Monday, September 24, 2018

The Conscience Of Galactus!

While its purpose is to presumably lay the groundwork for the "trial" of Reed Richards, which the Shi'ar Empress, Lilandra, would hold to judge his guilt for his actions in saving the life of Galactus, the August 1983 issue of Fantastic Four takes an interesting approach in that its main focus is on the world devourer himself, to the point of eclipsing the book's title characters for much of its 22 pages. Galactus, like Dr. Doom, appears to be a character that writer and artist John Byrne has a preference to bring to the foreground--no small endeavour to pull off, given how both characters present a risk of overstaying their welcome if used in excess. For Galactus, that risk can be offset by exploring different tangents to this being who has such a singular purpose--and the character is probed a great deal in this story. For while we've seen familiar instances where Galactus has resignedly accepted his apparent destiny, or where his hunger has reached a critical level, here we find him at death's door--preoccupied with meeting his final fate.

But as he'll discover, Death isn't having it.

Byrne's title for the story, "Fragments," seems to have no particular application beyond the format it's presented in*, jumping as it does between subplots and touching base with this development or that without lingering overlong. In a way it parallels David Michelinie's Avengers tale, "Interlude," from 1980 which indulges in a similar format, or the reminiscences of Dracula's journals--and certainly Byrne's own effort with Doom (directly following this issue), with the difference that Doom is the story's guiding force from beginning to end.

*Unless Byrne is also alluding to the fragments of a dying world--more on that in a moment.

We haven't seen Galactus since he decided to attack Earth after dealing with his rebellious herald, Terrax. Due to Galactus' weakened condition at the time, the assembled heroes who gathered in Earth's defense were able to rally and bring him down; and in the aftermath, Reed Richards made the extraordinary decision to preserve his life. Galactus departed in peace, though with a new herald in his service--Nova, the former Frankie Raye, who made the decision to serve him willingly. In this story, we find Galactus' strength at its lowest ebb, his search for a suitable world to assuage his hunger a futile one. And the reason behind that failure is in its own way as incomprehensible as his very nature.

There's nothing in Byrne's previous story to suggest why Galactus would suddenly refrain from sparing populated worlds from his ravenous hunger. It was clear that Galactus was grateful to the Fantastic Four; and in that gratitude (and in deference to his pact with Nova), made a new vow (we still don't know when he made the first one!) to leave the Earth forever inviolate--yet here he is now, having developed a conscience, when previously you couldn't have found an alien more aloof to the fate of those caught up in his efforts to survive.

Nor was it Nova who might have been leading Galactus away from worlds with intelligent life, since, with her parting words before leaving Earth, it was all too clear that she didn't have any compunction about sacrificing alien life to sate her new master's hunger. Count your blessings, Johnny Storm--your ex wasn't exactly a keeper.

Yet along with this new development--which we'll have to assume occurred behind the scenes at some point, for reasons unknown--Galactus, realizing that his death may at long last be near, triggers a "visit" by none other than Death itself, a meeting which Byrne uses to establish that Death and Galactus are not only able to communicate with each other, but that they also share a far more intimate, familial relationship than has previously been disclosed to readers in any profile of Galactus to date.

Three months prior to this issue, Byrne joined writer Mark Gruenwald in a one-shot tale which altered the origin of Galactus, one that now deviated from the original version as presented by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In essence, his origin now coincides with the end of the universe and the point when another (ours) is born in its place--thereby shifting Galactus from a mortal who nearly perished with his ship's crew in "the largest sun in all the universe" and, as the ship's sole survivor, was transformed into a being that would need to drain the life-energy from whole planets in order to live. In Byrne's retelling, that sun became instead "the blazing cosmic cauldron into which all the matter in the universe was plunging"--and the radiation that was responsible for the creation of Galactus was instead altered to something far more profound.

And where, in Lee's version, the Watcher sighted the ship's crash landing soon after its encounter with the sun, Gruenwald and Byrne have the ship travelling for "eons" before that crash occurs, in order to align the new origin with the events involving the birth of the new universe.

Yet Byrne has obviously retained the aspect of Galactus that makes him dependent on technology to carry out his goals, which hardly seems the modus operandi of one who was born in a universal cataclysm and has power beyond comprehension coursing through him. One also can't help but note similarities as well as differences between Death's relationship with Galactus and "her" dealings with Thanos, another powerful being who relies on technology to further his goals. Compared to how she interacts with Galactus, Death is little more than a presence in the company of Thanos, remaining silent and, ultimately, spurning his wish to become her consort--though her interest in Thanos seems clear, in that Thanos facilitates her own agenda, something that can be said for Galactus as well. Yet why Death should "bond" so closely with Galactus and treat him as virtually her other half seems so unlikely, simply because they came into being at the same time. In addition, we're told this isn't the first meeting between Death and Galactus, so apparently they confer from time to time--which seems at odds with the solitary, self-assured figure which Galactus has always been presented as.

Be that as it may, Death's words have reached Galactus on a fundamental level and reminded him of his role in the universe--and as a result, all of those races on worlds that Galactus formerly spared probably now have the sudden feeling (with apologies to Jonathan Swift) that someone is walking over their respective graves.

The Skrull resistance is formidable, but proves fruitless against Nova's power--and soon enough, Galactus' sphere is closing in on their homeworld, to the consternation of its Empress. In 1983, Galactus is still far from the mammoth figure that later artists would eventually depict him as--yet he's nevertheless still capable of evoking widespread panic with his arrival on a doomed world.

Near-depleted as their defenses are, the Skrulls are seasoned enough to have held forces in reserve to stave off any attacker that makes it as far as the ruling capital--a coincidence, surely, since Galactus would have no reason to pinpoint his arrival thus. Rather, he would likely select a vantage point that would be conducive to the operation of another piece of technology he depends on to harvest a planet's life-energy--his massive elemental converter, which would emit a beam that encircles the planet and converts its resources to the energy he needs to survive. But Byrne, in another adjustment to the character, dispenses with the device entirely in favor of Galactus himself being able to initiate that process directly--a sensible enough revision to make for such a being, though it bears mentioning that in the original Lee/Kirby story it would eliminate any delay that either the FF or the Surfer could take advantage of in taking steps to stop him.

"Fragments," indeed--there always seem to be a multitude of them in Galactus' wake.

Byrne's narrative helps to give context to this new process of assimilation of life-energy for Galactus, which now includes the approximate (and disturbingly brief) time it takes for a world in his sights to meet its end--as well as any recuperative time that he requires to benefit from the energies he's absorbed.

Galactus sated, the story then turns its attention to the FF, two of whom have a not unexpected announcement to make in light of the severe injuries their son has suffered at the hands of Annihilus. Yet it's not at all the announcement that Ben Grimm, the Thing, was almost certain he'd hear--and it's followed by more news of a happier nature.

Tucked away in the issue's letters page is a brief note from Mr. Byrne noting the passing of writer/inker Duffy Vohland--whom some of us remember from his contributions to Foom, the Marvel fan magazine from the '70s, but whom Byrne credits for having a look at his early fan work and helping to get his foot in Marvel's door (via Tony Isabella). The issue is dedicated to his memory.

(You can also find a heartfelt send-off to him from Marvel writer/editor Scott Edelman, along with equally heartfelt comments from his friends.)

Fantastic Four #257

Script, Pencils, and Inks: John Byrne
Letterer: Jim Novak


Big Murr said...

I miss Galactus.

I think my favourite Galactus moment was in X-Men #105 (1977). The Shi'ar get their first speaking part in the Marvel Universe as an Imperial ship chases Princess Lilandra towards Earth. On a very Star Trek-esque bridge, the Science Officer rattles off the results of long range sensor scans of the primitive planet. Data accumulates. The Science Officer wets herself "Captain! This planet has faced Galactus four times in its immediate history--and beaten him back!" The captain is likewise totally unnerved and orders an immediate 180 degree hard about to get the *#@!* out of here! Any planet that can beat Galactus...!!

Since then that moment, there have been fascinating and interesting Galactus stories, but overall it has been a downward drift for the Devourer of Worlds. Inner thoughts revealed, too human miseries and downward to where we all but see Galactus on the toilet. As you say, overexposure.

And then for the last 25 years or so, Galactus is just the punching bag for whatever new cosmic danger some writer dreams up. Thanos. Annihilus. Dozens more. They take Galactus behind the bike racks at recess and beat the cosmic energy out of him as a measuring stick of how oo-dalolly tough the new threat is.

Anonymous said...



Jared said...

I agree that the past decade has not been good to Galactus.

I also think one of John Byrne's greatest contributions to FF was the way he was able to make the villains more interesting overall characters. I like this issue and the one that gives us a day in the life of Dr. Doom.

Comicsfan said...

Big Murr, we probably have to assume that Trek bridge was restricted to a few cruisers in the Shi'ar fleet, since we haven't seen it since; though it seemed to just be a fun nod to the series from Dave Cockrum. (I even laughed out loud when I saw it--I'll have to take another look at it someday and see if I spot any yeomans.)

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