Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Review: Fantastic Four Vol. 1: The Fall of The Fantastic Four

I was a mildly surprised last month when Marvel announced the cancellation of Fantastic Four, but not shocked or distraught or anything. While the comic book and the team of characters that star in it have long since faded from the center of the Marvel Universe (and line of comics), the characters remain foundational elements in much of what Marvel publishes.

For example, meetings or teleconferences with, or at least namedrops of, Reed Richards are all but mandatory in any Marvel comic plot involving super-science, and you can't have a big, line-wide crossover story without featuring him and his family fairly prominently. Given that Marvel is now always running a big, line-wide crossover story, well, you see a lot of Reed Richards and the gang.

In other words, The Fantastic Four have been present in Marvel Comics constantly, no matter what's going on in their book, and I can't imagine that will change just because their book isn't going to be published monthly for a while, even though the book's primary (even if only symbolic or totemic) importance to the publisher is such that I just kind of assumed it was one Marvel would always publish no matter what, in the same what that DC will never cancel Action Comics.

The reason I wasn't shocked or distraught was because this didn't seem to be all that sudden a decision by Marvel, and it's not like they haven't given the book plenty of chances to become a huge hit over the last few years, granting a seemingly "Do Whatever You Want" level of creative leeway to superstar teams like Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch, or Jonathan Hickman, Dale Eaglesham and other artists, or Matt Fraction, Mark Bagley and Mike Allred. They let Hickman give the team new costumes, found a school for little super-geniuses and launch a sister book (Future Foundation); they let Fraction have two books too (With FF replacing Future Foundation, and featuring a different team). They killed off Johnny Storm and added Spider-Man to the line-up.

The late, great Dwayne McDuffie got to write a short, mildly gimick-y (but ultimately awesome) run in which The Black Panther and ex-X-Man Storm replaced Mr. and Mrs. Richards temporarily. Brian Michael Bendis made The Invisible Woman one of the major players in his Age of Ultron.

And then there was this run, the post-Fraction one that relaunched the title as part of Marvel's "Marvel Now!" rebranding campaign. In addition to the new #1, the book also got a new creative team consisting of the recently-imported-from-DC writer James Robinson and pencil artist Leonard Kirk and the team got snazzy new red costumes for no immediately apparent reason other than the fact that they looked kind of cool (I liked Bully's theory, though).
The new costumes as Arthur Adams drew them on a variant cover for the second issue.
I didn't read Fantastic Four #1 when it was recently released, despite my default setting being one of Interested In The Fantastic Four, my appreciation for Kirk's artwork and the fact that I was curious about and attracted to those red costumes (Oh, and the fact then when I flipped through it in the store, I saw it included a fight with Fin Fang motherfucking Foom!). It was one of Marvel's $3.99/20-page books, which aren't really worth purchasing serially. I figured I'd wait for the trade but, by the time I got my hands on the trade, Marvel had already announced the book's cancellation.

And, as I said, I was mildly surprised, but not shocked or distraught by that news. Now that I've actually read the first five issues of the book, I have a new emotional reaction to the news of the cancellation—disappointment. Robinson and Kirk's Fantastic Four is actually pretty good.

Granted, the tonal shift from the last Fantastic Four comics I read is pretty drastic. If I'm remembering correctly, the last issue of FF ended with everyone literally having a big party, and the first image in this issue is of The Invisible Woman sitting at a little desk in a pitch black room, writing a letter to her children (With pen and paper? Invisible Woman is 400 years old), in which she talks about how terrible everything has become while tears stream out of her eyes. After previewing the dark events of the near-future—Reed is "a broken man," Ben is in a laser jail for murder, Johnny "a lost soul" drinking himself stupid in a bar—the narrative then jumps backwards to the point where everything started to go wrong.

Which is the point where everything looks awesome: The Fantastic Four Vs. Fin Fang Foom!

(Incidentally, the first page of the first issue is a full-page splash; the second and third pages each have two panels on them, so that the two-page spread they form consists of four panels, each featuring a member of the FF; the fourth and fifth pages are a two-page splash. So there are only six panels in the first five pages of Fantastic Four #1; that's one-quarter of the length of that first issue. That's one of the four dollars you would have spent on this comic. They are very nice drawings and all, the pacing reads nicely in a trade, but good God, is it really a surprise the book shed readers so fast? This first issue—which contains two more two-panel pages and one more splash page—took less than four minutes read).

After Sue's letter presages doom, we follow the FF into a pretty typical FF adventure, in which their characters, powers, personalities and generally positive relationship with the rest of society is illustrated. It's a nice reminder/primer on the FF, a necessary start for a story about their "fall."

Later that night, a secured portal to a dangerous pocket dimension Reed keeps in the Baxter Building for study opens up, and a horde of strange alien space bug monster creatures pour out and start wreaking havoc all over the city. A generous helping of guest-stars cameo in the battle, and Reed eventually figures out a way to stop them all, but it comes at a very high price: Johnny loses his Human Torch powers in the process.

Over the course of the first four issues, the characters each get a conflict arc, with Reed and Sue worried about daughter Valeria (who has moved to Latveria to try and bring out the good in Dr. Doom) and Johnny struggling with the loss of his powers while trying to put on a brave face (I liked the scene where Reed promises to try and figure out how to restore his powers, to which Johnny replies "I won't hold my breath...Look at Ben. How long have you been working on a cure fore him to no avail...and you're the smartest man alive."). And as for Ben, he tries to rekindle his relationship with Alicia, and it seems to be going well, although her one concern is that every time things go well for them, something big and terrible happens.

And, of course, there's some superheroing, as The Wizard's latest Frightful Four, which consists of himself and three of The Wrecking Crew, attack the city, the Wizard letting slip that all of these recent events may be connected to a single, mysterious puppetmaster (Shocking, I know). The substitute FF from FF—She-Hulk, Ms. Thing and Ant-Man show up to help in this battle, in their snazzy uniforms; I really like those costumes, and that group of characters (Medusa, the fourth of their foursome, is probably off doing whatever The Inhumans are up to post-Infinity).
Kirk's cover for FF #4
And then, in the fifth issue, it's the trial of the Fantastic Four, as they're summoned to court to answer for every bad thing they've ever done. They have She-Hulk as their attorney, defending them.

Robinson writes the opposing attorney pretty well, well enough to at least sell the blatantly ridiculous nature of the proceedings: That anyone on Earth could really be all that mad at The Fantastic Four about anything. Each of the events mentioned basically boil down to a story in which the FF save the city and/or the entire world and/or universe, but the attorney objects to the way they save it.

I suppose that too will prove to be part of the mystery villain's plan, but, in the meantime, it allowed for a string of amazing guest-artists to line up and draw the flashback scenes, each to a fairly well-remembered or momentous event in FF history: Chris Samnee, Dean Haspiel, Paul Rivoche, Phil Jiminez, Mike Allred*, Jim Starlin, Jerry Ordway, Derlis Santacruz and June Brigman. About a half-dozen of those are artists whose names alone are usually enough to get me to pick up a book.

The result is that the kids of the Future Foundation are taken away from Reed and Sue, and placed in SHIELD custody at Camp Hammond, where The Avengers Initiative was based. Camp Hammond has a new commander, however, Jim Hammond himself, and the original, Golden Age Human Torch will apparently be playing a role in Fantastic Four going forward (I guess this explains what Robinson had in mind when he had Captain America asking Hammond to join SHIELD at the end of the first story arc in Robinson's All-New Invaders book).

I get the sense that many of these sub-plots are ones we've seen repeatedly, even in relation to these characters, but this particular franchise is old, old-fashioned and rickety enough that even the most cliche super-comics elements feel comfortable here in a way they wouldn't in other comics or with other comics characters. Is this simple, old-school, soap opera-style superhero comics, but with a modern, more sophisticated model of storytelling? Yes. But what's wrong with that, exactly?

I really love those new uniforms, too. I don't know that red is necessarily, inherently better than blue, black or white, but it's new, and that alone is pretty interesting, giving this particular batch of Fantastic Four comics a radically different look than the hundreds of other ones that preceded them (If DC really wanted to shake-up the visuals of their star characters when they launched The New 52? Instead of taking away Superman's shorts and giving him seams and a high collar, they should have turned his costume red. And dressed Batman in brown).

I like too that they are all slightly different. Reed and Sue's costumes are the same basic design and in the same colors, but the red and black parts are swapped on each. I like Ben's "4" symbol on the hip of his shorts, and the way the black is attached to the "belt buckle" element of them. Johnny's looks just like Reed's, as if there's a boy version and a girl version of the costume (although Johnny's out of his costume and in civilian clothes before too long).

Franklin's costume is red, but the rest of the Future Foundation kids keep their white "school uniforms."

In addition to the slick new costumes**, Kirk also designs a pretty awesome new Fantasticar that splits into four segments, one for each member of the team.
Man, I would have loved to play with a toy of that when I was in third grade.

I also really, really like the new logo.

One final note, as I stop reviewing and just start listing observations at random (Note to self: Don't forget to polish up this review before posting; it's not very good, even by your usually lax standards, Caleb, and just sorta deteriorates at the end). While the main attraction of the court room jaunt through Fantastic Four history was getting to see things like Mike Allred draw Galactus or Chris Samnee re-drawing panels of Jack Kirby's from the first Fantastic Four #1, it was also neat to see some of the more obscure bits of their history mentioned.

Many of these events I never actually read in their original comic book form, but have seen referenced repeatedly in other comics (Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross' Marvels version of the fight with Galactus, for example) and/or multiple cartoon series and/or the live action films: I think the Silver Surfer/Galactus story has been adapted into every multimedia version of the FF I've seen (save the Roger Corman live-action omvie), for example, and I've seen multiple cartoon versions of the Thing/Hulk brawl.

One story I have never seen adapted elsewhere*** or referred to in another comic, however, is the one where Sue was possessed by the Hate-Monger and became Malice, which, because she was a woman who became evil, meant she had to dress like this:

Oh, wait, a second, she also had a spiked leather gimp mask to go over it too...?
I know superhero comic books are weird and pervy now, but it's sometimes easy to forget that they were always weird and pervy.

*The ideal Fantastic Four artist in our post-Kirby world. Behold:

**As for why they are red now, there's no in-story explanation, but editor Mark Paniccia explains the decision in a little editorial feature on the back page. The original thought, Paniccia explains, was to return to blue uniforms after wearing the white for so long:
...but since this was a bold new direction, we thought now was the perfect opportunity to do something completely unexpected. Leonard did about nine versions. Since this arc is about the fall of the Fantastic Four, we decided red would help message that our characters were in danger.

***Actually, the Internet tells me she was turned into Malice in an episode of the 1994 FF cartoon, which I watched a complete DVD collection of around the time the first live-action movie came out, but I have no memory of it. I'm pretty sure they toned toned the dominatrix aspects a bit...if only because I feel reasonably certain I would remember a cartoon show in which Sue Storm was wearing a spike-covered leather gimp mask.


Michael Hoskin said...

I took the switch to red as a "which colours haven't we used yet?" thing (though Bully's solution is genius). Anticipate purple FF suits in the inevitable relaunch!

>Kirk also designs a pretty awesome new Fantasticar that splits into four segments, one for each member of the team.

You mean like every other Fantasticar ever seen? Not saying it's not a cool Fantasticar, but not unique in that particular regard. I think even the movie version could split into 4.

>I feel reasonably certain I would remember a cartoon show in which Sue Storm was wearing a spike-covered leather gimp mask.

You think that and yet it totally happened - they adapted the costume pretty faithfully. It wasn't a bad cartoon either.

SallyP said...

Wow, I didn't even KNOW that they were cancelling the book. I've been in mourning over losing She-Hulk too much.