#298: Closer Than Brothers! (****), #299: The Best Man (****), #300: “Dearly Beloved…” (****),
#301: Dark Dreams (***), #302: And Who Shall Survive?! (**), #303: Alternatives (****),
#304: Pressure Drop (****), #305: All In The Family! (****),
Annual #20: Double Double/Double Dealing!/Double Down!/Double Play! (***),
#306: The Marvel Rage! (****), #307: Good-Bye! (****), #308: Fasaud! (****),
#309: Danger on the Air! (****)
And so, with Issue #304 we got the debut of Steve Englehart, a major shake up in the team that saw Ms. Marvel and Crystal join Ben and Johnny in the new FF and a striking new villain in Fasaud. The three-part Fasaud story (concluded in January of the following year) gives us a villain that is not only a living TV signal (kind of a Klaw for the MTV era) but also an oil billionaire from a ficticious Arabic country, Aquiria. The parallels and name similarity with Iraq are only too obvious, fortuitously so as the Coalition invasion of Iraq was just three years in the future. However, while Fasaud, a very silly pun (façade, geddit?) is a neat satire of an Arabic leader and the surrounding international political situation, it's never quite clear whether it's a parochial condemnation of foreign planes or not. After all, despite the character's vitality and relative originality, Fasaud is a bloodthirsty killer. These themes perhaps could have been developed further, as for a story that sees Ben and Sharon taking two pages to jump over a fence (#309), then there’s some significant padding around the main issues of a fairly groundbreaking concept that deserves somewhat wider recognition. The January ’88 issue did reveal that the US are siding with Fasaud’s government as they allow them to conduct secret rocket tests (“NASA can’t fly a shuttle publicly until its redesigned for safety!”), although this was in questionable taste as it referred to the then very recent Challenger shuttle disaster from January of 1986. There's also a sense of minimalism to Buscema's art even at this early stage of him taking the title back on, and the sparse backgrounds of the "rockets in the Middle East" setting do have a charmingly Tin Tin- like feel about them. Amusement in the first Fasaud issue (#308) comes with Englehart's uncustomarily contrived line of "her words come tumbling out like rabbits in a race with a hound- -", and also a puerile snigger at Crystal's "perhaps something subtler is needed - - an attack with wind- -!"
Trivia has it that Johnny can fly up to speeds of 150mph, but Quicksilver can run at 170mph. We also learn that critical acclaim for Alicia’s art has been going for ten years, which puts some kind of perspective on the FF's timeline. A continuity blunder also occurs in #309 when we see a flashback to Johnny meeting Crystal for the first time... in his modern costume. One trivia question never answered though is how Sharon Ventura's high heels could withstand such extreme pressure as supporting the weight of the Thing when they flip each other over.
Yet the year didn't just belong to Steve, as the first half a dozen issues of the year saw Roger Stern take a brief fill-in role as writer, followed by, ominously, Tom DeFalco, and Roy Thomas returned for a memorable one-shot with #303. Perhaps the most striking part of these issues is that She-Hulk returns in #299 to check on the team, and goads Ben into a fight so he can let off some steam. Now, he's taking it easy because she's a woman and she's made sure Ben is fairly drunk so his reflexes aren't sharp, but they fight on even terms. In fact, with She-Hulk also taking it easy, there are even several occasions where she gets the better of him in the battle. There have been attempts to try and reclaim this situation somewhat (in 2013's FF #2 She-Hulk states she has to stop lifting weights at 85 tonnes, while Ben urges her to get to 100 with him) but it's a telling sign of where exactly the character was at this stage of Marvel. Newer characters like Wolverine had taken on the "loose cannon" motif on teams, and Ben had been outstrengthed by multiple other characters by this stage, with FF fan and former writer/artist John Byrne even powering an established one past him (The X-Men's Colossus) and creating one to be stronger than Ben (Alpha Flight's Sasquatch). In 1963 the Thing was on even terms with the Hulk and able to compete with him... 24 years later and Ben's struggling to trade with the female version of his old foe. The saddest part of it all is that he continued to slide throughout the coming years... though Marvel has still yet to print a story where he gets KO'd by Aunt May.
In all, 1987 was, if not a classic year for the title, then a strong and bold new direction that aimed to bring the team up to date and take them forward. However, such ambitions were never to be realised, as Marvel took a greater control over the direction of the title, and any hope Englehart may have held for the credibility of his new FF was squandered when in January 1988 he transformed Sharon Ventura, Ms. Marvel, into a She-Thing...
1987 was an extremely pleasant year in terms of the title being self-contained. There’s a reference to Jarvis being hospitalised in The Avengers #273-#277, and the last Thundra-Ben meeting being in Marvel Two-In-One #68. There’s also Quicksilver losing his mind from West Coast Avengers Annual #1 and The Avengers Annual #15, a result of Crystal having an affair with a salesman (Vision and the Scarlet Witch #6-12). There are asides, like Franklin helping the Powers children (Power Pack #24-25) and Crystal nearly overdosing on the potion to allow her to breathe Earth’s air (Vision and the Scarlet Witch #9-10). There’s also a policeman (in #307) making a reference to Captain America killing somebody in his own title, #321.
However, what links all these issues is that you don’t have to have read them in order to fully understand the stories being offered up. We don’t need to read Astonishing Tales #8 to see Doctor Doom battling Mephisto for the soul of his mother… because he tells us he does. Even Sharon Ventura’s recent past from The Thing #27-36 and Captain America #330-331 is reasonably explained for those not in the know. It's a welcome continuation of the book's self reliance that it had held in 1986... a continuation immediately lost the following year as interconnected titles once more became all the rage...