Saturday, January 26, 2013

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

By now, we've all learned (the hard way) to roll our eyes whenever one of the comic books we read trots out a dramatic development for shock value. Deaths of characters don't faze us at all anymore--because if it's not a case of a character's death being just temporary, as part of some sales gimmick, then it's a case of a character whose death was "final" just being brought back through contrived circumstances. I remember in my naive days as a comics reader when I thought there actually were some deaths that didn't cross the line and were truly final. But when Bucky Barnes was brought back from the dead, Marvel gave me a hard slap of sales reality. That may have been when I mastered the Marvel eye-roll.

Back in the 1960s, though, these gimmicks were just getting off the ground--but it sure didn't take Marvel long to get the hang of it. For instance, while it would be believable for a crisis at some point to lead to a break-up of either the Fantastic Four or the Avengers, did you ever think that card would be played as early as their respective 9th and 10th issues?

Both were cases of false alarms, the "crisis" settled within just the one issue. With the Avengers, at first you were led to believe the cover was referring to the fight that resulted from Captain America thinking the Avengers had been responsible for Rick's abduction:

But the actual "break-up" was just a matter of Cap being separated from the team when Immortus spirited him away to fight on his own:

Naturally, Cap soon turned the tables and returned to help the Avengers against the Masters of Evil. I guess the cover shocker wouldn't have been so shocking if it had just said, "The Avengers Become Separated!" Though how about, "The Avengers Split Up!", which is a little more on the mark?

In the FF's case, a news broadcast seen by the Sub-Mariner (yes, on his underwater TV set--and talk about great reception, this was even before cable) sums up the FF's reason for breaking up:

From which we can only assume that the FF aren't any good to the world without a skyscraper home or all their machinery. What, you can't be the Fantastic Four if you live in a duplex or something? They started out in Reed's apartment, for Pete's sake.

But when Namor surreptitiously throws them a lifeline in the form of a movie deal, look how the thought of a million bucks brings the FF back together again. I'm so proud of their selfless fighting spirit, I could cry:

Once the deal is sealed, Namor reveals how he actually owns the movie studio that's bankrolling the film. But again, those dollar signs in front of their eyes has the FF ready to bring the guy his morning paper, if that's what he wants. Forget the fact that this guy who's bending over backward to help them is the Sub-Mariner, who is a proven threat:

(Maybe it's Namor's cool movie studio clothes that's throwing them.)

Namor's entire plan turned out to be to isolate the team members and deal with them under the pretense of shooting their scenes, probably so that he could have a clear path to Sue. But once his ploy is revealed, he honors his agreement. The FF become not only movie stars, but rich movie stars:

As you might think, it isn't often that the break-up card can be played and still come off believably, so it's awhile before we see another shock panel announcing the FF's end. The next time comes after a deadly battle, where Reed has serious concerns about his pregnant wife remaining in her dangerous role but also seems to have had it with his responsibilities:

But despite Johnny's knee-jerk reaction, the remaining members aren't following through with breaking up the team once Reed and Sue depart (in spite of their major bill-payer now gone). Instead, they just think of themselves at loose ends. No one even considers the idea of bringing in replacements, despite the fact that their team name is now meaningless:

Yet, thanks to the noninterfering Watcher's interference, this is going to be one of the shortest break-ups on record. Because he's come to warn the FF about a crisis--and when he finds out Reed and Sue have left the team, this guy takes interfering to a whole new level:

So once the crisis is dealt with, Reed is suddenly okay with his responsibilities again, and the idea as far as Sue is concerned is to keep her in seclusion during her pregnancy, with Crystal later joining the FF as her replacement.

Now, if you're looking for an FF "break-up" that lives up a little more to that term--well, there's nothing quite like blasting your son's mind into complete shutdown while he's being held in the arms of his terrified mother to do the trick:

Reed and Sue were already having marital troubles, and Sue had already separated from Reed, so I doubt a marriage counselor would have advised this act as a step toward bringing them closer together. Instead, it not only makes Sue turn her back on Reed again, but the rest of the team follows suit:

Now that's more like it.

But not if Doctor Doom has anything to say about it. Due to an intricate plot to launch a device into orbit capable of destroying the personalities of everyone on Earth and thus making them susceptible to Doom's will, Doom gathers the members of the FF back together (with the exception of Sue), though it's never clear why. Presumably it's to get them out of the way while he puts his plan into motion--but hasn't he been doing his reading like the rest of us? With the FF broken up, keeping an eye on Doom isn't exactly going to be anyone's top priority; for that matter, since Doom's plan involves mind control, why couldn't he just go through with it? The FF would have been none the wiser.

Suffice to say that, once the plan is foiled, Johnny and Ben are back with Reed faster than you can say "end of the Fantastic Four" (with Medusa remaining as their fourth member), and both quickly put their animosity toward him aside. And as for Reed and Sue, their troubles are settled once the Sub-Mariner (with Medusa's and Triton's help) concocts a plan to bring them back together, which culminates in this scene:

Gosh, it looks like the FF's going strong again, doesn't it? Well we can't have that. Almost forty issues later, Reed's loss of his stretching power forces him to make a decision--and by now you probably have a good idea what it's going to be, don't you?

There's that "replacement" idea again--but even though Sue decides to leave with Reed, Johnny and Ben ignore the suggestion and the FF completely closes up shop this time:

Yet history repeats itself, when it's again Doom who brings them all back together--only this time it's to use them in a device that will transfer their abilities to his cloned "son." The plan ends tragically (for Doom, that is)--but at least Reed has his power restored in the meantime, which means the FF are back in business. However, we may have finally reached the turning point for this gimmick because at this point it feels like it's been exhausted. The next time the subject is broached, it's treated more like the overused concept that it's become:

A "leave of absence" option seems like a better solution anyway, given that the FF is a corporation and a lot of time and money has been invested in sustaining it. And leaves of absence have worked pretty well in the Avengers--though readers are more used to (and more comfortable with) seeing rotating team members in that organization than in the FF, and no one really wants to see the FF become the Avengers. Of course, Marvel mistook that to mean, "Hey, why don't we have some FF members become Avengers?" But stay calm. We know that sometimes Marvel has to exhaust a gimmick before coming to its senses.

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