Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]
I have to take issue with some of the detractors of the recent fiasco that is the 2015 Fantastic Four movie. It's a terrible film, but there are quite a few critics saying that the problem lies with the concept itself. As a counterpoint, I humbly submit the second volume of Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman to demonstrate just how deep a well these creators had available to mine for stories. The four issues collected here bring the team deep beneath the Earth, down to Atlantis, up to the Moon, and finally into the Negative Zone to set up the War of the Four Cities. With the exception of the Inhumans, most of the characters appearing here fall under the Fantastic Four's cinematic license or could be easily changed to avert copyright conflicts.
This is a trade that feels very different from most of the other Hickman stories I've read. Since it's a concentration of done-in-one stories revolving around heavy scientific concepts, it reads more like a Warren Ellis book. It extends to the endings; all four issues end suddenly with text pages explaining key facts that the story didn't mention. Having this feature is a little jarring since it feels like Hickman realized that he left something out and didn't have a chance to get Dale Eaglesham to draw it. By the end, however, these pages are revealed to be Valeria Richards' notes, and we see her compose them while talking with Johnny Storm. In retrospect, most of what she's recording would have stalled the storytelling had we seen it. This trade corrects the previous book's lack of focus on the traditional Four by involving Johnny at a much higher level. He's a difficult character to write without making him annoying and Hickman definitely had plans for him by this point.
I've been reading the saga of the Future Foundation more or less in reverse, starting with The Fantastic Spider-Man and Matt Fraction's FF, and I wondered about how some of the children came into the FF's care. The previous trade set up Bentley-23's origin and brought back Alex Power, Artie Maddicks, and Leech. This trade kicks off with four young Moloids making their way from the Earth's core to the safety of the Baxter Building. One of them survives despite getting his head ripped off; you might have seen later Fantastic Four covers with this head zooming around in a jar. The Moloid kids were highlights throughout the existence of FF, and seeing how they started off was really delightful.
Where the Moloids go, the Mole Man is always nearby, and he seeks the Four's aid in getting rid of a city that's super-evolving the Moloids into geniuses. It's a project of the High Evolutionary that went horribly wrong and the new super-smart Moloids threaten to make their species extinct by not breeding. Even though he calls himself the Four's oldest foe, there's still a basic sense of respect between them; there's not even really a battle since they know he's trying to help his Moloids. There's a long tour sequence wherein the Four and the Mole Man go through all sorts of underground civilizations and even find the corpse of an alternate Galactus from Mark Millar's run. I continue to be impressed with how much Hickman continued on from his direct predecessor when he could've just ignored or retconned most of it away.
In the next issue, the Fantastic Four visit Atlantis . . . sort of. They find a civilization of fish-like sentient beings, the Uhari, who claim to be the true Atlantis, and their displeasure with Namor is made perfectly clear. Two of them eventually join the Future Foundation, but for now Susan is established as Earth's representative to Atlantis. About half of this second story is devoted to a dialogue-less sequence that lets Eaglesham do some great facial expression work as the Four defend Atlantis from a raid by AIM, marking their introduction to Hickman's overall plan. Johnny also spends the entire story in a bathing suit and bright red cowboy boots despite swimming in the Arctic. It's a bit random but also quite in character for such a showoff.
Years later, the third story collected in this trade is one of the key moments of the current Marvel Universe as it marks the return of the Inhumans to Earth. This began the closer connection between the Earth-bound characters and the cosmic characters and eventually set up the Inhumans' larger role both in the comics and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Black Bolt and Medusa take a back seat to the reveal of a convergence of Kree experiments from across the universe. Strains of the Dire Wraiths, the Badoon, the Centaurians (Yondu from Guardians of the Galaxy's species), and the Kymellians (the horse-like aliens from Power Pack) have assembled as the Universal Inhumans. Having species that have both attacked and defended Earth on this council really threw me for a loop and made me curious about what would happen next.
Of course, "next" after Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman Vol. 2 means the third volume, because the last issue collected here introduces the last of the Four Cities. You might recall that during Civil War, Reed helped Iron Man and Hank Pym build a prison in the Negative Zone. Now that Annihilus is back from his cosmic invasions, he and Blastaar are warring over a city created from that prison. The first third of this story has an incredibly creepy encounter with a Negative Zone-worshipping cult leader who reminded me of Boss Dark Side from Final Crisis. This might be an intentional riff on Darkseid's Anti-Life religion since these stories came out not long after Final Crisis concluded.
Despite its brevity at four fast-paced issues, Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman Volume 2 leaves me eager to continue to onward. But first, I'll take a quick detour to Deadpool and his literal Moment of Zen.