Saturday, February 27, 2010

Review: Dark Reign: Fantastic Four

Now this, this is more like it.

Dark Reign: Fantastic Four was a five-issue miniseries of the sort Marvel started doing during Secret Invasion, and DC has since followed suit with during Blackest Night: Short miniseries tied in to the events of the big event series in order to leave the franchises’ main titles free to keep doing whatever it was they were doing.

During this series, what Fantastic Four was doing was hosting the end of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s short run, which was fairly divorced from the month-to-month continuity of the greater Marvel universe line of books.

Dark Reign: Fantastic Four was also written by Jonathan Hickman, who would go on to take over the main FF title after Millar departed, so this is essentially the start of Hickman’s run.

I was honestly a little surprised to see the collection at the library, as I must have missed its announcement (or forgotten all about it), in the deluge of Dark Reign titles. The premise of the Dark Reign branding, that villain Norman Osborn and his cronies have taken over the U.S. government’s management and policing of Marvel’s superheroes, doesn’t seem to have obvious implications for the FF, which have been rather divorced from the storyline (and Marvel Universe politics) in general thus far…perhaps in large part because Millar’s writing of the title has been off doing its own thing for so long, and FF has never really fallen into Dark Reign mastermind Brian Michael Bendis’ portfolio.

Hickman didn’t even go with the most obvious FF tie-in, the presence of archenemy Doctor Doom and on-again-off-again frenemy Namor among Osborn’s “Cabal.”

He did find an interesting, even natural way to tie the FF into Dark Reign, through Reed Richards. Since the superhero “civil war” in Civil War which (somehow not entirely clear to me) lead to the villains-in-charge status quo was in large part Reed’s fault, Hickman has Reed decide to figure out where exactly his grand plans went wrong. How could the smartest super-genius in the universe have been that wrong about something, after all? Reed does so in a very Fantastic Four kind of way, by building a machine that processes alternate realities, so he can see how the Reeds in parallel dimensions addressed the challenges, isolate the problem, and then fix everything.

Something goes slightly wrong though, when Osborn and his army bust in to schedule a meeting with the FF, and Johnny, Thing and Sue find themselves living and fighting through multiple realities. What this means is we see get to see different versions of the trio and other Marvel heroes in different genres—war, western, pirate, medieval, space-faring sci-fi and so on.

Much of this is of the good-crazy sort of comics insanity, like “Black Susan” Storm in a high noon showdown with The Beyonder, or “The Man In White.” Or like the monocle-wearing Chamberlain Grimm declaring, “Milday, ‘tis the clobbering hour.” Or Venom-possessed Skrulls on a rampage.

Pencil artist Sean Chen and inker Lorenzo Gurriero provide the visuals, and they’re incredibly deft juggling the rather wild shifts in genre. No matter the setting, the characters look consistent, and the costuming, props and geography look right. It’s really handsome-looking work, and very refreshing after the strained realism of Hitch’s work on the same characters.

Hickman does a pretty great job of juggling conflicts, with the Thing and company’s wild adventures essentially providing action and comedy relief to Reed’s oblivious pondering, and the children left alone to face the invading Osborn and HAMMER agents. It all comes together quite effectively at the climax, although it is perhaps the twelfth time or so I’ve seen Osborn do something so ridiculously, comically evil in a fairly public setting that one has to work really hard to continue to suspend disbelief hard enough to take Marvel’s event cycle seriously. (Here, he personally shoots his gun at a couple of little kids in the headquarters of the world’s most famous and trustworthy superheroes…Reed Richards built an alternate-reality viewer, but there’s no security cameras in The Baxter Building?)

Another Hickman-written, Dark Reign-related story is included in this volume, an Adi Granov-illustrated eight-page short story that is little more than a tour of Dr. Doom’s day-dreaming about dealing with the rest of the cabal. I’m not a big fan of Granov’s slick, painted-looking style, but this is an awfully small dose of it. It’s fine as a short, grim joke character sketch of a story, the biggest revelation being that Dr. Doom totally wants to fuck Loki-in-a-lady-body. Weird.


Mory said...

"Dark Reign: Fantastic Four was a five-issue miniseries of the sort Marvel started doing during Secret Invasion"

Actually, they've been doing this with every crossover since House of M.

"Since the superhero “civil war” in Civil War which (somehow not entirely clear to me) lead to the villains-in-charge status quo was in large part Reed’s fault"

It seems pretty straightforward. The government gained a lot of power over superheroes in Civil War which it had not previously had. Before, specific police departments would have their own ways of dealing with specific superheroes, but there was no more general system in place for it. With the end of Civil War the idea was introduced of a single person at the top of the superhero hierarchy, who all superheroes theoretically answer to and who is working for the American government. And that wasn't too bad when Tony Stark was in that position, because he kept letting his friends get away, but the framework was suddenly there for a ton of corruption, which is exactly what Steve Rogers was fighting against in Civil War. So Reed Richards supporting the side which argued for government supervision (and against the side wanting superheroes to be unaccountable) led directly to Norman Osborn being elected in that position.

Think of it this way: if Norman Osborn hadn't been elected, someone else almost as bad could have been. Gyrich, for instance. The system Civil War set up could only function with a good guy at the top, and it was only a matter of time until Tony Stark had to step down. Even if not for the Skrulls, he was constantly getting himself into trouble with his superiors and since he's not good at delegating he was stretching himself way too thin trying to solve all the world's problems by himself. Plus he's got lots of enemies who are always trying to kill him anyway. (Hulk could have done the job.) So someone was going to be elected in his place, and it's the government (not the superheroes) who gets to decide who that is.

It's actually pretty impressive how cohesive the line-wide storytelling has been over the past few years.

mordicai said...

This sounds awesome.

Norman said...

I've never been a big Sean Chen fan, to be honest, and his work on this mini kind of killed all the fun for me. He's competent enough, but his art has always struck me as extremely mechanical and uninspired, like a robot could have drawn it. Well-rendered environments and machinery, but awkward, stiffly emoting people, and none of it particularly creatively designed. All the "fun" stuff with Sue, Reed and Johnny in this mini rang really hollow with me because everything was drawn so... obviously. Here is Captain America as a knight. It is Captain America wearing armor. Here is the Thing as a pirate. It is the Thing with an eyepatch. Here is the Beyonder as a cowboy. It is the Beyonder with guns. It didn't seem like Chen had any real fun coming up with these designs.

Steven R. Stahl said...

As I understood things to be, Osborn in charge was based on the ending of SECRET INVASION #8, which made Osborn the hero because he ended the Skrull threat by killing their queen. Does it make sense for a worldwide invasion to end because one person is killed (by a gunshot, no less)? No, but Bendis wrote the Skrulls as a medieval society from the start.

Since Stark had been disgraced by, supposedly, enabling the Skrulls to disable Earth's technology by infecting all of "Starktech" and Stark with a computer virus, Osborn and his organization replaced Stark and S.H.I.E.L.D. Does it make sense for the entire civilized world to be using one(!) vendor's computer technology? No, but that's what Bendis relied on.


Caleb said...


I understand that's the premise Marvel's been operating on, but I never really understood how it makes sense.

Osborn basically won the kill-the-Skrull Queen lottery, killing her a split second before Hawkeye or Wolverine or any of the 50 other super-people who were about to kill her did.

I think the Iron Man failed so the world turns to Norman Osborn thing could have worked if Bendis would have done something to demonstrate some competency on Osborn's part, like, that he saw the invasion coming where the others didn't, or he has ruthless enough to wage a more effective war.

I can't see why his lucky shot trumps, like, Mr. Fantastic having saved the Marvel Universe 600 times, you know?

Mory said...

That I can't say. :)

LurkerWithout said...

"Think of it this way: if Norman Osborn hadn't been elected, someone else almost as bad could have been. Gyrich, for instance."

Number of teenage girls Henry Gyrich has thrown off a bridge = ZERO

Gyrich can be a fanatic and a tool and sometimes an idiot, but he's not a sociopath. Plus I'll never EVER accept that Bendis can have Osborn blow up cops in one book and then have him become a national hero in another. Nothing else breaks my suspension of disbelief in BMB's sprawling 7 Years in the Making Story like that...

ealgylden said...

Does it make sense for the entire civilized world to be using one(!) vendor's computer technology?

Especially that particular vendor, who fought a big story-arc war to keep his tech out of any hands not his own, and who now suddenly decides to fling it around like Mardi Gras beads, because... well, because!

It sure would be nice if Marvel would let plot spring from the characters, instead of warping the characters to move the plot.