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“Forever” — Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four Epic Part III

I have been having a blast reading Jonathan Hickman’s recent run on the Fantastic Four.  Click here for my thoughts on the beginning of Mr. Hickman’s run, and click here for part II of my reading of his saga.

Following the death of the Human Torch in Fantastic Four # 587, the series was re-launched with a new number one, now titled just FF.  FF of course was an acronym not only for Fantastic Four, but also for the Future Foundation (a creation of Mr. Hickman’s), the organization of brilliant young-people started by Reed Richards.  With a new name, a new series, new all-white costumes for the heroes (designs which I quite like — this is one of the bolder re-imaginings of the classic FF costumes that I can recall), and a new member of the team (Spider-Man, replacing the Human Torch), this was a big turning point for the characters and the story-line.  FF #1 felt like the series had become what Mr. Hickman had been driving towards all along.  It was almost as if the entire first year-plus of his run on the title had all been about putting the pieces in place to create this re-imagining of the FF.

One note to the fine folks at Marvel putting together these trade paperbacks.  You guys need to include some sort of guide, in these editions, indicating the order in which this story is supposed to be read!  Mr. Hickman’s run is collected in six Fantastic Four collections, numbered volume 1 through volume 6.  Except that after volume 4, you’re NOT supposed to move on to volume 5!  At that point you’re supposed to read the first twelve issues of FF, in the collections labeled FF volume 1 and FF volume 2.  That was not at all obvious to me at first!  After finishing Fantastic Four volume 4 I moved right on to volume 5.  A few pages in I realized something was wrong, and only then did I remember that the title of the comic had changed from Fantastic Four to FF mid-way through Mr. Hickman’s run.  Things only get more complicated later, when after FF #11 the regular Fantastic Four series returned, with Fantastic Four #600.  BUT the FF series continued, with the two series (Fantastic Four and FF) telling connected stories for the final year of Mr. Hickman’s run.  I had a real devil of a time figuring out what order to read the collections in at that point!  Sheesh!  But I digress…

FF Volume 1 — Tomorrow — FF #1-5 – Valeria’s secret deal with Doom is revealed — she and her father will help restore Doom’s mind, and in return, Doom will help her… defeat Reed Richards?  Huh?  For mysterious purposes, Valeria assembles a cadre of super-villains in the Baxter Building, plotting to defeat Reed.  It’s a great hook, and the reason for Valeria’s machinations is cleverly revealed as connecting back to the very beginning of Mr. Hickman’s run.  It seems that three Reeds from the Council of Reeds have escaped into the FF’s universe, and are up to some naughty things.  They plan to destroy the planet, for what they see as the greater good — manipulating events from the Battle of Four Cities to create a dreadful weapon that will destroy the Celestials who are pursuing them, but at the cost of the lives of everyone on Earth.  Meanwhile, Reed’s father Nathaniel has returned to the present day, Ben and Alicia talk (I was pleased that their reunion in FF # 584 wasn’t ignored), Reed reveals a huge secret to Sue, everyone struggles to move on after Johnny’s death, and the Inhumans return to Earth (following all of their interstellar adventures in the War of Kings series.)  This fast-paced, complicated yarn is a delight.  As I noted above, this feels like the version of the FF Mr. Hickman has had in mind all along.  With gorgeous art by Steve Epting in the first three issues, this book makes the jump into the pantheon of classic Fantastic Four runs.  Great stuff, and a real kicking-it-up-several-notches of the intensity of the story-line.

FF Volume 2 — The Supremor SeedFF # 6-11 — This collection begins with an unexpected two-issue digression, beautifully illustrated by Greg Tocchini, in which we learn the secrets of the Kree’s millennia-old breeding program (that created the Inhumans on Earth), as well as what happened to Black Bolt following his apparent death at the end of the War of Kings (in which the Inhumans took control of the Kree empire and battled the Shi’ar).  Then the story returns to the present-day on Earth, and the craziness kicks into high gear.  War breaks out in the Forever City of the High Evolutionary, with various forces fighting for dominance: Black Bolt and the Inhumans, the three evil Reeds & the armies of the Mole Man, Dr. Doom and the super-villains, and the Fantastic Four.  This is epic stuff, and again, Steve Epting feels like the man born to illustrate this sort of large-scale super-hero craziness.  His work here is magnificent.  Things quiet down a bit in the second half of this collection, but we’re still following multiple story-lines that all feel like they’re building to something just around the corner.  The Kree re-enter the picture, and two of the Reeds meet a horrible, horrible death at the hands of Ronan the Accuser.  (This is one of the most haunting beats in Mr. Hickman’s entire story-line.)  I love Ronan (such a classic character) being included in this story, and I am pleased by how well Mr. Hickman has picked up the story-line of Ronan’s marriage to the Inhuman Crystal from the recent Inhumans mini-series.  I also love the way Mr. Hickman handled the return of Supremor, the evil, brilliant ruler of the Kree empire.  It’s nice to see Ben Grimm return to the fold in these stories, and I like the logic of Ben’s bringing with him all of the Avengers to aid Reed in what is turning into a cosmic-scale threat to the planet.  I’m also fascinated at this point to see where the goings-on with Doom, Kristoff, Nathaniel Richards, and the last surviving evil Reed in Latveria are heading.  On to the next volume!

Fantastic Four volume 5 — ForeverFantastic Four #600-604 — After FF #11, the series returned to being called Fantastic Four, and they picked up the numbering with issue #600.  (FF #1-11 counted as Fantastic Four #589-599).  However, just to keep things confusing, as I noted in the introduction, the FF series continued on, being published monthly along-side the Fantastic Four series.  FF turned its focus to Franklin and Valeria Richards, and the other young members of Reed’s Future Foundation.  The stories in FF ran concurrently with those in Fantastic Four.  Really, these collections should have contained the Fantastic Four and FF issues together, alternating one after another, as that’s clearly the way these stories are intended to be read.  For reasons I cannot understand, though, Marvel has collected these series separately.  I therefore chose to read the “main” Fantastic Four collection and then the corresponding FF collection.  These five issues, Fantastic Four #600-604, serve as a climax to Mr. Hickman’s entire story, and what a climax it is.  The Kree Empire, led by the resurrected Supremor, launch a full-scale assault on Earth, attempting to destroy the fruit of their millennia-ago genetic manipulation project — Black Bolt and the Inhumans — before the Inhumans can destroy them.  The forces of Annihilus on Earth attempt to break open the portal to the Negative Zone, located in the Baxter Building, to allow the Annihilation Wave to pour forth into Earth.  Johnny Storm returns, revealed to have become a warlord in the Negative Zone, with Annihilus’ forces now at his command.  Johnny leads the Annihilation Wave against the Kree, while the Avengers try to protect Earth from the devastating fallout of the massive battle happening in Earth orbit.  But events quickly grow even more cosmic than that, as three angry Celestials arrive, omnipotent star-gods ready to destroy Earth in order to rid the universe of the last of the Reeds.  Galactus appears fighting, astonishingly, to protect the Earth, but in the end it looks like the fate of the world rests in the hands of Franklin Richards.

This is an absolutely magnificent collection, a wonderful pay-off to over two years of Mr. Hickman’s story-telling on the series.  This is the type of epic-scaled, cosmic action that I want to see in an FF story.  The Galactus-versus-Celestials fight is phenomenal.  But what makes this volume great is that this story has very personal stakes, and it’s filled with powerful emotional payoffs.  The moment of Johnny’s return is great, but it’s the full-page splash a few pages later, when his flaming “four” once again fills the skies over New York City, and our characters’ joyful reaction to that sight, that sells the moment.  I like seeing Johnny get to be a confident hero, rather than a selfish, bumbling kid, and this “Warlord of the Negative Zone” version of Johnny is a great version of the character.  I love the way the Reeds’ plan, and the Battle of the Four Cities, comes into full reveal and plays such a critical part in the end of the story.  It’s cool to finally see the shape of the story seeds that Mr. Hickman planted in his very first few issues on the title.  I also love the roles of future Franklin & Valeria in the story’s ending.  FF writers have, for years and years now, found ways to ignore or otherwise not have to deal with the long-ago-established hints that Franklin Richards had the potential to be among the most powerful individuals in the Marvel Universe.  I love seeing Mr. Hickman address that story-point head on, and the role of Franklin in the story’s climax is perfect.  In particular, that moment when Galactus opens his cupped hands — perfection.

I love Mr. Hickman’s depiction of time-travel.  Since Nathaniel, Franklin, and Valeria all come from the future, one could ask why there would be any threat or danger in these stories, since they know what’s going to happen?  But that’s the beauty of Mr. Hickman’s story — those three characters DO know what’s going to happen, and they have been trying and trying to change that.  In Mr. Hickman’s story, there are “constants” in time that they cannot change — the trick is for these characters to find the minor things that they can change, small things that will hopefully combine to make a larger change.  It’s a complicated scenario, but I think it all unfolds beautifully here in these issues.

The closing montage in issue #604’s final pages is excellent, a nice check-in with all of our characters here at the end of the tale.  (It’s a very TV-series finale way of closing out the story.)  And the closing epilogue, which brilliantly circles back to the scene from Reed’s childhood that opened Mr. Hickman’s first issue, is marvelous.

The end of Forever could have been the finale of Mr. Hickman’s Fantastic Four saga.  However, there was still a little more story left to tell.  I’ll be back soon with my look at the final volumes of Mr. Hickman’s FF epic.

The issues reviewed in this post can be found in the following collections: FF volume 1: Tomorrow; FF volume 2: The Supremor Seed; and Fantastic Four volume 5: Forever.

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