~ by Patrick Ryan Bauer, the CBU’s Buddy Bradley ~
This week PRB once again takes us into the timestream, back to the mid-1980s during Secret Wars II-era Marvel. Y’know, back in the day. The good ol’ days of comic book greatness. Enjoy!
When I was a child, (1978-present) nothing thrilled me more than Fantastic Four comic books. Okay, Star Wars was right up there, but back then, it wasn’t something I could enjoy in my room or take with me wherever I went. The Fantastic Four lived in my room with me. They came with me to school. They even came with me to the bar because, like every other normal five-year-old, I hung out in bars. (This is actually true. Long story.)
While my first exposure to THE THING was in a Clark Bar advertisement, more came quite quickly in the form of Jack Kirby reprints and John Byrne’s then-current run. I guess I thought comics would always be that amazing. Why wouldn’t I? That’s all I knew! While I’ve subsequently read some of the most beautiful and moving stories that comics have to offer, there’s still a sense of disappointment when realizing that Jack doesn’t draw every comic that never goes away.
Jack didn’t draw today’s comic of discussion, though. That honor goes to John Byrne. Yes, before he was a legendary cranky-ass, John Byrne wrote and drew comic books. His run on Fantastic Four is thought by many to be the best since Kirby. (Though, Walt Simonson’s run is really the best. Sorry, John.) I’ve often told anyone who will listen to give Byrne’s run a shot. It really is so good, you hardly notice that BEN GRIMM isn’t even in half of it.
Well, after years of telling my friends about it, yelling “John Byrne FF for lyfe!” at strangers downtown, and spending my savings on a series of billboards touting the run’s excellence, I decided I should really read it again, start to finish. A feat I’d actually never attempted, as I’d generally grab stacks of ten at a time and kind of jump around the run.
I wasn’t surprised by the high quality of art. Byrne knows how to draw. Turns out, he knew how to write pretty damn well, too. He made some gutty calls like putting SHE-HULK onto the team long-term (thus beginning his long, torrid love affair with Shulkie), blowing up The Baxter Building, and even daring to show the legendary Aunt Petunia. However, I did end up being bothered by a couple of things.
There’s some of that classic, comic book misogyny we’ve all come to know and hate. Interesting, since one of the best parts of the run is Byrne showing the world that Sue is, undoubtedly, the most powerful member of the team. I consider it a pretty important development, since she originally was grossly underpowered. I guess it’s one of those things that got better as the run went on. Progress is better than no progress, I suppose.
My biggest beef is the way the other characters talk to WYATT WINGFOOT. Let’s get something straight: Wyatt Wingfoot is the motherfucking man. He’s a dude, with no powers, who rolls with the Fantastic Four like it’s no big deal. He’s kinda the best. His character is actually done fairly well by Byrne, for the most part. So why in the actual fuck do Marvel’s first family keep calling him “Geronimo” and the like? Unfuckingacceptable. I don’t want the FF sounding like President Spray Tan. Put some respeck on my man’s name!
Moving on, finally, to today’s comic: Fantastic Four #285. It’s my favorite Secret Wars II tie-in that doesn’t involve SPIDER-MAN teaching THE BEYONDER how to use a toilet (yes, that’s gospel). It’s actually a rather touching and sad story. I hope you like crying like a baby cuz that’s what’s happening when you read this. Seriously, if you go out after reading this, you’ll have to tell people your eyes are red because you’re super-duper high. It’s the Fantastic Four’s version of Jurassic Bark, except less sad because there’s no dog.
I’ll warn you now that things are gonna get pretty spoilery. Rosebud was his sled and all that. For example, since this isn’t the last issue of Fantastic Four, I think you know that JOHNNY STORM doesn’t actually give up being The HUMAN TORCH forever. Or even for one issue, since he’s on the next cover. Also, Four Freedoms Plaza is under construction during this issue. They, um, they eventually finish building it. Spoiled!
Anyway, the story follows Tommy Hanson (not to be confused with my friend, Tom Hanson), a lonely, bullied, latchkey kid who idolizes The Human Torch, despite The Torch’s dumb 80’s haircut. I think most readers can empathize at least a little with Tommy. Who among us hasn’t sought refuge in the glorious pages of our favorite funnybooks after a long day of humanity’s bullshit? I dare you to read a newspaper for five minutes and not feel your head involuntarily turning toward your bookshelf.
This poor kid gets dumped on by just about every living creature in his life. Other kids, his teacher, his absentee parents, and I think Santa Claus even shows up and kicks him in the nuts. His only friendly contact is his neighbor, Joss, who is flying a remote control jet on top of their apartment building.
The way things are going for this kid, you’re kinda half-expecting Joss to cornhole Tommy just to put the final touches on his incredibly shit day. Instead, Joss ends up being really cool to Tommy. Did I say cool? I meant really fucking irresponsible. Joss has to hurry off and leaves Tommy to put away his experimental jet fuel, the way no one should ever ask a child to do. Oh, not before reminding Tommy that his highly flammable concoction could turn Tommy into another Human Torch.
So, yeah. Tommy goes all burning monk on us. News of this reaches The Torch, who makes a beeline for the hospital just in time to see Tommy die. The good news? We finally see Tommy’s parents! Turns out, they’ll actually make some time for their kid if he douses himself in fuel and decides he’s really into Big Black. Unfortunately, they’re none too happy with The Torch, who they blame for Tommy’s death.
Johnny takes this encounter to heart and decides that his powers are too dangerous, as a concept, to continue using them. Here’s where The Beyonder shows up. After inspiring a line of action figures, The Beyonder has now taken humanoid form in order to better understand us. That’s right. He’s not just all about turning buildings into gold, fighting Celestials, or befriending marketable, cute mutants. No, The Beyonder truly desires to know what it’s like to be human. Yet, Secret Wars II isn’t even about The Beyonder buying shit he can’t afford, voting against his own best interests, or lying about how big his dick is. Pretty disappointing, Marvel.
The Beyonder, unlike most humans I know, wishes to help Johnny so he gives him a glimpse into Tommy’s existence. An existence devoid of any happiness save for his appreciation of Johnny’s exploits. Even amidst the grueling cruelties of his life, Johnny provided hope, inspiration, and escape. Tommy’s life would have been nothing but a disheartening march into the abyss without Johnny and, perhaps thankfully, Tommy died before his sad, alienated self-discovered 4Chan.
In all honesty, it’s an incredibly moving story. Certainly, a powerful reminder of why Fantastic Four is The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine! The tremendous impact of such a tiny life is felt by everyone in the comic and, hopefully, by whoever’s reading it. I know I feel it. Every single time I read it. I have to go now. My eyes are leaking.
Patrick has been a touring stand-up comic for over a decade, was the head writer for TV’s Drinking with Ian, has recorded for Stand Up Records, and has nothing to show for it.