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

1989: act 5: the end of the world (four visions of the future)

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 1989 the Berlin Wall came down. The cold war effectively ended, and America wondered "what now"?

Berlin Wall

The Fantastic Four, the Great American Novel, is a product of the Cold War: when America finally became top nation. America had been growing in power for centuries, and its last major rival was the Soviet Union. Then 1989 saw the fall of the Berlin Wall: the loss of the Soviet's empire, leaving America as the world's only major superpower.  For the first time in history, one nation gained dominance over the entire planet. Where does America go from here? The final issues of the Great American Novel reflects these questions:

  1. Picket fence
    Will they go back to a golden age, or maybe settle down into ordinary lives? That's Ben's dream.
  2. Nuclear war?
    Or is Susan right? Susan has always been right. The old nuclear bombs are still there. Given enough testosterone it will eventually end in global war?
  3. The rise of computers?
    Will computers take over, and our increasingly geeky rulers are happy to let them?
  4. The rise of Asia?
    Will Asian friends become part of America and dominate by doing things the American way?

FF322: Franklin says STOP!

With FF 322 everything went crazy. In the next couple of years we learn more about the Franklinverse, so we can look back and see what happened. In FF322 Johnny Storm was finally ready to lead the team, and Franklin panicked.

Why FF322 matters
Continuity ended with FF322. This is how we know:

The cover date was January 1989. This was the year the Berlin Wall fell. To understand what happened in the FF it always helps to see the history that influenced the writers:

FF322 and history

The end of the cold war and the lack of direction
The FF is about family and science: two things that must always move forwards and change or they die. Families must have babies, they grow up, get married and have their own babies, and so on. Science must always discover new things. So the FF is about change:

F322 and the history of Marvel comics
Marvel comics reflected the zeitgeist and sold well. Just as superhero comics always sell better in times of war whether it is cold or hot. As the cold war declined so did sales of Marvel comics, though this as not the whole story.

About these blue boxes:
1989 involves a lot of big stuff that's new to the Fantastic Four. It might be hard to keep track. I hope these boxes help.

Behind the scenes: Marvel Comics in 1989

Byrne and looking backwards

In the 1980s a new generation of writers had grown up reading a certain kind of superhero comics and could not imagine anything different. Byrne began the trend of looking backwards. After Byrne's run editors did not know where to go next, so the made the twenty fifth anniversary issue into a look backwards. It wrapped up of each character's twenty five year story without any idea of what to do next. This was especially obvious with the star of the story, Ben Grimm: his own book had trued to move him forwards by mutating him more, and this was instantly dropped.


Despite this, Jim Shooter (editor in chief of Marvel comics) cared about continuity. He presided over the only consistently successful period (both creatively and financially) since Stan Lee. But he lacked Stan's silver tongue, and his desire for continuity upset a lot of people: why did he keep saying "you can't do this" or "try that"? A lot of creative people, producing their best work under his editorship, felt they did not need him. So in 1987, Shooter was forced out. Writers then felt free to try wild new ideas that ignored continuity. For full details, see the end of the Marvel Universe.

Steve Englehart tried to move it forward
One man swam against the tide. The final scenes in the Fantastic Four story were handled by perhaps Marvel's greatest ever writer of real world continuity, Steve Englehart. Just as he did in the 1970s, Englehart moved the stories forward, wrapped up all the major themes, and set the stage for the next epic. But editors didn't like it. Neither did some readers.

Why didn't readers embrace change?
The "retirement" was badly handled. Realism was the secret of Marvel's success, but by 1989 so many compromises were made that nobody remembered how to do realism. Let us go back to the 1960s, the era of real time comics, to see how to handle a retirement properly. Reed's old friend Nick Fury retired as an army officer, the career that had defined him. And what did he do? He began a new, even more successful career! Or we can step forwards to the most famous "growing up and moving on" of all: the old X-Men grew too old for school, so a new team took over, and was the most successful change Marvel ever did.  The secret? The changes made sense. They were realistic. They were exactly what we would expect in the real world. What happened with Reed and Sue was a text book example of how not to be realistic. Reed and Sue would never retire.

Reed and Sue can never retire: retire from what?
Reed and Sue did not choose the hero life as a career choice, one you retire from: they simply reacted to events. They were not crime fighters. They had nothing to retire from! Reed would simply focus on science more. Next time a cosmic threat calls he should focus on where he can be most useful, ion the lab, and let Johnny and Crystal do the fighting. In James Bond terms, Reed is "Q" and not 007. He might fight physically on special occasions but that's not what he's best at.

The real problem is this horrific image. The art is beautiful (Pollard and Sinnott), but Reed is not a gardener! This image (from FF annual 21) makes absolutely no sense! A secret identity? The last time they tried a secret identity it was an absolute disaster: they ended up tortured by Mephisto! The whole concept of retirement is madness!


Yes, Reed needed to move on, but to new and greater adventures.

In his defense, perhaps there was another reason for the gardening: perhaps this was a cover for something much bigger? There is a trope in fiction and in theology that the most powerful beings do not need to appear powerful. So in eastern religion the most powerful being might tend his garden. In his Hitchhiker "trilogy" Douglas Adams describes God as a gardener pottering in his shed, thereby maintaining order on the universe. Maybe that is where Reed was going? But Readers didn't see it.

The new direction: backwards
Editors panicked. They forced Englehart to reverse his changes and bring Reed and Sue back. Ben was no longer to be the leader. And soon after, Johnny's marriage was reversed in the clumsiest way possible, and he began acting younger. Everything went backwards. In his interview on the now defunct site, Englehart writes:

"The editorial stand was for something entirely new and unwelcome, which gutted Marvel creativity, was completely un-compromising, and quickly led to bankruptcy. ... It was the end of an era that I had very deeply believed in and led for two long stretches. I hated what was being done to me, and mostly I hated what was being done to Marvel. I still hate it."

Civil war in Marvel
Englehart refers to this time as "a period of civil war inside Marvel ... Marvel continued with its plan to end innovation across the line, but they retained some people they'd otherwise have ditched to make it less obvious ... four years later, Marvel was bankrupt." Put simply, "Marvel started trying to close down the House of Ideas."

Macchio's defense
Ralph Macchio was editor of the FF at the time. Reversing the story was his decision, in order to preserve the core of each character, to keep their defining element the same. But this is never a good idea. Preventing fundamental change is arguably the the cause of all Marvel's problems. But in Macchio's defense, he was simply a pawn of history. The first story had to end because the Cold War ended. The world was not yet ready for the next story.

This is like the period between the golden and silver ages of superheroes: the old Torch has gone, we were left wandering in the dark with forgettable stories, waiting for a new Torch to light our way.

Englehart on FF322

Steve Englehart explained what happened in an open letter to 'Amazing Heroes' (emphasis added):

"Now, as you and every news-zine publisher know, I wrote all of you what Tom was trying to do to me when it started, with the request that you not publish the facts until I finished with Marvel because I would be fired then and there for publicly criticizing Tom. There were two reasons for that: (1) so you wouldn't run reviews saying I'd mysteriously lost my touch, and (2) so no one could accuse me now of having thought up an excuse for the decline of quality after the fact.
"The DeFalco-dictated changes on the FF began with FF Annual #21 (the Crystal story was completely re-scripted by Ralph Macchio -- notice how people's characterizations to that point in the series, and what they look like in the panels, bear no relationship to what they're saying). In the regular run, the forced changes began in FF #322, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place." #322 through #325 were plotted as Whacko stories and shoehorned into FF when WCA was yanked from under Al and me--that's why the FF is fighting Whacko villains. #325 originally ended with the Surfer and Mantis getting together and leading into the shelved Surfer #23; in the end, I had to use it to kill Mantis with dignity, because she'd already been trashed behind my back (see below). The stories from then on were by "John Harkness." As always, I did the best I could, because the fans ought not to suffer in these situations, but anyone reading them with the knowledge of what was going on will find them filled with cries of outrage--not the least of which was the entire plot. Alien freezes real FF, sticks 1962 FF in their place -- the man who raised stealing from Jack Kirby to Official Policy never got that, and if you understand that fact, you understand everything that's gone wrong at the House of Ideas. In fact, the 1962 FF was such a hit in the offices, they want to do a mini-series starring them. Almost all the 1962 FF's dialog in the series was lifted verbatim from FF #1-3, by the way; it actually took a lot of extra time to make that work, but that's what their stunted characters required. Anyway, the dream stories at the end were bare bones versions of the stories I would have done for real if I'd been able to; the last one, how Frank made Alicia leave Ben for Johnny, was the plot that got me the FF in the first place (over the then-not-in-charge Tom DeFalco). In one of my early FFs, back when they had letter columns, I said I had a long term plan working for the book; that was the first half of it. But in the end, as the titles very clearly said: "Bad Dream--And You Can't Wake Up!"

Englehart did not want to be associated with this new "going nowhere" FF, so he used a pen name, John Harkness. These scans are from Englehart's web site. They show how it all ended with 322.

About sales

Englehart said that his run "regained lost readership", yet an overview of sales since 1961 indicates that overall sales were flat for these issues. What's going on? Ralph Macchio said something similar about his own run, when once again sales were static or declining:

Tom DeFalco: "Hardcore fans didn't like our FF. They named me "The Evil One" and we used to get tons of hate mail. Why didn't you fire me?

Ralph Macchio: "Because the sales kept going up every month! Fantastic Four became one of Marvel's best-selling titles on the mass-market newsstands while you and Paul were on it." - Comics Creators on Fantastic Four p.170

At this stage (1988-1991) sales were split between comic shops (hard core fans) and mass-market newsstands (ordinary people). One could go up while the other went down. Some numbers will be easier to measure than others, and some will be totally beyond your control (e.g. a major retail chain may stop handling comics, while demand for a particular comic is rising, so the net result is reduced volume). As Tom Brevoort often states on his Formspring account, any single number for sales will be only part of the story. DeFalco's newsstand sales were probably good because the art and story were readable, when most other comics were incomprehensible except to hardcore fans (this was the early 1990s). Alternatively, perhaps Macchio told all of his people their sales were rising, even when they fell. He told Keith Pollard that sales were great, just before firing him (without telling him) in a failed attempt to boost sales (see "Comics Creators on Fantastic Four" page 71).

Short term sales can be misleading
Watching short term sales is also misleading. If a comic has real literary merit then it may or may not sell at the time, depending on the fashion and hype. But it can be resold again and again over the decades. Even comics that revolutionize the industry, such as the Fantastic Four and the original "New X-Men," only increase sales very slowly. So short term sales are a very poor guide to quality.

Sales and editorial decisions in the 1960s
Stan and Jack did not base their decisions on actual sales figures, but more on their feel for the market. Actual sales figures took a very long time to come in, so they had to use imperfect data. What they watched was fan reaction: they launched the Hulk before they had any reliable Fantastic Four numbers, but they knew that something big was happening.
"Though it took nine months for the sales figures of the comics on the mass market newsstands to be finalized, the flurry of fan letters all pointed to the FF's explosive popularity. Before this point, Marvel rarely received fan letters and most complained about spelling and production errors. After the release of Fantastic Four #1 (Nov., 1961), the deluge of fan mail focused on characters and their actions." - Marvel Chronicle page 84 (the 1962 summary)

Joe Sinnott's last issue

The abrupt change after FF 322 is symbolized by the loss of Joe Sinnott. This was his last interior inking (he did a couple more covers after this, and they are so smooth). Sinnott defines the look of the Fantastic Four as a single story. He is most responsible for the feeling of consistency across the 28 years.

Joe Sinnott's first issue was FF5, and he came back to define the look of the classic run from the 30s. Crucially, Stan wanted to hire him before that, but as one of the best artists in the business his page rates were too high: he was always in demand, so could also choose higher paying work. But eventually Stan managed to hire him, and the greatest inker worked with the greatest artist/creator and the greatest editor/scripter to produce the greatest comic in history.

Joe Sinnott had periods away from the title (most notably in John Byrne's run), but more than anybody else, Joe Sinnott represents the classic Fantastic Four. Sinnott's work is represented by the blue bar in the time line:

time line

The end of realism

FF322: the story leaves the real world

The Fantastic Four, unlike other comics (including other Marvel comics) was always defined by realism. No matter how amazing the events, they were always believable. Every amazing story could really have happened in the real world. The science can make sense if smart atoms really do exist. The spaceship in FF1 only uses 1961 technology if we look carefully. When Terrax took the whole of Manhattan into space in FF242, Galactus then fixed things so that nobody remembered (FF243) . Examine any FF story before 322 and there will always be a get-out clause, it is always possible to believe that the stories occur in the real world. But that ended with FF322. 

The Inferno story involved massive destruction, and every New Yorker experienced it. Unlike other major New York events (such as FF242) it was never completely reset: ordinary people still remembered. True, many of them coped by assuming it was a mass hallucination (according to Wikipedia), but the memory was still there. 

Anybody who lives in real world New York has no memory of this, and no excuse for not remembering it. So the FF world left the real world at that point.and so the suspension of disbelief is broken. From FF322 the stories are no longer set in the real world.

Franklin's point of view

To see why everything changed with FF322, recall Franklin's recent life:

1986: Franklin becomes aware of great dangers
The late 1980s sees Franklin acting away from his parents, in Power Pack. he becomes aware of increasing dangers, especially involving mutants such as himself.He saw his friends (other mutants) threatened or killed in the Mutant Massacre crossover (1986) and again in the Fall of the Mutants crossover (1988). Remember Franklin's face on those posters advertising the series? They nearly killed him.

1987: The Twelve - Franklin's power is confirmed
The story of "the Twelve" is the story of twelve mutants who will save the world in the future. It confirms that future Franklin, as a being called "The Twelfth" will have greater power than any other mutant will ever achieve. That is, greater than "omega mutants" like Phoenix (or as later explained, the ones who handle the phoenix force.)

1988: the crisis reaches its peak. Something has to break.
1988 was the high point for anti-mutant danger: not just Fall of the Mutants, but the discovery of Genosha and the 1988 "Evolutionary War" genetic bomb crossover event. Wherever he looks, Franklin sees ever increasing danger.

Franklin's reality
We need to understand the world from Franklin's point of view. He does not see reality as the rest of us do:

  1. Reality is something that adapts to his needs.
  2. It links many different parallel realities (in Claremont's run the easy movement between these dimensions is called "time dancing").
  3. Time moves forwards, but at different rates, and can also jump around and stretch.
  4. It's usually full of constant danger.
In short, Franklin's world is a kind of parallel dimension, a limbo, or a hell.

Franklin and hell
Franklin Richards gained his power from Annihilus, "the living death who walks," in the negative zone, a kind of scientific hell. He was neglected by his parents and raised by a witch. He often finds himself in a hell of some form (possessed by a demon in FF223, trapped in Mephisto's realm in FF276 and annual 20, in hell in FF500, etc.) He sees alternate realities (i.e. ghosts are all around him) and often sees members of his family die in these realities. He was raised in Elsewhen, a hellish looking place, and grew up jumping between hellish war zones. His principle enemies are Annihilus (who longs for his power) and Mephisto (who fears him). His life, particularly in other dimensions or ages, is characterized by failure and rejection. It seems reasonable that any reality that conformed to Franklin's mind would be full of demons. It should be noted that when the Franklinverse fully took over (the 1990s) Marvel comics became much darker.

The name for Franklin's reality: Otherplace
OK, what should we call this demonic world that adapts to a person's psychology, where time is messed up? Marvel calls such a place "Limbo" or "Otherplace." According to Wikipedia: "Limbo's appearance and physical laws are highly variable, and determined by the power and personal taste of its ruler." and "Although Otherplace has a linear history, time within it is not rigid. Many points in its past and future are connected through naturally occurring temporal rifts, and its present is relative to the individual."

Elsewhen and Otherplace
Franklin was raised in Elsewhen, a place that is never fully described, but it's at a nexus of realities, looks a lot like hell, and is ruled by a well intentioned ruler (he guards the sacred time lines) who nevertheless acts like a violent barbarian. If Elsewhen is not a corner of Otherplace then, as a nexus of realities, it is only a jump away.


His inner demons
Limbo is full of demons. Where did they come from? Clearly they represent Franklin's inner demons, but how do they arise? We can see the process in the every example we have of Franklin's world:

Heroes Reborn was like Otherplace
The Heroes reborn world had a fake history of millions of years whereas in fact it was just one year old. In other words, normal rules do not quite apply. Within one year it was ruled by Dr Doom, a sorcerer who Johnny implies is like "the devil himself" (volume 3, 53, last page).

The Marvel Universe after 1989:
This quickly became a darker, more chaotic place. Sue Richards commented on this several times in DeFalco's run. Familiar characters became weird (bony Wolverine, totemic Spider-Man, etc.) or apparently evil (e.g. Iron Man and Mr Fantastic during Civil War). Also, death was no longer meaningful, and an entire sub-universe appeared that was populated by zombies. 

Nathanial Richards understands. Nathaniel is the only "good guy" who seems at home in Franklin's world, jumping between the time streams. And the power seems to corrupt him: while he believes he is doing good, he often appears to be a villain. Give these realms another hundred years or so and they would appear utterly confusing and demonic to outsiders. As for actual demons, think back to medieval times: all super beings would have been considered demons: a demon is only a point of view.

1989: time stretches until it breaks
Time stretched since the late 1960s, and 1989 is the last straw. The poster child for old heroes is Reed Richards: he fought in WWII (see FF11). Even if he joined at age 17 in 1945, in 1988 he would turn 60. 59? Yeah, just maybe. 60? That's a step too far. Franklin has to either return his family to real time (and real danger) or completely detach them from reality. Franklin turned 21 in 1989 (in real time). He's an adult now, and wants to make his mark. He now has experience as a superhero (in Power Pack). It's time to act.

The catalyst: why Franklin chose this moment (FF322)

The original five acts were now complete: Reed and Sue had put Franklin first, Ben had overcome his demons, and it is now time for the next generation to take over. Johnny Storm has asserted his independence from Ben, and in FF322 he proves himself ready to take over the team. He takes on an unbeatable foe - and wins, unlocking his true power for the first time: 

the catalyst 

At first this appears to be a writers' mistake - flame is just hot matter, and matter cannot defy gravity! But look closer to see what is really happening here. 

First, regarding flame:
Johnny has never had normal flame, though he may believe it to be. The evidence:

  1. He can generate too much energy. The same observation led scientists long ago to realize that the sun does not burn in the normal way, but is a nuclear furnace.
  2. He can survive as human: his cells are doing something phenomenal, but it isn't burning as we know it.
  3. He can burn underwater. He doesn't realize this: psychologically he won;'t let himself, which is why in the early days he could be extinguished by the smallest shower of water (yet melt bullets in flight! How could the water touch him? It's all in his head.) Over the years he has got used to ignoring all but a severe drenching, but on at least two occasions (an early Strange Tales when chasing Namor, and then in Englehart's Diablo story) he has actually burned under water. Johnny Storm is basically DC's firestorm: his abilities are nuclear, not chemical, though he doesn't realize it.
  4. As John Byrne noted long ago, Johnny and Iceman has identical powers (most clearly seen when Johnny put the freeze on Ben circa issue 110). I need hardly remind people that Iceman is an omega level mutant, one who apparently affects entropy at an atomic level, but has barely explored his powers.

Next, regarding powers in general:
All superpowers are variations on the same power: the ability for smart atoms to maintain their normal state in opposition to extreme force, by calling on cosmic energy. All other powers are variations or side effects of this. Graviton is a particularly clear cut example of this: his whole power is to increase the mass of atoms. But of course at the nuclear scale mass and energy are the same thing (hence particle rest masses are measured in electron volts, a unit of energy). So Johnny at his most extreme has the same power as graviton, though he does not know how to use it as such (although becoming lighter than air when flaming on should have given him a clue). As I see it,. all powers are identical, and they are only expressed in different ways because their users have different experience and understanding.

FF322 in context:
FF322 is a beautiful piece of work, when seen in the wider context. With issue 300 Johnny finally put away his last childhood aspects and became a man, a responsible, forward looking man. In the next few issues Ben pushed him to the limit emotionally (by bringing back Crystal), and Johnny, free of Sue and Reed, began to assert himself. It is my belief that the first 28 years of the FF inevitably imply that Johnny must be the leader of the new FF, and Ben's leadership was an interim position. In FF322 we finally see Johnny emerge from his cocoon, as it were, with Ben and Sharon both rendered helpless. This is Johnny's story! he pushes himself to the limit: not by burning brighter than ever (he had burned brighter before) but by forcing his inner being to release more of his true nuclear power. Yes, he was counteracting gravity in a big way for the first time. He was spectacular!

More evidence that this changed Johnny at a fundamental level is that he was then unable to flame off. Clearly the merging with the magical realm had something to do with it, but I interpret this as a merging with Otherplace, Franklin's personal dimension, so the merging was not only a cause of major changes but was partly caused by them (Franklin sees big changes, cannot handle it, so gets involved to an unprecedented level starting with FF322). Seeing his uncle Johnny start to blossom would freak him out, and perhaps triggered him to force the crazy and clumsy retcon where Reed suddenly decides to come back. Reed's out of character behavior when apart from them was no doubt influenced by Franklin as well. The kid has issues, and I don't mean the 22 page stapled kind.

Why Franklin panicked:
Franklin is caught, as the story title suggests, between a rock and a hard place.  he is terrified of the future, yet the past is now closed to him: the old reliable status quo has gone, and the long awaited new order is finally here. Franklin must now grow up. He panics! He causes Johnny to lose control of his powers. He allows the Franklinverse to completely take over (Graviton, as he said, could have stopped it: that was no doubt Franklin's original plan). He then shunts Johnny into deep space. He forces Reed and Sue to come back and take control again. It is a clumsy, crazy, short sighted attempt to delay the inevitable, but that is how Franklin's terrified mind works. In this issue he finally pushes the entire Marvel Universe over the edge into chaos: the chaos of the 1990s, and it is not going to be pretty.

One line summary

This is the issue where we saw the real Johnny, and Franklin (behind the scenes) panicked.

INFERNO ...and why it matters


The historical significance of Inferno
Inferno is where the big story died. Where the Great American Novel went up in flames. It was the first of the regular routine crossovers. From this point writers knew they would have to tell the story the marketing department wanted, and not the story that felt right.

"Inferno was Marvel’s first line-wide crossover not driven by a limited series and including direct crossover between monthly issues of ongoing titles." (source)

There were a few crossovers before this, but with the exception of "Secret Wars II" they were limited in scope. Secret Wars II was the first big cross over that forced writers of every major title to ignore their story and shoe-horn in something different. It was intended as a one off, but it became a commercial hit. So they tried another big cross over, but limited to the mutant books: "Mutant Massacre" was another hit, so they did "Fall of the Mutants," again limited to mutant books When that was a hit too it dawned on every editor that this was a way to raise sales.

"Originally we weren't going to do a big crossover the following year," said Louise Simonson, "but 'Mutant Massacre' sold so well that Shooter told us to do another. That became 'Fall of the Mutants' and the next year was 'Inferno.' I think a lot of people wanted a play in that one." - Marvel Comics, the Untold Story, p. 307, footnote.

So the culture changed. Instead of crossovers being rare or limited special events, crossovers became the mainstay of Marvel. Almost every summer had a big "event" story, and it all began with Inferno.

Inferno: where stories became impossible to follow
Before Inferno, each title was driven by its story. Writers knew there would be occasional interference, but mostly they were allowed to just write. But tarting with Inferno, writers knew that every few ten issues or so they would be expected to be part of an event that broke the flow of the story. The stories of course then became harder to follow. This was most obvious in the X-Men, the best selling title of the era:

"The two stories collectively called the X-Men: Inferno crossover are arguably the last entry point to the X-Men franchise before it became hopelessly convoluted." (source)

Some long time readers on the Classic Comics Forum agree. User "coke & comics" wrote:

"There are infrequent crossovers, but they are mostly readable on their own. Mutant Massacre is a light crossover in that sense. Fall of the Mutants is more of a thematic crossover. Each title can be read separately.
Inferno is the first story that makes a mess out of the crossover, and I think the beginning of bad things (possibly a contender for the jump-the-shark moment) but even then mostly in the other titles people are just fighting demons.  You can read your comic if you accepted demons have invaded."

User "badwolf" felt the same:

"It was somewhat enjoyable for a while, but it got more and more miserable and ugly until I finally ditched it all around Fall of the Mutants, Inferno, Mutant Massacre... I can't even remember the sequence because they all blur together for me."

This is all part of the bigger picture whereby The Marvel Universe (that is, believable continuity) was dead by 1991.

Inferno: story summary

"A demon from Limbo, N’astirh, while warring with Illyana’s tormentor S’ym, has come up with a scheme to link Limbo to Earth using twelve infants as a sacrifice. N’astirh also unlocked some of Madelyne Pryor’s powers to transform her into the Goblin Queen while also using her son Nathan as one of the infants in the portal scheme. When this plan goes awry, N’astirh delivers the boy back to Madelyne, who has fully embraced her powers and brought out the negative influences of the Uncanny X-Men, putting some of them in her thrall. That’s just about the simplest I can reduce the plot to. [...] It all leads back to Mister Sinister; this is his first major plot line so that’s not the cliché it would later become." (source)

Mr Sinister and Franklin
Mr Sinister sounds like an angry version of Franklin. Chris Claremont wrote:

"Dave Cockrum and I went over ideas, and what we were coming towards was a mysterious young boy - apparently an 11-year-old - at the orphanage where Scott (Cyclops) was raised, who turned out to be the secret master of the place. In effect what we were setting up was a guy who was aging over a lifespan of roughly a thousand years. Even though he looked like an 11-year-old, he'd actually been alive since the mid-century at this point - he was actually about 50 [...]  So he built himself an agent in a sense, which was Mister Sinister, that was, in effect, the rationale behind Sinister's rather - for want of a better word - childish or kid-like appearance. The costume... the look... the face... it's what would scare a child. Even when he was designed, he wasn't what you'd expect in a guy like that." (source)

An adult trapped in a child's body with a child's thoughts. Sounds familiar?

"The character plays a major role in the Inferno crossover, where it is revealed that Sinister cloned Madelyne Pryor from Jean Grey for the purpose of having her mate with Cyclops and produce a child, their son Nathan; Sinister also reveals to have manipulated Cyclops' life since early childhood." (Wikipedia)

Sounds a lot like Franklin arranging for Johnny and Alicia to fall in love (see comments to FF333 and elsewhere). The result is terrible continuity: see the discussion of Madelyne Pryor, below.

"Classic X-Men #41–42 (Dec. 1989) details the role Mister Sinister played in Cyclops' life at the orphanage in Nebraska. The story features a boy named Nathan who is obsessively fixated on Cyclops — and whom Claremont intended to actually be Mister Sinister." (Wikipedia)

Nathan was Franklin's grandfather's name: he plays a key role in raising Franklin (in deFalco's run)

Franklin's dimension merges with the Marvel Universe
In FF322, Otherplace begins to visibly merge with our world. this is the Inferno crossover event. it appeared to be defeated and reversed, but that is an illusion: it had merely settled and assimilated. Johnny Storm continued to be affected by its magic: so Otherplace was still here! He could only be saved when Reed adopted magic. Over the next few years it becomes clear that we have a different Fantastic Four.

how the
        Franklinverse began

Inferno and Madelyne Pryor
In other comics, the Inferno story seems to be all about Madelyne Pryor (the Jean Grey replacement), being corrupted into being the Goblin Queen. What has this to do with Franklin? Quite a lot actually. This period (FF322-416) coincides with Franklin in another dimension falling in love with Rachel Summers, daughter of Jean Grey. This combines Franklin'  power with the Phoenix Force and creates Hyperstorm. For Franklin to love Rachel, Madelyne must be removed from the equation. 

Phoenix is important to the Franklinverse. Franklin unconsciously stretched time and "fixed" things from the moment he was born (1968), and by the late 1980s this began to cause noticeable changes. The most famous example, because it came as such a shock, was the return of Phoenix (in FF286 then X-Factor 1). There isn't space to discuss why Phoenix is so important to the Marvel Universe, but that would make a long and hopefully fascinating essay in its own right. 

More about Madelyne
The return of Phoenix cause serious problems for realism and meant that Marvel could no longer move forward. Inferno is how the mess ended, and marked the beginning of the end of the Marvel Universe as a coherent whole. For the X-men in particular  it marked the start of years of hard to follow story lines, where Scott Summers' family tree became the poster child for continuity chaos. Writer Chris Claremont explains:

"The original Madelyne storyline was that, at its simplest level, she was that one in a million shot that just happened to look like Jean Grey, [a.k.a. the first Phoenix] ... I mean, it's a classical theme. You can go back to a whole host of 1930s films, 1940s, Hitchcock films—but it all got invalidated by the resurrection of Jean Grey in X-Factor #1. The original plot line was that Scott marries Madelyne, they have their child, they go off to Alaska, he goes to work for his grandparents, he retires from the X-Men. He's a reserve member. He's available for emergencies. He comes back on special occasions, for special fights, but he has a life. He has grown up. He has grown out of the monastery; he is in the real world now. He has a child. He has maybe more than one child. It's a metaphor for us all. We all grow up. We all move on.
"Scott was going to move on. Jean was dead get on with your life. And it was close to be a happy ending. They lived happily ever after, and it was to create the impression that maybe if you came back in ten years, other X-Men would have grown up and out, too. Would Kitty stay with the team forever? Would Nightcrawler? Would any of them? Because that way we could evolve them into new directions, we could bring in new characters. There would be an ongoing sense of renewal, and growth and change in a positive sense.
"Then, unfortunately, Jean was resurrected, Scott dumps his wife and kid and goes back to the old girlfriend. So it not only destroys Scott's character as a hero and as a decent human being it creates an untenable structural situation: what do we do with Madelyne and the kid? ... So ultimately the resolution was: turn her into the Goblin Queen and kill her off."

Note that for Claremont change is normal and healthy. Given totally free reign he would have done something similar to Englehart: allowed Reed and Sue to move on, allowing the team to move forward.

Madelyne Pryor and Sharon Ventura: parallels
Like Sharon's story at around the same time, Madelyne illustrates the cruelty of the Franklinverse (or Marvel Time). Both women were sacrificed in order to return the previous status quo, and both were driven mad. Those who planned this (Marvel Editors in the real world, Franklin in the comics) had the best intentions. But that caused them to acting like demons. 

The big cross overs after Inferno
Inferno is the start of the regular crossovers. The next ones seem to form a pattern:

  • The next crossover is Atlantis Attacks: if the next generation belongs to Johnny, and if Johnny is Namor's son (see notes to FF292), then Atlantis Attacks and the return of Set at this point are highly significant.
  • The next crossover after that is Acts of Vengeance, a symbol of Marvel's decline into self parody (see notes to Simonson's run: the late 330s).
  • Next is Days of Future Present (a more limited crossover), where we learn the truth about Franklin.
  • After that the big event of 1991 is the Infinity Gauntlet, where Thanos courts death. This is the first cosmic crossover, and symbolizing the death of the Marvel Universe. Years later in the run up to FF600 and the Great Reboot all the parallel dimension Reeds wear Infinity Gauntlets.
  • Part two of the Infinity Gauntlet is 1992's big crossover, Infinity War, about the heroes having evil doppelgangers, a symbol of the Franklinverse.
  • Part three is 1993's crossover, Infinity Crusade: about the battle for the Marvel Universe.
  • And so it goes on. Art imitates life.

FF277 and FF322

A similar event in FF277 suggests that Franklin may be involved.

FF277 also had a merging with a demonic dimension. Franklin had moved out of the Baxter Building, to a small house. This was a crazy idea, and sign of his parents' stress. Reed had earlier promised to study Franklin's powers (FF229) and promised to let Franklin join the team in a couple of years (annual 14), but instead he took Franklin to somewhere vulnerable, left him alone while he went off to work, and waited for the house to be attacked. Franklin was captured by magical powers yet again (as happened in annual 14 and 223: just months earlier, in Marvel Time). Franklin unconsciously controls the Marvel Dimension, so how did this experience play out in the physical realm? Answer: a demonic alien dimension began to merge with this one. It's all pretty explicit in FF277, where Franklin's condition is mirrored in the world above.

In FF322 the same thing happens again. Reed finally decides to devote his time to Franklin, but what does he do? The only clues we have (a splash page and stories in other comics) is that he chooses a tiny house with insufficient technology to either protect or study Franklin. Then he quickly takes work as a superhero again, reversing his promise to put Franklin first. It's all happening again.

But this time it's different
Franklin has seen it happen before. Last time resulted in his parents being tortured (though asleep at the time, that is when Franklin is most aware). In this period Franklin becomes conscious of greater dangers than ever before. Franklin also has more confidence: he's older, and has experience with Power Pack. The time has come for Franklin to do something big, once and for all. What will he do? Will he slow down time even more? Will he create a pocket universe? Perhaps both?

Other points to note in FF322:

FF323: Mantis: anti-war symbolism

The Great American Novel is the story of America , the most powerful nation in the history of the world. It is a story of superheroes, who (mostly) solve their problems using violence. To a large extent it is the story of the lone, practically invisible female, trying to show that there is a better way. but basically superheroes are about battles. So here, as we near the end of act 5, we have a story about the alternative: peace. Peace is embodied in another woman. Like Sue, she is often dismissed as less powerful or even annoying, because she is not like the others. Her name is Mantis. You may remember her in the background in the wedding of Crystal and Pietro back in FF 150.


Mantis is the symbol of universal harmony. Her story has deep religious symbolism. She first appeared in Vietnam, at the time of the Vietnam war, and is closely associated with trees. She is "the celestial madonna", to be the mother of one who will save humanity. And in this final Inferno story she gives up her physical body to leave this world and accept her destiny. She represents peace as being more than just the absence of war: peace is not just a boring and impractical alternative to all the exciting battles. Peace has its own strength, its own stories, its own amazing cosmology that is stronger than the cosmology of war. But it's not as "in your face." So let's look at her background and how it ties all the other cosmic stories together.

Mantis, Kree, Cotati, etc

A brief history of Mantis
In her childhood, Mantis was left in Vietnam at the Temple of the alien Priests of Pama, a sect of the Kree. The Kree believed she might become the Celestial Madonna and mate with the eldest Cotati on Earth to become the mother of the Celestial Messiah, "the most important being in the universe." When she reaches adulthood, she was mind-wiped and sent into the world to gain life experience. She became a prostitute and barmaid in a Vietnamese bar, where she met the Swordsman. She worked with the Avengers and was in their team when they faced Ultron at the wedding of Quicksilver and Crystal (see FF150). There, Ultron was a tool of Maximus, and helped Maximus use a device that looks like a disguised sub space portal. Later she gradually learned her identity. Here in FF 323-4 she accepts her role and leaves to join the Cotati. (Thanks to Wikipedia for much of the information on this filling in the gaps on this page)

Like Dr Who...
Like Dr Who (see notes to FF324), Mantis crosses different cultural universes. After leaving Marvel Comics in the 1970s, Englehart had her appear in DC Comics' Justice League of America (#142, 1977), where she was called Willow. Asked where she came from, Willow replied, "This one has come from a place she must not name, to reach a place no man must know." (Mantis refers to herself as "this one"). After two issues, she left to go give birth. In the Eclipse Comics series Scorpio Rose (#2, 1983) she called herself Lorelei. By that time, she had given birth to a son. What would have been issue #3, a "lost" Lorelei/Scorpio Rose story, was later published in Coyote Collection #1 from Image Comics. Lorelei is later name-dropped in Englehart's 2010 novel The Long Man (page 355, mass market paperback edition). As Mantis she is back at Marvel.

Who are the Cotati?
The Cotati are the peaceful opposites to the Kree. They developed on the same planet, Hala, a world in the Parma system in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Whereas the Kree set out to conquer and experiment, the Cotati focused on understanding through telepathy. The Cotati did not need to move, and looked like trees. The Kree ignored them, thinking plants were beneath them.

One million years ago:  the origins of the Kree-Skrull war
At the time the Skrulls were not warlike, and wanted to form alliances. One million years ago they asked the Kree and Cotati to prove who was best: they were each given a moon to work on. The Kree, on Earth's moon, build a great city. The Cotati, on another moon, created a beautiful park. The Skrulls chose the Cotati. The Kree, angered, killed all the Cotati and Skrulls they could find Thus began the Kree-Skrull war: the Kree drove them to become more and more warlike.

Nathan Adler (of "How Would You Fix?") links this to the demonic N'Garai from the X-Men: "Interesting that Inferno was originally intended by Claremont to only be focused around Illyana Rasputin, Magik, and her being used as a gateway to bring back the Elder Gods/ N’Garai."  According to Wikipedia the N'Garai left Earth about a million years ago.

The Cotati and Mantis
Some Cotati survived the massacre, in secret. The contacted a group of Kree pacifists called the Priests of Parma. The Priests of Parma managed to persuade the Kree Supreme Intelligence to send two priests to each plant to act as sentries. They secretly took Cotati with them. The eldest of Earth's Cotati took possession of the body of the Swordsman (a lover of Mantis who died in combat). The reborn Swordsman/Cotati and Mantis together had a child, the Celestial Messiah.

The blue area of the moon
The remains of the Kree moon city are now known as the blue area of our moon, and home of the Watcher. It is also where Dark Phoenix died, and featured in the final reconciliation of the Kree and Skrulls in FF annual 18. For more about the Kree Skrull war, see the notes about Rick Jones and superheroes by FF319.


How time travel works
To understand the time traveler Kang, it helps to remember the limits of time travel. See the notes by FF271 and FF272.
  • Time travel is actually travel to another parallel dimension.
  • Traveling there cannot bring back useful information, or highly radioactive materials.
A brief history of Kang
  • 1957: Gormuu's abandoned space ship had faster than light units, and these were probably the basis of Doom and Nathaniel's time machines.
  • 1957-1989: Doom's machine (and a duplicate created by Reed) received limited use due to the restrictions of time travel.
  • 30th century (actually a parallel reality): a scholar called Nathaniel Richards learns how his ancestor created a time machine. In his era they have access to faster than light units, so he creates his own time machine.
  • 2950BC: He builds a ship in the shape of a sphinx and goes to ancient Egypt, calling himself Rama Tut.
  • 1963 (FF annual 2) he escaped and finds Doom (who was thrown into space through dimensional dust). He suggests they are the same person.
  • 40th century: he tried to return to the 30th Century, ended up in the 40th, and found a world in decline. He builds a version of Doom's armor.
  • 1960s: he returns to fight the Avengers, and calls himself the Scarlet Centurion. The Watcher reveals his real name, Kang.
  • Merlin's era: in Strange Tales 134 he defeats Merlin, but is in turn defeated by the Torch and Thing.

Why is the Watcher so interested? And why does Kang claim to be Doom? Nathan on "How Would You Fix?" suggests that Kang is the same as Merlin. Note that Doom's first appearance was his attempt to get the Merlin Stones (see notes to FF5). Later we see how there are multiple Kangs. Given the limits of time travel, and the way that parallel realities link, it is entirely possible that many more time travelers are in fact the same person. Perhaps multiple movement makes you the same person? See the notes on cosmic topics for how higher dimensional beings are often different 3D facets of the same 5D being.

Kang and Mantis
After various other battles, Kang wanted Celestial Madonna as his mate. Mantis got help from an older Rama Tut (an older Kang, retired to Egypt). Rama Tut won, visited Limbo and became Immortus. Kang died, but was resurrected by the Beyonder for "Secret Wars". At this time there were many Kangs in parallel realities, some grouping together to kill all the others. One group is actually aliens posing as Kang. Kang wants a Celestials' "Ultimate Weapon".

The Sphinx = Apocalypse?
Kang originally went to Egypt, in a giant sphinx, in order to find the young Apocalypse. It is easy to speculate that Apocalypse is another side of the Sphinx who featured between FF annual 12 and FF 214. Both were born in ancient Egypt, have altered history over the centuries, and have immense power. It looks like Apocalypse is conveniently said to be hibernating when the Sphinx is around. Of course, Galactus trapped the Sphinx in a time loop, but the chaos of the Franklinverse could easily interrupt that. Apocalypse helped create Mr Sinister, who played a major role in Inferno and bore some parallels to Franklin.

A brief history of Nebula
Kang tried to stop Nebula. Nebula was a feared space pirate. In the aftermath of Galactus destroying the Skrull throne world she was able to destroy Xandar. Curious, the Beyonder helped her escape. In this period Immortus planned to use the Scarlet Witch as a nexus in order to control time. The Scarlet Witch has notable links to Agatha Harkness and Crystal, and features prominently later in the Franklinverse.
Nebula and the 1991 Infinity Gauntlet
Nebula claimed to be Thanos' granddaughter. (Adam Warlock spent much of his time opposing Thanos. Starfox, who featured in FF annual 19, was Thanos' brother. At the beginning of the Franklinverse period Thanos put the six Infinity Gems on a glove to form an infinity gauntlet, giving him mastery over Time, Space, Mind, Soul, Reality, and Power. Thanos is in love with death, and in order to impress her he wipes out half the universe, including the Fantastic Four. He then defeats Eternity and leaves his body, which was then vulnerable to Nebula. She took the gauntlet and undid the damage.

Religious symbolism

Nathan Adler, or How Would You Fix, explores the religious symbolism of this issue:

"In Avengers #129 by Englehart, after Mantis has hooked up with the Swordsman and tags along when he joins the team, Kang the Conqueror turns up, heralding his arrival by a huge star over Avengers mansion – reminiscent of the natal star in the East from Christ’s nativity – having seemingly worked out that one of several women will give birth to a very significant child.  Kang is pretty keen to father this child.  It then turns out that Mantis is to be the Celestial Madonna, with the Cotati obligingly providing her with a husband, in the form of her dead lover the Swordsman reanimated by a plant.  During the selection of Mantis as Celestial Madonna from the various candidates, Steve Englehart asserted that she was found most appropriate because she’d spent years working the Saigon bars and being treated as meat, whilst Moondragon (and possibly Wanda) were too pristine and perfect.  Now, in making Mantis a whore, Englehart was digging back into a very ancient tradition.  The bride of god who births a god is often seen as personifying wisdom (and Mantis has a certain serene understanding about her), and is often linked to prostitution.  And that’s why Mantis was sent by the Priests of Pama to live on the streets and survive as best she could.  Now the Christian church would perhaps argue that in using the pure Mary of Nazareth the vessel for Christ, God was leading the world from a half-understood truth to a fully revealed one. Wisdom is no longer soiled or depraved by the sins of the world, but is made pure and spotless as it is meant to be. There are certainly less dark undertones in the Gospel accounts of Christ’s birth than in Englehart’s modern fable. In choosing the old, cruel, way, it would appear the Cotati show their true colours.  Englehart carries the story through his run on Silver Surfer, and the child eventually gets taken from Mantis and then continues it in his F4 run, but you can tell he intended the whole Celestial Madonna thing to be far from over.  And that the child was going to be seriously bad news if it was brought up to serve the Cotati.

"Then Englehart is forced off the title and Avengers West Coast, but Bob Harass brings her back during The Crossing as a scheming bitch-queen mistress of Kang.   Just after the Crossing, in the letters page of an issue of the Avengers, it was strongly hinted that the offspring of Mantis was somebody that we were already familiar with in the Marvel Universe and that it would blow us away when we found out whom.  Obviously things changed dramatically with the whole Heroes Reborn thing and this storyline never came to pass.
Englehart’s story here parallels the Gnostic tradition that the Holy Spirit was feminine in nature, and that the personified apocryphal figure of Wisdom was the third part of the Trinity, the female companion to the male Christ.  Whilst Wisdom was held to have been manifest in the Virgin Mary, the pure mother of Jesus, she was equally seen to have been manifest in Mary Magdalen, the whore who became Christ’s companion.  And the Gnostic writings go far beyond the Christian Gospels in describing the relationship of Jesus and the Magdalen, depicting her as his principal disciple to whom he revealed secrets untold to Peter, and even as Christ’s wife and the mother of his child.  Bear in mind that this is all based on the “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” hypothesis which speculates that the Templar secret was that the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene formed the Merovingian dynasty of early France, and suggests a continuous secret plot to restore the present descendants to world rulership.  Anyway, there was a Gnostic idea that wisdom, which was female, was debased in the sinful world of the flesh, and was degraded into prostitution.  The “Templar conspiracy” also interprets the Grail legend as referring to Christ’s bloodline.  Was a parallel perhaps being drawn between the Avengers and the Round Table, I mean what are the Avengers but the best and noblest warriors of the realm (Earth’s Mightiest Heroes), banding together to protect the land and fight its enemies.  Further parallels can then be drawn to Kang’s literal plan to conquer Camelot in Strange Tales #134." 

Historical symbolism

The 1980s are known as the time when "the Christian Right" gained great influence in American politics, with its rapture theology. Critics say that politicians used abortion as a wedge issue to get votes. Obviously it would be too controversial for Englehart to use directly Christian references, but by putting it all in a New Age context it makes the story safe. Traditional Christians can see it as a critique of New Age beliefs (the mad priest is obviously not Christian), whereas others can see it as a criticism of any religion they dislike. Interesting stuff indeed.

parking meters

Oh, and the nature woman attacking parking meters? Such symbolism! Natural life versus the controlling state and machines. the 1990s were a period where the rebellion of the 1960s and 1970s gave way to the conformity and crushing rat race of the 1990s and 2000s. Great stuff.

FF324: The Big One! Oh boy, where do we start?

This is a huge issue. So much happens! One day I'll do a big, big review. But it's just too much for right now. Here are just a few of the huge topics:

Dr Who

In the Inferno story the FF universe merges with a different dimension. Look at the sound effect created by Kang's ship: TARDIS!


Is this a coincidence? No. Soon after (in FF338) the FF try to fix continuity, and meet Death's Head. Death's Head is from the Dr Who Universe. In Death's Head 9, Dr Who leaves Death's Head with the Fantastic Four.

Dr Who is a friend of Reed Richards, and gave him some TARDIS technology:


Some officially sanctioned Dr Who books refer to the FF universe.

"There have also been a few sly references to Marvel characters within some of the books." (- source)

For example, the Dr Who novel "The Quantum Archangel" (published in 2001) contains "a reference to 'Pym particles', which hail from Marvel Comics and are named after Hank Pym, a.k.a Ant-Man (and Giant-Man... and Goliath... and Yellowjacket!), and a reference to the Shi'ar Empire, also from Marvel." (source) The Who novel "Millennial Rites" (1995) has its roots in X-Men stories, and "Doctor Strange from Marvel Comics and John Constantine from DC Comics appear in cameos." (source) Note that Pym the X-Men and Dr Strange have all appeared several times in the pages of the FF.

More famously, Captain Jack Harkness (occasional guest star in Dr Who and star of Torchwood) is named after Agatha Harkness, nanny to Franklin Richards, time jumper and "psi-Lord".

"RTD [writer Russel T. Davis] confirmed it in a text message to John Barrowman while the latter was being interviewed on the Jonathan Ross radio show. [BBC Radio 2. 2006-10-21] Ross [a noted comics fan] had spotted the connection and John Barrowman asked RTD - should he be listening, which he was - to send him a text message to his mobile. After a commercial break they announced that RTD had sent a text confirming that Agatha Harkness was indeed the source for the name." (- source).
(The "commercial break" may refer to either music or a BBC commercial: the BBC in Britain does not have regular commercials, but might have in overseas versions.)

The FF and Dr Who - the same universe? Really?

Can we really say that the FF is in Dr Who continuity? Yes, because the Dr Who canon is flexible and open.

"The producer for the television series from 2005 to 2009, Russell T Davies, has claimed that he's 'just the writer...I've got no more authority over the text than you!', saying '(Canon) is a word which has never been used in the production office, not once, not ever' He also said that considering the Doctor Who audio plays as being un-canonical is both 'boring and idiotic'. Davies' successor, Steven Moffat declared at a convention in 2008 that, 'It is impossible for a show about a dimension-hopping time traveler to have a canon.'" (- source)

At first glance there is a problem with this shared universe:

"It is quite obvious that contemporary Earth is not crawling with Marvel-style superheroes (or DC ones for that matter). The local galactic/intergalactic empires that are a huge part of the Marvel Universe are similarly absent from the Whoniverse. Finally, putting the UNIT dating issue aside, there is no evidence that the Earth of the Whoniverse is suffering from the 'sliding timescale' that slows down aging within Marvel's comics." (- source)

This problem is solved if we accept what the Fantastic Four tells us. In the FF, the comics are written by Marvel after story conferences with the FF. But only the FF have completely public lives: the rest of the Marvel Universe is therefore largely made up, according to the Marvel Universe itself. Or to be charitable, it exists in another dimension. The FF also solves the problem with the sliding time scale: the time scale does not slide, and never has done. However, heroes like the FF age slowly and Franklin sometimes adjusts things, and they do not notice because Franklin does not want them to.

Other parallels between Dr Who and the Fantastic Four

  • Franklin is "Psi-Lord," a "guardian of the sacred time lines," and jumps between time and space trying to fix things. In other words, he is a kind of time lord. A confused, junior time lord, but a time lord nonetheless.
time lord
  • The FF is America's longest running sci fi series, and Dr Who is Britain's. Both have run continually, with the same characters, since 1961 and 1963 respectively. 
    • Dr Who regenerates his form, and the FF had alternate reality versions after 1989, and Dr Who relied on officially sanctioned radio series, books, and a TV special between 1989 and 2005.
    • Star Trek and Star Wars might also claim to be long running, though they are not as old as the FF or Dr Who, but they have not run continually and do not feature a consistent cast. Neither are they based on Earth or in the present.
    • The world has one more long running sci fi series, and it too started in 1961: Germany's Perry Rhodan! Dominik Drozdowski writes: "Perry Rhodan is a pulp novel space opera continuously published since 1961 in Germany. It's interesting to note that Perry Rhodan introduced in its first issues the concept of mutants two years prior to Stan Lee [the X-Men, 1963] that get special powers like telepathy, telekinis and the ability to teleport as a result of radioactive fallout from the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagazaki."

  • The premise of the FF and Dr Who are basically the same. A lonely scientist (originally an older guy) is unable to relate to ordinary people. Both series are essentially optimistic, in contrast with most other stories in the genre: while Star Trek and Star Wars feature endless wars, Dr Who never uses a gun, and while Spider-man and the X-Men are wall to wall loneliness and despair, the FF are fundamentally a happy family. In both series the super abilities are just a McGuffin, an excuse to tell human stories.
  • The Tardis and the Baxter Building are both bigger on the inside than the outside, and both allow the scientist to travel to other worlds and dimensions with his companions. The doctor has his Tardis, and Reed has the negative zone portal, a vehicle for the microverse, a time machine, ordinary rockets, the wrist device from "the beehive," etc. Note that the radical dodecahedron, in the center of its room, is like a huge version of the hexagonal Tardis control room, and the Baxter Building itself is a giant cuboid like the Tardis itself. (The entire Baxter Building has traveled as if it's a vehicle on several occasions, e.g. when Doom first teamed up with Namor, when the Molecule Man made it float, when Quasimodo took the building into space, when Stygor took it into the negative zone, when Kristoff took it into space, when Noah Baxter rebuilt it in space, etc)

  • John Byrne's negative zone issues (251-256) are based on Dr Who. Karl Disley summarizes:

    • "When John Byrne sent the FF thru the Negative Zone around issue 251, Reed tells Ben the new entrance to the Negative Zone is 'dimensionally transcendental' - now, every Whovian knows what that means!"
    • "The 'sideways' issue - a direct rip-off of the 1973 Dr. Who story Death To The Daleks, a tale in which the Exillons were banished to live in the outside wastes by the perfect computer city their ancestors created."
    • "The Minds of Mantracora - a direct take of the gothic 1976 story The Masque Of Mandragora, at least in using the same gold mask that the alien wore, plus the similarity in the title. The same tale had Reed's consciousness absorbed into the ships computer, again referencing the 1977 The Face of Evil, where the Doctor had implanted part of his consciousness into the Tesh computer. This also has parallels with Death To The Daleks, with the Sevateem being cast out."
    • "Their first adventure in the Zone, with the gigantic spaceship full of aliens who'd never left the ship in generations after generations - this reminded me of the 1982 story Four To Doomsday. This was a tale of a city-wide spaceship that had taken thousands of years to reach Earth, with entire communities [in this unique case, androids] who'd never ventured outside the ship. The aliens in the FF were green just like in the Who tale!" "Daveym adds: I think that's an old and generic Sci-fi idea, it might be coincidental, there are strong elements of [the Dr Whop story] 'Full Circle' to that FF issue as well as perhaps 'Underworld' though. Weighing the odds and looking to Reeds full-on speech about the process of evolution to the Captain near the end of the story I am personally convinced this is a tale inspired by Full Circle though... ironic given the E-Space Trilogy this is set in." [The Tardis enters E-space and has adventures there, just as the Fantastic Four enter the negative zone and has adventures there.]
  • Other Byrne stories also parallel Dr Who. "Daveym" adds "the Alden Maas two parter in #263/64 which recast Professor Stahllman as Maas and borrowed elements of the 1970 story 'Inferno' to directly inspire the plot. #264 is even titled 'Inferno', and emulates the rushing Lava sequences that that Doctor Who story used as its title opener!"
  • There are parallels with other issues as well. As Karl recalls, "way back to early 1964 and The Sensorites, one of the Sensorites [there were four if I recall correctly] was forgotten about when the 'action' transferred from their spaceship to their home planet - just like the forgotten fourth Skrull in issue 2 of FF (two years earlier, in late 1961).
  • FF writer Matt Fraction has made the connection: "The new Fantastic Four series has an exploratory angle not unlike Doctor Who, and similarly to the British sci-fi staple, Fraction aims for a very mass appeal: 'I want something that my kid can read and my dad can read and no one'll be penalized for not having read 60 years of Fantastic Four.'" - USA Today

Dr Who and the Future of the Fantastic Four

Dr Who is very British: it looks forward (it's about time travel) by looking backward to when Britain had power. it's about principles, not force. It's rooted in the 1960s with the police box (once common in British cities), the Doctor tends to wear old fashioned clothes, ad the attitude to exploration and fair play is distinctly Victorian. It harks back to when we had power and idealizes the best principles of the time: decency and modesty and invention.

As the Great American Novel, the Fantastic Four similarly reflects America. With the rise of China and various growing problems (what they are depends on who you ask), many feel that America's best days are behind it. If so then expect a nostalgia for when America won because it was right, not because it was the most powerful. The Fantastic Four is rooted in America's greatest era: Reed and Ben fought in the war, then the team reached the moon and beyond in the 1960s. The FF, if they return to the original formula, are perfectly suited to be America's Dr Who.

FF325: this time the Watcher can't help [to be continued]

The merging storyline (Inferno) ends with FF325, the last issue before Englehart's "John Harkness" issues where Reed and Sue are forced back. The cover to FF325 is a beautiful homage to FF72, from 1968, where the surfer despairs that mankind will ever learn its lessons.

FF325 cover

Both issues are about a time when the FF story should have ended happily: when Reed and Sue put Franklin first. In both issues, only the Watcher had the power to ensure that all is well. But in FF325 the Watcher is not on the cover: a rogue watcher is causing the problems and hiding his actions from our Watcher! This time our Watcher can't save us.

FF326: the illusion begins here

From this point on the series takes on a dream like state. Forget the past 28 years of continuity: suddenly Reed and Sue are back again. Suddenly Ben is back to normal. Suddenly Johnny is OK again. It's as if a child flipped a switch and said "I want it back like it was". As the title says, it's an illusion. Let's look at what happens, and then look at why.

the reboot

America is finally happy
Reed is relaxed and happy. He said he would be OK even if he lost his powers: such a contrast with the 1970s! Johnny and Ben are friends again. Everything is made happy, relaxed and safe, just as a five year old would like. This reflects the new world of the 1990s. The old dangers were gone, people were wealthier than ever, and students were more likely to do their homework than rebel in the streets. Life was good.

Still the same team, but for how long?
Franklin has done something, but this is still the same team: Reed knows that he was "doing his bit for world peace" before other heroes were even born, and Sue knows that they went into space to "beat the commies". This has not yet been retconned.

time passes
Similarly, in the next issue, Ben remembers that the last time he changed for any length of time was the 1970s. We have to see this as one last reminder because this is all about to end.

One of our last looks at the old Reed
This issue goes to pains to make clear that this is the original Reed: he is a genius, but he is still within normal human limits. He is deeply impressed by a chip that can show 4096 colors: as we saw in annual 15 and many times before, Reed is a realistic scientist, and that's why we can relate to him. This drives the Wizard crazy! He knows that he can do some things that Reed cannot, and proves it. Obviously the Wizard is highly biased: Reed does have a first rate brain. But Reed's fans imagine he is well beyond human ability, and there has never been any proof of that.

Reed's tech
Contrast the real Reed with the clone Reed to be discussed later. Clone Reed has far beyond normal human abilities.

The dream begins here
At the start of the next issue - Ben's reaction to this issue - he is the first to notice that it is like a dream.

The very next frame has Reed say to the Wizard "in your dreams". The dream motif is strong.

The titles indicate that the dream story begins here. Her are the titles from 326 to the end, 333

(Most of these are self explanatory, but what does "beware the metal man" have to do with the end of continuity in a false dream state? See the notes to FF331.)

A reminder: how it all happened

Here is a summary of act 5

But how does Franklin do this? The key is the Wizard

How the Wizard finally defeated the Fantastic Four

The Wizard is often handled as a joke character. But look beneath the surface: nothing could be further from the truth. Tragic? Yes. A joke? No: he tells the truth. He really is that smart. He was the first to decisively defeat the FF (in FF38) and here he defeats them permanently, by replacing them with the final incarnation of the Frightful Four: the clones.

the Wizard

The Wizard planned it all. Just look at the timeline:

What are those clone tubes for?

The tubes are clearly designed to keep the FF from escaping: both the Wizard and Aron use them in that way. But why do they need such a huge bank of machinery? In FF 329 the clone Thing later refers to this as a Doomsday device. If, as I suspect, Aron needs to study the team in order to find a way past The time bubble (the Great Reboot), then "doomsday device" is not far off. Then what does the Wizard mean by torturing? He does not torture for its own sake, but in 301 he showed himself to not care if others suffer in the course of his studies. He seems interested in making Reed and Sue scream in unison. Clearly he is studying them, and torturing them is just how he explains it to others.

The final Frightful Four

All the references to the Frightful Four only make sense if the Wizard is planning for them to be replaced by the FF themselves. He states that the FF are the greatest team, and they can escape from almost anything. Titania reminds him of this: yet he does not bother killing them, even though he has shown his willingness to do so (e.g. in 301). Meanwhile his temporary team of Hydroman etc are as useless as ever, yet he treats the FF as no longer a threat. Judging by his previous behaviour, e.g. in one of his first appearances (FF 41) and his most recent appearance (FF 301) he specialises in min control. It seems most likely that he plans to control the FF's minds: only the FF themselves can defeat the FF. Aron's plans to clone the team are not what he wanted, but he can adapt: it has the same result. The FF end up defeating the FF. The final and greatest Frightful Four are the clone team.

Franklin and Aron

Of course,the Wizard is himself being manipulated. Ultimately Franklin controls this reality, and nobody understand the situation better than the Watchers and the Watcher's friends the Dragon Riders. Aron (Ral) is responsible for policing the dimensions, and of course he knows about Franklin's loss of control and the coming great reboot. He desperately needs to understand the situation, hence the need to study the FF's dreams, and particularly a version of the FF that reflects Franklin's fear of change. That explains Aron's need for the clones and their dreams, and his willingness to take drastic steps (to control the world) if it's the only way to fix things. The Wizard's interest in Franklin's dreams makes the wizard the perfect partner: acting like a generic villain allows Aron/Ral to change this reality while appearing to be just another part of it.

FF327: everyone is happy now

happy now
Last issue we were invited to compare Reed's happiness now with when he lost his stretching power in the 1970s: now it would not bother him. Similarly this issue we are invited to compare Ben's happiness with his stress when he lost his powers at that time. Life is great! It' act 5 and all the worries of act 4 are over: it's prizes for all! Reed cannot understand why his ray worked when it failed before (probably a reference to FF110 or FF238). He's not used to good news! But we know the reason the ray worked: Ben's ability to change was always psychological. The fact that he can now change is proof that Ben is finally happy.

The psychology of denial
The interesting question is why Reed felt it was bad to tell Ben the truth about his condition. He could not handle the truth: his pain was too deep. Anyone who has psychological attachment to eating too much can understand: if someone says "just eat less" they are correct but it does not help. Ben could not change on the outside until he changed on the inside.

Parallels with history
Ben's unexpected change is like the fall of the Berlin Wall: ever since the wall went up in 1961 the west thought it would take tremendous violence to bring it down. But in the end it just took a change of heart: then it came down without any violence at all.

We could also compare Reed's magical machine to Ronald Reagan's use of magic: his "voodoo economics" made no sense to a lot of experts (doubling the national debt is worth it?), and his "star wars" system could never work. Yet by the end more people had jobs and the Soviet Union was defeated. Correlation is not causation of course, but it could look like magic.

Why do things happen? That is why fiction exists: to ask these questions: maybe suggest possible answers, but a good novel will ask new questions as well.

We don't understand everything in life, though we sometimes think we do. The team was miserable just one year before. Yet suddenly they are happy. They can't see Franklin's influence. Hence the story title: Why?

This is a unique story in all the history of the title. Everything goes right! The 28 year cold war story is finally ready to end.

FF328: the choice: you have power behind you, do you use it?

The choice facing Aron is the choice facing America in 1989.

Originally the founding fathers were isolationist. America had seen the harm caused by wars elsewhere in the world and wanted no part of it.

John Quincy Adams

“America... goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.” - John Quincy Adams

Even when it felt compelled to fight, America saw itself as the voice of peace. Yet now in 1989 America could no longer argue that it had no choice. The nation had to decide. It was backed by enormous power, just as Aron was backed by Dragon Man. It had to choose whether to use that power in further wars or not. Note that Aron doesn't really need the raw violence of the dragon. But he seems to like it. it makes him feel good. In the same way America has vast soft power, through trade and global media. But it still loves waving a stick.

Elites and common Americans
Note the contrast between the powerful elites and ordinary people. (To emphasize this, Ben meets a banker making multi million dollar deals.) Plenty of ordinary people feel like either they are bing misled, or the truth is not what it seems on the surface. As usual the blind girls is the one who sees most clearly.

Incidentally, note how Ben and Alicia go so well together. The more time he spends with Alicia the less he feels close to Sharon. They were right for each other when both were broken: they healed each other. but Alicia is forever.

It's still fun!
I admit it, this web site is very "Comic Book Guy:" the new comics are the Worst Comics Ever, and everything was better when I was a kid. Well that's true, but it's not the whole story. Some of the new stories are actually very good. FF328 is superb: it's fun, it's clever, we see Ben and Alicia save the day, it has lots of realism (ordinary people, the Empire State Building) and lots of incredible exploits. It's not far from the classic formula and it's a lot of fun! 

FF329: The American Dream,  1 of 4 possible endings: go back to a golden age?

choice 1

The last four issues show four view of the American Dream four ways that the story can end. The first is to turn the clock back. Relive the past. Ironically, we have two versions of this dream: a real one that is fake, and a dream that is real. The real version is an attempt to live in the past, and that just won't work. But in Ben and Sharon's dream they are more realistic: things change and must move on, but they just want simple things, like friends. This is a simple dream and a healthy one.

pretend stories

Real world parallels
This is the end of the Reagan era, and critics say his ideas were a false idea of a golden age. Critics said he tried to turn the clock back by attacking communists and supporting the religious right and illusion based economic policies. But supporters say it worked. Critics reply that it is all an illusion.

A political warning
In the story the Mole Man is ready to be a friend, but the clone team treat him like an enemy and use excessive force. This can be seen as a commentary on naive American militarism: while supporter say it led to Russia backing down, critics say it caused the problem in the first place, by keeping Russia paranoid. (Stalin for example famously wanted "socialism on one country" and was justifiably paranoid because enemies really were out to get him: which does not justify his violence, but indicates that we maybe had other choices. In other cases, critics point to American backed coups in central and south America or Iran and elsewhere: many people in the world feel America is the biggest threat to world peace. The Fantastic Four does not take sides of course, it just tells a story where we can see both sides.

A critique of modern Marvel
Here Englehart - sorry, Harkness (his pen name)- parodies the FF, making them more intense versions of themselves. Notice the almost direct quotes from FF1. Englehart is saying" "you want me to turn the clock back? Fine, I'll turn the clock back." But it only makes sense if the characters abandon realism - real characters simply would not go backwards like that.

The clones were intended as a condemnation of Marvel's short sighted policy. Ironically, "Marvel editorial seemed completely oblivious to this and instead expressed considerable interest in the clones, even to the point of planning to give them their own limited series. Laughable, sure… but the notion the higher ups at Marvel were getting excited over cold and sarcastic leftovers is indeed a sad statement on the condition of the house of ideas circa 1989." (source)

Other points to note:

FF330: the American Dream, 2 of 4: the most likely end to the story.

choice 2

This is the big one. This is Sue's dream: the second of four options. Sue's intuition is usually right, so this is the "real" ending to the 28 year story. Indeed, to a large extent the Fantastic Four is really the story of Sue Storm, and this is how her story ends.

And what an ending! It is nothing less than the end of the world.

the future of

Sue has always been the one to warn of danger. She is the only one who sees the madness in conflict. The boys seem happy with continual conflict, but Sue sees where it must end: sooner or later you find two sides that are equally powerful and neither one will back down. The only possible result is that the destruction escalates, and escalates, until everything is destroyed. Each side grabs the strongest, most testosterone fueled allies they can find, and the biggest weapons they can find, and the loser is everybody.

So the great story ends like Dr Strangelove, or like the original Planet of the Apes movies, with nuclear Armageddon.

And even though the Berlin wall is down, the nuclear bombs still exist. Russian weakness does not led to stability but desperation As long as people hate and see force as the answer then the weapons will eventually be used.

This is the natural end to the cold war. It is what everyone expected from the start. Sue was not able to persuade Reed to put Franklin first. He chose fighting instead.

This is the natural end to the Fantastic Four. It began with having to beat the commies, but what they really had to beat was their own violent tendencies. And they failed.

FF 330 as continuing Englehart's warning
Englehart used his final issues to show where he had planned for the story to go, if he had not been overruled by editors. He could not show it as planned, so turned it into a series of dreams. The story can also be seen as a prophecy of what Marvel will become: Doom's character development
This is Doom's final appearance. For his other nineteen appearances and the peaceful alternative future, see his own page.

Dr Doom

FF331: the American Dream, 3 of 4: the rise of computers

choice 3

The Great American Novel reflects its present. Nobody can know the future, so it offers a choice. The third choice is that computers will take over. This is quite prophetic: every year we rely on computers a little bit more. This ending may be the most disturbing of all. Although it seems like they have defeated Ultron, in fact he is in every home and business in America: they may defeat one, but there are millions of them, and they learn. The battle is already lost. 


But in the real world the computers have no need to destroy us: they just need s to serve them. Reed is happy to spend his life working on computers, and so is Franklin. So they are slaves to computers but they are happy. This is the first time that Reed has connected with Franklin on a deep level. The computers may now rule, but at last the humans are happy. For more about the rise of machines see the notes to FF212.

The Fantasti-tax
The Fantasti-tax is a warning of the future: see the notes to FF 333, on elitism.


It is also a reminder of Zorba's downfall: the last time that Reed felt he had succeeded in FF200, it was tax that undid him. Zorba's tax created anger among the Latverians, and that provided enough support so that Doom's loyalists could take over again.

The clone team's desire to monetize their work is crude, but reflects the real world. The 1980s was an era where people who used to do things for free began to charge a lot more money. This was most obvious in sports: athletes who once received a basic wage found they could become millionaires. Taxing is not the way to do it, but clever elites somehow manage to attract money one way or another.

Englehart has some fun
Yeah, I admit it. I'm an unrepentant Englehart fan. His run is my second favorite after Lee-Kirby (if you don't count those glorious but far too infrequent Perez issues). This is one of my all-time favorite issues. Ultron takes advantage of the computer revolution to put himself in every home (and this is 6 years before Windows 95!), the Ben and Sharon relationship evolves, the world blows up (in the previous issue), Ben shows his stubbornness in a comical moment, and the ending is based on a bit of realism the reader should have spotted but didn't expect. It's just great fun. But more than that, Sharon becomes just as good as the Thing was in his early days, cements her place at the middle of the team, and the ending is superb. There's even a nod to the early FF (Ben did that kind of squashing trick a few times in the early days): Englehart shows how to really be like the early FF, without going backwards. But that's all a dream sequence. Englehart was not allowed to really do those great  stories. 

 a hoax! an
        imaginary story!

That cover line is a classic: "it's a dream! it's a hoax! It's an imaginary story!" It harks back to earlier DC comics where nothing ever changed, so they tried to persuade readers that "no, this story matters, honest."

not a hoax
The Franklinverse is like that. Marvel tries to insist that every story matters, but long time readers can see through it. The only interesting part is Franklin, because he exists across all the dimensions, and to some extent what we see is because of him.

The title, "Beware the Metal Man"

All the titles after the inferno event (i.e. 326 to 333) refer to the end of continuity and a slide into a backward looking inferior dream state. "Beware the Metal Man" It probably refers to an obsession with looking backward to the silver age.It does so in two ways:

  1. Repetition. The mere existence of "Ultron 12" is proof that some stories just use the same concept again and again and again (in this case 12 times at least). This issue parodies this by having not just 12 but millions of copies.
  2. Restrictive power inflation. "Beware the Metal Man" can also probably refers to silver age power inflation, whereby the older a character is more like steel they become: stronger, more shiny, and less human, less relatable. Superman (the "man of steel") is the classic example - he began as only a few times more stronger than a human. Doom is another example: in the classic tales Doom often made very human mistakes and was not as as strong as he pretended, but the Franklinverse takes his shiny image at face value, culminating in shiny Doom of issue 350. Again this is parodied in this issue, where the latest Ultron is actually much weaker than before due to being made from mass produced parts.

I asked Steve Englehart about this theory, and he says he actually took a break from symbolic titles this month. At least, that was his intention. But this web site is not about intentions, it is about what is on the page, even if its cause was accidental. The "silver age" theory enables us to have a nice simple theory that explains every title in this period, so it is the easiest way to think of them.

FF332: the American Dream, 4 of 4: the rise of Asia

choice 4

Johnny's dream is, naturally, about Crystal. As I've mentioned before, the exotic Inhumans, originally from the Himalayas, are Asian. Their martial arts and ancient society based on strong respect for the family just reinforces the fact. So when and Asian becomes part of the FF it can be seen as representing Chinese, Japanese, etc., becoming part of America. This was a major trend by the end of the cold war: Asia was not conquering America through war but through friendship: through trade. Reed welcomes Crystal: she brings talents that the team needs. But Sue sees Crystal as likely to replace Alicia: literally taking her job.


This is not racism but a simple fact: the Inhumans are very powerful: two of them have already replaced parts of the Fantastic Four at times. They could easily become a permanent part and change the character of the team forever, just as east Asian economies become a large part of the American economy. Some see this as a bad thing, most economists see it as a good thing (because we only trade if it helps us), But either way, it is the future: there cannot be another cold war if our potential enemies are part of us.

Three love triangles
Why is Sue so worried about Johnny's marriage? Because she knows how hard a love triangle can be.  Sue, Ben and Johnny each have a friend with whom they have shared passion, who has helped them through their darkest times, yet they should not marry. But once married that makes things so much harder.

Johnny's family

sister or mother
This frame is interesting. Does it mean cousin Bones is dead? It also seems to imply that Johnny still doesn't know Sue's secret (see notes to FF291). Now that they are roughly the same age (ever since FF 214) maybe she felt it was better to never say.

Franklin explains the Franklinverse
This issue finally begins to introduce the Franklinverse: the fact that Franklin has been controlling everything. At first we just see how he controlled the FF, but in later years we will see that his influence can be far greater. Mostly Franklin's control is unconscious, but in FF322 is where Franklin begins to feel guilty and talk about interfering.

Franklin made
        Johnny and Alicia fall in love

Note that he did not actually control Alicia's or Johnny's mind. He only used his powers to give Frankie (Johnny's old girlfriend) and Ben what they already wanted. This led to a romantic vacuum where Alicia and Johnny were an obvious match, and Franklin would have simply pointed that out. For details see the discussion by FF269 (especially regarding Franklin) and FF270.

Other points to note

FF333: the once and future team

This is the last issue of the Great American Novel. The story has been told, and it has reached a dramatic ending. Where now?

The future will be decided by our children. And the whole 28 year story is embodied by a child, Franklin (and whether Reed would put him first). So let's look at Franklin's point of view.

As FF301 reminded us, Franklin's power is usually unconscious: it happens when he is asleep. He feels safe when he is asleep. He likes sleep. In bed he is safe, but he worries about his family. He wants his family to be safe. Yet always his family are in danger! Well in FF329 Aron found the prefect solution. The family should sleep as well. Then they can have adventures in their dreams, or maybe with a fake copy in real life. The copy can just do safe, familiar things, and if something goes wrong you can make another copy. Because the real people are safely asleep and cannot get into danger.
The greatest stories of all frequently end in sleep, or taking the hero away to some safe place, with the promise that they will come back one day when they are most needed. the best example of course is in Christianity: Jesus is here in a spirit sense, or works through other people, but his glory is somewhere far away. But one day he will come back in glory. In other stories the hero is physically here, but asleep, and again the implication is that one day he can come back. Perhaps the most famous example is King Arthur (a character with sometimes appears in Marvel comics).Edward Burne-Jones, The last sleep of Arthur
(Above: "The last sleep of Arthur" by Edward Burne-Jones; below: "The Once and Future King" by T. H. White)
Once and Future King

Another example is Ogier the Dane

Ogier the Dane

...or in the Fantastic Four, Prester John


So the FF at the end of act 5 are part of a long tradition of great heroes.


In this issue they do awake, but where do they go? Aron has the power to do what he wants: does he freeze them again? Send them far away? Or do they return? Let's see.

At the end, Aron says he will freeze the clones and watch their dreams instead.

who won?

We then see a team who believe they are the original. Is this really the original, or is this the new team, dreaming?

Following the clones

This last issue is about the difference between the real team, which changes, and the clone team, which tries to stay the same. Steve Englehart wrote this issue as a clear and deliberate warning of what was happening at Marvel: we were beginning to follow clones, not the original team. Let's see if he was right.

The original Fantastic Four ends here
The last page of Englehart's last issue (FF333) says it straight. The next issue will be a new beginning. Let us be very clear: the previous Fantastic Four was over. A new Fantastic Four was beginning.

new start

The phrase "a new beginning" was used only one other time: at the very end of Stan Lee's run, in a small note on the last panel of FF 125. That was a historic moment, the end of the original era, yet only warranted a small part of one small panel. The end of Englehart's run warranted an entire page, and multiple stories about the end of continuity. The end of Englehart's run was a far bigger deal than the end of Stan Lee's.

"A new beginning": the clone team mantra
The clone team was all about a new beginning. About going back to the start, to what is familiar. How could they make it any clearer? Marvel cannot say these are the clones, because they would lose readers. So they say "these are the original Fantastic Four" - who just happen to be just like the clones. and different from the team you saw until FF 333. "Move along. Nothing to see here."

Other Marvel characters were also replaced
This was the year 1991 when many of Marvel's biggest characters were replaced: this was the "end of the Marvel Universe" that Jim Shooter famously mentioned to Doug Moench. For more details see the page on the Marvel Universe.).

Spider-Man was replaced by a clone as well. Iron Man was replaced by a nineteen year old. Wolverine, who had spent years learning restraint and honor, became a bone-clawed feral version. Walt Simonson who would take over the FF, had just shown Thor replaced by Beta Ray Bill. Everyone was changing or being replaced, and only in years later was it decided wether or not to retcon whether the clones were "real" or not. E.g. the clone Spider-Man was so unpopular that it was decided to be the real Spider-Man all along... or something. Nobody could keep it straight any more.

A different team
From now on, we follow a different team. Officially they were the same, but this web site is about what the comics actually show, not what was intended. The comics show a completely different team, no matter how much we might deny it. In truth, even the fans admit it: ask any hard core fan and they will accept that the past is new routinely changed due to the sliding time scale. You say the past has changed, I say the characters have changed. We use different words but we describe the same thing. A person with a different past is a different person.

The team still sees itself as real
Of course, the team itself saw itself as real. Ironically it sees itself as more real because it tries to be more like the past. Many fans want this: they do not want their characters to change. Englehart's final issue was all about that question: which is the real team, the one that changes or the one that stays the same? (The clone team was more powerful, and was only defeated when the Wizard turned against them. This was the Wizard's final redemption, as we'll look at later.)

the clones

The debate continues today
Issue 333 crystalizes the debate that continues today: which is the real team? The one that does not change, or the one that changes? Jack Kirby was very clear on that matter: every artist and writer must follow their own vision, and not try to copy somebody else. It is impossible to do something "in the style of Jack Kirby" because the style fo Jack Kirby is to do something completely new. Even by the end of his run, Kirby was changing the FF. They were often seen in civilian clothes, Reed and Sue wanted to leave to take care of Franklin, Crystal was a central part of the team, and Johnny was grown up. This web site stands firmly with Jack Kirby's vision: a team that grows and develops. But most modern comic fans actually prefer the unchanging team, because most fans who want change stopped buying superhero comics a long time ago.

The clone team became true heroes
The clones were clumsy at first, and so they were defeated. But they shared the original team's bodies and minds: they would have learned from their mistakes and become true heroes. Remember that we are now following not the clone team but the clone team's dreams: these dreams will naturally make the clones look good. And in their dreams, the clone team are convinced that they are the originals.

The clone team is real
It is probably not fair to call the clones fakes. What if you were a clone, how would you feel? You would be real! In the real world, identical twins are clones: they share the same DNA. But they are both real. So there is nothing wrong with enjoying the new Fantastic Four stories: they are real as well, even though they are the dreams of clones.

We should not worry about a clone being "less real". Scientifically, a clone is just somebody with the same DNA, but their thoughts and experiences are unique. We all share DNA with our parents, so that is no big deal. And as for being a "copy", isn't the Human Torch a "copy" of the original Human Torch? Wasn't the Invisible Girl a "copy" of the idea of H. G. Wells' Invisible Man? And The Thing was only one of many "Things" on sale the same month as Fantastic Four 1 came out, and Mr Fantastic was like Plastic Man, and so on. We are all copies, so that should not bother or offend us. As soon as a copy is made it begins to experience a different life and becomes its own original.

Clone dreams and the Franklinverse
"Aron" said he would be following the clone team's dreams. But as we know from "Tales of the Watcher" and the Watcher's "What If", all possible realities exist out there somewhere. So a dream is just a parallel reality: to that reality they are the real people and we are the alternate or dream world. Franklin relies on this fact: almost anything he can imagine can become real because he moves between dimensions. We just saw this in issue 332: the real team's "dream" was the genuine stories that writer Steve Englehart had intended. They were the real story, but in our reality we had to see them just as dreams. For more details of how Franklin's power works, see his own page, and the discussion near the end of the last page of this site.

On the next pages we will discuss the Franklinverse in more detail, but don't get hung up on the difference between dream and reality, clones and original teams. They are all merely expressions of Jack Kirby's original purpose for the team: what might happen?

Objections to the Clone Team theory

The clone team are bad? E.g. attacking the Mole Man
In FF 1 the team do not try to reason with the Mole Man, they just assume he must be evil: so the clone team are just like the original team.

They are all murderers?
In FF 329 Sharon says: if Alicia understands what's happened here "we'll have to kill her". Ben says he'll do it himself. Aron, when in Limbo, said he would destroy the FF. So are they all murderers? Not if this is a dream. Later in the issue Reed says "only power greater than ours can waken us". This is one of numerous references to being in a dream, or a dream-like state. In FF 291 we learned that death in any dream-like state just means waking up. Sharon is smart: she realises there is something dream like, but also that it is important to go along with it. So if Alicia causes problems she will have to be killed in the dream in order to wake her up in the real world. We have plenty of proof in later years that "death" in the Franklinverse means nothing. If a character dies they just come back a few months later.

The fantasti-tax
The tax shows them to be just like the original team, but lacking experience. The original team stood out because it was more realistic. Since the people of New York want to be saved, and that incurs serious costs, it is reasonable to ask for payment. Of course it is also a colossally bad idea because it breeds corruption, but the clone team lacks experience so they do not realise. But they soon learn their lesson when they are defeated by the more experienced team: they won't try a tax again!

The clone team fight the real team
Each team believes it is the real one, so the clone team is being no worse than the "real" team. Their rough manner can just be put down to arrogance - at this point they think they are unbeatable. They just need a good defeat to learn humility.

Ben acts especially angry and cold
Ben is angry, like he was in FF 1 through 7. But here he is more angry because Reed has changed him into his rocky form for no good reason (as explained at the start of FF329). So why doesn't he say something? Because this Reed is so powerful that there is nothing Ben can do. Anybody who can change your body in seconds is not somebody you want to mess with. All Ben can do is be passive aggressive. You would be too! But in 333 Reed changes Ben back to human form and this calms him down.

At the end of FF 333 Ben is in his ordinary human form.
This is easily explained by referring to the start of FF 329. Clone Reed is so clever he can very quickly and effortlessly change Ben's form, by using rays from the tube machine. There are plenty of rays around just before Ben changes back.

Ben changes
And note that Ben still talks in a rough way, just like the clone Thing. They then have several weeks (spent studying politics) before their next months; adventure in FF 334, so Ben has time to calm down. But in that issue he admits to routinely putting on an act.

If Reed can change Ben easily, why doesn't he do it again?
The clone team were reliving the very earliest adventures. In those, Be n could easily change due to radiation (e.g. when returning in the Skrull craft in FF 2, or on the beach in FF 9). That period of easy changing soon passed.

Why doesn't Ben say something more?
Ben states in FF334 that he says what he does in a calculated way to get the desired result from Reed. Ben is not speaking his mind.

"But it sure looks like the real team"
On the last page of 334 the team admit that people will think they are the clone team. This is a big problem. If they are the clone team (as all the other evidence suggests) then they would go to extraordinary lengths to pretend the opposite, at least in the first few days. Ben is the biggest difference: the clone Ben was rocky and angry, but could easily change without much explanation (see FF329). This Ben has changed and makes sure he spends time in public places (a movie theater, shopping, walking down the street). In a few issues (FF354) he will change one more, again without any real explanation. His "bah" stage is behind him though, just as the original Ben mellowed after the first few issues.

The Fantasti-tax leads to superhero registration
This web site is about the Fantastic Four as a self contained novel. Everything you need is here. Other comics often expand on points that are introduced here (e.g. Reed's sense of guilt is expanded in X-Men versus Fantastic Four), but other comics are treated as more likely to be "made up", in contrast to the FF that is more "real" (see the page on realism).  While other comics treat the act as due to fear over mutants, the only time we see the act in the FF it is about them: in FF 335 when they arrive in Washington the reporters specifically ask about their own rampages, which of course they say it was the clones, not us". Whatever the other comics say, the FF indicates that the FF are the problem. Hence they are the first (and only?) team to face the government.

But they don't act like the clones did!
The clone team share the real team's DNA and memories. They were just young an d inexperienced at first. They soon matured into a comic title worth reading:


The clone team is about power

The clones are more powerful
The first thing we learned about the clones was their greater power. This is the topic of the first three issues (334-336): villains that were major threats to other super powered heroes are no threat at all to this new more powerful team.


The clone team also talks in an awkward way, as in the above frames from 334. Note that FF334 begin with the team studying the politics for "weeks". They are no longer quite so new and inexperienced and have learned the lesson of the Fantastic-tax.

FF 337: Confidence returns
The defining feature of the clone team (besides never moving forwards) was Reed's ability to do anything, with almost no preparation. We see this at its greatest in FF 337. It took the original Reed years to create a Radical Cube, and we saw in FF 319 that advanced alien races are not able to improve on it. But clone Reed, in this dream-like world, can create a "radical dodecahedron" in no time! It's beyond anything even Tony Stark could imagine.

new Reed

Contrast Clone Reed's "I can do anything" with the very modest abilities of the original Reed in FF 326, where he is genuinely impressed by a computer that can display 65k colors.

FF343: more proof
After 342, a fill-in issue, the next arc begins with another reminder that this is the clone team: clone Reed has not yet created a washing machine or robot housekeeper, but the original Reed did that years ago. This example and more, see the page on differences. FF 343 continues by showing that the clone team is still stuck in the cold war. I could keep on giving more and more examples of differences between the original and the clones, but in general, the biggest differences are (1) the refusal to move forward, and (2) a focus on power. Let's look at the subject of power next

Power versus democracy
The original team was interested in democracy. The clone team was most interested in power. Their defeat in 333 left them very unpopular with the government, due to the Fantasti-tax. to them feeling vulnerable. So when registration was suggested in FF334 they of course opposed it. But soon the Fantasti-tax was forgotten (they persuaded everybody that they were not the clones). So when registration was suggested again in the 2000s, this time Reed supported it.

This obsession with power reflects the national zeitgeist.

The old zeitgeist: democracy
In the cold war and before, America was not the only super power, It was under real threat, and differentiated itself by its appeal to democracy: the power of the ordinary person, against those who would try to rule them. See the notes to FF2, or the large number of would-be monarchs in the early days (Doom, Molecule man, Namor, Super Skrull, and many others)


The new zeitgeist: power
From 1989, with the end of the Cold War, America no longer had any serious challengers: its defining feature now was the world's only superpower. This new confidence was reflected in more stories about characters with raw power, and fewer stories about characters as underdogs. In the past Marvel advertised excitement, now it advertised power, as in this ad from the 1980s: this ad was the back cover of the second Superman-Spider-Man team up, so was designed for the widest possible audience.

The obsession with power reached its peak with Image Comics in the early 1990s. The look (giant guns, harsh faces) was parodied on the cover of FF343 from 1990:


Please remember that the clone team shares the minds of the original team: they are not evil. But they make sure they accumulate lots and lots of wealth

Superheroes as ruling elite
Open any early FF comic and contrast it with any FF comic from the past five years: the first thing that jumps out is the wealth. The modern team lives in its penthouse, with gigantic slick machines, (unlike the machines of the 1960s that looked home made), and all the trappings of extreme wealth; multiple vehicles, multiple costumes, friends in high places, etc. In the latest arc for example (the current issue is number 3 in the 2014 reboot) the Baxter Building looks decades ahead of anything a mortal could afford, Sue Storm rules her own nation and runs a school where they take field trips that would cost millions, Johnny can just walk into a celebrity job, Reed can talk to the head of Shield any time he wants, and Ben (since a previous story arc) is a billionaire. A far cry from issue 9, or even he 220s, where they had to walk or take the subway in order to save money. The modern wealth is exactly what we would expect from the clone team with their fantasti-tax. But modern corporations do not need taxes: they use modern patent laws instead. The modern team clearly clone clearly squeeze their patents for every penny they can. Colin Smith, in his final entries to his blog "Too Busy Thinking about My Comics"  discusses this change at length:

"Marvel Comics [in the past] always seemed to me to be concerned with stories of folks who found it impossible, by chance or design or a mixture of the two, to either rule or serve the powerful of this world and those beyond it. Even Prince Thor was continually being banished from Asgard for the crime of trying to think for himself and act according to his conscience. But now Marvel Comics seem to be about a power elite, who for all their noble sacrifices and willingness to serve, are beginning to constitute a class utterly separate from the typical woman and man of the MU. It's not just that these costume-wearing folks share their life in the company of others like them, but that they're now assuming positions of authority within the state too."  (source)

"By contrast with today’s version of the team, and their allies in the world army that’s the 21st century's Avengers, the FF were revolutionary in effect if not intent. Whereas the top ranks of today’s super-people in the Marvel Universe clearly constitute a ruling class – as we’ve discussed before – the Fantastic Four expressed the confusions and frustrations of far less powerful social groups. If Hickman’s FF and Bendis’ Avengers have often been profoundly conservative in the values they express, then Kirby and Lee’s opening blast on the Fantastic Four was anything but. That the meaning of surface and sub-text were so often in direct opposition to each other in that first year was essential to the comic’s vitality and importance." (source

The elite and inequality in modern America
This reflects trends in American history. For the generation after the War, inequality reduced: while the rich got richer, the poor got richer even faster. But by the end of the cold war this process reversed. Much has been written about the increasing inequality in America, where the top one percent control far more resources than the other 99 percent combined. It is very clear on what side the heroes fall.

This was all predicted and mocked by Englehart in his final issues. The cloned team, forever repeating old stories, ensured their elite status by charging a "fantasti-tax". This reflects the real world where, although only governments directly tax  the ordinary people, anybody with power can influence government through lobbying. Inequality is the defining theme of our age.

Comics as escapism
Writers can of course argue that this is all escapism: of course kids fantasize about being rich, and want to read about that. But in the past they fantasized about being poor yet able to beat the bully. That is a real and profound change in American culture.

About my politics

I should probably explain that I am not arguing for socialism here. My own views are based on property: I believe that people own what they create. Most of the wealth around us (in the form of safety, roads, etc.) is created by society as a whole, so belongs to society as a whole: I do not believe in redistribution, simply in measuring what each person or group actually does. See my site for details. I find superheroes fascinating in this light. If they were really as effective as the modern comics claim then obviously they would be the ruling class. But the power of the early comics was in showing that their powers were limited and came at a great cost, mainly that they were always misunderstood because they were different. For this reason I find the early comics inspiring and mind expanding and the later ones both unrealistic and depressing. But that's just me. Others disagree.

Other points to note

stories must move

In his final two frames, Englehart (as John Harkness) admits that the situation is completely broken and it would take a better man than him to fix it.
Englehart's last frame

Wizard and FF 51

Next: the Franklinverse

The Great American Novel