Monday, May 4, 2015

"Victory!" Cries The Gladiator!

This superb Fantastic Four story by John Byrne introduces a cover that, over thirty years later, is arguably as recognized as the one he created for "Days of Future Past":

And, just as with that iconic cover for X-Men #141, the cover for FF #249 has inspired other artists to recreate its look featuring different characters--including another shot at it by Byrne, himself:

The story's plot takes us on a roller-coaster ride from beginning to end: Gladiator, leader of the Shi'ar Imperial Guard, arrives on Earth and viciously attacks the Fantastic Four, apparently without cause or reason. We know it has something to do with his relentless pursuit of a group of Skrulls heading for Earth; but whatever happened in space to divert his attention to the FF hasn't made him any less of a threat to the team, who will find him one of the most formidable foes they've ever faced.

And while Byrne eases us into this story, he doesn't take long to launch the FF's trademark emergency signal flare, which has the Thing and the Human Torch heading back to the Baxter Building where we learn that all hell is breaking loose.

Since Gladiator happens to be "that scrap of shrapnel" that has Reed's alarms going nuts, and things consequently start happening at a breakneck pace, we're given little to no time to linger over the story's bold title, "Man and Super-Man!" (Who are you fooling with that hyphen, Mr. B?) If Byrne's choice of title is an allusion to the play by George Bernard Shaw written near the turn of the century (last century, that is), then it's a curious one, given that Shaw's story of a woman being pursued by two suitors amidst the backdrop of political upheaval has no discernible similarity to what's playing out here with Gladiator and the FF. If I had to take a guess, I might assume that the title is simply borrowed to describe Gladiator himself, who seemingly possesses many of the Man of Steel's numerous incredible abilities but whose power is deceptive in giving him the posture of another Superman--something which we'll learn more of in due time.

The first of the FF to encounter Gladiator is the Thing, whose taxi back to the Baxter Building is held up by a traffic jam. A snarl of vehicles that's about to be turned into a battlefield:

Given his experience and certainly his power, we have every reason to believe the Thing will be able to contain this threat--an illusion which Byrne quickly shatters, thereby ramping up the story's excitement level tenfold:

We've already seen Byrne play this card, where the Thing--and a less powerful version of himself, at that--was dealt at least an equally strong blow from Terrax that battered him down through the structure of the Baxter Building (Byrne even captions it, "Rarely before has the Thing felt such a blow," just as he gives Ben similar words here). Yet in that earlier story, the Thing comes up swinging, whereas Gladiator completely takes him out of the fight. What a difference a mere seven issues make.

Nevertheless, while Gladiator's brutal attack on the Thing was unquestionably a seat-gripper, his next scene leaves no doubt that the FF are under attack and then some:

At this point, Reed's analysis concerning their headquarters likely sounds to the reader like many of the other on-the-spot deductions we tend to hear from Reed in the midst of a battle situation. But it would be wise in this case to take note of it, as well as any other observations he might have about this attack, since this story would be the first we learn of the nature of Gladiator's power.

With the Thing laid out, it falls to the other members of the team to mobilize and stave off Gladiator's offensive. Johnny is the first to lead the charge--but when he employs his power at its near-fullest, he fails, and Gladiator easily disposes of him. It's only when Reed enters the picture that we get some clue as to Gladiator's motivations here:

So Gladiator believes the FF to be the Skrulls he was pursuing. We know from the story's beginning that the Skrulls believed their capture by Gladiator imminent, and rigged their ship to detonate when Gladiator intercepted them--a fierce explosion which Reed detected even on Earth. We'll have to fill in the blanks from that point; but we can assume that either the Skrulls made it to Earth, or Gladiator thinks they did--and, whether by design or due to trauma, it appears that Gladiator now believes that the Skrulls have taken the FF's forms, and so now acts to crush them.

Granted, it's a shaky set of circumstances to base an entire story on, since Byrne has been able to sidestep what exactly happened in space to cause Gladiator's delusion. It's also unclear why the Skrull ship was detected anywhere near Shi'ar space, since their mission was to head for Earth to destroy the FF; obviously their presence in Shi'ar territory was a development that would necessitate the involvement and pursuit of Gladiator, who otherwise would have never come into contact with them.

Given Gladiator's current state, what Reed learns about the alien's perceptions of the FF probably wouldn't help him make a dent in this warrior's single-mindedness. Nor does it seem he'll get the chance:

That leaves the Invisible Girl to attempt to deal with Gladiator, which might ordinarily be interesting since Gladiator wouldn't be able to see the force field that surrounds him. What's even more interesting is the fact that Sue apparently now has the range to snag a target with her field from thirty-five stories up:

It's game, set, and nearly match for Gladiator's assault on the FF. But when the Thing groggily awakens and assumes the worst, this last remaining member of the team makes a final valiant but brief stand against this incredible foe--and Gladiator makes it a clean sweep, proving the cover of this issue is more than just symbolic.

As you might expect, nobody takes a victory lap like Gladiator. But while he's wiped the floor with the FF, he finds his triumph interrupted by four more foes--and Byrne ends this story with things far more confusing that when it began:

Good grief! What's going on here? At least the X-Men will clean this guy's clock--though whose mag is this, anyway? When we continue to Part Two of this story, hopefully we'll find out where everyone stands--assuming anyone besides Gladiator is still on their feet!

Fantastic Four #249

Story and Art: John Byrne
Letterer: Joe Rosen

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