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

1971: Act 4: Reed v. his family (Vietnam)

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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In the early 1970s the optimism of the 1960s had gone. This was summed up by Vietnam: things were not getting better, and nobody was winning: not the pro war people, or the anti war people, or Vietnam, not even Russia. The American government threw more and more at the problem and just increased the pain.

Act 4 summary
Act 4 of the classic 5 act structure is the crisis: where everything seems to go wrong. Just when it seems that things cannot get any worse, they get worse. Often there is a false dawn, where the heroes appear to have conquered and are about to walk off into the sunset, then the bad guy comes back, even more unbeatable than before. Act 4 of the Fantastic Four has all these features: things start going wrong, then Reed loses his health, then the marriage collapses. There is a false dawn when everything seems to go right, then it all falls apart and gets even worse. By the end of Act Reed will have failed as a father, as a scientist, as a husband, been on trial for genocide (and is guilty), and attempts suicide. Finally, when all hope seems to have gone, Reed will be humbled, and Act 5 will bring final redemption.

This page: the start of act 4
At the start of Act 4 the cracks begin to show. Things start to go wrong. Reed works harder and harder, and eventually his health gives way.

Issue 103: moral authority is lost

Act 4 begins when Reed, having lost all claims to authority, pushes Sue away. She feels that it is wrong (and her intuition is always right) but does what Reed says because she feels she has "no other choice."  By separating her from the team Reed makes her vulnerable, and she is captured by Magneto on the way back. Meanwhile Johnny tells Crystal to stay away, even though Crystal has proven herself to be the most useful member of the team. Johnny thinks teamwork means blindly following Reed's folly. He even says Crystal will be "letting them down" if she comes to help.

The boys are wrong, dead wrong. The girls know it. The boys have lost their moral authority and the girls won't follow them again.

Family first

If Reed paid more attention to Franklin then the baby could solve all their problems. We later learn that through all this time the baby was aware, and had the power to change everything.
Fantastic Four 103last time

Could Reed have known this at the time? Probably, if he had listened to Sue. Her intuition is never wrong, and consistently says that Franklin should be with them. Reed is a great scientist. If he turned his attention to his own son then maybe he might notice something. He already has the clues: Franklin's birth was aided by the cosmic control rod. There is something very special about that baby, if only his father would pay him the slightest attention.

The zeitgeist

We know we are moving into a new political era here, when President Nixon appears in person.


"The reader" writes: "At the core of the story we have two men trying to prevent war: Reed Richards and Namor. They are only reacting to events and trying, ultimately, just to find some way to communicate with each other. However, there are three more characters with completely different objectives and motivations that are working against them: Ben Grimm, Magneto, and even Richard Nixon are all in tension with each other and the two protagonists. Johnny also has his own unique reaction and we get to see a bit of his much-talked-about impulsiveness early on. The way in which the misunderstanding with Namor and the Fantastic Four develops is actually quite skillful and believable (all except for Ben Grimm’s uncharacteristic warmongering [ see notes to last issue for why he pushed that button]). The characters’ aims and reactions are so natural and human and complex that this is the first time I think I can use the word Shakespearean to describe them, and I don’t think that’s overstating it."

Other points to note

Issue 104: Reed feels like a slave

Fantastic Four 104

The title is "our world -- enslaved." Sue,. Ben and Johnny have to do everything Reed says. For his part, Reed always feels like a slave to circumstances: not just now, but throughout his career: everything is urgent and desperate, he always feels that he must act right now, or terrible things will happen. In his mind, circumstances force him to fight. He believes that he has no choice. Yet the irony is that he does not have to be that way: he enslaves himself. Sue has a better, gentler way: listen to her intuition, don't try to control everything, and don't always run and fight at every opportunity. The irony is that: Reed believes that he acting for peace, yet he just caused World War Three and routinely ignores Sue's superior peaceful intuition. But Reed is no villain. He does it because he sincerely cares for others. His tragic flaw is that he cannot accept that others might be just as good as him.

Criticisms (source)

Other points to note

The later Franklinverse will have different characters, and this issue indicates a different Magneto as well. The later Franklinverse Magneto is powerful enough to turn the tiniest amount of metal against a person - even the iron in their blood! But the original Magneto can be stopped by a part-metal weapon. He is able to destroy Sue's craft (FF103) but not the Fantasti-car, suggesting that this Magneto's power has various limitations.

Issue 105: they lose Crystal

Alternate cover:
los 4 cover
Fantastic Four 105

This is the first clear disaster of Act 4: one of many to follow. Crystal almost dies, and has to leave. If Johnny had treated her as an equal, if he had been sensitive to her needs and her strict family background, he would have spent half of his time with her family and she would never have been poisoned by our air. (The poisonous air can also be seen as a metaphor for the toxic ideas that have kept the team from reaching their potential.) Johnny never stayed with the Inhumans for any extended time because he felt he was needed by the team in New York. Reed meant it clear that if Crystal went to her people then Johnny would be parted from her: implying that Johnny must always stay. He treats Johnny like a child. Johnny could have helped the team by acting as an ambassador to the Inhumans, encouraging an exchange program, enriching both teams. Medusa is willing to help, no doubt Triton would be as well. But Reed treats Johnny like a child who cannot leave his parents and lacks the skill to do anything clever.

Multiple crises at once
Events pile on events, with multiple crises at the same time: Crystal's health, Ben's cure, and the monster in the streets. Reed's "control everything" strategy simply cannot work with so much to do. As the first chapters of Act 4 continue this pressure will become worse until Reed snaps.

Everyone is pushed to breaking point
"More and more the characters’ reactions and dialog has become less nuanced and more exaggerated until we’ve arrived at a point where Johnny’s dialog is almost always angry, Ben’s is alternately sarcastic and clownish, Reed’s is superior to the point of being openly insulting, and Sue has a half-page monologue about how excited she is shopping. Crystal has shown a lot of potential for being a multi-dimensioned character and it’s hard not to think that it’s for this reason that she is arbitrarily dispatched in this issue." (source)
This is a result of each character being pushed to breaking point and needing an outlet. The quote about Crystal's "multi dimensional character" was intended as a criticism of the writer, but it fits the pattern. Crystal is an elemental, hence being especially sensitive to pollution. She is also sensitive to emotion (in contrast with her reserved family). It is plausible that the tension she felt around her made her physical sickness worse.

Reed's choice
Reed hesitated over who to save - his friend or his wife. He left his wife. Is this a sign of things to come? Maybe. But it reflects how Reed, even when he makes a "bad" decision, is making perhaps the right one, but others cannot see it. This is the kind of dilemma and multiple viewpoint story that makes this great literature.
"If Reed had chosen to save Sue over Ben, and Ben had died as a result, Sue would have spent the rest of her life feeling guilty. Sue's father was destroyed by his feelings of guilt over the death of Sue's mom. Sue's a stronger person than her father but I can see Reed not wanting to take the risk."  (Michael, on the FF Message Board)

Criticisms (source)
Other points to note

Issue 106: Johnny's potential

Fantastic Four 106

With Reed's weakness apparent we shift attention to Johnny Storm. He has tremendous ability, and is starting to learn responsibility after his immaturity contributed to him losing Crystal. This foreshadows the next generation: imagine a whole series with drama like this!

Fantastic Four 106
Fantastic Four 106

Johnny's fall from the sky symbolizes his inner doubts, and is a metaphor for his wasted potential. In the early days Johnny was the star, but he has assumed the role of almost being a child. By now Reed should be focusing on Franklin, Johnny should have explored all his abilities (including the amazing freezing ability shown here) and Ben and Johnny should be leading the team with Johnny and Crystal an item. But instead everything is going wrong.

Reed is building up to his most insane level of efficiency, taking on more and more responsibility, having to be better and better: this issue he saves Sue and Dr Rambow and Larry Rambow, and he works on Ben and he helps Johnny discover new abilities. He can't keep pushing himself harder and harder: something has to break. And it will.

Note that Reed's insane work load is self inflicted. He would not have to waste time "fixing" Ben if h had not caused the problem in the first place by undermining Ben's confidence.

Other points to note

Criticisms (source)

"Rambow has been following the ‘monster’ since the time he created it in his lab from his son, Larry, trying desperately to find a way to change him back — why does it take someone else to remind him of the fail-safe device he made?" It is unlikely that he tested his fail-safe device. With so much unknown energy around it might kill his son. He probably doesn't want to use it just in case, hoping that Reed will find a safer solution, but Reed persuades him to.

Issue 107: Sue thinks the unthinkable. Separation.

Fantastic Four 107

It finally happened. The pressure was building for years. Sue has given Reed every chance to do things his way: she obeyed him, accepted his ignorant comments, and respected his intelligence. And all the time he never respected her. Readers sometimes think that Sue was being weak, but we saw at the start that Sue was always the strongest character in terms of both bravery and outcomes. Sue respected him because the best outcome would have been for need to respond to her love and open his eyes to her methods. But he never did. Now she won't give him unquestioned loyalty any longer. She is planning the unthinkable: if Reed does not change then they must separate until he uses that brain and starts to see the effects of his actions, and starts to see other points of view.

Reed's control over the others has gone
Reed has lost the respect of all his family. Sue has given him five years of unquestioning obedience, but no more. Johnny sees the truth: in Reed's team he is a child and cannot be a man. The greatest change is in Ben. Whatever Reed did to change him affected the real cause of his problem: his mental state. Freed from any moral restraints all the resentment and hatred builds up and Ben goes to the opposite extreme: Reed is the enemy and Ben won't take it any more, as we shall see in later issues. Ben's change is the most extreme because his subjugation was so extreme. Like a piece of elastic that was pulled to breaking point in one direction, when the control is removed he flies to the extreme in the other direction.

The zeitgeist
Note the comparison with the Vietnam generation. This is 1970: the American government, that tried so hard to maintain the respect it ha at the start of the 1970s (when the newspapers would not even report Kennedy's affairs), is now treated with no more respect than anybody else. After failures in Korea and Vietnam, and the suspicion by many that neither war was entirely necessary, the American government has fallen from its pedestal.

The original by Marie Severin, which I think was better: see the anguish in Ben's face and pose: anger and despair.
ff107 original

And since we're comparing covers, here are some more. The Titans is probably my all time compilation comic. Sixty pages of the best Marvel comics for 9 pence!

Titans cover
more covers

John Buscema's first issue
In modern times it is common for characters to change when artists and writers change. But the Great American Novel ids a single story, so new writers and artists worked hard to fit with what went before. This is John Buscema's first issue drawing the FF, and it is clear that he is trying to channel Jack Kirby. To illustrate, the excellent panelocity blog took a close look at Buscema's work in this issue. And people blame Rich Buckler for swiping!

Buscema and Kirby

(Yes, I know I got some of the Kirby-Buscema images the wrong way, but it's sort of funny so I left it)

Issue 108: "The Lost Adventure"

Fantastic Four 108
This story is a good example of the zeitgeist: the chaos behind the scenes was reflected in the chaos of the story. FF108 was originally Kirby's last Fantastic Four adventure before leaving, or close to it. But Stan Lee didn't like it, and held it back. When Kirby went to work for DC then Lee dusted it off so he had some Kirby work to sell at the same time as Kirby's first DC work appears on the news stands. Lee at the time changed the story and got other artists to fill in the gaps, resulting in a strangely disjointed story. Kirby's original story was reassembled in 2008 and published as "the Lost Fantastic Four" story.  This presents an interesting challenge to the reader: if we treat the entire story as a unified whole, which is the "real" story? FF 108 or the lost adventure? On the surface the Lost Adventure is smoother and less chaotic, but the reason we can call the early Fantastic Four "the Great American Novel" is because it follows the zeitgeist: it as not the result of careful planning, it simply reflects the influences around it, and that is what gives it a long term structure. The strange, chaotic FF108 fits perfectly into the bigger story and moves it forward.

This is a period when America is losing its grip, Mr Fantastic is losing his grip, and even the story seems chaotic. This is the last story that isn't the last, it is lost but not lost, it is two contradictory stories, the first published one starts in the middle, the creators argued behind the scenes, the characters are at odds... it is all so fitting.

The negative zone
Reed is negative. He sees life as conflict, whereas Sue's method is agreement and harmony. This all leads back to the dark emptiness of Reed's methods, symbolized by the negative zone portal at the heart of his home, the Baxter building. It also reflects his ego: his attempts to both defeat Galactus and go further than anybody else (the experiments in subspace that unlocked the negative zone in FF51: note the irony that in fact Galactus is a herald of Franklin and thus we come full circle). The distortion area, the annihilation of positive and negative when it comes into contact... there are so any metaphors! The negative zone is also the source of redemption: it's where Franklin's power came from, and his importance cannot be overstated. (It is also where Franklin's sister was conceived, in FF256.) So when Kirby left and the team fell apart then we had to end up in the negative zone.

The "Bad Thing" arc
This is part of the "Bad Thing" arc that lasts to FF113. This is the major, memorable failure, to crown what Reed always considered his greatest failure, his inability to cure Ben.

Other points to note

Changes from Kirby's original

This is the original splash page that was rejected, and the one that replaced it in FF108. Kirby's story is of "Mega Men" meaning men (plural) with great power. But when Kirby left Stan Lee changed it to "nega-man" meaning one negative man.

original splash
      pagesplash page

Stan kept this last Kirby FF issue for the month when Kirby began at DC, no doubt to dampen their "Kirby is here!" advertising. Ten months after Stan mangled Jack's story (cover dates March 1971 and Jan-Feb 1972), Kirby used a similar splash page to the one Lee rejected, with the disturbing stone bust as the foreground, amid old style furniture. But this time the bald art expert was "Funky Flashman", a thinly veiled attack on Stan Lee. Funky reaches into the statue's mouth to get money hidden in the old house by its creator, just as (according to critics) Stan plundered "the house that Jack built"

Funky Flashman

In the original penciled splash page for the Nega Man story (though toned down in the inked version in 1988) Crystal is at the center of the pic, and Franklin is reaching out earnestly. At this point, if Kirby had stayed, the team could have moved forward. Kirby has intended to kill off the gods in Thor (replacing them with the New Gods he ended up taking to DC), so major change was definitely on the cards. His Fantastic Four had begun to wear civilian clothes more often, Johnny was maturing, and Crystal was central to the team. Change was on the cards. But instead, when Kirby left, Lee immediately got rid of Crystal, kept Johnny on the team, and tried to return to old style stories. With Jack Kirby, Act four may have taken just a couple of years, But without Jack it took twenty years before the inevitable changes happened. And when those changes did finally happen the editors panicked so much that change was ended forever. But it was amazing while it lasted.

Issue 109: the emotional core of the 28 year story: love hurts

Fantastic Four 109

In the issue by issue review of the Fantastic Four we focus on Reed's tragic flaw (his need to control) because this drives the 28 year story. But it's important to see this in the context of the comics themselves: Reed is a hero: perhaps the greatest action hero in all fiction. He does everything for his family and for the world, as he sees it. he truly loves them and would give his life for them. Nowhere is that more clear than in FF109. The same goes for Sue: she loves Reed with all her heart, and it tears her up that they are drifting apart. This issue is all the more heart wrenching because it comes at a time when Sue knows they have to split up, it's the only way for Reed to come to his senses. yet she also knows that he loves her. It's powerful stuff. Just look at her face in this sequence. it's not just that her brother and husband are on the verge of death, it's that the family is breaking up, and she knows she has to be with Franklin, and once again, perhaps for the last time, she obeys Reed and pushes Franklin away. FF109 is the dagger in Sue's heart.

Fantastic Four 109

Reed's atonement

Why does Sue react so strongly? Because Reed seems to almost want to die: he seems a little too eager to embrace the danger. He has lost his gyro device - literally and symbolically lost his direction. But how did he lose it? He didn't lose the others' devices that he was holding. It was either careless or deliberate. He knows his glory days are passing and it's as if he wants to go out in a blaze of glory. See FF251 for a more serious attempt.

Real world parallels

In this issue (and a scene in FF107) we get a good view of the negative zone portal and its different chambers.

negative zone portal
Their shape and description ("chambers" that must be sealed as you move through) reminds us of deep sea decompression chambers. The need for harnesses, the floating monsters, the darkness, the way that Triton was the best person to navigate, it all reminds us of the deep ocean.

decompression chamber

The portal also reminds us of atomic power plants. This photo, via Wikipedia, shows lasers at the National Ignition Facility.

National Ignition Facility

They both represent the dangerous yet unlimited frontiers of knowledge. With this in mind, the reality and excitement of these issues is visceral.

Issue 110: their last chance to understand

Fantastic Four 110

Fantastic Four 110

Sue's role in one image
This image sums up Sue Storm: torn between positive and negative, holding her family together. She is in the gut wrenching area where atoms are turned inside out, from positive to negative and back again. Why didn't they just use a rope or chain? Because atoms are being ripped apart and put back together in that field. Sue's forcefield energies meant that probably only she could survive being there for more than a split second. Though as a space between dimensions it would feel like forever.

Sue between two worlds
This is a classic Sue position: she seems less important, the men seem to be doing the real work, but in reality she is doing far more than them both. it also symbolised her role in keeping hold of the world we belong to (the positive world) while rescuing the men from th negative world they open up.

The first clues to Franklin's power
Looking back we can see the great irony, that all the time they were pushing Franklin away, and Franklin could have saved them. This is the great message of family life: children cost us everything, they don't know anything, they get in the way... and yet they are the future. They are the most important of all, and we either learn that or we pay the price. The question is whether they could see it at the time. Yes, Sue's instinct was always to be with Franklin, but did they also have a clue that Franklin's power could defeat their enemies? FF110 gives them that clue. Just as the family is sliding of a cliff there are clues to Franklin's power:

Criticisms (source)

Other points to note

Issue 111: the dark side of the 1960s

Fantastic Four 111
Fantastic Four 111

The great argument against the swinging sixties was that it removed all restraint. The older generation said the greater rules of the 1950s were needed to avoid anarchy. But the counter argument is that the old prejudices were so harmful that change had to happen, even if the short term cost was great. (The same argument appears in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables over how the French Revolution led to the Great Terror of 1792). We see this removal of restraint in FF111. For nine years Ben was held back by Reed, and now when the restraint is released he doesn't know how to cope with it, all his repressed feelings take over and becomes obsessed on revenge, far angrier than he was at the start. But this had to happen. He had to get it out of his system.

Spider-Man is famously about 'Great Power brings Great Responsibility' but this applies even more to Ben Grimm: Spider-Man often wishes he had more power to defeat a particular enemy, but Ben's problem is that he has so much power he's scared of killing someone. Plus he fears losing his power and being unable to protect Alicia. FF111 shows what happens when he gives into his anger and frustration and abandons responsibility. See 'how strong is The Thing' for how strong he really is, and his deep psychological fears.

Other points to note

Ben's life

Issue 112: two down, two to go

Fantastic Four 112

All of Reed's self image is unwinding. For all his life he has cultivated the belief that he is Mr Fantastic, the man who can do anything, the natural leader, and all others should listen to him. He treated Sue as weak and he treated the other men as children. But gradually it's all unwound. Crystal, being the last to join, was the first to fall. Now it's Ben's turn. Though he is not in fact literally dead, the old Ben is metaphorically dead. After this he will calm down but will never again treat Reed with deference. Nor will he get angry at Reed: Ben is older and wiser, and Reed has the worst thing he can imagine; he is no longer anything special in the eyes of his family.

Over the next year or so we will see Johnny leave, and then finally Sue. Mr Fantastic is gradually learning humility, but it will take him a long time.

Other points to note

Although Sue's instincts are correct (she should be with Franklin; conflict is a bad thing; following Reed is not working) they are still instincts. They are unconscious. Consciously Sue allows herself to be swayed by others. So she goes along with Reed's view that she should be at the battle site, and of course Agatha (the one chosen by Reed) agrees. This is always Sue's approach, to agree where possible. But soon she will have to face the truth: in later issues Agatha will betray Franklin and Reed will almost kill him, and Sue will finally have to choose between her child and the people who claim to love him.

Issue 113: Ben's turning point

Fantastic Four 113

Fantastic Four 113

Reed is losing control, as symbolized by "desperately trying to escape" then hitting a brick wall. Sue is literally and metaphorically above him, surveying the situation and fixing things. Johnny no longer buys the "you have to stay because..." argument, and tells Reed to his face. Ben finally realizes that Reed's attempts to "cure" him are a dead end and always will be. Reed is no longer holding the team together (if he ever was), he's driving them apart.

This issue is a milestone: when Ben smashes that machine he is breaking his reliance on Reed. From now on Reed cannot humiliate him. But note that deep down he is still scared of changing: the long psychological damage is done and it will take Ben years to recover. The main changes will come at the end of act 4 (when he takes his life apart, leaving Alicia, the team, and even planet earth behind) and the start of act 5 (when he puts his life together: new body, new girl, and Reed is entirely out of the picture).

As for Johnny, although he is willing to face up to Reed he is still thinking selfishly: he is not yet concerned about Crystal's needs, he's concerned about himself being unable to see her.

Ben's turning point is also Reed's turning point. Now that Ben no longer defers to his wishes, he is no longer the alpha male. This may seem a minor point, but Mr Fantastic is called Mr Fantastic because his identity relies on being the very best. On an unconscious level he knows he has lost control of Ben, and whole consciously he is happy to see Ben do well, unconsciously it's the end of his position as number one. This harks back to he cover of FF61, where it all started to go wrong for him: this is the end of Mr Fantastic as top dog.

Which leads us to the Over-mind. Oh boy! Where do we start? Let's wait until we've seen more of him next issue before opening that Pandora's box.

Other points to note

Issue 114: Hamlet's ghosts

The Fantastic Four parallels Shakespeare's Hamlet. The first time we see this clearly is in the Over-mind story.

In what follows, please always remember that this site is pro-Reed Richards. His tragic human flaws must be seen in the context of his unparalleled achievements, his courage and his pure heart. But for all that he is only human.

Something rotten in the state of Denmark

To understand this issue we need to recap Reed's story so far. Reed is the world's greatest scientist, one of the world's greatest heroes, but he is not the world's greatest leader. Science skills and people skills rarely overlap. As the team grew busier the pressure on Reed increased. From 1965 he had to juggle married life as well. Then in 1966 Galactus arrived and Reed felt helpless: so he devoted himself to uncovering the secrets of subspace, leading to the discovery of the negative zone and a whole new can of worms. Whereas in the early days there was plenty of time between adventures, now they came without any gaps, and Reed began to make mistakes. We saw it first in FF61 (opening the door to the negative zone) and since then he's made error after error, even at one point triggering a major war (FF102). Reed cannot cope.

Now the chickens are coming home to roost. He has lost the respect of his family. He knows that he risks total meltdown.

All of this would be bad enough for a normal man, but Reed's goals are sky high. He wants to save the world, to open up the galaxy and the secrets of the universe, to end all the world's problems. The gap between his self image (Mr Fantastic) and his mistakes is intolerable. He bottles it up, but as we saw in FF9 when his mistake led to bankruptcy, he takes this very personally and  "you can only push a man so far." The psychological strain inside must be enormous. Something has to snap.

In the play Hamlet

In the play Hamlet, the prince of Denmark finds himself surrounded by corruption and evil. His father (who claims to be recently assassinated) appears as a ghost and tells Hamlet to avenge his death. By the end of the play Hamlet is a murderer, and he and all the old leaders are dead: Denmark has a new, clean start. The big question is, did Hamlet really see a ghost? There is evidence that he is going mad, and it seems very convenient that his father tells him exactly what he believed already, and gave him an excuse to act on it. Some critics suggest that the ghost is a figment of Hamlet's imagination: it's how his unconscious mind lets him murder with a clean conscience. Other critics say, no: others saw the ghost as well, Hamlet knows he is only pretending to be mad, and the bad guys were definitely bad. But none of that proves Hamlet is not mad: the play is set in medieval times, when it would be perfectly common for people (such as Hamlet's friends) to interpret minor events as ghosts. It was also an era where it was common for leaders to be brutal so the fact that hamlet's enemies are killers doesn't prove much. Finally, its quite normal for a mad person to know he is mad, it is also normal to deny it. Basically the jury is still out. But if we accept the modern view that ghosts do not exist then it's case closed: Hamlet imagined the ghost, it's how his unconscious mind let him justify murder.

Reed was under just as much stress as Hamlet, and just as likely to do something extreme. We cannot imagine how isolated and frustrated Reed must feel: he is the smartest man in the world, and nobody understands him. He is trying to save the world and the people won't let him! We see this stated plainly at the start of FF114. Imagine how Reed feels! Millions of people will die if people try to stop him! Nobody understands!

Fantastic Four 114

The team hits a new low
Reed's decline continues and the public has noticed: the American people do not love the FF any more.  This happened once before, in FF7, but then it was due to alien mind control: when the control was lifted they were still immensely popular, enough to have a movie made two issues later (FF9). But the difference is that this time, once the mind control is lifted, the people still feel the same way (see FF121),. When the Over-mind leaves and Gabriel arrives, the ordinary people are eager to deliver the FF up to Gabriel. The FF no longer have respect. It's been a long time since they've saved the world in any obvious way: since things started going wrong in FF61 the team have caused as many problems as they've solved. For every time they have solved one problem (like defusing Rambow's son) they cause another (Like Reed opening the negative zone so Blastaar could get out).

He needs somebody to blame
Reed blames Ben for the unpopularity, saying it is because of Ben's fight with the Hulk. But the people know that the Hulk is unpredictable - why should that be the last straw? Perhaps they remember that just a couple of months previous, Reed Richards' bonehead decision plunged America into war! (See notes to FF102) Reed needs to blame Ben, but as of the previous issue he no longer has any hold over Ben. The spell is broken. Ben doesn't roll over and take it any more. What can he do? Reed's mind must be racing. Somewhere, deep in his unconscious, he needs a way out!

The Overmind

The following discussion includes images from more than just this issue: we need to see the whole Over-mind saga (FF113-116) to see what's really going on.

How convenient
With Reed under extreme pressure, suddenly the Over-mind appears. It seems like this is a cue for Reed to triumph again: another Galactus to defeat! The Over-mind specializes in mental power, which is right up Reed's street! Reed will beat this new threat, everyone will see how wonderful he is, and all will be well! How convenient.
just an excuse

O-oooooooookay. But nothing about this Over-mind guy adds up. It doesn't make sense. Everything is wrong. Here are the clues:


  1. That's the Over-mind??????
    The biggest alarm bell is the difference between what the Watcher says, and what we see. The Watcher warns us of a grave threat to the universe. Then we get the full history of how awesome this guy is. Then Agatha Harkness warns the FF to flee, to save themselves. This guy is clearly Galactus level, or worse! But when he arrives he's kind of pathetic. His only proven power is the ability to influence minds (including the minds of animals).

    The whole Over-mind story is a huge anticlimax. Byron Brewer, Managing Editor of "Cosmic Book News" puts it this way. This guy is the expert on cosmic comic book heroes: "I remember the first exciting appearance of the Over-mind and how cosmically powerful he was. This is the second coming of Galactus, I thought to myself. We finally have a being to stand toe-to-toe with Big G that is not bound by vows like the Watcher. Well, needless to say, while fans even today talk about 'The Galactus Trilogy' and 'The Kree-Skrull War,' when was the last time you heard of 'The Over-mind Opus'? Probably not recently." (source)

    The much-hyped "Overmind" hides in a scrap yard and zaps stray dogs. He acts like a delusional hobo. But wait a minute... hiding in scrap yards... growling dogs... ultimately disappointing... power over minds, and the name "over mind"... does this remind you of anyone?
    Miracle Man and Overmind
    The last time we saw somebody "unbeatable" like this, his only real power was a power over the mind, to make people believe he could do things he could not.

  2. He's called a threat to the universe, but isn't.
    The Over-mind is clearly more powerful than, say, Paste Pot Pete, but there is no evidence that he can actually do what he says. Earth is the first planet he's visited: he has no track record. The FF have defeated more dangerous people before: Galactus, the Molecule Man, Annihilus, the Infant Terrible. This guy is not in their league. His main power is not even much of a power. His big selling point is that he combines a billion minds. So what? Ever heard the parable of the Emperor of China's nose? It goes like this: in ancient times nobody was allowed to look on the emperor of China. So nobody knew how big his nose was. So they took a survey of what every person thought: they took a hundred million replies, and averaged them all. The average was extremely precise, to a thousandth of a millimeter: but it was just as wrong as a single person's guess. The point of the story is that having more and more brains is not as good as having one brain with useful information. The only skill we see is hypnotism: he's like the Miracle Man from FF3. Sure, we also see him zapping people, but that's what the Miracle Man did, and it was an illusion.

  3. Memories keep getting wiped.
    This is the smoking gun. When you're battling someone who keeps wiping your memory you should get very, very suspicious.

  4. The Watcher? He doesn't sound like the Watcher.
    But wait, we have the Watcher to confirm that the Over-mind really is this great threat to the universe, right? Well maybe not. The Watcher at the start sure sounds like the Watcher: He says "beware the Over-mind" and says he can say no more.
    The Watcher's
    OK, that's classic Watcher behavior. So far so good. But then it gets weird: Agatha Harkness takes them to see "The Watcher" again and this guy then contradicts what he said ("I may say no more") and says a whole lot more. Later he contradicts himself again. He says that the FF cannot alter the course of events. Then after they alter the course of events he says, yes, you did it. This chatty Watcher is not so smart.

    This Watcher seems unaware of the rest of the universe. Why did he call this people the Eternals, when that is the name of a different group (that the humans would learn about five years later)? Surely the real Watcher would have different names for different groups. And then we have his description of the planet Gigantus as bigger than many galaxies. That raises so many physics problems... it just sounds like a made up story.

  5. Parallels with FF10
    The science of Gigantus is so absurd (see next issue) that it sounds like a deliberate clue. Dr Doom did something similar in FF 10: he used an absurd story about gigantic brains (like the Over-mind's combined brain) to show that he was an over-mind: a man so much smarter than the idiots around him, that he was obviously destined to rule.
    Doom as Overmind

  6. Sue ends up going to Doctor Doom!
    Agatha Harkness says that Sue should go and see Dr Doom. Why? Agatha could have put her in contact with anyone, including the Avengers, regardless of how busy they are: surely saving the universe is more important than whatever else they're doing? She could have put Sue in touch with...

OK, so we have a story that's full of holes. But there is a simpler explanation, if we just stick to the most reliable facts.

The facts:

Can we question the printed story?

Surely the alien Over-mind character is in the comic therefore that's exactly how it happened, right? Well not exactly. What we read in the comic is not actually what happened, it's what the The Fantastic Four tell Marvel, and the writers at Marvel then package it. They then edit it for the Comics Code Authority.


So we do not get all the details, and some may be changed. We have what is called "an unreliable narrator" and we must use our intelligence to work out the truth from all the available evidence.

What did the Watcher mean?

Let us look at exactly what the Watcher actually said. I refer to his first visit. That one was entirely in character. I'm not so sure about the second visit where he contradicts himself several times. Let's just stick with the visit we are sure about.

The Watcher's

Note that the Watcher answers Reed's question, then says "the fate of all mankind may well be in your hands" - as if talking to Reed specifically. He just said that the Over-mind "may change all human life." Put the two statements together (Over-mind changes all human life, fate of mankind is in Reed's hands) and this suggests that the Over-mind is Reed.

Let's apply Occam's razor. Occam's razor says, when comparing possibilities, we should not multiply elements unnecessarily. (This principle shaves off unnecessary details, hence the term "razor"). There is no need to imagine a new being called the Over-mind. The Watcher is pointing at the 
Übermensch as he speaks: it is Reed Richards!

The Übermensch

The "Übermensch", literally  "over-man" is a concept from the German philosopher Nietzsche,


The concept is best known from his 1896 book "Thus Spake Zarathustra" (or in German. "Also Sprach Zarathustra").


Nietzsche's idea is that as man advanced he no longer needed God, but would instead need a more intelligent human, an "over-man" or "Übermensch", to guide them. Reed Richards saw himself as such an Übermensch. But history has shown that people who set themselves up as superior, and do not listen to advice, usually cause disaster. Every dictator in history has been convinced that he was smarter than everyone else. Hitler's Nazi party referred to Nietzsche often, and referred to Jews and others "Untermenschen", inferior men, the opposite of Übermensch.

In his defense, Nietzsche hated anti-semitism, and wanted all anti-Semites shot (which is itself a form of ideological violence). And far from being the model of a superior mind, Nietzsche found his philosophy to be overwhelming and ended his days in a mental institution. This of course is not in itself proof that superior people cannot exist, but there are good evolutionary reasons to believe that when the brain is tuned for one type of intelligence it has fewer resources for other areas. So people with great social skills are often very poor at mathematics, and vice versa. The whole concept of a general purpose "Übermensch" is a dangerous one.

Reed's superior mind?
Reed was a genius in the laboratory, but an idiot out of it. For example, most of his scientific discoveries were a waste of time: his son (who he ignored) could have solved all his problems, and if only he had made friends with the Mole Man he would have discovered that Moley already had all the technology Reed wanted, including a sub-space portal. As soon as Ben took over the team he discovered this in a matter of weeks.

Why being an "Übermensch is so dangerous
Reed had just caused World War Three. He the went right on to discover nega-energy: energy that could, if mishandled, destroy a galaxy. So the Watcher was warning the team: Reed had to listen to Sue! This belief in being the "Übermensch" could destroy the world!

Reed's choice
Now the rest of the story suddenly makes sense. If you were Reed Richards, and you understood the warning. How would you react? You believe that you have the answers that will save the world, that your mind should be "over" other people. But here is the Watcher warning that if you carry on like this you could endanger the universe. Now people will try to lock you up! Unless... you come up with a genius plan: make people believe this Over-mind is somebody else. Then you can defeat the fake Over-mind and that solves everything!
  1. You regain the respect of your family
  2. Public dislike of you can be blamed on the Over-mind controlling their minds.
  3. You can say and do what you want, and blame it on mind control
  4. All this success makes you confident again, so you don't crack up.
  5. And nobody will suspect what the Watcher really meant. You could even persuade yourself that this is the outcome the Watcher wanted!

Reed's plan

How do you manufacture a fake Over-mind at short notice? That's easy. Call on a super-hypnotist like the Miracle Man or someone like him: just make people think there is a major threat. But where do you find a Miracle Man who you can totally trust? Ask your old friend Agatha Harkness of course. She's a witch who calls on the powers of timeless fear and prefers to keep her methods secret. She could conjure up a fake Over-mind somehow.

.Agatha Harkness

Agatha can be contacted instantly and nobody will suspect anything if Reed speaks to her in private: people will think they are just planning how to keep Franklin safe. She can even arrange a fake Watcher to give the story credibility. But who could Agatha get to play the part of the Over-mind? Note the strong resemblance between the Over-mind and Agatha's son, the big pointy bearded mind controller, Nicholas Scratch. Just un-grease the hair, dye it red, shrink the mustache, and voila: instant bad-ass alien. 

Over-mind and
        Nicholas Scratch

We can't prove any of this of course, but it's the simplest explanation of the facts, and it explains the lame "Over-mind," the unconvincing second Watcher visit, the close involvement of Agatha Harkness, the choice of Dr Doom (see notes to FF116) and everything else. It also explains the events of the following year (Sue trying to fix the marriage then leaving, Johnny and Ben wanting to get away, the arrival of Galactus, etc.). It's just the explanation that best fits the facts.

Issue 115: infinite ambition: Reed's mind finally snaps

It didn't quite go to plan.  Reed was playing with fire, especially if Nicholas Scratch was involved. Reed threw himself into his role. But he underestimated his level of stress (and maybe he's influenced by Scratch). So he says too much.

        Four 115

Reed's only way out is to go all the way and act mind controlled, go crazy and leave the building. But is he really mind controlled or just having a nervous breakdown?

The plan could never work
Reed must know that plan can never really work. One success would not make people love him, it would not solve the underlying problems of being unable to cope, and what if the family found out? He is scared, angry, running, alone, cracking up. 

Gigantus as a metaphor
Gigantus is about a world that is unfeasibly big: about an absurd scale of ambition. it is a metaphor for Reed's own ambitions. it's a fabulous, amazing concept, but it cannot possibly work. At least not in this physical reality.


A mind expanding story

The Fantastic Four is truly a guide to tall the most mind expanding ideas in the universe - and this one really expands the mind! The idea of a planet bigger than galaxies is mind blowing. From a story perspective, this causes so many physics problems that the simplest explanation is the one suggested in the previous review: this story is invented by Agatha. Unlike Reed, Agatha is not a scientist: Reed would never make such basic errors.

But this issue goes beyond the family drama. It makes us think about the scale of the universe. It's awe inspiring. For that alone, this issue is a classic. How big can a planet become before it collapses under its own weight, and the internal pressure causes nuclear fusion, turning the plant into a star? And how big can a star become before gravity prevents it becoming any larger? This Wikipedia image gives an indication.

star sizes
(Image: Dave Jarvis, Creative Commons attribution 3.0)

It has been suggested that a super-giant planet could be created by forming a thin shell around a star. Imagine billions of satellites, all orbiting a star at the same distance. Then imagine billions more, until they all join up to make a solid surface. This is called a Dyson Sphere, but could even this be bigger than an entire galaxy?

Dyson Sphere

We could perhaps imagine some other structure that was galaxy sized. But galaxies are mostly empty space. The space between each star is several light years: do the math: a galaxy is 99.99999999999999999999% empty space. Where would you find the matter to create a structure, even a hollow one, of that size? Why would you want to? The only way to envision such a thing is to imagine that the "Eternals" were in fact gaseous creatures and their "Planet" is made of very, very low density gas. But the story suggests it is solid, at least to some extent.

To make this work we have to speculate so far that nothing can be as it was described in the story. It only makes sense if the alleged "Watcher" changed absolutely every detail. And if everything is changed, why not just cut the Gordian knot? Agatha made it up. But what a concept!

Of course, Gigantus is only impossible in our own universe. As a witch, Agatha would be aware of parallel universes where the laws of physics are slightly different. perhaps there, Gigantus could be real!

Other points to note

Issue 116: only love can save him; and Doom's great turning point

Fantastic Four 116

Fantastic Four 116

Reed has a nervous breakdown. Nicholas Scratch (if it is he - it could be any mind controller) seems to be enjoying Reed's weakness. Reed sowed the seeds of his own destruction when he took this desperate gamble to involve Agatha and black magic: black magic has its own agenda.

Why Doom?

Why does Agatha say to go to Doom? If we take the story on face value then it makes no sense: Sue could contact plenty of other better candidates (the silver surfer, Thor, etc.) but if in fact the Over-mind is a fake that got out of control, created by Agatha Harkness, then only Doom can save Reed. Only Doom has:

  1. great intelligence, power and determination
  2. AND an understanding of sorcery. 

But is it safe to expose Reed to his greatest enemy when he is so weak? Yes, but only if this is a story of Reed's genuine nervous breakdown. Doom's greatest need is to prove himself better than others. and especially Reed. Doom would love nothing more than to find Reed as a self-induced quivering wreck, then rescue him, and have Reed spend the rest of his life knowing that Doom was strong. If Reed was in fact just controlled by someone else than Doom would have no interest in saving him, except to destroy him again. But if Reed has intellectually failed, then Doom will want to preserve him forever.

Doom's turning point

This was not entirely satisfying to Doom: he was brought to his knees as well, and was not able to completely defeat the enemy (Scratch?) Once weakened, Agatha was able to take her "over-mind" away under the disguise of a quick deus ex machina illusion. However, after this point Doom never again bothered to humiliate Reed for its own sake. Doom had won. Before this he was obsessed with proving his superiority. From now on he only attacks the FF if they are in the way of his other plans.

Sue's independence begins here

Reed fails Sue, and Sue has to be the tough one. Her independence begins here. She does not want to be separate, In the months that follow she tries to make it work, but it's over between them, until Reed can start to change.

Other points to note

Issue 117: the last attempt to rescue the marriage

Fantastic Four 117

Note that the comic reports what the team tell the, and also has to be new reader friendly. Anything too personal and painful will be hidden, but their actions speak volumes:

Note the irony this is a family, a team, but each member is obsessed with their own problems (except Sue). The story of the FF is how they finally learn to put others first.


Other points to note

Issue 118: "the goddess of making children"


The Fantastic Four is a family drama, and the story of one romantic struggle now merges with another.

This issue hints at the truth about Crystal, and how this 28 year story leads to the next. At first glance, Crystal is an enigma:

Some readers have pointed out an answer, in the nature of Inhuman society. The Inhumans are obsessed with genes. It's their obsession, they practically worship genetics. "By Argon's Genes" they say. But as a closed society genetic in breeding is a huge problem, particularly in their isolated royal family. So it has been suggested that every few generations Inhuman DNA will throw up a special being who's purpose is to expand the gene pool. A princess will be born who's role is to find the strongest genes she can outside of the Inhumans, and marry him and bring him back to ensure genetic health for the next generation. This explains why Crystal homed in on Johnny Storm: although he's forced into a junior role in the team, he;'s the only one who loves being a superhero, and his destiny is as the leader of the Fantastic Four: as we saw in his Strange Tales series, and whenever he works alone, he's pretty darn good at what he does. Johnny's natural value is finally confirmed in Jonathan Hickman's historic run, climaxing in FF600: the adult Franklin says that Johnny is his hero. So Crystal, genetically bred to find the greatest of all alpha male genes, homed in on Johnny.

When Johnny repeatedly showed himself unwilling to live with the Inhumans, Crystal's genes kicked in and she found another hero who would. She couldn't help it. She didn't really love Quicksilver, but her biological clock was screaming. However, Quicksilver's offspring Luna was born without any powers. Yes, she could be given power, but it shows that their genes are not really compatible, and Crystal made a disastrous mistake. it was at that low point that Maximus, fully aware of the power of hormones, clouded her mind, and in her desperate dream like state she hooked on to the next fertile male who appeared willing. A mistake she always regretted, but took full responsibility for, even though it wasn't her fault.

So we see that Crystal is a kind of goddess of fertility. This appears to be confirmed in this issue: she takes the role of Ixchel, goddess of childbirth.

About Ixchel

"Ixchel is the 16th-century name of the aged jaguar goddess of midwifery and medicine in ancient Maya culture. [she is]  “the goddess of making children”   ( - Wikipedia)

Ixchel's temple

Above: the ruins of Ixchel's temple, from Selkirk's blog.

Ixchel is also the goddess of the moon. The Inhumans ended up on the moon, and the transition fro the 28 year story to the next generation is when Johnny heads to the moon to be reunited with Crystal.

Crystal is the great link between the current 28 year story and the next generation. She represents the union of the four elements, whereas the Fantastic Four each represent just one.

The alchemical wedding
But surely Diablo chose this particular goddess at random? Not a chance.How likely is is that Lockjaw just happened to bring Crystal to Diablo fore no reason? Diablo called him somehow, no doubt using his potions as scents (Lockjaw can track scents across dimensions, as we see in FF160). Romantic coupling is a central theme of alchemy: the coupling of people representing the combination of chemical elements. Perhaps the most famous of all alchemical texts is the "Chemical Wedding": it "tells us about the way Christian Rosenkreuz was invited to go to a wonderful castle full of miracles, in order to assist the Chymical Wedding of the king and the queen, that is, the husband and the bride." (Wikipedia) Notice the parallels? The castle of miracles (see FF30), and attracting royalty. Diablo is a great alchemist. Hes not the greatest fighter, but he would understand Crystal's significance immediately.

The backup story: Ben starts to see Reed's point of view

Fantastic Four 118

This is an extra sized issue (Marvel was briefly experimenting with bigger comics: see notes to FF116), and has a superb back up feature. As a huge Lockjaw fan, and obsessed with the deeper feelings below the surface, this story is gold to me.

Our Reed is also a tragic figure, like Ben
In this story, Ben's eyes are opened. He's given a lot to think about: it will take him many months to process this: Reed is also a tragic figure. True, this is a parallel world Reed, but there are parallels. Our Reed is just as trapped, by is actions and inability to change. Our Reed does not know how to connect with his son or his wife or his friends. Our Reed is seeing his triumphs begin to crumble, and does not know what to do. He is just as trapped as if he had a rocky body. This foreshadows the rest of acts 4 and 5:

Other points to note

Issue 119: racism

Fantastic Four 119

This issue, for those who missed the latter issues of Strange Tales, shows that Johnny and Ben can work well together. Reed does not have to be with them all the time. With Johnny and Ben on the case, they can handle it. This foreshadows the next generation.

The last issue dealt with Ixchel, and hinted at Crystal's role in uniting two race. So this naturally leads to an issue about racism. As the Great American Novel, and based on the political zeitgeist of the day, racism (and terrorism) had to appear.  Equality is one of the four permanent themes of the FF, and the one that Reed most needs to learn.

How this follows from previous issues
Just as Johnny had to get away, so does Ben. No sooner does Johnny come back than Reed finds an excuse to send them both away. Reed is feeling like a failure: true, he says he's working on a cure for Crystal, but he doesn't expect much success. He's just under stress and needs to be alone.

Ben and racism
Note that Ben's condition is itself a metaphor for racism. Ben is not ugly at all. he's just different. But as long as he believes his skin is wrong he will feel inferior. He won't accept his skin until act 5, when he meets one of his own people. Then he will no doubt be able to change at will, as he did on Battleworld. But to see Ben's skin as a problem, one that is fixed by becoming more like the dominant group, is racist.

Signs of great tension in the family

"The story opens with a typical bickering scenario between the Human Torch and the Thing." (source) Actually this is not typical at all: it's the first serious bickering since Act 2. It's a sign of great tension in the family. Reed asks Ben and Johnny to go. Helping Crystal is a convenient excuse: Reed and Sue need time alone.

A historic issue

First Roy Thomas; first new title
The arrival of Roy Thomas brings a more serious tone. it also brings a more modern title, the first ever new title since issue 1 (apart from minor tweaks like removing "the" and adding a slight 3D effect). This is probably the last date we can call "the end of the silver age".

"My own defining Bronze Age Marvel moment was the use of a new logo on issue #119 (cover date February 1972), written by Roy Thomas, who was to take over scripting Fantastic Four permanently with issue #126 (cover date September 1972), with a new telling of the groups origin, and ostensibly a fresh start. I would claim #126 as being the start of the Fantastic Four’s Bronze Age, though I could be convinced otherwise." (source)

Other points to note

Issue 120: the beginning of the end for Reed

Fantastic Four 120

This issue is the event (the coming of Gabriel) where Reed finally pushes himself over the edge, mentally. Starting at this point he won't stop until he collapses in FF224. He will push himself harder and harder, rushing from one crisis to another, trying to solve everything himself, until he finally collapses with exhaustion. This will give Sue time to think, and she finally walks out. The core problem is Reed's lack of people skills, which leads him to try to do everything himself when others are better qualified.

What else could he have done?
It may seem unfair to criticize Reed for taking on too much. What else could he have done? Well several things, if he had slowed down enough to think.

  1. Franklin has the power to protect them. Granted, this is not obvious yet. it doesn't become really obvious until FF141 and FF150, but Reed is extremely intelligent. If he had spent the last three years getting to know his son as a father should, then maybe he could have figured it out. 
  2. Gabriel acts like the surfer did: Reed doesn't know he's a herald at first, but it's a reasonable guess. Last time it was Alicia who talked the surfer round. Gabriel also acts like Namor, declaring war on the human race. Sue is pretty good at talking Namor round. Then the first response should be to talk to the guy: get the girls involved.
  3. Gabriel has the power over air, and also likes to control water and other elements. Remind you of anyone we've seen recently? Yes Crystal. Why not contact her?
  4. Gabriel is a sudden threat from outer space. We saw in FF51 that Reed likes to be prepared for cosmic threats like this. The obvious defense is to have a permanent way of contacting the Silver Surfer. After all, the Surfer said he owed hem a favor, and even if he didn't he's still a decent guy. Why not call him in?

However, all of these approaches require people skills. They are about communicating and friendship. Reed is not good at that. So rather than delegate to somebody who is (like Sue) he blunders into the problem and does no good at all. We see this at the very start., against the terrorists. Sue is plainly humoring him, letting Reed beat them so he feels good. But Sue could have defeated them with a forcefield in seconds.

The zeitgeist
FF119 and FF120 both feature terrorists: terrorism was always in the news on the early 1970s.

Other points to note:

Criticisms (source and source)

Issue 121: alienating their friends

Fantastic Four 121

This issue is about alienation.

Alienation of the public
In the Over-mind saga we saw ordinary people turn against the team. Then it was blamed on mind control. But it's wasn't, because they do it again now. Some readers see the public anger as sudden and unexplained, but it's been building since Reed caused World War III in FF103.

Alienation of Sue
Why have the FF made so many mistakes? They used to be popular with the public. The change may be because of Sue. Back in the early 1960s when Sue had a higher profile the FF were more popular. They had a minor B movie (FF9). Magazines would come to take their photo, and would focus on Sue. Sue is extremely likable. The team handled publicity well, and the people were on their side. But when Sue married Reed she became more submissive. Reed became the mouthpiece for the team, and he isn't good at communicating.

All of Reed's interactions are disastrous. For example, Reed tells Johnny to form a wall of flame. He literally inflames the situation! Reed would put a fire out by pouring on oil. There was no need for that wall of flame:

The team is in no danger. They should talk, or leave. A wall of flame just confirms that they're dangerous.

Alienation of Franklin: why Galactus arrives
In this arc (FF121-123) Galactus acts like a spoiled child: he wears short trousers, shows poor reasoning skills, prefers fighting to talking, and plays with a giant train set. For why Galactus is now so childish see the discussion by FF74. This is a four year old's version of Galactus: Franklin wants to see his family defeat a bad guy. He learns about angels, so has his family beat an angel. His story even involves a fun fair with a roller coaster!

Alienation of allies
This problem only escalated because Reed is not on chatting terms with his allies (see notes to FF120).

Realism and Marvel comics
Why don't they rely on other super heroes? This is a strong argument that other super heroes being less numerous and less powerful than their own comics suggest. Within the world of the FF, only the FF report their acts to Marvel: other superhero stories are made up.

Realism and the news: did all industry really shut down?
A news reporter says that all industry has shut down. But newspapers always look for the most sensational quote, which is generally just one point of view. It is unlikely that everything in the world did shut down. Either way, Galactus then says "mine is the power to set all to rights again!" and gestures and instantly turns things back to the way they were. This would explain why New Yorkers do not remember these events. A similar Galactus reset occurred after New York' trauma in Byrne's run. This creates plausible deniability: we can still imagine the story occurred in the real world, our world, and Galactus made us forget. This realism is not broken until the end of the 28 year story, in FF322. FF322 has the first major event that cannot be explained the way.

Other points to note

Issue 122: more haste, less speed

Fantastic Four 122

This issue sums up Reed's problem: he does not think. I know I overuse the word irony, but it so often applies to Reed. The smartest man in the world fails because he does not stop to think.

The cover to this issue shows a roller coaster: this is a roller coaster ride all the way. Crazy, childish, fun, pointless. If Reed used his brain a little more he might notice some things:

Perhaps I'm being too hard on him It's easy to be an armchair critic, and much harder when faced with Galactus on your doorstep. But the bottom line is that later events showed that there are much bigger questions at play: Galactus is the herald of Franklin! Sure, Reed did not know this, but he is smart enough to know that it is better to prevent a problem than cure it. Reed should have devoted his brain to the bigger abstract issues, not creating a new kind of plastic (at the start of this arc, FF120). People as smart as Reed are very rare. He has a duty to apply his brain to the important matters, he cannot afford to waste his time on small inventions, or run around so fast that he makes mistakes. He needs to stop and see the bigger picture.

So this whole issue is about Reed being too busy to think. it's an age old problem that every manager finds sooner or later. The Fantastic Four may feature space gods and super heroes, but it's really about the real world.

Criticisms (source)

Issue 123: understanding Reed's point of view

Fantastic Four 123

This issue shows Reed at his most intense: in just a few pages he battles Galactus, he gambles the whole world, he defies the Surfer, he is shot, he speaks to every person on planet, he is hated then becomes a global hero, he then spends just a few seconds with his son and is then on his way to saving the world again. This is Reed's world! He has to run, run, run, to save everybody. Nobody is as smart as him! This is why he has no time, no sympathy, for those who don't do things his way! And any question of spending time with his son is absurd, don't we see the dangers? Isn't it clear that he does everything for others? People who know him will sacrifice their lives for him (see FF51 or FF183). How can anybody doubt that he's one of the greatest men who ever lived?

This is Reed's greatest triumph, saving the world (apparently) and being hero worshiped by all nations. Yet it leads to physical and mental collapse and his wife leaves him. Clearly there is more going on than "Reed is amazing and Sue doesn't see it."

The Great American Novel
The greatest novels reflect the real world, and show complex people. Reed represents every powerful leader ever. I am writing this in the week that Margaret Thatcher died, and she illustrates the case perfectly. Many of those who knew her, even her critics, were struck by her personal kindness and generosity of spirit. Nobody can deny that she changed Britain, and to some extent the world. Her supporters say she turned Britain from an economic laughing stock, a country in decline and on its knees, to a proud powerhouse and example to the world. Yet her critics say that any financial improvement was due to technological change that happened anyway, an unexpected windfall from North Sea oil, and short term banking speculation that later plunged the whole world into the recession we see now. The critics further point to homelessness (she sold off council houses) inequality (she crippled the unions), support for dictators, and a host of other perceived crimes. The point is that a person who is obviously a hero to one person is obviously flawed to another. The greatest novelists deal with this. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar explores this. Victor Hugo's Les Miserables has whole chapters on whether Napoleon was a monster who plunged Europe into war, or whether (as Hugo argues) he left a legacy of better laws and a weakening of corrupt monarchies?

The Fantastic Four just tells the story. It is up to the reader to decide what it means. Personally I am on the side of Reed as great hero. That is what makes his human weaknesses all the more interesting.

Foreshadowing the crisis of FF141
The surfer says Reed is "courageous" to entrust his son to a witch. It reminds us of the use of "brave" in the TV comedy "yes minister": "That was a brave decision, minister" is code for "that was monumentally stupid and anybody with eyes can see it." Reed claims they did not know she was a witch, yet he stuck to his decision. Agatha will soon betray their son to Annihilus.

The zeitgeist

Other points to note:

Issue 124: the fall of Icarus

Fantastic Four 124

This is where Reed's dramatic fall begins. Appropriately he literally falls out of the sky, from the amazing flying machine that he himself designed. He is like Icarus, who lost his wings because he tried to do too much: he flew too close to the sun. But Icarus is not remembered for his pride, he is remembered because he did actually fly! Reed is a hero who tried to do too much. Sue and Ben and Johnny are like his mentor Daedalus: Ben is the test pilot, Johnny designed and improved the flaying car, and Sue is his parter. If he had listened to them some more he would never have fallen. But then the story wouldn't have been as interesting then either. Nobody would have remembered if Icarus had not fallen.

The first issue without Reed
"The members of the FF have rarely, before now, been given the chance to operate on their own" (-FF1by1)

So we see how badly they act now that Reed is unable to micromanage. Note that in the early days Johnny was far more capable (e.g. in his Strange Tales solo stories, or in FF4, FF17, etc.), but like Ben his spirit is crushed. Sue's spirit was submissive right from the start, despite her being the most capable member of the team, so she will be the first one to become independent and take control, finally becoming the unofficial leader by FF 158. (Ben becomes the official leader by FF307, and Johnny is due to lead the team when time restarts).

Other points to note
Why repeat old stories?
The loss of Stan Lee is a period of great uncertainty in Marvel (and also in America). At times of uncertainty we look back to the past: these issues are all pale reflections of previous triumphs.

Repeating old stories reflects the theme of Act 4: a refusal to move forwards. This reflects Reed's decline, and attempt to hold on to past glories. It also reflects Stan Lee's decision to leave comics to try to make a living in movies: he does not realize that his talent is in comics, in moving forwards, Instead Lee lost interest in comics and tried to go back to the movies he loved as a child. But Stan's scripts did not impress anybody in Hollywood, just as rehashing the lost lagoon story does not stand up to the original (which ironically was itself a homage to the movie, but a single issue homage is delightful, whereas returning for a double issue repeat looks like a lack of imagination.) 

Layers upon layers...
So the story reflects Reed's mistake which in turn reflects Stan's mistake, which as the Great American Novel reflects America at the time: stuck in the past, with Vietnam as a longer and even worse copy of Korean war, and a leader (Nixon) falling from greatness.

Criticisms of this issue (source)

These criticisms are minor and easily answered, but some (such as regarding Johnny and Ben's powers) illustrate deeper points that are easy to overlook.
Kirby frame

Page 17: Sue is in trouble.  Page 19: Reed reacts. But in between we have page 18: the action stops dead. Why? And the art looks different - less detailed, more rushed. And look at the abrupt end to page 17: we should expect to see Sue disappear into the darkness of a watery grave, but instead  the last frame kills the action and changes scene without warning, showing the most boring image of the story: Johnny's hand. No wonder we see "zzzzzz"! The last frame of 17 and first frame of 19 appear to be transitions intended to shoehorn in page 18.

It looks like Stan had a last minute change of plan and stuck in an extra page. The newly added page is a refresher for new readers. The next story, the first by Roy Thomas, serves the exact same purpose. The second transition frame was perhaps not good enough so Stan replaced it with a generic shot from another story.

Or perhaps this "who is the monster?" page was originally in the story, but in its more natural place: before Sue was captured, but Stan felt the story was becoming too slow, so he brought Sue's capture forwards. In this scenario he cut and cut and pasted existing frames, and there simply wasn't a suitable frame to join back to the main story.

This was not the first time a story was changed after it was initially drawn. This was quite common: the best known example was FF108 where the original issue was changed so much that the original was published years later as a completely new story.

Plot by Gerry Conway?

On the "Eat Geek Play" podcast, 18 minutes in, Gerry Conway says he produced a couple of uncredited plots for the Fantastic Four right when he started work at Marvel. I left a message on his Facebook page asking for any further info, and if I learn more I'll get back to you, but until then I'm guessing it's this story. This explains why, for the first time ever, Reed is shown with serious weakness (Stan tried to avoid showing that), and why it shows signs of editing. Other reasons to think this is by Conway are:
If this is correct then the whole 1970s arc of Reed losing his power is really down to Gerry Conway. I'll edit this if I find out more,

Issue 125: He only did it for Sue.

Fantastic Four 125

The creature from the lost lagoon is like Reed. He is not a monster. He only did what he did because he loved Sue. Although the rocket flight in FF1 was to beat the Russians, Reed only took Sue and Johnny because he wanted to impress his girlfriend, and since then his controlling ways are only because he wants to protect her. But like the creature he finds it so hard to communicate. The creature is a scientist, with his own rocket ship. Just like Reed in FF1, the journey has somehow affected the woman he loves. He tries to protect her by keeping her away from others (no feminism here). He is a genius, a creature who works and struggles to do what he thinks is right, and is so misunderstood.

This story is essentially the same one we saw in FF97, but this time we see the monster's point of view. In FF97 it was obvious that Reed was going too far, and should have stayed on the beach with Sue. But now, with Reed on his sick bed we are more likely to feel sympathy. Reed can sometimes look like a monster, and this creature is like Reed. We can only feel sorrow for his plight. it is all the more poignant that Reed's marriage is about to fall apart because of how he tries to "protect" Sue.

The emotional end to Stan Lee's run

This was Stan's last story, and has such a powerful, poignant ending: we see Jack Kirby's last original creation for the FF (the monster from FF 97) blast into space, the endless universe. Sue talks about the distance between them making them strangers, just as Stan and Jack became strangers. And the team ends by remembering their kinship always.

It brings a tear to my eye.

new beginning

time line

Jack needed Stan
The quality of these issues since Kirby left, specifically the lack of original ideas, is part of the argument that Kirby was the true writing genius. Yet Kirby without Lee wrote comics that were hard for new readers to follow. At around the time this issue was published, Jack's original "Fourth World" series of titles was being canceled. Jack needed Stan, just as the powerful but misunderstood "Monster" and the the genius Mr Fantastic all relied on Sue.

Next: separation

The Great American Novel