I mentioned on Twitter recently1 that I liked FF #1, the newest iteration of Jonathan Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four, a hell of a lot. Other comic reviews were busy orgasming over the new issue of Batman Inc., which in fairness is quite good.2 But for me, FF was far and away the best comic of the week3, and then someone emailed and asked me why, and it’s been a long time since I did a proper comics review, so why not?
If I had to boil down FF‘s skill in a pragmatic manner, finding the one key element that I think makes it really work as a comic, it’s that Jonathan Hickman and Steve Epting have together done what the best ongoing superhero comics do: provide change which is mostly illusory but nonetheless existent. That’s the magic level of change you want in a great superhero comic: you can make all the huge sweeping changes you like to a character’s raison d’etre, his supporting cast, his costume, you can make him become The Amazing Rutabaga-Man for six months, but in the end these properties have amazing inertia. For example: if you give a character a Stunning New Costume, at best in fifteen years or so it will become a fondly-remembered artifact4; at worst it will become a source of bad comedy.5 I expect the new costumes in FF #1 will fall into the former category; they’re different enough that they’re honestly interesting, and they look good. But we all know that in a few years time we’ll be back to the blue costumes with big 4s on them, and that doesn’t really bother anybody.
Similarly, we know that in time, Johnny Storm will be revealed to not be dead. Hickman can protest as much as he likes that Johnny Storm is dead, but we all know he’s full of crap even if his intentions are honest (and really, given that he had Johnny die conspicuously off-panel, I don’t believe him for a second). But for the moment Johnny’s dead, and what’s important – and what Hickman and Epting do, note-perfect – is enforce the reality that this would traumatize the fuck out of the remaining members of the Fantastic Four. Again, this is not a new idea for writers of the book to explore; Mark Waid and Mike Weiringo did it when they killed off Ben temporarily during their run and there’s been one or two other times where other writers played with the idea as well. But Hickman and Epting’s work in showing how absolutely devastated the FF are is heartbreaking and lovely. Epting’s work on Ben in mourning – and Ben is always the most visually expressive of the FF – are some of my favorite panels he’s done ever.
Equally lovely is the fact that Spider-Man is the temporary replacement for Johnny, which is again perfect. This is not to knock all the other writers who have had Black Panther or She-Hulk or Ant-Man or Crystal or whoever be the “temporary fourth member of the Fantastic Four” – most of the alternates that have come through at one time or another have made story sense and been entirely decent.6 But Fantastic Four is a comic book about a family more than anything else, and over the past decade Spidey steadily became part of their extended family. It just feels like how, when a family suffers a major loss, your uncle maybe moves in for a while to make sure the place doesn’t fall apart. It feels essentially proper in a way that many other alternate members haven’t, and serves to reinforce the sense of loss that the FF have undergone (and Hickman and Epting use that as well). Really, Peter makes more sense as a member of the FF than he ever has as an Avenger.
(It’s worth noting, incidentally, that all of what I’ve mentioned so far is Hickman doing something he’s not really noted for: he’s writing small-ball here rather than playing with the crazy big ideas he built his rep on, and he’s killing it.)
And while Hickman and Epting give the introduction of the new FF – the “Future Foundation,” complete with the array of weirdly brilliant kids they brought in halfway through their run of Fantastic Four – all the due time they need, they also don’t forget to introduce their chosen antagonist. They’ve gone, it seems, with the Wizard, who is an interesting choice precisely because if you’re going to pick an F4 adversary who’s been in need of some stature-building for a long time, I’m pretty sure you have to pick the Wizard. I think every single major run on F4 over the last ten or fifteen years has used the Wizard alongside the Frightful Four at one point or another, and every single time the Wizard is revealed to be a dorky second-rater in a dorky purple helmet. Hickman and Epting, though, in the course of a few panels, make him genuinely intimidating, which is not a word I have associated with the Wizard in approximately ever, and it’s just good to see.
So you have your illusory change: Johnny’s dead! New costumes! Not even calling themselves “the Fantastic Four” any more! And that’s all exciting, but in five years or less it will be memories. But you also have your persistent change: exploration of the family’s trauma, deepening of Spidey’s relationship with them, what looks like an emphatic effort to finally put the Wizard into top-tier villain status. Those two elements, combined, make for what ongoing superhero comics can and should be. That’s why this is a good comic.
- I know, I know… [↩]
- It’s certainly more accessible than at least half of the Batman comics written by Grant Morrison, for a start. [↩]
- Disclaimer: I have not read the new Xombi yet. That might well beat it, if it is anything as good as the first Xombi series was. [↩]
- Say, for example, Dr. Strange’s Trenchcoat of Levitation period, or the time when he was wearing a mask. [↩]
- Say, for example, the Mike Grell-era skin-bearing costume for Cosmic Boy. [↩]
- Well, maybe not Ant-Man. [↩]