Saturday, September 5, 2009

Fantastic Four #554-569

The end of July saw the ending of the Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's run on Marvel's "Fantastic Four". The creative team celebrated for changing the face of superhero comics with "Ultimates" has spent a lot of time preparing for their run on Marvel's first superheroes. This resulted in a run that went on for a year and a half, without any major delays that plagued Millar and Hitch's previous work. Still, for some reason, their latest effort hasn't resonated with neither the critics nor the audience.

"Fantastic Four" is Marvel's first Silver Age title, that in turn gave birth to their larger superhero universe. Moreover, this means that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's initial run on the book has to this day remained creatively unequalled, not only setting the mark for the later creators to try and achieve, but usually also rendering it as little more than an homage to the first 102 issues. The basic concept of a group of science explorers who are also a family has proven to be a superhero classic, but also seems highly resistant to change. In the recent memory, seemingly only Mark Waid's run on these Silver Age icons has managed to stand out and remind readers of the potential for new stories starring the Fantastic Four.

Going into the book, writer Mark Millar has extensively researched all the other stories starring the characters, determined to update the franchise for a new generation. Likewise, penciller Bryan Hitch lent his skills in not only modernising their costumes, but also designing whole swaths of new characters he co-created. By all accounts, their resulting run is a professional effort, devoted to channelling all of their energy into telling the best "Fantastic Four" story they could.

Starting out with the covers, the creators have decided to dress the book in the style of general interest magazines. This provides the readers with a first glimpse of the creators' mission statement, to render the title into an soap-opera meets the superheroes approach, that is made very clear in the first issue. The creators aimed not only to establish the broader style of their work, but spend a fair amount of the issue setting up "World's greatest", the first story-arc, and in turn, all of the run. In effect, it's a very plot-based approach that still manages to make the first half of the assignment an above-average superhero comic. The problem was that Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch are arguably the most successful creators working in American superhero comics during the last decade, which naturally raises the expectations when it comes to their work.

The way they envision the Fantastic Four, at least initially, centers around Reed Richards, who is presented as both a leader and a truly wondrous science-fiction figure right from the start. Similar to Mark Waid and many writers in recent years, Mark Millar finds Mister Fantastic the most interesting member of the quartet, and in turn disposing with the absent minded professor characterisation that Stan Lee favored, to concentrate on making the character feel new and exciting. The initial storyline is tailor-built to serve as a vehicle for selling Reed as an inspired super genius, a veteran superhero, and it succeeds in that aspect. By bringing in Alyssa Moy, the character's former flame, Millar manages to ground the science fiction concepts in a realistic situation, that forces conflict both on the inside and the outside.

On the other hand, the elaborate set-up boils down to a very one-dimensional threat, that still manages to cut a swathe through most of Marvel's major heroes, before even confronting the team. Interestingly, a couple of lesser known superhero names keep showing up in the crowd scenes, that of Doc Samson and Gravity, who guest-starred in the Dwayne McDuffies' previous run on "Fantastic Four". More importantly, the man-made other-dimensional threat recalls Alan Moore's run on "Captain Britain", with robotic Fury decimating ranks of superheroes. If it's not clear by the end of "World's greatest", the second storyline leaves no doubt that alternate universes are as much the part of the creator's mission statement as the family dynamics at the heart of the title. Clearly, even without dealing with obscure bits of continuity, the run is meant to be read by long-time Marvel reads, and presupposes a familiarity with the characters and their usual modus operandi.

Of course, Millar's ambition is matched at every turn by Bryan Hitch's meticulous art-style. Again working in the "wide screen" format of his "Ultimates" days, the penciller employs a somewhat more open style, that seemingly devotes more attention to setting up the scope of the scene than the characters involved. As such, most of the establishing shots are textbook examples of either detailed research on the part of the artist, or a testament of his skills in design. Unexpectedly, it's the characters themselves that Hitch shows problems with, and despite his detailed approach, somehow ends up depicting insincerely. A lot of times, they look on their faces clashes somewhat awkwardly with Millar's dialogue, leading to some uninspired conversations. Leaving aside strange mistakes in proportion that crop up time and again, the other major factor that seemingly goes against Hitch's interest is in the Fantastic Four's body types. The template he uses for the lithe figures of Reed, Johny and Sue is somehow both skinny and fragile, reminding that his art looks much more powerful when depicting stockier characters, like Captain America. Still, when taking into account the busy and elaborate set-ups that Hitch was given to illustrate, it's difficult to imagine any other penciller matching the slick, highly energetic look he has given the book.

By the same principle, the creative team's second storyline, "the Death of the Invisible Woman", nominally resolves around Susan Storm. She has always been a somewhat under defined character, and unfortunately, Millar and Hitch don't have such a firm idea of what exactly defines the Invisible Woman. In the first issue of their run, they have her set up a charity for victims of the superhuman attacks, leading to both the Wasp and She-Hulk appearing throughout the run. Still, this aspect of the character never comes to the forefront of the plot, and by the end of their take on "Fantastic Four", it's almost like the creators have given up on it.

It's not even that she's defined by her children, as both Franklin and Val keep playing minor roles in the series. She comes off best as being formidable in the fight, but there is very little other development with the character. It's telling then, that even in the storyline with her name in the title, the creative team manage to make Reed Richards overshadow her. This is because "the Death of the Inivisible Woman" mostly serves to build upon the first arc, dealing with the new characters, before tying back to Millar's big idea for the first half of the run.

Since the start of their take on the title, the Marvel's first family was given to making new friends all of a sudden. In Reed's case, this development came as the most spontaneous, building upon the relationship with a previously introduced character, but the rest of the cast are forced to make sense of three other female characters, all at the same time. Sue is the first to put to test the role of her new babysitter, and ending up with a startling surprise.

Her brother is in for a shock himself, as he finds out the truth about his racy new girlfriend. Once again, this is an aspect of the plot that has been developed since the beginning of Millar and Hitch's tenure, that gets completely resolved at the end of this second storyline. The family-oriented approach meets superheroes is truly put to a test here, as Millar consistently portrays Johny as shallow as he was in his brief scenes in the writer's "Civil war" event. The resultant innuendos most certainly lead to a pencil corrections in #556, but moreover betray an unclear status of the book. Showing Johny's promiscuity while dealing with sleeping with a girlfriend who is also a super-villain certainly clashes with the idea of "Fantastic Four" as an all-ages title.

In any event, despite giving mixed signals to the audience they are working for, the creators present Sue's brother with a defined status quo right from the beginning of their run. And, just like with her superhero trust, the idea of giving him a second career as a rock star and the subject of the reality show gets slowly forgotten about by the end of the run. At least, in Johny's case, this could be explained as part and parcel of his irresponsible behavior, that plagues his menager, who is constantly trying to get force a schedule on the superhero. Interestingly, Mark Waid's attempt on giving Johny some responsibility by giving him a corporate job was also dismissed with as the plots started becoming grander.

As for the story behind the second story arc, it is strangely familiar to that of a Fantastic Four special. The similarly titled "a Death in the family" was little more than a fill-in the company promoted as a separate one shot, but it deals with a very similar time-travel paradox that informs Millar's narrative. Still, the creators' ambitions regarding the arc were much higher, as they positioned it to be no less than an introduction to the new super team, along with a complete alternate universe, that ties in their first arc and resolves all of the questions left hanging behind. At five issues, Millar and Hitch saw fit to complicate matters even more by feature the return of Doctor Doom, setting the seeds for the other half of their run.

Featuring a return of another very famous Fantastic Four character, the arc also feels the most like a typical storyline featuring the characters. The creators deliberately evoke the classical characters to contrast them with their own additions to the mythos, both in terms of super humans and distinctive locales. Thankfully, both authors are so skilled that they manage to turn out a fast-paced story, but it still witnesses the glaring problems with their approach.

The New Defenders featured in the arc are original characters only at first glance, with most of their appeal being in the reader figuring out the mystery behind the Hooded man. Once their alternate reality status is established, it's quickly made clear what ties them to the existing Marvel properties. Hitch's designs are of little use while coupled with the characterisation that can only be described as broad. Perhaps if Millar kept building upon the one member introduced in "World's greatest", the character would've ended up being better of. Because, by introducing the rest of the group in a very crowded and complicated science fiction scenario doesn't help them stand out. This goes hand in hand with "the Old man Logan" parallel Millar works in regarding his work on "Wolverine" with Steve McNiven, that is so slight as to be both inconsequential and unnecessary.

As with the Hooded Man's eventual identity, the appearance of Doctor Doom and the other classic Fantastic Four villain is foreshadowed in the previous issues. In fact, the latter threat is dealt of in an off-putting manner that, while happening to an alternate reality version of the character, should have at least reverberated with the titular heroes. By tying in their new creations with the existing Marvel Universe lore in such a way, Millar and Hitch do themselves a disservice. By now, a long-time reader is well-versed with disregarding most of the parallel universe elements, especially when presented in a way bordering on inconsequential, especially when compared to the innovation Lee and Kirby brought to the title. The original "Fantastic Four" was a proactive team of explorers, whose adventures spanned the space and time, in the meanwhile introducing whole portions of the original Marvel universe. In retrospect, Millar and Hitch's work, with it's heavy focus on alternate realities, and the reactionary aspects of the characters, feels much more derivative.

In the context of a "Fantastic Four" series, this has not been a problem for a long time, as the creative teams have felt comfortable with not changing the basic set-up. It is highly relevant when applied to trying to spin the new characters in a new ongoing series, as Marvel has tried with "the Fantastic Force". The fans acted so indifferent to the New Defenders that the project was first downsized to a five issue mini, and then further shortened to it's current four chapters. Thus, the publication of Joe Aherne written and Steve Kurth pencilled mini-series seems as part of the same editorial decision that developed the Millar and Hitch run, beforehand, sold on the promise of the repeat of "the Ultimates" stellar performance.

The next issue is a standalone, bringing into focus the Thing, and his new relationship, that has until then remained in the background. Once the most popular member of the team, the character has since been somewhat sidelined, with Mark Waid going so far as to give him the role of the team's most stable member. Millar and Hitch bring back Ben's traditional hotheadedness, recasting him back into the comic relief role, by going so far as to alter his dialogue to sound even more rough.

They proceed to introduce him to Debbie, a school teacher living in Brooklyn that unfortunately fails to develop beyond the stereotype. She is the Thing's normal girlfriend with a possessive fiancee, and the series is all the more weaker for rushing out their relationship. Perhaps with the added focus, the space given to developing Sue's superhero foundation and Johny's music career, Ben and Debbie might have established more of a chemistry of their own. This way, she is not given enough of a chance to develop a charm and personality of her own, as Millar keeps up with the plot-heavy approach, even during the quiet scenes.

Worse still is Johny's reaction, as from this point forwards, the character ceases with a constant frat boy mentality, no doubt once again thanks to the ominous tidings slowly beginning to prey the family, as depicted in the issues' final pages. Thus, the constant horseplay between the Human Torch and the Thing is entirely missing from the series that is trying it's best on convincing the reader of the seriousness of Ben's relationship.

By this time, Hitch's art has gotten looser, with no less than three inkers working on finishing an issue. Even with all the lead time before commencing the project, the design-heavy and extremely detailed art has changed into a more familiar look of a standard superhero comic. Yet, the next two issues spelt the return of the heavily embellished style that has characterised his work in the past. Perhaps he had started the work on these issues before the one published preceding them, but the story of the Fantastic Four's vacation still feels like something the creators really wanted to tell.

The story is a gorgeous two-parter, taking place in Millar's Scotland homeland, which will surely remain as a part of the run that will stand out as symbolizing it's creators among the bulk of the "Fantastic Four" tales preceding it. In terms of the plot, it's an usual aside, playing out as a Lovecraftian horror story. Yet, by putting the Richards children in the spotlight, it brings into focus the treatment Millar and Hitch have devised for them.

Franklin is once again depicted as an ordinary child, with very little space devoted to him, and no other development. Valerie, on the other hand, is advanced into becoming more capable of being a part of her family's adventures, which is in keeping with the previous teases of her special nature. This reverses the 90s dynamic of Franklin as a mutant who not only played a crucial role in the "Heroes reborn" event, but is destined to become the superhero Psi-Lord.

The story ends with another tease for the final Millar and Hitch storyline, this time promising grave reprecautions by setting the vignette several months into the future. After hinting about the resolution of the Doctor Doom conflict, and the fate of Ben and Debbie's relationship, the stage is set for the end of the run's second half, working to bring together all of the somewhat scattered plots into one storyline.

This would be "the Master of Doom", a four-parter beginning with a bizarre crime involving an iconic Marvel character, followed up by Doom's release from the prison. No doubt hoping for a classic, Marvel decided not to interfere with the creative team's run, thereby allowing it to exist in it's own continuity bubble, unencumbered by the events taking place in the company's other books. Thus, the main "Fantastic Four" book ignored both "the Secret invasion" crossover and it's "Dark reign" follow-up, with the company hiring other creative teams to produce the relevant tie-in mini-series, starring the characters.

On the other hand, when writer Brian Bendis decided on extensively using Doctor Doom, the editorial decided to provide an in-story explanation. Still, Marvel would have been better off by not using the captions to delineate the chronology, as the story is already very clear on the character's whereabouts. It only serves to potentially confuse the reader with mentions to the specific "Mighty Avengers" and "the Dark Avengers" issues.

In any case, continuing the family parallel the creative team strived for, Doctor Doom ends up as somewhat of a rival to Reed, akin to an evil twin. By now, with each creative team wanting to use him extensively, he's become almost a regular supporting character.

When the man who taught Doctor Doom finally appears with his new apprentice, it is as a reality hopping despot. After months of hinting his power, the reader is treated with an ill-defined caricature, who proceeds to spend as much time fighting Doctor Doom, as he does tackling with the Fantastic Four. In between, Millar and Hitch present an unexpected vision of the future, using a similar technique to that of Paul Cornell on "Captain Britain and the MI13". This time around, the effect is much duller, as it's obvious that the changes shown will never take effect.

Millar tries to make Marquis of death more unique, by revealing the connection to his and Tommy Lee Edwards "1985" mini-series. Unfortunately, the character ultimately still ends up playing a typical evil wizard role. Similarly, the identity of his apprentice feels contrived, despite tying in with the already forgotten over the top scene the storyline begins with. Bryan Hitch on the other hand defines provides the characters with fitting costumes, Doom's teacher literally seeming like an embodiment of death, while his apprentice's very design betrays a clue to his identity.

Its seems that for all of the creators' hard work, Marquis of Death will end up being remembered as little more than an alternate reality Doom analogue. Interestingly, the way he is eventually defeated ties him even closer to Victor, almost certanly rendering him as a footnote in the classic villain's biography. In effect, the franchise has proven so resistant to change that it's ironic that the time proven adversary ends up literally absorbing the new character.

On the technical side of things, by the end of their run, neither Milalr nor Hitch manage to devote more time out of their busy schedules to provide a finish for their work. Thus, "the Fantastic Force"'s Joe aherne completes the script for the last two issues, with Hitch leaving all of the work in the last issue to Stuart ("New Avengers") Immonen, after working with no less than four inkers and sharing the workload on the previous issue with Neil Edwards. They do an adequate job, working in their peers' styles, but still provide the reader with an unexpected finale.

Most of the last issue is spent on having Fantastic Four fight their alternate reality analogues, which seems illogical, considering the power levels involved. Perhaps a more convincing, and visually diverse, sequence could have been achieved had the team been attacked by an array of their previous temporary members, which ranged from She-Hulk to Luke Cage.

The run finishes on a more down to Earth scene, as the Thing's relationship with Debbie Green reaches it's culmination. Unfortunately, none of the other subplots regarding his teammates get any kind of resolution, with the threat of Marquis of death being such a large factor in the series' second year, but Ben Grimm ends up providing some very needed emotional closure to the greater arc. The Millar and Hitch run would have definitely turned out more accomplished if they spent more of the time on scenes like those, considering they started with just such a promise.

Unfortunately, due to the relatively short time they worked on the title, and the very plot-heavy approach involved with their take on Fantastic Four's adventures, the real family elements ended up as little more than window dressing. Perhaps it's possible that in the end neither Mark Millar nor Brian Hitch are the creators best suited to work with these characters. The writer himself has had previous experience of transforming the Fantastic Four for new audience with their "Ultimate" incarnation, which ended up with a run that was nowhere near as lauded as his work on the modern version of "the Avengers".

As for Hitch, it's clear that he spent countless hours realizing all the elements of their vision, but somehow the work just doesn't call as much of attention to itself, as it does on "Ultimates". The artist provides a much clearer example of the editorial's decision, as he was just coming off the more modern take on Marvel's properties. Considering his profile, it was certainly much discussed on which of the company's regular books he should continue to contribute, and "Fantastic Four" must have seemed like a novel idea. The problem is that the Marvel's mainstays are all decades old, severely limiting creative development after being revamped so many times, by some of the most accomplished writers and artists in American comics.

Having the Great Britain creative team on Stan Lee's first major superhero ongoing series was actually not the company's first decision. The original plan was to have Millar reconstruct the X-Men for a thrice weekly format, similar to the current version of "the Amazing Spider-Man", with Hitch possibly being one of the many artists to collaborate on the company's best-selling franchise. It's difficult to predict the results, especially considering the writer's preference for shorter runs on an established title, but as it stands, it's hard to predict when the creators will be reunited again.

Millar is already working on the new version of Ultimates with Carlos Pacheco in "Ultimate Comics Avengers", and Bryan Hitch art can be seen in "Captain America: Reborn", the project that he left the final issues of their "the Fantastic Four" to concentrate on. It's a unfortunate then that the comics industry is so focused on the new project, as there are surely many lessons to be had in the example of the pair's run on the title.

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