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Thursday, March 11, 2010

LET THE PEOPLE REJOICE: THE FANTASTIC FOUR ARE ONCE AGAIN READABLE!!!

A stunning promo piece for what's to come this year. (Art by Dale Eaglesham with colors by Paul Mounts)

You may recall that almost exactly one year ago, after a lifetime of sticking by them through a number of arcs that were considerably less than stellar, I officially swore off reading FANTASTIC FOUR in the wake of the ultra-boring run scripted by Mark Millar (NOTE: Bryan Hitch's art was very nice and utterly without blame for my decision). As the dullness compounded itself on an issue-to-issue basis, it became too much for me to take and so I kissed the FF goodbye, an act of self-preservation that felt akin to severing a long-in-duration friendship that had long ago run its course and was now best left in the past. Then, a little over a week ago, my pal Amber alerted me to FANTASTIC FOUR #575 and how good that was, and she has a thus far unbroken track record for making solid recommendations for what and what not to read, so I figured I'd take her advice. I read FF #575 and the issue after that, and simply put, Amber's right. So right in fact, that I ran out and picked up the hardcover containing the issues that I'd missed from the current run.

The hardcover collection of the new creative team's first arc (FANTASTIC FOUR #570-574).

The new scripter is one Jonathan Hickman, and from his first issue on the book it is clear that he knows and understands the characters and how they're a family first, super-scientific explorers second, and superheroes last. Sure, they get into all manner of bizarre crap from which the end result is that they just so happen to save the world, but the FF just are not crime-fighters per se. Hickman wisely focuses on the family's close-knit nature and the normal dysfunction that is by far the most ordinary thing about the lot of them, so my attention was riveted. Reed is absorbed in his research to such a degree that it once again disrupts the stability of his status as a husband and dad, a conflicted Sue must weather Reed's unintentional neglect while also anchoring the whole of the extended family, Ben is the Ben that I have adored since childhood, and Johnny is just as much of a douche as always, only much better-written than usual. The Richards children, Franklin and Valeria, are also given some solid scripting and as a result they read like recognizable kids, something sorely lacking in their characterizations for far too long. Think about what it would be like to be the children in the FF family; your parents are famous, rich meta-humans with unlimited resources for creating Nth-degree technology and using it to explore virtually any realm conceivable by man (and then some), and your uncles are two of the most fun (and unashamedly sophomoric) knuckleheads out there, plus the daily sense of unbridled wonder would be immense, especially to a pair of under-tens. Hickman twigged to that narrative potentiality and has imbued the little ones with real personality and the dynamic between the older brother and little sister is both charming and funny, especially when considering Valeria taking the dominant sibling role thanks to her super-intelligence (she's smarter than Reed and she's maybe three, so think about that for a minute).

The first arc consists of Hickman settling into the writing reigns and re-introducing readers to the FF on a typical day in their lives. Reed's lost in thought, Sue is corralling the kids, and Ben and Johnny are figuring out which alternate reality they want to hit for their vacation, jibing at each other all the while. It's an opening that features everything I love about the FF; I care about them and am interested in them as people, and their superpowers and mind-boggling adventures are just spice to their family chronicle. A damned fun spice, but you get what I mean.

Once the family's characters are clearly laid out, the stories proper can get started, and in the first one Reed retires to his lab for a few days of deep thought, interrupted only by breaks for sustenance or sleep (something that long-suffering Sue is definitely not pleased about). While pondering what project to tackle next, Reed writes his goal on the already notes-scrawled wall: "Solve everything." Where that goal takes him leads to incredible possibilities involving Reed being offered membership in a brain-trust of many Reed Richards doppelgangers from alternate realities, and ultimately culminating is a rare moment of serious introspection and an epiphany fueled by flashbacks to his own childhood and a very sage piece of advice imparted to him by his father.

The second story takes Ben and Johnny to an alternate world for a vacation aimed at getting Ben laid (after an apparently bad breakup with his boring from-out-of-nowhere girlfriend from Millar's avalanche of boredom), but their plans go straight down the toilet when their destination turns out to be quite different than they expected and they must fight for their lives while stranded on a nigh-barren and very hostile environment as the alternate Earth makes its way on an inexorable course into a huge singularity that was once the Sun. Also compounding matters are Franklin and Valeria, who have tagged along because they wanted to spend time with their uncles on the vacation (a plan completely shot down in flames by their mom).

Ben, Johnny and the junior FF contingent of course eventually make it back to our world where, after a scolding from Sue, the whole gang celebrates Franklin's birthday (judging by the cake, I think he's supposed to be five), and other than a fun guest spot featuring Spider-Man, none of the usual destruction and mayhem occurs that usually mars such events in the Marvel Universe. Nonetheless, hours after the party, a mysterious stranger arrives, bypasses Reed's security defenses with ridiculous ease, and enters little Valeria's room, where he warns her of an upcoming war between four great cities. Causing her no harm, the stranger also tells her that she can tell no one of what she now knows...

The two monthly issues following the collected edition — issues 575 and 576 — waste zero time in bringing us two of the prophesied ancient cities and the fascinating creatures who inhabit them.

FANTASTIC FOUR #575 (cover by Alan Davis)

The first of the ancient cities proves to be an underground realm that's a leftover of CENSORED FROM THIS POST SO YOU CAN READ IT FOR YOURSELF and the FF's first adversary, the Mole Man, figures into the proceedings.

Issue 576 moves the action from underground to the deepest recesses of the ocean beneath Antarctica, where the FF encounter an underwater society with inhabitants descended from fish, Moray eels and crustaceans. After saving their city from the evil intentions of heavily-armed A.I.M. operatives in an impressive and silent deep sea battle, the FF are welcomed as friends by the fish-people and Sue ends up as the surface world's emissary on behalf of the newfound Atlanteans.

Yeah, they're another group laying claim to being Atlantean and the story ends with a text statement saying that Namor could not be reached for comment... (Cue ominous music.)

So much goes on in the just the last two issues, events that expand the playing field of the Marvel Universe to an appreciable degree, that I can't wait to see the next two cities and discover how and why they all end up in direct conflict. And please let the Sub-Mariner rear his arrogant head and bring some testosterone/ego-fueled action that will thrill both the readers and Sue alike (but for completely differing reasons).

Thus far I know I've stressed the story, because the FF are nothing without a solid narrative, but the art here, the majority of which is more than capably handled by Dale Eaglesham, with Neil Edwards providing Hitch-esque work on the Ben/Johnny'Franklin/Valeria stories, is very much on par with what Hickman's putting down. The art is clear and crisp, fun and engaging, and Eaglesham's Reed's face owes a huge visual debt to the Kirby-Sinnott era (a good thing in my book). Eaglesham is also not too lazy to draw Ben as a pile of ambulatory rocks in a blue diaper, thankfully not subjecting readers to the sight of Ben in those goddamned biker pants and boots. The guy also embraces the scope of the FF's adventures, a scope unrivaled by any other Marvel series other than the Kirby run on THOR until the Kree-Skrull War. Eaglesham's "camera" emphasizes the bigness of it all, sparing no well-thought-out detail on the lost cities, monsters, alternate realities, super-scientific tech and signature slugfests that make the Fantastic Four one of the true cornerstones of the Marvel experience.

The last ingredient in this carefully-crafted souffle of anti-fail is colorist Paul Mounts, a vastly talented hue-jockey who has been kicking ass in his field for years, but on this run of FANTASTIC FOUR he is imbuing life to each panel with a skill and palpable vibrancy that I have not seen on the comics page in ages. His work here has been exemplary, but I have to single out the work he provides on the underwater sequences in #576 for special praise. I've done diving in several spectacular locations, and Mounts' tones look exactly right to the eye of someone who's witnessed the wonders of the deep firsthand, particularly in regard to how the heat put out by Johnny looks when reflected off of undersea surfaces. Sheer visual poetry.

So the bottom line is this: If you're gonna have "fantastic" in the comic's name, it had bloody well better live up to it, and in no uncertain terms the "fantastic" is back in FANTASTIC FOUR in full-effect, and it's about goddamned time! Welcome back, old friends. You're looking great!

3 comments:

Trike said...

Mark Millar's stuff is crap from morn till night, so I'm with you there, but I just read FF 570-575 yesterday and I have to say I don't get what makes Hickman so special.

The tales seemed rushed to me, in the way the old Stan Lee books were. There's harkening back to golden days and then there's aping the worst of what went before, and so far Hickman's run seems to capture that in-and-out flavor of the 60s without grabbing any of the "sensawundah" despite throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the story.

What made it worse was the quickie wrap-up at the end of #575, like Hickman just ran out of space and summed everything up the way bad movies do with the "Where Are They Now?" titles at the end.

Mindlesskirby said...

I have to say Hickman's run was the best FF since Stan Lee's run. It was the first real time that Sue and Reed's kids felt like real characters and weren't just tacked on as side thought. I haven't read any FF after issue #209 with the exception of the Marvel Knights series "4" which was enjoyable (mostly 'cause the art.) Hickman totally understood what made the FF awesome and shows it.

Amber Love said...

Firstly, I blush whenever you reference me in your blog! So *BLUSH*.

I didn't go back and read through the earlier arcs so I can only go with this new chunk by Hickman. I agree that there are more than hints of influence of Kirby and Sinnott in this art by the modern masters. I don't use "masters" lightly. People rave about Hitch but he's one that I didn't really care for in Reborn. He'd have a great page then a sucktastic page. Too inconsistent for me but I think that particular mini had so many issues of concern that I don't know if it was Hitch's fault; maybe he was rushed or had to rework things because Marvel's editor dropped the ball. I just don't know, but Hitch didn't impress me there. I'm so happy with the F4 art team the way it is. And colors! Oh my! This book looks like a comic should when you are talking about a "daytime" story (as opposed to the dark brooding alleyway crime dramas).

I feel the same way about tackling the characters as people. I did care about them. I like the way you put that. I should just tell how I feel about a book and have you write my reviews. You're much more eloquent about it. :)