Waiting for the Trade – Fantastic Four

Waiting for the Trade
By Bill Miller
Fantastic Four: Into the Breach
by Carlos Pacheco & Jeph Loeb.
Collects Fantastic Four (vol. 3) 40 – 45.
Why I Bought This: It’s a Negative Zone story, which always grabs my attention. Plus the back cover promises Torch gets to form and lead a new version of the team, which is something I always wanted to see as both Ben and Sue have had their turn in the past. Also it was in the discount bin for $7 and on Free Comic Book Day I could take an extra 20-percent off.
The Plot: Your non-spoiler version is as follows: An evil corporation has constructed its own portal into the Negative Zone to raid it of exotic energy sources. Reed tries to tell them this is a very bad idea and ultimately he, Sue and Thing get stranded in the Zone; leaving Johnny to form a new team to mount a rescue attempt. Johnny picks Namorita (of the New Warriors) as well as former members She-Hulk and Ant-Man 2 (Scott Lang), and then we get parallel stories of Reed’s team in the Zone and Johnny’s team on Earth.

Chapter synopsis with spoilers to follow:
Chapter 1 – The FF return from a mission to the recently rebuilt Baxter Building. Reed catches up with an old college professor named Noah. Thing has recently regained the ability to change back and forth into Ben Grimm at will. Human Torch has a movie role; and he’s on set when Reed learns what the Gideon Corporation is up to and thus misses the call to meet up with the team. As the FF enter the Zone, Gideon deliberately detonates a bomb destroying the Fantasti-Car. The FF almost perish in a vortex but manage to hitch a ride on a dragon only to discover a Spanish galleon. Torch receives the call too late.
Chapter 2 – Torch isn’t smart enough to activate Reed’s Negative Zone portal on his own. The FF discover what appears to Puritans, and after the obligatory fight they convince them they are human and not demons and learn these are the descendents of a 15th century ship that was swept into the Negative Zone through the Bermuda Triangle. The Puritans also have a character named Hellscout, who serves as their protector–no powers, just firearms; but he has near-superhuman skill levels. Meanwhile Gideon’s troops kills a planet-full of creatures that look a lot like Blaastar’s people, and Torch goes to Spider-man for help/a pep-talk. Gideon’s fiddling with the Negative Zone causes a portal to open in the sky over the Atlantic Ocean, which gets Namor’s attention.
Chapter 3 – Exposure to Negative Zone energy causes Namor to go berserk and he attacks NY and battles the Torch. The FF meet up with refugees from last issue’s attack. She Hulk and Ant Man arrive in response to Johnny’s call to reserves and together the three of them subdue Namor. Namorita arrives to check on her cousin after seeing the news reports of his fight with Torch, and apparently is also dating Torch. The FF encounter Maximus the Mad (arch-foe of the Inhumans) in the Negative Zone.
Chapter 4 – Maximus has what’s left of Four Freedom’s Plaza, which had apparently fallen into the Negative Zone in a recent prior story—hence the new Baxter Building. And Reed and Maximus declare a truce to see if they can salvage some of Reed’s old equipment to get home. The Gideon troops encounter Annihilus, who quickly slaughters them but not before they call in reinforcements. Even with Ant-Man and Reed’s college professor to help, Johnny still can’t get into the Zone, so they came up with a plan to attack Gideon’s headquarters instead. We get parallel fights between the two FFs and Gideon. On Earth Johnny’s team encounters counterfeit versions Herbie (from the 70s Hannah Barbara cartoon) and the Mad Thinker’s Awesome Android; while in the Zone Reed’s team sees that Gideon has somehow captured Annihilus.
Chapter 5 – Johnny’s team begins winning their robot fight. The Gideon troops steal the Cosmic Control Rod and decide to use it to power their portal. Reed realizes this will merge the two universes and destroy the Earth/positive matter one so the FF, Puritans, alien barbarians and Maximus (with Alpha Primitives) all attack en masse. Johnny’s team sees the portal going haywire on Earth, and Torch tries to absorb its heat to prevent it from exploding while the other heroes evacuate the building. The Gideon troops realize they are losing so they sever the Control Rod out of spite. Annihilus busts free but is killed by Hellscout who impales him through the chest and then decapitates him. Sue uses her force field to contain the portal on the Zone side until Reed and Ben can fix the Rod. The FF then escape through the portal before it slams shut leaving the Puritans and Maximus behind. In the epilogue we learn Johnny can no longer flame off, Gideon terminates some mid-level managers for legal deniability and Annihilus is reborn as a larval.
Chapter 6 – Johnny’s misfortune sinks in, including the reversal that now Ben can change and Johnny is stuck. Ben quits the team without a word. Reed comes up with an exoskeleton to give a Johnny a degree of control and they decide to track Ben down—they agree he has a right to a normal life but want Reed wants him to say farewell in person. Ben is living with Alicia in a town that is very Stepford Wives and when the FF show up he attacks them irrationally. It becomes obvious the Puppet Master is manipulating the whole town but when the FF defeat him they learn he has CIA immunity as all the residents of the town are death row inmates who had their sentences commuted if they agreed to be part of mind control experiments. Once in their right minds Ben and Alicia break up but agree to remain friends.
Critical Thoughts: Overall I enjoyed this. I like the Negative Zone. While I think Annihilus being defeated by humans is ridiculous I get what the writer is going for: that exploitative corporations can be much more evil than fictional monsters like Annihilus and that’s message I can wholeheartedly endorse, so I’ll let it slide.
I’m not familiar with Pacheco at all but he seems to have a very good grasp of who the FF are and what makes them tick; while at the same time showing a willingness to try new things with the characters like having Johnny lead a team or reversing Ben and Johnny’s situation. And he obviously planted threads for future writers because the Annihilus larval rebirth is a big part of Annihilation, while Namor having no tolerance for Negative Zone energy is key part of another trade I just finished (review coming soon).
The stuff in the Negative Zone had a nice flow overall with intriguing cliff-hangers. I didn’t mind the Puritan cult as it was just quirky enough for me to go with it, and I really liked the surprise appearance by Maximus, who isn’t usually affiliated with the Negative Zone.
I also enjoyed some of the nods to FF history like the vortex from “This Man, This Monster” showing up, or Johnny picking former members to assist him. I would have liked to see more of Johnny’s team in action as that was big selling point for me (and Spidey’s disappearance between chapters seemed odd but I guess he was just there for a pep talk and not the mission itself), but overall since the Zone stuff was so interesting I can understand why the writer put most of his focus there.
I suppose my only major criticism would be having the CIA be the villains behind the Puppet Master right after the evil corporation is worse than Annihilus main plot is a bit of overkill, but that’s just one chapter out of six so it doesn’t hurt the grade too much.
Grade: B-. Again I found this to be a good read; so while Annihilus seems under-powered (although he’s talked up as a major threat throughout) and I would have liked to see more of Johnny as leader for what I paid for it I enjoyed it fine. So much so that if I saw other FF volumes by this writer in the discount bin I’d be tempted to pick them up too.