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

1979: Act 4: the Information technology revolution ( = death of the FF)

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1978-79 was when American universities began to use the Internet. Notice how the FF is often ahead of the curve, as with the rise of atheism (act 3 part 1), the rise of east Asia (act 3 part 2), and the importance of 1978. Here we have another example: the I.T. revolution. The longest arc in the whole 28 year story is about the quest for Xanadu (Xandar): immortality through computer networks. Issues 202 and 209 specifically reference the power of networked computers.

The "Übermensch", redux
This living computers story is essentially a repeat of the "Übermensch" parable from 100 issues earlier (which then held the record as longest arc). It is all about the greatest of Great American themes: all people are created equal. It is about the futility of trying to do the impossible all on your own, and the need to listen to your family. For details see the notes to FF 117. The period begins with Reed thinking he has finally won: so he wants to disband the team. They have nothing else to do! But he never fixed the underlying problem: he never put Franklin first. After this everything will unravel, and Franklin will pay the price.

Issue 201: the family is not safe after all

Fantastic Four 201

A highly symbolic issue
The Fantastic Four is about Reed's position as head of the family. In 200 he seems to have proven this once and for all. But here, the very next issue, just as they are celebrating, the family home attacks them. This symbolizes what is to come: F200 did not protect the family. it was a false dawn. The family, symbolized by the home, cannot be as happy as long as it relies on force (e.g. technology) rather than love (e.g. treating Sue and Ben and Johnny as equals; putting Franklin first).

In this issue Reed's own inventions turn against him. This symbolizes what will happen until the end of the act. He thought that with the defeat of Doom everything would be easy, but instead all his achievements begin to unravel. Everything that made Reed feel good about himself will fail. Before the act is finished reed will finally learn humility.

The job is done: the team can disband?
Reed's very first appearance (in issue 1) had him saying he prayed he would never have to call the FF together again. He never wanted this team, and now he thinks he has got his wish. But Sue reminds him that they will always be a family. Note that she does not particularly care for being a superhero (see FF195) but she just wants them to be together.

Sue is the only balanced character
Note that Sue shows the full range of healthy emotions: she is the only one to do so. Contrast Sue with the others who can only bottle up their feelings and suffer in frustration.

Sue as sister

Even while showing her independence and skill, Sue acknowledges that "Reed was right" - this is a reminder that Sue is balanced. She does not have his fragile ego. She listens to Reed and benefits from it, and does not feel threatened by doing so. Contrast with Reed who can only listen to himself, except when he has no choice (e.g. in FF200 about kissing).


Note that at this stage Sue cannot use her forcefield to simulate flying (except for short distances, as shown on the cover to FF173). This is not because she lacks imagination, but because she has not yet got the power boost from reversing the skrull aging ray (FF214).

Issue 202: the Internet: a new beginning

the building
The Baxter Building leaves, symbolizing a break with the past. It settles down in the middle of a forest: this foreshadows what Reed should do next (see the next generation). Reed needs to set up his lab in some beautiful spot where Sue can be happy riding her horses, and where they can both concentrate on Franklin. Note that Ben prefers this country location to New York.

Maybe Quasimodo has calculated that this is good for the team? He does not want to kill them at first - he removes the building so he can get out of their way. True, he was designed to kill, but in this issue he seems to be breaking free of his primary programming, and instead wants to get away and achieve something greater. He only attacks the FF because they follow him and he thinks they will stop him reaching the stars.

The new start is also symbolized by the Internet:

The Great American Novel and the Internet

The Great American Novel shows the development of all the great themes in American history. Here we have the Internet. This whole arc, from Quasimodo's origin to Xandar [Xanadu], is about the Internet. This was clearer in the non-FF story that led up to this, Marvel Team Up 22. Quasimodo's mind exists in cyber space, and his power is based on linking the world's computers.

"Still imprisoned in the tubes, the heroes have little choice but to listen as Quasimodo outlines his master plan. The living computer has abandoned his goal to become truly human and instead plans to become much, much more. According to Quasimodo, 'Computers --your modern human society revolves around them--in a sense they control your lives. But MY computer, thru a delicate system of complex link-ups, will control all other computers...and thus the world!' There you have it folks. Al Gore didn't invent the Internet, Len Wein did." (Thanks,

The importance of the Internet to human history, probably to human evolution, cannot be overstated in my opinion. And the Fantastic Four gets it, symbolically. This concept of "living computers" reaches its conclusion in the living computers of Xandar (Xanadu) in FF 206. Marvel Team Up 22 is titled "the messiah machine": the Internet was a very big concept.

Why 1978?
This story was written in 1978, a key date in the origin of the Internet. In 1978 the world's first online forum, the CBBS, went online in Chicago. One user at a time could post messages.

"CBBS (Computerized Bulletin Board System) was a computer software program created by Ward Christensen [above] to allow him and other computer hobbyists to exchange information between each another. In January 1978, Chicago was hit by the Great Blizzard of 1978, which dumped record amounts of snow throughout the midwest. Among those caught in it were Christensen and Randy Suess, who were members of CACHE, the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists' Exchange. They needed some quiet time to set aside for [their] project, and the blizzard gave them that time. Christensen worked on the software and Suess cobbled together an S-100 computer to put the program on. Christensen and Suess described their innovation in an article entitled "Hobbyist Computerized Bulletin Board" in the November 1978 issue of Byte Magazine." (Wikipedia)

Other points to note

Annual 12: the beginning of the end

Do not be deceived by the light hearted start of the story,. The second half is the start of something big.

The splash page to this issue announces "The end of the Inhumans... and of the Fantastic Four; possibly the most powerful story you'll read in this, the Marvel renaissance of comics!"

powerful story - the

Historic events in this issue:

Fantastic Four
      annual 12

Fantastic Four
      annual 12

The sphinx and the end of FF
The Sphinx plays the long game. He always reminds us that he's five thousand years old. He is named after a being famous for riddles, his power is of the mind, and his quest is for knowledge. He caused the end of the Roman empire:a process that took centuries. He is seeking a way to die, but we should not expect to understand the full scope of his plan.

In this issue the Sphinx is seeking ultimate answers from the brains of all humanity. Black Bolt defeats him and sends him away, so he simply looks in a different place: we next see him in FF206, looking for the brains of Xandar: it's all the same quest. That story involves the apparent death of the FF, and while they do survive, it affects Reed's self confidence so much that he finally retires (in act 5). The first team then ends and another begins, so yes, the sphinx caused the end of the FF.

The sphinx and the end of the Inhumans
This story continues in FF204-212. The Sphinx continues his search for the collected knowledge in billions of brains. At the same time, a secretive group kidnaps Medusa (at the end of FF207). What better way for the Sphinx to get back at Black Bolt? That group, the enclave (last seen in FF67) then attacks the Inhumans (in FF240). This attack causes the Inhumans to leave Earth, ending hundreds of thousands of years of earth-bound civilization (compared to the Inhumans, the six thousand years of human civilization is just a temporary blip). At the same time, Crystal is pregnant. This is the first mixing of Inhuman and human genes, and end to the Inhumans' genetic purity. genetic purity was central to the Inhumans' culture, so nothing would be the same again. These two events, leaving Earth and ending their genetic purity, constitutes the end of the Inhumans as we know them. It is also likely that the eventual union of Crystal and Johnny will lead to a merging of Inhuman and Human civilizations. FF annual 12 deals with both topics: the Sphinx's interest in defeating the vastly powerful Black Bolt, and the love of Crystal for both Quicksilver and Johnny. As such, FF annual 12 is the key to understanding the end of the Inhumans as a we know them.

Objections to the Sphinx being involved in FF240

  1. Where is the evidence? On the surface the attack is caused by Maximus, just as in this annual the attack seems to be caused by Thraxon. But in FF240 the attack is just a distraction from the real problem: a plague. Who do we know who uses plagues to end empires? The Sphinx.
  2. But the plague was blamed on pollution? Then why did it suddenly hit when the Enclave attacked? Somebody is influencing events.
  3. But the Sphinx by FF240 was condemned to relive his past life endlessly (see FF212)? That just gave him plenty of time to plan for his revenge from "beyond the grave."

The war of Three Galaxies
The sphinx's plans are part of the war of three galaxies. This was the subject of the Inhumans own comic (12 issues, bi-monthly from 1975 to 1977). It built to a climax in issue 12, when we first saw Thraxon, indicating that the Sphinx was deeply involved. Though the Sphinx had his origins on earth, his knowledge and power means he will quickly become involved in the galactic battles that rage around us.

The war of three galaxies continued in Captain Marvel issue 53, but the ending was far too simple for such a major event.  "Using the Chair of Truth, Mar-Vell is able to expose Par-Bat as a Skrull, intent on forcing the Kree into a war they can't win. With his infiltration exposed, the war is successfully prevented." (source) Would any multi galaxy war end simply because a single spy was uncovered? It is far more likely that the war was simply driven underground. It is part of the Kree-Skrull wars that continue for decades across countless star systems. 

Why is the war of three galaxies not explained more clearly in the comics? Because only the Fantastic Four report directly to Marvel Comics, so all other comics are either made up or pieced together from imperfect clues. The war of three galaxies was largely a secret plan that only affected the Fantastic Four at the margins, so Marvel Comics would have very little knowledge of what was going on. We only see fragments of the much bigger whole, and Earth is just a tiny outpost, not the center of the action.

The end of the Skrull empire
I am not going to try to piece together the full scale of the war between three galaxies, that would take a better mind than mine. But I will note that the Sphinx arc in FF206-210 caused a power struggle in one corner of the Skrull empire, and power struggles like that eventually caused that empire to make piece with its rivals the Kree (see FF annuals 18 and 19). The other decisive feature in the Skrull-Kree peace was the destruction of the Skrull throne world by Galactus. This story with the Sphinx ends in a show-down with Galactus. Could it be that Galactus absorbed some of the Sphinx's purpose? Galactus is, after all, a force of nature (see FF262), and forces can be guided.

The war of the four cities
This cosmic epic must surely be also linked with the Jonathan Hickman's "war of four cities" (FF570-604 and beyond), a cosmic battle involving the Inhumans as key players. This is part of the Great Reboot that gradually ends and restarts everything. However, all of that takes place within the confusing complexity of the Franklinverse. It would take a better man than me to untangle all the details.

Why does Annual 12 come after annual 13?
The Marvel Chronology Project places this annual between FF200 and FF annual 13, but this is highly problematic. Annual 13 begins with Johnny being overjoyed that the team is back together in FF200. If FF annual 12 has to squeeze in between the two events then this makes no sense. So when is it set? Is it just a very old story?

It may seem odd to publish a later story (FF annual 13) first, but annuals 12 and 13 happened very close together, and annual 13 was very clearly after FF200. The only real problem is how Marvel Comics knew about the event in time to publish it a year early? (FF annual 12 came out at around the time of FF188). The simplest explanation is that so much happened in the lives of the FF that Marvel had a one year backlog of stories: annual 12 was published as soon as it happened, because it suited an annual, and other event waited until the backlog was published first. This explains why the splash page used such hyperbole: the story was a glimpse into important events that would not be shown in the comic for another year.he characters themselves are of course unaware of story backlogs and gaps between issues: Marvel Time means they experience far less time than we do.

The Sphinx is sometimes extremely powerful, and other times struggles even to control four beings plus the ship? He is the sphinx, named after the creature who set riddles. His power is of the mind, and he is obsessed with data: he does not work in the same way as simple physical power, though that power can sometimes be harnessed. This foreshadows modern computers: in some ways a computer can harness great power (e.g. to run a machine), but if you attack a computer in the right way even a child can defeat it (e.g. by turning it off).

Other points to note

Issue 203: "the then-classic, now a woefully underrated story"

This classic of the zeitgeist (see below) also completes the clues for Franklin' powers. It thus foreshadows the next 100 issues.

Fantastic Four 203

Foreshadowing the next 100 issues
We have had the false dawn, now we get a big reminder that this story is all about Franklin. Let's run through what Reed knows about his own son:

Reed is supposed to be highly intelligent. If only he paid some attention to his own son he might come to some interesting conclusions.

The Great American Mystery novel
Although Franklin's nature and power are not obvious until the end (Heroes reborn in 1996 shows his universe creating power, and FF600 reveals that Galactus is his herald), by this point we have sufficient clues: here the Great American Novel is a detective story where the reader can see what the detective cannot. Reed lacks the self awareness to see his weakness (his need to control), and he lacks the humility to see that Sue's intuition (to put Franklin first) is just as important as his own scientific skill.

Note the overarching theme of Franklin: he will dominate the story, directly or indirectly, from now until Byrne (FF322).

The Zeitgeist: against tokenism and unintentional racism
This issue marks a notable move away from "token black character":

Willie Evans was notable because it defied so many expectations and stereotypes regarding minority characters. As a black guy, I remember me and many of my black friends used to notice about how black heroes were all either stereotypes (Luke Cage’s jive talk), inferior sidekicks, copies of established white heroes (Rhodey, Jon Stewart), or underpowered (Black Panther, Falcon), or obvious cannon fodder to get beat up or killed or taken hostage in fights. Willie Evans was a pretty unique character for his time and defied a lot of stereotypes. If I remember correctly he was middle class rather than ghetto. He was ridiculously overpowered. He was not a copy of a white hero. He wasn’t inferior to the white heroes in the book. -("T" commenting on comic book legends)

Willie was intended to be part of the new X-Men (see below) but that idea was quashed. Instead he was brought back in Iron Man annual 8, revealed to have killed his mother, and died. For me, this illustrates again why the Fantastic Four was better than other comics. "T" speculated that the Iron Man story is probably why the Willie Evans story lost its importance over the years. He continues:

"There’s the possibility of unintentional racism at play[. ...] For him to then just be reduced to cannon fodder like many black characters in predominately white stories not only undoes all those groundbreaking aspects, but does it in one of the most stereotypical ways possible. So now, whenever you bring up the original groundbreaking story, one also has to bring up in the following breath the super-stereotypical way he ended up." (ibid)

This tension between awareness of tokenism, but the mainstream still treating black characters in stereotypical ways, is a reflection of the spirit of the times. People were now aware of the problem but not yet able to deal with it. The Iron Man story may explain why FF203 is no longer treated as a classic.


Other points to note


In FF232 John Byrne will take over, and the Thing will lose his distinctive eyebrows. We see in FF203 that the extreme eyebrows are a sign of evil. John Byrne's run coincides with a time when Ben has seen the others become just as depressed as he is, and he appears to mellow. The stress that twisted Ben's face softens and his eyebrow softens.

The second half of act 4: Franklin

As we enter the second half of the fourth act Franklin begins to dominate:

The Great American Movie
The Great American Novel is like the classic Hollywood movie (think ET, Finding Nemo, Up, etc.). It's really about a father making time for his son. It's about Reed and Franklin.

Issue 204: the truth about Johnny's love life

Fantastic Four 204

This is the issue where we learn the truth about Johnny's womanizing reputation: it's all an illusion. he only had two girlfriends since Crystal, which means his entire experience with women is:
  1. Dorrie Evans in high school
  2. Crystal
  3. Frankie Rae
  4. Lorrie Melton

That's it. Plus a few very short dates in his teenage years that didn't get anywhere. And every girl ended up dumping him.


In annual 19 Johnny tried to claim that Julie d'Angelo was once his girlfriend, but that just reveals Johnny's desperation. Follow the issues closely and you see that the only time she was with Johnny she had her girl friend along. He boyfriend was Gray landers, not Johnny.

Cars and the Great American Novel
Apart form highlighting his love life, this issue does something else: Ben reminds us that Johnny spends most of his time in the garage. Psychologically this is interesting: he feels powerless in the team and in his love life. Cars are the one area where he can always succeed. The idea of cars as compensation is so well known that it is a psychologically cliche.

Cars are a major part of American culture: other nations can easily look at America's need for big cars as a symbol of the nation's need to thump its chest: American stuff has to be bigger and better, and cars in particular are symbol of freedom.

This issue is full of American symbolism: the cars, the statue of liberty, pinball machines, etc. Critics point out that more modest nations might be more free and have better quality of life: the usual example is Scandinavia, with its bicycles and social safety net, and northern Europe in general. Frankie Ray can be seen as a symbol of these outsiders: she is a red head (reminding us of northern Europe), and not impressed in the slightest by Johnny's all American offering. The name "Frankie" is etymologically from the Franks or French: the allies who are most critical of America. And of course the statue of liberty was a gift from France. Frankie's surname, Ray, is a counterpart to Johnny's flame and reminds us of the rays on the head of Lady Liberty.

The longest arc in the entire 28 year story

FF204 begins the longest arc of all: the skrull aging storyline. This is where the last bricks of Reed's psychological support are removed:

  1. Reed fails as a leader: it's a series of failures, disaster after disaster.
  2. Reed fails as a scientist: he can't solve the problem, until he is almost dead and Johnny helps him. True, he does solve the technical problem at the end, but nobody ever doubted his technical skill. Reed only fails as a scientist when he tries to combine with leading the team: he could not fix the gun until he lay down and let Johnny do the fighting.
  3. His health fails him. He grows old and dies (or as good as), with nothing to show for it.
  4. It is a small step from there to literally losing his mind in FF255.

Before the end of the novel, Reed must lose everything.

...and it all starts with Franklin
It starts of course with Franklin. the significance of this arc is that all the suffering is not needed: Franklin could solve the problem! Or he could have, if Reed had paid attention to his own son.

Note the perfect symbolism of the splash page for this 11 issue arc:

There is the  whole 28 year story, right there. To drive home the point Reed's friendly witch takes Franklin away, Sue tries to persuade Reed to pay more attention to their boy, but Reed won't even look at her. Sue is in despair. Over the next 11 issues Reed will pay a high price for his neglect.

Fantastic Four 204

Note the irony that Reed won't listen because he is concerned that something is siphoning their power. On a larger scale it's Reed's inability to listen that's really siphoning the team's power.

The title "Andromeda attack"
Andromeda is a legend about hubris, and the origin of the "princess and the dragon" motif. In the original, Andromeda is the princess, chained up to be eaten by a monster.  "When [queen] Cassiopeia's hubris leads her to boast that Andromeda is more beautiful than the Nereids [sea nymphs], Poseidon [powerful god of the sea] sends a sea monster to ravage Aethiopia as divine punishment. Andromeda is chained to a rock as a sacrifice to sate the monster, but is saved from death by Perseus [the archetypal hero], her future husband." (source)  In the Fantastic Four version,

What does this have to do with the Fantastic Four? It is a story of hubris causing catastrophe. The real villain in the Andromeda story is not the dragon or Poseidon, but queen Cassiopeia who thinks she is praising her child but instead puts her in danger through her stupid boasting. Similarly, Reed causes his own problems by not caring enough for Franklin: he thinks he is saving everybody but just makes matters worse.

Is Sue queen Cassiopeia?
Here's a radical idea. Possibly Sue is actually most at fault. Reed may be autistic - he may have genuine difficulty in social interaction with his son. But Sue is balanced, sensitive, intuitive. She sees the big picture. She could take control if she wanted to. She could solve everything, But she is happy to play the submissive role, it's safer. By doing this she supports Reed's arrogance. Reed does not realize he's arrogant. Sue does: perhaps this means that really Sue is the arrogant one? That Sue is Cassiopeia, the one who causes everything, the power behind the throne, but like ancient queens she pretends to be submissive? In chess it's the queen who has the real power to move. Is Sue Cassiopeia? Just a thought.

This arc in context
It may help to see this arc in context of the longer subplots of Act 4:
Beyond the question of Franklin, this arc is a reminder that:
  1. Time must move forwards (see also FF288)
  2. That characters do age,
  3. And that the future belongs to Johnny.

Other points to note:

Issue 205: how to fight overwhelming odds

This issue is where Reed fails embarrassingly: only Franklin could fix this, and Reed refuses to pay him any attention.

The team is battling an entire Galactic empire.
Fantastic Four

They fight a few Skrulls at a time: banging heads together, rolling them up in a steel trap, etc. Hitting them and rolling them up is futile: these are shape changers! And there are probably billions of them: soldiers from countless worlds! Reed's method shows he has no idea what to do. The Watcher can see that it's hopeless. Yet back home, Reed has a son with almost unlimited power.


The last time that the combined forces of all super heroes failed (Fantastic Four, Avengers, Inhumans, etc.), Franklin stepped in and solved the problem.

The answer to this war was at the start, on pages one and two of this arc. Franklin is the answer. Reed just can't see it. He is too busy playing the hero to see the potential in his own son.

Other points to note


the death of the FF

In terms of comics history, this is possibly the second most important issue after FF1. FF1 saw the origin of the Fantastic Four, and this issue is the beginning of the end. Here the writers begin to embrace bad story telling. They lie to readers, and devalue the story. This issue sees the beginning of the revolving door of death.

Why FF206 is the key issue
FF206 is the first time that death was used as a gimmick. The poster child for gimmicks is dying, then coming back to life. This had never happened before: with the FF, death mattered.  When Franklin Storm died it was real. When Desmond Pitt died it was real. It meant the dangers the team faced were real. But when death is no longer real the dangers don't matter any more. Why care about danger? If you die you just come back. The story no longer matters.

There were a few cases in the past where a character thought somebody was dead, but that was merely a character's opinion. This is the first time the story title announced "they are dead!" with no ambiguity. This is the first time the comic lied to the readers. Ironically, devaluing death means the story itself is dead unless the writers change direction. But they did not.

A one off... for now
This was the only time the writers lied for a while, So readers could overlook it. The rest of the story was good, and there were good stories afterwards. But eventually lying became normal. When continuity ended in the 320s everything became a lie: the characters spoke about danger but there was no danger as nothing would ever change. the characters would make some major change as if it mattered, like a change to the line up or an event that changed the character's life. But all these things are lies if we know they will always return to the status quo.

An unintended big story
This fake death was part of a pattern: after FF200 everything was becoming more desperate, more extreme, less permanent. We can therefore stand back and see a long term trend: a bigger picture to the story. Yet the writers never intended it to be a bigger story: they were only planning three or four issues ahead. This illustrates what this web site is all about: writers planned a series of short stories and ended up with a story that has a large scale structure.

How they died in the real world
In the real world, The Fantastic Four was a comic, Marvel's prestige title. Although Spider-Man eclipsed its sales a few years earlier, it was still the benchmark of consistent quality, a top tier heavyweight title. That changed after FF200. While most fans agree that FF200 was a high point in FF history, most also agree that quality plunged immediately after. It is routinely said that the book "lost its way" and Byrne had to rescue it.

Byrne revived the book's fortunes, but (according to most fans, and according to sales) when he left the book continue to decline. Fans still look back at the period after 20 as when the book lost it way, even more than it lost its way after Jack Kirby left. For what made Marvel great (realism) click here. For how Kirby created such great stories click here. For when it first began to go wrong click here. For the causes of long term decline click here.

The decline continued for decades. Now, at the time of writing, the book's cancellation has been announced: FF645 will be the last issue. Obviously it will return a year or so later, but the FF's time at the top is long gone. Just this week (I write this in mid November 2014) the Avengers comic referred to Avengers mansion as "the most famous landmark in New York." That title used to be strictly reserved for the Baxter building.

The so-called "problem" of aging
FF206's "death" was reversed in FF214 by reversing the aging ray. The writers planed it this way, in order to keep the characters young. But eternal youth causes far more harm than good, as the Sphinx discovered. Writers think they can recapture the excitement of the past by avoiding change, and they fear that change will mean characters become old and retire or become less interesting. Both ideas are false, for reasons discussed here. Instead, let us see what could have happened if the team had continued to follow the winning formula, and continued to evolve and change as they did in the 1960s:

The story telling revolution of the 1960s
The 1960s saw a revolution in story telling: the invention of stories that never end.. A number of wildly successful franchises began that are still raking in money today. For example:
The real solution to aging
The real solution to aging is everywhere in nature, and on the most successful long term stories:
  1. Remember the past: remember it in detail, care about those people and what they did! it matters!
  2. Be ready to change. Pass on your spirit to the next generation.
FF206, and the 25 issue Nova story that led up to it, is all about the need to remember and the need to change. Let's look at them in more detail.

Why the Sphinx matters
The Sphinx is probably the most important character that everyone forgets. He is the character behind the end of the FF and symbolizes the futility of Marvel Time. The Sphinx's story forms a single arc from annual 12 to FF213, and its reverberations are felt as late as FF240 (see the notes to that issue: who was behind the Enclave?). Annual 12 is dated to only just after FF200, and it proclaims itself one of the most important stories in the history of Marve Comics, featuring the end of the Fantastic Four (and the Inhumans). See the notes to that issue for why. The theme of the end continues in FF206 with the beginning of the death of the Fantastic Four. The whole end and death arc is presided over by the Sphinx, the symbol of the need for time to move on. He has tried to live forever and realizes the futility of it, and all he wants is to die, but at the end when his life becomes exciting again he thinks he can cheat death and carry in, so he is published by having to forever repeat his life. He is a symbol of Marvel comics endlessly repeating the same old stories. see the notes to FF213 for details.

The Sphinx in mythology
In legend, the Sphinx is famous for a riddle about how people must change: "what has four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?" (Answer: man, from crawling to walking to using a stick.) If mankind did not change he would not be man.
By some accounts (but much more rarely), there was a second riddle: "There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. Who are the two sisters?" The answer is "day and night" (both words are feminine in Greek). This riddle is also found in a Gascon version of the myth and could be very ancient. (Wikipedia)
Both riddles are about the need for change. If anybody did not understand the meaning of the riddle the Sphinx would strangle and devour them. We have to accept change.

More Greek mythology
The Sphinx features in the story of Oedipus, king of Thebes, and leads to the play "Seven against Thebes". After the war Oedipus went to the hero Theseus to bury the dead. Theseus was so famous that his ship was preserved for centuries, which led to a famous philosophical question: over the years every wooden plank and every oar would wear out and had to be replaced, until none of the original wood was in the ship. So was it the same ship? This is like the question of Nova: he had never been to Xandar, yet he had the memories and powers and position of a Xandarian warrior. So was Nova a Xandarian? This is the key to understanding immortality. We accept that individual bodies die and move on, but the spirit continues in new generations.

Xandar and Xanadu
Xandar is home to the accumulated wisdom of the ages. The name Xandar is obviously based on Xanadu, the otherworldly location from Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan, and inspiration for Shangri-la, a hidden paradise in distant mountains. (Xandar is now more famous from the movie Guardians of the Galaxy.) So when the Fantastic Four reaches Xandar we know that the end of the story is near. (The final 90 issues take place in around year, their time. See Quicksilver's reference to "weeks" in FF240, and the short gaps between most issues thereafter, with the exception of Sue's pregnancy, which did not go to full term.)  So this is time for the cosmic background is revealed (below).

The poem Xanadu was allegedly remembered from a drug-filled dream, and begins:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man"
Down to a sunless sea.
This phrase "caverns measureless to man" are referred to when describing the river caverns beneath the inhuman city of Attilan, itself a kind of Xanadu in the mountains. The caverns feature both in FF 158 when Attilan is invaded from another dimension, and 100 issue later in FF248 when the team are in a drug induced dream like Coleridge. There it appears that the blue area of the moon has its own endless caverns beneath, a place of hallucinatory drugs). The poem ends with a warning that such things are not meant for man:
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

The impossible dream for Marvel Comics editors is that stories can have no consequences yet readers will care about their consequences. The impossible dream for Reed Richards is that his family can be safe and happy despite him ignoring Franklin and Sue.

Nova did not live up the Xandarian spirit

Somebody has to say it: Nova failed. he did not have the spirit of his benefactor. he was given the powers and memories of one of the greatest Xandarian warriors, but could not see beyond his old life. He stayed on at school, as if getting a job in an office was more important than saving the galaxy. He had enormous power but showed little curiosity: did he experiment to find the limits of his power, and train constantly, as Johnny Storm did? No, he only found he was bulletproof by accident. He even lost the most important powers through lack of use: when he became Nova he was at school and suddenly knew advanced maths. but later he struggled at the same subject. He was not even proud or confident enough to even tell his parents of his powers until much later. then when he finally reached Xandar he wanted to give up his powers and go back home (see Rom comic for details). His stories were lackluster. Richard Ryer was a nice enough guy, but he was no Xandarian warrior. This illustrates the whole purpose of good superhero comics: they are not about the powers, powers alone are not interesting. good superhero comics are about the people with those powers. The Fantastic Four far transcend their powers. Richard Ryder did not. He just wanted to stay as a school kid. He could not transcend his past.

Nova comic:

A symbol of the need to move on
FF206 continues from the just canceled Nova comic. Nova is the poster child for the death of continuity. the title was created as a homage to Spider-Man: Richard Ryder instead of Peter Parker, high school kid who's uncle is killed, etc.  Nova was fan fiction created by kids (the young Marv Wolfman and Len Wein in the fanzine Super Adventures in 1966). Steve Gerber described it like this in The Comics Journal (the original link is now dead):
It amounts to a vain and futile attempt to recapture past glories. Nova is an example. Nova was supposed to be cast in the old mold of the early 1960s Marvel Comics, and it bears no resemblance whatsoever to those books. It's basically a fan's interpretation of what those books were like. To compare Nova with the early Ditko or Romita Spider-Man is fatuous. All the evocative elements are completely lost. It's an attempt, again, to formularize what was done in the early '60s. Every attempt at that has fallen just short of pathetic. What can I tell you?
It could be argued that most of Marvel's later output was fan fiction, as fans dominated the second generation for writers and stories tried to recapture the glory days rather than letting the stories evolve naturally.  The Fantastic Four were the symbol of looking forward to the future. The death of the Fantastic Four is accompanied by the symbol of looking backward to the past.

Issue by issue
The whole 25 issues of Nova is about the the discovering the existence of Xandar, and the Sphinx's attempts to get there so his life can finally move on:
  • 1: intro
    Nova gets his powers (and crashes into a junk yard: memories of Miracle Man and the Overmind)
  • 2: hint of the Sphinx
    The bad guys search for a Mummy for their mystery boss (the Sphinx)
  • 3: the Sphinx is powerful
    Introduces Diamondhead, a very strong and smart villain who only fears one being: the Sphinx (as yet unnamed)
  • 4: --
    A cross over with Thor, that has nothing to do with the ongoing story but is just there to increase sales.
  • 5: --
    Not about the Sphinx, but is interesting from a realism perspective. As in FF176 we visit the Marvel Bullpen. Like the Impossible Man in FF176, Nova tries to get his own comic but is rejected by Stan Lee in favor of a silly animal comic. Note that Marvel rejects a Nova comic, even though in the real world a Nova comic exists. This suggests at the very least that what we read cannot be what actually happens. But in the story Marvel writers do show an interest. It appears that in the story Marvel makes limited efforts to follow other heroes, but largely invents their stories (or at the very least changes details to protect secret identities). In contrast the FF report directly to Marvel, so FF comics are canon.
  • 6: the Sphinx revealed
    "And So... the Sphinx!" We are introduced to the Sphinx and his desire to end his immortality. He detects that Nova's mind contains memories of Xandar, where he can find the answers he wants.
  • 7: the journey begins
    They set off for Xandar, hoping Nova's ship will find it. 
  • 8: it's about memory
    Diamondhead plans how to attack the Sphinx by removing his memory. Note how this will later be part of the Sphinx's actual fate, to relive the past and be unable to realize what is going on. This is the theme of the Franklinverse in general. Remembering is the main theme of Nova and comes up again and again.
  • 9: --
    Is forgettable,
  • 10: against the Sphinx
    They put the plan against the Sphinx into action but it fails. Note how slowly the action unfolds. This foreshadows modern Marvel comics where it takes six issues (the length of a trade paperback) for anything to happen.
  • 11: again, memory is key
    The Sphinx strips Nova of his memories instead. Nova slowly remember who he is, and the Sphinx leaves in frustration.
  • 12: --
    Another guest star to get sales: this time it's Spider-Man so sales must be bad.
  • 13-21: --
    Various minor villains, as sales decline toward the point of cancellation. Then at the end we get back to the Sphinx:
  • 22: Dr Sun
    Dr Sun again wants Nova as his ticket to Xandar.
  • 23: the Sphinx returns
    The Sphinx returns, for the same purpose as Dr Sun.
  • 24: memory returns
    We discover that Powerhouse, assumed to be a minor villain, is from Xandar, but lost his memory. Dr Sun and Sphinx need him for returning to Xandar.
  • 25: they know where Xandar is!
    The Sphinx learned of Xandar from Quasimodo (who learned of it from the Xandarian communication beam that got him so excited). The whole 25 issues of Nova was about discovering the existence of Xandar. Now they know it's location the title can end and the real story takes place in the Fantastic Four.
  • FF206
    Nova 25 was the last issue and continues in the FF. Everything we need to know can be inferred from FF206, but Nova expands on it. This is the case with titles like Strange Tales, Marvel Two in One, etc: they are not needed to understand the story, but can be helpful.

Nova's ship and crew: symbolism
Nova's 25 issue story was all about remembering the past and moving on. It centers on characters who must remember who they really are, and embrace their past then move on, in order to make the journey to Xandar. Xandar is the eternal ancient paradise, the place where all our civilizations' memories are stored, the place of final answers. The symbolism is clear: to find paradise we must (a) remember, and (b) be ready to change. These are the true keys to immortality. This is symbolized by the seven occupants of the ship:
the Seven

  1. Nova
    The hero on his classic "hero's journey" from being a child to a man.
  2. The Sphinx
    The one who has learned the wisdom of moving on: never changing is a curse, not a blessing.
  3. Dr Sun
    Dr. Sun continues the theme of the futility of trying to live forever. He comes from the story of the undead: a vampiric brain in a robot's body from" Tomb of Dracula" comic. Whereas the Sphinx wants the knowledge of Xandar in order to end his own life, Dr Sun wants to prolong his.
  4. Powerhouse
    The Xandarian who forgot his heritage.
  5. Diamondhead
    Representing our short sighted desires for superficial wealth and power.
  6. The Comet
    Nova's mentor from the past, showing how the older generation must make way for the younger, but they can still be around and be heroes.
  7. Crimebuster
    Son of The Comet. When he thought his father was killed he carried on the family name, showing how the spirit of the family survives death.

The new Sue

John Byrne is often credited with making Sue "stronger" - that is, more violent. Anyone who's read a few pages of this web site (especially the page on Sue) knows why I come to a different conclusion. The big difference was that in Byrne's run Sue was under more stress: she was at the end of her tether. This issue is where the Sweet Sue of the previous 18 years finally snaps. We then see her consider her options until FF231 where she sees no choice but to take desperate measures (see the notes to FF231 for details). But this issue is her turning point. This is where something inside breaks and she considers turning to extreme violence, which of course does not work (see the notes to Byrne's run for how Sue suffers and things get worse than ever). Sue was always stronger before, when she managed to regain control. But this is the breaking point. Breaking is called breaking for a reason: breaking does not make a thing stronger.

Fantastic Four 206

Other points to note

Issue 207: the prince in waiting

Fantastic Four 207

Summary: Johnny's character development
At this stage in the 28 year story, Johnny is waiting to take over. He should have taken his rightful place when Reed and Sue left to take care of Franklin in FF72, but Reed failed that test. Since then Johnny has been an adult treated like a child, and now it's affecting his self confidence. This issue shows how he is unable to control his life, and is symbolically (and literally) controlled by others. He will then gradually rise to his rightful place: see the timeline in the notes to FF192. Compare this issue with the more confident and mature Johnny in FF302. FF302 is another group like the enclave: scientists working in a hollowed out mountain, using mind control. But that time the Torch wins, without help.

Johnny and Spider-Man

This is the turning point in Johnny's adolescent relationships. His immaturity with other men is represented by his ongoing friendship with Spider-Man. Until now he was always showing off. But now he is finally humbled: he is the dupe and Spider-man solves the problem.

The zeitgeist
This issue is a commentary on two long term issues that kept America's attention in the 1970s:

As the 1970s draws to a close we conclude the theme of the decade: inequality.

The story features a special school for the elites, and Johnny buys into it. Right from the start we see the problem with elitism: the elites can be wrong, just like anybody else. So Johnny, representing dreams of elitism, must fight Spider-man, who has always represented the downtrodden man.
The Monocle
The Monocle is a symbol of decline. Ask any knowledgeable fan to name a mediocre villain and it won't take long before the Monocle's name comes up. He first appeared at the end of act 3, when Jack Kirby began holding back his best work and Reed first showed signs of making mistakes. He now comes back in the issue after the team symbolically died, as they plunge into their wilderness period. He should be easy to defeat - his power is represented by the monocle, the symbol of poor eyesight! Yet Johnny is not suspicious because the foolish idea of elitism appeals to him. Peter Parker sees through it more quickly.
FF206 continued: sleep walking into the 1980s social decline
The decline is full is symbolism of not seeing what is happening: the villain has poor eyesight (he needs a Monocle), most of the action takes place at night, his bosses are hidden in shadow, his servants are sleepwalking, etc. Note the contrast with the apparent triumph of democracy in 200, with its bright sunshine and global publicity. Doom wanted to control people openly but the enclave are doing it secretly instead: and so they succeed, unnoticed, under the cover of helping the world's elites.
Real time
In F207 Medusa is captured by the Enclave. Presumably this is the same event described in Ff240 as "many weeks ago" - strange phrase, not "many months". Presumably this means less than six months, which agrees with the conclusion from other issues that the second half of act 4 happens relatively quickly. The great climax to the 28 year FF story is Ff200, and the remaining 95 issues of act 4, though almost 8 years in real time, takes little more than a year in Marvel Time. And what a year!

Other points to note

Issue 208: the team utterly fails

Fantastic Four 208

In this issue we see that Reed, Sue and Ben have utterly failed. Reed swears that he will find the solution, but he fails at that as well. It is Johnny who works out the solution and provides the crucial tool in FF214 while Reed lies on his deathbed.

Parallels between the Sphinx and Galactus:

After FF200 the team tried to make a new start, as if they could regain past glories. Here they face a being like Galactus:

But this time the Watcher will not help. And this "Galactus" has no nobility, and can read their thoughts, so the Ultimate Nullifier won't work even if they could get it.

What should they have done? Ironically the clue is in the end:
orphan annie
Reed says only one person can help them, Ben jokes about Little Orphan Annie, and Reed says Ben supplied the idea of who to call. But there is a little boy who is treated like an orphan, sent way from his parents at every opportunity, yet has the power to control galaxies. The boy is Franklin. They had plenty of warning, Reed should have got to know Franklin back in FF72, but instead they sideline him, and now they pay the price. Instead of having Franklin's power they plan to call on Galactus, exchanging one world destroyer for another. There can be no permanent solution until they put Franklin first.

Other points to note

Issue 209: prisoners of their own past, as the Internet evolves

Fantastic Four 209

This issue shows us again that Ben and Johnny are not happy. but its real significance is Herbie. We pause to see the real-world reason for battling against aging: the comic is under pressure from merchandising. In this case the merchandise is the children's cartoon. The cartoon had a comedy robot, so the comic must have one as well. The reason given in the comic is that Johnny was out of town when the contracts were signed. This is sort of true: Johnny was not able to be in town because another company had optioned the rights to the Torch for a solo project that never happened.

Merchandising requires static characters, and is the driving force that opposes change. The title of this issue,  "The Sargasso Sea of Space" is a good metaphor for unchanging stories: the same old, decaying properties linger forever. Marvel is today a kind of Sargasso Sea, with thousands upon thousands of characters, but only a tiny handful have the power to interest people.


Herbie foreshadowed the real world by many years. The first affordable general purpose industrial robot appeared in 2012, made by Rethink Robotics, and looks like HERBIE, with large eyes that reflect its inner state (but with a fixed base like Roberta). Its real world name? "Baxter". As in the Baxter Building.


The Internet again

Herbie's importance relies on Xandar technology, especially his permanent link to the network. He is a thin client, a smart phone. Like personal computers and phones, Herbie seems like just a toy, but the significance of the Internet is far, far greater. Dr Sun, with his origins in vampires (who watch the centuries go by with interest) sees Herbie's life changing potential more clearly.

It's all about Herbie?
There are many parallels between this Xandar story arc and what was at the time the longest arc, the Overmind story (see the notes to FF217 for a comparison). if this story is really about Reed gaining access to Xandar's computers (i.e. gaining superior information to anyone else) then Herbie is the whole reason for the journey. Reed does not normally travel to other galaxies to fight their battles, but access to the living computers was enough to drive Quasimodo, Dr Sun and even the Sphinx wild with desire.

Other points to note

Issue 210: the team has lost all direction

Fantastic Four 210

We now hit the bottom of the team's lost period. To recap:

To see how bad this problem is, consider the bonehead decisions they make. Some of them are listed in the letters page from FF214 (the writing errors can mostly be interpreted as the team making poor decisions). Issue 210 was "controversial" which usually means that most letters received by Marvel were negative. The editors made no attempt to defend the story. 


The few positive letters were short, and simply praise the attempt to copy the past. But the more thoughtful letters point out that copying the past is boring! We need character development!

If we search the Internet for reviews we find almost none. Most readers liked the art, but nobody could make sense of the story: why do the characters lack purpose? Why do they waste so much time, make poor decisions, and do dumb things? It's as if they have lost all hope and direction and are just going through the motions: which is exactly what is happening.

This is the period fans refer to when they say the FF story began to lose its way before Byrne. (They also refer to Moench's run, from FF219 to FF231, but that run features massive character development, and is hugely misunderstood in my opinion.)

Ironically, this lack of character development in FF210 is itself a character development. The Fantastic Four has always changed and moved forward. This lack of change is itself a change. The team is lost. Soon (under writer Doug Moench) they will give way to desperation then despair, and then (under writer John Byrne) to denial and finally self destruction. There are major changes underway, but we have to stand back to see the big picture.

Suicidal tendencies
The only one to really appreciate the emptiness of this period is Ben, because he started down this road to depression long ago. At the start of this issue he is eager to die on the surface of the space ship. Compare FF297, where he goes even further, again on the surface of a ship: both are reminiscent of the original space journey where his life fell apart. Ben's famous inability to give up is not just courage, it's because he doesn't value his own life very highly.

Giving up on the Earth
Talking of suicide, this is one of the greatest blunders of Reed's career. In the letters pages (in FF214 and FF215), several fans observed that the Sphinx would arrive at Earth before Reed had time to do anything. This is especially true when we add in the time wasted in FF211. Reed must have known this, yet he chose to leave the Earth to its fate! He could have contacted Black Bolt, who defeated the Sphinx in FF annual 12. Granted, the Sphinx is more powerful now, but Black Bolt is no fool and could have spoken to him, or found a way to delay him: the Sphinx is 5,000 years old and in no hurry, why not ask him to tell his life story again? Reed could have split the team in two, one half to delay the Sphinx and one half to see Galactus. But instead he left the Earth to its fate, and only luck allowed the Earth to survive. Arguably the biggest threat to the Earth is now Reed's stubbornness. Reed should be a scientific adviser, not the leader.

"You're thinking too hard, these stories are fun!"
Always remember that this web site focuses on the bigger picture. I don't spend much time talking about the surface adventures. Yes, these stories are fun! They are bright and exciting! Reed Richards is a hero! That should be obvious. These stories work on many levels. On this web site I mainly talk about the deepest, darkest level, because that's a big, subtle, rich story that is so often missed.

The 1979 zeitgeist
This is the great American novel, and this issue was dated September 1979, on sale in June, and would have been written around March or April. The lack of direction and general weakness was the zeitgeist of the 1979. This is from presidential
Please note: like many Europeans I am a big fan of Jimmy Carter: to me, the long term good he did (improved relations with China, less reliance on oil, limiting nuclear weapons, etc.) outweigh his domestic problems. But obviously to Americans the domestic problems were more pressing, and they soon got rid of Carter, seeing him as a lame duck.

Criticisms (source)

Other points to note

Issue 211: Reed is weak and everyone humors him

Fantastic Four 211

This issue is Reed at his weakest. He thinks his genius secret plan will save the world, but everyone else can see he is like a child. Ben can see that Reed's plan is stupid, and that Reed is easily distracted from what matters. Johnny can see that Reed's plan is extremely unlikely to work. Even Reed himself despairs.

Galactus is toying with them too. He gives them an easy task: they simply need to hit Tyros once. We saw in FF210 that Galactus quite likes the FF. In FF211 we again see the extent of his Galactus' power. Next issue's "defeat" of Galactus must be seen in that context.

Other points to note
Galactus compares his heralds to earth, air, fire and water, just as FF are also compared. He will have one final herald, Frankie Rae (the new Nova). Like Firelord, she represents fire. Firelord did not feature on the FF, and other comics are less reliable (given that only the FF report directly to Marvel), so from the point of view of the FF comic, Fire Lord can be considered a minor character and simply a precursor to Frankie.

Issues 212-213: the future of mankind: the greatest cosmic battle of all

I don't usually combine issues in one review: I figure that any comic that does not give a complete story is wasting my money. But in exceptional cases I make an exception. The build up in FF212 was so superb, so exciting, so page turning. and the pay-off in FF213 was so magnificent, that I don't mind that FF212 was just a build up and noting more. This two parter is worth the money.

At the end of FF211 the Watcher announces this to be the greatest cosmic battle of all. This is the climax of the story that began in FF annual 12, announced as a major event, and so it is: not just the greatest battle, but the climax of the longest arc in the entire 28 year story (FF204-214, plus annual 12). The significance to Reed is also huge: he becomes almost irrelevant. He thinks he is in control but he is not. 

The Internet and world history

Quasimodo = machines set free
Quasimodo represents machines set free. He arose in FF annual 4, the issue about the massive power of intellectual property: both stories were about the power of information as a separate entity. That was the mid 1960s when computers began to be used routinely by big companies. Then in FF202, Quasimodo discovers a whole network: a massive hub of data is able to broadcast across the galaxies. He became VERY excited. Note the symbolism in that issue: the home was no longer tied down, and ended up in a jungle. Ben preferred that location: the Internet can free us to live where we want, but also appeals to people who love a new untamed world. But in FF202 the machines attacked people, just as Herbie did later, so the jungle location could be a bad symbol: of being cut off from our fellow man, where machine stake over, and mankind is perhaps returning to a pre- industrial society.

The whole Andromeda storyline takes place off earth, in what is effectively cyberspace (the family is beamed up to a world of computers). It is a world of great danger, where savage Skrulls try to destroy the wisdom of the ages. This whole cyberspace zeitgeist was reflected in the movie Tron, conceived in 1976 and released in 1982.

The Sphinx = human history
Wile Quasimodo and Xandar represents cyberspace, the Sphinx represents human history: he has been around for most of it. He also represents (at first) the cycle of life: as in the riddle of the sphinx, he recognized the need for each life to change and come to an end. But now he has far more knowledge and thinks he can do anything, and does not care if he destroys the world in the process. This is like modern man since the industrial revolution: we forget our ancient limitations and think we can do anything. In doing so we cause mass extinction and poison the planet. Will we learn cosmic balance? Can we enjoy technology without being intoxicated with power like the Sphinx?

Galactus = force of nature
Galactus is a force of nature (see FF262). He is as old as the universe and cannot change: he represents the unchanging reality that no matter how powerful we become, there is always something more powerful. So the battle between the Sphinx and Galactus is the battle between human arrogance and universal limits. Note that If the sphinx had cared for others he could have continued his growth. But because he does not care the force of karma will defeat him.

A political-economic approach
We can also see the Sphinx as the Democratic party and Galactus as the Republicans at the time: the Democrats stood for what they saw as progress, and the Republicans stood for what they saw as economic realities that did not change and could be harsh if not respected. Or we could see the opposite symbolism: the Sphinx's links to Moses remind us of Jimmy Carter, a prominent member of his local Baptist church, whereas Galactus feeding off planets reminds us of the power of the market place.

Galactus, the force of nature, reminds the uncultured Terrax (who symbolizes Terra, the earth) that mortals must serve nature and not think they can be its master.

The timing of the battle: 1978-79
Mankind had reached this point with the information revolution that began with the first network. We now have the potential for vastly expanded information, and so vastly accelerated change, either for good or evil.

This also coincided with glottalization and a turning point in equality: after the upheavals of the generations following WWI, which upset the ancient class system, in 1978 the rich again began to take a larger share of the world's wealth (see the notes to FF200 for details), just as the Sphinx wishes to return to the absolute monarchy of ancient Egypt.


These are events of cosmic significance: will mankind move forwards to the next stage, or destroy itself with its hubris, or stay in the past? All of this is symbolized in the battle between the new opportunities seen by the Sphinx and the eternal realities represented by Galactus.

So that is why the Watcher was so interested in Xandar and the period 1978-1979, and why the battle between the Sphinx and Galactus was so symbolic.

Why does Galactus fall for the fake nullifier?
In FF210 we saw that Galactus likes Reed. He is not hungry, he is happy to be deceived, and is in no hurry to come back. Is Reed really smarter than Galactus? Is Galactus unable to see inside a toy? Even comic readers can see that a fake nullifier was a silly idea. Yes, the Watcher's mind probing helped, but it could only stop Galactus because he wanted to be stopped. Recall Galactus' statement to the Sphinx: he, Galactus, is all powerful, and yet he is not a God: he is not in control of his destiny. he comes to Earth to eat it because he must, but that does not mean he wants to.

The bottom line is that Galactus is Franklin's herald. The world is safe because Franklin wants it this way. But Reed of course does not know this, and the Watcher isn't telling. For more about why Galactus appears, see the discussion by FF74.

Reed's lesson
Reed is almost insignificant compared to the powers around him. He only has any influence at all because years ago he earned the respect of more powerful beings. Will he learn the lesson? Will he turn his great intellect to the challenge of becoming friends with more powerful beings? Will he be humble and make Franklin his top priority? Not yet. Reed has been humbled but he does not yet know it. He always had little self awareness. He must suffer more yet.

Reed lost
The greatest cosmic battles are not about energy, they are about ideas. This battle is the great cosmic battle of Reed Richards against Galactus. Reed has lost: he is just a mortal and as such will die, but instead of investing in his family (the only way to ensure immortality) his skill will die with him. As for his mighty brain, it was unable to stop the aging ray.  He has even lost against Galactus, who is only humoring him, but Reed's ego will not let him see it. When Reed finally admits his weaknesses in FF295 he will see things as they are, and will have won, and finally be able to move forward and get what he wants.

Fantastic Four 212
Fantastic Four 213

This whole arc is about time: time comes to us all. The Sphinx lived 5,000 years, wanted to die, and cannot. Now he must live the same events endlessly, like a comic character who can never grow up. Meanwhile Reed and Sue and Ben learn that they cannot cheat time.

Galactus and the end of the world

Galactus promises that when he returns, the world will die

end of the world

Galactus' word is truth (see FF 50). Galactus did return, and the world did die, along with the entire universe, in The Great Reboot. This is how it happened:

In FF 240 the Inhumans left Earth. Rather like the dolphins leaving Earth in the Hitch-hiker's Guide series this should have been a warning: the last time they planned to leave Earth was when Galactus came to destroy it (see the notes to FF48, and how Maximus called Galactus). 

In FF241 they arrive on the moon, and settle on the exact spot where the Watcher kept his most advanced technology. The official story was that they were simply escaping Earth's air pollution, and landing in the Blue Area was just coincidence. But this is a highly advanced race with a great many secrets. If it was just air pollution they could have fixed it. Something far bigger was going on.

In FF242 Galactus arrived, hungry because the influence of humans had made him question his existence. He was chasing Terrax, the herald he created in this arc.

In FF243 his weakness and self doubt caused him to almost die. But FF 262 reveals that when Galactus dies the universe can no longer reach its destiny: it effectively grinds to a halt. It is the end of not just the Earth, as Galactus said, but the universe.

Galactus dying

In FF244 Galactus is saved. He says that Earth no longer needs fear him, as Earth is now his friend. This is taken as a good thing, but is it? The role of Galactus is to destroy. By saving the world destroyer it appears that Earth has become his friend: like him.

Saving Galactus is a very bad idea, as discussed in FF 262. Reed was set free not because he was innocent, but because it suited Eternity. When it suits Eternity to support genocide you know that something very bad is on its way.

FF245 is about Franklin being unable to grow up. Franklin controls the Marvel universe. If Franklin cannot grow up then neither can the universe. This is a Very. Bad. Sign.

The next time we see Galactus (FF256-7) the story is about how he is still dying, because his inner doubts are the same. He destroys the Skrull throne world, but that does not change anything: he is still the changed Galactus because Reed is still his friend, as he makes clear in FF262. Galactus is not supposed to have friends! We are not supposed to befriend genocide! Galactus is a force of nature and no longer a man. He cannot and should not function as a human, he is supposed to be the final test, not a person's friend. Friends do favors, like killing Reed's enemies, the Skrulls! This is all wrong!

So next time we see Galactus after that, in FF338-341, his inner conflict is complete: he has grown mad, and is eating the entire universe. This is the end of the world, the end of the universe, the Great reboot, and the process began in FF 242, just as Galactus foretold.

For more details of how saving Galactus led to the end of everything, see FF340. it explains how in FF244 the weakened Galactus was infected by the dreams of the Black Celestial.

A weakened Galactus is far worse than a strong Galactus or no Galactus. Had Reed let him die he would have come back at full force (he is after all a force of nature). But allowing him to continue in a weakened state allowed others to control him, and the result was the end of everything.

Issue 214: we see into Johnny's soul

Fantastic Four 214

This is Johnny's finest hour. He saves his family. Yet all the time he feels powerless and scared, and in the end he feels powerless. He's always lived in the shadow of Reed or Sue. He thought he was growing up to be a man when Crystal left, but his failure with girls and the break up of the team left him without any emotional foundation. Although he is now 26 years old, he's emotionally like a teenager: full of hope and confidence, but deep down insecure.

Johnny still has some way to go
In this issue Johnny proves what he can do, but also proves that this deep insecurity is still there. This insecurity will gnaw at him over the next year as Reed an Sue continue their decline. Johnny will not find inner security until FF213 (he knows that he is a hero), and especially FF300-307 (Alicia provides him the emotional stability he needs, and his big sister no longer looks over his shoulder.) Only then will he be emotionally and mentally a healthy, confident, independent adult.

Other points to note

Issue 215: another warning to Reed

Fantastic Four 215

In FF204-214 we saw how Reed had failed. In FF215 we see a warning of what will happen next. Randolph is an obvious parallel for Reed:

The Great American Novel
This is like the warning in FF108 (where Janus is like Reed), but this time we see that the Reed stand-in has become more distant, and the only solution is to leave.

In each case we have a treat: a slice of America we rarely see in comics: a hoely street scene. This emphasises the contrast between Reed and the Reed-parallels, cut off from humanity, and the human world the are losing.
ordinary houses

This is also a sign that John Byrne's art is consciously modeled on Jack Kirby's. But notice all the additional interesting details in Kirby's version: he is called the king for good reason.

Issue 216: Franklin is the answer, stupid!

Fantastic Four 216

Over the past few issues I've been very harsh about Reed. But what was he supposed to do, faced with the Sphinx and all those other dangers? The answer was under his nose since 1968. It;'s Franklin! Franklin can solve the problems, if you only let him!

In this issue we are reminded again of Franklin's awesome power, but still Reed ignores him and sidelines him. From now on until the start of Byrne's run, it's all about Franklin.

  1. FF203 told is what Franklin can do.
  2. FF204-214 shows us how the team fails without Franklin.
  3. FF215 is a warning of worse to come as Reed ignores his son
  4. Annual 14-FF231 focuses on Franklin.
  5. FF232-295: John Byrne famously disliked using Franklin, and even asked if Franklin could be killed off (the editors said no). In doing so Byrne was just reflecting Reed's views. But Byrne's run shows the greatest changes of all: the climax to the Franklin saga. Despite the writer's intentions, the force of this epic writes itself.

From now on, Reed no longer has any excuse. And the next issue, annual 14, drives home the point.

Other points to note

Byrne cameos

Annual 14: Reed loses all credibility

Fantastic Four annual

As if FF216 was not clear enough, FF annual 14 immediately follows, and drives home the point: Two issue back to back featuring his power and Reed's utter neglect. This may seem like overkill, but the point must never be forgotten: Reed's neglect of Franklin is the heart of the 28 year family story.

What was Reed thinking?
This issue has been often criticized as too similar to FF186, but that's the point! Reed is blind where his son is concerned. They need to go on holiday, so he decides to go to New Salem! New Salem!!! What was he thinking??? Just a few months ago (their time) Franklin was kidnapped there and they were all nearly killed!  As Karen of Bronze Age Babies puts it, "Seriously, the FF decides to take a break and they go to a town of witches? Another reason I refuse to believe that Reed Richards is the smartest man on the planet."

True, Nicholas Scratch has been banished and/or killed, but these are ancient witches! His followers! Does anyone think a little thing like being banished/dead would stop the spirit of a powerful warlock? On the way there they acknowledge that there could be ghosts. That mean Scratch could still be a threat! Reed's appalling parenting amounts to criminal neglect. And sure enough, Franklin is traumatized, and again his power saves the day (twice).

A conspiracy theory
A conspiracy theorist might draw a connection with the Over mind debacle, where Reed's friend Agatha used her son to try to make Reed look good (apparently: it's speculation, but that is where the evidence points). Is that the reason why Reed, after so many disasters, wants to go to Nicholas Scratch's old stomping ground, to impress his family with an easy win? he presumably knows that Agatha can always defeat her son, so maybe he thinks this is safe? That's just a guess. But I think it's more likely that Reed is just being incredibly stupid.

I suggested in the Andromeda story that perhaps Sue is Cassiopeia: perhaps she is the one to blame. Reed, it could be argued, may have autism so cannot help missing the big picture while he focuses so much on the details. Meanwhile, we know that he will always obey Sue when pushed (he at least learned that lesson from the separation). So it could be argued that Sue is the one at fault: she genuinely loves Franklin, she could fix everything by pushing Reed in the right direction, but she doesn't. She is so keen to have a harmonious family (after her own lonely childhood) that she won't create waves. Ironically by being so supportive of Reed she creates the very disharmony that she fears.

Fantastic Four annual

Children are the answer. That is the four word summary of the entire 28 year story, and foreshadowing the happy ending in Act 5

Issue 217: Reed's barrier goes up

Fantastic Four 217

John Byrne's Reed starts here
This issue is a historic milestone: it's where Reed puts up his mental barriers. Most fans are familiar with John Byrne's Reed Richards: a man who seldom reacts emotionally. But Byrne's Reed is different from the action hero Reed of previous years: the previous Reed was very emotional. So what happened? If we study Reed's life we can see that series of disasters caused him to become emotionally withdrawn. The whole of act 4 has been disaster after disaster, and while the triumph over Doom was a great success, Reed must by now be getting reports that the Latverian democracy is not going well. But the greatest humiliation is being unable to fix the aging ray (see notes to FF210), culminating in almost causing the end of the world (by having to call on Galactus). Then no sooner are they back than Reed's negative zone portal fails.

If we plot all of Reed's success and failures on a graph, this period is the steepest ever decline, and must have felt even worse because it comes after the triumph when Reed thought he had finally put his failures behind him.


All the frustration and fears of the 1970s must be returning. But this time instead of going to pieces, Reed is bottling it up. He is emotionally unresponsive to Sue. He is shutting himself off from other people.


Reed's barriers are symbolized by the negative zone barrier that is the focus of this issue. For most of the issue Ben is shown carrying the timing device that locks the barrier. This is significant, as Ben is the constant reminder of Reed's failures: Reed caused Ben to become the Thing, and Reed has been unable to cure him ever since. Johnny's return to the 1970s (and familiar failure) reflects Reed's return to all his failures of that era.

Reed then, and Reed now
This issue focuses on four age groups:
This is just one of the pointers that the theme is time. Other pointers are:
time lock

The 100 issue cycle

Let us compare 217 and 117:
But the Great American Novel never repeats a story. so let's see the crucial difference:

Reed grows up.
Taking the long view, FF117 eventually leads to a false dawn where Reed thinks he has finally won (FF200). But this time Reed can have no illusions. In FF117 Reed was like a young man who thinks he can do anything. In FF217 Reed is like a middle aged man who can no longer do as much but refuses to accept it. Eventually, in FF1295, Reed will be like an old man who finally admits that maybe he was wrong.

This time Sue won't leave
In FF117 Sue and Reed take time away at Whisper Hill to try and mend their marriage.This did not work, so eventually Sue left to stay with her friends in the country. But this time Sue has vowed never to leave (see FF189) and so they stay together and soon take a holiday together (in FF227).
The biggest change now is that (in FF223) they finally realize that Franklin should with them. This is a step forward. But the final step will not take place until the next great crisis, at the end of act 4, when they finally agree that Franklin should not only be with them but his needs must come first.

The title: "masquerade"
The splash page informs us that this story was suggested by Marv Wolfman. So we know it's going to be good. The title, "masquerade", obviously refers on the surface to Dr Sun, masquerading as Herbie. But it can also refer to Reed pretending to be in control when he is not.

Reed is clearly in denial. he says that Franklin "is in the safest possible hands with Agatha Harkness that has been proven time and again" Really?? Annual 14 was just before the previous issue (which continues seamlessly into this one), when Agatha invited them all to Salem, where Franklin was traumatized! (The cover to the annual showed Franklin, alone, with the line "he's been a child, until now".) In that annual they recalled the last visit to Salem, in FF 184-186, where Agatha and Franklin were kidnapped! And before that? Agatha brought Franklin to Annihilus for FF141. If Reed thinks Franklin is safe with Agatha he is losing touch with reality - or more likely, refuses to admit his mistake, as Agatha was Reed's idea in the first place (FF94).

Sue's response: "you surround yourself with machines that echo everything you say, but you're forgetting the human factor" reminds us that when Reed makes mistakes he is disturbingly similar to the Mad Thinker.

The Internet
This story foreshadows the real world in the 2000s. At first Reed thought that access to the Internet (a direct link to the Xandarian computers) had no down side. But Dr Sun was able to use it against him. This is like the public view of the Internet: in the 1990s it was common to hear how it would lead to freedom and a new kind of politics, and governments could do nothing about it. But eventually existing Governments learned to use the Internet as well. The most noted success is the "great firewall of China" where China controls what its Internet can say. Note that Dr Sun is Chinese.

The zeitgeist
To draw a contrast with Reed's emotional coldness, Johnny is shown having a wild time at the disco. In this issue the 1970s disco craze finally comes to the Fantastic Four! Just in time to go out of fashion, reminding us that Johnny never had the wild life he wanted, because his family and duty always came Disco was never high on the radar for comic creators (too old) or comic readers (too bookish). Disco's appearance in mainstream comics signaled it had finally reached every corner of the nation, and was thus at the end of its fashion. Dazzler was planned in 1979, the year of the anti-disco "Disco Demolition" in Chicago. This issue was on sale in January 1980, just before the release of "I Will Survive," the last great disco classic. After that, Disco was soon replaced by punk and the "Flash Dance" style seen in John Byrne's run.

"Studio infinity"
Johnny visits Studio infinity...
studio infinity
A reference to the famous Studio 54
(this image is from its second opening, 1997-2012. The 1970s photos are usually black and white, heavily copyrighted, and don't show much beyond crowds)

Studio 54

"In terms of the evolution of disco then 1974 is regarded as the seminal year, and 1977 its peak. By 1979 the backlash had already begun (including the infamous “Disco Sucks" protests and the Chicago Cubs smashing of records) and a new wave about to be phased in. It traditionally tapped into the gay scene, which makes it doubly amusing that the can-never-settle-down flash Johnny tries it out."   - 'Richard'

Deep philosophy and ethics
The Great American Novel deals with deep topics. Reed argues that Herbie was never alive, so his death does not matter. Reed cannot connect to Herbie on an emotional level, just as he cannot connect to Franklin or anybody else without great effort. Ben makes the philosophical behaviorist argument that Herbie acted alive, and therefore he was. ironically this is the more objective, clinical approach: there is no fundamental difference between life and a complex machine. But Reed never thinks of big abstractions like that.

 A lot of readers disliked Herbie, but many of them felt genuinely sad when he died. It forces us to examine how we think about the annoying and unpopular kids who seem less important than other people. Deep stuff.

Other points to note

Issue 218, the Spider-Man issue: how well can we hide our identity?

Fantastic Four 218

This is about Spider-Man, not the FF
Continuing the theme of masquerade from the previous issue, this issue is about disguises. Specifically,  Paste Pot Pete and Spider-Man. Why focus on Spider-Man and not the FF? Because the writer of this issue was a Spider-Man expert who wrote the issue at short notice, filling a gap before Doug Moench took over.

"Archie Goodwin was originally announced as new FF writer beginning with this issue, but the firing of Rick Marschall by Jim Shooter caused Archie to grab the editor spot of Epic magazine instead." (source"Since Bill Mantlo is filling in on writing chores after Wolfman’s abrupt departure as both writer and editor, it makes sense that there’s a Spidey crossover.  This issue finished a story that started in Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man #42, a series on which Mantlo was a regular writer." (source)

Once again I have to stress what I always say: none of this was intentional. But the stories are bigger than the writers and I am just trying to make sense of what finally appeared on the page.

This issue is a big deal
This is the final "Frightful Four" story, insofar as that title meant anything. The original Frightful Four was supposed to be a team of equals: Peter Petruski began it by rescuing the Wizard. Although the Wizard treats others as worthless, as long as Peter was there the team was in theory kind of equal. But being with the Wizard so long destroyed any possibility of a team. This is Petruski's final team issue. After this the Wizard will come back, with the Sandman (because he has his own reasons), but it's basically just the Wizard and whoever he can hire at the time. The Wizard is Reed's arrogance magnified until it makes a team impossible.

This issue had a big build up in the "Spectacular Spider-Man" comic. For several issues (39-42) the Wizard and Pete planned their final revenge on both Spidey and the FF. And this issue, FF 218, is where it happens: and it's a fiasco. This is where the Frightful; Four lose whatever credibility it may have had. From here it's all over. After this the Wizard returns one more time, for the final showdown in act 5, but it's all pathetic really, and it's really Aron the rogue Watcher who calls the shots.

This is Peter's big test
The rest of the Frightful Four watch the Trapster: this seems to be his big test. He has to enter the building, defeat the Torch and the Thing, and disable the alarms, on his own. We can infer that they had a lot of arguing behind the scenes (they argue plenty when we see them so this is not a big stretch). You can imagine great shouting matches where the Wizard says Pete is useless and Pete says he will prove himself once and for all. And he fails. Even his paste fails: both Spidey and Reed are able to break it. It's all over for Pete. He will make one last attempt (FF 265) but the result is predictable. Peter Petruski is not the man he thinks he is.

Why Peter Petruski is like Peter Parker
Spider-Man and Paste Pot Pete both appeared with a very similar material in 1963: a super-adhesive that expands forcefully on contact with air, can be formed into long strings or ropes, and dissolves after an hour. They both claimed to invent it, but neither seemed interested in selling it (see below), and in Spider-Man's case the first version was much better than later versions. This all suggests that they both discovered the same material. Peter Parker refined his into a very thin strand (though he sometimes used it just as glue), and Peter Peter preferred to use his as thick ropes. But both use them for the same general purposes: for ropes, for sticking to things, for tying things up, etc,

first PPPwebbing as glue

When we follow Peter Peter's career we see that he and Peter Parker are almost exactly the same. Except that when Parker's Uncle Ben died it made him less greedy: it made him think of others.

But neither of the Peters has much success. A third parallel of course is Reed Richards: Reed also discovered alien technology, but he never tried a secret identity. He very publicly devoted himself to studying what he found. Being public is just a much more sensible option. We should not hide our true selves.Reed is more secure in his identity and so he wins. It's all very Shakespearean.

Shakespeare and The Great American Novel

This issue is about true identities. This is a common theme in Shakespeare: people disguise themselves, and being their true self is often the core of the plot. This story is about Peter Parker and Peter Peter, two parallel lives. It is about identity. Throughout the story, everyone takes on false identities:

The Fantastic Four is about realism. When people have more power than others, how do they behave?

  1. Sometimes, like Reed, they become self important, arrogant, without meaning to.
  2. Other times, as with Ben, they can't handle it.
  3. Sometimes, as with Sue, they don't want it.
  4. And other times, as with Johnny, they embrace it but it never works out as they want (e.g. he has no power over his life and can't get a girlfriend who will stay). 

People with wealth and power often pretend it will not change them. But it has to: it cannot help but change them This is symbolized by the question of secret identities. A super powered secret identity can never fully work in the real world, because:

Realistically, there are only two reasons for a secret identity:

  1. Illegality: You want to commit crime
  2. Inexperience: You are very new to the superhero game and haven't got it worked out yet. Steve Ditko got it right. Early Spider-Man stories are realistic, because he was just a kid, and hadn't got it all worked out. But when he became a man he would stop behaving like a kid and move on.

About Spider-Man

The original Steve Ditko Spider-Man was realistic: that is just how a kid would behave when coming to terms with great power. Ditko argued that a hero would then grow up (and in Ditko's opinion become like "The Question" or "Mr A"). In this web site I argue that Peter Parker remained as the mixed up kid, but we also see his other possible career path, as criminal.

The names "Peter Parker" and "Peter Peter"
In the FF comic, Peter Petruski (Paste Pot Pete, or the Trapster) is what could have happened to Spider-Man, had he followed the criminal route. Petruski is a variant form of the Polish name Petrowski, and means "from Peter". The Trapster is "the Peter from Peter". Meanwhile "Parker" means the person who looks after the park: Peter Parker cares for those around him, whereas Peter Peter only cares for Peter.

Both Peters began in 1963. Here I will argue that they are essentially the same character, but their paths diverged when Parker's uncle died. At first neither cared about crime (Peter let a criminal escape) and this led to the death of Ben Parker ("Ben" means "son of", so Bens tend to be "everyman" characters). This changed Peter Parker's outlook. But Peter Petruski had the opposite experience: he found that the more he ignored morality, the more money he made, so he chose that route.

Why didn't he sell the web formula?
Both Peters wanted money. Super adhesive or webbing are such useful inventions that they could become billionaires just by selling it. So why don't they? The clue is that Peter's early webbing could do far more than the later stuff (see the first time Peter met the FF for example). Obviously he would experiment with it, but it does seem that he could not duplicate its best properties. And note that vast quantities come from tiny web shooters: to some extent the material seems to expand to replenish itself, just like the unstable molecule Skrull milk and Skrull spray in FF annual 16. (According to Spidey's own book he does run out of webbing sometimes, but there could be other reasons for this, related to how he experiments with the material, plus Spidey's own book may not be reliable: see below). If both Peters want money yet do not sell their billion dollar "invention" it seems likely that they only have one source that replenishes itself, and they experiment with it but only have a vague idea of how it works.

The real Peter Parker
In his own comic, Peter Parker is shown as being super strong, having an amazing spider-sense, being super smart, and having invented amazing webbing. But the more realistic Fantastic Four shows the real story: Spider-man is a guy who discovered an alien substance he used as webbing, and that may be his only power. In the FF we really don't know much about Parker's private life, or even if that is his real name: if he has a secret identity then obviously it would not be published in a comic! Let's look at what we know about Spider-Man from his appearances in the FF. Remember that only the FF report directly to Marvel, so these are the reliable stories.

Spider-Man in his own comic
In his own comics Spider-Man is a mostly successful crime fighter. But this requires him to never learn from his mistakes (why does he have the same problems a teenager would have?), and he uses web shooters that are far in advance of anything human scientists could invent. This and other features make him unrealistic. Yet it could still be an example of "magical realism": where something impossible is used in a story, as a quick way to see how a person reacts. So the modern Spider-man can still be realistic in a way. I would love to se a web site that explores that realism.

Until a serious realism-based Spider-Man web site is made then we have to work with what we have. This web site will apply Occam's razor and just say "Spider-Man is unrealistic. We can enjoy his stories as fables, but not realistically." So what are we to do with the references to Spider-Man in the FF comic? If we examine those references realistically, a very different kind of Spider-Man emerges.

Spider-Man in the early Fantastic Four

So applying Occam's razor (hat is, always taking the simplest possible explanation), this is what we know for sure about Spider-Man:

  1. He discovered some kind of alien glue that could be used for shooting sticky ropes.
  2. He might also use it for sticking to walls (presumably reformulated, so he only sticks as much as he needs to and it dissolves more quickly)
  3. He trained himself to the peak of physical fitness
  4. He is confident and wisecracking
  5. He has bad luck.

Summary of similarities
We first meet Peter Peter in FF36, where we are reminded of his Strange Tales appearance, and his similarities with Spider-Man:


Later we see Peter Parker leave the Baxter Building window just as Peter Peter approaches it for the first time. Note the symbolism: this is a window on two very private Peters: one leaves so the other can enter
first appearance

Goodbye Paste Pot Pete
This issue is the end of Peter's career with the Frightful Four. At the end he just goes to pieces. He will make one final attempt to function - his next appearance will be on his own - and that will end with his utter humiliation and fade into blackness. After that he will never to be seen again (in the 28 year story). Both this and his final story take place at night, reflecting the darkness of this final act in Peter's career.  For more about Peter as a person, click here

Paste Pot Pete

Other points to note
Younger readers may think that "husbandly duties" refers to sex. But Sue's concern at this point is that Reed spends time with her. The last thing she wants is to be treated like one of Reed's machines, just a  simple physical function to be discharged. Maybe she wants his body, but far more than that she she wants his attention.

Next: their lowest point

The Great American Novel