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FF #3 and FF #4: The War Begins [Annotations]

Welcome back to our (admittedly delayed) annotations of Jonathan Hickman’s hugely successful run on FF, formerly Fantastic Four! Chris Eckert of Funnybook Babylon and Savage Critics and I have been taking a look at every issue to provide annotations for readers that explore the book’s connections with the rest of Hickman’s work and the run’s influences from all over the Marvel Universe. Today we’re taking a look at FF #3 by Hickman and Steve Epting and FF #4 by Hickman and Barry Kitson, as well as another monthly FF question and answer with Jonathan Hickman himself!

FF #3

IN THIS ISSUE: The Future Foundation/First Family break up into teams to collect Doctor Doom’s chosen co-conspirators in the mysterious operation to take down Reed Richards. When they all meet up, Reed and Sue’s daughter Valeria reveals that she accidentally brought back four alternate-universe Reed Richardses on the world when she used her father’s interdimenstional bridge machine to visit the home of the Council, the group of interdimensional Reeds introduced in Hickman’s first arc on the main title (annotated here and here)! Loosed on our world and devoid of emotional attachments, they vow to destroy it for “the greater good,” orchestrating a war between the four cities introduced in Hickman’s “Prime Elements” arc in F4 #575-578, all detailed below in the annotations.

Page 1: As Ben and the Moloids fly off, Doom says they’ll “bring [Reed's] Doom.” You’re right there, dude!

Page 2: Let the Council of Doom be convened! A symposium of the Fantastic Four’s most intelligent villains, assembled by Doctor Doom for the purpose of figuring out how to take down Reed Richards, its newest recruit the High Evolutionary is neither a villain nor a Fantastic Four villain at his core; He first appeared in Thor #134, and doesn’t meet the Four until F4 #172 in 1976. Over the decades H-E has accumulated a ridiculously complex backstory that draws in Thor, Galactus, Mister Sinister, the Inhumans, Spider-Man’s Clone Saga, the Vision and Scarlet Witch, the elder god Chthon, Adam Warlock, the Beyonders, Werewolf by Night, and Jessica Drew.

But let’s stick with what’s relevant here: Herbert Wyndham was a scientist obsessed with genetics and evolution. Eventually he evolved himself into a Cosmic Being, and has wandered the universe Playing God ever since. He generally means well, but can be aloof and erratic at times. He’s popped up recently in a number of places, assisting the Guardians of the Galaxy during Annihilation: Conquest and helping Magneto regain his mutant powers over in Uncanny X-Men. This is his first appearance in a Fantastic Four comic since 1976, save for a brief appearance in Fantastic Four Unlimited back in 1995.

To the best of my knowledge, both “The Vessel of the World Builder” and his Ascension Engine — mentioned here as the catalysts for the High Evolutionary’s return — are both new for Hickman’s run, though they’re logical extensions of two of H-E’s biggest projects. He’s repeatedly evolved animals into sentient bipeds he called The New Men, and his first act upon achieving Cosmic Evolution was to construct a Counter-Earth where he could guide his artificially-created planet to a higher level without all the variables of superheroes and mutants and so on. So in a very literal sense, he is a world builder.

And the High Evolutionary must be an especially proud papa seeing these brilliant little Moloids, as he used unevolved Moloids as cheap labor when he built his original citadel on Mount Wundagore, as revealed in the back-up stories to the “Evolutionary War” Annual Crossover, out this fall as a Marvel Omnibus if anyone wants to see Steve Rogers and Hank McCoy incite a race riot.

Page 3: Council of Doom member Diablo is a classic Lee/Kirby F4 villain, first appearing in F4 #30. He’s got one of those amazingly on-the-nose Silver Age alter egos — Esteban De Ablo — and a fairly simple backstory. Back in 9th Century Spain, he mastered the power of alchemy, and became an immortal tyrant. Eventually his reign of terror ended when some Transylvanians entombed him in a stone prison during the 19th century, but while on vacation Ben Grimm freed him by smashing the prison, since sometimes Ben likes to smash things.

Since then, Diablo has bedeviled the F4 repeatedly, most notably just five issues later in F4 #35 when he brought Professor Gregson Gilbert’s “Dragon Man” android to life. He recently showed up in Amazing Spider-Man during the Brand New Day period as one of the many ne’er-do-wells recruited by Doctor Octopus.

Rubedo — Latin for “redness” — is the Council’s lair, and also the final stage of enlightenment in alchemy, where the alchemist “achieve[s] enlightened consciousness and the total fusion of spirit and matter.” To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time Diablo’s appeared with Rubedo as his headquarters.

Page 4: Hickman’s taking the “Mad Thinker” appellation pretty literally here, demonstrating a level of apophenia that would probably leave Batman stupefied. He attempts to draw a great deal of nonexistent meaning from Spider-Man’s response, unless the meaning is existent, in which case I’m clearly not doing my job correctly.

Making crazy connections like a demented James Burke has always been the Thinker’s stock in trade. When the current Council of Doom member first appeared in F4 #15, he used his “fabulous brain” and “infallible computing machines” to manipulate circumstances so that the Baxter Building is left unattended and unsecured, allowing him to sneak in and plunder Reed’s technology. From the beginning, his master plans involved relying on food vendors’ routines, sunspots, infrastructure decay, even correctly predicting that “an organ grinder’s monkey would accidentally start a fire in a deserted shack” that would destroy damning evidence!” So yeah, maybe the Thinker is gathering reams of evidence from a simple invitation and we’re just too simple to comprehend.

In the background there are two Awesome Androids, the Mad Thinker’s greatest creation. But the Thinker’s genius has always been portrayed as analytical rather than creative — the only reason he was able to build Awesome Andy was through examining Reed’s various projects and synthesizing them into a deadly doughy blockhead.

I have to confess to being stumped by edition of Mad Scientist Cribs. Googling “Amduat” shows that it’s an ancient Egyptian book of the afterlife, which doesn’t really fit with the Thinker, or the “built into a mountainside lair” look in the exterior shot. Any readers have theories about this locale? If you switch one letter it spells “Talmud”!

Page 5: All of the Wizard’s dialogue here is incredibly reminiscent, as we’ve stated before back in the “Solve Everything” annotations, of Isaac Newton’s worldview from S.H.I.E.L.D. — a firmly-held belief in the deterministic nature of the universe, pushed towards its inevitable end by some unknown deist watchmaker. The Wizard believes in a mathematically provable God and Fate, and this forms the backbone of his scientific philosophy.

This is an interesting turn for the Wizard, who started his villainy career way back in Strange Tales #102 as a wealthy celebrity inventor who got bored and decided it would be fun to “best” the Human Torch. He pretty quickly transitioned from Steve Jobs Gone Rogue into your garden variety Mad Scientist Villain, so his new evangelical bent is a nice refresh. But maybe, just maybe his new headquarters Outlier Island is a tribute to the Malcolm Gladwell profile that once ran in the Marvel Universe’s version of the New Yorker? Or maybe not. It’s also interesting that Wizard’s AIM assistants (Jema and Forson, from FF #1) get invited to tag along. What’s going on with them?

Pages 7-8: Reed makes it clear to the combined symposium of people dedicated to kicking his ass that he’s not going to tolerate the realization of the scientific theories formulated at this conference. He also threatens that this situation could go nuclear “faster than [they] can say the atomic weight of hydrogen,” which is 1.000794 amu, and is actually an atomic mass, since weight is dependent on the gravity of the Earth. Way to be Earth-centric in a vast universe of sentient life, Reed. To add even more gravitas to the dire situation, the Watcher shows up, a surefire sign in any Marvel Universe comic that stuff is getting real.

Page 9: This is a retelling of the sequence from F4 #583, where Valeria discovered the remnants of the multiversal Reeds who had been hiding in the ruins of the Council chamber since the assault on it by the Celestials that began way back in Fantastic Four #571. Every multiversal Reed in this sequence is from that original arc.

Page 10: Once again, the connection between the Celestials and the idea of God comes back into play, tying in with the Celestial Baby at the heart of the Sun in S.H.I.E.L.D. as well as all of the original work Jack Kirby did with the Celestials as wandering space-gods, really. The idea of the Celestials “combining” to create something is completely new, as far as I can tell; it’ll likely tie into what’s coming up in this series or S.H.I.E.L.D., where the influence of the Celestials is high.

Regarding the four survivors of the Celestials’ previous attack on the Council of multidimensional Reeds:

“Plain Reed”
In F4 #570, he says he’s “just a man,” without any powers. Plain Reed is from the same universe as the Celestials that destroyed the Council Chamber; indeed, the reason they found the Council was because they “tore open” Plain Reed’s mind and discovered its location in his memories. Additionally, he says they took away a decent bit of his intelligence in the process — lobotomizing him, perhaps not as much as the Dooms in the Council’s basement, but enough to not be his normal supergenius self. He has no special powers, unlike the other Reeds. Assuming the Celestials that found him come from his own universe, he’s from Earth-4280.

“White Circle Reed”
Introduced in a crowd scene in #570, we don’t really know much about this one yet — unless there’s an artist mistake, he doesn’t approach any of the four civilizations. He hasn’t had very much dialogue at all, and is easily the biggest cypher.

“Wheelchair Reed”
In #572, he’s sent with Our Reed to go get weapons to help fight the Celestials — when Our Reed returns, Gray Reed even states that he was the only one to make it back. So he must have returned later, after Our Reed did, and then eventually bailed with the other three. He’s presumably telepathic due to both his resemblance to Professor X and the fact that the Universal Inhumans comment on psychic shields (and their lack of development).

“Gray Reed”
One of the three “heads” of the Council, he’s the only one who wears its pointed-triangle logo, and also rocks an Infinity Gauntlet. In #572, his life is saved by Our Reed twice — first when a Celestial destroys the other two heads of the Council, and then again when Reed goes back to Earth-616 to get weapons to help fight them. He seems the most connected to the Council, and is the only one who actively wears its symbol.

In #571, he helps Our Reed perform “surgery on the universe,” retrieving dark matter from a sun and allowing it to live much longer.

Gray Ewws speaks to both the Old Atlanteans and Annihilus, fomenting dissent and violence in both, unless there’s an artist mistake and the one who speaks to the Old Atlanteans is Circle Reed — which would make sense since the Reed who speaks to the Old Atlanteans doesn’t appear to be wearing an Infinity Gauntlet, while the one who approaches Annihilus does.

Page 11: Apparently, every universe has a Beyonder as well as a Galactus, judging by Plain Reed’s commenting on “a Beyonder from Universe 5202.” Many of the panels on this page — the upper-left, mid-right and bottom — are taken directly from F4 #583.

Sol’s Anvil is the machine that operates off of elements from each of the Four Cities that the Four Reeds plan to use to return home. It was first mentioned as a concept back in F4 #579, when Tong the Moloid describes “a curved axis [that] runs from the Forever City, through a place called Old Atlantis, to an Inhuman city-ship on the Moon … [mirroring] the frequency at which a portal to a place called the Negative Zone opens.”

Wheelchair Reed’s comment that “you Vals just don’t have it [behaving well] in you,” both a commentary on her nearly-dangerous precociousness and a seeming confirmation that the other Reeds also got to the point of having a second child, and then ditched their friends and families for the Council.

Note that Gray Reed says that Our Reed still has “a place with us,” likely his attempt at paying back the lifedebt he incurred twice in #572.

Pages 12-13: Old Atlantis was introduced in F4 #576, and exists below Lake Vostok in Antarctica, which was cut off from the rest of underwater culture for “over 500,000 years.” The three races there are the Uhari (fish-like), Chordai (eel-like) and Mala (crab-like) — here, Gray Reed uses some kind of brain-sucker apparatus that kills an Uhari and shows representatives of the other two races that the Uhari were planning to take control.

It’s questionable as to whether the Uhari were really planning on revolting; this Reed certainly kills that dude and uses the brain-sucker apparatus that supposedly displays his memories, but the actual claw part could easily be completely useless and he’s just displaying a predesigned hologram.

Pages 14-15: The Ascension Engine, created by the High Evolutionary (part of Doom’s think tank introduced earlier), was created to artificially evolve species but instead devolves them. It turns out that devolved Moloids look like regular human beings; however, the kids they had in the city looked like actual Moloids, so they became the outcasts eventually taken in by the Fantastic Four who are now part of the Future Foundation. Here, Plain Reed attempts to manipulate the Mole Man into helping him destroy the High Evolutionary’s city, since he’s losing all of his soldiers and mole people due to their desire to be more human.

Pages 16-17: The Universal Inhumans were introduced in F4 #577, and represent other species who had their evolution tampered with by the Kree, much like the Inhumans of Earth. Note that all of the heads of the Universal Inhumans wear forehead tuning forks much like the Inhuman king Black Bolt, who was lost in the universal Fault (which led to other universes) at the end of Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning and Paul Pelletier’s War of Kings miniseries. The Universal Inhumans are awaiting his return, at which point they plan to attack Earth.

Wheelchair Reed, who goes to visit them, looks like he’s a variation on Professor Xavier, so him having psychic defenses would make sense. However, they just aren’t a match for what the Universal Inhumans can pull off. It also leads more credence to the theory that the Uhari aren’t actually revolting, since everything Wheelchair Reed says here is a complete lie.

I’m sure the respective species here will get more of a spotlight in upcoming issues, but for now let’s just focus on the horse aliens. They’re called Kymellians, and one of them is apparently named Whitemane. Another Kymellian named Aelfyre “Whitey” Whitemane is responsible for the origin of kid superteam Power Pack, who he granted his powers in his dying moments. That’s right, most Kymellians have a host of superpowers, including mastery over gravity, acceleration, density and energy. This “Whitemane” appears to be using “gravity” powers to dismantle Wheelchair Reed’s wheelchair, a power she shares with the Future Foundation’s very own Alex Power! I assume their paths will cross soon.

Pages 18-19: The Cult of the Negative Zone was introduced in F4 #578, and consists of a bunch of nihilistic clubgoers who are being indoctrinated to become incubators for Annihilus’s next universe-invading Wave. Annihilus lives in the Negative Zone, a parallel, sister universe to 616 that contains negatively charged particles, a breathable atmosphere, and a grip of would-be dictators looking to invade the far more habitable regular universe.

In F4 #587, the portal was opened by Cultists who invaded the Baxter Building, leading to the death of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. Gray Reed makes a deal with the interdimensional warlord: he needs access to the Negative Zone to create Sol’s Anvil, and if he gets it, he’ll leave the door open so Annihilus’s forces can invade Universe 616.

Page 20: The three remaining Reeds (since Wheelchair Reed is either killed or abducted by the Universal Inhumans) meet at the “hub” of Sol’s Anvil and discuss their future plans to sacrifice Earth for the “greater good” so that they can return home to the Council chambers, doing this by orchestrating the War of Four Cities that future Franklin warned Valeria about way back in F4 #574.

FF #4

IN THIS ISSUE: Gobsmacked by Valeria’s revelation about the dangers she unleashed on the world, Reed comes to understand why she and Doctor Doom have been assembling a symposium of his greatest enemies to strategize about how best to destroy him. The Thing feels increasingly out of place in the new supergenius-ridden Baxter Building. When Sue Richards receives a distress call from the inhabitants of Old Atlantis, she goes there only to find it attacked by an army of Moloids led by the Mole Men and one of the alternate Reed Richardses, furthering the purpose of his cabal by attempting to destroy Old Atlantis to gain access to a geothermal vent under it!

Pages 1-2: The opening scene, with Sue feeding the children, shows that despite the panoply of changes taking place in the Baxter Building, Sue is still very confident in her role — unlike, as we’ll see, Ben Grimm, the Thing. She really has absolutely no fear of Doom’s think tank since she’s secure in her power. It’s also notable that Spider-Man chooses the sandwich without crusts, a telltale signal that Hickman’s version of the character is still, in many ways, very childish, and fits in with the ragtag Future Foundation.

Here’s what Hickman had to say about Val and this entire storyline in an iFanboy interview, a stirring indictment of leaving the crusts on:

“Reed [in F4 #570-572] decides not to do the greater good and instead he picks his family, which the other Reeds did not. And if you’re a logical person, then this is an erroneous decision to come to. You always pick the greater good. And Val, being a… stupid child, in the sense that she’s never actually loved anyone and doesn’t know what it’s like to have a family — she doesn’t understand the cost that’s required to give all that up. She makes the easy choice of thinking that Reed was wrong.”

It’s easy to leave the crusts on! But when you love your family, you cut them off for them. That’s what Sue knows, and Val has not yet learned.

Pages 3-6: Reed’s upset that his daughter hid a fairly gigantic, possibly world-ending mistake from him, and with good reason, although she’s trusting in her own knowledge of the future as given to her by Future Franklin. All of the big brains in the council are fairly unhinged to differing degrees — while High Evolutionary is just thinking on a higher scale, the Wizard is completely obsessed with God and the apocalypse (again, echoing Newton in Hickman’s S.H.I.E.L.D. series), Diablo just wants to be a dick and the Mad Thinker overthinks things with a level of random apophenia unseen since Batman 1966. However, I expect that each of these lunatics will get a chance to shine before this arc concludes — Thinker and Wizard will have good ideas, possibly even on this page if cutting a metaphorical baby in half becomes necessary at some point.

Reed points out that these other Reeds don’t have familial ties or connections when Diablo suggests going after their families. Thus his proposed coercion of the Council into making… a proverbial Deal With the Devil will not work.

Pages 7-9: This scene presents us with the escalation of Ben Grimm’s crisis of confidence, as he feels more and more outdated and unnecessary as a bruiser with his heart on his sleeve in what’s fast becoming a community of supergeniuses.

Bentley 23, the boy clone of the Wizard that the Richardses are attempting to reform, certainly doesn’t help the matter by antagonizing him and making him feel even more unwelcome. Nature seems to be beating nurture when it comes to Bentley’s behavior so far, and I can’t imagine Doom and his Council will at all help him grow in the right direction. Ben’s mounting resentment of his status likely plays into whatever feelings allow the Serpent Hammer to take control him in this summer’s Fear Itself crossover.

After Ben leaves, Bentley gets assaulted with plunger darts by Franklin, Artie and Leech, who are basically the first characters in this comic other than Susan to be paying attention to Ben’s decaying emotional state. And if you recall Fantastic Four: Dark Reign, where Franklin draws a toy gun on Norman Osborn, if Leech wasn’t standing beside him dampening his powers, that dart may well have blown Bentley’s little clone brain out. It’s probably a coincidence, but it’s clear Reed and Sue are not afraid to let their kids play with guns.

Pages 10-11: Back in F4 #576, Sue Richards was appointed the emissary from mankind to the Old Atlanteans, and also received custody of the children of the ruling Uhari fish-esque people, who ended up joining the Future Foundation. When the Ul-Uhar, the king, was killed in F4 #585, the ruling lineage passed down to the Ul-Uhar’s children — who, being too young to rule, had ruling authority granted to their steward, Susan Richards. So now she’s queen of the Antarctic seafood people.

Due to the beginning War of the Four Cities, they Uhari contact her through an emergency nautilus shell, since they’re being attacked by the Chordai and Mala, who were united against the Uhari last issue by Plain Reed.

Pages 12-14: We cut back to Doom’s symposium, as basically every douchebag attending decides that maybe these other Reeds without familial attachments are pretty cool dudes they can get behind, at least until our Reed points out that they lobotomize every Doom they find on sight. Even still, Doom refers to them as the “perfect Reeds,” showing at the very least a large level of respect.

Nathaniel points out that, being Reeds, the first thing they’re gonna do with a tough problem is build a machine to solve it. Valeria, who’s been keeping quiet about this for no reason, points out that they told her what the machine was: Sol’s Anvil, which is built out of a machine buried on the moon under the Universal Inhumans’ ship, involving something with the Negative Zone, the Ascension Engine in the Forever City of the High Evolutionary and a thermal vent, namely the one under Old Atlantis, which we know is currently being torn apart by Plain Reed’s machinations.

Pages 15-20: This is largely a big action set-piece at Old Atlantis, with Sue Richards, Spider-Man and Alex Power taking on the forces of the Chordai and Mala in the intrest of the Uhari. (The tanks they fight are really similar to the Ohmu from Hayao Miyazaki’s seminal Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind manga).

Then Plain Reed shows up with the Mole Man’s army that he recruited last month, and Sue has no idea what the hell is going on anymore, since only Doom’s symposium have been briefed on the issue, leaving these guys essentially caught with their pants down. Great communication skills, Future Foundation!

We should give Sue some credit here: this is hardly her first encounter with an Alternate Universe Reed. We looked at several instances of Other Reeds back in our annotations for F4 #570, and that’s not counting her fights against Reed-Possessed-by-Doom, Hate Monger impersonating Reed, Skrull Reed… I can’t imagine the sight of someone wearing her husband’s face calling for mass murder is going to keep her from fighting back for very long, if at all.

And finally, for our question/answer with Marvel Architect and FF mastermind Jonathan Hickman:

CA: Back in your first arc of the Fantastic Four ongoing (#570-572), you introduced the Council. What was the design process like for these characters with Dale Eaglesham and Steve Epting? Did you know which four would be the eventual survivors we’d see in this issue and work backwards from that, or did you come up with all of them and then choose four survivors?

JH: Actually, beyond the Infinity Gauntlet Reeds and Plain Reed (the Reed that is just a man), the designs (and ideas behind them) were all Dale Eaglesham. I actually took a look back the other day at the first three issues of the our FF run and Dale was really cooking.

As for who would survive, Gray (Infinity Gauntlet) Reed and Plain Reed were always going to make it, but the other two grew out of which design best fit the story. We’re headed towards something very specific with them, so there were criteria they needed to fit into.

Oh, wait, I do remember asking for a Starbrand Reed. So, I’ll take credit for that one.

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