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

1977-78: Act 4: America's turning point (1978 and economics)

timechart issue 1 issues 2-5 issues 6-24 issues 25-43 issues 45-60 issues 61-80 issues 81-102 issues 103-125 126-132 133-149 150-175 176-200 201-218 219-231 232-250 251-273 274-295 296-303 304-321 322-333 334-355 355-569 570 to present
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The year 1978 was the economic high point in America's history (though it wasn't obvious at the time). In the FF, issue 200 (1978) is the central climax to the 28 year story. 

Issue summary

Reed (and America's) soul searching
Reed feels powerless, and for Reed that's the worst possible state. He is "coming apart at the seams." Finally he gives up, resigns from the Fantastic Four, and the team disbands. Then fate steps in and hands him what seems to be his final and greatest triumph: defeating Doctor Doom, and proving once and for all who is the better man. But in all this Reed was never humbled, just frustrated. And even in his triumph he fails to learn the lesson: that Doom's great weakness is the same as Reed's great weakness, a need to be number one.

Doom was defeated because, like Reed, he failed his son. So the great triumph will be a false dawn, and Reed's personal crisis will only get worse, until he eventually he learns to listen to his wife and put the next generation first. All of this reflects America's 1970s soul searching, its embrace of Reaganism, its feeling of being strong again, not realizing that debts were simply being passed on to the children.

The deeper battle between gentleness and violence
Al this time, beneath the surface adventures, and the everyday politics, the underlying battle for control is represented by Agatha and her own son, Nicholas Scratch. "Scratch" the surface and he's always there.

Issue 176: the most fun issue ever!

Fantastic Four 176

This is why we love the Fantastic Four: it's George Perez and Roy Thomas (with help from Jack Kirby) at their best. I won't spend much time on the heart of the story, the unforgettable Bullpen romp (often imitated, never equaled), except to note how much Marvel has grown since their last visit in FF10, and that Stan's dislike for the Impossible Man was genuine: his story was the only one that early readers didn't like, so he banned Impy from future issues, and had to be persuaded to allow him back. I'm not the only one who's glad that Stan said yes.

What sets the Fantastic Four apart from other superhero comics is realism, and this story is a prime example. The events take place in real, familiar locations (well, familiar if you live in New York), with real, familiar people (familiar if you read comics), and the kinds of events that New Yorkers and comic professionals have to deal with, mixed with "incredible exploits."

The zeitgeist
The Fantastic Four is The Great American Novel because it arises direct from the zeitgeist, the ideas that are swirling around at the time. The previous issue was based on the large scale battle (in the public mind) between God and evolution. True to the "incredible then realism" formula, this issue has a much smaller but equally timely zeitgeist.

Usually we have to infer the zeitgeist from clues in the story, but in this case Roy Thomas told us exactly how the comic came to be written: this small part of the zeitgeist, the small concern that bothered millions of Americans at the time, was the difficulty of getting across a major city town. The rest of the story was a simple matter of following the old formula. And luckily Roy got help from Jack Kirby, who has a better imagination than almost anyone.

letters page is
        replaced by explanation

Ben is handsome, which makes him a threat
As for the rest of the story, note Reed Richards' comment "why can't you just accept" being ugly?  He continues to (unintentionally) undermine Ben's confidence. Yet Ben is cute and desirable:For years now he's had the cute "orange teddy bear" look and (thanks to Marvel Two In One) been the friendliest guy in the Marvel Universe.

In Act 1, Ben was temporarily like a pile of mud, and that is when the "ugly" idea surfaced. But he soon changed. Ben is basically a teddy bear with muscles, and when you get to know him he's the sweetest, bravest, most loyal guy. What woman would not love that? And yes, he's made of rocks. The masculine ideal is to be like rocks, with chiseled features: think Rock Hudson, Rocky Balboa, the wrestler "The Rock," rock hard abs, being a woman's Rock of Gibraltar, et cetera, et cetera. 

Ben Grimm is the ultimate standard of beauty, as proven by the fact that a great artist falls in love with him and spends her time making statues of him. And Ben's beauty is not just skin deep: he really is the strongest guy on Earth (pretty much).

Ben Grimm is beautiful. But Reed wants to be the alpha male, so Reed (unintentionally) perpetuates the belief that Ben is ugly.

Who was in the Bullpen
Some writers and artists are named. The others are: "Len Wein is pictured running for his life, but he's not identified by name at all. I knew who he was because I had several of the Marvel calendars from this time, and the stock photo they used of him showed him wearing the same colonial-looking hat that Perez drew him wearing. I also think Marv Wolfman was unidentified, but uttered the single word, 'Michelle?', which was his wife's name. [...] Perez nailed the looks/personalities of many of the staffers -- guys like Kirby, Romita, and the Rascally one himself. Of course, what I found out later was that the Bullpen didn't really exist, at least not as the idea was sold by Stan the Man. It would have been highly unlikely to have found this many creators in the offices at one time." - Doug

Other points to note

Baxter address

Issue 177: the one enemy they can never defeat

Fantastic Four 177

It's hard to assess this issue objectively because I love it so much. I read it as a kid. I love the art (Perez is my all time favorite FF artist), I love the story, I love the humor, I just smile at every page. But OK, its significance to the story? Obviously its pointing out that Reed, for all his brains and heroism, has become a liability. yes, sure, this is an alternate Reed, but the problem only arose because of "our" Reed. The fake Reed can only cause problems as long as he is mistaken for our Reed:

The cover calls Reed "the one super foe we can never defeat." Obviously they can defeat the other Reed, so he must refer to our Reed, Our Reed cannot be defeated because he's on our side, but sometimes acts like the only team he supports is himself.

No respect

This is the issue where the Frightful Four become joke characters. In his previous appearance, Peter Petruski lost all credibility. The fact that the Wizard still has to rely on him shows how bad his leadership skills are.

Paste Pot Pete

The only reason the Sandman stays with the Wizard is that his mind is on other things: he is considering following Medusa and switching sides. But that's another story, covered in Ben's own title, Marvel Two In One.

"My killer, myself"
So just as Reed is defeated by himself, so is the Wizard: his inability to work with others is his downfall.

Issue 178: where is the real power?

Fantastic Four 178

This issue is a fun look at where real power is found. In politicians? Perhaps. In the army? Maybe. In super powered beings? Could be. In democracy? Well, the bad guys do vote. But in the end it comes from an unexpected source (and technically it came from the physical infrastructure as well (electricity is the key). This is a reminder that simply being in charge is not the source of power. It's another message for Reed. Real power is in unexpected places. Like maybe... Franklin (see FF182).

The Great American Novel

FF178-181 The Kirby Triptych

Kirby recently began drawing some FF covers (he refused to do the inner art unless every detail was scripted: he was tired of giving new ideas for nothing so others could get rich). As if to celebrate this, we have a Kirby style Triptych of splash pages. (FF181 would have been 180, but for deadline reasons 180 was a reprint, reminding us of happier times at the very end of act 3 just before the disasters of act 4 begin.)

Kirby style Triptych
This is the only time splash pages have formed a triptych, and reflects the importance of these events in the 28 year story. These events are turning points in Ben and Reed's lives:

  1. Part 1: Ben has just realized that he has no life as Ben Grimm and will always be The Thing. He is lost in his mental negative zone. This also reflects acts 1 and 2, where Ben was the tragic, lost figure, and the killer of his self esteem was Reed Richards.
  2. Part 2: Reed has realized he is no longer fantastic, and is in the final decline before he ends the team. This also reflects acts 3 and 4, where Reed is lost in his mental negative zone.
  3. Part 3: Reed must face up to the greatest danger and then triumphs. This also reflects act 5 where he finds himself, his real power, not in his intelligence or his stretching, but in his heroic willingness to do the right thing, regardless of the personal cost.

Issue 179: karma for Reed

Wouldn't this frame make a great Roy Lichtenstein print?

Sue cannot believe

Why didn't Sue notice earlier?

In this issue, Reed is thrown into the Negative Zone and replaced by an evil doppelganger. The others immediately suspect, but have been trained to never doubt Reed. He made them feel like children while only he understands the big picture. He always had secrets and could get angry when questioned (e.g. in FF51 when Sue discovers his experiments). In addition, his extreme stress over the last few years makes him cold and distant anyway. Now that Reed is replaced, the team suppress their doubts, just as Reed always trained them to do.

Note the symbolism of the Negative Zone: Reed is negative to the others, and he often finds himself trapped there.

Fantastic Four 179

Meanwhile, Ben is chased by two women, while believing that being The Thing makes him unattractive. And he cannot make a decision, despite being a tough guy. As long as Reed is around, Ben cannot be a man. Ben is a jock and Reed is a nerd. If one controls the other then the other cannot be himself. This conflict will finally resolve in Act 5.

The importance of real time to characterization

In this issue we are reminded how Reed's character is defined by his service in World War II. Reed was naturally an introvert, but the draft forced him into combat and made him a man's man.

World War Two
The later Franklinverse Reed was different. The other Reed was never drafted into the war. So the other Reed never became a rounded character: he retained all his weaknesses in a two dimensional way. Therefore the other Reed is widely seen as a jerk (just Google "Reed Richards jerk" for examples). This is a good example of why real time is essential to characterization. People are products of their experience. Remove the experience and the people change.

The prophetic FF179

FF179 is therefore prescient: it features a doppelganger Reed, and even his family don't see the difference at first. The post 1990 Reed is the same: everyone assumes he is the same character, yet somehow he is not as heroic. So we look back and sure enough there are several times when the switch could have happened: when the clone team "left" in FF333, or during the colliding time streams in Simonson's run, for example.. If Franklin wanted it that way - e.g. he was keeping the real team safe as he did with the unborn Valeria - nobody would have noticed.

(Issue 180: a reprint)

Fantastic Four 180

"Triple D" is the Dreaded Deadline Doom, when a book is not finished by the time it has to go to the printer. George Perez puts twice as much effort into his work as any other artist, and is given the hardest jobs (team books), and at this point he's doing several team books. No wonder he sometimes gets behind! But I'd rather have one Perez issue every third issue and a fill-in artist in between, than every issue by any other artist. He's worth it.

Issue 181: Sue understand Franklin's power

Fantastic Four 181
In this issue we see perhaps more of Sue's inner thoughts than at any other time so far, but the most significant new revelation is that Franklin is perfectly safe at Alicia's. But why? They send their only child to be looked after by a blind woman who has no super powers. It can't be any secret that she has connections to the Fantastic Four, and any enemy could surely have noticed that their son spend a lot of time there. So how can he be safe? Sue tends to work by intuition not logic. She probably doesn't know why he's safe, just as she does not know why this particular time Franklin is in danger, so she feels the need to go over. But Sue has seen Franklin defend himself even when asleep, in FF150. What was special about that time? She and Reed had just reunited and Franklin was surrounded by love. When Franklin is loved then his own defenses will keep hims safe. Sue seems to know this on an instinctive level. This makes it all the more serious that Reed cannot see it.

Ben as team leader

FF181 was supposed to be FF180, but only the cover was ready on time. So the cover to FF181 can be considered the first "variant" cover, long before they became common in the 1990s. FF180 was the "real" cover, by Kirby. It emphasizes the difference between Reed and Ben.

This foreshadows act 5: when Reed is gone, Ben is the natural leader. As in act 5, Ben chooses a team that is half female. he makes different decisions from Reed, but this does not mean he is more violent (as in this example). He does not feel Reed's sense of urgency to get involved in things: when Reed is in the lab working on the next crisis, Ben is usually reading a book or seeing friends. And sometimes, as with the Mole Man, his tendency is to leave alone. In this case he appears more violent, but the other side explain things and he changes his mind: he is open to new ideas.

Other points to note

Issue 182: Reed's autism - the evidence

Fantastic Four 182

This issue gives perhaps more evidence that Reed may be autistic. Maybe it's time to summarize the case:

  1. Reed is highly intelligent, but only when he focuses on a narrow area. In other areas he seems less intelligent than his peers (see later examples)
  2. In FF182 we see that he has difficulty with neuro-typical emotional responses. The parallel world Reed provides a useful experimental control for comparison with "our" Reed. As a parallel world Reed, we should assume he's the same in every way unless stated. Notice what happens here: Sue tells him that Franklin has been kidnapped, and this Reed struggles to find the right thing to say. This is classic autistic behavior. Note that a small delay is normal: we should expect a second or so of shock. After that, any fake actor would know what to say. It's not difficult to come up with a look of shock. But for this fake Reed it's very difficult. He stands here struggling to think of the appropriate response. The Real Reed of course has had years of experience in Franklin getting hurt, so he would know what to say. This is why it's so difficult to diagnose adults with autism: adults learn the right thing to say, even if they find it difficult. But this adult does not have a son, so he never learned, so it's really hard for him to fake the emotion.
  3. Reed is obsessively narrowly focused. He will happily spend days in his lab and even forget to eat. This goes beyond a normal obsession or interest.
  4. Reed lacks social awareness. He does not see how his put downs affect the others emotionally. He genuinely cares for Ben, and cannot see how his criticisms (especially in acts 1 and 2) have driven Ben to depression. He loves Sue, and cannot see how his actions almost led to divorce. he cares for Johnny, but cannot see how Johnny feels so trapped.
  5. Reed prefers solitude, and if he has to deal with others he wants to make all the decisions: his world seems to be filled with himself. (The word "autism" comes from the same root as "automatic" and comes from the prefix "auto" meaning "alone".)
  6. He avoids eye contact. We often see him, as in the sequence above, looking way from the person he's talking to. FF51 is another classic example, when Sue stumbles on his secret work and he says "how did you find out?" without looking at her. In FF271 it's a big deal that he can't remember his mother's eyes. Possibly she was he only person he would look in the eye. Of course, adults eventually learn what's appropriate, so he will look into eyes when he remembers to, but it doesn't come naturally.
  7. He gets angry and frustrated or depressed when things don't go his way. FF9 is a good example of this. This leads to his need to be in control. In FF184 he's depressed that he cannot stretch, even though as Sue points out that is not his main power so rationally it doesn't matter.
  8. His speech patterns show he isn't really aware of how he comes across; he's very verbose even though others ask him not to be.
  9. He takes things very literally. This is most clearly seen in John Byrne's run where Reed is at his most socially withdrawn.
  10. He is more paranoid than the others, seeing danger everywhere. Johnny has more fun, Ben is more relaxed about beating foes, and Sue likes to sometimes leave a danger alone (e.g. the first time they saw the creature from the black lagoon) but Reed is constantly on edge.
  11. He doesn't like to change routine, though his lifestyle forces him to. Franklin would interfere with his routine some he likes to send the boy away to Agatha Harkness, and won't change that routine even when it's obvious that Agatha's house is not safe. Reed is also the only one who has never deliberately changed his uniform. Sue has tried skirts, Ben occasionally has an all over suit and even a helmet, and Johnny tried a red suit for a while, but Reed is happy with the same uniform every single time.
  12. he seems to hate social complexity: how else do we explain why he did so well in FF181 in the negative zone? He was superb! Such a simple situation, just Reed on a rock against Annihilus. No powers, no other people, no stress. This shows that losing his powers is not the cause of his stress: it's the fact that losing his powers makes his life complicated that he can't cope with.
  13. And so on and so on. None of this is proof of course, but the circumstantial evidence is very high.

Issue 183: Sue as leader


FF183 shows what Sue is like as a leader: pretty good really. It features the android from FF71. The whole issue mirrors FF71, when Sue stood alone, and shows how she's progressed since then. FF71, you will recall, was the moment when Reed decided to do the right thing and put Franklin first, but in FF72 at the first sign of trouble he couldn't go through with it. Now, and in FF184, we see what Sue should have done in FF71-72: she should have taken control. But she could not: she did not have the experience to control Reed. Remember that at the time he was a 42 year old WWII veteran and international hero, and she was a 28 year who hated conflict and had idolized him since childhood.  But this is two and a half years later (their time) and so much has happened. She has seen Reed's decline, and the separation and her time in Pennsylvania has made her grow. In this issue the men are away (until the end) so Sue leads an all female team and does pretty well.

What could Sue have done?

Could Sue have defeated the android without the boys? Probably yes, because of Thundra. When Reed appeared Thundra had just been swatted away, but she has fierce pride and would have come straight back. They could keep him at bay, but would Sue recognize the cosmic control rod? If Reed has let her take part in the previous Negative Zone adventures then yes: because Johnny did. Once she knew of it Sue would not have forgotten it, because of its role in her son's birth and in his near death in FF41. So yes, the boys were not needed. In fact, if Sue had started experimenting with her force field earlier then she could have used it to grab the control rod from a distance (using the pincers she creates in FF222). Sue feels she has to experiment with her powers in secret, presumably because Reed did not see the need for it.

In short, if Reed had not been the leader of the FF, Sue could have defeated the android within a few seconds of seeing him. "What's that? The cosmic control rod? Pop. Gone. Android falls. The end."

A reminder of Reed's finest hour

Being in the negative zone gives Reed a boost of confidence. He's far away from reminders of his failures, and we see him at his very best: a true hero, and even more heroic because he doesn't have any machines or super powers to help him. But back in his normal surroundings he is reminded of his problems and falls into depression again (next issue).

The ending to FF183 parallels FF51. This is important to remember as we watch Reed's decline for the rest of act 4. He still has a pure heart and the highest courage, but as in the best Shakespearean tragedy he falls because of one weakness, a need to be in control.Fantastic Four 183

Parallels between FF71 and FF183 include...

FF71 and 183

Criticisms (source)

Other points to note:

Issue 184: Sue has to take control

Fantastic Four 184

Back in this world, reminded of all his failings, Reed is weak and Sue is strong. So Reed can easily be led by a strong woman. But after FF200 Reed will regain his confidence, and when things still go wrong he will move to a state of self denial. Sue will then need an extra layer of strength, to lead Reed when he does not want to be led.

Other points to note

Issue 185: Reed is coming apart at the seams.

Fantastic Four 185

Note the similarity between FF185 and FF232. Also compare the happy scene in FF201. Artists know that looking down on somebody shows them feeling small and vulnerable, whereas looking up at the same scene makes them look confident and powerful.

The period from FF158 to FF200 is the false climax, leading to the false dawn. It parallels and foreshadows the true climax between 201 and 303:

Fantastic Four 185

Keeping Franklin safe
Agatha, like Reed, means well, but thinks she has to work alone. Like Reed, she repeatedly promises what she cannot deliver: safety for Franklin. Franklin is wiser. He knows that he should be: with his parents. The combination of his father's brain focused on his needs, plus his mother's ability to hide and protect him, plus his own awesome powers, are all he needs. But Reed cannot see it, and Sue will not give sufficient weight to her intuition.

Other points to note
The Impossible Man's reference to a "charming" humans at a gangster movie in a theater suggests 1976's Bugsy Malone, but the deaths, normal guns and St Valentines day and "revival" suggests the movie was the 1967 Roger Corman one.

Issue 186: a warning: Agatha's family background

Fantastic Four 186

This is the issue where we learn of Agatha's family background, and it contains disturbing parallels to Reed's behavior. This is a warning of what can happen if you don't put your family first:

Trusting Agatha has placed Franklin in danger
Reed's decision to entrust Franklin to a witch has caused far more problems than it ever solved. This is just one more example.

A warning
Note the parallels between Agatha and Nicholas and Reed:

In short, and the family will continue to suffer until Reed puts his family (especially Franklin) first.


Other points to note

Issue 187: Reed does not learn: Scratch is triumphant.

Fantastic Four 187

Reed is a broken man, but does not learn wisdom
As noted in the commentary to FF185, these stories foreshadow the end of Act 4, when Reed finally learns wisdom. In this issue his spirit is broken, but he still does not see clearly. He is simply depressed. He does not see his proper place in the team (as an equal to the others, not as greater or less), and he does not see the importance of his son. Sue understands both, but will not say "Reed, my intuition is better than yours." Reed will have to learn that the hard way.

The secret of their superpowers
One of the 28 year subplots concerns the origin of the team's powers. In this issue we gain a significant clue, though it won't be obvious until FF319 at the end of Act 5. In hindsight the clues are all there:

  1. A common cause for superpowers:
    The Fantastic Four are the first but not the only super powered beings. Occam's razor suggests that, with so many super-types, there must be a common underlying cause.
  2. Triggered by mankind entering space:
    The Fantastic Four were the first of many new super super powered beings. What was different about the team? They represents mankind's first step into space. This has massive significance fir the human species.
  3. The cosmic cube:
    Other Marvel comics introduce the cosmic cube: a reward offered by advanced aliens when lesser beings become sufficiently advanced. FF319 summarizes everything, if readers have not read those other stories.
  4. The Molecule Man is the clearest example of superpowers:
    Of all the super beings spawned by Earth, the Molecule Man has the greatest power: almost a general purpose "do anything" power. He is the only one that provoked a warning from the Watcher, and then the Watcher took him away again. So if we are to understand superpowers, we should focus on the purest example: the Molecule man. Note that in FF188 the Watcher again appears. Most people assume this is because the Fantastic Four break up, and this is certainly of interest to him, but he spends most of his time watching Reed and the Molecule Man as they share bodies. As we saw when the Molecule Man appeared, and as was clear in FF319, the Molecule Man has tremendous significance to the higher powers.
  5. The power can be trapped in a wand or other object:
    In FF187 (and other comics) we see that the Molecule Man's powers can be trapped into an object like a wand, and can be transferred instantly to another host. In hindsight we can see that this is an imperfect version of a cosmic cube: great power comes from outside, and fills the available host. But sometimes the host is not advanced enough to accept the full power in the form of a perfect cube. Then a lesser amount is transferred, depending on the host in question. E.g. Reed stretches his mind, so gains the power to stretch; Johnny is hot-headed and a fan of the original Human Torch so gains the power to flame on, etc.

This exact source of their superpowers is not essential to the story, so it is not emphasized, but for curious readers the answers are all there.

The big secret

This issue presents a number of problems: when we solve those problems we see below the surface, the bigger story of what is really going on. Some of the problems are outlined by Comicsfan on the "Peerless Power" blog. I have added to the list.The problems are as follows:
  1. He changed
    The Molecule Man here is very different from the Molecule Man in FF20. Later we see that the Molecule Man has reformed just as the Watcher would have wanted (in Secret Wars and elsewhere) - as if he was always under the Watcher's care and never left.
  2. The wand
    What's with the wand? Why would the original explosion give him a wand that he needed? And why were the FF not bothered when the wand just fell into a chimney?
  3. The Impossible Man
    How was the Impossible Man defeated so easily? His whole body is designed to survive unexpected attacks. Sure, the Molecule Man has vast power, but he has also had trouble with unstable molecules (that's how he is defeated this time), and the Impossible Man is basically made of unstable molecules.
  4. The Watcher
    Why was the Watcher present in all this? Is the temporary break up of the FF really that important on a cosmic scale? Granted, he would be interested in the Molecule Man, but this time he only seems interested in the FF.
  5. The Watcher's job
    The Watcher was in charge of looking after the Molecule Man. How could he Watcher allow him to escape, and then not recapture him?
  6. His son???
    In fact, according to Marvel Two In One. this is not even the Molecule Man, but his son. His son??? A being never heard from again.
Marvel Two In One

Wait a minute, where have we seen those cloaks and sinister killers before... just last issue!


And where have we seen a wand that can make stone buildings walk, send force blasts, possess people, and more?


All the problems disappear if the Molecule man's "son" was one of the people of New Salem, still loyal to Scratch, using his Satan Staff to try to free him. It's the Overmind saga all over again, pretend to be someone else as a way to get into Reed's head. And through him, to open the hell gate (Negative Zone), control Franklin (a beyond Omega mutant who specializes in dimensional travel and cosmic control)... no wonder the Watcher is interested. In FF 188 the Watcher does not weeping because the Fantastic Four are splitting up, he weeps because he knows what could happen to Franklin, and the world.

Note that one hundred issues later a witch hunter called Elspeth Cromwell (no doubt with links to New Salem) is finally able to deliver Reed and Sue to Mephisto, during a merging with Limbo, which leads to the destruction of their home and final tearing open of the hell gate across the sky... It's all linked.

Harry Potter

Harry Potter

I can't help pointing out that we have a guy with a lightning scar on his forehead (though he is temporarily bad, he is a good guy in the end), a bad guy with snake like eyes and no nose, a battle involving wands that cause various magical effects, a bad guy who cannot die because his soul is stored in a physical object... where have we seen that before? Or rather, where did we see it years later? I wonder what comics J.K.Rowling read as a child?

Issue 188: it's all about control

Fantastic Four 188

Reed's logic for leaving the team is faulty. He is not thinking clearly, and ironically (for one so intelligent) this is his real problem: He did not become a pawn of a super foe because he lost is ability to stretch: he became a pawn because of his own superiority complex.

So the lack of powers was barely a handicap at all. The real cause of his problems was in not treating his family as equals. Reed wants control. In this issue the Molecule Man, a vastly more powerful being, controls Reed, and Reed cannot stand it. After this he would rather leave the team.

In Act 5 Reed will finally learn to treat others as equals, but he still has a long way to go.

With great power comes... great powerlessness

The Fantastic Four reveals one of the central truths of the universe: scale is a illusion. (This is explicitly stated in FF annual 23, summing up the cosmic.) Great philosophers learn this: the more you know, the less you know. Great politicians and business leaders know this: they are constrained by all the interest groups and other powers balanced against them. Often the weakest can defeat the strongest: a Gandhi can defeat the British Empire. Or in a plague a tiny microbe can kill half the population. This is the profound message of FF188. The Fantastic Four are the most powerful team on the planet, probably on many planets (for realism to work we must conclude that other comic stories are exaggerated). Yet here they fall apart, defeated by themselves. This is a central point of the whole 27 years: they are the Fantastic Four: they are only fantastic if they can work as a team. And to do so sometimes seems like a fantasy - it is fantastic in the old sense.

To drive home this point this issue shows the four most powerful yet powerless beings in the galaxy:
  1. Reed: one of the most brilliant minds in the galaxy (see FF7 where a more advanced planet needed his help, and how the mighty Skrull empire fears him. (Then why don't they simply shoot him? Because that reveals their weakness. Advanced civilizations are information based: they rely on shared belief. Admitting they fear one man would undermine their credibility and cause defeated races to rise up. As with Dr Doom, all the stylized comic book battles are designed purely to humiliate him, not to kill him until after he is humiliated.) So Reed is one of the most powerful beings, yet he feels useless, incompetent, filled with self doubt. Why? Because he cannot cope with the fact that, in some vital areas, Sue is smarter than him, and so is his young son. Power brings pride.
  2. The Molecule Man: one of the most powerful beings in the galaxy (as noted on his first appearance) and he talks himself up in this issue, probably because he shared the boxers brain and is influenced by Klaw. But we saw at the beginning (his origin) and at the end (FF319) that really he is plagued with self doubt. He simply is not smart enough to make use of his power or so solve his personal problems with it. Note the change between this and Englehart's run sharing Reed's brain probably sowed the seeds of admitting his weakness, just as Reed has to.
  3. The Impossible Man: almost impossible to defeat - here they caught him by surprise but it only lasted a few hours at most, and that is the only time. yet he has the mind of a child and all he wants is friends - see the discussion by see issue 11. He is lost and confused, and used humor because it's the only tool in his mental arsenal.
  4. The Watcher: long ago his race, almost omnipotent, realized that interfering does not make things any better. HE can do anything, yet can only watch, with a tear in his eye, knowing that he could instantly fix things, yet in the long term it would make no difference.
Never before and never again will all four of these beings be in the same place.


The powerlessness of Reed, Molecule Man, Impossible Man and Watcher are perfect examples of how realism worked in the FF: the more power a character has, the more restrained he is. This allows the world to continue as we see it, so we can have a world of superheroes yet it is still our world. This ended will the fall of the Marvel Universe, when realism was abandoned. IT can be traced specifically to plausible deniability being abandoned in the "Inferno" crossover in FF322: when in one moment the Marvel Universe, the biggest story in the history of the world went up in flames. Truly an inferno indeed. Nobody (except the writer, Englehart) saw the gravity of the situation, even though "Graviton" was standing right there on the cover.

(Issue 189: a reprint)

Fantastic Four 189

See note by FF180. Soon after this Jim Shooter became Editor-In-Chief and began a policy of having spare issues in the drawer, so they would never again have reprint issues when the deadline was missed.

Issue 190: Ben's turning point - his identity as an individual

Fantastic Four 190

The end of the FF
Ben explains that this is the end of the FF, because Reed is no longer the head. it is no longer the "Mr Fantastic" Four. The team will get back together in FF201, but under different rules: Sue had reformed the team so that Reed, while nominally in charge, really had no more power than anyone else. This had been the de facto position since FF159, but now it was official.

FF1-141 and 141-190
This issue runs through the history of the FF from Ben's perspective. He only covers events up to FF141 (i.e. 50 issue earlier). Until that point he was struggling against Reed, but at that point he let go. Since then he has been looking for his role and here he decides to stop thinking about the past (symbolized by destroying his diary). He will try to just accept his individual life, a regular guy with friends. But this won't work: like Reed after FF200, he has not fixed the underlying problems.

The Turning point: FF190 and Marvel Two In One 50
The importance of FF190 is that Ben no longer looks backwards. This is symbolized by destroying his diary, and is reflected in Ben's own book, Marvel Two In One. As often happens, a topic that is subtly implied in the main FF title is made more explicit in MTIO. (MTIO is not the FF, so is not necessarily canon, but does expand on FF themes.)

Here are the main eras in Ben's life:

Ben's life

(About the MTIO numbering: MTIO is usually a few months behind the main FF, e.g. FF200 was dated November 1978, but MTIO 50, which also covers resolving the past, was cover dated April 1979. The MTIO writer would need to read the published FF before incorporating it in his plans, hence a 5 month or so delay.  These were the days immediately before Jim Shooter, where editors were far more independent, so there would be fewer pre-publication story conferences. Shooter was brought in specifically to reign in this anarchy, which amongst other things had resulted in missed deadlines, reprint issues like FF180 and FF189, and obviously rushed issues like this one, FF190. By the time we get to John Byrne's title "The Thing", there is no time lag. As the writer of both titles, Byrne is able to match Ben's thinking in one title with the other at the same time).

Issue 191: the FF resign

Fantastic Four 191

After 12 years (their time) at the head, Reed hasn't trained his team to lead. he hasn't put in place any arrangements for the future. When he goes they can't carry on without him. Contrast this with act 5: the team then will have more experience of solo work, and each member will have resolved their personal struggles: then when Reed and Sue leave, the Fantastic Four goes on!

But what about Dr Doom?
"But surely the long term, big story Fantastic Four is the story of Reed versus Dr Doom? How can Reed give up? Isn't the world now in danger?" This is the most crushing defeat of all. Doom's number one goal was to prove himself superior to Reed Richards. Reed has given up. Doom has won. If the world is in danger he will of course help other superheroes, working in an advisory capacity back at base. Ironically he will probably be more effective that way, as he's a much better scientist than team leader. But Doom has won.

"A legend died this day."
Reed is convinced that this is permanent. After three years of struggle and decline (act four so far), Reed has thrown in the towel and admitted defeat. He sells his equipment, certain that they will never need it again. Reed's personal crisis was so great that the man who created the team was finally the man to destroy it.

Other points to note

The year without the Fantastic Four

From FF188 to 200 is one year (our time) with no Fantastic Four. Just attempts at solo careers. it was a learning experience. They were practicing life without Reed. They were growing up, ready for the second half of act 4.

The zeitgeist
The year without the FF represents a year when America felt it had lost direction. It was the end of 1977 and most of 1978: Jimmy Carter's presidency was not a confident one, and had crisis after crisis. (Personally I am a fan of Carter, with his values, his environmentalism and his peace talks. But I am not American: this is the Great American Novel and reflects the perception inside the country.)

The story moves forward: Len Wein continues Jack Kirby's dream.

Wein and Kirby
Pic: Kirby and Len Wein at a convention in this era, 1978.
From Jack Kirby Collector issue 59

Issue 192: Reaping the whirlwind

Fantastic Four 192

The title of this issue, "He Who Soweth the Wind" refers to Reed, not Johnny. Johnny driving a racing car into a whirlwind is a visual metaphor for the dangers that lie ahead.

"Sow the wind" comes from the saying "sow the wind and reap the whirlwind." It means "do something bad and get something much worse as a result." It does not apply to Johnny: he didn't "sow the wind," he didn't do anything bad. But Reed is also on the story, and Reed did something very bad: he gave up his fight with Doctor Doom. In this story he continues to sow the wind (by working on a mysterious assignment without finding out who is pulling the strings. Reed will soon reap the whirlwind.

The Bible quote
The Fantastic Four often quotes from or parallels the Bible. "He Who Soweth the Wind" comes from Hosea 8:7:

"For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: it hath no stalk: the bud shall yield no meal: if so be it yield, the strangers shall swallow it up."

Hosea chapter 8 is where the prophet Hosea condemns Israel for rejecting what it is given and instead worshiping false gods. As a result, says Hosea, Israel will find itself enslaved by an enemy nation. This applies to Reed: he stops fighting Dr Doom and instead focuses on his own comfort. No prizes for guessing what happens next: Doom will takeover Reed's life and then threaten the whole world.

A Reed in the Bible
Note the second part of the verse: "it hath no stalk: the bud shall yield no meal: if so be it yield, the strangers shall swallow it up. The imagery is of the threshing floor, the place where grass is hit against the stone (threshed) to release the buds of wheat for making bread. The threshing floor is a favorite image in Old Testament prophecy, as it reminds the reader that life is hard, so don't give up: it's worth it. Israel is like wheat, being hit against stone in order to create something better. The Bible talks about separating the good wheat from the bad chaff. 

Note the word "stalk" - the image is of the stalk being blown away in the wind. A wind in a threshing floor is annoying, it blows all the wheat around. A whirlwind in a threshing floor is a catastrophe! All your food blows away and you starve! A stalk and a reed are similar: a reed is a kind of stalk. The Bible has similar warnings about reeds being blown over. Most famously Matthew 11:7, where Jesus says that John the Baptist is strong, not like a reed: "And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see ? A reed shaken with the wind?" A reed has three other uses in the Bible: as a small weapon for enforcing the will of a master on a servant, as a pen for writing (dipped in ink) or as a measuring tool (e.g. the temple is measured with a reed in Revelation). All four uses of reed apply to Reed Richards:

  1. He rules others
  2. He uses communication devices
  3. he uses scientific measuring instruments
  4. And here he is a reed blowing in the wind, allowing circumstances and mysterious employers to control his life

Hosea 8:7 applies to the next 8 issues: Reed has acted like a reed in the wind, letting others blow him around, and this will lead to a whirlwind of danger and almost cost the team their lives.

More titles from the Bible
These three issues (192--194) are about Johnny and Ben having to make fundamental life choices: they are independent for the first time since 1961 (for Johnny this is the first time ever). The engage in great issues of identity and soul searching, so these issues have Biblical titles:

192: "He who soweth the Wind" (Hosea 8:7)
193: "Day of the death demon" - demons are of course Biblical, and "the day of the Lord" or "the day the Lords hath chosen" or "the great and terrible day of the Lord" are well known phrases from the Bible,
194: "vengeance is mine" is from Deuteronomy 32:35 "It is mine to avenge, I will repay", as quoted by Paul in Romans 12:19, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord"

The issues before and after this are not about soul searching, so do not have Biblical titles.

Other points to note

FF192 and Johnny's timeline

One day I'll get around to creating a proper timeline for Johnny Storm. Until then, this issue is pretty important.
The Key stages in Johnny's loss of confidence are:
One day I'll finish his timeline. One day!

Issue 193: the Space Shuttle: Reed is vindicated

shuttle and original space craft

Ben can no longer blame Reed
Ben is finally independent. He can no longer blame Reed for his actions. And what does he do? He repeats the mistake of the very first issue, the one he always blamed Reed for. He knew there was danger, but his stubborn pride meant he went ahead anyway. the same thing happened again, but this time he cannot blame Reed. 

But it gets worse. Ben has always blamed Reed for ruining his life, but Reed was only trying to do the right thing. Here Ben does something even worse to his best friend. Darkoth is being kept alive by Diablo. If Reed could see Darkoth maybe he could be saved. But Diablo has promised that if Darkoth reveals his true name he will die. Ben piles on the emotional pressure so that Darkoth (Desmond) has to admit his identity, and so he dies. In all of this Ben is innocent, he only did what he thought was right, but he destroyed his best friend.


Ben has done what Reed did. it's a powerful moment. The tragedy is that Ben does not consciously see it. But unconsciously it must be working on him. Ben will spend one hundred more issues trying to blame Reed, but really he is running from himself. It will climax in FF296, and after that Ben realizes he has no excuses and he collapses emotionally, seeing no other alternative except.. but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Reed's development
This is all part of the build up to FF200: all the loose ends in their lives are tied up and the events of issue 1 come full circle. Next Reed will pilot a ship just on his own, become the lone hero, the "Mister Fantastic" he always wanted to be. And will getting what he thinks he wants solve his problems? We shall see. The Great American Novel is about people becoming the greatest people in the world, but the real story is the inner person.

The Great American Novel and the space shuttle
The Fantastic Four mirrors the cold war, and in particularly American optimism and the space race, so we can't miss the space shuttle!

FF1, written in April 1961, showed America's race with Russia to put the first man in space. Now it is 1978 and time for the first space shuttle. The first official shuttle trip was in April 1981, but the shuttle had been under development since Nixon gave it the go head in 1969. The first working space plane was the X-24B in August 1973. By 1978 space shuttle development would have been at an advanced testing stage as we see here. This early test version needed a much larger booster rocket than the final build, and it still had plenty of bugs: it finally blew up, foreshadowing the Challenger disaster eight years later. But this was a top secret early test, so never made it to TV. This was still the cold war, and the shuttle was partly for military use, so the secrecy was as we would expect.

If it's a test flight, as stated in FF192, why does it collect solar energy? Space flight is so expensive that even a test flight is used for other purposes. The concern with solar energy reflects America's energy crisis of the 1970s.

Does the FF have more advanced technology than the space shuttle?
This is a period when we are reminded that Mr Fantastic is one of the smartest people in the world, but still within the normal range for human intelligence. See the notes to FF annual 15 for further proof. The space shuttle here is at the level of real world technology, just as the ship in 1961 was the same level as NASA had at the time. See the page on realism in FF1 for details.

The more advanced technology in the Baxter Building all derives from alien machinery, mainly that left behind on UFOs. See the page on super technology for details. Usually Reed will only have one working copy of an invention because he uses something scavenged from an alien ship without being able to duplicate it. Very occasionally Reed manages to replicate alien tech, such as with unstable molecules, but these have the tendency to reproduce anyway - see FF annual 17. Reed is probably just culturing the existing stock, still a breakthrough, but still relying on science that no human understands.

Ronald Reagan and Star Wars
Note that the shuttle is disabled by an energy beam from earth. This was the principle behind Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" - to shoot down enemy missiles before they could arrive. It never really worked against small fast moving missiles, but would have been effective against a larger and more easily trackable space shuttle.

Jimmy Carter and nuclear disarmament
Note the symbolism of the abandoned A bomb test: this is 1978, the era of the SALT talks (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty). Things have changed since 1961 when nuclear tests were high on the agenda.

Ben's confidence gets a boost
In FF170 Ben despaired because he was too old to be a test pilot, yet didn't know any other career. The space shuttle comes to his rescue: his age is far less important than his experience in space, coupled with his body's ability to resist damage. Ben finally has a real career! Unfortunately he attracts enemies, so cannot keep the job..

Sue's movie offer is another realistic touch: right at this moment the FF are very famous for splitting up, so naturally a film producer will use that fame. In the same way. Elvis and the Beatles also made movies. But this does not mean that the movies are any good or that Sue has a career in Hollywood.

Doom's personal growth
Here Doom admits he needs Reed to find something that he, Doom, could not find. Doom is growing as an individual. Doom's inner battle will climax in issue 199, leading to the historic events of issue 200. Like Reed, Doom will then retreat to make sense of it all, and continue his personal growth

Issue 194: a tortured soul

Fantastic Four 194

Through Desmond Pitt we see the story of loyalty and courage, and where out values lie. Pitt infiltrated Doom's ranks as a spy, but could not even tell his own side because Doom's spies are everywhere. So he was condemned as a traitor. He was then the subject of experimental surgery, and forced to serve his new master in exchange for life giving drugs. Pitt had the choice: his life or honor. He finally chose honor, but this issue shows the pain of that choice.

The long term significance: Ben's morally lowest point
The long term significance of this issue is that it's Ben's lowest point. Not lowest in misery - that won't come until FF297, but his weakest, most shameful point. The strength of his friend Desmond highlights his own weakness. Now that Reed has gone, Ben is free to settle down with Alicia. Despite the accident (and perhaps because he survived it) Ben still seems to have a job at NASA (see FF196: he was at the NASA base when Johnny showed up). But he doesn't make any decisions. He's popular, respected (the NASA people won't treat him like a freak), Alicia clearly loves him, and Ben loves being around her. Many times (most recently in FF170) he's expressed his long held desire to marry, but instead he keeps her hanging on. He can't commit. He can no longer blame Reed for his own failings, yet he will do so for another 100 issues, until FF296.

Racism and the drug culture
Darkoth is addicted to drugs due to being experimented upon. His real name, Desmond Pitt, suggests his pit of despair: the man was a hero, yet abandoned by his country. He was given the toughest job and then forgotten. He then died so that his son could have a better life. There are echoes of Martin Luther King, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (that became public in 1972), where black people were allowed to die from Syphilis so that the government could study the disease. Racism and drugs were a constant background concern in the 1970s. Two years after this, in 1980, a Presidential Commission on drugs found that "illegal drug trafficking presents a threat to American national security" (source)

Other points to note

Issue 195: Hotel California (perhaps the best Sue issue ever)

Fantastic Four 195

"You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave"

The main story here is the retrievers: Namor does not want to live in Atlantis. He doesn't fit there, he is half human and wants to be in Sue's world. But Atlantis sends robots to take him back. These robots cannot think for themselves: disable the leader and the rest just stop dead. So Sue can easily defeat them. But eventually he leaves anyway. It is a poignant moment. He can check out of Atlantis any time he wants, but he can never leave.

Sue is in the same position: she never wanted to be a superhero, and here she finally has the life she wants. But inside she knows that really she can never leave. In the next issue, like Namor, she will decide to return. Family comes first. This is symbolised by the "4" pendant around her neck, and how she wears her costume invisibly, just in case. Sue's heart is still with her family, just as Namor stands staring at the fish in the tank. For anyone who feels torn between duty and desire it is a powerful story.

Namor and Sue both meet up in California, home of dreams that somehow never become real. This reflects the zeitgeist of America here at the start of 1978: the American Dream did not feel like it was working, but you can't leave. (For whether the dream was really working see the notes to FF 200). That line is the classic ending to the Eagles' mega hit of the time, "Hotel California".

Hotel California

The Album was released in late 1976, but was a slow burn: it only spent a week at number 1, but ended up selling 16 million copies in the US. It gripped the zeitgeist of the late 1970s: Contrast the Beach Boys' "California Girls" released in 1965, both mega hits about the promise of California, but the zeitgeist had reversed.

The lyrics and the comic

The lyrics of Hotel California are a good fit to the comic. The song tells of traveling to California and staying in a hotel, living the American dream, but it isn't right any more.

So I called up the Captain,
"Please bring me my wine"
He said, "We haven't had that spirit here since nineteen sixty nine"
And still those voices are calling from far away,
Wake you up in the middle of the night
Just to hear them say...

The spirit of 1969 (hippies and reaching the moon) had gone. But the voices were still calling. The song ends:

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
"Relax, " said the night man,
"We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave! "

Like the retrievers, they were programmed. The life had gone, it was all mechanical now.

The best Sue issue ever

In this issue we really get to know Sue as an individual. We see her depth, her strength, her humor, her deep empathy, her wisdom, her loyalty and her spunk. It is true that John Byrne spent more time on Sue, but Byrne's Sue was always under stress, either in her Stepford Wives mode or later when everything went wrong. Here is the only issue where we see her on her own terms, living the life she always wanted to leave. This is the real Sue.

The scene where she pulls a face at the Impossible Man is probably my favorite Sue scene ever. It combines passion, reserve, humor, independence, long-suffering, action, a woman who never wanted to be a super hero and is grateful that it's over. It's just everything that makes Sue wonderful as a person, and not just as a woman with great intuition and force fields.

Fantastic Four 195


Another reason why this issue is a historic landmark is the relationship with Namor. He we see it in all its depth and beauty. 

Note the revelation: Namor says he loved Sue for "many years" before Reed claimed her. For what this implies see the notes to FF 291.

Other points to note:
Bob Mackie and Sid Ceasar

Issue 196: Sue wants to reform the FF


Sue wants to reform the FF. Does this mean "reform" as in "get together again" or "reform" as in "change the rules?" It must be both, because:

So Sue must be planning the team under a slightly different arrangement. When the team does get back together we see this: after FF200 they are more equal. FF204-214 is an unplanned visit off world, and they begin by discussing things as a team around a table. It is not just Reed dictating the rules: Sue overrules Reed and says that Johnny does not have to come. When they get back, after FF214, we often see Reed smoking his pipe and reading his paper, or walking down town to the library. Sue is forcing a different, gentler pace on the team. However, this will not address the fundamental problem of Reed ignoring Franklin, so by FF231 Sue is in despair and makes a desperate personal decision: we'll discuss that when we come to it.

Their biggest fears
Although Reed needs a lot of persuasion to imagine hurting his family, the attack on the others seems to reveal their genuine fears:

Fantastic Four 196

Cultural zeitgeist

Other points to note

Issue 197: the bigger story becomes clearer

As we approach FF200, Reed recovers from his gloom and we begin to see the bigger story more clearly: 

Fantastic Four 197

All powers are psychological

Reed's stretching problem was a result of his losing confidence: see the discussion by FF130. On the surface the return of Reed's power in F197 is due to physical means, but it could equally be seen as psychological: the opening pages of FF197 show that Reed believed he could regain his power if only he had the right equipment, but was only frustrated because of the cost. Now that he had the means he was obviously optimistic at last: he saw hope! Any person who suffers from long term depression will know that the worst part is feeling hopeless. Having genuine hope affects the whole body, making the person feel stronger, more alert, less tired. Reed says putting on his old costume makes him feel enervated in a way he didn't expect; he feels excited in anticipation. We can speculate that even if the ship was a placebo, Reed would still regain his powers if he believed the cure was genuine. Note the parallels with the others' power:


Cultural references

Issue 198: relying on others

Fantastic Four 198

This story is about relying on others. It starts by Reed realizing that he owes his rescue to his enemy. He then relies on the underground freedom fighters. Then Doom intends to continue ruling through his son. The message is clear: relying on others is just part of life. It's not something to be avoided or regretted, it's just normal and healthy. Contrast this with Reed Richards, who likes to always be in charge, and always sends his son away rather than nurture his powers. Reed wants to be "Mister Fantastic," Mister "I must be in charge," Mister "I will save you and save everyone all on my own." But Reed cannot reach his goals until he learns to rely on others: to treat the others as equals who sometimes have better ideas than he does, and to accept that perhaps making his son his top priority will be very good for the team.

The zeitgeist

Other points to note

art lasers

Why are ionic lasers more expensive than regular lasers? Because they are more compact and powerful. An ion laser is a gas laser which uses an ionized gas. "Ion lasers produce a large number of high-power lasing wavelengths...  Ion lasers are compact for the amount of laser power they generate relative to other types of visible lasers. ... Argon-ion lasers produce the highest visible power levels" (

Issue 199: Doom's soul


The Fantastic Four transcends comics. Nowhere is this more obvious than in issue 199. On the surface it's a superb kid's comic: exciting, colorful, memorable, full of amazing characters, danger, romance, and more. But look closer. The issue deals with themes worthy of Shakespeare.

The timeless themes
This issue deals with the most timeless themes of all. This is the climax of seventeen years of stories building up to this point.

This issue, along with the climax in 200, sums up the story of the previous 200 issues. Doom versus his son is like Reed versus his son. Doom's ego is a more extreme form of Reed's ego. His goals are Reed's goals, but without the moderating force of family. it all comes together in this story.

Possibly the greatest page in the history of comics
Normally I avoid showing whole pages, out of respect for copyright: I want people to go out and buy the originals. But this page is so important it has to be shown in its entirely. It is the second to last page of FF199 (and the final page is unforgettable too). Read the page, then we'll dissect why it matters.


Note how the frames grow ever smaller, reflecting the constricting world view. The page began with Doom still hoping to redeem himself, and ended with self destruction/ Doom, who's ambition and self image encompasses the whole world, is in reality the smallest shrunken soul.

Doom's soliloquy
A soliloquy is where an actor is alone with his thoughts, and reveals his deepest feelings and conflicts to the audience. Shakespeare often used soliloquies: all other actors would leave, a character would turn to the audience, and we would then hear the truth behind what we had just seen. Soliloquies are thus the most intense and memorable moments in all literature, where a previous story suddenly makes sense. Shakespeare's most famous lines are delivered as soliloquies. For example:
From a dramatic point of view, a soliloquy has two great limitations:
  1. It is fake. People don't really stand alone and declare their thoughts out loud like this.
  2. It is dull. Nothing happens except speech: it breaks the "show, don't tell" rule of exciting drama,

Doom's soliloquy solves both problems:

  1. He is talking to himself in a natural way: as the world's most monstrous ego, he has created a perfect clone of himself, and refers to the clone as himself: talking to it is the most natural thing in the world.
  2. The conflict is shown dramatically, not just described.

Like all great soliloquies, the true power is in revealing inner conflicts: the contrast between the outward certainty and the inner turmoil. Doom portrays himself as the greatest of all. Yet inside he hates himself. Doom wants perfection because he cannot abide his own faults. He wants power because he was unable to save his mother, and in every great effort since then he has failed. He hides behind a mask because he cannot face himself. He blames his enemies and their powers. So he creates a perfect clone, with a perfect face, and all the powers of his enemies, to redeem himself. And again he fails!

The greatest soliloquy of all
The word soliloquy (as ion solo-loquacious) is where a person talks to him or herself. FF199-200 has the greatest soliloquy of all because the greatest lone ego of all talks top himself in every possible way.

Tragic conflict
Drama is conflict, and the greatest drama is tragedy: literary tragedy is where a great hero is brought low by his own flaws. Despite how others see him, Doom only wants perfection. His ideals are, to that extent, noble, and his power to make it happen is unsurpassed. To that extent Doom is the greatest hero. We must remember that the comics generally show his enemies' point of view. yet Doom only does what every nation does, including our own: he seeks power to further his ends, and will use force if needed, even if sometimes innocents suffer. Of course, like any nation, he considers that resisting his will makes somebody guilty by definition: whatever laws he defines are right, and the greatest of all crimes is to be a traitor to his cause.

Why does this lead to tragedy? Because Doom's method - the use of absolute force - is his weakness. It is tragedy at the highest level because he combines the greatest forces in the world: political, scientific and magical, in ways that demand absolute perfection, yet he is not perfect. Doom cannot face reality, that no human is perfect, and weakness will always be there. So my using maximum power, by pushing his life to breaking point, he ensures maximum failure.

So the one who should be the greatest hero, the one who combines all possible strengths to create a perfect world, becomes the greatest villain.

Fathers versus sons
This apparent ending foreshadows the real end: the only way to neutralize Doom is against his son. It also parallels Reed's fighting against his own son's best interest: Doom cannot win if he opposes his son, and neither can Reed. Reed opposes his son in the sense that Franklin wants to be with him, but Reed always pushes him away. Although Doom's son is fully grown this is due to accelerated aging: Franklin slows his aging, and Doom's son has accelerated aging (and accelerated learning), but both are just children really.

This victory will prove to be temporary. Reed's failure in battle (in the long term: they keep coming back) reflects his failure in the home.

And that is just one page...
A hundred pages could be written on this single issue. But time is precious. I hope I've shown enough to whet your appetite, and who once again why the Fantastic Four in the early years was The Great American Novel.


Who really defeated Dr Doom?
In issue 200 Reed and Doom were evenly matched, but Doom was defeated because the sight of his face reflected a million times drove him mad. But the mirrors were not a mind control device: they simply reinforced what was already in Doom's head. And whatever was in his head was so bad that seeing himself destroyed his mind.

So the thing that destroyed Doom was his inability to face reality. But he always had that, and never went mad before. Doom's enemies were always quick to point out his faults, but he never believed them. What changed? Was it his clone's argument in this issue? Did his clone's argument get through to him? Perhaps, but would that be enough? Doom had infinite arrogance? Why would he let anybody, even his clone, criticize him? The only ideas that Doom accepts completely are his own. The only way to defeat Doom is to get inside his head, and how do you do that?

Alicia as therapist
Only one person ever got close to Doom: Alicia. The only thing Doom cared about apart from himself (and his mother) was art, so only Alicia, the artist, had any chance. She spent time gaining his trust, and she was genuine: this was not some act. She had no intention of harming him in any way and she genuinely wept at the idea that Doom might lie. Alicia was the only person who Doom could never see as a threat, and whose work he could respect. So Alicia got inside his head. They chatted. Doom liked her. She was able to ask him questions, to demand information from him, and Doom told her!

Now look at her expertise as a therapist. First, she makes him to say that he does not lie. Then she makes him tel her his plans: which involves lying! He is not stepping aside at all, and his people are not his prime concern. He says he does not lie, then he lies! Te contraduiction is in his mind! And this is not some battle where he can quicjly forget the doublethink. Alicia has him relaxed and open. Doom's brilliant mind must now dwell on the contradiction. Alicia has chipped away at his mental armor. Later, Doom's clone is able to drive a wedge into the crack and begin to split it open.

Alicia and Doom
Compare Alicia with Zorba. Both introduce the same idea: that Doom claims to tell the truth but actually lies. Zorba's taunt has no effect because Doomr ejects it as the words of an enemy. But Alicia is like an expert therapist: she helps Doom to come to the conclusion entirely on his own.

The metaphor of stone
Note the imagery: Alicia is chipping away at Doom's psyche just as she chips away at the stone. She sees the true Doom inside: her sculpting reflects that. Doom is a man who wants to be flawless. He cannot stand any flaw, just as he could not stand his initial scar and later (through the heated faceplate) disfigured himself. By getting a single contradiction past his defenses, Alicia has introduced an imperfection into Doom's consciousness. That imperfection will gnaw at him, be emplified by his clone and slowly drive him mad inside. But only Alicia could start it because only Alicia can get to the man behind the mask.

Alicia's long term effect on Doom
Reed defeated Doom several times over the years, but it made no long term difference, other than to make things perhaps worse: Doom became more obsessed, more filled with hate. But Alicia forced Doom to face his lies. In this issue Doom says that he loves his people, yet he treats them as fools. The next time we see Doom with his people, after he has had time to reflect, he genuinely loves them (see FF247). Alicia has done what Reed could never do: she made Doom a slightly better person.

Alicia: the most powerful one of all?
We saw before that only Alicia has any long term effect on Galactus, by changing the surfer's heart. Here we see that only Alicia has any long term effect on Doom, by changing his heart. Later we will see that only Alicia can solve Ben and Johnny's long term problems, by forcing them both to grow up. While the men have an endless cycle of violence, only Alicia can solve problems permanently.

Other points to note

Issue 200:

"The greatest FF saga of all"

"Possibly the greatest story in the Marvel Age of Comics"

(See the FF199 final page and FF200 splash page)

dedicated to Stan and Jack

This is called the greatest story in the Marvel Age. Greater than the Galactus trilogy? Galactus was unforgettable, yes. But FF200 has more significance to the bigger story and to character development. This is the climax to the whole 28 year story (and Marvel's first ever double sized regular issue), Reed finally gets what he wants, and Doom must face the truth.

As far as Reed is concerned he has finally completed his mission. Doom is at last defeated! But he is defeated by force. This is the stage in the classic five act structure when it seems the bad guy is defeated and they can all go home. But as with all classic five act plays, it's about to get far worse.

Fantastic Four 200

Religious symbolism
These two issues deal with honesty, the desire to be perfect, self sacrifice and what makes a good nation. So it is no surprise that the pages are filled with religious symbolism.

Doom sent his perfect son to be his representative: his son gained power on a cross (a Greek style diagonal cross: the comics code would certainly not allow a Roman upright cross), and the Fantastic Four are sacrificed on something reminiscent of an ornate crucifix, with the four evangelists as orbs at each corner.  Doom's innocent son then sacrifices his life in a battle with evil. Doom will later be resurrected (see annual 15) and save his people, and slowly change his ways: e.g. by act 5 he no longer wants to rule the world.

Doom as Nebuchadnezzar
The idea of a messiah over an earthly kingdom comes from the book of Daniel, and this story has many other allusions to that book. Like king Nebuchadnezzar, Doom sets up a statue (and also dreams of a statue) representing his rulership over the world. Like Nebuchadnezzar, Doom tries to kill the righteous in a fiery furnace. Like Nebuchadnezzar, Doom ends up going mad and his great statue crumbles.

None of this symbolism was deliberate of course, but these images - cross shapes, statues of power, death by burning, going mad as punishment, are part of the cultural heritage we trace to the Bible.

Doom knows it's over
There is something odd about this cover, Kirby's last work. From a distance Doom's face looks uninterested, like his mind is elsewhere. This is symbolic cover. Inside we see Doom at his most ferocious and passionate, but the cover reflects what is really going on: the self doubt, and deep down, the realization that he has already lost. His son in issue 199 revealed his fundamental weakness, why Doom can never win: he cannot face himself. He is afraid of failure, afraid of himself. Look at that face. Doom is a man of depth and intelligence. Deep down, at a level he can never admit, he knows that even if he defeats Reed, he has lost. Note the parallel with the other greatest story, the Galactus saga: Galactus lost the moment the surfer turned against him. At that point he lost the will to fight, and the rest was fate.

Doom's face

The final image:

Fantastic Four 200

This image recalls Doom's horror years ago at seeing his perfect features with a scar. Then it recalls the previous issue, FF199, where years of planning led to a perfect face - and Doom watched in horror as it became cracked stone, like Doom's great enemy The Thing. The Thing, who Doom sees as an ignorant oaf, yet Doom's failures show him to be the same. This is Doom's tragedy. He wants to be perfect, immortal, invulnerable like stone, but even stone will crack. He cannot face himself.

These panels also reflect Reed, who sees Doom as himself in a mirror (see FF197). Note the significance of clay: clay is malleable, like Reed's body. In losing his stretching power, found himself humbled, defeated and broken (e.g. by the Molecule Man and the Brute, which led to his resignation). It made him less than clay, less than his stretching power. Reed's self image crumbles throughout act 4. Doom is a tragic figure: his downfall came from his greatest weakness, his vanity.Reed's downfall, though not as dramatic as Doom's, comes in the same way.

The end of the 1970s, the end of the Fantastic Four

When looking back at over fifty years of the Fantastic Four, issue 200 stands out as the clear and obvious end of the Fantastic Four. It was not the ed opf publication, or the end of the story, but it was the end of the spirit of the 1960s that they embodied.

The end was announced in FF189 and declared on the cover of FF191, and again in FF annual 12. Then all the loose ends were tied up: the Soviets were symbolically defeated in FF197, Doom is dramatically defeated in FF200, and the Mole Man became a friend in FF annual 13. In case it wasn't clear, In FF201 Reed says he saw no need for the Fantastic Four, and in annual 13 he shows no interest in fighting, preferring to leave it to the police. it's over. Done. Why? Because their job was done, the Russians and old world monarchies were no longer a threat, and there were plenty of other superheroes to take up the slack.

This reflected the zeitgeist in America. The free and easy ideas of the 1960s and 1970s were being rejected. This was a major sea change in attitudes. Matthew Rozsa sums up the zeitgeist of each year in his blog, by choosing a defining meme for each year:

So the wild "anything goes" spirit of the Fantastic Four seemed outdated. Readers felt the team then lost its way until John Byrne came, embracing the spirit of Reaganism (see the commentary to FF246). The FF was once more in touch with the spirit of the age,

The triumph of the common man
In the 1970s Americans lost faith in big government. Vietnam, Watergate, the oil crisis proved that the government was not always right. The idealistic rhetoric of the 1960s seemed hollow. People were ready for small government and traditional values, and this is what Ronald Reagan offered. This also came at a time when elites had been gradually losing power for decades. In 1978 it seemed clear to everyone: elites were in the dustbin of history.

So it was that in 1978, in FF200, the greatest elite of them all, the one who promised utopia if we only obeyed him, was defeated. The past was over. What would replace it? As Sue said in FF201, family.

Or at least that was the rhetoric...

The Great American Novel: the death of elitism

FF200 is about the most fundamental idea of all: equality.

Doom wants to rule the world, and Reed says people should work together (implying equality).
This is a clash of world views, the oldest one in history: inequality versus equality.

Titans clash

This climax of the Great American Novel is also about what justifies a nation state: Latveria is about to be thrown out of the United Nations for its aggressive policies.
United Nations

The United Nations is a symbol that even America, the most powerful nation on earth, believes in equality. The final page of FF200 is the triumph of democracy.

The declaration of independence
In short, this issue is about the clash of ideologies: Doom's "the strong must rule over the weak" versus America's "all men are created equal". This was America's foundation: no more kings!


Equality and superheroes
"All men are equal" is what defines America. Yet, superhero comics, that unique American art form, are about people who definitely are not equal. Superheroes are the ultimate elite, right? In bad superhero comics they are: superheroes are plainly better than you and me. But good superhero comics, like the Fantastic Four, argue that great strength in some areas is balanced by weaknesses in other. For example:
The Fantastic Four, the Great American Novel, is about the tension between the powerful individual ("Mister Fantastic") with all his weaknesses, and the group (the fantastic four) with its wider mix of skills. The Fantastic Four is an argument that, despite some people having more power than others, we should treat others as more or less equals.

Reed the capitalist
It is easy to forget that Reed's main power is his capitalism: his ability to use accumulated resources. In this issue we see the other side of the story: the resources "of a small country" have been invested into getting Reed's stretching ability back. In this issue we see the results of that investment: the two wealthy alpha males duke it out, and one wins. Extreme resource inequality works! You need a titan to fight a titan!

But wait... within a couple of years Doom is back. In fact, every time Reed beats him he comes back. Long term, Reed's success rate averages at zero.

In defense of elites?
The elite argument is that sure, the bad guy comes back, but the titan, the super powered guy stops the current threat. So we need him! but that assumes there is no better alternative. In the early days Sue was the most successful against Doom, but Reed insisted that they do things his way instead. This is the down side of elites: it is possible that they pull resources away from others who might do the job better.

The zeitgeist: equality in 1978
This story was published in 1978, the most important year in modern history for the question of equality. For the details, see "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" by Thomas Piketty, for why.

Pickety book

Picketty gives a survey of the past 300 years of economics. The podcast "Econtalk" called his book the most influential book on economics since Milton Friedman's "Capitalism and Freedom". Picketty argues that from World War One until the late 1970s, equality was increasing around the world. The elites were on the retreat. But then it all went wrong.

Picketty graph

Elites of course say that they make the world a better place. But the history of economics tells us that when too much wealth is amassed by elites, the whole economy suffers. For details, see another influential book of recent years, The Spirit Level.

Spirit Level book

More about 1978 as the Greatest Year
Pickety is not the only economist to pinpoint 1978. "A study suggests that global well-being peaked in the late 1970s, and has been slowly falling ever since. It was led by Ida Kubiszewski of the Australian National University in Canberra, whose team focused on the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), a modified version of gross domestic product (GDP). Whereas GDP only represents monetary wealth, GPI takes into account environmental and social costs – like pollution, crime and inequality." (New Scientist magazine)

Dr Doom is a symbol of elitism
Dr Doom was the greatest elitist. His life was devoted to the belief that he deserves more than others. He believes that he should control all the wealth, all the resources, all power, everything. And in 1978 the pressure of maintaining this belief meant he had to deny reality (e.g. that people did not enjoy living in Latveria, and he did not always tell the truth). Having to face reality drove him mad.

The zeitgeist
Doom's defeat reflected the real world in 1978. For decades elitism had been in retreat and the world was getting better. The good guys were winning!

But it all went wrong. In the comic, the democratic Zorba became just like Doom (see FF annual 15 and FF258). And in the real world the democratic countries embraced inquality, thinking that helping the rich would automatically help the poor. it didn't: inequality rose and the economy suffered.

the Fantastic Four, the Great American Novel, was an accurate allegory of America.

My politics
This is not an attack on free markets. Before you judge my political leaning, let me lay my cards on the table: I am a strong believer in genuine free markets. Genuine free markets, by definition, mean that people have choice, people have all the information they need, and people are responsible for their good or bad decisions. Free markets create a certain amount of inequality, as those with talent and hard work push ahead. but if a market is genuinely free then others will find a way to copy them: in a genuinely free market inequality tends toward zero. Massive inequality is therefore a sign that a market is not free.

The importance of FF200 to readers
FF200 was not just another double sized issue: this was the first double sized issue the monthly FF had ever seen. This was a VERY big deal, as these letters testify: the overwhelming response filled two months' letters pages.

As we shall see in issue 201, this really was the end as far as Reed Richards was concerned.

With Doom gone the story was over. There are plenty of other heroes to look after the remaining villains, so the team could disband.

Or so Reed thought...

Other points to note:

Annual 13: tying up loose ends: the end of the Mole Man saga

Fantastic Four
      annual 13

The threat of Doom is "finally" over, and it's also time to wrap up the story of the very first enemy, the Mole Man. Reed seems annoyed that he has to still be a super hero. Can't people see that he has proved himself? he has finished with the super hero business.

Of the original four major foes, Namor is already a friend and that just leaves the Skrulls. Note that Namor and the Mole Man are no longer enemies. Although the Mole Man will come back a few times, it will be for perfectly reasonable causes. By act 5 he will end up as a friend, more or less. Sue's method, to make friends and thin of the family, works. Reed's method, conflict, does not work. Doom is still an enemy, so his defeat cannot last.

The Mole Man in context
For how the Mole Man's ten appearances reflect racism and the underground in America, see the notes to issue 1.
Mole Man

Once again we see that Alicia is the only one who can permanently change and enemy, by getting past his defenses. She did it with the silver surfer, and with Doom, now she does it with the Mole Man. Later she will solve all the team's problems by being the catalyst for Johnny and Ben's emotional growth.

Why is Johnny acting like a kid?
Before this, Johnny had long ago given up annoying Ben. But Johnny is so relieved that the family is still together that he's regressing to childhood. He tried being single, but misses the family. Many a young man has left home, acted mature, but come back because playing the kid is more fun.

Other points to note

This annual is a very big deal
Just as 200 completes Doom's story, Annual 13, published at the same time, completes the Mole Man's story, as these letters to FF202 attest.


However, these triumphs over Doom and over the Mole Man are a false dawn. In the five act play the apparent triumph in act 4 is just the calm before the storm really begins.

Next: all Reed's achievements turn to dust

The Great American Novel