Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rumbling With Roy!

A happy belated birthday to Roy Thomas (73 years young as of last Friday), from whose mind sprang this rather offbeat 1973 Fantastic Four tale where the FF become trapped in a 1950s dreamscape spawned by the Shaper of Worlds. Scripted by Gerry Conway, the story adds little to nothing to FF continuity--yet, as valueless as it appears in that sense, it has a great deal of fun with itself, and you'll find yourself having fun right along with it if you just roll with it and let it sweep you away.

In Part 1, "Rock Around the Cosmos!", we pick things up after the FF's battle with Gideon, with the FF triumphant but with both Gideon and Dragon Man dead. (At least Reed seems certain of Dragon Man's "death"--it's nice to know that even brilliant minds can screw up an analysis once in awhile.) The FF take temporary custody of Thomas, Gideon's grieving son, and depart--but, amidst the wreckage, one of Gideon's henchmen, Slugger Johnson, revives and prepares to escape. But Slugger is glowing from residual exposure to Gideon's "eternity machine," and it looks like it's enough to attract an alien who will make use of Slugger's preoccupation with the 1950s:

The Shaper's power transforms everything and everyone in the vicinity, including the Fantastic Four:

Yet, the Shaper's interpretation of Slugger's dreams takes a few liberties with Slugger's memories of the true 1950s. Because while there are clear distinctions of rebellious young people ("Wild Ones") and the adult establishment ("Patriots"), the available technology displayed is indeed like something out of a dream, offering a mixture of the nostalgic and the advanced:

The assault takes a different turn when the Wild Ones spot Reed and Ben, the older age of the two identifying them as new targets for these "youthies":

You may have noticed that Ben and Reed are doing just fine against their attackers--so why are Medusa and the Torch so frantic about their safety? Unfortunately, unknown to the Thing and Mr. Fantastic, their two partners have switched sides:

Good grief! What the heck has Roy Thomas gotten us into here? Let's find out!

After the Wild Ones turned their attention to the FF, that gave the Patriots an opportunity to leave their "fallout shelter" in force and attempt to capture everyone. But the Wild Ones escape, with the Torch and Medusa in tow--leaving the Patriots to take custody of Reed and Ben. And back at their respective headquarters, things get even crazier. "Wildman" (who appears to be Slugger Johnson, but without his being aware of it) directs the indoctrination of Medusa and Johnny, while the Patriots act similarly toward Ben and Reed--each group using specialized sonic equipment to bring the FF under their influence.

So what's this all about? Apparently, both groups want to send their super-powered thralls on a mission to capture a weapon created by "the Brain" (again, Slugger Johnson):

Talk about a cliffhanger! And neither team understands why or what they're fighting.

On the splash page of the next issue, it looks like Reed and Ben have reached the target first, though they've appeared to have shaken off the effects of their brainwashing:

If you're like me, you've probably been appreciating artist John Buscema's incredible work on this story. He really seems to be having a lot of fun with all the concepts Thomas is throwing into this tale--and there's a good deal I'm leaving out, so be sure to give the whole thing a read if you have the chance. One thing I will have the pleasure of showing you is the fighting team chemistry of Mr. Fantastic and the Thing, whom Conway writes so well here:

Reed has only begun to put together the pieces of this puzzle. But he won't have time to make much headway, because it isn't long before the rest of his team arrives. And they, too, are fighting mad, but regrettably still following other orders:

At last, though, our friend Slugger, "the Brain," confers with the Shaper, and stresses that the FF be removed from this dream altogether:

And just like that, the castle turns into a drive-in movie lot. And at last, the Brain's secret weapon makes its appearance, though a little unconventionally:

And brother, if you thought things were crazy before, how about "the Warhead" cutting loose on the Wild Ones, the Patriots (arriving later), and the FF?

By the way, just look at how much excitement letterer Artie Simek has added throughout this story. His style is so dynamic and well-placed, reflecting the scope of the battle even when the FF are finding a moment to reunite:

But it's time for the Warhead to "head" back to the movies, as only the Thing can send him there:

There doesn't seem to be any more ground to cover here, does there? Slugger Johnson has no doubt learned that there's a difference between having a dream and controlling it, and the FF seem to be more than he can handle in any reality. And so, finally making his presence known, the Shaper at last shows up to set all to rights, with what amounts to a simple "my bad":

With the withdrawal of Slugger's dream world, the FF are returned to their aircraft as if nothing had happened, and this fun little diversion reaches its end. I remember what a head-scratcher this story was to me when I first read it, as it was smack in the middle of Reed's ongoing drama with Sue and I felt like I'd been yanked out of a continuing story and thrust into something that didn't seem to make any kind of sense, either on its own or in the context of what was going on at the time with the team. Yet if you read it as an interlude of sorts, and factor in the Shaper who can pretty much get away with anything while hitting the reset button at the end, it's a fine bit of entertainment on its own, and the FF clearly show they can "rumble" with the best of them.

Fantastic Four #s 136-137

Script: Gerry Conway
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Artie Simek


Anonymous said...

Roy Thomas is 73?! Good lord.
I remember when he was a young guy. Thanks for reminding me of my own imminent mortality, C.F.

B Smith said...

Yes, the first issue of The Comics Journal I bought had a long interview with a Mr Thomas who was about to turn 40!

This FF issue at the time seemed like a cash in on the fifties nostalgia that was seeping into the pop culture sphere at the time (the Happy Days TV show was still a couple of years off), but I was aware when reading it at the time that there were a lot of references I wasn't getting.

The passing years hipped me to most of them and when I looked at it with older eyes, it seemed to me to be a story taking a shot at such nostalgia ("You think it was all good times? You've forgotten about *these* things..."), and a reminder that the past was not always tinged with golden memories.

On the tail of the Inhumans/Omega story that had preceded it a few issues earlier, it might have been easy to dismiss it as a lightweight tale, but I think it's an allegory that worked quite well, given the times (the Miracle Man story that followed? That was lightweight).

Oh, and about the artwork: I distinctly recall in the letter column for #137 that it was mentioned that John Buscema was only really providing layouts for these issues, and that Joe Sinnott was doing much, much more than simply inking pencils.

Congratulations and thanks for the top job you're doing with this blog.

Comicsfan said...

B, that's a good point about how the fifties portrayed in the story weren't all that Slugger Johnson idealized--for instance, the racial tension that Thomas and Conway give a generous amount of story space to. Ironically, given that the Shaper's power was simply acting on Slugger's dreams of the time period, all of that (and more) took *ahem* shape in Slugger's "world" through no conscious effort on his part.

Nothing in the letters pages of either #136 or #137 about Buscema limiting himself to layouts on the FF at this point in time--but that said, Sinnott's contribution to his work has always been outstanding, and he's definitely one of my favorite inkers for the book.

Thanks very much for the nice words--going down the Marvel memory lane in this blog is a great deal of fun for me to work on. :D

david_b said...

One of my first AND FAVORITE FF stories..!!!

Just hip, nutty, and GREAT John Buscema art.