I’ll be real honest: I’m not a huge JMS fan. The part of his work that the majority of comics fans are most familiar with, his Amazing Spider-Man run, was always more miss than hit for me. And frankly, when John Romita Jr. left, it was brought home to me how much his consistently good pencils raised up Straczynski’s mediocre scripts. That having been said, I think that even if he almost always missed the mark with the superhero portions of Spider-Man storytelling (Spidey vs. Shathra the Moth-Woman? C’mon…), he was generally on said mark with the soap opera. Put another way, even if he didn’t have a very good handle on Spider-Man’s voice, what with the quips and banter and all, he did have one on Peter Parker’s. And in my opinion, that’s the most important (not to mention the hardest) part to get right.
So it was with equal parts trepidation and anticipation that I entered into JMS’s first issue of Marvel’s First Family, the Fantastic Four. They’re equally difficult characters to strike the proper tone for: family melodrama is an integral part of the FF experience, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of their wonderful adventures, nor should it ever cease to be anything more than the everyday bickering of a group of people who, at the end of the day, genuinely love each other. In the same vein as Spider-Man, the FF are great characters because they’re people just like you and me, only they happen to have incredible powers.
With all that out of the way, on to the issue:
The issue opens with a several page monologue, Reed narrating his five-year study of a microscopic world, where millions of years pass during six of our months. He eulogizes this world where beings can achieve wondrous things by working together, but can never seem to rise above their baser instincts to destroy one another. It’s world that clearly meant to echo our own, with a 50s era image of nukes raining from the sky, but it’s a point well taken that the FF’s technology doesn’t always result in pleasant discoveries. As well, it’s a nice way to introduce Reed, as the camera sort of draws back to reveal that it’s Reed talking about a tiny world, rather than the Watcher or someone looking down on our own.
From there, the story segues into a discussion of the team’s ever-fluctuating financial situation. Marvel Knights 4 re-introduced the notion that the FF were broke and the recently departed Waid/Wieringo run put the team on the outs with the federal government, so Straczynski is left with some proverbial house-cleaning before he can really move in. His tack is an interesting one, insomuch as it doesn’t do away with the team’s financial insolvency; rather, it is revealed by Reed’s accountant that while the Richards and Johnny Storm might be broke, Ben Grimm is not. In fact, he’s rich beyond his wildest dreams (which, in turn, of course means that the FF are no longer broke either). In another clever move, JMS spins the absence of cordiality between the Four and the Feds into a plot point, rather than an obstacle for them, when Nick Fury turns up to discuss a business proposition with Reed.
Taken to an Area 51-style government installation in the Nevada desert, Reed is offered the chance to “change the world a second time.” In its apparently never-ending efforts to engineer the perfect soldier, the US government is attempting to recreate the circumstances of the FF’s birth, having determined via stellar telemetry that the alignment of the stars on that fateful day will occur twice within the next year. However, the subtle nuances of that trip (such as the exact make-up of the spacecraft) into space are unknown to the scientists at the facility; those details are where Reed fits into the government’s plans.
Overall, the issue’s story is solid, if unspectacular. Certainly elements of the plot have been done before; as previously stated, the US government of the Marvel Universe seems to be engaged in a constant search for more super-soldiers. As well, when I initially covered Waid’s FF run, I remarked that some of the humor seemed a bit forced and more than a little awkward, like when you were in high school and your father tried to use teenage lingo in front of your friends in an effort to sound hip. That same comment holds true here, though it’s no great surprise: JMS seemed, in his Amazing run, to feel that a certain number of jokes were required by law per issue and he was going to fill that order, come Hell or high water, whether the jokes were funny or not. His initial offering on the FF is no different.
That having been said, the book is not without its bright spots. For every lame joke, there seems to be a bit of humor that actually hits the mark. In fact, the funnier bits are those that are more understated, such as Reed remarking that his accountant’s last name is “mathematically hilarious” in binary terms. It’s moments like those that also bring home to the discerning reader that Straczynski, for all his shortcomings, has done his homework and has at least a passing familiarity with what makes his charges tick.
As well, as previously noted, JMS deftly sidesteps the difficult continuity that he’s inherited from both previous author and spin-off title. Considering his much-publicized lack of consideration for past storylines (with Gwen Stacy’s illegitimate children), it was refreshingly nice to see him not just throw out whatever wasn’t convenient for his story, much less turn the unwieldy bits into a springboard for this arc.
Visually, it’s tempting to simply gloss over Mike McKone’s artwork. Not because it’s bad, mind you, but because he’s so dependably good that one has a tendency to not pay it any special attention. McKone shifts gears smoothly from the fantastic (pardon the pun) to the mundane as the story dictates and never misses a beat. I’m already a fan of his work, mostly from Teen Titans (a book that will miss his presence, no doubt), but this is still really impressive stuff. However, I continue to wonder how it is that Marvel artists so regularly get away with flat-out lifting the likenesses of well-known actors with such frequency. It was funny when the Sam Jackson/Nick Fury coincidence was the only instance, but this issue gives us Paul Giamatti as a government scientist and frankly, I’m really finding the convention a bit jarring.
In the end, again, it’s a solid issue, though a bit underwhelming considering the ballyhoo over Straczynski’s arrival on the title. The cynical side of me finds it hard to believe that Reed will actually aid the government in using his experiences to create super-soldiers, but I’m willing to read on next time to see where it goes. Who knows, I might be surprised.
One thing I’ve never discussed within the confines of this column is my somewhat secret love for all things Disney. Now, I’m not saying that I’m first in line to pick up a copy of Sleeping Beauty 3: Back to Bed or any other of the endless stream of direct-to-dvd sequels that Disney cranks out. Rather, I mean that the “real” Disney characters, like Mickey, Donald, etc., have a special place reserved in my heart, as cheesy as that may sound. Some of my earliest vivid childhood memories are of watching Donald Duck Presents on the Disney Channel with my dad shortly after we first got cable tv and that’s always kind of stuck with me, despite the fact that Disney itself is a pretty despicable corporation and has been for quite some time (some would argue it always has been, given the way it’s treated its employees).
Most importantly, however, when I was in grade school, I loved me some Ducktales. Imagine my shock then when I discovered that a considerable portion of the world-traveling tales contained in that cartoon was more or less lifted from the comic book adventures of Uncle Scrooge, as told by the character’s creator, Carl Barks (there are those unsavory Disney business practices for you; Barks received no credit on Ducktales).
Barks is considered THE Uncle Scrooge storyteller, but amongst Duck fans, Don Rosa runs a rather close second. After Barks retirement, Rosa took up the torch of using the Barks cast of characters (Scrooge, Donald, and their nephews) in similarly globetrotting adventure stories. What makes Rosa distinctive, aside from his highly detailed artwork, is his attention to historical detail. Every Rosa story is richly layered in historical fact, with the treasure Scrooge and his companions chase being based on a real-life relic or location, such as King Solomon’s Mines.
A few months ago, Gemstone republished a Rosa story called “Crown of the Crusader Kings,” wherein Scrooge and company uncovered a plot by the World Monetary Fund’s corrupt leader, Monsieur Monay, to steal the lost fortune of the Knights Templar. Despite their failure to ascertain the location of the lost Treasury, the heroes did uncover the titular crown, an actual historical relic (in point of fact, a Templar treasure believed to be sent by the Templars across the Atlantic Ocean with Christopher Columbus) and turned it over to the people of Haiti, the rightful owners of the crown. Rosa also produced a sequel to the story, but due to the lapse in publication (Disney books ceased publication in America for some number of years, only beginning again a couple years ago), it was never seen in the States.
However, the story finally sees Stateside publication this month and I’ve been looking forward to it since it was announced three months ago. Normally, a previously unpublished Don Rosa story would be enough to make a quality issue, but this book is particularly noteworthy insomuch as it also contains a classic Carl Barks story from 1962.
The lead story is, of course, Don Rosa’s “The Old Castle’s Other Secret” (the title a riff on Barks’ story “The Old Castle’s Secret”). Therein, Monay pilfers that Crown of the Crusader Kings away from the Haitian museum it had been resting in and sets out anew on his quest to secure the Templar fortune. Meanwhile, Scrooge and company follow up on the discovery of the previous story, that the Crown was wrapped in the ancestral tartan of the Clan McDuck, a revelation that connects Scrooge’s ancestors to the Templars, and return to Scrooge’s birthplace in Scotland. At Castle McDuck, Scrooge finds that one of his estranged sister’s, Matilda, has taken up residence as the castle’s caretaker (the other, Hortense, who is also Donald’s mother, is absent). Despite the ill will between the two siblings over a 25-year old falling-out, Matilda helps point Scrooge in the right direction in his quest to make the connection between the McDucks and the Templars, which sets Scrooge and nephews on a jaunt across the castle grounds to unravel the ancient clues. It’s all very Indiana Jones-like, really, and certainly should strike a familiar chord for anyone who watched Ducktales as a child.
According to Rosa, the story is not one of his best, and in a way, I can see what he’s on about. Typically, a Rosa Scrooge story entails a great deal of historical description. By way of being a sequel, most of that is foregone, as the reader is simply given a quick recap of the previous story’s events; the history is not new to the characters themselves, as they learned it all last time. This is unfortunate, as it short-shrifts both long-term readers (as they don’t get to see the character interact with another slice of history) and new (they’re sort of thrown into the deep end, with an adequate, albeit brief, summary). As well, Rosa stories typically involve a fair bit of humor, most of which is set up by a series of elaborate visual gags.
All the same, the lack of humor can be forgiven, as in its place Rosa has inserted character development. It sounds silly on its surface, but keep in mind, Disney characters are typically even more static that Marvel or DC heroes; while superhero stories thrive on the illusion of change, Disney books are much closer to Silver Age superhero books, in that no change in the status quo is even alluded to. And really, that’s OK, for the most part, as continuing soap opera is not what the books are all about. However, Rosa has been previously allowed to explore the history of Uncle Scrooge and establish a meaningful backstory for the character, so it’s nice to see some payoff on the long-running plot of Scrooge’s estrangement from his family. To boot, it works for readers both new and old: for old, it’s the aforementioned payoff, but for new it’s a nicely humanizing moment when Scrooge and his sister reconcile.
While the Rosa story takes up the bulk of the issue, value added is a Carl Barks story, “Raven Mad,” which coincidentally marks an intersection of the comic books and Ducktales. Fans of the show may remember that a long-running plot thread involved Magica De Spell and her quest to steal Scrooge’s Number One Dime for use in a magic ritual. As well, Magica had, on the cartoon, a talking raven named Poe in her service. This story, wherein Magica steals Scrooge’s Dime from a charity event to raise money for a rocket to be sent to the sun (the concept of which charmingly dates the story, in my opinion) features the first appearance (to my knowledge) of Randolph the Raven, upon which Poe is quite clearly based. It’s not Barks’ strongest work with the characters, to be sure, but it’s still quite good in its own right and even more entertaining if you appreciate the cartoon connection.
Also present are two short stories by lesser known creators, one featuring Gyro Gearloose and Donald (wherein Gyro’s learns to appreciate Donald as his best customer, due to Donald’s crazy schemes coinciding with Gyro’s wild inventions) and the other dealing with the Beagle Boys (who attempt to use a magic transporting door to solve their problem of always being foiled in their larcenous schemes by Scrooge).
In the end, while the issue is not quite as stellar as I had hoped, I must admit that my own expectations where quite high. It is, however, still an exceedingly fun book. I find it appalling that modern comics fans seem to have no interest in either the ground-breaking work that Barks did with these well-known characters in his day or the intricately thought-out stories that Rosa continues to weave for them. Do yourself a favor and pick this issue up; it’s a good primer for the franchise, as any issue with either a Barks or Rosa story is. This one has both.