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Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four Epic Part II

Writer Jonathan Hickman recently wrapped up a very well-received run on the Fantastic Four, which I am reading in collected editions.  Click here for my thoughts on the beginning of Mr. Hickman’s run.

Volume 2 — Prime Elements — FF #575-578 — This story collects four stand-alone issues, each of which focus on a different city, clearly picking up onthe mysterious reference to a coming War of Four Cities in volume one (specifically, FF #574).  In FF #575, the Mole Man returns and, in classic Mole Man fashion, smashes into the Baxter Building with his weird, huge, subterranean beasts, only to ask the FF for help against another adversary: in this case, the High Evolutionary.  Seems that machines left over in an abandoned former base of the High Evolutionary are having a mutating effect on some of the Mole Man’s moloids (the creatures that serve him).  There are some extraordinary images in this issue, wonderfully illustrated by Dale Eaglesham.  The full-page image of the Mole Man after he emerges in the Baxter Building, bowing down before the FF while standing on the tongue of a huge creature, is worthy of being made into a poster.  And the full-page spread of the corpse of Galactus from the future is also a stunning, haunting image.  (Though also one that caused me some confusion.  That corpse plays a big part in volume 3’s story.  I assumed, when reading this originally, that this was the corpse of the huge Galactus that we saw the Council of Reeds fighting in another universe, in volume 1.  But I later figured out that in fact this is the Galactus from the future that we saw in Mark Millar’s run, that the super-team from the future used to power their time-machine.  That wasn’t at all clear to me at first, and since we saw an alternate-universe Galactus right at the beginning of Mr. Hickman’s run, I think it was a reasonable assumption that it was THAT Galactus whose corpse we were seeing here.)

In FF #576, the team discovers a lost city of Atlantis.  This kingdom is different from the under-water realm ruled by Namor, the Sub-Mariner, and has apparently been hidden for countless years.  In FF #577, an enormous alien city-spaceship lands on the moon, in response to a summoning by Black Bolt, king of the Inhumans.  We, along with the FF, learn that the Inhumans (who have been recurring FF characters since Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s original run) are but one group of a larger circle of Inhumans, all genetically altered by the alien Kree millennia ago.  Finally, in FF #578, we see our fourth and final new city.  Johnny Storm stumbles into the middle of a war in the Negative Zone between Annihilus and Blastaar, learning that Reed’s Negative Zone prison (a story-point from Marvel’s “Civil War” crossover series from several years prior) has been expanded into a city by Blastaar’s forces.

I love how Mr. Hickman has woven lots of classic, wonderfully weird and bizarre FF characters into his story.  It’s great seeing the Mole Man, The High Evolutionary, The Inhumans, Annihilus, Blastaar, and lots of other characters and concepts from the Fantastic Four’s vast history.  And I am intrigued by the sense that we’re still at the very beginning of a much larger story, that Mr. Hickman is just beginning to put his pieces on the board, and that soon this story is going to explode into a far more epic saga.  The downside is that the stories in volume 2 only exacerbate a complaint I had about volume 1, in that these adventures feel very episodic.  Each story cries out for follow-up that doesn’t seem to come (at least, not yet).  For example, at the end of the first issue in this collection (FF #576), a huge city rises from below the Earth to the surface, and it emits some sort of radiation or power that will mutate anyone who comes within range.  What the heck are the FF doing about it?  They just leave the city right there?  Another example: at the end of the third issue (FF #577), the newly returned Inhuman races reveal ominous plans for planet Earth to the FF.  Again, I ask what the heck the FF plan to do about that?  The next issue starts with the FF back home on Earth, in the Baxter Building, as if nothing had happened, which feels really weird to me.

Volume 3 — The Future Foundation — FF # 579-582 — Some of these story-threads begin to come together in this third volume, though we’re still clearly in the early-going of Mr. Hickman’s over-all story.  Just by being a comic-book fan during the years these issues were originally published, I knew that one of the major developments during Mr. I Hickman’s run was Reed Richard’s establishment of the Future Foundation (a clever play on the “FF” initials), so it was fun to see the early stages of that here, as Reed gathers a variety of super-intelligent children (including his own daughter, Valeria) and a few other misfits (like the android Dragon Man, another classic FF character) to work together to “solve everything.”  The future version of Franklin Richards, glimpsed in volume 1, re-enters the story, as does a future version of Val, along with their grandfather — Reed’s father — Nathaniel Richards.  I loved seeing the connections to the depiction of Nathaniel Richards in Mr. Hickman’s wonderfully brilliant (albeit still sadly unfinished) S.H.I.E.L.D. mini-series.  In presenting multiple different versions of Nathaniel, drawn from different parallel universes, I thought it was a great touch seeing a visual reference to the depiction of Nathaniel who figured so prominently towards the end of Tom DeFalco and Paul Ryan’s long run on the FF from the nineties.

There’s a lot of fun, time-traveling weirdness in this volume, and it’s always great to get a peek into Reed, Ben, and Victor Von Doom’s college days.  I didn’t really buy the set-up of the different versions of Nathaniel being forced by Immortus to hunt one another down, though.  Surely all of the assembled Nathaniels, from across the multiverse, could have together overcome Immortus?  And I didn’t really understand what exactly future Franklin and Val were trying to do at the end.  I assume we will see more of them in future volumes, and I hope that will bring some clarity to this story.  (I was intrigued to hear Franklin refer to a “revision wave,” which seemed to be the ripple effects of the changes they had made to the time-stream — I wonder if that was a purposeful homage to the similar ideas in Alan Moore’s run on Image Comics’ series Supreme.)

Volume 4 — Three — FF #583-588 — There will be some spoilers in my discussion of this volume, so readers beware.  Steve Epting becomes the book’s regular pencilled with FF #583, and his phenomenal work feels like a perfect fit for Mr. Hickman’s epic story.  Mr. Epting’s work reached a new level of excellence during his collaboration with Ed Brubaker several years ago, during their “Winter Soldier” arc (which will apparently be the basis for the upcoming Captain America sequel film).  I think Mr. Epting has become one of the finest super-hero comic-book artists working today.  Here is an artist who can truly draw anything.  His character work is amazing, and I love his depictions all each of the FF characters.  Adn I find myself stunned, page after page, by his gorgeous depictions of all the strange locales in which Mr. Hickman’s sprawling story is set — from the steel canyons of New York City, to Dr. Doom’s Latverian palace, to the underwater realms of Atlantis, to Galactus’ solar-system-sized city-ship home.  I was sorry to realize that Dale Eaglesham only penciled five issues of Mr. Hickman’s run (I was under the impression he had drawn a much larg chunk of the story), but I couldn’t be happier with Mr. Epting as the series’s new regular illustrator.

Volume four is when I feel Mr. Hickman’s story kicks into high gear, and starts to get into the big, cosmic places hinted at in his first three issues.  There is a heck of a lot going down in this volume, and I enjoyed the way Mr. Hickman presented multiple stories simultaneously, depicting action on several fronts.  As the story opens, the FF is dealing with problems in the High Evolutionary’s city (from volume 2, and it was nice to see some follow-up on that story-thread).  Val sneaks off to Latveria to make a deal with Dr. doom.  (I LOVED the scenes between Val and Dr. doom.).   The Silver Surfer discovers the buried corpse of future-Galactus, leading the real Galactus to investigate, eventually bringing our heroes back to nu-world.  Susan tries to broker a peace between the ancient Atlanteans (also from volume 2) and Namor.  Ben and Johnny try to combat the evil Annihilus and his Annihilation Wave in the Negative Zone, leading to the death of a major character.

I really loved this volume.  I loved how exciting and complex it was, with multiple stories moving forward simultaneously, and some wonderful character beats for all the main characters.  I loved that Susan Storm got a nice, meaty story-line (she often gets short-shrift, I feel), facing down the strong-willed Namor and the newly-returned ancient Atlanteans.  I loved Mr. Hickman’s characterization of Namor, by the way — absolutely spot-on, both in terms of the way he treats Susan, and in the final violent action that he takes.  I loved Ben Grimm’s one day as a human.  As I mentioned above I loved how effectively Mr. Hickman is able to balance bringing in a lot of great new characetrs and situations of his own creations, with also making use of lots of great characters from throughout the FF’s long history.  In this volume, we see Kristoff (a great creation from John Byrne’s run), Alicia Masters, Galactus’ world-ship TAA II, the Yancy Street Gang, the Silver Surfer, and we even get a reference to the long-ago story-point of Reed’s having put blocks on Franklin’s burgeoning super-powers.

There were a few weak points.  I was confused by the back-story of what caused the brain damage that Dr. Doom appears to be suffering from.  I’m not sure whether this is something that Mr. Hickman means to be mysterious, or whether this is supposed to be a reference to some other story that I missed.  (It certainly doesn’t seem to pick up where Doom was left at the end of Mark Millar’s run.  Though one of the problems with Mr. Millar’s run is its confusing ending — I’m not really sure what the heck happened to Doom at the end of Mr. Millar’s story!!)  I’m also (as I mentioned in my review of volume 1) not completely sold by Mr. Hickman’s handling of nu-world and it’s characters (created by Mr. Millar during his run).  It’s nice to see Mr. Hickman dealing with those characters and not ingnoring him, but everyone seems out of character compared to how Mr. Millar wrote them.  But the volume’s biggest flaw, for me, was the — SPOILER ALERT — death of an FF member at the end.

Of course I am not convinced that the death of one of the four founding FF members would be permanent.  I wasn’t born yesterday.  But I can suspend my disbelief if the death is handled well, and leads to interesting stories.  I don’t know yet how well Johnny Storm’s demise will lead to the next part of Mr. Hickman’s FF saga.  But I found Johnny’s death to be very underwhelming.  Yes, when we last see Johnny, he’s fighting, alone, against a seemingly overwhelming number of enemies.  But neither we, the reader, nor Ben Grimm actually see Johnny die — the Negative Zone portal shuts while Johnny is still fighting.  I am mystified as to why Ben assumes that Johnny has died, rather than quickly gathering reinforcements and charging back into the Negative Zone to be sure.  Even if we saw Johnny’s dismembered corpse, I still wouldn’t believe he was really dead forever… but not even seeing a body just causes me to roll my eyes knowing that not too far down the line we’ll find out what really happened, and how he survived.  So this was a very weak ending to an otherwise strong volume.

I am eager to see where this story goes from here.  I’ll be back soon to share my thoughts on the next volumes!

The volumes discussed in this post are: Volume 2: Prime Elements, Volume 3: The Future Foundation, and Volume 4: Three.

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