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

1987: Act5: the turning point (Gorbachev)

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
previous      FF296       FF297       FF298       FF299       FF300       FF301       FF302       FF303       next

In 1987 Gorbachev began to make big changes. For decades of the world had stared down the barrel of a nuclear gun. Now the end of the cold was finally in sight.

Act 5
In the classic five act structure, the fifth act is where success is grasped from the jaws of defeat. The first half of Act 5 is where all the failures and disasters of Act 4 start to turn around. Then in the second part the sun rises and the heroes triumph over all their foes, family values are re-enthroned, the unbalanced world is rebalanced, and everyone receives prizes.

In this part, Alicia makes Johnny accept that real love means responsibility. This forces Ben to finally face himself, and admit that his real problem can only be solved inside himself. Franklin (fresh from his adventures in Power Pack) shows that he can handle himself just fine as a superhero. This at long last forces Reed to face up to his responsibility as a father.

Issue 296: Ben says sorry for blaming Reed

Fantastic Four 296

This frame is a pretty good summary of the Franklinverse that will follow after issue 321. In a real novel, such as FF1-321, the hero finally learns his lesson and the story moves forward, but here progress is slowing down and will soon (FF226) run in reverse.

Fantastic Four 296

Reed's self discovery

Note that Sue thinks that Reed's only crime is in causing Ben's initial mutation. But at the end of 295 we see that Reed is thinking more of his recent decision not to tell Ben the truth about his condition. Sue thinks that Reed only made a single mistake (if it was even a mistake). But Reed knows that his sins continued all the way through. He has always treated Ben like a child and that is the cause of Ben's problems, not the space flight.

Sue cannot see how Reed continued to infantalize Ben, because Reed was infantalizing Sue at the same time, right up to her child-like face in her desperate Stepford Wife phase. Sue refers to Reed begging Ben to come back, but does not realize that this was just pulling Ben back like a naughty child, it was part of the humiliation process.

The psychology is powerful here. So often the abuser feels they are innocent, and their abuse becomes so culturally entrenched that nobody can see anything wrong. it is the classic problem of the strict patriarchal society: women and children are treated as incompetent, and when they complain that is seen as proof that they are not just incompetent but pathetic whiners as well.

As the abuser cannot recognize or change, the only way out is for the abused one to forgive the abuser and move on.

As the climax to the Great American novel, this also reflects global politics: each powerful nation considers other nations to be infantile and needing correction, and interprets others' complaints as signs of their immaturity. We see the splinter in another person's eye but cannot see the wooden beam in our own.

Multiple layers in The Great American Novel

This anniversary issue is a masterpiece of subtlety. On the simple level, Reed is a hero and the Mole Man is a villain: the story works on that level, but that isn't the whole story. Look closer:

None of this means that Reed is a villain: at every stage he does the best thing he can. But Reed, like the Mole Man, has flaws. That is what makes him so interesting.

The tragedy of the two lovers
This is the final straw. it is clear that Alicia and Ben still love each other, but neither can say the words they want to. Once again we must see the context: Their great love affair until this point, and how Ben, afraid to commit, abandoned her too many times.

See FF 270 for a full discussion.

In this issue he rejects her again (leaving to live in a cave, tragic character that he is), and again, when he cannot emotionally cope with Alicia who literally reaches out to him one last time:
Fantastic Four 296

Clearly Alicia still loves Ben, and Ben still loves Alicia (see FF303). Note how Ben went to pieces when she was in danger, and compare that with Johnny's neediness but lack of passion when dating Alicia.

But Alicia is right. Ben kept promising, but his skin was too thick, he never allowed himself to be close. The almost blind Mole Man understands loneliness perfectly: he knows how Ben was hurt by the others. But like BEn, he too has difficulty in moving on.
. Fantastic Four 296

Note the Shakespearian style: as in Romeo and Juliet, star crossed lovers hurt each other because they lack the emotional maturity to know what to do. As in the histories and comedies, a mis-shappen bystander makes comments about what is really happening.

Other points to note

Issue 297: Ben's suicide attempt

Fantastic Four 297

This issue is the clearest metaphor of the entire series: the war between two "brothers." It's the sunlit side of the world versus the side that never enjoys the sun.

Umbra and Jaagur are symbolic names, continuing the parallel with Ben and Johnny. They refer to the darkest shadow (Ben's life) and a search for divine solutions to personal problems.

"The umbra (Latin for "shadow") is the innermost and darkest part of a shadow, where the light source is completely blocked by the occluding body. An observer in the umbra experiences a total eclipse." (source)

"Jaagar [spelled Jaagur in the FF] is a form of spirit or ghost worship practiced in the hills of Uttarakhand, both in Kumaon as well as Garhwal. The word jaagar comes from the Sanskrit root, jag or to wake, jaagar is a medium or way in which gods and local deities are called or waked from their dormant stage and asked for favors or remedies for certain problems plaguing the person. It is attached to the idea of divine justice and is organized to seek penance for a crime or seek justice from the gods for some injustice." (source)

The issue begins with the flaring of our sun: like Johnny's triumph. The issue ends when the two brothers combine, foreshadowing Ben and Johnny's future reconciliation.

The helmet and gloves

Ben is in his worst stage of misery, the final darkness before the dawn. He has always felt separated from the world since the accident that gave him his rocky skin. Now he simply cannot face any contact with the world. But, like the pure hearted hero he is, he keeps doing his duty to the last. Anybody who has been very depressed knows this feeling of wanting to hide away, of feeling trapped, but having to keep going to work.

The proposal

This is the issue where Johnny proposes marriage to Alicia, and she accepts. And Ben overhears the whole thing.

the proposal

Note the misery on their faces. This is not a romance, this is a tragedy.

Johnny only proposes because he thinks he might die. Alicia only accepts because she has given up all hope. Ben only lets it happen because he. too, has given up hope, and plans to end it all.

Ironically, most comic readers consider this a poor issue after the fun John Byrne stories, Which just goes to prove once again that comics are wasted on comic readers.

Parallels with other landmark issues

Other key points

The 100 issue cycle

FF 1,97,197 and 297 are examples of the 100 issue cycle. Where an idea is launched, then 100 issues later it is developed. In this case, FF97-98 are landmarks, not FF 100, because of the importance of the date of the moon landing. 97-98 is effectively a single two part story, contrasting alien and human space travel, and the two kinds of alien: the benign and those that consider us a threat. Some examples of the 100 issue cycle are Reed's maturing personality, the evolution of human space technology, and our connection to our galactic neighbours:

Reed's maturing personality:

The evolution of human space travel
This refers to technology developed by humans, and not the use of captured alien technology that we do not yut fully understand:

Our connection to our galactic neighbours:

Issue 298: it's clobberin' time!

Fantastic Four 298

Back in act 3, just before Reed and Sue left to focus on Franklin, we saw that Reed made mistakes, and another hero appeared to take his place. See FF61-71. That foreshadowed the events of this issue. This time it's Ben who is the natural leader. True, he needs Reed to provide scientific back-up (Reed's natural role), but it is Ben who defeats the serious threat to the galaxy. Ben proves himself: this is the clearest and most dramatic "clobberin' time" ever: This is not Reed's time, this is clobberin' time. This is Ben's time!

Once again, Reed makes a serious error of judgment: Ben was able to defeat Umbra, and Umbra was weakened because he was fighting himself. Reed suggests they separate Umbra again. As Ben says, that's crazy!

Note also that Sue's and Reed's roles are now revered. Throughout act 3 Reed would say "look out, Sue" as if he was needed to protect her. Now it's Sue who's needed to protect Reed. This is as it should be: a force field is a natural protective mechanism. Protecting is what she does. This is why Franklin's safest place is by her side, if only she is allowed to explore the full potential of her powers, and Franklin's.

Issue 299: no longer dependent on Alicia

Fantastic Four 299

Ben's heart will also belong to Alicia (see issue 303 and countless early issue) but he is no longer dependent on her. He is one step closer to mental health.

Continuing the move toward the new generation, this issue sees the team unveil their new home.

This is ultimately a family story, and this issue is about friendship and love solving their problems.

Other points to note

Issue 300: Alicia solves everything

Fantastic Four 300

In this issue, Alicia marries Johnny. This solves all the FF's problems at once:

  1. It makes Johnny grow up.
  2. It solves Ben's dependency problem.
  3. This in turn makes Ben strong, so Reed can give him leadership of the team.
  4. This gives Sue what she always wanted: a husband who puts the family first.
  5. This in turn solves Franklin's problems.

Just as with Galactus (where Alicia converted the Silver Surfer, thus weakening Galactus' resolve), the weakest member of the group is sometimes the most powerful.

Reed is becoming a good father at last

As the review in "Back Issue" 74 points out, the scene where Reed carries Franklin is a direct contrast to FF222, where Sue plays the same role. It shows how far Reed has come: in FF222 reed was worried, stiff and formal, the traditional patriarch. In FF300 he is beginning to mellow and relax. He is beginning to put his son first. After the long darkness of act 4, the triumph of act 5 is well under way!

Reed before and after

This issue also sees development and closure in other key areas:

Why did nobody hear?

The last time a member of the team got married, almost every enemy attacked them, spurred on by Dr Doom. As they say at the end of the issue, Doom obviously knows about the wedding, so they will be on the highest state of alert. Yet a battle took -place without anybody noticing. Neither did anybody notice when the rather large form of Dragon Man was nearby. At one point the Puppet Master is visible to the congregation, yet still nobody notices. Why not? Here are three possibilities:

  1. Or on a more mundane level, this could have been a major achievement, and within the abilities of the Thinker, Wizard and Puppet Master. But their detailed plans for keeping secret were not important to the story.
  2. Most heroes' powers are exaggerated. Thor and Iron Man and many other heroes were in the congregation: why didn't they notice anything? The answer is that the FF is based on realism, and realism dictates that the world cannot have many super powered beings. Either that, or the super powered beings are not as powerful as we think. I have noted elsewhere that the Fantastic Four report directly to Marvel, but other heroes do not, so other comics are largely invented. Other heroes are almost certainly weaker than they appear in their own comics. Of course, a fan of those comics is free to suggest an alternate universe where the evidence points to those heroes being the most powerful and all other stories being exaggerated. 
  3. It is likely that Franklin was involved. The Puppet Master alerted Franklin unconsciously (by using him to learn the location of the wedding), but on a deeper level Franklin unconsciously controls everything. Compare the similar deep levels of control in the half way point story of Doom and Mephisto in FF255.

Other points to note

Issue 301: The prisons of the mind are broken: Reed finally sees the truth

Fantastic Four 301Fantastic Four 301Fantastic Four 301Fantastic Four 301

What finally makes Reed face his responsibility? Franklin does it himself: he is not a burden on the family, he is a hero who can save them.

After all these years of Susan trying to persuade Reed, finally Franklin had to do it himself. Franklin, as ever, is in charge.

John Halterman points out: "Crystal defeated the Wizard in FF #81 and it turns out that Sue was not able to beat the Wizard until FF #301." That is, Sue could not defeat Mr Ego until Act 5. This symbolized her four act struggle to tame Reed's ego, and her eventual success.

The prisons of the mind

This issue is about opening the prisons of the mind. The Thinker draws attention to it by quoting from Lovelace's famous poem:

Here is the complete text:

To Althea, from Prison
WHEN Love with unconfinèd wings     
  Hovers within my gates,     
And my divine Althea brings     
  To whisper at the grates;     
When I lie tangled in her hair 
  And fetter'd to her eye,     
The birds that wanton in the air     
  Know no such liberty.     
When flowing cups run swiftly round     
  With no allaying Thames,
Our careless heads with roses bound,     
  Our hearts with loyal flames;     
When thirsty grief in wine we steep,     
  When healths and draughts go free—     
Fishes that tipple in the deep
  Know no such liberty.     
When, like committed linnets, I     
  With shriller throat shall sing     
The sweetness, mercy, majesty,     
  And glories of my King;
When I shall voice aloud how good     
  He is, how great should be,     
Enlargèd winds, that curl the flood,     
  Know no such liberty.     
Stone walls do not a prison make,
  Nor iron bars a cage;     
Minds innocent and quiet take     
  That for an hermitage;     
If I have freedom in my love     
  And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,     
  Enjoy such liberty.

Richard Lovelace. 1618–1658

in this issue everyone is either imprisoned or free, depending on their mind:

Whereas the Thinker's mind sets him free, the Wizard's mind imprisons him. Though he escaped from jail he may as well still be there: he can never get want he wants. We see this when he meets Ben:

From the start, where they bust through the wall of the Thinker's lair, to the robots who burst out of the walls, to Johnny and Alicia in the Great Outdoors, to Franklin escaping through a wall, tot he final climax where Ben punches the Wizard through a wall, this issue is all about breaking walls: the old walls are no longer being barriers.


Issue 302: the next generation

Fantastic Four 302Fantastic Four 302

Here Johnny learns humility. Until now his humility was forced upon him by being in the shadow of Reed and Ben, and he resented it. Now he learns what he knew as a child, that he is just one man in a very big world: this is a healthy humility, devoid of stress. We then see Johnny at his best, solving a problem and using his years of training to good effect (he was often seen practicing and performing skillful maneuvers in the early days). But now that the conflicts are beginning to resolve, where does the team go next? All the indications are that Johnny must lead the team eventually, so this issue is about him. The ideas for this story came from fans at a convention (according to the splash page), so this may indicate where the zeitgeist is going.

In short, in the next generation of stories the super powers will be merely a part of the mix: an excuse for ordinary stories to be more amazing. Super powers are like modern technology: in the modern world the use of high technology becomes ubiquitous and not flashy. We all carry supercomputers now, but call them mobile phones, and they're just a way for people to interact in more interesting ways. Super powers will be the same.

Ironically, despite being influenced by fans. at the time of publication this story was not a fan favorite. The art and story didn't seem very good. But this is because readers were so used to cosmic super-villain battles: it takes time to adjust to increased sophistication and a change of pace. We were used to cosmic battles and bombastic art. But the story bears re-reading. if you look closely the art and story are both excellent, as we would expect from a Roger Stern plot, Tom DeFalco script, John Buscema pencils and Sal Buscema inks. Perhaps not at George Perez polish or Jack Kirby power, but perfectly suited to realism.

This issue foreshadows the long Franklinverse era (the 25+ years where the stories exist in his dream world), and what follows: the next generation led by the Torch.

The zeitgeist


Other points to note

Issue 303: Ben finally stops running from himself.

Fantastic Four 303

Ben finally gets a chance to run away properly. Thundra was a woman who always respected Ben, and there was no danger that it was from pity or because she was blind or wanted protection. She gives him the chance to start a new life with respect from others. Then he gets another chance, to turn back the clock and start a new life with Alicia. But it isn't his Alicia. And more important, he is still looking for someone else to make him whole: he was still the same man who abandoned Alicia in FF251. There are still cracks in his facade. He is still running away.

So I finally he admits that he must solve his own problems first.

Finally, Ben is emotionally mature. But he mourns what he has lost. It is healthy to mourn. Still, the story ends on a tragic note.

But this is the fifth act! We don't want no mourning here! Ben won't have to mourn for long: whereas proud Reed Richards needed an entire long fourth act to have humility forced upon him, Ben Grimm is humble already. It's Act 5, Ben is ready to change, and there is no need to delay. It starts with the next issue. Let the good times roll!


next: triumph

The Great American Novel