Fantastic Early 80’s

January 21, 2005

Fantastic Four: Visionaries: John Byrne Vol. 1 TPB
Writer and artist: John Byrne

By Avi Green

It was late 1981, and John Byrne, at the time he was really good at writing (and drawing), made the FF an enjoyable read again. I think he got the job mostly due to the fact that he wrote some of the Thing’s team-up adventures in the latter years of Marvel Two-In-One, another team-up title put out by Marvel as well as Spider-Man’s own Marvel Team-Up. And when it came around, it was considered one of the best runs of its time, from 1981-86.

This volume of Marvel’s Visionaries series of trades compiles about 9 issues of the time, #232-240, and they’re all very enjoyable, though one oddity is how the use of the British pronunciation for the word “while”, that being “whilst” does tend to get used at times. (Byrne was an immigrant from Britain who lived in Canada for most of his later life, which could explain why that was done.)

The issues compiled here include one in which the Spanish alchemist Diablo, one of their notable nemeses, attempts to use creatures based on natural elements (fire, earth, water and air) to attack the FF at a time when they’re trying to enjoy themselves around town, interrupting some good times, of course. Reed’s cerebral mind is what helps piece together the clues surrounding the puzzle here, and this helps to stop the menaces (though I will have to say that the earth-and-mud creature summoned up by Diablo was probably the easiest to deal with, if the one dealing with happens to be Sue Storm). Then, there’s one in which the Human Torch goes on a solo investigation to clear the name of a one-time troublemaker he’d known in school, who became a small time thief later in life, and was executed for a murder he didn’t commit. While it turns out that it had no direct connection, the mystery nevertheless leads over to the villainous Hammerhead back in NYC, who’s using an exo-suit to pack some extra punch in combat. Not to worry, Torch figures out how to stop him without killing him, though Hammerhead still manages to get away, but not his other organized crime colleagues.

This too is a pretty good story, and what’s revealed at the end is what’s really surprising here.

The next two issues involve a middle-aged accountant who’s got some kind of psychokinetic power that enables him to manipulate reality in a way that can help him out if he’s got a problem, and apparently got it by ways of having been a guinea pig in an army-based experiment in the 1950’s when he was in the service. As powerful as it is, he seems rather oblivious to it. He’s instrumental in helping out when NYC, where he’s going on a business trip for his boss, is struck by an earthquake caused by the foe to be seen next issue. Until then, our “Man with the Power!” reverses a lot of what happened, so that only the FF will know what went on when they come back from space, where they’re headed to find out what caused all the trouble, and then, the accountant’s power wears off, which is probably a good thing for his sake. But the FF, they’ve got to face something really serious, that being Ego, the Living Planet! And wow, what an adventure it is alright! As the Four all hop around on the “planet’s” surface to find out how they can put a stop to its attempt to wreck havoc upon the earth. It’s a simple story, which is what makes it enjoyable.

But then wait’ll you get to the next story, an anniversary issue that features the FF at the mercy of Doctor Doom, who’s reduced them, quite literally, to tiny figures within a small model town, using the assistance of the Puppet Master, who foolishly made a deal with the devil, all because he wanted for his stepdaughter Alicia and Ben to be happy together, to lure the Fantastic Four, Franklin and Alicia included, into Doom’s grasp. The Foursome then have to use some considerable wits to emerge from that particular trap.

Philip Masters, alias the Puppet Master, is a character who was meant as a kind of tragi-comic figure, in that, while he has been a crook often, he does have his redeeming qualities as well, and is usually meant to be seen as someone whose intentions are at times better than how they’re executed. And that’s what makes him work well as a character in the MCU – that he’s far from the most menacing foe one could face, but being an authentic menace isn’t what makes him work as a character, rather, it’s his personality that does.

This was also the time when Ben found out that Alicia had realized for some time already what he'd become years earlier, and assured him that it did not change what she thought of him one bit. It's a very touching scene, and helped greatly in developing and expanding the characters even more over the following years.

The next story is one in which Reed and Sue find themselves investigating a tall alien woman who’s being used as a backup for a handful of thieves in robbing jewelry stores around Manhattan, and Reed guesses that she may indeed have been used as a tool. It’s got one of the funniest closing lines you’ll read.

But what’s really interesting here following that part is the story with Frankie Raye, Johnny’s current ladyfriend, a stunning redheaded college student who turns out to have something very strange going on about her. Most puzzlingly enough for her, a bikini-like costume has formed upon her whenever she takes off her clothes, and becomes absorbed into her skin again when she puts on her robe again, in example.

But upon Johnny’s encouragement to keep trying hard enough to recall her earlier life, which she finds she’s got trouble in doing, that’s when the pleasant surprise comes to fore: she’s got powers similar to Johnny’s, which she acquired during an accident while helping her stepfather, apparently Prof. Phineas Horton, the inventor of the original android Human Torch, whose own given name was John Hammond, to lug some chemical canisters to his car when she was 14, just a couple of months after Johnny himself became the contemporary Human Torch. He’d initially been furious when he read all about Johnny’s becoming the new Torch, apparently thinking it an act of muscling in on the name of his own creation, and probably wanted to try and build a new robot with which to challenge that in a duel. It didn’t turn out as he’d hoped, what with Frankie’s accident while lugging the canister over the damaged floorboards of the warehouse where a lot of Horton’s own tools had been stored after the WW2 and the 50’s era, but it had given her some kind of a gift. He then took to doing his best to make up for the accidents caused by his own overreaction to the news, by trying to hypnotise her into forgetting everything that happened that night, and then creating a special costume for her that could be formed via mental effects. In his embarrassment over the accident, he had then decided it best to split and just send Frankie some welfare checks until she’d come of age for college time. That’s when she met Johnny, and her initially reluctant, but subsequent attraction to him, was what weakened the mental blocks her stepdad put upon her, and so, she found out what an amazing gift she had acquired.

It was certainly a pleasant surprise indeed, and also done at a time when Byrne knew how to draw women very good, much better than he does today. And just wait’ll you see that “in-joke” spoken by Reed when Johnny takes Frankie to the FF’s HQ to check her powers to see their potential!

Things do not work out as well for Ben, as Reed by contrast botches the attempt at restoring the Thing to human form, and instead causes him to revert to an earlier form he had when he first became the orange stone titan he’d become in 1961. It doesn’t change his level of strength, but still, Ben is by no means pleased that Reed is trying out what by now, he’s come to consider a lost cause, even though of course, there have been, and are likely to be for many more times to come, times when he has or will revert to his human form again. That’s probably what’s ultimately helped to make him more patient as time goes by.

They are then paid a visit by Ben’s aunt Petunia, who turns out to be younger than what he might’ve implied before (she’s in her late 40’s, to say the least, but still looks pretty young), who requests of them to come to a small town in Arizona, where she and uncle Jake Grimm, who’d made a serious effort to rise out of the poverty he too had grown up in, when the Grimm family tree had first started out in NYC, and reached a successful career as a scientist and a physicist, have been working, and discovered an ancient Indian burial ground. There, they find out that the problem is that people are being literally scared to death by an unknown supernatural force that’s been dwelling in the area, and it probably has what to do with that the graves of the dead have been disturbed. They also find themselves having to deal later on with a little girl who’s living with an abusive drunkard of a father, but the good news for her is that, the supernatural forces in this area are on her side!

It turns out in the end that this simply isn’t something that the FF can succeed in solving, which is why townsfolk then decide to pack their bags and split, but some others stay, and the problems with the abusive father are happily solved. The little girl then goes to her secret hiding place within the ruins to meet the supernatural beings and thank them for the help they too provided.

The last story here is where Quicksilver, then living in Attilan and married to an Inhuman, that being princess Crystal, sister of queen Medusa, arrives at the Baxter Building HQ to request that the FF come to the aid of Attilan’s Inhuman residents, who are suffering from a dreadful virus that could end up wrecking much of the population if something isn’t done as soon as possible, and also affecting Crystal’s pregnancy with what is to be both hers and Quicksilver’s first child. This leads to – guess what – moving the island of Attilan – quite literally – into space! In an awesome and wow-inducing sequence, the island, with the help of king Black Bolt’s incredible sonic scream, which beyond that is his only real ability at vocal sound, is by far the most tremendous sound effect you’ll ever see. It helps to separate the island from the land its attached to, and then, off they go, to the moon! Giving Uatu the Watcher, an alien scientist who finds observing life on earth and superhero adventures quite facinating, some new neighbors for a time. And this happily helps in restoring the Inhumans to full health again, and enables Crystal to have her child at ease. But what’s really amazing here is what the newborn’s status will be!

What’s interesting about Quicksilver/Pietro Maximoff is how, while he always fought to save humanity from the forces of evil working inside and out to destroy it, he often tended at the time to frown upon it as well, and didn’t mind telling people like Human Torch what he thought of them as “humans”, as he tends to address Johnny here. That was what worked fairly well for him as a character then, in that, while he did not share the same kind of biases his father Magneto did against normal humans, he still tended to have some flaws of his own, in that he could look down his nose at other humans, and make it clear what he thought of them for their own prejudices. And the Inhumans, who first made their debut in the Fantastic Four in the mid-60’s, are also one of Stan Lee and Marvel’s most facinating creations, including how Medusa tends to wear a mask even back in Attilan, probably due to the fact that she can be an adventuress and crimefighter during the same time too!

Overall, this was a very entertaining collection of some of John Byrne’s best work when he was doing really good stuff, before descending to the kind of ret-con hack-work he began doing in the mid-1990’s. It perfectly conveys a lot of charm and heart, and is highly recommended for reading, from a time when the FF was at a very high peak.

Copyright 2005 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

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