Not so long ago, the comic book market barely needed one ongoing Fantastic Four book. Suddenly, it needs three. So, based on that information alone, you’ve got to figure there’s a Fantastic Four movie in the works (which, as we all know, there is). House of Ideas, my ass.
I’m a strange sort of FF fan. I like the characters and the concept, but I rarely like the actual book (I’m the same sort of fan with a lot of Marvel books, now that I think about it). I was digging Mark Waid’s run just fine until it got all real world for a bit there. Bendis and Millar’s Ultimate Fantastic Four struck me as Ultimate Spider-Man-Lite (I understand they’re both smart guys who largely go unappreciated by their peers, but did Ultimate Peter Parker and Ultimate Reed Richards have be to written so similarly?): a nice bit of throwaway fun, complete with amusing inaccuracies like someone wearing a 50 Cent t-shirt in a sequence clearly marked “11 Years Ago.” So I looked at the eye-popping Steve McNiven art and thought, “Hey, maybe this’ll be an ongoing FF book that I actually like.”
And I was mostly right.
4 opens at Franklin Richards’ birthday party, where Reed and family go out of the frying pan and into the fire: they’re pulled away from Franklin’s disappointment at his gifts (a sequence where Aguirre-Sacasa deftly illustrates Reed’s inadequacies as a father) to be told that their accountant has fled the country and taken their money with him. Faced with the unfathomable, but very real, threat of bankruptcy, Marvel’s first family goes their separate ways in search that notorious villain, gainful employment. And while they are met with some small successes, their hopes are again dashed before the issue’s end.
And that’s pretty much the sum total of the issue. There are nice character moments over the course, such as Johnny getting his comeuppance and Ben finding a practical application of his much-maligned (by himself, at least) powers, but that doesn’t really change my summary. But it’s nice stuff, to be honest. Aguirre-Sacasa demonstrates a remarkably firm grasp of what makes the Fantastic Four work as characters, the frequently discussed family dynamic of the book. The idea that they’re a family first and superheroes second is not a new one, but it’s nice to see it brought to the forefront periodically, just like it’s logical to occasionally remind readers that what drives Batman or Spider-Man is guilt.
OK, so no problems, right?
The problem I have is this: why is this an ongoing series? I mean, maybe I’m just reading the press releases wrong, but it seems to me that this decidedly mopey tone is going to be the distinguishing characteristic of the Marvel Knights series. And who the hell wants to read the monthly adventures of Susan Storm, Substitute English Teacher? Probably the same readers who will thrill to the spine-tingling exploits of Ben Grimm, Rock-Man Construction Worker and Johnny Storm, Unemployed Actor. Tune in next month when Reed Richards, Stay-At-Home Dad… stays at home.
Let me put this a different way.
The Fantastic Four are interesting characters because they’re a family. But they also have superpowers and, as such, we get to see them brave new worlds and fight outlandishly-dressed antagonists. It’s the combination of those two ideas that’s made them successful for over forty years. But 4 is a book based on taking the latter of those concepts away and focusing twice as much time on the former (which, frankly, is slightly silly without the superhero adventures). And I just can’t see how that could possibly be entertaining over a long period of time.
If 4 were a mini-series, even a fairly long-winded one, I’d be willing to give it a free pass and, more than likely, I’d enjoy it. It’s an interesting concept. Not one that’s entirely original (as more than a few message board fanboys have pointed out, this story has been done before in a Fantastic Four book), I’ll grant you, but still a different take than the one that’s usually seen in the “regular” Marvel Universe book. But again, as an ongoing series, I just can’t see the point.
Though given Marvel’s track record with new books these days, it’ll be cancelled around #12 and we’ll have a nice, complete story in two trade paperbacks. And that’s all you really need out of this high concept, I think.
Anyway, judged solely on its own merits, the first issue of 4 is a surprisingly solid one. Aguirre-Sacasa proved all those incensed over his initial billing as Waid’s replacement wrong and demonstrated that he does in fact have a good handle on the characters. And Steve McNiven’s art is flat-out gorgeous and criminally underrated, so that’s just icing on the cake, really.
I’ll give this issue a good rating, grudgingly, but don’t take that as my endorsement to go out and add the title to your pull list. I think the tone of the book would just wear thin way too quickly.
And from the most unlikely of places (to my mind, anyway) comes what might be the model modern comic book.
I stopped reading Green Arrow during a period of contraction in my comic buying (about six months ago, to be exact). I’ve always found Judd Winick to be a bit hit-and-miss. I freaking love Barry Ween (who doesn’t?) and I thought Pedro and Me did a fair job of living up to the hype. His Outsiders is mundane, average old school superhero-team-stuff, but sometimes that’s kind of refreshing in an age of pseudo-realistic superhero-team-stuff. And, just for the sake of completion, I thought he had two good Exiles stories in him that he just recycled every three issues or so (for the record, they are: hero from the Marvel Universe is a villain in the alternate reality and villain from the Marvel Universe finds a way to clone himself, then runs amok).
It seemed to me at the time I dropped the book that Winick was going out of his way to highlight the left-wing politics of the character, so much so that Green Arrow was sort of a caricature of a real-life liberal (some would say he is anyway, but that’s neither here nor there). And let’s be clear that I’m not criticizing Green Arrow’s politics or its role in the book: Ollie’s status as a bleeding heart is a well-established, important part of what makes him the character that he is. It just seemed to me that having your character pontificate in clichés was a sign that the writer didn’t have anything particularly original to say, so I let the book slip under my radar.
Which was apparently a rather substantial mistake.
The recent tempest-in-a-teapot over Winick’s decision to portray Black Lightning as someone who would resort to the most extreme form of vigilantism (by, y’know, killing criminals as opposed to shooting them with arrows and leaving them for the police to find, which is apparently acceptable) sort of piqued my interest again, got me curious to see if Winick was really botching things as badly as Tony Isabella would have me believe. Putting the Riddler on the cover just sealed the deal for me and I picked up this week’s issue.
The issue opens with Green Arrow and his son (Connor Hawke, the… uh… Green Arrow) investigating a rash of bizarre crimes in Star City. Seemingly nuisances rather than “real” crimes, the eccentric nature of deeds (airlifting elephants, covering an art restoration lab in blue paint, etc.) leaves Ollie a bit baffled at first. However, it soon becomes plain for all to see that the Riddler has come to Star City, causing local newspapers to demand that the city’s resident superhero deal with the problem. Green Arrow is left to unravel the Riddler’s wordplay with Connor in tow after a courtesy call to Batman proves unhelpful, while the readers are given a bit more insight into what exactly the villain is doing in Star City in the first place. Meanwhile, Mia, the street urchin that Ollie took in during Kevin Smith’s run, is still angry with him and Oliver finally thinks he knows why. Following their “emotional breakthrough,” our hero deciphers a riddle that leaves him terrified: he’s pretty sure the Riddler has an atomic bomb.
Now, frankly, I could gush about all the things I liked in this issue, but the biggest one is this:
This is the second part of a larger arc and I never even noticed. DC books don’t have summary pages and I’m not in the habit anymore of even paying attention to the title of a given issue, so I was blissfully unaware that I was joining a story in progress until I saw “Part 3″ in the next issue’s preview box on the last page. And that’s simply the mark of a well-written issue: that I was able to pick up the book, completely cold, and not feel lost. And not only that, but to never have any inkling that maybe I should feel lost. As far as I knew, this issue was the beginning of this story and frankly, more comics should be written that way.
And I had Winick pegged wrong six months ago, because he does have a good grasp on the character. His Green Arrow is wise-cracking and slightly cynical (you’d be hard-pressed to find a hero that’s not, most days), but has very real and seemingly insurmountable human flaws. The character, under his stewardship, feels like more than just DC’s token socially-conscious hero. The Riddler also strikes me as a surprisingly good choice of antagonism for this book. Ollie is a character that’s renowned for his short fuse, so having him square off against a villain whose m.o. is irritation is pretty inspired, really.
This is to say nothing of the fact that the book was just flat-out fun. There’s a nice blend of superhero antics and genuinely entertaining humor that’s sadly refreshing in an era of navel-gazing superheroes.
Lastly, it just felt like Winick got a lot accomplished in the span of twenty-two pages, but it never came off as hurried. At the end of the issue, I was left with the sense that the plot and sub-plots had all been addressed and furthered in a meaningful way and that’s saying something, considering how much is going on in this arc. It’s odd, in a way, because most of the compliments I’ve paid this book can also be applied to the average issue of Ultimate Spider-Man. Except this one.
And, at the end of the day, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the ever-impressive Phil Hester is still on the book. I had the chance to meet Mr. Hester at Wizard World Chicago and the sketch he did for me (of Green Arrow, no less) in less than two minutes looked better than most of the finished pages on the shelf in an average week. His work reminds me of Mike Mignola’s (it’s something about the way he draws jaws, I think), only brighter and more palatable to the mainstream reader.
So, all in all, it’s an easy issue to recommend. No one’s ever going to accuse Winick and Hester of being the second coming of O’Neil and Adams, but all the same, they’re doing a damned fine job. It’s definitely good enough to warrant your $2.50, at any rate.