Friday, October 12, 2018

When Ambushes The Silver Surfer!

While marked by some measure of controversy, artist Rich Buckler's nearly two-year stint on Fantastic Four in the mid-1970s is generally regarded as one of the more successful and noteworthy runs by an artist in the book's long history. Taking the reins from another of the title's most acclaimed pencilers, John Buscema, whose stay on the book is often described by such words as "classic" and "definitive," Buckler began his assignment by arriving at a pivotal moment, with the team disbanding following the decision of Reed Richards to shut down the mind of his son, Franklin. The grim circumstances notwithstanding, it was an opportune time to arrive for any artist fresh to the book--a chance to chart a new course for the FF without having to necessarily conform to what came before.

On that note, while there's a good deal of Buckler's style to be seen in his FF work, there was also an effort made to conform to the prior work of Jack Kirby, the book's original artist (and an archtype, to be sure)--with Buckler being one of several pencilers to mimic his style, as well as, unfortunately, to virtually duplicate Kirby's panels and/or forms therein. That's partially why it seems apt to spotlight a story from early 1975 which is (for the most part) free from such distraction, while allowing the reader to not only focus on Buckler's standout style which carried the book through twenty-one issues, but also on two of the Fantastic Four's most prominent guest-stars: the deadly nemesis known as Doctor Doom, who was also featured when Buckler was getting his feet wet with the book in '74, and the reappearance of the Silver Surfer, whose previous Fantastic Four appearance was in mid-1972 when Stan Lee was scripting his last few issues for the title.

And to add a twist, it looks like Buckler, along with writers Roy Thomas and Len Wein, have the two of them teaming up--against the FF!

First, however, as to why both Thomas and Wein are credited in this tale, an explanatory note in the letters page helps to clear up why Wein, who (along with Tony Isabella) pitched in to script the book during the brief time in-between Gerry Conway's departure and the beginning of Thomas' second run, called in the cavalry mid-story and welcomed Thomas to the fold a little earlier than scheduled.

As for the FF themselves, they're as startled as we are when the Surfer suddenly swoops in and begins an unprovoked (and unexplained) attack on them. The difference is that we're just along for the ride; the FF, on the other hand, could very well pay for the encounter with their lives.

Unlike the Thing, who learned of the extent of the Surfer's power firsthand, and the Human Torch, who also was suitably schooled, the FF had never faced the Surfer in battle as a foursome*, even though they've certainly been exposed to what he can do. Even so, though he stops short of killing them on this occasion, it's stunning to see how quickly and relatively easily he's able to prevail over them--while at the same time, such an outcome is not really unexpected, given who we're talking about.

*Technically true, though they faced his power, which was no doubt enough of a learning experience for them.

Elsewhere, however, we see a different perspective of the battle, through the eyes of its ruthless catalyst.

Accompanied by finisher Joe Sinnott, we're seeing in this story some of Buckler's best work on the title, with a number of innovative scenes as well as fresh interpretations of both Doom and the Surfer, both of whom Buckler gives generous exposure to. Doom, of course, steps up as this tale's driving force, practically stealing the FF's mag out from under them; but he may have ended his monitoring of the Surfer's progress prematurely, as we'll see.

Yet how did the Surfer and Doom end up joining forces--if they have indeed done so, since the Surfer has left us room for doubt? Understandably, the FF, recovering from the Surfer's onslaught, is more than curious as to the reason(s) behind their former ally's actions (with the exception of the furious Thing)--so you can imagine how stunned they'll be when they hear that they are a part of the Surfer's story.

Shalla Bal, of course, is Norrin Radd's lover from his homeworld of Zenn-La, who has appeared on Earth three times to date: Once, while a prisoner of Mephisto in his underworld domain; again, when she commissioned a ship to rejoin him; and once more, when Mephisto used her as a pawn in an elaborate gambit involving S.H.I.E.L.D. in another attempt to win the Surfer's soul. Each time, she was returned to Zenn-La--but now it seems that Doom has gotten his hooks into her. As to why, we've seen part of the answer--but the question remains, how?

Still seeking both answers, the Surfer heads for Doom's castle, only to find not only the FF engaged in battle, but also the woman he seeks--strangely bereft of any knowledge or memory of him. But there is one who does know of her significance to the Surfer--and with a shocking declaration, he binds the Surfer to his service.

And while the FF now realize why the Surfer attacked, they're also made aware that a recounting of the facts has changed nothing in his mind. They are still his targets--and, as before, helpless before his power.

So far, Wein/Thomas and Buckler have laid some fine groundwork in establishing several points of interest that need further investigation. (And we can only hope that the FF are still around to lead the way.) Shalla Bal is obviously a part of the mystery, with Doom's endgame appearing to be to enslave the Surfer and thus be able to direct the use of his power as he wishes. Yet are the two connected, or mutually exclusive? And why would Doom risk spending time and effort to keep the Surfer's hands tied--an unreliable method at best of having the Surfer's cosmic power at his command? The fact that he's slain the Fantastic Four only means that he's a loaded gun capable of being pointed in any direction, including Doom's.

Speaking of which, our heroes thankfully have been delayed indefinitely in reaching the pearly gates--though being at Doom's mercy may not be much of an improvement in their situation.

Even with Doom holding the Shalla Bal card, the Surfer doesn't stand for being treated thus; further, he's more than capable of showing Doom a thing or two about what true power is, and he does. But since we've already explored this confrontation in a separate post, let's return to the FF's disposition--and, later, that of the Surfer, which hints at Doom's true purpose in keeping him a willing prisoner.

But you did shell out a quarter for this issue to read about the Fantastic Four's exploits, didn't you. Say no more--despite Doom's precautions, they manage to free themselves and begin a hunt for their foe. But if you're wondering if their hit list includes the Surfer, considering his last action against them, we discover that they were fully on board with the Surfer putting them in a trance with his final strike, in the belief that Doom would have them awakened and amuse himself with their captivity. But there's definitely a good deal of pent-up anger among them regarding their situation, and Buckler doesn't disappoint when they've finally had enough.

With Doom having effectively checked the FF (at least for the time being), it only remains to discover his real reason for entrapping the Surfer--a procedure which will eliminate his need for the sky-rider while still having his power at his beck and call, this time within a reliable vessel.

It looks like this is Doom's chess game to lose.
But there's still that little matter of Shalla Bal's story, isn't there.


Fantastic Four #s 155-156

Script: Len Wein and Roy Thomas
Pencils: Rich Buckler
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: John Costanza


Colin Jones said...

Glad to see you survived the hurricane, CF!!

Anonymous said...

Ah, Doc Doom's amazing chessboard, which we also saw in Super Villain Team-Up #14. That's what I want for Christmas.
I notice he's got a Medusa figure on that board, just like he had a Beast figure in SVTU. He keeps up on line-up changes in super-hero groups, and no doubt has a bunch of guys carving new figures all the time in a dungeon in Latveria.
I wonder if Doom's got a Squirrel Girl figure yet.


Comicsfan said...

Colin, yes, though it was awhile before power came back on city-wide--even longer for Internet service to be restored. Fortunately, Doom provided a few tips for hacking into the Comcast mainframe. (Not really!)

M.P., that's a cool connection you've made between the two issues about Doom keeping apprised of team lineups and adjusting his chess pieces accordingly. It almost makes one wonder if the good doctor has chess pieces of US in storage down in that dungeon; personally I'm crossing my fingers that I register well below his surveillance radar.

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