Dark Reign: Fantastic Four, Marvel Comics.
By Sam Hurwitt
Every Friday for the next couple of months I’ll be reviewing a collection of Jonathan Hickman’s assorted Fantastic Four series. Hickman’s three-year run as writer of the Fantastic Four comic and its spinoff series, FF, will be wrapping up this fall, but I didn’t know that when I decided to delve into the existing collections of his work on those titles.
Aside from live theater, which of course occupies a great deal of my time, I can’t afford to be up-to-date on most of my entertainment. Because I’m out at plays all the time, most TV shows I catch up with after they air, on Hulu or Netflix or wherever I can track them down. And with comic books I can’t afford to pick up single issues anymore. I wait for the trade collections to come out (some call them graphic novels, but I reserve that term for a book-length story, not just single issues that happen to be collected into a book), and in most cases I wait even longer than that, for the trades to hit my local library.
When I initially checked the collections out from the library, I thought at first that I didn’t like Hickman’s Fantastic Four. That was because my introduction to his work on the venerable series that Marvel Comics humbly calls “the world’s greatest comic magazine” was the second trade collection, which is remarkably unsatisfying. Collecting Fantastic Four #575-578, the book is made up of truncated half-adventures that go a little something like this: Hey look, some of the Mole Man’s army of Moloids stumbled into a heretofore unknown abandoned underground city that the High Evolutionary built, whereupon the nearly mindless servant race devolved (yes, devolved) into a more human-looking race of advanced intelligence! Anyway, gotta go! Hey, did you know that there are several lost races of Atlanteans that have been stuck in inaccessible waters for millennia? No? Well, anyway, they’re there. But now we’ve got to run off to outer space because guess what? There are four other races of Inhumans that we never heard about! The spacefaring Kree didn’t just experiment on humans, but also the Centaurians and the Badoon from the original Guardians of the Galaxy, the Kymellians from Power Pack and the Dire Wraiths from Rom: Spaceknight. Anyway, they’re out there and they want to take over Earth or something. No time for that, though, because Johnny just stumbled upon a new mega-war brewing in the Negative Zone! Every issue is a half-story that leaves our heroes in the middle of first contact, with just a text page at the end to explain who the hell these people are and kinda-sorta what the new status quo is with them, and at the beginning of the next issue the FF is on its way to the next adventure, with hardly a mention of what just happened.
In short, there’s no story in that particular collection whatsoever. It’s all world-building, piling on new races for us to get acquainted with and then, for the moment, doing nothing with them. Each of the ideas Hickman introduces in that sequence is really cool, but read through as a narrative, that collection is deeply unsatisfying. As it turns out, these things only really start to come together three collections later (and not even in Fantastic Four itself but in the spin-off FF), but when they do, it’s awesome. At the time of this writing, I still don’t know to what extent the story arc will in fact all come together—there are still a few more collections to go—but there’s certainly a sense that not all of this meandering around has been in vain. Some of it, maybe, but not all.
A lot of older fans, myself included, complain a lot of “decompression,” the trend in which the kind of full story that that would have been told in one issue back in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s now gets strung out over six issues or more, and very little actually happens in any given issue. People often call this “writing for the trade”—knowing that most people will read the story in the trade collection rather than single issues, writers don’t even try to make any one issue worth reading anymore. What surprised me about Hickman’s Fantastic Four is that he seems to treat the trade collections the way other writers treat single issues. He’s not writing for the trade; he’s writing for the omnibus. Picking up one of these four- or five-issue collections in isolation seems hardly worth doing (because really, that’s pretty slim in the first place), but my hope is that when they’re eventually collected into a thick 400-plus-page volume—man, that’ll be epic.
I originally read the first four collections checked out from the library—and not in any particular order, because no one library that I frequent had all of them, so I picked up one here, one there, and just patched them together in my head as I went. As I did so, I gained a little more appreciation for Hickman’s storytelling, but still a little more as a concept guy than as someone able to construct an arc. Even the supposedly big event of a FF member dying left me cold, because it’s not like that hasn’t happened before and it’s not like anyone really thinks it’ll last.
It wasn’t until I read the first trade collection of Hickman’s FF—not Fantastic Four now but just FF, reflecting a title, concept, lineup and costume change following the aforementioned death—that it really sunk in: “Holy shit, this is all coming together.” Finally! With new respect for the long arc Hickman was constructing, I decided to read his run all the way through from the beginning. Not all the way up to the as-yet-uncollected single issues, however, because if there’s one thing this experience has taught me, it’s that you really, really, really don’t want to read this series issue by issue anymore.
As far as I can tell, “the beginning” is not really his first volume of Fantastic Four starting with issue 570, but one of those mega-event-crossover miniseries that I usually ignore: the five-issue series Dark Reign: Fantastic Four. Marvel has had so many of these huge events back-to-back that I can’t keep them straight: Civil War, Secret Invasion, Chaos War, Siege, War of Kings, Shadowland, Fear Itself, Avengers vs. X-Men, and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few from the last few years, because like I say, I try to avoid them as much as possible.
Because I get them confused, at first I thought this volume had something to do with Fear Itself, because the Thing looks gruesomely distorted on Daniel Acuna’s cover, and I gather that he was transformed into some kind of god-monster in that crossover. But no, this is Dark Reign, which as far as I could tell was basically just “The Green Goblin takes over the government.”
DC Comics had made Lex Luthor President of the United States for a while, right around the time George W. Bush took office, so Marvel later followed suit by reviving the long-deceased Norman Osborn, emphasizing his industrialist business savvy and giving him political power, essentially making an old Spider-Man villain in a silly rubber mask into Marvel’s own Lex Luthor. It’s an awkward fit. When Osborn decides to invade Asgard itself in the Siege crossover event, the thought of the Green Goblin taking on the Norse gods is laughable, as serious a threat as Marvel struggles to make it.
Anyway, Dark Reign: Fantastic Four happily seems to have only the thinnest connection to what’s going on in the rest of the Marvel world. The Dark Reign connection is that Norman Osborn comes calling to throw his weight around at the Baxter Building, home to the FF, but everyone’s busy having time-tossed adventures, so at last Osborn has to face off against opponents worthy of his stature: the little kids, Franklin and Valeria Richards. This subplot comes off as a running gag more than a dire situation, but it’s a fun one, and Sean Chen’s art is particularly appealing in the parts with the kids.
In fact the whole miniseries is light and fluffy fun, as Reed Richards builds some kind of time-and-space portal, the Bridge, that he uses to examine alternate universes to see what he could have done differently and how things might have worked out.
Unbeknownst to him, this has a side effect of collapsing time in other parts of the Baxter Building, so while Reed is examining different scenarios that might have come out of Civil War and Secret Invasion if things had gone a little bit differently, the rest of the Fantastic Four is bouncing around from one time period to another, spawning and dragging with them different versions of themselves seemingly native to those environments: Effete Renaissance Thing, Pirate Johnny and Wild West Sheriff Sue on a WWII bomber! Heck yeah!
All that, of course, leaves little Franklin and Valeria as the only ones home when Norman Osborn and his goons come knocking.
It’s a delightful, self-contained story that doesn’t require any knowledge of the mega-crossover to appreciate (although some of the allusions to Civil War or Secret Invasion may be confusing to folks who haven’t kept up on the Marvel Universe enough to know generally what those were about). There’s an extra story at the end, by Hickman with painterly art by Adi Granov, that gives a peek into what’s going on in Doctor Doom’s head as he allies himself with Osborn to–dare I say it?–rule the world, but that’s just an amusing character piece that reminds you that Doom is not a very nice man. This book does foreshadow what Hickman will get up to later in the Fantastic Four series proper, however. The Bridge especially is what gets the ball rolling in the next volume, as well as Reed’s growing obsession with, well, solving everything.
Can Reed solve everything? The answer may surprise you! Either way, check back next week and we’ll find out.