The last time I did a comprehensive FF re-read I stopped with the last of the Kirby issues (or rather the first two of the four Romita issues that wrapped up the story). That brings me up to Fantastic Four #105. John Romita was as humble to take over Fantastic Four for the King in 1970 as he had been to take over Spider-Man from Steve Ditko in 1966. He didn't feel qualified in either case, as did his best to draw in their respective styles both times. Why Stan Lee didn't assign Joe Sinnott to ink I have no idea, but #103-105 were inked by John Verpoorten.
#105 opens with the Thing, Johnny and Crystal enjoying some hot dogs from a street vendor, when suddenly the city is wracked by a series of explosions. Crystal unexpectedly collapses, and Johnny flies her back to the Baxter Building to seek Reed Richards' help. Meanwhile, Sue has been shopping and finds herself closer to the source of the mysterious explosions. She goes to the street to find Dr. Zoltan Rambow, a colleague of Reed's, pursuing an energy being.
Back at the Baxter Building, Reed has diagnosed Crystal as having an adverse reaction to the pollution she has no resistance to and says she must return to the Inhumans' Great Refuge or die. Reed has also discovered, in Crystal's DNA, what he thinks can be a cure to the thing's condition. Summoning Lockjaw, Crystal quickly says her goodbyes and departs immediately for the Great Refuge. Johhny flies off in frustration and soon comes upon his sister in conflict with the energy being. Sue cannot leave the conflict, but urges her brother to get Reed and Ben. Johnny returns to the Baxter Building only to find Reed at a critical juncture in his attempt to cure Ben.
CLIFFHANGER: Reed must choose between the life of his wife and that of his best friend.
It is widely accepted that Jack Kirby plotted most if not all of the Fantastic Four stories. I have generally come to the conclusion that if Stan Lee is credited with "script" that Jack Kirby provided the plot (or at least co-plotted). The credits for this issue list Stan Lee "story" and John Romita "illustration." #105 is one of the most densely-plotted and action-packed issues in a long time (the Sub-Mariner/Magneto conflict notwithstanding). Jack Kirby certainly didn't have anything to do with this issue. I think just because Stan Lee hadn't been regularly plotting Fantastic Four for some time doesn't mean he couldn't.
John Byrne's solo run on Fantastic Four lasted five years, from 1981 through 1986. Although What If...? #36 (1982) is included in the John Byrne Fantastic Four Omnibus (Vol. 2), Marvel places it after #295 rather than before #232, where I think it belongs. Speaking of which...
For his first issue as writer/artist, Byrne chose to use Diablo, one of the FF's lamest villains IMO, as the villain (leaving nowhere to go but up, I suppose). After an impressive splash page (much like the cover), the second page "pulls back" to reveal the squalid surrounding of a flop house on the Lower East Side. He has conjured up four "elementals" to set upon the Fantastic Four.
From there the scene shifts to scenes of the four going about their lives doing everyday things, a staple of the Lee/Kirby days. Reed is working in his lab, Sue is at a hair salon having her hair done. Ben is on a date with Alicia, and Johnny is meeting Frankie Raye in central Park. Jack Kirby would change Sue's hairstyle from time to time, but doing so really became a hallmark of the Byrne era. Ben and Alicia are at a play, The Elephant Man. (They're shown departing a matinee, so it must be either Wednesday or Saturday afternoon.) Incidentally, I was on my senior trip when The Elephant Man was playing at the Booth Theater and it was one of two Broadway plays I saw. (I still have the Playbill.) But I digress.
Reed is attacked by the Fire Elemental, Sue by Earth, Ben by Water and Johnny by Air. The Elementals are semi-sentient, but not living beings. They have been forbidden to attack their their counterparts. Even so, it seems to me that Water may have been more effective against the Torch. for example, but they are all pretty evenly matched, so I guess it was a good strategy. Their individual battles eventually converge and the FF prevails when Reed determines the Elementals can be defeated by forcing them into a transitional state. They switch opponents and his plan succeeds. Doctor Strange makes a cameo appearance at the end of the story, helping the FF to track down Diablo.
Getting back to Frankie Raye for a moment, I like the idea Luke suggested earlier that she was originally intended to be Toro's daughter. Roy Thomas never developed that idea however, and John Byrne had something else in mind for the character, as we shall see. Frankie had been around (sporadically) since #164, but nothing much had been done with her up to this point. The fact that John Byrne brought Frankie Raye into the story in his very first issue supports Luke's theory that Lorrie Melton was hurriedly written out on the last page of #231 in order to "clear the decks for Byrne."
One other thought: #232 makes a better "first issue" that I thought. It introduces the team one by one and illustrates their respective powers. I think I would have preferred it, though, had it been structured in such a way that it opened with the Fantastic Four and not Diablo.
"Mission for a Dead Man" is basically a Human Torch solo story, but it's also a detective story. It seems odd to me that Byrne would tell a genre story focusing only only one member for his second issue, but he obviously knows what he's doing. One of Johnny's former high school classmates, a hardened criminal who Johnny barely remembers, is put to death for a murder he didn't commit. His last request is for Johnny to solve the crime. A a police procedural, this isn't a very good one. It's a two-year-old cold case and Johnny is no detective. His investigation does lead him to Hammerhead, but the solution to the crimes comes from the Kingpin's records which Daredevil recently turned over to the D.A.
The "next issue" blurb of #231 promised a "back to basics" approach, and that is certainly on display here. At the time I first read this run of issues (early '80s), I was more familiar with the Fantastic Four of the '60s than of the '70s. For the Torch specifically, I read all eight issues of the 1974 Human Torch series (reprinting Torch solo stories from Strange Tales) when they were new. In the '80s, Byrne's run didn't strike me as being particularly "back to basics," but then again, I hadn't just read 100+ issues of Fantastic Four leading up to it, either.
Byrne's direction really does demonstrate a back to basics approach; I just didn't recognize it at the time. As far as I could tell, it wasn't all that different from the FF/Torch stories I was most familiar with. For one thing, Byrne had made some subtle alterations to the FF's uniforms, bringing them nore in line with Kirby's original (if short-lived) design. Also, he re-introduced the belt-buckle elevator call beam, included a scene of Bem and Johnny fighting, and generally had Johnny use his flame in a manner more akin to the way he did in Strange Tales more so than in recent years of Fantastic Four.
It's been more than 20 years since I last read these stories, but they're coming back to me as I'm reading. "The Man with the Power!" reads very much like an old Lee/Ditko "suspense" yarn... with superheroes thrown into the mix. "Skip" Collins is a nondescript little man who was subject to deliberate radiation exposure when he was in the Army. The experiment gave him reality-altering powers, but he is unconscious that he even has them. A rare business trip to New York City coincides with some sort of "gravity probe" from outer space which wreaks havoc and destruction worldwide. Mr. Collins uses his powers to fix the damage, but burns out his powers in the process, none the wiser for what he has done. Meanwhile, the FF have followed the probe signal into outer space. After Diablo and a detective story and a suspense story, on the last full-page panel the FF encounter... Ego, the Living Planet!
Now this is more like it!
I think this was my first "Ego" story. I didn't like it. I didn't like it because I felt I was coming in on the meddle of a story. There were flashbacks, but no footnotes. I guess hadn't yet learned to pick a "point of view" character. In this case, because all of the Fantastic Four were encountering Ego for the first time, I really shouldn't have had a problem from their POV (I couldn't have been more confused than they were), but I'm not wired that way (or wasn't then). Luckily, it was right around this time (but later, I think) I was reading Lee/Kirby "Thor" reprints in Marvel Spectacular (as backissues, inspired by reading Walt Simonson's Thor) and came across Ego's first appearance. I liked FF #235 better after that.
Subplot: Frankie Raye steps out of the shower, catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and sees something she did not expect.
#236 is a triple-sized anniversary issue (a real anniversary, too, not one of those made-up "anniversaries" when an issues ends in "00"). The story concerns the FF as prisoners of Dr. Doom and the Puppet Master. Under the control of Alicia's stepfather, the Fantastci Four, Alicia and Franklin were taken to Dr. Doom's castle in upstate New York where their minds were transferred into tiny little "synthe-clones" in a tabletop model city populated by robots (including two that Dr. Doom and Philip Masters that they could transfer their consciousnesses in and out of at will. The Puppet Master thought he was fulfilling a fantasy existence for his step-daughter, but make no mistake about it: they were Doom's prisoners. This story would have made a good "first issue" of Byrne's run, but I suspect it was held back for the anniversary month.
You may have noticed the blank spot on the cover behind the Invisible Girl's left hand to Stan Lee's right. That is the spot where John Byrne drew Jack Kirby before the figure was removed in production. One version of the story (Byrne's) has it that Jim Shooter had the figure removed due to legal difficulties Marvel was having with Kirby at the time. Another version has it that Kirby got wind of the plan and asked that his image be removed because he didn't want his name or image to be used to promote comics for which he did not stand to profit.
Which version is true? I don't know, but look at that blurb in middle of the page at the bottom which mentions "An All-New F.F. Blockbuster by Stan (The Man) Lee and Jack (King) Kirby!" According to the issue's editorial page, the story was produced with Kirby's knowledge and approval, but it seems unlikely he would allow that and object to the use of his likeness. The so-called "blockbuster" was nothing more than inked storyboards for the Fantastic Four cartoon episode based on issue #5; it was never intended to be a comic book, and I can't believe Kirby would have been pleased with the results.
Okay, that's a good place to stop for the day.
The "villain" this issue is a nine-foot tall alien woman dubbed "Spinnerette" by the gang of hoboes she fell in with. Her ship crashed and, "drunk" on the high oxygen content of our atmosphere, she was easily manipulated by a gang of bums into committing a string of robberies.
Unwinding after their escape from Dr. Doom, Reed and sue go for a horseback ride in Central Park. Sue Richards is still wearing the same hairstyle she got in #232, but Byrne has been subtly "growing it out" issue by issue. Byrne has also been redefining Sue's powers, making them her more useful than she has been in the past. She, and all of Byrne's characters, also dress in stylish '80s fashions.
A new character is introduced this issue: Juliette D'Angelo (or "Julie Angel"), Frankie Raye's roommate. Still freaked by whatever she saw in the mirror in #235, she whips off her bathrobe in front of Johnny and he is nonplussed by what he sees. (Readers will have to wait until next issue to find out what that is, though.)
Ben has no building sub-plots at the current time, but he and Alicia are shown hanging out at the Baxter Building.
Franklin uses his powers against Spinnerette when he thinks she is threatening his parents.
First, the cover. You will note John Byrne "mugging for the camera." He made a cameo appearance in his very first issue (#232). the next time he appears will be much more overt. Note also that the cover is inked by Terry Austin, who also inked this issue's second story. I've not mentioned it before but I'll go ahead and say it now: I'm not a big fan of John Byrne inking his own work.
Readers were not kept waiting long to find out what was beneath Frankie's bathrobe. The splash page reveals a kind of skin-tight gold leotard which disappears when she's wearing clothes. She's been catching glimpses of it in reflections for several weeks leading up to this but, after searching her memories, she cannot remember back before she was 14 years old and awakened, naked but covered with a lab coat, on a burned warehouse floor.
Suddenly she bursts into flame and all of her memories return! Her stepfather, Thomas Raye, was in reality Phineas Horton, the creator of the original Human Torch. He married late in life and his wife passed away shortly thereafter, leaving him with a baby daughter. The first appearance of the Fantastic Four several years ago spurred him to check on his equipment in storage. Some old chemicals sloshing around in a barrel spilled and caused Frankie to burst into flames. He hypnotized her to forget the incident (as one does) and also put some other mental blocks and post-hypnotic suggestion in place.
Then he abandoned her.
He sent her $1000 a month for the next six years, but when she was 20 years old the payments stop. Prior to that, she received the gold leotard in the mail and was told to put it on via tape recorded post-hypnotic suggestion, then to forget about it.
There are a couple of things I find suspect with this scenario. I have always thought Horton would have been a bit long in the tooth to be even the step-father of girl Frankie's age, him "marrying late in life" notwithstanding. He was already completely grey in Marvel Comics #1 back in 1939 and was 50 years old at that time at least. By now, he'd have to be retconned to be Horton's grandson or something. Furthermore, we don't know this man was Phineas Horton; that was Johnny's guess. Also, "Thomas Raye" is awfully close to Thomas Raymond, Toro's real name. Reed Richards only supposes it was the chemicals which triggered Frankie's powers the first time, but what if she were a mutant who had inherited them from her father? Toro's disappearance (and supposed death) at the end of Sub-Mariner #14 could account for the disappearance of her father from her life. I didn't come up with this theory, but I like it. It fits the facts we know and makes more sense than Johnny's supposition.
An "Interlude" introduces two doctors, man and wife, in Benson, AZ (as well as next issue's main plot). Jake is much older than Penny, and requires assistance to walk. She, in fact, had been one of his students before they were married. When we meet them, they are examining the body of a man who had apparently been frightened to death. They appear to know a member of the Fantastic Four and resolve to contact them for help.
#238 features a pin-up of Sue Richards (in civvies) between stories. What's most interesting about it are the numerous books depicted on the shelves in the background.
I said for #237 that the Thing had no sub-plot...? That's about to change. the second story begins with Reed Richards introducing the latest version of the HERBIE robot. (I think this one is called "HUBERT" but it is not named in this story and I'm reluctant to flip ahead to confirm.) Now that Agatha Harkness has stayed behind in New Salem and is no longer Franklin's governess, Reed built the robot to babysit Franklin, be his playmate and monitor his latent powers. Besides, they've been imposing on Alicia for free babysitting for too long.
The main thrust of the second feature, however, is that Reed is convinced he has now come up with a sure-fire cure to change the Thing back to Ben Grimm, with the one caveat that whatever happens, the change will be permanent this time. After his usual wishy-washy grousing, Ben agrees to submit to the procedure. It's funny... this time he's afraid that Alicia loves him as the Thing only, but it was just two issues ago that he tried to keep "synth-clone" version of Alicia (who was sighted) from seeing his rocky form. the only consistent thing about Ben's attitude over the years is its inconsistency.
Reed straps him into a chair resembling the one he used back in #106 and flips the switch. But something goes wrong. There is an explosion and the room fills with smoke. When asked if he's all right, Ben responds, "No... no, I ain't alright... I ain't never gonna be all right again..." and Ben emerges from the smoke in one of the most memorable full-page panels not only of the entire series, but of Marvel Comics in general. He has reverted to the earlier "lumpy" version of the Thing... and this time (we are remined), the change is permanent.
"The Most UNEXPECTED GUEST-STAR of All Time!" promises the cover blurb. I don't know whether or not that is true but, without further ado, that guest-star is: Ben's Aunt Petunia! I never would have thought "Aunt Petunia" was anything more than an expression (such as "Oh, my stars and garters!") but apparently John Byrne felt this was a mystery that must be explored. turns out she's his aunt by marriage, that is, she's his uncle's wife.
Anyway, the FF accompany her back to Arizona where they meet a little girl named Wendy. Wendy's mother is dead and she has an abusive father. Some time ago she sent an arrowhead to the prominent English archeologist Dame Ruth Efford, who had written a book about archeology for children which Wendy had enjoyed. Wendy did not expect Dame Efford to start a major excavation at the pot where Wendy found the arrowhead. It was soon after the excavation had begun that the deaths from fright began to occur. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to fill the hole in, but in fact, Ben is the first to suggest it.
In the city of Attilan in the distant Himalayas, the Inhumans are at war and Crystal is pregnant. It is going to be a difficult birth due to the child's mixed Inhuman/mutant heritage, plus most of the Inhumans are suffering from a mysterious illness, leaving Quicksilver to seek help.
Meanwhile, back in Arizona, two of the archeology students are found frightened to death, bringing the death toll up to nine. That night, little demon things appear and attack the entire town. The FF manage to save the town from worse damage than it would have suffered had they not been there, but the next day, all of the town except 28 people are either dead or have decided to leave. It turns out these little creatures appear every 1000 years or so to judge the inhabitants. some are deemed worthy, some flee, others are frightened to death by what they see within themselves. And some, such as Wendy's father, take it upon themselves to change. The FF leave, but Wendy is shown playing with her "friends" in a secret place.
With this issue, Byrne has taken to dividing the story into "chapters," each with its own 3/4 page splash, just like Kirby did in the early days. So as not to fighten the townsfolk any further, the Thing wears a full FF uniform (which he hadn't worn previously since issue #3). Also, the FF added a new public reception area to their headquarters, "manned" by a robot receptionist named Roberta. ("Roberta," get it?)
Frankie's been wearing this magic leotard 24/7 for how long, supposedly? A magic leotard that doesn't get ripe despite never being laundered and doesn't cause skin rashes from being worn constantly and doesn't get in the way when she has to, um, "go"?
Not only that but, when it's visible, she can't take it off. It's like her skin. Let's say it somehow "knows" when she has to "go"... but what happens when she tries to get, um, "romantic"?
There is one other thing I wanted to say about the notion that Frankie Raye being the daughter of Tom Raymond. It makes perfect sense (in a "comic book" kind of way) that Frankie should burst into flame in the presence of the Human Torch (Johnny Storm) because that's what happened when Toro encountered the Human Torch (Jim Hammond) for the first time in the first issue of the Torch's own title.
This issue is as much an "Inhumans" story as it is a "Fantastic Four" one; more, really. I was pretty well-grounded in Inhumans stories when I read #240 for the first time. Several years earlier, The Inhumans (by Doug Moench and George Perez) was one of those series I was so thrilled to get in on the ground floor of and planned to read forever.
Quicksilver arrives at the Baxter Building after running for a week. Before he is positively identified, Frankie is ready to kill him (which will become an important aspect of her character). He summons Lockjaw (who refused to leave Crystal's side until the Ff agreed to help) for the return trip. Once they arrive at the Great Refuge, Medusa explains that they had been under attack by the Enclave. Maximus was working for them on the inside, but later switched sides and sacrificed his life to defeat them. (This seems like a great bit of story to just "throw out there" as antecedent action.) The Enclave have been routed, but almost the entire population of Inhumans is dying of the same sickness, brought on by pollution, which forced Crystal to leave the FF some time ago. Unfortunately, there is nowhere on Earth the Inhumans can go to escape the pollution (the key phrase being "on Earth").
The decision is quickly made to leave the earth and relocate Atillan (which used to be an island before it was moved to the mountains of Tibet) to the Moon. This they accomplish in short order, which leads to another [Marvel] history-making full-page panel of the Inhumans disembarking on the Moon. Soon after they land, Crystal and Quicksilver's daughter, not yet named Luna, is born. The Inhuman genes she inherited from her mother and the mutant genes she inherited from her father have somehow "cancelled each other out" and she is born fully human.
#240 is the second new issue I bought after a three-year semi-hiatus from comics, buying only three titles for three years via subscription. The first was #241... next time.
I like the idea of What If...? #36, but I think it was a mistake to keep the story so close to the original one. It meant it didn't offer enough that one couldn't get from that story.
My recollection is the letters page said if readers wanted more adventures of the powerless FF Byrne would love to oblige.
The net tells me Byrne has said on twitter that his inspiration for #236 was "a Jack Kirby cover of Doom looming over the FF in Latveria". A friend asked, "What if you did that, but real?" I suppose the cover was most likely #84. Other Kirby FF covers with symbolic giant Dooms are #16, Annual #2, #39, #57 and #86.
The splash page of part 2, with its view of the tabletop town, reminds me of the panel beginning "--The Headmen control the world!!" at the climax of Defenders Annual #1.
It was noted at the time that the #236 story resembles Fredrick Pohl's "The Tunnel Under the World". Byrne writes in that twitter thread that he hadn't read Pohl's story when he did the FF issue.
A letters page in a later issue had a short complementary letter from Byrne to Stan Lee saying the best dialogue in #236 was a line in Lee's story. My guess is the line in question was, "I'm not certain these clothes reflect the real me!"
The #238 cover may have been inspired by the inset box on the cover of Strange Tales #122. The title of the second part, "The More Things Change...", is from the adage "The more things change, the more they stay the same". I have only just gotten the "things" pun.
Byrne had previously depicted the early Thing in Marvel Two-in-One #50, which he also wrote. It came out at the time of Fantastic Four #205. When the origin was retold in #126 the Thing was depicted as having transformed into his modern rocky form when he first changed. #190 might be the issue that introduced the idea he looked different at first, "like a big orange Gumby".
Byrne's design for the flaming Frankie was recycled from a spec FF story he plotted and drew in the mid-70s involving a flaming woman from space.
The stuff about the Enclave in #240 resolved the dangling thread from the end of #206 about Medusa's capture. She had appeared in between in Marvel Two-in-One Annual #4, featuring Black Bolt. The issue came out at the time of Fantastic Four #210. To forestall objections it had a text page with the concluding panels from #206 that stated the annual's events were set before that issue: "Just watch upcoming issues of the F.F. for the somewhat sinister saga of the Enclave, and the apparent Medusa mystery will become crystal clear before your very eyes!"