Friday, October 6, 2017

The End Of The Fantastic Four!

In a 1971 Avengers story, we saw a plan put into motion by Captain Marvel that resulted in the successful retrieval of Rick Jones from the Negative Zone, thus putting an end to their merged status that had forced the two of them to switch atoms with each other whenever the trapped Mar-vell needed to appear in our world (and consequently sending Rick to the Zone for the duration). Yet the execution of that plan also saw another attempt at freedom, when the despotic ruler of the Zone, Annihilus, monitored Rick's escape and achieved what he had long sought--the path to Earth, which Reed Richards had tried to keep hidden from him at all costs. (Thanks bunches, Rick! It's easy to see why the Avengers found you to be an asset to the team!)

So you might have been thinking at the time: Now that Annihilus knows how to enter our world, what's keeping him? This fiend probably has "Today Is A Good Day To Invade" embroidered and framed in his gun-ship. In his third Fantastic Four appearance, it seems that Annihilus has used his time to craft a plan that will not only make it possible for him to invade Earth in force, but also see him attain unlimited power--and it will be the FF who inadvertently make it all possible, while facing the crippling loss of an innocent life that will shatter their ranks.

With Annihilus apparently chomping at the bit to begin (and with the mandible he's sporting, it wouldn't be surprising to find him actually doing that), it doesn't take writer Gerry Conway's story long to put all the necessary story elements in place, though in a normally-paced, reasonable manner. Having battled the Miracle Man, the Thing, the Human Torch, and Medusa return to the Baxter Building in time to see Reed receive an urgent message from his estranged wife, Sue, who's concerned about the health of their son, Franklin. But their communication is abruptly, and mysteriously, cut off.

As Sue makes the drive back to New York, however, things get even more strange when her car veers from her control and heads into a clearing, where waits...

Miss Harkness' words are cryptic at best--and somewhat alarming, since she's just confessed to causing the fit that has Sue so worried about Franklin. Being away from the FF, Sue doesn't yet know that Miss Harkness has been missing and her home has recently been destroyed; so where you or I might be more hesitant to comply, and despite how odd this situation appears to be, she yet trusts her son's former governess and agrees to depart with her.

As you can imagine, Reed wastes no time in taking off after Sue, tracking her car and not at all liking what his radiation instrument is picking up--readings that are exclusive to one location that the FF know only too well.

The group returns to their headquarters to prepare to enter the Negative Zone in search of Sue--only to find that the Zone's most dangerous inhabitant has come to them.

As Annihilus faces the FF's expected attack, it becomes clear to the team that he's considerably more powerful than in their previous encounters, to the point where their battle is no contest: Annihilus quickly and almost casually wipes the floor with all four of them (including their friend, Wyatt Wingfoot, who returned with them from Oklahoma). In a way, the Earth's first line of defense has fallen to him--and don't think he isn't aware of it.

Once Annihilus has returned to the Zone with his captives, he veers their unconscious forms to his base, with apparent plans to use them to acquire even more power for himself and, afterward, launch his invasion of Earth's dimension in earnest. As to how and why the FF figure into his plans, the full details are yet to be revealed--but you can probably begin putting the puzzle together from recalling his past use of cosmic rays, as well as knowing that Medusa is of no importance to him. (In fact, it seems out of character for him to have even let her live, much less bothering to bring her along.)

Once everyone is assembled at Annihilus' stronghold, he begins to offer the FF only the most superficial of reasons why he's abducted them all to the Zone. Clearly they are crucial to his plans--but because he goes a step too far in voicing his thoughts on the matter, the FF (and Reed, in particular) put a halt to his diatribe and once again lash out against him.

For all the good it does them. Not only does he again defeat them, but in so doing he drains their power, at least temporarily; and from there, he continues to offer only information of his own choosing, taunting rather than enlightening to any extent. The FF only know that they'll be held captive until they're rested sufficiently to participate in the final phase of his siphoning of their power.  Reed, however, realizes that it's not just the Fantastic Four that Annihilus is interested in.

Since Miss Harkness was taken captive well before any of the FF members, how unusual it seems that she proved to be no threat to Annihilus, since he had yet to take the steps that would begin to return his power to its former state. We do learn later that it's the Negative Zone itself that has a detrimental effect on her abilities; having monitored her, it's possible that Annihilus thought it prudent to take the extra step of transporting her directly into the holding tube that renders both herself and Sue helpless. As to how Annihilus forced her cooperation in abducting Sue, Conway apparently feels that those details aren't necessary for the story to go into, and his instinct feels correct from a reader standpoint.

With the aid of Medusa, Reed and the others escape from captivity and head out across the landscape. With their powers slowly returning to them, they make a plan to head back and hopefully catch Annihilus off-guard; but for Sue, and especially for Franklin, their arrival may unfortunately be too late to save them.

Finally, the FF burst in and make a third attempt to take Annihilus, who appears to have finished his transferal of Franklin's energies and stands ready to crush them as he's done before. Given his success rate thus far, he has every reason to be confident--but as the story implies, his recent attempt with Franklin begins to have unforeseen consequences, and at last the FF begin to make headway against their foe.

But as Reed discovers, there is another drama taking place in their midst, one that is potentially far more dangerous.

With Annihilus dealt with, Reed is adamant that all of them return to Earth immediately, a transit which Miss Harkness facilitates even in her weakened condition. (Considering the power involved in accomplishing such a feat, we should all be so "weak.") Once returned, however, things go from bad to much worse, quickly--and the horrified members of the FF watch as the most innocent among them is, for all intents and purposes, rendered mindless.

As the shockwaves of what Reed has done ripple through the group, imagine the sight they've all been witness to: Reed unhesitatingly raising and firing a deadly weapon at not just a stricken little boy, but his own son. It's a powerful scene, with a very subtle twist to it by artist John Buscema which we'll find has been lost on Ben, Johnny, Medusa, and Wyatt in the heat of the moment:  Both father and mother have the same look on their faces, one expressing extreme shock while the other reveals the same feelings but mixed with desperation. It's no less than a waking nightmare for anyone present--and it serves as the last straw for any sense of trust the rest of the FF have maintained in Reed over the years.

The final panel is more of a lead-in to the next FF issue, since, in the real world, all of these people would have had much more to say to (and hear from) Reed before jumping straight to cutting him loose and abandoning him--and, it's important to note, with "the end of the Fantastic Four!" resonating loudest above all else. It comes across as too quick an ending for such a scene. Given what's just played out before their eyes, has everything been said here among these six people? In a minute's time? Really?

The Richardses' separation would last for another eight issues before their reconciliation, with their son being restored to health (by, of all things, a rampaging Ultron) in the following issue. Nor did it turn out to be the "end" of the FF for very long, as the machinations of Dr. Doom forced them to come together again and, in the process, grudgingly give Reed the benefit of the doubt. Overall, it was probably a healing process that no therapist would have signed off on--but as a significant upheaval in the lives of the FF, it all made for interesting reading.

Fantastic Four #s 140-141

Script: Gerry Conway
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: John Costanza


Anonymous said...

Awesome! But I've never been clear about Annihilus' power level. I know he's taken on Thor, but it looked like he was losing. I figure he has Ben Grimm-level strength, as well as limited blasting powers from the Cosmic Control Rod. Odin dispatched him fairly quickly, so I'm assuming Annihilus is operating on a, oh say, Iron Man or Drax level of power.
Of course it's his single-minded dedication to destruction of life that makes him really dangerous.


Comicsfan said...

It's a fair observation, M.P. In his first encounter with the FF, it's interesting to note that Annihilus used mainly weaponry and devices to deal with them, rather than just standing against them hand-to-hand. Perhaps we can assume from this story that he was primarily interested in repairing his cosmic control rod, but found in his experiments with Sue that he could more readily adapt their powers to it and make himself more powerful in the process. He adopted the same approach when dealing with the Asgardians, as well, so maybe that became his standard m.o. in future battles.

At some point I'll have to re-read the whole Annihilation series, which takes place well after his earlier appearances, and see how his power has evolved. I have to assume that if he's bringing all of those warships with him, he's not all that confident in his control rod to wipe out his opposition.

Anonymous said...

CF, I know you read Steve Does Comics so you'll soon see these two issues appear in their British reprint versions - the second part of the UK reprint ditched the original FF cover for an inferior UK-exclusive cover (I don't know why).

When first reading this story I thought it was totally unfair for Sue, Ben and Johnny to walk out on Reed - what else could he have done ?? The 11 year-old me was more mature than most of the FF !

And I couldn't pronounce Annihilus so I said Annil-i-us...but I can pronounce it now :)

Comicsfan said...

Colin, it's always a treat to take a look at how the UK versions adapt the original stories--what's left out and/or what's rearranged while trying to stay true to the story flow. As a blogger who strives to be comprehensive in a story's review while making sure the included scans conform as closely as possible to the original material, I can certainly relate!

Jared said...

Annihulus is one of the villains who has benefited from the more cinematic/widescreen art layouts that started int he late 90s and took off after 2000. I always thought he was kind of an awkward villain. The way he was drawn always looked like a robot instead of an alien. He always proved a challenge to the FF, but never anything like Doom, the Skrulls, Galactus, etc.

Annihilation totally changed that. He feels like an A list villain. I hope you do a post on that soon. It is one of the few Marvel big events where every part works out perfectly.

Comicsfan said...

Jared, I certainly agree that Annihilus was given his due in Annihilation. It's a series that will more than likely be profiled at the PPoC, but, like Earth X and other series that deserve consideration, I'd need to refresh my memory by re-reading it--and having time to kill seems to be in short supply these days!