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Gimmick or Good? – Fantastic Four #371-375

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.

FF_01

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?

FF-02

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.

FF_03

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.

FF_04

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?

FF_05

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.

Verdict: Gimmick

34 Comments

Did you mean Cliff CLAVIN? Because then that joke makes sense to me.

If you want to point out a typo, just point out a typo. Why be coy about it?

I think you meant Sharon Ventura (Ms.Marvel II) not Sharon Carter.

Also Sue’s outfit is insane. It’s so out of character and insulting

Well, let’s face it: a super hero team with Wolverine and Doctor Strange as members couldn’t possibly sell. Adding Spider-Man makes it even more ridiculous.

As awful as Sue’s costume was, the later version which appeared in #387 looked a lot better, even though it was a version of the same costume with more modesty.

I never understood why the THING, who already looks like a monster, would be self conscious enough about his looks to wear a helmet over his head to hide a scar. Was it just part of the 90′s aesthetic along with those pouches Reed is sporting? Johnny Blaze’s partial body armor would fall into the same logic. I think I answered my own question.

In fairness, the Thing’s helmet goes back to the Lee/Kirby days. I’m not saying it’s a good look for him, but Ryan and DeFalco didn’t invent it. http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_BlsLZY4Qci8/TRt7G8SZcoI/AAAAAAAABTc/JSLEWNJPx8k/s1600/FF3colorTwo240.jpg

Amazingly, I just bought FF #375 this morning–for 33 cents!

Also, “375th anniversary” does not mean what Marvel thinks it means.

Ryan’s art is superb. Even bad stories look great.

Has anyone ever studied the ‘goes gritty’ phenomena for men vs women? When men go dark they never get slutty outfits. Pity.

The thing that got me about 375 was the non-ending they gave it. Rather than resolve the fight between the Fantastic Four and the New Fantastic Four (as they were billed on the cover), Uatu whisked them off to the moon to fight Dr. Doom. And when they beat Doom, they just get sent back to earth without a word from Uatu.

And the helmet wasn’t cosmetic for Ben: Wolverine cut him deeply enough that the scars were tender and he wanted extra protection.

That said, I agree completely with the gimmick evaluation for the arc. Heck, if it had just been a review of 375 I would agree.

Sorry, 374 was the non-ending to the first fight. 375 was the unsatisfactory Doom fight.

The popularity (at least back then) of the New Fantastic Four storyline a few years earlier was the reason for this lineup of Secret Defenders.

It didn’t make sense within the story, but the New Fantastic Four was a thing for a couple of issues.

The Secret Defenders were not a super-group. It was a thing where Dr. Strange would bring together a different group of characters together each story, supposedly picked for the mission but really picked for plugging purposes. I believe the initial story was set up in Dr. Strange in an issue where he was trapped on the astral plane, then it was a series for maybe 20 – 25 issues. One story arc was villains brought together by Thanos, I remember that because it tied into a crossover somewhere. I remember one had Thunderstrike and War Machine (I’m going to guess U.S. Agent was also there, though I don’t remember it). I liked the premise, but it basically wound up just trying to plug the same ’90′s characters we weren’t quite sold on, like Darkhawk or Nomad.

This team had been set up during Simonson’s run half-jokingly as the “New Fantastic Four” and been pushed pretty heavily by Marvel as such (for obvious reasons). I’m guessing they used the “Secret Defenders” name here to plug the new book, though I don’t remember the timing exactly.

Oh, geez. This was “My” Fantastic Four (As in, I liked comics, and this was what was on the magazine rack in my town’s gas station, so this was what I bought.)

I can still remember dialogue.

I thought the characterizations were off on most all of the characters. The heroes hunting Johny Storm? Okay, I can see them bringing him in, but they whole “we’re gonna git him” thing with them treating him as bad as the villains they usually go against. especially compared to THAT group going after him, Johny Storm was the golden boy. Whereas they were all considered criminals at various points The FF and Torch were pretty much the epitome of heroes. I don’t feel the other heroes would have that sort of “he’s a bad guy” attitude over one incident. Yes they may have to bring him in, but I could buy more of a “Man I can’t believe it’s come to this”. Only Spidey really plays that part. Torch did some serious damage, so you can see why Hulk, Wolverine, and Ghostrider would feel he’s a menace, since they never did serious damage like that.

“375th anniversary” does not mean what Marvel thinks it means”
It’s a bad way to phrase it, but I don’t think they’re trying to say 375th Anniversary. I think it’s meant to be that it’s an anniversary issue (I believe they had a lot of the comics listed as Marvels Anniversary) AND it’s the 375th issue.
So it’s an anniversary issue and the 375th issue. 375th (issue) Anniversary Issue. But the way they phrased it was bad.

That run of FF . . . man, I don’t know. We eventually get nonsense like teen Franklin the Psi-Lord as a less-grim version of Cable, Reed’s new half-sister Huntara, his new half-brother (maybe!) Kristoff Vernard, secret identity shenanigans with Lyja as “Laura Green”, Ant-Man’s time as resident genius, completely unnecessary spinoff–it’s like the powers that be told DeFalco to make the book more like the X-Men.

Which, granted, he did a very good job at showing why that was a bad idea.

But I’d still rather have that version of Nathaniel Richards than the one Hickman gave us.

DeFalco is a fairly decent writer with inspired moments who is at his best when writing single-character stories that reflect his old-fashioned Marvel style and focusing on that alone. Back then he was doing too many things at the same time and with FF he was trying to channel the more violent, louder, sexier, grimmer and grittier 90′s for post-Image Marvel which is not something he was very adept at. Ryan is an OK penciler but he needs goods inks and colors. What he got in FF was not what he needed.

These were garbage. The only eras of FF that were ever worse were Heroes Reborn and the volume that just ended.

The miscoloured version of Sue’s costume in the second-to-last panel of the first page with it didn’t look nearly bad as the real version, I have to say.

That period of FF was terrible. Such nice art, such pointless and never-ending storylines. Questions kept being raised, answers took forever and turned out to be lame and unconvincing. All the time. Characterization was miserable. Lots of continuity hints, but nothing meaningful ever came up from that.

For instance, this arc mentions that Doctor Strange is having some sort of trouble that he is hiding from his own allies. But instead of, you know, using that on the plot in a meaningful way, it is just a throwaway line with hardly any consequences. It sort of assumes that you are already tantalized by Doc’s book and following it, and seeing its existence acknowledged here is a thrill.

Marketing in the 1990s was just so insane, so excess-driven. From looking at the product, one would think somehow all the decision-makers had suddenly regressed in mental age to their eight-to-twelves. It was that immature.

Maybe it was drugs?

@Adam: hey, I do not buy books that attempt to make a team out of Doc, Spidey and Wolverine. Do you?

@Jason McNamara: that is not Johnny Blaze. This is the second Ghost Rider, the ridiculously over-hyped and underwritten Danny Ketch.

[…] or Good? is back this week with a look at the Tom DeFalco/Paul Ryan era on Marvel’s “first family” the Fantastic Four. In this installment, I look at a five-part arc (FF #371-375) that featured two separate gimmick […]

Ethan Shuster

March 1, 2014 at 8:52 am

I’ve always been a bigger DC fan, so sometimes I forget that in the 90s when DC was killing Superman, breaking Batman’s back, replacing Green Lantern, etc, Marvel was trying to “shake things up”, too.

At the time I remember being really put off by Paul Ryan’s art, to the point that whenever I saw it on a book it would take a lot for me to buy it. I especially hated him on FF. So it kind of surprises me to see these pages today and realize I now find the art wonderful. Looking at those pages, for the life of me I can’t figure out why exactly I disliked him so much at the time. Those are beautiful pages.

I remember he gave Johnny Storm an atrocious mullet at the time, so that may have played a role.

i find Paul Ryan’s art more pedestrian than almost any other artist. People talk about Dan Jurgen’s art being MOR, but i think Paul’s art here is very lackluster. i bought FF from this period to when Reed & Doom ‘died’ and were both brought back. i kept waiting for the book to get better, but it only got worse.

Such a bad time for the FF!

In the first issue of Secret Defenders (I’ve only read three of them), Strange selected the membership by drawing random tarot cards. So it might make sense to have a team made up of seemingly illogical choices if some cosmic power were aware that these specific members would in fact be needed. So if victory in this story had depended on some certain skills or knowledge possessed by Wolverine, Hulk, Ghost Rider, and Spider-Man, then it would have been all right, even if none of the characters could’ve known ahead of time. I haven’t read these issues, but I really doubt that that’s the way it worked out.

Most likely, the only cosmic power bringing these characters together was the Marketing Department.

This isn’t Tribe #1 as per the first paragraph.

“@Jason McNamara: that is not Johnny Blaze. This is the second Ghost Rider, the ridiculously over-hyped and underwritten Danny Ketch.”
Actually he was referring to the partial armor that John Blaze was wearing during that time period, not the Ghost Rider that is appearing in the picture.

Horrible times for the FF. This run is sort of like “the worst of both worlds”. It tried to be classic Lee/Kirby and it tried to be gritty at the same time, and it always felt like Falco was just going thru the motions. Seeing as how I was a huge fan of the FF at the time due to Byrne and Simonson’s excellent runs, I never forgave Tom de Falco for it. Paul Ryan was fine, though.

The thing about the FF… they’re not very adaptable. They’re not like the Avengers, that basically can work in a variety of modes and moods and can change with the times. They only ever work for writers that can do the crazy, big science fiction adventures with a moderate amount of family-friendly angst. The FF works best when one channels that 1960s atmosphere.

So sad.

Loved DeFalco’s Spidey and Thor, but his run here went off the rails real fast.

I disliked the “Alicia is a Skrull” ret-con, but moreover, I found myself just completely bored by the whole thing about 4 issues into the run.

Nice rebound with Spider-Girl though (for my reading pleasure at least).

You know, back in the day, it didn’t seem quite so bad. That might have been because my kids were babies back then and I was sleep deprived. But I just re-read this run of my FF’s, and it did cause a lot of “head-shaking”. Such a product of the times.

Dude, Sleepwalker #19 when?

Is it bad that I actually LOVED that issue as a kid? I think I still have it somewhere.

Sue’s outfit is out of character and insulting? The entire issue is out of character and insulting!

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