NEW: 1985

August 8, 2016


#274: Monster Mash (***), #275: The Naked Truth (****), #276: Suffer A Witch To Live… (****),
#277: Back From Beyond (****), #278: True Lies (***), #279: Crack Of Doom! (****),
#280: "Tell Them All They Love Must Die…" (****), #281: With Malice Towards All! (****),
#282: Inwards To Infinity! (****), #283: Torment (****), #284: Revolution! (****),  #285: Hero (****),
Annual #19: Summons from the Stars! (****)

What's most interesting about the 1985 run of the Fantastic Four is how history has perhaps dated it more than other eras due to its content. Themes explored in the title include racism, female exploitation and the torturing/titillation of Sue Storm.

In first dealing with the racism covered in the issues, it's important to warn site readers that a particular racial epithet will be discussed and even written, in the form of quotations, on this page. 

When a review of 1985's output was originally written in the early 2000s, this issue was skirted around, with just a fleeting reference to what it then coyly termed "the N word". But in discussing the topic head on, it draws out the notion that, while well-meaning in intent, having phrases like "nigger lover" liberally written in an issue of The Fantastic Four is perhaps inappropriate, particularly as, for all the race hatred an all-new Hate Monger claims to stir up, we only see it directed at minorities. Even worse is that some of those minorities are embarrassing stereotypes, from the black bag lady who insists that Daredevil is a "jive-honkey", all the way down to the"oyyy veyyy"s of Abe Shoenstein, almost certainly the biggest Jewish stereotype in comics.

Such honourably-intended yet trite ruminations on the nature of prejudice also sit uneasily within the history of the book, where Johnny, while not generally prejudiced, wasn't disposed to calling an Indian "Gungadin" back in the 60s. (Issue #23). In January 2017 inker Jerry Ordway was generous with his time in giving an interview to this site, and reflected upon the material: "I was kind of stunned when I saw those pages come to me! I really thought John was brave to push things like he did. It was all in service to that storyline. If you want to use a character called the “Hate Monger” then you have to show that hate in a shocking way. At the time, Nazis were played out, so racial turmoil was the obvious place to take it."

It wasn't just the Fantastic Four using the word in 1985. In the August issue of The Uncanny X-Men (#196) Kitty Pryde is chided as a "mutie" by a black university associate, and responds with "Gee, I dunno, Phil -- -- are you a nigger?" The comic's intent to show the power of derogatory terms (even having Kitty tritely talking about people trying to be "intentionally hurtful") is somewhat clumsy, given that it equates a fictional slur against non-existent characters with a very real slur with a long history against a real race.

Such terms open up debate about whether it's fine to use such words in certain contexts - both comics use the term to illustrate that intolerance and bigotry is bad - or whether using the word regardless of context is offensive or not. Interestingly, while X-Men reprints still contain the word, Marvel's release of old Marvelman/Miracleman issues in 2014 saw a use of the word censored.

The 2016 Netflix series Luke Cage saw Cage refuse to concede that the word had been appropriated by black culture (the "er" changed to an "a") and insist that it had too much history for him to accept being called the word, even by another black male. Show creator Cheo Hodari Coker acknowledged this in an interview with the New Yorker, stating that "The word has always had a very uncomfortable power in our community, whether you acknowledge it or not. [...] I wanted to show how every single generation of black men has a different relationship with that word. [...] I guess my whole thing about using the word is that it has a lot of different meanings. It’s never comfortable."

What further complicates matters is not just changes in the way the acceptability and context of such words is received, but, of course, John Byrne's own online presence in his forum. Established in 2004, it's somewhat unavoidable to note, in a discussion of John's work, that he has developed a web presence that has arguably overshadowed his own back catalogue. Whether the "John Byrne" of Byrne Robotics is an accurate representation of the real person (many people who have worked with him insist that it's not), it's hard to deny that the forum has seen him make statements that can be regarded as incredibly controversial.

Among one of just many questionable instances, but one relevant to this year, was John's use of the word "nigger" to describe how people can use a word and not be "right" in their usage of the word. As the conversation was started as a discussion of the use of "word bubbles" instead of "word balloons", Byrne was questioned as to whether his liberal use of the term was acceptable, with John insisting that the point was being missed, and that it was all about context. In it, John seemed to himself miss the point that using the word so casually, and in the context of making an analogy about a relatively trivial matter, was inappropriate and offensive to many. While such discussions may not seem directly germane to a discussion of his work on the Fantastic Four exactly twenty years earlier, it does cause doubts regarding the authorial voice behind the story, when that same authorial voice went on to use the term himself, albeit in a clumsy way to illustrate how said term is "wrong".

Such controversies don't end there. While John Byrne arguably gets more credit than he deserves for elevating Sue's power levels and assertiveness in his run (as previously discussed, it was a 1970s Jack Kirby cover that first had her using her force field for travel, and even as far back as the 60s she was beating Doctor Doom in hand-to-hand combat) the year sees the emergence of "Malice", the ultimate manifestation of her powers, unfettered by her own insecurities. While commendable, it sees her wearing a sexually titillating outfit, and she's brought out of her Psycho-Man induced control by Reed using domestic violence against her. (Interestingly, while seeing Sue dressed up in leather gear is a typical adolescent male fantasy, the usage of leather domination hadn’t occurred that often outside of male homosexual culture until the late 70s. The publication of Coming to Power - Writing and Graphics on Lesbian S/M in 1981 marked its crossover into lesbian culture).

Operating largely on a "tell not show" basis, the post-Malice issues have Sue verbalise her feelings in a sop to arch feminism that reads as only pseudo-realistic, while the themes raised are so forthright they can no longer be regarded as a "subtext". With Sue suggesting her experience of being mind-controlled was worse than a woman being raped, the work manages to not only be preachy and misguided, but also offensive.

With Sue tortured in several difference issues and the She-Hulk whipped and enslaved, the abuse meted out to the female characters in the run is considerable. A year when a cover features She-Hulk being kicked in the face, while it's arguable that violence against women must be displayed in order to show the evils of those who oppress them, it's also arguable that overuse of such tropes can be regarded as revelling in it. This is the year where Sue becomes "The Invisible Woman", and does it in an issue where a slave master threatens rape. There's a sense of "innocence lost" in the pages of 1985's FF, and it's arguable that the title was never the same again, ending with Sue retitling herself the Invisible Woman and exacting a ruthless revenge on the Psycho Man.

Lastly, there's the single issue story "The Naked Truth", a tale of the She-Hulk being photographed topless against her will and powerless to prevent the photographs from being published. The story was inspired by the artist Kevin Nowlan designing a "glamour" pose for She-Hulk that got published in Marvel Fanfare #18, though the issue references the real-life case of Miss America 1984 Vanessa Lynn Williams, who had unauthorised nude photographs of herself published in Penthouse, and as a result was pressured into resigning in July 1984. 

Thirty years on, and when hacked nude photographs of Jennifer Lawrence were released on the internet, she not only got to take successful legal action, but stated that anyone looking at the pictures were guilty of a "sex crime". In this sense it's hard to feel sympathetic towards Byrne's point of view when writing this incredibly off-beat issue. It's clear that he has a great deal of affection for She-Hulk, and the character maintains her dignity throughout, but the end punchline to the book is Johnny, after realising the magazine was accidentally colour-corrected, telling her that he's going to his room to fetch green-tinted sunglasses. What would generally have been regarded as just a light-hearted issue at the very different time it was published now has a slightly more sinister side...

Outside of the main issues of the year, then there's a January issue which catches up with Ben on Battleworld, and the lauded but merely passable retooling of It's A Wonderful Life, "Hero", where Johnny is taken back to the life of a boy who accidentally killed himself trying to emulate him. (As a further example of how Byrne's online persona has come to overshadow his work, typing "John Byrne Hero" into a search engine will often bring up an ill-considered statement about Christopher Reeve before bringing up this issue).

There'a also the Annual, which, for once, offers an effective tie-in, a meeting with The Avengers told from both sides in the respective annuals. Lastly, there's also a clash with Mephisto, which deals with some of the darkest and most disturbing themes seen in the book at the time. Thankfully, the body horror is offset by John's naturally cartoonish illustrations, tortures by Mephisto coming over as more Tom and Jerry than H.P. Lovecraft.

If nothing else will date the book, then certainly the hairstyles will... from Issue #278 Johnny gets a horrific sub-Flock of Seagulls haircut that lasts until the end of the year. Coupled with Sue's virtual mullet (something which, along with Johnny's, thankfully gets overturned in 1986) this is a year of the title that screams out "eighties" more than any other. It's just fortunate that She-Hulk didn't decide to go around with shoulder pads...

Despite such valid criticisms, are the issues actually any good? Well, yes. As evidenced by the ratings above, then there's a fine run at work, even if they don't all stand up to repeated viewings as much as they once did. Time hasn't been outstandingly kind to the somewhat naive political stances, the overearnest emotions, the staid, slightly dull "old Professor" rendering of Reed and the fact that many of the characters spout unlikely exposition to constantly fill the readers in on what's going on. But with Jerry Ordway's more action-oriented pencils, then there's a step up in the visual dynamism of the book, if not quite the written level.

In terms of the artwork, then an improvement is seen, as John experiments with bringing inkers on board the title. Issue #272’s letters page featured a personal note from Byrne saying he wanted to work on improving his art, so the inking was handed over to Jerry Ordway while John did the pencilling. (Though Al Gordon was behind the first two and last two months of the year). The Annual also saw Joe Sinnott ink Byrne on the Fantastic Four for the first time since 1980, and for the very first time in John's own art style. When Joe was gracious enough to give an interview to the site, he praised John's work immensely, observing: "Many of the FF's that I did with John Byrne are some of my favorites. John was extremely clean and his backgrounds were some if the best that I have ever worked on. I can't say enough about John's pencils."

Trivia includes the She-Hulk’s weight lifting maximum being given as "75 tons" in #276, a signifier that the strength of Marvel’s heroes was reaching more fantastical levels past their genesis. Way, way back in FF #18 the Super Skrull was witnessed lifting over 100 tons, somewhat shy of the early Thing’s "absolute limit" of five tons. But they were Skrulls, what did they know? (The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, incidentally, was giving out Ben’s limit as "85" at the time, though the figure was never stated in any of the issues. She-Hulk acknowledges in the dialogue that Ben is in a greater strength class, though it's achievable for her to get there). Changes to characters included the micro-verse being a parallel universe; and the majority of Doom’s facial scarring not coming from the explosion in the University laboratory, but from placing a boiling-hot metal mask on his face to hide a few initial scars. a somewhat anal attempt to marry two conflicting versions of events seen in the Lee-Kirby years..


Required Reading:

The Thing had his own comic back in 1985, chronicling his adventures on the world of the Beyonder where he could change back to Ben Grimm at will. #23 (***) is the one that follows up on FF #277, where the Thing’s decision to leave is further expanded upon. Mike Carlin isn’t Marvel’s greatest writer, and Ron Wilson/Bob Layton aren’t the best artists the company ever had, but this is a reasonable tale that – while oversimplifying the relationships between the leads – does at least reveal to Reed an event that occurred in The Thing #22 (***) - The Thing has killed Ben Grimm. Keeping with the same title, then the January FF issue of the year features a mini story that takes place either side of  #19 (**) and #20 (***). 

Also referenced is the saga of Spider-Man’s black and white alien costume that took place over many Spider titles and issues, and is broken out of Reed’s lab at the end of #274. The era of Marvel’s constant tie-ins was rapidly approaching at this stage – though we were still seven years away from the woeful linked annual series of Kang stories – so it’s not all John’s fault that stories seem to hop from one title to another, more editorial interference. However, it’s unforgivable that a major plot element of #277 is resolved (or even made sense of) in Rom #65

More forgivable and in no way vital to understanding the run is a throwaway reference to Avengers #258 in the August issue, while we learn that the She-Hulk can no longer revert to human form via a reference to The Sensational She-Hulk: Marvel Graphic Novel #18. One totally forgivable cross-over is the innovative brilliance that merges Avengers Annual #14 (****) with the continuity of the nineteenth FF annual. (Though the same annual does continue a storyline from The Avengers #259-260, and also references Avengers #96-97, The X-Men #137 (****) and The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16, ***).

Finally, with the arguable quality but enormous sales figures of the original Secret Wars series, an immediate sequel was commissioned - Secret Wars II is referenced constantly throughout the run, though particular note must be given to the second issue (***), which concludes the Hate Monger plot. Then there’s Power Pack, a series that began in August of the previous year and featured four super-powered children… with the surname "Power". A quality and well-meaning comic book (The years’ Marvel output carried adverts with the group and Spider-Man offering advice on child abuse) they roped in Franklin as a honorary member in #28. As for the group themselves, they carried on until 1991 in their original run, though occasionally one or all of the Power kids can be seen in other Marvel titles, even making appearances in some of the Fantastic Four issues many years later.

While it’s a huge chunk of arguably John’s finest year, all the constant cross-referencing at this point can’t be blamed on the writers themselves, who are as much victims of the Marvel editorial policy as the readers. The fact that this section is almost as big as the review of the year itself is a clear indication of how lost in itself Marvel was getting in 1985. John himself hated the direction in which Marvel was headed, a factor which may have led to him leaving the following year…

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