Monday, January 22, 2018

The Flame And The Quest!

Following Marvel's brief decision in late 1971 to execute a 10¢ price increase for its books and expand selected titles to over thirty pages of content, only to dial that back the following month and reduce the page count to 21 pages while settling on a 20¢ cover price, there still remained the task of adapting the work already done for the following month's books to once again conform to a regular-sized issue. The answer took the form of splitting those stories that needed such treatment into separate issues--and for the most part, the transition was virtually seamless, as was the case with what became a two-part Fantastic Four story that saw not only the reappearance of a former member of the team, but also the return of one of its most classic villains.

Crystal, the girlfriend of Johnny Storm, hadn't been seen or heard from since she was forced to abandon the team due to her inability to develop a resistance to the pollution levels outside of the Inhumans' refuge in the Himalayas. In the span of the ten issues since that decision, however, it's clear that Johnny has had his fill of a long-distance relationship.

I've often passed by these two issues for either re-reading or as material for a PPC post, though I really couldn't tell you why. Collectively, they make up a solid FF story, featuring an A-list villain and top-notch scripting and artwork as well as an interesting way to bring Crystal back into the fold, if briefly. In fact, given what must have been a chaotic situation in the wake of the 15¢/25¢/20¢ do-si-do, Marvel staffers should be credited for putting their house in order again and meeting their deadlines. I enjoy and admire comics books, but I doubt I'd want to try my hand at producing them. These people obviously have chaos down to a science.

Thanks to the issue's cover showing practically all the cards in this story's deck, there's no mystery left to unfold regarding Crystal, with the exception of how she fell into Diablo's clutches--but the well-scripted story by Archie Goodwin, which completes his all-too-brief run on the book, is still entertaining in its step-by-step approach to Johnny's search for her, a process which will eventually deal in the rest of the FF. For now, though, it's appropriately Johnny who acts as the point man for this story--though he finds that being the boyfriend of an Inhuman doesn't guarantee that the welcome wagon will be rolled out for him.

It's a spectacular display as usual from artist John Buscema, though I would come to better appreciate his take on the Torch when he began to make his own statement with the character and added more flourish and style to his power (coinciding with Roy Thomas's contemporary origin story for the team).

As for Johnny's investigation into what became of Crystal, he learns a startling truth from his prisoner--that Crystal never reappeared in the Great Refuge following her departure from the FF.

The story then segues to the rest of the team, currently on an extended outing at Whisper Hill. Since this story appears to be slated as Johnny's show, we don't spend a great deal of time with the other three FF members--but it's a sensible stop to make in order to catch up with them, following their struggle with the invasion of the Over-Mind--and Goodwin pushes all the right buttons in regard to their characterization.

The fact that Johnny is off pursuing Crystal's disappearance almost throws a spotlight on how awkward it would be to write Johnny into scenes like these, now that he and Crystal are separated--and how important it probably is to resolve her situation and assess her status for the future, one way or the other. While the FF are family to him, in New York Johnny always had the luxury of stepping out into the city to enjoy his own pursuits and distractions in periods of down time--but how would he now fill his time at Whisper Hill while Reed, Sue, and Ben are occupied? Would he have chosen to decline Reed's invitation and stay in the city? It's probably no wonder that he spends so much time mulling over why he was remaining as part of the FF and what future he had with them; on the other hand, it doesn't fit the profile other writers have given him insofar as enjoying his life and fame as the Human Torch.

But in terms of the here and now--well, much has changed for the Human Torch. For instance, I can remember when the Torch's range was described thus: "At normal speed (about 50 air miles per hour) he should be able to fly for a half-hour, a distance of twenty-five miles." If you feel like clocking the distance from the Himalayas to New York, you're probably going to want to suspend your disbelief for this next scene.

Good grief, Sue--does holding a toddler keep you from projecting your powers to save your brother?

Miss Harkness is only able to retrieve a single image of Crystal, but providing no context to it--nor does she withhold the grim suspicion that Crystal is beyond help.

However, it wouldn't hurt even Agatha Harkness to pick up a comic book now and then, for it's there that we find the answers to both Crystal's location and her predicament--while her unfortunate destination has also kept prisoner one who is prepared to take advantage of the opportunity that's just been handed to him.

Diablo has reappeared in other stories since his introduction in 1964, but his presence in the future is the result of an ill-considered plan that involved taking Dr. Doom's lost love, Valeria, hostage in order to force his compliance in the use of his time machine. It's all too apparent that Diablo holds a grudge from Doom turning the tables on him--and a teleporting dog is just the thing to turn Diablo's fortunes around. (Though when exactly Lockjaw became able to teleport through time I couldn't tell you.)

As Diablo mentions, it takes time for himself and his captives to return to the past (we can only assume that his resources weren't so limited that he was able to devise a way to keep Crystal and Lockjaw unconscious and alive for what must have been a period of months since Crystal left the FF)--and so when he at last reappears, it's then that Miss Harkness' mystic orb (which its mistress neglected to power down--I'd love to see her keep her composure when she gets a look at her utility bill for the month) locks in on Crystal, just in time to give a sleepless Johnny Storm his first solid lead in his search.

As for Diablo's plan, he's used his time in the future well, crafting a scheme that will not only give him a powerful ally but also the means to seize and consolidate a power base in the nation of Terra Verde in Central America, a land rich in the resources he needs to create his potions. And thanks to Crystal, an elaborate deception will make it all possible.

Doom certainly couldn't complain about all the good press he's getting courtesy of Diablo, who practically trumpets his enemy's name with his every mention of it.

And so "Ixchel" leads the deceived rebels toward the capital city--where the despot known as General Robles (who, in all honesty, deserves to be overthrown) receives the news of an uprising and responds accordingly, issuing orders to his air force to wipe them out, revealing the only part of Diablo's plan that the villain hasn't given sufficient thought to. In her mesmerized state, Crystal likely wouldn't be able to cope with the surprise and speed of an air attack--and her power is the only substantive weapon the poorly-armed peasants have at their disposal. Several missile-armed jets could conceivably decimate the entire resistance, including their "goddess," with just two or three strafing runs. But the real tragedy of the story is revealed when the story's final page is turned.

Has the Torch's quest come to (gulp!) a dead end!?

(Assuming she's still around to exact it!)

Fantastic Four #117

Script: Archie Goodwin
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Sam Rosen

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