Monday, February 22, 2010

Review: Fantastic Four: World's Greatest

It was a somewhat fortuitous coincidence that the same week I sat down to read some of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s short run on Fantastic Four was the one during which some clever soul decided to start the Twitter account Not_Mark_Millar so as to parody the way Millar talks about himself in public (“If Kick-Ass does not out-gross Avatar I will eat my shirt and you can punch me in the throat when you see me at conventions” for example, or “Had tea with the Queen today. Said she like my books and will knight me sometime this year,” and like that.)

Millar is a talented writer who has had some honest-to-God great ideas before, and there’s no denying he’s one of the more popular/successful writers of his generation, but his public persona can be a bit, well…insufferable, and his boasts not always grounded in reality.

His FF run was a particularly interesting entry on his bibliography, because it came after he had really made his name as a super-successful, blockbuster writer (as much as any superhero comic book writer can be considered a super-successful, blockbuster writer at this point in time), with The Ultimates and Civil War already under his belt, and yet it didn’t really sell any better than Fantastic Four under the previous creative team of Dwayne McDuffie and Paul Pelletier.

There are a couple of factors to consider before going with the most obvious reading of that fact—i.e. that the Millar/Hitch team lost most of the market heat they possessed during their delay-plagued Ultimates runs. First, McDuffie and Pelletier may have benefited from a post-Civil War bump, as their run was branded with an “Initiative” logo. Second, their run featured an all-new, all-different team roster, with Storm and the Black Panther filling-in for Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman, which perhaps gave it a bit of novelty that the Millar/Hitch run lacked. And, finally, Millar’s run was almost completely divorced from the day-to-day goings on of the Marvel Universe, with only the occasional mention of “registration” or superhero fighting acknowledging the events of the past few years. During Secret Invasion, for example, Millar and Hitch kept right on doing what they were doing, and a separate Fantastic Four miniseries was launched to detail what the team was doing during the big Skrull invasion.

Or maybe it really was as simple as fans not being all that excited about following another Millar/Hitch (supposedly) monthly comic. I know that’s the reason I didn’t even attempt to read this run as it was released in single issues, and am just not getting to it via a trade paperback collection of the first eight issues, one of the few books in the tiny graphic novel section of a new library I just visited.

I suppose there’s still one more possibility—readers and retailers tried out the first few issues of the run and decided they didn’t like it. After all, while it’s hardly incompetent comics-making or anything, this creative team makes for very poor heirs to the Kirby/Lee one, being particularly aesthetically ill-suited to the characters and concepts, and neither Millar nor Hitch do their best work here.

Millar does a good job of balancing the cast, assigning a plotline to each of the four: Reed Richards’ college friend/almost-but-never-quite lover comes back into his life, Sue is trying start up an all-female charity super-team, Ben has a new girlfriend, Johnny begins dating a super-villainess on the down low.

Each of these play through each of the issues, occasionally inter-tangling, but generally advancing bit-by-bit as perfectly adequate, soap opera-style plotting—it’s what you’d expect from FF or Spider-Man comics.

Millar also tries to play with big, crazy cosmic ideas, but cosmic has never been his strong suit. There’s a cabal of rich and powerful people building a new earth to escape when this one invariably collapses (And they actually all it “Nu-Earth,” completely unironically; the prefix “Nu- is one I recall being assigned to things that sucked as far back as 1996 or so, as in “Nu-metal” and so on), and an invasion of the present by the people of the future, pissed off about how we’re screwing them over all the time.

Those are some pretty neat ideas, although it’s unfortunate that Millar doesn’t do a whole lot with them.

The storyline which introduces the first concept quickly devolves into a pretty generic fight comic story, in which an unbeatable robot foe inspired by Robocop 2 is demonstrated as being unbeatable by beating up the whole Marvel Universe (Sentry/God included, although how the damn thing is so powerful is never explained, and the super-awesome robot versus the Marvel Universe combat all happens between panels), and it is then beat by Reed Richards, who then gets to wear the championship belt of the Marvel Universe, I guess.

The storyline dealing with the second sidesteps a lot of the ethical questions and, again, the science (or fake super-science; same thing, really) to deal instead with a team of Marvels from a possible future, so we get yet another alternate Hulk and Wolverine to spend time with.

Hitch is still Hitch, for better or worse. There’s no denying the man can draw, and his success and popularity are well earned, but that realistic style is less than ideal for a books whose cast includes a stretchy guy, a guy on fire and a guy who looks like a gorilla made out of bricks (in the same way that the FF looked pretty goofy in the live-action film—Jack Kirby characters shouldn’t look much more realistic than Kirby could draw ‘em, you know?).

Given how long Hitch and Millar have worked together now, it’s also surprising how often his images don’t quite work with Millar’s scripting of certain panels. The amount of detail Hitch puts in many of his facial expressions manages to freeze the characters during a particular reaction or a particular syllable of dialogue, but the panels will sometimes have several sentences or paragraphs of dialogue in them. In other words, the words are moving much faster than the pictures; it’s kind of like how Marvel comics used to have Captain America frozen in mid-leap, throwing his shield, while rattling off 150 words before falling back to the floor, only long after everyone knows better. (Hitch has a weird habit of drawing some of his female characters making weird faces with their tongues too, which makes these panels especially awkward; there are at least two occasions where characters speak a few sentences of dialogue with their tongues between their teeth).

It reminded me, rather unfortunately, of Millar’s Ultimate Fantastic Four run with Greg Land, who also freezes time awkwardly and with no regard for the scripting of the panel. Hitch’s art is, obviously, a lot less off-putting than Land’s, which often looks like air-brushed fumetti and features perhaps the worst character “acting” in modern comic books, but the pair share at least a few tendencies when it comes to synching up with Millars’ scripts.

And like Ultimate Fantastic Four, its greatest deficiency is it’s lack of fun and wonder. It’s fairly solidly plotted and drawn, it’s remarkably devoid of some of Millar’s more annoying writing tics, but I read the whole book cover to cover without chuckling once, feeling a tickle in my mind warning me that someone was at least attempting to blow my mind, “hearing” Ben Grimm’s voice or encountering the suggestion of a great idea left unexplored for now, something for other writers and artists to exploit and perhaps run into the ground later.

Those are the things that made Fantastic Four live up to the “World’s Greatest Comics Magazine!” tagline, and remain the criteria by which Fantastic Four reads like Fantastic Four to me. McDuffie and Pelletier didn’t quite get there either, of course, but they got a hell of a lot closer than Millar and Hitch did, and perhaps that’s the reason the all-superstar creative team didn’t move the sales needle much more than the talented-but-underappreciated one.

But that’s just my opinion. Let’s see what Not_Mark_Millar had to say about Mark Millar’s FF

My Fantastic Four work with @THEHITCHFACTORY is the highest selling, and if you pardon a bit of self-promotion, the best since Lee and Kirby

Hmm. That’s actually more modest than I would have expected...


Randal said...

Put me in the "I tried it for a few issues and did not like" category. I've pretty much had it up to here with obscenely funded super-secret agencies, cliched ultra-intelligence, Johnny Storm trying to out-douchebag his movie version (which I liked...for the movie), porn-faces galore, and cliched, phony conflict set-ups (Oh, I am so sure Reed's gonna cheat on Sue. I mean, the super-duper hot scientist is super-duper hot! And smart!).

No thanks.

Hdefined said...

"Or maybe it really was as simple as fans not being all that excited about following another Millar/Hitch (supposedly) monthly comic."

I think it was as simple as fans having no interest in the Fantastic Four, a property that was outdated once Stan Lee stopped writing it. One can argue that there have been worthwhile runs since, but there is nothing more anyone seems to be able to do with the characters besides writing 1) a Doom story, 2) a Galactus story, 3) a Mole Man story, and 4) a story that tries to introduce something different that ends up resembling something that came before anyway.

These characters are stale. It's time to completely reinvent them or retire them.

David said...

I think that's the first time in awhile I've heard someone refer to Land's blatant tracing as art.

The man hasn't actually drawn a comic since his run on Nightwing ended.

LurkerWithout said...

"These characters are stale. It's time to completely reinvent them or retire them."

/Lebowski-voice: Well thats certainly an opinion man...

e.g. seitz said...

I don't think the FF are any less valid as characters but i think Hdefined is right in saying that comic fans, by in large, are not that interested. Is not gritty enough? Not tied in enough with the rest of the Marvel U? I'm not quite sure but I rarely, if ever run into big FF fans.

As far as Millar/Hitch, I actually read it all the way through. As you indicate in your review it wasn't all that good but it had enough glimpses of interesting ideas that I kept waiting for it to finally gel and be great. I do think latter issues had some great moments but Millar's plotting seemed lose and not altogether thought out.

I do tend to like Hitch a lot but his work on FF wasn't his best. In fairness he was penciling much faster then say Ultimates (Not that that's saying much) and the issues didn't run that far behind schedule.

And yeah, the whole all-powerful robot thing was pretty terrible as was the Galactus killer or whatever Reed called it. It seemed to me like Millar knew he wanted to make Reed cool again but couldn't think of (or didn't bother to think of) a good way to do it so he said "what the hell let's have him build a big bloody robot that's more powerful then God." Even worse there's no actual fight, the Cap robot won't hit Reed and is destroyed in one punch. Pretty anticlimactic way to end your first big arc.

mordicai said...

I was the FF to be cosmic, & crazy.

"Where is Reed, the Goblin is really sticking it to us!"
"He's...he's in the Negative Zone...& shrunk really tiny...on a mission to cure Anihilus' daughter...Neganihilus. So she to the...Watcher?"

As you say though; they just don't stick it. Planet Rap-Rock isn't...very cool.

Phillyradiogeek said...

This trade is the only Mark Millar I've ever read, and despite popular opinion, I enjoyed it quite a bit. The art blew me away, and I was impressed with the directions the story took, especially towards the end.

Of course, like you Caleb, I checked it out at the library and therefore didn't pay for it, so that may be a factor in my enjoyment.

Esteban138 said...

In Millar/Hitch's defense, the Fantastic Four are probably the hardest monthly in superhero comics to do right.

On the other hand, who could read Millar's run on Ultimate FF and think "more"?

jason quinones said...

that's mark millar's writing "style".

he always jazzes you up with a shit ton of ideas which just usually finalizes in a big pointless fight.

sometimes it works depending on the character and or storyline (wolverine: enemy of the state which i actually liked) and other times it doesn't work out so well. (kick ass,old man logan...meh)

and the FF is dated. i don't even remember liking the one shot "the last fantastic four story" (i think that was the title) written by stan lee himself and drawn by JR JR.

it was basically just a wannabe galactus story.

Kid Kyoto said...

I'm with Caleb on this, it was not at all good. Too many ideas that briefly sound cool but then fall apart. How is it possibly easier to build a new Earth (sorry Nu Earth) right down to the Starbucks in Times Square than fix global warming?

How can it be afforded?

And then having Millar's new toys take down Dr. Doom, Galactus and then entire Marvel Universe all off panel to show how cool they are.

No. Just no.

Bquittman said...

dropped it after 4 issues.

John Foley said...

That stupid giant robot that beat everybody up off-panel was just ridiculous. I hated that crap. "Ooh look how tough this character I just invented is- he beat up everybody in like 5 seconds!"
That's so old. Show how tough the new guy is by having him exhibit an impossible amount of power, then beat him anyway. Millar would have had that robot beat the Martian Manhunter if continuity allowed.
Also, how does this robot unleash enough power to take out the Sentry, Ms. Marvel, Wonder Man etc., yet this same power display knocks out Ronin and other regular humans-- all of whom are fine 5 minutes later? Nobody is killed by such an event? Ugh.

Hdefined said...

"In Millar/Hitch's defense, the Fantastic Four are probably the hardest monthly in superhero comics to do right."

Would you mind explaining why that is? I think perhaps you agree with me that they just aren't interesting characters, and their stories get recycled over and over.

I mean, in the last decade, how many times has Johnny Storm "reverted" to acting like a petulant teenager again? How many times have we seen Ben Grimm in human form? They're the SAME STORIES, the SAME CHARACTER ARCS.

Whenever a new writer comes on and says, "I'm going to take them back to their roots," no you fool, everyone writes them that way! (Well, except maybe Tom Defalco . . . man, that was a crazy time)

The same is true for Spider-man, but Spider-man is a timeless character - everyone can relate to him. But the dynamics among the FF are so dated, so simplistic.

Dean said...

"In Millar/Hitch's defense, the Fantastic Four are probably the hardest monthly in superhero comics to do right."

Pretty much.

I tried this, found myself bored and dropped it. However, that has been my experience with most FF runs. What Kirby brought to the table has never been matched and it was uniquely important to the FF. Plus, I always got the feeling that the family dynamic was very personal to Stan Lee. Unlike the Avengers, it is pretty hard to swap out the membership and still call it the same book.

Vanja said...

I agree with you about most of your points regarding the first eight issues of Millar/Hitch Fantastic Four, I just wish that you find the way to finish their run.

If you have check, my long review of their whole take on:

Caleb said...

This trade is the only Mark Millar I've ever read, and despite popular opinion, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

I think my favorite Millar writing to date remains his run on Superman Adventures, all of which are available in little digest trades, I think. I really liked his JLA fill-in with Amazo versus the entire Justice League reserves roster, too.

In Millar/Hitch's defense, the Fantastic Four are probably the hardest monthly in superhero comics to do right.

Aside from the original run, I think the longest I've ever read FF was during McDuffie's short run...I'd really like to try Waid's run at some point too, as I've heard good thing about it, but yeah, while I enjoy the hell out of the occasional one-shot or special, it's a superhero soap opera that I don't get too excited about.

I agree with you about most of your points regarding the first eight issues of Millar/Hitch Fantastic Four, I just wish that you find the way to finish their run.

Oh, I'll definitely give the rest of it a read if and when I find a trade of it at a library or in $1 boxes or something...

Matthew said...

I would suspect that 'Nu-Earth' is a shout-out to Millar's time at 2000AD magazine, namely the setting of the popular strip 'Rogue Trooper'.