Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Master Of The Mixing Arts

While artist John Byrne made his first impression on Fantastic Four with several issues during 1979-80, most fans would agree that he made his more celebrated impression on the team when he returned in mid-1981 and became a triple threat--taking on scripting, pencilling, and inking responsibilities and beginning a five-year run on the title. Byrne would finally hand over the finishing chores to other artists in 1985, so we at least know the man is human; nevertheless, he left behind a body of work (accent, no doubt, on "work") that was distinguished.

And it all began with the return of one of the FF's oldest foes:

There are a considerable amount of nice touches to enjoy in this fresh take on the FF that Byrne brings to the book, not just in this issue but throughout his time on Fantastic Four. Appropriately titled "Back to the Basics!", Byrne holds to continuity in this story and doesn't go overboard in pivoting the FF to a new direction. Instead, he casually proceeds to introduce Diablo and his scheme of revenge, while dealing in the members of the FF as they spend their time as New Yorkers, as if there's nothing out of the ordinary in play since their last adventure. There would be time enough to have the likes of Terrax explode into their lives; for now, they'll find Diablo dangerous enough, though the alchemist appears to be planning to engage the FF by proxy:

It's rather curious to see Byrne have the story's cover and splash page virtually duplicate each other. There must have been any number of ways to make each of them distinct; after all, if a new reader is about to thumb through the issue, you don't want them to just see a subtle variation of the cover when they flip to page one. But let's allow Diablo the moment, since it appears he's taken a step down in the super-villain department and is forced to deal with strict landladies:

Now that Byrne's preamble with Diablo has been established and the villain has launched its attack, Byrne begins to deal in the members of the FF, one by one. And since Diablo's strategy is to have each of the FF face an elemental creature that their power is least likely to be able to deal with, the separate scenes that Byrne uses to introduce Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben give him the opportunity to demonstrate the characters as he sees them, before having them interact as a team. He starts with Sue, who arguably needs the most work in terms of expanding her character, and whom Byrne is often noted for giving much-needed improvement to in that respect:

Though Byrne perhaps does Sue no favors by giving her an unflattering hairstyle that received few if any compliments among readers. A letter from alert reader Brenda Robnett perhaps encapsulates the collective opinion of those who thought stylist Milo Tindolini went way overboard:

"I was absolutely delighted when I read that you were taking over the reins of the FANTASTIC FOUR. Little did I dream that the first thing you would do is come along and completely massacre Susan's hair. Her long, beautiful blonde hair was one of her best features, her crowning glory, so to speak. [CF: Well, I wouldn't go that far.] And you chopped it all off!!!!!!! Thanks to you, Susan looks like a man!! (From Invisible Girl to Invisible Man is too much of a change I think.) I can barely tell her from her brother! The Invisible Girl now looks like she should stay invisible 100% of the time! If her hair does not grow back pronto, please give the poor woman a wig!"

From there we segue to Ben, who is coming from a showing of "The Elephant Man" with Alicia and is bashfully dabbing the tears from his eyes. Unfortunately, he's about to be beset by more moisture than he can handle, as Diablo's second creature attacks:

Then we move to Johnny, who is in the middle of making another attempt to improve on his relationship with the mysterious Frankie Raye. What happens next isn't likely to improve her outlook:

Three FF members, taken out of action (at least for the time being)--and all without knowing the true nature of these attacks or who's behind them. Meanwhile, Reed is spending his leisure time in his lab, and has just begun to register the energies at work in Manhattan (and, unknown to him, on his three partners) when his own attacker comes calling:

Already, Byrne has Reed doing what Reed does best--thinking on his feet, deciphering the information at hand and acting on it. But even Reed needs a stroke of luck on occasion, and he finds it while luring his foe to the damp foliage of Central Park (admittedly not one of Reed's most well-reasoned strategies), as a distraught Frankie waves him down:

So the stage is set for the FF to come together and tackle these menaces. But Reed is no Quicksilver, and both Ben and Sue will have to fend for themselves while Reed is in transit. In Sue's case, she not only exhibits new aspects of her powers, but also makes an excellent deduction that will offer a better chance of defeating this creature:

It's unclear why Byrne has Sue react so surprised at this course of action, or the success of it--expanding her force field in order to free herself was really her only option, and breaking free from hardened dirt wouldn't exactly have been a strain on her power, even before it was strengthened.  But the innovation which follows is a welcome sight:

As for Ben, Byrne manages to stretch those seconds of life he had left to a few more seconds of life, enough for him to burst his way into a sports store in a last-ditch attempt to save himself. But in addition to the efforts of a good samaritan, Sue's gambit to enlist the Thing's help with her own enemy will also allow her to reciprocate:

It's nice to see Sue so active in the field, as well as providing such assistance to the FF's strongest member. But even these two could stand to benefit from the arrival of Reed, who has deduced the nature of these enemies and stands ready to coordinate his team's counterattack from this point.

Yet the transmutation defense Reed has devised will not work on Johnny's "living flame" foe, and so the Torch must literally fight fire with fire. Along with oxygen deprivation:

With their four elemental foes dealt with, Reed is able to wrap up this case with some suspicions as to who their real foe has been:

It's probably a bit of a stretch to connect alchemy with mysticism, despite Diablo's use of the word "potions" to describe his concoctions. Diablo makes use of chemicals and Bunsen burners, not cauldrons and chants. But since Reed manages to put two and two together and connect Diablo's involvement with the mystic statues he managed to purloin and use against the FF, this story's special guest cameo will nevertheless serve to cap Byrne's inaugural issue nicely:

What Byrne may have lacked in polish in these early issues of his tenure on Fantastic Four (including a groan-inducing story involving Ego, the Living Planet), he managed to make up for with a genuine effort toward characterization and development of the FF members as individuals who joined together in common cause and who went on to become something unique in comics history. Aside from the Byrne FF issues we've already covered here at the PPC, there are so many stories of Byrne's FF run that merit review--and like Byrne himself with this issue, we're just getting started.

Fantastic Four #232

Script and Pencils: John Byrne
Inks: John Byrne (as Bjorn Heyn)
Letterer: Jim Novak


Colin Jones said...

But those awful white collars - bringing back the wide black collars from the early days was bad enough but then he turned them white :(

Kid said...

I actually loved the fact that he brought back the original wide collars from the early issues - and restored the Thing's dinosaur-hide epidermis for several issues. I've got all those issues, but love them so much, I bought the Omnibus volumes as well. The only thing I didn't like about the Byrne run was having Alicia and Johnny become an item.

Comicsfan said...

I'm with you on the Johnny/Alicia development, Kid. With all the time and effort that Byrne spent cementing the tragic aspect of the relationship between Ben and Alicia--and Ben's deep-rooted fear that Alicia only loves him as the Thing (which made him reject Reed's cure and resulted in that "dinosaur hide")--I really wasn't expecting him to just chuck the whole relationship altogether.

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