Aside from “Who would win in a fight?” no debate gets comic fans more heated than the question of whether or not superheroes should marry. In this mini-feature, former Bride Rebecca Henely-Weiss and Bride-to-Be Kayleigh Hearn take a trip down memory lane to the most significant times comic companies took the plunge and got their characters hitched! Did we like the couple? Did we like the dress? And more importantly, why did (or didn’t) the marriage last? Today we look at the wedding of The Human Torch and “Alicia Masters.”
The Couple: Johnny Storm and “Alicia Masters”
The Issue: Fantastic Four #300
Published: March 1987
Today: In one of the most famous (infamous?) retcons in comics history, Fantastic Four #357-358 revealed the Alicia Masters in this story was a Skrull named Lyja and the real Alicia (who still loved Ben Grimm) was being held captive by the Skrull army. Lyja and Johnny had an on-again/off-again relationship—complete with a weird egg pregnancy storyline—for some time afterward, but post-Secret Invasion Lyja remains in the Negative Zone.
Rebecca: Ben Grimm is set to marry his long-time love interest—the blind sculptor Alicia Masters—in the pages of Fantastic Four #5 next month. While we’re not ready to pop the champagne yet given this year’s last two superhero weddings, Kayleigh and I decided this would be a good time to cover the now-retconned marriage of Alicia and Johnny Storm.
Kayleigh: The press release for Ben and Alicia’s wedding assures us they really will say “I do,” so Marvel’s at least trying to get ahead of a shit-storm of publicity. (Though I wouldn’t be shocked if on Christmas Day The Washington Post spills that Alicia gets murdered on her honeymoon by, oh, let’s say Stilt-Man.) Anyway! Ben and Johnny were each other’s Best Man when they got married to the same woman. That’s kind of weird, right?
Rebecca: The end result of the Johnny/Alicia relationship is more well-known than the issue or even the romance itself. In fact, some people I know were surprised it happened at all given that Alicia and Ben “The Thing” Grimm being an item is a well-known part of the Fantastic Four lore, with Alicia appearing as Ben’s love interest in two of the team’s animated series and three out of four of their movies. I haven’t been able to find any first-hand accounts from creators about this storyline, but I did see claims that the marriage was supposed to be real and writer Tom DeFalco made the decision to undo it later. I can’t really blame him, though. While I saw another claim that The Powers that Be made Johnny/Alicia a couple because the relationship with Ben had gotten stale, there’s a grand archetypal quality to a blind woman being in love with a monstrous-looking but good-hearted man that’s lost if Alicia is with Johnny. Sure, Johnny could stand to grow up a bit, but … what’s that special about him and Alicia together in particular? So I was surprised that I found this issue enjoyable. Fantastic Four #300 has some genuinely funny moments and a touching conclusion. It didn’t sell me on the couple, but writer Roger Stern and artist John Buscema (with inks from his brother Sal) are a great team and on its own it’s a good read.
Kayleigh: Johnny and Alicia’s romance was part of John Byrne’s celebrated run on Fantastic Four, a period of big change that also included She-Hulk joining the team, Sue becoming The Invisible Woman, and the Fantastic Four moving out of the Baxter Building. This relationship lasted for a few years, and yet, I don’t think I’ve ever bumped into a Fantastic Four fan who really loved them together or waxed nostalgic for the marriage. It feels like it’s mainly referenced today as a trivia question for superfans or fodder for a “15 Weirdest Comic Shockers You Forgot” listicle.
Rebecca: The issue opens with Johnny Storm incensed that the Daily Bugle has run a front-page cover story on his marriage to Alicia. Yet, as much as Johnny would like to keep the ceremony under the radar, given Sue and Reed’s epic showdown of a wedding, three of the Fantastic Four’s major villains—the Mad Thinker, the Wizard, and Alicia’s step-father the Puppet Master—are all hatching a plot to disrupt the ceremony. Also, between dress fittings and meetings with the officiant, the specter of Alicia’s old romance with Ben hangs in the air, to the point that even the Yancey Street gang is trying to get under his rock-hard skin about it. While Ben and Alicia have a heart-to-heart before the ceremony where they put their old romance to bed, the Puppet Master plans to stop the wedding by forcing Ben via puppet to kill Johnny Storm right after the couple says “I do.” (He still wants Alicia to inherit Johnny’s money.) In the end, though, the Puppet Master has a last minute change of heart, defeats his allies, and rides away on the Dragon Man. After seeing his step-daughter so happy, he just couldn’t go through with it.
I will admit I’ve been a bit demoralized by the last few weddings we’ve covered here, but I think even if we hadn’t done four cancelled weddings in quick succession (with a wedding of a couple that turned abusive sandwiched in between) I would enjoy this story. I like Puppet Master’s change of heart, and the dress fitting section—where She-Hulk threatens the paparazzi stalking Alicia and Sue Storm uses her invisibility powers to let them all escape the store—is the fun intersection between the mundane and the superheroic that I live for in these wedding issues. Also, while Dr. Doom’s part in here isn’t actually relevant to the story, but a teaser for next issue, I got a real kick at him yelling at an underling who confronts Doom in his greenhouse for being too loud around his flowers. That’s the type of nonsense that only he can pull off.
Kayleigh: Doom’s greenhouse has fantastic (heh) payoff at the end of the issue; he sends flowers to Johnny and Alicia, promising a truce between him and the Fantastic Four as long as the flowers bloom, only for Reed to point out that cut flowers don’t bloom for very long. There are some really good character moments sprinkled through the issue, especially for, of all people, Puppet Master. That one panel of Dragon Man carrying that Elf on a Shelf-looking motherfucker to safety through a hole in the roof is beautiful in its nuttiness. This is a pretty solid comic overall, though the Lyja retcon has probably tarnished my ability to appreciate the issue as it was meant to be read—i.e., does Johnny and Alicia’s relationship seem kind of inconsequential and ephemeral in their own wedding issue, or is that because I already know it will be revealed as a sham?
Rebecca: I didn’t really buy Johnny and Alicia as a couple, and I’m not sure the story’s thought about why they’re together, either. There are a number of scenes dedicated to Ben’s emotional state and no romantic scenes between Johnny and Alicia outside of the ceremony. Johnny has a heart-to-heart with Reed, but it’s more about him being worried about growing up/the responsibility of marriage than about Alicia specifically. As much as the story wrings pathos out of Puppet Master’s feelings toward Alicia, I’m not surprised this story was eventually undone.
Kayleigh: The point of the relationship was to help the perpetual kid brother of the team grow up, but take away the “I just wish I had Benji’s girl” angst and I’m not sure there’s much there to Johnny and Alicia. I don’t think the positives of the relationships were enough to cancel out the “But the bro-code, dude!” sense of betrayal a lot of fans felt on Ben’s behalf. The ceremony feels less like a necessary step in their relationship and more of a, “It’s the 300th issue, we have to do something,” gimmick. But then the Lyja reveal was coordinated with the Fantastic Four’s 30th anniversary, so there’s a sad sort of symmetry there.
Rebecca: The fashion for this issue was solidly OK. The men are in the common blue tuxedos for this, but I like how Ben and Johnny have wide striped ties. I thought Sue’s pink maid-of-honor dress with the wide-brimmed hat was really cute and different from what we’ve seen at other weddings. Alicia’s dress is maybe a bit too simple, but I like how the veil halos the super-short haircut she had during this time period.
Kayleigh: The most damning thing about Alicia’s dress is that if you added puffy sleeves and extended the veil, you’d have the exact same dress John Buscema gave The Wasp on her wedding day, nearly twenty years earlier, so as undoubtedly great as Buscema is, the clothing in this issue does feel rather old-fashioned for 1987, especially compared to the specially-designed gown Mary Jane Watson would be married in later that same year.
Rebecca: The cameos this time around are really fun. While She-Hulk and Namor are the only superheroes on the guest list, I dug that some real life art celebrities showed up to Alicia’s wedding. The Wyeth Family gets name-dropped, and the officiant is Gurdon Brewster, a real life Christian sculptor and chaplain who worked with Martin Luther King. Since the significant others of superheroes tend to be afterthoughts at their own weddings, I thought Alicia’s guest list being made up of artists was really cool. Although now if, like, Marina Abramovic doesn’t show up to Alicia’s marriage to Ben I’ll be super-disappointed.
Kayleigh: While Johnny and Alicia wanted to avoid the spectacle of Sue and Reed’s wedding, I would have liked it if the ceremony had been a little kookier, artsier, and Greenwich Village-y. The lady who thought She-Hulk was just wearing green body paint was great.
Rebecca: I never really had too much exposure to Lyja, at least beyond her brief appearances in the MC2 (because as much as I love Mayday Parker, Tom DeFalco really obviously used that universe to put the characters he created on life support). I read the issues that retconned this, and while I do think they weren’t as well written—the extent to which Johnny and Ben were bloodthirsty about killing Lyja when they found out the truth came off as kind of over the top and disturbing—it does have a nice gut-punch of a climax when the real Alicia comes out of her suspended animation prison and professes her love to Ben. In the words of Bart Simpson, you can see the exact moment when Johnny’s heart rips in half.
Kayleigh: I can appreciate the “I Married a Skrull from Outer Space!” twist as pulpy soap opera, but the execution is all over the place. The story puts the impetus on Johnny to forgive an enormous, unthinkable betrayal, and he confesses that he still loves his “wife” even as she admits with her supposedly dying breath that she lied about a pregnancy to try to keep him. The parts of Lyja’s backstory that are meant to make her sympathetic (she was forced into the assignment by a vengeful ex-lover/commanding officer, and she really, really loves Johnny, uh-huh) don’t outweigh the violation she committed, and the fact that Johnny/Lyja was considered a viable pairing at all after this is pretty icky. As far as comic creators going above and beyond to get rid of an unpopular status quo go, “Johnny’s wife was really a Skrull and now she’s dead” is up there with “We don’t want to write about Cyclops’ baby so we gave him the Techno-Organic Virus and sent him two thousand years into the future.”
Rebecca: I think the creation/retcon of Lyja was probably the best way for Johnny to keep some of his “grown up” character development (and keep some drama going) while restoring Ben and Alicia’s relationship. While this issue’s fun, as we’ve learned in previous Wedding Issues, it’s hard to keep a Jack Kirby-created romance apart. Then again, we’ll have to see what happens next time.