156. Middle Game

Fantastic Four 156

Issue One Hundred and Fifty-Six, March 1975

This is power, you whimpering oaf! The image of a boot stamping endlessly upon the upturned face of a cringing humanity –– or an armored hand across a quivering lip! This is power!

Doctor Doom watches on his viewscreen as the Silver Surfer battles the Fantastic Four, who are completely helpless before his power cosmic. Morally unable to kill them, the Surfer nonetheless delivers them to Doom in a hypnotic trance. After sparring with each other and displaying their powers, Doom puts the FF into specially designed cages and directs the weary Surfer to a chair and allows Shalla-Bal to be near him. Retiring to his viewing chamber again, he is too focused on the Silver Surfer to notice that the FF have escaped from their prison. Arriving with some of his specially designed androids, he attempts to defeat them himself, but once the FF turn the tables on him, Doom turns out to be a robot himself. The real Victor Von Doom never left the viewing chamber, where he was making sure that the Surfer stayed in his chair, that was specially designed to analyse and duplicate the Power Cosmic in order to imbue it onto someone else.

The excitement and tension from the last issue are carried over perfectly in this one. The pace is still slow, but it works very hard. For the first two thirds of the book, the only active characters in it are the Silver Surfer and Doctor Doom — the Fantastic Four are just chattel. Doom refers to them as gaming pieces, and that is exactly how they are treated, outclassed by an ineffably powerful cosmic being and a ruthless evil genius.Fantastic Four 156

This allows for the most original and brilliant element of the issue to play comfortably in the fore. This is a discussion and show of power between Doom and the Surfer, in which both debate the true nature of power, whether it is to destroy, or to create. At one point Doom unwittingly quotes George Orwell, saying that power is only power if it is to be used, where the Surfer argues that power is pointless if only used for power’s sake, and a powerful man is only greater than the power he wields if he can restrain it from ruling his conscience. It is a dramatic debate, perhaps without much philosophical depth, but with emotional meaning and a satisfying lack of resolution. It is not an entrenched debate, however. For the Surfer, refusing to bend to Doom’s bullying, shows that he can easily use his power destructively. And although it is in Doom’s nature to destroy, he takes pains to make the point to the surfer that he also can use his power to recreate something that the Surfer himself had destroyed.

This shows the complexity of both characters, and Doom is finally revealed to have the upper hand when he fakes out the FF and manipulates the Surfer into allowing him to study his Cosmic Power. So often the Doombots are used just as a ploy to allow Doom himself to escape from a story, but here one is used logically and to plot effect. Of course Doom wouldn’t busy himself in grappling with the FF while he was on the cusp of understanding a power such as that which the Silver Surfer wields.

And once the FF do become active again, we see them working seamless as a team. They do not bicker, and while Reed lays unconscious, Ben takes a turn as the brains of the group, freeing Johnny, who then becomes the muscle. It’s an wonderful moment of inversion, and only makes the stakes that much higher since an FF that is operating at the top of their game has been hopelessly outmatched by even just one of the two titanic forces that they are caught between.Fantastic Four 156

And special mention must be drawn again to Rich Buckler who is using his storytelling abilities in a very exciting way. There is more abstraction in his pages. He uses harmonized images and jarring sequences very effectively. When the Surfer starts to lose the mental battle against Doom, he starts to obscure himself, visually collapsing inwards. He champions his own mental restrain, but cannot put any effective defense up against Doom’s madness who, meanwhile, is expansive and flamboyant. The themes of the story are perfectly realized visually by an artist who we have just seen ascend to a higher level of visual narrative.


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