Fantastic Four: The Life Fantastic


By J. Michael Straczynski, Karl Kesel, Dwayne McDuffie, Mike McKone, Drew Johnson, Casey Jones, Lee Weeks & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1896-1

The Fantastic Four has long been rightly regarded as the most pivotal series in modern comicbook history, responsible for introducing both a new style of storytelling and a radically different manner of engaging the readers’ impassioned attentions.

More family than team, the line-up has changed many times over the years but always eventually returned to Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s original configuration of Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch and the Thing, who jointly formed the vanguard of modern four-colour heroic history.

The quartet are actually maverick genius Reed Richards, his wife Sue, their trusty college friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s obnoxious, impetuous younger brother Johnny Storm; survivors of an independent space-shot which went horribly wrong once ferociously mutative Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding.

When they crashed back to Earth, the foursome found that they had all been hideously changed into outlandish freaks. Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and form force-fields, Johnny could turn into self-perpetuating living flame, and poor, tormented Ben was transformed into a horrifying brute who, unlike his comrades, could not return to a semblance of normality on command.

The sheer simplicity of four archetypes – mercurial boffin, self-effacing distaff, solid everyman and hot-headed youth, uniting to triumph over accident and adversity – shone under Lee’s irreverent humanity coupled to Kirby’s rampant imagination and tirelessly emphatic sense of adventure.

Decades of erratic quality and floundering plotlines followed the original creators’ departures, but from the beginning of the 21st century Marvel’s First Family experienced a steady and sustained climb in quality which culminated in their own film franchise, currently experiencing its own radical reboot.

The return to peak quality was the result of sheer hard work by a number of “Big Ideas” writers and this slim hardback compilation – re-presenting Fantastic Four #533-535, spanning January to April 2006, supplemented by a selection of celebratory one-shots comprising Fantastic Four Wedding Special (January 2006), Fantastic Four Special 2005 and Fantastic Four: A Death in the Family (July 2006) – wraps up J. Michael Straczynski’s brief but splendidly entertaining tenure in the command chair.

Illustrated by Mike McKone (with inkers Andy Lanning, Simon Coleby & Cam Smith) the never-ending excitement opens with a bombastic three-part tale which is perhaps the ultimate clash between the Hulk and the Thing… and possibly the funniest yet most heart-rending FF story ever written…

‘What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas’ opens as the Hulk – now governed by Bruce Banner’s intellect and working for SHIELD – dramatically fails to defuse a gamma bomb and is caught in the resulting blast…

In New York Reed and Sue are facing their greatest battle; trying to stop Simone Debouvier of New York’s Division of Child Welfare from placing their children Franklin and Valeria into State custody to protect them from the Fantastic Four’s life-threatening influence and circumstances. It’s almost a relief for the embattled parents to despatch their boisterous and understandably furious team-mates to Nevada so they can concentrate on navigating the tricky legal maze of the Social Services system.

When Torch and Thing arrive it’s too their worst nightmare: the gamma blast has seemingly devolved the Hulk’s mind back to his primitive, enraged and devastatingly destructive state and supercharged his body. The heroes are all that stand between the unstable juggernaut and the utter destruction of the city…

Utterly overmatched, Ben is pushed to his limits in ‘Shadow Boxing’ but even amidst the hurricane of shattering violence, he realises it’s not rage but guilt that is pushing the over-Hulk to such brutal excess, even as back in New York Reed and Sue take a desperate gamble to keep their family together…

The transcontinental confrontations crash into a pair of stunning victories for heart and brains over brawn in the climactic finale ‘To Be This Monster’

The rest of this slim, sleek and celebratory volume concentrates on a wealth of special editions and follows up first with Fantastic Four Wedding Special where Karl Kesel, Drew Johnson, Drew Geraci & Drew Hennessy combine to venerate the past and offer tantalising glimpses of things to come when Sue and Reed go for a quiet meal and – thanks to the technological miracle of time travel – discover that every guest is the happy couple themselves, plucked from key moments of their fantastic past and incredible future…

That gloriously heart-warming spectacle is followed by a far more tense but no less intriguing yarn from Fantastic Four Special #1 with Dwayne McDuffie, Casey Jones & Vince Russell depicting ‘My Dinner with Doom’ as Reed opts to try fine dining and frank conversation as a way of finally ending the long-standing feud between him and the relentless and duplicitous Iron Dictator. If only Doom was as open-minded about the eventual outcome…

Focus shifts to Johnny for the last epic as Fantastic Four: A Death in the Family (Kesel, Lee Weeks, Rob Campenella & Tom Palmer) sees the frat-boy goof suddenly forced to wise up, man up and make a horrific choice to save his beloved, fractious family from certain doom in another time-travel flavoured adventure.

In this story however, there is no happy ending…

A stellar combination of apocalyptic action, heartbreak, suspense and hilarious low comedy, this exhilarating compilation also includes a stunning cover gallery by McKone, Gene Ha, Leinil Yu, Morry Hollowell and Weeks to provide a warm, fast-paced, tension-soaked Fights ‘n’ Tights chronicle which will provide all the thrills and chills a devoted Costumed Drama lover could ever want.
© 2005, 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four by J. Michael Straczynski volume 1


By J. Michael Straczynski, Mike McKone, Andy Lanning & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-9774821-5-3

The Fantastic Four has long been rightly regarded as the most pivotal series in modern comicbook history, responsible for introducing both a new style of storytelling and a decidedly different manner of engaging the readers’ impassioned attentions.

More family than team, the line-up has changed many times over the years but always eventually returned to Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s original configuration of Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch and the Thing, who jointly formed the vanguard of modern four-colour heroic history.

The quartet are actually maverick genius Reed Richards, his wife Sue, their trusty college friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s obnoxious, impetuous younger brother Johnny Storm; survivors of an independent space-shot which went horribly wrong once ferociously mutative Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding.

When they crashed back to Earth, the foursome found that they had all been hideously changed into outlandish freaks. Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and form force-fields, Johnny could turn into self-perpetuating living flame, and poor, tormented Ben was transformed into a horrifying brute who, unlike his comrades, could not return to a semblance of normality on command.

The sheer simplicity of four archetypes – mercurial boffin, self-effacing distaff, solid everyman and hot-headed youth, uniting to triumph over accident and adversity – shone under Lee’s irreverent humanity coupled to Kirby’s rampant imagination and tirelessly emphatic sense of adventure.

Decades of erratic quality and floundering plotlines followed the original creators’ departures, but from the beginning of the 21st century Marvel’s First Family experienced a steady and sustained climb in quality which culminated in their own film franchise, currently experiencing its own radical reboot.

The return to top-quality was the result of hard work by a number of “Big Ideas” writers and this slim hardback compilation – re-presenting Fantastic Four #527-532 (August 2005-January 2006) – celebrates the transition from one to another. When J. Michael Straczynski took over “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” – with illustrators Mike McKone & Andy Lanning providing sublime visuals – he looked back at the most fundamental moment of the long-lived franchise and found something new to play with…

It all begins with ‘Distant Music’ as an tortured ancient creature asks a devastating question which has shattered many worlds over the ages before cutting to Earth and now where a currently impoverished but still relentlessly inquisitive Reed Richards is unfortunately about to ask the same thing…

Happily he is distracted by wife Sue who drags him to dinner just as the team’s accountant is delivering a shocking piece of news to Ben Grimm. Apparently the rocky pauper has just become one of the richest men on Earth…

Another lucky distraction arrives in the form of Nick Fury, keen on mending fences whilst politely ordering his former friend to join a secret government project.

As Ben lets his newfound affluence go straight to his head, Reed reluctantly heads for Nevada and a hidden lab where scientists are trying to determine exactly why the ever-present Cosmic Rays beyond Earth have affected nobody to the extent they did the Fantastic Four so long ago.

Now Chief Researcher Dr. Stephen Crane claims to have discovered those particular mutative radiations were of a most specific configuration and that they are about to repeat for the first time in years…

To exploit the event he and his government backers have replicated almost all the factors in Richard’s originating space-shot and now just need Reed to fine-tune the details of his long-wrecked ship: details absolutely necessary before America can send up a platoon of ordinary patriotic grunts and bring back a legion of unstoppable super-soldiers…

The unappetising mission continues in ‘Random Factors’ with Reed’s distaste growing and his suspicions further fuelled, even as in the Big Apple Ben’s monetary excesses continue.

Sue meanwhile is keeping a secret of her own. Simone Debouvier of New York’s Division of Child Welfare has just informed her of an official investigation. State authorities are concerned that the Fantastic Four’s lifestyle pose a danger to children and are looking into taking young Franklin and Valeria Richards away from their obsessively do-gooding parents…

When a full test goes catastrophically wrong in Nevada, Reed finds himself under suspicion of committing sabotage and with the military on his heels escapes back to New York in ‘Appointment Overdue’. He lands right in the middle of a family crisis but can’t stop to deal with it because he is carrying a terrifying piece of news: the specific Cosmic Rays which transformed amateur astronauts into superheroes might actually have been a carefully constructed message. Moreover the communication from the great unknown is due to repeat imminently…

After depositing the kids on the Moon with the Inhumans even as General Clement Bragg leads troops into the Baxter Building, the FF blast off in their own spaceship to intercept the cosmic communiqué before once more crashing to Earth in a desolate region.

This time however an astounding entity which has been abiding within the energy message crawls out of the wreckage with them but Bragg’s rapidly responding forces are less than interested in learning ‘Truth in Flight’ and open fire on the creature. Much to their regret…

The entity is in mysterious communication with Ben and possesses bizarre space-warping abilities, so in an eye-blink it ferries the cosmic quartet back to the city where the tragic story of the ancient truth seeker – so much like Reed – is an amazing confirmation of how some traits transcend species.

Sadly, the quester also has obsessive enemies of near-divine power and they have noticed the Entity’s re-manifestation. In an instant the skies are filled with colossal vessels determined to end the searcher – and any other beings it might have infected with dangerous inquisitiveness – in ‘Many Questions, Some Answered’ and to save everything Reed must embark on the most momentous extended trip in all the annals of creation, realising at long last ‘Any Day Now… I Shall Be Released’…

Winningly combining stellar spectacle with apocalyptic action and hilarious low comedy, this splendid romp comes supplemented with a cover gallery by McKone &Lanning plus a brief picture feature on the artist’s ‘Thing Reference Sculpture’.

Funny, warm, challenging and exhilarating, this fast-paced, tension-soaked chronicle provides all the thrills and chills a devoted Costumed Drama lover could ever want.
© 2005 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Essential Marvel Two-In-One volume 3


By Mark Gruenwald, Ralph Macchio, Tom DeFalco, John Byrne, George Pérez, Jerry Bingham, Ron Wilson, Alan Kupperberg & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3069-7

The concept of team-up books – an established star pairing with or battling and frequently doing both – with less well-selling company characters was not new when Marvel decided to award their most popular hero the same deal DC had long prospered from with Batman in Brave and the Bold.

After the runaway success of Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up, the House of Ideas repeated the experiment with a series starring bashful, blue-eyed Ben Grimm – the Fantastic Four’s most iconic and popular member – beginning with a brace of test runs in Marvel Feature #11-12, before graduating him to his own guest-friendly title. This third economical, eclectic monochrome compendium gathers together the contents of Marvel Two-In-One #53-77 plus Marvel T-I-O Annuals #4 and 5, covering May 1979 to July 1981; a period which saw the best and worst the series could offer.

The innate problem with team-up tales was always a lack of continuity – something Marvel always prided itself upon – and which writer/editor Marv Wolfman had sought to address during his tenure through the simple expedient of having stories link-up through evolving, overarching plots which took Ben from place to place and from guest to guest.

Arguably the very best of these opens this volume; a big scale, and supremely convoluted saga known as “The Project Pegasus Saga”…

Although the company’s glory-days were undoubtedly the era of Lee, Kirby & Ditko leading through to the Adams, Buscema(s), Englehart, Gerber, Steranko and Windsor-Smith “Second Wave”, a lot of superb material came out the middle years when Marvel was transforming from inspirational small-business to corporate heavyweight.

This is not said to demean or denigrate the many fine creators who worked on the tide of titles published after that heady opening period, but only to indicate that after that time a certain revolutionary spontaneity was markedly absent from the line.

It should also be remembered that this was not deliberate. Every creator does the best job he/she can: posterity and critical response is the only arbiter of what is classic and what is simply one more comicbook. Certainly high sales don’t necessarily define a masterpiece – unless you’re a publisher…

Nevertheless every so often everybody involved in a particular tale seems to catch fire at the same time and magic occurs. A great case in point is the self-contained mini-saga which partnered the Thing with a succession of Marvel’s quirkiest B-listers and newcomers…

Project Pegasus had debuted in Marvel T-I-O #42 and 43: a federal research station tasked with investigating new and alternative energy sources and a sensible place to dump super-powered baddies when they’ve been trounced. Ten issues later writers Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio flexed their creative muscles with a 6-issue epic that found Ben back at Pegasus just as a sinister scheme by a mysterious mastermind to eradicate the facility went into full effect.

Scripted by Gruenwald & Macchio, it all begins as ‘The Inner War!’ (illustrated by John Byrne & Joe Sinnott) sees Ben visiting his educationally and emotionally challenged ward Wundarr who had been left at the secret base after exposure to a reality-warping Cosmic Cube.

Ben meets light-powered security chief Quasar – who debuted here – only to stumble into a treacherous plot to sabotage the facility which continues in ‘Blood and Bionics’ as a reprogrammed Deathlok cyborg stalks the base until the Thing and Quasar crush it.

Elsewhere, Ben’s old sparring partner Thundra is recruited by a team of super-powered women wrestlers (I know what you’re thinking but trust me, it works) with a secret and nefarious sideline…

One of the resident scientists at Pegasus is Bill Foster – who had a brief costumed career as Black Goliath – and he resumes adventuring with a new/old name just in time to help tackle freshly-liberated atomic monster Nuklo in ‘Giants in the Earth’. Sadly the traitor who let the infantile walking inferno out is still undiscovered and in the darkest part of the Project something strange is whispering to the comatose Wundarr…

George Pérez & Gene Day take over as illustrators from #56 as Thundra and her new friends invade in ‘The Deadlier of the Species!’ but even their blistering assault is merely a feint for the real threat and soon a final countdown to disaster is in effect…

Doomsday begins ‘When Walks Wundarr!’ and, in his mesmerised wake, a horde of energy-projecting villains incarcerated in the research facility break free…

With chaos everywhere the traitor triggers an extra-dimensional catastrophe, intent on destroying Pegasus ‘To the Nth Power!’, but as a living singularity tries to suck the entire institution into infinity, the end of everything is countered by the ascension of a new kind of hero as The Aquarian debuts to save the day…

Released as one of Marvel’s earliest trade paperback collections, the high-tension bombastic action of The Project Pegasus Saga rattles along without the appearance of any major stars – a daring move for a team-up title but one which greatly enhanced the power and depth of The Thing.

Moreover, by concentrating on rebooting moribund characters such as Deathlok and Giant-Man whilst launching fresh faces Quasar and The Aquarian instead of looking for ill-fitting, big-name sales-boosters, the story truly proves the old adage about there being no bad characters…

Another sound decision was the use of Byrne & Sinnott for the first half and Pérez & the late, great Gene Day to finish off the tale. Both pencillers were in their early ascendancy here and the artistic energy just jumps off the pages.

Deadlines wait for no one however and the pulse-pounding epic is immediately followed here by Marvel Two-In-One Annual #4 which offered an old-fashioned, world-busting blockbuster as ‘A Mission of Gravity!’ (plotted by Allyn Brodsky, scripted by David Michelinie and illustrated by Jim Craig, Bob Budiansky & Bruce Patterson) brought the Thing and Inhuman monarch Black Bolt together to stop unstable maniac Graviton turning into a black hole and taking the world with him…

Wolfman, Macchio, Chic Stone & Al Gordon then explored ‘Trial and Error!’ in monthly issue #59 as Ben and the Human Torch played matchmaker for a dopey dreamer, after which Marvel Two-in-One #60 featured Ben and impish ET Impossible Man in hilarious combat with three of Marvel’s earliest bad-guys.

Happiness is a Warm Alien’ – by Gruenwald, Macchio, Pérez & Day – offers a delightful change-of-pace which applies much-needed perspective and lots of laughs as the madcap invader from beyond gets bored and creates a perfect mate…

A stellar epic started in #61 with ‘The Coming of Her!’ (Gruenwald, Jerry Bingham & Day) as time-travelling space god Starhawk became embroiled in the birth of a female counterpart to artificial superman Adam Warlock.

The distaff genetic paragon awoke fully empowered and instantly began searching for her predecessor, dragging Ben’s girlfriend Alicia and mind goddess Moondragon across the solar system, arriving where issue #62 observed ‘The Taking of Counter-Earth!’

Hot on their heels Thing and Starhawk catch Her just as the women encounter a severely wounded High Evolutionary and discover the world built by that self-made god has been stolen…

United in mystery the strange grouping follow the planet’s trail out of the galaxy and uncover the incredible perpetrators but Her’s desperate quest to secure her predestined, purpose-grown mate ends in tragedy as she learns ‘Suffer Not a Warlock to Live!’

Clearly on a roll and dedicated to exploiting Marvel Two-in-One’s unofficial role as a clean-up vehicle for settling unresolved plotlines from cancelled series, Gruenwald & Macchio then dived into ‘The Serpent Crown Affair’ in #64.

‘From the Depths’ (illustrated by Pérez & Day) saw sub-sea superhero Stingray approach Reed Richards in search of a cure for humans who had been mutated into water-breathers by Sub-Mariner villain Doctor Hydro – a plotline begun in 1973 and left unresolved since the demise of the Atlantean prince’s own title.

Richards’ enquiries soon found the transformation had been caused by the Inhumans’ Terrigen Mist but when he had Ben ferry the mermen’s leader Dr. Croft and Stingray to a meeting, the trip was cut short by a crisis on an off-shore oil-rig, thanks to an ambush by a coalition of snake-themed villains.

The ‘Serpents from the Sea’ (art by Bingham & Day) were attempting to salvage dread mystic artefact the Serpent Crown, but luckily the Inhumans had sent out their seagoing champion Triton to meet the Thing…

Thundra meanwhile had been seeking the men responsible for tricking her into attacking Pegasus but fell under the spell of sinister superman Hyperion – a pawn of corrupt oil conglomerate Roxxon, whose CEO Hugh Jones possessed or had been possessed by the heinous helm…

With the situation escalating Ben had no choice but to call in an expert and before long The Scarlet Witch joins the battle, her previous experience with the relic enabling the heroes to thwart the multi-dimensional threat of ‘A Congress of Crowns!’ (Pérez & Day) and a devastating incursion by diabolical serpent god Set

With Armageddon averted Ben diverted to Pegasus to drop off the emasculated crown in #67 and found Bill Foster had been diagnosed with terminal radiation sickness due to his battle with Nuklo. Thundra meanwhile, seduced by promises of being returned to her own reality, wised up in time to abscond from Roxxon in ‘Passport to Oblivion!’ (Gruenwald, Macchio, Ron Wilson, Day & friends), but hadn’t calculated on being hunted by Hyperion. Although outmatched her frantic struggle did attract the attentions of the Thing and Quasar…

Marvel T-I-O #68 shifted gears as Ben met former X-Man The Angel as they stumbled into – and smashed out of – a mechanical murder-world in ‘Discos and Dungeons!’ (Wilson & Day) after which ‘Homecoming!’ found Ben contending with the time-lost Guardians of the Galaxy whilst striving to prevent the end of everything as millennial man Vance Astro risked all of reality to stop his younger self ever going into space…

Issue #70 offered a mystery guest team-up for ‘A Moving Experience’ (Gruenwald, Macchio, Mike Nasser & Day) as Ben was again pranked by old frenemy’s The Yancy Street Gang and ambushed by real old foes when he helped his girlfriend move into new digs, after which the so-long frustrated Hydromen finally get ‘The Cure!’ (Wilson & Day) when Ben and Reed travel to the Inhuman city of Attilan.

Sadly a cure for the effects of Terrigen is a perfect anti-Inhuman weapon and when the process is stolen by a trio of freaks the trail leads to a brutal clash with a deadly Inhuman renegade wielding ‘The Might of Maelstrom’ (Gruenwald, Macchio, Wilson & Stone). The pariah is intent on eradicating every other member of his hidden race and just won’t stop until he’s done…

Marvel Two-In-One #73 by Macchio, Wilson & Stone then ties up loose ends from the Pegasus epic as Ben and Quasar pursue Roxxon to another Earth where the rapacious plunderers have enslaved a primitive population and begun sending their pillaged oil back here via a ‘Pipeline Through Infinity’ (#74), whilst Gruenwald, Frank Springer & Stone celebrate the festive season with ‘A Christmas Peril!’ as Ben and the Puppet Master are drawn into the Yuletide celebrations of brain-damaged, childlike, immensely powerful Modred the Mystic

Alan Kupperberg & Pablo Marcos then detail another tumultuous clash between Hulk and Thing from Marvel Two-In-One Annual #5. ‘Skirmish with Death’ sees the titanic duo team with extraterrestrial explorer The Stranger to stop death god Pluto destroying the universe and cosmic epics remain in vogue in anniversary issue #75 where Ben and the Avengers are drawn into the Negative Zone to stop a hyper-powered Super-Adaptoid, only to find themselves inevitably ‘By Blastaar Betrayed!’ (Tom DeFalco, Alan Kupperberg & Stone)…

Thereafter hitting mundane reality with a bump, #76 exposes ‘The Big Top Bandits’ (DeFalco, Michelinie, Bingham & Stone) as Iceman and the Thing make short work of the Circus of Evil before this paladin-packed tome concludes with a double dose of action in #77 as Thing and Man-Thing nearly unite in a rescue mission where ‘Only the Swamp Survives!’ (DeFalco, Wilson & Stone), which also features a poignant, bizarre cameo from Sergeant Nick Fury and the Howling Commandoes

There’s even one last treat: a revelatory cutaway diagram of Project Pegasus to make sense of all the carnage that you’ve just enjoyed…

Fiercely tied to the minutia of Marvel continuity, these stories from Marvel’s Middle Period are certainly of variable quality, but whereas some might feel rushed and ill-considered they are balanced by some superb adventure romps and a genuine modern comics classic; still as captivating today as it always was.

Even if artistically the work varies from only adequate to truly top-notch, most fans of Costumed Dramas will find little to complain about and there’s plenty of fun to be found for young and old readers. So why not lower your critical guard and have an honest blast of pure warts-and-all comics craziness? You’ll almost certainly grow to like it…
© 1979, 1980, 1981, 2009 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four: the Beginning of the End


By Dwayne McDuffie, Karl Kesel, Paul Pelletier, Tom Grummett & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2554-9

The Fantastic Four has long been considered the most pivotal series in modern comicbook history, introducing both a new style of storytelling and a decidedly different manner of engaging the readers’ impassioned attentions.

More family than team, the roster has changed many times over the years but always eventually returns to the original configuration of Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch and the Thing, who have together formed the vanguard of modern four-colour heroic history.

The quartet are actually maverick genius Reed Richards, his wife Sue, their trusty college friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s obnoxious and impetuous younger brother Johnny Storm; survivors of an independent space-shot which went horribly wrong once ferociously mutative Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding.

When they crashed back to Earth, the foursome found that they had all been hideously changed into outlandish freaks.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and form force-fields, Johnny could turn into self-perpetuating living flame, and poor, tormented Ben was transformed into a horrifying brute who, unlike his comrades, could not return to a semblance of normality on command.

The sheer simplicity of four archetypes – mercurial boffin, self-effacing distaff, solid everyman and hot-headed youth, uniting to triumph over accident and adversity – shone under Stan Lee’s irreverent humanity coupled to Jack Kirby’s rampant imagination and emphatic sense of adventure.

Decades of erratic quality and floundering plotlines followed the original creators’ departures, but from the beginning of the 21st century Marvel’s First Family experienced a steady climb in quality which culminated in their own blockbuster film franchise.

A key factor in the series success was an incredible roster of unforgettable villains and this slim compilation – re-presenting Fantastic Four #525-526 and #551-553 – features a brace of the very best at their very worst…

By this time the FF had achieved the comfortably universal status of being defined mostly by their current creators (like a Brannagh or Olivier Hamlet, Rathbone or Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes or Stan Lee vs. Frank Miller Daredevil) and this beguilingly mismatched collection gathers two story-oddments which wouldn’t comfortably fit in the themed compilations that surround it, but nonetheless offer some splendidly entertaining Fights ‘n’ Tights action from the “World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” for fans and aficionados to enjoy…

The drama anachronistically kicks of with a 3-part ‘Epilogue’ from Fantastic Four #551-553 (January-March 2008) which followed the return of the original quartet after a period when the universe had been championed by a substitute team (see Fantastic Four: the New Fantastic Four)…

‘The Beginning of the End’ by scripter Dwayne McDuffie, illustrated by Paul Pelletier & Rick Magyar, opens 75 years after the great superhero Civil War. Reed Richards has triggered a global revolution in humanity, but he spends his days as warden of a high security facility with only six incorrigible reprobates pent within.

When that number is suddenly reduced by one the science hero isn’t too bothered: after all, he remembers it happening decades ago…

Back at Now, the in-their-prime FF are astonished to find Doctor Doom accompanied by elderly incarnations of Sub-Mariner and recent team-mate Black Panther sitting on their couch. After the usual violent preamble the visitors explain they have come from the future to stop Richards from making the greatest mistake in human history…

Reed has a secret room in the Baxter Building where he brainstorms his “100 Ideas” to create a utopia, but Doom and his fellow time-travellers are determined to stop the super genius from instigating Idea 101 – the concept which made the future a living hell.

To prove his point the Iron Dictator reveals the shocking fate of his wife and comrades in years to come. In response Reed picks up a gun and murders one of his “guests”…

The shocking saga continues with ‘The Middle of the End’ as Reed proceeds to expose the time-tossed terror’s true intent, but as combat climaxes his comrades – so recently sundered by the Civil War and still trying to regain trust in each – other cannot shake the dread that there’s a kernel of truth in what Doom predicts …

The suspense then roars into overdrive when the Fantastic Four of Doom’s distant era materialise, determined to recapture the fugitive and prevent catastrophic time-branching no matter who has to pay the price in ‘The End’

After a stunning all-out battle, a measure of equilibrium is restored before this cunning chronicle harks back to Fantastic Four #525-526 (June-July 2005) for ‘Dream Fever parts I and 2’, written by Karl Kesel with art by Tom Grummett, Larry Stucker & Norm Rapmund.

A less conflicted First Family have just returned from a peril-packed jaunt to the Micro-verse when alarms alert them that arcane immortal alchemist Diablo is attacking a bank, but this time he’s not looking for loot or even a fight…

Revealing his origins in 9th century Spain the mage wants the FF’s time machine so that he can return to his birth era and crush the sadistic Inquisition before it can torture and murder millions – and he’s prepared to raze New York to get his way…

After failing to capture the mystic maniac the heroes return home but are plagued by shared horrendous dreams which increasingly set the family at each other’s throats. Reed’s researches, however, soon prove Diablo is not the cause but only another victim of what seems to be a globally debilitating epidemic of nightmares…

Frantically racing against time the pliable genius traces the true cause of the contagion but to save the world the quarrelsome quartet might well have to strike that deal with the devil…

Supplemented with a cover gallery by Michael Turner and Jim Cheung plus a selection of pre-inked pencil pages from issues #551 and 553, The Beginning of the End is a fast-paced, action packed and tension-soaked chronicle of fantastic fragments that provides all the thrills and chills a devoted Costumed Drama lover could ever want.
© 2005, 2007 and 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ultimate Fantastic Four volume 3: N-Zone


By Warren Ellis, Adam Kubert & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-904159-93-1

After Marvel’s financial problems and creative roadblock in the late 1990s, the company came back swinging. A critical new concept was the remodelling and modernising of their core characters for an older and more sophisticated “youth culture”.

The Ultimate imprint abandoned monumental long-grown continuity – which had always been Marvel’s greatest asset – to re-imagine major characters in their own self-sufficient universe, offering varying degrees of radical makeover to appeal to the contemporary 21st century audience and offer them a chance to get in on the ground floor.

Peter Parker became again a nerdy high-school geek, brilliant but bullied by his physical superiors, and mutants were a dangerous, oppressed ethic minority scaring the pants off the ordinary Americans they hid amongst. There were also fresh and fashionable, modernistic, scientifically feasible rationales for all those insane super-abilities manifesting everywhere…

The experiment began in 2000 with a post-modern take on Ultimate Spider-Man. Ultimate X-Men followed in 2001 and the Mighty Avengers were remodelled, becoming The Ultimates in 2002.

The stories, design and even tone of the heroes were reworked to cater to the apparently-different tastes of a new readership: (hopefully) new consumers unprepared or unwilling to deal with five decades (seven if you include Golden Age Timely tales retroactively co-opted into the mix) of interconnected story baggage.

The experiment prospered but quickly filled up with refashioned, morally ambiguous heroes and villains. Eventually even this darkly nihilistic new universe became as continuity-constricted as its ancestor.

In 2008, imprint-wide decluttering exercise “Ultimatum” culminated in a reign of terror which excised dozens of superhumans and millions of lesser mortals in a devastating tsunami which inundated Manhattan, courtesy of mutant menace Magneto.

Long before then, though, Marvel’s original keystone concept was given its Ultimate work out and this third tumultuous collection, gathering Ultimate Fantastic Four #17-12 (January to June 2005), relates how a subtly different, still clandestine Awesome Foursome explosively came to public attention in their brand new, yet chillingly familiar world.

The most significant change to Stan & Jack’s breakthrough concept was a rather telling one: all four heroes were far, far younger than their mainstream antecedents…

Whereas in the original, middle-aged maverick genius Reed Richards, doughty college buddy Ben Grimm, ineffectual girlfriend Sue Storm and her younger brother Johnny survived a privately-funded space-shot which foundered when cosmic rays penetrated their vessel’s inadequate shielding before mutating into a quartet into quirky freaks, here a child prodigy and lonely super-genius was increasingly despised by his abusive blue-collar dad.

Bullied at school and obsessed with other dimensions, Reed’s only friend was classmate and school sports star Ben, who had unaccountably appointed himself the wonder-nerd’s protector…

Reed’s life changed the day his High School science project – teleportation – caught the eye of a government talent scout from a high powered think tank. Soon the kid was ensconced in a federally funded New York facility for budding geniuses…

Run by Professor Franklin Storm, the Baxter Building was a wonderland of top-flight resources, intellectual challenges and guarded support, but the school was primarily an ideas factory and the 100 strange, bright kids were expected to produce results…

The Chief Administrator’s little boy Johnny was there mostly as a courtesy, but daughter Sue was a biology prodigy and one of the biggest young brains on Earth…

Reed’s teleportation researches were just a necessary preliminary to his greater goal: mastery of a strange sub-dimension – a place the Baxter scientists call the Negative Zone. With their aid the passing years were largely spent in trying to fully access it, but regular studies continued too, with quite a few burn-outs and casualties.

Some kids thrived on the aggressive hot-housing; especially creepy, arrogant, insular Victor Van Damme who, after a particularly galling incident with Reed, somehow managed to swallow his seething animosity to collaborate on cracking the dimension calculations…

At last 21-year-old Reed and still-fractious lab partner Victor were shipped out to Nevada for the first full test of the N-Zone teleport system. The Storm kids went along for the ride, but as army technicians counted down, Victor argued with Reed before secretly changing the still hotly debated and contested calculations…

At that moment backpacker Ben Grimm had wandered into camp to see his old sidekick after more than a decade apart, and snotty Johnny distracted Reed by disclosing that his sister Sue had the hots for the long-obsessed but crushingly shy wonderboy…

The test firing was a literal catastrophe. The site was devastated in a shattering release of energy with Reed regaining consciousness some distance away as an amorphous blob of eerily boneless flesh, mistaken by the soldiers for an extra-dimensional invader.

Ben came to in Mexico, a huge rocky monster, and Johnny eventually called in from a hospital bed in France. He kept catching on fire without ever burning himself…

Sue simply vanished without a trace…

She was eventually recovered from miles below New York City, gifted with invisibility and force field powers but captured by disgraced, long-missing Baxter boffin Arthur Molekevic: a literal Mole Man re-populating ancient, previously inhabited caverns with a selection of his own dish-grown monsters and homunculi…

The unsavoury savant had deduced that the quartet’s uncontrolled projection through N-Space – utterly unprotected from whatever transformative energies and unknown physical laws might apply there – had transformed them on some unfathomable fundamental level. Their incredible new gifts and appearances were the result…

When Mole Man attacked the surface world the foursome had chaotically united to defeat him – although their participation had been covered up by the army, as were all their subsequent activities.

This third 6-part saga – by Warren Ellis, Adam Kubert, and inkers John Dell, Scott Hanna, Mark Morales, Nelson and Larry Stucker plus digital colour wizard Dave Stewart – picks up the story after Reed and his companions met again their old classmate Victor…

Always seeking the most intimate secrets of their incredible transformations, Reed’s quest for a cure to their conditions temporarily stalled after his clash with “Dr. Doom”, but upon returning to the Baxter Building the young genius resumed researching and as this tale opens has not only deduced how Johnny’s flame powers actually work but also discovered something new about the enigmatic N-Zone…

Before long he has convinced Dr. Storm – and military liaison General Thaddeus Ross – to let him pilot a reconditioned space shuttle into the mystery realm…

Greed and the thought of potential military advantage eventually seduce the reluctant adults in charge and soon the mutated quartet are exploring a completely new kind of space in a dimension previously impossible to define.

As they progress, Reed and Sue deduce that the crimson otherspace might be a sub-universe in the process of dying. The sheer amazement of the revelation is quickly surpassed however when they pick up a signal that can only have been made by thinking beings…

Johnny doesn’t really care: for the first time since he got his powers, he’s feeling sick…

Their rendezvous with an immense creature leads to a meeting with a wide variety of life forms on a colossal, ramshackle space station, but Ben has a hit upon a worrying thought that has escaped the wonderstruck Reed. If your world was ending, wouldn’t you try to find another?

Soon the heroes are being feted by the bizarre ancient insectoid their translator tech describes as “Nihil”. The ruler of a ragtag world of survivors from a myriad races and species is happy to share knowledge, explaining the true nature of multiversal architecture and the perilous state of the N-Zone.

Unfortunately as Johnny’s condition worsens and the humans prepare to take him back to Earth for medical treatment, the arthropod alien shows his true colours, attempting to kill Ben and Reed, determined to make their fresh, healthy young universe his own…

Breaking free and making a desperate dash for home, the explorers inadvertently bring a legion of hungry monsters with them and Earth learns of its newest heroes when the team is forced to battle the ravening hungry horrors who so spectacularly crash into Las Vegas…

With their unlikely triumph captured by a thousand phones and cameras, the Fantastic Four are now the world’s latest super-sensations and no amount of military manoeuvring can change the fact…

To Be Continued…

Rocket-paced, razor sharp and blisteringly action-packed, this riotous romp is also awash with smart engaging teen-oriented humour for the era of the acceptable nerd and go-getting geek, delivering another sublimely enthralling alternate view of Marvel’s most important title that will impress open-minded old fans of the medium just as much as the newcomers they were ostensibly aiming for.
© 2004, 2005 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved. A British Edition published by Panini Publishing, a division of Panini UK, Ltd.

 

Ultimate Annuals volume 1


By Mark Millar, Brian K. Vaughn, Brian Michael Bendis, Jae Lee, Tom Raney, Mark Brooks, Jaime Mendoza Steve Dillon,& various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2035-3

After Marvel’s financial problems and creative impasse in the late 1990s, the company took stock, braced itself and came back swinging. A critical new concept was the remodelling and modernising of their core characters for the new youth culture.

The Ultimate imprint abandoned monumental long-grown continuity – which had always been Marvel’s greatest asset – to re-imagine major characters in their own self-sufficient universe, offering varying degrees of radical makeover to appeal to the contemporary 21st century audience and offer them a chance to get in on the ground floor.

Creepy vigilante Spider-Man Parker was not-so-secretly a high-school geek, brilliant but bullied by his physical superiors whilst mutants were a dangerous, oppressed ethnic minority scaring the pants off the ordinary Americans they frequently hid amongst.

The Fantastic Four were two science nerds and their dim pals transformed into monsters, and global peacekeeping force S.H.I.E.L.D. kept them all under control with their own metahuman taskforce humbly designated The Ultimates

The revived series all sported fresh and fashionable, modernistic, scientifically feasible rationales for all those insane super-abilities and freaks manifesting everywhere…

The experiment began in 2000 with a post-modern take on Ultimate Spider-Man. Ultimate X-Men followed in 2001, and the Mighty Avengers were reworked into The Ultimates in 2002 with Ultimate Fantastic Four joining the party in 2004.

The stories, design and even tone of the heroes were retooled for the perceived-as-different tastes of a new readership: those tired of or unwilling to stick with precepts originated by inspirational founding fathers Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, or (hopefully) new consumers unprepared or unwilling to deal with five decades (seven if you include Golden Age Timely tales retroactively co-opted into the mix) of interconnected story baggage.

The new universe quickly prospered and soon filled up with more refashioned, morally ambiguous heroes and villains but eventually even this darkly nihilistic new universe became as continuity-constricted as its ancestor.

Eventually, in 2008, an imprint-wide decluttering exercise “Ultimatum” culminated in a reign of terror which excised dozens of superhumans and millions of lesser mortals in a devastating tsunami which inundated Manhattan, courtesy of mutant menace Magneto.

Long before that, however, Marvel’s original keystone concepts were awarded their own celebratory summer specials and this stellar volume collects Ultimate Fantastic Four Annual#1, Ultimate X-Men Annual#1, Ultimate Spider-Man Annual#1 and The Ultimates Annual#1 (all from October 2005): a selection of relatively stand-alone sagas displaying the daringly different tone of the alternate yet chillingly familiar world.

The compilation kicks off with ‘Enter the Inhumans’ by Marl Millar, Jae Lee and colourist June Chung from Ultimate Fantastic Four Annual#1 wherein dim but pretty party boy Johnny Storm gets involved with a runaway princess bride.

The ethereally beautiful girl is named Crystal and she is fleeing from an arranged marriage to her creepy, crazy cousin Maximus. The match was decreed by her sister Medusa and King Black Bolt, rulers of a hidden race of super-powered parahumans who have concealed their existence from humanity for ten thousand years.

Even after the Human Torch almost dies defending her, Crystal is successfully abducted, compelling Reed, Sue, Ben and recuperating Johnny to go after her into the heart of hidden city Attilan, thanks to the teleporting talents of the princess’ faithful giant bulldog Lockjaw

The subsequent confrontation with the lethally powerful Inhuman Royal Family leads to an inconclusive resolution but a shattering end to the lost city…

Romance plays a part in the next tale too. ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ by Brian K. Vaughn, Tom Raney, Scott Hanna & Gina Going (Ultimate X-Men Annual#1) finds Nick Fury warning Charles Xavier that the unstoppable Juggernaut has escaped and is hunting the mutant girl he holds responsible for all his recent woes…

Unfortunately for everyone, Rogue has absconded to Las Vegas in the company of sexy bad-boy thief Gambit, where the rampaging monster maniac finally corners the duplicitous duo. Tragically Juggernaut completely underestimates his former squeeze’s lethal powers and the self-sacrificing ingenuity of the besotted Cajun…

The most significant change to Stan, Jack and Steve’s breakthrough concepts was a rather telling one: all the heroes were conceived as being far, far younger than their mainstream antecedents. This even affected the sensational Spider-Man tales wherein – after decades of comicbook stardom – the perennially youthful Peter Parker was at last portrayed as a proper High School kid rather than a stodgy 40-year old geek trapped in a teen’s body…

In ‘More than you Bargained For’ by Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Brooks, Jaime Mendoza, Scott Hanna & Dave Stewart – from Ultimate Spider-Man Annual#1 – the guilt-driven lad’s constant round of villain thrashing is derailed when cute but shy mutant Kitty Pryde makes the first tentative moves in her painfully adorable bid to make the mysterious hero her boyfriend…

That sweet, silly and utterly charming yarn is followed by a far darker and cunningly convoluted tale focusing on S.H.I.E.L.D. supremo Nick Fury and his long-term plan to mass produce an army of metahumans in ‘The Reserves’ by Millar, Steve Dillon & Paul Mounts.

Rather than highlighting stars like Iron Man and Captain America, the story follows the far from smooth development of a legion of Rocketmen, Goliaths, weather based warriors “The Four Seasons” and the short, tragic career of heroic hopeful super-soldier Lieberman. Of course the one-eyed master strategist has no time for regrets as he’s busy trying to avoid becoming the latest successful contract of infallible hitman Mister Nix

Rocket-paced, razor sharp and blisteringly action-packed, this riotous romp is also liberally dosed with teen-oriented humour for the era of the acceptable nerd and go-getting geek, offering a smart and beguiling entrée into of Marvel’s other Universe that will impress open-minded old fans of the medium just as much as the newcomers they were ostensibly aiming for.
© 2005, 2006 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

Dark Reign Fantastic Four


By Jonathan Hickman, Sean Chen, Adi Granov & Lorenzo Ruggiero (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3908-9

When the draconian Federal mandate known as the Superhuman Registration Act led to Civil War between costumed heroes, Tony Stark was hastily appointed the American government’s Security Czar – a “top cop” in sole charge of the beleaguered nation’s defence and freedom. As Director of high-tech enforcement agency S.H.I.E.L.D. he became the very last word in all matters involving metahumans and the USA’s vast costumed community…

Stark’s subsequent mismanagement of various crises led to the arrest and assassination of Captain America and an unimaginable escalation of global tension and destruction, culminating in an almost-successful Secret Invasion by shape-shifting alien Skrulls.

Discredited and ostracised, he was replaced by apparently rehabilitated, recovering schizophrenic Norman Osborn – the original Green Goblin – who assumed full control of the USA’s covert agencies and military resources, disbanded S.H.I.E.L.D. and placed the nation under the aegis of his own new organisation H.A.M.M.E.R.

The erstwhile villain had first begun his climb back to respectability after taking charge of the Thunderbolts Project; a penal program which offered a second chance to super-criminals who volunteered to undertake Federally-sanctioned missions…

Not content with legitimate political and personal power, Osborn also secretly conspired with a coalition of major malevolent masterminds to divvy up the world between them. The Cabal was a Star Chamber of super-villains working towards mutually self-serving goals, but such egomaniacal personalities could never play well together for long and cracks soon began to show, both in the criminal conspiracy and Osborn himself…

As another strand of his long-term plan, the Homeland Metahuman Security overlord fired Iron Man’s Mighty Avengers and created his own, more manageable team consisting of compliant turncoats, tractable replacements and outright impostors. Constantly courting public opinion, Osborn launched his Avengers whilst systematically building up a personally loyal high-tech paramilitary rapid-response force.

During his Dark Reign, the rapidly destabilising madman – through means fair and foul – officially worked to curb the unchecked power and threat of meta-humanity, whilst his clandestine cabal of dictators divvied up the planet between them. The repercussions of Osborn’s rise and fall were felt throughout and featured in many series and collections covering the entire Marvel Universe.

Reed Richards had been a major supporter of Stark and key proponent of the Superhuman Registration Act even though his actions tore his family apart; driving his wife Sue and brother-in-law Johnny Storm into the opposing camp of costumed resistors dubbed the Secret Avengers.

His best friend Ben Grimm – unwilling to choose sides – left the country to become an exile in France…

This collection compiles the 5-issue miniseries Dark Reign: Fantastic Four and Dark Reign: The Cabal (May to September 2009) and serves to explore and explain Mr. Fantastic’s side of the argument as well as the terrifying motivations which prompted his uncharacteristic behaviour even as the still-wounded family painfully try to reconcile in their old home The Baxter Building……

The drama begins a week after the Skrull invasion as the greatest mind on Earth constructs a colossal interdimensional transit threshold. ‘The Bridge’ (written by Jonathan Hickman and illustrated by Sean Chen & Lorenzo Ruggiero) is a pathway to alternate Earths. Demoralised and confused, Richards wants to explore all the other Earths to see if the Civil War and subsequent tragedies which followed happened elsewhere and how other Mr. Fantastics dealt with it.

He needs to know how to prevent such a catastrophe ever happening again…

He has only just convinced Sue, Ben and Johnny that he must go before the metaphorical roof caves in…

Acting with sublime overconfidence and seemingly blessed by fortune, Osborn has chosen that moment to invade the Baxter Building with an army of H.A.M.M.E.R. troops, determined to shut down the Fantastic Four and confiscate all their incredible technologies.

Outraged and ready for trouble, Invisible Woman, Human Torch and the Thing head for the ground floor just as Osborn’s men cut power to the building. The resultant surge in energy interacts with Reed’s Bridge and when the elevator doors open they find themselves in another realm: a primitive jungle where men and dinosaurs and space gods exist side by side…

With the adults out of action, children Franklin and Valeria take charge of the situation, bluffing the H.A.M.M.E.R. heavies into leaving, but little Val knows its only a matter of time until Osborn comes in person. She might be only three, but she’s already as smart as her father…

Setting to, she begins repairing the building’s electrical and defence systems even as in a distant time her devoted guardians battle a horde of time-lost terrors and, in a place where all places meet, her father views universe after universe and sees few happy outcomes…

As hours pass in the normal world, Sue, Johnny and Ben are bounced from one bizarre alternity to the next, gradually a gathering a stout band of like-minded heroes about them.

In fact they are strange variations of themselves: a gentle, noble erudite Thing, chamberlain to the court of the Virgin Queen; a blazing pirate Torch on a flying galleon, sharp-shooting sheriff Black Susan from an extremely wild, Wild West frontier town and so many more, all assisting as they determinedly fight their way to somewhere they can get home from…

After a night on their own Val and Franklin are awoken by Security Czar Osborn and his forces, accompanied by Dark Avenger “heavy” Spider-Man (in truth deranged impostor Scorpion possessed by the Venom symbiote). In a moment of sublime bravado the forces of Big Bad Government are stalled and legally finessed by the really annoying little girl…

In Collapsed Time, Sue, Johnny and Ben inexorably carve their way through a cascade of colliding realities whilst, in No Space, Reed – having analysed an infinity of alternate Earths – is forced to accept a truly humbling hypothesis…

His switching off The Bridge instantly returns the displaced FF to the Baxter Building where Osborn, having lost all patience, is trying to shoot the kids. After a brief but brutal battle the Federal forces are routed, and when the Czar tries to shoot Reed in the back after surrendering, Franklin displays a burst of the dormant power which will make him the terror of reality in years to come…

In the tense aftermath of a temporary, portent-laden standoff, Mr. Fantastic dismantles The Bridge at Sue’s insistence, but keeps from her the incredible beings he met before returning and the new resolution he has made: a decision that will also have devastating repercussions for all the universes in the months to come…

Rounding out this spectacular segue into the unknown is a sinister snippet from Dark Reign: The Cabal.‘And I’ll Get the Land’ by Hickman & Adi Granov gives a salutary glimpse into the scary mind of Doctor Doom as he debates a side deal with fellow Cabal associate Sub-Mariner whilst pondering what to do with maniac upstart Norman Osborn once his usefulness is ended…

Fast-paced, action-drenched, furiously imaginative and wickedly funny, this sharp sortie into strange worlds also includes a covers-&-variants gallery by Simone Bianchi & Simone Peruzzi, Pasqual Ferry & Dave McCaig and Marko Djurdjevic to complete the perfect package for all tried-and-true Fights ‘n’ Tights aficionados.
© 2009 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ultimate Fantastic Four volume 2: Doom


By Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1457-4

After Marvel’s financial problems and creative roadblock in the late 1990s, the company came back swinging. A critical new concept was the remodelling and modernising of their core characters for the new youth culture.

The Ultimate imprint abandoned monumental long-grown continuity – which had always been Marvel’s greatest asset – to re-imagine major characters in their own self-sufficient universe, offering varying degrees of radical makeover to appeal to the contemporary 21st century audience and offer them a chance to get in on the ground floor.

Peter Parker was once again a nerdy high-school geek, brilliant but bullied by his physical superiors, and mutants were a dangerous, oppressed ethic minority scaring the pants off the ordinary Americans they hid amongst. There were also fresh and fashionable, modernistic, scientifically feasible rationales for all those insane super-abilities manifesting everywhere…

The experiment began in 2000 with a post-modern take on Ultimate Spider-Man. Ultimate X-Men followed in 2001 and Mighty Avengers reworking The Ultimates came in 2002.

The stories, design and even tone of the heroes were retooled for the perceived-as-different tastes of a new readership: those tired of or unwilling to stick with precepts originated by inspirational founding fathers Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, or (hopefully) new consumers unprepared or unwilling to deal with five decades (seven if you include Golden Age Timely tales retroactively co-opted into the mix) of interconnected story baggage.

The new universe quickly prospered and soon filled up with more refashioned, morally ambiguous heroes and villains but eventually even this darkly nihilistic new universe became as continuity-constricted as its ancestor.

In 2008, imprint-wide decluttering exercise “Ultimatum” culminated in a reign of terror which excised dozens of superhumans and millions of lesser mortals in a devastating tsunami which inundated Manhattan, courtesy of mutant menace Magneto.

Before that, however, Marvel’s original keystone concept was given an Ultimate working over and this stellar volume collects Ultimate Fantastic Four #17-12 (August to December 2004), and digital-colourist Dave Stewart relates how a subtly different Awesome Foursome began to affect the brand new, yet chillingly familiar world.

The most significant change to Stan & Jack’s breakthrough concept was a rather telling one: all four heroes were far, far younger than their mainstream antecedents…

Whereas in the original, middle-aged maverick genius Reed Richards, doughty friend Ben Grimm, ineffectual girlfriend Sue Storm and her younger brother Johnny survived a privately-funded space-shot which foundered when cosmic rays penetrated their vessel’s inadequate shielding and were mutated into a quartet into quirky freaks, here events transpired in a far more sinister manner…

Infant prodigy Reed was a lonely super-genius increasingly despised by his abusive blue-collar dad, bullied at school and obsessed with other dimensions. His only friend was classmate and school sports star Ben, who had unaccountably appointed himself the wonder-nerd’s protector…

Reed’s life changed the day his High School science project – teleportation – caught the eye of a government talent scout from a high powered think tank. Soon the outsider kid was ensconced in a New York facility for budding geniuses…

Run by brilliant Professor Franklin Storm, the Baxter Building was a wonderland of top-flight resources, intellectual challenges and guarded support, but school was primarily an ideas factory and the 100 strange, bright kids were expected to produce results…

Administrator Storm’s son Johnny was there mostly as a courtesy, but his daughter Sue was a biology prodigy and one of the biggest young brains on Earth…

Pretty hot, too…

Reed’s teleportation researches were just a necessary preliminary to his greater goal: mastery of a strange sub-dimension – a place the Baxter scientists call the Negative Zone. With their aid the passing years were largely spent in trying to fully access it, but regular studies continued too, with quite a few burn-outs and casualties.

Some kids thrived on the aggressive hot-housing; especially creepy, arrogant, insular Victor Van Damme, who after a particularly galling incident with Reed, somehow managed to swallow his seething animosity to collaborate on cracking the dimension calculations…

At last 21-year-old Reed and fractious lab partner Victor were shipped out to Nevada for the first full test of the N-Zone teleport system. The Storms went along for the ride, but as the army technicians counted down, Van Damme argued with Richards before secretly changing the still hotly debated and contested calculations…

At that moment backpacker Ben Grimm had wandered into camp to see his old sidekick after more than a decade apart, and snotty Johnny distracted Reed by disclosing that his sister Sue had the hots for the long-obsessed but crushingly shy wonderboy…

The test firing became a literal catastrophe.

The site was devastated in a shattering release of energy and Reed awoke some distance away as an amorphous blob of eerily boneless flesh, mistaken by the soldiers for an extra-dimensional invader.

Ben came to in Mexico as a huge rocky orange monster, and Johnny eventually called in from a hospital bed in France. He kept catching on fire without ever burning himself…

Sue has simply vanished without a trace…

She was eventually recovered from miles below New York City, gifted with invisibility and force field powers but captured by disgraced and long-missing Baxter Building boffin Arthur Molekevic: a literal Mole Man re-populating ancient, previously inhabited caverns with a selection of his own dish-grown monsters and homunculi…

The unsavoury savant had deduced that the quartet’s uncontrolled projection through N-Space – utterly unprotected from whatever transformative energies and unknown physical laws might apply there – had transformed them on some unfathomable fundamental level. Their incredible new gifts and appearances are the result…

When Mole Man attacked the surface world the foursome had chaotically united to defeat him and this second 6-part saga – by Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger and digital colour wizard Dave Stewart – picks up the story as Reed, perpetually pondering and fixating upon what transformed them and how, at last deduces that Victor had tampered with the N-Zone Superpostioner codes…

He is then pressured by Sue into finally submitting to a barrage of biological tests; even convincing barely-reactive, stonily shellshocked Ben into doing likewise. The findings are astounding, unbelievable and – for us readers – rather gross and pretty hilarious…

Victor has been missing since the test went so explosively awry. Unknown to all, he was also transformed into an uncanny new life-form and now lurks in a ramshackle communal squat in Denmark, obsessing on his abusive father and the daily cruelties that direct descent of Vlad Tepes had inflicted upon his only heir in the name of honouring the august and reviled line of Dracula

Victor wants revenge and needs data, so his nimble but malformed hands have cobbled together a lethal swarm of killer spy wasps from discarded cellphones and the electronic detritus scattered in the streets…

As the bugs head for America the last scion of the Draculas advances his other plan: building a kingdom of the wretched from the city’s outcasts and dropouts. They all love and revere him. The electronic tattoos admitting them to his Order of the Dragon guarantee that…

When the swarm at last reaches the Baxter Building they utterly overwhelm and eradicate the military forces “protecting” the unsettling quartet of freaks, but after a spectacular struggle fall before the incredible power of Ben, Sue and Johnny.

Aware at last that the accident has turned the trio into beings as advanced as he, Victor lays new plans whilst largely discounted and loathed Reed frantically attempts to track the source of the assault.

The furious prodigy realises that if he can get the altered N-Zone Superpostioner codes from Victor, there’s a strong chance he can reverse the process and restore them all to true humanity.

Sadly, Professor Storm won’t let them go and instead dispatches a military squad to covertly rendition Van Dammer from sovereign Danish territory, but Reed is no longer the docile star pupil and sneaks off with “his” team in a flying supercar he built when he was thirteen.

He’s going to get those codes out of his treacherous lab partner and have a normal life no matter the cost…

Unfortunately Victor is waiting for them with an horrific range of new powers, deadly weapons and an army of unwashed hippie slaves, but the manic control freak is totally unprepared for the fact that his deadly rival has powers too: a fact none of his death-bugs managed to convey before they were destroyed.

The conflict then spirals completely out of control when US Special Forces blaze in to snatch Van Damme and run slam-bang into an extremely ticked off Danish army a trifle upset by the illegal American incursion…

Rocket-paced, razor sharp and blisteringly action-packed, this riotous romp is also liberally dosed with teen-oriented humour for the era of the acceptable nerd and go-getting geek, delivering a sublimely enthralling alternate view of Marvel’s most important title that will impress open-minded old fans of the medium just as much as the newcomers they were ostensibly aiming for.
© 2005 and 2005 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars: 30th Anniversary Edition


By Jim Shooter, Mike Zeck, Bob Layton, John Beatty & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-589-5

Has it been thirty years? Cripes!: stir the Horlicks and break out the Zimmer frames…

The “maxi-series” which started the seemingly insatiable modern passion for vast, braided mega-crossover publishing events originally came about because of an impending action figures licensing deal with toy manufacturing monolith Mattel.

Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, a great advocate of tales accessible to new, younger readers as well as the dedicated fan-base, apparently concocted the rather simplistic but amazingly engaging saga starring the House of Ideas’ top characters as a result of urgings from a potential major licensor. He then built his tale around a torrent of unsolicited, inspirational mail from readers, all begging for one huge dust-up between all the heroes and villains…

The 12-issue Limited Series launched with a May 1984 cover-date and closed (April 1985) with a double-sized blockbusting battle that left many characters changed forever – or as least as “Forever” as comics get…

The premise of the secret saga was that an all-powerful force calling itself The Beyonder abducted an army of Earth heroes and villains – and the most dreaded destroyer in the universe – in its quest to understand the emotion of desire…

The enigmatic, almighty entity dumped them all on a colossal purpose-built Battleworld created from and populated with fragments of other planets as a vast arena in which to prove which was better – self-gratification or sacrifice…

In his introductory reminiscence ‘The War to End All Wars’, Shooter recounts the concatenation of circumstances which led to the creation of the series, after which an tantalising page clipped from the Daily Bugle outlines the mounting mystery of a seemingly unconnected legion of missing heroes before the furious Fights ‘n’ Tights epic opens…

As crafted by Shooter, Mike Zeck & John Beatty, ‘The War Begins’ found the Avengers, X-Men and Fantastic Four, Magneto, the Hulk and utterly out-of-his-depth Spider-Man all teleported into the deep unknown to see a galaxy destroyed and a world constructed before their astounded eyes. This was achieved purely so that a cosmic force could determine which of two philosophies was correct.

Arrayed against them were Doctor Doom, Molecule Man, Ultron, Dr. Octopus, the Lizard, the Enchantress, Absorbing Man, Kang the Conqueror, the Wrecking Crew and Galactus, all of whom had no problem with a disembodied voice telling them “slay your enemies and all you desire shall be yours”…

Whilst the villains instantly turn on each other, the Devourer of Worlds doesn’t care for the offer and attacks the disembodied force, only to be smashed casually and unceremoniously onto the brand new world below. The heroes too touch ground but dissent starts to split them into suspicious factions. The mere presence of mutant supremacist Magneto on their “team” divides the champions along human and mutant lines…

Elsewhere Doctor Doom tries to explain the underlying threat to his fellow villains in the huge super-scientific citadel they have commandeered, but the rogues refuse to listen.

Exasperated, the Monarch of Latveria decides to swallow his pride and consult with despised rival Mr. Fantastic but is blasted out of the skies by his greedy, treacherous companions before he finds the heroes’ camp. The bushwhackers then rashly go on to attack the gathered Good Guys… and The War begins…

‘Prisoners of War!’ sees the first of many pitched battles, but as the cataclysmic conflict proceeds, elsewhere Doom, having survived the sneak attack, is on site to see Galactus revive and ominously repair to a mountain top to begin his own unique response…

Leaving the cosmic glutton to his own devices, the Iron Tyrant returns to the fortress of evil; dubbing it Doombase as he reprograms the dormant AI Ultron to be his slave.

He is waiting when the thoroughly trounced malefactors limp home, having lost the Lizard, Enchantress, Kang and Thunderball, Bulldozer and Piledriver of the Wrecking Crew to the heroes.

The triumphant yet troubled victors have occupied their own city-sized futuristic castle-complex where, after imprisoning their captives, they soon return to bickering with each other. The suspicions of some human heroes quickly drives Magneto away – taking the Wasp as a hostage – but even as the remaining mutants begin to feel the weight of prejudice, bigger problems manifest.

As the rocky Thing unexpectedly reverts to merely mortal Ben Grimm, on his distant mountain top Galactus is preparing to consume Battleworld…

The suspense builds in ‘Tempest Without, Crisis Within!’

As the master of magnetism discusses a truce with the Wasp, in the hero citadel Spider-Man misconstrues an overheard conversation and accidentally sparks a schism between human and mutants.

Whilst the webslinger and Hulk remain with Reed Richards, The Thing, Human Torch, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man (unknown to all Jim Rhodes not Tony Stark), Hawkeye, Captain Marvel and She-Hulk, the much-aggrieved X-Men Storm, Cyclops, Rogue, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Wolverine and diminutive space-dragon Lockheed follow increasingly doctrinaire Charles Xavier’s demands to separate from the assemblage and join Magneto…

Doom meanwhile has used his fortress’ alien technology to turn two mysteriously-arrived earth girls into super-powered allies. When his remaining forces attack the heroes at dawn, the power of Volcana and Titania tips the balance against the defenders, deprived as they are of the might of the now-missing mutants…

Thor too is gone. Having journeyed with the captive Enchantress to a pocket dimension – hoping to persuade her to switch sides – he returns too late to stop the felons freeing their comrades and crippling the Torch and Captain Marvel…

Bob Layton stepped in to pencil the next two chapters, beginning with ‘Situation: Hopeless!’ wherein the resurgent rogues move to end the war by having Molecule Man drop an entire mountain range on the already-reeling heroes. Trapped under 50 billion tons of rock – only barely held up by the Atlas-like Hulk – the heroes are rallied to hold on by Captain America whilst Reed and Iron Man devise a technological solution to their dilemma.

Outside, Thor’s unexpected return almost overwhelms the exultant evildoers, but he too is eventually destroyed…

As the dust settles, Doom kills the newly liberated Kang (for shooting him down as he flew to confer with Richards), blithely unaware that Thor has survived and escaped to rescue his buried comrades…

In another quadrant, as the X-Men arrive at Magneto’s bastion – giving the Wasp a chance to escape – the recently disinterred heroes find an alien village in the shadow of Galactus’ peak where a comely healer named Zsaji uses her empathic abilities to heal the battered, wounded warriors from Earth…

However even as Ben unpredictably becomes the Thing again, Galactus makes his next move…

Above the skies of Battleworld, the Devourer’s solar system sized starship materialises, signalling ‘The Battle of Four Armies!’ At Doombase meek, socially inept Molecule Man Owen Reece is starting to blossom under the romantic attentions of Marsha Rosenberg AKA Volcana and, after being teased and bullied by the Wrecking Crew, smashes them all and flies off to be alone with her.

Whilst Magneto and Xavier attempt to communicate with the disdainfully oblivious Galactus, the X-Men speed to assist the human heroes against an outlaw assault on Zsaji’s village. In the melee Colossus is gravely injured and only saved by the healer’s intervention.

For him it is true love at first sight…

Oblivious to the conflict Doom, meanwhile, has again accomplished the impossible and invaded Galactus’ ship…

Zeck returned for ‘A Little Death…’ in which the Wasp, frantically making her way back to her friends, encounters and befriends the savage, confused Lizard.

Thousand of miles above her, Doom’s explorations have led him to find and restore sonic scourge Klaw. The malign, sentient sound wave had been trapped in the system-ship for months but although reconstituted in a solid-vibrational body construct, the Master of Sound is completely crazy….

Xavier’s confrontational leadership style is causing contention amongst his students and Colossus is having his heart broken every time he sees Zsaji fawn and simper over the shallow, lustful – human – Torch…

As Captain America and the big brains strategise ways to stop Galactus, Cyclops, Wolverine and Rogue unexpectedly rout a pack of bad guys on a mission for Doom which leaves the nigh-omnipotent Molecule bleeding out. Elsewhere, however, the fates are less kind when the Wasp, still cosying up to the Lizard, is ambushed and murdered by the Wrecking Crew.

The primordial predator is unable to save her, but his vengeance is terrible to behold…

And back at the Healer’s village a new player is about to enter the fray…

‘Berserker!’ introduces a new Spider-Woman and reveals where Titania and Volcana came from. Whilst assembling his war world The Beyonder appropriated segments of many other planets, including an entire suburb of Denver, Colorado from Earth…

Before the enigmatic arachnid can explain further the Wreckers blaze in to dump the Wasp’s corpse and gloat, but the Star Spangled Avenger refuses to let his enraged comrades pursue the killers. He needs everyone to stay ready for the moment when Galactus starts to eat the planet and the billions of kidnapped innocents unhappily inhabiting it…

As the villains retreat with the wounded Molecule Man they are ambushed by the rest of the X-Men and Magneto, resulting in another savage yet inconclusive battle, whilst high above them all Doom continues to plunder Galactus’ home. When the World Eater finally notices him, the Master of Latveria is casually expelled and sent crashing like a bug to the planet below …

Back at Doombase She-Hulk, filled with righteous rage and ignoring Cap’s orders, attacks the amassed murderers alone. After a ferocious fight she eventually succumbs to their greater force and ruthless brutality…

So when Xavier informs the heroes that his mutants will stand guard over Galactus, the Sentinel of Liberty at last lets his enraged comrades loose to take on the killers and live up to the name “Avengers”…

She-Hulk is near death when ‘Invasion!’ (inked by Beatty & Jack Abel) opens, as the champions of justice thrash their enemies with great enthusiasm, especially the enigmatic new Spider-Woman. In the course of the spectacular melee, Spider-Man single-handedly beats the impossibly strong Titania and his costume is destroyed.

As they imprison the crushed criminals, Captain America finds Doom, slumped in defeat and despair. Whilst the triumphant heroes use matter-shaping machines to repair their clothing and uniforms, the Wall-crawler accidentally uses a different device and receives a new all-black costume similar to Spider-Woman’s…

His, however, can change shape, colour and design, is thought-activated and somehow produces an inexhaustible supply of webbing. In the days to come on Earth he will learn to deeply regret his error…

Back in the village Zsaji has pulled out all the stops and resurrected the seemingly dead Wasp, but any joy the victors might feel is instantly erased as Professor X broadcasts a desperate telepathic alarm: Galactus is at last beginning to consume the planet…

As the X-Men begin their ‘Assault on Galactus!’ the human heroes rush back to assist them, but Reed Richards – the greatest intellect on Earth – suddenly has a flash of insight and vanishes as the Devourer teleports him to a private conference.

At that moment Doom rouses himself from his despondent funk, having conceived a grand plan of his own to conquer both Galactus and The Beyonder, erasing forever the humiliation of his ignominious defeat…

Due in part to his discussion with Reed, the Cosmic Carnivore abandons Battleworld and instead absorbs his own system-ship…

In the confusion Doom makes his move, using a hastily constructed device to absorb all the omnipotent instigator’s power and deal out ‘Death to the Beyonder!’

Despite being all but incinerated in the struggle, the Iron Tyrant uses the stolen energies to rebuild himself and declare the Secret War over with Doom the sole victor…

In ‘…And Dust to Dust!’, having successfully stolen the Beyonder’s power, he exults in the joys of becoming omnipotent. However the troubled new god finds it hard to hang on to lust for conquest, or even personal ambition after achieving all-consuming divinity, and his benign acts and vapid indolence betray a certain lack of drive and ambition…

With heroes and villains nervously awaiting the new supreme one’s next move, events take a subtly disturbing turn as a strange energy wisp begins to possess a succession of heroes as it makes its way ever closer to the Doom Deity…

The other do-gooders remain deep in conference, debating their response to the self-proclaimed saviour of the universe. At the moment they finally decide to oppose him they are all vaporised by a bolt of energy…

Of course it doesn’t end there as the resurgent Beyonder battles through heroic and villainous proxies to reclaim his purloined power and put everything to rights – sort of – in the blockbusting finale ‘…Nothing to Fear!’

Although perhaps a little dated and rather straightforward – although peppered with plenty of convoluted and clever plot twists – this bombastic box of delights still reads exceedingly well (especially for younger readers) and this commemorative edition also includes a couple of added extras.

‘The Toys’ features many of the action figures, packaging and ads for all us kids to salivate over and the whole show concludes with scholarly overview ‘The Birth and Legacy of Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars’ which rounds off the cosmic nostalgia-fest by discussing the secret origins of mega-crossovers from crucial prototype Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions to a few of the more memorable descendants such as Civil War, Age of Ultron and Infinity

Fast-paced, pretty-looking and impressively action-packed, Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars was – and still is – sheer comicbook magic that no true aficionado of Fights ‘n’ Tights fiction can do without.

™ & © 1984, 1985, and 2014 Marvel & Subs. Licensed by Marvel Characters B.V. through Panini S.p.A. All rights reserved. A British Edition published by Panini Publishing, a division of Panini UK, Ltd.

Essential Fantastic Four volume 7


By Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Chris Claremont, John Buscema, Rich Buckler, Ross Andru, Joe Sinnott & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3063-5

By this seventh collection of tales from “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” the Fantastic Four had settled into a kind of comfortable stylistic nostalgia, although the stories – no longer fuelled by Jack Kirby’s staggeringly inventive imagination and High-Concept conveyor belt of mind-bending ideas – maintained the new taste for urbane melodrama and topically-tinged new characters all wrapped up in soap-opera methodology, science fictive social speculation and super-villain-dominated Fights ‘n’ Tights romps.

It wasn’t Stan and Jack but it stood up on its own terms…

This volume covers Fantastic Four #138-159 (June 1971- August 1973) and includes FF material from Giant-Size Super-Stars #1 and Giant-Size Fantastic Four #2-4 as well as the other half of a rather significant crossover tale from Avengers #127.

In the previous collection the never-ending stress was forcing Sue Richards apart from her husband and Inhuman warrior-princess Medusa had taken her place in the team whilst the Invisible Girl (as she still was) cared for son Franklin, now a toddler with strange, undiagnosed cosmic powers and problems…

Mr. Fantastic was not taking the trial separation well and issue #138 saw him left behind in an increasingly disturbed depressive state when old comrade Wyatt Wingfoot came looking for assistance against impossible, unimaginable disasters.

Madness is… The Miracle Man’ by Gerry Conway, John Buscema & Joe Sinnott began a period when rocky everyman Ben Grimm became the de facto star of the Fantastic Four and here he, the Torch and Medusa travelled to Wingfoot’s tribal lands to battle the former hypnotist they had first seen in their third adventure.

Now, however, thanks to the charlatan’s subsequent studies under ghostly Cheemuzwa medicine men, the maniac actually could alter reality with a thought…

The battle concluded in the next issue wherein ‘Target: Tomorrow!’ saw the villain who could control matter but not himself spiralled frantically out of control with our heroes struggling indomitably on until the Miracle Man made a fatal error…

Reed’s travails took a darkerturn in Fantastic Four # 140 as ‘Annihilus Revealed!’ found the insectoid Negative Zone tyrant kidnapping the ever more powerful Franklin and invading the Baxter Building in search of new worlds to ravage. In triumph the bug horror disclosed his incredible origin to the helpless Wingfoot before dragging all his enemies back to his subspace hell to engineer ‘The End of the Fantastic Four!’

And as the heroes languished in the Negative Zone, on Earth Ben’s girlfriend Alicia was lured to the Balkans by another arch enemy…

However, even though the beaten heroes counterattacked and gained an unlikely victory, Annihilus’ prior tampering with Franklin had triggered a cosmic catastrophe. As the boy’s limitless power began to spiral out of control, his tormented father was compelled to blast the boy, shutting down his mutant brain and everything else.

Appalled at the callous cold calculations needed to put his own son into a coma, Johnny and Ben joined Sue in deserting the grief-stricken Mr. Fantastic and declaring their heroic partnership defunct…

With only ruthlessly pragmatic Medusa remaining, FF #142 saw the shell-shocked Richards with ‘No Friend Beside Him!’ (by Conway & new artist Rich Buckler – whose faithful pastiche of Jack Kirby under Sinnott inking produced a wave of favourable nostalgia in fans then and now) whilst the Thing followed Alicia to Europe.

Here they were attacked by a sinister supernatural horror named Darkoth the Death-Demon even as Johnny and Wyatt headed for Metro College to see their old sports coach Sam Thorne on his way to an Alumni reunion.

Reed was another attendee, despondently dragged there by Medusa, but nobody expected that weird foreign kid who had been expelled so long ago to turn up, leading to ‘The Terrible Triumph of Doctor Doom!’ (Conway, Buckler & Frank Giacoia)…

The Mad Monarch was never one to forgive a slight, real or imagined, and as he gloatingly revealed himself to be the creator of Darkoth and jailer of the Thing he also boasted to his captives of his latest scheme to eradicate human free will.

Typically, though, the Iron Dictator hadn’t considered how his death-demon might react to the news that he was an artificial puppet and the monster’s ‘Attack!’ (#144 with Buckler & Sinnott art) resulted in a cataclysmic clash and Doom’s defeat…

Back together but still disunited, the FF again parted company in #145, as the Torch then accompanied Medusa on a visit to Attilan – the hidden city of the Inhumans – only to be brought down by a lost race of ice people to endure a ‘Nightmare in the Snow!’ (art by Ross Andru & Sinnott).

The snow troglodytes’ plans to turn the world into an ice-ball only they could inhabit went bizarrely awry when the Thing joined the crashed heroes and a dissident faction trained by a Buddhist monk pitched in, leading to a happy ending all round in the concluding ‘Doomsday: 200° Below!’

This was period of great experimentation and expansion at Marvel and Giant-Size Super-Stars #1 (May 1974) launched as a forerunner in a line of supplementary double-sized titles starring the company’s most popular stars.

In this initial exploratory outing – the title became Giant-Size Fantastic Four with the next quarterly issue – Conway, Buckler & Sinnott crafted ‘The Mind of the Monster!’: a blockbusting battle team-up as Bruce Banner came calling, still seeking a cure for his mean green alter ego and the sympathetic and occasionally self-loathing Thing foolishly let him play with one of Reed’s devices…

Unfortunately their mutual meddling with the Psi-Amplifier only switched their minds leaving the Rampaging Hulk trapped and running amok in the Thing’s body whilst Ben/Hulk struggled to stop him.

The situation worsened when trans-dimensional Femizon Thundra pitched in, mistakenly believing she was helping her main squeeze Ben battle a big green monster, and the violence intensified when Reed, Johnny and Medusa got involved in  ‘Someone’s Been Sleeping in My Head’

Of course in the end it took everybody and a cunning plan to set the world to rights in the spectacular conclusion ‘…And in This Corner: the Incredible Hulk’

Fantastic Four #147 continued the action-tinged melodrama with ‘The Sub-Mariner Strikes!’ (Conway, Buckler & Sinnott) as Sue started divorce proceedings whilst taking comfort from long-time stalker Prince Namor.

When Reed, Johnny and Ben tried to “rescue” her, the Atlantean thrashed them and she sent them packing…

To add insult to injury the dejected men returned home to find the Baxter Building invaded by the Frightful Four and were forced to fight a ‘War on the Thirty-Sixth Floor!’ Sadly for The Sandman, Wizard and Trapster they had no idea their newest ally Thundra was smitten with the Thing…

Issue #149 then resolved the Sub-Mariner storyline as the undersea emperor invaded New York in ‘To Love, Honour, and Destroy!’, but his awesome attack was only a cunning plan to trick Sue into reconciling with her husband…

Giant-Size Fantastic Four #2 then revealed a time-twisting ‘Cataclysm!’ courtesy of Conway, John Buscema & Chic Stone wherein cosmic voyeur The Watcher warned of a hapless innocent who had inadvertently altered history thanks to Dr. Doom’s confiscated time machine. Moreover the imposing extraterrestrial expected the FF to fix the problem…

With more than one temporal hot-spot, Reed and Johnny headed for Colonial America to rescue the Father of the Nation in ‘George Washington Almost Slept Here!’ whilst Ben and Medusa crashed into the “Roaring Twenties” and saved the time-lost wanderer from being rubbed out in ‘The Great Grimmsby’

Thinking their mission accomplished the heroes were astounded to then find themselves trapped in timeless Limbo battling a monstrous giant dubbed Tempus before escaping to their restored origin point in ‘Time Enough for Death!’

For months Johnny had been fretting that his first true love Crystal had decided to marry super-swift mutant Quicksilver but that plot-thread finally closed with a 2-part crossover tale that began in Avengers #127 as ‘Bride and Doom!’ (by Steve Englehart, Sal Buscema & Joe Staton) saw the Assemblers travel to the hidden homeland of the Inhumans for the marriage of the aforementioned Pietro to elemental enchantress and Royal Princess only to stumble into a uprising of the genetic slave-race known as Alpha Primitives.

Once again the sinister robotic colossus Omega had incited revolt but this time it wasn’t insane usurper Maximus behind the skulduggery but an old Avengers enemy who revealed himself in the concluding chapter in Fantastic Four #150.

Here ‘Ultron-7: He’ll Rule the World!’ ( Conway, Buckler & Sinnott) found both hero squads join Black Bolt’s Inhumans against the malign A.I and only saved by a veritable Deus ex Machina after which, at long last, ‘The Wedding of Crystal and Quicksilver’ finally ended events on a happy note… for everybody but the Torch.

FF #151 then began revealing the truth about the mysterious Femizon as ‘Thundra and Lightning!’ introduced the male-dominated alternate Future Earth dubbed Machus and its brutal despot Mahkizmo, the Nuclear Man, who explosively invaded the Baxter Building in search of a mate to dominate and a new world to conquer…

Inked by Jim Mooney #152 revealed ‘A World of Madness Made!’ as the team were held captive in the testosterone dimension whilst Medusa seemingly fled, but actually sought reinforcements from the diametrically-opposed Femizon future alternity, resulting in two universes crashing together in the concluding ‘Worlds in Collision!’ by Tony Isabella, Buckler & Sinnott.

Reworked by Len Wein, Fantastic Four #154 featured ‘The Man in the Mystery Mask!’ – a partial reprint from Strange Tales#127 in which Stan Lee, Dick Ayers & Paul Reinman pitted Ben and Johnny against ‘The Mystery Villain!’.

Here, however, Bob Brown, Giacoia & Mike Esposito found that Reed’s early lesson in leadership had been hijacked by another old friend with explosive and annoying results…

The next extra-special adventure in Giant-Size Fantastic Four #3 revealed ‘Where Lurks Death …Ride the Four Horsemen!’ as Conway, Marv Wolfman, Buckler & Sinnott described the invasion of cosmic aliens intent on scourging the Earth. Forewarned after the team battled the first horror in ‘…There Shall Come Pestilence’, the harried heroes split up with Medusa and Johnny striving against international madness in ‘…And War Shall Take the Land!’ whilst Reed and Ben strove to conquer the personification of Famine in ‘…And the Children Shall Hunger!’, before all reuniting to wrap up the final invader in‘…All in the Valley of Death!’

A minor classic followed in Fantastic Four #155-157 as the long dormant Silver Surfer resurfaced in ‘Battle Royal!’ (by Wein, Buckler & Sinnott), apparently a murderous and willing thrall of Doctor Doom.

The dictator could command the Shining Skyrider because he held the alien’s lover Shalla Bal – had indeed threatened to take her in marriage – but as seen in ‘Middle Game!’ (with Roy Thomas joining as co-writer and Editor) the Surfer could not kill and merely delivered the FF as prisoners to the Devil Doctor’s citadel.

However there were schemes within schemes unfolding and Doom was playing a waiting game whilst he covertly stole the Skyrider’s Power Cosmic to fuel a deadly Doomsman mechanoid…

With Thomas in full authorial control ‘And Now… the Endgame Cometh!’ saw the heroes fight back to conquer the Lethal Latverian, but all were blithely unaware that the entire charade had been a crafty confection of malign and manipulative demon Mephisto

Meanwhile over in Giant-Size Fantastic Four #4 Wein, Chris Claremont, John Buscema, Chic Stone & Sinnott united to introduce ‘Madrox the Multiple Man’, a young mutant who had grown up on an isolated farm unaware of the incredible power he possessed.

When his parents passed away the kid was inexplicably drawn to New York but the hi-tech suit he wore to contain his condition began to malfunction and the boy became a mobile fission device that could endlessly, lethally replicate itself…

Thankfully the FF were aided by mutant Moses Charles Xavier who took young Jamie under his wing…

This formidable high tension Fights ‘n’ Tights tome terminates with another nostalgia-tinged 2-part epic which began in FF #158’s ‘Invasion from the 5th (Count it, 5th!) Dimension’ by Thomas, Buckler & Sinnott, wherein one of the Torch’s earliest solo scourges returned to occupy the land of the Inhumans.

Extra-dimensional dictator Xemu began his campaign of vengeance by dispatching Quicksilver to lure Medusa back to Attilan. The intention was to make the defiant Black Bolt utilise his doomsday sonic power on the invader’s behalf, but the conqueror needed the silent king’s beloved as a bargaining chip.

However, when the FF accompanied her into the obvious trap, they brought a hidden ally who unobtrusively turned the tables on Xemu, unleashing ‘Havoc in the Hidden Land!’ and thereby at last reuniting the First Family of comicbook fiction…

This power-packed package also includes unused cover versions for Fantastic Four #141, 155 and 156 to add to the overall Costumed Drama and delight fans everywhere.

Although Kirby had taken the unmatched imagination and questing sense of wonder with him on his departure, the sheer range of beloved characters and concepts he had created with Stan Lee carried the series for years afterwards. So once writers who shared the originators’ sensibilities were crafting the stories a mini-renaissance began…

Although the “World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” didn’t quite return to the stratospheric heights of yore, this period offered fans a tantalising taste of the glory days and these solid, honest and intriguing efforts are probably most welcome to dedicated superhero fans and continuity freaks like me, but will still thrill and enthral the generous and forgiving casual browser looking for an undemanding slice of graphic narrative excitement.
© 1973, 1973, 1973, 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.