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“World’s Greatest” — Mark Millar & Bryan Hitch’s Fantastic Four

After re-reading Jonathan Hickman’s run on The Fantastic Four, I decided to continue — moving back a step, actually — to re-read Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s 12-issue run on FF that immediately preceded Mr. Hickman’s taking over the series.  I didn’t follow Mr. Hickman’s run when it was originally published monthly, but I did buy all 12 issues of Millar/Hitch’s run when it came out.  I went into their run with high hopes — the two men had each worked on some of my favorite super-hero comics of the prior few years, and they had collaborated on the incredible first two series of “The Ultimates,” the Ultimate Universe re-boot of The Avengers that wound up proving so influential to the Marvel movie universe.  (It was in Millar/Hitch’s Ultimates that they began to use Samuel L. Jackson as the visual model for Nick Fury, which eventually became incredible reality when the real Samuel L. Jackson took on that role at the end of 2008’s Iron Man.)  But my recollection is that, in the end, I had wound up being very disappointed with Millar/Hitch’s run on FF.  I was eager to re-read their story to see what I thought of it, with a little distance.

Their twelve-issue run was divided into four four-issue story-lines:

World’s Greatest — FF #554-557 — This was a very strong beginning to Millar/Hitch’s run.  Their first issue, FF #554, was a bold statement of tone for their run.  Mr. Hitch’s jaw-dropping, incredible artwork took center stage, and Mr. Millar gave Mr. Hitch some incredible sequences to illustrate.  Mr. Hitch gave each of the FF characters his own individual stamp, making slight tweaks to everyone’s look.  I really liked his versions of the FF uniforms, adding some little touches here and there (some ribbing and seams on the costumes; finger-less gloves worn by Reed and Sue) to make their costumes look just a little more realistic and a little less like spandex leotards.  Mr. Millar also gave each of the FF characters a slight tweak of characterization.  His versions of the classic FF four-some are faithful to their history, but Mr. Millar is able to spin everything just a little bit in order to give the characters a unique feel under his authorship.  I was most taken by his version of Reed Richards.  Reed is sometimes depicted a a nerdy, awkward almost-recluse.  But Mr. Millar writes Reed as, basically, one of the coolest men in the Marvel Universe.  He’s got an incredible intellect, amazing tech, a gorgeous wife, and a self-confidence that makes him a leader of men without tipping over into being an arrogant jerk.  This is a great version of Reed.

In this first story-line, we meet a former flame of Reed’s, Alyssa Moy, whose new husband has, incredibly, been involved in a top-secret project to construct an entirely artificial duplicate Earth, which will be used as a shelter for the rich and famous should something happen to our Earth.  Of course, things have started going wrong on this nu-world, and so Alyssa ropes in Reed to help.  Meanwhile, Ben has found himself a new girlfriend, a lovely, normal teacher named Debbie.  Johnny, on the other hand, has started dating a small-time super-villain.  Sue, in the mean-time, has formed a second team with several other super-heroines, including the Wasp and the She-Hulk, to try to do more pro-active good in the world.

There’s a slightly cheeky humor to Mr. Millar’s writing, coupled with a larger-than-life imagination, that I always find to be very endearing, particularly so in these early FF stories.  I love all of the throw-away little details that Mr. Millar adds in to flesh out the incredible lives of this Fantastic foursome, whether it’s the end of their crazy vacation-through-time that we see at the start of FF #554, or the silly doombot servants that Reed has built for the Baxter Building.  Mr. Hitch, meanwhile, knocks every scene out of the park.  He takes a scene that could have been boring — Sue’s conversation-over-coffee with her fellow super-heroines — and makes it a visual marvel as he brings the incredible Baxter Building to life.  And then when he is called on to draw the FF’s battle against the seemingly-unstoppable robotic “protector” of nu-world, well… this is what super-hero comics are supposed to look like.  Just incredible.

Death of the Invisible Woman — FF #558-561 — The story gets darker and more intense in this second story-line.  The title, of course, both raises the stakes (promising the death of Sue Storm) while also causing long-time comic fans to likely roll their eyes in skepticism.  The best part of this story-line is the way in which Mr. Millar is able to both fulfill and subvert the promise of the title.  It’s clever.

At the start of the story, Dr. Doom appears in the Baxter Building, only to get his rear-end handed to him by a never-before-seen group of super-powered characters.  They trounce Ben and Reed as well, and Johnny and Doom wind up captured and hooked into an enormous machine powered by the corpse of a dead future-version of Galactus.  (This is the Galactus-corpse that also popped up in Mr. Hickman’s run, which caused me a little bit of confusion.)  What unfolds from there is an interesting time-travel yarn, highlighted by some really terrific super-hero fisticuffs.  This is probably the high-point of Millar/Hitch’s run, dark and intense.

FF #562-564 — Things slow down for a pace, as Millar/Hitch give us two single-issue stories and a two-parter.  These are smaller-scale, more character-focused adventures.  They’re fun, interesting stories in their own right, and a nice way to allow readers to catch their breath before heading into the big finale.  In FF #562, “Requiem,” we deal with the fall-out from the previous “Death of the Invisible Woman” story-line.  In FF #563, “Mr. & Mrs. Thing,” Ben and his new girlfriend Debbie get engaged, while the closing pages hint at the coming of a fearsome pair of new villains (who we see annihilating another dimension’s Fantastic Four, before destroying that alternate Earth).  In FF #564-565, the FF vacation with Reed’s cousin and his family in Scotland.  Of course, that idyllic Scottish town is hiding a terrible secret.

The Master of Doom — FF #566-569 — Millar/Hitch’s story comes to a conclusion with this final four-issue story-line.  We learn that Victor Von Doom had a master who taught him everything he knows about evil.  That master, the Marquis of Death, returns to Earth with a new apprentice.  Frustrated by Doom’s failure to defeat his enemies and take control of the planet, the Marquis burns Doom alive in his metal suit, nukes Latveria, deposits Doom’s body back in time at the Pliocene Age, and declares himself the new Doctor Doom.  The Marquis then travels to Earth where he easily defeats the FF, torturing them all and murdering the Thing’s beloved Aunt Petunia.  (The Thing’s many references to his Aunt Petunia has been a long-running joke in FF comics for decades, until J. Michael Straczynski, during his run, introduced us to the actual Petunia — who, it turns out, wasn’t an old lady at all, but a young woman who prefers to be called Penny.  Mr. Millar shows us JMS’ Penny… and then shows the Marquis’ brutally murdering her.  Yikes.)  Things look grim for our heroes and I was eager to see how, in the final issue, our heroes would be able to defeat this seemingly unbeatable enemy.

Sadly, that final issue, FF #569, is a failure of epic proportions.  It’s a total anti-climax.  The seemingly-unbeatable villain is defeated rather easily.  Dr. Doom is revealed to have survived his death in a ridiculous fashion.  A huge number of questions are left dangling (such as whether the Thing’s Aunt Petunia is still dead, or whether that action was undone when the time-and-multiverse-travelling supervillain was defeated).  The whole thing is a mess, probably caused by the fact that both Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch shockingly and inexplicably abandoned this series just before their story reached its conclusion.  The final two issues are actually scripted by another writer, and Bryan Hitch’s pages vanish half-way-through the second-to-last issue (FF #568) to be replaced by a hodge-podge of inferior artists.

Digging deeper, the identity of the Marquis of Death is revealed to be a Mark Millar-created character from another (not-that-widely-read) mini-series.  That mini-series, 1985, is brilliant and one of Mr. Millar’s best works.  But connecting this FF story to that mini-series not only serves to make this FF story surprisingly insular and small-scale at just the moment when I was hoping for a big, shocking revelation — the identity of the Marquis of Death — but it also cheapens 1985 by taking a complex character and turning him, here, into a big dumb villain.  The identity of the Marquis’ apprentice is equally disappointing, as we learn that somehow it is Victor Von Doom himself.  Doom tells us that “my hate kept me alive.  I spent millions of years mastering black arts I could not hitherto conceive.”  Um, ok.  So not only do we have to swallow that somehow the Marquis didn’t recognize von Doom when taking him on (for the second time) as his apprentice… but that somehow now Doom is millions of years old??  Come on.  Then there is the whole distraction of the first half of the final issue, in which for some reason the FF has been pitted against alternate universe versions of themselves, all trying to kill them.  Not only does this story have nothing really do do with the over-all FF versus the Marquis/Doom scenario that has been building (it feels like wasted pages in the final issue, pages that would have been far better spent giving more time to the final showdown with the Marquis, making his defeat seem less super-easy and super-out-of-left-field), but it makes zero sense, as why would all these alternate-universe FFs be so hell-bent on murdering our FF?  We’re told that they are upset that our FF won’t murder the Marquis, whose identity before he becomes a super-villain is known to them, making him (the pre-villainous Marquis) an easy target.  But are we to believe that while our FF is noble and unwilling to murder an innocent before he does anything wrong, every single alternate universe FF are cold-blooded killers who would gleefully kill this man without a second thought… and wage war on our FF to get them to do so, rather than, say, all banding together to take on the ACTUAL super-villain??  Weak in the extreme.

Blech.  It’s a huge let-down and ultimately it cripples what had been, until these final two issues, a really terrific Fantastic Four story.  I can’t fathom why Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch didn’t stay to finish the story they had begun.  I can’t help but think that if they had, the ending would have been stronger.  Likely some of the weaknesses would have remained (I assume the basic ideas about the identity of the Marquis and his apprentice were Mr. Millar’s) but surely Millar & Hitch would have better executed the ending than the mess we got.  It’s a real bummer.

Oh well, they can’t all be winners!  I’ve really been enjoying this time re-reading the past few years of FF continuity.  Perhaps I will dip further back into FF history to re-read some other great runs?  It’s a tempting notion…!  If I do, I’ll certainly tell you all about it.

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