I have a dirty little secret. Like a Republican senator railing about the sanctity of marriage, I harbor a secret love in my heart that until now I have been unable or unwilling to give voice to for fear of exposing my own hypocrisy and secret, terrible shame.
I really, really enjoyed Steve Englehart’s late 1980’s tenure on the Fantastic Four.
Fantastic Four #323
That’s right… at the same time the once-mighty scribe was driving the train called West Coast Avengers off the tracks, I actually took out a subscription to the FF title he was writing so I could be spared the embarrassment of slipping each new issue into the middle of my stack of books as I approached the register at Central City’s east side location.
It was a dark time for the FF, coming during the era in which Marvel dictated across the board cosmetic changes to all their non-mutant core titles– black costumes, Grey Hulks, goofy yellow and blue armored Thunder Gods… The FF got saddled with turning the Thing into a talking pineapple and replacing Reed and Sue Richards in their membership with the Inhumans’ Crystal (not necessarily a bad idea) and a She-Thing (THAT was a bad idea), all under the umbrella of Englehart’s relentlessly goofy plots. What did the book have going for it? Well, Ron Frenz was supplying some beautiful Kirby-Klone covers that pretty much sold the book (he was doing the same for Thor and Captain America at the time), and something about the interior artwork appealed to me. My former arch-nemesis Keith Pollard provided some “poor man’s Buscema”-style layouts, while inker Romeo Thangal and colorist George Roussos both took a light approach to their respective crafts that gave the art a very crisp look. Plus, there were Englehart’s relentlessly goofy plots…
So it is that I owe Dara an apology for the scorn I have so frequently heaped upon his own fondly remembered and much-maligned WCA series. I’ll probably continue to do it in the future, though.
With everything going against this series, Marvel had to heap one more thing onto the pile: an intrusive crossover with the “Inferno” storyline over in X-Men. New York has been overrun by demons, but since the cause and resolution will be confined to the two (!) X-titles that summer, we just had to put up with all the rest of our comics making absolutely no sense for a couple months. I never understood the logic behind these crossovers; if Nova guest starred in Spider-Man’s mag, it was to get Spidey readers to check out Nova
. Did they decide that not enough people reading the Marvel line of books were checking out the X-Men on a monthly basis, so they were trying to lure in the legions of Englehart fans? The crossovers certainly weren’t required reading for the X-Men series’, so I can’t imagine the goal was the other way around.
The FF are strolling through Manhattan fighting stray demons when they stumble across the 1970’s kung fu lady Avenger called Mantis (a relic from Englehart’s own run on the title back in the day). Once married, power-augmented, and impregnated by a cosmic being, she has been stripped of her powers and seen her child taken away to be raised in outer space, or some such. She has come to find the FF because they have a rep for manned space flights (one wonders why, given the horrible mutations that tend to occur) in hopes they might help her find her offspring. Unfortunately her quest is interrupted first by hordes of demons, then by an old super-villain.
Kang the Conqueror is aware of a “time bubble” in place around the years 2005 and 2020, preventing time travellers from entering that era– except during an upheaval like “Inferno”, apparantly. Legend says a Celestial is hiding within those years with a super weapon which Kang plans to steal. Unaware that Mantis no longer has her cosmic powers, he plans on using her energies to defeat the Celestial; Mantis was oncle called the “Celestial Madonna”, so her power must be effective against Celestials (giant Kirby space gods who could kick Galactus’ ass), is the reasoning. Really.
Of course, having progressed to those years ourselves by now, we have learned that reports of Celestial WMDs were exaggerated. Kang really should have known, given that 1988 didn’t look as bad as Deathlok would have had us believe, either (though Reagan tried). Our cast is unaware of this yet, and the story closes with Mantis mysteriously disappearing as the FF’s attack on Kang’s ship goes horribly wrong.
This was among my favorite series’ of the time, up until the point Englehart had a falling out with the editors and wrote his last few issues under a pseudonym. Walt Simonson was actually brought in to clean up the mess, but he unfortunately was allowed to use his FF series to tie up loose ends from three different comics (Avengers
, and Thor
), so his run was an exercise in continuity-cleaning more than anything else, and lacked the charm of Englehart’s issues.
I can’t believe I said that.