Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman, Vol. 5, Marvel Comics. By Sam Hurwitt OK, first things first. Do not read volume three of FF before reading volume five of Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four. That might at first seem like the natural thing to do, because the story from Hickman’s Fantastic Four vols. 1-4 was continued seamlessly in FF vols. 1 and 2, so all the momentum’s on the FF side—and the hardcover trade collection of FF vol. 3 came out a few weeks before Fantastic Four vol. 5, so it would be reasonable to expect that to be the order in which the stories are supposed to be read. But no, far from it. This is the point at which Fantastic Four takes up the torch of the main story again, while FF becomes just a supplemental side story detailing what the Baxter Building kids are up to during the events of the main title. Mind you, their exploits do feed back into what’s going on here, so people following both comics issue by issue have an advantage over the trade-waiters for once, but there are far fewer spoilers if you read this book first and FF later. Speaking of taking up the torch, the whole reason Fantastic Four was discontinued with issue #588 was that one of its esteemed members had died, and I’m not going to be coy about who it was anymore, even though everyone knew he’d be coming back: It was Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, who fell while holding off the reborn Annihilus and the Annihilation Horde from escaping the Negative Zone. But after 12 issues of the initials-only FF series to continue the story while the team has ostensibly retired the Fantastic Four name in Johnny’s honor, suddenly the Fantastic Four comic starts up again with issue #600 as if it had never ended. That can mean only one thing: Johnny’s back!
But Johnny doesn’t reappear until the very last page of the first chapter, so I’ll have to come back to that. Volume 5 only collects issues 600-604, but #600 is a 100-page issue packed with back-up stories all tied in to the main arc, so there’s a lot happening here. When last we saw the erstwhile Fantastic Four, now called the Future Foundation, Reed Richards had assembled many of Earth’s mightiest heroes—the Avengers, the X-Men, et al. (and man, it’s a good thing the Avengers and X-Men aren’t fighting each other or anything)—just because it seems like something might be going on with the Inhumans returning and the megalomaniacal Reed Richardses from parallel universes seemingly up to no good on his earth. And no sooner does he gather this army of heavy-hitters on the vaguest of pretexts than the entire Kree fleet suddenly attacks New York City. Now that’s timing!
Mind you, Reed couldn’t possibly know that the other Reeds suddenly aren’t a threat anymore, as two of them have been captured and—well, I really don’t want to spoil that part because it’s pretty awesome, but let’s just say they’re out of the picture—and the other one has been swept up in whatever our Reed’s time-traveling father Nathaniel is up to. That said, the council of Reeds from all over the multiverse did manage to piss off some mad Celestials in another universe, and that’s definitely still a big problem. Reed doesn’t know that either yet, but like I said, good thing he happened to assemble that army. And the Inhumans, well, who the heck knows what they’re up to. The status quo of the Inhumans ruling the Kree Empire fell apart as soon as Black Bolt left Hala to go seek his destiny on Earth—and no, we still don’t get to know what the heck that’s about—and he must have known that’s exactly what would happen when he turned the reins over to the guy who ruled before him for safekeeping. Pretty much the first thing Ronan the Accuser did when he was handed the empire was bring back the deceased Supreme Intelligence from a “Supremor Seed” he and generations of Accusers had been carrying around in his hammer of office all along. Trouble is, the Supreme Intelligence created this seed of himself thousands of years ago, when the only thing on his mind was killing all the Inhumans that the Kree had created on every world they experimented on (by exterminating all life on those worlds) so that they wouldn’t, I dunno, take over the Kree Empire or something. Crazy, I know. So as soon as he’s rebooted, guess what’s at the top of the Supremor’s agenda? Let’s just say the attack on Earth is not an act of conquest. “It is not defeat we are interested in, but extinction.” This interrupts whatever invasion plans the crazy cultists who worship Annihilus and have giant bugs living under their skin had planned, so they start invading the Baxter Building (home of the only handy-dandy portal to the Negative Zone) to let the Annihilation Wave come out to play as well. And of course that’s where all those kids that the FF had taken in are, all the supergenius Moloids, mutants, fish people and clones of diabolical masterminds, to say nothing of Sue and Reed Richards’s own children. Good thing those kids can look after themselves.
The kids escape when child genius Valeria Richards teleports several floors of the building elsewhere, but somehow the gate gets opened and the Annihilation Wave is unleashed, led by… Johnny? With Kid Annihilus on a leash? Say what? That leads us to wonder just what exactly happened to Johnny Storm. Good thing the next story is called “Whatever Happened to Johnny Storm?” The biggest surprise is to learn that when it looked like Johnny died, he actually did die—and then he died some more. Among the many horrible bugs that make up the horde are some gruesome worms that rebuild you from the inside, resurrecting you when you die. Apparently in the topsy-turvy Negative Zone, life is as inevitable as death is in the positive world. So Johnny has lots and lots of gladiatorial combat to look forward to. His fellow prisoner-combatants include the Light Brigade of the Universal Inhumans, who showed up in maybe one panel several books ago, being deployed into the Negative Zone. If you’d wondered whatever happened to them—unlike me, who’d forgotten all about them because we were never properly introduced—well, apparently that’s what happened. Killed, probably a whole bunch of times, kept prisoner, and put into the ring.
We still don’t get to know who the heck they are or exactly what their powers are—like Earth’s Inhumans, they all have individual superpowered mutations in addition to whatever alien traits they have as Dire Wraiths, Centaurians, Badoon, and Kymellians—but at least at this point we learn their names and get some sense of them as characters. Whoever they are, they’re badass. And somehow Johnny goes from slave in the arena to ruler of the Negative Zone, probably because he learned all the right lessons from Planet Hulk.
The art for the main story is by Steve Epting, continuing his stellar work from FF. His crisp lines, moody shadows, dynamic composition and realistic, expressive faces bring the whole thing to a stellar climax. Two issues are drawn by Barry Kitson, whose work is lighter (in a literal sense, with less heavy shadows) but still very sharp and expressive, and perfectly complementary with Epting’s work. The backup stories in #600 are by a variety of artists with wildly varying styles. Carmine Di Giandomenico takes on Johny’s time in the Negative zone with gritty, sometimes gruesome detail, in a lyrical storybook style reminiscent of some of Barry Windsor-Smith’s later work, such as on Machine Man. This highly stylized art might be take some adjustment if the main story suddenly shifted into it, but for the Negative Zone, it’s perfect.
There’s a short and sweet peek into the mind of Medusa in which we find out that in fact she’s not really cool with the idea of her husband having four new wives all of a sudden, but whaddaya gonna do? We also get a rare glimpse of how exactly Medusa interprets for Black Bolt when he can’t whisper a word without his voice shaking the world with devastating force. They meet on a mental plane together, where they can speak normally, candidly, and privately. And still he’s no less elliptical and no more forthcoming about what exactly he’s up to with this big bad destiny of his. This part is drawn by Ming Doyle, who does a stunning Medusa, even if her Black Bolt is a bit uneven, and the tone of her work suits this little vignette nicely. Another snippet shows an encounter between Reed, Sue and Galactus, where the cosmic planet-eater has them fetch a gadget that’s essentially a Galactus signal watch, to summon him when he’s needed. A pretty handy thing to have. He also refers to a “Galactus seed” that was introduced in Matt Fraction’s Thor last year, something that could grow a new, immature Galactus to replace him, something that he points out is a really bad idea. And again, he says that Reed and Sue should really pay more attention to their son—and when you need to be told that by a force of nature older than the Big Bang who usually doesn’t even notice individuals of any mortal race, you know you really need to pay better attention. Leinl Francis Yu draws a mean Galactus that really gives a sense of his cosmic majesty, even if his yen for crosshatching makes Reed look older than usual. Then there’s a little Franklin story with creepy cartoonish art by Farel Dalrymple in which we find out their reality-distorting child has been having secret adventures in a “baby universe” that he created. The Richards children are in dire need of supervision, if not for their sake for the sake of every living thing in existence.
I’ll be the first to say I didn’t really care much when Johnny died, because he’s my least favorite FFer and I knew he’d be back, even though I thought his send-off was pretty well done. But I am honestly a little touched by his return. Not only because he seems to have come into his own with this whole ruling-the-Negative-Zone thing, lending him some gravitas that the ever-flaky jerk was badly in need of, but it’s worth it just to see the effect his return has on everyone, especially bashful Ben Grimm, the ever-loving blue-eyed Thing. Dogpiled by giant Kree Sentry robots, the depressed Thing seems inclined to just give up, still blaming himself for his friend’s death. But when he sees that familiar big fiery “4” symbol in the sky, it’s a deeply inspiring moment. And that moment is, of course, clobbering time.
And of course Johnny comes equipped with his own armada to fight the Kree (and a hissing baby Annihilus on a leash). Convenient! Also, awesome. And Sue gets to demonstrate yet again, as she hasn’t had a chance to for a while, that she’s basically the most powerful member of the FF, no matter how many times Johnny “goes nova.” And whenever I see Reed actually stretching, which is of course his superpower, I’m reminded that Hickman hardly ever bothers to show him doing that.
So now we have the Avengers, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Inhumans, Annihilation Wave, and whoever else all fighting the Kree. Yeah, I know, not epic enough! Time to call in Galactus, which is about as overkill as you can get—or so you would think!
This is where it might be helpful to know what’s going on over in FF, but suffice it to say that whatever trouble the kids have been getting up to in the spinoff title, it’s the kind of trouble where you set mad Celestials from another universe free in our universe. And yeah, that’s Celestials as in the ever-aloof 2,000-foot-tall space gods who seeded mutated life on planets throughout the universe and periodically come back to judge the development of planets such as Earth. They’re imposing and seemingly unstoppable enough when they’re impassive. When they’re crazed and bent on destruction, well, that’s a problem. Even Galactus more than has his hands full with something like that. Heck, so would someone who could, say, control reality. If they knew anyone like that, that is.
I’ve mentioned before that for long stretches of time Franklin doesn’t seem to do much, that the Future Foundation seems to be devoted to developing child geniuses while non-genius Franklin has endless recess to play Cowboys and Indians with Leech. Well, let’s just say that Franklin gets his moment here, and it’s magnificent.
And all the stuff that time-traveling Nathaniel won’t talk about, that the grown-up Franklin and Valeria of the future were working with him to try to prevent—well, it all suddenly, amazingly, begins to make sense. And that’s saying something.
This is not the end of Hickman’s Fantastic Four, although that’s not far off. It is, however, the truly epic conclusion of the slow-building arc that he’s been working toward from the beginning, and as such it’s pretty amazing. There are still some answered questions and dangling threads, certainly—Sue’s still the ruler of a lost civilization of ancient Atlanteans who didn’t play a role in this chapter at all, and I still have no idea what all that stuff on Nu-World was about, unless it was just to draw Galactus into the action. And what all those Inhumans are up to is anyone’s guess. As for whatever happened to Doctor Doom and that other Reed, you’ll have to read FF for that. But so many threads tie up and combust in this mega-showdown that it’s dazzling. If it’s not all I hoped it would be, well, it’s pretty darned close.
Will Hickman revisit that other stuff he introduced before he moves on to other things, or will it just be left for later writers to resolve or ignore as they please? Heck, I dunno, but I’ll be interested to find out.