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

1985: Act 4: the death of Reed (nuclear tensions rise)

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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Summary (historical)
Throughout the 1980s until 1985 the nuclear danger increased. For details see

Reed can be seen as a metaphor for Reagan. Before all this, in March 1981 Ronald Reagan was shot in the chest. He was the first serving US president to survive an assassination attempt. "Reagan believed that God had spared his life so that he might go on to fulfill a greater purpose and, although not a Catholic, meetings with Mother Teresa, Cardinal Terence Cooke, and fellow shooting survivor Pope John Paul II reinforced this belief." (Wikipedia). Sue's response parallels Nancy's: "The shooting caused Nancy Reagan to be afraid for her husband's safety, however. She asked him to not run for reelection in 1984" (Wikipedia). Luckily it all ended well, but in the FF we saw the dangers spelled out: Reed's decisions allowed his home to be destroyed, and this opened the technological gates of hell and led to his own death. Yet by a miracle he came back.

Quick issue summary (FF)
This is the end of act 4: the action climax. How bad can it get? As bad as you can imagine. And worse. The entire universe about to collapse, and everybody tortured beyond their ability to survive.

Issue 274: Ben's end game begins. He works through his inner demons

Fantastic Four 274
This issue sums up what was going on in Ben's own comic, The Thing. After and adventure on an artificial world called "Battle world" ("Secret Wars" miniseries) he stayed behind to clear his head. He found that there, so far away from Reed and from Alicia, he could turn his powers on and off just as much as anyone else. He also found that the people and creatures he found on Battle world came from his own unconscious. In this issue he faces Frankenstein's monster. He assumes that it came from his childhood memories, but a much more recent experience was in real life: Frankenstein's monster was created by an alternative Reed Richards. That Reed became the Thing and hated himself. There is so much here for Ben to think about...


Ben's inner demons are not from his childhood, but from Reed.

About The Thing's own comics

This story refers to Ben's adventures in his own comic, "The Thing." As far as I can tell his character did not evolve significantly in that run (although issues 1 to 4 give useful background information and soul-searching). The real changes take place in the pages of the Fantastic Four.

The Thing was effectively a continuation of Marvel Two In One, a comic featuring the Thing and a different guest star each month. Marvel Two In One really begins with Marvel Feature 11, which takes place immediately after FF 139. The last Marvel Two In One (issue 100, cover dated June 1983) takes place just prior to FF 251. The following month the title is replaced by "The Thing" issue 1. It follows the return from the negative zone, an in issues 1-4 Ben thinks deeply about his identity. The last issue is 36, showing Ben's body begin to change again, and this leads into FF296.

For more details, see the excellent "Ever-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Home Page" of Mark O'English. His comment on comic 'The Thing:' "My personal recommendation on The Thing series as a whole: run, don't walk, to your local shop and get issues 1-4. Pick up 5-10 and 23-36 if you find them in the dollar bins. If you see 11-22, quietly turn and run the other way as fast as humanly possible. But that's just my opinion..."   

Issue 275: the naked truth

Fantastic Four 275

The symbolic issue
This is the last happy issue of act 4. In it we stand back and see, symbolically, the climax to the Great American Novel. (Act 5 is of course the aftermath and new dawn). Symbolism is everywhere:

"The naked truth" is really about Alicia
This concludes the pivotal event begun in FF270. The naked truth applies superficially to the She-Hulk story, but more profoundly it refers to the family crisis: the naked truth of the crisis is that it cannot solved unless they do the unthinkable: Alicia must become Johnny's partner.This shocking act protects Alicia (no more being at the mercy of Annihilus or whoever), it forces Johnny to mature in his relationship to women, and it forces Ben to face his problems at last. That last step will allow Reed to finally hand over leadership, so he can focus on Alicia's fried Franklin. For full details see the commentary to FF270.

Franklin and the fourth wall
This single issue is the most sexual in the 28 year big story of the FF: both the main story (She-Hulk being photographed topless) and the sub-plot (Johnny's implied first night with Alicia) are the first and only time something like this was shown. (True, FF254 showed the married couple in bed, but they were married and nothing beyond sleeping was implied at the time, Crucially, Franklin was distracted by Annihilus at that point.) The title "Naked Truth" applies to both stories. But why put both events in the same issue?

The main story is based on a tongue in cheek swimsuit calendar that featured She-Hulk. The idea of a topless She Hulk was used again by Byrne in his She Hulk run in 1989, as part of her breaking the fourth wall: showing her awareness that an image like that would sell (but key parts were covered up, e.g. by movement lines while skipping). Today this story would be less likely because of awareness that such stories are just an excuse to show flesh. The point is that She-Hulk is being controlled, sometimes against her will. The photographer then represents the readers. She-Hulk was the first to become aware of this - see 1989 and the start of the Franklinverse for details.

She-Hulk is not the only one being controlled. In FF332 it is revealed that Franklin unconsciously nudged Johnny and Alicia to be together, so they would both be happy. it is still Alicia's act, she wanted it, and Franklin just reacted to their desires, but Franklin made it easier. So in the context of the story everything is unconsciously controlled by Franklin to some degree, and his real time development is paralleled by events in the comic. This maybe another example. This is February 1985 so Franklin (born summer 1968) would be 16 years old in real time, at or approaching the legal age for sexual intercourse. Here we have the two most sexual events events in the comic's history in the same issue.  Immediately after (within three weeks) Franklin is in hell - his 16 year old self feeling guilty for his thoughts perhaps? Is this why She-Hulk first started to notice she was being guided by an outside force? Might the prurient photographer represent not just the typical male teenage reader of the time, but Franklin's suppressed desires?

Alicia's power
Alicia is often assumed to be passive. But if we watch closely, she is simply non-violent: which is a very different thing. In this issue she finally becomes a item with Johnny. This sets in motion the events that will solve everyone's problems. Just as with the first visit of Galactus, when Alicia converted the silver surfer's heart, Alicia changes everything.

Johnny's feelings
Johnny is not infatuated with Alicia, the girl who looks like his sister (see FF 8). Compare his first meeting with Crystal: Johnny said that Crystal made his previous girlfriend "look like a boy." Alicia in this scene has short boyish hair and wears what looks like a man's shirt. Coincidence? Johnny then apologizes and it's Alicia who takes the lead.  A few pages after his first night together with Alicia (and three weeks later), Johnny is looking at naked pictures of She-Hulk. This is the rebound for both of them, not true love. But Johnny has had so few girlfriends, and they've all dumped him, so now hat somebody else is making the moves he finally decides he's in love. Dramatic flourishes like his giant heart in the sky in FF276 seem more designed to persuade himself than others: he didn't need this with Crystal.

The zeitgeist
This story comes at a particular time in history. The "morning after" scene would not have been deemed appropriate a few years earlier as children still read the comic. Meanwhile, critics have noted that the idea of a woman having topless photos taken against her will seemed an acceptable topic then, but would be considered in poor taste today. Times change and the Fantastic Four reflected the time it was written.

Other points to note

Why does a green person need to sunbathe? For the same reason a black person might like to sunbathe. Sometimes to make the skin tone even darker, but mainly because it's enjoyable to just read a book and feel the sun on your skin in the fresh air

Issue 276: the final straw

Fantastic Four 276

The 28 year story can be summed up by Reed's neglect of Franklin, and how he must finally make time for his child. After years of being kidnapped, ignored, endangered and hurt, ratcheting up the crisis each time, we finally reach the worst abuse of all: Franklin is left alone and bleeding, and ends up trapped in hell. Franklin unconsciously controls everything, and since his family won't protect him he will unconsciously start to take matters into his own hands. It is no coincidence that his uncle Ben now comes back and events are set in motion that will finally make Reed take his son seriously.

The Great American Novel

This month the Great American Novel has a tribute to that great American staple, newspaper comic strips. Byrne identified them as:

Hi and Lois, Joe Palooka and his wife Ann Palooka, Dick Tracy, Mr and Mrs Lockhorn, Skeezix (from Gasoline Alley, a real time comic), Jiggs (from Bringing Up Father), Henry Mitchell (from Dennis the Menace), Blondie, Dagwood, and Herb Woodley (from Blondie). The excellent "Comics Cube" site found these images:


Other points to note

Issue 277: Ben and Johnny learn relationships. At last.

Fantastic Four 277

Ben comes home and face Alicia. This is one of the major turning points in Ben's life:

Ben's life

Finally the sleeping giant awakes, and Ben begins the journey to personal strength. This will lead to Ben forcing Reed to wake up, then to act 5, where everyone is at peace and happy at last. Then Ben's old friend Ms Marvel will give him confidence in the same way that Alicia helped Johnny. It will finally lead to the next generation where everyone has their heart's desire and a new saga begins.

Ben spent the years since 1961 in avoiding moving forwards and now Alicia has ensured there is no other way. It will be the worst and most painful time in Ben's life, and will almost cost his life (In FF297). But at the end of it he will finally be free. For more about Ben and Alicia in this issue, see the notes by FF270.

The symbolism of Hell
In this issue, once the turning point is reached, Franklin is released from Hell. This is not a coincidence. Once the family can move forwards then Franklin's misery will be over.

Johnny and Sue's hair

Johnny's emotional experience is reflected in his embarrassing hairstyle. It all starts here. This is the issue where Johnny is alienated from Ben. His family (as represented by his best friend Ben) is no longer is his main influence. Johnny is at last emotionally independent, and like a teenager he experiments with his own style and gets ti disastrously wrong. FF285 is where he begins to see his place in the bigger scheme. In the following issue, FF annual 19, he is still insecure: exaggerating his conquests (the girls he lists are his entire dating experience, they all dumped him, except Julie, who would not even let him be her proper boyfriend). But in FF287 he is finally at peace, relaxed. he can finally be himself and the silly show-off hairstyle goes.


Sue's hair follows the same pattern. When she hits her lowest point she loses her famous intuition: for that issue (FF287) her hair is no longer soft but spikey. In FF288 she comes back from the brink, and in FF289 she is happier again, with a softer hairstyle. See the notes to FF288 for details.

Issue 278: Doom: the final answer is set in motion

Fantastic Four 278
Franklin continues his unconscious fixing of everything. Just as the child Franklin is the final answer to Reed's problems, so the child Kristof is the final answer to Doom. Since Doom cannot be defeated the only way to keep him busy - and ultimately to help him see the futility of endless war - is to create an equal and opposite Dr Doom to face him.

For more about Kristoff see the notes to annual 20.

Throughout all this time Reed is in denial: he feels that everything will be alright with Franklin. He still does not realize that he, Reed, has to change.

Fantastic Four 278

This is approaching the end of act 4, so it's a period of rapid and dramatic changes:
Everything is happening now at break-neck speed.

Other points to note:

Issue 279: Reed destroys his own home

curvature of the earth
The surface story is that Reed and Sue are the innocent victims of Kristoff: Kristoff pulls the Baxter Building into space and destroys it. But there are several indications that Reed expected this, and planned to claim on the insurance. So when he said "I hadn't even time to consider that" he may simply have meant that he had not thought of what to do in the time between losing the home and getting it back. Here is the evidence:
  1. The title: "Though Heavens Fall":
    This is a reference to the Latin phrase "Fiat justitia ruat caelum", meaning "let justice be done though the heavens fall." It referred to keeping the letter of the law even though the thing you do is wrong. It is ascribed to Piso, a Roman lawmaker: he sentenced a man to death, and then it became clear that the man was innocent. But the man was executed anyway, because the law had spoken. So "justice" was done, even though it was a crime against heaven. There is nothing in this story that justifies that title, until we look at the evidence below: it appears that Reed allowed his home to be destroyed in order to collect the insurance. But this was technically legal, because the law was not written to account for the Watcher hiding things beyond this reality then returning them via time travel.

  2. The timing is extremely suspicious. Reed only just bought the building (adjusting for Marvel Time it would have been just a few months earlier).
  3. Reed was desperate for money. The FF, since FF9, had always been short of money. This theme was confirmed on FF160, when Reed had to sell the business. But the real crisis began in FF222 when they had to take the subway because of money problems: and then later in the same issue Johnny had to destroy some of Reed's most valuable work.

    Then in FF242-244 the entire top half of the building is destroyed, which would surely eat up any remaining wealth. And unlike, say, Tony Stark, Reed is not good with money, as we see every time we have insights into their finances (e.g. FF9, FF160, FF222).

  4. Look at the order of events in FF244: first the billion dollar price tag, then buying the building then phoning Latveria, all within two pages. Let's look at the billion dollars first.

    Reed had been thinking about how the contents of the destroyed building were around a billion dollars. Now, that's enough to buy a much larger skyscraper (without the contents of course). Reed also noticed that the contents could be valued at twice that much. He also noticed that if you speak to the right people you can get a good deal, because of good will toward the FF.  Just let those ideas sink in...
    Reed is no business genius, but he smart enough to know that one plus one equals two. You can have a billion dollars of content, but the quotes say it is worth two billion. That's a billion dollars difference: a billion dollars is enough to pay all his debts. But how to get it? Well, if you insured the contents for the full two billion, and somehow lost the one billion, you could get the insurance, buy more content from friendly sources for one billion, and make a billion profit: enough to build a whole new building, or solve all your money problems. And why stop at the contents? What if you insured the building in the same way? Well you would have to be the owner of the building of course, and you would need some proof that the building had a very high price. Of course, rebuilding it as new would cost a percentage above the old price, so the more you pay for the building, the more profit you could make if you had to rebuild it (taking the expensive building quote but actually using lower cost friendly builders). And as a limited liability company, if you lose all your assets then maybe some of these costs could be written off anyway. With good accountants, buying the building then having it accidentally destroyed would solve all Reed's money problems.

  5. Reed paid an inflated price for the building in FF244. Just look at Mr Collins' face, and how he does not try to argue for a better price:
    This behavior, paying an inflated price when you have no money, only makes sense if you plan to claim on insurance.

  6. Then Reed immediately places several calls to the Latverian embassy, knowing that Doom is out of action. The official reason was to arrange for Doom's body to be picked up, but the timing is interesting. Of course, the calls could be innocent: there were plenty of enemies who could be relied upon to destroy the Baxter Building sooner or later, without any nudging from Reed. But Latveria had recently become a democracy, so would be spending a great deal of money on rebuilding. So it would be perfectly innocent to mention rebuilding the Baxter Building and ask for advice... I am speculating here, but calling the Latverian embassy could easily have more than one purpose.

  7. Reed has a history of doing things that others find morally questionable, for the greater good. Here is a man who saved Galactus so he could commit genocide! Right from the start he was a complex man:
    "Though celebrated for his inventions, there was another overlooked aspect of Reed Richards’ brilliance. Reed was a con man, at least to the cons. Yes, he was the great extender, but in dire straits perhaps the best thing he ever stretched was the truth:
  8. Reed keeps deadly secrets, as we see when Sue discovered his secret plans in FF51: "How did you find OUT?" Reed is man who lives under intolerable pressure. He believes that the whole world depends on him alone. Reed, like his father Nathaniel, is a man of secrets who does not live in a world of black and white.
    Reed keeps
  9. The official motive made no sense. Reed was supposedly tired of dealing with Collins. But Collins was only hot air, and Reed knew it. Compared with their enemies, Collins was nobody.

  10. Reed let the attack happen: The same attack happened before, in FF6. We just saw ("The House That Reed Built" in FF265) that the Baxter Building is far more advanced than anything they had in FF6. We also saw in FF270 (the defeat of Terminus) that Reed had mastered a very similar technology: attach a tiny object to accelerate a massive one. Why would Reed have detectors for this deadly technology?

  11. This is not the first time Reed has done something like this (see his lack of basic defenses in FF251).

  12. Reed must have expected this. In FF190 the building was bought from him. FF202 the building was hi-jacked and taken into the sky.  In FF229 the building was taken into the Negative Zone and almost destroyed. In FF242 Terrax destroyed the top floors of the building. Clearly the building is an expensive financial liability. Yet in FF244, while standing in the wreckage, Reed decided to buy the whole thing! Why buy an accident waiting to happen? Why value it at millions more than it is worth? What was Reed thinking???  We get a clue in the last panel: Doom is back.

  13. The smoking gun: Reed would have insured the contents, which were worth many times more than the building itself: just the time machine alone was priceless! Even if he only ensured ten percent of their worth, that is a huge fortune. All the contents were destroyed, so Reed could claim the insurance, build a much larger building, and have cash left over. But as soon as the new building was complete (annual 22, in a flashback to the original team, set just after F299), all the most valuable possessions miraculously reappeared. So Reed lost nothing from the destruction of the building: it was pure profit.
    annual 22 and
    The goods were kept safe by the Watcher. Sue concludes that the Watcher simply likes them. Yet the Watcher stands by and does nothing when their lives are in danger, so that explanation does not work. Notice how Reed was tense when he turned the corner and saw the goods were not there, almost like he expected to see them. Did he plan this? We know that the Watcher allows Reed to to use his equipment with the minimum of interference. Presumably Reed had a hand in preserving the goods.

  14. Reed may have already tried a dry run at this
    See the notes to FF 244 for how part of the building was destroyed, but the contents were miraculously preserved.

    Objection 1: nobody would insure them?
    I use the word insurance loosely. Obviously no regular insurance company would touch such a high risk, though some parts of the business might be covered by specialized companies. But there are other stake holders: the real money is in the government and the businesses that license Reed's work. They rely on Reed being solvent. So between them they would need some way of bailing the FF out in an emergency. Probably the patents include an amount to build a trust fund to cover disasters, underwritten by the government. But to access this money Reed would need to show a large scale catastrophic loss, and not just the normal day to day destruction. Remember that this was the 1980s, a time when the banking industry specialized in large scale debt leverage and creative financial instruments.
    Objection 2: this was the Franklinverse team and not the original Reed? Yes, but it featured the Watcher and Lockjaw at full wisdom and power. These are both dimension spanning beings, so when they are seen at their peak abilities we can assume they are the original. Since every Watcher and every Lockjaw can span dimensions, we can only judge who is who by their wisdom: the wisest no doubt work together, or are more likely the same being. Less powerful Watchers (e.g. in FF400) and less capable Lockjaws (e.g. in Pet Avengers) would be secondary manifestations.

Reed did not directly cause the explosion
Reed is too smart to blow up his own building. But he left key parts unprotected in 251 (so then Annihilus could get in). And now he left the building unprepared for Kristoff's attack. Sure enough, sooner or later the building was destroyed and it was not technically Reed's fault. Reed also knew that this was unlikely to hurt civilians because of the building's construction (see FF234, it's the strongest building in New York): historically, most major attacks involve first removing the entire building (e.g. in FF6, FF19, FF202, FF229).

Is this morally wrong?
We may see this as a great moral crime, but Reed may see this as a moral good:

Why not just move away?
If the problem was so great that he would destroy the building, and he could raise enough capital to buy it, why not just leave and start somewhere else?

  1. That would be an admission of failure: Reed, like Doom, is dominated by vanity. Also it is possible that Sue would never agree to leave.
  2. He would never get permission to site a rocket pad, nuclear plant, etc., anywhere else. He only has permission at the Baxter Building as a legacy of agreements made in the early 1960s when standards were not as restrictive.
  3. He can raise enough capital to buy the bricks, but insurance will ALSO bring in much of the value of the contents: probably twice what the bricks alone are worth.
  4. He was not thinking straight. He was under a lot of pressure.

Reed would not act like this?
The suicide attempt was the act of a desperate man, under intolerable pressure. This is the same. Reed is not thinking clearly. It seemed like the only choice at the time.

Symbolism in the Great American Novel

Byrne repeatedly uses the curvature of the Earth to show the enormous scale of what is happening, and to give the feeling of being lost in a vast unknown. Contrast this with early stories where the team showed mankind expanding out into space. Now the family is very small, overwhelmed, moving downwards, falling back from space.  This issue symbolises the reversal of act 1. The curving earth can also be seen as a symbol of gradually changing direction: we think we are going forward in a straight line, but as the Earth curves its gravity pulls us and we find we are going in the opposite direction. This could be seen as a metaphor for American politics, letting the weight of everyday events pull it down from its early lofty ambition.

Other points to note:


Magnus (published by Gold Key, Valiant, Dark Horse, etc.) is set in the year 4000. Note the links between Doom and Kang, who originates just before the year 3000, but travels in time. Practically all advanced technology comes from outside sources, and Doombots are among the most advanced of all. Time travel is actually travel to other dimensions, so it is plausible that Kang and Magnus could meet. Indeed, "magnus" means "great", a suitable name for somebody called "conqueror" or "victor". Note that Doom never completely trusts robots, preferring to mix technology with magic, and always maintaining himself at the top of any power structure.

Issue 280: The crucifixion


After losing her home something must break inside. Sue is weakened enough for the malice persona to take over Sue's mind: later Sue says how it reached inside her deepest feelings,and she feels violated.

The big story us ultimately about Sue. This five issue epic )280-284) is her symbolic crucifixion, resurrection, and journey to the underworld of self discovery. See the cover to issue 280, 281, 282 for why this is not hyperbole. Only through Sue's sacrifice and suffering can Reed see her potential. Only then can he see the real danger in his conflict based life: hate is not the answer. And Sue must also learn: the danger to a child's mind if you don't act when he is young. She must make Reed put Franklin first. The final self discovery is through seeing Sue's past. Psycho man of course never existed and was always a symbol of their inner world: killing him means Sue will finally defeat her inner demons.

Why are these reviews so short?
Normally I devote several paragraphs to character development in each issue. But the significance of these issues is so obvious, especially when seen in the context of the previous years, that little more needs to be said.

Real time
Note the subtle real time reference:
22 years
The team moved into the building in issue 3, dated March 1962. This is issue 280, dated July 1984: 22 years later. The Baxter Building was built in 1961, as shown in FF249.

The shop keeper is aware that 22 years have passed, but Reed (under the influence of Franklin) is unable to form that idea in his mind. Possibly "we haven't been in the Baxter Building as long as you have" refers to March 1962 compared with 1961, but that difference is trivial.

Other points to note

Issue 281: Resurrection


Sue finally faces the anger that she has bottled up inside her all these years. This is the first step to removing it and being free.

Reed's slap shows how he has totally lost it. Sue is being more powerful than him and he can't cope. His only solution is to exert his old fashioned male superiority: ignorant force. Does this really help her? Or does it traumatize her mind even more, causing her to snap next issue, and weakening her for the final indignity in FF283?
Fantastic Four 281

Issue 282: The harrowing of Hell

282 inwards to infinity
In Christian mythology the three days that Jesus spent in the tomb were his visit to the underworld to free the prisoners, the "harrowing of Hell". And so it is with Sue. Psychoman was always a symbol of inner psychology and probably not "real" (hence all the drug imagery discussed elsewhere). Note the title: inwards to infinity. As with Paul's Christian doctrine, Jesus' self sacrifice had infinite repercussions.

She must go back to her childhood to appreciate Franklin's childhood. His problems must be solved now. She can no longer wait. (She finally solves his problems in FF 307, just a couple of months later, their time)
Fantastic Four 282

Fantastic Four 282Fantastic Four 282
Fantastic Four 282

Not much needs to be said. Except to note that, now that Sue has grown as hardened and cold as Reed, Franklin is literally lost. Reed thinks he's supporting Sue, but he really doesn't know how to. To him, slapping her counts as support.

Other points to note

Issue 283: born again


This is the crucial issue. Sue is the hero of the Fantastic Four story, and these five issues are the climax to her story, her crucifixion and rebirth. This issue mirrors issue 1, where her career as a hero began. Note the cover: the giant green underground monster with the gaping mouth, holding up Sue while the others fly and stretch around him. The first year of the story was about alienation (see notes to issue 2) and this is where Sue's alienation ends. In the first issues Sue was the action figure, defeating Doom, being the most proactive against the Miracle Man, being the decisive figure against Namor, and so on. But she chose to follow Reed and become submissive. Here she "dies" and is reborn. Note the symbolism of falling into the earth in order to rise again and be reborn

Fantastic Four 283

Sue is emotionally broken. We see her childhood at last as she is spiritually born again. This is nearing the end of the end of act 4, the climax to the drama, and all the characters are changing forever.
  1. We have seen Sue's inner meekness destroyed. After FF141 she insisted on being treated as an equal, but still would not take control. Now she will take control as needed. E.g. in FF304 she finally gets her way, and Reed has to follow.
  2. Reed's process of destruction and rebuilding is taking far longer, since FF61 in fact, but that's because he is the most stubborn. Burt eventually (FF295) even he will see the truth.
  3. Alicia's actions are forcing Ben to finally examine his life: soon (FF296-304) he will go right back to the start and rebuild his life, as if from issue 1.
  4. Alicia's actions are also solving Johnny's problems. The next issue will complete his process of becoming a fully rounded adult.
Sue's childhood

For more about this issue, and what it reveals about Sue's childhood, see the commentary to FF291.

Issue 284: the choice: heaven or hell?

So we come to the last of the five issues covering Sue's crucifixion and resurrection. Now we have the choice: do we choose heaven or hell? The cover warns us of he hell option: a reference to George Orwell's 1984.

284 1984

The real year 1984 has just passed, with America ramping up its military power (issue 284, cover dated Nov 1985, would have been sold in August, drawn in May, and plotted in the spring of 1985). Orwell showed us where love of power leads:

"There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever."

This of course describes life under the Skrulls. Reed was probably a Skrull (see FF 91) and rebelled against Skrull culture. Skrull culture allows for no curiosity, no enjoyment ("we hate being Skrulls" - issue 2). All they have is the joy of crushing others. This is what is at stake. It is a symbol for where America is headed if it embraces power before compassion.

Ironically, Reed's attempt to resist the Skrulls led to him usingunlocking the hell to end all hells: Annihilus and the negative zone. Again we have the same imagery (but of course Kirby did it first): the giant boot crushing all beneath it.


The allusion to the book 1984 continues on the splash page (and the theme of loss of memory): the title is "revolution" - the constant background to Orwell's novel. It implies a warning: revolutions can be both good and bad.

Sue chooses to overcome her fear. At this moment her rebirth is complete. Note the parallels in the art: from losing her baby - the beginning of her Hell - to completing her own rebirth through the killing of the demon within her.

Issue 285: Johnny gains the insight that Reed lacks

Fantastic Four 285

In this issue Johnny gains a deep understanding into how others' feelings. This is the essential skill for leadership that Reed always lacked. This, together with Alicia, makes him into a fully mature adult and ready to lead the team when the time comes.

New readers: start here
In this web site I argue that every issue is like this: they all deal with deep real world issues. But in this issue it's more obvious.

A landmark issue

An academic comments on the subtext
This is from the review by "Ransom" on 'Chronological Snobbery': "In his 1999 book, Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers, author Matthew J. Pustz explores the portrayals of comic book fans in the medium. He notes:

'[the story is] a commentary on the role of superheroes in fans' lives. Comics do not make fans' lives one dimensional or lacking in human contact; rather, says Byrne, comics provide fans an escape, an outlet.'

[In an email Pustz added] 'when his parents lash out at the Torch, they blame him in the same kind of rhetoric that people have used to pin responsibility on comic books and other forms of popular culture. So the connection is clearly there.' In my book, I argue that his depiction is "sympathetic," but I'm not sure that I would go as easy on Byrne now as I did then. Tommy certainly seems to be a nice enough kid, and it's true that he's abused by his classmates, misunderstood by his teachers, and neglected by his parents. At the same time, though, he's not the brightest kid for 13. He falls for his classmates trick to get his lunch money for a magazine that Tommy should have been able to find anywhere, and then he gets himself in trouble by reading it in school. Maybe this is a sign of Tommy's obsessive tendencies, but it certainly doesn't reflect well on comic book fans. In fact, I'd argue now that Tommy is portrayed much like stereotypical fans: immature (his actions seem to be more like someone who's closer to 8 than 13), obsessive, less than smart, and potentially dangerous. Near the end of the story, Byrne (through the Beyonder) tells Johnny (and us) that he's not responsible for Tommy lighting himself on fire. Certainly his self-absorbed parents and irresponsible neighbor are more at fault. The Beyonder explains that superheroes (and comic books) don't make fans' lives one-dimensional and so empty that they light themselves on fire. Instead, comics and superheroes give fans an outlet, a way to live their lives vicariously through people they idolize. This may be a positive service that comic books provide, but that doesn't really say very much in support of the average comic book fan.'"

"What lies in [the Beyonder's] message? Does it not lessen the life of Hanson to imply that he was happy only because he would sublimate his own identity to live through the exploits of a hero celebrity? There is an element of dehumanization implicit in his remarks: Tommy Hanson may be less than a human being for not living his own life, but at least he could be distracted from his troubles by reading of a hero actively living his own life."

This is not the only time that modern comics have portrayed their fans as losers. Are they perhaps projecting? It seldom happened in the 1960s and early 1970s, when comic creators came from all walks of life, and drew more than just superheroes. But today's comic creators are usually hardcore superhero fans who never left the hobby.

"My theory on this phenomenon is that it stems from a socially reinforced self-hatred: comic book creators are themselves comic fans, themselves exhibit said negative stereotypes, and, finding themselves finally in a position of power, pass the stereotypical buck, as it were, on to their own fans. Dave Sim, admittedly a particularly bitter comic writer, was accused of this very crime by his own fans (wish I could remember a citation here, though it was probably online somewhere) when he lampooned the wimpiness of comic book fans in his Guys storyline. Obviously, there are exceptions to this trend, but it's surprisingly widespread." (horus kemwer)

Real depth: what this story is really about
While most fans see it as a heart-warming story, it has much darker undertones. The blog "When Will The Hurting Stop" has a lengthy and damning condemnation of the usually received message. The author argues that "Tommy" paints comic fans in the saddest possible light and says that hiding in comics is a the best thing these people can hope for. The review concludes:

"Nothing about this even vaguely resembles a happy ending. This is a shitty ending about how the world is a shitty place and even though shitty things happen, pretty people will always find ways to make themselves feel better about those shitty things, even when the shitty things are partially their fault. What's more, it's OK to be pretty and oblivious because it makes the peasants feel better about themselves to be able to look up and admire their betters. Or something? I am confident in asserting that this is one of the worst comics Marvel has ever published. It's stuck in the middle of one of Marvel's most celebrated runs by one of its most celebrated creators, so not only has it historically received a pass, it's been celebrated for its toxic "message" by successive generations of fanboys too stupid to tell when they're being insulted."

So this story is about the tragedy of a boy who has no power, and Johnny's moral weakness that he can just forget and move on. As the reviewer notes, the next story is about Phoenix. A phoenix burns to death then comes back. Heroes can come back and lesser people cannot. This is part of the much bigger theme of the Great American Novel: elitism versus equality: are negative things ever acceptable? Can we really do nothing about them?

So this story is a perfect example of what this web site is about: depth that the writers did not intend. Yet it is there, like it or not.

The zeitgeist: small scale

The zeitgeist: large scale
The whole point of the Beyonder as a character (as envisioned by Jim Shooter) was to look for purpose in his life. This was at a time when the cold war was weakening, and America's purpose (to survive the terrible communist threat) was no longer as clear.  FF286 was cover dated Dec 1985, so was plotted August or September of 1985. The Beyonder first appeared in 1984, in Secret Wars I, but then he was in a distant galaxy, a simple macGuffin to allow the superheroes to fight. He did not influence earth events until 1985, in Secret Wars II. Issue 1 was cover dated July 1985, plotted around January, just after Reagen was re-elected with a landslide. Meanwhile Russia was weak and growing weaker. In March 1985 Mikail Gorbachef began to lead Russia, and people could see the tide of history change.

Byrne and the Beyonder
Byrne hugely resented having to use the Beyonder, as he wanted this to be a perfect small story. But as always the FF works on multiple levels. The boy who died in FF285 was not small to himself: he was the center of his universe. His life, like the Beyonder's, was a quest for meaning. There are no small stories: ultimate questions of philosophy and the bigger socio-economic backdrop are everywhere.

"Byrne has mentioned this issue as particular reason he disliked [editor-in-chief] Jim Shooter's editorial mandates. This was originally not a SW2 tie-in, but Shooter mandated that the Beyonder be included. Byrne said he begged Shooter to delay the SW2 tie-in, and he'd create an all Beyonder issue, but Shooter had already pre-determined the FF had to have a tie-in for #285, and Byrne had already written the issue. It all sounds very weird, but clearly there was a major disagreement." (source

Byrne explains that he did not want to have the Beyonder in this issue. It was supposed to be the doctor who told Johnny everything, and we would see it in flash back. Byrne says he offered to write a totally different Beyonder story so as not to change this one, and when it was published he offered to re-draw the Beyonder scenes for free so it would be as he originally planned, but he says Marvel refused the offer. Within a year Byrne left Marvel comics for DC.

It was not just the Beyonder that bugged Byrne, but the forced crossover events in general. "Events are always a pain-in-the-plot. Especially if, as I used to, a writer gets his story lines worked out well in advance. 'Oh, you know that plot you've had cooking for a year? Gotta dump it. The Boss wants to piss all over the books to make it seem like he earns his big salary.'" (Byrne) The concern for big "event" crossovers was one of the things that eventually killed the early FF.

Byrne and Jim Shooter
John Byrne hated Shooter's guts, and this issue is perhaps the best example of why. Artists like Byrne saw Shooter as micromanaging, ruining otherwise good stories, and taking credit he did not deserve. For example, Shooter wrote Secret Wars himself, which due to its multiple tie-ins was bound to be a big seller, so Shooter could then say "I created this hugely successful book". When Shooter was finally forced out, Byrne famously sang "ding dong the witch is dead."

Yet Jim Shooter took over Marvel at a time when the comics could not even come out on time, and presided over its most successful period since Lee and Kirby created the whole thing. Shooter presided over rising sales and fan favorite runs such as Byrne's Fantastic Four, Frank Miller's Daredevil, Chris Claremont's X-Men, Bob Layton's Iron Man, Walt Simonson's Thor. etc., etc.. When Shooter left the writing quality of the comics collapsed. I consider Shooter to be a great hero. But John Byrne is also a great hero: his legendary run on the Fantastic Four is superb, and this issue is a good example. Creators and bosses naturally clash, and Byrne and Shooter are high profile examples of that.

Shooter as Mr Fantastic
Jim Shooter was (is) like Mr Fantastic. He had (has) superb talent, and achieved amazing results. But he seemed unaware of how his leadership style affects others. I strongly sympathize: I am diagnosed with aspergers (who else would make a web site like this?) and I see a lot of myself in Reed and in Jim Shooter's weaknesses. But others saw Shooter as one giant ego, forcing his decisions on others even when his decisions are wrong. Secret Wars 1 and 2 are the classic examples: as stories they were OK, nothing special, but they forced all other books to change to suit Shooter's story. This made him more and more enemies. As far as I can see, this insensitivity was Shooter's only major vice. Shooter's other alleged crimes (the concept of the massive cross over, defending bad decisions from higher up, a lot of his art and writing decisions, etc.) are easier to defend.

Criticisms (source)
Other points to note

Annual 19: "their menace is finally ended"

Fantastic Four annual

The Kree and Skrull galactic empires have been at war since time immemorial. They are proof that conflict is not a permanent solution: neither side will accept defeat. The only solution is compromise, understanding and cooperation: a major theme of the Great American Novel. A galactic war of millennia cannot be solved n a single day, but this continues the work from FF annual 18. 

The Great American Novel
Note the central role of Captain America: this is American action and diplomacy bringing peace to the world (or in this case the galaxy).

The Soviet Union and "The Great Destruction"
"The Great Destruction" is destroying Skrulls' ability to easily change: limiting their ability to deceive, forcing them to live with their decisions. It is a moral issue, and could be called a "responsibility bomb". The Skrulls represent the Soviet Union. Bu the 1980s is could no longer hide its economic weakness and had to face reality. Rulers could no longer change their story, Skrull like: it didn't work any more.

Prince Dezan as Gorbechev
Like Gorbechev, Dezan rose in the Skrull ranks, but did not see things the same way. This is made clear in the companion Avengers annual: "As the Avengers and Fantastic Four leaves the Skrullian empire, Captain America tells his teammates that the only reason why Prince Dezan was a prisoner of the empire was that unlike most skrulls, all he ever wanted was peace."

Cosmic balance and world history
FF annual 19 is an example of Galactus restoring cosmic balance. This is all a result of Galactus destroying the Skrull throne world. The chaos allowed rivals to compete, leading to the rise of the peace lover. Before this (e.g. in FF 48) Galactus could not get to the Skrull throne world. In this regard, when Frankie (Nova) led Galactus to the Skrull throne world it was like Lech Walesa changing Poland: thanks to Poland's opening up there was now a way into reaching Russia: Russia was losing its defenses and now the economic forces (Galactus) finally had a way in.

The real universe
Perhaps the best thing about the classic Fantastic Four (and what distinguishes it from so many other comics) is that it's mind expanding. This issue hinges on the positions of real galaxies in the real universe.

The Elan come from beta Scorpii, a star system within our own galaxy, the Milky Way: 145 parsecs from us, and there are three skrull outposts within 100 parsecs of it. "The Beta Scorpii system is a kinematic member of the Upper Scorpius subgroup of the Scorpius-Centaurus Association, a group of thousands of young stars with mean age 11 million years at distance 470 light years (145 parsecs)" (Wikipedia)

On a clear night you can go outside and see the home of "the Infant Terrible". t had to be relatively close to Earth for him to stumble here by accident without being noticed. Note that the Scorpii star system is very young, so the Elan probably did not evolve there but moved there from elsewhere. Reed said what the Skrulls said did not add up: clearly a vastly powerful race that had already changed star systems would not be ignorant of the Skrulls.

beta Scorpii
Image from cloud

However, the main skrull empire is in the Andromeda galaxy, part of the Virgo super cluster. Reed, being familiar with astronomy, would not confuse the two.

local supercluster
Here is a photo of the Skrull galaxy, M-61, a double barred ringed galaxy in Virgo.
double barred ringed galaxy in Virgo

Good comics are mind expanding.

The Hyper wave bomb
Several times we are told that the entire universe is at risk. Why? 

The hyper wave bomb was only intended to remove shape changing powers. Then why is it so dangerous? Because of elitism. It allows Zabyk, the one remaining powered Skrull to rule everyone else. The Great American Novel is about freedom, so Zabyk's elitism is central to the climax to the message. Elitism is always risky: we are told that if the machine goes wrong, the entire universe and another one destroy each other.

Negative zone links?
If the machine goes wrong, the entire universe and another one destroy each other. It sounds like the negative zone breach 4 issues later (annual 19 -> 286 -> 289). Other similarities are:

The haircuts

Johnny and Sue have terrible haircuts (for Johnny, see the notes by FF277). These reflect the stress they are both under.  "[Karen:]  And speaking of ill-conceived, so is Johnny's haircut. I know, it was the eighties, but even then that looked dumb. [And]  Sue, with her even-more horrific mullet haircut [. Doug:]  Is Johnny really that big of a snake that he'd do that to Ben? And what are we to make of Alicia? OK, maybe she got tired of Ben always holding back due to his feelings of inadequacy, but I also could just never take that whole storyline. [...] Haircuts = awful. I think this aspect of Byrne's tenure is a misfire, as a tour through the comics of the previous ~50 years shows a marked consistency in hairstyles, with conservatism being the rule. Seriously -- should Superman have gone for a Beatles 'cut in and around 1964? I don't think so. So why is it that all of a sudden Johnny (who really should have been around 25 in these years) shows up like he's been hanging out with Danny Terrio and the Solid Gold dancers?" (source)

Now that Johnny's chaos is ending, his hair will gradually calm down, until in FF 290 it's almost back to normal. Sue is still in a bad way, and her hair will get even worse (in FF297, when her behavior is a mess) before Reed finally accepts his duty then she can relax and her hair becomes normal again.

Johnny's self deception
Johnny claims his relationships are "legion" and lists Dorrie Evans, Crystal, Frankie Raye and Julie Angel. This contradicts his statement in FF204, and also the evidence of the comics. It may be his attempt at humor, or an immature effort to show off: as noted, his absurd haircut symbolizes his desperation.

Julie Angel
Did Johnny ever date Julie Angel? In his mind, yes. in the comics, no. This is a summary of all her appearances:

It seems clear that while Johnny liked her, she never saw him as more than a friend for the occasional group date. So FF annual 19 confirms Johnny's sad love life since losing Crystal.

Criticisms (source)

Other points to note

Issue 286: Blame

Fantastic Four 286

Reed's guilt
This story follows immediately from annual 19. The threat of the Skrulls is over. But at what cost? Jean Grey had to die to pay for her sins (in FF 137). So what does that say about Reed?The solution is to understand free will. Jean Grey and the Phoenix force are not the same. She did the best she could with the situation she had. She is not to blame. The same, we must conclude is true for Reed. He did not ask to be a Skrull. He did not have perfect knowledge or unlimited wisdom. All he had were the tools to hand. He only did what he could. And he is not doomed to be a Skrull, any more than Jean Grey is doomed to be the murderous Phoenix. Yes, he will die in three issues time, but he will be reborn.
Like a Phoenix: everyone dies and is reborn
The legendary phoenix is famous for dying then being reborn from the ashes, innocent again. This is happening not just to Jean Grey but to all the Fantastic Four:
  1. Johnny, the emotionally trapped man-child, has finally grown up, thanks to Alicia (FF 275) and Tommy (FF 285)
  2. Ben is in the process of being reborn, by working through his demons on Battleworld and losing Alicia. He will finally achieve peace in FF304 and receive a new body in FF 310.
  3. Sue was just mentally crucified and reborn
  4. Reed will go through his rebirth in issues 289-291, thanks to perhaps his first ever experiment and source of guilt: Licorice Calhoun will save him.
  5. Doom is about to go through the same process: to pay for his sins he must die and be reborn in the next issues

The new dominant Sue
After the events of FF261-264 Sue finally overrules Reed. This is a major turning point, but the real significance of this issue is its relationship with other comics.

A turning point in Marvel history
This is the first issue where the FF are pretty much a footnote to other comics, and a turning point in the history of marvel. It foreshadows the end of the Marvel Universe. There were three major events that led to **the death of the original Marvel Universe**:

  1. The creation of Marvel Time in 1968: this weakened the link with the real world.
  2. The attempt to reboot characters in the early 1980s, most notably with Byrne's "back to basics" in FF232. Byrne was such a good writer and the characters were so strong, that he ended up pushing them forwards anyway, but on the surface it felt like a return to the past. Marvel editors noticed the sales figures, and concluded that ignoring continuity could be a good thing.
  3. The return of Phoenix in FF286. This opened the floodgates for the revolving door of death, where every death is assumed to be temporary.When death no longer matters then neither does danger, so we no longer have reason to care. It also made permanent historical milestones impossible, so continuity became a impossible to follow unless you were an incredibly nerdy geek.
  4. The final abandoning of continuity in 1988-1991, most clearly seen when we **compare the new FF to the original FF.**
This issue, FF286, is thus a very big deal.

Editorial interference
All writers benefit from a good editor, but it's a question of degree. If an editor changes too much, too often, then  it becomes impossible to write a good story. This eventually led to the end of the big FF story. Here we see the beginnings of the process. FF285 and 286 were so butchered that John Byrne decided to leave Marvel within a year. "This is, of course, the issue that was micromanaged by Shooter. Every line of art and script was fully and completely approved. Then I announced I was going to do Superman, and suddenly chunks of it had to be redrawn by Jackson Guice and rewritten by Claremont. Which is why I had my name taken off it. Shooter then insisted that I would receive no royalties on that issue, since my name not being on it meant that I did not contribute to the sales. I wonder if he thought that would bluff me into changing my stance? [...] Shooter didn't insist on the crossover. Roger Stern and I cooked it up and presented it to him. That was our mistake. That was when he started micromanaging." (Byrne) To be fair to Byrne, he was not being petty: he did not object when Shooter changed the story to X-Men 137 (to make Phoenix die as a punishment for killing a planet). In that case, Byrne agreed that the finished result was better than the story he and Claremont had originally planned.

Here's just one example of the many changes:

unused pages

The original planned story

"In Byrne’s original version of the story, Phoenix was intended to be a clearly selfish, evil being that trapped Jean to use her humanity as a pattern to gain a body. Jean fought back with the only weapon left to her, by telepathically dumping her entire personality onto Phoenix, making the creature believe it was truly Jean Grey and act accordingly." (source)

Claremont's Phoenix was more sympathetic towards Jean while Byrne's Phoenix was malicious.

"Since I own the [unpublished] art and the gallery those images were liberated from, I thought I would set you straight on exactly what happened. It was at this time that John announced to Marvel, through a letter to boss Mike Hobson, Shooter, and FF editor Mike Carlin -- ah, the days before E-mail!! -- that John had accepted the Superman assignment at DC. The two Mikes wished him luck, which is what you would expect from professionals. Shooter's response was to suddenly realize that the FF story he had approved at every step, from plot, to pencils, to script -- after all, he had to have all his fingers in this very important pie -- was horribly flawed, and that a good third of it had to be redrawn by Jackson Guice and rewritten by Chris Claremont. Without informing John of any of this, very unprofessional. To this day most people didn't another artists not John drew the flashback. That is why the credits say what it does. With the Phoenix force being evil (as in the original FF 286 story) and Phoenix was not Jean, but a precise duplicate created by the Phoenix Force as a "housing" for itself (not Jean imbues her self into it) into the Phoenix, and the REAL Jean was in suspended animation at the bottom of Jamaica Bay, where the shuttle crashed. I actually think the death of Phoenix (not Jean) was made even MORE poignant by the revelation that the thing that killed itself was a doppelganger. It was the duplicate mind and spirit of Jean that kept the evil Phoenix force in check initially but Mastermind's manipulation strengthened the phoenix force and gave it control to destroy a planet with a billion aliens. That duplicate regained control and caused the Phoenix to commit suicide and not continue to threaten the universe. The story was, after all, about the triumph of the human spirit. By saying Phoenix was not Jean and evil,it says the human spirit is so powerful that even a COPY will make the ultimate sacrifice when the circumstance demands. Changing the story to the Phoenix being nice didn't make as much sense since it ended up turning bad and becoming a mass murderer. Besides Chris always wanted Jean to be Phoenix and in turn be guilty of mass murder of an alien race. Shooter just wanted to have his hands in the story even though he originally OKed it all. He gave it to Chris because he knew he would change it but didn't care how. I always liked Kurt Busiek's original concept (which John used in the story) and John's idea the force was evil." (source: mtrambler)

This was not the end of the Marvel Universe... yet
Although the changes were controversial, both sides just anted a better story, and the resulting story did have some advantages: "About the same time as FF #286 and X-Factor #1 came out, Rachel was becoming Phoenix in Uncanny X-Men. If they had let Byrne make the Phoenix evil, not only would it have ruined the Phoenix concept and Jean's role in her most defining and famous story but it would have messed up what Claremont had planned with Rachel as well." (source) Rachel and Franklin became partners, and this was a very big deal to the bigger story. On the other hand, the Rachel story is central to the chaos of the Franklinverse, so we could argue its merits either way. But the point is that there was a still a story, where events had long term consequences. The complete disregard of continuity did not come until FF322.

Other points to note

Issue 287: Doom is humbled

Fantastic Four 287

At the end of act 4 everyone is reborn. Doom like Ozymandias in the famous poem, thought he was unstoppable. But he was stopped by Reed in issue 200. He thought he the one being who could never share power. But his mind was split between the robots and the child Kristof. he thought that at least he was power incarnate, but he is reduced to skulking through the shadows. he realises at last that he is nothing without his people. At least he has his mind, eve if it is shared... but no, he now realises that even that can be taken away. He will never admit it to others, but Doom is finally humbled. He is reduced to begging (from the Beyonder). being broken and humbled he is ready to be reborn next issue.

A tougher attitude comes at a great cost
In this issue the girls attack on their own without bothering to call the rest of the team. Fair enough, but Sue has become cold and hard. The atrocious hair style says it all. Sue is like a newborn child, emotionally lost at this point. This cripples her greatest power: her intuition. In the past her sensitivity was the team's greatest asset. It led her to notice dangers others overlooked, and it led to to friendships with Namor, the Inhumans, the Impossible Man, Gorr and others: it saved the world on numerous occasions. But here she is so lost that she is dead to the evidence around her.

The Invincible Man costume is always used by an impostor. It is a sign that the person inside is never who he claims! Sue recalls that it was once the super skrull, But the other time they saw the costume it was a brainwashed Reed Richards, controlled by Doctor Doom!
To not notice this shows Sue has lost her ability to reason.
the Invincible Man

Doom's  should have set her alarm bells ringing: the last time they fought (FF196) it was designed by a man who was revealed to be the son of Dr Doom, and worn by a mind-controlled Reed Richards. And as if that was not enough of a clue, she sees Doom inside the embassy: Doom in his embassy is almost always a Doombot. She doesn't even think to user her visibility power to check the guy's face until it's too late! Even though her revealing a hidden face was the key to solving the mystery in the previous issue! What was Sue thinking???

Sue is a baby and has to learn. Quickly.

Reed and Sue's cold marriage

In this issue Sue and Reed talk like they love each other, but they seem to have settled into a common pattern with high powered business marriages: the marriage itself becomes a business relationship, just something to be scheduled. There is no warmth, no passion. As we saw when Reed was abducted and Sue didn't notice, they are no longer close. A joint focus on Franklin would bring them back together, and it won't be long now. The final shock that brings them back together will be Franklin's abduction (again) in FF annual 20, the final straw that makes Reed do the right thing at last. But first he has to see what he's been doing, and that happens next.

Why FF287 follows from FF286
Ff286 and 287 form a double bill, a story about Sue's emotional development. FF286 is about a woman who was powerless. Sue is frustrated with the men's lack of empathy. But the irony is great: since her rebirth Sue had herself lost some empathy, becoming harder and more violent. So in FF287 Sue learns the hard way that she is not immune from adopting male stupidity. She is not emotionally superior simply because she is a woman, she has to work at it.

Other points to note

Issue 288: Doom is reborn

Fantastic Four 288

Sue and Reed learn that violence is not the answer
Doom's rebirth was discussed in the notes to the previous issue. So let's focus on Reed and Sue. In this issue Reed and Sue learn a lesson in desires from one of the most powerful beings of all: the Beyonder. The Beyonder's whole purpose was to understand unfulfilled desires.

Reed learns

In this issue we see the final proof that no matter how often Reed defeats Doom by force, Doom will always come back. Here Doom was literally annihilated: his atoms separated, reduced to simple energy, and dissipated into the cold of outer space. There was literally nothing that science could do to bring him back. And yet still he returned!!! This is one of the messages of the 28 year story. This is ultimately a family drama, and one message is that force is not the answer

Doom can never be defeated, but there is a way to neutralize him: stop fighting him, and instead turn him against himself. We see that here, when Doom's arrogance draws in a being stronger than himself to defeat him. Doom will eventually recover from that as well, so the only way to truly neutralize Doom is with another Doom. This is foreshadowed in this issue, in the flashback of how Doom, with the power of the Beyonder, was defeated by fighting himself. Doom will finally be neutralized in FF annual 20, when Kristof, a being with Doom's mind but more youthful flexibility, gains enough experience to fight Doom on equal terms and repel him. Reed seems to begin to understand this. the last words of this issue are "when next we face Victor on Doom it will be on our terms, not his."

Sue learns

The past year has seen Sue go to hell and back (literally!) resulting in her becoming more dominant (FF286) and losing her sensitivity (FF287). Here she has a wake-up call: intuition is more important than force, because appearances are always deceptive.

Sue's hair
We saw in the notes to FF277 that hairstyles at this point reflect inner turmoil. In FF287 Sue lost her intuition, and her hair became harsh and angular, not soft. (The in-story explanation is she was caught in the middle of a haircut: simply having her hair change on its own would be unrealistic. But the fact remains that when she loses her intuition she also loses her soft hair; when she regains it, she regains her soft hair.) Note the Biblical parallel: Sue is like Samson: his long soft hair represented his heritage (his Nazarite vows to always see beyond mere violence). When Samson allowed himself to be tricked he lost his hair and lost his power.

Sue learns

Sue learns the lesson, and steps back from the brink of despair. She is visibly happier. Her hair returns to normal.

The greatest power of all: continuity


This web site is about realism: that's why there are pages about Marvel Time, and why events must have consequences. Now, at the end of act 4, the appearance of the Beyonder reminds us why this matters: without continuity, if events do not have consequences, then nothing matters. Characters must have history! Without history their present means nothing. History, continuity, is the most powerful force in the universe, it is what defines reality, without it nothing can exist.

Will the real Doctor Doom please stand up?

"What is man that thou art mindful of him?" (Psalm 8:4)

In this issue Doom is restored from the past... or is he? It raises the philosophical question of what makes us real? (A question also raised by Herbie's sacrifice in FF117, but here take a step further.) In FF350, Doom reveals that the character who fought and lost against Kristoff was a robot. But this means that the Doom in FF288 was a Doombot. Reverend Meteor writes, on the FF message board:

"My personal belief about Doom is that the Doom who was killed in the fight between Terrax and Silver Surfer in Byrne's run and later transferred his mind into Norman McArthur and whose mind was later put into a past version of Victor's body was originally a Doombot. He was a Doombot but Beyonder pulled a fairy godmother on him and turned him into a real boy ( This was the guy who lost the kingdom to Kristoff but he isn't the guy who was outed as a Doombot in issue 350 and destroyed when the real Doom returned. The real Doom killed a Doombot...but the guy he killed shouldn't have been a Doombot anymore after Beyonder made him real. So obviously this Pinocchio Doombot substituted a Doombot to take his place in fighting Kristoff (who also thought he was Doom) when the real Doom came back and killed the Doombot."

The Doombots are able to fool even telepaths and Reed's sophisticated scanners. Which raises another possibility: perhaps they are biological, clones of Doom? Intelligent Doombots first appeared in a serious way after Doom cloned his "son" (see FF199). Doom would of course have placed limits on them, so the don't rebel as his son did. However, FF358 indicates that Doombots are less intelligent than they want us to believe. So this raises another possibility, my own view: that shiny Doom who returned in FF350 was himself a Doombot, who had upgraded to be superior to his master. It's easier for a robot to upgrade than for a human. Also, Doombots judge the real Doom by his power: the Doom who wins must be the real one (See annual 20). Either way, this issue raises the more important question: what makes a person human:

All of this assumes that people are separate from their environment: for most of human history (and all of prehistory, and our networked future) people might disagree. It also assumes that we need more than the present moment to justify our value. Deep stuff.

Issue 289: the action climax to the 28 year story

Fantastic Four 289

FF289-290 is the climactic battle climax to the entire Great American Novel: the climax to the crisis of Act 4 (there is one more story, where Reed comes to a realization, then the resolution in Act 5). An armada of highly advanced ships is heading from the Negative Zone to attack the Earth, and only Reed can save everything.

The symbolism of the Negative Zone

The Negative Zone is so full of symbolism that it's hard to know where to begin. It is the place of negativity: of death and despair, where people go to kill themselves. It is sub-space, where all possible realities are linked, thus it is a place of ultimate creation. It is Reed's greatest triumph and the greatest danger to our reality: simply touching without being changed first will blow everything up (matter meets antimatter). It is where Franklin and Valeria gained their dimension-joining powers. As the place where dimensions meet it represents the dream world, the unconscious. (Note that Franklin's power was manifested as a dream self.) The armada of alien ships heading to earth is a fitting end: the dramatic result of Reed's one tiny ship in 1961, which launched into the unknown without proper shielding. This wide open negative zone portal is in roughly the same place as the band of cosmic rays in FF1. The invasion also reflects issue 2. The action climax to the 28 year story cannot end in any other way: all these elements must come together and the Negative Zone must be sealed forever, through the sacrifice of Reed.

Sealed forever

sealed forever
In FF290 Reed says he will try to seal the Negative Zone forever. In a normal comic this would be empty words, as the entire comic would be empty words. But in the Fantastic Four realism matters, words have meaning, and actions have consequences. The event that allows Reed to survive would also ensure he gets his wish and the Negative Zone is sealed forever. Note that after FF321 we will follow a different team, and in that storyline events everything looks backwards, so the Negative Zone will be once again still open. But nothing will ever have any consequences either, so it will never be more than a temporary illusion of danger. The real Negative Zone, the place heavy with symbolism and danger, ends here.

Reed must learn his lesson
Reed has to go to the negative zone one last time: it's the symbol of his own negativity, and of a danger of his own making. Franklin got much of his power from the negative zone, and if Reed had properly raised him then Franklin would now be a teenager who could help him, Instead he's alone and trapped. The Annihilus problem is caused because of the explosion that destroyed the Baxter Building: it also tore open the entrance to the negative zone. If Reed's deliberate lack of defenses allowed the explosion then he is responsible for the attacks that follow. Reed must learn that he cannot continue this way. His cold scientist persona must die so that the warm father persona can be born. In doing so we will go back to his childhood, and then look at the distant future, in the final two stories of Byrne's run, the final two stories of Act 4.

Issue 290: The death of Reed Richards

surviving death

The Great American Novel works on many levels. To the casual reader, with no interest in the past, this is a simple story Sue thinks Reed is dead, but luckily he survives. The end. But to long time readers this explanation makes no sense. Something much bigger is going on, involving Reed's metal despair and his rescue by Joseph Calhoun.

Adult themes in the Fantastic Four
This is another controversial claim, that Reed really died. It must be remembered that this is an all-ages comic, so adult themes are never explicitly stated. It is never directly stated that Alicia slept with Johnny. Nor is it directly stated that Valeria was conceived in the Negative Zone. Nor does Reed ever admit that he suicidal. But all of these things are strongly implied. They create the framework that defines the 28 year story.

The evidence

How do we know that Reed died this issue? Because Sue said so.

Sue's intuition is never wrong.


But wait, she was wrong in FF287! But that was a one-off, about a much less important topic, and FF288 showed her correcting her views again (see the notes to those issues). The loss of her husband is far more serious than a snap judgment about the Invincible Man. She would never give up unless there was absolutely no possibility of hope. That is made clear in FF289, where Sue does not actually see the explosion, so she rushes in to find Reed.

Sue jumped to the wrong conclusion?

The previous issues reminded Sue that apparently dead people do come back:

Sue is not stupid

Why does Sue give up so easily?
Then why is she so sure Reed is dead? She tells us: Reed wants to commit suicide. She tries to stop him. See the notes to F251 for the background. He says he does not want to kill himself, yet makes no plans for survival. Nor does he look at other ways to defeat Annihilus (such as regaining the cosmic control rod, or getting Franklin to use his far superior powers, or tricking the invading armada, or any number of other ways). In their conversation Sue gives up because clearly Reed will not change his mind.
Fantastic Four 290

How can we be sure Reed wanted to die? Apart from all the evidence in FF251? Because he knew it was "just as likely" he would survive, but did not want Sue to have "false hope."

false hope
Yet a fifty fifty chance of survival is not "false hope" it is real hope. Reed did now want Sue to hope! But once his intentions failed, and he did survive, and SHIELD rescued him, he had to carry on as if rescue was always part of the plan.

How did Reed survive?

Reed's survival solves another problem: the unlikely coincidence that Joseph Calhoun would suddenly emerge from a fifty year coma at just that time (see the end of FF292: he woke up "about a day ago"). Calhoun was a parallel to Franklin: a mind that could distort realities, in effect opening up other dimensions: that is, he is a living conduit to subspace (the space between realities), like Franklin. So when Reed caused a great explosion at the interface between subspace and our dimension, of course Calhoun woke up!

When Calhoun woke up, "his mind reached out to re-shape the world in the image of the last thing he remembered" - the world of 1936. That world included all the people alive then. As Reed was born in 1926, he would be alive then. So Reed was suddenly alive again.


Other points to note

Issue 291: The Bombshell

Sue's age: read between the lines

Fantastic Four 291

This is the most controversial review of the whole web site. You thought Reed's attempted suicide was bad? You ain't seen nothing yet.


After so many trials, going literally to hell and back, and finally alone (Reed is dead), we at last see Sue's inner feelings. So the great 28 year story approaches its climax. We look back at Sue's childhood to finally understand who she is, just as we did 20 issues earlier for Reed, in FF271. 


Sue is the real star of the show, the most powerful member of the team, but we seldom see her inner world. Why? What is she hiding? Here we find out.

On the surface

Let us look at the surface story:

  1. Sue is sad because Reed is not there.
  2. She has always loved Reed.
  3. She first met Reed when he stayed at her aunt's boarding house.
  4. Sue was then aged twelve and Reed was older, a college student.

The idea that Sue was so young has troubled a lot of readers. It makes Reed (in FF11) into almost a pedophile. But look deeper and we see a different story: as with all the greatest novels, the Fantastic Four employs "the unreliable narrator". Until now, Sue has been a mystery, but she has said nothing that is obviously wrong. Now she pushes us over the edge with an impossible claim (that she is so young). Now we are forced to ask: what is the real story?

The problem

Looking below the surface, things are not what they appear:

  1. If FF 291 says that Sue first met Reed when she was 12 and he was much older (note the "if"), then this flatly contradicts FF11: they first met when they were next door neighbors, and were both kids.
  2. Here is the kicker: when Reed was fighting in World War II, Sue was the sweetheart he left behind.
    Sue's age
  3. Why is Sue quite so desperately sad? Reed has faced danger before: that is not why Sue is sad. The real story is that Sue has been dragged through hell and back (even literally: FF277), she has lost hope in Reed, and now she does not know where to go. So she looks back to her childhood. Note that she and Nick Fury were pulled back to 1936 because their minds were already there: it is no coincidence that Calhoun pulled them into his dream.
  4. In FF1 Sue described herself as Reed's "fiancée" but they were not engaged until FF35. And she was very interested in Namor as soon as she saw him. What is going on?

Yet in FF291 she wants to believe she was far too young for that. Why?


Let's take a closer look, and see what's really happening:

FF291 is a dream

The 1936 sequences in FF291 are a dream. For example, She-Hulk believed she saved a man's life by lifting a car, but in reality she did not. What we see is what the characters want to believe, not the truth.
the dream

This is one of three major dreams where, toward the end of the 28 year story, we finally see inside Sue's head. The other dreams are

But back to this dream. Why does Sue want to believe she is much younger than she is?

Sue has always hidden her past

In the first pages of FF1 we see that Sue naturally turns invisible when unsure of something: her inclination is to be private, to keep herself secret. We see the same in FF7. It has long been noted that the team's powers reflect their personalities. So Sue has things to hide, and wants a barrier between herself and others. FF11 Sue said it was "painful" to think of the past. She cannot have been talking just about the dangers of World War II, because the team are always in danger. She is clearly hinting at her romantic interests, but why would 1945 be especially painful?

All we know about Sue's past is that she raised Johnny Storm, and does not speak about her parents. She raised Johnny Storm to do the same.


She doesn't even open up to Johnny. In FF 21, where the Hate Monger brings out their worst feelings, Johnny says something interesting to Sue: he accuses her of being a big phony.

Does he just mean that she is nice to him in public but more strict when at home? No, because she she is stricter in public: she basically ignores or criticizes him when with the FF, whereas every glimpse of her at home (in Strange Tales) shows she is quite friendly and motherly to him. No, living with Sue for all his life, one thing is clear to Johnny: there is something phony about the way his sister behaves, but he does not know what. She is hiding something.

The mystery of Sue's age

Sue always hid her age: this early letters page said she was somewhere in her 20s. Note that according to FF10, Stan and Jack get their information direct from Mr Fantastic.


If Sue was Reed's sweetheart in 1945 she must have been at least 15, probably more, making her 33 in 1963, and 31 in 1961. But she wants to believe she is much younger. A 22 year old would have no reason to hide her age. But a 32 year old would have every reason.

Sue acts old

All the early indications are that Sue is closer in age to Reed and Ben than to Johnny. She was Reed's fiancée when he was in his late 30s. The first time we see her she is "having tea with society friends" and she later criticizes Ben, the war hero. She looks after the men, and refers to a messenger boy as "son". When discussing teenagers she treats them as a very different species (e.g. in FF3 and FF4).

Sue's age

The Torch's own magazine, Strange Tales, makes it even clearer: Sue acts like Johnny's mother. In Strange Tales annual 2 for example Sue looks after Johnny, trains him, keeps a beautiful house, and acts like the adult while Johnny acts like an immature kid.

But she looks young?
Sue is strikingly beautiful, takes great care over her appearance, and has the money to do so. So at 32 she can still have perfect skin and can easily pass for a 22 year old, as long as she avoids too much partying where people would see her in a teenage setting up close. Sue loves her privacy.

But Crystal said..?
In FF81 Crystal said she was not younger than Sue when the team formed. But Reed calls here a child (and in 82 calls her "still a minor") which in human terms means under 19, and perhaps under 16. Yet we know that Sue was in her 20s. Clearly Inhumans age slowly: Crystal was at least in her mid 20s, perhaps older. This explains why in the same issue (FF81) Crystal refers to facing "perils without number" at the side of Black Bolt: this suggests a long career. It also explains why Crystal is so experienced and mature, even though her upbringing was relatively sheltered. Inhumans age slowly.

The smoking gun

FF212 suggests that Sue was hiding her real age:

Sue's age

If FF291 was true then Sue would be 16 years younger than Reed. Add the fact that women generally live longer anyway, and she would normally be expected to outlive Reed by more than 20 years. Yet her body gave up long before his. Even with bad genes, this is highly unlikely. And look at Johnny's explanation: their parents died young. Yet their mother died from a car accident and their father was killed by a bomb (FF31 and FF32). Either Johnny is lying, or in the heat of the moment he remembered what Sue had always said. Why would Sue tell him their family died young? What motive would she have, other than to explain why she looked older than the 20 years she claimed?

The smoking gun is that Sue raised Johnny on her own. According to the flashback in FF32 - her version of events - she was not yet in puberty when her father had the car accident that led to his decline and imprisonment. Are we really to believe that a young girl, not yet in puberty, would be allowed to run the house and be guardian for her younger brother? Again this argues for her being older than she claimed. And being Johnny's guardian raises an obvious explanation.

The FF and the dark side of America

The picture in FF291, of a young girl and innocent simple love, was part of the 1980s emphasis on the FF as family. It reflects Reaganism: family and old fashioned values. It was a nostalgic view, but not how people experienced life at the time. The FF book was originally about alienation:

The first year was full of conflict and the darker side of America. If Sue had a dark secret it would be completely in context,

Sue's "painful" past

In FF11 Sue said the war years were painful. We don't know when her father was in jail, other than it was less than 20 years before 1964. Before that he had a period of decline. It is likely that when Reed fought in 1944-45, Sue's home life was falling apart. Her mother had just died and her father said it was his fault, and was sinking into drink and gambling. She was a very beautiful yet attracted to powerful men. Her longtime sweetheart, Reed Richards, was suddenly away at war. And what else happened in 1944-45? Remember the team's ages? Johnny Storm was born in 1945.

In the flashback in FF32 we are told that Johnny was not much younger than Sue, and that he was there before Mary died. But the picture also shows a pre-puberty Sue. Which would place her before she was Reeds' sweetheart in 1944, before Johnny was born.

FF11 and FF32

Both stories cannot be correct. Reed had no reason to lie: he was open about his age, and did not find the topic troubling. But Sue found it painful, even though it was not about her father.

The simplest way to reconcile the facts is with a suggestion that is so shocking to modern readers that I will let Colin Smith say it:

"Even in Reed and Sue’s relationship, there’s no sign of laughter and physical tenderness, let alone intimacy. Instead, these are intimidatingly repressed and apparently joyless individuals. (No wonder Susan Storm found the Sub-Mariner's unbridled personality and up-front desires so hard to resist.) Coming across the strip in the Seventies in reprint form, and being a fan of the BBC’s Dad’s Army, I found it hard not to suspect that Johnny was actually Sue’s own child, even as Pike was so obviously Sergeant Wilson’s. With Kirby’s art suggesting that the elder Storm’s age could be anywhere between 20 and 45, it was an intriguing possibility." (source)

World War II was a time when loved ones could be sent off at any time and never come back, when the future was uncertain and very hard for those left at home, and handsome young soldiers, desperate for female company, would appear at any time. It was a time when many young women took emotional risks. If a teenager became pregnant it was normal to keep it quiet and pretend the child was her sibling. Many an adult in later years was blissfully unaware of his or her real parents.

If this was Sue's great secret it would help explain her attraction to Namor: not only was he powerful and charismatic and could take her away to be a princess, but he himself was the son of an illicit affair. Namor would never be judgmental.

Sue after FF214

Sue was de-aged in FF214, and the de-aging gun probably set Sue to the age Johnny thought she was.

After FF332 we are probably dealing with a different team, so the new Sue does not seem to have any dark secrets. All of this refers to the original Sue, the one who was Reed's sweetheart in World War II.


When calculating ages I generally accept Sue's claim, that she is very young. But that means Reed lied in FF11, and that he was attracted to young girls. When we accept FF11 as reliable, and all the other evidence, there is only one conclusion: Sue is lying about her age probably because Johnny is not actually her brother but the baby she had as a teenager.

Sue's childhood in FF283

If this theory is correct then it gives new intensity to Sue's nightmare in FF283: it reveals Sue's deepest, darkest fears. FF283 works on different levels. On the surface, Sue feels inadequate next to Reed, Reed is insensitive, he dies, Sue makes many mistakes, and then Sue goes back to her childhood. But there are numerous problems with that approach:

  1. Sue has never felt inadequate next to Reed.Quite the opposite! When Sue left in FF129 it was Reed who could not cope.
  2. Sue has never been weak Quite the opposite! She was always the strongest member of the team.
  3. Reed has not treated Sue like an idiot since FF158 at the latest: that attitude really belongs to a much earlier period.
  4. Why would Sue fear being with her parents? The opposite would be true!
  5. Why does the story take so many pages to say something so simple?

But if we consider that Sue had a baby in 1945, then suddenly everything makes sense. Consider the order of events:

1. Reeds arrogance

Reed is very confident: this places the story at the earliest possible date. Reed is portrayed as much older: the age difference is greatest when they were youngest. Reed had not yet learned any humility. All of this suggests that Sue is remembering a time when they first met, when she was just a teenager and Reed was a genius millionaire about to go to war,

2. Johnny

The main event is the death of Johnny:

 dream - Johnny
Obviously Johnny did not die in real life, but the nightmare may recall something equally traumatic. It begins with a military machine, like a city in a foreign place: this is consistent with placing the event at World War II. See what happened next: a shot is fired and burns through Sue's defenses. It homes in on Johnny, who needs Sue's help: she then calls him a baby then cradles him like a baby. If we accept that Johnny's birth is Sue's great secret, then this sequence can be interpreted in a Freudian way. I leave the details to the reader's imagination, but think about the gun, the color pink, how the pink bullet passes through a hole that might look like...  well, perhaps this was Sue remembering not the death of Johnny but the death of Sue's childhood: the birth of Johnny. That could make a teenager feel guilty for not trying hard enough to prevent it.

3. Ben and corrosion

The next event is Ben being eaten by acid. This would be corrosive to Sue's friendship with Ben, who also loved her. If Reed was the father it would be even worse. Again, Sue could see this as her fault. Reed at the time was very old fashioned, so probably blamed Sue.

4. Reed and the war machine

Next, Reed is removed from the picture by a war machine: a reference to him going off to his last tour of duty at war? Or to him being too busy working for the military? Either way, Sue is left alone.

5. Sue and her parents

Without Reed to help her, the young Sue must face her parents. How can she go on? This is exactly how she would feel if she was a pregnant teenager in 1945. She would want to give up the child for adoption. But her upper middle class parents, true to their culture, refuse to give up. They expect Sue to be brave and strong, even after they die.
The last phrase before Sue wakes up is "we love you and we want to keep you with us forever". Why would Sue be afraid of her own parents? She would not be! But she would be afraid of family ties. Why fear family ties? Because after her parents died she had to keep her baby forever. She felt like a child herself, but could never escape her bonds of duty. Note that her later powers were first to be invisible, and then to have a protective barrier around herself and her loved ones. This is exactly what a teenage mother would want.

FF283 on its own is not enough to indicate that teenage Sue had a baby. Though if not then we are left with a story that is full of serious problems. But if we accept the baby hypothesis then everything falls into place.

Who is Johnny's father?

The only remaining question is, who is the real father? Reed? Ben? Some random soldier? We cannot be sure, but one name stands out: Prince Namor.

"Too many years"
When Sue and Namor have their heart-to-heart in FF195 he referred to loving her for "too many painful years". This cannot refer to the period 1962 to 1964 because it was only two years, and the first year was not even painful, as Namor had a real chance of claiming Sue. When were these "many painful years"?
many years

Let's look back to Namor's first modern appearance. The first time we hear his name we learn that Sue talked about him. Why?


Sue told Johnny that Namor was "the world's most unusual character". Why? He was often seen with the human torch, an android who bursts into flames: surely the torch was more unusual? There may have been other unusual characters as well. Why did Sue single out Namor? Then we have Johnny's obsession with Namor. His room contained undersea maps. While star charts make sense for multiple reasons - he visited space in FF1, FF8, FF13, etc., and fought aliens in FF2 and elsewhere, and many young people were obsessed with space in the early 1960s.  But undersea charts? Johnny had no reason to visit there: only one person they knew lived there and he was no danger as long as he stayed there. But for some reason Johnny was fascinated by Namor's home

undersea charts

When Namor sees Sue in issue 4 he proposes marriage within seconds. This makes no sense if they have only just met. But it makes perfect sense if he already knew her years before.


Then we have how she immediately had strong feelings for him. Again this makes no sense if they have only just met, but makes perfect sense if Namor was her first love.

She made a lame excuse about feeling sorry for him, but she previously showed herself to be a woman of great wisdom and strength. She is not some giddy teenager to fall for a stranger who menaces the world. And Namor feels the same way about her.
sub love

Sue at age 12
This issue (FF291) solves the mystery. It points us back to Sue's aunt's boarding house in Manhattan when she was aged 12. Let us examine that page again, in more detail.
Fantastic Four 291
This shows the first time Sue met Reed. Or does it?

John Byrne certainly intended it to be Reed. The in-comic reason is that the FF report their adventures to Marvel. So Sue told John Byrne something that made it sound like this was Reed: But this web site is not about what the authors intended or understood, it is about what was written down, and what the FF actually said and did. What is written down is far bigger than was intended. These characters were not invented by just one man, and are bigger than anything one man wrote. Each writer adds to them, but does not limit them.

So is that man Reed? Well it sure looks like him.

Or does it?

Hey, wait a minute, it looks nothing like Reed! Not like the young Reed, anyway:


Namor routinely uses disguises
Namor was the master of disguise: see issues 2, 6 and 11 of his 1940s comic. Or FF annual 1.

Why did Namor use disguises? Because he was "the world's most unusual character", and began as the enemy of the west. He then became perhaps the single most vital person to western armies: they desperately needed him in Europe. He was constantly in demand. Yet he wanted to live peacefully in New York. So he has to become an expert at disguise.

What would be the best disguise so he would never be spotted? Clearly the opposite from his proud, passionate nature: what better disguise than as a "shy bookish college freshman"? Since the shy bookish person cannot be Reed, it has to be Namor.

Eight reasons why the "shy, bookish college freshman" cannot be Reed

  1. This was Sue's first meeting with the man.
    Sue had known Reed since childhood, when they lived next door together (see FF 11). but this is the first time she met the adult stranger.
  2. Reed was never a "shy, bookish college freshman".
    Reed in the early days was anything but shy: he didn't call himself Mister Fantastic out of modesty! Here was a billionaire, the smartest man in the world, dating the most beautiful girl in the world. Such people are never shy! It takes huge confidence to build a rocket ship then fly it without permission. Throughout the early years he oozed confidence. In the war years he was leading the French underground. There was nothing shy about this man! His loss of confidence did not come until years later, in act 4.
  3. Reed had no reason to visit a New York guest house.
    Reed was a billionaire, and at this point was living on campus, sharing a room with Ben Grimm, along the corridor from Victor Von Doom.
  4. It looks nothing like Reed
    See above.
  5. Sue refers to "long separation"
    There has never been any hint of "long separation" from Reed. They grew up as neighbours, and even when Reed went off to war she as the girl he left behind. But "long separation" certainly applies to Namor. Being separated from Namor would be what, in the words of the flashback, "brought her to Reed's side".
  6. That would make a pointless story
    If that man is Reed then the page is redundant. Why waste a whole page (and really the whole book) on such a simple message? Yes, we know she loves Reed. Why keep telling us? And we already covered her belief that he was dead, in the previous issue. Why go on about it?
  7. That would make a dull story
    If the man is Reed, where is the conflict? Stories are about conflict!
  8. That would make Sue look weak.
    If that is Reed then Sue is whining and moping about how she cannot cope without him. That contradicts everything we know about Sue. Sue is never weak.

One reason why, yes the "shy, bookish college freshman" WAS Reed

In FF 91 we got the clue that unlocks the secret to everything: Reed must be a Skrull (see those notes for details). So he could appear as anything he wanted. It explains everything. It also explains why Reed can never reveal the full truth. There is an even more explosive secret about Namor, but that is too big to discus here, and will have to be discussed on another page.

The flashback page in detail

Now let us look at what that page actually says:

She realized Reed was the right man in FF27, but she still loved Namor as a friend and always will.

Sue's first 12 years: 1929 to 1941
Age 12 is important. it is a reminder that this is the Great American Novel and it's really all about Sue. This is why:

Over the course of the 28 year story we have been able to deduce that Sue was probably born in 1929 or 1930. Given that this is The Great American Novel, the year 1929 should be preferred: a cataclysmic historic date (the Wall Street Crash). So age 12 takes us to 1941, another cataclysmic date: the year that America entered the war. Age 12 reminds us that this is about huge events in the life of America, and huge events in the life of Susan Storm. Namor had just appeared on the scene: at first in 1940 he was an enemy of the west, but by 1941 he was becoming an ally and spending more time relaxing in New York.

"Bring us your poor, yearning to be free"
Namor is a symbol of the dispossessed. He did not really fit in Atlantis (being half human, and wanting the company of the surface world), and he did not really fit in the surface world either (being half Atlantean). He was the first mutant, so he didn't fit anywhere (just as the Fantastic Four were the first to leave planet Earth and trigger the Beyonders' next level powers: see FF 319). I have elsewhere noted the symbolism of the statue of liberty in the Great American Novel, hinted at on the cover of issue 1. Lady Liberty called dreamers and misfits from all over the world to gather to New York. This is where Namor spent most of his time, a lost soul (as we memorably saw when he was found without his memory in issue 4). Which brings us to the boarding house...

The New York apartment
Namor stayed in a New York apartment, and there was there often enough for a friend to reach him on the telephone when needed (see for example Sub-Mariner Comics Vol 1 15, winter 1944, story 1, "Pirates of Doom").  Why was The Lord of The Oceans living in New York when he was badly needed in Europe? At the time Namor was young. He was lonely and confused:

Sue and Namor at the start of 1945
Now let's get back to Johnny's age. He was "just 17" in late 1962, meaning he was born in late 1945, and conceived around the start of that year. At that time Susan, perhaps the most beautiful woman in the world, had just urned fifteen: she was at the absolute apex of beauty and her hormones would be raging.

Meanwhile Reed, the reckless, idealistic too confident nerdy boyfriend had thrown himself into the war. She had every reason to believe his overconfidence would get him killed: Sue was always far more cautious than Reed. She had the exact feelings she had in FF 291: Reed must be dead, she was alone, she needed love.

At this point the world's most interesting and passionate and handsome and muscular bachelor had been staying in a Manhattan boarding house - her Manhattan boarding house? - for three years. Like Sue, he was young and full of hormones. we can imagine them both staring out of the window to the sea, at the crashing waves and the war... its a scene right out of a romance novel. What do we suppose happened?

We have no reason to suppose the Atlantean age of consent was the same as in America, and besides, in times of war the age of consent is the least of peoples' worries: it is a time of passion, living for the present when the future was so uncertain.

In short, if Namor was Johnny's father then everything falls into place. This is the great secret Sue has been hiding all these years: why she so needs privacy, why she wants to hide despite being the strongest and wisest member of the team.

Later years
Like Namor, Johnny was hot headed. In the Franklinverse era Johnny briefly dated Namorita, Namor's cousin. Had Sue told him the secret by then? Or did he find out in the middle of act 4, when he tries to leave the team? We can only speculate. I should probably also note that in an alternate universe (the "New Exiles" series) Gambit is the son of Sue and Namor.

But did Johnny know?

What was going through Johnny's mind?
Nathan Adler raises an intriguing possibility: "Did you ever think Johnny might have developed Human Torch powers due to his subconscious belief that Jim Hammond was his father?"  In FF132 Johnny suggests that he got his powers because of his obsession with the golden age Torch. This is highly plausible, as the others' powers also reflected their interests: Sue was intensely private, Ben was unstoppable but having an identity crisis (due to losing to a nerd with no social skills), and Reed felt there was nothing beyond his reach (and probably identified with the "Thin Man" comic when younger). But why then was Johnny obsessed with a character who was declining in interest when he was young and had ceased publication before bis eighth birthday (early 1954)? 

Why might he suspect the original Torch?
Perhaps "he gets a hint at some point that Sue’s his mother and his father was one of the Golden Age heroes and when she initially gleaned her mention to him of Namor he thought it couldn’t be possible because of his being an Atlantean, so thought his close ally. [...] Also interesting is his being the first to discover Namor. Was he perhaps searching for his father at the time of the encounter, but still didn't twig until he saw him with Sue?" (-Nathan)  This plays very well into my theory that many of Johnny's early Strange Tales adventures happened between FF 2 and 3 (e.g. the Wizard did not know his real identity). He became quite independent, and developed his skills, and grew very frustrated at being held back.  I'm sure this was an exciting time: his and Sue's worlds were turning upside down. She looked after him, and must have said some unguarded things that made him wonder.

But when did he find out, if he did?
As for when he found out, if he ever did, I wonder if his secret identity in Strange Tales is a clue? Johnny's friends knew his secret identity, but said nothing out of respect. I wonder if Johnny was the same with his secret? Johnny might think it was very cool, and feel sorry for Sue, and never mention it, just as his friends never mentioned his secret identity. She had always treated him as her brother so he was happy for that role. He probably came to see her as his sister anyway, just as an adopted mother becomes a real mother. After seeing s many alternate societies he would probably feel that the relationship that works is the real relationship.

But wouldn't he say something?
We might expect Johnny to blow up in rage, or to storm out... or perhaps he did, and that's why he ran off at the end of issue 3 and found Namor. But I'm not so sure. For one thing, and I think this is key, Johnny and Sue faced death every day,a nd their life was a roller coaster. Nothing would shock them, and their idea of "normal" was in chaos. Finding you had a different father would be a minor thing in comparison. Johnny hardly knew Franklin Storm, except as a distant memory, yet he saw Namor several times, and would understand his teenage-like outrage and passion. In the great scheme of things this would be just one more weird thing to add to the list.

At least, that's how I see it.

Sue is lost

Sue says she was has known Manhattan all her life, but does not recognise the landmarks in 1936. Does this prove she was not born in 1936? No, it proves she is upset and confused. Sue was "in her twenties" in 1963, about to marry a man in his late 30s, so she must have been born before 1942. Even if we take the most extreme sliding time scale - with FF 1 being seven years before the story was published in early 1986 - Sue would be around 30, so should be able to remember 1961. But even as late as 1961 the landmarks were not radically different to 1936. The real boom in skyscraper building was between the 1960s and 1980s. Sue makes her comment while in Greenwich Village, which has remained particularly unchanged, thanks to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The Commission was set up in 1965, in response to the outrage at demolishing Pennsylvania Station in 1964 to make way for Madison Square Gardens. Whichever timeline we use, Sue should have remembered the station as a landmark. When Sue makes the landmark comment she is standing in front of the Lyric Theater, a building that was refurbished in 1934 and was largely unchanged until 1998.  So the reference to "all my life" is evidence of Sue's distressed mental state: she is not thinking clearly.


When she says the landmarks have changed, Sue has just crossed the road to the Lyric Theater, so was in clear view of the Chrysler Building, the tallest building in the world in 1930 (and in 1931 the second tallest after the Empire State)! The fact that she s lost speaks volumes about her mental state at this time.

They landed near the Ninth Avenue Christopher Street station, and Sue found her way to the Lyric Theater, near where the Baxter Building would be. Given the railway line (which later became the subway), the grid street layout and the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, finding landmarks was clearly not be a problem.


FF291: other points to note

The cover is a homage to Action Comics 1, the first appearance of Superman, also in the 1930s: the start of the golden age of comics.

Issue 292: Reed's rebirth and redemption

Fantastic Four 292
Red actually died (see notes to FF 290). Here he is reborn, thanks to Licorice Calhoun. But how does that redeem Reed? The answer comes down to the question "who is Licorice Calhoun?"

The four reality warpers

The Fantastic Four features four reality warpers:
  1. Licorice Calhoun, who was active in 1986. His story involves the destruction and rebirth of the universe.
  2. Skip Collins ("The Man with the Power") who judging by his age in the 1980s was a child in the 1930s. His story leads to the Ego the Living Planet story.
  3. Franklin Richards, born to Reed, who appeared in the 1930s. Franklin may (or may not) control the Marvel Universe.
  4. Willie Evans: he was conceived in 1968, so his father was probably born around 1948, and his father would be a child in the 1930s. Note how Willie's story leads straight to the biggest Skrull story of all.

foreshadowing the

All of this points to the 1930s. The oldest of these is Licorice Calhoun. According to the "Reed is a SKrull" theory - the theory that explains everything in by far its simplest form - all normal superheroes are a result of Reed's experiments with Skrull milk and alien technology. Reed's single obsessive focus was to create a subspace portal, by warping dimensions. So the simplest explanation of the four reality warpers is that they are related to Reed's experiments in the 1930s. Licorice then would be the first, and his erratic behavior led to him being hit by a car and lying in a coma for the rest of his life. This would be Reed's first and greatest failure (greatest because of the scale of his ambition, to warp reality itself in order to rid the universe of Skrulls). Licorice is the symbol of Reed's crimes.

Yet ultimately (as hinted in FF 286) Reed cannot be blamed: all he ever did was try to save the universe. So it is most fitting that, when all of Reed's efforts lead to ultimate disaster and the destruction of the universe, swallowed by the negative zone, Licorice would return from the dead (almost) and save him. Reed did good after all.

Issue 293: back to where it all began

Fantastic Four 293

Throughout act 4 Reed and Sue lost everything, until they were born and must start again. Now they are exploring where they started as a team, to see what went wrong.

What went wrong? Reed refused to change. He wanted to be the great superhero forever. He refused to accept that, as a father, he should now focus on his son and help the next generation. To symbolize this they find that their original city was ruled by somebody like Reed Richards. This other Reed never gave up power. He kept things always how he wanted it, convinced that he was right. Hundreds of years have gone by, in a bubble, and they worship the original Fantastic Four, exactly as it was at the start. It's not healthy!

This is the real world in comic form. It's Marvel Time in a nutshell. Comic publishers are afraid of change.They want their favorite teams to stay the same forever, sacred and inviolate. They will not allow real time to pass.

The solution? To let real time move forward again. To let the natural cycle of biortha nd death continue, because it is the family that matters, not the individual. Reed must learn to believe in the next generation.

Other points to note:

Issue 294: the choice

Fantastic Four 294

We are now at the end of act 4. All the evidence is in. The status quo cannot work. They must focus on Franklin.

Note that She-Hulk is inside the city for 180 years. Her superhero physiology means she still looks young. Real time is not about growing old, it's about moving forward, ever "onwards and upwards." "Excelsior!!"

Issue 295: Reed finally understands

Fantastic Four 295

At last the breakthrough. Finally Reed sees what he has done. Though this admission of guilt refers just to Ben, Reed's brain will quickly see the implications:

  1. He was treating Ben like a child.

  2. He has treated everybody like children.

  3. If they are adults then Reed is no longer indispensable.

This is it. The turning point.

Reed will see the context: controlling others

This follows directly from the same message in the previous arc: Harvey Jessup, like Reed, tried to do everything, and what happened was the opposite of what he wanted. The arc before that had a man who was like Franklin. The arc before that involved two other control freaks: Dr Doom and the Beyonder. Everything points to the same message: absolute control is a Bad Thing. All of Reed's failures in Act 4 are concluded by three arcs that tell him to stop controlling others. Accepting blame for Ben shows that he has finally learned his lesson.

The importance of Reed's change of heart

Reed's decision in FF205 may not seem earth shattering. Is this really such a momentous change? After all, the clues are subtle: a word here, a look there. Is this really a fundamental change of heart and change of direction that changes everything? The answer is yes. For evidence, read the highly acclaimed 1987 limited series by Chris Claremont: the Fantastic Four versus the X-Men.

In that series Sue discovers a book indicating that Reed planned the space flight deliberately to give the team powers, even though it might hurt them (as it did with Ben). Of course, Reed's early memory had been wiped in key areas in issue 255 (see FF272) so all he could go on was the evidence, and the evidence appeared to be damning.

self doubt

In the end it is suggested that Doom forged the document. Perhaps he did. But the point of the story was it was sufficiently believable that Reed thought it might be genuine. 

A footnote: did Doom really alter the diary?
Reed says that every word was his, and only the order of events is wrong. So anything Doom did was very subtle. But did he do anything? Here is the evidence:

versus Doom

On the surface, of course he did... except he never said so. Usually Sue's intuition is reliable, but we saw at the end of act 4 that even that was in question. Perhaps the strongest evidence for Doom being innocent is his intense relaxed pleasure. That is the closest to a smile we have ever seen: he is almost laughing. Yet if he changed the diary then he has just been defeated, which would hurt his ego. Why is he so relaxed and intensely happy?

If Doom tells the truth then he has the infinite satisfaction of knowing that he has the moral high ground over his greatest enemy. Nothing gives him greater pleasure. This is all part of Doom's growth as a character. being right is more satisfying than humiliating others (who then inevitably come back to defeat him). Doom has grown since issue 200 and before.

Then why not simply say "you are wrong, Susan?" Because his ego does not need anybody's approval. Simply knowing that he is right is enough. Having Susan get it wrong merely adds to his self satisfaction: these people are wrong and cannot face the truth: he, Doom, is vindicated. Plus, having your enemies confused is always useful for later.

That is all just speculation of course. The story also works if Doom changed the order of events: the significance of the story is simply that Reed could believe it now. Reed is finally able to see that he is not always right.

The purpose of the X-Men limited series is to make act 5 explicit: Reed finally admits weakness and learns humility, just as Doom did in FF annual 20.

Other titles expand on FF themes
The Fantastic Four is often subtle. But whenever a major theme is only hinted out you can be sure it is explored more clearly in another Marvel book. For example:

 The bottom line: Reed's realization in FF295 changes everything. 

The zeitgeist of FF295

A footnote: Marvel Time...
This final story of the most stretched our Act of all is about stretching time to preserve the past: Marvel Time inside of Marvel Time (Inception!). It shows why Marvel Time does not work.

Next: Act 5 - the turning point

The Great American Novel