Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Chronic Review: Fantastic Four # 587! [no spoilers]

Fantastic Four # 587
Marvel Comics
Script:     Jonathan Hickman
Pencils:   Steve Epting
28 (by my count) pages

This will almost certainly go down as my favorite comic of 2011.  I say that in January, because it already resonates as one of the finest comics I've read, period.

I won't reveal the identity of this issue's casualty.  In that way I've got more respect for the contents of the book than Marvel has, which is sad, and a situation I'll touch upon later.  But only briefly, and only because I must.  I'm not going to stick my head in the sand and pretend that the House of Ideas didn't fail here as a media machine.

I won't reveal any specific plot points all.  What I will do is observe that we're now 18 issues into Hickman's run, it's reached a crescendo with the end of "Three", and I think we can now look at Hickman's body of work on Fantastic Four and start to truly appreciate what an elegant and intricate work of art is is.

Please understand, though, that this isn't a work of art you hang in the Louvre and leave for the posh.  The true power of Fantastic Four is that it instills a sense of child-like awe and joy.  I'm a 38 year old nerd, utterly jaded and completely anesthetized to the tricks of the trade.  Fantastic Four reminds me why I started reading these damn things in the first place - to find stories and characters bigger than myself.  Not to teach me how small I am, but to teach me how wonderful the bigger world and the people in it can be.

I sometimes get that feeling when I read Morrison's Batman stories.  I have felt that reading Planetary.  It's a rare gift to be cherished and appreciated, regardless of how the business might spoil the delivery.  Hickman himself notes the hype issues in this IGN interview, even before Marvel spoiled it's own "surprise" with emails and careless media leaks:

"IGN Comics: Do you think that the mass media blitz for something like this is a blessing or a curse, from purely a storytelling perspective?

Jonathan Hickman:
Purely from a storytelling perspective, it is a detriment; there's no question about that. I don't want people knowing the ending of the book. I don't even want people to know that it's coming. The idea that people could have read the entirety of "Three" just thinking that it's a classic hero's journey and they're all going to get back together at the end as a happy family and then this happens; we lost something powerful there. But I'm a professional writer. I want people to read my book. [laughs] It doesn't really matter how great it is if no one reads it. If we sell so many more copies of this issue, there's no way I can consider it a loss. It's just not. It's a win across the board. Hopefully, if I do my job correctly, people will just buy more of my books in general. We have lots of surprises in the future."

It's difficult to imagine how Marvel could have sabotaged this worse.  It's one thing to turn the newspapers loose at the crack of midnight with no care for their headlines.  The "secret" was out nationally before dawn, and many comic shops didn't even receive their shipments until late afternoon.  That would be bad enough.  Marvel itself sent out mass emails spoiling the identity of the casualty in the email titles!  Think about that for about 12 seconds.  Supposedly this comic is in a polybag to avoid spoilers.  Supposedly it was made available for sale on Tuesday for the same reason.  If you listen to Marvel talk, it's always with grand gestures of good will and sugary smarm.  If you watch Marvel act, it's always to the detriment of their readers, to the industry, to their stories.

I won't let that ruin this story for me, though, I just won't.  I imagine Hickman first pitching his concept, knowing he was a smart cat, but wondering if he could cash the checks he was planning to write.  Listen, planting magic in the hearts of jaded 38 year-olds is not an easy task.  He did it.  He pulled it all off, and he did it the right way.

Jonathan Hickman never shits on anything, he celebrates it, polishes it, expands it.  Most books are lucky to have a compelling character, maybe two.  Fantastic Four is a 1927 Yankees murderer's row of characters.  Who in this world or any other is more interesting than Valeria Richards? Comic book storytelling is so difficult because you have 22 pages a month to sell these people and these worlds as vital and real.  Decompression is a sometimes useful cheat to add flesh to the bones, you turn around six months later and realize that these characters have barely finished their coffee.

Fantastic Four is a remarkable achievement in efficiency.  I defy you to find another book where more things "happen".  The conclusion of "Three" in particular reminds you as you recall what's gone before that there is nothing trivial in this book, that it all matters, and that Hickman knew it all along.

This is a masterpiece that reduces you to a proper 13 year-old dork.

There's a scene, a moment in this issue between Namor and Sue, I can barely describe to you how much that moment pays off, and how much it owes to what has gone before.  It works if you started reading with FF # 570, and feels like an atomic bomb if you have the depth of the series.  This issue is filled with that stuff.  All of the Nu-World stuff is expanded from Millar.  He's using the Negative Zone portal that came out of Civil War, Peter David's Maestro character, and the Annihilation Wave from, well, Annihilation.  You want comics that matter?  This is what makes those comics matters, Fantastic Four is one of the only things keeping those pathetic "everything changes here" solicitations from being utter lies. 

Fantastic Four is respectful, innovative, epic, and what is most amazing is that it is consistently all these things.  Jason Aaron's CBR column recently spurred another outpouring of the old saw that Alan Moore gets to shit on everyone because nobody has done anything since Watchmen.  "Make better comics", they say.  Is anybody reading Fantastic Four?  Have you looked at it, really looked at it?  This IS better comics. 

It's better comics inexplicably dressed in a polybag, and unnecessarily spoiled by childish marketing.  It's sad and it's gross, and succinctly tells the story of comics in 2011.  We are right now experiencing the best that comics have ever been, and they are being needlessly hampered by short-sighted caretakers.

Do not go gentle in that dark night..  Rage, rage, against the dying of the light, by all means.  I know I will.  But remember why we rage.  We rage to protect books like Fantastic Four, not to dismiss them.  Disregard this comic and this series at your own peril.

- Ryan


Mike McLarty said...

So glad to hear that this issue pays off. Hickman is a true artisan. I look forward to reading this one as soon as I catch up on the rest of the run. I think I'm about 6 months behind...:/

Mike McLarty said...

So glad to hear that this issue pays off. Hickman is a true artisan. I look forward to reading this one as soon as I catch up on the rest of the run. I think I'm about 6 months behind...:/