[Jason Powell continues his Claremont epilogues. This is a good case for these issues. I want them now.]
Okay, this is kind of a weird one, I’ll admit.
Remember in 1996, when Marvel reunited with all those Image artists, and gave them control of “Heroes Reborn,” a quasi-reboot of their major characters? Liefeld got Captain America, Portacio got Iron Man, and Jim Lee got the Fantastic Four. Then when they collapsed the “Heroes Reborn” idea, they rebooted everything *again.* Scott Lobdell and Alan Davis were given control of the Fantastic Four this time, but after only three or four months, that team was replaced by Chris Claremont and Salavador Larocca.
Apparently the assignment just sort of dropped into Claremont’s lap; this was 1998, when – as I recall -- Claremont was working as an editor for Marvel rather than a freelance writer. He didn’t seem to have any FF ideas, and so for the first few months the title was in danger of becoming Excalibur redux. Perversely, Claremont started using material from the Alan Davis-penned issues of Excalibur, as well as the issues he wrote himself. There was even talk of Kitty Pryde joining the cast. The first full FF arc that Claremont wrote took them to Genosha of all places. It was a mess.
Eventually Claremont started to find his FF voice, and while he never came close to making any kind of masterwork, there were two issues wherein I think he just nailed it.
FF 17-18 seem to have been influenced by The Matrix. That’s assuming the dates work out … I’m not sure if the movie was in theaters yet at this point in 1999, but if not Claremont could easily have been influenced just by teaser information about the film’s premise. It’s possible that Dark City was influencing Claremont here as well.
So the FF end up in a shared virtual reality scenario. As in the Wachowski Bros. film, the populace of this world are actually all unconscious, each one secure inside one individual chamber of a massive hive. They are all plugged into a fake city, playing roles that they do not know are fake.
But here’s the twist: The city in question is basically a virtual Gotham, complete with its own versions of Batman and Robin, called – respectively – Lockdown and Rosetta Stone. (There are shades here as well of the old Bottle City of Kandor stories where Superman used to become a Batman-like figure to protect the Kandorian populace.) When the FF – during one of their characteristic treks across various dimensions – wind up getting plugged into this virtual scenario, the master computer that runs the show does the logical thing: Makes each member of the FF into a new villain for Lockdown’s rogues gallery. And while Sue, Johnny and Ben are brainwashed into playing these new roles, Reed manages to retain his own identity – but he still has to play along in order to figure out a way to escape.
Lockdown, meanwhile, becomes fascinated with Reed, realizing that this is the first “villain” he’s ever faced that qualifies as his intellectual equal. He’s found his perfect arch-enemy basically, and he doesn’t want to let him leave.
So it’s Batman vs. Mr. Fantastic inside The Matrix. That’s the kind of high concept that would have the modern-day comics community going insane if it was being done by, say, Matt Fraction or Jeff Parker [Ed. note: Fair point.]. Claremont, however, just doesn’t inspire that kind of excitement in modern fandom. (And I understand there are reasons for that, I am simply not persuaded by any of them.)
It just ain’t right. This story is kick-ass by any standards. Everyone should go grab these out of their local LCS’s dollar bin. Granted, it is part of a longer arc that features the FF wandering through different worlds, and because of that there are a few subplots that are brought in from earlier installments. And FF #18 kind of ends on a cliffhanger as the FF move on to the next weird world.
It doesn’t matter. These two issues can easily be enjoyed on their own terms, without buying any of the rest of the run. And Salvador Larocca’s art is really fun, too. Go get these comics, guys. They’re a hoot!