“It’s unreal! Who’d have thought we’d be wasted by an enemy which doesn’t exist?”
Returning from their last adventure, Reed, Johnny, and Ben are attacked by an enemy which they claim doesn’t exist. In a flashback, we see their first encounter with “the Man in the Mystery Mask”. Back in the early days of the Fantastic Four, Johnny and Ben have a falling out with Reed and leave the team together. They are approached with the opportunity to race two jet-powered cars, and they accept. The cars’ controls have been rigged, however, and it sends them both into the interior of a hollow mountain, where a masked man fights with them, always having the upper hand. Once Johnny and Ben realize that they are defeated, the masked man reveals himself to be Reed Richards; the three reconcile. In the present, all three of them fight the new man wearing the same mask, who has even more powerful and impressive gadgets and tricks than before. This time, however, the masked man is defeated and revealed to be Nick Fury, who has been testing some of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new weapons and gadgets. He disappears, leaving the Fantasticar a complete wreck.
This issue shouldn’t work since it’s essentially the equivalent of a sitcom clip show. What has happened here is that a twelve page story from Strange Tales 127 (Dec., 1964) has been slotted into this one and a framing story added to fill it out to a standard comic length. A pretty cheap trick.
It shouldn’t work, but it does. The flashback story has a real Year One authenticity that is almost impossible to fake — and obviously it hasn’t been in this case. It is a tale by Stan Lee and Dick Ayers, and the short, quasi-apocryphal story actually shows a meaningful moment of realization in the character of the Fantastic Four as a group, as well as a firm rebuttal to the argument that Reed Richards is the least powerful member of the FF. It’s kind of hokey and transparent (the man in the mustache who gives Johnny and Ben their cars is obviously Reed), but it’s fun. Reed’s desire to prove himself to his teammates is just as human and relatable as Johnny and Ben’s desire to define themselves away from a man who has become a father figure. At the end of the story, the mens’ relational dynamic has changed — they are teammates again, a group of equals.
The framing story itself is fairly interesting. Who is wearing the mask is a really good question, and Nick Fury isn’t the immediate answer that one would leap to, but it does make sense when explained. Even though the framing story doesn’t finish at quite the same emotional pitch, and it isn’t explained how Nick Fury came to wear an outfit that there is no reason for him to ever known about. His excuse that he was just testing some new gadgets is immediately undercut — and quite rightly so — by the three FF members looking at a ruined street with their totaled Fantasticar in the middle of it.
Annoyingly, the female characters are written out again, for the umpteenth time (ironically after a three-issue story about gender equality, they now become non-entities), but this time it feels excusable. The male members are undergoing a disassembly and study, and that’s valid. Ideally, this should be balanced out by the female members of the team, now Sue, Medusa, and Thundra, but one doesn’t quite feel able to hold out hope for that.
What the reader comes away with at the end of this story is just the strength and uniqueness of the Fantastic Four as a title and a team. They are a family, yes, and the most successful superhero family in history, but they are more than that as well — they are also a team; a team made of strong individuals, and as always stronger than the sum of those individual parts.