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Friday, March 5, 2021

X-amining Fantastic Four #415


"An Enemy Among Us!"
August 1996

In a Nutshell
Onslaught captures Franklin Richards

Writer: Tom DeFalco
Penciler: Carlos Pacheco 
Inker: Bob Wiacek
Letters: Richard Starkings & Comicraft 
Colors: Ariane Lenshore 
Editor: Suzanne Gaffney
Editor-in-Chief: Bob Harras

Franklin Richards & Charlie visit a circus created by Franklin, inadvertently populated by figures from Charlie's mind, before being interrupted by the return home of the Fantastic Four. Shortly thereafter, Professor Xavier visits the team; he meets with Mister Fantastic & Invisible Woman, asking them to let Franklin come study at his school so he can be kept safely amongst his own kind. At the same time, a contingent of Avengers, as well as Iceman and Bishop, contact Scott Lang, warning the Fantastic Four about Onslaught, but Onslaught knocks Lang out, then reveals himself as "Xavier" when Mister Fantastic & Invisible Woman refuse to give up Franklin. The X-Men/Avengers group soon arrives at Four Freedoms Plaza and engages Onslaught, but he manages to overpower them, as well as the Fantastic Four. As Apocalypse and the Watcher arrive in New York to witness the unfolding events, Franklin - still not realizing the true identity of his friend Charlie - is taken by Onslaught, thereby giving the villain access to the power of a god. 

Firsts and Other Notables
This issue concludes with Onslaught capturing Franklin Richards (though Franklin himself is still laboring under the impression that he's just playing with his friend Charlie), a key component, we will learn, of his plans (mostly to gain access to Franklin's reality-creation abilities). Franklin will spend most of the crossover as Onslaught's captive, setting up his role in the creation of the "Heroes Reborn" universe. 

Iceman & Bishop join a group of Avengers to warn the Fantastic Four, including Hawkeye, Crystal, Black Widow, and Wasp (who is in her "The Crossing"-era mutated human/wasp form). 

This is the penultimate issue of the first volume of Fantastic Four, before it gets cancelled as relaunched as part of "Heroes Reborn", which also marks the end of former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco's long run as the series' writer. As such, there's a bunch of lingering characters and plot threads hanging around on the margins of this issue and the next, including the presence of Scott Lang (aka Ant-Man) as a sort of FF support staffer (he filled in on the team when Mister Fantastic was believed dead for a time), Nathanial Richards (Mister Fantastic's time-traveling dad), and Lyja Laserfist, the Skrull who posed as Alicia Masters and married the Human Torch in that form, and then, after being exposed, apparently posed as another woman Johnny dated, Laura Green. Even Franklin himself, specifically his status as a roughly six-year-old boy, is a recent "return to status quo" change for the character, as he spent much of the immediately-preceding issues as the aged-to-adulthood time traveling hero (a la Cable) Psi-Lord, leader of Fantastic Force. 

Apocalypse & Uatu have journeyed from Egypt to the shores of New Jersey to continue watching events unfold, with Apocalypse monologuing in front of the World Trade Center (which counts this as a "Grim 'n' Gritty 90s" entry as well)

“Professor X” tries to convince Reed & Sue to enroll Franklin in the Xavier Institute; it goes like you would expect (and is similar to a similar exchange years later, when Franklin is older, & Xavier offers him a place on Krakoa).

At one point Franklin asks Onslaught-as-Charlie if he wants any cookies; Charlie responds, "I have no interest in cookies" and for whatever reason, I read his response in the voice of an increasingly-exasperated Alan Rickman, frustrated that he keeps having to placate this six year old boy as part of his evil plan. 

Carlos Pacheco takes a break from penciling Excalibur to draw this issue and the next; it's nice to have him on the issues (especially since he gets to draw so many characters from across the Marvel Universe in the process) but it's a bummer he misses Excalibur #100 as a result. He'll return a couple years into the "Heroes Return" for a longer run on the book as well. 

The cover features Onslaught playing with an assortment of superhero "action figures", and while I get the gist of of the premise (ie the characters are no more than playthings in his hands) I have from the first time I saw the cover to this day been befuddled as to why a Wonder Man figure (in his original costume) is featured so prominently, given the character does not appear in this story and is in fact considered dead at this point in time. 

A Work in Progress
Charlie is helping Franklin push his powers and create physically-real illusions.

Somehow the Fantastic Four know who Bishop is, which is strange only because the X-Men have been so isolated from the wider Marvel Universe for most of his tenure on the team (aside from "Bloodties" and a couple of the "Infinity" events, but the FF weren't involved in the former and I don't think Bishop was involved much in the latter, though I suppose at this point there may well be some standard "superhero information sharing" going on). 

A woman Charlie says is Magda (who meant something to him once) appears, chiding him for what he is doing to Franklin, another hint at the role Magneto’s psyche is playing in Onslaught.

Between pages (after coming home & before meeting with Professor Xavier), the FF adopt new costumes.

Human Torch declares Onslaught might be X-Men tough, but the FF have fought Dr. Doom & Galactus.

He also pulls a similar trick to Iceman in Onslaught: X-Men, spotting a psychically-concealed Onslaught via his heat signature.

Nathanial Richards tries to use his psionic-energy-draining armor on Onslaught, to no avail.

Onslaught tells Thing he can geometrically increase his size (somehow?), though this is also while he’s tricking Thing into punching a wall, so maybe he’s lying?

If it wasn’t blisteringly-obvious yet, this issue does confirm that Franklin’s “imaginary” “friend” Charlie is a manifestation of Onslaught.    

The Grim 'n' Gritty 90s
Thing is shown visibly smoking a cigar in the background of a panel. 

The shapeshifting Lyja, posing as Franklin in order to lure Onslaught into an ambush, is watching Power Rangers. On video.

Franklin has a Batman: The Animated Series  poster (and maybe a Gargoyles poster) on the wall in his room, and a sick Calvin & Hobbes rug.

Charlie & Franklin of play with Amalgam Overpower cards.

Grammar Police
"Revert back" is redundant, Bishop. 

Austin's Analysis
Plot-wise, this issue is as perfunctory as Avengers #401, checking off the plot-point Uncanny X-Men #335 promised it would (some of the X-Men & Avengers go warn the FF about Onslaught). But in the course of fulfilling that obligation, DeFalco also takes some time to really sell the sheer power & threat magnitude of Onslaught. In Onslaught: X-Men, Onslaught mostly just blasted energy beams at the X-Men (aside from his brief foray inside Cannonball's mind). Here, his attacks are much more multi-layered & befitting of a villain who is, at his core, the world's strongest telepath, featuring displays of raw power & brute force as well as tactics like tricking Thing into smashing a wall or pulling the old "it's me, your old mentor, Professor X; I have Onslaught under control but only barely, help me!" con on Bishop (all of which is depicted by Carlos Pacheco with healthy aplomb & energy). DeFalco also does that thing where the Fantastic Four (well, Human Torch, mostly) are dismissive of Onslaught, saying they've beaten tougher, more established villains (like Dr. Doom & Galactus), only to end up beaten by Onslaught, thereby quietly reinforcing his capabilities relative to those other villains. These are all old writer tricks, of course, but it is to DeFalco's credit that he chooses to deploy to them - he could have easily just gone through the motions, met his crossover obligations, and moved on, but, team player and former Editor-in-Chief that he is, he takes the opportunity to make the issue a little something more, and advance the overall narrative in ways beyond the mandatory "Onslaught captures Franklin Richards" plot beat with which he was tasked to execute. 

Next Issue
Next week: Cable #35, Incredible Hulk #444, and Excalibur #100

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  1. “ Human Torch declares Onslaught might be X-Men tough, but the FF have fought Dr. Doom & Galactus.” This is not the first time I see the Human Torch treats the X-Men as a second-rate group, when they should be perceived at this point as equals to the Fantastic Four and the Avengers. I’m certain others can point out similar exchanges with the X-Men in which he dismissed threats by boasting to have fought worse enemies. My point is that I don’t appreciate that.

    1. I don't know, the reference to Dr Doom is almost like a fun go-back to the time when Byrne retconned to a doombot the Arcade-allied Doom that X-Men fought in a Claremont story. Like, a last hurrah thing in the tug-of-war between the FANTASTIC FOUR title and the X-MEN franchise, seemingly adopted by later writers in jocularity.

    2. I too was offended by Torch's line -- that comment may have worked in the Silver Age but at this point, the X-men have saved New York and the world several times. Other than Galactus, who's an FF villain that's more of a threat than an X-men villain? And you can't use Doom because the X-men have defeated Doom themselves at this point!

    3. These are all fair points, but -- who really knows that the X-Men have done all this stuff? The majority of their huge battles are fought out of the public eye. I think that up to this point, the Adversary was still probably their best-known exploit.

      In any case, I like the exchange. The Torch is a cocky hothead; of course he's gonna say stuff like this. It's no different to me than Spider-Man telling Wolverine, "Those pigstickers may scare the barroom bullies, but to me you're a joke!" in SECRET WARS.

    4. I don't like the line, but I'd argue that it would fit for the character since he's said "soft" anti-mutant sentiments in other titles. Someone (I forget who) suggested that it might be bitterness over Crystal choosing Quicksilver over him, and yeah, I can see him being that petty.

    5. Yeah, to Mela's point, I am less bothered by this sentiment coming from Johnny, who is a dumb-dumb, than if it was coming from, say, Reed (or even Ben), or if a narrative caption was putting it forth.

      And, as others pointed out, the X-Men have actually *beaten* Dr. Doom - at one point, alongside the FF (in FANTASTIC FOUR VS. X-MEN) - which, again, just makes me chalk this up to Johnny being blowhard-y moron.

    6. Re: FANTASTIC FOUR VS. X-MEN, I think Johnny's takeaway from that affair merely was that they were forced to work with their arch-nemesis to save Kitty, and that actually could be a part-source of his resentment. The actual story certainly went completely above Johnny's head(, and I'm not sure if Reed and Ben caught it either): the supposed Reed's diary was a planted forgery by Doom to cause a rift within the FF, which Sue deducted and very apropos-ly confronted Doom about.

      Also let's not forget SECRET WARS and the Zsaji triangle that Johnny had with Colossus and his "mutants are whole different species" notion in #5 that got called out by Jim Rhodes Iron Man.

  2. Did Earth 616 Bill Watterson have different ideas than ours about liscensing, or did the Fantastic Four scandalously purchase pirated merchandise?

    Another funny tidbit: on that page of the Thing punching Onslaught and Hawkeye claiming Ben is fighting an illusion, Onslaught says "He sees what I want him to see. As do you!" Before blasting Hawkeye, who screams. The VERY NEXT PAGE of the original printing was a full page ad for Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch. Always gave me a chuckle that Onslaught made Hawkeye see THAT, and that's why Clint screamed.

    1. I'd like to think Reed whipped up the rug in his lab. Copywrite laws are meaningless to the world's foremost scientific mind! :)

      The VERY NEXT PAGE of the original printing was a full page ad for Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch.

      I love me some Peanut Butter Crunch, but now this has got me thinking about cereals each character would eat. Is Clint normally a Lucky Charms guy?

    2. I did this to myself.

      Writers used to do this all the time, give a character a song or movie or snack they liked to humanize them a bit. The most famous is probably J'onn J'onnz loving Oreo cookies.

      For Marvel heroes and cereal?

      Johnny Storm has probably gone through more Peanut Butter Crunch, Golden Grahams, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch than any other single individual. Not because he likes them, he just pours them into a bowl at breakfast next to Ben and tries to get a rise out of Ben by seeing if he can match the Thing's consistency. Johnny probably tries to talk like Reed when he does it, too.

      Steve Rogers eats Frosted Flakes. They're more modern than the corn flakes he was used to, but not TOO much.

      Hawkeye would probably be something boring like Raisin Bran. As an archer, he needs to keep his body regulated, because gastrointestinal ills can ruin a perfect shot. It works because this practical consideration contrasts with his usual bravado. Also he likes purple.

      Wolverine? Bacon and Labatts is not a cereal. Not even if you put it into a bowl and eat it with a spoon.

      As for Lucky Charms fans? Tony Stark, for one. Recovering alcoholics often develop a sweet tooth to counteract their other cravings. And its probably a nice change for Tony to feel like a teenager again (cue bad Crossing jokes)

      I'd also suggest Colossus. Sure, he can angst over a tuxedo costing more than his dad made in a year, but Lucky Charms are affordable and readily available. To a kid who grew up on a Siberian farm, they may as well be magic or Shi'ar. It's a guilty pleasure only a few X-Men know about, but it's there.

  3. I don't have anything to add, but I needed to comment on the Alan Rickman voice for the cookies line Austin wrote -- legit LOL.

  4. I have from the first time I saw the cover to this day been befuddled as to why a Wonder Man figure (in his original costume) is featured so prominently

    That's not the original costume, but good question. I would guess Franklin has played with this costumed figurine on some previous occasion and they for some reason call back to that.

    I remember seeing him play with Secret Wars action figures back in those days. This WM costume is around SWII time, some other set?

    BUT, Wonder Man will soon enough return in the first issues of Busiek's AVENGERS vol 3 when Heroes Return... is this a hint?

    1. Actually, I believe Wonder Man never had green costume like that. That is miscolored black costume he wore during his Avengers West Coast time. At the publication time that was his latest costume.

  5. Or did FF creators of the day miss having Franklin play with whatever set this recognizable Wonder Man was from, as the only missed set, and they wanted to rectify it before the title get cancelled? I hate mysteries.

  6. I never realized that, without his helmet, Nathaniel Richards bears a striking resemblance to Slade Wilson. Huh.

    Anyway -- I want to take this moment to mention something that drives me nuts about current Marvel (or at least fans' perceptions thereof). People are abuzz recently about the upcoming FANTASTIC FOUR reboot from Marvel Studios. Not long ago, I came across a Twitter exchange where some people were talking about how Marvel needs to remember one main thing when casting Reed: he is a horrible person and a terrible husband and father.

    ...Huh??? I've always known Reed to be an absent-minded, but extremely devoted and loving husband and father. He has wonderful scenes where he openly expresses his affection for both Sue and Franklin. There's a Franklin scene in this very issue, when the FF arrive home. There were tons of them in John Byrne's run. But for whatever reason, either Marvel has decided that "absent minded husband and father" now means "emotionally distant and callous husband and father", or the fans have simply read into whatever Marvel currently published to see it that way.

    Either way, I hope Marvel Studios does the complete opposite of what these (admittedly probably a small group of) fans want, and presents a warm, caring, and loving Reed Richards who just happens to get a bit too involved in his work.

    "Somehow the Fantastic Four know who Bishop is..."

    The only possibility I can think of for this is INFINITY WAR. It was the only one of Jim Starlin's trilogy to feature Bishop, where he acted as Professor X's bodyguard at Avengers Mansion while the Professor was catatonic. The FF must have met him there.

    "A woman Charlie says is Magda (who meant something to him once) appears..."

    Is it weird that I was shocked at how flat-chested she is? I mean, not disappointed shocked, but more like, "This is a woman in a comic book; what's going on here?" shocked. I guess it speaks to what readers were trained to expect from comics over the years, and especially in the 90s.

    "Between pages (after coming home & before meeting with Professor Xavier), the FF adopt new costumes."

    The last hurrah for the John Byrne uniforms, which I forever and always will consider the FF's defnitive looks (due again to Jim Starlin's INFINITY stuff and SECRET WARS, all of which were my main exposure to the group as a youngster).

    After "Heroes Reborn", when Alan Davis was tapped to be the "Heroes Return" artist, he gave the FF "neo-classic" uniforms based strongly on the original Kirby black-and-whites -- but when Davis left after three issues and Salvador Larroca came aboard, he switched the group back to these Pacheco uniforms (though I seem to recall there was a brief period where they alternated between the two).

    Then when Pacheco became the plotter/artist of FF after Chris Claremont and Larroca left, Pacheco himself brought back the Kirby costumes!!

    "Franklin has a Batman: The Animated Series poster (and maybe a Gargoyles poster) on the wall in his room..."

    Pretty sure that is indeed Brooklyn from GARGOYLES.

    1. I'm not nearly enough of an expert FF reader to feel comfortable weighing in on the "Reed is a horrible person" question intelligently; I'll just say that my impression of the character is that he has had more than his share of "Professor Xavier is a jerk!" moments through the years (going as far back as the Silver Age), many of which make better fodder for internet jokes than serious character studies, is certainly capable of pulling the "doing a bad thing for a good reason" trick, and often gets saddled with some shitty writing (like during "Civil War"), but is ultimately a loving if absent-minded family man, albeit one capable of crossing some lines if necessary. I would certainly pushback against the assertion that his core, must-be-adapted, characteristic is "shitty garbage person" in anything that is trying to present the character genuinely (as opposed to in parody, like VENTURE BROS.' Mr. Impossible who certainly leans into the more problematic elements of Reed, to comedic effect).

      tl;dr: while it's funny to, say, point out the arrogance of Reed dubbing himself "Mister Fantastic" moments after he's caused his best friend to become a horrific rock monster, I wouldn't say that's the core beat that needs to be built on in a straight-forward adaptation of the character.

      It was the only one of Jim Starlin's trilogy to feature Bishop, where he acted as Professor X's bodyguard at Avengers Mansion while the Professor was catatonic. The FF must have met him there.

      That makes sense; I've even read INFINITY WAR, but I totally forgot about that.

    2. Oops, I meant INFINITY CRUSADE, not INFINITY WAR. Bishop is in CRUSADE. The point, of course, remains unchanged.

      Anyway -- have you ever listened to Norm MacDonald's "Origin of the Fantastic Four" sketch? It was on his 2005 comedy album, RIDICULOUS, and it covers exactly what you mentioned about Reed (voiced by Norm) naming himself Mister Fantastic. I know not everyone loves Norm's brand of comedy, but I find the sketch hilarious, and strongly recommend it.

  7. This was only the second issue of Fantastic Four I had ever bought (the first being Annual #23 because of Days of Future Present) so I can't offer much comment on their series.

    Having said that, I feel like this was a stronger issue than the Uncanny and Avengers issues that preceded it. While it does tie in to the larger crossover at hand it also feels distinct. Tom Defalco is a writer I've often overlooked just because I associated him with an earlier time. I've never read the Fantastic Four issues that came before but this issue almost makes me want to invest in them.

    I've also always been a fan of Carlos Pacheco. His style obviously follows Jim Lee's without ever feeling derivative. Certainly we'll be seeing him flourish in the coming years and I feel like he's really underrated.

    If I have any complaints about this issue is that it really doesn't move the plot forward all that much. We started with a bang and a lot of these "Phase 1" issues seem to be holding back just to make surethat the story fills a predetermined amount of chapters.


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