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

1974: Act 4: the battle of the sexes (women's lib)

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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With America's male rulers failing so badly, the mid 1970s saw women's liberation reach the mainstream. The FF reflects this: story after story about the role of men and women and families.

Issue 150: what Franklin can do

Fantastic Four 150

This is the clearest example yet of what Franklin can do: the combined might of the Avengers (including Thor) and the Inhumans (including Black Bolt - see FF annual 12 for the extent of his power) and the Fantastic Four, including the witch Agatha Harkness, cannot stop this threat,. but Franklin can stop it in his sleep. But still Reed will not pay him any attention. He gives him the occasional hug (Reed is not a monster) and then packs him away to Agatha, the one who gave Franklin up to Annihilus, in the house that last time they passed it was just a smoking crater. Sue is giving Reed another chance, but Reed has not changes.

As for Crystal, did she really want to get married? She was having second thoughts but she had promised, and she always does her duty. For the tragic details see Crystal's own page.

"Giant Size Fantastic Four": just a comic?

At the same time as FF151-154, Marvel published "Giant Sized Fantastic Four" issues 1 to 4. They were designed as stand alone stories, so are not closely tied to the main continuity. Or are they? When I frst made this web site I ignored these issues for that reason, but one day I should examine them in depth. Here is just an overview.

Points to note:
  • Hulk v Thing:
    Issue 1 nicely illustrates Ben's strength in comparison with the Hulk. Yes, Ben's body can defeat the Hulk's body: this time it's the Hulk body making excuses. The art is great.

  • American history:
    Issue 2 is a natural sibling to FF Annual 11: Ben's comment in FF Annual 11 links the two, and between them they serve as a guide through America's past. The final battle of issue 2 can be seen as a comment on Marvel Time: if a character cannot change then his existence is meaningless and he eventually longs for death


This might be a good point to show a picture from the 1976 Marvel calender.

Marvel Calendar

  • The horsemen
    Issue 3 has the Biblical theme of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and the art by Buscema and Sinnott is lovely. But there isn't much tension (the bad guys are easily defeated). A single issue is not enough to make us care about the new characters.

  • Madrox:
    Issue 4 introduces Madrox the Multiple Man, a character later taken up by the X-Men comics. It was written by Len Wein, who left the regular book after 157 (to focus on Giant Size X-men 1 among other things). The Madrox story was actually originally going to be part of Wein’s run, but when he left it went into the Giant-Size run instead.
    "My original name for the character was Jamie ZERROX (Zerrox, the Multiple Man. Get it? Boy, was I clever in those days. :-) ) When I passed the name by then Editor-in-Chief Roy Thomas, he looked at me like I had three heads. 'You’re kidding, right?' he said. 'Who’s gonna pay off the huge lawsuit, you?' 'But it’s not even spelled the same,' I said. 'Not happening,' said Roy. So I came up with a bunch of alternative until I came up with Madrox, that sounded like an action word, and thus it has been ever since." (- Len Wein, via Brian Cronin's Legends series)

More to follow... one day.

Issue 151: no longer bickering children. Adults, friends.

Fantastic Four 151Fantastic Four 151

After the immature outburst of FF145, and seeing the woman he loves marry, Johnny wants to stop acting like a child. He's 24 years old: no longer a youth.

The zeitgeist: feminism

FF151-153 reflect the mainstreaming of feminism in the early 1970s. This is after the Vietnam war and Watergate, when tension and mistrust for your own side is in the air (as opposed the anti communism of the previous era). In past versions of these reviews I barely mentioned feminism: the message is so in-you-face that I took it for a given, not worth mentioning. But that's maybe because I grew up in the 1970s and this version of feminism is all so familiar. But it's probably worth mentioning. This was a big deal at the time, so is taken to comic book extremes to make a very clear point. Conflict bad. Equality good.

"Mahkizmo" is of course "machismo," a Spanish word meaning a belief in the supremacy of men over women. Whereas Thundra's "femizons" combine "feminine" and "Amazon" (the legendary tribe of female warriors).

Gender reversals

"The first scene in this issue is Reed and Johnny buying nice clothes for themselves. This is a scene that has opened more that one issue of the Fantastic Four, although it has usually been Sue who been buying the clothes. So this is a foreshadowing of what will continue to be a theme of gender role reversals and reinforcements in this storyline." - FF1by1

Too simplistic?

"Conflict bad, equality good" may seem obvious but the message still isn't getting through. We still have conflict and inequality so obviously it still needs saying. Most people still embrace inequality based on accident of birth: e.g. "it is right that I have move money and more choices than you, because I am born American and you are born Somalian. yet it sucks and in an ideal world it would be different but we can't do anything about it, and opening borders would be disastrous." This is the same hand wringing once used for racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice. This comic makes the men and woman not just support inequality but embrace and celebrate it, showing how wrong it really is. Similarly for conflict. The fact that many people prefer comics with more fighting (rather than solving problems through dialog) shows that deep down we enjoy conflict really.  Mahkizmo is us.

Sue and Feminism

Sue is spending time away from Reed, getting to know how she feels. Yes, she has come back, but it will be on her own terms now. The time away has been vital. In the past she was dependent on Reed and didn't know why better. Now she is learning independence. This is not the kind of comic book where the past is forgotten. The past has consequences and the problems have not been resolved. This sequence from Giant Size FF 3, set after 150, makes it explicit that Sue is still with her friends' ranch in Pennsylvania, where she will stay for a few weeks until she feels ready to share a house with Reed again.

Giant Size FF

The zeitgeist: nuclear power

In early 1960s nuclear power was associated with infinite potential: Spider-Man, the Hulk and Daredevil gained their power from radioactivity. By the early 1970s this had changed. Being called "The Nuclear Man" now signaled danger.

The zeitgeist in comics: Firestorm the Nuclear Man:
Mahkizmo "The Nuclear Man" is created by Gerry Conway. The story was about realities merging: the extreme male and extreme realities were unstable and had to merge. He finally dies in FF153 (spoiler!) when Thundra (the ultimate female) is merging her hand into him (the ultimate male) at the crucial time, while Ben hits him. Four years later (in 1978), Conway created a much more famous character for DC: Firestorm, "the nuclear man." And what was special about Firestorm? "He is distinguished amongst superheroes because he is [...] two normal human beings when non-powered who then combine in 'super' mode to form Firestorm" (Wikipedia) 

Mahkizmo is just one example of the zeitgeist: the whole point of the zeitgeist is that it is everywhere. Merging of minds was also a theme in Captain Marvel at the time. Firestorm also had similarities with Spider-man, But this web site is about the zeitgeist in the Fantastic Four, and it's all here. To illustrate, every element of Firestorm was also present in the FF.

The boots, thighs, chest stripe and headpiece are similar in both costumes, but Firestorm is more closely modeled on the similarly named Firelord, a character Conway would create a few months after Mahkizmo, in Thor comic. (Firelord later appears in flashback in the FF,  in FF173 and FF211.) The idea of two people merging into one is in Mahkizmo, but the idea of them remaining as a composite being is the basis of the Overmind and Stranger characters (circa FF115-117). The idea of two individuals with opposite personalities talking in the same head is in FF188, when the angry Molecule man shared Reed Richards' mind. 

shared minds
The Molecule man, a guy with normal level intelligence, has chosen the athletic body of a boxer. Now he was sharing the body of a brilliant physicist, Reed Richards. This was a major event, the one that persuaded Reed to finally leave the team. The issue was one of fan favorite Perez' best, with a striking cover, so Conway could well have read it. That comic was dated November 1977, on sale around September 1977. Firestorm first appeared in an issue dated March 1978, on sale around January 1978, so it would have been planned around October 1978, or probably a month earlier (September) as it was a new title. In other words, the exact month that Reed's shared mind appeared on the stands.

Firestorm's main power in that first issue? "Firestorm flies out and discovers that he has the ability to alter the molecular composition of any non-organic material." (source) Exactly the same power, and the same limitation, as the Molecule Man. The names of the principle characters? Reed Richards and Klaw, er, no, I mean, Ronnie Raymond and Kliff. I mean Cliff. Completely different names. And Firestorm, gets his powers in a nuclear lab accident, totally unlike the Molecule man who got his powers in, er, a nuclear lab.accident. But he's flaming, see, and goes to school, and has a girlfriend called Dorrie... I mean Doreen. Totally not like anybody in the Fantastic Four at all, no sir!

It has often been noted that Kirby created Challengers of the Unknown for DC, then moved to Marvel and did the same thing but in a more popular form. With Conway's nuclear man (based on Mahkizmo with Firelord's costume) DC returned the compliment. In both cases of course the best comics are simply reflecting the zeitgeist ad the writers are almost certainly unaware of specific causes. They simply channel what they see, mixing it together in random ways to see what works.

The Molecule Man was first defeated because he tried to control the molecules of organic matter and could not. Although he later worked out how to, his FF188 defeat was almost a carbon copy of his first defeat but this time because of the unstable molecules in the team's costume. Regarding one extra month being too little time for a completely new title, that is true, but to be green lit they just needed the concept: Mahkizmo plus Firelord, though Conway probably didn't consciously plan it that way. The details of the origin would be worked out when it came time to plot the first issue. Captain Marvel and Rick Jones sharing a mind would also be an influence, but Reed Richards is a closer match as they share bodies and are also opposite personalities. It's OK, Gerry, I'm yanking your chain, there are coincidences everywhere in comics, it doesn't prove anything. Besides, you invented Mahkizmo and Firelord. They're great ideas so why not refine them?)

The 100 issue cycle
Here we have another dramatic example of the 100 issue cycle:

Issue 152: Reed tries to be softer, more gentle.

Fantastic Four 152

This issue continues the battle of the sexes: a war between a planet of men and a planet of women (see comments on the previous issue). In this issue Reed tries to be more tender. Note the contrast: Reed is not a machismo, he doesn't think men are superior to women, oh no sir. Not Reed. But next issue he tells her to stay behind while the others go off fighting. he tries it again in FF158 and that is the last straw: FF159 changes everything.

Let's hope Reed's new approach lasts.

Why such a short review?
There isn't much to say because this is almost a fill in issue: according to an apology at the end of this issue, and the letters page of FF156, this issue almost didn't appear. It was completed a mere three weeks before it appeared on newsstands. The last image of The Thing is unforgettable for its awfulness. It holds the record for the worst drawing of the Thing ever. It was clearly drawn in seconds then rushed off before the ink was even dry.

In interviews on the now defunct "FantasticFourHeadquarters" site the creative team expressed embarrassment about this arc. But the glory of the Fantastic Four is precisely its rushed nature: when in doubt they just grab some obvious cliche and barely change it. But a cliche is a cliche precisely because it reflects the zeitgeist. Extreme feminism was a real concern for many at the time. These cliche are s window into the America of 1974.

Other points to note

Issue 153: being ultra male

Fantastic Four 153

This issue is about extremism. What happens if you take what makes you special to its extreme? Disaster. What's the solution? Treat others with respect: their unique differences matter as well. The story is about male and female but it applies to all differences.

Reed's difference is his ability to focus his mind. Reed is probably autistic, and the autistic ability to focus (at the cost of being socially limited) is sometimes called "hyper male" because this is normally a male trait. The other famous male trait is of course violence. Here we see both traits at their extreme. Women can be autistic too: it does not mean autistic women are male, any more than a sensitive man becomes female. The idea that sensitive men are female is mocked in this story: only the most ignorant and violent men think that, and their violence destroys themselves.

The story ends with the cliche that love solves relationship problems. It's a cliche but true. It's what Reed needs to do with Sue: show that he really cares, and treat her as an equal. In FF 158-159 they will come to a new status quo were Reed may is no longer the boss of the marriage.

Criticisms, and superhero science explained

This issue was slammed on the "slay monstrobot" blog because the writer could not see how this could work. So let's have a closer look. All the clues are in the comic. One fan explained it in detail but the letter was too long to print. It was summarized thus:

If Marvel had explained everything they would be accused of being too wordy. Now they are accused of not explaining it! Yet they gave enough information to work it out. Let's look at what we know:

153 explained
What we know about the dimensions:
  1. The basic problem is a probability crisis. The future male and female words are at extremes of probability. This cannot continue: the time stream has a natural idea of balance: wanting to merge them back.
  2. A temporal field attracted Thundra to he Baxter Building - perhaps linked to the use of the time machine Reed seems hesitant to use the time machine - he only uses it when he absolutely has to, despite its ability to go almost anywhere. it probably causes all kinds of problems with the time stream.
  3. Thundra's idea to beat the strongest male was probably a guess: it was the only thing she could think to do to give her reality a higher probability of existing.
  4. The fact that a time machine can exist at all indicates connections between normally unconnected realities. 
  5. Normally the time machine just jump to a reality, but in this case it stands outside and sees all connected realities pass by. This suggests that similarities are what connect the realities.
  6. Since realities are connected by similarity, and some realities are too improbably to exist, it is reasonable to suggest that they might link again.
  7. Mahkizmo is somehow endangering all realities. This is the key.

Now look at what we know about Mahkizmo and his friends:

  1. The future men are not very bright, but very violent, yet use highly advanced machines: the ones they use must be stolen.
  2. In particular they have what looks like the Skrull arena and mind sapping ray
  3. Consider what links all those powers: the original skrull arena also had a gravitational device.
  4. They also have a time slowing device
  5. Mahkizmo is a nuclear man, yet does not create explosions in the way Blastaar does. Reed calls the final explosion nuclear yet it caused no conventional damage: it simply kills Mahkizmo and merges realities.
  6. He somehow uses force (hitting people) to weaken people, but not in the usual way.
  7. At the end, merging realities affects the people's thinking. Also, Thundra's different thinking dragged her to a different world.

Now recall what we know about different dimensions from theoretical physics

  1. Time and dimensions are warped by extreme gravity and at nuclear scales.
  2. At the nuclear scale, the quantum scale, observing a scene changes it
  3. Occam's razor says always reduce the number of elements: if one element can explain two things use it. It is all linked by some common technology.

OK, so here is a scenario suggested by the comics. Before the end:

  1. Nuclear technology exists that links time and space and the human mind
  2. The Mahkizmo's men stole it and use it recklessly.
  3. Mahkizmo, the most extreme, is the most reckless; he has somehow incorporated it into his body. The extreme males have no idea what they are doing and take many risks. We can easily imagine a thousand or a million of the wild men dying before one of them gets lucky and becomes Mahkizmo.
  4. So they are basically playing with time and space and dimensions while the forces of nature try to correct themselves. This probably causes the two least stable (most extreme) dimensions to try to recombine.
  5. My guess is that when Mahkizmo hits somebody he causes trauma to every molecule of their body: moving them all in sightly different directions dimensionally, just enough to render them unconscious.

At the end:

  1. At the end, Mahkizmo is ready to apply the same force to the entire world. This requires a moment of great instability as he prepares.
  2. Look closely at the moment when he is defeated: it appears that Thundra, the ultimate woman, had merge her hand inside the unstable ultimate man. This combines the mental focus of the two unstable realities that were previously trying to merge. She then orders Ben to hit him: this creates a shake up far greater than Mahkizmo had planned.
  3. The effect is perhaps similar to aligning iron to the Earth's magnetic pole then hitting it hard, creating a weak magnet because a few particles then settle back into alignment with the field rather than at random as before. With Mahkizmo instead of charged particles we have all possible positions of a quantum field of particles. Hitting him at his most disordered and neutral state forces this field to collapse into its most ordered state. This kills Mahkizmo, who's extreme improbability can no longer exists. Like a magnet, the now ordered probability influences connected probabilities and orders them as well: people become less extreme, like the poles of a magnet combining and becoming neutral. OK, it's a tortured analogy but it's the only way I can visualize it.

Put simply...
Think of all realities as a big box of sand. Mahkizmo has technology (that he does not understand) that shakes this box up by hitting it. He can make it all shake in one direction or another. But if it is merely shaken at random then it all settles neatly at the bottom of the box in an ordered form.

It is a beautifully elegant story, presenting the most complex idea in the biggest, simplest way. Here are men playing with toys and taking risks, shaking things up just to see what happens. They are the ultimate irresponsible males.

Other criticisms (mostly from

Other points to note

Issue 154 (mainly a reprint)

Fantastic Four 154

At this stage the comics were running very late, almost missing deadlines. So this one used a reprint and just a dded a few pages of quick padding at each end. it's not really part of the big 27 year story.
This is the first ever FF reprint, and it allowed the next story some breathing space: FF155 could not be rushed, it's too important.


Issue 155-157: the biggest FF story ever

Fantastic Four 155

Here we take a well deserved break from all the angst, to remember that the Fantastic Four can be a whole lot of fun. Don't worry, the stress returns with a vengeance in FF158. This still pushes the big story forwards, but mainly through secondary characters:

The Surfer's secret is finally revealed

This topic is so big, so deep, that it has its own page.

The message: layers of meaning

The Fantastic Four stands out from other comics because of its multiple layers. That is the theme of this half way point.

Layers feature strongly in this story

  1. The surface appearance, where Doom finds his beloved Shalla Bal
  2. Doom's deeper layer, here it's all a trick
  3. Mephisto is the deepest layer of all. Each layer is unaware of the one beneath it: Doom would never accept the possibility that someone else controls him.
  4. The question then is what lies behind Mephisto? Well, Franklin may unconsciously influence everything. We see in FF277 (and again in annual 20) that the only being Mephisto fears is Franklin. And that layer is so deep that even Franklin doesn't recognize it.
Fantastic Four

This is a milestone issue, so it's worth pointing out the major themes again (usually I avoid spelling them out but they are always there):

This is a milestone story and foreshadows the very end:


Other points to note
    1. In FF57-58 he diverts the Surfer's own energy
    2. In FF157 he attempts to duplicate it for a machine
    3. In FF258 he attempts to duplicate it for a person

Issue 158: Sue wants to be a detective

Fantastic Four 158

Much could be said about this issue, but one fact stands out: we finally get an idea of what Sue would do wither spare time: she's be a private detective. It makes a lot of sense:
Sue is the perfect detective. This recent cover to Shield 4 is what a Sue solo series should look like, IMO.
Shield 4

This issue is crucial to understanding the depths of Sue's mind: she only says what she feels is appropriate, but under the surface there's a lot more to her. She really is invisible to most people.

Other points to note:

Issue 159: the turning point: Sue takes over

The previous issue told us: this is a turning point

see next issue

Fantastic Four 159

The first half of the Great American novel is dominated by Reed. The second half is dominated by Sue:

The Valentines issue

Next issue is the start of the new order. It was originally scheduled to be published on Valentines' day, as the letters page notes, because the couple have now entered a new stage:
The Valentines date will be referred to three times (though due to it being written in 1974 for a 1975 cover date the year has a typo at the start).

FF160 will be where Reed makes one last attempt to prove his manliness, to prove he is in control, using the fact that he is the man, the provider, to sell the team because he can. Though even here he fails totally. he is not providing: his business skills have failed and the team is bankrupt, he can no longer provide, and his attempt to sell the team almost causes multiple World Wars. .As often happens, the title to the next issue refers both to the events of that issue and to the wider wider importance to the 28 year soap opera.
That will be the start of him accepting the new status quo: that Sue is in charge now

The marriage: its three parts
The Richards' marriage can be divided into three parts:

  1. 1965-1971: Reed leads
  2. 1971-1975: (FF106-159) the separate (149-159 they renegotiate the marriage)
  3. 1975-1989: Sue leads. Though Reed is still technically in charge, he is emotionally vulnerable and orbits around Sue

Johnny now feels happier
With Sue now the dominant force, the family is happier. Johnny feels he is part of the team. But this won't last, as next issue Reed will make one of his spectacular bad decisions and Johnny will want out.
Fantastic Four 159


Cold War zeitgeist

That cover!
This classic cover was used on a lot of merchandising (and homages by later comics). "OK, how many of you had this cover on some of your Mead school products? Folders, notebook paper? I did not, but boy, I sure looked longingly at that stuff at the store!" (source)


(Here's an earlier version of the same cover: FF158-159 was originally planned as a single issue, Giant Size FF 5. The final published version seems to have been re-inked: this is most obvious on Ben's chest):

Giant Size cover

Issue 160: the Valentines issue part 2;  Reed incorporates the business

Part two of the 27 story begins here. This issue is a landmark for two reasons: the family and the team. Major decades long themes begin here: Sue as the dominant member of the team, the team as a legal corporation, and hints of Johnny and Alicia. it is superb story telling that on Valentines day, when their relationship has just been saved, what does Reed do? Business. Not only that, but he choose this day to be a complete idiot, opposing Sue's wishes in a major area, driving away Johnny, putting the whole family at risk. On Valentines day just after they narrowly avoided divorce? Couldn't you have waited just one day? Oh you old Romantic, Reed.


This is an issue about major real change. Sue is back, Reed is feeling a little more confident, but he doesn't want to feel powerless again. He hates feeling powerless more than anything (I put it down to autism). So he makes changes that will consolidate his power and make the team run more smoothly. He thinks.

The battle of the sexes continues

In this issue, Reed shows he hasn't learned to put his family first, though he thinks he is doing just that. He ignores Sue's advice, and thereby helps to causes a war on multiple worlds. Ben continues to neglect Alicia, and Johnny faces up to what he has lost by not being mature enough for Crystal. We see the first foreshadowing of Johnny-Alicia rebound relationship. 

Reed's need to make the team a corporation is probably an unconscious reaction to his new junior place. In reality Sue is the dominant one now and Reed wants to feel he's still in charge.

The team incorporates

Reed has always had problems with finances: unlike Tony Stark (Iron Man) Reed is not a natural businessman. We saw this in FF9, and we see it again now: the others can see that he's making a big mistake but he ignored them. His pride will be his downfall.

Bob Ingersol explains why the FF had to incorporate in The Comic Buyer's Guide 519 (October 1983). The key points are as follows:

  1. building and running exotic property and machinery,
  2. taxes on their income
  3. property damage and related lawsuits.
  1. Paying zero tax (as a non-profit organization). The team was always non-profit (see Amazing Spider-man 1, where Spider-man tried to join and found he would not become rich), but it needs to be incorporated to get the tax breaks.
  2. Keeping private wealth safe. Previously the team was a legal partnership, so each person was partly responsible for costs, and risked bankruptcy. But an incorporated business means only the business is liable: the employees' private wealth is safe.
  3. Limiting how much is paid in lawsuits. A good accountant can make it seem that the business has no money at all at any time, and can then hire good lawyers to handle any problems.Although superheroes can invoke the "Doctrine of Emergency" (you are generally not liable for costs if you are saving somebody's life) this only applies the first couple of time. If a battle happens regularly it is no longer classed as an emergency and you are legally liable for any costs.

Did Reed make the right decision?

Financially the team needed drastic action. But Sue and Ben and Johnny all opposed Reed's solution. As scientists the others are not his equal, but in terms of common sense Sue and Ben Reed beat, and Johnny brings a valuable extra perspective. And the other were proven right: losing control of the team plunged three worlds into war. Losing control was the one line they must never cross.

Financially, the team did have other options. They could have downsized, taken a smaller headquarters, hired a consultant on commission only, or called in a favor from Tony Stark or T'Challa: both of them are businessmen who completely understand. Reed could even have asked Charles Xavier: in FF161 we see Reed using Xavier's technology. Xavier seems to have run his business OK, and he has even greater challenges than Reed as everybody hates mutants and he needs to do it in secret. So Reed did have other options. He did not have to sell the team. The others told him to reconsider and Reed should have listened to their counsel.

In short, Reed overstretched. he blew it, and caused World War Three (again: see FF103 where he creates a "cause world war" button and leaves it just lying around).

The Zeitgeist, and IT

FF160-63 features a major theme of the 1970s: increasing concern over irresponsible faceless mega corporations. The title "IT" was prophetic: "information technology" was not a common acronym in the 1970s (it was coined in 1958 and popularized in 1981). The space opera theme was also prescient: this was two years before Star Wars made wars between planets fashionable again. Note also the introduction of plastic shields in New York cabs.

Real time dates

This issue focuses on real time change. It begins with the exact date of the event, the only time this happens: it takes place on February 14th 1974. Later we are reminded that FF1 was in the year 1961. because you can place events at actual dates it is technically a real time story. However, although: Reed and Sue have been married for ten years, they are only aware of seven: time for them is slowing down every year. But time cannot slow forever. The difference between real time and experienced time will stretch and stretch until eventually it breaks

Stretching time is a sign of Franklin's influence. Chronologically he is now 7 years old, but he's afraid to grow up, and is biologically three years old, at least in this reality: in other realities he grows at the normal rate (see annuals 23 and 1998). By the end of this act, Act 4, the stretching will reach its limit: FF291 will place Nick Fury's teenage years in their proper place, the 1930s. True, Nick uses an anti-aging potion, but he fought with Ben Grimm in WWII, and this was the closest that the comic could come to hinting that yes, the original dates were still fixed, even at the end of the 28 year story. It was still possible to ignore the discrepancy, but only just. In 291, Byrne says that Sue met Reed when Reed was at college and Sue was just twelve years old. Being just twelve allows her to say she was not born in 1936, whereas we know that Reed and Ben fought in WWII. Conveniently, neither Reed nor Ben are present in the 1936 story. A couple of years later these rationalizations no longer work (Ben and Reed would need to be sixty years old), time will break completely, and the real world will be replaced completely by the Franklinverse.

The Valentines issue: Johnny and Alicia

This is the issue where Sue's control of the team begins and Johnny feels happier. It's Valentines' special (see comments by FF 159) and so the long term future is foreshadowed. Until now Johnny has seen his romantic life fail completely (and this will continue throughout act 4). But eventually Alicia will save him. At this point Alicia has seen her romantic life hit a brick wall. Here Johnny jokes about dating Alicia: this idea sits in his mind, first as a joke, but the seed has been sown. Notice how this tiny detail fits perfectly in a subplot that will not bear fruit for 12 years (our time).


Other points to note

Issue 161: Reed over stretches in every way: for the first time he feels fear.

This is Reed's wake up call: the moment when Reed should have seen what was happening. Never before and never again would so much go wrong at one time, and he will never again admit his fear and weakness. From now on it will be bottled up

Fantastic Four 161

Reed and Johnny find themselves in this arc, but this is the issue where Reed must face himself - and loses. The remainder of Act 4 shows the resulting despair, but this is the issue where readers can see it, and Reed cannot.

All because Reed over stretched himself, trying to do it all himself. He finally realizes that he is acting out of fear, and putting the others in danger. He knows it in his head, but he won't change his behavior. He still think everything must depend on him, and that he must lie to the others because they cannot handle the truth.

All the world wars

The title "all the world wars" can refer to war with his family: for the first and only time the team is split into three factions that fight each other. Not because they are mind controlled or tricked, but directly because of Reed's poor judgment. This is the point where Reed finally and completely fails as a leader. In future issues he pulls back from the brink, but eventually abandons the team. he then seems to get his strength back, but not because of any change in attitude. The false dawn of FF200 fails because the change does not come from inside.

"All the world wars at once" can also refer to Reed's battle with his health: he loses. Or his battle with financial creditors (which led to selling the team) - he loses. Or , for the first time, he is fighting against scientists who are just as moral, just as clever, and just as important as he is. He has no experience to cope with this. Whatever it is that Reed wants, he loses.

For the first time, the hero acts our of fear

For "perhaps the first time in his life" Reed feels fear. He says he is losing his ability due to aging. Time is passing (14 years real time, 11 years as experienced) and Reed can only conceive of it getting worse. This is a scientist and he fears the future! He says he must have courage to tell Sue, then does not tell her. He does not have courage, even though he admits that not telling them will put their lives at risk. We have never seen inside his head like this before.

Note that this issue is Reed's visibly lowest point: this is where readers can see everything fail at once. But because Reed cannot see, he is too stubborn, his emotional lowest point will not come until later in act 4.

What readers can see, but Reed cannot:

Readers can see what Reed must do. He must admit he is not "Mr Fantastic at everything." He should have given Sue more respect, but instead he lost his perfect marriage (they are back together, but as we saw in FF157 it is not the same.) He should have made Franklin his top priority: Franklin is more powerful than them all, but Reed will not conceive that somebody small and apparently helpless could be more powerful than himself. Last issue, when deciding to sell the team against the others' advice (and throughout act 2 when he was putting the others down and thus weakening the team) he should have let the others make more decisions, and taken their input seriously.

Like Othello or Lear, Reed refuses to see, he refuses to be humble. The rest of act 4 shows how he continues to lose everything as a result. He already lost his perfect marriage, he is losing his health, he will lose his greatest triumph, lose his home, lose his best friend (Ben goes to Battleworld), lose his self respect (what can be more pathetic for a father to promise to protect his son then his negligence leads to his son repeatedly possessed by demons, just as Reed is possessed by his inner demon of pride), he will lose another child, he will lose everything. Note the parallel with Dr Doom: even the name, Doom. Pride leads to Doom.

Only after losing everything, at the end of act 4, the end of Byrne's run, the end of issue 295, only then will he finally be humbled and only then the light of a new dawn will break we can move on to the triumphant act 5.

Reed's story is symbolized by his chosen name "Mr Fantastic": his story is a tragedy of pride.

The story title, "all the world wars at once"

The title alludes to "all the last wars at once" by George Alec Effinger. Effinger was a rising science fiction star in 1975, and was experimenting with writing comic books (though not this one). An Amazon review of "all the last wars at once" summarizes it as "warring humanity subdivides into all the possible categories until only individuality is left." The significance of FF161 is not that words are at war but that the family is at war.

This story of Reed's failing health and financial problems survival through luck mirrors Effinger's life. From Wikipedia: "Throughout his life, Effinger suffered from health problems. These resulted in enormous medical bills which he was unable to pay, resulting in a declaration of bankruptcy. Because Louisiana's system of law descends from the Napoleonic Code rather than English Common Law, the possibility existed that copyrights to Effinger's works and characters might revert to his creditors, in this case the hospital. However, no representative of the hospital showed up at the bankruptcy hearing, and Effinger regained the rights to all his intellectual property."

Johnny's character development Politics:
Other points to note:

Issue 162: the shape of things to come

Fantastic Four 162

As the title "the shape of things to come" (an H. G. Wells title) suggests, this foreshadows the future in many ways:

This arc, foreshadowing the biggest story, the Franklinverse and next generation, beyond, is appropriately placed half way through the original 231 issue novel.

Hockey and the cold war
The FF is the story of the cold war, so in the early 1970s it had to include hockey! Note the recent events (from

The 3D scopitron

The name "3D Scopitron" is a homage to Stan Lee's fun names for high tech devices. As for its function, developed by the advanced science of the 5th Dimension, " I think Roy was inspired by the Interocitor from 'This Island Earth.'" (source) "The Interocitor is an alien communications device with unusual and strange properties." "The interocitor, also spelled interositor, is a fictional multi functional device featured in the original story and 1955 science fiction film This Island Earth. The device arrives in kit form as an intelligence test for scientists who might prove helpful to an alien race." (Wikipedia)

The comics zeitgeist: 

Why is this story so complex?

"You know what Roy's up to here? It took me three issues to figure it out. This is his version of 'Crisis on...' Think about it -- multiple Earths, all similar. Heroes on all three (well, Johnny had to be transplanted). Universal menace in Arkon stealing energy. And some serious dimension-hopping to solve it. I suppose when I look at it through that lens, and accepting it as being part of DC's heritage of such tales, this is not quite as bad." (source)"

"From 1963 to 1985 the term 'crisis' was used to describe the annual events in which the Justice League of America of Earth-One and the Justice Society of America of Earth-Two met and worked together, usually in an incident involving one or more of the parallel worlds of the DC Multiverse. This usage culminated in 1985's year-long Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which the Multiverse was eliminated." (Wikipedia)

The historical zeitgeist: 

The story is ahead of its time: notice the blow back from high tech drone strikes (p.26) "andrones" designed by "good guys" but they cause the people with different colored skin to hate you.

Other points to note

Religion and armies in the sky

The Fantastic Four is full of religious parallels (e.g. for the Bible). The appearance of armies in the sky is a feature of religious history through history. E.g. regarding the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70:

"Chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities." (Josephus, Jewish Wars, VI-V-3).

"In the sky appeared a vision of armies in conflict, of glittering armor. A sudden lightning flash from the clouds lit up the Temple. The doors of the holy place abruptly opened, a superhuman voice was heard to declare that the gods were leaving it, and in the same instant came the rushing tumult of their departure. Few people placed a sinister interpretation upon this. The majority were convinced that the ancient scriptures of their priests alluded to the present as the very time when the Orient would triumph and from Judaea would go forth men destined to rule the world." (Tacitus, Histories, Book 5, v. 13).


This issue has been criticized because of the reliance of people seeing things that just appear in the sky. Remember that the technology comes from the fifth dimension. We tend to overlook the higher dimensional significance because obviously a three dimensional being (such as Johnny when visiting) only recognizes a three dimensional subset. But higher dimensions exhibit exactly this weird behavior when they interact with lower dimensions. To understand our interaction with higher dimensions, think of how lower dimensions (two dimensional surfaces or one dimensional lines) interact with our three dimensions. For more details see Flatland.
Imagine a human hand passing through the surface of water: if your experience was two dimensional, if you could experience only the surface of the water, you would experience the hand as a series of changing shapes (cross sections of the fingers) that would appear from nowhere and then merge.

Issue 163: Johnny grows up

Fantastic Four 163
Fantastic Four 163

This issue works on so many levels: it's considered one of goofiest covers ever, yet features a tragedy. As so often we learn about a character (the frustrations of Johnny Storm) by seeing a more extreme version in a parallel universe. Some claim that this was weakened because we did not really know the other Johnny Storm. But many clues to his identity were given in the run up to the story:

Johnny character development

At this point in the story Johnny wants to leave. He has grown up, he wants to make his own decisions. But his experience with the other Reed makes him realize that Reed is not the enemy: Reed is just as much trapped as Johnny is. The other Reed naturally shares Johnny's views deep down, he wants action, not words, but delayed his decision for too long. After seeing this, Johnny decides not to quit, for now. Johnny has grown up: he sees things from Reed's point of view.

That this issue is a major turning point is indicated by the issue having multiple parts, just as in the earliest issues. At the end Franklin is said to have grown a little: a sure sign that things are moving forwards.

The zeitgeist
This is the first issue with a direct reference to Vietnam. veterans returning from Vietnam to be forgotten (or not returning at all) was a major theme at the time.

Note how Reed becomes emotional here instead of staying in control. DeVoor is a a more extreme version of Reed's self doubts:

Part two: Ben and Johnny want out

Issue 164: Frankie and Johnny (by Perez!)

Fantastic Four 164

This is a true classic, the first George Perez issue, part of a superb two parter: bright, upbeat, light and airy art with great coloring.

This story is an anchor point to the world of the FF: extensive indoor establishing shots, extensive outdoor establishing shots, links to decades past (the crusader) and decades future (Frankie, and Reed's inner struggle). It starts with a strong Jack Kirby cover and ends with a dramatic final image. Between these we have fun, romance, danger and trials, it's the Fantastic Four at their best.

Their happiest point
This is around the half way point of the novel, with the team back together, most having overcome their relationship problems, and even Ben is at his most relaxed. This is the beginning of the false dawn that climaxes in Doom's "final" defeat. We have never seen the team so happy together, but why?

The title: the crusader syndrome
The crusader is a mirror of Reed. Reed is on a crusade to fix everything, through the best of intentions. As with Reed, it is emotional isolation from others that causes the problems. The crusader was isolated on another planet, blinded by light. Note the symbolism: detached Reed is so blinded by his clear righteous view of some things (technology, dangers) that he does not see the bigger picture (Family: Sue and Franklin are the real solution to his problems).

Johnny's turning point continues
Johnny's turning point was FF161, and in 164 he realizes he can't hide his feelings. At the end he has to get away to think, and to see what he can still do. (164-165 was originally planned as a single story for for giant size FF 6.) At the start of the story, Sue and Ben go along with the buffoonery, happy that Reed is happy. But Johnny comments. Why? because Johnny the outsider: in 1960s Reed focused more on the bigger threats; Johnny is naturally a rebel, and will end up leading the team.

Johnny's transition is symbolized by his new outfit and new girlfriend, Frankie Raye.

Frankie's fear of flame highlights that Johnny still cannot exist independently from his flame: that is, independently from his role in the team. This is despite his several attempts to leave, most recently in FF160. His early independence, chronicled in Strange Tales, ended when Sue married and they all took up residence in the Baxter Building. In a new city he lost touch with his childhood friends and he was too busy to make new friends, so lost his independence. Frankie will continue to make Johnny face himself and his role when she returns in FF240.

Frankie and Johnny
"Frankie and Johnny" (sometimes spelled "Frankie and Johnnie"; also known as "Frankie and Albert" or just "Frankie") is a traditional American popular song. It tells the story of a woman, Frankie, who finds that her man Johnny was "making love to" another woman and shoots him dead. Frankie is then arrested; in some versions of the song she is also executed." - Wikipedia

The name "Frankie and Johnny" foreshadows Frankie's role in the wider story. Frankie felt betrayed by Johnny's superhero life: he loved it more than her. Morally she ends up worse than him, becomes the herald of Galactus, the world destroyer.

The Frankie and Johnny story also plays on on the subconscious level. While Frankie believes she opposes super powers she is actually a superhero herself. And while Johnny believes he is faithful to Frankie, in his heart he loves Crystal, a fellow super being. Finally, Frankie believes she is sacrificing herself for a pure and unselfish principle, but in fact she loves Galactus.

The song (at least in the famous Elvis Presley version) claims to have no moral, except that "there ain't no good in men" - a moral undercut by being sung by the ultimate heart-throb, Elvis. The "ain't no good in men" theme also runs through the FF version: Frankie's problems are caused by her father, Johnny cannot stop himself flaming on, Galactus destroys planets, and Frankie must pay the price. But as in the song, this is undercut by Frankie being clearly the one to make the choices at every stage (except as a child), and the male figures were either trying to do good or were simply innocent forces of nature. Frankie's final role as guide to Galactus is a nod to her namesake, Franklin, who guides Galactus. (Galactus's later heralds appear after FF321 and so can be considered "what ifs").

This story is a many layered thing, and underlines the theme of this year (FF 164-175): what is a hero?

The zeitgeist:

The nature of super powers
This issue contains vital clues to the nature of super powers.
  1. The Crusader's energy supposedly comes from the sun, as with Iron Man. but obviously solar energy would not provide enough energy, but it is needed to unlock cosmic power (the sun provides full spectrum energy unlike most earthly sources). The clue is that Crusader gained his power on the outer planets where the sun is far weaker: plainly it is a catalyst and not the source of energy itself.
  2. Johnny's flame runs out soon after being dazzled. Yet he is a being used to nova flame, and can fly across the ocean when flying to Crystal. Similarly, Sue create a long distance force field but cannot normally do this (see link) Possibly due to Thunder horn, but also saved part of village in Kirby's time. In highly unusual circumstances super heroes can draw on massively greater power. Clearly there is a strong psychological element to the powers. The crusader's mental health issues are a nudge to make us consider this path.
See super science for more details.

Other points to note:

Issue 165: "For once I don't have all the answers"

Fantastic Four 165

Ben's confidence begins to return
The story ends with Reed admitting "for once I don't have all the answers" and Ben says he will will mark it on his calendar. This issue marks the end to Reed's dominance of Ben. Although Reed showed his weaker side when he lost Sue, he never admitted ignorance in humility until now. Ben's confidence now starts to come back: he gets angry with the bank manager, as in the old days. We see more of this new confidence in the next two issues. 

But Reed still keeps secrets (his losing power). This is one of his weaknesses. His humbling will not be complete until act 5.

Reed and the title: the light of other worlds
Reed's mind is elsewhere, seeing a bigger picture that others do not see (his intelligence, plus his secret loss of power). Ironically he cannot see that the light of his life, Sue, is where he needs to be, back on this world, if he wants to succeed.

Once again the Crusader is a mirror for Reed. We also see another mirror, Dr Grayson. Grayson, like Reed, built a rocket ship that endangered innocents. His ship probably using alien technology, like Reed: a gravity engine is highly advanced, and the 1950s was a time of many abandoned flying saucers.

Johnny's development continues

Sue stops herself telling Johny what to do: "he's a man now." Contrast this with the different, parallel reality team in Waid's run, where Sue has to tell the different Johnny what to do because he's so immature.

The zeitgeist

Other points to note

Issue 166: Johnny wants to leave; Sue improves her powers; Ben accepts himself

Fantastic Four 166

Johny would like to quit. He is the only one of the team one who enjoys being a super hero, but it's killing his love life. He needs someone to love who is as powerful and dedicated as he is. He needs Crystal.

Sue's power

In this issue we see Sue using her power in novel ways, such as to lower Ben from a great height. Carol Strickland famously criticized Sue for not using her force fields to fly, and in his first solo issue John Byrne had her suddenly think of the idea. However, she was clearly thinking of field based transport here.

parachute 1

Reed's parachute probably gave her the idea for this, just five issues later:

In the next issue we see her using it as a platform for walking on water, and she says that she was practicing in secret. Then in 171 she uses her power in more complex ways (attacking two missiles at once). Two issue later (the cover to FF173: Jack Kirby always has the best ideas) we can see that flight is an obvious use of her power.


However, Sue has trouble extending a large force field to any great distance, as we see in FF200.

flight impractical

Her powers will increase in FF214 when the Skrull aging ray is reversed (see FF215) and then force field flight will be possible. She doesn't have a reason to do it until FF232 though.

Other points to note

Elton John
album cover

This is Ben's false dawn, just as Reed will have his in FF200. It see to Ben that he now knows who he is. But will he go far enough and finally speak to Alicia? Will he really decide who he is? Note that the main track on "Captain Fantastic" is "Someone Saved My Life Tonight", about Elton John's decision regarding a fake marriage. This does not mean that Ben is gay, but this is the time when he must finally decide, like Elton John, what he really wants from life.

Ben history

Issue 167: Ben gains in confidence

Fantastic Four 167

Seeing the Hulk, and how Reed has no sympathy, Ben finally makes the decision to leave. His respect for Reed took a dive when Sue left, and took another dive when Reed zapped Franklin, but Reed's attitude to the Hulk is the last straw.

Fantastic Four 167

Note that Sue had to practice her skills in secret. Reed never encouraged her to use her power in new ways. 

Ben's changing is related to confidence.
Could gamma rays change Ben back to human? It seems impossible to imagine that Reed had overlooked this. Gamma rays are the obvious first solution to try, given the similarity between Ben and the Hulk. In the very early days, the Hulk would use a gamma ray machine to change in both directions. Also, when Ben changes back in FF275, Ben asks if gamma rays can change him back again, and Reed indicates not. (It is possible that Galactus arranged it that way, but that possibility was not tested, and it is not even certain that Galactus did change Ben back.) Perhaps the gamma rays helped, but there is already a well established reason for Ben changing (though it will not be explicitly stated until FF245): Ben's ability to change depends on his confidence. (So does the Hulk: he changes when passionate about something: Ben and the Hulk have basically identical powers, but they appear different because of their different personalities.) The most obvious feature in this story Ben's confidence. He's been supremely confident for some time, and not surprisingly he changes. But that change knocks his confidence, so he is not able to change back at will.

For why he changes back, see FF175.

Issue 168: America comes of age

Johnny, once a child, grows up and leaves

Fantastic Four 168

Finally Johnny sees clearly. The "we need you" excuse will always be true. it is not enough to keep a man from leaving his parents. If he had accepted this two years earlier then he could be with Crystal, and Crystal would still be helping the team, and the team would be even stronger.

Ben, the ordinary American adult, faces reality

For all these years Ben has wanted to be human. Finally he gets his wish. And he begins to realize that his real problems are inside. The problem with being a "thing" was not his skin, it was that he lost his identity as a football hero and test pilot. The name "thing" is all about identity.

Ben thought that becoming human would solve his problems, as if he could return to where he left off in 1961. But now it hits him: he's spent his adult life being a superhero. He doesn't have a career any more. Alicia would have to support him with her earnings.  Ben is an old fashioned guy, and this is not an easy concept to accept.

Fantastic Four 168

The date: the Bicentennial begins here
This issue is dated March 1976: on sale late December 1975 (see the cover stamp: newsstand comics like this one often had date stamps from the distributor).
Since the comics were on sale throughout the month, this was the first issue of the Great American Novel that was on sale in 1976, the bicentennial celebration. And what an issue!

Where have all the powers gone?

Note the title. And note how Johnny is spiralling aimlessly and now facing downwards. And note the detail of the regular worker cleaning the windows: a symbol both of the ordinary man reaching the top heights, and of seeing more clearly.
splash page

The title, reflecting perhaps the most poignant of all anti-war songs, is homaged in this, perhaps the most poignant of all anti-force comic stories.

"Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Superheroes are about force. They have physical powers that enable them to easily defeat any regular mortal. but what good does it do them? Mr Fantastic has been losing confidence throughout the 1970s, and with it losing his stretching power.  Johnny, the only one to fully embrace his powers, is so frustrated that he leaves the group. Ben, once the most powerful being on the planet (in muscular terms), is an ordinary human again, and finds it isn't what he wanted. And Sue, the one who has always preferred non-violence, is unable to stop her family from falling apart.

Where have all the powers gone? The answer of course is that violent power is not power and never was: it is the illusion of power, because it creates retaliation, or at least copying. We saw that power is an illusion in issue 3, the most derided and perhaps the most important of the early stories. We see it again at the very end, in the overview of cosmic power at the end of annual 23. As we saw in the commentary to act 1, the overarching theme of thie 27 year story is that "super powers" are no answer, and "soft power" is the only way. 

A parable of America
Ben finally gets everything he wants and realizes that it does not make him happy, Happiness is not about "getting things". it's a attitude of mind. This is the late 1970s, when America was at its greatest power and greatest national health: people have never had it so good, either before or since: see the notes to issue 200 for details. yet this is the time when the average American felt things were at their worst: with a national malaise. That's humans for you.

A parable of equality
America was created on the principle that "all men are created equal". Ben Grimm is a symbol of blue collar America: he identifies with the common man. The common man tended to take great pride in equality. he had to, because he was at the bottom of the social pile, and only by unionizing could he challenge bosses. But equality is a two edged sword: do we allow outsiders to be equal? At the time of writing (November 2014) the big news is that Barack Obama is letting more immigrants settle in America. Many American workers feel that this threatens their jobs, so they oppose it. Equality only goes so far. The cover to FF 168 illustrates this: Ben Grimm always wanted to be like everyone else, and now that he is, someone else takes his job.

This reflects the times: unemployment first became a major national issue in the 1970s. (Well the first time since the Great Depression, obviously: things were worse then, but most people born since then had not experienced it as a major problem).

A parable of race
Note the presence of Power Man: a black man in a still largely racist society, Luke Cage shows that other people have it worse, and the real problem is inequality, the very thing that super powers increase. Also note that the danger room is a homage to the X-Men, a series about being a minority, an outsider distrusted by the mainstream.
danger room

And now Ben Grimm doesn't even fit in here: he is learning what being an outsider is really like. Also note that in this story Luke defeats the one being even lower on the social ladder than he is: an android. And he worries about the cost: the privileged don't have to constantly worry about money, but people at the bottom do.

More zeitgeist

Other points to note

Issue 169: Ben still feels trapped

Fantastic Four 169

Note the symbolism in this issue: it's as if the Thing is pounding Ben down. Ben's years of low self esteem are hard to shake. All he can think of is:
Ben's confidence didn't last long. It will take three more years (their time) before Ben can finally sort out his real problems:
  1. He thinks The Thing he is ugly, but he isn't.
  2. Reed destroyed his confidence
  3. He resents Reed and can't see past that.
  4. he's become psychologically dependent on Alicia, it's unhealthy, he cant stand that, but can't see a way out
These problems will not be solved until
  1. Reed is no longer the alpha male in the group (Reed betrays weakness throughout act 5, and finally leaves)
  2. Alicia leaves him, forcing him to face his problems alone
  3. Ben explores his psychological issues (on Battle World), and finally stops blaming Reed
  4. Sharon (Ms Marvel) lets him see himself as other see him, and he can experience real love, free of of all his psychological baggage

Other points to note:

Issue 170: Alicia's strength; Ben's great test

Fantastic Four 170

This is Ben's great test. So here we are reminded that Alicia is strong. Buit is Ben? Will he pass the test?

It is easy to think that Alicia is passive. But she is an artist with an independent following, she was the one to convert the Silver Surfer and thus defeat Galactus, and it will be her actions at the end of act 4 that lead to the solution of all their problems (see FF170). Alicia is the strongest of all.

Alicia has waited years for Ben to be ready to marry. But Ben holds her back just as Reed holds Ben back.

Note that Ben thinks being able to change skin will solve his problems. He is not addressing the underlying issue: his false belief that he is ugly, and his need to blame others.

Fantastic Four 170

Other points to note

Annual 11: America's bicentennial: the past

This is the Great American Novel, and annual 11, dated June 1976, celebrates America's bicentennial. It features Captain America and WWII, and can be considered a two parter with Giant Size FF2, which deals with George Washington and the founding of America. (Ben notes the link, which is confirmed in a footnote: that was the last time they saw the Watcher, and these are the only times apart from FF19 that they've traveled in time.)


A good starting point for new readers

This special edition is "rife with American patriotism during the Second World War.  I'd comment that Roy Thomas, through all of his footnotes, has really woven a true jumping-on story. A new reader would feel very comfortable with this magazine in hand, as Thomas links this story to recent and "ancient" FF history, as well as describing each team member's powers and showing us his/her personality. I was just really struck by how accessible the first several pages of this story are. Roy Thomas is insistent throughout this story that it is indeed 1976 (any doubters, shame on you -- the splash page reference to Chico and the Man should have been enough proof)." (source)

FF annual 11

The story begins with a question - why are we still obsessing over a past military victory? The story ends with a hint that glorifying war maybe isn't so good: Ben rides a missile, repeating the famous image from the movie Dr Strangelove.

Other points to note

the floor

Issue 171: my all-time favorite FF story

Fantastic Four 171

This is the image that made me want to buy every issue of the FF. It's so real, and you can see the passage of time: a huge, forward moving story, and with beautiful George Perez art. Plus it's such a great story! King Kong and so much more!

Note that Ben's insecurity runs deep. Once a person lacks self esteem it takes a lot to persuade them that yes, they do have self worth.

Fantastic Four

Frankie Rae appears again. Johnny tells her he's considering leaving the FF (unspoken implication is that he resents Reed's control of his life, and his immaturity that lost Crystal). This is part of a years long story. In this issue she starts to remember strange things that have happened before, a thread that's picked up again in FF232

The zeitgeist

Ben always represented blue collar America, and this issue shows his frustration that his physical strength no longer puts him at the top of the pile. The 1970s was an era where manual labor began to take a hit. Of course, Ben is not uneducated: he is also a test pilot. (*The "working class" are often highly skilled, and there is a strong thread of intellectualism, especially among the political left. Whereas right wing workers embrace the label "red neck", socialist workers take pride in discussing philosophy and enjoying the arts.) But Ben identifies with his street kid roots, not with Reed's family wealth.

For another example of changing blue collar attitudes (and the white collar comparison) see the discussion of racism by FF126.

Ben's inner feelings

This period, from FF167 to 175, is central to Ben's story. This is the only time he was able to return to being Ben Grimm (apart from very brief periods).

Ben's life

Is Ben ungrateful?
Ben finally has the time to think about it, and realizes this isn't what he wanted. He knows he's ungrateful, and Reed only wants the best. But Ben just wants to be his own man: no longer dependent on Reed, and no longer owing him anything. he just wants to be free. And deep down he knows it isn't even Reed's fault. Ben has to work this out on his own. No man wants to feel dependent or beholden against his will to another man, especially the man who caused his problems. And after his years of mental pain, with the fate of the world often on his shoulders, the pressure is almost more than Ben can bare.

When asked if Ben was being ungrateful, Roy Thomas replied "try living in his shows (or overgrown feet) for a few years and see what it does to you." (In Back Issue 74)

The cultural zeitgeist: the 1976 King Kong movie


A personal note: FF171 is the issue that made me an FF fan, and is still my favorite

Fantastic Four 171 changed my life. I must have been around 13 years old (I read it in 1981, in a reprint). People say that the golden age of science fiction is whatever you read at age 13, because it seems the best thing ever. And for me it was FF171. This is the issue where Ben wears a Thing suit, and he talks about the past, and how life has changed. It is very obvious that the experience has changed him as a person: he started as angry (back in issue 1) then progressed to sort of accepting his problems, but now he had got to a point where he could not accept it any more, he wanted to move on. He seemed so real! I was hooked! He seemed like a real person, with a real past! In the same issue we see Sue at her greatest: confident, beautiful, developing her powers on her own, looking so strong and so mature. At around this time (in another issue) we see Johnny and Ben as adults, talking about old times. It was really powerful to me, how this was a grand, epic, long term story.

Living in Britain made a big difference. The FF had been reprinted from the start (in 1972). Our comics are weekly, so we had almost caught up with America in 1981. I bought most of the comics at jumble sales (rummage sales). Then Marvel UK began a series of pocket books that reprinted the classic Lee-Kirby issues again, beginning at the wedding of Sue and Reed. So I was reading the mid 1960s stories and the late 1970s stories side by side. I could see the big events, how they grew older, the marriage, how themes emerged and developed over decades.

I should also mention that the first American comics I ever read, as a young child, included a reprint of FF issue 7, the Planet X story. It was in a big hard cover book of some of the best Marvel stories ever written, and it affected me deeply. So at the age of 13, when my ideas of what a comic SHOULD be were being formed, I could very clearly see how time passed over the years, and how it changed the team. And it changed them for the better: FF 171 was drawn by George Perez (except for pages 1-3 and those were good too). It was beautiful. Everything was moving forwards, getting better. These four people felt like real people, in the real world (but as exciting as the real world could possibly be). I loved it!

At that point, reading FF 171, I decided that I had to have every single issue of the Fantastic Four. I was a fan for life. I never cared for Spider-man - the early Ditko stories made sense, but after that he never grew up,so he was not like a real person to me. The same goes for other Marvel comics. They never grew up or learned, so they were not real. Why should I care for the current stories if the previous stories made no difference to anything?

So I subscribed to the new FF comics. John Byrne had just started. I wanted to see what happened next!!!! I so looked forward to my first new FF comic (it was FF 151). Was Ben cured forever? (He should have been!) Did Johnny finally marry Crystal? I wanted to see Franklin as a teenager, exploring his powers and having teenage fun! I wanted to see Sue expand her role as a mother figure for the whole Marvel Universe, as the sensible balance to all the worried and stressed female characters who were trapped as sex objects (I was very religious as a child - I still am - so Sue's confidence and style and wisdom and love impressed me deeply). I could see how much the team had progressed from the 1960s to the 1970s, so expected a similar progression to the 1980s. I imagined Reed as the head of a global organization, I wondered how the Inhumans might become a secret part of all world governments... I expected to be surprised and pleased. Naively I thought the improvement from Kirby to Perez would result in even better art (at the time I did not appreciate Kirby's art as much as I do now).

So when I read Byrne's stuff I felt cheated. Not only were the stories small (my first stories were the negative zone stories that had no obvious connection to anything) but it was not the same family, to me.

Reed became weedier and introverted.

Sue was very different - to me she seemed weaker, less self assured.

Johnny looked younger, and didn't have the inner depths - it's hard to explain, but I always saw him like me, as a frustrated observer of life: e.g. seeing Crustal leave him, seeing his family die, being trapped in the child role of the group, and not being able to do anything about it. This produced a depth of character and a personality style that just seemed to be entirely missing in Byrne's run.

As for Ben, he seemed to once again accept his life, and didn't do much of anything.

When Johnny got together with Alicia (and let's not talk about that!) Ben's reaction was not Ben, it was how JOHNNY would have reacted: he exploded, then meekly accepted it. This was Johnny's classic style, with Crystal, the aging ray, etc. The Ben I knew would have been the opposite: he would have had the maturity to not react strongly at first, but it would have led to powerful determination and real decisions. Instead we got him moping around feeling sorry for himself. All of this was such a reversal of characters, they had forgotten everything that made them who they were. These were different characters, younger characters, with completely different personalities, stuck in a twisted imitation of the past (the flying bathtub and skinnier bodies , etc., were clearly meant to be like the early stories, but they were NOTHING LIKE the early stories).

And yet Byrne put so much into each issue that they were still good comics. They were enjoyable to read. And if I was not so concerned with them as real people then I am sure I would have embraced the new team, because they were well written. But they were not the big, grand, deep team I was addicted to. They were something temporary. They were more like the X-Men, a team I had never cared for (whenever I read the X-Men I just want to tell them to "grow up!")

I did not want to abandon the FF. I did not want to accept, as some do, that they really ended back in the 1970s. So I tried to reinterpret the stories in a way that would fit with what went before. And that is how I came up with my theory that issues 1 to 322 form a single complete story, and they only acted out of character in Byrne's run because they were in crisis and would not admit it to themselves.

And that is how I started to see the FF as a single gigantic story. Thanks for asking!

Issue 172: cover dated July 1976
America's bicentennial, the hopes and dreams

This issue is a whirlwind of ideas: so many colors that they easily blur into a nondescript gray. I will try to point out the main themes and why this issue is so important.


The date

The Fantastic Four is the Great American Novel, and 1976 was America's bicentennial. July 1776 was the declaration of independence, and July 1976 was the 200 year anniversary, a time to look backward on the past and reflect on the future. The Fantastic Four released two issues to represent July: annual 11 was released in the summer, but ass an annual it was not strongly tied to a particular month. FF172 was actually cover dated July 1976. Annual 111 (and its companion, Ben's title, Marvel Two In One) covered the historical events of those 200 years, and FFD172 covers the ideals of the founding fathers: how do you create an ideal society?

The New World

America is often called the New World, so this issue is about the founding of an actual new world: a newly discovered planet, hidden from the old world until now. Of course, like America when Columbus arrived, it already has inhabitants! But in order to pack the story into just a few pages, these existing inhabitants are metaphors for the founding fathers, the common people, and the concepts of good and evil.

Did not intend to set out and find a new world, just as Columbus did not (he thought he was going to India). Columbus never realised he had found a new world, just as most readers never realise the depth in FF172. Tricked onto the ship, just as Columbus;' men were tricked (he famously told them it would be a short journey and that he could see land when he could not).

The golden age and great fear

Fear of the future is a recurring theme in this issue: the golden gorilla repeatedly refers to the coming of Galactus as "the great fear". Galactus is a cosmic test of whether people are strong enough to face the future (See FF262). He is Franklin's herald, representing Franklin's own loneliness and fear of the future. For why Galactus appears right now (his appearances follow a pattern), see the discussion by FF74.

Fear versus the golden age is the overriding theme of America's bicentennial: in 1976 America was aware of decline. The space race was over, the nation had just endured Vietnam and a disgraced president, and was aware of sexism and environmental damage. It looked back to a golden age (that Ronald Reagen would soon believe he was recovering). The golden gorilla can represent a more primitive golden age somewhere out there, the great fear can represent awareness of all America;'s weakness and troubles, and the greatest question of all: was this still "the home of the brave"?

"Cry the beloved country"

The cover title, "Cry the bedeviled planet", is based on "Cry the Beloved Country", the classic novel by Alan Paton. It is set in South Africa, as it lost its way and declined toward apartheid. It is set around the story of a man searching for his son and seeing the moral confusion around him. Its message is summed up by this passage:

"Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much."

It sums up the feelings in America in 1976: they thought they were a great nation, but now they wonder if sexism and racism and corruption mean their future is bleak? "Cry the bedeviled planet" refers directly to counter earth, an alternative version of our own planet, but of course refers really to our own world in 1976.

This is one of a series of story titles based on cultural references. "Death is a Golden Gorilla" is based on "Death is a Woman," (In America, "Love is a Woman"), a stylish 1966 British mystery thriller. The fun of chasing a golden gorilla marks a change of pace from the sadness of the previous issues.

Adam Warlock

This issue reveals what happened to "Him", the being created by scientists to be the perfect man (FF67). He was the next stage of mankind's evolution. This great experiment can be seen as a metaphor for America, a country designed to exalt the common man and show what nations can achieve.

We learn in this issue that "Him" became Adam Warlock, a messiah over his own world, created this time not by a team of scientists but he High Evolutionary. Warlock was Jim Starlin's masterpiece (literally: a "master piece" is the piece of work a craftsman produces, usually after finishing his apprenticeship, to prove he is now a master of his art form). Warlock's messiah role allowed Starlin to explore philosophical and religious issues with the creation of a new world. Those issues are quickly summarised here in FF172. Warlock was published in his own title, beginning in April 1972, just as Stan Lee was finishing his Fantastic Four run, with his story of the confused Galactus (before his final story about being misunderstood): see commentary to FF122-3.

Adam Warlock's title continued on and off until April 1976. That is, his title covers the time between the mind expanding creative era of Lee and Kirby and the "quo vadis?" (where now?) uncertain era of 1976. The FF title followed Reed's decline, while the Adam Warlock title continued the ascent into infinite possibilities. Now in FF172 the idealism and fear concepts reunite again.

Science and religion

This issue is full of Christian allusions: the high evolutionary as the creator, his perfect world as Eden, the man beast bringing original sin, and so on. In 1976 the big question was, will America remain religious or become a secular society? This is symbolised in the Great American Novel as a battle between evolution and the old god who was here at the Big Bang. See more details see the commentary to FF175.

The body as a shell

With such great questions at stake, this issue has the motif of the body as a mere shell. It does not matter if the body is ugly or weak, or even if it dies in the service of a higher cause (the family or nation): the spirit is what matters.

Ben is reliant on his exoskeleton, and is in the middle of questioning who is the real Ben Grimm: the Thing, or the man? He then battles an empty shell: the destroyer, merely a casing animated with a tiny spark of Galactus' own life force. Note the names: "The Thing" (an indeterminate name, a man dominated by the question of who he is), versus "The Destroyer" - a metaphor for mankind facing the empty void and deciding who he must be. The emptiness is emphasised by Galactus' great loneliness.

Ben's test

In this issue Ben is tested by the herald of Galactus, just as Reed was tested by the earlier herald in FF72, exactly one hundred issues earlier (see commentary). In both cases Reed and Ben do what they think is right, but they fail to be true to their destiny, and fail the test. There are several indications that he failed. Here are just two:

On the flight there he feels heavy, unable to move, just as on the original flight in FF1. Reed is impatient: he tells Ben he can find the extra strength, but Ben fails to do so. This illustrates both of their weaknesses: Reed's feeling that others do not try like he does, and Ben's self doubt.
In fighting The Destroyer he unconsciously holds back, because he wrongly thinks the machine is alive (see "I didn't mean to kill the guy"). See "how strong is the Thing" for how this fear causes Ben to routinely act as well below his potential. Ben lacked the insight to understand that the shell did not matter, only the spirit mattered. That is the story of Ben's life.

In the next issue Ben is judged and the sentence carried our: he must return to his endless struggle until he is again ready to know himself. (We do not see the result of the sentence until FF275, just before he again crashes to earth)

Will they listen? Will they see?

The great test is summed up by the golden gorilla: will the people listen? Will they see? Sue always sees clearly. But will Reed? Will Ben? Will America?

The 100 issue cycle

This anniversary issue is also an internal anniversary. Ben and Reed's previous tests were in FF69 and FF72. They fail those tests. Their new tests are now, in FF169 and 172. Again they fail. In FF269 and FF272 they are again tested: Ben is finding himself on Battleworld (while in 269 Reed is facing a Galactus-like shell who looks like The Destroyer (FF269-270), before reconnecting with his parents (FF271-272), the first step in seeing himself as others see him, and thence reconnecting with his family.

100 issues later they have resolved their problems, and the comic then follows a dream team who endlessly repeat variations on the the old stories: in FF369-372 it is Reed, not Ben, who is away finding himself, and it is Sue and Ben who face questions of split identity: Sue merges with Malice, and Ben now in human form) is tormented by seeing his rocky form in the mirror. For another example of Franklin's curse, to endlessly repeat the past, see how Franklin's herald, Galactus, punishes the Sphinx in FF213. For the general theme of not facing the unknown see the page on Franklin.

Character development: a snapshot

This issue provides a nice summary of the status quo before Reed fails (FF172-175), becomes a liability (FF177-188) and leaves (FF189):

Issue 173: Reed will not confide in Sue

Fantastic Four 173
Fantastic Four 173

Reed won't tell Sue about his loss of stretching power, even though he might endanger the team.  he's also defeatist: saying there is nothing they can do. And once again he's ordering Sue to stay behind. It's like FF127 and FF159 again, but Sue is learning to adapt: instead of arguing she does what he says but in a way that she ends up saving the day. Sue wins despite Reed's narrow mind: the idea that she must stay behind "just in case" is weak.

Other points to note


Issue 174: Different kinds of nation

Here we continue the theme that appearances can be even more deceiving. Incidentally, I love issues like this. The idea that the dragon was innocent, and we should not judge by whether someone looks human. Wrapping it all up in a fairy tale setting is the icing on the delicious cake. The idea of a mechanical planet is pretty cool too, and the idea that a friendly planet or nation can disagree with you is realistic. These concepts are not just mind expanding, but apply very well to a nation such as America and how it interacts with other nations. These worlds can represent other nations: their cultures and relationship with us varies wildly. We should never jump to conclusions with other cultures: none of these three worlds behaved as expected.

Also in this issue the men are all captured, so it's up to Sue to save them single handedly, and she does. And in this issue Reed finally admits to the others that he is losing his ability to stretch.

Fantastic Four 174

Issue 175: like Androcles and the lion

ff175: Sue and Impy
Fantastic Four 175

Reed is completely clueless: his told Sue to stay behind while the men do the fighting. And all their fighting is useless.

Meanwhile, Sue accidentally finds the Impossible Man, who defeats Galactus. it may not even be an accident - Sue, like the reader, may have wondered about the mystery third planet, and her famous intuition may have guided her hands when she went there. But even if it was an accident, why did Impy decide to help her? He had no interest in helping anybody before. But go back to issue 11: while the boys (as usual) wanted to use violence, Sue had compassion, and he noticed. It was the same with Gorr, and Dragon Man, and Namor, and Triton: Sue's method is compassion and it makes her a thousand times more useful than the boys.

Sue showed compassion to Impy, and Impy would have remembered. She when she asked him to help, he said "why not?" It's like the famous story of the lion with the thorn in his paw. In the legend Androcles showed the lion kindness by removing the thorn. Years later, the lion later remembers and saves Androcles' life. Would Impy have helped Sue if she had not shown him compassion? Everything we know about him comes from issue 11, and says no. Sue did this, and it wasn't even acknowledged.

Sue's gentle approach saved the whole universe from Galactus. She saved countless billion (probably trillion) lives. Nothing Reed ever does will be as significant as what Sue just did (in fact, he will later save Galactus and be put on trial for it). In the battle of the sexes. Sue has won. And nobody even notices: she's invisible as usual.

Ben's changing relates to confidence.
Why did Ben change? The obvious answer is because Galactus zapped him. Then why was the effect delayed? Galactus would know that Ben's ability to change depends on his unconscious confidence. All Galactus had to do was make Ben a little more aware of his fears, then Ben would change back when he approached Earth and Alicia.

Why is Ben stronger than before? It appears that every major change increases his strength (e.g. in FF214 after the Skrull aging ray, and his power increase from the five ton level in the early days, which coincided with several changes). If each change is triggered by an unconscious need to be stronger it makes sense that he would unconsciously allow himself a little extra strength each time. Note that after spending time with the Hulk, Ben feels the need to be physically larger as well. Strength of course refers to his minimum strength, not his maximum strength, which (as with the Hulk) is vastly higher.

The zeitgeist: God versus evolution
Before I get any emails, yes I know that plenty of religious folk see no problem with evolution. I count myself among them, but that is a whole other topic. However, according to the spirit of the age, God and evolution are opposites. The battle has been raging ever since the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the 1920s, but in the mid 1970s it was chosen as a political wedge issue, along with abortion, to mobilize the Bible belt to vote Republican. It led to Republicans dominating American politics for 30 years (and Clinton, the sole Democrat president in that period, had to be further to the right than many previous Republicans). This a major theme in American history, and the Fantastic Four represents it right at the start.

This illustrates the power of comics in showing the the zeitgeist, and therefore why only a comic can be The Great American Novel. Other novels can bore their readers with tedious debates over theology, but only a comic can show God versus Evolution battling each other on the cover! Galactus is of course the Marvel metaphor for the God of the Old Testament (the greatest of all, his word is truth, he judges the Earth, he is prepared to wipe out the world), with the Silver Surfer as the metaphor for Christ (he sacrifices himself for mankind and preaches). Galactus is not actually God (see the Watcher's quote in FF72), but serves as a metaphor (see for example Anatomy of a Classic: 'Fantastic Four' #50).

God versus evolution: who wins?
The battle is a masterstroke. Who will win? Does God defeat evolution? Does evolution defeat God? Both positions carry risks, but the comic answers it perfectly.

It may appear that evolution wins: the facts and the smart minds and the rebels are on his side. But in the wider history Galactus always comes back. Galactus is the unquestioned power while the High Evolutionary is merely a footnote (and the loneliest of all: see the comment near the end of FF annual 23). Also, Galactus is only defeated by a vacuous world: a people who welcome him, but they have no variety, no depth. The symbolism is obvious: God will only die when his supporters become mindless shallow fanatics. But in FF262 we see that the deeper, most powerful, most thoughtful people see that Galactus is essential to the universe.

Realism and the Impossible Man

A lot of readers hate The Impossible Man: "How do you ruin a Galactus story? The easiest way is to have the Impossible Man figure into the plot." (source) Why do they hate him? They don't say, but I presume that people find him hard to take seriously. Yet he's among the most realistic of all the aliens in comics, for these reasons

Instant evolution:
Practically all aliens in comics have technology that's more advanced than humans, yet it looks similar to our own: e.g. just bigger space ships. This is not realistic. Given the age of the universe any more advanced race will be at the very least  a few thousand years ahead of us. As is likely to be millions of years more advanced. Imagine how much our technology could advance in just the next few thousand years.

  1. Step 1: all-purpose tools. Not just computers but machines of all kinds.
  2. Step 2: adapt our biology. Why carry it when it can be part of us?
  3. Step 3: make it faster, easier... eventually we just adapt, like instant evolution

A sense of humor:
Most aliens in comics are very serious. But why would they be? They've solved all their problems, so they'll just want to have fun! And they won't be smart because there will be no evolutionary pressure to be smart. All we know is that if they come to Earth then they must be interested in Earth. And their humor is likely to be very anarchic: why have rules of decorum if you can do anything?

Planetary indigestion
Why does Galactus want living worlds? Well, what does life have that non-life does not? Complexity. Just compare organic molecules to non-organic ones: what strikes you is their vastly more complex structure. The same goes with intelligence: a bigger brain is more complex. but it isn't just random complexity: you get that just from chaos. What life has is order: in other words it has information. Galactus feeds on the information in life. This is why he's a test: if you can't avoid getting eaten then your information was a lot less valuable than you thought.

How is the planet Poppup different? It's completely networked, to such an infinite degree that the same information is everywhere, If you pick one molecule and compare it to another then you get no more information: it was all there in the first one. To do this it must be fabulously efficient. A Poppup molecule might be a billion time more complex than a human molecule, but if every molecule is more or less the same then the total amount of information is vastly less.

Incidentally, a Poppuppian can be seen as a super advanced skrull: a shape changer to the 'n'th degree. Reed mentioned in FF annual 17 that each skrull atom is like our own DNA. That then goes for each Poppuppian atom, but even more so: every atom is the same model, a general purpose changing machine that self organizes with atoms around it

So imagine Galactus getting ready to eat a planet. I don't know how he eats information, but it's a form of data processing. If we compare it to every other kind of computer we can infer that he has programs that expect different kinds of information, in vast quantities. but the actual information he gets is vastly less. The programs will spew out garbage, or even crash. If the output of these programs is his life then he will die.

Creation myths and indigestion
The idea of a god eating the wrong thing and getting indigestion sounds like something straight from a genuine creation myth. For example, the Greek Titan Kronos swallowed all of his sons to prevent them taking his power, but his wife Rheia tricked him into swallowing a stone in stead of Zeus. Hence Zeus survived and became father to the gods.

Other points to note

Next: a false dawn

The Great American Novel