Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I Came... I Recreated... I Assimilated

By the time that Fantastic Four #241 hit the stands, writer/artist John Byrne had more than gotten his feet wet with the team, and the reception of his work seemed promising. With only nine issues under his belt, Byrne had taken readers through a series of tales that contained a mixture of both subtlety and action, and had shown that he was a good fit for the FF--not only as a writer and plotter, but also as a student of their history.

Byrne's Fantastic Four remained within Marvel continuity, as far as the events which shaped their collective lives and overall career--yet at the same time, in many ways it was a team that had evolved very little from the group of people who had gone through countless trials and crises that would normally have a tranformative effect. Reed, for instance, appeared more gaunt than the Mr. Fantastic who duked it out with Klaw or the Sandman, with his speech as formal as it had been in the book's first issue when calling his partners together with his custom flare gun--while Johnny seemed stuck at 16 in both appearance and manner. Sue, clearly more self-assured than Stan Lee's indecisive non-heroine, was still somewhat reliant on Reed for her cues. Ben, at least, hadn't regressed to a Thing who mostly expressed himself in terms of hostility and bitterness; instead, he is appropriately the "rock" of the team, the one everyone knows will have their back and who is practically one of the family.

By now, we were reasonably comfortable with the manner in which the members of the FF related to each other under Byrne's watch, as well as Byrne's general vision of their modus operandi. The FF didn't spring into action as the Avengers did; rather, under Reed's direction, they tended to investigate strange or bizarre goings-on, just as they did in the beginning, though even Byrne knew that at times there was no getting around the occasional crisis which swept them up and forced them to react first and ask questions later. It's hard to say which was the better read; but, again, Byrne offered a mixture of stories, most of which let us sample the FF as a group of adventurers that made them stand out from the rest.

This particular story, where the FF encounter an ancient Roman presence in Wakanda, is a fine example of the potential of the FF to investigate a disturbance while being equipped to deal with the worst should that occur--one of the reasons why Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., seeks out a meeting with Reed and his team:

Since those early cutaways of the Baxter Building by artist Jack Kirby that established the team's "giant map room," it's been a rare day that an FF story has made use of it--so Byrne dusting it off for the story's splash page provides a nice touch of nostalgia. But while Reed is intrigued at a new source of power that could possibly be harnessed for the benefit of mankind, what he and the rest of the Fantastic Four will discover in the jungles of the African continent will reach back into the past to reveal an energy source that's been corrupted to preserve an ancient race of conquerors.

With the Fantastic Four's departure from the Baxter Building, it seems a prime opportunity for Byrne to revisit the classic equipment that the team made use of to transport themselves to their various destinations. The Pogo Plane would come to mind for this excursion, for instance; instead, Byrne unveils a generic flyer that has never been seen before and will likely be a one-shot appearance for it. Though the FF camaraderie and good-natured ribbing that we remember seems to be alive and well:

Upon landing, the fact that the team hasn't contacted the Black Panther out of professional courtesy sticks out like a sore thumb, particularly since they land only a mile from his principal territory. They could also have availed themselves of any information he might have on this massive energy source that's sitting on his country's border. Both oversights are minor snags in Byrne's story that are never accounted for, presumably for the sake of the FF taking the initiative in this investigation--though when T'Challa's warriors surprise the Thing and the Panther makes his appearance, all the expected players in this story are present, regardless.

The mystery deepens when T'Challa describes a group of Russians who had arrived two weeks earlier seeking to investigate the same region that the FF are heading for--a sky-high tower of stone called the Black Tower of M'Kumbe. Why T'Challa himself has never investigated a mammoth stone mesa reputed to be a place of dark magic and great evil is another question mark that Byrne side-steps. You'd think that any ruler would want to ascertain the nature of a potential threat that's just a two-day journey on foot from his kingdom.

But T'Challa nevertheless is willing to help the FF, outfitting his friends in safari gear in order to help them travel incognito to the Russian encampment--as well as tagging along himself, disguised as one of the bearers. But when they arrive at their destination, they discover that the Russians have met their deaths, and that their presumed murderers have crept up on them without a sound.

With Sue already invisible, Reed instructs the group to stand down in order to gain further information on the identity of their captors as well as their purpose. They're taken to the base of the tower, where their ascent will depend on primitive means and will take nearly three hours:

It's a scene that makes use of an entire page of valuable story space, which speaks well of Byrne's talent for setting the story's pace as well as sharpening our focus on these silent, authentically-garbed soldiers who are using means of movement that might have been employed by ancient Romans.

Authenticity that receives powerful substantiation from the FF's next startling sight when they've reached the top:

The group is then conducted to a meeting with the one in power here. With his introduction and his bold words, it becomes clear as to why the lives of the group have been spared thus far; but, thanks to the impetuousness of the FF's unofficial trainee, Frankie Raye, their advantage of surprise is soon nullified by a show of strength from their foe that no one had expected.

Byrne taking the extra (and certainly visually shocking) step of having this being return Ben Grimm to his human form seems to set aside Byrne's own plans for the character for the sake of effect here, given Reed's recent disastrous failure to cure Ben's condition as the Thing as well as the true reason behind that failure. Granted, no one (even Ben) has the time to give the ramifications further thought--but Byrne could have accomplished the same effect here by simply depriving the Thing of his strength.

With everyone now incarcerated and "Gaius" now having plans for Sue, Byrne offers an interesting comparison in regard to the abilities of the Fantastic Four, vs. one whose abilities are not dependent on anything but his own training and dedication to tradition.

Clearly, Byrne's Reed is a bony shadow of how the character physically developed under Kirby, perhaps to highlight his helplessness in this situation. Despite his resolve, however, Reed will end up sitting this fight out in his shackles. The Panther, on the other hand, is ready for action, and always has been:

The Panther's regal attitude is a little over the top here, since the Panther who joined the Avengers exhibited courage but hardly arrogance or expectations of obeisance when facing foes like the Grim Reaper or the X-Men. But he seems true to form to Byrne's vision of him, which probably harkens back to the character's introduction.

As for Sue, she finds herself summoned to the presence of Gaius as he basks in an arena of silence, unable to stomach his conscripted subjects' voices:

(These "mini-splash" panels that split the story into chapters may seem familiar to those of you who remember the early Lee/Kirby FF issues which used the same technique to nice effect.)

Thanks to Sue's probing questions of Gaius's origins, we learn that he owes his power and his self-contained "empire" to an extra-terrestrial encounter in approximately the year 40 A.D.:

We can only guess at the amount of time Flavius spent recovering from the effects of donning the alien helmet. The Roman Empire at its zenith only covered the northern coastal region of Africa and reached no deeper than Egypt--never extending anywhere near Wakanda, where Flavius eventually established his facsimile of Rome. After returning to his abandoned fort, it's unclear why he would decide to turn in the opposite direction and head south, rather than toward more familiar provinces that would suit his plans for repopulating a "new Rome."

It's here, however, that Byrne provides interesting symmetry with Reed's thoughts about the team's resourcefulness when deprived of the use of their powers. Forced to watch Johnny and Ben clash as gladiators in a brutal match, Sue is forced to think on her feet, performing an analysis and drawing conclusions in record time that have this story suddenly spinning toward a resolution.

With Flavius/Gaius now dead, it stands to reason that all of the people that he's controlled and kept alive for centuries would now crumble to dust. And it looks like the infrastructure of "Rome" will share the same fate:

And while Sue has essentially told us what we need to know about Gaius, Reed is on hand to provide perspective on the entire encounter:

Some interesting perspective was also to be found in the letters page dealing with this story. For instance, Sue's unflattering hairstyle which Byrne created for her in his first issue as both writer and artist was given a more feminine flair by Gaius, a new style which was retained even after Gaius bit the dust. Also, the "Romanesque" aspects to the story were inspired by artist Frank Bellamy's work on "Heros The Spartan."

Fantastic Four #241

Script and Art: John Byrne
Letterer: Jim Novak


Anonymous said...

I liked these John Byrne issues too but he was trying too hard to recreate the early days of the FF - splitting the story into chapters being an obvious example. Added to the wide collars, Reed's gaunt look, the original lumpy Thing and so on it just looked unoriginal - the stories were good enough without needing to pretend it was 1961.

Kid said...

All the things that CJ didn't like, I LOVED. Chapters, wide collars, gaunt Reed, lumpy Thing - I had my childhood back again. I remember the very day I bought this issue - Sunday, March 21st, 1982. Still got it in exactly the same condition it was when I purchased it. Magic.