Review: Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman Vol. 4 hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Thursday, November 05, 2015

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

After eight issues of build-up, Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman Volume 4 delivers the payoff with a six-issue trade that quite literally puts it all together. Pieces fall into place as Valeria finds out about the Council of Reeds and reveals it to Doctor Doom ... and thus, the first movement of Earth's final days begins. The opening of this issue explains why Doom didn't seem normal when I read the early FF trades: he had been recently drained of some of his intelligence and power by the Intelligencia in the Hulk books. His son Kristoff Vernard is asked to return and rule Latveria, the two having patched up their relationship between Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and now.

Kristoff was not the most notable absence in the title up to this point. That would be the Silver Surfer, who appears at the end of the first issue collected in Volume 4, addressing the matter of the dead future Galactus that the Fantastic Four found in Volume 2. He's joined by a very much alive and rather angry Galactus from the present. The Surfer/Galactus interplay remains one of the weirdest Marvel character dynamics; as much as he wants to break away, the Surfer knows that Galactus is a key component of the universe and has to be monitored. For his part, Galactus has a sense of nobility and an understanding of his limits when it comes to dealing with Earth. This has not reduced his menace in the slightest.

Another major plot development concerns the temporary cure for the Thing. He takes it and reverts to human form for one week. The adversarial-yet-brotherly relationship between Ben and Johnny really shines when the Torch takes the now-human Thing out about town without having to worry about scaring people. They even have dinner with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (I'm assuming it's not the God-as-Jack-Kirby from Mark Waid's run). More classic characters return with Ben's reconnection with Alicia Masters and a fight with the Yancy Street Gang, who are now financiers made jobless by the Great Recession.

Unfortunately, Ben picked the wrong week to give up his powers, with the arrival of Galactus being just the first of many situations he's unable to respond to. While Reed, the Surfer, and Galactus address the looming Nu-Earth subplot that Hickman kept looking into throughout the third trade, Sue escorts Namor in order to make peace between his kingdom and Old Atlantis. This does not go well; the Sub-Mariner isn't exactly known for keeping a cool head during negotiations. I still enjoy how much of a creepy stalker ex-boyfriend Namor becomes whenever Sue is around; even when she decks him in the face after his invasion attempt, the man can't take a hint! Some of the contentious history of the ancient Atlanteans is revealed, although since it comes from Namor, it's not entirely clear if he's telling the truth.

In the second half of the trade, Annihilus launches his attack to seize the Negative Zone portal in the Baxter Building. This means the return of the Anti-Life Preacher from the second trade and his force of interdimensional insects. Steve Epting's art is as beautiful as usual, but he uses some very cool digital effects to demonstrate Alex Power's gravity powers. The traditional black and white beams are rendered in what look like QR codes that really give the idea that he's exerting a truly powerful energy. Galactus' powers are manifested as Kirby dots in the grand Fantastic Four tradition.

The overall storyline collected here is officially "Three" but is better known as "The One Where Johnny Storm Dies." Marvel teased the death of a member of the Four for months, and to their credit, Hickman put the characters in situations where all four could have been killed. Mister Fantastic is hanging around with Galactus while he destroys Nu-World and Susan is holding up a city-wide forcefield for an entire day. For a time, it seems like Ben is going to die thanks to his depowering at the wrong moment. Despite seeming underused throughout the run, Johnny gained a lot of time and characterization in the moments that concentrated on him, and he goes out in an impressive self-sacrifice to protect the FF children. His death is brutal but only seen by Ben and not the reader -- enough to make the characters think he's dead while giving the readers the tip-off that not all is as it seems.

While the ending of Volume 3 goes unaddressed for most of the trade, it comes back in the big reveal of Franklin's reactivated powers. Leech has been keeping them suppressed this whole time on Mister Fantastic's orders, but he takes the risk and asks Valeria to knock him out in one of the most unique scenes I've ever read in a comic. Having existed primarily as a plot device for decades, Leech really emerges as a key character among the FF children. Johnny ends up dying so that Franklin doesn't go overboard with his abilities; this loss is very visible in the final chapter of the trade.

Nick Dragotta's almost entirely wordless issue follows the characters as they mourn and move on by starting the Future Foundation. These sequences actually do have dialogue, but it's revealed later in the pages of FF to keep the somber mood. It feels like cheating, yet all the same I think it was the right move. One part of Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman Volume 4 that doesn't get revisited is a surprisingly heart-wrenching throwdown as the Thing meets up with the Hulk and Thor and the three battle to help him express his anger. Another is a tear-jerker meeting between Franklin and Spider-Man as drawn by Mark Brooks.

Next week, more supervillains, more alternate Reeds and more white costumes enter the fold with the first trade of FF. And it's only taken me three years since reading it the first time to review it ...
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