Fantastic Four #178
A goofy and wonderful tangle of story from Roy Thomas, with spectacular art by George Perez, pretty much at the top of his game for Marvel. It’s all wrapped up in the bizarre continuity of counter-earth, where there is a Reed Richards who doesn’t stretch and who is a maniac — and also The Brute! (Jonathan Hickman was only five when this came out, so you can’t blame him). The Fantasic Four have been captured by the Frightful Four, and they’re all strapped to a crazy-looking windmill while the bad guys — led by Reed Richards’ double, who is in his underwear and smoking a pipe — decide what to do with them! Smash ‘em? Hold ‘em for ransom? Hey, why not both?
Cool action in the back half of the book, when the FF inevitably break loose and kick butt. Thundra and Tigra are here, too, because why not? The “Four” in Fantastic Four was always advisory, not a hard and fast rule. The good guys win and the evil Reed is ejected into the Negative Zone, but our good Reed can never stretch again. BUT WAIT, IT IS ALL A PLOY … it is the GOOD Reed that got shot into another dimension, while the evil version has pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. Why wasn’t I reading this book in 1977? It’s a gas!
- Script: Roy Thomas
- Pencils: George Perez
- Inks: Dave Hunt
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Avengers: Infinity War arrives in U.S. theaters this week, and it is safe to say that if you have been following Marvel’s movies for the last decade or so, then it all adds up to this!
With interest in the Avengers and their arch-villain Thanos at an all-time fever pitch, this seemed a good time to reprint a suitably-updated version of my review of The Infinity Gauntlet, first published as Longbox Graveyard #53!
Like many of the geeks reading this blog I fairly came out of my seat when I saw Thanos in the Avengers end credits. He’s one of my favorite Marvel bad guys (celebrated in a recent Panel Gallery) and the backbone of fondly-remembered Captain Marvel and Warlock runs that were among the first books I reviewed here at Longbox Graveyard.
For the last several years, Thanos has been teased in a host of Marvel movies, and with Infinity War it seems we will finally get Thanos himself front-and-center, taking on the Avengers and seemingly every other hero in the Marvel Universe. Now, Thanos is a tough dude, but even he couldn’t take on those kinds of numbers by himself. Fortunately for those of us who love bad guy, Thanos isn’t alone … it looks like he has the Infinity Gauntlet. And if that is the case, then the odds are actually on Thanos’ side!
Fan speculation about the Infinity Gauntlet began even before Avengers debuted. Sharp-eyed viewers spotted the Gauntlet in Odin’s treasure room during 2011’s Thor, and Marvel took an Infinity Gauntlet prop on the road with them to various cons and trade shows.
Put Thanos, the Avengers, and the Infinity Gauntlet together, and it’s small wonder the Infinity Gauntlet graphic novel was “flying off the shelves” as long ago as 2012 when I bought a copy at the cosmically awesome House of Secrets comic shop in Burbank, California. It appears a least a few fans of Marvel’s billion-dollar franchise were eager to get ahead of the curve and soak up all the Thanos and Infinity Gauntlet lore that they could.
I recommend the terrific “Thanos For Beginners” primer that Mars Will Send No More put together if you want to know everything about this classic Avengers villain, but for now it’s enough to note that Thanos is a Death God from Titan, a superpowered alien obsessed with Death personified in female form, whom he courts as a lover. Unfortunately for Thanos (and everyone else), Death doesn’t much care for Thanos, driving the Titan to greater and still greater acts of murder as he tries to win her favor.
Back in those Captain Marvel and Warlock runs, Thanos threatened to destroy our solar system, leaning heavily on the Cosmic Cube (or “Tesseract,” as they call it in the movies). But for the Infinity Gauntlet limited series, Thanos took his game to the next level, using the Gauntlet to annihilate half the life in the universe with a snap of his fingers. (For starters).
How did Thanos come by such awesome power?
Following one of his many resurrections, Thanos collected the “Infinity Gems,” cosmic MacGuffins affording all sorts of nifty magic powers. Binding them together in a gauntlet, Thanos became a god with power over time, space, and dimension — kind of like Sauron, Darth Vader, and Dick Cheney all rolled into one.
With that kind of power in Thanos’ grasp, the only solution was to create a big, sprawling mini-series, authored by Jim Starlin, and illustrated (for awhile, at least), by George Perez, who has made a career out of drawing these every-superhero-in-the-universe team-up books. The six issue series uses the entire universe as the setting for the ultimate battle between good and evil.
It’s not just the Marvel heroes that get into the act — Starlin puts out a casting call for every cosmic god in the Marvel Universe, too. Odin and the Sky Fathers are stuck in Asgard, thanks to a shattered Rainbow Bridge, but more space gods than you can shake a stick at respond to the call, including Galactus, Eternity, a couple Celestials, and less well-known gods like the Living Tribunal.
It’s this very scope of the book that most undermines the drama. When half the Marvel Universe is wiped out in your first issue, it’s not a matter of “if” — but “when” and “how” — the carnage will be undone. It’s fun, in a disaster-movie sort of way, to watch California slide into the ocean and see Manhattan in ruins — but because we know it must all be set right somehow, it’s hard to take the story seriously.
(Though I will admit to some retroactive cathartic glee in seeing Trump Tower among the wreckage)
What we really have here is an apocalyptic wrapper for a bigass superhero beat down, and in this Infinity Gauntlet delivers. The defense of creation is led by Adam Warlock, who rounds up the requisite Avengers and other Marvel heroes to keep Thanos distracted by beating on his head. Warlock maneuvers to checkmate his old foe by playing on Thanos’ weaknesses, such as the hubris that leads the Titan to create a pretty damn groovy outer space floating palace of death.
But even after awarding her with the next cover feature of Tomb & Garden Magazine, Death still won’t give Thanos the time of day. Finally getting wise to Death’s ways, Thanos throws her under the bus for a woman of his own creation — Terraxia The Terrible — who looks like Oprah Winfry cosplaying Thanos.
Thanos and Oprah
Infinity Gauntlet might span all of time and space, but when the chips are down, it’s still about comic book characters throwing haymakers at each other. And that’s fine with me. It’s genre-appropriate — and even kind of comforting — to debate the nature of good and evil with a smack in the mouth.
It’s not all fist city. Even with such a vast cast of characters beating each other up, Starlin finds time for some nice spotlight scenes, such as a little Hulk/Wolverine bromance over being the toughest guys in the room.
(With the X-Men still beyond the grasp of Marvel Studios, the above scene is on hold, pending completion of the Disney/Fox deal!)
So Infinity Gauntlet really is quite a traditional comic book event, with a universe-devouring threat, and a bunch of heroes solving things with their fists. Kind of like Secret Wars, without all the angst and cross-overs. It does get a little silly at times, but all is redeemed by a solid ending, which sees Thanos defeated in clever fashion (“spolier,” I guess), and the ol’ re-set button punched in a way that I didn’t see coming. I would have preferred that Jim Starlin both draw and write the book (or that George Perez had done the whole series, rather than yield to Ron Lim half way through), but for the most part I’m satisfied with Infinity Gauntlet, for its high stakes action and an overload of Thanos triumphant!
Of course there would be more “Infinity” series to follow, before the property extended into cash grabs and parodies, first as the Infinity Gems sought to bring my beloved Rune and the Ultraverse into the Marvel Universe, and then later as they became fodder for the Pet Avengers.
When I get an Infinity Gauntlet of my own, I’ll wish four decades worth of Marvel comic book continuity into the cornfield.
In the meantime, I’ll wish for Thanos to be handled as well in the next Avengers movie as Loki was handled in the first! Enjoy the show!
Jim Shooter’s Avengers are best remembered for the Korvac Saga, but my personal favorite portion of Shooter’s run is this two-part story from Avengers #161-162. Featuring rich characterization, explosive action, and extraordinarily tight pencils and powerful visual storytelling from artist George Perez, these issues represent the soul of late-1970s Avengers.The 1970s were a golden age for the Avengers. The brand had not yet been diluted by West Coast Avengers or today’s endless spin-off books, and with only one place to go for Avengers action, Marvel lavished the title with their top talent. The decade began with Roy Thomas’ Kree-Skrull War, and continued under Steve Englehart in a series of stories that would test the Avengers both without and within. The era would conclude with a Roger Stern/John Byrne run where the Scarlet Witch would start to show some of the awesome power (and instability) that would later haunt her in Marvel events like The House of M.
Jim Shooter’s editorial reign at Marvel remains a controversial period, but there’s no disputing that Shooter was a superior comic book writer. A genuine savant, Shooter began his career at the tender age of thirteen, writing and drawing for DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, which he would write through that book’s mid-1970s signature run. With Legion, Shooter demonstrated that he could handle ensemble stories that were rich in complicated backstory — skills that would serve him well in this tale of fathers, sons, and Oedipal yearnings.
The action kicks off in issue #161’s “Attacked By The Ant Man!” where Hank Pym has evidently suffered some kind of mental breakdown, accusing the present-day Avengers of being imposters attempting to replace the original vintage versions of those characters, who had first come together with Ant Man to form the team in the pages of Avengers #1.
The fight is on! This being a Silver Age-style Marvel comic, our heroes solve their differences by beating the tar out of each other, showcasing Shooter and Perez at the top of their game. Perez orchestrates the visually-complicated team fight with relish, while Shooter demonstrates his deft touch with expository dialogue — making sure that readers know who each character is, and making clear why a seemingly-insignificant character like Ant Man poses a threat to earth’s mightiest heroes. In the span of four perfect panels, we see how Ant Man can summon a swarm of ants to do his bidding; how those ants exploit Iron Man’s weakness by flooding through the eye-slits of his mask; and how Ant Man retains enough of his full-sized strength to clout Captain America on the jaw.
Shooter isn’t content just to recycle old tropes. After making clear that the Vision’s powers are based on making himself insubstantial, he follows up with a power trick (never used before or since?) where the Vision defeats a swarm of ants with an electrified shock. But that does nothing to stop Ant Man from taking out a pair of Avengers with his patented, grow-suddenly-to-full size sneak attack, expertly set in motion by Perez’s pencils. Part of Shooter’s ethos was to make sure that any readers picking up a comic for the first time would not be completely lost, and this awkward speaking of characters’ names and out-loud restating of action and results is part of that agenda. But it also serves to provide a verbal, character-driven rhythm for these stories, where even veteran readers had something to see, nodding along as familiar characters behaved in believable ways. It’s the kind of storytelling that comics can do especially well, and a strength of the form that is rarely used by current creators. Likewise, having characters speak aloud their internal monologues and footnote the uses and limitations of their powers would never wash on film, but when well-executed in a superhero comic, it is pure four-color fun.
Here Shooter employs his mastery of backstory, rooting Hank’s breakdown in the character’s checkered history. Madness isn’t too much to expect of a character who’s brain has been stressed by a career filled with growing and shrinking powers, and poor Hank has had breakdowns and multiple personalities in his past.The timely arrive of Hank’s wife — Janet Pym, the Wasp — allows the Avengers to get the upper hand, and take stock of what drove Hank off his nut.
Even a transitional scene affords room for Shooter to provide characterization. Here we see the Beast — having only recently joined the team — struggling to fit in with the rest of the Avengers. The Avengers, of course, take all of this in stride, and quickly act to help their fallen friend.
Looking back on these tales, of course, we know that they are Ultron stories, but at the time, his reintroduction was a bit of a shock. His appearance was hinted-at in the preceding issue #160, but Ultron had been out of action since taking a powder in Fantastic Four #150, three years before. That’s a long time for a Marvel super-villian to stay on the bench. While making an indelible mark in his introduction arc circa Avengers #55, I’d argue that it is in these Shooter/Perez stories (which would continue in Avengers #170-171) where Ultron became an A-list Marvel bad guy.
It’s perfectly appropriate for a megalomaniacal rage case like Ultron to state his name during his dramatic entrance (which again helps new readers), and in the fight that follows demonstrates through action the villain’s extraordinary strength and the invulnerability granted by his adamantium body. Iron Man gets humiliated a second time, having cleared those ants out of his helmet only to have his transistors drained by the bad guy. Again we see Shooter’s touch with exposition, leaving no doubt about how Ultron has felled Iron Man.
Round One to Ultron!
It is in issue #162 that the emotional undercurrents of this story are fully realized, as we learn of Ultron’s scheme. Ultron’s plan is deeply disturbed, and revolves around deceiving his creator/father, Hank Pym, into working his will …
Hank’s brains are still too scrambled to see what is coming, but certain of the Avengers begin to entertain dark concerns.
(And as an aside, I think Perez proves himself an especially great Iron Man artist in this issue — I feel like I can see my own reflection in Iron Man’s face plate thanks to the way Perez draws the character).
Meanwhile, back at Ultron’s secret lab, Hank abets his monstrous creation in draining the life force from his own wife, Janet (who by extension is Ultron’s mother!) into the unnamed shell of Ultron’s intended bride. This is the first appearance of Jocasta, a largely-forgotten part-time Avenger who would go on to feature in some pretty decent comics in this era.
But by investing his affections in this mechanical obsession, the previously-impervious Ultron also inherits a liability. His love of his bride makes Ultron vulnerable in new and disturbingly-human ways — a weakness Iron Man is quick to exploit.
It is a mean-spirited way to defeat a villain — a point Shooter skillfully drives home when Black Panther later admonishes Iron Man for attaining victory in such dishonorable fashion — and the Avengers don’t seem to win this battle so much as they attain a temporary reprieve. Ultron quits the field but this conflict is far from resolved.
This two-issue tale has plenty of loose ends … but they’re the right kinds of loose ends, deliberately-unresolved plot threads designed to bring you back the following issue. Hank Pym is still insane, and no one is sure what to make of Jocasta, who as the final panel of this issue indicates played a pivotal-but-secret role in defeating Ultron. How will Janet Pym react to having part of her life force drained into a mechanical being? As far as our heroes are concerned, Captain America, the Beast, and the Scarlet Witch are all dead. Ultron is still on the loose. There’s even a subplot featuring Hawkeye and the Two-Gun Kid (!) that is ready to boil over!
A great Avengers run lays just over the horizon, and these issues are a great place to jump on board. You can get each of them in decent condition for just a little bit more than a contemporary comic book, which is a bargain for a pair of the most iconic Avengers stories ever published. These issues are also a part of Marvel’s growing digital library. They may be non-canonical, insofar as the movies are concerned (where it is Tony Stark — and not Hank Pym — who conceives of Ultron), but they remain among the finest Avengers comics ever published. Excelsior!
This article originally appeared at Stash My Comics.