The Great American
                Novel Act 1:
                the danger Act 2: rising action Act 3: the ball Act 4: crisis Act 5: triumph the Franklinverse part 2, act 1:
                the new danger

1990: the Franklinverse takes over. Get ready for a bumpy ride.

timechart issue 1 issues 2-5 issues 6-24 issues 25-43 issues 45-60 issues 61-80 issues 81-102 issues 103-125 126-132 133-149 150-175 176-200 201-218 219-231 232-250 251-273 274-295 296-303 304-321 322-333 334-355 355-569 570 to present
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The legendary Steve Englehart covered the end of FF continuity (FF322-333). The legendary Walt Simonson then celebrated its end in a big way (FF334-355): every issue was about the end of continuity. We now move fully into the Franklinverse, the Marvel Universe unconsciously controlled by Franklin Richards.

The first clone team adventure

FF annual 22 is the next FF issue from FF 333. Here we see the clone team in action.

FF annual 22

How we know these are the clones
The clone team has several distinguishing features:

  1. This is a different team
    Everything about this team is different.
  2. It does not move forwards
    FF 333 makes clear that the main difference is that the clone team does not move forwards. In the 28 years to this point, the Fantastic Four grew older and matured. In the 27 years since that point (writing in 2016) Some of them have grown younger and de-matured.
  3. It relives old adventures,
    By FF333 the clone team was half way through copying the first year's adventures. In annual 21 they have got as far as annual 1. There are too many adventures to copy them all one at a time, so they seem to be combining them. In this adventure they combine all the most famous Atlantis stories, including the Serpent Crown Affair from Ben's solo adventures. Note the references to Magneto, the Scarlet Witch, the giant Atlantean gun, special pills for breathing underwater, the last panel featuring Namor as a man without a country, and so on.
  4. The clone Reed Richards can invent anything, any time.
    This story starts with Reed needing a super-advanced submarine. And so, magically, he has one. Reed never had that technology before, and didn't have any time to obtain it, but that's just how the clone team works.
  5. There are subtle clues in this story
    These clues are minor an circumstantial, but fit what we have already deduced.
    1. He clone stories were all about sleeping. In this new story we again have the sleeping theme.
    2. This Reed admires the Vision's coldness. The old Reed never admired coldness: he was naturally a man of passion. Even in his most withdrawn emotional breakdown phase he did not admire his situation
    3. The new Reed casually has Dr Strange be alive again, when he is supposed to be dead. This reminds us of how he wanted Monster Island to be above the waves again: everything has to be as it was in the past.
    4. The new Sharon casually expects to win, and the new Reed confidently predicts where the enemies will be. This is just like the clone team's previous adventures: going through familiar motions.
    5. The serpent crown theory is all about the past: the ancient past of Set, the old god best known from Conan. Contrast this with the real FF's interest in the future.
    6. The nostalgia is extra strong in this story, with the Human Torch fighting alongside the original, many of their old friends in the Avengers are present, and previous chapters (in other annuals) featured all the main players of the Marvel Universe.
    7. The story ends with scenes reminiscent of FF 333, where the Fantastic Four appears to fight itself. Then the bad guys simply disappear, just as at the end of 333... or like in a dream.

The Ben Reilly principle
Here the clone team never says it is the clone team. As far as anybody can tell they now believe they are the original. After all, they badly wanted to win the battle in FF 333, so if we follow their dreams we would see that yes, they won, and they were the real team. We could call this the Ben Reilly principle: Ben Reilly not only believed he was the real Spider-Man, he had the medical tests to prove it (in the Spider-Man clone saga). What somebody sincerely believes is not proof.

Two years after this issue we see the same situation with Lyja. For years we thought we were seeing Alicia in the stories, but it as revealed to be the Skrull, Lyja. But Lyja gave no clues and wanted to live as the real Alicia, complete with her past and memories. Years later we saw the same situation again with Secret Invasion: we had followed various characters for years, believing them to be the originals, and they looked and acted the part. But then we found they were not.

The following years
The colne team is defined by its need to look backwards. In the next few years or so the team goes back to the original stories again and again. Or variations on them, trying to regain past glories. Even the new ideas lok like retreads of the old ones: e.g. the Innerverse is like the Microverse, Reed dies like he did in Byrne's run (FF255), and disappears (as he did in BYrne's run: "the search for Red Richards"). Nathaniel tries to regain the mystery he had in Byrtne's run, but it's all a bit incoherent... like in a clone dream. And Reed's technology becomes more and more absurd, just as with the clones. Read FF333 again, and ask yourself: which team am I following? The originals, or the clones?
clone covers

Looking back, 50 years later

This might be a good time to step back and look at the FF history, clones and all. These are the favorite runs according to a cross section of fans who buy the comics in 2014 (according to 5717 voters on "Comic Book Resources", cross posted by "Rheged"):

1 John Byrne 28.0% 1599
2 Jonathan Hickman 24.8% 1417
3 Stan Lee and Jack Kirby 17.4% 995
4 Mark Waid 10.1% 579
5 Stan Lee 6.7% 383
6 Mark Millar 2.5% 145
7 Walt Simonson 2.1% 119
8 Matt Fraction 1.8% 103
9 Chris Claremont 1.2% 67
10 Tom DeFalco 1.1% 65
11 J. Michael Straczynski 0.9% 50
12 Roy Thomas 0.7% 41
13 Karl Kesel 0.6% 33
14 Carlos Pacheco and Rafael Marin 0.5% 29
15 Steve Englehart 0.4% 23
16 Marv Wolfman 0.4% 21
17 Gerry Conway 0.3% 16
18 Carlos Pacheco and Jeph Loeb 0.3% 15
19 Scott Lobdell 0.2% 14
20 Doug Moench 0.1% 3

Among older fans, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are nearly always first. I was shocked they came third in this modern list: kids today!!!

My own list

My own list is different from most people's, because:

  • I put a lot of weight on character development. A lot of "bad" issues turn out to be extremely important for character development, whereas a lot of fun issues turn out to be unimportant in the long run.
  • Continuity matters to me, so anything up to FF333 comes first.
  • I am judging them "per issue" so a long run has no advantage over a short one.

1. Lee and Kirby
2. Wein and Perez-Sinnott (mainly for sheer pleasure of reading)
3. Englehart
4. Moench and Sienkiewicz (very controversial!)
5. Byrne
6. Thomas and Buscema
7. Wolfman-Pollard
8. Other pre-FF 333 issues

And the post 333 issues:

9. Anything with Steve Rude art - basically 2 issues
10. Karl Kessel - the only hope for current day FF in my view
11. Claremont (for historical importance: in my view he brought back the original team, plus there's Valeria)
12. Hickman (mainly for historical significance)
13. Simonson (mainly for fun stories)

After this I'm likely to change my mind as I haven't read them in such depth
14. DeFalco (compared to other comics of the 1990s)
15. anything with Carlos Pacheco art
16. Waid (Love the bright and optimistic feel: a breath of fresh air - but I rank it low for historical importance)
17. etc.
Worst by a mile: Millar. That's just my obsession with the family as people. It looked like Millar didn't read the older comics, so he wrote them as completely different people. The whole idea of Doom kneeling before anybody seemed absurd, and then Ben begging for his life - it was hard to read them without thinking "but Ben would never do that!" Also the whole Masters of Doom thing seems like a parody of bad plotting to me - "let's create a new villain who's more powerful and more evil than all the other villains!" That's such a corny old idea it just feels cheap to me. Then there was the idea of a million year old Doom surviving on pure hate and beating giant sharks with his bare hands. It all seemed like a parody. Maybe it was and I just didn't get it.

Maybe I'm too picky. Maybe if the same story was in a different comic with different characters it would have been a good story. But Millar just ticked all my wrong boxes.

The FF zeitgeist after FF333

In various interviews (in Modern Masters, Comic Creators, and in emails) Simonson explains why he chose these stories: they reflect the world around him: the corporation (time variance authority, commercialism) and his views on old comics (shiny Doom). In emails, Simonson said he never intended to have his run celebrate the end of FF continuity, but he concluded,

"All that being said, stories have their own lives. You create them and set them free, and after that, they evolve as they will, sometimes developing independently of their creators' thoughts."

The new zeitgeist: inward looking
In the 1960s, all the comic creators had broad experience: at the very least, they could write romance and war comics as well as just superheroes. The best of them - people like Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko - had a wealth of real world experience. The ideas that swirled around them were the whole world. They lived in the zeitgeist of the times. This was true to a large extent in the 1970s as well, but as time went on and the superheroes became entrenched, more and more of the creative teams had no experience outside of superheroes. Their zeitgeist - the spirit of the age as far as they were concerned - was the superhero comics they grew up with. Their reference points were all cut off from reality. For the corporate higher ups it was even worse. In the 1960s they had to care about attracting new readers. But success meant merchandising, and a fan base. Most of the money now came from milking existing brands and existing fans. The management, like the writers, became inward looking.

Reflecting the American zeitgeist
This period, 1989-91, saw nations change due to the end of the cold war. As a result America felt more confidence in using its military might (e.g. in Gulf War I, 1990). This period also saw a global recession (1990-1993) and the both of the Internet, leading to a later investment bubble (crashing in 1999). All this was reflected in Marvel comics, which was sometimes ahead of the curve: seeing its own bubble in 1992 and filing for bankruptcy in 1996.

FF334-336: no longer a serious story

Simonson entered in the middle of yet another enforced cross over. This clearly made no sense, so he had fun with it, pitting the characters against enemies who were obviously inferior. Every cover is a variation on the title "Alone against the deadliest villains in the universe" and the team says "you're kidding, right?" While intended as a joke, this reflected the reality: swapping enemies for the sake of variety (or any other intrusive cross over) makes no story sense. When a story is so obviously contrived then you can't take it seriously any more.

FF334: the team's new identities

The first thing the clone team does is record new retina scans. Because clones, although they share the same DNA, have different retinas. 


Objections to the clone retina scan theory

More evidence

It's all about dreams.

FF337-341: the stories cannot move forward

The nest story is about all-powerful beings (good metaphors for Marvel editors) who prevent the world from moving into the future. It ends with Galactus, using the editor's authority - sorry, the ultimate nullifier - to turn everything back to the way it was.

Incidentally, this grand editorial reset is one of the best non-canonical FF stories ever. A real treat.

Other points to note:

In FF339 the time sled is powered by "Kurtzberg drives" - a reference to Jacob Kurtzberg, Jack Kirby's real name.

1990: annual 23, the Franklinverse is openly introduced

The key story is "Days of Future Present" in FF Annual 23. It shows how Franklin was actively distorting reality because he is afraid of change. 



The "real" Franklin
The adult Franklin has Franklin's true calendar age, and is aware of his other selves. It is most likely that this is the "real" Franklin and the young Franklin, like his other avatars (Ego spawn, Avatar, etc.) is a young version that split off the original. Of course, the whole point of the backup story in Annual 23 is to show that the highest point of existence is wherever you happen to be. So each Franklin can rightly say the others are the "alternatives." Note that he is chased by his personal demons - the sentinels.

the real

To things to note: Franklin blocks the knowledge even from himself: "I remember too much!" It seems that simply thinking about something makes it happen.

Franklin changes

So he normally prevents himself thinking about it. He is afraid. He forces his power into his subconscious.

How deep does the rabbit hole go?
Note that, in normal circumstances, the people who are distorted do not know they are being distorted. Even Franklin himself blocks the knowledge from his conscious mind. The existence of "Marvel Time" strongly suggests that Franklin's controlling power goes far beyond this one story.

FF343-346: trapped in the past

After a fill in issue (342) the FF are trapped in the past, apparently killed by dinosaurs. The headline is "Fantastic Four NO MORE!" Could the metaphor be any clearer?

the FF no more

Another example of Franklin at work

Throughout Simonson's run Franklin wants to see dinosaurs. But the FF have to travel away in time. When they get back to Earth they experience a time storm, and guess what? They end up on an island full of dinosaurs, with parts ripped from every part of dinosaur history and placed in the present day. Coincidence? I doubt it. 


Franklin is not conscious of this, but if he wants something then by an amazing coincidence the time stream, parallel worlds and probability fields swirl around until he gets it.

If the team changed, would anyone notice?

The end of FF333 (the end of Englehart's run) and the end of FF341 (the end of "the biggest one") are natural points for an alternate dimension team to slip in.

But surely they would notice, right? Wrong. Unless there's plenty of evidence, as we see this in FF343.

switching teams

But if Franklin is involved, you never notice, as in this example from Days of Future Present. Reed and Sue see that something is wrong. So Franklin looks at them and suddenly they think everything is right. Just as they never notice that they age slowly.

X-Men annual 14

(The image is from X-Men annual 14, 1990. Although this isn't a Fantastic Four comic, it's by Chris Claremont who wrote the FF a few years later, and was the only writer to understand the original team.)

347-349: what has Marvel become?

Englehart had noted that Marvel would like nothing more than empty commercial crossovers with its best selling brands. Simonson was joking about this with Kurt Busiek and they decided "what the heck, we'll actually do it!" They got the hottest artist (Art Adams) and the biggest selling characters (Wolverine, Spider-Man, Hulk and Ghost Rider), called them the "new Fantastic Four" and put these titles on the comics: "THE WORLD'S MOST COMMERCIALEST COMIC MAGAZINE" and "THE WORLD'S MOST COLLECTIBLE COMIC MAGAZINE" with "THE WORLD'S MOST EXPLOITATIVE CAMEO" And sure enough, these issues broke sales records.

world's most

FF350: the end of continuity.

This is the issue where a new extra-powerful Dr Doom turns up and say that many of the previous appearances of Doom were just Doombots - even the ones we felt sure were genuine. Simonson has said in interviews that his purpose was to give fans a get-out clause. If they find any Doom appearance they don't like then it's OK to say it was a Doombot.
new Doom

This is a perfect example of continuity (1961-1989) versus no continuity (post 1989). If contonuity does not matter then anything goes: you can say that this Doom is really Beret from Sesame Street and your view is as valid as any other. But of contionuity matters then we can test any claims. In this case, continuity shows that the new Doom is the robot. This is why

Doom's defining weakness was always his denial of his own fallibility. That was how he got his scar and began hating Reed. Throughout the 28 year story we see numerous petty and vain mistakes, but Doom refused to see them. He even programmed his robots so that if there was doubt over the real Doom they should choose the one who does not admit mistakes (see FF annual 20). This is where it gets interesting: because over the years Doom was making better and better robots. You can guess where this is going..

  1. By FF87 we had super strong robots.
  2. By FF158 we had a cosmic powered Doomsman. 
  3. By FF258 we had Doombots who were indistinguishable from the original Doom, except to each other. 
  4. By annual 20 we had two different Dooms who passed every possible test of being the genuine one, even to other robots.
  5. It is inevitable that pretty soon a Doombot would arise who was superior to the original Doom in every way. Since the real Doom is defined as the one who does not admit error, this one will believe he is the original, even in the presence of the original. (He will just assume the original has been mind-swapped, as in FF10).
So the FF350 Doom and later is a Doombot, more advanced and more cunning than the original Doom. This cannot be the original Doom because:
  1. The original Doom always made mistakes: do we throw out all stories?
  2. Why should this story be more authentic than all others combined?
If continuity matters then shiny Doom is a Doombot. If continuity does not matter then shiny Doom is just a picture and why should we even care?

Shiny Doom: weird implications for Secret Wars

Reverend Meteor from comicboards com has an interesting observation on FF350:

Just 8 issues later the Doombot theory is rejected in a backup story to FF358: Doombots are not smart enough. So shiny Doom was exaggerating... again.

For more about the Kristoff-Doom battles, see the notes to annual 20. For the original pre-Franklinverse Kristoff, see the notes to FF 247.

John Byrne commented:
"I read Walt's run on the Fantastic Four, but it never felt like the Fantastic Four to me.
it just felt like big Walt stories, which are pretty good stories. They're just not FF stories."
("Comics Creators on Fantastic Four" page 110.)

The shiny Doom image is a metaphor for New Marvel

big and shiny, and continuity does not matter. All that matters is hot writers, and let's face it, by any measure Simonson's writing is hot. Note that even Marvel admits that this shiny, unbeatable Doom, the Doom of 1991 and beyond, is not canonical. Read the backup story in the thirtieth anniversary issue (358, the one with the hole in the cover). It is plainly acknowledged that Doom is as fallible as ever, and the shiny new Doom is only the version he wants us to believe.


F351: analyzing brand value

Before FF issue 321, "Marvel Universe" meant a connected story. After 321, "Marvel Universe" meant a collection of brands to be monetized. Issue 351 is a story of two higher dimensional beings who examine the FF to see what makes them valuable. It ignores their history, experiments with changing their personalities and sees what happens. It is basically Marvel's senior executives taking apart their product, like the business guru kenichi Ohmae takes apart consumer goods to see where costs may be reduced, value extended, and problem product revived.

FF as brands to
        be studied

FF352: continuity is flexible (and Simonson is a genius)

The next issue continues the New Marvel message that continuity is flexible. The title, subtitle and Dr Doom comments could come straight from a Marvel editor, weary of continuity, who just wants freedom for characters in shiny costumes to hit people without worrying over the details.

time shifting

The genius of Walt Simonson

Incidentally, this is not a negative reflection on Walt Simonson: he did what he could with the tools he was given, and probably nobody could have done better. FF352 is an example of Simonson's genius: a ground breaking idea that nobody has been able to duplicate, a story that can be read either page by page or by following the time jumps. And to underline his genius one of the time jumps takes us back two issues: few people noticed at the time, but the cover to FF350 shows a time stamp "12:33am": the image shows an explosion, indicating that Reed escaped his trap in FF350 because Reed deflected Doom's shot from 12:33 in FF352! See Bully's blog for full details.

F353-354: continuity ends with a bang!

Simonson's final arc is a parody of what Marvel had become: a Time Variance Authority that interfered in tiny areas but was unable to have any lasting effect or see the bigger picture. it was all done in good humor: every middle manager in the TVA was a clone of Mark Gruenwald, Marvel's resident continuity expert.

"[The TVA was] a satire of where I thought Marvel was going at the time. They were becoming more corporate, more of an organization. ... [The TVA] were in some kind of null time zone. They had oodles and oodles of desk jockeys... There's no upper management."
( - Walter Simonson, in "Modern Masters Volume Eight")
the time variance authority

What is the message about Marvel editorial and continuity? The old time lines were too messed up. The only solution is to split into infinite time lines, forget about the old stuff, and stop worrying. All the old time lines are destroyed. In the final Simonson arc the FF literally drive an express train through continuity (and yes, I do mean literally).

express train end of continuity

To make the metaphor complete - leaving behind the old Fantastic Four - they remove their clothes and leave them behind. We're starting afresh, entering a new and sexy era! The new FF could be compared to pornography: it tries to take all the most exciting parts of the real thing, but without the deeper relationship that gives the actions meaning.

last frames

And that is how FF continuity ends. Simonson has done his job:

"The entire run turns out to be one giant time fiddle in order to get back to where they started." 
( - Simonson, in "Modern Masters Volume Eight: Walter Simonson")

Ben is suddenly and miraculously back to his old self. Why? Because somebody up there (the editor) "likes him better that way." Ben and Johnny start to insult each other, mechanically, because that's their role. Everything is "back to normal!" The FF are "back where we belong an' that's just the way it's supposed ta be!" You can hear the editors breathe a collective sigh of relief. All that dangerous character development is history. Who needs it? Welcome to New Marvel.

Englehart leaves, Pollard leaves, Simonson leaves

Just like Englehart and Pollard, Simonson didn't like the new direction, and left Marvel.

"I kinda like having a long-range story idea. .... I found very quickly that I kept having to alter my stories in the midst of writing them. I'd have an issue out, be writing a new plot, and they'd say 'Oh, by the way, next issue Thor's out in space. You can't use him. The breaking point came because I put Reed and Sue in the Avengers... I got permission to do this six months in advance. I got to issue #300, where I was going to do a new team, and I was told right about then, "Oh, by the way, we're putting Reed and Sue back in the FF. You can use them for an issue, and that's it. End of Story. I was pretty annoyed. I'd been working up story lines with permission for months, and watched it eviscerated. So I thought, 'This just isn't working out. Whatever you have to have to write this book, I don't have it.'" ( - Simonson, in "Modern Masters")

Q. "Do you remember why you left the Fantastic Four?"

A. "It wasn't anything specific to me personally. It was more the direction - editorially speaking - Marvel was going in at the time that I felt made it more difficult for me to do my best work." [Older guys were being "mothballed" in favor of new guys, which is normal, but it was done in a way he found to be abrupt and disrespectful.] "...the atmosphere at Marvel was becoming less enjoyable, the scope for good creative work was more limited. I just felt I'd be better served if I went someplace else where I could do work the way I thought it should be done." ( -  Simonson, "Comics Creators on Fantastic Four" p.135)

"When I got off the Fantastic Four, I started looking for work outside of Marvel."  ( - Simonson, in "Modern Masters")

What happened next?

What happens after FF355? After a quick filler issue we have "a bold new era" of the FF under Tom DeFalco. And the very first thing he does becomes the poster child for bad retcons: "Fooled you! Alicia was Lyja, a Skrull all along!" Not since Bobby stepped out of that shower in Dallas has a retcon been so universally mocked. But hey, "it's only comics," so nobody cares. Now Johnny will be single forever, Alicia will be the Thing's girlfriend forever, Franklin will never grow up, and Reed and Sue will go round in circles forever. The story will not progress until Marvel's finances are so weak that a new writers can appear with a clear vision and move the story forwards again. (See also how the Marvel Universe ended.)

As if to emphasize that all of John Byrne's changes were reversed from FF355, Byrne's head was placed on the wall in FF359. referred to as "a hostile race" that was "conquered" and "exterminated." While it was never officially confirmed that this was Byrne, this was exactly his hairstyle and profile at the time.
Byrne's head

DeFalco's retcons

DeFalco is a really nice guy, his writing and Paul Ryan's art were perfectly serviceable. Compared to the Image style that was taking over, their work stands out as a beacon of clarity and value for money. But continuity was ignored: if the past does not matter why should the present? DeFalco's run is generally regarded as the worst run ever, and DeFalco is routinely called "the Evil One" (Comics Creators on Fantastic Four p.170). But here is the irony:

  1. He did not need to retcon Alicia's marriage. If he had allowed the story to come to its natural conclusion it would have ended anyway, as a powerful and natural conclusion to an epic 28 year love affair.
  2. He did not need to bring Reed and Sue "back": If Reed is written in character then he will build a huge wherever he lives. His technology plus Lockjaw's taxi service means Reed and Sue can still appear in every issue. They simply need enough distance to let Ben and Johnny blossom as characters, nothing more.

But DeFalco and Macchio were just following the zeitgeist. The Fantastic Four is the story of America, and America had lost its direction. They merely reflected that.

This story has always had a life of its own, so these years of chaos and contradiction may be the most interesting period of all.

1991: the transition was complete

The fall of the Marvel Universe by 1991 is documented here.

We now have a different Fantastic Four.

next: Valeria Von Doom

The Great American Novel