Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Catching Up With... Fantastic Four

By Paul Steven Brown

Fantastic Four #579 - 581

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Penciler: Neil Edwards
Inkers: Andrew Currie & Paul Neary
Colorist: Paul Mounts
Letters & Production: Rus Wooton
Covers: Alan Davis
Published by Marvel Comics

Sometimes you have to stand back for a few months and watch a comic book series progress. At a standard format of twenty-two pages a month, a single issue doesn't always offer enough fodder for a worthwhile review or discussion. I've always believed that three straight issues was a good sampling for determining a comic book series' quality.

I've really enjoyed Jonathan Hickman's work on Fantastic Four ever since he took the book over after Mark Millar's sixteen issue run stumbled across the finish line about a year ago. While Millar's run started off strong and fell apart at the end, there was a notable tonal shift in the series upon his arrival. The book went deep into its sci-fi roots, but his greatest accomplishment was the revelation of Valeria's mental prowess, despite her age.

Hickman has only intensified that sci-fi edge in Fantastic Four and has given most of the spotlight to Reed Richards, sometimes to the sacrifice of panel time for Sue, Johnny, and Ben. I'm not too upset, since Hickman's Mr. Fantastic has really become a fascinating character. He's incredible intelligent and feels that it's his responsibility to use it to basically fix everything.

Reed has been acting more like a scientist than superhero in these last three issues of Fantastic Four. He chews out a room full of other scientists for not thinking broader and for letting outside interests like money and politics get in the way of the pure pursuit of knowledge. As a result, he's sets up a sort of juvenile think tank with all the brainy kids that the FF have been acquiring over the last few months. The first assignment they give themselves is your standard "try to make the Thing change back to Ben" idea, but it could play out in an interesting way, if done right. There's an element of unpredictability in what they've outlined that might be really interesting to watch.

Hickman's exploration of the Wizard has be equaling interesting. He is sometimes written as a weaker Doctor Doom, but here he's given a level of madness and sort of arrogance that adds some distinction. Plus, Reed's guardianship of the Wizard's juvenile clone seems to be an exploration of nurture and nature. So far, nature seems to be winning.

While Valeria has been getting a lot of attention in light of her newly discovered hyper-intelligence, Hickman has been careful not to lose sight of Franklin. Both, he and Johnny (with Leech in tow) get the opportunity to cut loose and take on a classic X-Men villain, Arcade. Franklin may not be as smart as Val, but the kid has a lot of heart and spunk. Plus, his mutant powers seem to be surfacing again. This should have some neat implications down the road.

Sadly, Sue has been lost in shuffle in these three issues. We get to see her for a few panels in talks with the lost Atlanteans, but it isn't until her confrontation with Future Val, that she really gets to do anything interesting, let alone use her powers. Millar liked her so much that he gave us two Sues during his run. Hopefully, Hickman's plans for her will take shape.

Issue #581 begins a new arc involving a Reed's dad who left home before he went off to college, Nathaniel, who has been hanging out with Future Val and Future Frank. He goes back in time to get help fighting an alternate reality version of himself from Reed, Ben, and Victor Von Doom, who are all still at university. It's a strange bit of business involving a Ben in a super-strong suit and Doom wearing a metal mask that he can use to control minds. It's all very continuity wonky and I'm curious if this is in an alternate universe.

It should be worth noting that these are the first batch of issues without Dale Eaglesham as the penciler. While I miss his modern take on the Kirby style, Neil Edwards has been a suitable middle ground between previous series artist Bryan Hitch and Eaglesham.

Fantastic Four continues to be a really engaging book. I'm not really sure where it's going, but Jonathan Hickman has instilled me with enough confidence that I think that he's taking it somewhere good. Also, I can't wait to see the upcoming issues that will be drawn by Steve Epting.

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