“Soon, my personal power will be greater than ever before! And I will conquer — as is my destiny!“
The Fantastic Four are adrift in the Negative Zone, and at the mercy of Annihilus. He takes them to a fortress where he is holding Susan Richards, Franklin, and Agatha Harkness prisoner. The FF try to defeat him, but their powers are seemingly ineffectual and they are thwarted and placed into a prison cell. Meanwhile, Alicia Masters lands in Europe and a man calling himself “Doctor Hans Stutgart” takes her into his care. Back in the Negative Zone, Medusa enables the FF’s escape by letting them climb out of prison on her hair. Once out, the FF decide to get as far away from the fortress as possible and encounter Negative Zone creatures which they fight. At that time, Annihilus has started to tap into Franklin’s powers, which are seemingly very vast. Deciding it is time to rescue his wife and son, Reed and the others go back, break into Annihilus’s fortress, and defeat him. Franklin’s abilities have been unlocked now and his power is amassing almost tangibly around him. Agatha Harkness sends the FF back to the real world and Reed, fearful of his son’s powers, shoots him with an anti-matter ray gun and this not only drains him of his powers, but puts him in a vegetative state. Shocked by this action, Ben also leaves the Fantastic Four.
This is a rather uneven issue, and there are a list of some strange narrative choices that serve to either confuse or debunk the tension carried over from the previous issue. To start with, Annihilus is no longer as powerful as he was a few minutes ago when he bested the Fantastic Four in the Baxter Building, but he is now apparently sapping their powers because he is losing his. To do this, we are told he is using his Cosmic Control Rod, but we never see this happen, we are only told it. Indeed, a great deal of action seems to happen between the panels of the different fights, and we are told exactly what happened in narration boxes. Annihilus in fact, only uses his Control Rod once, at the end of the book.
Next, there is the prison room which the FF are placed in where no window is to be seen, and yet a few panels later the FF are seen scaling down the side of it using Medusa’s hair. They leave, feeling too weak to fight, but then return again in the very next scene after fighting Negative Zone creatures, and throughout no indication is given of their powers having returned.
Their defeat of Annihilus is likewise a head-scratching moment because their first two attempts to beat him into submission failed, but this one has now apparently worked. Reed at one point claims that they had gained the upper hand through subterfuge but exploding through a floor and smacking someone in the head while shouting “subterfuge”, isn’t quite the definition of that word.
Agatha Harkness’s betrayal is very lightly glossed over. It should have been assumed by the reader up to now that she has a card in reserve that will play a key element in Annihilus’s defeat, but no. What has apparently happened in the lead-up to this finale is that Annihilus captured her, used Susan’s trust to lure her into the Negative Zone as her prisoner — and Agatha did all these things fairly willingly, and more than that, at times she actively discourages Sue from attempting to stop the creature who is abusing her son. Not only that, throughout the encounter she claims to have her powers greatly weakened, but just moments later she is able to transport seven people all the way back to their own world.
And looming over these inconsistencies is the larger one of Annihilus’s use of Franklin Richards. It is revealed in this issue — which supports oblique comments in the last — that Annihilus knows of Franklin’s powers, although his and Sue’s reaction in tapping into them in this issue suggest that he has not used them before. The question is why? Why go to all the trouble to defeat the FF, drag them back into the Negative Zone to gloat over, defeat, and imprison them, when he already had Franklin and the machine ready to go? Why didn’t he just use it to drain Franklin, make himself incredibly powerful, and then go after the rest of the world?
The only reason for this nonsense — as well as all the little scenes leading up to this story that had been peppered through the issues of the last year or so — is to arrive at the final scene of this issue which is genuinely, horrifically shocking. It’s one of the most terrifying and compelling compositions of Fantastic Four history, showing a concerned father shooting his son with a gun to stop him from using powers which may or may not (for they have not yet proved to be) destructive, while he is still in the arms of his mother. And the brilliance of this scene is that we don’t know if Reed is justified in this or not — we assume he must be since we know that he would never do anything cruel to Franklin. But not even he knows exactly what is going on — he only suspects it could be universally disastrous and that he can’t risk the chance not to stop it if he can. However, there is only one thing he can do and he doesn’t know to what extent the ray he shoots him with will have. And his actions are effective, but they are not revealed to be immediately beneficial. Franklin does not recover with a smile on his face, he appears to be completely comatose. And so we also sympathize with Sue when she accuses him of not loving his son by treating him that way — at the very least we do not blame her for feeling the way she does. Likewise with Ben when he calls Reed’s actions abominable and walks out on the team (yet again). It was a hard decision because there were going to be consequences for the action either way, and Reed is now having to face the immediate ones.