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

1973: Act 4: divorce? (the oil crisis; Nixon resigns)

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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This was the darkest time for America's self image.

Likewise it feels like the end of the FF:

A sophisticated structure

More than any other era, these stories may appear disconnected. But in fact they have a complex and sophisticated structure:

FF129-163: the middle of the 28 year story
FF129-163 is about the family at war with itself. It is the middle part, the heart, of the 28 year story. While it focuses on Reed and Sue, with Ben playing the major secondary role, it begins and ends with Johnny's tragedy. This foreshadows his role in leading the next generation.

FF129-30: the end of the Fantastic Four
the end
FF129 is part of the two issue In 130, Sue leaves. Sue is the heart and soul of the FF, so this is the end of the FF. Reed promises to keep it going, but it is the FF in name only: a shadow of its former self. Until she returns in FF149 we have a series of Pyrrhic victories where Reed is essentially useless. When she comes back, Reed has not changed, so in FF159 Sue essentially takes charge. When the team officially breaks up in FF189 it is not because Reed has resigned, it's because Sue is no longer there. (True, Sue was not there when having her baby, but she still supported Reed, and raising Franklin was the most valuable thing she could do: Franklin could solve all their problems if only Reed could see it.)

FF130-163: the dimensional wars at the middle of the 28 year story
This period is dominated by dimensional rifts, symbolizing the rift between Reed and Sue. There are three rifts before Sue returns, which are essentially failures. There are three much bigger three rifts after she returns, where her presence saves multiple worlds.

FF129-191: Thundra

In 129, Thundra appears: we soon learn it was via a dimensional rift, in search of the strongest man. She stays until Sue's position is cemented in the team (once Reed accepts his essentially junior position). She represents the strength of women, dimensional rifts, a rift between the sexes, and thunder (her name), suggesting both anger and warning of worse to come. (She is last seen in FF191 when Sue and Reed leave.)

FF130-163: four sets of three
Sue leaving triggers four sets of three stories. This suggests four (the team) trying to act as three (without Sue: Medusa cannot really replace her, given Reed's emotional weakness at this point.).
  1. Three stories of decline.
    This ends with FF135: Sue appearing and deciding, no, she cannot yet come back.
  2. Three stories of being weak.
    This ends with FF141: Sue comes back again, and Reed does the unthinkable: he shoots his own son.
  3. Three stories of being lost.
    This ends with FF149, where Sue comes back.
  4. Three stories of recovery.
    This ends in two stages:
FF129-135: three stories of decline
Sue leaving leads to three stories about weakness:
  1. Johnny loses Crystal
  2. Ben loses to Thundra. Until now he at least had his strength, but from here to act 5 he will believe himself to be only a second tier powerhouse. See "how strong is the Thing?"
  3. Gideon, the man without his own power, is now dying: draining the power of the FF and neglecting his son. Reed spends most of this story asleep.
FF136-141: three stories of being weak
We then have three stories about warping reality, of not accepting reality as it is. In them the team's reality is turned upside down without Sue:
  1. The Shaper of Worlds is looking for noble dreams and cannot find them
  2. The Miracle Man seems to change the world but it's all illusion
  3. Franklin really can change the world, but he is ignored until it is too late.
This period is not simply a random bumping along the bottom: this period charts Reed's journey downhill, his missed opportunities on his way to his most disastrous moment in the whole 28 year story, shooting his own son.

Franklin of course symbolizes the whole 28 year story: the need to put his family first. Then what could be more dramatic than the events of FF141?

FF142-150: three stories of being lost
We now see how the team is emotionally lost, and this is reflected in those around them:

  1. Doom is at his lowest point, weak and foolish.
  2. Johnny and Medusa are lost, and in the great tradition of epic literature, the environment reflects the coldness inside.
  3. The family is turned upside down: Sue, who rejected the Sub-mariner in act 1, now plans to marry him; the Sub-mariner, long an ally, declares war on the human race. To emphasize the confusion, this story is itself in three parts with a central section (against t Frightful Four) that appears unrelated at first. But it simply reflects the Fantastic Four: without their strong female member they cannot function.

We then have a triumphant story representing the reuniting of man and wife: a grand wedding at which Franklin recovers, and for the first time openly demonstrates his power to save his family.

FF151-163: three stories of recovery and spectacular triumph
With Sue finally back, the team grows from strength to strength: they experience their greatest ever triumphs, saving the planet against entire dimensions.
  1. Mahkizmo from the male-female future dimensions
    1a. An interlude for the Doom story, the half way point of the 28 year epic. This symbolizes the story as a whole: a major dimensional rift is not noticed and not fixed, because Sue and Franklin are not there. Only Franklin, the embodiment of the family, can both disturb and defeat Mephisto, the embodiment of all evil. (See FF277)
  2. Xemu from the fifth dimension
  3. The fifth dimension combines with the other alternate reality, with versions of the team working together to solve "all the world wars at once".
These stories are so big they are easy to dismiss as silly.But read them slowly: apart from the brief moment when Annihilus almost gained Franklins powers, these are the biggest threats in the whole history of the Fantastic Four.

Tribute covers: the women in the grip of monsters
This period is where the men fail the women. To show this we have a series of covers that homage FF1: each shows a woman captured by a male monster. Each time Reed cannot stop it. It may "take more than ropes to stop Mr Fantastic", but in this period he is trapped by the strands of his own mind. (For the record, Omega was stopped by Crystal's discovery, Warhead was stopped by Ben, and Dragon Man and the rock monster were not stopped at all.)
monster covers

Issue 133: A landmark issue in many ways. And Ben is the last to fall.

This is a landmark comic for many reasons, including the first female FF creator, the first Gerry Conway issue, and the first "Marvel Comic"!

Fantastic Four 133

Now it's Ben's turn:

Ben's head injury
Thundra's win was not due to superior strength. Before the battle Ben was suffering from a head injury. Thundra did not know this. But she specializes in taking down super-powered males by an attack to the neck. Click for details.

The moral message: Ben is beautiful
In this issue Ben falls, but in dramatic contrast we see that he is beautiful. This is a great moral message: nobody is ever ugly, we just need to see ourselves in a different way. Here the greatest alpha female of them all, the most beautiful and most powerful, both physically and politically. She could have any man she wants, and she recognized Ben's true beauty.

Thundra and Ben's inner life
The appearance of Thundra highlights Ben's relationship with Alicia: Thundra is a woman who acts to get what she wants, and she wants Ben (over the next few issues it becomes clear that she admires him). Whereas Alicia is passive, Thundra takes what she wants, and she wants Ben. Here then, is all the proof Ben needs that he is not ugly: two women want him, besides his legions of more distant fans. Yet he cannot commit to either of them. He can't move forward because he believes he is ugly.

Ben's rocky exterior is a symbol of his emotional state: He is a brick wall. He does not move, because of his depression, and he does not let others (such as Alicia's gentle love or Thundra's more active approach) move him. Eventually, in three more years (their time), Alicia will have to take matters into her own hands and make the drastic choice that will finally kick him out of his stupor. Ultimately Ben is not defeated by Thundra, he will be beaten by blind Alicia. As a fighter he will take the beating, reassess, get back up, come back and win. The final reconciliation of the Ben - Alicia- Sharon situation is not recorded due to the series abruptly ending after FF321, but it's implied by what we know of what happens next.

A snapshot of the long term story
This issue starts with a snapshot of how far the team has fallen. If you want proof that this is a 28 year story and not just a comic, here is the picture. It takes place in a real place on a real date (Times Square, New Year 1973). The team's problems can be traced back to FF60, in 1966. That's when it first became clear that maybe Reed was not the best one to lead the team. It was also when Johnny's immaturity became apparent. Since then things have only got worse. The causes can be traced even further back. Reed's personality is probably from to either childhood autism or his usually absent and self centered father. Johnny does not know what a man is supposed to do because he never really knew his father and only has Reed as an example. It will take years for them to finally overcome their problems, but overcome them they will.

This wrestling symbolizes the internal struggle in both Thundra and Ben's life. Both go on to be professional wrestlers in Ben's own book: Thundra in Marvel Two in One, and Ben in The Thing.

Gerry Conway, aged 20, and the Zeitgeist
This was Gerry Conway's first issue as writer. He was only the fourth person credited as writer. This is Marvel Comics' flagship title and he was barely twenty years old. (FF133 is cover dated March 1973, but as the story implies it was on sale in early January, so it would have been written around September 1972 or earlier. Conway was born September 1952. When he was just 14 he had a letter printed in the climax to the Galactus saga, FF50. Two years later he began writing comics professionally.)

"I think people often forgot how young I was, and expected me to perform at a level that was actually beyond me. The result was, I was pretty stressed for most of my early career as a writer, and I often felt like I had no idea what I was doing —which was true. I wrote instinctively and from the gut; when those instincts were appropriate to the material I was writing — for example, when I was writing [The Amazing] Spider-Man — the results were something I was quite proud of, then and now. When my instincts were off, I didn't have the experience to either recognize it, or to compensate for it, with results that were more uneven." (from an interview on in 2009)

Conway was a young man writing from instinct. His stories about men versus women, featuring two glamorous and powerful women on the team, channeled the spirit of the times.
Ramona Fradon and female empowerment
This is the first of the issues where women rule, and outsiders (Medusa, Thundra and Tigra) play an increasing role. So it is more than coincidence that this is the Ramona Fradon issue: the first female penciler of the Fantastic Four. Her first page is arguably the most important image of the 1970s, showing the passing of time and its toll on the family as individuals. FF1by1 explains:
"The first that should be said about this issue is that it features the remarkable work of Ramona Fradon. A mainstay at early DC (she had a respected run on Aquaman and helped create Elemento) she only produced one printed work at Marvel Comics… and this is it! It’s a real shame since, although at first glance her art may seem overly-stylized, her work carries an expert flow and an exceptional use of composition and focal points. Reportedly, she could not get on with the very loose Marvel style of writing (at that time), and this shows in the pacing of the issue, which is a little uneven and carries very little finessing." 

To be fair, there were unnamed female colorists before then, and coloring has a huge impact on the power of a comic: but that is a tale for another day.

"The zeitgeist:The Battle of the Century - Any Century!"
One of the great things about the FF is the hyperbole: because it usually turns out to be true! Take this issue for example. Two issues of the FF are called "The Battle of the Century": FF26, and this one.

Battle of the Century
There is no contradiction, and both statements are accurate:
  1. FF26 is the battle of "the" century.
    Many fans consider the Thing Versus Hulk fight to be the battle of the century: and if we accept the thesis that the Fantastic Four is the Great American Novel then it's hard to argue that other battles beat it. (1976s Superman versus Spider-Man one-shot probably comes close, due to its historical significance, but it falls short for several reasons. The story had no impact on continuity, no character development, is short contrived, one sided and lacks any tension or significance other than as a gimmick.)
  2. FF133 us the battle of "any" century.
    This symbolizes the battle of the sexes, which has historical significance far beyond almost any other trend in the twentieth century. For all human history and probably for long before, in almost all cultures, women were treated as inferior to men. Yet suddenly in culture after culture, throughout the world in the twentieth century, women began to be treated more equally. There is still a long way to go, but the change is dramatic. Noah Harari, in his book ""Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" devotes chapter nine to the topic. He offers several possible explanations but finds none of them convincing: why were women always and everywhere treated as inferior, and why did it begin to change in the twentieth century?
    "At the beginning of the twentieth century the idea of giving voting rights to women was generally seen in the USA as outrageous; the prospect of a female cabinet secretary or Supreme Court justice was simply ridiculous; whereas homosexuality was such a taboo subject that it could not even be openly discussed. At the beginning of the twenty-first century women’s voting rights are taken for granted; female cabinet secretaries are hardly a cause for comment; and in 2013 five US Supreme Court justices, three of them women, decided in favor of legalizing same-sex marriages (overruling the objections of four male justices)." (Part of the conclusion to "Sapiens" chapter 9)
As the cover to the FF states, "this is the battle of the century-- any century!"

"The Battle of the Sexes"
FF133 is cover dated April 1973, so was on sale around January and written around October 1972. The term "battle of the sexes"  referring to a high profile sports battle between a man and woman came six months later, when Bobby Riggs played tennis against Margaret Court on May 13, 1973. The location? Ramona, California. A pretty good coincidence, as a Ramona draw this issue. Riggs won the match, leading to a much bigger and more famous rematch, against Billie Jean King on September 20, 1973. King won.
King and Riggs

Other points to note:

the small print

Using the name "Marvel" across the board reflected a new confidence, after the uncertainty of the early 1970s. Sales had been falling since the decisions of 1968, and many in the industry thought superheroes wee a passing fad. But the distribution trick in issue 116 gave sales a boost, and now, two years later, the publishers had confidence that superheroes were here  to stay. (The trick was raising the cover price and page count, getting DC to copy, then dropping the page count and price again while DC remained expensive).

Issue 134: The love issue: and Reed quits something for the first time

Fantastic Four 134

The events of this issue symbolize the problem of the whole year: Sue's house disappears from under her, and Reed, unable to function alone, is too depressed to react.

The love issue
This issue shows the team's deep emotions by contrasting them with different kinds of love:

  1. The tragic love of Reed and Sue: the last page to this arc (next issue) is so painful.
  2. Conventional domestic bliss: Dorrie and her new man and her children
  3. Boyfriend/girlfriend: Johnny's aching heart from losing his true love, and wanting to reunite with an old flame. Note that Johny first had a crush on Medusa (see FF 43) and now she is on the team.
  4. Sue and Franklin: A mother will do anything to protect her child
  5. Gideon: a father's belief that he does everything for his son, but he really just loves his work
  6. Normal friendship (Carol, Sue's friend)
  7. An animal's love: Dragon man is forced to obey Gideon, but really loves Sue
  8. Love of power (Gideon)
  9. Duty: Medusa's role in the team. They are friends and fellow heroes, so she abandons her home to be with them for as long as it takes.
And in the second part of this story:
  1. Alicia's pure love for Ben
  2. Common humanity: (in next issue's flashback) the ordinary fishermen who rescued Gideon
  3. Love of celebrity: the team's faces sell magazines, they were once "people of the year" on Time
  4. etc.

Love and autism
I have argued elsewhere that Reed must be autistic. This issue gives another sign: he hates giving up on anything (for an autistic mind, things have to be complete). So many of the signs. I know that I make Reed sound like a villain in this web site, but it's only because it's so obvious he is a hero in every sense: he has a desperate need for things to be right (a strong autistic trait). He has the purest heart and works tirelessly to only do what is right. That should never be in question. So that makes the other side of autism all the more poignant: while he finds academic subjects easy, he finds emotional matters very difficult. So in this, the climax to the building emotion of the past years, he finally cannot cope. He walks around stiffly, as if completely unconnected, he barely reacts, and for the first time in his life he gives up. At the end (thanks to Gideon) ends up flat on his back. Reed has finally faced the one thing he cannot defeat: emotion.

I am diagnosed autistic myself, and totally relate to Reed. (Reed is my avatar on the FF comic boards.) I can feel the unbearable stress he must be going through. Such a powerful issue.

"Reed never quit before: it ain't natural."
This issue is about Reed's depression. Time has moved on (as we see from Dorrie), and Reed's hopes and dreams lie in tatters. He has lost his golden touch, and lost the respect of those who matter most. This issue has been criticized because Reed does not react to the destruction of the house. But that is the whole point: he is so depressed that he can barely respond to the world around him. He is self absorbed, unable to react. He will have three opportunities to turn back from the brink, but will miss them all, resulting in catastrophe in FF241.

Reed's two stages of depression
Note that Reed has two "rock bottom" periods: this, and the very end of Act 4. But there is a progression.

  1. Inability to act
    Here, Reed is simply depressed: unable to even react to events around him. Even the disappearance of the house containing his wife (as far as he knows) cannot evoke a response. This is perhaps the defining feature of depression - the depressed person can barely feel anything other than the darkness.
  2. Self destruction
    By the end of Act 4, Reed has moved beyond this. His enormous intellect moved from inability to react, to a mechanical focus on self destruction. The final period is when Reed mechanically goes through the motions, where his words become cold, he loses all passion. While his face bends into whatever smile shape is needed, and he silently plans suicide (see the notes to Byrne's run from FF232, and FF 251 in particular).

On dragons
Note the symbolism of the dragon grabbing Sue and Franklin. In western mythology, dragons represent sin, and are killed by heroes to demonstrate the hero's power. Here Reed's errors have caused him to lose his power to act as a hero, so a dragon takes his family and there is nothing he can do about it. In eastern mythology dragons represent wisdom, and here Reed is no longer the wise one. Reed's weakness is his refusal to put Sue first. Dragon man loves Sue in a simple, childlike way, so he puts her first. The great irony is that the simple-minded dragon is wiser than the brilliant hero.

Years have passed
In the previous issue we saw time passing That theme is emphasized here.  This is also the first issue where we really see that serious time has passed:

We also see clues to the future:

The 100 issue cycles

Throughout the FF we see 100 issue cycles. This is perhaps the most obvious example:

The suit and Reed

The 100 issue cycle is just part of the bigger structure. Here Gideon wears a life support suit that separates him from physical contact with loved ones, and Reed will do the same after his final negative zone experience.
the suit
In the final stages of Act 4, Reed will be faced with every symbol of the enemies who reflect his weakness. The final element to push Reed to self realization will reflect his greatest foe's greatest hubris: in the final issue of Act 4 Reed will see a city that exists to honor him, just as Latveria exists to honor Doom.


Other points to note:

Does his control unconscious control only apply to insects? Remember the first appearance of Galactus: from a higher perspective we are all ants.

FF 135-142: three stories of mishandled power

The next three arcs feature three beings with reality warping powers: the Shaper, the Miracle Man, and Franklin.* The first offers power without understanding, the second has illusions, and the third has power without awareness. These are three examples of power wrongly handled, and climax in the disaster at the end of FF141.

In each case, the story ends with a loss of respect. The shaper cannot respect Slugger Johnson, so Slugger loses his power. Ben cannot respect the Miracle Man, so he loses his power. Ben cannot respect Annihilus, so can really let loose. And ultimately none of them can respect Reed, and so the team falls apart.

*(Why do three reality warpers appear together? The appearance of the Shaper and Miracle Man may reflect the disruption in reality caused by Annihilus' attack on Franklin.)

Issue 135: the Nuclear arms race

Starfish Prime

This picture is Starfish Prime,  a high altitude nuclear weapons test in 1962. Here is it seen from Honolulu, over 1400 km away. The blast damaged equipment in Hawaii and New Zealand. As a result of tests like this, in 1963 all above ground weapons tests were banned. But nations still tried to find ways round the ban, such as by exploding bombs only just below the surface, and radiation would inevitably escape.

"The most noteworthy violation of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty took place at the Chagan nuclear test in the Soviet Union, carried out on January 15, 1965. The charge was powerful enough that some fallout rained upon Japan, and both Japan and the United States complained, but the complaints were eventually dropped, and the problem was ignored by the foreign governments." (Wikipedia)

In late 1964 Gregory Gideon had tried to defeat the Fantastic Four financially (FF 34). He changed his mind and vowed to focus on his son instead. So they went on holiday, but on the way back flew into the fallout from an unexpected bomb. This was most likely the January 1965 test, and Gideon was flying over Japan. 

the bomb

Gideon's reference to "United Nations' auspices" is probably a bitter comment about how the UN was supposed to stop that kind of thing (How?) , and that charges were later dropped.

So Gideon's use of Dragon man can be seen as an unconscious nod to Godzilla, another innocent yet deadly monster, symbol of Japan's experience of atom bombs.


The good guy has to make a death machine
Gideon is an innocent victim here. but the only way he can see to survive is by doing something terrible that hurts others. This symbolizes the arms race: each side sees themselves as the good guys, but they have to make death machines in order to survive. The name "the eternity machine" reflects the awful finality of nuclear war.

The Zeitgeist
This issue was planned in late 1972, the start of SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks). As usual the Fantastic Four reflects the mood of the times.

For later developments in the nuclear arms race see the notes to the end of John Byrne's run.

Sue and Reed: symbolism

Fantastic Four 135

Here Reed, representing America, is asleep while the nuclear arms race continues. And Sue, representing those who just want peace, feels he cannot be trusted with the next generation (Franklin)

Sue does not blame Reed. She doesn't know what to think. This indicates that the problem is not as clear as the surface argument: that Reed does not care for her, e.g. wanting her to stay away, with Franklin (FF127). Certainly Reed does care for her, hence he goes to pieces when she's away. Then what is the real problem? That he can't show it? or something else? Sue has to get away. She can't handle this.

Show, don't tell
Sue tends to work by intuition, not logic. She may not be consciously aware of what bothers her so much, but her body language makes it plain. She is almost always wit Franklin, She could leave him with her friends but does not. She likes to be close to Franklin, and Reed does not. That's the crux of the matter.

It may be hard for Sue to process exactly what the problem is, because on the surface it seems like Reed also cares for Franklin. After all, didn't he want to make Sue stay with Franklin in FF127? But he never says "one of us should be with Franklin" it's always "you should be with Franklin." The real issue is not that Reed does not want to be close to his family. That is what Sue cannot accept.

Ben's neglect: the irony
Reed is only the most visible tragedy here. Ben is guilty of the same neglect. In FF134 Ben complained that Reed just plays with his test tubes instead of going after Sue. But what is Ben doing? Sitting around reading comics. In this issue we see that Alicia has a chance to restore her sight, and Ben hasn't been around often enough to even notice!

Both Ben and Reed neglect their lovers, because both feel powerless. With both men their self image does not fit reality: Reed thinks he is the natural leader, but all the evidence says the opposite: yes, he's a great hero and the world's greatest scientist, but he lacks people skills. Meanwhile Ben thinks he cannot be loved, whereas all the evidence says the opposite - everyone loves Ben, and the most alpha of alpha females, Thundra and Tigra, find him especially hot. Nether man can see themselves as others see them. Both are trapped by their false self image.

Other points to note

Issue 136: the foundations of marriage

Fantastic Four 136

How this fits into the bigger story: the sanctity of marriage?
This issue continues to explore the near divorce. The normalization of divorce was a hot topic in the 1970s, in contrast to the 1950s when divorce as still strongly frowned on. (In between was the 1960s, a period of transition). This reminds us of Reed's patriarchal style, where the man of the house is the natural leader and his wife is expected to obey. So the question posed in this issue is, were the 1950s better?

Part of the reason that Reed treats Sue as dependent is the age gap. He was born in around 1926, she in 1941 (at least, that is the image she portrays). That's a 15 year age gap. They met when she was 12 (see FF291) and he was 27. No wonder he always thinks of her as a child! Reed became an adult in the 1950s. For Sue it was the 1960s. This issue is about the 1950s attitudes versus 1960s. it represents Reed versus Sue.

The personal story: ignoring others
The success of marriage depends on the individuals. This issue is about seeing a person as an individual with their own value. Reed loves Sue, yet he cannot accept that she has her own choices. He says he expects her to be there in the morning, and he cannot believe she would have gone away if Dragon man was there. He still sees her as dependent on him. This will not change until Namor steps in, in FF247.

FF132 was about slavery, and groups we ignore. This is issue raises the question again, by focusing on a henchman. Normally in comics the henchmen are disposable and the villain comes back, but the FF is about realism: we stay behind to see what happens next. We are made to see the henchman as an individual, with ideas, opinions, a family life and a childhood. This is just as revolutionary as any of the changes in the early years of the book.

The Great American Novel
Other points to note

Issue 137: the 1950s: the old white guys no longer have the answers

Fantastic Four 137

In this issue a henchman gains Einstein like intelligence, but finds that he still cannot solve the human problems. This reflects Reed: give him a physics problem and he's in his element, but give him a human conflict and he struggles. This also reflects the real Einstein: he spent much of his older years regretting and campaigning against the nuclear weapons he had promoted as a younger man.

Social commentary
This issue is about our dreams of power. It concludes that people who just want conflict and to rule do not deserve power. Instead power is given to the son who saw his father reject wealth and wants to put family first instead. It shows that most dreams are illusions: Movies and fear of sputnik are not real dangers; the older or younger generation are not the real enemy. The real enemy is the lust for power. The most powerful being there, the shaper of worlds, is the one who gives power away.

Just a pastiche?
Some of the ideas in this issue may appear cliche, but it's the real deal: the writer, Roy Thomas, was born in 1940 and grew to adulthood in the 1950s: an English school teacher at first, with a love of history, he paid attention to the world around him. Letters to the editor suggest this story was particularly well received.

The Great American Novel
The Great American novel covers the entire period since America became the most powerful nation (after World War I). Most of it is a real time commentary on the height of the cold war (1961-1989), but it also has one story from each of the other decades:
Reed's last warning
At the end of this issue Reed wonders if the message was for them.
the message
 Obviously he sees beyond the superficial "blacks and whites should be friends." message. The Shaper was attracted to Slugger by mistake, because he was irradiated by Gideon's machine. The machine is what mattered: it was designed to drain the genetic material from Reed, Sue and Franklin. In two years and a thousand experiments Gideon had discovered what Reed had failed to even try to find out: the power of the family's genes. This machine attracted the Shaper of Worlds.

The Shaper focused on specific aspects of Slugger's dreams: youth, and the contrast between old and new ideas. These things reflect Reed (old fashioned), Sue (more in tune with the seventies and women's liberation) and Franklin (the child with infinite potential and dream power like that of the Shaper).

What Reed missed
Had he investigated further, Reed could have seen why the Shaper was attracted, what the dream world meant, and the parallels between Thomas and Franklin: in particular the absolute need to to put his son first. If Reed recognizes the parallel he will rush to Franklin's side and make him the top priority before Annihilus arrives and it is too late. Reed almost does this: next issue he stays behind to experiment. But he does not focus on his son, and instead something about his antimatter experiment affects the Negative Zone portal and lets Annihilus in.

The tragedy
This is a Shakespearian tragedy: like Caesar, Reed missed the warnings that could have saved him. Twice he walked away from a scientifically fascinating scene: from the missing house and from Gideon's technology. The old Reed would have studied the evidence and (a) found Sue, then (b) understood Franklin's DNA. But instead, depressed, he just left, and the opportunities slipped through his fingers.

In short, the Shaper was Reed's last chance and he blew it.

Criticisms (source)
This issue was popular at the time because many readers recognized the rich symbolism. Modern readers recognize less of the symbolism so tend to see only the most obvious messages: e.g. against racism - and so do they miss the pleasure.

Other points to note

Issue 138: philosophy 101

Fantastic Four 138

In these few issues our lonely Reed has been being forced to think about big topics, not just the physics he's comfortable with. This issue features another world shaper. This time it's not about history and politics but religion and philosophy

The message: we must admit we can be wrong

Why does the Miracle Man appear right now?
The Miracle man story (FF3) was about power coming from self confidence, and that power disappearing when confidence disappears. That is the situation Reed finds himself in now. The Miracle Man gradually regained his confidence by going back to traditional values: will Reed? He will need a miracle.

Building on previous stories
Two previous stories dealt with self delusion: FF3 (the Miracle Man: they believed they were weak and so they are), and FF80 (Tomazooma: they treated a robot as if it was a god). This issue combines
them: the Miracle Man in the role of Tomazooma, the god-like being. This drives home the message of humility: that people can be wrong.

Who has the stronger mind?
This story shows the weakness of Reed by contrasting him with Wyatt Wingfoot. The opening image shows Wyatt towering over the team.

Wyatt towers

The Miracle Man story is a test of the mind. At this point Reed's mind is weak. He even has trouble concentrating on experiments. The FF has super powers yet is weak. Wyatt has no super powers yet is strong.

The team is weak because the family is divided. Wyatt is strong because his family is strong.

"Pride goeth before a fall"
In this story the Miracle Man uses the same trick as before, a form of hypnotism, and the team think they are too clever to fall for it. Like Reed, their pride is their downfall. They literally fall at the end of the story, down a huge pit (or so they think). We have numerous clues that the new power is an illusion:

  1. Occam's razor: why assume great new powers when the simple old ones explain it?
  2. Something is clouding their minds, as witnessed by how they remember FF3 differently (this time they "remember" that the theater performance used monsters; they were not impressed by the feats; a monster is far from the city, Johnny used a "nova" flash, etc.)
  3. The Miracle Man's story ranges from "too convenient" (he lost his fake power and gained a real one. Really?) to implausible (the silent ones knew nothing of the white man? These wise old men were easily fooled?)
  4. Even Ben and Johnny say they doubt it is true, yet accept it anyway
  5. When the next issue begins: they seem to fall forever, and can talk while falling. Rather like the start of Alice In Wonderland.
  6. The ending (in FF139) is too convenient for the Miracle Man. When he sees he is defeated he is able to leave and save face. This is just what an illusionist would do: a final illusion to let him escape.
To defeat him, the Torch just needed a blinding light, like last time, he does that in FF139, and it works. But first they have a needless battle because their pride refuses to admit they are being fooled again. They would rather believe the powers are real. They need to realize that yes, they can be fooled again. They are not immune to being wrong. They need humility, just like Reed.

The logical fallacy: argumentum ad lapidem
Ben tests whether the monster is real by hitting it. This is a famous logical fallacy called "argumentum ad lapidem" or "argument from the stone." The idea is that you prove the world is real by kicking a stone: it feels sold therefore the world is real. But it is a logical fallacy, because you could be just imagining that it is real: it is only a proof against the weakest forms of illusion. In this story Ben and Johnny are like Reed: they think the real problem is outside of themselves. Reed thinks that Sue should make the first move: that she should come running to him. He does not realize that, as with the Miracle Man, the real issue lies inside. The inner belief must be addressed, and Reed and Ben and Johnny must all admit that they can be wrong. No matter how much they think they are right.

The power of the subconscious:
This time around the team think that the Miracle Man has real powers. Obviously they thought that the first time as well. Consciously disbelieving makes no difference: the Miracle man's power is over their subconscious minds, which is why they can be physically exhausted while fighting (and presumably even die if they lose). Their conscious minds say "this is not real" but their unconscious brain belies it is real, and their bodies react accordingly. Note the parallels with Reed's depression: consciously he tells himself he must carry on as normal, but unconsciously he cannot.  In FF170 (169?) we see a similar principle with Ben: consciously he tries desperately to change, but his unconscious will not allow it.

Shakespeare again
This conflict between beliefs/intentions and reality is the bedrock of all psychological fiction and is often seen in Shakespeare: things are not always as they seem, and characters like Hamlet and Macbeth wrestle with themselves.

"madness" in the title: a multi layered story
The Miracle man, like Reed, or like King Lear or Hamlet, must pass through madness before finding new strength, but in the end even that strength is an illusion: the one casting the illusion is himself deceived. In the next issue it is revealed that the Indian elders were always in charge, they just allowed the Miracle Man to believe he was deceived. Note the parallels with the Celestials, who allow themselves to appear defeated when it suit them (see FF annual 23, the backup story). Also note the parallel Reed and Sue: Reed appears to be in charge but it is really Sue who calls the shots.


Other points to note:

Issue 139: Reed admits failures

Fantastic Four

Reed finally accepts the truth. This truth is reflected in the main story, where false beliefs based on vanity almost cause disaster. The tide turns when they face reality: when Johnny tries his blinding flash (implying that the Miracle Man is not much more powerful than last time), and when Ben no longer believes the Miracle Man is unbeatable.

Although Reed accepts he has failed in his noble efforts, he still does not accept that he has ever hurt his friends emotionally, not in any serious way. He feels defeated, but not humble. He feels sorry for himself, but only because he was noble yet failed The rest of act 4 is the long road to real humility, to acknowledge that he is not better than other people. That realization will take some time: Reed's suffering has barely started.

The moral: respect others
The key statement is at the end, Ben says that if you have to prove how tough you are then you are not tough. The men who really change the world are those who make the others around them feel stronger, not weaker. Reed needs to be confident in his leadership so he can listen to others without thinking the team will fall apart

R - e - s - p - e - c - t :  Ben and Johnny break free
The climax of the story is when Ben defeats the illusion: he takes charge. He realizes that the Miracle Man "has no class" and a that moment Ben loses his respect for the man: the illusion is broken. This foreshadows the next story, where Ben and Johnny, who have threatened to leave Reed more than once, finally lose any respect for him and they leave for real.

Land rights criticizes this issue for not discussing Indian land rights. But as a committed Georgist (look it up!) I will point out that the whole issue is about land rights. it begins with the Indians falling down a hole in their land, literally trampled underfoot of the invading white man with a black heart, who's claims are based on illusion and greed - could the symbolism be more obvious? But rather than say "they were here first, so it's theirs" the Fantastic Four goes deeper: it addresses the philosophical basis of land rights.

What makes land belong to person A or B? Simply occupying it? The the invader is the new rightful owner. By occupying it for a long time? The the invades must use all his power to maintain ownership until it becomes right by default. The Miracle Man represents both claims, and clearly both are faulty.

The only moral claim he has is that he creates something: his city is the work of his own hands. Yet he does so by crushing and enslaving others, which makes his city a mockery that laughs at him. At this point his self confidence cracks, allowing the crushed people to rise from  the ground and take back control. The Miracle Man then drives the Indians away, just as their grandfathers were driven to reservations. But again they use the only moral claim they have to land: the work of their own hands. Wyatt, representing the first nation people, builds the raft.

Johnny could have whipped up his own whirlwind transport as he did in issue 4 and again the previous issue, FF138. but it is important to the symbolism that Wyatt is the one who's efforts create something useful from than natural elements: as the philosophers agree, combining his effort with the land is what gives him any claim to moral ownership.

Other criticisms
Other points to note:

Issue 140: Sue's growing self awareness

Fantastic Four 140

It's easy to forget that Sue has always lived in Reed's shadow. She met him at the age of 12 (see FF291) and idolized him. He was 15 years older than her - more than twice here age! He was a millionaire, a genius and a really nice guy. When her father went to prison and she raised her younger brother she must have looked up to Reed as an example of stability, a goal to aspire to. She was only 20 when he took her in his rocket ship, and he was 35. No wonder she found it so hard to question him! Coming to realize that Reed has weaknesses must have been difficult.

Sue lived in Reed's shadow since age 12, was in his shadow in the FF since the age of 20, and was married to him at the age of 24. Now, at the age of 30, she is finally older than Reed was when they first met. This is the first time she's been both physically and emotionally away from him, the first time she could sit and think things through. She loves him, but what does that mean?

Reed makes progress too

In this issue Reed admits that his wife and son are the most important thing to him. This is a step forwards, but he still sees himself as more important than them, otherwise he'd go and beg their forgiveness and ask what he can do to make up, and then do it. Similarly, Sue does love Reed but hat does that mean?

Other points to note

Issue 141: Franklin!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Fantastic Four 141

This is the big one: where we learn the full extent of Franklin's power. it is also where Reed zaps his son into a coma.

Fantastic Four 141

Why do the team walk out?
It may seem unfair that the team walk out after Reed saves the world. Note that Medusa stays (next issue). The difference is that she has only seen the recent events. The others can see this event in context. If seen in isolation, Reed did the only thing he could. But seen in the context of Franklin's life, Reed should have spotted this earlier.  Annihilus did not suddenly produce that energy, it was always there.  Why didn't Reed notice? Energy and the negative zone are his specialty. But for all of Franklin's life Reed has pushed him away. Reed wouldn't even let the child have a name for several months (over a year, our time). The others cannot know whether zapping him was needed or not, but they do know that Reed has always pushed his son away, and this is the last straw.

Why has Reed always pushed Franklin away?
Reed's excuse has always been that Franklin would be safer away from them. Yet Agatha just kidnapped the child for Annihilus! What other choice did Reed have? Well Sue's force field is perfectly designed to protect him, and the Baxter Building has its own defenses. Then why does Reed push him away? Clearly he is uncomfortable around children. Reed just isn't touchy-feely. It's also possible that he unconsciously sees Franklin as a rival for Sue's love. but he seems happy for Sue to stay behind with the child, so it's probably just a case of feeling awkward. Children and advanced science do not mix. Or so Reed thinks. This is not to say that he wanted to zap his son. He didn't want to! But the dilemma could have been avoided if he'd paid more attention in the past.

A historic and unforgettable issue
"This period of the FF’s history had a very strong effect on me. I was around nine years old when these issues came out and I recall being very disturbed by what seemed to be the disintegration of Marvel’s first family. Sue had already left Reed (back in issue #130) because she felt he was both neglecting his duties as a husband and father, AND treating her like an inferior. The team limped along without her, as Medusa came to fill-in for a time. It just felt really wrong. I had been reading the FF reprints in Marvel’s Greatest Comics at the same time and the contrast between the happy, stable family from the past and the fractured, miserable family here was shocking. As a child, it made me feel very insecure. So when Reed actually used his anti-matter gun to shut down Franklin’s mind, I remember being just stunned. This truly was one of those comics moments that had an impact on me. " ( - Karen in "Two Girls, A Guy, and Some Comics")

Was Sue a weak female before that? No, but she gave Reed his chance to do thing his way until even he could see that it wasn't working. For more about Sue as the strongest member even at the start, see her own page. Some have argued that Sue should be read as weak because Stan Lee wrote all his females as weak, see for example Jean Grey in the X-Men, who often had to be told what to do. However, Jean is a special case: when she died it was revealed that she was born in 1957, making her just seven years old when she joined the X-Men. Mutant powers usually exhibit in puberty, and her mind based powers apparently caused her puberty to kick in very early (it is possible to hit puberty that early, but extremely rare). So Jean Grey was a child and did need coaching. This also explains why Cyclops held back despite his obvious attraction to her.


Other points to note

Franklin controls everything: why didn't he stop this?

Franklin wants to be at the ranch
In FF134, Watch Franklin carefully. It is as if Franklin wants Dragon man to capture them, so they can be de-powered and be like the happy ranchers he saw where his mother was happy. Note that Dragon man is always the symbol of marital tension, and a messenger from higher powers: see the notes by FF35 and annual 16. In FF142, being zapped brings him back to the the ranch where he is happy.

Agatha is behind this
In FF143, Frank is asleep during Doom's great plan. This is the climax to all of Doom's plans, the one that would finally enslave the whole world. Yet Doom acts slightly insane, and makes poor decisions, e.g. laughing as he forces the spies to kill each other, provoking Darkoth, and not noticing the approach of the FF. This saves the world. Here is the evidence that Franklin affected his mind:

  1. This is big
    This is not just another attempt to humiliate the FF, but Doom's most audacious plan since stealing the surfer's power (which happened before Franklin was born so he could not help).
  2. Agatha Harkness would notice.
    The plan involves highly advanced technology: crystals for global mind control: Doom's standard operating procedure, and why he can do so much, is that when needed he combines magic and science. Crystals are the hallmark of technology that borders on the magical. So a sensitive magical being like Agatha would notice.
  3. Agatha's greatest power is Franklin
    We have seen before that Agatha's power, while impressive, is limited. But the whole point of magic is to access unlimited power. Probably Agatha influenced Reed to gain access to Franklin for precisely this purpose.
  4. Agatha is not innocent
    Agatha has persuaded Reed that she protects Franklin, but here and at other times we see that this is not true.
  5. Nicholas Scratch
    Agatha comes from New Salem, a whole town full of witches. These are people who deal with the same forces that Dr Strange uses. On two occasions we see that the whole town desires to rule the world, under Agatha's son. Of course, when he fails the others claim they were merely victims, but is that really likely? When Scratch fails, Agatha sends him to the negative zone, from where he tries to control Franklin (see FF222). This is too much of a coincidence.

So Agatha is nurturing Franklin for her own purposes. Doom is the biggest threat to Agatha's plans, so must be stopped. Franklin is the obvious way to do that. This is part of the bigger story of how Agatha became Franklin's nanny, despite putting him in danger. Agatha needed Franklin for her battle against her son. Reed, the scientist, has no idea of complex magical politics and was easily led.

What was Agatha's plan?
While Franklin is asleep (FF141-150), every story is about mind control:

We do not know the details, so can only speculate. But this is a prime example of the magical battles that take place below the surface. Franklin is asleep, and there is is a battle to mind control the world.    

What is Agatha's ultimate goal with Franklin?
Franklin's power to end the universe sounds like the ultimate nullifier: was he to reset reality to an earlier time, perhaps before mankind gained superpowers? But in the Franklinverse, he actually created universes: was FF141 really Agatha's plan to create a universe? Or to rip through this universe to a higher one? After all, magic is about gaining power form higher beings. What more natural goal than to enter their realm as an equal?

Again we do not know the details, but the closer we look at superhero stories, the clearer it is that great battles are taking place between advanced beings, and those who envy their power. The power is so advanced that we call it magical or cosmic. These are the battles that we never see, and the superhero battles are only a side effect.

Issue 142: the family's first major test

Fantastic Four 142

This is the first time the family has broken up (if we don't count FF72, which didn't last even a single train journey.) They do reform they find that they need each other, but Reed's problems are not solved and in FF190 they break up again. That time they think they've solved their problems but it turns out to be a false dawn. However, they do learn that simply breaking up doesn't solve anything.

Ben and Johnny were never happy in the team. This is their opportunity to get out. Wyatt is a friend of Johnny and he knows this is not the time to interfere. But Medusa doesn't know Reed's history so she supports him. Plus she always felt Crystal was too emotional, and the Inhumans are not known for being emotionally sensitive to their children, so she would probably side with Reed anyway.

Timing, and Reed's autism
After the dramatic opening event we follow Ben for well over 17 hours before seeing Reed react. This delay adds to the realism: when something terrible happens we need time to process it. Reed probably did not sleep, but was silent, in mental turmoil, not knowing what to say: he was convinced he did the right thing, now he does not know what to do. In that time he is unable to communicate. This is classic autistic behavior: being unable to cope he withdraws, until finally the inner pressure builds up and he has a meltdown. Medusa knows that staying withdrawn will not help: he has to get out and meet people.

Other points to note


Issue 143: slavery (and for the first time, Sue is alone)

Fantastic Four 143

Sue has never been alone before. She relied so much on Reed's moral strength when her father went to prison (see notes to FF140). What can she do?

Who can she trust? Compare FF261
This is one of two times when Sue's marriage became so bad that she ended up in the arms of the Sub-Mariner. This time is because Reed acted in passion The second time is because all passion died (see the start to FF 261, following on from an adventure with Namor). In FF250 Sue is determined to never leave Reed again (see her comment at the end of FF 289), but staying in a loveless marriage is arguably worse. Reed will not put Sue first until act 5, when the marriage is finally healthy at last. Sue and Reed's marriage is the barometer of the rise and fall of the FF in acts 3 and 4.

Reed and Sue feel trapped, and these four arcs deal with enslaved groups.
  1. The 1950s story featured race relations.
  2. Then the Miracle Man story featured native Americans, forced to live on small reservations.
  3. Then the Annihilus story gave his background as an insect among animals. Animals are the last group to remain enslaved, and among animals, insects are considered the lowest form of life (despite being more successful than humans).
  4. Here we see Doom's need to enslave the human race, the results of slavery in Eastern Europe, and his enslavement of the African American Desmond Pitt as "Darkoth". It is fitting then that the focus of this issue is Ben, the one enslaved by his skin, the Jewish street kid, the strong and intelligent adult treated like a child by Reed.

Why Darkoth?
(A short history of Doom and his robots)

Darkoth is part of the natural evolution of Doom's robots. Their gradual progress is a motif that runs through the 28 year story. Robots are part of the theme of control (Reed and Doom are obsessed with being in control, and they finally gain wisdom when they learn that cooperation is more effective than top down micromanagement). Doom's advances in robots are paralleled by Reed's advances in his home: Doom  shows the folly of wanting slaves, whereas Reed gets closer to the truth (the home is what matters) yet still fails to see the power of his family until act 5.

Darkoth and racism
It is significant that Darkoth is a black man (the clue is in the name), but his history is not revealed until his next and final appearance. An enslaved black man reminds us of America's past. To white racists, only white men are in the image of God, blackness represents evil, and that native African religion is demonic.

Eastern Europe and superstition
Doom relies on local superstitions to make people fear Darkoth. These superstitions of the Eastern European mountains remind us of the book Dracula. The existence of superstitions reflects a rational reliance on rumor. Superstitions grow whenever there is great danger and little information: it pays to assume that every rustle in the grass is a tiger and every shadow in the dark is a death demon. Slavs have a long history of not having information or freedom: they were effectively slaves, treated like dirt, for thousands of years. Indeed, the word "slave" comes from the word "Slav".

The Zeitgeist: James Bond
The Great American Novel reflects everything that is popular in American culture. Int he 1970s James Bond became popular, so naturally we have a story that pays homage to the famous tropes. As FF1by1 puts it, "generally accepted as the clichéd comic book/James Bond villain plot. Doctor Doom wants to rule the world, he has a weapon of a very scientifically dubious nature, and he has assembled and imprisoned his enemies (the good guys) in order to humiliate him."  But far from being a typical Dr Doom plot, this is the first and only time he has done something so silly, and it reflects his emotional state at the time.


Other points to note

Issue 144: Doom's half way point

Fantastic Four 144

Still Reed cannot say sorry. Ben is hurting, and instead of facing what he has done, and treating Ben as an equal, Reed just condemns Ben. Ben's confidence, briefly raised when he left Reed, takes another pounding when he's back.

Reed says he hasn't felt safe in years. A minor clue, but this may be further evidence of autism. As Temple Grandin tells it (in the BBC Horizon program "the woman who thinks like a Cow") to be autistic is to be like a prey animal, always to feel surrounded by constant danger.

Note the snow at the end: a metaphor for the coldness in their hearts. Next issue the cold deepens.

Doom's turning point

Doom behaves poorly?
This issue is often criticized as a poor story about Doom, because (1) he behaves poorly, and (2) his attack seems badly planned. But look deeper and this issue may be one of the most important of all.

As always, the subtlety of the main characters' lives is reflected more clearly in the people around them. This is the lowest point in Reed's relationship with his family, and so it is reflected in Doom's lowest point in his relationship with Latveria:
Doom's bad relationship with Latveria in the mid 1970s point is explored more fully in Super Villain Team Up. See Doom's own page for the context.

Why this particular issue matters
This story is important because it shows that even when he has everything going for him - a satellite from which he can rule the world - without the nobility that comes from loving Latveria he is nothing.

Childishness - a theme
Twice in this issue Reed treats Ben as a naughty child. The second time he explicitly says Ben is like a child. Yet Reed caused the problems himself.
  1. The first conflict with Ben, in the sewers, is because Ben has lost all respect for Reed, due to Reed's actions over the previous years. So Ben is quick to believe that Reed is lost when Darkoth suggests it. And how does Reed plan to solve that problem? By insulting Ben. He could say "I accept I have made mistakes, we will discuss this later" but instead he says, in effect, "you are stupid, it's all your fault." Now who is childish, Reed?
  2. The second conflict is when Reed is dismantling the android: Ben is on edge because of Alicia, his distrust of Darkoth, and his lack of respect for Reed. The final straw is "all this waiting". Medusa agrees. This is poor leadership. Reed is acting like a one man team again. Is there really nothing the others can do? Fair enough, perhaps they had to stay in hiding, but he could have told the others to brainstorm: Darkoth's knowledge of Doom would surely spark some idea in Ben or Medusa. But Reed had not treated others like children for so many years that their mental abilities are wasted.
Childish Doom
Doom, as his name suggests (domos, home, see notes by FF5) relies on his connection to his homelands for his identity. Growing up as a gypsy, without a formal nation, he needs his connection to his people. Without it he is emotionally an orphan. Hence at this period he acts like a child: laughing at the errors of others, getting over-excited at silly conquests.

Coach Thorne
Why is Coach Thorne needed? Because, in his childish state, Doom needs the approval of his old teacher, the one who did not respect him. When Doom regains his dignity, his connection to his people, he will no longer need to seek approval. A mature person needs to help others, and needs their feedback, but does not need them to tell him he is a good boy.

Doom as a mirror of Reed
Doom is once again a mirror of Reed. Doom is low, and so is Reed. Reed neglects his family and Doom neglects Latveria. Both have the same weakness: they treat others as inferior. Doom's low point is symbolised by his great power being impotent. His most dramatic achievement is to pulling a building into space, as in issue 6. Here he shows off by doing it again, but it just blows up. Here he doesn't even have the satisfaction of a worthy opponent like Namor (in FF6), but he is beaten by one of his own creations: he cannot even control those he creates!  This foreshadows Reed's similar weakness at the end of act 4, where he allows his home to be destroyed in a petty act: at the end of act 4 even a second class Doom will be more capable than Reed.
buildings in space

Badly planned?
At the end of this story the bomb goes off, priming everybody in the world to obey him, but Doom loses the satellite and its equipment so he can't make use of that, and the world goes on as usual. This appears to be an anticlimax, a proof of poor planning by Doom. But was it?

True, Doom was defeated, but the bomb still went off. This may be important in the long term story. It helps to explain why, with the help of the Purple Man, Doom was finally able to control everybody in Emperor Doom, the point where he finally learns wisdom. In Emperor Doom, a machine channels the Purple Man's power into the atmosphere, so that Doom can control the whole world. We are not told exactly how Doom could expand that power, other than it uses a crystal. But FF144 provides the explanation: the people were already primed. Compare the design of the device in FF144 and Emperor Doom: they are essentially the same.
Emperor Doom

So Emperor Doom completes what FF144 began. Put simply, without FF144, Emperor Doom is less plausible and so his whole 28 year arc fails.

Doom's half way point
Super Villain Team Up and Emperor Doom are not essential to understand Doom, they simply provide details. But the general shape of the arc is covered in the main FF title on its own. Regarding the end, Doom's wisdom begins in FF247, and annual 20 reflects the events of Emperor Doom (see the notes by annual 20). Within the main title, FF144 is in fact the half way point in Doom's story arc. the date is 1974, half way from 1961 to Emperor Doom in 1987. It has the central element of his first story arc (FF5-6): taking a stone building into space (symbolizing his combination of scientific marvels with his love of old stonework - see his castles and Latveria). It also has the central element of his final great arc, the purple crystal device to brainwash the world from space.

Rich Buckler, Kirby, and hidden depths

The Great American Novel says things with images as well as words. At this period Rich Bucker (the artist) was encouraged to draw like Kirby. So he used Kirby's images to reference earlier times. Each Buckler event is linked to a Kirby event. The pictures add depth to the story. Buckler used this method throughout his run. I shall just use FF144 as an example, but for other issues visit the "panelocity" blog at Thanks to Sharon for putting in all the work.

Here's the first example: why is Ben so on edge in FF144? Why does he mistrust somebody who Reed trusts? Why so irritable? It's not just Reed's behavior from FF241. Look back at Ben's memories: he has good reason for his feel like he does:

Ben defensive

Next, is Reed really the natural leader he appears? On the surface, Reed is like an adult and Ben is like a child. But look at the characters' memories: they remind us that Ben is var more powerful than anyone realizes: like Blastaar, he is astounding in his abilities. Reed makes him just stand around doing nothing for most of the issue: Reed is wasting one of his greatest resources. It should also be noted that Ben's stubbornness, and his history with Doom, mean he might be able to withstand the mind control: there are a lot worse ideas than just letting Ben storm in and smash things. Being so ion edge about Alicia this is the one time when he might overcome his natural holding back and really let rip. But Reed cannot see Ben's strength. Reed cannot see how much eh relies on others: Ben saving Reed from the nuclear robot should have reminded Reed of when Triton rescued him. (Triton of course was originally considered an enemy until Sue saved his life, thus turning the Inhumans into friends and changing the course of history.)

Reed misunderstands

Next, why is Doom so keen to control others? Because he feels like the whole world is against him. Like the Mole Man, he is afraid of what others might do, and wants to weaken them all. When seen in this context we see the folly in his words: no matter how strong Doom is, if he weakens the rest of the world then he rules over a weak world. And of course Doom is not as strong as he thinks: but like the Mole Man, he cannot see clearly. Speaking metaphorically, he wants to blind others because he is blind. Like the scared, hiding Me Man he hides behind giant machines and monsters of destruction.


Finally, the ending of the story: they have achieved only a temporary victory: in the long run, their conflicts are a never ending cycle of despair. When the other players are so intent on distrust and conflict then the only wise choice is the one that Sue has chosen: do not even play the game. Note Johnny's pose: as the youngest, the one raised by Sue, he still as optimism. The next generation will rely on him.


Note that several of these memories (FF50, 69, 71) are linked to other times when Ben felt he had disappointed Alicia.

Note the Shakespearian touches throughout:


Other points to note

Issue 145: Johnny can't see what he did wrong

Fantastic Four 145

Reed was a father figure to Johnny (his own father was in jail and he was raised by Sue who doted on Reed). So it's not surprising that Johnny is not sensitive to others and has trouble seeing his own faults. Johnny's betrayal of Crystal is cataloged here. Johnny won't know how to have a healthy, sensitive adult relationship with women until Alicia changes everything. See notes to FF204 for his disastrous love life. This difficulty in dealing with others extends to his relationship with Ben. he took out his frustrations on Ben, and as Medusa says, when Ben hit back, Johnny had it coming to him. Then, just as they are about to discuss feelings, just when Johnny might learn something, Reed interrupts. Johnny will one day learn to be sensitive, but Reed is a much harder nut to crack.

Other points to note

Issue 146: climate change

Fantastic Four 146

This is the Great American Novel, and climate change is a major global concern, so it features here. Of course, back in the early 1970s the big fear was of an ice age, not global warming. The ice can also be seen as a metaphor for the lack of warmth in the team.

Note that the monk sees interference in another nation's affairs as a cause for serious regret. The Founding Fathers felt the same way, and wanted isolationism. Medusa, one of the isolationist Inhumans, agrees. but Johnny represents the younger generation in America and sees nothing wrong with getting involved in other nations with the intention of making the world a better place. This is a big issue in climate change: it has to be a global effort, but can one nation tell another nation what to do?

The ice queen
Note the symbolism of this issue. Medusa is the queen of the Inhumans, and is known for her icy control. When Crystal wanted to leave, Medusa condemned her for showing emotion in public, yet Medusa can be a seductress when she wants to be (see her first time with the Frightful Four). Medusa speaks for Black Bolt, yet does not always reflect what he wants (compare FF306 where she says Crystal must leave, and annual 21 where Black Bolt wants her to stay). At this time she is secretly planning Project Revival. Medusa is icy cool on the exterior.

The hot head cools down
Note the symbolism of ice for Johnny's character development this issue: Johnny was critical of reed but is now, with a cooler head, seeing Reed's point of view

Criticisms (from

Issue 147: divorce papers

Fantastic Four 147

Divorce papers. 'Nuff said.

For why Sue went with Namor, see the notes to FF 243.

Other points to note

Issue 148: the psychological depth of the Great American Novel

Fantastic Four 148

The Great American Novel
This is a powerful psychological issue. To see why, consider this criticism from a comic fan's point of view, on

"There is an awful flaw right at the center of this issue — an annoyance that builds to a frustration and then almost an insult as the story progresses. And that is that the moment after the cliff-hanger of the previous issue is never shown. The story picks up some hours after that instant and we are promised that more will be revealed of that event but all we are then shown is a one-page summary of the previous issue. Reed has been told that she loves Namor and not him — what was his reaction? Did he say anything to Sue? What was Ben and Johnny’s reaction?"

This is a classic example of why the Fantastic Four was The Great American Novel and not just a comic: when forced to choose between being a comic and a novel, the writers instinctively choose the novel. FF1by1 is correct in that, seen as a comic, obviously we should see a visible result to the cliff hanger: they should have fought, or shouted, or debated, or something! Any comic reader knows that! But this is not primarily a comic. Stand back and we see something far more powerful.  The drama, the bottled up passion, the tragic power, is in Reed's bottled-up non-reaction.

Reed's reaction in context
Ever since 1961 we have seen Reed's difficulty with connecting emotionally. Reed is the world's greatest hero,a  man of pure heart motivated by his concern for others, yet this very strength makes it difficult for him to relate to others. Issue 1 set the template: Reed turned his best friend into a  monster and didn't realize that was a bad thing. Throughout acts 1 and 2 he controlled and infantalized his friends, and didn't realize he was doing it. There was very little backlash at first, because Reed was so capable, and anybody near him looked like an amateur. Bat as the stakes grew higher and the dangers came faster and faster, he began to really need the others. And his inability to connect with them became a bigger and bigger weakness. This is the central theme of Reed's life: to learn that he cannot do it all alone: he is not Mister Impossible.

Act 4 has been about the pressure and his inability to cope. For the past several years we have seen him bottle up his problems. In FF142 for example, after the greatest shock of all, he just stood there and did not react for hours, and then turned his rage inward. So how does he react now to the most devastating news of his life? He doesn't! He can't! He turns it all on himself! All we see is the aftermath, where his inner tension is unbearable.

The power of the image
Look at Reed in that psychologically powerful splash page. Reed, once the most verbose and flexible man, is now silent and rigid! This is merely the most intense example of the problem he refuses to face until issue 189 when he resigns: his loss of stretching power is paralleled by him using fewer big words. He is no longer Mr Fantastic except in name, a mockery of the reality. He is going through mental hell, and it's all the more worse because emotion is the one thing he understands the least.

Reed's frozen reaction to losing Sue is powerful, and familiar to depressed, stressed and traumatised people everywhere. What can you say when you have no words? But of course you cannot have a non-reaction as a splash page, especially after using the same idea s the splash to FF142, and at least there we had the drama of the others leaving. Here the others, now with compassion for his suffering, don't know what to do either, other than try to steer the ship in the direction Reed was when he lost the power to act - another metaphor.

The contrast with Medusa
Note the dramatic contrast with Namor and especially Medusa. Reed does not understand his wife. He does not understand his emotions. But Namor, a man of passion, does. Medusa understands how to use passion to her full advantage (as when she first appeared) and when to turn it off (as when criticizing Crystal for being too open with her emotions). Medusa is the genius of using passion, the greatest of all politicians (as discussed elsewhere). So it is Medusa, with the aid of Namor, who masterminds "Project Revival".

The power of Medusa, with her infinitely flexible hair, contrasts with the powerlessness of Reed. Medusa is the de facto ruler of the Inhumans because she speaks for Black Bolt: male and female in perfect harmony, in contrast with Reed, ruler of the FF, who does not know how to speak to his wife. (Even here there are layers of meaning: Black Bolt cannot speak to Medusa either, so does she always say what he wants? FF304 and annual 21 suggest not.)

Medusa, Thundra, and "war on the 36th floor"
Medusa is here to protect Reed, Just as in this issue Thundra protects Ben. Both men are psychologically scared (Ben because he is not psychologically ready to lead); both need the women to take charge.

This issue is at first glance about a random battle with the Frightful Four, but look closer: the title is "war on the 36th floor". This issue makes clear that the floor in question is the first one occupied by the Fantastic Four. It is where the regular world ends and the home of the Fantastic Four begins. Like all the floors it contains some laboratories, but all diagrams since FF annual 1 have made clear that the first floor above the regular building is the FF's living quarters. So "war on the 36th floor". The battle with the Frightful Four is important because it symbolises the frightful battle inside the family home,
baxter Building

36th floor? I thought the Baxter building only had 35?
The Baxter Building is routinely referred to as having 35 floors. This is why you should never rely on the official handbook. The task of analyzing every issue takes years (as I know from experience!), so the publishers of the handbook take many short cuts. Often they simply make stuff up, such as the often quoted "fact" that Ben Grimm can lift 85 tons: a figure that was never strictly true. If somebody vaguely remembers an issue saying "35 floors" they just put it in the handbook. It is then quoted extensively and is assumed to be gospel. But look closer: there are 35 normal rented floors, plus a penthouse of 5 floors occupied by the Fantastic Four, making 40 floors total.

Baxter history

The height is confirmed in issue 168. Note that the Franklinverse building is very different.

Baxter building

The origin of the "35 stories total" myth

In FF 249, when Gladiator lifts the building, Reed looks out of the window and says that should not be possible. The caption says "thirty five stories down to the street... thirty five stories to the incredible!" This is a few pages after the diagram that showed five stories for the FF and refers to "the lower 30 stories". I think this is where people get the "35 stories" idea. If that was the only reference then I would agree that 35 stories total is the most likely conclusion. However, that contradicts previous issues, including the very first detailed description in FF 6. it also contradicts the comic itself: Reed is on the 4th floor and looking down, so if he looked down past 35 stories the building would have at least 37 stories: i.e. Reed was looking down past 35 stories, plus his own plus the one above.

So what does looking down past 35 stories mean? Let's look closer. The context is that Reed thinks the building should crumble under its own weight. I doubt that is true of the FF part of the building: it's so heavily reinforced that it could probably be tossed around like a ball and survive. The FF's section is detachable (see FF202), and sits on top of the regular building, so Reed probably thinks of it as a separate unit. So when Reed talks of the 35 stories below him, and how it should crumble, he probably means the 35 regular stories below the FF's headquarters.

Other points to note

Paste Pot Pete

Issue 149: Sue gives Reed a second chance

Fantastic Four 149

So Sue gives Reed another chance. Note that Ben says that Reed admitted his mistake. But he never did: except to admit that he failed. Failing and making a mistake are two different things. Reed has collapsed due to stress he had admitted that his actions had bad consequences, he's been cold, he's been angry, and mostly he has wished he could have done better. But he has never admitted to making the wrong choice. He hasn't learned his lesson.

FF133-149 in hindsight

These issues change Reed permanently. After this near-divorce Reed will never again be his confident self. Like any severe depressive he will learn to hide it: he will never again let his feelings show. But for now his agony is all on the surface.

Next: the battle of the sexes

The Great American Novel