Friday, January 12, 2018

Game Penalty

Following a three-part story buildup where we saw the fate of three worlds hanging in the balance, we've now arrived at that story's conclusion, where the Fantastic Four have pieced together the truth and are ready to take action against the barbarian known as Arkon--a warlord hailing from a world in another dimension, who used an agent to acquire technology freely negotiated and sold by the Reed Richards of our Earth and his counterpart existing in a parallel continuum, as well as Phineas, an ally of the FF who dwells in the Fifth Dimension. Arkon's goal was to then use the technology and weaponry now at his disposal to manipulate events in all three worlds so that they would declare war on and attack each other, and thereby funnel the resulting release of atomic energy to his own dying world. But the FF, with the help of the other Reed, have gotten to the bottom of the scheme and revealed Arkon's hand--and at last, it's time to turn the tables on the schemer!

But whatever we were expecting from such an intricate and involved plot, does it all now come down to:

... a life-or-death battle with a glorified goalie!?

You may as well know going in: It's an anticlimactic issue that disappoints on several fronts, not the least of which is the tepid use of the Fantastic Four themselves, with one-half of the team remaining behind to monitor Reed's plan that will cut off Arkon's stratagem at the source. And that plan is, in a nutshell:

You may have noticed that there seems to be no allocation of Sue and Reed in this plan, though they're on hand to help sell the issue's cover surely enough. Frankly, it's not clear why they're on the sidelines. Writer Roy Thomas has cobbled together an explanation as to why only one person can undertake the mission to the nexus; but the second part of this operation is to take on Arkon and his armies on his home ground, something that other super-teams have also had to attempt during their own clashes with Arkon. But where the Avengers and the X-Men arrived in force, Reed and Sue (the latter of which hasn't lifted a finger throughout this entire story) choose to wait things out while the Human Torch and the parallel Earth's Reed Richards/Thing are sent to tackle not only Arkon but also, in all probability, his legions.

In spite of the uniforms in abundance (Uniforms? For Arkon's forces? Do we have the right planet here?), we see nothing of Arkon's formidable armies who would normally rally against invaders--nor does the Torch run into any opposition whatsoever on his way to Arkon's palace. This planet appears all but deserted, an impression that dramatic full-page artwork and a few flailing men can't gloss over.

Meanwhile, the Thing faces Gaard, created by Arkon for the sole purpose of guarding the nexus at all costs.

The character's outfit is of course absurd--and to compound the injury, Thomas has paved the way to Gaard's introduction by supplying the Thing with "skate-like devices" and a giant puck to accomplish his mission, the latter being designed to seal the nexus when hurled into it. Equally convenient is the fact that, like the Negative Zone, this dimensional environment of "hyper-space" has planets, moons, and stars, yet air to breathe--and while there's no gravity in the void, for some reason Ben is still wobbly on his "skates" and thus at a disadvantage against his armed foe.

While all of this is going on, we do have one question answered: the full details of how Arkon came to devise this plan to stoke the fires of war on three worlds in order to benefit his own, and the role his Earth lackey, DeVoor, played in facilitating it.

For a self-admitted failure in the fields of both business and science, it's anyone's guess how DeVoor came to have knowledge of the occupants of the Fifth Dimension or the world of the second Reed, to say nothing of the fact that the latter world was one where Reed Richards, rather than Ben Grimm, became the Thing. There's also the lingering complication that Reed's sale of Fantastic Four, Inc. to DeVoor included his scientific inventory, such as his time machine--contractual terms that would also take into account the gateway to the Negative Zone and no doubt other potentially dangerous technology that Reed has striven to keep from falling into the wrong hands.

The bulk of the issue, however, is taken up by Ben's efforts to get past Gaard's, er, guard and deliver his puck device into the mouth of the nexus--efforts which are continually rebuffed by the power of Gaard's hockey stick sceptre, and complicated by Ben's inability to maneuver in this environment in comparison to Gaard's skill. There are still plot points which crop up that are hard to get past, such as Reed reaching across the dimensions with his mind to help free his counterpart from Arkon--nor does Thomas even try to justify how Reed can now telepathically communicate with Ben, using only the equipment available in DeVoor's hub.

There's also the unmistakable feeling that Thomas is laying some sort of groundwork for a development between Gaard and Ben, with each of them repeatedly musing on the strange feeling of familiarity each has regarding the other. Nevertheless, both are primed for their final clash--yet unknown to Gaard, Reed and his Thing-counterpart have cooked up a distraction which will give Ben much-needed assistance to at last make headway in this conflict.

It's then that we're provided with Thomas's twist regarding Gaard, and the extent of Arkon's involvement in his creation.

To which I can only quote my prior impression on the subject: "Of course, Arkon had any number of choices available to him to fill Gaard's position, even from just drawing from his own troops--he certainly didn't need to spend valuable time searching through the jungles of an alternate Earth and then trying to bring a near-death body and mind back to fighting shape."

And speaking of Arkon, we can only assume that Arkon's forces folded like a tent against the resistance of one super-powered foe--because not only does Reed make it to the Torch's side in the nick of time, but he's presumably left the entirety of Arkon's warriors on the battlefield, with no one following to help safeguard their Imperion when Reed arrives, still very much on his feet, to pummel Arkon into defeat.

Reed's revelation about the Johnny Storm of his world, as you might have guessed, is timed to occur before Thomas's twist for Gaard is revealed, in all likelihood to ensure its impact.

And that's that, with the matter of the sale of Fantastic Four, Inc.--the catalyst for this entire story--being dropped like a safe. Curiously, there is no follow-up in this issue on the fact that the status of three worlds, armed for war, was marginalized while Reed's plan was playing out. Johnny arranged for the forces of the Fifth Dimension to stand down for the time being--but what of the two Earths, which weren't privy to the actions of the FF? Armed forces of two planets don't mobilize and gird for war, only to cool their heels while unknown operatives take matters into their own hands and disappear without a trace.

On the positive side, however, it was enjoyable to see more done with the Reed Richards who became the Thing, a character who had been left brooding at the end of a very brief supplemental tale but given much more attention by Thomas here. On the other end of the spectrum, though, it's fair to say that, regardless of Gaard's tragic circumstances, the likely consensus for the character amounts to his being benched indefinitely.

Fantastic Four, Inc. lands a new CFO--and things will never be the same!

Fantastic Four #163

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: Rich Buckler
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Joe Rosen


Tiboldt said...

I've never heard of this story before but it does go some way to reinforce my opinion that Arkon is a giant d**k.

Honestly, it seems that every time something goes wrong his first thought is 'what attrocities can I commit in other dimensions that will solve the problem?' This is despite his world being saved a number of times by residents of these other dimensions. Ingratitude or what?

His ice hockey-themed creation is pretty incongruous, not just for simply existing but for the position chosen. Let's face it, if Arkon played hockey, he'd be a goon.

Comicsfan said...

Tiboldt, I think part of Arkon's problem is that he's been put in the difficult position of being both villain and sympathetic character--which is one reason why, as you say, he tends to forget those instances where others whom he initially made enemies of came to his aid. And that's really through no fault of his own. As we've seen, he indeed makes an excellent villain, snarling arrogant dictates and hurling energy bolts while riding one of his winged stallions. He's a warlike barbarian who comes from a planet of warlike barbarians, who use their weapons first and ask questions later--his vizier being solidly on the same page as Arkon when it comes to invading other worlds and ruthlessly seizing and interrogating captives in order to achieve their ends, consequences to the other world be damned. Yet if Arkon instead embraces cooperation, and seeks other means to solve his world's crises, methods his advanced technology is fully capable of supporting, Marvel then effectively pulls the rug out from underneath not only Arkon as a threat but his entire culture, as well, and his use as a villain is curtailed.

You're also correct by indirectly pointing out that there are only so many times before his primary motivation for aggression--the deterioration of the energy rings which light his world--becomes tiresome and hackneyed.

Warren JB said...

Well that was odd.

I'll have to go back through PPoC and peer at scans in the relevant entries, but did Thing-Reed ever show up in the multiversal Council of Reeds?

Comicsfan said...

I didn't spot him in the full-page assembly, Warren, but that may not have represented all of the Reeds in the Council. It's also possible that the Reed in question was never approached to join, as the Council appeared to seek out those Reeds who thought outside the box and envisioned ideas far beyond the scope of more conventional approaches--while the Reed-Thing sequestered himself and appeared to limit his field to robotics.

Warren JB said...

Heh! Thanks CF. And sorry about that - it was a bit of a daft question to bring up, a moment of idle curiosity.

A more pertinent one might be about Gaard's get-up. Given the strange decision to go with an undisguised winter-sport theme for a cosmic character, do you think it might be an example of Roy Thomas - or higher-ups - trying to tap into what Jack Kirby was doing at the Distinguished Competition, specifically the Black Racer? A quick look at the font of all trivia (wikipedia) for the character even mentions the revivification of a Vietnam War casualty for the role.

B Smith said...

Thanks to the haphazard distribution comics had in these parts before comics shops appeared, this was the first issue of FF I picked up after #158. Confusing? You bet! It was years before I was able to lay my hands on the preceding issues in order to piece together the story - and yes, in retrospect it does seem overly convoluted. It's almost as if Roy decided he wanted a story with a galactic ice hockey goalie, and the Reed Richards introduced in #118, and if it meant a needlessly complicate story, then so be it.

I have no problem with Gaard's appearance - ice hockey has such a low profile in the Antipodes that at the time I didn't actually recognise what he was supposed to resemble. And Kirby's Fourth World material was getting even less exposure hereabouts at the time, so I'd have never made any connection even if I'd the wits to do so. Even all the other inconsistencies you've mentioned went sailing clear over my young head (I probably assumed that Reed and Sue had had larger parts in the preceding issues).

The thing is, I was really digging Roy's scripting in this period of the FF's history - I count it up there amongst the best work he's ever done. One bit that impressed me was that for once, instead of Ben kayoing Gaard with a mighty haymaker and winning the day, he simply managed to get that puck into the nexus, and expressed no desire to continue any battle....and Gaard meekly assented and exited quietly! All things considered, that was pretty radical for 1975, let alone at might Marvel, where action was often a byword for storytelling at times.

Anonymous said...

I notice that an article on Gaard has brought forth a rash of comments on this site.
For myself, it's hard not to think about The Cosmic Goalie and smile. Let's face it, it had to happen. If you can have a cosmic surfer, you should have a cosmic hockey player.
It makes sense, people.
Ah, Gaard, we hardly knew ye.


Comicsfan said...

The Vietnam connection is rather a hard one to ignore, Warren--particularly since that war wouldn't have necessarily taken place on the alternate world where Gaard was retrieved. It's certainly food for thought.

B, I agree that this is vintage Thomas, and quite well handled by both himself and Buckler. I wasn't really on board with the whole mental-energy-piercing-the-dimensions contrivance pulled out of left field to move things along and allow the characters to hurdle over plot impediments, but it was a story where you either let yourself be swept along or become mired in the minutiae. :)

M.P., it's possible your perspective on Gaard may be unique! But if the character played a part in allowing you to have fun with the story, so much the better. ;)

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