Villain Spotlight: The Four
Good morning, I’m Martian Luthor Kang the 117th filling in for Arthur Harkness, who has fallen victim to a demonic possession.
Now come in close my little poppets and I shall tell you a tale of a dastardly rascal. Today we turn the spotlight to the now-defunct Wildstorm branch of DC Comics, in specific the pages of Planetary. I’ve never been shy about the fact that Planetary is perhaps my all time favorite comic series, and one of the most intriguing ideas presented by the book was the premise behind it’s underlying antagonists: The Four.
Planetary was a series about the secret history of the world, and primarily of the 20th century. The titular organization was devoted to uncovering and chronicling all of the strange happenings which had heretofore remained a mystery, but found themselves stopped at many a turn by the Four. As with most of Planetary’s characters and concepts, The Four were a pastiche of characters from another work of fiction, particularly Marvel’s Fantastic Four. And just like the FF, the Four were an group of intrepid space explorers who encountered a unexpected cosmic force on an experimental mission. However, as anyone familiar with the works of Planetary’s writer Warren Ellis might expect, the side effects experienced by the Four had real world limitations not placed upon the FF. For example, Sue Storm’s analog Kim Suskind gained the ability to turn entirely invisible, but in doing so lost the ability to see. Since the human eye wouldn’t exactly work if its component parts were entirely invisible, Suskind must wear a rather bulky set of goggles to be at all useful while invisible.
In a similarly dark twist on the traditional version, the Four’s Jacob Greene has a rocky hide and superhuman strength and durability, just like Ben Grimm… but his twisted tumorous shape is even less attractive than a jumble of orange rock.
This isn’t to say that Ben Grimm had it easy. He was known to get melancholy about his transformation, but at least he eventually found the love of a charming young woman. Greene can no longer speak and while still capable of following orders, seems to have become as inhuman on the inside as he is on the surface. And while his rocky hide and singleminded purpose do make him a formidable foe, the good folks at the Planetary organization eventually manage to get him out of the picture by sending this unkillable murder machine on a one-way ticket to the depths of space.
William Leather, this universe’s Johnny Storm, was relatively unchanged. The most notable difference in his power set was that the heat, or at least energy, that he gave off was an electric blue instead of the Human Torch’s fiery red. Leather is the next in line in a family of classic heroes, but in the interest of preserving an awesome twist in the story, I won’t spoil who the previous members were… the important thing is that he is the product of an affair, and thus only inherited his father and grandfather’s name and not their blood (or, for that matter, their nobility). Continuing his streak of bad luck, Leather was the only member of the Four to be captured by Planetary. And, as demonstrated in their less-than-humane handling of Greene, they felt the desperate times called for desperate measures and they tortured the fuck out of our boy Billy for information on his former teammates.
And that leaves us with Randall Dowling, himself. While he was far colder and crueler than Reed Richards ever dreamed of being, at least he wasn’t enough of an egotist to name himself Mister Fantastic, right? Am I right? Anywho, Dowling was a very bad man even before that fateful trip to space. You see, he conducted gruesome experiments in a secret research facility called Science City Zero back in the 1950s, using vagrants, fifth columnists and other undesirables as test subjects. Then, in 1961, he assembled his crew to attempt a trip to the moon. Along the way, they were drawn into The Bleed. The Bleed is a Wildstorm staple, particularly in the writing of Warren Ellis, it’s basically the space between Earths in the Multiverse… and there some nasty characters inhabiting that space. In fact, most of the heroes of the Four’s Earth died in 1945 after opening a portal to the Bleed for laughs.
So Randall and friends get drawn into the Bleed and encounter beings from an alternate reality that grant them all their lives and superhuman abilities in exchange for… and he’s the really shitty part… the Four’s Earth. Naturally, Dowling was a Grade A scumbag and agreed to the deal, and his team got to work on screwing over the entire population of their planet by suppressing any technological advancements and other revelations that would have led to the world being more prepared for the coming invasion. This bit seems to have been Ellis’ commentary on the idea that, although Marvel’s Fantastic Four has wonderful world-changing technologies at their fingertips, they use them to fend off the occasional monster instead of to further the development of our species.
Oh, and in a bit of a SPOILER ALERT, Dowling also had a superpower of his own. Throughout the majority of the series, it was never clear if Dowling had any extrapolation of Reed’s ability to stretch his body, and just before the final showdown it was revealed that Randall’s gift was to stretch his mind , extending it into the minds of others. So, while he couldn’t kiss his sweetheart from the other side of the room, he could force a woman to love him. Decent tradeoff, I suppose.
Throughout the course of the series, these rascals did a number of… well, uncool things. They were shown to have killed their universe’s versions of Superman, Wonder Woman, and a Green Lantern to prevent them from protecting the world. They’ve been amassing an armory of weapons on the level of Mjolnir, housed in an extradimensional armory. Perhaps most notably, Dowling executed a half-measure on the members of the Planetary crew some time ago, as punishment for meddling his affairs. The nature of his actions constitute the biggest spoiler in the series, but needless to say it took a lot of balls and not a lot of heart.
As mentioned earlier, though, the reformed Planetary field team means business in their mission against the Four and having removed Greene and Leather from the equation, they settle their debts to Dowling and Suskind in the penultimate issue of the series. While I sort of wish the deaths of the two remaining members were handled with a little more flair, the matter-of-fact way that the Planetary agents dispatch this two most evil villains served as a brutal punishment fitting the awful crimes they’d perpetrated on humanity as we know it.
Well, I’ve been your substitute host for this Villain Spotlight! Thanks for having me, and I hope you’ve all enjoyed yourselves.
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