FANTASTIC FOUR #1
Writer: Dan Slott
Penciler: Sara Pichelli
Inker: Elisabetta D’Amico
Colorist: Marte Gracia
Publisher: Marvel Comics
“The universe: the final frontier. These are the adventures of the family of Dr. Reed Richards. Their lifelong mission: to explore strange new worlds, unknown life, and hidden civilizations; to seek out new horizons in science; to defend humanity from threats beyond human experience; to boldly go where no heroes have gone before!”
What You Need to Know:
Where we left off: At the end of the last Secret Wars miniseries, Reed Richards had restored the main Marvel Universe (and Dr. Doom’s face—but only for the time being, as we shall see) and he, Sue Richards, Franklin and Valeria, and the pupils of “the Future Foundation” took off into unknown realms to begin restoring the Multiverse. Meanwhile, the Human Torch and the Thing returned to the main Earth of Marvel Comics and continued their adventures in other books including the revived Marvel 2-in-One. The Richards family has been missing and presumed dead all this time—but this is still Marvel Comics, after all…
What You’ll Find Out:
Long ago (exactly 57 years ago in Real World time), the words THE FANTASTIC FOUR appeared in a cloud of mist over Central City, California. At the prompting of those mysterious words, the citizens were baffled, shocked, even terrified, by a young woman who could render herself invisible; a misshapen, super-strong creature that seemed to have been sculpted from orange mud; a teenage boy who could become a flying body of fire; and a man who could stretch his limbs and body to fantastic lengths. Who were they? What did it all mean?
Today, over New York City, those words appear again, and Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, knows they can mean only one thing. His sister, brother-in-law, nephew, and niece are finally back! He goes flying off from the baseball game that he and his old chum Wyatt Wingfoot are attending, tracks the source of the words in the sky to a rooftop, and finds…two young members of the Yancy Street Gang, who have stolen a Fantastic Four flare gun! Johnny is crushed; the world is disappointed. The “return” of Earth’s greatest heroes is a hoax.
When Jennifer Walters (She-Hulk in her human form) agrees to defend the under-age gang members and the Thing himself pays for their defense, Johnny is hurt, betrayed, and furious! The Thing, dejected, relates to the elderly shop owner to whom he entrusted some of the Fantastic Four’s memorabilia (including the flare gun that the kids stole) a story of how an alien female called Astronomica helped the FF, little Franklin, Alicia Masters, and Wyatt find their way home after they got lost on a deep space mission. Her navigational scepter needed to be charged and tuned by voice, and the singing—yes, the singing—of the Human Torch did the job, firing up the alien artifact and enabling it to bring our heroes back to Earth. (Sue was a bit miffed that her singing was not called for, while Johnny seemed to think he was suddenly Wayne Newton, inexplicably singing “Danke Schoen.”)
Remembering that episode helps the Thing reach a decision. Presently he appears at Alicia’s apartment, takes a knee, and whips out a ring to propose—and Alicia accepts! On the face of it, this is good news, except Johnny doesn’t think so. To Johnny, this is another painful refutation of the hope that his family is still alive. When Ben asks him to be best man, Johnny blasts him, shouting that only Reed Richards, when he returns, should stand up for Ben at his wedding. Flying off, Johnny calls out to the stars, begging Reed, wherever he is, to bring the family home. At last, he flies back to Ben and Alicia and sobs in Ben’s arms. It really is over. It really is “the end of the Fantastic Four” this time. Right?
Not so fast! Somewhere out in the multiverse, a man we know and love, his devoted wife at his side, fires up an arcane machine. In the night skies over New York, a symbol appears in glowing light: a gigantic, gleaming number 4! Johnny and Ben look up at the number in the sky, and Johnny’s tears disappear. “It’s about damn time,” he says.
And, as Stan Lee wrote in the original Fantastic Four #1, “…the world would never again be the same!”
Meanwhile, in Latveria, in a backup story with art by Simone Bianchi…
Remember when Reed and Dr. Doom had that huge knock-down, drag-out battle that resulted in Doom suffering a complete mental collapse, and the revolutionary Zorba’s government took over Latveria in Doom’s absence? (Fantastic Four #200.) And remember the corrupt police state that set in after that, which led Doom after his recovery, with the FF, to stage an overthrow of the coup? (Fantastic Four #246-247.) Well, something like that seems to have happened again. Something has happened to Doom since we last saw him at the end of Marvel 2-in-One #7; something that has left him with his face scarred once more and caused him to retreat into his castle and let fascists (other than himself) take over. But when a young revolutionary leader named Zora (presumably no relation to Zorba, whom Doom dropped out of a turret of the castle) comes and defies Doom’s robot facsimiles, begging Doom himself to come out of hiding and take back his throne, the Monarch of Evil heeds her plea and dons a new mask. Leading the insurgent forces, he reappears in Doomstadt and starts to bring down the new regime by the force of his powers and his will alone. To paraphrase the monks in Fantastic Four Annual #2 (1964), “Woe to the world, now Doctor Doom has returned!” And his return, like that of his old foes, is a welcome sight!
What Just Happened?
At the end of Marvel 2-in-One #8, which we just read last week, Johnny and Ben had a moment of truth just like the one in this issue, in which they fought over Ben having led Johnny across alternate universes looking for Reed and Sue while “knowing” that Reed and Sue were “dead.” This, he did to maintain Johnny’s morale as the two of them faced the ebbing of their powers because the FF’s powers are “entangled” like elementary particles in quantum physics and Reed and Sue had been gone for so long. So what happened between that moment of truth and this one, when the two of them come to shouts and blows over the loss of the Richardses again, but this time with their powers intact? And for that matter, how were their powers restored in the first place? The next few issues of Marvel 2-in-One are going to have to address that missing part of the story.
The character bit about the Torch singing and everyone (Sue notwithstanding) thinking he has a beautiful voice is very interesting. (This follows up from the baseball-game sequence in which Johnny sings the old Mets theme song.) It harks back to the Mark Millar/Bryan Hitch issues and their account of Johnny’s failed attempt to become a rock star, just one of the other career paths that Johnny has tried that haven’t worked out. There’s another subtle point about Johnny as a character, which this issue seems to touch on a bit. I don’t know if this is what Dan Slott intended, but it reminds me of something that I have been thinking for a long time. Johnny Storm, more so than the rest of the Fantastic Four, is a natural born super-hero. Think about it. Remember his first day at college. What did he think as he sat in the Dean’s office? Never mind; I’ll get the exact quote for you from the classic Fantastic Four #50. “Did I do the right thing, coming here? What can an ordinary college life hold for someone who’s traveled beyond the galaxy…someone who’s had a glimpse of the wonders of the unknown cosmos? Will I be able to sit in class, day after day, after having soared through space…after having tasted the excitement, the freedom, and the glory of being the Human Torch?”
Simply put, there is no other right and proper life for Johnny than a life of incredible adventure and conquering the most awesome and terrifying evils in the universe. He doesn’t belong anywhere else or fit anywhere else. Much as he has always loved cars, he never made a life as a race car driver. He dropped out of college. He bombed as a movie star. His rock-n-roll career went nowhere. But as a super-hero, he’s one of the brightest lights shining. I would go so far as to say that in all the Marvel Comics cast, there are three characters who are most naturally cut out for the life of a super-hero: Thor, Captain America, and Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. What I would like to see happen in this new Fantastic Four series is this: Johnny grows up and stays grown up. No more regressing him back to the character and adolescent behavior of a teenager, which seems to be the reflex of every writer who takes on this book. Johnny grows up permanently and realizes who he is and what life he is truly meant to lead. He is a super-hero down to the bone and belongs at the forefront of super-heroes, as the FF belong at the forefront of super-powered adventuring teams. (Yes, ahead of the Avengers and the X-Men; they are THE FANTASTIC FOUR and it’s time for people to remember what that means. More about that in a minute.) “Anything less,” to quote Mr. Spock in The Wrath of Khan, “is a waste of material.”
This issue, in which nothing happened but everything happened, played like the prologue to the real story still to come. I would have been upset if the story had stopped with just Johnny crying on Ben’s shoulder and “accepting” that Sue and Reed were “gone.” But the tag at the end, with Reed and Sue getting the real signal to the world and the loved ones who need to see it, was a very symmetrical payoff to the baseball stadium sequence at the beginning. Well played, indeed.
As for the art: The new assigned artist is Sara Pichelli, who has apparently been doing well on other Marvel titles. I wish I could say I was convinced that she was the best choice to draw The Fantastic Four. She has excellent drawing skills, but her style is a bit rough, as opposed to the more polished look we expect from the high-tech, science-fiction-oriented FF—and she has some problems with the two characters who are the focus of this first issue. I’m having a serious issue with the way she draws the Thing’s face. Many artists have done beautifully with Ben’s features. Jack Kirby invented his look and refined it from the way it was in issue #1 to its most familiar and “classic” form, which it had taken on by the unforgettable last panel of Fantastic Four #40, page 14. George Perez, John Byrne, Alan Davis, Mike McKone—they all demonstrated that they understood and could expertly render the shape and structure of the Thing’s visage. Pichelli? I’m sorry, but the way she draws him, it looks as if his transformed body has a human head wearing a Thing mask. We need to see him drawn better than this.
Many artists who come to the FF also try to put their own personal, distinctive spin on the Human Torch when he is “flamed-on.” Some of these renditions look better than others. Pichelli’s version of the Torch is really not making it. She has taken a very sketchy, “scritchy-scratchy”-looking approach to drawing the blazing Johnny Storm that is really unbecoming. It lacks sharpness. It looks as if he is a flaming doodle. Again, I’m sorry, but her Human Torch scores points for uniqueness alone, and it’s a uniqueness that doesn’t really serve well. I’ve taken a bit of interest in the work of new artist Ramon Perez in Marvel 2-in-One over the last couple of issues. His style reminds me, vaguely, a bit of Stuart Immonen. I’ve made a note to watch him and I think he might have been a better fit for The FF than Pichelli.
Those deficits in the art, thankfully, do not detract from the storytelling. They are just things that need much better attention than they are getting in this first issue. Now, on to the next issue, and let’s really get down to the business of being Fantastic again!
Final Thought: I was going to give this an 8 out of 10, but the writing and just the importance of having the FF back kicked it up just a notch. There was a time, I remember well when the idea of not having a new issue of The Fantastic Four every month was simply unthinkable. This book and these characters are pop-culture institutions. Like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America, the Fantastic Four are not just commercially valuable, they are culturally necessary. Something vital is missing, and the medium to which they belong is diminished and impoverished, in their absence. Comics in general and Marvel, in particular, needs the Fantastic Four. Marvel is not really Marvel without them.
Not long ago I made a remark on Facebook that I’ll share with you now:
“The Fantastic Four, which is very intelligent, compassionate, and high-minded, has become a badly abused and neglected property in the current comics climate where everything is either visceral and gut-level or caters to an adolescent mentality that only appreciates things going to extremes. People have failed to nurture the excellence of The FF or appreciate it as the special and important thing that it is. It’s something that I talk about a lot, as it is one of the things that have turned me off about modern comic books the most, and it is one of the things that really need to be addressed the most. The Fantastic Four needs to be restored to its place at the front and center of the Marvel Universe and kept there, and it needs to be done now.”
Along those lines, I’d also like to offer what I will call an open letter to Marvel Comics. I hope someone at Marvel, someone high up in the editorial chain, sees the following.
Back in 1998, after that Heroes Reborn business in which the FF and the Avengers, and the characters related to them by storyline, were farmed out to the Image Comics folks, they were all brought home again, and the relaunched FF series was thus assigned to Scott Lobdell, writer, and Alan Davis, artist. Lobdell and Davis had great plans to restore the proper spirit and energy to the book. They wanted to take the Richards family on grand voyages of discovery, to have them out there “challenging the unknown,” to borrow a phrase. They were out to bring new wonder and new awe into our lives through the adventures of the FF. But after just three issues—THREE ISSUES!—they were replaced by Chris Claremont and Salvador Larocca, who for the next three years took the FF into adventures that harked back to the work that Claremont had been doing with the X-Men, aborting the promised discoveries and wonders of Lobdell and Davis.
Back in 2002, writer Mark Waid and artist Mike Wieringo took over the book. Waid’s ideas were brilliant and (except for his rollback of the Torch to adolescent behavior) perfect. He knew better than anyone else before him except Lee and Kirby themselves and John Byrne exactly what to do with the FF. If you’ve never read his “Fantastic Four Manifesto,” in which he outlined in detail exactly what he had in mind for the book, you really should. (An unabridged version of it appears in at least one of the hardcover collections of Waid’s issues and should be required reading for anyone who comes near this book.) Waid understood that The Fantastic Four did not need to be redesigned, retooled, revised, reimagined, reconstructed, or anything of that nature. Nor did it need to be kept in an endless loop of recycled stories and material from the middle of the 1960s. What the FF needed was simply to have all the material around them kept fresh. What the book needed was once again to become the place where new spins were put on familiar ideas, and new things were discovered. “The only thing old about the FF,” as one character put it, “is that they never stop taking us into the new.” And Waid was doing beautifully with it—until then-Marvel President Bill Jemas decided that Waid’s ideas were not what the book needed after all. Jemas thought The Fantastic Four, a book that has traditionally been epic-scale pulp science fiction in super-hero drag (to wild commercial success), ought to be “a wacky suburban dramedy where Reed’s a nutty professor who creates amazing but impractical inventions, Sue’s the office-temp breadwinner, the cranky neighbor is their new ‘arch-enemy,’ etc.” No, seriously, look at this article. So Jemas wanted Waid fired, but fans protested and Waid stayed—not for lack of the conspicuously clueless President of the company at the time trying to get rid of him.
In 2004, the next writer and artist to take the helm were J. Michael Straczynski (creator of the TV series Babylon 5) and Mike McKone. Once again, here was a writer with a perfect touch, who understood the science fiction underpinnings of the book and was ready to take the Fantastic Four on grand journeys into the unknowns and the wonders of the universe, while keeping it rooted in the story of a family. Straczynski knew what he was doing—but we’ll never get to see what he would or could have really done with it. Why? Because during his tenure, Marvel decided to have a super-hero Civil War that would completely consume the storytelling content of every book in the main line for more than half a year, pre-empting or aborting whatever the writers and artists had in mind for those books during that time, including Straczynski’s FF. So we’ll never get to know to what awesome places the FF would have gone, or what mind-boggling things they might have discovered, under Straczynski.
And now we have Dan Slott, who has come aboard and wants to do the kinds of things that Lobdell and Davis tried to do until the plug was pulled on them after three issues. And the kinds of things Waid succeeded in doing for a while, from which he was nearly fired. And the kinds of things that Straczynski might have done if all Marvel content had not been engulfed and devoured by the Civil War. And my strongest request to Marvel Comics is: PLEASE LEAVE THE MAN ALONE AND LET HIM DO WHAT HE’S SET OUT TO DO. Just let him do it. Don’t cut him short. Don’t decide you want something else and fire him. Don’t make him give up his plans and sign on for some all-engulfing cross-continuity event instead. Please let Dan Slott’s Fantastic Four happen; let him play it out as he has envisioned it (he’s supposed to have been collecting FF ideas and stories for years) and let him take the FF—and its fans—to all the places he has in mind to go. Just let it happen! Please!
If you can do that (and possibly consider another artist), we will stand half a chance of The Fantastic Four once again showing us what it has been since Stan Lee christened it way back in 1962: “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” Let the original Marvel comic book be—and become again—what it is. Thank you.
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