the appearance of a man we don’t get to see, apart from the well-tailored suit. But that’s next month’s story.

Back in the desert, Diablo is startled as the Thing comes careening at him through the wall. With Darkoth’s help, he has located Diablo’s lair, and he intends to beat the stuffings out of the master of alchemy. But Diablo holds off the Thing long enough to employ the solar power from the collectors that has been stored locally against Ben, and the rock-skinned hero goes down under the barrage. But before Diablo can make another move, Darkoth comes at him, phasing through the wall as his abilities allow. But Diablo is even less threatened by Darkoth, his potions are all that stave off death for the Death-Demon–and so he employs a potion that speeds up Darkoth’s demise, rather than staving it off.

Both Ben and Darkoth will die, and Desmond Pitt will be forever remembered as a traitor to his nation who sold secrets to Doctor Doom. But Darkoth finds a reserve of strength, grapples with Diablo and sends both men careening into the solar collection equipment, causing an explosion that neither man will survive. The Thing, recovering his senses, tries to go to Darkoth’s rescue–Desmond Pitt had saved his life years before in Ben’s astronaut days–but Darkoth bats him away, telling him to seek out Pitt’s son and make sure that he knows the truth about his father. And then the whole place goes up, and the Thing is forced to flee for his own life. In the aftermath, the military officials who have been scouring the desert in search of the Thing (after they found his trail wandering away from the crash site) find him near the wreckage, and Ben gets a nice reunion with Alicia, and to clear his friend’s name of wrongdoing. And that’s where this story wraps things up.

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