Review: Spider-Man and Fantastic Four hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at Hell Yeah '80s Marvel!]

There are a variety of projects featuring team-ups between Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, from the very first issue of What If? back in the 1960s to the Silver Rage mini-series, to say nothing of Spidey’s Future Foundation tenure. Christos Gage and Mario Alberti’s Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four stands out as an interlocking companion piece to Spider-Man and the Human Torch. You might recognize the names and art style; this mini-series functions as a sequel of sorts to the enjoyable X-Men and Spider-Man.

Most of Spider-Man and the Human Torch covered the early years of Spider-Man with a small jump to the 1980s and a huge jump to the 2000s. The first issue of Spidey/Four takes place between issues one and two of Spidey/Torch while Peter is still in college. This issue also focuses on Spidey’s relationship with the Human Torch and features Doctor Doom in the villain role. It feels like a Spidey/Torch rehash at first, but it quickly goes in a much different direction. By this time, Spidey and the Torch were friends, but the Fantastic Four were a little more skeptical. This issue allows Spidey to build bonds with Reed, Sue, and Ben while working around a zany mind-switching plot.

The second issue is where the book really begins to shine, taking place in the period when the Venom symbiote was separated from Peter but contained at the Baxter Building. This places the action after issue four of Spidey/Torch and spreads out the action of the two books so that the timeline isn’t all bunched together. Set during the John Byrne run on Fantastic Four, it features Franklin in a key role and She-Hulk doing much more than she did in Spidey/Torch. Venom ends up possessing Reed in an attempt to once again rejoin Peter. It’s worth noting that in Byrne’s F4 run, Sue ended up insisting that she, Reed, and Franklin move out to Connecticut to get out of the way of dangerous supervillains. This could easily be one of the events that fueled this decision.

Because Gage was given the mandate to use the whole Fantastic Four as main characters, he ended up using one issue apiece to define Peter’s relationships with them. Featuring the Human Torch as the major supporting character in the first issue helped ease the readers into the story and served more to introduce the teamwork of the F4. Issue two examines Reed’s relationship with Peter; as a proud science geek, Peter has always been a fan of Reed, having become his lab assistant for a time during Spidey/Torch. This issue confirms Reed’s mutual admiration for Peter’s intelligence and willpower, seeing him as a son of sorts. Issue three discusses Peter’s crush on Sue and the sisterly relationship they eventually develop. Issue four is technically about the Thing but mainly serves to close out the series. It’s not a major loss, though, as Spider-Man and the Thing have crossed over more than enough times; they were in the Avengers together close to when this series was published.

Issue three is also where Gage goes a little crazy continuity-wise. You’ll notice on the cover that Spider-Man is joined by the Grey Hulk, Wolverine and Ghost Rider; this is the team known as the New Fantastic Four. They were put together by Walt Simonson and Art Adams as a spoof of Marvel’s marketing gimmicks. The original story is a piece of chaotic brilliance, featuring Skrulls and the Mole Man in addition to the aforementioned guest stars (plus the Punisher in a helicopter fly-by cameo). To put it in one sentence, Skrull princess De'Lila with love-based mind control powers faked the deaths of the old Fantastic Four and assembled the New F4 to find a robot who would bond like a child with whomever awakened it. Simonson ended the story with the robot seeing one of the Mole Man’s monsters as its mother and all involved trying to walk away and forget it ever happened.

Gage sets the third issue of Spidey/F4 during this time, revealing that the Mole Man refused to just let everyone leave. De’Lila takes this opportunity to mess with the minds of the heroes and make some of them jealous of the others so that she can escape. To Gage’s credit, he keeps up the madcap tone of the original story and puts together a better ending than the original provided.

Issue four is comparatively simple, set in the modern day and featuring a villain who had appeared at the end of the previous issues to steal bits of technology. This is revealed to be Kristoff Vernard, the adopted son of Doctor Doom and a previous ward of the F4. He tries to recruit his old friends on a crusade to take down Doom, but they refuse, citing previous experience and noting that Kristoff’s rage would only make things worse. It ends with juxtaposing Spider-Man with Kristoff, noting how one skilled young man became a valued ally while another became a power-mad vigilante. This story also fixes a plot hole in, of all things, an arc of Mighty Avengers wherein Doom had a bunch of symbiotes, explaining that this was the work of Kristoff taking samples of Venom.

Spider-Man/Fantastic Four ends on a heartwarming note, much like Spidey/Torch, although it’s not quite as good since MJ and Aunt May aren’t there to fully carry the family theme. Alberti’s artwork is perhaps a bit too dark for this kind of story; Templeton would have been too cartoony to return, but Marcos Martin or Paolo Rivera would have been perfect. The trade includes a two-parter from the 1970s featuring Spidey and the F4 teaming up against the Frightful Four. I can’t help but wonder if it would have been better to reprint parts of the “New Fantastic Four” story instead to help with the context of issue three. Nevertheless, this is another great look into some unexplored corners of Marvel’s past.

Next week, it’s an Avengers review as Infinity approaches.
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