Monday, March 28, 2016

...From Beyond The Stars!


As world conquerors go, the strategy of the Over-Mind for the planet Earth seems to be "All in good time," as carefully and methodically as he's proceeded thus far. When we first laid eyes on him, he appeared to be content to simply take over the minds of key political and military figures, thus controlling the planet through the pawns he had bent to his will. Yet when he took on the Fantastic Four for the first time, he had also begun influencing the general population of the entire city of New York, inciting many to violence and irrational behavior--particularly toward the FF, who found themselves having to keep at bay the very people they were trying to protect. Worse, the FF have no memory of their battle with the Over-Mind--a battle they decisively lost, followed by their foe erasing their memories of the encounter in order to keep them from interfering with his plans.

But while the Over-Mind continued to lay low, biding his time, the FF remain aware of his threat, thanks to two warnings they have received from third parties (the Watcher and Agatha Harkness)--neither warning providing details, but deadly serious in their implication that the Over-Mind presents a danger both deadly and imminent. At loose ends as to how to proceed without any substantive information on their foe, Reed Richards has petitioned Agatha Harkness to assist in contacting the Watcher, who then provides them with an extraordinary account of the Over-Mind's origin and the nature of his power. It was information that cost the team dearly; almost immediately after the Watcher had broken contact, Reed's mind was taken over by the Over-Mind, and he abandoned his teammates to flee and presumably take his place at the Over-Mind's side.

And now, with the Over-Mind poised to begin his conquest of Earth in earnest, the Fantastic Four must somehow mount an attack against a foe who has already demonstrated his superiority over them--a ruthless warrior created to crush world after world throughout the universe, in the name of the vengeance of the Eternals! What chance does even the world's greatest fighting team have, now bereft of the guidance and power of their leader?


Or have we miscounted?



And so the double-sized Fantastic Four #116 begins, part of a sudden across-the-board initiative by Marvel to increase the size of their books as well as bump up their selling price by ten cents. The decision would be revoked almost immediately, with subsequent issues being reduced to the standard page count by the following month while sticking with a price increase of five cents. We could assume that, with all that regular FF writer Stan Lee had on his plate at the time, along with the shuffling of creative talent and making provisions for an increased workload to meet deadlines, the odd shift in the Over-Mind's methods--from infiltration to outright conquest--might have taken place as a result of Lee's preoccupation with other matters. The Over-Mind's origin issue seemed to put the character back on track, since a race doesn't go to all the trouble of creating a deadly and vengeful galactic threat only to have him land on a target world and waste his time bringing world leaders under his sway. The Over-Mind has a mandate to "crush the universe"--not to become a mere puppet master and leave it at that.  We perhaps have excellent writer Archie Goodwin to thank for expediting the shift in tone, taking the helm as scripter for that issue as well as this one.

Consequently, as this issue begins, things are now far more dire. The Fantastic Four, now fully aware of their enemy's true power as well as the fact that he has already humbled them without their knowledge, must also deal with the conscription of Reed Richards to his cause.



Sue's job at this stage of her career, of course, is to point out how hopeless things are whenever the FF face a setback; but she makes a fair point about a man of Reed's intellect being so easily taken over, and by a foe who doesn't even need to do so in person. But as the Thing and the Torch head out to track Reed, they consider that something more might be going on.



It's unclear whether this train of thought as far as a plan for dealing with the Over-Mind was intended by Goodwin to be taken as far as it is throughout this story, given the variations of it we seem to encounter and the fact that Goodwin doesn't appear to keep track of them--but let's assume, as Johnny speculates, that there's even a plan at work to begin with. Since Reed's will has been so completely enslaved by this foe, any plan of Reed's would seem to be a non-starter, perhaps even born of desperation. Taking himself out of the picture? What does that accomplish? That only leaves the rest of the FF taking on the Over-Mind by force, which has already proven to be ineffective. It seems to be the worst time possible for Reed to remove himself from his lab, where he's often retreated to work out a way to defeat an enemy who has proven to be more than the FF's abilities can handle. As Ben implies, whatever Reed might have had in mind doesn't appear to have fully taken into consideration their foe's might.

It's also worth pausing in these opening pages to note what's happening with the remaining members of the FF, in terms of how they function in determining a course of action without the decision-making of Reed to lead the way. Sue would later grow into her own as far as stepping up to the plate when Reed was absent, but is light-years away from showing that kind of strength of character; and with his best friend's life now at stake, Ben would seem to be the natural choice to immediately shift to a more assertive posture and begin tackling this problem as the team's interim leader, rather than pivoting to his usual knee-jerk reaction of "clobbering" the foe as a solution. Yet it's Johnny who unexpectedly takes the lead (if informally)--putting the team back on track after Reed's escape... deducing how to trace Reed's movements... mapping out a strategy to leave Sue in reserve... dealing with the unruly crowds outside who still want the FF under lock and key (including their landlord, Collins, who attempts to have Johnny and Ben arrested)... and then looking at the situation more deeply and speculating that Reed might have a plan in the works. It's a far cry from how he handles himself at this story's conclusion, but Goodwin's choice of him to get the FF functioning again was interesting.

As for Reed, he appears to have severely underestimated this foe. Initiating a plan that will hopefully help to deal with the Over-Mind is one thing--but falling victim to an enemy who has more than enough mental might to determine what that plan is seems like a miscalculation of massive proportions.




Fortunately, the Torch and the Thing arrive in the nick of time and engage the Over-Mind--though they fight a holding action at best, forcing Sue to speed to their aid. (Good grief, was there any doubt that Johnny and Ben wouldn't need her, when they're down to half their fighting strength?)





With Sue's musings, Goodwin gives us one possible angle to Reed's plan (and we're still assuming he has one), which doesn't really add up. The Over-Mind is mentally bringing under control the entire city's population, and will go on to overwhelm the world--what's one more mind to someone of his power? Reed has intellect, yes, but he's not Charles Xavier. And as far as the Over-Mind having to split his resources and not being able to use his full power, he makes it painfully clear that finding more power is not going to be a problem.




Sue at least has the good sense to make retrieving Reed a priority--yet the Over-Mind, no stranger to war, is ten steps ahead of her, obviously having plans for Reed to retain him into service as a means of humbling one who presumed to challenge him. Reed is, for all intents and purposes, out of this fight--except as a super-powered thrall to the Over-Mind, now commanded to kill his wife. Sue, for her part, has any number of ways of stopping and subduing Reed (after all, Reed isn't anywhere close to being in the Over-Mind's class), which would allow her to rejoin Ben and Johnny; instead, she reasons that her only alternative is to flee the battle altogether.




From her vantage point above, Sue receives a graphic and alarming overview of the extent to which the Over-Mind's power has already affected the city, a clear indication that he has begun his conquest of the planet in earnest. Realizing that she is out of her depth, she attempts to enlist help; but of those she knows how to locate, there is no one available to come to her aid. Despondent, she pauses to gather her thoughts, only to encounter another vision of Agatha Harkness, who suggests an ally of another sort.



Sue obviously hasn't taken a look at this issue's cover like we have--so let's just skip ahead to find Sue arriving at the Latverian embassy to enlist the infamous Dr. Doom to her cause.




Sue has pushed all the right buttons with Doom, who now agrees to join her, if only to save face. But instead of heading to confront the Over-Mind, Doom directs her to Reed's lab, having already surmised (as, frankly, Reed should have) that strength of numbers will be insufficient to deal with this threat.

Meanwhile, the Over-Mind, having finished the Torch and the Thing, proceeds to move on the city, with Reed's purpose apparently to ensnare anyone who still has the strength of will to flee. We learn indirectly that the more the Over-Mind extends his power and the more people he subjugates, the stronger and more irresistible he becomes--all well and good, because on foot, block by block, city by city, this guy has a long walk ahead of him. At that rate it would take him decades to conquer the whole world. We should perhaps assume that his power will radiate to the point of being able to blanket the entire planet. Until then, his presence is sufficiently terrorizing to those who suffer the first wave of his might.




Elsewhere, Johnny and Ben are awakened by an unexpected voice commanding them to rise, followed by a sight that seems incredulous in light of the pitched battle they've already fought--their deadliest enemy, perhaps arriving to attack them while they're exhausted from fighting the Over-Mind. It's only when Sue interjects that the two discover the incredible alliance that's been agreed to--and as a result, a new Fantastic Four lineup heads into battle, forged by (you knew I was going to say it) an iron hand.




The group locates the Over-Mind soon enough, and Doom deploys his forces in keeping with a single tactic: Doom remains flanked by the Torch and the Thing, who are in constant attack mode in order to keep the Over-Mind's attention focused on them while Doom brings a special device into play at key moments to steadily weaken the alien. Given sufficient time, the strategy might have allowed the FF to take control of the battle; unfortunately, Doom's ego is difficult to keep in check, and the Over-Mind is astute enough to recognize a ploy involving misdirection.








Again, a reference to a plan that Reed might have set in motion--though in this version, the goal was to buy time and to keep the Over-Mind in the dark as to other forces that existed who could challenge him. The flaw in that plan is that additional time works in the Over-Mind's favor, making it less likely that anyone coming up against him will succeed.

Just as is the case with Dr. Doom, who must now rely on Sue to buffer the Over-Mind's direct blasts so that Doom's device can continue to be used. It's ironic indeed that Reed, the man who launched these far-fetched plans, turns out to be the one who brings them crumbling down, due to his own entranced interference--and, as a result, possibly dooming the human race.





With Johnny and Ben once again unconscious, Doom utterly defeated, and Reed only seconds away from killing his wife, the Over-Mind raises his arms in well-deserved triumph, proudly proclaiming the words of the prophecy of the Eternals that warns the universe of the destruction he brings in their name. Yet, thanks to the Over-Mind's power having been employed so vigorously, a fail-safe of sorts has been triggered out among the stars that will have him face a threat on more equal footing to his own--very large footing, as we know from past encounters with this *ahem* strange being.



Just a short distance away, another drama is taking place, with Reed in a way facing the consequences of his actions (or, perhaps put more accurately, his misjudgment) as he prepares to ruthlessly end the life of his wife. It's to Sue's credit that she's able to finally reach Reed with her words--though we might also assume the Over-Mind is sufficiently distracted enough to weaken his hold on Reed for the time being. Suffice to say that Reed catches a break that might otherwise have never been thrown his way, had it not been for the Stranger's intervention. Under other circumstances, the Over-Mind would have likely buried the FF here and now, and moved further toward his goal without a backward glance, his stretching lackey at his side. Next time, Reed, stand with your team.



And speaking of the Stranger, the Over-Mind right about now wishes this intruder had stayed one.






That's quite an origin dropped into our collective lap regarding the Stranger, who led a mostly solitary existence and whose power seemed off the charts but otherwise remained a mystery--a "stranger." His actions here don't reconcile with the disdain he's held for the human race, and especially the times he's actively worked to wipe out all of humanity; on the other hand, those actions were taken out of concern for the entire universe, to prevent the human race from some day spreading their madness to the stars. With the type of threat he faces here, the Stranger no doubt sees the "bigger picture"--and so he acts to rid the universe of the Over-Mind, as was his purpose.

At this point in the story, it appears to us as if the FF just spent over thirty pages in a futile battle in which they accomplished nothing--only escaping with their lives due to forces beyond their ken or comprehension, which played out regardless of their efforts. And as they pick themselves up from the rubble-strewn grounds, it's no surprise that no one feels particularly thrilled at discovering how small they are in the scheme of things, and how little their heroism seems to have counted when it really mattered.

Appropriately, it falls to the Watcher to put the matter into perspective, providing a fine ending to the story as well as a dash of humility for the FF--imparting the lesson that the valiant can yet manage to win for losing.






It's difficult to buy the Watcher's declaration that the Over-Mind was expending his full power in these battles, since you have to think that such force would have had the FF and Doom either dead or reduced to mental vegetables lying in the rubble long before now--particularly the Torch and the Thing, whose lives he certainly had no reason to spare. But that quibble aside, the Watcher's closing scene provides a satisfactory, classic FF ending for a story which started out at loose ends but eventually coalesced into a wrap-up with some of the best creative talent on deck bringing everything into focus.

BONUS!
Remember seeing the "new" FF charge into battle, above?
Let's have some fun with that scene, adapting the dialog to the cover image, instead!


(Poor Sue doesn't get any dialog, but we know what shes thinking: "It seems so hopeless!")

Fantastic Four #116

Script: Archie Goodwin
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Artie Simek

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Overmind came from beyond the stars with the power to subjugate the mind of Reed Richards, smash Doctor Doom, but he wasn't prepared for Cesar Romero.
Cesar--I mean the Stranger, was kind of a walking, or flying, plot-device guy who swooped in at the last minute to put the kibosh on baddies nobody else could handle, like Magneto and the Abomination, and then swooped back into outer space again.
Still, I couldn't help but like this far-out character who was used in much more interesting ways in later stories.
While not the F.F.'s greatest storyline, I really like how Doc Doom is handled here, as a mixture of ego, nobility and raw courage. He was ready to die fighting. Just don't interrupt him when he's on a smoke break like Sue did! It makes him irritable.
Great art here. Wow.
M.P.

Comicsfan said...

M.P., my thanks--your comments on the Stranger served to remind me to amend this review and provide a link to an earlier post dedicated to this alien and a rundown of some of his other appearances. :)

B Smith said...

I could be wrong, but was this the first time Sue went off and faced down Doom on his own territory? I seem to recall John Byrne having her do the same a couple of times when he was writing and drawing the book, and that Doom came to have some measure of respect for her for her gumption in doing so.

Comicsfan said...

B, you may be thinking of when Byrne later had her (as well as She-Hulk and the Wasp) invading the Latverian embassy tracking the Invincible Man. There was also an earlier time when Doom intercepted Sue while his pawn, Tyros, was engaged with the Thing and the Torch. Both instances proved she'd certainly grown into her strengths since the encounter with the Over-Mind.

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