Monday, September 21, 2015

Nobody Gets Out Alive!

The winding road which writer Tom DeFalco took in bringing the Fantastic Four closer to their 400th issue provided its share of diversions and sub-plots before finally reaching that point. Some of those seemed to just be marking time, while throwing in an assortment of characters that made the members of the FF virtual guest-stars in their own mag. (Anyone remember Lyja? Psi-Lord? Vibraxas? Huntara? Paibok the Power Skrull? Devos the Devastator? Move along, nothing to see here...) But there were one or two stories dealing the FF back in which were pretty interesting, and actually might have made excellent What If stories--particularly with the twist of the Watcher himself playing an integral part in the stories he might otherwise have simply observed while offering dispassionate narrative from afar. And at the end of one such story, a dramatic double-page spread by artist Paul Ryan illustrates the aftermath of the tragic events that preceded it, where we find the Fantastic Four as decimated and lifeless as their world.

Quite an eye-opener, and perhaps more suited to the pages of Fantastic Four, after all--for the story spawns two unforgettable and iconic cover recreations that herald the battle the FF face, but which now appears to end far differently than when they first fought it. Yes, these are indeed the same FF members who again face the coming of Galactus--for the first time, and the last.

And since this story doesn't take place in What If and the usually dire consequences its stories end with, can't we be reasonably sure that, despite appearances, the FF are certain to prevail? All you can be told at this point is that what you've seen in Ryan's depiction is what actually happens to Ben, Sue, and Johnny--and that Reed's grief is genuine. There seems to be no victory to snatch from certain defeat.

To give you an idea of how all of this came about, we have to return to Four Freedoms Plaza, where the Watcher intercepts the team's attempt to pursue the grown Franklin Richards through time and inexplicably sends Sue and Ben (along with the Sub-Mariner and Ant-Man--tagging along in place of the missing Reed and the reluctant Johnny, to form at least a temporary "Fantastic Four") to an alternate Earth, appearing at a point in time well after the triumph and departure of Galactus in order to witness the remnants of a dead world, as well as a startling monument:

Yet when this world's inhabitants appear, from a population that has long since regressed to a primordial state, it becomes clear that the statue has been erected not to honor the FF, but to serve as a reminder of those the once-human race holds responsible for failing their world in its most desperate hour of need.

Presumably the statue was created within months of Galactus' departure, since the primitive beings we see here would likely not have been capable of this type of construction--though why post-apocalypse, dying humans would have wasted both time and dwindling resources to erect a statue to those they blamed for their fate isn't really made clear in this story. Those who suffer from someone else's actions aren't likely to erect monuments to them, after all. Rather, the statue seems to be present for dramatic effect, in spite of its *ahem* shaky foundation.

Once the FF seeks and finds refuge, the Watcher reappears and begins to explain his part in the fate that befell Earth, which differs from how Sue and Ben remember those events.

It becomes clear that the Watcher's regret is rooted in his decision to accept Reed's offer to be the one to journey to Galactus' station in order to retrieve the device that the Watcher had in mind. For while the Torch would have accomplished the mission with all due speed, Reed finds himself overwhelmingly distracted by the technology present on the station--and his curiosity and diligence use up precious time that wasn't available to spare.

Ben and Sue realize that this isn't their world, of course--but feeling in a way responsible for the fate of the Earth, they offer to right the wrongs done here, and the Watcher complies--first, by replacing Ant-Man and Namor with the Human Torch, and then by transporting the three of them back in time to take the place of their counterparts on this world at the crucial battle where they were left to face Galactus while Reed was off-world.

At first, it seems unclear where DeFalco is headed here, since in the original battle the FF mostly stood on the sidelines within Sue's force field and witnessed the Silver Surfer take the initiative against Galactus. And as these events play out again, it appears this alternate Earth will similarly deal out the FF's direct intervention for the duration of the Surfer's attack.

With Reed taking more time on Galactus' station than was necessary, the crucial moment where Galactus makes ready to slay the Surfer is never prevented by the timely return of the weapon meant to end hostilities--and despite the remaining three members of the FF now helping with the attack on Galactus in order to provide additional time for Reed to return, their intervention isn't enough to delay Galactus' deadly strike against the Surfer, leaving the team alone to finish a hopeless battle they never really had to face before.

Below, the FF regroup while Galactus finishes assembling his deadly elemental converter. We already know how this battle originally ended for this world's Sue, Johnny, and Ben--so in essence, the battle was already over at this point, with all three of them lying dead on the roof. We don't know the details of their last stand--but as our own threesome suit up in more familiar uniforms, they mean to do their predecessors proud.

The key to delaying Galactus is to delay the construction of his converter--and so the FF at least are able to gain time for themselves, for all the good it does them. Entire worlds have fallen before Galactus--and given the sheer number of planets that he's drained the life force from, it's fair to assume that some of those worlds had their own champions who resisted him, some perhaps even more powerful than the FF or even the Surfer, to no avail. It might be a different matter if Galactus were weak enough to give his attackers an edge; but here and now, realistically there's no hope for the FF if they simply pit their power against his.

What's very frustrating to watch here is that Sue, who has protective force fields at her command, fails to think to use that power to blunt the attacks of Galactus against Ben and Johnny--invisible fields, which would enable her to act without Galactus discovering her as the source of that protection, at least for the short term. Over a number of issues, DeFalco has raised Sue's profile in Reed's absence, having her become more assertive as well as decisive; yet at the one time when Sue's involvement and actions are the most crucial, he holds back on the new strength he's given her to step out of the shadows and act against a foe. And now, with Galactus resolving to bring this conflict to an end ("While the loss of any life is regrettable, ..." -- really, Mr. DeFalco? Galactus regretting the loss of three lives, vs. billions?), time runs out for not only Sue, but for all of them.

Sue makes reference to a flaming apparition of herself which appeared before the team of our own Earth in the past and which warned of the death of Ben and Johnny, an apparition whose origin and circumstances are now clear. What we now know is that Sue joined her two team members in death; and when Reed finally returns from his mission, we come full circle. But as the Watcher explains, it's the Fantastic Four of this world that Reed finds dead on the roof of the Baxter Building, with the rest of the world in ruins about him.

In itself, it's an intriguing story that DeFalco and Ryan have crafted--though it's somewhat diluted by the web of plotting in which it's woven. It would make sense that, in another reality, the Watcher's careful planning to save the Earth might fall apart due to some unforeseen error or complication--but, having that error turn out to be Reed dawdling? In the past, Reed has shown himself to be keenly aware of the importance of time in both planning and execution--which would have held true in this instance, particularly with the stakes so high. In addition, as the Watcher points out, Reed has been given an image in his mind of precisely the device he is to retrieve--what reason could he have for seeking out and testing any other potential weapons to use against Galactus? He doesn't have the luxury of second-guessing the Watcher, nor has he been known to allow his scientific curiosity to take precedence over the safety of his team (or certainly not to this extent).

Regardless, what's done is done (or, I suppose in this case, not done)--and if we're to believe the Watcher, this scenario with Reed has occurred on other Earths where the Watcher has acted, with similar results. But on our Earth, at least, we can skip ahead to at least part of the answer as to why the Watcher has been acting so mysteriously in involving our world's Fantastic Four--as Aron, the renegade Watcher, finally reveals himself.

As for our two issues featured here, they just about wrap up DeFalco's six-part "Nobody Gets Out Alive!" arc, with one last thread of that plot still dangling. Conceivably, it's a tale that could have nicely concluded in a 400th issue all by itself--though as readers of that issue know, DeFalco would end up throwing everything but the kitchen sink into that story, with the Watcher(s) probably ending up receiving more exposure than all previous appearances combined. Having the situation here with Reed getting lost in the jumble of that story (with the Celestials, no less) would have compromised its impact--and perhaps that Fantastic Four's sacrifice.

Nobody gets out alive? Haven't we forgotten someone?

Fantastic Four #s 391-392

Script: Mike Lackey and Tom DeFalco (respectively)
Pencils: Paul Ryan
Inks: Danny Bulanadi
Letterer: Steve Dutro


david_b said...

Great review, love the new covers.

At least the Big G's got his arms/knobby knees covered here. :)

Comicsfan said...

Yeah, maybe so, david, but now there's the Watcher to worry about!

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