John Byrne is quoted as saying that Fantastic Four #s 220-221 are "the two dullest issues of the FF ever published." That might sound like he's shooting himself in the foot, since he both wrote and pencilled those issues--but the story was produced under special and interesting circumstances. Originally a double-sized story, the work was commissioned by Coca-Cola, which planned to distribute it as a give-away comic but decided after seeing the final product not to use it because it felt the story was "too violent." Byrne, in his recollection, appears to disagree with that assessment; but you can also see Coca-Cola's side, since the FF go all-out in fighting their foes (I'd say the Torch using his flame at nova force is going all-out) and the FF nearly end up being killed (which seems pretty darned violent).
As a result of the original plans being scrapped, FF editor Jim Salicrup suggests adding a couple of pages to the story and splitting it in half in order to recycle it as two new issues of Fantastic Four that would hit the racks in mid-1980 (wedged into the run of writer Doug Moench and artist Bill Sienkiewicz on the book).
The catalyst for the story comes in the form of mysterious, widespread power outages occurring on a global scale. With no mechanical failures to attribute the problem to, all signs point to either a natural phenomenon or an unknown threat by a third party. By consensus, there appears to be only one man best suited to find out what's going on--and, you guessed it, he goes by the name of:
Making his debut as writer on the book, Byrne is already adding some nice touches to this story that reacquaint us with the FF as designed (though admittedly he pours it on a little thick with the "This is a job for...!" scene above). Touches such as hauling the FF's NASA missile out of mothballs... Johnny tinkering with hotrods in a garage with a mechanic buddy... the members of the FF dropping everything and going into action when lives are at stake. (Including, in Sue's case, dropping her child on the street. "You stay and watch those packages, Franklin. Mommy has work to do..." Uh, Sue? We're glad your shopping bags are being looked after--but who's watching Franklin?) Even throwing in an encapsulated version of the FF's origin, for good measure.
Settling on a course of action with the only clue that they have, the FF head to the North Pole to investigate a likely polar connection to the problem--and, once there, Reed comes to the conclusion that someone or something is initiating a reversal of the polarity of the planet's magnetic field. You and I would normally spell out M-A-G-N-E-T-O in the snow for Reed--but in this case, the cause happens to be extraterrestrial.
With the crystalline tower's appearance, the work the aliens are doing appears to be in its final stages. To investigate further, the FF form a plan to have Sue, in her invisible form, move toward the tower for a closer examination. Yet her approach is detected--and the rest of the team reveal themselves in order to serve as a distraction while Sue proceeds.
In this case, however, Reed, Ben and Johnny have bitten off more than they can chew, as they find the small creatures who intercept them to be plastoid robots that can not only alter their forms but also adapt to the FF's powers. Meanwhile, Sue proceeds with her mission, finding that she must probe deeper--in this case, literally.
On the surface, things look dire for Reed and his friends, having been overwhelmed and subdued by the robots. Incredibly, they appear helpless against these foes, who don't appear to be stopping their assault with mere restraint.
While below, Sue, unaware of her teammates' peril, telepathically receives the full details of the aliens' story, which essentially boils down to their ship being trapped on Earth half a million years ago when the planet's polarity reversed itself. And attempting to duplicate the process to allow their departure leads to a tragic miscalculation.
With the truth of their actual time in hibernation now known to the aliens, they join Sue on the surface and immediately instruct their robots to stand down (or ooze down, in their case). From there, Reed is able to take a more practical approach to the aliens' problem: reconfiguring their ship's circuitry in order to allow it to lift off.
A happy ending that apparently wasn't enough to alleviate Coca-Cola's concerns (Who exactly were they planning to disseminate this story to, anyway--four-year-olds?), but a fair indication of how Byrne would handle the team if he held the reins, which he would indeed take in hand in another ten issues. We can assume that any product placement he planned to have appear in the mag would not include a can of Coke.
|Fantastic Four #s 220-221|
Script and Pencils: John Byrne
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterers: Jim Novak and Irv Watanabe