It was always a red-letter day when a new issue of FANTASTIC FOUR would show up on the spinner rack at my local 7-11. FANTASTIC FOUR had swiftly become my favorite comic book at the time, and so I was hungry for the continuing adventures of the cosmic quartet. This particular entry was still in the middle of an extended sequence in which the team had broken up following teh loss of Reed Richards’ super-powers, though new writer Marv Wolfman was beginning to maneuver things to bring the characters back together again in time for their big 200th issue. A minor imperfection in this cover: it bothers my eye that a small bit of the negative space next to teh S in FANTASTIC was colored yellow rather than the background color black. It’s a tiny little thing, but it irritates me every time I look at this cover.
For all that I was primed and ready for more FF goodness, this issue, like the previous one, felt off to me. It’s a good example of the difference an inker can make. This issue, like #195, was absent the title’s long-time inker Joe Sinnott, and his presence was sorely missed. Artist Keith Pollard was only doing breakdowns on the book, which meant that the look of the final artwork was a lot more in the hands of the inker/finisher. Pablo Marcos did a solid and professional job here, but Joe Sinnott’s slick line had defined FANTASTIC FOUR for over a decade at this point. Whenever anybody else inked the title, the result just looked somehow wrong, off. This lasted up until a few years later, when John Byrne came onto the series and decided to ink his own pencils, fundamentally changing the finish of the art. Up to that point, Joe Sinnott pretty much was the look of FANTASTIC FOUR.
The story opens with Reed Richards vainly attempting to fight off an attempt to brainwash him carried out by his employers. Writer Wolfman drops a bunch of clues here as to who the culprit behind this is, so many clues, in fact, that there’s really no doubt. But we’ll save that for the end. Meanwhile, having found little satisfaction in their separate personal lives, the other three members of the Fantastic Four have come back together on the west coast, where Sue is working as an actress, each one hoping to convince the others to reform their super-heroic combo. There’s a bunch of fun character-building business as the trio walks around Hollywood–the Thing is mistaken for a contestant on Let’s Make A Deal (a game show in which the would-be players came dressed in outlandish costumes) and meets William Bendix, who was one of the influences on his personality and development–Bendix originated the catch-phrase “What a revoltin’ development that is!” which the Thing would routinely quote as one of his own go-to catch-phrases.
As the group moves to a restaurant to discuss how they might convince Reed to rejoin the world of super heroes, they are stalked by a mysterious figure clad in the costume of the Invincible Man–a mystery villain of long ago who at that time had turned out to be the Super-Skrull. But in this case, while his identity is played as though it is a mystery, Marv had been ham-handed enough in his opening that it’s clear that this is a mesmerized Reed Richards who has been sent to attack and overcome his former teammates. His costume contains equipment salvaged from a discarded body of the Psycho-Man, and so he’s able to create powerful emotional illusions to strike ad his family using Fear, Doubt and Hate.
The out-of-condition trio proves to be no match for the Invincible Man, and they are rendered unconscious and carried off. They awaken imprisoned in a far-off base, where the nameless leader of the operation unmasks the Invincible Man as a mesmerized Reed. He won’t give Reed his real name, though he does seem achingly familiar to the once-ductile scientist. What he will reveal, after he snaps Richards out of his trance, is that he’s captured the Fantastic Four in order to coerce Reed into helping with a scientific project being developed under his auspices. The leader shows Reed the Inner Complex of the solar-powered station they are constructing–one capable of gathering enough energy to power the whole of the nation. But Reed’s concern is just what the mystery man intends to do with all of that energy. The first order of business, it seems, is returning Reed’s stretching abilities to him.
While all of this is going on, the other three members of the team are contending with shackles that zap them whenever they attempt to use their powers. But Sue is able to create a thin enough force-field that she can slide it between her wrist and the shackle and then shatter the thing from the inside. Now free to use their enhanced abilities, the Fantastic Three make a bid for freedom, crashing out of their cell and smashing their way through a cadre of guards with a very familiar design. Everything is going our heroes’ way, until they crash into a hidden master chamber, where they are confronted by another familiar face–one that effortlessly downs them all within seconds with a gas of his own devising.
The not-much-of-a-mystery mastermind behind all that has gone on is of course Doctor Doom. But why he wants to give his arch-nemesis Reed Richards back his stretching abilities and what his relationship might be with the unnamed head of the agency remains a secret for now. Marv hadn’t really been concealing Doom’s identity throughout the issue–the brother of his one-time aide Hauptmann was assisting in the brainwashing of Reed, and he was seen earlier in shadow, but holding a goblet adorned with his personal crest. Either way, this was the first time Doom had shown up in the series that originated him since #157, so it was a pretty exciting development. I had read other Doom appearances, of course, in titles such as SUPER-VILLAIN TEAM-UP, and had read reprints of earlier confrontations between the Lord of Latveria and the FF in MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS and the like. But this was the first time that he was the running antagonist in a story that I was experiencing new as it was published. As such, this was a storyline that I was keen on–it felt like events had just stepped on the gas in a big way after a bunch of issues of fooling around.