Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Sub-Mariner #8 recreation by Bob Layton

Sunday, May 22, 2016

1983: Fantastic Fouryage part I: Into the Negative Zone

By Jef Willemsen (clarmindcontrol.blogspot.com)

By 1983, John Byrne had been at the helm of Fantastic Four for roughly a year and a half. Up until then, he'd happily updated the classic status quo of the team. But now he was ready to prove he was as a truly original FF creator by sending the team on an exciting, new adventure.

It all began in Fantastic Four I#251 which laid the groundwork for Marvel's first family's extended sojourn into the Negative Zone... An antimatter universe where everything's potentially lethal to the touch, a place that's been giving them trouble since 1966's Fantastic Four I#51 (Gee, ya think that's a coincidence?)

"Seems like an awful lot of fuss fer somethin' you once said you wus gonna close off forever!"

Bashful Benjy isn't too wrong... Mr. Fantastic's sudden desire to jump in and chart the Zone was a bit weird. Not to mention unwise, after all they'd only explored a tiny bit of the negative universe and had already ran into deadly menaces like Annihilus, Blastaar and, ah why the heck not Stygorr the Nightlord. What else could be lurking out there? You'd think Mr. Fantastic would build a large, heavily armored exploratory vessel for this undertaking. 

You'd think.

"Stand by for separation!"

You got that right, Reed... Forcing your wife to go on a road trip in a ship the size of a dixi toilet while a blind woman is left to care for your only child *is* a divorce waiting to happen. The last time you took her into the unknown, she got doused in cosmic rays and crashed on Earth a mutated freak. But at least she had more leg room then.

Speaking of Alicia, this is the system Reed had rigged up so the sightless sculptress would know they'd returned from their Negative Zone trip.

"Remember that sound, Alicia!"

Wouldn't a pager have been easier, Reed? Then again, this is exactly the kind of elegant solution you'd expect from a man brilliant enough to invent unstable molecules yet who still relied on flare guns to rally his teammates... The type of technology that was cutting edge back when the Chinese invented in the late 13th century (thanks Wikipedia!). 

At any rate, Alicia heard the very recognizable *KA-CHUNG!* noise a few hours after the FF left. Not thinking anything of this, after all time passed differently in the Negative Zone, she went to welcome Ben and the others only to find Annihilus. Thanks for leaving the door open, Reed...

Fantastic Four I#252 is where the FF's Negative Zone outing began in earnest and it started in style. Eager to experiment with the comic book format, Byrne decided to tell the story exclusively in widescreen shots. Never one not to toot his own horn, Byrne had the classic cover blurb changed to "the world's most innovative comic magazine". This movie style format meant people had to read the comic upside down, almost like they were checking out a Playboy centerfold. 

Which is fitting since the story Cityscape had about as much depth as the average Playmate. Sure, it looked impressive but it's really silly filler. The FF happened upon a primitive looking culture that's forced to live outside of Ootah, a sentient citycomplex that covered half the planet. With Mr. Fantastic conveniently taken out by a poison dart during the initial, obligatory fight scene, the other three heroes are spoon fed a bunch of fables about Ootah by local leader Mama Shonti. 

According to Mama her people were part of Ootah thousands of years ago. They lived inside him, heck, they were the ones who granted him sentience. Not too long after that, Ootah decided to drive out everybody who lived within him by using an anxiety inducer that caused them to run. He then raised huge defense walls and that was that. For centuries, the locals had been trying to get back into Ootah's good graces by offering him brides. If the young woman was incinerated, they believed Ootah had accepted their sacrifice. It took the Thing to make the locals see the folly of trying to marry off teenage girls to planetary complexes.

"Sunnuvagun! Looks like he ain't as fussy as you thought"

Ben, Sue and Johnny used their powers to breach Ootah's defenses, they penetrated his inner sanctum and wound up lobotomizing it when Thing smashed its "brain". By then, Mr. Fantastic had recovered from his poison induced paralysis, but arrived too late to stop his friends. Turns out, they'd backed the wrong team.

"Now Ootah is dead, and they are swarming over it, destroying it like maggots attacking a corpse"

Yes, the living city was the good guy and the yellow villagers were actually germs on legs. Byrne was going for the kind of twist ending often seen on the old Twilight Zone series. But this wasn't on the level of "it's a cookbook!". It's hard to sympathize with an empty city after all. 

But that's what John Byrne was trying to do: tell the kind of unique and quirky stories he'd loved growing up watching shows like Twilight Zone, Outer Limits and of course Doctor Who. The tiny exploratory capsule he had the FF travel around in was actually an homage to the Doctor's Tardis.

FF I#252 also gave us an update on Annihilus in the Baxter Building...

 "Franklin does not cry out upon seeing Alicia Masters slung up like a side of beef"

Moving right along to Fantastic Four I#253 in which the team was picked up by the crew of the alien space ark Kestor's Hope. About 10.000 years ago, their homeworld Kestor was about to be destroyed because of an unrevealed natural disaster. 

Their Priest-Scientists picked 20.000 Kestorians that were put in cold storage aboard an ark headed for a recently discovered planet that mirrored Kestor's conditions. However, the navigational computers were damaged during launch, forcing the ark to thaw out 500 Kestorians to help repair and run the ship (or so they believed). They were never able to recover the location of their new home which forced them to wander space.

The Kestorians had become a tad anti-social and superstitious over the course of several hundred generations...

"My lance hangs in mid-air!"

I won't insult my readership's intelligence by making an erection joke here. Instead, we'll skip to the part where the FF is introduced to the Captain and his lover Number One who's his second-in-command ánd the Kestor's high priestess. They tell them of the Kestorian quest (or Questorian, if you will) over dinner.

"My portable sensor shows nothing incompatible with our biology, darling. 
In other words... Dig in!"

"Compatible"? Well, considering human stomach acid can dissolve pretty much everything we swallow, that's no surprise. Our bodies can process anything from undercooked chicken to 12 day old Chinese takeout, even deep fried butter on a stick... But that doesn't mean it's smart to eat. Still, the FF survive the foodgasms the Negative Zone has to offer and Mr. Fantastic is soon put to work helping to fix the damaged navigational array. 

Within minutes, he discovered the navigational back-up systems were still intact. It only took minor repairs and then Kestor's Hope headed to its final destination. Upon arrival, the ark touched down and the Captain and Number One donned traditional garb to greet their new homeworld


"This cannot be the world we were meant to colonize"

Now here's where the story took an interesting turn. The Kestorians felt Reed made a mistake (they're excellent judges of character, it seems) and plan to continue on their quest to find the right world to colonize. But Mr. Fantastic refused to drop the matter, especially when he figured out why the Captain and Number One couldn't handle life on this supposedly perfect planet... Evolution!

"NONSENSE! The almighty spirit created all Kestorians complete and unchanging. 
We do not evolve!"

If the previous issue had Byrne channel the Twilight Zone, this one clearly mirrors classic Star Trek which tended to comment on society's issues by placing the problems in the realm of science fiction. They tackled racism, bigotry and the ongoing Cold War by having aliens deal with those issues. In this case, it's religious zealotry. The Captain refuses to believe Reed's very sound theory and plans to kill the FF and some of his own people just to settle the matter. Then, his Number One tells him the Kestor's dirty little secret: the 500 Kestorians revived by the ship are actually the only surviving members of their race. The other 19.500 all died (which would cause one heck of a stench, but that's neither here nor there).

"Good bye, Number One. I'm sorry that I was not able to truly help"

The FF say goodbye to Number One and the remaining crew of Kestor's Hope... Destined to wander the stars looking for a home they already rejected while living out their days in the one place they can survive. Despite its heavy handedness, it's a memorable story even though the FF are once again the unwitting instigators of tragedy. All their experience and instincts as heroes don't amount to a hill of beans in the topsy turvy tableau that is the aptly named Negative Zone. 

In the second part of Fantastic Fouryage: The FF versus the Mantracora and Annihilus takes New York!

Cloak And Dagger by Bruce Timm


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