Friday, January 14, 2011

Fantastic Four Fridays: The Devil Went Down to Latveria, Lookin' for a Soul to Steal...

Fantastic Four #157 (April 1975)
"The Endgame Cometh!"
Roy Thomas-Rich Buckler/Joe Sinnott
Zugzwang = a situation in which a player is limited to moves that cost pieces or have a damaging positional effect.

Doug: Yep, Rascally Roy used that word above as the title for section two of our little tale. I thought he'd thrown me for a loop back in the Silver Age when he'd more-than-once used the term "brobdingnagian" to describe Typhon or Goliath, but then he busted this one out! Needless to say, I followed the advice in the little editorial box and looked it up. And a more appropriate term could not have been used to describe the last acts of this Dr. Doom/Surfer trilogy of issues. I think when we near the finish of today's post, my partner and I will have much to say about the ending of this yarn!

Doug: Karen's remarked several times about Buckler's panel lay-outs. We've not really thrown in any words on camera angles, but the splash to this one certainly has an interesting p.o.v. And I think it really sums up some of our previous comments, namely the proportion of Ben Grimm as a 6-footer and not some hulking (pun intended) giant as he's drawn today, and the odd shoulder physicality (I referred to a couple of panels in our discussion of FF #155 as looking somewhat like "stock poses" for Buckler). Overall I really like the page -- it's just sort of quirky.

Karen: It's an odd choice, as we really can't see the faces of our foursome. But the view of the shattered Doom robot is the point. Buckler does a good job of conveying Ben's frustration over the many times they've fought Doom only to discover it was simply a robot duplicate.

Doug: We again get a recap of the story's previous events, but this one's much shorter than the 5-page job we got last issue. This is actually a plot vehicle to introduce one of the new super-baddies present in the finale -- the Doomsman II android. If you'll recall, Dr. Doom had the Surfer seated on a chair that had the ability to drain the Power Cosmic from the Surfer and transfer it to the waiting android. It's reminiscent of a scene from a Frankenstein film, but it works. The Doomsman is a large fellow, imbued with the voice and energies of the Surfer. You know, I'm glad they drew him with more detail inside the story; on the cover, I thought he looked an awful lot like Nuklo!

Karen: Unfortunately the design of the Doomsman II is fairly boring. I can see why he reminded you of Nuklo, as both are mostly yellow in color. I did like the way Buckler drew this sequence, so it seemed that Doom was addressing the reader.

Doug: We cut away, then, to see what our seated Surfer is up to. Doom left him in the company of Shalla Bal, or at least the girl who we are led to believe is the love of Norrin Radd. By the way, Buckler's got the girl in some Daisy Dukes, doesn't he?? Anyway, they talk, and she laments that her memory of their previous time together is virtually non-existent. But suddenly she refers to the Surfer by his human name, a name none on Earth know. He is alarmed, and she seems to be on the verge of an epiphany when she kisses him.

Karen: Ya know, for a guy with so much power, who has seen so many amazing things, the Surfer just doesn't seem very bright. The whole thing reeks of a set-up. But I guess he's desperate to believe it.

Doug: Cut back to the Four, who are now in dire straits as their escape is about to be thwarted -- in more ways than one. We get the usual walls-closing-in trick (see any movie with a castle, Star Wars, etc.), which Reed handles in a pretty neat way. I'm not sure I recall him ever getting that thin in order to accomplish a goal; I do recall an issue where he compressed himself to about the size of a golf ball,, but not this thin. However, once free, things head downhill pretty rapidly as a wall suddenly bursts to reveal the all-new Doomsman! He's large and in charge, and in no mood for messing around. He handles our heroes quite easily.

Karen: What would a fight with Dr. Doom be without the requisite traps? Of course, the FF will find a way out, that's a given. I'm not sure if we'd seen Reed ever stretch so thin, but did you catch his remark about having "a little trouble getting my shape back"? I think it was a bit later in Roy's run that we discovered Reed was losing his ability to stretch.

Doug: Just an aside here on our cast -- how useless has Medusa been in this 3-parter? For the most part, totally useless. She's a candidate throughout for our peer Bob Mitchell's "It Sucks Being Sue Storm" feature!

Karen: I've always thought Medusa had one of the least-useful super-powers. Heck, I don't even know if you can consider 'controllable hair' a super-power. Seems more like an oddity to me. What's she going to do -tickle people into submission?

Doug: Back to the Surfer and Shalla Bal, they are distraught as they continue the pangs-of-love discussion. Do you think there is a more tortured soul in all the Marvel Universe than the Silver Surfer? Maybe Bruce Banner, but I think whoever would be next in line is pretty distant. Anyway, the Surfer thwarts an attempt on Shalla Bal's life, and then speeds away to assist the FF against the Doomsman. He easily turns the tide of battle; one has to wonder if he didn't win it outright by himself, somehow reclaiming his Power Cosmic.

Karen: The FF were pretty ineffectual against the Doomsman. Odd how the Doomsman pleaded not to fight the Surfer -was he merely terrified of his power, or was there some deeper connection there, like the feeling of fighting himself?

Doug: OK, what follows is the beginning of a very strange ending. I was aware of the page count as the climactic battle began, and thought that it was going to be one heckuva slugfest. But the Doomsman got put down so quickly that he seemed to be an afterthought to the plot. OK, then knockdown, dragout against Dr. Doom. Uh uh -- as that one was getting rolling, in came Shalla Bal (or should I say Helena, who she claimed to be -- used by Doom as a doppelganger to get the Surfer under his control), and her cries against wrecking Castle Doom were immediately heeded. What's that, you say? Some girl stopped Marvel's flagship super-team from pounding Marvel's greatest menace, just like that? Yep. And on account of saving the cultural history of the nation of Latveria, stored in Castle Doom. Although I had a big case of "what the?!?" as this unfolded, I was taken back to some curriculum work I'd done for a film entitled The Rape of Europa. That documentary is about the Nazis' heist of priceless works of art during WWII, and their careless regard for timeless, priceless treasures including works dating to the Renaissance. So with that in mind, I thought her pleas were appropriate.

Karen: Yeah, I was befuddled by this screeching halt to the story. Everyone is blasting each other, fists flying, and suddenly we have to stop because of the cultural art works? Not something you'd normally see in a comic. Then again, as we've seen in other stories with Doom, his status as a head of state seem to affect the ability of our heroes to deal with him. But that was odd indeed. And it would only get more perplexing...

Doug: But then, Doom inexplicably let the FF leave. Doom give in to a peasant girl? Bah! But he did. And then it got even more weird. The last three pages of the story feature Mephisto, in a demonic tell-all of his machinations throughout this story against the one whom he hates most: the Silver Surfer! We find that Helena (aptly named) was indeed Shalla Bal, and had been in Latveria for well over a year (Marvel time)! All of this was explained in a fashion that... was great. I loved it! While I was reading it, I was somewhat incredulous at what was unfolding. But when the book had ended, I thought that Roy had closed this one out with some style, wrapping a whole lot of Marvel elements into this one tale. Reflecting, the creators of this story were for the most part spot-on in the characterization dept., the art was top-notch, and the pay-off had some punch. I loved it!

Karen: Well there were a number of twists and turns here. It was like watching an episode of Law and Order: SVU. I didn't enjoy this quite as much as you did, Doug. It was clever yet not as satisfying as I'd like. Again, for a cosmic-powered being, the Surfer comes across so clueless. How in the world would Shalla Bal be there in the first place? Why wasn't he more questioning? I've never been a fan of Mephisto, so that also left me cold. But it was still a fun read, if a bit of a let-down at the end.

Doug: We're going to continue over the next two weeks with the next story -- Fantastic Four #'s 158-159, a visit to the 5th Dimension! Wonder if we'll see Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. there? Stay tuned!!


david_b said...

Thanks for FF Fridays (looking forward to going back to Foom Fridays though..). I've only got ish 156, so I hoping to get the rest up to at least Medusa's departure.

Totally agreed on the nice story-telling, and Medusa's inactivity. Growing in these pages to become a favorite and near-integral member after the last few years, it was a big disappointment that her final issues didn't often involve her more..

Anonymous said...

Fond memories of this era!

'nuff said!

Anonymous said...

I've never seen this cover before. Fantastic! Thanks.


Steve Does Comics said...

The ending sounds like a hark-back to The Fantastic Four #87 where Doom kills his Nazi henchman for wilfully endangering his art collection and then lets the FF go, rather than risk it being destroyed in a fight. It seems Doom values his cultural artefacts above his desire to defeat the Fantastic Four.

Dougie said...

As a memeber of the Frightful Four- and one of Marvel's very few villainesses- Madame Medusa was imperious and dangerous. With the introduction of the Inhumans, however, she was reduced to Black Bolt's handmaiden.
With hindsight, I think she's therefore one of the least effective replacement FF members. Although Conway tried to bring some of his trademark 70s female consciousness-raising to one issue, she was never as impressive as she had been in her 60s tryouts in Marvel Super Heroes and Spider-Man.

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