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“Solve Everything” — Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four Epic Part I

I’ve been a huge fan of the Fantastic Four since I was a little kid.  One of the first comic books I ever read was John Byrne’s FF # 277, published in 1985.  I read it in a doctor’s office, and since I wasn’t finished reading the issue by the time I was called in, my mom — in an extraordinarily rare example of my mom breaking a rule — allowed me to swipe the comic and take it home.  The comic blew my mind.  Each page of the issue was divided in half, with one story running through the issue on the top of each page, and a separate story running through the issue on the bottom.  Both stories were crazy.  In the top-of-the-page story, Ben Grimm returns to Earth to find Johnny Storm  shacked up with his girlfriend.  This personal crisis is happening in the shadow of some sort of apocalyptic alien invasion that threatens to destroy the planet, with all sorts of craziness erupting all over New York City.  Meanwhile, on the bottom half of each page, we see that Reed and Sue have apparently died, and are in hell being tortured by the devil (or at least Marvel Comics’ version of the devil, Mephisto).  I’d never read anything like this before.  The story was incredibly mature and sophisticated, and I was hooked.  I read that issue over and over again for years.

But at the time I was too young to buy comics or even to really understand that I could nudge my parents into buying them for me.  So it was several years before I started reading comics regularly.  When that started to happen, Fantastic Four was one of the first comics that I ever followed monthly.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, I started reading about a year after the end of John Byrne’s lengthy run (which I have come to consider the greatest run on FF since Stan and Jack’s original 106 issues).  In that first issue I read (issue #307, published in 1987), Reed and Sue had left the team to raise their son, Franklin, and Ben and Johnny were left to form a new FF.  I was hugely taken by the series right away, and I continued to read the series every month for years and years.  I followed FF right up until the series was cancelled and rebooted by Jim Lee & co. under the “Heroes Reborn” banner in the nineties.  I read Heroes Reborn, but my enthusiasm for the FF had dimmed by several years of weaker stories, and though Heroes Reborn started out with great promise, I ultimately found it to be a huge disappointment.

After Heroes Reborn, I stopped following the Fantastic Four monthly, but I would regularly dip in and out of the series whenever it seemed that there was a writer or artist on the book who was doing something interesting.  I read and enjoyed some of Mark Waid’s run on the series, and a little of J. Michael Straczynski’s work.  I bought every issue of Mark Millar & Bryan Hitch’s twelve issue run (FF #554-569), but what started out amazing really fizzled  by the end, so once that story was finished I dropped the title again.

But then I soon I started hearing about how great writer Jonathan Hickman’s run on the book was.  I was curious, but for one reason or another I never gave it a try.  I think that by the time I was convinced, by hearing so many great things about Mr. Hickman’s run, that I was interested, Mr. Hickman’s complex story was so far underway that I figured I’d wait until his run was completed, and then read the whole story at once.

I finally got around to picking up several trade paperback collections of Mr. Hickman’s Fantastic Four epic a few weeks ago. In a series of posts over the next few weeks, I will take you through my thoughts on his saga!

Volume 1 — Solve Everything — FF # 570-574 — Mr. Hickman is a writer known for Big Ideas, and his FF story kicks off with some wonderfully original, inspired notions, most notably Reed Richard’s decision that he needs to set his mind to the task of solving everything.  This leads Reed to discovering “The Council of Reeds,” an assemblage of Reed Richards from countless parallel universes who have joined together to solve all the problems of the multiverse.  I absolutely love that idea — it’s just the type of big, cosmic, crazy notion that a great FF story needs.  There’s fun to be had from watching this Council of Reeds do battle with Celestials (classic Marvel Universe characters, the Celestials are enormous aliens with extraordinary, almost god-like powers) and also in seeing Reed wrestle with the personal dilemma of his discovery that, in devoting their lives to the greater good and their work with the Council, all of these Reed Richards have given up their families.

The first three issues in this collection are pretty much perfect.  Things get a little rocky with issue #4 (FF #573), in which Mr. Hickman picks up a thread left by Mark Millar’s run, as Ben and Johnny visit nu-world, the artificial alternate Earth created by Reed’s former flame and her multi-billionaire new husband (it’s a long story!).  I wasn’t expecting to see Mr. Hickman dive so deeply into story-lines from the previous run — I had expected his run to entirely stand on its own.  On the one hand, it’s great to see a writer not ignore the stories that came before.  On the other, it had been a few years since I’d read Mark Millar’s run, and I found myself very confused by what the heck was going on.  I didn’t exactly remember all the characters and situations from the nu-world story, and Mr. Hickman doesn’t really explain anything for the uninitiated.  (After finishing reading Mr. Hickman’s story, I went back and re-read Mark Millar’s issues, and then I understood Mr. Hickman’s story a lot better… though I also was a little put-off by some huge differences in the characterizations.)

The fifth and final issue in this first collection (FF #574) was much stronger, a nice character story focusing on Reed and Sue’s two young kids, Franklin and Valeria.  We also get some intriguing hints as to the future of Mr. Hickman’s story-lines, as a character from the future invades the Baxter Building and we are given tantalizing references to the upcoming War of Four Cities and the prophecy that “all hope lies in Doom.”

At first blush, when these issues were originally published, I remember not being that impressed by Dale Eaglesham’s artwork.  It seemed too retro to me.  But reading these issues now, I really enjoyed his work.  Yes, there is a retro feel to his illustrations.  The costume designs seem to harken back to earlier, more innocent incarnations of the FF (there’s something kind of sweet about the short sleeves on their uniforms), and his bold line-work and the solidity of his figures (he draws Reed Richards looking like a TANK, not the nerdy, skinny guy he is usually depicted as being) reminds me of the FF as inked by Joe Sinnott, from days of yore.  He also gives all of the technology associated with the FF and Reed an appealingly Jack Kirby look.  Mr. Eaglesham’s greatest strength seems to be his ability to capture all of the bizarre locations and situations that Mr. Hickman’s story throws at him.  I was a little bummed that the fourth and fifth issues in this collection featured work by a different artist.  This other artist’s work was adequate but not as interesting as that of Mr. Eaglesham’s, and only three issues into the run seems way too early for a fill-in artist to suit me.

Over-all I was very taken by this first volume, and excited to see where this story will go.  My main area of concern at this point was the episodic nature of these early adventures.  The first three-issue story didn’t seem to connect much to issue #4, which didn’t seem to connect much to issue #5.  Ben and Johnny discover that terrible things are afoot on nu-world in issue #4 (FF #573), so why wasn’t Reed leading the whole team back there in the next issue?  Issue #1 (FF #570) raises the intriguing notion that super-villain the Wizard has a son, whom Reed and Sue sort of adopt after sending the Wizard back to jail.  That’s a fascinating story, and I expected this boy to be a huge focus of the upcoming issues, but instead he’s hardly referenced at all.  (I can’t even recall his name, that’s how little focus the character is given.)  I assumed that these story-lines and situations would play a more major role later on in Mr. Hickman’s story, and indeed that does turn out to be the case.  But it gave these early issues a somewhat choppy, disjointed feel.

Still, I’m excited and ready to get deeper into this story.  I’ll be back soon with more thoughts on this Fantastic Four saga!

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