“Fantastic Four” by John Byrne – Part 1

The following focuses on material reprinted in the Fantastic Four Omnibus by John Byrne Volume 1, covering a wide variety of material related to Byrne’s work with that team’s characters. This article is part of a larger series of reviews focused on key Marvel Comics runs.

 

Introduction

Perhaps the most important thing to realize when delving into John Byrne’s early work on “Fantastic Four” was that it didn’t get particularly interesting until he formally took over the main title with issue #232.  Prior to that point, the material was largely collaborative and early in Byrne’s career.

Once Byrne took over the writing of “Fantastic Four” with #233, the issues had more energy.  That said, ‘Holy Chris Claremont’ he liked to fill up pages with text.  For as much as Byrne complaining about Claremont being too verbose with his writing during their legendary run on “Uncanny X-Men,” his own writing would never be called ‘sparse.’

In defense of Byrne though, readers only familiar with modern Marvel Comics should keep in mind that certain editorial mandates were in effect during the 1980s.  Amongst other things, Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter insisted that issues be written for first-time readers.  As such, a certain repetitive re-introduction of characters and concepts must be kept in mind when reading each issue.

Ultimately, the bulk of Byrne’s run on “Fantastic Four” would get elevated to a similar stature as Walter Simonson’s seminal run on “Thor” and Frank Miller’s classic run on “Daredevil.”  Some might argue that the first half of his run contained his best material.  That might be the case, but that shouldn’t dissuade readers from continuing on through the end of Byrne’s entire run on “Fantastic Four.”  He still supplied many interesting stories throughout the tail end of his work.

Series Summary & Commentary

Early Years

Byrne’s initial encounters with the Fantastic Four were scattershot and not indicative of the material that would follow during his solo run on their main title.  He started with Chris Claremont in “Marvel Team-Up” issue #61, which teamed Spider-Man up with the Human Torch.  They fought together against the Super-Skrull, eventually getting assistance from Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers in this instance).  The story was continued into “Marvel Team Up” #62, where Danvers ended up defeating the Super-Skrull amid the backdrop of the Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship.

Perhaps Byrne’s most memorable early work with a Fantastic Four character was a time-travel adventure that he wrote and drew for “Marvel Two-in-One” #50.  Ben took Reed’s latest ‘Thing cure’ serum back in time, using Dr. Doom’s time platform to confront his earlier self.  This early blob-like Ben/Thing, didn’t recognize his later incarnation and the two Things fought.  In the end, Ben defeated his younger self and successfully administered the serum.  However, he returned to the future to learn that he had only managed to change the past in an alternate timeline.

Byrne’s first work on the main “Fantastic Four” series came as the partial artist (breakdowns and/or layouts) in the middle of the Marv Wolfman-written “In Search of Galactus” storyline.  Byrne did the breakdowns for issue #209 with Reed searching out Galactus to help stop a threat by the villainous Sphinx.  Trivia mavens would note that H.E.R.B.I.E. the Robot from the old Fantastic Four cartoon series appeared in the comic book series for the first time with this issue.  Galactus agreed to help Reed in issue #210 if they first helped him by finding him a new herald.  They did just that in issue #211, with Terrax the Tamer appearing for the first time.

Terrax was officially Galactus’ new herald by issue #212, as everyone returned to Earth to finally stop the Sphinx.  The next two issues contained the resolution of that confrontation.  In issue #213 “The Final Battle!” turned out to be the battle before the final battle in this storyline, with the Human Torch tussling with Terrax (despite supposedly being on the same ‘team’ in this situation) and Galactus fighting the Sphinx.  Although Galactus won, he tried to then eat the Earth before being stopped by Reed and the Watcher.  They used a fake-out involving the Ultimate Nullifier weapon that Galactus always feared Reed might use on him.

This cosmic storyline ended with an epilogue of sorts in issue #214, as Reed, Sue, and Ben were stuck in suspended animation due to suffering under a Skrull rapid aging device.  Johnny saved the day by defeating a Skrull android that had been hidden on Earth and then used some of its technology to somehow revert the rest of the team back to their proper ages.

“Blastaar” was the title of the next issue – #215 – and it opened a two-part story featuring that particular villain.  He appeared from the Negative Zone, seemingly more powerful than ever.  At the same time, Reed’s friend Dr. Randolph James had an experiment turn him into the godlike ‘Futurist.’  Blastaar wanted James’ powers, but ended up getting knocked back into the Negative Zone in a rare show of Franklin’s powers.  The Futurist ended up taking off into the stars for exploration’s sake while Reed wondered who had helped Blastaar get to Earth (Hint: Readers would find out in the next issue).

Writer Bill Mantlo took over with Wolfman only plotting the conclusion of the Blastaar story in issue #216.  Byrne’s work as a breakdown artist continued for two more issues.  In #217’s “Masquerade,” the controversial character H.E.R.B.I.E. the Robot was written out of the series after having run amok.  Oddly enough, he’d been possessed by the intelligence of Dr. Sun, a computer consciousness-based villain from Wolfman’s “Tomb of Dracula” series.

Spider-Man showed up in issue #218’s “When a Spider-Man Comes Calling!” to help take on the Frightful Four members Wizard, Trapster, Sandman, and Electro.  After seemingly having taken over the Baxter Building, Spidey and Reed managed to turn the tables on the Frightful Four and the rest of the team helped with final cleanup.

The first time that Byrne actually wrote “Fantastic Four” was an odd fill-in originally meant to be part of a Coca-Cola giveaway comic.  Instead, it was transformed into issues #220 and #221.  In that story, power outrages occurred around the world that the Fantastic Four traced to the North Pole.  After finding a giant crystal tower, the team encounters aliens who have long been stranded on Earth due to the planet’s electromagnetic field interfering with their ship.  Reed, as one might expect, helped them get free.  While better than some of the prior material, this still wasn’t up to the quality level that readers would later associate with Byrne’s run on the title.

Back to the Basics

Completism aside, Byrne’s ‘true’ run on “ Fantastic Four” began with issue #232.  This was Byrne at the height of his 1980s powers, hot off of his run on “Uncanny X-Men” with Chris Claremont and a simultaneous stint on “Captain America” with Roger Stern.

“Back to the Basics” was the very-appropriate title for #232, which featured a visit from early villain Diablo, master of alchemy.  He had the Fantastic Four fight his element-based team of henchmen, but Reed figured out a way to destroy them by reverting their particular states of matter.  Dr. Strange made a quick appearance to help capture Diablo at the very end.

Issue #233’s “Mission for a Dead Man!” was another stand-alone tale, this time involving Johnny Storm being enlisted to clear the name of a former classmate that was on death row.  Johnny uncovered a conspiracy involving Spider-Man villain Hammerhead and the Maggia crime syndicate.  In a not atypical Byrne bittersweet ending, the former classmate was cleared of murder but his own mother still didn’t entirely accept him.

Here Comes Ego

Issues #234 and #235 were a two-parter that introduced the planet-sized villain Ego.  “The Man with the Power” in #234 started innocently enough, with an older, Midwestern man named Skip Collins on vacation in New York City.  Skip enjoyed seeing the Fantastic Four in action, not realizing that he had latent powers that were causing destruction.

Reed eventually traced what appeared to be an attack on Earth to outer space, where the Fantastic Four faced off against the planet-sized Ego in #235’s “Four Against Ego.”  After the team landed on Ego’s surface, the pressure and head left it up to Ben to have to save the day.  Besides revisiting an interesting older villain, this issue also hinted that something was up with Frankie Raye, but it would be a bit longer before readers learned the truth.

Happy Anniversary

As part of the then-20th anniversary of the Fantastic Four’s first issue, Marvel produced a giant-sized special issue for #236.  The story opened with “Terror in a Tiny Town,” where readers would have been surprised to see the Fantastic Four members living out a seemingly ‘normal’ life in the town of Liddleville.  As part of the shock, Alicia appeared to be married to a human Ben Grimm.

Of course, all was not well and the entire situation had been manufactured by Alicia’s father – the Puppet Master, who was working in league with Doctor Doom.  Eventually the team members realized that they were actually living in miniature bodies that were not their own.  Their real bodies were lying on tables hooked up to a machine that transferred their consciousnesses.  Amusingly, the team was eventually able to trick the villains into switching places in a way that allowed for their escape.

While relaxing in Central Park to start issue #237 – “The Eyes Have It”, the team battled the uninspired villain Spinnerette who turned out to be a confused alien stuck on Earth.  Amid the backdrop of that story, readers learned that Doom’s armor showed signs of life.  It would be a while before readers heard from Doom again, but it was clear that Byrne had future plans for him.

Dark Secrets

Issue #238 was broken into two short stories.  First – in “The Lady is for Burning!” was Frankie’s big reveal to Johnny that her body was covered with a miracle suit of sorts.  Readers learned more about Frankie’s past and the recent revelation that this suit gave her flying fire powers similar to those of Johnny.

The second story in this issue focused on Reed’s latest failed attempt to cure The Thing. Note that this issue also featured the debut of Franklin’s new robotic babysitter H.U.B.E.R.T.   He was easily confused for the departed H.E.R.B.I.E., but Sue made a point of differentiating the pair.

Ben’s long-referenced Aunt Petunia came to him seeking help in issue #239’s “Wendy’s Friends.”  Petunia turned out to be an attractive young woman whose older husband was in trouble.  Ancient spirits were haunting a town, seemingly with help of a girl named Wendy and they were not overly friendly.  The Fantastic Four seemingly drove back the demons, but in reality they were shown as still existing with Wendy.

Byrne was criticized by some for making Petunia so young while Ben’s uncle was quite old.  In many ways, it as an amusing jab against reader expectations.  However, this pairing of oddly-young women with older men was a something that would pop up again during Byrne’s run.

Inhumans & Black Panther

Issue #240’s “Exodus” was a critique on pollution that featured the Inhumans fleeing Earth in this city-sized ship Attilan.  They settled near the Blue Area of the Moon, an area of ancient construct that readers would recall served as home to the Watcher and also happened to be where Jean Grey had died during the “Dark Phoenix Saga.”  The child of Inhuman Crystal and mutant Quicksilver – Luna – was born on the Moon.

Back on Earth, the Fantastic Four visited longtime guest-star the Black Panther in #241.  He had detected a mysterious power source at the border of his home country of Wakanda.  The Fantastic Four was enlisted by SHIELD to investigate and found an unfriendly ancient Roman civilization living there.

The Galactus Trilogy

After so many relatively isolated events over the past ten issues, the next three issues provided an epic jolt.  Terrax the Tamer had been fired as herald to Galactus and came to Earth with a deal in mind.  After lifting the entire island of Manhattan into space, Terrax suggested that he’d destroy the city unless the Fantastic Four stopped Galactus.  This was a truly awesome setup, but one that pushed the powers of the Four to their absolute limit with Sue having to use her powers to enclose the entirety of Manhattan with air.

All heck then broke loose in issue #243, with Galactus arriving to fight Terrax.  The Fantastic Four and the Avengers all got into the mix as well.  Galactus ultimately defeated Terrax by taking away his herald powers, but the battle caused Galactus to be drained to the point where he shrunk to only a modestly giant size.

With Galactus seemingly near death, Reed overrode the wishes of pretty much every other hero and decided to save him in issue #244.  Reed built a machine that indeed saved the world-eater, but Galactus then asked for a new herald before departing Earth.  Frankie surprised everyone by volunteering to become the new herald ‘Nova.’

The great irony in Frankie’s volunteer move was that she essentially dumped Johnny in the process.  Readers might have normally associated such a move with Johnny, but in this case roles were reversed.  This wasn’t the last that readers would see of either Galactus or Frankie during Byrne’s run, but it would be another year before Reed’s decision to save Galactus caused certain consequences.

Pop culture observers would note that the Yancy Street Gang sent Franklin a Rubik’s Cube, the then-popular puzzle game that was likely intended to frustrate a curious Ben Grimm.

Franklin Unleashed

Issue 245’s “Childhood End” had an appropriate title given its resolution.  The issue was very Sue-centric, with her appearing on a snarky interview talk show entitled “Woman to Woman.”  She was challenged on the show regarding her past non-feminist actions, a sort of in-joke regarding Sue’s history in less than flattering situations.

The crux of the story unfolded when Sue arrived home to find a confused, adult Franklin displaying great powers.  She eventually sorted out the situation and Franklin reverted to his child state, with mental blocks put in place to prevent him from using his seemingly limitless powers at too young of an age.

Harkening back to issue #238’s failed Thing cure experiment, Reed realized that Ben wanted to stay as the Thing.  Reed would keep that revelation a secret and it was a point that would later haunt their relationship.

Doom Returns

Doom’s return had been hinted over the prior several issues, but it didn’t come into full effect until issue #246.  The Fantastic Four were ordered to bring Doom’s body to the Latverian Embassy, where Doombots ended up attacking them amid the return of Doom’s consciousness to his proper body.  Mixed up in all this action, Doom took revenge on the Puppet Master for seemingly trying to make Doom one of his puppets in the aftermath of events in issue #236.

Having lost rule of his home country of Latveria to Zorba back in issue #200, Doom returned to re-assert his control in issue #247.  He was assisted by the Fantastic Four, having compelled them by use of an inhibitor ray.  Ultimately, Doom was instated as ruler of Latveria and the Fantastic Four were left in a moral quandary.  Latveria had fallen onto hard times under the rule of Zorba, while Doom had shown a track record of stability in the region.

Cosmic Confrontations

The Inhumans were revisited again in issue #248 for the first time since their move to the Moon in issue #240.  This time, the Fantastic Four attended the naming ceremony for Crystal and Quicksilver’s new child.  Things went awry when all of the attendees began experiencing hallucinations caused by the villainous aquatic inhuman Triton.  Triton had dated back to the middle of the classic Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run on “Fantastic Four” and he was eventually defeated when Reed’s love for Sue helped them to break from the hallucinations.

Comic interactions continued into #249, as the Fantastic Four faced off against a confused-yet-violent Gladiator of the Shi’ar Imperial Guard.  Gladiator was mostly identified with the X-Men, so it wasn’t a surprise that they would appear at the issue’s end after the Fantastic Four had been defeated.

Thus, the X-Men guest-starred in time for the double-sized issue #250, providing fans with Byrne’s return to some of his most identifiable characters.  The issue never entirely lived up to its hype though, as the X-Men turn out to be Skrulls in disguise.  Captain America and Spider-Man help pitched in to clear up the confusion for Gladiator and ultimately defeat the Skrull menace.

Into the Negative Zone

One of the more interesting portions of Byrne’s run was his decision to have the Fantastic Four explore the Negative Zone for what would be a brief time back on Earth, but several months in the Negative Zone.  With Alicia caring for Franklin, the group travelled to the Negative Zone in a special new ship that Reed had constructed.  This proved to be a bad idea for the characters almost from the start, as Annihilus appeared in the Baxter building soon after the portal to the Negative Zone was temporarily opened.  While the stories that would follow were very entertaining, one had to wonder about the soundness of Reed’s reasoning for taking the group on what appeared to be such a dangerous mission.

Each story would have a sort of moral to it, but sometimes the morals weren’t entirely conventional.

First up was the Fantastic Four encountering the ‘living city’ of Ootah on a particular planet.  There had been confusion about the living city having expelled its residents.  The Fantastic Four acted too hastily and ended up killing Ootah before realizing that it was simply expelling its residents much in the same way that a body would expel germs.  This was an unconventional ‘side-ways’ issue, intended to ‘maximize the action.’

In issue #253’s “Quest,” the Fantastic Four encountered a ship full of people known as the Kestorans.  They were searching for a new home planet, but Reed eventually learned that the majority of the population that was supposedly in stasis was in fact dead.  They’d died soon after escaping the destruction of their home world and those in charge of the ship had kept the secret that they were never really intending on settling at a new home.

The first really nefarious Negative Zone encounter that the Fantastic Four faced occurred in issue #254, as they visited a planet where the residents were providing sacrifices to a god-like figure.  Things seemed fine enough for Sue and Reed to have ‘relations’ while relaxing in a guest tent.  Events turned bad quickly enough.  A crash-landed alien named Taranith Gesta had manipulated the planet’s residents into providing him with psionic power.  Gesta managed to capture Reed and drain his consciousness.

While all of this action was occurring in the Negative Zone, Annihilus had been steadily causing issues, with Alicia and Franklin.  Eventually, Avengers members She-Hulk and the Wasp got involved, along with Daredevil by issue #255.

In that same issue, Reed’s consciousness managed to take over Gesta’s ship as he used his collected psionic power to blast off from the planet.  As Reed also transferred his consciousness back into his body, Gesta made an ill-advised fatal mistake by trying to flee in a malfunctioning old escape pod.

The story back on Earth continued into “Avengers” #233, which featured art by John Byrne and writing by 1980s regular Marvel contributor Roger Stern.  The resolution involved nice sequences with each Avenger trying, but failing to gain entry into the now-shielded Baxter Building.  New Avenger Captain Marvel was the only one who succeeded in reaching Annihilus by defeating his ‘null field’ force shield through some scientific mumbo jumbo involving her becoming a ‘gamma laser.’

Events wrapped up in “Fantastic Four” issue #256, although readers “Avengers” #233 might have already had the resolution partially spoiled.  Much of the suspense around the issue centered around the Fantastic Four attempting to return to ‘normal’ reality from the Negative Zone.  As readers already knew, the team made it home to Earth and managed to send Annihilus back to the negative zone.  Although it appeared that he’d been killed, death never seemed to last forever in comics.

Side Stories

Outside of the main series continuity, Byrne contributed to the Fantastic Four Annuals and also the writing of the ongoing “The Thing” series.  In some cases, that series contained information relevant to the main “Fantastic Four” run.

“The Thing” #2 provide a good example of a cross-over, with Ben running into his old college love Alynn Cambers  while visiting Alicia and Franklin in the hospital.  They were recovering from injuries sustained after the Annihilus encounter.  Ben revealed to Alicia that he’d once been engaged to Alynn, but she’d gone on to pursue being a Hollywood star who was recently disfigured by stroke.  Obviously the shared disfigurement experience with Ben made for an interesting thematic parallel.

A decision after the Annihilus saga that Reed made that would have more lasting effects was his desire to relocate his family in order to keep Franklin safer in the future.

Over in “Fantastic Four” Annual #17 readers were treated to the story of Sharon Selleck, a friend of Johnny who had had a crush on him post-Frankie.   She fell into a crazy adventure as a result of her car breaking down outside of a weird town.  It turned out that the town had fallen under the influence of food consumed of crops that had been contaminated by the Skrull cows in “Fantastic Four” #2.  That pivotal issue, which had also been a catalyst for the Avengers’ “Kree-Skrull War” popped up yet again.  Sharon was eventually able to enlist help and stop the threat via use of a pesticide, although it was hinted that the effect might not have spared problems at a local military base.

Galactus & Doom Are Back

Issue #256 had contained a setup to the major events that unfolded in issue #257.  In one quick move, Nova managed to lead the ailing Galactus to the Skrull home world, which Galactus then ate.  Obviously this move would cause major problems in the future.

On a less-epic note, Johnny move out of the Baxter Building, signaling the start of the team having more-independent personal lives.  Also, Sue announced that she was pregnant.  The source of that pregnancy could likely be traced back to activity with Reed that was hinted at in issue #254.

Issue #258 kicked off with another visit with Doctor Doom.  The story cleaned up some of the Doctor’s then-recent appearances.  For example, his cross-over into “X-Men” #145-147 was shown to have been caused by a Doombot android.  Since taking over Latveria again, Doom had also taken on the ward Kristoff as a pseudo-son.

Most of the issue focused on Doom’s Gert Hauptmann having found a way to harness the Silver Surfer’s stolen cosmic power.  Doom uses the revelation to settle an old score with Hauptmann that dated back to the scientist’s brother’s betrayal during the classic “Doomquest” time travel adventure with Iron Man.  Doom eventually used the-now-late Hauptmann’s machine to give cosmic powers to the depowered former Galactus herald Terrax, who decided to go by his former identity of Tyros.

Amid this situation, the Fantastic Four suddenly lost Reed.  Readers knew of his disappearance in issue #257, but the team didn’t learn about this mystery until issue #259.  The alarm around that situation interrupted Johnny amid his first kiss with potential new flame (pun intended) Sharon Selleck.  Predictably, Terrax/Tyros then attacked the remaining three members, with Doom capturing Sue in the process.

Amid everything unfolding, it was convenient that the Silver Surfer investigated an energy beam that related to Reed’s disappearance.  As such, he arrived in New York in time to help fend off Terrax in issue #260.  The Surfer eventually defeated Terrax and, in an ironic twist, a fiery fireball fell to Earth that ended up destroying Doom’s body.  Readers had to wonder how the good Doctor would get out of that particular jam if he ever hoped to return.

One aside regarding #260 was that it featured an opening cameo by Namor.  He was on his way to his first encounter with the Fantastic Four of Byrne’s run.  However, as with the mystery surrounding Reed’s disappearance, that interaction would have to wait.

Conclusions

This first half of Byrne’s main run on “Fantastic Four” was definitely where the consistently best material was located.  However, it was pretty sly of Marvel to split the two Omnibus collections in the middle of the ongoing plot regarding Galactus.  The repercussions around why Galactus was revived involved Reed Richards at the center of what was arguably the last ‘great’ story arc of the Byrne run.

That said, the rest of Byrne’s run wasn’t necessarily ‘bad,’ but it did become more hit-and-miss.  Being the lesser material of a significant run didn’t mean that it wasn’t still notable in its own right.

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