Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman, Vol. 1, Marvel Comics.
By Sam Hurwitt
We now continue a week-by-week examination of Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four run with… the first trade paperback collection of that run! (Last week’s installment was more of a prelude, looking at the Dark Reign: Fantastic Four miniseries.) Sadly, Marvel opted not to give any of the Fantastic Four collections individual titles, just volume numbers, so I’ll have to fall back on calling them “volume one,” “book two,” et cetera. The Dark Reign collection doesn’t count for numbering purposes, though you could call it volume zero if you like. Actually, come to think of it, there is a subtitle a few pages into the book, just not on the cover like most trade collections; for volume one, it’s “Solve Everything.”
On the plus side, I love the covers of the collections, which are just the covers of some of the individual issues in those respective trades. With sharp cover art by Dale Eaglesham or Alan Davis, each one has a dynamic, old-school feeling, accentuated by the 1970s-style logo surrounded by head shots in circles. That particular logo was revived as soon as Hickman took up the torch from Mark Millar, whose run had a giant “4” on the covers that looked like a TV-station logo. This particular logo was used from 1975 to 1980 and hasn’t been seen since, and I love seeing it again because it’s what the covers looked like when I started reading Fantastic Four as a kid, only now without word balloons because people don’t talk on covers anymore. (Interestingly, when this logo was abandoned in 1980, it was in favor of a return to the original logo from the 1960s, which the covers used faithfully throughout the ’80s and ’90s and periodically in the ‘00s.)
Hickman’s Fantastic Four run starts strong in volume one with a particularly good three-part story about Reed meeting a council of Reed Richards from various alternate universes who have put their heads together to basically solve all the problems in the multiverse. And there’s no way that could possibly go wrong, right?
A number of the Reeds are also obvious analogs for other characters in the Marvel universe—there’s a Professor X-like Reed, a Silver Surferesque Reed, a Captain Marvellian Reed, et cetera. It’s a fun concept and a great showcase for Reed as a character, really getting to the heart of what’s important to him.
It also touches on Reed’s relationship with his father, which will come into play later. The impressive thing about Hickman’s run is just how much of it will become relevant later—in some cases much later. It spends more time on the setup than the follow-through, and that’s going to be a theme in Hickman’s run for a long time, but this particular alternate-Reeds story has a poignant closing moment of its own.
The next one-issue story, from Fantastic Four #573 (I really want to abbreviate it FF, but that’s tricky because soon enough there would be a series actually called FF), is apparently just tying up loose ends from Mark Millar’s run. The issue follows Johnny and Ben (and stowaways Franklin and Valeria) to Nu-World, an artificial planet where the New Defenders/Fantastic Force and the six billion survivors of their postapocalyptic 26th century Earth were stashed after they traveled back in time to escape their dying world. I never read those Millar issues, but reading about them sounds like the most bombastic 1990s thing ever, so it’s a bit of a surprise to find that the whole storyline only goes back to 2008, and the New Defenders first showed up in Fantastic Four #558. The thin set-up is that Johnny wants to bring Ben on a vacation on Nu-World (and pick up chicks), but it’s hard to imagine why he’d think that would be somewhere anyone would ever want to go. Anyway, there’s not much of interest in this issue to anyone who hasn’t read the Millar run, but suffice it to say that things still aren’t going well for the refugees.
A word about the art. Dale Eaglesham pencils the first few issues with the Reeds, and he had a good solid sense of visual storytelling, balancing the sci-fi grandeur of the concepts being explored with the current vogue of semi-photorealistic art nicely. Neil Edwards steps in for the last two issues in the collection, and his style is similar enough that it’s not too jarring at first, except that his faces tend to be pretty ugly.
That’s not so much of a problem on Nu-World, which is an ugly place, but it becomes a big problem in the last story of the collection, which is Franklin’s birthday party, because Edwards’s child faces are particularly grotesque, making what would otherwise be a charming story of kids playing around together creepy and off-putting instead. It doesn’t help that the facial expression he uses for kids hollering excitedly is disturbingly reminiscent of Greg Land’s notorious “pornface.”
The issue is otherwise charming, with the FF and the Richards kids celebrating with Power Pack, Spider-Man, Artie and Leech from the X-books, a childproofed Dragon Man, and a pint-size clone of the Wingless Wizard that the FF has taken under their wings. One fun thing about Hickman’s run is that the Baxter Building quickly becomes a home for oddball children; they can’t seem to go on an adventure anywhere without picking up a few Moloid or Merman kids to take home.
A small pet peeve: One of the many kids living in the Baxter Building is Artie Maddicks, a mutant formerly from X-Factor who can project holograms of his thoughts, which is a convenient thing because he’s mute. He’d lost his powers some time ago, but Valeria invents a rig in this issue that allows him to do pretty much the same thing—but it doesn’t allow him to talk, because his muteness is centered in the speech center of his brain. He hasn’t really done anything but hang around so far, but one thing he does do from time to time is talk. Every few issues, Artie will be given a line of dialogue—which is a problem, because Artie can’t talk, and nowhere in the story are we told anything to indicate that’s changed. It has to be a mistake, and yet it happens again and again. I don’t know if it’s just a misplaced word balloon or what (nothing he says couldn’t be said by pretty much any kid in the room), but in nearly every collection of Hickman’s Fantastic Four or FF, Artie’s shown speaking at least once. What do editors at Marvel do, exactly?
Anyway, it wouldn’t be a birthday party in a superhero book if there wasn’t some attack or intruder. The story explicitly sets up some upcoming storylines when a visitor from the future comes to warn supergenius Valeria what’s about to happen with portentous riddles. (One of the themes of the book is that she’s secretly already smarter than her dad, who’s supposedly the smartest man on the planet.) And indeed, those riddles pretty well encapsulate everything that would go on to happen and continues to happen in Hickman’s FF books. Lest you suspect that he’s just making it up as he goes along because events take so long to unfold, he clues you in early that he has a plan.
How will that plan unfold? Check back next week for volume 2, the book that almost turned me off the series at the outset! I’ve already talked about that in brief, but will it reveal greater depths upon closer examination? Well, we’ll see, won’t we?