is post could really be called “The Long Road Back.” It’s one part nostalgia, one part anticipating the future, with a healthy dose of naval gazing. No toys will be harmed in the writing of this piece.
Comics are for Reading
No, he's not Franklin. Or the Super Skrull.
Back in the days when I had so much time and so few comics that I would devour each one over and over again with reckless abandon, one of the difficulties I faced was the multi-arch storyline. Because chances were I would only find one issue in the set, and thus be left in the dark as to how the story ended. This was the case with Fantastic Four #199, the penultimate chapter of a story arch leading into the monumental #200!
A half dozen years before Downshift, Camshaft and Overdrive.
Now I loved #199. I loved the art. I loved this mysterious “son” who, upon being passed the crown of Latveria by Doom, transforms into a handsome version of the Thing, complete with hair plugs and the powers of the Super Skrull, before being murdered by his “father” for daring to rise up against him. And I really loved the “Omni-bots”, red robots with hollow faces in Doom armour (I still love them in fact and want to kitbash some from 3 3/4″ Hasbro Doctor Dooms, or possibly some poor munny figure.) And I was so convinced for decade hence that the writer of this story (Marv Wolfman as it turns out) had really knocked it out of the park. And I was dying to read the the two bookend issues, 198 and 200, to find out how it began and how it end.
Because I honestly thought it was just that, a three part story, until I found out that it wasn’t. And then found out, after reading it all, that in fact I was right all along (but more on that later…)
The Undiscovered Story
More threat outside than inside.
The matter of the story’s length aside, it is 32 years later. In those intervening years, I have amassed a comic collection that (take my word for it) is quite extensive. And yet I’m talking to you about this particular comic, which means there must be something to it, something that makes me care about it, if I’m taking the time to write about it. And yet, I never really tried to finish the story. It was never front of mind at any of the comic shows, even though, unlike a particularly Legions of Superheroes story that I also want to rediscover (but for which I cannot remember the issue numbers in question to facilitate such an occurrence), I not only can remember the cover but can remember the issue number. In fact, it was only at what can only be described as a failure of a comic show in Nepean earlier this year (by failure, I mean a show whereby I was barely tempted to exchange interest payments for paper or plastic) that I elected to chase down 198 and 200. Getting them home for the first time, I was distressed to learn that my imagined three-issue arc was in fact five issues in length.
I waited so I could read about this guy? Really???
When I got them home, I discovered I wasn’t ready to begin because I still needed 196 and 197. I should also note that, like a surprising number of 1970s story runs, there is no trade collection for this story yet. And given the vintage of the comic in question, it was not like I could just walk to any of the local comic book shops and easily purchase the missing issues. So my efforts to embrace the story was halted until, long story short, I did eventually acquire the missing comics.
This week, I unburied them from the piles of the unread and opted to attack this story. Suffice to say it wasn’t the story I dreamed it would be.
It was me? Don
There was a lot of back story that I roughly gleaned from the text but which I was unaware (team is broken up, Sue Storm is an actress and Reed is without his powers), none of which is particularly earth-changing but which were somewhat off-putting… (Not as off-putting as finding out that Peter Parker was really a clone for twenty years and then wasn’t, but there you go.) It also seemed that the powers-that-be wanted to take what should have been a decent three issue arc and turn it into five, so you had whole side stories that didn’t seem to be necessary (Ben Grimm’s star gazing in Hollywood in 196, the entirety of 197), while at the same time there were places where it almost seemed as if a page had dropped off the printer when you turned the page, the disconnect from panel to panel being that abrupt. I should note too that, at 31 pages (with a supersize issue 200 at 45), they were hardly at a loss of printed pages.
Zorba was schooled in the spy game by Phil Ken Sebben.
If that weren’t enough, Marvel seemed convinced it had to make each issue stand alone even as it tried to convince everyone it was a five part story. So 196 find us literally coming in the middle of a mysterious stranger brainwashing Reed (and I thought this was a five-parter…) so he can lead the capture of the Ben, Johnny and Sue, a job that could have been carried out by any number of villains.
Brainwashing so carefully and pain-stakingly achieved, the real villain of the piece is quickly revealed to all but Reed, who seems to have completely shaken off the effects of his hypnosis (or at least not affected by it for the rest of the story). In 197, he is sent into space in a successful effort to rediscover his super powers, leaving him to combat the Red Ghost, a villain who has nothing to do with the larger story arc other than to eat up a number of pages in order to push us into the next issue. Reed needs his powers back so that, in 198, Reed can try an infiltrate Doom’s castle vowing to destroy his enemy once and for all, meet Zorba (no I’m not making this up) who is quickly set up as a freedom fighter and acceptable successor to the Latveria throne, and then be captured by doom to have his powers dumped along with the rest of Marvel’s first family into the body of his to-this-point-acting-totally-as-planned “son”.
Sometimes It Really Is Better Left Unsaid
Reed's snake thing. Even creepier when the clone does it.
Which brings us to 199. Oh the art (Kieth Pollard) is still terrific and memorable, if a little colour-dulled by sitting on a mass produced printing for 32 years. Overall, it is still a great issue, despite of the three previous issues’ efforts to undercut a lot of the suspense and coolness of the issue (the “son” is in fact a clone who, despite being nurtured for many many years, seemingly pops out of nowhere in the space of a handful of issues, infused with watered-down versions of the FF’s powers and is quickly eliminated from characters for future writers to exploit).
What was really surprising was that 200 could almost be a completely different story. In my head, based on the last panel of 199, there was going to be this immediate showdown between Reed and Doom that was going to be epic. In fact, it’s why I inevitably went back to get the back issues. I mean the book told me so! And yet 200 immediately decided to take a break and even bring in a little romance before returning to some odd plot of Doom to use an Alicia Masters original forcibly pushed on the delegates of the U.N. to take over their minds (and presumably their member countries). Why the U.N. plot? Seems they were considering kicking Latveria out of the club for human rights offences (clearly Latveria was giving Cambodia a run for its torture and murder money).
You know Phil would have made a play for Johnny.
What are we left with? A story that really doesn’t hold together when you look at it in the light. Somehow Doom came to create a clone, “raise” him in secret over many years, intent on granting him all the powers of his four most hated adversaries, even at the expense of returning the powers to those said enemies who may have lost their special abilities, to be exactly ready to ascend to the Latverian thrown to prevent the U.N. from kicking it out of its club, even as he plans to gas said U.N. delegates to turn them into mindless slaves and use them to take over the world.
Wow. I waited for this? Worse yet, I feel the need to blog about it, with picture and everything? What is wrong with me?
What Is Wrong With Him
Do you think I can still get my free comics?
That question brings me to the second part of this ever-so-long post. Recently, in a post entitled “self imposed exile is the right of all toy robot archaeologist,” “Crazy” Steve put down keypad for a well-deserved break from blogging. In case you don’t know, Steve is the proprietor of Roboplastic Apocalypse, a site that while on the surface is another toy blog, is in fact evidence of extensive archival efforts to answer a number of mysteries in the toyverse, circa 1975 to 1990. (And he came up as part of my thinking about this post because, reading old comic books is an exercise in nostalgia, particularly when it comes to adverts such as this one for two free comics with proof of purchase from Mego’s Micronaut Battle Cruiser (I just bought a far-from-mint-boxed Battle Cruiser - I wonder if the offer is still valid…)
In a recent exchange of emails, Steven mused about how, though he missed his blogging in exile, it remained “so labor and time intensive I can’t afford it,” time that he could spend in his return to school and as father and husband, to say nothing of taking a lot of the work he had undertaken at the behest of the historical records’ side of the site and begin to bring it forward into the light. But it is his words about “labout and time intensive” that struck with me.
It wouldn’t be a day in my life without 20 ideas of wonder kicking back and forth in my head, none of them a plan for world peace and a good number of them related to plastic-as-culture. In 2009, I actually undertook one by creating the 365 day Transformers calendar, and was overwhelmed by the amount of work and organization it took to pull off, even setting aside two modest interruptions and the text and picture issues that arose in the final month of the project. This year, my early efforts to create something more original, content-wise, while taking advantage of “the collection” (the “Collectible of the Week”) came up short because of other pressures on my time and energy. In fact, my own writing has come up quite lax lately (if you exclude Twittering), something I seem to lament frequently, even as I pledge to do better.
Because you know I really do want to talk about the paper and plastic with which I surround myself, just as I want to create a fully-functioning, innovative, ever-updating virtual display for my creations (which I also want to keep creating), as well as embarking on other projects, while doing good work and hanging with friends and creating a great home and playing new games and everything else we want to do. And if I am going to do it, I am going to want to invest the energy and effort to make it as worthwhile outside my head as it seems to be inside of it. And as I think about Steve’s words, I think about the rules I think need to be considered as part of any worthwhile blog piece:
- Have I said this before?
- Does it have a good flow?
- Can I say it better?
- Does it go on too long?
- Will it grab the reader’s / readers’ attention?
- Is there enough eye candy to accompany the text?
Knowing When To Stop
I don’t exactly know if I succeeded against this list of criteria, particularly number one. The themes espoused in the second part of this post has been said before. And yet it seems like the stopping point for now, three hours after starting this post that is now in excess of some of my university essays. I guess when it is all said and done, I just wanted to reflect about a comic that I read, and talk about a recent exchange with a friend that got me thinking about the effort that goes into a blog that goes unaccounted for by even the bloggers themselves. So maybe I don’t need a conclusion at all. Maybe I just need to clear the idea from my head, and move on to the next…
Everyone's a critic.