1971: Act 4: Reed v. his family (Vietnam)
In the early 1970s the optimism of the 1960s had gone. This was summed
up by Vietnam: things were not getting better, and nobody was winning:
not the pro war people, or the anti war people, or Vietnam, not even
Russia. The American government threw more and more at the problem and
just increased the pain.
Act 4 summary
Act 4 of the classic 5 act structure is the crisis: where
everything seems to go wrong. Just when it seems that things
cannot get any worse, they get worse. Often there is a false dawn,
where the heroes appear to have conquered and are about to walk
off into the sunset, then the bad guy comes back, even more
unbeatable than before. Act 4 of the Fantastic Four has all
these features: things start going wrong, then Reed loses his
health, then the marriage collapses. There is a false dawn when
everything seems to go right, then it all falls apart and gets
even worse. By the end of Act Reed will have failed as a
father, as a scientist, as a husband, been on trial
for genocide (and is guilty), and attempts suicide. Finally,
when all hope seems to have gone, Reed will be humbled, and Act 5
will bring final redemption.
This page: the start of act 4
At the start of Act 4 the cracks begin to show. Things start to go
wrong. Reed works harder and harder, and eventually his health gives
103Issue 103: moral authority is lost
Act 4 begins when Reed, having lost all claims to authority, pushes
Sue away. She feels that it is wrong (and her intuition is always
right) but does what Reed says because she feels she has "no other
choice." By separating her from the team Reed makes her
vulnerable, and she is captured by Magneto on the way back.
Meanwhile Johnny tells Crystal to stay away, even though Crystal has
proven herself to be the most useful member of the team. Johnny
thinks teamwork means blindly following Reed's folly. He even says
Crystal will be "letting them down" if she comes to help.
The boys are wrong, dead wrong. The girls know it. The boys have
lost their moral authority and the girls won't follow them again.
If Reed paid more attention to Franklin then the baby could solve
all their problems. We later learn that through all this time the
baby was aware, and had the power to change everything.
Could Reed have known this at the time? Probably, if he had listened
to Sue. Her intuition is never wrong, and consistently says that
Franklin should be with them. Reed is a great scientist. If he
turned his attention to his own son then maybe he might notice
something. He already has the clues: Franklin's birth was aided by
the cosmic control rod. There is something very special about that
baby, if only his father would pay him the slightest attention.
We know we are moving into a new political era here, when President
Nixon appears in person.
"The reader" writes: "At the core of the story we have two
men trying to prevent war: Reed Richards and Namor. They are only
reacting to events and trying, ultimately, just to find some way
to communicate with each other. However, there are three more
characters with completely different objectives and motivations
that are working against them: Ben Grimm, Magneto, and even
Richard Nixon are all in tension with each other and the two
protagonists. Johnny also has his own unique reaction and we get
to see a bit of his much-talked-about impulsiveness early on. The
way in which the misunderstanding with Namor and the Fantastic
Four develops is actually quite skillful and believable (all
except for Ben Grimm’s uncharacteristic warmongering [ see notes
to last issue for why he pushed that button]). The characters’
aims and reactions are so natural and human and complex that this
is the first time I think I can use the word Shakespearean to
describe them, and I don’t think that’s overstating it."
Other points to note
- They need Crystal
FF100 had a flying craft pulled apart magnetically, and the
situation was saved by Crystal. Here the same thing happens again,
but this time Johnny insisted that Crystal stay home, so Sue was
captured. This is one of the events that leads Crystal to realize
that Johnny is not yet mature, and this will lead to their tragic separation. Also in FF100,
Ben sees an artificial whirlpool, perhaps giving him the idea for
his whirlpool trick this issue.
- No Kirby
This is the first non-Kirby issue, but the story is
bigger than the creative team, so there is continuity. Later, in the Franklinverse period, continuity will be effectively abandoned. Matt Guether notes the difference, writing
might think the biggest thing about this issue is the loss of
Jack Kirby, but since there wasn't a drastic shakeup in artistic
style, the transition is smoother than expected. Nowadays it
seems that every new artist reinvents the characters in a
dramatic new style, somehow insinuating that the previous team
just didn't get it right. The Thing is usually the biggest
makeover, but Johnny has undergone quite a few looks of his own.
Sue gets haircuts and her uniforms change. Reed gets a facelift
or whatever the opposite of a facelift is, depending on whether
the artist sees Reed as a young or old genius. But here it seems
more like there is more of an attempt at maintaining tradition
than asserting artistic ownership. Sure, you know it's not the
King's work, but it is Kirby-esque enough and the story is rock
Personally I think the cover has bad coloring. Maybe it was done in a
rush. So here's a better version: I think it makes the cover art look
The very first page after Kirby leaves has a typo ("the the") and the
cheesiest two dimensional villain imaginable. Oh the contrast! It does
get better, though the title never again touches Kirby's concentrated
104Issue 104: Reed feels like a slave
The title is "our world -- enslaved." Sue,. Ben and Johnny have
to do everything Reed says. For his part, Reed always feels like a
slave to circumstances: not just now, but throughout his career:
everything is urgent and desperate, he always feels that he must
act right now, or terrible things will happen. In his mind,
circumstances force him to fight. He believes that he has no
choice. Yet the irony is that he
does not have to be that way: he enslaves himself. Sue
has a better, gentler way: listen to her intuition, don't try to
control everything, and don't always run and fight at every
opportunity. The irony is that: Reed believes that he acting for
peace, yet he just caused World War Three and routinely ignores
Sue's superior peaceful intuition. But Reed is no villain. He does
it because he sincerely cares for others. His tragic flaw is that
he cannot accept that others might be just as good as him.
- Why do the Atlanteans follow Magneto, who treated them so
badly? Because he is a skillful persuader, a very powerful man,
and they always had an uneasy relationship with Namor. They once
left him en masse because they felt he betrayed them by siding
with the surface world, and here he does it again.
- Why do Ben and Johnny keep antagonizing Namor? Because Reed
spend the previous three acts infantalizing them, and now they
follow his lead.
- Why are the women treated so badly? Because Reed and Namor
have monstrous egos, and Reed is about to pay the price.
Other points to note
The later Franklinverse will have different
characters, and this issue indicates a different Magneto as
well. The later Franklinverse Magneto is powerful enough to turn
the tiniest amount of metal against a person - even the iron in
their blood! But the original Magneto can be stopped by a
part-metal weapon. He is able to destroy Sue's craft (FF103) but
not the Fantasti-car, suggesting that this Magneto's power
has various limitations.
105Issue 105: they lose Crystal
This is the first clear disaster of Act 4: one of many to follow.
Crystal almost dies, and has to leave. If Johnny had treated her as
an equal, if he had been sensitive to her needs and her strict
family background, he would have spent half of his time with her
family and she would never have been poisoned by our air. (The
poisonous air can also be seen as a metaphor for the toxic ideas
that have kept the team from reaching their potential.) Johnny never
stayed with the Inhumans for any extended time because he felt he
was needed by the team in New York. Reed meant it clear that if
Crystal went to her people then Johnny would be parted from her:
implying that Johnny must always stay. He treats Johnny like a
child. Johnny could have helped the team by acting as an ambassador
to the Inhumans, encouraging an exchange program, enriching both
teams. Medusa is willing to help, no doubt Triton would be as well.
But Reed treats Johnny like a child who cannot leave his parents and
lacks the skill to do anything clever.
Multiple crises at once
Events pile on events, with multiple crises at the same time:
Crystal's health, Ben's cure, and the monster in the streets. Reed's
"control everything" strategy simply cannot work with so much to do.
As the first chapters of Act 4 continue this pressure will become
worse until Reed snaps.
Everyone is pushed to breaking
"More and more the characters’
reactions and dialog has become less nuanced and more exaggerated
until we’ve arrived at a point where Johnny’s dialog is almost
always angry, Ben’s is alternately sarcastic and clownish, Reed’s
is superior to the point of being openly insulting, and Sue has a
half-page monologue about how excited she is shopping. Crystal has
shown a lot of potential for being a multi-dimensioned character
and it’s hard not to think that it’s for this reason that she is
arbitrarily dispatched in this issue." (source)
This is a result of
each character being pushed to breaking point and needing an outlet.
The quote about Crystal's "multi dimensional character" was intended
as a criticism of the writer, but it fits the pattern. Crystal is an
elemental, hence being especially sensitive to pollution. She is
also sensitive to emotion (in contrast with her reserved family). It
is plausible that the tension she felt around her made her physical
Reed hesitated over who to save - his friend or his wife. He left
his wife. Is this a sign of things to come? Maybe. But it reflects
how Reed, even when he makes a "bad" decision, is making perhaps the
right one, but others cannot see it. This is the kind of dilemma and
multiple viewpoint story that makes this great literature.
"If Reed had chosen to
save Sue over Ben, and Ben had died as a result, Sue would have
spent the rest of her life feeling guilty. Sue's father was
destroyed by his feelings of guilt over the death of Sue's mom.
Sue's a stronger person than her father but I can see Reed not
wanting to take the risk." (Michael, on the FF
Other points to note
Why does Reed ignore the disturbances in New York? Because he
is so focused on his work. Why is he so focused? Because he
feels guilty for turning Ben into a monster. (The irony is
that Ben is not a monster, but feels he is because Reed has
destroyed his self esteem.) Is Reed just naturally focused on
any work at hand, or is he especially focused here because of
pride? He sees Ben's rocky skin as a sign of personal failure.
Why is Johnny so angry, lashing out at the energy ball before
he knows what it is? Because he's just lost his girlfriend and
feels trapped. He is a young adult of immense power yet is
prevented from making his own decisions. Such frustration and
anger! He just wants to lash out.
How does Reed immediately recognize a rare chemical that
links Crystal and Ben? Crystal is especially sensitive to air
quality. She is also an elemental who controls air currents,
earth, fire and water. it is rational therefore that Reed
would start by studying the basis of her powers. Presumably
Crystal has an unusual way of turning her powers on and off
and that gave Reed an idea, as Ben's problem is an inability
to turn his power off. As for how quickly Reed spotted it,
he's been studying DNA for years (e.g. the work that the Mad
Thinker stole in order to create the Awesome Android). Reed
would instantly home in on the difference between normal DNA
and super power DNA. He would also know that all super powers are based on the
same principles. So this simplifies the question. It is
then highly plausible that Reed might spot some useful feature
that might enable Ben to change. (We know of course that Ben's
ability to change is ultimately mental, but the mental command
must act through physical channels, and Reed can change
- Crystal leaving
For why Crystal was removed as soon as Kirby left, see the page that compares Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's treatment of women.
106Issue 106: Johnny's potential
With Reed's weakness apparent we shift attention to Johnny Storm.
He has tremendous ability, and is starting to learn responsibility
after his immaturity contributed to him
losing Crystal. This foreshadows the next generation: imagine
a whole series with drama like this!
Johnny's fall from the sky symbolizes his inner doubts, and is a
metaphor for his wasted potential. In the early days Johnny was
the star, but he has assumed the role of almost being a child. By
now Reed should be focusing on Franklin, Johnny should have
explored all his abilities (including the amazing freezing ability
shown here) and Ben and Johnny
should be leading the team with Johnny and Crystal an item.
But instead everything is going wrong.
Reed is building up to his most insane level of efficiency,
taking on more and more responsibility, having to be better and
better: this issue he saves Sue and
Dr Rambow and Larry
Rambow, and he works on
Ben and he helps Johnny
discover new abilities. He can't keep pushing himself harder and
harder: something has to break. And it will.
Note that Reed's insane work load is self inflicted. He would not
have to waste time "fixing" Ben if h had not caused the problem in
the first place by undermining Ben's confidence.
Other points to note
- The Fantastic Four is a family story. This issue is about how
a father's experiment caused his son to have dangerous powers:
the father then devotes himself to his son. See the contrast
with how Reed treats his son, sending the baby away out of
sight, where he calls "dada" (FF110) but his father does not
- The art in this issue is remarkably good. The image of Johnny
absorbing heat, of Ben frozen, of Johnny leaving the Baxter
building, and of falling from the sky, are all unforgettable...
in my opinion.
"Rambow has been following the
‘monster’ since the time he created it in his lab from his son,
Larry, trying desperately to find a way to change him back — why
does it take someone else to remind him of the fail-safe device
he made?" It is unlikely that he tested his fail-safe
device. With so much unknown energy around it might kill his son.
He probably doesn't want to use it just in case, hoping that Reed
will find a safer solution, but Reed persuades him to.
107Issue 107: Sue thinks the unthinkable. Separation.
It finally happened. The pressure was building for years. Sue has
given Reed every chance to do things his way: she obeyed him,
accepted his ignorant comments, and respected his intelligence.
And all the time he never respected her. Readers sometimes think
that Sue was being weak, but we saw at the start that Sue was
always the strongest character in terms of both bravery and
outcomes. Sue respected him because the best outcome would have
been for need to respond to her love and open his eyes to her
methods. But he never did. Now she won't give him unquestioned
loyalty any longer. She is planning the unthinkable: if Reed does
not change then they must separate until he uses that brain and
starts to see the effects of his actions, and starts to see other
points of view.
Reed's control over the others
Reed has lost the respect of all his family. Sue has given him five
years of unquestioning obedience, but no more. Johnny sees the
truth: in Reed's team he is a child and cannot be a man. The
greatest change is in Ben. Whatever Reed did to change him affected
the real cause of his problem: his mental state. Freed from any
moral restraints all the resentment and hatred builds up and Ben
goes to the opposite extreme: Reed is the enemy and Ben won't take
it any more, as we shall see in later issues. Ben's change is the
most extreme because his subjugation was so extreme. Like a piece of
elastic that was pulled to breaking point in one direction, when the
control is removed he flies to the extreme in the other direction.
Note the comparison with the Vietnam generation. This is 1970: the
American government, that tried so hard to maintain the respect it
ha at the start of the 1970s (when the newspapers would not even
report Kennedy's affairs), is now treated with no more respect than
anybody else. After failures in Korea and Vietnam, and the suspicion
by many that neither war was entirely necessary, the American
government has fallen from its pedestal.
The original by Marie Severin, which I think was better: see the anguish in Ben's face and pose: anger and despair.
And since we're comparing covers, here are some more. The Titans is
probably my all time compilation comic. Sixty pages of the best Marvel
comics for 9 pence!
John Buscema's first issue
In modern times it is common for characters to change when artists and
writers change. But the Great American Novel ids a single story, so new
writers and artists worked hard to fit with what went before. This is
John Buscema's first issue drawing the FF, and it is clear that he is
trying to channel Jack Kirby. To illustrate, the excellent panelocity blog took a close look at Buscema's work in this issue. And people blame Rich Buckler for swiping!
(Yes, I know I got some of the Kirby-Buscema images the wrong way, but it's sort of funny so I left it)
108Issue 108: "The Lost Adventure"
This story is a good example of the zeitgeist: the chaos behind the
scenes was reflected in the chaos of the story. FF108 was originally
Kirby's last Fantastic Four adventure before leaving, or close to
it. But Stan Lee didn't like it, and held it back. When Kirby went
to work for DC then Lee dusted it off so he had some Kirby work to
sell at the same time as Kirby's first DC work appears on the news
stands. Lee at the time changed the story and got other artists to
fill in the gaps, resulting in a strangely disjointed story. Kirby's
original story was reassembled in 2008 and published as "the Lost
Fantastic Four" story. This presents an interesting challenge
to the reader: if we treat the entire story as a unified whole,
which is the "real" story? FF 108 or the lost adventure? On the
surface the Lost Adventure is smoother and less chaotic, but the
reason we can call the early Fantastic Four "the Great American
Novel" is because it follows the zeitgeist: it as not the result of
careful planning, it simply reflects the influences around it, and
that is what gives it a long term structure. The strange, chaotic
FF108 fits perfectly into the bigger story and moves it forward.
This is a period when America is losing its grip, Mr Fantastic is
losing his grip, and even the story seems chaotic. This is the last
story that isn't the last, it is lost but not lost, it is two
contradictory stories, the first published one starts in the middle,
the creators argued behind the scenes, the characters are at odds...
it is all so fitting.
The negative zone
Reed is negative. He sees life as conflict, whereas Sue's method is
agreement and harmony. This all leads back to the dark emptiness of
Reed's methods, symbolized by the negative zone portal at the heart
of his home, the Baxter building. It also reflects his ego: his
attempts to both defeat Galactus and go further than anybody else
(the experiments in subspace that unlocked the negative zone in
FF51: note the irony that in fact Galactus is a herald of Franklin
and thus we come full circle). The distortion area, the annihilation
of positive and negative when it comes into contact... there are so
any metaphors! The negative zone is also the source of redemption:
it's where Franklin's power came from, and his importance cannot be overstated.
(It is also where Franklin's sister was conceived, in FF256.) So
when Kirby left and the team fell apart then we had to end up in the
The "Bad Thing" arc
This is part of the "Bad Thing" arc that lasts to FF113. This is the
major, memorable failure, to crown what Reed always considered his
greatest failure, his inability to cure Ben.
Other points to note
- Literary references
The issue is based on the concept of Janus, the two faced Roman god who
looks both backwards and forwards (see the splash page). Hence Janu-ary,
the first month of the year. In this issue Ben also refers to The
Thousand And One Nights: i.e. the Arabian Nights, the archetypal tall
stories. These are also referenced in the story of the old man of the
sea in FF11.
Changes from Kirby's original
This is the original splash page that was rejected, and the one that
replaced it in FF108. Kirby's story is of "Mega Men" meaning men (plural) with great power.
But when Kirby left Stan Lee changed it to "nega-man" meaning one negative man.
Stan kept this last Kirby FF issue for the month when Kirby began at
DC, no doubt to dampen their "Kirby is here!" advertising. Ten months
after Stan mangled Jack's story (cover dates March 1971
and Jan-Feb 1972), Kirby used a similar splash
page to the one Lee rejected, with the disturbing stone bust as the
old style furniture. But this time the bald art expert was "Funky
thinly veiled attack on Stan Lee. Funky reaches into the statue's mouth
to get money hidden in the old house by its creator, just as (according
to critics) Stan plundered "the house that Jack built"
In the original
penciled splash page for the Nega Man story (though toned down in
the inked version in 1988)
Crystal is at the center of the pic, and Franklin is reaching out
earnestly. At this point, if Kirby had stayed,
the team could have
moved forward. Kirby has intended to kill off the gods in Thor
(replacing them with the New Gods he ended up taking to DC), so
was definitely on the cards. His Fantastic Four had begun to wear
civilian clothes more often, Johnny was maturing, and Crystal was
central to the team. Change was on the cards. But instead, when
Kirby left, Lee
immediately got rid of Crystal, kept Johnny on the team, and tried
to return to old style
Jack Kirby, Act
four may have taken just a couple of years, But without Jack it took
twenty years before the inevitable changes happened. And when those
changes did finally happen the
editors panicked so much that change was ended forever. But it was amazing while it lasted.
109Issue 109: the emotional core of the 28 year story: love hurts
In the issue by issue review of the Fantastic Four we focus on
Reed's tragic flaw (his need to control) because this drives the
28 year story. But it's important to see this in the context of
the comics themselves: Reed is a hero: perhaps the greatest action hero in
all fiction. He does everything for his family and for the
world, as he sees it. he truly loves them and would give his life
for them. Nowhere is that more clear than in FF109. The same goes
for Sue: she loves Reed with all her heart, and it tears her up
that they are drifting apart. This issue is all the more heart
wrenching because it comes at a time when Sue knows they have to
split up, it's the only way for Reed to come to his senses. yet
she also knows that he loves her. It's powerful stuff. Just look
at her face in this sequence. it's not just that her brother and
husband are on the verge of death, it's that the family is
breaking up, and she knows she has to be with Franklin, and once
again, perhaps for the last time, she obeys Reed and pushes
Franklin away. FF109 is the dagger in Sue's heart.
Why does Sue react so strongly? Because Reed seems to almost want to die: he seems a little too eager to
embrace the danger. He has lost his gyro device - literally and
symbolically lost his direction. But how did he lose it? He didn't lose
the others' devices that he was holding. It was either careless or
deliberate. He knows his glory days are passing and it's as if he wants
to go out in a blaze of glory. See FF251 for a more serious attempt.
Real world parallels
In this issue (and a scene in FF107) we get a good view of the negative zone portal and its different chambers.
Their shape and description ("chambers" that must be sealed as you move
through) reminds us of deep sea decompression chambers. The need for
harnesses, the floating monsters, the darkness, the way that Triton was
the best person to navigate, it all reminds us of the deep ocean.
The portal also reminds us of atomic power plants. This photo, via Wikipedia, shows lasers at the National Ignition Facility.
They both represent the dangerous yet unlimited frontiers of
knowledge. With this in mind, the reality and excitement of these issues
110Issue 110: their last chance to understand
Sue's role in one image
This image sums up Sue Storm: torn between positive and negative,
holding her family together. She is in the gut wrenching area where
atoms are turned inside out, from positive to negative and back again.
Why didn't they just use a rope or chain? Because atoms are being ripped
apart and put back together in that field. Sue's forcefield energies
meant that probably only she could survive being there for more than a
split second. Though as a space between dimensions it would feel like
This is a classic Sue position: she seems less important, the men seem
to be doing the real work, but in reality she is doing far more than
them both. it also symbolised her role in keeping hold of the world we
belong to (the positive world) while rescuing the men from th negative
world they open up.
The first clues to Franklin's power
Looking back we can see the great irony, that all the time they
were pushing Franklin away, and Franklin could have saved them.
This is the great message of family life: children cost us
everything, they don't know anything, they get in the way... and
yet they are the future. They are the most important of all, and
we either learn that or we pay the price. The question is whether
they could see it at the time. Yes, Sue's instinct was always to
be with Franklin, but did they also have a clue that Franklin's
power could defeat their enemies? FF110 gives them that clue. Just
as the family is sliding of a cliff there are clues to Franklin's
- This story, for the first time, takes them back to Annihilus,
the negative zone, the cosmic control rod: the circumstances
of Franklins birth. In FF108 they spend some time
rehearsing the story: it is at the front of their minds.
- The nega man reminds them of the almost infinite power that
can be harnessed from the negative zone: enough to defeat any
enemy if it could be controlled.
- They should remember that the almost infinite power of the
cosmic control rod helped in Franklin's birth: some of that
power is inside Franklin! It does not matte that the connection
seems small. All they need is a conduit between a positive and
negative universe and every atom that passes through brings vast
energy with it.
- They already know that Franklin could possibly inherit his
parents' power, and his parents power is to shape and twist and
control (Sue's malleable force fields, Reed's body and mind).
With the possibility that Franklin has cosmic control rod
abilities he is surely at least worth investigating!
- Franklin knows Sue is there even when she is behind him and
invisible (FF107). In FF111 he knows the news even though
he's nowhere near the TV and he is worried about his father even
though he has no obvious way of knowing anything is wrong. Some
people might say that a baby saying "dada" in his sleep means
nothing, but Sues intuition says otherwise. Sue's intuition is
never wrong, and later issues will prove she is right so it
proves: in FF305 it is plainly stated that Franklin remembered
and understood what was happening even before Crystal
left. This is crucial: not only is Franklin aware at this
age, but at some level he
- Reed is probably the smartest man in the world. If only he
would turn his attention to his own son then he could figure out
the stuff that is only made explicit in the comics in the
Other points to note
How does Johnny throw an object surrounded by fire? He used
to do stuff like this a lot in the early days, especially in
his Strange Tales adventures. It illustrates how his power is
not actually flame, it just has flame-like properties. See superscience for details. In
the early days Johnny was more independent and creative, but
as he fell more under Reed's influence he used his power in
less creative ways. Now that Reed's influence is waning Johnny
is thinking creatively again. In act 5, when Reed has gone,
Johnny will finally begin to explore the limits of his power,
(e.g. burning underwater). In FF322, against graviton, he
moves his power to the next level: that moment appears to be
the trigger that scares Franklin and flips the team into the
Franklinverse. See how the 28 year
story ended for details.
auras: How does Johnny's flame object know to stop at
Reed's "aura"? As discussed in the superscience page, all these
powers are variations on unstable molecules, and they react to
what is around them. Johnny routinely tracked auras in the
early days, e.g. forming flame doubles to float near a person
wherever they go. Johnny used this ability again in FF17 when
searching the city for Doom. More recently, in FF93 Johnny
used that ability to track the radioactive traces of the
This issue illustrates Sue's methods, as seen countless times
before: she defeats the evil Thing through non-aggression
Reed's pure heart
This final demonstration of Reed's pure heart (by contrasting
with the evil Thing) is necessary so we have sympathy with him
during the following years of his hubris and long decline.
This issue has the first non-Kirby photo montage. John
Buscema deserves a lot of respect for putting in that extra
touch. Though personally I am not a fan of his art (compare
Romita's work on FF106: Romita's faces are not as good as
Buscema's, but his layouts are far more exciting), Buscema
went the extra mile with this issue and I'm grateful.
- A collector's item:
This issue produced the first "variant" FF cover. Sean Kleefeld explains: "The
cyan and magenta plates got mixed up for the cover. So everything that
was supposed be blue was printed using magenta ink, and everything pink
was printed with cyan ink. Consequently, we see the FF in pink uniforms,
and the orange of the Thing (remember your old color wheel? yellow +
red = orange) now looks green. Marvel issued a recall, and had corrected
issues shipped out (I'm sure at the printer's cost, since it was their
fault) but not before a good number of the error version had sold."
111Issue 111: the dark side of the 1960s
The great argument against the swinging sixties was that it
removed all restraint. The older generation said the greater rules
of the 1950s were needed to avoid anarchy. But the counter
argument is that the old prejudices were so harmful that change
had to happen, even if the short term cost was great. (The same
argument appears in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables over how the
French Revolution led to the Great Terror of 1792). We see this
removal of restraint in FF111. For nine years Ben was held back by
Reed, and now when the restraint is released he doesn't know how
to cope with it, all his repressed feelings take over and becomes
obsessed on revenge, far angrier than he was at the start. But
this had to happen. He had to get it out of his system.
Spider-Man is famously about 'Great Power brings Great
Responsibility' but this applies even more to Ben Grimm:
Spider-Man often wishes he had more power to defeat a particular
enemy, but Ben's problem is that he has so much power he's scared
of killing someone. Plus he fears losing his power and being
unable to protect Alicia. FF111 shows what happens when he gives
into his anger and frustration and abandons responsibility. See 'how strong is The Thing' for how
strong he really is, and his deep psychological fears.
Other points to note
Reed promises to put Sue and Franklin first - but only after the present crisis.
This is always his line, and there is always some new crisis, some new excuse to
keep him away from what really matters.
- This is one of the defining moments in the life of Ben Grim: we see
how the problem of his inability to change is linked to some very dark
112Issue 112: two down, two to go
All of Reed's self image is unwinding. For all his life he has
cultivated the belief that he is Mr Fantastic, the man who can do
anything, the natural leader, and all others should listen to him.
He treated Sue as weak and he treated the other men as children.
But gradually it's all unwound. Crystal, being the last to join,
was the first to fall. Now it's Ben's turn. Though he is not in
fact literally dead, the old Ben is metaphorically dead. After
this he will calm down but will never again treat Reed with
deference. Nor will he get angry at Reed: Ben is older and wiser,
and Reed has the worst thing he can imagine; he is no longer
anything special in the eyes of his family.
Over the next year or so we will see Johnny leave, and then
finally Sue. Mr Fantastic is gradually learning humility, but it
will take him a long time.
Other points to note
Although Sue's instincts are correct (she should be with Franklin;
conflict is a bad thing; following Reed is not working) they are
still instincts. They are unconscious. Consciously Sue allows
herself to be swayed by others. So she goes along with Reed's view
that she should be at the battle site, and of course Agatha (the one
chosen by Reed) agrees. This is always Sue's approach, to agree
where possible. But soon she will have to face the truth: in later
issues Agatha will betray Franklin and Reed will almost kill him,
and Sue will finally have to choose between her child and the people
who claim to love him.
113Issue 113: Ben's turning point
Reed is losing control, as symbolized by "desperately trying to
escape" then hitting a brick wall. Sue is literally and
metaphorically above him, surveying the situation and fixing
things. Johnny no longer buys the "you have to stay because..."
argument, and tells Reed to his face. Ben finally realizes that
Reed's attempts to "cure" him are a dead end and always will be.
Reed is no longer holding the team together (if he ever was), he's
driving them apart.
This issue is a milestone: when Ben smashes that machine he is
breaking his reliance on Reed. From now on Reed cannot humiliate
him. But note that deep down he is still scared of changing: the
long psychological damage is done and it will take Ben years to
recover. The main changes will come at the end of act 4 (when he
takes his life apart, leaving Alicia, the team, and even planet
earth behind) and the start of act 5 (when he puts his life
together: new body, new girl, and Reed is entirely out of the
As for Johnny, although he is willing to face up to Reed he is still
thinking selfishly: he is not yet concerned about Crystal's needs,
he's concerned about himself being unable to see her.
Ben's turning point is also Reed's turning point. Now that Ben no
longer defers to his wishes, he is no longer the alpha male. This may
seem a minor point, but Mr Fantastic is called Mr Fantastic because
his identity relies on being the very best. On an unconscious level
he knows he has lost control of Ben, and whole consciously he is
happy to see Ben do well, unconsciously it's the end of his position
as number one. This harks back to he cover of FF61, where it all
started to go wrong for him: this is the end of Mr Fantastic as top
Which leads us to the Over-mind. Oh boy! Where do we start? Let's
wait until we've seen more of him next issue before opening that
Other points to note
- Ben is now thinking of romance
Ben's new found relaxation is reflected in his joking. "There's
a good joke here where they ask Ben where he's come from, and he
replies "same place as everybody else", before asking if they knew of
the birds and bees. I read this story to my grandmother, not getting the
joke as a small child." ("Richard", on the FF board)
- The longest arc yet
We are now entering the "Übermensch" (Overmind) arc. At four issues
(113-116) it is as long as the longest stories so far (the visit to
Latveria, and Ben being kidnapped by the Skrulls). But the final issue
will be extra sized (FF116 is one of the extra long "25 cent" issues
published just for that month), making this the longest arc so far
- The 100 issue cycle
Although we can argue about when arcs begin and end, the only decisively
longer arc will be exactly one hundred issues later: the Andromeda
(Xandar computers) arc, FF204-214. It will have numerous parallels, and
can be seen as the same story but with Reed having progressed to a new
stage. See the notes to FF117 for details.
114Issue 114: Hamlet's ghosts
The Fantastic Four parallels
Shakespeare's Hamlet. The first time we see this clearly is in
the Over-mind story.
In what follows, please always remember that this site is pro-Reed Richards. His tragic human
flaws must be seen in the context of his unparalleled achievements,
his courage and his pure heart. But for all that he is only human.
Something rotten in the state of Denmark
To understand this issue we need to recap Reed's story so far. Reed
is the world's greatest scientist, one of the world's greatest
heroes, but he is not the world's greatest leader. Science skills
and people skills rarely overlap. As the team grew busier the
pressure on Reed increased. From 1965 he had to juggle married life
as well. Then in 1966 Galactus arrived and Reed felt helpless: so
he devoted himself to uncovering the secrets of subspace, leading to
the discovery of the negative zone and a whole new can of worms.
Whereas in the early days there was plenty of time between
adventures, now they came without any gaps, and Reed began to make
mistakes. We saw it first in FF61 (opening the door to the negative
zone) and since then he's made error after error, even at one point
triggering a major war (FF102). Reed cannot cope.
Now the chickens are coming home to roost. He has lost the respect
of his family. He knows that he risks total meltdown.
All of this would be bad enough for a normal man, but Reed's goals
are sky high. He wants to save the world, to open up the galaxy and
the secrets of the universe, to end all the world's problems. The
gap between his self image (Mr Fantastic) and his mistakes is
intolerable. He bottles it up, but as we saw in FF9 when his mistake
led to bankruptcy, he takes this very personally and "you can
only push a man so far." The psychological strain inside must be
enormous. Something has to snap.
In the play Hamlet
In the play Hamlet, the prince of Denmark finds himself surrounded
by corruption and evil. His father (who claims to be recently
assassinated) appears as a ghost and tells Hamlet to avenge his
death. By the end of the play Hamlet is a murderer, and he and all
the old leaders are dead: Denmark has a new, clean start. The big
question is, did Hamlet really see a ghost? There is evidence that
he is going mad, and it seems very convenient that his father tells
him exactly what he believed already, and gave him an excuse to act
on it. Some critics suggest that the ghost is a figment of Hamlet's
imagination: it's how his unconscious mind lets him murder with a
clean conscience. Other critics say, no: others saw the ghost as
well, Hamlet knows he is only pretending to be mad, and the bad guys
were definitely bad. But none of that proves Hamlet is not mad: the
play is set in medieval times, when it would be perfectly common for
people (such as Hamlet's friends) to interpret minor events as
ghosts. It was also an era where it was common for leaders to be
brutal so the fact that hamlet's enemies are killers doesn't prove
much. Finally, its quite normal for a mad person to know he is mad,
it is also normal to deny it. Basically the jury is still out. But
if we accept the modern view that ghosts do not exist then it's case
closed: Hamlet imagined the ghost, it's how his unconscious mind let
him justify murder.
Reed was under just as much stress as Hamlet, and just as likely to
do something extreme. We cannot imagine how isolated and frustrated
Reed must feel: he is the smartest man in the world, and nobody
understands him. He is trying to save the world and the people won't
let him! We see this stated plainly at the start of FF114. Imagine
how Reed feels! Millions of people will die if people try to stop
him! Nobody understands!
The team hits a new low
Reed's decline continues and the public has noticed: the American
people do not love the FF any more. This happened once
before, in FF7, but then it was due to alien mind control: when
the control was lifted they were still immensely popular, enough
to have a movie made two issues later (FF9). But the difference is that this time,
once the mind control is lifted, the people still feel the same
way (see FF121),. When the Over-mind leaves and Gabriel arrives,
the ordinary people are eager to deliver the FF up to Gabriel. The
FF no longer have respect. It's been a long time since they've
saved the world in any obvious way: since things started going
wrong in FF61 the team have caused as many problems as they've
solved. For every time they have solved one problem (like defusing
Rambow's son) they cause another (Like Reed opening the negative
zone so Blastaar could get out).
He needs somebody to blame
Reed blames Ben for the unpopularity, saying it is because of
Ben's fight with the Hulk. But the people know that the Hulk is
unpredictable - why should that be the last straw? Perhaps they
remember that just a couple of months previous, Reed Richards' bonehead decision
plunged America into war! (See notes to FF102) Reed needs
to blame Ben, but as of the previous issue he no longer has any
hold over Ben. The spell is broken. Ben doesn't roll over and take
it any more. What can he do? Reed's mind must be racing.
Somewhere, deep in his unconscious, he needs a way out!
The following discussion includes images from more than just this
issue: we need to see the whole Over-mind saga (FF113-116) to see
what's really going on.
With Reed under extreme pressure, suddenly the Over-mind appears. It seems like this is a cue
for Reed to triumph again: another Galactus to defeat! The
Over-mind specializes in mental power, which is right up Reed's
street! Reed will beat this new threat, everyone will see how
wonderful he is, and all will be well! How convenient.
O-oooooooookay. But nothing about this Over-mind guy adds up. It
doesn't make sense. Everything is wrong. Here are the clues:
That's the Over-mind??????
The biggest alarm bell is the difference between what the
Watcher says, and what we see. The Watcher warns us of a grave
threat to the universe. Then we get the full history of how
awesome this guy is. Then Agatha Harkness warns the FF to
flee, to save themselves. This guy is clearly Galactus level,
or worse! But when he arrives he's kind of pathetic. His only
proven power is the ability to influence minds (including the minds of
The whole Over-mind story is a huge anticlimax. Byron
Brewer, Managing Editor of "Cosmic Book News" puts it this
way. This guy is the expert on cosmic comic book heroes: "I remember the first exciting
appearance of the Over-mind
and how cosmically powerful he was. This is the second
coming of Galactus, I thought to myself. We finally have a
being to stand toe-to-toe with Big G that is not bound by
vows like the Watcher. Well, needless to say, while fans even today talk
about 'The Galactus Trilogy' and 'The Kree-Skrull War,' when
was the last time you heard of 'The Over-mind Opus'? Probably not
The much-hyped "Overmind" hides
in a scrap yard and zaps stray dogs. He acts like a delusional
hobo. But wait a minute... hiding in scrap yards... growling
dogs... ultimately disappointing... power over minds, and the name "over
mind"... does this remind you of anyone?
The last time we saw somebody "unbeatable" like this, his only real power was a power over the mind, to make people believe he could do things he could not.
He's called a threat to the
universe, but isn't.
The Over-mind is clearly more powerful than, say, Paste Pot
Pete, but there is no evidence that he can actually do what he
says. Earth is the first planet he's visited: he has no track
record. The FF have defeated more dangerous people before:
Galactus, the Molecule Man, Annihilus, the Infant Terrible.
This guy is not in their league. His main power is not even
much of a power. His big selling point is that he combines a
billion minds. So what? Ever heard the parable of the Emperor
of China's nose? It goes like this: in ancient times nobody
was allowed to look on the emperor of China. So nobody knew
how big his nose was. So they took a survey of what every
person thought: they took a hundred million replies, and
averaged them all. The average was extremely precise, to a
thousandth of a millimeter: but it was just as wrong as a
single person's guess. The point of the story is that having
more and more brains is not as good as having one brain with
useful information. The only skill we see is hypnotism: he's
like the Miracle Man from FF3. Sure, we also see him zapping
people, but that's what the Miracle Man did, and it was an
Memories keep getting
This is the smoking gun. When you're battling someone who
keeps wiping your memory you should get very, very suspicious.
The Watcher? He doesn't sound
like the Watcher.
But wait, we have the Watcher to confirm that the Over-mind
really is this great threat to the universe, right? Well maybe
not. The Watcher at the start sure sounds like the Watcher: He
says "beware the Over-mind" and says he can say no more.
OK, that's classic Watcher behavior. So far so good. But then
it gets weird: Agatha Harkness takes them to see "The Watcher"
again and this guy then contradicts what he said ("I may say
no more") and says a whole
lot more. Later he contradicts himself again. He says
that the FF cannot alter the course of events. Then after they
alter the course of events he says, yes, you did it. This
chatty Watcher is not so smart.
This Watcher seems unaware of the rest of the universe. Why
did he call this people the Eternals, when that is the name of
a different group (that the humans would learn about five
years later)? Surely the real Watcher would have different
names for different groups. And then we have his description
of the planet Gigantus as bigger than many galaxies. That
raises so many physics problems... it just sounds like a made
Parallels with FF10
The science of Gigantus is so absurd (see next issue) that it
sounds like a deliberate clue. Dr Doom did something similar in FF 10:
he used an absurd story about gigantic brains (like the
Over-mind's combined brain) to show that he was an over-mind: a man so much smarter than the idiots around him, that he was obviously destined to rule.
Sue ends up going to
Agatha Harkness says that Sue should go and see Dr Doom. Why?
Agatha could have put her in contact with anyone, including
the Avengers, regardless of how busy they are: surely saving
the universe is more important than whatever else they're
doing? She could have put Sue in touch with...
- Iron Man: he's pretty smart and has armor just like Doom,
but unlike Doom he actually values Reed's life
- Or Dr Strange? If Strange can beat Dormammu he can surely
beat this guy who doesn't even have skill in magic.
- Or Thor? If this Over-mind guy is as powerful and as
ancient as we are told then this is right up Thor's street.
- Or Lockjaw? Just bite the guy and take him to a distant
dimension before he knows what's hit him (for someone with a
billion brains he seems pretty easy to distract)
- Or the Silver Surfer? He's plenty powerful, and used to
dealing with cosmic types. In fact, why isn't he here
already? If Gigantus was such a huge big deal in cosmic
history, and if there is really an ancient prophecy about
the Over-mind, surely the Surfer would have heard of it and
OK, so we have a story that's full of holes. But there is a simpler
explanation, if we just stick to the most reliable facts.
Can we question the printed story?
- Things are reaching a crisis.
Reed has been under huge stress, and getting worse. He is
heading for a mental breakdown.
- This is a tipping point.
We suddenly reach a double crisis for Reed: two nails in his
coffin at the same time. Ben finally declares his emotional
independence from Reed. Meanwhile the mayor is announcing
that the FF must be disbanded as a public nuisance.
Subconsciously it's like kicking the last two supports from
Reed's ego. Reed was at his lowest ebb: he is literally bouncing
- This is dangerous!
If Reed ever had a nervous breakdown then he would be a threat
to the universe: Reed Richards once held the ultimate nullifier
and threatened to use it (FF50). He also opened a portal to the
negative zone: an entire universe composed of antimatter, and
full of beings like Annihilus, who would happily end all life,
everywhere. Reed's actions cause distress to Franklin, and this
attracts Galactus. Reed believes he is in control but he isn't.
As Galactus observed, Reed is a child living in a tinderbox, and
he plays with matches. It may not be obvious right now how
important Reed is, but read FF319. By unlocking super
powers Reed is partaking of the power of the Beyonders. He is
leading the planet into a higher state where anything is
possible. His importance cannot be overstated.
- The Watcher brings a warning.
He says "beware the Over-mind" and "I may say no more"
- Something strange then
We are told it's an alien called Over-Mind, but there is
something wrong with that story. We apparently see the Watcher
explaining his origin, but he doesn't act like the Watcher we
- Agatha Harkness is closely
She warns of the Over-Mind, she appears to take the team to the
Watcher, and she finally tells Sue to go to Dr Doom.
- Reed's mind snaps.
Reed has a mental breakdown. He is only saved by remembering the
love of his family.
- The situation is then
Agatha Harkness tells Sue to go to Dr Doom. Then everything is
sorted out, but it leaves many questions,
Surely the alien Over-mind character is in the comic therefore
that's exactly how it happened, right? Well not exactly. What we
read in the comic is not actually what happened, it's what the The
Fantastic Four tell Marvel, and the writers at Marvel then package
it. They then edit it for the Comics Code Authority.
So we do not get all the details, and some may be changed. We have
what is called "an unreliable narrator" and we must use our
intelligence to work out the truth from all the available evidence.
What did the Watcher mean?
Let us look at exactly what the Watcher actually said. I refer to
his first visit. That one was entirely in character. I'm not so sure
about the second visit where he contradicts himself several times.
Let's just stick with the visit we are sure about.
Note that the Watcher answers Reed's question, then says "the fate
of all mankind may well be in your hands" - as if talking to Reed
specifically. He just said that the Over-mind "may change all human
life." Put the two statements together (Over-mind changes all human
life, fate of mankind is in Reed's hands) and this suggests that the
Over-mind is Reed.
Let's apply Occam's razor. Occam's razor says, when comparing
possibilities, we should not multiply elements unnecessarily. (This
principle shaves off unnecessary details, hence the term "razor").
There is no need to imagine a new being called the Over-mind. The Watcher is pointing at the
Übermensch as he speaks: it is Reed Richards!
The "Übermensch", literally "over-man" is a concept from the German philosopher Nietzsche,
The concept is best known from his 1896 book "Thus Spake Zarathustra" (or in German. "Also Sprach Zarathustra").
Nietzsche's idea is that as man advanced he no longer needed God, but
would instead need a more intelligent human, an "over-man" or
"Übermensch", to guide them. Reed Richards saw himself as such an
Übermensch. But history has shown that people who set themselves up as
superior, and do not listen to advice, usually cause disaster. Every
dictator in history has been convinced that he was smarter than everyone
else. Hitler's Nazi party referred to Nietzsche often, and referred to
Jews and others "Untermenschen", inferior men, the opposite of
In his defense, Nietzsche hated anti-semitism, and wanted all
anti-Semites shot (which is itself a form of ideological violence).
And far from being the model of a superior mind, Nietzsche found his
philosophy to be overwhelming and ended his days in a mental
institution. This of course is not in itself proof that superior people
cannot exist, but there are good evolutionary reasons to believe that
when the brain is tuned for one type of intelligence it has fewer
resources for other areas. So people with great social skills are often
very poor at mathematics, and vice versa. The whole concept of a general
purpose "Übermensch" is a dangerous one.
Reed's superior mind?
Reed was a genius in the laboratory, but an idiot out of it. For
example, most of his scientific discoveries were a waste of time: his
son (who he ignored) could have solved all his problems, and if only he
had made friends with the Mole Man he would have discovered that Moley
already had all the technology Reed wanted, including a sub-space
portal. As soon as Ben took over the team he discovered this in a matter
Why being an "Übermensch is so dangerous
Reed had just caused World War Three. He the went right on to discover
nega-energy: energy that could, if mishandled, destroy a galaxy. So the
Watcher was warning the team: Reed had to listen to Sue! This belief in
being the "Übermensch" could destroy the world!
Now the rest of the story suddenly makes sense. If you were Reed
Richards, and you understood the warning. How would you react? You
believe that you have the answers that will save the world, that
your mind should be "over" other people. But here is the Watcher
warning that if you carry on like this you could endanger the
universe. Now people will try to lock you up! Unless... you come up
with a genius plan: make people believe this Over-mind is somebody
else. Then you can defeat the fake Over-mind and that solves
- You regain the respect of your family
- Public dislike of you can be blamed on the Over-mind
controlling their minds.
- You can say and do what you want, and blame it on mind control
- All this success makes you confident again, so you don't crack
- And nobody will suspect what the Watcher really meant. You
could even persuade yourself that this is the outcome the
How do you manufacture a fake Over-mind at short notice? That's
easy. Call on a super-hypnotist like the Miracle Man or someone
like him: just make people think
there is a major threat. But where do you find a Miracle Man who
you can totally trust? Ask your old friend Agatha Harkness of
course. She's a witch who calls on the powers of timeless fear and
prefers to keep her methods secret. She could conjure up a fake
Agatha can be contacted instantly and nobody will suspect
anything if Reed speaks to her in private: people will think they
are just planning how to keep Franklin safe. She can even arrange
a fake Watcher to give the story credibility. But who could Agatha
get to play the part of the Over-mind? Note the strong resemblance
between the Over-mind and Agatha's son, the big pointy bearded
mind controller, Nicholas Scratch. Just un-grease the hair, dye it
red, shrink the mustache, and voila: instant bad-ass alien.
We can't prove any of this of course, but it's the simplest
explanation of the facts, and it explains the lame "Over-mind,"
the unconvincing second Watcher visit, the close involvement of
Agatha Harkness, the choice of Dr Doom (see notes to FF116) and
everything else. It also
explains the events of the following year (Sue trying to fix the
marriage then leaving, Johnny and Ben wanting to get away, the
arrival of Galactus, etc.). It's just the explanation that best
fits the facts.
115Issue 115: infinite ambition: Reed's mind finally snaps
It didn't quite go to plan. Reed was playing with fire,
especially if Nicholas Scratch was involved. Reed threw himself
into his role. But he underestimated his level of stress (and maybe he's
influenced by Scratch). So he says too
Reed's only way out is to go all the way and act
mind controlled, go crazy and leave the building. But is he really
mind controlled or just having a nervous breakdown?
The plan could never work
Reed must know
that plan can never really work. One success would not make people
love him, it would not solve the underlying problems of being
unable to cope, and what if the family found out? He is scared,
angry, running, alone, cracking up.
Gigantus as a metaphor
Gigantus is about a world that is unfeasibly big: about an absurd scale
of ambition. it is a metaphor for Reed's own ambitions. it's a fabulous,
amazing concept, but it cannot possibly work. At least not in this
A mind expanding story
The Fantastic Four is truly a guide to tall the most mind expanding
ideas in the universe - and this one really expands the mind! The idea
of a planet bigger than galaxies is mind blowing. From a story
perspective, this causes so many
physics problems that the simplest explanation is the one
suggested in the previous review: this story is invented by
Agatha. Unlike Reed, Agatha is not a scientist: Reed would never
make such basic errors.
But this issue goes beyond the family drama. It makes us think about
the scale of the universe. It's
awe inspiring. For that alone, this issue is a classic. How big can a
planet become before it collapses under its own weight, and the internal
pressure causes nuclear fusion, turning the plant into a star? And how
big can a star become before gravity prevents it becoming any larger?
This Wikipedia image gives an indication.
(Image: Dave Jarvis, Creative Commons attribution 3.0)
It has been suggested that a super-giant planet could be created by
forming a thin shell around a star. Imagine billions of satellites, all
orbiting a star
at the same distance. Then imagine billions more, until they all join up
to make a solid surface. This is called a Dyson Sphere, but could even this be bigger than an entire galaxy?
We could perhaps imagine some other structure that was galaxy sized. But
galaxies are mostly empty
space. The space between each star is several light years: do the math: a
galaxy is 99.99999999999999999999% empty space. Where would you find
the matter to create a structure,
even a hollow one, of that size? Why would you want to? The only way to
envision such a thing is to imagine that the "Eternals" were in fact
gaseous creatures and their "Planet" is made of very, very
low density gas. But the story suggests it is solid, at least to some extent.
To make this work we have to speculate so far that nothing can be as it
was described in the story. It only makes sense if the alleged "Watcher"
changed absolutely every detail. And if everything is changed, why not
cut the Gordian knot? Agatha made it up. But what a concept!
Of course, Gigantus is only impossible in our own universe. As a witch,
Agatha would be aware of parallel universes where the laws of physics are
slightly different. perhaps there, Gigantus could be real!
Other points to note
- Star Trek
Ben refers to Star Trek on page 6 as he humorously guesses the
ending to the story.
At the end we learn that Ben has a ticklish spot that only Reed
can find! Probably because Reed can stretch into the cracks
between rocks. The idea of Ben being ticklish may seem absurd,
but makes sense. He is self conscious about his skin, yet nobody
can touch it (the slightly more sensitive parts between the
rocks). He has a stressful relationship with Reed, both loving
and hating him in equal measure. It is easy to imagine that Reed
could use the sensitivity and stress, and the fact that Ben
cannot scratch any itch, to cause both gargalesis (gentle itchy
tickling) and knismesis (harder tickling.)
- The first non Stan issue
This is the first issue where Stan Lee did not write all the
dialog. He shares writing credits with Archie Goodwin. Stan
spent several months away from comics, writing a screenplay
called "The Monster Maker." It never became a movie. Stan
returned to the comics a few months later then left for good,
finishing with FF 225.
116Issue 116: only love can save him; and Doom's great turning point
Reed has a nervous breakdown. Nicholas Scratch (if it is he - it
could be any mind controller) seems to be enjoying Reed's
weakness. Reed sowed the seeds of his own destruction when he took
this desperate gamble to involve Agatha and black magic: black
magic has its own agenda.
Why does Agatha say to go to Doom? If we take the story on face
value then it makes no sense: Sue could contact plenty of other
better candidates (the silver surfer, Thor, etc.) but if in fact
the Over-mind is a fake that got out of control, created by Agatha
Harkness, then only Doom can save Reed. Only Doom has:
- great intelligence, power and determination
- AND an understanding of sorcery.
But is it safe to expose Reed to his greatest enemy when he is so
weak? Yes, but only if this is a story of Reed's genuine nervous
breakdown. Doom's greatest need is to prove himself better than
others. and especially Reed. Doom would love nothing more than to
find Reed as a self-induced quivering wreck, then rescue him, and
have Reed spend the rest of his life knowing that Doom was strong.
If Reed was in fact just controlled by someone else than Doom
would have no interest in saving him, except to destroy him again.
But if Reed has intellectually failed, then Doom will want to
preserve him forever.
Doom's turning point
This was not entirely satisfying to Doom: he was brought to his
knees as well, and was not able to completely defeat the enemy
(Scratch?) Once weakened, Agatha was able to take her "over-mind"
away under the disguise of a quick deus ex machina illusion.
However, after this point Doom never again bothered to humiliate
Reed for its own sake. Doom had won. Before this he was obsessed
with proving his superiority. From now on he only attacks the FF
if they are in the way of his other plans.
Sue's independence begins here
Reed fails Sue, and Sue has to be the tough one. Her independence
begins here. She does not want to be separate, In the months that
follow she tries to make it work, but it's over between them, until
Reed can start to change.
Other points to note
- Doom and Reed
Doom is Reed's mirror: Twice he temporarily replaces Reed in the
team: 116 (against the over-mind, 318? (against the Beyonder).
Each time, as with Reed, we find the ultimate power is not as
ultimate as we thought, there is always something bigger (even
the Beyonder is just part of a cosmic cube). For an overview of
Doom's character and his development in his twenty appearances see his own page.
- Reed's relationships
Sue and Franklin - are more powerful
than his personal genius.
In this issue the
Fantastic Four are no longer loved by the public. This reflects
the realization at Marvel that sales
have declined steadily for three years now (at first they
put it down to a temporary blip, but now it can't be ignored.
But they fail to see the connection with 1968).
- Page count
This is an over-sized issue, with 30-something pages of art.
This was the brief period when Marvel tricked DC into also
increasing their page count. The price of course jumped (from
15c to 25c). Then Marvel quickly switched back (with a new rice
of 20c). But DC had invested too much in the change, and took
longer to change back. The higher cover price was a disaster and
caused Marvel to grab a lot of market share and DC never
117Issue 117: the last attempt to rescue the marriage
Note that the comic reports what the team tell the, and also has
to be new reader friendly. Anything too personal and painful will
be hidden, but their actions speak volumes:
- Reed and Sue need a vacation to try to rescue their marriage.
As we shall see in FF127, these efforts are desperate attempts
by Sue to paper over deep cracks.
- Johnny is in so much emotional pain that he has to get
- Ben is depressed, as he has been since Reed became alpha male.
But that is about to change.
Note the irony this is a family, a team, but each member is
obsessed with their own problems (except Sue). The story of the FF
is how they finally learn to put others first.
- Reed - considers ONLY his ideas have merit. In Act 5 he
finally listens to Sue and realizes that there are other ways to
save the world.
- Johnny - thinks the only solution is for Crystal to join "the
team" meaning HIS team (she already did - but he never considers
joining HER team. For other ways he lost her, see Crystal.html)
FINALLY (214,285,300) sees beyond hot-headed fun.
- Ben cannot see past what he sees as his ugliness. "Do you
want to be like me?" But in act 5 he will realize he isn't
ugly,he's just different, and awesome! He will accept himself
for who he is, and finally be happy.
Other points to note
- Is it an unlikely coincidence that Lockjaw teleports to Diablo?
No: as we see in FF308, Diablo the master of alchemy has a natural
connection with Crystal the elemental. Teleportation works by
manipulating connections across dimensions, so this affinity is like a
- We are reminded here that Johnny can travel thousands of miles
on his flame, whereas i the early days he felt he couldn't go
far without rests. As with Ben, the
limits to his power are largely in his head, and when he lets
loose he can do far more than he realizes. In act 5, when he
finally achieves peace, he finds he can even "burn" underwater
and defy gravity (in FF322) - that
last ability freaks out Franklin, who then shifts the entire
Marvel Universe into a parallel dimension from which it still
hasn't escaped, but that's another story.
118Issue 118: "the goddess of making children"
The Fantastic Four is a family drama, and the story of one romantic
struggle now merges with another.
This issue hints at the truth about Crystal, and how this 28 year
story leads to the next. At
first glance, Crystal is an enigma:
- She left her people, yet her people love being isolated. It's
in their genes.
- Crystal is open with her emotions, yet her people are all
- Crystal is deeply attracted to Johnny, when other girls are
not (see notes to FF104): why does she see his potential when others
- When Johnny fails her, she immediately marries someone else.
This was not marrying on the rebound - Johnny still loved her,
but something inside made her suddenly switch.
- When her husband then lost interest in her, she became
susceptible to Maximus' mind control and grabbed the next man
- The cheap and sexist answer is that "Crystal is a slut." But
that contradicts everything we know about her (See her own page for details). She is
pure, intensely loyal, and old fashioned. Yet sometimes a switch
flips i her head and she has to grab a certain man. Why?
Some readers have pointed out an answer, in the nature of Inhuman
society. The Inhumans are obsessed with genes. It's their
obsession, they practically worship genetics. "By Argon's Genes"
they say. But as a closed society genetic in breeding is a huge
problem, particularly in their isolated royal family. So it has
been suggested that every few generations Inhuman DNA will throw
up a special being who's purpose is to expand the gene pool. A
princess will be born who's role is to find the strongest genes
she can outside of the Inhumans, and marry him and bring him back
to ensure genetic health for the next generation. This explains
why Crystal homed in on Johnny Storm: although he's forced into a
junior role in the team, he;'s the only one who loves being a
superhero, and his destiny is
as the leader of the Fantastic Four: as we saw in his
Strange Tales series, and whenever he works alone, he's pretty
darn good at what he does. Johnny's natural value is finally
confirmed in Jonathan Hickman's historic run, climaxing in FF600:
the adult Franklin says that Johnny is his hero. So Crystal,
genetically bred to find the greatest of all alpha male genes,
homed in on Johnny.
When Johnny repeatedly showed himself unwilling to live with the
Inhumans, Crystal's genes kicked in and she found another hero who
would. She couldn't help it. She didn't really love Quicksilver,
but her biological clock was screaming. However, Quicksilver's
offspring Luna was born without any powers. Yes, she could be
given power, but it shows that their genes are not really
compatible, and Crystal made a disastrous mistake. it was at that
low point that Maximus, fully aware of the power of hormones,
clouded her mind, and in her desperate dream like state she hooked
on to the next fertile male who appeared willing. A mistake she
always regretted, but took full responsibility for, even though it
wasn't her fault.
So we see that Crystal is a kind of goddess of fertility. This
appears to be confirmed in this issue: she takes the role of
Ixchel, goddess of childbirth.
"Ixchel is the 16th-century
name of the aged jaguar goddess of midwifery and medicine in
ancient Maya culture. [she is] “the goddess of making
children” ( - Wikipedia)
Above: the ruins of Ixchel's temple, from Selkirk's
Ixchel is also the goddess of the moon. The Inhumans ended up on
the moon, and the transition fro the 28 year story to the next generation is when
Johnny heads to the moon to be reunited with Crystal.
Crystal is the great link between the current 28 year story and
the next generation. She represents the union of the four
elements, whereas the Fantastic Four each represent just one.
The alchemical wedding
But surely Diablo chose this particular goddess at random? Not a
chance.How likely is is that Lockjaw just happened to bring Crystal
to Diablo fore no reason? Diablo called him somehow, no doubt using
his potions as scents (Lockjaw can track scents across dimensions,
as we see in FF160). Romantic coupling is a central theme of
alchemy: the coupling of people representing the combination of
chemical elements. Perhaps the most famous of all alchemical texts
is the "Chemical Wedding": it "tells
us about the way Christian Rosenkreuz was invited to go to a
wonderful castle full of miracles, in order to assist the Chymical
Wedding of the king and the queen, that is, the husband and the
Notice the parallels? The castle of miracles (see FF30), and
attracting royalty. Diablo is a great alchemist. Hes not the
greatest fighter, but he would understand Crystal's significance
The backup story: Ben starts to see Reed's point of view
This is an extra sized issue (Marvel was briefly experimenting
with bigger comics: see notes to FF116), and has a superb back up
feature. As a huge Lockjaw fan, and obsessed with the deeper
feelings below the surface, this story is gold to me.
Our Reed is also a tragic
figure, like Ben
In this story, Ben's eyes are opened. He's given a lot to think
about: it will take him many months to process this: Reed is also
a tragic figure. True, this is a parallel world Reed, but there
are parallels. Our Reed is just as trapped, by is actions and
inability to change. Our Reed does not know how to connect with
his son or his wife or his friends. Our Reed is seeing his
triumphs begin to crumble, and does not know what to do. He is
just as trapped as if he had a rocky body. This foreshadows the
rest of acts 4 and 5:
- Reed's depression
- Reed realizes that his great ideas do not always work.
- Ben sees another Thing who has it even worse than him: it
foreshadows the She-Thing in Act 3.
Other points to note
- The two Things next meet in FF160: see notes to that that
issue for more details.
- The cover shows Reed with a right hand on his left arm. This is part of a pattern. click
- Zeitgeist: the splash page to "What mad World" is modeled on
the (then popular) art style from Mad Magazine.
- Crystal had to leave because of pollution. There is less
pollution in a central American jungle so she was in little
danger of collapsing. Her home is cleaner still, so she heads
there at the end.
119Issue 119: racism
This issue, for those who missed the latter issues of Strange
Tales, shows that Johnny and Ben can work well together. Reed does
not have to be with them all the time. With Johnny and Ben on the
case, they can handle it. This foreshadows the next generation.
The last issue dealt with Ixchel, and hinted at Crystal's role in
uniting two race. So this naturally leads to an issue about
racism. As the Great American Novel, and based on the political
zeitgeist of the day, racism (and terrorism) had to appear.
Equality is one of the four permanent themes of the FF, and the
one that Reed most needs to learn.
How this follows from previous
Just as Johnny had to get away, so does Ben. No sooner does Johnny
come back than Reed finds an excuse to send them both away. Reed
is feeling like a failure: true, he says he's working on a cure
for Crystal, but he doesn't expect much success. He's just under
stress and needs to be alone.
Ben and racism
Note that Ben's condition is itself a metaphor for racism. Ben is
not ugly at all. he's just different. But as long as he believes
his skin is wrong he will feel inferior. He won't accept his skin
until act 5, when he meets one of his own people. Then he will no
doubt be able to change at will, as he did on Battleworld. But to
see Ben's skin as a problem, one that is fixed by becoming more
like the dominant group, is racist.
Signs of great tension in the
"The story opens with a typical bickering scenario
between the Human Torch and the Thing." (source)
Actually this is not typical at all: it's the first serious
bickering since Act 2. It's a sign of great tension in the family.
Reed asks Ben and Johnny to go. Helping Crystal is a convenient
excuse: Reed and Sue need time alone.
A historic issue
First Roy Thomas; first new title
The arrival of Roy Thomas brings a more serious tone. it also brings a
more modern title, the first ever new title since issue 1 (apart from
minor tweaks like removing "the" and adding a slight 3D effect). This is
probably the last date we can call "the end of the silver age".
"My own defining Bronze Age Marvel moment was the use of a new logo on
issue #119 (cover date February 1972), written by Roy Thomas, who was to
take over scripting Fantastic Four permanently with issue #126 (cover
date September 1972), with a new telling of the groups origin, and
ostensibly a fresh start. I would claim #126 as being the start of the
Fantastic Four’s Bronze Age, though I could be convinced otherwise." (source)
Other points to note
- Leopards and panthers
The Black panther calls himself the Black Leopard, to avoid
any political statement about the Black panther party. A panther
is a leopard, so in T'Challa's own language his name has not
changed at all.
The start of the issue features a robot called Auntie, an
early version of Herbie (from FF209-217)
Ben and Johnny choose to take a scheduled plane rather than
their own transport, and then that plane is hijacked. Saving the
plane gave Ben and Johny much needed credibility in Rudyardia.
There are three possible explanations:
- Ben and Johny stumbled on the hijacker by chance? Highly
- The Wakandans have probably the greatest tracking technology
in the world, and are using it to watch what goes in and out
of Rudyardia, desperate to find their king. If anybody was
planning a hijack they would know it, and could alert Ben and
Johnny. They do not want to be blamed if a plane is hijacked
an then their king escapes: the events will seem to be linked.
- The hijacker and "victim" could be Wakandan agents using a
fake grenade. After the agent is handed over to police he
could easily escape using Wakandan technology and training.
But capturing him would give Ben and Johnny much needed
credibility in Rudyardia.
South Africa was not the
only nation with apartheid in the early 1970s. This story
foreshadows Rhodesia's rejection of apartheid (at least for a
time) and its change to its original name, Zimbabwe. "Rudyardia"
appears to be a thinly veiled version of
Rhodesia, named after Cecil Rhodes, and gives me an excuse to
show one of my favorite pictures, Rhodes measuring Africa for the
The country is called Rudyardia, presumably named after
Rudyard Kipling. Kipling, author of "You're a better man than me,
Gunga Din" may not have been as racist as people assume, but that's a topic for
120Issue 120: the beginning of the end for Reed
This issue is the event (the coming of Gabriel) where Reed
finally pushes himself over the edge, mentally. Starting at this
point he won't stop until he collapses in FF224. He will push
himself harder and harder, rushing from one crisis to another,
trying to solve everything himself, until he finally collapses
with exhaustion. This will give Sue time to think, and she finally
walks out. The core problem is Reed's lack of people skills, which
leads him to try to do everything himself when others are better
What else could he have done?
It may seem unfair to criticize Reed for taking on too much. What
else could he have done? Well several things, if he had slowed
down enough to think.
- Franklin has the power to protect them. Granted, this is not
obvious yet. it doesn't become really obvious until FF141 and
FF150, but Reed is extremely intelligent. If he had spent the
last three years getting to know his son as a father should,
then maybe he could have figured it out.
- Gabriel acts like the surfer did: Reed doesn't know he's a
herald at first, but it's a reasonable guess. Last time it was
Alicia who talked the surfer round. Gabriel also acts like
Namor, declaring war on the human race. Sue is pretty good at
talking Namor round. Then the first response should be to talk
to the guy: get the girls involved.
- Gabriel has the power over air, and also likes to control
water and other elements. Remind you of anyone we've seen
recently? Yes Crystal. Why not contact her?
- Gabriel is a sudden threat from outer space. We saw in FF51
that Reed likes to be prepared for cosmic threats like this. The
obvious defense is to have a permanent way of contacting the
Silver Surfer. After all, the Surfer said he owed hem a favor,
and even if he didn't he's still a decent guy. Why not call him
However, all of these approaches require people skills. They are
about communicating and friendship. Reed is not good at that. So
rather than delegate to somebody who is (like Sue) he blunders
into the problem and does no good at all. We see this at the very
start., against the terrorists. Sue is plainly humoring him,
letting Reed beat them so he feels good. But Sue could have
defeated them with a forcefield in seconds.
FF119 and FF120 both feature terrorists: terrorism was always in
the news on the early 1970s.
Other points to note:
- Ben no longer respects Reed as a leader (though still respects
him as a man, a man with a heart of gold but feet of clay...
much like the vain statue in Nebuchadnezzar's dream in the book
of Daniel). Before FF113 Ben's status was dependent on Reed's
experiments. After the Over-mind debacle he no longer cares what
Reed thinks. He sits in Reed's lab, chewing a cigar and reading
whatever the heck he wants to, while Reed works. He's showing
Reed what he thinks.
- On the cover of Ben's magazine: Mary Jane Watson from
Spider-Man. Although "pin up parade" suggests porn, Ben grew up
in the 1930s and is more likely to be reading of a swimsuit
models. But it does represent his low emotional state and the
tragedy of his inability to commit.
- Note the Biblical element:the
angel Gabriel announced the birth of Christ. This Gabriel is
supposed to announce a good
thing, from Franklin's point of view. Gabriel's color scheme is
red and yellow: not the usual villainous green and purple.
Franklin wants his parents to be together again, and Galactus is
the one with the power who can maybe make it happen. Franklin is
four years old (two in Marvel Time), so don't expect
sophistication from his thinking at this point.
- Agatha Harkness warns the team, because Gabriel was summoned
by a distressed Franklin and Agatha his guardian, would
magically sense anything that close to her.
- The silly start?
Why is the first six pages spent on an easy to defeat threat? To
demonstrate the team problems at this point. For example, "Why didn't Sue use her force field against the
terrorists?" More than once the team has used a fight
as a way to cheer each other up. These are easy to defeat, so
Sue makes a point of only using invisibility, allowing Reed to
be the hero at the end. She could have stopped them at any point
with her force field, but the point of this interlude is not the
silly threat. The point of this interlude is Reed's need to
succeed at something.
The remainder of this four part story will show Reed growing
increasingly desperate. This is Reed's final attempt to be Mr
Fantastic, Mr Wonderful, Mr I-Can-Fix-Anything. Once it's over
he will collapse (FF124), Sue will leave (FF126) and his failure
will be complete.
- "Worst of all was this
particular piece of dialog after Reed gets bashed: 'Be
careful, BEN! Anyone who could fell Reed so easily...' That
would be Mr Fantastic, the human rubber band." But
that's the whole point: anybody who can damage someone like Reed
must have something more dangerous than Brute strength. A normal
super powered impact would not harm Ben.
121Issue 121: alienating their friends
This issue is about alienation.
Alienation of the public
In the Over-mind saga we saw ordinary people turn against the
team. Then it was blamed on mind control. But it's wasn't, because
they do it again now. Some readers see the public anger as sudden
and unexplained, but it's been building since Reed caused World
War III in FF103.
Alienation of Sue
Why have the FF made so many mistakes? They used to be popular
with the public. The change may be because of Sue. Back in the
early 1960s when Sue had a higher profile the FF were more
popular. They had a minor B movie (FF9). Magazines would come to
take their photo, and would focus on Sue. Sue is extremely
likable. The team handled publicity well, and the people were on
their side. But when Sue married Reed she became more submissive.
Reed became the mouthpiece for the team, and he isn't good at
All of Reed's interactions are disastrous. For example, Reed
tells Johnny to form a wall of flame. He literally inflames the
situation! Reed would put a fire out by pouring on oil. There was
no need for that wall of flame:
- If they hit Reed their hands bounce off.
- If they hit Ben he doesn't feel it.
- If they hit Johnny they burn their hands.
- If they hit Sue she has a forcefield.
The team is in no danger. They should talk, or leave. A wall of
flame just confirms that they're dangerous.
Alienation of Franklin: why Galactus arrives
In this arc (FF121-123) Galactus acts like a spoiled child: he
wears short trousers, shows poor reasoning skills, prefers
fighting to talking, and plays with a giant train set. For why Galactus is now so childish
see the discussion by FF74. This is a four year old's
version of Galactus: Franklin wants to see his family defeat a bad
guy. He learns about angels, so has his family beat an angel. His
story even involves a fun fair with a roller coaster!
Alienation of allies
This problem only escalated because Reed is not on chatting terms
with his allies (see notes to FF120).
Realism and Marvel comics
Realism and the news: did all
industry really shut down?
Why don't they rely on other super heroes? This is a strong
argument that other super heroes being less numerous and less
powerful than their own comics suggest. Within the world of the
FF, only the FF report their acts to Marvel: other superhero
stories are made up.
A news reporter says that all industry has shut down. But newspapers
always look for the most sensational quote, which is generally just
one point of view. It is unlikely that everything in the world did
shut down. Either way, Galactus then says "mine is the power to set
all to rights again!" and gestures and instantly turns things back
to the way they were. This would explain why New Yorkers do not
remember these events. A similar Galactus reset occurred after New
York' trauma in Byrne's run. This creates plausible deniability: we
can still imagine the story occurred in the real world, our world,
and Galactus made us forget. This realism is not broken until the
end of the 28 year story, in FF322. FF322 has the first major event
that cannot be explained the way.
Other points to note
- This Galactus trilogy invites comparison with the original
Galactus trilogy. The difference is that this is mostly by Stan
Lee and the other was mostly by Jack Kirby. It helps us to see
what each creator contributed: Jack's signature stories
typically involve god-like beings and new ideas. Stan's
signature stories are typically about human fallibility and are
easy to read.
122Issue 122: more haste, less speed
This issue sums up Reed's problem: he does not think. I know I
overuse the word irony, but it so often applies to Reed. The
smartest man in the world fails because he does not stop to think.
The cover to this issue shows a roller coaster: this is a roller
coaster ride all the way. Crazy, childish, fun, pointless. If Reed
used his brain a little more he might notice some things:
Perhaps I'm being too hard on him It's easy to be an armchair
critic, and much harder when faced with Galactus on your doorstep.
But the bottom line is that later events showed that there are much
bigger questions at play: Galactus is the herald of Franklin! Sure,
Reed did not know this, but he is smart enough to know that it is
better to prevent a problem than cure it. Reed should have devoted
his brain to the bigger abstract issues, not creating a new kind of
plastic (at the start of this arc, FF120). People as smart as Reed
are very rare. He has a duty to apply his brain to the important
matters, he cannot afford to waste his time on small inventions, or
run around so fast that he makes mistakes. He needs to stop and see
the bigger picture.
- He says "No time to explain! We're not deserting them!"
No time to explain? "Got to get to his ship" would have taken
- "No time to explain" means Sue can't help. Reed acts as if she
is brainless, but in big questions like this she is smarter than
Reed. Reed is superb at physics, but he's a lousy strategist. In
the past, Sue has turned entire races from enemies into friends
(Namor's people, the Inhumans, the Poppuppians - as we shall see
in FF170). Also, her intuition has never been wrong. So keeping
her in the dark is stupid, and a huge waste of time (not to
mention endangering the Earth)
- Spending more time communicating could have solved the problem
long ago (see notes to FF120).
- Reed carries Sue, and this must surely slow him down. Why not
encourage her to experiment with her force field? In FF232 she
finds she can use it to fly. True, she has less power now, but
with practice she could scoot along at a rapid pace. But she
won't be able to practice until Reed's influence has waned (e.g.
in FF171 after the near divorce, or in FF219 when Reed has lost
- Johnny shows his amazing creativity, creating flame doubles of
himself. Johnny could so some amazing stuff if only Reed gave
him more control.
- The whole plan is mad: use Galactus's ship against him? If
Galactus makes this so easy then Galactus must want it to
happen. The reason with him instead.
- The whole problem has a simple solution. Galactus needs a
herald. The surfer wants to fly in space again. In FF77 the
surfer found a planet that could feed Galactus without murdering
anyone: why not use that as the start for a new look at solving
the problem once and for all, shall we?
So this whole issue is about Reed being too busy to think. it's
an age old problem that every manager finds sooner or later. The
Fantastic Four may feature space gods and super heroes, but it's
really about the real world.
- "Galactus is goofy looking.
I'm not talking about the helmet, which I really dig, or even
his chest piece with its short sleeves. No, the thing which
makes me cringe is his skirt/short pants..." This makes sense
when we consider the link with Franklin: see the discussion by FF74.
Franklin is four years old at this point (two in Marvel Time),
and four year old boys usually wear short trousers. The legs are
recolored blue in some reprints, but Galactus' other behavior
suggests he is child-like.
- How did Reed know how to control the ship? Reaching the ship
was the Silver Surfer's idea, and he tried it first,. So he
probably told Reed what he needed to know.
123Issue 123: understanding Reed's point of view
This issue shows Reed at his most intense: in just a few pages he
battles Galactus, he gambles the whole world, he defies the
Surfer, he is shot, he speaks to every person on planet, he is
hated then becomes a global hero, he then spends just a few
seconds with his son and is then on his way to saving the world
again. This is Reed's world! He has to run, run, run, to save
everybody. Nobody is as smart as him! This is why he has no time,
no sympathy, for those who don't do things his way! And any question of
spending time with his son is absurd, don't we see the dangers?
Isn't it clear that he does everything for others? People who know
him will sacrifice their lives for him (see FF51 or FF183). How
can anybody doubt that he's one of the greatest men who ever
This is Reed's greatest triumph, saving the world (apparently)
and being hero worshiped by all nations. Yet it leads to physical
and mental collapse and his wife leaves him. Clearly there is more
going on than "Reed is amazing and Sue doesn't see it."
The Great American Novel
The greatest novels reflect the real world, and show complex
people. Reed represents every powerful leader ever. I am writing
this in the week that Margaret Thatcher died, and she illustrates
the case perfectly. Many of those who knew her, even her critics,
were struck by her personal kindness and generosity of spirit.
Nobody can deny that she changed Britain, and to some extent the
world. Her supporters say she turned Britain from an economic
laughing stock, a country in decline and on its knees, to a proud
powerhouse and example to the world. Yet her critics say that any
financial improvement was due to technological change that
happened anyway, an unexpected windfall from North Sea oil, and
short term banking speculation that later plunged the whole world
into the recession we see now. The critics further point to
homelessness (she sold off council houses) inequality (she
crippled the unions), support for dictators, and a host of other
perceived crimes. The point is that a person who is obviously a
hero to one person is obviously flawed to another. The greatest
novelists deal with this. Shakespeare's
Julius Caesar explores this. Victor Hugo's Les Miserables has
whole chapters on whether Napoleon was a monster who plunged
Europe into war, or whether (as Hugo argues) he left a legacy of
better laws and a weakening of corrupt monarchies?
The Fantastic Four just tells the story. It is up to the reader to
decide what it means. Personally I am on the side of Reed as great
hero. That is what makes his human weaknesses all the more
Foreshadowing the crisis of
The surfer says Reed is "courageous" to entrust his son to a
witch. It reminds us of the use of "brave" in the TV comedy "yes
minister": "That was a brave decision, minister" is code for "that
was monumentally stupid and anybody with eyes can see it." Reed
claims they did not know she was a witch, yet he stuck to his
decision. Agatha will soon betray their son to Annihilus.
Other points to note:
- Here is Richard Nixon before his fall from grace. He's even on
the cover, the only the that happened for a president of the
United States. Supporters of Nixon could argue that his
strengths (his economic policy, ending the Vietnam war, opening
up China) were huge and his sins, principally Watergate, are far
less than those presidents who create wars or destroy economies.
They could argue a parallel with Reed Richards: whatever his
weaknesses he is still a hero. Critics could say that Nixon was
always untrustworthy, and point to parallels with the new Reed Richards and his
actions in Civil War. Others, more cynical, could argue that
ordering a hotel to be bugged was nothing compared with invading
other nations and spying on the entire American public as later
presidents did: they can further argue that his economic
policies, his steps to ending of the Vietnam war and his
visiting China are far greater than his mistakes. The prominent
use of Nixon reflects the theme of this issue: seeing Reed as
both villain and hero.
- "Do you suppose Stan's
portrayal of the military as hot-headed and arrogant was a jab
at our armed forces, representative of societal views of the
day, or am I perhaps making a mountain out of a mole hill?"
- At one point Nixon does something he thinks s not the best,
because an election is coming. This indicates how the Fantastic
Four was a reflection of the zeitgeist: that comment
- The surfer is sometimes compared to Jesus Christ (with
Galactus like the popular image of the destructive God of the
Old Testament). In this issue the surfer is willing to sacrifice
himself for mankind, preaches peace, and heals the sick,
bringing Reed back from the brink of death and giving him the
peace he needs. More
Biblical parallels in the FF are here.
124Issue 124: the fall of Icarus
This is where Reed's dramatic fall begins. Appropriately he
literally falls out of the sky, from the amazing flying machine that
he himself designed. He is like Icarus, who lost his wings because
he tried to do too much: he flew too close to the sun. But Icarus is
not remembered for his pride, he is remembered because he did
actually fly! Reed is a hero who tried to do too much. Sue and Ben
and Johnny are like his mentor Daedalus: Ben is the test pilot,
Johnny designed and improved the flaying car, and Sue is his parter.
If he had listened to them some more he would never have fallen. But
then the story wouldn't have been as interesting then either. Nobody
would have remembered if Icarus had not fallen.
The first issue without Reed
"The members of the FF have rarely, before now, been given the
chance to operate on their own" (-FF1by1)
So we see how badly they act now that Reed is unable to micromanage.
Note that in the early days Johnny was far more capable (e.g. in his
Strange Tales solo stories, or in FF4, FF17, etc.), but like Ben his
spirit is crushed. Sue's spirit was submissive right from the start,
despite her being the most capable
member of the team, so she will be the first one to become
independent and take control, finally becoming the unofficial leader
by FF 158. (Ben becomes the official leader by FF307, and Johnny is
due to lead the team when time
Other points to note
Why repeat old stories?
- This two-parter is the last Stan Lee story. Stan is leaving
day to day involvement with comics, only to come back for the
occasional special project (such as "the Last Fantastic Four
Story"). Sales have been declining since 1968, and the general
mood was often pessimistic. An exhausted Reed baling out of the
Fantasticar could represent Stan Lee himself.
- Johnny's flame shows his hair and facial details. Sean
Kleefeld, on his FFPlaza site, speculated that this was due to
Johnny experimenting with a thinner plasma layer. A thinner
layer meant more could be seen underneath.
- Johnny's freedom to experiment, and Sue's more active role
this issue, reflect the fact that Reed is no longer in control.
The only one who does not show an increase in independence is
Ben. Although FF120 showed a release of pressure, his depression
is far deeper than the others' and will take longer to lift.
Also Ben is sick, as will become apparent in the next story,
with the Mole Man. Possibly his illness is a reflection of the
uncertainty at this point: Ben is old fashioned in his views: he
likes stability. Reed spent years undermining him, and now that
Reed's credibility has gone Ben may be unconsciously wondering
what happens next.
The loss of Stan Lee is a period of great uncertainty in Marvel (and
also in America). At times of uncertainty we look back to the past:
these issues are all pale reflections of previous triumphs.
- FF120-123 is Galactus again.
- FF124-125 is the Monster from the Lost Lagoon again.
- FF126-128 is the Mole Man again.
- It is followed by a period where everything goes wrong (Ben
is weak, then Johnny loses Crystal, and Sue leaves Reed.) The
title will not feel confident again until Sue returns in 150,
then there will be a brief flowering, superb original stories
between 150 and 200, climaxing in the "final" defeat of Doom,
but it will be a false dawn.
Repeating old stories reflects the theme of Act 4: a refusal to
move forwards. This reflects Reed's decline, and attempt to hold
on to past glories. It also reflects Stan Lee's decision to leave
comics to try to make a living in movies: he does not realize that
his talent is in comics, in moving forwards, Instead Lee lost
interest in comics and tried to go back to the movies he loved as
a child. But Stan's scripts did not impress anybody in Hollywood,
just as rehashing the lost lagoon story does not stand up to the
original (which ironically was itself a homage to the movie, but a
single issue homage is delightful, whereas returning for a double
issue repeat looks like a lack of imagination.)
Criticisms of this issue (source)
Layers upon layers...
So the story reflects Reed's mistake which in turn reflects Stan's
mistake, which as the Great American Novel reflects America at the
time: stuck in the past, with Vietnam as a longer and even worse
copy of Korean war, and a leader (Nixon) falling from greatness.
These criticisms are minor and easily answered, but some (such as
regarding Johnny and Ben's powers) illustrate deeper points that are
easy to overlook.
- "The highly unlikely timing
of Reed’s fainting" - or a story that was building for
ten years. As previous reviews have shown, Reed has pushed
himself too far. He only collapses because he finally lets
himself relax: the adrenalin stops and the body has nothing else
to keep it going.
- "Funny how she moved a
boulder with a stick that held back that much water pressure;
every other time it was her invisibility powers that saved the
day." No doubt she used both. There was no need to add
extra dialog for such a trivial point.
- "How did our Lagoon friend
know the F.F. would turn up in the hospital?" This is
answered next issue: the alien is highly intelligent, with
advanced technology. He could easily track a flying car to a
hospital. He knew the FF were good people, and had the power to
survive any stresses he might place them under, so they were the
obvious choice. In FF125 Sue implies that any other person could
have helped administer the drugs, but this is not quite true -
other people may have panicked or been injured by the trauma.
- "Mightn't the debris of
flaming church spires and exploded water towers cause
collateral damage?" It was just shown in FF119 that
Johnny is careful to deposit the waste in a disused chimney near
the Baxter Building. They probably pay the rent for that chimney
for exactly that purpose.
- "At the hospital why does
one citizen not recognize the Thing?" The nurse was
thinking about another monster and suddenly saw Ben: she had no
reason to expect him and it was a split second reaction, before
she had time to think.
- "Why does another not know
that Sue "Storm" has been married for seven years?" Sue
was known as "Sue Storm" when she first became famous, and for
another four years (1961-1965). Time began to stretch around the
team in 1968, so this date (1972) only feels like four years
later. Not everybody keeps up to date with every celebrity.
- "Why didn't Ben remember? He of all people should see
things from the monster's point of view." (This criticism
is from FF1by1.com). This
illustrates Ben's self obsession. Whereas Reed is the obvious
weak point, Ben is not able to rise up and take his place
because he is too self absorbed and so he does not see clearly.
That is the tragic theme of act 4: Reed is unable to lead, but
he had infantalized the others so they cannot take his place.
- "How does Ben fix a hole by
pulling the ends together? He is magically creating more wall
to keep the other sides from ripping out?" See superscience for the answers.
- "Then we get the treat of
Crappy Torch flaming on inside the hospital and pissing off a
doctor ... Johnny is an a-hole." This is a highly
stressful time for the team, as these reviews show. Give him a
break. Johnny was always the confident one but this is the time
when he starts to have self doubts (particularly about his
inability to do the right thing with for Crystal.)
- "Why does Stan call a
hospital lab a 'private testing complex,' and why does it come
complete with a hi-tech rack?" This is why Reed goes
there. It is inconceivable that he would not have expected the
team to be injured at some time or other, and would have funded
a local hospital accordingly.
- "Why doesn’t Sue form a
force field bubble to preserve precious air after she
unwittingly floods the Monster's underground chamber?"
It all happened in a split second. Sue states that she was
trying to push the boulder back with her forcefield, but it was
not enough. There was not time to push the boulder and also grab
some air: Sue did not perfect two force fields at one until
- "Why’d they sub in an old
Kirby panel of the Thing (P. 19, panel 1)?" A reason
becomes apparent when we compare the page to the previous two.
Page 17: Sue is in trouble. Page 19: Reed reacts. But in
between we have page 18: the action stops dead. Why? And the art
looks different - less detailed, more rushed. And look at the abrupt
end to page 17: we should expect to see Sue disappear into the
darkness of a watery grave, but instead the last frame kills
the action and changes scene without warning, showing the most
boring image of the story: Johnny's hand. No wonder we see "zzzzzz"!
The last frame of 17 and first frame of 19 appear to be transitions
intended to shoehorn in page 18.
It looks like Stan had a last minute change of plan and stuck in an
extra page. The newly added page is a refresher for new readers. The
next story, the first by Roy Thomas, serves the exact same purpose.
The second transition frame was perhaps not good enough so Stan
replaced it with a generic shot from another story.
Or perhaps this "who is the monster?" page was originally in the
story, but in its more natural place: before Sue was captured, but
Stan felt the story was becoming too slow, so he brought Sue's
capture forwards. In this scenario he cut and cut and pasted
existing frames, and there simply wasn't a suitable frame to join
back to the main story.
This was not the first time a story was changed after it was
initially drawn. This was quite common: the best known example was
FF108 where the original issue was changed so much that the original
was published years later as a completely new story.
Plot by Gerry Conway?
On the "Eat Geek Play" podcast,
18 minutes in, Gerry Conway says he produced a couple of uncredited
plots for the Fantastic Four right when he started work at Marvel. I
left a message on his Facebook page asking for any further info, and if I
learn more I'll get back to you, but until then I'm guessing it's this
story. This explains why, for the first time ever, Reed is shown with
serious weakness (Stan tried to avoid showing that), and why it shows
signs of editing. Other reasons to think this is by Conway are:
If this is correct then the whole 1970s arc of Reed losing his power is
really down to Gerry Conway. I'll edit this if I find out more,
- Conway's regular stint began with 133, cover dated April 1973, but
his first Marvel work was 1970, so that narrows it down to anything
from 103 to 132. I can't see Stan risking the flagship title in a
complete unknown, so it won't be too early.
- Stan was looking for a different writer. Letting someone plot a
story he was writing would let him examine their work and fix any
- This issue has more visual action than before, of a different kind
- a flood, sickness, etc.- it just feels different to me. But rewriting
an existing story is exactly what we would expect from somebody trying
out, Stan probably said "do a story based on X and I'll see what I think."
125Issue 125: He only did it for Sue.
The creature from the lost lagoon is like Reed.
He is not a monster. He only did what he did because he loved Sue.
Although the rocket flight in FF1 was to beat the Russians, Reed
only took Sue and Johnny because he wanted to impress his
girlfriend, and since then his controlling ways are only because
he wants to protect her. But like the creature he finds it so hard
to communicate. The creature is a scientist, with his own rocket
ship. Just like Reed in FF1, the journey has somehow affected the
woman he loves. He tries to protect her by keeping her away from
others (no feminism here). He is a genius, a creature who works
and struggles to do what he thinks is right, and is so
This story is essentially the same one we saw in FF97, but this time
we see the monster's point of view. In FF97 it was obvious that Reed
was going too far, and should have stayed on the beach with Sue. But
now, with Reed on his sick bed we are more likely to feel sympathy.
Reed can sometimes look like a monster, and this creature is like
Reed. We can only feel sorrow for his plight. it is all the more
poignant that Reed's marriage is about to fall apart because of how
he tries to "protect" Sue.
The emotional end to Stan Lee's run
This was Stan's last story, and has such a powerful, poignant ending: we
see Jack Kirby's last original creation for the FF (the monster from FF
97) blast into space, the endless universe. Sue talks about the
distance between them making them strangers, just as Stan and Jack
became strangers. And the team ends by remembering their kinship always.
It brings a tear to my eye.
Jack needed Stan
The quality of
these issues since Kirby left, specifically the lack of original ideas, is part of the argument that Kirby
was the true writing genius. Yet Kirby without Lee wrote comics
that were hard for new readers to follow. At around the time this issue was published, Jack's original "Fourth World"
series of titles was being canceled. Jack needed Stan, just as the powerful but
misunderstood "Monster" and the the genius Mr Fantastic all relied on Sue.