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...