Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Glitch In Time!

OR: "To Be Continuumed..."

Not many of Marvel's comics published during 1976 made mention of the bicentennial celebration with more than a passing reference, but the company made a decent effort to incorporate the event into stories featured in Doctor Strange, Spidey Super Stories--and, it goes without saying, Captain America, not only in his regular title but also a special Marvel Treasury Edition devoted to the subject. By extension, another story featuring Cap would be one of those which at least acknowledged the event but went on to tell its own story, which really wasn't all that relevant but hearkened back to a memorable period of American history all the same.

"And Now Then--The Invaders!" in the 1976 Fantastic Four Annual no doubt carried the stamp of patriotism with the presence of the Invaders, a heroic team of classic characters from comics' Golden Age--yet there is no real connection to the bicentennial, since the core of the story focuses on World War II and not the Revolutionary War. But you'll still be able to get into the spirit in this tale written by Roy Thomas, with its foundation consisting of a chilling premise of the Nazis having won the war and conquering the world. While a complete and separate story in its own right, the issue is something of a double-header that segues into the '76 Marvel Two-In-One Annual, with the Thing of course being the common denominator in both stories. Again, the time period of the 1940s doesn't exactly connect to the wave of the country's celebration of independence from Britain; rather, the story banks on the spirit of freedom, which was fought for with great vigor and sacrifice in the second world war, a conflict which dwarfed the war with the British. It's easy enough to grasp Thomas's thinking here, if mostly in a sales sense.

Thomas lays the groundwork for this story in the FF's regular title, when a skirmish with Luke Cage, under the influence of the Puppet Master, dislodges a canister of vibranium which falls onto the platform of the time machine Reed Richards duplicated from Dr. Doom's original design, sending it back into the past. (Good job, Reed, in keeping the device on the power grid--heaven forbid somebody tripped while standing next to it.) The ramifications of the incident are realized when everyone enters the room of the unit to find unexpected guests, who tend to open fire on Americans on sight.

The team starts putting two and two together and, to their horror, discover through a visual hookup scenes displayed through the years that show the Nazis taking over the world--and that the men they've captured travelled from 1946. Yet Thomas turns the story into a virtual What If tale (the mag would debut in early 1977) by making it clear that this scenario occurred in another time continuum--a history that, if not corrected, could spread to other continuums, including the FF's Earth. That's a bit of a stretch; usually that kind of cascade effect requires some sort of rupture in space-time (if other such stories are any indication), and there's no evidence of that here. But in order for the FF to take action, their own history has to be unaltered at least for now--so the threat of a spreading alteration in history appears to be a plot device that Thomas finds necessary to establish for the story.

At this point the reader's head is probably spinning as much as Ben's. As for the Watcher, you can safely ignore his presence in this story, since it seems his purpose is mainly to point us in the direction of the MTIO issue at this story's end. At any rate, the stakes are clear for the FF--and with Ben's offhand reference to the bicentennial, the team heads back to 1942 to prevent disaster.

It takes some of the wind out of this story's sails to know going in that the FF are travelling back to someone else's history--i.e., to another time continuum not their own. (It's anyone's guess how this time machine manages to do that, though I suppose we can thank Reed's tinkering on his own model.) In the end, it's of little consequence, since the similarities between this continuum and our own are thankfully identical enough for the reader to have the sense of the FF going back in time to their own World War II, if that helps.

Once the FF arrive--and directly in the company of the people most able to help them, I might add--it's understandable when the encounter erupts in hostilities, particularly with the Sub-Mariner leading the charge. It's a clash that the issue has to get out of its system, though you may wonder why not one of the seasoned officers present at this meeting pulls their weapon and attempts to restore order on their own initiative.

When Reed is finally able to successfully convey that the FF mean no harm, the situation is explained, and the Invaders offer their assistance. Again, as luck would have it, the meeting the FF have crashed involves a strategy session to discuss enemy buildup at Castle Cherbelle in occupied France, with none other than Baron Zemo in charge of the operation. It's as good a place to start as any--though if you've bet money that the missing vibranium is directly linked to Zemo's operation, you're going to make out like a bandit.

With the preliminaries over, Thomas spends a generous amount of time indulging in the interplay that time travel has afforded these two teams to experience with each other--more so for the FF, who are in a position to note the differences in time and, also, are the only ones able to see their allies with knowledge that the Invaders lack.

By all means, yes, keep your voices down as you make your approach so that the Germans don't hear you--but three flaming people lighting up the night and soaring over the enemy's wall? They'll never notice that!

And speaking of the obvious, if there were an operative in this group who was made to order for slipping into a base undetected and reporting back with valuable information, making it unnecessary to split up your forces in order to scout different areas of the castle and allowing both super-teams to take the heart of the installation by surprise, it would surely be the Invisible Girl, who basically does her part in this issue but whose contribution is kept to a bare minimum by Thomas. (Though in all fairness, in the mid-'70s you could say the same for practically all of her writers.)

Then there's Bucky, the elephant in the room as far as his tragic fate being known yet not divulged by the members of the FF.

I suppose the argument could be made that this is an alternate reality, with no consequences for the FF's timeline should the Torch have shared what he knows. But putting that aside for the moment, what purpose is served by keeping not only Bucky but also Cap in the dark about what happens to them? And should the Torch or the Thing pull these men aside and level with them, what then? Bucky doesn't becomes a brainwashed assassin in the service of the Russians, kept alive through the decades and only removed from cryogenic stasis when it's time for him to murder a man, or a woman, or a family? Cap doesn't lose twenty years of his life, and can live out his days in the company of his friends and comrades, perhaps even reconnect with the woman he loves? No one could know what their future would hold, of course; but in the 1940s, with the war coming to an end at the time of the drone plane incident with Zemo, the pivotal events that they could reshape if they lived would seem to be limited, assuming they chose to remain in their costumed identities at all.

As long as we're on the subject of Zemo, it's a perfect time to follow up on Cap's offensive here by seeing the clever way Thomas connects this story to a famous encounter we first saw in Avengers #6, where Zemo's hood became stuck to his head forever because of a vat of his "Adhesive X" being shattered by Cap's attack. Having an alternate reality to play with, Thomas is able to have the scene take place in this French castle, even though the original accident took place in Zemo's lab in Germany.

The only team that hits paydirt is that of the Thing, Toro, and the android Torch, who discover that the Germans have already adapted the vibranium into rockets aimed at London. The group does its work well in destroying the weapons, but there is time enough to launch one of the rockets--and guess who's hitched a ride?

The ear-shattering explosion, occurring so close to the issue's end, signals that the FF's mission has been accomplished--and thanks to Reed triggering the time machine's retrieval of himself and his partners, the Thing finds himself back in the Baxter Building in one piece. And in case you're wondering about the Invaders, who were still in the castle and who weren't picked up by the chrono-square, Thomas includes those details in the story's wrap-up, along with some other loose ends.

How silly the Invaders look, waving to thin air, when they've no reason to believe the FF are tuning them in from their own reality. And we'll have to assume the FF high-tailed it to that hilltop with them before they returned to their own time; otherwise, Cap and the others would have been shown reacting in shock, wondering if the FF made it out of the castle before the explosion.

As for the Invaders' time continuum no longer being in danger of spilling over into other realities--it's tempting to call "phooey" on the rationale being used here. Exactly what determines whether a crisis is severe enough to produce a danger to other time continuums? In this case, it all seems to boil down to one side winning a war which they lost in another reality--but that's absurd. So all the other time continuums would have been fine if Germany loses this war, but not vice versa? How does that work? High-stakes wars erupt all the time--are the FF supposed to mobilize for each of them? The argument could also be made that the catalyst for all the trouble with the continuums was the vibranium canister--but why? Isn't there already vibranium on the Invaders' Earth? If the Germans had located it and used the vibranium indigenous to their reality, does a time continuum crisis occur--or merely history?

I probably won't be asked to write a comic book story anytime soon, will I.

Finally, the story's epilogue lays the groundwork for Ben's separate investigation of the still-lingering mystery of the vibranium, which takes place in the MTIO annual and guest-stars the Liberty Legion, as well as our friend the Watcher. That story then punts to MTIO #20, where this tale finally concludes. By that time, you'll have had your fill of the 1940s, the Nazis, vibranium, time travel, and most definitely swastikas.

(Thanks to a certain time machine, that's what Cap plans to find out!)

Fantastic Four Annual #11

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Sam Grainger
Letterer: Joe Rosen


Kid said...

Surprisingly, I've never seen these issues, so I must track them down for a read one day. Now if only I had a time machine. Does Reed Richards hire his out do you know?

Comicsfan said...

Somehow I doubt it, Kid, but you never know--you should probably catch him at a time when the FF is having money problems! ;)