#214: … and then there was.. ONE! (****), #215: Blastaar! (***), #216: Where There Be Gods! (***),
#217: Masquerade! (***), #218: When A Spider-Man Comes Calling! (***), #219: Leviathans (***),
#220: "… And the lights went out all over the world!" (****),
#221: Tower of Crystal… Dreams of Glass! (***),
#222: The Possession of Franklin Richards! (***), #223: That a Child May Live… (***),
#224: The Darkfield Illumination (***), #225: The Blind God’s Tears (***),
Annual #15: Time For The Prime Ten/
The Return of Doctor Doom!: The Power of the People! (***)
1980 was one of the most inconsistent years of the Fantastic Four, with the title being passed between four separate writers. Marv Wolfman finished off three issues, then left two outgoing plots in the hands of Bill Mantlo. Doug Moench guested for an issue, and then John Byrne got to try out as writer on the July/August issues. Afterwards Moench got the gig of regular writer for a ten issue run that lasted into 1981. Most comic titles benefit from a stable vision, and the FF passing between so many hands in such a short space of time was far from ideal.
In the world outside, turbulent times were once more increasing tensions. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 had led to a decreased oil output, which in turn drove up prices throughout 1980. The September issue sees Reed urge Ben to take care of his spending as "there's an energy crisis, you know." The ongoing escapades of Ben trying to save money (such as using a taxi, but breaking all the doors off) amuse, and while Doug Moench's run is traditionally a lot drier and more serious than almost every other period of FF history, he does have a handle on the Thing's humour.
Some of Moench's descriptive passages can be a little laboured, such as “The laughter is not unlike the sound of a fat fly trapped in the ear", but he must be given credit for attempting to do new things with the title. Too often, particularly in the 21st century, writers would join the title and rehash previous villains and situations, and even the generally well-regarded writer-artist that followed him, John Byrne, filled up 65% of his issues with old characters. Moench also displays a serious interest in science, something that lies at the heart of the title. While, at 31, he was generally average age for a FF writer at the time, he pulls learning into the comic, doing away with pseudo science and technobabble almost entirely.
With his scripts more horror-orientated than before, he's also one of the few writers who really made good use of Franklin, making his latent powers appear and the character become so much more than the spare part he often fell into in later years. Doug also wrote the decent 15th annual, that contained a back-up strip with the resurrection of Doctor Doom. With Moench’s work on Marvel’s horror line (one of the lines the company had established in the 70s, as well as film tie-ins like Star Wars and Planet of the Apes, in order to stay afloat – later scrapped by Jim Shooter) it’s fitting that he would craft a Von Doom return so obviously indebted to movie versions of Frankenstein.
In terms of the other writers who pitched in throughout 1980, then while not the worst issue of the year, almost certainly the most disappointing was Bill Mantlo's #218. Featuring a rejuvenated Frightful Four, now teamed with Electro, they kidnap Spider-Man in Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #42 (****) and then attempt to destroy the Fantastic Four by having the Trapster disguise himself as Spider-Man. The story was built up slowly, with the Wizard and co witnessed in cameo during Issues #39 and #40 of the Spider title, building up a real sense of mystery and awe. Yet although still written by Bill Mantlo, when the story concludes in the pages of The Fantastic Four it suddenly falls apart. What had been a tale of genuine menace is suddenly a tale that sends up the characters, not helped by John Byrne's cartoonish rendition of the Frightful Four, or how the Trapster can inexplicably imitate Spider-Man's ability to leap vast distances when he's just a normal human being with no super powers. The opening parts to the story in the Spider-Man title were pencilled by Mike Zeck and inked by Jim Mooney... although Joe Sinnott does his usual fine job on the conclusion, Byrne's pencils are just too cartoony for the storyline, and it's a classic example of how a comic book can be undermined when an artist's work isn't sympathetic to the material.
After a sadly underwhelming return, the Frightful Four went into something of a decline. Although the Wizard snuck in an appearance for #300/#301 (and the Trapster an undignified half-story in #265), his group were next featured in The Amazing Spider-Man #214-#215 with Llyra as the fourth member, where, as pictured left, the Sandman appeared to get to know Spider-Man a little more intimately than villains usually do. It wasn’t until exactly nine years later that they would return to the pages of the Fantastic Four itself, by which time only the Wizard remained as an original member.
There's also a slight increase in sexual tone throughout the year, with Sue thinking to herself in #218 that she needs to remind Reed of his "husbandly duties". Though when she hears a groan from Johnny's room she still walks in, so it's clear she's not completely au fait with what could happen in a bedroom. Perhaps the most nauseating moment occurs with Doug Moench having Franklin urging Reed to kiss Sue with a “Smooch ‘er again, Daddy! I like it when you smooch Mommy!" Presumably later issues would have seen him ask to watch.
Yet probably the most bizarre sight of the year is Johnny Storm hitting the nightclub scene…with coiffured hair, wide open collars and a medallion! In terms of the evolution of disco then 1974 is regarded as the seminal year, and 1977 its peak. By 1979 the backlash had already begun (including the infamous “Disco Sucks" protests and the Chicago Cubs smashing of records) and a new wave about to be phased in. Traditionally tapped into the gay scene (which makes it doubly amusing that the can-never-settle-down flash Johnny tries it out), disco was a thriving club industry for a time.
September 1980 saw New York’s Premiere gay disco club, The Saint, open, causing all but one of the East Village’s other gay clubs to close down. By the end of the year the first signs of the AIDS epidemic began to emerge (dubbed “Saint’s Disease" by some in the area) and all but killed the scene, though Saint managed to hold out until 1988 before finally closing. However, what was clear is that with the dawn of a new decade the era of disco was finally over. All of which makes it slightly uncomfortable reading to see the Fantastic Four trying to latch on to a then-dying trend, with Johnny being besotted by The Disco Dazzler, a character that was suddenly no longer fashionable, and grooving in Studio Infinity, an obvious parody of Studio 54.
An earlier version of this article saw a gag about "next issue featured Ben going down to a Glenn Miller tribute band dressed as Charlie Chaplin". However, the truth is not that far away... Johnny's first entry into disco took place in the April 1980 issue... in October 1980 Johnny makes a guest appearance in Ben's team up title Marvel Two-In-One to take him to yet another disco, this time to "Zanadu Zone"; an obvious play on "Xanadu", a disco record by Olivia Newton John which had been a huge hit in the summer of 1980, even though the film it came from was a flop. While there Ben dresses as John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and guest star Angel confusingly name-checks Studio 54 and not Marvel's fictitious parody. Perhaps most unsettling of all is that in the sanitised world of FF early 80s style, the disco scene is a festering hot bed of heterosexual activity. If Sylvester had walked into #217 presumably he’d be hitting on the Dazzler, too…
Trivia, and this site, written in England, has often commented on the difference of meaning in some words over the other side of the Atlantic. A UK working class (blue collar) colloquialism for a man becoming aroused is "getting the horn". So it is that the truly infantile may get a smile out of Issue #219, which sees constant talk of villain Captain Barracuda having "got the horn" after having stolen it from the Sub-Mariner.
On a more serious note, then the May issue saw the original Fantastic Four logo return to the front covers, while Joe Sinnott was away from November until March 1981, the cited reason given that he needed time to finish Spider-Man vs. Superman, and Pablo Marcos fills in for the rest of 1980. Other than that, Joe inked them all, with Bill Sienkiewicz doing pencils for Moench’s stories and John Byrne doing the rest. Oh, and for completeness’ sake, Marcos also inked the March issue.
There's also some unfortunate happenings and plot holes... Issue #222 sees the first of two occasions where Reed slaps Sue's face (in fairness, both times she's possessed) and #214 sees Johnny take a punch from a robot Skrull with the Thing's strength and it doesn't kill him. A continual qualm with the title is that Ben and Johnny will often engage in a physical battle with the same foe, with Johnny inexplicably able to take punches that render Ben unconscious.
The April issue also sees the end of HERBIE, the robot enforced on the team by Editorial to coincide with his appearance in the ill-fated cartoon series. Shortly after I launched this site in 2004, I asked Marv Wolfman if he regretted leaving the title before he got to kill HERBIE off, and what he thought of the extremely obvious spoiler ("Beware! He’s not what he seems to be!") on the first cover of the start of his seven issue appearances. However, despite a heroic, dignified end from Bill Mantlo, Marv observed "None of us liked Herbie and therefore he was treated that way." Years later, when Marv was kind enough to give a full interview to the site, his opinion hadn't changed much, stating that "I couldn’t wait to utterly destroy him."
Speaking of trivia, then look out for a topical reference from Ben in the March issue after Sue claims she's never seen anything as beautiful as the evolved Futurist leaving the Baxter Building. "No?" says Ben, referring to October 1979's baseball World Series final, "Where were you when the Pirates won the series??"
Finally, the letters pages were some of the most involved, as a Carol A Strickland from Greenville was published in #216, stating that Sue was undermined as a character, and also shouldn't still be calling herself The Invisible Girl at this stage in her life, just five years before her name was changed in the title. #220 featured the entire letters page given over to readers debating Carol's points, many of them agreeing with her, while #221 saw the entirety of the letters page given over to an expansion of Carol's views in another letter, followed by a lengthy reply by Roger Stern.
Other than the three issues of Spectacular Spider-Man mentioned in the main text, there are some characters cameoing in the 1980 run that had their first appearances elsewhere. There's the Devil Hunter Ganriel Rosetti , who debuted in 1974's The Haunt of Horror #2, and the somewhat silly "modern day pirate" Captain Barracuda, who made his first appearance in 1964's Strange Tales #120. Barracuda's previous encounter with Namor in Sub-Mariner #11 is also referenced.
Lastly, while not strictly essential reading as regards the Fantastic Four, it's still interesting to note that when Electro breaks out of jail exactly two years after his appearance here (Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #66, ****) he still holds a grudge against the FF. Though he first goes after - and is defeated by - Spider-Man alone, he notes that "The Fantastic Four are in a far different category of power than Spider-Man! I'll have to plan carefully before I dare challenge them!"