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

14 September 2013

FF, v. 1: Fantastic Faux

Collects: FF v. 2 #4-8 (2013)

Released: July 2013 (Marvel)

Format: 112 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785166634

What is this?: Four heroes with ties to the Fantastic Four fill in as guardians for the Future Foundation kids while the famous quartet is away.

The culprits: Writer Matt Fraction and artist Mike Allred (with help from Joe Quinones)

A book written by Matt Fraction and drawn by Mike Allred should be fun. I mean, I’m not the only one making that assumption, right? Fraction’s ideas and Allred’s expressive and cartoony art should combine into something that should put a smile on my face. And for the most part, that’s true of FF, v. 1: Fantastic Faux, but there’s darkness lurking in the background that I wasn’t prepared for.

On the surface, FF is a comedy book. The Fantastic Four has left Earth to go exploring, and they have left a team of second-string heroes (She-Hulk, Medusa, Ant Man II, and Ms. Thing) to look over the wacky cast of kids that the Fantastic Four’s Future Foundation is educating. I mean, the student body includes Moloids, fish people, and Artie and Leech. How could that not lead to craziness?

FF, v. 1: Fantastic Faux coverFraction uses his cast to great effect, and #4 — the first issue in this collection — is an almost perfect issue. She-Hulk has dinner with her ex-boyfriend, Wyatt Wingfoot, while the Moloids who have a crush on her enlist the help of fellow student Bentley-23 to ruin their date. Bentley’s plots, however, have the opposite effect, and the night out turns into an enchanted evening for the couple. The issue is funny, heartfelt, and touching, accented by Allred’s simple yet effective art. I don’t usually associate “heartfelt” or “touching” with Fraction, but he pulls it off here.

Fraction maintains the humor throughout, letting all the characters get into the absurdity of multi-purposed HERBIES, an erudite Dragon Man teaching, Darla using “Thing rings” to turn into Ms. Thing, and postman Willie Lumpkin teaching the kids about the birds and bees. As “absurdity” is a specialty of Allred’s, his art is outstanding, of course. Whatever Fraction gives him to draw, Allred doesn’t flinch at, whether it’s Ms. Thing in weird headgear or the FF kids attacking Bentley and Medusa’s son with Home Alone traps. Allred also gets to draw fish creatures, Inhumans, and monsters from the deep, and he excels at all of them. He doesn’t draw the entire volume, but Joe Quinones does a great job filling in on #6, drawing in a very Allred style.

Fraction is obviously having fun with the title, even beyond the whimsical elements of the story and cast. The issue titles are ludicrous — “That Was the Worst Field Trip Ever!” and “Spooky Kids or, Merrily into the Eight Arms of Durga the Invincible We All Go” — or inexplicable (there is no Durga in #5, and I can’t figure out why #6 is titled “Save the Tiger,” as it has no relationship to either real tigers or the ‘70s Jack Lemmon movie). Fraction shows a predilection for continuity that I also didn’t know he had; he resurrects the Thing suit that Ben Grimm used when he lost his powers in the ‘70s, the Thing rings from the 1979 Thing animated series, and a variety of headgear from the series.

But throughout Fantastic Faux, Fraction is weaving some dark threads among the Moloids discovering gender and HERBIEs dressed up as Dr. Doom. Mind control is a standard superhero plot device, but there’s something more sinister about an old abuser returning to a former victim, as happens in this volume. Scott still has trouble dealing with the death of his daughter, Cassie, and being in charge of a whole school of children only exacerbates a dangerous situation for him. Dr. Doom is more vicious, eschewing grand plans and going for the gut to get what he wants. John Storm, returned from the future, is suffering from PTSD and has lost an eye. The grimmer elements sit uneasily next to the comedic bits … or maybe Fraction’s more serious plot developments should make me feel uneasy; violence, death, and sinister plots shouldn’t be comfortable, perhaps, despite what a half-century of Marvel Comics have taught us. I can’t be sure.

Allred is one of my favorite artists, and I hate to complain. But … at some points in the story, neither the art nor words explain what is going on. Fraction has never been a writer who overexplained matters, and that’s certainly true in Fantastic Faux. Some of the information either isn’t important or can be gleaned from the text, like why the Fantastic Four started teaching these kids in the first place or what exactly Bentley-23 does to make Blastaar disappear. Some information, like who Darla Deering is, could have been communicated to the reader with a better introductory page, and that’s not Fraction’s fault. And being behind in Marvel continuity, I was just mystified by things like Black Bolt’s return from the dead and the Inhumans’ return from space.94 That being said, the first volume of a series should explain things more fully, not leave readers wondering if they missed a previous volume.95 A footnote or two would go a long way, for Odin’s sake.

And it’s not like a general audience is going to recognize this cast. She-Hulk, probably; Medusa, likely. But Scott Lang, the second Ant-Man, maaayyyyybe, although I’m not sure the words “Ant-Man” was ever used in the book, and he never gets near an ant. But no one knows who Darla Deering is, and the Thing costume she wears is an obscure bit of continuity. Among the students, some people will remember Leech and Artie, but that’s it. Aiming a book at established Marvel audiences limits your readership.

Some would say Fraction respects his audience’s intelligence, but there’s a limit to how much I need to be respected. Fraction’s unanswered questions make it hard to gauge what he intends in other parts of the book. The villainy of Fraction’s Doom does not seem to match previous depictions of the despot; in this book, his villainy is ignoble, resorting to stratagems a man of honor (as Doom frequently claims to be) would never use. But I don’t know whether Fraction intends this to be a different aspect of Doom’s character, an evolution for the Fantastic Four’s old foe, or whether this is a clue that Doom isn’t Doom.

Despite feeling like I entered the story in the middle, I enjoyed Fantastic Faux. Sometimes I had to fight to enjoy it, but the fight was worth it. Given how many loose ends the story had, though, I’m concerned about continuing with FF, since Fraction has announced he’s leaving with #11. Will the stories pay off? Will FF retain its sense of lunacy? Neither question affects Fantastic Faux’s grade, but it does affect whether I would recommend anyone start reading the series.

Rating: Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol (4 of 5)

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