The World’s Most Inconsistent Comic Magazine: Graeme on Fantastic Four Over The Last Decade

October 23, 2014

SPOILERS: I am way late in posting this (Even more spoilers: This isn’t even the post I left unfinished yesterday, because that one just wouldn’t come back to life at all), so I’m stick it all under the cut and telling you to scroll down and read Jeff’s far more entertaining comic reviews. Can he turn against Tony Daniel? The answer may surprise you! Seriously, scroll down and read. Then, when you come back, why you shouldn’t read a lot of Fantastic Four at once.

When did Ben Grimm stop being Ben Grimm?

One of the (many) problems I had with Matt Fraction’s Fantastic Four was that Ben Grimm just didn’t sound right. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise — for all Fraction’s strengths, capturing a distinctive voice that’s been established by others isn’t something that he does well; at best, he can approximate something close to it, but his own voice comes through in all his characters, to an extent — but it was something that stuck out for me and soured me on the book at an early stage, before everything just came off the rails the way it did.

But in re-reading Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo’s Fantastic Four recently, I found myself wondering: when did Grimm actually stop sounding like himself? And, for that matter, when did all of the FF start reading just a little bit… off? As “late” as Waid/Wieringo, the team’s dynamics and characters are pretty much the same as had been established in the Lee/Kirby days (if a little regressed past the somewhat dubious developments of the Tom DeFalco/Paul Ryan run, which doesn’t bother me too much), so when did that change…?

Thanks to the wonders of Marvel Unlimited, it’s surprisingly easy to check. In quick succession, I found myself reading the opening arcs of all the creative teams on the series that followed Waid, and the answer — unsurprisingly! — is, it’s all J. Michael Straczynski’s fault. Well, and Mark Millar’s. Like you didn’t see that coming.

It’s impressive, in some terrifying manner, the way in which JMS’ writing overwhelms the traditional FF feel almost immediately. For me, there’s a traditional tone for the series — something that’s as much soap opera and comedy to high adventure — and it’s something that JMS just… misses, somehow. All the ingredients are there, and you can sense that he’s trying, but it doesn’t quite come together. It’s hard to put my finger on entirely why — the pace, in part, feels too slow and none of the characters “sound” right in terms of dialogue or even motivation — but from the very first issue, JMS’ Fantastic Four felt like someone’s idea of the series having only vaguely remembered reading issues decades earlier.

Following JMS, of course, there was the Dwayne McDuffie era, and almost immediately everyone snaps back to form; even picking up the pieces from JMS mid-run, the characters sound consistent and “like” themselves in a way that JMS never quite managed. The tone of the series feels right for the first time since Waid, as well, a nice final reprieve before things get… well, awkward.

There’s something very strange about the way that the Mark Millar/Bryan Hitch run of Fantastic Four echoes the Fraction/Bagley run. Both featured fan-favorite creators who, arguably(?) failed to bring over their fanbases to the series, both featured the writer disappearing before the end of their story, with fill-ins having to come in and essentially fill-in-the-blanks in what should’ve been the most important part of the whole thing (The two runs also featured one long story that was meant to come together in the end, and… well, pretty much failed to), and, perhaps most importantly, both runs were pretty much crushed under the history of the series to that point.

It’s clear that both Fraction and Millar were aware of at least the “big” runs on FF before them, and also of what was expected of them not only in terms of recapturing “that old magic,” but also trying to softly reboot the franchise for today’s audiences. And yet, both runs fail in those aims because they can’t balance the history and the need for something “new,” instead producing something that’s at once familiar enough to feel as if we’ve seen it before, but lacking the exact details necessary to produce nostalgia. I’m not sure whether it’s the Creative Legacy of Lee & Kirby™ or simply creative flop sweat, but both of these runs fail in such similar ways that it’s oddly compelling.

All of this brings us to Jonathan Hickman’s time on the title — or titles, considering he successfully managed to build the franchise to two titles for the first time since the 1990s, with the addition of the Morrison-esque-in-title-at-least FF. (It’s worth remembering that the franchise had been two titles for more than a decade prior to Fantastic Force, of course; Marvel Two-in-One and the subsequent The Thing series made sure of that.)

I remain entirely conflicted on Hickman’s Fantastic Four. It’s bold and ambitious in a way that other writers just hadn’t been on the series in decades; it actually makes changes to the larger Marvel Universe, via the Inhumans storyline, and we hadn’t seen that since… Byrne’s run, perhaps? It also emphasized the family aspect of the series and franchise without returning to overly-familiar tropes, which I appreciated. Also, it was a hit, which feels important. Maybe not a massive hit, beyond the “Johnny dies” issues, but still — people were engaged with the book in a way that they just aren’t, normally. That has to count for something.

And yet, I can’t love the run. I can admire it, and I do, but no matter how many times I return to it, there’s too little heart for me to connect with. It’s not that Hickman can’t write emotionally — there’s a gorgeous Willie Lumpkin issue very late in the run that I adore — but that he chooses not to for so much of it, operating on a larger scale and I just can’t plug into it as a result. There’s a loss of the… human side of the FF that I feel is essential, if that makes sense.

I’m way behind on the current run of the series; I’m only on #3, I think, or whatever the most recent issue that appeared on Marvel Unlimited actually is. In terms of whether or not it’s the Fantastic Four I recognize I’m… uncertain…? It’s certainly closer than anyone since McDuffie, but there’s still James Robinson’s tendency to put emphasis on words seemingly at random which drives me insane and throws me off reading rhythm.

Perhaps the Fantastic Four as I know them in my head are just gone. That might even be a good thing; certainly, the series needs retooled in some way to work for Marvel these days, so the rumored/pretty-much-confirmed cancellation is likely a good thing for all involved; let it rest for a bit, let someone come up with an idea worth resurrecting the book, and let the audience miss having it around. It worked for Thor, and that series hadn’t been good since before the days of Thunderstrike.

Me, I’m going to keep going re-reading the Waid/Wieringo run, and then I’m going to take a side trip over to the Marvel Adventures line, where Jeff Parker and Paul Tobin and a bunch of other writers put out some great FF stuff while no-one was looking.


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2 comments on “The World’s Most Inconsistent Comic Magazine: Graeme on Fantastic Four Over The Last Decade

  1. no mention of Simonson’s ’90s run on Fantastic Four? Still my all-time favorite

  2. To me Jonathan Hickman’s run was a masterpiece. What it lacks in heart it makes up for in the cerebral.

    For me that’s probably the best the FF will ever get. And that goes for Hickman’s Avengers books too.