Fantastic Four #263-264 – Reviews Of Old Comics
It’s a TWO-FER!
For my first Review of Old Comics for the year, I’m going with two comics my wife gave me this last Christmas. To be honest, I got the comics about a month ago in a special sale at Heroes Aren’t To Find, a shop that we’ve talked about here before. She forbade me from even ripping the tape on the bag and board, and instead wrapped them up and put them under the tree. I read them today, and was reminded of the time John Byrne used a Marvel comic to parody another creator for a wacky set of beliefs. More on that later.
Writer/Artist: John Byrne
Colorist: Glynis Wein
Letterer: Jim Novak
Cover Artist: John Byrne
Fantastic Four #264
Writer/Artist: John Byrne
Colorist: Julianna Ferriter
Letterer: Michael Higgins
Cover Artist: John Byrne
In Connecticut, Reed and Sue Richards are making quiet lives for their growing family, using secret identities as the Benjamins. Instead of going to a normal job, Reed uses his elastic power to change his appearance and goes to a storage locker where he retrieves an old Fantasticar to go to the Baxter Building. Once there, he checks in on the Vision at Avengers Mansion. While his body is still lying inert, his consciousness is integrated into the Avengers’ computers, allowing him to communicate again. After finishing with the Vision, one of Reed’s scientific alarms signal.
In California, Johnny and Ben are visiting a theme park that has invited Johnny to take part in an Indy Car race. All of the racers are anonymous, which seems strange, but Johnny just writes it off as building suspense. He sends Ben off to watch the race, as to not blow his cover. Johnny is then surprised by an old girlfriend, Julie D’Angelo, working the race as a bikini model for a motor oil company. Giving him a kiss for luck frustrates Johnny, claiming that he just got over Julie.
When the race starts, Johnny takes and keeps the lead for three laps until he goes through a tunnel, emerging out of control, wrecking in a ball of fire. The Thing runs in to rescue his friend but all that is taken from the wreckage is a body too burnt to be identified. He confers with Julie and is still finding it fishy that the Human Torch could die in a fireball when he’s survived hotter fires than that. Julie tells him that the park’s owner, Alden Maas is a recluse on his artificial, star-shaped island just off the coast and he might be able to find answers there. Ben flies to an island that’s vaguely shaped like a star, greeted by Maas’s servants, who take him to the vast, imposing building on the island.
There, he’s told by a hologram that Maas discovered that the continents didn’t drift across the surface of the planet, but that the Earth itself expanded from the heat of the core. Unfortunately, the core has cooled, slowing the expansion, leading to overcrowding and overpopulation. Maas’s Worldcore Project seeks to rekindle the core and it’s revealed that the method they will do it by is the Human Torch’s nova flame, the hottest he can burn for short periods of time. Maas himself appears to warn the Thing about interfering in the Worldcore Project, but instead he charges through a window to rescue the Torch, only to find it to be another hologram hiding the massive borehole to the core. The Thing falls, finally crashing to a stop down a side tunnel at the feet of an old foe of the Fantastic Four, the Mole Man.
The Mole Man tells a captive Thing about how his underground utopia for the deformed and forgotten people from the surface was destroyed when Alden Maas’s Worldcore project flooded it with magma, destroying any hope the Mole Man had for tranquility. He blames the entire surface world, but Ben Grimm convinces him that one man is to blame, not the entire human civilization.
In Manhattan, Reed Richards is analyzing the strange readings his systems picked up in Central Park. He finds nothing, but finds that much more ominous. Meanwhile, Sue Richards is suffering great pain from her pregnancy just as Franklin’s babysitter is arriving. The pain subsides and she joins her son and the babysitter downstairs.
Back at the Worldcore project Johnny pleads with one of Maas’s flunkies that constantly triggering his nova flame will kill him. She promises him that Maas has calculated how much time is needed between blasts to keep him alive, and goes to trigger another blast. Before she can, she’s dragged through the floor by the Mole Man’s Subterraneans. The Thing emerges with the Mole Man and after taking Johnny down from the machine they are attacked by robotic mascots for Alden Maas’s theme park. After making short work of the robotic defenders that make their way to the nerve center to confront Maas.
In the nerve center, Maas observes the Torch’s rescue and readies his Plan B, the detonation of massive thermonuclear device. Being very weak, one of Maas’s aides has to help him to the button.
The heroes come to a massive door, too heavy and thick for the Thing to break down. The Mole Man breaks out a whistle that summons a behemoth that the Fantastic Four faced in their first confrontation with the Mole Man. The follow the beast’s path of destruction to the nerve center, where they find that Maas has died, and his corpse quickly advanced to its natural state of decay. An aide tells them that despite Maas’s theories and calculations, the nuclear bomb would not have been sufficient to reach the core. When questioned why the aides assisted Maas if they knew he was wrong, they reveal that they only did as they were programmed to, with every one of them being robots.
The robots carry Maas’s body into the ocean where eventually they will all be crushed by ocean pressure. The Mole Man leaves the Thing and Human Torch, swearing that the next time they meet, he will consider them enemies, since he blames not just Maas, but all the surface world for the destruction of his Utopia. As they fly away from the island the two realize that Maas dumped all of the earth his borer excavated off the shore of his island, marring the star-shaped aesthetic of the island.
Let’s address the elephant in the room. In this story, John Byrne created a parody of Neal Adams’ support of the expanding earth theory. Adams has created videos to explain this theory, with one embedded below. Brian Cronin of Comic Book Resources has stated that the parody was not meant as an intentional criticism or ridicule, but when the similarity in the story and Neal Adams’s own support of the theory, he went all in, even making the antagonist’s name an anagram of Neal Adams. The theory is horribly flawed, and violates several laws of physics, including the massive creation of matter out of practically nothing.
The story is straight-forward and an example of classic comic book storytelling. The plan to fake the Human Torch’s death in a flaming race car crash isn’t that far-fetched, as the cause of death could be the crash itself instead of the inferno caused by burning race fuel. The way it’s written, everyone seems to be assuming that it’s the fire that “killed Johnny Storm, but simple wording changes could have made this more believable and the Thing’s mission to find the Torch more of a quixotic mission, driving by the close relationship he has to his friend. Julie Angel’s appearance basically serves to give the heroes someone to talk to, but she’s discounted as quickly as she appears.
The villain in Alden Maas shouldn’t prove as big as threat as he does, but it’s early in a period in comics where the villains became businessmen. This trend would eventually reach its zenith with the transformation of Lex Luthor from mad scientist to billionaire, coincidentally also by John Byrne. The Mole Man’s role as a reluctant ally is refreshing, and it’s nice that Byrne has the Torch and Thing ponder this, eventually taking it for granted that the Mole Man is a new ally of theirs.
The artwork is John Byrne at the beginning of his strongest and most prolonged consistent streak. His choices for each panel are a textbook example of how to tell a story visually. This frees him to use word and thought balloons to enhance the story rather than use them to tell the story. It’s a method that John Byrne mastered over the years, and is the basis for modern cinematic story-telling. There are many who criticize John Byrne’s use of of empty backgrounds in panels, and it’s in best display during the page where Johnny Storm and Julie Angel have their reunion. His technology, while detailed, has lots of apparent nonsense in the design, but these are all aesthetic choices, and they are consistent, and never violate the suspension of disbelief or reality where it applies.
These issues have been collected in Fantastic Four by John Byrne Omnibus Volume 2 and Fantastic Four Visionaries – John Byrne, Vol. 4. As with most back issues, they are available online for a relatively modest fee. If you want a physical copy, you shouldn’t need to pay too much, and can probably find one in a bargain box.
FINAL RATING: 8.0 (out of a possible 10) This is the midst of a renaissance for the Fantastic Four. The first hundred issues by Lee and Kirby were followed by a period of varying quality and it wasn’t until Byrne’s takeover of the book that it seemed to have the popularity and story quality of that first period. These issues are in the middle of that massive run and never at any point seem like filler. I do recommend them for any collector of generally good comics, and if you want a good, comprehensive collection of quality comics, you could do far worse than John Byrne’s run on Fantastic Four.