Review: Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman Vol. 1 hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

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

My primary guide for this month of reviews is the Secret Wars Prelude trade which will be released in May. Most of its contents make sense right off the bat, with the two most intriguing being Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates issue #4 (reviewed two weeks ago) and Fantastic Four issue #611. That's the final issue of Jonathan Hickman's epic run, and while it may hold specific clues that I haven't caught yet, the Prelude should have instead included the first two or three issues of Fantastic Four. Hickman's plan has unfolded ever since those issues; “Time Runs Out" is just the start of the third act following Fantastic Four and Infinity.

It's amazing how many of the little clues you pick up with hindsight. Some of them are hidden in the artwork, like Valeria Richards having pictures of Tesla and da Vinci in her room that just happen to resemble the versions seen in Hickman's ill-fated Shield title. The foundations for the entire title's duration and events beyond it are laid out: the importance of Namor and Doctor Doom, the first appearance of the older Franklin Richards seen in Infinite Avengers, the continuing devolution of the Wizard, and even the gathering of the many empowered children who will one day form a key component of FF. Thematic dates and concepts keep appearing, but instead of being simple retreads between titles, they're reinforcements of the overall plan.

Plus we see the first use of the word which will one day doom Earth-616: "Incursion."

Said incursion is just an invasion of an alternate Galactus and not a universe-erasing threat, but the tone and theme are similar to how New Avengers would deal with encroaching Earths years later. Galactus and his Surfers are opposed by the Council of Reeds, dozens if not hundreds of alternate Reed Richards who have given up on their worlds to work on the greater good. Dale Eaglesham keeps them very distinct with elements like giant brains and mechanical eye-devices. Some clearly share their origin with other characters, such as one in Professor X's hover wheelchair or another using the Starbrand (another eventual call-forward, this time to The Next White Event). And then there's Fat Reed who ... well, we don't get to see him do too much, but some prophetic drawings by Valeria indicate that he'll be back.

Hickman has an interesting take on team dynamics. He writes a great Four ... if you look at the Four of the title being Reed, Sue, Franklin, and Valeria Richards. When Ben, Johnny, and the kids end up in a dark future left over from previous writer Mark Millar's tenure, more emphasis is put on the other guest stars and the kids than on the team members. The Human Torch and the Thing are by no means disparaged, but they're not really in focus either. It's not a surprise that the Torch was killed off later and that the Thing had a spot in New Avengers to give him somewhere to be when he wasn't needed. This is an understandable approach since Ben and Johnny are much more fixed in their characterization compared to Reed and Sue.

Much of this trade -- and this multi-year storyline in general -- is dedicated to getting into Reed's head to understand who he is and why he needs the Fantastic Four. It's important to put this in context: only a few years before, Reed had been one of the Pro-Registration leaders during Civil War, a move widely regarded as out of character. Millar and other writers like Dwayne McDuffie and J. Michael Straczynski did their best to work with and around this in an attempt to fix Reed. Hickman redeems him a bit with his final choice to stay with his family, but early on, he's still emotionally detached enough that when the alternate Reeds send him to get reinforcements, he returns with a bunch of guns instead of his team. His childhood and relationship to his father Nathaniel end up being the driver of change for Reed later on.

Sue's role in Hickman's Fantastic Four is worth re-evaluating after a major revelation in the pages of Mark Waid's S.H.I.E.L.D.. It turns out that the Invisible Woman has secretly been an agent of the organization for years, and in “Time Runs Out," she's a core member of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Avengers task force. The reveal didn't happen until months after “Time Runs Out" started, and I thought her joining forces with S.H.I.E.L.D. wouldn't get a deep explanation. This secret backstory actually contributes a lot to Sue's character: you can tell that she's exasperated as the mom of a reality-warper and a super-genius in Fantastic Four, so working as a super-secret agent would really appeal to her. The payoff for both her arc and Reed's comes in how they “fight" on different sides, but that's a bit further off.

Both as an introduction to Marvel's current state of affairs and as its own story, Jonathan Hickman's Fantastic Four comes highly recommended. Next week it's time to look directly at the great jump forward in the first volume of Avengers: Time Runs Out ... a book that technically starts next week thanks to the time jump. It appears that “then" will be “now" soon.

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