Monday, May 9, 2016

Death In The Negative Zone!

The story of Fantastic Four #109 really begins in a prior issue with the man called Janus--a former science student at E.S.U. who, in a brief collaboration with Reed Richards, began experimenting with methods to tap into a new source of energy he called "nega-power." Some time after Janus left college, his experiments led to the inadvertent creation of an evil doppelganger of himself who had designs on world conquest. Janus eventually did away with his "nega-twin" (for want of a better description); but he then went on to pursue his work further, until he became obsessed with seeking out the ultimate realization of this power within the Negative Zone, an environment he knew that Reed had developed a way to access. And now, after overpowering Reed and breaking into his lab, Janus has hurled himself into the Zone and is at last on the verge of obtaining ultimate power.

And so Reed gathers his FF teammates in order to pursue Janus and prevent him from attaining his goal--but equally crucial is the need to stop him from possibly revealing the location of the gateway to Earth to the deadly denizen of the Zone who has fought the Fantastic Four before, a being who is well-named--Annihilus, the Living Death That Walks, a twisted foe who craves the secret of Earth's location so that he may cross the dimensional rift and wipe out the human race. Monitoring the Zone, Reed is horrified to discover that a meeting between the two is already taking place.

The positive/negative, matter/anti-matter argument that Reed trots out to spell out the danger of Annihilus crossing into our world has never really passed muster, since we know that Annihilus has crossed over into our world several times without causing even a crack in the city's street pavement, much less any worldwide upheaval as a result of his contact. Just two months after this FF story, for instance, Annihilus does indeed gain entry through Reed's portal in an Avengers story (thanks to Rick Jones)--which, according to Reed's theory, should have left the Baxter Building a pile of rubble, along with the entire block and the rest of the world in a chain reaction of annihilation.

Yet this theory remains one of the reasons why Reed feels it's imperative to prevent Annihilus from finding the entrance to our world.

As far as Annihilus "finding" the entrance to Earth--frankly, it's unclear why Reed's dimensional portal has to remain in a stationary position at all. Why not arrange to shift its location with each access, if the concern of keeping its location hidden is so great?

At any rate, the die is cast, and the FF must now access the Zone and very likely face Annihilus for a second time, in addition to subduing Janus. Assuming Janus and Annihilus don't finish each other off, in a contest not of power so much as posturing.

"You think transforming your garment can save you from me?" Ouch. Point, Annihilus.

Back at FF headquarters, Reed, in what must be the shock of shocks to every FF reader, assigns Sue to stay behind on this mission and monitor, despite his insistence on how critical it is that they succeed in stopping Janus--a decision which would appear to be a veiled slight on Sue's ability to contribute and the need to look after her safety, though we know that Reed is in the habit of sheltering Sue whenever he thinks a mission is too dangerous for her. Sue really serves no function in "monitoring" their progress--if the goal is to hold her in reserve, all she has to do is to remain invisible until the time when she's needed. If she's on Earth, how is she going to reach them in time to help if they need her? Nevertheless, Reed seems to think it's vitally important that her eyes stay glued to that monitoring screen.

Those gyro-homing devices are a new wrinkle in terms of the team operating in the Negative Zone, conspicuously given panel space here to presumably set up some sort of later role in the story. And you probably won't appreciate it.

With the FF on their way, elsewhere we see that Janus, the Nega-Man has come up Janus, the Loser in his face-off against Annihilus, finding that what power he has is insufficient against this being he faces. But never underestimate the power of groveling when the chips are down.

It may seem here that Janus's desperation has blinded him to one very important fact: Even if his maneuvering to save his life allows him to gain the power he sought, what good will it do him if the Earth is destroyed? On the other hand, Annihilus is unfamiliar with the human tendency to make empty promises to those we want something from, only to later betray them when we've obtained what we wanted--a practice that any politician could give him pointers on. In this case, Janus may just be accommodating Annihilus in order to be in a better position to confront him when he's ready. We'll have to wait and see.

Regardless, a little eavesdropping tells the FF what they need to know, which means that they can focus their efforts solely on Janus--if they get the chance.

"Not even the Torch's fireballs can stop me now!" Come to think of it, when have the Torch's fireballs ever stopped anybody? Though it looks like they do a good job in helping to stop the Torch.

With Janus taking off to head to the "nega-power area" of the Zone, which by all indications is near the anti-matter zone of the "exploding atmosphere" that almost proved deadly to the FF during their previous mission here, Reed leaves the battle against Annihilus to the Thing and the Torch while he pursues Janus. We can only hope that Sue is enjoying her time at the monitor with a little popcorn, since an invisible FF member would come in handy right about now.

That "cosmic control rod" which Annihilus wields is a slip of the typewriter key on writer Stan Lee's part, since the control rod is a different device entirely, worn by Annihilus on his neck collar. It's doubtful that Annihilus has cosmic energy devices just lying around; this new hand-held device more resembles a remote control, something that can summon and control the monsters that populate the Negative Zone. (Which would really be handy for the rest of us when our own remotes can't find us anything on television.) It's a tactic that Annihilus often employs--preferring not to use the energy of his cosmic control rod needlessly, since it provides him with virtual immortality.

In this case, the monster he summons is able to hold both the Torch and the Thing at bay--until the Thing makes use of a new power he's gained only recently, if only to put a stop to the hurling of those darned fireballs.

As for Janus, he reaches the area of the Zone that will provide him with the power he's desired, though it brings him dangerously close to the exploding atmosphere. His pilots no doubt think he's insane, and perhaps they're not far off the mark. But when all is said and done, Janus will unfortunately find that the prize was not worth the cost.

With Janus done for, the Fantastic Three Four must now fend off Annihilus and escape the Zone with their lives--and a device which Reed has prepared ahead of time is used to delay Annihilus for the crucial moments they need. First, though, Annihilus must face the human Ben Grimm, who was once the Thing--or is it the other way around?

It's here that Lee puts in place the dramatic development which will set up the events of the next issue, which is where those gyro-devices that were introduced come into play. To make this cliffhanger happen, somehow Reed must be left behind--but how can that be accomplished? Lee had already arranged for Reed's "harness fuel" to be running low (were you under the impression that those back-harnesses use fuel?)--but with his stretching power, Reed would have no difficulty in fashioning his own tow line to the Thing for transportation. That leaves us with a very hard-to-swallow mishap:

Yes, this team has made it back to their point of entry before, without the use of such devices, and would continue to do so in later stories. And yes, either the Thing or the Torch could have used one gyro-device between them to find their way back since they're traveling together, leaving Reed with a device of his own to follow with after holding off Annihilus. It's astonishing that, with all of the incomprehensible ways that Reed has devised over time to save the day, this master planner felt he was out of options here and couldn't use good old-fashioned common sense. And no, I don't know how Johnny was able to leap off of that planetoid without the benefit of a harness. The analysis of this cliffhanger is starting to turn pretty negative, isn't it? You'll have to admit we're in the right environment for it.

Back at the Baxter Building, as this story draws to its close, Lee has managed to duplicate the circumstances where Reed was facing certain death in the Zone in an earlier crisis--only this time, there is no third party to come to his rescue, and Annihilus and his hordes are waiting to take advantage of any opportunity to either close in on their prey, or attack anyone who attempts to save him.

It appears to be a no-win situation for the Fantastic Four--and most especially for Reed Richards, who seems likely to follow Janus down to an explosive death. If you're curious as to this situation's resolution, it occurs when Agatha Harkness finds it necessary to formally reveal her leanings toward witchcraft, and use her skills to distract Annihilus so that Reed can escape. That would make twice that Reed has been willing to accept his fate and cash in his chips in the Negative Zone, only to receive a last-minute reprieve and make it home to enjoy a little back-slapping at having survived. Maybe this will teach Reed to bring his wife on these missions--it's pretty clear that when it comes to the Negative Zone, he could use an ace in the hole to ensure his survival.

Let's see how John Buscema's great cover to this issue looks without all the clutter!

Fantastic Four #109

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Sam Rosen


david_b said...

One of my favs from the Buscema/Sinnott era ('my era...'), and thanks for the less-cluttered cover.

One of the banes of the Bronze Age (like the bike banners and those awful UPC symbols), they forgot how to do simple yet powerful covers sans clutter.

Anonymous said...

Sadly this was the final FF story to appear in Marvel UK's The Titans before transferring to Captain Britain #1 the week of October 6th 1976. In The Titans the FF had been the cover stars and the FF stories had been printed complete rather than being split over two weeks as was the norm for Marvel UK. I liked the fact that The Thing could change back into Ben Grimm at will - pity it screwed up his mind and made him turn against the FF !!

Anonymous said...

"Too bad it ain't built like his mouth!"
Indeed. Great post, C.F.!
The Negative Zone stories pose a lot of logical problems for the serious reader, which I won't go into. But I never understood that "exploding atmosphere", negative Earth area where people get blown up. How come there's only one and it looks like a reverse-Earth? There are other planets. Did Reed screw up the cosmic balance when he built that portal? Way to go, Dr. Frankenstein.
I also never really got what the deal was with Janus, whether he intended to get cosmic-type powers or what, and what he wanted to do with 'em, but the explanation is he's crazy so we'll leave it at that.
Annihilus is portrayed as a truly terrifying entity here, but also part animal, as we saw in his origin. As shown here and in F.F. #181, like an animal, he doesn't like fire. It doesn't seem to be able to harm him anymore, since he got the cosmic control rod and "evolved". But it still makes him mad.
Also, if Sue was shown to be operating on a power level which she later did, I think she could have given Annihilus one heck of a fight, maybe even taken him out, cosmic control rod or no.
A great issue, all in all, with lots of cosmic action. I remember they showed scenes from this comic,among others, on the old Mead school notebooks and binders from the mid-seventies.

Comicsfan said...

Colin, I really appreciate your insights (as well as those of Steve and Kid) on Marvel UK's treatment/handling of these stories from the '70s. It seems that sometimes you got them piecemeal and out of sequence, which takes a little of the magic out of it, IMO.

M.P., my impression was that Janus only knew that he could increase his power a great deal by exposure in the Negative Zone (a fairly reasonable conclusion to draw, for a desperate madman), power which was already impressive and which he'd already demonstrated could lay out two of the FF--and like most crazed villains, he felt that was worth pursuing, even though he might not have been sure exactly how powerful he'd become. And who knows, he might have indeed been able to defeat Annihilus upon his return, if only a little (and classic!) thing like an ejector seat hadn't been his undoing.

Anonymous said...

True, an ejector seat is a handy thing to have, even in your car, but only if you're driving a convertible.
Otherwise it gets messy.
The only time I remember seeing one of those things was in a James Bond movie, but I can't recall which one.

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