Fantastic Four #232 (July, 1981)
“Back to the Basics!”
Words & Pictures – John Byrne
Inks – Bjorn Neyn
Letters – Jim Novak
Colors – Glynis Wein
Edits – Jim Salicrup
Chief – Jim Shooter
Cover Price: $0.50
Waitasec… what in the world? Why is there a Marvel book in this DC Comics site? How in the heck is your humble host going to shoe-horn this issue of Fantastic Four into jiving with the DC-centric mission statement of this place?!
Well, the short answer is… I ain’t!
The long answer is… writing about DC Comics of late has been… I dunno, not so satisfying. I feel like I’m letting my disdain for “current year” DC Comics affect my enjoyment of the older stuff… and figured, with the month of May upon us, maybe we go for a bit of a “gimmick” (while also making advantageous use of alliteration!). A…
[Imagine a “Marvel May” logo here…]
That’s right, it’s #MarvelMay! It’s time to revisit some old favorites from the company that “brought me to the dance” as a comics fan. I hope this isn’t too off-putting to regular readers… and I apologize if it is. I’m just at the point where I’ve reached burn out (or perhaps… “byrne out”) with DC… and it came down to either a brief change in format, or just calling it a day. I even briefly thought about reviving #BrightestMay… but, I don’t know if I could handle the disinterest! Ain’t nobody cared none ’bout dat!
In many of my recent pieces, I’ve had to edit out a lot of snark… and a bit of vitriol. For instance, anytime I’d discuss Superman, I’d have a pithy remark about “current year” Superman. I don’t wanna be “that guy”, ya know? I want this place to be somewhere we can all come, and just bask in all that’s good about this medium we all hold so dear. I suppose we can thank and/or blame Flash Forward for tippin’ that final domino, haha!
Anyhoo, it’s been a long while since I’ve read much Marvel… so, this is going to be a bit of a “rediscovery” situation for me. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun and evoke a lot of memories… I hope you decide to accompany me on this journey!
We open with the villainous Diablo working on some alchemical concoction… in his apartment. At first blush (and from the cover), you might figure he’s in some sort of crazy church… or even, the bowels of Hell itself… but, nah… he’s just in his apartment. Turns out, he’s making so much racket and stinkin’ up the place that his landlord interrupts… whatever it is he’s doing. Well, what’s doing is playing with “elemental forces”… more on that, shortly.
We shift scenes to Sue at Casa Tindolini Salon, where she’s getting her hair done. Feels like a very Byrne-y scene to include here. Anyhoo, her stylist… Mr. Tindolini hisself, is a pretty sassy fellow, who is either famous for his asymmetrical haircuts… or, just didn’t finish Sue’s new do, because… it kind of look like the bowl slipped a bit. Anyhoo, a giant earthen beast rises from the ground… and attacks the Salon!
This Monster has designs on our Invisible Girl. Tindolini gets the heck out of dodge, basically tellin’ poor Sue that she’s on her own. The Monster bashes its way into the joint, and sprays Sue with cement! Boy, that’d be a difficult line to deliver verbally.
We shift scenes across town, where Ben and Alicia are leaving a showing of The Elephant Man. I assumed this was a reference to the 1980 David Lynch film, but Ms. Masters says it was a play. Whatever the case, this performance really tugged at Mr. Grimm’s heartstrings.
Suddenly… it starts raining? Well, no… not really. It’s here that Ben finds himself attacked by… a water-themed elemental force! The drink engulfs him, threatening to drown him where he stands. Ben thrashes his way down the street trying to bust out of the bubble.
Meanwhile, in Central Park… Johnny Storm meets up with his on-again/off-again Frankie Raye. They have a sort of contentious chat… but, it’s clear to see that they still care for one another. Just then, it’s Johnny’s turn to get (literally) swept up in the elemental nonsense! He’s attacked by a miniature tornado!
Next stop, the Baxter Building… where Mr. Fantastic is labbing away in his laboratory. We’ve already seen Earth, Wind, and Water… so, it’s clear to see where this might be headed. Before we know it, Reed is attacked by some living flame! He manages to escape by turning himself into a bit of a ping-pong ball and bouncing out to safety… so he can ponder the situation further.
Out in the open, Reed makes like a flying squirrel, and starts to glide. As he soars over Central Park, he is signaled by Frankie. Ya know, it’s hard to just call her “Frankie”… I always wanna say “Frankie Raye“. Anyhoo, she fills Reed in on what just went down with Johnny and the Wind…
… and it isn’t long before Stretcho is able to catch-up with his brother-in-law. In his pursuit, Reed starts to tangle with the tornado… and manages to sort of “wrap it up” in his elongated appendages. By this point, the Living Flame arrives on the scene as well… so, the odds are evened! Johnny Flames On and takes the fight to the flame.
Suddenly, Reed has an idea. He lures the tornado somewhere. We next rejoin Sue at the Salon where… as luck would have it, she was able to use her force-field to bust free of the cement tomb. This is actually a really cool use of her powers, which Byrne makes sure to mention she had been working really hard in mastering control over power-set.
Speaking of which, Sue then attempts to use her powers to propel herself out of harms way. She compares this to the way Ice (hyphen) Man uses his ice (hyphen) slides! Realizing the Monster she’s fighting is earthen in makeup, she immediately thinks that the Thing might give it a fairer fight.
Now, speaking of the Thing… he’s still drowning in the bubble. He makes his way down the street until coming across Keith Hernandez’s Sporting Goods shop. He figures that his best bet for survival would be if he were able to get his hands on some SCUBA gear… which, is actually pretty clever! Once inside, he collapses… but is SCUBA’d just in time. The Water Elemental then releases Benjy… and hops onto one of the employees of the shop!
Ben then returns the favor, shoving the SCUBA back into the blob to save the girl. The Elemental then tries to jump bodies again… only to find itself stuck by some invisible force!
It’s Sue, and she’s nimbly able to trap the Water Elemental in her force-field. Ben gazes behind her to see the Earth Elemental bounding up the street. Before we know it, it’s Clobberin’ Time!
While Ben get positively pounded by the Earth Elemental, Mr. Fantastic swoops in. He realizes they’re not quite paired-off with their proper foes just yet. He asks Sue to trap the Air Elemental (who is still tangling with Reed’s own elongated bod), and… release the Water Elemental! Sue isn’t quite sure… but obliges nonetheless. Once the Water Elemental is free, Reed plunges some live wires into it… transmuting the drink into a gaseous state!
Reed shares his hypothesis with Ben, that in order to beat the Elementals… they’re going to need to change their “states”. And so, while Ben’s being clobbered by the Earth, he himself is pounding his way deeper and deeper into the ground… until he reaches a sewer pipe. Ben busts through the pipe, which sends an explosion of water into the Earth Elemental… softening the beast until it becomes nothing more than liquid mud.
Reed then turns to Sue, and tells her that in order to end the Air Elemental, she’s going to have to pressurize the force-field more than she’s ever tried pressurizing anything before. It’s a struggle, but she is ultimately able to do it… transmuting the air into a liquid. Interestingly, Ben brings up a rather sobering thought… isn’t what they’re doing right now, sorta-kinda tantamount to… murder? Reed’s response is… get this… “Please be quiet.”! Wow! Cold-blooded, Stretcho…
Now, we’re three Elementals down… with only the Living Flame to go. Reed says… once again, get this… “The Torch is on his own!”. Way to lead, Reed. Anyhoo, we shift up to the skies above the City, where Johnny and the Flame are fighting it out. It’s here that, thankfully, Johnny has a pretty bright idea. He baits the Flame wayyy up high, then… bada-bing, bada-boom… hits the beastie with a Nova Burst!
This winds up sucking all of the oxygen out of the air for a mile around. The Living Flame was snuffed out into nothing. Unfortunately, Johnny himself couldn’t hold onto most of his flame either… and so, he falls… falls… falls… falls… before splashing into the nasty East River.
We jump ahead twenty-minutes, where Reed has already deduced that the big bad this time out was Diablo. And somehow, he knows exactly where he’s been holed up. Well, sorta… he’s actually got a friend who can suss out even the most unsussable.
We wrap up with the Fantastic Four nabbing Diablo at his ramshackle apartment. Whatta revoltin’ development! Anyhoo, we learn here that, in order to track the baddie down, Reed enlisted the aid of everybody’s favorite Mystic ex Machina… Doctor Strange!
Ya know, I (and plenty of people) have given John Byrne a lot of guff for his incessant need to bring heroes “back to basics”… which, if you noticed, is the title of this very issue. The first of his legendary run on this title. Usually when one (or I) think of “Byrne’s Back to Basics”, I’m thinking about some old, stodgy, outdated take on a character or concept… or, something so wildly out of left field that the “back to basics” descriptor seems misplaced.
We’ve seen what Byrne’s done with Spider-Man: Chapter One, the fourth volume of Doom Patrol… even his very short stint on the early 90’s X-Men books. He attempts to take things “back” in a way that sort of tramples on everything he didn’t like that came before. Asamattafact, on the next episode of From Claremont to Claremont: An X-Men Podcast (out tomorrow!), we discuss a Byrne interview where he reveals his intention to have a second Mutant Massacre to wipe out 85% of the mutant characters he didn’t have any use for!
On the other hand, I think about things like his take on the Incredible Hulk, where his “back to basics” was marrying the lead character off! Which… ya know, doesn’t feel “basic” at all.
Anyhoo… I’m taking the scenic route here… but, what I’m ultimately trying to say is… this issue was “Back to Basics” done right. I’ll be honest here, with few exceptions, I don’t have much use for the FF that came before Byrne. This is sort of where I’d start my FF rereads back when I still had the time to read comics “for fun”… and every time out (including today), I’m surprised by what a perfect jumping-on point Byrne gives us here.
So often, when we are told that “such-n-such” issue is the “Perfect Jumping-On Point”, so much of the issue is poo-pooing or contradicting what came before, picking and choosing what would continue into the new run… which doesn’t do much in the way of service for a potential new-reader. This issue, though? You didn’t need to know all that much going in. Byrne concocted a story here, which provided ample opportunity for the characters to “show their stuff”. We get to see their powers, and their many unique uses. We get bits and pieces of characterization… we see how they interact with one another… we see how they interact with the greater Marvel Universe. What I’m trying to say here is… this was very likely the best possible way to kick off a brand-new direction. Just all-around excellent.
Let’s chat a bit about depth. One of the scenes that always “gets” me when I revisit this issue is Ben’s attempt to process what they’re doing to the Elementals. He wonders aloud if what they’re actually doing could be comparable to murder… and, ya know… that’s a toughie! Sure, they’re alchemical concoctions… but, they seem to have the ability to communicate… think… they certainly have a purpose. Is Ben all that far off his nut here? Interesting food for thought. I thought Reed’s reply of, basically “shut up, Ben” was pretty cold… and definitely didn’t make me like him all that much.
Let’s talk art. Ah, the art, well damn… it’s Byrne in his prime. I’ve often said, if you took the concept of “comic book artist” and boiled it down to its chemical and component parts… you’d get John Byrne. This is the John Byrne I’m talking about when I say that. This is clean, dynamic, easy to follow… just an absolute treat! It’s visual candy.
Overall… duh, I loved this. This is one’a those runs that holds a special place in many’a comics enthusiast’s heart… myself included. If you haven’t read any Byrne FF, I’d say you owe it to yourself to do so. This is where I’d usually link to the digital availability of the issue, but ya boy doesn’t know diddly and/or squat about Marvel Unlimited. If I were a betting man, I’d say this has almost gotta be in there. If you’re, like me, more into the physical media… this has been reprinted a number of times (I’m almost sure this would be one of Marvel’s “dollar reprints” or replica books, no? Sorry, I’m not much help here, haha)… and heck, the original shouldn’t break the bank either.
(Not the) Letters Page: