Vincent S. Moore Presents:
I started reading comics nearly or more than 32 years ago. I can’t pin down the exact date anymore due in part to the shifts in publication schedule and numbering of the book I’m about to review.
See, it all started for me when my eyes were captured by a typically outrageous Jack Kirby cover on Fantastic Four #176. It was the summer and, as usual for those days, I was in tow to my mother’s many shopping trips. Normally I had things along with me to keep myself busy but this day I was bereft of such items and toys, being in a large department store.
On the day I saw that crazy Kirby cover, a love was born. Two loves, really. A love of comics that has never faded. And a love with that first family of superhero comics, the Fantastic Four.
As a fan, I have been through various ups and downs, high periods of marvelous (pardon the pun) creativity and low periods of work that would put hacks to shame. All because I fell in love with those characters, with that family, and just had to keep up with their adventures no matter what.
I’ve written about that undying love that causes me, and many others like me, to stay in relationships with books that should have been put to bed a long time ago. I won’t cover the same ground again here, but I mention this first, greatest love of all my years of comics collecting and reading. That love for the Fantastic Four.
And how that love brought me to read the first story arc by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch, issues 554 through 557.
After reading these four comics, I could only think of two things.
One, oh how I wish I could quit the Fantastic Four. And two, that this too shall pass.
Issue 554 finds us readers staring straight at the new face of the FF, beginning with a new cover design. A design purposefully imitative of pop culture entertainment and gossip rags, which often serves to do nothing to promote the story contained within the pages as well as confusing the occasional reader, as I have witnessed during my part-time comics retail gig.
Issue 554 opens with Millar and Hitch, the creative minds behind Marvel’s The Ultimates, firmly impressing the FF with their own particular brand of comics storytelling with a bang. Oh, excuse me, I meant with a whimper. Millar and Hitch put their best bad foot forward in the opening pages with a cheesy Back To The Future part 3 rip off, I mean homage opening sequence. This kind of opening merely shows just how much Hollywood has come to mean for Marvel and for many of today’s creators as source material and inspiration. Too bad that this opening doesn’t bode well for a book with a long history of breaking ground. Millar and Hitch will not be breaking ground here. And I think that’s just how Marvel wants it.
Along that line of thought, I’m coming more and more to the conclusion that the current æsthetic at Marvel, while trying to imitate movies, really more of a comics as off Broadway play model. A place where the dialogue is delivered as matter-of-factly as possible, no matter how boring it reads on the page. Nearly every moment where the drama could be played up is underplayed, if not out right avoided. For example, in the opening of 554 when Franklin falls off of the time sled and Reed simply reaches out and grabs him without breaking a sweat or such a mishap slowing the FF down. Yet the gag where Ben is launched through walls of the Baxter Building after the crash landing of the time sled falls (there’s that punny side of me again) very flat. Not only was Ben not in any danger but he doesn’t show any concern that he could harm anyone else in the building. As if he falls through walls every day and it’s no big deal to him. Just terrible.
Going back to Millar’s obsession with and very unsubtle attempts at commentary upon America and the world’s own obsession with celebrities, too many story elements are devoted to this drive. Whether it is Johnny Storm’s being on a reality TV show, the moments of dialogue between bit players focusing on tabloid gossip (which I gather is also supposed to be foreshadowing of a subplot conflict that runs through the four issue arc but fails because the device is used as a hammer instead of a ), and even Susan Storm Richards referring to her brother as Paris Hilton, these things do not make the FF feel hip. It only serves to incredibly date this run, making what is meant to feel like a glimpse of tomorrow feel like a window upon a dull past.
Hitch and Neary’s art is cool as usual, if only still somewhat stiff from all the photo references The Ultimates required. Many of the panels look overposes and too controlled. The art is given plenty of room to breathe yet acts as if it has Emphysema. Moments of sights beyond one’s imagination, such as the first reveal of Nu-World towards the end of 554, hold no sense of wonder and fall just as flat as the dialogue.
The primary story of this arc--the revelation that the Earth is coming to end in a matter of years and of the project designed to save humanity--attempts to do what the FF does best: introduce the readers to something wild and crazy, larger than life yet full of the bittersweetness of life. Attempts and, in the main, fails to do what the FF does best. It fails because Millar and Hitch are too busy trying to do movies on the comics page, too enamored with celebreality and gossipy storytelling, and simply too overwhelmed by the concepts and characters they have to deal with to be able to pull it off.
Celebreality moments such as the introduction of Johnny’s new love interest, the new supervillainess Psionics. Psionics? Can’t either Millar or Hitch or their editor come up with a better, more creative name than this? By not caring enough to even be creative with the name of a minor character just makes her seem even more like the throwaway idea and ga that she ultimately is.
If there weren’t enough, the obvious plot devices abound and deus ex machina is never far around the corner, just in time to save the day. Such as Reed being a universe away when things at the Nu-World project go wrong. Or his being able to easily figure out that he was included in the safety protocols of the C(onserve) A(nd) P(rotect) robot that conveniently goes awry
. Even neat ideas such as the Anti-Galactus suit do not inspire or fire up the imagination. I understand that manga and anime are everywhere these days. I understand that Hitch, wanting to be hip, would want to mix some of that design sense into his work. But couldn’t that influence be mixed with some Kirbyesque designs as well? Also, Millar’s need to be as realistic as possible ruins the idea of an Anti-Galactus suit by feeling that it is important to mention how much it costs is such ways as to kill any kind of dramatic tension or release.
By the time the main story comes to an end, I was left with the impression that both Millar and Hitch were bored with the FF from the start and yet have at least twelve more issues to go in their contracted run. Because the story just ends. The subplots are left dangling. And life merely goes on.
The lack of wonder and drama is best exemplified by the closing epilogue in issue 557 where Reed takes Sue out to dinner for their anniversary. We end where we began, with Reed trying to do something special for Sue to celebrate their being together. Yet that quest is doomed from the start because Millar as writer doesn’t believe in it. And it shows. When Reed presents Sue with a ring containing a micro-galaxy--again, another really cool idea ultimately thrown away--she merely tells him “it’s beautiful” before she gives Reed the latest Bob Dylan CD. That’s it. No big emotional display. No sheepishness over giving such a meager and mundane gift in return. Nothing. Merely a simple comment. As if to say that Sue is bored by receiving yet another of Reed’s unusual gifts. Which declares just how bored Millar is with having to write both of these characters.
And that tells me that I need not to read any more of Millar and Hitch’s run and simply wait them out.
Those who love this style of comics are probably enjoying this run and that is their right. And I’m sure Marvel is quite happy with how its turning out in terms of sales. Millar and Hitch’s FF fits in quite nicely with the current Marvel æsthetic. Comics as big budget blockbuster mixed with little indy character movie. Just what the bosses want.
Too bad Millar and Hitch fail to do what comics do best. Fail to do what the Fantastic Four--whether it be under Lee and Kirby, Byrne, or Waid and Wieringo--has always done well. Namely, to mix the everyday with the magical, the cosmic with the homespun, the action drama and the soap opera with the vignette. And do it with style and panache.
Oh, well, again this too shall pass.
Before I go, let me offer my condolences to those folks who work at Aspen and to Michael Turner’s family for his passing.
Any death does indeed diminish the sea of humanity. And this death of someone who should have had many more years to live and to create diminishes us all the more.
However, he is free of pain and suffering now. And his work will continue to inspire many for years to come. For that, we should be thankful. I hope his family and friends will find some measure of comfort in that knowledge.
That Michael shared his gifts with us has been a blessing to us all. He shall be missed.
Copyright 2006- 2010 Marc Mason/Comics Waiting Room. All rights reserved