In this installment of Strange Comic Books is a look at a set of issues that, in retrospect, would turn out to be very significant for my future interests. Fantastic Four #s 322 to 325 came out in late 1988, although as I recall I found them in the back issue bins maybe two or three years later.
I bought these because they were tie-ins with the “Inferno” crossover that had run through the X-Men titles, as well as appearances by two villains from the pages of Avengers, the time traveling despot Kang the Conqueror and the egotistical Graviton. But this quartet of Fantastic Four issues would turn out to be some of my earliest exposure to the writing of Steve Englehart, and my introduction to one of his signature creations, Mantis.
At this point in time, Reed & Sue Richards had taken an extended leave of absence, and the FF membership was the Thing, the Human Torch, Ms. Marvel II aka She-Thing and Crystal, the last of whom had also parted ways with the team a few issues before. This leaves us with a “Fantastic Three” made up of Ben Grimm, Johnny Storm, and Sharon Ventura.
The whole “Inferno” storyline was, yep, a real strange sequence of events. An army of demons from Limbo led by N’astirh laid siege to Manhattan, along the way mystically animating all number of everyday objects which ran amok attacking innocent people.
As Fantastic Four #322 opens, Graviton is making his way back to Earth after a recent defeat at the hands of the Avengers. Upon arriving, he discovers the demonic assault on New York City, and decides that he can halt it with his gravity-based powers, on the condition that the citizens of the Big Apple worship him as their god. Meanwhile, the Fantastic Four is patrolling the city streets, rescuing their fellow New Yorkers from run-away bicycles, fire hydrants, and mailboxes. They come across the newly arrived Graviton and attack, hoping to quickly subdue him. Graviton has them majorly outclassed, but through teamwork and strategy the FF is able to defeat him.
Things get even odder in FF #s 323-324. Still patrolling the city, the threesome encounters Mantis, who is in the midst of a brawl with a horde of demonically possessed parking meters!
Yep, this was my very first glimpse of the Celestial Madonna. Right from the start, I could tell that Mantis was an unusual character. First of all, she kept referring to herself as “This one.” Second, even more significantly, she explained to the FF that she had married an alien plant and had a child with it, um, him. Yipes! Now her son has been spirited away into outer space by those same plant beings, and Mantis has come seeking the FF in the hopes that they can help her locate her offspring.
Before the FF can take any steps towards assisting Mantis, Kang pops up, snatching her away. The temporal tyrant wants to use her powers to awaken the mysterious Dreaming Celestial. The FF attack Kang’s ship and, while he is busy fighting them, the sorcerer Necrodamus kidnaps the helpless Mantis. Necrodamus is working in N’astirh’s service, and believes that by sacrificing Mantis during an alignment of the planets he will gain extraordinary powers. However, Kang and the Human Torch fly off into space and manage to delay the orbit of Mercury around the Sun by a fraction, throwing off the alignment, and returning Necrodamus to his exile in Limbo. At this point Kang abandons the Torch in outer space and heads back to Earth to try and grab Mantis again.
As issue #325 opens, the Silver Surfer, having sensed the disruption of Mercury’s orbit, arrives and rescues the Torch, spiriting him back to NYC, where the events of the Inferno have finally come to a close. The Surfer is surprised to learn that Mantis, who he has fallen in love with, is still alive. Their happy reunion is cut short by the arrival of the Cotati, the race of plants whose representative Mantis mated with. The Cotati have formed an alliance of convenience with Kang to prevent Mantis from regaining her son.
The FF, Mantis, and the Surfer fight Kang, the Cotati, and their servants the Priests of Pama to a draw, at which point the plant beings flee into “the realm of pure thought.” Vowing to follow them and rescue her son, Mantis’ consciousness departs from her body. A distraught Surfer flies off into space, leaving the FF to ponder these tragic events.
As I said, strange! But, of course, at the same time, these four issues of Fantastic Four were undoubtedly intriguing. Steve Englehart certainly imbued his storyline with a number of unusual concepts. Within a few years, I would discover Englehart’s earlier work on Captain America via back issues, and I became a tremendous fan of his.
In the late 1980s, right around the time these issues of FF were published, Englehart had a falling out with Marvel editorial. He did not have the opportunity to return to the cosmic saga of Mantis until 2001, when he penned the eight issue Avengers: Celestial Quest. I realize that miniseries met with a mixed reaction among readers. Personally, though, I enjoyed it.
Between Celestial Quest and the original Celestial Madonna story arc from the 1970s receiving the trade paperback treatment in 2002, I finally understood most of the rich, complex back-story of Mantis, Kang, the Cotati, and the Priests of Pama that Englehart was alluding to in those “Inferno” issues of Fantastic Four. At that point Mantis became one of my all time favorite comic book characters.
The artwork on these issues is also very good. Issue #322 is penciled by the talented and often underrated Keith Pollard, with inking by veteran Fantastic Four embellisher Joe Sinnott. FF #s 323-324 are drawn by Pollard and Romeo Tanghal, the latter of whom is also on-board to ink Rich Buckler’s pencils for #325. All four issues are topped by cover art by Ron Frenz & Sinnott.
I also have to point out the lettering. John Workman, one of the greatest letterers in the comic book biz, provides his amazing, distinctive fonts on the first couple of issues. Long-time Marvel Bullpen member Joe Rosen letters #324 and then-newcomer Michael Heisler steps up to the plate in #325.
The reason why I mention the lettering is the second panel on Fantastic Four #324 page 17. When Kang’s time-ship fires on Necrodamus’ force shield, the noise the weapon makes is “TARDIS!” Yep, it’s a Doctor Who reference. I have no idea if Joe Rosen was a fan of the series, or if Englehart put that special effect in his script. Whatever the case, it’s a cute in-joke.
Until I dug these issues out of storage in my parents’ basement a couple of months ago, I don’t think I had actually looked at them in over a decade. In the intervening time I finally had the opportunity to read the entirety of Englehart’s original epic Mantis storyline via the Essential Avengers collections and the aforementioned Celestial Madonna TPB. Those certainly gave me a whole new perspective on Fantastic Four #s 322-325. That said, they are still very strange comic books. But, of course, strange in a good way.