New Reviews of Old Comics
Does John Byrne’s run on Fantastic Four rank up there with Miller Daredevil, Moore Swamp Thing, or Simonson Thor? Arguably definitive turns with not only those particular characters, but comic books as a whole. I’ve really enjoyed the Byrne FF issues I’ve read over the years and apart from the Lee/Kirby run, they’re among my favorite issues for this classic title.
The previously mentioned John Byrne is responsible for the story and art in “The Lady Is for Burning!” He also drew himself on the cover, and looking an awful lot like Ralphie from A Christmas Story too, but I digress. The story opens with Johnny Storm (aka the Human Torch) being flashed as much as the Comic Code Authority will allow by a leggy red-head with memory issues. As Frankie Raye is telling Johnny what she remembers she suddenly bursts into flame and flies out through the roof of her apartment. Thankfully Johnny has a little experience with bursting into flame so he’s able to pursue and offer some guidance. The newly discovered powers also brought newly discovered memories. Frankie was the step-daughter of the guy who created the original, WWII era Human Torch robot. As a 14 year old girl Frankie was helping her step-father clean out the old warehouse by carrying a 20 gallon drum when the floor broke causing her to trip and be covered in chemicals. This is how new super-heroes (or villains) are born. The ever curious Reed Richards is only too happy to do some research and let Frankie know more about her powers, which leads to the conclusion she’s basically a feminine Human Torch, even offering her a spot on the Fantastic Five. Elsewhere, someone in Arizona needs the kind of help only the Fantastic Four can offer, but that’s something for next issue. Since that was kind of short we get a flashback to the early Fantastic Four issues with a pin-up page; a rather professional looking Sue Richards sitting on a bookcase that probably gives some insight into John Byrne’s reading habits of 1981. Since the first story focused on the Human Torch, the second story has The Thing starring in “The More Things Change..” written and drawn by John Byrne with Terry Austin on the inks. Reed is working on a Herbie robot (from the cartoon series, remember?) to be a play buddy for Franklin with The Thing and Alicia walk in. Once again Reed has a new crazy gizmo that will turn The Thing back into Ben Grimm; for sure this time; no really. This is a big deal. Ben has never been comfortable being The Thing, he’s always wanted to live a normal life. After some discussion Ben agrees to subject himself to yet another experiment. Does it go well? No, of course it doesn’t. If it did, this wouldn’t be a Fantastic Four comic. After the machine blows up and smoke dissipates, The Thing emerges looking like a devolved version of himself. Whereas he was a moving pile of rocks a couple pages earlier he is now a giant, orange lump looking more like Kirby originally drew him.
This was a very good Fantastic Four issue. Byrne’s stories, both of them were very enjoyable with humor, plot movement, inside references for long time fans and of course his art was nothing less than exceptional, which was the norm for Byrne at this point (and going forward). If I’m not mistaken Byrne’s Fantastic Four run was a turning point for the world of mainstream (i.e. Marvel & DC) comics; something key was missing from this issue, a fight scene. From Johnny and Frankie Ray to The Thing, this issue was all about character development and had nothing to do with stopping yet another super villain trying to dominate the world or some other criminal pursuit. Yeah, character development was always a hallmark of the early Marvel titles, but they always involved a series of fight scenes to some extent. Do we really read comics to see some over-muscled lug heads duke it out? Nah. We’re invested in the characters, we care about the continuity of their overall story and we want to see what happens to them. Thankfully John Byrne understood that, pursued it and writers that came after him were able to continue by developing good stories with intriguing characters.