Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wednesday Comics: Fantastic Four - The Hickman Run

This past fall, Jonathon Hickman finished his multi-year run on The Fantastic Four.  I had heard many things about it, but never really picked it up.

So two weeks ago I decided to read the entire run from start to finish.  Having just finished last night, I have one word to sum up my review:


Really... wow.

Now, Hickman's run is not prefect (and I will get to those problems later), but I think that he needs to be acknowledged for the achievement in comic book writing that is The Fantastic Four.

The run begins with Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic himself, thinking about how he can help the world.  He has been playing super hero with his wife Sue (Invisible Woman), her brother Johnny (the Human Torch), the family friend Ben Grimm (the ever-loving, blue-eyed Thing), along with their small children: Franklin (a seemingly normal child with hidden power) and Val (a 3-year-old who is smarter than her father and she knows it).

Reed wonders if running around with his family and getting into adventures has been a good use for his time and genius.  He secretly builds a door to an alternate reality where he finds all of the Reed Richards from across the Multiverse.  Together they have formed a council that of Mr. Fantastics that solve problems like hunger, disease, Galactuses, etc across all realities.  But in order to achieve this, all of the Reeds had to give up their families and concentrate purely on saving the multiverse.

This poses our Reed with a great dilemma: isn't it selfish to have a wife and children when he could be doing so much more important work in saving billions of lives?

Without realizing it, this opening story sets up the major thematic question for the entire series.  I won't tell you what Reed's answer is, but he does begin to look for ways he can make the world better, so he founds the Future Foundation, which is essential a school for gifted geniuses.  Here, Hickman has some of his most fun, introducing us to a motley, eclectic class consisting of not only the Richards children but also:

Bently 23: a clone child of the villain the Wizard.  Bently constantly talks about how he will one day rise up and conquer humanity, but only after he has cake and ice cream.

Dragon: a robotic, humanoid dragon who is fearsome to behold but is a pacifist in all ways.

Artie and Leech: two mutants (introduced as friends in the old X-Factor comic), one who can only speak in projected mental pictures and one who can rob a person of their powers.

The Moloids: evolved "morlock-like" creatures who are super geniuses and are completely devoted to the Thing (whom they reverently call "The Ben") who saved them.  (Think the 3-eyed aliens from Toy Story 2).  Oh, also one of them is  disembodied head.

Zero-G: one of the elder children in the kid-super-hero group, Power Pack (for more on them, read the Marvel Digests written by Marc Summerak).

These are just some of the strange members of the group that come together and solve problems.  One of which is curing Ben Grimm of his affliction as the Thing.  They use their genius and they realize that they cannot turn his rock-nature completely off, but they come up with a formula that will turn him human for one week a year.  Hickman not only uses this as a plot device for later stories, but uses it as the basis for one of the best single issues of a comic I have ever read.

It is hard to not get caught up in the minutia of it all, since Hickman has a lot of things happen.  I will say that it took a LONG time for me to become invested in this book.  First I was lost in the super-science-speak of it all, which I found a bit distancing.  But then I realized that the book is not a Justice League book where the heroes punch their way out of a problem.  This is Marvel's answer to Dr. Who, where they primarily outthink their conflicts.  Once I got that, the book became more enjoyable.

The second reason it took a long time to get into the book was that there is a LOT of set up.  Hickman spends a lot of time setting up the pieces on the board before he goes to knock them down.  But separately, each of the parts are not as interesting to me as the whole.  For example, slowly introduces the "Four Cities:" which are large groups of armed populations that appear in the world.  This builds to the "War of Four Cities," but that slow introduction wears a bit.

Third, is that I am not a Marvel man.  I am primarily DC.  But Hickman relies heavily on the readers knowledge of the past and current goings on of the Marvel Universe.  I remember I was reading CS Lewis's conclusion to his Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength.  In it, the leader of the good guys is confronted by a modern-day mad Merlin.  But then the leader shouts: "I am the LONGRES!"  in some sort of grand revelation.  My reaction to this was, "What?"  Apparently this statement meant that the leader was the legitimate here to King Arthur.   But you wouldn't know that unless you were deeply versed in the Arthur legend.

That's how I felt about much of this book.  I am not that well versed in the saga of the Inhumans, the Kree, the Annihilation Wave, Nu-Earth, the High Evolutionary, the War of Kings, etc.  For that reason, I always felt like there was another layer of story and emotion that I did not have access to, like I was watching Lost, starting with the 3rd season.  This last problem is what keeps this from being a 5 star run.

And despite all of that, Hickman was able to pull me in with his emotional truths.  The "Four No More" stories introduces the death of one of the Fantastic Four, in a scene I read and re-read for its heart-wrenching effectiveness.  This leads to the remaining members of the team joining the Future Foundation, where they behave as a large, extended dysfunctional family.  The series, The Fantastic Four takes a pause, and another series, FF, begins, (until the eventual return to The Fantastic Four series, and the two books alternate each other).

But in the last third of his run, Hickman brings all of the threads together.  And when I mean all of the threads, I mean ALL of the threads.  What I thought were simple disparate stories in the beginning were really part of his larger, overall set up.  It was all a part of a plan.  And each piece of that plan was important to bring them all together in a cataclysmic, cosmic battle that is one of the most epic I have ever read in a comic.

But even more so, I have rarely been as emotionally impacted by a comic as this.  It warmed and broke my heart, often at the same time.  I also have never laughed as much in a comic as I have on the last page of FF #17.

Alan Moore said that a comic has to be ABOUT something.  It cannot be just crazy adventures in tights.  And Hickman has transcended a lot of comics because his themes are two of the most important: Family and love.  While this may seem generic, he answers the question posed at the beginning of the series: isn't it selfish to have a family when you could be doing so much more "important" things.

But the answer is that family IS the important thing.  He does this in a way that is not a cheat and makes perfect sense from a plot and theme perspective.  Science and genius can keep life going.

But love makes life worth living.

This books has its flaws.  But Hickman's epic story will stick with me for years to come.

4 out of 5 stars.

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