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

1981: Act 4: back to basics? (Reaganism)

timechart issue 1 issues 2-5 issues 6-24 issues 25-43 issues 45-60 issues 61-80 issues 81-102 issues 103-125 126-132 133-149 150-175 176-200 201-218 219-231 232-250 251-273 274-295 296-303 304-321 322-333 334-355 355-569 570 to present
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A note on mind reading
When John Byrne saw this page he called it "mind reading". And so it is, on a deep level. This web site attempts to go beyond what the writer consciously intended. For details, see the discussion of authorial intent.

John Byrne's famous tenure on the FF almost exactly overlaps with Reaganism, and so does the politics. (It's subtle, but it's there.) America and the FF go "back to basics".

Global stories
Reagan's America was an empire, proud of its strength on the world stage. So FF240-250 are about colonialism:

Personal stories
Reaganism was built on "family values." These issues progress in scale from the personal and intimate to the global, and finally the cosmic. We start with the personal:

Reed the Skrull
Back in issue 91 we discussed the evidence for Reed being a good Skrull, who escaped in the 1930s. Byrne's run makes a lot more sense in this light:

Reed's decline
In these climax issues we see Skruill-Reed's nightmare come true: he utterly fails and the Skrulls arrive for justice. (The Skrulls know about Reed, and all their encounters are warnings not to go too far: see notes to FF 2)

John Byrne's run: "Back to basics"

John Byrne dominates FF history.

time line

His run is generally popular with fans, and this is usually attributed to turning back the clock to an earlier time. But if we compare this with earlier acts it's totally different. What is different is the more visible "down-to-earth-realism." There are more ordinary street scenes, ordinary telephones, wrinkles in clothing. etc.  "Down-to-earth-realism" is half of the formula for success so naturally these stories were more popular.

Actually, Moench and Sienkewicz included just as many down-to-earth elements, but their stories were more intense, faster moving, and had more creative camera angles. Byrne is simpler, easier to follow, and his first few issues laid on the "ordinary" very thick indeed, and kept the high tech to a minimum. By the end of Byrne's run the ordinariness went down and so did sales.

Byrne's run is a good example of depth in the FF; the story works on at least three levels

  1. To a new young reader it's single issue stories, about danger, featuring people and technology with no limits.
  2. To a typical fan it's several different arcs, about optimism (Byrne, like Waid, was notable for his smiling characters), and not about conflict but about family.
  3. To the reader who follows long term trends, it is about avoiding the future. The run is an attempted reboot to the past, the early 1960s. The team was once focused on the future and now the future is such a terrifying place they want to get back to the past. As this page hopes to show, the smiles hide the last stages of a decades long crisis.

The decade of Ronald Reagan
Under Byrne the Great American Novel reflects Reaganism: the themes and even the dates all match. For details see the commentary to FF246.

A bit of fun
This era is the darkest of all. So before we start here's some fun. Reagan appeared in two Fantastic Four stories before this: in 1968 and 1976. Comic creators of the time tended to be politically left of center, so both appearances are for comic relief. It's good stuff. :)


A personal note
Byrne's legendary run (FF232-294) is regarded by many fans as second only to Lee and Kirby. My view is a little different, though I still rate these issues highly. The first American comic I ever subscribed to was the FF,and my first new issue was 251: the image of Ben staring into the abyss is etched on my mind. But I also remember being a tiny bit disappointed: I had impossibly high expectations. My previous FF experience was dominated by Kirby and Perez, and really nothing could beat those.  The other problems I have with Byrne's run are:

  1. He ignores the previous 20 yeas - he tried to destroy the big story that had been building up.
  2. He changes the characters beyond recognition. Reed, Sue and Johnny changes personality, Ben is left in limbo, development wise (though to be fair he had played a supporting role in Moench's run).
  3. He does nothing of any lasting significance. It's all smoke and mirrors. This is not just an observation, it was his intention: he has always been an "illusion of change, not real change, it's only comics" guy, and I am the opposite. For me the FF is at its best when there is real change.
  4. Byrne's run is all small stories. Even the "big" stories (a small loss, hero, etc.) are made small because they are designed to have zero long term effect. 

In short, Byrne set out to kill the big story.

And yet he put so much effort into it that he ended up moving the story forwards despite himself. In his "comic creators on the FF" interview he says how he had particular plans, but the team seemed to have their own ideas and the story wrote itself in directions he did not intend. His run does end up fitting perfectly as a development of what went before, despite his intention to reboot. I see Byrne's run as the proof that comics can be high art of lasting significance: the method of production can lead to something much greater than its parts. Comics at their best write themselves against an author's intent. All we ask is that the authors really care. And Byrne in his FF run really cared.

Part 1: personal stories

Issue 232: Stepford Wife Sue: her last desperate gamble

Sue's strategy

This is where Sue begins her desperate Stepford Wife gamble to get through to Reed. See the comments to FF231 for how and why Sue changed. Sue behaves absurdly out of character - Johnny too.

Reed has withdrawn emotionally
In the FF229-31 arc we saw that Reed's own mistakes caused their problems. On top of all the other problems he is beginning to feel defensive. Instead of his previously confident speech patterns he now spends most of his time justifying himself, mechanically reviewing the logic of his actions in his mind (to ensure that he cannot be blamed for mistakes) and explaining them clinically to others. It's like he's saying "you see, I know that I look like a jerk, but you must understand the logic."  

The easiest way to see Reed's emotional withdrawal is to compare two very similar pages, in FF201 and FF232:

Fantastic Four 201
      and 232

FF201: FF232:
action: jumps into the problem runs away (on the next pages)
camera angle: looks upward, Reed looks dominant looks down, Reed looks small
body: muscular and powerful thinner
face: muscular and handsome receding hairline
thinks about: the team only his experiments
pacing: lots of action takes a page to get started
language: action-oriented, short passive and lengthy
text boxes just one word: "AND" lengthy passive descriptions of static objects
expression: angry confused

The same emotional withdrawal is seen throughout the run. Note that Reed's appearance always reflects his underlying confidence.

Sue's policy: romantic dates
This continues the dating Reed policy begun in the previous landmark story, the Ebon Seeker (see the start of FF229). Before that, Sue had not dragged Reed out on a date since FF158, after the near divorce. Sue is trying to make Reed feel comfortable, remind him of the days when he won her love and felt invincible.

"A lot like murder"
This first issue foreshadows Reed's decision to save Galactus, which then leads to the death of whole planets. Ben is sympathetic to all forms of life (especially "rock monsters like himself), but Reed is more limited in his view.
life and death

This will be most clearly seen when Reed rescues Galactus in FF245. Galactus is a being of incredible knowledge and technology, so Reed wants to save him even if it means that billions of lesser creatures (like humans) die. Ironically Galactus is the one being who does not need saving: as a force of nature, he can only die in the way that a hurricane can die, but will always come back. In short, Reed understands technology but he does not understand life.

Reed's argument appears to be that the elemental creatures do not have minds in the e way that humans do, so their deaths do not matter. This was the same argument that Galactus used to defend killing humans in FF 50, saying that humans are such a simple life form (like ants) that they do not count. This illustrates the cold emptiness in Reed's heart as we near the end of act 4 (he was not always this cold). Hence Sue's desire to warm him up.

The REAL story: why Dr Strange?

It is fitting, almost inevitable, that Byrne's first issue had to end with Dr Strange. Strange represents the end of the horror phase at the heart of Act Four. Many times in this web site I have noted the hints of a magical subtext. In short, there are two ways to view superhero comics:
  1. If we only consider the FF. then other Marvel Comics are not real (see the discussion of realism).
  2. If we accept other comics are real then the only way to make sense of the craziness is to focus on the magic: what we see on the surface (the superhero battles) is just the tip of the iceberg, and the real battles are cosmic in nature, as described in the pages of Dr Strange.

The magical subtext is hinted at many times, but most clearly in the horror stories at the heart of Act 4:

In each case vastly powerful beings are uncovered: beings or forces whose power dwarfs whole planets:

In short, FF 201-231 is where the thin barrier between the world we see and the unseen world begins to rupture. So when Byrne's new era begins we have to have Dr Strange here to put the lid back on. The story presents itself as something very small; just Diablo stealing four statues in order to summon four elemental beings. But where Dr Strange is concerned things are never as they seem. A being who has faced Dormammu, and Eternity himself, would not personally waste time on something so trivial unless it helped other purposes. As he says at the very end, he and the FF face a common foe. No doubt he means evil. But evil is a grand, cosmic force. it is personified by the Devil: a name reflected in the names "Nicholas Scratch" and "Diablo". There is more to this than meets the eye.

Alternatively, this is all wild speculation and there is no bigger magical story. But if so, other comics (with their repeated rejection of realism) make no sense. You choose.

Other points to note

Issue 233: Johnny starts his recovery

Fantastic Four 233

The story begins with the team under great stress. Most readers see the fighting between Ben and Johnny as a comedy, a sign that all is comfortable and well. But this fails for two reasons:

  1. Read what they say: Ben is genuinely hurt, and Johnny is far too quick to escalate this into a fight (if this was a joke the sensible thing would be to leave).
  2. Johnny stopped these tricks when he was a teenager, back in 1964. The very rare time he's gone back is when under extreme stress: e.g. FF119.

These fights are a sign of great stress. It's also possible that this was staged to cheer up Reed.

Johnny starts his recovery: he's worth something

After years of feeling trapped by the team, and his love life being a disaster zone, Johnny's self esteem must be at an all time low, as evidenced by his recent severe weight loss. FF233 is about how he learns that, yes, he is worth something. Whatever else he may lack, the last page confirms that he is a hero. But later the same year (Marvel Time), in FF285, he will question even that. Finally Alicia will rescue him, and let him feel good about himself again. being with a mature and sensible woman who loves him will finally let him put away the last of his childish insecurities. He in turn will let Alicia know that she is worth committing to, after Ben has let her down so many times.

Other points to note

Issue 234: Reed's first experiment with the power cosmic

Fantastic Four 234

This issue is about powers in front of us but we just can't see it. One one level, Skip Collins is an obvious parallel to...
  1. Franklin: he controls the world without realizing it.He particularly affects time.
  2. Reed: Reed cannot connect to his son, he cannot see the vast power that is right in front of him. He cannot see how he causes events.
  3. In a small way he even parallels that other Mr Collins, the Baxter building landlord: he sees life as frustrating and hard, even though he has the most wonderful amazing super powers right in front of his face.
  4. The reader? The Franklin parallel is right in front of our faces, but do we see it?

On another level, Skip is more support for Reed being a Skrull who arrived in the 1930s (see the notes to issue 91). The FF has four human reality warpers:

  1. Franklin
  2. Willie Evans (FF 203)
  3. Skip Collins (here)
  4. Licorice Calhoun (FF 291-2)

Note the sequence of events:

  1. Reed the Skrull arrives in the 1930s. His goal is to defend himself and he Earth from the Skrulls.
  2. Reed's "father" suddenly appears, and develops a time machine, a device that relies on dimensional warpers such as would be used in a Skrull faster than light machine
  3. Reed spends his life developing that technology until he has unstable molecules (based on Skrulls) and a dimensional portal: see the page on the portal for how they are linked.
  4. Also in the 1930s professor Horton appears (then like Reed's father, disappears) and has advanced technology
  5. Also in the 1930s SHIELD suddenly has advanced technology
  6. Also in the 1930s Licorice Calhoun develops reality warping power: Reed's first experiment? As we see from FF annual 17, all it takes to change someone's cells is a glass of milk. Add the Skrulls' interest in hypnosis (as used many times in FF 91-93) and the possibilities are endless.
  7. Also in the 1930s Skip Collins is born (judging by his age): Reed's second experiment? One glass of milk and hypnosis for an adult, one for a pregnant mother?
  8. By 1966 Reed has perfected the dimensional portal, and in 1967 Franklin was conceived, to be born in 1968: Reed's third experiment? Note that Reed took years to decide on a name. As the Impossible Man remarked, shape changers don't have much use for names. Reed would not see life and death in the same way we do: Skrulls can multiply very easily (see FF annual 17) and changing someone's nature would not be seen as an ethical problem.
  9. In 1968 Willie Evans was conceived: perfect timing to use information Reed gained from Franklin's birth?

All of this might seem to suggest that Reed has an enormous ego. And that is the background to this story: the approach of Ego, the living planet. But where did Ego come from?

About Ego
How was Ego created? "Ego once told Thor that he was the result of a scientist merging with a planet when that planet's sun went nova" (Wikipedia). We see in annual 17 that Skrull cells are uniquely adapted to this: they can merge with humans, animals, plants, and any life form, and expand in a rapid chain reaction. We also learn from Galactus that entire planets have life energy. It is no stretch to see how a Skrull scientist, in a moment of crisis, could conceive of merging with an entire planet. That special unique scientist would be the closest thing we have to Reed's colossal ambition.

The zeitgeist
Other points to note

Issue 235: it's all about ego

Ego the rogue planet first appeared in Thor comic in the 1960s, and in Fantastic Four in 1981. Once again, the stories are years ahead of science. Real rogue planets (born in mid space, not simply knocked off a star) were not discovered until 2013. It is still not known whether any of those planets is alive. :)

rogue planet
As for the story...

Fantastic Four 235
Maybe I'm being too heavy handed with the symbolism, but both Doom and Reed have giant egos and both finally fail, not because of a direct attack, but because they are only firing on one engine. In Reed's case he fires on just one engine because he neglects his greatest asset, his son Franklin. In Doom's case he fires on just one engine by creating too many enemies (and ultimately Kristoff) so he has to spend his time fighting them instead of doing what he wants.

On a simpler level, this issue represents Ben's unconquerable spirit, and how all of Ben's suffering is for nothing (except to give him empathy for others). Ben's problems will be solved in act 5, not by a colossal battle or by enduring infinite pain, but by simply by changing his outlook, realizing that he is indeed lovable so the rocks are not a problem at all. There is a religious angle to this. Both Buddhism and evangelical protestantism teach that we get what we want only when we stop struggling and accept life. Ben's situation is probably closer to the evangelical Protestant view: his life is actually pretty wonderful, life is waiting to shower him with everything he wants if only he accepts it.

Issue 236: what Ben really wants

Fantastic Four 236
Fantastic Four 236

This 'Tiny Town' story shows what Ben really wants, and it leads to Alicia seeing that her relationship can go nowhere. This is one of those major defining moments in Ben's life.
Ben's life

A lot more could be said, but it's just a great story. Go and find it, read it, enjoy it!

Other points to note

Dr Doom

Issue 237: Sue's charm offensive

Fantastic Four 237

Here we see Sue's Stepford Wife gambit in all its glory. She looks like a doll, she takes Reed on dates (nobody seriously thinks this was his idea, right?), she lets Franklin see Reed being affectionate, and Franklin loves it. So far so good. But time will show that it's not enough. Reed does not change. Note his haggard face: Reed's face reflects his confidence. He is in a desperately bad way, but he refuses to see it.

Franklin uses his powers again to save his family. Reed can't cope with this concept, it troubles him deeply But rather than get to know his son and help to guide his marvelous gifts, Reed just wants to shut them down. Unconsciously Franklin, like Ben, is a rival. So all of Sue's plans come to nothing.

Fantastic Four 237

Other points to note

Issue 238: sexual maturity

FF237 was about Sue and Reed's sexuality. FF238 is about Johnny's and Ben's.

Story 1: Johnny versus passion

The title is a reference to Christopher Fry's play "The Lady's Not For Burning". "It reflects the world's 'exhaustion and despair' following World War II, with a war-weary soldier who wants to die, and an accused witch who wants to live." (- Wikipedia)


Fry's play is about the need for maturity: that fighting and passion and quick judgment are not always the answer. FF238 is about the opposite, a girl who represents immaturity:

Johny has to learn maturity in his personal relationships. He already learned maturity in his duty to the team years ago, but still has not gained self knowledge. To do that, Johnny must see both extremes:

  1. the immature firebrand he thinks he wants (Frankie)
  2. and the extremely mature girl he never imagined he would want (Alicia) - Alicia is like the misunderstood woman in Fry's play.

Only then can Johnny be ready for his soul mate, Crystal, who combines both passion and wisdom: see their own page for details.

Other points to note
This issue and the next connect to some very long term themes.

Story 2: Ben can't cope with what happened at Liddleville


The Liddleville experience effected Ben deeply. He finally got what he wanted, and it was all a lie: and he wanted to live that lie rather than face reality. Ever since "the poker era" (from Marvel Two in One 51, at the time the team was broken up) Ben had persuaded himself he was happy with his lot in life. He had friends, he didn't need intimacy. But FF236 reminded him how wrong he was. And now, once again the intimacy he craved was taken from him.

Ben's inability to change is related to his internal torment, and now he is very tormented indeed. So when Reed was convinced he could cure Ben instead Ben merely regressed to an earlier form: the form when he first met Alicia. Ben hates his life, and wants to go back to hen he was almost happy.

Again and again in act 4, Reed will see that he can be wrong. This is the big one. He sees he is wrong, but as yet he cannot deal with it and puts it to the back of his mind. As the self styled "Mr Fantastic" and smartest man on earth, micromanaging everything, his position relies on always being right, especially in matters of science. But here he sees he is wrong. He can't process the fact. He also cannot understand why Ben does not react as he expects (see next issue). These mistakes and gaps in his understanding will play on his mind. From FF241 he will start to occasionally admit weakness, until finally at the end of act 4 we will learn humility and see his true role in the drama.

Issue 239: uncle Jake


Reed almost never lets his feelings show. This is nothing compared to his other major failures in Act 4. Ben doesn't even seem that bothered. The fact that Reed can fall apart under such a small thing indicates his tremendous internal stresses. Normally he bottles it up behind a smile but his face looks haggard.

Fantastic Four 239

In this issue we also see that Crystal is loyal and genuine. This is important so that we can see that her later affair is completely out of character, and Maximus told the truth, that he made it happen through mind control.

But more than Reed of Crystal, this issue is about Uncle Jake,

Aunt Petunia, and how Jake learned peace.

As the Great American Novel, we might expect the book to have something to say about an earlier age when men were more violent. Yes it does, and this is represented by Ben Grimm's upbringing among gangs. It is particularly represented by the redemption of his uncle Jake. This is not specifically stated, but it is sold sensitively through the story of another person.

Since 1964, Ben Grimm (The Thing) has referred to his "old aunt Petunia" as a source of wisdom. Note the word "old." He even jokes about her aged appearance, as seen in issue 134.
Aunt Petunia

But in FF 238-239 we finally see Petunia, and she is young.

How young? She looks to be in her 20s or 30s. O'Hoolihan calls Petunia "a foin broth of a girl" and Johnny considers her attractive. Assuming an upper age of 35, and with the stretching time scale between 1961 and 1982, she was born after 1935. But for Ben to have fought in WWII he left home in 1945 at the latest. Petunia would have been 10 or younger when she was dishing out old lady advice to a teenage Ben. More seriously, she was supposedly a qualified nurse and possibly even married to uncle Jake at this time. The numbers do not add up.

As an aside, Petunia has a highly dated name. Flower names (rose, lily, iris, etc.) had an explosion in popularity around the year 1900, but the fashion soon ended. now ranks Petunia as number 12,986 in popularity (compared with the dated but still possible Susan at 840 and relatively trendy Alicia at 185). Everything points to Petunia being a generation older than Ben, and not a married nine year old graduate.

However, the story suggests a solution. Petunia appears to ask Ben's help with problems in the town. We learn that ancient earth spirits are causing the bad people to face their inner demons and die, and the solution is to get the bad people to leave. Only a handful of good people are left, including Petunia and Jake, and a girl called Wendy who spends time with the spirits. Perhaps Petunia also spends time with them? 

Wendy does not tell people what she knows about the spirits. At the end of the book she is shown with the spirits, a fact not revealed to anybody. But if it was not revealed, how was it in the book? In the Fantastic Four we only see what the team tell Marvel: if the team don't know about it then it can't go in the book (see FF 10, FF 176). How, then, did they know Wendy's secret? Presumably somebody else had experience with the spirits.. Who else could it be but Petunia? Jake is not mobile, but Petunia is feisty and curious: another Wendy. Petunia would have explored the are as a small girl (face it, there was not much else to do) and, like Wendy, would have discovered the spirits. Perhaps "Wendy's friends" are not just the spirits, but also Jake and Petunia.

Jake is also another version of Wendy's father: he was once angry, we are told. 

Uncle Jake

Jake comes from a time when men were often violent, and Ben comes from a culture of violent gang members. But now Jake is at peace. Perhaps Wendy's tale is also Petunia's tale. Perhaps it is really all about Jake, but like Wendy, Petunia and Ben are too loyal to ever speak against him. Jake had to face his inner demons, the demons of the violent earth that made his generation (the last generation to sweep the native Americans away): he had to reap the whirlwind. Notice that redemption comes from the land itself. The American settlers lose their thirst to conquer the land and begin to cooperate with it. The Grimm story is the story of the people of the land.

Note that none of this contradicts "second wife" or "many years younger" story. But the significance is not that a 50 year old man married a 9 year old, the significance is that a 50 year old man married a 30 year old who healed his anger.

This raises several questions. 

First, did Petunia move to Arizona too late to be this young? She said they moved to Arizona "shortly before" FF 1. But why would two New Yorkers choose Arizona? Seems  along way from new York - where they trying to escape? Or did they already have connections there?

Second, Jake is portrayed as a nice middle class doctor who was only angry because of his legs. He contrasts with Ben's alcoholic father and gang leader brother. In The Thing issue 2 we see how Ben idolized his brother, but then his brother was killed in a gang fight, and Ben went to live with uncle Jake. Later Ben became leader of the same Yancy Street Gang, And only THEN did Jake talk to Ben about leaving the gang. Something does not add up. While it is possible that a lower class alcoholic has a middle class doctor for a brother, it is statistically unlikely. More seriously, Jake knew that Ben's favorite brother was killed in a gang fight. Why did Jake wait until Ben was gang leader before suggesting it was a bad idea? It sounds like Jake was saw gang membership, including stabbing, as perfectly acceptable.

Third, we are told that people disapproved of Jake marrying a much younger woman. But the numbers suggest this was only a man in his fifties marrying a woman in her thirties - unusual but hardly a scandal. Which leads to our next curiosity, and another explanation for the scandal:

Fourth, why did Petunia have such an influence on Ben? According to The Thing issue 2, Ben was raised by his aunt Alyce, and Petunia did not arrive on the scene until later. Ben was a gang leader while Petunia was a student nurse who claims she never questioned anything Jake did. Why would Ben be influenced by Petunia more than Alyce? Petunia's story is all very neat - far TOO neat. Jake was an idealized man? Jake needed the excuse of an injury to explain why he met this nurse? But he was a doctor in a busy hospital (FF238, 257): he worked with nurses all the time! Then it took years for Petunia to be Jake's student  and then eventually his wife, and then become an influence on Ben? There isn't enough time. And Petunia never questioned Jake? This doesn't sound like a woman that the rebellious Ben would idolize.

A simpler explanation is that Jake was seeing Petunia before the accident, and we are hearing the sanitized version of events.  I am not suggesting that Jake killed his wife deliberately. But if Jake was seeing somebody then his marriage may not have been a happy one: Jake's brother was an alcoholic. It's easy to see how Jake might have been driving after drinking, and having a lot on his mind. That would explain why he and Petunia wanted to move from their home in New York and get as far away as possible: accidentally killing your wife then marrying your much younger mistress is quite a scandal, and they would want to get away.

In short, Jake was not innocent. Though Petunia probably is. Petunia must have a pure heart, to survive being friends with the spirits.
Fifth potential problem: if Petunia knew about the spirits, why didn't she tell Ben? For the same reason that Wendy kept them secret, right to the end. Some things are best not discussed. But why would Petunia come to ask help from Ben if she could already talk to the spirits? Because the evil in the town is causing deaths, and she needs help to get the bad people out of there. Wendy did not tell everything she knew, so why should Petunia?

Finally, why did Ben not notice that Petunia had not aged? Reed notes that the spirits may still be around in ten thousand years. Like the native American "ancient ones" found by the Miracle Man, they appear to have slowed aging to an almost standstill. Being around time-stretching superheroes keeps a person young (as noted in the fourth-wall-breaking She-Hulk book), so perhaps being around these earth spirits will slow aging to a crawl. This would explain why Petunia had barely aged since Ben knew her when Ben was a child (and 35 then seemed ancient). This also explains why Ben does not notice that Petunia has not aged: time dilation in comics is never noticed by those who experience it.

Annual 16: one of the most important FF stories ever


For years I thought this story was not part of continuity. I have never been more wrong. This story is the KEY to understanding the continuity of the big FF story. It will take a long time to finish this review - so much to say! But I will leave you with just two tasters:

The art is superb

(but perhaps not what you're used to)

I have a whole page on the topic of Ditko's art, and it includes some major themes from this annual.

This annual is the key that unlocks the secrets to Gregory Gideon, "Aron the Watcher", Lockjaw, and more. Does this look familiar?

Dragon Man always represents relationships: he appears at engagements, marriages, and separations. He represents the tension between raw violence and empathetic alliance. He navigates subspace with ease, and is thus central to the whole 28 year story.  Dragon Man is also the innocent link between science and magic (just as Dr Doom is the non-innocent link). In short, while Sue links the visible characters, Dragon man links the hidden ones (the abstract forces, and higher powers who act behind the scenes). This annual is big.

To be continued!

Part 2: global stories

Issue 240: China industrializes: i.e. Crystal has a child

Fantastic Four 240

Johnny still loves Crystal, deep down. She is his soul mate. One day this child, Luna, will probably be a member of Johnny's Fantastic Four. For how the baby leads to a revelation about Lockjaw, click here. (Quicksilver wants to force Luna into danger due to his own pride, just as Reed always puts Franklin in danger, and Lockjaw intervenes.) 

Medusa' secrets
Note that Medusa was captured by the Enclave in FF207 and remains captured for "many weeks", yet Lockjaw does not rescue her. We know from FF160 that lockjaw can track somebody across dimensions just from a piece of their clothing. yet he does not track Medusa. We later learn that the Enclave are defeated when Maximus sacrifices his life. We are shown none of the details. Something very strange is going on here. Maximus, Medusa and Lockjaw are probably the three most secretive Inhumans. We know that Medusa treats Lockjaw as an inferior: did he deliberately not try too hard to find her? We know that Medusa can be very secretive (her early years as a "villain", or arranging for reed and Sue to reunite), and sometimes appears to go against Black Bolt's wishes (e.g. in not wanting Crystal back). We also know that something prevented the royal family family from ever seriously restraining Maximus. We only ever have hints, but something very interesting is going on here.

This issue is important in relation to others

China: The zeitgeist

This is where the Inhumans leave Earth, due to air pollution. In this issue we are reminded that the Inhumans live in Tibet: with their family values and martial arts, they represent east Asia.

But the world is becoming more industrialized, more polluted.

This period is where China began to expand beyond its own lands economically, creating exactly the air pollution the Inhumans had to escape.


FF240 was cover dated March 1982 (i.e. written around Sep 1981), and these are the events of the time:


All about the Inhumans
or... is Johnny the real father of Luna?

Nathan Adler (of "How Would You Fix") has given the Inhumans a great deal of thought, which leads him to several interesting hypotheses. The whole thing is worth quoting. The subtitles are my own:

1968 (year 8, Marvel Time)
Crystal moves in with Johnny and the team

Crystal came to live at the Baxter building as a member of the Fantastic Four (although there was absolutely NO indication that there were ever any nocturnal wanderings on her or Johnny’s part – Crystal and Johnny seem to have had the sort of chaste love that wouldn’t have been out of place in a 1960’s My Love comic).

1970 (year 8-9)
Crystal has to leave

She and Johnny seemed to be happily joined at the hip for a while until Crystal’s health deteriorated because of the pollutants of modern civilization and she had to return to Attilan.

1971 (year 9)
It was whilst returning to Attilan that Crystal became enmeshed in a plot of Diablo’s...

1973 (year 10)

...and eventually was taken by Lockjaw to the wounded Quicksilver who was trapped in the collapsing Australian Sentinel base. Despite a ruling that outsiders were not allowed in Attilan (which had kept Johnny away previously) Crystal brought Pietro home with her and nursed him to health. [...]

1974 (year 11)
a more open Attilan

So Crystal breaks Johnny’s heart and marries Quicksilver. The Inhumans get over their prejudices about outsiders enough to allow this to happen, and apart from a guest appearance by Ultron at the wedding everything goes OK for a while. Quicksilver stays in Attilan, putting his Avengers training to good use as leader of the defense militia, and inexplicably failing to call his old comrades in when the city is attacked by a variety of menaces from Shatterstar to Maelstrom to the Enclave. Eventually Crystal has a baby, who is names Luna. Luna is extraordinarily human.

1978 (year 12)
Luna is conceived
See the discussion of annual 12, below

1983 (year 13)

[In this issue Luna is born. In "The Thing" issue 3] we see Crystal resisting her family’s efforts to expose Luna to the Terrigen Mists. Quicksilver is all for it. He doesn’t want to have a homo sapiens daughter. This is the first major schism between the young lovers, even though all appears to be restored to status quo afterwards. The story ends when Lockjaw speaks for the first time, claiming to be an Inhuman who was terribly changed by the Mists. Although this revelation has since been retconned as a joke on Ben, the actual story does not support this. Lockjaw’s speech is the pivotal point of a very dramatic and serious storyline. Nobody was going to be pulling jokes. It was this sudden interference by Lockjaw which convinces Pietro not to mutate Luna.

1987 (year 14)
Adultery: Crystal and Quicksilver split

The next major development is of course Crystal’s adultery with the rather shallow real estate salesman (Norm somebody?) over in the Vision & Scarlet Witch Limited Series. Crystal’s motivations for this are depicted as being an increasing schism between her and Pietro. Later retcons have attributed it (and Quicksilver’s turning to the dark side of the force for a while) to Maximus’ mental manipulations. Suffice to say that this was the trigger for Crystal and Pietro to split up (though I was never that disappointed by it since I didn’t like them getting together in the first place).

1987: Tension with Attilan
The Inhumans do not appear to have been very sympathetic to Crystal about her troubles. When she decides to rejoin the FF there is a lot of resistance from her family and she is very closely monitored around Johnny Storm. Clearly there is much of the old attraction still intact on both sides, but Crystal overcomes temptation and eventually gets recalled to Attilan for a family-ordained reunion with the apparently repentant Pietro.

1989 and later
the Franklinverse

The estranged couple remain together in a rather uncomfortable no-man’s land until the Avengers Collection Obsession storyline which leads to Crystal joining Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (bad idea). Quicksilver joins X-Factor shortly afterwards (worse idea). Two things happen during Crystal’s time with the Avengers. First she has to cope with a growing mutual attraction to Dane Whitman, the Black Knight (another bad idea). Secondly she has to deal with attempts from Pietro to reconcile (even worse idea). And being Crystal she lets both of these things go too far. The story never makes clear whether Crystal and Dane consummate their affection (although there is an implication that they certainly did something down in the Mansion’s gardens, watched by Sersi and possibly the fake Vision – now that’s a couple I could get into), but they are certainly more than friends. And it is this last complicated triangle, or quadrilateral, or whatever, that has branded Crystal a slut in the eyes of many Avengers readers. When Tuc, Crystal’s alternate-future son, appeared in The Crossing, it was unclear as to whether Pietro or Dane was his father (I’d prefer Johnny as the one since I’m still convinced he is Luna’s pa too).

The nature of Inhuman society
The Inhumans limited series by Jae Lee introduced a new concept which could force us all to re-evaluate little Crystal’s behavior. Lee’s Inhumans are more than just a race of mutants or some other super-powered variant species of humanity. The storyline in the current series implies that the Inhumans are effectively a designer organism, each gaining powers from the Terrigen mist which enable them to fulfill some social function within the society as a whole. In other words, each Inhuman is born to a place within Inhuman culture, just as an ant has a fixed role within its live. What that role is becomes clear at the time of Terrigen metamorphosis for an Inhuman. Whether it is the destiny of that person to be a food-generator, a guard, a drone, or a king, it is all regulated in some way by the collective need of the race which we now know to be truly Inhuman.

Only Maximus understands?
Yet even amongst the Inhumans this is understood only by Maximus the Mad, and perhaps Black Bolt. This function is not just about power. An Inhumans’ special ability is only a reflection of the core of their nature. Hence the mutation of the mists only manifests the role which they have been genetically engineered to play from birth.

Implications for Crystal
So what does this say about Crystal’s function in Inhuman society? Is it only the whimsy of a silly girl that led her to Johnny Storm and later to Pietro Maximoff and Dane Whitman? Or does Crystal have some sort of cultural imperative which makes her seek out the unknown and embrace it? Of all the Inhumans’ royal family Crystal is the only one who has willingly sought out adventure beyond Attilan. There is something almost mystical about the way the Mists manifest skills within the Inhumans in anticipation of what they will need. Just at the time that contact with other cultures was going to be critical to the survival of the Inhumans, Crystal came along to seek out liaison with the Human Torch, and through him others who had power to achieve what the current Inhumans could not. Her instinct seemed to be to bond, physically, emotionally, totally, with some gifted male from outside her own culture. Denied access to Johnny Storm she was taken (by Lockjaw!) to Pietro Maximoff.

Implications for Lockjaw
Lockjaw remains an enigma (although I hear that Inhumans series addresses him but I don’t know how). Although his sentience has been portrayed as a joke by Inhumans such as Karnak and Gorgon ever since Byrne left the FF, I don’t entirely trust the Inhuman royal family to always speak the truth to outsiders. Certainly a culture which has created and enslaved the Alpha Primitives would have few qualms in mutating one of its own and making them a dumb beast. But whether dumb beast or not, his pivotal role at two vital moments of Crystal’s life cannot be ignored.

Luna's importance
Perhaps Lockjaw’s function was to do whatever was necessary to bring about the conception and preservation of Luna?

Implications for adultery
As to the estate agent, I can only plead that Crystal’s instincts are clearly very strong. Still, the Inhuman collective imperative does seem to require “fresh blood” for the future. There has been more interaction between Inhumans and the outside world in the few years since the FF first met Medusa than in all the centuries before that. And Crystal’s urge to join with a non-Inhuman man do not seem to have diminished. Even her very personality – nurturing, gentle, loving, and kind – seems to suit her for the role placed upon her.

Conclusion: Crystal
Is there more to Crystal’s actions than meets the eye? Is there an explanation for how a loving and caring woman could break first Johnny’s then Pietro’s hearts? Is Crystal as much victim as perpetrator? Has she any way to avoid her genetically-impelled destiny?

Conclusion: Inhuman morality
There are a number of dark shadows at the edge of the Inhumans stories. Apart from the Alpha Primitives, and the later depicted genetic snobbery based upon the Terrigen Mist mutations, there is also the mystery of Lockjaw, the only mutated apparent animal we have ever seen in Attilan, and also the questions around Medusa's child.

We have seen the Inhumans drag Crystal home on a number of occasions when her behavior has been considered inappropriate by Inhuman society. Conversely, we have seen Quicksilver treated with contempt by them even as he has been struggling for their lives. We have seen the very strict regimen under which Inhuman culture is operated, by never-fully-depicted codes as complex and impenetrable as many of the older cultures of our own world. All of this seems to suggest that the Inhumans are not, as they often appear to be, merely the Addams Family of the Marvel Universe, or another lost tribe, but something very different... Inhuman in fact. It may even be that the Inhuman organism is, on one level, the culture, not the individual. And if so, judging any of the Inhumans' interactions by human standards will always leave us somewhat puzzled.

On the other hand, the Inhuman Royal family and some others have been shown as noble, compassionate, and selfless. It may be that like many cultures the Inhumans maintain a "public face" for outsiders and have a rich, complicated sub-strata which is reserved for insiders only. Or there may be those things that all Inhumans know, but never speak about (think about the Victorian culture of our own history, and the taboos which it had, such as homosexuality; things still went on, but were never acknowledged).

Conclusion: Maximus
That said, one’s impression is that even the Inhumans themselves do not understand how deep their genetic imperatives go. Perhaps that is why Maximus, who seems to comprehend them best, is mad, and why Black Bolt, who is the wisdom of his people, can shatter worlds with his voice.
Johnny as Luna's father?
The evidence can be summed up as follows:
  1. Having a child was massively important:
    "Crystal would have to be a damn sight sluttier to make a significant difference to the Inhuman gene pool. So there is clearly some other reason why she might need to conceive a child by an outsider, and who turns out to be entirely human."
  2. Crystal was born to meet Johnny:
    "There is evidence to argue that the Inhumans bring forth the individuals that their society will need, somehow unconsciously anticipating what is to come. If rebellious, heart-led Crystal had not struck up her romance with Johnny Storm, the entire Inhuman population might have been destroyed, or at least subjugated by Maximus and later by the Kree."
    [For why Crystal left for Quicksilver, see the page on Johnny and Crystal]
  3. Crystal was born to have Luna:
    "If Crystal had not birthed Luna then the Avengers would not have survived the Crossing. And who knows what need the Inhumans might have for Luna in the days to come?"
  4. The supreme intelligence's priorities
    "Remember that [the Inhumans] they were an early, forgotten, genetic experiment by the Kree. This takes on a new relevance in the light of the Supreme Intelligence’s sacrifice of the entire Kree galaxy in order to promote the genetic advancement of his race. We have never seen anything like an Inhumans experiment on another planet, yet somehow this unique accomplishment, which has significant military value and which had both a Sentinel and Shatterstar set to watch over it was overlooked for millennia. Only the Supreme Intelligence himself could bury data that well. And the Inhumans started interacting with the outside world just as the Skrulls began their major campaign on Earth, and shortly before the Kree/Skrull War (in which they also played a role). Is there still Kree programming somewhere in the genetic code of the Inhumans? Is the Supreme Intelligence saving this experiment for something special, perhaps something to do with his plans to revitalize the Kree genetic inheritance? Has the Supreme Intelligence got a purpose for Luna? These what-if games can get very deep, can’t they? Perhaps it’s safer to assume that Crystal is a fallible, all-too human girl who has made good judgments and bad in her time. Not the culmination of an ancient plot by the Supreme Intelligence to exploit the genetic potential of humankind and spread his power across the stars.  But the latter sounds like much more fun!!!"

In short, this was all planned, so it makes much more sense for Johnny to be the father than for Quicksilver. I would add two more lines of evidence:

  1. Johnny's ancestry
    None of this is accidental (For details see the notes on magic, by FF 48.) If this is all carefully planned then Johnny is the obvious father: being probably one quarter Atlantean, so mixing all the surface races. And note that Johnny as born as a normal human, despite having cross-species genes, just as Luna was. Coincidence?
  2. Quicksilver's behavior
    Are we being too prejudiced against Quicksilver? He turned against his evil past (he began in "the brotherhood of evil mutants"), and Crystal fell in love with him. This suggests a strong, noble heart. Yet something happened to turn him almost mad with anger. His neglect of Crystal began after Luna was born, and before Crystal's affair. What caused him to change his feelings? What did he learn?

When was Luna conceived?

Looking back 9 months, Marvel Time, takes us to a very strange event in FF annual 12. Annual 12 is announced as extremely important to FF history: nothing less than the end of both the Inhumans and the FF, "possibly the most powerful story you'll read in this, the Marvel Renaissance of Comics." I have argued on its page that this could refer to the actions of the Sphinx. But if we look at the star of the issue, Crystal, we perhaps see another cataclysmic event.
ff annual 12

The "Marvel Renaissance"
The word Renaissance and the Crystal -Johnny love story reminds us of Romeo and Juliet: how Romeo's (Johnny's) love for Juliet (Crystal) brought two warring families together. And in this issue they consummate their love. To see how and where, we need to start at the beginning.

FF Annual 12 overview
The story is build on a mystery: why did Crystal need Johnny at that time? The official reason was that Quicksilver and the Inhumans were trapped. But Lockjaw easily rescued Crystal and later easily rescued Black Bolt, who then defeated the Sphinx.The other enemy, Thraxon, was a man of puny intellect, so was not even a serious threat. So she could easily rescue Quicksilver and the others any time she wanted. Remember that as you read on. Also remember that Reed once called Crystal "an excellent strategist": She may act like a damsel in distress, but she knows exactly what she is doing.
Thraxon's attack is the perfect excuse to get close to Johnny, and she seized it. Nobody would question what happened, because she seemed to be in desperate need. And even if you watched her all the time, you would not see anything inappropriate happen. Unless you knew what to look for. Let's look closer at annual 12:


Crystal had given up on Quicksilver
Crystal said Quicksilver was lost to her, and she would never see him again. But she could rescue him any time she wanted, so she must mean lost in some other way. Ans she would of course stand next to him again, so "never see him again" must refer to either her longer term plans, or perhaps she would never "see him" in an intimate way. Why had she given up? We can only speculate. Had he failed her in some way? Had she decided the marriage was a huge mistake? Something else?

Crystal said Johnny helped her "when I needed you most"
The whole story was about Crystal taking the opportunity to visit Johnny, and at the end she says he helped her "when I needed her most." Yet her family was never in serious danger, and during the climax to the battle she and Johnny and the others were not involved: they were peacefully floating in the silence of space. So let's see what exactly happened in the climax to the story? (Notice how I keep using the world climax?)

Why were they out in space?
Early in the battle Ben is knocked out into space, bursting a hole in the wall. Sue watches, and catches enough air for him to survive. Crystal watches, and volunteers to seal the hole. Why? Isn't that Johnny's specialty? Johnny is often seen melting holes, sealing holes, etc., and he does a very good job too: his flame powers are greater than Crystal's. So why does she volunteer before he has a chance to do it? This is suspicious, and we find out why later, when the Sphinx attempts to kill them. It is clear that he has enough power to do it, and he does not hold back. Yet somehow they survive. How? They are thrown through the wall. But this ship was designed to act as a fortress on Earth, so its walls would be thick. Ben could survive that force, but the others can't - unless the wall was weakened. This suggests that Crystal deliberately sealed it weakly, and not with inches of steel as Johnny would have done. But why were they not killed? Something threw them out before they died. Only one person had the power to do that: Crystal, with her power over the elements, including air and metals.

How long were they in space?
With two beings capable of controlling air (Sue and Crystal), and having experienced the same problem earlier, they should have sucked out plenty of air. The bubble looks big enough to last half an hour at least. But by the end they were short of air, so they were there for minutes at least.

They were dazed.
They had been mind-blasted, if Ben's earlier attack was any guide. They can still think (both Ben and Sue were thinking as they fell into space) but a mind blast must surely have some effect. Ben was still outside from the last time, and Reed and Johnny seem to be holding their heads or necks. And none of them made an effort to get back into the battle: Reed could have directed them to release some air as a jet, as he did in FF277. So they were dazed throughout.

air bubble

The positions before and after
Look at the positions in the air bubble at the start and end. The second image is very small and in silhouette, but I think we can draw some safe conclusions. Ben is obviously in the middle. Judging by the hair and the size, Sue ends up at the left, closer to the ship: this is where she would want to be, to try to maneuver them back. That leaves the smaller Crystal at the top (note the lumpiness of the silhouette - her costume sticks out in places, unlike the others). The other two would be Reed and Johnny: to minimize movement that would be Johnny at the right and Reed at the bottom. In short, they have rotated 45 degrees anticlockwise, and Crystal and Johnny have swapped places.

A closer look at Crystal
When the blast hit, Crystal was behind the others, and shielding her head, so probably received a smaller dose. Sue may have instinctively created a forcefield, so that explains why the women look less dazed than the men. And look at the poses: both Sue and Crystal are in action poses before and after, while the men just look lost. Sue is concentrating on maintaining her field, but what is Crystal doing? That is the sixty four thousand dollar question. And this is the answer:
  1. She begins in an action pose, as if using her powers, with the upper half of her body near the lower half of Johnny's body.
  2. She ends having passed right over him, and Johnny's legs are now apart (notice how one leg is drawn as if much closer to the camera).
  3. And all this time remember how Johnny was feeling: he adores Crystal: losing her as the hardest thing ever, and this is the first time they are alone together. Plus he just came from battle: the adrenalin would be flowing. But now his brain is a little confused, as if drunk.
  4. Throughout this time Crystal ensured that Sue, the only other alert one, and the one most protective of Johnny, was always on the opposite side of Ben so could not see clearly.
  5. This process took several minutes in the silence of space. It's extremely romantic when you visualize it.

So what am I actually saying?
What could have happened for the minute or so when these two star crossed lovers were inches apart? Nothing obvious of course. But it would not have to be obvious.

Crystal is an elemental. She can make make air rub past a person with whatever force she wants, and can make fluids flow up, down, wherever she wants them. "But they remained fully clothed" you say? Of course. but unstable molecules adapt to the requirements of the user. Do you really think Johnny need a zipper in those pants? As for Crystal, Inhuman fabric technology is 20,000 years in advance of our own. Clothing is no barrier to fluids that want to move.

So we can piece together what happened:

  1. Crystal had rejected Quicksilver, and wanted Johnny.
  2. For the previous minutes or hours, Johnny's desire for Crystal was building
  3. Crystal arranged for the to be floating a few inches apart in the silence of space for several minutes, while Johnny felt like he as in a dream.
  4. She had plenty of opportunity to stimulate anything she wanted, and to move fluids from one place to another.
  5. Then they would slowly drift apart and nobody watching would know what happened.
  6. And nine months later Crystal had a baby, and Johnny was shaken up by the news.

And all with plausible deniability.

If Johnny and Luna are as important to the galaxy as I think they are, then what more appropriate time to conceive? In a dream like state, floating above the Earth, where the entire universe could see them yet nobody would see anything. To update Johnny's comment on their first meeting, Crystal makes Barbarella look like a boy.

This is all just speculation of course.

Other points to note:

Issue 241: the empty armor. Reed as Lancelot: the empty hero

Fantastic Four 241

The Fantastic Four comic at its best
Before looking at the Lancelot motif, we need to appreciate this issue for what it is: an example of the Fantastic Four at its best. A rip-roaring science fiction adventure, accessible to anybody, and packed with amazing ideas.

Cultural references
The thing I love most about the Fantastic Four is all these cultural references and amazing ideas: so many ideas packed into such a small space. In this issue we have:


The story is also full of references to eye opening movies and books:

The Great American Novel
The Close Encounters reference shows why this web site exists. On his Byrne Robotics web site, John Byrne was asked about the similarity between his mountain and Close Encounters. Byrne denied any influence, and said he had that idea since he was a child. Yet any outside observer can see the parallels. This illustrates how our minds work: we take in ideas all the time, and only focus on some, but every idea affects us. This web site tries to trace those ideas, even when the writer denies any knowledge of them.

Which brings us to the empty suit of armor idea.

The empty armor
FF241 was written in late 1981. April 1981 had seen the release of Excalibur, what many fans consider to be the best of the Arthurian movies. The greatest of all knights was Lancelot, and he failed in his quest to find the Grail because he lusted after the queen, Guinevere. In the movie this failure is foreshadowed by a nightmare in which Lancelot battles a knight who turns out to be an empty suit of armor. Lancelot awakes to find himself wounded. 


In the 1979 story by Roger Zelazny's ("The Last Defender of Camelot") Lancelot has been kept alive over the centuries, just as had the Roman ruler in FF241. At the end Lancelot must battles the knight who is an empty suit of armor. Lancelot wins, but is mortally wounded and dies, but he finally gets what he wants, a vision of the Grail. This has parallels with three very similar stories about Reed:

  1. This is the first,
  2. The second is when Reed is suicidal (FF 254)
  3. The third is the final triumph over himself at the end of act  (FF 294-6)

Byrne and the empty golden armor
We can't be sure if Byrne saw the movie Camelot, but in a thread about the movie somebody said the Arthurian legend was better than Tolkien, and Byrne was shocked that someone would even need to say that. We can safely conclude that Byrne is an Arthurian fan. We do know that Byrne liked the empty gold armor motif a lot, as he re-used it more than once, most notably with "Gilded Lily"  Alpha Flight. As with the Roman in F241, Lily crumbled to dust when her mast was removed.

Act 4 and the empty armor
The second half of act 4 is dominated by the motif of the empty (or nearly empty) suit of armor:

This is part of the theme of doppelgangers and identity that runs throughout the 28 year story. Even the stories that are not about empty armor are usually about something similar, e.g.

It's all about identity.

FF241 and Arthurian Britain
FF241 is set in ancient Rome, not Arthurian times, though the two are very close: the Arthurian cycle is set in the sixth century, in the power vacuum when Rome left Britain. So it is about the colonists leaving and the land returning to its natural magical state. So it is with FF241, when the Roman rule ends and T'Challa is once again undisputed master.

Reed and Lancelot
It is highly unlikely that Byrne was consciously thinking of Lancelot in FF241, but both Lancelot and Reed are examples of the same trope: the great and noble hero with the feet of clay. It is the same hero with different faces, as Joseph Campbell would put it. let us now look at this particular part of the "hero's journey", and the three similar stories, this one, FF 254 (his Negative Zone Folly) and FF294-295, the end of act 5.

The three stories
Each story follows the same outline:

  1. Happiness:
    It begins with Reed in his element: smiling, apparently happy, because he's studying physics.  In 241 he's exploring an energy burst, in 254 the negative zone, and 294 a subspace barrier.
  2. The city
    In a hidden ancient city (FF 254 is hidden in the Negative zone)
  3. The climb
    Reached by a long internal climb (oh the symbolism!)
  4. Stuck in the past
    Each city adores the past yet has high technology
  5. Fake leader
    The city's leader is a master of illusion (in 294-5 the leader is a frail old sleeping man but appears as a giant)
  6. Skeletons
    In the first two the bad guy is surrounded by bones, in the third one the team choose to see inside themselves (more symbolism!)
  7. Reed powerless
    In the first two Reed is chained and rendered powerless by his own carelessness. in the final one he at last comes to self knowledge.
  8. Stripped nakedness
    In 241 Sue is naked at the end. In 254 Sue and Reed are in Bed. In  294: Sue strips them down layer by layer until nothing is left.
  9. Empty armor
    The first two are ruled by a hollow golden suit of armor. The third is a high tech helmet that Reed is finally able to remove himself.
  10. Illusion to reality
    The first two are largely an illusion. The third is real but should not exist, and Reed makes it right.
  11. Reed humility
    In each, Reed must finally learn humility.

In FF241, a soldier gains access to captured alien technology, just as Reed did. He realizes that this technology plus his own intelligence mean he can became the natural ruler, just like Reed. This leads to Ben and Johnny fighting, as with Reed. And of course he falls for Sue, as everyone does: they do it all for Sue. Here is a taste of FF254. See the parallels with FF241: the tower, the empty golden armor, the technology, the bones, the great staircase, all maintained by illusion, etc.


And here is FF294-5: again the great staircase, the helmet, the bones, etc.

the helmet

The answer in each case is to removing the helmet of the leader: to end his authority. In the final story Reed realizes that he is like that leader, he has been holding his people back. And at that moment the darkness of act 4 ends and the recovery, act 5, can begin, where Reed decides to step aside.

Reed begins to see his weakness in this issue (241), but his brief moment of understanding while chained is not enough: this issue is followed by Reed's biggest act of blind arrogance ever, where he misses he clues that his son is ready to grow up (and therefore Galactus will be bound), and instead he saves the world killer, Galactus.See the notes to the next two issues,

Other points to note


Issue 242: Franklin decides to take over

the ship

This issue is can be considered a prologue to the prologue in FF244, which itself a prologue to FF245, where Franklin begins to take charge.
Symbolically, Franklin is playing with a toy rocket ship, just like the one that started it all. But this time Franklin is in charge: Franklin powers it.

Fantastic Four 242

See the joy on his face! Ever since Sue's efforts to make everything right in FF232, Franklin has seen optimistic signs. On the surface his family seems happier. The child is daring to hope.

This will lead to the next highly symbolic act: Franklin and the cube, in FF244.

Life will find a way
Reed has always tried to be in control, but he can't stop Franklin. This is the message of the family (you can't control your kids forever) and of life itself: as Jeff Goldblum memorably put it in Jurassic Park a few years later, "life will find a way." Reed's efforts to suppress and control his son are doomed. As long as he maintains this strategy of holding his son back, he will fail.

The rocket ship and Frankie
Franklin adds flame to the rocket ship, allowing it to fly. This symbolizes how Frankie will gain the power to follow Galactus in FF244.

Was Franklin involved in that? Well Franklin is involved in everything, unconsciously, but Galactus is his herald, and uncle Johnny is his good friend, so he would be particularly aware of their needs. Franklin would know that Frankie is emotionally suited to Galactus, not Johnny. Frankie also knows that Johnny needs somebody who will stick around, and Frankie is not that (she left once, she is too hotheaded, and she just wants whoever is powerful). So it is no coincidence that the next few issues show Frankie attracted to the most powerful being around, leaving Johnny free to find somebody better.

Who can Johnny find instead of Frankie? Somebody loyal, like Franklin's good friend Alicia. Of course, Alicia isn't single, but whoever Johnny finds needs to have her level of devotion. Franklin understands that.

On the end of continuity
This is the issue where the Franklin's powers begin to take over, eventually (FF322-333) leading to the full Franklinverse, where time no longer moves forwards. So this issue has several nods to the passage of time:
  1. The most obvious indicator of time passing is Christmases: when discussing Marvel Time it is common to refer to the large number of Christmases in what is supposed to be 10-14 years.
  2. The end of the issue is firmly anchored to contemporary New York: Terrax stands on the World Trade Center. As the years pass after September 11th 2001, Marvel Time must say that never happened. 
  3. Another sign of the later death of continuity is that Byrne needed to feature Spider-Man and Daredevil. They didn't do anything, just commented that this is out of their league. This was necessary because readers still expected a connection between books: if a major event happened in New York city in one book, readers would expect it to be noticed by other New York heroes. But in later years nobody really cared: the universe was only shared when a writer felt like it.
  4. The issue contains numerous references to stories still years in the future. With Marvel Time that can no longer happen: anything longer than a single trade paperback (around 6 issues) is seldom referenced. Doug refers to this when speaking of Franklin's returning powers: "The one thing I've always loved about Byrne's writing, although admittedly it can become a fault, is his seeding of subplots. We don't get that sort of writing today, as all stories are mandated to be six issues long. Gotta sell those trade paperbacks!"

All of these signs of continuity, as well as the free use of cultural references (see below)  will be squashed once the Franklinverse takes over, and nobody ever grows up.

Galactus comes to Earth to die
Franklin's awakening leads to the events of next issue: Galactus is no longer needed, so comes to Earth to die (see notes to the nest issue)

The cultural zeitgeist

Issue 243: Reed's worst decision ever?

Fantastic Four 243


Reed's stress causes his worst decision ever: he defends cosmic genocide. His logic is that one living thing must not die. Does he then defend every deadly bacteria? He did not have to save Galactus. As a force of nature, and one with the most advanced technology possible, Galactus could have recovered. Remember how when he attacked Poppup Galactus was dissipated into pure energy and his world ship gathered him and rebuilt him? This can hardly be worse than that. But Reed, true to form, believes that only he can be right. Notice the insulting way he says it - "if you'll think for a moment" - as if anybody who disagrees with him must clearly not be thinking at all.

More evidence that Reed is struggling
In his head Reed is saving everything, but he caused the problem i the first place by releasing Galactus from his pledge in FF211. Reed here is powerless against Galactus: all he can do is beg. Others (the Avengers) defeat Galactus, and the women ultimately solve the problem through cooperation (Frankie becomes his herald).

Despite this being arguably Reed's worst ever decision, Reed is still blind to his own arrogance: 

Galactus and Franklin

Galactus as mirror
Galactus is also Franklin's herald: see the discussion by FF74 and FF600. Galactus' awakening to real world suffering mirrors Franklin's in the previous issue. This is 1982, and Franklin would be 14, He would be discovering other points of view.  Galactus realizes because Franklin realizes. 

Galactus' view has changed
Galactus said "Do not speak to me of four billion lives. Galactus has seen the end of forty times four billion worlds! Must we know grief for each of these? Had he but tears to cry Galactus would weep oceans in their memory, and in the end they would still be dead, and madness would at last have claimed me." But FF50 we learn that previous worlds were uninhabited. This was from his point of view: he did not consider "ants" worthy of consideration. After FF50 Galactus accepted that humans are not like ants. Presumably he then changed his view of previous destruction.

Galactus comes to earth to die
For the background to this story see Gladiator's comment in X-Men 167:

Galactus came to earth to die: that was his purpose. Of course, being Galactus, he had to fulfill his role, and go through the motions of trying to eat the plant, he was unable to simply give in. But as he stated, he is "power which is beyond power, knowledge which is beyond thought". He operates on higher levels. Nobody can defeat Galactus simply by piling on raw force, or the Skrulls would have done it long ago. No, once Franklin was ready to grow up then Galactus was no longer needed. So he came to Earth to die. But Reed messed up.

The real answer
How could the problem have been solved without saving Galactus? Galactus is a test for planets (see FF262). If Reed had paid attention to his son then the test would be passed and Galactus would be theirs to command.

Other points to note

Issue 244: Johnny is ready to grow up.

As Franklin is ready to grow up, so is Johnny.

Fantastic Four 244
All of Johnny's four girlfriends have dumped him, but this is the worst. He's had enough of shallow relationships. He's finally ready to grow up, relationship wise. Unlike Ben, he's ready for Alicia.

Johnny's relationships and character development
When we recall that Johnny actually has very little experience with girls (see FF204), we can appreciate how losing Crystal affected him. The next girl he chased was her opposite. Crystal is sensitive and caring, and Frankie is cold hearted (because of her hypnotized childhood and disturbed father):
"Frankie Raye pops up, and brushing aside Reed and Johnny, offers herself as a new herald for Galactus! Reed tells her that she might be required to lead Galactus to inhabited planets, and she responds callously, 'So? A few less bug-eyed monsters? What's that compared to my being able to go...out there?' Wow! Who knew that little old Frankie was so cold-hearted and self-centered? [Doug replies]Frankie Raye absolutely was a cold-hearted, self-centered you-know-what. Wow, Johnny -- great choice! Another in a long line. Dorrie Evans must have been looking pretty good after Crystal and Frankie, huh?" (source)

The cultural Zeitgeist
Introducing the final scenes of Act 4

This entire issue is called "BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS". It serves as an introduction to the final scenes of Act 4, where everything is wrapped up. Due to Marvel Time these events are stretched out into four years of comics, but like the best of Shakespeare's plays, most of the action is compressed into a very short time. The rest of Act 4 takes just over a year, their time, and much of that is skipped over during a couple of gaps (e.g. during Sue's pregnancy). Most issues run into each other, all happening at a rapid pace.

The final pages of this issue are two prologs that represent the rest of Act 4:

"Prolog one" deals with Reed buying the Baxter Building. This is a symbol that he has finally given up: in the next few issues Doom (or probably more accurately, "Domos", meaning "home") regains his home, while Reed (a reed shaking in the wind?) abandons his. See the notes to FF279. 

"Prolog two" deals with Franklin stepping in to fix everything:.

Franklin and the cosmic cube

FF242 had Franklin symbolically controlling the rocket ship from FF1. In this issue the symbolism goes further and he controls a cube: a cube that is too complex to understand, so he just forces his will upon it. This leads directly to the events of next issue.

The cube represents the power that caused the Fantastic Four in the first place: see FF319 for details.

the cube

Note that Franklin spent the day at home, and the evening with Ben. He would be aware of Johnny's despair and Ben's frustration with his life (symbolized by Ben's inability to solve the puzzle of the cube). In the next issue Frankie tries to solve Ben's problem, and in his simple way he thinks he solves Johnny's problem as well.

The big story: why does Franklin act out of character?
Franklin is normally in control of himself, and the one thing he wants is to not grow up. Yet something as simple as frustration with a puzzle, and a remark on a TV show, is supposedly enough to make him lose control and suddenly grow up. Why? I'm glad you asked. The big 28 year story is about Reed's obsession with the negative zone, so let's look at what Reed was doing at that exact moment.

The big story: the negative zone portal

The two two floors of the Baxter Building were destroyed in FF242, and here they are replaced, These floors contained the negative zone portal, hangar deck, and storage: all the most valuable technology.

Baxter Building plan

How could Reed so quickly replace the portal that took him years (and the help of the Watcher) to create? If such the portal could be replaced then it would change the world. Enemies would get one, friends would get one, Annihilus and Blastaar would have one (they have plenty of advanced tech), and so on. But they don't. Not even other Marvel comics show one (with their more relaxed attitude to realism). Everything we know about the portal shows it was incredibly hard to produce, and there is only one. Even time machines get duplicated, but never the negative zone portal. So how could Reed just order the parts for another one? Come to that, a lot of his other technology must be irreplaceable as well. So how did he replace it so easily? The answer: he probably didn't. If we follow Reed's development of the portal we see that at this point he was experimenting with hiding most of it away in the negative zone itself.

Reed and hiding the portal
This story featured the return of Terrax, so let is go back to his first appearance to see some context.

So we see that, at this time, Reed would be studying how to move large objects into the negative zone for easy retrieval later. This would include storing the portal itself there, all except for some kind of key

A closer look at when the portal disappeared
Now look again at when the top two floors disappeared. Instead of focusing on Terrax and his great axe, the story focuses on Reed and his machines. This would be the obvious time to trigger any safety hiding feature.

Now look again at FF 244-245. Why did something as simple as a minor use of his powers trigger Franklin to grow up? This was supposedly triggered by a line on a TV show, but Franklin never reacted that way before. In fact, Franklin's whole purpose was to not grow up at all. But that moment was when Reed was rebuilding the Baxter Building upper floors, so he would be returning the equipment from wherever it was stored. Franklin's power came from the negative zone, and he controls dimensions (note the symbolism of the world's most famous three dimensional puzzle, the Rubik's Cube). Imagine the dimensional craziness of pulling objects back from the negative zone without using the conventional portal. Imagine how this would affect Franklin, who was sensitive to such things, and was unconsciously trying to stop all change. He was growing up and was already only barely coping, This was enough to make him temporarily lose control.

The Great American Novel
More than any other issue, FF245 encapsulates the 1980s: the fashions, the pop culture, the open obsession with money, and looking back to a ythical golden age, represented by the iconic TV show "Leave it to Beaver". For more about the return to mythical family values, see the commentary to the next two issues.
1980s and Leave It To Beaver

Criticisms (source)

Other points to note:


Issue 245: Sue's facade breaks, and Reed breaks the "worst decision ever" record again

Fantastic Four 245

Sue's Stepford Wife phase falls apart. She gives coy childlike looks to the TV cameras and tells the world what a great mother she is, and at that exact moment the son she neglects is destroying their home. Sue is in denial.

Galactus and Franklin

This issue follows immediately after Reed saves Galactus. This is probably not a coincidence. We see in FF600 that Galactus is Franklin's herald (see notes to FF74). Galactus is a force of nature, so he did not need rescuing, any more than a hurricane needs rescuing (or any more than Mephisto needs rescuing: we later see that when Mephisto is destroyed he is simply re-created from people's evil. When Reed saved Galactus he upset the balance of nature. It is not clear what should have happened here, but Franklin's development was immediately and seriously messed up by that event.

Reed to Franklin

Reed's decision

Reed decides that Franklin should lose his powers. Over the next few months Reed will be guilty of some astonishingly bad decisions (a holiday in the Negative Zone and saving Galactus come to mind), but this may even beat those. Franklin has shown himself perfectly capable of controlling his powers throughout his life until this date. Franklin has also saved his family on several occasions. So what does Reed suggest? Become powerless!

Franklin has been repeatedly attacked in the past (notably by Annihilus and Nicholas Scratch), and Reed has always failed to protect him. So now he says Franklin should lose his powers. Does Reed feel threatened by a superior being with a greater claim to Sue's love? Or is he just being staggeringly stupid? We shall see the predictable result of this inspired decision in FF252. What Franklin really needs is his father's time, as Reed promised in FF229, but Reed will not give in until Act 5.

Fantastic Four 245

So it is confirmed: Ben's inability to change was due to Alicia. Then how do we explain the months before FF8? Back in those earliest days he often changed, but Ben was angry at Reed. He wanted to blame somebody, to make Reed look bad (because Reed was stealing Sue), and it unconsciously suited him to be a martyr. This tendency to blame others is Ben's great weakness, and is not finally overcome until Act 5, in issue 303. See, it is not a case of "bad Reed, good Ben:" these are all three dimensional characters.

The title

The title "Childhood's end" comes from the classic Arthur C Clarke story where mankind meets advanced aliens for the first time.

 Childhood's end

Clarke's story foreshadows the Fantastic Four: when mankind first entered space this was a sign to higher beings that we were ready, and they had powers waiting for us. See FF319 and the page on cosmic beings for details.

Franklin, the child, embodies the big story: will Reed, scientist, look forward (to his son) or be focused only on himself? In FF245 Franklin is tired of waiting and takes charge. He sees what is wrong with Ben and so he acts to return Ben's rocky skin, his emotional barrier between him and Alicia. In the next issue This leads to Alicia begins a train of events that

Franklin is the catalyst for moving forward

This is the issue where Frankie tries to solve Ben's problem: Ben is afraid of being hurt, so Franklin gives him back his thick skin. Johnny needs somebody like Alicia, so, with Ben's barriers up he will soon be single again, leaving Johnny and Alicia to get together. See the notes to FF269 for why this makes sense to a child. On the surface, Franklin's efforts are crude and cause more problems than they solve. But on a deeper level they are what the team needs: by forcing change he forces them to face their problems and solve them. See the notes to FF270 for how this works.

Other points to note
In the comics, Walker's feminism is not presented in a good light: this all fits with Byrne's other politics, as will be discussed in the next issue's notes.

Issue 246: the role of government

Fantastic Four 246

Reed's certainties crumble
Reed has always been sure he was right. Now that surety is questioned: he was wrong about Ben, and now goes through the motions, living a lie. And could it be that he was wrong about Doom? Not only does his greatest triumph fall apart, but perhaps he supported the wrong guy? This mental turmoil will make manifest itself in Reed's nightmares in FF248. 

Deep storytelling
Note the great depth of the Great American Novel: this issue is not a case of good guys versus bad guys, it's about people who behave as real people do. Doom is not a two dimensional villain: he is motivated by a belief in making the world better (his way), and genuinely cares for his people's welfare. And Zorba's dark side is not invented just for this story: while he professes a belief in democracy he is from the old royal family: wants the old life "once again" - but was that really democratic?

Zorba meant well, but in annual 15 we saw that being a freedom fighter does not mean you are a good democrat. Most of the world's dictators gained their power by being freedom fighters first: see Soviet Russia, Cuba, Zimbabwe, etc.

Other points to note

Byrne and Reagan: The Great American Novel and the 1980s

FF247 is perhaps the most startling example of what made the Fantastic Four different in John Byrne's run. It exactly captures the new zeitgeist of the nation: Reaganism.

Controversial decisions in Byrne's run
In this issue the FF decide to help Dr Doom regain control of Latveria. Yes, Dr Doom, the man who literally rules with an iron fist, treats his people as slaves and punishes the slightest disobedience with death. This is possibly the most controversial issue in Byrne's run, but it is not the only one to raise eyebrows. Other controversies include:

Added to that are changes that most would not call controversial, but they arguably change the nature of the team:

The bigger picture: family
This is not an attack on conservatives. The positive message was far more prominent. This is what fans most remember when they think of Byrne:

  1. Family. Previously the family nature was just an element of the story, now it became the central defining fact.
  2. Back to basics: the style overtly harks back to an earlier, simpler time. While all previous writers paid homage to the later Lee-Kirby era while moving forwards, Byrne harked back to the earlier stories and consciously tried to move the clock backwards. (It is a testament to his integrity as a writer of the FF that he let the stories take over and they ended up going forwards anyway.)
  3. And as an often looked footnote, a focus on property ownership. Every member of the team left the Baxter building. Even Johnny stopped freeloading and found his own property. Eventually the team built a new, bigger headquarters.

It all add up to...
Let us review these defining features:

  1. A focus on the family.
  2. Nostalgia.
  3. Respect for authority.
  4. Willingness to support hard line military power in the cause of stability.
  5. Property ownership

Yes, Byrne was in tune with the Reaganism of the 1980s.

Byrne's politics
Byrne was a good writer of the FF, and was never overtly political. But he is on record as supporting right winger like Ayn Rand and condemning liberals like Bill Clinton. This is Byrne on the topic of comic employees not delivering what was agreed but doing their own thing: "This is exactly what Ayn Rand often goes on about, the “looters”—her word—who expect to be rewarded for not doing the job they have been hired to do. Tell me if you hired someone to build you a house you would be happy if he left off the back wall, as long as he did a good job on the rest of it." (source) And Byrne on Bill Clinton: "If I can go all Republican for a moment, in Quesada we have the comic industry equivalent of Bill Clinton. Everyone kept saying Clinton would “grow into the office.” As his last days so clearly demonstrate, this never happened—he remained a small-time politico, who never escaped his bumpkin background. Likewise, Quesada—he is now EIC of Marvel Comics!!!, yet he continues to act like the small-press publisher he 'used' to be." (source)

The dates match exactly
Byrne's run coincided exactly with Reagan's term of office:

Issue 247: who is Kristoff? Doom's first and greatest secret.


This issue raises a whole heap of questions that leads to a single shocking answer: the truth about Doom. Here are the questions. Thanks to Nathan of the Fanfix blog for suggesting this and suggesting a lot of the evidence.

  1. The mother
    Why is Kristoff's "mother" more important than Doom? Zorba's guards at first ignore Doom. the Fantastic Four, and the boy they were following: when he leads them to his mothers house they shoot HER, killing her instantly. Only THEN do they issue warnings to the others (who of course can fight back and win). Why was this woman such a threat? Perhaps the robots thought that this new Doom was one of Zorba's reprogrammed doombots? Then why kill the woman he had in his charge? Nothing makes sense unless she was the greatest threat of all.
  2. The delay
    Why did Doom wait before deactivating the robots?
    He waited to hear what they had to say after killing the woman. (Though as it happened they did not explain their actions.) Why was that so important to Doom?
  3. The child
    Then we have the whole Kristoff problem, the one that Walt Simonson and others hate so much: how can a mere child be the equal of Doom? Apparently he was plucked at random and given just a quick education. Five minutes of brain washing cannot make a child into the equal of the world's greatest strategist and master of the mystic arts! It is absurd! What is the real story here?
  4. Doom sharing his power?
    And why would Doom ever consider sharing his power. "in case he dies"? He can switch minds - even to robots (As the Ovoids did in FF 10) so he has no danger of ever dying. Doom does not share power!
  5. Cynthia
    Doom's extreme reaction to this woman's death reminds us of his love for his mother, Cynthia, trapped in hell. And that other great mystery: what exactly did Cynthia do to be in hell? What deal with the Devil did she do? Later comics suggest the obvious: she must have made some kind of deal to save her beloved people. Well, that deal came true: thanks to Doom, Latveria became a world power and was no longer trampled by other nations. But what was Cynthia's role in Doom's power? And how would the Devil twist it? Deals with the devil seldom end well.
  6. The armor
    Then we come to Kristoff's (later) armor: an adult form, hiding a child's body. It reminds us of Doom's armor, and raises the question: why does Doom wear it all the time? No other armored character wears armor all the time, because armor is uncomfortable.
  7. Doom's privacy
    This raises Doom's insane need for privacy. Every other dictator has his inner circle of people he confides in (even if he betrays them later). But apart from Boris, Doom has nobody. And even Boris has a strange relationship, like an adult looking after a child, but at arm's length. Why?
  8. Doom's face
    Come to that, why was Doom so obsessed with his face? And why was his face covered in the initial experiment with the nether world (FF annual 2)? Why must nobody ever come close? Except for blind Alicia, and why did she feel that Doom was "sensitive" and "good" (FF 197)?
  9. Doom's other "son"
    While on the topic of Doom in FF 197, why did he want a human clone when he had plenty of superb robots to use? And why why it important for his son to be a grown man? Why a human at all, when humans are so likely to betray him?
  10. Doom and children
    And come to that, why does Doom not have any natural children? Even though, as we saw in Supervillain Team Up, he could have whatever woman he wanted, whether by force or (more usually) by charm? Not even one accidental offspring? Seems very odd, right?
  11. The name Kristoff
    The name Kristoff (Christopher) comes from the story of the giant "Opher" who carried the anointed king (the "christ"). What a coincidence that this child would end up being carried by a much larger mechanical suit. Coincidence? Or was he named that way deliberately?
  12. The name Vernard (Kristoff's surname)
    Vernard comes from the word for vineyard, which comes from an older word meaning enclosure. In the Bible, God calls his land and people his vineyard. This fits perfectly with Doom's name (the name "Doom" is probably from "domos", domicile or home: see notes to FF 5), and with Dr Doom's role as protector and nurturer of his people. Coincidence?
  13. Robots
    On the subject of doombots and Kristoff's armor, why was Doom so obsessed with robots from the very beginning? And how did he become so skilled? Perhaps the early machines were controlled magically, but still, why the obsession with robots that looked like himself (FF annual 2)?
  14. His face?
    How could Doom be driven mad by the sight of his own scarred face in FF 200? Yes, he hated imperfection (why?) but to be driven mad by it? And why did he willingly scar it himself when the hot mask was first placed on it? What was so unspeakably horrible about his face that he would happily lose it all? And why were Stan and Jack so horrified by it in FF 10 - surely they were not so rude that they would insult someone who was the victim of an accident? There must have been something else, something worse, about that face. And yet it cannot have been so bad, as Alicia was able to feel enough to sculpt a good handsome likeness in FF 197. What is really going on?
  15. And so on
    (I may add to this list if I ever get time)

There is a very simple explanation for all of this: Kristoff is Doom. Let us see how it all fits together:

The simple answer is that Cynthia sold her soul so that her young son would be strong. But the devil is still the devil, so he made it that the son would always stay a child! He grew to have a natural talent for magic yet hated using it. He did what he had to in order to create a robotic outer shell, and would never let anybody grow close.  When finally forced to face himself he was driven mad. His mind lived on in doombots, and his mindless child-like body was rescued and given to a new "mother" to raise and nurture. Eventually, fro years of training, his his mind was returned, but by this time the doombots were so sophisticated - and they had his genuine mind - that the struggle between Doom the man-child and Doom the perfect machine became an epic battle.

This creates added depth to the relationship between Reed and Franklin. Reed is like the robot. Franklin is the child who cannot grow up. Only when they are finally at peace, by accepting their need for others, can the world be right.

The power of love
Doom is a mirror for Reed. He shows Reed at his worst, but also shows Reed the way out of his dilemma: to care for his family. Doom's family is Latveria. Doom is always at his strongest when he puts his country first. For an overview of Doom's development in his twenty appearances see his own page.

Dr Doom

This is also an example of one of the many complex subplots in the Great American Novel. Doom is maturing. He has a 28 year character development just as the others do. At this point he has given up his "conquer the world" plan (unless a convenient opportunity arises of course) in favor of caring for his people. If this trend continues he will eventually become a benign ruler, because forbidding people to leave is a sign of needing them and Doom needs nobody (see FF258). For more details see Doom's five act character development.

Fantastic Four

This theme continues in FF258 (the image shows scenes from both issues)

Issue 248: Reed's nightmare

Fantastic Four 248

This issue foreshadows the nightmare to come, and follows from Reed's mental turmoil in the previous two issues. For the psychological symbolism of the underground river in this issue, see the notes to FF314

Reed's breakdown
Here is a quick reminder of the big story:

This issue begins underwater, a symbol of the deepest psychology. it shows Reed's dream of doing huge, gigantic things, but somehow they don't follow the rules he expects. He is only rescued from his madness when he remembers Sue.

Huge concepts
What I love best about the Fantastic Four is how it pulls so many ideas into such a small space: it's a cultural digest. This issue really delivers.

"I have to say, 'This Land is Mine!' didn't hit me nearly as hard as this story did. I dog-eared this issue. Read it over and over. Memorized it. (I still have it. It's beat all to hell.) I loved the science driving the story - the distances, gravities, velocities - just the sheer scope of it. The Thing falling, taking most of a day to hit...(an amazing moment). Yet there was a great riot of Twilight Zone-like story thrown in the pot, too. This is my favorite Fantastic Four story. Hands down. Sorry, Galactus. It is what it is." (Jeremiah Hetherington)

"Now this is one of favorite issues of any comic! The giant spaceship eating the moon, the moon collapsing in the hangar, the Treen-inspired alien, Reed pointing out that the giant alien shouldn't even be able to support its own weight, Ben falling for a day... aaaah so much good stuff." (Dave Rolls)

Minor trivia (source)

Issue 249: man and superman

Fantastic Four 249

In this issue we see how Reed has de-powered the most powerful character, Franklin. Franklin should have solved this problem in a matter of seconds, but thanks to Reed he cannot. Note that Franklin is only young because he has stretched time since his birth: he was born in 1968, and this is 1982, so he should really be 14 years old. In many countries (e.g. Britain until the early par of the 20th century) 14 was when a boy would leave school and take up a man's job: there was no concept of a teenage period in between childhood and being an adult. Age 14 is also when someone hits puberty. This should have been the moment when Franklin became a man, the ultimate super-man. But instead he is a child cowering in a corner.

The Fantastic Four has always referenced other classic literature, but the references are increasing as we approach the second half of act 4.

The title
Man and Superman

The title "Man and Superman" comes from George Bernard Shaw's play. Shaw draws the idea from Nietzsche, about mankind evolving into a higher race. Shaw's play is about an old, sensible man and a young revolutionary man competing for a woman's love. Shaw's argument is that, yes, mankind is changing, but women, not men, will decide the future. This is also the message of the FF: Sue and Alicia are the real decision makers. Also in this issue the Shi'ar empire has its empress, and the "superman" (Gladiator) lives to serve her.

In the play, the woman chooses the young revolutionary against the older, apparently wiser man. In the next issue's subplot we see that Alicia plays the role of the woman in the play: her older suitor Ben Grimm has failed to propose, and only puts her in danger (just how much danger we will see in the next issue after that), and so she chooses the more hot headed Johnny Storm. The future belongs to Johnny Storm.

Other points to note

The 100 issue cycle: how Ben's point of view progresses

Look at this issue from Ben's point of view. In FF245 we learned how deep his insecurities go. Then in FF246 he was unable to hit the real Doom due to an inhibitor ray, then in FF247 Ben had to help Doom regain his power - Doom, the one Ben had once humiliated. Then in FF248 when we see what each person fears, Ben fears being weak. In FF250 we will see Alicia weep because of Ben's lack of inner peace.

But what about this issue? Something very familiar happens: An alien arrives from nowhere. He defeats Ben easily: not only is he far stronger, he has other powers as well. And he's a hit with the ladies (specially the empress). Ben can't hate him because he's so noble. Remind you of anybody? Yes, the silver surfer in FF48-50. That led directly to Ben's depression in the classic FF51 ("This Man This Monster"). Similarly, FF250 leads directly to Ben joining Reed in his suicidal Negative Zone adventure.

It was exactly 200 issues earlier. Coincidence? Just look at 100 issue earlier: another handsome non-human, prince Namor. Another guy who's as strong as (or stronger than) Ben, plus has extra powers. Another guy who's a hit with the ladies - especially with Sue, the one Ben loved from the beginning, and lost to the nerd. 

Or look 100 issues later: this time the entire team is facing more capable replacements (the new Fantastic Four: Spider-Man, Wolverine, Ghost Rider and the intelligent Hulk), with Sue this time facing a competitor for Reed's affection.

Note the gradual evolution: in 48-50 it's just Ben suffering. In 148-149 it's Reed's lowest point, as Ben is recovering. In 248-250 it's both, as neither has resolved their underlying issues. In 348-349 it's all of them, because character development has ended and they have nowhere to go. And by 448-449? Any complex structure has long since disintegrated.

The 100 issue cycle may be coincidence, or it may be the result of writers assuming that after 8 years it's safe to recycle themes, but either way, there are patters and there is long term progression. It's a useful memory device. The Great American Novel has a large scale structure that makes long term trends easier to see,

Issue 250: the final warning to Reed: RUN!!!!

Fantastic Four 250
Reed is probably a Skrull who hates their warlike nature (see notes to FF 91). Every appearance of the Skrulls is a warning to Reed, "don't go too far" (see notes to FF 2). But Reed has just unleashed Galactus (FF 244-245), who will repay him by solving the problem at its root: destroying the Skrull Throne world (FF 257). The Skrulls and other Galactic powers know this is a possibility, so this is their final warning: a show of strength to Reed. The story begins with Reed utterly defeated. As usual the Skrulls are just sending a message: smart ones will. be controlling the dumb Skrulls that we see, and the dumb Skrulls are just cannon fodder. The real message they are sending is on the very last pages:

The human element

Fantastic Four 250

The issue is called the X-Factor. It refers to the human element that always undermines The Thinker's plans. The Thinker is of course a mirror for Reed, the one who can calculate everything but has trouble with human relationships. The title applies to this issue on many levels:
  1. Gladiator, the most powerful being around, mistakenly thinks his friends are his enemies.
  2. Reed, the smartest one around, is literally over-stretched. He failed because he mistakenly saw Franklin's power as a threat (in the previous issue Franklin could have solved the problem if Reed had not de-powered him). He did this because he could not connect to Franklin's X-factor, his human needs. Reed could stick probes around Franklin's head, but could not get to know his son as a loving father.
  3. Alicia, the one everyone ignores, will soon put in motion events that will change everything (leaving Ben, marrying Johnny).
In this issue we see that what seems to be the greatest power is really an illusion. The noble warrior (Gladiator, like Reed throughout act 4) finally loses confidence at the end when he pounds and pounds at a problem but to no effect, because he does not see the whole picture.

Other points to note

Next: to be or not to be

The Great American Novel