EnglehartWelcome to the third part of our "Must Read" list for the Fantastic Four. You can find other parts here. In past editions, we have covered everything from Fantastic Four #1 to 295. With the exception of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run and John Byrne's epic run, there is not a whole lot that is all that great. We're slowly departing from the 80s, and soon the awful specter of the 1990s looms ahead. However, is this era as bad as we all assume it to be?
PS: If you want to read along, the majority of these comics are available on Marvel Unlimited.
Sidetrack: The Thing
During John Byrne's run of Fantastic Four, Marvel Two-In-One was canceled and replaced with a solo series about the Thing. This happened around the time of Secret Wars, giving Byrne a chance to swap the Thing out of the Fantastic Four and replace him with She-Hulk. The first issue is great as it explains why there is such animosity between the Thing and the Yancy Street Gang. The rest of the series is not that great. A lot of it is the Thing mulling over if he should stay with Alicia Masters, then Secret Wars happens. Following that, Ben Grimm has some adventures on Battleworld because he can change back and forth between human and Thing form. Ultimately, he loses this ability (seemingly for good, but we've all heard that one before). When he comes back to Earth, he finds Alicia is dating the Torch and that Richards screwed him over on being human again. He breaks off on his own, fights Leprechauns, becomes a wrestler and tries to smash a power augmentation scheme while trying to pursue a romance with Sharon Ventura until he starts to mutate even more. This plot line is eventually scrapped because the series was canceled. This series is nothing more than filler that doesn't really add much to the Fantastic Four in general. However, if you're a fan of the Thing it's worth a read, however, there's not much here that really adds to the character.
Skim It: Roger Stern's Run (Fantastic Four #296-303)
With the Fantastic Four hitting their 25th Anniversary, Marvel decided to get the team back to the status quo. Stan Lee returned for one issue to bring back the Thing into the group, and another battle with the Mole Man. After a long break from writing the series, Stan was able to present a decent story setting up the run for Roger Stern.
Roger Stern picked up the reins from here with John Buscema taking over the penciling. They are sub-par. Mostly focusing on the Thing's struggle to accept Alicia and Johnny's relationship. There are some weak new villains that are never seen again, the Wizard trying to kidnap Franklin to exploit his new dream casting powers. The only issue of significance here is the wedding of Johnny Storm and Alicia Masters. The arc ends with a one-off story by Roy Thomas which features the Thing trying to reconnect with Thundra. It's more of the Thing crying over losing the love of his life to the point where it is getting irritating. Also, the She-Hulk is ultimately phased out of the team without any sort of official departure from the group which strikes me as a missed opportunity.
Sidetrack: Fantastic Four vs the X-Men
A limited series wherein Doctor Doom pits the Fantastic Four against the X-Men. This story was written by Chris Claremont and is mostly focused on the X-Men following the Mutant Massacre Event. The group is trying to save the life of Shadow Cat and Doom tricks the Fantastic Four into thinking that Reed intentionally mutated them during the rocket flight in order to create a schism among the group. It's an interesting read, however, the story is more focused on the X-Men as they were at the height of their popularity.
Skim It: Steve Englehart's Run (Fantastic Four #304-333)
After all the effort bringing the original team back together, the Englehart attempts to shake things up by having Reed and Sue take a leave of absence from the group. This leaves the Thing in charge of the team, and he picks Ms. Marvel (Sharon Ventura) and Crystal to join the team. While this creates tension between Johnny and Crystal, due to their past relationship thanks to the Thing's meddling, the run ultimately becomes grounds for Englehart to pick up plot threads he started elsewhere. There is also a pretty ignorant story set in the Middle East with a forgettable foe known as Fasaud. The only thing worthwhile from that plot is that the Thing and Sharon Ventura are exposed to cosmic rays, causing the Thing to mutate into a ridiculous "pineapple" form, while the previously attractive Sharon Ventura finds herself mutated into a "She-Thing". This creates a dynamic between the two, as the Thing tries to help Sharon come to terms with her mutation and steer her away from suicide. This ultimately leads to them starting a relationship.
Meanwhile, the Torch/Crystal story quickly fizzles while the rest of the team finds themselves on a tour of the realm of the Cat-People, Belasco's Limbo, the planet Arcturus, and the Negative Zone and how all these things have to do with the Beyonder from Secret Wars. There is also a battle between the "New" Thing and the Gray Hulk that is interesting since now the Thing is much stronger than his longtime foe.
The series takes a turn later on in the run where Englehart starts getting blowback from editorial. In protest, he first has himself credited as S.F.X. Englehart and later John Harkness. He uses the Inferno event to kill off his Mantis character (which he unofficially crossed over to other publishers under different names and appearances) before writing an awful story arc where the Fantastic Four are captured by Aaron the Rogue Watcher. Aaron clones the team and sends the clones out while he watches the dreams of the group. Reed and Sue return, the Thing is reverted back to human form, the clones are stopped blah blah blah. It's all very convoluted and very skippable.
Skim It: Walt Simonson's Run (Fantastic Four #334-355)
That's when Walt Simson takes over writing duties. Just in time for the Acts of Vengeance saga. He writes an oddball story about the FF protesting a super-human registration act in Washington that leads to battles with various z-grade villains and even fighting the United States Senate.
That's when Simson gets murky. He spins a drawn-out yarn involving a Time Bubble in an alternate future, as well as the introduction of a multiversal bureaucracy known as the Time Variance Authority. The only notable stories are a three-part tale drawn by Art Adams that presents a goofy story about a "New" Fantastic Four which consists of Spider-Man, Ghost Rider, the Hulk, and Wolverine. It was a tongue in cheek commentary on these characters who were absurdly popular at the time. Outside of that, the Thing is restored to his mutated form and Sharon Ventura is cured.
There is also a quickly disposed of plot where it is suggested that Doctor Doom hadn't fought the Fantastic Four as often as they thought, instead of the majority of their battles being with various Doombot impostors. This was quickly dispatched very very soon.
Read It: Tom DeFalco's Run (Fantastic Four #356-416)
I think I might need my head examined because Tom DeFalco's run on Fantastic Four is actually pretty good. It was the 90s an era rife with shitty stories, horrible crossovers, huge ass guns, cyborgs, and all other kinds of awfulness. These elements are present in DeFalco's run, but it is all done ironically.
DeFalco shook things up, by revealing the woman that Johnny Storm had been married to all this time was not really Alicia Masters but a Skrull spy named Lyja. This creates some awkward moments when they rescue the real Alicia and try to get their lives back to normal. Llyja tries to keep her romance with Johnny alive even though she is a pawn being used to kill the Fantastic Four.
Then there is the "death" of Reed Richards, which leaves the team shattered. Sue picks up the reigns of leadership (in an awful skimpy outfit, because it was the 90s after all) and hiring Ant-Man to be their resident scientist. Young Franklin is replaced by a cybernetic teenager from an alternate future (which again, it was the 90s) and the Fantastic Four have to deal with the threat of a foe named Hyperstorm.
It's not the strongest run of Fantastic Four, but it is the most consistent, as most issues are drawn by Paul Ryan who is a fairly decent penciler. Things kind of take a downturn near the end as it turns out that Reed Richards is still alive and DeFalco appears to be rushed to finish his storyline so that the stage is set for the Onslaught saga. The last two issues of this run of Fantastic Four are parts of that event. Other than presenting a story where the Fantastic Four are battling constructs of a lot of old villains and teaming up with many of their allies, there's not a whole lot to talk about here.
Downsides to this run include constant crossovers with events with the Infinity War, Infinity Crusade, Starblast, and Atlantis Rising. All stories that don't really have any relevance or lasting impact.
Another bit of meh is a story where Wolverine slashes the Thing in the face. For a while, the Thing wears a mask and has a scarred face, but this is quickly made a non-issue thanks to the aforementioned rush to the finish line.
Sidetrack: Fantastic Force
Trying to emulate the popularity of X-Force, this title featured teen Franklin and other previously unknown characters to the mix. It's interesting enough, but you can totally skip it.
Sidetrack: Fantastic Four Unlimited
A bi-monthly series that was following the trend of multiple titles that Spider-Man and the X-Men were enjoying at the time. This series is awful. Shitty continuity and shitty art. Which is surprising, because the artist who does most of the material for this series is none other than legendary artist Herb Tremp. At the time, Herb was trying to emulate the 90's style, and it amounted to stuff that made Rob Liefeld's artwork seem like Piccaso by comparison. Beach ball breasts, ridiculously disproportionate characters. It's awful and is only filler.
Sidetrack: Fantastic Four Unplugged
This series was all right, each issue focusing on a specific member of the team. The art was fairly decent as well. However, these stories are of no consequence really.
When We Continue...
We're not out of the woods yet. The 90s rages on as we enter Heroes Reborn, and their return. Chris Claremont's teppid run that takes us into the new millennium.