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Terror In A Tiny Town
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I didn't see this issue when it came out - the first Byrne FF that I actually bought was the issue after this one, in fact - but I do recall when I first got my hands on it, and being amazed at the story inside. Reading it back now I can see why. Yes, the dialogue's a bit clunky, and the captions still owe a lot to Chris Claremont's super-purple and pompous stylings, but the story's a thrill-ride of ideas and MY GOODNESS does it look good! It is a truth universally accepted that the BEST comics are the ones you read when you were eleven, and that's certainly true here!
This is the twentieth anniversary issue of The Fantastic Four and so, as is traditional, it kicks off with a re-telling of their origin, although this time it cuts off before anybody gets their powers, and we discover that it's actually a nightmare that Johnny Storm is having. Johnny shrugs it off and drives into town, where he meets his sister Sue and her husband, absent-minded Professor Reed. Sue says she's been having a recurring dream, which Johnny thinks is odd as its similar to his own, but he doesn't want to worry her so says nothing. Next he drives into town where he sees his friend Ben Grimm, outside his bar. I've read this comic about thirty times, and I've only just noticed that the window display is orange rocks, like The Thing's skin! I love the way that John Byrne piles on the mystery here, with all of the FF leading normal lives and, as we move on, Alicia being able to see and her step-father Phillip Masters being delighted with how things are working out.
The weirdness ramps up as we see Sue Storm having a nightmare about Ben turning into a rocky monster and her husband and brother becoming similarly weird creatures, then Ben himself telling Reed and Johnny about his own dreams. The only person not experiencing the nightmares is Reed, who is troubled instead by the fact that he's never able to think clearly. At work we meet Reed's tormentor, his boss Vincent Vaughan who looks... oddly familiar? That night Reed falls asleep at work and finally has a similar dream to the others, this time about the four of them, and Alicia and Franklin, being summoned to a "medieval castle" in the Adirondak mountains where they meet the puppet master "and one other" but before he can see who it is he's woken by a fall from his chair. This jolts his memory and (somehow) cures him of his mental fog so that he finally remembers who he really is. He realises that "somehow our personalities have been transferred into robot bodies" and, basically, stabs himself with a scalpel to prove it to himself.
Some time later he arrives at home, where all the others have gathered, covered in blood. I love the way Byrne draws this scene, with Reed moody and dark and Sue horrified. Reed explains what's happened and they storm off to Phillip Master's shop, where he drops the pretence completely, and confesses that he placed them into miniature cloned bodies in a town full of robots, all to give Alicia a normal life. "You could conceive of such a plan, but you haven't the technology to implement it," says Reed, and then we get this amazing double page splash of the true genius behind the scheme revealing himself. What a way to make an entrance! Yes, of course, it's Doom, who has taken The Puppet Master's daft plan and twisted it into a revenge scheme, using it to torture his arch enemy Reed Richards by entering the robot body of Vincent Vaughan. The FF are powerless to stop him, so he leaves them to their lives in "Liddleville" while he goes off to reclaim his throne in Latveria. The fiend!
The FF may not have their powers, but they still have the brain of Mr Fantastic, who works out that these cloned bodies (not robots, which is why there was so much blood earlier) have latent powers within them (because this is comics). He works out a way to give them their powers back, although Ben takes some persuading - after all, he and Alicia have a good life here. Eventually, however, he's persuaded and soon the FF are back, fighting miniature Robots as they try to get their real bodies restored. After rigging up a Gizmo, Sue uses her force fields to propel herself around Doom's castle, following the sounds of piano playing until she discovers Doom alone, and unmasked. For the first time ever, she sees his face! Byrne keeps the nature of Doom's disfigurement mysterious here, and it's something that he'll play around with throughout his run. Doom traps Sue in a glass and then marches down to the basement to see what's going on, discovering a water-logged floor with an electrical cable attached. He assumes this is a trap, and zaps the cable. Rather wonderfully, Reed Richards had predicted Doom's arrogance, and so the cable is actually there to power the real trap, a device which can use the power of Doom's armour to switch them back into their real bodies. The Human Torch and the Thing work together to trip Doom into it, and the whole plan works like clockwork. The only unexpected outcome is that Doctor Doom appears to have been put into a coma. The Thing picks up his frozen body and the team set off home, and that's that...but wait! There's a twist! Doctor Doom isn't comatose at all, he's simply switched bodies again, so that his consciousness is back in the tiny Vincent Vaughan robot, where he can simply wait for the right moment to return! Except... another twist! The Puppet Master is also there, and he's taken control of all of the other robots! One of them smashes Doom's Body Transfer ring, trapping him there with the rest of them! Doom flees, chased by an army of robots who will never give up... ever! COR! What a story - hopefully you can see why I was so excited to see it again! As we go through this run we'll see Byrne returning to Doom many times, expanding on his character and especially developing his relationship with Latveria, but here we see Byrne beginning to establish his take on him as a proud man who is constantly thwarted by his own arrogance. There's a lot more of this to come, but sadly we'll have to wait a little longer as there's a whole other story in this issue to look at next time, and it features... HERBIE!
link to information about this issue
posted 7/5/2020 by Mark Hibbett
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