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Waiting for the Trade - Fantastic Four

Waiting for the Trade

By Bill Miller

Fantastic Four Visionaries vol. 2
by John Byrne.
Collects Fantastic Four 241 – 250.

Why I Bought This: This was actually the last of my recent library rentals. In this case I picked the cover promises a famous fight between the FF and Gladiator (a character clearly designed as a stand-in for Superman) that I’ve wanted to read since the Marvel Handbooks in the late 80s talked about it. In fact a couple years ago I purchased The Trial of Galactus trade knowing it involved the FF and the Shi'ar and was disappointed the Gladiator fight was not part of it.


The Plot: John Byrne wrote (and drew) many consider the second greatest FF run ever after Lee and Kirby. The Visionaries series is collecting his entire run sequentially in about 10 issue junks. There are at least four volumes so far and probably more to come. As such there is no overriding plot in this issue. It several stories that are either one or two issues in length. A brief overview then is as follows:

Chapter 1 – SHIELD sends the FF (along with Torch’s current love interest Nova—the daughter of the creator of the original 1940s Human Torch who has flame powers of her own and not the more well-known male cosmic hero whose had three or four short-lived solo titles) to Wakanda where they along with the Black Panther discover an ancient Roman soldier with omnipotent powers courtesy of an alien artifact that he’s apparently been hanging on to for a few centuries without making his presence known until now.

Chapter 2 – Evil herald Terrax comes to Earth seeking to escape Galactus’s service. He battles the FF, severely damaging the Baxter Building in the process and then levitates all of Manhattan into orbit, leaving guest stars Thor, Iron Man and Spider-man to contain the collateral damage.

Chapter 3 – Galactus arrives on Earth and with a wave of his hand depowers Terrax and restores Manhattan but then decides to feed on the Earth leading him to battle the FF and Avengers and ultimately Dr. Strange, who wins the day with his magic powers.

Chapter 4 – the FF and Avengers (despite Iron Man’s misgivings) save Galactus, who is now dying of starvation following his defeat last chapter. When he recovers he takes on Nova as his new herald in exchange for agreeing to not eat the Earth.

Chapter 5 – Franklin’s mutant powers age him to adulthood and near omnipotence. In a confused state Franklin battles the FF until Sue gets through to him. He then shuts down his powers and reverts to his normal age but not before telepathically sharing Thing’s deepest secret with Reed.

Chapter 6 – Dr. Doom uses Doombots to battle the FF in an elaborate plan to restore himself to health; apparently as a result of a prior story not in his volume his body was in a coma while his mind was trapped in one of the Puppet Master’s dolls.

Chapter 7 – The FF and Doom restore Doom to the throne of Latveria, which has suffered under the rule of Prince Zorba in Doom’s absence. This is also the first appearance of Kristoff, a character that would become very important later in Byrne’s run.

Chapter 8 –The FF are visiting the Inhumans on the moon when the moon is whisked away by planet-sized aliens. Reed watches everyone die but in the end realizes it is all a dream caused by some funky crystals Triton had discovered at the start of the story and everything is restored to normal.

Chapter 9 – Gladiator is chasing some Skrulls, who trick him into facing the FF. He defeats them with ease only for the X-men to arrive on the final page.

Chapter 10 – Spidey and Cap arrive to aid the FF in their fight with Gladiator while the X-men are revealed to be Skrulls. Once the ruse is uncovered Gladiator takes them off to space.

Critical Thoughts: It’s funny as despite my love of cosmic Marvel, I’ve never been that big a fan of the FF even though they are the fathers of this corner of the Marvel Universe. I don’t dislike them, and in certain stories I can be quite fond of Ben, Sue and Johnny but the team as whole is not my favorite. That said there are some very good stories here but there also some bad ones. I will say however if you were looking to introduce someone to the FF this volume is a near perfect primer on their corner of the Marvel Universe as not only are the core members all featured but you have big stories featuring the top three FF villains in Doom, Galactus and the Skrulls as well as stories featuring their three most common allies in the Inhumans, Black Panther and Spider-man, so this introduces the reader to most of the major players you’ll see in other FF stories.

I’m going to start with the bad for once. All three single issue stories in this volume are almost exactly the same, which is bad both for being awfully redundant in a short period of time and also because it’s not a good story really any of three times Byrne tells it. I’m talking about chapters 1, 5 and 8. In all of them the FF meet an omnipotent entity (Roman soldier, adult Franklin, planet-sized alien) only to win the day and have whatever reality changes said omnipotent entity caused disappear and everything return to how it was before the story started, which begs the question of why bothering telling it to begin with.

Warning spoiler in this paragraph. I also hate Ben’s secret in chapter 5, which is that none of Reed’s cures work because he’s afraid his blind girlfriend Alicia only loves him as the Thing and if he was cured he would lose her. If the point is to give Reed an out for his continued failure to cure Ben, it seems to ignore that a) a real cure should work whether Ben wants it to or not, and b) now Ben is the one who looks bad instead and how is that better? Also, future writers broke Ben and Alicia up (she even married Torch and later dated Silver Surfer; while Ben later dated the second Ms. Marvel) and yet Ben didn’t suddenly revert to human because really it’s a dumb idea to tie his mutagenic condition to his love life thus why would a future writer want to be hampered by such nonsense.

However, there is also a lot of good here in all of the stories that involve the major villains. The Galactus story is the sort of cosmic story I like. While I read it before in the Trial of Galactus trade, it is still good reading. That Terrax can do the impossible and lift Manhattan into orbit and then Galactus takes him down with just a wave of his hand is how you build-up a bad guy as a major threat. Then seeing all the heroes available join the FF in the fight is a nice touch because let’s face it if Galactus is going to eat the planet that should be an all-hands on deck situation. I would complain about Dr. Strange defeating Galactus with a single spell but lets face it Dr. Strange has a history of showing up at the end of impossible fights and being the deus ex machina that solves them (see also Hulk 300 and Avengers Disassembled as other prominent examples).

I do think as a historical note it’s interesting to see only one hero of the combined Avengers-FF roster arguing for letting Galactus die. Sadly if this story was written now I’d bet you’d only have one or two heroes arguing in favor of life—actually that’s pretty much every Bendis Avengers story with high stakes in that the entire cast except Spidey is like let’s kill this dude as that would solve the problem.

The Gladiator story is similar to the Galactus one in that it uses guest stars very well. While the initial fight in chapter 9 is more of a squash match for Gladiator over the FF (which in fairness is how a fight between Superman and them should go, especially as this is the pre-Crisis era). I thought the fight scene in the final chapter was very well drawn/plotted out. Plus [spoiler alert] the Captain America fan in me loves that he’s the one who can stand down Gladiator long enough to enable Reed to execute his defeat; because let’s face it if you could only have two earthbound Marvel heroes to take down any enemy those are the two you want so to me it felt right.

The big surprise is the Doom story. I’m not much of a Doom fan at all; although I have a friend who swears by Doom and argues his case as comics’ best villain quite elegantly. He often cites this story in his arguments and now having read it I can see why. If you want to see Doom as a nuanced villain this is the story to read. Instead of his usual motivations of trying to either kill Reed or take over the world, we see him reclaiming his country, caring for his people and showing that he has a sense of honor. Sure, other writers will say Doom has a sense of honor but they don’t actually back it up—in this story you see it clearly. It is the old adage of show, don’t tell. This may be the best Doom story in an FF book I’ve ever read, for that reason alone this trade is worth checking out.

Of the four core members of the team, I’d say Sue fares the best in this volume, which is hardly surprising as Byrne is the one who evolved her into the Invisible Woman (not Girl) and in many ways her defacto characterization to this day is based on Byrne’s work with the character. Byrne writes Reed’s intellect quite well also, which much like with Doom he does by showing us how smart Reed in his thought balloons and not just saying Reed is the smartest man alive as lesser writers do. I’m not as enamored of his takes on Ben and Johnny, I’ve discussed Ben already and Johnny, while featured less prominently than the others, comes off a melodramatic drama queen in the one story that does affect him on a personal level.

Grade B. That Doom story is an A+. The Galactus and Gladiator stories are both solid B’s. The various single issue omnipotent encounters however are all D-list at best. He’s also only two of four on the characterizations of the core team members, which is why I can’t go hire than a B.

Comments

  1. All the Byrne Fantastic Four trades are worth reading. Some of the stories are a bit silly (like Byrne himself brought to the trial of Reed Richards) but fun stuff pretty much the whole run. Might be a bit 'lightweight' compared to the angst filled stories of today, but enjoyable reads nonetheless.

    see also the Peter David Hulk stories.

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