136. Rock Around the Cosmos

Fantastic Four Issue 136

Issue One Hundred and Thirty-Six, July 1973

“Wish things were like they wuz in the Fifties…”

Recovering from their last battle, the Fantastic Four leave Gideon for dead and take his son Thomas back to their headquarters to try and cure them. After they’ve left, one of Gideon’s henchmen stalks out of the rubble, glowing for an unexplained reason. He reminisces about how things used to be better twenty years ago and just then a ghostly figure called The Shaper appears and, generally speaking, grants him his wish and reshapes the world to be more in line with 1950’s society, albeit with gangs on flying bikes. It is one of these gangs which attacks the FF and, inexplicably, carries off Medusa and Johnny, leaving Reed and Ben to be picked up by an apparently governmental body. Both sides of the team are interrogated in a way which apparently brainwashes them and they are told that they must capture a scientist called The Brain who is hiding with the most deadly weapon in the world. They are both tasked to find this scientist and capture the weapon and bring it back.

136companyThere have been many extremes in the past — we’ve gone from one of the worst stories ever, to some of the best hidden gems, the most ridiculous, and the most profoundly emotional — but this has to be, hands-down, the most confusing… and probably the most unnecessary. For a start, the story has nothing to do with what has gone before in the Fantastic Four, and the emotional subplots are all practically abandoned. The alternate present idea is naturally full of holes (why is everyone except the FF transplanted? Where are the other heroes?) and way too much is set up way too quickly, and really, there doesn’t seem to be a reason for any of it. The central issue at discussion, “were things better in the 1950s?”, is so bizarrely irrelevant, I can’t imagine what was happening in 1973 to make the creators of this issue choose this question, this time period even, as a leaping-off point for this issue. Perhaps in the light of the Vietnam War and the still-shaky reorientation to the social reorientations of the 1960s, it was a very live issue, but here it is presented with almost no context whatsoever. All we know is that a character so minor that it couldn’t even be picked out of a crowd in the previous issue expresses some internal regrets about the turns his life has taken, and an omni-powerful alien appears and grants him his heart’s wishes — to a degree. The contrivance hardly seems justified under the circumstances because it is shown to almost no character effect.

136runowIt turns out that life really wasn’t better in the 1950s… or wherever it is now that we have greasers on flying motorcycles and g-men in star-spangled suits and, again, bizarrely, 3D glasses. Gang violence was an apparent downside (although their overt menace is rather undercut by the fact that they are only armed with guitars), as was also quasi-fascism in the form of Senator McCarthy (here thinly disguised as “McHammer”). Both rebellious youth and overbearing establishment have not only the same motives but also the same modi in brainwashing outsiders to do their will (which only opens up another plot hole — why are brainwashed operatives any better tools than non-brainwashed ones?).

There could have been something here, but it is so astoundingly poorly paced. Not only is the world poorly conceived, but so is the plot, and the characters’ involvement in it. If only one of these elements showed some originality and invention, that could have saved the story from being so dispassionately bewildering. As it is, the one intriguing element of the confused mix is a type of antagonist which we haven’t seen before, but who sadly suffers from being almost completely unthreatening.


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