Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

21 January 2011

Fantastic Four: The New Fantastic Four

Collects: Fantastic Four #544-50 (2007)

Released: May 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 168 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785124832

What is this?: Reed and Sue take off for a honeymoon, so Storm and the Black Panther fill in for a couple of adventures.

The culprits: Writer Dwayne McDuffie and artist Paul Pelletier

In the comments for my review of Justice League of America, v. 3: The Injustice League, I mentioned that I would be reading more of writer Dwayne McDuffie’s work, specifically his Fantastic Four run. (Of course, I said I would be getting to it in a month or two, but it has been more like a year or two; maybe I was speaking in code like Spock and Kirk in Wrath of Khan?) Still, in fulfillment of that promise, we have Fantastic Four: The New Fantastic Four.

McDuffie is a long-time comic book veteran. I remember his work for Marvel in the late ‘80s / early ‘90s, and his work on DC’s Milestone imprint is well-regarded. Despite being one of the guiding forces of the animated Justice League / Justice League Unlimited series, I doubted he would get a chance to write a big comic book title. I was pleased to see I was wrong — and wrong pretty spectacularly, actually, since he wrote A-list titles for both Marvel and DC.

Fantastic Four: The New Fantastic Four coverI want to start out with the good things about the writing in New Fantastic Four. Bringing new characters onto the team is an excellent idea, especially if it’s only for a half year of issues or so, and Black Panther has been so closely tied with the team over the years that he makes a natural candidate. I adore McDuffie’s humor in this one: nice character interactions and self-deprecating humor about themselves and about the conventions of the genre. That’s just one sentence in the review, but it should weight a lot more in the evaluation: enjoyable humor goes a long way to smooth over whatever rough spots are in the plotting. And I especially like the use of the Frightful Four as opponents in the issues bridging the two halves of New Fantastic Four; the Wizard’s plan this time was uninspired, but a more grounded set of opponents (albeit in an exotic locale) was exactly what the plot needed between the two cosmic adventures.

The first half of the book was a sequel to McDuffie’s miniseries Beyond. I liked some parts of Beyond, but I didn’t think it needed a follow-up. Gravity is a fun new character, yes, and resurrecting him is a fine idea. But bringing the former Deathlok on the mission to retrieve Gravity was unnecessary — he doesn’t do much, if anything. And using Gravity in the second arc of the book made it seem as if McDuffie was apologizing for killing the character in the first place; when the heroes need someone wielding an elemental force, he’s the first guy the heroes think about? Really? And invoking the presence of the Watcher to make us believe the story was more important than it was is laughable, especially when the story later makes a joke about how everyone except Deathlok has been to the Watcher’s home, and a herd of Watchers show up in issue #549.

The Watchers, more than anything, serve as the epitome of why I feel ambivalence toward New Fantastic Four. On one hand, the book goes for the big stories, the ones with the traditional Fantastic Four cast of supporting characters in them: Galactus, his heralds (the Silver Surfer twice), the Watcher (twice, plus the aforementioned herd), the end of all life. And on the other hand, it does this with a repetition that distracts from the danger involved. McDuffie seems to be really hammering some ideas home — hammering them so hard, in fact, that they are driven about a foot into the plot. Gravity is important, as he briefly becomes Protector of the Universe, holds off Galactus, and helps Dr. Strange perform psychic surgery on Eternity. The Watchers make things important. The Black Panther has an intellect as great as Reed Richards and can defeat Galactus, the Silver Surfer, and Stardust (another herald) … essentially at the same time. Black Panther threatens the Watcher with the Ultimate Nullifier to get information instead of asking … because the Ultimate Nullifier shows up in important comics? (I don’t know.) Black Panther and Storm are in love (no one’s going to be able to convince me of that). Reed and Sue can be really scary — so scary they frighten their teammates, who feel as if they might do something uncharacteristic, even though they’ve known each other for more than a decade.

By using these big events, McDuffie looks like he’s trying to prove something — that he can write the big events, that Black Panther is an A-list character, that Fantastic Four should be about the cosmic challenges. I don’t know if that’s true, and I don’t need to be convinced of the first two. But the success of the issues with the Frightful Four shows that none of that is absolutely true, anyway; McDuffie and the Fantastic Four do well with grounded stories, and the Black Panther, although still pretty badass, can be humbled in battle. More importantly, Gravity and the Watcher doesn’t have to be involved. (By the way, does anyone know how the Trapster escaped the Wizard’s time loop from #519?)

I was worried about the art, looking at the cover by Michael Turner (look at Sue’s waist and how her torso is bent; that has to be painful), but I should have remembered Paul Pelletier’s work is wonderful. It’s attractive, it’s expressive, it’s kinetic, and it tells the story. Really, it’s everything you could want in comic book art without adding on the stylistic flair of, say, J.H. Williams III. Again, this is short praise — Pelletier’s work really does make New Fantastic Four so much better.

I want to like New Fantastic Four, and there are many moments I did like, as I read it. But taken overall, it’s hard to enjoy the repetition and the constant demand for the story to be considered important. If you don’t take it seriously, I think you can really enjoy New Fantastic Four; if you do, however, it may grate.

Rating: Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol (3 of 5)

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