Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Forgotten Fantastic Four

In the mid–80’s when Steve Englehart took over the writing of the Fantastic Four, he was tasked with reviving interest in the book. He chose to do so by changing the membership of the FF in a new way: Reed and Sue Richards would take a prolonged leave of absence to try to give Franklin a normal life, while Ben would lead a FF of his own choosing. The new lineup consisted of The Thing, The Human Torch, Crystal, and Ms. Marvel.

I especially liked this combination, as I don’t mind seeing the FF shaken up every once in awhile for variety. This grouping was to be short lived, as internal Marvel politics and editorial wishy-washiness would break up Englehart’s new group in short order.

The lineup change gave Englehart the opportunity to do some interesting new things with the individual team members:

THE THING: Ben Grimm was in charge of the FF for the first time, and responsible for choosing his new teammates. That he took in a sort-of-ex-girlfriend, as well as Johnny’s ex-girlfriend was telling of the sting he was feeling from Johnny and Alicia’s recent marriage. The new team was only just getting established when disaster struck. The Thing and Ms. Marvel, trapped on a runaway shuttle, were exposed to cosmic rays. Ben was mutated further and his companion was exposed for the first time in her life. Ben found his strength level dramatically increased, enough so to defeat the Hulk in battle. I really liked this take on Ben as team leader, helping Sharon through her trials, and in this new spiky form. I think the "pineapple" Thing design was eventually deemed too hard to draw, and Ben was depowered for a time, then returned to "normal".

MS. MARVEL / SHE-THING: Sharon Ventura came to Ben Grimm for help. She was recently held captive and brutalized (rape was implied about as explicitly as they were allowed back then), and she comes to the FF in a shattered mental state. Unable to touch or even be near men, she joins the FF with Grimm as her anchor. Initially, she was drawn to him because she didn’t see him as a man, which obviously didn’t go over too well with the big guy. When she and Ben were caught in the cosmic ray storm, she mutated into a She-Thing. Initially overcome with horror, she spent the better part of an issue attempting suicide, before finally coming to terms with her condition, and finally embracing it. With her grotesque appearance, she finds she is no longer afraid of men, and doesn’t’ miss being objectified. Finally, The Things came together as a romantic pair. The She-Thing actually remained for a few years when Ben was reverted to his human form, briefly working with Reed, Sue and Johnny as “the Thing” of the FF. Sharon’s story is certainly fraught with dicey sexual politics, and I’d be interested to see what bologdom’s best feminist writers think of her.

CRYSTAL: The Exquisite Elemental came to the team freshly divorced from her crazy husband Pietro Maximoff a.k.a. Quicksilver. She presented a temptation to Johnny Storm, who had only recently married. She was taken from the book before anything interesting could happen. There was to be an Inhumans graphic novel, and Crystal was to be part of the Inhuman royal family in it. Ridiculously, this one shot story caused the powers-that-be to have Englehart write her out of the FF and return her to Attilan. After only ten issues, the new FF lost a member, just the first of many complications that truncated Englehart’s run.

HUMAN TORCH: Johnny Storm had recently fallen in love with, then married Alicia Masters, the Thing’s former girlfriend. Ben was holding a grudge when he brought Crystal onto the team, and her presence caused Johnny no small amount of frustration, especially when a long epic involving the Beyonder took him away from Alicia for an extended time. "Alicia" would eventually be revealed to be a Skrull in one of the stupidest retcons ever to see the printed page, but at the time, she was assumed to be the real deal. Not surprisingly, The Torch clashed with Ben, but generally accepted his leadership role over time.

Which is not to say that Ben had much time to be the leader. Shortly after Crystal was extracted from the book, Tom DeFalco replaced Jim Shooter as editor in chief of Marvel. DeFalco has always been a very retro-minded writer, and under his oversight it was decided that the Fantastic Four would immediately return to the original lineup of Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben. Englehart returned the status quo, writing under his protest penname, “John Harkness”. A showdown with the Frightful Four was followed by several issues of a weird dream sequence in which Englehart…seemed to be working out some issues. He left shortly after, replaced by Walter Simonson, who kept Sharon around for most of his run.

This particular version of the FF only shared one real adventure, a saga that took them from the underground realm of the Mole Man, to the Savage land, and off into the Negative Zone and finally a confrontation with the Beyonder. I don’t feel like they ever really got a chance to shine. There’s a place in Marvel’s publishing schedule for untold tales, such as Fantastic Four: First Family and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and I sure would like to see some writer give their take on an untold tale of the Forgotten FF. Joe Casey, are you listening?

1 comment:

cease ill said...

This four intrigued me as well. I wasn't over the moon with Fasaud but at least he prefaced some interesting troubles ahead with that part of the world.

Did you ever hear how the blogoverse's best feminist writers viewed Sharon?

For his DR STRANGE run if nothing else, I heart Englehart.