The arrival of this Annual gave me my first inkling that something was about to go wrong, although I didn’t quite realize that at the time. I bought it not at my usual 7-11 but rather at a Card Store in some other mall that my Mom had gone to for some shopping. It turned out that, for the most part, my 7-11 had stopped getting the Marvel Annuals and oversized books, at least for a time–a situation that would hold dire consequences for me in the days to come. FANTASTIC FOUR was my favorite comic at the time, though, so finding this Annual in the wild unexpectedly was like getting a special bonus. This was I believe the first Marvel Annual that I ever purchased, and so it probably seems even better than it was to me.
The immediate problem with the story in this Annual was that on the very first page, it spoiled the outcome of FANTASTIC FOUR #200, which was still a ways in the future. Now, I don’t know that there was a really good way to do a FANTASTIC FOUR Annual at this point in the storyline without disrupting the continuity, but as a reader, it ruined some of the suspension of disbelief for me. Sure, we instinctively knew that the FF were all going to survive and defeat Doctor Doom, and most of us probably realized that the team would be permanently reunited in issue #200. But I was still young enough at this point and enough of a novice at story structure and marketing-based storytelling decisions that I didn’t see the outcome as inevitably preordained. So this was a bit of a blow to me.
The story in this Annual was written by journeyman writer Bill Mantlo, and it was one of his better yarns. The artwork was delivered by the always-dependable Sal Buscema, his game raised by the stellar inks of Joe Sinnott. In the opening pages, the Fantastic Four are celebrating being back together once again, and Alicia Masters gifts the FF’s mystic nanny Agatha Harkness with a statue of Agatha in her youth. But there’s a wave of statue-thefts taking place all across Manhattan, and as the FF leave their makeshift apartment to get dinner, it’s burgled by the sneak-thieves. The criminals are only stealing statues of ugly subjects, though–and they’re also carrying off any especially unattractive people they encounter.
A quick break here for another new Bullpen Bulletins page. Because this Annual shipped a bit early, this one showed up only a short while after I’d first seen the previous month’s page.
/Back at the story, the FF themselves become aware of the thefts and the disappearances by picking up the day’s newspaper. But despite being asked to look into events by D.A. Tower (a character who was beginning to be seeded across the Marvel Universe in different strips) Reed tells the others that this is a matter for the regular police to handle, it doesn’t concern the Fantastic Four. That sentiment only holds until the group returns to their makeshift apartment, as it is in the process of being burgled once again by the statue-stealers. Coming upon the scene unexpectedly, the FF are surprised to learn that the thieves are actually their old foe the Mole Man and a horde of his Subterranean soldiers.
The Fantastic Four fly into action, but having learned earlier that this was the temporary domicile of his longtime enemies, the Mole Man and his minions are ready for them, and the group takes the worst of their impromptu battle. What’s worse, in the melee, the Mole Man takes off not only with the snatched statues but with their sculptor Alicia Masters as well. Only Sue realizes what is going on, and she pursues the retreating Subterraneans invisibly, following them back to eh entrance to their lair. Once she’s located that, Sue summons her partners by firing off a Fantastic Four flare signal, and they come running. There’s a bunch of fun business across this story with the FF interacting with regular people, and here, none of the heroes has the money to pay the fare on the cab that just shuttled them to the scene. Reed tells the driver to send the bill to Tony Stark–which even as a kid bothered me. Sure, Stark would pick up the tab for Avengers stuff on the regular, but this was a bit presumptuous of Reed to assume, plus how long did this poor cab driver have to fill out paperwork and wait around in waiting rooms before he was able to collect his $12.50 or whatever. And what if Stark refused to pay for it?
Anyway, the FF descend into the Mole Man’s lair, which is connected to a disused Subway platform. There, they find a kingdom adorned with all of the stolen artwork, and the Mole Man and the missing people, along with a bunch of Subterraneans who are reedy for a fight. As is the Thing, who is enraged by Alicia’s disappearance–despite her pleas for him to calm down and listen to reason. This time, though, the FF are able to get the upper hand–at least until the assorted people the Mole Man has abducted swarm the group, telling them to leave the Mole Man alone.
It seems that what the Mole Man has been doing here is building a place of refuge for others like himself–Moley became a super-villain after he was shunned by humanity due to his own ugliness. So he’s been recruiting others like himself through what the newspapers reported as abductions, and he’s been filling this makeshift land with objects of great beauty. Alicia has already agreed that he can keep all of the statues they took from her, and she’s even sculpted a princely statue of the Mole Man himself. And so, the FF depart peacefully, and the threat of the Mole Man appears to have been extinguished, as he’s been given that which he most desired. Of course, this being a Marvel book, the Mole Man would return on innumerable occasions, his redemption and epiphany in this story often overlooked. But such is the way of the comic book world. As a reader, I thought this story represented the end of him as a recurring threat, and I found that cool, given that he dated back to the first issue of the title.