Thursday, November 02, 2006

Stupid Comic Tricks: I Married a Skrull!

When taking the reins of a long-running title, a new writer faces a daunting challenge: they have to provide both the shock of the new and the comfort of the old. Interesting, thrilling new stories are expected but by God, don’t change things too much, or the fans will claim you’ve destroyed the character and buggered their childhoods. When you factor in deadlines, constantly shifting editorial vision, and the need to fit it all into an existing, cohesive, decades-old universe, it’s a wonder the damn things get published at all. Sometimes, when trying to come up with the next epic storyline, the storytellers stumble into the realm of dumbness, leading to…STUPID COMIC TRICKS.
Whatever else you may say about him, John Byrne was at the top of his game in the early 1980’s, when he was writing the Fantastic Four. Byrne brought fresh blood to a title that had been in steady decline since the Lee/Kirby era. During his time on the book, one of his ongoing subplots involved the longstanding romance between the Thing and Alicia Masters. Alicia had been badly wounded during an attack by Annihilus on the Baxter Building, and Ben began to have grave doubts about their relationship. Over a period of months, he and Alicia drifted apart. The Thing went off on his own in his solo book, replaced in the FF by the She-Hulk.
It was during this period that Alicia and Johnny Storm, the Human Torch began to notice a mutual attraction and started a romance, each aware of how it would hurt Ben but unable to help themselves. I found all this very refreshing, as Alicia had always been a fretting cipher before, spending a lot of time standing around saying “Oh, Ben!” and not much else. Suddenly she was doing something different, becoming much more appealing in the process. Johnny had never been able to make a love connection before, so this showed a more mature side to him. It really seemed like a bold course for two characters who had stagnated. The two got married in the post-Byrne era, issue #300.

I’m not sure what the reasoning was behind that, but it did make for some serious friction between the Thing and the Torch. Eventually, Ben agreed to be Johnny’s best man, and all was more-or-less well for the two old friends. Mister and Mrs. Storm were wed, set up housekeeping, and life went on.

I fully expected that this would be undone eventually. Even then, I’d been reading comics long enough to know that change is rarely permanent. I assumed that sooner or later, Alicia’s stepfather, the Puppet Master would be revealed as the mastermind behind the romance. Doing his usual bang-up job of “protecting” her. When writer Tom DeFalco took over the FF with issue #357, he went with an aggressively retro approach, and the first thing he did was to undo the Torch/Alicia pairing.
Unable to wait even a full two issues to hammer everything back into silver-age form, DeFalco’s story hastily revealed that Alicia had been replaced by a Skrull impostor to spy on the FF, and that Johnny had never been married to the real Alicia Masters at all!

Why? It took a compelling, humane dual character development and turned it into the hoariest, hokiest old-school funnybook cliché in the book. It made each and every member of the FF look stupid. (Surely Reed must have a baker’s dozen of ways to detect alien life forms in the Baxter Building? Didn’t Ben notice anything different about her mannerisms?). It failed to accomplish its (assumed) goal of restoring the status quo, since Ben and Alicia remained split for years until only very recently in the Thing #8. And it made Johnny look like a chump. More so than usual.
Once rescued, Alicia immediately disappeared for the rest of DeFalco’s run, which makes me wonder why he was in such a damned hurry to “restore” her in the first place. If his goal was to make Johnny single again, well, that didn’t work either, since Lyja (the Skrull’s real name) hung around for some time afterwards having an on-again/off-again romance with Johnny, taking on the name Lyja Laserfist (!) getting pregnant by Johnny(!!) and eventually giving birth to an EGG, (!!!) which soon hatched into some sort of monster-weapon-trap-thing that the FF quickly defeated. The whole plot just shambled along for months before Lyja just kind of wandered off, resurfacing a few months later to join the extra-stinky Fantastic Force. I had given up on the main FF book by then, but the cover to #410 implies that eventually, Johnny and Ben were fighting over Lyja, bringing the whole mess full (stupid) circle.

They say: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I say: If you think it is broke, and you don’t know what to do with it when you've fixed it, DON’T fix it. 

Have a stupid day.

This post was originally published on November 11th, 2006.


The Mutt said...

Wait a minute... Johnny Storm has a kid? And it's a monster? And the FF killed it?

Marvel really needs a crisis.

Anonymous said...

And, of course, it was a lift from the Shrinking Violet storyline in the Levitz/Giffen Legion where she is replaced by a durlan agent who marries Colossal Boy.

Phillyradiogeek said...

SPOILER ALERT! (kinda sorta)

You may want to pick up SECRET INVASION: FANTASTIC FOUR #1, on sale starting today. 'Nuff said!

Dale said...

I just discovered this and am enjoying reading through all the articles.

I myself though DeFalco's reversal of Johnny's wedding was STUPID and stunk to high heaven and that led me to dropping the book for the better part of a decade.

Anonymous said...

The Germans have the perfect word for that: "Verschlimmbesserung". "Verbesserung" means "improvement" also in the sense of "repair", and "schlimm" means "worse". Making something worse in the attempt to fix it. If you think a Verschlimmbesserung is about to happen you try to prevent it. :)