#310: Things To Come! (****), #311: I Want To Die! (***), #312: The Turning Point! (***),
#313: The Tunnels of the Mole Man! (***), #314: The Scenic Route! (***), #315: No Way Out! (***),
#316: Cold Storage! (***), #317: Last Kiss (**), Annual #21: Crystal Blue Persuasion! (***),
#318: Beyond The Pale! (****), #319: Secret Wars 3 (****), #320: Pride Goeth… (*****),
#321: After The Fall! (****)
1988 saw Englehart spend three issues cementing the set-up of his characters, then take readers on a seven-month epic through the very continuity and mythos of Marvel itself, exploring the fabric of the entire universe. Finally, as a reward for this complex and intricate tale, we got to end the year on a good old-fashioned Hulk-Thing slug-match, still only the fifth time it had happened in the pages of the FF. Outside it, it was the sixteenth, with such illustrious fare as Ben and the Hulk body-swapping (Giant-Size Superstars #1 featuring The Fantastic Four, ***) and Ben getting jealous over the Hulk having his own TV show (Marvel Two-In-One #46). To add to this, a story set after their first meeting (Fantastic Four #12) was released in 2005: Hard Knocks (see "Other Titles")
Keith Pollard took over the pencilling from the start of the year (Sal Buscema guested on #313), though with Joe Sinnott still doing a tremendous job on his bold, defined inks, the book still looked fabulous. In fact, with the improvements in colour techniques over the year, Crystal’s strikingly pale blue eyes in the penultimate panel of #313 made her look absolutely beautiful. Sadly, this was stripped away when Joe left once more, and Romeo Tanghal took over the inking from the December issue (he guested on August), a position he filled for thirteen of the fourteen regular books that made the shelves the following year.
While not poor, Tanghal's inks were more ethereal than the more dynamic Sinnott style, lacking the same bold lines and hard shadows. The She-Thing getting eyelashes around the same time does seem to veer towards send-up, and badly undermines the book. However, while it appears to be a Tanghal invention (Joe Sinnott did it just once), Romeo was kind enough to speak to the site about his time on the book (see the "Interviews" section) and explained that he was just inking what was already placed there by the pencillers.
Covers were a general improvement over the previous year, though as the previous year featured arguably the worst covers ever then it was no surprise. Nice touches included Crystal straining to lift the female Thing from falling over a rock face (#313), which was possibly a reversed nod to the classic Kirby cover “Beware, The Hidden Land” (#47). Even if none of the covers (all of which were the creations of Ron Frenz and Joe Sinnott) were classics, there were always nice Kirbyesque touches like #316 and #320.
Probably the most unsettling element of the year were the sexual politics that made up Sharon recovering from her ordeal. Apart from the fact that she starts the year being transformed into a female Thing (Ben is mutated to a spikey Hulk-class version) she’s been the subject of extreme sexual abuse. The normally-sensitive Ben thinks of her that “She’s just hopeless, darn it! Hopeless!” while Sharon recovers from her mental turmoil with a “no more moaning!” The concept that a victim of rape should see their grief as “moaning” and that the likeable Ben should suddenly regard a rape victim as a burden is a point at which I stopped reading the title for a time… ironically, I originally came back to the Fantastic Four at a point where Marvel had inflicted their control over the book – Reed and Sue’s return in May 1989 – a point at which the author had all but given up trying. (Steve Englehart's own take on these events, as well as other matters, can be read in this site's Steve Englehart Interview) I see now, looking back, that I was wrong, Englehart’s run on the title was a lot better with history shining upon it than it may have seemed at the time, but with Marvel’s various cross-overs looming over the title it stopped feeling like the Fantastic Four for a time. Talking of politics, then Ben appeared to literally blow a hole through Ronald Reagan’s famous “Star Wars” speech of March 1983 by destroying Fasaud’s fictional defence satellite with “They allus said ‘’Star Wars’’ wuzn’t perfect!"
Sadly, the odyssey that was the centrepiece of the run was so convoluted around Marvel’s back history that it gave the readers short shrift - #316 contained no less than eleven pages of solid exposition, the FF’s book being subverted into a “tell not show” version of cosmic angst. The Annual contained a somewhat self-congratulatory assertion that “I can’t get over how popular the team has become since you revamped it.” Yet despite Roberta bigging the team up (and Willie Lumpkin with his sackload of mail, still doing his “I can wiggle my ears” schtick after twenty-five years) the harsh reality is that sales were falling. Figures back in the 70s and 80s were difficult to accurately determine (and almost impossible for the first five years of the book’s life, though even towards the end Stan and Jack were shifting around 250,000 a month), however it appears that the book was averaging just over 240,000 for the last year of John Byrne’s reign. Take away the enormously popular Stan anniversary issue and around 40,000 had dropped away after John left. Sadly, the readers would continue to slip – to under 190,000 for the first part of Englehart’s run, and under 160,000 for the issues crafted by “John Harkness” (of which more later).
While the book would occasionally fluctuate in sales during the Simonson era, and (ironically) the Tom DeFalco period, it would generally continue to dip until November 1994, where sales were reported as below 100,000 for the first time in the comic’s history. When the first volume of the Fantastic Four was cancelled, the final issue sold reportedly less than 84,000. As stated before, to keep this in perspective, sales of 84,000 would be highly respectable in the current climate, and during 2004 an average of less than six comics per month – from ANY publisher, not just Marvel – were shipping more than 100,000 copies.Trivia? There were two extra stories in the annual, written by Edward L. Norton and Mark Gruenwald, the latter of which was an appalling promotional idea which saw its tenuous plotline continue in ten other annuals. This was the first promotion of its kind, but not, sadly, the last. Finally, look out for #318, which featured on its third page (bottom panel) a joke at Jim Shooter’s expense. As Doctor Doom uses an intercom system, Shooter is identified as one of the residents, with a partly obscured “evicted” sticker next to his name.
In a year that explores the interconnected continuity of Marvel then it perhaps comes as no surprise that there are a lot of referenced titles - eighteen other titles to be exact. However, while the background details of such obscure characters as the Cat colony and Belasco are nice to have, the only other comic which you really need to have for this run is The Hulk #350 (****), where the lauded Peter David has the Grey Hulk outsmarting and defeating Ben in his title as a direct follow-on from the FF’s own #320. (The same plotline does lightly continue on from Hulk #349 and contain references to the green robot hulk being in The Eternals #14-15. Then there’s the She-Hulk/Ms. Marvel bout the next issue, which refers back to their first fight in The Thing #36).
However, the usage of Marvel’s own mythology to build up the stories does naturally mean that the cross-referencing once again increases, such as the original X-Men joining from The X-Factor title (specifically #25) during the March issue. There’s nods to compliment most of the stories, such as underground tunnels beneath the Earth being referenced in the April issue as coming from The Avengers #236, or Tyrannus rejecting his Subterraneans (Hulk #243). Also look out for West Coast Avengers #6 where Ben met a society of cat people, or #15 of the same series, where the rest of the WCA learnt that the cat people were demons, but Ben didn’t. Then there’s a Doctor Strange battle that harks to a new volume of the old Strange Tales title (#14), and Marvel Premiere/Doctor Strange #10. Ben was security chief at Project Pegasus (starting in Marvel Two-In-One #53), Henry Pym wanted suicide (West Coast Avengers #17), there’s the knowledge that America “cut a deal” with Doom at one stage (Super-Villain Team-Up #6) and the current run of Captain America featured America’s government turning on him. There’s also Quicksilver losing his power of speed (West Coast Avengers #36), while other concerns involve Belasco, who is from non-specific issues of Ka-Zar and Magik, and Ben’s girlfriend Tari from the Beyonder’s world (The Thing #22).
Also look out for Ben’s acquaintance with Comet Man (Comet Man #5) or Comet Man’s introduction (Comet Man #1). Then there’s Ka-Zar The Savage #34, Eternals #2, Fear #20-#26, Marvel Two-In-One #63 and The Avengers #257. Did I mention throwaway references in the annual to X-Factor Annual #3, Punisher Annual #1, Silver Surfer Annual #1, New Mutants Annual #4 and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #22 (***)? And don’t forget to check out Silver Surfer #16, which features Reed and Sue, and cameos in #319. All of which doesn't even take into account the ten other annuals that the Annual's back-up story continued into/ran from...