…bad Galactus stories?

Bad Galactus stories

Fantastic Four aficionado, Chris Tolworthy, comes to the rescue with this second guest post in quick succession to his last, here!

This “how would you fix” is about pretty much every Galactus story after the original classic.  Even the good ones raise difficult questions; and the bad ones are awful.  Yet there is a logic to them if we look closely.  A solution is found by comparing Fantastic Four #262, Annual #23 and #604.  Yes, #604.  Normally I run screaming from any Fantastic Four number dated after 1990, but this one deserves attention.

Before continuing, I must stress that I rely heavily on the Fantastic Four as the core text, and mainly issues before #322.  I refer to very few others.  I am an unrepentant Fantastic Four fanboy, and am apt to pick holes in other comics while defending the Fantastic Four as Great Literature, so be warned.  Also, spoilers ahead…

Let’s start with the problem with later Galactus stories.  Fantastic Four #48-50 (the Galactus trilogy, and more) is the gold standard for superhero comics.  Utterly superb.  Yet later appearances (even by Stan Lee… well actually ESPECIALLY by Stan Lee) show a different and inferior Galactus.  Here are some examples:

1. The original Galactus visit was a one off event.  The Watcher said of these forces “you shall never see their like again!”  Yet we allegedly “see their like again” regularly in later years.

2. Galactus seems unaware of where the Skrull throne world should be.  So either he travels so widely that he would not expect to visit the same galaxy twice within a few thousand years, or he travels at random and avoids maps.  Either way, why does he keep coming back to Earth?

3. “Of all who inhabit the known universe, only GALACTUS has powers enough to match my own!” – so said the Watcher.  We can quibble over the exact meaning of this phrase, but at the very least we cannot expect any Earth bound power or collection of powers to defeat him.  Yet in later appearances he is routinely defeated.

4. The Silver Surfer is different.  The original Surfer features in Skrull history books, books that less informed Skrulls have not read, suggesting that he’s been around a long time.  But there is no indication in the origin that the Surfer is any younger than Galactus.  Galactus seems unaware of the Surfer’s full power: “Your power is far greater than I suspected, herald.”  The surfer does not understand beauty or self-sacrifice: “there is a word some races use… a word I have never understood… until now!  At last I know… BEAUTY!” and “I have learned from the HUMANS how glorious it can be to have a cause worth dying for!”  Yet in later appearances we are told that Norrin Rad became the Surfer in order to save his home world, and his beloved Shalla Bal, who can still pass for a young woman (cf. Fantastic Four #153-155).  Granted, perhaps the Surfer’s race lives a long time, but this really sounds like a different person.

5. The original Galactus does not get hungry quickly: “All ETERNITY awaits me! I can afford to be patient!”  Yet the later Galactus is always hungry: “You must be swift! My hunger grows UNENDURABLE!” (FF76)

6. The original Galactus can never lie.  “The promise of GALACTUS is living TRUTH itself! His word can never be questioned!”  Yet when he came back he said he promised never to return, but was considering breaking the promise.  (Actually he never promised not to return, he simply promised not to tarry, so this is another change.)

7. The original Galactus is part of an advanced race.  As the Watcher said, “Did not YOUR race… and MINE… evolve from such humble beginnings?”  Yet the later Galactus was a lone survivor of a world that, while more advanced than ours, was more like “gnats” than “gods.”

8. The original Galactus has a symbol of an eternal arrow on his chest (often mistaken for a letter G).  Later Galactuses do not.  They also alternate with sleeves or not, visible eyes or not, highly muscular arms or not.  The ship changes completely as well: from a sphere to a wing to a cube.

9. I gather that other comics feature problematic origin stories.  I think those problems will resolve themselves once we understand what Galactus is and how he operates.

Now let’s look at a solution to the problems.  Our first exhibit is the backup story in Fantastic Four Annual #23.  It follows from a similar backup story in Annual 22, and both could be considered together.  They give an overview of the highest powers in the universe, and I would like to draw your attention to a comment about the Celestials.  A certain character in another comic was shown defeating Celestials.  But that is just because it suited the Celestials for him to believe that.  The stories also show that scale is largely an illusion, and there is much we do not know (the Beyonders, for example, are barely known at all).  This is as we should expect: advanced beings are not like us.  They do not look or think or act like us.  We can draw some conclusions, but those conclusions may be surprising. Let’s go, shall we?

Advanced beings probably operate on higher dimensions.  This means one being might have multiple appearances in this world.  Imagine your 3D body appearing in a 2D world.  Like putting your hand slowly through the 2D surface of a bath of water.  To that surface, your hand appears as 5 separate shapes, then those shapes join, change shape, get thicker… one being appears as multiple slightly different beings!  We can see this already in the real world: as people we exist online as avatars.  One person can have many avatars at the same time.  As Artificial Intelligence improves, our avatars could even answer questions on our behalf.  We can exist as multiple beings!

Now recall the Watcher’s comment that there are basically just two powerful beings: the Watcher and Galactus.  It seems reasonable to suppose that the Beyonders, Celestials, etc., are merely aspects of Galactus.  Galactus tests planets (eating those that cannot hide), the Celestials test planets (Arishem the judge), the Beyonders test planets (by providing rewards for those who reach a certain level), and so on.  I further submit that each Galactus is a different aspect of the one Galactus, hence the different appearance, history, and behaviour.  The Surfer may also have been raised to a higher dimension to gain his powers, explaining his different versions.

Our next exhibit is Fantastic Four #262, and follows from the previous discussion: we are shown (in the Trial of Reed Richards) that each civilisation sees Galactus in its own image.  We have the Galactus that most suits us at a particular time.  Remember that the highest powers in the universe tend to personify concepts, such as Eternity, or the Living Tribunal.  It seems likely that the Watchers personify knowledge and Galactus personifies testing or truth (the same thing).  It is only natural that these concepts change according to who interacts with them.

The final exhibit is Fantastic Four #604, the climax to Jonathan Hickman’s long arc.  My view is that after issue #321 we see different realities slipping in and out of focus, so I take most later stories with a pinch of salt (with the exception of Claremont’s run: he appears to use the original Fantastic Four).  However, Franklin exists across dimensions, so every Franklin appearance counts as canon.  But this is not an essay about Franklin, so I will cut to the chase.  I did warn you about spoilers, didn’t I?  OK, here is the conclusion to Hickman’s 50 issue arc: Galactus is the herald of Franklin.  Yes, you read that right.  Don’t act horrified.  It makes sense if we step back and look at the nature of Franklin’s power.

Franklin basically connects realities.  I won’t go into details, but he is a doorkeeper.  He lets the entire universe (or a part of it) slip into an alternate universe.  By letting people switch universes he appears to be creating or changing entire universes, but it’s more subtle than that.  It’s more like connecting doorways, except you do not physically walk through any door, the normal passage of time does the walking for you.  It’s all quite simple and subtle really. As Annual #23 said, scale is an illusion.  But this is not an essay about Franklin.

If Franklin’s power is to connect universes, and Galactus personifies testing, it follows naturally that Galactus is the herald of Franklin because every test leads to a new state of the universe (e.g. one where we have defeated Galactus or one where we are destroyed).  All the rest of it, the explosions and battles and Kirby dots and such, is just how we experience this higher dimensional testing and connecting.  Galactus only appears in his big G form when the test is of a particular type.

OK, with that understanding (Galactus adapts to us, and is attracted to Franklin), let us examine the appearances of Galactus in the core Fantastic Four timeline:

Fantastic Four #48-50: this was the great test. Galactus finds the Earth at random, and he represents all the grandeur of the universe, as you would expect.  Notice that the Ultimate Nullifier is basically a crude Franklin tool: it jumps everything to a different reality.

The next appearance of Galactus, Fantastic Four 74: One year later (1967) Sue learns she is pregnant with Franklin.  She learns in Annual #5, a Microverse story.  Soon after, in another Microverse story, Galactus feels drawn back to Earth against his will (“Galactus did VOW to NEVER RETURN– and yet, he is HERE!”) and is inexplicably desperately hungry.  Ironically the boys are rushing around like mad things (seriously this is probably the busiest arc ever) and they think they are letting Sue rest.  But the real story is going on inside Sue’s womb: Franklin’s stress hormones are dragging Galactus to Earth.

The next appearance, Fantastic Four #122: Franklin’s life is relatively uneventful for a few years (except for the birth, but this was probably a Caesarian due to the complications, so Franklin probably didn’t feel too stressed).  But by the age of four Franklin is old enough to realise what is going on, and it coincides with the beginnings of the family problems that I call Act Four.  (Although Franklin is four years old in 1972 he only lets himself appear as two years old.)  Franklin must be worried, as Galactus is drawn back to the Earth, and acts like a four year old: he looks like a toy soldier with bulging muscles, and acts very dumb (tripped over by Ben, and has an easy to access spacecraft with a gigantic self-destruct button).  He even plays with a roller coaster and giant train set.  He is basically molded to Franklin’s four year old brain.  He is announced by Franklin’s nanny, Agatha Harkness, Agatha watches throughout, and he (Galactus) ends up in Franklin’s home turf, the Negative Zone.

The next appearance, Fantastic Four #172: Though Franklin is brain zapped in the #140s he isn’t really aware of this (he is far more concerned with what happens to his family).  Franklin is next aware of major problems when his uncle Ben fights against the family, then loses his powers and is replaced and fights them again.  Franklin’s eight year old brain (appearing as three years old) has a typical eight year old solution: he unconsciously has a new, better Earth built, and summons Galactus there so his family can prove once again that they do the right thing.  And how does his eight year old brain get rid of Galactus this time?  By giving him indigestion!

The next appearance, Fantastic Four #212: Franklin is getting older and better at controlling things: Galactus is becoming more of a friend.  The family experiences a new crisis – Sue and Reed and Ben age and almost die, so Franklin unconsciously summons Galactus to help against the Sphinx.  Obviously he doesn’t just say “come here Galactus” – it is all unconscious through manipulating reality so that others do the job, but the result is the same.  When he finally masters his powers in Fantastic Four #604 then yes, he does say “to me, my Galactus.”  Of course Galactus still asks for his dinner, but that is just how the test always goes, and the family always passes the test.

The next appearance, Fantastic Four #243-44: The most traumatic experience in Franklin’s life (pre-Waid) is when he is hung upside down as fresh meat for Annihilus.  This trauma not only drags his parents back from Reed’s Negative Zone debacle, but also drags Galactus along.  By now Galactus and Franklin are best buds in whatever higher plane they occupy.  It plays out in this reality as Reed saving the big G’s life and becoming BFF.  And that ends the Galactus threat.  At least as far as the original Fantastic Four is concerned (i.e. pre 1989, pre Fantastic Four #322).

As for other appearances, origin stories, etc., what we see is merely our four dimensional glimpse of a five dimensional reality.  We only ever see a partial Galactus, a Galactus-adapted-to-our-needs, or more likely a story made up by the Bullpen.  Only the Fantastic Four report directly to the Bullpen: other comics include wild speculation, especially where secret identities are concerned.  So we should not get too hung up on the details if some other version of Galactus is a bit odd.  Untangling it is half the fun.

Note: Fantastic Four #257 was part of their seventh encounter, when they had become friends.  Note the Biblical significance (6 is struggle, as in 666, 7 represents peace, as in resting on the seventh day, 7 angels, etc.). The Fantastic Four have six battles, leading to the seventh encounter as friends. Hmmm.

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…Marvel’s Merlin?

Back in the early days of their pro-hood, Gruenwald, Macchio, Peter  Sanderson, Steven Grant and a few others set about some housecleaning, and one of the things they did was the two part Thor story which made the Space Phantom’s Limbo the same as Immortus’s Limbo (one thing I recall fondly about this story was Keith Pollard’s visual reference to Escher for the idea of Immortus’s palace).

So I sympathise with trying to clean up Merlin. Roy was terribly hungry to be able to tap into the Arthurian thing, and with his meticulous nature, he quickly got rid of the painful Mad Merlin story from the clumsy birth of the Thor strip. (It’s useful, considering that he ended up writing everything, to look at X-Men, starting with #20, as Roy’s first regular strip.  The Moldy Villain’s League was positively Gruenwaldian, the Kukulcán stories betrayed his archaeological bent – and then there was X-Men #30, starring the Warlock, cleaning up the Arthurian plate.

I think it was an unspoken assumption, never acted upon, that Merlin was Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme of that period.  I reckon this is what Peter Gillis was going for as well, since at the tail end of his stint on Doctor Strange, he was starting his own arthurian-themed storyline-and-maybe-strip, the Dragon Circle. He referred to the title Pendragon as a mystic office, an idea I suspect he lifted from C.S. Lewis (That Hideous Strength).  He created a Welsh professor, Dafydd ap Iorwerth, who, unknown to himself, was Earth’s then current Pendragon.  Of course, this all died aborning, but the Dragon Circle, consisting of the non-X-Men members of the Defenders gathered around the Pendragon, appeared to be creating a sort of legacy from a previous Sorcerer Supreme, with Dr. Strange.

Nevertheless, Marvel’s Merlin is a bizarre amalgam of all kinds of other sources, and I guess one of them is T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” where the wizard lives backwards through time (the implication being that Merlin might actually be T.H. White himself). However, while White’s work is charming, philosophical and wise – and living backwards is a swell conceit – there’s absolutely no ‘why’ to White’s Merlin at all.  Don’t get me wrong, I love T.H. White’s Arthur books, but a more Marvel-ish vision is Lewis’s, with a larger context – and even a daring continuity link to Middle Earth.

With Chris Claremont having revealed in more recent years, in his Excalibur: Die by the Sword mini-series, that Mad Jim Jaspers was merely a tool enabling Merlyn to accomplish his goals, combined with the fact combined with the fact that his Crazy Gang were derived from “Alice in Wonderland”, it is interesting to note that Immortus, self-styled Master of Limbo, often used characters from history, mythology and literature to create his armies. Then recalling that Belasco’s Limbo was also referred to as Otherworld at times, the same “nom de plume” as Merlyn and Roma’s realm, this would all seem to suggest that Merlyn is an older incarnation of Immortus.

So my idea here is that the manipulative, amoral Merlyn from Captain Britain and Excalibur could easily be Immortus, and here’s why:

1. He operates from a “nexus point” which has a special position in the multiverse – much as Limbo does;

2. He deletes realities which present a danger to him;

3. He often chooses to work through 20th century Marvel-Earth heroes;

4. He uses time travel;

5. He has faked his death before now, just like Immortus has;

6. He is a scholar by nature; and

7. He may have had something to do with the rather special bit of time where Camelot happened outside regular history – surely an Immortus plot if ever there was one.

********

Mind you, if Merlin is Immortus, it raises interesting questions about where his daughter comes from.

I don’t necessarily think Ravonna is the mother, though!

Remember that there is only ONE Immortus, not lots of divergent ones. At some point the one Immortus hooks up with Ravonna.  At some point he has a short-lived son Marcus, by an unspecified mother, and Marcus has to get himself reborn by impregnating Carol Danvers for reasons which are never fully explained but seem to do with Immortus “dying”.

However, if one needs a candidate for Merlin’s daughter, my first choice would be Nimue, the Lady of the Lake and Mistress of Avalon.  Of course, there’s always the possibility that the Lady who gave Dane his sword IS Roma’s mother, or Roma herself.  Roma has been known to be attracted to handsome, swashbuckling, rule-breaking heroes before.

We may have to assume that there are various alternate-timeline Camelots around too.  Apart from the various dramatically different versions of Arthur and his knights, and the three Merlins, it is hard to reconcile the legendary Matter of Britain even with itself let alone the Iron Man, Torch/ Thing, Black Knight, Dr Doom, Bizarre Adventures and other Marvel versions.  We also have to explain the fact that it never actually happened in history, so Dane is claiming descent from a mythical ancestor anyway.

It would be interesting to see Dane tied in to Morgan’s family tree, but I suspect she would have commented on it in some way in Avengers #1-3 if it was so.  After all, Dane would have made a much better lieutenant than her nephew Mordred.

My own preferred explanation would be that during “the Enchantment of Britain”, the time between the wounding of the Grail King and Arthur’s final battle at Camlaan, there was effectively a divergent timeline where all this Arthur stuff happened, and there were divergences from that in the usual Marvel way when time-travellers appear from the future which explain all the various Camelot visits.  Clearly those days, although expurgated from history (an Immortus trick if ever there was one) still case echoes.  The Black Knight seems to be one of them.

Quick summary of the three Merlins according to the Handbook of the Marvel Universe, by the way: #1 was allegedly the demon-sired son of the princess of Dyfed, (as described by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain around the 12th century).  #2 was a psionic mutant impostor from the dawn of time who wielded a fragment of the Bloodstone Gem.  This one was exposed by Sersi (!), and placed in suspended animation by the real Merlin.  This is the guy who battled Thor in Journey into Mystery, and later became the Maha Yogi who plagued the X-Men and Hulk.  #3 was the Otherworldly master of deception (who may or many not be the same as #1) who imbued Captain Britain with powers (and indeed ALL Captain Britains in all the realities they exist in), was the father of Roma, Goddess of the Northern Skies, and plays with time.

Captain Britain’s Merlin also operates from the Otherworld, a strange nexus place (not to be confused with the Man-Thing’s nexus, of course; this one focuses on Brian Braddock’s lighthouse).  If Merlin is Immortus, is the Otherworld really Limbo?

This further makes the fact that Merlin was one of the Space Phantom/ Dire Wraith champions of Immortus in Avengers #10 more fun, too!

Then there’s that other Arthurian Immortus sighting in STRANGE TALES #134 vol.1:

In this issue Kang has, as I mentioned, gone to conquer Camelot. He begins by first imprisoning Merlin, Arthur’s “secret weapon”.

He then defeats knight after knight in a jousting competition, until he is made King. Arthur and his faithful are then sent into exile.

Kang then assembles an army and prepares to sweep it across the Earth.

Back in the 20th Century, The Watcher appears to the Thing and the Human Torch and informs them of what has transpired. He then enlists their aid to come back into time to defeat Kang. They agree.

He then informs them:

“The method I shall use to send you back into time is totally alien to you that there are no words with which I can describe it! But let us join hands – -”

The Watcher then has the two FF members hold hands with him and they begin to do a slow fade, he continues as this occurs:

“You shall travel to the days of King Arthur without me, for there is no reason for me to join you! My power is such that I can observe all that transpires no matter WHICH age I find myself in! Thus I shall remain in LIMBO — silently watching, and waiting to RETURN you to the present — IF YOU SURVIVE!”

The due does defeat Kang, but only by first freeing Merlin, and the “Watcher” then appears to return them quickly home.

–END–

Ok, innocent enough.  BUT, in the Kang History presented in THOR ANNUAL #17 (part 2 of CITIZEN KANG) Kang reflects on this adventure, and says:

“Soon the legendary CAMELOT was mine! I planned to CREATE an ALTERNATE reality in which MY Britain would CONQUER the GLOBE and SUPER HEROES would NEVER arise! Acting OUT of CHARACTER, UATU the Watcher enlisted the THING and HUMAN TORCH to STOP me…but WAS he UATU? He CLAIMED he was BASED in LIMBO…the REALM OF IMMORTUS!”

So, what do you think? Kang thinks it’s Immortus pretending to be Uatu.

(Making his “LIMBO” remark a slip of the tongue – which Kang must have viewed later in one of his Chrono-viewers)

Immortus doesn’t need to stop Kang here.  It’s a divergent reality after all.  But possibly…quite possibly… the Merlin from this era is important somehow and needed freeing.

Maybe Merlin created the Forever Crystal…

Maybe…

Postscript: Despite previous suggestions, I have come up with something better than having the Ebony Blade be Excalibur in disguise too (and I can see somebody eagerly doing a story which does just that). I’ll steal from another SF/ Fantasy writer, Fred Saberhagen, and posit something like the existence of Twelve Great Swords, scattered throughout infinity. Dormant, they can be almost anywhere, but activated by a person of power, they can do great things. Excalibur is one, Stormbringer another, Mournblade a third, and Andúril yet another. (and maybe the Odinsword still another.) They are entities on their own, and the activation never ends well.

Arthur is dead, the Round Table broken. Excalibur ultimately worked its doom upon Arthur, and the Lady of the Lake had taken both the body of Arthur and the sword Excalibur which, the bond now broken, is once again inert.

Despite all the tragedy, Merlin’s greater purpose was fulfilled: the Flame of the West would not be extinguished: though Rome had failed and would not be restored, civilization, the Celts would keep learning alive while Europe plunged into darkness, and the legend of Camelot would keep civilised men dedicated where the more savage and ugly history of Rome would not. the chain of light that stretched back to Númenor would not go dark.

But, as his time was going to end soon, he had to make sure the west still had supernatural defences. and so Merlin, in one of his last magical acts, brought from elsewhere another of the Great Swords.  Maybe Stormbringer, maybe another whose name only the Wise know. He sealed it in its inertness, and gave it to the utterly loyal Sir Percy of Scandia and his heirs to keep.

Sir Percy was a valiant but ordinary knight: the Ebony Blade would never come to life in his hands, or any of his descendants. The line of the Black Knights would stand eternally ready – ready to hand the blade to the one who needed it.

It is said that the grandson of Sir Percy gave it to Roland, who christened it Durendal (a mental echo of Andúril?) and fought the battle that ensured Europe would not be a branch of a Muslim Empire.  It is also said that the power of the awakened sword killed Roland as surely as if it had slit his throat. saddened, the Black Knight of that era took back the Ebony Blade, which fell asleep in his hand.

It began to look as if the Blade might be needed again in World War II, when Hitler found the Spear of Longinus. This awoke the Blade enough to bring the line of Sandia out of their long sleep. However, the latest heir, Dane Whitman, seemed to have lost the critical faculty of inertness with respect to the blade. His mission was to keep it safe, and he was awakening it instead.

The solution was to give it to Brunnhilde the Valkyrie. Now whether the Lady Of The Lake was in fact of the Valkyrior, or whether they just practiced the same craft, the Ebony Blade was calmed by Brunnhilde’s handling in the same way that the Lady brought Excalibur to rest while they took the hero Arthur to his reward. After a time, she gave Dane Whitman back the blade, judging that he would be able to handle it now.

Doesn’t fit everything in, probably, and there’s a lot of recent stuff I’m completely unaware of. But it’s pretty good, eh?