So here we are, three chapters deep in my self-indulgent imaginings about how I’d reboot the Fantastic Four. After spending some time pondering the basics of the series, and working out who the various characters are and where they’ve been, we finally come around to the meat of the thing: the stories themselves. When I was figuring out how to launch this theoretical reboot, it struck me that a lot of the stuff I wanted to establish right out of the gate is on display in the book’s earliest issues: Doom, Namor, freaks, paranoia, celebrity, Thingbeard…
So I took the first six Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four comics as a template. As you’ll see, I mixed and matched a bit. Combined things, switched up the order of events, and stole concepts from later in the run. Six stories became four. But mostly, this is the first half-year of Fantastic Four, followed by more general plans for stories leading up to the big reveal of Galactus.
Or, well… Actually, what you’ll be getting here is just the first three arcs. Originally, this was one column’s worth of material. But as I went back to polish my notes and make them presentable to an audience who’s not living in my own head… Everything got longer. There were fine points that needed to be explained. And new ideas to explore coming out of those fine points. And then I realized that I hadn’t written an ending for the Dr. Doom story, and…
Yeah. So now it’s two parts. This week, you’ll get the Origin through Dr. Doom. Next time, it’ll be Namor and beyond.
Anyway. Keep in mind that these are basically just detailed plots. I toss in some color here and there, discuss tone and theme and character motivations, detail the occasional scene… And I do toss in some “commentary” stuff at the end of each arc, just to show you where my head’s at on some of this stuff. But mostly, it’s me telling you the story with the details sanded off. I imagine it’s a bit like reading the “history book” parts of The Silmarillion. Except not as, you know, lyrical. Or as good. And without the giant elf list.
Aaannyway… What else? The format’s a bit inconsistent. I do issue-by-issue breakdowns, but some of those issues get titles while others don’t. Just depends. Aaanndd…
Alright. That’s enough introduction. Let’s get on with it…
ARC ONE: FANTASTIC
(Narrated throughout with excerpts from Invisible Woman: Into the Negative Zone by Susan Storm.)
Issue One: Origins
Open as the team enters the Negative Zone in the Breach Craft, coming into contact with an unidentified satellite. In a burst of psychedelia…
…they’re bombarded with THE POWER COSMIC. Cut to the chaos inside. The Breach Craft electrics have blown out, and the team struggles to bring them back on-line. We zero in on each team member in turn, telling the story of how they got there in flashback. Essentially, we’ll be revealing the various histories and relationships of Our Heroes in a piecemeal fashion, jumping back and forth in time until we know it all. This “time out of joint” storytelling will continue throughout the arc.
The Breach Craft systems suddenly (and mysteriously) power back up. Ben initiates the return protocol before collapsing, and the Breach Craft snaps back to its point of origin in the Baxter Building. It glows slightly, and steam rises from it. Their support staff sit shocked for a panel or two, then the team comes pouring out… changed. Reed’s shape is constantly shifting, Johnny bursts into flame, Ben’s become a leathery orange lump, and Sue, screaming in the confusion, slowly becomes invisible. End with a slow close-up, her face and then her lips the only part of her still visible. Then they fade too, leaving only the sound behind… TO BE CONTINUED!
Issue Two: Shapes
Focus on Reed. Lots of weird visuals here. His body starts off as an ever-shifting mass, and he turns into a shapeless man-puddle when he sleeps. We’ll get some internal monologue, stream of consciousness stuff (excerpted from an interview Sue conducted with him later under hypnosis?), that delves into Reed’s shifting, growing consciousness. (See: the Reed issue of Grant Morrison & Jae Lee’s FF: 1234).
He becomes irrational at times, his growing genius leading to arrogance and benevolent megalomania. As his thoughts become more organized, he gains more control over his body and his mind, until he emerges whole. Helped through this process by Bob Baxter, an old friend of Reed’s parents, an investor in the Negative Zone project, and the previous owner of the Baxter Building.
When Reed emerges from his inner journey, Baxter tells him they have a problem… TO BE CONTINUED!
Issue Three: Made for Burning
Focus on Johnny, who has to be isolated in a fire-proof chamber (because of course Reed has a fire-proof chamber). While he can turn his flames on and off when he concentrates, he still tends to burst into flames when he’s excited or upset…
…and that’s not safe for those around him. This is Johnny’s chief hang-up: he’s terrified that he’s going to hurt someone. Baxter tries to teach him meditation to calm him, but (as you can imagine) that doesn’t go very well. I’m seeing some Sterankoesque head-trip sequences, played for laughs at first, but inevitably ending with the people he loves (Sue, Frankie, Wyatt) dying in flames. It’s Reed who finds the breakthrough for him, encouraging Johnny to think of his powers like an engine, something with systems he can break down, understand, and control. Further refinements are inevitable down the line, but in the meantime… Reed welcomes Johnny back to the world, but tells him they have a problem… TO BE CONTINUED!
Issue Four: Changes
Focus on Ben. Homage/rip-off of Paul Chadwick’s Concrete…
…with an exploration of Ben’s strange new physiology, and his problems adjusting to it. There’s some strong dissociation here, with Ben feeling like a stranger in his own body, and having to re-learn how to do basically everything: How to walk without tripping over his own feet or crushing the floor with his footfalls. How to walk around a room without bumping into everything (and, in the process, damaging or destroying it). He even has to learn how to hold onto things, his tough hide’s sense of touch sufficiently weak that his grip reflex doesn’t kick in. And when it does, he tends to over-compensate and crush whatever he’s holding. So in spite of all his power, he’s not coordinated enough initially to use it effectively (this kind of irony pretty much defines Ben’s life from here on out).
On top of this, he changes back to normal once or twice while he’s sleeping, only to revert to his monster body on awakening. These heartbreaking transformations make him desperate to control the change, something he (spoilers!) never learns to master. His efforts only give him a slightly more human form, something akin to his FF #4 appearance…
…rather than the walking orange turd he looks like in the beginning:
He becomes increasingly bitter and angry over time. He also becomes withdrawn, never leaving his room, even though he eventually learns how to move through this suddenly fragile world without breaking it. At issue’s end, he sits contemplating exactly what it might take for him to commit suicide, when Sue Storm bursts in, distraught and quite possibly insane. Wrapped head-to-toe in clumsily-applied bandages, and convinced that Baxter is up to no good, she begs Ben for help. TO BE CONTINUED!
Issue Five: Watch Her Disappear
Focus on Sue. She’s turned invisible, and can’t turn back. This plays havoc with her sense of self, and sometimes she wonders if she’s even there anymore. To combat this, she takes to wearing clothes that cover as much skin as possible: tights, long sleeves, gloves, hats… She even starts wearing dark glasses so people do a better job making eye contact (she tries regular glasses, but then people tend to just stare through her head).
In spite of this, though, she doesn’t withdraw the way her male teammates do. Instead, she’s out about the Baxter Building, being very social and consulting with Baxter on the team’s treatment. She gets frustrated over time, though, her usual patience worn thin by her own mental stress. Slowly, she descends into paranoia. When Baxter locks up the team’s POWER-COSMIC-inrradiated flight suits out of fear that they’re retarding their ability to control their powers, she snaps. Going out naked to spy on Baxter at night, she eventually overhears a damning phone conversation in which he seems to tell another of Reed’s investors (“Victor”) that the team may have to be killed. In a panic, and afraid to return to her room, Sue wraps herself in some bandages she finds in the infirmary and bursts into Ben’s room, begging for his help. TO BE CONTINUED!
Issue Six: Freaks (the Double-Sized Conclusion!)
Open three weeks later. Sue and Ben have escaped the Baxter Building (facing a surprising lack of resistance), and are now living on the run while Ben tries to contact friends in military intelligence (scene: Ben tearing apart the old barbershop secret entrance to SHIELD HQ).
They’ve been hiding with the aid of Rupert Elder, a hideous man with great sensitivity to light.
A social outcast, Elder maintains a hidden network of rooms and tunnels beneath the streets, into which he’s welcomed Our Heroes. But now Ben has exhausted his attempts at getting help, and things with Elder get weird.
He reveals to them that he rules a vast underground kingdom, far larger (and deeper) than they’ve seen. There, he rules over his Mole People, a society of physical, mental, and moral freaks just as outcast from normal society as Elder himself (some of them, a bizarre collection of debauched freaks, creep out of the shadows behind Elder as he delivers this speech). Elder offers Sue and Ben a place in his world, as long as they swear fealty to him (THE MOLE KING!)… and as long as Sue agrees to become his bride, the latest and greatest addition to his mole-harem.
They refuse, and Elder snaps. “RELEASE THE BEAST!” The monster from the cover of FF #1 is let off a massive chain, hunting by scent. Sue and Ben run, the monster close behind them. Reaching the surface, the monster breaches in the middle of New York, where Ben realizes that he has to turn and fight. The battle raises such a ruckus that Reed and Johnny (by now in control of their own abilities and desperate to find their teammates) are drawn to the scene, and join the fray. They defeat the monster together, uniting for the first time as a team.
They compare notes, and Reed assures Sue and Ben that he’s in control of the project again. The phone call Sue overheard was Baxter following through on a request from Reed himself: he had asked his friend and mentor to monitor the team closely upon their return from the Zone, and to take action to protect the world from them if he thought they might represent a danger (he was specifically responding to Reed’s temporary megalomania, something we’ll come back to in later storylines). Still uncertain, but trusting Reed’s judgment, Sue and Ben agree to rejoin the project. End on the team’s vow to work together, to protect each other, and to forge a better world.
Arc One Thoughts
I hadn’t initially planned on doing the Mole Man, but… One of the big FF tropes is the Black Mirror. Reed’s got tons of doppelgangers, Doom chief among them. But the rest of the team has them, too, and the Mole Man – excuse me, MOLE KING – is one of Ben’s. He’s a cautionary glimpse into what Ben could become if he gives in to bitterness. He’s also a great freak character, a genuine weirdo who comes with great monsters and one of my favorite pulp adventure concepts: a secret race of underground creature-men: the Moloids. We haven’t even seen them yet, but the Mole Man will be back…
ARC TWO: IMPOSSIBLE
Open on secluded home in Vermont hill country, 3 AM. A middle-aged man sits working at a computer. He stops, rubs his eyes, looks up, and sees a leering image of himself staring in the window. Dog starts barking outside. (SFX continue in background across the next couple of panels.) Confused and terrified, he stumbles to his feet, grabs a shotgun, and heads to the door. Barking cuts off with a yelp. (SFX stop midway this panel.) Outside, he finds his dog mutilated, seemingly turned inside-out… and his own doppelganger crouched over the corpse, eating the brain. He recoils in horror, the doppelganger leers up at him… Cut to black with SFX of a gunshot and a gurgling choke. End Scene.
From there, move to New York, a couple of weeks after the battle with the Mole Monster. The FF are hailed as heroes – albeit strange and terrifying heroes – who saved the city. Sue, seeking to free the team from Reed’s investors (especially Baxter, who she still doesn’t trust), attempts to capitalize on their celebrity, booking public appearances and etc to raise money. Reed is doubtful, but plays along because financial independence (and, let’s face it, good PR) is tantalizing. The super hero names are established here (mostly by Johnny), the flight suits are turned into the official company uniforms, and we see Ben swing between gregarious black comedy and sullen menace in his few public appearances.
Note: one thing that comes out here is that the FF is feared as much as they’re loved, their abilities widely misunderstood and viewed with superstitious awe that makes Reed distinctly uncomfortable.
Sue and Ben’s relationship continues here, though his mood swings, more violent than ever, are pushing her away. She confides in Reed, who handles it badly, torn as he is between his own love for Sue and his life-long friendship with Ben.
Something also happens with the Breach Craft. Johnny’s been looking into the mystery of how it came back on-line before the team returned home, and has come to believe that it’s developed an ability to self-repair in response to outside stimulus. Curious as to how it would respond to redesign, he crudely mounts it on a car chassis. The next morning, the chassis has been seamlessly integrated into the Craft’s existing technology. This leads Johnny (in a moment of ultimate celebutard cheese) to publicly redub it the Fantasticar. (Note: this subplot develops over the course of the story arc.)
Overwhelmed by the scope of the team’s celebrity success, Johnny and Sue hire the Lieberkurtz firm as publicists for their rapidly-growing public profile. And Lieberkurtz gets them mixed up in a public feud between two stage magicians known as The Miracle Man (think David Blaine, with a touch of Vincent Price) and the Impossible Man (think Penn Jillette, but with the voice of Bugs Bunny). The Miracle Man claims to have real magical powers (all part of the act, but many are starting to believe it), while the Impossible Man glories in insisting that it’s all sleight of hand, sometimes even revealing how certain tricks are done (though always with an inexplicable twist all his own).
Reed is brought in to settle the score between them once and for all, either revealing the Miracle Man’s secret, or having to admit that his powers are beyond science. Initially, he finds himself at a loss. So what begins as a publicity stunt becomes an obsession. Reed starts neglecting his research in his desperation to find a solution. (Is this the first time we see him alter his brain structure to speed learning? So he can learn stage magic? Might be fun.) The Impossible Man wants to act as a spoiler, offering to tell Reed how it’s done. Though sorely tempted, Reed refuses, his pride (and, to be fair, his sense of fair play) too strong to accept.
The next day, Ben’s old military buddy Nick Fury shows up. Now working for an unnamed global intelligence agency (SHIELD, of course), Fury brings evidence of alien influence on human society. Scientists, politicians, artists, celebrities… taste-makers and opinion-shapers all… have gone missing around the world, only to return a few days later. Their public behavior is unchanged, but their loved ones report odd changes in private. Changes that make them seem like entirely different people. A portfolio of photos includes a picture of Jack McGee, Sue Storm’s journalist mentor (who we saw in the opening scene). The only other clue Fury gives them is that the alien activities seem to be related to spikes in Orgone energy.
Sue and Ben go to the Vermont home of Jack McGee. On the way, the stop at a motel for the night and we explore their romance. There’s no physical relationship here, because, well… without going into salacious detail… their parts just aren’t compatible anymore. So they please each other mentally rather than physically. Ben describes Sue’s beauty from memory, to reinforce her sense of self (he focuses especially on her perfect skin). And Sue learns to make Ben invisible, making it easier for him to pretend that he’s normal again. Whatever else they’re getting up to individually while this is going on is best left ambiguous.
At any rate. After the above love scene, Ben fades back into visibility. And so does Sue. She’s relaxed enough that she’s done it without even thinking about it, just by letting go. They celebrate, but as Sue gazes at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, Ben’s smile fades into a blank, terrifying mask.
They arrive at McGee’s house the following morning. Sue approaches alone, and finds McGee holed up, terrified and paranoid, in the front room. After convincing him that she is who she says she is, he puts the gun down and they talk. McGee is a fountain of information. He stumbled across the invasion while investigating the “replacement person” phenomenon Fury told them about, and the deeper he got, the more terrifying it became. They’ve come after him now (as we already saw), but he killed their agent and buried him in the back yard. From him, we first hear the name “Skrull,” learn what they look like in their natural form…
…and learn the extent of their secret invasion: anyone, anywhere, at any time, could be a Skrull. Just as he says that, in fact, we see Ben approach outside… and he attacks!
Sue is afraid to make herself invisible again, but manages to distract Ben sufficiently by selectively making other things (walls, furniture, his own feet) invisible that McGee is able to get off a shot. Ben stumbles back, spraying green blood as the gun blows a hole in his chest. By the time he hits the floor, he’s reverted to his Skrull form. The shot brings the real Ben running, and Sue declares that it’s time for them to get back to the Baxter Building.
Reed, meanwhile, has been investigating the Orgone energy lead. Something about it has set his prodigious intellect into overdrive, and he’s managed to link it back into his obsession with the Miracle Man. Showing up at a Miracle Man event, Reed makes a big show of observing his tricks at close range. Lots of chin-rubbing and pipe-gnashing later…
…he tells the crowd that he should have an explanation before the week is out. The Miracle Man scoffs, but looks worried. As well he should, because Reed was really using the time to conduct a bit of sleight of hand of his own, surreptitiously using an Orgone Meter hidden in his pipe to take readings. The result? Orgone through the roof! Hypothesis: the Miracle Man is a Skrull!
Sue, Ben, and McGee return that evening, and they all compare notes. Reed decides that they need to call Fury and let him know what’s happening. But Fury has no idea what they’re talking about. He doesn’t know jack about any alien invasion, and he definitely hasn’t been to the Baxter Building to tell them about one. He doesn’t even know how they got the phone number they used to contact him.
Cue the Impossible Man. He steps in through a door that doesn’t exist (IMPOSSIBLE DOOR), and reveals all: both magicians are aliens. The Miracle Man is indeed a Skrull agent, sent to inspire superstition in the populace with advanced science that looks like magic, and undermine belief in real science to weaken human society before the Skrull military gets involved. This is Skrull Plan 9…
It’s one of the Impossible Man’s favorites. But also the one he has the most fun short-circuiting.
The Impossible Man himself is a free-spirited cosmic entity who once served as a trickster god to the Skrull. They abandoned his doctrine of the Glorious Mystery in the name of Mere Science, and now he follows them around the universe, taking tremendous glee in frustrating their various plans to expand their empire through covert invasion. He’s a capricious shape-shifter who, like the Skrull, prefers acting in disguise. Also like them, however… he cheats. So he was Fury, and maybe, it occurs to me now, a couple of other incidental characters I’ll have to write in along the way. Is he also Lieber and Kurtzburg? Can he be in two – or more – places at once? I think yes. Hmm…
Final Confrontation with the Miracle Man: Reed has Lieberkurtz arrange a live event, challenging the Miracle Man to meet him on-stage, where Reed will duplicate any trick he cares to attempt, all without the use of magic. And with the Impossible Man’s help, he does so. Miracle Man grows increasingly frustrated, and then alarmed, as Reed pulls a final trick: making the Miracle Man disappear (which is to say, made invisible by Sue, and taken through one of the Impossible Man’s impossible doors, to a cell deep inside SHIELD HQ – Needless to say… TO BE CONTINUED!!).
Reed closes the act by addressing the audience. He knows he’s supposed to reveal how the tricks are done, but his study of magic has taught him something. Something he perhaps always knew, but had never put into words: the answers are sometimes less important than the questions that lead you to find them. Questions inspire a sense of wonder, and a sense of wonder can lead you anywhere you want to go… as long as you explore it. If the answers you find can change lives, by all means share them. But if the answers turn out not to be important… like the answer to how a magician does his tricks… It’s good to have some mystery left in the world, too.
(Note: this is the Impossible Man’s “Glorious Mystery,” and the core precept of Fantastic Four as a series: it’s a book that should always make you want to know more. There’s a danger to mysteries, of course, especially in relation to the Skrull. But we’ll get to that…)
Later, back at the Baxter Building, the Impossible Man says goodbye. He was happy to help them out, if only to see the look on the Miracle Man’s face. He’s also happy he could help Reed embrace the Glorious Mystery. But now he has to go. “So many Skrull, so little time…” Reed seems shocked. He’d kept the Skrull invasion a secret to avoid a panic, but if the Impossible Man is leaving… Does that means the Skrull will be leaving Earth, now that the Miracle Man has been defeated? The Impossible Man just laughs. “Oh, hell no. Look… Skrull are like roaches. One is easy to kill. But the rest are always waiting inside the walls. So you hang in there, humans. [sardonic grin] And watch your backs.”
He leaves through an Impossible Door, and the team stares silently after him. Scene: Quick series of panels of them looking suspiciously at each other in turn. End with Sue staring at Ben, who suddenly flies off the handle, laying into Sue about every frustration of their relationship. “Oh, NOW you wanna look at me! What’s the matter, Susie? You afraid I’m not me? You must be, ’cause most of the time, you can hardly bear the sight of me! You won’t even let me touch you! Afraid I’m gonna rough up that perfect skin! And I KNOW! I know you’ve been seeing HIM (points at Reed) behind my back! Well, to hell with you! To hell with ALL of you, and your perfect smug faces, and your perfect soft bodies! To hell with all of it!” He storms out, leaving the others stunned and silent, watching him go.
Arc Two Thoughts:
I was originally going to do Doom as the second arc. But I needed more space to get Ben ready for Thingbeard, and the Skrull did come first in the original series, so…
I also combined them with the Miracle Man, because… Well, just because it amused me. I really liked that issue as a kid for some reason, but I couldn’t see devoting a whole arc to him. But his hypnotic magic trickery works just as well in the “science so advanced it looks like magic” mode, so I jammed it up together. Makes the tone a bit uneven, I suppose. But the FF is sometimes about the comedy relief, too. And speaking of comedy relief…
I originally had no intention of using the Impossible Man. I loved him as a kid, but in revisiting those stories, he’s become one of my least-favorite FF characters. But then it struck me that the Skrull are green alien shape-shifters, and HE’S a green alien shape-shifter, but a lot more powerful. Also, you’ve got the Miracle Man and the Impossible Man, and… Something clicked. I like the idea of him as a trickster figure, too. It makes him a bit less innocent than he’s sometimes written, but that’s also why Bugs Bunny’s a lot more palatable than Tweety Bird, so I’m okay with that.
A note on plurals: I think it’s traditionally “Skrulls.” But I like the singular plural for them. It adds to their ambiguity, and ambiguity is what the Skrull are all about. That’s why there’s no fight scenes in this story, either. The Skrull aren’t a threat you can just punch.
One last thing (because this story is PACKED): doing Miracle Man before Doom also sets things up for Doom’s alchemical “science and sorcery” schtick. But speaking of Doom…
ARC THREE: DOOM
Issue One: Old Friends
Open on Sue reading Ben the riot act. He left the Baxter Building in a huff at the end of last issue, and now he’s come back with his tail between his legs. But Sue’s not letting him off the hook. They’re through, she tells him. And it’s got nothing to do with how he looks, and everything to do with how he acts. Ben takes it in sullen silence, but when she’s done, all he does is point out that she didn’t look at him the whole time she was yelling. Close-up on Sue’s look of shock… and guilt.
Cut to Reed and Johnny trying to figure out what’s up with the Fantasticar. Playing back the mission tapes shows that they encountered… something on the other side of the gate. What, they’re not sure. It appears only for one grainy second, but it’s some kind of technological device. Johnny dubs it the Gatekeeper, and he recognizes a similarity between it and the new systems in the Fantasticar.
But before they can investigate further, something else comes up: Victor Von Doom emerges from a decade of hiding to offer a business proposition. He wants the team to test his newly-perfected Time Platform. Reed can’t resist the opportunity to explore time travel, but the rest of the team is wary. We get the full Doom backstory, learning that Ben never liked or trusted Doom, while Sue and Johnny blame him for the death of their father. Doom expresses regret for past misdeeds, begging forgiveness for his youthful arrogance. He also offers flattery, explaining that Reed is the only man he would trust with his life’s work. In addition, the fee he’s willing to pay would allow Reed to fund his own research for years to come (financing still a problem, in spite of the team’s celebrity status). Doom seems sincere, and he (cautiously) wins everyone over. Everyone, that is, except Ben, who once again goes along against his better judgment.
(Note: Doom wears only the mask here, rather than the full armor. Black gloves cover his hands.)
Issue Two: Out of Time
How the Time Platform Works:
Each time traveler wears small talisman on their chest (looks kinda like a Tiki idol) that Doom calls a Tether. The Tether contains a skin sample from its user that links them to the Time Platform, and allows Doom to retrieve them, wherever they go. The Tethers also send back a video feed, allowing Doom to watch what happens in the past. They also have remote controls for the Platform, but Doom doesn’t want the team to use them on this initial test run. Doom: “Its instruments are too sensitive, the risks too great, for any but its creator to control!”
So off they go. They start by making short jumps. Hours, days, months, all inside the Baxter Building, everything bathed in more Kirbyesque psychedelia. On the final test jump, Sue spots Baxter on the phone again, and we get to hear the whole conversation that sent her running away back in the first storyline. He is talking about killing the team, but as Reed had told her, it’s all hypothetical. It’s quite clear that he’s uncomfortable with it, but feels he must make plans for a worst-case scenario. It’s also quite clear that he’s talking to Doom.
Sue freaks out, but before she can raise the issue, something goes wrong. Time convulses around them, and they’re tossed backwards on a large leap, back to late 18th Century America, in the town of Bath on the coast of North Carolina (the first movement through space they’ve made). Sue makes them all invisible initially (herself included, necessity forcing her to overcome her fear of not being able to change back). But she can’t keep that up forever, so eventually they steal some clothes.
Ben, ever pessimistic (not to mention distrustful) has packed a small “disguise kit” for himself, just in case Doom stranded them somewhere. It includes his usual gloves and etc, but also (among other things) an eye patch and a heavy, concealing black wig and beard. Johnny dubs him “Thingbeard” (making my own personal favorite FF joke a thing in-story).
Reed stresses that they have to be careful, espousing the various theories about the dangers of altering time. But their hand is forced when the town comes under assault by pirates. Johnny saves an innocent woman from being killed, and it leads to a pitched battle between the FF and the pirates, who they soon discover are… not entirely human. They’re trying to steal a chest that’s being kept under lock and key in the basement of the town hall, and Ben rushes ahead to stop them. The rest of the team keep fighting in the streets, saving lives where they can. But suddenly, in the midst of the chaos… Ben switches sides!
The rest of the team see him hauling the chest back to the pirate ship, and he sails away, staring down at them from the deck with a crazed look in his eye.
They start to give chase, but suddenly time convulses around them again, and they find themselves back in the present. Doom is there, unmasked and handsome. And at his side is Franklin Storm, Sue and Johnny’s father! TO BE CONTINUED!!
We pick up a few days later, Our Heroes living in the altered timeline they’ve created. Only Ben’s Tether returned with them, having apparently been abandoned before he boarded ship. And Ben himself now seems to have never existed at all. Digging into historical records, Reed turns up academic papers about the pirate Blackbeard’s strange vendetta against a Jewish family named Grimm. He hunted them down and killed them, every man, woman, and child, wiping out the line in the New World. And no one knows why.
Meanwhile, the rest of the team finds themselves living lives they never knew. In this timeline, Dr. Storm arrived early enough to save Doom’s face, and his own life. In the years since, Doom has become a better person. But Reed, without the steadying influence of Ben, has become a worse one. He’s arrogant and cold, and though he and Sue have been married for nearly a decade, any love between them is dead. They have a son (Franklin), and Sue’s been able to pursue a very successful writing career. But their marriage has been poisoned by Reed’s attitude, and she’s teetering on the brink of alcoholism. Johnny, meanwhile, has become a reckless thrill-seeker, taking on increasingly suicidal risks and joining Reed’s Fantasticorp field team only in an attempt to impress his father.
Otherwise, though, their lives are great. They’re rich and successful, and Dr. Storm is still alive. Doom has taken Ben’s place as part of the Fantastic Four, having gained psychic powers in the Breach Incident that have enabled them to neutralize the Skrull menace. Whatever personal problems they had in this timeline don’t affect them now, so they’re free to enjoy their lives however they see fit. There’s even the question of whether they should try to change things back at all. That would kill Dr. Storm again, and make it so that young Franklin doesn’t exist at all. Do they have the right?
But in the end, their guilt over what’s happened to Ben forces their hand. They secretly activate Doom’s Time Platform and go after him, using his Tether to lead them to him.
Reed’s having to operate the Platform through his own Tether, and the controls are just as tricky as Doom had warned them. On their first attempt, they miss by a year, finding a bloodthirsty Ben caught in an ambush on Ocracoke Island. His crew has been slaughtered, and he’s killing dozens of sailors in revenge. Ashamed of what he’s become, he tells the team to leave him alone and leaps into the ocean to escape them, lost in the waves. They try again and again, always finding him too late, haunting him across a century and seeing him sink ever deeper into villainy. Finally, they come across an aged Ben dying drunk on a bed in Barbados. Delirious, he tells them that he erased himself from history so they’d stop coming after him. So they’d leave him be and enjoy the better world they had without him. And hoping, the whole time, that once he’d killed enough Grimms, he’d just disappear altogether. But he never did. He never did… With that, he dies. And the team agrees: one more try, and then they’ll give Ben his wish.
Issue Five / Issue Six:
But this time they hit the mark, coming across him just after the pirate ship initially set sail. Sitting peacefully in the captain’s mess, they finally learn what happened. The pirates are raiders from an inhuman race choosing to live apart from man. The chest doesn’t contain money, but a supply of a vital element they need to maintain their way of life. They had mined it from a distant island, but a storm capsized their vessel, and it washed ashore in Bath. Before they found it again, the townspeople had opened it, the men closest to the chest dying in agony, their bodies twisted beyond all recognition. So when an emissary showed up to retrieve it, the townspeople, frightened by his appearance and his connection to that terrible box, shot him dead on sight. So now they pirates are taking it back by force, and getting a little revenge in the bargain.
Ben has taken their side and, in a moment mirroring the classic Thingbeard speech…
…has decided to join them. Seeing the pain and insanity in Ben’s eye, and knowing where this path will lead him, Reed apologizes to his friend… then stabs him in the heart with a hypodermic needle. Cursing Reed’s name, Ben grabs him and starts pulling his pliable flesh like taffy. Reed screams, and Johnny blasts Ben with flames, burning the disguise off him as he stumbles forward and drops to his knees. As the flames burn out, he turns back into Ben Grimm and passes out. Placing the Tether in Ben’s hand, Reed sends the return signal, and they all go back to their own time.
When they arrive, they find Bob Baxter working with Doom (once again in his mask) to get them back. There was some kind of freak time storm, Doom tells them, and he feared they were lost. But then, he picked up a signal again, and was able to retrieve them.
Reed brushes him off, and tends to Ben. We learn that he combined alternate timeline Reed’s research into the team’s biology with his own to create the serum he injected Ben with, but something’s wrong. Ben’s not breathing. The team rushes him off to the infirmary, leaving Baxter and Doom alone.
Baxter: Dammit, Victor, I told you! You don’t need to do this! They pose no threat!
Doom: Bah! I brought them back, didn’t I? But you saw what Grimm did as well as I. If I hadn’t shunted them into a pocket timeline, he would have erased our entire existence!
Baxter: He wouldn’t have had the chance if you hadn’t been so reckless!
Doom: Reckless! Hah! Obviously, you’re too close to Richards to make this decision alone. I’ll be monitoring them closely, Baxter. And rest assured… If they do become a menace, I’ll end it. Just as we planned.
TO BE CONTINUED!!
Arc Three Notes:
First things first: Dr. Doom dialogue is hella-fun to write. But speaking of Doom…
Something I didn’t go specifically into in the synopsis: there’s more than a hint of sorcery in Doom’s technology. The Tethers operate on sympathetic magic principles (thus skin sample), and the Time Platform itself is powered via sorcerous means. In any discussion of how that works, I’d probably steal a term from Dr. Strange. “The Faltine Principle,” perhaps.
(Yes, this will echo back to Reed’s experience with the Miracle Man, and once again test his view of how the world works. He adjusts quickly, though, and magic is just another system to learn.)
And yes, the pirates are 18th Century Inhumans. And the chest contains a chunk of pure Terrigen. All of which we’ll come back to later…
Whew. Hope you’re still with me. If so, we’ll see you back here next time… Maybe with the end of this exercise, maybe with some actual funnybook reviews. Remember those? I used to write those…