Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
In this column, Mark Ginocchio (from Chasing Amazing) takes a look at the gimmick covers from the 1990s and gives his take on whether the comic in question was just a gimmick or whether the comic within the gimmick cover was good. Hence “Gimmick or Good?” Here is an archive of all the comics featured so far. We continue with the embossed cover and holographic cover for Fantastic Four #371 and 375…
Fantastic Four #371-375 (published December 1992-April 1993) – story by Tom DeFalco and Paul Ryan; art by Ryan and Danny Bulandi
The Matt Fraction-era on Fantastic Four and FF has ended and the James Robinson era is in its infancy, which means it’s time for “Gimmick or Good” to link today’s comic book news with gimmick-covered issues from the 1990s. Fantastic Four #371-375 was an arc that marked great change for the first family of Marvel comics. Additionally, storyline was bookended by two gimmick covers: an embossed white (or red) cover for Fantastic Four #371 and a special holographic design for #375.
But what about inside the comic?
I wasn’t kidding when I said this storyline introduced a great number of changes for Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben. Over the course of five issues, Johnny became a wanted man, the Thing became horribly disfigured by Wolverine, and Sue unveiled a costume that… well… I’ll get to that in a second.
To quickly summarize, Fantastic Four #371 kicks off with Reed and Ben discovering that Alicia Master has been kidnapped by a rogue Watcher (whose name also happens to be Aron the Rogue). Meanwhile, while hanging out at Empire State University, Johnny is attacked by Skrulls, including Lyja, who years earlier had impersonated Alicia in order to get closer to the Fantastic Four, going as far as marrying Johnny. When Johnny discovers Lyja among the other attacking Skrulls, he goes “supernova” and accidentally burns down half of ESU’s campus.
Johnny is wanted by the police, but Sue advises him to wait until Reed and Ben return from their mission before turning himself in. Johnny’s fugitive status eventually brings out Spider-Man, Wolverine, Hulk, Ghost Rider and Doctor Strange, aka the 90s supergroup dubbed the Secret Defenders (aka five guys who have never been in Cliff Clavin’s kitchen).
And I’ve barely scratched the surface of how densely packed with shallow action this arc ends up being, which is the most troubling thing about this storyline. Beyond what I’ve already described, we are also following threads involving Silver Sable and the Wildpack (who Marvel was still insisting on being a “thing” at that point in time) and Sue’s cantankerous post-Infinity War attitude adjustment (which was caused by the villainous Malice being absorbed into her consciousness). We also get storylines involving Doctor Doom, Black Bolt and the Inhumans, Uatu the Watcher, Molecule Man, Franklin Richards and Sharon Ventura (Ms. Marvel II).
DeFalco and Ryan give us the stereotypical 90s formula here – throw as many characters and ideas against the wall that they can think of, without letting any of them properly develop and maturate. How am I supposed to get invested in any of these storylines or characters when the action is bouncing around like a pinball?
Let’s talk about Sue for a moment here, since her characterization in this arc may be the most bizarre. Fantastic Four #371 marks the debut of a semi-scandalous new attire for Sue, something I’ve seen referred to as the “4 Cleavage Panel” costume. I know I made some comments about how Jim Lee sexualized Sue for “Heroes Reborn,” but the Ryan and Danny Bulandi-designed outfit is more gross than sexy. Not to mention impractical. She tells Reed she felt like a “frump” in their old jumpsuits, so her answer is to fight crime in a bikini and a pair of thigh high boots?
I get that DeFalco and Ryan were purposely making Sue’s transformation seem extreme – everyone in the title comments on her new outfit and how she’s been acting “different” lately. These wacky, spontaneous decisions by Sue were all designed to be part of a slow-burn reveal for the character. That’s fine, but how is “4 Cleavage Panel” an appropriate representation of Sue’s change? It seems like it’s just crudely inserted “sex appeal” for the hell of it.
And that’s not say having a sexually frustrated Sue fighting with Reed is a bad idea either but, like everything else about this storyline, the problem is in its execution. Sue is completely unsympathetic throughout this arc. She snaps at Reed with barely any provocation, and is acting more aggressively overall. Rather than empowering her, DeFalco and Ryan seem to cast her as a nagging killjoy.
Then there’s the whole involvement of the Secret Defenders – a superteam concept that just screams 90s overkill. In Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, editor Mike Rockwitz talks about how DeFalco asked him to create a super-book that had Doctor Strange and Wolverine in it. Rockwitz’s response was “none of these things made any sense, but on the first book, I made seven grand in royalties.” Basically, the Marvel front-office’s response for any struggling title was to shoehorn Wolverine or Ghost Rider into a story. Considering all of the other major changes DeFalco and Ryan introduced in this Fantastic Four storyline, there was obviously a prevailing sentiment that the book needed a shake-up, hence the involvement of the Secret Defenders. And, in this case, one of those Secret Defenders, Wolverine, hacked up Thing’s rocky mug, which directly led to another character change when DeFalco and Ryan put Ben in a big iron mask to cover his disfigured face.
What makes this storyline an example of “bad” comic book writing is that it serves story over character to an extreme. I can see Spider-Man’s involvement with the Fantastic Four, as he and Johnny go way back, and he’s even trying to convince his teammates to not seriously injure or maim the Torch. But what are Hulk or Wolverine doing on this team? For years, Wolverine was portrayed as a loner even when he was a member of the X-Men. What reason does he have to be one of Doctor Strange’s lackeys for some mission? And what’s with Wolverine’s sheepish reaction after slashing Thing in the face? A few seconds earlier, he was ready to hack through Sue’s invisible force field, and now he’s sorry for defending himself against the Thing?
It disappoints me how cringe-worthy I find this storyline, because I happen to think DeFalco is a pretty good writer (and one of the more underrated Spidey writers of all-time). But this arc is just filled with bizarre character moments, too many guest appearances, and an overall “blah” factor that makes it hard to redeem. I know I wasn’t a fan of the “Heroes Reborn” reboot because I found it unnecessary to essentially write the same story all over again in a contemporary setting, but some of the “fresher” stories from earlier in the 1990s were no better.
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