Monday, September 4, 2017

Marvel 1982: Fantastic Four Integr8d Soul: the shared universe

Integr8d Soul: The Shared Marvel Universe, as seen in

FANTASTIC FOUR #232, 241 & 242

The interweaving of the fictional world depicted by Marvel Comics Group was always, when observed, a strong suit, and things at the turn of 1982 reflected wonderful integration! I happened to be writing up the guest appearances in Fantastic Four #241 and 242 about the time I kicked back with a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #229 to analyze the Stern/ Romita, Jr. run. Spider-Man’s desperately brainstorming with Madame Web, the imperiled psychic, for help protecting her from the Juggernaut. The footnote, as her efforts fail, refer us to Fantastic Four #241 and Avengers #219. Very cool! I’d covered the Avengers some years back, battling renegade Moondragon on a planet she’s taken over in collective style like Unity on Rick & Morty. The Fantastic Four happen to be exploring an anachronistic colony pervaded by an alien power in Wakanda alongside King T’Challa, the Black Panther. By the next issue of Fantastic Four, the meta-story goes one better: Spider-Man’s one of many superheroes responding to the invasion of Terrax the Untamed, as he rips Manhattan itself into the sky! So how great is that: our story tells us when the community of superheroes are absent, when they are trying to help!

FF #241 and 242 represent two different kinds of guest appearances I want to discuss. One features Black Panther as guest star, and expands the fictional world inside his kingdom, however briefly, another of the Twilight Zone/ Outer Limits- style tales Byrne favors so often in the first year he writes Fantastic Four. #242 falls into a category more closely represented by his first effort on the title, #232. What John does there is something seen often in the third year or so of Marvel, after the Marvel Age began with Fantastic Four #1 and continuing from FF #12 and Amazing Spider-Man #1: the heroes, and villains, even supporting characters, interact with one another across titles, giving the effect of a textured meta-story incorporating all Marvel’s titles in a time line and a shared setting. More specifically, we get unannounced appearances where characters play minor roles in one anothers’ stories. Diablo- a refugee from Marvel in the Silver Age if ever there was one, a villain Stan Lee himself found a bit of a misfire-sends his elemental proxies in a coordinated assault against the quartet. Given his mystical, rather than scientific, source of abilities, it’s a cinch that Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, would pinpoint his location. His intervention provides a surprise ending to the story- perhaps, after all that action, it’s anticlimactic. It’s an imminently logical solution, however, for Reed to contact an expert at detecting a practitioner of those magical abilities. The FF won’t face a lot of mystically-based enemies during Byrne’s tenure, but it’s both a great call-back to Doc’s early aid to the Four in stories during their third year and a cool example of how sometimes, these heroes ARE around to help each other with problems outside their usual wheelhouse. It’s too bad for Spider-Man that trick didn’t work against the Juggernaut, before Madame Web was ripped from her life support/ communications “web” chair, but at least he took the clue “Cytorrak” she gave him and followed up! “This trick never works!” he fumes there to Wong, comically.
Now what’s so interesting about #242 to me is how other heroes are depicted dealing with the fall-out of Terrax’s attack. To have Thor and Iron Man themselves on clean-up duty underscores the level of threat the FF faces. They’re both roused from their civilian identities, in which they’re depicted, and happen upon one another to work together to save lives. Their relative power levels are obviously of interest to Byrne, too, which is why Iron Man’s saving stranded cars while Thor’s using his mighty storm powers to deal with the crashing waters in the wake of the physically-displaced city borough. It’s such an eminent danger, they haven’t even been contacted directly by the Four! That’s what makes it different. When Daredevil is depicted assessing the danger, Byrne’s filling his story with Marvel New York- and it’s right in tune with something we saw so much in the mid-60’s and not so much since. There’s great care taken to depict many city blocks at a time, subway tunnels, the harbor- it’s catastrophe and danger on a New York City-wide level, against a foe who can readily punch The Thing himself straight through several apartment building floors.

But what I like best: Peter Parker’s shown hanging out with Aunt May, building snow men for the holidays much like Reed and Sue wrap up their Christmas celebration, with Reed’s hilariously practical mechanical tree folding niftily in place. (Why that bothers Sue? I guess it’s meant to be funny while contrasting their approaches to such traditions as Christmas trees.)
AS though we’re in an issue of Spider-Man, he can’t go investigate the sense-tingling problem until he’s slipped away without alarming May. The scale of the problem, however, excludes his inclusion- at least, without direct help from the Four. It’s both an argument for closer collusion between heroes (it’s unclear what he could’ve done, but at least he cares) and an example of how, without a coincidence to put them on the scene together, street-level heroes, especially loners, as they usually are, operate on a different scale. He very nearly dies trying to catch the runaway borough! All he could think of was helping. The Galactus-level of trouble, however, takes the matter out of his hands, despite his best efforts.

In both #241 and 242, there’s trouble in the neighborhood in question that brings out the local superheroes. Black Panther runs into a level of difficulty and science fiction-style bizarreness that invites a larger team-up. He just might’ve been able to handle it- and while Jungle Action took things down to a more personal level of tribal intrigue, from his first appearance, Lee and Kirby clearly intended Wakanda to be a jungle locale that blended in high technology. In fact, S.H.I.E.L.D. contacts the Four and brings them together with king Panther- another guest appearance, mixing up Marvel!

In contrast, #242 gives us a similar confederation of forces, but cleverly, they converge on the problem by happenstance. (And they will all get their crack at the problem in #243!)

The show’s heading way out of town, however. The farther reaches of outer space are very nicely described in the opening page captions, which are good throughout, but especially inspired, as Terrax rides a meteor of his own devising towards his target. Guest member Frankie Raye- another symbol of cross-referenced Marvel, daughter of the creator of the original android Human Torch- will be changed forever by her encounter with Galactus and his wayward, vengeful herald. And Galactus starred in perhaps the central saga of the Fantastic Four’s peak Kirby/ Lee year. Everything old was new again, twenty years after the whole Marvel Universe as we know it innocently began, at the start of 1982.

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