The Fantastic Four, Five, Six

Some Marvel titles this time around.

Fantastic Four – World’s Greatest

Written by Mark Millar, illustrated by Bryan Hitch

Right from the off Fantastic Four was a comic with ambition; ‘The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine’ was the proud boast emblazoned above the title, and for a long time it seemed that the FF lived up to that declaration. While others battled with bank robbers and earthbound megalomaniacs, the FF dealt with threats that menaced the whole world, if not the very existence of the universe. First and foremost the FF were explorers, whose adventures took them far beyond the world we know. Within the pages of this book in its heyday I encountered the Inhumans and the Kree, the Watcher and the Skrulls, Namor and Dr. Doom, the Silver Surfer and, perhaps the most majestic menace of them all, mighty Galactus. It was blue sky comic writing, with a scope and vision that only Thor could hope to rival. There’s something of that same ambition present in this volume that collects together #554 – 561, but if I’m honest the formula all seems a bit tired by now and the FF don’t feel so much like contenders as people who sit and watch while things happen. We get personal stuff, with the return of Reed Richards’ old flame and the employment of a nanny who isn’t all that she appears to be, while Johnny Storm has a new girlfriend and a new job. There’s the news that the world is on its last legs and governments and plutocrats have joined forces to create a new world, one that is an exact replica of the old (which stretches credibility, quite a bit, and resources rather more). There’s an indestructible killer robot on the loose and a super team of villains running round with an agenda of their own. And, in an allusion to Lovecraft’s Great Race, there’s a plot for the future inhabitants of a dying Earth to project themselves back into our own time. The writer manages to tie it all up in one Gordian knot, but at times the story lacked credibility, while the breakneck pace and convoluted plot developments didn’t really grab my attention, or give me time to actually care about anyone involved in it all. It was, I’m afraid, a case of big ideas not making big stories. The artwork however was stunning.

Fantastic Four – Prime Elements

Written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Dale Eaglesham

This volume collects together #575 – 578, and it is a tale of four cities. The Mole Man seeks the help of the FF and it culminates in the rise to the surface of a city created by the High Evolutionary. The FF must race with agents of A.I.M. to reach another city sited deep in a body of water isolated from the rest of the world’s oceans and populated by various aquatic races. In the third installment a city is found on the far side of the Moon populated by ‘relatives’ of the Inhumans, and in the fourth episode Johnny Storm accidentally helps an insect army penetrate the defences of a city in the Negative Zone. Overarching all this is a plot having to do with the Kree experimenting with DNA and seeding the universe with other races in an attempt to save their own, but any development or resolution of that is for the future – all we have here is setting the stage. Again, lots of big, big ideas, and stunning artwork, but the FF are strictly eye witnesses to the greater story and I suspect the book could be made to work just as well without their presence. It’s not a super hero book, so much as a Science Fiction story with super heroes in the supporting cast. I liked it, without being blown away.

Fantastic Five – The Final Doom

Written by Tom DeFalco, illustrated by Ron Lim

And then there were five, though actually there are a lot more characters than that, with the original FF plus Franklin Richards as Psi-Lord making the five and every super son and daughter in the environs of the Baxter Building boosting the roster. The villain of the piece is Dr. Doom, escaped from his undersea prison and sending an army of robots filled with the power cosmic of the Silver Surfer to conquer the world. Extra players aside, at bottom it’s a replay of events that took place in the old magazine back in issues #57-60, even down to having a scene in which the Thing and Doom go head to head. We’re also begging an answer to the question of why, if he could top up his robots with power cosmic, Doom didn’t use them to forward his plans for world domination earlier, instead of all the half baked schemes he’s tried out in the years since FF#60. It’s a good story, with plenty of exciting action and hard choices for the characters, but doesn’t feel like anything to break the mould, all the personal problems aside (and those have always been a given with Marvel). We have been here before, and the chief pleasure is checking out what the artist has done with the material this time around. I did however pause a moment to wonder when/why Namor grew that silly little beard and started dressing like an exile from a leather bar.

Sub-Mariner – The Depths

Written by Peter Milligan, illustrated by Esad Ribic

Namor originally debuted in the Golden Age, when Marvel was Timely I believe, but resurfaced in an early issue of the Silver Age Fantastic Four , so it makes a kind of sense to post about this graphic novel along with the FF books. And, despite his title and picture on the cover, this isn’t really a Sub-Mariner graphic novel. Over the course of more than 100 pages I doubt if Namor – here portrayed as a lean, clean shaven, almost albino figure – appears in more than a dozen panels. We don’t even know if he’s wearing those trademark green speedos. Rather this is a horror story, one that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Lovecraft’s oeuvre, and Namor is just a convenient bogeyman to hang the fears of the characters on – Behemoth, or the Flying Dutchman, or even the Creature from the Black Lagoon would have served just as well. It’s set in the 1950s and the explorer Marlowe has gone missing after claiming to have discovered Atlantis. Dr. Randolph Stein is enlisted by the US government to find Marlowe and learn the truth about Atlantis. But as the submarine Plato dives ever deeper, its crew give in to their superstitions about the Sub-Mariner, who guards Atlantis, and the sceptical Stein is forced to reconsider. There’s a moody feel to this one, with the tense atmosphere cranked ever tauter as Stein clashes with the members of his crew, and fresh discoveries undermine his faith in science and rationality. While the horror elements of the story are well done, with blood and madness thrown into the mix, and a strong sense of events being manipulated by unseen hands, it’s the character of Stein that dominates the story. He isn’t a true scientist – by which I mean somebody who revises his beliefs to incorporate fresh evidence – but a man who is too heavily invested in having the world be a particular way, and so can never accept something that doesn’t fit into this rational, materialistic scheme of things. Ultimately he is a hypocrite and, like a Lovecraft protagonist, driven insane, though in his case that madness takes the form of denial. It’s a strong and effective story, with Ribic’s crisp lines and dark palette perfectly capturing writer Milligan’s vision. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I didn’t feel that it was a Sub-Mariner story, the connection simply a convenience and selling point.

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